Monday, January 14, 2013

True Lies

This is un-American to admit, but prior to the 2012 presidential race, I had never cast an official ballot in any government election. It wasn’t that I lacked respect for this civic privilege; if anything, it was the exact opposite—with no defined belief system and no understanding of the issues (and no desire to get off the couch to rectify either of those), I never felt “because I can” was an acceptable justification for voting. But as November steadily approached, and my swing state (Virginia) was bombarded with around-the-clock propaganda, I decided it was time to grow up and do at least one thing that a normal, well-adjusted 35-year-old would do.

Given that my political knowledge consisted of the tiny bits and pieces of The West Wing that hadn’t gone completely over my head, my primary objective was to get educated—both about the candidates and their respective ideologies. Without a pre-existing lean to the left or right—and without a Bartlet on the ticket—I was a blank slate, and my goal was to digest as much objective, unbiased information as possible in order to make a well-informed 
This, unfortunately, proved to be an impossible task. I quickly learned that, with its slanted sources and party-line punditry, what was presented as the news was decidedly editorial. There was nothing impartial about it, and before processing anything I heard or read, I first had to note from which extreme it originated. And no matter how convincing it seemed on the surface, there was always the unshakable sense of, “What are they not telling me?”

Things weren’t any clearer among my contemporaries. In fact, there was even more disdain, disgust, and divisiveness. Nobody was willing to concede an inch, and nobody could fathom how anyone could have a different perspective than their own. Like everything else these days, it played out on Facebook for all the world to see, with friends from both sides posting links to the exact same articles and interviews in order to prove the complete opposite point.

Rock bottom, though, came when I turned to my innermost circle—which was really no longer a circle, but more like a battle scene from the Revolutionary War. On one side, there were my parents and brother, who were staunchly conservative. On the other was my girlfriend, who most certainly was not. This actually had a chance to be a good thing, as I had concerns about both candidates, and I could now have those concerns allayed by each of the candidate’s supporters.

Wrong. Despite their good intentions and best efforts, our conversations inevitably dissolved into strained back-and-forths, putting them on the defensive and leaving me as perplexed as ever.

Everywhere I looked, people talked about how clear of a decision it was, but it definitely wasn’t clear to me. And as I arrived at the voting center on election day, I still had no idea what I was going to do. But as confusing as it all was, and as frustrating as it got to be, there was something familiar about it that ultimately revealed itself over the course of the entire process:

Following an election wasn’t all that different from following a sports team.

At first glance, this probably seems like an obvious observation. But I’m not just talking about the simple things, like how there’s a winner and a loser, or how you’re pulling for one side over the other, or how there are binders full of women eager to serve at the pleasure of the principal participants. That’s all true, but what I’m talking about is something deeper—how we, the people, behave when dealing with issues we are passionate about, how we process information in association with those issues, and how our biases shape our search for the truth.

Had you asked me beforehand, I would never have guessed there’d be much comparison between sports and politics. I would’ve assumed that, out in the real world, where real issues like healthcare and fiscal cliffs and nuclear weapons are at stake, there’d be more respect than contempt, more patience than impulsiveness, and more perspective than narrow-mindedness than is found in the stands of any stadium. But the similarities were undeniable.

In both, there’s a large group of people (voters = fan base) who are part of one, overarching team (America = {insert your favorite team here}). In both, there’s a leader who is (unfairly) deemed all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-responsible for the team’s successes and failures (President = Head Coach). And in both, there are divisions within the base that either share or oppose the leader’s belief system, and in turn, believe in or oppose the leader himself (Democrats/Republicans = coach critics/coach supporters).

While election season for presidents comes around every four years, open season on coaches is always in session. Fans want to hire and fire them as if it’s all some sort of reality show, and every play, every game, every word out of their mouth is a referendum on not only their professional acumen and achievements, but on their general capacity to function as a human being. And when things aren’t going well—or, more specifically, well enough—dividing lines amongst the fan base become that much deeper.

Look no further than my team, the Texas Longhorns. From 1998 – 2009, head man Mack Brown’s track record placed him among the elite coaches in the country, as he stockpiled star-laden recruiting classes and won nearly 83% of his games, a national title, and came within a shoulder injury and some “Who knows?” of claiming another. He took a drifting program and restored it to national prominence—so much so that ESPN decided that building a $300 million, 24-7 network around it was a worthwhile investment—and as far as we know, he did it all the right way.

The last three years, though, have not been kind to Brown. With a record far too close to .500, the natives have grown restless, and after an embarrassing blowout at the hands of archrival Oklahoma in October—Mack’s second consecutive (and fourth overall) lopsided loss to the Sooners—everything spun out of control. Since then, the vibe surrounding the program has turned emphatically toxic, and the calls for Brown’s head have never been louder.

