Short Con, Long Gain

December 7, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Erving Goffman wasn’t much of a football fan, but he would have loved this play that the Patriots pulled off against the Eagles yesterday. It’s all about self-presentation.

(If YouTube prevents the embedded video from running, click here and watch it there.)

It’s a con basically, and Goffman loved con games. The con man:
  • makes a presentation of self that . . .
  • projects a definition of the situation. . . .
  • so that others will act on that definition. . . .
  • and behave towards him the way he wants them to.

Why do the Eagles leave Brady uncovered?  A guy I know who saw the play said, “At that point, Brady looks just like a running back in the slot position (in fact, that’s what he is), so there should have been a linebacker covering him.”

But  “what he is” is what people define him to be, and at first, he projects the definition of himself as the quarterback. He goes down the line yelling at the linemen as though he is calling an audible or shouting instructions. That’s what quarterbacks do, and there is no information to suggest that he is not the quarterback. Then he stops for at most a second. The announcer says that he looked confused. The ball is snapped, and even then Brady just stands there. He is no longer projecting a definition of himself as quarterback, but he is not acting like a slot receiver either. The Eagle defenders cover the usual suspects, a list which does not include Tom Brady the famous quarterback.

Finally, he runs his pass route without an Eagle anywhere near.*

Goffman liked con artists because they provide a clear example of what we all do. The main difference is that the con man is doing deliberately and consciously what the rest of us do unawares. In fact, most of us would deny that we are trying to manipulate others’ impressions of us. It’s only when some mistake happens and we fear that others might get the wrong impression that we can see how much work goes into making sure that they get the right impression.
                       
[A similarly Goffmanesque football deception, though at a less professional level (middle school), was the subject of this blogpost  of five years ago.]

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*This sneaky stratagem, unlike others in the Belichick-Brady book, has the virtue of not violating any NFL rules. With this reception Brady was making a good gain but not smashing any records, not even those on his cell phone.       

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