Armageddon with a halftime show

Joe Queenan writes frequently for Barron's, the New York Times Book Review and the Guardian.

TODAY’S SUPER BOWL offers Americans the increasingly rare opportunity to witness the triumph of absolute good over unadulterated evil. This is what pro sports used to be about, when teams were concentrated in the industrial colossi of the nation, when the Brooklyn Dodgers symbolized the downtrodden proletariat courageously battling the wicked ruling class — as embodied by the charismatic but satanic New York Yankees.

Today, such epic confrontations are virtually obsolete. They began to fade with the pitiful decline of the Dallas Cowboys, a hateful franchise once known as America’s Team, not because most Americans actually liked them but because the Cowboys, like the Yankees, attracted a vast, transcontinental fan base consisting of gutless scabs who had betrayed their home teams in St. Louis, Detroit and Atlanta — after first stabbing their own mothers in the back — and plighted their troth to the glitzy serpents from the nation’s least attractive major city. The city that once killed my president.

Moreover, when there has been a recent opportunity for good to conquer evil, as happened three years ago when the Red Sox humiliated the Yankees in the American League division championship series, Red Sox fans immediately became more obnoxious than Yankees fans, playing Robespierre and the Reign of Terror to Louis XVI and the ancien regime. So now everybody wishes the Red Sox would go back to losing to the Yankees for the next 86 years.

By and large, the symbolic contest between good and evil rarely enters into the discussion of recent championships: The San Antonio Spurs, the Arizona Diamondbacks, the New Jersey Devils, the Florida Marlins, the Dallas Stars, the St. Louis Rams, the Carolina Hurricanes and even the Denver Broncos do not actually stand for anything. Bereft of mythology, supported by interchangeably bland fan bases, these teams stand for nothing.

This is what makes today’s Super Bowl between the Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Bears so special. Although the official story line has Peyton Manning, arguably the greatest quarterback to never win a Super Bowl, cast as the sentimental favorite to get his championship ring, this ethically corrupt fairy tale scenario cavalierly overlooks the serious moral issues underlying the set-to.

Manning’s team, the Colts, wears the same uniforms as the Baltimore Colts, the storied franchise from which they are descended. These Colts, it will be remembered, prevailed over the New York Giants in the nationally televised 1958 NFL championship game that made America fall in love with a sport it had previously sneered at or ignored.

But the Indianapolis Colts are not the Baltimore Colts. In 1983, in one of the most egregious scandals in the history of American sports, the Colts’ vile owners fled Crabcake Corners under cover of darkness, loading up all the Johnny Unitas and Alan Ameche memorabilia in Mayflower moving vans and hauling it off to the banks of the Wabash, or thereabouts. Unlike the Cleveland Browns, who had the common courtesy to change both their name and uniforms when they relocated a few years later and became the Baltimore Ravens, the Colts refused to give up the name they had pilfered, even though they had promised to do so.

Instead, the Colts chose to maintain the appalling fiction that a vaunted football franchise transplanted to a mesmerizingly inconsequential Midwestern city could possibly have any connection with a mythical team from one of the proud, gritty metropolises that line the East Coast. Unitas went to his grave refusing to recognize the existence of the repellent mutation. The Colts, like the Brooklyn Dodgers before them, had spit in the face of their fans by clinging to a name, a logo and a legacy to which their new fan base had no claim. But at least the Dodgers had the class to move someplace flashy like Los Angeles. The Colts moved to the Land of the Hoosiers.

The Bears, by contrast, are one of the mythical teams in NFL history, a franchise founded by owner/coach George Halas, a man who not only gave birth to the league in the 1920s but played in it. The Bears own more NFL championships (nine) than any other team, and have played continuously in the same stadium since 1971 (before that they played for 50 years at the even more legendary Wrigley Field). Soldier Field, it should be noted, is an old-school, open-air stadium; when it rains, the Bears play in the mud, when it snows, the Bears play in the fog. The Colts, by contrast, play inside a dome.

Professional football is a cruel winter sport that was invented to allow working-class men saddled with horrible jobs; living in dangerous, densely populated cities; supporting families who don’t like them, to temporarily forget their troubles for three hours every Sunday.

Professional football was never meant to be played in front of hedge fund managers and pediatricians in Jacksonville or Phoenix; it was meant to be played in front of angry, drunken proles — or at least people who know how to behave like angry, drunken proles — in South Philadelphia, the Bronx, on the shores of Lake Erie and on the South Side of Chicago. Perfidious carpetbaggers like the Indianapolis Colts, with their domed stadium and their freshly scrubbed, antiseptic fan base, are the antithesis of everything pro football is supposed to stand for.

Pro football is supposed to be about belonging to a tribe, sticking with a tribe, living and dying with a tribe. The Indianapolis Colts, like the Utah Jazz and the Dallas Stars and the Oakland Athletics, are franchises that deserted their roots yet ignobly refused to allow their grubby little fingers to be pried away from a name, a logo and a mythology to which they had no moral claim.

So when the gallant, redoubtable, beloved Peyton Manning takes the field tonight, I hope he completes 75% of his passes and throws for seven touchdowns. But I hope the Bears score eight. In all likelihood, this will not happen; in all likelihood, the overmatched Bears, like the Scots to the English, the Saxons to the Normans, the Indians to the cowboys, are going to take an awful beating. But this could be one of those strange nights when the gods come down on the side of the angels. Remember: George Armstrong Custer was the favorite that day he lost big. And so was Goliath.