Putting American football to bed for awhile

Posted on February 13, 2010


(Originally posted 10 Feb. 2010)

It’s always kind of surprising how quickly a sport disappears from our minds within a day or so of its championship game. For many true fans of the sport — i.e. not simply fans of a particular team, who lose interest as soon as their team is eliminated from the race — their interest peaks during that championship game or series. And then, poof! After wondering for months which team would ultimately triumph, we learn the answer, and move on.

Before I move on from the NFL, here are a few quick thoughts about the Super Bowl and the narratives developing out of it.

First, a “what if” I haven’t heard anybody talking about. Most commentators have selected three or four pivotal plays in the game; i.e. plays which, if they had gone the other way, may have led to a different result. And everybody, rightly, includes The Interception by Tracy Porter with 3:20 left in the 4th quarter. If the Colts had scored on that drive, they would have tied the score, leaving probably less than 2 minutes on the clock. But instead, the interception gave the Saints a secure 14-point lead. One of debates among the experts here is whether the interception was Peyton Manning’s fault, the fault of his receiver, Reggie Wayne, or a brilliant defensive play by Porter. Well, here’s my two-cents worth. This is coming from someone who has never played football wearing actual pads and a helmet. Watch a clip of the play here. And in particular, watch the slow motion replay that begins at the 30-second point. The TV commentators there and later are focusing on the Manning/Wayne/Porter connection. But look at the Colts’ receiver Pierre Garçon who lined up close to Wayne, and then cut to the right toward the center of the field. He is wide open for a first down catch, and perhaps plenty of yardage after the run. But look further down the field. As soon as Manning appears to be throwing to Wayne, the Saints’ safety moves immediately to cover that play. And that leaves Dallas Clark, Manning’s favorite target, on a post route wide open for a touchdown. So although Reggie Wayne might arguably have done a better job to catch the pass or prevent the interception, I think we should put the blame here on the quarterback, because he had two better options.

Second, the game has led to a lot of chatter and speculation about the “legacies” of two players: Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. Sum: Manning’s legacy stock has sunk, and Brees’s has soared. Brees definitely had a better game than Manning (although, just for the record, he and Manning were not playing with or against the same players….). But mostly, Brees’s team won, and Manning’s lost. As everybody recognizes, that result may have been different but for one or more crucial plays. Should a “legacy” be that fragile, that open to what philosophers call “moral luck“? We’ll return to this theme on this blog. We obviously do this with our evaluation of the “legacies” of people in many walks of life, and with our evaluation of the significance of certain events in general.

Third, not much more needs to be said about the infamous Tebow pro-life ad. Commentators had been led to believe it would be much more “explicit,” and blogged the devil out of it during the run up to the Super Bowl. At the time it actually aired I was looking at my laptop following Twitter feeds about the game, and missed it entirely. I had to find it on YouTube, here. The language is tame and coded enough that without understanding who the sponsors were (Focus on the Family, whose name appears at the end of the ad) one might not have realized what it was about. So the fears of some commentators, that it would be upsetting for children watching the game, were probably overstated. I have nothing to add about the “ethics” of CBS allowing such an ad during the Super Bowl. That question seems adequately handled as a business ethics issue in the leading business ethics blog, by my pal Chris MacDonald.

It is worth reflecting briefly not on the ad itself, but on the reaction when it was first announced. Many people were upset that it would be allowed on the Super Bowl broadcast. Without having read most of the commentaries, I doubt anyone was arguing that advocacy groups should not be able to put such ads on TV. They were upset it was on the Super Bowl. And I think it wasn’t just because kids would be watching, and that they would ask their parents awkward questions at a moment when the parents would not be in the mood for such a discussion. They were upset because the Super Bowl is now perceived as a kind of quasi-sacred national celebration.

We realize at some level that it is a spectacle put on by a for-profit corporation wholly owned mostly by multi-millionaires. But at some other level, we feel it is “ours,” a kind of national patrimony that the owners of NFL franchises are merely guardians of. (A similar sentiment is clearly expressed whenever an owner begins to think about moving a franchise from one city to another.) We don’t want the Super Bowl politicized — or worst of all, dragged into a debate about abortion that divides rather than unifies us — in much the same way as folks used to fret about the commercialization of Christmas.

In one of my introductory posts I noted that a theme for this blog would be about the way in which our identities vis-a-vis sports teams are similar to our cultural, political, and national identities. And that we could learn about the latter by thinking about the former. But every now and again, we also realize that our national identities are in part colored by our interests in particular sports and sporting events.

This complex relationship between sports and identity should be on full display for the rest of this month as we find ourselves, perhaps reluctantly, drawn into the Winter Olympics.