Saturday, February 2, 2013

XLVII - Brothers in Arms

After falling one game short last year, the Harbaugh brothers will become the first brothers to coach against each other in the Super Bowl. Jim's San Francisco 49ers will take on John's Baltimore Ravens in the Superdome in New Orleans February 3rd, 2013 so the game has been given various monickers on the theme: the Har Bowl, Harbaugh Bowl and the Super Baugh. Having grown up in Canada I was inundated with American culture of which the NFL is as integral a part as McDonald's, Coca-Cola and peanut butter. Despite being thousands of miles away I still get a monthly hankering for a Big Mac and Coke, make sure there's a jar of peanut butter in the cupboard and find a way to watch American football most every Sunday from September to February. I've watched games from the Hilton in Sana'a, playoff games at a TGIF in Quito and Super Bowls on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, in smoky bars from Madrid to Cracow and even from poolside in Varadero, Cuba. The game is larger than life much like America itself yet it's hard not to notice the dark clouds forming. Disease is causing worrying cracks to appear on the surface and in the infrastructure of players' brains and America itself which are seen as behavioral problems but are indicative of a deeper psychological illness threatening to bring both the game and the nation crashing down.

First Quarter - Season Review

While my team predictions for the year proved once again that I'm a much better annotator/commentator than prognosticator, I was quite prescient in choosing the rookie quarterback theme for my preseason post. Along with the Broncos riding the right arm of Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson's stunning return to form for the Vikings leading both teams to the playoffs, the rookie quintet were the story of the year as they might be the best QB draft class since 1983. If Brandon Weeden weren't a rookie QB about to turn 30, his year would have held more promise, but as usual, the Browns are probably stuck with something shy of mediocrity. Ryan Tannehill may not have had the impact of the big three, but he still provided hope that #17, the 17th QB to start since Dan Marino retired from the Dolphins in 1999, will be around awhile and lead the team to the playoffs someday.

The big three rookies QBs were, simply put, amazing. No, electrifying. Wait, not quite. Prodigious, spectacular and wondrous. No one was too surprised by Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III (RG3), the numbers one and two picks in the draft for the Colts and Redskins respectively, but the Seahawks' Russell Wilson came out of nowhere. Seattle coach Pete Carroll's decision to go with the 5'10" Wilson, picked five spots after a punter in the 3rd round, over Matt Flynn, a guy they paid millions for in the off-season, turned out to be the coaching decision of the year. A 26/10 TD-to-Int ratio (+16, a rookie record and TD tally tying Peyton Manning's rookie record), four more TDs on the ground and a 100 QB rating helped lift his team to the playoffs where they won the wildcard game and lost a heartbreaking comeback thriller to the Falcons. Having grown up in the west, I was forced to watch Seattle games more afternoons than I care to remember which is why they became known to me as the Shithawks. Watching Wilson this year has me rethinking that name.

The losing side in Wilson's wildcard win was RG3's Washington Redskins. I got to see a few of his games last year including a week 17 playoff-clinching victory over the Cowboys in which he humiliated Dallas on one leg. Over the course of the year he threw for 3,200 yards and 20 touchdowns while rushing for 815 yards and seven more scores. He just looked so in control of every situation, always seeming to know he had an extra gear to outrun a pass rusher or the arm strength to get the ball past a defender. Well, he did. We'll have to wait until after surgery to find out if Mike Shanahan's decision to allow him to play hurt, and then blaming a doctor, has any long term effects. Meanwhile, Andrew Luck's Colts seemed to be out of it when their head coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia at the start of the year. Well, that went into remission and by the time he got back for the last game of the year, his rookie QB had guided his team to the playoffs. He completely turned around a 2-14 team as his rookie record 4,375 passing yards helped the Colts to an 11-5 finish. Clearly, it's a tough year to pick the offensive rookie of the year.

