This post has something for everyone: I’m going to talk about football, politics, and church. I’ll use football to explain what “the game behind the game” means. Then I’ll use politics to show how blatant the game behind the game can be. Then I’ll talk about the game behind the game of church. Let’s get the ball rolling by talking about Mike Florio’s new book Playmakers: How the NFL Really Works (and Doesn’t) (Public Affairs Books, 2022). It’s what got me thinking along these lines. The book isn’t so much about the game of football as what goes on backstage, so to speak: the game behind the game. Chapters cover owners, coaches, health and safety, player misconduct, scandals, officiating, and (at various points in the book) the rise of football gambling.
Football: The Game. I’m guessing pretty much every reader knows about the game of football. Rules of the game, penalties for infractions. Offense and defense. Score points, four quarters, the team with the most points wins. The myth of the game is that all those associated with the team are united in an effort to, in the short run, win the next game and, in the longer run, make the playoffs and possibly get to the Super Bowl. But that’s not really how it works. The myth of the game is a myth.
The Game Behind the Game. Consider owners. Wildly rich and successful overachievers, but also realistic and financially savvy. There might be eight or ten owners whose teams have a serious shot at going deep into the playoffs and winning the big game. The other twenty-odd owners are more focused on maximizing the value of their billion-dollar equity stakes in the team, in finagling hundreds of millions of dollars in financial concessions from local governments for a new stadium, and perhaps in having at least an average team to keep the fans happy and buying tickets and buying $8 hot dogs. Those ten or so owners with seriously good teams with a chance to go all the way? They have those same concerns as well, they just have (for whatever reason) better teams this year.
Coaches? By the midway point of the season, a fair share of the coaches in the league, those whose teams are not doing very well, are more concerned about keeping their jobs (not getting fired three days after the end of the season) as winning the next game. Players? Always in the back of their mind is the legitimate concern to not get injured. Sometimes a player will make what announcers delicately term a “business decision” to not fully execute a tough catch or a hard tackle that entails some risk of injury. For both players and owners, the game behind the game is in full view when a new contract is being negotiated. Or not, as when a good player is let go for money reasons (a “cap casualty”).
Fans? Yes, fans. If you have a fantasy team, you aren’t really rooting for your home team, you’re rooting for an ersatz team. You want a selection of players in various positions on various teams to have good statistical performances to generate fantasy points for your fantasy team so you can strut a little taller at the office on Monday or you can cash in with your online fantasy/gambling team. Everyone it seems, even fans, have a football side hustle.
Politics: The Game. It’s not even a game: it’s quite serious, the business of governing the country, or the state, or your local town. It’s serious enough that elected officeholders take an oath. An oath! The presidential oath, for example, is directly spelled out in the Constitution: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Ideally, officeholders live up to the lofty sentiments represented by oaths of office. The myth of the game is that they mostly do take actions and votes that are in the best interests of the country as a whole, or serve the interests of the voters in their district, or once in a while follow a moral imperative to Do The Right Thing regardless of any particular interest. And before heading into the next paragraph, let’s be careful not to get too cynical. Democracy isn’t perfect, it’s just better than all the other alternatives. Ask a Russian.
The Game Behind the Game. Remember how some coaches start worrying about keeping their job about halfway through the season? About 95% of House members start worrying about getting re-elected roughly halfway through their two-year term. Maybe earlier. Most actions and votes get parsed through the prism of “how will this affect my chances of getting re-elected.” Which isn’t as bad as it sounds. In a democracy, it’s generally a good thing when elected officials are attentive to the wishes of the electorate. Worrying too much about re-election isn’t the worst part of the game behind the game.
It’s overzealous party loyalty that gets that prize. Increasingly, making statements and introducing legislation and taking votes based strictly on party interests, whether Republican or Democratic, has become the norm, even when such actions run counter to the formal goals (the oath stuff) of being good for the country or benefitting the members of one’s district. January 6 is certainly the best example of this, but there are plenty of examples to go around. The celebration over the occasional “non-partisan bill” or near-unanimous vote only underlines how rare such an occurrence is. Playing every vote or statement for partisan advantage is the game behind the game of politics or governing. It has become so pervasive that we almost take it for granted, which is why the word “politics” has taken on such a negative connotation.
Church: The Game. It’s not even a game, it’s your eternal salvation. Ordinances must be performed. Beliefs must be embraced, callings accepted, prayers offered, good works displayed. Local and general leadership are part of the game, running the Church that provides the ordinances, sets out the beliefs, issues callings, and manages the chapels, temples, and investment funds of the Church. The myth of the game is that members and leaders, one and all, are doing exactly those things: members strive for salvation and exaltation while leaders do their sincere best to support those efforts. And before heading into the next paragraph, let’s not get too cynical. There are good people and good leaders in the Church doing good things. But there’s more that’s going on.
