Friday, November 19, 2010

“King Felix” and the AL Cy Young: The Victory of Sabermetrics


More than any other sport, baseball has always been a game of statistics. For over a century, as fans, we are impressed with the homerun kings and strikeout specialists; yet, we reserve a certain reverence for the high BA and the low ERA (and my favorite stat, the RBI). However, over the past decade and a half, the more complex formulas of Sabermetrics (from SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research) have colored our perception of statistical categories, as WHIP, OPS, and VORP have progressively crept into common baseball parlance. What was originally reserved for “nerdy baseball lab rats,” with the advent of on-line fantasy baseball leagues (like the one Corry and I played in last summer, finishing first and second, respectively) and the recent hires at ESPN/The Sporting News (and various other weekly baseball publications) of resident sabermetricians, has evolved into the modern way of analyzing the old ballgame.

While shocking to many so-called “baseball purists,” for whom the Cy Young Award (MLB’s annual top prize for the best pitcher in each league) represents not only big numbers in traditional categories (Ks, ERA, Wins) but also success in big game situations (i.e., usually a pennant race), Félix Hernández winning the 2010 AL Cy Young yesterday truly marks the “Victory of Sabermetrics” and assures its mainstream presence in baseball sportswriting. Generally speaking, since 1967 (when the award was first given to both leagues), a Cy Young winning starting pitcher needed to reach a plateau of at least 18-20 wins for a competitive team to even be in the running. Hernández, who pitched this season for the lowly Seattle Mariners (who finished 61-101 this season, dead last in the AL West and 29 games back of eventual AL champion Texas), barely won half of his decisions with a mere 13-12 record. However, his ERA and Ks were unreal this season: His K total was second best in the AL with 232 (one of five pitchers in the hitter-friendly AL to eclipse 200 total Ks) and his ERA was an MLB-best 2.27. Still, while the Mariners did not play a meaningful game after April, other AL pitchers with comparable stats (Cliff Lee, David Price, Clay Bucholz, CC Sabathia) were on competitive teams.

So, how does one justify awarding the top prize to a 13-12 pitcher on a 61-101 team? Sabermetrics. In all SABR-valued categories, the Venezuelan Hernández was in the top 5 or 6—and usually in the top 1 or 2 for each, including being #1 for TLoss (tough losses, a quality start that results in a loss due to poor fielding or batting from position players) at a whopping 8 (twice his nearest competitor) and not recording a single cheap win (the opposite situation). With wins in those situations, his total is 21; yet, before Sabermetrics, we would probably not even realize this. Also, Hernández was the only pitcher in all of baseball to face over 1,000 batters this season and, while perhaps meaningless to the Mariners’ fate, he was a formidable foe to those teams vying for the pennant—almost no-hitting the Texas Rangers on September 17th. All in all, nonetheless, (although a case could be made for last year’s champ Zack Greinke of the dreadful Kansas City Royals, who was also head-and-shoulders above the competition in traditional categories) I hold that King Félix stands alone in baseball history as the man who broke the purist hardball machine and brought Sabermetrics to the fore in 21st-century baseball.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Sports Film Review: Looking for Eric (2009)


Dir.: Ken Loach. Feat.: Steve Evets & Eric Cantona. 116 min.

“You can leave your wife; you can change your wife. You can change your politics. You can change your religion. But, never, never can you change your favorite football team!” (ManU fan)

Driving the wrong way into a turnabout, Eric Bishop (Steve Evets) speeds headlong into the crash that metaphorically represents his entire existence. A struggling everyman postal worker based in Manchester, Eric and his reeling life are basically summed up in his mate’s quote above: he left one wife and lost another; politics and religion are beyond the scope of his menial sort, nor has he room for them, for football—quite specifically Manchester United football—is the only creed to which he and his drinking partners adhere. Only Rooney and Scholes, a few pints with the lads, and memories of Eric “the King” Cantona can momentarily ease the sting of daily reality for this Red Devils fanatic. However, when his two live-in stepsons turn to delinquency, even organized crime, and he confronts memories of the wife and daughter he abandoned years ago, will football be enough?

In this midst of this painful, gritty social drama (that sometimes bears resonances with the work of the Dardenne brothers), an official Cannes selection, director Ken Loach offers a fantastic element of almost magical realism when Eric Cantona (played by himself) enters the scene as a sort of apparition/philosopher to help the other Eric make sense of his life and begin to shore up the shards of a shattered domestic past, make amends and, ultimately, foster a caring relationship between himself and his stepsons.

Worth the price of the DVD alone, digitally remastered highlights from Cantona’s stellar career with ManU are interspersed throughout the film with a crispness of image and focus heretofore unseen. What’s more, the enigmatic Cantona, whose “philosophy” is the stuff of football legend, becomes a “flawed genius” guru to the deeply-ashamed, even suicidal Eric with memorable lines such as “He that forecasts all perils will never sail the seas,” “He that is afraid to shake the dice will never throw a six” and “If you do not enter the lion’s den, you cannot get his cubs.” To this exchange, Eric the postman retorts in angrily telling Cantona where to shove his proverbs and philosophy, admitting that he’s “barely getting over the […] seagulls!” (In a nod to the viewer, the famous 1995 post-“Kung Fu King” hooligan kick press conference, with the unforgettable seagull quote, is included on the disk!) Still, as barriers break down and the men smoke pot, drink wine, and train together outdoors, Cantona explains his sweetest moment on the pitch being not a goal but rather a pass, and Eric discovers the importance of always trusting one’s teammates.

Even beyond reliving Cantona’s highlights, video footage plays a key role throughout the film, especially as Eric is humiliated by his stepson’s abusive gangster “friend” on YouTube. In the interest of avoiding all spoilers, let it be said that video plays a vital part in the entirely unexpected but delightfully “hooliganistic” conclusion to Eric’s legal/family problems. Eventually learning to trust his mates, Eric eventually says “Non!”, flips his collar to the world and stands up for himself.

Beyond the central plot of a man overcoming crisis and regaining control in his life, this remains a film about football. Eric’s hooligan pals, English football references, Cantona’s career, the hated Glazer family, corporate sponsorship, gentrification of the EPL, working class clubs, etc.—even the question of the French King Cantona in England—are all undercurrents in this rich sports film. In one particular scene, a small group of ManU dissenters who now claims to support a minor club in Manchester, FC United, express their discontent for the EPL brass in saying: “We may be small but there’s no fat […] chairman who can sell us out for 30 pieces of silver.” So, if you seek a sports film that simultaneously celebrates football and the resilience of the human spirit—and can overlook the heavy-handed scenes of domestic turmoil, frequent drug use and the over 200 appearances of the F-word(!)—or if your life is simply lacking the philosophy of a "flawed genius" guru, perhaps you, too, should consider Looking for Eric.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Is This Cheating?

