Deflategate and Bikeshedding

Screen Shot 2015-01-28 at 2.13.50 PMWith Super Bowl XLIX (how many Americans can quickly translate Roman Numerals?) just days away, the sports pages (even some science and editorial pages) are passionately afroth with Deflategate chatter. Was the football intentionally underinflated during the first half of the Patriots/Colts game? Hands are wringing! The world trembles with the possibility that an NFL team might be cheating!

C. Northcote Parkinson

In 1957, C. Northcote Parkinson, British naval historian and author of over 60 books, published the international best-seller, Parkinson’s Law, a series of trenchant and oft-humorous essays, which made him a name in public administration and management. The eponymous adage explained in the titular essay as Parkinson’s Law is: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Less well known, but just as pithy and important, is Parkinson’s Law of Triviality.

Now also known as “bikeshedding,” Parkinson’s Law of Triviality states that the more complex an issue, the less time spent on it. He illustrates this with a corporate executive committee meeting that has plans for a nuclear power plant on its agenda. With little discussion (“Too confusing…trust the experts”), the committee speedily and unanimously approves the complex reactor plans, but spends a much longer time arguing the far less important, but easy-to-understand issues (e.g., should we use galvanized tin for the employees bicycle shed?).

When the legendary NFL linebacker retired for good in 2010, he seemed set for life: supremely wealthy, beloved across the league, a hero in his hometown of San Diego. Two years later, he was dead. On a lonely morning in a big empty house, Seau shot himself through the chest.  [GQ magazine, Sept ’13]
So it is with the NFL. The league is facing several extremely complex issues with wide-ranging implications. Brain damage (Junior Seau and scores of retired players) and domestic violence (Ray Rice and many others) are two that demand deep and consistent coverage. Yet these complex “nuclear” issues have been knocked off the sports pages by the “galvanized tin” of a soft football.

The outcome of serious inquiry into football’s role in brain damage could alter the nature of the game (and the nature of the owners’ wallets). Dealing with the domestic violence incidents is awkward for management and bad for team morale (and maybe owners’ profits). Both create bad publicity.

Rey-Mysterio-and-Chris-Masters-professional-wrestling-268433_456_352So can’t we talk about something else? How about flaccid footballs?

Deflategate publicity is good for the NFL. It creates good guys and bad guys. You get a team to root for or hate. Like professional wrestling, goosing your fans sells tickets. And that’s good for the owners.

And we can ignore the hard stuff for a while longer.





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3 Comments on “Deflategate and Bikeshedding

  1. Excellent essay, Steve. Never heard of ‘bikeshedding’ before, I’ll have to look up the etymology. It’s really the human condition, that life is tough and most people don’t go looking for extra challenges. Natural propensity to sit on the stoop and drink a beer or watch Gladiators v. Lions long ago. Congrats on your triumphal visit to Australia.

    1. Thanks, Wendell. Always great to hear from you.

      The etymology of bikeshedding…

      It comes directly from Parkinson’s essay where the employee’s bike shed, an insignificant agenda item, takes up all the discussion after the nuclear reactor is passed unanimously with little discussion.

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