Wednesday, December 24, 2008

When a Sport is NOT a Sport (IV)

After all my high-minded historical work to define what makes a sport a sport, my neighbor gave me his simple definition over dinner tonight: if you can bet on it, it's a sport.

So tractor pulls (he has seen them, and says you CAN bet on them) and presidential elections (see Intrade) are sports... For him, if it involves chance and odds, it's a sporting event.

In other words, follow the money.

As a holiday wish: may your grading be painless, may all your articles be accepted for publication, and may your student evaluations be high...

Friday, December 19, 2008

What do French Gold Medals Have to do with American College Football?

Bernard Laporte, French Sports Minister, recently announced a new initiative designed to make France "among the premiere sporting nations" by 2016. He notes that France won a paltry 40 medals in Beijing and "too few were gold." So, he proposes resources be used to build a massive, state-of the art training facility for "elite" athletes and to restructure the way these elites are selected and managed.

There is much we could question about Laporte's initiative (read the entire speech here): Why finance the elite at the expense of the many? Why follow a British model (in sports, the French are always looking across the channel)? Why does he want to impose a reporting procedure that imitates the business world when I'm pretty sure the business world has been having some problems lately on that front? Why does he overuse of the expression "ultra-modern," not employ a proof reader (apparently), and use too many exclamation points!!!!?

But the most basic and most pertinent question may be: who cares how many medals a country wins and what does it prove? Do more medals really translate into a "better" country?

Certainly a stronger economy, larger population, better technology (and pharmaceuticals), and more leisure time can all contribute to better elite sporting achievements. But these factors would all be present without gold medals. To state the obvious, gold medals are a result, not a cause.

Laporte cursorily argues that improving elite sporting performances (and limiting the "elite" to a smaller number of athletes) will help France's economy by "spreading the light of our country throughout the world." But funneling the bulk of state euros to the elite athletes means neglecting public infrastructure and potentially alienating a large class of consumers: those who without access will never begin practicing a sport. Does Thierry Herny's success translate into more jobs in France? Will another canoeing gold medal mean millions in sponsorship deals worldwide for French companies? Je doute...

Laporte's other argument is that investing in the few translates into social gains for the many: they have champions that unify them. Maybe. But I for one would rather see a new bike path built (that is open to everyone) than to see a U.S. track cyclist win gold.

Historically, the social argument for winning Olympic medals coincides with a country either hoping to hide serious failings or promote a morally suspect imperialist agenda (the same can be said for hosting the games; see, for example, 1936 Germany, 1968 Mexico, 1980 USSR, 1984 USA). If China has attempted to increase their Olympic medal clout, it is because they are attempting to both provide rationalization to foreign corporations who invest in China despite human rights violations (more about this) and rally nationalistic support for an anachronistic regime. The same could be said of the U.S. where we were so caught up in Phelps-mania that we ignored Chinese human-rights violations and forgot momentarily about rising price of gas and the wars in Irak and Afghanistan.

The bottom line is that I'm not convinced "going for the gold" is a good use of public funds, here or in France.

So what does this have to do with college football?

Laporte, midway through his talk, calls for the creation of a "Harvard of Sport" that he describes as "a French Olympic and sporting campus."

Harvard is the birthplace of American college sports, and particularly of college football. It is where the elite played to prove themselves disciplined, strong, and morally upright. Harvard is also where colleges began to care about winning games. In England, winning was of little consequence: it was about the spectacle and tradition of the matches. But in the U.S., winning meant more students would want to attend Harvard than Yale, and they would bring their money with them.

But I have the same nagging question about college football today as I do about France and gold medals. Why does it matter if a college team wins games?

According to the NCAA Knight Commission Report, the reasons are not economic: contrary to popular belief, college athletics is almost always a drain on a university's finances, even with donors, ticket sales, etc.

And if the economic argument is moot, what about the social one? Does winning provide something to a university that the classroom cannot? Again, maybe.... There is an amount of cohesion that may not be gained by any other campus activity. But like the gold medal chase, the quest for college football wins, too, may hide other agendas. Murray Sperber, in his book Beer and Circus, maintains that college sports keep students happy who are otherwise receiving a lousy education. He's exaggerating some (I hope...). But it could certainly be argued that the same objectives of school unity, exercise, teamwork, etc. could be achieved with much less fanfare and less money. Division II or III might be an example for the big schools to follow...

To summarize...

To monsieur Laporte: the government should put money into sporting infrastructures where it will benefit the most people and improve the overall health and well-being of citizens instead of simply helping elite athletes shave a millisecond off their time in the 100-meter dash. And to the NCAA: instead of pouring money into new stadiums, practice facilities for a few students, and huge salaries for some coaches, focus instead on the general student population and (dare I suggest it?) make education the top priority.

If you don't, I'll keep comparing you to the French.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Baseball Fights in Korea

Apparently the penalties for fighting in the Korean baseball league are extremely severe, either that or there is a strong cultural taboo against throwing a punch. As a result (and I'm only guessing here), players have adopted a different way to express their anger at opposing pitchers.



If this gets the idea of insult and anger across culturally without actually bloodying someone's nose, that's great. And maybe it's just a joke. Whatever the case, I just wish someone had done this to Clemens when he was still playing.

Can you imagine Nolan Ryan hopping into someone?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Basketball Fans Chant "O-BA-MA!" to Heckle Opponents

The Washington City Paper reports that the Obamas had been searching for a private school for their daughters in D.C. Two of the Obama sweepstakes finalists, Sidwell and Maret, met in a boys basketball game a little over a week ago. Apparently, the Obama's had recently opted for Sidwell and the fans (whose team was trailing at the time) chanted "O-BA-MA! O-BA-MA!" to rub it into their opponents' noses: "We got the big fish, now so what if you win this silly little game."

Perhaps hearing the refrain, "Yes, we can!" in their heads, Sidwell's team came from behind and nipped Maret by a point, 47-46. Obama's touch must really be golden.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

When a Sport is NOT a Sport (III)?

Dana reminds me of speed stacking:



Now that's an athlete! Almost as cool as a tractor pull.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Hegemonic Sports and the Future of Soccer

Towards the end of Andrei Markovits's lecture Thursday at BYU, he expressed a hope that soccer might one day, in his lifetime, join the ranks of the 3 or 4 "hegemonic" sports in the US (lecture available below). Synthesizing his remarks with those of Frank Foer from last month, for soccer to rival the NFL, MLB, NBA and, maybe, NHL, it would necessarily have to tap into new social demographics. (According to Foer, soccer's appeal is only truly prevalent amongst Latino-American men and the 25-35-year-old Caucasian, suburban, male population--or "gringos" imitating Latin antics at MLS matches.) Both agree that it is unlikely that this change will come about with the MLS. (Markovits recounts a humorous anecdote about being unable to find a sports bar in which to watch the New York Red Bulls play for the MLS Championship—even in Manhattan. In one of the same bars he had visited, they had, however, screened the Chelsea match earlier that morning.) Quoting Markovits: “Americans have grown accustomed to seeing the best.” The MLS is not the best. So, how do we get the best? It is not in buying Beckham or Thierry Henry and soccer is far from becoming an NCAA stronghold (in fact, college lacrosse gets better ratings)—it is making the best (ie European leagues) available in the US.

World Cup ratings have improved substantially in the US over the past sixteen years (or 4 cups). With the new satellite/cable packages that feature soccer channels, the average Joe now has access to European and South American soccer that was formerly—as Foer indicates in his book—only sparsely available on PBS. And, these channels are doing very well, mind you. Again, this is only true within the same social demographics given above.

With my new responsibilities as a recent husband, father and first-year professor, I have become an ESPN.com junkie. To keep myself apprised on what is going on in sports, I count on ESPN.com (and the LA Times for my Lakers and Dodgers)—as it becomes increasingly harder to invest four hours into watching a game. Anyway, to show how this all ties in to my discussion of soccer, I have been fascinated by the sports blog of rap artist Lil’ Wayne that is featured on ESPN.com. While I could not name a single song by Wayne nor do I claim to be a hip hop fan, he really is an interesting voice for sports and his comments have opened my eyes to the potential of soccer in America. In a recent post he wrote:

“I was watching Manchester United play soccer against Villareal yesterday […]. A lot of Americans don't really watch soccer, which is a shame, because it's really exciting and once you get into it it's pretty easy to stay with it.” (See Wayne’s entire post HERE.)

