Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thierry Henry's Handball Reveals Crisis in French National Identity

While FIFA's decision to ignore calls for video replay and the Irish Football Association's anger over Thierry Henry's handball are not entirely unexpected, the overwhelmingly negative reaction of the French public is. It points to a latent sense of national malaise, even a crisis in French national confidence.

Maradona, after scoring a goal directly off his hand in the 1986 World Cup, was heralded as a champion by his countrymen. His "Hand of God" was proof positive that he was the best soccer player Argentina had ever produced.

But the French have expressed shame and disgust in the wake of their recent victory. "It is embarrassing to win like that and I can't identify with a team that wins by cheating," wrote one reader of Le Parisien; "How can we cheer for overpaid cheaters who take advantage of our good faith?" asks another on the website of Libération.

The fortunes of France have, in recent years, paralleled those of their national soccer team. When France won the World Cup in 1998, prime minister Lionel Jospin pointed to the team, comprised of Blacks, Whites, and North Africans ("Black, Blanc, Beur") as proof that the country's system of racial assimilation was working. That team went on to win the European championship in 2000 (thanks in part to outstanding play by Thierry Henry). But after poor showings in the 2002 World Cup and the 2004 Euro, Parisian suburbs burned and Nicolas Sarkozy alienated minorities when he called rioting suburban youth "rabble."

In 2006 the French team once again reached the World Cup final. France lost on the heels of Zinedine Zidane's now infamous headbutt of Italian defender Marco Materazzi but they demonstrated virility, independence, and cleverness. Their Italian opponents had played an ugly game, preferring to keep their players back on defense, while the French side had pushed forward for the full 120 minutes, showcasing their creativity and panache.

Now, in the wake of a financial meltdown and political scandal, Henry, dubbed "Le Cheat" in Ireland, is being viewed as a symbol of France's decline. Former French president Jacques Chirac and his one-time prime minister Dominique de Villepin have both been in court this year for "handling" funds and information illegally. Another Chirac lieutenant, Alan Juppé, was recently sentenced to 18 months in prison for misusing public money. And Sarkozy's popularity has plummeted as the French no longer see him as the straight talking man-of-the-people they elected in 2007.

As one reader of Le Monde puts it: "It is not surprising that Sarkozy would play Pontius Pilate here [Sarkozy told reporters he would not turn the France-Ireland match into an affair of state]! He spends his time cheating the law; just look at the way he got his youngest son elected and how he got his eldest undeserved financial backing."

Mr. Henry's raised forearm can be seen as one more example of deception by people in power. No one filmed Mr. Chirac or Mr. Juppé handing out tax dollars to curry political favor; and the Clearstream affair that has embroiled Mr. de Villepin is so complicated that many have quit following it; even Sarkozy has faded to a gray state of irrelevance in the press. But Henry's offense was a straightforward act that everyone has now seen multiple times, from multiple angles, and in slow-motion.

Last year low-level analyst Jérôme Kerviel, who lost 4.9 billion euros at the investment bank Société Générale, was the scapegoat for French economic woes. The financial system performed poorly, Kerviel was caught cheating and bore the blame of an entire nation. This year it appears that Mr. Henry, captain of a team that played poorly but won thanks to his illegal move, will serve as scapegoat for a country mired in a state of mistrust, disillusionment, and national self-doubt.

Monday, November 23, 2009

FIFA and Video Replay... NOT

In the wake of the France-Ireland handball incident, FIFA officials are holding an emergency meeting to discuss a corruption scandal that has led to numerous arrests, the violence surrounding the Algeria-Egypt match-up last week, and... (drum roll)... NOT video replay. (See's article about the meeting.)

Instead, they will be discussing the possibility of adding extra officials behind each goal. Now that's progress...

The growing disconnect between the philosophy of FIFA executives and the sport they are charged to govern remains a mystery. While equipment, training, and technology have progressed, FIFA officials have opted to plant their heads firmly in the sand of a nostalgic soccer past that is more fictional than real.

