Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for the ‘sports’ Category

Oh, Reilly?

Posted by digglahhh on 11 April 2008

As if we need more tiresome, trite commentary about dead-horse issues from self-oblivious Luddites, Rick Reilly chimed with his opinions on the blogosphere’s contributions to sports journalism. Reilly is a well-known, highly regarded—by many, though not yours truly—sports journalist who left Sport Illustrated in 2007, after 23 years of service, to join the ranks of ESPN. (A move which, it should be noted, did not take him beyond the bounds of the Time Warner mediaplex.)

Normally, I’m not sufficiently motivated to defend the blogosphere from insulting platitudes, but seeing as how this one was deliciously ironic as well, I think it’s worth some keystrokes.

Okay, let’s get the meta-platitude out of the way. As the crew over at FireJoeMorgan phrased it when dissecting Reilly’s comments, “most stuff sucks.” To say that most sports blogging sucks is probably entirely true. But, it would be equally true to say that most sports print journalism sucks. Music, writing, dancing, television movies, everything – statistically, the great majority of it sucks! Thus, when Reilly calls internet sports journalism, “all over the map,” he is describing what he is talking about only as accurately as everything he is not talking about.

Now for the ironies. There are two of them. Reilly, conveniently, gives special recognition to the writers on ESPN.com, as the sort of hard-journalism antithesis of the stereotypical underwear-clad, mom’s-basement-dwelling, sports blogger. Perhaps Reilly is unaware the most popular columnist on ESPN’s website is Bill Simmons. Simmons is one of the pioneers of the sports blogging revolution. His columns are multi-thousand word ramblings packed with pop-culture references, bar stool hypotheses, and obscure tidbits about his friends and family. Reilly’s new home, and self-described beacon of quality journalism, gives its top billing to an ostensible blogger.

The other great irony stems from Reilly’s career itself. Reilly is most well known for his, “Life of Reilly” column that graced the back page of Sports Illustrated for many years. These columns were (at least attempts at) humorous quips. They were casual, side-bar commentaries. Reilly’s defining column was basically an abbreviated blog entry in printed form directed at a slightly older and more square demographic than your average sports blog, with the following week’s Letters to the Editor as the only potential source for commenting. The dichotomy between Reilly and Simmons is one of talent, not of tone!

Here’s another fun fact, in the article above he talks about bloggers not going into locker rooms, and thus being removed from the athletes and dynamics of teams and the game. Reilly writes endlessly about golf, and his favorite athlete is cyclist Lance Armstrong–two sports, in other words, that don’t even have locker rooms.

Reilly is hardly the only old guard journalist to fundamentally misunderstand blogging, the internet, and internet journalism. Many who self-righteously dismiss internet journalism don’t recognize the new generation of sports fans, who get their news primarily from blogs, the internet, and independent media, nor do they understand the dynamics of the modern information age. The fact is many young, savvy readers don’t want their news from staples of the mainstream media. ESPN.com thinks it is competing with Deadspin, et al, but to a large extent it is not (Simmons excluded). In fact, the blogs are competing with each other for those who ESPN lost a long time ago when they chose to abandon their leadership in sports journalism in favor of promoting entertainment, sensationalism, and the lowest common denominator.

The internet is a medium, not a genre. “Internet journalism” is no more descriptive a term than “print journalism.” There seems an inherent disdain for the internet among print journalists, perhaps because the internet can destroy the glass menagerie of journalism as an institution by making it more of a true meritocracy. Regardless, the internet is the most convenient way for many of us to get our news. I work a lot, I can surf the web and read dozens of different sites during the course of my work day, I can read things on my phone on the go, but I can’t bring 20 different magazines and newspapers to work and thumb through them at my leisure. Ironically (a third irony today), while in many ways regular news on the Web is still derivative of print newspapers and magazines, that’s less true of sports than just about any other news category.

Since the boom of the internet, I’ve been able to read more, and hear more voices than I ever have; that’s a good thing. Rick Reilly just doesn’t happen to be one of those voices who’ve earned a piece of my time and mindshare. Sorry, Rick, but don’t blame the supermarket for my opinion that your food product tastes like shit. But then again, shouldn’t that be expected when the producer doesn’t even know which dish he’s actually famous for making?

Posted in digglahhh, journalism, sports | 3 Comments »

Sonic boom

Posted by digglahhh on 17 March 2008

When you think of Seattle, your mind probably conjures up the Space Needle, grunge music, Starbucks, and, in the distance, majestic Mt. Rainier. Starbucks will play a role in what follows, but our topic today is Seattle as a sports city, something you probably didn’t think of right away.

The first measure of a sports city is the devotion of its fans. The Key Arena, home to the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics, is famous for getting so loud that the crowd noise drowns out the public address system. The baseball Mariners had a very nice run in the mid-nineties and are a trendy choice as a sleeper-contender this year. The football Seahawks are only two seasons removed from a Super Bowl appearance. They got to the brink of a championship, but the aforementioned Sonics are the only Seattle (male) professional sports franchise to bring one home (’78-79). Such a distinction only makes it that much sadder that NBA Commissioner David Stern, is a willing participant in a cabal to hijack the team and relocate it to Oklahoma City.

I will attempt a brief recounting of the events leading up to this, the key players involved, and the egregious deceit transparent through the process.

The Seattle Sonics were owned, until recently, by Starbucks mogul, Howard Schultz. (This sordid story makes me even prouder that I’ve never consumed a single Starbucks product) In the run up to, and the inaugural stages of, ownership, Schultz made saccharine overtures about his intimate and intrinsic connection with Seattle, and how that should be collateral for proving his pride in, and dedication to, owning the Seattle Sonics. That was 2001.

Barely back from the honeymoon, the relationship turned sour. Schultz has spent considerable time bitching about the terms of the Key Arena’s lease with the city. Admittedly, I’m uneducated as to the specifics of that financial issue, but as wealthy as Schultz is, I have difficulty understanding how much it can affect him. (He dropped out of the Forbes 400 in 2008, but still checks in with a net worth of $1.1B), One Sonics fan characterized Schultz’s behavior as owner as that of a “a spoiled punk kid who’s already bored with his absurdly expensive Christmas present by New Year’s Day.” Schultz sold the team in 2006 for a $150M profit, despite complaining about his inability to make money running the franchise.

Enter Clay Bennett, a wealthy Hall-of-Fame oil tycoon from Oklahoma, new owner of the Seattle franchise. Oklahoma City has been flirting with the NBA for a while; two years ago it was awarded temporary partial custody of the New Orleans Hornets from ’05-’07. Despite the obvious conclusions to be drawn, Bennett commented publicly on numerous occasions about his intent to keep the Sonics in Seattle. It wasn’t long before he changed his tune.

Bennett first began complaining that the Key Arena was inadequate (translation: not enough luxury boxes). This is utter nonsense, especially since the Seattle taxpayers forked $125M to renovate the current arena just twelve years ago! Bennett claimed a satisfactory arena would cost half a billion dollars. Even more nonsensical when you consider of the NBA and NHL arenas costructed in the 90’s the one with the highest estimate on any approved project was less than half Bennett’s figure ($235M for Portland’s Rose Garden)Bennett was clearly shill-bidding in an attempt to contrive an excuse to relocate the team by pitting the taxpayers with an offer they couldn’t accept.

Basically, Bennett is holding the city of Seattle’s beloved pro basketball team ransom, bullying the city’s taxpayers and fans to build a billionaire a new toybox even though he already has a more than adequate one.

Now, you may be asking yourself if an individual can just purchase a team and relocate it as he/she pleases. The answer is, no! I’m sketchy on the actual process by which one is granted permission to relocate a franchise, but an attempt to do so can certainly be thwarted by other owners and/or the Commissioner of the League, currently David Stern.

Did you know that the state of Oklahoma has a Hall of Fame for Oklahomans? Maybe that’s not strange, and other states have Halls of Fame as well – but I certainly chuckled when I found this out. How did I find it out and why am I mentioning it here, you ask. Well, because Bennett was elected to the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 2007… and the induction speech was given by his close personal friend, David fucking Stern!

Do I need to expound on the respective sport market size estimates, and general population figures for Oklahoma City and Seattle? Take a wild guess, and you’ll be in the, ahem, ballpark.

So, what does the NBA have to gain by allowing this relocation? About as much as the Suns did for trading for a broken down Shaquille O’Neal! David Stern is just hooking up his boy – this is like Jay-Z giving Memphis Bleek all his DJ Premier beats. Isn’t it great that you don’t have to get either of the two references in this paragraph, but just learned that the Shaq trade will be a bust, and some guy named “Memphis Bleek” is a shitty rapper (and another guy,“DJ Premier” is a talented producer)… I’m here to inform!

This is pretty “fierce, dangerous, pathetic, fucked up,” to quote a Nirvana lyric (or, “not fierce,” and “a hot-tranny-mess,” to quote Project Runway winner, Christian Siriano) Circumstantially it has the elements of collusion even, right? So why isn’t this a story – how come nobody knows or cares about it? Yeah, I guess because it’s happening in Seattle. Home of flannel, and mocha frappuccino , not sports.

To add insult to injury, although the Sonics have never revisited their 1979 glory, they and their fans can see some light at the end of the tunnel. After some dismal play in recent memory, they landed a future superstar, Kevin Durant, in last year’s draft, shed their bad contracts and stockpiled, through trades, 13 picks in the next three drafts – saving a ton of salary in the process (important because the NBA has a team salary cap). The team would have to hire Isiah Thomas to not be very good in a few years.

Sportswriting godsend, Bill Simmons (a.k.a. the only reason any sentient sports fan should be caught visiting ESPN’s website, and the widely-accredited pioneer of sports blogging) has dedicated two of his famously epic “mailbag” columns to giving a voice to dejected Sonics fans – forty pages worth, after claiming to be necessarily highly selective about which ones to print! He is the only nationally relevant, sports media, heavy-hitter I’ve read/heard talk about this; so, as usual, props to him.

Sports stories always pull my heart strings for some reason; I probably average at least one cry per Real Sports episode. Not surprisingly many of the emails moved me to tears (leading to several strange glances on the subway, the likes of which I haven’t received since the last chapter of Marley and Me). But, thumbing through the columns would be heart-wrenching for anybody. It may be hard for others to imagine, but any true fan knows that losing a team is really like losing part of yourself. Shit, I saw a serious discussion among a group of age 70-ish Brooklynites about going to Cooperstown to protest the induction of Walter O’Malley to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, even though they had to be in their 20s when he pulled the Dodgers from Brooklyn!

