Stochastic Football

It is possible that you do not think Quentin Tarantino is a genius. It too is possible that you have little interest in that small group of people that are Judd Apatow's friends. When a celebrity embarrasses his or herself, it is possible you do not want to scold that person, joke about that person or even joke about others joking about that person. It is possible even that you didn't know it happened when it happened, and upon knowing, wonder why you should give a damn.

Maybe you have no opinion about zombies, don't know the song of the summer and care little about who is cast as Batman. Maybe to you, kindly reader, pop culture is a lamprey that attaches itself whenever you step into a supermarket or gas station or bodega. Maybe you'd rather hate than capitulate to a culture that is tenaciously mediocre; maybe to you ironic detachment seems a cure worse than the disease.

No one thinks pop musicians are the most talented or creative people making or performing music, few think actors are even actors but professional personas cultivating a brand, and that farrago of acting, music, costuming, … … … writing we call mainstream cinema, is impervious to ideas that cannot be projected to gross in the millions. James Cameron didn't plumb the depths of his soul to make Avatar—his grand achievement was developing a visual effect that could not be reproduced at home. 

This emphasis on novelty, accessibility and mass appeal is sometimes, patronizingly, called populism, and sometimes, cynically, called seeking the lowest common denominator, but all it is is simple economics. Since the Industrial Revolution the most important three words of any business plan are "cheap" and "good enough." Someone realized, quite correctly, that small pleasantries over a hum of numbness was and is more appealing to the risk-adverse mind than “the bright face of danger.” A vanishing few people seem to mind hopping from fad to fad, style to style, living your youth doing what you are told is hip, living your old age remembering your life with a mixture of embarrassment and nostalgia.

But it is possible, I think, I hope, it is possible that some have a desperate irrepressible need for excellence. To us …

NFL football is manna to a starving man. It is a place of baseline excellence and fits of transcendence. Sport, and football particularly, achieves this heightened state through three simple ideas, ruthlessly enforced.


Suppose an opening at an art gallery, something prestigious, exclusive. The people attending are either friends, family or cronies of the artist or people rich enough to be able to afford the work. The former we assume to be corrupted, but about the latter? A painting is an investment, an excellent one at that, and those that purchase a painting are instantly corrupted by a desire to protect and enrich their investment.

Now also suppose the artist's work is so abstract that few can determine if it's good or not, and those that can cannot describe that quality through absolutes. Are these second set of “appreciators” corrupted by a desire to fraternize, a desire for credibility, a desire for fame, acclaim or what have you?

Sport is a simple set of rules and goals abided by and endeavored toward through the human body. Skillful execution of rules unites verse and photography, portraiture and song. The goal is always abstract but the higher goal is always to be compelling, to delight. In football there is an end zone, a first down marker to be fought toward, to be protected. And this goal, bounded by a few rules, is sought in endless ways. The set of those ways become a game, a story. In a trap block there is irony. In a ticking clock mounting tension. In a lopsided score there is veritas.


Gregory Corso envisioned a contest between poets. Neil Gaiman pitted Dream against demon in a battle of ideas. Ernest Hemingway wrought a simple story of a fisherman struggling to hook and exhaust a noble beast. Roberto Bolaño wrote of writer and critic fencing on a Spanish beach. The makers of movies and television, commercials and pop music, play king of the mountain for nonexclusive ownership of this:
We'll call it Mount Snooki.

Competition among peers or matched opposites reveals and refines excellence. Competition for a demographic supermajority is competition between Twain's the king and the duke for the easiest mark. We are approached through attractive and beguiling advertisements and publicity. Those advertisements prey upon our wants (an exciting life, an attractive spouse, the respect of others, etc.) and our weaknesses (insecurity about our body, our health, our happiness). We are induced to invest something: time, money, effort, reputation, etc. This investment is often initially small relative to the seeming payout. We may have a reduced rate of pay at the start or be given something free. We then lock ourselves in through purchase, often regret said purchase, and get cycled back to the start. The king and the duke, presumably, spent much of their lives running from angry mobs. George Lucas built a wall.

