Foucault's Discipline

A reminder from Michel Foucault (Discipline and Punish, p.138) as I head to the North American Society for Sport Sociology conference in Montreal this weekend to present "The Sportocratic Apparatus and the Making of Cyborg Athletes":

Thus discipline produces subjected and practised bodies, "docile" bodies. Discipline increases the forces of the body (in economic terms of utility) and diminishes these same forces (in political terms of obedience).

Debra Shogan has illustrated Foucault's disciplinary technologies of space, time, and modality of movement at work in the creation of high performance athlete, while John Bale has done the same for the creation of docile sports spectators. Both of these perspectives are necessary to understand our late capitalist shift in professional sport to that of Baudrillardian simulation.

Polyphony of Won

Stuart Stevens of Outside, an amateur endurance cyclist, took HGH, EPO and steroids for six months to experience what benefits athletes receive. "I had a life once, and now I'm standing in the Easton WaWa in the middle of the night, looking like a cyborg," he wrote during an endurance bicycling event, "with thousands of dollars of drugs coursing through my veins."

A resident of Pittsburgh laments the invasion of an "anti-American" sport like soccer, which is threatening to strangle "real" sports like football. Of course, with the Bay Area anarchists and communists building alliances on the pitch, he may be on to something.

Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick rages against the machine of instant replay.

Jonathan Niednagel knows your brain type — and can predict athletic success.

Storied Toronto sportscape Maple Leaf Gardens is being converted to a grocery store.

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Given the power that ESPN and parent Disney hold as a media conglomerate, and the latitude the former offers its other writers, the decision to terminate columnist Gregg Easterbrook (aka TMQ) — and then delete his columns as if they never existed — is nothing short of execrable.

The cybernetic consumes the aggressor and the nebbish; only the individual at equilibrium — the one who can revision versus — will survive when pulsh comes to shove.

The high-definition televisual sports simulation — that filial recombination of television, console videogame, T3 broadband connection, and fantasy sports league — could very well cannibalize professional athletes out of existence.

Those who believe that professional sport offers a panacea to the ills and stresses of modern society have consumed too much of the beer-flavoured Kool-Aid and are unaware of its complicity in creating that society in the first place.

An awareness of my own aging body-athletic has become a leitmotif of sportsBabel.

The reason the XFL failed is that it flew in the face of modern team sport as arbiter of Truth.

The recidivism rate for fitness club members has less to do with any inherent weakness and more to do with a hysteria of aging, as the mirror image and video image diverge, never again to cross paths.

Deconstructing The Skin

Once again I am thinking about uniforms, those extensions of the athletic skin.

A deconstruction:

Logo

As I have mentioned earlier, cattle would be shocked to find that we voluntarily brand our extended skins with the marks of a corporate entity, whether that entity is the sports franchise itself or some sponsor, such as a shoe company. When the franchise logo is continually redesigned for merchandising purposes, or sponsorship deals are renegotiated for strategic gain, what does this do to the athlete's identity? He becomes a transientity.

Colour

Every team is mandated to have a light-coloured and dark-coloured uniform, so that the good cowboy (white hat) versus bad cowboy (black hat) formula can be updated for the postmodern age. Thus, specific colours in themselves do not serve any semiurgic function, barring a few exceptions, such as Carolina blue.

Number

The number etched on the extended skin recalls the tattooed serial numbers used to mark the concentration camp Jews — dehumanizing, but more precisely, re-identifying: you no longer possess your own individual identity, but are now a semi-anonymous entity in a larger group identity.

Name

The name on the back of the uniform is the family name, again opposing individual identity. Perhaps an argument could be made that there are too many Jacks and Johns in sport to be able to print first names on jerseys, but a glance at pro sport rosters would suggest that there are certainly enough Jacksons and Johnsons (not to mention Smiths) to make a similar case. Several years ago the Detroit Pistons tried putting the first name of players on warmup jerseys, but this just came across as corny: we are comfortable referring to athletes as Michael or Kobe or LeBron — the verbalization of an image-sign — but at the same time we are uncomfortable with that same first name appearing on the extended skin.

(Interestingly, the ill-fated XFL offered athletes the opportunity to put whatever name they wanted on the back of their uniform — first name, family name, nickname — so long as it did not advertise another company. Anyone remember He Hate Me? This new means of identifying athletes was borne from the identities consumers assume when venturing to online spaces. Alas, combined with the other features of XFL, it proved to be too much of a threat to modern sport orthodoxy, and the league went under.)

Retirement

When a star's uniform/number is retired, then, the extended skin of the heroic athlete is raised by franchise management to the rafters in much the same way that a safari hunter would mount the tanned hide of a trophy catch on the wall: he cost me a bundle, but I OWNED that man.

Along with it goes the star's identity, forever on display to the paying customers of the team.