Whereas political campaigns have opponents that are constantly shining a light and enforcing a system of checks and balances on them, college football programs operate in a much more sterile, secretive environment. Partially due to red-tape regulations, partially due to a none-of-your-freakin’-business attitude, it’s difficult to know what’s really going on behind the scenes. Practices, for the most part, are closed. Coaches can’t comment on a recruit unless/until the recruit officially signs with the school. Press conferences and interviews are filled with little but coach-speak. There’s just no incentive for programs to reveal more than they have to, meaning the only unfettered, uncontrollable evidence that’s presented to the masses is the 12-14 games that are played each season.

Because of that, the majority of the information about the team that makes its way into the hearts and minds of the public, be it from the handful of recognized publications that officially cover the program to the fan sites and message boards where fans obsess over it, comes from unnamed sources. And there’s no shortage of Deep Throats—and people who claim to know these Deep Throats—who are more than happy to talk.

I’ve been a paid subscriber to a well-established Longhorn website for almost a decade, and given its perfect blend of legitimate journalism and internet innuendo, it’s the best $99 I spend all year. These last few seasons have been rough, though, and with each passing loss—be it a game, a recruit, or a coach—there’s always some sort of report that follows, quoting these unnamed sources in an attempt to tell the inside story of what went wrong.

These explanations span the spectrum, from the perfectly plausible to the palm-to-the-forehead variety, but the way they are ultimately received and replied to by the message board crowd is entirely contingent upon who is receiving and replying to them. If you love Mack, anything that paints the program in a positive light is a reasonable justification, and anything negative is an overreaction from the “sky is falling” crowd. If you hate Mack, it’s the exact opposite—the positive is nothing more than spin and “sunshine pumping,” while the negative is the cold, undeniable truth. This whole process plays out over and over again, like clockwork, and it’s as painful as it is predictable.

A couple things to note…

  • To reiterate, these reports come from anonymous sources. That means they could come from anybody, from an assistant coach or big money booster in the know, to the third cousin of the wife of the janitor who cleans the building next to the football offices. Nobody knows for sure. And in most instances, it’s an anonymous message board poster hiding behind an anonymous screen name relaying a story told to him/her by an anonymous source. For those who are counting, that’s a ménage-a-trois of anonymity.
  • Even when a story is reported by a respected journalist or a message board member who’s known to have a reputable source, at best, it’s still secondhand information. At best. In other cases, it’s third- or fourth- or "Take it on the Run"-hand. It’s the grownup, modern-day version of the elementary school game “Telephone,” played out on the internet.
Of course, none of this seems to matter to anybody. When judging the merit of a message, what matters most to fans is not the credibility of the source, or even the plausibility of the message itself, but the agreeability of the message with their own preconceived narratives. How else do you explain people accepting one anonymous report as fact, yet rejecting another equally anonymous report as propaganda?

When I was educating myself for the election, I was struck by the fact that every news outlet was, on some level, left- or right-leaning. I’d been aware of this in a general sense, but because I’d never paid much attention to them, nor had I ever tried to learn anything from them, I hadn’t really thought about why they were this way. Clearly, they were meeting some demand, though.

The old saying goes that there are two sides to every story (in reality, there are typically more than that, as every person who comes in contact with a situation in any capacity develops their own perspective). And while we may agree with that notion in the abstract, and we may teach that lesson to our children, when you examine our behavior, it’s uncertain if we actually believe it.

Whether it’s the state of a nation or the state of a football team, we’re talking about issues that are as emotional as they are complex. And when things aren’t going right, it’s natural to latch onto some clear-cut explanation, something we can point to, something we can wrap our heads around. This allows us to turn a complicated, jumbled ball of yarn into a straight, smoothed-out piece of string:

This is how things are—this is who’s to blame—this is what must be done.

It’s almost always more nuanced than that, but in order to cope, we have to make it make sense, and in a shades-of-gray world, that oftentimes means making everything black-and-white. So what do we do? We seek out opinions with which we agree and find stories that fit our narrative, then transform them into facts to validate our own viewpoint. There’s a reason conservatives watch Fox News, and there’s a reason liberals read the Huffington Post. And my guess is it’s the same reason why I, with no sources and zero ties to the program, could fabricate pro- and anti-Mack Brown stories out of thin air, post them on the message boards, and be hailed by both sides as both a spin artist mouthpiece and a no-nonsense truth teller:

We hear what we want to hear. We see what we want to see. And we believe what we want to believe.

It’s human nature, and I’m as guilty of it as anyone. I admit it—I don’t want to have my mind changed. I believe in my belief system, because, well, it would be called something else if I didn’t, and going against it would strike at the very heart of my equilibrium. And when I’m reading or listening to somebody with whom I don’t agree, I’m simultaneously processing and discounting their message, hoping like crazy that they don’t make a salient argument that would make me reconsider my own position. I can actually feel the struggle and resistance inside me.

