I’m a Lifelong Bucs Fan, But I Can’t Root For A Super-Spreader Superbowl
I feel like life is cheating me. For the first time in National Football League history, my hometown Tampa Bay Buccaneers are playing in my hometown Raymond James Stadium for a hometown Superbowl ring, but my conscience is eating me.
Amidst last year’s headlines of lost lives, jobs, faiths and relationships, the despondency of one disillusioned sports fan is usually letter-to-the-editor fodder, if that. 2020 was so overall traumatic that one of the year’s funniest memes singled it out for time travelers as the year to avoid by all means necessary. But when I look upon the NFL, with its latest, greatest storyline, the crowning achievement of a COVID-season Superbowl LV featuring Tom Brady, the greatest QB ever, versus young wunderkind Patrick Mahomes, a young Bob Gibson-meets-Earvin “Magic” Johnson in cleats, all I can think of are scandals, dangers and disappointments.
The medical science on the cumulative mental, emotional and physical damage of a lifetime of playing football is unassailable. Harassment and violence against women undeniably plagues the NFL, an institution in which machismo, pain and suffering is a high science, as well. The case for Colin Kaepernick’s unjust excommunication over his politics, from a League which doubles as our postmodern national religion, is so irrefutable, he now counts a lucrative court settlement and apology from the NFL Commissioner as recent victories. The League, moreover, has a persistent problem with Black leadership at the head coaching position as well. And we need not even get into the fiasco of the NFL’s collective complicity in supporting a Presidential disaster of incalculable national consequence, whether owners like Bob Kraft, Jerry Jones, Woody Johnson and yes, Tampa’s Glazer family, to players like yes, Tom Brady. (Yeah, can’t forget that MAGA hat in your locker, Tom Terrific.)
Plenty of folks like me, lifelong followers of the meticulously marketed mix of faith, patriotism and sports fanaticism that is US-ian pro football have taken long, hard looks at the game they loved for most of their lives, searched their souls and, shaking their heads for shame, stopped watching it. Notably, writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2012, Steve Almond two years later, and David Dennis, Jr. in 2017 publically disavowed the sport they so loved. But my story isn’t that of a typical football fan, whose cities and families might’ve rooted for the Bears, Colts, Steelers, Giants or Lions since John F. Kennedy’s Senate years.
Like fans in Seattle, and later Carolina and Jacksonville, I’m a product of pro football colonialism. When they brought a team to my native Tampa, Florida in 1976, they may as well have painted my infant crib in creamsicle orange, with a winking, knife-biting Bucco Bruce spinning above me. A mile down the street from the stadium is my father’s childhood home in Lincoln Gardens, a community originally allocated to Black servicemembers like my grandfather, in which my grandmama still lives. I’ve happily hoofed it from her palm-studded yard to more than a few games and tailgates. My family’s roots in the town, largely founded by Bahamian, Cuban and Italian immigrants in the late 19th century, run deep, and we Tampanians / Tampeños love our Bucs and Swash-buc-lers, our fake pirates and pirate ships, the whole cheesy Gasparilla-like concept.
Yet with the exception of an early, flash-in-the-pan 1979 playoff run under future Super Bowl QB Doug Williams, whom the Bucs then refused to pay his due, and Hall of Fame defender Lee Roy Selmon, for for most of the team’s history, they…how do I put this? They were trash. They started out 0–26. They were so historically bad that, for most of my fortysomething years, they were a recurring punchline in print, film and tv, other team’s highlight reels, most classic football video games, even occasional rap bars — -I recall bopping along to some hotshot MC’s tough verse in the 1990s, until he dropped the bomb — “you suck like the Bucs / before Tony Dungy!” — and ruined my good vibes.
The elevation of the Bucs as an NFL team and, thus for us natives, our perception as a city and community indeed began with the hiring of Head Coach Dungy, a trailblazing Black football mind of great reputation and dignity. It peaked with rock star shot-caller Jon Gruden replacing him in 2002, pairing a legendary defense with an opportunistic offense during a Cinderella season. Beating the Oakland Raiders, a team Gruden ironically also rebuilt, for a remarkable Superbowl win stamped his ticket as an offensive guru and put the Bucs brand on the map for good.
