Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Remembering Amateurism: Jenny Finch Retires

Jenny Finch dominated college softball. She pitched Arizona to a national championship, helped bring home Olympic gold and silver medals to the USA and spent the last eight years a vagabond carving out a life in the sport she loved. She ended helping the US win the World Championships this week. The Olympics, under pressure from Europe, banished softball  undercutting the infrastructure that kept softball athletes alive and competitive. With no real pro league, sporadic national and international events, softball players have no where to go. Jenny Finch is retiring at the age of 30.

I have been privileged to watch a magnificent softball athlete play for UW, Danielle Lawrie. She lead UW to a national title, played on Canada's Olympic team, won national player of the year twice and will graduate next year with a very uncertain sports future.

I cite these wondrous softball players as examples of true amateurs. Being an amateur is a way of being in athletics, not a legal category about whether you are "paid" for performance. These athletes do not play to get rich; they need money to live but live to play.

Like Finch they scramble around to get sponsors, find jobs  and lives that permit them to practice and compete. They have no guaranteed contracts, no high powered leagues, no unions and at best may make expenses or a reasonable living to compete, not be wealthy.

Most athletes who don't play in the pot of gold sports like football or basketball live as amateurs. All women athletes live in this older world not so riven by mercenary motives, but still driven by glory, achievement and love of the game. Finch could still say "I am still having fun," the day she retires.

Amateur derives from the Latin "amo"- to love. As a noun it literally means a lover--a lover of the game, the sport. Love complicates things. Lovers do irrational things because their relation to the sport brings them joy. Athletes love playing and competing in their sport.

Loving a sport brings joy and  satisfaction. Lovers work on what they love and love motivates them to get better. Love can grow into a compulsion if its desire consumes a person. Being in love can also be tortured, and more than a few athletes live out a tortured relation to their skills and achievements, loving and hating what they are driven to do. The love can also make it hard for them to carve out personal lives given how consuming their passion for their sport can be; it's hard to make room for two loves.

But love does not have to be tortured. Love can be fun and joyous, and great amateur athletes usually stay for the love and joy, not the torture. Love also brings heartache. If you are doing what you love and fail, it hurts all the more. It brings a pain of loss and failure far deeper than if you were just doing your job. Love also provides a wellspring to renew and recover. At the winter Olympics athletes like Lindsey Vonn and Askel Svindel demonstrated the will and strength to come back from body and career destroying injuries just to compete and win, not just bring home a paycheck.

This is why amateurs represent an old and deep ideal of sport. Athletes achieve from love, not just mercenary motives. Love and money are not incompatible.  Ancient Olympic, Chinese and Indian athletes fought for glory and prizes. They were well recompensed for their achievements in honor of their city, country or Lord. College sports and the world of national competitions creates an in between world of support but not riches for athletes. In college sport athletes receive education to last them after sport leaves their lives. They receive a community, travel and play and medical care and support and facilities. But not riches.

Money sustains love of sport because athletes need time to train and live.It enables athletes to raise families and have a life. Money matters because  athletic excellence flames for a brief moment of  supreme achievement then dampens from age. In the pot of gold sorts, money can become riches, but the riches themselves are fraught. Almost 60 percent of pro football players leave bankrupt after five years of their career.

Love sustains better than money. You can feel a job athlete a mile away, actually the entire NBA season feels that way. No joy, no love, more charade than sport.

Love moves us to do strange and wondrous things. Love fuses with athletic aspiration to drive millions of players to play at all levels of sport. It permeates club games (leaving aside AAU basketball) and can be found on courts and fields all over the world. Yeah, there are always yahoos who play only to prove their dominance. But it begins and endures with  the deeper love of game, love of skill and love of being with comrades.

Love is not enough. We all know that. Athletes need to train, live and many choose to have families and still try and hold it together. They need sustenance for this. Ironically the fact that most sports are not pot of gold sports keeps love alive.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Watching Fans Unravel

The fight felt like piling on. The Mariner's season ended months ago. The team gimps along with a castoff  bullpen, the second lowest batting average in the major leagues and a number of  players hitting career worsts. Ken Griffey, Jr. fled  town,  and the pleasure of watching Cliff Lee's excellence ended when he was traded for another set of maybes.

