Pageantry, Violence And High Stakes: A Philosopher's Take On The Super Bowl

Jan 30, 2020

There are many reasons we watch the Super Bowl: the half-time performance, the ads, and, of course, the game. But as James South notes, whatever your reasons for watching, you're participating in a cultural phenomenon.

South is a professor of philosophy at Marquette University and a pop culture expert. He says one of the reasons the Super Bowl is such a touchstone in American culture is its combination of pageantry, violence, and high stakes.

"You win or you lose the Super Bowl in one day, and on any given day, any team can beat any other team," South explains. "Over the course of seven games in the World Series, that’s very different. And so the concentration of the Super Bowl is, I think, a really important attractive element to it."

South says the Super Bowl is very much a modern version of the battles held in the Roman Coliseum — the teams are the modern gladiators, there's the half-time spectacle, the use of Roman numerals, and the blood lust (even though that last part is more metaphorical than literal these days).

And South doesn't leave out the Greeks either. He says the Super Bowl has philosophical elements of both Dionysian (excess and unbridled passion) and Apollonian (reason and restraint) characteristics.

"It's Dionysian in terms of the excitement, the buildup, the release, the spectacle," he says. "On the other hand, you have to think about how much discipline these players and coaches have to be able to put all of that out of their minds to play for 60 minutes and not let it get in the way."

But when the kickoff happens on Sunday, South won't be thinking about philosophy. He'll be in front of the TV rooting for the Kansas City Chiefs, and enjoying the half-time show and a libation or two. And no matter the outcome, he'll be ready to hash it all over with his friends and colleagues the next day — just like the rest of us.