Scott sends me the following video of a trick play in a middle school championship football game:



Apparently the quarterback made the other team think they needed to add five more yards to a penalty that had just been assessed against the defense. He took the ball, walked through the line, then took off. (For a write up and my source click here).

Trick play or cheating?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Curveballs Don't Curve... Apparently

Just came across this interesting article about research done by Arthur Shapiro of American University and Zhong-Lin Lu of the University of Southern California on visual perception and curveballs. Turns out they don't really "break." It's all a visual illusion. We've been cheated all these years by our eyes...

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

NFL Coaches Asked to Call Timeout to Allow More Commercials

I have long been annoyed by the number of unnecessary stoppages during football games. Seeing the "TV Timeout" official constantly on the field holding up play made me stop going to watch them in person. But the latest in the commercial-saga that is college football and the NFL takes it all even one step further. Now, in addition to the regularly scheduled interruptions, coaches are being asked to change strategy in order to make room for more commercials.

Jeff Fisher, coach of the NFL's Tennessee Titans, was apparently asked to call timeouts late in the game so ESPN could squeeze in more commercials. Here is what he told reporters (as reported here [thanks to Scott for the link]).

"Plus, you know, my understanding was that we needed some network timeouts, so I think that's why Jack used his timeouts ... because they came over and asked me to do it, and I said, 'Well, I was hoping to get a first down and kneel on it. ' "

Fisher also said "it's the first time" he has heard of coaches being asked to call timeouts for broadcast considerations, but that comment was not part of the video highlights of the news conference that the NFL made available Tuesday.

I know, I know... the teams and the league and the networks need to make money. But in a game already set up to maximize commercial time, asking coaches to add even more breaks strikes me as beyond the pale.

Thankfully I've got TiVo....

Friday, October 8, 2010

On Spontaneity

William Astore recently published this article in the Huffington Post where he argues that fans' experiences have become too canned, manipulated by owners/administrators who prompt us when to chant, who control what we see on jumbotrons, who bombard us with commercials for the entire length of the game or match.

While the level of this varies from sport to sport (I'm looking at you football), he is sadly correct. It sometimes feels like being in Disneyland®: many fans want to see the real thing but are instead shown a cheap plastic replica.

And here is the problem. What makes sport sport, what separates sports from other forms of entertainment like the movies, theater, novels, etc. is that sports are inherently unpredictable. As a fan I go in hope of seeing something brilliant, something unexpected, something improvised, something spontaneous every time. And I want to react to that unexpected brilliance spontaneously. I want to be moved by improvisation without being prodded with lights, signs, music, and "applause" signs. By controlling their experience in minute detail from the parking lot to the final whistle, owners are depriving fans of the very experience they pay to enjoy.

(Parenthetically, I think jazz music can produce the same kind of awe as an amazing pass, shot, or throw, precisely because, like a good athletic contest, it is improvised.)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Replay in Baseball

Daryl sends me a link to an article by Jason Stark in ESPN.com about instituting replay in baseball. The article includes an argument against the "human element" anti-replay line of thinking. Since we have discussed it before, especially in connection to soccer, I wanted to post it here for your comments. If you have any...

P.S. I still think even balls and strikes should be called electronically...

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Sports, Risk, and Parental Rights

Here's a post from an occasional contributor, Sven Wilson, a Political Science professor who writes here about letting children play dangerous sports, like football, motocross, etc.

http://pileusblog.wordpress.com/2010/09/04/parental-rights-and-risk-management/

After going to a high school football game Friday night and seeing the surgeon on the sidelines, a dozen players on the bench with crutches, and an ambulance conspicuously parked right next to the field, I was thinking along these lines, too.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Big Time NCAA Sports Means A Smaller Library

The report is in. ESPN.com reports that only 14 of the 120 athletic departments with football programs tied into the bowl system made money in 2009.

Read the report here.

Since most people argue that big time college sports is good for higher ed since it makes more money, this report should make for some interesting conversations. It should, but it won't....

With so many universities facing budget cutbacks, layoffs, or hiring freezes, and with the large majority of athletic departments running on average a $10 million deficit... well....

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Town Ain’t Big Enough for Two: Italian Serie A and Two-Squad Cities


On the eve of the commencement of another fine Italian—Champions League-defending—Serie A campaign and following an interesting conversation today with my Italianist colleagues Ilona Klein and Rod Boynton, I want to dedicate this post to exploring a rare phenomenon, unique to Italian soccer: politically-divided, two-horse soccer towns. (Knowing how much Corry loathes il calcio, I’ll make a concerted effort to share one of the many reasons I love the thoroughly corrupt, hands-in-the-air, ref-baiting, pleading, begging, flopping beauty of Serie A football!)

Indeed, the EPL does have a handful of inner-city rivalries: Man U/Man City, Liverpool/Everton, a cluster of clubs in the midlands, and anywhere from 4-8 teams in a given season hailing from London. Still, politically speaking, none of these rivalries really cross the football divide. The Scottish Premier League, on the converse, has a Glasgow duo in “The Old Firm”: Catholic Celtic FC and the Protestant Rangers FC, whose mutual hatred transcends football and extends to centuries of religious conflict. The German Bundesliga has one fine example of this phenomenon in right-wing Hamburger SV and the left-leaning, anti-fascist FC St. Pauli. Allegiances in the French Ligue 1 are quite often divided between the pro-immigration fans of Olympique de Marseille and the generally racially intolerant and right-wing Paris Saint Germain—despite the 800 km that separate the two major cities of the Hexagon. The closest thing France has what I see in Italy, nonetheless, is the rivalry between my Olympique Lyonnais and Les Verts of AS Saint Etienne. This battle of two neighboring southeastern cities, who compete yearly in the Derby du Rhône, is traditionally seen as a fight between working-class ASSE mountain men and the industrial magnates of cosmopolitan OL. A similar dynamic exists within the limits of multiple Italian cities, with divisions quite often clearly drawn between the political right and left.

Four exemplary Italian metropoles, representing 8 squads, stand out to illustrate this two-team dynamic: Turin, Milan, Rome, and Genoa. The Piedmont “Detroit of Italy” boasts the peninsula’s most decorated European club, deep-pocketed powerhouse Juventus (owned by the Agnelli family of Fiat fame) and the working class Bulls of FC Torino (who have sadly been relegated to Serie B for the past few seasons). In essence, Turin’s momentarily discontinued yearly battle pits international stars purchased with auto industry Lire/Euros against the regional club supported by local men working the assembly line, building the cars, in the Fiat factory. Further south, the fashion center of Milan offers two very different teams, both of whom historically vie for vastly different versions of the Italian left and both of whom (with Juve) represent the perennial superclubs in Serie A: AC Milan is the baby of Christian Democrat populist media giant Silvio Berlusconi and, as such and in spite of its fashionable snobbery, is the working class club; whereas Internationale, despite its communist-sounding name and original politics of cultural open-mindedness, is now the ultra right-wing, maybe even post-Fascist, squad of Italy.* Inter Milan does not, however, hold a monopoly on right-wing racism; Rome’s SS Lazio (and Florence’s ACF Fiorentina) also share the distinction as Italy’s most intolerant squads. The highly Anglophilic, smug, and Vatican-minded supporters of Lazio have a very different crosstown rival for the yearly Derby della Capitale, in AS Roma, who, on the other hand, is notably Roman and adopt a comportment more germane to that of the leisurely urban denizen. Finally, the Ligurian port city of Genoa claims both Italy’s oldest club Genoa CFC as well as UC Sampdoria. These two contestants for the Derby della Lanterna are both, oddly, traditionally left-leaning in this long-wealthy and cosmopolitan city of bankers. Still, Genoa, with its mascot of the Griffin, appeals to the enlightened liberal intellectual elite of the city whereas rival Sampdoria, with an old sailor as its emblem, is the team of mariners and fisherman. In Genoa, allegiances are divided between the bleeding-heart bourgeoisie who aim to assuage the plight of the working man and the actual proletariat who live it.

