Utah Jazz: 2015

I’m trying something brand new this year. I’m rooting for a sports team, watching as many of their games as I can, but not watching any game to the end. I don’t care if they win. I’m looking for improvement, not results. And I’m having a blast.

I have a theory about team sports. When your team wins all the time, that’s not necessarily a good thing. You tend to become complacent about winning; worse, you get arrogant. When your team loses all the time, that’s even worse. You start to get all numb about fan-ness, cynical, even. I know that being a sports fan is absurd; the fun comes when we really embrace that absurdity. What really builds sports fanaticism is when your team is very good every year, and almost wins. Every year, you root like crazy, there are wonderful moments, but in the end, you’re stabbed in the heart. The best fans, the most informed, most passionate, are fans of the Red Sox and Cubs in baseball, the Browns and Bills in football, the Thunder and the Jazz in basketball. The close-but-no-cigar fans.

I have been a big Utah Jazz fan ever since my family moved out here in 1992. And, of course, as it happens, 1992 was a particularly good year to be a Jazz fan. Year Seven of the Stockton/Malone era. John Stockton was one of the greatest point guards who has ever played the game; Karl Malone, one of the greatest forwards. Stockton the passer, Malone the scorer. Stockton stealing the ball, Malone getting rebounds. And they were both fitness fanatics, and lasted forever. It was fun to watch. Salt Lake City renamed two city streets, so when you go to a Jazz game today, the arena is located at the corner of Stockton and Malone.

And then, finally, Stockton and Malone both retired. And we hung in there for awhile, building a team on guys like Andrei Kirilenko and Deron Williams. But all good things end, and last year’s team was, frankly, pretty hard to root for. They played ugly, losing basketball. A mixture of young, unproved talent, and old, past-their-prime mediocrity. They lost, but what’s worse, they looked bad while losing. The single most fundamental play in basketball (and the play we watched Stock and Karl run to perfection year after year) is called the pick-and-roll. And the Jazz last year could not more defend a pick-and-roll than solve differential equations.

I knew the Jazz were going to be bad this year. But I thought there was a chance they’d be interestingly bad. They got rid of guys like Marvin Williams and Richard Jefferson and Brandon Rush, guys who had never been stars and were now at the tail ends of mediocre careers. It was a youth movement all the way, a team with four rookies on the roster. They also hired a terrific young coach, Quin Snyder. And when hired, he said all the right things. The guys on the team were going to grow together, fail together, learn together, improve together.

That’s why I decided not to care if they won or not. And early this year, they lost a lot. They made a lot of mistakes, threw the ball away, got discouraged, couldn’t score when they needed to. But they just kept improving, especially defensively. They can guard a pick-and-roll. And on offense, you can see Snyder’s influence. Their spacing is better. They’re becoming a good passing team, looking for the guy with the open shot. They’re playing the kind of basketball I love, unselfish ball, with everyone touching the ball, working it around, drive and dish.

My favorite guy on the current team has to be Rudy Gobert. He’s 22, and huge. 7′ 1″, with an abnormally wide wingspan. He didn’t even start playing basketball until 2009, when his friends apparently suggested that a guy like him might have more success playing basketball than soccer. Last year, Rudy was big and awkward and hadn’t the faintest idea what he was doing out there. But he worked hard, kept after it, listened to the coaching staff. This season, you can see him improve week by week, game by game. It’s palpable, his growth, his increased understanding. Last year, he couldn’t catch the ball; this year, he’s got pretty good hands. Last year, he couldn’t shoot at all; this year, he’s got a nifty little hook shot, which usually misses, but looks serviceable enough. (In practice, he’s a deadeye with that shot). Above all, he can block shots. He was the 27th pick in the 2013 draft, and looks like a steal.

A big guy needs a passer, and the Jazz took a gamble in the last draft, taking a flyer on a 19 year old Australian kid, Dante Exum. They drafted him on pure potential. He didn’t have good form on his shot, and you can see how inexperienced he is. But his shot has improved a lot this season, and he’s also grown defensively. Last night, he guarded Tony Parker of the Spurs (a certain Hall-of-Fame point guard), and completely outplayed him. Dante’s fast, quick, tall, a leaper, an athlete. He also doesn’t know what he’s doing, but he’s just a kid. And he’s getting so very good at finding open teammates. He could be outstanding.

Until a week ago, the Jazz had a big center, Enes Kanter, from Turkey. Talented player, good shooter, good rebounder, really improving. And Enes seemed happy enough to be in Utah. But his agent, Max Ergul, was, to put it politely, nuts. Kanter was a good player, but he was not, as his agent seems to have believed, “the most dominant player of his generation.” Uh, no. I watched him play, game after game. And to be blunt, Enes Kanter was a bad defensive player. I saw it, game after game; whoever we played, their center had a career night while being guarded by Enes Kanter. Kanter could score, but obviously that doesn’t help your team when you give up even more points on the other end of the floor.  Ergul whined and whined about how the Jazz ‘mistreated’ his client, and finally he was traded, to Oklahoma City. He’ll do well there. And the Jazz haven’t lost since he left. Trading Enes Kanter was a classic case of addition by subtraction.

Add Exum and Gobert to a foundation of Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Trey Burke, Alec Burks, and you’ve got enough talent to compete, and the coach to help them get there. And the team should have two first round draft picks in this year’s draft. I know who I want them to use them on: Willie Caulley-Stein of Kentucky and Justin Anderson of Virginia. They both should be around when the Jazz draft, and they’re both perfect fits for Coach Quin’s system. This team is going to be fun to watch.

 

Super Bowl XLIX: A Night of Poor Decisions

At my Super Bowl party last night, the room erupted four times. I mean, erupted, anguished/delighted/horrified shouts of ‘nooooooo!’ We’re generally a sedate bunch, my family and my best friend Wayne; we’re not emotionally volatile, generally speaking. Four times, we went nuts. And only one of those outbursts had anything to do with football.

Here’s how we watch the Super Bowl: we mute the TV during the actual football parts, then turn up the sound for the commercials and the half-time show. Only two of us, me and Wayne, actually like football all that much. My son, Tucker, likes sports, but American football is his least favorite (big soccer fan, though). Other family members are there for the conversation (hence the muting), the commercials, and the theatrical spectacle at half-time.

So when I say ‘we watched The Super Bowl,’ I don’t mean ‘a football game,’ but an entire televisual experience. And when you count the commercials, the evening was almost spectacularly ill-conceived. The themes of the night were dead-or-endangered children, terrible parenting, bad family dynamics, and false religion. Misguided patriotism and patriarchy.  It was a night of bad decisions. The half-time show, quite literally, jumped the shark. And the evening culminated in the worst play call in the history of professional football.

For starters, there was this:

Seriously? Are you kidding me? It’s the Superbowl, for freak’s sake. We’re watching it, on TV, with our families. We don’t want, or need, to see a commercial about a cute kid getting crushed by a TV set. (Unless he drowned in a bathtub. The commercial raises that possibility too).

I get that they’re promoting, not insuring your kid (you know, so you can afford to bury him, because that’s going to be your priority), but their child-safety website. But do they really think that the parents of America are indifferent to the well-being of their kids? And that what we need is a website to give us more things to be paranoid about?

A Superbowl commercial about, say, the dangers of your kid getting a concussion if he plays youth football, that might have seemed sort of borderline appropriate. But Nationwide needs to take whoever in Marketing thought this commercial was a good idea, and kindly, gently, show him the door. You’re Nationwide. You sell insurance. This commercial makes us hate you and your product. You spent 4.5 million dollars to make us hate you.

