By Ellen McGirt
Updated: February 5, 2018 1:01 PM ET

The 2018 Super Bowl was one for the record books, particularly for Eagles fans. Congratulations to all who held out hope, and sending strength to all the sanitation professionals who are facing a very busy day in Philadelphia.

Though nobody tracks data on cognitive dissonance in sports entertainment, I suspect this year’s Super Bowl would have broken records on that front as well. You didn’t have to care about either team to come away from the event with a very different view of who really lost.

This is, in part, because the NFL has become an unwitting crucible for a country divided on race.

Barely six years ago, Colin Kaepernick was the toast of League, a soft-spoken, tatted, brown-skinned quarterback poised to capitalize on the progress the NFL seemed to be making. Flash forward to today, and things are, well, different. Ratings are on the decline, and the League has found itself grappling with complex social issues, including the health of its players, in ways that seem increasingly ineffective.

Sportswriter Mike Tainer puts it this way:

Somehow, silently kneeling for a few moments before a few football games made Kaepernick the absent protagonist of the American drama, the touchstone of a broad social movement, the reminder that nothing—not even the Super Bowl—can ever be apolitical again until we become serious about addressing social injustice and healing the rifts caused by the bigotry we naively believed was already defeated.

From that perspective, last night was a nailbiter on many levels. Will Pink take a knee? Will President Trump tweet about the game? (Or at least to warn Tom Brady off trying his hand at receiver.) Which advertiser is going to get race or inclusion wrong? What would Prince do?

It’s part of the reason why there are two, very distinct, Justin Timberlakes knocking around post-game conversations today.

One did a fine job singing, dancing, and selfie-taking last night. But the other Timberlake’s career thrived at the expense of his one-time Super Bowl partner, Janet Jackson—and his tone-deaf tribute to Prince wounded those who believe that the late musician would never have wanted his posthumous image projected and performed with by anyone. The Timberlake you saw says a lot about the way you’re processing the world right now.

The same is true for Dodge Ram’s polarizing super bowl commercial.

The ad used the audio from one of Martin Luther King’s last speeches played over images of people helping each other and ended with the phrase “Built To Serve” and the Ram logo. To some, it was common fare, a big brand touting the American spirit of service using familiar markers. But for many, many others, the reaction was immediately negative. “Black people cant kneel and play football but MLK should be used to sell trucks during the super bowl. Unbelievable,” said comedian and YouTube personality, Akila Hughes, summing up the outrage.

“It’s the wrong mistake to make given everything that’s going on in the U.S. right now,” said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, offering a different kind of game day commentary to The New York Times. “There’s so much emotion right now around race in this country that this was a high-risk move, and clearly it’s not going over very well.”

But regardless of the cognitive dissonance of hearing King’s voice in an ad for trucks, the sermon they used, the “Drum Major Instinct,” has a message worth revisiting.

King spoke about how the quest for attention, the need to compete with our neighbors, and ironically, advertisers’ push consumers to live beyond their means lead people into a series of traps. “I got to get this coat because this particular coat is a little better and a little better-looking than Mary’s coat. And I got to drive this car because it’s something about this car that makes my car a little better than my neighbor’s car.”

It also pertains to race, and the “need that some people have to feel that they are superior… and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first,” he says.

Giving up the need to be first, best, or only is almost heresy in a competitive society. But to be solved, issues of race and equity (and in the NFL’s case, player safety) will have to be owned by all, including big brands and consumers, fans and quarterbacks. Getting good at cognitive dissonance is going to come in handy for everybody. (Speaking of which, YouTube user Nathan Robinson re-worked the ad with King’s more relevant remarks about advertisers. Brace yourself.)

King ends his sermon by poignantly describing his wishes for his own funeral, words that would be necessary just two months later. “If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral,” he begins. Forget the awards, the accomplishments, the fancy people he’d met. “Instead, I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.”


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