Poetic (social) justice: Amanda Gorman instills sense of unity at 2021 Super Bowl

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Thirty years ago in Tampa, Florida, Whitney Houston took the field at the 1991 Super Bowl to sing the national anthem. Just days into the Gulf War, the country was on edge; the Super Bowl served as a moment, a cultural event, that could bring the nation together. Houston’s iconic rendition of the national anthem did just that. The 27-year-old Black woman’s performance certainly instilled hope, unity and a sense of community amid uncertain times.

Just days ago in Tampa, Florida, a 22-year-old Black woman graced the 2021 Super Bowl broadcast with an original poem that seemed to accomplish much of what Houston’s national anthem performance did. In centering her poem around three honorary captains — a marine, an educator and an intensive care unit nurse manager — Amanda Gorman spoke to the moment. Amid trying times, as the nation continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, Gorman used language to instill awe for community members and foster hope for brighter days ahead.

Gorman and the NFL both took important steps Sunday. Gorman capitalized on the chance to address another national audience following her success at the presidential inauguration last month, and the NFL trudged away from tradition by asking a young Black female poet to speak and become the first person to recite poetry at a Super Bowl.

However, if there was only one adjective to describe the 2021 Super Bowl, it would be bittersweet. Part of the bitterness stems from the fact that the league hosted its championship game with fans in attendance despite Tampa, and the rest of the country, still fully battling a pandemic. Acknowledging the amount of resources that went into making the game and the entirety of the 17-week regular NFL season happen remains difficult to fully grasp.

The bitter taste was also fueled by the ongoing issues that continue to remain unaddressed by the league — the Kansas City Chiefs still embolden the dehumanization and commodification of Native people through the usage of their name, both Tampa Bay and Kansas City employ and market their franchises with individuals who have histories of sexual assault and both teams are led by white male head coaches and owners. Since the 1991 Super Bowl, little seems to have changed on those grounds.

But Sunday’s Super Bowl wasn’t all bitter, and Gorman’s performance was a testament to that. While we must remain wary of the NFL’s action and inaction related to social justice, we also ought to celebrate the good, which doesn’t stop with Tom Brady winning his seventh ring.

A few hours after Gorman took the stage, several women made history. After helping lead the Bucs to a 31-9 win over the Chiefs on Sunday, Lori Locust and Maral Javadifar became the first female coaches on a Super Bowl-winning team. Locust and Javadifar became Super Bowl champions as integral members of the Buccaneers’ coaching roster, with Locust serving as an assistant defensive line coach and Javadifar as an assistant strength and conditioning coach.

Their success came on the same day that Sarah Thomas became the first woman to officiate a Super Bowl, about a year after Katie Sowers helped coach the 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance, making Sowers the first woman in the league to ever do so.

Sports have long been a male-dominated sector of society, and women have slowly begun to claim their rightful place in it. Thomas’, Locust’s and Javadifar’s accomplishments certainly must have been difficult to come by, but their success marks an important milestone for all women in sports.

The NFL remains in dire need of structural improvements, but the notable, historic achievements Sunday — from Thomas, Locust and Javadifar on the field and Gorman ahead of the game — brought about a feeling of hope just as Houston did 30 years ago.

Surina Khurana is a columnist. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @surina_k.