Elsewhere in the league, JJ Watt was dominant on D for the Texans, helping Houston deep into the playoffs and will win the defensive player of the year award. As mentioned, the Broncos and Vikings exceeded expectations meaning Peyton will be league  MVP and AP or All-Day, AKA the Purple Jesus will be offensive player of the year. Or vice-versa. Manning's Broncos won 11 straight at one point on the strength of his 4,659/37/11 (yards/TD/int) season after sitting out an entire year and having four neck surgeries while Peterson fell 9 yards shy of breaking Eric Dickerson's single season rushing record, tackled just short on the one year anniversary of surgery for his torn ACL in the second final play of the final game to finish with 2,097 yards. The over-priced and hyped Detroit Lions crashed and burned  but Megatron, WR Calvin Johnson, soared, breaking the single season reception yardage mark with 1,964 but won't get MVP consideration as much of it is seen as having been in garbage time.

The Eagles did the opposite of soaring in Philadelphia leading to coach Andy Reid being fired and then hired by the Kansas City Chiefs almost immediately. As my buddy texted, I wish I could screw up so bad and still get a job so fast. The Falcons once again dominated in the regular season while the Saints couldn't without Sean Payton. The Bengals looked less like the Bungles in making the playoffs while their AFC North rival Steelers fell to mediocrity. Both the Giants and Bears seemed headed for the playoffs only for the wheels to come off late while the Packers went the other way, starting slow and finishing strong. And my Cowboys? Well, at least they're not as bad as the Jaguars or Chiefs but once again couldn't finish the season and didn't make the playoff.

Second Quarter - "It's war. They're out there to kill you, so I'm out there to kill them. ... I'm a soldier."
      - Then 20-year-old Kellen Winslow, former 1st round pick, current free agent TE

Of course none of the previously mentioned QBs will take the field in this year's Super Bowl. Nor will there be a Brees, Brady, Rogers or another Manning, names conventional wisdom held you needed on your roster for success in today's pass-happy NFL, but Flacco and Kaepernick instead. The former, Joe, who may have the strongest arm in the league and is the only quarterback to bring his team to the playoffs in his first five seasons, winning at least a game in each, will lead the Ravens against the later, Colin, a second year dual threat monster thrust into starting duty midway through the season after starter Alex Smith went down to injury. Even though Niners' coach Harbaugh's decision to stick with Kaepernick after Smith's recovery despite having led his team to a 6-2 record was the key decision to get his team to the big game and the fact the league is now ruled by the QB position, it will be the defenses that will most likely determine the winner come Sunday.

The Niners have arguably the best defense in football while it seems the Ravens have been a perennial defensive powerhouse. San Francisco was the number two defense in points allowed this year and are led by pass rushing DE Aldon Smith (league leading and most by any player since the NFL started tracking in 1982 35.5 sacks over the last two years), run stopping DE Justin Smith, a strong secondary which includes Carlos Rogers and two first team All-Pro inside linebackers, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Meanwhile, the Ravens defense disappointed most of the year. After being a top ten defense for more than a decade they fell to 17th in yards allowed but much of the blame for that stat was how long they were kept on the field this year - 1,342 plays so far this season, including the playoffs, the most for any team dating back to 2001, with the Super Bowl winning 2011 Giants being the only other team with more than 1,300. The aging group is still anchored by run-stuffing DE Haloti Ngata, S Ed Reed whose eight career post-season interceptions is one short of the record, LB Terrell Suggs with a couple of playoff sacks showing he's recovered from injury, and of course MLB Ray Lewis.

Deservedly, Lewis will be one of the big stories this Super Bowl as he tries to follow up his 2000 Super Bowl win and go out in style by winning his second as he retires after the game. After recovering from the awful sounding torn triceps suffered October 14th (perhaps using the banned substance IGF-1, a compound found in deer antlers that reportedly stimulates muscle growth), he's been his dominant self registering the most tackles in the playoffs, 44. Like it or not, he's the face of the Ravens and maybe even the game regardless of how much eye black he applies. His introduction dance may annoy most, his "no weapons" post-Bronco victory interview may have confused everyone, and his god's plan speeches and constant prayer antics may make Tim Tebow look like an atheist, but there's no denying his talent as his 13 Pro Bowls and two defensive player of the year awards attest. He's never fully explained his role in the murder that occurred during Super Bowl week in Atlanta before their victory 13 years ago. We'll probably never know why the victim's blood was found in his limo or why he fled the scene but all is forgiven as he's born again. He epitomizes the confused Christian, mixing metaphors of sports, religion and war. Not only did he once describe himself as a warrior he was given a real purple heart from a soldier wounded in Operation Enduring Freedom, aka Operation Perpetual War and will be sure to be praying before, during and after the game with the cameras following his every move.

