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Armchair Quarterbacks

by Danny Maland

Last week’s news of the stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair has caused me to realize just how distasteful armchair quarterbacking is. Being an armchair quarterback, that is, second guessing a situation from outside that situation, is an activity that we see quite a bit lately. I don't know if it's actually more popular than at any time before now, but I am quite sure that it is far more publicly visible than ever before.

In the days before the internet was as mundane an appliance as we're used to it being, armchair quarterbacking had a limited sphere of influence. Now though, a comment on a news story might be seen by millions. The American Revolution might have featured the “shot heard 'round the world,” but the sound of that shot took a while to travel. These days, a deadpan snark with enough wit can be heard 'round the world in a matter of seconds. Heck, we even have “official” armchair quarterbacks out there, in the form of the “News Analyst.” (“Official” armchair quarterbacks are, at least, a bit more tolerable, because they have some firsthand knowledge about the field that a piece of news comes from.)

If you're like me, and you swing by a Pro Audio Forum at least once a day, you've probably seen some pretty thick flows of armchair quarterbacking over this stage collapse. You know how this goes. The first few comments will have the report that it happened. Someone will post a video. There will be the obligatory “thoughts and prayers” post – and then it starts. The speculation about who was or wasn't listening to the weather reports, the assertions that some picture shows that something wasn't guy-wired properly, the murmurs about how the PA trim height was surprisingly large. Interspersed through all this will be the insinuations that somebody did something wrong, or deliberately cut a corner, or that a promoter or manager ignored or hand-waved this that or the other concern, or...

Take your pick.

I, for one, have taken a fiendish delight in reading some threads that show unsafe rigging and electrical practices. I don't know enough about either field to understand the deep technicalities, but I know when I see something that clearly frightens me. I've shared the chuckles (and suppressed horror) over pictures of jury-rigged PA hangs, truss sections held together with c-clamps, power distros with the hot and neutral cams connected and the ground cam sitting loose on the distro case, and pretty much any other “clearly dumb” thing that gets done. I do think that there's some legitimacy in pointing out (and being rather tough on) a situation that has clearly had its corners cut.

There's a point, though, where I think that “commentary by folks who weren't there” is just in bad taste. In my mind, this stage collapse (and others like it) fits that bill. First, it's not clear as to what the points of failure were. Yes, we do know that the structure failed due to it encountering atmospheric conditions that it could not withstand. However, as of this writing, exactly what caused it to not withstand those conditions has not been conclusively determined. Second (and correlated to the first point), there's nothing to definitively prove that the structure was deployed incorrectly – again, as of the time of writing this. Third, and most importantly, the result of this collapse event was that people suffered lethal harm.

There's just something inside me that thinks it's in bad taste to go on a finger pointing expedition when there's a lot that just isn't obvious. That goes double for when such an accident has claimed lives. A stage gets toppled, people die, and the first thing that comes out is a bunch or rumor and speculation about how maybe the stage was set up the wrong way, or somebody was too greedy to get folks out of harm's way, or anything else that hasn't yet been firmly established in fact? Really?

Folks, we don't know. No matter what is or is not visible in this or that picture floating around on the Net, we don't know that what is or is not visible in that picture is the ultimate culprit. Unlike all those famous pictures of frightening rigging and electrical setups, there are no such smoking guns yet available in this instance. This wasn't a bunch of yokels with plywood, folding tables, and radio masts. This was an honest-to-goodness stage and roof that people with favorable track records (at least, as far as I know) were confident about.

For all we know, the people in charge of the structure could have had every reason to believe that the thing would have held up through a good sized tornado, only to have a one-in-ten-million wind gust grab something in just the right way.

I think that we will know, eventually. Hey, “eventually” could even be 30 minutes after I submit this post. That's not the issue. The issue is that we don't need to be constantly second guessing work done by somebody else in order to make ourselves feel better. I'm pretty sure we've all done it at some point, and I'm sure I'll do it in the future. I think it's probably natural that technically minded and analytical people, people who essentially do critical thinking to make a living, will end up pointing at something and going, “I can see what's wrong with that from right here.” Sometimes, saying that is justified. Sometimes, it's seriously funny. Sometimes, though, it's just flat out premature – and even disrespectful.

I'm not saying for a second that we can't comment on a bad situation in a constructive manner. What I am saying is that there's a line (and it might be a thin one) where commentary turns into “wild mass-guessing,” and my opinion is that wild mass-guessing only gives the appearance of problem solving and careful analysis – not the substance. When a tragedy occurs, appearance needs to go, and substance has to rule.