Witness to An Unusual Super Bowl
It’s the dream of just about any American sports fan. By the grace of the sporting deities, there’s a ticket for what is traditionally the biggest single-day event of the year, the Super Bowl, and it has your name on it. Whether you are a skilled schmoozer that gets in through a sponsor, a lucky season-ticket holder among the NFL’s 32 distinct fan bases who gets dibs on pre-sales months before, or this aspiring MENSA member, the league’s final offering the season is the spectacle of spectacles in these United States.
Somehow that was still the case despite the still-raging COVID-19 pandemic.
Super Bowl LV (55) was the cap of the NFL’s most logistically challenging season in ages, arguably ever. You know the story by now: rescheduled games and bye weeks, viral clusters among teams (and the brazen flouting of the rules by some), an oft-criticized campaign centered around social justice, and a head coaching carousel that continues to enrage and confound. And the game itself was far from the ALL-CAPS EPIC matchup hoped for by the masses as Tampa Bay’s defense was the real MVP in the Buccaneers’ dismantling of Kansas City. But the event was still a party of sorts for both the local team that got to win its second Lombardi Trophy and the 22,000 fans in what was intended to be socially-distanced attendance.
For 7,500 of those revelers in particular, the Super Bowl was part-reward, part-release. These were healthcare workers from around the nation (most from the Tampa region) who were gifted tickets by the league as a “thank you” for all of the critical work they have done through the last eleven months. They were also previously vaccinated, which made the game a huge stress test for vaccination efforts as they continue to ramp up from coast to coast.
Jenny Bagg is a registered nurse and certified nurse midwife in the Tampa area. (Some disclosure: we’ve been friends since high school.) The opportunity to go to the Super Bowl while it was in her backyard – for free – was too hard to pass up, but it wasn’t easy. Days after the NFL’s announcement, Bagg learned that a couple of colleagues got tickets, but assumed that she wasn’t as lucky. “The following day I was on-call and saw the winning nurse,” the NYC native said. “When I congratulated her, she said there were still tickets available and to email the HR administrator ASAP.”
Needing to respond quickly, Bagg, who received both of her COVID vaccine shots, needed to send a copy of her immunization card. Yet there were a couple of roadblocks. One, she couldn’t find the card. Two, her actual job. “I had a patient in labor who was 8 centimeters dilated. So what to do? Run home, of course, and tear the house apart looking for the card! Luckily, I found it without too much trouble, quickly emailed a photo of it and made the 90-second drive back to the hospital with plenty of time to spare before the birth.”
“When I saw that email: “You are going to Super Bowl LV!” I was nervously excited.”
The nerves were certainly understandable. While Bagg was vaccinated and was comforted by her understanding of the work behind the vaccines, she was about to attend the largest attended sporting event in the States since the NBA and NHL paused their seasons last spring. We are still learning about variants and what levels of protection are provided against them by the vaccines currently available. Though millions of people have been inoculated and many more wait for their shots, vaccine hesitation remains prevalent around the nation, with stories making the rounds about skepticism even among healthcare personnel.
A mother of two young children, Bagg had her motivations for getting the vaccine. “As healthcare professionals, we know how bad it is out there with COVID, she reflected. “We are taught to trust science. For me, it was never a question that I would get the vaccine as soon as it was available to me. I was excited by the mechanism of the mRNA vaccine, how there is NO piece of the coronavirus in it at all and that it offered such strong protection against serious disease and death.” She was mindful about reported cases of Bell’s Palsy among a few participants, especially because she was previously afflicted with the side effect in the past. Yet that was far from a deterrent. “I was so exhausted of living in fear and being at the mercy of others around me who were not and continue to not be doing things to protect themselves, my family and me.”
Armed with a Bucs mask made she purchased from loldesignsbyAngie (she spoke highly of the mask quality), she was also reassured about being in the stands because she was outdoors and that both the NFL and Raymond James Stadium staff were taking precautions that were unprecedented for the Super Bowl. Staffers enforced the mask mandate, making sure that fans always wore them unless they were eating or drinking, even if no other fans were nearby. Hand sanitizer was readily available and from the initial look, fans were socially distanced thanks to cutouts filling some seats and actual people spread throughout the stadium.
As the game went along and Patrick Mahomes kept seeing Buccaneers in his face, Bagg decided to make her way from her original seat in the 300s section to the 100s with an obviously closer view of the field. Unexpectedly, she found herself in another section of healthcare workers, all Kansas City fans. In a traditional sports sense, this sort of interaction would be awkward for a moment. “I told them that while we were on opposite sides of the game, I was so happy that they were there enjoying this with us. We’ve all had a hard year and what a way to celebrate.”
The game itself was a proper revenge game for the hometown Bucs, who entered the championship game on a seven-game winning streak after losing to the visitors on the same field in December. The non-game entertainment was divisive as always: stirring debate on social media but exciting the people in the building. Yet most of all, it was a cathartic moment for the thousands of fans who took it all in.
Yes, Florida has been open for business throughout much of the pandemic so far. The Sunshine State opened its doors to sporting leagues looking to either restart paused seasons (NBA), start new ones (WNBA, Major League Soccer) or take up long-term residency (WWE, All Elite Wrestling). And with much anger about how Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has managed the conditions, either you looked at Florida with absolute disdain or unbridled envy, views colored by both science and political leanings.
Bagg was incredibly mindful of this before, during and after the game, yet as anyone else who has found some sort of release in the time of COVID, it was hard to not fully appreciate the chance to unwind, especially considering what the working mom does for a living. “It definitely felt amazing to be “out” again after a year and to feel somewhat normal,” she said. “I felt myself dancing to Miley Cyrus (and BILLY IDOL and JOAN JETT!!!) more enthusiastically than I would have a year ago. I enjoyed the free drinks at the Tik Tok Tailgate a little more than I might have in early 2020.”
With the vaccine rollout limping along throughout the country, many Americans are more anxious about “getting back to normal” while millions have continued on as if nothing has changed. Eventually, the larger social gatherings that come from sports and other forms of entertainment will return. From a healthcare perspective, Bagg thinks that masks and social distancing won’t let up in 2021, jokingly that “I cannot imagine the horror of ever smelling someone’s breath again.”
Yet she also implores that we remain diligent and persistent in our fight against COVID-19, hoping that the pandemic “has forged ‘new normals’ that we will continue once the acute threat of COVID-19 is past us: washing our hands more, staying home when we’re sick (seriously, like how many times have we all gone to work sick and contagious), and thoughtfulness for your neighbor (I have less faith with that last one).”
“We have the power to be healthier and safer with a few adjustments to our behavior. Let’s do this, people!”