Sunday, January 30, 2005

Riffs On Football As Cultural Metaphor

A week ago, we discussed briefly how the coaching schemes of the most successful football organizations tend to involve systems that, instead of being built around the specific strengths of their star players, require their players to work within the system. This has been true at the college level for decades, because of player turnover; free agency has necessitated it in the pro league more recently.

(The salary cap has also necessitated the use of systems over stars. Teams can only afford so many high-priced star players now. Doctrinaire economists would decry this as rank Euro-socialism; football fans understand that without the salary cap, they probably never would have heard of Brett Favre, who is nothing short of iconic in the world of the NFL. Small-market teams like Green Bay simply never would have become competitive in the modern era without the salary cap.)

Sublimation of individual ego in the service of team cohesion seems to be the key to the success of these systems, which would tend to contravene how Americans (and especially star athletes) are brought up to see themselves. And yet, efficiency of the team runs at a maximum, simply because everyone put their egos aside and worked together.

But most of us are brought up to equate the cultivation of individual excellence with proving it by competing against (and defeating) all comers. This is reasonable to a certain extent -- to acquire a skill, once you have spent the sufficient amount of time to have some mastery of fundamentals, competition is the most efficient way to synthesize said mastery and knowledge. And yet, when it comes down to it in a competition, you really just have to be better than the other guy; if you're not self-critical or reflective enough to spot and refine your own mistakes, you're not actually improving and refining your skills.

Business is a particular arena where a genuine pursuit of excellence and skill frequently gets sublimated by the primal urge for predation, both without and within. In terms of human resources, it means you squeeze every nickel till the buffalo shits; rather than pay employees a decent wage to build a better product that discerning consumers will usually pay a little more for, you look at employees as just another corner to cut to make the P/L sheet look just a little bit better. This is rather short-sighted, yet common practice, obviously.

Or you might run a large company, with which you practice predatory techniques in order to increase market domination, or to drive out smaller competitors, even if their products are actually better. Also short-sighted, yet also commonplace.

Yet these things are considered intrinsic to the practice of genuine capitalism, even though they might be only in the technical sense. Indeed, if one were to be able to crunch projected numbers and productivity of happy, well-paid employees who are part of a team, as opposed to miserable wage-slaves constantly worried about being downsized (and thus apathetic to real productivity because incentive has been removed), conventional wisdom would likely be contradicted.

The problem is one of balance, that of weighing needs and requirements of happy, productive employees against the need of the company to generate profit. The assumption is that these two things are at cross purposes; the truth is that they are much more intertwined. The solution is to have a system which recognizes these things, rather than encourages short-sighted idiots to cut every corner they can for a quick buck at the community's expense. Not by enforcing a salary cap, but by fostering an environment that allows individuals to maximize their skills and talents, be recognized and well-compensated, make a product that everybody loves, and still work toward a common good. And not communism or socialism. Even capitalist icons like Adam Smith knew this was not only possible, but desirable in the context of capitalism and true democracy.

I submit that if the Democrats were to take a good hard look at the NFL, they would find what they have been missing -- business savvy, community values, and most importantly, narrative. Narrative is what has allowed a creature like George W. Bush to get even within spitting distance of the most important job on the planet. It is what the Democrats have been missing, and even when they've had it, have not understood the heft it carries with the electorate.

You may have seen the Rodney Dangerfield movie Back To School, and if so, you may recall a scene where Robert Downey Jr., as a punky anarchist student agitator, is on his way to a football game to protest. "Football is a crypto-fascist metaphor for thermonuclear war," he proclaims.

He's right. Football is, rather explicitly, a reduction of first- and second- generation war tactics, with all the quasi-nationalist trappings, both with the teams and with the overt nationalism before each and every game. Formations, set plays and techniques and positions -- that's first- and second-generation warfare there. The fans, the colors, the symbols, all of it -- it's war without the blood. That's fine; our lizard brains still need that from time to time.

Soccer (yeah, yeah, I know the rest of the world calls it "football", but it's soccer, m'kay?) could be seen to represent the next stage of warfare, third-generation. Tactics and formations are not as static and predictable. Nationalism is even more concentrated among the spectators, who after all provide context for the cultural metaphor at work here.

Fourth-generation warfare (4GW) is basically what we're experiencing in Iraq right now -- guerrilla tactics, no uniforms or distinguishing marks or insignia to separate from the civilian, no rules, no set positions or techniques. Possibly most confusing is that there's no hill to take, no enemy outpost to get in our sights. There's no goal post; no end zone. Maybe a village or city has a certain number of the enemy inhabiting it; finding and filtering a couple hundred of them out of a couple thousand (or a couple hundred thousand) by definition requires alerting the bad guys to the point that they get out and away before your regular army has even begun its mission. Meanwhile, several other factions set off car bombs and execute massacres and kidnappings simultaneously in several other cities.

