February 3, 2014

The Superfluous Bowl: an American (sport) in Paris

Never has a sporting event had less to do with the game actually being played on the field than in the case of the Super Bowl. I don’t think it’s particularly controversial to claim that the Super Bowl is more event than sport. Malcolm Smith, Kam Chancellor, Percy Harvin, et al. beat up on the Denver Broncos for roughly 12 minutes on Sunday night. The amazing thing about the Super Bowl is that if you saw all 12 of those minutes you probably also saw an additional three and a half hours of advertising, singing, dancing, coin tossing, standing, glaring, foot stomping, thigh slapping, laminated-card-covered whispering… well, the list goes on. The point is that for every minute of football the average Super Bowl viewer watched on Sunday, she also watched about 20 extra minutes of what I’m going to politely refer to as superfluous bullshit.

Except it isn’t superfluous (Though much of it may still be bullshit. Sorry, Bruno Mars.). To separate the running and the tackling from the showmanship and the Bud Light commercials is to separate the simple facts of the game from what makes the Super Bowl worth watching for millions of people around the country. After years of complaining about how stupid the Super Bowl is, and wondering whether they would ever, maybe, just get on with the game, I have realized that all of that superfluous bullshit is just as much a part of the game as what goes on after the snap, and that to take it all away is to turn the world’s biggest sporting event into something very, very strange indeed.

I know this because, as most of you were probably settling down on your couch, nachos and beer in hand, to watch the coin toss, I (along with a few friends) was desperately scrambling around the Paris metro system trying to find a way out. In case you were wondering, I’m studying abroad in Paris this quarter.

One of the nice things about watching the Super Bowl in Paris is that kickoff is shortly after midnight, which, if you miscalculate the time difference and take shortly to mean about an hour and a half, leaves you just enough time to catch the last train towards the city center. One of the unpleasant things about watching the Super Bowl in Paris, as I also discovered last night, is that some metro stops (all of which have multiple exits), close most of those exits without telling you. You’re left to find an increasingly worrying number of barred ways out until, as the image of you and your friends huddled for warmth around a vending machine as you try and survive the night deep underground in the Paris metro system impresses itself more and more vividly onto your mind, you chance upon a very kind janitor who shows you the way to freedom. Suffice to say, my Paris Super Bowl Adventure got off to an inauspicious start.

Things didn’t seem to be getting any better when, added to the list of things I was having trouble finding, was a place to watch the game. There were already five minutes gone in the first quarter when I was denied entry to the bar I had planned on watching the game in. It may or may not be worth pointing out that this particular bar was Canadian (called The Moose, no less), so maybe this was just the world’s way of telling me that watching the Super Bowl in Paris was one thing, but watching the Super Bowl in Paris in a Canadian bar was crossing some whole other sort of stereotype-defying line.

Eventually, with the help of two fellow Moose rejects, we made our way to what was probably the last place I had envisaged myself watching the Super Bowl: a jazz bar. But, as I was in the process of learning the hard way, beggars can’t be choosers, so we settled down in what was, probably, quite a nice place to enjoy some jazz, but was almost certainly the most surreal place I’ve ever watched a football game. It was already pretty clear at that point (and it was only the start of the second quarter) that the game itself wasn’t going to be much of a contest, which at least gave me a chance to process what exactly was going on. What was going on was that I was watching the Super Bowl on beIN Sports. In French. Now, I had more or less accepted at that point that I was going to miss the ads, the American announcers, basically all of the things that are there to remind you, to reassure you, that you are actually watching the Super Bowl and that you haven’t accidently stumbled into some horrible nightmare in which you narrowly escape being trapped in the metro just so you can spend four hours watching a game you have no vested interest in. But nothing really could have prepared me for what I got in place of this.

To say that the French don’t really get football would be something of an understatement. As you listened to Joe Buck and Troy Aikman go over the Xs and Os and watched Arnold Schwarzenegger play Ping-Pong, we in France were welcomed back to the beIN Sports studio, where our host for the evening introduced us to his panel of “experts.” To put those scare quotes into perspective, one of those experts was French rapper Lord Kossity, who told us that he preferred soccer before asking why there weren’t more women in the audience. There was also time, before the game resumed, to show the audience a graphic claiming that famously-Super-Bowl-ring-less Dan Marino had, in fact, won a Super Bowl. I sat there, dumbstruck, and, as the muted sounds of the funk three piece playing in the basement wafted over me, decided that halftime would be as good a moment as any to find somewhere else to watch the game.

I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do when you walk up to a bar during a Super Bowl between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks and realize you’re standing next to a Colts fan in a Manning jersey talking to a Redskins fan in an RGIII jersey, but it almost certainly isn’t to be reassured by the fact that you’re surrounded by serious NFL fans. Still, I think it was clear that dream had died around the time Lord Kossity claimed (not incorrectly, in his defense) that it would be difficult for the Broncos to come back.

If the Seahawks hadn’t already won the game in the first half, they won it as soon as Percy Harvin returned the opening kick of the second half for an 87-yard touchdown. It was right around then that I realized the sport was over and I kind of wanted some of the event.

As the game wore on and the French people surrounding me (some of whom probably knew a reasonable amount about the game) continued to revel in the fact that they were actually watching the Super Bowl in Paris at three in the morning, I couldn’t ignore how weird it felt.

People (not including fans of the competing teams, who watch for other reasons) are supposed to watch the Super Bowl because it’s the Super Bowl. A lot of neutrals will root for one of the teams, maybe even with good reason. But when it comes down to it, they watch because, whether they are a football fan or not, the Super Bowl is the Super Bowl, and everybody watches the Super Bowl.

Except in France not everybody watches the Super Bowl. And with good reason: because it starts after midnight, and they play rugby in France and rugby is better, and football is probably the most untranslatable American thing there is, and the Super Bowl is the most football-y thing there is, and why would you spend four hours watching a game that only takes 12 minutes anyway? Because, as the old cliché goes, it’s more than a game. The problem is that more, that superfluous bullshit, only makes sense in America. Anywhere else, as I now know, it’s just superfluous.