by Ivan Cole
Parts One and Two of the series gives one person’s take on how fans can understand and enhance their appreciation of the game. Part Three will explain why there is never likely to be a perfect draft, and Part Four speaks to the dangers of ahistorical fandom. (Click the links to read the other articles.)
I have a friend of many years who for the purpose of this article I will call ‘Joe’. Joe, as he does every year, will call me at some point over the Labor Day weekend to discuss our views on the upcoming season. For his part, Joe will basically parrot the information he receives from ESPN, NFL Network, sports talk radio and other aspects of sports media. A New Yorker, with allegiances that to the sensibilities of Steelers fans would be viewed as mushy at best, he will launch into an analysis of which team will be favored to win the Super Bowl and the prospects for his own team, the Raiders (or is it the Chargers? The Jets? Check with me in September). He will authoritatively give his take on these things, but this is a deception. I don’t use the term “parrot” lightly. He’s not thinking much of anything, save for following the template given to him by the ‘experts’. But he, like so many fans, will claim that thoughts planted into his mind by another, just like the Jedi Mind Trick, are his own. He doesn’t say ‘So and so said this and I am in agreement’. His Svengali is edited out of his statement for reasons we will get to eventually.
This becomes glaringly obvious when the conversation swings around to the Steelers. He will tell me what he’s heard and I will then confirm some of it and deny/correct/interpret most of the rest. He will react with some skepticism and occasional disbelief After all, this is not what the experts are saying. I sound like some nutcase homer. But over the years I have been proven right (or, more accurately, more right than the experts) often enough that he will reserve judgment.
The pleasure and pressures of being knowledgeable
It is possible to derive a great deal of satisfaction from simply watching a Sunday afternoon game of professional football and then going on with your life as one might after taking in any other form of entertainment. However, that’s not a working model for everyone. For some the passion for the game is generated beautifully from inside. And like anything we grow to love we find ourselves endlessly fascinated with even the most trivial bits of information. It is not enough, for example, to just know the team colors, but the exact shade (Is it gold or yellow?). Becoming knowledgeable is a natural byproduct of our passionate obsession with the subject. And if we left it at that this would be the end of this piece.
It has been said that professional sport is an oxymoron. To be sure it is a marriage of different sets of values. The balancing act of being a profitable business, providing a reliable, renewable entertainment product and some fidelity to the parameters of the sport is a difficult one. But know that this is not a marriage of equals for the most part. If the values conflict the business aspect will win. In this sense the loving passion of the fan is most welcome, but ultimately unreliable.
A marketing director who was on the ground floor of the development of one of the huge, successful internet companies told me their marketing strategy was to create addiction. Love versus addiction. Is there a difference? Control. Addiction can be generated and calibrated externally. Where the lover may lose control of herself due to the sense of abandon that passion generates, the addict on the other hand is being manipulated and the relationship to knowledge is very different. There are a number of pitfalls in pursuing the discipline of being a well-informed fan, with some peculiar challenges for Steelers fans. What follows is a brief outline of a few.
David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, makes this self-critique in his book The Road to Character:
I was born with a natural disposition to shallowness. I now work as a pundit and columnist. I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am, to appear smarter than I really am. I have to work harder than most people to avoid a life of smug superficiality.
And this is from the more serious and respectable precincts of journalism. What Brooks describes is Main Street for sports journalism, a field that critics describe as being perhaps even more oxymoronic than that of professional sport.
The structure of sports journalism and its offshoots encourages the “shallowness” of thinking as it relates to actual facts as opposed to that of mere opinions. This may be satisfying on an emotional level, and all too often gains currency in the absence of information that might confirm or refute any relationship to reality.
An example of my own experience with this was an interview I conducted with the great Steelers talent evaluator Bill Nunn.
“The conversation shifts a bit. I’m interested in his thoughts of how African Americans have been progressing in the coaching ranks. But the responses go in some interesting directions.”
Translation: I had a preconceived notion about the subject with “interesting directions” indicating that I had not received the response I was expecting. Specifically, I wanted to explore the career of Tony Dungy.
Ivan Cole: “I’ve wondered why it took so long for Dungy to get a head coaching position.”
Bill Nunn: “Many things: Did not cuss, soft spoken. You might not have hired him. In other words, are you going to have enough fire to get in people’s butt. Are you gonna say, ‘Look, goddammit!’ He made it despite that.”
Left to my own thinking I would have concluded that the reason would be race. And though that may still be part of the equation, Nunn, a man who didn’t shy away from discussing issues of race in the sports world (and other areas) did not cite that as the most significant factor in explaining Dungy’s career arc.