Lil’ Wayne, a 26-year-old African-American from New Orleans, also informedly talks about ManU and Christiano Ronaldo in his post. In order for soccer to fulfill Andrei Markovits’s wish of cultural hegemony, Lil’ Wayne’s demographic—one who both loves and is invested in sports—needs to be targeted and become more involved. Besides young, African-American males, women are another group that could be marketed for soccer. Not only is soccer a sport in which women traditionally excel (or, in Markovitsian "sports language," has come to embody a female semiotics in the US), male soccer players are generally the most physically fit of professional athletes, which provides marketable sex appeal (even beyond Beckham’s celebrity). Then, there is the youth market, who could mutalistically benefit from the fitness aspect of soccer, while being exposed to new cultures. While it is doubtful soccer will ever pull the Joe Six-Pack (or Joe the Plumber) demographic away from their red meat and Monday Night Football, if marketed correctly, it could catch on like wild fire in the US.

What does it boil down to: the first network that takes the chance on INTERNATIONAL league soccer (beginning with England, Italy or Spain) and does so in the wake of a World Cup, presenting it to the right demographics with Nike, Adidas, Gatorade, etc. as sponsors, looks to gain a TON of money. Then, you have the UEFA cup, Eurorean Cup, International competitions, etc. It can happen. It won’t be with the MLS; but, using a George Steinbrenner YankeesNet approach to soccer, it could become the fifth American hegemon—even the first “global” hegemon in sport.

Maradona


I was stunned when a friend contacted me several weeks ago to let me know that Diego Maradona had been named the head coach of the Argentine national soccer team. (there is no team in the universe that elicits as much pride, emotion, and love for me as does the Argentine national team)

Alongside Pele, Maradona is considered the greatest soccer player of all time. From the slums of Argentina, his talents were noticed at a young age and this eventually catapulted him onto the world stage. Along with many soccer accolades accumulated over his soccer career there have also been off field incidents that have plagued his life-drug addiction being one of them. At 48 years old, Maradona has already suffered a heart attack.

Even though his personal life has been erratic, what most concerns me and the question I pose to you is this: can a great player-not just a "good" player-ever be a great coach? I don't think so.

Coaching seems to be a complicated endeavor that involves much more than just "playing" the game. At being a "good" player (not a great one) fundamental lessons are learned on how to be better. Your lack of abilities helps you to "see" the game differently. This paradigm assists the coach in being a better teacher. (Look at Phil Jackson, Johan Bruyneel) Could Michael Jordan ever be a great coach?

I still haven't worked out my issues about Argentina's loss against Germany in the last world cup (one thing is to get beaten by a team and another is to lose the game yourself, but that's another post) I'm sure there are many waiting for the "Albiceleste" to raise the trophy over their heads this next world cup. Will Maradona be able to work his magic as the new national team coach?-not sure

Please look at this great post: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/timvickery/2008/10/is_is_maradonas_time.html

Andrei Markovits Lecture Available Online

Markovits spoke on the Brigham Young University Campus Thursday afternoon. His presentation was titled, "Sports and Culture in Europe and America—A Mirror of Modern Life."

It is an absolutely fascinating lecture. You can watch it online here: http://kennedy.byu.edu/archive/#1366

He loves sports, loves researching them, and his passion is evident in his presentation.

Friday, December 12, 2008

When a Sport is not a Sport (part II)

Last week Bob wrote a post about sports that aren't sports and argued that a sport should involve physical athletic skill, be minimally aerobic, and be competitive. If you happened to read "The Sports Academic" over the Summer, you know that I also deride competitions (and call them unsporting) where too much of the outcome lies in the hands of judges or officials. Both of these definitions probably reflect our personal likes and to some extent our own experiences and values. Bob actually played football, so has little tolerance for games that don't involve physical effort and skill. My 6th-grade floor hockey team got cheated out of the school championship by a bad call, so when it comes to determining a winner I want games to be as fair and objective as possible...

So what makes a sport a sport?

The eminent sports historian Allen Guttmann agrees with Bob. "The physical component is what distinguishes some contests as sports. . . . The animal joy of human movement and the opportunity to test one's physical skills against another person's are certainly among any sport's intrinsic pleasures." Here is how Guttmann's diagrams human activity:

PLAY
= (divided down into)
Spontaneous Play / Organized Play (GAMES)
=
Noncompetitive Games / Competitive Games (CONTESTS)
=
Intellectual Contests / Physical Contests (SPORTS)


In this definition, Scrabble is a "contest" but not a sport. Frisbee is a "game" but frisbee football is a "sport."

I'm still not sure where tractor pulling fits into this, though. It is competitive, but not a physical contest. And I certainly wouldn't consider it an "intellectual contest." So Guttmann only solves part of our problem.

Perhaps a little history can resolve our dispute between Bob and Dana (see his comment about NASCAR after Bob's most recent post).

The word "sport" is an English word that defines the ensemble of athletic competitions born in England (or codified in England) in the second half of the nineteenth century. Consequently, the word has historically been associated with male games designed to create a better imperial subject, a more muscular Christian, a well rounded Englishman. Soccer, cricket, rugby, and their derivatives like football and baseball, were--and remain--the quintessential "sports."

But when the word migrated into other languages and to other countries, other activities were added to the rubric and the definition broadened.

The first sports-only newspaper in France was first published in 1854. Creatively titled, "Le Sport," it appeared weekly and included reports of recent "sporting" events. Here are some of the events covered in the paper: horse races, hunts, shooting competitions, chess matches, masked balls, beauty pageants, regattas, dog races, and banquets.

To a 19th-century Frenchman the word "sport" was synonymous with leisure. Historian J. J. Jusserand wrote in 1901 that the word "sport" began as the medieval French word "desport," traveled with the nobility to England, and finally "returned to its birth country, slightly changed by travels and by absence." When it was reintroduced in French as the word "sport," it maintained its Old French meaning: a simple pastime or any leisurely activity that reinvigorated its (usually upper-class) practitioner.

To be clear, I don't plan on putting on my gym clothes before my college's next annual banquet or strapping on spikes before my next chess match. But this French example does suggest that the nature of "sport" varies according to time and place.

I think the bottom line is that in today's world the word "sport" has maintained a positive, masculine connotation. If there is a competition I like, I would be offended were someone to say it is NOT a sport. On the flip side of the argument, if there is a competition I don't like, I can insult it by saying it is not a sport. Saying an activity is not a sport makes that activity somehow less valid, less masculine, less respectable. In this sense, when we claim an activity is a sport or not a sport, we are still bound by the nineteenth-century English definition, and we try to validate our competition by associating it with today's masculine, hegemonic, imperial power. Saying NASCAR is not a sport is a way to marginalize it (and, given that it is still primarily a regional competition, maybe it is fair to exclude it). The same could be said of many niche competitions (curling, gymnastics, ski jumping, etc.): since they are not widely followed contests (what Markovits calls "hegemonic sports") that appeal to and serve the entire culture, perhaps--according to a strict "originalist" reading of the word--they are not sports.

But if I adhere to other definitions, then I can claim that my favorite sport is the Miss America Pageant. Does anyone know a sports bookie who will let me put money on Miss Idaho? She could... go... all... the... way!

(1) The quote and chart are from Guttmann's book A Whole New Ball Game, University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Touching the Stars

Watching a replay of the cyclists climbing the Angliru during this Summer's Vuelta a España, what struck me was not the competition for the podium, nor Contador's superhuman effort to win the stage. Rather, I noticed all the people reaching out to push, or simply to touch, the riders as they passed (in the following clip, look particularly around 4m30sec and again at 8m30sec).



