I’ve come to speak of football. What is football?
Football is a contest.
And what is a contest? Lucky you, I just looked it up. Sorry to be that guy. I guess I assumed the word ‘contest’ would be rooted in the idea of competition, of pitting one thing in opposition to another thing. But actually that’s not quite it.
The word contest is made of con- ‘together’ + testare ‘to witness.’ To hold a contest is to call witnesses; it is seeing something together. Like a trial, which also calls witnesses, it’s a way to produce a result — a way to make knowledge. The contest makes some facts so, for some community. Facts beget facts, community begets community – so here is me, talking about football, and here is you, reading about it.
And yes, I did spend a piece of my twenties reading poststructuralists. But let’s not let that stop us. We have things to discuss.
Like what we witnessed together, this month, on the football field, while the regular referees were locked out. What did we witness? A freaking fiasco, of course. What seemed, at first, like simple enough trade — this ref for that one — eventually resulted in a basic failure to produce a result that could even be called football. There was no, as it were, contest.
Now this word, fiasco, was getting called into service on the intertubes a lot this week partly because it’s the right word, and partly because everyone who is of an age to have published a complete sentence on said intertubes loves the Fiasco! episode of This American Life and they recognize where we got to this weekend, football-wise: just that moment in the Peter Pan performance where the audience stops feeling mortified or embarrassed, and starts to turn against the production. Things were curdling. For a few days there, we were not watching the show, as much as we were watching each other watch something fall apart.
The ESPN commentators after Monday night’s game were stymied by this falling apart. There was a lot of groping for words. Did any of them, I wonder, sit in the studio or stand in the Klieg lights, looking into the camera, and roll the words “transcendental signifier” around in the back of their mind? No? Did they wonder what Derrida, always conspicuous in his absence, would have made of it all? I, for one, could hardly purport to guess. Did Foucault watch football? I don’t know. But all French intellectuals aside, I do happen to have one or two brass epistemological tacks of my own that I would like to get down to.
Football is fundamentally a drama of knowledge. It’s a repetitive, fort-da kind of affair, where what’s on the end of the string, the string we keep pulling back and casting forth, is a known and measured human achievement. We come up with such a fish at the end of every play.
The play is the thing where every player and every referee takes their appointed places, reaching a point of stillness like a troupe of ballet dancers, and then, on an obscure signal, unleash a kind of stylized, hellish chaos. Then, somehow it gets brought to a screeching halt; that’s when we all agree to see what the result was. Out of that madness we preciptate a measurement; a result that can be parsed. It can be charted on the platonic geometry of the grid.
Remember this game is literally played on a ruler! The ruler is one hundred yards in length.
Football is often compared to battle or war, but that is wrong. A thing called the 20th century happened, folks, and showed us war. Most of what war is is never witnessed; nobody knows what’s going on; most of the time nothing happens. War is what you see through the words of Stephen Crane and the lenses of gas masks and the way Hendrix’s guitar sounded like a helicopter during the Star Spangled Banner, and the gray pixels that show some street corner, seen through our own fucking scopes, right before our own guys call in the artillery on complete bystanders.
Football is a headlong yammering retreat from all of that, a bullrush into the endzone where things mean what they mean, safely, strongly. Football is how a guilty, powerful society clings to its wubby. On every play, a catch, a first down, a penalty is produced, rather than simply nausea, confusion, and the indifferent passing of time. Real war exceeds any telling; it exceeds sense. It is non sense.
Football is neoclassical sweetness and light.
Or anyway, it was.
Until this year.
Did you see the Patriots play the Ravens? So many penalties were called that the game almost could not proceed! But the players committed so many uncalled penalties there could, it seems, have been a flag on every play! Savor that possibility a moment; a football game in which not a single ‘legal’ play is conducted! What, or rather where, are the rules of football, then? Where is the rule-enforcing action — the ‘ruling’ — actually taking place? Between the players? In transactions between the refs and the players that we cannot hear? How do we witness that?
And in Monday‘s Packers/Seahawks game, the final call was so clearly wrong, so clearly the opposite of what everyone had witnessed, and yet so beyond the powers of our witnessing to remedy, that all the gears of gamehood ground themselves to powder. Players left the field; they came marching back! They had to ratify and make official their own absurd predicament! Is this my helmet? This is not my helmet. Large men in heavy padding dug around in equipment bins, grudgingly. Ten minutes or more elapsed between the touchdown and the strange theater of the extra point.
What packets of knowledge the system of football produced for us so far this season seemed to arrive at their destination damaged somehow, leading to such questions as, what the hell is pass interference, anyway? Is that coach calling a timeout, initiating a conversation, or committing a penalty? Did someone win the contest? Is the contest even over? Who wrote this novel? Gaddis? DFW? I got enough of that in graduate school.
I watch football because actual life is hopelessly pre-, para-, and post-structural, and so it doth satisfy, on any given Sunday, to take a break from life, and simply see play after play. When the machine is working correctly, when the action onscreen spins out of control and violence walls the picture in, we wait. We wait patiently for the whistle; and then we awake to order again.
And we are grateful for this. We value it. Football is our most valuable sport, both in money and in other currencies.
To whom does our gratitude flow? Who ties knowledge on the end of the string when we are not looking, so that we can yank it happily back? The players? The coaches? The commentators and reporters? The rule-makers? Roger Goddamn Goodell?
To a degree I never would have guessed, it is the zebras. And so this is where I admit I had some things wrong about football, up until this season. Fancy Mike Carey, with your theatrical index finger, I took you for an ornament. Ed Hochuli, you old fossil, you uncle you, I never found you necessary at all. We have our cameras, don’t we? Our computers? Our eye in the sky? Our scopes?
Then again, I guess maybe we don’t. Anyway, I apologize. And I’m glad you’re back. You were, darn it all, the transcendental signifier. With you, football is a contest. Without you, it has been a fiasco.
At the end of the Patriots game, the Ravens kicked a ball with two seconds left, but it sailed high and might or might not have passed between the line of the uprights. The referees, it seemed, witnessed a field goal.
But in truth of fact, no one actually knows who won that game. The contest failed. That one Sunday night, the ball went clear over the top of the uprights (therefore not reviewable!) and sailed right out of the goddamned discursive system.
Brandon Harvey: Will Not Attract the Worm