Tag Archives: Sports studies

Narrativized Ludology: Sports Film and Rule-Based Climax

EDIT: HAH! This has barely anything to do with the narratology vs. ludology debate other than the name, but you’re interested, aren’t you?! I thought up the title after I had written most of the post and I like the idea, but I don’t know what it means. Here’s some stuff about rules and sports films. SPORTS!


Yeah. It’s a Thursday and I’m talking about something completely different than what I thought I would be talking about, but fuck it. I’ve got something in the mind mill about stats and Moneyball and Nate Silver’s existence, but I’ve been thinking a ton about sports films the past few days and wanted to get some words down.

This topic is coming from my current viewing of Major League, which I am watching because of this awesome ‘oral history’ piece that’s been floating around sports blogs this past week about the 1989 Cleveland Indians. It’s worth a read, but if you know the plot of Major League as well as I do, it’s a bit of a bore that just makes you want to watch the actual movie. It doesn’t have Bob Uecker’s voice or Wesley Snipes ridiculously small car, so it’s lacking to say the least.

Rules and strategies of games are usually relegated to the players of those games and their fans. These codes have been agreed upon and have disseminated through their use by pro teams throughout the country. Leagues have rule books that are understood, for the most part, by those playing or coaching the games. I say mostly because of a poll that went around a few weeks back about obscure baseball rules and how there were a few announcers and coaches that did remarkably bad. This is a poor way to start. “Rules” and “strategy” are fucking horrible, ill-defined words that can mean almost anything in any situation. How about I actually try to do that instead of keeping up the shit tradition of not defining anything.

I guess I should define what I mean by a “rule.” To be honest, I don’t really know how to define that term well. For the purpose of sports, I’m taking rules as written statements which designate allowed actions, describe the flow of play and dimensions of the play space, and set up parameters for how winners and losers are established. On the other hand, strategies entail direct responses to those rules which have also become institutionalized, but not in written ways. The sports strategy becomes systemic, in that it infiltrates certain teams or coaches or players. Often, strategy isn’t looked at as strategy, but labeled as ‘philosophies.’ In baseball, certain teams will play ‘small ball,’ bunting, stealing and sacrificing runners ahead to increase the probability that they can score a few runs. Football has a long-standing tradition of having certain strategic philosophies originate in college-level ball and making their way up to the majors through new coaches. The wildcat system and the West Coast offense being two of the more famous of examples. Well, there are some definitions. They aren’t going to work for everything, but they’re there. This is me patting myself on the back.

These are all codes that sports fans come to pick up on from various places, be they family members, telecast announcers, magazines, websites, so on and so forth. They’re mutually-agreed upon symbols. Well, they aren’t mutually agreed upon. They have been agreed upon and you better learn them or you’re not as welcome in the environment as those who do. This is trending towards symbolic convergence theory, a term coined by Ernest Bormann, but I know that theory is specific to rhetoric and doesn’t necessarily work well. Maybe social semiotics or something else would work, but I don’t know what would be best. Communities create and are endowed with symbols that they take on, understand, and keep up. It doesn’t always work like that, nor is it necessarily the norm, but I’m not trying to make a lengthy argument about symbol and meaning-making for various groups.

But what happens to rules when we move from sports as a part of the games medium to sports as topic for another medium, particularly the sports film. With a shift in audience, and a shift in the relationship between audience and game, there has to be a shift in the ways that rules are understood and displayed.

There’s a particular trope of overtime being used as a rule that is exploited by film to heighten the audience’s intensity. I watched Invictus the other day and it uses extra time in the same way that The Mighty Ducks 2 uses the shootout. These allowances within the actual sport are not brought up until the climax of the film in order to put an extra bit of umph into the suspense of the moment. Now that I think about it, the first Mighty Ducks movie does the same thing with the penalty shot that Charlie Conway takes at the end of the climactic battle with the Hawks foe. Yes, I do remember all of the intricate details of the Mighty Ducks franchise and it’s sad, but I’ll deal with it.

The rules of the game are not laid out for the audience when we deal with the game in film. In Friday Night Lights, they choose to go the entirety of the film without mentioning the role of penalties in football, but in the last scene, where the multicultural, rural Panthers are up against the all black, urban Dallas Carter team (seriously, go watch that again. It’s disgusting how much they build up this black, urban, male team as the ultimate enemy. Can’t we have more cases where the Aryan Icelandic team is the disgusting foe like in MD2? Not perfect, but definitely different.), the Panthers are called for a holding penalty in the last minute which brings back a go-ahead touchdown. Why is this the first time that penalties, events that occur frequently within a single football game, are brought up in only one game where the entire season is on display.

