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.