As the Kansas City Chiefs face off against the San Francisco 49ers this evening, the United States hunkers down for the most watched television broadcast of all time. In fact, the top 10 television broadcasts in the U.S. history are Super Bowls, with the notable exception of President Richard Nixon’s 1974 resignation speech coming in last place.
Though the Apollo 11 Moon landing is the most-watched television event in American history (150m) its technically considered news, meaning the Fox live telecast of Super Bowl LVII in 2023 holds the record for the largest average viewership of any live single network U.S. television broadcast with 115 million viewers.
While the most watched non-Super Bowl primetime programs include, M*A*S*H (106m); Roots Part VIII (100m); and Roots The Day After (100m), therein it seems the nation tunes in to a theme. Are networks cashing in on a collective identity ignited by sporting rivalries and rematches, or is the nation itself reckoning with a power dynamic?
The origin of professional football can be traced back to 1892 when Pudge Heffelfinger's $500 contract to play for the Allegheny Athletic Association against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club was signed.
On August 20, 1920, representatives from 4 of the clubs — Akron Pros, Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians, and Dayton Triangles — met to create the American Professional Football Conference (APFC). According to the Canton Evening Repository, they intended to "raise the standard of professional football to eliminate bidding for players between rival clubs." By 2023, the combined valuations of 32 NFL teams was $163 billion.
With Taylor Swift upon decent from Tokyo, the monocultural icon steps into rumors and conspiracy theories swirling around Super Bowl LVIII and Election 2024. Fox News host “Jesse Watters Primetime” asks, "Is Swift a front for a covert political agenda?” Podcaster Mike Crispi speculates, “I bet she takes the stage at half time to endorse Sleepy Joe.”
Swift 'shakes it off,' but Newsweek’s recent poll offers perspective. “Up to 18% of voters can be swayed by a Swift endorsement.” Though Alicia Keys may join Usher at halftime, Swifties could tip ratings above the 115m mark into the stratosphere of American broadcasting history.
The NFL Scouting Combine is a week-long showcase occurring every February at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis where college football players perform physical and mental tests before National Football League coaches, general managers, and scouts. With increasing interest in the NFL Draft, the scouting combine has grown in scope and significance by empowering personnel directors to evaluate upcoming prospects in a standardized setting.
Athletes attend by invitation only, and their performance determines their draft status, salary and trajectory of their career. The draft has popularized the term "workout warrior" whereby an athlete's "draft stock" is increased based on superior measurable qualities such as size, speed and strength, despite having an average or sub-par college career. The Super Bowl is the NFL’s glamour week, but it’s at the combine where offseason business really happens: owners, executives and agents discuss trades, salaries and free-agent options. Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, recounts his formative years navigating race, class and culture in “Colin in Black and White:”
Coaches will tell you they are looking for warriors, killers, beasts. What they don’t tell you or even want you to understand is that they’re establishing a power dynamic.
Kaepernick explains. “We’re poked and prodded physically, but the Combine’s questions and interrogations are ethically dubious. Consider Weigh-in Night: Players enter the Indianapolis Ballroom and are paraded on stage before scouts, executives and coaches who ask a series of questions.”
Cornerback Eli Apple reports a team asked him if he liked men. Former NFL defensive end Obum Gwacham was asked when he lost his virginity. Perhaps the most infamous Combine interview question came from then-Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland who asked Dez Bryant if his mother was a prostitute. Ireland later apologized.
Does that mean the NFL Combine is racist? Consider comparisons to the Old Slave Mart. Constructed in 1859, the building at 6 Chalmers Street in Charleston South Carolina auctioned 10,000 enslaved peoples to new owners by calling out their physical characteristics on an elevated stage. The size of one's hands was of particular importance at both the Old Slave Mart and the NFL Combine.
While NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell condemns racism he admits, “we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier.” And though the NFL Scouting Combine is not a slave auction, Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, has made the comparison.
Candidates are paraded on stage in their underwear where an auctioneer describes the prospect’s physical ability from the stage, including hand size and endurance factors to prospective owners.
