Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Threat of Ocho Cinco

It wasn't too long ago that the Cincinnati Bengals offense was built around two Johnsons, running back Rudi and wide receiver Chad. In a whirlwind 24 hours, it appears they are now down to zero, after Rudi was cut and it was revealed that Chad legally changed his last name to his self-proclaimed nickname "Ocho Cinco" (after his jersey number).

While the story is still breaking as this is being written, I expect that the mainstream sports media will respond with swift disapprobation. I have already found one columnist who eloquently states "he's just plain dumb." We will hear the usual cliches about how he is detracting from the team by drawing attention to himself, how he is more interested in showboating than winning, etcetera, etcetera. Ocho Cinco provided fuel for their fire when he told the Bengals website "Have I ever had a reason for why I do what I do? I'm having fun." Of course, the same article heavily implies that Ocho Cinco's motivations are fiduciary, and they might well be.

But in a league where players are routinely evaluated on their marketing potential, and many are lauded for making themselves attractive brand names (think Brett Favre and Peyton Manning), why would a perceived cash grab necessarily raise the football establishment's ire? In short, what is it about the former Chad Johnson's approach that makes his way the "wrong way"?

To find the answer, I think we have to go all the way back to October 29, 2006. Johnson came out for pre-game warm-ups with his jersey nameplate displaying "Ocho Cinco" rather than the league-mandated "C. Johnson" (with the first initial to differentiate himself from teammate Rudi). His own teammate ripped off the offending nameplate, though he was still subjected to a league fine of $5,000, even though he didn't even wear it in a game.

I think this moment was highly significant. It has never quite been forgotten by NFL fans, and now this latest move ("Ocho Cinco 2.0" as the receiver himself terms it) can be seen as an escalation of that previous conflict. I find the name on the back of the jersey to be a highly symbolic and important site, where the very viability of the multi-billion dollar industry is asserted.

I've actually written before about what I perceive to be the odd practice of consumer investment in player jerseys. When people purchase this form of merchandise, they are actually negotiatiating a potential source of tension. Does one choose to represent identification with the (abstract) team, for which victory is desired, or the (concrete) player, who makes such a victory possible? The jersey, with the team identity on the front, and the individual identity on the back, represents a compromise between these potentially conflicting forces. The consumer finds a way to represent an allegiance to both.

However, it is worth pointing out that the jersey is part of something larger, not coincidentally called a "uniform." The league mandates that uniforms truly are uniform (with the NFL particularly notorious for their enforcement of these mandates), and that includes what should be displayed on the players' nameplate. Although historically nicknames have been a prevalent aspect of sports mythology, the Ocho Cinco incident emphatically reveals that they are not welcome on player jerseys.

To understand why the player nameplate is such an important site, and why the NFL feels so strongly about the need to maintain control over it, consider the case of the XFL. Pro wrestling mogul Vince McMahon's short lived professional football league attempted a business model predicated on building an alternative to the NFL model, one that involved deconstructing elements that the NFL had in effect sanctified. In other words, irreverence would be the order of the day. Whereas the NFL acquired the nickname "No Fun League" after cracking down on on-field celebrations, the XFL encouraged flamboyancy. Instead of the staid decorum in evidence for NFL games (think of the narrative voice of NFL Films), XFL PA Announcers engaged in "trash talk."

But if you ask any football fan their enduring memory of the XFL, or ask them to name an XFL player, odds are they will state, "He Hate Me," referencing the enigmatic jersey name worn by a player named Rod Smart. I will not go so far as to suggest that Smart's jersey doomed the league, but I will assert that it is symbolic of why the XFL failed. When we watch pro football, we want to forgot two things. First, we want to forget it is a game at all. We want to think that our three-hour time investment is a serious pursuit. Second, we want to forget that we are watching individuals who might want different identities for themselves than the ones we want them to have. It is okay for pro wrestling to deconstruct the definition of "sport" and blur the boundary between sports and entertainment. But when it comes to team sports like football, the practice of opening up the space on the back of a players' jersey to individual disposition is a dangerous proposition.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

On Chatter

In Gulliver's Travels, the titular hero becomes so enamored of a culture of anthropomorphic horses (the Houyhnhnms) that he becomes downright misanthropic towards his own race. One of the things he admires about the horses is that they don't talk unnecessarily. When conversing with each other, there are many long gaps while the principles think of something worthy to say. A couple centuries before postmodern philosophers started to speculate that we have meaningless conversations simply as a way to fill an empty void of existence (an idea perhaps best exemplified in literature by the plays of Samuel Beckett), Jonathan Swift was portraying the inanity of what we would call "chatter."

