In Praise of Sports Vines

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

On Saturday night I watched a grisly spectacle unfold on live television. The kicker for the University of Texas Longhorns football team shanked the extra point wide right in the game's closing seconds. What should have been a tied game heading into overtime suddenly turned into a humiliating 45-44 loss to UC Berkeley.

As I tweeted a short joke (“more like LOLonghorns”) about the game’s outcome—a common ritual to signal my participation of a cultural event to my peers—I saw a short video clip of an equally stunning football moment in another game scroll down my Twitter feed.

The brief clip, or “Vine,” as my fellow youths call them, shows a Ole Miss player haphazardly throwing the ball down the field to...well, see for yourself.

As a visual medium, a Vine stands at the midpoint of a spectrum that stretches from a Far Side comic on one end to Lawrence of Arabia on the other. With an unyielding six-second limit, the average Vine gives you just a glimpse—a moment, maybe a moment and a half, but nothing more—of a longer story. For some stories, the right six-second glimpse can be more than enough.

The masters of this medium are youths or millennials or Generation Z or whatever The New York Times calls them this month, some of whom can pack one or two solid gags into a Vine. Like all millennial trends, this is neither exclusive to millennials nor a recent trend: Airplane!, the funniest film ever made, pulls off an average of three jokes per minute.

But sports is where Vine truly shines. I don’t need to watch the entire Ole Miss game, nor do I have any interest in doing so. Since I was watching a completely different game when it aired live, I couldn’t have seen it in situ if I wanted to. But I (and many others) can watch that Vine over and over again in astonishment.

Extracting the best moments of a game for broader consumption also isn’t that new. It’s basically the business model that fuels ESPN’s SportsCenter and the sports segments of thousands of local TV news broadcasts across America every night. But in a sports Vine, the ex post facto color commentary or unnecessary narration is stripped away. The most jaw-dropping moments can be frozen and suspended in a perpetual loop, like that Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where the Enterprise crashes into Kelsey Grammar’s starship over and over again.

That’s the magic of sports Vines. Now I can experience a spectacular play or game-changing moment just moments after it happens, with no interlocutor other than the mercurial whims of social media. It may seem small—just six seconds, to be precise—but sometimes it feels like technology’s greatest contribution to sports broadcasting since the yellow first-down line.