For the third year in a row, the 2015 Oklahoma-Texas game provided a classic example of the postmodernist theory of football at work. That is, three years in a row, the narrative almost everyone accepted as the one that explained how the game would turned out to be quite wrong – and even more dramatically so this time around.
In short, that narrative could be summarized as something like: Undefeated OU is playing so well and four-loss Texas so poorly that the Sooners are guaranteed to win easily.
It wasn’t just that Sooner fans bought that narrative so fully. Longhorn fans did so even more dramatically. As late as Tuesday before a game in which tickets often go for hundreds of dollars each, The Oklahoman’s Berry Tramel reported on WWLS The Sports Animal that multiple blocks of twenty seats together could be purchased from the UT online ticket site. The team’s supporters were so sure of the outcome, droves of them were choosing not even to attend.
Oklahoma fans were just as certain the game would be no contest. KWTV News Director Dean Blevins reported that — in contrast to every week he could remember before OU-Texas — instead of everyone he ran into wanting to talk about the game, no one he ran into even brought it up this time around.
And the media who follow the game most closely embraced the same narrative just as enthusiastically. The forecasters for The Oklahoman and Norman Transcript sports sections, along with those on regional sports-talk radio assured audiences in their predictions OU would win easily.
Nationally, the oddsmakers agreed, making OU a 17-point favorite. On ESPN, its Football Power Index gave OU a 90 percent likelihood of winning. And its GameDay panel debated how much longer before Texas Coach Charlie Strong would be fired, with Kirk Herbstreit musing that Strong just might voluntarily step down first.
The Lesson That Matters Most
Once the game was actually played though, OU never led on the scoreboard even once, trailing from the first Texas score to the final gun — the third year in a row the Sooners were favored to win easily but did not.
Maybe too many OU players bought into the dominant narrative. Maybe Texas’s near wins in some of those losses should have counted for more. Maybe when you put a bunch of highly recruited players and highly paid coaches out on a football field, stuff just often happens that isn’t at all what was expected.
But what really matters isn’t how many people got things wrong or even what happened on the field, ultimately. Because all this tells us much less about OU or Texas than it does about how to understand postmodernist theory in a relatively practical way.
Much postmodernist theory may read as if it bans any semblance of practicality. Nevertheless, it can be understood as maintaining that we humans tend to accept all sorts of explanations – sometimes really grand ones referred to as metanarratives – that ultimately can’t really tell us what we want to know. In that sense, a postmodernist understanding of football can indeed be useful in reaching practical insights into the slippery mysteries of the human condition.
And that brings us back to how the primary OU-Texas narrative for 2015 — and virtually all the related narratives — once again confirmed the validity of the postmodernist theory of football: Most authoritative attempts to provide reliably explanatory narratives for football or any other social phenomenon will fail.
That won’t stop the stories about football or OU-Texas from coming, or stop audiences from consuming them as fast as they can. Before the game was even over, an array of after-the-fact narratives began proliferating without end in sight.
Because football isn’t really about football. It’s about our insatiable need for narratives. And almost nothing today generates media narratives in which more people find meaning than this game. It’s that appeal that has been the essence of the game since mid-nineteenth-century college students decided football was more interesting than their classes and set in motion the historical process that has evolved into a multi-billion-dollar industry still growing ever more popular and profitable.
Ultimately, the job of football writers and telecasters and bloggers isn’t to tell us accurate stories about which teams will win or which players will play best or even truly why whatever does happen happened. It’s just to keep telling us more stories.
And postmodernism tells us that our job is to remain skeptical that any of the stories can really explain what will happen in this life all that reliably.
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).