Archive for sports and society

I Can’t Stop Writing About This Damn Dying Organization

Posted in NCAA, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on December 12, 2013 by cueball

Playing college sports is not some moral choice.  Many in and out of the media have somehow begun the idea that believing the NCAA is a broken system and being paid for your skills as an athlete are immoral.  It is almost the idea that the athletes are to blame for the system being wrong if they have the temerity to believe they should be paid.

Many who have bought into the NCAA’s tax and labor law dodge known as the concept of the student-athlete.  Somehow, in the weakening of the NCAA, it and its media supporters have imbued being a student-athlete with the moral equivalence of a monk taking a vow of poverty to become closer to God.  The athlete who know they are going to play professionally at a high level are not taking a vow of poverty as athletes to better themselves, they are doing so because the system is set up to make them play in college.

Let us remember that many of the athletes that go to college on scholarship are not going simply to get an education.  Harrison Barnes did not go to my alma mater because of the Well, the Bell, or the stone walls.  He came because he wanted to go to the NBA and the only real way to get to the NBA is to spend what eventually amounts to less than two semesters in college.

In combination with the NBA and the NFL (and to a lesser extent the NHL, MLB, and MLS) the NCAA has managed to diminish education for many athletes.  They have created a situation where an elite athlete must decide between being a student or being a potential professional athlete.

I believe in education and education as its own reward.  The problem I have with the NCAA is that the system it has in part willfully created and in part fallen into in many ways diminishes education.  Again, it says if you are an elite athlete you must choose to be either a student or athlete.  Many do transcend this dichotomy.  Those student-athletes would succeed in whatever system was around.  The NCAA’s job should be to aid the other student-athletes in achieving the same scholastic heights as Myron Rolle who won a Rhodes Scholarship as a Florida State football player.

I think what has really bothered me is the way the arguments for the NCAA by its supporters pretends that those who criticize the NCAA are somehow evil and want some kid from a poor situation to be used up and destroyed by the dirty professional sports machine.

That is a dichotomous and idiotic argument.  I want people who want to go to college to be allowed to go to college by using their athletic ability (or any other skill they have) to provide a gateway to an education and better life.  I also want someone who only wants to play professional basketball (and not go to classes about 18th century literature) has the opportunity and mechanism to do so without taking away educational opportunities for athletes who want to take a class about 18th century literature.

This is not my best writing mostly because I keep trying to avoid writing about the NCAA.  It will be dead soon enough.


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.

The Guy

Posted in sports with tags , , , on July 22, 2013 by cueball

Some athletes love to be The Guy (or The Women).  These are athletes who are not only good but good at bringing attention to themselves.  They love for the public to have their eyes on them on and off the field.  They want to be the center of everything.

The Guy in today’s sports, at least for now is Johnny Manziel.  He is in the classic mold of many of the quarterbacks in football’s history.  Go back to Paul Hornung, Joe Namath (the exemplar), Ken Stabler and you will see a lot of the same characteristics that Manziel.  It is fun to watch in a sense because those others were in the NFL when their greatest exploits came to light.  Manziel is still in college where it isn’t supposed to be about the individual it is supposed to be about the honor of Old State U and some antiquated notion of amateurism.

As much fun as it would be to wax poetically about Manziel and my dislike of the NCAA system, I am too tired to go there anymore.  What really interests me is what happens when you are no longer the guy.

Being the guy is not a phenomenon that solely resides in sports.  It appears in other areas of life as well.  Yesterday was the birthday of someone who was The Guy in his lifetime, Ernest Hemingway.  Hemingway was not only a brilliant writer, but he also understood writing as an act and an art better than most people before or since.

Hemingway also loved being The Guy of American letters.  He created this persona and public face that lives on to this day.  Near the end, however, he knew he was no longer The Guy.  He was no longer the Hemingway he cultivated for public consumption.  He was no longer the bear of a man, adventurer, and genius so he ended it with a shot gun.

That is the thing about being The Guy.  It is a hell of a lot of fun while you are The Guy.  However, if you aren’t prepared for it to end, it will end badly.  The Guy very rarely walks off into the sunset and retires to nice anonymity.  Being The Guy is too good a drug.  It never seems to let go of the ones who have enjoyed it most.

That is why people enjoy Manziel so much right now.  He is living every little kid’s dream.  He is rich, a Heisman Trophy winner, a starting quarterback in the SEC, and could give less than two fucks about the NCAA and its rules.  Hopefully, he understands that this is a special time in his life and he should get in as much as he can before it runs out.  He’ll go out and have fun and when the time runs out he will move on to the next part of life.  Or, maybe he thinks this will go on forever and that his real self is this “Johnny Football” creation.