This little dance has been a common occurrence recently, because unlike the vocal majority of Longhorn fans, I am a Mack Brown supporter. When it comes to sports debates, I generally side with the coaches and players, primarily because of the whole “Man in the Arena” thing, but also because I don’t have enough information to do otherwise. I may see what plays out on the field, but I have no idea as to the thought process that went into it or who was supposed to do what or what truly happened in any given moment. There’s no way I can, and I refuse to pass judgment without qualification on anything when I have only a minuscule fraction of the facts. 
Having said that, I’m not naïve enough to believe that the Mack Brown bashers don’t have a valid argument. They do. The Texas program is at a tipping point, and it’s hard to definitively disagree with anyone who is calling for change. So in the spirit of open-mindedness, and with the wisdom of Rocky Balboa singing in my ears, I’ve decided to take on the roles of both advocate and devil’s advocate, all within the span of a few paragraphs. It’s not going to be easy, and I may need a shower after writing half of it, but what follows are, as I see them, the boiled-down arguments for and against Mack Brown…


The Case for Mack Brown

Since taking over in 1998, Brown has been one of the most successful coaches in college football. And contrary to the convenient, leaps-of-logic criticisms that are so prevalent right now, that success has not occurred entirely in spite of him. It didn’t magically materialize because certain players chose not to listen to him or because coaches got him to stop meddling with them. Admittedly, I have no way of knowing the behind-the-scenes stories, but whenever things aren’t going well, the negative crowd is quick to proclaim that a team is a reflection of its coach. And by that rationale, if you’re going to blame Mack wholeheartedly for the bad times, you have to at least give him some credit for the good ones. He’s the one common denominator through all of it.

After the bottom fell out on him in 2010, he revamped his staff and restarted the program. And once the Garrett Gilbert era ended early the next season—forcing David Ash and Case McCoy to the forefront before they were ready—2013 set up as the year for a full return to the Texas standard, when there’d be an experienced quarterback with an experienced supporting cast coming back intact.

And now here we are. An 8-5 2011 led to a 9-4 2012—in which the Horns were still in contention for the conference title and a BCS bowl late into the season—which was about where people predicted they’d be at this point. There’s no denying there have been setbacks, but from a big picture perspective, the rebuild is essentially on schedule, and given his track record, Mack has—to borrow a couple of his favorite phrases—earned the right to get it fixed.


The Case Against Mack Brown

You want to talk track records? Who needs clever phrases when you have cold, hard data?

  • 22-16
  •  11-15
  •  63-21
  •  2
  •  5,000,000
The first number is Mack’s overall win-loss total in the last three seasons. The second is his conference record in that same span. The third is the embarrassing score of this past year’s Oklahoma game, which dropped his record to a lackluster 5-9 against arch nemesis Bob Stoops. The fourth is the number of conference titles Brown has won in 15 years at Texas. The last, of course, is Mack’s salary.

And while Mack deserves credit for trying to rebuild after 2010, that doesn’t mean 2010 didn’t happen. It did, and everything that fed into it happened on his watch. For most coaches, a collapse of that magnitude would’ve been a fireable offense, but Brown had enough built-up capital to warrant another chance. And with that chance, he has failed to produce sufficient signs of progress. The defense is coming off a historically horrendous season, and the quarterback position is as uncertain as it was this time a year ago. Add in an ever-toughening landscape—a deeper Big 12, more competitive recruiting wars, Johnny Manziel’s Heisman—and the climb is that much tougher.

Fifteen years is a long time for any coach to be in one place. The message grows old, complacency sets in, and the culture turns stale. Brown has done a lot of great things for Texas, and in time, he’ll be remembered for those accomplishments. But the program has already tipped in the wrong direction, and recent history gives us little indication that Mack has the ability to reverse it. The time is now for him to move on—before the hole gets any deeper for the next guy.


There you have it…one person, two opposing arguments. And while I may now know what it’s like to black out during a debate like Will Ferrell in Old School, I still don’t know what the right answer is in regards to Mack’s fate, and I have no problem admitting that. I don’t know. Both sides are right, and both sides are wrong, and I could legitimately see the next step playing out a million different ways. I’m just glad that the choice isn’t up to me.

Which brings me back to the presidential election…

Standing in line at the voting center, unlike seemingly every other American, I was still truly undecided. I’d barely slept the night before—in part because I never sleep well when I have to get up early, in part because the prospect of my mother, father, brother, or girlfriend never speaking to me again made it difficult to locate my REM cycle. I’d even considered casting my vote by not voting at all. But once the realization set in that the election was (mercifully, hopefully) not going to be decided by my ballot alone, I was able to get some clarity. What if I voted for the president from one party, and for the Congressmen from the other? Wouldn’t that be an effective compromise? Wouldn’t that be the best of both worlds, where everything would be balanced and well-rounded, and any and all perspectives would be equally represented?

So that’s what I did. Naïve? Probably. Cowardly and spineless? Most certainly. But after a lot of soul searching, and after months of reading articles and listening to arguments that volleyed me between each extreme, I ultimately found the answer I was looking for in the same place I almost always find it when I’m faced with any multifaceted dilemma that’s awash in shades of gray:

Somewhere in the middle.


  1. Aww, I was waiting with bated breath to find out who got your vote for Pres!! :) Nice article.

    1. Ha...thanks! Didn't need to make anybody else even madder than I'd already made them!


About Me

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?