FIFA officials maintain that by keeping video replay out of soccer they are preserving the integrity and respecting the history of the game. But the game has changed many times. Ironically, the first rule change in the sport (made to differentiate football from rugby) was to disallow touching the ball with the hands or arms. But more recent rule changes have altered the offside rule, increased the number of officials, and introduced penalties for simulation. In addition, technological advances have changed the way spectators experience the game. In other words, change is as much a part of the game as complaining about the referee.

Purists additionally maintain that the introduction of video replay would break up the flow of the game. Such a contention borders on the ridiculous since injuries, fouls, and goals already regularly interrupt the game. A video replay after each goal could be carried out by a replay official before the scoring team finishes their lengthy celebrations and returns to the center of the field. And a replay official could confirm or refute both fouls called within the penalty area and red cards in far less time than it currently takes the referee to deal with arguing players.

What's worse, instead of simply consulting a video screen (or a replay official), the referee will consult with the sideline official and now one positioned behind the goal and waste time discussing what they saw without the help of slow motion or multiple angles. This conference process may actually be slower and more disruptive than straight video replay.

But instead of acknowledging anachronistic deficiencies in their system, FIFA will likely once again remain several steps behind the game. At least this way there is no chance they will be offside...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Clash of the Multi-Level Elixirs: Xango v. Herbalife in MLS Cup

"Are you interested in a business opportunity?" "We are looking for distributors in your area."

In this Sunday's Major League Soccer Cup final XanGo will square off against Herbalife in a winner-take-all battle of the pyramid scheme health supplement companies: XanGo* v. Herbalife.*

[For the uninitiated I must point out the Real Salt Lake's jersey is not red and blue, but claret and cobalt; we like our alliteration in Utah...]

To make matters worse, two Sports Academic authors are invested in the match. Not as distributors, but as fans of the two teams. I regularly attend Real Salt Lake matches and Bob Hudson, UCLA PhD that he is, is a fan of the LA Galaxy. In fact, we attended a match they played against each other earlier this season: a 2-2 draw. At the gate we were handed a small packet of XanGo. I drank it. My conclusion? It must be good for you since it tastes so bad.

I am not sure which is worse: sports like football and baseball with fairly subdued sponsorships on their jerseys (a small swoosh, for example); or sports like soccer where the primary sponsor takes up the place of the team name. The disadvantage of the latter is that my son, who loves his Real Salt Lake jersey, is now a walking billboard for XanGo and their mangosteen fruit's miraculous health properties (also available as a shampoo).* The advantage is that soccer games are not continually interrupted, like football, by two minute commercial spots between plays.

Whichever model is better, Bob and I still have a Sports Academic wager on this Sunday's final. What are we betting? The loser has to drink a glass of XanGo* or a Healthy Meal Herbalife Shake*.... if we can find a distributor in our area, that is.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sports and (Il-)literacy II: Athletes and tattoos

A number of weeks ago, I lamented the lack of creativity in modern sports nicknames, reading this as an indicator of the diminishing literacy amongst not only athletes but also the media outlets responsible for marketing them. (OK, Nike did okay with "King James" for LeBron; but, "LBJ" is just weak--especially considering LeBron is one word.) A recent article by respected ESPN sports journalist Rick Reilly turns the focus back on the athletes themselves (and their tattoo artists) in a recent opinion piece that I link here: Athletes and tattoo culture.

Barracuda: Sarah Palin, Basketball Star

Sarah Palin is back in the news with the release of her new book, Going Rogue. Here is a post from the Sports Academic archives, originally published Sep. 9, 2008:

(Daily News via

Most bios of new VP candidate Sarah Palin include (and often begin with) the fact that she was once a basketball player and led her team to a state championship, earning the nickname Barracuda along the way. If her basketball experience is regularly brought up, it is because Palin and other Republicans (who played the song "Barracuda" by the group Heart at their convention) want it brought up. The following is from the Business Week election blog:

"Basketball was a major influence in her life, to tell by comments she’s made to reporters. 'I know this sounds hokey,' she told the Anchorage paper, 'but basketball was a life-changing experience for me,' and it taught her 'about setting a goal, about discipline, teamwork, and then success.' Voters just might get to hear about it again now; reported the newspaper in 2006: 'Palin has been telling interviewers about the 1982 state tournament at West High…for at least a decade, including the self-effacing line about its being hokey.'"

