This is the final part of a three part series started by Adam Boxer (@adamboxer1) on ‘Great Explainers’. Following Adam’s excellent appraisal of Richard Feynman and Mark Enser’s on the Met Office, I am going to be explaining why football pundit and former player Gary Neville deserves recognition. Although he is almost always very good indeed this outstanding fifteen minute clip, on diving in professional football, is worth close attention.
For a history teacher the thesis/antithesis format is familiar. He begins with the widely held view that players that dive in football are cheats and should be punished, and then challenges it with the idea those with the opportunity to dive but choose not to are naïve. The controversial, challenging second interpretation is deliberately and dramatically set up when Neville says, at 1 minute 20 seconds, “penalty yes, diving yes” The statement, superficially completely counterintuitive establishes interest in the argument that will follow and, becoming more convincing each time, is repeated numerous times throughout his explanation. Rooted in the subject, this is a hook in the best, truest possible sense.
Neville then goes on the problematise the concept of diving. Before watching this clip I, as am sure many football fans did, saw this as straightforward; diving is the deliberate attempt to simulate a foul in order to gain an unfair advantage and undeniably immoral. Neville, using multiple examples, shows what an unsophisticated view this is. He moves clearly and logically through a number of sequential points:
- The line between a deliberate fakery and honest reaction is blurred.
- That it is widespread among almost all players of all positions.
- It is accepted as part of the game by those actually involved in it.
- That players who do not dive when touched by an opponent put their teams at a great disadvantage.
Each of the examples is clear and unambiguous, and explained enthusiastically, using self-deprecation and humour, which makes the challenging message far easier to absorb. His delivery is impassioned and deliberately confrontational. At one point he even leaps to his feet to demonstrate a mistake made by a defender. Neville also uses his own expertise and past experience as a player to shed more light on each example, firmly establishing a sense of credibility. This is an important point; if we are to use this video to guide forming good explanations we must acknowledge it at least very unlikely that Gary Neville could explain something outside his area of expertise to such a high standard. The teaching parallel is clear – Neville takes what his audience thinks they know and then connects what he is explaining to it, using his own expertise of what he knows about football from both a player’s and a supporter’s perspective to carve away layers of ignorance and misconception.
The effect, for me and for many others, was dramatic. It became clear that moralistic naivety had blinded me to an entire aspect of a game I thought I knew inside out. Every time I watched a match in the past I had missed significant aspects of strategy and tactics, and the nuance in the micro-battles that occur all over the pitch. What I had regarded as simple and easy faded away, replaced by a far more intricate, subtle reality that suddenly made football make more sense.
“Ah, that’s why!” I thought.
But old, engrained ideas die hard and, of course, part of me still hung on to the idea that this might not be as widespread as Neville makes out. Surely, I thought, the most honest and upstanding players do not dive? But, as the skilled teacher he is, Neville has anticipated this misconception and hammers his message home by going through examples of such players and showing them diving too; Stephen Gerrard, Frank Lampard and the acknowledged best player in the world, Lionel Messi all appear in his rogues gallery. But, of course, his point is that they are not rogues or cheats; the best man at his own wedding, David Beckham, appears diving near the end of the clip to make it absolutely clear his message is not a personal attack on those he dislikes.
Finally, Gary Neville acknowledges that diving is an issue and poses new questions; when did it start? What are the downsides of the various solutions that have been suggested? Are these worth the price or do we have to accept it as inevitable? Having navigated us past our ignorance he then points to the real problems ahead, encouraging us to keep thinking.
His explanation leaves his interlocuter floored. For the audience the experience is revelatory and transformative; we leave both knowing more, and wanting to know more. We come away empowered; the next time we hear a crowd boo or shout ‘cheat’ (or worse) at a diving footballer we are less likely to join in, more likely to shake our head knowingly and look round for someone to share our greater knowledge and understanding with.
After all, one of the hallmarks of great explanations is that we want to pass them on.