Friday, January 28, 2011

On The Space Shuttle, 25 Years Later

One of the challenges of writing a book about sports that's actually a book about American culture is figuring out a way to transition from one element to the other. I'm not sure how successful I was at it, but it was surprising to me how seamlessly the pieces often seemed to fit together. For instance, most people probably don't remember that the 1985 Bears never made it to the White House to celebrate with President Reagan because a couple of days after they won the Super Bowl, the Space Shuttle Challenger imploded in mid-air. I have vivid memories of both, and I didn't think I could write a book about the era without writing at least a little bit about the Challenger disaster, an indelible event that occurred twenty-five years ago today. It was actually one of the hardest sections of the book to write, as I wanted to capture the moment without sacrificing the tone of the book--looking back on it, I have no idea if it actually worked. So here is the end of Chapter 5 of Bigger Than the Game...and the beginning of Chapter 6. 

...people stood and gawked at the big screen in Marshall Field’s, this time at the images of a space shuttle carrying seven astronauts—among them a New England schoolteacher named Christa McAuliffe—launching into the sky above Cape Canaveral, Florida, and then fracturing into pieces. The city froze; the nation froze. At a restaurant in downtown Chicago, a law-school student stared lockjawed at a television set and uttered a single baleful sentence.

“I thought the entire system was infallible,” he said.


 At a news conference, Mr. Reagan . . . also blamed the January 28 loss of the Challenger and the seven astronauts aboard on “a carelessness that grew out of success.
The New York Times, June 12, 1986

On the morning of January 28, 1986, President Reagan took a meeting with the Democratic House speaker Tip O’Neill, during which he relied entirely upon partisan talking points gleaned from four-by-six cue cards prepared by his staff. It was a tactic that Reagan had used before, and even his Republican allies found it distasteful; this was Reagan at his worst, robotic and detached. He lamented the work ethic of “the fellow on welfare,” telling O’Neill, “These people don’t want to work.” O’Neill and Reagan were generally civil, even friendly, but this time, the Speaker came back at him hard, his patience worn thin. “I’m sick and tired of your attitude, Mr. President,” he said. “I thought you would have grown in five years.”

Monday, January 24, 2011

On Jay Cutler, in Six Brief Acts

I. It is time we come to some sort of cultural consensus that Deion Sanders is not a trustworthy source about anything.

II. It is hypocritical, if you believe that head injuries are a serious problem in the NFL, to judge someone's fitness for play based on outward appearances. Many people who have concussions don't look like they've had concussions, but this doesn't mean they should be sent back into a football game. It's true, Jay Cutler's problem was not his head but his knee, and it's true Jay Cutler didn't look hurt, but neither did LaDainian Tomlinson a few years back in that playoff loss,** and this did not seem to reflect on his legacy at all, largely because Tomlinson is a likeable guy who's run for many, many yards.

III. I believe Jason Whitlock is a provocative and entertaining columnist, but I think this is one of the more regrettable pieces of his career. "Right or wrong," Whitlock writes, "the culture dictates that you inject yourself with whatever is necessary to play." But isn't that what got us into this mess in the first place? Isn't that the same ethos that permitted coaches to overrule doctors, and the players themselves to feel that confessing to serious injury was somehow a sign of weakness? Isn't that the whole reason head injuries are threatening the very nature of football? If it's true that, as Cutler says, the team doctors would not allow him back into the game in the second half, isn't that, in fact, a sign of cultural progress? "Yeah," Whitlock says, "we were naive, stupid and probably exploited." So why is no one saying that Cutler's decision was a sign of maturity? Why is no one commending Cutler--and more importantly, the Bears team doctors--for refusing to conform to a code that is exploitative and (in certain cases) virtually inhuman?

IV. Of course, it is rather easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to Jay Cutler. He looks like an entitled malcontent*, and Rick Reilly tells us he is an entitled malcontent, though I'd like to think that Reilly was making a larger point in that column, which is that Cutler may refuse to play into some facile media narrative about him, but that this does not necessarily say anything about his actual character. The question is whether we are willing to judge someone based on surface impressions. I found myself perplexed as to why Cutler seemed mute and despondent on the bench during that game, but is it possible that A.) He was depressed about his inability to play football effectively, and B.) That he is simply not a Sis Boom Bah kind of guy?