Nero certainly knew the political clout the title of champion could convey, so he bribed his way to a victory in the Olympic chariot race in AD 67. And Napoleon tried to prove his legitimacy by hunting in the manner of the old monarchs on more than one occasion (apparently he was terrible at it). Today sports have an even more powerful hold on the public imagination.

Because of the strong sports culture in America, the fact that Palin was a state champion will lead many to forgive a multitude of shortcomings. Who needs other credentials when "State Champ" is on the resume? Americans assume that those who are successful in sports can transpose that success into any other field, the examples of Pete Rose, Marion Jones, etc. notwithstanding. Unfortunately (and with due respect to Jack Kemp, Bill Bradley, and Steve Largent) as Murray Sperber notes in his book Beer and Circus, in the current era of specialization, such successful transitions are becoming more and more rare.

Beyond that, goal setting, teamwork and success may be easy to track in sports, but the world of politics is far more ambiguous and requires the ability to handle some gray. Dealing with Iran, Russia, or Venezuela will not be as clear cut as the pick and roll, and economic reform will demand more nuanced, analytical thinking than anything sports can teach. Being too goal driven may also lead politicians to surreptitiously fire anyone who impedes their agenda (e.g. police chiefs, state public safety commissioners, or federal prosecutors), thereby subverting the democratic process.

Sports metaphors are easy to understand and, by their very nature, populist. And we will certainly hear a lot of them before the end of this election season (from both Palin and Obama). But I can think of more athletes I would not want to see in office (President Bryant? Senator Rodman? Congressman Rocker? Governor Barkley?) than those I would.

The moral of the story: Beware of politicians who vaunt success on the court over political acumen.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Race in the New York Marathon and in Provo Politics

As a follow up to my discussion of race and sport in previous posts, here is an article by Gina Kolata of the New York Times that discusses reactions to Meb Keflezighi's recent victory at the New York Marathon. Even though he has lived in the U.S. since age 12 and done all his training in the here, some argue he is not "really" an American because he was born in Africa... Kola writes:

The debate reveals what some academics say are common assumptions and stereotypes about race and sports and athletic achievement in the United States. Its dimensions, they add, go beyond the particulars of Keflezighi and bear on undercurrents of nationalism and racism that are not often voiced.

We just went through a mayoral and city-council election cycle here in ny home town of Provo. The winning candidates talked about working for a "safer" more "unified" Provo. In a city where crime rates are so low they barely register on a graph, there is no realistic way to make the city more safe. And the city is probably more homogeneous ("unified") than any city its size in the U.S. Instead, this rhetoric was a coded message that played on peoples' fears of a growing minority population. It leaves me wondering if the pro-"development" and "progress" people who have taken over city-hall will move for new zoning laws that would keep lower income, predominantly Mexican residents isolated or force them to move to neighboring communities. I hope not.

"Real America," "My America," "Safety," "Unity," "Anti-gang"

So much for post-racial America... Old attitudes linger but the code words have changed.

Monday, November 9, 2009

How Sports Changed the 2008 Presidential Election, Part 3

The Tiger Factor
African American athletes have been successful as long as white Americans have been. But for decades they were seen as threatening. When Jack Johnson won the heavyweight boxing title in 1908, Jack London called for a "great white hope" to restore whites to their dominant position. Even Jesse Owens, after his triumph in Berlin in 1936, returned to the back of the bus and marginalization once home in America. It was not until after World War II that black athletes began to gain a measure of equality in the U.S. 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.

Even in these instances, however, black athletes remained primarily heroes for black America and they were still frequently under the authority of white managers and owners. Many who tried to jump from the playing field to the front office found the corridors of power closed to them. Others, like Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Arthur Ashe (to name a few), who pushed for political change, were widely feared in white America--until they were too old or too sick to remain a threat.

