For a half million years past, human success and failure were equivalent to life and death. A few centuries in the future, machines will be the sole necessary producers, and success and failure will not even be possible outside of a completely synthetic framework.
Today is a curious blend. Today, we must still exert ourselves for survival, but we are safe from sudden starvation. And while NFL teams compete within the artificial structure of a football game, the prerequisite achievements to reach that game are wholly organic. Rules constrain the number of men on the field and how much you can pay them. But football rules do not dictate how Paul Allen can amass the fortune to purchase a franchise; rules do not tell Russell Wilson how much he can study, nor Marshawn Lynch how much he can exercise, nor Pete Carroll how much he can philosophize; and no framework of rules limited the amount of effort and character Beverly Sherman, and many others like her, was allowed to invest in raising a son.
NFL football is reality T.V. without affectation. The splash coverage of a few scandals reflects only the slice of consumers who desire it. The system itself does not reward immature personal conflicts, but professionalism, teamwork, and years of relentless effort; qualities that make for occasionally dull press, but a wonderfully refreshing overall narrative.
And because the stories are real, we are not given impossible super heroes to idolize and worship; we have something better. We have genuine people to identify with.
I have been Russell Wilson when I stepped into a situation as the person of greater ability, only to see leadership status delegated by virtue of three inches of height.
I have been Marshawn Lynch when a telemarketer asked "Do you currently rent?", when a panhandler asked "Do you have any change?"; when I did not want to give the true answer, leaving me a choice between submission and lying, until finally I realized there was nothing wrong with me but my own integrity and that it was in my power to reject the intrusion.
I have been Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin when some other "they" were wrong, when I was right and I knew it. I have understood that opportunities for resolution are precious, that it was right to seize on such a rare chance and rub their noses in it hard.
But why football? Why does an outcome decided under this set of rules mean anything? The answer is born from a century of ancestral contests. Even if you devise a new sport with more exciting athletic displays or more compelling strategy, expect a century-long gestation period before it has meaning to rival football.
But don't call it tradition. Don't you dare. Tradition is the opening coin toss to determine first possession. Tradition is a merry-go-round of static motion. Football is history. It is not a cycle of games played, but a record of championships won, a tale of blowouts and nail-biters, a litany of performances both great and terrible. It is the evolution of rules, strategies, and leagues, an inextricable series in which every event is utterly dependent on that which came before it. It is a game we have played in high school, in our backyards, on a vibrating metal platform with plastic miniatures, and even on paper; it is team colors we have worn, banners we have flown, and emotions we have experienced. Football is no more artificial than the very language we speak. It is real.
With so much personal investment in football, we naturally question its greater value to society: We look for a league that promotes cancer awareness; we look for individuals who give time and wealth to the less fortunate; we look for soldiers on overseas duty who watch a game and are grateful for a taste of home; we look for an enhanced sense of community when the sidewalks and retail stores are awash in team colors; we look for ourselves, briefly relieved from mundane tasks, to return to to the daily grind with renewed vigor and inspiration.
We see lives saved by medical tests; we see young people rescued from failure by charitable work; we see greater morale among our servicemen and women, better relations in our communities, and greater production from individuals.
Keep looking. We find that all these things, in some small way, produce more abundance and less suffering; we find that the ultimate end is not bare survival at a miserable sustenance level, but a better quality of life: a surplus of time, wealth, and security sufficient to allow us a Sunday afternoon with friends and family sitting in front of the television; and at last we see that it was never necessary to make excuses for football, that it was never a means to an end, but an end unto itself; that we never had to ask what football could do for life, because football is life.
Come Monday, fans of the losing team will be left with disappointment in place of anticipation. For everyone else, the drama and excitement will be spent; even fans of the winning team will be left with a vague sense of satisfaction that cannot compare to the exultation of sudden victory. The irony is supreme; forty-eight Super Bowls have been played, video is easily obtained, but Super Bowl XLIX draws all our attention, all our desire to learn the outcome, precisely because we do not know the outcome. Today, we value our ignorance.
Today, we can enjoy a high definition broadcast that was not available even a decade ago; today, star athletes are rehabilitated from injury with cutting-edge technologies. In perhaps another decade, computers will be superior for a majority of coaching and scouting duties; and not long after, advances in medical technology will demand a massive influx of rules and surveillance to protect competitive balance.
We stand to witness a rare and special contest this place, this day.
At the center of the battle are two great coaching minds. In an era when excessive authority is considered dangerous, when fools misconceive the "wisdom of crowds" as something more than two extremes of stupidity cancelling each other out, Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick have earned coaching positions with unusual control. Neither functions alone; exceptional achievements are the product of many minds; but exceptional decisions and ideas are the product of one mind.
If this were war, Bill Belichick would be a combination of Boeing-Ford-Mercedes and Erwin Rommel; a master of production and a battlefield innovator. Belichick builds his arsenal with the efficiency of an accountant, trading draft picks into the future for greater return, cutting above-average players with above-above-average salaries, and snatching bargains out of the draft by picking undervalued positions. Come gameday, he deploys his weapons with no concern for dogma, employing whatever tactic is necessary to defeat a particular opponent.
Pete Carroll is Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton, the consummate politician-general and the inspiring leader with a bias for preparation. Carroll nurtures and unifies diverse personalities in building his team. He does not seek to reinvent his strategy on gameday, but prefers to do his innovation far in advance, instilling his players with the necessary skills and a strong esprit de corps through practice and repetition.
I do not apologize for the war metaphor. Some part of our psychology craves territorial aggression, the defeat of adversaries, and the establishment of supremacy. It is a tragedy that it leads to war, but football is all the glory and drama of war without the death and subjugation, and that ought to be celebrated. Let us cheer on our warriors with a clear conscience. And whether you watch in hopes of victory for your team, for the drama of a championship, or for the excitement of sport at the highest level, let us all graze together on this fertile event. The Super Bowl is the anti-commons; the more who consume it, the greater the stakes, and the greater its value.
To win, today, is to stand atop the highest peak. While a series champion can hoist their trophy despite having lost a game two nights ago, and a non-playoff league champion can even end their season with a loss, the Super Bowl permits no such ambiguity. A crucible of playoff competition demands that eleven of the league's twelve best teams end their season in defeat, all for the greater glory of the Champion.
A statistical record is ephemeral; it is a momentary victory that will suddenly turn to defeat on some uncertain future date; and even on the day it is achieved, it cannot claim to be the best possible. But to be the Super Bowl XLIX Champion is to be the Super Bowl XLIX Champion forever; it is to claim victory by right of having vanquished every possible foe; it is to stand atop the peak of Everest and boldly proclaim, "I did not stop climbing; God ran out of mountain."