Wednesday, January 11, 2012

What Football Can Teach Us, Part II

Yes, American discourse is far too full of metaphors, similes, and references to sports. Given my attitude about sports, football in particular, it probably would have behooved me to avoid this discussion, but then I read this column by The Nation sports columnist Dave Zirin, concerning last weekend's playoff game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Denver Broncos:
My central Xs and Os mistake in predicting a Pittsburgh blowout was ignoring the injuries that had ravaged the Steelers. Their quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, had one working leg, with his other ankle swollen to badly he had to wear a larger shoe. Their Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey and starting running back Rashard Mendenhall were both out with injuries. Their safety Ryan Clark also couldn’t play with a serious blood disorder. It was certainly ignorant of me to ignore that long list. But I made an even bigger mistake than that.

I made the cardinal error of applying the laws of politics to sports. In the last two weeks, two Republican primary also-rans—Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry—invoked the name of Tim “Focus on the Family” Tebow to inspire their flagging Christianist base. To put it mildly, the gambit failed to work for either candidate. I was over-eager to see Tebow then fail in their footsteps.

Tim Tebow: Praising the Player. Hating the Game
I've seen this tendency in people before, and not just regarding the case of self-righteous jerks like Tim Tebow. It's a fairly common mistake people make - mistaking their wishes for what they should know is actually true.

Let's take Tebow as just one example. His professional statistics tell me two things. First, he's just in his second season, and his first full season. In many ways, he's still learning the game. Few NFL quarterbacks are at the top of their game when they enter the league - it's a whole other level of play compared to college football, where, incidentally, Tebow had a phenomenal career. His NFL career quarterback rating of 75 is kinda middling (correction - more like bottom third-ling, see UPDATE below), but for someone who's still learning the ropes, it's rather good. John Elway, Denver's most famous quarterback and the first to be on a Super Bowl-winning Broncos team, had a lower rating for his first two seasons.

The second thing they tell me is that there's more to a quarterback than is captured in a quarterback rating. It should be obvious, if one looks at that link describing the NFL's quarterback rating stat, that it's only about how good a quarterback is at passing. He could be the world's best at rushing and it wouldn't make a bit of difference. Rushing, by the way, is something Tebow is pretty good at. He had 660 yards this season.

One could also note that if a team makes it to the playoffs, its quarterback must be at least OK at his job.

Yet it's not hard to find criticisms of Tebow's playing ability in progressive blogs. I have no idea how many conservative blogs make this mistake, but I'd bet it's not all that many. Whatever his failings as a human being, Tebow is clearly already an above average football player, even at the professional level. He's probably going to be better in the years ahead, assuming he remains largely uninjured. That's true no matter what his merits as a human being.

Throughout the history of sports in America, there have been athletes who did not meet our ideals as human beings. That doesn't make those people lousy athletes. It makes them lousy human beings. Just as in politics, I think it's important to recognize that skill in one's profession doesn't necessarily translate to being a role model, or even someone who is likable. It does mean, though, that when they really are good at their jobs, one ignores that fact at the peril of being wrong.

UPDATE/Correction (Jan. 12): Actually, according to the official rankings, Tebow's QB rating was 28th out of 34 starting quarterbacks. It's hard to call that middling, I think. Still, passing is only one aspect of the game for a quarterback.


Amelie said...

I completely agree. Our culture has become obsessed with media figures to an unhealthy extent. We look to football players for an example? Sadly (and this is not their fault, it is the school's) some of them never graduated from college but were paid to be sports stars, and did not need to meet the academic requirements like all the other students. Outrageous.

Clinton was a scoundrel at best. But he did well for our country. That was his job. Now thanks to our nosy culture we have encouraged politicians to meddle in social issues.

Cujo359 said...

Hi, Amelie. Yes to both. Certainly, LBJ wasn't a terribly nice or likable politician, but he was an effective Vice President and President.

Of course, his personal failings might have been one of the reasons he got us so thoroughly involved in Vietnam. His desire to be the top dog got him, and us, into trouble when he couldn't make Ho Chi Min do what we wanted.

Not that today's press would have written critically about that failing. They probably would have considered it a virtue.

Paul Sunstone said...

Would you consider Obama a case in point, Cujo? That is, someone who fails as a person, but succeeds as a politician?

Cujo359 said...

No, I don't. He may win this November, but if he does it will be because the Republican Party refused to offer a reasonable candidate. He will not have any coat tails, which will more than likely mean that the Republicans take over the Senate. I'm hoping that maybe the Democrats can take over the House in turn, but I rather doubt that will happen at this point. Those progressive institutions that have not been co-opted by Obama or the Democrats will be too weak or apathetic to bring out the vote.

Obama's a smart enough politician, I suspect, to realize that this is what's going on. Unfortunately, he's undercut his base so much that his only option is to try to scare us into not letting the GOP gain power.

What Obama is great at being is a con artist. Win or lose this fall, he'll be worth a lot of money, and in with the crowd he needs to be in with to ensure his financial future.

Perhaps my judgment is clouded by my expectation that politicians get into office to accomplish something, and Obama has accomplished almost nothing that his predecessor wouldn't have done if he'd been given another term.