Tuesday, March 22, 2011

On "Disrespect": A Brief Observation

We all know by now that the sports world is littered with perceived disrespect, but this weekend felt like mini-zenith in the Era of Self-Imposed Haters. Sixty-eight teams entered the NCAA tournament, and I have little doubt that sixty-eight coaches spent the weekend assuring their assembled squads that, in fact, no one believed they would get beyond this round, that everyone doubted their fitness for either A.) Being included in the tournament field, or B.) Being seeded wherever they happened to be seeded. The NCAA tournament is built that way; its format demands that coaches utilize every form of motivation imaginable in order to keep their teams from losing focus. Therefore, we hear Connecticut players, after winning five games in five days in what everyone agreed was the toughest conference tournament in American history, denouncing naysayers who almost certainly don't exist; and we hear Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart admitting to splicing a highlight reel of everyone who even marginally disrespected his team on national television.

Now, I have reason to believe that Shaka Smart is an intelligent man. He attended Kenyon College, a top-tier liberal arts school;* he is the head coach of a Division I basketball program at age 33. I doubt he even believes that the venom against a relatively unknown program is as stark and unforgiving as he makes it out to be; what Shaka Smart knows is that it works. Who among us has not been motivated by a snub? Who among has not defied the directives of Obi-Wan Kenobi and utilized anger in order to advance our standing? Such is sports in the 21st century; in an era of unbridled communication, this may be the most effective way to cut through the noise, by encouraging young men to embrace the dark side. Long live the Empire.

*Where he dated my fiancee's high-school friend, which is irrelevant, but kind of cool.

Monday, March 14, 2011

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

Forgive me if this post is disjointed, but I'm a little frazzled. I've written before about my irrational loyalty to the perpetually lost cause known as Penn State basketball,* but every so often they reward my patience. Once every decade, a team emerges from out of nowhere, like this one did, and just when you think they're going to fall away into the historical oblivion of the NIT they pull some kind of irrational stunt. Granted, it was perhaps the ugliest miracle you'll ever see, four straight days of teeth-pulling, gear-grinding Big Ten tournament basketball, four days of the best player in Penn State history struggling for every single shot he took, four days of the basketball establishment continually casting doubts on a team that probably deserved quite a bit of that doubt after losing to Maine in December.**

But every so often, whether by pure chance or pure will or pure want, this happens. And it is a great feeling, a joy that is rare and unique and exhilarating and exhausting. I don't permit myself many pure sporting pleasures, due partly to my job and due partly to a veil of skepticism that keeps thickening with age, but Penn State basketball is one of the last unfettered allegiances of my existence. Because they are always underdogs, a school without a true recruiting base, a school so devoid of tradition that you get the feeling they wouldn't even know how to cheat effectively even if they wanted to, a school with five very good starting players and absolutely no bench at all***, a school that doesn't even have a true practice facility, a school with so much working against that it's a miracle they ever find a way to compete in the Big Ten.

Sometimes makes me angry that it has to be that way, but it's the truth, and I don't know if they'll ever find their way to a higher plane. As I've said before, I kind of hope they don't. There was something hyperkinetic about watching those wins over Wisconsin and Michigan State, as sluggish as they appeared to an impartial observer. Because Penn State has no real bench, because their margin of error is so slim, because Talor Battle--and I was convinced Battle was going to become the greatest college basketball player to go four years without ever appearing in an NCAA tournament--plays forty minutes game after game, because every defensive stop is key, because a forward named Jeff Brooks has suddenly found himself, because you feel the urgency with every possession, watching this team somehow win games has been one of the great joys in my increasingly segmented life as a sports fan.

And so now I shouldn't really care what happens. But I will. I will sweat every posession against Temple, and I will spout irrational thoughts, and whenever it is over, against Temple or San Diego State or Duke or whoever, I will feel a distinct sense of sadness. Because it is not often that something so raggedly beautiful unfolds before your eyes.

*And if you arrived here because of either of those posts, you should probably read this, by the always insightful Dave Jones.
**I've never paid much attention to announcer bias. When I was kid, my parents would throw parties to watch Penn State games, and we would listen to Frank Broyles, who was an unapologetic SEC guy through-and-through, and the word was that Frank Broyles hated Penn State. I have no idea if this was true, and even if it was true...who cares? But it was rather strange to watch two days of Big Ten tournament coverage on CBS, because it was clear no one on that broadcast team expected Penn State to be playing in any of those games, and no one on that broadcast team was willing to even accept the fact that Penn State had a better case for an NCAA tournament bid than Michigan State. Clark Kellogg maintained this stance even after Penn State defeated Michigan State. And I generally like Clark Kellogg quite a bit. But his refusal to acknowledge statistics was mind-boggling.
***There is one player who comes off the bench for Penn State--and I shall not name names--who at times appears so utterly befuddled and physically overmatched that his play reminds me of the old days, when Penn State would recruit big kids from rural Pennsylvania who would have otherwise wound up at Lock Haven State just to fill their scholarship quota. At one point during the Big Ten tournament, this kid was on the floor with a walk-on whose primary job is to fill space. And somehow, through sheer force of effort, Penn State won anyway.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On R.E.M.: A Personal History

I. State College, Pennsylvania, Spring '91: Document

His name is not relevant. He was never really a friend. For three months, he was a pledge brother at my fraternity, which meant we scrubbed floors and cleaned toilets and went on beer runs until one day, a few weeks from our initiation, he abruptly disappeared and never returned. It did not matter why; if I am being honest, I was not particularly fond of him. He came from money, and he was comically snobbish, and he was one of the first overt racists I had come across in my sheltered existence. Here is what matters: He drove a Honda, and in this Honda were several compact discs in heavy rotation. One of those CDs was Doolittle by the Pixies. Another was Document, by a band called R.E.M.

