No Contest

Library of Congress

When sports is all about the money, every call is a chance to make a buck

Some white boy in Texas killed four people while drunk driving and wasn’t held responsible because he’s rich. There is maybe more nuance to the story than that, but what matters is that it’s yet more proof of just how bad people are at creating truth systems. Our institutions finally recognize wealth as a mental illness, but only when the wealthy need an alibi. People hardly even pretend the justice system is fair; rather it’s an exercise in constructing elaborate explanations for maintaining the status quo.

This sort of madness is why sports are so popular: Everything off the field may be unfair, but inside there are rules, and rulings that must be respected. The result you see on the field is the result at the press conference. But the epistemological ceasefire that characterized professional athletics is coming to an end. Soon enough, no one will even know what sports is.

Blame football. The official NFL rulebook and companion casebook is a 221-page-long study on how to make a sport less about the sport itself than its protocols. For example, “Enforcement Spot During a Backward Pass or Fumble” is a riveting read, all eight different case studies. The byzantine impenetrability of these rules has given birth to what is now the league’s defining narrative: jurisprudential controversy. A November 18 game between the Carolina Panthers and New England Patriots ended on a reversed ruling that handed the game to the Panthers. Making sense of the ruling via referee Clete Blakeman’s explanation is an awful bit of fun:

So it was determined at that point in time that when the primary contact occurred on the tight end that the ball, in essence, was coming in underthrown and, in essence, it was immediately at that point intercepted at the front end of the end zone. So there was a determination that, in essence, uncatchability, that the ball was intercepted at or about the same time the primary contact against the receiver occurred.

It reads like the work of a philosophy major making a grand statement on the deeper meaning of how he failed to do the reading. The beauty of it is that this Gordian statement of illogic is arguably the correct call per the game’s own protocols. Somehow, the referees’ huddle has mutated into a graduate seminar.

The NFL’s zero-tolerance policy on the natural eccentricities inherent to sport has inevitably led to it becoming less of a sport and more of a search for some epistemologically pleasing sense of how football should be played. Every year, new case studies add even more layers of indecipherable jargon to the game’s master text, and it’s up to dudes in zebra suits to make sense of it all. It’s the ultimate performance of technocratic regulation as fundamental truth. Beyond the frustration and distrust that pop up when no one understands why one team won the game, watching a sport ruled by protocol is a slog. Any given play can devolve into a debate on what does and does not constitute an institutionally acceptable expression of football. If not for the distraction of very large men blasting into each other at high speed, football would be one of those deeply weird, deep-cut Monty Python skits that no one ever quotes.

Understanding just how much money is involved here is the only way any of it makes any sense. The NFL posted $9.5 billion in revenue in 2012 and commissioner Roger Goodell has set a goal of tripling annual revenue by 2027. Sport may be a beautiful concept, but its true expression is best found in a YMCA pickup game and not in a publicly funded multibillion dollar stadium. Sports is a racket, and a racket is about control. Having already taken control of an entire sport, the NFL is now trying to make it do exactly what it wants. This is what happens in any monopolized industry.

While a great deal of attention is paid to the NFL’s attempts to placate those concerned about the game’s tendency to produce traumatic brain injury, its rule manipulations are about creating a more profitable product. The present iteration of the game is geared toward faster and higher-scoring games because fast, high-scoring games have the most universal appeal. In pursuing this change, the NFL has sought to alter the reality of the game it sells. Consider that a professional football game can take about three hours to play despite containing only 11 minutes of actual football. The takeaway is that the NFL is making an obscene fortune on the back of (unguaranteed) player contracts and still wants more.

This is the same ur-capitalist psychosis that remade the global economy into a pyramid scheme built on abstract chaos math equations. Owning the system wasn’t enough, the system had to be remade into something even more profitable, and it had to be done in time for the next quarterly financial report. The NFL is no longer concerned with what happens beyond that.

What will happen is already in progress. The game of football is now an aesthetic mess whose governance is maligned by media and fans alike. We’re talking about actual serious arguments between grown adults over whether we can ever truly know what “pass interference” is. And what’s worse, this Great Leap Forward in monetizing the already monetized is starting to fuck up other sports too.

