Friday, January 29, 2010

On the Useless Appendage Known as the Pro Bowl

I agree with pretty much everything Posnanski says here: I think the Pro Bowl is an unsalavageable idea. I'd prefer to see it replaced by one of the following:

A.) A footrace between the five fastest players in the league, Usain Bolt, a horse, and a jet-powered Segway.

B.) Same as above, except held in a pool. Replace Usain Bolt with Michael Phelps, the horse with a German Shepherd, and the Segway with a torpedo.

C.) A formal debate contest between NFL quarterbacks.

D.) A series of boxing matches between NFL coaches, organized by weight. (Tell me Rex Ryan v. Andy Reid wouldn't lend new life to the heavyweight division.)

E.) A psychiatric evaluation of Jerry Jones, hosted by Dr. Ruth Westheimer.

F.) An Apprentice-style reality show in which a league source generates a fake "scoop," and an elite group of NFL beat reporters attempt to break the news. (My money's on Schefter.)

G.) Jared Allen wrestling a blindfolded bear.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

On J.D. Salinger

Anyone who chooses, in this day and age, to become a writer has at least one moment of enlightenment, one moment when we read something so powerful and compelling that it leads us to believe we might want to dedicate our lives to a cruel and unforgiving pursuit. For me, there were a myriad of influences that set me on the path: MAD magazine, Stephen King, Dave Barry, vintage issues of Sports Illustrated. But I never took the craft of writing as seriously as I probably should have; real literature bored me. I'd write my English papers with Cliff's Notes; I found the Bronte sisters stultifying. None of it spoke to me, and I made it all the way through college imagining that all I had to do, in order to become a successful sportswriter, was to read other sportswriters. My ambitions were limited.

I was 22 when I took my first job, in Akron, Ohio. I lived, for the first three months, in a terrible apartment in a sketchy neighborhood. My furniture was rented. My neighbors held tireless arguments. I thought about packing up and leaving, but I had no idea where I'd go. At some point, I was speaking on the phone to a friend, who brought up Catcher in the Rye. I told him I'd never read it. I thought it was a children's book. I didn't see how it held much relevance. But I was bored, and emotionally vacant, and the book (with that pure and whitewashed cover) cost eight dollars, and so I bought it. And I read it. And then I did something I'd never done before: I read it again. And for a while, I went to the bookstore with the sole purpose of finding novels whose endorsements compared it directly to Catcher in the Rye.

There are--ironically, given Holden Caulfield's intolerance for "phonies"--a ridiculous number of books that fit into this category, just as there are a million brilliant lines I could quote from Catcher--this song by the Old 97's coins one of Holden Caulfield's phrases for its title--but they all feel a little bit like cliches at this point. That's the beauty of Catcher, and of Salinger's writing in general*: It so effectively laid out the emotional struggles of modern youth that it became a cliche. There is not a single coming-of-age movie that doesn't, in some way, owe a debt to Salinger. And I'm sure I'm one of hundreds of writers who fell into their avocation because Holden Caulfield spoke to them when they were young and confused, when the very idea of pursuing a career in a thankless profession seemed overwhelming and impossible. There was nothing like it then, and while there might be a million things sort of like it now, none of them could ever mean as much to as many people.

I'm older now, of course, and I realize that Catcher is not the greatest book of the twentieth century,** or perhaps even the most important--but I would imagine that no book had a greater impact on American culture--no book inspired more art--than this one. And I know I wouldn't be here without it.

*And this remains one of the greatest short stories I've ever read.
**I'd probably argue for Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

On Football, Robots and Schadenfavre

Here's how I see it: The most depressing sports week of the year is the day after the NBA finals end in June (or July, or upon the inauguration of David Stern, whichever comes first). This is an indisputable fact, because even if you happen to still cling to the illusion that baseball is a major American sport (sorry, I can't help it--at this point, taking shots at baseball is more of an American pastime than baseball), you would admit that baseball season, from late June to mid-August, is essentially inconsequential, and matters far less if anything else of note happens to occur during that time period.