****Note: I thought about that some more. That isn’t the first penalty that is brought up in the game, but that game is the only one where penalty flags fly. Earlier in the game a penalty is given to a Dallas Carter (read: black) players kicks the dislodged helmet into the face of a white Permian player. The penalty isn’t used as a plot twist, but it is definitely used in order to further the idea that Dallas Carter are the ‘baddies’ here. That they’re disgusting and unsportsmanlike and that you should hate them. It’s fucked.

Sports films operate under such a different understanding of the role of rules than that of the games (and their audiences) themselves. Their ludological power as rules, as the things that define the games and the way that those games can be played by players, is stripped when being forced into a narrative role. This is understandable, if we understand that the audience for the film is much larger than that of the game. However, who is the audience mostly of the sports film, and how do we deal with large overlays of that audience and smaller overlapping audiences? Invictus was a big budget movie that garnered over $100 million worldwide and around $37 million US. Unlike a movie like Major League, where we’re dealing with a popular American sport, we have a more untrained audience with the sport of rugby. This is probably why there isn’t as much focus on in-game play in the first 75% of the film. The only extended gameplay (can I call it that even in a scripted, biographical environment?) comes in the last half hour. It’s obvious that the writers tried to account for a more ignorant audience by showing the scoreboard every time that there was a score, constantly reminding them of the score and how the game worked. More emphasis is placed on the referee and what he said throughout the game in order to keep the audience up to speed.

This post also comes through the games readings that I have been doing, and I think that it’s ultimately an interesting thing that happens to rules when games move from games as medium to games as topic. Rules can no longer stand on their own because they don’t directly affect the audience, but they still play an incredibly important role in films about different sports.

I feel like I should say something about unwritten rules. For the most part I have been talking about rules that have been institutionalized in certain ways, mainly by being in the league’s actual rulebook in ACTUAL words. I haven’t been talking about hockey’s fighting ‘code’ (such as, always stop hitting when the other guy hits the ice) or baseball’s unwritten rules about running up the score late in games (no sacrifice bunts or suicide squeezes allowed). I’m sure there are some in football or basketball, but I don’t know those cultures as well.

Let’s first be honest: these aren’t technically “rules,” but social norms within certain subcultures of sport. However, they still come up in certain places in sports film. If we take Friday Night Lights again, we see the unwritten rule of being honest and open about medical conditions. The Permian star running back gets hurt in the first game and goes out just to get hurt more. Thus we get this moralistic understanding of how players are supposed to act. Same thing can be said for Varsity Blues on the coach’s side, forcing injections and more playing time on already injured players.

There are code words that are used as well within these films, but they offer a bit of a different feeling than the emphasis on rules. As I’m watching Major League, I noticed something. Bob Uecker is famous for his “Just a bit outside” comment, but after the first game of the regular season, Uecker calls the 9-0 thumping the Indians took as a “heartbreaker.” Those who know the sports code would recognize that as, at best, optimistic hyperbole. Heartbreakers in baseball refer to one-run games or blown saves that lead to losses in the last inning. These aren’t relied upon as much as rules, particularly in high tension moments, because of the acknowledgment that the entire audience won’t understand or get the joke.

You know what? I don’t know what the purpose of this blog post is. It’s mostly just me rambling about how rules are used differently when the audience is placed further and further away from their implementation and use. Rules are important for the player for their ability to play the game, for fans to understand the ways that the player is playing, but they are important for the sports film audience in order to understand the flow of the story that is being put forth. They are used to create the climax, or at least to heighten a particular moment within the resolution of a problem. They are markers of narrative points, unlike their persistent existence within the actual game. I’m not suggesting this is a bad thing or a good thing. I don’t know if it’s really even a thing.

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Sports and Identity: The Stat Against the Body

Shitty human…shitty blog. I know that I was saying that I was going to be doing this every Monday and Friday, but it’s been sweltering and this greasy, sweaty body doesn’t like typing when large amounts of residue builds up under my palms on my laptop. I’m a day late, but here is what I started writing Friday night and finished today.


According to White House Down, this isn’t called a blog anymore. I don’t know what it is, but the fantasy creation of some screenwriter has told me so and I take that as dogma. Well, let’s just put that to the side because I don’t want to talk about film stuff or how much I expect directors to have military coherence across films and across decades (I know…ridiculous expectations).

