The Anthropology of the Super Bowl

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     As we make fateful decisions during the coming weeks (no, I’m not talking about the Democratic Primaries, but whether to mute the ads or the game during the Super Bowl), we might take a moment to ponder the ways in which football really is America’s game. With apologies to Bronislaw Malinowski — whose pioneering treatise on the Trobriand Islands off New Guinea led to studies of the ways in which the islanders appropriated cricket and turned it into a native ritual — let’s explore how we Americans took over the primitive sports of soccer and rugby and adapted them to our belief system.

Where both antecedent sports offer nearly continuous action, American football amounts to brief periods of furious motion squeezed in between meetings (or huddles as they are called by initiates). This innovation is both comforting and familiar for legions of middle managers across this great land for whom meetings have ritual significance (in the sense that they represent something you have to do that produces no discernible results). During these meetings the CEO — the coach — delivers his instructions to his chief operating officer — the quarterback — who is expected to deliver quarterly results. A football quarter is calculated in minutes rather than days, or course; it only seems as though each period takes months.

As in the markets that are the soul of this nation, analysts pour over the team’s performance in real time, comparing the results to the “whisper number” that represents a consensus of some of the best minds in the country. While company earnings may be scrutinized in financial centers, the best analysts in this business are in Las Vegas. It’s a safe bet that the expected numbers produced by bookies are far more reliable as a guide to future performance than the estimates that come from Wall Street.

     Football also reflects our American fondness for litigation. Teams of referees roam the field, sometimes interfering with the play in progress. When eight or ten official eyes are not enough to rule beyond a reasonable doubt, a plaintiff can appeal a decision. In such cases, the officials turn to another American icon — technology.

     When reviewing plays, the technology is the television camera, but the average pro football team uses more computing power than the Apollo rockets that put a man on the moon. Apart from simulations and other analytical tools, players wear padding that is the result of thousands of man-years of ergonomic studies, while field generals communicate with their coaches through helmets with telecommunications links that have fidelity and security better than that used by Iraqi commanders during their recent loss to team America. The way things are going, future quarterbacks will have heads-up, intelligent displays that give them real-time interpretation of defensive sets, much like fighter pilots have today.

     While the naïve fans of soccer and rugby expect players to be generalists who can pay both offense and defense, we Americans have done what we’ve always done when we want results: we turn to specialists. Zoologists who argue that dogs have the greatest variation in size of any species have obviously never seen a pro football team where you can fit three placekickers into the pants of one defensive tackle.  Fortunately, territorial boundaries on the playing field are so rigorously enforced that the two almost never encounter each other.

     If we Americans have “optimized” rugby according to our notions of progress, there are still things many team owners might like to import from Trobriand cricket. While in football, the home team wins most of the time, in the Trobriand Island sport the home team always wins. There is still consolation for the visitors though, since the home team throws a feast in their honor. Huge differences remain, however. While football, with its fighter plane flyovers and other militaristic trappings often seems to celebrate war, cricket was introduced to the Trobriands in 1903 to replace war. How primitive!



Eugene Linden is the author of "The Future in Plain Sight: Nine Clues to the Coming Instability." His website is eugenelinden.com