By Simon Gonzalez
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell delivered his annual State of the League address during Super Bowl week, and offered his hope for the Big Game.
“We have a unique position to have an event on Sunday night that will bring the world together,” Goodell said. “Millions of people are going to tune in, and they are going to … forget about other things for at least a short period of time.”
Oh Roger, how naïve of you. If only it were so.
There was a time when athletic contests indeed were a means to forget the madness of the world around us. During my days as a sports writer in Texas we were derided as the toy department. We published the non-serious section, not as important as the national and local news.
We covered important issues, to be sure — college recruiting scandals, drug cheats, arrests — but ultimately we were reporting on games and the people who played them.
Alas, those days are gone.
Super Bowl LI was an incredible game, even for those who don’t like football. The New England Patriots, seemingly buried at halftime, rallied for an improbable overtime win over the Atlanta Falcons.
Unfortunately, the action on the field was overshadowed by politics.
There was a general sense before the game that much of America outside New England was rooting for the underdog Falcons. Or perhaps rooting against the Patriots.
There are plenty of reasons to hate the Patriots. Their quarterback, Tom Brady, is too perfect, with his records and trophies and championship rings and supermodel wife. The coach, Bill Belichick, is a joyless curmudgeon. They win too much. They cheat too much.
There were plenty of reasons to root for the Falcons. They were making their first appearance in the championship game, representing a city with only one title in all the major sports combined. And they weren’t the Patriots.
But a major media theme in the days before the game seemed to be that we were supposed to be against the Patriots because Brady, Belichick and owner Robert Kraft are friends with Donald Trump.
Brady “stirred controversy,” we were told, because he once had a — gasp! — “Make America Great Again” hat in his locker. A national newspaper declared that Brady “has some explaining to do” about his friendship with the president.
The hits kept on coming. Goodell was asked about the league’s stance on Trump’s executive order on immigration. Players and coaches got the same treatment.
Then came kickoff. Surely now, we could focus on the action. Nope.
When the Falcons took a big lead and looked like an easy winner, there were gleeful tweets about “that time that (inauguration boycotter) John Lewis’s team smashed Trump’s team in the Super Bowl.”
And after the Falcons blew it: “Of course Pats win. This is a year when evil triumphs.” “At least the Falcons won the popular vote.”
Even the ever-popular Super Bowl commercials — the reason some folks tune in to the game — got in on the act. Rather than hawking their wares through fun, creative ways, some virtue-signaling companies opted to lecture us.
84 Lumber presented the heart-tugging tale of a mother and daughter trying to enter the country illegally. Audi gave us an angst-ridden dad struggling whether to tell his daughter “that despite her education, her drive, her skills, her intelligence, she will automatically be valued as less than every man she ever meets.”
After the game, Patriots’ tight end Martellus Bennett — who has made it clear he isn’t a Trump fan — was asked if he would attend the traditional White House gathering for the victors.
“I’m not gonna go … it is what it is. People know how I feel about it,” he said.
But when the questions persisted, Bennett spoke for a country weary of those who politicize everything, even a football game.
“I just won the Super Bowl. I don’t wanna talk about politics, I wanna talk about winning the Super Bowl.”