Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On the Reason for the Imminent Failure of TMZ Sports

Every time I escape from the yawning vortex of the Internet for a few days, I'm reminded of how idiotically self-absorbed it can be. Outside the vortex exists an entire generation of aging humans--say, for instance, our in-laws--who still watch the local news, who still read the newspaper in its printed form, who still believe in the conventional wisdom and embrace the mundanity of daily existence. These are people who enjoy discussing the weather. These are people who would not even understand the language of Deadspin, let alone the ethos. These are people who watch Brett Favre on Monday night football because they enjoy football; these are people who see the games themselves as the ongoing narrative, rather than the meta-filter of the Internet, rather than the photos of (REDACTED) wearing only chaps, sacrificing a rhinoceros in a sweat lodge with (REDACTED) and a well-known male escort.

I mention this because TMZ--inspired by the questionable taste of one Eldrick Woods--has announced that it may, in fact, start a gossip site dedicated entirely to sports, which has led to numerous mainstream media freak-outs (and a few high-profile sell-outs). Now, of course, it is true that every so often, due to fortuitous timing, celebrity status, or sheer weirdness, a seedy sports story will break through into the mainstream; Tiger Woods just happened to be a perfect storm of timing, status and an unprecedented quorum of women who either worked as strippers or resembled strippers. But the majority of people will never care about sports gossip in the way they care about celebrity gossip. This is obvious, and it is obvious because, as Neal Gabler writes, celebrities essentially exist to provide us with a public narrative. Celebrity gossip purposefully imparts a storyline on an often-banal group of people in order to render their lives relevant; sports gossip mostly just disrupts from the reasons athletes became relevant as public figures in the first place. Their primary narrative is already fixed; no one is ever going to care enough about Tom Brady's relationship with a supermodel to allow it to overlay their vision of Brady as a quarterback. These things are adornments, additions; they are not a full-time obsession, even for a site like Deadspin. There is no room in sports for a full-time meta-narrative, despite the Internet's best efforts to mold the world in its own image.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

On The Top 25 of Everything, 2009

In no particular order, largely off the top of my head.*

1. Adventureland
2. TCU/Cincinnati/Boise State, the Big 12 Championship being decided by a stadium railing, and further BCS embarrassments.
3. Belichick, 4th and 2.
4. Santonio.
5. Real Estate, Real Estate.
6. Daniel Faraday.
7. Pandora One.
8. The Mad Men JFK assassination episode that no one liked beside me.
9. ESPN's 30 for 30 series.
10. Phoenix, "Lisztomania."
11. Kobe.
12. Where Men Win Glory, by Jon Krakauer.
13. The bar scene in Inglorious Basterds.
14. Sugar
15. Japandroids, Young Hearts Spark Fire.
16. This Wright Thompson piece.
17. The Hurt Locker
18. LeBron.
19. Eastbound and Down
20. The first twelve hours of nostalgia in the wake of Michael Jackson's death.
21. The Beatles remastered.
22. This "review" of the Beatles remastered.
23. The Antlers, Hospice.
24. Nurse Jackie
25. Al Bundy redux on Modern Family

*Meme shamelessly lifted from my friend Brian Raftery.

Monday, December 21, 2009

On the Metaphorical Journey of the Decade

I'm kind of loathe to admit it at this juncture, but the first blog I read on a consistent basis was Gawker. Back then, in the early 2000s, in the era of Strokes hair, in an age when hipsterdom conquered all, Gawker, in its nascent phase, came across as fresh and snarky and unbeholden, a kind of inside joke for all those striving media types who arrived in New York dreaming of glory and then crammed themselves into $1500, eighty-square-foot studio apartments on the seventh floor of an East Village walk-up. And maybe it's still that way for an aspiring generation of twenty-somethings who are just now realizing they chose the wrong major, but today--by accident, actually--I wound up on Gawker, contemplating their list of nine candidates for "Hipster of the Decade." And I had heard of two of them, though only vaguely. The rest were strangers, their personas seemingly based almost entirely on bloggy insider hipster memes, which made me realize two things: A.) This is the decade I officially "got old"; and B.) Gawker has gone from something I kind of found amusing, to something to I openly loathed, to something that now is only relevant because it succeeded in accelerating the seamy underbelly of modern media.

And this is the prototypical metaphorical journey of the aughts. This is what happened with Tiger Woods and George Bush and Britney Spears; they were promising, and then they were embarrassing, and now they are largely relevant because of the messes they created. So we will remember The Aughts, the decade nastiness finally went mainstream.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

On Inconsequential Things That Matter To Me (Chanukah edition)

1.Raging Against Rationality

O.K., so my health insurance rates just went up by sixty dollars a month, and I find Joe Lieberman to be as much of a mealy-mouthed slab of gefilte fish as the next guy, but why is it that the left seems so utterly hellbent on proving it can wallow in the same kind of petulant irrationality as the far right? I know we were all seduced by the skyrockets of hope and change, but in case you haven't noticed, the great virtue of the man we elected is that he believes, more than anything, in rationalism. And I'm sorry if I find this to be a good thing, if I actually feel proud that our president does not ponder life in absolutes, in the pointed landscape bordered by Daily Kos tantrums and Glenn Beck chalkboard screeds. I prefer a president who is firmly tethered to reality--how do we know that the public option is the best answer, or the only answer?--who will not abandon his self-control in a fit of pique over the tantrums of a man who represents a state best known for women's basketball and casinos. Get over yourselves, people. Have a latte. Watch Top Chef. Watch Jay Rockefeller bring the noise. Ram your Volvos into a wall, take a deep breath, remember that Howard Dean already blew it once, and then let it go.

2. Big Ten Expansion

Here's what the Big Ten should do about expansion: Trade Penn State to the Big East for Cincinnati. We all know our school never belonged; we all know that the only reason Penn State joined the Big Ten is because the Big East refused to form a football conference, and then once Penn State left the Big East, the dominoes fell, and everyone formed a football conference. So you deal Penn State back to where it belongs, and you put Cincinnati where it belongs; the Big Ten can then go chasing after Notre Dame, or spit out Northwestern and go back to living up to the literal reality of its name, splitting into a pair of five-team divisions and setting up a championship game. The Big East, meanwhile, could offer up Louisville to the highest bidder, and then go hard after Miami and Boston College and (perhaps) Maryland. If I've done the math correctly, that leaves the Big East with ten, the Big Ten with (!!!) ten, and Louisville...well, nobody cares about Louisville. And then we've essentially got the Eastern football conference that Joe Paterno was touting back in 1973.

3. Dove Bars

I always thought the chocolate bars and the soap bars were manufactured by the same company, which made me less likely to buy the chocolate and more likely to purchase the soap. Turns out I was wrong. However, I still believe the chocolate tastes suspiciously clean. And the soap makes me hungry.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

On Colts, Saints and the Impossibility of Perfection

In 1972, the average NFL salary was $35,000. Adjusted for inflation, that's approximately $180,000, which isn't an unhealthy hunk of change ... unless you compare to it 2009's average NFL salary, which is exactly ten times that amount, and unless you compare it to 2009's league minimum, which is $295,000. Now, I'm not going to launch into the tired old argument that money changes everything (or that girls just wanna have fun, or that it is safe to dream while driving), but ... money changes everything.

Don't get me wrong. The influence is not necessarily direct. Years ago, when I interviewed Larry Csonka at a farmhouse in rural Ohio, in the shadow of a giant taxidermied deer, he tried to convince me that the '72 Dolphins went undefeated because they possessed more self-discipline than any team in NFL history; I've interviewed other NFL legends who insist they were more driven because they sold insurance in the offseason. I don't believe this to be true. I'm sure Peyton Manning and Drew Brees regiment their existences at least as seriously as Earl Morrall ever did. I'm guessing that Wes Welker and Randy Moss might live more disciplined (and less blatantly drunken) existences than Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick ever did. But the reason NFL salaries have skyrocketed in the thirty-seven years is not because the players abandoned self-discipline; in fact, it has nothing to do with the players themselves. The reason salaries are so high is because there is now more attention paid to the game than ever before. TV, radio, the internet...every time I turn on my television, Trey Wingo and Ron Jaworski are discussing the Eagles' zone blitz.

