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 ESPN.com. 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.