The Last Jedi: Good, Bad, but Not Much Grey

Rey

Rey was great in the TLJ but there was still someting … darker missing from her story. Credit: Inverse.com, Disney

I have a bit of a weird relationship with the Star Wars franchise. I watched the prequels first, and then watched the original trilogy. It was only with The Force Awakens when I marathon’d the whole thing that I really started to enjoy it with any passion. That leaves me in a place where I enjoy the films, but i’m not defensive about it. This Thursday was the first time I’ve wanted to see a Star Wars film the night it came out, and imagining a sort of cultural magic to seeing ‘the new Star Wars film’ on it’s first day, I decided I was going to do so. Walking out, that magic had dissipated though. This was a good, fun film, with some excellent premises, but not one that did a lot with them.

One thing that has untied all reviews, both good and bad, is that this movie has somehow taken Star Wars in a ‘bold, new direction’ is one that baffles me. It’s more light vs dark, Empire vs Resistance, and people being tempted or knocked to either the light or the dark. An eternal struggle indeed, and well-suited to a franchise knocking out a movie per year. I think what people are referring to is Luke not being a babyface hero and Kylo being conflicted in his darkness. Maybe it feels different, but I didn’t see anything materially different about the fabric of this film when compared to the others. The battle between good and evil is not something I am upset about, and is important to my favourite parts of the film, but depending on what happens in the third film, I think they pulled back from some interesting genuine development to the universe in favour of essentially keeping the whole thing ticking over til the next movie.

I don’t know how cynical I am about that. I completely understand that Disney will want to milk this cash cow for a much as it’s worth, and longevity in that sense is achieved by making the least appreciable progress possible with each film. At the same time though, it’s clear that a lot of love and attention go in to these films, and that the production of them aren’t purely mechanical. I don’t think they would be successful if they were made with that mindset.

That all said, there were aspects of this film that I loved, aspects I didn’t really like or understand, and aspects I liked but feel left some great moments on the table, depending on what happens in the next installment. Of course, i’ll talk about them now.

Rey and Kylo

The parallel journeys of Rey and Kylo was perhaps the most successful aspect of the film. Credit: Den of Geek, Disney

I’m going to first discuss, in the interest of positivity, my favourite part of the film based on a really well-realised premise, and that is the conflict and relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren. It’s so hard to create a heroic character with really well-defined motivations, and in Rey, someone who was essentially orphaned through negligent parents who has found a purpose in this intergalactic moral war though she is still at a fragile place within it. I could buy both that she would choose the light, but the film does a great job in making it believable that she could find meeting in this somehow kindred spirit of Kylo Ren and go dark. Kylo was similarly let down by a mentor figure and so it’s easy, as it always is with villains, to see how they became as they are.

One of the best established conceits in the film was this connection fostered between the two, both wanting to bring the other to ‘their side’, both predicting they would do so, and both apparently demonstrably doing it, only for the whole thing to fall apart because neither had really changed. There was a red herring of an almost clichéd heroic coming together devastatingly undermined by a logical crashing to earth. I believed Kylo was turning good, imagined how great and different it would be if Rey went dark (more on that later), and was genuinely shocked by the revelation that their intentions had mirrored each other enough to fight together for a short time, only to realise that they weren’t, indeed, on the same side, all flirtation and hope dissipated.

Spectacular. That, to me, was the crucial conceit of the film. Not the only good thing about it, but the bit that made it work at it’s best.

Another aspect of the film I liked was more thematic, and it seems a subtle theme in that I haven’t really heard anyone talk about it much, and that is nihilism in the face of this universe. The best avatar for this is a character I liked a lot – DJ. Before getting to his ‘place in all this’, I would just like to say, not that it’s important, that I was of the opinion that he was the character they were looking for and he just lost his distinctive pin in some sort of gambling caper. Regardless, they found DJ, and his approach to the whole thing interested me. From the get go, he realised how the battles of light and dark would never end and that for some people who aren’t somehow a fated protaganist/antagonist of the battle, you just have to make the best of it. For him, his approach is that he’ll risk his life to help you as long as it suits him. He isn’t two-dimensional, he’s touched enough by the meaning of Rose’s trinket to give it back to her, especially seen as he gets to loot a ship anyway, but ultimately, he puts himself first because he realises that his actions won’t really affect anything. He knows that the war is between a ‘good’ side and a ‘bad’ side, but that both weren’t as clear-cut as we may seem, as was shown through his revelation about both sides buying weapons from arms-traders. His betrayal hurt and was certainly a surprise in the moment, but at the same time, he just looked after himself. They were caught anyway and so he cut himself a deal. He’s a heel for doing it and he knows it, but he doesn’t believe that anything can change, so ultimately, he doesn’t care. Maybe it’s just me, but I completely understood and to an extent, admired what he did. I didn’t need quite such a pronounced stutter though.

Luke

The doubts and indifference shown by DJ and Luke Skywalker at points were part of an understated nihilistic theme which I enjoyed and would have liked to have seen more of. Credit: Digital Spy, Disney.

Luke Skywalker had some matching sentiments too, at least in the early going. In the original films, I basically thought Luke was a well-meaning milquetoast hero but here, with the benefit of actually experiencing the ups and downs of war, Luke wanted no part of it and realised how flawed the Jedi were. Ultimately, he will always side with light over dark, but he too has realised that the dark will never be stopped, and dejected, he took himself out of the fight. Even when he came back to fight on the side of the Resistance, it’s not that he’s changed his opinion about the Jedi, but more because he decides it’s the right thing to do based partly on his own history. There is a realism to this thematic approach which otherwise gets lost within the size and weight of the general Star Wars universe by the end of the movie, but it was one of my main takeaways coming out of it, and something I want to see more of going forward.

Another character I really enjoyed was Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo. This was perhaps one of the film’s best set-ups of a journey for the viewer. I think I was probably in the majority watching her apparently bring the whole Resistance drifting slowly to a whimpering end with frustration and wanting Poe, who was the only person with the plan it seemed, to take over. There are fair questions about why she couldn’t just tell him what they were doing, etc, but I think it was worth ironing over that for the power of the reveal that she was indeed sacrificing herself and her reputation for the ultimate safety and future of the resistance. By the time she had smashed herself at light-speed through Snoke’s ship, the most successful 180-turn of a character in such a short amount of time was complete. The quiet, slow-moving scenes of her actions were met with a palpable awe in the audience and were some of the most engaging and arresting in the whole film.

Speaking of arresting scenes, I would be remiss to not mention how beautiful some of this film was. I’ve seen a lot of people praising the battle/fight scenes. To me, if i’m honest, a lot of the battle scenes in Star Wars merge together for me. It’s all impressive, but nothing ever stands out. There were some beautiful parts in this film though, and i’ll highlight the two that stuck with me most. First, Rey in the dark side cave, reflected in a an endless time-lag. It was like a purgatory, and the sort of place that you can well imagine would make someone question themselves and their existence. A cool scene that genuinely seemed like it was happening in a unique, significant place. Secondly, the aesthetics of the planet Crait were stunning, even if it was just so other-worldly and different. Red dust shooting up over a white surface was a beautiful combination and I can say no more or less than I just loved who it looked.

The final positive point I will talk about is the Force and Luke’s explanation of it. His begrudged training of Rey was cool, but it was his expanation of what the Force actually is that appealed to me. Until now, it’s been hard to define – it seemed like something you could inherit in someway, a kind of honed skill which only few can wield. In some ways, that is true, but this film goes a long way to democratizing it. Yes it’s mainly an elite who get the chance to use it, but ultimately, it is just an element within life, keeping order, as real and invisible as gravity, but something that can be tapped in to and utilised if someone has patience and training enough, and something which really brings a balance to the universe. It is neither for good or bad, in fact, it almost ensures balance between the two. In that context, it is even more clear that no one side – the light or the dark – will ultimately ‘win’, but the explanation of it was a really satisfying one to help understand the universe. This isn’t always something Star Wars bothers with.

Flying Leia

Instantly meme-worthy, Princess Leia seemingly flies to safety in the middle of space. Credit: Disney

Now to start piling on the negative i’m afraid – speaking of the Force, that is where things also started going downhill. I don’t particularly care about the lore of the Force and certainly don’t have a problem with writers adding to that at times. There are two instances in this film that stand out as … not great though. The innocuous one is the already infamous ‘flying Leia’ scene. We know Jedis and people who are tuned in to the force can defy gravity somewhat and she’s in zero gravity anyway so who knows anyway; the problem was how ridiculous it looked. The explanation of the force as this democratic force of nature that can be tapped in to with great patience, skill, and concentration was a little undermined by the way this was shot, which reduced it to look more like a shitty Superman/Mary Poppins scene. What I felt was genuinely a bit of a leap though was the new feature of being able to see people before you through the Force. To be fair, this was central to two fairly important conceits of the film: Rey and Kylo’s Skype-like conversations, and Luke’s tricking of Kylo during the end battle. So I must admit, I don’t know how you achieve these key moments without the feature, but it doesn’t change the fact that it kinda stuck out to me as a convenient shoe in – more a fix of convenience than a tweak. I think to boil down why it stuck out so much, I thought a few times while watching: “Why has no-one ever done this before in a film?” The problem is the feature is so fundamental to the lore of the Force that it seems weird that the likes of Darth Vader or Luke (until now) or Yoda or Obi Wan (i.e. some of the real masters of the Force) wouldn’t use it if they had it. The Force is the equivalent of nano-machines in Metal Gear Solid, it can be used to fill in holes of logic or storytelling. When someone is needed to do something new, the Force can do it. That’s OK in itself, but I suppose here, this deployment of it seemed more nakedly utilitarian than other times.

