From the outside, it’s easy to knock the pageantry and conceited arrogance inherent to American football. It is impossible, however, to deny its financial might and cultural supremacy here in the United States. Indeed, for an AFL or NRL fan, gridiron’s dominance as a true national football code is something to behold.

This Sunday (Monday morning Australian time), another National Football League season reaches its apex as Seattle and Denver headline the biggest annual US sporting event, the Super Bowl. In the week-long build-up to the game, itself an orgy of hyperbole, the NFL has annexed a good portion of midtown Manhattan, even though the inconvenient truth is the game will actually be played in less-glamorous New Jersey.

On paper, the NFL has had a strong year. It now earns an eye-popping $10 billion in annual revenue. It’s the top-rating program (of any sort) on American television, both on cable and free-to-air TV. ESPN pays an extraordinary $1.9 billion each year merely for the rights to broadcast its Monday night game.  There are similar contracts for CBS, Fox and NBC, whose Sunday games average 21.7 million viewers.

The NFL is the prevailing topic in the nation’s sporting conversation in a way that’s the envy of, say, baseball or basketball administrators. It’s also a highly compelling watch once you digest its intricacies.

Yet in spite of its financial prosperity, some disturbing issues lurk within. Perks and off-field hedonism are fundamental to the NFL player experience, but some struggle with the juxtaposition of excellence demanded on the field and indiscretions quietly overlooked off it.

Take Seattle’s Richard Sherman, who along with Peyton Manning will be the most prominent player to take the field Sunday. After skillfully deflecting the ball in the final seconds of the NFC Championship and ensuring his team won a spot in the Super Bowl, Sherman made a choking gesture and was fined $7785 for unsportsmanlike conduct. He then completed an extraordinary live-to-air post-game rant.

Rarely mentioned is that Sherman was suspended in 2012 by the NFL for violating its performance-enhancing drug policy. After he threatened to sue the league, the punishment was revoked. Performance-enhancing drug suspensions are almost routinely handed out. While baseball attracts mostly negative headlines around drugs, the NFL does not.

Then there’s the number of NFL players who end up behind bars in the off-season. Last year, 47 players were arrested between seasons. Charges ranged from bar brawls and substance abuse to domestic violence and assault.

Aaron Hernandez, a 24-year-old rookie from the New England Patriots, was charged with murder. A few months earlier, Kansas City linebacker Jovan Belcher shot his girlfriend, drove to training and then committed suicide in front of team officials. In September, San Francisco player Aldon Smith was arrested mid-week in the early hours of the morning for driving under the influence, his second such charge in two years. He quickly entered rehab and began playing for the team again in November.

Already this year has harvested a disturbing number of arrests and team violations. One player was jailed for intoxication manslaughter after a car crash that killed his teammate on a Dallas freeway. Another was arrested on drug charges in Alabama. A 14-year veteran was arrested in LA on rape charges. Another posted a photo of a marijuana package on his Twitter account and was arrested the next day at Fort Lauderdale airport for assaulting a police officer. He had to be restrained by 10 officers.

Player welfare is a long-term problem. A $764 million concussion settlement with retired players is now in doubt after the family of a former player who committed suicide aged 43 after suffering chronic brain damage also found in other deceased former player emerged as vocal critics.

While the rugby codes and AFL, played without helmets and guards, are brutal, any notion American football is anything but savage is a myth. The players frequently use their helmets as battering rams. Three years ago, New Orleans players created a slush fund rewarding teammates for injuring an opponent severely enough that he was forced to leave the game. This season, 300 players suffered knee injuries, many caused by helmets.

“With the ads themselves costing about $4 million per 30 seconds to air, some impudence is perhaps understandable.”

“Violence travels; it follows these men home, where far too many learn they have no kill switch,” Paul Solotaroff wrote in Rolling Stone’s excellent profile of NFL murder suspect Aaron Hernandez. Others have suggested there is something rotten in the NFL, where a dysfunctional culture can foment destructive behaviour.

Meanwhile bullying, pervasive in all aspects of US life, was also an awkward recent focal point in the NFL. Miami Dolphins player Jonathan Martin left his team after accusing teammate Richie Incognito of abuse. Incognito was suspended indefinitely. Martin’s claim of bullying reflected, he said, a culture of younger players being “hazed” by older teammates. Some of this was verbal and physical intimidation, at other times it was financial.

Culturally within the NFL, rookies occasionally pay the tab on team dinners or run demeaning errands. Martin, whose annual salary was $400,000, compared to the $5 million-plus team veterans make, was pressured to pay $15,000 for a trip to Las Vegas he did not attend.

Martin was also forced to pick up the tab for a $30,000 dinner in which senior players gorged on seafood and expensive liquor. The practice reportedly strained player finances and team chemistry. An ill-timed missive from Dolphins veteran Jared Odrick inflamed things. “Everything tastes better when rookies pay for it,” he tweeted.

Incognito was accused of workplace bullying, with allegations of expletive-laden, racially offensive voicemails. The awkward overtone of racism was pronounced; Martin is African-American, Incognito white. An NFL investigation has not been made public. Presumably it will be released following the Super Bowl.

The Super Bowl itself is hugely anticipated across the country. It pits Denver’s Peyton Manning, the 37-year-old veteran quarterback, against the more youthfully exuberant Seattle.

And as cities, Denver and Seattle are both having a moment. Seattle is a bold, irreverent, tech-friendly liberal city with an appreciation for indie-rock music, great coffee and craft beer. Denver is engaging in a much-publicised experiment hooked around legally selling pot. This is the city where the daily newspaper has hired a marijuana editor.

In New York, resident reactions are split between apathy and bemusement and genuine excitement at their city’s football festival. The NFL is occupying a 13-block stretch of Broadway from Herald Square to Times Square; the strip has been temporarily renamed Super Bowl Boulevard (pictured). The weather has been frequently below freezing for the past fortnight, and forecasters are predicting bitter cold and perhaps snow for the game.

Over the Hudson River in Jersey City, where the game is actually being played, residents are frustrated by New York’s hijacking of the event. “I passed miffed a while ago,” Jersey Senator Cory Booker said. “I mean, this is ridiculous.”

For those lucky enough to get tickets, MetLife Stadium is a virtual security fortress. The Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration and of course local cops are all involved. Every car, bus and truck entering the 750-acre complex will be screened by law enforcement. The FBI even conducted background checks on each of the 20,000 people who applied for Super Bowl working credentials.

This is all superfluous, though, for the 100-plus million Americans who will watch the spectacle on television. And as much as the game itself, which should be a cracker, viewers eagerly await the commercials. Companies now regularly run teasers for their Super Bowl ads, as if they were highly anticipated films.

With the ads themselves costing about $4 million per 30 seconds to air, some impudence is perhaps understandable.

Peter Fray

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