Thursday, January 12, 2012

I Draw a Line in the Sand . . . And Then Erase It: Arguments Against The Digital First Down Line

Sometimes, you need to draw a line in the sand. A real line, not a digitally rendered line. And sometimes you have to write a letter to a real person. A digitally rendered letter, not a real letter. Who can afford stamps? So Commissioner Goodell or President Reilly-- that's Fox Broadcasting President Reilly-- I hope you stumble upon this digital epistle and take action . . . real action against a digital enemy.

In the past, I have been unafraid to take a stand against things that are so deeply entrenched in our culture that they appear well nigh unassailable. Nut shots. Super Bowl Sunday.

But I have grown wiser in my old age; I realize that I don't have the political clout or the rhetorical skills to transform Super Bowl Sunday into Super Bowl Saturday. I don't have the courage of my convictions to quell America's thirst for nut shots (part of me still thinks they're kind of funny). And I can't fight the entire West Coast, so big football games will always air later than I want them to. Serenity Prayer Now!

So I have decided to take on something smaller. Something that's not even real. Something that can't fight back. I am going to aim my powerful persuasive skills at an imaginary digital line. You know the line I am talking about: the digital first down line that has been omnipresent in televised football for the last decade. It doesn't matter if it is Sportsvision’s orange “First and Ten” line or rival PVI’s “Yellow Down Line,” I am against it. I am against the concept of digital lines on the TV screen during football games. I'm not telling you that one digital line is better than the other. I'm not being paid to endorse one digital line over another, if that's what you think. Stop thinking that. And I'm not going to end this with some spurious logic, and tell you that the line should be pink, in order to promote breast cancer awareness. I'm certainly against breast cancer, but I am also against pink digital lines.

I did some research, and while I now appreciate the work that goes into drawing that line, I am still against it. I'll explain why in a moment, but first you should know that the line is not drawn by some dude. The line is digitally modeled. There are color palettes and and instrumented cameras with digitally encoding lenses. Four computers and a crew of seven people are needed to draw the line. It's complicated: the line can't move when the camera moves. The line has to disappear when a player runs "over" it. The line has to match the curve of the field. It's pretty impressive when you think about it. But despite its impressiveness, the line does not make viewing football on television a better experience. Allow me to explain why.


When you are watching a play-- especially a running play-- and the runner approaches the line, your eyes flit to the line. They flit to the line and then back to the player and then back to the line. You're either rooting for the player to reach the line or you're rooting for him to get tackled, but your eyes can't help flitting to that luminescent vertical target. Try not to flit. I dare you. You might be able to pull it off, but it's all you'll be thinking about. I tried it. Trust me.

I don't want my eyes to flit.

When my eyes flit, I miss things. Jukes and spins and cuts. I miss seeing wide receivers making blocks. I miss real things, fun things, the things I sat down to watch . . . and instead my attention is drawn to a garish pixelated yellow thing. I don't want to look at that yellow thing! I want to watch the play! But I'm weak, I'll confess it. I can't look away. It's like cleavage. If I'm poked, I have to peek.



I wish I could focus better, but to be honest, my eyes flit all the time during a football game. They flit to the book I'm reading and they flit to the scrolling ticker at the bottom of the screen. I'm not going to finish the new Neal Stephenson novel if I don't read it in between plays, and I'm not going to convince the Fantasy Football contingent to remove the scrolling, statistic-spewing ticker at the bottom of the screen.

My eyes flit to my children, to make sure they're not drinking bleach or figuring out the rules of baseball. I will not allow my kids to truck with baseball. "And what about the children?" you might ask. "How will you explain football to your children without the giant yellow pixelated line as a teaching aid?"

This is a good point. It is wonderful that my seven year old son now understands football and can watch the game with me. This is in part due to the various red, yellow, and blue lines that the computer generates. I can say to him: "They need to get across that red line or they lose the ball. Because it's their fourth try."

But maybe seven year old kids shouldn't understand football. Maybe they should still be playing tag, instead of contemplating the pros and cons of the West Coast Offense. And if they are watching football, then maybe-- just maybe-- they should be working on their mental math skills, they way the G:TB staff did when we watched football as kids. Third and seven? And they're on the thirty-eight? Okay, so they need to get to the forty-five. It's not Calculus, but it's still mental exercise.

At this point you may be thinking: what are you? Some kind of purist? The answer to that is "No!" If I were a purist, I would get a lobotomy and watch baseball. I love the lack of purity in football. I love the way it appropriates technology and inserts it into the game. Radio receivers in the helmets? Sure! Cameras in the sky? Cool! A sensor in the ball that can sense the first down marker? Go for it! I love the way dynamic strategies infiltrate and change the game from year to year. Forward pass? Sounds good! Tackle eligible? As you like it! Spread offense? Even better!



