Monday, November 19, 2012

Cultural Differences and Coaching: Language, Register and Hierarchy between the US and France

Still basking in the glorious afterglow of UCLA thrashing u$c Saturday, I’ve been thinking of the successes of the Bruins’ first-year head coach Jim Mora, Jr., who despite a reputation as an authoritarian and disciplinarian is widely regarded as a “player’s coach.” His players both like and respect him – and he has established a rapport with them where they can easily relate to him and share in his vision. While this has been a successful model for Mora (9-2), the perennial player’s coach in the NFL, Kansas City’s Romeo Crennel, for whom his players have great affection, has the worst record and team (1-9) in the League. This has led me to recently reflect on player-coach relationships and team success.

An article appearing in this morning’s French daily sports paper L’Equipe, written in conjunction with the announced release of former French national soccer manager Raymond Domanech’s memoirs of his beleaguered tenure at the helm of the darkest chapter in the history of the international side, led me to reflect on the impressive cultural differences between players and coaches in France and the US. In an excerpt about the infamous exchange with Nicolas Anelka before halftime of the fateful France/Mexico World Cup 2010 tilt (link, in French, here), Domanech writes the following account (my translation):

     - “(Anelka, to Franck Ribéry, after I told him he wasn’t pressing forward far enough) He’s pissing me off. What the hell is that? Always me!
     - (Patrice Evra intervenes) Alright, guys, let’s calm down; we have another half to play. Everything is alright…
     - (Anelka did not clam down) Motherf***er, why don’t you [tu, the familiar register, ed./ndlr] do it all yourself then, with your shit team! Me, I quit….
   I didn’t hear everything. The rest of his sentence was lost in the chaos of the moment. Oddly, I was less shocked by the swearing/verbal abuse than I was by the use of the familiar register, which broke a barrier – that of duty, of age, of hierarchy.”

A similar story emerged in the Rugby World Cup of 2011. France had beaten Wales in the semi-finals and was preparing to meet host and international colossus New Zealand in the finals. Their manager Marc Lièvremont, who was only 42 at the time of the match and had played with a few of the French internationals as a teammate in the 1999 World Cup, requested that his players rest up and not hit the bars and be seen smoking, drinking or enjoying night scene in Auckland (which, as a cultural side note, is a favorite point of mockery for Anglophone journalists belittling the loose French brand of “champagne rugby”). When papers began publishing paparazzi photos of players doing just that, Lièvremont lost his cool, verbally abusing players in a recorded team meeting and saying to the press (link): “What am I supposed to do? […] They’re a bunch of spoiled brats (sales gosses) – undisciplined, disobedient, selfish at times. They’re always groaning, complaining and have been constant ball-breakers for four years now.” French Number 8 Imanol Harinordoquy took particular offense to this and has said many times that in taking this internal affair out of the locker room, he broke with code and, due to this, Lièvremont effectively lost the respect his team - which, nonetheless, still almost pulled off the unthinkable and heroically played the All Blacks to an narrow 8-7 defeat.

Reflecting on my own brief athletic career, even with the established hierarchy, it was not too uncommon to cuss with or at coaches. And, whether it’s Jerry Jones coming down on coaches or players, Rex Ryan griping about his QB play or Kobe Bryant discussing a teammates fitness level with the press, the hierarchies are certainly not as engrained and the codes much more in flux than in France. This stands as evidence, I believe, of the social function of sport, which remains in France, culturally speaking, a very formative, even aristocratic realm of human exchange; where as, in the States, it is much more about camaraderie and interaction.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Lance Armstrong as Scapegoat?

In an article published in on Oct. 26, fashion mogul Paul Smith wrote: "I never could get very excited about Armstrong because he always seemed too calculating: too much in the image of these last fifteen years, characterized by the excesses of the financial sector, where greed and ego were all that mattered. Armstrong come from that universe" (1).

I think this is probably a fair assessment of Armstrong as a mirror for society (though we generally place far too much meaning on athletes). Martha Stewart was not enough. Society needed to find a better scapegoat in order to publicly purge itself of that win-at-all-costs era of greed, sponsorship, fraudulent morality, institutional complicity, and hero worship.

Americans may be more willing than Europeans to defend or forgive Armstrong because Americans are more tolerant of vitamins, supplements, and drugs; or because Americans are more accepting of changing one's body; or simply because Armstrong is one of us. But maybe Americans are more willing to forgive because we have been more complicit in the calculating era of corporate excess. Our retirement funds rose with Armstrong's fortunes. And they have collapsed as he fell.