And that's the reason it may simply be impossible to go undefeated in the modern NFL. There's too much attention being paid to everything; as soon as a team approaches perfection, it becomes an omnipresent topic of discussion. And as hard as they try--as much as they may insist that they are paying attention to nothing except themselves--no team can exist in a vacuum. Peyton Manning is not the Buddha. This is the moral of the 2007 Patriots; in an era of media overkill, perfection is impossible. At this point in our existence, it is almost impossible to even conceive perfection. Axl Rose spent a decade, and didn't come close. James Cameron spent $400 million, and gave us an aquamarine Sigourney Weaver. And the 2007 Patriots went eighteen games and then, weighed down by outside expectations, lost control of the narrative at the worst possible moment. If perfection can never be achieved, why bother trying? Wouldn't it be better to simply ease the burden by acknowledging the inherent creative flaws of any collaborative endeavor? Wouldn't it be better simply to show yourself as imperfect?

In my book*, I write about the 1985 Bears, who lost their only game of the season in Miami; the next day, they filmed a video assuring America that they would win the Super Bowl. Losing set them free. And if I were the Colts, or the Saints, each careening toward the playoffs with an unblemished record, I would consider doing the same, by any means necessary. In this era, imperfection may be the only route to perfection.

*Available for pre-order!

Monday, December 14, 2009

On The U and The Greatest Game Ever Played

It is not difficult for me to recall the very pinnacle of my existence as a sports fan. That would be January 2, 1987. I was fourteen years old. I have this theory that, in the lives of themajority of American males, the love of sports peaks at approximately the age of fourteen; at this moment, you are old enough to understand the nuances of the game but too young to be unenthralled by media construction and the inevitable failings of human behavior. And so for me, it all came together that night: Penn State defeated Miami in the Fiesta Bowl, in a game no one thought they could win, in a game against perhaps the most talented team in college football history, in a game that had been hyped as a literal confrontation between good and evil. It was a wonderful (if largely false) mythology, and it fit perfectly with the age; I write about it extensively in my book*--in fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that this game inspired the entire book, though it comprises just one chapter--but I was intrigued to see the situation portrayed by someone who grew up from an opposing perspective, that someone being Billy Corben, who directed "The U," ESPN's 30 for 30 film about the University of Miami football team in the 1980's.

I should say this: I thought Corben's first film, "Cocaine Cowboys," was a wicked piece of entertainment. And I feel the same way about "The U"--as an entertainment, as a presentation of a singular and oft-exaggerated viewpoint, it works beautifully; it was so effective in drawing out the visceral hatred of my childhood, I actually had to pause it a few times and walk in circles around my living room to cool myself down. But it should be said: Corben's made a propaganda film. There are no opposing voices. There is no one to point out that when the Miami players accuse Penn State of making racist remarks, they are referring to Penn State's (now deceased) punter, John Bruno, who, in what I can only assume was an attempt to defuse the racial tension in the room, made a joke about Penn State allowing the black players to eat at the training table once a week; there is no one to point out that Bruno also mocked Jimmy Johnson's hair, which is such an obvious and open target for ridicule that the Miami players do it themselves in the documentary, or that Bruno delivered the greatest line uttered by a punter in the history of football, when he refuted Jerome Brown's statement about the Japanese not dining with Pearl Harbor before they bombed by saying, "Didn't the Japanese lose the war?" And there is no one to point out that Miami did not merely lose that game because Vinny Testaverde threw five interceptions, but because Penn State's defensive backs intimidated Miami's receivers by jarring them with hard hits, and because Penn State's defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, designed a brilliant game plan that Johnson could not solve. And it's not just the Penn State game--there are moments like this throughout the whole film, when Corben seems so determined to present a sympathetic and entertaining picture of this team he adores that he glosses over the truth.

I mean, I understand the intent: I feel like Corben, as a Miami fan, set out to make a film that would purposefully and defiantly goad me, the fourteen year old kid who grew up sheltered in Central Pennysylvania and was utterly perplexed by the Miami ethos. (If that's the case, he succeeded.) I feel like Corben, a few years younger than me, possessed the reverse negative of my own worldview at age 14; maybe when Penn State beat Miami, all Corben could see, like Jimmy Johnson, was that the better team had lost, that the racism and stodginess of middle America had prevailed, that the team he loved was misunderstood and discriminated against. Of course, there is also much I know now that I did not know when I was adolescent, about race and poverty and African-American culture; there is much I can sympathize with, even if I can't bring myself to swallow it completely. It was the eighties, after all; everything was exaggerated.

And yet there is one moment in "The U" that breaks through Corben's protective screen; it comes when Miami players are decrying their image, and the media's portrayal of them. And it comes from--of all people--Michael Irvin.

"There was no conspiracy against us," he says. "We were just baaaaad boys."

And for a moment, when I heard that, I felt fourteen again.

*Ahem...available for pre-order.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

On Journalism and the Future, Part 583,482

It's true, I'm sick, and it's true that there are few things I despise more than the inescapable misery of the common cold. But really, Jeff Jarvis has become one of those things. See, I realize we are on the verge of a transformation in the way our business works, and I understand that there are many unanswered questions about the future, but there remains to me one fundamental, unassailable journalistic principle, and that is the the notion that we tell stories. This is what we do; this remains, to me, the only noble reason to enter this business. Last week, the venerable Dave Kindred wrote a very complimentary column about my friend and colleague Wright Thompson; Wright is great journalist because Wright is, at heart, a great storyteller. That's Kindred's point, and that...unbelievably...is what Jeff Jarvis is now calling into question.

This lone blog post should quash any credibility Jarvis has as a knowledgeable commentator on our craft. This lone blog post proves that people like Jarvis can drone on all they want about platform and structure and Google and Twitter and information yearning to be free, but they don't understand the fundamental nature of our business, the one unimpeachable truth that separates us from the algorithms and the aggregators: Nothing will ever replace the value of a story, well-told.

And anyone who believes otherwise is simply not a journalist.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

On the BCS: A Brief Sick-Day Screed

Amid a Sudafed-induced haze this afternoon, I realized that it's now been fifteen years since the best Penn State team I've ever seen went undefeated and finished second in the national polls. Everything has changed since then, and yet nothing has changed. For decades, college football has served as perhaps the most prominent example of capitalism subsuming rationality; that continues even now. The system is imperfect, and everyone knows the system is imperfect, and now the trendy argument against moving the system closer to perfection is that we can never actually achieve perfection, so why bother trying when we have this wonderful corporate system that makes us all a great deal of money and satisfies the whims of overpaid bowl executives with non-existent duties? I mean, how truthy is that! Such is the stance of the BCS on its much-reviled Twitter feed; that's the only argument they can make that isn't directly based on a falsehood. Essentially, they are relying on the inherent irrationality of Internet culture to take hold. They are relying on the notion that, in the Information Age, information can be manipulated to fit their own ends.

So yes, let's acknowledge one facet of their argument: Things are better than they were fifteen years ago, and if the BCS existed in 1994, maybe the problem might have been solved, at least in that particular case. But a great deal has changed in those fifteen years. And the BCS, given its rigid adherence to the current power structure, is incapable of flexibility; the BCS cannot evolve with the game. The BCS cannot adapt to a structure where teams from non-power conferences are now utterly capable of competing for championships. The BCS, in 2009, is just as irrelevant as the bowl coalition was in 1994, and just as irrelevant as the bowl system was in 1969. We all know the rational and simple solution to this problem; we've always known it. The question is whether rationality even matters anymore.

Friday, December 4, 2009

On Sid Caesar, Gwyneth Paltrow, Tiger Woods and the Nature of Fame

I'm about six years late on this one, but I finally got around to reading Live From New York, the oral history of Saturday Night Live. I'd held off for so long largely because I have very little interest in either A.) SNL, which always seems to me like a show where very funny people engage in patently unfunny things, and B.) Oral histories, which when done well can be extraordinary, but often seem, from a writerly perspective, like a cop-out. But this book was far better than I imagined it would be, and because of the dirt about Chevy and Belushi and Aykroyd and Farley, and not for the description of Sid Caesar's dietary quirks (though that may have been my favorite single passage in the entire book)...but because at its heart, it wasn't really about the show at all (if anything, it's far too fawning in that regard). This was a book about the delicacy of the creative mind, about the difficulty of working for a demanding and inscrutable boss, and about the warped and suffocating nature of fame itself. And in that vein, to my surprise, the best quote came from Gwyneth Paltrow, who, late in the book, shares a theory that famous people, once they become famous, once all the mundane difficulties of human existence are cleared from their path, actually stop growing. And this, of course, made me think of that Tiger Woods, and the phone call heard round the blogosphere.

