Sunday, February 7, 2016

Super Bowl L

I started watching the National Football League obsessively as a sixth grader in 1975 (at the same time I was listening to David Bowie, The Eagles and Jefferson Starship on AM radio). That year, the powerhouse team trying to repeat as Super Bowl Champions was the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittsburgh was fortunate to host the 1975 AFC Championship because had the game been played in temperate Oakland the Raiders would likely have won and then been the ones to pummel the Cinderella Cowboys in Super Bowl X. As it turned out, playing on a field of iced green concrete in temperatures below 20 °F, the Steelers survived 16-10. I watched the game by myself at my grandmother's apartment in Mountain View not far from Moffett Airfield.

Today's Super Bowl, Super Bowl L, the golden anniversary, takes place at Levi's Stadium, about ten miles and 40 years from where I sat alone as kid watching the Raiders and Steelers beat the shit out of each other.

Times have certainly changed. The thing that snaps right out of the YouTube above is the human scale of the game. Money doesn't pulsate from the screen as it does now. Three Rivers Stadium looks like something you might find in Kazakhstan or Balochistan. And the fans aren't all decked out in pricey franchise bling. Solidly working class, yes. It is Pittsburgh after all. You don't see a lot of obesity. And on the field there is plenty of athleticism on display. Note in the first offensive series of the game how fast Oakland linebacker Phil Villapiano is in shooting into the backfield to drop Franco Harris for a loss. Also, look at how quickly and crisply the offense comes set in its formation. Why don't we ever see two running backs lined behind quarterback anymore? This is the way teams ran the ball in 1975. Now whenever there are two running backs in the game at the same time, unless it is one of the few teams like the NFC Champion Panthers who can run the read-option, it is in the I formation, and the fullback, usually some 250-lb. former lineman, is obviously there only to block. In 1975 both running backs lined up three of four yards behind the quarterback and were parallel or roughly parallel to one another, making it harder for the defense to read who was going to get the ball.

Looking at the video of the 1975 AFC Championship Game, which was played in January 1976, the conclusion that I draw is that while we might be wealthier in toto as a nation -- there is certainly more money in the financial system now than then -- it has come at the expense of the working class and equality in this country. Are we better off now with all our bright shiny lights and digital whistles or then, at the outset of the neoliberalism, when there was less inequality and more humanity?

I started on this 1975 AFC Championship jag because I have been thinking about Ken Stabler. In the run up to today's Super Bowl there was a story this past week about how Ken Stabler, the Raiders quarterback in the 1975 AFC Championship who would go on to win the Super Bowl the following year, had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.). He died last summer and his brain has since been dissected and studied and the results announced. That's what caused the bad press, like Ken Belson's "Roger Goodell Insists Football Is Safe: ‘There’s Risk in Life’," for the National Football League in its gala week leading up to the big game:
It was disclosed this week that two football greats, quarterbacks Ken Stabler and Earl Morrall, were the latest of dozens of players found to have had a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head hits.
Yet N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell, when peppered with questions about player safety on the Friday before Super Bowl 50, gave one of his most earnest endorsements of the safety of the game.
Most of his comments echoed previous statements: that the league is changing its rules to reduce risks, has adopted new equipment and technology, and is spending millions of dollars on research.
But near the end of a 45-minute question-and-answer session with reporters, Goodell seemed exasperated. When asked whether it was safe for young people to play football, Goodell said that he was glad he was able to play tackle football for nine years before college.
“If I had a son, I’d love to have him play the game of football,” Goodell, a father of two daughters, added. “There’s risk in life. There’s risk in sitting on the couch.”
Goodell’s comments came amid a renewed focus on whether football was too dangerous. By the N.F.L.’s own account, the number of diagnosed concussions rose by 31.6 percent this season over last season. Several former players have posthumously been found to have had the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., including Stabler, Morrall and Tyler Sash, a former Giant who died at 27. At least seven high school football players died last year. 
When asked about these statistics, Goodell often focuses on what the N.F.L. is doing to make the game safer. He bristled at the suggestion that more N.F.L. players were retiring because they were worried that extending their careers could increase their risks of brain damage.
The NFL is the premiere television product in the United States, really the only guaranteed "take it to the bank" eyeball draw left in our culture. As Mark Leibovich reports in "Roger Goodell’s Unstoppable Football Machine":
Put it on TV, and people will watch; put it on a jersey, they will wear it. The N.F.L.’s total revenue in 2015 ($12.4 billion) is nearly double that of a decade earlier ($6.6 billion). The price of television ads during the Super Bowl has increased by more than 75 percent over the last decade. This year’s conference championship games set yet another viewership record for the league: 53.3 million people watched the A.F.C. game on CBS; 45.7 million watched the N.F.C. game on Fox. Goodell talks constantly about ‘‘growing the pie,’’ finding new revenue streams and ways to make the N.F.L. a ‘‘year-round’’ experience rather than just during fall and winter. He has said he wants the N.F.L. to achieve $25 billion in gross revenue by 2027. No league is as relentless when it comes to growth and making cash for its billionaire cartel. It’s reminiscent of a shark that will die if it doesn’t keep moving and ripping little fish to shreds.
The NFL has made changes to try to reduce the number of concussions. But the tendency of the rule changes has been to enhance the overall speed of the game, which increases the impact of collisions. So there hasn't been any big bonanza of reduced injuries.

A lot of commentators compare the NFL to boxing, a blood sport that was enormously popular at one time only to sputter into irrelevance. But boxing's demise had nothing to do with its brutality. Look at the popularity of mixed martial arts today. Boxing lost its broad popularity because all its big fights went behind a paywall. If the NFL gets so greedy that it shunts more of its games away from broadcast TV, then something similar could happen I suppose; that combined with a loss of talent from parents preventing their children from participating in the sport.

In any event, the National Football League is who we are in the United States. And in 1975 it was also who we were. Today in Super Bowl L I like the Carolina Panthers. For the Broncos to win Peyton Manning would have to play a perfect game, matched by a perfect game by the Denver defense. I see no miracles today. It is Cam Newton's year.

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