By Mark Heisler
The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the Senate, it’s the sand of the Colosseum.
—Sen. Gracchus, in “Gladiator”
Now for a great Super Bowl!
All Super Bowls are called great, from the actually great like III (Joe Namath guarantees, delivers first AFC victory) to yawners like XL (or 40 for those not fluent in Roman numerals, Steelers dispatching Seahawks in Detroit’s Ford Field).
Super Bowls are like inaugurations or State of the Union addresses, emblematic of our way of life, if only ceremonially.
Of course, we all know it’s just a game and all the faux Roman pageantry is a facade, like the layout at Caesars Palace or the knockoff Doric columns ringing Jack Kent Cooke’s Fabulous Forum.
You can see the progress we’ve made in human history. Combatants no longer fight to the death or are fed to wild beasts.
Aside from that. ...
As the blood in the sand of the Colosseum, Rome’s state-funded, state-of-the-art arena with luxury suites built by the Emperor Vespasian in the year 72, 116 years after Julius Caesar’s death, was said to embody Rome, so the Super Bowl embodies Western society in so many ways.
Want to know how the economy’s going?
In actual dollars, the Super Bowl is an infinitesimal piece of a massive gross national product.
In fact, it serves as a showcase, showing not only how the economy is performing as a whole, but what sectors are driving it, what companies no one knew existed (Go Daddy?) are on the make and how creative and indulgent sponsors and ad agencies feel.
This season’s ad rates for 30 seconds go to $3 million, up from last year’s $2.8 million in a soft ad environment, prompting Intel, Papa John’s and KGB to drop out.
If you missed KGB’s spot with a sumo wrestler wiping out a skinny guy wearing the traditional mawashi, or as we would call it, thong, who’s trying to find “I surrender” in Japanese on his handheld via Google, it’s a search engine—not the dreaded Russian intelligence service.
It’s a mistake anyone could make, such as USA Today, which links this KGB to previous stories on the other KGB.
The other KGB, of course, isn’t likely to buy a Super Bowl spot ... at least in the immediate future, say, before LV (55).
It’s hard to remember where we are on the Roman calendar, but from III to this year’s XLV (45), the song remains the same.
Unfortunately, it’s preceded by two weeks of hype so momentous the game would have a hard time living up to it if it had The Second Coming at halftime.
This year it’s only the Black Eyed Peas with the NFL once again secure enough to go without superstars such as Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake (2004), Paul McCartney (2005), Prince (2006), the Rolling Stones (2007), Tom Petty (2008), Bruce Springsteen (2009) and The Who (2010).
Besides, rock divas are even wackier than football divas, pulling stunts such as Jackson’s breast-baring, nation-horrifying “wardrobe malfunction.”
Two years later, Prince played an oddly shaped guitar with a long appendage curling upward from its body so that when they dropped a sheer curtain, it looked as though he was masturbating in silhouette.
Cue Middle America for the usual horrified reaction.
To quote Hank Williams Jr., the famed rowdy who nonetheless stood up for the values candidates in the last presidential election, “Are you ready for some football?”
(New generations are a pain, all around. Hank Jr. wrote a song telling Hank III, his even-farther-out son, “Take the old man’s advice, be nice and lose the F word.”)
Happily, aside from all this Social Significance, there’s a game involved, or there will be eventually.
This involves those iconic franchises, the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers, a dream matchup.
OK, a good matchup.
All right, it’s better than Steelers vs. Seahawks.
The dream matchup would have pitted the Chicago Bears, whose first owner, George Halas, all but invented the NFL, against the New York Jets, princes of the Johnny Come Lately American Football League, who slew the Baltimore Colts in III, elevating it from ceremonial mismatch to marquee event overnight.
Pittsburgh is a small big city and Green Bay a hamlet you might never have heard of if it hadn’t somehow hung on to its team in the American Professional Football Association, while those such as the Decatur (Ill.) Staleys, the A.E. Staley Food Starch Co.’s team, moved to the city and became the Bears.
New York, of course, is the market of markets, pulling in fans from all over, if only to root against its teams.
Chicago is the No. 3 market but drips soul, as demonstrated by its fans who set about deconstructing quarterback Steve Bartman, er, Jay Cutler after Da Bears’ loss to Green Bay.
Cutler had been a vast improvement over recent Bear quarterbacks, which still leaves a lot of room between him and Tom Brady, but was ineffective before being forced out with a knee injury.
After that, when TV cameras showed him on the sidelines, he didn’t demonstrate enthusiasm, or undergo surgery on the spot, or even an MRI so everyone could see he was hurt.
NFL players from all over tweeted insults that would set off riots if voiced about teammates in their own locker rooms.
Deion Sanders, former Dallas et al. great:
“Folks i never question a players injury but i do question a players heart.”
Derrick Brooks, former Tampa Bay linebacker:
“HEY there is no medicine for a guy with no guts and heart.”
Arizona lineman Darnell Dockett:
“If I’m on chicago team jay cutler has to wait till me and the team shower get dressed and leave before he comes in the locker room! #FACT.”
Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew:
“Hey I think the urban meyer rule is effect right now… When the going gets tough….....QUIT.”
Of course, Twitter is one of the foremost ways we have of telling that things aren’t the way they used to be.
What’s the problem with posting a 140-character text on your cellie?
Oh, you mean everyone in the world might see it?
“I never attacked him, called him soft or a sore loser,” Jones-Drew explained lamely.
