Archive for August, 2013

Our Football Hypocrisy

Posted in college football, football, sports with tags , , , , , , , on August 28, 2013 by cueball

I’m a hypocrite.  Most of us are, I just admit it.  Most football fans just try not to think about what we are asking for our personal entertainment.

I’ve read or seen all the major news reports.  I’ve even read a couple of the scientific papers that describe the effects of concussions.  I have a good handle on what scientists suspect are the long-term effects of using your body as a projectile against other human beings.  I know we are probably asking individuals to shorten their life-spans so that we have something to watch on Saturday and Sunday.  That truly gives me pause, at least through the end of August.

Then football season starts up again and I am swept back into the familiar routine of games all Saturday afternoon and night and again on Sunday afternoon.

We are like addicts.  We know what we are doing is bad.  We know that it is dangerous.  We know we should not do this, but every August football pulls us back.  The thing is we know deep down that we are quickly heading towards rock bottom, that point of reckoning where we will have to truly face what we are doing and what we are asking of these athletes.  At least I hope so.  I hope we face what we are doing and truly try to change before someone literally dies on the field.

Then again, maybe the NFL is becoming rollerball even against its own wishes.  I think the nightmare scenario for everyone in the league is a death on the field and think they are doing everything possible under the structure of football to make it safer.  They are adjusting rules and emphasizing correct technique at younger levels.   The problem is, of course, it is still football.

It is still a game of collision.  The object is to tackle the guy with the ball.  So, unless you completely change the game to the point where it is no longer about arresting the physical movements of other players, it will inherently be a collision sport that veers into physical violence.

Football is different from other sports in that it is probably the closest sport to physical chess (and by extension warfare).  Every move right down to basic blocking has a counter-move.  There are only two ways to move the ball:  running and passing (we’ll leave kicking out for the moment).  Within those two possibilities you have hundreds of different plays which can be disguised with hundreds of different formations.  Defense is basically zone or man, but within that you can change the type of personnel on the field and or play zone principles on one side of the field and man principles on the other.  It is endlessly complicated and fascinating.

All of that being said, the sport appeals to us precisely because it is so physical a game.  After we get done with all the talk about zone blitzes and the read-option it comes down to the Oklahoma Drill.  It is the sport’s essence and its beauty.  Yet, what it represents may also be its undoing.

The Oklahoma Drill is simple.  In a space about three yards long and one yard wide two players line up against each other as if at the line of scrimmage.  The coach blows the whistle and the player who can push the other player out of the space or onto the ground wins.  It is simple. It is brutal and it is the essence of football.  The game at its core level is about one person taking the challenge to physically dominate another person.  Watching that challenge on each play keeps us coming back despite what should be our better judgment.

A lot about soccer and with a dash of Breaking Bad (no spoilers)

Posted in soccer, television with tags , , , on August 26, 2013 by cueball

67,000 people.

Last night I watched a soccer match in the United States that had 67,000 people in attendance.  This wasn’t a World Cup match, a US/Mexico World Cup qualifier, or two European club teams playing an exhibition.  This was a regular season match between Seattle and Portland in the Major League Soccer.

If you had asked me low those many years ago when I was playing high school soccer on football fields and glorified cow pastures if such thing as 67,000 people going to see a regular season soccer match were possible, I would have thought for a moment and not be able to conceive of the circumstances that led to this.

Somewhere, someone right now is writing on a message board how this means soccer has arrived in the United States and will take over as one of the big three sports along with football and basketball in a few years.  They may even write how soccer could replace football because the concussion issue will eventually bring football low.

There is also somewhere on the Internet writing how this huge crowd was an anomaly, the result of Clint Dempsey’s return and ESPN and NBCSN making us think we care about soccer because of all their commercials.  They will point out that big attendances like this occurred all the time with the New York Cosmos in the early-70s and soccer is still at best a second class sports citizen.

As is my wont, I think they are both right.

Winston Churchill once said, “This isn’t the end.  This isn’t even the beginning of the end.  However, this is the end of the beginning.”  That works as guidepost here because this isn’t soccer overtaking baseball in the American sports consciousness nor does it feel like someone off made for TV bit of pop culture phenomena.  However, I think it represents the moment when soccer said it isn’t going anywhere.