The Game Behind the Game. Here’s where it gets interesting. First, members. Not all members are striving for Mormon salvation. Not everyone who shows up at church on Sunday is playing the salvation game. Some just try to be nice and do good things from time to time, without any particular concern for hitting all the boxes on the Mormon salvation checklist. Others are rather self-consciously *not* playing the Mormon salvation game but do the Mormon thing for other reasons, out of habit or for social connections or to keep peace in the family. There might even be a few who think of themselves as activists working within the Church to support reforms or doctrinal change, which you might view in a fairly positive light but most mainstream Mormons and almost all leaders would see as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, cause for loading up the excommunication gun. I suspect the vast majority of non-LDS are oblivious to those distinctions and see any and every Mormon as a stereotypical Mormon. Some Mormons are that stereotypical Mormon, 100% into the salvation game. They follow every rule and check every box (and they might very well be wonderful people). They know with every fiber of their being that they and all their kin will inhabit their own righteous kingdom or planet in the hereafter. But for many there’s a game behind the game. And let’s not be lighthearted about this. It’s not just a game, it’s your life. You can win or lose the game behind the Mormon game, with significant real-life consequences. Even defining what winning or losing is can be tricky. I could spend a whole post talking about how a rank-and-filer can win or lose the game behind the Mormon game.
Now about leaders. As noted, ideally at all levels leaders support the members by helping them succeed in the Mormon salvation game. That’s not quite the same thing as helping members succeed in life or helping them have a happy family. This is evident whenever a GA tells a story about this or that considerable sacrifice in family time or money that a particular member makes for a calling or mission. Or when a missionary is injured or dies while serving. There is a lot of sacrifice in the Mormon salvation game, and leaders are the ones asking for the sacrifice. That raises some interesting ethical issues. Is it a sacrifice leaders share or one that falls only on members? Are leaders transparent about the risks involved and about who benefits from the sacrifice? If they ask for financial contributions, where does the money go? If there’s one thing we can learn from the Hundred Billion Dollar Fund, it’s that there is a lot going on behind the scenes that leaders don’t tell the members. If you can hide a hundred billion dollars, you are very good at hiding things.
As one moves up the leadership ladder, leaders get increasingly removed from “the members” and more involved with statistics and budgets and reports. They get reviewed and then praised or critiqued by those farther up the ladder based on those statistics and budgets and reports. This animates a lot of the game behind the game for mid-level LDS leaders, who constantly needle the local leaders below them to improve their numbers, maybe who fudge the numbers when necessary, highlight the good numbers, and explain or excuse the bad numbers. If you’re at the top of the leadership ladder, you can just torpedo the bad numbers by not collecting those statistics anymore or keeping them secret. I’ll bet senior apostles have a report in their locked drawer or secure computer file that tells them exactly how many members requested name removal during calendar year 2021 and the percentage increase or decrease over 2020, and demographics of those who exit, and whether they served a mission or not, and so forth. But they will never, ever provide that information to the membership or the public.
Part of the game behind the game is to use information and statistics strategically, to further the organizational growth and success of the Church as an institution. That goes for the use of historical documents and narratives as well. That goes for doctrinal development or retrenchment. It’s really the Prime Directive of LDS leadership: use every resource you have to foster the success of the Church as institution.
The Game Behind the Game is a Key You Can Use to Understand What Is Really Happening in the Church. Here’s the payoff, folks. This is a tool you can use to improve your understanding of the Church. Consider the recent General Conference. Several speakers emphasized serving missions, and in particular having young men serve missions. A Mormon Gamer hears this and says, “Yes, it is important we get more missionaries to serve. It is very important that our young men make this sacrifice and serve missions. I will encourage all young men to serve Mormon missions.” A Mormon Game Behind the Gamer hears this and says, “Sounds like more and more young Mormons are skipping the mission. I’ll bet they have data and survey results showing this is a serious problem. Wow, they sure care a lot more about young men than young women, don’t they? Men serve missions and women make babies, but those young women can serve a mission if they really want to. Maybe it will make them better mothers. Why no comments addressing why it is that lots of young LDS don’t want to serve right now? Why no announced changes to the mission program that would make more young LDS want to serve? Leaders run the program, they can change it. Why don’t they change it to make it more attractive to young LDS? What else aren’t they telling us about missions and what’s going on?” The leaders are playing the game behind the game, and once you figure that out you get some insight into what’s really going on.
That goes for a lot of things in the Church. This post is long enough already, so I won’t talk about other examples at length. We could have a game behind the game analysis of the massive increase in temple announcements and building in recent years. Or of the new crackdown on Mother in Heaven thinking (which has pretty much zero to do with MIH herself, whatever you think of the doctrine). Or almost anything the leadership says.
There is always a game behind the game. Ask Ender.