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 In other words, where in Rugby once a player has been replaced by a substitute he cannot return to the game, in football players can rotate in and out at will.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.

Monday, September 22, 2008

End Strong

When Michael Jordan made that amazing crossover dribble past Byron Russell of the Utah Jazz and sank that beautiful jumpshot to win the Bulls’ sixth NBA championship you thought Bob Costas was going to say, “And that is the last shot you’ll ever see Michael Jordan make.” He really should have said that. Why would any athlete want to come back to a sport after such a picture perfect ending? As Lance Armstrong announces his return to professional cycling, you can’t help but wonder why he would want to tarnish one of the most amazing cycling career endings of all time-seven Tour De France wins. Is he bored? Does so much financial wealth cause disillusionment? We all know that the promotion of his cancer awareness foundation can be done successfully without him returning to professional cycling.

Armstrong says something to the effect in his book, “It’s Not About The Bike” that athletes who are strongly committed to their sport are at times covering some sort of inner pain. The sport they put so much commitment into is a way to negate some deep-rooted pains that life deals to everyone. Is one of the factors of Michael Phelps’ success some inner pain due to a very estranged relationship with his father? Obviously his physical attributes, his training regimen, and his desire to win are the primary factors of his success. But is there one little element that we rarely look at?--this notion that the harder he works and the more he wins, the easier he can deal with his life and reconcile the pains in his heart? Is returning back to a sport where you were once the most dominant figure and possibly one of the best that has ever played a form of neurosis-a modern social ill that never could have been imagined in prior decades? It would be an interesting study to see from a psychoanalytic perspective—What is the motivation and reasoning behind top athletes re-entering their sport after retirement? What do you think?

(Click here for a video of Armstrong's coach talking about his drive to compete and win.)

French "Culture"

Carlos Amado (who is currently finishing an MA thesis on violence in soccer stadiums) sent me some links to fights between fans of Paris Saint-Germain's football club and those of Auxerre and Marseille. There are a number of skirmishes on YouTube. Here is a video of Marseille fans "welcoming" the fans and team from Paris:


And here is the translation (warning: appropriate for neither children nor my employer, hence the ****s):

Parisians, we're going to kill you.
Parisians, we're going to f*** your mother.
Parisians, we're going to kill all of you.
Paris, we f*** you in the a**.
Parisians are all pederasts.
Paris, Paris, we f*** you in the a**.

From the country of Baudelaire and Proust. Nice. Surprisingly, though, some of their "poems" are actually composed in alexandrines. (If you think this type of insult is unusual, read some of the comments below the video... it goes from bad to worse.)

To Carlos' point (see comment in preceding post), Paris and Marseille have tended to have the most violent fans and they also have some of the most economically depressed neighborhoods in France. But there are certainly some other factors at play here, too (the Boulogne Boys of PSG have used nazi salutes at times and there were several incidents of racial insults and banners during last season in France's Ligue 1--notably in Corsica and in Metz).

Seeing this video and others like it, I seriously doubt public service announcements or an ad campaign against rude fan behavior will have any impact. The violence stems not from a general lack of civility but from much deeper issues linked to group identity, socio-economic level, perceptions of immigrants, and/or general angst about one's place (and lack of mobility) in society. Andy Markovits (in his book Offside) contends that for a young man, his favorite sports team may be the only constant in his life: girlfriend/wife, religion, job, etc. may all abandon him or prove unsatisfactory--but his team and fellow hooligans are always there. This makes identification to a team paramount and leads to the kinds of excesses seen in the above video.

Have you heard of anything like this in U.S. stadiums? England, as Carlos pointed out, gentrified their soccer leagues by increasing ticket prices, pulling out all bleacher seating, and cracking down on organized fan groups. Would the same thing work in Argentina? In France? In Provo City Little League?

Update: Carlos sent me the following link to demonstrate the extent of the violence in Argentine soccer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZhruAcf0q8

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Stopping Hooligans In Argentina

Chrissie sends the following link to a story in the Wall Street Journal about a woman who has begun a public campaign to stamp out violence and rudeness in soccer stadiums. Part of her strategy has been to pay for anti-violence TV spots featuring famous players and to organize seminars on playgrounds and in prisons.

Click here to read the article.

Part of the problem is that a large number of fans go to the game NOT to watch the game but to vent their frustrations with life. Not surprisingly, when unemployment goes up in a region, so does violence in local soccer stadiums. When an economy is flush with cash, violence tends to go down. Soccer matches are generally a socially acceptable place to scream obscenities and let off societal steam... The problem is that this anger frequently goes beyond naughty songs and sexual insults and turns into criminal behavior.