Throughout its first 15 years Major League Soccer always seemed to be on the verge of collapse.  In fact, 2001 was almost the year the league died.  It contracted two teams and the majority of the league was owned by one person, Phillip Anschutz.

However, from the low-ebb the league has survived and I think with the signing of Clint Dempsey has started to show its willingness to pay players still capable of contributing to big clubs in Europe a competitive wage.  I am talking about the 27-30 year old player still in their physical prime like Dempsey.  The real test will be after the World Cup in Brazil next summer.  Will the league pony up the money and can it sign players from the World Cup in that age group?  These are the players still in their national team’s mix and still capable of playing in the Premiership, La Liga, or the Bundesliga.

Yes, a lot of the hype for the match was built around the home debut of Dempsey in a derby match, but it didn’t matter that the game winner was scored by Eddie Johnson and not Dempsey.  Let’s put it this way, this wasn’t like going to see the Cosmos in 1975 hoping to see Pele score and instead seeing a game winner form someone like Jorge Siega or Joey Fink.  That is the difference between this league and the NASL back then.

Last night’s match felt like a celebration of everything that the league and US Soccer has achieved so far.  It felt like a moment when all of it supporters could exhale and say, “OK.  We’re not going anywhere.  We’ve built this and its foundation is strong.  What’s next?”

For all the fans of Breaking Bad out there, stop trying to guess what will happen next.  We, like Hank, are playing checkers while Vince Gilligan and his writers, like Walter, are playing three-dimensional chess.

Things I think about when procrastinating

Posted in writing with tags , , , on August 23, 2013 by cueball

I’ve been thinking about sculpture recently.  When I worked in development at McColl Center for Visual Art, the artists I liked to watch work and hear speak about their work were the sculptures.  The ones who took hard, inert objects and turned them into something beautiful.  There was something about what they talked about and how they talked about it that appealed to me.

The more I work on revising this book, the more I understand that writing (all art for that matter) is as much sculpting (particularly clay work) as it is anything else.  You take this inert clump of something that has sprung from your mind that has some vague outline of something potentially artistic and you work at it.  You shave off parts here, you add parts there, and you shape it into something you can eventually stand to look at and show others.

My favorite piece of American literature is The Great Gatsby (no I haven’t seen the current movie incarnation and may never after reading the reviews).  Everyone always talks about the closing and being “borne back ceaselessly into the past.”  It is brilliant and one of the greatest final sections in history.  However, that isn’t my favorite passage.

My favorite passage is in the first chapter when Nick goes to dinner with Tom, Daisy, and Jordan.  He and Tom walk in on Daisy and Jordan lounging in the afternoon heat.  In one paragraph, 117 words he completely describes and evokes this world Nick and eventually Gatsby will crash into with such beautiful and poetic language that I read that section over and over again and type it out verbatim at least once a year in hopes something of that genius flows into my fingers.

The point I’m getting to is this, how many passes did it take Fitzgerald to get that paragraph to the fine point it is for publication?  How much of the basic idea was there in the first pass?  How many passes did it take him to get the color scheme right?  How many times did he write it and rewrite until he got the final line, “Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”  Five, ten, one hundred times?

We all like to think of the exciting life of the author, especially authors from the romanticized time of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Joyce.  We like to think of them swashbuckling their way through all these brilliant short stories and books and not about all the long hours of striving to find the perfect combination of words that would describe something perfectly and sing like poetry.

Thinking about writing a book the sheer size of Ulysses gives me a headache.  It is amazing the stamina physically as well as mentally it took to write one draft and then keep chipping away and chipping away until there stood this monument to 20th century literature.

With that, I’m off to start again with my hammer and chisel.  Another pass at the first chapter of this thing I wrote begins again.

Hopefully this is the last time I talk about this

Posted in college basketball, college football, NCAA, sports with tags , , , , on August 23, 2013 by cueball

Amateurism is dead, smothered by NCAA commercialization. Yet, NCAA drags it around like it’s in a bizarre remake of “Weekend at Bernie’s.” – @JayBilas, ESPN Basketball Commentator Jay Bilas via twitter

How did I end up here?

