Sunday, January 09, 2011

Can You Tell the Names Without a Program?

I realize that I have written at least in part about the NFL two weeks in a row, and I steadfastly want my blog to have a diversity of content, but I couldn't help but be inspired to write about NFL Commisioner Roger Goodell's missive to the American public. Despite being an avid sports fan, I've never been too bothered by work stoppages. The first I can remember was the 1987 NFL strike, and I had a blast rooting for the Packers scab team. Guys like Alan Risher, Jim Bob Morris, and Max Zendajas actually made my favorite team more competitive than the "A" team was. When the baseball strike came in August 1994, the Brewers were already out of the pennant race, so no harm done. The NBA lockout of 1998-99 simply cut down on the most irrelevant regular season in sports, and since I have never watched an NHL regular season game start to finish, I barely noticed when they cancelled a season.

But now that the Packers are good, I've got to admit that the prospect of losing part or all of a season next fall doesn't sit well with me. It's got me searching for alternatives. I know that in lieu of work stoppages, sometimes unions elect to take "job actions," such as when teachers refuse to do any work outside of their regular contract day. But given that the threat to football is from management and not the union, is there anything that owners could do short of a lockout that would have any impact whatsoever on players' willingness to make concessions?

Actually, owners may not be fully cognizant of the tremendous power they wield over players ability to capitalize on their fame. The player's association has a licensing arm, but ultimately it is the teams' P.R. and media relations staff that disseminate the information that makes players famous, and the league that chooses to put faces in commercials. But I'm guessing that there is nothing in the collective bargaining agreement that mandates that players be identified. What if the league kept the identities of their employees secret?

At first, such a notion sounds absurd. Who wouldn't recognize Tom Brady or Peyton Manning when they drop back to pass? But if you take names off of the back of jerseys, mandate that broadcast partners refer to players by uniform number rather than name, refrain from releasing individual statistics or recognizing records, and stop all marketing related to individual players, what would the net effect be? Hidden behind their helmets, the vast majority of NFL players already toil in some degree of anonymity. Make anonymity the ethos of the league, and would things actually be that different? Fantasy players would initially object, but would drafting jersey numbers really pose that much of a problem for their hobby? Independent journalists would undoubtedly publish leaked rosters, but if there was a cultural shift away from emphasizing names, would people make attempts to reference them while watching games?

Off field behavior of athletes is already considered by many to be problematic, as young people are given dubious role models to look up to. But if the player is reduced to a number, their behavior outside the lines is suddenly completely and wholly irrelevant to the public at large. And there would be no possibility of a Brett Favre circus ever again. One nameless Green Bay quarterback would succeed another, with no need for fans to reassess loyalties.

Chuck Klosterman writes that "The reason the NFL is so dominant is because the NFL is basically Marxist." It's certainly odd to posit that management is on the side of the great champion of workers of the world. Klosterman is referring to the way that NFL owners have historically played nice with each other, sharing their revenues as a means to drive up total revenue for everybody. Undoubtedly, the current attempt by the NFL owners to renegotiate the way that revenue is shared between management and workers is anything but Marxist. But if owners removed identities from their workers, wouldn't that ironically serve to institute the great Marxist ideal of egalitarianism? Football has always been referred to as the ultimate team sport--how much more so if it would become so much about the team that the individual wholly and completely ceased to matter?

And that of course is why such an idea would never work. As much as we pay lip service to the notion that football is all about team, at its core we still care about the people on the team. Every game is actually a mass of simultaneous games--the "big game" is the one that we objectively measure on the scoreboard, but there are dozens of smaller games going on within this larger contest, games that are more subjective in how they are evaluated, more about ego and personal accomplishment than team successes, and games where the winners' rewards are enumerated on paychecks rather than trophies. Occasionally, such games even spill out of the stadium and seep into boardrooms and offices. And when they do, the fans are the ones that lose.


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