Are You Ready for Some Rhetorical Analysis??

American football field

American football field

American football is inescapable. And though it is the off season, I’ve been thinking about football and rhetoric quite a bit. This was brought on by watching the second season of Amazon Studios’ documentary-series, All or Nothing, which follows an NFL team from draft day to the bitter end of the season. Season 1 featured the Arizona Cardinals, Season 2 featured the Los Angeles Rams. Now that there are two teams to contrast, the use of speech and rhetoric in the NFL has been swirling in my brain for a few weeks.

I did not grow up a football fan, despite being born and raised in Massachusetts. My family was much more of a baseball household, and while the Red Sox were terrible for pretty much all of my childhood and young adulthood, the Patriots were just as bad. A losing trip to the Super Bowl in 1986 and another one in 1997 weren’t enough to motivate me to watch a virtually incomprehensible game of starts and stops and beer ads.

Then, I moved to Indiana and married a Colts fan. My husband loves football, and like many partners, I’m sure, I eventually started watching games with him. At first, it was just to keep him company, but my curiosity started to increase until I began asking him to explain things to me. And now, here I am: not at all an expert, but someone who really enjoys watching the game of football, even as I despise pretty much everything about the NFL, play safety, and the general attitude of consumption that goes with football fandom. I addition, I hate football rhetoric. I tend to yell loudly at the TV, not about failed plays or exciting wins, but about the bonkers things announcers, coaches, and players generally say. And that is something that All or Nothing, perhaps inadvertently, emphasizes over the course of each season.

MOMENTUM IS NOTHING: Football rhetoric is inordinately fond of the term “momentum,” which is meant to convey a sense of forward mobility and success a team is achieving in a game. This nebulous entity can change instantly, at any moment, though. Teams desperately seek momentum. They aim for a momentum shift when things aren’t going their way. What’s the problem with this term? It doesn’t actually describe anything. Football, unlike many other sports, is a game of extended possession of the ball. Even if you aren’t doing well on a drive, you will have the ball for about 4 plays before you have to turn it over to the other team. Baseball’s rigid innings structure renders “momentum” useless as a concept, while basketball possession changes so quickly that it’s unusual to speak of sustained momentum (possession works more in short bursts, thanks to the shot clock, especially).

For a football team to gain this precious commodity, they need to be in control of the ball and scoring, while also maintaining a robust defense. If that sounds simply like good football playing, well, you’re right. It is. A momentum shift can, of course, happen with an interception or a disastrous drive, but even a switch in possession doesn’t guarantee a score. You could intercept the ball as many times as you want, but if you don’t ultimately score, all the momentum shift in the world won’t win the game. Momentum is a word used to describe the natural back and forth of a football game, and thus, is a rhetorically empty concept.

EVERYTHING IS A DISTRACTION, EXCEPT STUFF THAT ACTUALLY IS: The word “distraction” is used a lot in professional sports to describe situations or events that could take players’ minds off of the game play and thus have a negative effect on a team’s performance. You may remember a lot of hoo-hah over Michael Sam, the first openly gay player on an NFL team (coincidentally, the Rams), and whether his gay self would be a distraction to other players on whatever team he was on. The article I link here goes over a lot of the ways the concept of “distraction” can be invoked against players or individuals teams dislike or disagree with. In other words, “distraction” provides cover for homophobic team owners and coaches to not sign Sam. “Distraction” provides cover for teams who currently won’t sign Colin Kaepernick. And yet, the culture of the NFL demands a “no excuses” attitude to the point that the LA Rams, who used to be the St. Louis Rams, couldn’t admit that the year in which they moved (featured on All or Nothing) was an intense distraction and disadvantage for the entire organization.

The Rams packed up and moved to a new city, having to play and practice at borrowed facilities while their new stadium is being built. The off season prep was in Oxnard, then their regular season practice facility was at a college’s football complex in Thousand Oaks; things were so lax that their goal posts weren’t even weighted down properly enough to withstand strong winds. When players or coaching staff were asked if the move was a distraction, they all said no. Despite it clearly being a distractions, with every single player and staff member having to move their family to a new state, with a longer daily commute to work for most of them, with a practice facility that was over an hour away from the LA Coliseum where they played their home games, none of it could be referred to as distracting. It’s as if just admitting they had external distractions would weaken the entire organization. This denial was repeated later in the season, as the Rams went 4 and 9 and head coach Jeff Fisher was fired. The team had to finish their season under a new coach (their special teams coach was temporarily promoted), and this was all after the Rams replaced their starting quarterback halfway through. But again, when asked if all of this upheaval was a distraction, QB (and their #1 draft pick) Jared Goff had to say no.

I actually understand a culture that requires teams and staff to stay stoic in the face of adversity; it’s something we often expect of our athletes, to be tough under all kinds of pressure. But the somewhat loose definition and usage of “distraction” points to a professional environment in which real challenges are dismissed and the term is then weaponized as a justification for discrimination or other negative actions.

TEAMS ARE REALLY THEIR OWN CHEERLEADERS: After watching two seasons of practices and behind the scenes footage of both the Rams and the Cardinals, I was somewhat surprised to see how ubiquitous certain motivational chants are, particularly ones that seem like Pop Warner or high school level cheering. The most popular cheer is the “on 3” cheer in which the team puts their hands in the center of a self-formed circle and shouts whatever the cheer leader wants on a count up (or, sometimes, a count down) of 3: “RAMS ON 3: 1-2-3, RAMS!” This is a type of ritual teams do to get themselves psyched up and motivated, of course–along with speeches and play calling, football is richly performative–but even the cheer can take on a sad, generic quality when imagination or spirit is lacking. In the series, the cheer was sometimes simply, “TEAM ON 3, 1-2-3, TEAM!” No specificity, no tailoring for the situation. It appears that often, just being a team is all the players can fall back on; football teams are somewhat atomized as it is, split between defense, offense, special teams, practice squads, etc, that I think a sense of unity can be crucial for teams who feel they’re falling apart at the seams, as the Rams did last season.


 

I think a lot about the performance aspects of professional football, and All or Nothing really highlights just how performative the entire NFL really is. Many Sundays can find me yelling at the chain crew dragging out “the chains” to determine placement of a ball, which drives me nuts. If the chain crew already has the previous line of scrimmage marked as well as the line for a first down, AND they cannot move until the referee says they can, what is the actual purpose of the chain measurement? The referee puts the ball down where he thinks the player landed, anyway, so then bringing out the chains can’t really tell you anything more specific. Can it? My husband always says the chain measurement is strictly theatrical, and I’m inclined to agree. You can see what Wikipedia says about the chain crew and measurements here, but it doesn’t have much detail about this aspect of their job.

To wrap up, I would definitely recommend All or Nothing–it’s a surprisingly compelling look at the ins and outs of playing and managing an NFL team and how the journey through a season affects both the franchise itself as well as families and communities around them. You can catch it free on Amazon Prime!

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