Had his prequels been players, they would not have netted a billion dollars, but been humiliated the first day of practice, cut and forcibly retired.


The highest level of competition requires the largest possible pool of talent. Messi's father was a steel worker. Ray Lewis's father abandoned him. Their success was not an elaborate form of inheritance. Is there nepotism in sport? There is nepotism in sport. Does it help Austin Rivers sink shots? No.

In fact so nearly pure is sport that the success of Doc River's son constitutes a minor outrage.

Sport is constructed of a small set of goals and rules. If you can run fast you can sprint. If you're tall and can jump maybe you can play basketball. Those abilities are determined empirically through competition among peers. So there is no family name of speed; no will that can grant arm strength. There is not full access. There are prejudices. Antiquated notions like the minimum height necessary to play quarterback, the infamous “good face” once valued by baseball scouts, the canards of the old scribes to protect the old ways, but these prejudices, these obstacles to access, are flimsy breakwaters against the tide of talent and skill and will. 

Unlike the protected, insular world of pop culture, in sport access benefits those who grant it. To the amok corruption endemic of pop culture, its producers offered reality television and talent show competitions as an antidote, or at least salve. So Robin Thicke may battle Carrie Underwood for right to brand and sell our nation's music.

Whether you wish to think of sport as art depends in part on whether you wish to boundary art. It is football season again. That time of year when men of grace, men of brilliant skill, of almost morbid will, play within rules of no value, toward goals of no purpose, and against equals of few equal, to no end but singular beauty.

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9 Responses to “Sport”

  1. TMK says:

    Great article, but one observation:

    Access, while from the viewpoint of the average fan seems to revolve around "talent" and determination some work has been done to reveal that their is a significant bias in many sports. It turns out that there are more "John Rockefeller Jr.'s" and less "Andrew Carnegie's" on the world stage of sports than it appears.

    While in the U.S. the opportunity to play an organized sport is available to many, access to quality equipment and coaching is not. One only has to look at the Southlake Carrol High School football team to see the opportunity that nepotism can create in sports. The greatest thing you can do to ensure your son or daughter competes in the Olympics? Be a former Olympian. Want Johnny to play in the MLB? Spend a few summers bouncing back and forth between AAA and The Big Show, if you really want to give him a shot.

    It turns out that not only does having a parent who was a world class athlete greatly increase a child's chances of succeeding in sports, but the time of year a kid is born makes a big difference. In a few weeks I will turn 31, and at this point the fact that my younger brother is 20 months younger than me will matter very little in the way we are viewed by the world. For all intensive purposes we are grown men with well established strengths and weaknesses. but 20 years ago playing on the same baseball, football, ice hockey and basketball teams I was clearly the "talented athlete."

    It turns out that coaches at the developmental level mistake age related coordination, strength, speed, and mental acuity for "talent." Had my brother been a few months younger he would likely have spent his youth being considered on of the "talented" athletes in his age bracket, because he would have been one of the biggest, strongest, oldest, most "heads up" players in the age range.

    I love sports. True competition breeds inspiration and gives us something pure to aspire too. It can bring us together, even as it pits us against one another. I just thought I would roll out a spike strip to start the season!

    Basketball, it turns out, is the most accessible sports in the U.S., and much of the world.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Another excellent post Mr. Morgan. The Greeks used sporting contests to praise their Gods. When the 10,000 finally made it to the sea and escaped the clutches of the Persian King, they held feasts and sporting events in honour of Zeus and Heracles. I fail to see why any god would not be pleased by our modern display of sporting excellence - trying to acheive the form in the image of which we were created. Art, sport, the gods, unlike the masses, will always praise the persuit of excellence.

