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Mike Powell/Getty Images
Mike Powell/Getty Images

The Controversy Behind "The Super Bowl Shuffle"

Mike Powell/Getty Images
Mike Powell/Getty Images

Chicago Bears wide receiver Willie Gault liked to correct anyone who insinuated that his team’s record, “The Super Bowl Shuffle,” was an act of hubris. After all, it was recorded a full six weeks prior to the Bears gaining entry into the 1986 Super Bowl; two players even declined to appear in the accompanying music video, fearing some sort of karmic reprisal.

“If you listen to the record, it doesn't say we're going to the Super Bowl,” Gault told the Chicago Tribune. “We didn't say we were going to win the Super Bowl. It said we were going to do a dance, and it's the Super Bowl Shuffle.”

Collaborating with nine other teammates, the Gault-led rap was a recording industry anomaly. It was a novelty song performed by athletes that fans both in and out of Chicago found entertaining. More than 700,000 copies of the single were sold, and 170,000 video tapes were moved in its first year of release. Rather than have egg on their face, the Bears wound up winning the Super Bowl.

Unfortunately, their moonlighting session would have an unforeseen consequence. Declaring their goal to “feed the needy” in an early verse, the profits were supposed to go to charitable causes in the Chicago area. It proved to be a lot more complicated than that.

The Shuffle was born out of Gault’s interest in stardom outside of football; he wanted a career in acting or music. In 1985, Gault was introduced to Richard Meyer, owner of Chicago's Red Label Records. After Gault appeared in a video for one of his artists, Meyer told him it might be fun to record something with the entire Bears team—bringing with them a built-in level of awareness that would help bolster Meyer’s new label.

Gault liked the idea and floated it around the locker room on the premise that profits would go toward area charities. Walter Payton, who was once in a band, loved the premise; others, like William “The Refrigerator” Perry, were already doing commercial spots and didn’t mind poking fun at themselves. Only Dan Hampton refused. He thought it was presumptuous and would come off poorly.

Willie Gault. Photo courtesy Markus Boesch / Getty Images.

Meyer had a songwriter rework a title named “The Kingfish Shuffle” after an old Amos 'n Andy radio series character, personalizing lines for each of the 10 players who agreed to have speaking parts. “The Super Bowl Shuffle” was recorded within a week, over two sessions, during which a gleeful Payton ran around pinching the other players' hamstrings.

Naturally, every radio station in Chicago found airtime for it. The song was so successful both in and out of the team’s area that it eventually made it to #41 on Billboard’s Top 100 chart. Emboldened, Meyer arranged for the team to film a music video to accompany the song.

Dan Hampton may have been on to something: The night before they were scheduled to film the video, the Bears dropped their first game of the season to the Miami Dolphins. It was a 38-24 drubbing, and the team showed up for filming the following morning, December 3, in a foul mood. Payton, who was initially supportive of the project, was so dejected he refused to appear until weeks later. (They spliced his footage in.)

Incredibly, the VHS copy of the video moved so many units it threatened to unseat Michael Jackson’s Thriller on sales charts. In February of 1986, the song was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. (It lost to Prince & the Revolution's "Kiss.") Best of all, the Bears’s victory at Super Bowl XX was, at the time, the highest-rated in the game’s history. What started as a glorified joke had become a lucrative venture.

Just how lucrative would quickly become an issue for Illinois’s attorney general.

Gault and Meyer had succeeded in orchestrating an unlikely hit, but they did fumble one detail: No one had checked in with the head office of the Chicago Bears to see if “The Super Bowl Shuffle” had their official blessing.

The Chicago Bears celebrate after William "The Refrigerator" Perry scores a touchdown during Super Bowl XX against the New England Patriots. Photo by Mike Powell/Getty Images.

The ownership wasn’t entirely amused. The song did seem boastful, Gault’s protests aside, and they were concerned about exactly how this proclamation to “feed the needy” was going to go. If an NFL team made a public announcement that funds were pending, then the Bears wanted to know when and how much.

They contacted Illinois Attorney General Neil Hartigan, asking if 50 percent would be a permissible amount of the proceeds to donate. Hartigan’s office responded that 75 percent was the letter of the law; Red Label was thinking more along the lines of 15 percent.

The accounting dragged on through 1987, with Red Label claiming album returns needed to be calculated before they could estimate profit. Middle linebacker Mike Singletary threw his gold record in the garbage in frustration at the delay, saying that, "It doesn't represent an accomplishment. It doesn't mean a thing unless it gets food to the hungry people who were supposed to be fed out of it. I thought it was a clean-cut deal. It's taken a year."

Eventually, $331,000 was liberated from an escrow account and turned over to the Chicago Community Trust for distribution. The 10 players with speaking parts made $6000 apiece, and all donated their salaries to contribute an additional $60,000.

That $6000 would later become a sticking point for six players (including Gault), who filed a lawsuit in 2014 claiming they hadn’t received additional payments from the lucrative merchandising and distribution of the video for non-charitable causes. Meyer’s daughter, Julia, is currently the owner of the "Shuffle" and remains vigilant about its availability on streaming sites.

While the Shuffle ultimately had a net positive outcome, it’s worth noting that the song’s success had some unfortunate consequences. On the heels of the video’s popularity, a number of pro sports teams recorded some terrible tracks of their own, including the Los Angeles Dodgers, Dallas Cowboys, and Los Angeles Rams, who recorded a single titled “Ram It” with the help of Meyer.

“No charities are involved,” Meyer said.

