How the Super Bowl relates to the rest of the world
Every year, the Super Bowl is a landmark American cultural event. It’s a corporate bonanza of multimillion-dollar commercials and grandiose halftime shows. The game itself unifies and divides cross-sections of American society based on the geography or perceived values embodied by the two teams and 106 players.
In the annals of history, Super Bowl XLVII may be best remembered most for the two head coaches, John Harbaugh and Jim Harbaugh, whose sibling rivalry has been coined the “Harbowl.”
Yet beyond family bragging rights, this Sunday’s matchup contains some other juicy backstories that extend beyond the New Orleans Superdome and into America’s cultural and social hemisphere. Here are three of the most prominent themes:
Concussions and athlete safety
Through eight games of this season, 49ers quarterback Alex Smith was putting together a career year—a completion percentage of 70 percent, nearly eight yards-per-pass-attempt and a 6-2 record. However, Smith suffered a concussion in the 49ers’ Week 10 matchup with the St. Louis Rams and attempted only one pass the rest of the season.
As discussion on the debilitating impact of repeated blows to the head has permeated all levels of football, the NFL has instituted stricter concussion policies. So when Smith reported symptoms of blurry vision after a second-quarter hit against the Rams, San Francisco replaced its starter with promising sophomore Colin Kaepernick.
Although concussion awareness is meant to help the players, it might have cost Smith $15 million (he signed a three-year, $24 million deal with the 49ers prior to this season, but with only $9 million guaranteed).
NFL players are well aware of the risk they take missing even one game. In the Oct. 11 issue of Student Life, Rams team physician Matthew Matava recalled an instance when former Rams’ running back Marshall Faulk, after enduring a blow to the head, “grabbed his helmet and ran back into the game before we could even stop him.”
Though even President Barack Obama has joined the fray of critics questioning the safety of football, player safety may forever remain on the backburner for the players themselves.
Every professional athlete lives in fear of being “Wally Pipped” (referring to former Yankees’ first baseman Wally Pipp, whose day off for a headache in 1925 gave way to 2,130 straight games for replacement Lou Gehrig).
If Kaepernick leads the 49ers to a Super Bowl victory, you can bet NFL players will live in fear of getting “Alex Smithed.”
Colin Kaepern-ink: Racial and cultural stereotyping
“Approximately 98.7 percent of the inmates at California’s state prison have tattoos. I don’t know that as fact, but I’ve watched enough “Lockup” to know it’s close to accurate.
“I’m also pretty sure less than 1.3 percent of NFL quarterbacks have tattoos. There’s a reason for that.
“NFL quarterback is the ultimate position of influence and responsibility. He is the CEO of a high-profile organization, and you don’t want your CEO to look like he just got paroled.”
—AOL FanHouse columnist David Whitley, in a Nov. 28 piece on Colin Kaepernick
Not mentioned in Whitley’s mostly research-bereft work on Kaepernick: the star quarterback entered his senior year at Pitman High School in Turlock, Calif., with a 4.3 GPA and dedicates much of his time to a camp for children with heart defects; moreover, most of those tattoos depict Bible verses.
Predictably, the column set off a firestorm of scorn so strong it necessitated a response from Whitley’s editor, Garry D. Howard. Some called Whitley a racist (Kapernick is half-black), and though Howard pointed out that Whitley has two adopted African-American daughters, the piece perpetuated tired NFL stereotypes about the appearance of NFL quarterbacks.
Not all signal-callers look like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. With tattoos running all the way down both of his arms, Kaepernick certainly does not. But he can play, and he can lead. Based on many sources, he’s also a model human being.
Shouldn’t a journalist have learned not to judge a book by its cover?
Criminal justice inequalities
Speaking of prison inmates, one player taking the field on Sunday might have actually ended up among their ranks, but it wasn’t because of a little ink on the arms.
Ravens’ linebacker Ray Lewis, one of the NFL’s most photogenic and celebrated players, was charged with murder in connection to the stabbing deaths of two men outside an Atlanta nightclub at a post-Super Bowl party in 2000. He pled guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice, but the murder was never solved.
Stories of Lewis’ dark past and decade-long image rehabilitation have dominated the hectic pre-Super Bowl news cycle. The redemptive athlete narrative is a familiar one—Kobe Bryant’s alleged sexual assault became a distant memory once he returned to burying 25-foot fadeaways and hoisting championship trophies.
Lewis will certainly receive hero worship if the Ravens win the Super Bowl in his final professional game, but can alleged murder be forgiven on a football field?
For the 49ers, wide receiver Michael Crabtree enters the Super Bowl accompanied by sexual assault accusations from within the last two weeks. A San Francisco district attorney opted not to press charges, and though Crabtree does not receive the same adoration as Lewis, a 49ers’ win will likely exonerate him in the public eye.
Essentially, the relationship between professional sports and our criminal justice system can make one woozier than getting sacked by Ray Lewis.