“I’ll tell you this, if Eli wins a second Super Bowl next week, then I really think he’s made his case that he’s the best QB in the Manning family!” “At the end of the day, it’s all about how many championships you win, and Eli is beginning to prove to me he is more championship caliber than his brother Peyton.”
These are actual quotes from ESPN and generic sports radio’s endless rambling two-week lead up to the Super Bowl. And thus reflect the current media age--the great circus of rhetorical contortionists.
Every new event must be painted and billed as the greatest show on Earth. Every event must have a compelling, simplified narrative to convince us why this next game or show cannot be missed. It feels no different than good ole’ fashioned yellow journalism; sensationalizing the news to drive up circulation (except with newspapers gasping for their last collective breath, it’s more like driving up viewership so an ESPN production exec can charge an extra $5,000 to Lotrimin AF so they remain the only anti-fungal jock itch cream you can trust…as far as you can trust SportsCenter for being the expert in recommending your jock itch powder).
This paint-the-truth-by-number movement is by no means limited to just the sports media. Maybe it’s just the fact that another election year is upon us again (or that data-driven-hipsters, right from under our noses, have taken over the world in a systematic coffeehouse putch), but it is starting to feel like the term “narrative” is tossed around more frequently than an athlete gets dumped by a Kardashian. The thirty-something talking head types on cable news, anxious to let you know they have a Masters in political communication, fervently drop the term to describe campaign messages and effects of social media on candidates. It’s kind of like the code word for the “I have $100,000 in student loans graduate debt, but have a fancy vocabulary” club.
Hipsters and cable pundits notwithstanding, the term narrative does provide a useful function in today’s 24/7 news cycle culture. “Narrative” in and of it self is simply a synonym for the word “story.” However, in our American public relations dominated society, “story” does not do justice to what we hear in the entertainment, political, and sports analysis arenas these days—that of PR peeps trying to relay the best version of the “truth,” as it shines most brightly on the client or the event they are pimping out.
Reality television is one of the most pertinent cultural examples of why the narrative construct is invading our national consciousness. As a reality TV junkie, The Real World (1992) has always had a special place in my heart for birthing this now ubiquitous genre. I remain a loyal viewer to the show out of some kind of duty/expression of my 90s pride. However, the show looks wholeheartedly different today than in the early 90s. Back then the premise was that they would film a bunch of young people living together and see what happened.
In today’s reality programming, “editing” and “narratives” are the operative words. Think about the sheer amount of footage production teams have at the end of 4 months of non-stop filming (roughly 2,016 hours based on 18 hour filming days). This footage is then compressed into 13 hours of on-air footage; viewers see 0.6% of what actually occurred in the season they watch.
With so many reality viewing options for consumers, producers and editors of these shows must construct narratives out of the raw footage to gently feed viewers “a reality”- a story arc that can be relatable, entertaining, and easily consumed. The cost (probably an over-dramatic description) is that we get fed a synthetic, completely fabricated version of the truth. Frankly, when it comes to entertainment or reality TV this is probably a cost or sacrifice we can live with. However, it becomes a far more slippery slope when the same choices of dictated “narratives” are made by producers of news programs or even sports outlets. At a certain point the truth is lost and irrelevant…because it’s not entertaining enough.
Say what you want about the dullness and drab nature of the bygone newspaper era, but at least it was ethical (okay, just think NyTimes and WashPost in the newspaper era). This departed era did believe “truth” to have a singular meaning. The Internet and insta-news cycle era simply has so many people covering a singular story that coverage has become like an early Black Friday morning in a Wal-Mart parking lot--a mad, violent dash--except in this case the race is to see who can make the “truth” the most entertaining, accessible, and viral. Theoretically, this increase of competition in the free market of journalism should make for a better product. However, as is often the case with free market justifications, the output is not necessarily a better product, but a more entertaining or sellable product. The organizations or people that have most thrived in this era of neo-journalism are those who are most gifted at constructing a version of the truth that consumers enjoy the most.
Eli’s Narrative as dictated by Sports Media
Eli Manning is a prototypical example of an athlete defined by media driven narratives. The storylines, or narratives, for Eli are juicy thick. The Manning family is to 21st Century American sports what the Windsor royal family is to British tabloid popular culture. Rich with bloodlines dating back to prior generations, the Mannings have the patriarch, Archie, the progenitor of the family’s talents and riches. Even better, the second generation of Mannings have two competing brothers (Peyton and Eli) vying for the eventual passing of the papa’s crown to one of the sons.