What do you think? Can she really stop the crazies?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Manchester United, Brought To You By...


Not to worry, though, Man U... the U.S. government will make good on the $102.9 million AIG owes you for putting their illustrious name on your jerseys.

For another blogger's take and a link to Bloomberg article: http://sportsprof.blogspot.com/2008/09/many-shirt-sponsors-in-english.html

How The French Invented American Football

In the late 19th century, some Ivy league schools began playing rugby, a sport practiced by the upper crust in Britain's elite schools. Practitioners, however, wanted the game to become more uniquely American, and began implementing a series of rule changes (more on this in an upcoming post). However, the most significant strategy change may have made this quintessentially American game more French than American.

When Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, visited America in the 1890s he met Lorin Deland, a fan of Harvard's team. Deland had read Adolphe Thiers' book on the history of France's Revolution (Histoire du Consulat et de l'Empire) and was struck by the way Napoleon attacked the enemy at their weakest point with a large number of men at just the right time thereby stunning the opposing army and throwing them into a state of chaos. With Coubertin looking on, Deland convinced Harvard's team to adopt Napoleon's tactic of focusing offensive forces on one weak point in the enemy's defense. And with that, the wedge, blocking and brutality came to replace Rugby's spread out game built around passes and kicking.

In 1894 (two years before the first modern Olympiad), Coubertin wrote of one Thanksgiving Day football game he attended, "It was modern Olympism, and rather emotional, I assure you." He continued, "Napoleon looked down on this event from heaven where he has been for only a short while, amnestied by the Lord. It warmed his warrior spirit and he prayed that Saint Peter would, when the day came, allow Mr. Deland, his prophet, to enter heaven straight away" (1).

Vive le NFL!

(1) Pierre de Coubertin. “Napoléon et le football.” Les Sports athlétiques. 5th year, number 198, 13 Jan. 1894, pp. 24-26.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Soccer, Philosophy And "Morals"

The BBC recently reported on a school in France that teaches young goal keepers both how to stop shots on goal and how to become a better, more moral person. They claim to be following the example of Albert Camus who said that everything he learned about life, he learned from football. (See the article and video here.)

One of the school's backers is former French national team keeper Fabien Barthez. While it is true that Barthez and Camus are similar in that both smoke(d), I doubt Camus was ever sanctioned for spitting on an official. Just a guess...

Thanks to Daryl Lee for the link.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Football, Democracy, And Cultural Identity

Paul Woodruff, author of First Democracy and of a recent work on Theater titled The Necessity of Theater, spoke Thursday at a public lecture here on campus. He argued that in ancient Greece, theater created good citizens in that it was a shared experience that generated a common, unique identity. He went on to claim that the nearest spectacles in modern society to create this same sense of common identity were (in this order): First, football; second, religion.

Interestingly, Professor Woodruff went on to note that in Athens, wealthy citizens thought attending plays was so central to establishing civic unity and identity that they created a "sort of slush fund" that enabled even the poorest to participate in the theatrical experience.

This makes me wonder what kind of shared identity modern football games create for their spectators. True, there are heroes on the field (like those represented on stage anciently) and the games produce a kind of cathartic moment for a huge audience. Additionally, football games can generate a shared memory that people from different socio-economic backgrounds can discuss.

But the live experience is geared less toward creating a shared identity and more toward maintaining class differences by reinforcing exclusion: the price of tickets; the limited number of seats; the different types of seats (bleachers v. chairs v. luxury boxes); the special pre-game and half-time meals given to the wealthiest contributors or corporate sponsors; the fact that in college stadiums, students are often put in the endzone bleachers while wealthy boosters are given seats on the 50-yard line; etc. Each of these measures creates difference and reminds spectators of their exclusion from certain aspects of the experience. The "common identity" is therefore shared only by members within isolated groups, groups that are fractured from each other, separated by security guards, rails, or the glass on luxury boxes.

Communities would have more success creating a common identity via football if games were free (or if, as was the practice in ancient Greece, a slush fund were created to enable everyone to attend), if all the seats were shaded, and if commercial pressures were eliminated. And since that isn't going to happen, we better head back to church...

Thursday, September 11, 2008

My Dad To Me: Go For The Tour!

I received the following email from my father on Wednesday: "Just in case you missed it: Armstrong at 37 is gearing up to race again in Le Tour. You're only 38. Why not? I'm behind you all the way."

