When the NFL selected Atlanta to host this Sunday’s Super Bowl, the league reasoned it was awarding the contest to a well-connected major city with a revitalised urban core and one of the world’s most impressive new stadiums.
A couple of months later in 2016, the then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, began to protest police brutality and racism by kneeling when the Star-Spangled Banner was played before games.
A backlash against his stance fuelled by criticism from Donald Trump both as a Republican presidential candidate and after he entered the White House helped politicise and polarise America’s favourite sport.
Now, the focus this weekend is not only on the glitz of the $1.5bn (1.15bn GBP) Mercedes-Benz stadium and whether the New England Patriots can beat the Los Angeles Rams to secure a record sixth title for their 41-year-old star quarterback, Tom Brady. A yearly event that was essentially an overblown party and corporate moneyspinner is also now a vehicle for difficult questions about the past, present and future of civil rights in America.
The NFL and its showpiece final have become a battlefield for wider fights over social justice and left-versus-right culture wars, their intensity magnified this year by the Super Bowl’s location in a deep south metropolis that has long been viewed as the unofficial capital of black America and a cornerstone of the civil rights movement.
Most visibly, what was previously one of the most desirable jobs in pop music – headlining the half-time show in front of more than 100 million American viewers – has become a poisoned chalice. An article in Variety last December dubbed it “Music’s Least Wanted Gig”.
This year’s show will be performed by Maroon 5 after it was reportedly turned down by Rihanna in solidarity with Kaepernick, who has not played since the 2016 season and filed a grievance against the league alleging that team owners colluded to make him an outcast.
“I think it would be cool if Maroon 5 backed out of Super Bowl like Rihanna did,” comedian Amy Schumer wrote on Instagram last year. “I personally told my reps I wouldn’t do a Super Bowl commercial this year. I know it must sound like a privilege-ass sacrifice but it’s all I got. Hitting the NFL with the advertisers is the only way to really hurt them.”
Maroon 5 will be supported by two rappers, Travis Scott and Big Boi, who are black. After criticism from influential activists such as the Reverend Al Sharpton, Scott issued a statement saying his participation was contingent on the NFL agreeing to “partner” with him in making a $500,000 donation to a social justice organisation.
Beyoncé referenced the Black Panthers and the Black Lives Matter movement during her half-time show at Super Bowl 50 in 2016.
There are few clues about what is in store on Sunday after the NFL announced that Maroon 5 would not give the customary pre-game press conference, allowing them to sidestep potentially awkward questions. “The artists will let their show do the talking,” the league said on Tuesday.
Jermaine Dupri, a mainstay of Atlanta’s music scene who is producing an officially-endorsed concert series at a fan festival near the stadium, said he would invite families of people killed by law enforcement. “I plan on having them come to my Super Bowl Live event and speak to the crowd and tell their story about police brutality in the city and let people understand that I’m supporting them as much as possible,” he told the Associated Press.
Civil rights groups including the Atlanta branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) announced plans for a rally on Saturday to protest police brutality after two recent fatal shootings of black men by officers in Atlanta, as well as the continued presence of Confederate memorials in the state, which they view as symbols of white supremacy.
A white nationalist group with ties to the Ku Klux Klan, meanwhile, intends to hold a counter-protest on Saturday next to the largest high relief sculpture in the world, the three-acre carving of Confederate leaders at Stone Mountain, near Atlanta, the founding site of the modern Klan.
Substantially funded by taxpayers and opened in 2017 on the western fringe of downtown, the angular, glassy exterior of Mercedes-Benz Stadium looms like an alien spaceship over the largely impoverished, majority African American neighbourhoods around it. Ticket resellers are asking in excess of $15,000 each for some Super Bowl seats – an amount that represents six months’ income for many households.
The venue is less than two miles from the Martin Luther King Jr National Historical Park, which includes his boyhood home. “We’re welcoming the NFL and Super Bowl to our city,” Bernice King, his youngest child and CEO of the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, said during a panel discussion this week.
She said the game is an opportunity to remind the nation of why Kaepernick chose to kneel. “This is the city where Dr King was birthed and this is the city from which the platform of justice, civil rights and human rights resonates from,” she said. “The issue is still justice for all.”