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Performing America’s Soul: The NFL, the National Anthem, and the Power of Cultural Institutions

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It’s in the very fabric of American society.

Football was developed by and for the upper class of white society and spread through collegiate America. Through the popularity of sports reporting in the early 20th century, football was deliberately and successful married to the American character. As Michael Oriad has documented so thoroughly, football and America became intertwined, elevating the sport out of its collegiate home into the mainstream American consciousness. Baseball may have been the national pastime, but football was the national soul.

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As World War II gave way to the Cold War and the US was increasingly becoming comfortable with its role as global empire, football became the perfect vehicle for that cultural tension. It’s no coincidence that some of the NFL’s earliest heroes were also military men: Bednarik, Staubach, Landry, Lombardi. The spectacle of the football game was loaded with parallels to military parades, formation maneuvers, and war games. George Carlin so brilliantly deconstructed the militarism of football’s rhetoric, and Alan Dundes wondered if football had taken place as an anthropological coming of age necessity for American boys.

Reflection. Distortion.

And yet this reflection was a distortion. Cold War American society was not a monolith, its politics were not bucolic, and its popularity was not universal. Like any hegemonic force, the NFL sought to neuter threats. The social unrest of the Sixties remained largely hidden under the helmets of players. Football’s most recognizable counter-culture figure was Joe Namath, who fancied himself more playboy than revolutionary. NFL Films published a steady diet of easily digestible shows meant to showcase the league and its players as icons, not corporate managers. More propaganda than journalism, the NFL wanted to be the American ideal, not the American reality.

The first Super Bowl was everything the NFL wanted, both on the field and symbolically. Two of the three broadcast networks showed the game. Lombardi’s Packers proved the conservative NFL was superior to the upstart (and more racially diverse) AFL. The pregame show included men on jetpacks flying into the stadium and the Grambling Marching Band. The “Super Bowl Chorus” sang “America the Beautiful.” Celebrities dotted the sideline and the sunny weather couched in palm trees fed into what Jim Cullen called the California Dream.

The national anthem was announced with a simple: “Now ladies and gentlemen before the Super Bowl, our national anthem.” The rendition performed by The Pride of Arizona Marching Band, the Michigan Marching Band, and the UCLA Choir went by unremarked upon as the announcers went immediately back into pregame breakdowns. The symbolic message was clear: pro football was for everyone, pro football was glamorous, and pro football was unambiguously American.

Across the country, Super Bowl I took on other dynamics, all of which fed into the larger identification with national character — albeit a heteronormative patriarchal one. The morning after Super Bowl I, Bernard Weinraub wrote a column titled “Husbands Stare — And Wives Glare,” [Husbands Stare and Wives Glare: City’s Males Spend Day at TV Sets at Home, in Bars [New York, N.Y] 16 Jan 1967: 33.] framing the conversation and reinforcing gender stereotypes. “City’s males spend day at TV sets at home, in bars,” he declared. Weinraub’s article was peppered with quotes lamenting the mindless spectatorship of men and sympathetic to the frustrated domesticity of women. After all, the inside of the house was the woman’s domain; the walls forming a literal barrier between gender spheres. Sports were meant to be performed and consumed outside of domesticities’ constraints, free from concerns of social norms and rules.

Football’s ties to American masculine identity are almost impossible to overstate, and it is this relationship that helps inform the sport’s cultural power. Men see their own anxieties and place in the world reflected back at them from the gridiron. It follows then that in order to be a good Super Bowl spectator, men must embrace the hypermasculinity of the sport — be it the managerial head coach, the playboy quarterback, or the brutish lineman. Jerseys and superstitions provide one form of imitative magic for sports fans, but football’s unique tie to militarism demanded a new reverential form of performed masculinity. It wasn’t simply enough to root for a team, a football fan had to understand the strategy, the tactical maneuvers. It wasn’t simply enough to like a player, a football fan had to quantify the accuracy and lethality of a player’s weapons.

The Super Bowl only got bigger and more elaborate as time moved forward, and the national anthem was always a part of the performance, although the militarism was never overt or even largely substantial. The entirety of the Vietnam War went by uncommented upon until a military color guard paraded out for Super Bowl VI. A large cross-service retinue gathered on the field as the announcer gave the introduction:

“Our national anthem will be sung by the United States Air Force Academy Chorale directed by James Roger Boyd. We will also see a double flyover of Phantom jets from the 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing based at Eglin Air Force Base at Fort Walton Beach in Florida. … When our Phantom jets appear, by the way, they will be in what is known as the missing man formation to remind all of us of our men who are missing or captured in Southeast Asia. We ask that you remember them in your thoughts or prayers.”

The next overt show of militarism was eight years later at Super Bowl XIV when Cheryl Ladd declared: “We’d like to dedicate this to our American hostages in Iran.”

For the next 11 years, the Star-Spangled Banner was introduced with a variation of “And now ladies and gentlemen, to honor America…” usually followed by the performers’ names. Super Bowl XI didn’t even have a national anthem; Vicky Carr sang “America the Beautiful” instead.

The Super Bowl for its first twenty four years was a celebration of America, of technology, of popular culture, of masculinity. But it was never a celebration of the military. As we see, the military’s only substantive involvement was in reverence for missing soldiers or hostages.

Super Bowl XXV may appear in retrospect as a turning point, but it wasn’t. The event was a perfect storm of performative nationalism: the Cold War ending, the Gulf War starting, the post-Vietnam hangover dissipating. Heck, both teams — Giants and Bills — were even wearing red, white, and blue. In a poetic sense, it’s easy to look at Whitney’s performance as a unifying moment for the nation, and one that set the course for football’s transition into the 1990s. But it didn’t really play out that way at the time.

The following year Harry Connick, Jr. brought the Super Bowl back to reality and its track-record of mundane pregame shows. His performance is notable however, for the beginning of including ASL translators. Pro Football always kept up with social demands. Super Bowl XXXV, January 2001, marks the end of this era. The Backstreet Boys gave a relatively conservative performance that would largely be forgotten if not for the date.

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