This is not a sports post.
It is, however, a post about the Super Bowl.
Ok, maybe it is a little bit of a sports post, but I don't have anything to say about the game, the players, tactics or stats, legacies, or any of that. Maybe this isn't a sports post exactly, but a post about our society and the way we engage with and around athletic competitions.
More specifically, this is a post about how the nature of societal engagement is changing in our increasingly digitally embedded culture.
I have written before about my infatuation (obsession) with the phenomenon that is athletics in our contemporary society. I got my last two degrees from an institution of higher learning that had nothing but disdain for sports, and I regularly hang out with workaholic types who view the entire sports world as a vapid waste of productivity cycles that could have been spent building a spreadsheet or something. As a result I have frequently found myself as a kind of sports apologist trying to explain why so many of us are so enmeshed in athletic contests featuring people we are unlikely to ever even meet, much less have a significant personal relationship with.
This is not a post about that, although it is about that a little.
Mostly, I want to talk about how incredible it was to experience the Super Bowl Half-Century Extravaganza (SBHCE). I mean, sure, there are all the regular things about these kind of events that reaffirm my belief that certain sports days should be national holidays: namely the gathering together with friends and/or family, coupled with the copious food and alcohol consumption.
The SBHCE was a different sort of experience than just watching a game. In fact, the game might have been the least engaging part of the experience for the vast majority of us.
So, I don't know if you've heard, but on January 13th, 2016, the United States government gave away 1.6 billion dollars in the largest cash lottery in recorded history.
Actually, I'm not sure how you could have not heard. Maybe you could have been in the midst of a month long information fast, hiding in cupboard somewhere? It was on almost every television channel, people speculating about the odds, tracking celebrity ticket purchases, and, in small mostly ignored pockets of the conversation, some people even wondering if a wildly fluctuating revenue source like a lottery is really the best way to fund education.
It seemed like everywhere I went people were talking about the lottery. Walking down the alley to my apartment I overheard two disheveled smokers debating whether they would take the 30 year annuity or the lump sum. On Facebook people were committing (or pretending commitment) to share their winnings with everyone who liked or shared their post.
Maybe you bought a ticket, or even a couple. I saw one guy who was really excited about the 540 tickets that he bought. If you did buy a ticket, the chances are pretty good that you didn't win. You might still be a little despondent about those little balls not bouncing your way. You don't need to be.
Because losing that lottery could be the best thing to happen to you this year.
Alright, I've been putting it off for long enough. It's time to start writing about what I really want to be writing about. Don't get me wrong, I love sports, and I love fiction, and I love writing about sports and writing about writing fiction (and writing ficiton).
This website isn't called A Hitchiker's Guide to Reality (the GUIDE for short) because of my thoughts about sports and fiction.
Alright then, Ryan, you might be thinking, why is it called A Hitchhiker's Guide to Reality?.
Well, I have been working my way through the various layers of the GUIDE for several years now, but I think it it all really started while I was in college the first time through. I was working as a youth pastor when I had a startling realization.
I realized that I was wildly out of my depth. I had no idea either what I was doing, or what I was supposed to be doing. Some of you might even know how that feels.
Do you remember that scene in Firefly where they are playing some weird futuristic version of halfcourt basketball and the proximity alert goes off? Wash yells, "Oh my god, what could it be? We're all doomed! Who's flying this thing?
That's kind of the way I feel right now, except we don't even have a pilot seat for someone to hop into.
Which is why we need a czar.
Czar is such a fun word. Gotta say, English is really dropping the ball on the cz possibilities, but I'm glad we held on to czar to keep things a little more real. It's just, um, what is a czar?
A tyranical communist dictator?
I don't think that's actually what a czar is, but I love the idea of a communist dictator. Not very democratic, but the idea of being in absolute control of everything for the good of the collective is pretty much exactly what we need right now.
No, I'm not talking about the ridiculous farce of our political machinations that are pitting a skeezy fundraiser against a leaky traitor against a complete fool with a whimsical idealist standing in the corner. Yeah, have fun deciding which (wildly hyperbolic) pejorative applies to which presidential candidate.
I'm talking about the increasingly obvious need for oversight in our multi-trillion dollar Sports Entertainment Complex.
The build up to the college football season is ripe with prognostication and prediction, ranging from which coaches are least likely to retain their post through bowl season, which teams are likely to emerge from the gauntlet of their conference triumphant, which conference will hold head highest among its peers by season's end, and of course, which players will be taking home the hardware for their individual accomplishments.
This is the first year in a while that the reigning Heisman trophy winner isn't trying to Archie, by which I mean win a second Heisman not father two Super Bowl winning quarterbacks, so the preeminent honor in the land is more freely up for grabs than it appears to be most years. There are even some speculators suggesting that this might the year that a pure defensive player sneaks off with the usually (always) offensive minded award.
I have written about our cultural difficulty appreciating the negative space in an athletic contest, and how sometimes a player's performance wrenches the conversation away from us and forces us to pay attention to all the things that player is taking away from the game, forcing the background into the foreground. Even when the best player in college is a defensive player, they rarely win the award, and never without a significant contribution in the more tangible, positivist space.