One email in the Simmons column was unlike all the others though, and, in truth, I’ve written this whole piece to provide necessary context to quote it in its entirety. It’s an entirely different take on the situation, though the commiseration with the feeling of loss is obvious in its undertones. So, Michael from Boston, have at it:

Seattle deserves our praise, not our pity. The people there should hold their heads high, even if there is a tear in their eye. They were adults — MEN and WOMEN — who held firm when residents of other cities would have childishly voted against their own best interests and capitulated like cowards. Seattle said no to Clay Bennett, and no to his greed. The city grew a steel backbone. Losing the Sonics seems like a small price to pay for collective courage and integrity. We should all be so lucky as to have looked an immoral thing clear in the face, and told it to go screw itself.

It worries me that people wouldn’t write you as many letters if Seattle had voted for the arena and Bennett had elected to stay. People might be so busy cheering they would forget the money that could have gone to schools, the elderly or even back to the taxpayers themselves. It worries me that many probably couldn’t be bothered to notice or care. People seem far more upset by this cost of doing good than they are strengthened by their courage. I wish they weren’t. Our loyalties and values tell us who we are as people, and, in your real life, stepping up to do the right thing for those who matter and count on you is a real brand of caring that you usually can’t find in ballparks or metaphors.

I am a fan. I am grateful that my loyalty to the Celtics is now bearing fruit. However, the ecstasy of sport must not morph into a willful ignorance or a denial of bigger realities, and there are real choices to be made when an owner’s push comes to a city’s shove. Owners are coming for your tax dollars. They have been. On the other side of things, Medicare and Medicaid expenses for the states are growing — they could soon be beyond our ability to cover them. We are fighting two wars and have entered a recession. We live in a time of national challenge. And Clay Bennett wants an arena. Thank you, Seattle, for showing us what caring really is.

The NBA’s community development arm, which calls itself “NBA Cares,” should read that last line carefully. We already know what David Stern really cares about.

Posted in digglahhh, sports | 3 Comments »

Open season on idiots – at least in blogs

Posted by metaphorical on 25 November 2007

I don’t know how he hit a several-thousand-pound cow mistaking it for a coyote. — Rory Heckman, Benzie County undersheriff, UPI

According to the Traverse City Record-Eagle, which broke the story,

Richard Buckner, 42, allegedly downed a neighbor’s pregnant, 1,400-pound breeding cow on Nov. 17 at about 8:30 a.m.

Buckner allegedly told sheriff’s officials he was poaching coyotes in the woods near his home on Wooden Bridge Road when he shot what he believed to be a coyote, Benzie Undersheriff Rory Heckman said.

The cow, named Hannah, wandered away from a nearby farm before Buckner shot the pregnant bovine and attempted to drag it to his home, said DeAnn Mosher, Hannah’s owner.

“That is the part of his story he his holding to is he shot at a coyote. I don’t know how he hit a several thousand pound cow mistaking it for a coyote,” Heckman said. “You can’t even shoot at a coyote during the firearm deer season.”

Hunting is a sport that connects us with some of the most fundamental facts about being human. It needs no defense in principle. The problems with it have to with finding a place for it in an increasingly urbanized culture. Hunting today, in many parts of the U.S., is about as natural as a golf course.

People without the proper skills or ethics can stand side by side with those who do, indistinguishable from them, until they go off and shoot a cow — or a coyote, equally off-limits and only marginally less stupid during the deer hunting season. If I were a hunter I would wish, if only for a fleeting moment, that we could have an open season on Buckner and the other idiots who make hunting problematic for responsible hunters and for everyone else.

Posted in animal-rights, food, language, pop culture, sports | 6 Comments »

Why can’t the invisible hand claim sets?

Posted by digglahhh on 8 September 2007

This is old news. I intended to address it last week, but did not get around to it.

From the AP:

NEW YORK — A lineup of team logo baseball caps denounced as tailor-made for gang members was ordered removed from store shelves by its manufacturer Friday after complaints from baseball officials.
“It has been brought to our attention that some combinations of icons and colors on a select number of our caps could be too closely perceived to be in association with gangs,” said Christopher H. Koch, CEO of New Era Cap. “In response, we, along with Major League Baseball, have pulled those caps.”
…Both MLB and the Yankees insisted they were unaware of the symbolism in the cap designs, with the New York team noting they were never given a chance to review the new hats until they were already for sale.
…New Era said it would increase its efforts to ensure it had a better working knowledge of gang symbols, names and locations.

The black and gold hat with the crown perched atop the NY is the real nail in the coffin here. The bandana print of the other two is relatively common, and if New Era produced that design in additional colors, beyond red and blue, they may have had a chance at pleading ignorance. But we are supposed to believe that by sheer chance the company selected a color combination that happens to be the colors of one of the most famous gangs in the world, and randomly decided to adorn an appropriate symbol that has no relation to baseball? Oh yeah, and they chose the team that plays in the city where the gang is most prominent. That’s an extraordinary set of coincidences that could only be possible if their Marketing Director was Larry David.

By consumer choice, New Era has a virtual monopoly on the fitted hat industry. Personally, I’m a hat junkie, owning probably upwards of forty New Eras (working for Major League Baseball was a blessing and curse there). For them to plead ignorance here is simply an insult to our intelligence. Are we to believe that they don’t do extensive market research targeting the urban teens and young adults? Really? So, New Era has done hat collaborations with, Wu Tang Clan, and Dip Set, they have put out hats inspired by a relatively obscure (but awesome) Jay-Z song, but they know nothing at all about gang colors or symbolism? Well, if Larry David is their Marketing Director, Dick Cheney must handle their public relations… By the way, the first hit when you search on “black gold gang colors” is to a sociology-style page describing the Latin Kings.

Scope: Primarily metropolitan areas throughout Connecticut, Chicago and New York

Gang Colors: Black and gold. Black represents death, gold represents life.

But here’s the thing, our consumer culture is hardly characterized by socially responsible marketing, so who cares if they did put out these products – even if they did so with the intent of cashing in on the glamourization of the gang lifestyle? We market radar detectors to speeders. Myriad companies use graffiti motifs to appeal to urban demographics. Our cosmetic, diet, fashion, and alcohol industries play on our insecurities to cash in at the detriment of our physical and emotional health. Let’s get real here, is selling gang-inspired fashion a uniquely irresponsible or distasteful offense? If so, why haven’t we gone after the freaking bandana manufacturers?… If the Yankees disapprove of their logo being used that way, so be it. But, let’s not pretend that a network that calls itself “Arts and Entertainment” didn’t air a reality show called “Growing up Gotti!” The Gotti boys were pretty fond of wearing Yankee hats, by the way.

I don’t necessarily endorse the products, but this is free market capitalism, no? Wouldn’t this be a pet case for the conservative libertarians who rage about political correctness neutering our country? Some people may be offended at the invisible hand throwing gang signs, but is that really a legitimate reason to stop the voluntary flow of consumer goods? When did we start giving a fuck about what our consumer actions say about our culture? Disapproving of this product is certainly rational, but it seems unfair to single New Era out for this.

Posted in digglahhh, pop culture, sports | 4 Comments »

Throwing Marbury to the dogs

Posted by digglahhh on 1 September 2007

I want to address two comments about the Michael Vick incident that provoked much controversy and discussion. In reaction to the public’s response to Vick’s participation in a dogfighting ring, New York Knicks pointguard, Stephon Marbury made news by making the following statement.

“I think it’s tough, I think, you know, we don’t say anything about people who shoot deer or shoot other animals. You know, from what I hear, dogfighting is a sport. It’s just behind closed doors.”

First of all, the context of this quote was manipulated and many outlets just ran the “dogfighting is a sport” part. As a result, Marbury was portrayed as a supporter of Vick, or worse, of dogfighting. Given the media’s troubled relationship with Marbury, that was hardly a surprise. Marbury may not be the most eloquent speaker, but if you unpack his comments, there’s something that merits serious consideration.

It is important to note that Marbury did not claim that he believed that dogfighting is a sport. At least that’s not the way I interpreted his comment. If his intent was to proclaim dogfighitng as a sport, there would be no need to preface that opinion with the qualifier, “from what I hear.” Marbury was basically claiming that those involved in dogfighting see it as a sport. Assuredly, it is not, and as a defense for the Vick’s actions, claiming the participants view it as a sport is entirely irrelevant. Perhaps, gang members view drive-by shooting as a sport… I address this part of the quote only to establish that Marbury is not, as the media seemed to portray, supporting dogfighting or claiming it to be a “sport.”

The first part of the quote is interesting. One could interpret it as an implicit defense of Vick, or just as a general comment regarding society, double standards, and the context of Vick’s actions. As a defense of Vick, it would be the classic example of two wrongs not equaling a right, but on its own terms the comment has merit. There are many sets of standards by which society judges the infringement upon animal rights. Marbury’s example of hunting is probably the closest parallel to dogfighting. For one, a substantial segment of the population, even beyond hunters themselves, consider hunting to be a sport, or at least a sports-like activity. Assuredly, hunting is no more of a sport than dogfighting… or drive-by shooting. Still, there are hundreds of professional athletes who are avowed hunters, yet that hasn’t been seen as anything of a moral issue for professional sports leagues at all, despite strong efforts of anti-hunting activists in our country. One simple and logically consistent argument holds that the slaughter of animals for sport is immoral, period.

As you progress further along the spectrum of animal rights activism more issues arise. It might be easier to count the number of professional athletes who don’t own mink coats than the ones who do. At the fringes of the animal rights spectrum we encounter those who feel that a vegan diet is a moral responsibility, specifically for animal cruelty reasons. For society at large, some of these opinions seem to fall squarely in the arena of personal choice, as opposed to moral responsibility. It would be absurd for the NFL to mandate vegan diets for its players, but would it be inconceivable to voice a disapproval of hunting? Of, course, the fallback position is that hunting is legal, while dogfighting is illegal. Most people skirt these difficult debates by using legality as a moral loophole – as if our society has never legalized clearly immoral behavior…

At the very least, the isolation of and disproportionate public response to the Michael Vick situation, as compared to other animal rights issues, is evidence of the obvious tunnel vision through which we perceive the underlying morality issues of this case. And in that sense, Marbury’s point is correct.

