Dave and Busters and The Sport Ethic

Dave and Busters

On the face of it, it’s such a stupid story. The New York Jets’ decision to take a Saturday night field trip to Dave and Busters before their game Sunday at Buffalo looks like one of those silly little stories that gets reported and blown up because everything dealing with a New York team is a story, and everything dealing with an NFL game is a story, and everything dealing with a New York team’s NFL game is really a story.

But looking at it a little more, it’s actually an interesting little case study.

First things first: Is it even a story? Of course it’s a story. One of the primary news values is deviance, or something happening out of the ordinary. A pro football team canceling its night-before-a-game meetings to go play and eat at a Dave and Busters is out of the ordinary. Of course it’s a story.

Just because something’s a story, though, doesn’t mean it has any great significance.

Had the Jets won the game, the narrative would have gone along the lines of how the field trip loosened the Jets up, shook them up, helped them relax before beating a divisional foe. Since they lost, the narrative becomes whether the Jets took the game seriously enough or weren’t prepared, or because it gave the Bills extra motivation after being disrespected.*

(* As a Bills fan, I was more offended at the Jets’ choice of restaurants than anything else).

Neither is true, of course. The Jets didn’t lose the game because they went out the night before the game and had relatively harmless fun. They played terribly, the Bills played well. That's the way sports goes more often than we in the media care to admit.

What’s interesting is how many of the stories, columns and blog posts I’ve seen this morning point that fact out. A quote from The New York Times:

“The few hours the Jets spent playing Skee-Ball and Pop-A-Shot had no direct effect on the outcome Sunday, a 37–14 loss to Buffalo in the swirling wind at Ralph Wilson Stadium.”

From ESPN:

“The New York Jets weren’t blown out Sunday by the Buffalo Bills because they spent a couple of hours Saturday afternoon at a Dave & Busters in a Buffalo suburb – a team field trip that has garnered far too much attention.”

What’s striking, though, is how every story kind of goes out of its way to say “It had no impact … but.” It’s kind of like they want to say it had an impact, but know that it didn’t but it still fits a kind of narrative to the game. The Post wrote about the perception of the trip being bad, not the actual trip. Again, from The Times:

“But in the wake of this embarrassment, and surely with the benefit of hindsight, it seems as if the Jets’ time Saturday night could have been devoted to a different pursuit.”

Which brings us to our old pal, The Sport Ethic.

There are two parts of The Sport Ethic at play here: The first is the notion of forsaking everything else for the good of The Game. This is a story that runs counter to that norm. Instead of an individual’s behavior, it’s the team’s in question. The norm, the accepted behavior, is for a football team to hunker down the night before a game. To meet, to watch film, to strategize. To avoid distractions. To focus all your energy on tomorrow’s game. By going to Dave and Busters for some harmless fun, the Jets violated this part of The Sport Ethic. They made it look like they didn’t care about the next day’s game - which is why there’s been such reaction to this.

The second Sport Ethic notion is winning. Winning is the only thing that matters. Again, had the Jets won, this would have been a little side note, maybe a sign at the Jets’ ability to relax before a divisional road game. But they lost - got killed - and so it looks different. What would have seen as a positive is now seen a negative, simply because of the result of the game.

A seemingly stupid story, the Jets’ trip to Dave and Busters is an indication of how ingrained The Sport Ethic is in sporting culture, and in sports media culture.