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.