Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Need a Sponsor? Go Naked!

French pole vaulter (vocabulaire du jour: "un perchiste") Romain Mesnil, depite winning a silver medal at the 2007 World Championships, has been unable to land a sponsor. To bring attention to his plight, he decided to pole vault in Paris... sans vĂȘtements.

Even if he makes it with flair, his statement, that an athlete must now have corporate sponsors in order to be clothed, is a sad one. Although, without sponsors and corporate interest, many sporting events would simply not exist. To be a true rebel, I would recommend Mesnil go ancient Greek/Naomi Klein (author of No Logo) at upcoming meets. Ratings for pole-vaulting may increase dramatically, even if he will have to clear the bar by a few extra inches.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

“Give him the AXE!”: The Coach as Scapegoat

In the midst of “March Madness” (by which I mean not the NCAA tournament but rather the daunting stacks of grading that accompany the end of the academic year) and with the conferences/deadlines Corry mentioned below, while at the same time not wanting to let too much time pass between posts, I’ve been anxiously scanning the headlines for something post-worthy. As far as upsets and big stories are concerned, this year’s tourney has been quite uneventful (the Sweet 16 had few Cinderellas, almost entirely composed of 1-4 seeds—except, of course for Daryl’s Arizona Wildcats; and, how badly did they lose to Louisville?). The WBC came and went without a bang. Spring Training drags on. And, Tiger is having trouble finding his groove… Then, my Wildcats, from the University of Kentucky, who missed the tourney for the first time in 17 seasons, came through for me and gave me something to write about: they fired head basketball coach Billy Gillispie.

Not that Billy Clyde didn’t have it coming—quite the contrary. In his two seasons, he lost both home/season openers to Gardner Webb and VMI, repectively (schools I didn’t even know existed), which shows a lack of motivation and preparation, traits that Kentucky carried throughout the forgettable Gillispie era. He was a bad fit from the start. Still, two years is hardly enough time in any profession to establish and prove oneself, right? ...not so in the world of major-sport coaching.

Gillespie’s firing is emblematic of the recent trend in sports where, when lofty expectations are unmet, the fans quickly transform disappointment into collective anger, which is, in turn, mitigated through the scapegoat mechanism. Their emissary victim: of course, the coach. Explored in Girardian terms, league sports operate on the mimetic principle: each team covets and desires a trophy that only one (of 32, 64 or thousands) can attain. The inability to appropriate the desired, sacralized center results in scandal amongst the team, management and supporters—a mimetic contagion which threatens the future efficacy of the team (recruiting, preparing for next season, etc.). To mitigate this entropic process, teams turn their antagonism towards one being, an arbitrarily singled-out victim: the coach. With social order restored in the removal of the scapegoat, supporters are contented and the cycle begins anew.

In other words, the proverbial “hot seat” (see here) and the not-too-distant “boot” that are so commonplace in sports today are not as recent—in design, anyway—as they may initially appear. In fact, as we recall “Fire Crowton!” t-shirts, witness the current French discontent for Raymond Domenech and Didier Deschamps or see Charlie Weis seemingly perpetually on the hot seat in South Bend, we could simply recognize this phenomenon as a modern manifestation of an original, archetypal and foundational form of human interaction.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Anthropologist Speaks Re. Tour de France

Julie Hartley, an Antrhopology professor here at BYU, spoke last week about the Tour de France.

Her talk was titled, "The Tour de France: Modern Heroes, Mythologized Landscape, and the Ritual Nation," and it can be viewed online here: http://kennedy.byu.edu/archive/#1388.

Bob and I were both at conferences last week and I have an article deadline approaching early next week, so posts have been a bit sparse. More to come...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sorry, St. Patty, No Green for Me: Purple, Gold, Green and Sports Rivalries

With the storied Lakers-Celtics rivalry renewed with last year’s NBA Finals, this past offseason, Lakers reserve guard Sasha Vujacic (known for his bold fashion statements) made news with his avowal to neither ever wear the color green again nor allows his teammates to do so. So, with St. Patrick’s Day upon us, I was met with a dilemma: Do I let down my Irish Catholic ancestors, the Petey’s from Tipperary County, and not wear green or do I defy my sports prejudices and disappoint my French Hugenot forefathers with a giant green shamrock? Answer: I, and my daughter Emma, are wearing Purple and Gold today as we eat our corned beef and cabbage!

