The Case For Gridiron Injustice
In the early days of football, H-shaped goalposts were planted at the front of the end zone, fixed two-branched obstacles within the field of play. There they remained until 1927, when overseers of the National Football League had a notion — move the goalposts outside the end zone, where fewer players would slam into them and the field would be opened up for more of those “touchdowns” that the fans seemed to like.
In 1933, however, NFL goalposts were for some mysterious reason moved back to the goal line, where they remained until 1974 as hazards to the players and an impediment to Red Zone scoring. To gauge how much human progress can be made in roughly that amount of time, consider that in 1926, Robert Goddard launched the first liquid fueled rocket. In 1969 — five years sooner than it took the NFL to return goalposts to the back of the end zone to make the game more entertaining — human beings walked on the Moon.
“If stupidity got us into this mess,” Will Rogers once wondered, “then why can’t it get us out?” The NFL is perhaps the only human enterprise to which that proposition does not apply. Like their predecessors, the people who run the NFL today aren’t exactly rocket scientists, yet the league has remained a juggernaut of revenues and ratings despite some seriously distasteful attendant storylines, among them debilitating head injuries, thuggish behavior on field and off, an undeserved tax-exempt status, and the staggering inconsequence of the Deflategate federal case. This year, however, national anthem protests were added to the mix and television ratings finally dropped precipitously, leaving sports pundits to ponder what the decline might mean for the sport.
Let’s face facts about football. For starters, most games are uneventful contests between teams that are either mismatched or are both not very good. Moreover, the live action on the field comprises just 14 minutes or so of a 3-hour broadcast. Now consider football as a purely visual experience. While long passes, big hits, and breakaway runs are thrilling to watch, most of the 14 minutes of live action consists of images of extremely large men running a few steps and falling to the ground. Put in cinematic terms, it would be as if The Godfather consisted of Sonny Corleone’s assassination at the toll booths and 2 hours and 50 minutes of Clemenza, Luca Brasi, and Captain McCluskey wrestling in shiny pajamas. And this is every single game, each one of them the length of Lawrence of Arabia.
How to make this feast for the eyes more gripping? In 1999, the NFL’s mandarins implemented instant replay, thereby displaying the same instinct for turgidity their predecessors showed in restoring the goalposts to the front of the end zone in 1933. Ever since replay, any time something the slightest bit compellingly contestable occurs on the field, the momentum of the game comes to a standstill while the cameras focus in on a middle aged man watching television in a voting booth in order to ascertain what only the very dimmest among us have not already figured out from the replays we’ve been shown.
Recognizing that stoppages of play occupy the screen so often, Microsoft has seen the advertising value of plastering its Surface product logo on the replay booth to engage the captive audience. All this excitement culminates when the replay ref finally announces his decision to the crowd, eliciting a cheer from the fans that has to be the most joyless sound in sports.
I can’t speak for anyone else who may have stopped watching, but I made a conscious decision to give up the sport entirely this season — and I haven’t watched either a pro or college game. I realized that my allegiance to football was merely habitual, that I have stopped caring about who might win or lose while hoping, usually in vain, that the game I’m watching might be fun. The experience of waiting for something to happen during a live NFL football game feels like nothing so much as waiting for your number to be called at the Department of Motor Vehicles, if you could drink beer at the DMV.
Why wouldn’t it be better to address the excitement deficit by going back to the old ways, getting rid of the replay officials and let the refs on the field make a call that we all have to live with, right or wrong? Excitement is what football sells. Injustice is exciting — bureaucracy is not.
Look, I know how great football can be — I was in the Orange Bowl for the epic Miami Dolphins/San Diego Chargers playoff game in 1982, which was one of the greatest of all time. Yet my second favorite football memory is of injustice, specifically of the 1978 playoff game between the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos. Its turning point was described succinctly by sportswriter Bill Williamson:
In the AFC championship game on Jan. 1, 1978, [Rob] Lytle, a tough running back with a nose for the end zone, fumbled at the 2 and Denver scored on the drive, giving Denver a 14–3 lead in the third quarter.
The problem was that television replays (these were the days long before NFL challenges) showed that Oakland safety Jack Tatum forced a fumble in a mid-air collision before Lytle scored. Oakland nose tackle Mike McCoy scooped up the ball and was bringing the ball back for an easy score.
But it didn’t count. Lytle’s touchdown did and Denver won 20–17, advancing to the Super Bowl against Dallas.
I was a teenager watching the game at my family’s home in Miami Beach. It was winter, and all the neighbors’ windows were open. Behind us lived the Goodmans, whose patriarch, Harold, was coarse, contrarian, and a passionate fan of the Oakland Raiders. Today’s Raiders home games seem like nothing so much as Halloween at the penitentiary, but back in the 70s, the team had more of a Brown Shirt appeal — a thin veneer of discipline, a thick threat of spontaneous thuggery. Furthermore, Goodman was quite vocal about how little he cared for our beloved hometown Miami Dolphins, whose fortunes had fallen after losing several Super Bowl stars (among them my favorite player of all time, Larry Csonka) to the asinine upstart World Football League. This rankled.
When the football was jarred from Broncos running back Rob Lytle’s grip during that championship game, I remember hearing a mounting cry from over the hedges, Goodman screaming: “Fumble! Yes! YES! Fummmm-BLE!!, FUMMMMMMMBL…wuhhhh? What? What? WHAAAAAAAAAT!”
A few seconds of silence passed as Goodman took in the momentousness of what had just happened to his team, and then: “F%*^&*#@^ *&^*^$#^%! F&(& (*#@$#$%! NO! YOU CAN’T! YOU CAN’T DO THIS! You mnnn….gmm…fnnf…..nnnnnn….
It was the most satisfying schadenfreude I have ever experienced, because Goodman’s anguish added not a droplet of genuine pain to the ocean of human wretchedness. Had Goodman’s goldfish died, I would have been able to summon a modicum of compassion for him, but not in this case. And so, in a manner that did not violate my core humanitarian principles, I was able to utterly enjoy another person’s abject pain and misery, and think: “[Expletive] you, Goodman, you and your [expletiving] Oakland Raiders.”
The supreme pleasure of such moments is precisely what has been lost in the effort to make football more “fair.” As do films, plays, and literature, sporting events offer an arena in which we can choose a hero and be entertained by his successes, defeats, and even the injustices that befall him at no personal cost. By trying to make sports fair by eliminating human error — at the price of imposing boredom upon us — the powers that be have acted in the spirit of Nahum Tate, a 17th Century writer whose claim to fame was rewriting Shakespeare’s King Lear so that it ends happily. We recognize Tate’s impulse as misguided — why not official review?
So please consider the entertainment value of meaningless heartfelt outrage — both your own and others’ — as opposed to the egalitarian bureaucratic soul suck of waiting around while referees watching TV week after week to get things right that are more fun when they actually turn out wrong. Then, I’m convinced, injustice, injustice will you pursue.