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Manning Bowl’ blurs line between sporting, spectacle

Brian Doxtader | Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Last night was a big night for the NFL, as it was the opening salvo for the 2006 football season. 2006 is Eli’s year, which I said in 2005 and also in 2004. But real this time. Eli will finally step out of the shadow of his older brother and bring the Giants to that elusive football Promised Land, the Super Bowl.

Accordingly, the biggest game this week was the Giants-Colts game, in which the Colts prevailed 26 – 21. But for anyone who watched the game last night, you know that you were not watching New York play Indianapolis. You were watching Eli Manning play Peyton Manning. The event was dubbed “The Manning Bowl” and had been hyped long before the season began, for weeks, even months.

When the game finally arrived, it delivered, but not necessarily in the way most expected. The Manning Bowl was more than a game, it was brother vs. brother, while Eli and Peyton’s parents looked on. It became a story, a movie, with a plot fueled by the networks.

We tend to think of sports as non-narratives, but there has to be some kind of hook, some kind of human interest to keep the viewers from flipping the channel. Pretty much every sporting event has some sort of appeal to an audience outside of the game itself.

Think about the big sports events of the past year. The Rose Bowl was less about two teams than it was about Texas, the disrespected underdog, taking on behemoth USC and prevailing. Little-known George Mason’s Cinderella run to the Final Four was broadcast in the same vein The 2005 Superbowl was a mission to win one for the Bus.

All of these events have something in common – they are, essentially, about the people involved rather than the game itself.

ABC wanted people to tune into the 2006 Orange Bowl not necessarily to see Florida State play against Penn State (though it was a great contest in its own right), they wanted people to see Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden, the two winningest coaches in Division I-A football, square off.

The networks thus create “storylines” that broaden the sporting event’s appeal for a wider audience. It isn’t enough that a game be just a game anymore.

It has to be about an underdog, about an overachiever, about someone overcoming the odds, about David vs. Goliath, etc.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but never in the realm of sports broadcasting, where everything has inflated importance, to the extent that the game itself seems to become secondary to its hype.

The whole presentation reflects the “storyline” the network picked for that particular event in every facet. Things we might not necessarily always notice, like what the camera chooses to show us, have a profound effect on our viewing experience.

As it was with January’s Fiesta Bowl, when every other shot seemed to be of Laura Quinn, so too it was in the Manning Bowl, when every other shot seemed to be of Archie, the Mannings’ father. The commercials, especially the one that featured the Mannings as children, appealed to the same sort of sensibility.

We’re not always watching the game and we’re not even always watching things that relate to the game. Instead, we’re seeing things, events or perspectives that relate to the storyline or to the plot, right down to the last moments of the thrilling climax.

For me, these things are always distracting. The whole Manning Bowl spectacle, highlighting two men out of dozens on the gridiron, seemed contrary to the idea that football is a team sport.

Human-interest stories are all well and good, but not at the expense of the game itself. They call these things “sporting events,” but at the point when the “event” overshadows the “sporting,” there’s a problem.

I didn’t tune into the game to see Archie Manning in every other shot. I didn’t tune in to see repeated commercials of a 10-year-old Eli Manning. I tuned into the game because I’m a Giants fan who wanted to see a good, well-played game.

And I mostly got it. Eli had a pretty good game, and even seemed to outplay his brother at times. That touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress was the kind of tough, tight, confident throw Eli seemed to have trouble making last year.

The end of the game was thrilling and controversial. In fact, aside from the fact that the Giants lost, it was a nearly perfect sporting event.

That is, of course, when it was about the sporting and not the event.

Contact Brian Doxtader at bdoxtade@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.