How They Have Ruined Football

How They Have Ruined Football

“They” have ruined American football.  A combination of television, the NFL, and the owners and even fans have shaped today’s football in ways much less enjoyable to watch and, likely, rather more difficult for players.

Television as the major source of money for the game began years ago to tinker with the game to suit its needs.  Decades ago, tv began to use the time-out periods and slack times in the game to insert commercials.  Then, breaks were demanded to insert commercials, and a tv man was on the field ordering time-outs and other breaks for a more even distribution of commercials in time.  Soon, the “two minute warning” was introduced to get in tv commercials at the crucial time near the end of the half and the end of the game—times when viewers may have, previously, stopped watching the game for their own breaks when the action normally would stop.  The artificial two minute warning takes the ludicrous notion that coaches and players can not notice the game clock and must be “warned” of it.  Actually, this “warning” is an invention of tv to try to hold viewers over the long commercials insertion with the idea that they will stay viewing to see how the last two minutes will play out.  Some teams, notably Dallas (their “two minute drill”), invented special plays to use in the last two minutes.*

The other strong need from tv is to have the games’ scores close so that the drama of one touchdown can decide the game winner.   “One-sided” scoring games, at the half and the third quarter especially, can motivate viewers to change the channel.  Advertisers can not be happy to have spent millions to present their commercial in the latter part of a one-sided game when viewer numbers have dropped.  Networks showing the one-sided games have priced their advertising time based on numbers of viewers, so a drop in viewers costs money in all sectors of the tv business.

The nature of the football game has also included the breaks in the action while teams huddle up for the next play plan.  This huddle time was fixed by game rules, and commercials of the correct length are inserted then, too.

*Dallas for some years was known to be in a game where one touchdown would win for them.  Their “two minute drill” involved short passes to the sidelines so that only the Dallas receiver could reach it, and then he would step out of bounds to stop the clock.  Several of these plays took the team to a touchdown, often in the last minute or less of the game.  The drama of such a development kept fans of both sides glued to the tv to see this strategy.   The “two minute warning” set up the higher dramatic intensity, and the Dallas team and tv sales benefited.  Apparently, no one wondered that if Dallas could so frequently score with their “drill,” why they did not use it earlier in the game to seal a substantial lead over the other team?  Of course, a substantial lead would create a one-sided score and have viewers tuning away from that game before the end of the game.

The popularity of cable tv led to the offering of two or more games available at the same time slot, further endangering the holding of viewers to one game and the commercials sold on that game.  Of course, dedicated fans of one team would watch regardless of the score, but others could easily tune away.  Methods of counting (scientifically estimating) viewer numbers at various points in any one game impacted the cost of commercial time over the running time of the games.

Tv manipulation of the games has meant viewers are locked into seeing the commercials.  However, two innovations have impacted this situation:  the TiVo and the strategy of Peyton Manning.

TiVo was the early name for using a computer-type hard disk to record the video and audio of any television show.  Although expensive, the device allowed a step up on simple video tape recording because it allowed both the pausing live tv and restarting with no loss of program and also the usual ability for recording of future programming, unattended.  By recording a whole football game, the TiVo-type devices allowed fast forward upon playback to skip commercials (or see them only at high speed and silent).  Also, and most important, these devices allowed pausing live tv and then fast forwarding for the time duration of the pause.  Thus, as the break for the commercial began, pause is activated and left paused for the minute or more of the length of the commercial, and then fast forward through the commercial up to restart normal motion as the game resumed.  This device provided advances on video tape in these ways, and the systems gained popularity and now can be considered nearly standard equipment (and video taping devices are no longer used nor available).   This technology has not been superseded, but it did require frequent manual manipulation by the viewer.  (Automatic commercial defeating was not possible because the commercials occurred at odd intervals and lengths.)   Today, viewers can see the whole game virtually uninterrupted, using this technology, but the nuances of the play-by-play announcers, the rhythm of the game, and other minor action before and after the plays can be easily lost for purists of the game.