But that wasn’t all. No indeed. Not by a long-shot:

Okay, it’s a Nissan commercial, and it’s about a race car driver, and he’s trying to be a good Dad, but he’s gone a lot, and what he does for a living essentially terrifies his wife, but his kid wants to follow in Daddy’s footsteps, so at the end, he and Dad get into the family Nissan together. Happy ending.Yay, Nissan. And race car driving.

Except the song in the commercial is Harry Chapin’s ‘Cat’s in the Cradle.’ Which is a song, specifically and explicitly, about being a terrible father. I mean, it’s not subtle. It’s an emotionally manipulative song about a Dad neglecting his kid. I’m a Dad, and every time I hear that song I feel horrible about what a bad Dad I am. And I’m not, I think, a bad Dad at all. Which is why I loathe that song. So that’s the message of the song: ‘Buy a Nissan, suck as a parent.’ Again, it’s a song THAT MAKES US HATE YOU. Which strikes me as perhaps not great advertising. (And it’s ninety seconds long. At a cost of 4.5 million per 30 second spot. Multiply 4.5 by 3, and you’ve got . . . uh, carry the 7, uh, a very large amount of money! To make us hate you! Why?)

Later in the evening, there was a ‘tortoise and hare’ commercial for Lexus cars, in which the tortoise wins by driving a Lexus. The previous commercials had been so horrific, I was honestly surprised when the Lexus didn’t squish the bunny. So those are just swell commercials. But it’s not enough for a commercial to make us hate the product being advertised. It’s quite another thing to make a commercial that makes us hate ourselves:

We’re watching this commercial, remember, during the Super Bowl. We’re having a Super Bowl party. I look over at our family room coffee table; I see nachos, dip, three kinds of cookies, M&Ms, a yummie peanut butter brownie trifle. We’re Americans; we know perfectly well we’re fat, and that we’re fat because we eat garbage. Like, for example, we do at Super Bowl parties. Which we’re at. And where we just now saw an ad for Carl’s Jr. So, all you chubbos, you morbidly obese disgusting pigs. Eat yourself into a stupor, then collapse face first on your sofa. We’re Weightwatchers. We care.

But don’t worry. The Super Bowl didn’t just have secular answers to life’s problems. No, there are spiritual solutions available as well. For one thing, the Scientologists ran a commercial, ’cause, see, their faith is both ‘spiritual’ but also ‘scientific.’ I’m persuaded: sign me up.

But there’s also McDonald’s, abandoning the pursuit of filthy lucre, and paying for your oh-so-healthy food (see previous rant) with Troo Luv:

But, no. That’s just love. And while McDonald’s is convinced, like the Beatles, that love is all we need, something still is lacking. What we really need is a genuine spiritual panacea, a way to end cyber-bullying and hyper-partisanship and bring the whole planet together, once and for all. What’s needed, in short, is for someone to dump a Coke into a computer server.

Of course, the Super Bowl, America’s one universally recognized religious holiday, promotes all sorts of religious values. Like cars. Buy the right car: find eternal bliss. We had cars recommended by old people, cars driven by para-athletes, cars driven by Lindsay Lohan, cars infused with viagra, and for true ‘Murricans, trucks, which, apparently, women find the drivers of particularly sexy.

Beer also bestows us with magical powers. It enables horses to defend their doggie friends from wolves, for example. It turns guys into Pac Man. This must be because of its Beechwood aging. Candy, on the other hand, is bad for you. Skittles can give you freakishly muscular arms, while Snickers can turn mild-mannered Brady family members into Danny Trejo and Steve Buscemi.

Ah, the mixed messages. They weren’t all bad. I liked the odd-ball ones; the commercial from Always about empowering young girls, the Loctite Glue commercial, the commercial that came out, strongly and without equivocation, against that national scourge, toenail fungus. Mostly, though, it was a bad year for SB commercials. Terrific football game, awful commercials.

And then Katy Perry came in, singing “Roar” and riding a puppet lion (first appearance of a Lion in a Super Bowl! Sorry, Detroit. . . .). And she was at her effervescent, cartoon-y best. I did think it was odd to have Lenny Kravitz join her for, of all songs, “I kissed a girl” (a song that’s so much less transgressive when sung by a dude). And when you’re Katy Perry, with that thin voice and general dance clumpiness, it’s risky to share the stage with a performer as on-fire as Missy Elliott. But Katy is generous that way, and frankly, I think she’s a doll. I didn’t even mind that she had girls in bathing suits dancing with sharks. I thought her whole set was pop fizziness incarnate; great fun. I could go on and on about the aesthetics of excessiveness; mostly, though, I just enjoyed.

Then back to the football game, and more bad decision-making. Twenty seconds left, second down at the one-foot line, Seattle has Marshawn Lynch, the best short-yardage running back in all of football on their team, with one time-out left in case he didn’t make it. (In fact, on the play before, Lynch darn near did score, and would have except for a brilliant play by Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower, which the announcers completely missed). Instead, Seahawks offensive coordinator went with a slant pass to their fifth best receiver. Which an unheralded rookie free agent named Malcolm Butler intercepted, to seal the unlikely Patriots win. A night of bad decisions, ending with an inexcusably terrible play call.

Next year, the Super Bowl will be designated 50. Just that: 50, not L–no more Roman numerals, ever, apparently. I’ve seen, I think, 46 of them. Last night, my family teased me for my overuse of the word ‘orgy.’ The commercials were ‘an orgy of idiocy,’ that kind of thing. But ‘orgy’ works, and not just because of the Romanized numbering. The whole thing’s overblown, overdone, self-indulgent. Katy Perry is too scrubbed-clean to inspire words like ‘orgy,’ but no one can say her half-time show erred on the side of tasteful restraint. The hyper-patriotism, the jets overhead, the fireworks, the obligatory pre-game songs (“America the Beautiful” PLUS the “Star-Spangled Banner” (well-sung, this year, by Adele Dazeem), PLUS the big Carrie Underwood diva number). PLUS a big deal ceremonial for the coin toss. And when it was over, we got Kurt Warner carrying in the Lombarbi trophy like a religious icon, reverently, solemnly; touched, adoringly, by teary-eyed Patriots, with portentous music, like high Mass at Notre Dame. (Better make that St. Peter’s). And then the trophy was handed to Roger Goodell, to present to Robert Kraft. Like, nothing’s official until it’s blessed by rich old white guys. (Who spent this last week sniping at each other, and now had to be freezingly polite: comedy enough).

There’s just nothing funnier on earth than the Super Bowl. Bad taste, bad commerce, bad religion, all rolled into one. Nothing, nothing is funnier.

 

 

When institutions fail

The National Football League is a cultural institution of tremendous impact and power, an immensely profitable financial entity, and a television colossus. It’s also in big trouble. Video showing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, one of the stars of the league, beating up his then-fiancee (now his wife) in an elevator was so sickening that the league’s long history of sweeping domestic violence allegations by its players under the carpet became untenable. The league’s tone-deaf, contradictory, utterly clue-less reaction to the whole fiasco exacerbated the problem.  Pretty soon, the league didn’t just have a Ray Rice problem; it had a Greg Hardy problem, a Ray McDonald problem, as other players were revealed to have beaten up their wives and girlfriends.  A league superstar, a former Most Valuable Player, Adrian Peterson, was arrested for beating his four-year old with a tree branch.  Football, a sport build on violence, a sport in which speed and aggression and violence are central to its appeal, is the one sport where the public has to know that the players themselves are able to turn it on and turn it off; play hard hitting football, but also able to function as adults in civilized society. The huge majority of players are able to do precisely that, with grace and maturity.  But there have to be consequences for players who aren’t able to.

