Playoff mentality

Setting healthy boundaries through unhealthy food

The NFL playoffs are here, and I’m ready for them.

I’ve written in the past about how I fell into being an NFL fan (thanks, Dom Capers and the Carolina Panthers’ zone blitz). I think it is also worth talking about how I fell out of it.

Football, like many other passions, has near-infinite depth. You can keep digging deeper and deeper. There’s more data to unpick, more narratives to write, more arguments to have. There’s history and culture and art and food and traditions - and each of those come with their own communities, sub-cultures, and depth as well. It is an immersive world.

But… it also comes down to Sunday (or, as is the NFL now, Thursday - Monday, inclusive). You can spend six days weaving intricate lattices of fact and fiction about what’s going to happen, but, ultimately, there’s a couple hours of dudes bashing about a field that decides the result.

I dove in. All the way. I would spend all week being incredibly obsessive, until Sunday, and then, I’d wind up depressed. Like, angrily, actively, miserably depressed. I was awful to be around, I would eat and sleep badly, and I was unable to focus on the tasks or people around me. The actions of a bunch of dude, half a world away, none of whom even knew that I existed, somehow had a tangible difference to my life. I was sulking.

It was a ‘conscious decoupling’, but I managed to wean myself to a healthier, and more distant, relationship with football. I played fantasy, I read highlights, the end. I became, as per the terms of Craig Calcaterra’s Rethinking Fandom, a ‘casual fan’.

[I don’t think this is unique to sport/s by the way. Every form of fandom, from the MCU to the IPL, has that same potential for breadth and depth… and also grounds itself on a finite number of core properties or moments that are outside of your control. You build your community, your identity and your sense of self around something that you don’t own and can’t control. This is a frustration identified in Jenkins’ theory of participatory culture: participation in community, culture, traditions, fanworks, theorising, games, whatever… it gives you a sense of ownership, but also sets you up for an emotional backlash when the core property reminds you that you, are in, fact, merely a disempowered consumer. When Harry doesn’t marry Hermione like he’s ‘supposed to’, that disempowerment becomes betrayal, and bad things happen. I would also to some degree, count ‘politics’ as a sort of fandom, but, hey, you can and should vote!]

Of course a lot happened after that point, namely Covid. Like everyone else, I went a bit crazy and buried myself in obsessions. The combination of the pandemic and a new Chiefs ‘dynasty’ was too much for me, and well, here we go again. Although, I think, much healthier.

It is, ultimately, about agency. QB/child-of-Zeus Patrick Mahomes’ job is to win football games (and he does well at it). His job isn’t to make me happy. I’ve tried to put my emotional health back into my own hands.

Ok, but - without sound like an #Instagram #wellness influencer - how?

Role modelling. I’ve got a kid! And this is basic behavioural science: the best way to engrain a behaviour in yourself is to teach it to others. In this case, the behaviour is being a ‘good’ fan. When I’m demonstrating ‘fandom’, we don’t turn everything into a binary of ‘good team vs bad team’, we talk about sportsmanship, and - most importantly - I repress the need to go into a cranky adolescent funk after a loss. I don’t want him to see that or to imitate it. Hey kids, tantrums aren’t cool!

Caring more about the things that matter less. Also a direct result of having a child to enjoy the games with: he doesn’t care about the big picture! His attention span is 15 seconds long! The concept of a ‘season’ is entirely meaningless to him. He wants to scream with joy after every play, for whatever reason, and cheer and hop around and play catch during the breaks. What’s interesting to a little kid is, actually, the most fun parts of the games. Noise. Fanfare. Running around. The excitement of a ‘game day’ is that we wear matching outfits! That’s pretty awesome, and I know it won’t always be the case - let’s enjoy it while we can.

Pivoting to food. Cooking is a way for me to sublimate my anxiety. I’m fretting about our lack of wide receiver talent, but I can’t slather superglue on MVS’s brick-like hands. What I can control is the menu. Especially when you’re a BBQ guy, this means plotting for at least two days ahead of the game: peak fretting time has now become peak prepping time instead. It is much more fun to worry about brisket. Eating is also fun (he says, in the most obvious statement of 2024). A special meal means that the day is about more than the game itself. The food also allows me to share the moment with my friends and my family (none of whom particularly care about the game). We all have a nice meal, and make some memories. Then, in the wee hours of trans-Atlantic game watching, I devour leftovers. Good food is a comfort and a distraction.