"In football, the object is for the quarterback, otherwise known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use the shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack which punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line."

While these words were spoken by George Carlin less than a quarter century ago, war metaphors in sports have been around as long as sport itself as throughout history sport and militarism have been inseparable. Achilles held funeral games in honor of his friend Patroclus; the ancient Olympics featured races in full armor to build up speed and stamina for military purposes, the marathon is named for the 42.195 km run from Marathon to Athens made by a messenger to warn of Persian attack; Waterloo was won, the Duke of Wellington famously remarked, on the rugby fields of Eton; Walter Camp, the father of American football, spoke of football teams as "armies," of the kicking game as "artillery work," and of coaching as "generalship." While American football's rounder, more foot friendly cousin, football, may have led to an actual war, no other sport is as entwined with the military as what Europeans would call handegg. The Army and Navy college football teams were traditional powers for much of the 20th century while the "flying wedge", a formation in which large numbers of offensive players charged as a unit against a similarly arranged defense (resulting in quite a few on field deaths), was devised by Lorin Deland in 1892 after studying Napoleon's military campaigns.

The biggest contribution of today's NFL to war is the power of propaganda. One would have to excuse an outsider looking in on the game for mixing up the game with a military recruitment video. From the presentation of the flag to the air force fly over to the singing of the national anthem (Alicia Keys tries to avoid the Christina Aguilera disaster), the players, crowd and viewers are whipped into a jingoistic frenzy before the game has even begun. At some point the audience will be reminded that the game is being beamed by satellite to their brave troops protecting American freedom at home by occupying abroad in 175 countries and aboard Navy ships at sea. Don't forget about the barrage of commercials throughout the game promoting the US Navy as a "Global Force for Good", the Marine Corp "defending the American way of life or the US Army's ad inviting the unwitting to try on "the jersey of the greatest team on Earth".

Don't forget the "Salute to Service" campaign conceived to "strengthen the relationship between NFL teams and the military community" in which teams wear decals on their helmets with the insignia of the U.S. Armed Forces. You couldn't miss the not-so-subtle switch from the pink to camo as the NFL went from breast cancer awareness month to celebrating Veterans Day by branding goal post wraps and pylons with camouflage ribbon decals, wall banners and the words Salute to Service written in the back of the end zone (Except for Washington and Kansas City that is, you know the whole cultural sensitivity thing, the US military having massacred many a Redskin and Chief). Well, at least you can get cool gloves to play war games while playing football! Now that "valor knows no gender" and women will be allowed in combat roles instead of just victims of rape maybe next year they'll go with pink camo.

The commentary of military and football analysts and the methods deployed to illustrate football and war became indistinguishable during Super Bowl XXV, played January 27th, 1991, just days after the beginning of the coalition bombing in Gulf War I. Whitney Houston's rendition of the the Star Spangled Banner that year, which hit the pop charts and turned her into a hero, was interspersed with several shots of flag-and-sign-waving fans, many of them homemade red, white, and blue posters announcing "America's Best Citizens Support our G.I.s," "God Bless America," and "Go USA," literally signs of support for the war. There were also dissolves to soldiers on the field, including a close-up of an African-American marine and tracking shots of several rows of enlisted men and women on the field holding the flags of various coalition countries. The Disney-themed New Kids on the Block half time show was preceded and followed by Peter Jennings news segments reassuring the public the Patriot missiles were intercepting SCUDS, the untested troops were ready for the still vaunted Republican Guard and that "Yes, men and women in the war zone have been able to see the first half" followed by a cut to a shot of Whitney overlayed with "The Gulf War: Super Bowl".