See, I disagree with Joe Posnanski on this one. Joe listened to that phone call, and he heard vulnerability; Joe feels that this was Tiger sounding frightened, perhaps even defeated. But I hear something completely different, because I know if I had to make that phone call, I would be stuttering and stumbling and begging and pleading. In fact, I don't even think I would have the chutzpah to make that phone call, which is probably heartening to my girlfriend, since it means I also don't have the chutzpah to accumulate a harem in the first place. But Tiger made that call, and he spoke with clarity, and even as he is pleading--even as he says You got to do this for me--he sounds, to me, like a man who believes he is entirely in charge. He still thinks he can control the situation; he still thinks he can get away with his transgressions. And this, I think, is what Paltrow meant about people not growing (and I also realize this is something that happens to non-famous people, as well, but it seems to happen more consistently among the glitterati). Because Tiger, while he was technically famous since childhood, didn't become epically famous until his early 20's, right around the time Charles Pierce wrote this seminal piece in which Tiger flirts and tells dirty jokes and presumes that he is utterly in command of the situation, until Pierce turns the tables on him in print.

That was a lesson for Tiger, but the lesson he took away was that he had to retreat further into the bubble of his own fame; the lesson he took away was not that he needed to grow up, but that he needed to hide himself away, to exact control over every situation, the same way he'd done on the golf course since toddlerdom. If there was a singular lesson Earl Woods imparted to son, it was that the only way to command a situation was to take complete control of it, to will one's thoughts into action. And I know I'm starting to sound a little like Lucy Van Pelt, but maybe it's as simple as this: Tiger tried to put up a facade, and he led us to believe that his maturity on the golf course reflected his blossoming maturity in his personal life...but in that regard, he'd stopped growing a long time ago.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

On Arianna Huffington, Press Critic

So Arianna says this:

Free content is not without problems. But it's here to stay, and publishers need to come to terms with that and figure out how to make it work for them.

And then Arianna says this:

Here is what we must not forget: our current media culture (with a few honorable exceptions) failed to serve the public interest by missing the two biggest stories of our time -- the run-up to the war in Iraq and the financial meltdown.

Her point, as it were, is that "citizen journalists" can somehow bridge this gap, that ordinary Americans working entirely without compensation in their spare moments between their actual occupations, passing along the news of the world in 140-character screeds and Facebook updates will prove A.) More accurate, and B.) Less agenda-driven than the mainstream media. The move toward "self-expression," she declares, is what will drive the future of journalism. Surveys, she declares, reveal that no one wants to pay for news, which comes as quite a shock, given that, for generation of Americans, it's always been free. And then she mocks the editor of a British newspaper for worrying that his writers, given a certain type of pay model, might be driven to do more about Britney Spears and less about Sri Lanka.

And here, at this moment, are the "Most-Viewed Stories" on the Huffington Post:

1.) Photos of Tiger Woods' alleged mistress.
2.) Photos of Tiger Woods' "other alleged mistress.
3.) The priciest foods ever! A photo gallery! 

But we, of course, are the ones who are stubborn and delusional. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

On Bowden vs. Paterno: The Final Verdict

I will submit my usual disclaimer up front: I have a deep and inherent bias on this issue.

So this is how it ends for Bobby Bowden. It's a bit protracted, a bit painful, as these things tend to be, though it's not quite as bad as it could have been--at least it's not a Woody Hayes ending. And let me say this: I'll miss the guy, even if I never had any real affinity for his football teams. I'll miss his dadgums, and I'll miss his charm, and I'll miss that squinty look of his, which always made him appear as if he'd left his bifocals in the locker room. As a football coach, it felt like Bowden was perpetually underestimated, perhaps because he was so charming, skillful at deflecting credit in the wake of victory and shouldering blame in the face of defeat--and no one suffered more painful defeats than Bowden's teams in the 1990's. He was one of the game's most earnest ambassadors, and he was an epically successful football coach, and even when he was angry he was charming.

But he is nowhere near the coach Joe Paterno is.

Now, I doubt these men ever meant to set themselves up for a direct comparison. It just kind of happened, as they both refused to succumb to age, as their victory totals soared past three hundred, past three fifty, past Warner and Stagg and the Bear. In Paterno's autobiography, written in 1989, there is not a single mention of Bowden in the index. (There are ten mentions of Bear Bryant.) They were always friendly, but they had separate objectives. Bowden never seemed interested in being much more than a successful football coach. This was his prerogative; this was what mattered to him, and there is no shame in that, but Paterno never framed his occupation that way. Call him self-righteous, call him self-aggrandizing, but--with the exception of Bear Bryant, who happened to come along at a moment of radical change in the American south, and perhaps Eddie Robinson--Paterno did more to change the perception of an entire university than any coach in the history of the game. Penn State is a completely different college than it was when my father arrived there as a professor in 1978--it's far better than it was when I graduated fifteen (gulp) years ago--and while it's still not Yale (or even Swarthmore), you have to give some of this credit to Paterno, who, for all his faults, has always focused on the reputation of the university as a whole. Because of Paterno, Penn State has elevated its stature as an academic institution, and this is a unique legacy, and this is something that cannot be duplicated, and this is why the victory numbers don't matter. This is why they never mattered.

In terms of one's ability to recruit/coach winning football teams, you may argue all you like. But in terms of legacy, it's not even close.  

On Tiger Woods, Ashton Kutcher and the Future

I'm thinking more about this Tiger Woods thing, and tonight I found myself reading the blog of a self-proclaimed media guru whose ideas I continue to find utterly repulsive, Jeff Jarvis, who I cannot seem to resist, and who is currently speculating on what a "post-page, post-site, post-media media world" will look like.* And what he describes sounds, to me, like an episode of Entertainment Tonight, if Mary Hart was a programmable robot: He details a world in which the Twitter account of a British actor named Stephen Fry is, in fact, our future. Now, you may remember Stephen Fry from such films as "Paddington Bear: The Early Years" and the television show "Woof!", but Jeff Jarvis sees Stephen Fry and his gadflyish Twitter feed--as well as Ashton Kutcher, whose mere mention should be a klaxon warning in itself-- as a glimpse of our streamlined, personalized future.

Now, I have nothing personal against Stephen Fry--I am, in fact, one of the few people in America who is not related to a Wachowski brother and will publicly defend the movie adaptation of "V for Vendetta"--but I should establish that I find Stephen Fry's notions about Twitter to be bloody ridiculous. According to this article, Fry believes that Twitter has essentially revolutionized communication in the same way the printing press has. He believes that it has cut out the middleman, and that it has allowed celebrities to communicate directly with the public without answering any actual questions about themselves, which--to bring us back to the original thread of this thought--is what Tiger Woods has been doing for a decade, long before Twitter existed. And that's the problem: Without the middleman, we are exposing ourselves to an ever more santized version of the truth. Without the middleman, we are subject to the whims of celebrities (and, more important, power brokers and politicians) who are acting entirely out of self-interest. Which means, according to Jeff Jarvis, that self-interest and self-promotion is an essential part of the future of news. And this, in his mind, is a good thing, because our news will be personalized according to the "tricks" we, as journalists, "can bring to bear."** And this is what we should be embracing--a world in which Tiger Woods and his manufactured persona are able to fully dictate the terms of their own news "stream," even more so than he already can. A world in which the truth is ever more narrow, and ever more subjective.

*I imagine it looks a lot like Sheboygan after dark.

**Question: How do I know exactly what news I want in my stream, Jarvis? I listen to Pandora; sometimes, a song I've never heard before pops into my stream. Sometimes, that song may be the best one I've heard all day. Aren't your ideas, if manifested, breeding an ever narrower and disinterested public? Or are such things beyond the purview of both you and Ashton Kutcher?

