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Opinion: A thrilling Super Bowl that was also about something more

Editor’s Note: Amy Bass (@bassab1) is professor of sport studies at Manhattanville College and the author of “One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together” and “Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete,” among other titles. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.

Before the Kansas City Chiefs’ 25-22 overtime win over the San Francisco 49ers, a game that ended with a stunning pass from quarterback Patrick Mahomes to receiver Mecole “I caught that pass and I blacked out” Hardman in the last seconds, only one other Super Bowl had ever gone into overtime. In 2017, a young Atlanta Falcons squad fell to a monster comeback by Tom Brady and the New England Patriots dynasty. That game, which had been dubbed by Saturday Night Live’s Michael Che as an opportunity to “watch the Blackest city in America beat the most racist city I’ve ever been to,” was fascinating on every level. Its significant moments off the field included several commercials, from Budweiser to 84 Lumber, that raised conservative eyebrows in the wake of then-President Donald Trump’s immigration rhetoric and a relatively straightforward halftime performance by Lady Gaga that stood in stark, apolitical, albeit entertaining, contrast to Beyoncé’s stunning “Formation” performance the year before.

Amy Bass - Rodney Bedsole
Amy Bass - Rodney Bedsole

This time around, football pundits wondered if Super Bowl LVIII would be the coronation of Chiefs coach Andy Reid and the establishment of a Kansas City dynasty with a third title in five years. Or would it be San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan’s first grab at what his father, Mike, had done twice with the Denver Broncos? All the while, Taylor Swift fans fretted over the ability of their idol to make it from Japan, where she had been performing, to Las Vegas in time to see her beau, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, take to the field.

This Super Bowl matchup, of course, had history. Back in 2020, the Chiefs downed the 49ers in a spectacular — and now seemingly expected — come-from-behind surge in the fourth quarter that gave Reid, Kelce, and Mahomes their first chance to hold the now familiar Lombardi Trophy – the franchise’s first win since 1970.  But Sunday’s title game wasn’t just a coach’s duel of Reid versus Shanahan or a quarterback battle between Mahomes and Brock Purdy or a clash of the tight ends, Kelce against best friend George Kittle. It was much more than that.

Here are three takeaways from Super Bowl LVIII:

It is still about football

Despite all of the hue and cry that Swift was ruining football in the weeks leading up to the big show, this Super Bowl was as Taylor-centric as any football broadcast has been since she first appeared at a game back in September, which is to say: not very Taylor-centric at all. For the most part, it was football as usual.

The Chiefs were coming in as defending champions; yet in so many ways, they entered the arena as the underdog, surviving a season with a series of offensive problems because of their ability to win when it mattered most.  That said, they finished the season with a record that somewhat paled in comparison to the dominant 49ers, who ended their regular season 12-5 — earning the top berth in the postseason behind Purdy, a quarterback once considered an underdog before he proved that dominance.

Across a relatively sedate game, the 7th longest in NFL history, nothing was on the scoreboard until Jake Moody’s historic, record-setting 55-yard field goal just 12 seconds into the second quarter — the longest in Super Bowl history (that is, until Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker surpassed it later in the game).  Indeed, it was a night for kickers, with both Moody and Butker playing key roles in moving the game along. The exasperation on both sides across the first half was palpable, but came to a head when Kelce shoved Reid on the sideline in frustration.

But while wisdom might dictate that teams win Super Bowls in the second half, and the fourth quarter was one for the ages, it was in overtime – where Reid’s strategic coaching prowess and Mahomes’s steady and methodical ability to move the ball down the field (including a heroic 8-yard run on fourth and 1) — that Kansas City entered hallowed territory.  “It’s the start of one,” said Mahomes when asked if Chiefs Kingdom was now a bona fide dynasty.  “We’re not done.”

It also isn’t only about football

Key to any Super Bowl, of course, is the halftime show. This year’s performance, which featured the eight-time Grammy winner Usher, played things relatively safe but didn’t disappoint, suffused with his complete and utter virtuoso vocals (and dancing). A lowkey and heartfelt duet with Alicia Keys, resplendent in crimson at a shiny red piano, exploded into a searing guitar bit with H.E.R. and then crescendoed into an intricate roller skating routine from his Vegas residency, which he finished in December. But Usher really hit his stride when Lil Jon arrived on a snapshot of his hit “Turn Down for What,” which then morphed seamlessly, expectedly, and energetically into Usher’s smash hit “Yeah!” — with Ludacris, of course, joining the fun.

