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Down and Out in the Red Zone

“Maybe no Super Bowl will ever be as important as No. XXXVI,” thundered an editorial in New Orleans magazine last February, “because this one is about national confidence.” And so it was. Super Bowl XXXVI was to be played only five months after the catastrophic attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, four months after powdered anthrax appeared in the mail of prominent U.S. senators, and mere weeks after the Enron bankruptcy. The army was hunting down terrorists overseas, the FBI was casting a wide dragnet for evildoers here at home, there were long, panicky security lines at airports. The warm, safe old world was coming apart, but the greatest TV spectacle of them all would stand like Gibraltar, replenish our faith in our nation’s ability to sell itself beer, cars, chips, and all manner of online services.

Number XXXVI was significant in even more ways than these, however. Football is mock combat, and the great game’s mystical connection to American military prowess was more important than ever. “Nations that have produced good athletes have also been able to produce good soldiers,” continued that editorial in New Orleans. “The infrastructure that can make great quarterbacks can also make great field commanders. The wealth and technology that makes domed stadiums, instant replay and satellite hookups possible can also manufacture stealth fighters, infrared viewing and unmanned spy planes.”

This was to be a Super Bowl with a noble purpose, and its organizers, who have always longed to drape this most grotesque of corporate extravaganzas in the flag, had finally received the go-ahead. Scrapping the event’s original Mardi Gras theme, they grabbed for Old Glory with both hands, working it into nearly every aspect of the proceedings. The new logo for Super Bowl XXXVI was a map of the USA in stars and stripes; the new theme was “heroes, hope and homeland.” Red, white, and blue trinkets were hastily manufactured to replace the original orange and black ones, but there is no logo like a discarded logo, and the obsolete pins and pens and bobbleheads that had been cranked out before 9/11 relentlessly made their way out into the broad stream of commerce, given away to reporters as curiosities or offered to the public as “collectibles.”

The first thing I noticed on arriving in New Orleans was the military presence, the knots of soldiers dressed for business in camouflage and M-16s who milled throughout the convention center.

There is another mystical aspect of the Super Bowl that I should probably mention. The great game is actually thought by some superstitious few to be a helpful economic indicator, like the consumer confidence index or the number of new housing starts. In years when an NFC team wins the game, it is believed, the Dow Jones Industrial Average will go up. When the AFC entrant prevails (which they haven’t done too regularly since the gloomy years of the 1970s), the Dow is overvalued and heading for a fall. Naturally I am an AFC partisan, both by temperament and (more importantly) by the accident of birth: I am from Kansas City, and the team to which my loyalties were forever assigned are the chronically troubled Chiefs.

I went to the Super Bowl in 2002 not merely to see what this oracular event looked like first hand, but to sample the Super Bowl experience, to see how Americans partied and played in these jittery times. The first thing I noticed on arriving in New Orleans was the military presence, the knots of soldiers dressed for business in camouflage and M-16s who milled throughout the convention center. The Super Bowl had been declared a “National Special Security Event,” the Louisiana National Guard had been called out, entire streets had been closed off, and journalists wishing to move from areas of lesser to greater security had to run an intimidating gauntlet of bag-searches and credential checks. At our moment of crisis, they were here to see to it that our Super Bowl would stand tall, would assure us that order still reigned. But what order, exactly?

They weren’t just there to protect the great game itself, all those troops and the private security guards that accompanied them. They were there, at great public expense, to secure the entire “Week of Game,” the carnival of press conferences, parties, celebrity photo-ops, and staged news events that leads up to the big game. For athletes, agents, team owners, sportswriters, media types, and PR people from all the branches of corporate America upon which the sports world symbiotically thrives (auto making, brewing, advertising, gambling, etc.), week of game serves as an unofficial convention, a place where brands can be puffed and talent pimped to hundreds of potential clients. New economy gurus used to rave about the NFL as an organization that was pure brand identity that produced nothing tangible, only a narrative for us to embrace, a lesson for us to learn, and week of game serves as the annual reunion for the brand’s vast extended family.

