Archive for the sports and society Category

You Can Become Anything

Posted in beer, sports, sports and society with tags , , , , , on November 21, 2014 by cueball

I have 3 things in my life I really like to read about, talk about, and write about:  craft beer, college sports, and US soccer.  As it happens, we are in very interesting times for all three of those things.  They are all in places that could be called adolescence (for craft beer and US soccer) or midlife crisis (college sports).

40 Years In The Wilderness

I remember the 40 years in the wilderness.  The 40 years for US soccer between World Cup appearances.  In international soccer, not playing in the World Cup is the wilderness.  It means you are irrelevant.  Those days saw the NASL burn out like a wayward flare and youth soccer and college soccer become the apex of soccer achievement for players and coaches.  Then, in 1989 Paul Caliguiri scores the goal against Trinidad and Tobago (I watched in a friend’s basement as ESPN showed some borrowed feed with Bob Ley and Seamus Malin calling the action from Bristol) 25 years ago.  That goal put the US in the 1990 World Cup, the last they could qualify for before hosting in 1994.  Without that goal, there is no Major League Soccer, no quarterfinals run in 2002, or the heightened expectations of a country used to winning and dominating at everything it does.

That is why I call this period an adolescence for US Soccer.  Modern US Soccer did not begin until the late 1980s.  In terms of soccer history that less than 30 year period is a blip.  Soccer in this country has taken its first steps, World Cup qualifying and quality professional first division, now it is trying to move from the callow youth with all this untapped potential to a successful adult taking the world by storm.  That has led to a lot of the problems that come with adolescence.  In that period from youth to adulthood, your adolescence is spent trying to figure who you are, what you believe, and what is your voice.

That is what US Soccer is doing right now. Its constituent members, its fans, and the media who cover US Soccer are all asking questions right now.  Should a young player go abroad to play, or stay and work through the US/MLS development system?  Should the national team play a more possession based system that values keeping the ball or should it play or a more counterattacking system that absorbs pressure from the other team? How do we get more athletes access to quality coaching and playing in a country this vast geographically?  Throw on top of that the inevitable jockeying for primacy and power within the structure of US Soccer and a lot of silly things are being said from anonymous sources to the media.

Just as it takes time and missteps to work through those fundamental questions as an adolescent it will take time and a lot of pain and hurt feelings for US Soccer to answer those growing pain questions.

The beer industry in the US spent its own time in the wilderness with the passing of Prohibition on through the 1970s.  That puts modern existence of craft beer in the US in much the same position as US Soccer.  What it means to be a craft beer brewer is one of those internal debates that most consumers don’t notice or care about, but is actually important to the future of the brewing industry in this country.

On one level (the level most consumers see it) it doesn’t matter where your beer comes from or who makes it as long as it is good.  On the second level it matters immensely.  The vibrancy and growth of craft beer in the US is primarily attributed to the idea of the independent brewer making good beer apart from and in many cases in spite of the big brewer’s influence/interference.  That is what takes it from merely an industry into a craft.

The oft cited numbers from the Brewer’s Association are this:  in 1932 there were 0 brewers in the US, in 1980 there were 92 brewers in, by the end of 2013 there were almost 3000.  The fear among many within the craft beer world is that the growing trend of the big brewers buying regional and local breweries will lead to stifling the creativity and therefore the growth of the industry and fundamentally change it at the same time.

This fear is well founded if you look at an industry like movies.  The reason most of the movies you see and read about are comic book movies, adaptations from television or books, remakes of previous movies, or sequels/prequels is that there is almost no American independent movie movement anymore.  Today the movies that get made are either micro-budgeted shorts that the director puts up on YouTube in hopes of attracting a studio’s attention or a superhero yarn that costs triple the GDP of a third world country to make.

