Sunday, February 2, 2014

The 12th Man in Vilnius

Seattle is more known for its rain than it is football, but when Paul Allen bought the Seahawks in the late 1990s, he vowed he would make every effort to make the team a contender, and the city plunked huge money on a new stadium to keep the franchise, which had been in danger of being moved to Los Angeles.  The city of Angels had long been aching for a football team ever since losing its Rams.

American football is a funny thing, especially when viewed from abroad.  Most of my Lithuanian friends have a hard time figuring it out.  What does any of this have to do with football, they ask?  Yes, it is more like rugby than any other sport, only these guys are dressed like gladiators for the kill.

There have been attempts to export the game with mixed results.  The World Football League was a big failure back in the 70s.  A new European Football League was started in mid 80s and has managed to grow in teams over the years, with a Eurobowl played each year.  Needless to say, it doesn't draw as many fans as the Euro Cup, the real football as far as Europeans are concerned.

The Super Bowl is another matter.  This game started out as a way to bring the rival National Football and American Football Leagues together and has grown into one of the biggest sporting events in the world, televised in nearly every country around the globe.  Super Bowl parties are a big part of the day, with commercial sponsors lavishing big money on advertising.

This will be the first time the Super Bowl has coincided with Groundhog Day, but apparently Punxsutawney Phil has no interest in the game.  However, it is the Year of the Horse, which started on January 31, so maybe this favors the Broncos, who are making their 7th appearance in the game.

The game has been featured in various films, but probably the most memorable was Black Sunday (1977), in which American and Israeli intelligence officers team up to stop a Palestinian terrorist attack.  It was relatively timely, as the PLO had staged a terrorist attack on the Munich Olympic games in 1972, and security levels had increased dramatically for all international sporting events.

Fortunately, the Super Bowl survived.  The only real dramatic moment was in 1991 when there was some suggestion that the game be delayed in the wake of the Persian Gulf War, but the game went on, with a rousing national anthem sung by Whitney Houston, and one of the better played Super Bowls in history.  The game is all too often a rout.

I suppose football can best be compared to warfare, as the teams line up like opposing battle regiments from the 19th century and wage brief scrimmages, which indeed would seem quite confusing to anyone unfamiliar with the game, but then I still haven't figured out what constitutes off sides in European football.

Football was a big part of my teen years, and I still haven't gotten that adolescent fascination out of my system, even though I find it appalling how much money is spent on the game and the way professional teams essentially hold cities hostage, demanding ever more lavish stadiums for the right to host these clubs.  Green Bay is the only municipal owned team.  I couldn't understand why more cities didn't buy their teams, but then the NFL has essentially become a cabal of owners protecting their product and the huge dividends they now make off this game.

More than once Monday Night Football has superceded world events on television, the most egregious example being a Nightline interview with Gorbacev and Yeltsin that was delayed due to overtime. This was at the height of the break up of the Soviet Union, and needless to see the rival leaders weren't there when Ted Koppel tried to resume the interview.

However, American politicians have learned to use the Super Bowl to their advantage.  Notably Bill Clinton, whose 60 Minutes interview before the game in 1992, allowed him access to a huge nationwide audience that his Democratic candidates didn't get, even if it was ostensibly set up to discuss his extra-marital affairs. As they say, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

For better and for worse, the Super Bowl has become a signature event in America.  I'm pulling for my Seahawks as the 12th Man abroad.  Unfortunately, the game doesn't come on until 1:25 Monday morning, but I wouldn't get much sleep thinking about it anyway ; )

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