As distinct to Italian soccer as simulating fouls and cattenaccio defense, the tradition of two-horse towns and the exciting “derbies” they engender represent much of the joy of trademark Italian calcio. Just as in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, Baxters and Rojos cannot coexist--but we're all entertained when they duel. All the same, even when one does not have a team to support, politics can always help facilitate a decision. Viva Italia! Viva il calcio! Viva il Vecchio Balordo! Viva i Rossoblu! FORZA GENOA!!!

*For more on Milanese football, see Frank Foer's fine chapter "How Soccer Explains the New Oligarchs" (Ch. 7; pp. 176-92).

Monday, August 9, 2010

Sauna Death Match

Saturday night, during the finals of they world Sauna championships held in Finland, one competitor died and the other was hospitalized.

The "sport" (?) pits competitors against each other in saunas heated to 110 degrees Celsius (230 Farenheit). The person who can stay in the longest wins. Or in this case dies.

Organizers are defending a competition that requires a certain amount of cultural knowledge to appreciate, apparently. "I know that it is very difficult for people outside of Finland who are not familiar with sauna culture to understand," Ossi Arvela told reporters. "It is not uncommon to have 110 degree temperatures in a sauna. Many competitors sit in even higher temperatures."

Maybe he's right.

I understand pushing the body to its limits. I appreciate when an athlete digs deep to reach new levels of performance. But when "training" amounts to "sitting" and getting cooked, literally, things have probably gone too far.

The sauna likely does produce some health benefits. So does taking antibiotics. And there are good reasons we don't hold a competition to see who could ingest the most amoxicillin.

News Source: http://www.lemonde.fr/sport/article/2010/08/08/un-mort-en-finale-du-championnat-du-monde-de-sauna_1396905_3242.html

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Women and Soccer

I received the following from Emily Robbins:

Argentine filmmakers Ginger Gentile and Gabriel Balanovsky are currently
working on a full-length independent documentary film called “Goals for
Girls: The Movie” which follows a group of girls as they fight for their
right to play soccer in Villa 31, a Buenos Aires slum. Despite living in a
country where soccer is a national obsession, there are no professional
women’s soccer teams in Argentina and no laws equivalent to Title IX that
would guarantee equal government funding for women’s sports programs.
“Goals for Girls: The Movie” will tell the story of the Villa 31 girls
soccer team as they fight for equal time on the field, overcome the taunts
and disruptions from boys who often interrupt their practices, and deal
with the stereotype that as poor women their only viable career choices are
teenage mother, criminal or maid.

To learn more about the film, visit their website: http://goalsforgirlsthemovie.org/

Friday, July 9, 2010

SPORTS BOOK REVIEW: Robert Elias’ The Empire Strikes Out

Elias, Robert. The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad. New York: The New Press, 2010. 418pp. Hardcover: $27.95.
ISBN: 978-1-59558-195-2

In the interim between Independence Day weekend and MLB All-Star weekend, I find it fitting to review a recently released publication on America’s pastime, in what has been by far my favorite sports book of the year, Robert Elias’ The Empire Strikes Out. Refreshingly, while clearly a baseball enthusiast, the University of San Francisco law and political science professor Elias does not defend the traditional patriotic fanfare typically associated with baseball; rather, he examines the sinister underbelly of the bucolic American game and the jingoism engendered in trying to export the American Dream abroad. In his preface, he offers “a different story: American baseball’s projection of itself, for its own sake and also for spreading American influence around the globe” (xi). The result: a thoughtful, anecdote-laden, exceptionally well researched and documented account of baseball as the backdrop (and, at times, the instrument of choice) of the United States civilizing missions of the 19th and 20th centuries. From episodes of intense militarism amidst conflict to the proselytizing efforts of early diamond heroes, from Kennesaw Mountain Landis to Bud Selig, from “Muscular Christianity” to the Steroid Era, in lively prose, Elias plumbs baseball lore to paint a full picture of the perils and draw-backs of imperialistically imposing the American game—or culture for that matter—upon other unwelcoming nations.

Baseball has long represented a cultural divide between the United States and other nations. Everything about our stick-and-ball game, with its unique set of rules, strategies, lingo, and techniques (even when dismissed as “merely an evolution of British rounders” [47] by the previous global empire), is decidedly American. Rising up in the American Revolution and growing with the nation across her history, baseball was a pastoral game in the urban setting of the Industrial Revolution, a welcome diversion to soldiers on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line in the Civil War, a venue of heroes in a post-War era of anti-heroes in the 20s, a racial hotbed in the Civil Rights movement, and a congressional concern in the “age of acronyms” where we distress over WMDs and PEDs alike. To illustrate with a brief anecdote of my own, just this spring I had the pleasure of inviting my Swiss doctoral dissertation advisor (a 30-year resident of Los Angeles) to Dodgers Stadium for his first MLB game. Using terminology borrowed from Quebec, I explained the game in French (as the Dodgers gave Ubaldo Jimenez his only loss of the season, no less!) and my Swiss friend, fine cultural critic that he is, remarked how purely American the game is with its focus on Protestant work ethic, small goals (bases) that build to success (runs), specialization (middle relievers, pinch runners), and the possibility of individual advancement/achievement in a democratic team setting (where everyone participates). Unwittingly, he echoes Walt Whitman, who Elias quotes as stating “[Baseball is] our game… it has the whip, go, fling of the American atmosphere—it belongs as much to our institutions as our Constitution’s laws: is just as important in the sum total of our historical life” (13). The sale of this, the American Way, even following a century of wars fueled by nationalism, has anything but slowed in the new millennium, which is precisely why Elias’ history of U.S. exceptionalism and ethnocentrism, as viewed through the prism of baseball, is ever so timely.

