How the NFL became the American war game.
Pete Rozelle noted these Orange Bowls in making what he later called "a conscious effort on our part to bring the element of patriotism into the Super Bowl." Air Force flyovers became a fixture in Super Bowl II; patriotic halftime themes began with Super Bowl III ("America, Thanks"). Earnie Seiler himself was recruited to stage Super Bowls II, III, and V, all played in Miami, and he left his mark on the game for decades.
As Vietnam faded into memory, Super Bowl superpatriotism persisted through the 1980s but seemed increasingly detached from reality. When we went to war again, in 1991 in the Persian Gulf and in 2002 in Afghanistan after 9/11, the PQ (patriotism quotient) of the Super Bowls soared. The 2002 telecast by Fox was far and away the most over-the-top, with its three-hour pregame show, Heroes, Hope, and Homeland, culminating in a "Tribute to America" by former NFL stars reading from the Declaration of Independence as the Boston Pops played Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait." (Following this, the halftime performance by U2 and Bono, as the names of those who died on Sept. 11 scrolled up the screen at the climax, seemed relatively subdued.)
By 2006, as the public turned against our misguided venture in Iraq, the Super Bowl's patriotic displays became muted. The Fox studio team's visit to Afghanistan last Sunday signaled that it's OK for the NFL to wave the flag again. Super Bowl pregame shows in 2003 and 2005 included segments shot on a Navy destroyer and an aircraft carrier. Given the uncertainty about the enemy and the outcome in Afghanistan, Fox not surprisingly all but ignored the war to salute the efforts on behalf of peace.
The absence of any whiff of a "warrior culture" was notable in the Fox broadcast. Servicemen and women were shown, not readying for combat but engaged in humanitarian and nation-building efforts. Curt, Terry, Howie, Jimmy, and Jay were shown, not inspecting sophisticated weaponry but getting a haircut (Howie) and trying out a rollover simulator (an un-mussed Jimmy). The themes of the show were love, family, and gratitude to the nation's "true heroes."
The one mildly discordant segment was the visit to the Pat Tillman USO Center, with a salute to the fallen soldier that said nothing about how he died. But what could Fox have done differently? While not to mention Tillman—the star safety who gave up his career to join the military, then died under a hail of friendly fire in Afghanistan—would be unthinkable, his name alone is a reminder of the ambiguities of the Afghan war. It's also a reminder of the disconnect, not the kinship, between NFL football and modern warfare.
Fox's family-values salute to American soldiers, like the muting of superpatriotism and militaristic displays at recent Super Bowls, confirms that today's NFL wishes to connect with the public mood, not push a political agenda. (Fox might have its own agendas but must please the NFL when it comes to pro football.) Over the years, Americans have projected all kinds of beliefs and desires onto football; the game has meant to us pretty much whatever we have needed it to mean at the time. Patriotism has long been part of that narrative mix and is not likely to go away. With his late '60s Super Bowls, Pete Rozelle aligned the NFL with one side of a political and generational divide. With the tremendous increases in TV revenues since the 1990s, today's NFL cannot afford to offend half of its potential audience in order to please the other half. Patriotic displays will continue, but in forms like Fox's NFL pregame show, calculated to unite rather than divide.