Either way, our reactions to him will make the next 4 years of his life interesting to watch.

An Attempt At Making Hemingway Love The San Antonio Spurs

Posted in sports, writing with tags , , , , , , , on May 28, 2013 by cueball

Hemingway would have loved the San Antonio Spurs.  He would have especially loved Tim Duncan.  No matter what you may think of Hemingway (I love him) you have to admit he had a love for the competent professional.  He respected the hell out of anyone who knew how to do things.  Almost all of his stories included passages of his main characters doing some task, no matter how small, extremely well.  His writing about writing and bullfighting and boxing and race car driving all reflect that same reverence for efficient skill.

The Spurs are professionals.  They go about their business of playing good basketball and winning without regard of what anyone else thinks (including David Stern).  They are not trying to impress you.  They are not trying to impress me.  They are simply trying to play basketball their way and win.  From Greg Popovich on down to the bottom of the roster this team focuses on the skills that will help it win and on very little else.

There is a beauty in the way the efficiently dispatched the Memphis Grizzlies.  When Hemingway wrote about bullfighting he always emphasized his love for the fighters he considered brave.  Not the ones with the needlessly ostentatious bravery, but the simple bravery of a man doing his job in an professionally artistic manner in the face of danger.

When selecting players, the franchise seems to focus on two things: 1) Does the player have a specific skill set that we can integrate into our system and 2) Is the player smart enough and/or willing enough to subsume his own glory to that of the team’s.

Outside of the occasionally petulant whining towards the refs and the point guard getting injured in a weird accident involving a night club and Chris Brown, you would hardly notice the Spurs until they have beaten you.

Their professionalism is off-putting to a modern fandom.  They aren’t looking for your emotional approval.  They don’t care of you like or you hate them.  They don’t care if you even notice them.  Just give them their trophy after they’ve kicked your ass and let them go about their business.  They are true to themselves and do what they think is right no matter the consequences.

This is what most of Hemingway’s characters tried to do:  Perform honorably with no regard to glory.  Popovich and Duncan have together built a franchise culture that isn’t about glory.  It isn’t about getting lauded on television and the internet.  It isn’t about getting a participation trophy for just showing up.  It is about doing the things that lead to winning on a daily basis and never losing sight of that goal.

I’m not going to get into whether the Spurs play the “right way.”  The right way is a term that often leads to describing teams that don’t play the right way as being selfish thugs and thugs is a word that has a lot of heavy connotations to it.  I don’t think the Spurs can be the Miami Heat, but I think it will be a fun series to watch.

As a franchise the Spurs refuse to play the games of ego placation when acquiring or keeping players nor do they seek to placate fans by bringing in big names solely to boost attendance.  They have a plan of how they want to play and how they want to run their franchise and they stick to that plan.  It helps that you have a hall of fame coach and the best player of his generation as your anchors.  However, most teams don’t have a plan other then try to win and try to fill the arena.  The Spur more than any other professional sports franchise seems to understand that the best way to get people to come see your team is to win and win consistently.

Of course, today, the idea that you sometimes need to eschew short term superficial gain in order to build something meaningful and long lasting is foreign to many.  Our current microwave and internet society is filled with instant gratification and instant answers.  So much so, that delaying enjoyment and building for the long term appears irrational.

Late night thoughts: Perfection, sports, and human frailty

Posted in life, sports with tags , , , , on April 11, 2013 by cueball

The past few days I have a couple of recurring thoughts.  Here they are with The XX as the soundtrack.

One came from the death of Roger Ebert.  In reading about him and listening to a couple of podcasts where his death was a topic a quote of his about movie criticism stood out to me.  I don’t know if I have it exactly right, but it goes something like:  It isn’t about what the movie is about, but how it is about it.

I think that is exactly right.  If a movie is just a big dumb piece of fluff made to make you laugh it doesn’t matter that it has no “message” as long as it does a good and intelligent job of making you laugh.  Sometimes critics (many of whom I like) review the movie or television show they want to see and not the one they are watching.

That is similar to how many sports commentators write about the sports they wish they were watching.  That thought comes from the increasing screaming from the sports intelligentsia in all sports to use technology to make the games better.  Mostly this is done with replays and in soccer’s case “goal-line technology.”  Everyone is obsessed with the games being perfect and no one ever missing a call.