The other day in my Composition class, we listened to George Carlin's classic routine "Baseball and Football," ostensibly because I wanted to illustrate the pros and cons of point-to-point organization, but actually because I wanted to see if the students preferred the pastoral and traditional nature of baseball or the dynamic, military nature of football. This was an honors class, so I was interested in what they would have to say. Oddly, they had nothing to say. Nada. No opinion. Then I remembered! This was an honors class. I polled them. There were a couple of baseball fans and a couple of football fans. In a class of thirty. The majority of the students were wondering who had the time to waste on such frivolity, when the AP Physics Exam was only five months away. So I never got to explain to them how much I enjoy the paradox of football-- Chuck Klosterman pointed this out to me-- how the game seems so conservative . . . think Brett Favre and Vince Lombardi . . . and yet it's actually the most "liberal" sport, as it has progressed from that rugby-like ur-match between Rutgers and Princeton to the option, the read offense and beyond.

So don't call me a purist. I even like that Foxtrax glow puck, though I'd be laughed out of Canada for admitting it.


When the announcer of the Denver/Pittsburgh game last week explained that new play-off overtime rules would be utilized for the first time ever, and then went on to explain the changes-- which required a full screen of bullet-pointed text-- I didn't bat an eye. I was all for it. The new rules had a good intention: to prevent an early field goal from ending sudden death over-time. If the new rules involved a Hunger Games style battle-royale, with the surviving members of each team forming a super-team that would advance to the next play-off round, I would have had no problem with that either. That's good TV.

But not every innovation adds interest to the game. In a world full of information, the digital first down line is bad information. It's too much information. It is information that the player doesn't have-- he knows approximately how far he has to go in order to get a first down, but he's not running towards a giant yellow line, and we shouldn't imagine such. As an audience, we are certainly presented with plenty of information that the players do not have access to-- camera angles and statistics and wind velocities-- but none of these ruins the drama of the game. The digital line does just that. You know the player has achieved a first down before the player knows, and you know because your eye has been flitting to this digital monstrosity instead of watching football.

Neil Postman has taught us that just because we have a technology, doesn't mean we have to use it. This is valuable logic, whether applied to nuclear warheads, tar sand refineries, or the digital line. Important and powerful people, if you are reading this, please take action. Do it for your eyes, do it for football, do it for your children's math skills. End the visual tyranny of the digital line.

55 comments:

zman said...

Did you just analogize the digital yellow first down line to a nuclear warhead?

Squeaky said...

Is football a sport if you can read books between plays?

Dave, you should switch to watching baseball. You would get through more reading.

Jerry said...

That is one bizarre, principled stand. I like it. I've got no problem with the yellow line though.

Dave said...

i think i've found my "special purpose." i'm going to fight that line until it is erased from every tv screen in america. then i'll take on that famine in south somalia.

Igor said...

Patton Oswalt echoes your sentiment hilariously in his bit called The Miracle of Childbirth, in which he states, "Science is all about coulda, not shoulda."

Listen to it, but beware, it's NSFW both because of adult words and also because peeing yourself laughing is bad for business. Dpeending on what business you're in.

Dave said...

i'll have to wait until i get home to listen . . .

grantland ripped off my "songs i am loath to admit I loathe" idea!

they call it "revealing the tunes we hate to love." bastards!

T.J. said...

Modern technology also allows you to tag blog posts. Crazy, right?

Igor said...

SportGuy picked the Creed song I mentioned in the comments of Dave's post.

Is Grantland's staff really young? Their guilty pleasures were mostly songs from the mid-90's til now. I also recently read a 24-year-old's take on Bosom Buddies, as well as a few other articles in which twentysomething writers tipped their hand. I think I am too ageist to really get into reading the purported wisdom of people that young.

rob said...

that's not the first time grantland has stolen from us. i assume they have someone on staff dedicated to reading gtb every day.

Igor said...

That's a pretty good job.

Danimal said...

Rob....just learning of the victory last night. Me so happy.

Danimal said...

Occupy digital lines bitches.

zman said...

That Bosom Buddies piece is a recurring feature where they ask their youngest writer to watch something from the 80's and explain it, without being given any context. zsister is 11 years younger than me so I find this feature particularly poignant.

Mark said...

I need to meet Dave one of these days. Just so I can argue with him (over drinks, of course) in person.

Dave said...

i am an idiot to argue with. as i pointed out, last week i stayed out way too late on thursday night because i couldn't stop debating with a pastor about evolution. we need to plan a full staff g:tb summit. in vegas.

Igor said...

I will agree with Dave that he is an idiot to argue with. Or compete against.

There are quite a few episodes of my life that I wish I had video of (and more than a few I'm glad I don't). Top 5 undoubtedly is the Magnificent 7 Croquet tourney of 2000 when, per the usual rules, 7-person teams competed in croquet and each team had to finish a keg.

Dave was cheating (as he has done at every game he has ever played), pouring beer out. The 10-minute comedy sketch of our stubborn and unfunny friend Daren accusing Dave of cheating and demanding he chug beers to compensate followed by our stubborn and funny friend Dave conceding, apologizing, filling a beer, and throwing the beer in Daren's face at the last second -- over and over, no fewer than 8 times in a row -- was the stupidest test of wills I have ever witnessed. It would probably still be going on right now if I hadn't finally convinced Daren that Dave would never, ever stop.

T.J. said...

No one cheats at made-up OBFT games than Dave.