Compared to Usher on roller skates, the commercials – which often take center stage of any Super Bowl broadcast — were relatively tame.  While Swifties have been teary-eyed for days over Cetaphil’s (now somewhat controversial) Taylor-Saves-Father-Daughter-Relationship commercial, in which dad gets daughter a #13 red jersey and she puts her phone down to watch the game with him, most ads went for humor and star power. Verizon boasted Beyoncé’s “BarbBey” and “BOTUS” short (and she teased about dropping new music on March 29). Lionel Messi, Dan Marino and Jason Sudeikis shilled for Michelob Ultra; Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Jennifer Lopez and Tom Brady went full Massachusetts for Dunkin’ Donuts.  No stranger to Dunkin’ Donuts, Swift bestie Ice Spice appeared on screen hawking Starry, which is apparently the soda formerly known as Sierra Mist.

Often times it felt like the commercials were so packed with stars, it was hard to remember — or even figure out — what they were selling. The stark exception came with Robert F Kennedy Jr.’s co-opting of his uncle’s 1960 political ad, which halted all conversations about football, Taylor Swift, or really anything in my house, and if the chatter on social media is any indication, we weren’t alone.  “That Kennedy for president commercial turned my entire living to stone,” quipped one user on X (formerly Twitter).  Yeah, us too. (The game had scarcely ended before news broke that Kennedy had issued an apology to family members who, unsurprisingly, had objections to the ad, which was paid for by a PAC backing Kennedy Jr’s campaign.)

We can talk about Taylor — and that’s okay

Earlier on Sunday, my family and I went to a nearby mall to run a few errands, hoping the crowds would be at a minimum as Americans prepared their pre-game feasts. As my daughter ducked out of Sephora, a middle-aged man holding the hand of a young elementary-aged girl yelled to her: “GO CHIEFS!” My daughter, wearing a “1989 — Taylor’s Version” sweatshirt, nary a scrap of the Chiefs’ signature red and gold to be found, gave them a friendly wave in Swiftie football solidarity.

It was an anxious weekend for Swifties, as their heroine had nearly 6,000 miles to travel, but arrive she did, posse in tow. “Taylor Swift is in Las Vegas,” commentator Ian Rappoport had assured Taylor Nation.  “I’ll never report bigger news today.”  From Nickelodeon’s broadcast of the game, which included a lower-third caption on Kelce on the bench that read “Taylor’s Swift’s boyfriend — good at football” to the arena’s jumbotron showing Taylor downing a drink alongside longtime friend Ashley Avignone, it was yet again clear that the NFL has been thrilled with what has been called The Swift Effect on football.

Indeed, the broadcast’s highly stylized team introductions before kickoff included Kelce asking us, “Are you ready for it?” – one of Swift’s most famous and oft-quoted lyrics.  The sly wink that followed told us that he, too, was in on the fun, if not the political conspiracy theories that have surrounded the couple in recent weeks.  When asked in a recorded pre-game interview about the rumors that he and Swift would endorse President Joe Biden for reelection at halftime, Kelce dismissed the absurd (and sometimes downright scary) right-wing political chatter with an emphatic but characteristically good-natured declaration of “crazy.”

Earlier in the day, never one to be left out of the crazy, former President  (and, inexplicably, current Republican presidential frontrunner) Trump chimed in on Truth Social, positing nonsensically that there was “no way” Taylor could endorse “Crooked Joe Biden” because Trump largely was behind her extraordinary wealth, having made her “so much money” when he signed the Music Modernization Act during his term.

Swift, of course, who works pretty darn hard for her money, endorsed Biden in 2020, two years after that legislation that updated copyright law passed. So, while it looks likely she might again endorse Biden — and his campaign had a lot of fun on X upon the Chiefs’ win— it didn’t happen at the center of the field at the end of the game, as so many predicted.

Instead, a trophy presentation, as scheduled, took place, one where Reid, Mahomes and a booming Kelce celebrated, followed by a long and hard hug between the tight end and Swift, who kept saying to him, over and over again, “unbelievable.”  Nothing conspiratorial, nothing sinister:  just a player and his girlfriend surrounded by confetti and celebration after the Chiefs scored the winning touchdown from the 13-yard line.

Hmmm.  13.  Taylor’s favorite number.  Yeah — maybe it really is all about her after all.

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