Last week, the media speculated that President Trump may not give a Super Bowl pre-game interview this year. His abstention would break a tradition that began under President Obama, though the first presidential interview occurred in 1986 when Tom Brokaw spoke to Ronald Reagan before Super Bowl XX.
Tom Shales of the Washington Post called Super Bowl XX “a day of flagrantly self-satisfied American-ness.” In the interview with Brokaw, Reagan describes the Super Bowl as quintessentially American, “part of our personality.” His participation in the pre-game show renders visible the strong connection between football and the American spirit. When asked which team he will root for, Reagan declares he is “proud of, and approving of, both teams.” An unwillingness to take sides in the big game has become standard for presidents, unless their home team is playing – an insistent demonstration of a nonpartisan attitude on the heels of major television events like the inauguration or the State of the Union address.
The 1986 Super Bowl actually preceded the State of the Union. More commonly, the State of the Union occurs before the Super Bowl, and a president’s appearance during the pre-game show can reestablish his bipartisanism after the polemical speech. Brokaw asks what Americans can expect from Reagan’s upcoming speech by making an analogy between the Super Bowl and politics: the losing team will be in a “deficient situation, and all those players are going to experience a taxing year.” The phrase “taxing year” is repeated a few times between the two men before Reagan jokes that the upcoming year might be taxing (as in tiring) for him, but the American public should not expect higher taxes. In fact, the Tax Reform Act was passed later that year; in this sense, 1986 was indeed a “taxing year.”
Apart from this brief mention of politics, the 1986 interview emphasizes nostalgia for a past in which Reagan was younger and more agile. The bulk of the interview is about Reagan’s college football days. He comes to life as he tells a story about a remarkable play his team performed. This emphasis on nostalgia can be read as a way to depoliticize the Super Bowl XX; there are no right or wrong teams, only Americans. By extension, the interview also attempts to depoliticize the “taxing year” in which Super Bowl XX took place.