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The future of football

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 05, 2016

This conversation between Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell about the current state of football and the NFL is quite good, even if you maybe don’t care about sports or aren’t currently watching football. Yes, it’s a sports bro and a nerd bro coming to terms with the fact that their favorite sport is a dumpster fire, but some of their points along the way are more widely applicable. Like Gladwell’s idea about second conversations:

There is now a second conversation about baseball — the Moneyball conversation — that is interesting even to people who don’t follow the first conversation, the one that takes place on the field. Same thing for basketball. There’s an obsessive first conversation about a beautiful game, and a great second conversation about how basketball has become a mixed-up culture of personality and celebrity. Boxing had a wonderful second conversation in its glory years: It was a metaphor of social mobility. Jack Dempsey, one of the most popular boxers of all time, dropped out of school before he even got to high school; Joe Louis’s family got chased out of Alabama by the Ku Klux Klan. That underlying narrative made what happened in the ring matter. When the second conversation about boxing became about people like Don King and the financial and physical exploitation of athletes, the sport became a circus.

So what’s the second conversation about football? It’s concussions. There’s the game on the field and then there’s a conversation off the field about why nobody wants their kids to play the game on the field. How does a sport survive in the long run when the second conversation contradicts the first?

And his assertion that the clarity and size of HD televisions have made the action on the screen too real:

In terms of how we watch football, high-definition television has clearly been a two-edged sword for the NFL, hasn’t it? It makes the drama of the game come alive, because we can now see the action in so much more detail. But it also means that when Luke Kuechly is writhing in pain on the ground, we can see every emotion on his face. That’s not a trivial matter. There’s a particular emotional expression that the psychologist Paul Ekman has labeled “Action Unit 1,” which is when your inner eyebrows rise up suddenly, like a drawbridge. It’s almost impossible to do that deliberately. (Try it sometime.) But virtually all human beings do Action Unit 1 involuntarily in the presence of emotional distress. Watch babies cry: Their inner eyebrows shoot up like they are on hydraulics. And when you see that expression appear on someone else’s face, that’s what triggers your own empathy.

The point is, in an age when this kind of intimate information about other people’s emotions is available to us when we’re watching TV in our living rooms, a game as violent and painful as football becomes really hard to watch. The first time I realized this was after a hit on Wes Welker in a Broncos playoff game, in the season when he had multiple concussions (2013). I had just bought a new big-screen TV, with an incredible picture, and when the camera zoomed in on Welker, I was so shaken that I had to turn off the game. I wonder how many other people did the same thing. So, yes, we really watch football differently now.

Interesting throughout, as they say. BTW, here’s Gladwell’s 2002 piece on Paul Ekman from the New Yorker.