The Super Bowl, American professional sports’ highest holy day, is once more upon us. No event on the national cultural calendar can quite compete with it for broadcast audience size and, thus, nothing surpasses the strategic staging of that spectacle.
It offers an orgy of over-the-top media opportunism: “journalism” wringing untenable hot takes out of every micro-storyline that can be found; sponsorship garishly bloating on-site experiences and desperately conniving for the one time a year that audiences actually pay attention to ads; and halftime pop acts trying to rejuvenate careers off of canned nostalgia. “Media day,” in particular, more or less proves Baudrillard right (though I also remain somewhat unclear what exactly he was trying to say).
And, in the end, there is eventually a game, too – sometimes entertaining; sometimes dull; regrettably too often involving the New England Patriots. The NFL’s own solemn aggrandizement frequently gets in the way as well, as the self-appointed guardian of Important National Values.
How, then, to cut through the fog of hype and make sense, critically and culturally, of this brassy spectacle? Here are five trade-style texts off my shelf that I’d suggest the casual reader reach for first – this list is, to be certain, far from exhaustive (the absence of scholars like David Rowe, Larry Wenner, Garry Whannel, Michael Butterworth, and many others necessarily makes that so):
The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football, and Basketball and What They See When They Do
I don’t typically assign textbooks in courses (college is expensive enough already), but for this, I’ve always made an exception. I’ve yet to come across a more beautiful treatment of precisely what the title promises: a wide-ranging analysis of what sports signify about American culture. Part pop anthropology, part historical verse, Michael Mandelbaum’s book is at its best when it fuses baseball, football, and basketball to their representative labor epochs (respectively, agrarian, industrial, and postmodern).
The Joy of Sports: End Zones, Bases, Baskets, Balls, and the Consecration of the American Spirit
I have long been drawn to the parallels of sport and religion: the way both morally divide the world into good and evil tribes; furnish an articulation of the language of belief; and tantalize with pathways to transcendence. It took a philosopher and theologian like Michael Novak to authoritatively map those parallels as he does in this luminous text. Originally published in 1976, some of the sports-world references predate my fandom consciousness, but the underlying theory holds as firm as ever.
Is there Life After Football? Surviving the NFL
Athlete retirements are, as I’ve previously written, fundamentally unusual: Few players ever really choose to walk away. Instead, the game tends to be taken from them prematurely. Once outside the spotlight, fans will glean an occasional bit of “Where are they now?” coverage, but that’s usually the product of unfortunate circumstances: a death, a bankruptcy, a Ford Bronco lumbering up the 405. Kudos to James Holstein, Richard Jones, and George Koonce for going long and deep in their coverage of hundreds of ex-NFLers’ lives after the final seconds of their career clock tick off. From physical ailments to ego adjustment, the book is a page-turner of astonishing stories and eye-opening realities.
Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto
I should make clear that I’m not actually “against” football (my fall Sunday afternoons will testify to this), but it is impossible not feel ambivalent about the various issues that journalist Steve Almond, the “reluctant” fan in question, enlists here. From the concussion crisis to toxic masculinity to quasi-militarism, Almond pulls few punches in this searing and convincing indictment of a sport that I – and millions upon millions of fellow Americans – simultaneously adore.
God Save the Fan: How Preening Sportscasters, Athletes Who Speak in the Third Person, and the Occasional Convicted Quarterback Have Taken the Fun Out of Sports (and How We Can Get It Back)
In the wake of Deadspin’s utterly unnecessary immolation, a shout-out to founding editor Will Leitch seems in order. For all of the aforementioned pomposity of Super Bowl spectacle – and sports culture in general – the witticisms of a court jester are forever begged. No shortage of jesters have passed through the halls of Deadspin, but this book offers an especially arch entry point into the absurdities and excesses of American sports.
Michael Serazio (@michaelserazio) is an associate professor of communication at Boston College who studies media production. He is the author of The Power of Sports: Media and Spectacle in American Culture and Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing, both available from NYU Press.
Featured image from the US Air Force, public domain