Understanding the biggest controversy of this pro football season
This NFL season a new controversy has emerged among pro football fans: a growing resentment over the content the NFL and the networks won't share with the television audience. Call it the great All 22 Controversy of 2011. Media as varied as the Wall Street Journal, major sports blogs like Deadspin, even social commentary sites like the Good Men Project, and untold numbers of bloggers and commenters have all weighed in on this issue. But whether the NFL should or shouldn't allow fans to see certain footage is secondary to why they aren't showing it and what this says about us. So, what is All 22?
When we watch football on TV, the networks tend to follow the ball, showing us only the immediate action around it. There are brief "establishing" shots of a larger area of the field, usually just before the ball is snapped, but mostly we are treated to a variety of medium and tight shots from various tracking cameras. With this footage we get to see stunning acts of athleticism up close, and feel the intensity and speed of the action around the ball. What we don't get to see is much of the game itself. "All 22," on the other hand, is the term for the game tape created by cameras in fixed positions perched high enough in the rafters of stadiums to show all 22 football players on the field at the same time. The players look tiny, you can't see expressions on their faces, and you really have to pay attention to follow where the ball is. But because it enables you to see every player on every play it's incredibly valuable footage to anyone interested in the complex gamesmanship of an NFL contest. Every man on the field, on every single play, has specific choreographed assignments that he's following based on the play called.
Coaches rely on this footage so they can see who got open, who didn't, who blew their assignments, who made a spectacular block down field - in short, nearly everything not seen by the TV audience. The All 22 is valuable to serious fans as well because it generally provides the reason why the ball goes where it goes—it gives context to the main narrative we're shown at home. As the Journal piece quotes coaching legend Bill Parcells, "'I don't think you can get a full understanding without watching the entirety of the game,' The zoomed-in footage on TV broadcasts, he says, only shows a 'fragment' of what happens on the field."
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If you're a casual fan you won't likely care about this context. But if you're a fanatic, the way an indie film buff clamors for the director's cut, you want to see this footage. This analogy brings us to the crux of the issue about why football aficionados are upset that they are not able to see the All 22 footage, and more interestingly, why the NFL (thus far) has refused to release it.
When Reed Albergotti of the Journal asked the league if he could see the All 22, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy replied tersely, "NO ONE gets that." Another league spokesman noted that the footage "is regarded at this point as proprietary NFL coaching information." In our release everything era of Wikileaks, bands giving songs for free, and shows like Real Time with Bill Maher promoting their extended versions online, the NFL is hoarding this content. Why? One speculation, made in the Journal piece, is that it would open the players and teams up to more criticism by ill-informed pseudo experts: "Charley Casserly, a former general manager who was a member of the NFL's competition committee, says he voted against releasing All 22 footage because he worried that if fans had access, it would open players and teams up to a level of criticism far beyond the current hum of talk radio. Casserly believed fans would jump to conclusions after watching one or two games in the All 22, without knowing the full story." This argument positions the coaches and few other insiders with access to the All 22 as a group of Nietzschean ubermenschen, the only beings capable of possessing this powerful truth.
A second speculation too assumes the NFL fears a cottage industry of critics, though it approaches this position from the opposite side. As Aaron Gordon in the Good Men piece notes, rather than pseudo experts, "We would all be experts. . . The networks extract a lot of value from airing live games, but they extract even more from all the programming they air about the games." Gordon goes on to mention the countless hours of coverage not only of football but about football on the endless sports shows aired on ESPN and the networks. His point is that the networks' and the NFL's interest is in keeping us ignorant so we'll keep tuning in to the experts to explain everything to us. While coming from different angles, both speculations, however, do hit on the NFL's mission of maintaining control. Though, I argue, this desire for control has little to do with a fear of creating an ill- or over-informed army of critical fans.
Here is the main reason they don't release the All 22: The NFL and the networks don't want us to experience football as a game, but as a hyper-real production of a game, in the way war movies are hyper-real versions of war. In a (non-documentary) war or military movie, while there may be a few establishing shots of the battle-field, more often than not the camera is tight on the soldiers' faces, on the guns, or there are medium shots of a handful or less of men. Can you imagine watching a ten-minute battle scene all done from a zoomed-out fixed camera on a crane? No. It's not done because what tends to really grip us as viewers are the people and individual, easily observable physical acts and dramas. Pearl Harbor, Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan: not one of these blockbusters would work without all those tight shots on the leading men's faces and close or medium shots of the action in the sea, on the field or in the air.