Is it "hopelessly Chomskian" to think the timing of the initial air strikes on Afghanistan after 9/11, about a half-hour before kickoff of Sunday's early games October 7th, was more than a coincidence? The New York Times wrote that news of the strikes "came on a pristine fall Sunday, 'a perfect day for football,' as the announcers like to say, just as many people were sitting down in front of their television sets for their weekly dose of gridiron glory." New York Senator Chuck Schumer had just suggested moving the Super Bowl to Giants Stadium stating "I can think of no better way to send a message to the terrorists". The games weren't preempted by war coverage, why would they be? Millions of red-blooded Americans parked in front of their propaganda screens with testosterone pumping could prove they supported the troops by watching Dubya's speech, a little network anchor commentary, and have the coverage get back to the Colts and Patriots on CBS or the Vikings and Saints on Fox, missing only a minute and 26 seconds of the latter game.

Imagine the power this drumbeat has, so powerful it convinced former Cardinal Pro Bowl linebacker Pat Tillman to walk away from the millions and glory of the NFL to enlist to defend his country first in the occupation of Iraq then be redeployed to get murdered by his own side in Afghanistan. Only America could turn his death into a recruitment moment. In life he opined to a friend "I don't want them to parade me through the streets" but in death, despite his opposition to Dubya and the Iraq war which he called "illegal as hell" and an act of "imperial whim", that's exactly what they've done. Following the Jessica Lynch script, a GI Joe story was concocted for the original report of Tillman's death as the puppet masters realize the initial bogus story carries vastly more weight in public opinion than the eventual corrective.

Halftime - Of Instant Replay and Beyonce (hey, it's better than a souffle baked by Timothy McVeigh)

Though a primitive version was used by the CBC during a hockey game in 1955, true instant replay didn't come to sport and the world until December 7th, 1963 when CBS Sports Director Tony Verna rigged up a 1200 pound machine to perform the Instantaneous Time Travel to the Past via Videotape magic for what else, an Army-Navy college football game. Try to imagine watching a game today without it. You can only fill the voids in play with so many cheerleader shots and endless chatter. Additionally, it has become a fundamental part of the rules of the game as replay reviews popped up over 26 years ago, coaches challenges began in 1999 and have spread to other sports from the NBA to the NHL and tennis. Ironically, or not, live TV in the US also died with football thanks to the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime show of Super Bowl XXXVIII when Justin Timberlake whipped out Janet Jackson's right tit sparking nipplegate. Sure, 111 million people tuned in to watch the Super Bowl last year, but 3 million more were watching when Madonna performed at halftime.

The shows the thing with which to eat that wing. The game is in fact secondary for the majority of the 110+ million viewers. Many are watching hoping to see Beyonce's breast. The halftime show has come a long way from the days of  marching bands, Up With People and Andy Williams when it wasn't a laser-targeted, sponsored ray gun of corporate synergy. Michael, that other ever-slightly-more-famous Jackson's 1993 performance is held to be the greatest of all time; weird to think just a few months later the thought of Michael surrounded by so many children would take on such a different meaning. It could be the Super Bowl party they came for; at an average of 17 people, they're usually pretty lively. It's only fitting that while being fed a steady diet of commercials for junk food Americans will consume 1,200 calories each on Sunday scarfing down 1.23 billion chicken wing, 11.2 million pounds of potato chips, 8.2 million pounds of tortilla chips, 4.3 million pounds of pretzels, 3.8 million pounds of popcorn, 2.5 million pounds of nuts and 69.6 million pounds of avocados. To wash it down they'll drink 50 million cases of beer, unfortunately 94% of it will be Bud Light, Budweiser, Coors Light, Miller Lite or Natural Light which demonstrates more than anything how culturally closed and corporate controlled America remains.