Weeks of keystone cops defense and awful base-running gaffs  normally seen in T-ball bombarded fans. Through it all manage Don Wakamatsu kept calm and focused. He dealt with issues carefully and privately. He saw the effort even when combined with stupidity.

But on Friday's  July 23rd. game, a routine missed cutoff man (that is now routine?) ball rolled by Sean Figgins.  Figgins stood, glove down, and watched the ball role by. He stood and watched it, did not even lift his glove. In not backing up the cut off man he matched his team's collective amnesia of fundamentals, but no one yet had evinced simply not caring, not moving and not acting. His stand elicited one of the few direct reactions of Wakamatsu all season. He replaced Figgins for lack of effort, not bone headedness. If he regularly had penalized bone-headed play, half the team would be off the field. 

Figgins attacked the manager in the dugout. The attack has been endlessly analyzed locally and nationally and may sound the death-knell of the manager. But watching the season unravel I have been struck by how the fans have unravelled.

The unexpected success of last year arose from luck, timely play, a reinforcing cycle of success and chemistry. It raised expectations far beyond reasonable levels. It lead to a hero worship Jack Zduriencik, the GM. "In Jack We Trust" became a press and blog motto.

Over the winter he seemed to do no wrong. He stole Cliff Lee for a year. He re-signed the team's best pitcher, Felix Hernandez, and sewed up its upcoming outfielder Gutierrez. He signed Sean Figgins. He even convinced the benighted Cubs to take Carlos Silva.

He knew the team was not ready. Fans knew the team was not ready. No team could replicate its 35 of 55 record in 2009. The Cliff Lee acquisition drove reasonable expectations over the top. Web denizens chimed in and a steady drum roar fed by the media made Seattle a dark horse favorite to win the division. Wakamatsu's insistence upon a "belief system" and his demand for "accountability" but behind closed doors was hailed as a mantra for new age managing.

llusions. Shadows. Zombies, Dead walking. Failed strategy. Not sure what to call it but the whole plan failed. The bullpen imploded. No one hits. The team is last or second from last if nine of the 10 major offense categories. 

Now the blog sphere rips their heroes. People call for Wakamatsu's firing. His every decision is dissected. When our self-exiled hero Lou Pinella returned, a shadow of his bear self, fans and media gushed over how nice it would be to have a kick ass manager who could fire up kids and veterans. The reality, of course, is that veteran ball players seldom respond to abuse and most modern younger players wilt under blistering ugly assault. 

What troubles me is how ugly and mean the reactions of many fans have been. The web denizens whom I follow quietly are apopletic calling for the manager's resignation; demanding trades; demeaning players; turning a Griffey nap into a city wide disaster. I am simply struck by how bitter and mean many of the reactions have been.

For many of the bandwagon types, it doesn't matter. This is Seattle, you can enjoy the clouds, run in the mist and kayak, mountain climb or head for beaches and freeze in water.

But true fans should not turn viciously on the team. They should not call for destroying a manager after one successful year and a year of failure. They should not swing from ecstatic worship to nihilistic meanness.

I mean I understand the sadness. I understand the frustration of endless losing. I grew up following the Kansas City Athletics who finished last in the American league 9 years in a row (no one remembers them except as the interlude between the Philadelphia athletics and the Oakland athletics).

Many fans retreated and stopped going. Others follow but with the sound off on their TVs. Some look at the bright side and urge the team to play the youngsters and get ready for next year. They then get mad when the Mariner's don't play them, largely because they don't have a strong farm system.

Then there are the edge fans. You see them at games but really find them entombed in web sites. The ones consumed by the team and linked in emotional DNA. Like similar college fans, their emotional lives rise and fall by the team. This grates over baseball seasons that last six months and cover 162 games where even the best lose 40 percent of their games.

We are not zen pessimists that Cubs fans have perfected or romantic masochists who revel in their broken hearts like the old fashioned Red Sox fans. This is the west coast for heaven's sake.

Non-fan fans give up and stop following. Some appreciate the small joys like watching Ichiro or Lee when we had him. They enjoy the game if not the team. Others dissect each game looking for  auguries of the  future in each hit by a rookie. Others gnaw on their souls by dissecting and hating every micro-decision.

