Saturday, February 04, 2012

What's Wrong With the Pro Bowl

"I learned that he's very competitive. He wants to beat you at anything he plays you at"-- Wayne State football coach Paul Winters, speaking about Ashland head coach Lee Owens

"He’s very competitive. He wants to beat you at whatever he does.”-- Carey Suddoth, golf coach at Muleshoe (TX) high school, on then-senior Tyson Turnbow, a state qualifier in both golf and tennis

"She wants to beat you. Lexi is just a competitive little girl. That’s just her personality and that’s what we’ve instilled in her and I continue to see it manifest itself"-- West Ranch (CA) volleyball coach Troy Clewis on his daughter Alexi, noting "it doesn’t just apply to volleyball. [He] remembers his daughter showing the same kind of fierce desire when she was 6 years old playing chess, and again when she took up soccer, softball and basketball a few years later."

"Derrick Rose's competitive streak is always present. No matter what the game, the 22 year-old wants to beat you ... badly. 'I don’t [trash talk] in basketball, but any other thing, I’ll be talking smack, especially like ping pong or something like that...I could be playing cards, anything, I’ll be yelling.'"-- blog post on the Chicago Bulls guard

"That’s one of the reasons he is successful – he is just so competitive. It doesn’t matter what he’s doing, he just wants to beat you."-- Nevada high school basketball coach Greg Walker on then BYU guard Jimmer Fredette

"The thing I admire most about Joe is his competitiveness. He wants to beat you even if you're playing dominoes. Don't laugh. I've seen him keep a mutual friend of ours up practically all night playing dominoes because he wouldn't quit until he'd won"-- Pittsburgh Pirates star Willie Stargell on future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan in the December 1975 edition of Baseball Digest

I found all of the above quotations in just a few minutes via a Google search. I have followed sports most of my life, and I have heard some variation of the above quotation countless times. I grew up in the era of Michael Jordan's dominance, and got used to hearing folk tales about how he couldn't stand to lose, how he would bribe baggage handlers to make sure that his luggage came down the chute first. And so I internalized the belief that to be a successful professional athlete meant that one always played to win and couldn't stand to lose.

But this is completely bogus. Anybody who watched the NFL Pro Bowl last weekend could tell you that. The creme de la creme of professional football players played a game against each other, and it was apparent that few of them cared if they won or lost. Major League Baseball famously had the same problem of lack of competitiveness in their all-star game, and responded by providing an incentive to the winners (home field advantage in the World Series). There is a cash incentive for the winners of the Pro Bowl, but we are seeing that even that isn't enough to rile the supposedly competitive natures of these athletes. What happened to "he just wants to beat you at anything"? I think there are a couple of factors at work.

I look back on a now-embarrassing blog post that I wrote six years ago, in which I defended the Pro Bowl's honor, castigating the media for its false representation of the game. It wasn't always like it was this year. I'm not sure how much time and nostalgia have obscured my memory, but I honestly remember entertaining, competitive Pro Bowl games in the past. So does former coach Tony Dungy, who had this to say in response to this year's game: "I can remember the first one I coached in 1984. We had Kenny Easley and Howie Long and there were no free passes in that game. The defense came to play. Offensive guys knew it was like a regular game. I coached again in 1999 and (for) Randy Moss, it was I think his second Pro Bowl. He wanted the show the world he was the best player in football. You just had that competitiveness. I didn’t see that the other night, and I do hope that changes because it can be a great game."

But for the last several years the media narrative around the game is that it is a farce, that it doesn't matter, that nobody takes it seriously. I'm inclined to think that this became a prophetically fulfilling narrative. If you grow up hearing that a game is irrelevant, and then you are chosen to play in the game, what are the chances you will exert a competitive effort?

But one might question one element of my interpretation. Why would the media lie? If this truly was a good game, why did it receive the reputation that it was not? I think the key word is "narrative." I don't think sports fans are truly aware of the degree to which the sports media has forced them to contextualize the viewing experience. Is it possible to enjoy an NFL game in December between two teams that have been eliminated from play-off contention? What if it was a thrilling contest that saw four lead changes in the final two minutes? Of course it might provide a temporary thrill, but I think for most fans the overall effect would be one of emptiness. The game has been designated as "meaningless," since it no longer factors into the narrative structure that culminates in a Super Bowl. What this ignores, of course, is that all games are meaningless (which is why they are called "games" and not "life-altering contests").

The reoccurring debate about whether NFL teams chasing a perfect record should rest starters is not one that used to exist, because the pervasiveness of narrative did not used to exist. Even now, the debate is framed as a consideration of two competing narratives--whether a team should pursue an ultimate goal of a championship or of an all-time reckoning. But in the past, neither of these narratives would have factored. Each game was viewed as a singular entity, a competition in its own right, and that was enough intrinsic motivation to spur on competitiveness. The increased commercialization and media saturation of sports has conditioned participants to extrinsic motivations.

If we could somehow peel back the influence of context, if we could get back to an appreciation for the simple narrative of any one contest without needing to place it into some kind of overarching narrative, I think we would be pleasantly surprised by the product that would emerge (and not just in all-star games). We would truly see an environment where people on both sides of a ball would want nothing more than to just beat those on the other side.


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