The Law of Gus

Ostensibly, this post discusses Michael Oriard’s fine book, Brand NFL, which I enjoyed. This post also serves as a companion piece to another post from about a year ago, “Every Sacrifice Needs a Witness.” I will try not to repeat points I have already made. I mention both of these things because I am starting in what will seem like an unrelated place for a book largely about football marketing and labor relations.

First, there exists a theory about sportscaster Gus Johnson. articulated by Bill Simmons:

I keep mentioning the Law of Gus without ever really defining it, so let’s do it right now. If Gus Johnson is calling an NFL game, the odds quintuple that (A) the lead will change hands in the fourth quarter; (B) someone will complete a long pass in a big moment that will make Gus’ voice hit an octave only dogs can hear; and (C) the game will go into overtime or at least come damned close. It seems impossible that the mere presence of an announcer would alter the course of the game, but . . .

Here are some of Johnson’s greatest moments and phrases . . .

One might perform some kind of statistical analysis of Johnson’s games, and perhaps discover that indeed there are more big moments, more exciting comebacks, than for other announcers. One could come up with any number of plausible materialistic explanations for this, i.e., Johnson is the best announcer, so they put him on the best games. Possibly, one might grant some kind of psychological reason–the players know that Johnson is announcing and that if they make a great play they will attain youtube immortality with the Gus Johnson call in accompaniment.

But . . .maybe there exists some kind of transformation of reality when Gus Johnson announces a game. Perhaps at times he is not merely a sportscaster, but a ringmaster. Otherwise, how could Vermont possibly beat Syracuse? I mean, Vermont?

Secondly, why do so many athletes pray before and during a game? On the one hand, it seems so silly. Surely God cares nothing for a mere game, and surely . . . athletes know this? Yet the behavior persists. Growing up I played baseball in high school, and we prayed the Lord’s Prayer before games, though my coach seemed indifferent to religion. I confess that praying before a baseball game seemed a bit off to me then and now, but football . . . that’s different. Though I never played high school football, I never experienced a combination of more fear and elation than in 10th grade, when catching a pass in a playground game with friends, I juked John–a merciless tackler now embarrassed and enraged–and then had to outrun him for 40 yards. Never again would I run as fast as I did that day, and strange (and sad) as it may seem, I still remember the exact words of praise I received from one friend after that run.

Aside from the “foolishness” of associating prayer with sports, many would object to differentiating between sports and the “appropriateness” of prayer at such events. If prayer “works” with one sport, it should work with another. But I would rank the major sports from Most to Least appropriate to associate with prayer thusly:

  • Football
  • Hockey
  • Basketball
  • Baseball

My explanation . . .

Football involves the highest levels of 1) Danger/”sacrifice” and 2) Communal action. Baseball involves some danger (batters facing a 95 mph fastball, pitchers dodging a comeback linedrive), but that danger is limited to just a few people at a particular moment. Baseball might have more danger than basketball, but much less communal action. One could stand out in right field all day and have literally zero impact on the game. In basketball everyone on the court can rebound, pass, etc. and will have to do so at some point. During football games, almost anyone can get injured on almost any play, and, in contrast to baseball (but not hockey or basketball quite as much) everyone on the offense or defense has to move together, i.e., “communal action.”* It is “communal action” that sports mimic religion, and that added element of danger and drama provide catharsis to players and fans alike–just as every Sunday, in liturgical worship, worshippers go through the journey of death and resurrection.

As good as Oriard’s book is, it never even broaches subjects like this, and so his analysis comes up a bit thin in parts.

Oriard played NFL football for Kansas City, and he combines his personal experience with good writing and insightful analysis in certain parts. I loved his take on the relationship between the changing passing rules and the increasing size of lineman, a nice compliment to Michael Lewis’ The Blind Side. Though he has an obvious bias in his discussions of the labor issues that beset the NFL between 1974-1987, I found it hard to disagree with him, or to dispute his claim that labor peace contributed significantly to the NFL’s rise to prominence in the 1990’s.

At times, however, Oriard wants it both ways. He laments the “paternalism” of the NFL’s in the 1950’s and 60’s with its coaches treating players like a strong, willful, caring, but occasionally crazy father. But when that era ended and players got more power, they also seemed to get into more trouble. Or–more likely, became bigger targets for journalists in the post-Watergate era, trained to always look for what lay behind the curtain. So, when players started to get exposed for taking drugs, did that primarily implicate the league, the player, or the fan who looked the other way so long as they “performed” on the field?

