Football's narrative edge

One thing football does better than baseball and basketball (and here I'm focused in particular on the pro level, the NFL, MLB, and the NBA) is give viewers semi-filtered peeks behind the curtain. I say semi-filtered because the footage is still edited to bleep out curse words and remove inappropriate content, but it's still bypassing the sports journalists who ask the same questions and dutifully transcribe the same responses in a mutually agreed upon ritual of cliche.

The NFL distributes this content through a multitude of partners. On Showtime, they have Inside the NFL, a weekly recap that features sideline and on-the-field sounds and dialogue. Chris Berman runs a weekly segment (I think it's at halftime of the Monday Night Football game) that's called something like "sounds of the game" or something like that with similar access to audio not heard during live game broadcasts.

In the preseason, the NFL invites HBO to follow one team in the preseason for its show Hard Knocks. It's one of the great sports shows ever, and its given unbelievable access. One of the most poignant moments on HBO this season was not on one of its dramatic series but on Hard Knocks, when Miami Dolphins head coach had to cut Chad Johnson. Imagine seeing footage of Tim Cook firing Scott Forstall (err, "asking him to resign"). I have a perverse fascination with the scenes of players being cut on Hard Knocks. Who will deliver the news, the head coach or one of the assistant coaches? How will the player take it? Plenty of tech company managers could learn a lot from watching these scenes about how to let someone go professionally.

Behind-the-scenes footage isn't always compelling. Some of the making-of segments on DVDs are interesting only to those with a passion for the craft of filmmaking, for example. Hearing an actor discuss how they prepared to play a character really bursts some of the magic of the movie's fictional universe. Most often we'd prefer to be kept behind that fourth wall (veil).

The difference between movies and sports, however, is that sports drama needn't be manufactured. As you learn in fiction writing, all story is rooted in conflict, and sports is pure conflict, each sport just a different form of pure competition. The behind-the-scenes access the NFL grants its viewers actually feels more real and dramatic precisely because athletes are usually so zombie-like when speaking with the press, and that whole charade is dull and tiring and leaves most athletes seeming robotic. In contrast, hearing what the players are saying to each other on the sidelines and on the field, hearing what coaches say to the players before, during, and after games, it all both humanizes and mythologizes them at the same time.

Thanks to Hard Knocks, we have a much deeper relationship with NFL players and coaches given lots of screen time, like Rex Ryan or Chad Johnson. We have a first-person grasp of their personalities, and they become three dimensional characters in our minds. These are personifications that linger in the back of our minds as we watch them play on TV.

In production technique, the NFL has appropriated filmmaking techniques to enhance the grandeur and emotional intimacy of its competition. In these behind-the-scenes segments, the NFL makes heavy use of slow-motion, often running video in slow motion while running the commentary audio in real-time, snipping the video and audio footage so they still roughly line up. Rather than use the usual sideline camera view, the long shot, that we see during live broadcasts, they use close-ups of players hitting each other and bring in on-the-field audio so we can hear each brain-damaging hit in vivid clarity. Watch any Hollywood war scene and you'll see the same camera angles and shot lengths. The NFL also plays with frame rates, and instead of just using the traditional sports frame rate of video (30fps), it mixes in some filmic 24fps footage in these shows, which as any viewer knows intuitively from watching both movies and TV shows lends a more dream-like sensation to the footage due to the increased motion blur. Much of this stylistic vocabulary was developed by Steve Sabol and NFL Films. In heaven, your sports highlights will all be voiced by Harry Kalas.

HBO's 24/7 series is another standout in this elevation of sports as an entertainment product, and it borrows much from NFL Films in style. A boxing match gains from the 4-episode 24/7 arc leading up to the big fight, showing each gladiator in training, amplifying the feud between the two fighters. More than a few times, the series is more interesting than the fight itself.

If you wonder why the NBA and MLB are most often slotted behind the NFL as America's favorite sport, this marketing edge for the NFL is one reason. There is a dearth of regularly scheduled behind-the-scenes mythmaking footage from MLB and the NBA.

Baseball has made some strides. In the preseason, MLB has its own version of Hard Knocks called The Franchise (I missed it because I didn't have Showtime at the time). During the World Series, MLB caught my eye with its super slow motion camera shots of bats contacting balls, and it caught a gem when Hunter Pence's bat broke and contacted the ball three times in one swing. Seeing wooden bats warp in slow motion is beautiful in a Bill Viola-esque way.

