Friday, October 30, 2009

How Sports Changed the 2008 Presidential Election, Part 1

To mark the one year anniversary of Obama's election, here is my sports-centric take on last year's campaign (part 1 of 3):

Not since ancient Greece have sports played such a significant role in public life as they do today in the United States. In addition to being among the top ten American industrial forces, sports establish a common cultural language for most American men, and a growing number of American women. In a country divided by race, religion, and socio-economics, sports stand as a unifying lingua franca, creating a milieu where there truly are no blue states, no red states, but one country united in their love of sport. It is not surprising, then, that politicians tap into this sports ethos to improve their image and connect with voters.

Obama's Sports Schizophrenia
Given the tie between professional basketball and inner-city black culture, a well-established (if erroneous) stereotype links the NBA--indeed basketball at any level (when played by black men)--with gang violence. A black presidential candidate who also plays basketball triggers many of America's racial levers. It would be safer for a black candidate, trying to appeal to a broad middle-class electorate, to play football, baseball, tiddlywinks--even that nefarious socialist sport soccer—than to express an affinity for basketball. But somehow Obama rose above this. How?

In a speech delivered on Fathers' day in 2008, Obama told a Chicago audience, "We know that more than half of all black children live in single-parent households, a number that has doubled--doubled--since we were children." And on several occasions early in his campaign, Obama was quoted as saying, "I don't want to wake up four years from now and discover that we still have more young black men in prison than in college." Obama's claim, apparently false, was challenged by several reputable sources, but he repeated the claim anyway. Accusing Obama of lying--which many right-wing bloggers did, claiming he was perpetuating a myth of victimization--however, misses the point.

By repeating cliches that call into question inner-city black culture, Obama set himself apart from that world, and convinced voters that to him basketball was a genteel, Hoosier-esque way to remain fit. Careful to not appear too aggressive, whenever he is filmed playing basketball Obama sports a somewhat frumpy pair of sweats and resembles the quintessential suburbanite trying out for his high-school team.

In an interview with Bryant Gumbel, Obama acknowledged being a fan of both Walt Frazier and Dr. J, players who have proven to be successful spokesmen in the corporate world and who have broad appeal in the black and white communities. In addition, these athletes are safe: their exploits are confined to the past, sealed away in a nostalgic vault where they cannot ruffle any racial feathers today. Like his childhood role models, who moved from the black world of basketball to the white world of corporate sponsorship, Obama transitioned from the black basketball obsessed kid to a Harvard educated presidential candidate electable in mainstream America. It is not surprising that Obama's brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, told Gumbel that Obama "started out as a black player who played black and is now more of a black player who plays white."

And while he is known for basketball, football--the sport of JFK, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Regan--is the sport Obama chose to bookend his campaign. Just before declaring his intention to run for president, he made a now famous appearance on Monday Night Football and announced, "I am ready ... for the Bears to go all the way, baby!" And when he accepted his party's nomination he did so at Invesco field, a football stadium, home of the Denver Broncos.

At the end of his campaign, just one week before the election, the Obama campaign aired a half-hour long commercial that both laid out Obama's primary political objectives and presented viewers with an idyllic image of the candidate and his running-mate. At one point Obama asserts, "When manufacturing spread to towns across America it brought jobs and a way of life. Working-class families could buy their first home and a piece of the American dream." The words, "a piece of the American dream," are juxtaposed with a scene, filmed in black and white, of children playing baseball in a quiet neighborhood. Baseball is equated directly with America. And one of the commercial's primary messages was that Obama and Biden are good mainstream Americans. This was conveyed, unsurprisingly, by showing pictures of the two men as children: a two or three year-old Obama swinging a baseball bat and a slightly older Biden in his little league baseball uniform.