I can barely ride my bike up my driveway, but since my father says he's supporting me...

Anyone out there willing to sponsor me?

I'll also need a directeur sportif. Any volunteers?

Plus, I need someone to fill my water bottles and keep me topped off with that gel stuff cyclists "eat."

Finally (and most importantly), I'll need someone to provide urine and blood samples for me, since I'm going to be juiced to the max.

Paris, here I come!

More on Armstrong's comeback (thanks Chris): http://boulderreport.bicycling.com/2008/09/yup-hes-back.html?cm_mmc=BicyclingNL-_-2008_09_11-_-blog-_-boulderreport

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Celebrating Touchdowns In College Football: The Case Of BYU Vs. UW

I will certainly appear heretical to the faithful, but whether or not University of Washington quarterback Jake Locker technically broke the rules by throwing the ball in the air after scoring a potential tying touchdown against BYU last Saturday, his team should not have been penalized.

College Football is big business (1) and big spectacle. There are a few who still believe that NCAA football is about teaching values to students, but the scales have fallen from most peoples' eyes and (to quote Barack Obama AND John McCain) we should just call a pig a pig.

BYU's head coach, Bronco Mendenhall, agreed with the call and told reporters after Saturday's game: "[The rules] are to teach principles of class and integrity" (2). Bronco means it. And I'm sure he really believes it. Everything I have seen from him indicates he is trying to do things the right way. But he is reiterating a nineteenth-century coubertinian ideal that is currently buried under the stultifying weight of commercial and professional interests that drown out those noble ideals. And any university wanting to get into NCAA sports at the highest level must accept these outside influences as par for the course.

Why can't a college quarterback throw a ball in celebration? Will it slow down the game? If this is really a problem, cut out some of the commercial time-outs. Does it show a lack of respect and decorum? If universities cared about this they would not have built stadiums bigger than libraries and arenas bigger than research labs. In other words, the message implicitly sent by the NCAA and its member institutions is that winning at football is more important than learning. So since football (and its accompanying 60,000 fans screaming obscenities) is the heart, soul, and architectural center of university life, let the athletes put on a good show and, yes, let them throw the ball after scoring a touchdown. More people will pay to see it.

P.S.: a colleague pointed out that one of the problems with the BYU-UW football game was that it was officiated by a Pac-10 team and played in a Pac-10 stadium. Usually, an officiating crew from an outside conference should be brought in. The last penalty, I'm told, may have been called to make up for the number of calls made in UW's favor throughout the game. I am surprised not more has been made of this... all the criticism has been directed at officials and at BYU's team, who really outplayed UW and deserved the win (again, so I'm told).

(1) The report of the NCAA Knight Commission suggests that almost all athletic departments lose money and "must siphon funds from general revenue to try to keep up with the Joneses. Pursuit of success in this context jeopardizes not only the universities' moral heritage but also their financial security." In other words, the big business aspect of big-time college sports is a losing proposition that actually hinders academic progress.
(2) As reported in ESPN.com.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

ESPN: Where Sports And Politics Don't Mix

Last Tuesday, the Baseball Tonight team on ESPN began discussing a sign held up by a fan at Fenway Park that read "Big Papi for president!" (Paraphrasing) Buck Showalter: "Doesn't he have to be born in the U.S.?" Karl Ravech: "Natural born, yes." John Kruk: "Maybe he should just start by running for mayor." Ravech: "Well, from mayor nowadays, you can go straight into big-time national politics...." Showalter: "Easy! Easy...." End of conversation.

Ravech was obviously referring to Sarah Palin's rise from mayor of a small town to vice-presidential candidate within several years (and let's not forget, she was apparently a very talented basketball player).

The question is why are they so reluctant to talk about politics, even pretty benign issues like Palin's rise to national prominence? Are they afraid to offend viewers? Do they subconsciously adhere to the principle that politics are anathema to sports, that sports are, in fact, a palliative masking political turmoil? Are sports viewers so heavily Republican that ESPN only allows pro-war, pro-Republican imagery/conversation (flags are always de rigueur on the network)?

I'm probably reading too much into this: it is most likely that Showalter sensed a wiff of real political discussion (without realizing how banal it was) and, following the old American adage that interdicts discussing politics, pushed back. We wouldn't want ESPN turning into CNN. Although... If ESPN did decide to cover the conventions, it would certainly be more entertaining than what the "news" networks offered.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Professors And Sluggers As Free Agents

For those of you who work in academe and who are reading this blog, you must read Jeffrey Standen's post (The Sports Law Professor: All's Not Perfect With Sports Either) comparing free agency in baseball with free agency among professors.

