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iWeak In Review: The Big Game and the Super Bowl

The Super Bowl is a football game, and it looks like it will be a good one. Everything around it is bigger, dumber, worse, and more expensive. That won't change.
Illustration by J.O. Applegate

This is part of Super Bowl Week at VICE Sports.

There was a moment, right before someone placed Grumpy Cat into the hands of New England Patriots tight end and anthropomorphized Coed Naked Sports T-shirt Rob Gronkowski on Thursday, when it might have happened. It is too much to expect a moment of clarity during Super Bowl Media Days, probably, and introspection is not among the NFL's core brand truths.


But if it was always unstoppable, if this moment was always coming and would always go just like this, it is easy to imagine a brief crystalline pause in that second before. The meme-cat dangling and scowling, Gronk's puppyish "Sure, whatever" hands outstretched, the din of a few hundred grumblebear sportswriters asking questions they'd honestly rather not have answered, dozens of iPhone cameras swiveling to stare as if by rote. If it could have happened, this might have been when.

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And in this moment, we can believe that maybe someone and maybe everyone thought, "You know what, we do not need to do this. Not just in the sense that this particular cat doesn't need to be here, and probably would be much happier at home doing cat things like batting around a ball of yarn or sitting around scheming. And honestly even if the cat has to be here for whatever reason, there's nothing that says we need to hand it to the Yo Soy Fiesta guy. He doesn't really need to be here, either. His team isn't playing in the game, and dude would definitely be happier listening to a 34-minute remix of a LMFAO song in a Las Vegas nightclub the size of an airplane hangar. Just let the guy go listen to his LMFAO songs, what did he ever do to you?" Some of that, or all of that, went through someone's head in that moment. And then Gronk took the cat and it all happened, exactly as it was always going to happen. There's a picture of it, and I won't even ask if you'd like to see it.


The NFL will never do anything less than it presently does; it is in fact something like the league's stated goal to do everything more, and then do it more than that. This mostly amounts to making more money—commissioner Roger Goodell would like the NFL to be a $25 billion business by 2027, which is exactly the sort of goal Roger Goodell would set for the NFL. It's a large number with nice clean lines; "billion" has a nice plosive pop to it when said out loud.

It's also a little more than twice the league's gross revenues this season, and 2027 is a reasonable number of years in the future. It's precise enough to look good and vague enough—not 2026? not 2028?—to let you know that it's probably bullshit. That's not to say it's impossible. It's just to say that the point of saying it is to say it. It's easy to imagine Goodell, sometime before 2027, seeing his job reduced entirely to saying very large numbers in a stern voice and making a concerned face while calling for further study of the relationship between brain trauma and football. He'd excel at it.

One of the less surprising revelations in Mark Leibovich's long New York Times Magazine feature about Goodell's NFL is how many veterans of large political campaigns are involved with the league's day to day. Goodell himself is one of these, as the son of a U.S. Senator, but he is too oafish and wooden to be anything but the candidate. The best available fast-twitch cynics, people like former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart, craft talking points for and about Goodell; there are a great many people in Leibovich's piece going out of their way to talk about how much "winning" Goodell does. It's jarring, because of how artlessly everyone involved goes about hitting their marks—I am sure I haven't compared Goodell to a defective Teddy Ruxpin for the last time—but it fits. Today's NFL is, culturally, an authentically Trump-y institution, both in the limits of its crabbed, gold-plated imagination and in its acquisitiveness.


Well, that and in its bloated goonishness. The better part of the job for Lockhart et al., beyond the crafting of Goodell's messages, is waiting for him to duff the recitation of them in one hilarious way or the other. At which point the organization reverts to its normal mode, a conspiratorial cast of mind that could be called Corporate Paranoid. This is the biggest and richest and most popular sport in the United States, the one that pays its players the least and controls them the most, and it has only two ways of being. One is the tartly aggrieved message-pushing of a political campaign, and the other is the sort of metastatic triumphalism on display in Super Bowl-occupied San Francisco.

When the Super Bowl is in your town and no place is safe. Photo by Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

As Tarin Towers has documented all week in her series on San Francisco and the Super Bowl, bringing Super Bowl City—a brand-engagement zone that is sort of a family-friendly fan fest and sort of a crummy theme park where you wait in line to enter a tent where you will be photographed near a Hyundai—created a great deal of displacement in San Francisco. The NFL flopped its brands down over a large part of a living city, and went to great lengths (with the help of some generously donated social services) to keep every unmanageable vital thing about that city outside the walls, and to ensure that San Francisco's invisible poor remain safely out of buzzkill range. Inside the walls, everything is pretty unsatisfying and increasingly decadent, like Rob Gronkowski Giving a Fox Sports 1 Reporter a Televised Lapdance decadent—decadent in the sense that decadent and decay share a root.

It is a tribute to the NFL's success that it doesn't really matter that Super Bowl City kind of sucks, that it's all long lines for crummy rides and cops with rifles and nine different soggy french-fry options and endlessly siloed VIP experiences defined mostly by not having to be around Less Important People. It's shitty, but the shittiness is beside the point. Next year, there will ten varieties of french fry available. By 2027, we are hoping for, uh, seven billion.

There is, more than anything else, a piteous failure of the imagination at the heart of the NFL's bet on bigness. It makes some sense when you remember who is really in charge of the league, and what they are like. The small and selfish imaginations playing themselves out in the mock epic of Super Bowl Week belong not to Goodell, but to the 32 owners who use the big dope as shield, sin-eater, and servant. These are old-line, rock-ribbed American plutocrats—plummy real-estate lords and more than one actual felon, wizened petro-creeps and dynasty inheritors so grandiose and so thunderously dumb that they can turn the free agent signing of a serial domestic abuser into an occasion to weigh in on the moral failings of the urban poor.

The NFL's contempt for anything but the most basic and boring expressions of power—the quest for more of everything forever, and the showing of it—is the refracted and performed contempt of these men for everyone and everything that has less than them. The game is the game, and there is still some brutal grace left in it. The game itself is the same size it has always been, but it's telling that, among all the other emotions that will come with kickoff on Sunday, the foremost one might be relief—Super Bowl City will be struck, the endless unasked-for bigness will disappear from view. We'll be left with only the game, which is the only part of this that anyone ever wanted in the first place.

See all of VICE Sports' Super Bowl 50 coverage here.