V. Speaking of Sis Boom Bah kind of guys, didn't we just spend the past several years lambasting Brett Favre for his seeming aptitude in manipulating mass media in his favor? Wasn't our primary issue with Favre that he seemed capable of tremendous deception, that he portrayed himself as a team-first kind of dude while simultaneously looking out for himself at every turn? Favre spent two decades manipulating his image, and while we cannot question his toughness, we can question his relative intelligence. Because A.) Who knows if Brett Favre will be able to walk at the age of 50? B.) Who knows if any of his records will still stand? And C.) Who knows if his legacy will be as one of the five greatest quarterbacks in NFL history or as an aging redneck who so yearned to be loved that he couldn't help but share his private parts with the world? In that sense, isn't there something to be said for Jay Cutler's refusal to engage in building a false mythology?

VI. Or maybe the problem is that the NFL is not the NFL without all those layers of exploitation.

*I once had a boss at a terrible job I worked in my late 20s discipline me for "rolling my eyes" too often during meetings. In this case, she was actually right: I not only disliked the job, I disrespected her completely, and my face could not help but betray my true feelings. I'm not saying it's morally right for Jay Cutler to be dismissive of a media corps that is trying to do a job; but I do think there is an inherent shallowness to the game played between reporters and athletes (just as there was an inherent shallowness to the game that boss expected me to play while in that office), and I don't blame them for being skeptical.
**At one point, I actually thought to myself, "Why doesn't Cutler walk back to the locker room to at least pretend that his knee is being scoped? Why doesn't he walk with a more pronounced limp? Why doesn't he grimace every so often?" And then I realized that this is an incredibly shallow way to think.

Friday, January 21, 2011

On Inconsequential Things That Matter To Me (Media Criticism Edition)

1. Local Radio Advertisements

It's not that I think "Let the Good Times Roll" is one of the Cars' better efforts, but it does confound me that I still associate it with an advertisement for Taps, a now-defunct bar in State College, Pennsylvania that co-opted the song for its own purposes. Why is it that I cannot eliminate this jingle from my memory? What potentially more useful information is it crowding out? If I could somehow trade it out for an ability to recall a single sentence in any book I've read--at the risk of being rendered deaf during any rendition of "Let the Good Times Roll"--I would take that deal.

2. Esquire

By "Megyn," he means, of course, Fox fox Megyn Kelly, the meanest of the mean girls, the heaving, sumptuous blond with the wide-set eyes, the briskly triangular chin, and the porno sneer she directs at ill-fated liberal guests.--Tom Junod, in his Esquire profile of Fox News chief Roger Ailes.*

If you enjoy lively and experimental and insanely precise exercises in magazine journalism, you should be familiar with Junod. What's funny is that, in reading the story, I had something of a flashback to the early 2000s, when both Esquire and GQ seemed entirely flummoxed by the sudden popularity of a lowbrow lad magazine called Maxim, and thereby briefly lost their mojo. You know what they did that kept them alive? They stayed true to themselves. Which is perhaps the most distressing part of a profile that weaves many distressing moments into a brilliantly hyperbolic portrait: All those television executives who constantly ask themselves What Would Roger Do are systematically unraveling their own identities.**
3. GQ

And for the sake of equal time for men's magazines, you should read this profile of Deadspin's A.J. Daulerio in GQ, if you haven't already.

*In every great story/article/novel, there are certain sentences that render fellow writers so jealous/angry/inadequate that they briefly consider quitting the craft. This, for me, was one of those sentences.
**On a related note, Esquire's consistently excellent Chris Jones has launched a new blog about writing. If you care about such things, this is worth a bookmark.

(Graphic via Esquire/Thomas Porostocky)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

On The Long and Illustrious History of Penn State Basketball, Part II

I don't have children, and I don't know that I ever will have children, but if I did, I would wish one thing upon them: That they not be born into royalty. I am speaking metaphorically, of course, unless you happen to be a member of the British royal family, in which case you probably do not seek advice on child-rearing from obscure blogspot outposts. I am speaking of sports*, and specifically, of rooting interests, because I find that many of the most interesting people I know did not grow up enamored of teams who enjoyed a particular amount of success.** Every child with literary aspirations should bear an allegiance to at least one franchise/program for which there is little to no hope; it is what builds us as human beings. Losing, to me, will always be more interesting than winning, which is why Cleveland is the most interesting city in America that no one actually wants to be associated with.

