Monday, December 26, 2011

Football’s Illusions

We want diversity, but we don't want it to be an argument. But that's what diversity is.
Sometimes the arguments are creative. When you start a dialectic between people who are different, it benefits... I believe in arguing.
I'm often accused of being opinionated and argumentative, I plead guilty to that, but I've never had anything not end up better because people in the same room were arguing back.
-David Simon

This post is an attempt to articulate a deeper response to understanding today’s game of professional football and the culture that surrounds it. Please understand that there are various nuances to consider and this is not intended to be the cynical fire-starting rant that it may appear to be at first glance.

Hemlock and I are presenting our views on this subject for posterity and reflection on the impact of mass media in shaping the game of football in the current age. In a recent discussion at Coach, the issue of NFL scheme variety was presented. Is there really a difference between one team from another, when they all essentially are running the same thing? And if they are the same, why are we being constantly told about / sold on the facets that are unique to such-and-such scheme?
Influence Of Mass Media Shaping Perception


According to many reports, professional football got its start primarily to serve gambling interests.
It was just too difficult to influence the outcomes of so many college games at the time and the money to be made through industry-sponsored teams was too good to pass up. In any event, the professional game we have today is primarily propped up to serve the interests of franchises and advertising revenue. While many professional ball clubs have a storied history of games played and athletes who forced an adaptation along the way, the system in place was really only concerned on the amount of “units” sold. In short, the Cleveland Steamers exist to turn a profit as an entertainment franchise, it just happens to be that winning games is a great way to turn a profit. “The game” is an afterthought to the bottom-line of the organization.

If the NFL captures your attention and sparks a passion for the game of football, great. Hopefully, this interest draws you into a greater appreciation of the sport, itself. Be aware that much of the NFL is competition and strategy in Kabuki form, which is fitting after all, as a night at the theatre has now been replaced with an afternoon at the stadium in our current culture. It is a marketing device that wraps itself in the flag, never-ending 9/11 tributes, breast cancer awareness, and any other maudlin trigger it could hope to entrench itself to. Anything to get you to cauterize your personal identity to socially affirmed beliefs. This has great effect for creating an illusion that the game and it’s trademark are bigger than they are (“Peyton Manning isn’t just a man, but Peyton Manning”); nurturing hero worship.

The NFL is, far and away, the most egregious, self-absorbed and greedheaded entity when it comes to displaying any logo, player, uniform, jersey, game film, highlight. If money isn’t shoved into their pocket at every single opportunity and if the script itself doesn’t extol the NFL and American football as the saving grace of our civilization, then they reserve all rights to the depiction of football as it exists in the lives of regular folk. They include in that regular folk who suffered through Katrina and its aftermath and took real solace in the Saints. They don’t give a fuck about depicting your reality or what the Saints meant to you. They give a fuck about glorifying and gilding their image and getting paid ridiculous sums of money. That’s all they care about.


Jesse Palmer wasn’t hired because he possesses some great insight into the game. He is the face of the game because he provided a draw for ABC’s “The Bachelor”, has a TV-polished delivery, and can accentuate the game experience. There isn’t anything wrong with that in itself. Networks exist to serve their share-holders and anything that beefs up the bottom line. Whether it’s a pretty face in the booth, a skirt on the sideline, and computer graphics peppered through the broadcast, its all about selling their brand.
This isn’t even hating on the world-wide leader in sports. They do a good job of expanding the game to a wide-reaching market. Simply understand that the 24/7 information cycle exists not because of necessity (there is so much that doesn’t need to be reported or evaluated), only because it is profitable. The bottom-line for ESPN is advertising revenue, and this is the entire thrust of this post. There are 3-hour pregame shows not because there is 3-hours of content to deliver, but that is the maximum draw ESPN can offer prime content advertising slots. To entice the viewer’s attention, they have to offer different hooks; human-interest stories, personal stories, and secret matchup scheme advantages you should watch for in a game. Again, not because you are really gaining anything out of this, but they want to build on that emotional identity you are associating with.

