Culture at the Crossroads
Why the Bowl Is Super: The Forward Pass of Dreams
For those who are allergic to sports, and who view events like the Super Bowl with more than a little skepticism, consider this. In book six of Homer's 8th-century B.C. work the Iliad, there is a remarkable exchange between two warriors on the plain of Troy. One, called Glaukos, is asked by his opponent Diomedes who he is. In his response, Glaukos remarks that his father implored him always to be the best, to excel always, and thereby bring glory to his family and people. The battlefield is, in the Iliad, the place where men define themselves even while transcending their own self-interests for the sake of their comrades-in-arms.
Glaukos's sentiments are a hint of what drives interest in sports from one age to the next: the hope that—in their shared desire to be the best—competitors push further the concepts of what human beings are able to do.
Yes, at the end of the day, the skeptic will observe that what we find are men who are good at throwing and catching balls and running into each other. But by the same logic, Shakespeare and Gandhi were only good at writing words and talking to people. What matters is less what people are good at, and more the fact that they do common things exceptionally when everyone is watching. They love what others love, in an expression of what the philosopher René Girard calls "mimetic desire," or the common desire for a single goal. In this case, it's the Lombardi Trophy, but at the root of this and almost every case it's the respect of one's peers. The desire to win is, at root, a desire to matter, to have a place in the world. It's at the root of every human being's desire to be loved and accepted in the world, as my colleague Elizabeth Scalia writes beautifully here.
The Super Bowl is not the World Cup or the Olympics. It's our own homegrown fun, and will (arguably) wane in importance in the coming decades as the United States becomes more globally aware. But it is the best drama on television this year, because it is the largest stage upon which unfold the dreams of millions of men, young and old. Even if you are not a fan of (American) football, consider what it means to so many through the wisdom that William Butler Yeats suggests in his poem "Cloths of Heaven":
I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
Tim Muldoon holds a Ph.D. in Catholic systematic theology and is an award-winning author and Catholic theologian of the new evangelization.