In 2022, the former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores filed a lawsuit against the NFL and three teams, claiming that the league was “rife with racism” by freezing Black candidates out of key positions such as head coach, offensive and defensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach, and general manager. However, the NFL has a $250 million social-justice fund, and even a rule in place designed to give candidates of color a shot at leadership roles. *Sidebar: There are 6 Black head coaches, and 9 minority head coaches entering 2024.
The protests to perceived injustices began with the NFL after San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat, and later knelt during the anthem before his team's preseason games of 2016. Kaepernick and 49ers teammate Eric Reid say they choose to kneel in San Diego during the anthem to call attention to the issues of police brutality and racial inequality.
The Concussion Files
In a landmark 2015 settlement, the NFL promised to compensate former players who developed dementia and other brain diseases linked to concussions. The NFL has since awarded $1.2 billion to more than 1,600 athletes. But a Washington Post investigation recently discovered the league has saved hundreds of millions of dollars by rejecting payouts to hundreds of retired players suffering from dementia on the race-norming technicality. Specifically, Black players were treated differently when it came to cognitive assessment than White players, even though Black players make up the majority of the league.
Fourteen players with CTE (confirmed in autopsy) petitioned and failed to get settlement money or medical care, including: trailblazing sports broadcaster Irv Cross, and Hall of Fame defensive end Claude Humphrey. The Washington Post’s Will Hobson explains why to PBS NewsHour’s Amna Nawaz:
Part of the reason they didn't qualify on the cognitive test score front was because the scores were race-normed; curved and adjusted to a formula that assumes Black former players naturally perform worse on cognitive tests than White players.
Race Norming is the practice of evaluating test scores by race or ethnicity. First implemented by the Federal Government in 1981, it was designed to counteract racial bias in aptitude and neuropsychological tests by comparing and averaging test score in silos of racial groups.
Based upon a proposition that Blacks receive less education, it was also presumed that Blacks couldn't test at an even clip with their caucasian counterparts. According to the U.S. Census in 1981, roughly 50% of White high school graduates immediately transitioned to colleges and universities; while 44% of Black high school graduates immediately transitioned to U.S. colleges and universities.
Therefore, test scores for federal jobs between Black and White job applicants were neither compared nor averaged, and assumptions ensued about physical and mental competence between the two races. Race Norming was outlawed in the federal government in 1991 by the Civil Rights Act.
On June 2, 2021, the NFL announced that they would halt the use of Race-Norming that assumed Black NFL players started out with lower cognitive functioning in a $1 billion dollar brain injury settlement.
In the 2022 draft, San Francisco selected Brock Purdy with the final pick (262nd overall) making him that year’s “Mr. Irrelevant.” The Athletic later obtained the scouting report of another NFL team that evaluated Purdy. “Purdy is not a very good athlete... and has a limited arm both in strength and throw repertoire.”
While seven 'Mr. Irrelevants' went on to become NFL quarterbacks, former 49er and Hall of Famer Steve Young says that "Purdy was overlooked in the draft because his calmness under pressure wasn’t apparent.” Young explains:
The quarterback position is really about guile. In some ways, to be able to have your heart rate go down when everyone else is in anxiety and pressure. In the NFL, very few are naturally at peace. We all grew into it but some guys just show up. Patrick Mahomes and Brock Purdy both show up in peace.
And if your wondering about Patrick Mahomes’ passing style, he’ll tell you it was influenced by his first dream of becoming a professional baseball player in the "National Sport." A flexible spine + lyrical torque = awkward angles and a terrorizing, 2x NFL spectacular passing touchdown leader. “I’m just trying to get the ball to the playmaker any way I can,” says the NFL and Super Bowl MVP.
Its something owners all understand, and 56% of the NFL’s ethnic players, 15 head coaches, and Taylor Swift, too. "People don't know how to read me and think I'm slow," Mahomes says, and therein lies an exquisite improvisation to a traditional power dynamic of the new "American Sport."