Monday, November 30, 2009

On the New Tiger

You may not even remember this, but a year ago, as Tiger Woods was on his way to winning the U.S. Open on a bum knee, a small segment of crazies came to believe that Tiger Woods may have, in fact, been faking his knee injury in the name of gamesmanship. It was a pretty daffy conspiracy theory, even as conspiracy theories go, and it was quickly debunked, but in the wake of that came this column for ESPN.com, in which the author marveled at Tiger's ability to camouflage whoever and whatever he was as some sort of protective mechanism. That column--not my best work, I admit--was something of a provocation, and the array of troglodytic comments underneath the story reveal that it succeeded on some level: People were both defensive of Tiger's right to privacy and reactionary toward any sort of scrutiny that delved beyond surface-level. They seemed to like Tiger Woods more because they knew nothing about him, because his entire life (outside of the practice of the most staid sport imaginable) seemed undramatic, because he was a cyborg with a 3-wood. They didn't want to know more than that. They (and I) didn't think they would ever have to.

Well, now they have no choice. Now, everything Tiger Woods carefully constructed in the past decade--and I would argue, a media strategy that has been built up in the past two decades, ever since Michael Jordan settled into a Nike-constructed cocoon*--has been torn down in a single morning. Now, we are likely to learn far more about Tiger Woods than we would ever care to know. This is the way of the modern scandal, and it always seemed as if Tiger were above such things, as if he simply existed in his own private space, free to chase Nicklaus's record of 18 major championships while every detail of his public life would forever be programmed by a roomful of MBAs. But now, suddenly, his private life is fodder for TMZ--and you can argue that Tiger doesn't owe us anything, and you can argue that this is an unwarranted intrusion into his private life, and you can argue that you preferred Tiger as a blank canvas--as a robotic manifestation of perfection***--and you may be right about all of it. But you also cannot deny that there is something undeniably fascinating--not to mention undeniably human--about watching an athlete who seemed determined to script his entire existence suddenly have to deal with an ad-lib.

*I write a little bit about the construction of athletes' public personas in Bigger Than the Game (AFPO!),** and spoke to Bo Jackson about it when I interviewed him. It's kind of amazing how the forces of sports marketing evolved from a non-entity into the Construction of Tiger. 

**Available for Pre-Order!

***In a word replete with needlessly dull information, Tiger's website is kind of a brilliant manifestation of nothingness. Did you know that Tiger's favorite movie is Caddyshack?  His blog is like one of those mass Christmas letters from the most boring uncle you could imagine--in "Tiger's" hands, a meeting with the president is boiled down to two non-committal paragraphs that appear to have been written by a public relations intern and sanitized by a Congressional committee ("I also enjoyed talking with the secret-service agents"). In "Tiger's world," choosing sides in the NBA Championship is an agonizing task. The whole site is structured like a Zen koan.

Monday, November 23, 2009

On College Football and the Bottom Line

At the risk of contradicting myself, allow me to state a simple truth: Everyone with a semblance of a cerebral cortex knows that the college football bowl system is an inept and inadequate example of American capitalism at work. Recently, some well-meaning and obviously delusional fellow from the BCS started a Twitter feed, and said feed was promptly bombarded with bon mots and screeds (well, as much as one can screed in 140 characters) about the very idiocy of the BCS system the Twitter feed had been created to defend--and this is Twitter, where idiocy is often a default position. Nobody who considers themself an actual "fan" of college football would somehow feel the game had been cheapened by the introduction of a four-team playoff, or a plus-one game at the end of the season. Nobody. The bowl system is a business, and this is the only argument in its defense, and I don't think that point has ever been made clearer to me than right now.

Here's the situation: My alma mater, Penn State, has completed an utterly lackluster and strangely hollow season with 10 wins and two losses. Said losses were to Ohio State and Iowa, both at home. Neither game was particularly close. Now, Ohio State has locked up a Rose Bowl bid, and now there seems to be a legitimate question as to whether Penn State or Iowa deserves what might be the final BCS bowl slot. That is, Penn State--which lost to Iowa, 21-10, at home--may be chosen over Iowa, for reasons that relate entirely to commerce. Now, at some level, I understand this--it's a tough time in America, even for overpaid bowl executives in garish sportjackets, and since it is their game, they have some right to consider the bottom line. But as much as that may be true, this allegiance to economics over fairness is the prototypical example of why the bowl system, no matter how we contort it or rearrange it, sans playoff, will never be able to rightfully determine a national champion. I mean, this is utterly obvious, even to a Penn State sympathizer like me: There is no possible way Penn State could make the case that it deserves to be chosen for the Orange Bowl over Iowa. But this is college football, and deserve has nothing to do with it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

On College Football and Ponzi Schemes

There are certain sportswriters I grew up reading, those I would observe from afar and think, "That's the job I want when/if I grow into a fully functioning adult male." Ivan Maisel is one of those people. He's been covering college football for two decades, and he's extremely good at it. That said, I was perplexed by his column the other day; it was, essentially, a mainstream confirmation of a low-level theory that's been building these past few weeks, one that declares this entire college football season a bust, based on the scattered Heisman race and the lack of marquee matchups these last few weeks of the season. In the column, Maisel likened this whole year to a Ponzi scheme, which seems like an inartful metaphor, but perhaps it is apt--Maisel, for instance, decries the fact that Penn State, ranked No. 9 in preseason, lost its only two quality games at home. Fair enough, but who actually ranked Penn State No. 6 in the preseason? Maisel did. So essentially, he's decrying the fact that this season did not live up to his own perception of reality. In other words, Maisel conducted a Ponzi scheme on himself. 

Well, at the risk of sounding sycophantic, I happen to be enjoying this season, as I have enjoyed every single college football season since 1978. I will admit that Maisel's basic point is correct--it has been an unpredictable campaign. And maybe there is a reason for this. The Oklahoman newspaper ran a story today about Big 12 defenses catching up with the complex offensive schemes of the modern game. "Defenses are working on something," declared pirate enthusiast and spread-offense fanatic Mike Leach, and within a conference like the Big 12 or the SEC, certain teams (Texas, Florida) have been able to remain one step ahead of this "something"* defenses are working on, through a combination of luck and skill and Jesus. Outside of those conferences, however, there are still teams who can dominate simply by stepping hard on the throttle. This explains the superiority of Cincinnati and Boise State and TCU. And this means, as we enter the bowl season, that there is a pretty fascinating question yet to be answered, about whether these small conference powerhouses can catch up to the big boys by utilizing complex schemes, and whether this is all a fleeting and illusory moment in college football history, and whether defense is on the verge of reintroducing itself into the discussion. There could be at least four/five different bowl games with hyper-meaningful results. And if that's what a Ponzi scheme looks like, well, I'll buy in.

*If this "something" involves pirates, that would be awesome.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

On 24 Hours of Basketball

There's something about ESPN's 24-hour college basketball marathon that kind of freaks me out. As a promotional gimmick, of course, it's brilliant, an astute way to draw attention to the opening week of a sport that essentially made cable sports what it is back in the early 1980's.* But I also wonder if perhaps this is a glimpse of some bizarre and fulsome future, if teams will now regularly arise for 4 a.m. shootarounds in order to accomodate 6 a.m. start times so as to fill in a national time slot on an ESPN network devoted to 24 hours of live college basketball, seven days a week, four/five months per year. That may seem like an absurdist notion, but think about where we were twenty years ago, about how sports networks essentially defied the conventional wisdom by televising every game they could get their hands on, about the explosion of channels and time slots, about the willingness of third-tier Division I schools like St. Peter's and Monmouth to essentially contort their lives for television.

Look at the ticker sometime: There are hundreds of schools you've never heard of who have chosen to field basketball teams in the hope of gaining publicity for an otherwise anonymous institution. Until last week, I had no idea there was a university known as Northern Michigan, which completes the directional monopolization of Wolverine State colleges; until last week, I had no idea a school in Indiana had chosen to name itself after an extinct tusked mammal. Until I looked it up, I presumed USC-Upstate was actually the University of Southern California-Upstate, which sounded more like the punchline to a Steven Wright joke than an institute of higher learning. All these schools, desperate for exposure, and a sports network willing to accommodate them: This is why I imagine that, in the next decade, the 24-hour hoops marathon will no longer be an anomaly. I imagine that this will be a basic-cable offering.

