Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Review - How Football Explains America

For many of us, there comes a point where we want what we do to be more important than just a job, it needs to have larger significance. No one wants to believe what is almost certainly the truth, that, if we didn't do what we do, either someone else would, or natural dampening effects would take over; either way, the blog post not written, the insurance claim unadjusted, the iteration of the model not run, none of these are actually all that important.

It's A Wonderful Life is so popular, I think, because it shows us that even the least successful among us have major downstream effects, but the fact of that movie isn't all that believable to me. In the real world, Uncle Billy would die in prison, George would end up doing enforcement work for Potter, and Mary would get a divorce and leave town with the kids, and the world would go on pretty much as it would. (I'm not 100% certain I'm right here, given the nature of non-linear systems; perhaps George needs to do what he does in order to make the world come out right, but I wouldn't bet on it.)

Sometimes, in a burst of self-recognition, we realize that, while our own individual existence has effects that are small and well-contained, we are part of things that are bigger and, by contributing our piece to it, we are part of the overall effect. In my field, software development, there are no end of essays that attempt to "contextualize" (read: magnify) the role of development in the wonders of the modern world. We have enabled the technological revolution, we have permitted more people access to information and self-betterment than was ever previously thought of, we have sent people to the moon and put airplanes in the air and created the wonders of the Internet.

And some of that is true, though it isn't clear exactly what credit any individual should receive for all that. Furthermore, the casual way in which so many have been tossed aside in favor of rankly inexperienced programmers, whether from this country or not, indicates that society does not value us as highly as we do ourselves.

But, you know, at least the profession does offer the gains that it has generated. Something like sports, on the other hand, offers far more dubious value. I have no doubt that humans crave fun and games, but it is not at all clear that the creation of a vast spectator sport apparatus is the best way of fulfilling that natural desire. For those who claim that sports generates a lot of income, that contention is, of course, blatantly untrue; it just moves money around, not creating anything (one of the most obnoxious implications of college football moving the bowl games to paid TV is where the new money will flow - a large amount of the lucre is going to go to bidding up the contracts of football coaches).

Every so often, someone working in sports wakes up and realizes that there is something profoundly unsatisfying about the amount of attention that is paid to the frivolous, and that being a sports reporter is about as unimportant as it gets. We need only look at the career of Keith Olbermann to see how a very few deal with that realization, as he restlessly moves about the media landscape, hoping for some significance.

Another case in point: the faux sociology of ESPN's Sal Paolantonio in his new book, How Football Explains America (2008). This odd little book tells a very selective history of football (so selective that it fails as history), one in which Paolantonio attempts to describe how football explains various concepts in American life: manifest destiny, Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Coltrane and Jackie Robinson, West Point, the Battle of Midway, Father Knows Best, the '60s, Show Business, and Us All. Very little of it is enlightening; worse yet, very little of it is entertaining.

Look, you either believe or disbelieve the basic concept, that a game, one that certainly does absorb a lot of America's time and energy, is socially significant. And I will contend that there are books that can be written on the importance we attach to our diversions. But the kind of over-reaching we see here actually hurts the case, much in the way of the endless spate of baseball books that dwell upon fathers and sons playing catch, dew-soaked fields, and the Boston Red Sox as extended metaphors for our internal psychology.

We can't totally ignore that Paolantonio has the implication wrong, that football doesn't explain manifest destiny so much as manifest destiny may explain some aspects of football's evolution. And, in this book, we're never really sure whether the game changes in reaction to changes in America or vice versa, though it's clear our author prefers the latter (the development of the huddle shows the primacy of the team concept, though the heroic quarterback calls the plays, so he is the pioneering hero within the team, but what then about the current emphasis on play-calling from the sidelines and the no-huddle offense? Paolantonio mostly waves his hands when confronted by these developments).

However, as I've said before, I have a weakness for the big theory, and will give a lot of credit to an author who shoots for it...if they make the case for their side well. Sadly, this book comes up well short in that regard (and it would take a whole lot of persuasive evidence to put across this thesis). I'll just pick out a few examples.

