ESPN GameDay: Football’s Ultimate Narrative Factory?

Today, far more stories are told about football via more forms of media today than ever before imaginable. And almost all of them are wrong.

That is, wrong in the sense that remarkably little of what is said in the vast array of game predictions, team rankings, player/coach assessments, and other endless interpretations, dissections, and explanations for it all will turn out to be what actually happens.

It means that you’re as likely to get a reliable football narrative from someone who has almost nothing to do with football. On “GameDay,” ESPN’s three-hour, college-football-preview extravaganza, the most popular segment each Saturday morning is the predictions by the regular panelists and a “guest picker” on which teams will win that day’s big games. Of all the guest pickers last season, it was pop singer Katy Perry who picked better than all but one other guest — even though she had never before attended a college-football game (and wouldn’t perform at the Super Bowl til months later).

Better than Joe Namath. Better than Roger Staubach. Better than all the others all season except another picker with very little connection to football occupationally: Jase, one of the reality-television stars of “Duck Dynasty.”

A Postmodernist Theory of Football

But something like that is basically what postmodernist theory would predict — that most authoritative attempts to provide reliably explanatory narratives for social phenomena will fail. While explaining postmodernist theory is harder than trying to nail Jell-O to a wall — more like trying to Jell-O to Jell-O, using a Jell-O hammer and a Jell-O nail — at its essence, it tells us that the narratives we believe will explain the world will let us down far more often than not.

Indeed, if theorists of postmodernism labored in research-and-development laboratories in a quest to create a textbook microcosm of human social activity that would most compellingly demonstrate their essential ideas at work, they probably could not do better than the game of commercial football as represented to the world via popular media. Katy Perry is just as likely to produce a reliably explanatory football narrative as the most experienced coach, player, or professional commentator.

Ultimately, what takes place in games of football at even the highest levels of play is no more than what happens when kids take a football out in the yard, choose up sides, and see who can win. To that end, the participants will shove and chase each other about for some period of time. Beyond that, all meaning imposed upon those activities is narrative — efforts to advance stories with explanatory value.

Sociological scholars would call it a process of meaning-making — socially constructing a narrative more meaningful than the chaos of the game itself. For even when teams at the highest levels field the largest, fastest players to prepare with the best coaches to take on other teams that have done basically the same, once they actually play each other the moment-to-moment developments are in reality almost always more random than what was planned.

And yet ceaselessly before, during and after the games, quite endless narratives in print, on the air waves, online, and elsewhere seek to explain what will happen, what is happening, what has happened. There seems no limit to the hunger only football truly feeds. As journalist Warren St. Moon has written, “Without football to generate controversies and scandals,” once the season ends, even the most successful sports talk-show hosts like Paul Finebaum in Alabama have to “improvise — sometimes desperately — to keep listeners tuning in for four hours a day.”

Sports-talk radio alone has become an endless blitz of narratives by the casts of the shows, never mind all the calls from listeners who further fuel the air waves. The profusion of narratives television provides has made the game its most lucrative programming. And many millions online consume and advance still more via the array of venues made possible by a digitally hyper-networked world.

“Americans now give football more attention than any other cultural endeavor. It isn’t even close,” American pop-culturalist Steve Almond has written.

Three Legendary Coaches, Three Different Narrative Strategies

Probably no one has published more pages of scholarly ruminations on the meaning of football than Michael Oriard — certainly no one who has also captained the football team at Notre Dame and played in forty-two games in the National Football League before transitioning into the life of an academic.

In his insightful 1993 “Reading Football,” Oriard showed how football’s intrinsic narrative structure proved from the earliest days to be so rich that even run-of-the-mill sportswriters could easily give readers of newspapers and magazines vivid accounts of thrills, suspense, and athletic prowess. The audience responded enthusiastically, finding in football “an irresistible duality” that was “at once mythic and visceral, liberating and lethal . . . rolled into one compact drama,” Almond has written.

And once all that became evident to individuals and groups alert to societal trends with potential for commercial gain, the boom was really on. “Football succeeded as a spectacle because the games’ own structure made narrative drama possible,” Oriard declared, “but also because these narrative possibilities were exploited by football’s promoters.”

But it was also a gruesomely violent game, with so many deaths and maimed participants by early in the twentieth century that a movement to ban the game came very close to succeeding. Rules changes helped round off the worst excesses, and public relations strove to give the game a face more palatable than the brutal struggle at its core. That face was handsome and young, heroic and selfless — everything that Americans wanted to be and that commercial football wanted to be understood as representing.

Beginning just before the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the image college football sought most vigorously to associate with would be that of Frank Merriwell. Sprung to life from the pages of magazine installments and novels that eventually numbered in the hundreds, the fictional Yale football star would become one of the most famous heroic figures in all American fiction through “athletic triumph after athletic triumph — all in an atmosphere of joviality, boyish enthusiasm, and sterling virtue” that Oriard has shown was established as the “Frank Merriwell model of gee-whiz modesty.”

