Michael Lewis’ New York Times profile of Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcels opens by arguing that the football game we watch on TV is not the real game:
It’s more than 16 hours since the Dallas Cowboys finished their first game of this season, and 25 journalists are still waiting to hear what happened. Of course, they know that the Cowboys lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars, 24-17. After racing out to a 10-0 lead, the Cowboys collapsed. They threw interceptions, dropped passes, allowed sacks, committed penalties. The journalists know this, but they also know that they saw only the same tiny slice of the game that the fans saw on TV. They don’t really know why the team fell apart, and the only way to find out is from the inside — from some coach with a knowledge of the plays, who has studied the game film.
Lewis repeats the point in his latest book, The Blind Side, in a discussion of the anonymity of offensive linemen to TV viewers:
No one ever mentions Steve Wallace’s name. The cameras never once find him. His work is evidently too boring to watch for long without being distracted by whatever’s happening to the football. Worse, the better he does his job the more boring to watch he beomes. His job is to eliminate what people pay to see—the sight of Chris Doelman crushing Joe Montana.
Adam Gopnik, with the help of Joe Namath, adds on in The Unbeautiful Game, a review of football literature in the New Yorker this month (no link):
“I’ve only watched him this year as a fan, on television. I haven’t had a chance to break down the passing game to see if Chad’s going to the right spots or going to the wrong receiver.” [says Namath.] You sense that the distinction the old quarterback is making — between watching as a fan and actually watching — is, for him, larger than he can quite explain. It isn’t just that he hasn’t watched as attentively as he might have; watching “as a fan, on television,” means that he hasn’t really watched at all…[W]hat is really astonishing is to be reminded again of how different this game looks depending on where you see it from, on where you’re standing (or sitting) while you watch it. When you watch a pro football game from the Crimean War general’s viewpoint of the press box, you can see what’s going to happen. On television, the quarterback peers out into the distance within the narrowed frame of the midfield camera and for a moment everything seems possible; the view can’t know if there’s a wide-open man fifty yards deep or if there is nothing ahead of Pennington but despair – four men crowding two receivers, who aren’t even bothering to wave their arms. The drama of the game on TV lies in finding out…If you’re watching live, Namath’s point comes home; on television you see free will instead of a series of forced choices, mostly bad. The quarterback, the gallant general, peering out, in command, becomes, in reality, a stitch in the pattern already woven, his fate nearly sealed before he gets to fiddle with it…The real excitement of the game on the field lies in the sudden moments of frenzied improvisation, most often by the linebackers and especially by the safeties, who on television mainly appear at the end of the play to make a shit or swipe vainly at a pass.
(Matt Henshon shares similar thoughts.)
Gopnik goes on to describe three ways of watching football: on TV, “Quarterback-centered…family entertainment;” on the field, a chaotic “black hole of heaving, battling bodies; and “the game as it has been presented, magnificently, by Ed Sabol and his family at N.F.L. Films”– of “frozen tundra” fame. But Gopnik leaves out a fourth, and perhaps the most sophisticated, manner of viewing: the EA Madden football video game. Last month the Washington Post described the growing sophistication of football fans as a result of Madden:
“I think the game has made a better-informed fan, a more sophisticated fan,” said Leo Kane, the NFL’s senior director for consumer products.
By giving its players entry to the playbooks and the details of defenses, the Madden game has narrowed what once was a daunting divide between those fans who had played football and those who never did. …”It allows you to understand the game of football rather than just throwing the football around the backyard,” said Alex Boyce, a junior at Georgetown Day School.
(Radio Open Source touched on similar themes in October.)
There may be a fifth way of watching football, the TIVO way, with the ability to re-watch certain plays and skip over commercials, official reviews, and the inanity of announcers. I pay more attention to the game when I’m actively involved with curating my viewing experience. Digital broadcasting allows the NFL and its broadcasters to go beyond the standard approach to covering games– an approach that, as Lewis and Gopnik note, limits us to following the ball and misses at least one-fifth of the players on each play. In Madden, I can choose the camera angle I want. Shouldn’t we have the option to watch the real games from an end-zone perspective, as Parcells and other coaches do on Monday morning? How about allowing us to follow Urlacher’s game through a helmet game? And, most importantly, could you give us an audio field that lets us hear the crowd and action on the field but blocks out the babble of the announcers?