Roman numeral days should be numbered for Super Bowl

In a polarized era when everything seems to be black or white, I’m straddling the aqueduct on the Super Bowl eliminating the Roman numeral.


Gut instinct cries blasphemy – tradition is tradition. Rational analysis, however, concludes it’s about time.

The NFL announced this week that the 2016 edition of the Super Bowl played in Santa Clara, Calif., will lose the Roman numeral – for one year only. It will be “Super Bowl 50” instead of “Super Bowl L.” It sort of makes sense when you’re fighting over something called the Lombardi Trophy, whose namesake delivered the phrase “Winning isn’t everything – it’s the only thing.”

“L,” after all, is for losers.

But if you’re going to establish tradition, the whole point is to stick with it. Traditions don’t go on hiatus.

The Roman numeral thing was the most perfectly pretentious suffix on a game that professes to be larger than life. If you’re going to play a sport that the rest of the world doesn’t play and call it a “world” championship, you might as well go all in on the grandiose.

As my friend and Chronicle predecessor – the esteemed Joe Posnanski – once wrote, “That is the very best thing of all about the Super Bowl: Those Roman numerals.”

“When you put a Roman numeral after something (and you’re not just doing it to be ironic), you are investing hope in it. Real hope,” Posnanski wrote. “Nobody ever put an honest Roman numeral after something they thought would be ordinary or second-rate or non-historic. I mean, World Wars get Roman numerals. English Kings named Henry get Roman numerals. Final Fantasy video games get Roman numerals. ... It will be so big that only Roman numerals are big enough to capture its hugeness.”

Perfect points. Couldn’t agree more.

However ...

Yes, there’s a big “however” to this Roman-tic notion of using ancient numerals. It only works on things that are BIG yet not so plentiful. We can only hope that World Wars don’t reach III much less V or X or L. England retired from the King Henry business after the infamous VIII.

Even Popes – with the Vatican located right there in Rome and speaking Latin – could only have so many Bonifaces (IX) and Clements (XIV). Once Pope John XXIII set the bar high 14 centuries after his original namesake, they rebooted after the Beatles era by combining papal names to start anew (John Paul I and II).

The Roman Empire lasted five centuries and it didn’t have a single Roman emperor get past III in Roman numerals.

The success of the NFL and the Super Bowl is working against it on this front. Economy of space isn’t the best feature of the Roman numeral system. Eventually, the Super Bowl is going to reach 88 in 2054 and some poor graphic designer is going to get saddled with trying to create a marketable logo with LXXXVIII on it.

Good luck with that.

The NFL used the logo as an excuse for breaking protocol with Super Bowl 50. The league claims it tried out 73 (that’s LXXIII if you're counting in Rome) different logo versions before concluding that the “L” just didn’t work for them graphically. I find it hard to believe they couldn’t convert the “L” at the end of Super Bowl into something, perhaps using the tower and span of the Golden Gate Bridge to form that simple right angle required.

But they’ve opted to go with a simple “50” instead, colored gold to fit the golden anniversary theme in the Golden State.

That’s fine. Not all great things in the modern era have to be branded in ancient numerals. About the greatest human achievement many of us possess – the iPhone – got along fine with versions 2, 3, 4 and 5 without feeling the need to make a statement with the iPhone-Vs.

Thank goodness the Masters didn’t feel the need to bring that anachronism on board. You can’t have a guy named Bubba winning the LXXVIIIth Masters.

The 50th installment of the original AFC-NFC Championship Game (the Roman numerals and term Super Bowl didn’t actually start until version IV in 1970) seems like a perfect place to verge from the path and just keep going with 51, 52, 53 and so on. After all, that’s how we say it – the Seattle Seahawks didn’t just win Super Bowl “X-L-V-I-I-I;” they won Super Bowl “forty-eight.”

The Rocky movies stopped counting after V. The Saw franchise mercifully ended once Saw VI gave way to Saw 3D (not III-D).

The only thing we’d really miss if the Super Bowls stopped counting by Roman numerals is the educational value in the exercise. Few things in this world can combine a history lesson and math into a package that kids might be interested in.

In a league struggling to deal with lasting cognitive impairment from traumatic head injuries, increasingly more difficult brain teasers in the title of your championship game is probably not the best way to go.

So despite reservations about breaking from tradition, the Roman numeral system is one the NFL could probably live without.