Sunday, January 18, 2015

XLIX - Completing the Process

The NFL's money men are already drooling over the prospect of next year's game. Not only will dropping the Roman numeral L in favor of the Arabic number 50 have been a boon to the marketing campaign revolving around gold (golden anniversary played in the Golden State at the home of the gold mining 49ers) and the power of technology to enhance, nay, perfect the football experience, but the game will culminate in the decisive moment being determined by a referee standing in the endzone staring intently onto a Microsoft Surface handed to him along with Bose headphones as Jim Nantz and Phil Simms will be sure to remind viewers. Played in the hyper-connected Levi's Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers, closer to the Google, Facebook and Apple headquarters than any actual San Franciscan, over 100 million people will bear witness to the final triumph of technology over nature, bits and glitz over blood and guts. So lost in concern over whether the receiver completed the process, the process will be complete, and never again will we be lost in the moment.

Fear not football fans, we've got at least one last hoorah before they take the game completely away from us: the Seattle Seahawks against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX. A dream match-up in itself with the top seeded team from each conference facing off in the desert. Of course, this doesn't guarantee an epic contest as proven last year as the Seahawks demolished their fellow #1 Broncos 43-8, but the classic potential is there. (In fact, doing a bit of quick math puts paid to the idea that having #1 seeds promises a good game as the average score in the 10 games is 36-14, a cumulative 357-142 score). At least equally convincing in favor of a classic confrontation, the teams have split their sixteen meetings with the last game in 2012 finishing 24-23 Seahawks.

First Quarter - Pumping up the Pressure

As is always the case, story lines abound. Of course Deflategate has turned the game of inches into pounds per square inch and is threatening to further tarnish Pats coach Bill Belichik reputation. You may remember the last time they won the big one spawned another 'gate' scandal, Spygate in '07. Together with QB Tom Brady, they've won three Super Bowls, with Brady winning them in his first four years, but they've also suffered two Super Bowl defeats, the last coming in Sunday's venue, the University of Phoenix Stadium where the Giants spoiled the Patriots bid for a perfect season in 2008. Another loss will see Brady join John Elway, Jim Kelly and Fran Tarkenton as three-time losing QBs while a win will put the Belichik-Brady tandem on par with Joe Montana-Bill Walsh and Terry Bradshaw-Chuck Noll.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was the last man to coach the Pats before Bill; he was fired in '99. Now, he looks to lead his team to the first back-to-back Super Bowls since, um, the Pats over a decade ago. His team's calling card might be defence, but it's QB Russell Wilson who has brought them to the playoffs all three of his seasons and now looks to follow Brady in winning two Super Bowls in his first three years. Yeah, the defence is great and is looking to earn the all-time great stamp, one that may be deserved if they beat Manning and Brady in consecutive years. Inarguably, the two best corners will be taking the field as Darrelle Revis has resurrected Revis Island since coming to New England and the younger, brasher Richard Sherman takes the field for Seattle with all eyes on his elbow. Maybe he'll be wearing his "U MAD BRO?" T-shirt?

Regardless, the public's appetite for scandal has made Deflategate the game's headline, and, in fact, the nation's leading news story: the PTB's (powers that be) perfect weapon of mass distraction. It's perfect fodder to swipe those other, you know, less important problems such as domestic abuse and the concussion crisis under the rug. It's easier to take a side on cheating than to examine the morality of supporting a sport that drives still young men to kill themselves or beat their loved ones. Better to have our Twitter feeds and Facebook walls cluttered by astrophysicists weighing in about football air inflation temperature than the planet setting a new yearly global record high temperature. Similarly, Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch is being portrayed on our screens as a "disrespectful, unprofessional dick" or a "pampered brat" after showing up to media day under threat of a $500,000 fine only to repeat 25 times "I'm here so I won't get fined." Easier to swallow that pill than to see his refusal to play Uncle Tom as a work to rule campaign with links to the steady erosion of our freedoms, growing inequality and the struggle highlighted last summer in Ferguson, Missouri. Marshawn's been warned not to grab his crotch so that the only ball's that will be squeezed will be the Patriots pigskins

TV Timeout - Trials and Tribulations

The NFL has it's stage set and definitely doesn't want to see any Sherman-esque taunting or Lynch-ian ball grabbing on the field tainting the league's carefully crafted image. Er, yeah, about that, does anybody even remember all the way back to say, September? No? Don't worry, you're not alone, seems nobody can much remember anything any more. Well, to bring you up to speed, there was a moment when much of America was starting to question their support of America's favorite sport. It had become impossible to deny the link between the battered brains of ex-NFL suicide victims and the day-to-day pounding meted out on their grey matter on the field. The acronym CTE was making its way into public consciousness as the concussion crisis was  the first waves of unease caused by supporting a sport that ultimately winds up destroying the lives of many people if not killing them.