It was after 6 p.m. on the Wednesday of week of game when I arrived, and the soldiers guarding the New Orleans convention center didn’t want to let me into the media credentials booth. It seems one had to have credentials already in order to get inside and talk to the credentialing people. I ignored the maze of nylon ropes and went in anyways. The NFL folks staffing the booth didn’t mind. In fact, they were strangely giddy: all their high tech preparations for the week had failed, they told me. My photo, which I had carefully e-mailed them, had been lost. It would have to be taken again, and also would I please write down all the information I had sent in months before on this blank slip of paper? They would take it on faith that I was an actual reporter for a magazine.

In a world where every blank space screamed out for a corporate logo, the right people wore their rightness visibly and with pride.

Once credentialed, I stepped up to the hospitality table dispensing press kits and other trinkets, and here I ran headlong into a wall of gravity and seriousness. On my way into the building I had seen a reporter for a big city daily newspaper running for a complimentary media-only shuttle bus, wearing a complimentary Super Bowl hat and clutching two complimentary Super Bowl briefcases that overflowed with gracious helpings of even more complimentary Super Bowl swag. If that was what the Super Bowl was about, then I wanted swag too. But—wipe that smile of your face, Frank!—I was not a reporter for a big city daily. I was not in television, nor on the radio, nor even on the internet. My brand-new laminated dogtag revealed that I was with Harper’s Magazine, a highbrow publication that only a few people I encountered during Week of Game had ever heard of. In Super Bowl media land, where a Terry Bradshaw or a John Madden might walk through at any moment, this credential put me at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. The sweet southern drawl of the woman at the hospitality desk soured noticeably as she ready my tag aloud. She gaped with utter disbelief at my request to be outfitted like the reporter I had seen outside. Yes, I could ride around on the shuttle bus, but no, I would certainly not receive a helping of complimentary Super Bowl swag. And, no, she would not divulge where the official party was being held that night. She backed her chair away and stared at me with perceptible contempt. In talking to me, she was losing valuable hospitality time that could be put to better use, enhancing the stay of someone whose pleasure really mattered.

This, I would find, was a typical reaction from the belles of the bowl game. In a world where every blank space screamed out for a corporate logo, where every free soda pop came courtesy of someone, where every contest ever statistic, every punt pass & kick was sponsored by some generous deity, the right people wore their rightness visibly and with pride. Their clothes marked them with the name of their media outlet or corporate employer or team “organization.” They were driven to events in stretch limousines or in the Cadillac Escalade pickup trucks that circulated constantly during Week of Game, the ones with Super Bowl logos and “genuine leather” tags attached to the seats. Their seating was always upgraded, their experiences surpassed expectations, their credentials quickly trumped any length of nylon rope.

And yet my station in Super Bowl life still afforded me certain privileges. There was, for example, the open bar for journalists on the second story of the convention center, where burly security guards kept out riffraff like radio engineers and where the Crown Royal and the Chivas Regal poured freely into the plastic cups of reporters great and small. In the corner of this room, opposite a gigantic television that was always tuned to one sporting event or another, stood a 1981 vintage Galaga machine whose waves of predictably advancing bogeys I found far more interesting than some press conference detailing the pointless co-branding deal that the NFL has just struck with some soccer team in Japan.

(I probably shouldn’t knock all NFL press conferences. It was an NFL press conference that afforded me my one Walker Percy Moviegoer moment while in New Orleans, that let me experience the sensual apprehension of the simulacrum. I was watching the big TV in the media lounge as ESPN broadcast a press conference with the coach of the St. Louis Rams, the overwhelming favorite to win the Super Bowl. Not realizing that this pseudo-event was actually taking place right across the hall, I wandered out the door and into the very thing itself.)

And then there were the official Super Bowl media parties like the one I attended at the New Orleans city museum, where elaborate precautions were taken to keep us media people segregated from the undistinguished masses of tourists and city dwellers. Since shuttle buses, even of the most official variety, weren’t permitted on certain streets of the French Quarter, we were dropped off a block away from the party site, ushered by the ubiquitous security guards down a narrow alley, past people dining in a courtyard (a yellow nylon-strap rope had been set up to keep them there), and finally into the museum proper, where the sportswriters and VIPs enjoyed all manner of highly authentic music and food. Sipping complimentary plastic cups of Glenlivet before a vast painting of Andrew Jackson’s 1815 victory over the British, a tourism official offered to supply me with a list of restaurants and bars where celebrities were scheduled to appear the next day. Standing in the tiny courtyard of the museum, I was instructed in the fine points of pageant life by two beauty queens dressed in jeweled crowns and sashes (“Miss Louisiana” and “Miss Teen Louisiana”). Their accents marked them as members of the New Orleans upper crust, and they spoke in the scrubbed, high-minded phrases that we all know from the Miss America cliché, but before long I learned that they weren’t on the top-tier pageant circuit after all. The big contest that would decide their league’s champion was to be held not in Atlantic City but in Gary, Indiana.

