Eating the Dinosaur

Eating “Eating the Dinosaur” (Part 11)

May 23, 2013
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Eating the Dinosaur CoverI’m going to skip over the next essay in this book, “The Best Response,” which is a series of questions and answers between a questioner seeking a response from someone who’s in some sort of trouble (a scandal, police, etc.)

This is a pretty entertaining piece, with some funny, thoughtful answers that probably qualify as “the best responses” to the questions. However, I really do not have anything useful to say about them, so I’m going to move on. It is a fun piece though.

So. “Football.”

Chuck Klosterman is way into football (and sports in general). So much so that he’s currently a contributor at Grantland, [Update: Grantland is no more.] where he writes almost exclusively about sports, and aside from his Ethicist column [Update: Klosterman is no longer The Ethicist.] and his upcoming book, sports seems to be what Klosterman’s mostly interested in lately. As someone with virtually zero interest in sports — or at least, none that I’ve actively acted upon — but is interested in things Klosterman has to say about things, this is a little disappointing.

This morning I listened to a Grantland podcast episode featuring Klosterman, and one of the topics was Star Trek Into Darkness. There were two things revealed about Klosterman in this episode that heightened my disappointment: one, he apparently really liked Star Trek Into Darkness, and two, he isn’t much of a Star Trek fan. He likes Star Trek, but he isn’t, you know…a fan.

At one point in the episode, he says to Alex Pappademas (the host) that he thinks it would be cool if Star Trek mixed-and-matched characters from different iterations of Trek. For instance, how about a Star Trek movie that featured Data and Spock?

Pappademas, correctly, is appalled by this suggestion. He likens it to saying “Hey, why don’t we mix up Christianity with Islam?” For a genuine Trek fan, this is a totally reasonable analogy.

I mention this because football seems to be to Klosterman what Star Trek is to me (and vice versa). I’m not sure whether the two are necessarily incompatible, but I suppose it’s unlikely that a person can be a diehard Trekkie/er and a diehard football fan simultaneously, since each of those interests requires a significant time and energy commitment.

Also, Klosterman seems apologetic (at least to the imagined audience for his book) about his interest in football, in much the same way that I feel kind of weird about how into Star Trek I am. 1 At least twice in “Football,” he stops to acknowledge that some of his readers might have no interest in this topic and should maybe just skip ahead to the ABBA essay.

Klosterman doesn’t offer these disclaimers about the other topics he covers in the book — including David Koresh, Garth Brooks, or, well, ABBA — so he’s clearly self-conscious about his interest in football.

Since I don’t share his interest, I don’t really have that much to say about what he says about football in this essay. However, I will share one personal observation and then move on to briefly respond to Klosterman’s central points, which I do find interesting.

A PERSONAL OBSERVATION ABOUT FOOTBALL

Something I can say about football that I cannot say about other sports is that I wish I had played more football when I was a kid. The last time I played any football at all was in 6th or 7th grade, and that was just some “flag” football during P.E. I hated it at the time, but in retrospect, it probably would have been good for me.

What I disliked about sports in general at the time is that most sports involved some sort of projectile that was propelled in your direction, and you were expected to somehow engage with that projectile in a purposeful way. I hated this in part because I have shitty depth perception, so, for example, a baseball coming at me in the outfield looked pretty much the same the entire time it was in the air, until it suddenly grew very large and then hit me in the face. Also, I just generally hate anything coming at me at high speed.

I think I would have enjoyed football, though, if I had understood how football was different from the other sports we played in school.

Baseball, for instance, is pretty much what it appears to be — a game played with two teams, where one team tries to score points by hitting a ball and running around bases, and the other team tries to stop the first team from scoring points, and they take turns performing the two roles.

Football, ostensibly, is also a game revolving around a ball and teams that try to score points or prevent the scoring of points. In practice, however, it is also a game in which the teams’ objective is to, within regulated guidelines, beat the living shit out of each other. 2

As a kid, I had some pretty severe anger issues. I rarely got into actual fights, though — my anger usually vented itself in random acts of violence necessitating adult intervention (and, in once case, my mom threatening to drown both of us in the river).

So, one might think that I’d gravitate towards a full-contact sport like football, where violent aggression would be rewarded. (I was also physically suited to football, being stocky and densely built, and difficult to knock down.) However, I was extremely literal-minded as a child, and it never even occurred to me to do anything in the game that wasn’t expressly stated in the rules.

As a result, unlike 99% of kids who play football, I actually attempted to play the game without any extraneous aggression. This made the game no more or less appealing than any other game we played in Phys Ed.

In retrospect, I deeply regret not perceiving and taking full advantage of the huge opportunity for state-sanctioned violence that football offered. There were a couple of jerks in my class for whom this would have really come in handy. 3 It’s not that acts of extreme violence would have gone unadmonished, so much as that they would have been tolerated as an unavoidable part of the game.

I have actually, as an adult, had dreams in which I’m back in elementary school, playing football, and this time I’m just totally whaling on my enemies with unbridled savagery. I’ve gotta admit, it’s pretty satisfying. Insofar as I’m beating up 11-year-olds.

TWO INTERESTING THINGS KLOSTERMAN SAYS ABOUT FOOTBALL

It’s tempting to dismiss “Football” as Klosterman self-indulgently taking advantage of an opportunity to ramble on about his favorite sport for a few pages, but his insights here are actually totally relevant to the themes of image and authenticity that are central to the book. I do not have much to say about these insights, nor am I qualified to, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t note them.

