Superbowl Sunday, London Style: A Conversation

[21 February 2005]

By Robert Collins

It was around 11.30 PM, the Tuesday after Superbowl Sunday, when Kevin called. A Bostonian I’d befriended during a year I spent as an exchange student at UNC-Chapel Hill, we’d kept in touch for the best part of a decade, the topic of conversation rarely deviating from the NFL and the general state of the sports world.

“How’s life in rainy old London?” howled Kevin down the line. “Enjoy the game? Too bad about your Eagles.”

I muttered something about Philadelphia putting up a good fight and the better team probably winning. I was still suffering from staying up until 3:30 AM, waiting for the presentation of the Lombardi Trophy. In retrospect, I should have set the video or stayed in bed the next morning. Still, an annual battle with fatigue and grumpy bosses on dreary Mondays has always been an integral part of the experience of following the NFL from the UK. You watch the Superbowl; you’re going to be tired. It’s an occupational hazard for global sports addicts that can only be faced with a table full of savory snacks, a well-stocked beer shelf in the fridge, and a big bag of high quality marijuana close at hand.

“The greatest sports event in the world,” continued Kevin. “Did you crack open the brews with your buddies and make a night of it? What time does it kick off over there anyway?”

“The pre-game started around 10-ish,” I sighed, still trying to banish memories of performer Gretchen Wilson from my brain, “but kick-off wasn’t until well after 11. And it was just me and my friend Mark huddled around the TV, trying not to wake up my girlfriend. The days of Superbowl parties at Chez Collins are long since over. There’s just not that much interest in the NFL over here any more. Any media fascination with the event tends to stem from the price of a 30-second TV commercial. There was the occasional newspaper article about Terrell Owens’ miracle recovery, but in all honesty the guy could walk down any street in Britain and no one would recognize him. God, he would hate that.”

“You’re kidding?” replied an audibly shaken Kevin. “800 million people watch the Superbowl.”

“The NFL tells the world that 800 million people watch the Superbowl,” I snapped back, “but who’s counting? Sure, if everyone who had access to the game gathered round a TV at 6 in the morning in India or China, then probably 800 million people would be watching it. But outside North America and a few isolated spots around Europe, no one follows American football. No one even understands the rules! British TV ratings for the NFL peaked in the late ‘80s, when domestic soccer was seen as hopelessly boring and only of interest to psychopaths and the unemployed. Since then, confessing that you follow American football is the social equivalent to admitting you’re an avid stamp collector or a Star Trek: The Next Generation obsessive.”

“That’s Fox for you,” laughed Kevin. “But who believes a word they say anyway?”

“We didn’t really get much of the actual Fox broadcast here,” I explained. “Sky Sports, the Rupert Murdoch-owned cable and satellite channel, just used the Fox commentary. Strangely enough, the terrestrial network ITV managed to wrangle a good deal for the rights too, as this year’s Superbowl was their first ever live NFL broadcast. But ITV’s sports coverage is famously hopeless—it was their soccer announcer Ron Atkinson who called Marcel Desailly a “fucking thick, lazy nigger” (see PopMatters article)—and their studio presentation was low budget in the extreme.”

“Hold up,” interrupted Kevin. “If they weren’t using Fox’s announcers, did they do a British commentary?”

“No. The NFL—and for that matter all the American sports organizations—have their own commentary that goes out around the world. This year they had Dick Stockton and Moose Johnson calling the game. It’s pretty much the same type of analysis—much love to the troops around the world protecting our freedom and all that—but without the continual stream of crap about Everybody Loves Raymond coming up after the game.”

“Ouch,” said Kevin. “But on the bright side, at least the NFL and Fox didn’t put too much right wing bias around the event this year. I half expected Paul McCartney to sing that god awful Fight for the Right to be Free song.”

I chuckled. “All We Are Saying Is Give War a Chance. Though to his credit, he didn’t even pretend to understand the game itself. But are you kidding? From the moment I switched on the pre-game, the coverage was a tribute to US moral and military superiority. OK, you’re the only country that plays NFL football, but if you’re going to export it to the rest of the world you have to tone the flag-waving down a notch. Take The Black Eyed Peas for instance. Where Is The Love was a big hit here, and I know it has lyrics like “terrorists here living in the USA, the big CIA, the Bloods and the Crips and the KKK” and “Nations dropping bombs,” but somehow those lines disappeared in the pre-game concert. That’s fair enough if you’re going to take politics out of the entire event, but ten minutes later there are uniformed troops and World War Two veterans on the field, fighter planes streaking overhead, and cuts to US military bases around the world.”

“Look,” interrupted Kevin. “They weren’t even talking about Iraq. This was a tribute to our World War Two vets. Those guys bailed you out back then and don’t you forget it.”

“There’s a time and a place for that sort of thing though,” I railed. “And the introduction to a game broadcast around the world is neither. The message was loud and clear: America’s military was on the side of democracy and freedom back then, ergo its current policy is in the right now. If you can’t stand up and cheer these guys you must be some kind of sick Nazi. At least when the Soviet Union showed off their military muscle, they brought it out for a May Day Parade and didn’t have to stick it on the front end of a football game.”

Kevin chuckled: “That’s right, you goddamn foreigners. This is the USA, this is our party, and if you don’t like our insular sports or us marching our troops all over the world, who asked ya anyway?”

“You’re joking,” I insisted, “but that’s exactly how it comes across: ‘And now, our tribute to armed intervention.’ They wheeled Bush Senior and Clinton onto the field too. As if, whether you’re left or right, there are two things you’ve got to agree on: our troops are doing a great job and the Superbowl rules, U-S-A! U-S-A!”

“I hear what you’re saying, but the Superbowl is a uniquely American event,” answered Kevin. “We have national teams once in a while for the Ryder Cup and the Olympics, but this is our big day to root for the stars and stripes.”

“I understand that,” I agreed, “but two minutes after the game everyone’s calling the Patriots ‘World Champions.’ That perfectly sums up how a good portion of America sees itself. No one outside Ireland plays Gaelic football and no one outside Australia plays Aussie Rules football, therefore they don’t call their winners world champions. It’s an arrogance that automatically assumes that whatever America does is best.”

Regaining his seriousness, Kevin countered, “Now hang on. Where are you going to find a better football team than the Patriots?”

“Nowhere,” I snapped back, “but by that logic I’m world champion at diving onto my sofa. Sport exists outside the 50 states, you know. The Patriots aren’t World Champions—they’re NFL Champions. Brazil are World Champions at soccer, England are World Champions at rugby and Australia are World Champions at cricket, because they’ve beaten every other team in the world in sports that more than one country actually plays!”

“Calm down dude, that’s how things are over here,” said Kevin. “Apart from the occasional golf and tennis tournament, and an Olympic games every four years, if it ain’t American, no one wants to know.”

“And that’s why people across the world treat American football like the French treat Disneyland Paris,” I complained. “You ignore our sports culture, so why should we welcome yours? It’s so wrapped up in ‘all-American values.’ Like that pompous announcer Joe Buck talking about Bill Belichik’s relationship with his father in the game’s closing moments. It’s too much ‘apple pie’ and ‘family values’ for people to stomach. Especially at 3 in the morning.”

“Finished ranting?” asked Kevin after a pause. “You never answered my question. What did you think of the game?”

“Hey,” I smiled. “It was close until the end and Paul McCartney sang Hey Jude.of course I enjoyed it.”

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