Thursday, December 30, 2010

On The Most 2010 Show of 2010

“There’s always a why. You just don’t understand it.”—Will Travers, Rubicon

“Consumers of all sources of media evidenced substantial misinformation, suggesting that false or misleading information is widespread in the general information environment, just as voters say they perceive it to be.”— Networks/University of Maryland study of the 2010 election.


I watched every episode of AMC’s Rubicon extremely late in the evening, in a dark room, all alone. At first, this was dictated by necessity—between football and premium-channel programming, Sunday nights in the fall of 2010 proved to be a watershed moment in the history of my DVR—but then I began to prefer it that way. Rubicon, about a (presumably) fictional lower Manhttan national intelligence think tank called the American Policy Institute, was a show best appreciated as a fever dream, a claustropobic vision purposely set in the most claustrophic neighborhood of the most claustrophobic city in the world. It was both hyperreal and ridiculously fantastic, an odd blend of tedious bureaucratic infighting and paranoiac thriller tropes. Its symbolism was heavy-handed, and certain characters came and went like disheveled red herrings, and entire episodes would pass with nothing really happening. Everyone was miserable and pale and on the verge of a breakdown, either over their use of recreational pharmaceuticals, their relationship with their spouses, or their growing knowledge of a vast conspiracy hatched by obsessive-compulsive oligarchs.

These are the reasons a lot of people hated Rubicon, and these are the reasons I enjoyed it. I think I would have fit in well at the American Policy Institute. I live my life in constant fear of the things I don’t know. I worry that my beliefs are shallow and incomplete. I worry that there is a cultural conversation taking place beyond my purview: Not necessarily that people are talking behind my back, but that they are privy to knowledge I don’t have. I would like to think I have certain inalienable views on sports and television and politics, but anytime someone argues the opposite viewpoint, I find myself wondering if I’ve missed some crucial fact that proves me empirically wrong.

This was one of the primary themes of Rubicon: That when we actually discover the truth, it is too late. As if to reinforce this notion, the title of the season’s final episode was “You Never Can Win.” Things blew up, a major character died, and then, nine days after the election of 2010, AMC reinforced that theme once more by cancelling the series.


Last week, a collaborative at the University of Maryland released results of a poll that measured the attitudes of voters in the first national vote since the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United ruling struck down limits on election-related advertising. The title of the study: “Misinformation and the 2010 Election.” It provided empirical proof for what many of us already suspected: That part of the reason we can’t seem to find consensus on many of the major political issues of the day is because we can’t even seem to find consensus on the truth. Eight percent of the population believed that economic stimulus created or saved millions of jobs. Thirteen percent believed healthcare legislation would not increase the deficit. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, both of these things are true, yet somehow the mass perception of the opposite has come to define the partisan rigidity of the Obama administration.
Immediately, progressive websites leapt on the segment of the study which found that FOX News viewers were the most misinformed of all, while ignoring the fact that 77 percent of those who voted Democratic believed the stimulus did not create jobs, three in ten believed the healthcare legislation contributed to the deficit, and more than a quarter were no longer certain if there was a scientific consensus on global warming. The frightening part of this is not just that we’re all becoming more and more doctrinaire because of our retreat to partisan media sources; the frightening part is that there is a vast swath of moderate Americans who are hopelessly confused and deeply distrustful of even supposedly objective referees like scientists and budget wonks. The conspiracy is all around us: On one political pole, progressives are complaining that their message is being chewed up by a bureaucratic and dispassionate media; on the other political pole, conservatives are complaining that we are all falling victim to a vast and seditious cabal. It’s just what Rubicon’s lead character, Will Travers, discovered: Anywhere you turn, inside or outside the establishment, you never can win.
I’m glad Rubicon came and went so quickly, and I’m glad it was messy and imperfect and slow-moving, and I’m glad that, in the dark of night, it muddled my brain the way it did. Never in my lifetime have so many people—including me--felt so removed from understanding the why. Someday, when we look back on this time, rampant confusion will define the era. Rubicon wasn’t the best show of 2010—it may not have even been objectively good--but for that very reason, no show epitomized 2010 quite like it did.

Monday, December 20, 2010

On Football, Giants, Punters and Accountability

I have a non-popular take on Coughlin-Dodge situation. Good for the coach for holding accountable the player, who flat didn't do his job.--SI's Dominic Bonvissuto, via Twitter

A week ago, the Washington Redskins cut their starting punter. This would have been unremarkable except for the fact that the Redskins cut Hunter Smith because he botched the hold on a game-tying extra point. Smith was not having a particularly good season, but even so, he was cut because of one botched attempt to grip the pigskin, and he accepted the blame, in surprisingly eloquent fashion: "People that are my age -- and a little younger, and a little older -- want to blame somebody else, and they tend to want to self-protect," Smith said. This, of course, is a facile way of romanticizing the past, but even if you agree that it applies to modern society, I don't think it has anything to do with professional football.

Most sports are pretty bizarre, when you step back and consider them. Pro football is no exception: These are grown men subject to militaristic regulation in service of a child's game. There is something inherently weird about that, which is why it always kind of skeeves me out to watch Tom Coughlin pace the sidelines. As far as I can tell, Coughlin is as old-school and militaristic as coaches get; he appears purposefully dour and unhappy in almost all public situations, and unlike Bill Belichick, there is not the underlying sense that his players have some surreptitious grasp of his humanity. Most of the time when I watch Tom Coughlin, he just reminds me of the football coach from Dazed and Confused.

Now, it's possible that perception is completely misguided. It's possible that I just don't understand Tom Coughlin at all, and that Tom Coughlin spends the off-season breeding puppies to deliver to blind children; but even if the public Tom Coughlin is the real Tom Coughlin, I do understand that there is a place for discipline and accountability in football. I just think that people who preach about it in ceaseless fashion are ignoring the fact that no job in America is grounded more in discipline and accountability than that of a professional football player. How many times have marginal players who have repeatedly risked their own health and safety in service of a chosen batch of laundry been cut for missing a single block, or a single catch, or a single kick? Nothing provides accountability more than an overzealous fan base, a highly-paid coaching staff, and a national television audience, which is why I'm certain that as soon as Matt Dodge was unable to punt the ball out of bounds at the end of that game yesterday afternoon, he knew as well as anyone that he'd failed to complete his assigned task. He is not a superstar; he does not exist in a bubble; his error did not take place in some faraway gentleman's club or in a dogfighting kennel. He didn't need an authority figure to berate him publicly to understand the ramifications of his mistake.* It is very possible that Matt Dodge will be associated with that single play for the remainder of his life. The same can not be said for Coughlin, who had the good luck to win a Super Bowl due to one of the most fortuitous plays in the history of professional football.

