15 January 2012

NFL, God, and Too Many Words

I was mostly successful at weaning myself from the NFL this season. I didn't renew the online viewing subscription, didn't do a fantasy league, and only watched a little bit on TV. I failed to divorce myself completely -- I did follow the coverage (albeit more casually), did a small bit of wagering at the end, and have kept an eye on the televised playoff games. The latter just reinforced the nagging thought that supporting professional American football is immoral.

Early in the New Orleans loss to San Francisco, Pierre Thomas took a hard helmet-to-helmet blow and, upon replay, was clearly knocked unconscious, the football falling out of his arms as his limp body fell to the ground, only to be buried by players scrambling for the loose ball. He got up and walked off the field, but didn't return, having been concussed. Yes, there are new rules for concussions and have been more player-protection rules. This has led to more passing, which in turn has led to commentators such as Bill Simmons to moronically decry this the era of "flag football". (Simmons is a talented writer who should know better. The frat-boy shtick and macho snideness is getting old for someone who is a father and ostensibly an adult now.) Watching guys doing long-term damage to their brains, and knowing this is a huge problem and starts at pretty early ages in the sport, makes it really hard to enjoy the game in any capacity. And there's no denying it's a brilliant game to watch on TV.

...despite the uniformly awful TV commentators. I can only conclude these blithering robots get paid by the word. They essentially spew a stream of unconsciousness so meaningless that viewers must just all spam-filter it by now. Here's a single trivial example, and know that any given game will have dozens of examples more egregious: in the New England v. Denver game, one of the announcers said, "This is New England's first third down situation." So let me ask, what does the word "situation" add to that sentence? Answer: nothing. It detracts. It muddles. It makes the dufus sound like a self-parody of someone attempting to come across as sophisticated. They should all be forced to read Strunk & White's Elements of Style, but that wouldn't help because they'd assume it irrelevant to speaking.

The brilliance of the NFL as spectator-sport on TV, in particular in HD (it really does look great, and the standards of camera work are consistently high), should also clue in the owners and commissioner of the league regarding the future of the in-stadium experience. Here's what they don't get yet and if they don't eventually get it it may be too late: the people who go to the games in person are the studio audience. This is true also for the NBA. (Not true for baseball, especially not true for afternoon games on a beautiful summer day at a ballpark in the middle of a real city, but still.) If having an enthusiastic studio audience for your live broadcast enhances the TV viewing experience, and if TV is by far your biggest and most important source of revenue, then treat your audience well, and figure out now how to attract and retain enthusiastic audiences. Steps 1-100 in this: make tickets free, or so close to free it doesn't matter. This will never happen (until, possibly, it's too late), but should.

Maybe it's just that god hates people who can't afford personal seat licenses. God seems to have a really keen interest in the NFL, at least according to the players, the most famous of which is now Tim Tebow. [Didn't Roger Zelanzy write a short story in which Death was a football fan?] Tebow has a cute little routine about praying to god whenever something especially good happens. Seems a bit inconsistent. If god is interfering, and everything that happens is god's will or part of a "plan", shouldn't Tebow stop and give thanks after god makes him throw an interception or get sacked?

This is a trite example of the incoherence of the belief that god is meddling with the world. If a plane crashes and, say, a single child survives, a chorus of credulous christian cretins will quickly claim the miraculous at work, the hand of the divine in action! Well, you can't get that without also indicting god as the murderer of everyone else on board. The only ways out of this are to decide god really does have a strict non-interference policy (yes, the Star Trek "prime directive"), or, more simply, that god doesn't exist.

But what am I saying, of course god not only exists but also interferes constantly AND loves the NFL. God clearly hates Pittsburgh but loves Boston, or is trying some tough love voodoo on Denver. Better luck next year, Broncos.


Rick said...

I've almost completely weaned myself, too, although I was never a rabid fan. I only watched three complete games all season (one Steelers game with friends at a bar; the Broncos-Patriots playoff rout, and the Giants-Packers rout the next day).