Anyway, the third most depressing sports week of the year--and this is more a matter of personal taste--is the day after the BCS Championship, because college football season goes by far too fast. But this very week is the second most-depressing sports week of the year, because now only the Super Bowl stands between ourselves and six months of yearning for Hard Knocks to begin. Also, it's cold, and in Brooklyn, at least, even the dogs seem surlier than usual.

My point is, the Super Bowl is not a football game. The Super Bowl ceased to exist as an actual football game in 1985. At that point, it became an event, which means, for Americans, it became an to excuse A.) Consume store-bought french onion dip, and B.) Attend a party where at least 33 percent of the audience is entirely unaware a game is actually being played. If the game is not a blowout by the third quarter, that's just a spiritual bonus.

That said, here are my preliminary thoughts:

--At some point during Sunday's game, I Twittered the term, "Schadenfavre." I presumed this was a very clever turn of phrase, until I realized that I was approximately the thirty millionth person to come up with it. Moral of the story--Originality is dead ... but thankfully, so is Brett Favre's season. And I'm not going to lie: That game was cathartic. It feels kind of craven to root for violence, but it seemed unfathomable that any 40-year-old quarterback, in this day and age, could make his way through a season and not end up with the motility and general color of this dude. Somebody needed to hit him, and the Saints did it, and you can't tell me those hits--and the fear of a future spent mowing his lawn with a walker--weren't running through Favre's mind when he made that final decision to gunsling a pass across his own body and straight into no-man's land. I don't even remember the precise details of when or why we started to dislike Favre so much in the first place, but it just felt like he deserved that ending for holding us an emotional hostage all these months.

--Also, let's just confirm what I said earlier this season: Peyton Manning, if he wins this game, could very well be the greatest quarterback of all time. Don't get me wrong--Favre is undeniably great, and even his late-career shenanigans can't keep him out of the top five. But if Favre was a throwback,* Manning is a pure projection of the future, a cool-thinking cyborg who operates with such precision that even James Cameron probably finds him a little ridiculous. I'll be rooting for the Saints, because I am a human with a beating heart, but it's hard not to feel like, at this point, that Manning, by utilizing his giant programmable brain, has probably changed the position more than any quarterback since Unitas. He may not be a gunslinger, but brilliant robots are far more interesting.

*If only an overzealous television broadcaster (or four hundred) had thought to refer to Favre as a "throwback." Imagine the possibilities!

Friday, January 22, 2010

On Jarringly Specific Predictions For This Weekend's Games

A.) Mark Sanchez throws for 167 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions. He also loses a key fumble in the third quarter which leads to an Indianapolis touchdown pass from Peyton Manning to Austin Collie.

B.) Manning throws for 312 yards and two touchdowns. He does throw a second-quarter interception to Kerry Rhodes, after which he is captured on the sideline, examining photographs and frowning.

C.) Reggie Bush returns a punt 83 yards to the Minnesota 3-yard line.

D.) Adrian Peterson fails to score on a halfback dive play, and on second down, the Vikings run play action, with Brett Favre throwing a touchdown pass to Visante Shiancoe. Deadspin's editors utilize this opportunity to make gratuitous jokes about Shiancoe's genitalia.

E.) Favre takes a hard shot to the ribs in the second quarter, limps to the sideline, argues briefly with this guy, and then leads his team on a 12-play, 76-yard touchdown drive. When it ends, he thrusts both arms skyward, then winces. Upon witnessing this, somebody in the broadcast booth utters the word "fun."

F.) A major sports columnist describes this Super Bowl matchup as "potentially the greatest in history."

G.) A major sports blogger describes this Super Bowl matchup as "a great big bag of fail."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

On Inconsequential Things That Matter To Me (Premium Edition)

1. What Are You Waiting For?

 In the interest of testing the Internet's ability to coddle reactionary extremists, I was watching North Carolina bumble its way to a third straight defeat last night, and I thought to myself, "I wonder if anyone's started up a campaign to Fire Roy Williams yet?" Surprisingly enough, the movement has not picked up much momentum, though I am encouraged by this potentially ironic Facebook page (Population: Four). Mostly, I came across a bunch of disgruntled Cowboys fans with nowhere else to go.
On a related note, this site appears to have lost its moorings, proving that Joe Paterno will even outlive the Internet.

