Why the Superbowl Ending Sucked

“The Hold” Heard Round the World

Todd Brewer / 2.13.23

If you’re a Chiefs fan, congrats. For everyone else, we suffered through an unimaginable conclusion to a Superbowl. No one wants to see the referees decide a game, but that is precisely what happened. A five yard holding call and fresh set of downs later and the game was all but over. All that was left was 200+ million people watching 22 players mill around for two minutes. After a close, electrifying game with remarkable catches, ingenious coaching, and unsung heroes, it all ended with a whimper. Even Patrick Mahomes looked dispassionately bored watching the clock tick down. The worst ending to the best game of the biggest sport in America.

Football fans have become far too accustomed to the zebras taking center stage, but this was something else altogether. In a few years no one will remember anything in this game except “the hold” that brought it to an unceremonious finish. Not Mahomes’ bum ankle, Kelce’s dominance, Rihanna’s floating spectacle of awesomeness, or Hurts’ record-setting performance. “The hold.”

I won’t say that the Eagles were robbed or that the fix was in. Neither was strictly true. (And, to be clear, I’m not an Eagles fan.) The rule of law — as rigorously defined by the league — was applied by the only people empowered to do so. There is no appeals process for penalties. We might argue over if they got it wrong or just called it as they saw it, if it was a “textbook” penalty or a needless error. Such debates over injustice and fair play are intellectual stand-ins for one’s feeling of disappointment, having been robbed of an exciting culmination to the game. This premature denouement made for an unwatchable conclusion. Absurd, even. The turning point of the game came not from a player at the near apex of human physical potential, but from a senior citizen lofting a yellow bean bag ten feet in the air.

In the moments following “the hold,” the normally effusive announcer Greg Olsen grasped to articulate what had just happened: “I think on this stage. I think you let them play … I think, I don’t know, you let them play and finish this thing out. I don’t love that call.” With every word, you can hear his initial enthusiasm decrescendo to a muted dejection. Olsen doesn’t dispute the illegality of the play, but the significance of the penalty relative to the magnitude of the infraction. He recognizes, but can’t quite express, the enjoyment of play and the spoilsport impact of rules.

The rules of a game simultaneously dictate the bounds of participation and enable it to be played. Defined regulations allow a forward pass, limit the width of the field, and prohibit passing interference. Without any rules, gameplay would cease to exist at all, preventing a competition from descending into chaos or barbarism while enabling participants to accomplish transcendent feats.

In practice, however, the rules of the game and the spirit of play exist in tension with one another. The experience of free play, with its boundless creativity and pursuit of excellence, resembles a state of Adamic perfection. In an ideal game, the rules that facilitate play disappear altogether once play has commenced, like how a musical score or dance gives rise to powerful expressions of artistry, improvisation, and mastery. The enforcement of rules disrupts this state of grace, introducing guilt and penalty for sin. Every flag thrown recapitulates the expulsion from the garden; the transgression of “thou shalt not” imposes further limits to creativity. The disappearance of the law is the graceful means by which play and creative freedom emerges.

In other words, our visceral response to “the hold” is informed by more than our relative sports allegiances. The disappointment felt reflects a broad cultural discomfort with the intrusion of the law into play, informed as it were by millennia of western values going back to Luther, Augustine, Paul, and Jesus. We grumble that the referees should have “let them play and finish it out,” not because the penalty was unfair, but because we implicitly believe that the rules were made for play and not play for the rules. That the execution of justice shouldn’t be the means by which competitive play is resolved. The Chiefs won the game fair and square, but it is difficult to say that their victory was wholly earned.

Chiefs fans were obviously thrilled with how the game transpired, but I imagine at least part of them would have preferred a more satisfying conclusion. If only “the hold” had never happened, what greatness might have been seen? Up by just three points with a minute and a half remaining, the Chiefs defense would have faced one final test of strength and stamina. If only that flag were never thrown. The uninterrupted flow of play leading to a dramatic conclusion would have made the game an instant classic, a roller-coaster of joy and anxiety punctuated by climactic relief or disappointment. Jubilant elebrations, unbeckoned tears, Gatorade baths, and the gut-wrenching acceptance of defeat. If only …

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3 responses to “Why the Superbowl Ending Sucked”

  1. […] Sadly, the big story from the game will not be the Chiefs or the Eagles, but the “Zebras,” as our own Todd Brewer articulated earlier today. This year, the NFL has been plagued with officiating decisions that impacted the outcome of […]

  2. Pierre says:

    It was a classic “letter of the law” vs. “spirit of the law”, enacted at the worst possible moment. I guess there’s a reason that’s such a potent trope in fiction…

  3. […] to that, I also like from Mockingbird this article that analyzes why I (at least!) found the end of the Super Bowl a bit of a let down with a legitimate […]

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