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Quitting spectatorhood

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Wednesday, Dec 16, 2009

I partially sympathize with John Swansburg, the writer of this Slate piece about taking a break from spectator sports. He argues that it is much easier to consume other forms of entertainment with DVRs and so forth—that seems like a bad reason to me, confirmation of my suspicion that in deciding how to entertain ourselves. taste has been supplanted by a concern with ease of consumption. We want to maximize throughput in our brain, since there is so much “cool stuff” out there that we are supposed to know about. So when he also argues that the limitless amount of information available to consume about sports makes it an all-consuming proposition if you are going to “really care” about following a team, he’s verging toward an ideological conundrum. His wish that culture was more convenient to consume is what’s driven the trend of remaking spectator sports in the image of celebrity culture. Gossip about the players, grumbling about their salaries, rumors about trades and signings, all supplant to a degree the interest in sheer on-field performance, since these can be consumed in bite-size nuggets, not in three-hour sessions at a stadium in some suburban swampland. And fantasy leagues turn sports viewing into an analogue of day-trading, turning the scores and the on-field winners into arbitrary details, distractions from the real interest in relative statistical moves within individualized portfolios of performers, isolated from the context of their team.


None of that is why I am watching less sports though. I’m not watching football so much anymore because of the instant replay system, which is patently corrupt and allows referees to determine the outcome of the game as they see fit even more so than the arbitrary calling of penalties permits. The NFL system is incoherent as it is—why should you have a limited number of challenges of referee errors? If you permit one, you almost have to permit as many as are necessary, otherwise you concede that “getting it right” has nothing to do with the system. The replay scheme instead is about generating momentum shifts with the assistance of refs, who are notoriously swayed by the home crowd’s wishes (if not the casinos’). And it allows for more interminable commercial breaks.


A piece on TNR’s site by Josh Patashnik looks at a legal discussion about whether every play should be reviewed. He points out helpfully that every referee decision is pretty arbitrary in football, so replay review is a Potemkin system of crypto-fairness at best. I agree with this completely:


Football does well when it successfully masks the arbitrariness of calls.  When these calls are made, as they inevitably must be, it’s best just to let sleeping dogs lie, grumble, and move on with the game. By attempting to achieve a standard of refereeing perfection that isn’t attainable given the nature of the game and the nature of instant replay, the main effect is to heighten the salience of that arbitrariness, in a way that detracts from the confidence football fans have that the game, in the end, is a fair one.


The current replay system, for me, does precisely that for me: “heighten the salience of that arbitrariness.” I hate it and that’s what I don’t watch many football games anymore. Once who wins or loses seems randomly determined, why bother?

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