In the Prologue, Paolantonio "explains" why American football is valued only in America, while soccer is preferred elsewhere. Football is "pre-modern Western warfare," in contrast to soccer's Xerxes-like "mass movement," a strategy that was defeated by the former. Football is the ruthless tactic of the Nazi war machine, and far more efficient than soccer's cavalry. Is it possible that Europe rejects American football because it so resembles the tactics that almost destroyed the continent? Not discussed here.

The book is chock-full of such stretches, such unexplored paths of logic. I could explore more of them but, again, you either buy into the premise or you don't. But, if an author is going to make a BIG point about the significance of football, he better have the nuts and bolts of the argument solid. And this book has howler after howler that detracts from its credibility (and makes you suspect that Triumph Books has neither fact-checkers nor editors).

In the space of four paragraphs on p. 63 that talk about the success of Red Grange, we discover that he was great at "alluding tacklers"; that to boys, Grange was "all too real"; and that stadiums were replete with "stranding-room crowds."

Deacon Jones and Lawrence Taylor were "the godfathers of the sack 25 years ago" (this in the Battle of Midway chapter, p. 99). Jones played from 1961 to 1974; his pro career started when Taylor was 2 years old. Taylor played from 1981 to 1993.

Just five pages later, we find that MacArthur accepted "the Japanese surrender on the carrier Yorktown in 1945." Well, it was MacArthur, and it was 1945, but the surrender occurred on the battleship Missouri.

The TV show Father Knows Best is taken as the metaphor for the coach-driven football of the 1950s. We are led to believe that pretty much every American watched the show, and was thus primed for the rise of pro football (or something like that). The problem: Father Knows Best was almost cancelled its first year, didn't make the top 15 in ratings until its fifth season, when it reached #14, and rose to #6 in the following, final season.

The famed CBS Sam Huff documentary of 1960, which demonstrates the fusion of football and show business, was narrated by "America's most venerated newsman, Walter Cronkite." Unfortunately, Cronkite didn't receive his veneration job, anchor of the nightly news, until two years after the documentary. (Paolantonio has real problems with CBS News, as he makes a point about the rise in importance of pro football by implying that the network was willing to pay big bucks for a TV contract in 1964 to ensure the success of 60 Minutes, a show that didn't debut until 1968).

But these are just examples of Paolantonio's attempts to magnify the significance of the sport. The aggrandizement extends to descriptions of the sport itself, using turns of phrase that would be embarrassing to any hack TV guy. Brett Favre's "astounding" 38 pass attempts in a game is not even close to astounding. The NY Giants kicker makes a field goal, "the first time that an opposing kicker had connected on a game-winner in overtime in Lambeau playoff history": this, in the third overtime game ever played in Lambeau playoff history.

I have no doubt that it is frustrating, even soul-deadening, to spend your life desperate to snare interviews with people who make hundreds of times the money you make, and who regard you, at best, as extended PR firms for their wonderful selves. To forever be an outsider when you're so determined to come off as an insider has to, at times, be as bad a feeling as there is.

But to ham-fistedly attempt to create an importance to what you do doesn't serve the cause, it merely looks pathetic. And How Football Explains America has that reek about it. If anything, it creates the opposite reaction - it makes you realize just how unimportant big-time sports really is, how, perhaps, we should spend more time reading Tocqueville and less trying to find tenuous links between him and our obsession with entertainment.


Ricky Riccardo said...

wow yours and his comments about soccer are dumb.

NFL is akin to your army yes, go in all guns blazing and the guy with the bigger guns wins. It has elements of trench warfare from world war 1 to it.

However anyone who knows anything about war and it's tactics, and any american with half a brain knows that your strategy was easily defeated by guerrilla warfare, which is what Real Football is akin to. If you want me to explain further i can. But you americans are dumb, and your self gratifying analogies are even more funny than they should be.

good day

Androcass said...

Had I made a comment about soccer (a game I quite enjoy, actually), your criticism would carry more weight. Fewer headers, better reading skills.

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