However, a sports history lesson will tell us that the Purple & Gold versus Green rivalry extends beyond the Lakers and Celtics. Together, the three constitute the colors of New Orleans Mardi Gras, as selected in 1872 by Russian diplomat Alexis Romanoff, who was visiting the city for Fat Tuesday. Reaffirmed in 1892, the City of New Orleans officially adopted the colors, attributing them royal values: Purple (Justice), Gold (Power) and Green (Faith). The following year, 1893, Louisiana State University and Tulane University decided to form football teams. As the LSU team and fans traveled together by bus to New Orleans for the first match-up, they decided something needed to be done to spark school spirit. The lowly state school was, after all, playing against the moneyed private city school. Arriving in New Orleans to find stores decked out in the city’s newly-adopted colors, team coach (and chemistry professor) Dr. Charles Coates decided to dress up the team’s uniforms of drab grey and navy. Since Tulane used olive green as it’s university color, Coates and quarterback Ruffin Pleasant bought up all of the purple and gold paraphernalia they could and team and fans showed up for the game adorned in the now iconic Purple & Gold. While Tulane won the match 34-0, the upstarts at LSU had founded a tradition and would win the next four tilts of what is now the “Battle for the Rag.” While Louisianans might convene in city centers in the spring for Mardi Gras, wearing beads of purple, gold and green, come fall, the polemics are clearly defined.

Back to the NBA, most fans will remember the Utah Jazz donning the purple, gold and green of Stockton and Malone (and Mark Eaton) they brought over from New Orleans in 1978. In 1996, they changed the logo of the music note “J” and 1920s jazz font but retained the colors for the atrocious Hornacek-era mountain range. With the retirement of these pillars of NBA lore, in 2004, Larry Miller and company decided to go with an entirely new logo with new team colors: Navy Blue, Ice Blue, Silver and White. Many have speculated that the new-look Jazz (along with, later, the Denver Nuggets) removed the purple and gold from its identity to distance itself from the hated Lakers. (Odd thing is, the Lakers originally wore the current Nuggets colors but changed in 1967 when they moved into the Forum to what was then called “funky” Forum Blue.) Ironically, when the Lakers and Jazz play, Purple, Gold and Green still fill the arena—and I don’t mean with retro John Stockton jerseys. The LA Lakers still carry the purple and gold, while the Jazz wear the green of Deron Williams and Carlos Boozers tattoos and the ENVY that didn’t die with a color change.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Baseball and the Economy: The Manny Deal

A recent ESPN poll asked fans how their feelings have changed concerning the colossal salaries professional athletes in light of the current economic crisis. Results were quite telling, with nearly equal proportions of fans finding themselves ranging from “not affected at all” to “mildly outraged” by the multi-million dollar figures; however, surprisingly very few indicated that they find such salaries “reprehensible.” In a related poll, a larger, clearer majority stated that today’s financial climate would not affect their attendance of professional sporting events. What do these polls tell us? First, by and large, sports fans understand and accept the flexible revenue available in the entertainment industry. Next, they realize the obvious competitive nature of professional sports and the need to pay great players their market value in order to compose a championship-caliber team. Last of all, especially in these trying times, people need a break from the daily grind and will still allocate money from tightening budgets to see a winning team play. While box office sales are diminishing and restaurants continue to struggle, even the most scandalized fans (by player salaries of PEDs) are still coming to ballgames for diversion and cathartic release.

This brings me to a story I have followed with much interest since November: the Manny Ramirez negotiations with my Los Angeles Dodgers. Admitting a clear sports bias, I have to say that I was one of the many Angelenos to warmly welcome Manny to Chavez Ravine on July 31st of last year. (I first heard the news on television at the Encino-Tarzana maternity ward where my wife was in labor with our daughter; had the anesthetic been stronger, Emma might now answer to “Manuela.”) In less than two months, Manny put up triple crown worthy numbers and the Dodgers went from a decent, competing (.500) team without a power bat to NL West champs and one of the hottest teams in baseball—sweeping the league-best Cubs in the NLDS. Come November, I—and most of the Dodger Nation—expected owner Frank McCourt and GM Ned Colletti to hand Manny a blank check. That this did not happen as harmoniously as hoped is acceptable; the upper management’s recent rhetoric is not.

As a series of deals floundered on the basis of years, flexibility and, of course, money (deferred or otherwise), tensions mounted and the hopes of keeping Manny in Blue began to dwindle. Both sides (Manny and agent Scott Boras on one, McCourt/Colletti on the other) held that a deal was still possible but the main issues remained: money and years. However, when the Dodgers made their “best offer” two weeks ago as Spring Training drew near and Manny rejected the deal, Frank McCourt (for whom I have great respect) said a few things that really irked me: Claiming that negotiations had “terminated,” he had the audacity to cite the crumbling economy in these stalemated negotiations. I quote: “We kept our offer virtually where it was in November. And you know what? The world isn't anything like it was in November” (whole story here). In a battle of millionaires, this was a highly-insensitive and misleading statement on his part.

