Tomorrow’s Super Bowl LI (or 51, if we are still allowed to use Arabic numbers) will not only be the biggest holiday in the American calendar, but also a test of a national mood we haven’t seen since the 1960s.
On the field, the Atlanta Falcons will meet the New England Patriots at Houston’s NRG Stadium, kicking off at 5.30 p.m. central time. The Pats’ nickname (chosen in 1960) refers back to colonial times, but small-p patriotism will be at the centre of the day. A couple of hours before the game, Donald Trump will sit down for the traditional presidential TV interview (the tradition was started by Barack Obama). Since 2007, coverage has rotated among CBS, Fox and NBC, so Trump will sit down with the friendly face of Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, taping the interview in advance, unlike Obama, who preferred to do it live. You can bet on whether Trump will attend the game, but the prospect of a crowd whose response to him would be unpredictable is likely to keep him away.
There will be around 72,000 people in the stadium, but the real crowd is the TV audience. The average viewership last year was 112 million just off the record of 114.4 million in 2015. This means a third of the population of the US, and almost three-quarters of everyone watching TV at that time, is watching the Super Bowl. A one-minute commercial during the game costs advertisers just above $5 million. The commercials have become their own show; this year’s Budweiser ad has already gone viral. It shows the company founder Adolphus Busch emigrating from Germany in the 19th century, a not-so-veiled comment on the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
The National Football League will try to avoid division and concentrate on waving the flag and honouring servicemen, fitting enough given the game’s violence, tactical sophistication and metaphors (bombs, blitzes, air-raids). The US military is one of the NFL’s biggest television advertisers, and in recent years teams were quietly paid by the military to stage ‘tribute’ days at their stadiums (criticism of this ‘paid patriotism’ led to the $13 billion corporation returning $700,000 to the government). Before the game starts tomorrow there’ll be a huge American flag on the field. The country music star Luke Bryan will sing the national anthem and warplanes will stage a flypast. But the real attention will be on the possibility of dissent.
Last August, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem before a game. ‘I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,’ he said. Other players joined the protest. At the height of the Vietnam War, the NFL insisted that players salute the flag. David Meggyesy, the St Louis Cardinals linebacker, wouldn’t do it. He found himself benched and then out of the game entirely within a year (his bestselling memoir was called Out Of Their League). Kaepernick is still playing; the league has not tried to restrict his, or other players’, ‘respectful’ demonstrations. But all cameras will be on the sidelines as the song is sung.
Journalists have been asking Atlanta’s Mohamed Sanu, the only practising Muslim who’ll be playing tomorrow, for his views on Trump’s travel ban. ‘I just pray that us as a country and a world can just be united as one,’ he said. ‘It’s really hard for me to talk about this now, it would take a lot of time, so I just want to focus on the game and just talk about football.’
More people watch the 45-minute half-time show than the game itself; last year 118 million viewers saw Beyoncé ‘crash’ an anodyne set by Coldplay to sing ‘Formation’, a performance that brought the phrase ‘unapologetically black’ into the national consciousness. This year the halftime star is Lady Gaga, a vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. ‘The only statements that I’ll be making during the half-time show are the ones that I have been consistently making during my career,’ Gaga has said. ‘I believe in a passion for inclusion, I believe in the spirit of equality.’ Asked about Janet Jackson’s ‘wardrobe malfunction’ in 2004 (one of the singer’s nipples was briefly exposed), Gaga said: ‘Everything’s going to be nice and tight for the game. I wouldn’t worry about that – unfortunately.’
Before the anthem, ‘America the Beautiful’ will be sung by the Broadway cast of Hamilton. When Mike Pence went to see the show last November, the cast addressed the vice-president elect directly during the curtain call: ‘We are the diverse Americans who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights … we hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us.’ Trump said this was ‘very rude’ of them and demanded they apologise. Odds are against a repeat performance.
The Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft, head coach Bill Belichick and star quarterback Tom Brady are all friends of Trump’s. Kraft, a lifelong Democrat, has said he is ‘loyal’ to the president. Belichick sent Trump a private note congratulating him on his campaign; Trump read it out at a rally just before the election. A ‘Make America Great Again’ cap was once spotted in Brady’s locker. Trump claimed on election day that Brady had voted for him; Brady’s wife, the Brazilian model Giselle Bündchen, responded emphatically that this wasn’t true.
The Patriots’ political affiliations won’t make much difference to their fans, or to their haters. This will be the seventh Super Bowl for Belichick and Brady; a win would give them a record five trophies. They have won their division for 11 straight seasons, a consistency unheard of in a league with a strict salary cap, and in which the least successful teams get the first pick in the draft of amateur players. (Their haters are convinced the Pats’ win by cheating; Brady was handed a four-game suspension at the start of this season for his role or non-role in the so-called Deflategate scandal – the team was accused of using underinflated footballs in a 45-7 win over the Indianapolis Colts in 2015.)
On the field, the Patriots are three-point favourites against an Atlanta team with one of the most prolific attacks in this century. In a game that mixes gladiatorial combat with a tactical battle that resembles living chess, the question is not so much which team will out-scheme the other, but which team’s players will make the individual plays that rise above the game plans.
But if national holidays are supposed to bring a country together, even fans of the two competing teams, tomorrow’s has the potential to further divide a country whose presidency has already proven more divisive than any since the 1960s (if not the 1860s).