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Sunday Morning Quarterback

Sunday Morning Quarterback

Monday, May 22, 2006

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Not college football-specific, but heavily correlated: an interesting, more or less intellectual look by Matthew McGough in Sunday's Boston Globe into "the art of sport," as in the aesthetic beauty of Dr. J's wrap-around layup in the '80 Finals, the emotional drama of Kirk Gibson's walk-off home run in Game One of the '88 Series and athletes' near-universal inability to describe or - like most artists - be inspired by their own outlandish feats. McGough's points are lifted largely from the work of Stanford literature professor Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, from his name an unlikely college football fan but nevertheless the author of the forthcoming "In Praise of Athletic Beauty":

To ground his argument, Gumbrecht turns to that staple of sports bar disputation, Immanuel Kant's ''Critique of Judgment." At the center of Kant's writings on aesthetics is his conception of the ''beautiful" as paradoxically related to ''purposiveness." The paradox, as recounted by Gumbrecht, is that although ''something does not need to have a purpose in order to be beautiful. . .whatever we find beautiful looks as if it had a purpose." A triple axel or bicycle kick or 6-4-3 double play clearly have no function outside the arena or off the field. And yet, writes Gumbrecht, such actions give a distinct ''impression of purposiveness." They are beautiful to behold because they appear both carefully calibrated and perfectly natural.

Gumbrecht employs another of Kant's theories of aesthetics, ''subjective universality," to address the communal aspects of sports spectatorship: How it is that certain sports moments (the Ali-Foreman Rumble in the Jungle, USA hockey's triumph at the Lake Placid Olympics, Bobby Thomson's Shot Heard 'Round the World) come to be recognized by individual fans as particularly worthy of canonization, a collective judgment of beauty that coalesces and only deepens with time. Subjective universality-the sense that ''our individual acts of aesthetic judgment always imply the expectation, perhaps even the invitation, for everybody to agree"-may explain why a diverse stadium crowd will gasp as one in response to an acrobatic alley-oop or an improbably converted flea-flicker.

Of course, Kant, who died in 1804, wouldn't have known an alley-oop from a hole in the ground, and Gumbrecht doesn't mention whether he was much of a sports fan. In any event, there's more to appreciating beauty in sports than what Kant offers: Clearly, the beauty of a play also depends on the circumstances in which it was made. This is why DVD compilations like ''404 Great Soccer Goals" and their brethren are so unsatisfying to watch all the way through; without context, the disembodied plays feel like nothing more than sports pornography. Kirk Gibson's home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series is revered by baseball fans not because it was so beautiful in and of itself; the play's aesthetic clout comes from the knowledge that Gibson hit it cold off the bench, on a bum leg, against a future Hall of Fame pitcher, and that no one had hit a come-from-behind, game-winning home run in a World Series ever before.
Hickey attributes the universal joy inspired by Erving's play to the fact that it ''was at once new and fair": within the rules of the game invented in 1891 by James Naismith, and yet impossible for Naismith (or anyone else, for that matter) to have anticipated until Dr. J actually pulled it off. The relationship between fair play and aesthetic appreciation may also explain why replays of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa's record-setting 1998 home run chase felt breathtaking just a few years ago but now seem to have lost their capacity to inspire strong feelings.
David Foster Wallace devotes his essay ''How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart" (included in his latest book, ''Consider the Lobster") to the conundrum. Onetime tennis phenom Austin disheartens Wallace because he can't reconcile her on-court brilliance, not only physical but mental, with her staggeringly insipid tennis memoir. It's certainly not a lack of intelligence, as Wallace points out: ''Anyone who buys the idea that great athletes are dim should have a close look at an NFL playbook, or at a basketball coach's diagram of a 3-2 zone trap."
Wallace ultimately concludes that looking to athletes for insights into the nature of athletic beauty discounts the possibility that athletes are capable of such feats precisely because they can ''invoke for themselves a cliché as trite as 'One ball at a time' or 'Gotta concentrate here,' and mean it and then do it." Any of us in the stands or watching at home, under such circumstances and scrutiny, would buckle and fail precisely because we think too much (that, and the fact that most of us have mediocre hand-eye coordination and aren't in particularly good shape).

