Disagreeing with the River: A Response to Jon Bois

Jon Bois is one of my favorite writers online, up in that Mallory Ortberg tier, but his stuff is harder to characterize than any of my other favorites. A lot of his humor writing, especially on Twitter, is in the style of “enthusiastic bumpkin” or “e-mailing relative”—see his 50 fast facts about Super Bowl XLVII, for instance—and yet he’s also capable of real poignancy. A lot of that poignancy comes from his appreciation of randomness and error in supposedly ordered systems: witness Breaking Madden, or my favorite post of his on the death of the NBA, both of which involve him setting up a sports video game with certain odd parameters and just seeing what happens.

Last week, Bois’s love of randomness got its most direct expression yet, through a post purporting to explain what exactly constitutes a “catch” in the NFL. This has been a frustrating topic in football, as high-def instant replay has turned what used to be a quick, if often wrong, decision by the officials into a thicket of legalese and post-facto rationalizations (as I’ve written about here previously). Bois’s piece on the matter—you should go click that link, before I spoil it here—starts off looking like it’s going to be another one of his “the naïf looks at a sports issue” posts, but it ends up going somewhere very different: to a philosophical look about why, exactly, we care about settling this issue and how we could choose to look at it instead. It’s an approach I’d like to see more of in sports writing, one that scrutinizes the assumptions that are so often unspoken in these kinds of issues. It’s also a piece I disagree with on a key point, and it motivated me to think about the beauty I find in sport’s order, as opposed to its randomness.

Quoting Bois’s post, especially out of order as I’m about to, doesn’t really do it justice, since like a lot of his work it’s presented as mixed media and the visuals are part of the point. So I’ll reiterate that you should really read his piece before you read this one. Done already? Onward:

In the piece, Bois takes the voice of a perplexed farmer, interrupted in the act of building a barn by some earnest sports fan breathlessly eager to know what exactly a catch is. His answers to the question are accompanied by pictures illustrating the breathtaking scope and ineffability of the cosmos, pictures which illustrate his thesis: the answer to the question “what is a catch” is not worth knowing, if it is knowable at all.

This is the Eagle Nebula, as captured by the Hubble Telescope. This is real.

This game you play—I’m sorry, watch others play—is an artifice.

What you are after is useless.

What you wish to be is a connoisseur of the saccharine.

To his credit, Bois (or his speaker) is not attempting a dismissal of sport itself (“I wouldn’t dare use, ‘well, what you care about is stupid, because this thing over here is very big’ as an argument against something that is so important to you”). On the contrary, he posits that sports and other human constructs are indeed important, precisely because the universe is so incomprehensible. We invest sports with so much meaning because the incomprehensible vastness of the cosmos drives us to seek out meaning in the meaningless, to “hide beneath the bed sheets of family and country and two-minute drills and Sammy Watkins and Danny Amendola, shivering, throughout the long night of our lives.”

The problem comes, though, when we use these sources of comfort, not just to put the wonder and terror of the universe into perspective, but to obscure the wonder and terror altogether. We arrogantly assume that sports and other constructs, being constructs, must conform to our own understanding and our own laws; when we find they are governed by the inscrutable laws of the universe just like everything else, we get testy and cast blame. It’s a mistake Bois compares to our similarly mistaken search for straightforward, comprehensible meaning in our own lives:

Grousing about a blown catch/non-catch call is so typical of us. Discontent with the overwhelming probability of our existence, which surely registers as a hundredth of a thousandth of a millionth of a trillionth of a percent—we demand some sort of reason for it, just as we demand the difference between a catch and a non-catch to adhere, inflexibly and without exception, to law.

Frustrated with our lack of knowledge and control, we try harder and harder to make the phenomena we perceive fit into our tiny, well-ordered boxes, in a perfect imitation of the Buddhist definition of suffering. When it comes to nature, Bois points out, we understand this fallacy perfectly well:

The last time you chanced upon the river, did you disagree with the river? Certainly you could have observed the valleys of the land and speculated how the river came to lie the way it did, but you would recognize it as a river. You would not disagree with the prehistoric laws that put it there.

You would not say its laws were “wrong.” You would much sooner, in fact, imagine that your understanding of the laws was wrong.

Bois argues for treating unexpected, even apparently silly, sports outcomes the same way we treat natural phenomena. Just as a supernova can be regarded as a “wrong” result but is better appreciated as a source of beauty and awe, so a botched call can be regarded as an unlikely, incomprehensible miracle:

An NFL catch is defined by several paragraphs of legalese that can be selectively interpreted and bent to meet the officials’ wordless account of what they see. It’s a collision between the artificial and the natural. A little tiny spectacle, but then, we are little tiny beings.

If you’d like, you can allow yourself to be locked into its orbit. Yelling, cursing, lamenting the invented notion of its “unfairness.” In doing so, you yourself become part of the phenomenon.

Or, as I prefer to do, you can watch from afar, and cherish one perceived “mistake,” one tiny wonder, after the next.