Certainly, people want to help the cyclists who are fighting to get up a route that kicks up to an inhuman 23% incline (if you don't cycle, trust me, that is an absolutely impossible gradient), but I'm not sure that explains all the touching going on, particularly since some of the cyclists were penalized for getting little boosts early during the race.

I was hoping to wait until I had developed a general theory for touching athletes, but I don't have one, so I'll throw the question out to you. People love touching athletes whether giving them high-fives, patting them on the back, or shaking their hand. Is it a fascination with a finely tuned body? Is there something erotic about it? Are athletes like a medieval king who represented God and could heal with his touch?

I think it is different than most celebrities (I don't see people slapping actors on the butt as they walk along the red carpet, although it has probably happened)--there is something unique about an athlete's body that makes people "reach out and touch someone." What is it?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Eau de College Football

This following was sent to me by Joe Felcher, a journalist and blogger who currently works for the website Campus Compare. It's bad enough collegiate athletes already have swooshes on their jerseys, Joel writes about what could be the ultimate college sports sell-out. (I reproduce this with his permission.)



I like to think that I have as much school spirit as anybody. I wore our colors, I cheered until my throat hurt and I spent my own money on every single ticket. However, as much as I love and appreciate my college days, if anyone ever asked me if I wanted to smell like my alma mater – I’d either laugh in their face or throw up in their face; or both.

As strange as that sounds, it is unfortunately true. A company called Masik is now creating perfumes and colognes that “…link a school’s essence and spirit to fragrance compositions.”

There are a number of factors that inspire the final result of these intoxicating tangs. The company lists many school-specific characteristics such as: school colors, mascot spirit, traditions and history, architecture and landmarks, campus trees and flowers, character of the town, mission statements and fight songs. Currently, Masik only sells fragrances associated with Penn State and North Carolina – with a few more slated to be introduced soon.

Take Penn State for instance. What Nittany Lion fan could resist walking into Beaver Stadium with the aroma of “blue cypress and black pepper” emanating from their pores? I’m not quite sure how the mission statement at North Carolina smells of “fresh Sicilian lemon and bergamot,” but apparently it does. With this in mind, let’s break down the soon-to-be released aromas as best as we can…

University of Florida– Inspired by the pungent and muddy odors radiating from the nearby Everglades, this signature scent was born from the instincts of Albert the Alligator and the universal attraction of bright orange.

U of F for Men is an offensive and noxious stench that encompasses the complex smells from both the basketball and football locker rooms. The fragrance opens with the slight whisper of a swamp extending into a more subtle odor, recognizable as stadium hot dog water upon closer examination. The root notes combine both lemon-lime and strawberry-kiwi Gatorade with the irresistible smell of the #1 Party School’s bathrooms after a tailgate.

University of Georgia – A captivating stink based on the university’s mission statement, UGA is perfect for those trying “To teach, to serve, and to inquire into the nature of things.”

When coupled with the odor exuding from their live mascot, Uga the bulldog, this cologne is virtually indescribable. There is an understated smell of rotting peaches that goes magically with the delicate aroma of black, one of the school’s principal colors. Your olfactory sense will be bombarded with undertones from Georgia’s architecture, history and spirit; which all smell, well, pretty good.

Continue reading...

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Top Ten “Sports” That Are NOT Really Sports

I was just on ESPN.com; and, it irked me to see what all they consider to be “sports” these days. (I know, I know, it is the Entertainment and Sports Network—but all the same.) Maybe a top-ten list is not academic enough for the Sports Academic; but, it is a chance for me to rant and provide a definition of what constitutes real “sport” by identifying what is not. These kinds of things are provocative by nature, so feel free to argue with me…


10. World Series of Poker (How can playing cards really be classified as a sport? And, with this, I include Mah Jong, Scrabble, Risk, Bridge, Backgammon, Chess—and any other game in which your grandmother can own you.)

9. NASCAR (Sure, there is a fair amount of stamina required to stay in a car for 500 miles; but, there is something morbid about waiting for someone to crash for there to be some action.)

8. Gaming (Don’t even tell me having nimble thumbs in the Xbox 360 Madden 2009 is anything like really strapping it on.)

7. Equestrian (Now, I am from Kentucky—so, I admit to having an abnormal love for horses. I’ve been to The Derby and I enjoy horse racing. And, it takes a large degree of athleticism to stay on and prompt jumps. Still, it is the beast doing all the work. If my dog will do a flip for a Milkbone, does that make me eligible for a gold medal?)

6. Fishing (Sorry, anglers, even as someone who reeled in a 125# striped marlin last year, I can’t say that sitting around waiting for a bite is a sport—unless maybe you hike to get there or row instead of using a trolling motor.)

5. Pool and Billiards (Parlor games are hobbies—not sports. To this, let me add darts. As a rule of thumb: if you play better drunk, it’s probably not a sport.)

4. Hunting (Want to make it a sport? Arm the deer!)

3. Tractor pulls and “Muddin’” (Having said this, I probably can’t go back to the South for the holidays—then again, I was already skating on thin ice for supporting Obama. As a consolation, Rodeo is a sport.)

2. Fantasy Sports and Rotisserie Leagues (Okay, this is just a shameless excuse for me to mention that my Fantasy Football team is the #1 seed in the playoffs! Still—not a sport and ESPN should not dedicate 10 minutes of a 40 minute program to it.)

1. Bowling (Seriously, do you ever see these guys? Professional “athletes”??? When not at a NASCAR race, Walmart or Chuck-o-Rama, they’re “getting their exercise” rolling a ball down a lane a maximum of 20 times a game.)


Alright, maybe I am being dogmatic here; but, a “Sport” really should involve athletic skill or prowess on the part of a human being, be at least minimally aerobic, promote fitness and be somewhat competitive in nature.


Did I leave anything out? Want to debate me on your favorite sport? I’m all ears.

In Defense of Soccer

I went to the last couple of home Real Salt Lake playoff matches this Fall. (Note to college football fans: RSL is a soccer team. Soccer is a sport. Players try to kick a round ball into a net....)

And yes, soccer is commercial. So much so, in fact, that RSL's opponent named themselves for an "energy" drink: The New York Red Bulls. And almost all teams wear the name of their sponsor on their jerseys.

But soccer does have one saving virtue that insulates it against commercialism in a way baseball, basketball, and football do not: no time outs!

There was something refreshing about not hearing the stadium announcer trying to hawk something between every play or at bat; something relaxing about only hearing music produced by fans; something genuine about not needing cheerleaders to get fans to cheer. (They did all these annoying things at half time, but I went for a stroll.)

Do any of you know of baseball teams that don't blare music between innings or football teams that don't have a first down "brought to you by..." or basketball teams that don't have an American First dunk of the game? If you do, I'll make them my new favorites.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Is Soccer More American than Football?

When I was a boy, my grandfather, who fought in Europe in World War II, told me that the U.S. won largely because of the G.I.'s ability to think on his feet, to make due with what he had, to take personal initiative and get the job done. I was told that the Germans, on the other hand, were so encumbered by their strict hierarchy and their blind obedience to orders that when the command chain (or the supply chain) broke down, they couldn't cope.

While I think the G.I. winning with bubble gum and shoe polish, a la McGyver, is largely a myth, the story nevertheless embodies a certain valued American trait, namely the ability to creatively improvise, to think on one's feet, to get the job done.

Which brings me to football and soccer.

Football, as we discussed before, because of the rules allowing for unlimited substitutions, favors extreme specialization. Players rotate in and out based on plays called by coaches and coordinators and then are given a specific assignment on each play. With the exception of the quarterback (who has a list of options to run through on pass plays), other players do what they are told with only limited options (depending on coverage a receiver may cut his route off, or go deep; a lineman may block high or low; but these are extremely limited and well-defined parameters). Whether a defense blitzes or drops back into coverage is entirely dictated by the chain of command sitting in booths overhead or standing on the sidelines. Football is a sport where labor is constantly overseen by management. Seen in this light, football lacks the kind of spontaneous innovation G.I.s and Americans pride themselves on.