Anyway, I've been thinking about this lately. I've been thinking about this because I've been watching a number of Penn State basketball games, a yearly exercise in a futility and frustration that I've written about before--but it's worth revisiting, because Penn State is in the midst of a somewhat remarkable stretch of moderate success and near success that ultimately seems destined to add up to failure. Here are the scores of Penn State's last four games, all against Top 25 teams:

Michigan State W 66-62
Illinois W 57-55
at Ohio State L 69-66
at Purdue L 63-62

This is pretty much the epitome of fifty years of Penn State basketball***: Every time they begin to show promise, they fall short. Every time you think perhaps they're about to leap to a new plateau of success, they fall backward. I can't imagine any team in the country has played harder than Penn State in those last four games, but in the end, what the hell does that matter? They lost to Ohio State on a last-second shot; they lost to Purdue after a terrible out-of-bounds call and a last-second shot. They are now 10-8, and 3-4 in the Big Ten, and because they somehow lost a home game to Maine during their non-conference slate, they will have to run the table at the Big Ten tournament in order to qualify for the NCAA tournament's field of sixty-eight. They are thisclose, and yet not close at all.

Monday, January 17, 2011

On the Power of Nostalgia, Punky/Non-Punky QBs, and the 2010 Jets

"It's incredible. If we said words back when I was playing, we'd have to stand up in front of the team and take about a one-minute berating from the coach. Now, it's coming from the coaches.''
-- CBS NFL analyst Phil Simms, on the volume coming from teams critical of other teams in football these days. (via Peter King)
I cannot blame Phil Simms for engaging in revisionist history. I do it. We all do it. We turn back to the events of some bygone era in order to proclaim that the modern world has been turned on its ear. This kind of nostalgic thinking is what drives our culture, and our politics, and our national dialogue; it is what defines us as Americans. But in this case, Phil Simms is clearly blinded by idealism. In this case, Phil Simms is simply ignoring the fact that the hodgepodge of braggadocio and poppycock that comes screaming like a scud missile out of Rex Ryan's id was actually born in the era when Simms himself was an All-Pro quarterback.

On the surface, nothing about the 2010 Jets is ground-breaking. You could argue that self-aggrandizement in sports was born with Babe Ruth, or with Ali, or with Namath...or you could argue, as I would, that the modern formula was perfected twenty-five years ago, when the 1985 Bears streaked onto the cultural landscape, rapping cacophonous rhymes about the Super Bowl before the playoffs had even begun. Much of that was driven by a raucous and untamed locker room--and, I have argued, by a quarterback who didn't care much for the social mores of his position--but it wasn't like the coaches were innocents in this drama. Forget Bart Scott's histrionic WWE lunacy: At one point, you may recall the Packers took out a hitlist on the Bears. Rex Ryan's father was a master of the psychological screw-job, and Simms' own coach was one of the most cruel and Machiavellian figures in football history.
So, on a basic level, Simms is wrong. And yet in a strange way, he still seems kind of right.
There's something about the way the Jets carry themselves that does seem unprecedented. They're messy; they're all tangled up in tabloid culture in ways that even that '85 Bears team never really was. If the Bears were the cultural equivalent of Eddie Murphy, the Jets seem more like Joan Rivers. Things just move way faster now, and that's part of it: The acceleration of media in the time between the '85 Bears and the 2010 Jets is about a hundred times what it was in the era between Super Bowl III and Super Bowl XX. But there's something else going on here, too: Just as Jim McMahon did with his hero Joe Willie Namath, the Jets are repurposing their influences. The Bears were more like a dysfunctional family: The defensive coordinator hated the offensive coordinator, the offense hated the defense, and they channeled all this negative energy against their opponents. The Jets are more like a cabal of obnoxious bloggers: They are immature and playfully narcissistic and intermittently entertaining. They say what they think without processing it; they act as if they are more talented (and more influential) than they actually are. They are very much of a piece with their era, which is why Phil Simms' astonishment, while factually incorrect, is emotionally accurate.

It's funny: I liked the Jets when I watched them on Hard Knocks. I liked them in the abstract, as a team that seemed determined to break the mold, to cast away the stereotypes of football coaches as crusty authority figures and football players as soulless automatons. I think Rex Ryan is a charismatic goofball, and part of me truly wants him to succeed. But I can't bring myself to actually root for them on Sundays, and I don't know why. The only thing I can think of is that I'm a little bit like Phil Simms myself, that somehow I'm so wrapped up in my own nostalgia that I would prefer not to acknowledge that the world I grew up in is not exactly the same as I remember it to be.

(Photo: AP)

Friday, January 14, 2011

On Ten Jarringly Specific Predictions For This Weekend's Games

1. Ben Roethlisberger throws for 256 yards and two touchdowns and bleeds from at least two (2) orifices before the fourth quarter is complete.

2. Ray Lewis and/or Ed Reed perform at least one act of violence which would be considered illegal in at least eight states.

3. After breaking two limbs and sending Joe Flacco to the hospital, Troy Polamalu punctuates the Steelers' 17-14 win by advocating for nonviolence.

4. At least one network broadcaster overuses the nickname "Matty Ice" to the point that 18.4 percent of Falcons fans are forced to concede that it is, in fact, the worst American innovation since Natural Ice itself.

