Saturday, February 02, 2008

How One Word Changed the (Sports) World

One of the prevailing philosophies in academia today is that language creates culture, rather than the other way around. I'm not sure if this is the case across the board in every aspect of human life, but I realized this week that there is a good example of this being the case in the world of sports.

A year and a half ago I wrote an essay about sporting cultural differences between America and Europe. If Plaxico Burress were a European soccer player, nobody would have cared that he predicted that his team would win a game. While you could analyze a number of cultural variables as to why American football players have this taboo but European "football" players don't, I think it comes down to one thing: Joe Namath was born in America. And it's not that Joe Namath predicted his team would win. Had he said "I think we are the better team and we will beat the Colts" on that January day in 1969, our American sports culture would be fundamentally different today. But he said "We're going to win the game. I guarantee it."

And just like that, for the last 40 years, that word has been a specter that haunts every athlete who is asked to assess his team's potential in any game. The word is almost tangible during Super Bowl week. When Rodney Harrison made the mistake of "guaranteeing" that the Patriots wouldn't play as bad as they did in their Week 17 victory against the Giants, media reports suggested that he was making a "roundabout" guarantee of victory.

Ever since Namath backed up his guarantee, there have been numerous "guarantees," all of them generating attention. For one example, back in 1994, a Falcons/Rams regular season game got more scrutiny than it ever would have because Andre Rison guaranteed a Falcons win (he backed it up, as it were).

What is often overlooked is that the word as applied to these athletic contests is a misnomer. Nobody is going to give fans a refund if their "guarantee" isn't uphold. Since there are no negative repurcucions, it should hardly be called a guarantee. Yet tradition is a strong force in sports, perhaps only second to mythology. Namath's quote immediately became part of the latter.

Or more accurately, it didn't immediately become myth. He had to win the game first. Even then, the only thing that made it myth was that it took the place of existing myths. The vast majority of Greek myths are constructed around a simple formula: a person gets too enamored with themselves and their abilities, and they are punished. When Namath wasn't punished for his hubris, and in fact was rewarded for it, it was irreconciable with the moral lessons Western culture had inculcated for millenia. This created a tension, but also a demand for the circumstance to be repeated. It seemed to good to be true. It would have to be tested again and again. Never mind that returns are diminishing. There can never be a "guarantee" as powerful as the first, but as long as games are played, there will be an attempt to replicate it. And when you have two weeks to kill between the conference championships and the Super Bowl, it's irresistible for the culture makers (in this case the sports media) to not try to re-animate the myth.

As for Broadway Joe himself, after changing the course of an entire culture with one utterance, he should have quit while he was ahead. "I want to kiss you" just doesn't have the same potency.


Post a Comment

<< Home