Soccer on the other hand (that evil Socialist sport), by the simple fact that players are forced into playing offense and defense, breeds a sort of spontaneous improvisation that should make Americans proud. Given that there are few breaks in the action, it is hard for coaches to have the kind of play by play micromanagement that exists in football, so soccer players have a bit more freedom to experiment and create.

Here is an example from last weekend's MLS Cup Final.



If we think of America as a corporate nation, where labor should do what the manager in the panopticon tells it to do, then Football is as American as turkey on Thanksgiving. But if America is more about creativity and improvisation, maybe we really should embrace the European game... in order to be more American.

Happy Thanksgiving. Enjoy the football and apple pie.

Franklin Foer Lecture Online

If you missed it, the Kennedy Center at Brigham Young University has made Franklin Foer's very interesting and entertaining lecture on soccer and globalization available online. You can watch it here.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

BYU to Upgrade Weight Room

With their loss to Utah on Saturday, the BYU football team has earned themselves some sweet new weight room equipment for next season (thanks to the deal that spreads Utah's $17 million BCS payout among all conference teams).

BYU's NewsNet quotes an associate athletic director of finance who explained, "The money [likely over $1 million/school] would be used in a variety of different ways . . . Facilities, equipment and" ... (drum roll while I hope he says, "books for students in financial difficulty, new weight machines for the faculty, scholarships for students from economically depressed parts of the world... but instead he says) ... "and salaries [what the!..]. Mostly the funds would augment what the athletic department does, which is take care of the student-athletes and provide them with every opportunity to succeed at the highest level." Oh well, we can dream....

Dear football team, please donate your old stuff to the faculty weight room (where we have 30 year-old equipment). If you do, I promise to sing the fight song every time I work out and pledge to be extra nice to football players in my classes. And please set up a BCS scholarship fund for students who come from impoverished parts of the world... turn the football hay into something needy students could sink their teeth into.

A Genuine Sports Academic: Alfred Aboya

On November 5th, ESPN senior college b-ball beat writer Andy Katz did a feature story on one of my former students at UCLA, Alfred Aboya (Read Here). If anyone epitomizes sports meeting academics, it's Alfred. Last Spring, in my section of Advanced Writing on Contemporary French Culture, writing in a foreign language (he's from Cameroon and was writing in English), he pulled an "A" for the course while helping the Bruins to a Pac-10 title and his THIRD straight Final Four. Now a grad student at UCLA, Alfred has goals of returning to the Final Four and winning an NCAA title, as well as preparing for a career in foreign policy after his basketball days are through. Even if you smirk at the term "college-athlete," there are those who live up to it.



What's more, he had the highest output of his career last night (22pts, 8 boards), with a couple of mean dunks against poor Southern Illinois in a big Bruins victory. (See Highlights Here!)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Soccer and Globalization: Manchester United/ New York Yankees “SuperClub”

In the wake of Frank Foer’s visit to BYU this week, I felt it might be worthwhile to use my first Sports Academic post (Thanks, Corry!) to revisit one of the most glaring examples of sports and globalization in recent history: the New York Yankees/Manchester United “SuperClub” pact of 2001. Orchestrated by none other than George Steinbrenner (who else?), this historical merger, the most lucrative in the history of sports, basically added up to revenue sharing and streamlined marketing between the two largest, richest clubs in professional sports.

Before hastily assuming this is another Yankee-hater post on the “Evil Empire” of Steinbrenner, let me preface my comments in saying that I have a strong historical affinity and love for the Yankees (for reasons I mentioned in my “Love Letter to Baseball” in my comments on Corry’s "Baseball's Demise II" post on my birthday). My reasons for resurrecting this beast of a deal nearly eight years later is to highlight the impact it’s had on sports in the global scene. Not only did Steinbrenner’s plan include televising ManU matches on his YES network, it would send Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter to Old Trafford for a British Tour, bring David Beckham and Fabien Barthez to Yankees Stadium for a US Tour AND, perhaps most significantly, capitalize on marketing by posting the one’s insignia in the other’s stadium and selling their trans-Atlantic counterpart’s merchandise in each team stores.

What did this mean to sports? If we’re talking championships, very little—the Yankees have only won one AL pennant (2003) and NO world series since the merger; ManU continued their dominance in the Premier League but took time in claiming an FA Cup (2004), League Cup (2006) or UEFA Championship (2008). As far as marketing goes, that’s another story: both teams have greatly enjoyed the spike in their stock and revenues that allowed them to buy the biggest names in their respective sports. In 2002-2003, Steinbrenner was able to bring Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield and some guy they call A-Rod to a team that already had Roger Clemens, Derek Jeter, etc. Immediately following the merger, ManU broke the national transfer record THREE times consecutively with the purchase of Ruud Van Nistelroov, the Argentine Juan Sebastien Verón and Rio Ferdinand—adding them to a team that already had Beckham and Barthez. In essence, it made both teams—the richest in their respective sports—even richer and, ultimately, immune to any potential salary caps or luxury taxes. What’s more? It made great strides to making ManU and the Yankees international teams.

Steinbrenner has since retired from baseball and passed the team to his inept son Hank (C’mon, Joba as a starter???). American impresario Malcolm Glazer managed to buy the majority of United stocks in 2005, much to the dismay and chagrin of the ManU faithful. Yet, the teams continue to buy the big-ticket stars (Christiano Ronaldo, Johnny Damon, Nick Swisher) and continue to lead the league in revenue, payroll and global markets. Yesterday, at the Frank Foer Q&A, I was sitting in front of an American student with a ManU sweatshirt AND jersey... in Provo. And, I defy you to spend an hour near the Tube station at Piccadilly Circus without seeing the iconic white NY on a field of navy on the crown of an average Englishman.

Sports are a global commodity—as big as McDonalds, Coca Cola, Nokia or Ikea. Barcelona just sold out to corporate sponsors. Franck Ribéry’s Bayern Munich jersey has a giant T-Mobile logo on it. Soccer, this organically-grown, grassroots, beautiful game of tribal warfare, has succumbed, as Foer so eloquently wrote, to the capital market of globalization. Alas, the pitch has seen the end of a José Bové approach to selling cultural exceptionalism. Indeed, soccer is not Roquefort.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

More on Obama and the BCS

Scott sends me this link from Slate magazine that looks (almost) seriously at Obama's desire to see college football adopt a playoff system: http://www.slate.com/id/2204922/

My opinion is this... Instead of a wish of a presidential sports fan or an attempt to push for "change" that would meet with near universal approval, I see it as a symbolic gesture on Obama's part, an attempt to connect with a broad swath of the American electorate that could potentially feel alienated by an Obama presidency.

In the waning days of the presidential campaign, the McCain camp attacked Obama as socialist, even (gasp) European! By showing he cares about a playoff system that gives everyone a chance (well, the top 8 teams anyway) and that he likes football--the sporting world's equivalent of red meat--Mr. Obama reassures middle-America that he is both a good capitalist and a good American.

The BCS, after all, is like a state-run economy where the powers-that-be determine the marketplace and select who can do business in it. Under a playoff system, the most competitive team wins, with only limited "state" intervention (less than $700 billion, anyway).

And football is now more American than either baseball or basketball (both of which have practitioners and fans overseas). As long as Mr. Obama avoids showing an interest in soccer (that evil socialist sport), he should maintain his popularity in the American sports world.

The NCAA responded to Obama's proposal by saying their "constituencies" are satisfied with the BCS system and plan to maintain it. It is telling that in ESPN.com's article about this mini-controversy, they cite University of Texas coach Mack Brown as being a "big fan of Obama's idea." By attacking the BCS, Obama, who wants to govern the entire country (not just the blue states), is extending his popularity in the college-football-crazed-South, an area where McCain fared extremely well in the election.

Maybe Obama is right: there are no red states and no blue states after all; just a lot of anti-BCS states....

Monday, November 17, 2008

Franklin Foer Lecture


For those of you checking this blog from Utah, please come to a lecture by Franklin Foer, editor at the New Republic and author of a recent book on sports and politics entitled, How Soccer Explains the World: An (Unlikely) Theory of Globalization. The lecture will take place Wednesday (Nov 19) at 3PM on the Brigham Young University campus in the JSB auditorium.

