Super Bowl 50 was widely criticized as a tedious and underwhelming culmination of the 2015 season. The game drew three million fewer spectators than last year, with peak viewership at 115 million during the highly anticipated halftime performances of Coldplay, Bruno Mars, and Beyoncé Knowles. It seemed that even before those twelve minutes had drawn to a close, a heated controversy surrounding Beyoncé’s rendition of her single, “Formation,” overtook social media.
Following its release on February 6, “Formation” and the accompanying music video began making waves in the media before Beyoncé had even stepped foot in Levi’s Stadium. An angry and powerful track that calls for unity among black women, the video features references to the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina, the celebration of creole culture in Louisiana, and a vocal appreciation for natural black beauty, along with a call for resistance against recent episodes of racially-motivated police brutality. The song is a potent rallying cry in the era of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, as in previous months the racial, economic, and social stratifications in American society have been thrown into the public eye by instances of police brutality in Missouri, Maryland, New York, and many other states.
At the Super Bowl, Beyoncé took the message of her music even further, thrusting the call for racial equality into an unavoidable global spotlight. Beyoncé’s costume recalled the apparel of another famous black artist, Michael Jackson, and her backup dancers were clad in costumes that resembled Black Panther uniforms. The public response was swift and massive. Arguments both condemning and defending Beyoncé emerged on social media: #boycottbeyoncé trended on Twitter, critics organized anti-Beyoncé rallies, and claims emerged that the performance was responsible for a supposed uptick in violence against police. Mostly, however, the debates centered on whether or not Beyoncé had the right to bring political discourse into such a highly traditionalized sporting event as the Super Bowl.
The relatively recent “Black Lives Matter” movement has profoundly affected the music industry. Many famous artists have attempted to use their celebrity status to propagate messages of the continuing fight for equality. The video for Kendrick Lamar’s universally acclaimed song “Alright” depicted the struggle between police and African-Americans; D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah” was a similar protest against police brutality; Kanye West mentioned the looming threat of violence that African-Americans face on a daily basis on his album “The Life of Pablo.” All of these artists drew a wide spectrum of responses, but the backlash against Beyoncé was unique given both her wide appeal and her larger platform for speaking.
It is often acknowledged that the Super Bowl holds an almost religious power over citizens of the United States. It is one of the most widely watched sporting events in the world, second only to the UEFA Champions League final, and, more tellingly, its viewership is almost entirely American. Its players constitute some of the world’s most recognizable and marketable athletes. It holds both social and economic power: People gather together to watch it, and advertising time comes at a price of 50 million dollars for 30 seconds. Around this highly institutionalized game, a discourse similar to the separation of church and state has emerged: This time, however, the church is football, and the state is a nationwide movement for the equality of black Americans.
But to advocate the separation of discussions of racial equality from a sport populated with many talented people of color seems both impossible and morally incorrect. 2014 NFL surveys reported that nearly 70 percent of the league’s athletes were African-American; African-Americans constitute many of the biggest names and the most important team contributions in all of American football. Indeed, record-breaking quarterback Cam Newton helped push the Carolina Panthers all the way to the Super Bowl this year.
Yet, many Americans continue to see advocating racial equality in sports arenas as both unjustified and problematic. It is almost as if the public is attempting to silence calls for equality for the very players they rally to watch and support in droves. This idea extends beyond music performances. In March 2014, the Miami Heat drew attention for an on-court tribute to Trayvon Martin. The ensuing public backlash eventually involved Kobe Bryant in a debate about the players’ rights to protest in that environment. In December of that same year, LeBron James and several other influential basketball stars sported T-shirts emblazoned with the words “I can’t breathe” on the court after the death of Eric Garner. Once again, a large portion of the public responded negatively on social media, and President Obama eventually stepped forward to vocalize his support for the players’ decision. Perhaps the most striking incident occurred only a few weeks earlier, in late November, when five players from the St. Louis Rams made the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture on the field before a game. The action was immediately derided as “disrespectful” on social media, and one of the players reported receiving threatening messages online. Public and police anger increased at the players’ refusal to apologize, and the players faced the possibility of disciplinary action from the NFL for their peaceful protest.
The public outcries that followed each of these events indicates the persistence of a much deeper problem — the same one exposed by Beyoncé’s performance. Americans say that a discussion of the social and economic equality of African-Americans, including those who are athletes, holds no place on the turf, but they fail to realize that athletes are just as much a part of continuing movements for racial equality as Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, and every individual protestor on a city street. They have the power to spread messages of acceptance and equality to millions of viewers across the United States and the world — especially in their enduring role as role models for young people. Athletes’ lives do not end on the field: They extend far beyond the boundaries of any stadium, and failure to accept a message of equality in sports mirrors the larger failures that led to the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
“Formation” was released during Black History Month, a day after what would have been Trayvon Martin’s birthday and a day before what would have been Sandra Bland’s. Beyoncé, calling for equality on perhaps the most visible stage possible, raised questions of racial and national identity that can no longer be ignored, and the aftermath has made one thing abundantly clear: The American public cannot continue turning a blind eye to and resisting a message of racial equality just because it occurs within a stadium. Instead, a conscious effort must be made to spread the message that Beyoncé, other musicians, and many athletes are trying to communicate, both inside the stadium and out.