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Just in Time: A Super Bowl Survival Guide

Column by Jenny Lind

It's not so long ago that I lived in a mysterious land. In this improbable place, the people displayed little interest in Star Trek and seemed obsessed with a violent game, a psychoanalytic gold mine called "football." (The name of this mysterious land is "Everywhere in the Country Except MIT.")

Then I moved to Cambridge, where the inhabitants of this bizarro-world display a passionate preoccupation with Star Trek and no interest whatsoever in football. Because the Super Bowl is again upon us, I have decided to perform a public service and assist those in the MIT community who know nothing about football but who may find themselves watching the game because their relatives or significant others drag them to a Super Bowl party.

True knowledge

Football has a history rich with folklore and statistics, and no one can acquire this information overnight. Although American males seem to have a genetic predisposition for it, I have noticed that football education also involves reading sports pages, watching lots of games and analysis, and even seeking out other sources (apart from the other guys in the room with whom they are drinking beers and eating Doritos).

Although I don't want to devote the time acquiring the information, I always admire those ESPN disciples when they throw out comments like, "Joe Jones hasn't done squat since he played tight end for the Oilers." This statement reflects that the speaker a) knows who Joe Jones is, b) knows he used to play for the Oilers, c) knows what a tight end is, and d) knows what a tight end should be doing as opposed to what he is doing now.

As for me, I still giggle when I hear someone say "tight end." I know approximately the same amount about football as your average Japanese exchange student but have managed to fool many people into believing I know something about the game. For those who need a brief football tutorial, I share some tips here.

The basics: who's in it this year

Super Bowl XXXI will be held in New Orleans, pitting the Green Bay Packers against the New England Patriots. Perhaps you have heard of the latter. The Packers are rumored to come from one of those states in the middle of the country that you occasionally fly over.

However, no one is really sure where they're from because it's supposed to be so God-awful cold there, no one wants to go and check. Packer fans are called "Cheeseheads" because, displaying total disregard for the fact that they look silly, they are fond of wearing large foam hats shaped like cheese.

So as you watch the game, the fans are easy to identify. The players are also easy to identify. Unlike most NFL teams, the Packers have thoughtfully included the word "green" in their name, which makes it convenient to associate them with their green jerseys. I write this for fans like my mother, who, after turning on a football game, spends about 20 minutes determining which team is wearing which color.

I also have acquired the information that because Packers are considered the home team for the Super Bowl, they will indeed be wearing their green jerseys. I learned this in the Packers Chat on the team's World Wide Web site, which I looked up to research this article.

Someone named MADDOG provided the tidbit, claiming that the Packers will win because they are undefeated "at home." This sparked a heated exchange that centered on the fact that in the Super Bowl, they wouldn't actually be playing on their home Lambeau Field, despite having "home team" status. Someone named CHEEZ claimed that the undefeated statistic was therefore not relevant. I think I'm with CHEEZY on this one.

But I digress. Sitting at your Super Bowl party surrounded by avid fans, what can you say about the Packers? Something like, "Boy, those Packers really wiped up the stadium with the 49ers/Panthers/[pick your team] this season." And after the game you can say, "Boy the Packers really wiped up the stadium with the Patriots, didn't they?" Cultural note: Do not say this to large men whose faces are painted red, white, and blue.

The New England Patriots are from a place said to be rather close to MIT, but I hear you actually have to exit the Infinite Corridor to reach their stadium. Thus, I have little information about them.

I am quite certain, however, that their fans do not wear foam cheese hats. As you watch the Super Bowl, rooting for the Patriots might be a nice thing to do; after all, they're from around here, and they seem to be the underdog (although their Super Bowl Web site pointed out they are 32 against the Packers in the two teams' last five meetings).

The AFC/NFC

Another thing to know is that the Patriots' underdog status comes from a long and rather undistinguished tradition of the underdog status of their "conference." There are two conferences in American football. A team belongs to either the National Football Conference or the American Football Conference. The NFC is good and the AFC is terrible.

Perhaps you recall the dreary days of Super Bowls in which the NFC's Dallas Cowboys, among others, administered emphatic butt-kickings to the AFC's Buffalo Bills. The 49ers' defeat of the unfortunate San Diego Chargers was another low point in AFC history. Continuing with this theme, the Packers have stepped forward to apply the NFC butt-kicking this year.

I have no idea why the NFC is good and the AFC is terrible. Researching this topic would be a good idea, an impressive display of information at a Super Bowl party. I've never heard it explained convincingly, except for my own (as of yet unconfirmed) theory: Because a 30-second ad slot during the Super Bowl now costs 80 gadzillion dollars plus your first-born child, the ads are incredibly good and often part of brand-new campaigns.

I think Madison Avenue (and Bill Gates has got to be involved somehow) has rigged the AFC/NFC teams to be as mismatched as possible; the games are so miserable people take an interest only in watching the commercials. They are quite fun, actually.

A savvy facade: cliches

The most valuable weapon in your football-viewing arsenal is the cliche. You can always count on cliches. They're all you'll ever need. They're the key to your success. With a few cliches to throw out now and then, you will convince your friends you are a learned football fan.

The most useful that I have found in my football survival training is, "You can't win without a running game." I heard this sentiment expressed about 436 times by the Fox announcers during the Packers vs. Panthers playoff game. This can be stated in a variety of useful ways, and you need not understand the concept at all.

For example, if someone on the TV is talking about yards rushing or over-reliance on passing, you can say, "It's that old running game again," without needing to know which team is lacking one. People watching with you will all nod knowingly. Other good phrases you will hear and may wish to throw out are "power offense" or "power defense" or perhaps "good D," (for defense).

There are also some comments to avoid. I always shriek in horror when someone gets pummeled by some huge linebacker; "Boy, I bet that hurt," is my standard reaction. But then I realized that football viewers all expect the players to get pulverized anyway, so comments of this nature are irrelevant.

Guys may say, "Wow," in response to someone getting hit, but there would have to be ambulances screaming onto the field and copious blood flow for anyone to make such a comment. Other observations you may be tempted to share are related to how muddy the players are getting, how big their butts are, etc. But these are dangerous; no one except John Madden gets away with such banalities.

As you sit enjoying this year's Super Bowl, therefore, remember these tried and true strategies for impressing your friends. If you're a Packer fan, enjoy the butt-kicking. If you're a Patriot fan, enjoy the beer. And if you're a 49ers or Cowboys fan, enjoy the commercials.