Does The Superbowl Still NEED Football?

John Blesso
8 min readFeb 12, 2023

Consumer complicity and how the ’85 Bears built the modern Superbowl

From the Department of Not Sure Why THAT Shit Stuck in My Head, I recall— without the help of Google — that Superbowl 17 culminated with The Washington Redskins beating The Miami Dolphins 27–17. But what’s the etiquette on referring to this team, now known as The Washington Commanders, when talking about a forty-year-old game? Are we supposed to call that team — in which a guy named John Riggins blasted through the Miami defense as though it were manned by actual Dolphins — The Washington Commanders?

I shant!

First, it’s factually incorrect. Second, doing that further obscures our long-standing casual racism in the mascot department. (Also, The Commanders’ toxic, sexual-predator owner Daniel Snyder hardly deserves any kind of revisionist history for his decades-long resistance to changing the name long after we all damn well knew better.) That’s why I’m going to refer to the 1983 Superbowl Champions — in a reparations-spirited nod toward derogatory racial modifiers — as The Washington Aggrieved White Accountants.

Aside from John Riggins, my broad recollection of that Superbowl is just how little zazz it had. Nothing I recall about that fanfare-free production reminds me even remotely of the modern Superbowl. But three years later that would all change. Because that’s when The New England Patriots — a Cinderella squad making their first Superbowl appearance — went up against The Chicago Bears in Superbowl 20.

Everyone of a certain age recalls the ’85 Bears, and not for their crushing dominance. Everyone loved the cuddly and adorably gap-toothed, 350-pound defensive tackle William “The Refrigerator” Perry. Meanwhile, quarterback Jim McMahon, an arrogant and colorful rebel, mooned journalists and openly dissed NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. Then the Bears went and made “The Superbowl Shuffle,” a totally bonkers music video — before even making it to the Superbowl.

(While I was fully prepared to cringe upon pulling up “The Superbowl Shuffle” on YouTube, watching the ’85 Bears pretend to play instruments in what appears to be a single take of a song so bad that it sounds like it was written during a single elevator ride up to some corner office, was several magnitudes worse than I had imagined. There are instances when decent, modern people everywhere can agree to forget that something from the past ever happened. Things like The Macarena. Or Gallagher. Or Vinyl Siding. And “The Superbowl Shuffle” is one of those things.)

William “The Refrigerator” Perry taking a knee as one of the 1985 Chicago Bears.

Nevertheless, “The Superbowl Shuffle” did its part to drive fevered interest in Superbowl 20, which — not surprisingly — became the first to garner $1 million for a sixty-second ad. Meanwhile, the pregame of Superbowl 20, in which they introduced all of the previous Superbowl MVPs, made the whole thing feel more ceremonial, fabulous and supercharged — as though The Superbowl had a three-way with The Miss America Pageant and Sylvester Stallone. As for the game, well, The Patriots might as well have gone up against actual Bears because they got fucking marauded. I can’t recall the exact score from 1986 without a Google assist, but in my mind it was 117–3. (To be fair, this was early on in Tom Brady’s career so he was still warming up.) That I recall none of the action — but everything about how it felt — is precisely why it way more resembles, for me, the Superbowls of today than it did the Superbowl of just three years earlier, when The Miami Dolphins lost to The Washington Aggrieved White Accountants.

I don’t watch regular-season football. Not even the playoffs. But I never miss the Superbowl because its presentation — and everything its producers choose to spotlight — provides the single best barometer for our national mood, while the rigged capitalism of the NFL, where profits have always come before the health and safety of players (who are disproportionately Black) might provide the best distillation and reflection of who we really are. You can call baseball our National Pastime until you’re blue in the face, but that’s bullshit because baseball players are not systemically destroyed for our entertainment.

I wish we could keep The Superbowl program but replace the football game with something else. What if we dropped The National Spelling Bee in that time slot? It’s more compelling than you think and the producers could go deep on the backstories of those sweet kids and their criminally insane parents. Or curling. Do you realize just how few cases of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) there are in that sport? Millions of people would still watch The Superbowl if it instead featured curling. Because Reality TV relentlessly proves that we Americans will watch any kind of competition, while a majority of Superbowl viewers aren’t tuning in for a football game so much as they want to take in a highly produced extravaganza, with fun, creative ads that serves as a slick, high-octane delivery system for The Halftime Show.

And this year it’s Rihanna. Are you kidding me? I LOVE “Umbrella.”

When the sun shines, we’ll shine together…

That is such a catchy song. Wait…she is gonna do “Umbrella” right? Holy crap if Rihanna doesn’t do “Umbrella” I’m never going to speak to her again.

Even more than the top-notch talent, I’m always blown away by how they erect that massive stage — and all of the scaffolds and lights and fireworks — and then all of the shit actually works. (Because with the exception of that one time when Janet Jackson’s exposed areola destroyed the sanctity of an entire generation, nothing ever goes wrong.) And then, THEN, they get the whole thing taken down just as fast! The construction, show, and demo all unfold in less time than it takes Domino’s to deliver a Memphis BBQ Chicken pizza with a side of Bacon and Jalapeno Stuffed Cheesy Bread.

