It has become a cliché to point out that pointing out that Super Bowl hype has gotten out of control has become a cliché. That much is crystal clear.
The ancillary events that surround the Super Bowl offer something for everyone: haters, watchers, hate-watchers, hate-watcher haters and hate-watcher hater-watchers. There are even some events that appeal to football fans. Here are the 10 most absurd, wackiest and most self-consciously hype-propelled events and phenomena of Super Bowl week. We love them, we loathe them, and we can ignore them as easily as a jumbo jet parked in our driveway.
10. NFL Honors. Football fans said it for years: "This sport is great, but it would be even better if it were more like the Tony Awards." The NFL heard your pleas last year and created "NFL Honors," an award show and telecast that combines all of the tightly choreographed thrills of the Golden Globes with the high-wattage star power of Gary Kubiak in formal wear.
Alec Baldwin hosts NFL Honors, and Baldwin is engaging enough, but attempts to glom buzzy young Hollywood stars onto the festivities are often puzzling. Taylor Lautner walked unrecognized down the red carpet last year, because few football writers are also "Twilight" moms. This year's telecast features a performance by OneRepublic, as the Fresh Beats Band refused an invitation for political reasons.
Yes, Virginia, there really is a red carpet, down which NFL players, coaches and legends strut, sashay, limp, waddle and in some cases stalk as if they might be asked to shed a tackle at the end. When working the red carpet as a reporter, it is hard to tell which is stranger: asking Brandon Marshall who he is wearing, or getting a serious, detailed answer.
9. Log Rolling: It would not be Super Bowl week without players saying blandly laudatory things about their opponents for seven straight days. Quarterback compliments quarterback, coach compliments coach, coach compliments quarterback, quarterback compliments coach, and offensive linemen gleefully compliment everyone on the rare occasions when they are asked. For variety, a few players compliment Jesus (this week, that is Ray Lewis' turf). With access tightly controlled and scripted and players unwilling to provide even a hint of bulletin-board material, all interactions take on the stilted politeness of the dialogue in an E.M. Forster novel, except that Forster had no fondness for the phrase "heckuva competitor."
All of this perfunctory praise builds upon itself like the stairs in an M.C. Escher painting until a player who was simply a "heckuva competitor" at the start of the week becomes "a beacon of athletic excellence shining from a hilltop of human achievement whose light of legacy will burn for generations," which is actually the working title of my Tom Brady biography. We have come a long way since Joe Namath held a press conference at poolside. Then again, no one wants to see Isaac Sapoaga's upper thighs.
8. Counter Programming: The Super Bowl provides great opportunities for people who have zero interest in sports to illustrate just how zero interest in sports they really have. A web browser search for "Puppy Bowl" revealed that Puppy Bowl IX has attracted 16,300 mentions in the last 30 days, with articles in The Atlantic and The New Yorker, as well as People and Bleacher Report. Puppy Bowl is somewhat adorable, and the taped program runs during the endless pregame lead-up, when the choice of a playful pit bull over Terry Bradshaw has obvious appeal. But this is the ninth annual event, so the veterans of the first game are already on the Senior Health Maintenance chow. No one is talking about pensions for those former puppies, who left all of their friskiness on the gridiron for our amusement. Perhaps someone should.
Television networks are forced to either beat the Super Bowl or join it. Count on Food Network to focus on tailgate snacks and barbecue this week, while HGTV goes heavy on the man caves and "House Hunters" in New Orleans. Honey Boo Boo will be cheerleading, or something, and the "Amish Mafia" may begin marketing something like Harbaugh Butter. Any highbrow cultural programming is typically marketed as some kind of Super Bowl antidote: "Tired of hearing the troglodytes drone on about the 'Big Game' and the coaching brothers? The Cultural Broccoli Network has a pair of feuding brothers you can really get excited about: Arvino and Pagano in Verdi's I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata. With an intermission full of puppies!"
Your local coffee house will probably also have a folk music open mic night, or something. Better to drown in hype than die of Patchouli asphyxiation.
7. Media Day: The most notorious event of Super Bowl week: a Roman orgy in which the wine and debauchery have been replaced by banal quotes and poorly concealed hostility. Media Day is our industry's excuse to stuff a tube down our own metaphorical esophagus and gorge ourselves like foie gras geese on a fatty slurry of pregame hype. The players trapped inside interview booths for hour-long interview marathons are ironically the only people in attendance not trying to draw attention to themselves. The whole event is televised, and sometimes open to the ticketed public, so fans can watch players go glassy eyed at inane questions while reporters jostle each other as if the person who gets 18 inches closer to Pernell McPhee wins an automatic Pulitzer.
Media Day, like many Super Bowl events, has acquired its own gravity and atmosphere, so sportswriting cutups like me are more likely to write about Media Day than to write reports based on the interviews we conduct during Media Day. You might think that this would be a good year to report on the phenomenon of reporting on the phenomenon of Media Day, which I am technically doing in this sentence, but in fact that became a common angle on Media Day about two years ago. At some point, you just stick phrases like "Delanie Walker spoke to a bikini model holding a disco ball dangling from a fishing pole Tuesday," on a plate with some field greens, then move on to something else.
6. Commissioner's Press Conference: Imagine a State of the Union address without all the messy democracy, and you have a great idea of what it is like when Roger Goodell gives his annual NFL report to hundreds of reporters and a national television audience. The commissioner will assure us that television dollars are good and concussions are bad, that Thursday Night Football is here to stay no matter how many teams are forced to play three games in 11 days (it didn't hurt the Ravens, right?), and that kickoffs may be replaced with an obstacle course or whatever else popped into someone's head after Coaches Drink Free night at a Mobile bar during Senior Bowl week. The conference is conducted in a tightly controlled, dignified manner; reporters swarm players like ducks around a kid with a loaf of bread all week, but the commish gets treated like Xerxes.
