The Super Bowl: The Last Unifying Event in American Life.

The Super Bowl:

The Last Unifying Event in American Life


John M. Lane


Super Bowl XIII – January 1979, “The Clash of The SuperPowers: The Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers

                              On one Sunday in late January (or now early February), Americans stop their increasingly polarized and venomous political and cultural debates. “Super Bowl” Sunday is the most important “unofficial” secular holiday and event in the United States. It is the last unifying event in American life. For three- and one-half hours, on a Sunday evening, the political, racial, ethnic, gender, generational, and cultural strife of American life is set aside to watch a football game. Even people who despise sports and would never care about Football are aware of the Super Bowl and might even watch some of it. The screaming at each other stops, the ridiculous political commercials stop, the finger-pointing and hand wringing stops, and the person who is of a different race, sexual orientation, political party, religion, or ethnic group becomes your friend because you are both cheering for the same team. For three-and-one-half hours it all stops. 

                             The Super Bowl is the “high holy day” of that peculiar American religion called “football”. Football has the most passionate following of any American sport by any measure, from the “Pee-Wee” leagues to the National Football League. The “NFL” is the most powerful sports league in the world. As an American institution, its influence is almost beyond measure. The thirty-two franchise owners have an outsized impact on the culture, economy, and politics of the United States. That fact cannot be stated enough.

                              The NFL, for the past sixty years, has packaged a product that is exciting, dramatic, and perfect for television. (The four games of the 2021 divisional playoffs are the reason the NFL has no real sports entertainment competition in the United States, if you watched, you know what I mean.) NFL football, however, is also an incredibly violent and dangerous sport to play. The average career for a player is five years (if they are lucky) Even with that knowledge, the salaries the players receive causes a deep-seated resentment throughout American society: The quote one generally hears is: “They chose to play”. The possibility of life-long injury is very real, up to and including permanent brain damage. No player walks away from the NFL unscathed. For those who watch (including the author) we must somehow put those facts out of our mind as watch the “gladiatorial” splendor and violence unfold before our eyes, daring not to look away, except during a commercial break. The sport in general, and the NFL, reflects the cultural fractures of American society, especially the racial fractures. We will come back to these issues. First, let’s put the game into context.

THE Game

Super Bowl I, January 1967- Green Bay vs. Kansas City

                               There have been fifty-six Super Bowls, counting 2021-22. The author had been around to see them all, except one (1970-71 Cowboys-Colts) because I was stationed in Germany. That will not be the case now as the Super Bowl is second only to the Soccer UEFA Champions League final as the most-watched sporting event played annually in the world. Troops in Germany today will watch the game live. I saw the 1971-72 Cowboys-Dolphins in Vietnam on tape delay. The first two Super Bowls took place after the 1966 merger agreement between the National Football League and the upstart “AFL”, the American Football League. The epitome of the NFL, the Green Bay Packers, humbled the Kansas City Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders, as anticipated, in 1967 and 1968 before smaller than expected television audiences. Those games supposedly confirmed the NFL’s superiority. In January 1967 and 1968, they did. However, for those who cared to look, the handwriting was already on the wall. With a roster of aging players, the Packers were about to go into rapid decline. It was a decline reflective of the entire NFL, with its conservative playing style and philosophy. The one NFL team that went against the prevailing NFL style was the Dallas Cowboys, founded in 1960 (as a younger person, they along with the Bengals, were my favorite teams). They had lost two epic NFL championship games (including the infamous “Ice Bowl”) to the Packers, denying them Super Bowl appearances.

                             The following two Super Bowls shocked the football world and changed the sport forever. In the 1968-69 game, the AFL New York Jets, led by Joe Namath, outplayed the Baltimore Colts, and defeated them, shocking the football world. It should not have been shocking. The Jets played a different brand of Football, a brand of football NFL teams looked upon with contempt. The following season, the 1969-70 game confirmed that the new brand of football was better. The AFL Kansas City Chiefs ran circles around the Minnesota Vikings, the final example of old brand NFL football. The AFL went away in 1970 (becoming the AFC- American Football Conference), and the NFL was divided into the NFC and the AFC. Three of the old NFL teams agreed to switch to the AFC: The Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Colts, and Cleveland Browns. Since 1970, there have been 51 Super Bowls. The NFC has won 26, and the AFC has won 25. Four franchises have never appeared in a Super Bowl: the Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans, and Cleveland Browns.

