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Football and Patriotism: A Super American Day

Sunday Feb. 6 was the day of the Super Bowl (the American football championship), perhaps the biggest annual sporting event in the United States. St. John’s College hosts an annual Super Bowl screening, and our main auditorium was packed with students and staff, along with plenty of food and drink, for the event.

American football (i.e., not soccer, but the rugby-like sport played in the States) is one of those “very American things,” I have come to discover, and the Super Bowl seems to showcase that American-ness to an immense degree.

First of all, the national anthem. Before most athletic events, The Star-Spangled Banner is sung, and the big, national matches often have some famous entertainer doing the singing (fun fact: the author of the lyrics to the national anthem, Francis Scott Key, was a student at St. John’s College).

It always strikes me that the singing of the national anthem in America is truly rendered a show, just as if it were a rock concert. It also struck me that no one watching it in our auditorium stood up for the anthem. A friend pointed out to me that the people present at the stadium would have done so, but where I grew up, we were taught to stand straight and still for any national anthem, our own or others, as a sign of respect. National anthems are solemn, meaningful pieces of music. That is not emphasized so much in America.

What is emphasized is the performance of patriotism – the cutaway video segment of an army base in Afghanistan, the flag, the lighting, the fighter jets streaming past the stadium at the end, the shouts … it’s all very overwhelming.

The half-time show is equally overwhelming. It’s always an incredible performance by a major band or artist with special effects, dazzling light and sound, smoke, etc. It all comes to mean that the game is much more than the finals of a sports tournament. There's even a special coin minted for the occasion, which is used in the coin toss at the beginning of the match.

What’s more, a lot of people watch the game just for the ads, as many companies choose to introduce advertising campaigns or have particularly funny or creative commercials made specifically for the Super Bowl. Such a celebration of marketing itself is something I have seen nowhere else except for in this country.

The “American-ness” of the event was further stressed by a video at the beginning of the broadcast, narrated by a Hollywood star. It could not have gotten more patriotic, with historical footage and pictures displaying all things typically and stereotypically American, evoking pride, and, certainly, a sort of national consciousness.

It’s that national consciousness which I find most interesting. I am in my last semester at college, for which reason I am writing a final thesis to be presented and discussed before I can graduate. The topic I have chosen is the Declaration of Independence and John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, both texts about government and society. I’m interested in investigating the sort of ideology that went into the foundation of the United States, which is so different from the ethnic or national way of thinking at the basis of nation-states back in Europe.

As an aside, as part of my research (but really for my own enjoyment), I watched for the second time on Super Bowl Sunday a musical based on the history of the Declaration of Independence , called 1776. I don’t know how much it helped with my paper, but nevertheless, I would highly recommend it as a fun and thought-provoking piece of cinema and theatre, even if it is not entirely historically accurate.

To have a documented record of the founding and near-complete history of a country and its society can have interesting consequences as compared to more traditional, more ancient peoples. I guess America can claim national songs, or food, or dress in its own right, but it isn’t quite the same as folk songs or stories, or the traditional clothing or cuisine which is part of the culture back home. They are not as old, not as rigid, nor as ingrained in the people, I think.

Sports, for its part, is an area where international matches can turn into substitutes for war for nation-states, where national teams have a nationalistic backing. I have seen that in regular football (which Americans call “soccer”), as well as in cricket – sports that have immense and hugely popular followings. The Brazilian national football team, for example, certainly inspires national pride or humiliation depending on the outcome of a match, as does the Indian cricket team. In America, however, the loyalty seems to be more towards one’s home town or favorite team, and I’m not sure if there’s the same sort of drive when it comes to international matches.

There certainly was plenty of excitement when it came to the Super Bowl, though, no doubt about that. And the Super Bowl was clearly a powerful tool for showcasing American patriotism.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed myself that day. I loved shouting along with everybody else during the game, even though I had absolutely no idea what was going on (the rules of the game are probably not terribly complicated, but they have never been clear to me). There I was, sipping on Kool-Aid, and munching on hot wings and hot dogs. Every once in a while, I would yell, “America!” … just for fun. My friends here find that especially amusing coming from an international student. Or at least, I find it amusing that they react, regardless of whether their reaction is one of amusement or not. As one friend jokingly responded, “I hope America wins this year.”

No need to worry. The Super Bowl is always a triumph for America.