Snoke

Snoke went from larger than life to cut in half with a hand motion he should have seen coming. We never knew ye. Credit: Disney

The real driver of this conceit was Snoke, and that brings me to the next point, one that seems to be shared by many. A disclaimer here: I don’t have any particular love for Snoke so i’m not sad he’s dead or anything. That said, in The Force Awakens, there is no doubt he was set up as significant to the whole universe at that point. What he turned out to be – a stepping stone for Kylo to coup détatch his top half from his bottom – was again, useful overall, but it did seem to leave something on the table. I don’t have a problem with Kylo killing Snoke, but it happened after we had seen Snoke only briefly and in a much less powerful light than in T.F.A. To use wrestling terms, even if Snoke is there to put Kylo over, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell his story. The more powerful he is, the more it adds to the perception of Kylo’s power when he kills him, and while his pre-death moments are impressive, I feel everything would have benefited from more work being shown with regards to Snoke – what did he want, where did he come from, how did he choose Kylo etc; I don’t even need loads of depth, just enough to make it a more meaningful shock than just a shock. If I had my druthers, this would happen in the next film. I know this may have been asking a lot, but just more of this and less of, say … side-quests that don’t really affect much.

Speaking of which, I cared so little about the Finn and Rose side-quest to find a hacker to open a door which neither succeeded or mattered. I don’t mind setting up expectations and then subverting them but this didn’t even really add any value to the film while taking up quite the chunk of running time. I mentioned before how I liked what DJ had to add and I like the idea of exploring Finn as more of a mercenary with himself and Rey in mind (even if that’s not the endgame) but that was lost among the weird buddy/love story between Finn and Rose. Rose wasn’t badly played and I am glad to see an Asian-American actress in such a role. I just had so little interest in the role itself that it kinda ruined it. Finn and Rey are always asking after each other but Rose is kinda inserted in to it all and not for the better. The one moment Finn is going to do anything of consequence (martyring himself to big battering canon) she stops him in a way that doesn’t make sense for her established character. She wouldn’t let him leave because her sister died for the Resistance but when he’s about to do something to help it, she stops him because she suddenly loves him. We’ll see if he even reciprocates, I guess, but after all of that, we see him and Rey just once together. I’m not necessarily ‘shipping’ them for chrissakes, characters are more than that, but they obviously care very much about each other and their reunion didn’t feel that impactful, undermined instead by a character I personally could have done without from a story I could have done without.

Kylo reaching

Rey and Kylo were so close, but so far away from joining forces in one of the best bits of the film. Great as it was, there was potential for them, together, to form something more interesting than they did apart. Credit: Disney

I’ve talked about what I could have done without, but here’s something I could have done with. The trailer seemed to hint at Rey being truly tempted to the dark side, and to be fair, the film does play lip service to this at times, but as soon as Kylo shows his true (dark) colours and she outright rejects it, and it’s clear that there her understandable questions about her ‘place in all this’ were never the same as a true temptation to the dark side. I’d heard a lot beforehand of ‘grey Jedi’ and it sounded like a great direction for the movies to go in at some point. As I mentioned, I loved the scene where they briefly fight together only to realise they are still on different sides; and while I never believed Rey was going dark, I did like they idea that their new-found connection led to some sort of new grey faction within the overall fight. I’m not sure exactly how that would look like – perhaps an anti Empire/Jedi Council/Princess faction who reject elitist ways and take a genuinely populist stance. That is something a better writer more knowledgeable about the universe could come up with. I was extremely excited when I saw the possibility of something like that because, to be honest, the fight has gotten a bit stale. This plays in to the ultimate impression I had of the film too, but the battle between light and dark doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, quite literally at this point. It’s like a big long argument where you can’t even remember why you’re fighting – you just are. To go back to wrestling terms, it’s 50/50 booking: sometimes the Empire is dominant, sometimes the Resistance seems to be turning the tables, but I never really buy in to any jeopardy for either side. I enjoy this battle, but maybe adding some genuinely differently-motivated actors to the story/universe wouldn’t hurt at all and would more likely prolong the franchise further in a positive direction.

The franchise, but especially this film, is really lazy about defining what the fight is actually about. Don’t get me wrong, it’s obvious that the Empire and Sith are evil – we’ve seen them blowing up planets and killing innocents, but mostly the film relies on us more or less just knowing that the bad guys are bad just because. It is a battle largely between elites and we rarely see how ordinary people are affected, and in this film we didn’t even have any state atrocities or anything, it was just team red vs team blue and we like team blue because they seem nicer and we know them. Going back to the nihilism, DJ is the closest thing to a common person without bias we meet, and he ultimately supports the Resistance, but he knows the morality of it all isn’t black and white. It would be nice to see a bit more of that rather than wondering about it as a viewer. This is where the Grey Jedi could come in I suppose. Basically, I genuinely support the Resistance and it’s clear I should do so. I just don’t really know what i’m supporting. Maybe a few films down the line the Resistance could overcome the Empire, take over, and we could see what they would do with it. That could be interesting.

I have a feeling it wouldn’t be likely though. Despite the second half of this article, the first half rings true. I did enjoy much of this film, and had a good time seeing the action and the effects and the characters we like, and that is worth something. If you asked me how it moved the overall plot along though, i’d be hard pushed to take up a lot of your time. The plot of the film is almost comically spinning its’ wheels. The Resistance are ‘on a string’, running, being caught, running again, being caught again, running, being caught again, and escaping. We lost Luke (though you’re never really lost in Star Wars), Snoke died but what did he ever do anyway, and the same for Captain Phasma, Holdo died but we never really knew her anyway. If JJ Abrams so wished, he could recycle the first scenes of this film almost exactly in the next film and it would make sense. That betrays a lack of story development. It’s clear why this is the case too. Disney want to milk every drop of money out of this as possible and so they need to make as many films as possible, and so they need to progress the overall story as little as possible. That is what happened here.

This to me was good, but also just kind of another Star Wars film. It promised a bold new direction, but pulled back from most of it to give people what they like and are used to, though with some wonderful scenes in for sure. This isn’t some unforgivable sin, but it will always have a limited impact on me, personally. That is basically all I can say. Lots of people love the film and I am happy to see that, but for me, as fun as it is, it is in danger of diminishing returns.

Advertisements

Reflections on Eli, his Career With the Giants, and the Hall of Fame

NFL: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys

It seems the sun is setting on Eli Manning’s career as a Giant following his sudden benching as Quarterback. Credit: Newsweek

Probably should add this disclaimer: I’m a New York Giants fan, so biased and a bit emotional as I write. Some of what I write about his benching may be a bit messy through this prism. That said, this is about more than that, it’s a reflection on the career of a fixture in my sports fandom.

I can’t really remember when or how I got interested in American football. Vague memories of the Channel 5 broom-closet studio in the UK with Mike Carlson and others talking about the game before it got to the (relative) level of notoriety it has now in the country with the ever-expanding slew of International Series games. I have vague memories of staying up to watch the Patriots first Superbowl win against the Rams in 2002, so i’ll go with 2001/2. Regardless, something must have grabbed me enough to give it a try, and after getting my head around the basics, I was hooked.

I also don’t know why I chose the Giants as my team. I remember going on a college trip to New York in 2006 though and being desperate to get a Tiki Barber jersey (I ended up settling for Jeremy Shockey, not being able to find a Tiki jersey and, if I remember correctly, choosing between Eli and Shockey – as an aside, having learned a bit more about Shockey’s character, and knowing the kind of guy Eli is, I very much regret that). So maybe it was to do with Tiki, or to do with visiting New York, i’m not sure, but though I clearly liked them before then, it was that trip that cemented the Giants as my team. There probably wasn’t a better time to latch on to a team either, as within two years, they would be winning a Superbowl with Eli at the helm.

It’s easy to both over-estimate, and under-estimate Eli’s role in both Superbowl victories. For me, 2008 was all about Defense, good coaching, and Eli managing the whole thing well while he was, I believe, a more active part of the success in 2011/12 becoming a post-season monster that year. What is clear though is that you don’t win two Superbowls by accident, especially at the Quarterback position, and his achievement in this regard is too often downplayed. The fact that he has won both Superbowls he has played in, and that both were against the Brady/Belichick Patriots makes it all the more remarkable.

Super Bowl XLVI

Better times. Credit: nfl spinzone

Eli was never one of the very best quarterbacks in the game, and further, was usually not even the best player on the Giants. He alone was not the reason for the Giant’s two Superbowls, especially not for the first one he won, but he was absolutely capable of magic. A smart, steady quarterback, it was often said (to the point of cliche at times) that there were few players teams would want in the post-season more than Eli – something about him could become irresistible at his best. His throws to Manningham and Tyree are the most memorable of course, but there were lots more, as well as the times he’d take it too far and it would end … less well. It could certainly be a roller-coaster.

Manning’s Giants tenure was, in another way though, the opposite of a roller-coaster – his streak of 210 games starting is a remarkable achievement, especially thinking of how common injuries to younger, more athletic players are now. It’s not just remarkable as an achievement for that reason though; that would be more trivia than anything else, but its the aura it brought to him and the team as a whole that was significant. Eli was a constant, a consummate professional, someone to depend on to play and give you a chance. That is something so many teams have lacked chronically in a way that has left them, be they talented or not, without many prospects. He may not have ever been the best, but he was always there, and he was always good. Sometimes great, sometimes not, but always good.

If i’m honest, that magic has indeed been less present in recent years, and talk of Eli being in the ‘back 9’ of his career seemed accurate. At the start of this season, however, the Superbowl window seemed firmly open, and my thinking was this would be the last chance for Eli before retirement. In that context, Eli and the Giants being in the place they are now is … surreal.

Getting to the grimy business of the benching, I probably don’t have much original to say about it. The essence of assessing the talent the Giants have makes sense, but the nature of it is curious. I have time for Geno Smith as a player; I think there have been flashes of talent and that he’s had a hard time of it in his career, but the notion that any sane management team believe he could be the answer at starter next year is patent nonsense. The only player it makes sense to show any significant time to is young prospect Davis Webb, drafted by the Giants in this year’s draft. The fact that Geno is starting and not Webb strongly hints that the coaches don’t feel Webb is ready. If this is the case, Eli should be starting, and therein lies the rub.