In the book, Foer uses soccer as a sort of conduit that allows him to access the unspoken ethos of (among other groups) Serbian gangsters, Scottish Catholics, and American Republicans. Though he would probably bristle at me qualifying it this way, soccer becomes, for Foer, a tool to tap into global society's id.

Please come for a free session on the analyst's couch with Mr. Foer this Wednesday.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

To BYU Football Team: Throw the Game!

College Football Quiz:

Why should BYU let the University of Utah beat them next weekend?

A) Money. BYU, even with the loss, will earn a reputable bowl bid. A bid with a payout almost big enough to cover their costs (though as reported here, most teams lose money when they go to non-BCS bowl games). But if the U of U wins they will almost certainly be invited to a BCS bowl. This is great news for BYU because the big bucks Utah would earn are shared with the other teams in the Mountain West--in 2004, when the U went to the Fiesta Bowl, BYU made an estimated 1 million for sitting at home.

B) If they publicly let it be known they intend to throw the game, it would put the BCS and the NCAA in the awkward position of acknowledging their system needs revamping to allow conference champions a chance to make it to the big show, even with a loss. If BYU wins, they would be conference champions (please correct me BYU fans if I'm wrong on that) but would still likely lose money going to a post-season game under the current bowl system. And Utah, too, would likely be invited to a second-tier game. If every conference champ had a guaranteed ticket to a top-tier bowl game (or to a playoff and a chance to play their way in), every team would try to win every game.

C) A & B.

D) They shouldn't lose but should do the morally upright thing--try and win--remembering that little Johnny's hopes are riding on their shoulders (along with the hopes of Little Caesars, KSL, Hogi Yogi, Les Schwab, Deseret First Credit Union, Zion's Bank, Omniture, and many other local fans).

Please leave your answer in a comment. All responses are due by game time. Absolutely no late work will be accepted.

Update: an article in BYU's NewsNet reports that the payout for a BCS bowl would be in the 17 million range and an accountant with the athletic department is quoted as saying that the money would all go back into the football and athletic programs. After they throw the game, they should contribute to the university's mission by giving some of that money to the library, or better yet to a general scholarship fund for students with financial need.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Sports and Social Responsibility

At last week's conference of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport (NASSS) in Denver, Richard King (current NASSS president, best known for his work on representations of Native Americans) delivered a fascinating message on sports, consumerism, and social responsibility. As part of his presentation he offered examples of culture jamming and showed anti-branding artwork, before wondering aloud how effective campaigns and artwork can be in raising awareness of corporate excesses, especially when anti-corporate works of art often end up becoming objects of consumption themselves.

Here are some questions to consider: What is the moral obligation of athletes who make millions in sponsorship deals from corporations who subcontract their labor to factories where employees are paid below a liveable wage (how do they live then, you ask? a lot of overtime)? How should fans respond to the vast corporate involvement in professional AND "amateur" sports? How could fans, professional athletes and teams put pressure on sponsors to assure they are acting in a socially responsible manner? Or is this even possible given that so much of a league's revenue comes from apparel sales and corporate sponsorships (in other words, have they completely lost their autonomy)?

"Branded Head" by Hank Willis Thomas
source: http://www.kam.uiuc.edu/pr/branded/ (a website about an exhibit of branded art held at my alma mater, The University of Illinois)

This work of art (among other things) equates corporate branding with the literal branding imposed on African American slaves and suggests that Nike continues to propagate a certain form of racism via their labor practices and their marketing strategies.

Thoughts?

SWEATshirt

source: Hartford Courant, 2005
Thoughts?

Friday, November 7, 2008

Obama Comes out in Favor of College Football Playoff

Since I received the same link from two different readers, I better put it up. It is a humorous article by Dan Wetzel about Barack Obama's support of a playoff in college football and about how he could have gotten sports fans behind him in the primaries, particularly in the South, by appealing directly to college football fans:

http://rivals.yahoo.com/ncaa/football/news?slug=dw-obamabcs110508&prov=yhoo&type=lgns

So let me hear from the pro-BCS people...

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Baseball's Demise (?) Part Two

During the World Series, I noticed that Fox opened their coverage of the games with a short video retrospective--narrated by Michael Douglas with quotes read by Barack Obama and John McCain (below)--touting all the game's greatest moment. Of course it gave me goosebumps, because I'm a sucker for that kind of thing. But the transition to the actual game (played in a dome) seemed a bit abrupt.

A few posts ago I suggested that baseball was suffering from a number of life-threatening problems. Another may be found in the disconnect between Major League Baseball's nostalgic idealization of its pastoral past and the current realities of the game (steroids, strikes, $, etc.). These unseemly aspects always existed but remained largely hidden until the publication of Jim Bouton's Ball Four (1970). Admittedly the disconnect exists in any marketing scheme (commercial, political, athletic, etc.), but it may be even wider--and more obvious--in baseball than in most fields given baseball's very public failures of late.

Is baseball too blatantly tied to its past? Or is its past MLB's only hope for survival? Does baseball have a future as anything but a museum sport for old cranks like me?

Friday, October 31, 2008

Playing at Monarchy: Sport as Metaphor in Nineteenth-Century France


So, as of this week my book is out in print. And I wish I had enough copies to give everyone who has helped me along the way. But times are tough... and complimentary copies are hard to come by. It's nowhere near the thanks some people deserve, but I'm going to paste my acknowledgments here, along with a list of the chapters. If anyone is tempted to read more, the book can be purchased from the publisher (University of Nebraska Press) or from Amazon.com.


Table of Contents
Introduction
Mountain Stages and How-To Manuals
1 Paume Anyone?
Representing Real Tennis After the Tennis Court Oath
2 The Spanish Bullfight in France
Goya, Gautier and Mérimée
3 Trictrac and Chess as Models of Historical Discourse
Chance in the Works of Balzac and Mérimée
4 Of Rabbits and Kings
Hunting and Upward Mobility
5 Fencing and Aristocratic Resistance during the Third Republic
6 Olympic Restoration
Coubertin and the European Monarchy
Conclusion
Imitation and Resistance

Acknowledgments
I owe the original idea for this book to friends in my racquetball group. After getting yet another bruise in the back from an errant ball, I decided it would be better for me to spend more time researching sports than actually playing them. The bruises also led me to approach Prosper Mérimée’s tale “La Vénus d’Ille” in a new way. The narrative’s main character is an accomplished tennis player, a star of the court. Following a particularly important match (on the day of his wedding), he ends up dead. I had worked on Mérimée’s literature as a graduate student, in this story studying the construction of the supernatural. But I now came to his text with a new understanding of the connection between racquet sports and pain. So instead of looking for the cause of death in the details surrounding his marriage or in the testimony of his bride who claimed that a moving statue killed him, I decided to look for reasons in the way he approached the game itself. Can playing tennis actually kill you? The answer, as you will see in the pages that follow, is yes. And so I begin by thanking Allen, Michael, Lee, Lanny, Enoc, Juan, Todd, Brett and Kerry whose errant “kill shots” put me on the path that led to this book.

I am deeply grateful to the many people who have given me feedback on the manuscript as it was in various stages of preparation. Thanks to my colleagues at Brigham Young University: Yvon LeBras, Marc Olivier, Daryl Lee, Matthew Wickman, and Ed Cutler. A special thank you goes to my friend and colleague Scott Sprenger who read so much of the first draft. Thanks also to colleagues at other universities who provided invaluable feedback and support along the way: Scott Carpenter (Carleton College), Armine Mortimer and Emile Talbot (University of Illinois), Allan H. Pasco (University of Kansas), Antonia Fonyi (CNRS/ITEM), Kathryn Grossman (Penn State University), and Dorothy Kelly (Boston University).