That's what sets professional football apart from the rest of the world: Sometimes--and especially for those whose job it is to kick a football to a precise area in space--the difference between doing your job and not doing your job is a momentary lapse of concentration in the midst of tremendous pressure. And the moment of accountability tends to last forever.  

*In truth, even Coughlin's attempt to accept the blame afterward felt kind of like a kick in the groin: I will take responsibility for the fact that the punter I've been utilizing all season is an inexperienced slack-off who couldn't handle his responsibilities.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On The Top Twenty-Nine of Everything, 2010 (An Arbitary and Undefinitive List)

SIn no particular order.

1. Michael Raymond-James on "Terriers," as that guy we've all known.
2. The claustrophobic office sets on "Rubicon."
3. The Marc Maron-Louis CK podcast.
4. Bully.
5. Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Shannon and Michael Pitt on Boardwalk Empire.
6. Abed.
7. The Hunger Games scenes from the first book of the trilogy.
8. This quote, from David Foster Wallace, in David Lipsky's Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: "I don't think writers are any smarter than other people. I think they may be more compelling in their stupidity, or in their confusion."
9. "Swim," by Surfer Blood.
10. John Legend (?!?) on "Blame Game."
11. Spike Jonze, "The Suburbs."
12. 400.
13. My friend Sean Howe's L.A. Burnout mixtape.
14. Jamey Johnson, "Lonely at the Top."
15. Fly.
16. You Are Not a Gadget. 
17. The shock and awe and cultural re-examination engendered by The Decision.
18. Deer Tick, "Twenty Miles."
19. The harmonizing in "Let's Go Surfing," by the Drums.
20. Mr. Peanut, by Adam Ross. 
21. The Suitcase.
22. Vampire Weekend, "White Sky."
23. Michael Vick, rolling to his left.
24. Drive-By Truckers, "The Fourth Night of My Drinking."
25. The last shot.
26. 30 for 30.
27. Roger Greenberg: The thing about you kids is that you're all kind of insensitive. I'm glad I grew up when I did. I'm freaked out by you kids cause your parents were too perfect to parenting. All that baby Mozart and Dan Zanes songs. You're all ADD and carpal tunnel. I hope I die before I end up meeting one of you in a job interview.
28. The shock and awe and cultural re-examination engendered by Cam Newton.
29. The End.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

On Ben Roethlisberger, Dandy Don, North Dallas Forty, and Primal Urges

I wrote this piece for

"Two years ago in the snow in Pittsburgh, he threw two touchdowns in the fourth period to win by a single point. That night he checked into the hospital with a fractured jaw. There wasn't a pass he couldn't throw, a team he couldn't beat, a pain he couldn't endure, or a woman he couldn't fuck, given the right time and combination of pieces."—Peter Gent, North Dallas Forty
Near the beginning of the most brutal game of the most overtly violent season in the history of the National Football League, Ben Roethlisberger broke his nose. You could see it happen, because after being sacked by an angry swarm of Baltimore Raven defenders, Roethlisberger tore off his helmet and a rivulet of blood cascaded from his crooked proboscis. Weaving toward the sideline, a towel pressed to his nostrils, Roethlisberger looked a little like DeNiro playing Jake LaMotta, punch drunk and vacant, limping along on a badly injured foot that appeared to have been mummified by the trainers before the game.

Roethlisberger came back into the game, of course, because this is what Ben Roethlisberger does. If Tom Brady is the epitome of quarterbacking grace, and Peyton Manning is the prototype of quarterbacking subtetly and misdirection, Roethlisberger is the quarterback who epitomizes the brutality of his chosen profession.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

On Terriers and Presidents: A Semi-Political Screed

"I don't know if subtlety is something the American public is buying in droves."


In case you missed it--and you probably did--one of the best new shows of the television season got canceled the other day. It was called Terriers, and it was a private eye show with an inappropriate name and a lackluster marketing campaign; it also happened to be quirky and compelling and funny, and its two co-stars exuded more charisma and on-screen chemistry than anyone outside of Don and Peggy on Mad Men. And when it was over, a remarkable thing happened: The president of the FX Network, Jon Landgraf, held a press conference to explain why he'd cancelled the program.* Alan Sepinwall, one of the most respected television critics in the country and a primary champion of the show, said he couldn't remember that ever happening before.

In the end, the reason was pretty simple: The ratings for Terriers were terrible, even for a niche show on a cable network with a certain amount of critical cache. But during the press conference, Landgraf uttered the statement I've quoted above. He was talking about shows like Jersey Shore and The Kardashians,* about how a show like Terriers sometimes gets lost amid the noise. And he's right. It's always astounding to look at ratings and realize how few people are watching Mad Men in comparison to, say, Two and a Half Men. That's the thing about modern television: It's far better than it's ever been, and yet it's just as bad as it's ever been, as well. Most people turn on the television in search of mindless distraction, and while there's nothing inherently wrong with that, the hard numbers for a show like Terriers are a painful reminder that those of us who yearn for subtlety in our entertainment are still in the extreme minority.


In case you missed it--and you probably did--President Obama held a press conference this afternoon to discuss the impending deal on tax cuts. It was an odd moment, all these reporters pouncing on him for his perceived capitulation while Obama engaged in a vociferous argument for compromise in the face of otherwise certain defeat. It ended with the angriest pragmatist argument I'd seen from him since he became president; it felt like a moment of clarity amid months of obfuscation. And I'm sure the commetariat will find fault with the things he said, and I'm sure the left will continue with their apoplexy over his willingness to compromise in the face of certain defeat**, and I'm sure the right will continue to champion largely irrational ideas and question Obama's very fitness to hold office.

The problem facing our president, strangely enough, is the same problem that faced a low-rated program on a cable television network. The problem facing Barack Obama is that he is attempting to govern with subtlety, and those of us who appreciate such things are still in the extreme minority. Which means we may not appreciate what he's done until years later. Wrote Lost creator Damon Lindelof, "Cancellation sucks, but ten years from now, we'll still be talking about TERRIERS."

And someday, when we are again unwise enough to elect a blindly partisan figure to the highest office, we will know exactly what he means.

*He also mentioned Sons of Anarchy and The Walking Dead, which is a little more peculiar, since--while I've never seen Sons of Anarchy--I think both those shows are at least somewhat sophisticated in terms of plot and character development.

**What amazes me is how many smart people on the left fail to see the difference between abandoning one's principles and attempting to govern in the most effective manner. I admit, this is a colossally frustrating moment for everyone except the few remaining acolytes of Arthur Laffer, but today Obama essentially made the most compelling case I've ever seen by a president that he actually does put the American people before politics. And he will be villified for it, because--thanks to cable television and the Internet--people are more concerned with gamesmanship--with the winning and losing of politics--than they ever have been before.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

On He Who Shall Not Be Named, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Hamburgers

I don't know what will happen in Cleveland on Thursday night. I'd like to think nothing out of the ordinary will take place. I'd like to think that some people will jeer, and some people will laugh, and LeBron James will pour in 46 points and we will move on to the next overscrutinized twist in Miami's Season of Overkill. But since we have arrived at this crossroads, and since there is much navel-gazing taking place,* allow me my own indulgence.