Among other things, Standen argues (rightly I believe) that just as baseball players are disproportionately rewarded for home runs, professors are disproportionately compensated for their high-profile publications (and by extension, their reputations)--fielding, teaching, and collegiality be damned.

He also suggests that hiring a big reputation professor is less risky than hiring "Manny being Manny." The professor's reputation endures even with a few slim years whereas Manny's value plummets if he quits going yard 40-plus times a year.

I do wonder if I could get a contract that would make me a professorial "closer." I'd just come in at the end of semesters and clean up some other faculty member's class and get them to the final exam. Maybe I could be a faculty set-up man and make a million five a year for answering a tough left-hander's question about three weeks before the end of the term. And maybe I could get a shoe-deal on the side.

Granted, Standen is talking about law professors, so comparisons to MLB and NBA players are probably apt. In the humanities, though, we should probably think of ourselves as being on the professional lumberjack circuit. I should start looking for an endorsement deal with a company that makes boot laces...

And since publishing = home runs, will blog publishing make me a more desirable free agent? The magic 8-ball in the dean's office tells me: "Signs point to NO."

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

College Football, brought to you by @#$%#!

Maybe it's because I've become accustomed to watching football games on my TiVo and so I can skip all the commercials, injury timeouts, even the huddles. But Saturday when I went to a college football game, I found it to be one long tedious commercial punctuated by injury and TV timeouts, and an occasional play.

(Since this blog needs some extra advertising, I'm going to replace the actual corporate sponsors named at the game with The Sports Academic.)

Every single play was "brought to you by..." First downs were sponsored by a bank, Touchdowns by a restaurant, field goals by a furniture store. The dance team and the cheer squad were even "brought to you by The Sports Academic, inc."

I'm sure by next season we'll hear, "That last snap was brought to you by..." Or: "That player scratching himself was brought to you by The Sports Academic lotions and powders. Fans, next time you scratch yourselves, remember The Sports Academic lotion..."

By the second half, confusion set in. There were ads for multiple restaurants, two phone companies, and three credit unions (plus a bank). What's a fan to do? Do I get a calling plan with TheSportsAcademic.com or with TheSportsAcademic.blogspot.com? Do I eat at TheSportsAcademic.com or TheSportsAcademic.blogspot.com? Oh, the humanity! Please, great football team, warriors of my Alma Mater, guiding light in my life, reveal to me which of the three credit unions I should visit for my next car loan!

Frankly, at $75 a seat and $6 for a Philly Cheesesteak, you would think I could attend the game without having things hawked at me every second. Instead, it's like paying to attend one of those time-share meetings.

I think there was a game in there somewhere, but I'm not sure of the final score. My early departure was sponsored by TheSportsAcademic.com sleeping pills.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Politics And Sports In The Twelfth Century

On the relationship between sports and politics, one of my favorite examples is from a twelfth-century poem entitled, "The Two Lovers," written by a woman named Marie who wrote in the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II.

In the poem (in fact it's a "lai"--a kind of medieval song) Marie de France describes a king who has lost his wife and has only one daughter whom he loves (perhaps a little too much). He is unwilling to share her with anyone, and unwilling to share his kingdom with whoever she may choose to marry. To silence he critics (who do not want to see the kingdom without an heir to the throne) he agrees to let his daughter marry, but only to a man who will be able to carry her to the top of a nearby mountain without stopping to rest.

Many noblemen try, but they all fail. The task proves too difficult for even the strongest.

The princess, however, does fall in love with a young nobleman who is, unfortunately, not the most powerful suitor. But the princess fasts, and has her lover visit an aunt who provides him with a special drink to give him extra strength.

For his part, the king invites everyone in the kingdom to witness the event. And they all come. After all, the future of the kingdom is at stake. They line the entire route to the summit of the mountain, in part to cheer, in part to make sure the young man keeps the rules and doesn't stop.

The event looks much like a stage in today's Tour de France: a difficult climb; spectators lining the route; a beautiful woman at the finish line; and the presence of performance enhancing drugs.

The end of the poem is predictable. The young man makes it to the top but dies from the strain. The princess then dies from a broken heart. The king is left alone and without an heir, punished for standing in the way of love and for trying to control his daughter.

Ultimately, the king's attempt to use an athletic challenge to mask political scandal fails.

The moral? Beware of politicians who play beach volleyball.