I must also thank the numerous friendly people I met in the world of trictrac (a now nearly forgotten board game) and paume (also called "real tennis"): Thierry Depaulis, David Levy, and Philippe Lalanne of the trictrac research group; Joe Wells, who graciously agreed to play several games of trictrac with me; Anthony Scratchley and Angus Williams, the former and current head pros at the paume court in Fontainebleau who offered me a warm welcomel and Richard Travers who translated an 1862 work about paume written by Eugène Chapus and Edouard Fournier.

I also wish to thank Cordell Cropper and Susan Cropper for their encouragement through my entire career; Marvin Gardner and his assistants at the BYU Faculty Editing Service; Elizabeth Moesser and Glen Young for their help in proofreading and source checking; Debbie Van Ausdal and Kathleen Allen for their generous logistical support.

The Brigham Young University College of Humanities, Department of French and Italian, Center for the Study of Europe, and Kennedy Center for International Studies have funded research trips and granted me release time to complete the project. I thank them for working with me.

Thanks are also due to the entire team at the University of Nebraska Press who have efficiently and politely guided me through the last stages of revision and publication. I am also grateful to the employees of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, who kindly helped me locate many obscure articles and books necessary for the completion of this project.

Finally, I express my love to my wife, April, and to our children for their many years of patience and support.

Security? Really?

Joe emails me and complains that after 9/11 fans were no longer allowed to bring food or drink into NCAA venues, "as a security mesure." Earlier this week, though, he attended a basketball game at the Marriott Center (a preseason scrimmage) and notes that since there were no concession sales that night, no one was at the door checking to see what was brought it.

Joe writes: "So, if not allowing people to bring in food is a security measure, according to BYU, then why do they not care about security for an event that is free to the public and has no concessions. There were as many people there last night as many of the regular games over the past several years, so they couldn't use low attendance as an argument like you could for a tennis match. I think this is clear evidence to what everybody already knows, but what BYU has not yet admitted, to my knowledge, that not allowing people to bring in food to big sporting events is really not a security measure at all."

Sadly, this is one more example in the long list of decisions made after 9/11 that were touted as being for our security but were really just to advance financial or political agendas (and 9/11 provided a convenient excuse). Deplorable.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

World Series Coverage: Think of the Children

Scott sends this link to Jeff Passan's article about the World Series. In it Passan argues that Major League Baseball has done nearly everything humanly possible to ruin the Series.

One of Passan's chief complaints is that in order to please Fox MLB scheduled start times too late to allow little kids--even some adults--to stay up and watch. These children won't grow up to be baseball fans because their parents put them to bed on time meaning baseball is selling off its future by taking the ratings and the money now (so the argument goes--I've heard it since I was a kid).

I think there may be some truth in this... but part of the fun of the World Series when I was young was finding ways to catch the games when I wasn't supposed to: I'd tiptoe out of bed, low crawl to the hall, and peek into the TV room to watch the game--hoping not to get caught and forced to endure a spanking with mom's wooden spoon. I once even sneaked a transistor radio with a small earpiece into church so I could listen to a Dodgers/Yankees Sunday game.

Baseball's problem (the low ratings Passan cites) is probably less about poor management from the commissioner (even though he is pathetic) and more about the current entertainment market and demographics. There are far more entertainment options now than there were just a generation ago, meaning baseball has more competition from other sports and also from video games, movies, blogs, etc. Add to this that Americans are living more and more in urban areas and that many of us are second or third generation urbanites. My father grew up on a farm and so had plenty of space to play baseball with other kids from the community. I grew up in a small city and so played wiffle ball in the back yard and baseball down at the park when I could get a game going. My kids only play baseball when they go to their organized little league games--there's just not enough space in our yard. For me, baseball was an integral part of growing up. For my boys, it's something they do/watch when they can't play video games or soccer or ride their bikes or throw apples at passing cars....

And I really have tried to get my children interested in baseball. But they get bored after half an inning and start rolling their soccer ball back and forth. When I take them to the local college games, they track down the team mascot and wander around the stadium looking for the best deal they can find on a licorice rope. No matter what decisions the MLB commissioner makes, baseball has already largely become a museum sport... Starting the World Series games an hour earlier won't change that.

I do think MLB could stave off the relic mantra a little longer by doing the following:

Speed up the game (TiVo, alas, only works at home): only allow a pitching change in the course of an inning once a pitcher has given up at least one run; keep the time between innings to 90 seconds; instruct umpires to not grant batters time out once they step into the box and penalize pitchers who dally too long between pitches by awarding the batter a ball.

Eliminate off-days during the playoffs and, sure, start the games earlier. And mix in a day game once in awhile.

Broaden the use of instant replay (c'mon, the pastoral/no-technology ideal was good for the nineteenth century, but get with the times, or at least with the 1980s). Lest you think this will slow the game down, usually at home we can see four replays from three angles between pitches.

Stop with the 35 minute pregame shows and pitch the ****ing ball already.

Allow fans to vote one player off the team after each game in the playoffs. Also, require umpires who blow calls to receive a rose from Bud Selig in order to keep their job.

Finally, to Fox Sports: give us some announcers who actually do their homework before the series starts. Talking about the players, their tendencies, defensive positioning, managerial strategy, etc. is all OK (and would be a welcome change), but vamping about fish tanks for two innings is not. More Bill James and Moneyball, less John Kruk. It's an interesting game, don't kill it with bad clichés.

If you have other ideas for "saving" baseball, please comment....

(P.S. This post from the Sports Prof also suggests Fox and the MLB go more than 20 minutes between Viagra commercials. What parent wants to explain "an erection lasting more than four hours" to a seven year old?)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

How the BCS is Hurting College Football


In a recent post, I argued that college football's current system (that demands non-BCS schools go undefeated to earn a bid) is detrimental on several levels. But I now have an argument the NCAA and athletic departments may actually listen to:

BYU's football team lost for the first time last week.Link Today, the day of their first home game since the loss, I got two calls from neighbors offering me free tickets. BYU still has a great shot at a good bowl game, a chance to win the conference, and opportunities to set some impressive individual and team records--but people are giving tickets away. In other words, when a team sets its sights on a BCS game and loses a single game, money starts trickling away. The game may have officially been a sell-out (?), but fewer people in the stands means less revenue (from concession sales, etc.) and means money from sponsors could tail off.

Murray Sperber, in his book Beer and Circus, rightly contends that when a team has been successful, a single loss will reduce the fan base to levels below what it was before championships started happening. The "loser" etiquette is far harder to shake than the "champion" label ever was to earn.

A system (e.g. a playoff) that allows teams to lose but still maintain a shot at a BCS bowl game will mean fans (and their money) will remain with a team after a loss. Multiply this out by all the one-loss teams and it represents a substantial chunk of change. The current college bowl system resembles America of the last eight years: the gap between the haves and the have nots has widened substantially (1). It is now clear that the American financial system needs to be overhauled and requires rigorous oversight. The NCAA needs a comparable overhaul to narrow the gap between the "big" conferences and the middle-class contenders.

(1) see David Cay Johnston's books for proof of this and a discussion of how it has happened.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Tour de France 2009

Since I know at least of few of our readers follow cycling, I have to recommend watching this video outlining the route for the 2009 Tour de France.


This year's Tour has the advantage of hitting the Pyrenees first and ending with the Alps before a mountain stage in the Massif Central just before the final stage in Paris. It will certainly favor climbers but should have a good dose of suspense up to the very end.

Obama And Basketball

I recently came across this very good piece by Bryant Gumbel about Barack Obama and his affinity for basketball. Gumbel does a good job tying basketball to Obama's childhood and his personal, even political development.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Dumbing Down Baseball Analysis?

An article published recently in Slate argues that TV analysts for baseball are, well, just plain stupid.

I tend to (alas) agree and think most analysts make too much of largely inconsequential data (like batting average with runners in scoring position, RBIs, fielding percentage, etc.). And they continue to display largely irrelevant statistics (post-season instead of regular season batting average, for example) instead of good analysis on matchups, managerial strategy, fielding and pitching adjustments, etc. In general, I want more comments based on sabermetrics and fewer from old players who know in their gut how the game should be played. In other words, more Obama, less Bush.