The fact that Smith is starting because the QB position must be ‘assessed’ smacks of scapegoating of Eli – it’s why the move is being referred to as a ‘benching’ rather than being part of a true ‘rebuild’ or ‘evaluation’. In the context of the pressure that Ben McAdoo and Jerry Reese are under, it comes across even worse, as them shifting the blame for the seasons’ failings on to a team legend to help save their skins. If the Giants were a playoff team except for the failings of Eli, it might be OK, but Eli is the last person to be the cause of this season’s problems. If anything, Eli has shown a slight upswing in form this year, keeping is tidy and doing what he can (an admittedly limited amount) with a threadbare cast of offensive linemen protecting him and weapons to throw to and compliment him. There are few Quarterbacks who could do significantly better than him if put in the same spot.

Eli Geno Davis

Eli with his temporary successor, Geno Smith, and possible long-term successor, Davis Webb, who he has vowed to support through this period. Credit: NY Daily News

Even if we take McAdoo at his word about the intention here, the treatment of Manning, and the position it has put him in is unacceptable and disrespectful to a true legacy player. In it’s sudden, casual nature, it shows a contempt for the team, Eli, and their achievements. Now it must be said that there is some mutuality to this. Eli was informed of plans to let him start and then hand over to Geno in the second half, in order to keep his starting streak going – an offer Eli, to his credit, refused. Of course to a player like Eli though, this was a false choice, not because of egoistic pride, but because it doesn’t measure up as playing to win, and having faith in him to do so. My feeling is that the offer was one that McAdoo and management knew Eli wouldn’t take, and was instead a way to cusion the impact of the move. Again to his credit, fighting back tears in a locker-room interview, Eli promised to help Geno and Davis prepare for games from a backup role. I won’t pretend to know much about Eli as a person away from the game, but everything I do know about him in the context of the Giants screams that he is a class act. That this is likely the way his Big Blue career ends belies all of that, and those responsible should be held to account.

The sheer shock and dismay (sometimes furious in nature) of Giants legends and former team-mates like Victor Cruz, Justin Tuck, David Carr, Osi Umenyiora, Shaun O’Hara, many more, and even players who never played with him like Carl Banks show what a class act Eli was for the Giants, and how respected he is and always will be. This feels like a big blow for the whole organisation, one that might have a long-lasting legacy, and a black mark on a team and ownership which is usually held up as a classy outfit. That John Mara allowed this to happen and agreed to it when he wasn’t even present to talk to the parties involved makes it all the worse.

Up until today, I presumed, with good reason, that Manning would be a ‘one man, one club’ guy and retire a Giant. He still may, but it has never seemed more possible than now that we could see him in new colours, perhaps those of Jacksonville, reuniting with Tom Coughlin. If Eli does move on, as long as he doesn’t play for a rival team (I suppose Washington would be the only possibility there, and that seems unlikely), I will pull for him. Given an offensive line, he still has a lot to offer, and I would like him to show it, not as revenge against the Giants, per se, but to show those responsible for this debacle, and also because I certainly wouldn’t grudge him one more success.

To end this on a more positive note, I come to the question that has followed Eli for years: the Hall of Fame. Now I know his career isn’t necessarily over yet, and people have different definitions of what a Hall of Famer is, or should be, but I think I can put this frankly, and briefly. To me, the Hall of Fame should be based on a mixture of the success and significance of the player in question. A Hof-er shouldn’t need a Superbowl ring, but if they don’t have one, they had better have been spectacular otherwise to get in. For me, I’ve already stated that Eli was never the greatest quarterback, but he is a two-time Superbowl winner and MVP, both times defeating that Patriots, who have never been otherwise beaten in the Superbowl with Brady and Belichick, and who were otherwise undefeated in one of those seasons. Not only is he a two-time Superbowl winning quarterback, but he defeated significant opponents both times. He is in the top 10 of all time for passing yards and touchdowns, he was a true ‘ironman’ playing 210 consecutive games, a Walter Payton ‘Man of the Year’ winner, and was one of the most recognisable figures in the game. If you don’t think that is Hall of Fame worthy, I don’t know what to tell you. See you in Canton, Eli.

A final, more personal note, as this blog might make obvious, the role of sport in everyday life fascinates me, and even nourishes me, and I’m suddenly faced with some questions I didn’t expect. The NFL and the Giants are happily acquired tastes for me in a way that football isn’t; football is something I was practically born with. Because of that, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation where one single person has been so closely linked with my enjoyment of a sport. Eli was always the central figure in my NFL fandom. The respect and love for Eli that I have will always be there, but given the nature of this event, and the lack of a figure to fill the Eli void, I can’t help but wonder how it might affect the nature of my following of the Giants. I suppose i’m about to find out.

My Disappointment With the Rebirth of Rangers, and Losing Love for My Football Team

231016_betfred_semi_final_fans_rangers_display_02

Around 18 months ago, I wrote an article here about the St. Louis Rams move to Los Angeles, and perhaps surprisingly, one of the most salient points from it was how some of the magic of football comes from everyone being born in proximity to a team; and in fact, that everyone almost spiritually finds a team as something of a birth rite. In my case, Glasgow Rangers were the team I was born to. That will never change and Rangers will always be “my team”, almost in the way that you can’t remove a birthmark, but I am facing a bit of a crossroads in my fandom that is making me fall out of love with the team, and that I can’t ignore any more. There is a problem with Rangers and it’s culture, and it’s time it get’s challenged more by a progressive fanbase willing to push for a more progressive rebirth of the club.

Being a Rangers fan has been a bit of a blessed experience, certainly at least, in my life time. At it’s height, Rangers have been a significant European power featuring iconic greats like McCoist, Gattuso, Laudrup, Kanchelskis, van Bronckhorst, Gascoigne, De Boer, and so on, won 9 league titles in a row, made it to a Uefa Cup Final, and is one half of what I still feel is the greatest derby match in the world. I would often wonder what the experience of fans of a truly middling club, in the middle of Division 1 or 2 in England was in comparison. It wasn’t all rosy, like with Le Guen’s time, but they were always a power, and felt like a power. As a younger man, less politically engaged, and addicted to that feeling of blissful success, I never really questioned much about the iconography surrounding Rangers. Frankly, I never really paid much attention to it. As the years have gone on, and I’ve talked football with fans of both Rangers and other teams, and when talking about Rangers I’ve defended my team’s culture with some justified refrains:

“What you see is just skin deep.”
“Both Rangers and Celtic have insincere fanbases.”
“There’s bad on both sides.”
“Of course not all Rangers fans are like that – i’m not.”

That last point is both crucial and obvious. People characterise both Rangers and Celtic fans in fairly one-dimensional ways, and it isn’t always justified. In many ways, I am the opposite of a typical Rangers fan: socialist, independence-supporting, anti-monarchy. You can find better, extensive descriptions of how we got here elsewhere, but my view of the “Old Firm” is that each fan-base reacts primarily to each other, and the political/cultural stands that are taken are largely (though not exclusively) paper thin. It’s common sense that there’s nothing drastically different between the actual fans of each teams where they are, to a person, so vastly politically separated; there are progressive Rangers fans, there are xenophobic Celtic fans, and so on and so on. I think Celtic fans (in terms of the common outward symbolism they often share, at least) have a mix of insincere, and even nonsensical allegiances, as well as some positive aspects which are hard to criticise (as much as I hate Celtic as rivals). However, this is the thought process that leaves Rangers off the hook. Both fanbases share divisive nonsense, but I think the culture of Rangers is worse, and one that is not dissuaded enough by the Club as an institution. I have a healthy sporting hatred for Celtic the football team, but they aren’t my team – Rangers are, and as a fan, I need to hold them to account.

The turning of my stomach regarding the culture of my team, Rangers FC, has intensified specifically in the last couple of months. The Orange march is something I’ve always – again – largely ignored, and i’ve probably given it too easy a pass, seeing it as something more silly than problematic. It’s not my thing, but let them march, I guess. To be fair, I’ve seen the positives of it. I used to work in youth work in Sighthill and with one boy in particular who didn’t really have much in his life. He was unspectacular but dying for attention, and as a young lad, got to feel like he was part of something to be proud of when marching. That is undoubtedly positive, but unfortunately, it is tied to a kind of generational violence like most intolerance is. He would sing songs that he heard from his dad and his friends, some of which were fine, but some of which were really not ok, sprinkled with words like ‘Fenian’ and the rest. I would talk to him about the songs, but overcoming that sort of part of a young kid’s life is difficult. In the Ibrox stands, you will sometimes hear these songs (though again, by what is noticeably a minority), and that is something it is nigh-on impossible to control, though they have tried to publicly. That doesn’t change the fact though that there is a definite cross-pollination of that toxicity from the march to the stands. This year, some footage came out and was widely-shared locally of the march as it went down the Broomielaw showing drunken louts, many of whom in Rangers shirts, singing “the Famine is over, why don’t you go home?” – a sentiment aimed at the largely Celtic-alligned Glaswegians of (albeit, often insubstantial) Irish descent to the tune of the absurdly-dressed marchers drumbeat.

raa

Rangers’ choice of orange in previous kits was significant and deliberate. Credit: FootyVintage.com

As bad as that is, in the past I have given Rangers FC a pass with the somewhat logical position that while the Orange marchers are overwhelmingly Rangers fans, that isn’t something Rangers as a club have real control over. But the reality is that they do, and far from trying to discourage it, if anything, they tacitly support it through their iconography. The red, white, and blue of the home shirt is fine. It’s mainly blue and white and never, in itself, reminds me of the Union flag that is so symbolic of the politics of the loony Orangemen. Even then, there’s nothing inherently wrong with support for the Union, even if I disagree with it. When it comes to sectarianism though, choosing orange as a kit colour is significant, and though the home shirt has never featured it, I have personally owned orange coloured Rangers shirts (namely the 2002 away kit and an orange goalkeeper shirt from around the same time) and orange is a colour that has consistently featured in Rangers away and goalie kits. That is a conscious choice by the club, and one only made to play to the ugly part of the fanbase. Making an orange shirt gives orangemen an excuse to express their societal views through the prism of the team while providing plausible deniability for both fans and team. Admittedly, I think that 2002 kit was the last orange outing, but it’s impact remains. One of the catalysts for writing this was seeing a man wearing this kit recently on the street. You still see it occasionally, and hints that certain fans held on to that shirt due to it’s political significance.

