by | Jan 26, 1997 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

NEW ORLEANS — They say violence is a necessary evil of football. I didn’t know they meant the halftime show.

Last Thursday night, a 41-year-old woman named Laura Patterson was killed bungee jumping in a rehearsal for the Super Bowl’s $1.2 million halftime production. Something went wrong, and she landed head first on the 50-yard line of the Superdome.

She was dead on arrival at the hospital.

The NFL, with remarkable arrogance, went into damage control mode. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue extended condolences, but deflected questions, saying, “We are here to play a football game . . . death is a tragic thing, but you have to put it in perspective.”

This from a man who last year had Diana Ross fly off the stage in a helicopter.

Perspective? What does the NFL know about perspective? The Super Bowl is an extravaganza bloating out of control. Year after year the NFL inflates this thing like children pumping air into a balloon. How can anyone be surprised when it pops?

The Super Bowl is not a game anymore, it’s a week. The money spent could feed the planet five times over, and the partying is one giant Roman orgy.

And while some of this is Americans looking to sports to escape their frustrated lives, much of it is encouraged by the NFL itself, which seeks a worldwide audience, showers corporate sponsors with feasts and celebrations, keeps raising the advertising rates, and encourages producers and directors to go bigger and better with their pregame and halftime festivities, so that sponsors get their money’s worth.

They didn’t count on someone dying.

Then again, there were so many parties to attend.

Rockets’ red glare

This year, in addition to the bungee jumpers, the dancers, the singers, the Blues Brothers, James Brown, ZZ Top, and lord knows what else, the NFL planned a pregame indoor parachutist, who will leap from the rafters of the domed stadium and pray his chute opens faster than you can say “rip chord.”

In years past, Super Bowls have had rocket-powered flyers and indoor fireworks. And, of course, Diana’s helicopter, which flew into the stadium, landed, picked up her with straps, and flew away as she kept singing. This little adventure was so delicate, the NFL had to take out a huge insurance policy.

Is there anyone who’s saying: “Wait a second. This is too dangerous to risk for a football game. It’s not worth it.”?

Or has the NFL turned into an egotistical movie director, so caught up in
“the shot,” it ignores everything else?

Patterson was an aerialist who had never bungee jumped before last week. Her relatives say the NFL’s production company only called her two weeks ago, and asked whether she, her husband and her sister (all trapeze performers) would be interested in the halftime gig.

That sounds a little last minute to me.

“No one forced them to do this,” Tagliabue said.

Well, no, Paul, no one did. But that’s not the point.

Out of control

The point is that someone in the NFL should have enough to sense to say,
“Hold it. We’re getting a little out of control. Maybe we should scale things back. We’re in the football business here, not the three-ring circus.”

And don’t tell me the NFL doesn’t get involved in such details. This is a league that fines its players if their shirts are not tucked in.

More likely, the NFL simply doesn’t know how scale back. Everything is more, more, more. If you want a minute’s worth of advertising time in tonight’s Super Bowl, it costs you $2.4 million. For a minute! It is nearly impossible to imagine a product increasing its business $2.4 million with a single commercial, so this is not about smart economics. It is about presence. About image.

And that is where the NFL is dancing in a dangerous ballroom.

You can’t be so interested in your image as the biggest sport in the world that you forget such “little” details as peoples’ lives. You can’t show such astonishing insensitivity as Tagliabue, when he said, “The overriding thing is

that we are here to . . . decide the championship of American football.”

Try telling this woman’s family that the championship is the “overriding thing.”

I know she was a professional. I know she knew there were risks. But there’s something so unnecessary about losing your life rehearsing for an NFL halftime show.

Commissioner Tagliabue used the right word: perspective. But it’s not the rest of us who have it out of focus. It’s him.

Visit Mitch Albom’s forum on the World Wide Web. You can find it on the Free Press’ web site —


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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