However, just as I think some kind of market correction is coming to the movie industry where enough people will get tired of seeing cities and planets destroyed by aliens and go back to movies about people talking, I don’t think independent craft brewers will ever disappear.  We are just in a period where the big multinational brewers (or beverage companies/conglomerates) will figure out how to tap into that market and the independent craft brewers will figure out how to leverage those multinational’s interest into making better beer.

Again, it is that adolescent process of figuring out who you are in a big complicated and convoluted world.  There are no easy answers and no quick solutions.

The Midlife Crisis

The NCAA and college sports have been around since the turn of the 20th century.  Almost since the beginning it has had to endure a push-pull between providing athletes the opportunity to gain education and making money off the on the field efforts of those athletes.  However, I think now the NCAA and its member institutions have entered a time that the money is so great (for two sports: football and men’s basketball) that coaches, administrators, and institutions are compromising their primary responsibility, to educate, in order to keep making money.

Much like adolescence a midlife crisis is a moment when you step back and assess who you are and what you believe in. Usually, people who go through midlife crises have been successful, but they see the end is closer than the beginning.  Whereas the adolescent is asking, “What can I do with this unlimited future,” the middle aged ask, “What legacy am I going to leave behind?”

The midlife crisis questions are harder because they often require a change in mindset and a change in path.  The adolescent is discovering their path while the middle aged are often creating a new one from an already heavily traveled road.

The road the NCAA has traveled down took a wrong turn somewhere.  Maybe not a turn, but it veered to the left fork instead of the right one.  At some point the NCAA took its eye off the primary mission of its members, to educate, and became more about sports-entertainment.  (This blog post at The Classical does a better job explaining this then I can.) I don’t think it was intentional or done out of greed or malice. Nor do I think it was any one decision that set this path.

Regardless of whether you think amateurism and the concept of the “student-athlete” are arbitrary creations to hold on to money, power, or status or you think they are the bedrocks onto which a whole belief system and way of life that should be protected is based, you must agree that the NCAA cannot go on as it currently is.  The NCAA has incentivized a system of graft and cheating by hording all the money it makes into the hands of a very few and none of those being the actual athletes.  This money comes from both the NCAA Tournament television contracts, the television contracts the individual conferences have all signed, and the College Football Playoff contracts.  Those last two categories are actually outside the purview of the NCAA proper, but everyone who participates in those contracts are members of the NCAA.

Intercollegiate sports will not exist as we know it in 20 years.  I believe athletes will have contracts. They will sign for a certain amount to go their education and perhaps bonus money that will probably (at the very least) include money from any ancillary sales produced by their name or likeness (i.e. jersey sales).  Athletes will be allowed to do endorsements outside of the school and sign merchandise and memorabilia for money.  Now, the schools will include a non-compete clause with penalties in the contract so that the athlete can’t just jump from school to school and they would have minimum academic requirements (probably the same as the rest of the student body) in order to remain eligible to play.  I stole most of this from Jay Bilas.

∞∞∞

The most complicated and sometimes painful part of life are those moments when you have to stop and truly look inside yourself and ask, “Who am I and what am I doing here?” US Soccer, craft beer, and the NCAA are all in that place. This time is full of opportunity and hope. It is also filled with fear and trepidation.  Yet, these are the most interesting and fun times because they are full of possibility. You can become or do anything.

The One In Which I Scold Us For Making Athletes Into Heroes

Posted in society, sports, sports and society with tags , , , , , on March 4, 2013 by cueball

I have been obsessed with the way we look at athletes for the past couple of years.  We have a constant stream of stories that tell us the athletes we have virtually deified are nothing more than humans.  They are on the far genetic end of what a human body is physically capable of achieving, but they are merely humans.

Why do we feel the need to elevate them so much?  Is it something we as a public needs or is it something the “television partners” of these sports need to get non-sports fans to watch?  As always I vote for both.