The shining CFB example, as would be expected from a Boston publication, is Doug Flutie's famous 1984 Hail Mary to down Miami in the Orange Bowl. To SMQ's mind, though, that play - like all Hail Marys - wasn't so beautiful as it was shocking a nd dramatic. For beauty, there's Barry Sanders, or certain quarterbacks (Bill Walsh, for instance, once called watching Joe Namath in his dropback an "almost sensual" experience) or, most of all, acrobatic wide receivers. Nothing in football recently has been more visually pleasant or stunning than the rise this decade of the big, agile, go-up-and-get-it wideout, so much so that SMQ's unfortunately deleted (for technical, not editorial, purposes) 2005 All-America Team awarded the Fitzgerald-Edwards Award to Sidney Rice, as the best player at which to throw the ball as high as possible as often as possible, for exactly this aesthetic reason. Certainly, there are plenty of candidates the past 4-5 years for that honor, as evidenced by the following beauties:

So there aren't really a lot of pictures available of Sidney Rice going up for a jaw-dropping catch; he's only been around a year at a not-so-high profile school. Trust SMQ, if you haven't seen him: he can do it, and has, and will more in the near future.

Back to the aesthetics - One of the reasons SMQ looks forward to the annual glut of preseason magazines, and looks through every one available no matter how interested he is in its content is to look at the pictures. In fact, the visuals are a major recall tool, with otherwise forgettable short-term standouts like Calvin Jones, Orantes Grant, Derek Homer, Travis Zachary, Hakim Akbar, DeShea Townsend and Jamal Willis, among many, many others, coming to mentally represent a team forever merely because they were caught in top form, in the midst of an athletic movement at a moment that perfectly anticipated a fluid cut, backpedal, stiff-arm or hit. In that way, not only in its inherent drama, sport certainly moves into the world of aesthetic appreciation.

Or maybe art has to be scripted, or at least planned in some way, not an instinctual reaction, as most athletic moves are. But what Vince Young did in the last two Rose Bowls is at least as beautiful in a performance sense as any ballet, skating routine or ballroom dance.

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Of course, there's beautiful, and there's beautiful...

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4:37 PM

Great post. I'd like to add my two cents, from the perspective of a former lineman, but I believe that there is nothing in football that looks quite as good as a perfectly coordinated offensive line. Although rare (I can't come up with a good example off the top of my head), perfect coordination on the line is just something that sort of delights me. The ball is snapped perfectly, the double-teams are hit just right, a beautifully run pull blows out a D-end and makes a hole you could drive a mack truck through. Or, you watch as, almost in tandem, all five men drop back into a pass set (which can hurt like a b**** to hold right) and give a quarterback all day to throw the ball. Having spent my entire football career (5th-12th) as an O-Lineman, and having had those principles drilled into me by so many coaches, just gives me an appreciation for the guys who can pull it all together so seamlessly and make it look easy. I do love to watch recievers (especially ones with wierd names that start with "Z"), but I get the most enjoyment from watching a great line working like a well-oiled machine, doing their job, not calling attention to themselves (the worst sin a lineman can commit), just making sure that everyone else can do their job equally well.
For my money, the well-executed triple option is pleasing to the eye.

As for the receivers, I enjoyed watching Charles Rogers play. The catch he made in the back of the endzone where he got one foot down as he was falling back with two guys on him (I forget who that was against, maybe ND?)...I get misty-eyed just thinking about it.

And Calvin Johnson's ridiculous one-hand snag against NC State two years ago where he stopped mid-stride and jumped backwards against his momentum and caught it horizontally...perhaps the best catch I've ever seen.
Calvin Johnson's catch
Right on, Realist - I was looking specifically for that pic of Rogers hauling down the touchdown against Notre Dame, which is about as great a catch as it gets (it's almost a shame the Spartans followed that by immediately giving up an 80-yard pass from Matt LoVecchio to Arnaz Battle to lose in the final minute). That catch by Rogers, the one you linked to by Johnson, Mike Williams' one-handed haul againt Oregon State, Prothro's amazing catch against USM, about a dozen impossible catches by Larry Fitzgerald and Braylon Edwards - receivers were not doing this kind of stuff a decade ago. Or not nearly as often, at least, which makes me wonder if there's a limit as to acrobatic and incredible these players may eventually get.

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