The one sports publication that seems to have the best handle on this is Bill Simmons otherwise-laddish sports-and-pop-culture site Grantland.com.  While Sports Illustrated and ESPN have proved as behind-the-eight-ball as the NFL offices on the history (with SI‘s senior football writer, Peter King, who I generally like and admire, offering a humiliating apology for not covering this story as he ought to have done), Simmons himself devoted a very long give-and-take mailbag article to Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, with Simmons calling repeatedly for Goodell to resign.  Grantland’s top football guy, Bill Barnwell raised the very real possibility that the NFL might cease to exist in the near future. Best of all, Grantland’s Louisa Thomas wrote this chilling, powerful article showing the league’s historical problems with domestic violence, and how the preferred response has always been to ignore the problem, not respond to it at all.  Because they could.  Because football fans didn’t much care.

And that’s the larger point.  Some football players (a tiny minority, to be sure) have always acted violently off the football field as well as on it.  Wives, girlfriends, children, have been beaten up for years. But the league didn’t do anything about it, because nobody in the league offices thought they needed to.  Meanwhile, the world was changing. Public awareness of domestic violence has increased. And more and more women have become football fans.  The league has, in fact, had some success marketing the game to women.

So what you had was an institution run almost entirely by old, rich, white men, comfortably complacent about the game they administered and sold, not really perceiving the occasional bad headline (usually buried on page eight in the sports’ sectIon) as any kind of serious threat to the game, or to the league itself.  Then suddenly the Ray Rice video exploded on the scene, so visceral and brutal and horrifying. And that became a catalyzing incident causing the vague discomfort felt by many fans (probably most fans), over this full-contact sport we liked to watch to expand and explode.  And the league was taken completely by surprise, and the league’s ownership and management seemed to have no idea how to respond.  And so we saw a series of ad hoc decisions, in which players were suspended, then reinstated, then suspended again by someone else.  And everyday we heard a new narrative.  Bill Simmons captured it best:

And that’s my biggest issue with Goodell — it’s not just his tone deafness and his penchant for reacting instead of acting. He’s so freaking calculated. About everything. For eight years, he’s handled his business like some father of a high school kid who’s hosting a prom party, sees some unresponsive drunk kid sprawled across the bathroom floor, then thinks to himself, Crap, I might get sued, what do I do? instead of This kid might be hurt, we have to help him!

Calculated, sure. But also utterly clue-less.  It wasn’t until Anheuser Busch threatened to withdraw their sponsorship of the league that anyone did anything meaningful about Adrian Peterson.  As Jon Stewart put it, this meant that the moral center of the league was a beer manufacturer.  A company that makes a product that can be proved to lead to domestic violence.

But that’s what happens. An organization drifts along, happily (and profitably) complacent. And meanwhile, the world changes. And the organization’s leadership finds itself baffled and confused, capable of only the most ineffectual responses.

It’s like Smith-Corona, making these great typewriters for years, and then suddenly the world changed and nobody wanted a typewriter anymore.  Or Blockbuster video, with a great business model, stores in every town, movie rentals for any occasion.  And then the world changed, and nobody wanted to traipse down an aisle looking for movies to rent anymore.  May I gently suggest that the emergence of Ordain Women might be such a catalyzing incident for the LDS Church?

 

 

Football! Doomed!

College football season started last weekend, and this weekend the NFL begins. Actually, it began last night, when the Seattle Seahawks clobbered Green Bay. And I’m excited for the new season. Kind of. Sort of excited. I like football, I enjoy watching it. The athletes are incredible, and there’s something breathtaking about a receiver catching a perfect spiral, somehow looking the ball into his hands while top-tapping along the sideline, barely in bounds. My wife showed me a terrific poem she’d found the other day, about the experience of playing high school football. (I can’t find it, or I’d quote). The author describes the muscle ache of landing on a frozen field in December, trying to see the play develop through his misting breath. Long descriptions of exhaustion and pain. And then the final line: “Dang, it was fun.”

I never played organized football, but I played lots of disorganized football, with my brothers and neighbor kids in someone’s back yard.  We’d play tackle, and crash into each other, and the ball would squirt loose, and then we’d all scramble for it. Our backyard was long and narrow, and doubled as our dog’s, uh, water closet.  And so at the end of a game, our clothes would be torn and filthy, covered with grass stains and doggy dew.  Hands red–football’s a fall sport–an aching knee or ankle or shoulder or all of the above.  Dang it was fun.

And then there’s this. The greatest football game I ever saw in my life was a college game, the 1980 Holiday Bowl. My prospective father-in-law and I watched it together, while my fiancee went to a bridal shower. It was a few days before the wedding. My father-in-law was, at least initially, rather a forbidding figure, and I found him intimidating, but not after that game.  That game! It was a male bonding experience like none other, watching as Jim McMahon essentially willed BYU to victory over a frankly vastly superior SMU team. I loved McMahon anyway, still the greatest college quarterback I’ve ever seen. There were rumors that he got away with all kinds of honor-code violating stuff, which made me like him all the better; I could rebel vicariously through him, I thought. McMahon played in the NFL, and won a Super Bowl ring as quarterback of the 1985 Chicago Bears. He was an NFL rebel too, and a brilliant player.

Jim McMahon is three years younger than I am. And he’s suffering from early onset dementia.  Repeated concussions have left him in constant pain, unable to remember, at times, the names of his children. His Bears’ friend and former teammate, Dave Duerson, committed suicide. An autopsy revealed chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition that is found increasingly in former professional football players, and not found in the general population at large.  A documentary film, League of Denial, which details the way professional football has covered up concussion-related injuries, was supposed to air on ESPN. Under pressure from the NFL, ESPN decided not to air it. (I saw it on Frontline. Devastating.)

And it’s not just concussions. Former football players have shorter lifespans than other Americans. Knees, backs, shoulders were all traumatized by the realities of professional football.  And the NFL has been very slow to respond to the health crisis among former players.

It’s a hard sport to root for.  And while the game becomes increasingly popular, it feels increasingly doomed.  It would not surprise me if it ceased to exist as a popular American sport.  No less a commentator than Bill Simmons has chosen to start this season with a state-of-the-sport op-ed that makes that very point: rooting for the NFL feels icky.

Football is a violent, contact sport. That’s one of the things I used to like about it. As a kid, I liked the speed and physicality of the sport. I wasn’t any good at it; if I had tried to play high school ball, I would certainly have spent most of my time on the bench.  But I get the appeal. I watch it, and enjoy watching it. I rationalize that enjoyment: they’re consenting adults, and very well paid–grown-ups making grown-up choices. And at its best, football can be beautiful.  So can soccer, and I’m increasingly watching soccer games, and not watching American football.  I expect that will continue.

And the prospective demise of professional football is the good news.  News out of the college game is even rottener.

It’s perfectly true that a full-ride college scholarship is a valuable commodity.  There are any number of college athletes who were able to attend college because they played football, who would not have gone to college otherwise, who have subsequently become very successful men because of their educations. Those people, the genuine ‘student-athletes’ are in the minority. Most college program pamper football players to an almost ridiculous degree–provide tutors who literally pick them up and get them to class and ‘help’ with papers and homework. If players become injured and are unable to contribute athletically, they often lose their scholarships. Amateurism in college sports was always a hypocritical joke, allowing schools to make huge amounts of money off the blood and labor of young athletes, who can’t share in that money. Football makes Title IX a joke–female athletes are rarely treated equally in terms of scholarships or money.  And coaches’ salaries are ridiculous: in how many states is the football coach the highest paid state employee?

