NEW ORLEANS — All week long, from the windows of my hotel, I could see the Louisiana Superdome, standing like a concrete fortress, draped in red, white and blue banners, bathed in red, white and blue light.
I have been to this city for numerous Super Bowls. It has always been the same. The stadium is the centerpiece of a national party, the cake in the middle of the room. There was only one difference this time.
There were no people.
All week, I looked for fans, spectators, just the curious passerby who wanted to peer through the glass doors for a glimpse of the big house. In years past, I had seen fathers carrying sons on their shoulders. I had seen tourists posing for photos by the Superdome entrance. I had seen teenagers lazily throwing footballs on the ramps, projecting themselves playing one day on the other side of the wall.
This time there was nobody. Not for blocks. It was forbidden. Off-limits. Instead, there were barricades. There were military vehicles. There was an occasional man in a dark suit or a soldier with an M-16 rifle. Fences were erected. Trees were cut down to ensure better sight lines for marksmen. The Secret Service had taken charge to ensure against any terrorist act. The Superdome might as well have been a nuclear plant.
I think about that ghostly image and try to mesh it with the blitzkrieg of patriotism that hit us on game day. Let’s be honest. Super Bowl broadcasts are American, but this one was AMERICAN. There couldn’t have been more jingoism Sunday if Betsy Ross played goalie for the 1980 Olympic hockey team.
Did you catch all that?
How did it make you feel?
Lincoln and the French Quarter
How did you feel during the nearly four-hour pregame show, when former presidents Carter, Ford, Clinton and Bush — plus Nancy Reagan — read segments from Abraham Lincoln speeches, not long after a jiggly reporter named Jillian shook her booty all over the French Quarter?
How did you feel seeing NFL players read passages from the Declaration of Independence, knowing many of them had likely never read it before?
How did you feel watching members of an Irish band, U2, perform on stage as a list of World Trade Center victims scrolled on a screen behind them?
How did you feel when the broadcast shifted to Afghanistan, and a soldier yelled at the camera: “No chips, no dip — but we got lots of live ammunition!”
I can tell you how I felt. I felt dizzy. Was I watching a football game or a recruiting film? Was it early February or the Fourth of July? Was I being sold on freedom — or being sold a light beer?
On a day when an American journalist was being held somewhere in Pakistan with a gun to his head — or maybe he was already dead — here was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld telling viewers it was Americans’ privilege to “enjoy the pleasure of a Super Bowl,” which echoed eerily like the Beastie Boys’
“fight for your right to party.”
And on a day when everyone entering the stadium was patted down, electronically wanded, photographed, sniffed by dogs or examined for triple credentials, here were movies stars like John Travolta extolling our freedom.
How can you be anything but confused?
Pepsi and international terrorism
The Super Bowl can be a wonderful game — and Sunday we might have seen the best game yet — but the truth is, it would have been a wonderful game if no one showed up in person or on TV until 6:40, when the ball was kicked off.
Everything else — everything else — is puffery, hype, marketing, cross-promoting, fame-building or stargazing. And while there might be nothing awful about that, we should admit that a Sunday sporting event that now begins on Friday night with a showing of “Super Bowl’s Greatest Commercials” is more than a tad indulgent. It’s embarrassing.
I keep wondering what other nations watching this weekend think of America. Do they say, “What a country! So proud of its heritage!” Or do they say, “What a country! It can’t separate its nationalism from its Pepsi commercials!”
Personally, I don’t need a football game to make me proud of my country. I am already proud of my country. You might be, too. And you might say, “Hey, we’re the U.S.A. When we want to party, the rest of the world can get stuffed.”
But I will never forget the eerie emptiness of the streets and ramps and sidewalks by the Superdome, the soldiers with guns, the blockades on the corners. What that meant was we are not alone. We are not secure. We have to care about the rest of the world, like it or not, because the dangerous part is robbing us of the simplest pleasures — like strolling outside a stadium. Even the glitziest party can’t disguise that.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.