After hosting Big Dances in 1984 and in 1991 (shoutout to Whitney Houston’s national anthem tour de force), it was a little disappointing in 2001 for Tampa fans to see QB Trent Dilfer and an all-world Baltimore Ravens defense win a Lombardi Trophy right on Dale Mabry, while Dungy watched as a spectator. But the Bucs themselves playing in one, much less winning, two years later under Gruden wiped all that away like an act of deus ex machina — like the Lord of All Worlds had intervened in an act of divine mercy, to uplift the least of these teams. Now, nearly two decades later, the dream is finally real. Once again on the heels of a prodigious young defense, they’re now led by the undisputed GOAT, Tom Brady, except the Tampa Tom, or “Tompa” version: tanner, happier and more dangerous than ever. They’re poised to be the first team not only to host a Superbowl, but maybe win one.
So why am I not floating on clouds of cigar smoke like most of my city right now? Why am I not speeding down Alligator Alley, leaving Miami in my rearview, making a beeline up I-75 to my beloved Cigar City, to celebrate our town’s hosting of our fifth Super Bowl, this one potentially our most glorious? Why am I not grateful, much less thrilled?
Honestly, the death of my father’s oldest brother, the head of the family, has a lot to do with it — we lost him in the summer of 2019, before the nation caught up to our mourning and lost 400,000 of their own beloved. My main man in all things, my surrogate for my dad (who died the year Dungy was hired), he was my mentor and best friend. Without him to call up after wins or pulling up to meet me in grandma’s yard on gameday, it just hits different.
Yet it’s not just that grief, or the many disappointments in the team and League’s dollar-driven business decisions, or its constant struggle to tamp down the many brush fires of immorality, exploitation or controversy. The final straw is the COVID response. My home state’s leadership has been less than helpful, or forthcoming, and arguably incompetent in the face of this historic pandemic. The Sunshine State is now the de facto headquarters for the MAGA Resistance, the Patriot Party or whatever raging, lying flag 45’s alt-right is mobilizing under. Barely three months ago, the Tampa Sports Authority and the team allowed a super-spreader Trump rally to be held a little over a football field’s length away from the Stadium — the same stadium they allowed the city to use as a voting location.
Today, knowing the burst of Bucs and civic pride that will be spilling out onto our streets in full red-and-pewter glory, all I can think about is how Florida, along with California, is one of two states with the fastest-spreading new variant of Coronavirus, a place where hordes of people fly and drive in to have an unrestricted good time at its many party zones and beaches, only to fly or drive home COVID-positive. And I fear for my city, my mother and grandmother, and cousins and friends and the citizens I know and don’t know. I feel like a Cassandra, an outsider, a hater, a party pooper who nevertheless sees the handwriting, and the science, and the germs on the wall.
The game is the game, whether I watch and enjoy it with mixed feelings, or stand firm and leave it to the billions who will undoubtedly watch it and support it, wage small and large amounts of money on it, or more generally treat it like the national Holy Day it has been since the very first Superbowl in 1967. That one, funny enough, featured the Chiefs versus the Green Bay Packers, the same team the Bucs just beat for their second NFC Championship two Sundays ago. Last year, doubts aside, I even packed up the car with my beautiful wife and young kids during the game and drove them 15 minutes away from our home, cruising by Hard Rock Stadium to see and hear the whole spectacle of bright lights, excitement and roars from the street.
For all my qualms, I wanted my kids to associate the game being shown on television with the tangible reality of a Super Bowl event actually happening right then and there, in that same stadium we see from our driveway. But I felt pangs of guilt like those some of my maternal family back in Spain — where my mother is from — feel about continuing to support bullfighting, a sport as deeply rooted in Spanish national identity as football is in ours. Except in the USA, the bulls on parade are our young men and women still struggling to reconcile big-dollar, violent, exploitative entertainment with justice; and the bullcrap we’re all trying to ignore is right beneath our feet, and we can’t slide out of it any longer. At least I can’t.