Many steps down the pageant hierarchy were the women of the Hawaiian Tropic suntan lotion brand, always in groups of five or six plus a male handler, who could be found wandering hither and yon through the media center apparently uninhibited by the complex rules of access and credentials. Like the football players themselves, they were easily distinguished from afar by their wildly improbable bodies, which grew more freakish the closer one came: each of them was diminutive and rail thin, but with voluminous breasts erupting from their skinny chests. And each one seemed to have adopted a different trick for accentuating this feature: a cantilevered red-white-and-blue bra; a military-style shoulders-back posture; or a far too-small jacket with the zipper pulled half way up, causing the breasts to protrude like two footballs in an over-packed duffel bag.

It was never quite clear what the anatomically improbable Hawaiian Tropic women were doing at Week of Game. But when asked this or any other question—this was, after all, a gathering of media people—the models would turn the tables on their interlocutor with a sort of eroticized pity. The beauty pageant in which they were competing may not have drawn the approval of the matrons of Metairie, but on the food chain of physique they outranked all of us the way Vin Diesel outranks Rowan Atkinson. You’re a sportswriter for the Detroit Free Press? Awwww, that’s kind of cute.

The DJ spun a wall-shaking number delineating the joy of the blow job while several players got a little public frontage against the proffered hip-huggers of the stacked babes.

It is a social hierarchy that most people leave behind after high school. But in the corporate carnival that was Week of Game it was in full coercive effect just the way you remember it, a fact which was made absolutely clear to me when I showed up one night for a party at the French Quarter club called “Opulence.” My colleagues and I had been duly invited to the fabulous goings-on, but we quickly discovered that absolutely no one was being admitted. We waited outside in the drizzling rain while a throng of angry frat boys pushed and churned outside the door, one of them, a battered straw hat on his head and his eyes shallow as a cow’s, continually trying to pick a fight with the security guard. Some time later I came across a copy of the ad that had drawn them all to the gates of Opulence: “Hawaiian Tropic Beauties NFL Superstars two hour open bar,” it promised. Of course they had come; like clueless Okies promised great jobs in California, they had driven hours to get here. With the guys who screwed the Okies, however, there was a tangible financial motive. But what could explain the engineering of this colossal pile-up? Was there an invisible economy of celebrity in which one’s notoriety or Q-rating was somehow augmented by the size-times-frustration of the crowd of hapless mooks that one left milling outside the door? Were there extra points if the fans snapped and started fighting? Where there penalties for taunting?

After a full hour of waiting, one of my colleagues made contact with an accomplice inside and, thanks to the intercession of a kindly Hawaiian Tropic model, we gained entrance to the exalted space within. There was no open bar, but a party attended by the models and a number of St. Louis Rams was most definitely under way. A sports radio producer pointed out for me the various athletes in the throng. The biggest stars among them had evidently secured private party rooms from which they occasionally ventured out: in one of these I caught a glimpse of a famous retired quarterback, one of the heroes of my youth. In the fluorescent light of the crowed dance floor the distended lips and manicured nails of the Hawaiian Tropic women glowed pale green like a speedometer. A guy with a video camera followed a pair of women in tight pants, filming their asses as they walked. The DJ spun a wall-shaking number delineating the joy of the blow job while several players got a little public frontage against the proffered hip-huggers of the stacked babes. Three blonde debutantes, bobbing modestly on a platform at one end of the dance floor, became instant exhibitionists whenever the video camera was turned their way, caressing and licking each other while trying hard not to take their eyes off the lens. Complete, hermetic self-absorption was the erotic motif on the other side of the room where a brunette dressed entirely in black vinyl stood, expressionless, staring, and spread-eagle astride a catwalk, moving only slightly over the course of the evening.