1. Football is a liberal game that feels conservative.

This is an interesting observation, one I have not encountered before. Klosterman’s assertion is that football, while perceived (and marketed) as a deeply conservative sport, is actually overseen with a liberal/progressive approach:

It appeals to a conservative mind-set and a reactionary media and it promotes conservative values. But in tangible practicality, football is the most progressive game we have — it constantly innovates, it immediately embraces every new technology, and almost all the important thinking about the game is liberal. If football was a politician, it would be some kind of reverse libertarian: staunchly conservative on social issues, but freethinking on anything related to policy.

He supports this by sketching out how football has evolved over the decades, rapidly incorporating innovative, avant-garde strategies and regulations. According to Klosterman, football, of all sports, is one of the most open to adopting change and new ideas. He even suggests that football, as a business, is a socialist enterprise, citing the practice of revenue sharing.

Despite being progressive in nature, however, football — or Football® — managed the neat trick of presenting itself as conservative, by carefully crafting a media image designed to appeal to reactionary values, and adopting conservative iconography and symbolism.

2. Football is unique among American sports in that it does not attempt to attract the casual viewer.

Klosterman’s assertion here is that Football® is successful because it caters solely to its base of committed fans. Baseball tries to sell itself as a timeless, historical pastime; basketball tries to align itself with youth culture. Both struggle to bring in new audiences. But football doesn’t bother with any of that. It doesn’t care about drawing in the new or casual viewer, but is totally focused on keeping its core fanbase motivated.

I don’t watch enough sports to adequately assess the merits of this argument, but based on what I’ve observed, it doesn’t seem wrong. In football promos or whatever coverage I’ve seen, I don’t perceive much if any effort to “sell” football or extol its virtues. Rather, it just sort of announces its presence. It doesn’t try to draw me in; instead, it merely celebrates itself to itself.

In so doing, Football® weaves an air of exclusivity around it, exuding the vague promise of a rich, undiluted, uncompromised experience, should I possess sufficient cojones to get on board. We’re having too awesome of a time to care about whether or not you want to share in it.

To the extent that this is the case, I guess it’s why I haven’t been able to make any of my attempts to get into football stick in any lasting way. When I watch a football game, I enjoy it, but at the same time, I’m aware that, in order to truly become part of the experience, I will have to make a tremendous commitment. I can’t just check out a game once in a while — I have to join the family. I’m either in or I’m out. I suppose this is true of all televised sports, but it does seem especially true of football.

Come to think of it, this is actually also true of Star Trek. Here’s a franchise with a dizzying array of TV and movie incarnations, an enormous roster of characters, a lengthy and convoluted history, and a complex and rigid continuity that is jealously guarded by legions of fanatically devoted viewers.

For a commercial pop culture product sold to the general public, Star Trek is remarkably insular. The movies — one through ten, at least — don’t waste a single frame of screen time explaining who Kirk or Picard or their respective crews are, or offering any expository background on the galaxy’s alien civilizations. They’re just there, and it’s totally up to the viewer to get up to speed. When Kirk makes his entrance in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, he just…appears. He’s Kirk. ‘Nuff said.

Perhaps that explains the hostility from hardcore Trekkies towards the rebooted Star Trek 2.0: these new films have been designed on every level to appeal to audiences unfamiliar (or even hostile) to Star Trek. Unlike any previous film or TV series, these Trek films reach out to the casual viewer. (This is why they appeal to Klosterman; in a way, they’re sort of the Friday Night Lights of Star Trek movies.)

Therefore, no matter how many pandering references to “classic” Trek J.J. Abrams throws into these films, Trekkies will never see them as anything but inauthentic. As egregiously shitty a film as Star Trek: Nemesis was, it’s more authentically Star Trek than either of these slick interlopers.

Of course, Star Trek is unfortunately not like football in that, when it’s most authentic and true to itself, that’s when it’s least artistically and commercially successful. At the risk of making too neat a comparison, I suspect it’s because in some ways Trek is the converse of football: if football is a liberal game that presents itself as conservative, Star Trek is a conservative show that presents itself as liberal.

Using Klosterman’s argument, while football constantly embraces change and quickly adopts new ideas and approaches, Star Trek is staunchly resistant to change. Trek fans cling to a rigid ideology comprising deep reverence of “Gene Roddenberry’s vision” and faithful adherence to Star Trek canon, and prefer the traditional to the unfamiliar, even if that rigidity helps drive the franchise into the ground.

Although Gene Roddenberry is enshrined as the creator of Star Trek, the person who has had the most direct influence over Trek for the vast majority of its existence is executive producer Rick Berman, who led the franchise from The Next Generation through Deep Space Nine, Voyager, all the way through Star Trek: Enterprise and the TNG-era feature films, finally retiring in 2006.

More than anyone else associated with Star Trek, Berman epitomized Trek’s innate conservatism. Once he’d established a winning formula in TNG — a competent, if largely unexciting ensemble cast, episodic storylines, a static universe — he held it down with a firm hand. No matter what catastrophes befell the Enterprise or Voyager crew, the magic reset button set everything back to zero in time for the following episode. The result was an increasingly bland, creatively destitute Trek universe, one built for longevity rather than greatness. Under Berman, Star Trek essentially became “Cheers in Space.”

Interestingly, the one Trek series to strain at the leash — Deep Space Nine (helmed during most of its run by Ronald D. Moore, who went on to reboot Battlestar Galactica) — was arguably the most artistically successful of the bunch. It was the first Trek series to break from the Berman formula and explore darker, more emotionally intense themes, create serialized storylines, and all but do away with the magic reset button.

So, as crazy as it sounds, maybe the best thing the caretakers of Star Trek can do to preserve the franchise is to become more like football.

Next: ABBA 1, World 0