The assumption is that by getting all the calls exactly right we will make the games not better but fairer.  I have to have two problems with that.  One, perfection isn’t attainable, nor is the expectation of perfection the reason I watch sports.  Two, does this technology necessarily make the game better.

Perfection is not something I look to sports to provide me.  I do expect competence and professionalism.  I do expect if someone, like say a referee, is bad at his job he will be fired and replaced with someone else.  However, I don’t watch games to see perfection.  I watch to see something I’ve never seen before.  I watch to see men and women test themselves and overcome obstacles and tests.  I expect to see a facsimile of life in a safe and controlled environment.

Life is a messy thing.  The good guys sometimes lose and the less talented are often rewarded for their lack of effort by people in charge who have no business digging latrines much less being in charge of people or money.  One of my favorite lines in movies is “Deserve has got nothing to do with it.”  Life isn’t fair and it certainly isn’t perfect.  I expect my sports and entertainment to be no different.  I like messy.

The other thing I actually disagree with is that the use of technology will make the games necessarily better.  I watched an NBA game a few weeks ago where the last 30 seconds took 20 minutes for all the stops that needed replay review by the referees.  All the stoppages and calls were correct, but it kind of took you out of the game.  Even the announcers openly questioned if this is what we as players, fans, coaches, etc. want out of the game.  Most sports except football and baseball are games of flow and momentum.  I worry that the technology will end up fundamentally taking away something that makes these games beautiful in the quest for perfection.

One of the reasons we keep wanting to add technology to sports to make them better is we all remember the egregious screw ups by referees.  The technology will solve these problems in the best case scenario.  Everyone uses the best case scenarios to illustrate why these changes will make the game better.  I look things differently.  I always think of the worst case scenario and how this stuff can be screw up something that was fundamentally not broken and how it creates another layer of rules to be broken.

I also remember to screw ups, but they become part of the tapestry of the sports and teams I watch much the same way the screw ups in life become the tapestry on which everyone’s life is built.  I don’t want the technology to take away the human frailty that makes sports wonderful in the first place.

Why So Serious

Posted in sports with tags , , , , on March 17, 2013 by cueball

Fans are passionate and they are loud.  True fans love their team through wins and losses.  They understand that to truly enjoy the mountain top of championships you have to suffer the valleys of many, many losses.

For all this love and understanding however, sometimes fans forget that this is supposed to be fun.  They forget these are games and to enjoy the ride.  They also start to believe the lover of their team is a moral choice and that because they like team X and you like team Y, they are superior to you.  This is where sports stop being fun and start being dark and painful.  It is falling in love with something and then becoming so obsessed by it that you lose touch with reality.  Ride or die turned bad.

This the thinking that leads people to start poisoning trees and going to away games looking to fight the other team’s fans as some kind of statement.  Let’s not worry about those people right now.  Let’s think about why we started playing and watching in the first place.

At some point, you fell in love with a sport or a team.  It was pure and wonderful.  Every day that you watched or played, it was like something was the best day of the week.  It was just the joy of reveling in the moment where each play and each shot made you happy regardless of outcome.

Then comes that first heart break.  That first big loss and it was the first time you knew this love of your life was not infallible.  It was the first time you noticed the other teams wanted to win just as much as you did.  This is the point where you either deepened your love or you ran off to another team.  If you stayed you were in for life, if you didn’t, well I don’t understand you.

Then you won again and lost again and lost again and won again.  The cycle repeats itself for the rest of time.  Kind of like love if you look at it long and hard enough.  You have your ups and downs and your fights and disagreements, but you stay in it because it is worth it.  That is where the difference ends, because love is actually important.

Unless you are on scholarship or somehow your paycheck is dependent upon the team, this is nowhere near life and death.  Cheering for people you have never met playing a game at a level that you cannot is not a moral choice.  You chose to cheer for this team because your personality meshed with the team’s personality, but that doesn’t make you better or more important than anyone else.

If your team loses it is not God judging you or some evil plan hatched by Satan himself to deny your team its rightful place in history.  People take all of this too personally after they have been a fan for a few years and lose the joy they had when they first fell in love.  They lose the sense of wonder and anticipation that comes from that first moment of discovery.

This isn’t about the money and the media crush, this is about putting things in perspective, not taking yourself too seriously and respecting each other as fans and as people.

Now I have to finish setting up my spreadsheet so that I can crunch stats that will help me win my tournament bracket contest.

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.