Oriard’s method of laying out the issues, is quite familiar to us, and helpful in a way. We have our tradition of two political parties, prosecution and defense, etc. But we have no way to “break through” the common divides over such questions with the lens Oriard gives us. Another example—Oriard professes confusion as to why the public tended to side with the owners in the strikes in the 70’s and 80’s. Most of the time, people side with workers against “the man,” but not when it came to players striking. Oriard offers the possibility that the public wanted nothing to do with a dispute between billionaires and millionaires as an explanation. But that would only work if the public blamed each side equally. Besides, players did not really become “millionaires” until the late 1980’s at the earliest. If Oriard frames the issues well, his frame needs enlarged.

That fans tended to side with owners in labor disputes has its true explanation in the fact that elite athletes exist outside normal categories. Obviously they have outsized physical gifts, but I mean something more: their participation in liturgized communal danger “transforms” them into something more than a regular person. They morph into priests of ritualized conflict. We, the fans, acknowledge this, but perhaps only semi-consciously. Players may not be as rich as owners, but we do not watch highlights of owner’s meetings, we do not put owners on the covers of magazines, and we do not dream of being an owner–we dream of being Lebron, Tom Brady, Messi, and so on. Money is nothing compared to one’s ability to break tackles and run for 50 yards. When the chance to participate, however indirectly, in such a transformation gets “taken away,” we naturally focus on those to whom we give glory.** Mary Renault’s imagining of Theseus at Crete with the bull dancers in her The King Must Die give us perhaps a more accurate picture than Oriard. For Renault, the bull-dancers were pampered, feted, praised, glorified . . . and not expected to live long. No one cared about those that owned the bull-dancers one way or another.

As Oriard notes, when people dislike baseball they call it boring, but when they dislike football they find football “inhuman.” Not having the religious lens, again Oriard can’t quite see why this might be, beyond the violence of football. But both criticisms are correct. Baseball between two bad teams in August can personify boredom. The ritualized violence of football indeed both degrades and transcends normal human life. The ancients that went into battle understood this, the Greeks, the Vikings, and so on. This should give us additional perspective on the goal and achievement of medieval chivalry. To go into battle and remain something akin to a normal human being–neither a beast nor a dark god–stands as a tremendous achievement for a civilization. To reject Achilles and Alexander the Great as models for war, you need a strong, real, and powerful replacement.

I thought Oriard spot-on when discussing the narrative of domestic abuse and violence off the field. He showed decisively that players do not commit more crimes than the average person, and are not more violent than the average citizen. But in his discussion of drug-use, Oriard misses the religious side of the question. To share another brief personal example . . . very few fans ever came to our high school baseball games. But one day we played our arch rival. Late in the game, I came up with the bases loaded, down a run. I hit a line-drive over the 3rd baseman’s head, and I as I ran to first, I heard the roar of the crowd. Alas–it went foul by an inch or so–had it been fair at least 2 runs score, maybe we win, and maybe I’m the hero. When it might have gone fair, running down to first, hearing the crowd . . . a transcendent feeling. As it turned out, a couple of pitches later I grounded into a double-play–inning over. We ended up losing. Anyone who has played organized sports can relate to this experience. What one might feel in front of 50,000 instead of 150 I can only guess. That one might try and artificially recreate that feeling of transformation makes perfect sense, though a losing proposition from the start.

Of course I think religion important and often neglected as a subject, but I don’t praise every religion, any more that I applaud football’s connection to religion. In fact, football’s strong religious associations make it a viable competitor to the “higher” religion of Christianity. In addition to labor peace, football’s rise might also have something to do with the decline of institutional religion in America. Indeed love it or not, football seems the quintessential sport for a civilization founded at the edge of the world, a place where utopia mingles easily with violence.


*One can apply this lens to other sports . . . soccer, large amount of communal action, but little danger (despite the writhing of various soccer players), bullfighting and bullriding, with its high levels of danger with almost no communal action, and Formula 1, with its high level of danger, and high levels of communal action–but only behind the scenes, and the drivers being the only ones subject to great risk.

**One simple test for the religious nature of the sport and how much it draws in fans to the ritual participation is–do fans storm the field/court? They do so in football, and basketball too. But . . . not baseball.