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DURING A GAME against the Denver Broncos a few years back, the Detroit Lions' Aveion Cason happened to glance up at the giant scoreboard at Ford Field. What he saw was not a prancing cheerleader or a replay of a touchdown or an ad for gambling in Greek Town. No, there on the board, bigger than life, was his wife, Danielle, chomping down on a hot dog. After the game Cason gave her a kiss and said, "Do you want to get something to eat or not? Because it looked like you ate pretty good today." Danielle blushed. She knew she had been busted.
In today's sporting world, the Big Board has become Big Brother. It exposes your awkward boogaloo when the timeout music blares; demands that you pucker up when the KissCam settles on your seat; reveals to the world your choice of tube-steak condiments. But you love it. You want it. Unless you're Wrigley Field, one of the few well-known sports shrines still bereft of bells and whistles on its board.
The birth of giant, glittering video scoreboards can be traced to 1980, when Mitsubishi installed its Diamond Vision technology—a significant upgrade in high-resolution graphics at that time—in the scoreboard at Dodger Stadium. By the turn of the 21st century, virtually every pro stadium, ballpark and arena (as well as many college and even some high school venues, including the fictional Dillon High in TV's Friday Night Lights ) had bowed to consumer demand and either souped up its scoreboard or installed a new one altogether.
Big boards are part of all sports—the giant ones in Kauffman Stadium and Time Warner Cable Arena are better than their respective tenants, the Kansas City Royals and the Charlotte Bobcats—but in no sport are they as organic a part of the action as in football, whose stadium atmosphere is tailor-made for Riefenstahlian spectacle. There is no respite from the relentless scoreboard cacophony, an audiovisual assault on the senses designed to rev up the home team and deflate the opposition. The spectacle would've provoked a smile from the Emperor Vespasian, under whose rule Rome's Colosseum was built in the first century A.D.
But today's giant scoreboards—collectively called jumbotrons, though that was a specific model produced by Sony, which has been out of the board biz since 2001—are far more intrusive than anything in Vespasian's wildest imagination. Since these vehicles of information overload are now on steroids (the largest in the U.S. is the 55-by-134-foot "Godzillatron," which towers over the south end zone at the University of Texas's Darrell K. Royal stadium) and every bit as high-def as your home TV, they have become a pixel-perfect part of the action, which is viewed in real time by the very participants for reasons strategic, recreational and, of course, narcissistic. "Yeah, if I make a sack, of course I'm going to watch the replay and see me celebrating," says Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs. "That's all part of the fun."
Many running backs and wide receivers say that once they get into the open field, they use the scoreboard like a giant GPS, glancing up to locate potential tacklers. During the Nov. 24 Monday-night game, New Orleans Saints wide receiver Lance Moore took two or three peeks at the Superdome scoreboard as he turned a short pass reception into a 70-yard touchdown play during a 51--29 win over the Green Bay Packers. "I don't usually look," said Moore, "but [a fellow player] said to me two years ago, 'You got the jumbotron up there. If you ever need it when you break into the clear, use it.'"
Indeed, Saints wide receiver Devery Henderson rues not heeding that advice earlier in the season, when he was tripped up at the two-yard line after an 81-yard reception during a 31--17 win over the San Francisco 49ers, also at the Superdome. "I didn't really see the [tackler], so I should have looked up at the jumbotron," Henderson said.
If glancing up seems risky, it beats turning your head to see what's behind, according to some players. "One time in Pee Wee football I looked back during a long run," says Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams, "and the momentum shift carried me out-of-bounds. That's why I don't look back anymore."
Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Bobby Wade says the scoreboard acts like a giant rooting teammate, helping you to "get into race mode." San Diego Chargers star LaDainian Tomlinson likens the scoreboard to a "rearview mirror on your helmet" and claims that a glance at the board now and then has helped him gain more than 1,000 yards in each of the past eight seasons. Says LT, "It's become part of the game."
And not just for the glamour guys. In 2007, during a rare excursion toward the end zone—it happened in the Cason hot-dog game—350-pound nosetackle Shaun Rogers, then with the Lions, decided to use a stiff-arm on Selvin Young after he looked at the jumbotron and saw the Broncos running back gaining on him. The maneuver helped Rogers finish up a 66-yard touchdown run. "It just happened that way," said Rogers. "We have a beautiful stadium and a beautiful jumbotron." And isn't it wonderful that someone has something nice to say about the Lions franchise?