On the Surprise of the Game

Curator's Note

When the Penn State scandal broke last autumn, a friend of mine offered his predictable analysis: collegiate sports like football and basketball at the Division I level have been thoroughly overrun by commercial considerations and need to be completely re-thought. With each new scandal—like the news in recent weeks that Syracuse played athletes who failed drug tests—the same analysis is offered. When I am able to sit with my kids on the grass behind the end zone watching play the team at the Division III University at which I work, I sometimes find myself in agreement with this view. These are true student-athletes and how briskly the game moves without television time-outs.  

Why then am I a regular watcher of Division I football and basketball and an ardent rooter for my team?

What draws us to collegiate sports of the big programs is the shared exposure to contingent phenomenon. We think we want our team to dominate from beginning to end—and most successful coaches, apparently, are detail-oriented control freaks—but the pleasure of watching or being a part of the game and rooting for your team lies in the possibility of surprise. A game is never so anxiously enjoyable as when, but for this or that instance of unexpectedness, it could very easily have gone the other way. We watch with others to have this common experience—whether in jubilation or defeat. When a player makes a miraculous catch or tackle or pass or shot, or when a coach takes the ultimate risk—as Michigan State University’s Mark Dantonio did in the autumn of 2010, calling for a fake field goal in overtime of a game against Notre Dame—what is being illustrated is a pleasurable dimension of sports that eclipses its ruthlessly controlled economic aspects. To share in something unpredictable is to be reminded that it is not all decided in advance. In the transpiring of a game, as in political life and political struggle, there is an openness—an entry point for the unthinkable to occur. As any football fan of Boise State can tell you, the political task of our time is to force this opening in the administrative structures that close it off. Whether the surprise made possible in the opening of the game works in the favor of my team or in the other, this is why I watch.  


 Paul, this is a really interesting turn toward the political. Watching the MSU/ND clip I am reminded that so much of my own viewing experience of sports is stained by my desire to see my team triumph. In that moment I lose sight of how surprise can redefine my relationship to or identity within a larger movement because so much of my experience is predicated on seeing the "right" outcome. Watching Michigan State defeat Notre Dame on a trick play in overtime is thrilling, but because I have no true rooting interest I experience it differently than, say, a Notre Dame student. One question your post finds me thinking about is how the political relates to the affective and how we might be able to think politically--in victory or defeat--when so much of that experience relates directly to how we feel? On the other hand, perhaps politics marks the intensity of this relation already, an intensity that speaks to an antagonism within society that would define politics as such. Your post, I think, rightly suggests the political potential sports have. My concern is that because so much of sports is experienced through the media and its trappings, does the potential you speak of necessitate a change in context, in how we receive or consume the game itself? That is, does the part necessarily speak to the whole without interference, without that political potential being appropriated already for other ends?

One of my favorite moments in this clip is the look on  Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly's face after the fake fg has been converted for a touchdown. The pleasure of his surprise for me is a venal form of schadenfreude at seeing the once-proud made humble. He's probably kicking himself for poor tactics and the spectacular collapse of his special teams defense. 46 yards is a long way for a college kicker, even if Conroy had hit a 50 yarder the previous week, and if he makes it then the game is only tied. In fact, Kelly sent out a defense that should have been able to cope with the fake; there were two safeties stationed behind the line, both of whom dropped deep as the ball was snapped rather than rushing the line. In theory, this is enough to cover State TE Charlie Gance out of the backfield, but its hardly a safety blanket. And, fatally, they were poorly positioned, standing too close to one another and too far to the defense's right. The ND strong safety was unable to read the fake quickly enough and cover their left side, an error that was exposed when the defensive lineman assigned to cover Gance was taken out by a  block by the Michigan St FB, #24, who took out two ND lineman on the play.

This is great talent and execution on the part of Michigan State, and some sloppy play by the Irish. It's true that through their execution, Michigan State created an opening in the Notre Dame defense. But the fake wasn't really unthinkable--except to Brian Kelly--just unlikely because of the risk involved. It was a possibility already inscribed in the game, although certainly not  pre-determined. Clearly, Michigan State had been practicing their fake field goals. And Notre Dame needed a bit more work on their special teams.

