goes to the SUPERBOWL …
Sherman v. Manning:
the battle for America begins…
…if you’ve been following the build-up to America’s annual “greatest sporting spectacle ever” the Super Bowl – to be played this Sunday – you’ll find some intriguing insight to the modern American cultural psyche.
My reading of the game of gridiron itself:
– and the slow-building saturated media coverage surrounding not only the game but the players, the art and commerce of the legendary Super Bowl commercials, the infamous legacy of its half-time show –
…is rudimentary at best, most likely ignorant at worst, but still fascinates me endlessly.
So I’ll do my best to offer some thoughts without offending my American friends, who are welcome to set me right here.
Without trying to sound too po-mo, I view the Super Bowl event, and particularly this year, as a strong metaphor for the collective soul of the American people. And here’s why.
Not to dwell too much on the event’s various periphery activities, but rather the game itself, and players themselves, that to me, represent the apparent schism between the American people, that is often highlighted more in the political arena of Obama-era bi-partisanship (or rather the lack of…), congressional obstructionism and various debates surrounding the country’s precarious relationship with race and class.
The game, to fill in the details for those not familiar, will be between the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos. Not one for stats, I can’t offer an opinion on who has the upper hand going into the game. Good grief, I don’t even have a full understanding of how the game is played, let alone what wins or loses the actual game. Ask an average American about the ins and outs of cricket, and you’ll get an idea of what I know about gridiron.
But what I do know is this: there are two players who’ll be on the field this Sunday who could easily become stand-ins for the often strained relationship Americans have with each other. Seahawks’ young, fiery, ultramodern game-talking Richard Sherman and Denver’s elder, established, clean-cut, god-fearing “Omaha”-chanting Peyton Manning.
Let’s start with Sherman.
Two weeks ago, in true grandiose American style, Seahawks cornerback Sherman, in the dying moments of the tightly fought ‘semi-final’ (play-off?) pulled off one of the more innovative moves in American football, a miraculous steal (catch? Intercept!) from within his opponents touchdown area (region? Zone!) It was the equivalent, South African fans of cricket, of the Proteas winning a game against Australia, by hitting a six off the final ball of the game, with one wicket in hand, while facing an on-form Mitchell Johnson.
In short, it was one of those magical moments in sport Hollywood loves to revolve an entire inspirational sports movie around. That against-all-odds, winning climax that informs the American spirit of success in every aspect of their lives: socially, culturally, politically, etc.
The kind of moment that sportswriters will attempt to concrete in hyperbole for future generations to relive and be inspired by.
Or so it should have been, until in a post-game interview, within seconds of pulling off this heroic manoeuvre that snatched victory from under the opponent, and amongst the thunderous jubilation of thousands of witnesses to this improbable but real moment of glory, a visibly fervent Sherman let loose with a series of boasts and shouty crows to all and sundry: opponents, fans, the game in general and his opposing number on the other team, in particular.
I was not really sure what he was on about – something about a ‘legion of boom’, etc. etc., whatever, but you could see the very real, unleashed emotion that often trademarks the passionate athlete, high on his own success. So typical of an archetypical ‘jock’, it’s the very reason us lesser beings hate them so, yet continue to watch their exploits. It’s part of what makes sport, sport.
Within seconds, micro-seconds even, of Sherman’s outburst, the now-ubiquitous twittersphere and other social media avenues were alight with ‘opinion’ and ‘commentary’. Most of it was reasonable, but soon the dark honesty that the relative anonymity of the internet often provides, reared its ugly 142-character-sized head.
N-words and ‘thug’ were popular choices, amongst more veiled words and a surprisingly large amount of sentiment that made one feel like you were could be on a street corner in small-town Alabama in 1961.
Pretty soon, and for days after, wider media picked up on the incident. Various pundits, not only sport experts, but also political and cultural commentators from both sides of ideological spectrum did their bit in making Richard Sherman a household name for all the wrong reasons: an off-the-cuff, emotional atypical sportsperson rant, that in all honesty, should rather have come out in the privacy of the locker-room.
Until then, I had no idea who Sherman was, but in the days following the game, we all sure got to know him a little better. Firstly, as some raving talking-head, but then, slowly, as Sherman addressed the media through various avenues, a different picture emerged.
From the looks of things, he seems like a really nice guy.
What first impressed me about Sherman, were soundbites of a press conference he gave a day or two after the game. He presented a completely different image from what had until then been a seemingly constant loop of the original on-field interview, and various commentators in the media arguing for and against his behaviour. Obviously strong-willed and independent thinking, Sherman, while still coming across as highly competitive and emotional sportsman, surprised many who had not heard of him until then by being articulate, sincerely accountable, approachable and funny:
When asked about the use of the ‘thug’ and its racial connotation in the media to describe him, he offered a suitable example of another recent sporting incident – a highly confrontational Canadian ice hockey game that seemed to push the boundaries of this already hostile and volatile sporting ‘discipline’ (this particular hockey game featured one team’s coach attempt to intercept the opposing team’s locker room intent on ‘having a word or two’, euphemistically speaking.) “That looked more thug-like to me,” Sherman offered. Canadians, thugs? Never.
