The Realms of American Sports

 

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As a recently converted disciple of American sports, having been an avid football supporter, player and fanatic all my life (as well as a general sports fan), it has become starkly clear that the American sports (American football, ice hockey and basketball) are, in addition to being so different to football in structure,  operate on multiple planes of existence in a way that football doesn’t. Telecasting of sports in America and the perfect marriage that began between sport and television was an utter inevitability when it comes to most American sports. The staccato nature of the games lends itself like a dream to the obsession with the statistical analysis that fuels the majority of any given spiel being made by the commentator. Furthermore, it melds perfectly with advertising, so much so that 30 seconds of advertising time during the Superbowl costs $4,000,000 to reserve. The coverage of the sports has now arrived at a level of sophistication so advanced, that aspects of it that were previously thought only of benefit to the viewer are now being incorporated into the sports itself, at (for basketball and American football mainly) a courtside and pitchside level. I think it speaks to a truly American sentiment; these sports are being changed by the introduction of slow-motion review done during an enforced game break. In basketball and American football the game clock has come to mean something other than time left. Timeouts of numerous lengths can be strategically employed, especially in basketball, in the final seconds of a game, so even though only 49 seconds of actual gameplay time can remain, seconds turn into multiple minutes of fouling, free-throws, timeouts to advance the ball, all leading to either a mouth-watering buzzer-beating attempt, or a fizzling foregone conclusion if the free-throwing team can maintain their composure. Tight calls at the ends of games (contentious clear-path fouls, last-touch out of bounds calls, foot-on-the-line three pointers) are reviewed by the officials on a screen, seeing the same slow-motion replay we see on our television.

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The same happens in American football, analysing the infinitesimal differences between catches and fumbles, between a little toe grazing the line or a player staying in bounds. And the same thing always happens on the telecast when these calls are being reviewed; one commentator will bemoan the time it seems to be taking to confirm or overrule the call, then the other commentator will say with assurance something along the lines of “Well, yes, the game is slowed down by these reviews, but it is important to get the call absolutely right. I mean these types of calls can decide games on their own”, to which the original commentator immediately agrees wholeheartedly.

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Being right. I think is the quintessentially American trait that runs through these two sports; the necessity of eliminating, to the highest degree possible, the calamity of error. Terry Gilliam was asked in an interview on Reddit what the clearest difference between American and British humour was, he replied “Americans are better at laughing at other people, Britons are better at laughing at themselves”. This difference seeps into the nature of their respective sports. Americans want to win, to win without any catches or clauses, and are willing to endure intrusive delays in play to make sure that the losing team can’t grasp to the fact that “they were robbed”. That phrase and the shield it provides is something that the British simply couldn’t live without.  Goal-line technology has only recently been introduced into English football, in the most inconspicuous of ways. The idea of a break in play to decide if a challenge is or isn’t a red card worthy offence, or whether a corner or a goal kick should be awarded in stoppage time, is unthinkable. Britons would not welcome such a method of review nor would they welcome such utter removal of human error. What Gilliam identifies in the nuances of British comedy can be seen here; the celebration of our failings. If Frank Lampard’s goal in the 2010 World Cup game against Germany had been awarded, England would still have, in all likelihood, been thoroughly beaten anyway. I don’t think anyone making a reasonable estimation of how the match could have gone would contest that. That it wasn’t awarded softened the blow for all the red-faced, kraut-hating, pint-spilling Britons with lions on their shirts who were watching that display of systematic mediocrity. We had something to point at after the match, faces even redder now, to blame for the eventual 4-1 shellacking. We lovedhaving that in our pockets. We love to have that missed handball in the box that would have led to an equaliser. We love to explode in rage at the unjust sending off that ruined a perfectly good contest. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

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For basketball and American football, there are two realms; the real time, a dimension riddled with human error, with imprecision, an area of hazy tricks of the eye. Then there is the slow motion dimension, where exactitude rules supreme and nobody makes mistakes. The same moment in the same game exists, to varying degrees of visibility, in both realms, and both sports have opened up an observation panel between the two only relatively recently.

In ice hockey the relationship with the slow motion replay is different. Actually just about everything is different in ice hockey. The sport, like basketball and American football, utilises the slow motion replay to confirm contestable goals, but the relationship with ice hockey goes further than in the other sports, to almost aesthetic levels. I was immediately struck by the apparent chaos of the game, how recklessly the players put bone-shuddering checks one each other, sticks clacking, ice shards and skate blades flying. I then was able to marvel, and I mean truly marvel, at how precise and sublimely dexterous the players are, as they are, ensconced in mayhem. The game is played at such speed, blending such ultra-violence with such fine margins, it boggles the mind. It took me about 10 games to get the knack of following the puck accurately. And it occurred to me during this settling in period how important the slow-motion replay is for these athletes to be appreciated. As in any televised sport, the angle at which the sport has to be filmed offers advantages and disadvantages for the viewer. It dictates the way the television spectator interacts with the action; we enter it from a set point of view. And even the most seasoned hockey viewer, let alone someone less accustomed, because of how quick the game is (as well as the problem of viewing it from the long side of the rink) can miss the intricacies of some moments, a game winning goal, a cross-ice assist or a miraculous glove save. It can happen in an instant and you’re left open-mouthed and dumbfounded as the whistles sound. It’s at these moments where we need to elevate to the realm of the slow motion replay. The arena that was once a furious melee of sweat, metal and carbon fibre, where chaos was king, now becomes a ballet of serenity where every action, slowed down multiple times, makes sense and is perfect. A window between bodies opens up for an instant and the puck is slapped, first time, in a perfect line through it. The puck appears unguarded for a fleeting moment and is scooped just inside the post milliseconds before a tsunami of padding and flesh crashes down around it. It clarifies so completely a moment that was previously so utterly indecipherable and in doing so exposes the astonishing skill of the men involved in the creation of it. It, as method of translating reality, is invaluable for the television spectator.

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The instant replay challenge system was brought into the NFL in 1999. In the NBA, officials began reviewing instant replay evidence for buzzer beaters in 2002. Its impact as a mechanism of justice has aligned itself with a certain American sensibility. In Britain, it hasn’t been embraced, in fact to the contrary, which may reflect a certain something in the idiosyncrasies of the Brits. The merits of stoppages in play to sort out tight calls can be argued from either side when it comes to basketball and American football. But while we take breaks from such heated debates, we can at least take solace, from our couches, in the undeniable improvement the slow motion replay has made in that savage opera of fury played in metal shoes on ice by toothless Canadians wielding sticks.

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