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Who Dat? Dat's the Commercial Bastardization of Football

By Michael Murray | TV | February 5, 2010 |

By Michael Murray | TV | February 5, 2010 |

When I heard that The Who was going to be playing the halftime show at the Super Bowl, I felt a kind of sadness descending. The band that once defiantly sang, ” I hope I die before I get old,”

now only have two surviving members — one of whom is deaf — and both of those members are pushing 70. I can’t help but imagine them a withered shadow of their original incarnation, a small assembly of spirited geriatrics who’ll play a medley of hits for a disinterested audience that only knows their song — “Who Are You” — because it’s the theme to the omnipresent CSI franchise.

And so, this pitiable spectacle, which will make the likes of Jay Leno feel virile and with-it, will exist solely to market the interests of CBS, who happen to be broadcasting the Super Bowl, and be the parent to the infinitely spawning “CSI” empire. It’s a business, after all, and if there’s a chance to promote your own interests, well, then you flog that promotional horse until it rolls over and dies.

But commerce is an art, too, and for my money the most reliably excellent part of any Super Bowl presentation is rarely the game itself, and never the halftime show (although Prince was pretty cool back in 2007), but the TV ads that debut during the broadcast. Selling for up to 3 million dollars for a 30 second spot, the brilliantly conceived and executed ads are the product of some of the most creative minds on the planet. In a culture that’s come to value trailers just as much as movies, this, well, this is the main course, and it never fails to disappoint, creating every bit as much buzz as the game itself, sometimes more.

Of course, there’s nothing like the preamble to the game. For two weeks, we’re bombarded with a shock and awe campaign that leaves us dizzy, disoriented, ready to buy anything, and in need of a drink.

Maybe even a gun.

I mean, do we really need “American Idol” alumnus singing the National Anthem every year? (It’s Carrie Underwood this time around.) Do they always have to be moving product? Can’t they just, you know, play football?

No, no they cannot.

Football seems to need more. It seems to need accoutrements in order to truly capture our attention.

I’ve always had some ambivalence toward the sport, as it’s always seemed that the game was actually secondary to the event. Football often seems little more than a gambling delivery system, in a way that other sports are not. This occurred to me after listening to a friend describe watching a blowout in which the winning team had built a 30 point lead in the first half.

You’d think that the second half of the game, now congested with a bunch of second-stringers and veterans trying not to get hurt, would be a world of boring, but no, for my friend it was an insanely tense and mesmerizing experience.

He was glued to the set until the last second, when the losing team kicked a field goal, thus losing the game by 28 points instead of 31. All across America, a nation of men sat breathless in front of their television sets, waiting to see if the losing team would beat the spread or not, even though the actual game had long since been decided. What this illustrated was that often, you don’t watch football to see who wins on the field, but who wins off it.

As a kid, I played every other sport obsessively, but football just required too much policing and officiating, too much adult governance. Playing pick-up, you had to figure out what was in bounds and what wasn’t, and whether the game was going to be touch, tackle, or flag. After all of that had been negotiated, you had to deal with counting Steamboats and marching out the yards (which encouraged all sorts of cheating) in a self-serving attempt to figure out if a first down had been achieved.

Punting never seemed to work properly, either, and a field goal, which usually meant kicking the ball into the tennis courts or between two trees, was never as much fun as you might have hoped. Inevitably, all our football games devolved into Hog. Chaotic and improvisational, we would zigzag about for hours trying to avoid each other’s tackles.

Now that was a blast.

The mechanics of football made it a drag, and it always seemed like the sort of thing that would be more fun to coach than to play. It was for adults, really, a game that had been reduced to the militaristic acquisition of real estate. Stern men with grey hair stood like Generals on the sidelines, employing aerial photography in an effort to expose the enemy’s weaknesses. The players, in full armor, were anonymous robots, their personalities subsumed by the collective — kind of like the Borg.

But still, there’s an unmistakable satisfaction in seeing a well-constructed plan come together, and there are moments of brute force, athletic genius and drama that can take your breath away and lift you right out of your seat. It is war out there, and there’s an undeniable drama and charisma in that.

This year we have the Indianapolis Colts. Led by perennial MVP Peyton Manning, who might just be one of the greatest QBs in history, the Colts are a fucking force. Standing in opposition are the New Orleans Saints, who have never in their 43-year history even been to the Super Bowl. And so it’s simple, do you root for the dynastic Colts, who always seem to be dominating the NFL, or the Saints, plucky Bourbon Street underdogs who seek to rise victorious from the swamp of Hurricane Katrina?

Who dat?

Yeah, that’s right.

Go for the Saints, and don’t even worry about the betting line.

Go, Saints, Go!

Publisher’s Note: The views expressed by Michael Murray in this column, especially that one about the Saints winning, do not reflect the views of, and should not be attributed to, the rest of the Pajiba staff, particularly its publisher.

Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.

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