As is the case with all imperialism, Elias’ revisionist history begins on the home front with cases of indoctrination and founding myth, as his two opening chapters explore the surprisingly significant role of baseball in wars fought on American soil (1775-1892) and in what he terms the “missionary efforts” of Albert Spalding (of sporting goods fame) who channeled his intense patriotism and inflated sense of American superiority into an organized effort, a veritable World Tour, to make baseball, and the English language along with it (!), a global lingua franca. Embarking upon Japan, Cuba, Central America, Great Britain, and Western Europe with America’s finest ballplayers, advocates of the American game, as Elias recounts, pitched it to other cultures and into the 20th century using the marked lingo of the period: scientific determinism, machine-like unity, soldierly demeanor, and heroic spirit. Alongside his provocative iconoclasm of Spalding’s efforts, Elias also reconsiders the Abner Doubleday myth—which attempted to establish the Civil War general and West Point graduate as the inventor of baseball and, in so doing, validate it as the national pastime—effectively deconstructing the foundations of the “Baseball Gospel.”

Continuing to chronologically document the global onslaught of baseball through the 20th century in subsequent chapters, Elias takes care to reexamine and provide more naturalistic portraits of various other eminent men from baseball’s canon, including the infamous Charles Comiskey; baseball’s greatest hero (and, perhaps, advocate) Babe Ruth; Dodgers president Branch Rickey’s battles against Jim Crow laws that eventually allowed Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente into the major leagues; much-maligned MLB commissioner Bud Selig, who has led baseball through a particularly difficult period of modernization and commercialization, along with an intriguing cast of many more. Maintaining language germane to U.S. Foreign Policy, Elias leads us through the wars that marked the age, through “horsehide diplomacy,” Vietnam syndrome, the Cold War, and 9/11, highlighting the place of baseball within each. Interspersed throughout are interesting anecdotes and events that have colored the American pastime as well as America’s relationship with the global other. For example, I laughed out loud upon discovering the etymological origins of the name of baseball’s most marketable team, the New York Yankees! And, stories of “foreign” players nicknamed Chief, Dutch, Kaiser, Chink, Jap, and Red made me wonder how far we’ve really come when we consider our own Big Papi.

The Empire Strikes Out is a volume designed to force the reader to reconsider our current position on foreign policy. Elias’ explanation of the steroid witch hunt in light of post-9/11 culture is equally enlightening and thought-provoking as it invites us to synthesize our relationship to baseball with that of global politics. Providing ample endnotes (nearly 100 pages) and posing challenging questions, the author offers multiple avenues of further personal research. In an age of Latino-American and Japanese baseball superstars, where the World Baseball Classic is having a hard time catching on, and where our trust of hometown heroes has been tainted by performance-enhancing drugs, Robert Elias turns the mirror on contemporary American society and asks “Has the Empire indeed struck out?” and, if so, what can we learn about our nation from our national pastime before it, too, is reduced to a mere vestige, reserved for nostalgia?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Why all the hype? LeBron's Reality Show in Retrospect

Way too much virtual ink has flowed over the past two weeks for me to give LeBron James, Inc.® much more undeserved press. If the 82-game NBA season and 16 team best-of-7 playoff season does not already drag into late June, what do we do to keep the NBA “Brand”® relevant in the off-season? Well, there is the NBA Lottery (a novel idea that aims to keep teams honest and keep things interesting—and works fairly well) and the draft; still, even with two picks each, how many teams will select even one player capable of contributing in the NBA? What to do? Enter: Free Agency Reality TV®!!!

While I won’t lie and say I wasn’t drawn in by the endless intrigue, the conspiracy theories, the insider leaks, etc., I will now admit that the entire charade was pretty ridiculous. The LeBronathon, The LeBrachelor, The LeBronocalypse (I recommend LA sports nemesis Bill Simmons’ entertaining column on the whole thing)—-call it what you will: it was fun while it lasted but like all reality shows, the pay-off was pretty unsatisfying. “Oh, so he’s going to Miami…” (hmmmm).

And, at what price? At the same time we sat on pins-and-needles awaiting “The Decision”®, Rafael Nadal won on the sacred grass and got one step closer to a grand slam; “La Roja,” the Spanish national team valiantly fought past Portugal and Germany to try to defend their Euro 2008 title with their first World Cup (in yet another all-Europe final); the Tour de France began; USC was levied more penalties for cheating (yay!); MLB pennant races are heating up, etc., etc., etc. BUT… drawn in by the hype, we ignored the joys of summer sports—-some that only come once every four years, to give place to the marketing ploys of the same David Stern Enterprises® that will fill our screens throughout the winter and well into next summer anyway.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

French Politics and Les Bleus

The French national team was fittingly eliminated from the World Cup today, losing 2-1 to South Africa. This follows an entire month of dysfunctional behavior by a team and its coach along with much hand wringing in France. In fact, it struck me that the way the French press has covered the French team resembles, in many ways, the way French journalists write about French politics.

Instead of the general outline of big political events like we get in most U.S. papers, French dailies spend pages and pages examining the internecine struggles within parties, the power plays between low-profile ministers in the ruling party, or the minor debates between potential candidates within the opposition (even though the election may be three years away). The coverage is always intense and journalists love to look for behind-the-scenes strife and to expose the politique de corridor.

In the lead up to the World Cup, the French press began looking for--and perhaps inventing--rifts within the team: the Ribéry faction v. Gourcuff; the old guard v. the young players; those supportive of coach Domenech and those who hated him.

With this backdrop (along with the fact that Domenech's successor had already been named) it is not surprising that things blew up as they did (the dismissal of Anelka, etc.). And the reaction of the team was, once again, typical of French political struggles: they went on strike, refusing to practice on Sunday.

Vive la France.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

FIFA, UEFA, Nationalism and Culture

Another post from one of Sven's colleague's on Pileus discusses the issue of soccer, nationalism, and citizenship and the ongoing debate between FIFA and UEFA.

Here is my comment to the post:

While there are frequent disputes between FIFA and UEFA, I think this article points to one of the main cultural differences between American sports and European ones. In the U.S. we crown a single champion at the end of the season. In Europe teams compete in multiple competitions at once. A soccer player may compete with his club for the league season title, the league tournament title, the country's cup tournament (among all the clubs), the champions league or Europa cup, all while playing on his country's national team competing for the European cup, Confederations cup, or the World cup.

So lose one, another one is still up for grabs. This has the disadvantage of not crowning a decisive champion, but has the advantage of keeping fans' interest on a number of levels: even if a team is eliminated early on in one competition, they may remain competitive in two or three others. And fans keep spending money to watch matches. Teams and players are judged on the number of trophies they bring home from the many different competitions.

Just this season Portsmouth, a team at the bottom of the Premier League table, managed to keep their fans coming to games because they made it to the finals of the FA cup (where they eventually lost to Chelsea).