What strikes me most about the game, especially since I have been watching a lot more soccer over the past few years, is how ... authoritarian the structure of the game is. There's little room for individual initiative. The QB is the "great man" on the field, and fans and commentators tend to see outcomes in terms of the performance of the QB and head coach. Compare this to soccer, say, or basketball or baseball, in which there's no "leader" per se (aside from the pro-forma duties of the captain in soccer) and individuals are much more free to do what seems best in the moment.

Combine this with the almost unimaginable violence that you describe, and you're left with one really creepy sport. Is it any wonder how many times Jesus is mentioned, and how pious football players try to be, given Sinclair Lewis' observation about American fascism "wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross"?

Anonymous said...

Man, this is a great essay on football. I've become more and more creeped out by the violence in football lately, and it's becoming 100% clear these guys are doing lasting damage to their brains and bodies.

It's hard for me to enjoy watching someone get hurt badly.

Then the thing about god is completely true, and only a complete moron could think he's favoring me over some other person.

" authoritarian the structure of the game is. There's little room for individual initiative. The QB is the "great man" on the field, and fans and commentators tend to see outcomes in terms of the performance of the QB and head coach."

This was something I hadn't put my finger on before but had been bothering me for a long time. There is "mass psychology of fascism" going on big time in football.


Creepy is a good word for football. I didn't watch a single game this year, just a few. It's a great game to watch esp in HD, but it's just too brutal for me to enjoy.

pyker said...

Yeah, creepy is apt. Creepy to support and enjoy.

Which is a shame, because football is really interesting. Set plays on on every play. Situational substitution. Complex schemes, plays, and decision-making. Increasing specialization leading to remarkable performances. Niche physical and athletic prowess and capabilities we wouldn't have thought possible even 25 years ago. And the possibility of scoring on any given play.

But barbaric and unsettling, watching the young guys give up in some cases decades of their lives, committing themselves to not being able to walk or even recall the game when by rights they should still be hale and hearty middle agers.

Football & fascism -- interesting point.

Rick said...

The point about (gridiron) football being telegenic is a good one. In part, that's due to the "quantum" nature of play -- the "set plays on every play". That makes it much easier for cameras to reset to catch the necessary shots.* Plus there's a clear dramatic arc to each down, from lining up and grimacing to reactions after the whistle.

Part of me wonders whether the game's telegenic nature isn't an aspect of the broader problem.

"Situational substitution. Complex schemes, plays, and decision-making. Increasing specialization leading to remarkable performances. Niche physical and athletic prowess and capabilities we wouldn't have thought possible even 25 years ago. And the possibility of scoring on any given play."

All good points. I am consistently amazed at the "Fridge-ization" of linemen. Perry was a freak back in '84-5. Now, his physique is pretty common.

I'd like to be able to say that the college game is superior, but after having reported on subsidies poured into programs from students' pockets, I'm not willing to go near that assertion.

I didn't intend to jump straight to fascism; "authoritarianism" is strong enough. (Fascism was really the only authoritarianism that Lewis recognized, but his point can apply to all dictatorial forms in the American context.) To some extent, all professional team sports suffer from an aspect of the "mass hysteria" that TC identifies. (I was menaced on the North London Line many years ago by a bunch of disgruntled Arsenal supporters after a loss to Chelsea because I had the audacity to board the train wearing the wrong colors.) But I find it refreshing that (association) football allows for a range of political associations among supporters (e.g. St. Pauli in the Bundesliga, which is the anarchist/anti-fascist side), while I can't imagine a true-blue liberal in (gridiron) football garnering anything other than catcalls.

* q.v. baseball and cricket, which are also marked to some extent by "quantum" play with clear arcs, albeit at a finer granularity.

pyker said...

Fridge was one of the rare players who was over 300 lbs. He wouldn't be particularly large this season. This season, Chicago has 15 players weighing 300 or greater.

