David Roth's Weak In Review: Efficiency, Anxiety, And Us

In hiring Paul DePodesta, the Cleveland Browns took a risk and dragged the NFL into the present. This sounds good, but honestly have you seen the present lately?
January 8, 2016, 10:05pm
Illustration by J.O. Applegate

There are few organisms on earth—up to and including those catastrophically invasive river carp and Men's Rights Activists—less immediately sympathetic than the Anonymous NFL Front Office Guy. These ultra-salty squeakers are the grumps getting things very confidently wrong in the same way, year after year; their business is extruding endless curdled assessments of kids today, the shifting of blame, and the general defense of a status quo that doesn't really work for anyone but them and their bosses. Imagine someone watching a show about World War II on the History Channel at ear-splitting volume and shouting incorrect corrections at the screen. Imagine someone who is, in his occluded heart, sincerely put off by Cam Newton. Do not listen to these people. Do not even make eye contact with them.

But let's give it a shot. The Anonymous NFL Front Office Guy inhabits a workplace that is secretive and superstitious and strange. His boss is the type of billionaire who's both weird and whimsical enough to buy a NFL football franchise. The game's understanding of itself is straightjacketed by superstition and macho sentimentality; it communicates exclusively in jargon and cliche and acronym. Best practices are basically that one photo of Ronald Reagan where he's wearing a cowboy hat. Every day, many thousands of people who know even less about his job than he does demand that he and all his co-workers be fired and replaced by men who are similar to them, but Tougher. Yes, Anonymous NFL Front Office Guys exhibit some really unpleasant crabs-in-a-barrel behavior, but also being in a barrel sucks and people eat crabs.

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More than that, the Anonymous NFL Front Office Guy knows what the future looks like, and knows that he is not necessarily a part of it. The NFL will be the last professional sports league to acknowledge contemporary realities, if only because so much of its understanding of itself (and basic feasibility as a thing people willingly do with their bodies) is built around denying them. But Anonymous NFL Front Office Guy can look to other leagues and see that everyone in the jobs parallel to theirs is not like them. Maybe he begins to feel a little bit like a mechanic who only knows how to repair Yugos.

It's hard to miss the fact that the Anonymous NFL Front Office Guy's counterparts in baseball and basketball are increasingly young dudes with Ivy League degrees and maybe MBA's, that they communicate using different acronyms and spend most of their time quantifying things that the NFL has always eagerly chalked up to gumption and grit. These quants and MBA's approach the human resources arbitrage of front office work very differently; not more sensitively, but with more sensitive data. If there's any pity to be felt for the Anonymous NFL Front Office Guy, it springs from the fact that they will, one day, show up at work and discover that a spreadsheet has taken their job. That's hard times, daddy.

You'd be kind of a turd, too, if this was your boss. — Photo by Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

It's not like this future is that much better for anyone than the past was. It is more efficient, and if it is inventive—witness the Los Angeles Dodgers disrupting the shit out of the free agent contract with new signee Kenta Maeda—it is still doing the same gross old job that it always has, which is finding a way to suck the surplus from people, and pass the savings along to the people who need them least. The business of the front office—every front office—is extracting the maximum value from the athletes in their employ at the minimum cost and risk; this was true when Curt Flood fought it and was devoured, and it has never once stopped being true since. The NFL does this as vigorously as every other league, of course, but it's so much more crude about it. Baseball teams talk about their processes; NBA teams embark on three-year overhauls based on double-secret algorithms that may or may not exist. The NFL doesn't bother with that, and has instead just tilted the labor-management dynamic in favor of owners so gratuitously that it seems almost impossible to fuck things up too badly.

And yet teams do fuck it up, all the time and really badly. One of those teams hired Paul DePodesta, a hero of _Moneyball_-style front office arbitrage, to run its operations. If the team in question wasn't the Cleveland Browns, it would probably seem like a good idea. Either way, you can imagine who would be unhappiest about this.

Former exec Phil Savage, speaking of Browns' new analytics hire: '...I promise you, people around the (NFL) don't want to see this succeed.'

— mike freeman (@mikefreemanNFL)January 7, 2016

Savage also said people think Browns hire is slap in face to hundreds of scouts and personnel men who were passed over.

— mike freeman (@mikefreemanNFL)January 7, 2016

In this case, finally, the Anonymous NFL Front Office Guys—and Phil Savage, who has a fantastic NFL executive name—are not wrong. Hiring DePodesta is smart, or at least likelier to produce positive results in Cleveland than pulling some more names off that list of "hundreds of scouts and personnel men." But it is also very much a slap in the face, from billionaires who bought their NFL teams precisely because of how much they love slapping other men in the face. Given how much time the Anonymous NFL Front Office Guys have spent delivering slaps of their own, they do not make for the most sympathetic figures. But people who are desperate and scared generally don't look their best.

There is fantasy and there is fact, here, and one is much more comforting than the other. The fantasy is to be the person who can't be fired. The rules are harsh but simple, for that person—to get the most, to leverage and leverage and leverage every advantage, and to win. There are people involved in all these transactions and experiments and exercises in efficiency, but those people are not us. You could see that worldview at work this week when Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver lashed out at the dang millennials on his underperforming team, a globalized gripe that boils down to banging on the side of a malfunctioning microwave. Players, in this understanding, are units that generate things, and the game is to arrange them properly; Sarver was mad that his millennials were on the fritz.

The front office fantasy is that the smartest people will naturally do best at this particular task. Because this approach is new, and because smart people can be interesting, this can be compelling to watch. But it seems important to keep in mind the cold fact upon which the fantasy of zipless efficiency is built, which is finally a matter of reduction—person to product, team to machine. This phenomenon can, at the extremes of recreational efficiency worship, reduce fandom to a buffed-up and very violent office comedy in which the bosses get all the best lines. The quantifiable stuff is not what's best about sports, but damned if it isn't easy to quantify.

The Anonymous NFL Front Office Guys were always small—small in their understanding of the world and their job and the people under them, and ungenerous about all of it. But, with their jobs are shrinking around them, they are suddenly too big; they don't fit. They're anxious. Who wouldn't be?