The second comment I’d like to address was made by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter, Paul Zeise. It was made on a sports roundtable discussion show, aired on a CBS affiliate, about a month ago – Zeise was not invited back to the show.

“It’s really a sad day in this country when somehow … Michael Vick would have been better off raping a woman if you look at the outcry of what happened. Had he done that, he probably would have been suspended for four games and he’d be back on the field. But because this has become a political issue, all of a sudden the commissioner has lost his stomach for it.”

I’m not going to defend this guy anymore than to say that it seemed as if he was speaking solely in terms of Vick’s football career. He did not say that rape was a less disgusting act than dogfighting. The fact is that Vick would have had a greater likelihood of settling out of court, or beating the case altogether were he to be accused of rape. That seems like a pretty grounded assessment of the situation given the outcry against Vick, compared with the record of athletes accused of various levels of sexual misconduct who have either walked or simply cut a check.

Zeise isn’t the only person to make this type of comment; this argument has been used in many slightly different forms, they all revolve around the claim that we are making too much of this because there are other, worse, evils going on in the world. That argument is terribly problematic.

Its initial hypocrisy is that there are always news stories that dominate the headlines, despite their scope being undeserving of the coverage. If these people are truly crying out for responsible news coverage that reflects the importance of the event, they’d be kicking and screaming everyday. Britney Spears has received exponentially more news coverage than Darfur. The selective application of this argument leads me to believe that it is disingenuous. But, let’s even assume for a second that it is not – there are several other grounds on which it fails.

The fact that other, more profound, wrongs exist does not preclude people from taking action and judging the said behavior as wrong. One can’t beat a misdemeanor by citing the extent of felonies committed. The perspective endorsed by the above argument ultimately leads to having to arbitrarily choose a specific degree of wrong at which the public, the authorities, or whoever, should begin to give a shit. Individually, one can certainly feel as if too much has been made of the case, but invoking a subjective, slippery slope argument as a standard to measure responsible collective behavior doesn’t seem like a legitimate criticism. In fact, ironically, it was this perspective that caused authorities to let dogfighting continue, virtually unabated, all this time.

Additionally, this is an apples to oranges comparison. There are many reasons why this issue pulls at people’s heartstrings, and galvanizes them to protest, making the dynamic of this scandal more complicated than an immorality pissing contest.. First and foremost, this is a type of scandal and depravity that is unfamiliar to the public; the shock-factor is huge. More subtlety, the comparison of “rape” is something of a strawman in this context. When a reporter says that Vick would have been better off raping a woman, the image we get is of a seedy character huddled in an alley waiting to snatch a victim and force sex upon her at the explicit threat of violence. This is not the “rape” that we are used to seeing athletes accused of.

Most cases involving rape and other forms of sexual misconduct involve aggressive coercion or fuzzy consent. We are less likely to vilify a celebrity who is accused of rape than we are of dogfighting because of the relative ambiguity of the nature of the indiscretion. We have seen money-hungry groupies disingenuously file lawsuits; we have seen people throw themselves at celebrities. We’ve seen the interminable confusion of the Duke athletes case. We’ve seen tell-all books by individuals whose identities were based around sleeping with as many athletes as possible. Simply put, it is conceivable and precedented that rape allegations could be false, disingenuous, or even a matter of miscommunication; one can understand how a celebrity may find him/herself in such a situation. Zeise’s critics are thinking of rape in the police sketch on the local news sense of the word, when he in fact meant that Michael Vick may have been better off, in strictly pragmatic terms, if he was accused of date-rape by a cheerleader.

You can kill a man in cold blood, so long as it’s done in a boxing ring. Rape is a code word for completely unacceptable conduct, and yet day-to-day life is not nearly so black-and-white. Dogfighitng, on the other hand, is a sadistic and foreign behavior; it is not something we civilized people can understand or fathom an appreciation of, or desire to participate in, even in the theoretical, or abstract. Dogs are cute and innocent; people can be cruel and manipulative. It’s pretty simple really. Of course, the blanket statement that human emotion need not follow some sort of linear reaction pattern that mirrors some sort of “objective reality” about what is reacting to, is also relevant to this discussion.

I find it hard to believe that arguments like Zeise’s can be taken as anything more than rhetorical or quizzical. And, I find it all too convenient to simply twist and dismiss comments like Marbury’s.

Posted in animal-rights, digglahhh, journalism, language, pop culture, sports | 10 Comments »

Semantics 756

Posted by digglahhh on 10 August 2007

Okay, so Barry Bonds launched 756 off Mike Bacsik this week. I only mention Bascik’s name to relay the fun fact that Bacsik’s father, of the same name, actually faced Hank Aaron when Aaron had 755 career homers. Also, Clay Hensley, the pitcher who gave number 755 had failed a steroid test when he was in the Minor Leagues. Looks like there was some fate at work, or something. But, anyway, enough of the fun facts and onto the dissection of language.

Throughout this whole debacle, we’ve constantly heard the following words, “(un)ethical,” “(il)legitimate,” “(im)moral,” “(il)legal,” and “cheating (or not).” Many people throw forms of these words around as if they are interchangeable. In fact, they are not. Let’s go through how they relate to the Bonds situation.

“Legitimate” is the simplest of these terms to deal with. Barry Bonds hit (as of today) 757 fair balls over the outfield fences of various Major League ballparks during regular season play. None of the homeruns were fake, or recorded as the result of a clerical error or anything like that. Legitimacy pertains to MLB’s abilities to void the record, and to whether those which were labeled as homeruns really were. The record is “legitimate.”

Next, we have a nexus of similar terms. Let’s get rid of a couple to simplify things. Some people don’t distinguish morality and ethics at all, if so, we can drop the one in favor of the other. To the extent they’re different, morality pertains to your personal views regarding the means by which Bonds has been aided in his achievement of the record, independent of the user or purpose. Personal views are interesting, but not really important.

Then too, one may think that the use of anabolic steroids is immoral because it is illegal. Fine. We’ll turn to the question of legality in a minute.

Cheating and ethics are the two most closely related and tricky terms here. I’m going to collapse them, because cheating is something that seems to have an inherently unethical component. The act of cheating is defined by dishonesty, so it is almost always unethical. I say almost always because an action that is normally unethical can be rendered not so, provided that performing the said action opposes larger or greater unethical behavior. This is the “if you had a chance to kill Hitler argument.” If Barry Bonds was cheating, then his actions were unethical, unless you can argue that he was cheating to right some greater form of wrong.

The above preamble is necessary because of the complications involved in establishing Bonds’s cheating, and its extent. Some try to separate the cheating and the ethics, other than my above explanation, I don’t see how you can really do that. But, here is how people try.

Steroids were not explicitly disallowed by Major League Baseball prior to 2002. Subsequently there has been testing; Bonds has not failed a steroid test (undetectables, I know – but speculation is not evidence). Some argue that if Bonds used, pre-2002, he was not cheating because it was not against the rules, and there wasn’t anything unethical about it because it was not cheating.

That steroids weren’t banned until 2002 is an important point, but it doesn’t absolve Bonds of the charge of cheating. It gets Bonds off the hook on the question of the illegality of his actions – according to MLB, at least. (see, I said I’d come back to that).

But breaking the explicitly stated rules is way too strict an interpretation of cheating. Laws and rules have “spirits,” anybody whose read any of the more famous court cases in this country’s judicial history knows that. Cheating, in terms of this debate, is using disingenuous methods to undermine the spirit of fair competition. This covers loopholes that involved parties would consider cheating (like PEDs), but may spare tactics that some might consider “dirty,” but are not explicitly forbidden, provided the practice is accepted by the participants (e.g. stealing signs). Kind of like the “reasonable citizen” standard…

My characterization merges the cheating and the ethics issue by defining cheating in a sense that considers ethics. Perhaps I need a further argument that Bonds’ cheating was unethical. Okay then, here’s one.

Let’s consider the implications of Bonds’s actions, that is, what they did to the competitive spirit of the game. Those who achieved artificial enhancements from drug use skewed the game to give themselves unfair advantages and they were not forthcoming about it. The fact that they were not banned by the sport doesn’t matter, they contradict the notion of fair competition. They are dangerous, one can’t expect any “reasonable player” to be willing to engage in that practice. That solves the problem of those who claim that Lasik eye surgery, Tommy John surgery and such are unnatural means to enhance one’s abilities. Most importantly, ethics are not defined by the law – specifically, legal loopholes or ambiguities are not ethical loopholes.

So, the highlights/box score:

Record legit? Yes.

Bonds a cheater? Yes.

Means used to help reach the record ethical? No.

Posted in digglahhh, language, sports | 2 Comments »

More on race and sports

Posted by digglahhh on 21 July 2007

During a recent discussion about race and the perceptions of athletic success, my friend Tony over at Baseball-fever reminded me of this 2003 poll of 550 Major Leaguers, taken by Sports Illustrated.

The two questions that I found most intriguing were the following:

5. Who gets the most from the least talent?

David Eckstein, Angels 62.2%
Craig Counsell, Diamondbacks 6.7%
Jamie Moyer, Mariners 4.8%
Joe McEwing, Mets 2.7%
Kevin Millar, Red Sox 1.7%
Juan Pierre, Marlins 1.2%
Albert Pujols, Cardinals 1.0%
Brad Ausmus, Astros 1.0%
Eric Byrnes, Athletics 0.7%
Greg Maddux, Braves 0.7%
Mike Sweeney, Royals 0.7%

6. Who gets the least from the most talent?

Ruben Rivera, Giants 29.3%
Raul Mondesi, Yankees 6.9%
Frank Thomas, White Sox 3.1%
Mo Vaughn, Mets 3.1%
Adrian Beltre, Dodgers 2.8%
Kyle Farnsworth, Cubs 2.8%
Ken Griffey, Reds 2.4%
Aramis Ramirez, Pirates 2.1%
Esteban Loaiza, White Sox 2.1%
Juan Gonzalez, Rangers 2.1%
Jose Guillen, Reds 2.1%

*If you are interested in reading a little more about the players, and my attempt at an objective evaluation of whether the players were good choices for the respective lists, see the comments section.

Eight of the top ten responses to the first question, including the overwhelming first choice, are white players. Minority players account for nine out of ten of the top vote-getters in the second, including the top choice.

Other observations:

· Six of the players on the top list are not only white, but blond.