Rangers as an institution don’t avoid orange altogether though. Like all big organisations, they have a carefully curated social media presence, and while most of it is innocuous, bits of Orange Order/Ulster iconography continues to sneak in. Below is an image I saw last week which made my heart sink for several reasons.

DEijktVXYAAuGyk

Almost parody: begging for royal dominion and complimentary aggressive, divisive images, and all from official Rangers twitter. Credit: Rangers FC

Among the litany of things in this image is the orange-coloured Ulster flag being held by a fan. While the picture I think aims to show the busy, lively atmosphere of a Rangers game (which it absolutely is), I know from my time there that it would be super easy to get a picture without an orange flag in it, and in fact, it’s probably hard to find a flag like that. I won’t go so far as to say without evidence that it was a conscious choice on the Rangers social media team’s part, but it is certainly a reckless from them given what it tacitly waves on through as acceptable and even laudable from fans. This is the public image of Rangers, and there;s an orange flag in it.

More undoubtedly clear through the club’s outward image is the utilisation of the word ‘loyal’. Now of course, loyalty is great, and other teams talk about it too. Unfortunately, when paired with the Ulster/Union flags and iconography, it takes on a more sinister tone and is easily conflated with ‘loyalism’ – the more militant, fundamentalist clique of Unionists. Again, at best, this is careless, but I fear in this case especially that there is a degree of consciousness of what they are doing, playing up to this divisive part of the fanbase. What is worse is the picture below of t-shirts was one I got from the Rangers Youth Development Co., instilling that message in to young fans from the start.

DEsnUsOWAAA1zog

Credit: Rangers FC

DD5rHhHXgAE8Hok

A lot of ‘loyalty’, again published by Rangers social media. Credit: Rangers FC

Rangers (alongside Celtic) do work in the community to publicly combat sectarianism, but with all of this use of iconography, I think the club are, at best, unconsciously undermining their efforts, or at worst, deliberately cultivating that part of the some of the fanbase’s identity. Right now, it feels like this sort of imagery will remain part of the Rangers furniture.

The final straw before writing this article was an altogether sadder experience. I work in the east end of Glasgow, and on the bus home with colleagues, we traveled past the Dennistoun location of the Louden Tavern. Said colleagues aren’t big football fans and asked why there were so many people there; and when I mentioned that Celtic were playing Linfield, I of course had to explain why Rangers fans were turning out in such numbers for a different team. For the uninitiated, Linfield are a team from Belfast (the spiritual home of sectarianism) with a traditionally Unionist/Protestant following, and therefore have something of a spiritual bond with Rangers. So when Linfield lined up against Celtic, Rangers fans publicly supported them. On the surface this is fine, but to outsiders, this ridiculous layered proxy war between Rangers and Celtic is just a bizarre turn off. As I was explaining it, it just struck me how pathetic it all was. Jumping at any chance to oppose Celtic, especially when it’s a vessel for a political identity which I think is fairly hollow anyway just made me feel pathetic as a Rangers fan.

In some ways, all of these things seem small, but together, it has created and continues to allow a culture among some of the fanbase that undermines the best of the club overall. I remain convinced that the worst of the fans, when it comes to xenophobia, sectarianism, etc, are a minority, but as in most arenas, the minority have a voice louder than their size, and it has started to dampen my love for the team. No one likes us, and i’ve started to care. Last year, Rangers scored a historic victory over Celtic in the league cup. Their first Old Firm victory in years, and a sign, it seemed, that Rangers were back to relevance. That hasn’t really materialised yet, but at that moment, jumping up and down hugging strangers after a dramatic meaningful victory was (and will always be) a powerful memory for me. That elation though has been ripped away by the consistent visions of the dark side of the Rangers culture, and now, finally, the shite surrounding the club has started to overcome that pure love.

When Rangers were demoted to the bottom tier of Scottish football in 2012, it was certainly a justifiable punishment for the club at the administrative level, though it was a tragedy for fans, and I think self-evidently, for Scottish football. The only winners, in the short-term, are Celtic, but while they have dominated Scottish football in the mean time, what real historical significance is there in beating a group of nobodies? Rangers, Celtic, and Scottish football are stronger in an even rivalry, and while they are enjoying the trophies, I think the fans of Celtic have felt a similar way, begrudgingly missing their nemesis. Through this destabilising period though, which was so difficult for Rangers fans, there was, for me, something romantic therein. Many players understandably left, but the likes of Lee McCulloch stayed, Rangers started to base itself on young players, and hungry players drawn to the opportunity to play for the Famous Glasgow Rangers. The quest back to the top was on, and Rangers were suddenly on a journey it was easy to get behind while bringing the aura of such a big club to tiny grounds around Scotland. Though the notion that the Rangers of 2012-onwards is a new club in any real way is a nonsense narrative peddled by gloating rival fans, the journey did feel like something of a rebirth. This was full of potential, but increasingly, Rangers have fallen back in to their old ways.

Annan+Athletic+FC+v+Rangers+IRN+BRU+Scottish+KDQI8zv5wKAl

The world famous Glasgow Rangers playing in the Third Division in front of small crowds on their way back to the top. Credit: Zimbio

So what do I want? I want to reclaim this feeling of a rebirth, keep the history of the club, but show less tolerance for the bullshit sectarian iconography, active or passive. While i’m happy that the likes of Bruno Alves and Niko Kranjčar want to come to the club, and there is limited room for such talented veterans, I would love to see the club return to that 2012-2016 spirit where young Scottish players were the backbone of the squad, led by a club legend like Ally McCoist (as Rangers were for a number of years). Rangers have the facilities and money to pursue this, and even if it extends the length of time for Rangers to truly challenge Celtic, I think that would make for a more admirable club and playing mentality. Thinking of the rise of Swansea which was based on hungry, talented, home-grown players based around an exciting style, this is something I would like to see approximated by Rangers.

But more than that, I think this rebirth could be used as a whole opportunity to build a wider club mentality that really allows fans and even outsiders to “Follow With Pride.” Don’t get me wrong at all, Rangers and the Rangers Charity Foundation do a lot of good charitable work, they could certainly push the boat out more and make that something of their identity. In terms of the Glasgow fishbowl, Rangers don’t do any less than Celtic in terms of charitable work, but Celtic – for whatever reason – are better known for it, perhaps even just publicising it more, and this is something I would like to see Rangers focus on: more charitable work and more promotion of it. When I talk of promotion, I don’t mean just for good PR, but working for a charity in the east end, I see how much Celtic publicise what they do, and how it encourages others to get involved. That is key. The club should be a bastion for the community, and I want to see Rangers doing as much as possible, and lead by example. The fans and community stuck with the team through their plight for the most part, now it’s time for the team to do all it can for the community.

That is fairly vague, but I have a specific desire for Rangers that would address some of it’s aesthetic concerns as well as a specific need on it’s doorstep. Ibrox stadium is in Govan, and Govan is where the majority of asylum seekers who find themselves in Glasgow are based initially. As a result, a collection of new communities and fantastic projects such as the Govan Community Project and Unity have sprung up in the area to address this reality. Football is a powerful medium to swing public opinion more positively, and indeed a number of football teams and projects have done a great job of popularising a welcoming atmosphere for refugees which other professional teams (especially in Germany) have also adopted. Rangers and Ibrox will be an ornamental fixture of life for asylum seekers in Glasgow, at least until they are dispersed throughout the city, and I would love my club, in that context, to make an extra effort to welcome them. There are countless ways you can do this, and it’s not just financial. Fundraising events at Ibrox with club legends, donations of boots to football programmes, celebrating different cultures on match days, and so on and so on.

Rangers have long been associated with the Union flag, and that’s fair enough – I wouldn’t insist on that being wiped away or anything, but as well as the Union flag and the Saltire flying above Ibrox, I would like to see the flags of troubled countries to, in solidarity. Rangers will always be red, white and blue, but rather than that being divisive and unwelcoming, I want the club to be a pillar of the whole community.

FINAL, KEY NOTE
While having this crisis of love for my team, I have been wondering how to progress. Should I try to build up shares and try to influence the team in whatever small way I can in that way? Or do I even have the energy?

Though I have plenty of progressive pals who are Rangers fans, I want to tap in to this even more, so in the event that you happen to read this and agree, I would like to hear from you. If there’s a taste for it, I think there’s a gaping need for a progressive Rangers fan group who could try and influence the club a bit. If that’s you, comment below or feel free to tweet me @RTVWOW.

Also, I have now started what I would initially call, a ‘Fan Group’ on Facebook. More information can be found there, but in a nutshell, riffing off the idea of ‘Follow With Pride’, I had the idea of a fan group called ‘Together With Pride’ which would essentially pressure the club to follow the ideas in this article and more. Let’s see how it goes. The link is here.

Interpreting the Electorate: What the Public Expresses With Their Vote

_96379361_generalelection

credit: BBC

The 2017 UK General Election has provided just the latest in a string of surprising election results in the name of a form of anti-establishment populism. A common refrain this time was ‘the winners look like losers and the losers look like winners’ with runner-up party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, even claiming a form of victory. The election was indeed a huge success for Labour who performed far better than most predicted and not only scuppered the Conservative goal of increasing their Parliamentary majority, not only reducing that majority, but in fact, costing the government their majority and causing a hung Parliament. In the age of 24-hour news and social media, talking heads and hot takes flood the post-election space with reaction and analysis, and following this election, many narratives became common here. Most common was that the loss of SNP seats in Scotland reflected a weariness from the Scottish electorate regarding the prospect of the ‘IndyRef2’ referendum on Scottish Independence that the SNP had been planning; while another one I saw repeated was that the UK voters have rejected both Prime Minister Theresa May and Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn by providing neither with a majority; and another being that the failure of May was a clear rejection of her ‘Hard Brexit’ project. These are conclusions that certainly can be drawn circumstantially – of course the election is a measure of the voting population’s acceptance of each party’s manifesto and political beliefs, but can we really draw any specific conclusions about a voter’s opinion or the electorate’s overall desires result based on their vote? Thinking of the examples above, I will argue that you probably can’t, and further what the ideal voting system would be once that is considered.