Before I get too wrapped up in my own convoluted narrative of Manning royalty, let’s examine the following highlighted snippets from Eli’s career:
2004 Sports News Cycle Narrative: Eli is a crybaby who has his daddy use his influence to make sure he gets to play on the right team. His older brother Petyon would never do such a thing.
2006 Facts: In his 9th year in the league, older brother Peyton Manning wins the Super Bowl.
2006 Sports News Cycle Narrative: With 2 previous MVPs under his belt and now a Super Bowl MVP, Peyton is considered the alpha-dog franchise QB, only Tom Brady in his class. Meanwhile, lil’ brother Eli is seen as the weak armed QB who struggles to throw in Meadowlands Stadium wind. Giants fans question whether they ever should have made the trade with San Diego for “the other Manning” (The “Eli Manning Face” is even popularized by Bill Simmons as the embodiment of sulking after a failure, Manning face contortions seen here).
2007 Facts: Eli wins the 2007 Super Bowl over the heavily favored and undefeated New England Patriots after playoff road wins in sub-zero Green Bay, Dallas, and Tampa Bay.
2007 Sports News Cycle Narrative: Peyton’s got company! Eli shines in his first appearance on the biggest sports stage. Is he more clutch than Peyton? Who’s the best QB in Manning family?
2011 Facts: Peyton sits out the entire season due to a career threatening neck surgery. The first season he’s missed extended time on the field after a decade of incredible durability and four NFL MVP awards. Eli goes on the road during the playoffs and wins the NFC Championship as underdog once again.
2011 Sports News Cycle Narrative: If Eli wins a 2nd Super Bowl then he’s the best Manning! The old guard in the media, Rick Reilly, inundates us with the same trite little brother-big brother battle for Manning supremacy narrative. “Eli's been more Clutch this season than Peyton ever has.” Eli must be better than Peyton!
Following sports or politics these days is a lot of work. It is an exhausting and mind-numbing archeological dig through endless hyperbole to try to access the actual truth. Every real life event is immediately deconstructed and only the parts that can be conveyed in an interesting narrative are saved for the news consumer. It’s kind of like the exact opposite of the way we were taught in 3rd grade how Native Americans make use of the entire buffalo they kill. Instead our media shanks the bison horn off the story, thrusts it above their head, and screams as loud as they can that this particular horn is the single most important and meaningful horn the world has ever seen (and that lasts until the horn they shank off next week).
Defining Ourselves through Narratives
I could rant for another 1,000 words about this news-truth conundrum and accomplish little. However, this media strategy works. It makes companies money and brings individuals fame.
I would argue that the reason why it works is that the construction of narratives is the most basic cognitive strategy that humans draw upon in order to conceptualize the world. The simplest reason we are drawn to the contrived storylines of the Manning family competition or pseudo reality TV narrative of Bravo’s Housewives is that they mimic the narrative structure that we all construct of our own lives. Obviously, our personal narratives of our own lives are much less drama laden, but we also use stories and narratives to simplify the infinite amounts of “data” (interactions with others, sights, sounds, etc.) we consume in our daily lives into something cohesive and digestible to understand.
Why do wise elders always share their lessons through stories? Why are all of our religious texts all constructed in story form? Why is it that cave men and women, less evolved and intelligent than modern humans, used the same story structure around the campfire that Hollywood uses today in movie and television plots?
I would argue it is because stories are the most basic unit we use to understand ourselves. Northwestern University psychology professor and narrative guru, Dan McAdams says, “[A narrative] spells out how you believe you have developed over time and where you think your life is going. The story suggests what you believe to be true and good, and how you expect to live up (or not) to those standards. The story serves as a flexible guide for the future and an historical archive for making sense of your past.”
This internal narrative process that McAdams describes is remarkably complex and usually a process that takes place outside of our conscious awareness. However, we can observe individuals’ narratives come to life in creative expressions like art, music, movies, and even in the instinctive stylistic choices athletes make during the heat of competition. I believe this is the “high” that artists and athletes report after an intense performance (and have such hard time relinquishing upon retirement). These forums provide a space for the expression of these deeply held internal narratives housed within all of us.
While the individual internal narrative process that McAdams describes is somewhat buried beneath our conscious awareness, it is most certainly accessible. Awareness of our most importantly held narratives and stories can be found through simply focusing and listening to ourselves and our internal worlds. Writing, meditation, yoga, sports, prayer, art, mindful breathing, hell even motorcycle maintenance, are all extremely available methods that one can take to access this treasure trove of personal data, emotions, and thoughts.
