The conspiracy theory surrounding Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll’s decision to pass, rather than run, on second and goal in the final minute of Sunday’s Superbowl is emblematic of the narrow paranoia that often passes for criticism in US political culture. The theory, voiced by numerous Seahawks following the game and Monday morning quarterbacks throughout the country, is that Pete Carroll ended up losing the Superbowl because he was intent on having media-friendly and wholesome Russell Wilson pass for the winning touchdown rather than having laconic, sardonic, and sometimes vulgar Marshawn Lynch run for it. Indeed, Dave Zirin writes, “The theory goes that there were major financial, public relations and football reasons for Russell Wilson and not Lynch to be the one who ends the game in glory,” although such dynamics can be found in a great many games across numerous sports. More obviously, motive is inadequate proof of a crime. Like most conspiracy theories, this one is not only dubious but, more importantly, distracts from the actually existing cruelties that occurred right under everyone’s noses on Sunday.
The theory of foul play of course presupposes that Carroll made not only the wrong call but a completely nonsensical one that could only be attributable to corruption if not some version of the single-minded sinister forces that Richard Hofstadter described in “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Commentators have reached new hyperbolic heights in describing the Superbowl-losing play as, to quote NFL legend Emmitt Smith, the “worst play call I’ve seen in history of football.” But Smith, who’s the NFL’s all-time leading rusher and is arguably partial to giving the ball to running backs in pivotal situations, is wrong, as Carroll’s call was sound.
Seattle had three plays to score a touchdown and, with 26 seconds remaining in the game, lacked the time (with only one timeout) to run on all three plays. The only question was when the Seahawks would pass, and it was entirely correct to pass on second down, as a second down run, assuming it was unsuccessful (as was Lynch’s earlier 3rd and 1 run), would have dictated a third down pass forfeiting any element of surprise. By passing on second down against a Pats’ defense playing run, Seattle had an excellent opportunity to win the game. And the odds were astronomically high that the pass would have ended in either an incompletion (stopping the clock, as they needed to do) or the game-winning touchdown. In fact, this season it has been statistically riskier to run from the one-yard line than to pass. As Grantland’s Bill Barnwell notes, “Before Sunday, NFL teams had thrown the ball 108 times on the opposing team’s 1-yard line this season. Those passes had produced 66 touchdowns (a success rate of 61.1 percent, down to 59.5 percent when you throw in three sacks) and zero interceptions. The 223 running plays had generated 129 touchdowns (a 57.8 percent success rate) and two turnovers on fumbles.”
Insofar as Carroll should be criticized, it is not that he elected to pass but that he should have called for a relatively safer pass, for instance either to the corner of the end zone or out of a bootleg. Nonetheless, the interception did not result from a coach’s decision but from a weak play on the ball by Seattle receiver Ricardo Lockette and a remarkable (and devastating if he had been wrong) gamble and play by Patriot rookie defender Malcolm Butler, an undrafted free-agent who reported that he had a “vision” of where the ball would go before breaking on and catching the first interception of his career.
While Carroll’s ostensibly abnormal play call has received enormous attention, Sunday’s injuries were accepted, when even noticed, as the merely “normal” part of the game. Seattle’s Jeremy Lane gruesomely broke his arm and defensive lineman Cliff Avril left the game after being hit in the head and lying motionless on the turf. But while the Seahawks conformed to the league’s concussion protocol and kept Avril out for the remainder of the game, Patriot receiver Julian Edelman stayed in the game after receiving a vicious and illegal (but not penalized) helmet-to-helmet hit from Seattle safety Kam Chancellor that seemingly left the receiver groggy. While the Patriots later noted that Edelman was cleared by doctors on the sideline, Edelman was neither checked in the locker room nor even pulled from the drive on which he sustained the hit.
No matter, these injuries, and untold unreported ones in addition to the unending damage to players’ bodies resulting from merely playing the game (which involves actual league conspiracies), are rationalized as matters of course if not heroic sacrifices to competitive struggle. That is, the problem is hardly that Pete Carroll allowed politics to corrupt competition. It’s that football, and society as a whole, allows competition to corrupt everything.