On Sunday evening, after the participants in the AFC Championship Game had been established, some interesting Twitter polls began popping up on Buffalo Bills fan Twitter. There were several versions but they all came down to the same basic premise of who’s worse — the Patriots or Doug Marrone.
To even ask the question is kind of surprising. Bills fans hated the Patriots WAY before it was cool. To even put another person on their level seemed out of place.
But a lot of Bills fans feel that strongly about Marrone, who left the team suddenly after the 2014 season.
Or, as they will say, he quit on the team.
And how you phrase it makes all the difference.
Marrone isn’t the only Bills coach to leave the team abruptly after the season this century - Mike Mularky did it in 2006. And it’s not like Marrone was beloved during his time in Buffalo. By all accounts, he did not treat people within the organization well, and fans quickly tired of him never going for it on 4th down. But ever since he left, he’s been vilified by Bills fans and Buffalo media.
It’s an interesting exercise in framing.
A refresher: In journalism studies, framing theory studies how news is presented. Frames supplied by the media allow audience members to organize and understand information. In his landmark study on this, Robert Entman defined framing as selecting “some aspects of a perceived reality and mak(ing) them more salient in a communicating text.” By highlighting word, phrases, or other bits of information, Entman said those particular pieces of information are elevated in salience. Salience can also be influenced, Entman wrote, by the placement and/or repetition of texts or by their association with familiar symbols.
In other words, how media cover something can influence how people think about a story or a person, the same way a physical picture frame focuses your attention on part of a photograph or painting.
It’s that way with Marrone and his 2014 exit from the Bills.
Read a lot media coverage of it, and you will see one word return over and over again.
My friend Tim Graham on Twitter:
And in that story
Whether or not they would say the words on the record, their experience wasn't enjoyable. Marrone was crusty. And then he quit on them.
Let’s contrast that with this ESPN story: Doug Marrone opts out of Bills deal
Or even this one, from the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle: Why Doug Marrone walked away from the Bills
Why does this matter?
Because of the word “quit.”
In the sports world, it is both literally and figuratively a four-letter word. It’s perhaps the worst epithet you can use toward someone involved in sports. It flies in the face of The Sport Ethic, of good sportsmanship, of everything we want out of athletics.
What if this story were framed differently? What it were framed more of him “opting out” of a contract, which is more of a colder, legal term. Not nearly as negative, right? Sounds like Marrone making a business decision rather than an emotional one. Even just the phrase “walking away” feels more gentle than “quitting.” If this is the dominante frame of the story, maybe Bills fans feel a little less vitriol toward Marrone. Maybe he’s not a villain on par with Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. Maybe he’s even a little sympathetic.
This isn’t to argue that saying Marrone “quit” is wrong or that media members are slandering Marrone. They absolutely are not.
It just shows the power of one word.
And the power of framing.