The U.S. is getting ready to celebrate one of its biggest not-quite-official holidays: Super Bowl Sunday. My hometown San Francisco 49ers are taking on the Baltimore Ravens in a match up that’s already been hyped becuse of a spat of sibling rivalry—the coaches of each team, Jim and John Harbaugh, are brothers.
But this year’s biggest sporting event will also act as a stage for some of the nation’s biggest cultural changes. Sunday’s Super Bowl will showcase some of the more dramatic shifts and heated debates in a distinctly traditional American institution—and it will reflect similarly large faultlines in American culture. Here are five things in this year’s big game that reveal more than just who’s going to be NFL champs.
Black leadership. Ok, I’m biased here, but I’ll say this anyway: The San Francisco 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick is the future. The league has long asked itself the irritating question of whether black players are “smart” enough to play one of the game’s toughest positions. Yet Kaepernick is part of a class of young, athletic black quarterbacks—along the Washington Redskins’ Robert Griffin III, Seattle’s Russell Wilson, and Carolina’s Cam Newton—who are literally changing the face of the most high profile position in America’s most high profile sport. Whereas pioneering black quarterbacks like Warren Moon and Michael Vick may have gained noterity for being the exception, this new generation of quarterbacks are fast becoming the rule.
The tattooed, 25-year-old, Kaepernick burst into the national spotlight mid-season and has since taken the league by storm. What sets him apart is both his skill and the aesthetic that he brings to the game. In his seventh career NFL start, he set a record for rushing yards by a quarterback against the Green Bay Packers. The next game, he settled into the role of a traditional pocket passer and helped lead his team to a comeback victory over Atlanta. His Facebook page pointed out to fans that he managed to do in a handful of games what former phenom Michael Vick did in his first three seasons.
Stadium drama. It’s a tough pill to swallow for most fans: the teams that we love are often in deep conflict with the cities in which we live. That’s esecially true for black and working class fans, and it’s a point that’s impossible to ignore this year as the game kicks off in New Orleans at the Mercedes Superdome. Less than eight years ago Hurricane Katrina devestated the Gulf Coast and the Superdome became a stirring symbol of the city’s gross inequities. Many of those residents have yet to return to New Orleans and most remain mired in poverty, yet the Super Bowl is the ultimate display of weath and spectacle. Leading up to this year’s game, scores of city residents have voiced concerns that once the TV cameras leave, whatever gains were made for residents—new railways, for instance—will also disappear. It’s a drama that’s unfolded in dozens of other cities.
Workplace trauma. Research shows that football players take hits that are the equivalent of being in medium-speed car accidents without wearing a seatbelt. Football is a deadly sport, and just what the league and its fans should do about it has been a growing point of concern. Last May, former linebacker Junior Seau became the highest profile player to commit suicide after leaving the game, and posthomous tests showed that he suffered from CTE, formally known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease casued by repeated blows to the head. In January, Seau’s surviving family members filed a lawsuit against the league alleging that it hid information about the dangers of the game. For its part, the league has a long history of brushing these types of concerns under the rug—take a look at this brief timeline from Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic —but the clock is ticking. The debate has even lead some players who will take the field on Sunday to argue that the game won’t be around in 30 years.
Sexual politics. Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo knows a thing or two about love, and he’ll be on full display this weekend. Earlier this year, Ayabnejo made national headlines when he publicly came out in support of marriage equality, despite attempts by Maryland legislator C. Emmett Burns Jr. to silence him. Ayanbadejo has vowed to use his platform at the Super Bowl to continue to speak out in favor of marriage equality, even with a heavy heart of his own. His 22-month -old son is set to have heart surgery.
49ers defensive player Chris Culliver, who made news this week because of his anti-gay comments, could learn a thing or two.
Globalization. It’s always been a sign of American hubris that its sports teams are crowned “world champions.” With the exception of playing in Toronto, teams play domestically and don’t compete against international compeition. While the NBA has had an influx of international players come into its league in recent years, the NFL is, by an large, an American sport. Yet that’s not stopping the league from pursuing markets in other countries. Over the past several years, the league has played at least one game each season in London, and there are plans to promote the game in India.