But the sheer stupendousness of The Pepsi Superbowl Halftime Show also feels like a symbolic pageant to how our best, most competent minds are so frequently purchased and put in the service of frivolity. Like the STEM geniuses routinely lured up golden ladders to the financial sector where they do crazy computer shit that just helps make a group of outrageously rich people even richer. Instead of say — Oh, I don’t know — trying to figure out how to reverse Climate Catastrophe. What would happen if we took the team that puts on The Pepsi Superbowl Halftime Show and instead put them in charge of fixing Health Care?

Once The Halftime Show is over, it’s not long before I consider my complicity as a viewer. Only I don’t want to think about the negative impacts of my individual consumption and neither do you. Unfortunately, it’s only getting harder to ignore how one group of people is increasingly being made to suffer for the pleasure and excesses of another. From fighting our wars, to delivering our packages and meals in breakneck timeframes, to serving as modern gladiators in the NFL, that other group of people is literally sacrificing their bodies while We the Consumers kick back on our La-Z-Boy Talladega Recliners, scarfing down Scorchin’ Sour Cream & Onion Pringles.

The Fridge, now suffering from numerous health complications, attending a game at Solider Field in 2016.

Meanwhile, another tiny, tiny group of people — with an unlimited supply of money and influence — are working diligently to maintain this disconnect while manufacturing the consent among us that they need. Because while anyone can plainly see how people who consume child pornography are directly underwriting the sexual abuse of children, we 90 million viewers of The Superbowl rarely consider how we are underwriting the destruction of young men. (Nor do 60 million American Catholics meaningfully consider underwriting their systemic child abuse.) And that’s because professional sports — and organized religion — enjoy popular respectability. (And tax breaks!) The painful reality is that there is no definable American morality — there is only Might Makes Right. Which means that there is only one way to tackle this problem of popular respectability papering over systemic abuse in The United States:

The child sex traffickers need to hire Rihanna to headline the Pepsi Pedophile Halftime Show.

OR!

We The Consumers need to develop greater consciousness about everything we underwrite with our choices.

But any solution based on consumers voluntarily opting out might ultimately be no more realistic than asking billionaires to voluntarily pay more taxes. Besides, We The Consumers don’t want Amazon to go away — we just don’t want to think about an Amazon driver pissing in an empty bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos while sitting on top of a buckled seatbelt because he doesn’t have enough time to unbuckle and buckle himself. (Or look the other way at oncoming traffic.) If I stop watching The Superbowl it would probably just leave me feeling bitter for having deprived myself of something I enjoy, while doing virtually nothing to change that 92% of players in the NFL will likely develop CTE. What we NEED is our government to provide greater protection for all of us and our planet. But the sad truth is that too many entities — like the fossil fuel industry, Big Tech and, yes, The NFL — can write checks (checks that for them are so, so measly) that allow them to continue having their way with us.

And that’s the thing that we really, really don’t want to think about.

Which is why we NEED fun diversions to distract us from the inherent, unrelenting and dissatisfied cruelty of modern American life. Things like The Superbowl. But what happens when we need to be diverted from the collateral damage caused by our fun diversions?

The answer, it seems, is to STFU and support our sponsors.

STFU and go buy Avocados from Mexico. Make guac and then scoop it all up with an entire bag of Sweet & Tangy BBQ Doritos. Wash it all down with a six-pack of Coors while licking and wiping your fingers across your shirt and then just throw it in the wash and pray to Jesus before adding an extra sprinkle of Downy Unstoppables.

Besides, we’ve got two brothers competing against each other for the first time in a Superbowl! And no, NO! That is not some casually racist way of highlighting how this Superbowl is the first to feature two Black starting quarterbacks with The Eagles’ Jalen Hurts and The Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes. We have two actual brothers (from the SAME mother) in Jason and Travis Kelce! I can’t recall which brother is on which team and I don’t care! I’m just knocked out by the drama of that. Nevertheless, having two Black QBs really is a sign of progress when you consider football’s dark and long-standing history of routinely denying this position of leadership to talented Black players. Now the NFL just needs to do something about its dark and ongoing history of routinely denying coaching, GM and executive positions to talented Black employees.

And speaking of systemic racism, why are The Kansas City Chiefs still called The Kansas City Chiefs?! Maybe that’s okay because a Chief seems like a dignified and respected thing to be? I have no clue as I’m so not on The Committee that decides such things, but in the event that The Chiefs are looking to change their name, I’d like to make a suggestion:

The Kansas City Mediocre White Wedding Dancers.

When the sun shines, we’ll shine together.

Until then, pass me the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

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John Blesso

John Blesso is a writer, performer and builder fascinated by food, politics, and our collective refusal to stop doing crazy dumb shit. He lives in Beacon, NY.