For the rest of the month I’m going to be discussing several different things in the wide world of sports, but I want to start out with a bit of a diatribe about identity. It is a topic that has consistently permeated almost everything that I have thought about in the past year or so and, while I hate my brain for consistently going there, I think there might be something to this that is particularly important for sports.

I have difficulty believing in any sort of identity that is empowering to the individual or allow for self-determination. It’s not that I think they don’t exist. I’m sure that people are finding ways to identify themselves and empower themselves everywhere, but I’m not sure that those ways of creating identity matter when they come up against the forces of identity formation by established powers. We have to realize going forward that there are significant power differentials in the creation and formation of identities and we cannot flatten these together. For the rest of this post, I will be using identity creation to signify the self-determined, individual move to establish an identity and identity formation refers to processes which aim to stabilize and authorize an identity for an individual. I use this argument often when I look to various new media applications (wide open field, I know, but I think it works most places). In the storing of cookies and the instantaneous analysis of that data when users access various websites, we are not in control of the identity that is created. Instead, the algorithms and hierarchization of data allow for identities to be created that are most helpful for the individual sites. Amazon might privilege your purchase or viewing of one book over the same actions taken with another. Google might move physical location above other identity markers in certain circumstances. These are actions that the world outside of these companies does not control. These are certainly operations that do not allow for identity creation, but call upon instantaneous, single-use identities to be formed in order for a greater rhetorical effect.

In the move from whatever ‘new media applications’ means to sports, I want to first focus on the professional athlete. This month of sports talk will be focusing largely on the professional athlete because I’m not good with fan culture. In addition to that, I have some issues with how I have been seeing identity used in my small readings of sports studies as of right now. Identity gets attached so quickly to an adjective, that it seems like the word has little or no meaning. National, cultural, and social are some of the adjectives attached more often as I’ve seen, with the idea of sport or a specific game being given certain influence over those things. I think this takes so much out of identity and it puts the individual sport or the idea of sports in a place of less power than the individual. While I will acknowledge that the individual first has the power over whether or not to watch sports or enjoy them, the social, national and cultural pressures creates a power struggle that this view of identity doesn’t account for. We aren’t starting with sport as a given, which might be more apt in a country that does not have as multitudinous of a sports scene, but with identity as the given, and as the individual having a full arsenal to take on cultural and social practices in order to determine their own identities.

I’m somewhat repeating an argument that Grant Jarvie makes in his overview of sports studies entitled Sport, Culture, and Society: An Introduction. It is here, in reference to the mix of the social and the political with rugby in South Africa, that he writes, “Identity within the above mentioned book, as in many others, has a prominence as an answer to many questions. Here it features not as an explicit theory but as a magical incantation as a password into the story of South African sport that is expected to illuminate explanations of such areas as identity behaviour and the ways in which sporting ceremonies in South Africa have helped to generate identities among white South Africans (Nauright, 1997:21)” (285). Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Nick, you know absolutely nothing about the role of sport, particularly rugby, in a post-apartheid South Africa other than the movie Invictus [Almost wrote Invincible, that other one where Matt Damon-twin Mark Whalberg plays football instead of rugby…I need to watch those two together].” 

Well, you are definitely correct. I cannot speak to the role of rugby within South Africa, but I really enjoy the phrase “not as an explicit theory but as a magical incantation” when we’re talking about identity. This is really what I’ve been trying to say for the past several hundred words and am now just getting to. Many of us who are talking about identity these days have little understanding of what that might mean. Based on my work in cultural studies, I can tell that we have an entire field in the humanities that hasn’t seemed to actually question what the word ‘identity’ is defined as since Stuart Hall and Judith Butler. I know they’re alive and probably still writing. I don’t care. We really need to update that.

Identity is a very powerful term or me that we seem to always muddle by adding in extra shitty adjectives that limit what it can be instead of going for what it might actually be in a certain situation. The first way that we need to start understanding identity is that it is not wholly inherent to the individual. They do not have the power to fully define it and, because of this lack of power, the individual has an identity that must travel and change within different contexts. In an interesting little article entitled “Sport as Symbolic Dialogue,” C.E. Ashworth writes about identity as sport and that the creation of identity must be seen as a game in which symbols are exchanged and represented in different ways according to different rule sets.

