Dave Zirin: Political fervour thrums beneath Super Bowl’s surface

February 9, 2017
Houston, February 5.

The New England Patriots won the NFL Super Bowl 34–28, in the most gobsmacking, unfathomable comeback in Super Bowl history. Down 28–3 against the Atlanta Falcons, they came all the back to win in overtime in Houston, Texas on February 5.

That will mean joy in the White House — as Donald Trump’s favourite American Football team is victorious. It is also joy for Patriots player Martellus Bennett, who won’t be joining the team upon their inevitable White House visit, in protest against the man inhabiting that space.

But there was something else thrumming beneath the surface of this game: something far more meaningful than which billionaire ended up hoisting the trophy. It was in the anthems, the commercials and the way people watched the action.

It started with the Schuyler Sisters from the musical Hamilton — Phillipa Soo, Renee Elise Goldsberry and Jasmine Cephas Jones — singing “America the Beautiful” and adding the word “sisterhood” — as in “crown thy good in brotherhood and sisterhood” — to the lyrics.

Given the women’s marches that exploded after the Trump inauguration, given that Vice-President Mike Pence was in a VIP box, and given Pence’s own history of being rebuked at the musical Hamilton last November, it was difficult to see the performance as anything but a highly choreographed shot at this White House.

Then Lady Gaga’s half-time performance started with “God Bless America”. Then, as if taking a hand-off from Soo, Goldsberry, and Jones, she transitioned to the Woody Guthrie anthem “This Land Is Your Land” — an anthem being sung at protests around the country.

The song, organically connected to present day protests, includes the lyrics: “As I went walking I saw a sign there/And on the sign it said ‘No Trespassing’/But on the other side it didn’t say nothing/That side was made for you and me.”

Then she sang her rousing 2011 anthem “Born This Way”. Six years ago, this was a statement against bullying. It is difficult to hear it now as anything but an anthem against the biggest bully of them all.

The verses Gaga chose to sing must have given Steve Bannon more heart palpitations than Falcons receiver Mohamed Sanu as she sang:

Don’t be a drag, just be a queen
Whether you’re broke or evergreen
You’re black, white, beige, chola descent
You’re Lebanese, you’re orient
Whether life’s disabilities
Left you outcast, bullied, or teased
Rejoice and love yourself today
‘cause baby you were born this way

No matter gay, straight, or bi,
Lesbian, transgendered life,
I’m on the right track baby,
I was born to survive.
No matter black, white or beige
Chola or orient made,
I’m on the right track baby,
I was born to be brave.

The commercials attempted to capture this mood as well, from a “proudly feminist” Audi ad to an Anheuser-Busch campaign celebrating the immigration story of the beer company’s founding family, much to the chagrin of online Nazis now calling for a boycott of the brewery. There was even a hair product commercial that started with the statement, “We are in for four years of bad hair”.

This might very well be seen as an effort to “commodify dissent”, but it is stunning that the suits of Madison Avenue — after years of erectile-dysfunction and sexist godaddy.com ads — feel something in the air that they yearn to commodify.

Outside the stadium, Houston was the scene of a weekend of protests, culminating in the participation of more than 1000 people in a February 5 march that stretched more than half a mile. It was for Black lives and against the White House’s Muslim ban. That is what happens when the Super Bowl is staged in a city that takes in more refugees than anywhere in the US.

There is no doubt that people who equated a Patriots victory with a victory of sorts for Trump will feel deflated by the result. But the real world is more complicated than that.

The Patriots will go home to Boston, a city that Trump cannot enter without provoking mass protests, which just days earlier had hundreds of people clogging Logan airport to protest the Muslim ban. Two weeks earlier, greater Boston was shut down by post-inauguration protests.

The fight goes on, and the wind is at our back. The resistance continues, and great comebacks like the one that took place in Super Bowl LI should remind us that nothing is set in stone.

[Abridged from The Nation.]

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