Myth America: The Legend of Super Sunday
It happens every year: Super Bowl Sunday approacheth and super-sized things are said about the whopping impact on America wrought by the football spectacular.
The water systems of major cities are in peril of collapsing due to a thunderous amount of simultaneous toilet flushing at halftime. It happened in Salt Lake City, you know.
More drunken and loutish men beat up more women on this Sunday than any other day of the year. Shelters are swamped with calls. There’s a university study that proves it.
The stock market will fluctuate up or down depending on which league is triumphant: AFC means a bear, NFC a bull. Ask your stockbroker.
Disneyland is nearly depopulated. The line for the Matterhorn moves as briskly as the drive-thru at McDonald’s. The same for major golf courses--lots of foursomes just stroll on without reservations.
And two-thirds of all avocados, that most Californian of delicacies, are sold within days of the Super Bowl as Americans prepare their guacamole for watching-and-munching parties.
All interesting and culturally relevant stuff--interesting and relevant enough to launch many a feature story during the days of hype that precede the Roman-numbered contest.
There’s a problem.
Each of these factoids is either an outright falsity, sorta-true-but-sorta-false, or, as one of those hoary old newspaper editors from long ago would have it, too good not to be true whether it happened or not.
Welcome to Super Bowl mythology, proof anew that we Americans, despite our sophistication and cyberliteracy, are still related to those superstitious ancients who painted their faces, howled at the moon and swapped legends about the power of certain days to cause portentous events.
“People need legends to keep their society glued together, to make sense of their world, and for Americans that leads directly to the Super Bowl, our great national, even transnational, celebration,” said Alan Dundes, professor of anthropology and a folklore expert at UC Berkeley.
For Dundes, Super Bowl whoppers are just the American variant on an ancient tendency.
“Every culture’s legends express that culture’s values,” Dundes said. “Super Bowl legends usually involve numbers and a sense of enormity. The idea of big numbers, of being bigger than other people, is very American.”
Beyond many a good legend there is a kernel of fact, or a dash of hopeful thinking, and so it is with Super Bowl legends.
Water wonks readily confirm that Super Bowl Sunday brings large-scale water usage at approximately the same time. But they also note that all but the most aged and infirm water systems should be able to withstand the downflush and uptick with no problem.
Furthermore, it is not as if Super Bowl Sunday is the only time water usage increases. For mass flushing, the champs in most cities remain the final episodes of “M*A*S*H” and “Seinfeld” (no records are in yet for the televised portion of the presidential trial).
It is true that a water main broke in Salt Lake City in 1984 on Super Bowl Sunday. News stories on the Super Bowl toilet factor routinely list that incident as proof positive of the phenomenon.
Alas, Leroy Hooton, director of public utilities for Salt Lake City, says no link between the Super Bowl flushing and the 16-inch-main break was ever established. Waterline breaks, he notes, are not uncommon in Salt Lake City, where much of the infrastructure is in its dotage.
Still, a local television station broadcast a “teaser” for its 11 p.m. news that night about the water break, and the tale has been part of the journalistic fabric of Super Bowl lore ever since.
“It’s a very good story,” Hooton said. “There just doesn’t seem to be any truth behind it.”
‘A Cultural High Holy Day’
Speaking of good stories, here’s news you can use (if only it were true): Super Bowl Sunday is the best day of the year to visit that secular shrine called Disneyland because everybody is home watching the game. The park is virtually empty and the rides are just begging for customers.
“That’s just not true,” said Disneyland spokesman John McClintock. “We get asked that every year. Super Bowl Sunday is not much slower than any other Sunday in January.”
While journalistic Pecksniffs may worry about the veracity of legends, professor Dundes does not. “As folklore, the truth of a legend is unimportant,” he said. “Legends show what a culture is worried about.”
Which brings us to Super Bowl week 1993, when women’s advocacy groups released a study done at Old Dominion University. It purportedly showed that more women are abused by men on Super Sunday than on any other day of the year and that women’s shelters receive an onslaught of panic calls.
Soon, however, one of the study’s authors said its conclusion had been distorted and, although abuse statistics seem to indicate a link between football and abusive behavior, a good deal more study is needed.
A flap persisted for several Super Bowl seasons, and there are varying opinions about whether the overreaching had served or damaged the cause of abuse prevention. “Oh, please, let’s not go through that again,” said one leader in the fight against spousal abuse when asked to revisit the controversy.
Lawrence Wenner, a professor of communications at the University of San Francisco who has written extensively on the Super Bowl, calls the last Sunday of January “a cultural high holy day” fueled by mass advertising and sports mania, two supercharged engines of modern life.
The Super Bowl comes soon after the religious holidays, he said, and in cold weather parts of the nation it represents a final occasion for a ritualized gathering of family and friends to say farewell to winter and look forward to the hopefulness of spring.
As such, Wenner said, it’s not surprising that the game is surrounded by a penumbra of mythology. “We all look for deep meaning in our rituals,” he said.
The ancients celebrated important days with important meals, so it is not altogether surprising that Super Bowl has its own food legend, one with a California flavor: that two-thirds of all avocados sold in this country are sold within three weeks of Super Sunday.
Which led a wiseacre last year to combine two Super Bowl legends and muse on a Super Bowl Web site: “If I beat my wife with an avocado on Super Bowl Sunday, will anyone in San Diego hear it?”
The avocado story has such currency that even some folks at the Santa Ana-based California Avocado Commission believe it. A marketing specialist at the commission said, when queried, the figure “sounds about right to me.”
Later the commission spokesman placed a follow-up call with an erratum: Avocado sales for the Super Bowl are less than 5% of the annual total. Super Bowl is big--about 8 million pounds--but it’s a piker compared to Cinco de Mayo--14 million pounds.
But as one legend is dying, another is being born.
The avocado commission each year stages an AvoBowl. Guacamole dips are prepared that catch the “flavor” of the rival cities. This year the Denver dip had Colorado onions and hot sauce, and the Atlanta dip had Georgia peaches.
A taste test is held. In four of the last five years, the AvoBowl winner has also won the Super Bowl.
“We think there’s a connection,” said commission spokesman Neal McCarthy.
The winner this year is Denver. Stand by, legend watchers.