· Skinny guys always hustle? The average height and weight of the top list is certainly lower than that of the bottom list.

· Most fans would agree that the players on the top list, on a whole, show more “enthusiasm” when playing the game than those on the bottom list.

· As of the time of the poll, three players on the bottom list were former MVPs (Griffey, Gonzalez [2x], Thomas [2x]). Players on the top list had won none, though Maddux has won four Cy Youngs.

· As of the time of the poll, players on the second list had nearly twice as many All Star appearances, 23 to 12.

I could write about how different skills are perceived as bearing a greater relationship to natural abilities while others are understood as being the products of hard work and study. But, that skirts the issue and distracts from the point.

Such a proposition is a chicken and egg argument as it passes through a racial filter. Virtually all events on a baseball field require a mix of athleticism and natural talents and abilities. Athleticism plays the smallest role in baseball of any of the major sports. In fact, the core component of the game, hitting, is largely a function of hand-eye coordination. All players who play the game are naturally gifted and methodically trained. Whether skills are considered “natural” or “developed” is a false dichotomy that has as much to do with who possesses specific skills as it does with some sort of theoretical essence of that skill.

Years ago, future NBA Hall of Famer and gangsta-rapper look-alike Allen Iverson was chastised for taking practice too lightly. His original press conference tirade was memorable, because it is played over and over. The line that he repeats repeatedly is, “Practice, we talking about practice – not a game, not a game – practice.” That remark made people think of him as lazy and undedicated. The caveat to that remark is not replayed ad nauseam. Iverson went on to ask if it is logical to assume that a player of his caliber could achieve such a level of play without being intensely dedicated to practice. A perfectly reasonable question and self-evident truism. It is well known that Allen Iverson played as hard as anybody in league – many said he played harder than any other player. He is undersized, underweight; his body took more punishment than any other player’s. He is one of the best scorers in the history of the NBA, a former MVP – an immortal. To assert that he didn’t value practice, or was lazy, was absolutely ludicrous in the face of his game and his accomplishments.

These pronouncements are often based on personality, on disposition and appearance. We are talking about quantifying the difference between a group of people who are all anomalies on an individual basis – both in terms of their gifts and their dedication. Iverson did lead the league in tattoos, and was one of, if not the first NBA player to sport cornrows. He also dabbled in a second career as a rapper, projecting a general thug-like image.

Once again, we see implicit racial associations at play. And, once again, we deny their existence by propagating false dichotomies and overstating our abilities to perceive differences in immeasurable, yet largely similar, quantities of vague and arbitrary ideas, like “natural talent” and “dedication.” Furthermore, it is likely that the arbitrary definitions are tainted by inherently racialized perceptions and thought patterns.

Posted in digglahhh, language, sports | 3 Comments »

Nathan could be worse

Posted by digglahhh on 14 July 2007

I’m not often at a loss for words, but certain things set off so many sociological censors at once that I get sent into overload and find it difficult to process and document my interpretation of what exactly is going on. I most recently had one of those moments on July 4th, watching the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. I can’t guarantee coherence as I try to express my feelings here, but I shall try my best.

First of all, it is aired on ESPN. What the fuck is that? I guess that’s the “E” for “Entertainment” portion of its abbreviation. If so, whatever. But then, somebody should tell the Sportscenter anchors that the network’s feeble entertainment attempts have been covered and they can kill the Last Comic Standing auditions and just let me know if J.J. Hardy is going to turn back into a pumpkin anytime soon. Still, even the “entertainment” must be required to be at least as close to a sport as poker is, right? How far removed is a hot dog eating contest from a farting contest? Would they air one of those on ESPN as well? The participants actually view themselves as athletes, as I understand. I’m really trying to limit how many times I say, “what the fuck?” in this piece, but that is asking a lot of restraint given this topic.

Okay, whew, that’s one rant down – the least important one. The subject of what is a sport, what is a game, and what is just a competition is an incredibly interesting discussion, but it’s not all that important sociologically. Let’s get to the more disturbing aspects of this event.

The hour of coverage began with an aerial shot of the crowd. There were thousands of people there. It was absolutely ridiculous. Why would somebody spend one of the few Federal holidays standing under the brutally hot sun, squinting to watch a crew of gastrointestinal anomalies cram their faces with cylindrical beef byproducts from two and a half blocks away?

Onto the depressing symbolism and deconstruction of the event. First, I want to preface this by saying that I’ve always found displays of decadence that use food to be particularly egregious, and, on a certain level, very offensive. Food is the basic unit of sustenance. I often think about how we use food as decorative garnish for other foods and find it quite curious. Last time Meta and I went for dinner, I posed the question of whether it is ethical, apart from being socially acceptable, to bring a child to a nice restaurant.

The hot dog eating contest on July 4th is ironic, or disturbingly a propos on many levels. For starters, according to the CDC, 65% of our population is overweight or obese. Our country clearly has a problem in this regard, and on a day on which we are supposed to be honoring our nation, we are indulging in its problems – in a far more grandiose and blatant fashion than simply stuffing yourself at a barbeque, which at least doesn’t have thousands of onlookers.

In a broader sense, this competition is reflective of so many more of our ugly values. Our disease of conspicuous consumption applies as much to dollar sign as to the waistline. The general international interpretation of American displays of wealth, power, and machismo is that they are crass and childish – two words that aptly describe a nationally televised hot dog eating contest, and a nation that watches it.

Absurd gender identities are at play as well. There is no doubt that a contributing factor to our ballooning of men’s waistlines is the conflation of a (destructively) large appetite with “manliness.” This unrefined image of savage, pseudo-manhood is celebrated as the competitors (all male, except one) gorge themselves.

This event is the apotheosis of our reverence for tasteless and destructive celebrations of excess. The fact that an event like this can gain the traction to solidify itself as an Independence Day tradition is disgusting and disappointing.

I’m hoping that the readership can advance these ideas, or contribute their own, as I find it difficult to fully express why the relationship between Independence Day and the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest is so disturbing. Am I the only one who feels this way?

Before I officially solicit any responses, allow me to make two disclaimers. One, I am not a vegan or vegetarian. Admittedly, a fruit salad eating contest would be less disgusting to me, but much of that is due to how much less symbolic value it has than the malt liquor of meat, the hot dog.

Two, I am not opposed to low culture, or even to unhealthy behavior in a competitive form. Most of my friends are in their late twenties to early thirties, well removed from college, and we still routinely play drinking games. Full disclosure: about three months ago, a long night of drinking and cards turned into a three-way White Castle eat-off. (I was not involved in the contest.) My offense is taken at the nexus of the hot dog eating contest, Fourth of July, avid bystanders, and a national television network. This is not a homemade video of a keg stand posted on You Tube. This is competitive artery clogging, recognized and promoted as sport, broadcast on ESPN and marketed as all-American.

Posted in digglahhh, food, pop culture, sports | 8 Comments »

Summer reading

Posted by digglahhh on 7 July 2007

This week, I want to take some time to talk about two great books I’ve recently read. The first is about hip-hop, the second about sports.

Over the last few years, documenting the rise of hip-hop culture has become an increasingly popular subject to write about. I’ve read bits and pieces of many of books similar to this one, and I’ve dismissed even more by scanning the indexes and noticing the omissions of seminal figures. Remarkably, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation (2005) by Jeff Chang avoids such limitations.

Chang’s book, a study in cultural anthropology, domestic and foreign policy and sociology, documents the origin and evolution of the hip-hop lifestyle, aesthetic, and music, all in context. He considers the political and cultural movements in Jamaica, the landscape of the Bronx gangs in the 1970’s, the growth and fracturing of the Black Panther party (through COINTELPRO) and the resulting emergence of the West Coast gang scene. He even describes the economic and geospatial ramifications of Robert Moses’s highway projects. These events and many others are discussed in terms of their role in the emergence and direction of hip-hop.

Chang also does a great job of framing some of the most important frictions within the culture. Although hip-hop is widespread and diverse, there have always been identity crises about what is actually encompassed in the culture, and what is the purpose of the movement. Does Basquiat count as a graffiti artist, since he never hit a subway train (even as “SAMO”)? Is graffiti even an element of the hip-hop culture? Many early generation writers were partial to rock music. Are rappers agents of social change, themselves? Should they, and can they, lead movements? Or, is their primary purpose to simply “report” about their experience? What sort of boundaries are there, and should there be regarding “belonging” to the culture? Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop addresses these issues and illustrates the way shifting perspectives led the culture in different directions, expanding its ranks at some points, and severing them at others. Perhaps, one can argue that the book glorifies the culture as an entity, but it does not gloss over the struggles within the movement.

One of the blurbs on the back of the book refers to Chang as Hip-Hop’s Howard Zinn. That’s not really a bad comparison. Compared to a VH1 documentary on early hip-hop (which often aren’t terrible) this is a book on written on a post-graduate level. It should be required reading for all kids who profess to like hip-hop music and culture, as well as for their parents.

The other book I’ve had the good fortune to read is, Veeck as in Wreck (1962), the autobiography of nutty baseball owner, Bill Veeck. This book has actually been recommended to me on numerous occasions in the past, and I’m sorry I didn’t read it earlier.

The sheer enjoyment factor of this book stacks up with just about anything I can remember reading.

Veeck grew up in a baseball family, he joined the military, sustained combat injuries before becoming embarking on a career as an owner of Minor League, and then Major League baseball teams. Eventually, he needed a wooden leg. He never sat in the owner’s box, preferring to sit alongside the fans. He was a man about town and a charitable soul who slept ,by his own account, about two hours a night. He converted part of one of his ballparks into an apartment and moved in. Bill Veeck is simply one of those people who, if was presented as fictional character for a film, would be dismissed as unbelievable and ordered to be rewritten.

He planted the ivy on Wrigley Field’s outfield walls, gave away livestock to random fans, and buried the previous season’s pennant in a mock funeral service when his Cleveland Indians failed to repeat as American League Champions. He invented the exploding scoreboard, threw the infamous “Disco Demolition Night” promotion, and rigged fences to different depths depending on the amount of power on the opposition’s team. He is probably best known for sending a midget up to hit in a Major League game (and threatening to pick him off with a sniper rifle from atop the stadium if he took a swing). But that feat was far from Veeck’s zaniest. One can only estimate how many rules have been instituted solely to disallow the wild schemes dreamed up and implemented by Veeck.

