February 6, 2018

KANKANHALLI | Why the Super Bowl?

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You’re told to write about what you know — with good reason, in order to avoid assuming the likeness of a total dud and expounding on topics that are far beyond your expertise. Today, though, decorum begs to be broken as I attempt to comprehend the national spectacle that is the Super Bowl.

Powerful enough to coax a purr out of President Donald J. Trump, Super Bowl LII transported us to an alternate universe where viewers’ pride and happiness are inextricably linked to the wins of their athletic counterparts. [Spoiler Alert] “Congratulations to the Philadelphia Eagles on a great Super Bowl victory!” — a tweet posted last night from Trump’s own account, staggering and confounding in its authenticity, begins to capture the scope of this annual match. Such a priority is the occasion, in fact, that previous commitments are rescheduled and responsibilities are dismissed for a fateful few hours. For 52 years now, the Super Bowl has commanded respect. Arguably, a sizable chunk of loyalty lies in tradition, so for the Super Bowl to age so gracefully is unsurprising. Yet, year after year, the Super Bowl receives heavier, more energetic viewership than any of several award shows featuring Hollywood’s elite. It always graduates in status to something of a historic development, and, I think, understandably so.

The renowned halftime performance, headlined by Justin Timberlake’s smooth vocals, invites some speculation on the junction of arts and athletics. The entertainment industry is founded on extravagance and profits from viewers’ inclination to escape reality. It encourages our emotions to latch onto distinctly extrinsic events. We experience the joys and sorrows of our favorite on-screen personalities. We develop affections for our dream celebrities (or “stan” them, so to speak); we vocalize approval and dissent over actions that have no direct bearing on us. We are personally offended or pleased or angered by the lifestyles and relationships of well-known figures. This level of comfort that so many onlookers feel with unrequited attention is incredibly strange to me.

Sports, in contrast, narrow the rift between celebrity and supporter. The Super Bowl, then, is a meaningful investment. It is an overt testament to the common man, self-made, fancy watch on his wrist earned through strenuous training. Although athletes also live lavishly and, to some degree, distance themselves from the middle class, their diligence is unique to them. While film stars are concerned with appearance from a largely cosmetic standpoint, athletes rely on health and fitness to maintain their careers. Recognizing this distinction elevates the significance of sporting events beyond simply entertainment — they are culminations of concentrated personal effort.

Still, the craze surrounding reputed artists often overshadows the contributions of athletes, many of whom, like Colin Kaepernick, also mobilize themselves for noble causes. It’s intriguing to compare the sway of usual celebrities in the film and television space with the reach of drafted athletes. Fundamentally, both parties embody certain palpable idealities that many an American strives toward. Exceeding this implicit commonality of attractiveness, however, is a shared image of success, easily standardized and easily subscribed to. It may be that the affinity for actors, actresses and musicians grows more profound due to fluctuating depiction in the media — viewers perhaps feel more intimately connected after a series of scandals and triumphs, but, in my perception, athletes tend to live less glamorously and toil more regularly than artists do. Yet, athletes remain in the periphery of the limelight and are bypassed by those seeking to #relate, fueling a curious discrepancy.

There’s also the phenomenon of Super Bowl commercials, where arts and athletics collide once more. Ironically, the multibillion-dollar companies that can afford even 30-second slots in the advertisement queue are, well… multibillion-dollar companies — the ones that already revel in their established brands. It is a little bit — just a little bit — tipped in favor of the wealthy megacorporation, but what isn’t? At first glance, it seems a daunting task to cater an advertisement to the approximately 110 million sets of eyes soaking up the Super Bowl, but these corporations follow the science. Some light, friendly humor, a deftly chosen face and a smidgen of flattery reduces all of America to a single target identity. This is not to discredit the ideation and production of visual media or the value added by actors and actresses — it is just to highlight the various circles of social influence and their differing fibers.

In some ways, the appeal of the Super Bowl resembles that of the Olympics. You wouldn’t require the classification of being a sports enthusiast — trust me — to feast on marvelous displays of physical prowess, often challenging the limits of the human form. So, I appreciate the charm of the Super Bowl, and it is refreshing to witness such passion, in players and fans alike, amidst a decade with dwindling interest in unity. Still, it’s quite mysterious that, despite its global scale, in the U.S., the Olympics fails to stimulate such concentrated scrutiny and engrossment outside an immediate sphere of impact as does the Super Bowl.

I’m not grappling with the prestige of the Super Bowl as much as with the fierce sentiment it evokes. I wonder what it would take to produce screams and shouts, hot tempers and feverous excitement, about things of real, pressing consequence. I wonder what it would take to sustain the zeal and prevent it from dissipating as soon as a shinier distraction enters the stage. Sometimes, we are quieter about matters of life and death than we are about what’s playing on TV. I’m certainly guilty of it. It’s less controversial and less taxing to be this way, but maybe it’s worthwhile to direct the same enthusiasm inwards and, time permitting, consider bettering ourselves and our neighbors’ circumstances rather than meddling with stardom.

Priya Kankanhalli is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at pkankanhalli@cornellsun.com. Matters of Fact appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.