When the Super Bowl comes to Minneapolis, the city lights up with a vast array of activities that are too expensive to attend, too crowded for kids, and—this time around—too chilly for outsiders. True Minnesotans (I am not a true Minnesotan) are a hearty bunch, generally willing to brave frigid temperatures to attend outdoor holiday parades and winter carnivals, view majestic palaces of ice, and drink lots of Surly—the product of a local brewing company that has also published a helpful "welcome to Minnesota primer" ahead of the big game. As the game approaches, though, the price point and nature of the planned activities shift from entertaining locals to serving visitors. Sting, Shaggy, and Darius Rucker (formerly and better known as "Hootie") are all playing the Super Bowl Tailgate Party. To get in, you need a VIP Super Bowl ticket, which are currently selling for around $2,000 to $4,500 on Ticketmaster. Needless to say, I will not be seeing Sting.
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The big game will be hosted in the new $1.2 billion stadium right on the edge of downtown. The city of Minneapolis paid $150 million for the stadium, with the state kicking in an additional $348 million. The National Football League justifies these costs by touting economic growth that allegedly comes from the massive investment. Local boosters of the Super Bowl, for example, put out a slick slideshow estimating that $338 million in new spending will result from the game. There's definitely some return on investment from stadiums and big games, but how much? Experts not affiliated with the boosters estimate between $30 to $50 million in new spending thanks to the Super Bowl, a number they reach by assuming that many hotels would otherwise be vacant in early February. But even if we take the NFL's numbers as realistic, it's never been clear that $500 million in state and local funds is best spent on professional sports, rather than on anti-poverty measures, for example.
The Super Bowl, unlike championships in the National Hockey League, National Basketball Association, and Major League Baseball, has never been designed for local fans. The Super Bowl is designed to serve NFL aspirations to global dominance and to justify the outrages of publicly financed stadiums. Still, the Minnesota Vikings almost became the first team to host a Super Bowl when they defeated the New Orleans Saints to make it to the NFC championship—before being embarrassed by the Philadelphia Eagles. I watched both games with my family, acting against my best ethical judgment, but eager to introduce the kids to the crushing and character-building experience of rooting for the Vikings (I'm from New England via Nashville, but my wife and I have a prenuptial agreement to raise our kids as Vikings and Red Sox fans). My daughter celebrated the improbable win in the first game, then quickly grew bored by the blowout loss in the second. Before halftime, she had wandered off to watch some YouTuber play Minecraft.
It was hard, and perhaps wrong, to suspend my ethical judgment and turn on those games in the first place. No big-money pro sports are clean, but football has become especially toxic. Colin Kaepernick started sitting during the national anthem during the preseason of 2016, mostly unnoticed, in order to protest systemic racism and police violence against African Americans. On September 1st of that year, he started taking a knee after talking to former Green Beret and NFL long-snapper Nate Boyer, in order to continue to protest police brutality while showing respect for both the flag and American armed forces. The practice spread to other sports, Kaepernick was not re-signed to a team this last season (he has sued for collusion) despite being clearly better than the majority of back-up quarterbacks, and President Donald Trump weighed in, arguing that Kaepernick should have been suspended and that any players kneeling should be instantly fired. An NFL that would blacklist Kaepernick does not deserve anyone's support.
In Minnesota, activists and their allies have seized the occasion of the Super Bowl to try and refocus the conversation around racial justice, by holding talks at the University of Minnesota and a "Take a Knee" conference at neighboring Augsburg College. The latter event includes mothers of African Americans killed by police, who have traveled to the city to keep building their movement for police accountability. The Twin Cities were, of course, the site of the killing of Philando Castile and more recently of Justine Rusczyk. In 2014, a motorist drove through a crowd of Minnesotans who had gathered to protest the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The motorist injured one demonstrator. These are just a few events in the long history of racial violence and tension in the city, all of which is only more visible during this high-profile game.
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Local activism extends beyond Kaepernick and police violence. Anti-poverty and labor rights organizers are planning to stage public protests to highlight the contrast between the wealth of the game's attendees, and Minneapolis' own persistent issues of poverty and oppression, including homelessness (many homeless people are being displaced for the game, these protesters say).
Honestly, though, there were reasons to ditch the NFL long before they botched the response to Kaepernick's protest of police brutality and racism. As journalist David Dennis Jr. wrote last September, the NFL's tolerance for misogyny and domestic violence isn't new; Dennis even apologized for having waited so long to boycott the league. Then, of course, there's chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). It's not news that football is bad for your brain if you play it, and more recently the NFL has worked hard to minimize big hits, especially on unaware players, and to treat concussions more seriously. It likely won't matter. There are still so many concussions. The degenerative brain disease is most likely caused by the low-grade constant impacts that come with just playing the game correctly, especially for linemen and others who make contact with the opposing side each play. A study released in July looked at the brains of 111 NFL players; all but one had CTE. There's no ethical way to watch a game where people are damaging their brains even when playing as safely as possible. Yes, NFL players get paid, but only because we've got a market for bloodsports. Moreover, their example promotes the sport among college students and teenagers who are encouraged to damage their brains for free.
Life is full of unethical actions. You can't own a cell phone or eat Asian shrimp without being implicated in slave labor. Meat is murder. Flying vegetables from California to other states contributes to global warming. We all make our choices about where we draw our ethical lines, but we shouldn't fool ourselves: Watching the NFL is an unethical activity.