For better or for worst, the National Football League (NFL) currently occupies a very large space in the U.S.’s public consciousness and popular culture. The sheer time and energy spent by both sports media and fandom alike on this sport, alone, justifies its focus as a site of U.S. cultural study. The license to televise the sport generates more than $2 billion a year for the league while its broadcasts are repeatedly high in traditional television ratings, and its official apparel offerings are gobbled up to the point that the league has stepped up efforts to market to women. In simple summation – the NFL is a seemingly infallible sport whose fandom never seems to decrease their collective appetite for more athletic competition. However, there is more going on here beyond the NFL’s self-serving narrative; a more interesting tale that can only be told when we insert Baudrillard’s unique perspective (pictured at the beginning of this post).
Baudrillard believes that as we moved from a modern to a postmodern world the existing boundary between image or simulation and reality is imploded. This new era is one of simulation where computerization and information processing replaces production as the organizing principle of our society. So, just how do Baudrillard’s thoughts pertain to the U.S.’s voracious appetite for the game of professional football? Well, the traditional narrative told by the NFL to fandom goes something like this: “the game of U.S. professional football is very exciting to watch – fans in the stands knew this for years (see image 1). Then, when television came of age, Pete Rozelle saw its potential to translate this inherently dynamic athletic competition to a wider audience. He was correct and for the past 55 years (since the 1958 NFL Championship Game) the audience has continued to both recognize and be awed by the broadcast of this inherently exciting game of football.”
However, the truth is actually a much more interesting and complex tale than just this Rozelle/Sabol story. Watching a game of football from the stands can be exciting as you are swept up in the wave of crowd emotions punctuated by a few unexpected or exciting plays. Ever since the Nielsen ratings validated Rozelle’s decision to push his league on to the television screen (and securely for the league regular financial windfalls from television networks), the game is really not played for those who are physically present. Of course, the league enjoys the proceeds from parking, ticket sales (especially VIP boxes), merchandise, and concessions – which for some larger market teams such as the Dallas Cowboys – stadium income can get into the hundreds of millions of dollars. This is no small chunk of change to be sure – but it pales in comparison to the $2 billion per year for television licensing rights. Here’s another way to think about it – for whom does “the action” stop during a game? It stops when the man wearing the bright orange oven mitts waves his hands – he’s telling everybody they need to take a break for television – no matter whether the fan who is physically present and watching the game wants them to or not.
The 1990s saw two very important events occur that helped transform the NFL from a modern sport into a postmodern product: the May 6, 1993 labor agreement and the July 12, 1994 hiring of Sara Levinson as the new president of NFL properties. We’ll deal with the labor agreement a little later, but Ms. Levinson’s (former co-president of MTV) hiring was a deliberate strategy to both consider and revive the NFL as a product that needed to appeal outside its then current primary demographic: aging men who either grew up alongside the maturing NFL or those whose fathers, older brothers or uncles had passed down the ritual of watching the NFL to them. If the NFL wanted to survive long-term it needed to re-invent itself in order to compete against video games, movies, amusement parks, and other sports for the always desired 18-34 year olds’ disposable income. It is these moves during the early 1990s that paved the way for what Baudrillard would call the hyperreal NFL of today – namely EA’s Madden NFL video game franchise.
A little earlier in this essay, I outlined the common narrative given by the NFL regarding its popularity and relationship to television. If we were to continue this narrative, it would say something like “and because television broadcasts of the NFL were so popular, video games now attempt to simulate those broadcasts, and these games have proven to be both very popular and lucrative.” This narrative may have been correct during the 1980s and 1990s, but today it is the exact opposite that is occurring: the simulation itself is what is “real” and in fact television is attempting to mirror or mimic a video game. So, from Baudrillard’s perspective, it is not a physical football game that is real but the Madden video game that is real (see figure 1 below).
If you watch an NFL broadcast on ESPN, NBC, or FOX you are instantly inundated with a plethora of graphic-based information, database-driven statistics, computer-augmented colors, and iris-ed up camera brightness, and increases in ability to score points that add up to being “realer than real.” The perspective you take as viewer follows this logic as the new Skycams mimic the Madden form of the NFL providing camera angles beyond the natural observer’s perspective (see image 2 below). While the Madden franchise’s total overall revenue of $3 billion since its inception doesn’t compare to decades worth of television licensing revenue, it’s still a significant amount of revenue and influence on the coveted youth demographic the NFL can’t ignore. When you add to these observations the television network’s habit of fragmenting and summarizing geography through its selective city amalgamations during their broadcasts (e.g. Philadelphia is ONLY the Art Museum and Geno’s cheese steaks and they seem to be right next to each other) you reach a simulation that has blurred with the real to become hyperreal. Within the actual broadcast itself, major television network game announcers actually ignore details of the game itself so they are not distracted from pre-agreed upon story-points established in production meetings prior to the contest.