That’s all going to change. College basketball player, Ed O’Bannon, was infuriated to discover that his image and likeness was being used in a college basketball video game marketed by EA Sports.  He became the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against the NCAA, and won.  Forbes magazine’s article on the case suggested that the NCAA didn’t just lose, so did the ‘theory of amateurism.’  And so we find ourselves in untested ground, where college athletes really can be paid to play.  There’s another case pending, in which college athletes could (and probably will) win the right to unionize.

Nobody knows how all this is going to work. My guess is that the already tenuous link between ‘playing college football’ and ‘attending college’ will be further eroded.  My guess is that the Alabamas and USCs and Florida States of the world will begin competing for football players with alumni money, and the NCAA could well cease to exist as a governing entity.  That seems to me the most likely outcome.

What will kill football?  Three things.  The further degradation of the college game, which has been such a strong feeder system for the NFL.  Rules about when players can declare for the draft or how much they can be paid and when or whether or not college attendance even becomes necessary will all change, haphazardly and probably conference by conference. Second, I suspect that high schools will no longer support football programs, because they won’t be able to afford the health insurance premiums.  And third, the vague unease felt by fans (like me), will increase, to the point that we give up and start watching a safer sport.  I’m close to that point.

Football has never been more popular.  I think it’s also doomed.  And I’m not sure that’s not a good thing.

 

A baseball game

Last night, the San Francisco Giants played the Colorado Rockies in a baseball game. It was a tremendous game, and possibly an important one, if any game in late August can be considered important.  The Giants won, on a ninth inning home run by Buster Posey.  That home run was the headline, and dominated the game stories in the press and on-line. But the game actually turned on three earlier plays. I know that a lot of you who read this blog don’t much care for baseball. But maybe a short discussion of these plays will help you understand the endless fascination some of us have for this remarkable sport.

The first came in the fourth inning. Up to that point in the game, neither team had scored. But with one out, Giants’ shortstop Matt Duffy hit a hard double to left. Second baseman Joe Panik then sliced a single to left, but hit too hard for Duffy to score. So that was the situation; runners on first and third, one out. The Rockies’ pitcher was Franklin Morales, a left handed pitcher. And the batter was Gregor Blanco.

Gregor Blanco does not usually start.  Neither does Duffy. They were in the game to give a day’s rest to the usual starters. Blanco is a fine player in every aspect of the game except hitting. He’s fast, a good outfielder, a fine baserunner.  But he’s a left-handed hitter, and at a disadvantage against a lefty.  And he’s not a terrific hitter even under more favorable circumstances. Blanco did not need to get a hit for Duffy to score.  A fly ball or hard grounder could score him. But Blanco looked badly overmatched on the first two pitches.

On the third pitch, though, Blanco laid down a surprise bunt. In that situation, a squeeze, as it’s called, can be an effective play. There are two kinds of squeezes.  The first is a suicide squeeze.  In this play, the runner on third just heads straight for home plate, trying to steal home.  The batter just has to get his bat on the ball, knowing any kind of bunt will score the runner. But it’s risky. If the batter misses the bunt, the runner will be out by an embarrassing margin. Or the batter could pop the bunt up, leading to an easy double play.

The second kind of squeeze is called a safety squeeze.  The runner holds on third until he can see that the batter has made a good bunt. But he has to time his run home perfectly, not going too early or too late.  And the batter has to place his bunt correctly, right at the first or third baseman, and not to the pitcher, who would have an easy toss home. As it happened, Blanco and Duffy pulled it off beautifully.  Blanco’s bunt went straight to the first baseman, and Duffy exquisitely timed his dash homeward. A run scored, and the Giants led 1-0. But think about it. Duffy has been in the major leagues for three weeks. He’s a young player, just 23, suddenly caught up in the excitement and tension and anxiety of a pennant race. And a safety squeeze requires communication between the batter and runner.  Blanco and Duffy have only been teammates for three weeks. In this crucial situation, though, Gregor Blanco and Matt Duffy executed a difficult play exactly as they were supposed to.

Okay, play two came in the ninth inning. The Giants led 2-1 heading into the ninth, but our best relief pitcher, Santiago Casilla, hit the first Rockies hitter with the first pitch of the inning, then gave up a game-tying double, to Justin Morneau. He got Nolan Arenado to ground out, then intentionally walked the dangerous Corey Dickerson, to set up a possible double play.  Runners on first and second, and the Rockies’ catcher Mike McKenry batting.  And then Casilla, having an off-night, uncorked a horrible pitch.

McKenry is a right handed batter.  The pitch was probably intended to be a slider on the outside corner.  But it completely got away from Casilla, and bounced at least two feet away from the plate, spinning even further away.  Buster Posey is the Giants’ catcher, and our best player. But if that ball got away from him, as it almost certainly would, both baserunners would advance. The double play possibility would vanish–the winning run would be able to score on an out.

Ordinarily, on a wild pitch like that, the catcher doesn’t really try to catch it so much as smother it. He’s wearing all that padding, after all. He wants to limit the damage, get his chest in front of the pitch, let it hit him, and then pounce on it before it can roll too far away.  It’s a tough maneuver, requiring that he move his feet quickly enough to get in front of the pitch.  But Casilla’s pitch was so far outside, smothering the ball just wouldn’t be possible. Nobody can move out of a catcher’s stance and get in front of a ball that quickly.

Posey didn’t even try. What he did was sort of hop and lunge. He hopped straight right, out of his stance, and then reached out with his glove (across his body, remember, since his glove was on his left hand and the ball was heading hard to his right), and just snatched the ball out of the air.  It was the most extraordinary thing.

It’s not the athleticism of the play that amazed me, though. It was the thought process it required.  Immediately upon the pitch leaving Casilla’s hand, Posey had to register what an awful pitch it was, and think ‘I’m not going to be able to reach that ball by conventional means. A shift-and-smother won’t work; it’s too far right and spinning too much. But maybe, if I hop right, I can lunge and reach it. Given the direction and spin, the ball should end up about . . . there. Go.’  And that hop-and-lunge is not a move most catchers practice–I’ve never seen it before, whereas the more conventional shift-and-smother move is one every catcher does hundreds of times. But somehow, in the heat of a pennant race, Buster Posey executed a play he cannot possibly have practiced much (or at all), and made it look actually kind of effortless.

The third big play came two pitches later. McKendry hit a slow bouncer to shortstop, and Duffy dashed in, fielded it, fired it to second, and then Joe Panik, the second baseman fired to first for the double play. The tough play was the pivot at second base by Panik.

The ball wasn’t hit hard enough to be an easy double play. McKendry is quite slow; the problem was Dickerson, the runner on first. He’s a fast runner, and built like a running back, and he had a head start, a quick jump. Panik had to catch Duffy’s strong throw, then pivot towards first and make the throw for the second out.

There are several ways to make a second base pivot. But remember, the runner, Dickerson, doesn’t want the second baseman to make a good throw. He’s barreling into second, ready to clobber the second baseman, if he can reach him. He can’t be obvious about it; the umps will just rule interference, and call McKendry out. But he does want to take Panik out.  And some second baseman, knowing that, will leap and pivot.  But what Panik did was use second base as a kind of protection. He caught the ball behind the bag, touched second, and leaned back, away from Dickerson, and from that position, made the strong sidearm throw to first.

The lean-back pivot is one players practice. A good second baseman will have practiced it regularly, along with four or five other pivot moves.  So in many respects, Panik’s pivot was just a professional ballplayer making the right play for the situation; unremarkable.  But Joe Panik is a rookie too.  As is Duffy. These two young guys, in the middle of a pennant race, in a tough, close game, kept their wits about them and made the play that needed to be made. It was extraordinary in its ordinariness.