    Sports reaches a place in our hearts that is older than the mindless mediocrity that inflames the lust of the masses. Amazing feats straight out of the Illiad. Athena gives wings to the feet of Ray Rice so that he can convert the 4th and 29. Hera distracts Rahim Moore long enough for Jacoby Jones to get over the top. How else to describe 'clutch' performance?

    TMK - "The greatest thing you can do to ensure your son or daughter competes in the Olympics? Be a former Olympian. Want Johnny to play in the MLB? Spend a few summers bouncing back and forth between AAA and The Big Show, if you really want to give him a shot. "
    How much of this is due to inherited ability? I would figure it is quite a bit. It seems that much more than higher-level brain activity, physical reflexes are much more a result of breeding than of upbringing. But yes, I am sure it does not hurt to know people who are in the loop!


  3. Anonymous says:

    Brian, Brian, Brain... who is this Mr. Morgan and how did he convince you to put his disturbed ramblings on your otherwise excellent blog?

    For two seasons I have enjoyed, almost addictively, the great football analysis on ANS. This year, suddenly, it's different. Instead of great analysis I see a man obviously in love with himself and his atrocious prose, pontificating about nothing.

    Please assure us that everything will be back to normal!

  4. John Morgan says:

    To TMK: I echo some of what Anonymous-1/J writes WRT inherited ability. But you're right, my argument that sport is wholly fair and dependent on merit is romantic-leaning. Your criticism/clarification is valid.

    To J: Thanks, and thank you for your excellent comment.

  5. Anonymous says:

    To add to previous Anonymous's comment, nobody who comes to this site needs to have explained what's to like about football. Not only that, this article could say the same things in one tenth of the length, max. I don't need to spend time reading justifications for the way me and the author feel about something, written in such a way as to prove to me and the author that we're both such smart fellows complete with a denigration of lesser people as if some people being dumber than you made you smart. This reeks of a perceived lack of need to grow as a person/thinker/whatever. IE, hubris.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Same anonymous again. I'm looking through the last two pages of articles on this site and noticed this is the same author who wrote the article Do Those Who Deny Advanced Statistics Even Watch the Game? I wrote a similarly negative comment on that one. I'm sure someone will want to say the article wasn't sincere and blah blah blah, but I stand by how I fel when I thought it was sincere because that article and this one both hang up a pinata of stupid for the author and readership to beat silly. Why is this necessary; what does it accomplish? In my previous comment I mention hubris, but that's only half the story. Lurking underneath that is desperation to find any justification for it. Look at how I can examine why I like something in extremely ornate prose. Look at how vapid sports pundits and mindless consumers of pop culture are. This goes for both the person who enjoys writing it and the person who enjoys reading it. Both of these pieces serve no purpose but to prop up an ego collapsing under its perception of its lack of real-world accomplishment. Whew, crisis averted, I must be worthwhile for having these complicated thoughts and not being those dumb people.

    This is in contrast to the piece by the same author Why Standard Fantasy Football Rots and How To Fix It. This actually describes a problem and then attempts to solve it. This is actually interesting and insightful because an improvement to former thinking on a subject is attempted. Rather than wondering what or why about yourself like why you like something in the most complicated prose possible or declaring to yourself you're not part of a conspicuous group of dumb people, you are attempting to improve something that exists in the real world in a way that could somehow succeed. This is what worthwhile writing is.

  7. rcbuss says:

    This reminds very much of reading Carson Cistulli's pieces for back in 2009, before they added him on permanently. Now, he does podcasts, and is perhaps the reason for the spin-off NotGraphs. The fact that it's different from what Brian writes doesn't necessarily mean that it is without value.

    Keep up the good work.

  8. Ed Anthony says:

    I believe you mean "NFL football is manna to a starving man." (First line under the pic.) Mana is a godlike force believed to dwell in an object and while the term may apply to the NFL it's context in that particular sentence is incorrect.

  9. John Morgan says:

    Thanks, Ed.

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