Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Football as Reading a Book

(Or, pretentious reflections before another NFL season)

What draws me to football is often the story, the narrative. There are overarching narratives: the Minnesota Vikings, a long storied history, always so close to transcendent glory, but always failing in tragic and comic fashion and falling just short. It is the narrative of a quest (will they ever finally reach the goal?) but it is also a narrative of tragedy (no, they cannot). And there is the narrative of a season for each team. All the little dramas, all the conflicts, all the events and plot. A team could be successful but for one tragic flaw, one weakness, one area of the game it performs poorly at. The drama may come from the team's repeated efforts to improve on (or cover up that weakness), or it may come from the team's repeated failures because of that weakness. Each season has a narrative, each franchise has a narrative, each game has a narrative, each player has a narrative. Many of the expected narratives have already been constructed for the 2008 season. "Tarvaris Jackson is the weak link on a Super Bowl contender: can he perform?" "How will the Patriots respond to a season that included 18 straight wins but one ultimate loss?" "Will Aaron Rodgers be able to replace a beloved legend?" These are the "stories" we'll follow, and we don't know how they'll end, but we know the dramatic issues the stories will be full of. We know the theme. Mostly it is a quest narrative, and it is also a plot with explicit conflict, explicit action. Each game is a clear moment, episode, event.

And there are the characters, characters in action. They are characters we come to "know," and we know them by their works. We assess them, judge them, interpret them, psychoanalyze them, root for them, root against them, we relate to them, we empathize with them, we become frustrated with them, we are annoyed by them--in short, we do the same things we might do to characters we encounter in fiction. There are villains and there are heroes (though we know that often it is we who choose which are the villains and which are the heroes). I can't say these characters are as familiar to me as those people I know in my life. But I can say they are as familiar to me as the characters I've come to know in novels I've read and enjoyed. Just read the names, and you'll find you "know" the character too. You've assessed the character and have an opinion of the character. Bill Belichick. Brett Favre. Terrell Owens. Brad Childress. Tom Brady. Randy Moss. Adrian Peterson. When you see the name, the character comes to you. The name itself means something to you that probably can't be paraphrased or easily articulated.

Every game and every season is something of a morality play, with the characters acting, with real events, with a driving plot, leading to a conclusion. Ah, the conclusion. In life there is no real conclusion but death. But in fiction, even if the ending is ambiguous, even if the ending is a cliff-hanger, even if we do not understand the ending, even if a writer like John Fowles decides that one ending isn't quite enough and we'll have more, the book still ends. There's always a last page. The author may decide to leave characters and readers hanging in an unresolved conclusion, but you still get to put the book away when it's finished. How often in life do you get to put anything away and call it finished? And that is where football is like a novel. We know that it will end. All the complexities and open-endedness and confusions of life may play out in the chaos of the line of scrimmage or the bouncing of an odd-shaped ball. But unlike real life, the game is going to end with a winner and a loser (in rare cases, a tie). Unlike real life, each season gives us teams with a record, division winners and playoff teams and those that aren't. There's something. I know that sometime in February 2009, I'm going to see a conclusion to this mad thing called an NFL season that's about to start. The season itself is full of open roads, potentials, possibilities, mysteries--anything might happen. But in February, one team will have done what it takes throughout the madness to emerge as the Super Bowl champion, to be the winner, to have come out as the hero of the narrative. Along the way there will be fading characters, emerging characters, and scapegoats. There will be emotional highs and lows. But the game will end with a winner, and the season will end with a winner. Sure, there's still a future, still a time for hope--it's not the last book you'll ever read. But there's a finality, an ultimate meaning that the season gives us.

And so it comes upon us. Another NFL season is about to start; a new book lies waiting to be opened. I have expectations of the book. I'll open it, and get a sense of the tone, find the narrative, follow the interesting characters and pay little attention to the uninteresting, take interest in the episodes that make up the plot, see patterns and themes and meaning. I'll be moved emotionally, and I'll develop ideas. Along the way I'll talk to people who are reading the same book, find their opinions on it, argue with them about it. I'll share my interpretations and theories, and I'll listen to theirs. I'll certainly laugh and smile and cheer and dance and feel a buoying euphoria. I'll also yell and get frustrated and sad, feeling weighed down by disappointment. I might cry, but I also might learn something. I'll carry the book with me when I'm not reading it, mulling it, letting it color my worldview and shape my mood. I'll think about it and long to return to it while I'm not reading.

And for me, at least, watching football and reading books are not just a minor hobby, an entertainment to pass the time. Reading books is not only a part of my career, but it is a part of my soul: what I read changes me, teaches me, moves me, provides my religious sensibilities, my morality, my philosophies, my hopes and aspirations. And watching football is something like that, no small part of life. Football takes my intellectual and emotional energy in big clumps (not to mention my time), but it also provides something--fun, joy, energy, passion. It will affect my thoughts and feelings for much of each week.

Football is the book I don't want to put down.

And now it starts again. I'm guessing, if you're not only watching the Vikings but bothering to visit a blog in August to read about the Vikings, that football means something big to you too. I'm not alone in anticipating not just the start of a professional sports league's season, but a shift in the rhythms of life. Schedules are altered. The devotion leads to a whole different way of thinking, of acting, of being. Some deep part of us is affected. Sports are not trivial--that which inspires real passion cannot be. And here it comes.

Are you ready?