*Another element of culture covered here, in this book. Conveniently available for pre-order. (That is actually an initial version of the cover; final draft subject to change).

(Photo: )

Monday, November 16, 2009

On Belichick

What follows is utter speculation, as is every bit of angst and schadenfreude spilling from the sporting corners of these here Internets today. Nobody really knows what Bill Belichick was thinking when he made the decision to go for broke against the Colts last night, and we probably never will know. The Patriots are as sealed and secretive a franchise as we've ever seen in the modern age, having adapted the pathologically competitive nature of their coach; therefore, it is up to us to guess, and to argue, and in this way, Belichick has done us a favor: He has given us perhaps the single-most interesting regular-season NFL game of the decade, another watershed moment in what has now become the aughts equivalent of Lakers-Celtics.

For that alone, it is hard not to offer Belichick a little bit of credit, even if you hate his guts. We spend our lives calling on coaches to take chances, to defy conventional wisdom, to do something interesting, for once, rather than falling back on the somnolent principles of Tresselball. Well, Belichick did something so interesting that I still kind of can't believe it actually happened in the NFL. It essentially reinforced his own stereotype (as an arrogant jerk) while simultaneously questioning everything we think we know about football. The backlash, of course, will be unrelenting, because people outside of New England have developed an irrational hate of Belichick (for reasons both justified and idiotic), and because it's always difficult to grasp something that seemingly defies logic, but is, in fact, utterly rational. And yes, this was a rational decision, according the simple calculations made by a dude named Brian over at a blog called Advanced NFL Stats. Read it; the numbers make sense. There is a better chance of the Patriots converting on a 4th-and-2 then there is of the Patriots stopping Peyton Manning on a protracted drive with two minutes to play.

So yes, I think Belichick made the right call. In fact, if he made any mistake at all, it was A.) Stupidly (and uncharacteristically) wasting his time-outs, and B.) Not taking his counterintuitive logic far enough. For by making this decision, he was essentially admitting that his defense could not stop Peyton Manning on a 70-yard drive. How, then, could he imagine his offense might stop Manning on a 30-yard drive? At that point, once the Patriots failed to convert on that fourth down, New England had no time outs left. They had no choice. They should have let the Colts score. By that, I mean bring the house on a blitz. If you get to Manning, then fine; if you don't get to him, then Indianapolis scores quick, goes up by a point, and you still have a minute left with an offense that had already driven the length of several Northeastern states. There is no question in my mind, if the Patriots had gotten the ball back with one minute to play and one time-out remaining, they could have set up for a field goal to win the game. Hell, the way this one was going, Moss might have even scored six.

Still, it's almost better that the Patriots failed. It adds another layer to depth of this rivalry, it adds another layer of drama when these teams inevitably meet again in the playoffs,* and it means that the oft-stodgy pastime of professional football has proven that it can be even more intriguing than the college game, if only for a single play.

*And clearly, the Patriots could afford to take a chance, because they are going to win their division, they could still get a first-round bye, and they have obviously proven that they can beat Indy on the road.

Friday, November 13, 2009

On Several Decisions That Seem To Defy Logic

Because it's Friday the 13th. Because the sky is angry. Just because.

1. So just last night, LeBron James made a command decision to shed his signature number, 23, out of respect for ruthless egotist, tongue-contortionist and expert shoe salesman Michael Jordan. That's all very nice, as is LeBron's overarching desire to retire Jordan's No. 23 altogether, thereby elevating an undeniably transcendent basketball player whose greatest political stand came when he used an American flag as a sponsorial shield to the level of, say, Jackie Robinson. "There would be no LeBron James, no Kobe Bryant, no Dwyane Wade if there wasn't Michael Jordan first," LeBron said, and then he declared he would change his number to 6, which is Julius Erving's number. Of course, it is not difficult to argue that without Julius Erving, there would be no Michael Jordan. Therefore, I propose that the No. 6 be retired, as well, along with every number worn by any Hall of Fame player in the history of basketball, and that LeBron, in an overarching tribute to capitalism itself, replace his jersey number with an oversized American flag.

2. Meanwhile, Rudy Giuliani, America's Failed Presidential Candidate, has named his top candidates for Time magazine's Person of the Year, since either A.) His opinion still matters to some indiscernible demographic of xenophobic hotheaded Yankee-lovers, or B.) He will do your panel discussion the cheap. Giuliani's choices were The Economy and Derek Jeter. Now, one of these things is not even a person, and the other is simply based upon the ways people use their environment to meet their material needs. Then again, this is a man who once spent several minutes on the radio berating a ferret. How he still has any career at all is one of the great mysteries of the post-9/11 world.

3. And then there is Bud Selig, who seems wholly determined to tether his legacy to a nostalgic sense of intransigence. As baseball failed to consider expanding its instant-replay policy, Selig said this: "Life is changing and I understand that. I do like the human element and I think the human element for the last 130 years has worked pretty well. There have been controversies, but there are controversies in every sport." It's a good thing you enjoy controversies, Mr. Commissioner, because that's pretty much been the default position of the game itself since you took it over and began running it slowly into the dirt. Since the 1990's baseball has become defined by series of tangential controversies and concerns--over drugs, over economics, over statistics, over umpiring, over labor disputes, over Giuliani's seat placement. On most of these, Selig is at least partly to blame; in fact, can I blame him entirely for No. 2 (above)? After all, he is the human element in baseball. He's right, though--life is changing, and this is why baseball no longer matters the way it once did.

(Photo: AP/Cleveland.com)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On Heisman Confusion

Years ago, back when I actually believed in things, I embarked on a pseudo-investigative story for my college newspaper that attempted to divine the definition of the Heisman Trophy. I'm not going to link it here, because that would be embarrassing--in fact, I'm afraid to even go back and find it, because I'm sure it's far worse than I even remember, and I believe the lead was built on the kind of ridiculously breathless descriptive prose that gives prose a bad name--but what I do recall is a somewhat contentious conversation I engaged in with the Heisman's public-relations man, who kept insisting that the trophy went to "the best college football player in America." So what does that mean, I asked him. Is it about numbers? About leadership? About winning? About alliterative surnames? About the number of circumcisions each candidate had performed on African children? And this PR dude, being a PR dude, gave me nothing. This PR dude just kept repeating the same phrase, that the Heisman is awarded to "the best college football player in America."

Back then, of course, I was too young and stupid to realize that the PR dude wasn't hiding anything; I was too naive to realize that the definition of the Heisman is deliberately oblique so as to render it more interesting. It's why people care about the Heisman more than they care about any other individual postseason award. The Heisman is not necessarily a Most Valuable Player award; the Heisman is not necessarily anything at all. The Heisman is a ghost. Its very definition is fluid, and is determined entirely by the popular consensus of that particular fall. In 1989, Andre Ware won the Heisman strictly because of elephantine numbers, even though none of his games were televised. in 1992, Gino Toretta won the Heisman as a sort of Lifetime Achievement Award, despite the fact that his numbers were nearly identical to what they were the year before (when he finished out of the Top Five, behind a defensive tackle from Washington named Steve Emtman). This is the inherent contradiction of a deliberately nebulous honor: Just when Carson Palmer wins and we think we've figured it out, along comes Jason White to confuse us once more.

Anyway, there are two things that make this perhaps the most unusual Heisman race in recent memory. One is that all the candidates who seemed like "sure things" have f---ed the chicken at some point; the other is that, because of those well-timed chokes, we now have a field in which virtually every historical Heisman archetype is represented. We have the fun-and-gun quarterback (Case Keenum, Houston); we have the oft-spectacular tailback on an elite team (Mark Ingram); we have the long-shot defender (Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska); and we have the Lifetime Achievement contenders (Tim Tebow, Colt McCoy). That they are all essentially neck-and-neck at this point in the season, along with another running back from Clemson and a thick-necked smart guy from Stanford and several others I'll never see play a single game. And so it should play out like a Rohrshach test. It is perhaps our best opportunity to define an award that refuses to accept definition.

