NEW ORLEANS As the Baltimore Ravens filed into a cavernous room in their Hilton hotel to meet the media Thursday morning, linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo found a man dressed as a Viking in the seat next to his.
"I'm actually part Viking myself," Ayanbadejo said as he sat down. Then the 36-year-old linebacker, also a vocal advocate of gay rights, spent much of the next 10 minutes taking questions about his views on homosexuality in the NFL.
Consider it one slice of the week before the Super Bowl, a cultural phenomenon in which the convergence of two football teams, thousands of media members and millions of eyes nationwide ensures football will be only part of the show.
Among the headline-grabbers in New Orleans: Deer antler spray, Beyoncé's redemption, an anti-gay outburst and subsequent apology, a family affair. Throw in a car ad accused of racism and a player proclaiming himself the greatest ever at his position when he might not be the best in the history of his team all against the backdrop of a city eager to showcase its resiliency to the world.
And, oh yeah, there's a game Sunday.
"I think Super Bowl week is a microcosm of the world," said Mark Romig, spokesman for New Orleans' Super Bowl Host Committee. "You get competition, you get people from all walks of life coming here with all opinions. And you have to take everything with a certain grain of salt."
More than 5,200 credentialed media members are in town from 25 countries, Romig said, for the NFL's championship game between the Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers. The sheer volume, said Daniel Durbin, director of the USC Institute of Sports, Media and Society, creates a "self-feeding animal."
"Things that might be minor become huge on this biggest stage," Durbin said. "But the stage is created by the media."
Members of both teams have found themselves at the center of controversy. Early in the week, "deer antler spray" joined the public lexicon when Sports Illustrated reported that Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis inquired about the remedy which includes a substance banned by the NFL while rehabbing a torn triceps. Lewis denied using the substance. ESPN reported a subsequent spike in its sales.
49ers cornerback Chris Culliver came under fire after he told a radio shock jock Tuesday that gay players would not be welcome in the 49ers' locker room. The 49ers strongly rejected Culliver's comments, and Culliver later apologized. Still, the incident sparked discussion over the lack of openly gay athletes in major U.S. sports.
More flippantly, the 49ers' Randy Moss declared himself the NFL's best-ever receiver, launching comparisons between himself and 49ers Hall of Famer Jerry Rice. It all left the current Ravens and 49ers fielding a flurry of questions about off-the-field issues and those were just from traditional media.
Super Bowl Media Day on Tuesday included interviewers dressed as a superhero and a clown. A Belgian reporter, noting Belgium has no pro football, asked Ravens lineman Haloti Ngata this week what he'd do if there were no NFL (the 340-pound Ngata's answer: rugby). Asked for the strangest question he encountered this week, 49ers lineman Alex Boone chuckled and said: "I can't even say it on camera."
Many players said they understood it was part of the drill, though they didn't necessarily warm to it.
"I think that's in part why practice yesterday was so great," 49ers lineman Joe Staley said Thursday. "We were just so relieved to get back on the field."
Even a news conference about the halftime show caused a stir when singer Beyoncé gave a live rendition of the national anthem a statement after her reliance on a prerecorded performance at last month's presidential inauguration. She was then asked for the color of her toothbrush ("It's truly multicolored") and guaranteed she'll sing live Sunday, before what may well be an unprecedented audience.
The telecast of last season's Super Bowl averaged 111.3 million viewers, making it the most-watched program in U.S. history. A 30-second ad spot this year was reportedly going for roughly $4 million. And still, some advertisers have released their spots early, including Volkswagen, which has faced questions of cultural insensitivity for an ad featuring a Minnesotan man with a Jamaican accent.
"This is the ultimate spectacle of sports," said Andrew Billings, director of the University of Alabama Program in Sports Communication. "This is the pinnacle of the ads industry. This is the gold standard of the music industry if you get the halftime show of the Super Bowl, you've made it. For so many angles other than sport, this is Story A, peak of the mountaintop."
Romig said hosting the event will bring an estimated $432 million in spending to the New Orleans region. It also, he said, shines a spotlight on "the fact that we can successfully close the door behind us on everything we've been through with Katrina."
Friday, the radio tables in the media center continued to buzz into the evening. Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson, 59, who helped the New York Giants win Super Bowl XXI in 1987, went from booth to booth fulfilling a slate of appearances. From a player's standpoint, he said, it doesn't seem that Super Bowl week has changed that much.
"When you talk about media and Twitter and all that stuff, those things can be a distraction," Carson said. "But when you talk about the difference between then and now, you still have to deal with tickets, family, all those issues.
"Regardless of era, you still have distractions. And the people best able to handle those distractions? They're the ones who are going to be better prepared to play on Sunday."