Sunday, February 2, 2014

Human community via the Super Bowl

Last night for the first time I saw Super Bowl volunteers in New York. Some were on duty, some making their way home for the night, all wearing yellow windbreakers announcing their role. Perhaps these folks are the NFL’s version of unpaid interns, people who are trying to network their way to a job and meanwhile being exploited by the powerful – and, amazingly, “nonprofit” and tax-exempt – NFL. But my guess is that many are not looking for a job but instead are happy to serve as volunteers for the pleasure of being part of the experience (and the souvenir windbreakers).

They are fans of the Super Bowl itself – and such devoted fans that they give their own time in service on the periphery of an event that they will surely not be able to afford a ticket to attend. I admit it’s hard for me to see this event as the one that people should give their hearts to (I like watching the Super Bowl, but it’s a game and one that a lot of people profit from rather flagrantly). As my wife asked, isn't there a charity these volunteers could be sustaining? Still, tastes differ. We are creatures who often want to be part of the cause and the crowd and the excitement, and it may be that there simply is no bigger event to join in the US right now than the Super Bowl. Slightly more people voted in the 2012 Presidential election (about 129,000,000) than watched the 2012 Super Bowl (about 118,000,000 at the end of the game), but this year isn’t a Presidential election year.  

Perhaps we should accept that human community is a good thing wherever it comes into being, as long as it is not the communalism of mob violence, and so we should welcome the Super Bowl community simply because it is a community. Of course, this is a community built around a game that’s a very violent one, not deliberately lethal in the manner of the gladiatorial contests with which the Romans entertained themselves, but with plenty of immediate risk and visible and invisible longterm harm. I’m not so ready to say that community formed around the sight of others enduring and inflicting danger and pain is always good, but it’s impossible to deny that it touches something deep in many people. Hockey, rugby, boxing, auto racing and other sports make that pretty clear.

At any rate, even if Americans increasingly “bowl alone,” as Harvard Professor Robert Putnam has argued, we can certainly declare that they do not Super Bowl alone.

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