Personally, I don't spend a lot of time bemoaning the existence of "chatter" in face-to-face discourse. I see empty verbal gestures as necessary scaffolds to deeper interaction. Sometimes (perhaps often) these exchanges die without developing into anything meaningful, but sometimes a dialectical pattern emerges. What Swift may have overlooked is that inspiration is unpredictable-- one is just as likely to pull inspiration from a casual remark made by another than through a period of intense internal rumination.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that we consciously engage in chatter in order to commune profoundly. I'm more sympathetic to the notion that we engage in the process as a desperate attempt to escape boredom or avoid what our culture considers "awkwardness." Whatever the benefits or annoyances of the practice of chatter, I simply can not fathom the kind of culture that Swift envisions.

However, one would think that if fundamental elements of the communication process were altered, the cultural rules that mandate "chatter" would be thrust aside. For example, if interaction were no longer in real-time, if principles were no longer encumbered by physical proximity, or if anonymity would be enabled between communicants, wouldn't we able to dispel the notion that any comment is better than no comment? Wouldn't we at last be able to, in some arena, to realize Swift's vision and reserve our ability to make utterances only for occasions when we possessed something worth uttering?

Of course, anyone who has spent any substantial time on Internet forums knows that "chatter" is exponentially more inane on-line than in person. This seems especially egregious to me when the sublime and the ridiculous are juxtaposed. For example, a youtube video of a terrific Bob Dylan 1976 live performance inspired these comments:

Trust me I know Bob thinks you are a JERK!
Yep, just talked to Bob a few minutes ago and he said to tell you he thinks you are a supreme putz!

In the realm of politics, we get these comments on an Obama speech:

This video still blows me away.
I guess ignorance is bliss if people like you want bush and mccain.
In the name of Allah,
Hussein Obama (our MUSLIM brother) to win.
I remember during the Cold War when various agencies attempted to bring together "average" Americans and Soviets for dialogue. I wonder what such groups think of these comments on a news report about the Russia/Georgia showdown:

maybe this sounds stupid but what if The illuminati are trying to make their one world government (new order) and Russia is on their way ? Maybe thats why whole west is against Russia in almost all cases ?!
You keep referring to Americans as yanks what are you some British royal blood prince, if so tell queen "hi" from me?
besides your outnumbered navy will freeze in north atlantic ocean...
USSR? Is that the soviet union or russia you are talking about. However strong Russia and China army is they will always be weakened by their insidious governments compared to the democratic USA. Democracy means many things but the way USA does it is way better than Russia and China. Georgia will win this war over South Ossetia in the long run.
USA ненавидят его, потому что они лежат alot общественности и делают войну для нефти., я надеюсь, что российские люди не ненавидят граждан США для действия кустарника к миру. потому что, если кустарник делает войну тогда, все мы умираем в мировой войне 3.мир от людей от usa может все мы жить в мире
At the end of his adventures, Gulliver chose to sequester himself from humankind, because his own people reminded him too much of a debased race in the land of the Houyhnhnms. Incidentally, it was Swift's term for this race that inspired a couple Stanford students working on an Internet search engine in 1994. Jerry Yang and David Filo could perhaps only guess at the appropriateness of changing the name of their project from "Jerry's Guide to the World Wide Web" to "Yahoo."

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Why We Love the Olympics

Given the national zeitgeist, I am almost compelled to explore another aspect of the Olympics this week. Even before the initial TV ratings were released earlier this week, I noticed anecdotal evidence that interest in the Games were up. (Anybody notice that everybody's Facebook status last week had something to do with the Olympics?)

I recently read a newspaper column which listed possible reasons for the upswing in ratings, and I was pleased to see that they basically matched my list: The Phelps factor, the increase in live events on NBC, and the increase in breadth of coverage on NBC. I remember being incredibly frustrated in 2004 that America was shut out of on-line streaming of events (due to NBC's decision not to exercise their exclusive rights). This time around, that has been rectified.

