As thousands of people descend upon the New York/ New Jersey area for the big game this weekend, I can't help but draw a comparison to The Hunger Games.
I know, I know, but hear me out.
I recognize that I may be talking to two very different audiences here, so let me give a little background.
If you're not familiar with The Hunger Games, it is set in a sort of post apocalyptic North America, which is divided into districts. The Capitol is the district that creates the laws and culture for the society (or so they assume), and holds most of the wealth. The leaders of The Capitol put on an annual show called the Hunger Games, where representatives (Tributes) from each district battle to the death in a televised reality show style game. The winner receives glory, fame, money, and life. The hero of the story is a young woman who represents one of the many poverty-ridden districts. Her name is Katniss Everdeen.
Cut to the Superbowl.
Now, if you don't know anything about the Super Bowl, we may be at a bit of an impasse. But for the sake of argument, the Super Bowl is a game happening on Sunday, just outside of New York City, where the two best NFL teams will play to crown the winner of the season. One team is from Colorado, the other is from Washington.
Sometimes New York reminds me of The Capitol. New York believes itself to be the tastemaker for the United States, much like The Capitol in The Hunger Games. To an extent that's true, to an extent New York does set a tone for what happens in the United States, but of course, there are bound to be disconnects in a country the size of the USA.
I've been thinking about this as people converge onto the NY/NJ area for the game. First off, let's get the elephant in the article out of the way: No, the Super Bowl does not end in death. This is not a an immediate life or death situation. The worst that might happen is someone's career ends early, but most of the line will have minor (or severe) head trauma by the end.
When Richard Sherman made his hyper-enthusiastic post game interview he was called everything from unprofessional to a thug. People all over the world had opinions on how he should have conducted himself. In the wake of that chatter I've been struck by how much this doesn't feel like a game. People like to talk about what the NFL and NCAA does for the players. You know, it brings guys out of tough situations, it allows people access to wealth when they wouldn't have access otherwise, and all of that is true.
But the reason that Katniss Everdeen is a hero in The Hunger Games (besides the fact that Jennifer Lawrence makes her look like one) is not because of her athleticism. It is most definitely there, she is an incredibly skilled athlete, which is part of the reason she does so well in the games. But the reason we know her as the hero of the story is because everyone watching knows there is a preferable alternative to the entire story unfolding before us. We would rather see her happy at home with the people who love her, not battling to the death. I see traces of that story in the story of Sunday. There will be men on the field who grew up thinking of football as one of their only real access points to wealth, who did not have full exposure to viable alternatives. There will also be men on the field (possibly the same people) who are exactly where they want to be.
But as Richard Sherman points out, the average football player's career lasts for about 3.5 years, although the NFL would argue it is a bit longer. After that things go south for many ex-players because they have never been taught to handle such a large amount of money (which is not a phenomenon reserved for the NFL). Why would they? People make A LOT of money to understand how to use and grow that kind of money. It's not something you just learn in the society we live in (and trust me it's not something you learn in public school).
Many intelligent young men are pushed into sports. My mom used to comment on how people at church always asked girls how their grades were, but they asked boys how they were doing in football - sometimes basketball. Things are this way because for many middle income communities (You thought I was going to say poor, didn't you? Well that too), people see sports as one of the few examples of how to gain wealth in America. They do not necessarily have friends whose fathers run art galleries in Chelsea. They don't have uncles who run hedge funds, or fathers who get lunch with friends of Harvey Weinstein.
A person can only strive to do something if they are somehow able to imagine it. If large populations of young men in our society are only exposed to a few examples of how to gain wealth, how can we expect them to climb a ladder they don't know is there? How can we expect people to explore careers they have never in their lives been exposed to? This is where the American dream meets reality. This, from my view, is the chasm where people with access genuinely don't understand those without, and vice versa.
As we watch players run full speed into one another on Sunday for our "entertainment," we should think about the game. What are we watching? In my estimation, what we are watching is not just a game. There are real lives being observed. Millions of young boys will see what they perceive to be their path to fame, money, and glory. They won't really understand how small the chances are that they will get to the NFL, or that playing in the NFL is not all fun and games, or that it does not promise a lifetime full of wealth.
No, what they see are men who look like them, who are fighting for glory, and who, in the end will get it.