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

Table of Contents
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
Imitation and Resistance

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?
: I've read most of them, again with a great appreciation for the press, for the media.
: 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.