Cowboy rustles the American dream

WASHINGTON DAYS

"If one writes about war," wrote Graham Greene, "self-respect demands that occasionally one shares the risks." If one writes about America, self-respect demands that occasionally one tries to share the passion for American football.

At the very least, you have to tune in on Super Bowl Sunday, one of the three great occasions in the American calendar - the other two being Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. The Super Bowl is to America what the FA Cup Final is to England, or any Celtic-Rangers match is to Scotland. The game itself is not as good, lacking as it is in continuity and momentum. It's like a game of chess in which the pawns are played by extremely large men. (The "offensive line" of the Dallas Cowboys, one of the teams in Sunday's Super Bowl, averaged 23 stone in weight.)

But the spectacle, and the hysteria surrounding it, make the solemnities at Wembley appear dour by comparison. Not that there is less passion at the Cup Final. There is probably more. The Americans just know how to orchestrate it better. And I, sitting in front of the television with friends on Sunday evening, danced to the NBC conductor's tune.

Having failed to generate any enthusiasm for the ping-pong repetitiveness of basketball or the excruciating nuances of baseball, it was with relief - eager as I am to penetrate the local culture - that towards the end of autumn I discovered an appetite for American football. The team for which I inexplicably developed an affection were the San Francisco 49ers. Sadly they were knocked out in the Super Bowl play-offs (we'd call them the quarter finals) so I transferred my fickle loyalties to the plucky Green Bay Packers, who in turn lost out in the semi-finals to the dreaded Dallas Cowboys.

They call the Cowboys "America's Team". Because they have lots of money and they always win, they have fan clubs in every American city. It's only here in Washington that people really detest them. Something to do with a particularly bitter rivalry, they tell me, with the Washington Redskins. Lacking the history, I hate them because they're flashy and obnoxious and conceited and their owner gets to buy all the fastest and biggest players.

So my team on Sunday were - or, as we say in America with more grammatical exactitude, "was" - the obstinately unfashionable Pittsburgh Steelers. The Cowboys wear these snazzy silver, white and blue uniforms. The Steelers wear plain yellow and brown. The Cowboys' quarterback - queen to the beefy pawns - is the pretentiously named, baby-face handsome Troy Aikman. The Steelers' quarterback is a bushy-bearded yeoman with Christmas cracker teeth called Neil O'Donnell. A friend who watched the match with me swears that the Cowboys' clean-cut coach, Barry Switzer, sports hair implants. The Steelers' coach, Bill Cowher, looks like a demented assassin in a Quentin Tarantino movie. The distance between his chin and his mouth is twice that between his mouth and the top of his brow.

For all of these reasons I loved the Steelers more. Never mind that the broadcast lasted three and a half hours and the game one. That for every two minutes of game we had four of commercials - which NBC priced at a world record rate of $1.2m (pounds 800,000) per 30 seconds. That half time lasted 45 minutes so we could have half an hour more of commercials, five minutes of analysis and 10 of Diana Ross doing a medley before disappearing into the night sky in a helicopter. Never mind all this. It's the American way, and I've got used to it, and it did not stop me from getting very excited indeed when it looked in the third quarter as if the Steelers might bounce back from an abominable start and spoil the victory party - laboriously prepared weeks in advance - of the Cowboys. When Yancey Thigpen scored a touchdown I celebrated with innocent delight.

In the end the Steelers lost but they had put on a brave show and you couldn't ask for more than that. So why then did I feel dirty when I woke up the morning after the Super Bowl? Why did I feel like a ravished damsel inveigled by a silver-tongued suitor into giving away her virtue?

It was an image that appeared on the screen after the game was over that did it. The man who went up to the podium to receive the trophy and receive the acclaim of the crowd was not a player. It wasn't even the chess-master coach. It fell upon a man in a suit to bask in the honour and the glory for the simple reason that he happens to have pots and pots of money and that he fixed things up so that Pepsi and Nike could blast our brains all night with commercials.

It fell upon Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, to be the real star of the show, to hold the trophy aloft, as the hands of his players' strained at the bottom of the screen for a touch, because he is a man dedicated - crassly, wholeheartedly, eyes wide open - to the proposition that professional American football, diverting as it might be for the masses, is first and foremost big business for the few.

I felt dirty because I felt cheated and abused. I had opened up to the game, had succumbed to its boyish enthusiasms, and been conned. That's how it felt anyway. The terrible thing is that next year I will, in all probability, watch the whole damn spectacle all over again.

John Carlin

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