Stories With A Score: What Super Bowls Teach Us About Us

I cannot account for why all Ohio State fans are so passionate about their team that they earn the rebuke and anger of fans of other teams. I can only explain how my own attachment to the colors of Scarlet and Gray began: My dad was an usher for The (I know) Ohio State University for most of my growing-up years and would often bring me along to cheer and idolize the giants of the Buckeye scene. He would tell me all the stories about Woody Hayes (except one) and indoctrinate me into the church of OSU.

To this day, when I watch the Ohio State athletes compete, I am watching some part of my own story and hoping my childhood allegiance has the higher score at the end of the day than the people watching their projected pasts and dreams in Michigan.

Sports have always been about stories. They have always been about the identities we build from the stories of our families, cities, and ideologies. They become about the clash of personalities or typologies. Often when we root for a team, we are rooting for some part of ourselves.

For all that the Super Bowl is, it is also a story battle. The NFL knows they are doing more than competing: They are tapping into the giant myths that live under the jerseys. Before the AFC Championship game this year, they ran this meta-spot highlighting how these narratives work. 

Super Bowl Sunday has a lot to teach us how narratives work and how they can work for us:

Shared stories have great power. We all know that this Sunday is a chance for artists, athletes, and advertisers to battle it out for headlines and attention the next day. It’s one of the rare moments left in our country when giant crowds of people watch the same thing at the same time. Cultural touchstones are built in moments like this. How else do we explain the phrase “Left Shark” becoming a part of our lexicon? (For more on the person behind the Left Shark, see this great feature from NPR. 

Even shared stories have diverse angles. This year, maybe more than ever, this game has become a projection of the division in our country. In the simplest story, the New England Patriots are clearly a powerful dynasty and anybody they face is the clear underdog. But since narratives are complex, and we are in a moment when politics are everywhere, the Patriots have also somehow become attached to the ambiguous Right-leanings of their coach and quarterback. In fact, left-leaning Patriot fans have even designed a way to cheer for their team but keep their politics intact. Even if your own leanings go the other way, it’s hard not to appreciate the effort to redeem these entanglements. 

Clear stakes make for great stories. For all the complications of sports stories, there are also very clear winners and losers. The scoreboard gets a certain kind of final word. It is a rare moment of clarity in a world where most of us spend a good deal of energy wondering whether we are on winning or losing sides. For one brief moment, we know. We know the clear pain of defeat or the pure joy of victory. And sometimes a clear ending is where the story really gets started.