For a truly mainstream American experience I would certainly recommend dropping yourself down on a swivelling stool in a Dallas bar, watching the Super Bowl, eating buffalo wings and chatting to an off duty Texan Cop. It’s how I spent Super Bowl Day 2014.
Should you just happen to tune in to the game at home somewhere in the UK don’t fret; you’ll be able to get the full flavour. You will still see the finale of the American Football season unfurl to review an onslaught of pageantry and paid for patriotism. Sit at home and gorge on the overt militarisation where pageantry is used to blur the lines between the football field and the battlefield. You will see a contest for sure: the battle for the continued blood thirst of citizens of the largest of the western imperialist states.
The essence of the show wasn’t so obvious to me back in January 2014 as we crossed the southern states. We had been following the sporting hype around the Super Bowl and we’d watched a playoff game in Philadelphia. We knew it was going to be a total cliche to find the local sports bar for the big game, but we were here for the American experience! Hailing a cab we were genuinely excited to be heading down to watch the game in a Texan bar.
Of course the bar was packed but we arrived just in time to find a little space next to a large Hispanic couple who were sat on stools way too small. Within a minute or so, as happened on almost every occasion while in the States, a local was quick to welcome us to their Bar / Borough / City / State / Nation. Our off duty Cop hit us with a “hi y’all welcome to Dallas, Texas” And we of course responded with a typically clean and crisp very British reply.
As we led up to the start of the game we had that chat about the differences between the USA (and in this case the very particular differences between Texas) and the UK. We spoke about British roads, no wider than aisles in an American supermarket. Of $20 cocktails in London; a price that would supply a Cop in beer and buffalo wings (some 40 or so) from this particular bar for the whole evening.
We covered crime and guns with our polar opposite views of the relationship between them. The Dallas Cop tried to comprehend a UK Police Officer walking the beat gunless. I waved my finger side to side and tutted loudly in response to his question “how in hell do they keep the peace with no weapon?”
We were the charming, quirky and inquisitive British couple and they were the very personification of gregarious, warm and welcoming Southern American hospitality. Despite the distance across their land and the Atlantic Ocean our shared cultural connections and a common language made us feel part of that mass of raw Texan meat ready to sizzle at the start of the Super Bowl.
All eyes fixed on the dozen screens reflecting the same snowy scene from the stadium in New Jersey.
Like all American sporting (and of course many other occasions) The Star Spangled Banner was sung before the main event: it boomed from the TV screens and from the mouths of most of the patriotic patrons.
We stayed seated and smiled while trying to look serious. We maintained a dignified exterior while cringing slightly inside. We were miles from Waco, Texas but this seemed like an automatic and mass response to rise: almost cult like. And when representatives from the military took to the sporting field our bar, no doubt like thousands of other bars in the States, shook with emotion. Another link in the cultural chain that connects American Sport and war had been welded together.
What places the Super Bowl – and all the matches played under the National Football League more widely – apart from many other mass gatherings in the US is the presence front and foremost of the military. The differences between the battlefield and the sporting field seem to have been steadily broken down by pageantry and this is no simply coincidence.
This overt militarisation of Football recently led two Arizona Senators to uncover almost $7 million in “paid for patriotism” at sporting events, with 18 NFL teams receiving more than $5.6 million over four years. Blurring the lines between sport and war is a concern for some Americans.
During the Super Bowl there is no respite from the “paid for patriotism”, not even during the ad breaks. In fact, this medium supports an amplification of the solider / player, sporting field / battle field connection.
During Super Bowl Week there is only one thing that’s more anticipated than the game, and that’s the commercials. In Budweiser’s “Coming Home” commercial a returning solider receives a Bud sponsored Heroes Welcome.
Connecting the theatre of sport and the theatre of war will of course be aided by multinational companies thirsty for “profit from patriotism” and back in our bar it is no exaggeration to say this advert brought 300 or so patrons once again to their feet. The majority brought to either cheers or tears. The passion led some of the biggest guys to bear hug fellow big guys, as well as of course, the tiny barmaids. Two Brits sat detached and stupefied, and increasingly many more American eyes are being opened to the dangers of this paid for patriotism.
Senators McCain and Flake’s investigation found that linking military propaganda with sporting prowess was obviously money well spent: the Pentagon had been doing it for years. But what is the purpose of linking American sport so closely with the military and American foreign policy? Why does the Pentagon rate it so highly?
An army is of course a miniature of the society that produces it and if society sees war in terms of the field of sport it perhaps sees contests that end; with a clear winner and loser; a score on one side always lower than that of the other.
We know and we are continually told that ISIS are hell bent on bringing civilians – across the Middle East as much as Western Europe – onto the battlefield. We are disgusted at their approach and their aims. Yet Western Governments – by placing the military at the heart of their institutions – do little to draw what should be a clear and profound distinction between civilian and military life. It is past the time for the west to draw this line and stick to it.
The Super Bowl has morphed to appear almost as much about the role of the military and the love of America as the celebration of a season long sporting journey for two teams. Paid for Patriotism is clearly state sponsored big business.
This year, in the UK, as the debate continues around the renewing of Trident Nuclear Weapons System keep your eyes open for our own homegrown versions of paid for patriotism. It will be coming to a stadium or bar near you. The power of imagery is not to be underestimated.