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 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.)

Monday, October 19, 2009

On the Evolution of Football

I've said this before, but it bears repeating: I love football, and I don't imagine my opinion will change anytime soon. And yet I also know--and I've known for quite some time--that every time I watch a football game, I am essentially throwing my wholehearted support behind an act of barbarism. Football is brutal, and football tears men to pieces, and that is one reason why we love it, and I could get onto some extended meditation about the marginalization of masculinity in modern society and how it relates to the selection of the All-Madden squad, but I won't, because that's not my point. My point is that it's never been more confusing to be a football fan, and if you're not convinced, take a few minutes to read Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker piece about the parallels between football and dogfighting; even if you don't buy completely into his thesis, it would be delusional to admit that he doesn't have a pretty solid point here.

Gladwell summarizes what you already know, if you've read pretty much any publication in America these past few years: That all those posthumous studies are essentially proving what we all suspected--football actually destroys your brain. So how are we supposed to get around that? We can build a better helmet, but we're still dealing with collisions that occur with the force of a three-car collision on the Schuykill Expressway.* We can ban tackling altogether, which probably makes the most sense intellectually, but would essentially neuter the game and trigger the emotional destruction of millions of Americans like me. So somehow we have to find a middle ground; somehow, we have to find a way to allow the game itself to subtly evolve to the point where the intricate strategies and formations and techniques of the game itself come to overshadow the brute violence. Somehow we have to find a way to make violence a secondary element of football. That's not an easy thing to do, but you could argue that it's already happening: Look at the NFL in the 1960's compared with the NFL today. A couple of years ago, I interviewed Conrad Dobler, the "dirtiest player in the league" in the 1970's, an offensive lineman for the Cardinals who engaged in unspeakable acts of violence in the name of self-preservation. Many of Dobler's tactics are now blatantly illegal, and so the game itself has cleaned up; the problem is that the players themselves have evolved, too, so that they are bigger and stronger and faster than they've ever been.**

So that's where we find ourselves. I think football is at a true crossroads. We're faced with a moment when the game itself seems to be embracing its own evolution, stretching out to the edges of the field, to three- and four-receiver sets, to the Wildcat, to a game of finesse and strategy. And I think those who oversee it are trying to encourage it in that direction, and it's not always going to seem very smooth. We are in an adjustment period. I have no scientific proof here, but I think I've seen more questionable pass interference calls this year than I've ever seen before; I presume that's partly because teams are throwing more than they ever have, but also because we're trying to facilitate evolution by streamlining the physicality, by eliminating any unnecessary contact, by muting the brutality. And yes, it does seem that any marginally late hit, or any blow anywhere near the vicinity of a player's head evokes a personal foul call; this, too, seems extreme (and occasionally ridiculous) within the moment, and will no doubt evoke accusations that game is already neutering itself--and Arkansas fans have a legitimate argument on both these counts during Saturday's loss to Florida--but maybe this is just how it has to be. It seems like a short-term annoyance, but it is a long-term necessity. For football to survive, it has to evolve.

*Which is, unquestionably, the most frightening highway on which I've ever traveled. I remember all the locals I knew used to call it the "Surekill Expressway," yet another example of the inherent coarseness of Philadelphians.
**In my new book (available for pre-order today!), I write a section about William "Refrigerator" Perry, who was, in his time, considered a shining example of American gluttony. The Fridge, of course, weighed approximately 300 pounds; this weekend, during Penn State's game against Minnesota, I learned of Jeff Wills, an offensive tackle for the Gophers, who is 6-feet, 7 inches tall, and weighs 365 pounds. In other words, there are no longer appliances large enough to serve as appropriate nicknames.

(Photo: Bill Frakes/SI/Getty)

Friday, October 16, 2009

On Several Things That Could Not Possibly Happen This Weekend

1. Notre Dame defeating USC.
Notre Dame is the only entity in the universe that can advance from moribundity* to underratedness* based purely on faith. Well, I believe in nothing. And I will celebrate USC's inevitable 35-3 victory by awaiting a blogger's mea culpa while ordering the lingonberry pancakes.

2. Glenn Beck displaying unfettered emotion.
Seriously. Dude has to be all cried out; socialism really takes its toll on this guy's ducts. Watch this clip. It's like Mad Men meets In Treatment, if both of those shows were produced by a clinically insane hobo.