I have stated this before, but I lived in Akron from 1995 until 2000. Those years happened to coincide with the modern heyday of Cleveland. I was young, and I would often find myself in a car on weekend night, hurtling up I-77 toward the Flats or the Warehouse District or Tremont to see a concert or to drink far too many beers. I was an outsider, but it seemed to me that Cleveland was the place you went when you wanted to experience urbanity; Cleveland is a small large city.

Akron was not that place. Because Akron, even as it was undergoing its own brief renaissance, even as it constructed a minor-league baseball stadium downtown, even as nightclubs sprouted up around it, felt like something much less urban. Akron is a large small city; you'd see the same people in the same places night after night, and there was something kind of comforting about it. Akron, my friend David Giffels** once said, has one of everything, but only one of everything. Akron, my friend Chuck once wrote, could be the Springfield we know from The Simpsons. Inexplicable things happen in Akron, news stories that capture the national imagination for their sheer weirdness. Akron incubates a great band approximately once every generation (Chrissie Hynde, Devo, the Black Keys), and Akron breeds serial killers, and Akron boasts an unimaginably great hamburger franchise, and now Akron has produced the most purely talented basketball player who ever lived. If Cleveland resides in some ignominious corner of the nation's cultural framework, Akron is an ignominious afterthought for Clevelanders. This is a town that identifies itself through several layers of inadequacy; whatever it produces is seen through that filter.

I don't know where I'm going with this, except to say that in some perverse way, it makes sense that LeBron James would continue to identify with Akron while dismissing Cleveland. One is a city of underdogs; the other is a forgotten place. At some level, they can't blame LeBron for leaving town. You can only go so far in Akron before you've done everything.

*Of course, much of this navel-gazing is well worth reading. Here is one well-crafted piece from Bill Reiter of Fox Sports, about Akron and its complex relationship with Cleveland how LeBron straddles both worlds. And here is another from my friend/noted raconteur/reporter/writer extraordinaire Wright Thompson, about the city of Cleveland.

**If there is a human being more loyalty to Akron, more of an understanding of what it means to live in Akron than David, I haven't met him.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

On Several Things I Pondered Over The Thanksgiving Respite

1. I understand why the question must be asked, but I'd like to think there's a dividing line between those of us who temper our irrational affinity for sports with a certain amount of perspective and sanity, and those who actually believe laughing in the midst of defeat is some sort of capital offense, and are probably the same the people who bother to phone death threats to college sports bureaucrats, and are in danger of some kind of grand, Buffalo 66/Big Fan-esque spiral of humiliation and ignominy.

2. Which brings me to Boise State, and the worst column I've ever written. I was in college, of course, and Penn State's kicker missed a field goal to lose a game. I cannot remember the game, and I cannot remember the circumstances, but for some reason, this inflamed my sense of righteous indignation to the point that I ended my column with the emphatic declaration: "Leave (said kicker) alone." A few days later, I was at a fraternity party when some girls recognized me from my photo. "You wrote that column about (said kicker)?" they asked, and when I nodded in the affirmative, they giggled and walked off. And so went my first lesson in the dangers of overt self-righteousness; that column was the first of many missed attempts in my career. Which is why I am glad I fell asleep before the end of that Boise State game, because there is nothing more demonstrably more painful in sports than a kicker failing in a clutch situation; it is a nightmare come to life. It is us standing in our underwear. It is us forgetting our lines. It is a scenario that makes for great literature, of course--and I suppose there's a bit of irony in the fact that I shanked my first attempt at capturing those emotions in such a major way. I still wish I could take it back, that I could have tempered my thoughts in a more elegant manner, but I can't. I'm sure, at some minute level, Kyle Brotzman feels the same way.

3. It is amusing how everyone tacitly acknowledges that the NBA regular season is essentially meaningless until March/April, but the Heat appear to be dead in the water after eighteen games.

4. Just when I thought narrative journalism, I returned from frigid New England to read this excellent piece on Laura Hillenbrand, and this outstanding piece by Chris Jones on Randy Quaid, and this edifying two-part interview with magazine writer extroardinaire Michael Paterniti, who published this ridiculously good Thurman Munson profile a few days after I'd published my own Thurman Munson profile in the Akron Beacon Journal Sunday Magazine, which even now serves as a humbling reminder that I'm not too far removed from being the clumsy bozo who wrote all those terrible columns in college.

Monday, November 22, 2010

On Four Things Worth Reading About Three Controversial Cultural Figures

1. Kanye. "Nobody halfway sane could have made this album," writes Rob Sheffield, and that sounds about right. The point is this: Art is an inherently self-conscious pursuit, and so when an artist is able to create something that seems entirely devoid of self-consciousness, it is generally worth paying attention to. This album is the musical equivalent of Usain Bolt running a 9.69 while preening for the final forty meters. It is, as Zach Baron writes, our whole f-ed up hyperaccelerated culture, balled together and spit out in 13 completely insane cuts.

2. The Situation. Well, not The Situation, actually. I couldn't give a damn about The Situation, and I find Jersey Shore repels my conscience to the point that I've actually had to leave the room when my future wife deigns to watch it. But Alex Pappademas's profile of The Situation for GQ manages to render The Situation's situation into high-art. Exhibit A: "Jersey Shore explicitly exoticized the world it depicted, highlighting its cast's earring-ripping catfights, their cavalier hookups, their gaudy Gothic-lettered T-shirts, their rampant hair-gel abuse, and their shitty taste in dance music; they even treated half the footage with an old-timey-newsreel filter that made the show resemble a snuff film." Go read the rest right now.

3. LeBron James. Well, not LeBron James, really, but Brian Windhorst, who covers James and the Miami Heat for Several thousand years ago, when I worked at a newspaper in Akron, Ohio, Windhorst was an overachieving high-school kid working on the night desk, so attuned to the local sports scene that his nickname was "Scoop." He worked his way up to covering the Cavaliers for the Beacon Journal, jumped to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and then took his talents to South Beach, following LeBron all the way through his career. Michael Kruse of the St. Pete Times spent a little time with Brian, and what results is a lovely little piece about two lives intertwined, and about what it means to leave home.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

On Blair Thomas, Greg Oden, and Level of Bustitude

He stopped short, dropping his arms. "I..." he said, gasping a little, though his condition was fine and the run hadn't winded him. "I--once I played here."
--Irwin Shaw, The Eighty Yard Run

In my mind, Blair Thomas is not a punchline. In my mind, Blair Thomas is not a bust. In my mind, Blair Thomas is the running back in this video, the running back who, at the 6:25 mark, propels himself through the Syracuse defensive line and then bursts past five defenders for one of the most picturesque 92-yard runs you will ever see. In my mind, Blair Thomas is the running back who took his next carry forty yards for another touchdown, and finished the day with144 yards on three carries, announcing his presence in a way I've never seen a young running back do before or since. In my mind, Blair Thomas was a first-tier talent who tore up his knee before his senior season and never regained the same burst; I was a teenager who never played football and even I recognized that the Blair Thomas of 1989 was not the Blair Thomas of 1986. It is not his fault that the Jets were too inept to realize this; it is not his fault that the Jets overvalued him.

