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 junkie. To keep myself apprised on what is going on in sports, I count on (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 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.


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:

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:

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:

= (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 EspaƱa, 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; 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.