2. Jeff Jarvis, King of the (Free) World

 Here is Mr. Internet Journalism Visionary's reaction to the notion that The New York Times will take the radical step of charging its readers a small amount of money for a product that costs millions of dollars to produce:
So why charge your best customers?
Yes, he said that. Because charging customers, especially loyal customers, has proven the bane of capitalism for millions of years. Nobu thrives on the notion of providing its best customers black cod gratis; Citibank would not imagine charging the investment accounts of millionaires. And as usual, Jarvis buoys his argument by somehow setting Internet journalism into its own special category, by falling into the usual mumbo-jumbo about the link economy and about "content" being a "magnet" that can create "relationships of value," proving once again that he knows far more than I ever could about Internet metrics, which allows him, and only him, to defy common sense, and makes me the idiot for alienating people who want everything digital to be free.
Now I'll walk to my favorite bodega to steal a six pack of Coca-Cola.

3. Quarterback Angst

Say what you will about Fountains of Wayne--and certainly, the sheer ubiquity of Stacy's Mom was worthy of a lengthy ostracism from society--but you cannot deny that this is the best song ever written about the inner monologue of a quarterback. Just as Friday Night Lights has the ability to emotionally manipulate certain people I know to the verge of tears, this song does the same for me. Seriously: I heard it on the subway this afternoon, and I immediately thought of Mark Sanchez, and in that instant I became a Jets fan. I cannot explain what it is, except that it captures a moment of physical and spiritual enlightenment in a deceptively simple way. It makes me yearn to witness the manifestation of greatness.
Also, I love football far too much.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

On Manufactured Realities

Warning: Disjointed Political Rant Ahead.

"But this will be the reality because this is the easy reality and our politics now lives off of created reality, not the data."--Andrew Sullivan

So a nudist with a pickup truck defeats a Brahmin who has trouble distinguishing between the Rebel Alliance and the Evil Empire, and everybody freaks out. Because that's what we do now, isn't it? We freak out. Over on Fox News, Glenn Beck is drooling on a chalkboard, and over on MSNBC, Olbermann is Murrowing us over the head, and on CNN, a Wolf is Blitzering, and out here on the frontiers of the Internets, everyone everywhere is freaking the F out. Because that's what we do now; this is the default position in politics, and maybe in our culture: Someone says/does something that may or may not have anything to do with an objective truth, and then it somehow becomes the conventional wisdom. An anomaly occurs, and we extrapolate it to mean that the whole world has changed.

So Sarah Palin writes on her blog that health care reform will result in the death of cocker spaniels, and people freak out and lead that "argument" into the mainstream; and our president declares that he is open to alternative solutions beyond a public option, and the Huffington Post runs a 700-point headline declaring Obama the newest incarnation of Milton Friedman, and suddenly health care is a failure without the public option; and some idiot smuggles explosive in his Fruit of the Looms, and we demand everyone fly in the nude, and in the end, we all run around with our heads cut off, sucking up unemployment insurance, lamenting the deflated value of our homes, and assuming that everyone everywhere is wrong about everything, and that the way to solve the problem is to vote for a handsome "outsider" who drives an S-10. This is the curse of electing a rational president in a post-rational reality: All these opinions, all this unfiltered information, and no one has the time to reason anymore.

So I don't know what this election means--nobody knows what it means, because part of freaking out about everything is getting so caught up in the moment that you lose all perspective--but the most frustrating part, at least for me, is not the result. The most frustrating part is that no one seems willing to live off the data anymore.

P.S. This Tom Junod piece is tangentially related, and makes a lot of sense.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

On Cable Companies and Kickers

I spent the morning traveling halfway across Brooklyn to trade in a broken cable box for another broken cable box, then speaking to a customer service representative who did not understand anything I was trying to say. I've written in the past about my tortured relationship with Time-Warner (Motto: We Don't Like You) and how it relates to Alex Rodriguez--if it wasn't for my girlfriend's unrequited crush on Pat Kiernan, I'd be long gone to satellite--and I suppose my way of dealing with this is by constructing utterly tenuous metaphors that attempt to explain how a major American corporation can be so utterly, unlikeably incompetent.