As the emotional fabric of the fans unravels, they boo home team players more and have a harder time getting up enough energy to boo Alex Rodriquez. They actually still show up to watch good or fabled teams play. But the sense of community a competitive team or good team engender withers. It is hard to talk about endless losses. Even the augury guys looking at team entrails  do not believe it. The latest take is that the club house fight will generate a turn around. I mean the team has to win 90 percent of our remaining games to finish in third place!

I seldom emphasize the role of winning; but winning solves things. Winning builds up social capital on the team, grants forgiveness and even helps disgruntled players enjoy the ride.  Last year the winning hid the weaknesses. This year the hope of winning conquered the clear-eyed assessment of the GM that the Mariner's are still two to three years away. But dashed hops generate more anger and mean spirited release than no hope.

Experiencing the combination of bile and indifference reminds me again of how vulnerable elite athletes are to the whims of winning of game, glory and  people. Not only will they be often traded; but the fawning fans will turn on them in a minute. The boos will cascade as readily as the cheer. A sane athlete learns to protect him or herself from the fans.

When we ask why athletes seem detached from fans, we only have to look at ourselves.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

All Star Games:Baseball Gets It Right

All star games really make no sense. You squish together very talented individuals, give them two days to practice and then play a game with no real value except to show off their talent. The games barely qualify as games since players do not have time to practice or develop the nuanced expectations and communications good teams need to play at an elite level. Most all star games are not longer sport but cross over into marketing and entertainment; they are not real competitions. 

The NBA gave up all pretense of this and turns the all star event into a show time gig, fun, game, dunks, circus play, and by the way, someone wins the game. The NFL game is fading into oblivion. No one wants to play and risk very real injury in a meaningless game. Baseball has tried a very different approach to overcome this meaninglessness; it works and I will talk about why in a minute.

The Olympic and World Cup teams are all star teams. But here the stakes are much higher. The teams  carry the honor of their countries. Most players want to play on their teams and are honored and feel the obligation heavily. Most leave their pro careers and devote serious time and energy, and the coaches devote immense effort to meld the teams together. The World Cup demonstrates all star teams with devotion, practice and high quality coaching can exemplify sport.  

The US learned this lesson the hard way in Olympic basketball. After three failed Olympics where rag tag groups of the best of the best were thrown together, grumbling the whole time, the greatest players in the world were skunked by the better teams from countries where players devoted time, energy, effort to become cohesive teams with philosophies of play and consistent coaching.

Under Jerry Colangelo's leadership Olympic basketball with NBA and NCAA support rethought the whole approach. He believed that being an Olympian was an honor and the stakes were high. He believed that the team needed time together to grow into a team. This required a true coach with a clear philosophy and a commitment from players to devote the time to become a team and attend to the coach. It worked. First, they convinced West Point graduate and highly respected coach Mike Krzyseski to be coach. Second,  the coach demanded a true three year commitment from players and convinced them of the honor of play. Third, the players rethought their relation to the Olympic team. Fourth, the team broke up practices and limited competition over a two summers prior to the Olympics.  Stakes, coaching, commitment came together and the Olympic embarrassment became an Olympic champion.

Now baseball. The sport takes a lot of flack for what it has done but I think it makes sense and should be honored. The palpable relief when the National League finally won yesterday as well as players comments suggest, the game does matter for pride but also for stakes.  First and above all, baseball made the game mean something. The winner gets home field advantage for their league in the World Series. This took guts and I believe gives bite to the game that all other all star games lack. The All Star game has been around since 1933 and after the "tie" debacle, it needed to be rethought.

Second, the game really is perceived as an honor by players. The fans vote for months and turn it into a horse race that involve fans, players and give it a visbility and importance none of the other sports possess. Third, a group of players are voted upon by other players which engraves the honor such as the five starting pitchers. Fourth, the coaches are the World Series coaches who may have chance to return and know the real value of home field advantage. Finally baseball players are so mixed and matched by free agency mobility that most of them know each other and have played with each other. The nature of the sport isolates players in their positions and batting  and this attribute enable teams to gather and play together much more coherently than rapid movement or structured sports like soccer, basketball or football.

So hurrah for baseball. Their All Star game means something. It is not just marketing. The game looks and feels like a game with real stakes and real competition.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Trouble with Ties

Sports abhor a tie like life abhors a vacuum.

I enjoyed the World Cup immensely, especially hanging around bars at early morning hours with crazy people dressed in jerseys. I get the beauty and brilliance of spacing and play and the emphasis upon playing to negative space. I have even learned with tutoring from coaches and players to appreciate the low scoring game, I am a Mariner's fan after all and am used to scoring very few runs. But what I cannot understand is soccer's tolerance of ties. As the final wore on I feared another tie which would have ruined it all.

I read an article that claimed that Americans are not sophisticated enough to appreciate the beauty of ties. Somehow older and more sophisticated European cultures--the home of hooliganism and soccer riots--appreciate playing to a tie more, as does the restrained and laid back traditions of Latin American culture, yeah right.

I believe that making a tie central to a sport fundamentally violates the ethic of athletic competition. Making tie games an acceptable even rewarded alternative, even a “victory,” as was often proclaimed during this World Cup, perverts the culture of a sport.

Athletics gains its moral worth and stature because it develops human excellence. An athlete dedicates himself or herself to become the most skilled and highest performer they are capable of. This stretch of human capacity and uniting of discipline and form and mind give sport its moral status as well as account for its beauty. Sport appeals to us as a representative of what humans can be.

Competition adds another dimension. It spurs athletes to work harder, develop their skills more and never stand still. Younger players, new ideas, innovative strategies suffuse sport. A good player and a great player must never stop developing and working and thinking. Talent alone will not survive at elite levels of competition. The challenge to win or prove your skill and superiority in a team or individual competition pushes athletes to grow. It also means that athletes fail fast and quickly when they lose their edge or their work ethic and are surpassed by younger rising athletes. Sports does not forgive.
This incessant challenge to grow and extend yourself and talent are subverted by the tie. Ties mean players do not have to win. They do not have to outplay the other side. All they have to do is nullify the other side’s ability to score; while such a conservative approach can possess beauty, it denies the the full range of excellence demanded of athletes by their sport. A tie possess little meaning to a real competitor. It means that you and your team were not good enough to win or to prove your superiority by the rules that define competitive excellence. If you want to tie; play tic tac toe.

The long-term impact makes teams passive, uninteresting, one-dimensional. They depend more on luck or fouls. Players and teams lose their dynamic core. Ties sabotage the purpose of athletic competition


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Demand the Same of Coach as AD

Damon Evans resigned as Athletic Director at the University of Georgia. The resignation is justified, but it would make much more sense if coaches were held to the same standards by their own athletic directors.

Damon Evans inspired people. He possessed a relaxed but commanding presence. He spoke with passion and eloquence about the ideals of student athletes. More powerfully he lived the life as a black Georgia football player, the first black SEC AD and a successful fundraiser and leader of coaches and the department. His wife and children and new 500,000 a year contract projected an authoritative alternative model for black male athletes.

Now he has resigned in disgrace. Stopped for a DUI, he used his AD title to try to convince the arresting officer to let him off. More embarrassingly he could not explain the twenty six year old inebriated woman seated next to him who resisted arrest.

I don’t want to delve into the tragedy because the media has assured that his downfall is being followed as avidly as Tiger or  Spitzer or Clinton. I long ago gave up trying to figure out what combination of arrogance, self-delusion, invincibility and stupidity leads powerful males to entangle themselves in alcohol and sex and believe they will not get caught.

I want to make another point. Why don’t we apply the same criteria we correctly apply to someone like Evans to the coaches of our college athletic teams?

Evans resigned because he brought dishonor onto his school and position. He also left because the leader should embody the values of his or her institution. Much has been made of Evan’s promo for every football game discouraging drinking. While a cliché, it is true. Good leaders walk the walk. Nothing destroys credibility as much as hypocrisy.

Now the question.

What would happen to an AD if he or she tried to strangle a subordinate? What would happen to an AD who had multiple known affairs? What would happen to an AD who  physically and emotionally abused student athletes? What would happen to an AD who had sexual congress with a woman on a bar table? What would happen to an AD who paid extortion money? What would happen to an AD who got a school's, no let’s make that two different school’s, championships nullified? Well, the AD would be fired. But if you are a coach as all the above examples prove, you get to keep your job and may even get a salary raise or get hired away by another school anxious to have your wins.

The terrible irony of Damon Evans’ fall from grace is that if a successful coach had been found in a similar predicament, the odds are the coach would survive. Many logics would lead to the same conclusion: everyone deserves a second chance; this was a one-time mistake and not a pattern; he will learn from the mistake; his contrition is real and he has suffered enough. I could go on but you get the gist of the arguments and have seen them on TV reality melodramas enough.

Coaches influence the lives of student athletes far more than athletic directors. Coaches spend days with the student athletes, coaches become surrogate parents and family; coaches model day in and day out the behavior; coaches create a way of life that athletes often internalize as their own.  And coaches, especially college football and basketball coaches, make more money and are far more visible in the community than any athletic director.

In a morally sane world the reasons that lead Damon Evans to resign should apply to coaches and lead them to resign. College sport is not morally sane.  An athletic director would not demand a successful coach resign for same incident.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Athletes Grapple with Joy and Pain, Like the Rest of Us

Last week David Aardsma the Mariner's closer left the team for several days to spend time with his wife as she prepared to give birth.  Jose Lopez twice left the team for an extended time to go home to Venezuela to be with his bereaved family. Earlier this year the team permitted Milton Bradley to leave the team for two weeks to address his personal struggles with the pressure he put upon himself and the anger and behavior that he displayed when he did not live up to these high expectations.

All three examples remind me of a sea change in modern sports that reflects and encourages a sea change in American culture. Athletes attending to private grief, joy, or demons contribute to a change in the relation between work and personhood. In an older athletic tradition, players not only play through pain, but playing for the team outweighed obligations to family or grief or personal demons. Teams not only denied them the ability or hid the demons but also  mocked players for being weak because they cared for family or could not conquer their demons.
Players were expected, as were workers and executives, to play through pain and ignore the rest. The myths of sport and office enshrined people who came to work the day after a relative died and did their job or played through. Today we would say “power through.”

When players like the Mariners take time off to address the joys and pains and terrors of life, they educate the rest of us about how important this is. When Joey Votto speaks of his battle with depression or Josh Hamilton talks about fighting drug demons, they educate the rest of us that we are not alone in our demons and that it is OK to fight  them and get  help. 

This is a huge change form the past. Then, families and especially spouses were expected in private life to handle the chores of life like having and raising children, handling and coping with grief and taming the player's demons at home out of public eye. The entire edifice of private life was segregated from work or play. This reinforced the cultural message that work and play mattered first, second and third. Private life took care of itself. A corollary was often that life on the road was shot through with liaisons, violence or extra-curricular activities to compensate for the denial and leaching of personal life by the demands of professional life. The team hid and protected players acting out this way.

Modern American society influenced by feminism and women in the work force slowly chips away at the walls of separation. The ideal image etched into us portrayed the stoic player/worker who struggled with a critically ill child all night then comes to work and never shows the effect of the home struggles.  Child care laws; child leaves; home visitation or bereavement leaves all now exist in many workplaces. Employers often still fight them both in the office and in legislative opposition to attempts to protect and enrich home and personal life. The player’s unions, as unions often do, fought to enshrine this humanity in contracts.

Because sports players embody so many ideals of achievement and success in society, it matters what they do.  When a player leaves a team in contention, not the Mariner's this year, they signal to society and fans that it is ok to express and experience grief. Their attention signals to men and women that grief, joy, and family deserve to be recognized respected and honored in the workplace. 

A sport is a vocation, not just employment. To the extent modern sport makes room for and respects the private as a rich realm that work should recognize and honor and to the extent it gives permission to players to live out that life, modern sports strongly models how society at large should view the relation between life and work.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Phil Jackson and Why Athletes Stay Past Their Prime

Phil Jackson announced his intention to return as the Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. Each year he retreats to the desert to reflect upon whether he possesses the energy, health and reason to return to coaching. Already acknowledged as one of the greatest NBA coaches with 11 championships built on Michael Jordan in Chicago and Shaquille O’Neil and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, Jackson’s process each year stands out because it is not the norm.