I hope it’s clear from my account of Bois’s piece that I admire it and agree with a lot of it. I fully share, for instance, the sense that it is limiting to focus only on the tautological wrongness of wrong calls. Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs wrote something similar in 2013, before baseball adopted replay review, including this provocative but I think correct point: “Missed calls make people care. They stir the emotions, and where there are emotions, there’s a stronger connection. It’s possible that missed calls actually bring people closer to the game, rather than pushing them away. They certainly keep people talking about the game, for longer than they might otherwise.” Bois’s speaker argues that, rather than fixating on crafting perfect rules, a better approach would be “a supreme regard for the officiating crew”: “In other words, a catch is defined not by rules, but by the officials. We already perfectly understand this to be true, and we ought not to make it their place to deconstruct their thought process.” I don’t apply either of these points absolutely (and neither do their authors, I think), but it’s certainly clear to me that our focus on eliminating bad calls has had some serious drawbacks, as well as made us sports fans appear to be a pretty humorless bunch of people.

However, Bois’s advocacy of blown calls as not only necessary, but beautiful, is where we differ. Reading his paean to the beauty of error, I was most reminded of a discussion in G.K. Chesterton’s 1908 novel The Man Who was Thursday. Chesterton’s book was written in the context of widespread anarchist terrorist violence and a general sense of assault on the forces of order and rationality (Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, on similar themes, was published the year before). The book opens on an argument between two poets: Lucian Gregory, an anarchist who propagates “the old cant of the lawlessness of art and the art of lawlessness,” and his antithesis, Gabriel Syme, who strives to be “a poet of law, a poet of order.” Gregory, the anarchist, argues that “[t]he poet delights in disorder only. If it were not so, the most poetical thing in the world would be the Underground Railway.” Syme responds that, in fact, this is exactly the case:

The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? … [E]very time a train comes in I feel that it has broken past batteries of besiegers, and that man has won a battle against chaos.

Chesterton can be pretty glib, but this pretty precisely captures why I can’t join Bois in finding the beauty in officiating mistakes, nice as that sounds to me. Bois is right when he says that, since football is “an artifice,” seeking absolute precision in it is not only futile but also useless (“all art is quite useless”—Oscar Wilde). But I don’t think it follows that its failures are just as meaningful and beautiful as its successes. It’s precisely because sport is a human construct that we appreciate it for its successes rather than its failures. There is no earthly reason for a man to throw a ball to another man standing at a precise spot forty or so feet away (let alone for anyone else to try to stop the two of them from succeeding), except for this: it can just barely be done. Our fascination with exceptional people achieving what’s just within the range of their abilities has led us, for thousands of years, to design complex systems to put athletes in position to do that. And those systems are only meaningful, are only measuring what we want them to measure, if they’re governed by rules that we can understand and that are applied evenly and fairly.

The reason I think it’s unfair to criticize rules-complainers as too myopic to see the beauty of the world is that, as it seems to me, the blown calls that fans hate the most are the ones that deprive them of the aesthetic experience of sport. I admit I’m a casual football fan, but as far as I can tell the catch/no-catch calls that really get people’s blood boiling are the ones that rule an apparently incredible catch incomplete based on an obscure interpretation of the rules. It’s unfortunate when a player is given credit for a catch that he made while out of bounds, but it’s no great matter. But nullifying a great catch interferes directly with the whole reason we’re here: to watch people do astonishing things. After the Dez Bryant debacle in 2014, the NFL attempted to clarify the catch rule, in a way that Deadspin lambasted:

Besides the fact that the rule remains ambiguous, the NFL is going in the wrong direction. Dez Bryant’s catch, like Calvin Johnson’s five years before, was an incredible feat of athleticism, and a highly exciting play. The rule was applied correctly in both cases, but that’s precisely the problem, as the practical application of this rule is to take away exciting-as-all-hell catches that would be considered catches everywhere … except the NFL rule book.

We’re here to watch the nearly-impossible; we want rules that keep that prospect alive, without making it too easy and depriving it of meaning. Wanting to change the rules on that basis isn’t missing beauty, it’s valuing it.

Bois is right, of course, that this is a pipe dream. The rules that are really running the show are beyond our ken, and even if we could craft our own rules with absolute precision, they would still have to be enforced by fallible officials. The dream of “fair competition” is one we will never achieve. But I’ll stand up for the fan who yells at the TV about those damn NFL rules, because Chesterton was right: useless or not, it is epical when man or woman with one wild football strikes a distant receiver. So it’s not only understandable but also appropriate that we should want to know for sure when that’s happened and when it hasn’t.

Image credit: “star” by Tom Hall is distributed under CC BY 2.0.

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3 thoughts on “Disagreeing with the River: A Response to Jon Bois

  1. Pingback: The Sport of Politics | The Spiel

  2. I am curious how you read the turn back to the “regular” graphical explainer. Once you’ve clicked through the cosmos, he really does give you the legalese. It seems, to me, to complicate his position–or possibly more accurately complicate the idea that his jaunt through the cosmos is an argument rather than an ornament–to click back and find…a quotation. Is there a tension between the river metaphor and the statement: “One thing’s for sure: The NFL’s officials aren’t perfect, and neither are the rules?” I don’t think it likely that I am supposed to be reprimanded for considering how the river might have conformed to the land AND be accepting of the statement that things aren’t perfect. Isn’t one of the points of the river metaphor that “perfection” is a construct?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think that when he brings in “aren’t perfect” he’s back to his “gee whiz” cliche-spouting persona (as seen in the non-sequitur “But it seems like no matter what, we will always be back to cheer on our favorite team”). But I think I agree with your larger point—there’s an implied criticism of the rules, so he seems to have it both ways. One of the questions the post doesn’t quite answer is whether the beauty of imperfection applies only to the officiating, or to the rule construction as well—they seem like very different enterprises.

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