America's Ugly Super Bowl

Despite its unforgettable finish, the NFL's extravaganza was undermined by violence and the specter of concussions.

Matt Rourke/AP/The Atlantic

The New England Patriots' fourth Super Bowl win in 14 years delivered everything a fan of the game could want: a near-even matchup, no shortage of compelling narratives, some unbelievable plays, and the biggest fourth-quarter comeback in Super Bowl history—capped by a for-the-ages kind of ending.

The game also delivered a 49.7 overnight rating, the highest in Super Bowl history. And yet, millions upon millions also saw a game that, while undeniably thrilling, featured a series of ugly nadirs that the National Football League couldn't have wanted.

In the third quarter of Sunday's game, play was briefly interrupted after Seattle Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril took a brutal hit to the head and, for a moment, lie motionless on the turf. As teammates surrounded him and trainers tended to him, Avril was able to get up and, with some assistance, was taken to the locker room for examination. Avril was diagnosed with a concussion and did not return.

However, the more ominous flourish came as cameras panned to Avril being escorted off the field. As he went, the broadcast booth explained that under the league's new concussion protocol, Avril would be seen by an "unaffiliated neurological consultant," a title that, while meaning to signify assurance, also speaks to the eerie complexity and convoluted nature of the league's head injury policy.

Theoretically, Avril's injury represents what the concussion protocol looks like when it's properly conducted. However, during the fourth quarter of the game, Patriots receiver Julian Edelman took a vicious hit from Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor that rendered him dazed. As the replays spun, a former league official tweeted that Chancellor should have been flagged for a penalty for the helmet-to-helmet hit, a rule that the league has enacted to stem concussions.

A reporter from the Detroit Free Press stoked the conspiracy:

Edelman stayed in the game and a few plays later, got up looking a little less than steady after another catch. Birkett later wrote that even after the drive, which resulted in a Patriots touchdown, "a medical observer was overheard radioing someone a second time saying Edelman needed to be examined." (On Monday, "a person with knowledge of the situation" told the AP that Edelman was later tested on the sideline although, unlike Avril, Edelman never went to the locker room.) Edelman went on to score the game-winning touchdown.

In a post-game interview, Edelman was asked about the hit. "We're not allowed to talk about injuries," he told reporters. As ESPN noted, Edelman also "at one point referred to 'Seattle' as 'St. Louis' before correcting himself."

Following the game, The Onion ran a piece with the particularly devastating headline "Super Bowl Confetti Made Entirely From Shredded Concussion Studies." Glibness notwithstanding, this sentiment speaks to the enduring problem of concussions, a manifestation of the game's violence, which has given the pro football its first real existential crisis.

In the past few years, former players, league observers, and fans alike have become increasingly vocal about the issue of brain trauma in a manner that some say could irrevocably turn the culture of football fandom against the sport. (Meanwhile, last week, an anonymous poll of NFL players concluded that 85 percent of players would opt to play in the Super Bowl with a concussion.)

Edelman and Avril weren't the only symbols of the NFL's problems on display at Super Bowl XLIX. The league's other image crisis has centered on a recent spate of off-the-field incidents involving domestic violence. In the aftermath of abuse scandals involving league stars Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson—the most high-profile acts of misconduct in a handful of them this season—the last thing the league needed was for the specter of violence to tarnish the year's biggest game.

But shortly after Malcolm Butler, the Patriots rookie and unlikely Super Bowl savior, sealed his team's title with an incredible last-second interception at the goal line, the game was delayed again by a massive brawl. As Super Bowl skirmishes go, this one was unprecedented in its scope. In the end, Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin became the first player to ever be ejected from a Super Bowl.

The last surreal, ugly turn took place during what should have been the most triumphant moment—the post-game trophy presentation ceremony. As the confetti fell, the legendary speechifying of Patriots owner Robert Kraft's was interrupted by a question about Deflategate.

"We won that (AFC) game 45-7, we won today 28-24," Kraft shouted. "Our people didn't touch the balls. I love our team, I'm proud of our guys. We’re going to carry on and hopefully continue to do well." The denial, like the game's ugliness, came briefly, sandwiched in between glory and pride.