The Super Bowl: Roman Spectacle At Any Price SUPER BOWL XXIX

January 29, 1995|By ALEXANDER E. HOOKE

"To excite, animate, enlliven at any price -- is that not th watch-word of an enervated, over-ripe, over-cultivated age?

Nietzsche -- Super Bowl XXIX is here. We do not count our money as we count Super Bowls. Our computers, birth dates and anniversaries are not marked by Roman numerals. It seems odd how a country that rejects the metric system embraces strange and outdated numerical signs to name its biggest social event.

One theory holds that the NFL owners and television networks use Roman numerals to promote the classical status of the Super Bowl. Given the forgettable dullness of most of the games (quick: can you tell Super Bowl XIV from XIX?), one could argue that the Roman numerals have more to do with evoking the Roman Empire's enjoyment of spectacles that parallel our television spectacles. Or, what we might call telespectacles.

It is somewhat unfair that the Roman spectacles, a veritable orgy of sensations, are largely remembered for their bloody gladiator duels, which usually ended in a combatant's death. Our Super Bowl losers hardly fare so poorly, of course; they walk home with a day's pay most football fans only dream of. Still, we should not overestimate ourselves in depicting the barbarity of Roman spectators: They did not have the evening news to broadcast a local murder or foreign massacre.

The pleasures of ancient spectators ranged from the sounds of anguished cries and smells of splattered blood to the physical feeling of belonging to a drunken, unruly crowd. We telespectators have more modest pleasures: the aromas of microwaved popcorn, the drones of commentators, the comfort of our family rooms with the remote control lodged in our palms.

Another common feature is the universal appeal of spectacles. In Roman times, they were attended by people from all walks of life, including moralists and intellectuals. In his "Confessions," St. Augustine related the story of an educated friend who believed that his recent conversion could withstand the temptations of the spectacle. As Augustine feared, the friend reverted to the pleasures of gambling, drinking, cheering and booing the combatants, while eagerly awaiting the collapse and execution of the loser.

Our telespectacles demand comparable attention. Intellectuals who profess to be "above all that" still take in a Super Bowl, if only to have something to complain about with bored colleagues. People quite sincere in their ignorance about why the sport is called football will attend a Super Bowl party.

This attention demands time as well as space. The Roman spectacles could last several days, depending on extra festivities such as circuses or races. A football game is allotted 60 minutes, but we know better -- even a two-minute warning draws out the suspense for a half-hour. In his study of leisure, Witold Rybczynski observes that Monday is probably the least productive work day because so many are recuperating from the hectic pace of the weekend's diversion. We telespectators are living proof. The mind is numbed, the body stiff from unnatural postures, the digestive system cleansing itself from chips, dip and light beer, and the eyes still blurred from dazzling commercials and too many close-ups of superhuman athletes sweating, spitting and snarling.

The value of advertisers, by the way, is crucial, far transcending the 30-second blips that cost a half-million dollars or so. Like the statues of the pagan gods prominently surrounding the coliseum that was host to gladiator duels and human tortures, advertisers cast an eye on the whole scene, as if they are appreciating and judging the human drama unfolding before them. The commercials that fill Super Bowl slots say very little about the products themselves. Instead, they are full of creative, humorous and stunning visual snippets, often compensating for the lack of suspense on the field.

Sportswriters and fans are predicting and betting who will win, by how much, and whether the XLIX'ers will turn the game into another soporific slaughter. About these things I have no idea. But I would wager that Super Bowl XXIX will rank among the top X televised shows of all time, right up there with other Super

Bowls. And Monday morning DJs will rehash the event to stir up the semi-slumbering drivers jammed in rush-hour traffic.

Like pagans, we may be so enervated that we cannot ignore our telespectacles. To have them, our society will spend billions of dollars, squander immense amounts of gasoline and electricity, use up tons of plastic wrapping and metal containers, expend hours and days of physical and mental energy. Again, from a rational economic view, it does not add up. Perhaps Nietzsche knew what economists do not: We need to be excited by something at any price.

Alexander E. Hook is a professor of philosophy at Villa Julie College.

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