Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The Textual Ecosystem of Football

There are many reasons to enjoy football in general and football games in particular: the complex, coordinated chaos of plays in action; vicious hits and tackles; the poetic arc of the pass; the warrior ballet of catching a football; the martial brilliance of a long scoring drive; and so on.

Yet, among the more arresting considerations of a football game is its textuality. At any moment “in” a game, an entire constellation of texts will link up, intersect, and overlap. For instance, imagine a single offensive play being run from beginning to end. From one point of view, that team’s offensive coordinator, who typically decides which plays the team will execute, functions as an intending agent, the producer or addressee of the play. To the opposing team’s defensive coordinator, the offensive coordinator is communicating a particular message, the substance of which is the change in field position.

How is this change, the message, communicated? Most obviously, the players executing the plan have primary responsibility for carrying – in both a physical and semiotic sense – the message to the opposing team. Their actions and movements anticipate and aim to manipulate response actions from the defensive players.

At the same time, the offense play develops in a rule-governed environment. Everything from the referees to the helmets, pads, cleats, and numbered uniforms forms a code or repertoire – to borrow terms from Roman Jakobson and Itamar Even-Zohar, respectively – governing the conduct of play and the appropriate response from the defense. In this single offensive play, there is also a surrounding context consisting of field position, down, time remaining, and so on.

A single play from a single point of view therefore carries an enormous textual charge. More than this, it reveals a textual ecosystem at work. But what’s truly amazing is that we only considered one play from one point of view. We could consider that play from the point of view of the quarterback, the head coach, the team owner, the television spectator, and many more positions. We can consider single plays, which are really dual plays: offensive and defensive. We can also consider bundles of plays, from a single drive, from a quarter, from a half, from a game.

Beyond this there are texts in the game planning, from film study to X and O diagrams; texts in the media coverage, from play-by-play coverage to post-game news conferences and interviews; and texts in the team and NFL promotion machines. The incredible textual life and traffic of football suggests the magnitude of our task: trying to make a systematic, incisive confrontation with the multiple textuality driving both the staged and impromptu events of our time.

Perhaps the lesson here is the need to establish the tools of textual analysis that will best assist in generating the results we want.

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