Doug Mills / The New York Times

February 4, 2019

YANDAVA | The World of Football

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I’ll be the first to admit I know nothing about sports. No one in my immediate family particularly cares to watch or play sports. I think the closest my dad ever gets is solitaire. Yesterday, however, when I went to Bethe dining hall for dinner, I was subjected to the Super Bowl, in all its spectacle and glory, for the first time. I can’t lie; it was mildly entertaining.

Much of this spectacle comes from the auxiliary, non-football stuff — the ads and the halftime show. Yet both were rather lackluster. Robot ads seemed to be a trend, serving as morose reminders of the unfortunate mechanical future we have ahead of us. In a Michelob Ultra ad, a robot out-athletes its human competitors, but tugs at our only mortal heartstrings when we see it excluded from the warmth of human companionship and beer. Then there was the Pringles “Sad Device” commercial, where a robot’s spiel of existential dread is interrupted by an order to play “Funkytown.” Although I find these robots more relatable than the human characters in these ads, it’s interesting to consider why companies that don’t sell robots are trying to make us feel bad for them. Is it because we’ve lost our empathy for our fellow man and now only have the emotional capacity to feel for speculative hunks of metal? Too much Westworld? Hard to tell.

In contrast, the halftime show presented us with a group of sad androids from the recent past — Maroon 5. Frontman Adam Levine goes through all the motions expected of him, though there’s nothing that really makes him or his band’s performance stand out, compared to, say, the theatrics of Lady Gaga two years ago. Their music is mild and inoffensive, a catchy, artless pop-rock. It’s happy, generally substanceless, based around the usually harmless theme of romance and easy to forget, although some of their older songs like “She Will Be Loved” might get points for nostalgia.

They weren’t even worthy fodder for the Internet meme machines — most of that material came from the three seconds of SpongeBob used to introduce “Sicko Mode,” a song which probably has more to unpack than Maroon 5’s entire discography. Nevertheless, Travis Scott came and went quickly, as did Big Boi (one-half of hip-hop duo OutKast), as if the NFL were crying to everyone, “Look, we’re not racist!”

Amid all the controversy surrounding the Super Bowl, Maroon 5 were probably the safest choice, though not the first. In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Levine stated, “I’m not in the right profession if I can’t handle a little bit of controversy.” However, several artists, such as Rihanna and Jay-Z, refused to perform because they wanted justice for Colin Kaepernick. Cardi B, who rapped in Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You,” stated that she wouldn’t perform at the halftime show unless Kaepernick “gets hired again.”

Nevertheless, she made an appearance in a Pepsi ad where Steve Carell yells at a waiter for asking a woman, “Is Pepsi OK?” when she requests Coke, until Cardi B and Migos show up to defend the good name of Pepsi. Does refusing to perform at the halftime show while still making an appearance in a Super Bowl ad contradict her initial purpose? Perhaps it’s a less insidious or direct form of participation, yet it’s participation nevertheless.

In “The World of Wrestling,” from Roland Barthes’ seminal 1957 work Mythologies, Barthes writes, “The virtue of all-in wrestling is that it is the spectacle of excess.” Is this also not the primary virtue of the Super Bowl? Why watch, if not for the “grandiloquence,” “the euphoria of men raised for a while above the constitutive ambiguity of everyday situations?”

Clearly, football is not apolitical. But in a world in which everything is made to be sanitized, pleasant, uncontroversial, even the entertainment can’t be entertaining; the “euphoria” falls flat. On the flipside, would it really mean anything at all for Super Bowl ads and the halftime show to definitively choose a stance and, say, come out in favor of Kaepernick? In the world of mass media, especially something so inescapable in America as the Super Bowl, it’s difficult to win. 

Then again, maybe it’s Tom Brady’s world, and we’re all just living in it.

Ramya Yandava is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at ry86@cornell.edu. Ramy’s Rambles runs alternating Tuesdays this semester.