Super Bowl III- January 1969, Joe Namath – The Jets stun the Football world

                                 The dominant Super Bowl champion franchises have been the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers with six victories each. The Steelers are probably the most stable, best-managed franchise in the NFL, if not in all American professional sports. For example, since 1969, they have had just three head coaches (Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher, and Mike Tomlin). That fact alone means that the Steelers win more than they lose and are always able to compete for championships. The other dominant franchises in the Super Bowl era have been the Miami Dolphins (undefeated in 1972), Dallas Cowboys (5 victories as “America’s Team”), Minnesota Vikings, Oakland/ Los Angeles/ Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders, Washington Commanders, Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts, Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos, San Francisco 49ers (5 victories), New York Giants (4 victories), and Green Bay Packers (4 victories). The NFL is a national sport (it is becoming international). From the “eye test,” these franchises have the largest national fan bases: the Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, and Dallas Cowboys. Their fans do not need to travel well because their fans are everywhere.

“Super Sunday”

“Super Sunday”

                                        In 1991, the NFL made the critical and brilliant decision to move the start time of the Super Bowl to between 6:19 and 6:40 Sunday evening. At that moment, the Super Bowl indeed became a secular holiday event. Super Bowl Sunday is second only to Thanksgiving for food consumption in the United States. An average Super Bowl partygoer consumes over 10,821 calories and 180 grams of saturated fat while watching the game. About 20% of the population will attend some type of Super Bowl gathering, with an average of fourteen people at each gathering. On the Monday after the Super Bowl, four billion dollars’ worth of economic productivity will be lost in the United States because people find reasons not to go to work. As for watching the game, just about everybody is. Of the thirty most-watched television broadcasts of all time in the United States, twenty-eight are Super Bowls.

Super Bowl XVI- January 1982: Cincinnati vs. San Francisco

                                      The highest Nielsen rating was the 1982 Bengals-49ers Super Bowl with a 49.1% share in over forty million households. “The 2015 Super Bowl XLIX holds the record for the average number of U.S. viewers with a final number of 114.4 million, making the game the most viewed television broadcast of any kind in American History.” (Wikipedia) Most people must watch on television because they cannot afford to go in person. The average cost of a ticket for the past five Super Bowls was $6,214. The highest price ever paid for a Super Bowl ticket was $29,367. On the resale market, a ticket to this year’s Super Bowl will cost you $9,843. The Super Bowl puts the economic chasms of American society in clear view. They are there for all to see if we choose to. No, wait, it’s almost time for kick-off.


                                            By watching Football in general, and the Super Bowl in particular, Americans hold up a mirror reflecting their society and culture back to them. The courage, fortitude, “can-do spirit”, and teamwork are reflected back as well as the economic inequality, racism, gender exploitation (why are there scantily clad cheerleaders at pro football games?) and political polarization. Only a certain type of politics/kneeling is allowed; no racial awareness or solidarity displays are permitted. The “fans” want to be entertained, not reminded of the outside world, refusing to acknowledge that the “outside world” is everywhere.

Sarah Thomas, NFL Referee

                                           The power to change Football and the NFL is in the hands of thirty-two people. Their days of running the United States, with colleagues in other industries as “masters of the universe,” are just about over. Nothing can stop the movement of history, no matter how many campaign contribution checks are written. Changes made around the edges of the game have been commendable. The game officiating staff is beginning to look like the United States, including female officials (they are becoming unnoticeable: progress indeed). Pensions for former players are getting better; however, they are still not good enough. More needs to be done.

Head Coach Tony Dungy, Indianapolis Colts, Super Bowl XLI, February 2006

The most critical issue, however, is management and coaching. First, it was quarterbacks and middle linebackers, then it became assistant coaches, from there coordinators, then head coaches. Do “they” have the ability and “smarts” to organize and lead? The answer is obviously yes. With 70% percent of the workforce being African American, the fact that there are not more minority head coaches is a travesty. If they are not already, the “fan base” needs to start getting used to the idea of more “minorities” being in positions of authority and leadership. It is inevitable. Clearly, the way to solve these situations is “minority” ownership. That day is also coming.  The clock cannot be turned back.


Images of 2022 Super Bowl Tickets

                                           Back to the game, I will be watching. I am a native Cincinnatian and a Bengals fan; I remember the first two Bengals seasons in Nippert Stadium. I missed the first playoff game in 1970, because of being on active duty. The “Ice Bowl,” the agonizing Super Bowls losses, and the comeback under Marvin Lewis: It has been a long, frustrating up and down ride. However, I have stuck with them. Maybe, one day, I will even attend a Super Bowl. Dreams are forever.

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