The funny thing about human beings (myself most certainly included) is we so rarely give ourselves permission to go to this place within ourselves, despite it’s unworldly and scientifically proven benefits. It’s too dangerous, maybe too honest or uncomfortable for most of us on given day. So instead of studying our own internal narratives, we look to others and systematically analyze and critique the narratives outside of ourselves. We do so through gossiping/analyzing friends, watching and breaking down sports, and everyone’s guilty pleasure- watching reality television. These actions are in no means negative, it’s still a pursuit of understanding ourselves, but it’s just a less fruitful approach.
Psychologist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Daniel Kahneman, described this phenomenon of being fascinated by others’ simplified stories, narratives, or gossip stating, “it is much easier, as well as far more enjoyable, to identify and label the mistakes of others than to recognize our own. Questioning what we believe and want is difficult at the best of times, and especially difficult when we most need to do it, but we can benefit from [our observations of other people’s stories of achievements and failures].” By examining the storylines of others, celebrities or even our friends, we are systematically organizing and choosing our own values and beliefs.
But that’s where it gets a little hairy. If our minds are embarking on this powerful process of interpreting our own belief system based on others’ narratives, isn’t it quite important to have accurate or genuine narratives to compare too?
“Clutch” as a Narrative
Let’s go back to Eli Manning once more to take a case example of an internal narrative for this idea. One of the most common media narratives espoused recently about Eli in the sports media is that he is “the most clutch quarterback in the NFL.” Of all the sports storylines, the “clutch” narrative is perhaps the most compelling. It taps into every man’s (or woman’s) desire to be William Wallace. When it matters most, with everything on the line, who steps up and leads his men to glory?
Clutch is a really interesting personality characteristic to bestow on someone because we seemingly struggle to identify exactly what it means to be clutch. For the bulk of the 2011 NFL season, pundits lavished Tim Tebow with the “clutch” moniker, only to strip him of this label when he could not deliver a successful performance against the New England Patriots in the playoffs.
We could all could benefit from learning more of what it means to be clutch, so I think it is important not to oversimplify the clutch construct, like the sports media is prone to.
The clutch narrative that has been bequeathed on Eli is strongly correlated to his ability to win playoff games (especially with many of these wins coming on the road in hostile environments). However, an “availability bias” may be driving our conceptualization of what is or who is clutch. Eli is clutch this year because his team is in the Super Bowl and this story is most available, most in our face right now. Last year Aaron Rodgers was the most clutch quarterback because he won the Super Bowl. Let’s not confuse or simplify being the quarterback on a Super Bowl team as the sole criterion for being clutch.
Football has always been the hardest sport for sabremetricians to simplify into a series of predictive statistics. Data is much easier to collect from a baseball game, as it is a series of one-on-one competitions between pitcher and hitter that can be simply cataloged to analyze how one player impacted a team’s ability to win the game. Football is far more complex to isolate statistically how one player impacted his team’s ability to win a game. There are 22 players on the field, with a myriad of different variables constantly playing out effecting the winner or loser of the game. Even worse, trying to mathematically prove “clutch” in singular players is truly an obtuse investigation as it is constrained by a series of clunky categorizations of team performance.
The 2012 NFC Championship between the Giants-49ers, one many analysts are citing in anointing Eli as the most clutch QB in the NFL, was most dramatically defined by the 49ers backup punt returner’s two muffed punts that enabled the Giants to quickly score 50% of their team’s entire point total. Eli was on the sideline for both of these crucial plays. Not helping Eli’s case for clutch.
The most iconic play in Eli’s career (likely one of the most iconic plays in NFL history), was this 4th quarter heave to David Tyree, that ultimately led to the go-ahead winning touchdown to beat the undefeated juggernaut Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. The most defining quality in re-watching this play is it’s sheer absurdity and unbelievability. Hollywood would not script something this unlikely. Think about the randomness of this play. David Tyree, at least a 50% contributor to this “clutch play” had a total of 4 catches the entire 2007 season. This helmet catch was literally the last catch of his entire career, not because he was old but because he never made the cut for another NFL team. David Tyree was a low-on the-depth-chart-backup in his short tenure in the NFL, yet made the most impressive catch in Super Bowl history; cradling a ball against his helmet while being slammed to the ground by a Hall of Fame defensive back. This kind of unpredictability is what makes sports so magical, but this same randomness can sometimes stunt our analysis into believing something that may or may not exist…such that Eli Manning is the most clutch QB in the recent NFL.
On the flip side of this naysayer Eli explanation, if you view the heroic helmet catch it must be noted that Eli escaped the clutches of a 300 pound defensive lineman in a fashion that would make illusionist David Blaine blush. If Eli gets sacked on that play, the Giants would then be faced with 4th and 20 and little to no chance of converting another first down, much less scoring a touchdown and taking the lead late in the 4th quarter of the Super Bowl over the undefeated Patriots. Eli’s ability to escape the sack and lob a perfectly placed pass, where only Tyree could catch the ball is a testament to performance under pressure.