Looking at these examples, how secure are the conclusions that were drawn from the final vote? The most common one, that the loss of seats for the SNP showed that the population had no appetite for IndyRef2 was one that even SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon stating that the prospect of the vote was a factor in the results. There’s no question that it was a key issue in the 2017 election, being at the forefront of the Ruth Davidson’s Conservative campaign and indeed a common part of every Unionist party’s campaigns, and when considering only that, you can conclude that the voters were calming their interest in independence. It would, in fact, be a nonsense to suggest that indyref played no part in the election as many Scots are dead against it while others who aren’t will indeed be against another vote so soon after the last one.

That wasn’t the only issue in play during this election though. In terms of policy, Labour – until recently a lame duck in Scotland – found a resurgence in the generally more left-wing Scotland with their largely progressive, anti-austerity manifesto, eating in to the SNP’s vote by echoing their values. Practically too, it is now clear that Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats colluded to damage the SNP vote share. It has been reported that while each party fielded candidates in every constituency, they in some cases fielded “paper candidates” that wouldn’t actively compete in target SNP constituencies and in so doing, would consolidate the Unionist vote. This was a key factor in the SNP losing seats in areas such as Moray and Edinburgh. Finally, the context of the 2015 election result must be considered. The SNP won an absolutely unprecedented 56 out of 59 seats in that election, and it was only to be realistically expected that they would lose some seats this time. Bearing in mind the anti-austerity surge of Labour likely resonating in Scotland, the coordinated tactical attack on SNP seats by Unionist parties, and the fact that the SNP were likely to lose some seats anyway, an interpretation of the Scottish results becomes more complicated. With that in mind, I won’t argue that despite the vote, there is still an equal appetite for independence, but I will argue that it can’t be concluded that the Scottish people are no longer interested in independence. The results of the next UK election and especially the next Scottish election will be the most telling indicators of the future of Scottish independence.

_95768039_4215315a-e08c-45fa-b317-8ef42e93e323

What people think of Brexit and feel about it is the defining political mystery of the decade. credit: BBC

Of Brexit, given that the Conservatives represented a vote for a ‘Hard Brexit’, it can understandably be concluded that their lack of majority reflects a lack of majority confidence in their approach to Brexit and a desire for a ‘softer Brexit’. Many people certainly seem spooked by a Hard Brexit, but it’s important to reiterate that there were many issues at play during the election with austerity, social care, and national security being equally potent and visible in the build up to the vote. This vote wasn’t a referendum on Brexit and though it may seem apparent that Brexit is less popular now, the only referendum we had on Brexit came last year and was (narrowly) won by the Brexiteers. As is the case though in Scotland as well, while a conclusion on the issue can’t be definitely reached, it is certain that there will be a practical result of the conclusions drawn; in the case of Scotland, the prospect of independence has been damaged, and with Brexit, thankfully, it seems possible that the government’s approach to Brexit may be ‘softer’, perhaps including negotiation to remain in the European single market.

What of the notion that the hung Parliament means that British electorate rejected both May and Corbyn? As an amorphous group, the electorate certainly didn’t favour either party, but that doesn’t amount to a rejection of both leaders. Starting to think more specifically about what a vote denotes, an individual voter can’t really predict how the UK-wide electorate will vote and in no way can vote for one or the other as part of a rejection of both; there was no option on the ballot paper stating ‘Neither May or Corbyn’, and in fact, the only votes that can in any way be seen as against May and Corbyn as Prime Minister are the ones that weren’t for Labour and Conservative, amounting to a significant minority of votes. 82.4% of votes were for either the Conservatives or Labour, and when those people cast those votes, they accepted that who they were voting for could end up governing, and as a consequence, the votes can only be seen as – at the very least – a vote supporting a preference for either leader. Far from both leaders being rejected, the support for each leader was significant, just not to the extent where one had much more support than the other.

I’ve argued so far what a vote doesn’t represent, and it seems extensive given the complications involved in elections, but there are certain things we can infer, though it requires an almost puritanical logic based on how voters interact with a ballot paper which itself represents something very specific.

_73434525_postalvote_bbc

What British voters see when they vote, credit: BBC

So what is the least we can honestly interpret from someone voting for a candidate representing a party in a local constituency? The answer to that depends on what the ramifications of that vote is, and so, what voters know their vote could result in. In many ways, it’s very simple. I think it’s very clear that voters understand their vote for a candidate is also a vote for a political party, and that if that candidate wins their constituency, it is a vote that boosts their party’s chances of becoming the government. That doesn’t mean that voters are always voting for someone they actively want to govern, though they often do, but it does at least mean that the voter understands that the party their vote supports could get in to power, and so – at least – that they accept that result. In other words, it is inarguable that when someone votes for a certain candidate representing a certain party, they accept that party as their governmental preference.

There are certain complications to this – there are many parties and especially independent individuals who could never form a government on their own, parties who don’t stand in at least 256 constituencies. In this case, using a similar logic as before which assumes nothing beyond what the voter understands of the consequences of their vote, when a voter votes for a smaller party or individual, they understand that the person or party they support could wield some form of power either in coalition government or in opposition.

This all sounds well and good, but the power this theoretical voter has is somewhat undermined by the current First Past the Post voting system. While it means that each constituency is represented by its voting majority at Westminster, it means that smaller parties who are well-supported, but not enough to come first in many seats can be under-represented at Parliament when compared to the overall vote they attract. This is perhaps most obviously the case with the Green Party, who attracted over half a million votes nation-wide (or around 1.6% of the popular vote). Parliament holds 650 seats, 1.6% of which would amount to – roughly – 10 seats. Instead, they only have one seat at Parliament and a tenth of the power they should wield based on the votes they attracted. Other parties are similarly under-represented at Parliament based on the votes they attracted in this election. The SNP slightly complicate matters by only standing for seats in Scotland, as other parties like Plaid Cymru in Wales do. The SNP especially own more seats than their vote share would usually gain in Parliament as they concentrate their votes in target constituencies (i.e. every Scottish constituency), but this is a quirk of UK elections that can neither be condemned or changed.

no_to_av_poster

Voting reform is an important issue, but the right system is crucial. Credit: The Conservative Party

Generally speaking though, when it comes to UK elections, the voting system needs to be reformed so that the MPs at Westminster and the parties they represent are as representative of the voting share of the electorate. Going back to the voting booth and the philosophy of voting, when enough people choose to accept or actively support a certain party being in power, and that desire isn’t represented in Parliament, there is something wrong with the system. Many people and politicians already support voting reform, but there are many voting systems being advocated for, so which system best reflects the role and will of the voter as well as best representing that electorate as a whole?

One of the most commonly suggested voting systems for reform is Single Transferable Vote (STV). This is already used in familiar territory – in Scotland for council elections, Northern Ireland for various elections, and elsewhere across the world. In this system, a voter is asked to rank candidates with their first preference receiving a ‘1’, their next favourite a ‘2’, and so on and so on, though there is no obligation to rank any more than one candidate. In some ways, this sounds positive – the ability to but lack of obligation to rank candidates gives voters a lot of leeway to express themselves. Problems come though when you move to the counting and seat dispersal stages of an STV election. For its faults, with First Past the Post, the electorate self-evidently understand how their votes become seats, but I would like to hazard an educated guess that this isn’t the same with STV for most. I’m not claiming any specific intellect, but I am currently interested in politics enough to write an article about voting, and I struggle with understanding it. This is how it works:

-The election starts by counting every voter’s first choice, with a candidate who reaches or exceeds the number of votes required for a seat is elected.

– If any such elected candidate has more votes than the quota, the excess votes are transferred to other candidates. Votes that would have gone to the winner go to the next preference.

– If no-one new meets the quota required to win a seat, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and those votes are transferred to each voter’s next preferred candidate.

This process repeats until either a winner is found for every seat or there are as many seats as remaining candidates.

It’s not impossible to understand, but it requires the effort to research it or have it explained to you, and it’s arguable that huge swathes of the electorate are disengaged enough to not do so, and so I think it’s safe to conclude that a large number of the electorate, when using this system, wouldn’t fully understand how their vote works. Understanding that process is important, but a bigger problem comes, I think, with the fundamental characteristic of ranking candidates.

When discussing the logical baseline of what a vote represents, I concluded that it represents support for a party or candidate who the voter at least accepts being in power. For some, they will support who they vote for very strongly, while in other cases, they just may see them as ‘the best of a bad bunch’. In ranked voting, you can assume the same for a person’s first preference, but what can you assume about a second, third, or fourth preference? You can probably still assume that a lower preference vote for a party or candidate represents accepting the idea of them ending up in power, after all, they still showed them some support, but how strong is that support? When someone votes once, or as a first preference, it’s clear preference for a favoured party or candidate, but as layers of preference get added to that, the situation gets muddied. As an example, in this past election, I voted SNP, but hypothetically, in an STV election, I could, and possibly would have voted SNP as 1, Labour as 2, and Green as 3. Parties with anti-austerity manifestos who – crucially – weren’t Conservatives would have received more votes and be in a stronger position, and I would feel glad that I could vote for all of the parties in some form as I like them all. Imagine next, a different person who casts the exact same vote, possibly as an anti-Tory vote too but who voted for the lower preferences mainly because they damaged the Tories and simply ‘didn’t mind them’. This is a very realistic hypothetical, and one which gives me pause as it’s clear the strength of conviction, especially with the more preferences selected, will differ between voters yet carry the same weight for each of them. One person’s fourth preference could be selected with more conviction than another’s third or second preference. Of course, even when people only cast one preference, the enthusiasm in doing so can differ between voters, but there is always that baseline assumption there that whether you’re wild about them or simply accepting of them being elected, you have chosen them above all to lead, and there is far less variance of meaning in a vote. In fact, in some ways, there’s as much power in who you don’t vote for as in who you select as a lower preference.