Oh, and we best not forget the commercials. While the world ridicules America for its obsession with a game no one else cares about, they can't help fixate on the other evil they always complain about; the consumerism as reflected in the importance of the ads. The world won't notice who won the game, but they'll all remember the next spot featuring a mini Darth Vader using the force. At a new record average cost of $3.8 million per 30 seconds of air time, companies better make sure they're good. In 1967, that same amount of money would've bought 101 ads as they went for only $37,500 a pop for Super Bowl I. While the basics of sex, celebrity and satiety haven't changed since Edward Bernays invented modern public relations, the media used to propagate the propaganda has. I'll be watching the game from my laptop while millions will be watching on a tablet, a 'smart' phone or some such mobile device. More importantly to the marketers, many actually think they'll get more enjoyment out of the game by paying less attention to it, falling prey to the multi-tasking illusion by tweeting and texting and liking and sharing on Facebook and Twitter. What's that? You say there's a game on? Oh yeah...

3rd Quarter - Offensively speaking

I don't think the San Francisco 49ers are playing in the Super Bowl if their starting quarterback hadn't been injured. QB Alex Smith was leading the league in completion percentage and had his team at 6-2, not to mention having taken the team to the NFC final the year before, when he suffered a concussion during a tie with the St. Louis Rams. While his replacement Colin Kaepernick didn't look great finishing off the game, he blew away the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football the next week and when Smith was ready to return the following week he was out of a starting job. The unwritten rule is that you don't lose your job to injury but just ask Drew Bledsoe and Tom Brady how that worked out for them. Kaepernick isn't Tom Brady, in fact, he might be better. While it's too early to say, the divisional win over the Packers where he set a record for rushing yards by any player, QB, RB, whatever, with 181 and scored four TDs, two through the air and two on the ground, all part of 579 yards of offense and 45 points was enough to prove the possibility. A physical freak with a cannon for an arm and the foot speed to run past defensive backs he gives the Niners a chance to blow away the Ravens.

If Colin Kaepernick is flash, Baltimore Raven QB Joe Flacco is, well, whatever the opposite of flash is. Joe Cool just seems to do the job as evidenced by his record six road playoff wins in his five year career. Year in, year out you know what you'll get, 3,600-3,800 yards, 20-25 TDs and only 10-12 ints. Until this year it also meant always coming up a bit short. After losing to the Patriots in the AFC Championship last year thanks to a dropped TD then a missed chip shot field goal, it looked like the Ravens were set to fall this year to the 9 1/2 point favorite Denver Broncos in the divisional round. Yet somehow, inexplicably, with the Ravens down by a touchdown with 31 seconds left in regulation and no timeouts left and the ball on their own 30-yard line, WR Jacoby Jones was allowed to run past two defenders as cornerback Tony Carter failed to jam him and safety Rahim Moore didn't play deep enough. Flacco flung a pass beyond the awkwardly falling and flailing Moore, who had taken a poor angle, dropping it into Jones' arms who scored untouched. The Ravens went on to win in double OT after having beaten Luck's Colts the week before and then beating Tom Brady's Patriots two weeks ago in the AFC Championship avenging the previous year's defeat. Suddenly, the Ravens appear to be a team of destiny.

Overall, there wasn't much to separate the two offenses during the regular season with the Ravens ranking 10th with 398 points scored and the Niners a single point behind in 11th. Niners' starting running back Frank Gore is no slouch as he runs powerfully and is hard to take down while super speedy rookie LaMichael James can break a big run anytime, but I'd have to give the edge to the Ravens as Ray Rice may be the best all-round back in the league and Bernard Pierce has just gotten better all year and is averaging over 75 yards over his last five games. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree has finally fulfilled his first round draft pick promise for the Niners this year and can look across the field at future hall of famer Randy Moss. They've also got one of the best tight ends in the league in Vernon Davis and a decent #2 in Delanie Walker. Yet they don't quite add up to the balance the Ravens pass catchers possess. WR Torrey Smith is an outside burner who's always a threat to score a couple of long TDs while Anquin Boldin provides the sure hands and experience of one of the best possession receivers in the game. Surprisingly, TE Dennis Pitta actually had more receiving yards than Davis this year plus they've got #2 Ed Dickson.