He writes, “Life is thus a game whether rules are agreed upon or not because cognition is unavoidably governed by rules – those rules which establish identity in a continual state of becoming and ambiguity – but it is not an idealised game because the mutuality of rules is not necessarily guaranteed so that outcomes can be mutual and not individual.” Well there are a lot of problems here, but I’m going to talk about a few (But seriously, is he calling for a normalized cognition, what a butt!). I think he takes an interesting exit off the highway of thought here, but where he turns right at the end of the ramp, we’re going to take a left and look at what could (should?) have been. He takes sport as a metaphor and I want to take it as an example. So let’s do that? Or not. You can totally stop reading whenever you want.

Maybe instead it should read, “Identities are formed when rules are agreed upon for the individual, causing  definitively unequal power levels between individual and game, in order for identities to be formed more efficiently for the sake of the sport.” Are you rolling your eyes yet?

I’m not trying to say that identity is always like this. Yes, we are always staring into the abyss of language in order to pull together an identity, but choice and difference in that situation can possibly be liberating. I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it, but maybe you should. But when I started this sort of project I kept running into a conceptualization of identity that was AT BEST magical and at worst unable to overcome other areas of research. This is also a continued response to how we need to start viewing identity in the age of informatics and the further move to the individual being nothing more than an aggregate of stats. Yeah. This suggests that that’s all we are, but that’s why I’m looking at sports. I’m not going to have as good of an example if I were looking at off-the-grid communes, you know?

So, here’s the deal. When we look to the professional athlete, and to their identity (not their celebrity, which seems to be a big thing for sports studies), we see identities that are being set up and created through their particular sport. Sport is an arena where the body can be discounted and abstracted from even thought sports studies also seems t have a total fascination with that. When we look to stats, it is the individual athlete split up and rearranged in order to provide some sort of meaning. Baseball is obviously the best thing to look at here, since it has been taken over by stats and is mired in what someone will probably call the ‘sabermetric wars’ in years to come, if not already something that Billy Beane says in his sleep.

I want to leave baseball for a bit later. I have a few days left where I will talk about stats and baseball in particular will be of such great help to that. Maybe it’s time to think about hockey. The sport just embarked on their free agency period which started Friday (one of the reasons I wasn’t writing was because I was waiting for contracts to be announced…there weren’t enough announcements by the Bruins). The thing that is great about hockey is that I think we can still see an older way of looking at prospects. “Older” probably isn’t the best way, but we are dealing with a new (statistics-based) and old (body/skill-based) understanding of things right now. They haven’t totally embraced the stat, but often focus on the body. Hockey players will be described as having great hands, heavy shots, and a willingness to play in the ‘dirty areas.’ They will be understood more for their body than the baseball player is today.

But just when you think that you are focusing on the body, a sportscaster or article will drop in the stats. Goals scored, assists, plus/minus. They sneak in there. We must realize that how identity is represented is based both on the sport that is being talked about AND the form/medium/otherthing in which that representation is taking place. If I’m looking at TSN’s main hockey page at an article listing the top free agents, I am bound to see more statistics than in-depth statements about the way the player skates or shoots. Now, when a player is signed and the local beat writer puts out a blog post on the new guy, they’ll talk about those things. They have the space and the rhetorical exigency to do so that the list does not.

I know that these seem like silly distinctions, but these changes alter the way that we understand the world around us and vastly change the ways that we can talk about other people, particularly athletes. These identities are formed by actions in-game which are allowed to be created because of the rules of those games. This is a bit procedural, I know. Hmm…maybe it’s time that I write something about procedural identity. Have people done that? Who cares?


I’m going to go ahead and stop there for now. I am probably going to talk about these issues again at some point through this month, but I don’t know when. As I said, identity bleeds through into everything that I talk about, so it’s bound to happen again. Maybe this stuff is boring, but whatever. I think it’s fun knowing that your existence is mediated in so many fucking ways that we don’t often think about.


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Sports Month at MoMF: The Worst Theme Party

It’s like being at a fraternity’s theme party where there’s just one dude in football pads talking to himself in a dark room alone, muttering “Go team” over and over again. I’ve decided that I haven’t been writing enough, so I’m going to just plunge into an area of research and theory that I haven’t ever really looked at close-up. What follows is anecdotal and probably unsubstantiated at points. It’s how I feel about sports, and I hate talking about feelings. I’m saving how other people discuss and research sports for other posts this month.

