Deciphering the Super Bowl: XLVI is Greek to kids

Kids LOL and OMG each other all the livelong day, but ask them

to decipher the XLVI of this year’s Super Bowl and you might as

well be talking Greek.

They may know what X means, or V and I, but Roman numerals

beyond the basics have largely gone the way of cursive and

penmanship as a subject taught in the nation’s schools.

Students in high school and junior high get a taste of the Roman

system during Latin (where Latin is still taught, anyway). And they

learn a few Roman numerals in history class when they study the

monarchs of Europe.

But in elementary school, ”Roman numerals are a minor topic,”

said Jeanine Brownell of the early mathematics development program

at Erickson Institute, a child-development graduate school in


That’s not how Joe Horrigan remembers it.

”I went to Catholic school. I still have bruised knuckles from

not learning them,” said the NFL historian and spokesman for the

Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

What’s wrong with good ol’ 46 to describe this year’s Super Bowl

between the Giants and the Patriots on Sunday?

”`Number 46,’ it just kind of sounds like an inventory.

`Inspected by Joe,”’ said Joe, who is LX years old. ”Those Roman

numerals, they’re almost like trophies.”

Any football fan worth his weight in nachos will find a way to

figure out the Super Bowl number from one year to the next, but

shouldn’t kids have some sense of the Romans as an actual numbering


”My son is in first grade and this recently came up when we

were clock shopping,” said Eileen Wolter of Summit, N.J. ”He

couldn’t believe they were real numbers. They only ever get used

for things like copyrights or sporting events, which in my humble

opinion harkens even further back to the gladiatorial barbaric

nature of things like the Super Bowl.”

Gerard Michon isn’t much of a football fan, either, but he keeps

a close eye on Super Bowls over at, where he

dissects math and physics and discusses the Roman system ad


Starting with Super Bowl XLI in 2007, he has been getting an

abnormal number of game-day visits from football fans with a sudden

interest in Roman numerals. On the day of last year’s Super Bowl

XLV, so many people visited that Michon’s little server crashed.

When the dust cleared, he had logged 15,278 hits, more than 90

percent landing on ”XLV.”

”Last year was total madness,” Michon said, in part ”because

so many people were wondering why VL isn’t a correct replacement

for XLV.” When the Super Bowl started, the games were assigned

simple Roman numerals ”that everybody knows,” he said. Now ”it

looks kind of mysterious.”

The use of Roman numerals to designate Super Bowls began with

game V in 1971, won by the Baltimore Colts over the Dallas Cowboys

16-13 on Jim O’Brien’s 32-yard field goal with five seconds

remaining. Numerals I through IV were added later for the first

four Super Bowls.

”The NFL didn’t model after the Olympics,” said Dan Masonson,

director of the league’s corporate communications. Instead, he

said, the Roman system was adopted to avoid any confusion that

might occur because of the way the Super Bowl is held in a

different year from the one in which most of the regular season is


Bob Moore, historian for the Kansas City Chiefs, credits the

idea of using Roman numerals to Lamar Hunt, the late Chiefs owner

and one of the godfathers of the modern NFL. (History also credits

Hunt with coming up with the name ”Super Bowl” for the big


”The Roman numerals made it much more important,” Moore said.

”It’s much more magisterial.”

Or as Michon put it: Quid quid latine dictum sit, altum videtur

– ”Anything stated in Latin looks important.”

Linsey Knerl, who is homeschooling her five children in Tekamah,

Neb., is teaching them Roman numerals, showing her oldest – who is

13 – how to decipher chapter numbers while reading ”Oliver


”I realize that it may not seem to be the most culturally

relevant thing you can teach kids these days,” she said. ”But if

kids can get what LOL and ROFL mean, things like XXII should be a

piece of cake.”