In fact, forget winning the award. A defensive player has only finished in the top five in the voting 18 times in the last 80 years, and only 10 of them played on just the defensive side. That is ten players who have wrenched our focus from our addiction to offense and managed to even make the shortlist, out of 400.
In the scoreboard spinning whirlwind of the spread offenses, it takes a special player to even break into the conversation, and by the time most players have managed to generate enough traction in the public awareness they are leaving for the greener pastures of the Sunday games (by greener, I mean collecting green money for their services, not trying to slight collegiate ground crews).
It is a true rarity for a player to declare their preeminence before their three years of mandatory indentured service are up, and as Jadaveon Clowney showed us, living up to that notice is a particular challenge in it's own right. This year general consensus seems to have declared that the best player in the country is a player who was a nightmare for opposing coaches as a sophomore, and is set to put on an even more impressive show now that the spotlight will be firmly fixed upon him for the entire season.
Tell me, have you heard about Joey Bosa?
Um, any animal social justice warriors know if the phrase 'dog days' is offensive? Can't be too careful these days.
In any event, thanks to the Euro next year we get an early start of the international club football season, delivering us from the tedious drudgery of the neverending baseball season. For me, the Liverpool season opener marks my athletic new year, as the spheres of competition I most enjoy are, in order:
Each of these has a number of reasons to be excited about the upcoming season. Let's take a quick look.
All my fond dreams of regular blogging have collapsed under the weight of my thesis. Now that the unwieldy beast of a paper has been shuttled off to review, I have some time to get back to one of my great loves: idle pontification about sports. In the wake of yet another Elite Eight run for my beloved Wildcats, I am turning my attention to the greatest of all American sports, which we call the National Basketball Association, despite the fact that there are two nations competing in the Association, and the game itself was invented by a Canadian. In the grand tradition of proposing wholesale changes that will never be read, much less adopted, hit the 'Read More' jump to peruse my open letter to Adam Silver, not the commissioner we deserve, but the one we need right now.
I think that we can all recognize that there is something a little disconcerting about sports enthusiasm in our digital, globalized culture. We develop deep, lasting emotional attachments to entities like a team, or a school, or to complete strangers whom we will never meet.
I get it. Sports can be a weird kind of thing. We invest hundreds and thousands of hours of our attention into arbitrary athletic contests that impact our lives in no direct, tangible way. We spend money to advertise for these teams on our bodies. We, the viewers, are the ones paying the billions of dollars that keep the sports industry running. Non-sports enthusiasts often ask me what the point is, what are we getting in return for that investment. What are we buying with all those hours, all those dollars?
The easy answer is catharsis, the vicarious engagement in a contest with a clear opposition in a culture that has so little clarity, so few opportunities to unabashedly be pro-US and anti-You. Another easy answer is community. We live in such busy, disconnected lives that a sports team might be the only reason I talk to my neighbor, ever. That community travels, also, as I might be in a foreign country, but if I see that red, white, and blue block A, I know that a "Bear Down" gets me a fist bump, and a friend.
I think one of the answers that gets ignored is the consistency. The world is a shifty, scary place. When I am struggling with the fact that the world doesn't work the way that I thought it did, when I am losing faith in my ability to control anything, I can turn on SportsCenter, and know exactly what I am going to get. Smooth and natural, they could have just legally changed Stu's name to butter, because that dude was always on a roll.
Having hit a bit of a lighter period of my academic load, I hope to get a bit more recreational writing done in the next couple of months. This downtime is a result of having submitted my research proposal to the institutional review board and now getting to wait anywhere from two weeks to six months waiting for them to decide whether or not to approve my project. With any luck, some leisure scribing will whittle away at my neuroses around the process. As serendipity would have it, we also are entering the greatest part of the sports year, with vibrant action from all four major sports and baseball down for hibernation.
The last few weeks of America's Professional Game have been... weird, in that it was full of performances surreal in quality, at both ends of the spectrum. Cowboys fans know how that goes better than anybody, but I'll get there. In the midst of some people writing off the quarterbacking old guard in favor of the newer, Beats-slinging variety, two of the oldest guys in the league dropped gems featuring one of my favorite statistical anomalies: 1:1 TD to incompletion ratio (or better, in Peyton's case).
As some of our loyal readership are no doubt aware, I have a nephew who is the sum of all things precocious and adorable. On occasion, when people fawn over his impish grin and dazzling deep blue eyes, they suggest that he takes after his uncle, which is how I discovered what being flattered feels like, that sense of being praised or honored beyond one's merit. That's rare for me, because no one thinks higher of me than I do.
Flattery feels great, by the way, like being surprised by awesomeness you didn't know you had. It's intoxicating to watch the little bundle of delight charm entire rooms with his winsome ease, and then think that I might have in some way contributed to that. Having met both of his remarkable parents, though, I think it's both more likely and more fortunate that he is the harmonious blend of their distinct brilliance. Without feeling the need to claim responsibility, there is a particular trait that my nephew and I share which I would like to discuss today.
We are both obsessed with counting things.
I don't think we're alone in that regard. As a culture, we seem to have become enraptured with the quantification of quality.
Thoughts on culture, community, and development.