It was a season of #brands in an age of listicles. Outside the Disney Store on Seventh Avenue (disclaimer: Grantland is owned by Disney), college kids in Broncos jerseys were taking selfies with a panhandler who wore a Guy Fawkes mask and held a cardboard sign that said “NEED MONEY FOR WEED.” Cell phones were doing something to our brains and flashing lights were doing something to our brains and drugs were doing something to our brains and football was doing something to our brains, and the Super Bowl, the apex of most of that list, was this week in New York, the apex of all of it. I had begun to wonder whether the Super Bowl was still capable of being experienced, whether it was possible to catch any glimpse, through all the layers of mediation and hysteria surrounding the event, of the event itself. Skepticism was of no use. To complain that the Super Bowl had become a meta-corporate spectacle was only to enter through a different door into the hall of mirrors of replication and cliché. It looked to me as though the Super Bowl either had become or was on the verge of becoming the first great American non-experience. And because this seemed as important as anything at the start of 2014, I found myself, on a warm Sunday afternoon in winter, riding a bus toward MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, where the AFC champion Denver Broncos were playing the NFC champion Seattle Seahawks, to try to experience it.
“No bags! Media members with no bags! You do not have to be dog-sniffed! Step over here! We appreciate you!” I am waiting in the line for Security Detection Gate 5 in the Media Entrance Pavilion. The Syracuse marching band is here, filing through metal detectors. The human security guards are wearing red windbreakers with “S.A.F.E.” printed on the back, and the bomb-sniffing dogs are wearing little black coats with “DO NOT PET” written on them. The bomb-sniffing dogs are pacing casually, noses down, around piles of laptop cases the ladies and gentlemen of the press have been instructed to stow at the official bomb-sniffing platform. Every now and again, a lady or gentleman is caught taking a photo of the security pavilion and pulled to the side by one of the S.A.F.E. guards, who orders the lady-slash-gentleman to delete said photo before rejoining the line. One of the S.A.F.E. guards has a megaphone, and periodically he’ll yell, “No photography in the tent!” But it’s hard to hear anything over the ambient din of security being done.
There’s an air of tension in here, mostly because the line isn’t moving and if it doesn’t start soon, we’re going to miss the Snickers pregame warm-up. The Syracuse band is at the only metal detector where there’s any action at all, and at one point, for reasons that never quite coalesce, I am ordered by a guard to leave my line and take a spot among the Orange baton twirlers, which I do gracefully, bidding a silent farewell to my old life. The other baton twirlers open a space for me without being asked. But I’m there for less than 20 seconds before a second guard swoops down and tells me in his not-fucking-around voice that I am not a baton twirler and do not belong where I’m standing.
Bert and Juliet1 stop me outside the arena and ask if I’ll take their picture in front of a giant poster of the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The Lombardi Trophy — the real thing — is on display in a pavilion across the concourse, but too many people want their photos with it, they’ve shut the doors, so Bert and Juliet are settling for the poster. They’re Seattle fans, mid-fifties-ish. Head-to-toe Seahawks gear, and if this isn’t an axiom, it should be: Find an adult wearing team-branded pants and you have found a legitimate fan. They’re in town just for the game and they’re doing it up right; they’ve been shopping at the memorabilia stalls outside MetLife for so long that they’re each carrying two big paper bags, which Juliet needs time to hide before we can snap the photo. “It’s too much,” she says, but the idea is that this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and they never want to forget it. She’s grinning. “Coming to the Super Bowl … it’s just so much stuff.”
An hour before game time, the temperature stands in the high 40s, but the walkways are lined with dozens of tall, thin gas burners, actual pillars of fire. People are drifting around between the general admission gates and the exterior food and beer kiosks. There are hyperrealistic headless NFL bodies in action poses scattered around, in case you want to have your picture taken with your head in the (missing) head’s place. To accomplish this, you have to climb onto the back of the headless body in what is itself not an unathletic move, standing on the white plastic toeholds gouged into the body’s calves and clinging to the body’s shoulders with your head sort of scrunched down and your butt pushed out. For the world’s premier multimedia spectacle, outdoor entertainment is kind of thin on the ground at the Super Bowl. Headless NFL body-climbing is a popular activity. Most of the bodies have lines.
A redheaded bearded guy in a Broncos jersey is jumping underneath the giant Roman numerals outside the stadium. It’s a New York jump, a “We’re gonna make it!” jump, the sort of jump you’d see freeze-framed at the end of ’70s sitcom credits. His friend is taking iPhone photos of this, using burst mode, standing way off in front of the “V” in “XLVIII.” They need only one photo, but they try five or six times. If you want precisely that ’70s-TV quality of spontaneous, independent, doing-it-my-way joy, you have to be prepared to work at it.
The players take the field to a fizzy spray of fireworks and booming rhythmic gouts of fire that spurt from team- and league-branded pyro boxes stationed a safe distance from each team’s entrance tunnel. The Seahawks’ pyro box is neon green, and the Broncos’ is screaming orange. Squads of guys in black smocks, like the puppeteers in a Bunraku drama, move around unnoticed, wheeling components of the blue stages for the performers of the patriotic songs. Each squad has an unencumbered advance scout running in front of it and hand-signaling information about the squad’s upcoming path to the scouts of the other squads. I imagine the horrific pileups that would result if the scouts weren’t down there hand-signaling. I’m up in my seat at the auxiliary press table, section 101, row 43, behind the Seahawks’ end zone. It’s scorching up here because the Arctic Retribution panic of recent weeks has moved the organizers to install a glowing bank of orange heat lamps on the ceiling directly above the auxiliary press, and now artificial heat is beating down and the auxiliary press are slowly broiling to death. Sweat beads auxiliary foreheads. Auxiliary laptops are one tap of the Enter key shy of bursting into flames. On the field, a group of red-blazered handlers has unrolled an enormous American flag and the stage squads have assembled their stage components and soprano Renée Fleming comes out to sing the national anthem.