3. Another child of reality-show alchemists attempting to escape the absurdity of his own existence by pretending to abscond in the literal manifestation of a tin-foil hat, thereby monopolizing several hours of myopic cable news coverage**, only to be proven the perpetrator of a hoax, found hiding in the Ark of the Covenant in the attic, and suffering through intestinal distress on national television while essentially confessing to his parents' role in a publicity fraud.
Well, OK, this could happen. But I'd put it at 3-1 against.

*Editor's note: This word may not exist, but it should.
**There is something poetic about a cable-talk show host named Wolf fretting over the fate of a child named Falcon. It is sort like a Native American folk tale, as authored by Larry King.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

On a Late-Night Soccer-Based Rant

I understand that soccer is here to stay. I understand that curmudgeonly sporting xenophobes like me who thought we outgrew soccer in the ninth grade have no say in the matter at this point. Sometime in the past few years, it reached an inevitable tipping point, and now it has found its way into the mainstream of American thought. It's here, dude, and I am trying to embrace it, I really am. I have all these friends who have "adopted" Premier League teams based on their nickname or their colors or their locations, and I cannot bring myself to embrace the 31 Flavors artificiality of their thought process, but I get it: You have to start somewhere, and these teams belong to a community, and these teams have wonderful alliterative monikers like Tottenham Hotspurs; these teams at least have some measure of authenticity.

And then there is the United States soccer team.

And you may accuse me of heresy, and you may question my patriotism, and you may liken me to Alger Hiss, but I find it utterly absurd that every time the United States soccer team wins a game (or ties a game, which apparently is often just as good as a win, a principle that would no doubt have led Vince Lombardi to strangle a canine), all these newborn soccer fans feel the need to engage in artificial jubilation, clogging my online feeds with jingoistic declarations of triumph. "U-S-A"? Seriously? Is it 1984 again? I mean, isn't it enough that America is good at everything else, and is admirably clinging to its closing moments on stage as the world's only superpower? Now we have to appropriate the world's sport as our own nationalistic pursuit? Did we just pretend like we were with them all along, that we've finally embraced globalization, that we have a real and true interest in their leagues and their sport and their Hotspurs, when all along what we've really wanted is yet another reason to reinforce our hegemony? We live in the greatest country on earth, and we know it; why do we need to get all in-your-grill over the exploits of eleven undersized scatbacks in shin pads? You want to know why they hate us? This is why they hate us.


Now, perhaps that is a bit harsh. I am not inhuman. I feel terrible about what happened to Charlie Davies, a young star on the USA team who was injured in a horrible car crash. I wish him the best. But when bozos like this guy attempt to appropriate a serious situation and twist it into a patriotic imperative, it reminds me of the utter absurdity of blind nationalism. Get well, Charlie; I hope you burn up the pitch at the World Cup next summer, or whatever they might say. Just know that I will be pulling for the Netherlands, because I really, really dig orange jerseys and legalized recreational drugs, and that seems as a good a reason as any to choose my squad.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

On the First Trickle of Self-Promotion

So my new book, due for publication in the summer of 2010, is now listed on It always seems strange how early these things happen--I'm still in the midst of editing it, and we just recently settled on a title--but it's never too early to pre-order. Apparently, according to the listing, it will weigh precisely one pound.

On Rush

Let me just say this up front: I do not have any particular affinity for Rush Limbaugh, nor do I bother channeling seething hatred for him. I think he is a brilliant provocateur who has skillfully amassed a fortune in money and prescription drugs by promoting a crazed and borderline racist ideology to a segment of society that feels frustrated and marginalized. I find him regularly disgusting, I find him occasionally entertaining when I am trying to stay awake while piloting a rental car on Route 80 past Lock Haven, and beyond that, I try not to think about him at all. I refuse to believe that his most radical opinions connect with the majority of Americans, and I am convinced that the only reason he remains a relevant figure is because he has an uncanny ability to bait his critics and tormentors until they feel the need to slap him back, thereby giving the cable news networks reason to promote his agenda. Which is why I think all this uproar over Limbaugh potentially becoming an owner of the St. Louis Rams is completely misguided. Which is why, in a way, the best thing that could happen for reasonable Americans who have grown tired of Limbaugh's schtick is for Limbaugh to become an NFL owner.

Those of us who follow football recognize that there is a long history of idiots and blowhards owning professional franchises. From 1946 until the early 1960's, George Preston Marshall, the owner of the Washington Redskins, refused to integrate his squad. He was a terrible person, and he set his own franchise back by several decades, and that's the thing: Terrible people who own sports teams are exposed in inexorable ways; their crimes are generally considered unforgivable, even in death. People might understand (and even forgive) if you channel your venom in an attempt to destroy a political agenda (see: Atwater, Lee*); they do not forgive if you ruin their favorite sporting franchise. (And if you don't believe me, walk into a bar in Cleveland and proclaim that you are related to Art Modell.) Bad owners do not win forgiveness over time; bad owners are forever reviled, and it seems quite clear, given that certain NFL players have already begun to protest Limbaugh's potential involvement, given that he only lasted several weeks on ESPN before his own views sunk him, that his tenure would be destined to failure.