My guess is that it will be McCoy or Tebow. My guess is that more people vote with sentiment than vote with numbers, and that even comparisons like this won't convince them:
Keenum vs. Miss State: 435 Yards, 4 TDs, 2 Ints
Tebow vs. Miss State: 127 Yards, 0 TD, 2 Ints (1 run for a TD)
Keenum vs. Texas Tech: 435 Yards, 1 TD, 1 Int, 1 Rush TD
McCoy vs. Texas Tech: 205 Yards, 1 TD, 1 Int
Keenum vs. Oklahoma State: 366 Yards, 3 TDs, 1 Int, 1 Rush TD
McCoy vs. Oklahoma State: 171 Yards, 1 TD, 0 Int
Keenum vs. UTEP: 536 Yards, 5 TDs, 0 Int
McCoy vs. UTEP: 286 Yards, 3 TDs, 1 Int

It seems that the Heisman's inherent subjectivity would reward sentiment. It seems that Tebow will win because he is chaste and pure and sacrificed himself for our sins, or that McCoy will win because he is the only one of the three elite quarterbacks in college football to yet win this award, and someone named Colt should win a Heisman Trophy sometime. It seems that Lifetime Achievement is the default Heisman pose. But I kind of hope I'm wrong. Because the more I think about it, the more I realize that the best thing about the Heisman Trophy is that it makes no sense at all.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On Inconsequential Things That Matter To Me (Sour Grapes Edition)

1. Big Ten Football (Welcome to the Stone Age!)

From a seat somewhere in the exosphere, I watched Penn State lose a football game to Ohio State this weekend. It was a beautiful day and it was a terrible contest, a fitting nightcap to a weekend that again exposed the inherent weakness of the Big Ten within the rapidly shifting landscape of college football. A few months ago, I noted the critical consensus about the slow and inexorable death of Tresselball, and this was Tresselball at its worst, a slow and tedious unraveling dictated by field position and the running game and selective bomb-throwing to wide-open receivers who had outrun slow safeties into open space. Here were the conference's two best athletes at quarterback, Terrelle Pryor and Darryl Clark, each rendered entirely uninteresting, in part by the pace of the game itself. I'm not sure what the future of football might be, but I'm guessing this isn't it. But at least the view of the sunset from Row 79 of the upper deck was pastoral.

In fact, you could make a case that, at this juncture of the season, Northwestern, with its seventeen-receiver spread offense full of Ivy League-caliber geniuses with literary surnames, might be the most intimidating team in the conference. Maybe the question we should be asking ourselves isn't Why Iowa Lost; maybe the question we should be asking ourselves is how Iowa wound up undefeated in the first place.

2. Tweeting the Truth

From a column by Paul Carr of Tech Crunch, on the Tweeting of the Fort Hood tragedy:

Unsurprisingly, Moore’s coverage was quickly picked up by bloggers and mainstream media outlets alike, something that she actively encouraged by tweeting to friends that they should pass her phone number to the press so she could tell them the truth, rather than the speculative b---s--t that was hitting the wires.

There was just one problem: Moore’s information was b---s---t too.

This morning on my radio, Jeff Jarvis--unrelenting advocate of citizen journalism and all-around purveyor of futuristic journalistic brilliance--attempted to defend his cash cow in the wake of these glaring inaccuracies, while Carr proclaimed what we all know deep inside: That a great deal of "citizen journalism" is essentially the dissemination of unconfirmed rumors. And at one point, Jarvis actually said something like this: Life is messy. The Internet is life. Ergo, the Internet is messy. I may have misquoted him slightly, but given his standards, I suppose it doesn't matter. I suppose I could say that Jeff Jarvis strangled a standard poodle this morning, and as long as I corrected the record later in the day, it would be fine, because life is messy like that, and the Internet is messy, and I am merely a Luddite standing in the way of progress, and the future is based upon a world in which everything is free and lived in public and in real time and without filter and played to an online audience, and the truth itself is a secondary concern.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

On "The Men of 47"

For those of you who might care about such things, I've got a new piece in this month's Penn Stater magazine. It's a story about the 1946 and 1947 Penn State football teams, led by an African-American superstar named Wally Triplett, and to quote my editor (and sometimes friend) Ryan Jones, it "tells the story of the post-World War II football teams that helped establish Penn State nationally as both a top program and unheralded force in the nation’s slow march to racial justice." I hope it's the kind of tale that resonates beyond the Penn State community, but either way, it was an interesting piece to write and I was excited to get the chance to tell it. You can find a PDF version here.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

On a High-School Classmate

I wasn't much of a student in high school. I didn't apply myself to anything, really, beyond the advanced study of box scores and high-level analysis of rudimentary fantasy baseball statistics and Van Halen albums. I was in the advanced track, but just barely, and the only reason I bothered to keep up the facade is because most of my friends were in the advanced-track classes, and it was either drown in calculus or snooze through remedial algebra. I chose the former.  This explains why I have state-school education. This explains why I did not make a fortune on complex derivatives.This explains why I am a writer.

Anyway, junior year, or senior year (I can't remember which anymore), I enrolled in an AP history course, because that's what everyone else did. It was a large class, with more than a hundred students, and it was held in an auditorium-sized hall. The idea was that AP History would be taught like a college course, which meant attendance was optional, which meant that we would show up once or twice a week and spend the other days at the nearby shopping plaza, devouring cheesesteaks and discussing the finer points of the girls who would never deign to speak to us. And were able to get away this because two of our classmates--two of the smartest dudes in a room full of pretty sharp people, the sons and daughters of college professors and scholars--transformed the AP History experience into an entrepreneurial boon. Every few weeks, before an exam, they would compile a study guide based entirely on their own copious note-taking, make several dozen photocopies, and sell them for a minimal amount. The study guides were, of course, a brilliant idea, and their creators became Heroes, Kings, Lords of our little corner of Nerdland. They were destined for something great, and we all knew it. I lost touch with them both after high school, and I always imagined I'd hear from them again when they won the Nobel Prize for some experiment in neuroscience or developed a new kind of particle accelerator.

Anyway, the ringleader of the crew, as far as I can recall, was a kid named Mike Weston.  And it turns out he did wind up living a pretty remarkable life, even if it was far too short:

After his third tour of duty in Iraq, Michael Edward Weston wanted to decompress. So in the summer of 2007, he decided to kayak about 2,300 miles down the Mississippi River, from Minnesota to New Orleans.

“He had planned it to take two months, which was sort of reasonable,” said his mother, Judy Zarit, of State College. “He did it in one month.”

Friends and family members say Weston, 37, of Washington, D.C., brought that same devotion, dedication and passion to every aspect of his life: as a student at Harvard Law School; as the writer of the family’s humorous Christmas letters; as the minister at his brothers’ weddings; as a Marine major leading troops in Iraq; and as a Drug Enforcement Administration agent fighting the opium trade in Afghanistan....

Weston, a 1990 graduate of State College Area High School, was killed Monday, along with nine other Americans in a military helicopter crash in Afghanistan. He was among three DEA special agents deployed with troops returning from a drug raid in the western part of the country.

On Leonard Bias

I've spent an unimaginable amount of time in the past two years studying the life and death of Len Bias, both for this story and this book, and so it's kind of hard for me to have an objective viewpoint on anything even remotely related to this story; I have so much information swimming through my head that I've essentially lost all perspective. I did know Kirk Fraser's documentary, which aired last night as part of ESPN's 30 for 30 series, was coming, and I did know he had gained extraordinary access to a number of people; most notably, Fraser interviewed Brian Tribble, the friend of Bias who was later accused (and acquitted) of providing him with the cocaine.

Anyway, I've just watched it, and I admire the work Fraser's done here, and I'm sure it wasn't easy to try to shoehorn every angle of the story into a 60-minute package. And of course, knowing as much as I know, having studied as much as I have, it was hard not to concentrate on the aspects of the story that I felt were overlooked--on the overwhelming complexities of this moment, on the decisions that may or may not have led to it, on the culture (both locally and nationally), on the death of Jay Bias, Len's brother (which seemed especially limited by time constraints), and on the societal changes (both good and bad) that it fostered. I hope I got at these elements in my own work, but I'm sure there are things I've missed, as well, so I'm not going to delve too deeply into criticism here, out of respect for Fraser and his medium and the considerable amount of work he did do (and I know first-hand how hard it is to delve into this story). But I will admit that there are some things that I hoped would be answered that instead raised more questions: For instance, I listened to Tribble conduct a radio interview with ESPN Radio's Scott Van Pelt today, and Tribble assured Van Pelt that he was, in fact, scared away from cocaine and never did it again upon Bias's death--and yet, a few years later, after Bias's death, Tribble was sent to prison for distributing cocaine*. That doesn't exactly compute with me. But then, I often think maybe that's just the nature of this story: None of it ever seems to piece together the way it should, which, given the nonsensical nature of the death itself, seems strangely fitting.