Judging by the current state my 401K, I should begin sharpening my pitchfork.

(1) "Je n'ai jamais pu m'enthousiasmer à son propos, car il m'a toujours semblé trop calculateur. Trop à l'image de ces quinze dernières années ravagées par les dérives du secteur de la finance, où tout n'était que cupidité et ego. Armstrong appartenait à cet univers-là."

Monday, September 17, 2012

The French v. the American Take on Armstrong's Doping

The general response in American academic circles to the Lance Armstrong doping denouement has been to criticize the US Anti-Doping Agency for too doggedly pursuing one man, making him their primary target (he began winning about the time USADA came into existence), and for violating his right to privacy. (1) In France, the articles have tended to be exposés of how he went about beating the tests and have featured testimony from his most ardent detractors.

In other words, in the US the response is to keep Armstrong on a pedestal and condemn USADA for overreaching, in France the response has been a cynical, "We knew this all along."

Given that Armstrong still has the benefit of the doubt in the US, it is not at all surprising that he gave up the fight when he did. A protracted legal battle would have definitively turned even his most faithful fans into doubters as testimony of his doping would have become a regular feature in the press. By bowing out now, Armstrong can still deny testing positive and cast dispersions on USADA while maintaining a good reputation with US fans who see the good he has done in the fight against cancer.

As with all Armstrong's decisions, this one makes good economic sense.

(1) I am speaking specifically about the Sports Literature Association here but have seen similar comments in other American news venues.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The New Yorker, The Olympics, and the Franco-Prussian War

In a very interesting piece about the Olympics published in The New Yorker (Aug 6, 2012), Louis Menand writes that Pierre de Coubertin founded the modern Olympics in an effort to make the French "more manly, meaning more disciplined and self-reliant (he was reacting partly to the country's defeat, in 1870, in the Franco-Prussian War), and he believed that introducing sports into education could be the basis for this transformation in the national character" (71).

This is one of the most repeated clichés about Coubertin and the Olympics. Unfortunately, it's wrong.

After the defeat to the Prussians in 1870 and well before Coubertin, the French put in place a system of gymnastic exercise in the schools in order to instill physical "discipline" in the male citizenry--all with an eye to retaking Alsace and Lorraine.

Coubertin, in fact, wanted to overturn this militarized form of exercise. Instead of discipline he hoped to instill a sense of creative joy through the implementation of British sports in the French system.

And Coubertin, a good aristocrat, was not interested in petty national interest or seeking revenge on the Prussians. He went so far as to write that, "This perpetual 'protest' directed toward the victor of 1870 exasperated me.... I cannot say how often during my adolescence I suffered from this attitude that a false and petty conception of nationalism imposed upon my generation" (Mémoires olympiques 17).

Coubertin was far more interested in establishing a pan-European event that would allow the elite to join together with an eye to rejuvenating the monarchy. It was less about national character and more about the European aristocracy; less about revenge for the French losing the Franco-Prussian War and more about monarchical restoration.

Vivent les jeux!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Tour de Crash

To put it bluntly, the Tour de France has been boring this year.

Unless you consider it exciting to watch Bradley Wiggins and his team play defense for two weeks.

And most of the sprints have featured only a few of the key sprinter.

Several race favorites went down with injuries and a number of sprinters crashed leaving them too far behind to contest the sprints on the line.

Perhaps Tour organizers think crashes are exciting. But unfortunately by taking out a number of key cyclists they remove intrigue and turn cycling into a blood sport.

The race begins with 198 riders all vying to fit onto narrow roads and get in front of the cameras. This number is whittled down to a more manageable 150 by crashes in the first week. Unfortunately, this means that a random selection takes place and many good riders are out with broken bones.

It is time the Tour organizers consider reducing the number of riders at the start of the Tour. Whittle the numbers down to the very best riders. Instead of 22 teams, reduce it to 16. Or, better yet, shake up cycling tradition and cut the number of riders per team from 9 to 7 and keep all the sponsors happy.

There will certainly still be crashes. But the odds of having the best riders survive to challenge for yellow or go for the sprint will go up. And this has to be good for keeping the race competitive and interesting.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"Uni Watch" by Paul Lukas: a favorite sports blog

As a dilettante sports blogger, I spend quite a bit of time following legitimate, established sports bloggers. One of my personal favorites in Paul Lukas' "Uni Watch" - the guy notices everything and helps the uninitiated develop an appreciation for the aesthetic side of sports. Check him out; he "gets it" (his term):

Also, as a scholar of the Renaissance, I *love* how the colors, crests and fanfare of athletic uniforms are modeled after medieval and early modern heraldry and regalia. A few personal favorites (logos, *not* necessarily teams) that also "get it": KC Royals, Baltimore Ravens, Oakland Raiders, Real Salt Lake, Real Madrid, Racing Metro 92, USA Perpignan, Olympique Lyonnais, Paris Saint Germain - all classic, not overly wrought, uncommercialized in the global age. Your favorites?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Ozzie Being Ozzie, Sports Being Political

Ozzie Guillen mentioning he respects Fidel Castro? Stupid.