A recent and major challenge to tv’s manipulation of football games has come from quarterback Peyton Manning.  Over the last several and the current seasons, Manning has been able to manage his games with both “no huddle” rapid reassembly of his formations and the making changes in the intended play at the scrimmage line.  Manning’s revolutionary restructuring of the game has eliminated tv’s ability to run commercials in any dependable way because he leaves no pauses in the important action for many series of downs.  Also, by speeding on to the next scrimmage, he has grossly restricted a staple of tv coverage of football—the instant replay of the immediately preceding play.  The tv-provided instant replay is now so good that several angles of a play can be run by tv in real time, allowing the viewers to see fine nuances.  However, with Manning’s frequent, yet unpredictable, “no huddle” strategy, tv can not guess when to show a replay (unless there is a time-out or other definite interruption to play).  Further, because he often changes the intended play at the scrimmage line, sometimes twice, tv is more unsure of what to cover with cameras and needs many camera/recorder systems running at once in order for the tv director to have options of what part of the most important action to catch.  Manning has been so successful that other quarterbacks are attempting to emulate his technique, thus spreading this change for tv to other teams’ games.  Tv has not found any way to cope with this technique other than to simply let the game coverage run live.  Sometimes, a graphic is slapped on screen for a time too short to read it.  It remains to be seen if Manning’s technique can survive tv’s need for the old ways of doing things;  a rule change could be called for.

Even with these innovations, tv has changed the apprehending of the game via extensive use of head-sized close-ups and many graphics on screen.  Ever since Roone Arledge invented “up close and personal” tv coverage of sports, which revitalized ABC Sports in about 1970, tv has increased its video coverage of the faces of the players, as well as cutting to their bodies after the player’s remarkable mistake or good play.  Today, a close-up of a player’s face, even shrouded by his helmet and face mask (sometimes including a darkened eye shield) is mandatory both to dramatize the tension of the game and to provide an actual face on the otherwise heavily covered and padded players.  The tired standardized sequence is a scrimmage starting with a close-up of a player’s face, a cut to the action of the play (even then holding the framing as close as possible), and then a reaction shot of a player or, nearly always, a close-up of the head coach’s face.  Viewers can expect to see the two coaches’ faces over one hundred times (for the average 130 plays in the whole game) per game.  Many coaches display no facial emotion at all (pioneered by Dallas’ Coach Landry), making the close-ups painfully repetitive and uninformative.  This is a routine exhausted in its repetition.

Close-ups of injured players’ faces are becoming more common (where in earlier days, fallen players were not shown) along with the general trend of emphasizing the injuries and dangers of the play.  (The stress on injuries adds drama to the games.)

The use of worthless close-ups takes away from being able to see the scrimmage arrangement of both teams, a crucial picture to understand the game.  Likely, the increased use of close-ups is a response to the fantasy football “games” individual fans play on their own, formerly in small groups in-person and now via Internet networks of fantasy “coaches.”  In fantasy football, every players’ name and abilities and record should be known to the fantasy coaches in order to compete well.  Then, tv has responded increasingly to personalizing every player and to sponsoring some fantasy football networks with prizes. 

This “personalizing” of players includes extensive on-screen graphics to deliver esoteric statistics for players and games.  Announcers frequently read verbatim the on-screen graphics (why?) or otherwise express some possible statistic that applies to the moment in the game.  Statistics are gleaned from what must be enormous real-time data bases and are fed to the announcers and the graphics keypunch operator very rapidly.  Often the graphics include players’ faces and, of course, overlay part, or all, of the picture of the field of play.  Many of the statistics are calculations of facts trumped-up from very odd circumstances of the players’ or game’s history.  (“Joe is the first round draft pick of the third round of the second level of the ….”)  Perhaps the intrusive graphics are satisfying to fantasy football enthusiasts.

Then, tv has basically ruined the full apprehending of the game and made a new phenomena which is only a partly tangential relationship to the real game and to experts watching it.  Similar to tv’s coverage of baseball (MLB), not being able to see the whole field and the deployment of all of the players significantly reduces the enjoyment of the nuances of the game, as one example.

The National Football League, NFL, has also altered the game over the years based on pressures from tv, coaches and owners, fans and sportswriters, and law suits.  It is difficult to say that the games have been made more enjoyable. 

