madden’s epistemic break

Today’s Times had a brilliant article about John Madden that makes the counterintuitive argument that the man is a true public intellectual, responsible for a drastic shift in how people watch, understand, and follow american football. Before the internet made fantasy sports into a multi-billion dollar industry and even casual fans were able to access and analyze statistics at a close-to college level, Madden initiated a transformation in football television that brought the intricate strategy of the game to the fore. According to Bryan Curtis, pre-Madden football announcers assumed viewers had no interest in defensive shifts, coverage strategy, or offensive linemen and thus concentrated on constructing a human-interest narrative that saw the game itself as the enactment of a dramatic story of conquer and triumph. The video footage focused on individual feats of strength with tight shots.

professor madden taught football for fans at the university of california

professor madden taught "football for fans" at the university of california

I think this is reflected in the attitude older fans bring to sports in general, but Madden’s Break makes it (arguably) most obvious in football season. I see many fans of my father’s generation who see sport as a metaphor for life more broadly and love an underdog’s triumph over a dynasty, etc. According to Curtis, this material formed the bulk of the dialouge during football telecasts.

Madden rejected the idea that football fans couldn’t (or didn’t want to) understand the full complexity of a football play. As an announcer, he encouraged his directors to use more wide-angle shots, which show more of the field, so viewers could watch the development of the play. He pioneered the use of the Telestrator to annotate replays of the last down and direct fans’ attention to important but less obvious elements of strategy, including the importance of the offensive line.

Madden’s best-selling video game franchise is an important aspect of the current football culture. Curtis emphasizes how important the game’s realism is to Madden, but the franchise passed by Real years ago. The game now achieves a level of hyperreality with its sophistocated control that takes weeks to master, its reverse-engineered playbooks, and its super slow motion, pausable replays that allow the player to fly around and inspect from every conceivable angle. (The gameplay is complicated even beyond the virtual field: “franchise mode” lets the player be the owner of the team and manipulate everything from hot dog prices to personel decisions. There’s even a surprisingly rich mediascape that should certainly be purused before raising ticket prices.) In a truly postmodern twist, ESPN now uses the game to create simulations for its analysts’ shows, since it permits a nearly infinitely detailed examination of real and potential game situations. EA Sports even uses the latest Madden version to run an annual Super Bowl simulation complete with coverage worthy of a live game. The computer has picked the winner four out of five years.

I found this article interesting for many reasons, but I think one of its biggest accomplishments is a characteristic of all good criticism: the ability to make something one knows well strange. Only by showing the development of the current emphasis on strategy and global play development could did I realize how intelligent football coverage is today. In a time when it feels as if complexity is being stripped away from every aspect of our mass culture (as is certainly the case in politics), it is really nice to be treated as an adult by a pop-culture production.

I think what Madden did was instigate an epistemic break in football culture. Instead of perceiving a football game as a narrative, the fan now engages with the coaching strategy quite deeply. A generation raised on EA Sports’ Madden video game franchise “knows” what it’s like to lead a team down the field in a two minute drill. Today’s NFL icon is Bill Belichick, not the Steel Curtain; the Patriots’ recent domination has been a victory of a brilliant strategist. (It’s telling that while steroids are seriously harming the competition in nearly every other sport, the most effective cheating campaign recently uncovered in the NFL was a theft of information: Belichick was found to be stealing and decoding opponents’ defensive signals with an array of sideline cameras.)

Indeed, Eric Mangini, the Jets’ new coach and a Belichick disciple, was one of the most surprising success stories last season. He has never played football; Mangini started as a 23-year old ball boy for the Cleveland Browns before getting an internship in the PR department. Belichick, then the Browns’ head coach, saw Mangini’s enthusiasm for statistics and his grasp of the game’s subtlties so he gave him the lowest coaching position: cutting film. Ten years later, this (former) fan had become a coach in the country’s biggest media market.


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