Super Bowl 50: American Inequality on Display

Today, maybe more than any other day on the calendar, the contradictions of U.S. society will be on display. Over 100 million people will gather around television sets to watch Super Bowl 50 with friends and family. The beauty of the community that will be shared, however, will be offset by the display of wealth and inequality.

Super Bowl 50 will be played at the approximately $1.5 billion dollar Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. In the heart of the wealthy Silicon Valley, the stadium is replete with high tech amenities befitting the region’s industry. Luxury boxes are stacked up like a luxury hotel and general seating is much closer to the field than in any other stadium according to Sports Illustrated.

This, of course, comes at a high price that only the very wealthy can afford. Sunday’s ticket prices are averaging $5,000 a seat, with some going for as high as $20,000 according to SeatGeek. It is “the most expensive sporting event in history,” according to CNN Money. For those unable to shell out the thousands of dollars, they can go to Super Bowl City in San Francisco where the city used $5 million to attract tourists and the city’s growing young wealthy population. Super Bowl City goers can also attend one of the various celebrity hosted pre-Super Bowl parties in San Francisco, such DirecTv and Pepsi’s Super Thursday Night with Dave Matthews Band for $1200 a ticket. San Francisco, like cities all over the nation, are using public funds to underwrite sporting events that contribute to the gentrification of the city and displace the poor.

Like gladiator battles of the past, Levi’s Stadium will be filled with members of the U.S. ruling classes, while largely African American young men from working class communities will be on the field. The great athletic feats will be tempered by the violence on the field. The punishing tackles on the field will exacerbate already existing brain traumas, depression, premature arthritis, back and knee injuries, and drug and alcohol abuse. We are finally beginning to learn about the long-term impact of the sport on players and their loved ones, all for a few minutes of glory.

Class, gender and racial inequality will be front and center at Super Bowl 50. The punishment on the field will be borne largely by Black working class bodies, since African Americans comprise 69% of NFL players according to the Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sports. The players will be well compensated, but they will earn very little compared to the largely White owners and corporate leaders who will profit from their punishing tackles and remarkable runs and catches. While the NFL is seeing growth in the number of African American coaches and women as front office staff, the real power is held by the owners. The owners are among the wealthiest people in U.S. society, and 14 of them are on Forbes list of the 400 Wealthiest Americans.

In a “man’s sport,” women workers on the football field are also subject to gender and labor exploitation. While they are not the main event, cheerleaders are essential to the football spectacle. As recent lawsuits and exposés have revealed, wealthy owners profit from the virtually free labor of cheerleaders. Viewed more as sex objects than the athletes that they truly are, most are paid under minimum wage and pay for their uniforms and other requirement to have the “cheerleader look.” The 2009 leaked manual for cheerleaders revealed that many were paid between $90 and $150 a game, while others only received a game ticket and parking pass. They received no compensation for the 6 to 15 hours a week of practice. Not surprisingly, their looks, body size and type, grooming, and personal hygiene are all subject to scrutiny. These unhealthy and exploitative working conditions further line the pockets of team owners. The body image from which the NFL is profiting contributes to the unrealistic displays of “beauty” that bombard our culture.

Those not in the 1% will watch from home. They will view American excess from afar but it will have no less impact. Many will watch the game just to see the commercials and the fabulous half-time show. This event is a marketer’s dream come true. Paying up to $4.5 million dollars for a 30 second commercial, megacorporations will put their products in front of just under 50 percent of households. They will sell unnecessary items in what can only be seen as a celebration of U.S. gluttony. A beer company will spend millions selling its product wrapped in a “socially responsible” chiding by “a respectably frank British actress.” Sugary beverage companies will hire well-known superstars to sell their sodas, reaping billions in profit as they contribute to obesity, malnutrition, and diabetes throughout the world.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not against escapism, but this is not just a game. It is a window into economic inequality, racism, and sexism in the U.S.


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Enrique C. Ochoa is a Professor of Latin America Studies and History at California State University, Los Angeles.  

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