All this to say that Americans like crowning a definitive champion in all sports: winner-takes-all. A look at the debate surrounding college football's bowl system confirms this. American sports are also more insular (no offense Toronto Blue Jays). British or Spanish club teams, for example, look at themselves as part of the broader network of international football. The Yankees and Lakers see any international competition as little more than an occasional nuisance.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

NASCAR and the World Cup

Sven sends me this link to his blog post about the connection (or the lack thereof) between NASCAR and the World Cup.

Here is my favorite quote: "Soccer seems to be hugely popular with university professors, but I think very few of them actually watch soccer. They just fake it. They love soccer for the same reasons that they hate Dick Cheney."

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Are Video Games Sports?

Jeremy sends me this story about the similarities between high-level gamers and professional athletes.

I know a number of gamers actually hire coaches. And despite their terrible fitness level, they have great reflexes.

So... sport or not?

Monday, May 31, 2010

Floyd Landis out of Professional Cycling

I read here that Landis has been let go by his current cycling team.

As Ophir has said before, the Landis case has turned into a morality play of good v. evil in the American press, and Landis is the evil one.

It's a tragic end for a guy who Armstrong and Bruyneel used to pick on when he worked so hard to get Lance his titles. He finally makes it big himself and then...

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Why Ben Roethlisberger Should Move to France

The list of footballers selected to play for the French national team in the upcoming World Cup in South Africa was announced today. Two of the three players recently named in an ongoing investigation into an underage prostitution ring will be on the team. And if Benzema was not named it is because of his poor play, not because he slept with a minor.

Franck Ribéry, Karim Benzema, and Sydney Govou all allegedly paid for sex with a seventeen year-old working in Paris... But as Le Monde reported this week:

In the end, the affair does not seem to have significantly altered the popularity of the players, at least in the case of Franck Robéry: the Bayern international remains a central piece of the French national team, as the ideal team according to Monde.fr readers testifies: Ribéry is in third place among your votes, just behind Lloris and Gourcuff.

This reveals as much about the expectations of sports stars in the France vs. the USA as it does about divergent attitudes toward sexuality.

If someone tells Roethlisberger what "football" players can get away with in Europe, he may just move overseas.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Monday, May 3, 2010

Cavendish: Photo of the Week


Mark Cavendish, the man from the Isle of Man, sticks it to the man after winning a stage in last week's Tour of Romandie...

My hero.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Baseball and Arizona Politics

Jarom points me to this article about Major League Baseball's potential role in the Arizona immigration law debate. Opponents of the Arizona law hope that baseball will move the All-Star game away from Phoenix to send a message. The article notes how the NFL once put pressure on the state to adopt the MLK holiday.

I note that MLB is not the NFL and has rarely (if ever) taken progressive positions. "Bud Selig" and "revolutionary" do not go together. For that matter, the only phrase I can in good conscience link to "Bud Selig" is "slow drying paint."

Opponents of the law should probably look elsewhere to put pressure on Arizona.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Pinewood Derby and America's Losing Mentality

An occasional contributor to this blog, Sven Wilson has a blog that examines public policy and philosophy. He recently looked at the disconnect between pinewood derbies and the American workplace. It's a fascinating read. Here's the link: http://pileusblog.wordpress.com/2010/04/26/pinewood-derby-and-the-future-of-capitalism/

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Tandem Bike

From the realm of the slightly bizarre, here is a video of a two-man bicycle kick for a goal in Argentina (sent to me by Scott):



I still can't tell who actually scored....

Thursday, April 22, 2010

"Soccer is Stupid!": Sports, Nationalism, and Bad Food

While with a group of her high-school friends, my daughter mentioned that she liked watching soccer. She was shocked by her friends' vituperative reactions: "Soccer is stupid!" "Soccer is for babies!" "They just fall down all the time!" etc.

One interpretation of this response is that since sport is one of the most valuable currencies in America, Americans see their identity threatened by "foreign" sports and must therefore insult them. (Imagine, for example, the media storm that would surround a U.S. presidential candidate who expressed a keen interest in soccer or in Formula 1.)

The French, in contrast, make fun of the British by insulting their food. Since culture and cuisine are valued in France, this type of jingoistic slam makes sense. In the States, insult my green Jell-O or meat loaf, I won't care much. But don't you dare tell me football is too violent or tedious!

In America, where we value sports above all else, soccer is the cultural equivalent of boiled beef and potato pies.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Paris-Roubaix Revisited

Scott sends me the following link that will allow cycling fans to look back over the years of Paris-Roubaix, won this weekend in dominant fashion by Fabian Cancellara (the best cyclist most Americans have never heard of; perhaps the best rider of this generation).

Here are the video clips of Paris-Roubaix going back to the 1940s.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

NCAA Basketball: “A multi-billion-dollar industry”

Driving home from the SLC airport this afternoon, I tuned into The Brian Kenny Show on ESPNradio having just heard that 5(!) underclassmen from John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats declared their draft eligibility this morning. As he discussed Mike Krzyzewski credentials and place on the all time NCAA coaches list (where he is certainly in the top 5 but well behind John Wooden), I remarked Kenny twice refer to modern NCAA basketball as a “multi-billion-dollar industry.” Wow! Realizing I’d bought into the myth of school spirit and the Alma Mater, I had to step back and reflect on this point.

A few reconfirmed reflections from the NCAA Tournament especially stood out:

1) “Cal’s Cats” really have ushered in a new era of “one-and-done” basketball. Education is merely an afterthought—if a thought at all. NCAA basketball really has manifested itself as a vocational school for NBA athletes as of recent. How many stars can you name who have stayed four full years and graduated with a degree in the past 5 years? So-called “scholarships” are but a marketing ploy to draw in potential students and alumni dollars in recruiting the best NBA-bound talent.

2) Branding really is the name of the game in college hoops. Each team’s mascot and insignia are designed to be reproduced and worn with pride at the game (and airport). No longer is it a school, it is a brand. The crowds at Energy Solutions Arena for the SLC stages of the tourney were a visual testament to the post-modern Baudrillardian idea of the saturation of symbols.

3) Not only have schools been reduced to marketing, advertising is rampant and corporate commercialism unabashed in all that surrounds the NCAA tournament. Corry has frequently pointed out that NCAA football is unwatchable because every first down, turnover, score, substitution, etc. is sponsored by a restaurant, tire company, dry cleaner, etc. In watching the Kentucky/West Virginia Elite Eight® match, I was stunned by just how many commercials there were. For every two minutes of basketball, there were 2 minutes, 2 seconds of commercials. In all seriousness, two possessions with no scoring, and the sponsors were at it again. Friends who traveled to Syracuse for the game noted that stoppages were so frequent that coaches were saying nothing and players simply pacing on the court… waiting (like the rest of us) for the smug marker board artist from the UPS commercials to let us get back to the main event.