So anyway, I was standing in line, listening to the man in front of me threaten to strangle a clerk with a set of audio cables unless they provided him with an HDMI cable, and I was thinking about kickers, and all those I'm-so-clever Nate Kaeding jokes zipping across Twitter feeds, and why a profession that seemed to be trending toward perfection has regressed this season, for reasons that no one can explain. If you think about it, kicking is probably the strangest element of any major sport; imagine if an NBA playoff game were decided by a cadre of dwarves drop-kicking Spaldings from the free-throw line. In football, every game has the potential of ending like one of those Doritos halftime contests, where a bricklayer from Wahpeton, North Dakota, has to convert an extra point in order to win a lifetime supply of Cool Ranch. Because kicking is so inherently weird, kickers themselves are--fairly or unfairly--stigmatized as weird, and set apart from the actual game.

Because of that stigma--because kickers do nothing but kick--we'd like to think, of course, that someone like Nate Kaeding has an edge over the bricklayer, in that he's spent his entire lifetime learning to boot the oblong spheroid through a pair of uprights fifty yards away. That's the only reason we tolerate him on a football field, yes? In an obvious way, we're right about that, of course: Expertise is a major factor, but as Michael Lewis reminds us in this predictably excellent piece,* kicking is largely about mental fortitude, about repetition sweeping away fear, and some dudes just aren't capable of such things.**Who knows? Maybe Nate Kaeding is one of those guys; physically gifted, but psychologically incapable. Then again, maybe he's not, and maybe he ate something lousy for breakfast, but at this point, it hardly matters.

Such is the Faustian bargain of the kicker: A quarterback can miss a throw, and a running back can fumble a football, and a wide receiver can drop a pass, and they can all get over it, and rewrite their legacy, and earn redemption. But we'll always just expect kickers to make kicks, to somehow transcend humanity, to perform with robotic precision. They are men apart; just as we expect Time Warner to do one thing to improve our lives (deliver cable),*** so do we expect our kickers to deliver field goals, every single time. The last thing we want from a kicker is anything resembling a human being.

*I know that The Blind Side has made Lewis richer than Mark Cuban, but I wonder if he ever worries about all those desperate housewives who are buying his book at the local B. Dalton, only to find themselves reading a detailed description of NFL theory, beginning with Lawrence Taylor snapping Joe Theismann's leg like a piece of the Colonel's original recipe.
**Like me.
***Tenuous connection made!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

On The End of Baseball As Metaphor

This is not a post about Mark McGwire and steroids, because, like most of you, I don't really care enough to debate the ethical quandaries of steroid use anymore. This is a post about baseball itself, because all the anger and self-righteousness and backlash to the self-righteousness seems to skim over the real issue here, which is that baseball, having been mismanaged for the past two decades by a gang of dimwitted used car salesmen, has now succeeded in bulldozing its mythology for an entire generation.

This is the meaning of Mark McGwire, and others like him: He demystified a game whose popularity is based in a largely sentimental connection with an "America" that no longer exists. So now all that work Ken Burns put in, all those hours Doris Kearns Goodwin and George Will spent rhapsodizing about Three-Finger Brown and the American character and how the '51 Series is a metaphor for the Korean War, mean absolutely nothing anymore. Without that sentimental connection, the game itself is a diminished product. Baseball, through labor disputes and strikes and the increasingly disenchanting war between the Tri-Lambda moneyball geeks and tobacco-spitting traditionalists,* has essentially degenerated into a regional sport, and if you don't believe me, take a peep at the television ratings: A World Series between the Yankees and the Phillies, two of the media markets that still arouse strong interest, drew a 11.7, which was the highest number since 2004, but barely half of the 1990 numbers.