More importantly, Veeck rallied for integration years before Jackie Robinson. He proposed reforms to the reserve clause, and pleaded for interleague play over fifty years ago. He was a visionary who was branded a side show.

Bill Veeck was reviled by his fellow owners. He, of course, felt they all had their collars too tight. Veeck’s antics were characterized as unprofessional, yet Veeck set attendance records everywhere he went and won a World Series in Cleveland in 1948.

Like the man, the style of the book is offbeat and drily witty. He weaves in and out of topics and gives a candid view of his era and the characters in his life. He quite probably takes plenty of liberties with embellishment, but he is a unique and colorful character, so you really don’t know where and when. There is nothing that he says he did that beyond imagining, given what we know historically to be true.

This book works for sports fans and non-fans; in fact, it would make a great summer read for a book club that has both. Obviously, your enjoyment of the book is even greater if you’re a baseball history buff, but you needn’t enjoy or know about sports to appreciate this book. Lots and lots of people have written autobiographies; many are self-indulgent and few needed to be written. Neither of those criticisms apply to this book.

Posted in digglahhh, language, pop culture, sports | Leave a Comment »

Team ethics

Posted by digglahhh on 23 June 2007

Self-proclaimed sports fan “purists” have a code of ethics.

1. Thou shalt honor thy father

Familial tradition is for many people the determinant of team allegiance; if your father (and let’s face it, it’s almost always one’s father) was a White Sox fan, you can be a White Sox fan even if he moved 1,000 miles away a decade before you were born.

2. Thou shalt support (or oppose) teams near you geographically

Teams are named for cities and regions, and those facts still dominate our allegiances. If one roots for Chicago even though one lives in New York, it’s despite the fact that one lives in New York.

3. Thou shalt be faithful.

Sticking with a team through thick and thin is the cardinal rule—no band-wagoneering or fair-weather-fandom allowed.

4. Thou shall not mix the apparel of the clean with the unclean.

Those who root for a team shall not wear apparel of their team’s rival—or for the strict fundamentalists, any other team at all.

These are just a few examples of the complex, but unwritten, codes governing the following of team sports.

There are, needless to say, problems with these rules of rabid fandom. For one thing, many are, or are at least becoming, antiquated. Others are myopic.

The primary problem is the lifetime commitment made in the embryonic phase of one’s appreciation for the game.

The choice of what team to root for was a very simple process for most of us. Who does daddy root for, which team is on TV?… The fact is that many of us made our choices about who to root for at a time in our lives when we weren’t trusted to make decisions for ourselves. Yet so-called “purists” say we have to stick with those decisions to the grave. Could you imagine if you had to pick your favorite meal at the age of six? We’d have a generation of (supposed) felons on death row requesting chicken nuggets in the shapes of dinosaurs and washing them down with glasses of Kool-Aid through Bendi-straws…

The most common way we are introduced to sports fandom is through our family. It is the same way we are introduced to politics and religion. In those spheres it is supposed (or, at least, hoped) that an individual makes a choice on what perspectives to adopt at a later point in life, presumably after some research, experience, and heavy thought. Rooting for the Steelers because your dad did isn’t much of a “choice” at all.

Geographical proximity to a team is another popular motivation for choosing a team, and it is linked to the family influence motivator in the sense that they both center on the idea of exposure. Often, a child who develops an interest in sports will gravitate toward a local team because it is the most visible; at least it worked that way through my generation’s childhood years. The internet and cable television have changed that. I have no problem following what goes on in any game, real-time. For the ultra-obsessed, and those who derive a second income off of fantasy sports, like me, we can fork over about $150 (per sport) and have television access to almost every game. It is no longer an obstacle to root for a team outside your geographical region. Exciting teams and athletes can draw young fans from all over.

I’m as big of a sports fan as you will find, but I don’t adopt all of the “purists’” rules. Many of them prioritize team allegiance over appreciation of sports history. Somehow, if the Mets are being no-hit going into the ninth and losing by 5 runs, it makes me less of a fan to root for the no-hitter. Sorry buddy, “baseball” is the genus, “Mets” is the species; I root first and foremost for the game. And, yes, that essentially would make me the “purest” of all fans, though I couldn’t care less about some contrived and arbitrary measurement of “purity.”

Changing allegiances is a complex issue. Certainly, polygamy is not lauded, but the counter-argument is that it is also its own punishment. The joy that lifelong New York Rangers fans experienced in 1994 or Boston Red Sox fans felt in 2004 is something an 80’s Los Angeles Lakers backer turned 90’s Chicago Bulls fan could never imagine.

But, even those who are very tolerant of fan behavior that contradicts the “purist” code still find themselves judging allegiance-shifting by some standard. Though I’ve never “disowned” one of my teams, I have been in a bit of a battle recently. I don’t consider a team’s futility to be a legitimate reason to abandon a team, but an overall, front office to on-field, apathy about success reframes the question. The Knicks have me very close to jumping ship, not as a result of their poor performance, but because of their apparent institutional committal to and contentment with failure. The temptation is even stronger because I adopted the Dallas Mavericks, after their 11 win season in 1992 as my empathetic charity case (which was quickly strengthened upon their drafting of Jason Kidd two seasons later, who was one of my favorite collegiate players ever). Now, my relationship with the Mavs is like the one kid who was always nice to the ugly duckling turned prom queen, but who also happens to be an abusive relationship and paralyzed by a sense of (unreciprocated) loyalty. Dirk Nowitzki is the anti-Frederic Weis, and Mark Cuban, the anti-Dolan. Still I cling to a fading, yet also hardening, image of Charles Oakley.

Why should I feel guilty if I were to decide to make Dallas my primary team, and the Knocks my secondary rooting interest? I shouldn’t; but I would!

Team sports fandom is a complicated psychological and intellectual exercise. It poses more problems then fans of individual sports have.

In a team sport, you are expected to continue to root for your team as those who you originally fell in love with retire, or are traded to another team. If you were an Andre Agassi fan, there is no pre-determined direction your support is compelled to take upon his retirement, though you may be drawn to players whose games remind you of Agassi, or to the young Turk who decisively took him out in a U.S. Open final.

Free agency has created a problem for the new generation of fans of sports teams, as it creates a tension between tennis-like support for the individual and the team-sport code of ethics. It has become all too easy to root for a player as opposed to a team, and the player can move on before you ever fall in love with the periphery. Cleveland Cavs fans root for Lebron James because he is the best thing to ever happen to their team. (Apologies to my eighth grade English teacher who will go to his grave claiming Mark Price was better than John Stockton, and a shout-out to Larry Nance who I still think, in his day, could throw it down better than Bron-Bron.) Lebron James fans root for Cleveland because that’s the team he plays for. Are all the Lebron James fans who will jump ship if he puts on a new jersey “real fans? It depends on how you define “true fan.”

Team sports fans are not only are expected to never change allegiances, there is a hierarchy of allegiance dictating who we are supposed to support once our team is ousted from contention. A team in our league, but not a direct rival, root for former members of your team, but only those who left on certain terms…

This is where I face another conflict, and where the code of ethics obscures the appreciation of the game. I’m a retro-jersey and hat junkie (and was one before commercial rap made it a fad). The powder blue, 1976 Mike Schmidt jersey with the Liberty Bell patch is a thing of beauty, and Schmidt is the greatest third-sacker in the history of the game. If I could afford it, I’d sport that jersey with pride, along with the matching burgundy fitted that registers on my five favorite hats of all time list. Yeah, I’m a die-hard Mets fan. So the fuck what! Personally, I see those who are fans of teams only, the way team-only fans see player-only fans.

A hyper-capitalist, arch-competitive society conditions citizens to think in terms of absolutes and dichotomies. In the process of picking our dog in the race, rooting for, and supporting it, we lose a sense of the race itself and fail to appreciate the history and nuanced terrain of the track. The same process exalts the individual and creates an entry into the world of team sports fandom through the individual player level.

The so-called “purists” are often anything but. Technology opens new doors and the vanguards reject nomenclature. Judging who is and isn’t a “true fan” reflects your individual preferences more than an objective reality.

Posted in digglahhh, pop culture, sports | 6 Comments »

Fifteen wins ain’t what it used to be

Posted by digglahhh on 19 May 2007

Here’s two things you thought were true but aren’t:

The unemployment rate for 2006 was 4.6%

E.R.A. is nearly a complete measure of a pitcher’s effectiveness

Let’s break down the unemployment rate first.

The U.S. unemployment rate is constantly cited as an economic indicator and a consistently low rate is seen as proof of the efficiency of the market based economy. There’s only one problem: it does not measure the prevalence of joblessness in a community. There are two reasons the U.S. unemployment rate severely under-represents precisely what is claims to represent.

First and foremost, the way in which the stat is calculated is inconsistent with its title. It does not include those who are jobless but have not applied for or exhausted their benefits. The unemployment rate is a measure of what percentage of the population is actively seeking work. Our European counterparts do not suffer from higher unemployment rates because they are too foolish to adopt the hyper-efficient neo-classical economic model that we do. They post higher rates because they define jobless and unemployed to mean the same thing.

The other reason why our unemployment rate is disingenuously low is that we use the legal system as a cruel step-sister surrogate to our social welfare system. We incarcerate our citizens at 5 to 8 times the rate of most industrialized nations, according to the Sentencing Project, a rate that increased dramatically during the 1990s. Our prison population dwarfs that of any other Westernized nation.

Good research on the subject estimates that more than one in three inmates were unemployed at the time of incarceration. Hundreds of thousands of our unemployed are uncounted, hidden in our penal system, many for petty offenses and low-level drug crimes. The impact that the penal system has on joblessness is manifold. Upon release, the stigma of incarceration becomes a powerful deterrent to potential employers, which leads individuals back toward illegal behavior. Joblessness leads to incarceration which leads back to joblessness. Not collecting unemployment while in jail, lacking the immediate work history to qualify for benefits upon release, and often landing back in prison, a prisoner may go uncounted in the unemployed population for years.

A study by Bruce Western and Katherine Beckett published in the January 1999 edition of the American Journal of Sociology estimated that when the U.S. unemployment rate was readjusted for our imprisoned population, we fare no better than industrialized European nations in terms of providing work for our citizens. In fact, the study showed that the prison boom negated the job creation of the economic upturn in the 1990s, and then some.

“U.S. employment performance looks weaker once the size of the prison population is taken into account… The modified estimate suggests that unemployment in the economically buoyant period in the mid 1990s is about 8% – higher than any conventional U.S. unemployment rate since the recession of the early 1980s.”

