Archive for October, 2012

What That Replacement Refs Debacle Says about Sports Today

Two weeks into the return of the official referees of the National Football League, we find ourselves relatively back to normal, after a delightfully blown call in the Packers/Saints game. No one’s perfect. It’s more a win in unionized labor than whatever the “integrity” of the game is.

Replacement Refs

But what that three-week experiment showed me was surprising, to say the least. Five things I learned from referee lockout and the aftermath of the whole debacle:

1) Football commentary is terrible because it’s geared around attracting new fans, not keeping old one.

I’m reminded of an episode of King of the Hill, in which Hank catches his son, Bobby, watching football on a display TV in a department store. Hank and his buddies, stunned that his boy is vaguely expressing interest in the “manly” sport that he never did up until this point, go through hell-and-high-water to make the game as interesting as possible so Bobby doesn’t lose his budding fascination. The actions Hank and company perform are silly, outrageous, over-the-top, and stupid. But, they work.

Football (and sports, in general) commentary are essentially Hank and his crew. Sports commentary seems terrible and stupid because the people who write/complain about it are already fans of the sport in question. They aren’t going anywhere. Modern commentary and their over-reliance on gimmicks, graphics, exposition, and repetition is for the newbie, the semi-casual fan who perks up at Mike Ditka’s “Stop It!” segment or smirk ironically at Fox’s robot, Cletus, or grin at whatever Chris Berman does. These are people who never really seen these cliches before, so they’re new, fresh, and enticing. Once you learn about the sport, however, it’s mind-numbing.

I would bet that the networks put pressure on the NFL to solve the dispute. The Packers/Seattle game, in which the replacement refs blew a call in the final play, had fans screaming out “BULLSHIT!” for essentially the entire fourth quarter. Unable to censor live-TV, this must have sent NBC into a tailspin, with CBS and ABC and Disney-owned ESPN very concerned about parents and their curious children peeking in to watch this “football” thing. Sports fans are passionate; that could quickly have escalated into more egregious curse words and, worst of all, visual acts of violence, Europe-soccer style. The NFL knew this all too well. It’s a perpetual fan-generating machine, and it can’t afford to lose that potential fanbase so easily.

2) “Jocks” are more internet savvy and internet vocal than ever before.

The internet was, is, and always will be, a geek’s medium. And I mean that lovingly. But the fallout of the replacement refs had consequences that went beyond the kind of response that the player/owner lockouts have had in the past. At worst, there are just no games. But in this case, football fans took to Facebook, Twitter, Gawker – and even 4Chan to express their discontent. Memes and Youtube parodies sprang up all over the place. Even people who never expressed interest in football came out and said, “Yeah, you guys fucked up.” It was surprising to see that kind of internet response that’s usually reserved for geek-related bombshells within the realms of comics, movies, video games, or TV.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, though, since former Arizona Cardinal’s Coach Dennis Green’s rant and Allen Iverson’s “Practice” screed, both have high view numbers on Youtube. Still, to actually distill it into the more geekier aspects of the web is worth noting. Both of the above points lead to my next observation:

3) More people understand (and care about) the nuances of sports than we thought.

Sports tend to get a certain amount of cynicism, even from its most enthusiastic fans. Football is nothing but a bunch of people in tights hitting each other. Baseball is boring. Soccer is really boring. Basketball is too “hip-hop.” And so on. But even in the midst of those criticisms (which I’ll admit, to a point, are correct), people still care about the sport and that the rules, explicit or implicit, are followed. I suppose that is what was meant with the phrase “integrity of the sport,” but it’s a bit more than that. People may not like these rules but they defend them to the death, especially if refs uphold them in one game, but ignore them in another. I spent a bit of time reading causal fans explain the difference between a “catch” and “possession.” I learned about what the refs could have and should have done to overturn the call. Commentary, which was mostly ignored up until this point, became the thing on everyone’s mind. ESPN got huge ratings in the post-Simultaneous Misreception (aka, the “Fail Mary,” a perfectly-suited internet nomenclature), where all they DID was talk about the missed catch. It was fascinating to watch the trainwreck take a life of its own. Oh, and speaking of which:

4) Trainwrecks are universally entertaining.

