The Super Bowl is revered as the biggest football moment of a season, but its cultural impact goes far beyond sports. As the world approaches another year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the Super Bowl has the potential to define our experiences from the sidelines to the sideshows. With the Super Bowl being the most-watched television broadcast annually, drawing 99.9 million viewers on Fox Network, and a total of 102.1 million viewers total after the inclusion of streams in 2020, the event holds more television relevancy than the inauguration. Although holding the third-highest number of viewers of all inaugurations, President Joe Biden’s swearing-in ceremony only attracted 33.8 million views, a third of last year’s Super Bowl viewership. The 55th Super Bowl, to be broadcasted this Sunday, Feb. 7, will be a testament to the rapid evolution of our social, political, and sports culture throughout a year of COVID-19.
The show-off between the Kansas City Chiefs gives them a chance to win back-to-back titles, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gives Buccaneers’ Quarterback Tom Brady the chance to win his seventh super bowl ring after his early playoff exit last year. At 43 years old, Brady has far outlasted the average of a three career as a quarterback in the NFL. In the 2020 season, Brady became the oldest NFL player — a title kickers usually hold — at 43 years old, and has a career spanning 21 years — among the longest for quarterbacks. Brady has put a host of hard work (as well as ego and cheating scandals) into maintaining his career, but there is no denying that privilege has helped to elevate his legacy.
Brady has been able to maneuver the field and politics with a level of grace and respectability that Black athletes are rarely if ever, afforded — exhibit A: Colin Kaepernick. In August of 2016, Kaepernick began sitting out for the National Anthem and gathered support from a few of his 49ers teammates, namely Eric Reid. At the end of the season, Kaepernick opted out of his contract. From there grew suspicion that the NFL was blacklisting him, fueled by a grievance Kaepernick filed in 2017 against the NFL teams for conspiring to keep him out of the league. Kaepernick and the NFL reached a settlement in 2019, seemingly giving merit to the belief that the NFL had purposely made him an outcast. In 2019, 95 percent of players surveyed believed Kaepernick should still have had a career in the NFL.
While Kaepernick drew support from then-President Barack Obama and other public figures, Donald Trump — who was president when Kaepernick’s football career ended — labeled the peaceful kneeling (that a former Green Beret encouraged) as unpatriotic, and that the NFL should get any “son of a b—h” that that did not stand off of the field. Brady, on the other hand, was early in his support of Trump, brazenly displaying a MAGA hat in his locker, but quickly backtracked once receiving criticism. His ability to walk back into an apolitical image, likewise with his then-coach of the Patriots Bill Belichick, speaks to a larger image of white privilege in sports.
Another form of privilege lingers on the sidelines: the ability to socialize while hundreds of thousands have died due to COVID. Over one million people have attended NFL games this season, with 25,000 fans expected to attend the Super Bowl; 7,500 are vaccinated, healthcare professionals. The NFL has stated that they have not traced any COVID-19 cases to the guests of their games. However, 262 out of 1,696 players on active rosters in the 2020 season and 463 personnel have tested positive. Masks were not required on the sidelines until Nov. 23, 2020, and photos of fans social-distancing in the stands showed relaxed use of masks, which is likely why the NFL has designed their game plan to limit mingling outside of the stadium, offering specific entrances.
Yet, the CDC has discouraged Super Bowl gatherings with people outside of one’s household so the curve of infections and deaths can continue a downward trend after the holidays. Considering this warning worked so well during the holiday season, some experts are concerned the Super Bowl will lead to yet another spike in COVID-19 numbers. This concern comes with good reason; approximately a quarter of Americans still plan on attending Super Bowl parties and, in Tampa, there are parties planned with popular musicians. Tens of thousands can gather at the Super Bowl, with live entertainment of The Weeknd, but household gatherings are where the line must be drawn. Football culture is considered integral to American culture, drawing more viewers than any other program in a year, and the idea of going a year without it — with the potential of saving lives — is unthinkable.
Beyond allowing Brady to increase his record of wins or continue to shine a light on the Chiefs’ Star Quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Super Bowl Sunday provides an opportunity to contextualize the past year in the pandemic. Masks, social distancing, and other protocols will (hopefully) be firmly established. Instead of pondering what a new normal will look like, the NFL has blazed ahead and created their own. More Americans will see this than any other single source of news or entertainment, giving it a greater cultural impact than most of the other breaking news events last year.
Although the outcome of the Super Bowl will create ripples in football, furthering the legacy of Brady or establishing a Super Bowl-winning streak for Mahomes and the Chiefs, below the surface will be the greater impact on our culture (whether we want it or not). The Super Bowl will set the stage for the next year (yes, year) in a pandemic: will we see an increased normalization of at least some use of a facial covering, or will we kick off year two with another spike?
Featured Image: Courtesy of marca.com