I bring this up for a couple of reasons: First, Jeff Pearlman, in compiling a list of the 100 Worst Players in NFL history on Deadspin, cited Thomas in his introduction. Not as one of the worst players in the NFL history, but as a "larger-than-large bust." Now, let's leave aside the fact that I can find no citation of Joe Paterno actually calling Thomas "the best player I've ever coached" (he did call Thomas the best all-around running back he'd coached, a relatively major distinction given the defensive stars who have come through Penn State's program); let's just ask the larger existential question that hovers over Pearlman's rankings (which are generally a goofy and well-rendered conceit): What is a bust? How do we determine a bust? Shouldn't mitigating circumstances be factored in?

Now, it is true that Blair Thomas did not live up to expectations. And so perhaps, at some level, at least in the minds of Jets fans, this makes him a colossal bust. In my mind, if you had to measure Level of Bustitude*, it is fair to rank Thomas higher on the scale than, say, poor Ki-Jana Carter, who may have actually been the greatest running back of the Paterno era but never could stay healthy when he reached the NFL. (Thomas might be 7; Carter is probably a 2 or 3.) The problem is, we don't make these distinctions. The problem is that there is no nuance in the classification of a bust; there is no measure of injuries and the mental burden of fame and the attendant pressure that may affect certain personalities in different ways than others.  And that brings us to Greg Oden.

Oden's career, of course, has been a story of failure. His body is flawed; his body has betrayed him, over and over again. This happens, but when it happens to an athlete like Oden, it somehow becomes his fault. In a matter of time, Oden will be inexorably connected to Ryan Leaf, even though the individual circumstances of their Bustitude could not be more different. This is not fair, but this is sports, and in sports, we never really consider the notion that the human body is a fickle and undependable instrument. Failure is failure, and Greg Oden is not possessed of the health and/or talent of Kevin Durant, with whom he will forever be compared (see Leaf: Manning). The circumstances are irrelevant, and the past matters to no one but ourselves.


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

On Cam Newton: A Kind Of Anarchistic Viewpoint


The good people at The War Eagle Reader, a fun/hipsterish Auburn-centric website, asked me to write something about the Cam Newton saga. So of course I wound up writing about Penn State...

Let me begin with this: I grew up a fan of Penn State football, and so you may assume that everything I say is couched in a certain amount of stodgy Northeastern academic elitism. At Penn State, they like to think they treat football and compliance with equal dilligence, which is why my alma mater often finds itself marooned in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day, led by a seemingly indestructible octogenarian who resembles a professor emeritus at Hogwarts. You may think of us a declining power with prison-issue uniforms and a stunning inability to defeat Alabama, but at least we are self-righteous about it.
And so, while it is true that, in the midst of researching my latest book, I bore witness to the holy act of Bo Jackson firing a crossbow in his own driveway, I am not going to lie and say I understand exactly what you are feeling down there at Toomer’s Corner at this critical juncture. (The closest Penn State has come to a truly juicy recruiting scandal revolved around Joe Paterno’s insistence on converting several future Hall of Fame quarterbacks to linebacker.) But we do have one thing in common: We have both felt the sting of being worked over by the pollsters.

Read more here. And while you're at it, listen to this:

Monday, November 15, 2010

On Glycerine, Battleships, and Thinking Fast

I accept it as a fact of life that I no longer have an attention span. I am constantly distracted from my life's work by the stiff breeze of a Twitter post about grizzly bears, or a Facebook update about a particularly popular brunch spot in a town I never plan on visiting. This is the way the world works nowadays; there is nothing I can do to prevent it short of sailing to a mysterious island and locking myself in a cage with a machine that dispenses fish biscuits.

This is my brain at age 37. And so I cannot imagine what it must be like for the 21-year-olds who have grown up hard-wired to technology, who have essentially never known a world without distraction. Seriously, how does anyone study? And far more important, how does a college football team manage to memorize its playbook? There is so much random information parading through our synapses that it is nearly impossible to keep everything straight. Which is why Oregon coach Chip Kelly has come up with the most innovative playcalling strategy of the modern era.

You may have seen these placards, the ones Oregon uses to signal plays from its sideline to its amphetamine-addled offense. On the surface, they make no sense. On the surface, they are just random bytes and seemingly unrelated snippets culled from ESPN and the Encyclopedia Brittanica and a Marlon Perkins special, but that is the beauty of Kelly's system: Whatever these symbols happen to mean (and I hope someday in the future, we get to find out), they are the optimal fit for the hard-wiring of a 21-year-old's brain, for a kid who spends all day clicking through to unrelated links on Twitter and processes hundreds of generally meaningless pieces of information over the course of an afternoon. They are utterly random signifiers. They are, as one Oregon coach notes, "something that would give our guys an immediate association so they could get out there and play fast."

It's not just about playing fast, of course. It's about thinking fast, which is generally the only kind of thinking we do these days. In winning game after game, Oregon just happens to be thinking a little bit faster. And the best way to do that is to assure that your train of thought makes as little sense as possible.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

On 400

Shortly after Joe Paterno won the four hundredth game of his career, the scores of each of his victories began scrolling across the Jumbotron at Beaver Stadium. There were so many, rendered in such small type, that it was nearly impossible to read them from afar. And even then, it seemed like it might never end, like Paterno might not make it until the end of his own C.V. before bedtime.

I was standing in Section WG, Row E, in the same cramped metal bleachers from which I'd intermittently watched Joe Paterno coach for more than thirty years. I was there purely by chance, but I'm glad I was, because I realize it's going to end soon. That, for me, is the part that's most difficult to deal with; there are few things in life that last so long they seem like they'll never change. Joe Paterno is one of those things. But that night, there was a feeling that this was it, that at some point in the near future, Paterno will simply fade away, and that this was the last celebration* he will allow himself to indulge in. 

I won't sit here and spout platitudes; there are times when I think the cult of personality that surrounds Paterno is too overbearing. Maybe you think Joe Paterno is a self-righteous boor. Maybe you think his career has become one long octogenarian joke. Maybe you think all those years of beating up on East Coast weaklings render his records meaningless. That's your right. But what continues to strike me is that Paterno's uniqueness lies in his deft ability to tie his legacy to something more than the sport in which he coached.