We did not have a true alternative radio station in State College. I'm not sure how this is possible, how a college town failed to have an alternative radio station in the early 1990s, but this is State College, after all, and State College is sweatpants and football and frat parties and dingy bars populated by classic rock cover bands. And so I grew up listening a hodgepodge of mainstream music, listening to that which my brother bequeathed to me and that which I found on my own or through my metalhead high-school friends. I listened to Billy Joel's Stormfront followed by Van Halen II followed by Yes's 90125. "Alternative" music seemed the dominion of a strange and unfamiliar cult, a far more cultivated class of people than that which I considered myself. It wasn't that I'd never heard of R.E.M.--I have a distinct memory of the morning of my driver's test, waking to the local classic rock station playing "It's the End of the World (As We Know It)"--but back then, they resided in some alternate, largely radio-free dimension into which I was not permitted. Perhaps that was the reason I bothered to join a fraternity in the first place: I just wanted to know what was on the other side.

Here is what I remember most about the rides in that unnamed non-friend's Honda: Listening to song called "Exhuming McCarthy." I was eighteen years old, and I knew little to nothing of McCarthyism, and yet the opening of that song--the sounds of a manual typewriter clacking until the carriage return bell rang and a bouncy guitar riff rattled the windows--was like nothing I had ever heard. I listen to it now, and the lyrics seem kind of preachy and didactic, and yet that typewriter still transports me to the backseat of Civic, to that moment when I was just beginning to learn how much I didn't know.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

On Jim McMahon and "Honor Codes"

So the Brigham Young basketball team has dimissed one of its top players for a violation of the school's "honor code." This is nothing new--either the honor code or the dismissal of an athlete for violating it, and no one is really arguing that athletes who attend BYU should be required to adhere to said code, ridiculous as it may seem to those of us who reside in someplace other than Victorian England. If these are the dictates of their religion--and if BYU subsists as a private school--then that's their business.

But it should be noted that BYU has not always abided by its own rules. It should be noted that in the early 1980s, when Jim McMahon attended said university, both he and his father made it abundantly clear that they had no real interest in the tenets of Mormonism, and that McMahon was matriculating at BYU because Lavell Edwards had constructed a prolific passing offense.* Specifically, McMahon claims that he spent nearly every weekend partying up the road at a different college campus, that he surreptitiously managed to chew tobacco and purchase alcoholic beverages, that, at one point, he had a campus police officer stationed outside his apartment to ensure that he did not violate the honor code.* That McMahon and his university so clearly used each other to advance their profiles (and, if I may, you can read much, much more about this relationship in a certain book that is now available for a discounted rate at Amazon.com) could be blamed on either party, but it proves that, while BYU may have its own dictates, it is not above engaging in the same hypocrisy that every major college athletic program in America has, at one time or another. That it happened to occur with one of the four or five greatest players in school history--a player who may have singlehandedly raised the profile of his school more than any other, while simultaneously laying the moral groundwork for his own outrageousness--is something that many at BYU are even now reluctant to acknowledge. 

*"My son's going to school to play football," Jim McMahon Sr. reportedly told one of the school's lead recruiters. "I don't want him to take all those religion classes."
**My favorite McMahon quote was relayed by his high-school teacher, who, upon informing McMahon that he would have to take a class on the book of Mormon while at BYU, told her, "That's all right. I like fiction."

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

On Cinema, Sports and Predictability

I think we can all agree that this year's Oscar ceremony was particularly terrible. What we might not agree on is the reason why it was terrible. You may single out James Franco's blank pseudo-stoner visage, or Anne Hathaway's array of cheerleading yodels, or that horribly uncomfortable moment when Spartacus nearly toppled off the stage, or when one of the characters from Strange Brew was hired to mimic the voice of Bob Hope. You may have found the transitions from silent film to the E.T. soundtrack somewhat jarring, and you may have found the daisy chain of celebrity introductions particularly bizarre, and you may have been distracted by the dearth of Charlie Sheen jokes. But we all know the real reason this year's Oscars were so eminently forgettable is because they were so utterly predictable.*

This is the problem with an event like the Oscars: Given the flood of awards shows that come before (and the amount of coverage given to each), the winners seem patently obvious by the time the ceremony arrives. Imagine if there were five National League pitchers with 20 victories apiece, and sportswriters voted for the Cy Young Award every week in September before the final vote at the end of the season; that's essentially what the Oscars have become. They're predictable, and there's nothing worse, in cinema or in sports, than predictability.

This, above all else, is what's riding on the NFL and NBA labor negotiations, from a fan's perspective. Baseball, whether true or not, suffers from a perceived lack of parity--even if the Yankees or Red Sox don't play in the World Series, there is a perception that they are going to, and that spending six months following a small-market team may result in the occasional anomalous playoff run, it is generally a futile pursuit. And so baseball has suffered, and the NFL--despite a growing uncomfortability with the repercussions of violence--remains America's most popular sport, because a socialist collective can win a championship...and the NBA is in a state of flux, especially now, as power increasingly becomes concentrated in a handful of major markets.

Of course, I'm not saying sports will ever be as predictable as the movies. This is why, if I had to choose to eliminate one of the two from my life, I would choose film (though I'd prefer if it didn't come to that). Entertainment value is in the eye of the beholder, but I'd still prefer a world with surprises.

*For what it's worth: I would have voted for Fincher, Jesse Eisenberg, Jennifer Lawrence and Exit Through the Gift Shop.