Both offensive lines are among the best in the league but the Niners three first round draft picks give them a slight edge in the, ahem, battle of the trenches. While Flacco has ridden a wave to this point I think it's Kapernick's game to win or lose. He's a rookie for all intents and purposes with only nine career starts (including playoffs) under his belt. If Ed Reed or Ray Lewis get in his head or under his skin early he could get the jitters on the big stage. The flip side is his near-unlimited upside; if he gets hot, he'll be impossible to stop. Special teams could play a role as well as the Ravens boast what was by this measure the third best unit in the league but gave up a 104-yard kickoff and a 90-yard punt return against the Broncos. They also have Jacoby Jones, the hero of that same Bronco game, who brought back two kickoffs longer than 105-yards this year. Finally, the Ravens are more comfortable with it all coming down to a last second field goal as two of the past 11 Super Bowls have as they'll field undrafted rookie Justin Tucker who replaced last season's goat Billy Cundiff. Tucker only went 30-of-33 and nailed the 47-yard game winner against the Patriots. Meanwhile, David Akers inexplicably went from setting an NFL record for made field goals in 2011 to missing 10 of 19 from 40 yards or further this year and made only 11 of his final 18 tries of the regular season. What about cheerleaders? Who's got the edge? Judge for yourself.

4th Quarter - A Level Playing Field?

Having such a short span of attention, the population has all but forgotten how the season began with replacement refs, the real ones having been locked out by the owners. It was real enough at the time though as not only did the games lack rhythm, dragging on interminably with the bumbling replacement zebras, they actually managed to influence the outcome of games. Refs are those guys we love to hate until they're gone as without them the rules get forgotten, twisted or misinterpreted and without those rules the game loses meaning and there's no point in playing. Even with the refs back it's becoming clear that the rules have changed forever for the NFL no matter how much they try to change the rules in the NFL just as the rules of the world have been warped with time meaning there's no return to the idyllic 1950's.

A run of high profile NFL player suicides the past couple years have shaken most of the remaining few out of their ignorance of the dangers of the game. In May, former Charger Junior Seau, a retired sure-to-be-hall of famer, shot himself in the chest with a shotgun. Though he left no note, it eerily mimicked Duane Duerson's suicide but he left a note asking that his brain be studied for trauma. Seau's family donated his brain tissue for study and the results showed he was suffering from CTE, the most terrifying letters for any player, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy as did Duerson. Seau's family is suing, accusing the NFL of "deliberately ignoring and concealing evidence of the risks associated with traumatic brain injuries." They're not alone as 3,800 more players are involved in legal action as well. Even more frightening was the Jovan Belcher murder/suicide in which he shot his girlfriend and then drove to the Kansas City Chiefs stadium to kill himself in front of his coach and staff. At just 25 he was already showing signs of brain damage. The NFL's response a few years ago was to deny any link but they've been forced to come around and have made some rule changes regarding helmet-to-helmet hits and concussion protocols in a vain attempt to protect players' lives. All these rules do is confuse the players, who are trained to destroy the enemy and who know that admitting one can't play is weakness, weakness that may cost them their job.

Who else would the NFL partner up with to 'solve' this problem than the military? Makes perfect sense in that both institutions are suffering from a rash of suicides as military suicides now far exceed combat deaths, recording almost one a day for a total of 349 last year, up from 301 the previous year and compared to 295 deaths in Afghanistan in 2012. Military grade Kevlar has been added to the player padding in a sport that developed in an era before 300+ pound men could run sub 5 second 40-yard dashes and linebackers running in 4.4 smash full speed into returners moving at 4.3. Much as soldiers don't develop problems from one shock but the repetitive nature of the brutality they're exposed to, the danger to NFL players is being shown to not come from isolated concussions but the cumulative effect of thousands of sub-concussive hits. If we support our team while this massacre is occurring how are we any better than the hypocrites who claim to support the troops by waving flags. In both cases we are at best complicit, at worst, the cause. No fans, no game.