Tiger Woods may be the first black (or, like Obama, part black) athlete to succeed at an elitist sport and to be broadly 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 PlayStations and Xboxes. Without him in a tournament, TV audiences plummet. Tiger Woods is the best paid athlete in the world, and he dominates a sport that was reserved for white, upper-class men until only recently. 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 marketing terms, the most powerful athlete in the world. Tiger's unflappable (some might say dull) demeanor and reluctance to take sides in politically charged issues have made him imminently palatable.

Enter Barack Obama. Like Tiger Woods, he is of mixed race. Like Tiger he has been able to reach across racial and economic barriers and quickly enter and become an international icon and the most significant player within the corridors of power. During his campaign he largely avoided contentious topics and carefully negotiated the middle ground, remaining calm and determined with Tiger-esque focus. Americans may not have been willing to elect him without Tiger Woods, a "Cablinasian," having already prepared the way. Tiger's popularity made a black politician fractionally more acceptable in an election (the primary) that was won by a mere fraction.

Beijing and American Decline
At the same time as the Republican National Convention was taking place, Americans watched the Olympic games in China and saw their athletes slip to second place in the gold medal chase for the first time since the breakup of the Soviet block teams following the Barcelona Olympics. While bloggers complained about the age of Chinese gymnasts and human rights groups pushed for a boycott, sports fans saw America's hold on Olympic dominance slip away.

If America's difficulties in Iraq had fallen out of the spotlight and if its diplomatic failings in the Middle East were too abstract, the concrete results in Beijing made many Americans recognize that America's hegemonic hold on global politics was on the wane. Bush's detachment from political realities (he was smiling at the Opening Ceremonies as Russian tanks rolled into Georgia) implied that change at the top was necessary.

To further complicate matters for Republicans, media coverage around the games gave average American consumers a glimpse into the repressive practices of a country where so many of our products are made. Instead of serving as an international moral cleansing agent that would justify moving more American manufacturing to China, the Beijing Olympics instead raised consciousness of the political price we have been paying when we purchase $1 spatulas or $6 watches. This awareness, on some level, caused voters to look to the Obama-Biden ticket for a change in foreign and economic policy as well as a revalorization of American manufacturing.

Ultimately, while sports may have been only one factor among the many that led to Obama's victory, it was a determining one since sports served as a vector for racial, political, social, and economic issues that mattered deeply to voters. Where his opponents largely repeated sports cliches and depicted themselves as underdogs fighting to get back in the big game, Obama frequently spoke about his relationship with sports in original and nuanced ways, understanding the power sports held to shape both his own identity and public opinion. By associating himself with sports more effectively than his opponents, Obama came across as athletic and in control, as both a leader and a team player. His spontaneous three-pointer in front of cameras in Kuwait, like the election last November, hit nothing but net.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

How Sports Changed the 2008 Presidential Election, Part 2

John McCain: Sport as War
One's understanding of a sport's significance often depends more on who is drawing lessons from it than on the sport itself. If a cynical liberal sees football as a mirror of the overspecialization and narrow focus that led America to its latest financial crisis, a conservative patriot may consider it a symbol of American individualism and efficiency.

It is not surprising that Barack Obama would view basketball as a sport that taught him about compromise and unity. When asked by ESPN's Chris Berman what lessons he learned from sports, Obama responded that his coach had taught him, "It's not about you, it's about the team," a maxim that coincides precisely with his life experience and political philosophy.

John McCain, when asked the same question responded this way: "I had a football coach. . . who was in Patton's tank corps. . . he taught me lessons about life." McCain continued, "I think the most important lesson he told me was 'You've always got to do the honorable thing, even when nobody is looking.'" McCain, who also boxed and wrestled, views sports as an extension of the military, where virtues like personal honor are central to success.

McCain adds that political campaigns are like football in that one must keep struggling forward: "You gotta just push and slog one game at a time. In football it's one Sunday at a time, in politics it's one primary and then one aspect of a campaign and one election after another. And you've gotta put one foot ahead of the other one and not get discouraged." While Obama lives in the ethereal world of basketball, transcending the muck that football players must slog through, rising--like Dr. J for a dunk--over the unseemly morass below, McCain is a warrior, "slogging" through difficulty, getting his hands dirty, and hitting the opposition one play at a time.