The result is a television broadcast attempting to replicate EA’s interactive form of football that focuses more on personalities involved in soap-opera type drama that rarely connects to the action occurring on the field. On interpretation is that the actual contest of competitive football is as traditional understood so boring or trite at this point that the hyperreal version is preferred by gamer, television audience, and television producer alike. Football as a concept is today a hyperreal simulation and a television program first whose weekly subject matter is only marginally related to a sport’s “x’s and o’s”. This is not your father’s modern football; welcome to the postmodern NFL.
What is the architecture and origins of a scholar? Who really put in the time, caring, and quality of thought to build each of us? These are the questions that led me construct this relatively simple “intellectual family tree” for myself. The first important note is that it is not (nor should it ever be) complete. It is simply a road map for me to refer to in order to see where I’ve been and perhaps clue me in on where I might be headed. Truth be told, this particular collection of individuals may also be held by others in my various cohorts who attended the same public schools and private colleges. Also, there are many more who played there role and their exclusion here is neither deliberate nor malicious. The scholars and educators on this chart are simply those who influenced me the most at a particular stage in my life or career. The foundation is at the bottom and it is a strong one – Martha Christine – working upwards through Sam Creyer in high school, Asma at Ithaca, David at CSUN, and currently Susan and Jack at Rutgers. This list will be added to in the future and in those returns, I will mostly likely provide further comment and reflection on certain individuals. Most likely when (as we do with road maps) I’ve gotten myself lost and need a little direction.
The Game is a Matter of Inches (Silly Statistics)
Former Oakland Raiders coach and broadcaster John Madden once said, “inch for inch, Flutie in his prime was the best QB of his generation.” While the exact citation for this utterance may be temporally lost to history, and Madden supposedly was referring to Doug’s CFL days AND we know John Madden is known to be given to hyperbole, it nonetheless got me thinking: was Madden correct? If measured “inch for inch,” would Doug Flutie stand above (statistically) his generational peers? Either way, it gives us a chance to engage in some silly statistics.
There are two small hurdles we have to clear before we reveal the statistical results: who is included in the term “generation” and do we include Flutie’s CFL stats? Checking with the good people at Merriam-Webster.com, we have two definitions applicable to our question:
1b. a group of individuals born and living contemporaneously
2. the average span of time between the birth of parents and that of their offspring
It would be pointless to use the second definition since we’d be including every great QB from various decades, and as much as I admire Doug, I know without looking at silly statistics that he was not better than Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, etc. So, we’ll go with the 1b definition but narrow it even further to Doug’s draft class since we tend to compare the same positions within the same draft class quite often (in this case QBs). The table below lists Flutie’s draft class from NFL.com’s archive for 1985 with some choice player statistics.
*NOTE: Yellow highlight signifies leader in a particular column
Reading our chart above, we instantly see that Bernie Kosar provided the most “inches per year played” at 6.4” for those 1985 quarterbacks who played for more than five years. Doug is only fifth with 3.3” (though his relatively fewer inches are stretched across the most seasons). Mr. Kosar also gives us the most playoff wins (and least number of playoff losses) for his prototypical 6’4” stature (Doug had zero playoff wins).
However, it is actually Randall Cunningham (coincidentally the QB I grew up watching in the late 80s and early 90s) who “inch-for-inch” dominates in these select categories. Randall may give away one inch to Bernie, but Randall gave us four total Pro-Bowl appearances to Bernie’s one (tied with Doug and Steve Bono). Mr. Cunningham also leads by holding one 1st team all-pro (the rest had none).
Now, let’s get to the all-important question that is on every draft-day war room’s mind: “How many yards thrown will I be getting for every inch of QB I draft?” (because remember, every GM wants value on their money spent). The answer for 1985 is hands down Randall Cunningham at a stunning 394 yards thrown per inch. Doug comes in third here at only 210 yards thrown per inch. I know what you’re thinking – yards are nice, but what about TDs? Mr. Cunningham wins this competition too – at 2.7 TDs thrown per inch (unfortunately – because I’m a big fan – Dough is once again third with 1.2 TDs thrown per inch). For those of you hoping “number of games won per inch” might save Boston College’s favorite son, you’re out of luck there too. Randall gave us a little over one game won per inch followed by Bernie (0.68) and once again in third Doug at 0.54 games won per inch.
So as much as I love and respect Doug Flutie the football player for embodying the type of competitor spirit, football smarts, and desire to win any coach would kill for, unfortunately Mr. Madden is incorrect (silly statistically speaking) when he uttered “inch for inch, Doug Flutie is the best quarterback of his generation.” I think that’s something fans in Philly and Cleveland probably already knew – but my Flutie Flakes lovin’ heart just will never accept those silly statistics. Besides, we haven’t even mentioned the three CFL championships, the hail-mary, the drop-kick, the magic Buffalo season….