CLOSE
Original image
Getty Images

The Stupidest Questions in Super Bowl History

Original image
Getty Images

New Orleans, January 1981. My first Super Bowl.

I'm trying to ask questions of Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Charlie Smith at the first media availability.

He'd recently broken his jaw, the wires in his mouth standing sentry against solid nourishment and reducing his speech to what under different circumstances would pass as beginner's ventriloquism.

(Confession: Bourbon Street overmatched me on my first night in town. My condition was probably worse than Smith's. To be fair all these years later, he may have spoken perfectly understandable King's English, but to my ears he sounded like a man speaking underwater.)

Smith was an important part of the Eagles team I covered for the Philadelphia Daily News. He'd been injured in the final regular season game and had missed the postseason to that point.

Would he practice? Could he play? How would he keep up his strength?

He tried his best to answer. But in a crowd three deep with the noise of my first Super Bowl media experience exploding around us, I looked at my notebook after 30 minutes. I had written down exactly one sentence.

"I can't eat meat."

That was Super Bowl XV, nearly 30 years ago. Since then, the annual Super Bowl tradition known as Media Day—it happens again today in Miami—has come to represent the NFL at its silliest and smartest.

Proof There Is Such a Thing as a Stupid Question

Getty Images
It's the place where a Japanese reporter once asked of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, "Tell me, why do they call you Boomer?" (Well, they don't actually. That would be Boomer Esiason, the Cincinnati quarterback.)

It's where someone asked Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Joe Salave'a, "What's your relationship with the football?" To which Salave'a said, "I'd say it's strictly platonic."

Asked how he got psyched to play in big games, Buffalo's great running back Thurman Thomas sniffed, "I read the newspapers and look at all the stupid questions you all ask."

Not sure if that was the Super Bowl where Thomas lost two fumbles in a 30-13 loss or the one where he couldn't find his helmet and missed the first few plays in a 37-24 loss.

Media Day is where Downtown Julie Brown, formerly of MTV, asked Dallas running back Emmitt Smith, "What are you going to wear in the game Sunday?"

Where Rams' quarterback Kurt Warner was asked, "Do you believe in voodoo and can I have a lock of your hair?"

Where Denver running back Detron Smith was asked, "What size panties do you think you'd wear?"

Where a St. Louis player found himself pondering the grammatical conundrum contained within the question, "Is Ram a noun or a verb?"

An urban legend grew that Washington quarterback Doug Williams, the first black quarterback to play in the Super Bowl, was asked, "How long have you been a black quarterback?"

(Not true. ESPN.com cleared that up in a recent story. The reporter knew Williams. He also knew Williams was tired of hearing about race. So the question was more along the lines of, "Doug, obviously you've been a black quarterback all along. When did it suddenly become important?")

Even so, right about now my guess is you see Thurman Thomas' point.

But here's the beauty of what the National Football League is all about. Many of the questions that make annual Dumbest Super Bowl Questions lists are staged by non-sports writers. They are ridiculous, purposely over-the-top and all part of a circus the league encourages to fill as many rings as possible on the day that signals the revving of the Super Bowl publicity machine.

So you get Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman in Super Bowl XXXII being asked, "Are you going to listen to Stevie Wonder perform at halftime?"

(Sure thing. What else would he be doing at halftime except shushing the coaches so he could hear "Don't You Worry About a Thing"?)

The NFL gets it as no other sports league gets it. For instance, it subjects its players to three days of madness at the Super Bowl and fines them if they don't show up.

One year, a 10-year-old ''reporter" identifying himself as Sparky Mortimer walked around asking questions of players and coaches on behalf of David Letterman. Who's going to turn down a 10-year-old? Not even Thurman Thomas.

A Day in the Life of a Serious Sports Writer

The free-for-all of Media Day is the worst day in a serious sports writer's year, but if you're there for the spectacle there's nothing quite like it.

Why is it the worst day annually for sports writers covering the NFL? Because it has so little to do with football and it offers such insurmountable roadblocks to coherent conversation.

To give this proper context, I should say that any circle of reporters at the Super Bowl is comprised of any number of agendas. One might be working on the quarterback's life story. Another might be looking for a quote on how the quarterback's team will deal with the opposing pass rush. Another might be asking something that gets him on TV.

So it usually goes like this:

Reporter No. 1: "You say you were poor growing up?"
QB: "Yes, all I got for Christmas one year was an orange."
Reporter No. 2: "Should we expect to see you throw downfield early?"
QB: "I'm not going to give away the game plan."
Reporter No. 1: "What kind of orange? Did you eat it or decorate it?"
QB: "What?"
Reporter No. 2: "What do you see when you look at their secondary?"

