Super Bowl LI: A game is a game – and what a game this was

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The game was a blessed relief from the politics of a divided America -- and an opportunity to focus on sport and the sheer joy of a remarkable contest, writes Amy Bass

Editor’s Note: Amy Bass, a professor of history at the College of New Rochelle, is the author of “Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete.” As supervisor of NBC’s Olympic Research Room, she is a veteran of eight Olympics, with an Emmy win in 2012. Follow her on Twitter @bassab1. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

CNN  — 

Sometimes a game just needs to be a game. The Chicago Cubs made that clear to Americans last fall, giving the country respite from a divisive, profane presidential election season. When the Cubs overcame a 3-1 deficit to take the World Series in Game 7, Americans took a breather from politics to cheer the momentous victory, grateful that sometimes a hard-fought battle on a seemingly level playing field just felt good.

Amy Bass

The political hype leading into the awesome spectacle of a young Falcons team looking to take down a veritable dynasty – and in Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback the game has ever seen – indicated Super Bowl LI would not be a break from anything. The night before the game, Saturday Night Live’s Michael Che said on the show that he hoped to “watch the blackest city in America beat the most racist city I’ve ever been to.”

Jack Hamilton wrote “a guide for morally compromised New England fans” for Slate, explaining how longtime Pats fans such as himself who have cheered for the team when it wasn’t worth their breath now had no idea what to do with the criticism that swirls around Tom Brady’s “MAGA” hat (he’s a friend of sorts of President Donald Trump) and the scandals of “Spygate” and “Deflategate.” Others pledged dollar amounts to favorite charities for each touchdown the Patriots scored.

The commercials, too, were not exempt from political scrutiny. Fox was reported to have forced 84 Lumber to retool its commercial featuring a mother and daughter from Mexico hitting a wall as they attempted to cross into the United States. Budweiser – with not a Clydesdale or puppy to be found – saw its coming-to-America spot get hit from both sides of the aisle. “I am 65 yrs old & lifelong Bud drinker,” tweeted one football fan. “That will change Sunday if your ad lectures me on your immigration views.” Even the lead-in to the game itself, Fox’s “Ragged Old Flag” short, could not bring agreement as to its message.

Lady Gaga, some predicted, would build on Beyonce’s stunning “Formation” routine at last year’s halftime show, infusing her performance with cutting-edge political messages. Instead, an old school Audrey Hepburn-esque Tiffany commercial featuring the pop chameleon led into a well-sung but straightforward halftime performance.

Gaga began with a patriotic ode standing on what looked like the top of the world before launching – literally – into an energetic, pitch-perfect medley of her hits, even taking a moment to let America and the world know she was there simply “to make you feel good.”

It was time, apparently, for fans to just sit down and watch the game, to find a few hours to assemble peacefully and root for the team of one’s choice. The problems of the NFL, from the dangers of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy to the very nature of the game, will still be there next week, just as the mass protests that have enveloped much of the United States for the last two weeks will likely continue.

Sports, as we know by now, are not devoid of politics. Anything but. From Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s historic stand to Colin Kaepernick’s bended knee, from Joe Louis’s triumphant rematch against Max Schmeling to Billie Jean King’s trouncing of Bobby Riggs, sport never allows the world to be rid of its problems. But sometimes it provides the time and space to put them on hold.

Super Bowl LI didn’t solve anything. But an America that did not come together to watch a presidential inauguration, regardless of what kind of alternative facts people want to put out there, did, as always, watch a football game.

Millions upon millions of people.

The ancient Greeks used sport to visualize peace, connecting athletic competitions to diplomatic relations. Based on the spirit of ekecheiria, or truce, sport was used to disrupt the cycles of war. Creating the foundation for the Olympic Games, the Oracle at Delphi advised King Ifitos to suspend war every four years in order to let athletes and spectators travel without fear.

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    The few hours spent watching a football game will not heal the political divide enveloping the United States. But just as sports gave the Greeks a break from war and a glimpse at what peace looked like, felt like, Super Bowl LI offered America a much-needed moment of rest.

    With less than two minutes left, the Falcons leading 28-20, Julian Edelman’s miraculous catch lit a Patriots’ fire that led to the first overtime in Super Bowl history. Once trailing by 25 points, the Patriots’ win – and Brady’s command clutch performance – gave everyone something to scream about, whether in disgust or bliss, defeat or victory.

    If people do not have these moments, the Oracle of Delphi reasoned, moments without war, how will they ever know when, if ever, peace arrives?