A Telling Streak at the Pandemic Super Bowl

Photo: Getty Images

It is a fitting — and very 2021 thing — that for most of the pandemic Super Bowl, many people watching at home were angry about something that was not true. And they still weren’t all that wrong to be angry.

It was jarring, no question, to turn on Super Bowl LV, a football game held in the middle of a plague that has killed over 463,000 Americans, on a weekend when public-health officials implored Americans not to gather, and see a stadium packed with fans. And a loud one, too. This was not the first pro sporting event in the United States to have fans, but it was the first one that legitimately felt full. How full? Well, when President Biden, speaking with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden on the Jumbotron before the game, asked for a moment of silence to honor those lost during the pandemic … it was very much not silent.

The thing was, though — the stadium wasn’t full. There were 25,000 fans in a stadium that holds 66,000, and 7,500 of those fans were vaccinated health-care workers, who were there to be honored for their dedication, to advertise the efficacy of the vaccines, and (most important, obviously) to make the NFL look charitable and altruistic. The reason the stadium looked full was because of the 30,000 cardboard cutouts that were placed in all the seats kept empty to enforce social distancing. Now, I’ve been to a few sporting events with cardboard fans (I’ve even been a cardboard fan), and generally, they look artificial and sort of silly. But the NFL knows how to package and sell an image, and they sure did generate the illusion that there wasn’t an empty seat in the stadium. They apparently generated it too well. So many people were angry about the packed house that the NFL had to release a statement reminding viewers that just because their televisions might not have quite been high-resolution enough to tell the fans were made of cardboard, they were, in fact, made of cardboard.

And if you thought fans were angry then, just wait until they watched Tom Brady — derided by some as this generation’s Charles Lindbergh for his somewhat overstated, but never fully refuted, support of Donald Trump — win his seventh ring. Brady was terrific, really the only thing worth watching in a dull, lifeless blowout that felt more like the old Super Bowl blowouts of the ’90s than the taut thrill rides we’ve gotten used to in recent years. If there was any doubt about his status as the greatest quarterback of all time beforehand (and there shouldn’t have been), there isn’t now. Every Brady championship is a little more impressive than the last one and often more loathsome to the vast majority of people watching. He’ll surely be back competing for another ring next year, expanding his legend and getting on your very last nerve.

But if he is worried about that legacy, he might want to come back and win another one next year, because I have a feeling that his performance in this one, as brilliant as it was, will be the least-remembered of all his Super Bowls. That’s partly because of the dullness of the game, but more because this was a championship played at this particular moment in human history. And for all the hollow victory laps the NFL has been taking for successfully completing the season — even touting a CDC report praising them — the historical takeaway from this game won’t have much to do with Tom Brady. It’ll be that they played this freaking game in the middle of a pandemic.

And that’s why, for all the misplaced anger at the NFL not actually having 65,000 fans in attendance, it actually is sort of insane that anyone was in the stands at all — and maybe that we were doing this in the first place. The league can talk about social distancing and vaccinated health-care workers, but it is worth remembering that the only reason they were even allowed to do that was because the game was played in Florida, a state that has actively advertised its lack of concern about COVID-19 to sports leagues from the very beginning of the pandemic. It is actually the NFL’s good fortune that the game was in Tampa this year in the first place. Originally, the game was scheduled to take place in Los Angeles, but it was pushed back a year because the Rams’ and Chargers’ new stadium in Inglewood wasn’t going to be ready in time. Had it been available, California’s COVID regulations and laws wouldn’t have allowed fans. The NFL didn’t need to have fans at this event, and they would have gotten along just fine without them. That they allowed them wasn’t a matter of charity or goodwill toward vaccinated health-care workers; it was simply because Governor Ron DeSantis let them.

If you’re impressed by those 7,500 vaccinated fans, remember that the other 17,500 not only weren’t vaccinated, they weren’t even tested coming into the stadium. (There were 7,000 positive COVID cases in Hillsborough County in the last week, and of course, the Buccaneers were playing in their home stadium.) Social distance all you want, there isn’t a stadium in America with 25,000 fans in it that doesn’t hit traffic when visitors hit the concourse, concessions, and restrooms. And even if everything were safe inside, there are still the optics of a full-seeming stadium in the middle of the worst public-health crisis of the last 100 years. When you take a step back from it, it actually looks worse that the NFL wanted the stadium to look fuller than it was. Why would you want to advertise to people that they can gather, that everything is normal? Doesn’t that make it worse?

I’ll confess — as someone who has attended sporting events during the pandemic as a journalist and as a fan — I wavered back and forth between these poles watching the game at home. (It was the first Super Bowl I haven’t attended in a decade. I’ll say the halftime show makes a lot more sense when the performers are more than little dots half a stadium away.) Having fans may feel a little irresponsible, but then again, lots of stadiums have been open to fans, and the game is outside, and everyone’s wearing masks, and maybe it’s good to show and reward vaccinated health-care workers.

And then the streaker showed up.

The streaker, who sprinted onto the field wearing a one-piece swimsuit in the fourth quarter, turned out to be some sort of dumb porn advertisement. But that’s not what mattered. What mattered was that he was on the field.

Of all the games I’ve been to during the pandemic, one thing has been explicit: No one — media, fans, mascots, no one — is to get even remotely near the athletes or the playing fields. All the press conferences are on Zoom, you aren’t allowed to leave your designated area, and there’s usually some sort of security moat surrounding all the seating areas next to the field itself. Even places allowing fans, with very rare exceptions, don’t allow them near the actual players. There is, after all, a pandemic going on.

But here, at the Super Bowl, an event that already is a security green zone when there isn’t a communicable virus shutting down every aspect of human society, somehow, a guy in a Borat bathing suit ran onto the field. Security tackled him, of course, which is what they’re supposed to do; they’re there solely to protect the players and staff from intruders in the stands. But he didn’t have to attack anyone to do harm at the pandemic Super Bowl. He just had to get near them. It is one thing for the Super Bowl to have fans in attendance during a plague. It is quite another for one of those unmasked fans to get on the same field as an unmasked Tom Brady. (Jeez, he’s almost old enough to be in a higher-risk group!) A game that should be remembered for Brady, I suspect, will ultimately be remembered as a document, a time capsule, for how poorly we as a nation handled the pandemic. We let 25,000 fans to gather together, and we let one of them run on the field and breathe all over the place.

People were wrong to be angry about all the fans they thought were in the stands. But in the end: They weren’t.

A Telling Streak at the Pandemic Super Bowl