An ESPN.com story from this time last year recounted one tedious conversation that occurred 10 years ago between a reporter and the Rams' Isaac Bruce, who had just told the story of a harrowing experience a month earlier when his car flipped and he thought he might die.

"I called on the name of Jesus," Bruce said. "That's the name that I know saves me. And when I did that, I knew everything would be fine."

Said a reporter (for some reason), "Did you say 'Jesus, Jesus, Jesus?' Or just 'Jesus?'"

Bruce: "It was one Jesus," he said. "That's all it takes."

Good to get that cleared up.

plunkett-SII wasn't there for that tortured exchange. But I was in the group of reporters at Super Bowl XV when Oakland quarterback Jim Plunkett was asked a question that makes every Super Bowl list. And this one wasn't staged by a TV or radio personality. As sports writers we have to own this one.

Plunkett had just answered a question about his parents. He spoke in low, respectful tones about growing up in a special needs household, that his mother was blind and that his father, also blind, had passed away.

Five more topics came and went after Plunkett mentioned his parents. A reporter from the Philadelphia press corps, a guy I once worked with at another paper, jumped in. He was a columnist. He wasn't there to write about the blitz. Plunkett's family situation was far more intriguing to him.

He tried two or three times to ask a follow-up. But he kept losing the floor to reporters who timed their questions better or who were close enough to make eye contact with Plunkett, or who simply spoke up louder.

Finally, he forced his way back into the interview.

"Jimmy, Jimmy, I want to make sure I have this right. Was it dead mother, blind father or blind mother, dead father?"

You can find that kind of sensitivity in Don Rickles' stand-up, but not many other places.

The Original Sports Hostage Situation

SB-44Long ago, the NFL saw the crossover marketing potential in welcoming not just newspapers with NFL teams in their cities. But E!, Letterman, Leno, Comedy Central, MTV, every big national radio show.

In the media center, Radio Row goes on for a quarter mile. It's a city unto itself, a media "Babble-on." It wasn't always so. The Super Bowl became a media event after "Broadway" Joe Namath led the Jets to a milestone upset of the Colts in Super Bowl III. It became a cultural linchpin because the NFL has been pure genius in the staging of the week leading up to the game. [Image courtesy of Flickr user snblogs.]

It sets aside Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday for player interviews. After that, the players are off limits.

Try coming into town Friday for a Sunday game as a member of the media, and you've not only missed the players but maybe even a room at the NFL headquarters hotel (they demand a four-night minimum).

Come in time for the player interviews and you spend almost a week previewing one game. A friend once called it "the original sports hostage situation." The NFL would have it no other way.

Sometimes the players and the game even prove worthy of all the attention.

When Dallas linebacker Hollywood Henderson famously said Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw couldn't spell "cat" if you spotted him the "c" and the "a," Bradshaw responded by throwing four touchdown passes in a win over the Cowboys.

If the drumroll gets louder with players working off nervous energy by talking trash, all the better for the league. But it's not necessary.

The marvel of what the NFL has fashioned over the past XLIV years is that the game is almost beside the point.

Norman Vincent Peale once said, "If Jesus were alive today, he'd be at the Super Bowl."

In what capacity, Peale didn't say.

But it's an intriguing thought, if only because it could explain the question asked of New England quarterback Tom Brady at a Super Bowl not long ago.

"Tom," came a voice in the crowd, "what is your purpose in life?"

Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read all his mental_floss articles here.

Original image
iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski
arrow
The Elements
9 Diamond-Like Facts About Carbon
Original image
iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski

How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
 
 
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.

1. IT'S THE "DUCT TAPE OF LIFE."

It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.

2. IT'S ONE OF THE MOST ABUNDANT ELEMENTS IN THE UNIVERSE.

It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.

3. IT'S NAMED AFTER COAL.

While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.

4. IT LOVES TO BOND.

It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.

5. NEARLY 20 PERCENT OF YOUR BODY IS CARBON.

May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.

6. WE DISCOVERED TWO NEW FORMS OF IT ONLY RECENTLY.

Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

7. DIAMONDS AREN'T CALLED "ICE" BECAUSE OF THEIR APPEARANCE.

Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.

8. IT HELPS US DETERMINE THE AGE OF ARTIFACTS—AND PROVE SOME OF THEM FAKE.

American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.

9. TOO MUCH OF IT IS CHANGING OUR WORLD.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

Original image
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
Original image
iStock

Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios