Friday, May 28, 2010

Michigan—A “Storied Program’s” Collapse

The pictures says t it all. The University of Michigan's  football coach and AD stand before a news conference. With solemn faces, they announce self-imposed hand slaps on themselves for major football violations around misuse of voluntary practice time and illegal use of support staff as coaches. 

This continues Michigan's run of scandals going back over a decade and admits most NCAA charge against its “storied football program.” It self-imposed limits upon practice time, assistant coaches and proposed 2 year probation in its long response to the NCAA. Nothing too onerous. The AD lives in denial calling it a" bruise" not a "black eye" and the school resolutely defends its football coach against the charge of having encouraged a culture of noncompliance, despite the evidence. It's long response mutters about communication breakdowns and seems to portray a keystone cops approach to compliance at least with regard to football. The AD David Brandon, the ex-Domino Pizza president, bristles at calling extra practice time and illegal coaches "cheating." Interesting parsing of words for what clearly is cheating.

 In full disclosure, I taught in the Michigan system and lived in Ann Arbor for a decades and have a deep affection and respect for the university, so I write this with dismay. But  this last set of scandals reflects the disarray of a once proud program and hints at two deep problems with NCAA rules that I will discuss in a later blog.

All the stories, Yahoo, ESPN, AP refer to the “storied football program.” Inevitably the story mentions the program has won more football games than any other—the advantages of longevity. But no one talks about the great or excellent program. The Michigan  football and basketball teams in particular  have not been great programs for a generation. The whole program hangs around the top ten of the director's cup and in the last decade picked up national championships in men's gymnastics, field hockey and softball.

The football program remained a very good program with a very very good coach Lloyd Carr. It won a national championship in 1997 and won 78 percent of its games under him. For exemplary character, his devotion to students, his 1997 national championships and ten Big 10 titles, Carr was unceremoniously retired out of the program largely because his teams could not beat Ohio State. The unwarranted removal  punished an exemplary coach and team to satisfy booster blood lust. It reflected how distorted the college football culture to win and satisfy boosters has become.

The blood lust needed to be sated because except for periodic random championships like softball or field hockey, the basketball team had failed miserably and been mired in scandal for fifteen years and the Michigan football resembled a rich dowager. The sleek really rich brides of Florida, Texas, USC, LSU and a surgically regenerated Ohio State sashayed past Michigan on the way to multiple national championships and glory.

I have made this point a number of times but the Michigan example underscores it. There are no great programs, only great coaches. There are rich programs, not great programs. There are some very rich programs, and they can afford to hire the great coaches. If you hire enough great coaches, you look like a great program.

Michigan did not lack for money, they just lacked judgment in hiring coaches.  With any talent for picking talent a rich program can morph into a great program, witness Florida and Texas. Many college programs, like Cincinnati, are a bit like Kansas City and Pittsburgh in baseball; they hire and nurture young coaches and then have them snatched  away by the rich when they are ready like Florida did to Utah’s Urban Meyer and ND to Cincinnati’s Brian Kelley. 

 Michigan stumbled on hiring in basketball for a generation and solved the football program with Carr. Ultimately the stories Michigan boosters told themselves about what Bruce Springsteen would call Glory Days  lead to Carr's retiring. But stories take on their rose or dark hues. Remember the titanic Hayes/Schembechler wars ended 5-4-1, and Michigan only went to the Rose bowl once during the wars. 

What most galled Michigan fans was they could not find a Michigan man to replace Carr. Many expected Les Miles of LSU to jump at the chance, an old Schembechler protege with one national championship under his belt. The choice for Miles was simple: why leave Louisiana where he had no effective academic or legal constraints upon his recruiting and was treated like a king for a much more regulated and academically tougher Michigan with restive boosters who had just deposed a fine coach. After well publicized failures that got several coaches very good raises (we had the same experience at Washington) the school settled for Rich Rodriquez a high powered offensive coach with a somewhat tangled  reputation for bad outside decision making.

Rodriquez faced immense skepticism and huge pressures to win immediately, all quite unreasonable. But he has done nothing to calm either with two failed seasons and lingering questions from economic dealings in West Virginia. His style alienated players, lead to leaks to the press and now Michigan has admitted systematic violations in not controlling the practice times, having illegal voluntary practice times turn into coach regulated practices. In addition, the five Michigan "quality control coaches' more than anyone else in the Big 10, consistently violate NCAA regulations by acting as real coaches giving Michigan competitive advantages in coaching and tending to players. 

The new Michigan AD David Brandon consistently down played this loss of institutional control over the football team. The sanctions they imposed, besides probation, are remarkably light and depend upon Michigan's denial that the consistent pattern of practice time, abuse of voluntary practice time and turning assistants to assistants into coaches does not constitute serious lack of control of the team. This is doubly interesting when you read the Michigan documents and find that the responsibilities for the coaches will be set by the head coach. I will speak to how these Michigan violations illustrate a widespread NCAA problem, but for the moment, it might help if Michigan got serious about the range and depth of its failures. Rodriquez adds to the quagmire with his petulant response where he blames senior administrators and compliance staff for his own ignorance of basic job descriptions and well known rules after 18 months on the job.  

Brandon's final word is "We've been in business for 130 years. We'll let our brand and our integrity and our merits stand on our history and beliefs."  Would that it were enough.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Corrupt Referees

The World Cup in South Africa is upon us and so are charges of bribery and cheating around the referees. The latest emanate from England where a respected English soccer leader David Triesman charges that Spain and Russia may colluding to bribe officials in exchange for support for bids to host the soccer club. In the same week four German soccer players were suspended as part of an investigation into throwing soccer games that spans eleven countries in Europe.

FIFA is vigorously pursuing the bribery charges before the World Cup opens and with good reasons. If the integrity and skill of the referees is in question the entire moral and competitive edifice of competitve sport collapses.

The rule bound nature of games places immense moral weight upon clarity of rules and the fair and honest interpretation of the rules. The point of the game is that rules define standards of permissable performance; they define the rules of interactions where contact is permitted or not; they define what constitutes a "score" "point" "run" etc. In the end rules literally determine what constitutes winning and losing. No rules are perfect and no rules are perfectly clear, and many rules sometimes clash, so the rightness and honor of competitive outcomes relies upon the integrity of the referees, umpires or judges in athletic competition.

The ongoing soccer scandal involves both game throwing but also encroaches on the other side of rule defined competition, the integrity of the judges. The whole moral edifice of sports competition collapses if the oft reviled artibers of rules are corrupted. No sport escapes these ravages. The Olympic ice skating scandal where a French judge voted for the Russian pairs; the NBA referee Tom Donaghy who bet on games, gave confidential information and changed calls are both recent high profile examples.

Rules need interpretation. Self-enforced rules seldom work as the stakes of competition go up. As stakes go up the impetus is to create a certified core of individuals who can exercise professional judgment. Most referees at professional and high level amateur competitions have earned their spurs through schooling and long apprentices often beginning on sand lot play.

Competition depends upon both sides and all players having a level playing field. The referees will interpret rules consistently for both teams and for all players. Consistency and accuracy ground the integrity of athletic refereeing. Oddly enough, accuracy may be impossible given the speed and complexity of calls, so the true anchor becomes consistency for range of calls, same strike zone, same tackling calls, same hand checking calls. Fairness trumps accuracy, but both are vital to the integrity.

Four strategies exist to protect the integrity of referees. First involves the training and certifying of the judgers. Second, This can be reinforced by having oversight bodies who review the activity and decide whether they will be renewed for the next year. These review groups also oversee the selection of the "best" referees for the high profile championships. Third, This professionalism is augmented by having crews together who can check and reinforce each other (or be co-members of a conspiracy of silence). Fourth, in many sports the power of modern video technology has been introduced with multi-angle cameras to permit video review of close vital calls. But this simply refocuses the interpretative power but in a more public and group oriented way.

But modern athletes, even at lower amateur levels. is bigger, faster, stronger. Although linear sports like swimming or golf or net protected sports like tennis have more clarity and simplicity in judging, fast moving contact sports like basketball, soccer, football or lacrosse pose huge difficulties for referees. They simply cannot cover and see every aspect of the game on a large field with large numbers of players.

Rules will be violated and unseen; calls will be close and instant, most right but a few wrong. Well intentioned trained individuals make mistakes on calls or miss calls; sometimes the most ire arises of noncalls which provide an advantage to the person who violated the rules. Most referees or judges create common law expectations for a game. Most athletes and coaches ask that the parameters be known and consistent for both sides. They can live with variations as long as the variations are reliable and consistent.

If the referees corrupt their calls, it is very hard to discover unless a pattern emerges over time as it did with Donaghy. But even then no one of the crews would snitch on him and it took outside review to discover. Referees can be entangled, as athletes can, in their own needs or gambling or income shortfalls. This provides an opening for ever vigilant gamblers and their runners who hang around the teams sniffing for insider knowledge or signs of weakness that can be exploited with money or blackmail.

This leads to another strategy that depends on in-depth background investigations and checks for referees in high profile and high stakes events. The integrity of sports depends upon the referees, without them it is not sport, is not a game of talent and skill and combat, but a game of unfair advantages, unreliable rules and outcomes that do not reflect the true competition of the teams. In Brazil and China soccer no longer exists as a sport anyone respects and in China even children no longer aspire to play soccer. It is not longer a game but a choreographed joke like modern wrestling. This is the end of sport without honest referees.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

End of the Fighting Sioux: Mascot Wars Matter

It took forever but North Dakota University  officially laid to rest the Fighting Sioux mascot in April after a thirty year battle and four year court case. The Fighting Sioux represented one of the last bastions to fall in the NCAA twenty year battle to end nicknames that it found demeaning and hostile.  This final controversy was fascinating because it pitched two wings of the Dakota Sioux against each other, one in favor of the name and one against. The cost to the University for not changing was to lose the right to compete in or host NCAA events.

In true university style the university has now appointed a committee to come up with a new mascot! Heaven knows what they will uncover but let me make delve a little deeper into why nicknames and mascots matter and actually deserve the attention they receive.

 Warrior and hunting cultures regularly identified with totems and avatars for their community. The avatar represented  an embodiment of the values and virtues that community held dear. They often manifest the values and virtues of creatures they admired, respected, feared and often hunted or depended upon. So clans proudly proclaimed their identification with totems of wolves, foxes, eagles, killer whales, falcons gooeyducks (whoa, I am getting ahead of myself) crows, bears, badgers. Well you get the picture.

Members of the community not only carry totems but may have dressed in the clothes provided by the prey. Young members of the community emulated the values and danced to their rhythms of the avatars. Other communities mixed and matched an accord with natural forces like wind, rain, thunder, lightening. These could be simple and clear like thunder, storm or sun groups or more complex by marrying gods and goddesses with forces. They could merge them all together with a god who actualized the power of storm or sea but also flew as an eagle or swam as a porpoise.

The arcane point of the game is that mascots and nicknames really present modern totems and avatars. For the teams they embody aspiration and value. Ideally they express the virtues of focus, toughness, endurance and fierceness needed to achieve success in sport.

Avatars and totems are not mascots. Mascots are a degraded American version of a good luck charm but the nickname/mascot really becomes  more in the lives of schools and players. Americans further debase the rooted and sacred nature of the avatar by creating and marketing caricatures of goofy alligators, to mention Florida's profitable abomination.

So a school or team avatar ideally represents the best aspiration for the team and the schools goals. This is one of the ironies of the whole NCAA and tribal battles over Amero-Indian based mascots. To choose "Seminole" or "Chippawa" or "Warrior" was not an act of denigration but one of admiration and hope to inculcate the virtues of the people into the team and campus. It is important to realize that all these choices involve aspiration and dreams, not realities. So the Trojans and Spartans are not about the cities that lost their wars, but the virtues that made them great even indefeat. The Amero-Indian avatars often represented the same. Teams don't choose avatars of defeated people they despise.

The cultural and legal battles arose from two concerns. First the anger and fear of American Indian tribes that their own culture had been stolen or obliterated and what had replaced it was a white mythology not only on TV and novels but in the myths appropriated by the team avatars. Second, the tribes reacted with justified virulance at the caricatures that the teams used to market and brand and sell mascots--the Cleveland Indians' heinous Chief Yahoo remains the worst degradation of this.

So the battle over American Indian names reflects a cultural battle to end the caricatures or replace and enable richer stories to be told. The seriousness of the battle reminds us that mascots are more than mascots; they  are avatars.

Some Universities like Florida State Seminoles or the Western Michigan Chippewa reached accommodations with the tribes around both telling a truer story and providing some economic return to the tribe from the appropriation of the name.

So the battle and replacement made some sense because even if not replaced it forced schools to rethink marketing and branding and actually rediscover the values and virtues inherent in an avatar.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Perfect and the Grace of Sports

Perfect is very rare. Perfect is very hard. Perfect beckons us as a goal, elusive but challenging. One thing about sport is the lingering possibility of experiencing perfection.

Baseball illustrates this more clearly than any other sport.  I am not talking about a gymnastics' 10, but rather the goal of facing 27 batters and getting them all out. 27 after all is the square of the sacred triad.  So when a perfect game occurs, it occurs metaphysically as well as physically (well it sounds good!).

Most of us don't find perfect in our daily life or more often we miss the perfect. We have perfect moments--moments where everything works, everything comes together--moments when we get it right. We find it anywhere--at work, at home, even walking on the street when the light, sky, buildings and sounds carve out a perfect moment.

Sports makes this more evident because its rules and ideals and patterns underscore flawless and achievement.  This is why sports can be so enticing, not just winning and losing, but achieving human excellence.

The judge scoring sports point in this direction. While the scores can feel arbitrary or random, they do suggest a Platonic perfection where the human body for an instant instantiates a perfect form in space in time.

The form of perfection becomes incarnate.  Those moments occur not just in the point awarded sports, but just like in life, for pellucid moments. We experience a perfect pass, a perfect jump shot, a perfect volley. The athlete knows it, the opponents know it and often those watching know. The perfect becomes a moment of grace in sport. We are better for having experienced it. In my own mind one of the true perfect moments of sports occured in Michael Jordan's "shot" that  won the NBA championship over the Jazz. It was of course the moment he retired and should have stayed retired.

Two days ago ago Dallas Braden threw a "perfect" game for the Oakland A's; he faced twenty seven batters in nine innings, the absolute mathmatical minimum for a game. In the hundred twenty year plus history of baseball and hundreds of thousands of games, only nineteen perfect games have been thrown. In addition, he gave up no hits in the perfect game, something accomplished only nine times. This is a masterful accomplishment of discipline, talent, focus and teamwork.

Sports opens a daily window into the possibility of perfection. We can experience human beings achieving transparent excellence in their chosen field. We can identify with the quest and celebrate the accomplishment. Many fans of other teams and opponents rooted for him and congratulated him in recognition of the beauty of the achievement. They are fans of the game, not just their team.

What sets a perfect game apart from the moments of grace and perfect shot  is that it unfolds over time and involves not just one person but 18 playing against each other. The perfection builds upon mundane fielding, moments of luck and bounce, moments of exceptional fielding or pitching. There might even be a moment of perfection within the perfect game like an executed double play or stunning catch. So the perfect game is attributed to the pitcher who joins a short elite list ranging from Cy Young to Sandy Koufax to Randy Johnson. Some games are thrown by great pitchers but some are moments of greatness achieved by good pitchers. But the game belongs to the team. This is what makes a perfect game, rather than a perfect score or perfect moment. A perfect game can be lost in a second and not just by the pitcher but by any fielder. Perfect games overcome cumulative imperfections and astronomical odds.

Welcome to human perfection; we have it daily in our lives and often miss it, but sport provides us with a daily chance to witness it because its rules, forms and ideals enable us to see it. If it can happen in baseball, it can happen in our lives.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Lacrosse, Sport, Entitled Violence

What is it about lacrosse? I don’t want to repeat the Duke debacle of self inflicted flagellation, but the murder of a Yeardley Love by a Virginia lacrosse player George Huguely  brings to mind another dimension that the Duke mess revealed. The culture of lacrosse epitomizes privileged swaggering wealth and elite violence comfortable with its own superiority and confident in its ability to act with impunity.

I do not want to ignore the pain and tragedy of loss of Yeardly Love's life at the hands of alleged killer Hughly. I do not want to pile on the sport of lacrosse, which it well deserves, but rather reflect upon the wider and deeper issue of how sport accomplishment can provide a kind of entilted immunity that breeds reckless violence especially towards women. Lawrence Taylor plays out the end game of his squalid life where his violence and flouting of norms was protected and enabled by his extraordinary football talent. Pro bowl quarterback Ben Roethlisberger receives a slap on the wrist for violence against women while Michael Vick loses his career for violence against dogs. 

Media and sports commentators talk a lot about the violence associated with football and basketball at the college and po level, lord knows they provide weekly examples. This violence grows in a violent milieu that many of the minority players escape. Football values and exploits  the violence and anger.  The violence permeates the sport and surrounds the culture;  players channel violence and anger to escape and succeed on the field. The simmering violence places heavy moral responsiblities upon the coaches who recruit, train and educate the young men and women who play on their teams. Many of these successful athletes become used to being protected from their own violence in high school and college and as pros by rich patrons and strong institutional protections.

Lacrosse presents a different from of entitlement. It's a niche sport protected and supported by serious east coast wealth. East coast lacrosse traditionally grows and thrives in elite environs. It may be slumming now into community centers and the middle class, but the sport flourishes at elite finishing schools and is traditionally dominated by privileged scions of wealth from whom lacrosse is an outlet and status for their own superiority and a stop on the way to their investment banker careers.

Lacrosse violence grows from different sources of entitlement but is just as real. The Virginia lacrosse player had a history of flaunting rules and alcohol. More interesting as this case and the Duke case reveal, the coaches see the alcohol saturated culture as a natural part of the team and in both cases seem to do little to deal with it. In the Virginia team's case, the team had rules against drinking but the coach set aside one a day a week to binger drink!  

Turns out the Virginia lacrosse player had an ignored history of violence and alcohol misuse, much like 20 percent of the team and the Duke team. It is important to remember here how much this says about the failure of coaches to address or control this aspect of their sport and to abet the entitlement and escape from consequences that follows not just form being a star on a number one team on a campus that values the sport but coming from a background where money and status bought a fair degree of immunity in the past. So the coaching, sport and status amplify the privilege of wealth. 

The violence of the rich elite also differs on campus. Black violence on campus asserts itself because it plays into so many feared sterotypes and black students are already a marked minority so the football or basktball associated violence extends and deepens stereotypes of fears of the atavistic outlier. The casual violence of white lacrosse players is hidden, more normalized, less stigmatized by the media or the schools or, it seems, coaches. This marks the lacrosse tragedy as culturally deep, ugly and dangerous, especially to women.

The point of the game here is not just the sport, but the dominance and elitism of the sport, flaunted much as the rich use yatch racing or horse racing to sport their own elite wealth and class segrgation.  I think it is important to remember that violence emerges not  just from proverty and despair but from arrogance and privilege. Lacrosse, its history and its players represent this, and the murder of a Yeardley Love by a lacrosse player with a history of violence illustrates this.

Any time society values skills and rewards them, the temptation to abuse power exists and is amplified by the temptation to forgive, forget or let off. This seems the norm when sports privilege faces off against women's dignity. The end game of Lawrence Taylor, Tiger Wood, Ben Roethlisberger and scores of other elite athletes reveals this. The lacrosse case reflects the same problem only the genesis begins with wealth and arrogance, not sport.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Title IX Meant to Force Culture Change

Title IX is named after 1972 Education Amendments signed by President Nixon (it was a different time when Republicans supported women's rights as well environmental issues). The legislation pushed equality of opportunity for women in sports. Like its companion civil rights legislation, this law was not designed to support the status quo but to drive changes in behavior, expectations and resources spent on women.

The legislation zeroed in on a domain of exclusive male control. The domain matters because American society uses sports and sports metaphors to explain life and even itself.  Daily conversation in the workplace and life were saturated with references to teams, scores and competitive metaphors that glorified the image of sports as models of achievement.

The point of the game here is that sports language and play covertly and overtly excluded women. American society implicitly assumed women could not play or achieve excellence in this domain and by implication many others. "Throwing like a girl" signified the language of disenfranchisement.

Sports, like so many areas of structural discrimination, created a self fulfilling justification. Sports illuminates and illustrates virtues and strengths needed to achieve in the world. Women can't do well at sports and women aren't interested in sports, therefore women  choose to disqualify themselves and are disqualified from demonstrating these virtues. Because women can't do it and don't care about doing it, we don't need to let them do it; we can deny them opportunities to play sports. Since so few have opportunities and so few achieve, the young women have no models to aspire to unless they want to be the '"female" Michael Jordan or "female" Alex Rodriquez (can't believe I said that!)  etc.

The inertia of the sports world, like of society at large, held back the development of women's sports. This was compounded not just by lack of opportunity but lack of strong fan bases (of course no fan base exists for any sport until you get to college or Olympics, and in college only a profitable fan base exists for basketball and football--now thousands show up for the NCAA volleyball and basketball championships). In addition college administrators, high school coaches, college coaches and a solid phalanx of southern members of congress fought it every bureaucratic inch of the way.

Title IX was forcing legislation. The law did not mean to promote the status quo but change it. It created a decision forcing function for colleges and high schools that received federal aid. Provide strong and fair opportunity or face loss of funding.

The crux of the forcing legislation lay in the criteria to prove good faith effort. The most obvious approach would be to demand that schools provide opportunities proportionate with the percentage of women at the school. This aim is the nightmare of every social conservative but also a huge resource challenge to athletic administrators and schools. It posed a serious challenge at so many levels even when only 40 percent of undergraduate populations were female. Now with the not uncommon reality of 60 percent female undergraduate populations, the pure percentage criteria is a nightmare.

One way to escape the collision of proportionality with resources was to create a fudge factor. This turned out to be the percentage of interest criteria. This required colleges not to achieve real proportionality but to poll women on the campus and see what percentage wanted to participate in intercollegiate sports, then try to achieve proportionality to that number. The criteria was a godsend to schools,  especially in the south, where the female polling guranteed more who wanted to be hostesses or cheerleaders; it took alot of pressure off. The Bush administration, as one would expect given its southern base, did everything it could to slow down the progress, most importantly aggressively supporting  the survey approach and effectively ending federal pressure on schools.

The Obama administration decision to eliminae the escape valve of the survey is the right thing to do. The issue here is not the accuracy of the survey or sampling, but rather the tendency of surveys to reflect existing views and protect college administration's from wider changes in sports. It permitted programs to get away with disproportionality while claiming to provide parity. The Obama decision restores the dynamic and forcing because this is about cultural change and respecting and enabling the role of women in society and in sport.

After generations of amazing success and growth and hundreds of thousands of young women who have benefited from participation in sport, you would assume this would be the norm. Today 210,000 women play as NCAA student athletes representing 45% of all intercollegiate athletes. What Bush reminded us is that the battles around the role and stature of women never ends. A whole reactive undertow exists ready to erode or wash away progress whenever given a chance, even if it involves seemingly obscure bureaucratic requirements about proportionality.

 Obama did the right thing. It is a step forward for women in sports, for the moment.