Palin's Sports Complex
McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, made sports a central narrative of her political identity. From the beginning she introduced herself as both an "average hockey mom" and as the "Barracuda"--a nickname earned when playing high-school basketball that points to her aggressive, predatory, even bellicose demeanor. Her experience as a sportscaster and her reputation as a moose hunter only reinforced this image. The McCain camp undoubtedly hoped that this basketball-playing moose hunter would earn the trust of voters who like their guns and who like the government to use theirs.

Conservatives were also drawn to Palin because of her reputation as a defender of small government. As mayor of Wasilla, Palin largely lived up to this conservative ideology by cutting taxes and reducing spending. There was, however, one glaring blemish on her conservative record: her spending on sports.

Wasilla records indicate that during Palin's tenure as mayor, in order to lower property taxes, she cut spending on the local museum by 16% and dismissed talks of enlarging the municipal library. Yet even with these cuts, Palin still managed to lengthen and redo the city's bike trails while at the same time encouraging Wasilla residents to vote in favor of a $14.7 million bond to build a multi-sports complex. To put this amount in context, city records indicate that in 2002, the year the bond was approved, the entire operating budget for the city was only $11.7 million.

Making sports central to her political identity proved successful in Alaska, but failed to resonate with the country as a whole, perhaps because Palin allowed sports to compromise political commitments to small government or because voters did not perceive enough political substance behind her sporting rhetoric.

More to come...

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

New Sport: Bobbing For Apples During Flu Season

Bob's post on Rabelais' games inspired me to come up with a 21st-century addition to the list: I call it "bobbing for swine flu." It's an adrenaline-filled game of chance in which participants share their saliva and mucus with other autumnal revelers. Prizes include apples or a case of H1N1.

Or if you prefer, just keep looking for Rabelais' farthing...

Sunday, November 1, 2009

“The Games of Gargantua”: A Cornucopia of Sport

For my principal area of study, lyric poetry in France, the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries stand alone as singular periods of French poetic genius. Judging from his recent research on Brantôme and his book on 19th-century game treatises, Corry would probably grant me as much for his domain of sports & game theory. One case where our interests intersect is in Rabelais’ satirical 1534 masterpiece Gargantua, whose 22nd chapter presents a veritable cornucopia of some 230 games (some real, some bawdy literary invention). [Here is the Gutenberg Project link to the text in English for those interested: Rabelais, Gargantua, ch. XXII] As we sift farce from legitimate sport, Rabelais’ text offers us a unique window into the leisurely pursuits of fictional giants and privileged Frenchmen of the Renaissance alike.

Situating this abundant chapter between that of the adolescent giant’s useless education with Sophists (that of the Sorbonne)—where time is spent slothfully, eating copious amounts of sausage, belching, and memorizing the alphabet backwards—and one that describes the benefits of a humanistic formation—with its emphasis on physical education—is not without significance. In so doing, Rabelais seems to suggest that, as diversion and light-hearted endeavor, sport ennobles us as it invigorates us and prepares the mind for more formal instruction.

Examining, at random, various games from the list reveals games of chance (lottery, even-or-odd, coin toss, dice), games of strategy (Queens, tric-trac, chess, checkers), games of skill (rifle-shooting, nine pin, tip-and-hurl, billiards), athletic games (cricket, bob-and-hit, bush leap, archery), certain ribald overtly-sexual games—essential to understanding Renaissance humor (tickle-me-prickle-me, belly-to-belly, lusty brown boy, “cuckold”), childhood games (blind man’s bluff, bloody knuckles, twirly-whirlies, spitting contests, pinch without laughing, “au pet en guele”), nonsensical jokes (thrust out the harlot, cock and crank, hind the ploughman, the dying hog, lend me your sack), and various others. My favorite, however, as translated by M. A. Screech, does not appear clearly rendered on this list: “Hide the farthing in your bum”! Take a look for yourself—there is a treasure trove of laughs and learning.

While I have no definitive theories on how game theory enables us to better understand Rabelais, I remain convinced that this seemingly endless list offers us keys to unlocking the Renaissance world of sport.