Tuesday, December 04, 2007

A bullet with an unusually long range?

Once you get past the shock and pathos of the crime itself, it's interesting to watch the media exploit the Sportsthinky elements of the Sean Taylor homicide as it relates to the performance of his team, the Washington Redskins.* You can almost see the little wheels a-turning as sportscasters and commentators milk the emotional angles out of the story line, as they did last year with the passing of Tiger Woods' dad and earlier this year with the untimely death of Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock. The media basically do this with any off-field action that they can spin as either (a) an inspirational lift or (b) a "distraction," a word you seem to hear from sports broadcasters these days as often as you hear words like homer or touchdown or steroids.

When it first appeared that the 'Skins were poised to beat the Bills in this past Sunday's game, which was of course the first since Taylor's murder, the media were all revved up to play the heart-tugging victory-in-tribute theme, in the tradition of "win one for the Gipper." They'd been building to this since the news of Taylor's death, prepping themselves to talk and write about how he was the invisible "12th man" on the field that day. Even as the game clock ticked down to the final minute, it was clear that Sports Nation was psyched to glory in the redeeming "inspirational win" that the Redskins had salvaged from this terrible tragedy.

And then—as so often happens in the latter stages of an NFL game—things changed in a flash. A dramatic field goal with just four seconds left handed the Bills a one-point win.

The media scrambled to regroup. Now they had their new story line: how the Redskins, despite their most valiant effort, couldn't quite focus themselves enough to overcome Taylor's loss. It was just too much for them. Their hearts weren't in it. (Read, in particular, MSNBC's take on Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, whose procedural gaffe toward the end positioned the Bills for a much easier field goal than they might've had otherwise.) Today we hear them dusting off the same stale rhetoric in anticipation of this Thursday's game, when the Redskins face the Bears. At the moment the Skins are slight favorites. But for all we know, they might still be too distracted and shaken up to play. I'm sure the media will tell us once they have the minor advantage of seeing what actually transpires in the game.

It’s vital to note that, despite how the Sportsthinkers frame it in their $1,000-a-minute dinner speeches, such outlooks are in no way "tributes" to the "power of the human spirit." They represent, in fact, the polar opposite: a complete negation of conscious human will and even rationality itself. They imply that we’re powerless against the inner forces that preordain the outcome of all we do.** Those forces can even rise up from out of nowhere with just four seconds left in a football game, yank a clear victory from your grasp and, without mercy, toss you and your team into the jaws of defeat. And again, if you believe the lore, there's not a damn thing you can do about it. That's the real message sold by the sportscasters who play the Taylor death as a distraction. They're reasoning backwards from the fact that the 'Skins lost the game in order to postulate—in effect—that there is no way the Redskins were ever really in that game. The same bullet that tore into Taylor's femoral artery also tore his teammates up too much to win. (How do we know? Simple. Because they lost.)

I don't know if such contentions are true or false, because I'm not omniscient. But I do know one thing: They certainly don't represent "empowerment."

* As many readers will know by now, 24-year-old Taylor, the Redskins' Pro Bowl safety, was shot to death in his Florida home during the course of an apparent robbery on November 27. Four suspects have been arrested. You can find more details on the crime by clicking here.
** This actually constitutes an even more austere view of life than the determinism I discuss often on this blog, because it implies that there are no forces external to the person that make a difference
that if you show up "not ready to play," you're simply going to lose, period, no matter what else is going on around you. Even if the ball takes a weird bounce, even if somebody trips on his way to goal line, even if your field goal attempt gets deflected by a sudden gust of wind and hits the uprightit all comes down to "wanting it" enough. As absurd as that sounds, there's really no other way to interpret it.


Cal said...

I can speak to this one because I am a fan of the Redskins. They have lost games because of: a) having to settle for field goals in the red zone, b)inability to close out games and c) questionable coaching decisions.

These things happened when Sean Taylor was alive and on the field. The game on Sunday played out similarly. Unfortunately, I know his death will be used to try to explain either wins or losses for this team for a long time.

Steve Salerno said...

Thanks, Cal. I always enjoy the "reality factor" that your comments inject into our discussions.

Anonymous said...

But aren't you exploiting these things too? You find what you consider to be "valid" reasons to talk about these events, well what makes your reasons any more valid than the people you accuse of sports think?

Steve Salerno said...

Somehow I don't think I really need to answer that for anyone who's following this blog, and has any familiarity with its point and purpose. But if others see validity in the point, or are similarly confused, or in any case think the question deserves an answer (not that I'm sure I fully understand it), I will attempt one.

a/good/lysstener said...

Am I allowed to say I think that's one of the dumbest questions I've ever seen on this blog? It shouldn't really be "ad hominem" to say that since your attacker is anonymous. But how is Steve's pointing out flaws in someone argument the same as the person who brings up the flawed argument in the first place? If that criticism is allowed to stand it would be impossible for people to protect other people from con artists. We'd be at the mercy of the crooks who got the first shot in.

By that logic, is a legitimate doctor who tries to warn people about quack medicine the same as the quack himself? Or come to think of it is a teacher who corrects mistakes on papers "exploiting" those mistakes or the student who makes them? What a ridiculous argument.

RockitQueen said...

This stuff about the Redskins game reminds me of a similar instance that happened when I was in college. Our star player's brother passed away tragically, and only a few days later, said star player sunk the winning basket seconds before the final buzzer. Everyone went nuts. It was a wonderful moment and the school paper printed stories of miracles and spirits.

While this player was very well liked on campus (and went on to be a very well-liked and successful player in the NBA), it's plain how this would have played out if we had lost. Spirits didn't feel it, the crowd was grieving for him, etc.

I remember feeling it was really ironic at the time, but even if there hadn't been a sad event that had happened earlier in the week, it still would have been a badass play by a very skilled player. It can all be shrunk to fit.

P.S. I'm actually not a huge jazz fan (don't hate me!), but I'm so with you on Trent. NOBODY can match what he is doing...even now. I'd say the only people in alt. rock that come close to the innovation are Bjork and maybe Beck. And my beloved Polarbear, but they aren't exactly well-known. :-)

Steve Salerno said...

I want to apologize to you, RockitQueen, as well as others whose attempted comments--as I just discovered, to my horror--apparently have been disappearing off into the ethers. For whatever reason, Blogger only seems to be notifying me of the arrival of new comments about half the time (is anyone else having this problem?), which is why at least a dozen comments from the past 10 days have just been sitting there, pending approval for the blog.

Those of you who are regulars know how much I value contributions by each and every person who takes time out of his or her busy day to post a comment in response to something I write. In fact, I'm going to write a short post on this and place it at the top of the blog, just so that people know what's been going on. I didn't discover the problem until a whim drove me to the "comment moderation" page of my Blogger dashboard--otherwise those comments would've just sat there forever, I suppose.

Again, I am deeply sorry about this. I assure you it wasn't intentional.