And then came the bottom of the ninth inning, and Posey’s game winning home run. But it reminded me that baseball isn’t just about the obvious plays, the big home run or spectacular running catch. It’s about thinking on your feet, staying alert, figuring out, on the fly, what play you should make, and then executing it.  The Giants are among the best teams in baseball at doing the little things, mostly because, I think, they’re an exceptionally well coached team.  But it’s a beautiful thing to watch.

 

Tony Dungy

When Michael Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the most recent NFL draft, it was seen as very big, very important news.  Sam was the first openly gay football player to declare for the NFL draft, and to be drafted.  If he makes the team, he’ll be the first openly gay player in the NFL.  And the Rams’ decision to draft Sam was seen as a wonderful thing, a step towards inclusiveness and openness and the overcoming of homophobia.  And Sam’s courage in coming out was seen as a positive sign, suggesting that professional athletes in general and football players in specific (who, fairly or not, were seen as particularly benighted in this regard) were changing, that attitudes, at least, were more welcoming to the LGTB population than would likely have been the case only ten years ago, when Kwame Harris was drafted by the 49ers.

On Sunday, Tony Dungy, the much-respected former Colts’ head coach, who now works as a TV analyst, said he would not have drafted Sam. “I wouldn’t have taken him.  Not because I don’t believe Michael Sam should have a chance to play, but I wouldn’t want to deal with all of it. It’s not going to be totally smooth … things will happen.”  Tuesday, Dungy offered this clarification:

“What I was asked about was my philosophy of drafting, a philosophy that was developed over the years, which was to minimize distractions for my teams. I do not believe Michael’s sexual orientation will be a distraction to his teammates or his organization. I do, however, believe that the media attention that comes with it will be a distraction. I was not asked whether or not Michael Sam deserves an opportunity to play in the NFL. He absolutely does. I was not asked whether his sexual orientation should play a part in the evaluation process. It should not.”

Despite this clarification, Dungy has come under attack.  Intemperate comments on social media suggested that Dungy should be fired from his job at NBC Sports. Even more vitriolic tweets speculated whether James, Dungy’s son, who killed himself in 2005, may have been gay, and that his suicide may have been because he was rejected by his father.  Dungy is an evangelical Christian, and has publicly opposed marriage equality, though not since 2007. Dungy is also one of the most respected figures in the entire NFL. He has consistently reached out to troubled players, and is credited by many for making a difference in the lives of young men, in football, who have made poor life choices.

This gets tricky, because this whole situation was exacerbated by a particularly inflammatory post by a well-known conservative blogger.  Ordinarily, I link to any source I cite.  In this case, though, I refuse to.  I will not be party to driving traffic to his site.  Nor will I even tell you his name.  His initials are MW.  Some of you probably know who I’m talking about. If you don’t, let me leave it at this: in my opinion, he’s not worth your time.

Anyway, this whole thing has kind of blown up.  Sports talk radio won’t let go of it, and neither will the underground world of sports and political bloggers. I don’t particularly want to add to the noise.  Let me make a few points:

1) Michael Sam has handled the whole controversy with humor and class.  His initial comment on it was some variation on ‘I’m glad he’s not my coach!’  Later, he clarified, tweeting “Everyone in America is entitled to his own opinion.”  Other than that, he’s stayed out of it.  He’s trying to make the Rams’ roster.  That’s tough enough.

2) Coaches hate distractions.  Coaches want their players totally, 100% focused on the immediate task in hand; winning football games.  For Dungy to say ‘I wouldn’t want a player who is likely to be surrounded by media distracting my team’ is not, in a football context, terribly unusual.  Jeff Fisher, the Rams’ coach, who will make the decision regarding whether Sam makes the Rams’ roster, says he thinks Sam won’t be a distraction.  Fine: different coaches, different perspectives.

3) There are good reasons to think that Michael Sam will be a very good professional football player, and just as good reasons to think he might struggle.  Oddly enough, this question has become politicized in this discussion.  Not wanting to take too much of a shovel to the MW cesspool, let me say that the question of Sam playing in the NFL has little to do with politics.  Sam was the defensive player of the year in the toughest football conference in all of college football.  That suggests that he might be a remarkable talent, and a fine professional player.  He was also distinctly unimpressive in the NFL combine.  This doesn’t mean all that much.  Joe Montana’s throwing arm was thought to be inadequate coming out of combine workouts.  Emmitt Smith was too slow.  Sam Mills was too small.  They’re all in the Hall of Fame.  Sam might be a star.  He might not make the team.  If he makes the Rams, it will be because Jeff Fisher thinks he’s good enough to play.  That will be the only criterion, as it should be.

4) A well-nigh perfect comparison for Sam might be Tim Tebow.  Like Sam, Tebow was a brilliant college football player.  He was also known for things that had nothing to do with football (in Tebow’s case, his work as an evangelical missionary in Africa, and his very public embrace of a kind of muscular Christianity).  But Tebow’s talents did not translate well to the NFL, and his career has been short, and is now likely over.  We don’t know, of course, but if Sam doesn’t make the team (and he might not), it will be for football reasons.

5) This whole controversy is so immensely dispiriting.  Tony Dungy was asked a football question, and gave a football answer.  To accuse him of homophobia without cause seems unfortunate.  Why does everything in society have to be politicized?  Why does everyone have to take a side on issues like this one; why does this have to become another battlefield in the cultural wars?

Michael Sam was a superb college football player who may or may not be a good fit in the NFL.  Tony Dungy was a wonderful coach, a good man, a committed Christian, and a conservative male who, approaching 60, may not be entirely comfortable with gay people.  (And we don’t even know that).  Let’s all stop shouting and tweeting and opining, and let the kid play football, and let Dungy do what he does brilliantly, comment on football games.  Can’t we figure out a way to get along?

The World Cup

I am a massive sports fan.  I love baseball, basketball, football and American football, in that order.  I avidly follow various professional sports teams.  My happiness, on any given day during the summer, in part depends on whether the San Francisco Giants won their ballgame.  So I get sports, I follow sports, I’m into sports.  Every four years, I go nuts watching the Olympics (though like most American sports fans, I completely ignore most Olympic sports the rest of the time).

So the World Cup is, for a guy like me, basically a pure party.  Pure fun.  Every since it started I’ve been, well, basically this.

I actually came a little late to soccer.  Growing up, it was not on my radar.  But when Salt Lake City got a major league soccer team, Real Salt Lake, I followed them.  They were the local team, after all.  And my son became a massive soccer fan, intense and knowledgeable–through him, I learned a lot about the strategies and intricacies of the sport.  I’m still very much a neophyte.  But what I lack in comprehension, I more than make up for in enthusiasm.  Go USA!

And is there anything more awesome than those Kiefer Sutherland/Jack Bauer pre-game promos?  Or this one, for the Ghana game? (Except Kiefer Sutherland was actually born in Great Britain, and is rooting for England to advance!).  The US team is gritty, tough, courageous.  A bit undertalented, but blessed with a world class goal keeper, and a bunch of players who play in the MSL, the American domestic soccer league, instead of working as mercenaries in the Bundesliga or Premier league.  Plus, we have four players who were the offspring of US servicemen and German girls.  Brings a tear to my eye, to think of our soldiers patriotically sleeping with frauleins, all for the glory of our future national soccer side!

So, yeah, I’m a fan.  Go USA!  And I’ve watched all three US games so far, and at least some part of every other game in the tournament.  Well done, Costa Rica!  Valiant effort, there, Iran!  Splendid football all around, Netherlands!  Sorry about that, England and Italy!  Boy has it been fun.

