From Round to Square (and back)

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Monday, March 12, 2012

Displays of Authenticity (13)—Game Face

[a] Casey Face RF
Whether or not you are ready, it is time for a major American sporting event. If you follow sports, you know that 132 men's and women's college basketball teams are going to line up in a structured (more on that in Thursday's post) competitive process that has everything to do with guard play, bracket placement, and focus. Especially focus.

This got me to thinking about competition. I love hearing my wife's stories about growing up in Texas, and it is the rare story told by a Texan that doesn't have an element of competitiveness in it. Among my favorites is a story about high school football, which is bigger in Texas than, well, anything—even this little round ball tournament in March. The world of Friday Night Lights stretches from Texarkana to El Paso (which, I have been reminded repeatedly, is a longer distance than from El Paso to Los Angeles), and Amarillo to Corpus Christi. Texas is big. High school football there is Texas big, and it requires focus.

[b] Rocky RF
She played trombone in the Weatherford High School band, and one reality of high school band (this is as true in Idaho, Delaware, and Kentucky as it is in Texas) is that the band plays at football games and pep rallies. Another reality of high school band is that throngs of people hear them play the theme song from Rocky, to rally the flagging spirits and fortunes of the team, while only tiny fractions go to their concerts to hear Mahler's Third Symphony or Bridge Over Troubled Water. The biggest audience of your young career, if you are a junior trombonist in north-central Texas, is every Friday night—home or away—on the warm, green, spongy turf and painted yard markers of the football stadium.

And at pep rallies the afternoon of game days.

[c] Starting out RF
This is where the story gets interesting—"seriously cultural," as we say in the anthropology biz. You see, band members were released from class early in those days. They went to get their instruments and lined up, trombones in front (there are structural reasons for this; just think about it), in the hallway outside the band hall. Then they started playing, up one corridor and down another. Every hallway of the entire school sang the Weatherford High School Kangaroos fight song.

There's more. There's always more with history and culture. While the football players were also released early from class, all of the other students lined up at the doors of their classrooms and then joined the gathering storm of humanity and adolescent competitiveness. When the snaking dragon of band members and classrooms along the way streamed by, the next class would regenerate the tail as it wound farther and farther down the hallways. Music and student leadership mixed with a kind of Ferris Beullerian energy to create something only a French sociologist could articulate fully. Passion. Frenzy. Durkheim.

[d] Leonine RF
Every football Friday, grades nine through twelve heaved and weaved a serpentine path to the gym. The cheerleaders were already there, cheering. The band members took their places, but kept on playing as the gym kept filling. Students, teachers, and a few parents pressed the space to bursting. Energy was everywhere; everyone was smiling.

And then the team walked in.

Wearing white, short-sleeved dress shirts knotted with ties over their often ill-fitting necks (these were growing boys, you know), they marched into the gym to percussive chants and cheers. They were the center of attention, the raison d'etre of these emotional little weekly tempests near the playing fields north of Fort Worth. They were there to absorb the energy of their faithful, and to channel it toward victory—or at least a not-humiliating loss—on the gridiron that evening.
They sat in their seats—centered and focused.

Not one among them smiled. Not one.

"What's up with that?," I hear you ask. They are the very focus of adoration and encouragement from hundreds of people—the very reason for being (at least for those minutes on autumn Fridays) for their little town—and they can't even crack a smile? Maybe say "thank you?" What the heck?

[e] Game face RF
We most often think of smiling (or not) as a personal matter. Not here, though. This is cultural. Better put, there was enormous social-cultural pressure on those young men. And there was a distinct reason for that pressure. What I wish to examine with the rest of today's post is the perception of authenticity associated with what is often called the "game face."

I have been surprised by how few people think of the original meanings of the term. A fairly wide array of people (those who could tell me what it meant at all) seemed to think that it means "getting serious." Well, yes, that does provide a solid core of meaning. It is deeply connected to athletic field pugilism, though, and the "game face" has played a role in the pregame rituals of countless high school and college athletes. Some version of it is built into many professional sports routines, as well. Most interesting for me is the way that "game face" has grown over the past forty or so years to embrace cross country and track meets, golf competitions, and well, meetings (from PTA to boards of trustees) all over the world.

You see, the idea of "game face" has been dipped in the rich cultural batter of authenticity.

[f] Roo RF
Tiger Woods has always worn his game face in competition. So did Jack Nicklaus, and they are just golfers, alone on the course, without anyone playing "defense" against them. How much more deeply do offensive linemen and goalies need...or show their seriousness of purpose and lack of distraction with a forbidding scowl—a scowl that says "I am focused only on winning; I shall not be distracted."

There are exceptions, of course, but team sports tend to be quite unforgiving when it comes to the jovial lover of life who waves to the crowd and smilingly soaks in the atmosphere all around him or her. There are terrific examples of successful athletes who have done just that. For sports fans of a certain age, Lee Trevino fits the bill beautifully, as does Chi Chi Rodriguez. Remember, though, that Lee and Chi Chi were competitors in a peculiarly individual sport. Their only "teams" were themselves and their sponsors. The dynamic is different when teammates judge your joviality as unpreparedness.

The social pressure to frown at pep rallies is enormous on some football teams, and that is what my wife was told way back in her high school salad days. She told me the story, but I imagine the conversation thirty years ago going something like this:

          "Why don't you guys ever smile?" she asked a stocky lad with a formidable
          girth and a tie that no longer pretended to cover it. "The whole school is there
          for you, cheering you on—the band, cheerleaders, teachers, and all of the
          students. Couldn't you just smile?"

          "We can't. Coach told us to have our game faces on. No smiling."

Now that's authentic, as was Weatherford's 8-2-1 season my wife's senior year. Nothing says s-e-r-i-o-u-s like s-c-o-w-l-i-n-g. Keep an eye on the game face this week. Different sport, different face (since basketball scowls are a little less beefy, on the whole, than football ones). It lurks in dimly lit but highly competitive corners of American culture—not just sports. Look for the frown, and learn to see competition from there.

Go 'roos.
[g] Face RF

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