The Super Bowl and the Importance of Tradition (Or Not)

February 5, 2021
Amanda Calhoun, MD, MPH

Which traditions will keep us afloat during the pandemic, and which ones need to go?

This time last year, families cruised through grocery store aisles, scouting for snacks. Back then, difficult decisions were simpler: chips and dip or chicken wings? Should I go to my friend’s party or that coworker’s party? Individuals of all sorts, from dedicated to fair-weather fans, gathered around their television screens to share in an American tradition: the Super Bowl. Everyone would be abuzz later, not just about game time plays, but also with commentary about the halftime show or that hilarious commercial.

This year things are different.

More than 400,000 people are dead in the United States, many of us forced to remotely stream funerals of our loved ones. Parties are discouraged, with physical distancing in place. Many of us are exhausted—from debates about schools opening, from the stress of a new coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) breakout on the inpatient psychiatric unit, from waiting for this pandemic to pass. And many of us are sad—that our uncle’s favorite armchair will forever be empty and that it has been weeks since we have seen a stranger’s face in public. 

But still, many of us will watch the Super Bowl anyway.

It may be just our own household or may be over Zoom with friends, but regardless, many will conjure up creative ways to enjoy this American tradition together. We will drag ourselves out of our exhaustion and find the energy to laugh and shake our fists at the television, all the while knowing that the pandemic roars on. That is what traditions do.

Traditions give us some semblance of normalcy in a time when almost nothing seems normal. The Super Bowl is not only our entertainment, but it is also our refuge. An excuse to slow down just for a moment and indulge in our favorite snacks while lying on the couch, because everyone knows that Super Bowl calories don’t count. Traditions bring family and friends together who might normally not have schedules in sync, and they bind us together in inspiring ways. Traditions are always important, making their content all the more impactful. But some traditions should not continue.

This year, the Kansas City Chiefs will play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Tampa. In the 1990s, the Kansas City Chiefs adopted a racist, derogatory chant commonly known as the “Tomahawk chop” or “Arrowhead chop.” This chant, complete with a song that sounds as if it came out of an old western, involves fans imitating a Native American chant and making a tomahawk-like hand motion. Native Americans have spoken out against this cheer, and the Florida Indigenous Rights and Environmental Equality organization, located in St. Petersburg, Florida, has plans to protest the Super Bowl this weekend. The Native American group has shined a light on the team’s name and chant, citing that it is cultural appropriation, not to mention an offensive caricature of their culture. Although the National Football League has, since last year, banned fans from wearing ceremonial headdresses and face paint, this is too little too late. The Tomahawk chop is currently “under review,” yet cheerleaders are allowed to continue the chop with a closed rather an open fist, and the team name remains. To be sure, some have defended these racist chants and mascots, saying that they are a tribute to Native Americans, but the National Congress of American Indians maintains that the behaviors are disrespectful to Native American culture and further damaging stereotypes.

The Kansas City Chiefs are not alone in their racist chants. These are white-centered traditions that were not made with the respect of Native Americans in mind. Black and Indigenous populations have a history of being exploited and caricatured by white American society in racist imagery. Aunt Jemima syrup and Uncle Ben rice are 2 such examples, which have recently undergone pressure to undergo name changes, and there are many, many more. It is time to upend these racist traditions and instead replace them with actions that do not serve to “other” minoritized populations. Everyone deserves the chance to be able to enjoy American traditions without being offended. Words matter. Symbols matter. Actions matter. Let us continue our traditions, but not the disrespectful ones.

The pandemic has shined a light on racial inequities that existed long before COVID-19 became a mainstay in our conversations and thoughts. Racism is embedded in American structures and systems, from our health care to our chants at sport’s games.

Let us use this pandemic as a lesson learned about valuing each other. Let us use this pandemic to push back against the racism deeply baked into this country. At the very least, when you are watching the Super Bowl game this weekend, while eating your favorite chips and dip, please aim to be respectful of all Americans.

Dr Calhoun is a second year psychiatry resident at Yale School of Medicine/Yale Child Study Center in the Adult/Child Albert J. Solnit integrated program. Dr Calhoun’s research centers on the improvement of mental and physical health outcomes in Black Americans by targeting the trauma of racism. Dr Calhoun calls herself an “activist trainee” and through public speaking and writing, exposes current and historical racism in the medical system. She firmly believes that all doctors should be activists and promotes the integration of social justice teaching with medical education.