“I never questioned his toughness. I think people took my joke out of context. I was taking a shot at Florida fans.”
Eschewing technology, some Bear fans burned Cutler jerseys. If they all can’t be blamed for this one, most of them will dog Cutler until he shows he’s a winner, not just by making the playoffs but winning a Super Bowl—or, in other words, the rest of his (presumably brief) time in Chicago.
Not that Chicago has a loser complex, but devouring its own is a local instinct that was taken to new heights, or depths, when Bartman, a fan like they were, not an athlete making millions to reap abuse, was demonized for wrecking the Cubs’ last chance.
Reaching up for Luis Castillo’s foul ball, Bartman got in the way of left fielder Moises Alou when the Cubs, leading the Florida Marlins three games to two, were just a few outs from winning the 2003 NLCS.
The Cubs then lost the game and ultimately the series.
The next time you see a replay, since they’ve never stopped showing it, you can see other fans around Bartman standing and reaching up too, a natural response to a baseball dropping out of the sky over your head.
Bartman just happened to be the one it actually dropped on.
After that, of course, they hounded him out of sight.
The ball was sold at auction for $113,824.16, presented to Harry Caray’s Restaurant Group and publicly detonated by a special effects expert.
The remains were then soaked in Budweiser (Cubs sponsor), boiled and the steam captured, distilled and added to a pasta sauce.
The remains of the ball now are in the sports museum in Harry Caray’s Tavern on Navy Pier, a carnival site in the Loop.
Bartman, himself, went into hiding, at least from the press, protected by his neighbors and co-workers. [Editor’s note: Minor factual corrections concerning the Bartman incident were made in this article after it first appeared in Truthdig on Thursday.]
If he has been largely forgiven, it’s only because fresh meat is served daily.
In an age challenged by separating real life from reality programming or the absurdly heightened reality that comes from merely being on TV, no one seems to want to err on the side of compassion.
Instead, the ability to broadcast and publish worldwide seems to lead to a joy in piling on, as if they envied the William Randolph Hearsts and Rupert Murdochs who got to do it all those years.
Two days before the game, Amy Turek (Twitter handle: thebearschick) defended Cutler against media critics in her blog on Huffington Post.
Regardless of what happens this weekend against the Packers, Cutler has proven himself to be a playoff-caliber quarterback. And that’s something Chicago has been dreaming of for a long, long time. Whether the media is ready to embrace Jay Cutler or not, we here in Chicago are proud of him.
And we’re not alone. Cutler’s beautiful celebrity girlfriend, Kristin Cavallari ... just announced to People magazine that she is “in love” with Jay Cutler.
Well, Kristin, we are too.
After the game Turek defended Bears fans burning Cutler’s jersey.
Chicago Bear fans are being mercilessly crucified today for our criticism of Cutler. We’re being portrayed as an angry lynch mob, burning jerseys and calling for our Quarterbacks [sic] release. I agree that some fans are reacting to this incident inappropriately, as are some other players in the league.
That being said, I understand where these disgruntled fans are coming from, because I am one of them. While I’m not burning any jerseys or calling for a Cutler trade, I am disconcerted by the way Jay Cutler represented his team on the sidelines. ...
As to this game…
Green Bay has one of the best young quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers; the new hot hunk, linebacker Clay Matthews; and a great defense, but runs the ball sporadically.
Pittsburgh has its own rock-ribbed defense, a better running game and an experienced, high-level quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger’s season started with a suspension for conduct unbecoming to an NFL player, which was better than starting in jail.
Fortunately for him, Wilkinson County didn’t file criminal charges after a Georgia State coed said he sexually assaulted her in a bar while two bodyguards—both off-duty police officers from the Pittsburgh area—refused to let her friends go to her aid.
Signaling how insufficient the adjudication was to Roethlisberger’s employers, Steeler President Art Rooney terminated his deal to market “Big Ben’s Beef Jerky.”
Roethlisberger apologized to teammates and fans, presented a humbler face and took his team back to the big game, leaving just one thing to earn general forgiveness ...
Winning the big game, of course.
If his apology was more than pro forma, it was less than abject, admitting, “I made a lot of mistakes,” but demurring on specifics.
“Those chapters in my life, I’ve closed that book and I’m not opening it up,” he told WTAE-TV’s Sally Wiggin in a sit-down in his home.
“All that matters is what I do from here on out.”
I can think of one young woman in Georgia for whom that might not be good enough.
Whether he wants more chances to be real or not, Roethlisberger will have lots by Super Sunday. Whichever way he goes, it’ll be more interesting than everything else everyone will be yammering about.
To sum up the coming week of Xs, Os and Bs, not to mention more than you wanted to know about Maurkice Pouncey (Steeler Pro Bowl center, injured, may or may not play), whoever runs the ball better should win.
Also, what if the Packer pass rushers make sure they don’t let Big Ben get outside and extend plays? Oh yeah, Green Bay wins.
Not that it gets crazy but Al DeRogatis, doing color on one of the early games, actually announced before the opening kickoff:
“Believe it or not, this is a big play.”
Ain’t they all on Super Sunday?
A really super Sunday would have an exciting game, after which the losing quarterback or some other unlucky schnook isn’t devoured by teammates, peers, viewers, et al.
I know, what’s the fun in that?
Mark Heisler is a superstar NBA columnist for the Los Angeles Times who, from time to time, shares his wisdom and gets deep with Truthdig readers looking to dig into the substance of sports.
AP / Mike Roemer