Awareness that teams extort money from local governments to build stadiums and be given tax breaks was bubbling to the surface. Uncomfortable questions were being asked about how the league's exploitation of cancer awareness seemed to put players and merchandisers' revenues in the pink but wasn't doing much for the cause. Some wondered why the NFL doesn't pays any of their $10 billion to anyone besides themselves as not a penny reaches Uncle Sam. Another Sam, Michael didn't make the Rams, leaving the league without any openly gay player for another year. Then a grainy security tape showed up on a gossip website showing Ravens star running back Ray Rice dragging a woman out of a casino elevator almost causing the whole thing to come crashing down.

When the team, league and the commissioner did what they have always done, levy meaningless fines and insufficient suspensions, they were caught off guard by the public's reaction. What could the people want? Not only had they suspended him for two games but the victim had practically placed the blame on herself! Public rage was fuelled by the release of a second, more damning tape together with news and pictures of the injuries inflicted on his son by Viking star Adrian Peterson combined with the league's meagre response and seemingly indifferent attitude. Enter the PR men and the usual distraction circus of press conferences, releases and appearances. Although the league finally threw both players out of the league (albeit temporarily), in order to assuage public misgivings about the handling of the situation, the public still needed more to determine who knew what and when. So, the NFL employed what has become the western world's final arbitrer of right and wrong: the independent inquiry.

Like a magical wand, these investigations make uncomfortable problems disappear. They go by different names, enquiries, commissions or probes, but whether we're troubled by assassinating, bombing, torturing, lying, or blowing up the world economy, the formula is always the same. First an 'independent' truth seeker with gravitas is named, in this case it was ex-FBI director Robert S. Mueller III, not only a partner in the law firm which helped negotiate the NFL's Sunday Ticket package but who also represented the Washington football team's owner Dan Snyder. Next, promise access to all pertinent records and employees knowing full well that any paper trail has been wiped clean and loose-lips silenced. Finally, the case is closed with the release of a report ripe with reproval and recommendations but devoid of damning evidence, the whole thing designed to make the headlines without altering the baselines. The veneer of justice ensures nothing needs to change.

Our instant gratification, hyper connected environment, filled with facts, pseudo facts, misinformation, and rumour all posing as information has led to a growing disconnect between reality and perception and seems to be hurtling to the point of no return. It's gotten to where the simplest conversation has turned into a mine field strewn with ignorance, disinformation and falsehoods threatening to explode at every step. The irony is that what was supposed to put the sum of all human knowledge within our grasp, ie. technology and the internet, has in fact been the status quo's Trojan Horse.

Instead of smuggling in Greek soldiers, the underbelly of the shiny promise of knowledge and empowerment hid the noose of expectation to be at the beck and call of your family, friends, lovers, clients and boss 24/7, and the thief of reflection time, robbing us of space for deeper, more critical thinking. Although we think we're getting a lot done by doing several things at once, in the end it makes us demonstrably less efficient and more ignorant while we are increasingly convinced of the opposite. No wonder war criminals avoid prosecution and are awarded humanitarian awards, financial fraudsters skip jail and proceed directly to go and corporate criminals are given incentives to further desecrate the planet. If the casual fan's media lens wasn't so clouded by the hype machine, they may have even taken note that Aaron Hernandez murder trial finally got under way during the bye week. Rinse and repeat.

