“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.

How large is too large for football?

The NFL has some large players, particularly on the offensive line where it seems like all the linemen are at least 6’3″ and 300 pounds.The game has evolved from one with fairly normal people to one where players have to be behemoths or physical specimens at each position.

Mississippi walk-on lineman Terrell Brown is even bigger: 6’11” and 390 pounds. This is huge, massive. A couple thoughts:

1. Can one even be a good football player at this size? I imagine if he locked up with a defensive player, Brown could win on size alone. But how difficult is it to move all that weight? I could imagine some smaller defense players could make it difficult as they run around him.

2. Can one remain healthy while playing at this size? Linemen take a beating and it seems like tall athletes, like Yao Ming, have special issues.

3. What will his future life be like if football doesn’t work out? Offensive linemen bulk up quite a bit to play football but this is not the weight one would want to stay at for a lifetime.

Brown has a long way to go before these questions are answered – he is just a walk-on who apparently played at a community college and is not listed on recruiting sites. I’d be curious to see how his football future plays out.