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The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
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In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
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Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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Sally Died of Dysentery: A History of The Oregon Trail
MECC
MECC

The eighth grade students sat and watched as Don Rawitsch dragged an enormous device into their classroom. It was December 3, 1971, and Rawitsch—a student teacher at Carleton College outside of Minneapolis who taught history at a local grade school—was ready to show off what his roommates, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, had managed to create in only two weeks of programming and with limited, amateur coding skills: a game called The Oregon Trail.

There was no screen to focus on. The computer’s interface was a teletype machine, which spat out instructions and the consequences of a player’s actions on sheets of paper. Adopting the well-worn shoes of settlers migrating from Missouri to Oregon in 1848, the students debated how best to spend their money, when to stop and rest, and how to deal with the sudden and unexpected illnesses that plagued their game counterparts. Rawitsch even supplied them with a map of the journey so they could visualize the perils ahead.

The students loved it: The Oregon Trail would eventually morph from a part-time experiment in guided learning to a staple of classrooms across the country. Kids who had never before heard of diphtheria or cholera would bemoan such cruel fates; tens of thousands of people would (virtually) drown trying to cross rivers; more than 65 million copies would be sold.

But Rawitsch was oblivious to the cultural touchstone The Oregon Trail would become. He didn't foresee the simple game having much of a shelf life beyond the semester, so at the end of the year, he deleted it.

 
 

As low-tech as it was, the first version of The Oregon Trail was still miles ahead of anything Rawitsch could have imagined when he set about trying to engage his students. As a 21-year-old history major, Rawitsch was young enough to realize that his teenaged students needed something more provocative than dry textbooks. In the fall of 1971, he decided to create a board game based on the precarious movement of 19th-century travelers looking to head west to improve their living conditions.

On a large piece of butcher’s paper, he drew a map that provided a rough outline of the 2000-mile journey from Independence, Missouri to Willamette Valley, Oregon. Along the way, players would have to contend with a morbid series of obstacles: fire, inclement weather, lack of food, outdated sicknesses, and, frequently, death. Every decision played a part in whether or not they'd make it to the end without keeling over.

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

Rawitsch showed his idea for the board game to Dillenberger and Heinemann, two other seniors from Carleton, who both had experience coding using the BASIC computer language. They suggested Rawitsch’s game would be perfect for a text-based adventure using teletype. A player could, for example, type “BANG” in order to shoot oxen or deer, and the computer would identify how fast and how accurately the typist finished the command—the quicker they were, the better chance they had of securing dinner.

Rawitsch liked the idea, but he was due to start teaching westward expansion in just a couple weeks, so there was no time to waste. Heinemann and Dillenberger worked after-hours for two weeks to get The Oregon Trail ready. When it made its debut that December day in 1971, Rawitsch knew he had a hit—albeit a transient one. Like a teacher who had supervised a special crafts project for a specific classroom, Rawitsch didn’t see a need to retain The Oregon Trail for the future and promptly deleted it from the school’s mainframe system.

Dillenberger and Heinemann took permanent teaching jobs after graduation; Rawitsch found his number called up in the draft. He declared himself a conscientious objector and as part of that found work at the newly-formed Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), a state-sponsored program that sought to modernize public schools with computing supplies. It was 1974, and Rawitsch believed he had the perfect software to go along with their initiative: The Oregon Trail. Even though he had deleted the game, Rawitsch had kept a printout of the code.

Typing it in line by line, Rawitsch had the game back up and running and available to students across Minnesota. This time, he consulted actual journal entries of settlers to see when and where danger might strike and programmed the game to intervene at the appropriate places along the path. If a real traveler had endured a 20 percent chance of running out of water, so would the player.

Rawitsch got permission from Dillenberger and Heinemann to repurpose the game for MECC. It’s unlikely any one of the three of them realized just how much of an institution the game would become, or how MECC's business partner, Apple—then an upstart computer corporation—would revolutionize the industry.

By 1978, MECC was partnering with the hardware company to sell Apple IIs and learning software to school districts around the country. Rather than being a regional hit, The Oregon Trail—now sporting primitive screen graphics—was becoming a national fixture in classrooms.

 
 

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, school computer classes across America devoted at least some portion of their allotted time to the game. The covered wagon and its misadventures offered something that vaguely resembled the hypnotic, pixely worlds waiting for students on their Nintendo consoles at home. In that respect, The Oregon Trail felt a little less like learning and a lot more like entertainment—although completing the journey in one piece was an unusual occurrence. More often, players would be defeated by malnutrition or drowning in attempts to cross a river. They'd also be confounded by the idea they could hunt and kill a 2000-pound animal but were able to take only a fraction of it back to their wagon. (Confronted with this during a Reddit Ask Me Anything in 2016, Rawitsch noted that "the concept represented there is supposed to be that the meal will spoil, not that it's too heavy," and suggested incorporating a "fridge with a 2000-mile extension cord.")

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

An updated version, Oregon Trail II, debuted on CD-ROM in 1995. MECC would change hands a few times, being acquired by venture capitalists and then by the Learning Company, and was even owned for a period of time by Mattel. Attempts to update it with flashy graphics felt contrary to the spirit of the game; like the settlers it depicted, The Oregon Trail seemed to belong to another era.

Today, both Dillenberger and Heinemann are retired; Rawitsch is a tech consultant. None of them received any profit participation for the software. Their joint effort was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame in 2016 and was adapted into a card game that same year. Today, players of the popular role-playing game Minecraft can access a virtual Oregon Trail world; the original game is also playable in browsers. Technology may have advanced, but you can still die of dysentery as often as you like.

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