I think it was while attending a press conference on a co-branding scheme between the NFL and Cadillac that I really started to dislike the sports reporters at Week of Game. The chairman of Cadillac was drawing the mandatory parallel between the Super Bowl and patriotism. He was saying things like, “Cadillac and the NFL are two powerful historic brands,” and bloviating about the TV commercial that was to run during the game featuring—for the very first time in a TV commercial!—the music of Led Zeppelin. He was followed by MVPs from Super Bowls past who enthused pallidly about the Escalade SUV, recalling the cars and vacations and other corporate gifts they received back in the day, and noting their inferiority to the gifts that are given out today (i.e., a Cadillac Escalade SUV). The room was filled with maybe two or three hundred sportswriters, TV crews, photographers, and (of course) a detachment of fierce-looking guards, and for all the colorful style and cynicism gathered in the room, nobody piped up and said, “This is bullshit” or “What the hell does this have to do with football?”

Where was the famous adversarial culture of the press? Gone, it would seem, with the rules that prevented journalists from accepting freebies from subjects. Cheerleaders lacking only miniskirts and pom-poms, the sportswriters had become a part of the NFL brand universe. In the Media Center, you’d see them relaxing in the big armchairs set up for them by the NFL, watching endless loops of Super Bowls past on the big TVs, munching on comp potato chips and swigging comp soda pop and leaving the trash for the comp cleaning staff. In the journalists’ lounge upstairs you’d see them standing in long lines for some deep-fried mystery comp. Oh, they could be plenty adversarial as individuals, all right. When I went to dinner with them, they’d laugh off the very idea of knowing the difference between zinfandel and merlot as effeminate stuff; when a group of them came into the empty lounge where the bartender and I were watching an old movie, they’d switch the TV to some obscure college game without even asking. But when the NFL brass shook hands with whomever they were co-branding at the moment, these guys eagerly scurried up to the front of the press conference, fifteen or twenty of them with cameras at the ready, so they could capture the scene for eternity while the two suits held the pose, hands clasped and smiles fixed.

Whatever actual sports-related work was done during Week of Game took place on “Radio Row,” the hall of the convention center where every sports-talk radio station in America was doing a live feed. A primal din of exaggerated working-class accents and unfamiliar jingles arose from the folding tables that had been set up there, along with snatches of esoteric arguments about football technicalities and the puzzling in-jokes of beloved on-air duos you’ve never heard of.

It was not uncommon here to see a radio personality interviewing a TV personality.

To listeners at home, perhaps, the reports from Radio Row sound fresh and exciting. But radio veterans regard Week of Game with a sort of horror: with airtime to fill and no real news to discuss, they open their microphones to just about anyone who walks through the convention center. This has transformed Radio Row into a week-long parade of hucksters, salesmen, sponsored beauties, and washed up athletes who were big in the day before athletes made millions of dollars and who now peddle self-published memoirs or hand-painted football cards. A few years ago, I was told, the group that recorded “Who Let the Dogs Out” showed up at Week of Game and made a stop at each booth in the Radio Row, performing the same snippet of their trademark harmonies for the listeners in Cincinnati, then Spokane, then Sacramento, and so on, the a cappella chorus slowly making its way down the hall.

In the highest demand on Radio Row were those athletes scheduled to play in the Super Bowl. These princely beings ambled nonchalantly down the corridor accompanied by entourages, the bigger stars bringing entourages composed of other celebrities. TV commentators like Joe Theismann were a close second in desirability. It was not uncommon here to see a radio personality interviewing a TV personality.

I sat down with the crew of a Chicago sports station as they broadcast a daily call-in show. I had met the manic host of the program the evening before, when he had taken a large group of Chicagoans out for steaks at Morton’s, had ordered so many bottles of 1994 Dom Perignon (both for his own entourage and for a table of mystery men across the room) that the restaurant ran out of it, and then had picked up the massive bill even though he barely knew several of the people in the group. He was, in someway, the precise opposite of the sports media type I was growing to loathe. While the press corps lived for comps, he was astonishingly generous. While most reporters and radio workers came straight out of college, he had been a hot dog vendor. And while nearly everyone at Week of Game, just like nearly every stockbroker I have ever met, sported a few fake working-class turns of phrase, his dialect was pure hardened Chicagoese. Most important, this radio host took his listeners seriously, carefully writing down their phoned-in predictions for the upcoming game; for the flood tide of official bullshit that swamped Week of Game, he had a healthy contempt.

