February 04, 2004,
A confession: One of the things I have enjoyed about Europe is that at poolside, at the beach, and on the shore of Swiss lakes, European women unselfconsciously remove their tops to absorb the sun. The men seem to be unselfconscious about it, too. For myself, the first two or three times I had difficulty breathing. Like all difficult things, one gets used to it.
So the sight of Janet Jackson's bare breast during the NFL halftime show Sunday cannot be said to have shocked me. But the firestorm it has ignited across the nation may concentrate attention on what a colossal moral waste the NFL halftime shows have been for years and years, one or two seasons excepted.
Football is a great game of hard work, sacrifice, the endurance of pain, precision, discipline, the love of brothers for one another, guts, spirit, the will to overcome adversity, and intense and sustained determination. Why, then, has the NFL been so dense as to allow its halftime show, year after year, to be a celebration of decadence and degradation?
If the moral morons the NFL hires to produce these shows set out to dramatize the last days of the Roman empire in all its legendary sickness, what would they do differently? Who are these seemingly drugged, indifferent, writhing pagan figures they now throw around the platform? These are not living human beings in action, these are sacks of flesh, writhing, grinding, pawing, acting out no higher appeal than bodily functions. They evoke no virtues of the human spirit. It is as if they wish to suffocate any spark of Jewish or Christian womanhood and manhood. It is as if they mean to corrupt, seduce, degrade. A more radically anti-Jewish and anti-Christian assault, embodying the sort of Wagnerian images of pagan disgust and decay that enraptured Hitlerian audiences, would be hard for them to produce.
Why does the NFL do this? Why do they want to dramatize in corrupt "art" the very opposite of what they dramatize on the field, in the inherent beauty of football itself? Why do they turn halftime over to people who loathe every virtue football stands for and depends on?
There are so many beautiful events in the history of our nation that our children and our families deserve to know, so many glorious episodes to dramatize. Why doesn't the NFL stage a ten-year sequence of halftime shows that tell the great story of the Founding of our nation? For this story embodies all the virtues required by championship football, and many others besides.
And it can be done, beautifully and affectingly. One year (was it the Super Bowl after 9/11?), the NFL did stage a very moving tribute to the American Founding and its basic documents; I remember Jack Kemp, among others, reading those resonant words, in a decorous and solemn setting that filled all who saw it with resolve and purpose. But this may have been a film produced in advance, and shown only in the stadium, with pageant and color in silent motion spread out below the giant stadium screens. It may even have been only the pre-game show.
Our historians, novelists, dramatists, songwriters, and choreographers have certainly given us a rich mine of works that are the proper heritage of all our people. Why could these not be presented before worldwide audiences? Why can't the NFL support the Herculean struggles of besieged families, and overworked schools, against the horrid drudge of a sick popular culture, and help parents and teachers to fire the imaginations of our children with ennobling images of greatness and achievement? Why does the NFL put our families through the sludge of an exhausted, desperate pagan culture that is going nowhere, and celebrates losers and freaks? Our families have enough enemies to fight through. Must they also fight the NFL?
On a deeper level, why does the NFL go against its own nature, beliefs, and strengths? Why does it embarrass and demean itself?
For no other event during the year are more Americans focused together on the same liturgical celebration, especially as families, than at Super Bowl halftime. An NFL halftime should feed our minds and souls, and our sense of nobility and beauty, and remain forever a memory cherished by children and families alike.
Until now, halftime has been a cultural waste. A broken cistern, yielding no water. A ruin. It speaks ill of the producers who imagined it and set it before us.
Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak's own website is www.michaelnovak.net.