The Super Bowl As Epic

By Louis A. Ruprecht Jr., Georgia State University

For obvious reasons, the 45th Super Bowl was largely trumped in the news on Monday by events in Egypt, Tunisia and even Korea. But not on Sunday night. This Super Bowl was the most widely-viewed event in television history, with well in excess of one hundred million estimated viewers. That in and of itself makes it worth a closer look.

Last year, most of the back story–as well as the Monday morning quarterbacking–concerned the Tim Tebow’s participation (with his mother, Pam) in an advertisement that drew attention to “Focus on the Family,” inviting a visit to their website.  I noted the irony that another organization, “Go Daddy,” made a similar advertising plea for its own website. Focus on the Family chose not to advertise this year; Go Daddy did, in even more risqué fashion.

But that really isn’t the story of this Super Bowl. The advertising was comparatively bland and unimaginative this year; the half-time show was glitzy, but a bit ditzy as well.

No, this year the story really was in the game. That seems relevant to anyone interested in the curious and complex trajectories of the sacred in contemporary American culture. As Gary Laderman has argued, in his book Sacred Matters, professional sports, to the degree that they contribute to our contemporary cult of celebrity, are bearers of profound spiritual resonance. But they are also highly complex choreographed events, what the student of religion is trained to see as ritual.

It is worth asking what effects certain elaborate social choreographies are designed to create. In the context of a professional team sport like football, the complex choreography and the violent clashing dance, is designed to create moments when “it” happens. Naming what it is often requires a feat of imagination–and of generosity for those not particularly taken with the game.

Football, in its purest form, is an uncanny ballet of regulated male aggression, looking for all the world like warfare waged by other means, a battle in which injury is quite common though death, mercifully enough, is not.

The wild see-sawing of the battle-lines, the staking out of boundaries and the defense of territory, the punch-drunk dances of triumph, almost comical in their refusal to admit that the enemy will be dancing in his turn, very soon. For my purposes, this crazy choreography is an epic, and looks for all the world like the Homeric ones most of us had to read in school.

When Homer describes warfare, then religious concepts like the gods, and the fate which hangs over everyone (even the gods), is never far from view. “No atheists in foxholes.” A veteran of the gridiron, very much like the survivor of a war, knows a great deal about those mystifying but undeniable swerves of momentum that make it seem for all the world as if divine forces have suddenly massed against you–or turned unexpectedly to your side.

How a human being finesses fate and the willfulness of the divine says a great deal about his or her character. There is a virtue in this finesse, a heroism in bending rather than breaking–much like those long-suffering offensive and defensive linemen, groaning through the violent surge of collision after collision, for the gridiron equivalent of what seems an eternity.

Those long-suffering linemen never get the big, public reward. They are never named as “most valuable players,” though more often than not they shed their blood defending the men who are so named–halfbacks and quarterbacks mostly. This, too, looks remarkably similar to the militant choreography at Homer’s Troy, where a nameless sea of soldiers come to their crashing crescendo, after which individual heroes–whose names we do know–emerge from the group and become the focus of our attention, if only for a day.

Achilles is the name of that hero in the Iliad (he is called “the best of the Achaeans”there); Odysseus is the name of that hero in the Odyssey.

And yet, they could not seem more different.  Achilles is a bruiser, a force of nature, and he fights in a way that leaves it all on the field.  He dies, tellingly enough, at Troy. Odysseus, while powerful and ferociously talented in battle, is a survivor.  He is clever, smart, charming, and he is determined to make it home again.  He does, as most of the Greeks did not.  And it took a lot of artful lying to make it.

This Super Bowl was choreographed to give us not just a surprisingly Homeric conflict, but also two veritable Homeric figures: the Achilles-figure of Ben Roethlisberger, and theOdysseus-figure of Aaron Rodgers.

Roethlisberger, thickly bearded and a hulk of a man, crashes through linemen and is terribly difficult to bring down.  He is a bruiser, with a ferocious competitive streak. Arguably no professional athlete has suffered more concussions than he.

Rodgers, with those striking blue eyes, seems smaller, though he is larger (and faster) than he appears. He has a lightning-quick delivery, and he knows how to get away from crowds. He doesn’t run through people; he runs around them.  He’s also not above running away.  He’s smart about it, clever and calculating all the time.  He’s harder to read, seems subtler somehow.

There’s also the inescapable question of women, and their relationship to these heroes.  This may seem an odd addition–of women to an ancient battlefield, but Homer does that. Where the two Homeric heroes differ most is in terms of the intimacies they enjoy.

Achilles kidnaps women, argues about the women in his possession, is even depicted sleeping with a woman, but never talking to one.  Odysseus, by contrast, is kidnapped by women (goddesses, admittedly), and he is depicted in the climactic moment of his entire story, back in bed talking with a lover he has not seen for twenty years.  He and his wife, Penelope, are depicted in a very intimate moment, sharing their stories together, and we quickly discover that her cleverness is every bit a match for his.  Still more remarkable, Odysseus clearly recognizes this, and clearly seems to prefer it that way.  It’s the only way he’s not bored, the only way he’ll stay.

It is no easy task to get home; that’s the main moral of Odysseus’s story.  The Odyssey offers a messy choreography if ever there were one, reminding us of all that it takes to get to your goal—whether that goal is named Ithaka, or end zone, or Super Bowl—a little luck, a lot of cunning, and an occasional goddess like Athena to come to your aid.  It also takes the kindness of strangers, and their gifts of hospitality along the way.

Last year, the city of New Orleans was an essential part of the epic story of Super Bowl XLIV, their team’s stunning victory symbolized a city rising Phoenix-like from the ashes, or the mud.  But this year, that story was impossible to tell, both of these cities–Pittsburgh and Green Bay– have been wasted by the post-industrial economy no one has yet found sufficient cleverness to negotiate.  So you can’t feel good about one city winning this battle.

Which is what brought the epic story of this Super Bowl back to the people, and the proverbial conflict of character that brought it back to sex.  Roethlisberger’s troubles with women are well known, and the legal difficulties he faced in Milledgeville, Georgia landed him a four-game suspension this season. It was as anti-heroic a beginning as people could imagine, and made it easier to feel good about Rodgers winning his first Super Bowl ring.

And now, just days later, those strange “Go Daddy” commercials (like Big Ben’s alleged sexual violence) are already a fading memory.  Aaron Rodgers smiles directly into the camera, crystalline blue eyes twinkling and a half smile on his lips, and he tells us that he’s going to Disney World.

But he is the Odysseus-figure this year, and we know that it’s a lie.  Where he will wander next is his own business, and anyone’s guess.

Which reminds us that an epic is fundamentally the story of a quest, and a quest, even if it’s not for a grail, is fundamentally religious.  This Homer knew.  And so do some of our own padded warriors.

Filed Under: American ReligionCulture & ArtFeaturedLiteratureLouis A. RuprechtSports

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