How Much Super Bowl Is Too Much Super Bowl?

On Thursday morning, I went to the Paley Center for Media — which used to be the Museum of Television and Radio, and still kind of is, although it’s now called the Paley Center for Media — and was brought down into a basement dubbing room, where I watched something that was long thought not to exist. It’s a tape of the CBS broadcast of Super Bowl I, which was played in front of roughly 61,000 spectators and 30,000-plus empty seats at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, on January 15, 1967. Since then, the game has been famously unseen and unseeable, outside of some sideline footage shot by NFL Films.

Neither CBS nor NBC retained a copy, and given that video recording devices at the time were universally of the giant-steel-box-that-gets-really-hot variety — “This is the portable model,” the Paley Center’s Doug Warner said, standing next to an Ampex recorder the size, shape, and vague taupe-ish color of a refrigerator resting on its back — it was presumed that there were no taped copies of the first Super Bowl. It turned out that there was indeed a taped copy of it — on a pair of heat-warped two-inch reels that had lived in an attic for nearly four decades, and which had been restored and converted to Beta PS tapes by a New Jersey company called Specs Bros. The tapes were at the Paley Center, and the footage that had long been thought lost was — after Warner cued everything up, and after a few nauseous seconds of rolling images and sizzling static — there in surprisingly vivid color, on a small monitor.

Even by the usual standards of watching very old television, watching Super Bowl I was a jarring, beguiling, backhandedly poignant experience. In what was either an attempt to conserve tape (Farmer’s hypothesis) or a proto-TiVo maneuver (mine), the person who recorded the tape cut out the commercial breaks and otherwise tried to take up the slack between plays. As Sean P. noted in the comments of last week’s column, a football game seen stripped of its non-football elements is almost avant-garde in its disorienting, re-contextualized violence — there’s a brief fury of grunting and shoving and footballian activity, then another, and another. The laconic sportscasting style of the day — roughly half of the play-by-play is comprised of ellipses, the color commentary is colorless — added to the strangeness of this version of Super Bowl I. The score and game clock, among other constants of the contemporary televised football experience, surface only briefly and seemingly at random. A vast shadow passes over the field when a blimp floats overhead.

At the end of the tape, seemingly secure that he’ll have enough tape, the recorder eases off on the cuts. The Chiefs, down four scores with five minutes remaining, gather for a confoundingly long huddle. The commercials, unhurried and earnest, finally make their way into the narrative — a McDonald’s ad takes the almost-touching gambit of touting the quality of the McDonald’s double burger, made of beef “ground and delivered fresh, by the finest meat men in town.” By that point, the game is more or less over. When it is finally more over than less, Pat Summerall — his mellow, familiar old guy voice incongruously issuing from a young, clammy, heavy-lidded face — stands outside the Packers locker room and interviews NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. Rozelle, grinning and a little unctuous, tells Summerall that he has high hopes for the NFL/AFL Championship in the future, and breaks the news that AFL and NFL teams will begin playing interleague preseason games next year.

And then the broadcast is over, two-and-a-half hours after it started. The first Super Bowl, which would only retroactively be given that name, was not reviewed terribly kindly — “Mixed to negative,” Paley Center curator Ron Simon says — and was not even the biggest thing to happen on television that day. An hour after the game ended, the Rolling Stones went on the Ed Sullivan Show and sang “let’s spend some time together” where they generally sung “Let’s Spend The Night Together.” Art Carney was on the cover of TV Guide that week, and the recommended sports programming in that issue was a Harlem Globetrotters game played on an aircraft carrier.

Rozelle’s optimism for the Super Bowl’s success was not unfounded, as it turned out, but watching the first Super Bowl amid the thunderous maelstrom of Super Bowl week — the sponsored hype and garishly branded Super Bowl parties and giddy parades of consumption-related statistics — made the experience stranger still. Unswaddled from its blanket of synergies and pomp and the other impacted monetization strategies that encase it, even the Super Bowl is actually a fairly small thing. This year’s Super Bowl broadcast will be nearly 90 minutes longer than the first one, padded by 30 minutes of artless technophiliac retardo-pop at halftime — “In other Peas-related news: has shaved ‘XLV’ into his scalp, and Taboo has a book coming out” — and nearly 50 minutes of commercials. Super Bowl I’s homemade-looking yardage markers have been brought up to state of the neon-foam art; a helpful yellow line will demarcate first downs; there will be that fucking football robot, doing the things it does. But at the center of it, still, is a football game of regulation length, played on a regulation field.

In comparing the two games, there’s a certain amount of adjusting for inflation that needs to be done, for rhetorical and presentational excess and generalized ridiculousness. There’s also a very much to-be-resisted tendency towards implying some bygone yeoman integrity on the former game’s more human-scale athletes, a risk of finding too much in their Old America faces. The players’ mushed-up factory-floor mugs and earnest crewcuts are not, of course, any more or less virtuous than the different styles on their bearers’ contemporary analogues, and the fact that the old players were paid far less, relatively and absolutely — and wore less-effective protective gear, and wouldn’t win the right to free agency for another two-plus decades — doesn’t make the first game any purer, its violence any less violent, or the exploitiveness of its 100-yard workplace any more quaint. That sort of sentimento-historicism is usually associated with baseball’s moist bard types, but George Will has plenty of tears-of-testosterone counterparts in football. Bullshit being bullshit, it’s easy to know what to avoid in comparing the two games. But there is one thing that makes watching Super Bowl I less exhausting than watching a contemporary Super Bowl — its size.

There are only so many smart ways to talk about sports, and they have never been the more popular ones — the child’s treasury of dated, hurried, ill-considered Super Bowl prose at Deadspin indicates this, and I can report that in the pre-game show to the game that was not even yet the Super Bowl, a commentator compares a game between the AFL and NFL champs to the fucking Civil War. All those martial NFL Films soundtracks are the purest camp at this point, which is why you hear them under commercials for gameday-tough air fresheners as much as you do under actual highlights, but while the corniness of all this pomp is plain, it accretes all the same. Year after year, it has added up, and the Super Bowl has risen into a ripe, shiny bloat in its course.

This is not exactly news, I know, but I’ve always believed that the bloat — more than a game encased within it, which either will be fun to watch or won’t, but will still feature four 15-minute quarters — is the thing that puts people off about the game. The week of pump-it-up-when-you-don’t-even-mean-it media coverage, all those thimblefuls of glib microanalysis, the leering reach for the nearest SEO-able semi-scandal — Did Player X RIP Player Y (VIDEO)? — all seem longer and louder and more desperate each year, and they will send you flipping to the Puppy Bowl if you’re even remotely so inclined. The percentage of the Super Bowl broadcast given over advertisements expands exponentially — last year’s Super Bowl featured seven more minutes of commercials than did 2001’s. But this is what happens, it’s what the market does: big things get bigger.

But the cellular division that powers this sort of overgrowth is not necessarily healthy, and long ago shaded towards decadent-unto-metastatic. That the Super Bowl is too hyped, too rich and too leveraged and branded and expensive and excessive is palpable, even in the corners most excited for it. It looks strong, of course, but these are steroid muscles — puffed up, built the wrong way, grounded in things that ruin.

And so you get all this. It’s not a failure of taste that leads NFL owners — all of them owners of profitable teams, all of them beneficiaries of a television deal that pays the league $4 billion per annum — to boldly demand massive concessions from the players union because Of These Difficult Economic Times. Or that leads Sports Illustrated’s NFL hagiographist/coffee-critic Peter King to write a tone-deaf piece fretting over the prospect that commissioner Roger Goodell — “sandy-haired and fit at 51,” recipient of nearly $10 million in annual pay, point man on the owners’ plan to extract those concessions and add two regular season games (which fans don’t necessarily want) to the NFL’s already brutal schedule — might be working too hard, according to friends. Or, at the most distant pole, that led Chuck Klosterman to get up at the Varsity Letters reading series on Thursday night and extemporize to the effect that the prospect of a NFL player dying on the field is something he likes most about the game. “Think about it,” Klosterman said, tipsy off his own contrarianism, “they’re putting their lives on the line out there.” Klosterman seemed, beneath his grin and that beard and at the distance from which I regarded him, to be moved by how moved he was at the prospect, and amused at how amusing he found it.

That is all rotten, of course. But while the above are not in good taste, they are failures of perspective first and foremost. They reflect an inability or unwillingness to see beyond the self-flattery of dumb comforts and acknowledge complicated circumstances and context. Or, if you prefer, those distinct idiocies are different symptomatic presentations of the same disorder — a terminal inability to give a shit. The NFL, as it presently exists, is built to elicit this response in people — it makes emotion cheaper and easier to digest, it takes the laziest arms-length cruelties and ignorance and processes them until they are rich and filling. But the bigger the NFL makes itself — the more it gorges on synergies and succumbs to the distorting, obliterating appetites of irresponsible wealth — the more obese it becomes. The reason why the long march to the Super Bowl is exhausting — and why the entire NFL experience is increasingly obscene in an increasing number of ways — is that the NFL is not presently in shape to make a journey this long. It is too big, and getting bigger.

The people above would tell you that they care a great deal about football, and they believe they do. But their steadfast unwillingness to engage the game as what it is — a very complicated, very appealing consumer good, but one that is not without its costs — sure suggests that they can’t see it very clearly. Or, at the very least, it suggests that they’d prefer to get fat on the easy fantasies of power and imperviousness that the NFL spectacle offers to the exclusion of everything else that the game has going for it. Which is a shame, because the show around the game — the deafening, Black Eyed Peas-afflicted carnival of Super Bowl week is its apotheosis, but we’ve been wandering this ghoulish-garish midway all year long — is so much less interesting than the game itself.

The sport underneath that corn-fed load is in great health, actually — the game of football is more fascinating and intricate and enjoyable now than it has ever been, especially relative to the static sets and straight-line gruntiness of Super Bowl I. It’s complicated as hell, balances grace and violence with uncanny ease, is funny in ways intentional and unintentional, and is generally a lot of fun to watch when it’s played right. But the NFL’s seeming delight in mistaking expansion for development and bloat for growth is very bad for its heart. That is, carrying all this extra weight is bad for the vital game pumping away at the center of this fat, avid, keening monster — the strong, secret thing struggling to keep this rude beast alive.

And the year’s final pick, because why not, right? What am I going to do, finish a little further under .500? Lose to a freaking coin by a bit more than I currently am? (Yes, those are the things that will happen) But yeah, here goes:

Conference Championship Round and Overall: David Roth: 1–1 (117–120–9); King Bhumbibol The Royal Thai Baht: 1–1 (122–114–9)

Sunday, February 6

• Green Bay Packers (-2.5) vs Pittsburgh Steelers, 6:30pm — DR: Green Bay; KBTRTB: Pittsburgh

David Roth co-writes the Wall Street Journal’s Daily Fix, contributes to the sports blog Can’t Stop the Bleeding and has his own little website. And he tweets!

Photo by Jim Bowen, from Flickr.