Second Quarter - Visor v. Gronk

For all intents and purposes Seattle shouldn't even be here, I mean, ESPN’s win probability bot gave the Seahawks a 3.9 percent chance of winning after trailing the Packers 19-7 with 5:04 left in the conference championship. Meanwhile, there was never a moments doubt the Patriots were beating the Colts. Now, how do they stack up against each other? At QB, Tom Brady, in the denouement of his career which has seen more playoff wins than 21 NFL teams, versus Russell Wilson, still in his opening act, looking to hit pay day after his rookie contract expires, doesn't get any better. Yet, it seems to me that the LOB (Seahawks defensive backs, the Legion of Boom) should be able to dominate the smallish Patriots wide receivers while the Patriots secondary features perhaps the best man coverage in football. Having CBs Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman for the Pats and Hawks lined up against the likes of WRs Doug Baldwin and Brandon LaFell respectively unfair at best and a waste of talent at worst.

The Patriots also feature two undersized wideouts in Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. The former, a converted college QB has been a prolific producer for the past couple of years and finally threw his first TD pass against the Ravens in the divisional game. The latter was seemingly forgotten for over a year after coming over from the Rams but recently rediscovered and making key contributions. The key passing match-up will be the Visor v. Gronk, Seahawk SS Kam Chancellor against Patriot TE Rob Gronkowski. Kam's hit on Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas early in last year game set the tone while Gronk has the same game changing ability, Gronk catch, Gronk smash. Gronk score; whoever comes out on top in this match up may lead his team to victory.

On paper, the ground game seems to favor Seattle as Marshawn Lynch has been in Beast Mode the past few months, but Belichik has gotten a lot of miles out of the three-headed attack of LeGarrette Blount, Shane Vereen and Jonas Gray.  Bill picked up Blount off the Steelers trash heap (conspiratorially or not) and has ridden him much as he did last year after plucking him from the Bucs. The Seahawks are dangerously thin at defensive tackle leaving the middle of their line susceptible to a steady battering of Blount, who suddenly seemed to find lateral jump two weeks ago. Conversely, the Patriots defense might be disciplined enough to, if not stop, at least contain Wilson's read option and tackle Lynch after first contact. Unless Jermaine Kearse or Ricardo Lockette can find a way to beat Pat's corners Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan, it could be a long day for the Seattle offense.

Half Time - "Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral."

Katy, Emily, Zooey and Siwan. Mix and match!

Yeah, Katy Perry. Hooray tits. Really? Two years running the NFL has misjudged the world when it comes to half time entertainment and been 'forced' to add a second headliner act. What's up with that exactly? Are they so out of touch they don't realize that Bruno Mars isn't exactly on the play list of most NFL fans? Bouncing boobs are great when they're on cheerleaders but don't really cut it when it comes to the biggest half hour in sports entertainment. Seriously. Will someone just let me know what's going on?

Maybe I'll just tell you what I think. Ironically, while opening up the world to anyone, any time, any where to both potential stardom and being exposed to the next big thing, technology has in fact narrowed our range of choices and limited the prospects of superstar wannabees. Sure, anyone can upload their version of Rolling in the Deep and we can listen to almost anything ever recorded on demand, but the the very same technology is being used to produce and feed us an endless loop of the same rhythm as our brains are wired to crave the melodies we already know.

Gangham Style might have over a billion Youtube views but does anyone believe it has anything on Like a Rolling Stone, or anything by the Beatles, or I don't know, even Bananarama? No longer is there a global consensus about what constitutes a superstar. As social media has allowed us to share more but really caused us to shut ourselves off from any opposing world view and cable TV has given us a bigger window on the world that really only feeds us sound bites empty of substance, the entertainment industry now measures, tracks, polishes and artificially sweetens everything to our taste by squeezing out every drop of individuality.

There was a decade-ish window that saw the NFL tear through all the acts the world agreed were worthy of Super Bowl half time stardom when we saw the Jacksons, Michael in '93 and Janet's nipple in '04, U2, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, The Who, Prince, Tom Petty and of course a few mixes featuring the likes of Madonna and climaxing with Beyonce three years ago. It seemed so normal at the time, instead of marching bands or Up With People we'd have acts that everyone agreed were, if not cool, at least universal. Well, I'll tell you what, the wonders of Youtube and Facebook have guaranteed that we'll never have such a time of agreement again and no it's not good, bad or neutral but it is pretty bland.