And then there was this column, from Ann Coulter.  Who hates soccer, and thinks the rest of us should too.  In fact, who seems to think it helpful or necessary to inject soccer into our American cultural wars.  Apparently, real Americans don’t like soccer.  “No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer.”  Liking soccer (or pretending to like it) is akin to the metric system; intellectually bankrupt rubbish being foisted on us Americans by Europeans.  And so on.

I think it’s possible that this column is an attempt at humor.  I don’t have any evidence to support that theory, since it’s not remotely funny.  Humor comes from truth–that’s why stand-up is the site for observational humor.  Ann Coulter tends to respond to critics of her work by saying ‘where’s your sense of humor?’  So I think she fancies herself a comedic writer. It’s possible that I don’t understand conservative humor (though I do rather like P. J. O’Rourke). But if a comedian says ‘did you ever notice why all frozen peas are the same size,’ we only laugh if we have noticed that, and think it’s true. Since Coulter ‘observations’ aren’t true, they’re also, ipso facto, not funny.

Very quickly, though, since she has ‘reasons’ for hating soccer, let’s deal with them:

“It’s boring.”  No it isn’t.

“Really, it’s seriously boring.”  Any sport can be boring for people who don’t understand it, who don’t know the rules or strategies or tactics or players.  You need to invest some time and attention.  If you do, it’s amazing.  I don’t think I breathed the whole USA/Portugal match.

“Every single game ends either 0-0 or 1-0.” You have no idea how intense a nil-nil tie can be.  So much drama, so much riding on every attack, every save, every possession.  And in this World Cup, scoring is way up.  But yes, one of the features of soccer is that goals are very hard to come by.  That’s why it’s so exciting when someone finally scores.

“You can’t use your hands in soccer.”  Hey, good for you!  You learned one of the rules.  And you say, ‘the glory of being human is that we have opposable thumbs”.  And also really strong leg muscles, so we can kick the ball really hard.  ‘Kicking’ is a feature, not a glitch.

“Little kids play it, and when the game is over, get a juice box.”  Actually, yes, it’s a terrific sport for children. Boys and girls can play it well, and it’s fabulous exercise for them.  Good soccer players are fit.  And yes, little kids like juice boxes.

“It’s not a sport for individual achievement.”  Anyone who could say that has never seen Lionel Messi play.  But it is true, soccer’s more about teamwork than individualism. But, you know, I just watched the NBA final, Miami vs. San Antonio, and the Spurs won because they were the superior team.  And it was beautiful, watching the ball movement and defensive shifts and screens and block-outs.  I love basketball, and the glorious passing of San Antonio, the pass leading to the pass leading to the easy shot, it was as pretty as that sport can get.  And baseball is an ‘individualist’ sport, pitcher v. batter, but is there anything lovelier than an outfield relay, or a double play?  And football, my gosh, it’s entirely built on 11 guys per side supporting each other, playing as a team. Ann Coulter doesn’t hate soccer, so much as she hates what’s best about all sports.

Mostly, though, she doesn’t like it because people all over the world love it.  It’s a sport for furriners.  So, fine, it’s a bad sport for xenophobes.

But here’s what’s wonderful.  We see these countries, Nigeria and Iran and Ghana, poor, messed up countries, and we don’t know much about them except really terrible things. And then we think, “there’s got to be something better in Iran than the mullahs, something better in Nigeria than Boko Haram.”  And then you realize that, yes, there is something better, some grace, some beauty, and we’re seeing some of it, passion and dedication and sportsmanship and humanity, right there, on that pitch, playing football.  Integrity and honor and competitive fever.  Teamwork and patriotism and sacrifice.

I love the World Cup.  Go USA.  And go Germany, or Argentina, or Brazil, or Uruguay.  Whoever wins, I’ll be watching.  And I’ll be cheering.

 

Michael Sam, and Jackie Robinson

Like an unfathomably large number of my fellow American sports fans, I spent quite a bit of time last week watching the NFL slave auction amateur player draft.  The best young football players in the country, having previously been weighed and measured, raced against each other, challenged to weightlifting contests, given the Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test, interviewed extensively and investigated by teams of private detectives, were selected by the 32 teams in the NFL, teams representing cities where, if selected, the young men will be required to live and work without any say over either circumstance, compensated only by all of them becoming millionaires. The worst teams got to pick first, in an effort at competitive balance.  Despite this, the two teams generally thought to have drafted most effectively were the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers, both perennial winners.  And this exercise in compensatory socialism represents the highest triumph of capitalism imaginable; the NFL’s business model is universally admired in the world of professional sports. There isn’t any part of the NFL draft that’s not insane.

I watched, for example, watched for hours.  And I don’t even like football that much.  And for the most part, the telecast is unimaginably dull.

Which is not to say it’s lacking in drama, or in human interest.  The biggest speculation over the early stages of the draft was over who would draft Johnny Manziel.  ‘Johnny Football’ as he came to be known, and marketed.  He was the best college player in the country over the past two years, but also possibly too small and slight to succeed in the pros. Plus, he’s a fun kid, charismatic and charming, but also perhaps too avid a partier for everyone to be completely comfortable picking him.  As team after team passed on him, the camera increasingly followed his every grimace and grin.  Finally he was picked, by Cleveland.  And immediately, all the commentators agreed it was a perfect fit for him, Cleveland, a developing team in need of some excitement, with a fanatical fan base, and also excellent receivers for him to throw to, and also simultaneously a terrible fit for him, because Cleveland’s line isn’t very good and he’s going get killed back there.

And a similar dynamic played itself out on Saturday, the third (!) day of the draft, in the seventh round, as team after team passed on Michael Sam.  And then, finally, seven picks from the end of the entire draft, the St. Louis Rams took the plunge.  And America was treated to the genuine emotion of a fine young man achieving a dream, and responding by kissing his romantic partner.  Who, in Sam’s case, happened to be another young man.

Sam is a barrier breaker, the first openly gay player to be drafted into the NFL.  He won’t be the first gay player.  In 2003, Kwame Harris was drafted by the 49ers in the first round, and played for six years.  Harris came out after his career was over, and now says he regrets not doing so while playing.  There have undoubtedly been many others.  Sam absolutely deserves kudos for coming out openly.  But times have changed; I don’t think there’s any doubt that locker room culture is more welcoming to gay players today than even eleven years ago.  Or, also, that it’s not entirely welcoming.

Like most of the players drafted, Sam finds himself in a perfect situation for him, and also a terrible one.  Jeff Fisher, the Rams’ coach, is a very strong personality, who has already made it clear that in his locker room, Sam will be treated as just another player.  The Rams’ team is young, and St. Louis is close to the University of Missouri, where Sam played his college ball.  There’s already a fan base in the area ready to root for him.  That’s all true.  And Michael Sam was a tremendous college player.  But lots of great college players can’t hack it in the NFL.  Sam did poorly at the combine; was demonstrably slower and less agile than other guys competing as defensive linemen.  And the Rams, the team he’s joining, already is loaded at defensive end, Sam’s position.  Robert Quinn and Chris Long, the Ram’s starters, are outstanding players–Quinn’s probably the best end in the league.  Their backups, William Sims and Eugene Hays last year, were also excellent, and would start for any other team.  Sam is probably too slow to make an impact on special teams.  If the Rams carry five defensive ends on their roster, Sam might make the team as the fifth guy there. If they decide to carry four, he’s likely to be the odd man out. That’s not homophobia; just the harsh reality of life in the NFL.  His best chance of playing in the NFL would be if one of those players were injured.  And, of course, that’s also, brutally, possible.

