Whither morality?

Wednesday, February 4, 2004

By R. Joe Sullivan

If only the baring of Janet Jackson's breast had been the worst of what TV viewers saw while watching Super Bowl XXXVIII.

The game itself was one of the best of the season, a fitting conclusion after the hard-fought contests that ultimately brought the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers to Houston to lay claim to the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

But, alas, there was much more than a football game that occupied millions of TV viewers, young and old, from 1 o'clock on Sunday afternoon until well past the targeted 9 p.m. conclusion of the Super Bowl build-up, pre-game, commercial breaks and halftime hoopla.

A good deal of what viewers saw -- besides the game -- was good, uplifting even. The tribute to the Columbia shuttle crew was moving. Grown men who fantasize about wearing shoulder pads instead of sitting in well-padded recliners can be moved to tears by the missing-man formation of a helicopter flyover.

Not a pretty picture

Taken together, however, the worst of Super Bowl Sunday represented the state of America's moral condition, and the digitally preserved video and sounds do not paint a pretty picture.

A showcase event like the Super Bowl is a dream venue for entertainers who are drawn to the spotlight of a nationally televised audience. To be selected to perform at the Super Bowl is an opportunity to reach a huge audience. And it can be presumed that the organizers of Super Bowl entertainment want the best and brightest to occupy the midfield stage.

When honored performers choose to stretch or exceed the bounds of common decency, they create a breach in the social contract that exists between those who organize an event -- CBS, the NFL, the MTV producers of the telecast and the advertising sponsors -- and the millions of viewers who expect the quality of what they see to match the performance level of the teams on the field.

Patriotic irreverence

For many Americans, the suggestive sexual content of much of Sunday's performances was equaled by the patriotic irreverence of a performer who ripped a U.S. flag so it could be worn as a poncho. So many crotches were grabbed by prancing entertainers that it was those few who didn't reach for their pelvises who stood out.

Then there was the streaker who strutted near a ready-to-be-kicked-off football. Could a terrorist just as easily have reached the center of the field with a cyanide canister?

And the commercials. Viewers who couldn't care less about the final score were glued to their TV sets to see the commercials, which traditionally have managed to create plenty of chatter for days after the annual football contest. This year? The crude efforts could only make you wonder why a major corporation would ever stoop to selling beer with a commercial that relies on the flatulence of a horse. Or why a knockdown battle over chips by the elderly infirm would be regarded as marketing humor.

Countless Americans, disgusted by what they saw, focused on the finale of the Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake duet to vent their anger. They called CBS affiliates to register their anger and dismay. They demanded action. They sought redress from the government's regulatory power over broadcast airwaves.

And many, many distressed viewers shouted, "There ought to be a law!"

There is.

It's the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which gives Americans the freedom to express themselves even when it mortifies others.

In the two-plus centuries since the ratification of the First Amendment, values once taken for granted have eroded to the point that those who seek to preserve a national moral foundation have relied too often on the passage of wobbly laws. Unfortunately, mere laws are far too weak to guarantee that anyone's behavior will suit everyone else.

The forces that have preserved what morality is left in our society depend on personal conviction and an individual's willingness to eschew those things that corrupt us.

Shock over principles

In a truly moral society, the actions of performers like Jackson and Timberlake would mean the end of their professional careers. Americans would refuse to watch them or listen to their music or buy their CDs. Indeed, a large number of Americans choose to do just that. But these principled Americans are overwhelmingly outnumbered by those who will be moved to want more shocking displays of vulgarity and outrageous lyrics.

In the end, the national debate over this year's Super Bowl will be turned into a marketing coup. Sales of beer and chips and automobiles and drugs for erectile dysfunction will soar.

This is the new morality of our nation.

And to think we have to wait a whole year for the antics of Super Bowl XXXIX.

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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