NOAH’S RAINBOW SERPENT – observations by Ian MacDougall

Team sport and social organisation

28 June, 2010

Global civilisation began with the appearance of the town of Jericho around 11,000 years ago. It is still recognised as the world’s oldest town, but its history is a mere blink beside the history of life, or even of humanity. What civilisation could be like 10,000 years from now is more knowable than what it will be like, but the key to such knowledge lies in an understanding of how power and control is exercised in human society and its institutions, and how created wealth is shared around.

Strangely enough, a deep insight is provided by team sports such as the various codes of football. A study of the lack of control of information on the sporting field reveals much about operations in fields where it is the basis of individuals’ power and wealth, and therefore as tightly controlled as possible. What is good for humanity is good for every human, andt what is good from the control freak’s point of view is not necessarily good for humanity at all. But democratic power over information is at the heart of team sport and essential to it, and from that we get glimpses of wider possibilities.

Let me say at the outset here that I have very little time for ‘the world game’ of soccer, or for the Rugbies: Union or League. As I know nothing about the American game of Gridiron, I do not feel qualified to comment on that. But I played Rugby Union for five dreary years in high school, when the only alternative was being good enough in tennis to make one of the school’s grade teams, which had vacancies for only 30 players.

To add insult to injury, I was not even good enough in RU to make a school-representative team until right at the bitter end of my career in that loathsome sport. Worse, I was not a fast enough runner to play in the backs, so that as a second-rower in the scrums I had to endure having my ears always near rubbed off, my shins regularly kicked to buggery, and my face occasionally farted into. By comparison to my teenage mind, a five year stint in a chain gang on Devil’s Island would have been a holiday.

In the midst of all this, the school sports department’s powers-that-were fulfilled their statutory obligation to give us all a momentary glimpse of another code. We were allowed to play one game, and one only, of Australian Rules. It was as if God and the Devil had entered into a deal to give the souls condemned to Hell a brief glimpse inside Heaven; just to rub it in for all the condemned sinners, and to remind the Legions of the Saved of their good fortune.

It was the only football game I ever really enjoyed as a player, and the only game of Aussie Rules I ever played. Then it was back to the regular ordeal of Rugby Union. And I should add that the Devil must have taken his delight every time the RU got moving and exciting, because at that point it was always stopped by the referee for some bloody-minded reason in order that there be yet another bloody ear-rubbing, face-farting* and shin-kicking scrum.

By legend, Rugby football is held to have had its birth as a bastard child of soccer, when an over-enthusiastic player of that game (name of William Webb Ellis) on the team of Rugby School  grabbed the ball, ran with it, and showed the possibilities. From that historic point it was downhill all the way, culminating in the prolonged chain of ordeal and disaster that was my own Rugby career.

On the odd rare occasion these days I am a spectator in a stand at a game of Rugby League (Union having now been deservedly obliviated) and find in myself a fascination with the combined beauty and violence of the modern game. Its beauty I will deal with shortly, but its terror lies in the regular and professional pummeling endured by the players. To be a spectator to it is like nothing so much as being part of the mob in the Roman Coliseum watching the resident lions tear into a bunch of ostriches, wildebeest, giraffes or Christians. A terrible ugliness is born. The players are mere dabs of grease on the axles of the game, and the spectators like unto nothing so much as the High Priests of Moloch revelling in the human sacrifice that gives them both their raison d’etre and spiritual fulfilment.

Why on Earth then do we go on watching it? Beyond the blood, gore, sprains and broken bones, what is so consuming?

What I find fascinating in all codes of football is the rapidity: not just of the game, but of the on-field decisions taken by the team as a whole, player by player, giving rise to its speed and ball-handling.  And the more the crowd is surprised by elegant kicking or passing, a sudden change of play or interception, the better that crowd likes it. But it all depends on the absence of hierarchical access to information. Every fact necessary for any given player’s decision on what to do next is immediately there for him before his own eyes, from the position and direction of the ball to those of every player on the field. There are no information filters at all.