Jackson is the greatest NBA coach in history and his approach bears emulation. He asks a critical set of questions of himself: Do I have the health to sustain the rigors of the season? Do I have the love of the game and passion to sustain the demands of coaching and riding the emotional roller coaster and turmoil of player’s lives? Do I have the talent and willingness to learn on the team and in my mind to achieve the goals I set for them and myself? The questions align the intellectual, physical, emotional dimensions that any athlete needs to stay and achieve. He is returning, really, for glory, as he put for one “last stand”  and a “grand one.”

Jackson got it right and did so by thinking through the right range of issues. Most players and coaches linger on beyond their expiration date. I’ve discussed the rhythm of athletes entering and leaving. But most athletes stay on beyond their peak ability to play. They are not all that different from most of us who fear leaving our jobs, but tend to stay out for a number of reasons.

Athletes have very limited time windows because of their utter dependence upon the health and skill of their bodies. They can train, hone and refine their skills. The greatest and most durable athletes have incredible work ethics. Athletes can compensate for some decline of skills over time, but in the end they simply do not possess the same level of quickness, speed, strength, endurance needed to flourish at the elite levels of competition.

Elite athletes in elite leagues have excruciatingly small margins margin for error. They are constantly challenged for roster spots by an endless array of talented, trained and ambitious younger athletes. The younger athletes seek to displace them on team slots or beat them in head to head. This means players must constantly keep in top condition and hone their skills; if they do not, someone else will.  The best elite athletes learn early that their talent only carries them so far against similarly talented but harder working or better-coached competitors.

A natural progression in many sports occurs from sensation, to rookie, to pro, to top-level game to veteran to grizzled veteran. The veteran designation is the kiss of death because it means a player has reached a stage where their experience and team compatibility now matter as much as their skill. The term suggests they are replaceable statistically by a wide array of comparable veterans or younger players with high upsides that surpass the veteran’s performance level. If you read too much sabermetrics, you begin to think that all but very few players are fungible, just like in corporate life.

The limited window and constant competition coupled with threat creates a very limited economic window for athletes. Most elite athletes are over the hill by the time many doctors are just getting their degrees or lawyers and accountants getting partnerships or military officers getting their first major commands. The world of an elite athletes ends just as most professional trajectories are moving into highest orbits.

For pure economic reasons more than a few athletes hang on past their prime or peak performance simply because they must maximize their earnings while they can. Athletes will endure steady diminishment of playing time, stature and often end as backups or team guys to bring a level of experienced toughness to a clubhouse. They suffer reduced lowered skills and performance to maintain a flow of money that they need to cache for a future.

If you talk to athletes about leaving, an overwhelming sense of missing or loss hits you. The loss fills everything they say. Even when they have moved on into successful lives with family and position, for many of them, the loss endures.

What do they lose? Elite athletes start very young. They have identified as and been identified as athletes since their early teens. Parents, friends, family, schools all relate to them as athletes. They internalized their sense of worth tied to their academic prowess. Internal and external signals anchor their sense of self in being an athlete and succeeding as athletes.

Most elite athletes garner joy and satisfaction from the sheer execution of their athletic proficiency. The movement, the skill, the winning and even losing cumulatively fulfill them. Ex-players reminisce on this and emphasize how they miss the camaraderie, the joshing, joking, hanging, practicing, focusing with each other. Their memories recall people, smells, places, relations as well as moments, not always of victory, but of accomplishment including coming back from failure.

These losses are profound. Leaving sport abandons an identity that defines them and most of their relations. It means leaving behind the accomplishments that are valued and they are masters of for a different world that admires but does not really need what they are trained to do.
 Most of that world will view and admire them for the player they were, not for the person they are. Imagine living in a time warp where your identity and worth are frozen by whom you were at the age of 17, 24, and 31? I can never forget memories of seeing old players signing cards at conventions or being official “greeters” at casinos.

I admire sports like soccer that have a wide range of leagues across a huge spectrum of talent and age levels that permit wider array of players to play for much longer periods by slotting their talent levels of the way up and on the way down to and leagues that fit them. American sports really does not possess such graded variations in the high visible sports where you play in NBA or have no options or you play in NFL or nowhere. Baseball has strong minor leagues and sports like tennis or golf have the equivalent of tournament that encourages and permits players to grow or settle into a mid range of elite play for long periods of time.

Phil Jackson got it right. He can stay on with a balanced decision to pursue glory one last grand time. Most athletes do not go out on their own terms and linger until nothing is left.