“The Sociology of the Offensive Line”?

ESPN’s Ivan Maisel tries to provide a sociological take on one of the key units on a football team:

Our topic is the Sociology of the Offensive Line. Our guest lecturer is Barrett Jones, the Alabama redshirt junior, a two-time Academic All-American and an All-SEC right guard in 2010. Jones is uniquely qualified to address this topic. In the No. 3 Crimson Tide’s 48-7 victory over Kent State to open the season, Jones started at left tackle and moved to left guard. That’s unusual but not unheard of.

However, Jones then moved to center for several series in the second half. He played all three positions on the offensive line in one game, none of them on the side of the ball he played for the last two seasons. For offensive linemen, this is the equivalent of playing all nine positions on the baseball field, something only four players have done in the history of major league baseball…

And now, as promised, the sociology: Now that Jones has played all three positions, he can explain what each position thinks of the other.

“Tackles just think their position is by far the hardest,” Jones said. “All the other positions are relatively easy. That’s the mindset they have, just because it is very challenging in the passing game, more so than the other two [positions]. The tackles sometimes think they are the most important people on the line. You kind of have to keep an eye on them, keep them humble. I think it all stems from the NFL. The tackles get paid the big bucks. I think that’s where it all comes from.

“Centers think they are definitely the smartest. If you ever question one of their calls, they get a little uptight. They take great pride in their calls. They think they know it better than anybody else.”

A quick translation into sociological-ese: Jones knows what it means to step into multiple social roles. While he was primarily trained to play one position (right guard?), he became a “portfolio lineman,” filling different roles in order to compete in the tough economy of the Alabama offensive line. One wrong step in any of these social roles might mean the end of his working career under the capitalistic Nick Saban, a “weasel coach,” a manager who cares more about money and winning than the flourishing of his proletariat offensive linemen. Along the way, Jones uncovered the status hierarchy of the offensive line: tackles think they are at the top of physical prowess while centers bristle at their low prestige (linked to the pay segregation they experience in the NFL – how many Hollywood movies have they made about centers?) and try to exalt the thinking they have to do. When asked by reporters, Jones is able to thoughtfully describe the social processes at work after extensive participant observation (perhaps even “going native”?). On the whole, being an offensive lineman requires more than just physical skill – one needs social capital in order to participate in a cohesive, effective group that can protect the real status leader of the offense: the quarterback.

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