There are some individual liberals in the ranks of NFL rosters, but you're right, from a team identity standpoint you wouldn't ever expect to see that.

JustJoeP said...

I saw the N.O. hit and thought the same thing - he's seeing birdies. It's sad, but it's becoming very common. As spearing and horse collaring and head shots and QB late-hits have become verboten with stinging penalties (as they should have decades ago) the violence has migrated to the running back's (and TEs, and FBs, and other non-secondary receivers) heads, knees, and chests. It's despicable.

Americans love violence. Look at the "Ultimate Fighting" blood sport, NASCAR (not just drive fast, turn left, but also ram the hell out of your opponent and try to make them crash), boxing, 'rastlin (formerly WWF, now whatever they call it), the 2nd amendment (I own 3 fire arms, and it DOES take a conscious effort to NOT get a rush of adrenalin when handling them, even after owning one for 35 years). Violence in the NFL is sanctioned by the fans and the league, as long as it is "the big guys hitting each other" and not the kickers, QBs or receivers, who are more vulnerable.

I watched most of the Bear's losing season, and I found inordinate joy in both Denver's and Greenbay's loses. Had either of them won, I would have given up on the NFL for the rest of the year.

HD brings the violence into the home, graphically. Thomas's nasty hit would have been barely detectable 20 years ago, chalked up as "normal".

Regarding "God" in sports... I still maintain that "nothing fails like prayer". Tebow is as good as Grossman was, and yes, Grossman's team DID get to the superbowl, and then lost spectacularly. As a life-long Chicago fan, I can recognize an inconsistent QB, and Tebow is one of them. The "christian" fetish focused upon Tebow is laughable, and I was very happy to see it extinguished in January.

JustJoeP said...

...and regarding "to many words" - look who they get to be commentators! (remember, my older brother dreamed of one day being a sports broadcaster) NO VALUE ADDED. Watching on DVR, I bypass most of the inane comments, and focus on the visuals and what's happening on the field while fast forwarding through the useless words they keep spouting. Madden is gone (I never found him chummy, or enjoyable... "The team who gets the ball into the end zone the most will win the game" ... really????) but there's a small army of has-beens who want to pick up his mantle and become the next "broadcasting legend".

They should be more like the Harbaughs, after they stop playing, and COACH, instead of commentating.

pyker said...

Growing up, the standard in our house was to turn down the TV during the game and turn up the stereo, to get the radio commentators for the TV broadcast.

pyker said...

Charles Pierce in a new column on Grantland describes the NFL thusly: "the steady march toward corporate sports nirvana — i.e., authoritarian tedium on which you can bet".

JustJoeP said...

My maternal grandfather used to read the newspaper, while listening to a Blackhawks game in one ear on his AM radio-with-head-phone, and have a Cubs game or Bears game on the television, and sipping a Hamms. When I was a very small boy, I used to sit on his lap and try to read the paper with him - also tasted my first Hamms that way (yuck). Ask him what the score was on any of the 3 forms of media, and he'd tell you straight away. He lived in Calumet City, in a neighborhood that used to be 70% Roman Catholic Slav (Polish, Czech, Lithuanian, Hungarian), 30% Orthodox (Greek, Serbian, Russian), less than a mile west of State Line.

When the cable companies first began to come knocking on his door, to tell him how he could get EVEN MORE sports, he politely told them 'I will not pay for what I can get for free' and until the day he died, he refused to allow any cables or dishes to bring any signals into his home, using only a roof antennae. We dubbed it "peasant vision", and my parents in Highland adopted the same paradigm.

When the analog broadcast world in America went digital last year (or 2 years ago?) my father got his $40 A/D converter (with government coupon), and NOW, he's got 10X the number of channels (up from just 2, 5, 7, 9, 11 & 32 from when we were kids) he used to have, with each of the largest broadcast networks putting out multiple free broadcast digital channels with varied content. He still does not have cable or a dish, and lives quite happily.

I'll leave the betting to my little brother. I don't need to dip my toe in that pool.