Sitting at his table while he delivered two hours of frenetic, intricately detailed chatter, I was briefly able to escape my lowly station in Week of Game and observe the workings of the brothel of the brands from a buyer’s perspective. Unfortunately, I arrived too late to see House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt salute the Super Bowl as a “wholesome game” that was “good for America.” But I did come across a person from the nearby D-Day Museum pitching a connection between the newly patrioticized Super Bowl and World War II. For the most part, though, the subject was sports as the athletes’ wives and the agents’ assistants—blonder, slightly more modestly clad versions of the basic Hawaiian Tropic prototype—secured time for their charges on the Chicago airwaves. Wide receiver Qadry Ismail, much in demand for his easy humor, wandered casually from table to table. A controversial between-jobs quarterback shared his opinion that the key to life is “success, leadership, competitiveness, and faith in the Good Lord.” An athlete wearing a caramel-colored sweatsuit and a diamond-encrusted crucifix sauntered by, impossible to ignore. “Frank!” the producer hissed. “Go find out who that is!”

Upstairs, the NFL people were holding a press conference to announce the “Class of 2002,” this year’s inductees into the football Hall of Fame. As each winner’s name was read, a five-foot-high reproduction of his football card was set up before the media throng—with the Topps logo prominently added, of course. One of the inductees was reached by telephone, and the reporters held their tape recorders up to the loudspeaker to capture the great man’s words. When he stopped to take questions, he was quickly asked whether the team he played for was the best ever—we know it was a great team, but what we need to figure out is whether it was the best collection of football players ever, better than, say, that one team from two decades later. Out in the hallway, a reporter read the names of the chosen to a colleague over a cellphone and told him how to frame the story: “There’s toughness, there’s competitiveness…”

Using my own cellphone, I was finally able to reach the organizers of a party being thrown that night by Maxim magazine. They informed me that I had to pony up $500 if I wanted to attend the party proper, but that they would gladly comp me a space on the “red carpet.” And what did that mean? I would be permitted to stand by the door and observe the celebrities as they arrived.

Fuck that. There were so many celebrities and camera crews loose in this town that media frenzies were erupting spontaneously. Out on Canal Street I saw the mayor of Boston surrounded instantly by cameras and reporters as he tried to walk the ten feet from his hotel to his waiting limo. What appeared to be a Mardi Gras parade and was even being filmed as such turned out to be a bunch of drunken college students, brought together by some fleeting enthusiasm that soon dissipated. A massive SUV rolled slowly by, an Escalade outfitted with four video screens, each one on and the volume all the way up, even thought the driver was alone in the car. There went a stretch Lexus. A stretch PT Cruiser. A stretch Chevy pickup. My companions spotted Bonnie Bernstein of CBS puffing resolutely down the street. A columnist for USA Today smiled and waved. There was a table of ESPN guys in the Palace Café. A table of old guys with Super Bowl rings. A pimply teenager passed by drinking from a container shaped like a hand grenade. Then a guy who had a full-sized goldfish bowl hanging from his neck, sucking up the pale green contents through a Silly Straw. The rap diva Lavish was promoting her latest effort with handbills that depicted her at a table littered with hundred dollar bills, stock certificates, and a gold fountain pen with which she had evidently been signing them. An ad on a bus stop welcomed me to New Orleans on behalf of the Cash Money Millionaires.

The bar at the New Orleans Harrah’s casino features a night sky painted on the ceiling and a series of majestic bas-relief friezes depicting the history of jazz. (One of them is marked “Fusion.”) In the casino’s capacious auditorium on the Saturday of Week of Game, the Hawaiian Tropic women were preparing for their beauty contest. Dressed only in bikinis, they walked around among the dark-suited VIPs, hugging celebrities and sitting on laps for official photographs. A DJ played favorites like “Shake Your Ass” and “If You’re Sexy and You Know It” while makeshift bars hooked the journos up with complimentary Maker’s Mark. Once again, the video cameras had their customary effect, instantly transforming filmees into slatterns, inspiring them to mount raised platforms and grind with all the lewdness they could summon. Standing well clear of the velvet ropes of what he called the “look but don’t touch” zone, a radio personality from Texas tried to explain for me the still-mysterious connection between Hawaiian Tropic and the Super Bowl: he’d heard that maybe the women are all represented by this one agent. Who was in turn connected to the big game. Who really cared, though. What mattered was that red, white, and blue bunting decorated room, the hors d’oeuvres were comped, and on a giant American flag behind the stage was projected the simple declaration, “Athletes First.”