Pure sports fans hate NBC’s Olympic coverage.   From their point of view, they have invested so much money in the Olympics, in order to receive any return on investment they have to treat the Olympics as some kind of giant entertainment vehicle that features American athletes and a few people from other countries.  They make it almost into professional wrestling with all the talking and narrative and so little actual sports.  Apparently, the drama created by actual sports where you have actual winners and losers and participants who will never compete at this level again isn’t appealing enough to housewives or whomever NBC imagines they are trying to get to watch.

The advent of 24 hours sports channels has created a demand of constant sports programming that can’t be satiated by sports alone.  You can only show so many games and talk about them for so long before everyone gets bored.  This time is often filled by talking about someone’s dramatic journey from the valley to the pinnacle and how wonderful they are.

The 30 For 30 franchise has done so much to elevate the sports documentary that you can and often do forget that they are in anyway about sports.  Besides the brilliant Two Escobars, Once Brothers, or Without Bias, you get these little gems of Run Ricky Run or The Best That Never Was.  Then the NFL Network’s A Football Life does the same thing by following the lives of interesting people in the football realm.  However, these are special cases and not everything has that much quality behind it.  See ESPN’s continuing coverage of the Tim Tebow Saga.

The one story Americans love is the rise-fall-rise story.  F. Scott was wrong.  There are second acts in American life.  The public demands it and eats it up like pizza at a college party.  That is the conceit behind a lot of the sports documentaries you see about individuals.  This person achieved a great deal of success, they lost it all, and then they fought to get it all back.  The narrative basically writes itself.

To me the need for the fall in these stories is the more interesting part.  We build them up because we need heroes.  We need people to look up to and because they are rich and on television, they are the ones we elevate.  The problem is that our sports heroes are more like The Watchmen and less like The Justice League.  Our heroes are flawed humans who have special talents that set them apart.

Sports fans concentrate on the things that make them special and ignore the things that make them human making them into modern day demi-gods sometimes until it is too late.  In our minds their reflective glow makes us feel better and forget about the mortgage that is due at the end of the week.  Then we see them in handcuffs and are reminded that they are more like us then gods.

However, why do we search out these human flaws and ridicule them for them?  I guess the question I’m asking is why do we care so much about whether these people are good human beings and why are we still surprised when they are not?  They can’t be life sized action figures that come out and perform for us and then go back into their box when the game is over and be human heroes.  We need to stop asking our athletes to be more then flawed humans.  We will all be better off and happier.

Again, why do we follow sports?

Posted in football, society, sports, sports and society with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2013 by cueball

What do sports mean to us?  What do we get out of sports at a personal level?

If we break sports down to their essential basics, they are rather absurd.  Put this small ball into a hole, 400 yards away using nothing but sticks in as few swings as possible.  Put this large round ball into an 8 foot tall by 8 foot wide space on the other end of the field using nothing but your feet.  Move this oblong ball down the field past this line while holding onto it.  These are patently ridiculous things to attempt to accomplish when viewed in a vacuum. Yet, we watch them religiously.

In simpler more innocent time, sports provided fans a sense of community and family.  As a fan of a sport and a team you were not alone.  There were others out there like you.  You felt as if you were part of something larger, something important.  Also, like a family, no matter how dysfunctional it may have been, you were still part of it.

Then the internet age began.  Now, maybe the most important thing sports provide is the same voyeuristic outlet as soap operas and movies.  With today’s 24/7 coverage of sports we get constant information that turns sports into a constant reality show.

We are bombarded with news about a player and what is happening in his life.  Athletes give feature interviews that run on the 8 ESPN channels every 5 minutes and people watch every time.  Athletes are on Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler, etc. giving us the illusion of speaking directly to fans.  So we think we know these people.

What we don’t notice or care about is that the more access we have to them, the more they control what we see of them.  Unless, of course, they truly fuck up.  Then and only then does a usually compliant national press corps dig deep into a person.  Because at the moment athlete screws up publicly, his screw up drives ratings much better than his athletic exploits ever did.

