We purveyors of commentary tend to find multitudes in the teeniest speck and mirrors of the zeitgeist wherever we turn. I grant you that. But grant me this: America really is about to get the pathetic Super Bowl that it deserves.
I don’t think that I can even food-bribe myself into watching. There aren’t enough Buffalo wings in the world. On account of a wearyingly familiar come-from-behind victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, the New England Patriots will be playing, and that’s about as surprising as sesame seeds on a bun.
The Patriots perfectly embody our income-inequality era and the tax reform that President Donald Trump recently signed. Their good fortune begets more good fortune. They shamelessly hoard glory. And there’s frequently a whiff of cheating in their success.
Shockingly, they’re Trump’s team. This makes no geographic sense: The ZIP codes of his primary castles recommend allegiance to the New York Giants, the New York Jets or maybe the Miami Dolphins.
But those National Football League franchises have reliable losing streaks, and Trump won’t suffer that. Also, when he looks at the Patriots’ glamour-puss quarterback, Tom Brady, he sees a younger, less quizzically coifed version of himself, complete with a foreign-born model for a wife. Trust me on this. He just squints extra hard, sucks in his gut and begs Melania to answer to “Gisele” for a while.
So he roots for the Patriots. Perversely, they root for him. Well, some of them do. Brady has been his occasional golfing partner and sort of endorsed him for president by imagining aloud that with Trump in the Oval Office, there might be “a putting green on the White House lawn.” We’ve gone from a chicken in every pot to this.
During the 2016 campaign, the Patriots’ owner, Robert Kraft, attested to Trump’s fine character, while the Patriots’ coach, Bill Belichick, wrote privately to Trump to congratulate him for his perseverance, telling him, “Your leadership is amazing.” Trump demonstrated his gratitude (and humility) by publicly reading the letter at a rally in New Hampshire. There hasn’t been any gushing from Belichick since, but then there hasn’t been any retraction, either. And there has definitely been cause.
These titans stick together in the way that many titans do, not because they share some special affection or particular philosophy but because each sees in the others’ stature an affirmation of his own. They’re a cluster strut.
The Patriots have already played in more Super Bowls (nine) than any other team and will tie the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most victories (six) if they win this year’s championship on Feb. 4. They’re heavy favorites over the Philadelphia Eagles, who graduated to the big game by trouncing the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.
Please forgive the mixed bestial metaphor, but these Eagles aren’t cuddly underdogs. They have fans so famously obnoxious that after Sunday’s rout, some of them threw beer cans at a Vikings team bus as it pulled away from the stadium. Sore winning: I wonder which of our amazing leaders taught them that.
Football, like Trumpism, likes to believe that it’s about working-class folks in the heartland. But this year’s Super Bowl, like the Trump administration, bows to the Acela corridor. It nearly brought together two teams from underexposed cities, Jacksonville and Minneapolis. Instead it brings together two teams from celebrated theaters of history in the Northeast. So much for the little guy.
It’s a downer most of all because the NFL itself is in such a funk. I say that reluctantly. For my money, pro football remains the most exciting of the four major American sports. It showcases the most extraordinary athleticism.
That is, when the athletes aren’t sidelined. Injuries are so pervasive that dozens of stars don’t participate for long stretches of the season — or for any of it. The Patriots’ wide receiver Julian Edelman went down in August and never came back. The Eagles’ starting quarterback, Carson Wentz, went down in early December and won’t appear in the Super Bowl.
It’s weirdly fitting that some of the loudest football buzz this season focused on an oft-injured former player, the quarterback Tony Romo, and his accomplishments off the field. Romo retired from the Dallas Cowboys, went to work as a football announcer and developed a rapt following for his oracular deconstruction of games. By quitting football, he didn’t just spare his endoskeleton. He found his destiny.
But even his gifted gab couldn’t prevent the sport from continuing to lose television viewers. The sizes of audiences for Thursday night, Sunday night and Monday night games shrank again this season.
The Super Bowl will still be a ratings bonanza. It always is. But beneath all the braggadocio and hoopla, there will be little real uplift and nothing new. It’s a tic of my trade to say so, but I spy a metaphor there.
Frank Bruni, an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times since 2011, joined the newspaper in 1995. Over his years, he has worn a wide variety of hats, including chief restaurant critic and Rome bureau chief.