We also don’t count the underemployed, involuntary part-time workers, involuntary early retirees, those with disability who would like to work but are not working, or those who chose to return to school because of the job market.

While the unemployment rate doesn’t measure enough to accurately portray what it claims to, a pitcher’s earned run average (ERA) measures many confounding variables beyond a pitcher’s control. It is also a precarious statistic that has garnered far more trust from its general community than it has earned.

A pitcher’s ERA is highly dependent on the defense that plays behind him. Voros McCracken’s research has shown that the percentages of balls in play that become hits are surprisingly consistent from pitcher to pitcher. Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is about .300 for virtually all pitchers over the course of their careers.

To understand that statistic, let’s first note that in any given at-bat, there are three possible outcomes that do not involve the defense: the homerun; the strikeout; and the walk. All other outs must be recorded by players other than the pitcher (except for the small percentage of balls hit to the pitcher himself). You will often hear baseball men refer to a particular pitcher’s ability to “induce weak contact,” that is, his ability to get hitters to hit weak ground balls or pop ups that wind up as outs. Such a pattern has rarely been documented as an attributable skill. BABIP measures the batting average in at-bats that do not result in strikeouts or homeruns. Some of the absolute best pitchers of all time have shown ability (at least in their primes) to consistently post below-league average BABIPs, like Pedro Martinez and Mariano Rivera, but they are rare exceptions (and future first-ballot Hall of Famers).

Take a look Roy Oswalt and Ramon Ortiz. Oswalt is consistently one of the best pitchers in the game while Ramon Ortiz has been a below average pitcher for most of his career. Yet their BABIPs are very similar. When you look at the defensive independent numbers though, a huge difference is apparent. Approximately speaking, Oswalt, on a per nine inning basis, strikes out 50% more, walks 33% fewer, and gives up homeruns half as often. This is the difference between an annual Cy Young candidate and a retread journeyman.

The differences in ERA between pitchers who do these three things at similar rates are attributable to two things, the defenses behind them and luck. Sometimes stellar defense and/or random fluctuation allows a pitcher to defy BABIP when balls are hit within the range of fielders at an unusually high rate or an exceptional set of defenders are able to field more balls than normal, especially when these events happen to occur in prime scoring situations. But only a handful of the all time greats can do so regularly, and with differing casts accompanying them.

I like to say that most things that happen on a baseball field that fans traditionally chalk up to luck are really just the random variation expected to occur in outcome over a large sample size. Whether those random variations happen at particularly high leverage points in the game is the luck. That is to say that a ground ball that scoots through, two inches beyond the shortstop’s glove is not luck at all, though the batter had no control over whether that ball was two inches to the left or right. What is luck is if that event happened to occur with the bases loaded or with two outs and nobody on. Of course, the pitcher would have not done his job any better had that ball been hit two inches to the left, or if there was nobody on and the runner was left stranded. His ERA would reflect failure though, even if the reason the shortstop didn’t get to the ball was because he got a bad jump, misread the trajectory or has atrocious range up the middle (cough, Derek Jeter, cough).

ERA alone is not a reliable predictor of year to year success; it is too subject to fluke strings of events and the performance of one’s defense. ERA measures a variety of things, but none of them particularly precisely. The reading it gives is partially driven by skill, partially driven by luck and partially driven by the skill of those whom it is not measuring. Sometimes a confluence of circumstances will create a perfect storm that plays to a pitcher’s tendencies. Brandon Webb’s Cy Young performance last year coincided with Arizona improving its infield defense drastically from the previous year, including the signing of Orlando Hudson (arguably the best defensive 2B in the game). Webb’s balls in play are ground balls more frequently than any other Major League starter.

This doesn’t even begin to address the differences in home ballpark, quality of opposition, not having to face your own team’s offense, the impact of unearned runs, relievers inheriting runners already on base (who are charged to the starter if they score) and the myriad other issues that impact ERA.

To get an accurate picture, one has to look at the core components of performance, components controlled solely by the person whose performance the stat indicates. So, while some people marvel at the phenomenal start of 2007 for sub par pitchers like Jason Marquis and point to his tiny ERA, his BABIP is 70 points lower than he has posted at any point in his career. Mr. Marquis is simply benefiting from an anomalous string of events taking place over a comparatively small sample size. It will not last.

In the world of baseball, there is a burgeoning movement to analyze the game from a more scientific perspective and really test the validity of long-standing assumptions. I don’t see that as in mainstream political and economic rhetoric. The dramatic rise in incarceration rates has coincided with declining crime rates. This should be a big story. Either there is some egregious error in the way crime is being reported or our practices of incarceration have to do with things more profound than simple law breaking.

Michael Lewis’s Moneyball has become one of the most influential sports books ever written. In it, Oakland A’s general manager, Billy Beane, talks about how much money is invested in the game of baseball and how big the stakes of winning are. One of the themes of the book is how preposterous it would be to entrust the making of such huge financial and strategic decisions simply to the hunches and gut feelings of coaches, managers and GMs, yet teams do just this – all the time. Beane adopted a scientific approach to the game that was expounded by a marginalized group of niche baseball students. This epistemological approach to baseball is called sabermetrics and it is not new, but, since the book’s appearance, perhaps only porn has grown more as a result of the internet. Meanwhile, the Oakland A’s compete with the big boys every year with a fraction of the budget and seem to have an endless supply of talented young players, especially pitchers.

The Oakland A’s rarely sacrifice bunt, they rarely steal bases. Run expectancy matrices calculated over thousands of games illustrate mathematical truths that contradict accepted baseball wisdom. Trading an out for a base advanced worsens your chances of scoring runs. Getting caught stealing is anywhere from two to three times as detrimental as a successful steal is beneficial (depending on the overall offensive context of the game). Still, small ball is praised by the old guard who lament the lost art of the bunt, ad nauseam. Of course there are many variables and under different situations and with different players certain strategies become more viable than others. But isn’t it at least beneficial for the managers and commentators to know the base from which deviations occur?

One of FireJoeMorgan’s favorite quotes is from Ron Gardenhire, manager of the Minnesota Twins, who claimed that their second baseman, Luis Castillo was worth 15 extra wins to their team. Well there are stats that try to determine these things. According to WARP (Wins Over Replacement Player), Barry Bonds was worth about 15 extra wins in 2004, when he set the single season record for on-base percentage and had the fourth highest single season slugging percentage of all time! This is like an economic analyst saying that Google is worth a “shitload of cash” or “a bazillion dollars.” Of course, these mathematically driven total player metrics have their problems as well and there is no shortage of debate about how to make them more accurate.

We’ve seen only half-hearted pop-culturish attempts to look beyond generally accepted assumptions in an attempt to analyze things at a much more elemental level when it comes to paradigm shifts, social trends our own decision making processes—books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics. Of course, I’m speaking outside the realm of academia.

This type of insight is threatening to mainstream pundits. Many of ESPN’s baseball analysts outright deny the veracity of anything sabermetric, often using generic platitudes like, “games aren’t played by computers.” They are understandably defensive; the iconoclast ideas presented threaten to expose those batting average worshippers and NASDAQ watchers as naked emperors.

Joe Morgan, ironically, takes every opportunity to bash sabermetrics and Lewis’s book, though he’ll freely admit that he never read it. He says that he’s played the game and there is nothing about it that a computer could teach him. I say it is ironic because it is the sabermetric interpretation of statistical analysis that transforms Morgan from the lower-tier Hall of Famer the public sees him as, into, arguably, the greatest 2B of all time.

You’ll hear about the prison system as an ironfisted surrogate for the social welfare system on CNN as often as you’ll see BABIP listed in the New York Post. Just further proof why you shouldn’t be getting your information about things you care about from either.

Back in March, Meta had a post, “The housing market: everything you know is wrong” (by which he meant, everything he thought he knew was wrong) that looked at a surprising graph of housing prices. The post remains stubbornly popular, having been viewed on all but 11 of the past 79 days, perhaps a tribute the willingness of visitors to this site to have their everyday assumptions challenged.

We live in a data-rich world and economists and social scientists are just getting used to using the vast resources of computing power and cheap data storage available to us. Using the data effectively often takes great cleverness and imagination. The greater difficulty, however, may be to get people used to the idea that the things everyone knows can now be verified—and all too often falsified.

Posted in digglahhh, language, pop culture, sports, technology | 4 Comments »

White men can’t jump, but maybe they don’t have to

Posted by digglahhh on 5 May 2007

The New York times reports on a paper written by Justin Wolfers and Joseph Price, a University of Pennsylvania assistant professor and a Cornell graduate student, respectively. The paper has yet to be published or peer reviewed. It claims that, in the NBA, white referees call fouls on black players at a higher rate than they do against white players. It also notes a reciprocal but weaker relationship between black officials and white players. The study covers thirteen seasons worth of data and attempts to control for an inordinate amount of variables, including just about all of the ones that first popped into my head when thinking about potential problems with such a study.

The idea of implicit racial associations playing a role in how we view sports and athletes is not only not new to me, I’ve been arguing on this behalf for years. I was recently involved in not one, but two, on-line discussions started by fellows who believe that modern baseball players who wear baggy uniform pants and/or slightly tilted caps disrespect the game with their “sloppiness” and “unprofessional” appearance. Beyond the notion that “professionalism” is a social construct, I was struck by the historical ignorance these statements. (This was a forum for baseball junkies, after all.)

See, baseball heroes of yesteryear wore baggy pants and tilted hats. The Hall of Fame is full of them. Many of the actual plaques of old-time Hall of Famers even depict the player wearing a crooked hat. Oh yeah, old time ballplayers were white.

One of the members dryly noted, after a series of photos of old time players in baggy pants and cocked caps:

“You also have to remember that the players back then were white so it was okay. Nowadays minority athletes are doing it so it is bad.”

The concept of implicit racial association is simple; you are subconsciously conditioned to associate positive characteristics with light skin and negative characteristics with dark skin. This is not an indictment of the person who makes such an association as a racist; but simply a statement of race’s place in how we are conditioned to think. Still, in knee-jerk fashion, people categorically deny that race informs their decisions and opinions.

The NBA’s reaction to these allegations didn’t really surprise me. It claims no racial bias in its officiating, and it claims it has done its own studies to support their claim. Maybe the NBA is right, but their officials are social beings like the rest of us. To be sure, more than a few league officials and players deny the phenomenon, but a conscious denial of a subconscious relationship is just what you’d expect. Notably, two black coaches declined to comment.