And I know that there are people who still draw that emotional connection with baseball--on rare occasions, during one of those interminably dramatic playoff games, when Fox deems it wise to cut to the face of every child in Yankee Stadium, I still feel it, too--and there always will be. But there will never be as many as there once were, and they will never be able to argue that baseball captures the Zeitgeist or serves as a metaphor for the American character. Football is America's pastime now--I'd argue that the greatest rivalry of the 00's, eclipsing even the emotional exceptionalism of Red Sox-Yankees, was between a pair of NFL quarterbacks--and anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional. And who can say that in two decades, a generation of kids won't feel more of a connection with soccer than they do with baseball?

The story here is not just about Mark McGwire, or the slow unfurling of the steroid era. The story here is that the only people still gullible enough to buy into the mysticism and folklore of baseball might be Bob Costas and the justices of the Supreme Court.

*As a casual fan, I have no interest in analyzing VORP, or even understanding what it means. Following baseball in the Internet age is like collecting comic books.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

On Modern Concepts I Find Dubious

1. Lane Kiffin

There are many things to be said at this point--most of which are said rather well right here by Dan Wetzel--but this is the one that intrigues me the most: Lane Kiffin named his child "Knox." As in, Knoxville, Tennessee, home of the University of Tennessee, a school that we now know Kiffin never particularly felt attached to at all. Which means Lane Kiffin will manipulate his own children in order to breed a false sense of attachment. This is not just "intense"; this is pathological. I now believe that Kiffin is the modern-day incarnation of Jackie Sherill, except without that last lingering shred of integrity. And I, for one, cannot wait for the moment when Kiffin derails his career by attempting to castrate a bear as a motivational ploy before the UCLA game.

2. Crowdsourcing

Do you realize that there are people on the website known as Trip Advisor who actually review vacation resorts based on the weather? It's true. I have seen this. There are people who rate a hotel poorly due to a surfeit of cumulus clouds. I honestly do not understand how these people manage to survive on a daily basis.

3. Pass Interference

Could somebody please inform me the last time anyone, anywhere, at any level of football, has been whistled for offensive pass interference? Every time I presume it is inevitable, every time a receiver horse-collars a DB and spins him about like a rodeo calf and spits in his ear and yanks his pants halfway to his knees, I think, "There is no way they can call this on the defense." And the call goes against the defense. Was offensive pass interference quietly rescinded in the off-season? If I were Darrelle Revis, I would arrange for a picket line at Ed Hochuli's doorstep. Justice!

(Edit: I didn't see the Ravens-Patriots game this weekend, but commenter Matthew points out that Randy Moss was flagged on Sunday. This doesn't surprise me, as Moss is one of the few receivers who seems to attract penalties. Also, I discovered this, which is a database from the 2008 season, when 65 offensive interference penalties were called, as opposed to 157 defensive.)

(Photo: US Presswire/Yahoo)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On College Football and "Credibility"

I could write that, even if he does leave, he’ll never go back to the NFL, where he was booed and labeled a failure. “There’s no way,” he says, and (Boomer) Esiason agrees. “I don’t know if there’s nirvana for Pete Carroll—but I know it’s not in the pros.” And yet. When I press Carroll, I can’t help feeling that he hedges. “There’s no franchise, there’s no ownership, there’s no philosophy,” he says. “The only thing it would give me would be credibility. That you’re the best in the world.”--J.R. Moehringer, on Pete Carroll

There's an intriguing scene at the start of Joe Paterno's autobiography, in which he discusses his deliberation, in the closing days of 1972, over whether to accept a gilded offer from the Boston Patriots to become coach and part-owner and all-around czar of New England. He imagines the cottage on Cape Cod, the "high-tone" lifestyle, the advancement into a higher tax bracket ... and then he thinks about college football, and the marching bands, and the mascots, and he comes to this conclusion: In the NFL, you play only to win. "No other reason to play," he says.