I, like most people who love college sports started out believing in the sanctity of the NCAA and the current college sports model.

I love reading and writing and I believe in the concept of education as a good unto itself.

College football and basketball is a part of my Saturday’s and has been for as long as I can remember.  Back in the ancient times before the explosion of ESPN I remember waiting for the Jefferson Pilot introduction to start with the pilot himself on his boat in his yellow rain slicker.  That always meant the start of college football or basketball for the day was at hand.  The voices of Keith Jackson and Ara Parseghian are still ingrained in the football loving part of my brain.  I am a graduate of UNC Chapel Hill and a devoted fan of all of its athletic teams.

Yet, I sit here right now hating the NCAA and what it pretends to represent.

The first cracks in my blind devotion would come with the Fab Five.  This is a fascinating group of players.  On one hand they actually won nothing, yet they are more famous the then teams that beat them to win national championships and Big Ten Championships.  On the other hand, they were the first athletes to openly ask, “Why does everyone else get to make money off me except me?”

My knee jerk reaction at the time was the same as many now, “You’re getting a scholarship.  Shut up and be happy.”  However, the seeds were planted and I didn’t wholly believe what I was saying.

Then the slow drip, drip of all the television contracts, coaches contracts, “one and done” rules, etc. washed away the improvised splatter of “amateurism” the NCAA keeps trying to paint on itself to protect its revenues.

One of the arguments you will often hear by defenders of the NCAA’s status quo is that the huge CBS/Turner contract is split between all the NCAA schools and all of the teams in all of its sports, so it doesn’t equal that much money per school per team.  However, I look at it differently.  Having to split that money between so many athletic departments means that you have to protect what little revenue you have at all costs.  In this case that means making sure you don’t have a huge expenditure line of paying players eating into those revenues.

I think it is clear that the current system is going to collapse in on itself sometime within the next 10 years.  A system where the group at the top gets all the revenue and the group at the bottom who does all the work gets compensated in tuition and housing yet can’t get an outside job or use their own name to make additional money seems unfair because it is.  Coaches can quit and go to different schools with no repercussions as long as they can pay the buyouts, but a player leaves to go to a different school for whatever reason has to sit a year, unless granted a waiver by the powers that be.  Additionally, schools who claim poverty when asked to pay their “student-athletes” a living wage better not have a coach making millions of dollars.

Again, if the system seems unfair, it is because it is.  If we were still in a time when all the money surrounding college sports was solely the province of outside agents than the NCAA holding the line for amateurism would be more acceptable.  However, you can’t sell a jersey with a player’s number on it and then claim that you were only selling the team and the individual.

How many #50 Tar Heel jerseys were sold before Tyler Hansbrough matriculated to Chapel Hill?  Now, I love Rich Yonacker, Cecil Exum, Octavus Barnes, and Brian Bersticker as much as the next Tar Heel fan, but the school wasn’t moving a whole lot of merchandise with 50 on it when those guys wore the number.  The NCAA getting caught using the names of players as a search parameter for jerseys on their website was humiliating for them and funny for us, but it was at best a symptom of a failed system built upon a manufactured belief system with no basis in reality.

The Confrontation

Posted in Fiction with tags on August 23, 2013 by cueball

The voices from upstairs weren’t clear, but they were loud and they were angry.  Russell and Susan hid behind the discarded crib they both slept in and toddler basketball goals they played with 20 years ago.  They had come down to get some boxes to help Sondra move to her new apartment across town.

She graduated from the academy two months ago and started as a patrol officer a couple of weeks later.  This was her first free weekend to move to her first apartment.  When the yelling started in the back bedroom, Russ saw Sondra go out to her car and get her handgun as he and Susan were coming back up the stairs.  He stopped and ushered Susan back down to hide among their past.

The only person who liked Ray was their mother and that seemed to shift on an hourly basis.  Usually due to how much either of them had been drinking.  Ray and their mother Fancie had been dating off and on for 10 years.  With Sondra moving out, Ray decided Fancie needed protection and he was moving in to provide it.  He didn’t tell her until he showed up today with his pickup truck full of his stuff.