Details soon emerged of his commendable academic record, his various charitable causes and his general likeability amongst family, friends and fans. Here was the perfect sport representative, a veritable PR wet dream. To top it all off, within the week, details and video surfaced of what actually happened in the seconds between Sherman’s final nail-biting intercept and his onfield interview.
Seems as though, going into this all-or-nothing must-win semi-final against San Francisco 49ers, the hype was already being built on a rivalry between Sherman and his opposing number, Michael Crabtree. Another gridiron wunderkind. And it turns out; tensions were high throughout the game between the two. The video clearly shows Sherman approaching Crabtree after the final whistle, with Seattle winning the game, and offering his hand, and an affable ‘great game, man’
– advancements of media technology have been so wholeheartedly embraced by football authorities that not only are referees and officials mic’ed up, but players too, offering fans at home an even more in-depth involvement in the game. (Can’t wait for that to be installed in cricket in the near future…)
Crabtree, it appears, didn’t return the handshake to Sherman, and instead blatantly batted the friendly hand away, no doubt stewing in disappointment of losing a closely contested game, but rude and unwarranted nonetheless.
The video and the story gained a little traction over the last week, but nothing compared to the original Sherman interview. To make matters a little more complicated, Sherman has also picked a citation and fine of $7000 for the incident from NFL authorities, a development he seems to have taken in stride, which is understandable considering he has the biggest game of his life…so far…to focus on. And an ideological showdown – in my mind at least – with Denver’s Peyton Manning, the crown prince of American football.
…and what of Manning?
The quintessential football quarterback, the ideal super mensch of American sport may seem like a fantastical and overused sports cliché. But when it is fully embodied in the real world, in the form of Peyton Manning, the fit just seems too perfect to be true. But believe it, Manning is, to many, the perfect sportsman: flawless both on and off the field.
There is no better example of the WASPy American Dream than this 37 year old son of New Orleans.
Football player, faithful husband, loving father, loyal brother, devoted son.
Christian, Republican, pizza restaurant franchise owner, American.
Over an impressive and consistent 16 year professional career – considering the average NFL career is around 8 to 10 years – Manning has managed not only to play some of the best football ever seen in the modern game, he has singlehandedly captured the hearts and minds of the American people, from all walks of life, while helping a surge in popularity for the game not only in America, but across the world.
When not assembling a staggeringly impressive array of game stats (a passing rating of 97%), sports records (most touchdown passes in a decade: 314. Yes, I have no idea what these mean either, rest of the world) and various honours (8 Player of the Year awards and Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the year 2013 and the all-important guest appearance in an episode of The Simpsons), Manning is endorsed by a record number of companies, the face of several successful charities and all-round good guy.
His trademark, but enigmatic scrimmage call of “Omaha!” has not only inspired various businesses of the Nebraskan city to donate to his charities every time he calls it, but has even inspired an upsurge in tourism to the state. Now that’s influence.
He is literally America’s most popular, most admired, most recognised sports hero of the modern era, if not of all time. Though Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan and Babe Ruth may have something to say about that.
Comparatively, Sherman, at age 25 and only three years into his rookie tenure with the Seahawks, is still green, but the potential to become one of the best NFL players in a post-Peyton Manning era is huge. Despite his shocking introduction to the world at large, his ability to become, for want of a better term, the African-American Peyton Manning: an icon loved and admired by all America is a distinct possibility, in what will be an important game, not just for the sport of football, but for 21st century America. The conflicts remain though, as the knee-jerk response and pointless backlash to his infamous outburst has shown. I hope Sherman shows another side of his personality to the world, come Sunday, the one we got a glimpse of during his press conference and his various interactions with media and on social media. Though, please, not at the expense of his big-game temperament which rightly channelled can gain his team the win.
The Super Bowl is a big event in America, it goes without saying. The proverbial nose-bleed seats at the stadium go for thousands of dollars, luxury suites sometimes hundreds. The average price for a commercial during the live broadcast is $3 million per 30 second spot, a broadcast that is watched by millions, a broadcast that can make or break those involved in it, and not just sportsmen. It was the forum that introduced Apple to the world in 1984, it is the scene where Janet Jackson lost her blouse and ruined her career (while accomplice and chief bodice-ripper Justin Timberlake went on to enjoy continued success, read what you will into that).
It is a spectacle than involves more than just the chasing of a pigskin ball; it is a cultural, era-defining event. It displays America to the world, and to themselves, on how they live their lives, in the largest way possible, and is an enthralling study of American societal microcosms.
Super Bowl 48 – with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Bruno Mars entertaining at halftime – will be a battlefield for the soul of America. Its Richard Sherman’s America vs. Peyton Manning’s America, Barack Obama’s America vs. George W. Bush’s America (Manning – a vocal supporter of GWB –enjoyed much of his success in Bush-era America); it’s MSNBC America vs. FOX News America.
Two Americas, one game.
I hope though, they all share in the spoils.
All the way from Darkest Africa, from a novice fan and inquisitive, intrigued watcher of American sport and society, in general: Go Seahawks!
Though I am never one to endorse the English redtops, here’s Oliver Holt in The Mirror on the same subject, though a little more concise: http://www.mirror.co.uk/sport/other-sports/american-sports/super-bowls-good-vs-evil-3087106