When the Super Bowl kicks off, I won’t be among the 100 million viewing the game this year. Football bores me, an admission that’s tantamount to proclaiming myself a leper in American culture. But each year the Super Bowl reminds me of the last time I saw even part of the game: 2001 in New Zealand. Those were the early weeks of the Bush administration. I should have known then that we were in for some tough times.
I saw bits of the 2001 game because I was coerced into attending a Super Bowl party. At the time I was a Fulbright scholar living in Wellington, New Zealand, and got a formal invitation from the U.S. Embassy to come watch the game. Less formally the local Fulbright office was told it would be a “good idea” for all American scholars to attend. We were supposed to project solidarity before nervous New Zealanders, since the Super Bowl came just weeks after the Supreme Court anointed Bush the victor in the stolen election of 2000. His impending reign was dreaded in Wellington; most Kiwis liked Bill Clinton, and they positively adored Carol Mosley-Braun, his ambassador to New Zealand. New Zealanders had hoped that a Gore victory would mean that Mosley-Braun would stay on in New Zealand.
Super Sunday did not begin well. In a harbinger of what would become Bush’s paranoid style in international affairs, I was accosted by a U.S. Marine for taking pictures of the outside of the embassy. Nine months before 9/11 some genius determined that my photos were a “security risk.” Inside the embassy the mood was one of startling contrasts—officious members of the Bush transition team looking like Stepford diplomats with their painted-on smiles and matching flag lapel pins on one side of the room, and the skeletal remnants of the Clinton staff hanging out with dazed New Zealand staffers on the other.
Someone had gone to trouble trying to make Super Sunday a “typical” American event, but that proved hilariously hard to pull off in a place 7,100 miles from Los Angeles. There was, for instance, a platter of hotdogs, which became one-bite items left on plates. Seconds were politely refused when offered by uniformed waiters, and with good reason. The wieners were what one might get if a bratwurst was crossed with corrugated cardboard. But they were positively scrumptious compared to the “rolls,” rock-hard zeppelins that might have been fresh a week or so earlier. They were also several inches longer and thicker than the hotdogs. The less said about the ketchup and the relish, the better.
Then there was the problem of the game itself. To say that academics are not your typical football crowd is an understatement; if they follow sports at all, most prefer baseball’s cerebral dimensions to football’s brute physicality. I had to ask who was playing and was surprised to learn that one of the teams was the Baltimore Ravens; I knew that the Colts had fled Baltimore, but I had no idea there was now a club named for Edgar Allen Poe’s poetic feathered foil. But I was an expert compared to the local embassy staff. For them, “football” was soccer and the rules of “American gridiron” as incomprehensible as the intricacies of cricket are to Yanks.
Most of the Fulbrighters gathered outside the TV room chatting about their respective projects, while the flag-lapel crowd hooted and booed in the wings. The day improved dramatically when we engaged the baffled New Zealanders huddled by the food table. One young diplomat asked me the charmingly phrased question, “Who do you favor in the gridiron match?” When I admitted I had no interest in the outcome and was far more interested in learning about New Zealand life, his face brightened and the verbal floodgates opened. Others joined in and conversation ensued over national idiosyncrasies, film, books, and cultural misunderstandings. The food came under the microscope, with New Zealanders proclaiming the baked beans tasty, the “crisps” (potato chips) too salty, and the hotdogs and coleslaw inedible.
One New Zealander looked furtively over his shoulder and confessed that he and other local staffers also had been ordered to attend the event, and that none had ever before seen American football. Anxiety ran deep over the highhanded attitudes of the incoming American staff. As our chats gravitated toward politics, every one of the Fulbright scholars was asked to explain the Bush-Gore election. (None of us could!) Every now and then a few staffers popped into the adjoining room for appearances’ sake, but the only part of the broadcast that received favorable comment was the halftime extravaganza; Britney Spears was then all the rage in New Zealand as well. I don’t recall who actually won the game, but I do remember an impromptu lesson on the glories of Jonah Lumu and New Zealand rugby, a sport I came to appreciate during my time in Wellington. To this day I follow New Zealand’s national rugby team, the All Blacks, more than the entire of the NFL.
So I’ll be skipping the game on Sunday. I might, however, cook a really lousy hotdog and slap it into a stale bun just for old time’s sake.