But we still almost never hear mound conversations between coaches and pitchers, or dugout conversations, or even chatter between players of opposing teams as when a player singles and lands at first base. It wouldn't have to be live; most of the NFL footage I reference above is shown sometime after the game has ended. MLB has a dearth of compelling superstars (Derek Jeter and, uh...) and much of it is due to the fact that we really don't know any of them. How do TV shows sink their hooks into us? A huge inflection point is that moment when we adopt the characters as our own.

For sports, there is another level to its relationship with a spectator, and that is achieved with understanding of the sport itself. That is, beyond empathy with the player as a person, there is empathy with the player as an athlete and what they are trying to accomplish on the field of play.

I have a greater appreciation for watching sports I play myself. This is one reason I have a tough time watching hockey or soccer, two sports I never played much. I don't understand all the rules, I can't appreciate the moment-to-moment tactics or skill, and often it's like watching a foreign arthouse film with the subtitles turned off.

Organized football is actually quite complex, but the NFL has done a good job simplifying it for the layman. John Madden was a pioneer in this for using the telestrator on replays to diagram how a play broke down, and graphical innovations like the yellow first-down overlay line make it easier to comprehend, in real time, whether a team has accomplished its immediate goal.

This season, the NFL started offering something I've long wanted which is alternate camera angles of the action. The high sideline camera angle which is the standard on TV is not the easiest way to understand the spacial geometry of each play, and in particular, the battle between what the QB sees and what the defense sees. For that, I prefer the high end zone camera (familiar to all NFL fans from the Madden video game series), or what coaches often use, which is the All-22 view. Now you can access that footage through NFL Game Rewind. I've learned a bit about football by playing it, but I've learned most of what I know of organized football from reading books like this, playing Madden, and watching coaches film footage.

That leaves the NBA. Its a league that has more compelling characters than the MLB and arguably even the NFL, but much of that heavy lifting is done by the players themselves, the recent paragon being Shaquille O'Neal. Sadly, the NBA has always been so buttoned-up about its image that it seems the least likely league to open the kimono. Perhaps the NBA fears a bunch of footage of NBA stars sitting around the house smoking pot and playing their XBox. Perhaps after David Stern retires, things will change.

At best, today we occasionally eavesdrop in on a timeout speech from head coach in the huddle, but those are typically cliche-ridden and notable for how uninspiring they are. What I wish we'd hear: on-court trash talking and play-calling, players hanging out with each other in their off-hours, coaches training and chewing out players in practices. Even NBA players Twitter accounts can be muzzled by the league, which is a shame. I find regular season NBA games to be distractingly dull, but there are subnarratives of interest woven throughout if the NBA would just do the work of surfacing them.

This is especially important because the NBA tends to have less variation than any of the other two major sports in the U.S. Luck just isn't as prevalent. In baseball, it's dubious whether the winner of the World Series was really the best team, and in the NFL, with its low volume of plays per game and high potential scoring total per play, luck can swing a single game. But in the NBA, in a best of 7 series, given the high volume of plays and the concentration of playing time in the hands of so few players, skill differentials tend to be impervious to the variances of luck.

If outcomes are so certain, then the quality of narrative becomes even more important to the enjoyment of the contest. Think of the NBA as a genre film. You know when you watch a Western that the good guys will win in the end, but it's about how you get there.

ASIDE 1: I still hold out hope that someday, we'll have the option of watching a broadcast of a sports contest that features unfiltered live audio from on the court or field. It would surely come with a language warning, but that's what pay cable is for, right? I'd pay some absurd premium for that. Can you imagine hearing Michael Jordan trashtalking the opposition in his heyday? You often hear that Kevin Garnett is one of the most hated players in the NBA by the opposition and most beloved by teammates, but without on court audio or behind-the-scenes footage, the audience has no firsthand evidence why.

ASIDE 2: This whole post was spurred by watching this behind-the-scenes video of Stanford's 17-14 win over Oregon. I'm a Stanford fan, of course, but that first minute would give me goosebumps no matter who was wearing the uniforms. Even at the collegiate level, football is cranking out this type of cinematic fare.