One more thing: There's something ironic in the fact that all of this celebration of Paterno centers around the fact that no one can ever replicate what he did. Because one of the tenets of Paterno's Grand Experiment was that his program would set an example for all the others, that the marriage of academia and athletics was not an untenable proposition. And forty years later, we seem to be acknowledging that it is untenable. Which, if it's true, means that one of the two greatest coaches in the history of college football succeeded in impacting his university in unprecedented ways, but could not succeed in changing the way we view modern college athletics. Which means the Grand Experiment was an unqualified success, but it exists in a vacuum.

*Is there anything more lovely than Paterno beginning his 45 second victory speech by acknowledging the fact that most of the people in that stadium were thinking as much about the traffic in the parking lots as they were about the content of his address? How many other major college coaches would be able to separate themselves from their ego, if only for that moment, and acknowledge his audience's concerns about returning to the remote corners of the state from whence they came? In all, on what was supposed to be a celebration about him, Paterno spoke for less time than both Penn State's athletic director and Penn State's president.

(Photo: Centre Daily Times)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

On Inconsequential Things That Matter To Me

1. The Value of Insults

Here's my question about the Kevin Garnett-Charlie Villanueva dust-up: Isn't it worse if Garnett was actually attempting to call Villanueva a cancer to his team and to the NBA? If Garnett did call Villanueva a "cancer patient," it is undeniably stupid and insulting, but it's a juvenile taunt born of anger and spontanaiety, as Tommy Craggs ably points out. But Garnett essentially calling Villanueva a mental and emotional cancer, a bad teammate, and a lazy person, seems far more premeditated and far more deeply felt. Either way, Garnett is an extremely talented jerk, but isn't it better if he's just a jerk who spouts off like a child rather than a jerk who judges the character of people he doesn't know at all?

2. The Value of Insults, Part II

It always amuses me when the blogosphere holds a collective freak-out over something a talk-radio host says. The very notion of talk radio is built on drawing attention, on creating compelling narratives, even if those narratives are false.* That's true of both political talk radio and sports-talk radio. Either way, it is an entertainment, based entirely on perpetuating whatever news cycle happens to be capturing the public's attention, and in most cases, we do it a disservice if we take it too seriously.

On a semi-related note, there are few things more intriguing than watching pundits furiously attempt to break down the lessons learned from an election in the 24 hours following an election (watch an historian like Doris Kearns Goodwin address those same issues). I have to imagine the wild political swings in this country are not entirely isolated from cable news' nimble ability to massage the narrative in opposing directions, based on the outcome of an election.     

3. Shazzactor!

I have an idea for an IPhone app that serves as proof of how intellectually lazy I've become: I would like someone to conjure a program which would work like Shazam does for music, except it would apply to television and film actors. So I could hold my phone up to the television, shoot a photo of an actor, and in a matter of seconds, it would tell me who this person is, link to his/her IMDB profile, etc. This seems like something that should exist (I don't know, maybe it does)--so much so that I've occasionally found myself holding my phone up to the television set for no apparent reason. This is how the Internet has conditioned my brain: I now find it reflexively confounding that there is ever any mystery about anything at all.

*In other words, it's a lot like the blogosphere.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

On Randy Moss

Randy Moss is the greatest football player I've ever seen in person. Back in 1997, I lived in Northeast Ohio, and a friend and I drove over to Kent State to watch Moss and Chad Pennington when they both played for Marshall. I'd never seen anything like it--Moss could break open whenever he wanted; he leapt over people, ran past them, and then ran around them. It was the closest thing I'd ever seen to a video game come to life.*

In retrospect, it seems absurd that Moss slipped to 21st in the NFL draft. Here was the extent of his moral transgressions up to then: A high-school fight that appeared to have been sparked by racist taunts, and a positive test for marijuana. I'm not sure why either of those things were enough to scare people away. My guess it was something more than that. My guess is that teams were scared away from Randy Moss because as with a lot of truly transcendent athletic talents, he's a pretty complicated figure.

I don't know Randy Moss. I've never spoken to him, and I've only heard him speak at length a few times, so everything that follows is pure dime-store speculation. But I find him fascinating, and not just because he may be (along with LeBron James) the greatest pure athlete of his generation. I find him fascinating because he seems to have an incredibly twisted relationship with authority. His whole existence is a John Mellencamp song; much of the time, he seems to be at war with his own psyche, which is what makes those past couple of press conferences so fascinating--there is nothing more intriguing than watching a man conduct a public disagreement with himself.

In 2002, Moss allegedly bumped a police officer with his car because he wanted to make a turn he couldn't make. In retrospect, that seems like a fitting metaphor. He was never consumed by vanity like Terrell Owens; he was never a self-promotional goofball like Chad Johnson. He didn't seem particularly violent, even after charges of domestic violence emerged. Moss has always seemed more interested in testing people, in pushing boundaries with the people in charge: Coaches, executives, media members. Maybe what he wants to see is how much they push back. Clearly, that's what he was doing with Brad Childress, who might have handled the whole problem with a single conversation, but who might have lost Moss's respect before Moss even landed in that locker room, given the way he's subjugated himself to his own quarterback.

And this, of course, is what's so extraordinary about Moss's time in New England, because Bill Belichick is a man who manages to earn his players' respect while at the same time making them fully aware that they are simply cogs in a much larger machine. But I think New England worked for Randy Moss because he is not simply guided by his own hubris. I think New England worked for Randy Moss because, while he may have been such a great athlete for such a long time that he has no concept of ordinary reality, he does understand that most of the people who guide his fate do see him as a cog in a machine. And maybe there's a certain peace in knowing that, rather than having it smoothed over, rather than having authority figures either subjugate themselves to him or overreact to relatively minor transgressions. Maybe the irony in this is that all Randy Moss needs to be happy is to feel he's being treated like an adult.

*At least until I watched Oregon's offense this season.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

On LeBron, Nike, and the Deconstruction of America

You've probably never heard of Jim Riswold,* but I could make a case that he's one of the most influential figures in modern sports. Riswold is an ad-man--or at least, he was; now he's a really clever pop artist--and in the 1980s, he worked at Wieden and Kennedy, the Portland firm outsourced by Nike to devise its ad campaigns. It was Riswold who came up with the idea to marry Spike Lee and Michael Jordan; it was Riswold who came up with the catchphrase "Bo Knows." It was Riswold who helped shape and define athletes through commercial imagery, and sell a generation on both shoes and subversiveness; it was Riswold who would admit to me, years later, that he essentially created a monster.