It must be remembered that though a lesser preference vote is undoubtedly a show of support, it is essentially a contingency for if the person’s preferred party of candidate isn’t elected, and while I understand the allure of that for the voter, it conversely makes voting a less active and arguably more negative prospect; as opposed to simply picking the single party or candidate you think is best suited to lead your country, you end up voting for a block of candidates you  would object to the least.

There are several voting systems reformers are interested in, including AV which was voted on in recent years in the UK, or MMP, which is used in Scotland and Wales for elections to their devolved governments, but the system I think is the ‘most perfect’ is a Closed Party List system. There are variants of this system used in various elections across the world, but the system I would propose would retain the single vote, and a fairly simple to understand connection between vote and elected officials. In this system, the UK would be split in to larger regional constituencies consisting of major cities and counties towards which everyone in that area would vote once for a party or independent candidate. The votes cast for each constituency would be divided by the number of seats available in that constituency, that amount constituting a quote required to earn a seat. That sounds more complicated than it is, so to illustrate, I will use the 2017 results from Glasgow.

DB54KuGXoAEW0zj

The SNP won 6 out of 7 Glasgow seats, but did this represent their level of support? Credit: The SNP

In reality, this is what happened:
256, 179 votes were cast to elect 7 MP’s which ended up being 6 SNP MP’s and 1 Labour MP. In several cases, seats were won with very small majorities and so the SNP won 6 out of 7 seats despite only receiving 7, 748 more than Labour and just over 41% of the vote.

In the proposed Closed Party List system though, this is what would happen:
The 256, 179 votes would be divided by the 7 seats to determine a quota amount to win a seat (36, 597). Starting with the largest party, the SNP, their vote total of 105, 318 would be divided by the quote amount to work out how many seats they won (2.87, rounded up to 3).
The same process would be repeated for the second, third, fourth party etc until the constituency runs out of seats to be awarded. In Glasgow, the final allocations would be this:

SNP (with 41.2% of the vote) with 3 seats
Labour (with 38% of the vote) with 3 seats
Conservatives (with 16.4% of the vote) with 1 seat

That would harm the cause of the party I supported, so it is with disappointment that I admit that this seems a much fairer allocation of votes based on the proportion of votes cast.

Each party would pre-prepare and publish a list of candidates and once the results are in, the lists would be used to take the allocated seats (SNP’s first 3 candidates on the list get a seat, the same with Labour, while the candidate at the top of the Tory list gets a seat). This is the only real weakness of this system as it takes away the active connection between voter and representative. I don’t see it as a fatal flaw though as, in reality, I think it is fair to state that most people already vote party first, regardless of the candidate. An SNP voter will vote for whoever the SNP candidate is, the same with Labour, and so on. A compensatory bonus to this, though is that, with the bigger constituencies, voters would now have multiple representatives than the single one their current constituencies have. Perhaps you prefer the Tories to the SNP, you can approach them for a query rather than one of the SNP representatives if they wish.

Under this system, regional representation would be retained (rather than simply taking a proportion of UK votes as a whole to calculate seats), but the overall feeling of the electorate would be more proportionally represented in terms of seats for their region. While that may skew the nationwide allocation of seats to a small degree, it would lead, I think, to the best possible representation of the will of the electorate. When you vote, you would be selecting the party you most accept to form a government, and the overall desires of the electorate is translated proportionally in to seats of power for the parties that earn it.

WrestleMania 33: Looking Up at the Lights, and Going Out on Your Back

Taker last ride

The Undertaker salutes the end of the greatest career pro wrestling will probably ever see. Credit: WWE

As someone who attaches emotion and meaning to everything I enjoy, WrestleMania is a very intense week for me, from the floods of tears during the Hall of Fame, to the Christmas-like anticipation for the event, to the awe I have watching it that will never go away. WrestleMania’s come and go, and whether they are good or bad, they are always significant – the platitudes about it being the ‘showcase of the immortals’ and ‘WrestleMania moments’ are, incredibly, not really exaggerated. I enjoyed WrestleMania 33 which I found to be consistently enjoyable, even if it lacked a real show-stealer match. The moment I can’t shift from my head (the reason we’re here) came at the very end, when Undertaker, after struggling to his feet following a loss to Roman Reigns, started to leave his gear in the ring. If there’s one thing Taker has always excelled at, it’s exuding meaning and emotion (despite often being near emotionless outwardly), and after he removes his hat for the final time, he takes this huge breath, a sigh not quite of relief, but of rest. The ride is finally over, and he can rest. I immediately burst in to tears.

I am going to write the qualifier I have seen several people write. The Undertaker wasn’t ‘my guy’, and yet there is something about him that seems to engender total respect and reverence. He’s not the best talker, but he is the best character; he’s not the best wrestler, but he does have some of the best matches ever. He understands wrestling and performance better than anyone, and takes it seriously, and everyone respects him for it. He might not be your favourite, but whenever you hear a gong, or see him toe to toe with someone, you know, almost by definition, that something significant is happening. He’s the best of pro-wrestling, and represents 20+ years of some of the most vivid, memorable years of it.

Perhaps that is why he is loved so. He has been a legitimising backbone of this crazy travelling roadshow we love and has dedicated himself to it longer, frankly, than his body would allow. He helped build WrestleMania and created many of it’s most special moments. His passing of the torch and leaving the ring no longer a warrior may well be a crucial moment in wrestling’s future, and it was sure one of the most moving in wrestling’s history.

Taker coat

Undertaker, leaving his iconic hat and coat in the ring, symbolising the end of his storied career. Credit: WWE

Though I am more than happy to wax eulogistic about Undertaker’s career though, that beautiful end is only around half of the reason i’m writing this. Undertaker was the main reason I decided it was ‘now or never’ for attending WrestleMania 30 – I decided that I had to see him on his greatest stage before I lost the chance, I had to see that entrance. And I did. For that event though, I chose to wear a Bray Wyatt shirt. Bray has been a real darling of mine ever since I started watching him on NXT, and there are certainly similarities to Undertaker in him, mainly in his dedication to a character which bends the rules other characters play by, occasionally traipsing in to the supernatural. Wyatt, in fact, is a far better talker than Taker ever was, and with his commitment to every part of his character, I had never been so excited about the future of a wrestler and my related enjoyment of them.

The difference between him and Taker is, and remains, that it’s never really gone anywhere. At WrestleMania, I had the honour of seeing ‘The Streak’ broken, and the joy of seeing ‘Yes-tleMania’, but under that, I had the disappointment of seeing Wyatt fall to Cena when a victory could have really set him along the course of a phenom himself. The next year, Wyatt lost to Undertaker fairly handily to help Taker recover from the loss of the Streak, and then last year, Wyatt made the best of being booked alongside The Rock, but would never be able to overcome Rocky being important and easily murking him and his family. Wyatt has never won at WrestleMania, or really won a significant match on a big stage. His strength of character and performance though has seen him recover of late to the point where John Cena insisted on putting him over clean for the WWE Championship. A significant achievement for sure, but it lacks the historical significance that the real top guys have propping them up. The significance, say, of defeating The Undertaker in his final match.

Wyatt Rock

The Rock, delivering the People’s Elbow to Bray Wyatt at WrestleMania 32 after quickly dispatching the rest of the ‘Family’. Credit: WWE

Writing this isn’t intended to throw shade at anyone other than the decision makers who booked Wyatt to lose this year, not even Orton, who probably could have spoken up to lose as Cena had earlier.

Part of the respect that the Undertaker commands without demanding it, is that he will always do what’s best for the business, and rule #1 in that regard is that, when you go out, you ‘go out on your back’, giving someone else the chance to profit from it, and by extension, the business. Roman Reigns has become something almost other to wrestling. For his part, Reigns has grown quietly but enormously as a performer, especially in recent months, and he was a big part of making Taker’s final match powerful and entertaining. He clearly hasn’t been handled quite right though, to the point where, regardless of his performances, he will be booed. Fans treat him like the most boring or lazy denominator almost regardless of what he does. Usually, the honour of ‘retiring’ The Undertaker would be the biggest lay-up of all time to stardom for a persons career, but whether that happens for Roman, remains to be seen. The hope is that either he will somehow inherit Taker’s inherent respect value (after all, this was a metaphorical transferring of ‘the yard’ to Reigns), or he can build a white hot heel run from his actions.

With Wyatt though, there is a feeling of complacency on management’s part in a way that may be due to his success at portraying the character. Losing in itself has never really seemed to damage Wyatt – he can always ‘turn it on’ and be mesmerising. But after years of constant losing on big stages, it’s hard not to see diminishing returns from him, regardless of his exceptional efforts. He recovered miraculously from it when he was reduced to comic jobber to The Rock, but this slip up when he had returned to his most powerful may be even more damaging.

Everything about his match at WrestleMania 33 seemed geared to be his moment, to showcase him in a way that suited only him. The most memorable part of the match was the recurring projections of imagery of death, disease, and pestilence on to the ring. Regardless of what people say in retrospect, coloured as it is by the match result, at the time, fans were losing their minds over this, including me. It was different, and though simple, was shocking due to both the fact it had never been done before, and the nature of the imagery. Initially, Orton and everyone else involved sold these projections. That is until Orton hit a trademark unexpected RKO for the win to become a 13 time champion. Wyatt falls short again.