Third Quarter - Hail Mary

Imagine for a second describing a defenseless receiver personal foul to a fan in the 70s. "Wait. So, you're telling me that the defensive player can't hit the receiver until he has 'clearly become a runner'? No wonder receivers run recklessly over the middle, fearless where they once were fearful and quarterbacks regularly throw for 5,000 yards today." When Dan Marino first did it back in 1984 it was monumental; Drew Brees accomplishing it in 2008 was something; then when three QBs did it following more rule changes to favor the passing game in 2011, 5,000 became the new 4,000. Not satisfied with the myriad of other rules favoring the offense the league decided to make defensive holding and illegal contact 'a point of emphasis' this year. Surprise! Two of top four yardage weeks in league history happened before the end of October. A couple of more flags per game is water off a ducks back as long as it contributes to finally converting the game from one of strategy and determination into one where if I've got a flashier quarterback and bigger, taller receiving corps, I win.

Why not? As passing and scoring has skyrocketed, so have the ratings and revenue, and, as we know by now, the market determines what is right and wrong, right? After the Pats dominated the Colts in '03, the league changed the way they enforced pass interference so Peyton Manning wouldn't look so bad. Hooray, more points. The rule change that allows the offensive team to use their own game balls in 2006 thanks to lobbying by the likes of, um, Tom Brady, was passed unanimously by the rules committee, cuz, you know, what could go wrong? After all, it's a "comforting factor for the quarterback to use his own balls". Meander over here to have a look at the rule changes implemented over the past 35 years to favor the passing game.

Thank dog I didn't watch the Pro Bowl (who actually watches the Pro Bowl?), but reading about the rule changes implemented for the game actually gave me shivers. Highlights: No kickoffs; teams start at the 25 yard line. Two time outs per quarter, although only being able to carry over one into the 2nd or 4th quarter. POSSESSION changes at the end of each quarter along with two minute warnings! Adjustable width uprights for point afters and field goals. Crazy clock management with it stopping on plays gaining less than a yard with under two minutes to play and only 35 second play clocks only being wound after the officials spot the ball. Oh, and of course a trial run of the new instant replay tablet system. Fan response to all of these tweaks will have been surveyed, responses measured and committees formed to decide which ones will leak into the rulebook. The human brain being what it is, a short term pleasure seeking zombie, guarantees the changes selected will be those that give instant jolts but leave the fans starved in the long run.

TV Timeout - An exercise in excess

What Super Bowl post would be complete without a segment devoted to the commercials and consumption statistics swirling around the game. Viewership should bump up against last year's 111.5 million which is why NBC can charge $4.5 million for a 30-second spot. Sounds like much will be of the usual fare, puppies and beer (or both) but will have a burger commercial with a near-naked woman and a lingerie ad with fully padded women. This year will also continue the trend of brands you've never heard of trying to garner some gossip by splashing out with the likes of, Loctite and Mophie, a website builder, super glue and smartphone case respectively. While NBC has the game, the real battle for eyeballs and attention will be online. 5.6 million tweeters will be paying only partial attention to the game while sending 25.3 million tweets. Youtube will livestream its own halftime show plus host Ad Blitz which rang up 379 million views as people voted for their favorite commercial.

325 million gallons of beer will wash down 1.23 billion chicken wings and 11 million pounds of chips often covered by some of the 158 million avocados used to make guacamole contributing to the 2,400 calories consumed by the average viewer (the 2nd most gluttonous day in the US after Thanksgiving). About $3.8 billion will be wagered illegally compared to the $100 million in legal bets. All told, Americans will dish out $14.3 billion on merchandise, apparel and food. Mysteriously, all apparently cause for celebration, as is the fact that ticket prices have unaccountably soared this year, the cheapest seat crossing the $10,000 threshold as of Friday morning and heading straight up. Did you know you could short sell tickets just like stocks? Hooray for the 'free' market!

Of course the glitz and glory cover up even more troubling numbers, from the inside out. XLIX host Glendale, Arizona, the city that was ruined by sports, will spend about $30 million and, as mayor Jerry Weirs predicts, "I totally believe we will lose money on this". The list of demands of the hosts by the NFL reads like those of a visiting monarch. Much like the monarchy, the league imposes a direct opportunity cost, money that could be spent on say, education or infrastructure in exchange for value that can only be imputed. Studies have shown that while fans do bring in revenue there is no way to tell how much or even rule out losses due to football fans crowding out other tourists. Another monarchy similarity, the NFL receives full exemption from city, county and state taxes. The stadium's name, the University of Phoenix is the online for-profit education company sucked $3.7 billion from taxpayers in 2012 alone and has ruined the lives of countless others with its deceptive recruiting techniques selling the dream of a ticket to the top which invariably turns out to be a debt slavery nightmare.

