If you watch football to escape politics, you watched the wrong game last night.
The “America” element of the Super Bowl has never been subtle; indeed, outside of the U.S., “American” is a necessary qualifier for the word “football.” It’s a specific kind of revelry: Indulge in heavy, greasy food, beer, and unite as a nation under the glow of our TVs. And maybe, for a couple hours, let the power of sublime athletic performance push us past our divisions.
But that has always been a myth, and in 2017, there is no such thing as “just a game.” Sports rely heavily on narrative—David versus Goliath, the upstart versus the seasoned veteran. This year’s Super Bowl, despite the NFL’s aversion to politics, became arguably the most politically charged NFL championship in history. Each successive Brady pass—and each call against the Falcons—gave many Americans disturbing flashbacks to the election. The narrative was clear: The Patriots were Trump’s America. The Falcons were everyone else.
The game itself began with a strong showing from the Falcons, repping all that modern Atlanta symbolizes: blackness, queerness, Rep. John Lewis. After posting a seemingly insurmountable, historic lead of 25 points, the Falcons suffered an equally historic undoing at the hands of the Patriots—a team that’s gone to the Super Bowl seven times in the last 15 years, but also a team whose star player (and arguably the greatest quarterback of all time) reportedly has kept a “Make America Great Again” hat in his locker.
But if the symbolism was striking, it was also crude and incomplete. The Patriots were dubbed Trump’s team, mostly because Tom Brady, coach Bill Belichick, and owner Robert Kraft cozied up to him during the election. This became the dominant narrative, particularly for viewers who oppose Trump, even though a fair number of Patriots players probably didn’t share Brady’s politics.(See: tight end Martellus Bennett, who told the media after the game that he would flout the tradition of a championship team and would opt out of going to the White House this year.)
The NFL would be happy to avoid much of this narrative, if the reaction to other football players’ political statements is any indication. According to Bleacher Report, NFL front offices reportedly had harsher words for Colin Kaepernick than they ever did for, say, Terrell Suggs, a Baltimore Ravens player whose record of domestic violence is heinous and for the most part forgotten.
But by outright rejecting the politics of their players and their fans, the NFL is making an inherently political statement. After all, in 2017, fewer and fewer people can afford to identify as apolitical. In its quest to be a blank slate, a refuge from the drama of our political lives, the Super Bowl instead became the ultimate projection of it.
For a nine-year-old girl moving to the States from the Philippines, learning the language of football was one step in learning how to be American. I studied the different positions and plays, watched the games with my father, and discussed the outcomes with my classmates. I even became a cheerleader at my Virginia high school. Football wasn’t just a game—it was a ritual and a bridge to connect with other Americans, especially the ones who didn’t look like me.
The game never could never be all those things and not be political, especially when the league is so unapologetically patriotic, with its tributes to servicemen and prominent display of the American flag. How can a league claim to represent America without taking on its cultural and political baggage?
As I scrolled through Twitter on Sunday night, the racial politics projected onto the game itself—not just the ads, and not just Lady Gaga’s halftime performance—were stunning. If you weren’t already a fan of either team, one way to choose who to root for was by deciding which America you were: the one with a MAGA hat in its locker, or the one that walks out on the field to Trick Daddy. Avowed white nationalist and native Bostonian, Richard Spencer lauded the whiteness of the Patriots. (This was an alternative fact in and of itself, since at last count, the Eagles and the Texans were the whitest teams in the NFL by a sizable margin.)
If you love the game, it was hard, at times, to let the thrills speak for themselves. And there were so many: Atlanta’s Julio Jones’ tip-toe catches which evoked (and rightfully so) comparisons to Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” The Patriots’ Julian Edelman and his miraculous bobble-catch sandwiched between two Falcons players. Brady’s precision and laser focus, as he performed again as he’s performed many times before. If you love football for what it is, this game reminded you why.
It should have also reminded you that games don’t exist in a vacuum. Like everything else in our culture, they are a product of a time, a place, and a mood. They are made up of disparate political lives and realities: players who enter a stadium with their hands raised to say “Stand up, Don’t Shoot,” players whose eyes well up with tears at the Star Spangled Banner, others who can no longer abide by the promises not delivered by that flag. Fans, like players and performers, bring the baggage of the moment with us: the anger at Beyonce and her sartorial nod to the Black Panthers, the swell of hope that gathers in the throat when you hear Whitney Houston sing the national anthem at the onset of the Gulf War.
Regardless of what we actually saw, Super Bowl LI was always going to be a political event. Football may have once offered escapism, but there’s nowhere to run to anymore. In 2017, and for a growing number of Americans, the blank canvas the game once offered no longer exists.