Fakes are great plays because they capitalize on the highly rigid and specialized form of American football, which prescribes who can touch the ball, where, and in what manner. Faking a field goal means visibly conforming to certain standards in a way that is legible to your opponent, then capitalizing on their mis-reading to perform the unexpected. There is undecidability inherent in play that is independent of the result.

It's really interesting, to me, what's emerged here, namely a relation between contingency and fakery. I hear Rob to be asking whether or not what seems like contingency is in fact something that's already been done--the well practiced surprise. A good team--and by extension, let's say an "effective" administrator--is one that knows how to manufacture surprise. The surprise is ours and in this case Notre Dame's, but was it unforseeable, strictly speaking? I have to agree with Rob, and the example is ingenious. And yet, what Paul points out seems to have a real importance to the life of an institution and the political lives that we live within them. I wonder if the appeal of the surprise is less its capacity to indicate something like a revolutionary break, which I don't hear Paul to be saying--or even an event (to use an already exhausted  euphemism)--but instead something more like reform, which does in fact depend on an acknowledgment of the contingency of the institution, at the same time that it also admits to some relative value in the structure currently in place, knowing as we do that there may be more flexibility there than first appears. Perhaps, we just need to learn to become better fakers. But that can't be guaranteed, either; no more than the time of MSU's "fake" could have been established in advance. One of things that this allows us to do is to think about Adam's question. One answer would be that the appearence of college sports on television is a performance of the logics of an institution, in public, which is in fact rule bound and does allow for fakery. It's not a machine that can be seen in its entirety, but is instead a range of possibilities that emerge in time and in so doing come to define the limits of this particular institution, just never all at once, and never as just one.

Rob is no doubt correct:  fake field goals are practiced, are well-rehearsed.  So technically, they are not unforseeable.  Adam asks rightly after the role of the affective in politics.  I have to confess:  when I first heard of this play and then saw the clip, I was stunned.  What role does the affect of being stunned have in the realm of the political?  Is the experience of being stunned an experience (either for the first time or as a reminder) of the contingencies of our institutions?   For me, the shock of Dantonio's call had to do with the precise moment in the game in which the fake is deployed--in overtime.  I don't know if this is what Brian has in mind in his invocation of the "time" in which the play took place.  Perhaps Rob is right and ND should have seen it coming (and in fact did see it coming), but I saw it as the ultimate risk--the kind of risk most people (coaches or politicians) wouldn't think of given the fear of a failure that would be deemed a disastrous failure.  In the part of the world in which I live in, this is known as Tressel-ism:  don't pass the ball on first down because it might get intercepted!  The punt is the most important play in football! 

My question:  hasn't this fear of failure circumscribed our political aspirations at times as well? 

I am not so sure that political surprises are always so well-manufactured and rehearsed.  There seems to be something more improvisational about them, or they involve risks whose outcomes are not known in advance or that are not all that practiced.  So maybe that's where politics and sports part ways.  A fake field goal can be practiced over and over again.  A demonstration or uprising cannot.  Or at least not all of them can--some are sort of made-up as they progress. 

I think any discussion of sports and its political possibilities has to consider what happened at Penn State as the negative example of what unimaginable things our institutions are capable of. The reason calls for college sports to be rethought and, more specifically, reformed have become "predictable" is because each of these scandals lay bare the systemic corruption of the NCAA. I don't think we should simply dismiss this criticism because it's been said before, especially when considering what is being uncovered in Penn State. At Penn State, high level officials of a public university, as well as possibly elected state officeholders and other state leaders, looked the other way as a predator was allowed to rape children for decades. This was allowed because to confront it would have brought into question the central myths about the school, its coach and the importance of football to the community identity. In fundamental ways what happened at Penn State goes into core political ideologies reified by the collegiate sports model.

That kind of critique needs to be developed and, for me, speaks more to political possibility than the limited options of what happen on the field. The level of shock on the field is usually limited to one side winning or not. I appreciate the clip and the level of shock it brought to the ND team and Brian Kelly, however it's still the end result of circumscribed choices. The truly shocking moments for the last few years from college sports has been the breadth and brazenness of numerous scandals that have emerged, with Penn State being the prime example. I think it might be more useful to see the "field of play" as the whole institution because the work of limiting and creating the possible is happening off the playing field in team film studies, conference rooms, production meetings, television contract negotiations, and President offices. It is in these places where what is truly possible in college sports is being created and where we should pay attention if we want to see a relationship to the political.

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