After the press conference, which everyone sees, we all write identical articles based on what we were told. Except me, of course: I will provide a link to Mike Garafolo's USA TODAY Sports report, then criticize Goodell for not creating pensions for Puppy Bowl veterans.
5. The NFL Experience: Actually the NFL Experience is fun for people who like huge tradeshows in convention centers. Ticket prices fall somewhere between "regional theme park" and "lifelong bonding experience or die trying" for a family of four, and enough father-and-preteen-son duos bounded happily out of the event in Indianapolis last year, with bags full of memorabilia, that the NFL's answer to Comic Con deserves some benefit of the doubt. Kids get autographs from minor players and the chance to run drills on artificial turf; fathers get cheerleaders, a referee simulator (no, it's not a dark room), some wholesome live music and autographs from minor players. Football-disinterested family members probably get something too, even if it is just a few hours of peace. It is all mildly fun.
The NFL has gotten so monolithic and corporate, however, that it has lost touch with mild fun, a criticism that can be extended to most events of Super Bowl week but holds doubly true for the NFL Experience. "Step inside a uniformed body-cast mold bearing the insignia of your favorite NFL team and have a friend snap your photo," proclaims the caption for a photo of a tyke standing inside a giant Steelers mannequin on the NFL Experience Main Page. Yes, insert your biological spawn into our gladiatorial simulacrum and create a digital image as an enhancement to memory. An explanation of the waiver form appears just below the Steelers kid; the NFL and its sponsors are not responsible if junior skins his knee during an activity or if he cuts himself while stepping into a uniformed body-cast mold. Thrills are not guaranteed. Any unlicensed use of the insignia is prohibited, so color inside the lines, kiddies.
4. Injury Report Opus: Every Super Bowl, one player's injury status is conflated into the kind of philosophical question that made Socrates eager to order the double hemlockitini. Will he play or won't he? Will he be 110 percent, as all players must be for the Super Bowl, or less than 100 percent? Do we really expect a straight answer from head coaches who make Richard Nixon look like an over-sharer?
Last year, it was Rob Gronkowski's ankle; by the end of the week, we had stopped asking Bill Belichick about it and started asking Deepak Chopra. Two years ago, it was Maurkice Pouncey's ankle; Pouncey was then a rookie center, and an excellent one, but more words were written about Pouncey's ankle in the week before Super Bowl XLV than about all the body parts of all the centers in the league during the entire 2011 season.
This year, David Akers' psyche may replace the traditional ankle on the injury watch. Akers has been slumping lately, so we will ask Jim Harbaugh about Akers' psyche and Colin Kaepernick about Akers' psyche and Justin Tucker about his opposing kicker's psyche. Akers himself will be given the press conference equivalent of a Rorschach test. The more we are assured that Akers' psyche is nothing to obsess about, the more we will obsess about Akers' psyche. The only saving grace about all of this psychological speculation is that it appears that Akers is completely healed from the sports hernia that bothered him early in the year. Otherwise, we would have to replace "psyche" with "pelvis."
3. Radio Row: If the thought of roughly 100 sports talk radio shows going on at once does not immediately trigger an aneurysm, then Radio Row is the place for you. More of a gauntlet or maze than a row, this corner of the media beehive is set aside to allow radio producers, personalities and engineers to do their jobs in the noisiest, most chaotic conditions possible. Radio Row was open to the ticketed public at times last year, so fans could see how the magic happens: Athletes and personalities on a promotional junket march from makeshift studio to makeshift studio like ants canvassing a community picnic, delivering nearly identical interviews to irascible, distracted hosts, who are just wishing that the intern would return from his cigarette break and throw away the pile of Styrofoam chicken wing containers. The glamour is palpable.
2. The Media Room: A simmering caldron of suspicions and petty resentments with cubicle partitions, semi-reliable Internet access and a soda machine. The "box" we are all instructed to think outside of is, in fact, the media room, where we all haunch over our laptops so no other reporter can steal our top-secret features angles (I'm working on a story about the Harbaugh brothers!) or see that we are just playing Minesweeper. Reams of paper holding typed transcripts of every redundant podium interview line a huge table in the center of the room; every once in a while, a frustrated beat reporter dives onto the table and waves his arms to make a Transcript Angel.
There is an inverse correlation between the time spent by a reporter in the media room and the quality of his or her Super Bowl coverage. That said, many of us are always there, because there is a soda machine.
1. Reporters Complaining about Covering the Super Bowl. Nothing screams "Super Bowl Week" like the obligatory carping from those of us who are getting paid to attend an event millions of fans across the world can only dream of witnessing live. Rest assured that when you are not hearing about David Akers' psyche, the Harbaugh brothers' genetics, Roger Goodell's plan to expand the season to 52 games or Ray Lewis' Ray Lewisness, you will be privy to every inconvenience or hassle we endure to provide you with the most interesting coverage you can get without owning a television. If the temperature drops below 40 degrees in New Orleans, I personally plan to take to Twitter and pout as if I am embedded in a combat unit in the Pamir Mountains.
Yes, negotiating the absurdity, noise, self-conscious hype and general nuttiness of Super Bowl week in exchange for hanging out in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in America on the company dime and being a tiny part of the biggest sporting event on Earth is a dirty, dirty job. But somebody's gotta do it.