TAMPA,FLA. — TAMPA, Fla. -- The conflict in the Persian Gulf is now the official war of the NFL, God bless 'em.
In what was supposed to be the toned-down, under-partied, let's-keep-this-in-perspective Super Bowl XXV (or, as some were calling it here, Subdued Bowl I), the NFL has instead decided to turn the game into a giant pep rally for the war.
Let's go to the scene Sunday at Tampa Stadium. First, the fans are ushered into the complex, past the reinforced cement barriers and the recently constructed fence and then through the metal detectors. They are not allowed to bring in radios, TVs, tape recorders, cameras or even umbrellas. This is the war brought home, where terrorism may strike as it has in so many other corners of the world. You've seen the movie, right?
But, once inside, it's a different movie. The NFL is distributing 75,000 American flags that will be waved for the TV cameras. There will be a flyover, presumably by the kinds of jet fighters that are droppings tens of thousands of pounds of explosives on Iraq. The players will all be wearing American flags on their helmets. And, at halftime, President Bush is expected to deliver a taped message that will no doubt whip the crowd, already in a state of football blood lust, into a frenzy.
What the NFL philosophy majors are telling us, in effect, as the hundred million-plus viewers around the nation look on, is that support for the war is the only possible response to the gulf crisis. And, even better,they're telling us that a football game is the proper forum to express that opinion.
Let's try to imagine that this Sunday, when we turned on our TVs, we would see the first annual Scud Soccer Bowl being played in war-torn Baghdad. And that 75,000 Iraqis were waving flags wildly while jets flew over the stadium and Saddam Hussein gave one of his, uh, inspirational speeches.
How would we feel? Would we think they're a bunch of bloodthirsty warmongers? Wouldn't your blood boil? I know mine would.
OK, how should an Iraqi feel if he could turn on his TV set Sunday and get the Super Bowl in war-sobered Tampa?
Actually, the folks who run the NFL got off on the right foot when they canceled the annual million-dollar party they throw themselves each year, the same party they wouldn't cancel two years ago in Miami as the riots raged and the city burned. The league learned something, which is that there is a limit to wretched excess. But the lesson didn't hold.
When the NFL took down the party, the explanation was that this was not an appropriate time for celebration -- that, instead, we should concentrate on the football game. But I wonder how flyovers and American flags and presidential halftime speeches relate to football.
As I was wondering this, I got my first glimpse of the NFL's semiofficial war T-shirt. The shirts are produced by Logo 7 -- which makes all the licensed NFL clothing -- and were distributed to the players on the Bills and Giants. The shirts feature "Desert Storm" in bold letters, framing a very angry-looking American bald eagle over which is superimposed an American flag and three jet fighters. You might be able to see them in photos taken of the many players wearing the shirts. If you're going to have a war, why not make a buck from it?
And why not -- I swear this is true -- have Mickey Mouse, in the halftime entertainment, change from his usual costume to one that is red, white and blue?
This was all anticipated soon after another war, the one in Vietnam, the one we've learned all the lessons from, when Dan Jenkins wrote "Semi-Tough," a semi-hilarious fictional account of a football season in which the Giants and the Jets met in the Super Bowl.
In the pre-game show, according to the book, thousands of birds painted red, white and blue are released to fly over the stadium to form the American flag. As the birds fly overhead, someone recites the Declaration of Independence. Then 50 sky divers, dressed in costumes representing each state, land on the field in order of the states' induction into the union. The festivities end when 2,000 disabled veterans in wheelchairs and on crutches render "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Among the halftime highlights is a tribute to the armored tank. Also a sing-off by the military academy glee clubs. And a World War I dogfight overhead with the Red Baron being blown to pieces. Finally, U.S. Sen. Pete Rozelle leads 92,000 fans in song, to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," with the important lyric being "the game goes marching on." At the end of which, more birds are released -- and as these birds fly away, the image of the great old coach Vince Lombardi appears in the sky.
Does any of this seem far-fetched? Or does life, come Sunday, imitate art its ownself?