Why is this statement so scandalous? And, furthermore, why are the Dodgers are such a good example of sports and the economy? First off, if we consider MLB attendance records over the course of the McCourt era (since 2004), we see that the Dodgers are consistently behind only the Yankees in ticket sales. Also, in the same five-year span, McCourt has increased ticket and concession prices each year to make the Dodgers one of the top-five most marketable franchises in professional baseball (read the Forbes article here). Save the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs and, maybe, the Mets, LA also sells the most memorabilia and team apparel of any other team. (Remember, all Brooklyn Dodgers revenues go to LA as well.) And, with Manny on the field, the stands will remain full. But, who comes to Dodgers games? Last year, I attended the game where the Dodgers became the first franchise in the history of spectator sports to eclipse 100 million fans. Of course, you have deep-pocketed regulars like Tom Hanks, Jon Lovitz, Adam Sandler and other entertainment industry types. Still, a large proportion of the Dodgers faithful are struggling, blue collar bleacher bums—the tortilla-packing and tuna-sandwich grubbing bunch—who faithfully come up from Torrance, down from North Hollywood and in from East LA to support the Blue beneath the iconic corrugated “wavy” pavilion. Do we really fear that men with the interlaced LA tattooed on their shaved heads, carrying infants with authentic embroidered Ramirez 99 jerseys are going to stop coming to games? The Dodgers are part of LA culture and as LA Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke has repeatedly indicated, Dodgers fans at the end of last season lived a period of frenzy equaled only by Fernando-Mania in the 80s. Game 3 of the NLCS broke Dodger Stadium’s record attendance mark at 56,800. Despite socio-economic diversity and financial straits, fans still battle traffic on the 101 and will especially come with Manny sporting blue in left. (Want proof?)

To briefly address other “fears” of “Manny being Manny” in LA as he was in Boston, let it be known that the Red Sox won two titles with Manny being Manny—something they will not do without Manny. Major League big-mouth Curt Schilling (baseball’s equivalent to Rush Limbaugh) has had words to say and Jonathan Papelbon just today called Manny a “cancer” in the clubhouse. Sour grapes? Manny doesn't mind (link). Rafael Furcal, Casey Blake and all his current teammates love him, constantly emphasizing his work ethic and positive clubhouse presence. Were Red Sox fans not coming to games when Manny was there?

Looking back to the last big economic crisis (no, not the 80s of Fernando-Mania), in the 1930s, even the most destitute and anti-Semitic Detroit Tigers fans were still going to the ballpark to see RBI King (and practicing Jew) Hank Greenberg lead their team to the pennant. Even if the market takes a turn for the worst, Dodgers fan will still need the diversion and release that today’s colorful RBI King can offer them.

For a final point on baseball and the marketplace, I am one of those who think it a shame that small market teams have very little fighting chance in the fat wallet race. Manny will make more this season than did the entire Florida Marlins payroll in 2008. The socialist in me wants to appeal to equality; but, with the market as it is today, I am glad to have Manny Ramirez on my team and an owner who, ultimately, realizes what Manny means to the morale of the city and the team.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Limbaugh on Youth Sports

Limbaugh on sports:


Another typical use of sports and politics: a smokescreen to avoid discussing the real issues.

Limbaugh doesn't offer any real solutions, but suggests that the financial bail-out amounts to not keeping score in youth sports. I think the connection is that in capitalism we have winners and losers and we should let the losers lose. As a friend pointed out, we do keep score; but were keeping score when Bush was in office, too. It's wasn't 0-0 when Obama was sworn in....

The problem is that we all stand to lose if the economy doesn't turn around. All of us but Rush, of course, who stands to become relevant as an oppositional figure if Obama's plan fails.

Friday, March 6, 2009

More on A-Rod in NY Times

To end this week of A-Rod posts, here's a link to an article in the NY Times (sent to my by Ophir) that puts another spin entirely on the whole brouhaha.


Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Against Verducci

In his Feb. 16 Sports Illustrated column, Tom Verducci skewered Alex Rodgriguez and accused him, among other things, of trampling on baseball's sacred records: "Linked to drugs are two thirds of the MVP winners from 1995 through 2003, five of the top 12 home run hitters of all time and three of the four players ever to smash 50 homers in a season more than twice."

As I've suggested before, home run records, for years, were dominated by players who emerged just after the dead-ball era. Hitters took advantage of both a livelier ball and of pitchers who pitched complete games on short rest.

