The Super Bowl is one of the biggest events in the United States, so it’s not surprising that coverage will largely focus on two things: football, and America itself.
In the lead-up to the game, a Fox Sports executive reportedly said if the pregame show doesn’t celebrate football or America, “it’s not going to be in the show.” The statement inevitably raised questions about the identity of a country, and how sports plays a role in making that determination.
The first question is: What America will be celebrated? A country of so many different people does not have a static, agreed-upon image. People may share a few common principles, or foundational parameters of what the country should be, but if the last few years have taught us anything it’s that Americans have fundamentally conflicting ideas about themselves. One conception of America inevitably negates numerous others.
The next question, then, is why do Fox Sports and the NFL see it as their duty to determine what the country is? It isn’t necessarily a bad thing to be proud of one’s country, of course. Yet sports media companies and the NFL have tried to shield themselves within the lie that they are apolitical as they’ve embraced their nebulous self-aggrandizing vision of the United States. In the process, they ignore how easily this process of determination and celebration can become propaganda.
The league and its partners have always used this lie to fend off any challenges to what they desire the country to be, a prominent example being the exile of Colin Kaepernick, who pointed out a sickness in this country that those in power did not want to acknowledge.
The athletic world may not be inherently political, but it can be used for political purposes. The NFL, for example, became synonymous with the U.S. military, patriotism and the celebration of “America’’ right after 9/11, in a coordinated effort by several parties to profit off each other. The league made money and built a powerful relationship with the state, while the state took advantage of the NFL’s great public influence.
That type of relationship isn’t rare at all. It’s hard to think of a time when political powers weren’t using sports for their benefit. Just like Nero when he used his power as emperor to force himself into the Olympics in 67 AD, political entities today understand sports’ tremendous ability to influence people through symbolism.
Sports are a realm where communities are built, heroes are forged and audiences can project their emotions, ideals and principles onto their idols. Entire generations are raised loyal to a team or sport, building the narratives of their lives around the events and players they love. Sports are the perfect place to tell people who they are or who they should be. And while Nero used sports to indulge his vanity, others are somewhat more discreet, flying jets over stadiums or unfurling large flags over fields. Their unstated goal is to promote their business and reflect the values of the powerful people and institutions who are capable of buying and wielding symbolic power. The effect is indoctrination, either way.
Few Americans have military-level funding to proliferate their particular version of the country they live in. On Super Bowl Sunday, Fox Sports and the NFL will broadcast theirs under the guise of a celebration. In the process, the world will see what they want America to be, and what would constitute politically “neutral” if they had their way.