You can’t hear anything from up here, because you can hear everything from up here. There’s the press box announcer and the main stadium announcer and the audio feed from the titanic Verizon- and SAP-branded screens hung around the stadium, and the sounds are all echoing off multiple surfaces so that a typical Denver possession sounds like:
The Seahawks score a safety 12 seconds into the game, the astestfastest, we’re told, that a team has ever oredscored in an uperSuperowlBowl. The game is just gruesome for the Broncos; it’s like watching someone asphyxiate themselves via a series of 2.6-yard passes to Demaryius Thomas. Seattle has that starving-locusts-leveling-the-Carolinas quality you sometimes see in an elite NFL defense; it’s harrowing. I love this Seattle team, but after weeks of buildup and weeks of fake debate about Peyton Manning’s legacy and weeks of BEST OFFENSE VS. BEST DEFENSE hype, the effect of the beatdown’s one-sidedness is kind of weird and sad. It’s actually embarrassing when Denver has the ball. You feel it in your stomach a little. It’s like watching your dad’s boss chew out your dad. Only the thing about the Super Bowl stadium experience is that you do not have six uninterrupted seconds to formulate your own feelings or a separate perspective thereon, because the Super Bowl stadium experience is relentlessly organized to remind you — “inform” might be a better word — that you’re having fun. Oh, the fun you’re having at the Super Bowl. The music blares and the screens flash spinning brand names and the announcers come on to tell you how to operate the battery-powered glitter-hat you’re going to wear as part of the interactive halftime show that will make you part of the action. Just pull the tab, and the fun will be unforgettable.
In the men’s room at halftime, I wind up at a urinal between two drunk guys, strangers up till now, who are having the following, largely screamed, conversation.
DRUNK PISSING GUY NO. 1: Seahawks!
DRUNK PISSING GUY NO. 2: It’s over.
DRUNK PISSING GUY NO. 1: It’s almost over!
DRUNK PISSING GUY NO. 2: It’s over!
DRUNK PISSING GUY NO. 1: You a Hawks fan?
DRUNK PISSING GUY NO. 2 [sheepish]: Eli.
DRUNK PISSING GUY NO. 1: Eli? Me too, brother!
DRUNK PISSING GUY NO. 2: Two’s better than one, that’s what I’m saying!
DRUNK PISSING GUY NO. 1 [flushing]: Giants!
DRUNK PISSING GUY NO. 2: This is my house!
DRUNK STANDING GUY NO. 1 [punching the wall above the urinal]: This is my fuckin’ house!
There’s an obvious problem here with the way football mediates your perception of football; participating in the modern stadium experience isn’t about seeing a thing and responding in your own way so much as it’s about undergoing the predetermined sequence of feelings dictated by the game’s organizers. But there’s also a less obvious problem, which is that you have virtually no ground from which to resist this state of things that is not, itself, already hopelessly mediated and predetermined. My finding the Broncos’ collapse to be “weird and sad” depends mostly on my years of built-up acquaintance with the Peyton Manning narrative and my preconceived idea of the expectation and pressure he’s faced and of the likely emotional ramifications of the legacy debate. Unless you’ve just hatched from the sky, it’s pretty much impossible not to be thinking of his position in history vs. his brother’s position, etc., and more important, it’s pretty much impossible not to imagine in advance what people will say about these topics. Even if you think it’s a stupid story, you’re stuck writing it so you can reject it.
And at the same time, the critique of the Super Bowl as a commodified postmodern spectacle has been made so many times and with so little effect that it’s become part of Super Bowl week’s essential tool kit of clichés; announcers refer to it, and may even share many of its convictions. (Who doesn’t think the game has gotten too corporate, that it could use more atmosphere?) Making the same critique again, once it’s been absorbed into the thing it set out to criticize, is just another noise in the same postmodern echo chamber. You can mark the first moment of alienation, but try to mark the second and you’re just alluding to brands. Not even different brands. All you have to do is say the word Doritos. You’re oingdoing [guitar] their orkwork for them.
The Seahawks won, obviously. Confetti sprayed everywhere and an elite team of stadium workers in orange stadium parkas poured out onto the field and built a silver space pod. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and ex-RB great Marcus Allen climbed into the space pod and presented the Lombardi Trophy to Seahawks owner Paul Allen. A voice came over the PA to tell us there were too many people on the train platforms and fans planning to take the train should stay in the stadium until further notice. Till they could get the rocket engine added to the space pod, I guess.
I rode the media bus back to Manhattan. All along Times Square, groups of fans wearing Seahawks jerseys were yelling “Seahawks!” as they passed each other, like steamships blowing their horns. Fashion models a hundred feet high twirled on the overhead screens. What does it mean to witness a thing without being able to see it? I walked back to my hotel, waiting for 10 Unforgettable Photos That Captured Super Bowl XLVIII to load on my phone’s LTE connection.
Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Denver Post via Getty Images