Guillen saying something inflammatory? Not surprising.

The number of people claiming politics and sports don't mix? See above.

Sports and politics mix all the time. The only time most people notice it is when sports mix with politics they don't agree with.

There are, of course, the obvious examples: Jackie Robinson "breaking" the color barrier in Major League baseball, Tommie Smith and John Carlos offering the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics, the US hockey team defeating the Soviet team at Lake Placid as a symbol of Cold War dominance, and Ozzie Guillen admiring Fidel Castro in Miami..., etc., etc.

But every professional sporting event in the USA begins with the national anthem, placing it under the aegis of nationalist politics. Issues of race, immigration, social class, and corporate authority are ever-present features of professional sports the world over. Sports, like other high profile spectacles, reflect the political tensions of their cultures. Not surprising.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Sports and Character / Gentrifying Football

A couple links sent to me in recent weeks that may be of interest.

First an article by Mark Edmundson in the Chronicle of Higher Education on sports and character. He tackles the question: do sports really build character? It's an argument I frequently go to when justifying my sons' participation in sports.... maybe I shouldn't.

Another article by Moacir P. de Sá Pereira examines the changes to Paris Saint-Germain and their fan base. The question here is: can a football club be gentrified? Beckham must not have thought it possible...

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Forbes Magazine’s Most Disliked Athletes: Commonalities and Perceptions

Fairly often (about every 6 months it seems), Forbes Magazine will publish a list of America’s most liked and/or most disliked athletes (which seems useful enough when gauging a certain player's marketability). Inclusion on the positive list usually corresponds to on-field heroics (with the glaring exception of “Tebowmania,” which I was tempted to write about dozens of times over the past few months but refrained from doing for fear of being too cynical) and a working class, good ol’ boy, everyman persona: Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Cliff Lee, Ryan Howard, Blake Griffin, etc. Even this year’s Super Bowl QBs miss the cut, despite their obvious competitive prowess: MVP Eli Manning is “too sad puppy,” “aw shucks” and not charismatic enough, while his übercool counterpart Tom Brady has a “European hairstyle” (I wish I was making that one up), a haughty supermodel wife and endorses UGGs. But, while these won't win over fans, they are only minor sins; what misdeeds land you on the Nielsen Ratings naughty list?

A big difference I notice between the world of sports and that of literature, especially today, is the former’s lack of tolerance with the flawed hero. Judging from the Forbes lists, it would seem that Lou Gehrig would have much more universal appeal today than would Babe Ruth. We are certainly, as a society, more Larry Bird than Magic Johnson. Visiting my favorite rugby bar (Springbok in LA) for last fall’s IRB World Cup, I noticed that among rugby enthusiasts, the panache of France’s champagne rugby earns them the back seat when compared to technicians of the game like New Zealand or Wales. Hard work trumps flair - and a look at the list confirms this.

Without further ado, here is today’s bottom ten (followed by the despicability factor/pct.): Michael Vick (60), Tiger Woods (60), Plaxico Burress (56), Ndamukong Suh (51), Kris Humphries (50), LeBron James (48), Kobe Bryant (45), Terrell Owens (45), Alex Rodriguez (44) and Kurt Busch (42)

What drives Americans to hate star athletes? A couple of trends emerge almost immediately: 1) Past legal issues, 2) Marital infidelity (and/or being daft enough to marry/date a Kardashian or Madonna), 3) Cheating or a reputation of dirty play (i.e. stomping you opponents chest after the whistle on Thanksgiving Day) and 4) Being a locker-room scourge and/or turning on your team. [The other guy is a NASCAR driver… so, who cares?] Fact is this: we expect our athletes to be role models and to adhere to a Middle America/Christian code of ethics. One is expected to obey the law, honor spouse/fellow man and be a good team player. In short, we are willing to ignore multi-million dollar salaries, unnatural physiques (minus, of course, the driver) and the explicit violence of sport in order to fuel our illusion that our favorite athletes are “just like us.” Dare to deviate from that perception and - despite humiliation, contrition, amends or hard time served - the court of public opinion may never forgive you.