ESPN began taking off in the mid-1990s and has expanded its exposure over the last few decades. Try to remember what ‘sports reporting’ was like in the 70’s and 80’s. Even in the 90’s, before broadband speeds of the 2000s, they were primarily content-driven. Currently, they essentially reign without competitor, serving as king-makers and breakers depending on the chosen narrative.
So when you get done viewing one of their next “specials” or “analysis”, ask yourself if you really learned anything of substance, could the statements they made hold any relevance or be validated? If the answer is “no”, you may want to question why the fuck you watch this shit in the first place.

Another way to problematize what ESPN, FOX, and the new new kid on the block VERSUS do is locate it within perspective of the cheap drama of the average television sitcom. I add "cheap" here not to be snarky, but just not to disrespect the medium of drama. But back to my point: with their various pregame programs ESPN creates a narrative mode of emplotment for viewers to latch onto and follow; in a sense, its akin to the old Soviet master plots of Socialist Realist novels that, by and large, went something like this: boy meets girl, girl meets tractor and bam we got Utopia. These make for very nice page turners and the like, the one problem being that the players in the text no longer really matter at all; they are all interchangeable because their actions as indivduals have been subordinated to the needs of the plot. ESPN effectively offers a moderated form of this narrative, but from a slightly more capitalist perspective. ESPN is not interested in building socialistic Utopias, but in feeding an infernal system of consumption with the aid of maximizing share prices and returns.

I suppose that so long we are aware of the existence this plot then nothing is too problematic. Problems arise, however, when people actually begin to believe the plot, to believe, in other words, that what ESPN is offering is not reality, but a simulacrum of reality, a shiny, varnished, troping of a well played plot. Succinctly put, ESPN reinforces the point that perception is now reality.

And to this we can add one sidebar of sorts that is directly related to the way the plot of the NFL is executed on the "gridiron," where the fuck are you George Carlin when I need you. The subordination of the game to the plot of profit in the form shares and returns is evident in the commodified, big-box way the game is played. Small roster, smaller than those of any college program, as well as some high-school programs, combined with the intensified commodification of the game via free agency forces teams to play a generic "pro-style" of offense and defense. This combined with the odic figure of the QB, the "face" of every franchise, makes it exceedingly risky to employ a system, especially on offense, that would risk injuring the hero of the NFL-ESPN-FOX story. The reason we do not see the option, the Run-n-Shoot, or a true spread in the MIZZOU sense is not because they would not work or that NFL players are too fast, but because these styles of play would force teams to re-trope themselves in a way that departs significantly from the NFL script. The option could work in the NFL; a team would just need to design itself around the option, carry four QB, an make this their identity. What's Pat White doing these days anyway...?


Before there was BooYah analysis, there was sports radio and the bombastic, concision-driven, dead-air killing rants of disc jockeys who troll for lulz on fan bases. The more obnoxious they could become, the greater the market share this personality could draw, and command a greater demand for advertising dollar. This type of format only exacerbated the one-liner simplicity that host and fans used. Deep and layered discussion was not embraced (boring) and inciting rivalries and spiking blood pressures is where the payoff resided. This formula, is what much of the network/Internet fan experience is founded upon. It isn’t because it is a natural course of sport appreciation, it is because that is how the game is sold to us as consumers.

Who the hell listens to radio anymore, though, amirite? It should be noted, though, that this very same cheap audience gimmick plays out daily in any medium you’re receiving sports information. This manipulative practice is what serves as the rudder in dialogue, which in turn drives the decision-making process of those selling the goods (i.e. the sports franchises).

In fact, I have the habit when I'm driving of turning on these radio call-in programs, and it's striking when you hear the ones about sports. They have these groups of sports reporters, or some kind of experts on a panel, and people call in and have discussions with them. First of all, the audience obviously is devoting an enormous amount of time to it all. But the more striking fact is, the callers have a tremendous amount of expertise, they have detailed knowledge of all kinds of things, they carry on these extremely complex discussions...
...And when you look at the structure of them, they seem like a kind of mathematics. It's as though people want to work out mathematical problems, and it they don't have calculus and arithmetic, they work them out with other structures...And what all these things look like is that people just want to use their intelligence somehow...