A racial bias could have real implications in terms of game outcomes. Wolfers notes:
Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in digglahhh, journalism, language, sports, Times-watch | 13 Comments »

By whose rules are we playing?

Posted by digglahhh on 5 May 2007

The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY is an entity unto itself. It is certainly not affiliated with any legal system within the United States. It is not even operated by Major League Baseball. It governs itself and sets its own standards.

Barry Bonds is now a dozen or so homers from becoming the all-time leader. At his current pace, sometime around the All-Star break, he will overtake what is allegedly the most hallowed record in all of professional sports.

Bonds is a surly figure and his ongoing feud with the media has included tactics just as low as those of his chemically-induced assault on the record books. His antics have included bringing his son to the podium of a press conference to show the media “what they are doing to his family” and telling sports reporters they should be writing about cigarettes when they questioned the effect his steroid use might have on the health of our children. The media, for its part, has played dirty too, neglecting the omnipresence of cheating in baseball’s history, releasing confidential testimony, and painting Bonds as a racist super villain.

An article in today’s New York Times that initially seems to be about the upcoming investigation into steroid use in Major League Baseball, lead by Senator George Mitchell (D-ME) , quickly turns to the subject of Barry Bonds and his pursuit of Aaron’s record. This is where the media perpetuates the witch hunt. The act of deceit is in the intent, not in the outcome. I don’t doubt that Bonds has taken myriad performance enhancing drugs, but he, unlike others, has never failed a test. Those who have actually failed tests face nowhere near the scrutiny that Bonds does. And why? Because on their best days they aren’t remotely similar to Bonds on a baseball diamond. It is predictable, but categorically unfair, that Bonds is at the center of this whole issue, not because he is the only player involved, but because he is the most successful player involved. For all the labeling of the media as “liberal,” they are primarily concerned about the bottom line when it comes to steroids and baseball being launched into orbit, giving dishonesty a pass if it doesn’t translate into performance.

The grand irony is that Barry Bonds is an immortal of the game, while many of those who failed tests in the past were fringe Major Leaguers. There’s a place in the game for Bonds regardless. It is some borderline middle reliever’s use of performance enhancing drugs that is keeping him in the bigs, and in turn keeping a talented, young kid in the minor leagues living a pedestrian lifestyle in comparison those in “the show.” Funny how the morality crusaders never bring that one up…

The unproven, but credible, allegations of cheating, combined with Bonds’ self-entitled, tempermental and diva-like attitudes have inspired a substantial base of fans who lobby to keep Barry Bonds out of the Hall of Fame. I offer no opinion on that vital question here. But the two common arguments of those who rally for his exclusion seem to be lacking, confused, and even paradoxical.

The first argument against his inclusion is offered in response to the idea that that Bonds has not been convicted of anything and that he is afforded the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. The anti-Bonds crowd are fond of noting the Hall of Fame’s independent standing, and that, as such, no conviction in a court of law is needed to exclude him. The Hall-of-Fame voters are well within their rights to not vote for Bonds simply because of their suspicion and presumption of guilt.

Got it. No argument from me there.

Another point of contention is that steroids were not deemed illegal by Major League Baseball until 2003 (The authoritative book, Game of Shadows alleges Bonds began using in 1999). Some people argue that even if we assume that he was taking steroids, they weren’t illegal and Bonds has not failed a drug test since they began testing for them. Those who would like to see a Bonds-less Hall are quick to point out that the rules of the United States trump that of Major League Baseball and that steroids are illegal in the country. This argument usually takes the form of ridiculous hyperbole like “murder isn’t specifically against the rules of baseball either, but you can’t kill your opponent.” Well, that is true. The problem with that argument is that the two cases are no different in the sense that MLB doesn’t have the jurisdiction to prosecute either.

What does the legal status of any substance Bonds may have taken have to do with his Hall of Fame candidacy? Even if Bonds were convicted of a crime, say, using a criminal substance, and thrown in jail, the Hall is not obliged to keep him off the ballot.

The anti-Bondsians can’t have it both ways! They can’t say that what Bonds did was implicitly against the rules of baseball because it was against the rules of the United States and then turn around and say that the Hall of Fame voters aren’t required to adopt the legal standards of the same body that is solely responsible for the contention that he was cheating (meaning, breaking the rules) in the first place.

At face value, Bonds is at least the fourth-best player of all time. To vote against him you have to determine he cheated, which means you have to adopt the legal system’s definitions of legitimacy over Major League Baseball’s. In turn, you have to adopt their standards of proof, which means Bonds has to either fail a drug test or be convicted in a court of law. If the legal system trumps Major League Baseball, it trumps the Hall of Fame too.

So, you can get wrapped up in the complicated semantics of overlapping standards of proof and legality and fact and conjecture. Or you can keep it simple and realize that even before 1999, for a period of ten years Barry Bonds was far and away the best player in the game. You can notice he would have deserved first-ballot induction if he had been hit by a bus the day before he first touched anything more powerful than a greenie, and vote for him on the basis of that.

Okay, I lied, I did give my opinion.

Posted in digglahhh, sports, Times-watch | 8 Comments »

The glass dugout

Posted by digglahhh on 28 April 2007

So, Alyssa Milano who played Samantha on “Who’s the Boss” and provided masturbatory fodder for teenage boys on “Charmed” has a baseball related blog. For purposes of this discussion, let’s us set aside the fact that she launched a clothing line that is being sold on mlb.com and that the blog itself is at least partially a form of cross promotion. Perhaps that calls into question Ms. Millano’s passion for the game. But, I figured, why not read what she has to say about baseball and her favorite team, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Her first post was a little cheesy and promoted her clothing line, but how many bloggers don’t do a little self-promotion? She didn’t make any references to players’ physical attractiveness; nor did she come off like a ditz in any other way. It was a non-descript light-hearted post that romanticized the game. A nice antidote to my post from two weeks ago in fact. As a person quite familiar with the world of Internet baseball talk, from the brilliant to the banal, and as a person who lives with someone equally knowledgeable—a woman, as it happens—take my word; there’s stuff written everyday that makes this look like the revolutionary statistical analysis of a young Bill James.

Here is an excerpt from Milano’s first post:

Honestly, this is what I love about baseball. It’s just like life. The ride. The journey. Every year when the season starts, I think I have a pretty good idea of how the season is going to go. Oh, I think I’m such an expert — I read every magazine, I read MLB.com everyday (OK, maybe four or five times a day), I watch the Spring Training games. And yet despite all the preparation, I realize I simply have no idea what twists or turns the season will take. As much as I try to peer into the future, the future is unpredictable. A ball bounces under a player’s legs, and the Red Sox lose their lead and the World Series. A fan interferes with a ball, and the Cubs lose their lead, and the playoff series. A-Rod finally silences the boo’s and steps up to the plate. That’s baseball. In life, we have our own rhythms, our own ups and downs, our own teammates, and all we can do is hold on and prepare for the challenges along the journey.

You see this kind of writing everywhere; nonetheless, that first post’s comment section was filled with accusations that she didn’t write the blog herself, questions about whether she really likes baseball, and thinly veiled pick-up lines.

I’m sure Alyssa Milano is flattered that through the power of baseball she can still be the same fantasy fodder she was in the days of Charmed. I’m equally sure these sexually frustrated dorks would have swam the English Channel to scrub her toilet regardless of whether she knew which season Fernando Valenzuela won the Cy Young (1981, in case you were wondering).

The most common comment reaction was surprise. Wow, Alyssa, it’s real cool you’re a baseball fan… Some other things about Alyssa that these commenters may find cool are that she can own property, vote, and correctly identify a screwdriver. What they might not find so cool is that she quite probably has no desire to sleep with them. Seriously, the comment section was like the worst parody of “The Aristocrats” one could imagine, countless pinheads reiterating slightly different versions of the same hopelessly pathetic jokes and amorous proposals.

See for yourself:

You are absolutely the most gorgeous woman on the planet and a baseball fan as well. {Sigh}

…I first saw you in Commando with our governator. After that, I didn’t miss an episode of Who’s the Boss cause I had a crush on you, but who can blame me? Anyway, now that I find out you are almost as big a Dodger fan as I am, you once again reclaim the title of the perfect woman, and my crush may come back, regardless of your marital status..lol

I have followed your career for many, many years. You are truly a PRINCESS!
I am a die-hard Yankee fan but I am sure that if we were to meet that all I had to do is look once into your eyes and I would switch to the Dodgers forever!!!

Girl, what do you know about baseball?

Much like the in the Kathy Sierra episode, Milano’s sex is placed at the forefront of the commenters’ remarks.

In 2007 we still have not evolved, as a society, to the point at which it is not shocking that an attractive woman could possibly enjoy and follow baseball. Worse, we still have a double-standard about sports “expertise” and gender. I heard Mets fan and actor Tim Robbins as a guest in the announcer’s booth during last season’s NLDS. He commented that he was looking forward to Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez getting a shot to face the Dodgers. Hernandez was injured and not even on the roster at the time! Yet, for some reason the Internet firing squad didn’t really take aim at Nuke Laloosh.

My girlfriend works for Major League Baseball; she oversees official scoring decisions and corrects the mistakes of official scorers who have spent their lives watching baseball. Still, when we go out to a bar or a game, she is often given the backhanded compliment of being very knowledgeable for a girl. Excuse me? For a girl? She can recite entire sections of the rulebook and has a better grasp or the history, strategy and rules of the game than 99% of those of either sex. But that doesn’t make her immune from being stereotyped.

In one particularly egregious instance an official from one of the teams called the office seeking clarification on a ruling that was made in the previous night’s game. When she asked him to elaborate, he asked to be connected to a male. Frustrated, but politely, she made clear that there was no confusion; she was not the office secretary but one of the department managers. He still asked to speak to a man.

This attitude in sports places an unfair onus on women who proudly show their interest in sports. My girlfriend sometimes feels like she is speaking for all women and that if she errs in her job it very well might reinforce somebody’s pre-existing stereotype. A similar mistake by a male co-worker carries none of that sociological baggage. A woman I know is trying to start women’s baseball leagues in Detroit. In Internet discussions about the best ways to build and market the leagues, she and her cause are routinely mocked amid flagrant, non-sequiturs that assert male athletic superiority.