One comparison I’ve heard is to Jackie Robinson.  And there’s some validity there. Michael Sam is a pioneer, as was Jackie.  Some people compared Sam to Kenny Washington, the first black player signed to an NFL contract.  (And Washington also was signed by the Rams, same franchise).  But there are a number of significant differences.

Not many fans know this, but the NFL beat major league baseball to integration by a year.  Jackie’s debut was in 1947; Kenny Washington’s was in 1946.  But Washington was only the first black player to sign; three others joined him in the NFL in ’46.  Washington was joined by Woody Strode, Bill Willis and Marion Motley, playing professional football together.  (FWIW, Willis and Motley were superstars; Washington was a good player, and Strode’s career was short, just that one season.  Strode made his mark in movies; he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Spartacus).

But Jackie Robinson faced it all alone. And baseball was a much bigger deal back then than football was.  And the baseball season is longer, and the player uniforms don’t hide the man behind padding.  Jackie was always a target, and racist idiots had 154 games to unleash their bile on him.  I rather liked the movie 42, which came out last year, but my main criticism of it was that it never came close to capturing the sheer hatred Jackie Robinson faced every day of the ’47 season.  I don’t mean to diminish the struggles of Washington, Willis, Motley and Strode, but I don’t think they faced anywhere close to the sheer hatred that Jackie Robinson did.  But of course we should honor them all.  Their courage remains an inspiration.

The other thing about Jackie Robinson, though, was that he couldn’t just be a ballplayer.  He had to be a star.  He had to dispel the widely circulated myth that baseball really didn’t discriminate; that black players just weren’t good enough to play at the major league level. In the meritocracy of professional sports, black guys hadn’t been signed or scouted for a reason–there really were substantive racial differences that made them unlikely to succeed. And so on. That specific pile of racist BS was the main one that Jackie Robinson had to flush away, and the only way he could flush it was to excel, to be, not just an exciting and capable player, but a superstar.  And he did it.  He’s not in the Hall of Fame as a symbol or as a pioneer.  He’s in the Hall, absolutely legitimately, as a ballplayer.

Not only was Robinson an incandescent talent, he had also to exhibit near-saintly deportment.  Faced with endless taunts and provocations, he had to . . . turn away, to not respond, to not strike back.  For a proud and intelligent and ferociously competitive young man, that had to be incredibly, even incomprehensibly difficult. But Robinson was carrying the freight for his entire race.  He pulled that off too.

I don’t think Michael Sam will have to face anything like that today.  Sam just has to be a football player. The struggle, to be a good player but also a gay pioneer, probably ruined Kwame Harris’ career.  Harris was a first round draft pick, expected to be a star.  He was, as a player, a disappointment, and he now says that the subtle homophobia of the locker room was a reason he could never quite find his way professionally.  That might happen to Sam too, but I think times have changed enough that it might be easier for him than it was for Harris.

Right now, Sam’s just fighting to make the team, like any other rookie. (Also, in interview after interview, impressing people with his intelligence, passion and poise).  He has to demonstrate, in the locker room, that he’s just another player. He doesn’t have to be superhuman. He doesn’t have to be Jackie Robinson.  Everyone at Missouri says that last year, he was a team leader, a locker room enforcer, a good guy.  His sexual orientation matters, because it’s not going to matter.  Anyway you look at it, that’s progress.

 

Thoughts on watching the Olympics

The Sochi Olympics are over, and we watched them all, every night.  Which is to say, we hardly watched the Olympics at all.  What we watched instead was NBC’s nightly highlights show.  That is to day, we watched a slick, professional, well produced television program every night, hosted by Bob Costas and (thanks to his pinkeye) a few other hosts.  We watched those sports NBC deemed particularly interesting to US audiences, which is to say, sports that Americans are particularly good at, or sports where the outcomes supported a particularly uplifting/tragic narrative.

And I loved it.  That’s all I wanted to watch anyway. I wanted neat story-lines, I wanted well crafted television.  I wanted exciting finishes, or particularly lovely visuals.  In short, I wanted to skip all the boring bits.

I say it’s all I could have watched, but that isn’t true.  I was gone every night, up in Salt Lake directing a play, but my wife and I had weekends, we found enough time to watch the stuff we wanted to watch.  And I could have watched the daytime coverage (much of it in real time) on MSNBC and CNBC and the internet.  I didn’t; not at all.  Not even the hockey, a sport I basically only follow once every four years.  Or curling, a sport I adore, but have no idea how it’s even scored.  I was happy enough with Bad Eye Bob, and his nightly highlights show.

It’s true that there were way too many commercials, and that they intruded on the action, but we just fast-forwarded those moments. And they had all those up-close-and-personal athlete profile bits, in which we saw or heard how all the adversity the competitors had overcome.  Skipped all those too.  I’m an American, gosh-darn it.  I have a short attention span.  I generally was able to watch a nightly three hour broadcast in a little over an hour, by skipping all the boring parts and going straight to the coolest parts.

And what were the coolest parts?  Well, my wife and I both love the ice skating. I love the fact that it straddles the line between an athletic competition and an art form.  I like that; I’m a theatre guy, and what I like most is the artistry of it.  I’m also not any sort of expert in it.  So what I tend to overvalue is the artistic elements of the programs–the stories the programs tell, the attitude they express.  So, case in point, we were riveted by the ladies’ skating.  The Russian skater, Adelina Sotnikova, and the South Korean, Yuna Kim, were both exquisite, and I thought both deserved gold, and was happy enough when Sotnikova won it, with Kim taking silver. But bronze? The Italian skater, Carolina Kostner, who won bronze, struck me as peculiarly unartistic, especially her short program, skated to “Ave Maria,” with a heavenly chorus and a pious look to the heavens at the end.  I found Kostner an unattractive performer, but could see that she was a marvelous athlete, and that her program was very difficult.  Gracie Gold, the American girl who finished fourth, had a nasty fall in her free skate, as did Yulina Lipnitskaya, who finished fifth.  But I adored the feisty, sassy American Ashley Wagner, and the impish Japanese girl, Akiko Suzuki.  I also tend to want to disqualify skaters who fall, or who, in my wife’s phrase, ‘exercise the element known as the spinning butt slide.’  So I had Wagner with the bronze, on my personal, completely inexpert and ill-informed score card.  And now I fully intend to go back to ignoring ice skating as a sport until 2018.

As I will other sports that I kind of fell in love with this Olympics.  Like slopestyle, both in skiing and snowboarding.  It’s a nutty sport, combining jumps, spins, twists, plus a sort of obstacle course.  Like many sports at the Olympics, it looked like a sport for crazy people, but the kids who did it sure looked like they were having fun. All the snowboarding events looked fun, and I was delighted with the raffishly dressed, apple cheeked insouciance of the kids who performed.  They all seemed as delighted by their competitors’ good runs as with their own, and when they biffed (and all snowboard sports included biffs aplenty), they’d shrug it off: “ah, well.”

I’m just sadistic enough to prefer sports where the athletes fall, or even crash into each other, over sports where they’re essentially racing against a clock.  I loved snowboard and skiing cross, for example, in which groups of four or five skiers or snowboarders race down a hill with lots of jumps, and as they struggle for position, often knock each other off the course.  I much prefer short track speed skating over long track.  Long track’s a bore–they just skate really fast, and without checking out the scoreboard, you have no idea who is fastest.  Short track, though, had sharp elbows, fabulous passes, skaters leading into turns inches from other skaters.  It’s wonderfully exciting and fun.  Best of all, the short track relays, in which you ‘pass the baton’ (so to speak), by giving the next skater on your team a shove on the butt.