As a result, of all of the above, I enjoy football a lot more, without dealing with the emotional hangover that a loss can cause. I like hanging flags and dressing up and dicking about with marinades. I enjoy the superstitions (always have a backup jersey, in case the first is cursed), and the anticipation of pulling an ‘all-nighter’ (more of an exciting even in one’s 40s). And I love yelling ‘touchdown’ with my son and the 3 am WhatsApp mid-halftime chats with friends and family around the world. These are things that I can control.

I also like winning, but that’s Pat’s job.

The latest on Substack. The platform recanted. Well, kinda. Read on:

Substack announced that it would be removing Nazi publications from the platform. This is not a new policy — but rather a reconsideration of how it considers existing policies. The removals only apply to “credible threats of harm”. The application of the policy applies to five publications, and none of the publications removed had paid subscriptions enabled, and they accounted for about 100 active readers.

Insight Monitor

After meeting a delegation of Substackers and thinking very, very hard about the issue… Substack have decided that their priority is the income they receive from monetised publications. No matter who or what those publications may be. This is philosophically disgusting, but, hey, that’s techno-capitalism in the year 2024.

Substack have also shown (and others, such as Platformer - who are leaving Substack - have made this point well) that they simply don’t know what they are doing.

In essence: Substack was created as a ‘software’ platform - people create and send newsletters. But as they grew, they bolted on more and more non-newsletter options, including recommendations, comments, and a Twitter-like/lite ‘Notes’ community. They’ve grown into something much bigger than a means of sending lots of nicely formatted emails.

It has become painfully clear that the potential (and inevitable) reprecussions from this sprawl were never considered. In the Year Of Our Lord 2024, it is not a surprise that Nazis Will Find You. What is a surprise is that Substack never accounted for it.

Ghost, a Substack competitor, has almost no real moderation to speak of, but no one seems to care. You know why? Because it’s not trying to jam all of its users into one feed to compete with Twitter or whatever.

Substack, meanwhile, has insisted on adding more social features over the last three years, instead of making their email product better. Which is still missing tons of pretty basic features. And so they, predictably, ended up creating a poorly moderated network that was attractive to extremists. It’s been a decade since ISIS uploaded their first videos to social media. We know that this is what extremists do. And you can’t protect your social network on a case-by-case basis when you “become aware” of it.

Garbage Day (who are also leaving Substack)

To be fair, Substack is hardly the first or only platform to have mission creep without considering the ensuing crawlies. Steam, for example, has long played the ‘we’re just a platform’ card - albeit one with social functions, comments, communities and - guess what? Nazis Found It.

Substack has become another case study in the need for safety by design (see link: the UK Government got it in 2021, so there’s no excuse for a tech company in 2024 to be surprised). No one likes to listen to the company paranoid, but if you don’t have them sitting at the adult table, you’re going to have problems. (Elon, of course, famously sacked all his safety people, and that’s worked out so very well for Twixxer.) But, again, it is the year 2024. There is simply no reason to be surprised by the existence of shitty things on the internet.

In Substack’s case, this is a charming combination of being both dumb and evil. I could forgive them for being ill-prepared, but the fact remains that, even if they were simply being stupid, they then doubled-down in the worst way possible.

Substack made their priorities clear. When someone does that: believe them.

Janelle Shane’s AI Weirdness has long been a favourite. She explains AI well - how it works and how it doesn’t. This example of, um, “mammals” (and umlauts gone wild) is the perfect counterpoint to a thousand-thousand breathless LinkedIn posts about using AI to ‘power innovation’. It is also hilarious.

The generation-old Horizon scandal is finally being addressed. Thanks to, of all things, a dramatic re-enactment. Why did a ‘docudrama’ succeed where more conventional journalism and activism did not? (And why was it necessary?) There was an interesting Reddit thread about ‘ok, what drama do we need next if that’s what it takes?’ and Grenfell (and the ensuing lack of action thereof) had about sixty million upvotes. Hmm.

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