“The Super Bowl; Reexamining a “spectacle”

Curator's Note

Their names sound like gladiators: John “The Bull” Bramlett, Kenny “Snake” Stabler, and “Iron” Mike Webster. All three former National Football League players had something else in common; after death they were diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. It’s the League’s (very) dirty (not so) little secret; CTE, a deadly neurodegenerative disease, has been detected in 99% of studied brains from deceased NFL players (Mez, Daneshvar, Kiernan, et al., 2017). On February 4th, a global audience will cheer for breakaway speed, the deep ball, end zone celebrations and, especially, the hard hits as it takes in the extravaganza of Super Bowl LII. Blow after teeth-rattling blow, that viewing audience will be, in essence, celebrating the seemingly doomed futures of these players. As such, a Super Bowl paratext that is discomfiting and, to a degree, absent amid all the pomp, is that viewers of the sport are watching the slow motion unraveling of human lives. And, despite some effort by the NFL e.g. concussion protocols, a preemptive settlement (which covers concussions, not CTE) and rule changes, the organization thrives on the spectacle of elegant violence. Viewers watch from their couches, a bar stool, a position of privilege. For Guy Debord mega events, such as the Super Bowl constituted what he dubbed the “Society of Spectacle.” In his words, “the spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images (1967).” From the game itself, to the hours-long pre-game coverage, to the advertising, food, drink and parties surrounding it, the Super Bowl and all its attendant activities form social relations. In all manners of this grand presentation, the NFL is the choreographer. Thus, the pageantry dances around the fact that its players are putting their lives at risk when they take the field. Likewise, viewers are complicit in such endangerment via the NFL’s obfuscation of this paratext, or, as Debord noted, “The specialization of images of the world is completed in the world of the autonomous image, where the liar has lied to himself.” And, too, the network televising the game is complicit by omission. Since legendary NBC sportscaster Bob Costas spoke out during a roundtable in November, NBC has unceremoniously dropped him from its Super Bowl coverage, though it was slated to be the soon-retiring journalist’s swan song. His words? “The reality is that this game destroys people’s brains.”

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