America’s county fair

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Someday, in a distant future, historians will look back at America. They will wonder about many things, of course. Why did some restaurants, particularly in the American South, list mac and cheese as a vegetable? What was behind their infatuation with zombies? How did Danielle Steele write so many books? What did people really mean when they said, “I could care less?”

They will ask: What the heck happened there in Super Bowl XLIX?

And when will they just dump those Roman Numerals already?

Today the New England Patriots play the Seattle Seahawks in a game bursting with amazing storylines. The Seahawks can become the first team in the last 10 years to win back-to-back Super Bowls. The Patriots are playing for the legacies of coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, men who might be able to secure places as the best ever at their crafts if New England wins. The Seahawks enter with one of the most remarkable defenses in NFL history. The Patriots come in with the reputation of a versatile team that can adapt to any circumstance and can execute gameplans that befuddle opponents.

So, of course, we spent all week talking about deflated footballs and a running back who only answered questions from candy.

Super Bowl XLIX: Pregame starts at noon ET on NBC, Live Extra

Super Bowl week has been a circus almost from the beginning. Many believe the Super Bowl was really invented in Super Bowl III in 1969, back when the Roman Numerals made sense, and a brash New York quarterback named Joe Namath guaranteed his team would win the game. Years later, I spoke with Emerson Boozer, Namath’s teammate, and he was still a bit perturbed about it because, he said, “We all knew we were going to win the game. We just didn’t say it.” The Jets did win, Joe Namath ran off the field waving his index finger, and new kind of American sporting event was born.

The next year, a gambler was arrested during the week of Super Bowl IV and the number of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson was found in the gambler’s black book. This created a whole different kind of Super Bowl tradition, the tradition of news stories that add up to bupkis. The media hounded Dawson, who kept explaining that he barely knew the guy. And … he barely knew the guy. The Chiefs won the Super Bowl anyway.

Controversies? Sure. Oakland’s Barret Robbins disappeared to Tijuana before a Super Bowl. Cincinnati’s Stanley Wilson was found in a bathtub after a cocaine relapse. Atlanta’s Eugene Robinson was arrested the night before Super Bowl XXXIII for soliciting a prostitute.

Players have always stirred up the Super Bowl with things they said. Hollywood Henderson once said that Terry Bradshaw couldn’t spell “CAT” if you spotted him the C and the T. That was one kind of distraction. San Francisco’s Chris Culliver once said he could not accept a gay teammate. That was another. Every year, someone had to say something – it couldn’t be a Super Bowl without someone agitating. A county fair was invented, Super Bowl Media Day, where reporters and fans and players and people who dressed up in ridiculous costumes all came together for one giant free for all. At this year’s media day, I wandered by Bill Belichick’s booth twice. The first time, over the speakers, I heard him say: “Oh, you know, Home Alone, Home Alone 2.” I kept walking.

The second time I walked by, he was saying: “I like those stuffed animals you can stick your fingers in, like puppets.”

This is Super Bowl week.

Only this year’s week was more of a trip into the looking glass than ever before. On the day that the King of Saudi Arabia died and more violence broke out in Yemen and the Middle East, the top story in America was New England coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady denying they had deflated footballs in a 45-7 destruction of the Indianapolis Colts. This was the lead story in every major national newscast and on the front page of more or less every major newspaper in the country. And this was the story that dominated the first two or three days of Super Bowl week, even though:

1. It was a story about whether footballs got deflated a bit.

2. There was no actual news about it.

3. It was a story about whether footballs got deflated a bit.

The deflation story – and I will continue, for the rest of my life, refuse to use that “gate” suffix on this thing – was for a time trumped by an even less pivotal story: Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch showed up for five minutes at media day and, instead of answering questions, repeatedly said: “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.” Later, he was seen in a Skittles commercials answering questions about whether or not earth was the best planet for football and what the sport might be like if played on the moon. The question of Lynch’s role in a free press was debated endlessly, even as the commissioner  of the league, Roger Goodell, held his annual 45-minute press conference to gloss over the myriad vital problems of the league such as player safety, violence issues, crippling health difficulties of retired players and questions about his own competence.

“I think Marshawn understands the importance of the Super Bowl, the importance of his appearance and the importance of him as an individual in the game,” Goodell said. “Fans are curious. Fans want to know. … Everyone else is doing their part because it is our obligation.”

Yes, it was a circus, perhaps more so than usual, but then the Super Bowl has been something of a circus for almost fifty years. It stopped being a game a long time ago. It is America’s biggest television day. It is America’s biggest gambling day. It is Americas biggest guacamole-eating day. The commercials will be news. The Katy Perry halftime show will be news. The fallout from the football deflating story (Will the Patriots be punished?) and the Marshawn Lynch story (Will he be fined?) will last for weeks.

And then, beyond all of that, there is the game, a potentially great one. The game storylines are choice. Can the Seahwaks’ remarkable secondary of Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas shut down the Patriots offense and secure their place as one of the great units in NFL history? Can Bill Belichick, with two weeks of preparation, find a way to baffle and confound Seattle’s endlessly resourceful quarterback Russell Wilson? How many tackles will Lynch break? How many tackles will New England’s Rob Gronkowski break? Will New England’s Darrelle Revis take away one side of the field from Seattle’s offense? Will Seattle’s defensive line get in the face of Brady – the Giants showed that this is the one way to slow down one of the game’s all-time greats.

For that matter, will Idina Menzel crush the National Anthem the way Whitney Houston or Jennifer Hudson did? Can John Legend pull off an “America the Beautiful” to rival the incomparable Ray Charles? What possible role can Lenny Kravitz play in Katy Perry’s halftime show? What commercial will people be talking about Monday?

Yes, someday our future selves will look back at the Super Bowl and wonder about us, perhaps the way people today look back at Stonehenge and wonder. We know very little about the ancient Druids. Were they the kinds of people who would deflate footballs to gain an advantage? Some questions are too big even for the Super Bowl to answer.

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