SBJ/January 28 - February 3, 2002/Special Report

Big game will keep with America’s mood

America's obsession with sports was replaced by a new and even more deep-seated passion since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. As the president's address telling the world that America was beginning to lay waste to Afghanistan was piped into NFL stadiums just prior to the start of games Oct. 7, it was clear that sports, normally a barometer of the country's mindset, were now a touchstone for the American psyche. Once they resumed, the games became a focal point for the celebration of all things American.

All this actually posed a challenge, if not a problem, to the NFL. Anyone who's witnessed a Super Bowl knows the pregame and halftime events, indeed the entire staging of the league's championship game, is the most elaborate celebration of pop culture, patriotism and capitalism this country can cram into five hours. It's Las Vegas meets Disneyland with some air support from the military thrown in for pyrotechnic value. In short, it's the biggest and most uniquely American holiday we've got.

For this year's Super Bowl, the NFL brain trust was charged with outdoing what can't be outdone, with putting more red, white and blue on one of the most patriotic displays this country musters annually. It's as if someone asked Michelangelo for a larger statue of David, but one that truly represents the male ideal. Or if someone asked Shakespeare to write something that really captures the human condition this time around.

Still, the NFL knows it has a chance not only to reflect but lead the mood of a country at war with something as relatively trivial as the presentation of a championship game. And that conviction started at the top.

"We are a keeper of the nation's mood," Commissioner Paul Tagliabue told a gathering of New Orleans business leaders in October. "So we have as our objective to strike a balance between reflecting the risks that our society faces on the one hand and being positive, self-confident, resilient and inspirational on the other."

For the biggest game in the biggest country, the temptation, of course, was just to make it bigger. Those responsible for fashioning this year's pregame extravaganza knew that might couldn't make right. Or, put another way, the relevance they were so desperately seeking couldn't be achieved simply by geometrically multiplying resources.

"We knew it just couldn't be about having three times the number of jets fly by or bigger bands," said Roger Goodell, NFL vice president of business, properties and club services, who is the smart money's choice to be the next commissioner.

Nor was it a question of making it more patriotic. From the start, NFL execs knew it would be impossible to top the nationalistic swell of pride catalyzed by Whitney Houston's inspiring rendition of the national anthem prior to Super Bowl XXV — the last championship game played while the United States was at war.

"We knew we couldn't make it any more patriotic than that," said John Collins, the league's senior vice president for marketing and entertainment programming. "So instead of getting caught up in trying to top our own event, which gets bigger every year almost on its own, what we spent most of our time doing was crafting a strong message that would be clear to everybody."

In the more polarized era of Vietnam, the NFL came out squarely on the hawkish side, with pro-America rallies in NFL stadiums. This time around, "we are not making any political statements," insisted Goodell. "It's not our place."

The temptation early on was to link the show directly to Sept. 11 by marching in the world's biggest phalanx of firemen and policemen. That was rejected in favor of more of an "everyday heroes" theme. As for patriotism, the decision was made to highlight American ideals. Fewer F-111s, more founding fathers. So what we'll have is an amalgam of talent impressive even by Super Bowl standards: Paul McCartney, Barry Manilow, the Boston Pops, Mark Anthony and Mary J. Blige performing "America the Beautiful," Mariah Carey singing the national anthem.

The Pops will do a piece about Abraham Lincoln with taped narration from every living U.S. president. Sources involved in the production said that at one point the league hoped to have them all there. Calculate that security risk and you can see why they didn't. There's also a tribute to the Declaration of Independence with readings from retired and active NFL players.

"We can lead the mood of the country and the world," Goodell said, "so to that extent it is more than just another Super Bowl."

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@amcity.com.

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