Now, I realize that Pete Carroll is nothing like Joe Paterno--in the same way Montgomery Clift is nothing like Mickey Rooney--and I realize that Pete Carroll is also coaching in an era where winning has subsumed all other concerns even in college football, and I would prefer not to stand in moral judgment when a man chooses to accept millions of dollars and an unprecedented amount of power. But Moehringer's profile* did sell me on Carroll's singularity, on the notion that perhaps he was a throwback to the coaches of old, a man who was truly satisfied with his place in the world. I bought into the Carroll mythos, and even if it was all true--even if Pete Carroll really did want to curb gang activity in Los Angeles out of some altruistic instinct, and not just promote his own brand--that hardly matters anymore, because Carroll will now be viewed as something completely different: He is just a football coach again. USC will most likely go on probation soon, and he will have bolted just in time, and even if he succeeds in Seattle--and I don't imagine it'll happen, because it just seems that playing for Pete Carroll is kind of like watching Dead Poets Society, in that the core message gets progessively sillier once you turn 19--he will still be seen as the guy who constructed an empire and then destroyed it and didn't have the cojones to stay around and rebuild it again. And maybe that's unfair, but this was Carroll's doing; he set himself up as a man, like Paterno, for whom college football was a destination. Now he sets himself up as nothing more than football coach.

That's the funny thing: Pete Carroll had credibility. And simply by changing his mind, he has to chase it all over again.

*And it's still a pretty incredible piece of writing, regardless of whether it is fundamentally accurate.

Friday, January 8, 2010

On The Final College Football Game of the Season

A few disjointed thoughts on a bizarre championship game:

--In 1972, the NCAA permitted freshman athletes to participate in football and basketball; in the 1980s,* with the NCAA considering a repeal of said rule, a freshman named "Never Nervous" Pervis Ellison led Louisville to the national championship in college basketball. Hence, the notion of youth conquering all plowed ahead, and in the two decades since, we have come to expect remarkable accomplishments, sans neurosis, from the blue-chip adolescents who now essentially form the core of college basketball. If John Wall melts down, we don't blame youth; we blame John Wall.

In football, I know, freshmen are not quite as impactful, but I will admit, when Garrett Gilbert entered the game for Texas last night, I kind of figured he'd be fine. None of these guys get nervous anymore, I thought. Maybe he'd struggle with reads and progressions and blitzes and all the inherent complications of the position--maybe the football would bring him down--but I didn't imagine that anyone who was deemed strong enough in his inaugural season to back up Colt McCoy--not to mention win a pair of Texas high-school state championships, which is about as emotionally stresstful as running for governor anywhere else--would become so emotionally bamboozled. I mean, you could actually see Gilbert melting down into a puddle of adolescent angst come halftime; his body language was more overtly frightened than anything I'd seen on a football field (barring catastrophic injury) in many years. It's not something we witness very often anymore, and it was kind of humanizing and Saracen-esque,**and I'm relieved Gilbert was able to pull himself together in the end, because for a while there, I thought we might be witnessing the implosion of an otherwise promising career. Now I have this feeling we'll see him in this game again, and he won't appear nearly as uptight the second time around. Though I can't say the same for his coach, who appeared to plow through an entire case of Juicy Fruit in the first half.

--Speaking of coaches: Even when being showered with Gatorade, Nick Saban comes across as an entirely dishonorable human. He got away with that doltishly overaggressive fake punt early--basically, if McCoy plays one more series in the first quarter, Texas probably wins the game--and I have to imagine this will be the last championship he wins at Alabama. I have to imagine it will all seem far too easy for him after this, that he will lose interest, that his program will become embroiled in scandal or general malaise, and he will bolt in the middle of the night for a new challenge, while assuring us all along that he had no interest in the job he just took until 9/11 changed his life forever.

--Boise State deserves at least a few first-place votes. Boise State could have played Alabama tight. Anyone who doesn't believe that was not paying attention.

*In 1986, to be exact, which you can read all about in this book. Now with updated cover art!
**There is no question that Friday Night Lights completely altered the way I viewed that game last night. I'm starting to think it's permanently altered the way I view football players. If Moneyball was the previous decade's ultimate triumph of rationality over emotion, Friday Night Lights is its polar opposite. It's made watching football far more emotionally charged than ever before.

(Photo: Rodolfo Gonzalez, Austin-American Statesman)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

On Inconsequential Things That Matter To Me (Aquamarine Edition)

To the masses who have arrived here via this man's ever-expanding Twitterverse, welcome. The paragraph that spurred Chuck's righteous indignation and the ensuing Twargument is the first in the post right below this one. And if you're (understandably) wondering who the hell I am, go here.