  1. Anonymous8:51 AM

    the narrative and these characters are what disgusts me about pro football. because the media is constant and because the media over simplifies everything for sound bites, the viewer is bombarded with the same bad story and the same one dimensional characters. chad johnson cannot be the person he portrays on TV. i doubt anyone as airbrushed as tom brady ever existed. brett favre may be a big kid who just loves to play football when he's not mowing the lawn, but there's more to it than that.

    the commentary and understanding of a game often suffers because of these characters. leads to bland hyperbole. the running commentary of a game is determined before the game to follow the narrative. never mind the game is chaos and develops out of nothing. there is no "narrative" there are no "characters" other than what is preassigned by the media and ad people as a marketing tool. it turns football into something it is not. the actual physical dramatics of a football game are immeasurably more compelling and fascinating than simplistic story lines and one dimensional characters.

    every once in a long while a game may be more compelling because of outside story lines. this last super bowl. joe montana vs the 49ers. brett favre's dad dies. but even then it's more hype than anything and usually adds a layer of artificiality to a real event.


  2. And yet, in my experiences with you, the narrative and characters is also what you love. Sure, you don't like the simplistic and often distorted narratives and characters the media provides. But don't you have your own narratives? I remember something you recently said about Javon Walker: how he's a tragedy of what might have been, or something. And haven't you attached to Brett Favre something of a Mythic Ideal? You're interested in narrative and character, you just don't like the broadcasters' conventional narratives and characters.

    Furthermore, when I talk of "characters in action," I'm not just talking about off-the-field personalities of players. I'm talking about the actual players in their performance. I have no idea what Troy Williamson is like as a human being. I know that as a football player, I view him a failure, as a poor "character," because of his horrible inability to do the one thing his position asks him to do. It is in the action/performances of the players on the field that I really define and consider "character." When Randy Moss leaps over a hapless cornerback, contorts his body as if with no effort, and grabs a pass and comes down with two feet in the end zone, he has defined his character in the narrative--he has performed an action. The dramatic narrative is often what happens on the field in a particular game, and in that sense, the players as "characters" are primarily assessed by their physical, athletic performance, their "actions," not any off-the-field media creation.

  3. Anonymous10:14 AM

    Very cool post.

    "I'm not alone in anticipating not just the start of a professional sports league's season, but a shift in the rhythms of life."

    Hits the nail on the head for me.

  4. Anonymous10:22 AM

    i'm changing my mind on the whole matter. tony kornheiser and his one track, worn out, prewritten commentary are certainly helping me along. people like kornheiser, and many of these commentators and columnists, are apparently unable to divorce what goes on in the tabloids with what happens on a football field. jessica simpson. and that's just to get people to watch sportscenter and to sell jerseys at 2,000 pct mark up.

    as for walker, i meant that more of what's happened to him as a person: people dying in his arms, kidnapped, injuries, trades, retirement, failure. that's terrible stuff happening to a person, that's not a narrative.

    if an individual chooses to see a game as part of a narrative or chooses to see characters as part of a running narrative, that's fine. but there is no narrative. it's all created. there is no story happening. because the game has a score and rules and so on it's tempting to see some sort of narrative but if you do see a narrative it's because you've imposed it.


  5. I would phrase it differently: we "create" narratives." In our interpretation of events, in our attempts to make sense of events we invent narratives. I think I've abandoned existentialism: I recognize that we create the meaning, but I no longer believe that "there is no narrative," "there is no story happening," or "if you do see a narrative it's because you've imposed it." I recognize that we "invent" narratives, but I see it as an interpretation of meaning, not an imposition of meaning.

    And after all, there is a story going on. A game is played, events occur during that game, and at the end there is a winner. That's a story: the narrative we "create" for that story may be invented and interpreted, but it happened. The same is true of a season: a bunch of stuff is going to happen, a bunch of games will be won and lost, and at the end, somebody will be champion. Now, in all of life we create or interpret meaning (or narrative), but sports provides an easier opportunity to do so. Creating a narrative for, say, one man's presidency, is not quite as easy as creating a narrative for a game in which a team was losing but came back in the fourth quarter to win.

    There is an objective story ("Giants 17, Patriots 14," but of course it's more complicated than that--the box score provides a larger part of the objective story). We find subjective stories to make sense of these objective stories.

    A better example. At the end of the season, a coach will be fired. That will be a story, an action, an event. Our interpretations of why it happened, why the coach failed, why ownership gave up on him, etc., will vary. But it's not an imposition of narrative: it's a seeking, a pulling out, of the narrative. Otherwise, what do we say when a coach gets fired? It happend for no reason? There's no story to explain why he was fired? There's no narrative to make sense of his failure? Any attempt to understand why the coach was fired is an "imposition of narrative"? Of course not: we try to make sense of it, we try to find out "why." There is a story there: an event, an action. And we can make sense of it, pull out, "create" the narrative.

    Some students in literature class wills ay "that's not there: you're reading that into it!" I would say "No it's there: I'm trying to read it out of it." So again I return to the book metaphor. Are our interpretations, assessments, our making of meaning, entirely imposed on a text lacking meaning? Or is that text infused with meaning, and we must, as creative readers, find that meaning? I think it is the latter: reading a book is a creative activity, but there is a meaning in the text itself. It is not imposed, made up: I'm not "reading into it," i.e., putting my own ideas "into" a text.

    There are stories. We try to make meaning of them. We turn the events into narratives in an attempt to make meaning.

  6. To summarize, I do not see "creation" and "interpretation" as mutually exclusive terms, and neither need always be seen as an "imposition."

  7. Peter: I feel it especially on the last Sunday afternoon before the football season. I know that it's not just that there are now going to be football games on TV--it's that the whole week sort of slinks toward Sunday, that my attitude toward Sunday changes, that the whole way of thinking about time, week, and weekend changes