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For 50th Super Bowl, Colorado College professor said NFL 'had to go Arabic'

January 31, 2016 Updated: January 31, 2016 at 4:35 am
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It's out with the ancient and in with the Arabic for Super Bowl 50.

The NFL saw the giant "L" looming well ahead of time and announced in 2014 that it would deviate from the time-honored Roman numeral tradition for this year's big game. "It was intuitively clear that they couldn't make anything out of that Roman numeral L, that it wasn't going to work. They had to go Arabic," said Owen Cramer, professor and chair of the classics department at Colorado College. "That's kind of interesting too. In a year when we have the nation discussing its relationship with Arabic-speaking people, we're using their numbering system for our hallowed national sport."

Though the origins are hazy, the Roman numeral system is thought to have evolved from either hand gestures or notches on tally sticks. The more savvy Hindu or Hindu-Arabic system, which includes the pivotal concept of zero, was adopted by scholars in India by A.D. 500 and, for the most part, has ruled the digit-verse since.

There are, Cramer said, certain modern exceptions. But with austere lines that call to mind classical cultures and games of brute strength, the Roman numeral system's value today is more of cachet.

Roman numerals simply look "more dignified," Cramer said. "Carve 1985 in marble, you could make it sort of elegant. But if it's in a Roman numeral, it's guaranteed elegant. Affiliating the Super Bowl with these dignified public buildings is a great stroke of publicity."

The NFL adopted Roman numerals for its premier game starting in 1971, with Super Bowl V. All was well and good through the V's, I's and X's, but a dicey field always lay up ahead.

"LI is not going to be any better than L. LII is going to start to be OK. LV might be OK, but LIX is not going to be so good," Cramer said.

The temporary change, which was met by protest from some fans, allows the league to avoid confusion - or embarrassment - on its big birthday year. Plans are to return to the old system for the 2017 game. For now, at least.

"They're going to have a few more problems over the next decade, but it would begin to resolve itself at about 2026," said Cramer, who recently celebrated his 50th (Lth?) anniversary at CC.

"After you get to LX, to Super Bowl 60, you'll be home free. "

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