1. Brit Hume
Oh, liberal media, pounding on poor Brit for this; have you no understanding of this man's ability to evoke social change? Brit Hume is to televised Sunday programs as Nelson Mandela is to South Africa, or The Situation is to reality television. Myself, I'd been mired in a decades-long spiritual crisis, lamenting the errors of my past, my Bar Mitzvah gelt, the drawerful of Chanukah candles, the collection of Woody Allen films, the yoga DVDs, the Chogyam Trumpa books, and I thought to myself, "You know, I am not spiritually content. I do not feel fully forgiven. I require further guidance in my life, and I am going to tune into Fox News Sunday to see if Bill Kristol may be able to soothe my soul with his spiritual hymns of peace and harmony. Also, that Juan Williams is kind of cuddly." And lo and behold, there was Hume, looming before me like a vaguely canine version of the Holy Ghost, and lo, I was saved. If it's good enough for Hume, I thought, it's good enough for me. And I am saved. Lord, forgive me for taking Thom Brennaman's name in vain.

2. Avatar Amour
You know, I sat there for eight hours and forty minutes in that cavernous house of IMAX, wearing those Lloyd Braun glasses, watching Giovanni Ribisi jones for deforestation, and I thought to myself, "You know what would be great? If these inexplicably blue Native American proxies got it on in 3-D. Because the one thing missing from my childhood--beside the spiritual teachings of Brit Hume--was the on-screen consummation of Smurfette and Vanity's fraught relationship." And now, thanks to James Cameron, all I have to do is wait for the DVD.*  
 3. The Best New Blog of the Week
Belongs to Charles Pierce. I'm jumping the gun slightly, but seriously, this dude is one of the reasons I'm here. And he's one of the reasons Tiger is there.

*Seriously, how long is the director's cut of Avatar going to be? Will there be nap breaks built in?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

On The Rules

Did you know it's been almost twenty-five years since the NFL adopted the instant replay rule? Well, it has, and yet I have a prominent writerly friend* who still hasn't quite gotten over it, who loves nothing more in the world than watching football and who constantly emphasizes rationality above humanity, and yet seems convinced that those five minutes of instant replay reviews--designed to assure fair play, and encourage rationality, and minimize human error--somehow cheapen his entire experience. At this point, it's not really a debate anymore; it's like arguing with Bronko Nagurski. But it remains a sore spot, something he cannot get over.

I bring this up because ESPN the Magazine ran a clever package this week, in which they suggested 31 minor rule changes that could actually improve sports. I agree with some, and I vehmently disagree with others, but it always fascinating to see something like this and realize how much of sport is derived from a tradition that may or may not be based in any sort of rational thought. We simply assume things are the way they are because that's the way they should be, even when we know they shouldn't.

So here are three suggestions I would add, specifically targeted to college football:

1. Disregard 87 percent of Peter Keating's ideas about fixing overtime; first of all, he calls baseball's overtime rules "great," and we all know that nothing has been great about baseball since 1994**. About the absurdity of college football overtime's statistics and yardage counting in the record books, he is utterly correct; all overtime numbers, with the exception of the score, should be disregarded. About college football's overtime process somehow being disconnected from the spirit of the enterprise, he is horribly misguided. College football's overtime is a strategic nirvana. College football's overtime is essentially a compressed version of the game itself, which is exactly what it should be, with one exception: Teams should take over at the 35, rather than the 25. This way, they would actually be forced (in most situations) to advance forward in order to gain three points. This way, overtime periods would sometimes end with neither team scoring at all, which would remedy Keating's concern over 61-58 final scores and inject another level of strategery into a system that is infinitely more perfect than the NFL's coin-toss solution.

 2. Graduation rates should somehow be tied into the BCS formula. That is, if the NCAA is actually serious about maintaining the ruse that amateurism still exists, and that a playoff does not exist because it will somehow cause several Texas linemen to miss their Candlepin Bowling final, then they should actually put some stock in these numbers. Either that, or they should just give up and embrace corruption and pay off everyone involved in the sport. Starting with the writers.

