Super Bowl 50 was boring. Not in “the Internet must crap on everything” sense, but the actual one. The Denver Broncos had an entertainment-neutering combination of a smothering defense and a horrific offense. One person in my viewing party fell asleep. Topics turned to more important matters, such as edible-induced flatulence.
What happened in the Super Bowl was clear. Even if there was a debate from the result, stats and advanced metrics would have ended it.
The spectacle offered some of the customary spectacle “moments.” Cam Newton didn’t dive on a fumble. Peyton Manning hawked Budweiser and gave Papa John some love. Eli Manning had a weird non-reaction in the luxury box. (We were disappointed “Chris Martining,” running through your house crouching and lip-synching, did not go viral.)
But, the lead story in the aftermath was the Carolina quarterback’s truncated press conference. A press conference. Media members reacted. It went viral. The inveterate commentary factory went to work. His sullen three minutes became a multiple day story, and will have a greater lasting impact than the game itself.
Media members debating how Cam Newton should handle the media may feel like a dog running in circles around its own tail. But, in fact, it was refreshing. This kerfuffle involved Newton doing something.
Normally, media members debate how other media members should cover Cam Newton. It’s not much of a “debate,” since there is very little substantive disagreement about him within the media. “Proponents” and “critics” are lukewarm. The coded language trap is obvious. Discourse is rife with caveats and disclaimers about rushing to sweeping character judgements.
How significant and representative Twitter eggs, blog commenters, and letter to the editor writers are to the media discourse is open to debate. But, judging from player and coach reactions after the Super Bowl, reactions to Cam Newton within the league are far less charitable than the media has been recently.
More interesting than those media/cultural “debates” are why they happen. It’s a similar phenomenon with LeBron James. Both Cam and LeBron are transcendent athletes. We’ve arguably never seen the combination of size, speed, skill-level, and aptitude they bring. Yet, we never talk about that. We manufacture this broader, controversial narrative for them, even when neither player is that interesting when not competing.
Injecting some outside story has always been necessary. Sports’ “nuts and bolts” can’t entertain alone. But, sports coverage has grown more and more like professional wrestling where the contests serve to fuel the narrative instead of the inverse.
Hypothetical “What could happen” and “what did not happen” discussions trump “what did happen.” We are in a media world where Jim Harbaugh is winning the narrative, despite not having won any big games.
The simple reason is that many people aren’t watching the games, even those who are “watching.” Humans don’t multi-task well. If someone is using a “second screen,” he/she is on the second screen. The game itself has less currency. It’s no coincidence sports leagues and broadcasters had such an active interest in promoting daily fantasy.
Controversy is what people click on while scrolling through Facebook on a phone and it is what keeps them engaged. Controversy, however trumped up and trivial, is what the media will provide.
Of course, media blaming the audience is the ultimate copout. The same social media and technological forces act on media members. If they aren’t starting fatuous discussions, they are an essential component of the feedback loop. Media members have louder megaphones than most. More filtering could occur.
A football player not talking this year was the lead story from the Super Bowl. It was the biggest non-ball deflation related story last year too, from an interesting game that went down to the final play.
Cam would have been the lead story if he said something inflammatory. He became the lead story by doing nothing. The optimal route to be left alone is to do something, but in a monotonous fashion. It worked out well for the Denver Broncos.