Intellectual Flexibility and Resistance to Unorthodox Ideas in Football, Life, and Religion

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Chuck Klosterman has a fantastic article up on He’s not correct on all the football details (such as referring to former top-ranked prep QB and #1 draft pick Tim Couch as an “ungifted quarterback”), but the article is fabulous. Klosterman shows how “liberal” the game of American football actually is, with its radical changes over the years, and contrasts that with its “conservative” image, with the way football’s innovators are consistently maligned for bucking orthodoxy. The very people permanently changing the sport by doing the things everyone will be doing ten years later are the people labeled lunatics by the majority of the football world.

The radical commitment to innovation by many of these renegade coaches epitomizes the approach I’ve taken to pretty much everything in my life (the title of my biblioblog stems from a comment once made by a dear colleague of mine, “you’re not outside the box, you’re outside the building that contains the box”). After reading Klosterman’s article, perhaps this is why I have so often been the object of ridicule. I’ve frequently said that I’m not smarter than other people (and I’m certainly not smarter than most scholars), I’m just more willing to consider alternatives other people dismiss before even considering them, and I’m less willing to be constricted by tradition or to do things a certain way “because they’ve always been done that way.” For one, life is awfully boring when one takes that approach.

Some great quotes:

[Texas Tech coach Mike Leach’s approach is] an almost perfect description of how thinking slightly differently can have an exponential consequence, particularly when applied to an activity that’s assumed to be inflexible. … It wasn’t that Leach out-thought everybody else; it was merely that he thought differently. Instead of working within the assumed parameters of football, he decided to expand what those parameters were. For a while, that made him seem like a crazy person. But this is how football always evolves: Progressive ideas are introduced by weirdos and mocked by the world, and then everybody else adopts and refines those ideas ten years later.

I totally identify with this. I’ve frequently said that I’m no smarter than other scholars (frankly, I’m not nearly as smart as most scholars), I’m just more willing to consider unorthodox alternatives than most, and I’m less willing to be constricted by tradition or do things a certain way “because they’ve always been done that way.” For one, life is awfully boring when one takes that approach.

Even more radical are mathematical minds like Kevin Kelley of Pulaski Academy in Arkansas, a high school coach who went 13-1 and won the Arkansas 5A title in 2007 by never punting the football all season, even when his team was pinned inside its own ten-yard line. All of Kelley’s in-game decisions are considered from a risk-reward standpoint, exclusively viewed through statistical probability; he has concluded that the upside of working with an extra play on every set of downs is greater than the risk of surrendering thirty-five yards of field possession on every change of possession. His numeric strategy is also applied to kickoffs — Pulaski onside kicks about 75 percent of the time. Despite their success, just about everyone who watches Pulaski Academy play still thinks they’re joking. “You can just tell people are in the stands thinking, ‘You’re an idiot,'” Kelley said after winning the championship.

I’ll never forget the head basketball coach at my high school mocking me for predicting that Miami would defeat previously-unbeaten UCLA in 1998. I had watched both teams and was convinced that the matchups favored Miami. After Miami upset UCLA, I approached Coach “Sub” at lunch and reminded him of what I had said, “I told you Miami would beat them; doesn’t seem so crazy now, does it?” His dead-serious response was, “You might have been right, but you’re still crazy.” Even in hindsight he insisted that there was no reason to have ever picked that game correctly—it was just a fluke. Typical.

I could list these types of guys ad nauseam. I could include everyone from Sid Gillman to Emory Bellard to Don Coryell. But the size of the list doesn’t matter; what matters is how these men were all criticized in the same way. Whenever an innovation fails to result in a title, its unorthodoxy takes the hit; every time a football coach tries something unorthodox, he is blasted for not playing “the right way.” But all that “not playing the right way” means is that a coach is ignoring the eternal lie of football: the myth that everything done in the past is better than anything that could be invented in the present. As a result, the public arm of football — the conservative arm — bashes innovation immediately, even while adopting the principles it attacks. The innovators are ridiculed. And that kind of reaction is reassuring to fans, because it makes us feel like football is still the same game we always want to remember. It has a continuity of purpose. It symbolizes the same ideals and appeals to the same kind of person. It feels conservative, but it acts liberal. Everything changes, but not really.

This connects to a conversation I once had with a colleague about how ironic it is that so many “liberal” biblical scholars are so conservative in their approach to scholarship, while sometimes scholars with a more “conservative” reputation are more willing to try radical ideas. We concluded that all too often the liberal/conservative labels tell very little of the story, with the additional axis of unorthodox/traditional often having more to say about a scholar’s work. (And I’m certainly not suggesting that conservative scholars tend to be more radical or open to unorthodox ideas or methods than liberal scholars as that’s probably not the case; I’m only suggesting that there are two axes to consider, not just one.) Another quote:

[The zone-read play] didn’t really exist in the 1970s and ’80s, and when I first saw it employed in the late ’90s, it seemed like an idiotic innovation. It seemed like a way to get your quarterback killed without taking advantage of your tailback. I had always believed teams could not succeed by running the ball out of the shotgun formation. I thought it would never happen. But I was wrong. And I suspect the reason I was wrong was not because I didn’t understand what was happening on this specific play; I suspect it was because I felt like I already understood football. I had played football and written about football and watched it exhaustively for twenty years, so I thought I knew certain inalienable truths about the game. And I was wrong. What I knew were the assumed truths, which are not the same thing. I had brainwashed myself. I was unwilling to admit that my traditional, conservative football values were imaginary and symbolic. They belonged to a game I wasn’t actually watching but was still trying to see. Over time, I realized this had happened with almost every aspect of my life. [My emphasis]

I couldn’t have said it better myself. This is my most frequent criticism of just about anything: most people know “assumed truths,” not things that have actually been tested and found to be true. And most people, because they’re convinced they’re already possessors of the truth, resist anything that violates these assumed truths.

As a result, above all else, the one thing I desperately try to impart to my students in every class I ever teach is: learn to think for yourself! Most people sleepwalk through life without ever examining what they think to be truths. Be willing to test what you think you know. Find out if you’ve brainwashed yourself (or have been brainwashed). Examine your life, your beliefs, and your manner of thinking. Reread your scriptures and see if they actually say what you think (and have been taught) they say. Then do it again—see what is really there. Wrestle with the possibilities. Be willing to be changed by what you see, by the interpretive struggle itself. Don’t just rely on what everyone else says or has said—not even what I say—because if you can find true knowledge, if you can truly come to see on your own, then you have true life, you can be completely awake and alive.

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