So, in response to Corry’s recent “What I Watch” post, I have to admit that my love for soccer (MLS, European national clubs, Mexican Primera División, etc.) is largely due to the lack of stoppage in the matches and my attraction to baseball (which certainly has gone the way of the market) is attributable (at least in part) to the fact that the very abundance of stoppage allows me to zone out between innings and simply enjoy the bucolic, still unadulterated (despite steroids and, perhaps, only in my heart) pastime within the framed structure of the 9-inning game. Have I viewed my last NCAA tournament? Perhaps so—-the commercialism served with the false pretense of scholastic purity was far too distracting this time around. I realize I am a romantic; but, is it too much to ask that collegiate athletics be a bit more collegial and less commercial?

Does What I Watch = Who I am?

What can you tell about someone based on the sporting events they watch? Here is what I have watched the last couple weeks:

Everton v. Wolverhampton (English Premier league)
Ten minutes of BYU v. Kansas State (second round NCAA tournament)
Real Salt Lake v. Houston Dynamo (MLS)
One inning of Mariners v. Rockies (MLB preseason)
Tour of Flanders (Cycling)
The last 6 minutes of Duke v. Butler (NCAA championship game)
The second half of Arsenal v. Barcelona (UEFA Champions league)

Conclusions?

Am I a Euro snob?
Possibly. I am a French professor after all and seek to identify with Europe in my professional life. This could be spilling over into my entertainment choices.

Does age have something to do with it?
I confess I just turned 40. I used to watch more baseball and follow the NCAA tournament from start to finish. I even used to watch NBA games regularly. Now I find basketball rather tedious, and don't have the time to sit through a four hour baseball game. Maybe my shift in preferences suggests a certain boredom with the sports I watched since I was a boy.

Does geography play a role?
Certainly. One of the reasons I am following soccer is because I enjoy going to Real Salt Lake matches and this has sparked an interest in European football as well. If I watched a few minutes of the BYU game it is because I teach at BYU.

What about social class?
I don't like to think of myself as a social climber, but maybe I am... Cycling is something I watched regularly before I started to ride, but that I watch more now that I am a practitioner. And cycling is an expensive sport in the US. So does watching it mean I'm trying to adopt practices of the upper class? Both soccer and cycling are more working class sports in Europe, however. But again, in the US soccer is a sport that has an upper middle class and an immigrant following. Am I trying to show both my social status and my global awareness by following cycling and soccer?

What have you watched in the last 2 weeks? What does the fact that Bob watched three hours of Muddin', two hours of bass fishing, and five hours of hunting programming tell us about him?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

USA! USA! Chanted by Brits in the UK

I report on the following since it was likely under the radar of most sports fans in the U.S.

A little over a week ago in the Barclay's Premier League match between Everton and Hull City, Landon Donovan came off the bench in the second half, scored one goal and set up another one. He has been on loan for the past 10 weeks and is now leaving Everton to return to the LA Galaxy. After his performance again Hull City, Everton fans began chanting "USA! USA!..." to show their thanks to Donovan.

Now, many of you know that I am not one that likes the "USA!" chants that spring up at the Olympics or other international competitions since they usually strike me as a manifestation of blind nationalism. But this chant was a sign of respect for an American player in the place that invented soccer.

For once the "USA! USA!" chant was classy.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Dancing is to Sport as Politics is to Science...

From Scott:

I attended a youth dance competition yesterday and the big banner draped across the Marriott Center was "Dance Sport."

There seems to be a prestige attached to the concept of "sport" that marginal athletic activities are trying to tap into. Kind of like the word "Science" in academic disciplines: where the word needs to be used we can suspect little of the substance advertised.





Will we soon see: Curling Sport, Figure Skating Sport, Bowling Sport ?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Celtics vs. Lakers in the 80s and Race

Today, I was struck by an editorial by ESPN.com journalist Howard Bryant, an African-American who grew up in Boston's violent civil rights crucible of Dorchester when racial tensions were at their peak. His take on the new HBO documentary based on the Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird rivalry: race is the dog that didn't bark. Very interesting and well-written piece; read here.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Nestle and Jenny Craig: Making Money on Both Ends

I was reading the French newspaper Le Figaro this morning and came across an article outlining Nestle's attempt to get into the weight loss market in France. "Nestle is trying to break into the overweight market with a weight control program personalized for Jenny Craig clients." Here's the link to Jenny Craig in France.

It is troubling that Nestle, who may contribute as much as McDonalds to obesity, is making money via weight loss plans for the very people to whom they vigorously market Baby Ruths and Gobstoppers.

I suspect they are better at fattening us up than at slimming us down.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Luge = Skill; Baseball = Luck?


From guest contributor Sven Wilson:

I had the question of whether the very small differences that separate winning scores from non-winning scores in events like luge are due to randomness or skill? My hypothesis going in was randomness.

However, I got data for the men’s luge on all four runs in the Vancouver games. Using a simple variance-decomposition model, 75% of the variation in run time across the four runs is due to differences between riders and only 25% is due to variation within riders. What that statistical jargon means, essentially, is the 75% of the total variation in run times is due to skill (or possibly equipment), and 25% due to random noise. I was shocked by this. Fortunately, we happened to be talking about just this type of analysis in one of my classes, so I was able to justify spending time on this for legitimate pedagogical purposes.

How well do you think this analysis would hold across other sports? I have argued for some time that in baseball, most of the observed variability is just randomness. In MLB, really good hitters have a .300 percentage and not very good hitters have a .200 percentage. What this means is that for a given at-bat, whether or not a hitter gets on base is mostly determined by the random component, not the skill component. (Note, this is comparing major leaguers to each other, not to ordinary people—in which case the skill component would be relatively more important).

Sven E. Wilson, Associate Professor of Public Policy, Brigham Young University

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Vancouver Olympics Best and Worst

Can't wait for the Olympics to end? Pretend they're already concluded and read this....

BEST:

End of the Nordic Combined (short hill), as Jason Lamy Chappuis, the Montana born Frenchman, comes from behind in the final meters to take gold ahead of American Johnny Spillane. The ending that would have made Mike Hammer proud was the most exciting moment of the entire Olympics. Don't believe me? Watch the last few minutes of the video here.

Apolo Ohno telling everyone that short track is like figure skating, only with a greater chance of severing your femoral artery. After being disqualified from the 500 meter final, Ohno told reporters that he lost out because the head official is Canadian and wanted to see Canada win two medals. "Short track is so subjective," he told NBC's Cris Collinsworth. Look for costumes and music selection to be added as components of short track in 2014.

The U.S.A. v. Canada Hockey final. It hasn't happened yet, but it will be good... as long as NBC decides to actually broadcast it.

WORST:

NBC's programming decisions rankled me for the entire two weeks. Too many personal interest stories about figure skaters, not enough skiing, and the blunder with the Canada U.S.A. hockey match in the early rounds is inexcusable. I did enjoy seeing Bob Costas play the keyboard, though....

Sven Kramer's disqualification in the 10,000 meter speed skating event was tragically impressive. I list it here under "worst," but it generated the kind of drama that could easily qualify it as one of the "best" moments of the games. Overcoaching kills.

