HOUSTON — As the first major international event of Donald Trump’s presidency, Super Bowl LI presented corporations, performers and protesters with a platform unlike any other to speak out against Trump’s controversial decisions and policies, including his immigration ban, if they chose to do so.
One after another, on the NRG Stadium field, on the streets of Houston and perhaps most important of all, in ad after ad from the giants of corporate America such as Coke and Anheuser-Busch, a message of inclusion and equality in defiance of Trump emanated from an event that always is much more than a football game.
The tone was set inside the massive football stadium even before kickoff when three stars of the hit musical Hamilton made a simple but significant addition to the words of America the Beautiful.
When the original Hamilton cast’s Schuyler Sisters trio of Phillipa Soo, Renee Elise Goldsberry and Jasmine Cephas Jones reached the line, “And crown thy good with brotherhood,” they smiled and added, “and sisterhood,” to a roar from the crowd.
Outside at that moment, about 500 protesters had walked more than two miles to the stadium to protest Trump and his policies. Their causes were numerous — Black Lives Matter, local Democratic politics, the American Civil Liberties Union, support for the Standing Rock reservation — but they were united in their concerns about the new president. “Resist Trump” read one banner.
Two hours later, Lady Gaga stood on the stadium roof to begin her much-anticipated halftime performance with a few words from God Bless America, followed by This Land Is Your Land, a song accompanying some of the airport protests of the past week.
Before plunging toward the field, tethered by wires, she added, “One nation. Under God. Indivisible. With liberty. And justice. For all.”
A few minutes later, singing Born This Way she added the word “transgender” to the Super Bowl conversation likely for the first time ever: “No matter gay, straight, or bi, Lesbian, transgender life…”
She had predicted that she would do exactly this — deliver a message of unity — earlier in the week.
“The only statements that I’ll be making during the halftime show are the ones that I’ve been consistently making throughout my career,” she said. “I believe in a passion for inclusion. I believe in the spirit of equality, and that the spirit of this country is one of love and compassion and kindness. My performance will uphold those philosophies.”
Meanwhile, on television and social media, the message out of the gate was loud and clear — and certainly not pleasing to the White House, nor to Vice President Mike Pence, watching from a suite inside the stadium.
Coke came out early with a pro-immigration, pro-gay rights, multi-lingual ad sung to America the Beautiful that first aired during the Super Bowl three years ago, provoking its share of anger then. This time, this year, this moment, laudatory tweets abounded.
Airbnb, Anheuser-Busch and 84 Lumber also entered the fray with messages supporting inclusion and immigration, while Audi showcased a father worrying about equality for his hard-charging, go-kart-driving young daughter.
The theme was unmistakable, and it didn't appear to be a coincidence.
As Lady Gaga said of the meaning of her performance:
“That kid that couldn’t get a seat at the cool kids’ table, and that kid that was kicked out of the house because his mom and dad didn’t accept him for who he was? That kid is going to have the stage for 13 minutes (at halftime Sunday). And I’m excited to give it to them.”
It’s not every day that the corporate world and Lady Gaga are in synche, but, thanks to Trump, they certainly were Sunday night.