They had been sniping at each other for 2 hours, but something happened to make it personal in the last 15 minutes. Something personal enough that Sondra thought she needed the Walther PPK Russ got her for graduating in the top 5 of her academy class.

The voices had been rising and falling for 15 minutes and now they were at low ebb and moving towards the kitchen.  Russ signaled for Susan to stay where she was and moved up the stairs to the door to see what was happening.

He poked his head through and could see his mother standing at the kitchen door with Sondra in front of her.  He could hear Ray’s voice coming from outside.  “I’ll leave you crazy bitch.  You and them crazy-ass young-uns.  Shit, you know you need me here.  You know I love you, Fancie.”

“Get in your truck and go, Ray.  Go home and sober up.  If you come back drunk like this again I’ll have you arrested.”

“Girl, I know more cops in this town then you do.  I grew up with half of ‘em.  You don’t scare me.”

“This does though.”  Russ could see she was gesturing to the hand gun she had pointed low and away from Ray at the moment.

“Well, you and that ain’t going to always be here.  Me and Fancie, we belong together.  I’ll be back so we can talk alone, baby.”  He got in his old blue Ford and got it cranked on the second try.  He backed out of the drive way just missing the mailbox and Sondra’s Toyota.

“Sondra, why did you do that?  Now, he is just going to be madder than he was before.”

Sondra was already on her cell phone.  “Hello, I would like to report a suspected drunk driver. Yes, he is in a late model blue Ford pickup truck with a rusted rear panel on the left side.  The license plate number is FRD-0915.  He is headed west on Grover Street towards the hospital.  Yes, I saw him swerving around his lane as I drove past him.  He almost hit my car.  OK, thank you.”

By that time Russ had called Susan up from the basement and they were all standing around the kitchen.

Susan sat at the kitchen table, her hands shaking.  “What good will that do?  He’s just going to get out of it.”

“Maybe, but it will keep him in lock up for the night.  We can get the locks changed in the meantime.”

“I don’t know if this is a good idea.”

“Mama, we’re going to change the locks today and he won’t have a key.  If he comes back, don’t let him in and call me, Sondra, or Susan and we’ll come handle it.  You just going on back and lay down.  Me and Susan will go and get you new locks and be back soon.”  Fancie went back towards her bedroom and the three children stood around the kitchen in much the same way they did when their father died.  Susan at the table, Russ standing in the middle of the room and Sondra leaning against the wall.

How The Lawnmower Got In A Ditch

Posted in Fiction with tags , , , , , on August 22, 2013 by cueball

It started simple enough.  I was trying to get to the grocery store before the rain got really bad.  The only way I could get to it was with the riding lawnmower I got.  Too many reckless driving citations along with too many DUIs.  I am resourceful though.

I only had about football field left to go when the drizzle started.  What’s a little drizzle at this point, you know.  So, I pushed on.

Now, the bit of this yard I was driving over is where the road and the yard both fall off to a run off area.  You either have a yard like this or you’ve seen them when you drive by.  The road has a crown in the middle and slopes towards either side so rain water doesn’t stand on it and the yards that line it slope down from the houses towards the road.  That leads to a small low area that collects the water from both sides.

With all the rain this year, all the low areas done collected a lot of water.  I knew this when I started.  I was riding right beside the road and that ain’t the safest thing.  The idiots that drive by aren’t the most attentive drivers in the world.  Trust me I know.

I’m looking out for the cars coming by and rushing to get there before the rain gets worse.  This last low area at the front of this last yard gets pretty steep at the far right side just before a stand of trees between this house and the next one.  It is also the part that actually has about six inches of standing water.

I was going to ride across this ditch straddling it with my wheels on both slopes.  Even with a riding mower with the ground clearance of a hedgehog I figured I could do it and not suck up much water and not mess up the mower.

I heard the tire treads coming up behind me over the mower’s engine and blades.  I glanced over my shoulder and saw a F350 tearing towards me at about 60 mph.  I took my eyes off what I was doing for second and I turned the wheel a little ways away from the road out some involuntary act of safety.  That slight movement dropped me right in the ditch and into the water.