Most non-football fans would not have known Manti Te’o if he came into their house and sat on their lap before last week.  Up until then he was just a football player at Notre Dame who might have an OK career in the NFL and some tragic stuff happened to him in September.  Now he is a national punch line or a grifter extraordinaire that everyone knows.

We go from thinking we know them and how great they are to making them a laughing stock and holding them up for ridicule in the time it takes to post a story on the internet.

I don’t want to go back to the mid-20th century of sports reporting where no one talked about Mickey Mantle being a drunk and getting into bar fights.  Neither do I want sports reporters to act like TMZ correspondents.

Yes, a lot of the stuff is entertaining (“honey nut cheerios” is funny), but does it in anyway enhance your viewing enjoyment of the sport?

Maybe I’m thinking about this stuff because first, the last year has seen many of the heartwarming sports narratives ground into dust by reality.  Or maybe it is that this is my least favorite two weeks of the sporting calendar.

During the two weeks before the Super Bowl, reporters get bored with talking about the game and stuff devolves into silly debates and made up angles and ridiculous stories.  Media Day at the Super Bowl is possibly the most odious thing we do in sports.  It has nothing to do with the actual game.  There will be no real news.  There will be nothing but gadflies trying to get a mention by the national media for something stupid they asked or wore.

Just once I want an athlete to get asked an idiotic question by someone wearing a costume and answer like this, “Seriously.  I am playing the biggest game of my life on Sunday.  I should be somewhere looking at tape or going over the game plan.  Instead, I’m sitting here with this dumb-ass in a Superman costume asking dumb-ass questions.  He is wasting my time and you guys time.  How the hell long do I have to sit here and do this crap?  I got things to do.  Some of them rather fucking important.  But hey, I’ll sit here and listen to this idiocy because if I don’t the commissioner will fine me for having common sense.  Next question.”

That would be one of the happiest days of my sporting life.

These Kinds of Stories Don’t Tell Us Who They Really Are

Posted in sports, sports and society with tags , , , , , , , on January 21, 2013 by cueball

I have learned two things about athletes in my sport watching life.  The first is we do not know these people and the second is we love the story of these people.

My least favorite time of the sporting year is the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl.  Because there is two weeks and there is only so much you can talk about with the game strategy and analysis we get a lot of flummery.  ESPN and the NFL network get bored talking about blitz pickups and try to find anything else to fill time.  The other networks are just looking for an angle to pull in more viewers.  So, every player or coach who may have some kind of impact on the game gets the NBC Olympic treatment.

If you have ever watched the Olympics you know that every athlete gets to tell their inspiring story of how they have overcome all these obstacles to get to the pinnacle of the most important moment in their lives.  Pure sports fans pretty much hate this approach.  They love sports for sports and just want to see the athletes compete.

The thing is, these stories that supposedly get us closer to knowing the athletes aren’t for the pure sports fan who makes up a fraction of the Olympic (and Super Bowl) audience.  They are designed to bring in the non-sports fan, and they work.  Like most things on television, if people don’t watch the networks stop doing it.  There is little if anything on a television network that isn’t measured by rating and how much money it will make.

We love these stories.  They seem better then movies because they are about real people.  You will often hear an announcer say something like, “Hollywood couldn’t make this up.”  The insidious problem is these stories often give us the illusion of knowing these athletes.

We don’t know them and these stories give us a fraction of that person, at best because these are human beings.  Human beings keep secrets from each other.  Hell, human beings keep secrets from themselves.

Every time a serial killer is caught, someone who lives next door to him or works in the same office with him will come out and say, “He didn’t seem like that kind of guy.”  If you work with someone 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, and have lunch with them 2 times a week, and you still don’t know they are a serial killer, how can you expect to learn anything about an athlete from a 6-minute feature with Tom Rinaldi?  You will not know who they are at the end of those 6-minutes.  You will have heard a great story about them that gives you a glimpse at a fraction of their being, but that is it.