But I must admit, I did like one comment from Tim McCarver during the NLCS. After Brett Myers threw a pitch behind Manny's head, Myers walked off the field apologizing, indicating that the pitch had slipped. Carver correctly noted that he should have instead said nothing when the Dodgers complained. He was right. And if I were doing the commentary I would have added, "In fact, he should have told the whining Dodgers, 'Shut it, or the next one will be in your ear.'"

Monday, October 20, 2008

College Football: The Thrill of Defeat and the Agony of Victory

My employer's football team (BYU) was discussed as a possible BCS team this season. One of my favorite bloggers, The Sports Curmudgeon (link on the right column of this page), even mentioned them as a possible Rose Bowl invitee. Alas. All is for naught since they got thumped last Thursday by TCU.

I am glad they lost, though. And not for the reasons you may suppose. While I do think universities and sports teams should be divorced, and while I do think BYU's loss will mean my students will spend more time preparing their reading assignments for my class, I really did hope BYU would win out. Their coach this year is trying to do things right, and it would be nice to see a team from a conference without a major TV deal make it to a top tier bowl game.

But college football is simply too rigorous for mid-level conferences like the WAC, the Mountain West, etc. One loss means a team has virtually no shot at a BCS game. And perfection, even in a weak conference, is almost impossible to achieve. Losing and getting back up to make something of a season is educationally far more significant than an all-or-nothing formula.

If we accept that universities exist first and foremost for the education and improvement of the students, coping with failure is a lesson students should learn. "I need an A to keep my scholarship." "I have a 4.0 and need to keep it." "I'm going to med school and need an A in this class." Instead of coping with failure, or working hard to overcome a weakness in their learning, students put pressure on professors to keep their perfect season alive. In fact, like a lot of football teams who put winning ahead of improving as a team and as human beings, many students worry more about their GPA than actually learning. They try to work the system instead of working on their homework.

Basketball or baseball have playoff systems in place that allow teams to stumble, learn, and overcome (if they learn the right lessons). College football's current system is too rigid and puts perfection ahead of learning. A playoff, with a play-in game for the highest ranked smaller conference teams may help restore some sense of sanity.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Sarah Palin and George Sheehan

Given that Sarah Palin is loath to read a newspaper (1), we probably should pay close attention when she tells us what she does read. In an interview with Charlie Rose last year, Palin confessed that she found C.S. Lewis "very, very deep" and also expressed admiration for the works of runner turned "philosopher" George Sheehan. She described him as "Very inspiring and very motivating. He was an athlete and I think so much of what you learn in athletics about competition and healthy living that he was really able to encapsulate, has stayed with me all these years."

You know by now that whenever politics and sports intersect, I have to take a look; so I checked out a couple of Sheehan's books and here are a few gems:

In his book Personal Best, Sheehan argues that each runner can achieve excellence. Being excellent (Wayne's World reference?)--not winning--is the most important thing. And, in a passage reminiscent of a Stephen Colbert segment (without the irony), he maintains that everyone can be a hero, primarily through athletic self-realization. "Save for war, there is no better theater for heroism" (9). My thought: In this election cycle, if you want to be heroic but don't want to be shot at, play basketball.

Later he writes, "We runners tend to regard ourselves as born-again heroes and saints. If runners possess anything to a greater degree than endurance, it is self esteem" (11). My thought: Palin has this down pat--born-again and sure of herself.

Writing about reading, Sheehan encourages life-long learning but counsels his reader to shy away from novels. "Not novels . . . We find memorable people in these books but few memorable thoughts" (156). He ultimately concludes that we should not rely too heavily on what we read, but should instead "think for ourselves" (157). My thought: see below.

Finally, in his book This Running Life he suggests that every day represents another phase in the constant struggle to improve. My thought: Palin should take this to heart and quit trotting out the same lines at every stump speech. It would be one thing if they were true (e.g. "I told the federal government thanks, but no thanks." I suppose that's true... except for the "but no thanks" part of it).

I do avoid this kind of book for the most part... I like to keep my food down. That said, I do think Sheehan is probably one of the better motivational writers that I have read... Let me finish by commenting on Sheehan's comment on novels and reading.

Sheehan, unlike Palin, is himself fairly well-read: he quotes Emerson, Montaigne, C.S. Lewis, Ortega--but, true to his word, no novels. And this is one of the most disquieting aspects to me: Palin is running for national office but seems entirely unable to handle nuance. Novels are novels, not because they don't have clear ideas, but because the ideas they express are too complicated to spell out in a self-help book and are better communicated in shades of gray.

The fact that Palin proclaims C.S. Lewis to be "very deep" is in itself troubling. In most of his works, Lewis is attempting to take a fairly complicated and abstract idea (Christian salvation) and make is simple. But even C.S. Lewis understood that some messages were better communicated in novels (Narnia)... albeit fairly simple ones.

JFK said that his favorite book was Stendhal's Le Rouge et le noir, a novel about a young man who struggles against class and political barriers on his way to becoming a grade-A hypocrite before finally having a change of heart and being sincere (just prior to his execution). It is a novel with multiple story lines, political intrigue, personal discovery, nastiness, hate, kindness, love, manipulation, corruption, death, etc. It is a novel that does not gloss over human nature's darker side.

As a national politician, I want someone who can deal with the unseemly, unclear, nasty, beautiful world we live in. Sheehan writes that the "science of life gives predictable results." This may be true when it comes to running or self-realization, but it is not so clear when dealing with terrorist threats, Wall St. banks, or Russian oligarchs. Effective diplomacy requires analytical thinking and the ability to see the world as more than just good versus evil.

Obama, in contrast, enjoys works by Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison, and William Shakespeare (particularly his tragedies).

What a candidate reads will obviously not guarantee a great president (or vice-president). But it at least suggests which candidate will have a better idea how to deal with the dimly-lit tangle of humanity and self-interest a president will have to confront every day.

(1)From her now infamous interview with Katie Couric:

Couric: And when it comes to establishing your worldview, I was curious, what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this to stay informed and to understand the world?
Palin
: I've read most of them, again with a great appreciation for the press, for the media.
Couric
: What, specifically?
Palin: Um, all of them, any of them that have been in front of me all these years.
Couric: Can you name a few?
Palin: I have a vast variety of sources where we get our news, too. Alaska isn't a foreign country, where it's kind of suggested, "Wow, how could you keep in touch with what the rest of Washington, D.C., may be thinking when you live up there in Alaska?" Believe me, Alaska is like a microcosm of America.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

If Obama Wins, Is It Thanks To Tiger Woods?

African American athletes have been successful as long as white Americans have been. But, as my colleague Richard Kimball points out, for decades they were seen as a threat to white America. When Jack Johnson won the heavyweight boxing title in 1908, Jack London called for a "great white hope" to restore the superior race to its rightful, dominant position. Johnson was vilified, treated as an animal, and harassed by a racist public. Even Jesse Owens, after his triumph in Berlin in 1936, returned to the back of the bus and marginalization once home in America. And Americans, rather than seeing his victories as an indication that it was time to reconsider race policy, instead viewed them as an affirmation that segregation worked. It was not until after World War II that black athletes began to gain a measure of equality in the United States. Jackie Robinson's successes paved the way for other competitors and, when America needed athletes to defeat the Russians during the Cold War, black athletes like Wilma Rudolph, draped in the flag, gained acceptance by helping save the day in Rome (again, thanks to Dr. Kimball for this detail).

Even in these instances, however, black athletes remained primarily heroes for black America and they were still marginalized in sports where they were under the authority of white managers and trainers.

Tiger Woods may be the first black (or, like Obama, part black) athlete to succeed at an elite sport and to be accepted as something of a pop culture icon. Americans of all colors follow his career, cheer for him, and play Tiger Woods Golf on their Play Stations and X-Boxes. Without him in a tournament, TV audiences plummet (this year's tournaments have fewer than half the viewers they did last year with Tiger competing). According to The Economist, Tiger Woods is the best paid athlete in the world (his 127.9 million annual income is more than twice that of the second best paid athlete), and he dominates a sport that was reserved for white, upper-class men until only recently. In other words, Tiger entered the upper echelons of sport and in a very short time he became the first African American to win many of golf's major (and minor) tournaments. He garnered a following that cut across all races and social classes and became, in terms of marketing, the most powerful athlete in the world.