But an example I wrote about elsewhere this spring can be even more instructive. Here is the beginning of the article which generated my response:
The Steelers made history Sunday. They made their worst draft pick ever.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I like a good bad draft choice. I derived as much enjoyment from the reigns of error provided by Troy Edwards, Jamain Stephens and Deon Figures as I did from the Super Bowl years. Being indescribably bad is often more intriguing than being incomparably good.
The writer in question was Mark Madden, the year was 2003, and the player he so easily dismissed was one Ike Taylor.
The main problem here isn’t necessarily the most obvious; its glaringly comical inaccuracies. (Follow the link above to see what I mean.) The fact is, Mark Madden declared a player that is in serious discussion of being one of the top players of the franchise over the past quarter century a “bust” from the outset. It’s wonderfully ironic that the person he publicly derided as being a “dumb” “Prop 48” may be on track to be far more successful in sports media than Madden could hope to be himself. What is important is that individuals like Madden are the Jedi Masters who lead untold numbers of fans down the path of what it is to be supposedly knowledgeable.
In this Orwellian reality having a fidelity to knowledge may actually get in the way of establishing your bona fides as a knowledgeable fan. What we have is the confluence of a media culture and industry that is deeply compromised and a population who, due to failures in the larger society, are unfamiliar with and disrespectful of critical thought.
Presumably there was a time when the relationship between the sporting media and the sports industry was less incestuous. Has anyone noticed the lack of any significant difference between the coverage of the NFL by ESPN and by the NFL Network, which is a house organ of the league? Maybe it’s because the nation’s leader is a business partner with the league and has a huge financial interest in its success.
The same can be said for CBS, Fox, NBC and any other news organization that invests in covering the games and profiting from that coverage. Sports Illustrated’s Rick Telander points out that beat writers are dependent upon the good will of the teams that they cover because “Beat writers are useless if nobody talks to them”. Imagine a member of the White House press corps whose availability was dependent upon whether or not the media members critiqued administration policy favorably? This is what we would call leverage.
And even when the sources speak ,how reliable are the utterances, particularly if they are anonymous? While anonymity canprovide the protection that facilitates truth telling, the other edge of that sword is that it also provides the cover for the propagation of lies.
Consider for a moment a reoccurring story over the past few years relating to Ben Roethlisberger’s feelings about the team and his contract. A national media person put forward that Ben was disgruntled with his situation in Pittsburgh. This person was immediately castigated by everyone remoted associated with the Steelers, Ben, the team, the Pittsburgh media and Steelers Nation. The prevailing assumption was, this individual put forth a false or unsubstantiated rumor in order to attract hits on his story. (Probably true I might add.)
But it is not outside of the realm of possibility that someone in either Ben’s or the Steelers’ camp may have fed him this information in order to influence negotiations. Denials fly but the seed has been planted. The messenger suffers a blow to his reputation, but as an outsider the damage really is minimal, and as we have seen, survivable. On the other hand it might have been career ending for a local.
There is a big difference between those who would stake their reputation on their reporting, as opposed to serving as a public relations and marketing arm of the industry. In some ways it might be somewhat misleading to be rigid about the analogy. An amusement people follow as voluntary leisure is not the same as the activities of the government. But all the more reason to question why integrity is risked for the sake of promoting a false sense of detached objectivity.
In practical terms, the fan in search of knowledge to enhance understanding of the sport is fed a steady diet of informational junk food. Parlor games such as mock drafts, ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in free agency, rankings of players, coaches, fan bases, stadium experiences and endless predictions about all manner of things comprises the basic menu. And like junk food it titillates without nourishing.
If there were at least a degree of accountability, say a predictor loses their job if their accuracy rate falls below 45 percent, then there would be a chance to glean something of value from the process. Instead fans are encouraged to play a football version of “what’s your astrological sign” with just as much chance of becoming more knowledgeable about pro football as superficial conversation about sun signs correlates with relationship success.
Issues that advance understanding may be less than flattering to the industry. A generic examination of coaching and practice organization, comparative analysis of offensive and defensive systems, the structure and function of front office and scouting departments, medical issues like head trauma, labor and financial issues, structure of contracts and cap management, roster sizes, rules, codes of conduct, team/community relations including economic impact, the influence of gambling, training and nutritional practices and a number of other concerns are treated like unwanted step children. What makes this harder to justify is that we are in an era with twenty four hour networks and an unprecedented reach of the media, and there is no lack of either time or money to examine these things.