Baseball, a game of bastard origin known for its delightfully self-serious ways, is expanding its use of replay and tweaking existing rules to speed along the pace of a game whose iconic player is a big old fat guy. While the game’s puritanical distaste for change has endured, the imagined disgrace of steroids has triggered a different aspect of that puritanism and readied the public’s appetite for stronger regulators. The regulators have been granted disastrously free reign. This could be seen in the aftermath of Armando Galarraga’s 2010 blown perfect game. A replay of the would-be final out revealed the Detroit Tigers pitcher was robbed by umpire Jim Joyce when he mistakenly called the runner safe at first. Just an out away from one of sport’s rarest achievements—there have been only 21 perfect games since 1900—Galarraga was felled by human error. Everyone could see right away the call was wrong—why not set it right?

It’s hard not to feel for Galarraga, but since when is sport more about reason than fun? People don’t watch sports because they’re some perpetually morphing engine of market-informed profitability models structurally tweaked for maximum enjoyment and micromanaged by cameras; they watch because it’s fun to watch people perform amazing feats of bodily manipulation. Rules are there to give players sidelines to dive for and fences to stretch over and that’s it—the quirks and imperfections that result are intrinsic. Tinkering with a sport in order to increase its profitability comes with the risk of ruining what made it a profitable industry in the first place. Even the sociopaths running soccer get that.

It’s no less damningly craven a racket, it is about money after all, but at least the oligarchs who have monopolized soccer understand their product. The game’s eccentricities are the game’s eccentricities—scoring is rare, players flop like crisis actors, and the stacks are, surprise, still stacking. That’s because soccer is run with the patrician ease that comes when you’ve got an old-money scam that still pays. The major American sports are starting to run like ’80s chop-shop brokerage firms, all hustle and desperation. Glazing your perfectly legal circus with the paranoia of a major criminal enterprise is not just unnecessary, but a good way to ruin the con.

While cringingly soulless coverage in the infected vein of brand-obsessed haircuts like Darren Rovell is making a news vertical out of the business of sports, no one should ever care about any of that. A sports fan who cares about the Dallas Cowboys’ valuation has forgotten the purpose of sports and is likely an asshole. Sports are entertainment, and (most) fans know that. However, the emerging threat is that our watched understanding no longer squares up with what the leagues have determined to be the most profitable and epistemologically clean version of those sports. That is a horribly boring possible future and a one that violates the sports fan’s bargain.

The fans bankroll the enterprise, every bit of it, and what they’re paying for is an understanding that the product won’t be ruined. Fandom is a fundamentally nostalgic existence, and the optimism which fans thrive on is rooted in that nostalgia. We dedicate the past to memory and dream of the future exceeding it, even though we willfully surrender any control over what happens this season. Tailoring the game to better fit the outsize desires ignited by sport is an objectively horrible idea because fans are, by definition, not objective. The monopoly leagues trusted to keep the product pure are using the most biased group possible to inform their regulations. This isn’t sports; it’s American Idol.

Managing what happens in a game to instantly gratify fans is when sports get dystopian. Once a sport disregards its most basic traditions, the monopolist self-regulation ensures their devolution. The result is games so precisely attuned to financial consequences that they cease to be contests and become like all other forms of entertainment, where the most profitable thing and the thing that happens are one and the same. Football fans know this fear well: In the 2001 AFC divisional playoff game, officials reversed a crucial fumble that would have effectively handed the contest to the Oakland Raiders, setting up the media-friendly New England Patriots to win in dramatic fashion. It wasn’t that the reviewing refs had blown the call in the traditional sense, it’s that they chose to confer and concoct from the rules an explanation for a scenario in which the Patriots got the ball back. In every game, every play even, there’s always a more profitable outcome, and just a handful of months after 9/11, with the Pats opening a new stadium the next year and the Raiders a pesky down-market franchise, every fan, ref, and player knew what it was. There are no secrets to hide when protocols fail by design.

The rules are what keep us from ruining the sports we love. They are the wall that keeps sports from serving our own fleeting passions. Without our measured consent, the -monopolies are playing to those transient interests in an effort to disguise their own enrichment as service. But the appetite for total techno-vigilance mistakes games for a search for absolute truth. The question is whether increased regulation will make sports better, more competitive, fairer. It won’t. The bottom line is the bottom line: Every rule change, every reviewed play is an opportunity for short-sighted profit-hungry leagues to nudge the outcome, which makes each one a liability for sports.