The NFL is currently under apparently strong pressure to make the game more safe for the players.  Reports of frequent concussions, broken bones, and injuries that take a player out for weeks or a whole season are often heard.  These reports do “pump up” the desired drama of the game but also put the NFL in the position of running a “blood sport” game of gladiators.   Tv emphasizes injuries and especially the danger of injury to quarterbacks.  Quarterbacks are portrayed as more delicate and vastly more important than other players.  The danger to the Quarterback looms over every play and is much discussed by the tv game announcers.  Complicated new rules attempt to limit quarterback injuries, including the parts of his body that can be hit, where he is located on the field, and if he has become a runner of the ball all determine how he can be tackled.  More strict rules on tackling pass receivers have been enacted, and helmet contact and leg tackles, and more, all have what are fair to call “rules of engagement” from military battlefield parlance.  The new rules increase the stops in the games for called penalties, some of which provide for commercial insertions.  Clearly, the NFL is in the double bind of reducing the fans’ love of violent physical play and the concern of lots of injuries to inflame public concern for the game.  Sadly, the day will come when an NFL player dies on the field;  that eventuality must dog NFL officials and owners every day of the season.  The double bind situation appears to have no easy solution.

There are currently so many rules that some infraction will occur on every play.  “Holding” is a major example along with face-mask and pass interference calls.  There is holding on every play, overt or covert, egregious or minor, which—along with the many other possible infractions—places the referees of the game as additional players, or at least in a very real position to alter the outcome of the games.  Skipping over the chance for referees being bribed to make game-changing calls (or players or coaches, for that matter), one must acknowledge that referees do stop the action for tv commercial insertion on purpose, and certainly can consciously or unconsciously (or inaptly) make “bad” calls at crucial moments which throw the game to one team, perhaps undeservedly, over the other team.  Instant replays on tv provide some scrutiny of the accuracy of calls, and the referees’ own replay system can add credibility.  Nevertheless, the very human judgment of the referees is more and more a major factor in the games as the number of rules increase.  The penalty infraction calls do slow the games.

The growth in importance of the field goal is another significant change in the game from the NFL.  One effect has been to shorten the field.  If the kick off puts team A on the 20 yard line, then team A need only move the just beyond the 50 yard line at which it is possible to kick a field goal.  This shortens the field team A needs to play to a little over 30 yards before it becomes highly likely that they can score three points.  In something under twelve plays, at most, team A can advance their score.  Certainly, seven points would be better, but a field goal has the effect of making the game a closer score.  That is, even a somewhat weaker team A can significantly challenge team B with field goals.  This situation increases in likelihood even nearer the goal line.  The field goals, then, can keep scores closer and audiences kept on the channel and the game—and the fees for commercial air time can be maintained.

The effect on the game from owners and fans are much less overtly evident.  Certainly, the owners want winning games and popular players in order to fill stadiums and tv contracts.  The amount of money needed to run a NFL franchise and the amount that can be made from a good season is enormous. 

Real fans exhibit lots of loyalty, often related to the team nearest where they live.  Teams are identified by their home towns as well as their team names to increase that loyalty and pump up possibility of intercity rivalries.  Season ticket sales for games yet to be played are like a no interest loan to the owners as are any up-front payments made with tv contracts.  Fans of all types do enjoy the violence of the game so the “blood sport” aspect of NFL football is very real.  Too, a winning season or extraordinarily popular quarterback can create loyal tv audiences and assist in higher tv time charges.

Overall, then, American football has evolved primarily under pressure from tv and the NFL’s desire to limit injuries.  These changes offer many double binds where the more intrusive tv techniques both inform and deny access to seeing the games.  The NFL double bind of wanting to emphasize the danger of the sport while down-playing the number of injuries provide an interesting dilemma.  Controlling injuries mean more referee interruptions and changes in the game due to infractions called.  However, the fan base is so strong, amplified now by fantasy football, that it will take many more significant changes to the game really to ruin it.  And, today there is no alternative game running at the same time, not MLB for example, so the institution of tv football appears here to stay, flaws and all.


About Charles Henry Harpole

Retired college teacher of cinema studies and film-making. Film Dept/Program founder and administrator. Buddhist. Amateur "ham" radio operator, HS0ZCW. Prepper evaluator
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