McDonalds and Coca-Cola get my most emphatic "worst" vote. The two companies who have likely contributed the most to obesity and diabetes in this country have made great efforts to associate their product with heart health and with the the worlds fittest athletes. Their ads do not state, "driking Coke will make your heart healthy" or "eating Big Macs will make you fit," but they deceptively and insidiously send this message. Do you want fries with that gold medal?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Just Manny Being… Reasonable


As Spring Training begins, Joe Torre says he’s not buying into the media hullabaloo surrounding Manny Ramírez’s stating that 2010 is his last year with the Dodgers. Two days after Eric Gagné reported to Camelback Ranch and a day after Torre extended his contract through 2011, Manny stole the headlines by simply expressing his doubts that he’ll be back in L.A. after this season. While Dodgertown erupted into a frenzy, the seasoned Torre remained unmoved. Why?

To begin, Torre and Manny both know Manny isn’t getting any younger. He’ll be 38 this May. Manny couldn’t field when he was 28; and, renegotiating a contract for an aging slugger who can no longer field makes no sense in the National League. However, Manny can still hit. And, if he wants to up his market value as a potential DH in the AL, he needs to have a solid year at the plate. What does this mean for the Dodgers? They have a career .313 hitter with 546 homeruns ready to give his all for the Blue Nation in 2010. Including Manny in a lineup chock full of young superstars who have recently blossomed (Ethier, Kemp, Loney, etc.) may mean the Dodgers will get a chance to ride MLB’s career postseason homerun champ deep into the fall.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

When a Sport is Not Really a Sport: Olympics Edition


In a recent ESPN.com Sports Nation poll, 73% of those who responded said that, given adequate time to train, they could be an Olympic-caliber curler. Are the Olympics not set up to showcase the finest athletic talent in the world? If almost 3/4 of the general public thinks itself capable of competing with you, are you really all that elite? (How many people think they could swim with Michael Phelps, run with Usain Bolt, or compete on the half-pipe with Shaun White?)

In December 2008, I created a list of 10 sports that are not really sports, based upon what I feel are minimal standards for sport. As a refresher, he goes: a “sport” should involve 1) athletic skill or prowess on the part of a human being, 2) be at least minimally aerobic, 3) promote physical fitness and 4) be somewhat competitive in nature. (I realize that Corry studies sports newspapers from the 19th century that “covered everything from chess tournaments and regattas to hunting expeditions and masked balls”; fortunately, since then, we have developed the phrases “Sports & Leisure” and “Entertainment,” as in ESPN: the Entertainment and Sports Network, which justifies its showing poker, bowling, NASCAR, etc.) Based upon these criteria, let us analyze and weigh in on a few sports in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics that many feel fall well short of the mark:

1) Figure Skating (er… Ice Dancing): Twice this month, Corry (and many others elsewhere) has approached the question of whether Ice Dancing is a sport, basing comments on various factors (i.e. the power of judges, choreography, sequins, etc.). While I was no more impressed by the Gingerbread Man couple posing as Native Canadians than anyone else, the sport of figure skating requires unquestionable skill, is highly aerobic, obliges the utmost fitness, and, as a “competition” that necessitates judges, is certainly competitive. Verdict: SPORT!

2) Curling: How was this game invented? Were janitors at a granite warehouse in Manitoba sweeping up after hours and nipping the flask? (Oddly, still, I must say I enjoy watching it—the competition is, at least, entertaining.) BUT, while requiring a skill set (i.e. the ability to simultaneously walk on ice in sneakers and sweep without a serious pratfall) and being competitive, the skill is neither athletic, aerobic, nor does it promote fitness. A game of strategy and execution, not unlike bowling: you cannot call it a sport if you are just effective with a beer bottle in your non-dominant hand. Verdict: NO sport!

3) Biathlon: Before unnecessarily drawing the ire of Scott and the many avid skiers that read this blog, let me say that the cross-country skiing aspect of biathlon perhaps qualifies the most as a sport. Still, where did rifle shooting come into the mix? Is this how they hunt in Switzerland? Now, I get that if you are not in peak physical condition, fatigue (accompanied by shaky hands) figures into the mix. All the same, it is an odd combo. Unlike the summer triathlon, which combines three speed/endurance events, x-c skiing and rifle shooting are as odd as 1500 meter swimming followed by archery. Verdict: Sport.

This raises an important question for quite a few summer “sports”: archery, rifle shooting, shot put, discus, javelin, hammer throw, etc. Most minimally fit the sports criteria; but, the summer Olympics are shrewd in calling these Field Events.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Why Figure Skating is NOT a Sport



I really want to retract what I wrote three posts ago. And after seeing this couple dancing in their "uniforms" I could not stomach it any longer... (they did take the bronze, after all). It may be a sport in the broadest, most open-minded sense possible, but I need some more time to come around to that way of thinking. A lot more time.

And, to continue my whine, I am sick of NBC prepackaging the evening broadcast to show almost continuous figure skating, only occasionally interrupted by something interesting. And have you noticed that NBC frequently will not show the scores for figure skaters? It's as if it weren't a real sport...

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Worst Olympics Commercial?

Nominate your worst commercial of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics by leaving a comment to this post.

The Coca-Cola commercials are leading my list. Wow! to think every time I've purchased a Coke I've contributed to the Olympics and significant social change! I'm amazing!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Props for Title IX

Tara Parker-Pope's article in the NY Times offers a glimpse into recent studies conducted by economists Betsey Stevenson and Robert Kaestner that demonstrate the positive effect of sports in the lives of young women (thanks to Tom for pointing this article out to me). A rise in educational and employment levels for women coupled with lower rates of obesity can be directly tied to the implementation of Title IX, the 1972 federal law that requires schools to provide the same opportunities for both young men and young women. Since 1972 the % of girls playing high-school sports has jumped from 4% to 25%.

This is compelling evidence to keep the law fully in effect.

On the other side of the coin, Murray Sperber (in his book Beer and Circus) points out that the gains for men who participate in sports may be on the wane; not in all sports but in the sports that have become largely professional at the college level (football and basketball). Where at one time football players had an improved chance of increased earnings and better employment, prioritizing football over academics may be causing a reversal in the trend.

I have a colleague and friend (H. David Hunt) who tells me that any extracurricular activity has similar benefits for high-school students. So if your daughter is not inclined to play softball or run track, encourage her to join the French club.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Why Figure Skating IS a "Real" Sport... or... How Phil Jackson is "Merely" a Choreographer

Over on Nate Silver's blog "Five Thirty Eight," attached to a post about the number of medals each country is projected to win, is a discussion about whether or not figure skating is a sport. Some readers complain that figure skating is not a sport since the outcome is entirely in the hands of the judges. Here was my comment:

Nearly every sport has judges, they just intervene more and play a larger role in determining outcomes in some sports than others. In baseball the umpire makes a call with every single pitch. In golf, the refs only intervene on rare occasions.
The reason figure skating bugs so many people stems less from the fact that results are determined by judges and more from the fact that "choreography" and "interpretation" are written into the judging rules.