Conversion of 3rd downs in the NFL is crucial toward winning; and perhaps the closest we get to a laboratory test tube like setting for measuring clutch. 7 of the top 8 teams who were most successful on 3rd downs made the playoffs this season. It requires success in a context when failure (to convert) results in the loss of possession and inability to score points (unless it means settling for a field goal). It’s the clearest example of black-and-white, success or failure, within football. An even more pronounced experimental condition for clutch is “3rd and long,” when an offense is faced with converting a 1st down from 8 yards or further away. The great advantage the defense has on “3rd and long” is they do not even have to guard against the offense running the ball. It’s like the offense has to telegraph to the defense the play they are running.
Two weeks ago in the NFC Championship game against the 49ers, with the Giants losing 14-10 with time winding down in the 4th Quarter (Giants likely only getting 1-2 more possessions in the rest of the game, assuming no overtime), Eli’s offense was faced with 3rd down and 15 from the 17-yard line. Against the odds late in the 4th quarter, Eli did it again, completing a 17-yard TD to Mario Manningham against a defense that knew unequivocally he was dropping back for this exact kind of pass. In one of the most accurate pieces of instant-analysis offered just after this play, Miami Herald writer tweeted this sharply accurate narrative, “What Eli has done better than any QB this postseason is render 3rd and long irrelevant.”
So while there was significant luck and randomness dictating some of the success in Eli’s journey, he clearly did take advantage of these circumstances and propel his team to success when big games were on the line. There is some enigmatic quality about Eli that allows him to perform at an especially high caliber at moments in games with circumstances stacked against him, when most of his quarterbacking peers flounder.
In most anyone’s life, you are presented with only a handful of moments where you actually have the opportunity to be clutch. For the average Joe or Jane, these moments are usually not televised in front of tens of millions of viewers to judge the merits of whether he or she is clutch. It probably looks a lot more like performing well on a college entrance exam, delivering a winning sales pitch, or nailing an interview or audition. Yet, I would bet heavily that if Joe or Jane performed well in the first of one these rare life instances of “do-or-die” performance, then he or she would more easily develop an internal narrative that he/she is smart, talented, and gifted under pressure, than someone who flubbed their first attempt at a clutch performance.
The Curious Case of Tony Romo
Eli Manning’s divisional rival, Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo, is a perfect example of this dynamic. While Eli did not have success in his first two playoff games in the NFL, he was not the “goat” in either of the losses, nor was he put in a position where he needed to perform in one of sports/life’s rare do-or-die moments. Tony Romo on the other hand was put in a very unusual position in his first ever playoff game, in his first season as a starting quarterback. Romo was the backup quarterback for the Cowboys during the 2006 season. Oft the case with backup QBs in the NFL they perform more menial duties for the team like holding the ball in place on field goals. Early in the season with the Cowboys off to a slow start, the team gave backup Tony Romo a chance to start a game. He turned the franchise around and led them to a surprising playoff berth. Despite having the glory of the starting QB label, like a consummate teammate, he decided to remain the placeholder for the team’s kicker on field goal attempts.
With 1:19 remaining in the 4th quarter in Romo’s first ever playoff game, the Cowboys trailed the Seattle Seahawks 21-20. Romo had methodically led the Cowboys down the field and set up the team for a winning field goal. It was a 19-yard chip shot attempted from the 2 yard line, a field goal an 11 year old youth soccer player would probably make 9 out of 10 times. Romo, still playing double duty as starting quarterback and field goal placeholder, received a perfect hike from the center, but wildly and uncharacteristically fumbled the snap. In this remarkably rare instance, where everything was on the line, he could not corral the ball and simply place it down to be kicked, despite possessing hands that had handled and thrown footballs with surgical like accuracy for his entire life. The Seahawks promptly swarmed Romo and prevented the kick from getting off. This kept the Cowboys from scoring 3 measly points and delivered Romo and the Cowboys one of the worst gut-punching losses in playoff history; the epitome of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Since this first entrée into the NFL playoffs, Romo and the Cowobys have been haunted by several of the most bizarre and uncanny 4th quarter losses over the last decade in all the NFL. These events all transpiring right beside their inter-division rival the New York Giants and Eli Manning having extraordinary late game successes. While Romo and the Cowboys have become notorious for their innovative ways at always finding new ways to blow leads in the 4th quarter, Eli Manning has defined his career through 4th quarter success, come from behind victories, and exquisite execution of the two-minute drill (not to mention complete domination over the Cowboys during this era).