Metaphor Needs Fleshing

John Madden notes on MNF the disappearance of the fullback in the NFL, as teams are favouring single-back, multi-wideout formations.

Given the previously discussed relationship between sport and war, this disappearance takes on increased significance. To wit:

At the risk of oversimplifying the complex relationship between players and coaches, and the myriad on-field formations and counter-formations that the athletes assume in either attacking or defending a goal/territory, it may be argued that gridiron football, and particularly the elite National Football League, models the American military-industrial complex. This modeling is apparent is three different facets of the sport: first, the specialist and hierarchical nature of the personnel involved in the game; second, the standard tactical doctrines utilized/incorporated to achieve strategic goals; and third, the language used to create a discourse of football as extension of war. An examination of the first constitutes the body of this post.

Such an examination must necessarily begin with those who play the sport, the athletes (who are produced as technologies/cyborg athletes). The training regimen closely resembles that of the disciplined soldier as described by Foucault in Discipline and Punish: calisthenics in group formation, high stepping in cadence, psychological indoctrination that puts the team before the individual. Once this "basic training" is complete, specialist skill training begins, which manifests itself in positional specification (usually) based on the genetic makeup of the athlete: speed, strength, power, quickness, agility, coordination and endurance all determine the athlete's usefulness on the battlefield.

Linemen are akin to tanks jockeying for position at the line of scrimmage, engaged in the crucial battle for what John Madden refers to as "the push" — a yard or two forward or backward that allows the ballcarrier to find a gap and scoot through. The ball-carrying backs are the metaphorical infantrymen, with the fullback valiantly sacrificing his body so that the halfback may race forward against the enemy and advance towards the strategic goal.

(It must be noted that each of these infantry advances concludes with the symbolic "death" of the ballcarrier. Given that 2002 rushing leader Ricky Williams scored 17 TDs on 383 carries for the season, in essence he lived 366 lives, thus faring far better than the proverbial cat. Since the average life span of an NFL running back is the lowest of any professional athlete at 2.5 years, however, perhaps this "death" is not such a symbolic concept after all.)

These ground forces are supported by air forces in the form of wide receivers who offer "quick strike" or "deep threat" capabilities. Air forces serve to spread out or soften the enemy's defence, thus creating gaps that may be exploited by the ground game; conversely, a series of skirmishes at the front lines can leave the defence vulnerable to a more economically efficient air strike at the strategic objective.

This trade-off between air and land forces is marshalled by the field commander, the quarterback. The hero of American sporting culture, the tall, white (or increasingly black), handsome quarterback represents the best of what the military academy has to offer on the battlefield: smart, follows the chain of command, tough, calm under pressure, a leader of men, et cetera.

The quarterback keeps in close communications contact with superiors further up the hierarchical chain of command: positional coaches, coordinators, and the head coach. While the communications infrastructure used by the superior officers initially consisted of plays being sent in by players from the sidelines, it is decidedly more technological today, with wireless headsets connecting the coordinators, head coach and quarterback with an assistant coach who provides aerial reconnaissance support from the press box.

The majority of coaches are former soldiers themselves, and are well-versed in the myriad tactical formations that are situationally employed on the battlefield. These tactics have evolved over time, particularly due to technological change, which is most notably manifest in the increased speed and power of the machines on the battlefield — factors that determine range. This begs the question of whether the football athlete is a soldier or a military machine, and the answer is both: by embodying technology to such a high degree, the athlete has become cyborgian, caught in a tension of hybrid identity between certainty and uncertainty.

So why is the disappearance of the fullback significant, then? The American military-industrial complex is at its core a technological apparatus. As such, we have seen its military superiority derived from its scientific innovation, rather than from any inherent superiority in its trained personnel. This innovation, as integral as it has been to American society, should appear in the model of gridiron football. Put another way, if the football-war metaphor is to hold true, it is because the NFL depends more on fighter jets than on ground infantrymen. The disappearance of the fullback in favour of more passing threats suggests that this is in fact the case.

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The deference that baseball players have for the ambit of the field of play is both touching and chilling.

Steinbrenner's profligate spending won't mean a whit if the Yankees cannot solve Wakefield's prodigious knuckling.

Programming takes the place of cerebration for the athletes in many sporting activities.

The rotund football fan provides the perfect counterweight to the hypermuscularized players and waifish cheerleaders in creating an equilibrium of electric bodies at the modern NFL stadium.

The narcotic slumber imposed on our collective consciousness by the electric media has caused us to unwittingly acquiesce to the cybernetic colonization of our bodies.

The football tailgater, chin bedaubed with barbecue sauce, likes to play make-believe that he is the primal carnivore of time past; it is this hyperreality that blinds him to his incarceration by the disciplinary sportscape.

In the Internet age, the bar-room sports dilettante is elevated to the level of academic — or reduced to the level of network circuit — simply by accessing a few statistical databases.