I thought of Riswold when I watched this new LeBron James advertisement. It is an homage to the work he did; it is the natural descendent of this utterly brilliant Bo Knows ad from 1992, when Bo, rehabbing from injury, faced the inevitable end of his career. At that point, the notion of an athlete deconstructing his own career in his own advertisement seemed subversive to the point of mutiny; there's a moment in that ad when Bo actually stares down the logo of the shoe he's trying to sell. In 1992, that was unheard of. In 1992, this was the closest Nike could come to rebelling against itself, and what company in its right mind would do that?

Now, of course, all we do is deconstruct. Most of us don't actually believe LeBron James to be a terrible person; we just think he made a terrible PR decision, which, in this day and age, seems to be almost as inexcusable an error as actually doing something terrible. This is how we see things now. Turn on any cable station and tell me how much time they spend judging the political effectiveness of any given campaign's image versus the actions proposed by any given candidate. It's the reason Chris Matthews has a career.

Which is why an international conglomerate like Nike, and an international brand like LeBron, can get away with a commercial like this. It's because men like Jim Riswold, unwittingly or not, set us on this path, of athletes become constructs, and of us becoming as interested in the construct as we are in the people themselves. "What should I do?" LeBron asks, and these days, everyone has an answer to that question. These days, the best way to rebel is to stare down your own image.

*Unless you happened to somehow come across this book.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

On Pain, Injury, Violence and Why This Conversation Needs To Be Had

I don't know if this is the week the inescapable issue of NFL violence reaches its tipping point. I don't know if we all just obsess over it for a few days and then allow it to recede into the background, as Drew Magary so coarsely espouses here. I don't think we will, because there will be other hits on other days, and as a fan with something resembling a conscience, this is the first thing that goes through my head anytime I watch a football player lie dazed on the ground after a helmet torpedoes them directly under the chin. And maybe Magary's right, and maybe I'm still in the minority when it comes to that viewpoint, but I don't know, and I don't think that's going to be the case in the future, especially when the worst happens (which it will, and sooner than we think).

As usual, Posnanski captured our ambivalence over this issue about as well as anyone could. I mostly point you to him, but I'd like to add one thing, which is that football itself may need to undergo some changes, but changing the game itself is only a small part of the equation. You read James Harrison attempting to delineate the difference between "hurt' and "injure," and you read Brian Urlacher ranting about the prohibition of helmet-on-helmet assault as being the equivalent of flag football, and you realize it's the culture that needs to change.

Football has always been the realm of tough and stern and violent men, and that will never go away unless football goes away. But at some point--and this may take a generation, and it may take longer than a generation--people have to realize that the reason they play the game, and the reason many of us watch the game, is for the moments that happen between the hits. Sure, there is something that appeals to our primal instincts about watching two men collide with nihilistic impunity, but there's something much more beautiful about watching Adrian Peterson run a sweep, about watching Drew Brees throw deep, about watching Darrelle Revis blanket Brandon Marshall. I would rather see those things in a less physical and more prohibitive league--hell, I would rather have flag football--than lose the game altogether.

And I know there's an inherent element of physicality to each one of those actions, but toning that down or attempting to mute the impact of those hits--just having this conversation over the course of several months, or several years, until we strike the proper balance--will not somehow cheapen the game itself. The only thing that cheapens the game is the notion that devastating violence is somehow inescapable.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

On Facemasks

So in the past three days we've reinforced a pair of truisms: 1.) Football (even terrible football, involving quarterbacks who once mocked me at pizza parlors while I was visibly drunk on Sambuca in college)* is the most popular sport in America, and 2.) Football is at a serious crossroads. "Isn't hitting hard part of football?" asks the Baltimore Sun's Kevin Van Valkenberg, in a blog post defending the defenders who are perpetrating violent hits that once went unnoticed. And he's right, of course, but I still see no way in which football can survive without undertaking some fundamental changes in the way it's played, or the way it looks. There's no more rationalizing these issues. So today, Joe Paterno advanced an idea that seems like a punchline to an octogenarian joke: Eliminate the facemask. He's not the first person to advance this idea; the idea behind it is that there's no better way to deter a defender than to ensure that a head-first hit will result in a severely deviated septum.

It's one of those ideas that won't ever be accepted by the mainstream; it sounds too counterintuitive, and it would look too strange, and my guess is the player's association wouldn't exactly be thrilled by the prospects of significant dental work displacing concussions. But maybe the best way to move the game forward is to drag it back in time.

*And can I just say, Kerry Collins now has more passing yards than Jim Kelly, Donovan McNabb, Phil Simms, Steve Young, Y.A. Tittle and Troy Aikman. If he had won the 2000 Super Bowl with the Giants, and then made the Super Bowl with the 2008 Titans, he would be a borderline Hall of Famer. As it is, he has to be considered as the most unnoticed decent-to-very good quarterback of the past fifteen years.

Friday, October 15, 2010

On Insightful Critiques of Terrible Ideas

I've already expressed my regard for Dan Wetzel's ability as a columnist on this forum, and I had a chance to read an advance copy of his new book, written with two talented Yahoo colleagues: Josh Peter, who wrote a book about professional bull riding that I've been meaning to read for years, and Jeff Passan, who regularly manages to craft the kind of baseball stories that someone like me, who's fallen out of love with baseball, still finds fascinating. And then Dan and I spoke about the book and GQ's Devin Gordon transcribed the whole thing. It doesn't really matter if you agree with these guys or not; if you care at all about college football, this is a book you really should read. Because I guarantee there are at least two or three completely insane facts about the BCS in here that you have absolutely no idea about.

Anyway, here's Devin's intro, and the first question. Follow the link for the rest, and then buy the book:

Like all great works of investigative reporting, this one began with a question: everyone knows that college football's Bowl Championship Series—a.k.a. the BCS—is the stupidest thing in sports, so why can't we get rid of it? The answer, like in all great works of investigative reporting, is complicated. Fortunately Dan Wetzel, an ace writer for Yahoo! Sports, and his co-authors Josh Peter and Jeff Passan, took the time and did the leg work to unravel it. Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series, Michael Weinreb, whose new book, Bigger Than the Game: Bo, Boz, The Punky QB and How the '80s Created the Modern Athlete, is the fall's other must-read sports book. delivers exactly what the title promises, bolstered by exhaustive reporting. It is a must-read for passionate fans of college football; just be prepared to be infuriated once you're done. The upshot? Yes, the BCS is as craven and foolish as you think. No, it isn't going anywhere, not for a while. To explain why, Wetzel got on the phone with another ace sportswriter who is similarly addicted to college football and despondent over the BCS:

After the jump, Wetzel and Weinreb pick apart the system and explain why the myths about its worthiness persist, how we can possibly get rid of it, and exactly how much bandleaders get paid for bowl appearances by their schools. (Yes, even they get paid.)