On raw talent alone they are almost identical (although they possess different quarterbacking styles). In Madden 2008, Romo’s overall rating was “84” and Eli’s rating was “85” (as a former video game tester for EA Sports and Madden Football, I can attest to the numerous hours of research that go into the rating of individuals players on this game (separate side note, Madden is made in my small suburban hometown of Maitland, FL which allows for one hell of a summer job market for young adult males)). In Madden 2009, Romo’s rating was “94” and Eli’s was “93,” virtually identical. Yet these two plays, Romo’s botching the field goal snap and Manning’s helmet catch play, embody each of their careers over anything else.
This curious case of Tony Romo viewed alongside the story of the mythological man of mystery Eli Manning, tells us the following: there’s a whole lot of randomness in the world that creates certain instances where people have rare and brief moments to shine as the hero. If a person is fortunate enough to perform well in their first opportunity in such an instance, it makes him/her a whole lot likelier to perform well the next time he/she gets another one of these chances. If they perform poorly, it means it’s going to be even harder for them next time to step up and perform well in this pressure-packed do-or-die moment. The reason why: internally recited narratives.
Success breeds more success, self-doubt begets more doubt. We are the character we tell ourselves we are. Eli Manning is clutch, because he tells himself he is clutch. It’s that simple. It’s not some hokey Stuart Smalley moment of Eli talking to himself in the mirror about being clutch, but a genuine belief that he is capable of accessing strength and fortitude when most needed.
However, I recognize this does not tell the whole story. What enabled Eli to perform at such a high level in his first “clutchness” test (on the “helmet catch” play in Super Bowl XLII), while others are unable to do so on their first attempt on the big stage?
Based on the information presented to us through viewing his games, sideline interactions with teammates, and interactions with the media, Eli comes across as a very grounded and self-assured individual. He looks very comfortable in his own skin and always has. Unlike a lot of other athletes, he never displayed any inkling that he was effected by all of the harsh media narratives thrown at him early in his career (in New York nonetheless, undoubtedly one of the top 3 most difficult cities to play in because of the intense media scrutiny). I believe he is able to stay calm and be successful in the most heated of circumstances because he has recognized the power of being the narrator in his own life story. He carries himself like a person who has awareness of his own internal narrative and access to the treasure trove of personal data discussed earlier.
It is this approach that resulted in Eli’s ability to stay calm, confident, and within himself in the first “clutch moment” that presented itself to him in his football career. And now the clutch narrative remains within him, because can he tell himself he is clutch and genuinely believe this narrative. After all, telling yourself you are clutch is really the only requirement in accessing the ability to be clutch.
George Valliant, the Harvard psychologist in charge of an ongoing 72-year long study on what makes people happy, described the importance of the ability to adapt as the most critical element for success through the following parable, “on Christmas Eve a father put into one son’s stocking a fine gold watch, and into another son’s, a pile of horse manure. The next morning, the first boy comes to his father and says glumly, “Dad, I just don’t know what I’ll do with this watch. It’s so fragile. It could break.” The other boy runs to him and says, “Daddy! Daddy! Santa left me a pony, if only I can just find it!”
You may not get to write your own story, but you do get to narrate it. I believe the people who recognize this first in life end up living out the most interesting and fulfilling stories…lives.
The second son in this parable is successful because of his uniquely optimistic and enthusiastic perspective. He has narrated and constructed his “truth” of receiving horse excrement for Christmas to represent the opportunity of a nearby pony. He adapts to his circumstances and makes the most of them.
Eli has embodied this same attitude in his football career. This is a guy who has won with Tom Coughlin as his head coach (a notoriously hard-nosed, curmudgeon of a leader let go from previous coaching jobs because of his negative intensity) and Kevin Gilbride as his offensive coordinator (a former coach for the Buffalo Bills who invited so much vitriol from the fan base because of his ineptitude that fans began wearing cut-out brown paper bags over their heads to games with “Gilbride is my uncle” written on them). Eli making it work with this tandem, while gracefully coping with the intensity of the New York media, suggests that he has a powerfully optimistic and enthusiastic narrative within him that he is also keenly in tune with.
A narrative becomes reality when it is the story you recite to yourself. The real gift in life is that you are given the unequivocal freedom to narrate your own story, if you choose to. So fear not that you somehow lack the internal fortitude to be successful, the only thing to fear is if you lack the courage to examine thyself (and lastly, don’t fret if your parents give you horse shit for Christmas, just know it’s a really, really elaborate way of them telling you that they love you).