As a Norwegian/American, I should probably say something about Ole Einer Bjoerndalen, the greatest winter Olympian ever.  And I understand how difficult his sport must be–cross country skiing, combined with target shooting.  But to me, it’s a sport more respected than enjoyed.  I’ll grant that what Bjoerndalen does is incredibly difficult, and if we ever fight a guerrilla war in a Nordic country, I totally want that dude on my side.  At the same time, I don’t understand it well enough to really get into it.  I found myself fast-forwarding to the target shooting bits.  Sorry, fellow Norwegians; I’m a shallow American after all.

Before the Olympics, the stories were all about inadequate or incomplete facilities.  Those ended up not mattering.  It was a wonderful two weeks, watching marvelous athletes from all over the world ski and skate. It’s really humanity at its best, human beings celebrating the extraordinary capabilities of their fellow human beings. One American figure skater is 15 years old, and is now the seventh best in the world at her event. Can you imagine that, being 15 and seventh best in the whole world at something?  Amazing and lovely.  As NBC kept reminding us.

Seeing the other side

I like sports.  I like pop culture.  I also like blogging, and blogging culture. And that helps explain why I’m a big fan of The Sports Guy, Bill Simmons.  I’ve read his column for years, on ESPN.com, and now, on Grantland.com.

Which is why a recent Grantland column, casually and unreflectively outing a transgender woman, was so painful.  Clearly it hurt the woman in question, and may have contributed to her suicide. A writer I admire was complicit in an action that has to be regarded as contemptible.  And he knows it.

Simmons’ approach from the beginning has been what the Brits call ‘laddish.’  He’s a guy who likes sports, and for years he wrote from that outsiders’ perspective; not the perspective of a sports writer with locker room access and friendships in the industry, but the perspective of a fan, a guy in the stands. In recent years, he’s become more of an insider.  He’s on TV now, with his best buddy Jalen Rose and with Magic and Shaq–he knows famous people.  It hasn’t really changed him much, I don’t think. His voice has always been that of a barely-grown-up adolescent: casually sexist, juvenile, self-mocking, and really really funny. Every few weeks, he has a ‘mailbag’ column, in which he interacts with his readers–it’s jokey and crude and can be hilarious. Amidst the yucks and the ‘tournaments’ and the endless pop culture references was some really solid analysis, especially of basketball, the sport Simmons knows the best and writes about the most insightfully.  His Book of Basketball is a terrific history of the NBA, a solid book, but marred with dick jokes and movie references and all sorts of guy humor.

A couple of years ago, he started the Grantland website.  The idea was to find really good bloggers on sports and pop culture, and provide them with a forum.  And a paycheck–he wanted to pay good writers to write.  Simmons would serve as editor-in-chief, but he’d treat the website like a good magazine, with standards and integrity, a home for good writing, a fun site to visit.  I like it. I check it out a couple of times a week, especially on Fridays, when Simmons own column usually appears.

So last Wednesday, Grantland posted this story by a writer named Caleb Hannan, about an inventor named Essay Anne Vanderbilt, or ‘Dr. V,’ who had invented a magical putter. That is to say, the truest, finest putter ever seen on a golf course.  Hannan became as interested in ‘Dr. V’ as he was in her putter.  His phone interviews with her were bizarre, as were her stipulations regarding those interviews.  He bought one of her putters, and it worked as well as advertised.  He kept digging.  And he learned that ‘Dr. V’ had once been a man named Stephen Krol, that she had not received a degree from MIT as she claimed, but, as Krol, had worked as a mechanic.

Hannan’s phone conversations with Dr. V became increasingly worrisome.  At one point, she said that if he published his article, it would be tantamount to committing a hate crime. In one final, email, suicide note, Dr. V wrote this:

“To whom this may concern, I spoke with Caleb Hannan last Saturday his deportment is reminiscent to schoolyard bullies, his sole intention is to injure or bring harm to me … Because of a computer glitch, some documents that are germane only to me, were visible to web-viewers, government officials have now rectified this egregious condition … Caleb Hannan came into possession of documents that were clearly marked: MADE NON-PUBLIC (Restricted) … Exposing NON-PUBLIC Documents is a Crime, and prosecution of such are under the auspices of many State and Federal Laws, including Hate Crimes Legislation signed into Law by President Obama.”

And, on October 13 2013, Dr. V. committed suicide.

Last Wednesday, Grantland went ahead and ran Hannan’s story about Dr. V and the magical putter.  On Monday, Bill Simmons wrote this column.  It’s a remarkable mea culpa.  He carefully describes the Grantland editorial process, and then admits that the final decision to publish was his.

Here’s the gist of his apology:

To my infinite regret, we never asked anyone knowledgeable enough about transgender issues to help us either (a) improve the piece, or (b) realize that we shouldn’t run it. That’s our mistake — and really, my mistake, since it’s my site. So I want to apologize. I failed.

More importantly, I realized over the weekend that I didn’t know nearly enough about the transgender community – and neither does my staff. I read Caleb’s piece a certain way because of my own experiences in life. That’s not an acceptable excuse; it’s just what happened. And it’s what happened to Caleb, and everyone on my staff, and everyone who read/praised/shared that piece during that 56-hour stretch from Wednesday to Friday.

So for anyone asking the question “How could you guys run that?,” please know that we zoomed through the same cycle of emotions that so many of our readers did. We just didn’t see the other side. We weren’t sophisticated enough. In the future, we will be sophisticated enough — at least on this particular topic. We’re never taking the Dr. V piece down from Grantland partly because we want people to learn from our experience. We weren’t educated, we failed to ask the right questions, we made mistakes, and we’re going to learn from them.

Probably the most prominent trans-gender sports writer currently working in the field is Christina Kahrl.  She’s a founding editor for Baseball Prospectus, a site that provides the most in-depth and thoughtful baseball analysis found anywhere.  I say that unequivocally; BP is the best.  Of all the BP writers, I liked her work the best; a lot of BP writers are stat nerds who don’t write very well–she’s a stat nerd who writes brilliantly. So Bill Simmons contacted Kahrl, and asked her, basically, to tell everyone what he’d done wrong.  Here’s her piece on the issue.  Here’s her conclusion:

I’m also angry because of the more fundamental problem that this story perpetuates. We’re talking about a piece aimed at golf readers. So we’re talking about a mostly white, mostly older, mostly male audience that wound up reading a story that reinforced several negative stereotypes about trans people. For an audience that doesn’t usually know and may never know anyone who’s trans and may get few opportunities to ever learn any differently, that’s confirmation bias of the worst sort. I may not have made you care about people like CeCe McDonald or Islan Nettles or even Essay Anne Vanderbilt here, but better to fail in the attempt than to reinforce ignorance and contempt bred through the thoughtless trivialization of their lives and challenges.

Obviously, Hannan went into the story with the best of intentions, and Simmons published it without meaning to do harm. The tone of Simmons’ letter from the editor shows he chastened he feels by the entire incident.  I’m sure Hannan feels even worse about it.  But damage was done, and done without consideration or even the most basic human kindness.  Christina Kahrl is right to be furious, and Bill Simmons was right to give her anger a prominent forum on his website.

But we all do this at times; write in ignorance, repent at leisure.  I didn’t know much about transgender issues until I saw Matthew Ivan Bennet’s extraordinary play, Eric(a), on the subject.  I was so grateful to Matt for opening my eyes on this important subject.  I can be a laddish boor at times.  I want to do better.  I hope that this whole sad affair can help all of us feel more compassion and kindness and love and acceptance to all our transgender brothers and sisters. I would hate to think that Dr. V’s sad death doesn’t accomplish anything, that we can’t learn from it, and grow.  That’s why we’re here, after all.