Although I haven't encountered anyone else who has watched an entire Team USA baseball game on the computer (and I think NBC could do a little bit more to promote their on-line streams), I think the coverage options offered by NBC, their cable networks, and their website, have succeeded in raising interest in the Olympics by managing to tap into two opposite trends in American culture.

First, Olympic coverage is perfect for the "channel surfing" or "A.D.D." aspect of American consumption. We don't even have to channel surf from sport to sport-- they do it for us! It has been exhilarating at times to go from live gymnastics to the aquatic center for swimming to the beach for volleyball and back. Many of the events don't require huge time or intellectual investments. The Michael Phelps races only demand a couple of minutes of emotional investment, and not a whole lot of depth of understanding. Yes, the dolphin kick is something that can be analyzed, but ultimately it's relatively mindless to sit there and watch who is swimming faster. And the gymnastics competitions "channel surf" themselves: a couple minutes on floor exercise, over to vault, over to beam, and back. Throw in a few Bob Costas interviews to decompress between the minutes of intensity and NBC has stumbled onto a winning formula.

Yet at the same time Americans have been conditioned to flit from one stimulation to another, we have evolved in our demands as to what I call a "suitable portion." Much has been made of the increase in restaurant food portions over the years (and corresponding growth in waistlines), but this is indicative of the American cliche of "more bang for your buck." I can't help but notice that the run time for concerts from the 1960s and 70s on are significantly less than would be expected by concert-goers today (Springsteen shows notwithstanding). The highest grossing film of the 1990s (Titanic) is about 70 minutes longer than the highest grossing film of the 1970s (the original Star Wars). With NBC upping their total coverage from a then-record 1210 hours of coverage in 2004 to 3600 hours this year, we finally have supply to meet our prodigious demands.

When you consider that there are 10,500 athletes competing in 302 events in 28 sports, spread out in such a way that we can channel surf among them, there is little wonder we have a cultural phenomenon.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A New Olympiad: A Proposal

The Olympic Games have been a constant reality of life for almost everyone on this planet. The importance of the Games obviously varies for each individual, but I'd venture to say that no one alive remembers what life was like before there was an Olympics. It has always been there.

Consequently, it is easy to lose sight of how remarkable they really are. The concept of taking the very best athletes on the planet in multiple sports, putting them in one location for two weeks, and having them compete against each other is something that would be, if not for the fact that we see it done every couple of years, preposterous. And if not for the reality of the situation asserting itself biennially, it would sound more like a hypothetical scenario that a couple people would concoct in a bar after tipping a few too many back.

Certainly the Olympics aren't and haven't been perfect: political boycotts, interruption due to war, doping, bribery, and corruption have all been a part of its past, and there is no reason to assume problems won't arise in the future. However, given the political realities of the last 112 years, the Games probably stand as the greatest example of global cooperation and unity over that span. It is perhaps ironic that only competition can bring out cooperation, but it makes sense that given the mostly objective nature of sports, a set of rules and regulations can be more or less agreed upon by people of vastly different cultures and persuasions.

Still, if something as improbable as a global sports competition can be achieved, it gives one hope that other improbable achievements are attainable. Some hold out hope that the Olympics presage some kind of future in which wars are obsolete and the nations of this world co-exist in harmony. That would be nice, but I'd settle for another couple weeks of entertainment every few years. With that in mind, what are some possibilities for global events that could be scheduled during the Olympic off years?

Staying in the realm of competition, it would seem natural to balance competitions of the body with competitions of the mind. The problem with this is that intellectual contests don't make for great spectator events. Furthermore, true intellectual triumphs require weeks, months, and years of gradual progress for breakthroughs to develop. So as tempting as it would be to pit American versus Russian versus Japanese scientists in a single venue and tell them to race to develop an alternative to fossil fuels, it might be better to let the process play out naturally. And finally, the Nobel Prizes already exist as a sort of "Olympics of Science" right down to the awarding of actual medals, and the Nobel ceremonies don't get great ratings.

The next thought is a kind of artistic competition. Unfortunately, this has already been tried. Yes, at one time you could actually win an Olympic gold in sculpture. This is not a bad idea in theory, but given the subjective nature of art, and cultural variation in ideas about what makes good art, it is hard to see this ever making a comeback. Also, though the actual products of art could perhaps be enjoyed by spectators, the process of composing the works of art doesn't lend itself to great television.

