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Super Bowl 2013: The Myth of Motivation

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The media really enjoys telling us one team simply "wants it more" than the other. We explore the Ray Lewis inspired "motivation" narrative, and why it's false.

Scott Halleran

Championships are a great occasion of two opposing forces colliding for a chance to affirm to themselves and to the world that they are, indeed, the very best.

As we get closer to one of the bigger championship events in existence -- and certainly the biggest in America -- media stories abound attempting to create and invent conflicts of their own to explain the collision.

The truth is, without the media, the Super Bowl would still be an incredible story of men going to battle with other men. But, then, who would read it? This isn't a Greek epic, buddy! This is a uniquely American drama!

And so we are bombarded daily with "false narratives," vying to attract our attention to something that is already so brimming with tragedy and inspiration; struggle and success.

Some of these stories are at least historically unique ("brother vs. brother"); others tiresome ("the Ray Lewis saga").

But if there is one particularly tired cliche, it would be "The Myth of Motivation."

The "myth of motivation" would have us believe that the Baltimore Ravens defeated the Denver Broncos, not because Champ Bailey's jock strap is hanging in the rafters of Mile High somewhere (hockey reference; ignore the fact that Mile High does not have rafters), or because the Denver secondary actually let people get behind them on a desperation throw near the end of the game, but because the Ravens were more motivated to fight for Ray Lewis.

It would have us believe Baltimore then went on to trounce the Patriots, not because they flat-out executed better, but because this is revenge for the season prior. Ray Lewis' journey has a preordained destination and his team was simply more motivated than Bill Belichick's squad to get him there.

Motivation does play an important factor in life, of course. In our daily lives, for example, we all know one person who gets further in life or does better things with their time simply because they are more motivated than someone else. Heck, maybe that person is even you! (congratulations! please leave self-motivation tips below so I can read them)

It makes sense, to "normal people" like us, that the world of the greatest professional football players on Earth operates under some of the same rules as ours. But it doesn't.

If I go to my (former) job as a waiter, I will run into people who are banging out tables left and right. People who are real "go-getters" and have a goal and an idea of how to attain it.

And then I'll look in the mirror and see myself, who is more than content taking it easy, helping out whatever tables I happen to be seated, and collecting a paycheck because it's just a restaurant job and it's not my passion.

But in the world of the NFL, people like me at a restaurant job simply don't exist (at least, not to as large an extent).

And as you go further and further into the depths of the NFL -- or rather, higher and higher into the few very successful teams -- you will find that every single player is 120% motivated at all times, because their profession demands it and because football is their passion in life.

When the San Francisco 49ers meet the Baltimore Ravens this Sunday, the game will be decided on the field by men and off the field by coaches. There is no extra motivation, no outside inspiration; no burning fire of a greater intensity to tap into.

If the Ravens beat San Francisco on Sunday, it will be because they either played better or, if the game comes down to the wire, it will be because of a little luck. A fumble here that they fell on; a tipped pass that was intercepted; a questionable referee decision; etc.

But what kind of narrative is that!? No one wants to be told, days before the biggest sporting event of the American calendar year, that the winner will be whoever gets the luckiest!

Nor do they really want to be told that the winner will be determined by whether the Baltimore defense can stop the highly creative and intelligent offensive scheme of the 49ers.

And so the media downplays the facts and hypes the stories.

Justin Smith on Jim Harbaugh:

"No, I think this motivation deal gets over blown. I think this is about situations and being in the best situations and X's and O's as much as just motivating people. I think everybody in that locker room is highly motivated. You can have a pretty dry professor out there, and you could still go out and play hard. What he is, is a smart football guy. He knows scheme. He knows how to take advantage of scheme, how to be deceptive in his scheme, so that's what he brings to the table."

"False media narratives" are such stories. They are like astrology or superstition, advancing false explanations of the empirical; promoting cookie-cutter solutions to complicated realities.

The "motivation" angle is a popular one, especially when you have such "low-hanging fruit" as Ray Lewis' retirement. An emotional guy who is well known and happens to be retiring, but whose team is having one last heck of a run before it all ends? The story sells itself!

So if I had to construct a narrative of my own, one that did not entirely have to do with "x's and o's", it would be this:

A Super Bowl for the Baltimore Ravens means a victory for "the myth of motivation."

If Ray Lewis and his fans are allowed to ride off over the horizon -- into the sunset, into legend -- then the myth is perpetuated. They won because they did it for Ray, because they "believed," because they were "more inspired."

What a great story.

But, if they lose, the "motivation" angle gets turned on its head. No one can say, after all, that the Ravens were unmotivated; no one can say they didn't try hard enough, or that they just didn't care.

If Baltimore loses it will be because that great beacon of hope and faith was smothered under the unrelenting aggression and tact of a superior force.

Yes, Niners Nation, I'm sorry to say, the 49ers are not the under-dogs on Sunday. They are not the "good guys" in this story.

No matter how Jim Harbaugh wants to frame it, his team is expected to go into the Superdome and emerge with a 6th Lombardi. His team is expected to end Ray Lewis' career in defeat. His team is expected to get the job done.

Just like the Denver Broncos were expected to get the job done. Just like New England, too. And with each of their failures, the "myth of motivation" grew stronger.

So did the facets of the story: the Ravens have a retiring "legend" playing in his last game and a "much-maligned" quarterback fighting for respect.

San Francisco, meanwhile, has its maligned quarterback on the bench. We sat him after a concussion despite Pro Bowl-worthy numbers in favor of some tattoo'd kid from Nevada who is now being advertised heading into Sunday as unstoppable.

Our "feel good" story is not so blatant. But it's there. Because, unlike how the Ravens are being falsely portrayed, this team is not a bright lantern swaying back and forth, shaking in the fog across treacherous waters in search of the shore.

No, this team is a blinding freight train at full speed, churning black pollution into the sky as the men within work tirelessly, shoving coal into every furnace. Faces covered in dirt; blue-collared shirts smudged and tattered

But the train is right on track. Right on schedule.

If this was Alex Smith's team, I admit, I'd be right there along with the national media, building the false narrative that a victory for Alex Smith is redemption for all those years of mistreatment.

But the truth is, this still is Alex Smith's team. It's also Colin Kaepernick's team. And Patrick Willis' team. And Justin Smith's team. And even David Akers' team. It's Geep Chryst's team, Vic Fangio's team, Anthony Dixon's team. This is Kyle William's team. This is Ted Ginn's team. This is Frank Gore's team.

If there is one thing I really like about football, it's that everyone has a helmet. It masks their identity and gives us a greater feeling of anonymity.

Who's the superstar on the field? Who's the guy we should be focusing on? We don't know. We can't recognize any of 'em because they are all wearing helmets and pads and banging into each other left and right. That's what first drew me to football when I was young.

Much like I like to believe that player personality and marketability take a backseat to the effort, unity, and talent of the whole team on the field; the feel good stories of this year's San Francisco 49ers are hiding under the not-so-aesthetic metal and steam and roar of a freight train on a mission.

When I think of this year's San Francisco 49ers, when I think of Jim Harbaugh's team, I think of an old Chinese saying that a good friend of mine once introduced me to:

"If there is no dark and dogged will, there will be no shining accomplishment;
if there is no dull and determined effort, there will be no brilliant achievement."

A victory for the 49ers on Sunday means the "myth of motivation" can hibernate for at least a year, because a 49ers victory will be a victory of the most anonymous thing in national media narratives; leaving its mark everywhere, but rarely acknowledged: it will be a victory of scheme.

Something all the motivation in the world cannot stop.

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