Apparently, it doesn’t take much for these things to get stuck.  It wasn’t that the water got into the engine or anything it was that the wheels couldn’t get any traction in the mud.  I tried to rock it back and forth between forward and reverse and that just made it worse.  I tried to pull it backwards by hand, but that ended in the predictable me falling backwards into the wet grass.

By that time the rain was picking up and I had no way to pull the thing out.  After about 6 hours of steady rain I think I’m going to need a new mower.  The water is actually up to the mower blades now.  I talked to a friend that fixes engines and he said the engine could be all right if you can get it out and let it dry for a couple of days before working on it, but I would have to do it soon. The homeowner was probably at work when it happened and with the rain I hadn’t been back by since.  I hope it’s still there.  I still need to get to the grocery store.

To sleep, perchance to get some freaking sleep

Posted in sports, television, writing with tags , , , , , , on August 21, 2013 by cueball

Insomnia is a bitch.

For the last week or so I’ve only been getting about 4 hours sleep.  I’ve been waking up at around 3:30 every night and haven’t been able to get back to a deep sleep.  I’ve gotten to that point just before a deep sleep when you are still on the wrong side of consciousness to be considered asleep.  You are still just barely awake and can still make out sounds of what is going on around you, but you are not fully asleep.

Now, what happens is my alarm goes off at 6:30.  I turn it off and promptly fall asleep for another hour if I don’t drag my sleep deprived self up and out of bed.  This wouldn’t be so bad if I wasn’t trying to finish a book while working a full-time job every day.  The only time I really get to write is first thing in the morning and that is hard when all your mind is thinking is, “I need another 2 hours of sleep to be worth anything.”

This only recently started, so maybe it is because I know I need to write and my mind won’t settle.  I’m hoping that is what it is.  I’m just going to get up when my alarm goes off and try to function as best I can and write through it.  We’ll see.

I’ve been avoiding writing anything about Johnny Manziel or the NCAA this summer because I’m tired of the whole story.  I will say this:  I’ve come to believe the problem with the NCAA is two-fold.  First, it holds onto to this conception of amateurism that it only created in the 50s and 60s as television revenue became a reality.  No other entity in the world still holds onto this idea of absolutely no pay for athletes.  Second, the NCAA is more like FIFA and IOC then it is like any academically based membership group.  It is a money making vehicle who uses rhetoric to pump up its self-importance often at the expense of its sports and its athletes.

A fundamental question is rarely asked in the current argument over whether to pay players (or student-athletes).  That question is, why does college athletics exist?  Is it to give students who normally would not be able to afford college the opportunity to get higher education or is it to promote the schools the teams represent.  If it is to provide educational opportunities then the idea of selling the games to the highest television bidder and paying coaches huge amounts of money to win may still happen to an extent, but to the obscene extent they happen today.  If it is to promote the schools and act as “the front porch” that everyone sees, then the television revenue and coach’s pay makes a lot more sense.

In a perfect world this whole system would be to provide scholarships that help kids get educations.  They would be treated like any other scholarship student on campus who as long as they meet the requirements of their scholarship agreement they keep the scholarship.  Meaning if they meet their academic and athletic requirements, they keep the scholarship.  If they want to get a job during their free time they can.  If they want to start a business or make a rap album under their own name, they can.

The NCAA and a minority of its member institutions pay lip-service to the concept of student-athletes to continue making the money it and they have become dependent upon.  While I compared the NCAA to FIFA and the IOC, I think the NCAA is the saddest case.  They all stumbled into their money-grubbing almost accidentally, but the NCAA was started solely to protect athletes.  The other two began as ways to promote and legislate sports and events.  The NCAA’s origins were literally to protect football players by creating a governing body over the burgeoning football craze.  Now it has become an organization fighting off lawsuits over concussions via football.

I’ve come up with a few television shows premiering this fall that interest me.  I wrote Monday that I wanted to start reviewing a new show for this seasonThe Blacklist, Almost Human, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and The Tomorrow People all seem the most interesting shows coming up this season.  I need to check on the cable channels and see what they have debuting between this fall and next summer to see if anything else jumps out at me.

I hope to make these reviews and more consistent sports writing a regular features going forward.

Now, I might go take a nap.