Sunday, February 1, 2015


There's a wonderful comic from VectorBelly that's been circulating among my Facebook friends in the run-up to the Superbowl:

I'm not a US-rules football fan, but I do enjoy baseball and follow European road bicycle racing avidly.  Trying to talk to friends about bike racing, I often get a look that makes me think I must sound like this comic to them.  Being a male growing up in the United States, I have been inculcated with US football terminology, even sometimes against my will, so I understand what is discussed in an interview, but VectorBelly illustrates perfectly my apathy about it.

It's not that I dislike the sport of US-rules football.  Yes, it's violent.  Yes, professional players lead off-field lives of otherworldly wealth and extravagance that seem to necessitate values that are entirely antithetical to the foundations of sportsmanship.  Yes, it promulgates gender stereotypes, something I'm increasingly sensitive to as I come to appreciate how much of my life-long experience of not-belonging can be traced to my inability (and disinterest) to fit into conventional expressions of masculinity.  All that said, none of this is unique to football -- and, indeed, my own beloved sport of cycling is shot through with its own moral failings -- but I nonetheless frequently find myself actively disparaging US-rules football generally and Superbowl Sunday in particular. 

Randall Munroe posted a very different commentary on today's festivities that got me thinking about why I do this:

My first reaction to this was, "Yes! Exactly! This helps me reconcile my ambivalence about football with my desire to participate with friends' appreciation for it."  How often I've wished to have a friend who loves cycling (or planetary science or electronic music) as much as I do -- and how wildly I've enthused when I find someone who does!  This revealed a bridge.

Last week, a new friend from work invited me over to his house to watch the Superbowl.  We've had a great deal of trouble coordinating our schedules to get together (for months now), so the game seemed like a perfect opportunity, lubricated by my newfound insight from Mr. Munroe.  But the more I thought about it, the more I dreaded sitting and watching the game with him:  it felt like I was poisoning the young relationship, as I anticipated pretending not to hate every minute of the game while trying to enjoy his company.  I heard myself think it:  "hate every minute of the game."  Wow.  I realized that I didn't really appreciate the depth of my antipathy.

So I started looking more closely to see what was bugging me.  Reversing the thought experiment, I imagined myself attending a live game with this friend, in a stadium, and I could see myself actually enjoying the experience (chilly though it might be).  But, as I pictured myself watching the Superbowl on the TV in the comfort of my friend's living room, I felt waves of revulsion.  I realized it's not the game, not the athletes, not the gender stereotypes, none of that:  it was the unrestrained, unabashed, even celebrated commercialism. 

This is what I react to, that I find so deeply repellant; it feels like an utter surrender of our collective intellect to the vast and growing powers of our media.  And it's not limited to the game; during the weeks and months before the Superbowl, the most powerful corporations vie for seconds-long spots in front of its audience.  They wave red capes of teasers -- ads for ads -- before the eagerly anticipating throngs; commentators on the ads offer critiques on their quality, cost, and effectiveness; office, bar, even dinner-table discussions center around which ads are best and which commentators got it wrong.  Entertainment corporations vie for the right to present their performers during half-time, performers whose careers are ads for themselves, and another population of commentators weighs in on the process, and more office, bar, and dinner talks are given over to media content.  By the time the actual Superbowl comes around, there's as much or more anticipation of the propaganda events as the sporting outcomes.  The propaganda for the propaganda for the game has become the main event, and the game has become a field on which the sport of media is played.

Watching the Superbowl, I am excruciatingly reminded of our elections:  our leaders have become fodder for the entertainment machine in the same way that sports have.  The metaphor of the horserace is no longer as useful for our democratic process as the pre-Superbowl ad campaign:  meta-levels of ads and commentary and polls folding in on themselves to the point that the candidates for office become superfluous.  To this degree, we have ceded our democracy to the media.  

The fact that the navel-gazing echo-chamber of the media industry is masturbating to pictures of itself is neither my deepest concern nor particularly surprising.  The most painful aspect of all this for me is the fact of our gleeful participation in it, the handing over of power in the broadest sense.  I feel thrown into a scene from Brave New World, with crowds of beautiful minds swept away by tsunamis of mindless distraction, grateful for the relief from choice that the media provides, paying the fare for the ride without thought (by definition) to its cost to themselves.  I half expect to see pink clouds of Soma wafting through the Superbowl stadium and falling lovingly from the television speakers.  I think to myself, "I'm glad I'm not a Delta."

This, of course, is an unmitigatedly cynical thought.  Like all of us in the West, I am a consumer of ads and, even if I tell myself I don't, I'm sure I surrender more of my free will to their sway than I admit.  Conversely, not all who consume ads -- not all who enjoy them -- give over the entirety of their intelligence and choice to them.  And our degree of choice, of free will, is, I've come to believe, much, much smaller than we generally care to consider, so avoiding its surrender is proportionately difficult.  Regardless, I have decided not to resist my antipathy toward the media's coup over US-rules football; my friend and I have rescheduled to another day.  

I had the thought to start (or join in on, as it's likely others have thought of it) a hashtag poking fun at the Superbowl:  #nationalsportsingday.  This morning's cognitive perambulations have led me to a different idea:  #nationalcommercialingday.  Raise awareness -- but really, not nominally; let's actively be aware here.  The media are not evil, or at least they are only as evil as we empower them to be.  We don't need to boycott them, but rather merely be mindful of what we consume.  Let us choose what we choose because we like it, not simply because it seems to be the only choice.  It's not useful for the media to go away, but it is useful for us to mind how much we let them run things.  So, let's celebrate our choice on #nationalcommercialingday.