Many male fans are eager to point out a female fan’s ignorance in order to dismiss them or to label them groupies. Yet often these same men babble on freely and incessantly about sports with all the acumen and rhetorical skill of George Bush at a science fair.

Posted in digglahhh, language, sports | 3 Comments »

Our national pastime

Posted by digglahhh on 15 April 2007

It’s no accident that the canonical dismissal of George Bush (the first, as it happens) was a baseball metaphor—that he “was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” As baseball is a metaphor for life, life is a metaphor for baseball. Professional sports, for better and for worse, are reflections of the societies in which they are played.

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the day Jackie Robinson walked past baseball’s color line onto the infield of Ebbet’s Field. As another season of major league baseball hits its stride, it’s time to look at the dark truth lurking inside our sunny conception of baseball as “the national pastime.”

1.Disparity of resources

It seems obvious that richer teams will do better, but the question of whether dollars-spent translates linearly to success in the Major Leauges has been the subject of much debate. Within the mid-range payrolls, there is plenty of room for savvy general managerial skills to make a bigger difference than finances, but at the top and bottom of the distribution there’s not much argument. The teams with the very highest payroll are often the best and the teams with the lowest payrolls are almost always the worst.

The NFL, which has created an unparalleled following with it “any given Sunday” excitement, has a pay structure in which the gap between the sport’s highest and lowest payroll is smaller than the gap between baseball’s highest and second highest payrolls. How égalité!—perhaps a little too much so. Baseball’s notion that certain teams have inherent market advantages, and deeper pockets, independent of quality of play is more in keeping with the ideological underpinnings of American society. As is the reluctance to institute salary caps (à la the NFL) or meaningful revenue sharing systems. The supporters of the free market are almost always those with the most bountiful resources and in baseball, not surprisingly, more often times, the invisible hand dons the World Series ring.

2.Better living through chemistry

Is it surprising that performance-enhancing drugs have run rampant throughout the sport? The hankering for home runs over pitching duels is a poignant metaphor for contemporary cultural values. America has chosen, as its pastime, the most individualistic of team sports. It is the one that is most closely tied to numbers and the one in which you can most precisely measure an individual’s performance. Unlike basketball, hockey or soccer, a play begins as an individual showdown between batter and pitcher. The switches from offense to defense are deliberate and orderly, not instantaneous and unpredictable. Baseball’s individual nature and reliance on precise statistical would make it capitalism if it had to be portrayed as an economic system. Soccer’s low scoring, team-oriented style that produces many unsung heroes has a socialist feel to it. Americans are not interested in soccer, though it is the most popular sport in the world.

If the biochemical hybrids that are assaulting some of the sport’s most esteemed records are objects of public scorn, they still exemplify our love affair with simulacra, and our reactions to the subsequent scandals exemplify a national cognitive dissonance. In this country, images of success and health are a greater priority than the real thing, hence eating disorders, stomach stapling, personal “deficit spending” and myriad other behaviors endemic to and reflective of the U.S. value system.

As consumers of sport, culture, or product we Americans revere outcome more than process. So, we destroy our health, minds and integrity to show the uncritical and awestruck observer how pretty, wealthy or strong we are. Those who raise suspicion are dismissed as bitter, jealous or Luddites. It is in just as much bad taste to question the achievements of a player who comes out of nowhere to put up forty plus homerun seasons, as it is to disparage corporations using “creative accounting” practices to create an inaccurate picture of their wealth. Then when the inevitable scandal ensues, we tar and feather the perpetrators for taking advantage of our trust and innocence. The public was simply mislead by Mark McGwire, and Kenneth Lay on Enron’s “success” too… To an astute observer, only the naive could have been genuinely shocked to find that baseball players were using disingenuous means to succeed, all the while getting praised for their conditioning regimens or that our government was manufacturing a war on an innocent country all the while proclaiming to be the defenders of all that is moral.

3. From green card to line-up card

For decades, America has attracted the best and the brightest from around the world. When we provide laboratories and tenured chairs for scientists who go on to earn Nobel Prizes, everybody wins. When we strip-mine India and the Philippines of most of their trained nurses, only we win.

Baseball exhibits more than a little of each of these models. Should we be surprised to learn the dirty truth hidden beneath the veneer of successful Latin American ballplayers? The decrepit ball fields of Latin America are pillaged for any semblance of athletic talent. Players are harvested in bulk and coerced to sign English contracts without translation. Once property of professional teams, these players are exploited just like any other natural resource indigenous to Central and South America. The Vladimir Guerreros are then paraded as the Horatio Algiers of professional sports. The truth is that Latin American scouts fish not with rods, but nets, insuring that the success of a statistically insignificant minority will define the situation of a wretchedly under-served majority. It is far simpler and cheaper to harvest Latin players in bulk hoping to find some diamonds in the ruff than to invest time, money and risk into domestic prospects who have legal and financial counsel and command market value for their potential.

Many are quick to dismiss these concerns by saying the game provides Latinos with opportunities beyond those available in their homelands, yet that destitution exists largely because of American foreign policy in the first place. Latino youth are herded by droves into MLB organizations, completely unaware that they are entirely expendable. Even those who prove themselves must contend with the pride of front offices, eager to justify the investments in domestic blue-chippers that they choose to make.

4. “All men are created equal”

Some champion baseball’s history as a bastion of progress and equality, noting that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier seven years prior to Brown v. Board of Ed. However, from first team to last, it took another 15 years for, the Boston Red Sox to finally sign a black player. Front office racism resulted in several teams passing on Robinson himself, as well as Willie Mays and other legends of the game. The first black coach wasn’t until 1962, the first black manager, 1975. Thirty-seven years after integration, Hank Aaron received death threats while chasing Babe Ruth’s career homerun record. Today, black players comprise a mere eight percent of players on Major League rosters and six percent of players on Division I collegiate baseball teams.

Avenues that open the game up to women are limited, girls are encouraged to pursue softball at a young age (that’s where the scholarships are) and MLB has not taken much initiative to develop a women’s professional league, like the NBA did.

Baseball’s identity as a national pastime goes beyond the innumerable youngsters who pound their mitts on Little League diamonds and sandlots. It speaks to who those children are and what they are willing to sacrifice on the path to the Big Leagues. It speaks to the American Dream, and the way most of us watch it speed by, like a 98 mile per hour fastball, without a realistic chance of us catching up to it.

Posted in digglahhh, language, politics, sports | Leave a Comment »

Reading, writing, and recruiting

Posted by digglahhh on 7 April 2007

No discussion of higher education, graduation rates and the dumbing-down of universities would be complete without consideration of the oxymoronic euphemism, “student athlete.” This is not to say that all student athletes are students by label alone, but a substantial number of the most visible, successful and revenue-producing ones are. It turns out this should come as no surprise. Many up and coming NBA stars probably went to a Potemkin Village high school where only the basketball court was real. First, let’s look at those graduation rates.

The most recent episode of HBO’s Costas Now featured a story about the loose academic requirements and special treatment afforded to athletes who play for major collegiate teams (mainly basketball and football) and the pressure, economic and otherwise, put on professors to pass those athletes, in effect, on the basis of their athletic instead of academic performance.

A roundtable discussion on the poor graduation rates of student athletes followed, in which we saw Costas exhibit an increasingly rare journalistic acumen. When NCAA President, Myles Brand crowed that student athletes had higher graduation rates than students overall, Costas called out the apples to oranges analogy, noting that students frequently leave school for non-academic reasons that range from career opportunities (as was the case with Costas himself during his senior year at Syracuse) to financial burdens.

Brand continued to talk about student athletes on the whole. Once again, Costas admonished him for quoting the statistics in a manner that groups Ivy League fencing teams with Big East basketball teams. The bottom line is that several perennial college basketball and football powerhouses graduate fewer than half of their players. The roster of the UNLV’s 1990-91 undefeated basketball team can boast more Final Four appearances than degrees. Not surprisingly, UNLV soon found themselves in some pretty hot water ranging from gambling to booster scandals. (I self-nominate that sentence for pun of the month; take a look at this photo of three of the members of that UNLV basketball team in a jacuzzi with Gambino Family member Richie “The Fixer” Perry.)

These student athletes arrive at college able to solve the half court trap. But do they come qualified to solve a quadratic equation? As it turns out, more and more of them never see one in high school, coming, as they do, from fly-by-night, storefront prep schools.

Yes, prep schools, though not those stiflingly proper institutions where seersucker-clad young Republicans are sent to hobnob with other future subjects of Michael Moore documentaries, where Oliver was taught not to fall in love with girls like Jenny, where Gene and Phineas made their separate peace. After all, I doubt, even, if Finny were able to dunk from the free throw line, he probably would have considered it unsporting…

The baskeball prep-school mill was the focus recently of HBO’s other sports journalism show, the phenomenal Real Sports. It recently featured a story that will be disturbing to anyone except, well, the strictest caveat-emptor libertarian subject of a Michael Moore documentary. In many states, the process of starting up a private school is incredibly simple. So, spirited entrepreneurs assemble high school Dream Teams and then create a school for them to attend. These schools are often nothing more than warehouses with a few chairs and a chalkboard (probably used primarily for diagramming defensive schemes, not equations). Academics barely exist, if at all. But, there’s more.

The NCAA’s academic requirements are based on a sliding scale of G.P.A. and S.A.T scores. The higher a student’s G.P.A., the lower he needs to score on his SATs to be granted academic eligibility. At a 3.55, a student literally does not need to answer a single SAT question correctly to meet the NCAA’s academic standards. So, the stupider your power forward, the more you have to inflate his grades.

NCAA review boards eventually investigate these schools, but by that time the adroit founders have packed up and moved to a different location, with a different name and a new set of 6’5” fifteen year olds who for whom it is easier to reverse dunk than calculate the hoop’s circumference. For one school that Real Sports looked into, the NCAA announced that it completed an investigation and would no longer be honoring its transcripts. The school had been closed down for over a year.

Meanwhile, the morally bankrupt venture capitalists who organize these schools profit from their next nationally known high school basketball team,are playing the role of mentor to young men in fractured living situations with the athletic talent to become multi-millionaires.

Both episodes of these shows are currently available on HBO On-Demand, for those who have it.

A lot of times we find ourselves asking questions unprepared for their disturbing answers. For many of these “student” athletes, how they got into college in the first place is one of them.

Posted in digglahhh, language, sports | 5 Comments »

 
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