But these categories are implicit in diving, ski jumping, half-pipe, too.

The bottom line is that it's hard for most self-identified sports fans to get excited about a sport where the athletes hire choreographers, choose music, wear sequins and put on makeup as part of the sport.

In the past we have discussed the level of intervention on the part of judges/referees and attempted to demonstrate that sport is defined in relationship to the hegemonic power structure in a given culture.

In an article published in the Michigan Journal of Political Science, Andy Markovits argues that sports cultures are male dominated and that they create barriers to prevent unauthentic sports fans (usually women) from entering them. These barriers tend to be technical (terminology, knowledge of a particular sport's rules) or historical (a knowledge of trivia or the ability to discuss teams and games from the past). Markovits suggests that many women wear sport clothing in an attempt to circumvent these barriers and gain access to a given sports culture.

"Men’s fluency in the language of sports culture needs no outward affirmation. It is assumed by all. For women, however, this is not the case. Women still have to prove to men—and to themselves—that they, too, have acquired fluency in the language of sports culture. One signifier of that language is wearing sports paraphernalia."

Markovits goes on to point out that men try and maintain distinctions by dismissing the newcomers as "studied" or superficial.

Figure skating, a contest in which costuming and presentation--the superficial--are in fact at the very core of the sport, will quite naturally push "real" sports fans into making numerous arguments to exclude it from the world of "real sport."

One argument is that in figure skating the judges have too much influence. But their influence is about the same as that of an umpire in baseball or a referee in basketball; in other words, they can all definitively influence the outcome of the contest.

Another argument is that if there are choreographers, costumes, and music, the competition has passed from the realm of sport to the realm of art. But this is once again an attempt on the part of "real" fans to linguistically exclude the sport. In baseball, for example, a choreographer is called a coach, costumes are called uniforms, and music IS played between innings and each time a player from the home team walks up to the plate. Baseball players even wear make-up under their eyes!

As we have argued before, saying a competition is not a sport is simply a way to marginalize it and its fans. And while I personally find figure skating tedious and would rather watch, well, just about anything, I'm sure this is in part because I am a product of a certain culture and hold to some of its biases.

That said, let me add that I think Joe Girardi is a heck of a choreographer, and that I really like the New Orleans Saints' costumes. Very classy...

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Luge Death at Olympics

By now you have probably all read or heard about the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili, the 21 year-old luger who died during a practice run yesterday when he came out of a turn late, went off the track, and slammed into a support beam at nearly 90 miles-per-hour.

I know that every sport has inherent risk. Endurance sports push the limits of mortality; teams sports involve sometimes dangerous contact;

But there is no reason to construct a luge track where competitors reach such high speeds. Certainly a slower track would test the competitors' skills more and create more difference between them than a track where the winner is the one who manages to stay on his sled as it hurtles to the bottom. A slower track would force the athletes to more carefully choose their line, to concentrate more on getting speed in the start, to nudge every 100th of a second out of their run.

And 40 mph on ice still looks plenty fast on TV.

There is simply no justification for asking athletes to slide 90 mph on a sheet of ice right next to large non-padded beams in order to do their job. None.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Valentine Edition: How Dark Chocolate is like Soccer


Mort Rosenblum's book Chocolate studies the history, politics, production, and digestion of one of the world's most popular indulgences. At one point he discusses the popularity of bad chocolate in the U.S. (a.k.a. Hershey's) and suggests that it remains popular largely because people tend to be very nostalgic when it comes to candy. In other words, what consumers ate as children they seek out as adults. And since Hershey's began making cheap "chocolate" in the early 20th-century that was gobbled up by so many Americans, a penchant for its flavor has been passed down from parents to children ever since.

In a similar manner, affinities for specific sports are typically determined as a child. I watched baseball with my father who played it with his father, who learned it from his father (who learned to play it instead of soccer so he wouldn't get beat up or be called a "stinkin' Dane" on the playground).

It is difficult for a new candy or new sport to catch on because it must displace one for which a nostalgic craving already exists.

Hershey's is clearly awful chocolate. Rosenblum quotes one expert who claims it tastes something like vomit. But most Americans prefer it to high quality dark chocolate. Football and baseball are far superior to Hershey's "chocolate." But the reasons cycling and soccer struggle to catch on in the U.S. are similar to the reasons dark chocolate remains a niche/snob product.

That said, if you plan to send me a Valentine's day gift this year, make it Michel Cluizel dark (Mangaro)... or, if you prefer, send me a new Pinarello Prince carbon bicycle (59.5 cms) with SRAM Red drivetrain. I'm not picky, I'll take either. Nostalgia be damned.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

U.S.A.D.D.


I recently watched John Dower's Once in a Lifetime, a film about the New York Cosmos and the North American Soccer League.

At one point in the film, an interviewee comments that unlike traditional American sports, soccer demands 90 minutes of attention. Baseball, football, basketball all have many time outs that allow fans to buy hot dogs, run to the restroom, and watch commercials. The implication was that Americans just don't have the attention span to appreciate soccer.

But the film implied that this comment is not entirely accurate since tens of thousands turned out to watch Cosmos matches during their peak years. Unfortunately for soccer, the failure to get a strong TV following coupled with a too ambitious expansion program in the league led the NASL into a quick decline.

So soccer can certainly entertain Americans and attract a huge following. Keeping America's attention, though, will take a great deal of patience, smart marketing, and a conservative expansion schedule. That plus a recognition that it is harder to sell booze and commercials with no programmed time outs.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

...

Thoughts with my friend an co-author Bob Hudson whose father passed away yesterday. Bob, our sympathies are with you and your family.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Limits of Showmanship

As a former high-school and collegiate athlete prone to wearing his heart on his sleeve, I am a big fan of flair in sports. If you can throw down a nasty two-handed dunk as opposed to laying the ball up, I’m all for it. If high-stepping won’t get you tackled from behind as you gallop into the end-zone, by all means, do it. If you have a 99-mph fastball in your repertoire, feel free to stare down Prince Fielder before you strike him out. In fact, I have a strong aversion to athletes who are overly-fundamental--denying fans the spectacle: the San Antonio Spurs and the Duncan Robot are unwatchable; I cannot buy into the Peyton Manning vanilla precision offense; and, base-hit baseball minus the occasional long ball is just plain bland.


Still, if there is one thing I hated amongst former teammates above all else was when the showmanship detracts from the players overall athletic performance. If the 360º dunk hits back iron, if Leon Lett allows himself to be stripped in the Super Bowl, if excessive ritual in the batter’s box leads to your striking out—then, flair no longer adds to the spectacle of sport. Rather, one player’s romanticized ESPN highlight ends up not only making a fool of him, individually, but hurts the entire team. Or, he simply hurts himself. Here is a prime example from Mozambique soccer: