Wallflower at the Superbowl

I watched the very first Superbowl with my family, at least some of it. I thought it might be interesting. But it wasn’t. Not to me, anyway. And it still isn’t. Today is Superbowl Sunday, and I’m watching a rerun of Iron Man 2, let’s see, for the third time. I’m aware that most of America is gathered around the video altar rejoicing in good-fellowship and a huge feast of munchies. Sounds fun, except that I just can’t be in the same room with football. I think I know what Jews feel like when everyone else is celebrating Christmas. Just as Jews observe Hanukah instead, which never seems to be as big a deal as Christmas, my family and I had home-made pizza as we watched the movie Groundhog Day last night, as we have for the last… what? Fifteen, sixteen years at least. (In fact, there seems to be some sort of parallel between the movie’s premise, in which a man lived the eponymous holiday over and over again for at least twenty years.)

I do not exactly disdain football, or sports in general, though I admit that is my first reaction. I can’t dismiss an interest in sports as the province of dullards. My brother isn’t close to being one, nor is S.T. Joshi, nor was Paul Kurtz. But I am, as I have always been, utterly and completely baffled. Dr. Kurtz used to say how maybe secular humanists are just tone deaf to religion and its appeal. That is how I would have to describe my indifference (to put it mildly) to sports.

Keep in mind that I admire athletes. I envy their ability and discipline. I readily admit they are superior to me! And I can certainly understand devotion to a team when one’s relative is a member, or when the team is representing one’s school or town, though I have never been able to share it. (Maybe it has something to do with forced attendance at a high school pep rally, which had all the marks of a Nurnberg rally.) But why do people enthusiastically follow sports teams with which they possess no natural connection? Some years ago, when I walked into my classroom at Mount Olive College, a student asked which I rooted for: NC State or UNC. This stumped me: why on earth would I give a fig about either one of them? Why did these Mount Olive students? I still don’t get it. Do you?

I have sometimes heard it said that sports gives men something to talk about, while women spend their time discussing matters of emotional and personal importance. Going back to those halcyon days at Mount Olive again, once a couple of the (male) faculty invited me to drop in at lunchtime at the Southern Belle, a local café and hang-out. There was a surprisingly large group of young professional men and faculty sitting around a few shoved-together Formica tables—talking about sports. Honestly, I felt as if I had somehow blundered into a group of foreigners chattering in some alien language. I can tell you, it wasn’t long before I made some excuse and got the hell out of there. I had not one thing to say. I’d have been more conspicuous had I stayed and said nothing than by getting up and leaving quickly. Nice guys, but totally mundane.

I, on the other hand, am an incurable nerd, just this side (I think) of Asperger’s Syndrome. I love comic books, science fiction movies, Sword-& Sorcery fiction (which I also write), Lovecraft and Tolkien. These interests are my spectator sports, demanding no participation outside the imagination. But then football games are spectator sports for everybody but the guys on the field. What is the difference? I’m not sure I know, but let me give it a try.

I couldn’t care less about any sports team, but there are teams I follow. They’re called the Avengers, the Justice League, the Justice Society, the Legion of Superheroes. What is the difference? Both interests involve vicarious combat. Sports are often thought to channel and dissipate violent urges. And that’s a real service to society. (And you know by now, don’t you, that the business about Superbowl Sunday being the worst day of the year for wife-beating is malicious misinformation.)

What I get from superhero fiction is not that. Partly, I think, I like it because it is a fantasy compensating for the lack of justice in the decaying society we live in, wherein the innocent suffer at the hands of violent felons and then from a legal system that adds insult to injury by taking the side of criminals. And there’s no real chance that will ever change. I can only relish the complete fantasy that the bad guys might get theirs, and that is why I so appreciate the Punisher, the Eradicator, Rorschach (“Used to mollycoddle criminals, let them live.”). Wouldn’t it be great? But it’s like imagining a man can fly. Justice? Yeah, right–when pigs, or men, can fly. That’ll be the day.

But there’s also the mythology angle. The superheroes of text (Conan, Doc Savage, John Carter) and image (Superman, Spider-Man, Iron Man) are like Hercules, Achilles, Theseus, even Apollo and Zeus. There is an element of transcendence and the igniting of the imagination. It gives what religion gives to believers, but without requiring belief. Does it “save” you? Well, it saves you from the crushing, numbing grind of the mundane. It does me.

H.P. Lovecraft once referred to a fellow-writer as a “self-blinded earth-gazer.” Forgive me, but that’s what I think of the sports fan—if that’s all he is. Of course, you can be both, and more. Like my brother Byron. Like Joshi, the world’s leading authority on Lovecraft.

And what about the nerd, the geek, the dweeb? I believe the stereotype (not necessarily an exaggeration!) is of a one-sided personality: everything crammed into one side of the brain with little to no wiring on the other. Aren’t these brainy folks active in the real world, too, by virtue of their tech-savvy? Yeah, sure, but my guess is their scientific genius just happens to prove useful in the real world. For them, it’s just more computer games! Which is the way it ought to be!

If I am not a dweeb, my saving grace is that I do have another aspect to me, not that it puts me in touch with the real world, mind you, and that is my religious scholarship. I have something else going on. And I readily admit that most football fans are about more than the pigskin. Or they may be. I guess I know as little about them as I do the Hottentots. But let’s agree to disagree: you take the Superbowl, I’ll take Superman.

So says Zarathustra,

Dreaming of the Superman

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3 Responses to Wallflower at the Superbowl

  1. admin says:

    [ For unknown reasons, comments had been previously “closed” for this post. We have now enabled comments and would like to post the following which we received by email on February 12, 2013].

    Bob,

    I just read your Zarathustra essay on the Superbowl. For some reason I was unable to post in the “comments” section, so I’m just hitting “Reply.”

    Like you I’ve never followed sports, much preferring comics and fantasy lit. There are a few exceptions, however, the most notable being that I DO watch the Super Bowl every year. Most years it is the only football game I watch –I watch playoff games in the years when the Steelers have made it that far. In the latter case it is more a matter of civic pride than interest in the sport. Yet I have noted the irony that all those people everywhere rooting for the “home team” are actually indulging in a bit of fantasy themselves. After all, the Steelers team, for example, is not really composed of a bunch of guys from Pittsburgh. I also occasionally watch boxing and UFC. I think the difference here is that boxing and mixed martial arts involve individuals rather than teams. That, and there’s no friggin’ ball in either of them. I think it interesting that boxing alone is reflected in literature, from Jack London to Joyce Carol Oates. As former editor of Robert E. Howard’s Fight Magazine, you can appreciate this.

    But getting back to the Super Bowl, it is not the game per se that interests me, but the event. For me, an excuse to pig out and enjoy the commercials, in which ad agencies pull out all the stops. You can also expect ads for the big summer movies (Iron Man 3 previews showed a big hole being blown in the side of Air Force One, people getting sucked out, and Iron Man flying around trying to save everyone.) Family values types whining about Beyonce cavorting in a leather teddy really made me laugh. The Super Bowl is a day of drinking, gambling, gluttony, and consumer advertising centered around a violent combat sport. If anything, the half time shows should be even more bawdy. Madonna’s half time show last year was right on the money; she understood clearly that the whole thing is a big bachannalian spectacle. Nothing wrong with that –hardworking Americans deserve a blowout. That’s why football is such a big deal in Pittsburgh, where most people lead exceedingly humdrum lives. It’s fine with me with some guy is happier wearing the Pittsburgh Steelers logo painted on his face, or wearing Mr. Spock ears, or a prom dress. Having lived 58 years in this vale of tears, it is difficult for me to begrudge anyone whatever joy they can get out of life.

    What does tend to gall me is the omnipresent all-pervasiveness of sports in our society. Take for instance the stadium shell game used to bilk municipalities. The Pittsburgh Pie-Rats demanded, and got, a stately new ball park from which to rule the National League cellar. Think about it. What other industry could roll into a town and demand that a factory or office building be built for them with public money?

    One thing I’ve tended to enjoy, on and off, since adolescence, is professional wrestling. I’ve viewed pro wrestling bouts, both on TV and live, far more often than any sporting event. It may have something to do with high school gym teachers indignantly huffing, “That isn’t a sport.” Pro wrestlers are often derided, but I honestly think they deserve credit for their ability as stunt men and tumblers, not to mention acting talent in projecting these larger-than-life personae. When you think about it, pro wrestling is like an intermediate stage between sports and comic books. Speaking of which, I noticed you posted the cover of that NFL Superpro comic. This is from Marvel’s “anything for a buck” period that gave us the KISS comic printed in Kiss blood. You’d really think people in the industry would know that most kids who read comics aren’t into sports, and vice versa. And I seem to recall Glenn Ford, as Pa Kent in the first Superman movie, telling Clark, “You are here for a reason…And it’s not to score touchdowns.”

    Chuck

  2. Grundy says:

    Now I’m thinking of the Justice League playing the Avengers in football. The Hulk could tackle just about anyone, but between Superman and Flash’s speed, I’d have to give the JL an edge.

  3. sdewitt says:

    If anyone is still reading this…

    I’m not an athelete – although I enjoy physical activity.
    I have two observations to make:

    I am a fan of hockey, although not a supporter of the business of hockey.
    My team is the Montreal Canadians. Growing up in Montreal and attending games in the Forum, I remarked the similarity of the game to a Catholic Mass.
    By way of explanation: Montreal is a city in Quebec, and during the time I experienced it, the society was largely Catholic and the Canadians were the best team in the league. At home, they rarely lost a game. So any game progressed with the inevitability of a Catholic Mass. The Host decended and the congregation celebrated.
    Now-a-days, rank business rules the roost and it looks to me like it’s all about a brand. I don’t spend my money on it, but I enjoy it when Montreal wins.

    I am also a fan of soccer, because one of my sons plays. But I don’t know anything about the professional game.
    I attended the FIFA U18 games that took place in Ottawa several years ago, and this was a trip.
    An anthopologist would have enjoyed the spectacle. People DROVE many thousands of miles to see the games. Seeing the thousands fans from different countries from all over the Americas was so cool. Without any of the violence that is often associated with soccer, all these people beat drums, chanted, danced and cheered for the players in the game. (I think the young North Koreans got an eye full of a different universe.)

    I’m not a fan of the Super Bowl, because it is too much hype for what is too often a lousy football game.

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