But Obama also sought to connect to middle-America by once again employing the currency of football, the American sport that is today what baseball once was. While describing the plight of the Johnston family, a family struggling to make ends meet in the face of rising costs of health care, gas, and groceries, filmmakers were careful to include scenes of the family's son playing football and being cheered on by his mother on the sidelines. A close-up of the ball being snapped and images of children running a play convey the message that this is a good salt-of-the-earth family and that, by extension, Obama is a salt-of-the-earth candidate who understands the struggles of the middle class. More powerful than the words used in the voice-over, the images of football connected Obama's message to America's core family values and established Obama as someone who could relate to problems of the white working class.

By associating his message with football, Barack Obama successfully cast himself as a populist and staved off the persistent "elitist" label that his poor performance when bowling in Western Pennsylvania had reinforced. Football has even served him since the election. In his first post-election interview, Obama repeated his challenge of the current arrangement of the Bowl Championship Series (the system that Joe Biden once called "unamerican"). Appearing on "60 Minutes," Obama said he would "throw [his] weight around" in order to push college football towards a playoff system. Of course, even a playoff would not guarantee a true national champion, but Obama is not really interested in reforming college football. By attacking the BCS, Obama is extending his popularity in the college-football-crazed-South, one of the few regions where he performed poorly on election night.

More to come...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On Running... or Off It?

I recently read Christopher McDougall's Born to Run. It is far better than the typical running literature fare (a very entertaining read, in fact) and actually inspired me to get off my bike and jog. I thought I had better start slow so I did a short run, something just under three miles.

After about a half mile, I was suffering. By mile two, my calves were cramping up. By the end I needed to apply lotion to certain unmentionables.

I can live with all that. I could, I'm sure, even get used to it with enough practice.

But I'm not sure I will... the speed is the thing.

The speed of biking seems ideal for seeing enough terrain to keep things interesting without going too fast to not appreciate the surroundings. Even though I was slow, I don't think I could ever run quickly enough to satisfy my quest to see more and gobble up more miles. Perhaps I am too impatient to run. Perhaps too lazy. I also like the idea (put forth by more illustrious authors than I) of riding being like writing, leaving traces, an invisible cursive script on the road.

But I am willing to be convinced that running is the thing....

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Doping in Cycling, 1894 Style...

I came across a book in the French national library titled The Art of Winning on a Bike, published in 1894. In a chapter called "Advice from a Doctor," the book recommends that cyclists purge themselves the day before a big race (so they can stay on the bike as long as possible without breaking for natural needs) and that they take the following pills, six different times the night before and the day of the ride:

tannin 2 gr. 40.

extract of kola. 1 gr. 20

extract of quinquina. 1 gr. 20

extract of ratanhia. 1 gr. 20

While the fact doping was part of cycling culture in 1894 is noteworthy, I wonder if any readers can help by suggesting what, if any benefit, may be derived from the products listed. Kola is, I assume, a stimulant and quinquina may be a painkiller (?). But I'm only guessing. And the other two... well... as my daughter frequently reminds me: "Dad, you're not a real doctor...."

Any ideas?

image from

Sunday, October 4, 2009

From the "Iron Horse" to "T.O.": The Lack of Originality/Creativity in Today’s Sports Nicknames and American Literacy

Twinkletoes, Crazy Legs, the Night Train, Cool Papa, Oil Can, Mr. October, the Babe, the Hammer, the Horse, the Big Dipper, Iron Head, Pudge, Primetime, Sweetness, Air, Magic… Much of the color and panache of professional sports comes from the long-standing tradition (“Cy” Young) of applying endearing (and often quite telling) nicknames to star players. A cleverly conceived nickname provides a player with a certain aura, mystique, and sense of familiarity that is hard to attain otherwise. There is often even an apocryphal myth of origin, knowledge of which ensures a fan’s status as an insider. What’s more, a nickname often showcases an element of a player’s game (speed, grace, power, agility) or physique (“Too tall”) that is as daunting to opponents as it is encouraging to the team’s faithful. However, où sont les sobriquets d’antan? Where are the good nicknames today?

