There’s a scene in Will Ferrell’s Anchorman where Ron Burgundy falls back on his blind machismo. “I’m a man!” Ron exclaims, his voice sounding like his confidence just skipped town. “I built the Eiffel Tower out of brawn and muscle! That’s the kind of man I am! You’re just a woman, with a brain a third the size of mine. It’s science.”
As a Professional Smartalleck™, it’s easy to understand why I turn to Anchorman for Snark Power. But it was in this scene where snark gave way to philosophical insight, and showed how when faced with new, challenging ideas, the seemingly brave crawl to tradition for support.
When the NFL first introduced one-way radios into its players’ helmets, many a traditionalist (myself included) beat their chests like Ron Burgundy in abject frustration. Was the League nuts? Had they taken the tenets laid out in George Carlin’s “Football v. Baseball” skit to heart? What horrifying deviancy would the League’s technological bloodlust wring on the game next?
Regarding helmet radios, current LA Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke wrote that “another ounce of humanity is stolen from a game that already is far too distant from the public.”
Fifteen years removed from the advent of helmet radios (and the romantic notions they invoked), few would argue that helmet radios have done much in terms of dehumanizing the game. Supporters of the technological movement point to the League’s liberal attitude to changing with the times as the sole reason why it surpassed baseball as America’s #1 vice.
When television came to prominence, football was quick to tailor itself to the confines of a TV screen. The game became the nation’s favorite television show, complete with plucky underdogs (the AFL), cragged-faced veterans (the NFL), heroes (Johnny Unitas), rebels (Joe Namath), and villains (the Oakland Raiders secondary) -- all filmed live before a studio audience.
As technology began to play a bigger role in the on-field product, the game became more specialized. The playing field between the naturally gifted and the obsessively driven leveled. Thicker padding and a constantly updated rulebook gave smaller players like Lawrence Taylor all the reason they needed to lunge at an opponent full-speed. Soon, his speed made him the most feared linebacker of his generation, a title that had once been held by mustachioed musclemen like Dick Butkus.
Skill and drive, then, became the factors behind success. Today, there is still a need for natural ability, but only if it’s supplanted by an equal amount of desire and dedication. If not, players run the risk of busting in the NFL (see: The JaMarcus Russell Effect).
The technological prowess of the NFL is especially visible in its stadiums. While baseball has regressed into its nostalgic cubbyhole, the NFL has built gorges and capped them with sliding roofs. Football has crawled out of the caves, cultivated the land, and built temples to itself in which it celebrates the notion that the only constant is change.
These innovations are not exclusive to the NFL. In 2001, the XFL introduced “Skycam,” changing the way people watched bad football and giving Rod Smart’s creativity an outlet. By that summer, the NFL had raided the XFL’s carcass, and taken “Skycam” with them.
The United Football League has adopted a new technology called IDCOACH, which allows coaches to send the current play to the players via handset to a screen attached to the player’s armband. The technology is still in a prototype phase, so it’s hard to gauge the success of this product at the moment. If the past is any indication, the NFL will be right there to implement it should it take off.
Bob Dylan once wrote, “The times, they are a’changin.” Ron Burgundy never heard that song, but someone in the National Football League seemingly carved those lyrics over his bed. Today, the NFL has pills that can determine body temperature and instant replay so detailed, it’s like it jumped out of the Wachowski brothers’ dreamscape. Wondering what new gadgets the League will implement next has become nearly as fun as the futuristic wars played out every Sunday in HD.