Dumber than Fox News: Super Bowl hype is brain-dead sports media at its worst

Words about nothing: Inane, silly and breathless Super Bowl coverage makes even cable news look good by comparison

Published January 31, 2014 7:51PM (EST)

On Jan. 16, 1972, after the Cowboys beat the Dolphins 24-3 in Super Bowl 6 – and I’m going to use Arabic numbers when identifying  Super Bowls in the assumption that some of you didn’t go to Catholic school – Duane Thomas, Dallas’ witty and controversial running back, was asked by a commentator how it felt to play in football’s “Ultimate Game.” Thomas replied with another question, “If it’s the ultimate game, how come they’re playing it again next year?”

More than 40 years later, it’s still a good question. Does the NFL put something in our water to make us forget that we go through the same Super Bowl hype every January, with the only difference being the teams?

Where are the snow jobs of yesteryear? If you’re a collector of inane Super Bowl-related stories, here are a few of my favorites.

*The Wall Street Journal asked the question no one else dared:  Would the Super Bowl’s biggest foe be "Downton Abbey"?  “The Super Bowl is the Godzilla of TV ratings,” wrote Rachel Bachman on Jan. 24. “In the past decade it’s averaged between 8 million and 11 million viewers, crushing almost everything in its path. But over the past decade, an eclectic group of programs managed to capture a spillover crowd …” For millions the ultimate questions would be: Peyton Manning or Maggie Smith?

* The “Twelfth Man”  tradition in football originated in the 1920s at Texas A&M, which, believe it or not, trademarked the expression in 1990. The Dallas Morning News reported that “The takeover of the term may grate on some fans of Texas A&M.” An ugly conflict was brewing in the early 2000s when Seattle’s loud, zealous fans began to call themselves the team’s “Twelfth Man.” Luckily, after a lawsuit in 2006 the Seahawks and Aggies agreed to a five-year deal in which the university received $100,000 plus an annual royalty of $5,000, plus Seattle is not allowed to sell Twelfth Man merchandise. (The original deal had an option for renewal that was picked up and runs into 2016.)

Two questions remain. First, since the Twelfth Man originally referred to the A&M student body, do the students themselves get any of this money?  Second, though Seattle is restricted by the agreement from selling Twelfth Man merchandise, what’s to keep raucous Seahawks fans from using the phrase indiscriminately? Someone on talk radio suggested that they use the honor system: Every Seattle fan going to the Super Bowl should carry a small box and drop a quarter into it every time he says it.

* The New York Daily News, which does a better job than anyone else of picking up on items like this, reported on the harsh reviews of  the Vince Lombardi Service Area (on Exit 16W of the New Jersey Turnpike), so-called in honor of  the legendary Green Bay coach after whom the Super Bowl trophy is named. “Make sure you’re up on your hepatitis B inoculation is up to date,” warned a post on Foursquare.com.  The Daily News, however, found some fans who thought it wasn’t so bad. “I think it’s very appropriate that he has something named after him,” said  a visitor from Boston. “I was thinking something more like a street or something more like that other than a rest stop. But it’s still something nice for him to have.”

Frankie Gonzalez, a truck driver on his way to New Hampshire put the controversy in perspective. Asked how he felt about the place being named after Lombardi, Gonzalez said, “I don’t know who Vince Lombardi is. I’m from Texas.”

* At last, though, a few days before the game, a Super Bowl-related story of substance surfaced, one that involves sex and censorship: Scarlett Johansson’s uncensored SodaStream commercial was banned by Fox. In what was described as “a steamy Super Bowl ad,” Ms. Johansson sipped a homemade soda and, batting her eyelashes at the camera, whispers, “Sorry, Coke and Pepsi.” Fox, not wanting to offend two of its sponsors, cut the last line. In the interest of free speech, we present the spot to you in its entirety.

These stories, however, were strictly semi-pro compared to the truly important issues raised by  Seattle Seahawks’ cornerback Richard Sherman and running back Marshawn Lynch.  Sherman, who had been virtually unknown to anyone but hardcore fans (even though many observers thought him to be the best defensive player in the league), came out of the NFL championship game two weeks ago like God’s gift to the media, ranting into a mic held by ESPN’s Erin Andrews that  he was the best cornerback in the league. Actually, he is, and even though it was a bit bizarre to proclaim it in this way, he had certainly earned the right to make his statement after making a sensational play tipping away a ball in the end zone that, if caught, would have sent San Francisco to the Super Bowl.

NFL defensive backs earn their bread by walking a tightrope over a swamp filled with crocodiles. In 90 percent of the highlights in which they appear, their mistakes are amplified to an audience of millions; maybe a couple of times a year, if they’re lucky, they get to show off a little. All Sherman really did was take a bow for all those defensive players who never get a fair shot in the spotlight.

But the social and sports media went ballistic, many proclaiming Sherman to be a “thug” (625 times by MSNBC’s Ed Schultz’s count)  and a “ghetto boy.”  The consequence of their reaction was to give the salutatorian of his graduating class at Dominguez High School (in Compton, Calif.) and Stanford graduate (a communications degree in just three years) the opportunity to offer the country a calm, well-reasoned dialogue on the subject of racial profiling.