But all hope is not lost. There is a relatively new invention that could be unified under a global organizing body: reality television.

I've never actually watched an episode of Survivor, but I would be tempted to tune in to see how an American would fare on an island populated by a representative of each country of the G8. I've never watched an episode of The Amazing Race, but I think the show would actually live up to its name if it had a team from every country in the world. I've never watched The Mole, but the prospect of adding international intrigue may compel me to tune in. I'm thinking you could perhaps up the ante by putting seats on the U.N. Security Council up as stakes. Though the concept of World Idol apparently fell flat a couple years back, incorporating it into an Olympiad of Reality Shows would likely revive the concept. You could also have grand versions of Wife Swap in which world leaders would trade countries for a week, or The Biggest Loser in which nations would compete to trim deficits.

However, my proposal would probably require a slight modification to the Olympic Motto ("Citius, Altius, Fortius"). One needn't be faster, higher, or stronger to compete in these games. I wonder what the Latin is for "more entertaining."

Thursday, August 07, 2008

As the World Turns

"It was a great soap opera"- Brett Favre

Favre was far from the first person to describe the events of the past several weeks as a soap opera. In fact, it became a bit of a cliche (right up there with the "messy divorce" metaphor that Mark Murphy felt compelled to contribute at the press conference announcing Favre's trade from Green Bay).

The Favre story, as prominent and unique as it as been, is far from the only event that has been designated a "soap opera" by the very media which perpetuates it. The O.J. Simpson case famously became a "soap opera" (when it wasn't a "media circus"). But it's not just football players who become real life soap operas: witness Scott Peterson, the Menendez Brothers, Monica Lewinsky, even Saddam Hussein. In fact, most national media stories about personalities have probably been termed by someone as a national soap opera.

But what exactly made it a "soap opera" instead of a simple narrative (or "story" if you will)? And what does it take for a saga to gain such a distinction? Furthermore, why does the association automatically acquire a negative connotation, when it necessarily also means that people are more interested in the story than they otherwise would be?

Here is one possible list of "ingredients" necessary for a story to attain "soap opera" status:

1. Protracted length: this is perhaps where news "soap operas" most closely resemble television soap operas as opposed to other narratives-- they drag out interminably.
2. Reversals of fortune: Favre is out, he's in, he's out, he's in...
3. Melodrama: Drama built on emotion rather than other dynamics. Think of the last couple times that Favre has most been in the national spotlight: his tearful retirement ceremony and his performance after his father's death.
4. Ambiguous designation of guilt: It is no coincidence that many of the "national soap operas" revolve around criminal trials, the ultimate forum for determining guilt. Yet we are drawn more to those that involve some degree of uncertainty. Even in the cases of O.J. and Scott Peterson, though the principle "characters" became mostly reviled, they maintained a strong charisma that made the assignation of guilt problematic. In the Favre saga, opinion polls were constantly being administered in Wisconsin to determine who the "bad guys" were---with the results constantly shifting depending on who gave the last interview.
5. Competing narratives: The truth is elusive in these real-life narratives, enabling the public to debate internally which version is the more likely.
6. Relatability (conscious or not): The more that a story has elements of psychological or sociological points of tension, the more likely it will become a public phenomena. The O.J. Simpson case became as much about race in America as about the guilt of an ex-football player. The Monica Lewinsky scandal turned into a national discussion on sexual mores. The Brett Favre story? A clear cautionary tale about workplace relations.

Speaking of Monica Lewinsky, she was improbably quoted in the Los Angeles Times in 1991 as saying that Days of Our Lives added "spice" to our lives. Along with the common description of soap operas as "juicy" and my own use of the word "ingredients" above, it becomes apparent that our "consumption" of soap operas is in a sense gastronomical. It bypasses out brains and heads straight for our bellies. And we all know what happens to food after that.

Yet whereas too much junk food is a bad thing, obviously some food is necessary for sustenance. Do we need these soap operas to live? Perhaps not in a physical sense, but in another way, does societal interest in narratives that involve complicated matters of judgment and morality constitute enervation or vitality?