Seems El Niño and Mother Nature snuck off on a tryst, leaving the weather shockingly exquisite. For seven days and nights, there have been no terrorist attacks, no sexual assaults, no earthquakes, no drunk pictures, not even an attempt by Sean Penn to interview Roger Goodell. On TV screens worldwide, people see spectacular vistas of water and hills and cliffs and bridges and think, “Damn, why can’t I live in (collective cringe) Frisco?”
And the matchup? It appeals to all divergent demographics — Peyton Manning attracting sentimentalists, conspiracists and old ladies who like his pizza and insurance ads, while kids and techies and haters fixate on Cam Newton — with the victorious team tonight carving out a powerful narrative either way. If the Carolina Panthers win, they’re remembered as a rare 18-1 colossus whose quarterback is reimagining offensive football, and if the Broncos win, they’re remembered for a creaking-body redux: Manning departing on top in the very footprint of John Elway, who brought him to Denver to do just that.
What is not to like about Super Bowl 50? Even the drones have behaved, avoiding low-flying strikes on visitors.
“Thanks to everyone in San Francisco,” Goodell said during his commissioner’s address in Moscone Center West, also mentioning the Bay Area in its entirety and even the cartoonish local owners, Jed York and Mark Davis. “This community has been wonderful. You all have done a terrific job. We’re thrilled to be in your beautiful community and glad to celebrate Super Bowl 50 right here.”
So explain something, then. Why, when everything appears right in the final hours before kickoff, does everything also feel wrong? Why aren’t words such as “beautiful” and “wonderful” springing off tongues in the places I’ve frequented this week — which have included 90-mile daily jaunts to and from San Jose and Santa Clara, too many hours in the Media Center (and accompanying jungle that is Radio Row), a welcome party thrown by the Host Committee, a Dave Matthews concert, an 80th birthday dinner for football great Jim Brown, a Taste of the NFL party, a Rolling Stone bash, a fete tossed by Comeback Agent of the Year Leigh Steinberg and too many bars and restaurants to remember?
Because the Super Bowl, as a hulking and shrieking reflection of America itself in the 21st century, is polarizing and complicated to the point of always allowing a buzzkill to blunt any given high.
Yes, in what was more than typical Goodell b.s., San Francisco has done a fine job of presenting its mystique, innovation, scenery, culture, cuisine and nightlife this week to those that matter: NFL dignitaries and high-rolling fans who are spending large sums. Add sunny skies and not-too-chilly temperatures, and the Bay Area is positioned to qualify for a spot in the league’s coveted Super Bowl rotation, ensuring that more millions will be pumped into the local economy in six or seven years. A good thing, right?
Not for the warped contrarians who can’t do math and are upset that The City has invested a mere $5 million to host the event. Have they not noticed the price of hotel-room prices, stretching beyond $3,000 a night at five-star spots and $600 at fleabags? Have they not noticed thousands of league and media representatives on expense accounts, the swarms of fans who can afford four days at a Super Bowl and, thus, can afford shopping, dining, partying and touring sprees? When the average ticket price on the secondary market exceeds $5,000, think the people who pay such sums are eating at McDonald’s? As Mayor Ed Lee keeps repeating, the stronger this city is economically, the more equipped he is to address a homeless epidemic for the long term and help make The City more affordable for all. Consider $5 million to be an investment, not a subsidy for the NFL. And don’t forget, while fetching your calculators, that San Francisco is on pace to be the most philanthropic of Super Bowls, with the “50 Fund” ready to donate $13 million to nonprofits.
The dissenters are shouting anyway. The homeless staged a rally and have made their presence known despite Lee’s efforts to shoo them away, in a rude housecleaning of sorts, for the Big Game. A Denver columnist told me, “Yeah, your mayor put them in front of my hotel.” A friend from a major NFL sponsor said, “I watched a guy take a crap in the middle of the sidewalk.” We’re used to the blight here, but for visitors from cities that value clean downtown areas for tourism purposes, it’s shocking from the perspective of health and safety. The CBS-televised optics are not the visuals seen by visitors in the city core, including shots of the large “50” statues that have been vandalized, peed on and crapped on.
The NFL, of course, is the most prosperous sports league in the annals of humankind. But it has achieved that stature in unethical, dubious and hypocritical ways. More than $4 billion will be wagered on the game, most of it illegally, and yet the league hasn’t ruled out a Raiders move to Las Vegas while cutting a deal with fantasy sites DraftKings and FanDuel in London. The concussion crisis again has drained enthusiasm this week, with news that swashbuckling Raiders legend Ken Stabler is the latest player to have suffered from the brain disease CTE. And while Goodell avoided one public relations nightmare — Tom Brady returning to his native Bay Area, after beating the league in court in the Deflategate case, to win his fifth Super Bowl and accept the Lombardi Trophy from a sheepish commish — he might have another in the form of Manning.
In a country sick of scandals, we dearly want to believe that he is a victim of shoddy reporting and, as he claims, didn’t take human growth hormone. We want to believe that Manning can muster up one more savvy, airtight performance, near his 40th birthday, and ride off as the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl.
“He can still work the corners and get guys out,” the old man said the other day, comparing himself to a crafty baseball pitcher. “I feel I can still move the chains. It’s being able to adjust.”
But there was Goodell at his press conference, explaining why the league feels compelled to probe Manning even if the Al Jazeera America network has shut down and its only source has recanted his story. “We take every allegation … very seriously,” Goodell said. “When these allegations first came out, we immediately began our own investigation.” Which means, even if Manning wins the game and Most Valuable Player award, it’s possible he’ll be found guilty later of breaking rules — just as Brady, the other epic quarterback of the era, was accused last year.
So that would be a buzzkill, sure.
As for Newton, he has angered football traditionalists and joy- bashers everywhere with his dabbing and dancing. Am I hearing correctly that Bill Romanowski would choke Newton — “Hopefully, he wouldn’t breathe for a long time,’’ was the quote — if SuperCam celebrated in front of him? He seemed to grow up a little this week when he refrained from any more headline-grabbing moments about being “an African-American quarterback,’’ a discussion that seems stale almost 30 years after Doug Williams became the first black QB to win a Super Bowl.
Yet as he tries to become the first QB to win a Super Bowl, league MVP award, national college championship and Heisman Trophy — all before his 27th birthday — there’s still a sense he could go awry in his biggest moment. Across the field is wily Wade Phillips, in perhaps his final Super Bowl, challenged to produce a game plan that could give him and the Denver defense a place a history. And as outerworldly as Newton is, Von Miller can be described similarly as a QB-punisher.
Was this a revealing quote about Newton’s mindset this week? “Half of me is trying to be as professional as possible, but the human in me just wants to take it all in, you know what I’m saying?” he said. “Of course, the professional side, you still have to go through meetings, try to come up with any type of edge, because you’re still preparing for a team — but all the festivities, media, everything leading up into it, all you see is Panthers-Broncos conversations on TV — it’s hard not to just take it all in. I mean, it’s hard. Like I keep saying, it’s a dream come true and hopefully we are prepared come Sunday.”
It’s a lot to think about as — gulp — tens of thousands venture 46 miles via one highway, one Amtrak line and one light-rail line to a stadium beside an amusement park. You’re supposed to be comforted that Google Buses will be transporting fans to Levi’s Stadium, but be forewarned: Those are the same Google Buses sometimes bombarded by rocks thrown by the homeless.