Why we play

From its place as a contender sport in the 1920s to the point of contemporary national obsession, football, and the NFL in particular, has crafted itself as a litmus of the times.

Nothing as complex as a “national game” is subject to simple or linear analysis, yet the arc of football’s dominance in the popular imagination has some sailent features.


Football, and the NFL in particular, has sat within the zeitgeist for the last 30 years. It creates abstract lines of virtual community while economics, politics and race have seemingly moved people further apart. The wholistic appeal to national identity is woven into the ceremony of each event. Singing the National anthem,tributes to military personnel, which may be mutual in the form of airfare flybys for significant games.

The field of play is always bathed in the flag – visual homology for the game status as a pure and authentic expression of national identity.


This is mirrored in college football –  and yet college and professional games operate completely differently. College football builds allegiances inextricably linked to location – professional football is based on corporations who will move location for improved terms of trade.

From St Louis to Los Angeles in the week after playoffs – the multinational flow of capital, investment, production and trade are naturalized in professional football. The team as corporation is a servant of pure market pressures, adopting a territorial identity until relocation might improve profits.

College football, must build its traditions based on participation and place, and while wildly popular and profitable, occupies another media space.

It’s broadcasts are slightly less observed. Less cameras. Less closeups. The College game is without doubt fast and energetic, with phenomenal attendance and ceremonial pageantry. It is best experienced live. College football works in these terms as a form of genuine communal experience. The old school tie is just that – a fondness for Saturdays in the idyll of campus life.

Within the totality of the game itself, College football remains an unpaid internship – measured against the marginal possibility of elevation to the professional ranks.

And what ranks they are.


1696  athletes locked in a perpetual post-Fordian economy of performance pay, working to weekly contract and subject to job losses for poor performance within a regime of physical demand that eventually threatens the very fabric of their bodies.

The comparisons to gladiatorial contest – body armor, opposing lines of frontal attack and the language of physical conflict are all too apparent, yet the sport itself has directed its audience away from the embodied process of play.

Nov 29, 2015; Landover, MD, USA; New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham (13) catches a touchdown pass as Washington Redskins cornerback Will Blackmon (41) defends in the fourth quarter at FedEx Field. The Redskins won 20-14. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 29, 2015; Landover, MD, USA; New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham (13) catches a touchdown pass as Washington Redskins cornerback Will Blackmon (41) defends in the fourth quarter at FedEx Field. The Redskins won 20-14. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, there are moments of spectacular physical prowess, as might be expected from the athlete pool that competes for an opportunity to play at this level. The moment of play, however is simply a precession for its virtual life in every sense possible. Play happens in an instant, but its image is enduring.

Since the development of the NFL’s film unit in the 1960s, professional football has been the most puposefully mediated game in the world. A slew of camera angles that observe and amplify the play, long lens photography, fly by wire cameras, parabolic microphones and immediate slow motion have explored every possible innovation in image capture and replay as they become available.

Instant and multiple viewpoints are revised, annotated, slow motioned – even rendered three dimensionally for imaginary, virtual cameras to discuss key plays.

Each play serves less as the embodied moment, and more as the staging point for its recording and re/presentation. Officials no longer make decisions on touchdowns – they place contingent calls on the outcome of watching the replay.

The real event is staged for its digital archiving and later replay. Monday’s experts have extended their analysis into round the clock discussion. A now annual cycle of anticipation and reflection.Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 11.10.52 AM

In this economy of the televisual, new forms of order prevail. While play serves as a generative  point for its recorded incarnation, it also serves to generate statistics.

Average yards per carry, total yards of offense, completions on third down – these numeric indicators intersect with the visual archive well beyond the secondary market for commentary. Statistical markers form the basis for a virtual market in statistical aggregates – fantasy football.

The fantasy game takes the event of the corp[orate] contest and abstracts it into a market of pure quanta. Player’s performances, their highlights and physical struggles are translated into numbers. Each player, and the number they generate creates a secondary market of trades, aggregates and futures.

Fantasy football likewise deconstructs the game into a network of fragments, of highlights, removed from the continuity of the game and gathered into a channel of one – a portfolio tracker of the weekend’s games.

The demand for attention skyrockets – a good fantasy participant will watch every game – because their virtual team spans them all. Why follow one team when you can follow them all?

Much like a team manager, the fantasy player is constantly paring the roster – looking for undiscovered values in the market – a market where players are celebrated purely in terms of their weekly productivity.

The management of the fantasy team within an imaginary league is a winner take all proposition. Each participant is a micro broker – speculating on the aggregate dividend of human activity abstracted into a leveraged portfolio, which may rise or fall over a season, or for the day trader, make its profits or losses in the corporatized, internet casinos of daily fantasy.

This is a perfect mimesis of a financialized capital, enacted through the dispassionate reduction of  human effort to a constant struggle for relevance in the market. It is the neoliberal worldview of homo economicus naturalized into the popular imagination – our acquiescence is made to seem natural, through play.

After all – it’s only a game.

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