Wyatt cockroaches

Though later mocked by some, the various visuals of decay projected by Wyatt on to Orton and the ring were shocking, and unlike anything ever seen before in WWE history. Credit: WWE

Again, with no disrespect to Randy Orton, why does he need a 13th championship here, at a time when Wyatt could have taken a big step towards lasting significance? The disgusting projections even provided him with a ‘get out’ for the loss. What do we get from this? Orton doesn’t need a win basically ever these days and can have whatever feud management want down the line. It has been suggested to me that this was the natural ending of the story – a point I understand, but it is also important to realise that sometimes (not often) the bad guy wins, and it could have lit a fire under Orton too. Meanwhile, Wyatt seems almost goofy for trying his antics in a loss. Even if he wins his rematch, it’s on a much smaller stage. If Wyatt wins this match as it was produced, he gets a big showcase win, a championship retention, and a memorable WrestleMania moment; what happened instead was people viewed him as a loser and started mocking the projections too. Once again, he was forgotten, looking up at the brightest lights there are, with management neglecting the gift he is. What happens to him in the weeks following this year’s WrestleMania and at next year’s Mania will be very telling about how damaging this was. I hope i’m wrong.

Most losses aren’t significant gestures to the future as Undertaker’s was, and it is there that him putting Reigns over in his final match will hopefully benefit him. There is a chance though, that it will just further complicate Reign’s relationship with the fans and be wasted. Further, Reigns is already treated like a top guy, and clearly will be going forward. It’s just a shame that another veteran in Randy Orton couldn’t put over Bray in a similar spot, and so the difference between Undertaker and Wyatt remains – one is an outlaw that went out on his back, and the other is a pretender that has been left on his back for three WrestleMania’s in a row. I can’t help but wish the stars had aligned a little differently, and the best Bray Wyatt had faced Underataker this year. Not only would their characters have gelled well once again, but Taker’s final sacrifice would have had the definite result of making Bray Wyatt, overnight, one of the most significant superstars in the world.

Taker coat 2

After the fans were gone and the ring was being taken down, Undertaker’s hat and coat remained untouched in a startling and moving show of respect. Credit: @samirkh75387729 on Twitter

Thank you Undertaker.

 

 

 

 

Ideology and Effective Parliamentary Opposition

corbyn

The Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn across from Prime Minister Theresa May credit: ITV.com

The role of politicians with regards to their duty to voters has been muddied, in the West at least, for decades, but I think the role of the politician in the UK was thrown in to disarray, drastically, with the sweeping to power of New Labour in the late 1990’s. It’s not my intention to discuss New Labour in any real detail, but that change continues to have an impression on today’s political climate, As has been argued by Adam Curtis in mesmerising fashion, Tony Blair and New Labour saw an appetite for power to be taken away from the ideologies of politicians, and instead trusted to the target-based culture of the free market; promising to improve health and education by placing targets under the noses of teachers and doctors, and letting them achieve them by any means they could. It is this shift away from ideology that this article is concerned with, and especially with relation to the role of ‘The Opposition’ in Britain’s political chambers.

Current Prime Minister Theresa May, forced by the Supreme Court to hold a Parliamentary vote on the UK leaving the EU, recently announced an bill for Brexit that revealed a preference for a ‘clean’ and decisive withdrawal from the EU. Eschewing attempts to negotiate a place for the UK in the European single market, May announced a plan to ‘Brexit’ as quickly as possible while exploring trade deals internationally to compensate for potential losses from the withdrawal. It is in this context that the role of the opposition, led – officially – by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, has come under scrutiny. Corbyn announced that he would be instructing his Labour MP’s to support Theresa May’s bill, ostensibly because he wanted Labour to support the result of last year’s EU referendum result where the majority of those who voted, did so to leave the EU. While Labour publicly opposed Brexit, it was deemed that the democratic will of the voters should be respected. In isolation, this is reasonable, but the move was met with lots of opposition by many people, including many of his supporters in a way which further splintered the Labour Party, and the idea of parliamentary opposition.

Labour MPs found themselves in a dilemma: most Labour MPs opposed Brexit, and felt that the traditional centre-left ideals of Labour did too; but the referendum result was not only democratic, but was supported by roughly two-thirds of Labour constituencies. They have been asked to decide on which way to vote regarding Brexit, but have different responsibilities pulling them in often conflicting directions – as representatives of a constituency, as representatives of a party, as representatives of their own ideals, and as representatives of the official opposition.

There has been a lot of criticism of Corbyn’s decision to back the government’s bill on Brexit exactly because they are the opposition to the government, because it has been seen by some as giving Theresa May something of a ‘free pass’ to Brexit – something that has been seen as him not doing his job as opposition, and negligently assisting Theresa May’s agenda. That suggests, though, that the leader of the opposition exists simply to frustrate the government, an approach which has been roundly criticised in the case of the likes of Mitch McConnell and House Republicans in the United States as selfishly frustrating the business of government for political gain. Surely ideological opposition should oppose governments based on their ideology rather than based on the idea of playing a role that doesn’t necessarily relate to their stance. This raises the central question of this piece: what is the duty of the opposition in British politics, is it effective, and does it make sense philosophically?

The Labour Party, which on the surface at least has moved back towards traditional socialist values following the less ideological period of New Labour rule, is an independent political party with it’s own manifesto for power. While this will respond to the current political climate as well as the manifesto of the governing Conservative party, Labour’s manifesto is based, ultimately, on it’s own political values, not all of which are at odds with those of the Conservatives. Where the parties differ, it is based on ideology, and it is in this climate where political ideology is seen as naïve, sometimes self-indulgent, and even sometimes, undemocratic, that a political party can be expected to act a certain way simply because they are in official opposition to government. Later the same week, Theresa May stated that she and the British government officially was explicitly opposed to waterboarding, but this is something that Labour agree with, as most do, but as the opposition, should they be criticising May’s denouncement of waterboarding? This may seem like an obvious example, but it follows that if it is not the opposition’s job to oppose the government on every issue, they can’t be expected to on any specific issue.

new-labour

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the faces of ‘New Labour’ were also the faces of a new, less ideological politics credit: The Independent

There is no doubt that having a public figure challenging the government is a valuable idea that should be preserved, but if they are expected to simply react negatively to the government, regardless of their own ideology, the role becomes, in actuality, apolitical; something along the lines of an auditor. What is lost is a sincere ideological debate, in which each party can set out their respective ideological stall and let the public decide. This is compounded by another shift magnified by New Labour – towards politicians setting out manifestos they think will get them elected, rather than ones they believe in. New Labour worked hard to move away from their traditional socialist identity and moved significantly towards the political centre to appear more moderate and therefore, more electable. This was incredibly successful, leading to over a decade of power; but who was it that was elected? New Labour were a new party in more than just name and as time progressed, the difference between them and the Conservatives became less and less tangible, embracing the free market and hawkish tendencies more than ever before. This is a shift from the public expressing themselves through voting for parties who represent the closest thing to the vanguard of the time, to parties chasing the vanguard themselves for power. The power is empty – the result of essentially campaigning for a role that has been defined by others (the media, press, lobbies, and extremists with the loudest voices). Like the role of the opposition, it is almost an apolitical, managerial role that ignores, on a daily basis, political ethics. Politicians devise policy because they think it will appeal to voters, rather than formulate what they think is best for humanity, and let the people decide on if they are right.

This is what I advocate for, though I am not confident it is an approach that will return any time soon: political parties build manifestos based on their beliefs and ethics, and the people vote for whichever set of ideals they agree most with. In comparison with Labour, who changed their ideals  for votes, this is something the Greens – to their credit – have always done; only wanting to be elected with a mandate to pursue policies they believe in, and not seeking power under any other terms. So then what of the role of the opposition? If the opposition is just the party which came second in the election, then it sets up this contradiction of roles again. Well, the answer, I believe, is to formalise the opposition as what it already is: an apolitical body which publicly challenges the sitting government on all issues; a Devil’s Advocate, you might say – and what’s more, this job shouldn’t be that of another political party, but of an independent public body. The usual, natural worries around things like corruption and politicking, especially with regards to state funded mouth-pieces, are totally countered by the nature of the role – if their only job is to challenge governmental policy, then not doing that job would be completely obvious. If their job is to raise a counterpoint to governmental policy, there is nothing to do but argue against the government. If the government advocate for tax breaks for a certain group, the opposition devise an argument for that being a bad idea; if the government want to intervene militarily abroad, the opposition argues against it. It would be a role that is essentially purely debate based and would be best suited to lawyers rather than politicians.

I think this would secure a dependable, effective opposition, rather than the responsibility essentially being inherited by the party receiving the second largest count of votes, while freeing up that party to put forward their ideological case for power without having to do so in relation to the government – a trend which I believe is responsible lack of true progressive change in Britain in the last 20 years. It won’t of course, stop parties chasing the vocal vanguard – usually more right wing, and represented by the powerful tabloid press – altogether, but I do think it would help create conditions in which parties could offer a more sincere political ideology for the general public to vote on. Of course, since Donald Trump is prancing all over the established “rules” of politics, it’s hard to say for sure what the political arena will be like after the next few years, but I think this system preserves the two elements that are crucial to a healthy democracy – effective opposition, and debates over political ideology.

Valuing Contributions: Defining the MVP Award and Who Should Win it for 2016/17

ni-mvp

The front-runners for the 2016/17 MVP award. Credit: USA Today

The NFL has made a concerted effort to be relevant throughout the year, despite being, at its very longest, a 6-month proposition competitively. This has led to some genuinely fascinating parts of the NFL calendar like the start of free agency and the draft, but has also led to the somewhat burlesque elevation of events like the combine. The NFL awards are certainly a worthwhile and interesting part of this calendar coming as it does at the crux of the post-season, the night before the Superbowl. Sometimes these awards are near foregone conclusions, but this year, there is wide debate about an unusually broad field of contenders for the MVP award. Just as the NFL is building itself a cottage industry though, so are the many analysts and TV personalities who are paid to debate the game. What has become clear – partly by the variety of contenders for the MVP award – is that the understanding of what constitutes the MVP is unclear, and possibly even undefined.