That model was promoted by coaches like Bud Wilkinson, with three national championships and 145 career wins, the first of three dynastic coaches at the University of Oklahoma, where a frustrated president once desperately sought funding from a tight-fisted legislature by promising to “build a university of which the football team could be proud.” Over the seventeen years Wilkinson was head coach at Oklahoma, he published a remarkable newsletter in which he consistently advanced an idealistic vision of college football as a metaphorical realm where wholesome warriors strive for collective progress.

Wilkinson’s early athletes at Oklahoma, most of them World War II veterans, validated his metaphorical vision. However, in the second half of his career, that vision began to be challenged by a younger generation of athletes raised on affluence, television, and individualism instead of wartime sacrifice and collective effort, most publicly by a hedonistic All-American named Joe Don Looney. His behavior so bedeviled Wilkinson that he kicked him off the team after little more than a season, and a team publicist later said that for the legendary coach, “Joe Don was the antichrist.”

But he also represented the future of popular narratives associated with the game. Almost exactly a decade after Looney arrived on campus at Oklahoma to trash Wilkinson’s revered notions of wholesome warriors, another running back even more rudely repudiated Frank Merriwell’s literary archetype of football chivalry. In his bestselling novel “Semi-Tough,” sports writer Dan Jenkins made Billy Clyde Puckett the new fictional face of the game’s darker side, a world in which almost any deviancy would be condoned, if not sanctified, as long as the perpetrator could do his job on the field.

Roughly a decade after Wilkinson retired, another coach at Oklahoma would win games and national championships at an even faster pace by embracing the Billy Clyde model instead. Barry Switzer’s teams won almost 84 percent of their games with superstar antiheroes like linebacker Brian Bosworth, who wrote in his autobiography, “If you were a great player who helped him look good,” with Switzer, “you could do anything.”

Switzer retired not long after — in rapid sequence — a shooting and rape in the football dormitory, a long probation imposed on his team by the NCAA, and his star quarterback featured in handcuffs and prison coveralls on the cover of Sports Illustrated after selling cocaine to an undercover agent. The lurid headline read: “How Barry Switzer’s Sooners Terrorized Their Campus.”

As postmodernist theory would predict, the Merriwell model ultimately failed to hold up for Wilkinson, while the Billy Clyde model did Switzer in. Neither narrative proved reliable.

Today, Oklahoma is coached by Bob Stoops. He has won more games than either of his most successful predecessors, but maintains a media posture in press conferences akin to something of a postmodernist sage, aggressively rejecting one sportswriter’s asserted narrative after another.

In those press conferences, Stoops often less than patiently articulates the fallibility of almost every narrative proposed to explain his team’s success or failure. He regularly counters questions by pointing to flaws he finds in their premise.

To a suggestion that his teams get “fired up” for more challenging opponents, Stoops responds: “No, I don’t look at anything that way. We get fired up every week.” Asked if he would have liked more running plays in a close loss when key passing plays did not succeed: “Oh, in hindsight? Yeah, that would have been a lot better. But that’s not how it went.” Was he shocked at his team’s lack of readiness in that game? “I didn’t say readiness was lacking. I said we didn’t play very smart. Now you guys are saying why, not me.” Would he find it strange for rival Texas to have a new coach for the first time in many years? “No, it would be different if he and I were out there playing, but that isn’t happening.”

The Bob Stoops / Katy Perry Connection

Instinctively, Stoops seems to grasp the postmodernist truth that Katy Perry demonstrated so effectively pregame last season in Oxford, Mississippi — when it comes to football, the narrative that matters is the one you can successfully sell. She walked onto the live “GameDay” set that October morning in a furry pink football jersey and took charge of the rest of the show. She brought out props ranging from corn dogs to a heart-shaped fan featuring Oklahoma’s handsome star quarterback whom she proposed should ring her up — “Trevor Knight, you hear me? Call me!”

She correctly forecast that Mississippi would win its game against powerhouse Alabama that day and then wrestled the elephant head usually worn by the Alabama mascot off of cast regular Lee Corso, a longtime ESPN regular and former coach whose prediction proved wrong that day. Later, Lee Fitting, senior coordinating producer for “GameDay”, told The New York Times there was “no question” Perry was the best guest picker in the show’s history.

It added up one of the most unlikely but engaging football narratives of that or any season. And it powerfully showed how postmodernism tells us more about why the game of football not only endures but flourishes and means so much to so many. Football isn’t really about football at all. It’s about the endless — and endlessly appealing stories — it makes possible.

Without the narratives, football is just a bunch of muscled-up guys sweating and shoving each other around in the dirt. Ultimately, it isn’t football that makes narrative machines like “GameDay” a big deal. It’s “GameDay” that does that job for football. Especially when Katy Perry shows up.

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Robert Kerr is a professor at the University of Oklahoma and the author of “How Postmodernism Explains Football and Football Explains Postmodernism: The Billy Clyde Conundrum” (2015, Palgrave Macmillan).

And Football Explains Postmodernism: The Billy Clyde Conundrum

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