American Football / Super Bowl XXVII: America mixes cocktail of showtime and shame: Paul Hayward reports from New York on how a nation is gripped by Super Sunday

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The Independent Online
THE CITY streets emptied. Even New York dragged itself off the sidewalks, abandoning Manhattan to oblivious tourists and the homeless. Quatermass comes to America once a year: on Super Sunday.

It is one of the paradoxes of the Super Bowl that while the two teams are performing gymnastic miracles on the field, the rest of the nation is doing unspeakable things to its waistline with beer, nachos and burgers. Even in the plushest bars off Central Park, affluent New Yorkers gave up on calorie-counting for a night while the waiters, acting on instructions from the management, awkwardly pulled Bills and Cowboys T-shirts over their bow ties and crisp white shirts.

Many of them had not even heard of either team, such is the multi-ethnic nature of New York, but then the specifics of the on- field contest were never as important as America's desire to observe the sacred ritual of the Super Bowl party. It is one of the few ways, these days, that the country can enter into communion with itself.

If you doubt the validity of America's claims about the Super Bowl tradition then consider that over 40 per cent of all US homes watched Dallas's victory on Saturday night. While 103,000 fans were able to cram themselves into the Rose Bowl at Pasadena, another 100 million were making periodic trips to the fridges and nachos buckets from the comfort of party rooms. Many of them had had side bets with friends on the points spread, the first touchdown scorer or even the half-time score.

Today America, tomorrow the world. The NFL could boast that a record 100 countries (750 million viewers) took a live broadcast of Sunday's match, and so aside from the Olympics and the World Cup, the Super Bowl has few equals as a spectacle of global interest. 'It's a big game that has to be covered with some degree of seriousness, but it's also a carnival,' Bob Costas, host of the pre-game show, said, and if you have Michael Jackson to do the half-time sing-song then achieving both those aims simultaneously is hardly difficult.

In America, you stay at home and stage a Super Bowl party or you go to a bar and save yourself the washing up and the agonies of empty-can collecting. It has been said that up to half of those 100m armchair observers take not a moment's notice of the game but are merely patriotic bit-part players, and certainly that claim does look valid when you register the blank expressions on many faces in the bars. Either way, successive Presidents have been under pressure to declare Super Bowl day a national holiday.

Not everybody is able to enjoy the game, or the self-abuse that accompanies it on and off the field. Some become the victims, as the weekend's most disturbing disclosure testified.

Women's shelter organisations across America report an increase of up to 40 per cent in calls for help from sufferers of domestic violence on Super Bowl Sunday and the following Monday. 'There is significant anecdotal evidence to show that Super Sunday is the biggest day of the year for domestic violence against women,' Sheila Kuehl, managing lawyer of the California Women's Law Centre, said.

Even more perversely, women in Dallas will have been at greater risk yesterday than those in Buffalo, because it appears men are more inclined to assaults when their team wins. So convinced of the seriousness of the problem was NBC that it agreed to run a public service announcement during the pre-game entertainment.

America's game, America's shame. Both were given their airings on this Super Sunday.