It's late, and I know I'm rambling, but all I'm trying to say is that this is a hell of a complicated story--it's never taken me longer to write a single piece than it did with this one, largely because I needed to somehow reconcile all these disparate pieces. Fraser did his best with the hour he had (I believe his original cut was somewhat longer), but there are so many layers here. And I hope my book--which focuses on several major characters and storylines in that time period, and not just Bias--can complement and expand upon the work that Fraser's done, not to mention the labor of reporters like C. Fraser Smith and Sally Jenkins and all the others who spent months (even years) chasing details and staking out courthouses and holding authority figures accountable and desperately searching for the truth. This is, after all, the kind of story that goes on and on, and builds upon itself, and I've always felt kind of humbled by the hugeness of it. That feeling was reinforced tonight.

*Tribble also declined to say whether he provided the cocaine to Bias that night, and seemed to imply that he never would say, out of respect for the fact that Bias could not speak for himself. And I have to say, I'm not sure what that means.

Monday, November 2, 2009

On Cable Companies and Centaurs at Third Base

This morning, I waited two hours for the cable guy to show up, only to be told at the end of those two hours that my appointment was actually scheduled for next week. I was not particularly surprised, despite the fact that the friendly Time-Warner Cable customer service representative I spoke to on Saturday assured me that the technician would be here "on Monday." I was not particularly surprised because I know what I am getting into whenever I contact Time-Warner Cable: I know that things will never work out as originally planned. I know that appointments will go awry, that technicians with an utter lack of technical knowledge will puzzle over the location of my cable box, that the customer-service representative I speak to when my picture fizzles out again will assure me that the problem is with my line, and the technician will assure me that the problem is with my box, and neither will be correct about anything, and both will wind up scheduling an appointment with a supervisor, who will never show up. It continually amazes me that a major utility provider--one that provides both for my livelihood (modem) and my nightly entertainment (Mad Men, football, Jeff Dunham*) can hold its customer base in such low esteem and continue to raise its rates at the same time, but this is the Faustian bargain of being addicted to television, not to mention the Faustian bargain of human existence: You will always have to wait for the cable guy, be it in literal or metaphorical fashion.

I've been dealing with Time-Warner's ineptitude for a long enough period of time that my opinion of them is intractable. They've wasted so many afternoons that my immediate reaction to anything they do is couched in an irrational hostility; the quality of the actual product doesn't even matter anymore. On occasion, I find myself screaming at old ladies on the phone. I don't like myself for this, but I don't feel particularly bad about it, either, because in some way I feel like I am raging against the absurdities of modern existence when I do this.

Anyway, I was sitting and sitting and waiting and waiting and then for some reason I started thinking about Alex Rodriguez. And I'm thinking about A-Rod because this postseason seems couched as his moment of "redemption," as the year A-Rod finally lives up to his considerable potential, as the moment A-Rod transforms from an inveterate social misfit into an American hero, by dint of victory. Last night, A-Rod provided the Yankees with their most important hit of the season, and perhaps he will perform some sort of heroic act again this evening, and perhaps this will shift our entire societal perspective of a man who has essentially made a fool of himself time and again in recent years. That's what Harvey Araton seems to be fleshing out in this New York Times piece: That somehow, A-Rod can save baseball.

But I sort of doubt it.

I think most people's opinions of A-Rod, at this point, are pretty intractable, and have little to do with the game itself, or even with the steroid issue. People don't like A-Rod because A-Rod does not come across like an actual human being. And I don't think even winning can repair that rift at this point; perhaps it will soothe a few overzealous Yankee fans for a short period, but there is absolutely no doubt that A-Rod will eventually do something so utterly alien that he will again set himself apart from the vast majority of humanity. He is too far gone to come back now; his actions have aroused an irrational passion against him. He's been too weird for too long. And if you don't believe me, ask yourself: When this whole thing about A-Rod's dalliances with mythical creatures came out, did I ever, even for a moment, think, "This might not actually be true?"

Winning cannot cure A-Rod, in the same way an extreme makeover cannot cure the cable industry. Some brands are just too far gone to ever be redeemed.

*OK, not Jeff Dunham, though after reading these reviews, I am intrigued, as I always am by potentially racist ventriloquism.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

On Storytelling, or Something

Warning: Disjointed rant about journalism and new technology ahead. Proceed with caution.

It's been a couple of months since I joined Twitter, and I will admit--I still don't really understand it. I mean, I get it--sometimes it can be fun to devise a 140-character quip, and on occasion it transmits interesting information in my direction, as it did this afternoon, when Michael Kruse passed along this excellent Washington Post piece--irony alert!--on the long-term narrative story and its struggle for survival in the (gag) Age of Twitter. And in the story, Joel Achenbach quotes Dave Barry, whose work in the 1980's is the reason many of us now find ourselves stranded in this drowning business in the first place, and Barry, as he often did back then between jokes about exploding cows, manages to sum up my feelings in a single sentence. "You can't really read Twitters," Barry says, and it's true; my Twitter feed is just a random collection of musings and links, but it doesn't go anywhere. It doesn't tell a story. It doesn't even reunite me with a mosaic of my past relationships, like Facebook. It just spits information and one-liners in my general direction. It's like reading a 600-page book composed entirely of non-sequiturs. It just gives me another reason to not work and to stare at my IPhone while watching television (the one place where narrative storytelling seems to be getting sharper).

There's a story in this month's Wired magazine about Twitter, and in it, one of the company's founders essentially admits that he has no idea what Twitter is supposed to be. Let me repeat that: He's the founder of the trendiest company on the Internet, and he has no idea what his company is supposed to be. That's where we are; no one has any idea of anything, and yet we are continually convinced that this is our future. But how the hell do we know what our future is if the people running our lives don't even know what it is they're giving us? Aren't we all just guessing at this point? And isn't Achenbach correct--wouldn't people rather engage with a story rather than a collection of random elements?

Recently, Joe Posnanski linked to an enhanced, interactive version of his Sports Illustrated story on Joe Paterno; it was kind of cool, all that secondary information presented in a snappy format, but I'll be honest--I couldn't even figure out how to access the original piece. It wasn't a reading experience. It was something else altogether, a (sometimes distracting) mosaic of elements that may have a place in our future, but couldn't even come close to replicating Posnanski's original piece. It was a lot of sound and fury, but I'm not sure what it signified. Maybe nothing at all.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

On College Debates, T-shirts, and Football

There are a lot of things I miss about college, but this doesn't mean I actually want to go back to college. I don't think I could handle going back, because those four* years were probably the most vivid and intense of my existence. I seem to remember everything about college, even certain things I probably don't want to remember, and I presume this is because every situation seemed freighted with artificial importance. Everyone in college, at all times, is on a quest to either A.) Maximize their newfound freedom, B.) Change the world's fundamental economic system by protesting about condoms, and/or C.) Build up their resume. Every conversation really feels like it matters, even if it's about beer.

And this is why the editorial page of a college newspaper is the most wonderful display of burgeoning humanity on earth. Back in my time, a columnist for our school newspaper appropriated the most incendiary language Malcolm X ever used: He referred to white people as "devils." He wound up on CNN. Only in college could we find ourselves so utterly divided over the issue of changing the name of the Women's Studies program to Womyn's Studies, so as to neuter the modifier; at times, the argument over a deliberate misspelling actually led people to storm out of rooms in protest. And yet we had no idea that the rest of the world wasn't taking us seriously at all.

