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It is the Super Bowl press pass.
In addition to the rather coveted seat that it secures its bearer (a $350-plus value), a Super Bowl credential also entitles members of the fourth estate to a wide array of sweet swag (pronounced "schwag," it's the industry insider term for gratis goodies). While swagging comes up somewhat short on the ethics meter (can you imagine a Supreme Court reporter receiving a souvenir gavel just for doing her job?), the press gravy train has been riding through Super Bowl towns for years.
Why grease the press with swag at all? Probably because the host cities and the Super Bowl organizing committees want media types to be radiating a warm glow when they sit down to file their reports. A writer with a bagful of goodies might think twice, for example, before slamming a weak-kneed, candyass city like Atlanta for canceling most airline flights and keeping cabs off the roads because of the threat of a threat of an eighth of an inch of snow. Just as an example.
This year, the pregame media HQ was housed at the swanky Hyatt Regency in downtown Atlanta. The day before Super Bowl XXXIV, it was swarming, and it was easy to spot the scribes who were old hands at the freebie game. These folks strutted like press peacocks, bedecked in multi-swag outfits: a baseball cap from Super Bowl XXX, a windbreaker from Super Bowl XXVII, an embroidered polo shirt from Super Bowl XXV.
After getting their credentials, which came complete with a neon-bright souvenir lanyard, this year reporters received a handsome soft briefcase. AstroTurf green with brown leather accents, it had a dimpled Wilson football stamped on its main flap and a leather Super Bowl XXXIV luggage tag attached to the handle. Inside the swag bag, the gravy got gooiera green, ergonomically friendly Super Bowl pen and a giant commemorative Super Bowl patch.
Around the press room, other free loot could be found. A booth sponsored by the city was doling out free T-shirts proclaiming Atlanta to be "The Sports Capital of the World" (the shirt, however, did not bear Juan Antonio Samaranch's signature). And over by the Ping-Pong table, there was an array of free juices, sodas, and finger foods.
That night, the ultimate freebie to be had was a pass to the Playboy.com party. Held in conjunction with über-agent Leigh Steinberg, it was open bar to the max and crawling with Playmates, current NFL sides of beef, and other beautiful people like Carmen Electra and Downtown Julie Brown.
For those writers who couldn't score a pass to the high-buzz Playboy partyand most could notwounds were salved when they showed up at the Georgia Dome for Super Bowl Sunday. In the cavernous media workroom, the press snarfed free sandwiches, hot dogs, and giant candy bars, but the real swag awaited in their seats.
Up in the press box, a pile of goodies teetered on each seat, and writers could barely make their way down the cramped aisles without toppling things over. On top of the pile was the $15 official program. That was clamped tightly down to a huge white industrial-strength clipboard, which was inscribed with highlights from all 34 Super Bowls. Next was a smallish white box containing a complimentary FM radio, complete with batteries and padded earphones. At the base of the pile rested a blue Super Bowl seat pad (swagging is a fattening business, you know). A large zipper pocket on the butt cushion contained a host of trinkets and gewgaws: an oversized "Thank You NFL 2000" button, a Tina Turner music video computer card, a Super Bowl XXXIV Music and More CD-ROM (it had a screen saver, computer game, and tunes by the varied likes of Willie Nelson and Little Richard), a Joe Montana digital trading card, and another souvenir lanyard. Completely riveted, many writers pored over their packs as the Titans and the Rams warmed up on the field.
Like a sweet cherry atop a gooey swag sundae, a tasty boxed meal teetered on the mound of commemorative freebies. Press types are usually hearty eaters, especially if the grub is free, and as the stadium filled they chomped down on chicken sandwiches, corn chips, cute candies in the shape of footballs, and sweet lemonade. After the meal was over, fresh-faced young concessionaires walked through the press-box aisles handing out free springwater, hot dogs, and soft pretzels.
A short while before the gun was about to go off for the game, 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney took his seat in the press box. When asked how he felt about the practice of media types getting freebies just for doing their job, he was pretty blunt. "I might take this clipboard with me, but that's not really worth much. However, I'd be damned careful about taking anything substantial, because that certainly would not be proper."
After pausing a beat, Rooney continued: "But I ate lunch today, and I don't know who paid for it. Probably the NFL. But listen, I'll send you my last five columns on the Super Bowl and you tell me if the NFL bought me."