Dave said...

i get a weird stomach-ache when i look back at that version of dave-- he still exists, but in slightly less stubborn fashion. i like to think i'm more (or less) charming in my old age, but i've yet to hear someone agree with that statement.

rob said...

anyone else having trouble commenting via iphone? other than dave, who would be baffled by the technology?

Igor said...

Hey Dave -- that 2000 version of Dave was way, way better than the tequila-addled 1989-90 version. Holy crap; that guy was a maniac. I get along with most everybody, and I wanted to punch you in the face much of the time.

T.J. said...

rob, I can't even open, let alone post comments, from my blackberry right now.

Squeaky said...

We need to have another Magnificent 7 Croquet tourney maybe with beer balls for the older weaker drinkers among us.

Danimal said...

I can post but looks all weird and stuff.

zman said...

Did you update your OS yet?

Marls said...

Wait....you are ok with the glow puck but not the first down line because the first down line distracts you and makes you "flit"? The first down line is more distracting than a red laser line that shoots off a player's stick covering up the actual item the game is played with? Do the other lines distract you too? Do you miss touchdowns because you are mesmerized by the ten yard line?

Dave said...

it's best not to look too closely at my logic. i actually don't watch hockey, that was just a rhetorical flourish.

and thank god i can't really remember 1989-90 dave. all i can say is "i apologize."

T.J. said...

My blackberry is utterly useless today. F U, Research in Motion.

Marls said...

RIMjob

T.J. said...

Mark, Jeff Demps is giving up football to focus on the Olympics?
http://bit.ly/xoU0q2

rob said...

nice to see mrs. curry again

Dave said...

so i've reconciled with pastor rob over the evolution/ intelligent design debate, for those folks following the saga of dave taking a stand on things he probably shouldn't take a stand on. also, i'm not sure if anyone is buying my digital line argument . . .

Squeaky said...

Dave, you'll be happy to know people in Masshole are calling this weekends Pats/Broncos game 'Super Bowl Saturday' because of the 'god' verse 'jesus' battle.

zman said...

Who is god - Belichick or Brady? I assume Jesus is Tebow ... unless that's a Ray Allen reference.

Shlara said...

Did you guys see the news that 'Sheed wants to come back to the League?

http://sports.yahoo.com/nba/news?slug=aw-wojnarowski_rasheed_wallace_nba_return_011212

Jerry said...

TJ really is a prolific twitterer.

Dave said...

tweeter?

Mark said...

I think you mean 'prolific tweeter', Jerry. Dont be that old guy.

And TJ, not sure why you're surprised about Demps. It's the smart move. Train for London 2012, & then pursue the NFL afterward. Maximizes his professional opportunities and it's not like he was going to be a first or second round pick anyway.

Igor said...

Does Sheed's whole head now match that little gray spot he always had?

T.J. said...

Twitter is fun.

Squeaky said...

Brady.

It's ridiculous. The local morning news was comparing the two QBs, not the sports guy but some yappy reporter. SI and GQ Magazine covers and a couple of shirtless pictures.

Danimal said...

did they give brady the win on the "girl he's banging" match-up?

Igor said...

January is National Blood Donor Month at the American Red Cross. As Pete Townshend told you, give blood.

Or, like the old bumper sticker:
Give Blood - Play Rugby

Jerry said...

Sounds like a bar crawl.

Mark said...

So, a week after the first installment of G:TB Week in Review it's already dead? That's impressive, even for this group.

Igor said...

Okay, Mark. Here you go.

G:TB Week in Review

Monday - worked my ass off, watched the dull BCS championship, did not win $1640
Tuesday - worked my ass off, non-drinking work dinner
Wednesday - worked my ass off, volunteered at a boring fundraiser
Thursday - worked all day, then painted the town all night long on whirlwind bender of bad tequila, good beer, dirty bars, great all-girl punk rock bands, and terrible decisions
Friday - woke up with a wicked hangover and two hot, naked blondes in my bed

Pretty good week.

zman said...

Igor just got a pair of golden retrievers, by the way.

Tweeter? I hardly know 'er!

Shlara said...

Igor, your Sheed comment made me laugh

rob said...

i decided i liked the sound of 'this fortnight in g:tb' better.

and i've been in meetings the last two days. also, i'm very lazy.

Mark said...

Speaking of fortnights, according to the Dr. (and provided my wife doesn't pop early, the newest member of the G:TB family will be here in in just that. A fortnight.

zman said...

Live while you can!!

Danimal said...

What he/z said.

rob said...

why are so many people picking the giants over the packers? i strenuously object.

Dave said...

love igor's week in review, should be a feature:

people are picking the giants over the packers? did they watch the giants all season?

good luck mark with the new kid.

good luck igor with the hangover

congrats zman-- a pair of dogs? yikes. we are in the process of adopting a dog and i think one will be enough.

zman said...

Dave, that was a joke about igor's two blondes. No zdog. Just two zcats.

Jerry said...

Here's why:

http://video.adultswim.com/carl/carls-lock-new-york-giants-vs-green-bay-packers.html

Carl did have Pittsburgh last week so maybe he's not the most reliable source.