3. Bring back the five-yard facemask penalty. Apparently, it was abolished because it involved "interpretation" by an official, and interpretation is apparently too much for an official to handle when he is trying to avoid being mauled by several men the size of wheat threshers. This seems dubious, since the difference between a five-yard facemask and a 15-yard facemask can generally be interpreted in a matter of seconds by my girlfriend, who watches approximately three football games every year. I also understand that there is a safety issue here, but I presume that most football players don't set out to rip off helmets; it just happens. In fact, shouldn't this be the very reason to distinguish between an inadvertent facemask and a blatant (and sometimes intentional) facemask? Isn't this like the difference between grazing an old lady on a crowded subway, and punching an old lady in the face?

*Yeah, that's him. Welcome, Chuckolytes.
**Though I applaud Terry Pendleton on his election to the Hall of Fame.

Monday, January 4, 2010

On The Worst Thing to Happen to College Sports in the 00's

Warning: Disjointed Rant Ahead.

It's been almost five years since the NBA officially rendered college basketball into a mercenary exercise. By arbitrarily declaring that no player under the age of 19 could join their ranks, professional basketball managed to confirm what most of us already knew, which is that college sports are an elaborate and expensive charade in which everyone is making a good deal of scratch, with the exception of the players themselves. For me, that one decision essentially defined the sporting ethos of the '00s; everything about college basketball got just a little bit worse after that. Even the NCAA tournament, the greatest single sporting event in the world, began to feel a little more like an AAU showcase, like we're all just rooting for laundry.

Now, don't get me wrong. I still love college sports; I will always love college sports more than professional sports, if only because college sports are what I grew up with, if only because the product on the field/court remains less sterile and regimented, if only because Jets fans are some of the most ridiculous people I've ever seen. But honestly, I don't know where we're headed anymore. I've been thinking about this lately, as the bizarre and ignominious season of the college football coach nears its end; if it seems like more coaches are losing their minds, it's because, on the whole, they probably are. They're losing their minds, in part, because they have been set up to act almost entirely in their own self-interest; they're losing their minds because the culture has now been set up to encourage them to be as authoritarian and self-aggrandizing as possible, to work themselves into a late-night crying fit onto a hotel-room floor, to raise their profile so as to guarantee themselves a future position when their current school tires of them. Brian Kelley leaves Cincinnati for Notre Dame and people decry his disloyalty, but why should most coaches care about loyalty when it is abundantly clear that their bosses don't care at all about them, except as a commodity? Wouldn't this growing institutional distrust between administrators and coaches and players explain why Mike Leach, a weirdly engaging coach who actually seemed to care at least a little about such things as graduation rates, "turned for the worst" just in the past few months? Isn't this at least partly the fault of the colleges who continue to engage in mercenary behavior in order to land their institution a thirty-second jingle at halftime of the Outback Bowl?

I know that at some level this has been true at least since the 1980s,* and more accurately since the late 1800s, but here's where I think that college basketball one-and-done rule kind of sent us all over the edge: More than anything that's happened since freshman athletes were made eligible in the first place, one-and-done allowed everyone in the process, from top to bottom, understand that they are merely cogs in a machine. It elevated the value of coaches who are great recruiters, but are also truly terrible people. It was a naked admission that big-time college sports are now willing to be used as tools for the professional game, and that they are entirely about the moment at hand rather than any sort of gauzy fantasy of shaping one's future. But hey: It was that kind of decade.

Now, of course, we are at a moment in our American existence when populism is all the rage, and these are the moments when football (and organized sports) tend to arise as scapegoats. When Bobby Bowden retired, everyone in America lamented that there would be no more Bowdens or Paternos anymore, and I'm sure there will be calls for coaches to stop being such overbearing, singularly-focused jerks, and this will no doubt lead some second-tier bozo on Fox and Friends to lament the wussification of America, and no one will bother to question the wisdom of a system that encourages nothing beyond one's own self-interest.

*In fact, I write it here, in this book, which--conveniently!--is now available for pre-order.

(Photo: Danielle Levitt/New York Times)