"You mad, bro?" Three words from Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady sparked a challenge that millions of people around the world are excited to see resolved on Sunday.
More than most championship games, Super Bowl XLIX features a collision between two cities that represent different generations of American identity. Not surprisingly -- in a contest rooted in masculinity -- racial symbolism functions in many different ways as the owners, coaches, players and audiences come together. Seattle and Boston represent visions of American society that clashed in the 2008 presidential election, in the classic NBA championships between Magic and Bird and in countless radio broadcasts, movies and television shows over the last century.
Boston, alongside Philadelphia, is the "Original City" of the United States. The determination of 18th century merchants and sailors to resist British tyranny is the stuff of legends and lyrics. As a metropolitan region, New England is one of the wealthiest places in human history. When people use the phrase "old money," they are talking about Boston. With extraordinary institutions of higher learning like Harvard, MIT and Tufts, the city also holds an unparalleled reputation for educational leadership.
Seattle, in contrast, arrived in the 21st century two decades before the rest of the country. With Silicon Valley to its south, it is arguably the leading edge of Digital America. Its foundations in the aerospace industry and the derivative technological sectors continue to sustain one of the most innovative regions ever designed. While scholars have understood Boston as a "thinking city," Seattle is a paragon of a "planning city" where thought and action combine in careful, strategic outcomes. Remarkably similar in population (both at approximately 650,000 people), Seattle has a larger white population than Boston with many more Asian residents. More than one in four Boston residents is African American, and the history of racial and ethnic tensions have defined Beantown in ways the Emerald City has avoided.
The composition of each football team's celebrity leaders reflects these broader, historical forces. The Patriots look to Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski for consistent excellence and reliable performance, despite the equal importance of Vince Wilfork and Darrelle Revis. The Seahawks rely on Pete Carroll, Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and Richard Sherman, when (for this contest) Kam Chancellor and Bobby Wagner are the pivots for success or failure.
While fans of both teams come from every background in the nation, the Patriots resonate with many of the tropes of white traditional authority -- the genius of the head coach, the greatest pocket passer of this generation and the strongest, most impervious receiver in the league.
Much of the criticism against the Seahawks hinges on Sherman's trash-talking, Wilson's running ability as a quarterback and Lynch's palpable disrespect for authority both on the field and off -- longstanding critiques of African Americans broadly in American history.
None of these perceptions have much to do with the realities of the individual players and coaches. These symbols play out in the social psychology of a nation still struggling with the daily presentation of the first African-American president and a range of institutions (from criminal justice to corporate finance) that punish public expressions of black resistance.
Rage froths on all sides of this confrontation. In Boston, sport was a constant arena for emotional engagement. The bombing at the Boston Marathon revealed the potent unity that the city can summon when assaulted. A century of frustration with the Red Sox has given way to championship excellence over the last decade. Even the Celtics surged back into relevance, creating a smug sense of entitlement based on the Patriots' domination of the NFL since 2001.
Seattle's passion comes from a resistance to an environment where it never seems to stop raining. The recent loss of the Sonics basketball franchise fostered an unmatched endearment between the city and the Seahawks. After feeling robbed of a Super Bowl in 2005, the swagger of the Legion of Boom manifested the spirit of the 12th man -- a howling, stomping mob of fans that intimidate every opponent.
For many viewers around the world, the New England Patriots represent experience, wisdom and adaptation. Seattle, in turn, symbolizes talent, quickness and unpredictability.
It is a contest between youth and athleticism, on one hand, with age and intellect, on the other. It simultaneously transcends race and reinforces it. Each play features a rage that the audiences feel, but cannot express publicly.
Super Bowl XLIX takes the world through a glass darkly immersing us all in a reflection that shows a nation's past and its future.