Up on the veranda a growing crowd, hailing from all corners of affluent American suburbia, studied the vessel with awestruck admiration.

On Bourbon Street, so many people had jammed themselves into the celebrated space between the old colonial buildings that walking became impossible. Out in the crush, Patriots fans were taunting Rams fans. Rams fans were congratulating one another for siding with the obviously superior team. The men in the throng were middle-aged and surprisingly well-groomed, in neatly clipped hair and oxford shirts and expensive football team jackets. The women were wearing stylish leather coats, designer sunglasses, and the sort of bob that was fashionable among Southern sorority women in the eighties. In the shops you heard them arguing with proprietors over Patek Philippe watches; in the street they carried paper cups of beer and clustered where someone had heeded the time-honored cry to “show us your tits,” raising their state-of-the-art video cameras to peep over the thick mass of surrounding oglers, bagging another treasured memory that could be savored later in the media room of the suburban estate. Overhead, on one of those typical French Quarter wrought-iron balconies, a line of men in T-shirts and leather jackets bellowed for tit. So obese that their bellies actually hung over the iron railing, they nonetheless kept leaning forward to cajole or taunt or throw things, and each time the railing would shake and start to give, but then snap back. The distinguished crowd scrambled drunkenly for beads. They took up the call from so many different points that it achieved an uncanny echoing effect, rising above the ordinary clamor and noise. “Your tits!” they cried. “Your tits . . . your tits . . . your tits!”

The three-hundred-foot yacht Tatoosh, of Antiguan registry, was moored strategically in the Mississippi River, directly in front of the New Orleans’ new Riverwalk Mall. On its decks, men in logo-embroidered button-down shirts could be seen sauntering easily about while two stretch limousines idled on the wharf, awaiting the passengers’ pleasure. Up on the veranda a growing crowd, hailing from all corners of affluent American suburbia, studied the vessel with awestruck admiration. Families asked strangers to take their picture with the yacht in the background; kids marveled at the helicopter onboard and speculated about the fun the unknown owner must have with his tow: not one, but two Sea Doos, which were clearly visible on the deck. A man excitedly described the scene on his cellphone: “Must have more money than God, whoever he is.”

The tenth-largest yacht in the world, Tatoosh is the property of the world’s third wealthiest man, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Easily the Most Important of all the VIPs that assembled in New Orleans for the Super Bowl, Allen had—by parking his big, big boat so conspicuously—neatly dropped an ace of trump on the week-long pre-game competition. What’s more, he wasn’t charging $500 to take a look. Anyone in town could have a red-carpet view of the comings and going of this cash money billionaire merely for the price of an oyster po’ boy. And to judge by the excited buzz among the cloud, plutocracy made for a better spectator sport than did booty-shaking swimsuit models—maybe even better than football itself. After all, this was what it was all about. This was the sight that put all the pieces in place, that made it all make sense: we sweat and grunt and type and choke and drive and fake enthusiasm and film and cook and serve and lift and run and pour and smile and dance and suck so that this one man can enjoy ease and pleasure beyond imagining.

I watched the Super Bowl at home. On a big screen TV with a six-pack of beer at my side. There may even have been pizza; I don’t recall. In fact, I only clearly remember three things at all about the game itself. First, the animated soldiers that were used to introduce each player’s stats, pushing a tiny animated button to make the numbers appear and then turning and snapping off a perfect animated salute. Second, the halftime show in which Bono of the Irish band U2 covered himself with an American flag, ran laps around a makeshift stage to the faked enthusiasm of a trucked-in audience, and, while the names of the 9/11 victims scrolled down the TV screen, worked himself up to the brink of some sort of ecstasy of virtue, like Bernini’s Saint Theresa. Third, the AFC squad administered a world-class humiliation to the heavily favored NFC team.