So let me propose a modification which would put some filters in, and bring the game more into line with everyday corporate, industrial and governmental top-down reality. All of what follows is quite technically feasible, and has been so for years. (A technical note at this point: the stereo pairs making up the earliest 3-D photographs were separated for viewing by each eye by use of special optical stereo viewers called stereoscopes, but for black and white movie films it was done by projecting the film for the left eye through a red filter and that for the right eye through a blue one onto the one cinema screen. The right-left separation of the resulting blurred image was achieved by equipping each viewer with a diopter: a set of glasses with a red filter for the left eye and a blue filter for the right. Blue light is blocked by a red filter, and vice-versa.)

The game proposed is played at night on a blackened field, and the players of the contending teams wear either pure blue or pure red uniforms, including soundproof helmets fitted with earphones. The field is lit by blue and red floodlights, with no other colours of light permitted. All red players wear red goggles, and the blue team wears blue ones, enabling them to see one another but not members of the opposing team. The referee is dressed in white and visible to all. In contrast, the ball is jet black, and visible to nobody but the referee and the coaches of the two teams. The ball’s invisibility to players but not ref or coaches is due to the fact that it has a shock-proof Global Positioning System (GPS) built in, and the referee and the two coaches are the only people having electronic devices which tell them on-screen its position from moment to moment.

Each (assumed male) coach is allowed to call the game from the sidelines, but only through a radio system which relays his directions to the earphones in the helmets of his own team. The coach’s responsibility is to inform his team of the position both of the ball and any momentarily significant members of the hopefully slow-enough-moving opposing team. He is all-powerful, because he and only he has all the information his team needs, as the team has been rendered blind and information-starved on everything except the position of each other. Needless to add, more sophisticated technology could remove that morsel as well, giving everything to each opposing coach as his exclusive right and mandate.

I would call this game not soccer, Rugby or Aussie Rules, but BASAB, meaning Blind As A Bat. But note that it incorporates all the command structures and information privileges we are used to in many other fundamental fields of activity, including business, government, industry, education and the military. Yet it has not been discovered, invented or taken up. Indeed, one of its fundamental features, coaching from the sidelines, is specifically banned in all codes of football. So why?

I suggest it is because the game would be slowed to a crawl and reduced to a complete schemozzle the more the players were disempowered, blowing spectator interest to smithereens in the process. If its adoption improved the game or any team’s performance, it would have become standard practice by now

The admirable game of cricket is the only one which could conceivably survive if it adopted this sort of top-down system, partly because above all team sports, it has an on-field command structure, with the captain directing (particularly with placement directions) his or her team throughout the game. It is also a game played in bursts of activity, with excitement rising as the ball is bowled, batted and fielded, and falling off as the bowler walks back to commence the next run up the wicket and the fielders reposition themselves.

Napoleon is said to have insisted that a marshal’s baton be included in every soldier’s kit, reminding all of the heights they could rise to if they put their minds to it and were smiled upon by Lady Luck. Beyond such a mere nod to an idea, the kit ideally would have also included a full set of battle plans and the assumptions upon which they campaign was based. Perhaps thereby Napoleon’s Army would have avoided the disastrous retreat from Moscow, and also the Russian Campaign that led up to it.

Perhaps things would have been likewise different if the sub-prime mortgaging and dodgy financial practices that led to the recent global crisis had never been allowed to be secret. (Incidentally, the changes since have been merely cosmetic, and we are well on the way to GFC 2.)

Similarly, if the game of business were as open and transparent to the spectators as the games of football so repeatedly and regularly played, business would probably lose whatever mystique it has. Along with that would go whatever flimsy justification for the exorbitant salaries the most senior corporate players organise for themselves, to the cost of society in general. In the economic environment of the world of tomorrow, my bet is that democracy will depend on free access of all to all information. More than ever. And conversely, tyranny will depend increasingly on top-down control of it.


* The scrum structure was 3 front-rowers buttressed (with emphasis on the butt) by 2 second rowers, buttressed in turn by one lock-forward. I feel obliged to disclose here that I gave more than I got, but only because the lock was so mathematically disadvantaged. There were two second-rowers whose occasional flatulence might in the scrum’s unholy contest be passed back to the lock, and they in turn had to put up with whatever discharges took place in front of them. But as a ratio, 3/2 is no match for 2/1.