It's no longer football; it's Calvinball. The rules are whatever the guy with the ball decides they are. And there's a lot of balls, thus a lot of guys making up their own rules as they go along. And we have no cultural metaphor for it, nor effective strategy nor even terminology and nomenclature, which are fundamental to establishing tactics and strategy.

We are stubbornly attempting to play Calvinball by the old football rules.

Back to narrative. The NFL provides a wondrously structured narrative that answers all the heuristic questions that the Republicans seem to have such a firm grasp of, yet still elude Democrats. It has a ready supply of characters around which to build its narrative of heroism, perseverance, skill, individual excellence in the context of team spirit and unity, family and community values.

And it works. Watch any of those old NFL Films, with the steady basso profundo of John Facenda burbling over slow-motion heroics of Brett Favre or Joe Montana executing a last-minute come-from-behind touchdown drive, and tell me that by the end of it, you don't think that Brett Favre is one cool motherfucker.

Cynics may say it's style over substance. Realists know it depends on the context; Favre has an actual skill, so when the technique is used to profile him, it's a happy marriage of style with substance. Used to position George W. Bush in front of Mount Rushmore at such an angle that he appears to be the fifth face, it's pathetic and ridiculous, yet it affirms to his base what they have come to feel about him, which is why they voted for him in the first place. Narrative. Heuristics. Mental shortcuts. Really, anyone who's ever taken a psych class as part of a marketing minor knows this. It's the art of bringing out all the dots in such a manner that the viewer/consumer thinks he connected them on his own.

When the Democrats come to understand this, not only will they grasp the strength of narrative, but they will have the most important element of authenticity, of truly having the essential bond with the common man. I don't mean this in the cynical sense, but in the real one. True football fans are manifesting concepts like loyalty and community spirit in their teams, things that transcend policy measures and carefully considered positions. You get out there, and you take your game to the other guy. You stand in, take your best shot. You'll take a few hits, but even if you lose, at least you did it on your own terms.

In the triumph of media perception and reinforcement over reality, this is how most Americans see themselves, even though statistically, we're fatter, less-informed, and less empirically-minded than any other industrialized country. This could be blasted as the delusion of a decadent society, but it could also be seen as the vestige of the pioneer spirit, something to be yoked to a movement aligned to positive change.


vonKreedon said...

Woooo...several great points in that riff.

Your point about the Dems missing the importance of a catchy narrative is excellent, and something that Slick excelled at, the cool motherfucking bastard. But yeah, the Dems tend toward cold wonks (Dukakis, Kerry), or dreamy eyed fanatics with little understanding of the audience listening to the narrative (McGovern, Dean). I'm hoping that Edwards manages to get his face and voice back into the public mind because he is one of the few Dems who seems to have Slick's narrative knack. Obama may be another, but he has several challenges (black, name rhymes with Osama) that distract from his storytelling ability.

Heywood J. said...

I liked Edwards a lot too -- in fact, my wife and I voted for him in the primaries -- but the Democrats must first and foremost figure out why he couldn't even pass along his Senate seat, much less carry his home state, if they are going to try to nurture his continued viability. It's a genuine puzzler, considering his obvious charisma and intelligence. He may have just broken for national office too early; perhaps another Senate term would have increased his '08 viability.
Obama has so far gotten off to a fine start, in terms of what hopes the party wants to place on his shoulders. I think he missed a real opportunity in the Rice confirmation hearings, though. They can downplay the ex-Klansman Byrd, or the shrieking harridan Boxer, or the sour-grapes Kerry, but a black Senator? He would have instantly acquired some Evan Bayh gravitas.
Note that Bayh, because he is generally perceived as a serious guy, has so far not been excoriated for his "no" vote, and has banked some indie cred for his own '08 run. Watch out for him; he's a decent guy, very smart, and centrist without being slick and cynical about it.

vonKreedon said...

Bayh's an interesting possibility for '08.

Regarding Edwards and North Carolina:
I don't think he can be faulted for the Dems not winning his Senate seat, nor really do I think he can be faulted for his ticket not winning NC's electoral votes. The last time NC went for a Dem Presidential candidate was Jimmy Carter in 1976! Not even Slick in his second election was able to take NC. The Senate seat has been a hot potato since Sam Ervin left in '74.

Anonymous said...

You assume the playing field is lvl, and we all know, especially those from Ohio State, the playing field, in the media, and on Election Day, is currently not level...

Not plumb my friend, not at all...

Good read though...

-RF in NH