The Super Bowl is an annual ritual celebration of the classical virtues embodied in the game of football, virtues that help fortify our national character. I know that not everyone will see so much in the event. For some critics, the Super Bowl is a mere spectacle, empty pomp and crass consumerist craze, all as meaningless as the silver glitz of the Patriots cheerleaders’ pom-poms. Indeed, even the architect who designed the stadium where the game will be played posits a theory to undermine any pretense of classical virtues or abiding ideals. Peter Eisenman claims to apply Derrida’s deconstruction to architecture. Like any unstable signifier in post-structuralist theory, his stadium has already changed names since opening only a few years ago. No longer Cardinals Stadium, it is now University of Phoenix Stadium, a name paid for by the popular on-line university. But by any name, the brushed steel structure gleams under the sun and stars like an uncanny cactus in the middle of the Arizona desert. It is visible for miles because there is nothing around. It is a shining beacon of nowhere – an “atopia,” in Eisenman’s terms – a meaningless no-place where will happen meaningless non-events, such as the Super Bowl. Or if not meaningless, the event offers only the superficial good of being “good for the economy.” Before the game, you can pay $150 to enter a “ V.I.P.” party tent to mingle with “celebrities” and pay $8 more for bottle of water. Super Bowl Weekend incites a constant media cycle of reportage and commentary, an unending media spectacle beckoning our attention – 140 million viewers! – attention advertisers will pay dearly to capture. During the game, thirty seconds of screen-time will cost as much as $2.7 million.
This might be the story of Super Bowl XLII (as written by deconstructive theory or the Glendale, Arizona chamber of commerce), except for the game. The game is the saving grace. The game embodies classical virtues and manifests a transcendent good that saves us from the purely gratuitous. For example, the New England Patriots recall Roman virtus. What we may call virtue or excellence, the human capacity for practical good, the Greeks called arête, meaning a kind of virtuosity, exemplified in the courage of Achilles or the cunning of Odysseus. When the Romans translated the Greek ethos as virtus, they emphasized the communal rather than the individual heroic aspect of excellence. So Roman virtus was exhibited in the coordinated courage and discipline of the legions in action, accomplishing complex maneuvers in the thick of battle over difficult terrain and to lethal effect. This virtue of team-work must be prized by all large working groups, not only football teams, but also corporations and the military. The New England Patriots exemplify this virtue. Their offense operates with Roman precision and effectiveness. There are no egos on the Patriots. In an American culture that caters to insatiable desires and superficial self-interests, selflessness and disciplined cooperation are welcome lessons.
In Virgil’s Aeneid, Rome’s legendary founder Aenais embodied this virtus, and so does Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Brady’s demeanor and decisiveness tell more than any physical virtue. More than the strength of his arm, Brady’s analysis of opposing defenses and ability to employ every weapon in the multifarious Patriots’ arsenal has made his team the most potent offense in NFL history. Brady proves why prudence, or practical wisdom, is thought of as the ruling virtue.
A contrast to Brady’s quiet confidence is Giants receiver Plaxico Burress. Burress has boldly predicted a Giants win, even specifying a final score. Although Burress has tried to back off from his prediction, saying that he was just trying to be “entertaining” (and isn’t such entertainment harmless fun and anyway good for the economy?), such comments are typical of Burress who, after catching a touchdown pass, ostentatiously bows to the four corners of the field and then, with all eyes upon him, just as ostentatiously kneels to pray (an odd combination, the pious punk).
Earlier in the season, in responding to a similar prediction by a proud opponent, Brady pithily replied (quoting a fellow patriot, Ben Franklin): “Well done is better than well said.” This is a maxim worthy of Seneca. It distills the very essence of ancient virtue, and the saving grace of today’s game. The good cannot be completely known, cannot be completely said. As Plato instructed, the good is beyond being, beyond rational prediction and control, no matter how well-said. The good is best recognized in action. And the good will be known by the comparative difference between good and better. “Well done is better than well said.”
Although the stadium’s architect has argued for the insignificance of his buildings, he has somehow betrayed his own words in having created a stunning setting for a football game. Perhaps his heart has betrayed his mind. Peter Eisenman is, in fact, a long-time Giants fan and season-ticket holder. And Plaxico Burress, despite his words of hubris, is an excellent player who shows speed, leaping ability, soft-hands, toughness and panache. You can watch Burress catching balls from Eli Manning all night long. His individual virtues were displayed in the last regular game of the season in which the Giants played against the Patriots. Both teams having secured play-off berths, this was supposed to be a meaningless game in which stars, such as Brady and Burress, ought to be rested and kept safe from injury. But with nothing but pride on the line, both teams fought gloriously. Let the Super Bowl be as “meaningless” as that final game of the season and we will have a good game on our hands indeed.
A good game will put all the silver glitz in its proper perspective. The game will be seen as an epiphany of the good, exemplifying physical virtues and intimating corresponding spiritual ideals. The teamwork of the Patriots, the calm decisiveness of Brady, the courage and flair of Burress offer lessons that can be translated over into everyday life. Enjoy the game.