The state of the union may be strong, as President Donald Trump (and every preceding president) said during his State of the Union address. But the state of our unity is not.
That was amply apparent after the speech, when a resumption of Republican-Democratic spats over issues like immigration reflected the sharp partisan differences manifest in these divided states of America.
In fact, an October 2017 Pew Research Center poll reported that “partisan divides dwarf demographic differences on key political values,” with the average Republican/Democratic gap on 10 political values vaulting from 15 percentage points in 1994 to 36 today. This gap — a gulf, really — is far larger than the differences determined by race, religious attendance, education, age or gender.
The football gridiron used to be an escape from the gridlock derived from such divides. But this year the national anthem protests by professional and even prep players became the latest flash point in America’s ongoing culture war, with Trump fanning the flames with incendiary tweets and a fiery line in his Tuesday address.
It’s impossible to isolate the controversy’s contribution to the two-year slide in NFL regular-season TV ratings, which were down by 8 percent in 2016 and 9.7 percent this year, according to Nielsen (the playoffs were thrown for a loss, too).
After all, other issues, including a torrent of technological transformations, are eroding ratings and attendance for nearly every other entertainment entity.
But whatever the cause, there’s cause for concern (if not alarm) for America’s national pastime (sorry fellow baseball fans). Even attendance is tenuous, as beyond the suddenly empty couches are suddenly empty seats in many stadiums. And the league’s concerns won’t be allayed by a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that “depicts a developing nightmare for the National Football League: Its core audience is losing interest rapidly, a potential threat to the league’s dominant role in American culture.”
So just in time comes the Super Bowl, which at least for a day offers a reassuring, if retro, respite from the challenges buffeting the National Football League — the same role the State of the Union address plays amid national challenges.
Both share similarities: patriotic pageantry; over-analysis; raucous caucuses (Patriots and Eagles fans, Republicans and Democrats); and audiences that defy the drift occurring outside of these big events.
Indeed, Trump’s speech generally held well, with about 45.6 million viewers, compared to the 47.7 million who watched him address Congress last year. (But true to form, Trump claimed his speech had record ratings, just as he insisted his inaugural crowd was bigger than former president Barack Obama’s despite demonstrable photographic evidence showing otherwise.)
The Super Bowl remains a superlative television — indeed, cultural — event, too. The 2017 tilt between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons was watched by 111.3 million viewers, according to Nielsen, ranking it the fifth-most-watched U.S. broadcast ever. That was down only slightly from the 111.9 million viewers the year before, and not that far off from the top broadcast ever, the 2015 Super Bowl, which was watched by 114.4 million (the Patriots won that game, too).
This year’s game again features that familiar New England football dynasty, and the dynamic (and nasty-fan base) opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles, a big-market East Coast contender that should draw well, too.
Just as the State of the Union rituals reassure that the nation will prevail, NFL rituals are meant to signal that the beleaguered league is durable despite its challenges, including the existential threat of concussion-related injuries (which likely led halftime performer Justin Timberlake to claim on Thursday that his 2-year-old son, Silas, “will never play football”).
While nothing can match the Capitol’s grandeur, the Super Bowl’s host city is a symbol that’s reassuring, too; replete with real fans, really nice volunteers and a real-time meteorological meting out of the “Bold North.”
That marketing mantra reflects a cool confidence that contrasts with previous fears of Minneapolis being labeled a “cold Omaha,” or the defensive “We like it here” sign seen in ’80s-era Metrodome days. Instead, visitors and viewers will get a sense of the sensible way to approach winter: Get outside. And even if they don’t directly experience some of the wonders, they may learn terms like “loppet” and “skijoring” that can differentiate the state in an era of place branding, the same way that “hygge” makes cold Copenhagen sound cozy.
On Monday, after downtown’s traffic jams migrate south to the airport, Minneapolis will return to normal. For the NFL the spell will be broken, too, as Super Bowl Sunday yields to everyday controversies shaking the confidence of what was once judged a juggernaut of not just sports, but culture. And in Washington, Wednesday’s day-after analysis of Trump’s speech already reverted the nation’s business back to partisan paralysis.
But these events are still integral in the national fabric, and are at least a unique moment of unity — a feeling more elusive, yet more needed, than ever.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.