5. Clay Matthews finishes Green Bay's 24-14 win with 15 tackles and a sack, after which he announces that he would like to be referred to as "Claymation," thereby allowing the inventors of Matty Ice off the hook.

6. Mark Sanchez throws for 154 yards and one touchdown, with three interceptions, in the Jets' 31-14 loss to the Patriots. Afterward, following a conversation with a potentially intoxicated Joe Namath, he declares Foxboro a "festering sewer" and guarantees a Super Bowl victory next season.

7. Rex Ryan spits in his hand before greeting Bill Belichick postgame. Belichick responds by removing his shoe and tossing it at Ryan's head while shouting, "Does this make you happy?"

8. Tom Brady throws for 365 yards and three touchdowns; afterward, he flies to New York by private plane to attend a showing of a Neil LaBute play with his wife, Tommy Hilfiger, and the dude who plays Nate on Gossip Girl.

9. The Bears-Seahawks game is marred by eight turnovers and twelve sacks and is generally considered the worst playoff game in NFL history. Jay Cutler throws for 565 yards with nine interceptions, and Matt Hasselbeck for 422 yards and seven picks.

10. The Bears win 6-4.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On That What-The-Hell Happened Moment

Dyer's run was a what-the-hell-happened moment that symbolized this what-the-hell-happened season. The national title was decided on a play in which everyone stood still and stopped playing.--Pat Forde, ESPN

And now, of course, there is controversy, because there is always controversy, because a play like that could not precipitate a pushback by the losing side and by those obsessive freaks who have the time to blow up a photograph to elephantine proportions in order to determine whether Michael Dyer's ankle tape is part of his ankle, or whether the wrist is part of the hand which is attached to the elbow bone which was precipitated by butterflies in the stomach. Dyer was down, Dyer wasn't down: Such is the ageless mantra of an otherwise arrhythmic championship game, the kind of game that exactly no one predicted but, given the 40-day layoff brought on by the infinite wisdom of the bowl system, we probably should have expected.

What's amazing is that we have instant replay, and even instant replay cannot eliminate those last slivers of human error. Maybe that's a bad thing, but I don't think it is. Because the games I remember most are the ones that hinge on controversy: On whether Mike Guman may have somehow scored in the 1978 Sugar Bowl, on whether Mike McCloskey was out of bounds, on whether that final second should have even been on the clock in the first place. Because sometimes the best thing about sports is that the argument can seem so innocuous by comparison with actual life. From now on, Oregon fans will identify themselves through that play, for better or worse; their pain will build character in a program that's mostly associated with cheaply made workout apparel and hideous regalia. Dyer Was Down.

In the real world these days, the arguments we're having are the true what-the-hell happened moments: they are serious and stern and increasingly violent and frightening, and they don't seem likely to go away anytime soon. Maybe that's why this controversy seems so quaint: Because in sports, it is nothing more than a moment.

Monday, January 10, 2011

On Wildcard Weekend (and BCS Monday)

1. I don't think the Jets will defeat the Patriots, and I don't think the Steelers will defeat the Ravens, but I have to admit: About these playoffs, I don't think I would presume anything anymore. A week ago, I actually said that if I had a first-born child, I would immediately bet him/her on New Orleans, which is as good a reason as any to argue against me ever procreating*. I also did not imagine the Jets would defeat the Colts on the road, and especially in circumstances that required Mark Sanchez to actually make a clutch throw. In general, I find professional football an inferior product to the college game, but I think the NFL has accomplished something remarkable in the past few seasons: They've engendered such parity that we really have no idea about anything. This is the closest the NFL has come to approaching the wide-open nature of the NCAA tournament. It might not sustain itself, given the labor disputes and the delicate balancing act required to sustain it, but this hyperviolent lottery is fun while it lasts.

2. My instincts tell me that NFC Championship was played last weekend, and that Green Bay certainly appears to be the best team remaining, by a rather considerable margin. But I'm still not over the fact that the Arizona Cardinals played in a Super Bowl. Parity. Which is a solid concept, until it implodes and the Patriots beat the Seahawks 48-3 and we all hearken back to the good old days when the SB was the most lopsided major sporting event in America.

3. My uncertainty about the NFL carries over to Michael Vick. I could see him putting up three of the greatest quarterbacking years in NFL history over the next five seasons. I could also see him getting lazy, frequenting gentleman's clubs, and quitting at halftime of a game next season in order to (according to his agent) open a dog sanctuary in Virginia.