Well, the core of this statement is obvious. But given enough understanding and explanation, all trainwrecks can be understood and enjoyed by all. Gabe Newell’s inability to count to 3 may not make sense until you realize that he seems incapable of making the third game of his Half-Life series. Likewise, the internet response helped people who knew little about football come to a fascinating understanding of what occurred. This Google Image search of “replacement refs meme” showcases some of the most hilarious image macros around, and people who have little interest in football would have to laugh. I’m particularly fond of the word “Stop” spelled “Staup”. But disasters are always great to see take off online, and the congregation of information makes it possible to enjoy the disaster in all of its internet-based exaggerations.

5) Labor unions are still important to protecting a skilled trade.

This may seem like a stretch here, since we’re talking about a sport and a random play at the end of a random game, but it shows that organized labor really isn’t just a bunch of people clinging to each other demanding random concessions. These are people who are highly skilled and are very important, a fact that spreads across the organized labor spectrum – car workers, teachers, writers/actors, and so on. Not every industry or corporation needs a union sect, but it’s important to remember that it is very, very easy for employers, who are beholdened to stockholders, owners, managers, executives (AKA, non-employees), to manipulate things in favor towards those above them, not below. The majority of the issues behind the referee lockout was over pensions; in a billion-dollar business, it seems ridiculous that this was the case. But that’s exactly the point; in a billion-dollar business, it “shouldn’t” have been the case.




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The Beauty and Art of Screwing Up

Phyllis Diller died a few weeks ago, and in memorandum, a tweet was sent out linking her to a Muppets performance, where she played a saxophone to upbeat version of a familiar ragtime diddy:

Let’s be honest here. Diller isn’t good with her mini-saxophone. From a musical standpoint, she pretty much messes up every time she plays, and it’s very, very noticeable.

But watch Diller’s face and expression. She doesn’t care. She KNOWS she’s not doing well. I especially love how much she gets into playing poorly towards the end, mugging for the camera with the classic showmanship that a talented stage presence can muster. It gets the crowd going, and it gets her going. She messes up, but she messes up with class.

The old adage, “if you mess up, mess up big” doesn’t seem to apply here. In the 70s, if you messed up, you messed up with grace and charm. Diller doesn’t mug harder or begin to overdo her musical prowess. She lets the moment speak for itself. She lets the audience enjoy it for what it is. Messing up and playing through it is truly a real skill, and Diller does not disappoint.

Watch an old episode of Match Game. Watch this awesome interview with Tom Waits. Watch any episode of The Carol Burnett Show. The charisma of the actors simply playing the moment is all that’s needed to entertain the audience. Match Game is particularly interesting, since it almost seems like the celebrities have little to no interest in actually help the contestants win, nor do they have any real desire to play up certain gags and moments to get a rise out of the audience – unlike Hollywood Squares, which reeks of pre-written, hammy gags for the celebrities to perform. Comparing the two, it’s almost sad.

Why is this? Partly, it’s stylistic. “Raw and gritty,” staples of 70s hard-boiled entertainment, wasn’t just regulated to dramas. Humor and comedy also benefited from that raw and gritty aesthetic that the audience, frankly, expected. It’s a style that only the best performers and hosts can walk sans flop-sweat or jitters, especially in trying to power through the actual meat-and-potatoes of an actual skit. Compare that Muppets video to pretty much any Saturday Night Live skit starring Jimmy Fallon. While he may have found his niche in hosting late night, his inability to hold in his laughter essentially ruined skits, but as a greater affront, he had no stage presence to control the ruined skit without his stammering reflecting his fucking up – unlike Diller, who poorly plays that saxophone with the discipline of a master. I’d rather watch her screw up at a thousand things then watch Fallon struggle through another mediocre SNL bit. (SNL, in fact, seemed to have issues with its players powering through non-winning skits, but that’s a write-up for another day.)

It’s rare these days to find an entertainer that can work with ease and comfort in front of an audience, whether a routine goes swimmingly or erupts in flames. It takes a real skill to screw up and make it look wonderful – to be high, or drunk, or on drugs, or just not very good at all, and still win over the crowd with sheer charisma.



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