Weinreb: Your book is a great read, and there was a ton of stuff in there about how the BCS works that I didn't know about at all. And I think that's true for most fans of college football. None of us know this stuff.

Wetzel: We didn't either. The book started a few years ago when we decided to figure out why we really don't have a playoff system in college football. The excuses that they pop out—"We don't wanna inconvenience the cheerleaders"—is clearly not a reason. We've heard the propaganda for 14 years. And nobody believes it. So what's the real reason? Well, this is America, so you follow the money. We literally went through thousands of pages of tax documents, university contracts, talked to accountants, everybody. And at various times the light bulb would go on and we'd be like, "Wow, I hadn't thought of this." So where we ended up with the book was not where we started.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

On Inconsequential Things That Matter To Me

1. Promotional Notes

ESPN Chicago ran an excerpt of Bigger Than the Game, as part of their '85 Bears commemoration. Also, Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News quoted my book in evoking comparisons between the Alex Smith-Singletary confrontation and the back and forth between Ditka and Jim McMahon (see Chap. I, Section II, which you can read online or on a Kindle for free).

2. Knee-Jerk Contrarianism, Part I

I credit Dave Jones of the Patriot-News for his provocativeness, but to me, this proposition is the equivalent of randomly altering the punctuation in The Sun Also Rises. Some of us happen to like 1950s milk bottles, Mr. Jones. We don't need silver, and we don't need additional swooshes (the blasphemy of adding one to the greatest outfit in sports was egregious enough), and those Nike combat uniforms (above) look like Phil Knight conjured them during a fever dream. The only acceptable addition to Penn State's uniforms would be to add back the numbers on the helmets, as it was pre-1974. Sometimes, old and staid is the best possibility of all.

3. Knee-Jerk, Contrarianism, Part II

I could take issue with many of the points Slate's Jack Shafer makes about the media criticizing athletes for hanging on too long (and I even agree a few things he says), but when he says Michael Jordan's years with the Wizards were "great and meaningful," he loses me for good. Somebody might want to send him a copy of this book.

Monday, October 11, 2010

On the Backup Quarterback

My first intimate experience with the allure of the backup quarterback came in the Fall of 1979. The starter for Penn State that year was Dayle Tate, a promising prospect who stepped into the role at the worst possible moment--the season before, Penn State had lost the national championship game to Alabama, 14-7, on New Year's Day, on a goal-line stand that would hang over the program for several years afterward. Tate's predecessor at the position was Chuck Fusina, whose merits have previously been documented on this very blog; his successor, after a year of torment and mediocrity, would be Todd Blackledge. In the 1979 Penn State football press guide, Dayle Tate is wearing a plaid sportjacket; while I'm sure this jacket was perfectly fashionable during the Carter Administration, I now subconsciously connote plaid sportjackets with failure, and I associate Dayle Tate with the first shower of boos I ever witnessed in person at a sporting event.

None of that season was particularly the fault of Dayle Tate. In 1979, Penn State went 8-4, which is a considerably better record than what they will likely finish with this season. They finished their season with a 9-6 victory over Tulane in the Liberty Bowl.* And it's true Dayle Tate's numbers are not particularly great--he completed 52 percent of his passes and threw eight touchdowns and 11 interceptions--and it's true Tate's backup was a freshman named Jeff Hostetler, who would wind up transferring to West Virginia and then winning a Super Bowl, but really, most of this wasn't Dayle Tate's fault. Penn State lost to four teams that Fall, and gave up an average of 31 points in those four games; when Hostetler did step in during the final regular season game against Pittsburgh, he went 6-for-16 with 72 yards and an interception.**

But this is not about rationality. This is about the essentially irrationality of sports fans, and nothing epitomizes this notion quite like the obsession with the backup quarterback. It happens every year, in cities and towns across America. It's happening now at Penn State, where a true freshman named Rob Bolden--clearly Penn State's best option at a quarterback position where none of the candidates have any real experience--has been tasked with holding together a team with an injury-riddled defense and an offensive line that would have trouble run blocking against a tigerless Siegfried and Roy.***It's happening perpetually in Philadelphia, where Kevin Kolb supplanted Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick supplanted Kevin Kolb who supplanted Michael Vick, and now Eagles fans are so confused they no longer know who to boo. And it happened most startlingly last night in San Francisco, where Alex Smith, the designated scapegoat for a team that's managed to lose games in every possible way, was booed so loudly that I half-expected to see him wear a plaid sportcoat to the postgame press conference. And who did San Francisco fans want to replace him with? David Carr, who, in his final year as a starter, four years ago, threw 11 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.****

Over at Deadspin, Barry Petchesky called it "The Single Saddest Moment of the NFL Season." And yet, at some level, it was also entirely predictable. Because the backup quarterback is a channel for all the fury and irrationality and egotism and certitude of the American sports fan. Because the backup quarterback represents hope when all hope is lost, an altered future when the future promises nothing but bleakness. Even if he's not as good, he's still better. It's a story that will never change, even when it doesn't make much sense.

*Which, with the exception of an option pass by an Afro'ed halfback named Joel Coles, was one of the more atrocious football games I have ever seen. 
**Pitt's quarterback was 17-of-32 for 279 yards. His name was Moreno. Or Marino. Or something. I believe he now spends his Sundays in a well-lit room laughing at unfunny jokes.
***I'm not sure if that metaphor makes any sense, but it's Monday, and this is my blog. So just go with me.

****On a side note, I think the implosion of the 49ers is one of the more intriguing stories in what's become a truly weird NFL season. Mike Singletary berating Smith on the sideline last night kind of felt like a Ditka v. McMahon moment.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

On Performance-Enhancing Musburgers

I think Brent Musburger has said more controversial things about hippies stationed in trees than what he said about steroids. I get it already; it's cheating. That much has been established. But it seems rather obvious at this point that the only way we'll ever have an honest conversation about steroid usage--the only way to prevent every cyclist in the world from cramming his refrigerator with O positive--is to temper our moral outrage and approach it in a rational and scientific manner, something that will never actually happen but is a nice dream nonetheless. That, it seems to me, is largely what Musburger was advocating for, despite his seeming dismissal of journalists under the age of 70 as whippersnappers. Which is just a side effect of consuming too many Bloomin' Onions, whose side effects are no doubt far worse than Clenbuterol.

And while we're at it, why is it that I'm thoroughly convinced Jose Bautista is using some sort of performance-enhancing product, but I would never suspect a dominant pitcher--say a pitcher who threw a postseason no-hitter--of using anything at all? I realize that Roy Halladay looks (and talks) like a CPA, but shouldn't we know better than to judge by appearances? We don't know anything, and we won't know anything until we can stop freaking out over everything.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

On Old Friends and New Realities

People ask me sometimes how I came across ideas, and I never really know how to answer. Often, it's just good fortune. In 2004, I was working at Newsday, covering high school and college (and occasionally professional) sports, and I came across a press release, which had been faxed by a chess coach at a school I'd never actually heard of. I'd never heard of Edward R. Murrow High School because it doesn't have any sports; and yet for years it had a reputation as one of the best public high schools in Brooklyn, a place for the creative and the unusual, a place where students could design their own curricula amid a plethora of elective courses.

