Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Power: The Orange Bowl

Consider that sports actually loses money. So: what is the appropriate reaction to our corporate overlords—apathy or irony? An actually related question: what is it about these gentlemen and –women who join the ranks of our overlords that causes them to acquire additional initials in their name? And a final question by way of introduction: and just what does it meant that, despite all that fuss from the overlords, the collective joy of something truly unique can overpower the ordinary exercises of power by said corporate overlords?

Stanford beat Virginia Tech 40-12, and I was there, and it was wonderful.


To get punny—Jim Harbaugh wants to kill you with power; the football version, the basic play. To wit, for the uninitiated:

Everything else is just window dressing, or perhaps a magician’s sleight of hand for Harbaugh—it’s all about cleverly disguising while being completely blunt that he wants to run all over you using the same play every single time. An example from deep in the fourth quarter of the Orange Bowl probably works: the play started out in a “22” formation—i.e. two tight ends, two running backs, one wideout—and after some signal, the entire line stood up, shifted simultaneously, and reset in completely different places. The Stanford part of the crowd applauded, in the way connoisseurs might. The play went for no gain, if I remember correctly. The Virginia Tech part of the crowd was dressed as orange seats.


Committees really are the stuff of conspiracy. The Trilateral Commission. Bilderberg. The Illuminati. Of course the membership rosters of such organizations are usually publicly available—I’m looking at the Trilateral Commission’s roster right now on wikipedia—and I’m sure you can say the same thing about the Orange Bowl committee. Like its more shadowy peers, the Orange Bowl Committee is either credited or blamed for just about everything Orange Bowl-related. Like its more shadowy peers, there’s nothing besides common sense that can disprove this. So what you are left with is an opaque accumulation of power—who does what? Why? And are they making money?

The opacity of the power structure can be seen in the names, or, more precisely, the way they list them. Here’s the Orange Bowl Committee. Notice anything? The way powerful people list their names is different than you and me. How often do people call O. Ford Gibson O. Ford Gibson? Surely he went by whatever “O” stands for or by “Ford”, because anyone from elementary school to the middle of high school would’ve mocked good old O. Ford mercilessly had O. Ford tried to get people to refer to him as O. Ford. So one day, when O. Ford was really feeling himself—he had all that power—he decided deliberately to get people to start referring to him as O. Ford and—because he had all of that power—people decided it wasn’t ridiculous to call O. Ford O. Ford.

But it still is ridiculous all the while, power or no. By now the point has been made to death that sports are totally corporatized and that it’s completely to the detriment of the game, with music muffling any organic expression of enthusiasm, or of TV timeouts or promotions smothering the rhythm of the game, but you really have to attend the game in person to appreciate this. Probably my favorite moment from last night that was simply absurd was the Discover CEO handing Andrew Luck the game MVP trophy on behalf of Discover customers everywhere.

For all of the advertising and buck-scraping of various kinds, it’s kind of incredible that a very high percentage of all sports entities lose money. The vast majority of college football programs don’t make money; the same, I’m sure, can be said about the NBA and (I think) the MLB. And it’s true worldwide too—owning a big soccer team is an excellent way to waste all of your money and get people to hate you; and of course countries or cities practically always lose money hosting the Olympics or World Cup or what-have-you. Apparently, then, we have sold a large part of the enjoyment of the game to still lose money.

I suspect the members of the Orange Bowl Committee felt somewhat guilty about this reality—about the fact that the first quarter was presented by Reese’s, the second quarter a casino, etc.—and decided to throw us extra doodads to entertain us. Halftime entertainment: the Goo Goo Dolls, a nineties band with two hit songs. They played two songs. One of those was their hit song. They were accompanied by local high school dancers. They were introduced by a black M.C. who seemed selected to provide the closest simulacrum of black cool possible without actually being edgy and/or controversial. (He used the word “baby” often.) Probably my favorite verbal slip of his, though, occurred between the high school dancers shimmying and, uh, dancing and the introduction of the Goo Goo Dolls, in which he screamed, “IT’S ABOUT TO GET HOT IN HERE.”

I’m not sure if the irony of the entire thing occurred to many other people besides me and the people we sat with, so while we mocked it extensively and often, the reaction to the humor of the mysterious Orange Bowl Committee (the black M.C. thanked the Committee profusely for bringing this—paraphrase—“hot halftime show” to us) was apathy. Which is the more appropriate reaction? Surely the Goo Goo Dolls don’t come cheap, what with the flames, fireworks, and fog machines, and that’s a lot of money to spend to get a rise out of an anesthetized audience, is it not?


What the organizers didn’t have the power to do was quench the sheer fun of being in Miami for two games. One: I’m quite certain they do not have authority to regulate South Beach, as they might try to replace the alcohol with a mid-90s inoffensive brand—and yes, I’m sure they have access to Zima. Two: for this Stanford fan, the sheer improbability combined with yet another irradiation of yet another hapless opponent seemed like lived-in fantasy. So there—can’t take that away.


Lived-in fantasy is not bad in Miami—of the major bowls, located in New Orleans, Pasadena, Phoenix and Miami, the latter might be the best place for it. Few cities embrace whimsy like Miami—they have a series of purple snails crawling about town, or a dancing woman statue affixed to a side of a tower. Few cities also work the “big modernist tower” aesthetic quite as successfully as Miami—it’s a Le Corbusier dream!


So: the game. Many things about the live football games—despite the thoughts on the commercialism of the thing—are not as good as their televisual counterparts. You can rarely tell how far someone has run. The Orange Bowl’s referee’s microphones were horribly malfunctioning and usually emitted a loud screeching noise not unlike the movie’s scratching-chalkboard sound effect. And so on and so forth.

But there are things you can only experience or understand live. Start with the understand part: watching Luck was an excellent way to understand just how very good he is. I think a good example was provided by one play that gave an action realization of a simple truth: mediocre quarterbacks throw to players, bad quarterbacks throw to players but miss, and good quarterbacks throw to spaces. There was one play that the geometry showed itself: fourth quarter, Luck rolling out to his right, finally finding a spot on the field that must be open as his tight end—Coby Fleener, I’m pretty sure—realized that that spot would be open too until Luck threw the ball to the space and Fleener and ball met at the same space for a first down. As inevitable as logic.

Then experience: the end of the game evolved into a love-in for Stanford football. We cheered the outrageous formation switches, the getting of the ball to James McGillicuddy, everyone’s favorite Stanford utility man, we chanted “Overrated” and the lot. One note: reporters are certain that we chanted “One more year” to Andrew Luck. This is incorrect. We started at the end of the fourth quarter, and we chanted “Four more years” in reference to Harbaugh and Luck. Admittedly, I can see why reporters would think it was “one.” One has the benefit of making more sense: it’s not even possible for Luck to stay four more years. But, we said four. We like to dream.

The latest dream—which, incredibly, seems to be fueled by those same reporters who could not hear us correctly—is that Harbaugh and Luck will come back. You could only hope this emotionally, as history and the logic of money would indicate they’d leave. But who knows? Who knows? We shouted ourselves hoarse until very very late, and while most of it was the sheer euphoria of a strange miraculous journey, at least some was the thought that the journey might get stranger and more miraculous yet with a sequel—not the Rose Bowl, but the national championship.

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