But many other records are linked to specific eras, too. Consider the single-season RBI leaders: the top ten were all set between 1927 and 1937. Was there something special in the Moxie?

And twelve of the top twenty single-season stolen base records were set between 1887 and 1891. Bad catchers? New cleats? Or were they drinking the original cocaine laced Coca-Cola (first sold in 1886) to help them get that extra step?

The 1960s saw a spate of outstanding pitchers (Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale). Were they helped by the fact that the mound was higher then (it was lowered to 10 inches--and enforced at this height--in 1969)?

The point is, every era had its records, and there is usually a certain part of the game that teams exploit for offensive or defensive advantage. Eventually rules change or the opposition catches up and closes these loopholes. Clearly, the "steroid era" has produced its share of home runs. And I think we should view the steroid era as just that: one more era in the long evolution of baseball.

Back to Verducci: In his article, he notes that "union COO Gene Orza tipped Rodriguez about upcoming tests, [leaving us] with the image of the union as facilitators of the Steroid Era." But he goes on from their to blast Rodriguez. Certainly, the union deserves more of the blame. Certainly, MLB owners deserve more of the blame (they too glibly blame the union for all the problems while they were equally profiting from the home run fest). And certainly, fans deserve more of the blame: we were tuning in, buying tickets, buying jerseys, all the while knowing something was amiss. When HR records started dropping faster than Casanova's pants, even the least attuned fan suspected steroids were behind it. But many of us, including me, watched anyway.

In Verducci's defense, he was lied to by Rodriguez and is justifiably grinding an axe. In my defense, I don't think anyone should take steroids to improve athletic performance and Rodriguez is getting what he deserves by being dragged through the media mud.

But the blame should certainly be shared by more than a few scapegoats.

Monday, March 2, 2009

How Professors are Like A-Rod

In a recent poll conducted by the NY Times and CBS, 44% of respondents said Alex Rodriguez should not be allowed into the Hall of Fame and a slightly higher number (47%) say any records he sets should be marked with an asterisk to remind baseball fans that he was on the juice for a few years.

To quote Seth and Amy from SNL: "Really?"

First, I don't get the sanctimonious reverence for records, records that are often broken more because the equipment has changed and because the philosophy of the game has changed than because of any special training regimen an individual player is on.

Babe Ruth set his home run record because at the time almost no one else even thought about hitting home runs. The game was based on defense, singles, stolen bases, and bunts. Pitchers didn't know how to handle a guy who came up to the plate trying to hit the ball out of the park. To make things easier, Ruth was facing pitchers who usually went complete games and pitched on only two-days rest.

Today, batters sometimes face pitchers who were signed for the sole purpose of striking out one left-handed batter in the seventh inning. In addition, bats, balls, gloves, the condition of the field, video replay, etc. all make the game substantially different than it has been in the past. And... oh yeah... today's batters actually have to face all the best pitchers, not just the white ones.

So any kind of real comparison between today's totals and those of the past is already out of kilter. At best the asterisk amounts to a nostalgic over-idealization of the past; at worst it represents a sort of moral hypocrisy and an attempt to scapegoat athletes for technological advances we as a society are still grappling with.

And speaking of hypocrisy, let's discuss the Hall of Fame: home to many outstanding ball players and good men, but also home to racists, criminals, and thugs. I for one would rather have a steroid user in the HOF than a racist... I wouldn't want to send the wrong message to the kids and have them think it's all right to let racism slide as long as they take a stand against steroids.

Finally, if we give A-Rod an asterisk, shouldn't we all put one beside our name, too, when we retire?

How many people have cheated to get ahead in their careers? Or, to be more true to the A-Rod situation: how many people do something that is not technically against the rules but that could be construed as unethical in order to get ahead in their careers? Just because it doesn't involve a needle, do we give those people a pass, let them keep the extra money they've earned, but publicly scapegoat athletes who cut corners by taking PEDs?

Take my profession, for example. I don't think steroids help get articles or books published (if they do, does anyone know where I can get some?). But networking certainly does help. Shouldn't my article, competing for a spot in a prestigious journal, be judged solely on its content? Is it really fair that my article is competing for space against an article written by someone who knows the editor and who took one of the associate editors to lunch at last year's national convention?

So in my profession, networking amounts to a shortcut, a way to add 10 feet to my line drive. Instead of pushing hard to research and write phenomenal material, if I know the right people I can write mediocre stuff and get it published.

And like baseball in the 90s, there is currently a widespread culture of free and loose schmoozing in academia...

Where is George Mitchell when you need him?