Above: The (normally invisible) hand of the free market.

Most religious holidays have long forgotten the specifics of what they celebrate, and the Super Bowl is no exception.  Last year’s Giants-Pats cliffhanger  notwithstanding, the traditional recipe is heavy on hooplah and light on competition.  We watch, looking less for on-field history and more for the inter-conference resolution, perhaps out of a sense of obligation toward those squads whose perseverance through a season of this intensely violent sport is genuinely exceptional.  That they usually huff-puff across the finish line is almost to be expected.

While an on-field afterthought, competition, albeit of a different kind dominates today’s game atmosphere.  For today is the first post-economic-meltdown Super Bowl, and the reminders are coming hot and heavy for US taxpayers that we’re down 44-6 in the fourth quarter with nine minutes to go.

In 1981, swept into high office on a promise to burn down the country’s high offices, President Ronald Reagan’s first Super Bowl (XV) saw Jim Plunkett and the Raiders upset the Eagles 27-10 at the Louisiana Superdome.  Too far removed from the 1930s, too trusting of business, and convinced of the evils of “Big Government” the public happily sent in the Gipper to get it “off our backs”.

He did, as they say, a heck of a job. XXIV years later in 2005, the Superdome became the eternal symbol of the laissez-faire Reagan Revolution, writ large in human feces.  Tens of thousands of Katrina victims stuffed into the dome whiled away the days, then the weeks as the inaction born of the Reagan conservative’s hatred of the public shone like a thousand points of (privately owned) light.

While less bloody and more advertiser-friendly, the basic spectacle of non-stop sodomization of the public by business interests remains the subtext of today’s game.  No longer is a natural disaster necessary for us to feel acutely the kleptocracy’s unnecessary roughness while we sit in a stadium.  All we need is to read the name on the sign above its entrance.

Super Bowl XLIII is hosted in Tampa, FL at Raymond James Stadium, an arena built – as is the norm – with public money extorted under threat of economic warfare.  As usual, the business world has no problem with taxes as long as they’re the ones collecting them:  in 1995, Buccaneers owner Malcom Glazer threatened to take the team away from Tampa if the community did not levy a tax to finance the construction of the stadium.  Glazer negotiated a stadium lease that stuck the county government with the $200 million construction as well as ongoing maintenance costs, allowing Forbes magazine to rate the value of the Bucs at nearly $1 billion in 2007.

While that may seem old hat at this point, and many Tampans believe they haven’t been strung along, the toxic shock culminates in the stadium naming rights deal. Because Raymond James Financial, Inc. is but one more in a long list of stadium name holders who once had enough cash on hand to pollute the sporting landscape with their names, but today, post-meltdown find themselves applying for a piece of billions in public money under the TARP or other programs.

The company is hardly alone.  They join a Peter Principle parade of mopes in varying states of disaster including Citibank (Mets), Comerica (Tigers), PNC Bank  (Pirates), M&T Bank (Ravens), Lincoln Financial (Eagles), Invesco (Broncos) and Citizens Bank (Phillies – UK bailout) – each adopting a suddenly elephant-ears posture.   Beyond these, automakers and airlines are probably next in the sorry procession.

If nothing else can be taken away from this, at least the jig is up.  No one may watch this or any future Super Bowl and argue these blow-dried captains of industry were really serious all those years as they droned on in Reaganesque fashion about the almighty private sector or personal self-reliance or avoiding the “moral hazard” of government assistance.  Today’s game and stadium name is proof that like a lot of us, they’ve got a hand out as well — it’s just hard to tell with the Hummer windows closed.