Writers who had seen Sherman as their deliverance from two weeks of having to write dreary articles on whether or not Peyton Manning would retire after the big game – the more Manning declared that he wanted to keep playing, the more sportswriters suspected that he was hiding his true intent – were suddenly let down.  Their attitude toward Sherman was summed up by the New York Daily News’ Ebenezer Samuel, who defended him  on Jan. 26 as  “one of the few athletes who dared to be himself, who dared to speak his mind and be a flesh-and-blood person in public.”

The next day, when Sherman hit New York, smiling, articulate and reflective with reporters, Samuel was profoundly disappointed: “So much for being the life of the party,” he wrote.  The Daily News’ back cover proclaimed Sherman “The Mouth That Bored – Seahawks’  Sherman Suddenly Goes Soft, Gets Super Bowl Week Off to a Sorry Start.”

When tossed a piece of red meat, Sherman grilled and calmly chewed it up. Sample question: “As far as money is concerned, all of you football guys have gone into the strip clubs and are raining money down on the strippers. I think that’s a bad example for your young ladies. How can we stop that? How do we deal with that issue?” Sherman: “Well, I’ve never gone into a strip club and thrown money, so I can’t tell you. I guess trying to understand that there are other avenues, that there are other ways you can make money, that women can do anything that they want in this world. You can go out there and be a CEO of a company.”

Just as Sherman was starting to prove that he really is interesting, the sports media dumped him and turned to his teammate, Marshawn Lynch.  By the end of the week, the most ridiculously overinflated Super Bowl story wasn’t that New York had lucked out with the weather  or that out-of-towners would have to shell out an additional 50 bucks for transportation to MetLife or that the game wasn’t going to generate even a fraction of  the windfall promised to the New Jersey/New York area. The biggest story was that Marshawn Lynch didn’t want to talk.

Or, rather, he did talk on Tuesday, Media Day. (And what exactly is “Media Day” anyway? Isn’t every day in the two weeks before the Super Bowl Media Day?) He talked for six minutes and 20 seconds. While wearing sunglasses.  Then he hopped over a table and ducked out. I think I’m speaking for most fans when I say I appreciate Marshawn’s brevity; I myself had never really thought about what I might want to know about Marshawn Lynch, so I didn’t think I was missing anything. Frankly, if I was one of the football writers in attendance I would have been grateful for Lynch not taking up any more of my time  -- time that would have been better spent thinking of something interesting to write about.

As it turned out, Lynch’s silence inspired as much overreaction as Sherman’s outburst. “It’s not a big deal,” wrote Ashley Fox of ESPN.com, “that standout Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch chooses to say as little possible.” And she is right, and it might not have been such a big story had Ms. Fox and dozens of other writers chosen to write about it. The Professional Football Writers Association, though, was outraged, releasing a statement Wednesday morning proclaiming as a body that it was “extremely disappointed in the lack of meaningful access” to Lynch. This assumes, I think, that any access to Marshawn Lynch would be meaningful, though, for all I know, he may have something profound to say on the subject of, oh, climate change to share with football fans.

I thought the most meaningful thing Lynch did was to shut up when he had nothing to say. But ESPN.com’s Terry Blount was offended – not for his sake, mind, but on behalf of principle. “The football writers have taken a strong stand against Lynch,” he wrote on Wednesday, “and in the process will infuriate thousands of Seahawks fans who love him.”

Let me get this straight. Seattle fans didn’t give a damn whether Lynch spoke to local media during the regular season (and he didn’t), but now fans across America need to hear from him? But, Blount thinks  “that isn’t really germane to the problem  at hand.”  Which is?  “He was breaking league rules … He has outsmarted the NFL, making a mockery of his request that he speak to reporters during access periods.”

Personally, Lynch’s having made a joke out of “the entire process at the Super Bowl” was about the greatest contribution to the evolution of football since they legalized the forward pass. The NFL, though, can’t stand having a player with nothing to say not say anything and came down on him with the threat of a $50,000 a day fine for his reticence.  So a chastened Lynch, sans sunglasses, showed up the next day and promptly announced, “I’m just here so I don’t get fined.”  His tongue loosened by the heat from the commissioner’s office, he sang like a canary – for exactly 27 seconds longer than he had on Media Day.

I could have kissed him when a reporter asked him why he seemed to have his best performances in the postseason. “I don’t know,” he replied.

What was life like before the NFL created this artificial holiday?  What did the media write and talk about in those desolate winter weeks between the end of the regular season and the Ultimate Game?  Was there a vacuum waiting to be filled? Were the newspapers and TV screens simply blank?  Did everyone’s IQ drop 20 points then as it does now? Did any meaningful news happen or did everyone take off for a couple of weeks?

Does anyone now remember? Super Bowl Week – actually, Super Bowl Two Weeks – seems to have always been with us. What happens to all of the pre-Super Bowl newspapers, magazines and Internet articles?  All of the hours and hours of talk radio? And the infinite TV sports shows? Does it all funnel into a black hole and flow out to some other universe where they wonder if this is what life on earth is about? Will they study the miasma of hype searching for meaning and wonder why, if it was the Ultimate Game, we kept playing it year after year?

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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