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Everything You Wanted To Know About Football But Were Afraid to Ask

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page D01

Today in Jacksonville, two tribes of huge, hulking men, clad in elaborate armor topped with colorful uniforms and helmets that mask their war-painted faces, will meet on a field of painted grass to beat, pummel, smash, maul and mug each other as 78,000 witnesses scream with joy.

Hmmmmm . . .


(Mike Blake -- Reuters)

The two tribes, called "Eagles" and "Patriots," will attempt to invade each other's territory and carry an inflated pigskin across a magic white line. If they succeed, they will celebrate their triumph with elaborate ritual dances while a group of scantily clad women shake their buttocks, their breasts and brightly colored symbols of joy known as "pompoms."

Hmmmmm . . . interesting.

Before this ritual begins, there will be invocations of the blessings of the deity, songs in praise of the nation, displays of military might and the ceremonial tossing of a special coin. Outside the coliseum, which is named after a phone company, revelers -- many dressed in the uniforms of their favorite gladiators -- will prepare a great feast, grilling meats over open fires, drinking large quantities of intoxicating beverages and whipping themselves up into a frenzy of enthusiasm.

Hmmmmm . . . very interesting.

Meanwhile, across the nation, normal life will come to a virtual halt while the multitudes -- more than 140 million -- gather around their hearths to watch the ritual, which is the most popular televised event of every year. Even people with no interest in this gladiatorial battle will watch, eager to witness the debut of very short but very expensive films made in praise of mundane consumer products, such as fizzy sugar water or salted chips or medicines said to possess the power to cure impotence.

Hmmmmm . . . fascinating.

Indeed! The Super Bowl is a fascinating spectacle. It's the kind of complex cultural rite that American anthropologists would eagerly travel to Amazonia or Micronesia to witness and analyze and turn into fodder for high-toned, highbrow theorizing.

What about the Super Bowl? Surely, our anthropologists -- and other learned sages -- have witnessed this bizarre native ritual. But can they analyze it? Can they explain it? Do they have any theories?

The answers are yes, yes and yes.

You want theories? Boy, do they have theories. And if they don't happen to have a theory on hand, these friendly folks are happy to whip one up while you wait.

"The Super Bowl can be seen as a kind of religious event," says James Todd, an anthropologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz. "People go to the game because they're participating in a ritual. . . . To actually wear the clothes of the players is important to people. Some people put war paint on their faces. It's a symbol of belonging to something."

"The Super Bowl is the most successful secular holiday to be invented for the American calendar since Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday," says Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television. "Super Bowl Sunday falls in the perfect place in the calendar. After the long January detox from the partying surrounding Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year's, the Super Bowl falls at just about the right time so people are ready to party again."


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