Enter Barack Obama. Like Tiger Woods, he is of mixed race. Like Tiger he has been able to reach across racial lines, social classes and quickly enter and become a huge player within the corridors of power. He is an international icon. Would Americans have been willing to accept him and elect him without Tiger Woods, a "Cablinasian," having already primed the pump? Granted, the Tiger factor is only one among many, but in an election where Obama won the primary by the smallest of margins, every percentage point counts. Is it possible that Tiger's popularity made a black politician fractionally more acceptable--and acceptable not just in a small congressional race, but in politics of the largest scale?

Perhaps to assure victory next month and gain an even larger following among suburbanites, like Tiger, Obama should come out with his own video game. Whether or not he does, and whether or not he wins, to this blogger, Barack Obama is the political Tiger Woods.



(P.S.: I do not want to minimize the importance of Arthur Ashe, winner of three grand slam tennis titles, who, although he was never as iconic [or marketable] as Woods, clearly helped pave the way for Tiger's successful career. If there are other athletes I left out, please comment.)

Monday, October 6, 2008

Baseball's Playoff Problem

Do not be deceived by the fact that the bases are the same distance apart or that the uniforms are identical, post season baseball is not the same as the game we watch during the regular season.

To determine who makes the playoffs, teams are built to win consistently, daily, and ultimately to win 1 more game a month than their rivals. In the case of the White Sox, they won only one more game than the Twins to make the playoffs. In other words, it took, in their case, 163 games to establish difference.

In the playoffs, particularly the silly 5-game first round, they determine the best team in only 3 games. Over the course of 162 games, the difference between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Philadelphia Phillies was 2 games (or a 1.2% gap). Clearly you have to draw the line somewhere. A playoff series head-to-head (without all those other pesky teams from the regular season) is a good way to limit statistical variance, but 5 games (equal to 3% of the 162 played in the regular season)? By contrast, the NFL plays 1-game playoff rounds, but that is equal to 6.3% of their regular season and the NBA always plays 7-game rounds, or the equivalent of 8.5% of their regular season.

Complicating baseball's problems further, is the fact that with all the off-days during the playoffs, teams can play a completely different strategy than during the regular season by going to a three pitcher rotation. Which teams make the playoffs is usually determined by which teams' #5 starters are the best. In a 5-game series, the fifth starter might pitch out of the bullpen. This explains why the great Atlanta teams of the 90s always made the playoffs, but only won the World Series once. It also explains how the Cubs could lose to the Dodgers in 3 games: we didn't even see their complete regular season roster play.

I, for one, would like to see all the playoff series be at least 7, if not 9 games long. I can hear Selig from his perch chirping that it will make the season extend too late into Fall. My response: pish posh. Eliminate all the travel days, include a couple of double headers and get starters 4 and 5 involved. Then the post season will accurately reflect the game that teams played to win their way there.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Director Of Tour To Armstrong: "Quoi?!"

Jean-Marie Leblanc, former director of the Tour de France, publicly sounded off about Armstrong's return to cycling. Read some of his comments here.

The team Armstrong is returning to (Astana) was excluded from last year's Tour because of unresolved issues about drug testing. I'm not sure his return will help the team's case...

Update: Lab offers to retest Armstrong samples from 1999 Tour for EPO.

Thanks to Chris for the links.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Living on the Grid: How American Football Relates To Wall Street's Woes

Football evolved out of Rugby (with a little help from Napoleon Bonaparte) on American college campuses in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The advent of the formal snap, the addition of "downs" and the introduction of the forward pass, pushed the Rugby toward a uniquely American sport. It nevertheless remained an elite sport for American university students. It was not until the 1920s that professional teams finally began to spring up. Markovits and Hellerman point out that these early "NFL teams were directly sponsored by firms in the midst of labor disputes and strikes" (1). Football teams were organized in an effort to keep workers happy and off of picket lines, it was "simply a way 'to buy off labor unrest'" (2). Football replaced religion as the opium of the people.

One significant change from Rugby that may have had the most profound--and most American--impact on the sport, was the decision to allow competitors to substitute freely between plays. In other words, where in Rugby once a player has been replaced by a substitute he cannot return to the game, in football players can rotate in and out at will. The result is an insanely high degree of specialization among football players: defenders who only play when it is third and long, blockers who are just in on running downs, long-snappers (who apparently average around $700,000/year in the NFL... not bad!), etc. This is American efficiency personified.

In addition, the importance of first downs and, consequently, of spotting the ball accurately, led to the creation of the gridiron: a field with more paint on it than Tammy Faye Baker wore in her heyday. The field is a large graph, the perfect symbol for a society obsessed with numerical quantification.

Modern football, born out a milieu of labor disputes, creates specialized workers whose efficiency can be charted on a graph and constantly monitored by all-powerful managers. Football players are far from the ideal of the enlightenment era "man of quality" who studied botany, art, history, electricity and music to become a versatile, well-rounded member of society. Football instead embodies the corporate need for specialized labor, it values the ability to perform a single action extremely well over the ability to make connections between disciplines. To the football fan, the multidisciplinarian is a relic from pastoral sports like baseball or soccer where players must be able to play both offense and defense.

Specialized experts are as highly valued in the corporate world as in the NFL. Those who can focus on one thing, like making money or blocking defensive ends, stand to receive handsome rewards. But such specialization has its limits. An offensive lineman is no more able to run a deep pass route than a Wall Street CEO to consider the human and meta-economic implications of bundling and selling subprime loans. The former just knows how to block, the latter just looks to his bottom line and his annual bonus, long term consequences be damned.

So instead of a 700 billion dollar bailout, perhaps we should simply require that investment bankers watch more soccer.

(1) Markovits and Hellerman. Offsides: Soccer and American Exceptionalism, p. 80.
(2) Same text, p. 81.

Friday, September 26, 2008

End Strong Update

Lance Armstrong raced at the Cross Vegas cyclocross race this week in Las Vegas. He finished 22nd. If you're interested in the Armstrong saga, click here (Cycling Magazine online) to see an interview with him and highlights from Wednesday's race.

Oh yeah, and some guy named Ryan Trebon won. Apparently he's kind of a big deal. Whatever...

Lance was 22nd!

Riding The Wave

Chris Cutri, who published the preceding post, "End Strong," in addition to blogging here on The Sports Academic, makes films for a living. He is interested in all extreme sports, but recently made a documentary about surfing entitled "Riding the Wave." It is a look at how corporations have co-opted traditional surfing culture and how surfing and its practitioners have changed as a result. Cutri's film asks: If surfing is primarily about channeling free energy, about taking a gift from mother nature in the form of a wave and transforming it into an artistic art form, has the sport's commodification eroded its core philosophy?

With the rise of professionalism, it becomes difficult to maintain the type of aristocratic "hang loose" detachment that has characterized the surfer since the beginning and that was embodied by the classic 1966 surf film "Endless Summer." In fact, the title of that film implies it all: leisure, time, and detachment. Now surfing is big business and it confronts the kind of problems other sports have faced (1) as they move from a lifestyle/philosophy centered pastime to a sponsor-driven profession. Cutri's film examines the fissures this shift is creating as he interviews both CEOs and old-school surfing philosophers, both those pushing the sport into the mainstream and those holding to tradition.

Is it possible to stem the tide of commercializtion? Will putting substance over brand-name labels merely relegate surfing to a museum sport? Watch the film (the trailer is online here), and let Chris know what you think.

(1) one recent example is judo. When the sport became an Olympic event, much of the philosophy associated with the "art" disappeared in favor of match winning techniques and training. Many practitioners of Kendo are adamant that it not be made an Olympic sport so that its artistic and philosophical components can be maintained and so that it can remain above commercial interests.