You would think the stories about Lance Armstrong or Manti Te’o would give reporters pause in considering doing these personal stories.  However, we are entering the worse time of the year for that, the pre-Super Bowl two weeks.  So, we will be drowned in stories about Ray Lewis, the Harbaugh brothers, Colin Kaepernick, and whatever else CBS, ESPN, the NFL Network, and every other news outlet can think of over the next two weeks.  I’m glad I have Netflix, college basketball, and a Kindle to distract me.

I may die today

Posted in sports and society with tags , , on December 27, 2012 by cueball

“I may die today,” is a Buddhist mantra used especially during morning mediations to remind oneself that you should live in the present and to the fullest because today may be your last.  That is one of the things I admire about professional athletes.  They are always present and they always play as if this may be their last play.

By the time they reach to professional level, athletes have seen every kind of injury and every type of game loss imaginable.  They understand instinctively not to trust any gambling lines that they should win easily.  They know to never take a play off because that is when you get hurt.

That is one of the things I work on every day.  Living in this moment and not worrying about the things out of my control.  The old saying is, “Half the things you worry about will never happen and the other half are going to happen anyway.”  When you watch the best teams play, the whole team seems to have this very understanding in the front of their minds.

One of the things you often hear from players on the New England Patriots is that everyone just does their job.  Meaning, each player does what he has been told to do on each play without worrying about whether his teammate is doing the same.  They have developed a trust in their teammates through continuous repetition in practice, in the film room, and on the field.

That is one of the things you can gain from playing sports and participating on well-coached teams:  the ability to always be present, to focus on the task at hand, and to take advantage of every moment by doing your best.

I may die today.  Am I doing what I love?  I may die today.  Am I living my life to the fullest of my abilities?  I may die today.  Will this life have been worth it?

Athletes do not ask these questions.  They are too busy living each moment to ask these questions or to worry.  The best athletes always push themselves to use every ounce of their abilities and to do whatever it takes to get better.  This sometimes makes them horrible people to be around.  That is not to say, this expression of that drive is inevitable.  Some athletes spin that drive into more positive ways and do not seem to have demons following them.

For better or worse, athletes have taken their place as our modern pantheon of public gods.  And we let them because we have been taught that we need that pantheon.  We need our heroes.  They make our lives a little happier; they give us hope that things are possible.  They do provide that solace, that hope; however it is only a transient feeling.

Even in this age where we have so much more information about them, we know less about these public gods.  Most of the things we know come from the athletes and their P.R. machines.  We get information from their official Twitter handle or their official Facebook page, and if we get any kind of stories on ESPN, Sports Illustrated, or name your website it is usually some story out to prop up their official hagiography.

Even if we know it is not quite the truth we keep coming back.  Even if you have seen too much and lose that childlike fandom, you keep coming back with the hope of glimpsing something that makes you forget your worries and make it OK that you may die today.

Righteous Indignation Gives Me Indigestion

Posted in society, sports, sports and society with tags , , , on December 13, 2012 by cueball

I was not born with the righteous indignation gene.  Either that or, it is recessive in me and it never gets my emotions going into overdrive.  How else can I explain my lack of moral outrage at finding out Tommy Tuberville may be a jerk?  Apparently, when he accepted the job at Cincinnati he was on a recruiting dinner with two Texas Tech recruits and left them at the table with his assistants.  A half-decent human being would at least say, “Sorry guys, I have to go now.  I have accepted the head coaching job at Cincinnati.  I can’t keep talking to you because it might violate NCAA rules.”  If we have learned anything, however, the college coaching ranks in its two biggest sports (football and men’s basketball) isn’t burdened with an overabundance of half-decent human beings.

When will we stopped being shocked and outraged at the fact that many of our sports heroes are in fact jerks.  We continue to hold them up as super-heroes, which is fine.  As long as the superheroes we hold them up is more like The Watchmen and less like the Superfriends.