I spent over two years at Murrow, hanging around on Thursday afternoons, traveling with the chess team, befriending a math teacher and chess coach named Eliot Weiss. I met with the school's founder, the late Saul Bruckner, whose obituary includes this key paragraph:

"When other schools cut out all the 'thrills,' as they called them, Saul said, 'I'm not letting go,' " said Mr. Weiss*. He recalled the difficulties of keeping electives such as portrait drawing, investigative journalism, abnormal psychology and Java programming.

Murrow was unique. It was like no other school I'd ever seen, even then, besieged as it was by the realities of economics and overcrowding. But Murrow needs to maintain a delicate balance in order to preserve its uniqueness; and according to an article in today's New York Times, it's getting more and more difficult to preserve that balance.

I wrote about Murrow and high-school chess for a lot of reasons, mostly because the people fascinated me. I didn't think I was writing about the type of school that could no longer exist in the modern urban landscape, and I hope I wasn't. But it's always depressing to realize that the universe you spent so much time laboring to depict may not live on forever.

*This is actually a different Mr. Weiss, the assistant principal of the school. No relation to the chess coach.

Friday, October 1, 2010

On LeBron and Manufacturing Dissent

A couple of thoughts:

1. In a country where 24 percent of the people think the president is a Muslim, and the same number believe he wasn't born in America, I don't see anything controversial with one of the three most famous athletes in this country responding to a direct question by stating that race, "at times," may have affected the judgment of certain people regarding him from afar. And you can't tell me there isn't, at the very least, something curious and worth exploring in the fact that even as LeBron's Q rating has plummeted, Brett Favre is still one of the most popular athletes in America.

2. Whitlock raises some good points here, most notably that LeBron has been mute on issues of race in the past. But maybe this is an opening. If LeBron is never going to win over the majority of the American public, if he's never going to become the worldwide brand that he imagined he could be, if he's now going to be branded as the cartoon villain, maybe this frees him up to become more outspoken. I can't imagine this ever happening. But at least it's interesting to imagine what would happen if it did.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

On Reviewing Periodicals for Fun and (Non)Profit

Justin over at the Sports, Crackle Pop blog (who interviewed me a couple of months back) asked me to "review" this week's edition of Sports Illustrated for his site while he attends some sort of mating ritual. So I did. It was fun.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

On Video Games and Goal-Line Stands

I don't know if anyone outside of televangelists and Luddites still claim that video games warp the human brain. But in a way, all that fear-mongering of the 1980s was correct: Video games have warped my brain, because they've completely changed the way I think about sports. Today's example: The goal-line stand.

Sunday night, Jets-Dolphins: Rex Ryan's squad of drunkards and clowns has the ball at the Miami 1-yard line, and a one-point lead. Under two minutes to play. Dolphins with two time outs. And like many, I'm thinking: Don't score. Waste as much time as possible. (This is, of course, a strategy born of video games, because in EA Sports' version of college football, anything more than four seconds is enough time for an opponent to run Four Verticals and complete an 89-yard touchdown pass, somehow bypassing every safety backed off in a Cover Three prevent.) Which is what Rex Ryan tried to do, challenging a 12-men on the field call (something I was unaware you could even do), a challenge which, if successful, would have essentially enabled the Jets to run out the clock. The challenge failed. The Jets could have downed the ball, or dropped a foot short of the goal line, on the next two plays. Instead, they chose to score on the next play. And given the way the Miami offense had shredded the Jets' secondary all night, you just knew this was too much time. Miami drove downfield, and the Jets somehow stopped them on their own goal line, but it would have been much easier if Ryan had chosen to futz around for two plays, forced the Dolphins to burn their time-outs, and then punched it in. By embracing conventional wisdom, the Jets nearly lost the game.  

Monday night, Bears-Packers: Bears, tied 17-17, possess the ball on the Packers' doorstep, under two minutes to play. And I'm thinking: Let them score. Because this is what you do in the video game. Because this is always the best strategy in a pixelated world where offense can be generated in a matter of seconds. But as video game offenses have increasingly converged with real-life offenses, this is now the obvious choice in humanoid football, as well. The Packers have one of the four best quarterbacks in football. The Packers have five excellent ball-catching men. The Packers, with one minute and 45 seconds, had at least a 30 percent chance of driving downfield and scoring a touchdown. Whereas the Bears' kicker, Robbie Gould, had at best a 5 percent chance of missing a glorified extra point. This concept is now so simple, even a lunatic (or an insightful pro football writer like my friend Seth Wickersham) can see the logic. Video games no longer warp the way we think. Video games dictate the way we think.

Monday, September 27, 2010

On Braylon Edwards

So some people I've done interviews with in recent weeks have asked me, since I wrote a book about the 1980s, whether I think that was the moment when athletes became overly entitled, spoiled, insufferable bozos. I don't pretend to believe it's that simple. I think we often overreact, especially when athletes engage in harmless acts of self-aggrandizement. I think it's too easy to fall back on lazy stereotypes. I think most of the time, it's best to examine these things on a case-by-case basis.

I mean, I get what the NFL is trying to do. There's more attention than ever paid to the transgressions of modern athletes, and since sports are a business, this business must be carefully controlled. But I do find Roger Goodell's crusade to rid the NFL of misbehavior a little Orwellian, largely because this new standard of "personal conduct" seems remarkably arbitrary. I don't understand what's truly "bad" and what isn't. Case in point: Braylon Edwards drove drunk in a city with so many readily available car/limousine/taxi services--not to mention construction/traffic/bridge closure issues--that he should be suspended simply for violating the league's common sense clause. And there was no punishment for this. Not really. The Jets suspended him for exactly 17 plays, and in a moment of refreshing honesty, their general manager essentially admitted they weren't suspending him any longer because they wanted to win a football game. Which they did.

So it would seem that DUI--apparently the most common of NFL transgressions--is not a suspension-worthy offense unless someone is killed in the process. And I understand that there are union issues that complicate these matters, but this lack of a defined standard, I think, makes it more difficult to Goodell to consistently take the moral high defend, say, the suspension of Ben Roethlisberger for a large chunk of a season for incidents in which he was never officially charged. And it also makes it more difficult to forward the notion that an NFL defensive back named Tanard Jackson, who apparently endangered no one (perhaps not even himself, depending upon his choice of drug), is somehow being more "selfish" than a man who drives while intoxicated for no apparent reason at all.