When John Winslow gave his famous pep talk to the passengers on the Arabella as it neared the New England Coast in 1630, he spoke of the colony they would establish as a "city on a hill" -- a showplace of American values for the world to emulate. He could not have dreamed that this would include not just piety and democratic principles but blue jeans, TV westerns, soft drinks and William (The Refrigerator) Perry.
The "Fridge"? That's right, and also Walter Payton, Joe Montana, the Green Bay Packers, the Dallas Cowboys, the whole bloody National Football League including, yes, the New England Patriots.
You're probably thinking that, just because I customarily write on international affairs, I am straining for a foreign-policy angle to Super Bowl XX. Nonsense. Thanks to a lucky stumble onto an Associated Press dispatch from London, there is no need to strain. I discovered that the geopolitical implications of the NFL are already potentially enormous, even if difficult to assess precisely. For now it is enough to know that America's football mania is rapidly spreading to Britain and onward to the continent.
I am no sociologist and merely an amateur political scientist. But I submit to you that there must be deep meaning somewhere when countries given to cricket, soccer and other athletic pursuits requiring a minimum of protective padding and a maximum of patience, endurance and finesse -- countries that won't even go along with economic sanctions against Muammar Qaddafi -- are suddenly seized with a passion for the violent world of Sam Huff.
"Three years ago," the AP dispatch from London reports, "few British sports fans could tell a tight end from a touchdown." But the land of cricket and soccer "has since been gripped by football fever," and in recent days it has apparently reached a new high. "In pubs and subways, British gridiron buffs confidently rattle off names such as Walter Payton and The Refrigerator, and argue favorite plays from televised National Football League games," the AP tells us. And the growing frenzy isn't confined to the British Isles. NFL games are televised on privately owned stations in Italy, where there is even a small semiprofessional American-style football league. "A cult following is said to be springing up in France and Spain," according to AP.
But the British are by far the most advanced in their addiction. Televised game highlights pull in more than 4 million British viewers. Roughly 200 home-grown teams have sprouted -- including the "Heathrow Jets," the "Greenwich Rams" and the "Dunstable Cowboys." Sponsorship is developing for a British NFL.
Such was the excitement building up over Super Bowl XX in New Orleans that weeks ago Britain's national newspapers began carrying game reports, complete with player and team profiles. Throughout the season, radio stations, including the very-British BBC's Radio 4, have broadcast the results of American pro games in their sports bulletins. Frantic fans have taken to calling news organizations on Monday mornings to get the scores of Sunday's games, and British newsstands now carry magazines ("Quarterback," "Touchdown" and "Gridiron UK") to meet the growing demand to know more about the ins and outs of the NFL. Travel agents offer package deals to the United States for big games.
One can only guess at the implications for the British way of life -- not to mention the image of America's "city on a hill." But at least one possibility comes to mind when you consider the carnage that has accompanied recent sporting events involving British teams and their fans. The violence has been in the stands, with the fans taking out their aggression in savage rioting. Is it possible that they could find a safer outlet for their frustrations -- as many Americans are said to do -- by an even wider opportunity for the regular observance of 22 grown men of varying shapes and sizes butting heads, colliding at high speed, tearing cartilages, dislocating vital joints, breaking limbs?
One can only surmise, whether one is talking only about Britain or about the implications of a wider international spread of football fever. But it is something to think about as you surrender to the hype of Super XX and the Patriots and the Bears. You have more company in your obsession than you realize -- in Europe and around the world. (The Washington Redskins have a fierce fan club in Israel, composed of Israeli officials who have served in Washington; U.S. teams play exhibitions in Japan.)
Suppose, for example, that this genuinely American frenzy grows into a worldwide preoccupation with "post" patterns, trap blocks, quarterback sackings, the bump and run. Think of a world caught up and bound together by a shared concern over free agentry, draft picks, signing of bonuses and contract disputes. If the Olympics can summon us together every four years and bring out the best in nations that spend the rest of their time in one or another form of political conflict with each other (or worse), what could an annual global Super Bowl, with play-offs stretching the season to a full year, do for world order and peace in our time?