All this in a state where the top 1% captured a higher percentage of income growth between 1979 and 2007 than any other (84.2%). A state where the government is taken to court for short changing the schools while seriously considering cutting the state income tax. In a country that believes in economic recovery heralded by the media that buries the fact that unemployment is only sinking thanks to millions dropping out of the work force and the mini boom of slave wage jobs. A country that has seen the top 1% take more than 100% of the post crisis income growth (thanks to a decline in the income of the 99%). Where the existing inequality was the main driver in most of the causes of said crisis. This in a world where 80 people own more than 3.5 billion and the 1%'s wealth is projected to pass the 99%'s later this year. Yes, it is, has been and will be a Super Bowl for the rich while the majority stand and applaud being trodded upon. That whole dearth of critical thinking thing sure is a good thing for those higher ups, hey?

Fourth Quarter - Up for Grabs

Don't get me wrong. I still love this game and despite the trials and tribulations swirling around the game that occasionally prick my conscience, this season was by all objective measures a classic. Despite the league's best efforts to turn itself into the Arena Football League, teams such as the Cowboys showed that you can win consistently by building an offensive line through the draft and running your workhorse thirty times a game. Giants rookie Odell Beckham Jr. made perhaps the single most stunning catch in league history against the Cowboys. Just watch it. Again. And again. And yet again.

The Arizona Cardinals soared until injuries clipped their wings. The Cincinnati Bengals made the playoffs only to go one and out for the fourth consecutive year led by QB Andy Dalton. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers told the Cheesehead nation to "relax" and went on to pile up dazzling stats (8-0 at home; 25 TDs 0 ints, 38-5 overall) while leading his team to the NFC North crown. Now if we can somehow stop those horrible Hans and Franz State Farm commercials. And J.J. Watt did it all. I mean, imagine him on a good team. The Steelers completed their transformation from dependable defensive dynasty to schizophrenic sideshow as they followed up back to back six touchdown performances by QB Ben Roesthlisberger in victories over the Colts and Ravens with a loss the the Jets.

Speaking of the Steelers, their WR Antonio Brown somewhat stealthily became the best wide receiver in a wide receiver league. Sure, teams need a QB to get them the ball, but it seems that this is the era of the dominant WR. Calvin Johnson set the mold for Dez Bryant, AJ Green, Julio Jones and Demaryius Thomas to follow. The amazing rookie campaigns OBJ, Panther Kelvin Benjamin, Mike Evans of the Bucs along with the oft-injured Bill Sammy Watkins promises that Alshon Jeffery, T.Y. Hilton, Jordy Nelson, Emmanuel Sanders and Golden Tate will have plenty of company. Heck, even Steve Smith Sr. had a huge impact this year.

Just yesterday it seemed the tight ends were going to take over, but apart from Gronk and maybe Martellus Bennett and Cam Olsen, no tight end had a stellar season. Meanwhile, the legal problems of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson probably put a stake in the heart of the idea of building a team around a running back. With a good enough offensive line, the RB becomes an interchangeable piece allowing teams to draft young legs in the mid to late rounds or pick up a Justin Forsett off another team's trash heap.

Which brings me back after a circuitous journey to the game itself. It's time to make my yearly Super Bowl prediction. Too bad few will get to this point as it has proven to be the most valuable moment of my six Super Bowl posts to date (5-1 straight up and against the spread, see here, here, here, here, here and here. Damn Saints-Colts!). Love him or hate him, Wily Bill, if you're in the former group, Darth Hoodie or Bill Bellicheat for the latter, will figure out a new way to bend the rulebook, hopefully involving Vince Wilfork late in the game to give the Patriots a dramatic, controversial, until it's forgotten three days later, 23-20 win. Oh, yeah, that catch in next year's Super Bowl, completing the process, will look a bit like this.