They are human beings and they are fallible.  Sports is the place that has taught me, just because a person shows excellence in one part of their life does not grant them saint like qualities in every part of their lives.  Coaches are hired guns as Tuberville said in an interview on The Tim Brando Show earlier this week.  Coach X does not love Old State U as much as you do.  Get used to it.

The same goes for athletes.  They do stupid and illegal things occasionally. Yet, we always seem shocked and outraged when they do them.  That is OK, if you are a kid.  Sports fandom before you become a teenager is pure.  The athletes are all golden Gods.  However, for us adults this is a ridiculous and tiring way to spend your leisure hours.

Part of it is the insipid debate format ESPN has decided is the way to drive viewers to shows no one would otherwise watch.  Skip Bayless has made obscene amounts of money being outraged at humans behaving like humans.  He is able to do that because we want things being as simple as they were when we were children.

Except that it won’t be and it never was.  Reporters didn’t write about Mickey Mantle’s nights out drinking during the season.  They write about it now.  Maybe we know much, but it is too late to stop that now.  That doesn’t mean you have to like or accept players, coaches, and owners being assholes, but it does mean you have to stop acting shocked about it.  You don’t have to be outraged every time an athlete gets arrested or a coach leaves a bunch of players for a better pay check across the country.

Those things deserve to be mocked, however in a world where genocide is occurring and children starve our moral outraged can and should be better directed.

Dammit, we are all too human

Posted in society, sports, sports and society with tags , , , on October 23, 2012 by cueball

The story of Lance Armstrong is fascinating to me.  Not because I wonder why he used performance enhancers.  That is easily understandable.  He wanted to be the best at all costs, and as he proved the risk/reward for it was skewed so high that even though he has no more income from endorsements, he has already banked a great deal of money and invested much of it intelligently.  So yeah, he has no more Tour de France victories and no more endorsement deals, but he isn’t going to debtor’s prison any time soon.

What really interests me most is all the stuff around Armstrong.  First, how did he manage to get away with this open secret for so long?  Why did everyone involved in the hierarchy of cycling not do anything to stop it?  Everyone knew (and knows) how prevalent doping was (and still is) in cycling, so why protect him so long?  Why protect him in the first place?

The same questions go for all the journalists who covered the sport.  It isn’t just about the American journalists who dropped into cycling just for the Tour just to watch Armstrong were the only willing accomplices for this cover up.  The European journalists who covered the sport were cowed by the Armstrong mafia to the point that they wouldn’t write about any doping in the sport.  Again, why were Armstrong and his people given so much power?

I come back yet again to the why are people so angry with an athlete getting caught cheating?  Look at the NFL.  Every few weeks a player gets suspended for some drug related offense.  It happens, it is announced, the guy serves his suspension, and the NFL world continues on without any blips.

His standing in the world outside of the cycling world is based all on cancer.  He fought and beat cancer and that has made him a hero, a role model.  Charles Barkley was pilloried when he said in a commercial, “I am not a role model.”  The problem with the hand ringing from many people about this statement isn’t that it’s about athletes, but it is about humans.

Our athletes are our superheroes, but they are more Batman then Superman.  They are utterly human and therefore utterly flawed.  It makes them more interesting and it makes our reactions to them equally interesting.

I have often said, after seeing an athlete do something utterly freakish on the field of play that our athletes are barely human.  They are in some sense the next evolution of humanity.  Yet, they will also do something all too human and all to flawed to remind me why we watch.  They are us despite their physical gifts.

That is why I have always agreed with Barkley’s commercial statement.  They will make mistakes; they will screw up something important just like everyone else.  Yes, to whom much is given much is expected, but what is expected?

Maybe that is where the problem is, we don’t want them to be human.  We don’t want them to make the same mistakes we make.  It reminds us too much of our own frailties.  Maybe Armstrong’s mistake was not making himself into a superhero through better chemistry.  Maybe it was getting caught and reminding people how human we all truly are.