I have felt conflicted about my role in academia for a while. Other than adjunct-to-be, I’m not sure where I’m heading or moving into, but I’ve been feeling a slight aversion to many people and procedures at work within academia. I think sports might be a way that I can reconcile that with myself.

While I consider myself a sports fan and have cared about certain teams for a long time, I am looking now to sports as an object because of the potential I think they hold. I think they are incredibly potent examples that permeate a very large portion of the population. It’s very clear that sport is one of the most popular sections of American culture, carrying a very large amount of actual and cultural capital throughout the world. I think it’s an important topic for the culture at-large and, more specifically, for my future students. But I’ll talk about that in a bit.

It’s difficult to avoid sports growing up only half an hour away from Boston. You get sucked in quick when Fenway Park is so close and the Patriots play even closer. I’m sure it’s quite similar for children who grow up all around the U.S. near different cities with various teams. But they don’t all go to grad school and work within disciplines that seem to respond to that child-like passion with displeasure and calls for greater legitimacy. I even did it right there, calling it a child-like passion, invoking that there is something wrong or immature about sport fandom. That was fucking stupid of me.

I don’t know anything about the niche of sports research in the humanities other than it is a niche. I’m not entirely sure what isn’t a niche at this point in time when disciplines and fields are so fragmented and we’re all emanating out from a loose center in order to find a space that isn’t already overly-inhabited. Maybe social media or the internet at large, but those are fucking huge, so why wouldn’t they permeate a bunch of disciplines in a meaningful way? I can make that statement without question, but the idea/object of sport is also an area which could definitely penetrate multiple disciplines on a regular basis. But if that is the case, why don’t I see an article about sport events once a year in the journal of Cultural Studies or Rhetoric Society Quarterly or Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies? Why are these topics instead relegated to minor journals of little readership? Let’s not even go that big. Why didn’t I have a single class period in any one of my courses that dealt with sports in particular. It wasn’t like I was in classes that were nothing more than homogenous pools of the stereotypical nerd, all wheezing, taping their glasses and solving math proofs in their spare time. I was in a department of Media and Communication Studies, which I’m fairly certain sports falls into, but it was a topic that was only ever brought up by students and never by professors.

You can probably tell that it’s a pet peeve of mine that something like the topic of sports, an arena that many students find interesting and engage with regularly, seems like it is a periphery topic at best. Isn’t part of the work of a professor to meet the student halfway with their interests? Or am I just some crazy idealist with a love of sports?

Well, it is probable that I am speaking out of my ass. Maybe I just haven’t had the privilege of professors who care about sports in the same way that I do and, thus, haven’t been privy to the world of the sports academic and that discourse. I’m going to try to fix that a bit this month. I’ve been reading quite a bit about video games recently, so that will be a constant tie-in here as well. In addition to that, I only root for Boston teams because I totally wanted to be cool and fit in as an elementary schooler and those teams have taken up a large part of my memory of sports from those days into today. Many of the examples that I will be using are probably from Boston sports. At some point later in the month, when my focus turns to a few phenomena in Boston sports culture, I’m going to try to talk a bit more about the culture and my growing up in it and becoming a fan. You shouldn’t necessarily care, but I needed an extra issue to fill an entire post and Boston is a strange place.

This month is largely an experiment to see if the topic of sports is somewhere that I see myself entering. Well, that and to see if I can produce a few posts a week for an extended period of time. I’ll be posting every Monday and Friday for this month. It’s only 9 entries, but I haven’t written regularly since my sporadic, yet often, writings on Occupy back in the summer/fall of 2011. Uh…oops?

Below is a schedule of topics that I will be discussing and the dates:

5 – Sports and Identity

8 – Stats Science vs. The “Human Element” of Games: Contradictions Abound

12 – Nate Silver’s Odd Existence: Politics, Sports, and Statistics

15 – Sports Video Games and the Move to the Individual

19 – “Bet You Like that Hand on Your Ass”: Growing up with Boston Sports

22 -Fan Victimization and the Aaron Hernandez Case

26 – “Pink Hats” and Sports Elitism

29 – Underperforming and Clutch Players: Myth and Context


This isn’t really set in stone, but that’s a taste of things that I have thought of at this moment. Things might change as I read more and more within this weird academic subfield. As always, I would absolutely love any suggestions that people have of important texts in sports studies. I’ve searched high and low, but I still can’t put my finger on what the central texts or authors of this field/topic are.

July is the heart of baseball season. Seems like this is the perfect time to start this project.

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