Monday, September 29, 2008

Living on the Grid: How American Football Relates To Wall Street's Woes

Football evolved out of Rugby (with a little help from Napoleon Bonaparte) on American college campuses in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The advent of the formal snap, the addition of "downs" and the introduction of the forward pass, pushed the Rugby toward a uniquely American sport. It nevertheless remained an elite sport for American university students. It was not until the 1920s that professional teams finally began to spring up. Markovits and Hellerman point out that these early "NFL teams were directly sponsored by firms in the midst of labor disputes and strikes" (1). Football teams were organized in an effort to keep workers happy and off of picket lines, it was "simply a way 'to buy off labor unrest'" (2). Football replaced religion as the opium of the people.

One significant change from Rugby that may have had the most profound--and most American--impact on the sport, was the decision to allow competitors to substitute freely between plays. In other words, where in Rugby once a player has been replaced by a substitute he cannot return to the game, in football players can rotate in and out at will. The result is an insanely high degree of specialization among football players: defenders who only play when it is third and long, blockers who are just in on running downs, long-snappers (who apparently average around $700,000/year in the NFL... not bad!), etc. This is American efficiency personified.

In addition, the importance of first downs and, consequently, of spotting the ball accurately, led to the creation of the gridiron: a field with more paint on it than Tammy Faye Baker wore in her heyday. The field is a large graph, the perfect symbol for a society obsessed with numerical quantification.

Modern football, born out a milieu of labor disputes, creates specialized workers whose efficiency can be charted on a graph and constantly monitored by all-powerful managers. Football players are far from the ideal of the enlightenment era "man of quality" who studied botany, art, history, electricity and music to become a versatile, well-rounded member of society. Football instead embodies the corporate need for specialized labor, it values the ability to perform a single action extremely well over the ability to make connections between disciplines. To the football fan, the multidisciplinarian is a relic from pastoral sports like baseball or soccer where players must be able to play both offense and defense.

Specialized experts are as highly valued in the corporate world as in the NFL. Those who can focus on one thing, like making money or blocking defensive ends, stand to receive handsome rewards. But such specialization has its limits. An offensive lineman is no more able to run a deep pass route than a Wall Street CEO to consider the human and meta-economic implications of bundling and selling subprime loans. The former just knows how to block, the latter just looks to his bottom line and his annual bonus, long term consequences be damned.

So instead of a 700 billion dollar bailout, perhaps we should simply require that investment bankers watch more soccer.

(1) Markovits and Hellerman. Offsides: Soccer and American Exceptionalism, p. 80.
(2) Same text, p. 81.


Dana said...

Beautiful post, Corry.

CamE said...

Football does still distinguish the 'iron man' who is not a focused factory. Is that akin to cross training a CEO to look for Kaizan events?

Corry Cropper said...

Yes. We should be training a CEO to read Le Rouge et le noir and to grow healthy tomatoes. And I should be learning accounting... (my version of hands in the dirt).