Max Weber & An NFL Legend

Blog 3:

Being a diehard fan of the New York Giants has been, for the most part, an enjoyable experience over the past twenty years or so. That is, until this season. Embarrassing record aside though, one of the most difficult aspects of the Giants’ struggles this year has been watching the failures of Eli Manning. Eli is the affable and never flustered quarterback, whose calm mien continuously puts Giants fans at ease. The Giants’ most recent loss to the Chicago Bears had me thinking about many things, and oddly enough, Max Weber was one of them. Though one might assume I was pondering about whether Weber would have been a Giants fan, or if he’d have been a fan of American football at all, I was actually thinking about his views on legitimate authority, and how the pivotal position of quarterback might fit into his concepts.

I’m sure the literature within the subcategory of the sociology of sports has countless examinations of this position, its representation of society at large, its historical racial inequality, etc., these topics, while fascinating, are not what this post will focus on. What I was reflecting on after a tragic sixth loss in a row was a quarterback named Manning, but not Eli (I had thought sufficiently about him over the course of Thursday night’s game), I focused on his older brother Peyton.

Peyton Manning is unquestionably one of the most prolific players to ever quarterback in the NFL. His career has coincided with arguably the most exciting and record-breaking era of quarterbacking that the league has even seen. A recent article on the sports website Grantland detailed Peyton at this point in his career, and this piece had me ruminating further on Peyton’s mastery of the position, which undoubtedly has required both teammates and coaches to not only trust in him, but follow his directions. Although this relationship appears quite different from that of a president or a monarch and his or her citizens, Peyton’s role within the team definitely comes with “authority” as Weber would define it.

But what type of “authority” is this? It doesn’t possess the characteristics of Rational/Legal Authority, as it is not a law or a legal statute that the quarterback must lead the team. In fact, many teams, even Super Bowl winners, have not been led by their quarterbacks in terms of direction and moral, but derived their identity from players at other positions, like linebacker Ray Lewis on last year’s Baltimore Ravens, or lineman Warren Sapp on the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Then what about Traditional Authority? It does seem as though “quarterback as leader” is the de facto result of the position’s role as orchestrator of a team’s offense, which has been more or less the case since the game’s development. While this iteration of Traditional Authority does not fully relate to that of a king in a monarchical society, I feel that there is some element of Traditional Authority in the position. Mainly because football’s positions and their responsibilities are so solidly entrenched in the way the game is played. However, I also believe that just as Weber felt that these were “ideal types” and that real life examples don’t always fit neatly into one category, that quarterbacks, and specifically those as masterful as Peyton Manning, possess an element of Charismatic Authority as well.

As writer Brian Phillips explains “most great quarterbacks, even most immobile pocket passers, give the impression of riding on chance, of keeping their bearings as chaos breaks out around them. Peyton Manning gives the impression of choreographing chance.” It is this seemingly unimaginable control and command that leads to his “charisma.” This “charisma” is reinforced further by his theatrical machinations at the line of scrimmage, where he hoots and hollers as he diagnosis the defense, changing the play when necessary to ensure success. And success he continuously has had. As Weber points out, “charisma” can wax and wane, and it is during the latter point that someone with Charismatic Authority loses his/her dominance. For Peyton Manning, this dwindling has yet to occur.

In viewing Manning within Weber’s framework however, there seems to be a contradiction. Weber emphasized society’s move towards rationalization, and the disenchantment that results from this hyper efficiency. Many quarterbacks have specific adjectives that are used to describe their style of play, and Peyton’s would include methodical, efficient, cerebral, and dominant. Phillips even goes as far as saying that when Manning plays football, “he goes out every week with a graphing calculator and a stack of forms, and he just audits teams to death.” It doesn’t get more efficient than that. But while these words definitely echo a rational approach, watching Manning lead an offense is anything but disenchanting. In fact, it’s poetry in motion.

I don’t know what all this proves, it might just be an argument for why sports seem transcendent to me, and maybe it’s just a justification for spending so much time caring about them, but somehow Max Weber made me appreciate football a little bit more than I did last week.

Embedded are the Phillips article and a Peyton Manning highlight video. Enjoy.

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One response to “Max Weber & An NFL Legend

  1. As Weber is considered a kind of forefather of the sociology of organizations, it makes perfect sense to apply his ideas to a professional sports team. And that would be his focus: the Giants organization. He’d probably first notice its rational-legal characteristics — its hierarchy, ownership structure, contracts, the coaching staff, and the team players. So he’d tend to look at the players, including the quarterback, as a part of a bigger organization — though the players on the field in a sense *represent* the whole organization. Analyzing how authority, team authority, is wielded during a game is also an interesting question. In a game situation, is it the rational-legal authority of the coaching staff, their wisdom in designing plays, that holds sway among the team players? Or does the team defer to tradition, and place their faith in the quarterback? Or are they under the charismatic spell of their ‘star player’ — the quarterback or a player at some other position — or even ‘star coach’?

    No doubt a player like Peyton Manning commands authority on the field. Yes, may be partly the traditional respect of a quarterback. But as you note, it’s more like *charismatic* authority.

    As Weber describes, charismatic authority tends to prevail in extraordinary times, perhaps like in a playoff run, a championship game. I think Weber would predict that charismatic authority would tend to hold sway during times when a team is winning, on a streak or in a battle for a championship, a scenario analogous to a ‘revolutionary’ situation. But a key characteristic of charismatic authority is that it’s short-lived, hard to maintain for long periods of time (he says organizations have a tendency to either become rational-legal or revert to tradition). So Peyton Manning — with his remarkable longevity as a leader/authority — is indeed a hard case to explain, the kind of ‘puzzle’ Weber insisted was perfect for sociological theorizing.

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