Of course, the experts at the National Review seem to think otherwise...He knows how hard it is, and he probably understands that while every loud-mouthed fan in American thinks he could do a better job of running a professional football team than the people who actually do it, there is a deep art to putting together a winning team, writes Geoffrey Norman, who goes so far to predict that Limbaugh's Rams would play "hard-nosed, fundamental football." If Norman is somehow correct, and if Limbaugh is willing to hide behind the scenes, then there is nothing to worry about; then perhaps Limbaugh deserves credit for being willing to subordinate himself. But this man is not suited to silence. He has made his career as a loudmouth; I doubt he'll be able to muzzle himself completely, and when he does speak up, it will be ugly, and it could ruin him. If Limbaugh destroys an NFL team merely by being around them, there is no easy deflection of blame, no faulting the mainstream media or the Democratic party. There is only Rush to blame, now and forever, and for many of us, that might not be such a terrible thing.

*Seriously, if you haven't watched that Lee Atwater documentary, it's great, and explains a lot about the Limbaugh milieu, and the reasons for the gaping political divide of the past two decades.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

On The Best Sports City in America

I grew up in central Pennsylvania, amid that stultifying stretch of Route 80 where truckers doze themselves right off cliffs, in a small college town conveniently located four hours from every major American city in the Northeast. If James Carville's famous description of Pennsylvania as "Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Alabama in between," still holds true, then I grew up in Tuscaloosa, and because of this unique geography, the first major decision of my life was one of sporting allegiance: Steelers or Eagles? Pirates or Phillies? The divide in my town was skewed approximately 60-40 toward Pittsburgh, and I went back and forth, for these were the glory days of Pennsylvania sports: The tail end of the Steelers dynasty; the emergence of the Pirates, of We Are Family, of those most excellent wedding-cake hats; the Jaworskified Eagles; and, of course, the 1980 Phillies. I remember watching Tug McGraw's glove blast off into the stratosphere at the end of that World Series, and for some reason, that turned me toward Philadelphia. It was a curious decision. I had never actually been to Philadelphia (I had been to Pittsburgh once, I believe). I had no family there, though I did have a mild affinity for Benjamin Franklin; several years later, my parents would take us to a doubleheader at Veterans' Stadium, get their car towed due to an arcane parking regulation, and vow never to return.

To this day, I can't say why I chose Philadelphia; I guess it was pure instinct, and one that I've actually come to regret over the years. Because if I'm being honest with myself, I've always liked Pittsburgh better. Pittsburgh is a weird city, full of consonant-laden ethnic enclaves and narrow streets and bridges and hills and warehouses. In Pittsburgh, they name major landmarks after squirrels. In Pittsburgh, they name their beers after metallic ores. In Pittsburgh, they serve the french fries in the sandwich. Pittsburgh is small and intimate; more than any other major American city I've been to, it feels like one big jumbled neighborhood, content with its intimacy. Whereas Philadelphia (and there are things I love about Philadelphia, other than the cheesesteaks) is a city with an inherent inferiority complex, too close to New Jersey, too far from New York; Philadelphia's identity is that it is constantly struggling to come to terms with its identity.

Don't get me wrong--I had a great time growing up with Philadelphia sports, and suffering through the meltdown of Mitch Williams, and the lingering tease of those Randall Cunningham Eagles, but they were never really mine, except by proxy, and the longer I've been away, the more I've come to realize that Philadelphia sports fandom is guided by a crude narcissism that tends to permeate most Northeast cities.* Whereas there's something honest about Pittsburgh: These are people who show up en masse for high-school football games; these are people who suffer through the hapless attempts to rebuild the Pitt football program; these are people who actually attend Pirates games. I've never seen a city where sports is more ingrained into the culture.** Even their overzealous gestures are endearing: I mean, in Pittsburgh, the mayor of the city changes his name from Ravenstahl to "Steelerstahl" in anticipation of a playoff game against the Ravens, and no one questions his sanity? If Bloomberg did this,*** we'd impeach him the next day.