The standard line of defense at this point is to claim that players, just like soldiers, know what they're getting into and enter voluntarily with the bonus that NFL players get paid millions to do what they love. This is the standard American excuse for everything, it's 2013, the information is there, if they don't know they're putting their lives at risk it's their own fault. This is as absurd as war apologists who disregard the constant stream of patriotism inspiring propaganda and fear mongering from a never-ending carousel of menacing enemies: Communists, Terrorists, Latin American Tyrants, Saddam, Iranian Mullahs and Secretive Dictators oh my! It's worse than free-marketers arguing consumers make rational choices in a world designed to feed as much choice influencing advertizing into our brains as possible. The NFL may be ignoring a helmet solution offered by the Swedes yet ironically it hasn't ignored the Swedish economic model which would benefit America and much of the west. Yes, the NFL's revenue sharing and salary caps make it a socialist paradise.

One could say America itself is committing suicide. No, I'm not referring to the proliferation of guns, loose laws and lack of psychological support leading to all the mass murders. The root cause of nearly all her problems is the inequality, social and financial, that has exploded over the past 30 years. While the NFL has done everything it can to maintain a level playing field among the teams to ensure a competitive product, Sunday will see the fifth different winner over the last five years (compare that with the English Premiership or the Spanish Liga), and thus success, America has done the opposite. The now-accepted mythology of job creators and trickle down economics has seen the country become more unequal than much of Latin America and yes, even that empire whose decline that of  America's is always compared to, the Roman. "So what?" Ayn Rand would ask. Well, a little study, or just a reading of The Spirit Level: Why Equal Societies Almost Always do Better by epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett would tell you that once a country has reached a certain economic level, the more unequal a society is in terms of wealth, the more problems it will have in nearly every part of society: child mortality, mental health, drug use, educational achievement, teenage births, imprisonment, obesity and most importantly for our purposes today, violence and lack of social mobility.

The simple reason more unequal societies suffer from higher rates of all sorts of violent crime from homicide to rape and child abuse is that increased inequality ups the stakes in the competition for status in the evolutionary game. In such societies one doesn't need to take numerous knocks to the noggin for their brains to suffer the ill effects of the hormone cortisol which floods the brain when we feel threatened, helpless and stressed while simultaneously not benefiting from the reward chemical, dopamine, which helps with memory, attention and problem solving that we get when we feel happy and confident. As inequality rises so does the rigidity of social structure, most easily measured by intra-generational income mobility; those with rich parents are more likely to become rich and of course the poor remain poor generation after generation. Paradoxically, children in more unequal societies report higher future aspirations while facing a world in which they have less opportunity probably due to the fact their career choices are dominated by star-struck ideas of financial success coming with images of instant wealth or the glamor of celebrity, images the NFL and the Super Bowl do their best to promote.

Of course most of these kids will never become Beyonce or Colin Kaepernick, thus the military may indeed be the only career option for those for whom there are few better opportunities. For such enlistees, military service can open opportunities that would not otherwise be available. Once they've signed up, those of low socioeconomic status are more likely to be assigned to combat roles within the military than those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, becoming in effect, cannon fodder. Oh, many will dream of football glory until their dreams die sometime in high school or maybe even college, by which time their brains will have taken such a beating they'll be much more likely to suffer from a variety of ailments from memory loss, aggression, confusion, depression, vertigo, disorientation, headaches, poor judgment, slowed muscular movements, staggered gait, impeded speech, tremors, deafness and finally dementia. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, has even recently been linked with ALS. As CTE can only be diagnosed after death, it's hard to tell how early it can set it. The earliest known football case to date was a 17-year-old.

