Sunday, February 1, 2015

Public and hidden transcripts in the NFL

In my reading for this semester's class, I've come across a concept that seems to be sticking in my head. Richard E. Miller's Writing at the End of the World uses the ideas of public transcripts and hidden transcripts from James Scott's Domination and the Arts of Resistance. To be fair to Scott, Miller's piece is the first place that I've encountered Scott's work. Miller doesn't fully buy Scott's arguments about how performance of these two forces construe social action, but I can see some merit in them as a way to look at what might seem to be shocking outbursts.

Let me share a bit about the two terms, at least as I understand them from Miller's explanation. The public transcript is what "'serves as a shorthand way of describing the open interaction between subordinates and those who dominate'" (Scott qtd. in Miller 127). So, the public transcript is the one that gets valued and validated. It's the story that maintains the status quo. On the other hand, "the hidden transcript is, by contrast, a kind of discourse 'that takes place "offstage," beyond direct observation of the powerholders" (Scott qtd in Miller 128).

Thus, the hidden transcript provides an alternative view of what could be, whether that view is to parody the public transcript or a vision of a different world that is shared by those who are not in power. The subordinates don't really have the access to power to affect change, and often seem to comply with the public transcript because they "are attempting to avoid any 'explicit display of insubordination'...when in fact they have neither embraced this ideology nor resigned themselves to the fate this ideology has in store for them" (Scott, qtd in Miller 133, emphasis in Scott's original work).  

When the hidden transcript does get expressed publicly, it can be quite shocking. But, as Miller notes, "it is important to recognize that the shock arises not so much because the public revelation of the hidden transcript discloses unknown information, but rather because, in the act itself, the revelation threatens to 'tear the public face of the hegemony'" (Scott qtd. in Miller 133). This last piece resonated with me because as I was reading and discussing Miller's work, I kept hearing coverage of Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch's refusal to talk to the press during the mandatory media day event.

While an NFL player's refusal to answer the predictable questions that are supposed to produce the predictable responses about team work, team as family, and "giving 110%" doesn't rise to the severity or extreme situations that Scott purportedly describes in his book, the media reaction to the NFL star's almost 5-minute repetition of "I'm here so I won't get fined" was the type of shock Scott describes when hidden transcripts are made public.  The mixed reaction of his fellow players and fans seems to confirm that there are hidden transcripts at work here. 

Certainly, Lynch hasn't endeared himself to the media and repeatedly has brought the type of attention to the NFL that the league does not want, through over the top unsportsmanlike celebrations and three separate arrests during his NFL career. It would be tempting to write this off as just another egotistical display of a selfishly ungrateful superstar. But that's a bit simplistic to me, especially in light of some of the profiles of Lynch that portray him as a guy who loves to play, but doesn't love the limelight and fears both disappointing and being disappointed by others

Yes, being available to the media is part of the job, but it's probably not one that many players love. And Lynch's refusal to pretend that it is more than a job requirement threatens our narratives about what we expect from successful athletes.

We want to believe in our teams. We pay for our tickets and our jerseys. We buy coffee mugs and baby onesies to show our allegiance. Even if our team doesn't make the big game, we tune in, at least for the commercials. And we expect the two-week-long show to include the voices of the players. But how did we come to conflate athletic ability and being a good communicator?

We want to think that successful athletes owe something to us for their success, and should demonstrate their gratitude by being nice to us and being role models for good conduct. But that also ignores the pressure that constant scrutiny must place on an individual.

I suspect that why Lynch's refusal to play along with the media hype shocks people because it reminds us that not all of the stories we tell ourselves, and the media perpetuates, are true. Not all football players want the constant celebrity and attention that they get from being at the top of their game. Not all kids who make it out of rough circumstances are willing and able to be role models, even if their rise confirms what we want to believe about hard work. And guys who play professional sports don't actually have meaningful relationships with the fans or with the media who cover them.

So, is Lynch selfish? Is he an ass? Maybe. But maybe we're also a bit complicit because we're looking for stories that confirm the public transcript that plays out every January.

Work Cited
Miller, Richard E. Writing at the End of the World. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh, 2005. Print.

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