I hope this doesn't change, as Pittsburgh experiences its renaissance moment: Hosting major global summit meetings, winning championships, and yesterday being been named the best sports city in America by The Sporting News. I hope Pittsburgh doesn't go big-time on us, because the best thing about Pittsburgh is that it never felt like it had any great aspirations at all. A beer, a sandwich, and a Super Bowl--that's all they've ever wanted.

UPDATE: Astute reader WCS also points out that Michael Chabon's early coming-of-age novels (including The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys****), as well as the excellent Greg Mottola coming-of-age film Adventureland, were both set in Pittsburgh, all of which probably have something to do with my feelings of warmth. Whereas the best form out of entertainment to come out of Philadelphia in recent years is (not coincidentally) the crudest show on television.

*To be fair, the same thing has happened with the Red Sox since I adopted them in 2000, which explains why I've pretty much given up on baseball altogether.
**Cleveland comes close, but it feels a little more diffuse, I guess.
***Jetsberg? Knicksberg?Redstormberg?
****The criminally underrated movie version of Wonder Boys also features the best Michael Douglas performance since Wall Street. Better, even, than One Night at McCool's.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

On Bowden v. Paterno

There's a great quote toward the end of Michael O'Brien's biography of Joe Paterno, No Ordinary Joe. It's from Jim Tarman, the former athletic director at Penn State, one of the hundreds of prominent central Pennyslvania figures that Joe has managed to outlast at the school. Tarman talks about Paterno's vitality, about his seeming inability to age, about how, at sixty-five, he came across as a forty-five year old. "I've never been around anyone who has aged as reluctantly as Joe," Tarman says, and that word--reluctance--just about says it all. The man refuses to resign himself to obsolescence, for better or worse. I kind of think his plan all along was to keep on going until his body or his mind broke down completely (there was never a five-year retirement plan, despite his hundreds of declarations to the contrary), but I also believe there's a factor lurking in the background that has kept him going, and that's this back-and-forth with Bobby Bowden for the all-time Division I-A wins record. In fact, I've got to believe it's kept them both going, no matter what they might say, no matter their declarations of friendship, or their insistence upon the irrelevance of numbers. Among competitive people, it has to matter. To think otherwise would be naive, wouldn't it?

Still, I don't feel particularly good about what's happening to Bowden at the moment. It feels ineluctably familiar: An aging coach under siege, called upon to resign, struggling to survive the season. For all his flaws, Bowden always seemed like a genial (though sometimes discomfiting--witness his half-joking dismissal of the reporter in the linked clip above as acting, "like a woman") human who deserves credit for establishing one of the most iconic programs in college football history. Both men have had suffered through inevitable declines this decade; only Paterno has recovered (at least for now). Maybe Joe just found a more effective way to delegate responsibility. Or maybe Bowden is just aging more severely. Or maybe Bowden is at a competitive disadvantage in a state with so much viable competition for recruits, whereas Paterno has a more established base in the Northeast. It's hard to know, but it just doesn't seem like it's going end well for at least one of them, and I have to imagine the chase for the victories record has far more to do with this than either man would admit--but especially Bowden, who never appeared as obsessive or high-strung or defiant, who almost seems to be clinging rather than coaching at this point.

It's kind of interesting to wonder how it might affect Paterno if Bowden resigns after this season; maybe it would provide both men with a sense of relief, a reason to let go before the end comes. Maybe Bowden's retirement is the best thing that could happen for both of them. You can age as reluctantly as you want, but eventually, gravity is going to catch up with all of us.

(Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images)

Monday, October 5, 2009

On the Beauty of Ineptitude

As an American male who conspicuously consumes light beer, the advice of Charles Schwab and pickup trucks (preferably all at once), I feel it is a patriotic obligation of mine to stay attuned to professional football. The NFL is the denouement to my weekend; I enjoy it immensely, but it is a product that somehow manages to be both physically superior and spiritually inferior to its college counterpart. Pro football, in the modern age, is a supremely crafted corporate exercise whose studio hosts multiply like Tribbles and whose rules are carefully worked and reworked in order to induce parity.

And yet, as with everything in life, it is most intriguing when those rules fail.

Not in a long time can I recall a conflagration of so many truly horrific NFL franchises, from Kansas City to Cleveland, from Oakland to St. Louis, from Detroit to Tampa Bay. Remember those NFL Films Football Follies episodes, an hour-long pastiche of Buccaneers dressed in Hooters orange, fumbling the ball backward forty yards while Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny provided narration of John McKay muttering, "Sufferin' Succotash!" to himself? Well, this season could be a bonanza for Looney Tunes-worthy ineptitude, and while it might seem like a concern, the NFL should embrace the pathetic back end of its product. Losing is good. Losing is interesting. And losing like this doesn't happen every year.

