The Super Bowl Sinkhole

Sports are supposed to remain as an inspirational oasis in our culture, a place where merit and performance, and even dazzling feats of prowess grab our attention. Too often in recent years, as professional sports has grown massively popular, the gap between athletic performance on the field and athletic misbehavior off the field has widened into a chasm. But the latest shocking sports news says something worse: now expectations of virtue in sports fans are also falling apart.

Even before the sleaze parade known at this year's Super Bowl unfolded, sports pages were lamenting what was happening at the University of Maryland's basketball game against Duke. Not only did a bevy of Maryland supporters show up in "F- Duke" T-shirts. Sauced-up fans in the stands greeted Duke's J.J. Redick at the free-throw line with loud chants of "F- you, J.J." - nominating Maryland's Comcast Center as the location where sportsmanship goes to die.

And all of this, the profane chants and T-shirts, was broadcast to a national audience, presumably filled with youngsters, courtesy of ESPN television.

Maybe one should expect the advertisers, whose money makes this programming possible, to object to the offensive product. But to advertisers, this is apparently a joke. After all, their contribution included the car ad where the kids put soap in their mouths after seeing the new Chevy line and saying "Holy [bleep]!" When was the last time a sports fan was presented with a Budweiser ad without crotch humor?

But the big story was the Super Bowl halftime show produced by MTV, America's Ground Zero of commercially calculated outrageousness, the architects of last summer's Britney-Madonna kiss controversy. At the end of performing his hit "Rock Your Body," a song which boasts "gonna have you naked by the end of this song," Justin Timberlake ripped off a piece of Janet Jackson's shirt, revealing a bare breast with a metal sunburst covering the nipple.

No one this side of third grade ought to imagine this was an unplanned mistake, despite Timberlake sounding like a bad campaign operative when he described it as a "wardrobe malfunction." MTV almost immediately boasted about the stunt on its Web site: "Jaws across the country hit the carpet at exactly the same time...a kinky finale that rocked the Super Bowl to its core," the network oozed. "MTV was Super Bowl central, so armchair quarterbacks, fair weather fanatics and fans of Janet Jackson and her pasties were definitely in the right place."

Nevertheless, CBS officials swore they were clueless about this and didn't see it in rehearsals (And once the stunt massively backfired, MTV's Web site soon fell implausibly into the "we didn't know" corporate line.) CBS did, however, sit through the rapper Nelly's hit "Hot in Herre," which asks a girl to "take off all your clothes," the rapper Kid Rock's lyrics about hookers, and Justin and Janet dancing like they're five feet from the door of a pay-by-the-hour motel. You might want to blame it on corporate synergy, since CBS and MTV are both part of the Viacom-Infinity Empire of Shock Profiteering.

But there's a dramatic difference between the youth subculture of MTV and the massive nationwide family audience for the Super Bowl, estimated this year at a whopping 140 million viewers. Crazed viewers of MTV might see this with a yawn, remembering the shock-rapper Li'l Kim showing up for an MTV awards show with a bare breast and purple pasty as part of her outfit. MTV put her on stage as a presenter, and endlessly replayed what happened next: pop idol Diana Ross jiggling the out-and-proud boob with her finger.

But on Sunday night, grandparents, parents, and children were huddled around the set for the Big Game, an obvious time slot for "family hour" programming. Instead, Grandpa and eight-year-old Johnny are trying to process why they have to be infected with this communicable disease, this vile programming that should be known as the MTV virus.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell was appropriately outraged in public, and no doubt privately mind-boggled, since Congress just finished raking the networks over the coals for their increasing shock-jock TV antics, from the Victoria's Secret "butt-cam" to the profanity-laced Golden Globes telecast.

The backlash was immediate and strong. Some wanted the story to end, so as to not give MTV the thrills. But an outraged public needs to make this backlash long and commercially painful. The NFL needs to back off its trend of treating its fans with the lowest common denominator of sleaze. CBS affiliates need to worry about license revocations if these offenses keep repeating themselves. And MTV, the makers of Outrage in a Can, ought to just be thrown out with the rest of the rusty garbage.