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?