Of course, there are a few solid pseudonyms in professional sports today: Kevin Garnett is the “Big Ticket,” David Ortiz is “Big Papi,” Randy Moss is “the Freak,” and, to leave the city of Boston, Jerome Bettis was, quite aptly, “the Bus” and Dwyane Wade is “Flash.” Kobe Bryant’s the “Black Mamba” is telling of his quickness and killer instinct but is, perhaps, too long, awkward, and off-putting for a successful nickname. At least, however, it is original. Shaquille O’Neal, one of my favorite players of all time in any sport (and inventor of Wade’s “Flash”), has a plethora of nicknames, some original (“Shaq Daddy”), some recycled (“The Diesel,” made famous by NFL hall-of-famer John Riggins), and some just absurd (“The Big Aristotle”) or transitory ("The Big Cactus" while in Phoenix). Early in his career, Shaq also adopted “Superman,” which brings me to one major complaint: the lack of creativity. Simply out of (self-)respect, you would think that Dwight Howard would avoid usurping the nickname “Superman” at least until Shaq retires, no?

Howard is, sadly, far from alone. There are multiple “Pudges,” a score of “Beasts,” quite a few “Kids,” and far too many baseball players capitalizing on Robert Redford’s “The Natural.” (Of course, it is not the players, but fans/sportscasters who are mainly to blame.) Worse, far too many players are lazily referenced by their initials—and even that is subject to copyright infringement! When you are Lawrence Taylor and the single greatest pass rusher in the history of the NFL, you can simply go by “L.T.” However, once claimed, initials should be off-limits. Fifteen years later, not even a former top running back (LaDanian Tomlinson) has a right to these initials—alas! What’s next, will we be gathered at the water cooler on Monday morning talking about L.T.’s amazing field goal against the Cowboys that propelled the Giants to victory—that being placekicker Lawrence Tynes?

Leaving K.G., K.B., D.T., T.O., L.B.J., C.D.R., etc., another mark of our lack of originality is the use of the cheap “First initial of given name + first syllable of surname” formula that has grown so popular. A-Rod (either Alex Rodriguez or Andy Roddick), T-Mac, D-Will, Q-Rich, etc. embody the sports-watching public’s laziness and lack of creativity. And, MeMo and CuJo are not much better. As a former athlete myself, I much preferred my nickname, “Big Truck,” offered by teammates, to the slightly-insulting B-Hud or B.H.

A larger, more significant question would be to ask whether or not this trend is due to society’s decreasing literacy—not necessarily that we can’t read, but rather we don’t read. Is txt-ing, tweeting, facebooking, etc. killing America’s literacy? “OMG, r u 4 real – LOL??????,” you may ask. Unfortunately, yes, I am. Upon originality, creativity, inventiveness, and initiative was America born. Hopefully, we are not squandering our heritage of American industry, celebrated by Whitman, for the eases and comforts provided by her modern technological bounty.

A-Bombs and PEDs

Performance enhancing drugs have been used in professional sport since the nineteenth century (in other words, since the beginning of professional sports). For Claire Salomon-Bayet, professor emeritus at the Sorbonne, our perceptions of the use of drugs in sport changed after "the bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki" (1). The bombings caused humanity to realize that science had limits that needed to be considered and controlled.

This had obvious ramifications in the world of professional sport, where Amphetamines, cocaine, and steroids were widely used to improve performance. Did this scientific enhancement of human achievement also have its limits? The fact that doping became a criminal offense not many years after the war lends credence to Salomon-Bayet's theory.

Speaking of the limits of science, perhaps scientific training regimes, shoes designed in a laboratory, technologically advanced weight training machines, and wave-reducing pools should also be banned...

(1) Les Métamorphoses du sport du XXe au XXIe siècle: héritage, éthique et performances. Ed. Charles-Louis Foulon. Villeneuve d'Ascq, France: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2005. P. 87