President Obama recently weighed in on the issue saying, "If I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football" but luckily for him, he probably wouldn't have to make that choice. Mary Ann Easterling, wife of Ray Easterling who committed suicide last year, said that her husband felt “used,” and that if he could go back, he wouldn’t have played. At the very least, Obama's son wouldn't have to rely on the scholarship that is the only ticket to college which could offer any chance of future success for students from low income families. Student loans you say? Yeah, right. The NFL and its guaranteed contracts is the lottery ticket out for the economically disadvantaged. It's no coincidence that blacks are disproportionately represented among the poor and the NFL (67%). Seeing as more income and wealth is concentrated at the top than any time since records have been available (1913 thanks to federal income tax), and the divide is widening as 93% of new income is flowing to the 1%, no wonder more and more people, players and non-players, are turning to god and Vegas.

Overtime - Wide right?

Any Super Bowl party worth its salt will feature some kind of square board where wagers on the score will be laid. For the serious gambler though, or the desperate indebted student hoping to pay next semester's tuition, there's no better place to be than Las Vegas for the Super Bowl. The prop bet has evolved from the benign, heads or tails for the coin flip, to the tedious, such as the length of the national anthem or Beyonce's hair style or outfit color to the ludicrous, Ray Lewis tackles in XLVII versus Ray Lewis in XXXV or Kaepernick versus Steve Young in XXIX. About the only one I'd want any action on is the over/under on how many times Ray Lewis will mention god/lord if he is interviewed after the game. It's set at a ridiculously low three when I'd be tempted to bet over at ten - take the free money and go all in on over. After all, we're talking about a country where 27% of the people believe god "plays a role in determining which team wins" sporting events. Just another anomaly that non-Americans will shake their heads at in disbelief, just like the rise in belief in creationism along with its teaching in schools and museums devoted to it or their refusal to accept scientific evidence no matter how hot it gets. Unfortunately, it's more than a bug in the system, it's a feature.

As America lurches from crisis to crisis, their responses, from war to bank bailouts and doubling down on the carbon economy, may seem irrational to an impartial observer as they aggravate instead of solve the problems but are simply part of a natural pattern. Civilizations tend to collapse quite soon after they reach their period of greatest magnificence and prosperity. As collapse becomes palpable, societies in distress retreat into what anthropologists call "crisis cults." Witness the reaction of gun freaks to mass-murders as they clutch the Second Amendment tighter and demand more guns to stop the killing; the attempt to put an end to financial crisis by further enriching those institutions which created the problem while impoverishing the engine, the middle class, that could return economic health; dealing with having been led into war on false grounds by expanding conflicts and further empowering those same positions to determine who lives or dies without oversight; convincing people that torture is justified by glorifying such atrocity in Hollywood blockbusters. The powerlessness we will feel in the face of ecological and economic chaos will unleash further collective delusions, such as fundamentalist belief in a god or gods who will come back to earth and save us.

No Super Bowl has yet been decided in overtime. The closest finish was the famous "wide right" Giants victory over the Bills in XXV, 20-19. Baltimore (as in Colts) beat the Cowboys in Super Bowl V 16-13 on a field goal with 5 seconds to play, while the Patriots did the same to the Panthers with 4 seconds left to win 32-29 in XXXVIII. Adam Vinitieri also won it for the Patriots as time expired in XXXVI against the Rams making the final 20-17. In XXXIV Tennessee Titans' Kevin Dyson was memorably stopped a yard short from scoring a touchdown which would have tied the game with a conversion, the Rams won 23-16. Hoping for such an ending as exciting, I'll once again do my best to ignore the risks the players are subjecting themselves to but it'll be hard to ignore the flyovers (at a cost of half a million to the taxpayer), shots of genuflecting players, recruitment ads and shout outs to the troops who are risking the same degenerative brain disease as the players on the field as roadside explosions injure the brain the same way as explosive tackles. I doubt this year's match up will provide us with the first extra period as I've got a feeling Kaepernick and the Niners may blow the Ravens out. Yet, I've always been a fan of the black swan, the fat tail and maybe a little divine intervention, so I'm taking the Ravens, in OT, 26-23.


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