Let's face it: Pro football in the modern age is hard-edged and cruel, a concussive stream of injury and solemnity, and nothing breaks the tension like a chorus of circus clowns. Seven wins and nine losses is not particularly compelling at all; zero wins and sixteen losses is a Homeric epic. I mean, just look around: The career of JaMarcus Russell is shaping itself into a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. The Lions have become a metaphor for the economic collapse of an entire region. Coaches are punching their assistants; fans are in active revolt. All over the Midwest and the Bay Area and Northern Florida, there are children subconsciously crafting memoirs of their childhoods as fans of hapless and pathetic franchises. I guarantee they are leading far more interesting inner lives than children in Boston, who have never known the pain and suffering of their fathers and forefathers, who now presume by the third grade that they will marry supermodels.

If losing breeds character, this might wind up as the most memorable NFL season of the decade. Which proves, once again, that Al Davis is a misunderstood genius.

(Photo: AP)

Friday, October 2, 2009

On Politics and Sportswriting

One month ago, a dude named Jay Nordlinger wrote this odd little screed on the website of the National Review, declaring that sportswriting was, in fact, far too political, and that these two elements of American existence should never co-mingle. "Politics-in-sportswriting is a pet peeve of mine," Nordlinger wrote.

Today, the National Review has spent most of the afternoon politicizing the failure of a major American city to secure what is, at heart, supposed to be the largest sporting event in the world.

Of course, I realize that the Olympics have always been subsumed by far too many political forces*--and I realize that President Obama injected himself into this debate by attempting to make a pitch for his hometown--and in general, I concur: I don't think sports ever exists in a vacuum. Sports, as with everything else, is a reflection of the culture, and as reflexively childish as it may be for the National Review to ostensibly "cheer against America" after chastising large swaths of the country for eight years of "cheering against America," this is their thing. This is what they do, and if anything, it is proof that sports and politics are often inextricable.*

I expect Mr. Nordlinger's apology is forthcoming.

See: Bias, Leonard.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

On Something That Baffles Me

So I watched a television program the other night called FlashForward. Maybe you saw it; if you didn't, I won't spoil anything for you, except to say that it was such a blatant attempt by ABC to recreate the ethos of Lost (right down to the appearance of a confusing animal) that I kept waiting for a long-haired character named "Huck Finn" to show up shirtless and start making wisecracks and selling prescription medication. But this is not what baffles me. What baffles me is an advertisement I saw the other night, in which ABC claimed that some 35 million people had watched the premiere of FlashForward, and therefore, shouldn't you also be watching FlashForward?*

I know this kind of thing works--I understand that television is both a solitary and a communal experience--but I still can't wrap my head around why it works. For me, this is like the televisual equivalent of the Monty Hall problem. Do people choose to watch a program based entirely on numbers, rather than reviews, or word of mouth? (I also don't understand how the networks' "bridge" programming still works; are there people who watch How I Met Your Mother and are so lazy that they can't even be bothered to change the channel when it's over, thereby resurrecting Jay Mohr's career?)**

Everything about network programming--and, for the matter everything about the modern emphasis on ratings, and box-office gross, and how that can possibly correlate in anyone's mind to the need for viewership--seems utterly anachronistic to me. It's the same thing with sports; today, someone mentioned on Twitter that the Hawaii-Louisiana Tech college football game drew more viewers than the Twins-Tigers baseball game. But what does that mean? What do those numbers have to do with my passion for either sport, or my perception of the game themselves? All they do is water down the experience (see No. 57, here), and coerce the networks to deliver programs that are kind of similar to the programs we love. Except not quite.

*I have no idea how they come up with these numbers, by the way. I presume it is a combination of Nielsen ratings, DVR numbers, and fuzzy math. Speaking of which, when I was a pre-adolescent, we were somehow selected to be a "Nielsen Family" for a short period. This involved marking every single program we watched in a blue book, and...well, that was it. We could have written down anything we wanted, and at times, I think I did, as I was the only one who took our responsibility seriously. Therefore, I may be singlehandedly responsible for keeping My Two Dads on the air.

**I will admit that here are some decent network shows (FlashForward has potential, as does Modern Family, which is kind of like a watered-down, second-tier version of Arrested Development, boosted heavily by the presence of Al Bundy), but for the most part--with the obvious exceptions of Lost and The Office and 30 Rock, and maybe one or two others I've forgotten about--even the good ones are kind of like an HBO program, but not quite as good.