MVP, to patronise for a second, stands for ‘Most Valuable Player’, and the problem seems to stem from people’s definitions of ‘Value’ in the game. Is it simply the best player, or is it something else? The confusion is obvious when you go through the popular runners and riders, and so I will go through them, argue who I think should win the award, and consequently, what the MVP is. These can be split in to three broad groups:

The Greatest

Tom Brady

Chicago Bears v New England Patriots

Credit: cheatsheet.com

I count myself as one of the many, shall we say, Patriots-skeptic fans of the game, but to me, it is near clear that he is the greatest QB of all time (just as Bill Belichick is the greatest coach of all time). This year is no different – his skills seem evergreen coming out of one of the greatest regular seasons of his career, topped by an all-time record 28-2 TD to INT ratio. He continues to be probably the best player in the league, but his detractors (in terms of winning the MVP) point to the fact that he missed 4 games as a reason for him not to be eligible for the award, but the issue is really what happened in his absence. Having missed the first 4 games through suspension, the Patriots went 3-1 with backup Jimmy Garrapolo winning the three games he played before Jacoby Brissett started behind centre in a losing effort. Without Brady, the Patriots and his backup rolled over opponents, pointing to the fact that the success of the team wasn’t reliant on him, regardless of his talent. Had the Patriots won not won a game or won only one or maybe two games, there would be absolutely no question about the rightful winner of the MVP.

Aaron Rodgers

ni-rodgers

Credit: USA Today

As I write this, Aaron Rodgers is in red-hot form, leading a six-game winning streak for the Packers which he publicly called after Green Bay fell to 4-6 amid a collection of underwhelming performances with Rodgers himself looking limp at QB. Rodgers took the team on his back, finishing with 40 TDs and 7 INTs (none of which came during the 6-game winning streak), and a 104 passer rating. It is an incredible streak of performances which has made the Packers offense near unstoppable, and Green Bay one of the favourites to make the Superbowl. Rodgers seems to be playing on a level above everyone else at the position, making heart-breaking clutch plays after seemingly impossibly escaping pass-rushers, and the level of play during this hot streak has made Rodgers a popular candidate for MVP. As true, and as great as that is, the fact remains that through those first 10 games which necessitated the hot streak to make the post-season, Rodgers was part of a significant problem in Green Bay, and while the sheer quality of his play in the latter half of the season can’t be ignored or devalued, it is my view that the MVP must both be valuable throughout the season, but also mustn’t ever be a problem for the team as I believe Rodgers was. He lit a fire under himself and started an incredible run which may end with a Superbowl ring, but the MVP is based on the regular season, and his first 10 games of mediocre play undermines his case for the award.

Consistent Production

Dak Prescott

ni-dak-prescott

Credit: USA Today

Rookie QBs picked in the 4th round don’t do what Dak has done this year. Barely anyone does. When Tony Romo went down with another back injury, most assumed that the Cowboys faced another losing year helmed by backup, sub-standard QBs; what the Cowboys got though was an exemplary season with a historic offense which had Dak as it’s central figure. Dak was no mere figurehead though – gaining incredible chemistry with the likes of Cole Beasley and Jason Witten while playing very clean ball having scored 23 touchdowns to 4 interceptions and matching Rodgers’ 104 passer rating. His other passing stats are someway behind contemporaries Rodgers and Ryan, but he shared a great deal of his touches with Ezekiel Elliott in a way those QBs didn’t with their running backs. Dak never single-handedly blew opponents away, but playing so well and leading arguably the most untouchable team in the league under such pressure, and with such a large shadow as Tony Romo being cast over him as a rookie, is an incredible feat.

The question with Dak, though, is how much he really elevated the Cowboy’s play. There’s no question he played very well and very clean, but how different would the Cowboys have been with a healthy Tony Romo? You can’t base anything on Romo’s one successful drive in week 17 against Philadelphia, but based on Romo’s past, it seems fair to assume that, at the very least, Romo wouldn’t be much less productive than Dak. Depending on the offensive style Dallas would employ with Romo under centre, there may have been more turnovers, but there may also have been more production. As good as Dak was, he scored 0 or 1 touchdown in over half of the regular season games he principally played in. While I would never claim that Dak was a placeholder, I think it is fair to question whether he added so much production to the offense as to merit an MVP award.

Matt Ryan

ni-ryan

Credit: Panic Button

‘Matty Ice’ is the first candidate on this list who I think demands serious consideration for the MVP award, and now that he has been named to the All Pro team, he may be the fovourite to win. It feels somewhat unfair to pair Ryan in the same category of consistency as Dak Prescott, simply because Ryan’s consistent production is much more searingly productive than Dak, or indeed, most quarterbacks in the league this year. Rodgers pipped him to the post in terms of touchdowns, but he was far ahead of the other candidates in terms of yards, led the league in terms of passer rating with a 117 mark, while recording the highest ever yards per attempt over the season for QBs with over 400 passes. The statistics are impressive, but more impressive is how relentless Atlanta have been this year with Ryan under centre. In previous years, they have burned hot for stretches, but fallen off under significant challenge; this is something that never happened in the current regular season, with the Falcons finishing the year a demolition of the Saints.

There are lies, damn lies, and statistics, and while I don’t think Ryan’s incredible numbers are deceiving, it is interesting to consider them in the context both of previous seasons and with the rest of the Falcons offense. While this is definitely Ryan’s best season, his production has always been very impressive to the point that him being even more impressive perhaps packs less of a punch. More importantly perhaps, the Falcons had a stellar and somewhat forgotten backfield  of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman who supplied a third of Atlanta touchdowns and around a quarter of Atlanta offense. This doesn’t denigrate Ryan’s fantastic season, but it does help explain why he may have been able to take his performances to the next level. Without their production, Matt Ryan and the Falcons may not have been able to be quite so dangerous. As suggested though, Ryan would be a worthy MVP, just not my choice in this competitive season.

‘Jenga Pieces’

I don’t have much time for Dave Dameshek and his irritating brand of dad comedy, but his podcast – when you eat around all that – does contain some insightful and interesting discussions and analysis, and one talking point he raises frequently is that of ‘jenga pieces’, i.e., players who are so crucial to their team’s success that them being removed causes the whole operation to crumble. It is this property that I have always understood MVP to measure – the inherent value a player has to their team’s overall success. It’s with this in mind that I have made my pick for MVP.

Derek Carr

ni-carr

Credit: Oakland -247sports

Derek Carr isn’t quite my choice for MVP, but given my definition of the award, I think that Derek Carr’s heart-breaking injury in week 16 may have – strangely enough – made his case about as strongly as possible. Before his injury, Carr was settling the league alight at the helm of the red-hot Oakland Raiders. Ultimately, he didn’t match up to the other candidates in terms of dominance, and between their rushing attack and pass rush it was clear that Carr wasn’t the only powerful cog in Oakland, but Oakland’s fate after losing Carr has been very telling. Where Brady’s replacement, for example, picked up where Tom Terrific left off, Oakland seem to have collapsed, turning a team in control of the #2 seed and a viable threat to the Patriots in to a #5 seed who aren’t favoured to win more than one post-season game. In short, when Carr went down, the Raiders appear to have followed, and it is in that fact that Carr’s inherent value – be it in terms of skill, or even in terms of leadership and motivation – is very powerful.

Ezekiel Elliott

ni-elliott

Credit: ESPN.com

My choice, considering all of these great candidates, is a difficult one for me to concede as a Giants fan, but the Cowboys have picked up a possible all time talent in Elliott, and more than that, a piece that has been central not only to their success, but to their style of success.

There are some very immediate arguments against Elliott being especially singularly valuable, but I think they become weaker in the context of how the Cowboys offense has succeeded this year. The first is that his impact has been essentially shared with another candidate mentioned, Dak Prescott. Returning briefly to my argument against Dak though, as well and as clean as he played, the talent he replaced (when he last played a full season) was comparable in terms of many stats, and in most, compared unfavourably. It is only his security with the ball where Dak has the edge. That’s not insignificant, but it’s also something that points more to a game manager than a game winner. That’s not a knock – Dak has led the team incredibly well under a hell of a microscope in Dallas, but it just doesn’t make him MVP.

So if the improvement isn’t at QB, it has to be somewhere else, and judging by yards and points scored, it’s at running back. Last year, Darren McFadden had a nice season, running for 1,089 yards and three TDs. This year, Elliott blew that – and all other RBs – out of the water on his way to the rushing title, rushing for 1,631 and 15 TDs. Elliott was seriously endangering Eric Dickerson’s rookie rushing record before being rested in the final game and was able to prove himself as an adept receiver and pass-blocker which is also crucial to any pass offense. The comparison with McFadden also helps to combat the second fair complaint with Elliott winning – the all-decade offensive line blocking for him. Of course Zeke playing behind this line helps him, but any argument that his success is simply because of the line is fraudulent. What Darren McFadden proved, perhaps, was that any decent RB could run for 1,000 yards behind this line, but Ezekiel has done that and way more.

This is where I come to my point about the Dallas offensive system. In the past, their running game was important, but ultimately, their success was down to Tony Romo being explosive. This year, Dallas have been using Zeke to shorten the game, control the game, grind down opposition defences, and protect their own defense as much as possible from opposition offenses. The Cowboys were successful at this, having the second longest time of possession for the year. The Cowboys were used to going on long, crushing drives, with Zeke as the hammer driving them forward most of the time. Even in 3rd and long situations, Zeke was frequently capable of backbreaking long runs to keep moving the chains. That, mixed with his goal line production which saw the Dallas ground game contribute a much higher proportion of touchdowns this year. Zeke’s exceptional play supported the rest of the offense and the rest of the team to many of their wins this year, and without him, there would have been much more required from Dak which would have required him to push the boundaries a bit more and risk his reputation as a safe pair of hands. The Cowboys have blown out a few teams, but have also won a lot of close games over the course of the year, and the recipe for those wins is usually that of controlling the game, and that is what Zeke was central to this year and what has made him so valuable. The most valuable. Just about.

————————————————————————-

A final point: if we agree that ‘value’ in the MVP race has this ‘jenga piece’ definition, is it worth creating a new, less vaguely-defined award for the Player of the Year? Personally, I think so as it would also clear up the definition of MVP and help celebrate more players and more contributions. If that were a category, I would give the award to another player I have to through gritted teeth – Tom Brady.