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Tackling Super Bowl Controversies with Kids

From cheating scandals to domestic violence to concussions to the halftime show, kids need to know your thoughts on the not-so-fun issues that may come up during the Big Game.

Who doesn't love Super Bowl Sunday? You've got the best teams in the league at the top of their game. You've got commercials that are entertainment unto themselves (and they've gotten progressively more family-friendly over the years). And you have license to eat as many hot wings as you want. Whether you're a fan of the New England Patriots or the Atlanta Falcons, cheering on your favorite team as a family is part of the fun of the day. But some of the issues that have come up around pro football -- from players kneeling during the national anthem to discussion of domestic violence arrests -- can be confusing, and even scary, for kids.  

If you're watching with kids, you may want to avoid some of the trickier issues and focus on the fun stuff. But kids are pretty savvy, and since the Super Bowl is a live event, anything could happen. The announcers might mention the Patriots' 2015 "deflategate" scandal, an edgy commercial or the halftime show could spark a debate, or rival fans in your living room could get a little heated. Before you know it, you're caught off guard with subjects that you (let alone your kids) are not quite prepared for.

Hopefully, your game day experience will be one full of fist-bumps and finish-line dances. If any one of these issues arises, here are some questions and ideas to discuss with kids. Remember: This is a fun day, so no need to lecture. Your goal should be initiating conversation to get your kids to think more deeply about the stuff they see and hear.

In 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick earned praise and criticism when he kneeled during the national anthem to draw attention to the oppression of African-American people. Other athletes have risked fines to wear cleats that represent issues that are important to them. As a way of sanctioning players' protests, the NFL lets them wear cleats that express their views during a special Cleat Week.

Ask your kids:

  • Do you think what Kaepernick did was an exercise in freedom of speech?
  • Do you think that because he successfully drew attention to the issue of racism that the end justified the means?
  • Do these actions encourage you to stand up for things you believe in?
  • Do you think players should only express their views through official forums such as Cleat Week and keep mum at other times?

It's hard not to notice that there's one group of people on the sidelines who are only half dressed. And what they're wearing is pretty provocative. Sure, it's tradition for football teams to have female cheer teams. But the blatant sexism of their costumes is pretty hard to defend.

Ask your kids:

  • Do you think it's fair for the cheerleaders to have to wear such skimpy costumes?
  • Do you think wearing revealing clothes makes the cheerleaders get less respect as athletes?
  • What is the message that the game sends about women's role in football?
  • Do you think the NFL's efforts to make the games more female-friendly are effective? Why would they want to appeal to women fans?

The Big Game is a huge promotional opportunity for advertisers. They go all-out on commercials that are memorable and will get people talking long after Super Bowl Sunday. Don't feel guilty about enjoying them. Use them as a chance to help your kids understand the relationship between the broadcast and the commercials.

Ask your kids:

  • Why do companies spend so much money on Super Bowl ads? (Hint: The Super Bowl garners the biggest TV audience of the year; more viewers means more potential customers.)
  • Which were your favorite commercials?
  • Can you always tell which product the commercials are selling?
  • Do the commercials make you want to buy the product (or tell your parents to buy it)?

The Halftime Show
Leaving aside for the moment that this year's halftime show is literally called the "Pepsi Zero Sugar Super Bowl Halftime Show" (see "Commercials"), the mid-game spectacle is a live event and anything can happen. Super Bowl 50's halftime show starring Cold Play and Beyoncé incited controversy when many people perceived Beyoncé's performance to be an anti-police political statement. This year, Lady Gaga is performing. Just let that sink in.

Ask your kids:

  • Do you think performers intentionally try for moments that will "go viral"? (Perhaps to elevate their own celebrity?)
  • Is it OK for artists to use events such as the Super Bowl to express their opinions?
  • Do you admire someone who takes a stand for their views, or do you wish they would stick to the music?

Domestic Violence
There have been some notable cases of domestic violence within the NFL. Due to high-profile cases, the NFL tightened its punishment for players found guilty of domestic violence and has adopted domestic violence as an awareness cause. 

Ask your kids:

  • Do you know what domestic violence is?
  • Is it ever OK for someone to hurt someone else? (The answer is no, but if kids look up to a certain player who has been found guilty of domestic violence, they may be confused on that point.)
  • The game of football includes full-body contact; do you think it could lead to a person being abusive in regular life?
  • What should the consequences be for someone who is found guilty of domestic violence? Should the NFL suspend them?
  • What are some ways that an abuser could get better?
  • Do you think abusers should apologize publicly, or is it enough for them to be punished by the law?

Where there are games, there is often cheating. That should come as no surprise to kids. Both the Patriots ("deflategate") and the Falcons (using prerecorded crowd noise) have been caught cheating. When the pros cheat, it's confusing for kids who are taught to play by the rules.

Ask your kids:

  • Why would a professional athlete cheat? (Answers: money, fame, pride, a sense of being "above the law.")
  • If someone else cheats, does that make it OK for you to cheat?
  • What should the consequences be for cheating?
  • Can someone who cheated ever be forgiven?

In recent years, many former football players have been found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease tied to the concussions they suffered while playing. The NFL tightened its safety rules, but the game is still a risky contact sport. The movie Concussion starring Will Smith deals with the issue.

Ask your kids:

  • Football players earn millions of dollars, but is that enough to compensate them for the risks of the game?
  • How do you feel watching a game in which players might be taking hits that could hurt them in the future?
  • Would football be as much fun to watch if there weren't tackles and other collisions?

Alcohol and Junk Food
Budweiser, Mountain Dew, Skittles, and Snickers -- not exactly the breakfast of champions -- are all advertising during the 2017 Super Bowl. Studies show that viewing junk food ads contributes to obesity and watching alcohol ads leads to underage drinking. You won't be able to turn off every commercial you don't want your kids to see, so help them resist being influenced.

Ask your kids:

  • Who made this ad? (When kids can identify the corporation behind the ad, it helps them separate their emotional reaction from the company's money-making agenda.)
  • Who is this ad for? (Is it for grown-ups or kids?)
  • What is the ad for? (Sometimes it's hard to tell because companies like to create associations -- for example, Pepsi = cool -- to make their product seem desirable.)
  • Are these foods good for you?
  • Was the ad funny, sad, happy? (Emotional reactions create sympathy and trust for a company, which is just a technique to get people to buy it.)
Caroline Knorr
Caroline is Common Sense Media's former parenting editor. She has many years of editorial and creative marketing writing experience and has held senior-level positions at, Walmart stores, Cnet, and Bay Area Parent magazine. She specializes in translating complex information into bite-sized chunks to help families make informed choices about what their kids watch, play, read, and do.