February 6, 2002

Legends of the SuperBowl

By: Howard Fienberg

Super Bowl Sunday is about more than football. It’s about legends — not just Joe Namath, Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, but “Bloody
Sunday” and “The Great Toilet Flush” as well.

Super Bowl Sunday was dubbed “Bloody” because wife-beating is said to reach
an annual high the day of the game. “The Great Toilet Flush” refers to the
tendency of sewage systems in major cities to break under the load of
half-time toilet-flushing. But while the great quarterbacks are indeed
legends, the stories are myths; there’s no truth in any of them.

The legend of “Bloody Sunday” dates back to1993, when women’s
activist groups staged a press conference to declare Super Bowl Sunday “the
biggest day of the year for violence against women.” The New York Times
declared it the “Abuse Bowl.” Other news stories reported that victims flood
telephone hot lines and women’s shelters following the game. A letter from
public relations firm Dobinsky Associates warned at-risk women not to
“remain alone with him during the game.”

So what was the evidence for this annual day of terror? Activists
cited a study by an Old Dominion University sociologist documenting a link
between wife-beating in Northern Virginia and Washington Redskins football
games in the 1988-89 season. It supposedly found police reports and hospital
admissions rose forty percent following Redskins wins.

Ken Ringle, a reporter for the Washington Post, went beyond the
press release and checked the facts. The author of the study, Janet Katz,
told Ringle that the activists completely misrepresented her research. Katz
said she found no association between increased emergency room admissions
and “the occurrence of football games in general, nor with watching a team
lose.” Several days later, a spokesman for one of the activist groups
admitted to the Boston Globe that their representation of the study was “not
quite accurate.”

Thankfully, not all Super Bowl Sunday legends are quite so serious.

“The Great Toilet Bowl Flush” hit back in 1984, in Salt Lake City, when a
water main broke on Super Bowl Sunday. Was it the collective flushing of
toilets by Coors-addled football fans “flooding” the bathroom at half-time
that overloaded the system? No link has ever been established between the
main break and the toilet factor. Water main breaks, while uncommon, can
befall areas with older infrastructure. We are lucky enough that most mains
can handle mass flushing with ease.

Unfortunately, a TV ad for the local 11 o’clock news that Sunday
focused on the water story, transforming a falsehood into a legend.
According to Cecil Adams, writer of “The Straight Dope,” New York City’s
Department of Environmental Protection gave the legend another push three
years later, warning viewers to stagger their bathroom breaks to protect the
city’s fragile piping. A city spokesman later claimed that the warnings were
only meant in jest, but he was too late to keep the legend from spreading

The Super Bowl represents the pinnacle of American popular culture.
Despite the diversification of America’s sporting interests, millions of us,
as well as a ton of foreigners, tune in for the annual showdown. Advertisers
pay a fortune for the smallest slice of air-time. Food and drink companies
salivate at the prospect of increased sales.

But in the end, the game can leave us wanting. I’ve seen far too
many abysmal Bowl games, of interest only to die-hard fans. They make the
hours of pre-Bowl build-up look far more exciting by comparison to the game
itself. Perhaps that is what drives these urban legends and compels us to
share them with each other and to fall under their spell – the ongoing
search for entertainment and emotional fulfillment.

Let’s hope this year the game delivers all on its own.