Well, in our society we have things that you might use your intelligence on, like politics, but people really can't get involved in them in a very serious way -- so what they do is put their minds to other things, such as sports. You're trained to be obedient; you don't have an interesting job; there's no work around for you that's creative; in the cultural environment you're a passive observer of usually pretty tawdry stuff...So what's left?

...And I suppose that's also one of the basic functions it serves society in general: it occupies the populations, and it keeps them from trying to get involved with things that really matter. In fact, I presume that's part of the reason why spectator sports are supported to the degree they are by the dominant institutions.
-Noam Chomsky


"We're a little too into sports in this country, I think we gotta throttle back. Know what I mean? People come home from these games, "We won! We won!" No, they won - you watched."
-Seinfeld stand-up quote from the episode "the Chaperone"

You have websites prepackaged with content selling subscriptions, run largely by individuals who have little experience /knowledge in writing or fact-finding journalism, nor especially the game. Its one thing to deliver fan-centric content such as stats and tailgating experience and impressions from the game. It is quite another thing to provide analysis of coaching decisions with absolute certainty of the outcome when you have little understanding of what is taking place on the field and no experience what goes into teaching, applying, and managing a game (coaching staff).
You don’t have to be a Michelin-rated chef to be able to discern if a meal was palatable or if your dining experience was one to be remembered. It does help my critique as well as substantiate my perspective if I understand what goes into the process of food preparation, nutrition, presentation, and how tastes are to complement each other. If I do not have an understanding of these elements, I won’t be grounded in key factors to provide objective feedback. Unfortunately, much of the ‘analysis’ by these content providers is tantamount to a steak house review where the critic clamors on about how the steak was too rare and needed more ketchup. Don’t mistake snark for being insightful.
This will regrettably come across as a stern rebuke of fan-sites on the Internet. It is not meant to be such. They serve a purpose to heighten the fan experience and provide an inclusive support network (at a price?). This piece was intended to provide some perspective of how much of the information is being filtered to the consumer, who in turn shapes the discourse of college/pro football. This isn’t meant to disparage bloggers, either. I would argue that their perspective remains the most relevant and should be the least tainted of sports reporting. The danger lays in their attempts to mimic the ESPNs of the world with pseudo-analysis via clich├ęs, gibberish, and rhetorical logic. These bloggers (network employees included) are often times fresh out of college with the crux of their understanding of the game founded on video games, junior high playing experience, and other cardboard analysis from cable television. It is what it is, let the consumer beware. Pump the brakes on serious analysis of coaching decisions, especially when they concern what programs should be doing behind closed doors or on the field of play. Nowhere is this more apparent than in evaluating the passing game. The fan-analyst will only see ‘bad calls’ and ‘good calls’ if they don’t factor in coverage vs passing concept, protection, concept progressions, and player execution. This is why a majority of sites will stress the run game so much because it can avoid much of the vagaries of passing the football. This insecurity / lack of confidence in subject matter contribute to the retardation of a critical response.

Also, understand the psyche of the single-minded sports fan (the people delivering the content). Emotions run high and each contest is seen through the lens of immediate gratification and pride. Living paycheck to paycheck isn’t a sound plan for financial security and neither is the rabid game-to-game evaluation of a team. As we say in coaching, “it is never as bad as you remember or as good as it seems. Watch the film”. What worked, what didn’t, film puts it all into appropriate perspective.

So what is the purpose behind this tangent? Simply to evaluate statements proffered by these mouthpieces. Don’t accept them just because they feel good, but challenge them (“why is this statement true? What is the counter-argument and what other factors are involved?”). THAT, truly is what the game of football is about. It isn’t about absolute answers, it is about presenting challenges, evaluating solutions, and determining through an economy of resources (time, athletes, odds, knowledge, etc ) what the appropriate response should be. The further you get from the field, the easier the game appears. In a game that elicits so much emotion, this is a petition for dispassionate understanding of what you’re consuming.

** UPDATE - so it's no surprise that both ESPN and the NFL are strong supporters of the obnoxious SOPA legislation

No comments: