Super Bowl: Mass gluttony turns off America

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William Nack, a superior sports writer, doesn't come to the Super Bowl any more. This is a pity because if any event on the face of this earth needs a man who, after a fair libation of bourbon and fine red wine, is capable of reciting the last pages of F Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby verbatim in both English and Spanish, it is surely the Super Bowl in the days of George W Bush.

On the field, "Broadway" Joe Namath would be a help too. And maybe a linebacker like Jack Lambert, who won four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers and once got into such a cold rage he very patiently hacksawed a jeep into two neat halves.

Some are complaining that the trouble with this Super Bowl XXXVIII is that it lacks both celebrity and essential drama, and a quarterback like the young Namath, who carried the big game to its superstardom in the Orange Bowl in Miami in 1969, when he guided New York Jets to victory over the Baltimore Colts of the brilliant Johnny Unitas, would bring hugely valuable qualities to Houston's soaring Reliant Stadium here tomorrow evening. He would supply competitive rigour, oodles of sex appeal and the touch of an artist.

Unfortunately, today's Namath has lost much of his old lustre. Indeed, he operates under a huge cloud of disapproval after repeatedly asking the young woman interviewing him on the television the other day to kiss him in front of the nation. She refused, and "Broadway Joe" is reflecting that every bad move he ever made in his life was fuelled by alcohol. His friends and admirers are gently pointing out that this scarcely makes him unique.

Meanwhile, the nation yearns for something more engaging than the showdown between New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers - while four $2.3m television advertising slots, normally long gone by now, are still awaiting buyers. Why? This is where Nack comes in. Because the game is considered so desperately unthrilling, newspapers, magazines and television shows are analysing not the potential dramas of tomorrow but great Super Bowls of the past, and Nack was invited by Sports Illustrated to join a small army of veteran observers in trawling for old glory.

In doing so, Nack may have touched on some of the reasons why more reflective Americans are sensing that the Super Bowl and its roaring hype and mass gluttony has become the monster shell in which a mere game of gridiron football has inevitably begun to shrivel.

His point of memory was the 1977 "chainsawing" triumph of the Oakland Raiders over the Minnesota Vikings and their famous defensive line, "the Purple People Eaters", in Pasadena, and he linked it with the two other stories he covered on a western swing - the professional debuts of Olympic gold medal boxers Leon Spinks and Howard Davis in Las Vegas and the execution, by firing squad, of Gary Gilmore in Utah State Prison.

He recalled how convicts threw snowballs at the gathering of "voyeur" journalists in the prison yard, and he wrote: "The line I remember most was not the Oakland coach's: 'I had to make a lot of adjustments to my patterns,' but rather Gilmore's final utterance: 'Let's do it.' Then came the muffled pop of rifle fire in the prison's old cannery. Of course they were all the same in the end - the media events, the photo-ops, the hype - from the roar of the kick-off, to the TKO in five to the blood on the cannery floor, each one just another wireless feed to sate the strange, insatiable hungers of Americans in our times."

You look up from that and hear that the pay-TV cable company screening the Lingerie Super Bowl - a football game between two teams of lightly clad models - is expecting more than four million "buys." You also hear that soon after the Patriots and the Panthers have settled their business, TV viewers will be able to watch all the Super Bowl adverts re-run, back to back, without a glimpse of a spiralling pass from the game's nearest thing to a celebrity, Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady. Adverts that won't be seen, however, are those advocating vegetarianism to obese Americans and the arguments of an anti-George W Bush campaign. This is because both ads have been rejected by the TV network.

Compared to previous years, scant attention is being paid to the actual game, a reality highlighted by one headline in America's national newspaper, USA Today, which said: "Finding lost family more super than the game." This referred to the meeting of the Patriots' massive defensive end, Bobby Hamilton, after 30 years, with relatives of his father, who was killed in a random shooting at his home in Columbia, Mississippi. The barbecue menu of the reunion is described in great detail and Hamilton says: "It's all going to be very exciting. Meeting all those relatives couldn't come at a better time - at the Super Bowl." Oh that, the Super Bowl.

In fact it could be quite a game. Though in the new climate the coaches, Bill Belichick of the Patriots and John Fox of the Panthers, are inevitably described as boring, they have done brilliant jobs. Fox inherited a team that had hit a NFL-low of 15 defeats and just one victory, and Belichick, who seems ready to talk all day about the fine points of the game, has already led the Patriots to one Super Bowl two years ago and currently has his team unbeaten in 14 games. However, both men score low rent-a-quote ratings.

Fox, perhaps understandably, would prefer to talk about the maturing of his under-rated quarter Jake Delhomme or the potency of his running backs Stephen Davies and Deshaun Foster than the tragedy that befell their predecessor Fred Lane, who was shot dead by his wife Deidra in a domestic dispute. Lane had previously been apprehended by police while concealing a rifle in his car boot.

Another darkness came to the Panthers when linebacker Mark Fields and his position coach Sam Mills were both stricken with cancer, and this week Mills spoke for both men when he said: "It's been great watching the team fight back. Any time the team is winning it is therapeutic for Mark and me. It basically sends a signal to us and what we need to do in our lives is keep fighting back regardless of the situation."

The instinct here is that the Panthers will react strongly to the idea that they are spoiling the great American party; that they will say, in far more promising circumstances than Gary Gilmore, "Let's do it." And when they do, probably by a margin of less than a field goal, they will not worry too much if they haven't quite satisfied the "insatiable hungers" of modern America. They, at least, seem to have remembered that the Super Bowl is still only a game.