It’s hard to explain, but it doesn’t really need explaining: it’s an elemental joy, watching the numbers shoot up. The ball goes through the hoop, or strikes the back of the net, or somebody catches it in the endzone, and a little carnival happens. The crowd bellows itself hoarse, sound effects jangle and fizz from the stadium speakers, maybe some fireworks go off or a fight song starts playing. You, personally, might go silent and sink into your seat—you might want to hide under it, depending on who’s delivering the damage—but as a general rule, sports fans like shootouts, career highs, record-breaking performances, the breathtaking experience of watching something spectacular that seems like it might never end. They like it when Klay Thompson can’t miss, when Leo Messi’s a problem from anywhere inside 30 yards. Or when the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams combine for 1001 yards, 14 touchdowns, and 105 points on Monday Night Football.
I don’t watch enough of the NFL to explain the league’s scoring explosion with any expert erudition, but even as a casual observer, I can tell you that the Chiefs-Rams tilt was the culmination of some broader trends: increasingly restrictive defensive rules, more aggressive offensive play-calling, a moment in which it seems all the game’s sharpest minds are current or former quarterback coaches. A common refrain, when two NFL teams are chucking the ball all over the field while their punters’ butts are going numb, is that it’s like a Big 12 game out there, which is true, but you could also just as easily say it’s like watching the Warriors or the Tampa Bay Lightning. In all three of the major North American sport leagues that are midseason right now, scoring is up and the pace of play has significantly quickened.
Most folks are ecstatic about this, but your mileage may vary. For instance, I haven’t totally taken to the NBA’s three-point revolution, not so much because it inflates the final score—though, sure, there is something vaguely stupid about a 133-to-129 chyron—but because it flattens the game out aesthetically. Teams play too similarly, employing four-out and five-out sets designed to accomplish the same things everybody is trying to accomplish: a good look at the rim or an open triple. Plus I miss the days when chunky big men with liquidly technical back-to-the-basket games could thrive. So does Jahlil Okafor, I assume.
But Jah and I don’t count for much. The silt doesn’t get a say in how far downstream the river carries it. Sports leagues, being the perpetually revenue-hungry enterprises that they are, exist to service popular opinion, and popular opinion wants to see the jumbotron catch flame. The NFL’s not going to take pity on its cornerbacks and allow them to clutch and grab receivers like it’s 2005. The NHL isn’t bringing back the two-line pass restriction. The NBA isn’t re-legalizing the hand check or the Bruce Bowen maneuver. (And what would they do about the three-point “problem” anyway? Neutralize all the coaches and hope they start running guards off midrange Rip Hamilton curl screens again?) If NFL teams don’t look more like the Los Angeles Rams over the next few years, if NBA teams halt their Golden State-ward shift, it’s going to be because some Rex Ryan or Tom Thibodeau figure finds a way to operate effectively within the bounds of rules that are almost uniformly working against them. It could happen, but no commish worth his law degree is going to do anything to help it along.
This could be the part where I argue for the merits of slugfests and rock fights, the hog-in-slop beauty of the gap-eating nose tackle, how deeply I admire the rough edges of Josh Richardson’s play, but let’s not do that. It’s like trying to get people into caustically skronky jazz: you’re better off talking Peter Brotzmann with somebody who’s already heard of him. I like my sports a little uglier than most. I also like my movies ponderous and my authors so depressed you wonder how they ever got out of bed to write. This isn’t refinement; it’s just wanting something to present itself a certain way. It’s not worth getting too exercised about, because what’s dominant doesn’t necessarily threaten what isn’t. To be sure, there are too many blockbusters taking up screens at your local AMC, but at the same time, The Last Jedi and The Florida Project came out within a couple months of each other. I still got to see the one I wanted to see in theaters.
And that’s all you can reasonably ask for, as a consumer: that you’ve got a reasonable degree of choice. The only thing that truly concerns me—and even then mostly ambiently, perhaps for no good reason, and solely with regard to the NBA, because football and hockey are fine but I can’t care about everything—is stylistic homogeneity. I worry slightly that NBA teams have hacked the sport, figured out some definitive, unassailably superior way of playing the game. Like: you can run spread pick-and-roll or you can run a spread motion offense, and that’s about it. If you do anything else, you’re doing it wrong, and if you’re a defensively astute squad with limited shooting talent, you’re aggressively doomed. You can watch a Star Wars movie or a Marvel flick. Sean Baker is dead. Lynne Ramsay is an accountant now.
That seems not a little ridiculous, though, if not entirely impossible. The great thing about sports—basketball, especially—is that they change over time as players develop new skills and coaches attack the game from previously unseen angles. Schemes develop, proliferate, and die off. Nobody uses The Triangle anymore. I wonder if some enterprising tactician will blow it out and modernize it one day, or find a way to apply its principles to an existing offense. I hope the possibility of that remains viable, is all—that the game hasn’t peaked or butted up against some strategic dead end.
Wide open contests are fun, but so is invention, idiosyncrasy, contrasting approaches. Tastes are peculiar, but they’re never narrow as a cocktail straw. Nobody likes any one thing to the exclusion of everything else. People like high scores, but they like a lot more than just that. They like to be entertained: thrilled, surprised, baffled, even punched in the gut every once in a while. They like all sorts of stuff, and they like most of all what they haven’t seen before, which is what sports supply so reliably. If the games lacked the regular ability to stretch our imaginations like pizza dough, we wouldn’t keep coming back to them. This too is an elemental thing, and it’s less specific than offensive excellence. It’s about the capacity for nearly anything to happen, in any fashion, in any direction. Three of the touchdowns the Rams scored on Monday night were run in by defenders. It wasn’t everything you would expect.