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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