4. Twenty-five years ago, when the Chicago Bears advanced to the NFC Championship game, the first thing their defensive coordinator did was complain about the Los Angeles Rams' penchant for holding. And then he declared that the Rams' star running back, Eric Dickerson, would fumble three times. He was wrong; Dickerson only fumbled twice. The Bears won 24-0. So in case you're wondering what Rex Ryan is doing this week, he's doing what all children do: He's emulating his father. Which is why you won't hear anyone in the tabloids spending much time on Mark Sanchez's Nuke LaLoosh-like accuracy, or on any of the Jets' other inherent flaws. The more it's about Rex, the less it's about the fact that his team is inherently worse than the Patriots. In the modern age, in an era of endless distractions, I have no idea why coaches don't pull these kinds of stunts more often.

5. I predict Jamaal Charles will lead the NFL in rushing next season. I realize this is not a particularly bold prediction, but I would like to make it before anyone else so I can claim it as my idea. 

6. Oregon 38, Auburn 27. Though in the name of overpriced sportswear, I hope I'm wrong.
*I can provide several more reasons, as well as references upon request.

(Photo: NY Daily News)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

On Inconsequential Things That Matter To Me

1. Driving

I spend my Christmases in Chicago, residing temporarily with the beings who created my future wife. Normally, it is no big deal--they have an airport in Chicago (in fact, I hear, they even have two airports), and so my trip generally involves stepping onto a flying machine, stepping off, shuttling to suburbia, consuming carbohydrates for three days, and returning home on a separate flying machine. However, this year, my home city was enveloped in chaos, thereby forcing the future wife and I to rent a vehicle via O.J. Motors and cover the eastern portion of America over the course of two days. To which I say, A.) Any rest stop with a Hardee's in it should either be named after a prominent antacid or targeted for immediate demolition,* B.) The vast expanse of northern Ohio is as utterly barren as I recall it to be, though C.) my home state's interminable width--it is the Vince Wilfork of I-80--is something I feel obligated to apologize for, and D.) if there is a way to sell off New Jersey while it still has some value remaining, I say we take the deal. Find some wealthy sheik with a Sopranos fetish, play him a copy of Greetings from Asbury Park, sell him on the notion of hired attendants pumping the fuel he sold us a premium, don't mention the endless array of nonsensical cloverleaf off-ramps, the drivers who treat lane markers as an optional exercise, and the very idea of Newark, and we might be able to raise enough money to purchase something Canadian.

2. Buckeyes

You don't need me to tell you that the NCAA is a bungling hypocritical cabal, and we can argue about the relative severity of several athletes selling items that seemingly belonged to them, but what skeeves me out most about Tattoogate is Ohio State's utterly patronizing attempts to act as if it had simply forgotten to mention a statute that Jim Tressel recalled prominently mentioning as recently as 2003. The fundamental problem here is that the adults never really get punished for anything, even though they're the ones making all the money.

3. Weirdos

This story is amazing. I've got to imagine there's a role for Vincent Gallo in the film adaptation.
*What makes it worse is that the Hardee's was paired with a third-rate fast-food Mexican chain. Which means, if your Thickburger did not immediately induce dysentery, you could layer it with something resembling a taco. The other rest-stop tandem in Indiana, by the way, was McDonald's with Dairy Queen, which makes me think the Indiana Turnpike must be heavily populated by successful Little League teams.

Monday, January 3, 2011

On An Anniversary Worth Noting

Yesterday marked 24 years since the most overtly theatrical and baldly dramatic game in college football history.* Unfortunately, Penn State marked this anniversary by enduring (potentially) one of the program's most ignominious weekends in recent memory.

I prefer to remember the good times.

Two decades later, and the real world has been kind to the quarterback, even if no one can remember his name. He lives in what can only be described as a sprawling manifestation of the American dream, an enormous stucco house on a tree-lined cul-de-sac in a tony New Jersey suburb. He has a wife, and he has four children, and he has a den with a wet bar and a pool table, and until recently, when corporate restructuring rendered him a temporary stay-at-home father, he had spent 18 years as a star at Merrill Lynch. 

John Shaffer. The name, like the way he played quarterback, is bland and forgettable, which is why few people outside of the state of Pennsylvania even recall it anymore. When he graduated from Penn State as an academic All-American in the spring of 1987, he had a national championship ring and a reputation as a solid citizen who had no legitimate shot of making it in the National Football League. He went to training camp with the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent. By the end of August, he did something that many football players could never muster the courage to do: He asked to be cut. He had a degree in finance, with an internship waiting on Wall Street. He had another life to start.

Read the rest of the story here. Read lots more here.

*This is a matter of opinion. But in this case, given the research, my opinion is unquestionably correct.