When in Rome

Adapted from a broadcast of February 2006

Sometime real soon, so I hear, the Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Bears will be playing each other in the big game in South Florida – One Game, One Dream – the Superbowl. The question on everyone’s mind: Will Chicago’s number one defense be able to restrain Peyton Manning’s Colts and – restrain the Colts -- and the Colts. . .


You know, I have no idea what I’m talking about. I don’t really follow professional football, and I know nothing about college football whatsoever.

What I really want to talk about is this continued obsession that the NFL has with using Roman numerals to indicate the sequence of Superbowls. The argument could made that Roman numerals lend an air of class and dignity to numbered things, like ships (The Queen Elizabeth II), or movies (The Godfather II) or offspring (Thurston Howell III). And if any spectacle badly needed an air of class and dignity, the Superbowl is it. But no mere antique numbering system can cover the smell of money that oozes from every nook and cranny of the Big Game.

What is now known as Superbowl 1 – or I – was played on January 15 of 1967. I’m not much for football, but I do have an obsession with baseball history, and, of course, when you’re talking years in baseball championships, you always refer to the year of the World Series – for instance, the 2004 champion Boston Red Sox. Most sports follow this convention, but not the NFL. There’s something arcane and esoteric about the NFL championship dating with its Roman numerals – who but the biggest football geek can remember the difference between Superbowl XIV and Superbowl XVI? Anyone?

It says a great deal about the hype and hyperbole in the NFL that it persists with this confusing system. It’s sort of like this insular culture with its own special calendar. For most of us using the mainstream Gregorian calendar, of course, it’s 2007 – and soon, I’ll start writing that on my checks. But, by contrast, according to the Jewish calendar, it’s 5759. For Muslims, it’s 1427. For the Chinese, it’s 4704. I mean, I might be off by a year on those other calendars, but it's close enough when you're working with these kinds of numbers. It's all very subjective.

If you’re a SuperFan of the National Football League, I suppose it’s Year 40, A.L. – after Lombardi, that is. And, according to the Lombardian calendar, the new year is celebrated on Superbowl Sunday – which of course moves from year to year according to the whims of the league, the television networks, and the shenanigans of the various metro areas around the nation in their attempts to draw the Big Game to their communities.

But to get back to the Roman numerals. Might I point out that there is no Roman empire any more? Yes, there are Romans, but they all speak Italian, not Latin, and they use good old 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 rather than I V X L C and M. I attribute the fall of the Roman empire not to barbarian hordes but because the Romans had no zero, and hence had a great deal of trouble with math. I imagine some Roman general struck trying to figure out how many horses and men he needed in battle and getting whacked on the head by a visigoth, who had no need for calculation at all but had a very large club. Replace the Romans with the NFL and the barbarians with NASCAR and you can see where I’m going with this. The Daytona 500, the Coca-Cola 600 – nope, NASCAR has no fear of zeroes whatsoever. The future belongs to the sport that knows how to do math.

Not that I’ll be watching automobile racing any time soon -- or any football aside from the NFL playoffs. Me, I’m fine with baseball. It was around long before both the NFL and NASCAR, and I have a feeling it’ll still be here when the X’s and O’s are all added up.

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