Super Bowl LIV Was Always Going To Be Political: 5 Moments That Cemented It

From children breaking free from cages to climate-sensitive car commercials

If you were planning on tuning into Super Bowl LIV on Sunday night (February 2) and tuning out the swirling politics of the world around you, sorry, that didn’t quite happen. While the big game — and sports more broadly — have always been political, last night’s broadcast brought tensions to the forefront in plenty of ways. Some elements, like Jennifer Lopez and Shakira’s explosive halftime performance, were heavily anticipated; others, like presidential campaign ads and a major Twitter snafu by the President himself, were surprise additions that millions of people parsed through together, in real time. Below, five times the 2020 Super Bowl found itself in the middle of the political fray:

The teams were politicized from the start

While not necessarily intentional, given that each team secured its spot in the championship game by beating other teams in the playoffs, it was certainly hard to ignore the political implications each competitor presented.

First was the matter of the San Francisco 49ers, a team at the center of the political discourse in August 2016, when their star quarterback Colin Kaepernick famously took a knee during the National Anthem to protest police brutality and the systematic oppression that people of color are often forced to endure; he was later joined by teammate Eric Reid, as well as players across the league. Kaepernick hasn’t played since the season ended in 2017, and his contract was not renewed, despite outperforming many of his contemporaries. In February 2019, the star settled a lawsuit against the NFL that accused the league of colluding to blacklist him from playing.

His absence was intensely felt this year, especially during a commercial break about halfway through the game: The NFL used a minute-long spot to highlight retired wide receiver and Players Coalition co-founder Anquan Boldin, whose cousin was killed by a police officer in 2015. As the Washington Post points out, the clip has been on airwaves throughout the 2019 playoff season, and is part of the league’s larger Inspire Change campaign, which kicked off in April 2017.

Jay-Z, whose Roc Nation imprint partnered with the NFL last year, told the New York Times that Kaepernick “was done wrong” by the league, but that he hopes to continue to move the conversation surrounding police brutality forward. “I would understand if it was three months ago. But it was three years ago and someone needs to say, ‘What do we do now — because people are still dying?’” the rapper and mogul said.

And then, there’s the matter of the Kansas City Chiefs, whose name, branding, and fan rituals are appropriative and racist. The team has asked fans to not appropriate Indigenous dress, and that film crews not pan to the ones who ignore the request, per the New York Times, but while the team regularly engages with local tribes, it has yet to correct course on the divisive arm gesture known as the “Arrowhead chop.” (The team is far from the only professional sports team to use such tropes — the football team that plays in Washington, D.C., uses a racist slur as its name, and teams like the Chicago Blackhawks (NHL), the Cleveland Indians (MLB), and the Atlanta Braves (MLB), are also complicit.)

Yep, those were 2020 campaign commercials you saw

Most Super Bowl commercials are light, if not intentionally tacky, affairs. They excel in weird humor, and this year, featured everyone from Jason Momoa to Chris Evans to Jonathan Van Ness to Chrissy Teigen and John Legend. But one celebrity people didn’t necessarily anticipate showing up was President Donald Trump, whose campaign commercial debuted during the first quarter of the game. The ad centered on Alice Marie Johnson, the 64-year-old woman whose sentence was commuted by the President last year after lobbying efforts by lawyers Brittany K. Barnett and MiAngel Cody, as well as Kim Kardashian. “Thanks to President Trump, people like Alice are getting a second chance,” the clip boasted of the First Step Act; the ad reportedly cost the campaign $10 million.

Trump wasn’t the only candidate to show up during a commercial break; ad-happy former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg also shelled out millions of dollars for his spot, which featured a woman named Calandrian Kemp, whose son George was a victim of gun violence in 2013. The clip positions Bloomberg as being pro-gun-law reform (you can view his plan here), and it also speaks to the staggering amount of money the candidate has spent on campaign ads since announcing his candidacy in November of last year.

Commercials tried to dodge the immediate reality of the climate crisis

… even though the game was hosted by the city of Miami, which is already combatting rising sea levels and is bracing itself for future flooding. As journalist Emily Atkin pointed out in her newsletter, Heated, car companies like Audi and Hummer positioned their electric vehicles as the new frontier in car consumerism. A lobbying group called the “Center For Consumer Freedom” tried to slam plant-based meat alternatives under the guise that individual consumers should decide what is best for them, and that people advocating for plant-based diets are imposing their ideologies on unwilling victims. (Even the UN has agreed that plant-based diets are kinder on the environment than factory farming, though the crisis goes far beyond personal lifestyle changes and also depends on corporate overhaul in order to curb carbon emissions.) The alt-meat company Impossible has already responded with a commercial of their own.

What about the Halftime Show wasn’t political?

There was almost no way the spectacle wasn’t going to be political. See: Rihanna and Cardi B reportedly turning down the show, Beyoncé’s Black Panther-inspired “Formation” debut, Lady Gaga’s pride-filled “Born This Way” performance, to name a few. The stakes were already high, and all eyes were on Jennifer Lopez and Shakira to see what they would add to the conversation.

Add to that the fact that, in the lead-up to the event, almost every moment has touched on the show centering two Latina performers at the top of their game, in a city whose population is 70 percent Latinx. “When I think of my daughter, when I think of all the little girls in the world, to be able to have that and to see that two Latinas are doing this in this country at this time, it’s just very empowering for us,” Lopez said at a press conference the week before the game, per the New York Times. 

So it’s not surprising that the show was overt in its messaging. Among the most talked-about imagery was that of the children performers, who entered the stage in rounded orbs that resembled cages and wore white outfits embellished with silver American flags. Their leader, Emme Muñiz, belted her mother’s anthem “Let’s Get Loud” while Lopez, clad in a feathered cape resembling the American flag on one side, and the Puerto Rican flag on the other, riffed on Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA.” Bad Bunny and J Balvin both rapped in Spanish, the second most commonly spoken language in the country. Shakira, who is of Lebanese descent, offered a zaghrouta to the camera; other viewers saw it as paying tribute to the Carnaval de Barranquilla, an annual celebration in Colombia. The Norteño band, Los Tigres Del Norte, also performed that night.

It’s also worth pointing out that the set featured no Afro-Latinx singers. A number of social media trolls also decried the inclusion of Spanish-language lyrics, but that was almost to be expected, given the rise of xenophobic animosity that meets plenty of Spanish-speaking people when they use the language these days. The stars still got loud, though, in a performance that pushed for change as much as it reinforced a basic fact: The myth of the “Latin boom” has far outstayed its welcome. These are some of the world’s biggest superstars, whose songs need no introduction or translation.

And then there’s the matter of Trump’s geography…

Shortly after the game concluded, the President tweeted his congratulations to the winning team  with his signature haphazard capitalization: “Congratulations to the Kansas City Chiefs on a great game, and a fantastic comeback, under immense pressure. You represented the Great State of Kansas and, in fact, the entire USA, so very well. Our Country is PROUD OF YOU!”

The tweet was quickly deleted and reposted several minutes later with a key edit, given the Kansas City Chiefs play in Kansas City, Missouri, and have played there since they relocated to the city in 1963. As the Washington Post pointed out, this was far from the first time Trump’s sense of geography has diverged significantly from reality.

And while plenty of people came to Trump’s defense, arguing that the people of Kansas City, Kansas, were also proud of the team’s victory, it was Claire McCaskill, the former Democratic Senator for (you guessed it) Missouri, who issued a definitive response: “It’s Missouri you stone cold idiot.”

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