And so it is even now at my alma mater, this time over a T-shirt, a T-shirt that may or may not**be a tool of Christian propaganda and indoctrination, though it was apparently dreamed up by a Jewish studies minor and drew approximately six complaints. But now it has become a story, and now it has become, no doubt, the talk of the entire campus. Only in college could so many people work themselves into a frenzy over a debate that directly affects no one at all. And I guess that's what I miss the most. Well, that and the chicken sandwiches.

*and a half.
**OK, probably not.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On Peyton Manning...the Best Quarterback of All-Time?

I don't know, maybe it's quarterback week around these parts, but I had a brief discussion this weekend about Peyton Manning, and I've spent the past few days contemplating his career, and today I read this post on Pro Football Reference that reinforces with hard numbers what I already suspected with my unreliable cerebellum--that the Peyton Manning of 2009, Peyton Manning at age 33, is perhaps as good as any incarnation of Peyton Manning we've ever seen before. Honestly, I can't think of an elite quarterback whose public persona has evolved more radically over the course of such a short period; look at this Slate piece written by Tommy Craggs just 30 months ago, which labored under the conceit that Manning was too inherently nerdy to ever become a beloved figure in the NFL.

It's an intriguing artifact, and it was utterly true at the time. In January 2007, all those goofy ads featuring Peyton cheering on blue-collar employees in the name of extending their credit debt seemed presumptuous and forced. They didn't seem like the real Peyton Manning; they seemed like a Madison Avenue construction. "His affability takes on an overtone of insincerity," Craggs quoted one critic, and there seemed no way to change that. Manning was who he was; he would always be an outsider, a doofus in an oversized helmet, and that dorkiness would prevent his genius from ever being truly recognized.

Except then Peyton Manning won a Super Bowl. And all those memories of his failures in big games past became secondary, and all those notions that Manning couldn't win because he was too uptight or too bookish or too omnipresent during commercial breaks seemed utterly ridiculous. Now Peyton Manning was a beloved goofball, an affable dude whose quirks facilitated his brilliance. Now Peyton Manning just seemed like what he probably was all along: A guy with ridiculous genetic gifts, who also happened to be legtimately smarter and more honestly self-deprecating than just about anyone else who had ever played his position. Winning a single game transformed Peyton Manning's entire career. He's not the first player to experience this, but in Manning's case, it seemed to set him free, to allow him to embrace his true self; perhaps equally as important, it also allowed us to embrace him. Which is just as well, because if he continues on his current trajectory, we may soon have to accept the fact the Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback in football history. And amazingly enough, most of us will do so willingly.

Back then, 30 months ago, when Peyton Manning was still an outsider, Rolling Stone resident curmudgeon Matt Taibbi wrote that it was "impossible" to root for him, and that, by comparison, it "easy to root for" a rugged individualist like Brett Favre. Something tells me if the Colts face the Vikings in Super Bowl XLIV, Peyton Manning won't be the one accused of insincerity.

(Illustration: Mark Alan Stamaty/Slate)

Monday, October 26, 2009

On the Consumption of Processed Meats

I'm never quite sure how much the average professional athlete is cognizant of his/her own iconography. I presume it's accurate to say that some think about it more than others, that there are those who come by their charisma naturally (Tom Brady, LeBron James) and those who seem singularly determined to force their absurdities upon us (Chad Johnson, Ron Artest). And I'll be honest: For most of this year, I presumed Mark Sanchez was more of the latter, based on that vaguely homoerotic GQ spread, based on his impervious hairstyle, based on the fact that he seemed to be consciously channeling the spirit of Joe Namath. And this led me to presume that Sanchez would not succeed in pro football, that he was trying far too hard to cultivate a sense of cool, that he would eventually fall into the same US Weekly vortex of D-list celebrity that swallowed Matt Leinart whole.

And then, this Sunday, during the Jets' pasting of the Raiders, Mark Sanchez did something kind of amazing: He ate a hot dog on the sideline. It may not seem like much, but I think this one gesture is the essentially a litmus test for Sanchez's entire career. Because there are two possibilities here: Either Sanchez consumed a hot dog because he was consciously aware that he would be seen consuming a nitrite-laced slab of meat on the sideline, thereby bolstering his image; or Sanchez told the media the truth after the game, and he ate a hot dog because he was hungry, and because, bizarrely, someone handed him one on the sideline before he could track down a Clif Bar. In which case, he may just be the coolest dude to show up New York since Joe Willie. In fact, if it was a spontaneous act, Sanchez had no reason to apologize at all. He should be congratulated.

Either way, this lone wiener is the most interesting thing to happen to the New York Jets in two decades.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

On Inconsequential Things That Matter To Me (Zuvella edition)

1. Unsubstantiated Reports of Adultery and Bad Behavior Spread Via a Series of Tubes.

I generally try to disabuse myself of blogosphere kerfuffles, and so I am not going to delve into the latest spat between a prominent sports/gossip website and a worldwide leader in sporting activity (which also happens to be my sometime employer). I will allow you to Google the details for yourself. However, if anyone out there cares about such things, I did want to point you to a memo written by Gawker Media czar Nick Denton, which may, in fact, be the most egregious abuse of "new media ethos" I have ever read. My favorite line: We can always write a second post when we've established more of the facts. Speaking of which, I hear there are photos on a transvestite fetish website of Nick Denton torturing babies while wearing a burqa. I'll update when I hear more.

2. Terrelle Pryor

Perhaps it is true that Terrelle Pryor is not being utilized properly at Ohio State, and perhaps it is even true that he would be better off at Michigan*, and perhaps I am simply mired in my own Schadenfreude, but are we willing to consider the notion that Pryor, while a stunning talent, may never be a great passer? Or that sometimes, throwing a freshman quarterback into circumstances he is not ready for may in fact retard his emotional development? I watched some of that Purdue-Ohio State game last week; I thought Pryor might file his transfer papers at the end of the third quarter.

3. Phillies-Yankees.

When I was fourteen, this was my worst nightmare. I grew up a Phillies fan due to geography and a Yankee fan due to the hegemony of my father, and I presumed the twain would never meet, largely due to their collective ineptitude. My fandom happened to coincide with the worst era in the histories of both franchises: Has there ever been a worse-hitting (and longer-lasting) shortstop in the history of modern baseball than Steve Jeltz? And peep this '87 Yankee lineup--it's the Best Team Money Can Buy, if your currency is from Kazakhstan. In fact, if this is not a rule of SABRmetrics, it should be: Any team that ever employed Paul Zuvella cannot rightfully be considered a member of the major leagues.

*At Penn State, Joe Paterno would have molded Pryor into a world-class cornerback. Just as he would have made Jim Kelly a Hall of Fame linebacker, something Kelly secretly regrets every day of his existence.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

On the USFL, Instant Replay, and Baseball's Refusal to Adapt

So I watched last night's ESPN 30-for-30 documentary on the rise and fall of the USFL, and I highly recommend it, if only for two reasons: 1.) It utterly eviscerates Donald Trump, and anything that makes Donald Trump look like an idiot* can't be all that bad,** and 2.) Burt Reynolds is prominently featured. The narrative was well put-together, and director Mike Tollin's archival footage was first-rate, but there was one thing they glossed over that I wish they'd spent more time on, and that was instant replay. After all, the USFL essentially invented the entire concept, silly red flags and all, and it's something that has become utterly commonplace in American sport, this notion that technology can be effectively utilized to correct human error. And yet...here is baseball, just now engaging in this discussion, almost twenty-five years on, as its umpires continue to defend themselves by evoking the inherent prejudices of their internal organs.

And if last night's game is not a metaphor for baseball's continued refusal to adapt to modernity, maybe this Buzz Bissinger piece will convince you: For if you read between the lines, if you can get beyond the needless pissing match between Bissinger and the SABRmetrics nerds, the basic point is that Moneyball is not what dictates success in this modern incarnation of the game. Money is, and always has been, and, with rare exceptions, always will be. It's an ethic Trump would appreciate.

*See: The Apprentice, The Art of the Deal, everything else Trump has engaged in since 1986.
**I should say, I have a brief section about the death of the USFL (and take several digs at Trump) in my new book. (Available now for pre-order! Though as an ever-supportive friend recently pointed out, "Why should I bother to pre-order a book that MAY or MAY NOT be released to the public 10 MONTHS FROM NOW?" To which I say, Fair point.)