Friday, April 22, 2011

Why Lying Matters in Athletics

Barry Bonds was convicted of something, finally. More importantly he was convicted of lying; in this case to the government. More than a few commentators have yawned, so what? The public lost interest a long time ago, and the Giants fans seem undeterred from hero worship of a cheating performance. So be it. But I want to emphasize that Bonds was convicted, as he should have been, and he was convicted for lying.

This is important. Lying is wrong, especially in rule governed activities like sports. The whole point of athletic competition depends upon abiding by the rules so that each player participates on an equal playing field participating in a transparent way under the same standards. This clearness ensures victory is earned by talent, skill, hard work and smarts. Honest athletic competition depends upon transparency to honor its results and align results with commitment.

Cheating, not abiding by the same rules as everyone else, means that a player does not “win” or “earn” a victory. They steal a victory by unfair means. The entire moral edifice of sports as an activity worthy of our honor and respect depends upon this and transparency and fairness.

We call players and coaches to account when they cheat and when they do not abide by the rules. This accountability depends upon honesty and it depends upon sports policing itself to ensure that people abide by the same rules everyone agrees to.

Lying is wrong. Lying undercuts this entire structure of accountability and transparency of sport competition. The coach or player hides and denies that he or she committed a wrong. They lie to escape accountability and hide the ethically flawed nature of their accomplishments. When Bonds lied to the grand jury bout his use of substances—the jury could not decide if they were banned PEDS—he broke the circle of accountability and transparency. So all his victories and records are suspect because they were probably gained by cheating.

Bonds’ convictions for lying to the government probably sets the stage for a similar fate for Roger Clemens who also chose to lie not just to fans and fellow players and managers but to the government. Lying to the government entails some very serious problems for the entire justice system, so perjury is a very serious crime. The ability of the state to have any chance at solving problems and trials justly depends upon truth telling.

The Bonds’ conviction and affirmation that lying is wrong also should be needed reminder to intercollegiate sports.

At universities honesty is one of the most fundamental values because the pursuit of knowledge and inquiry depend upon truth telling and not lying. Liars in academia are discredited and professors can be sanctioned. So the actions of the last two months have been especially disturbing.

Jim Tressel found out that his players had violated NCAA rules. The knowledge was sent to him by a concerned booster to protect the program. As an NCAA coach Tressel had a very clear legal obligation to report these violations to his athletic director and the NCAA. The NCAA requires self-reporting of violations by coaches, and its entire collegial association depends upon this.

Tressel chose not to tell his athletic director or the NCAA. He cited the paper-thin reason that he did not want to “thwart” an investigation that he knew nothing about. It just happens that not telling the NCAA also kept five players from being declared ineligible and enabled him to complete a 12-1 season.

At the same time Bruce Pearl was finally fired by Tennessee after directly lying to his athletic director, President and the NCAA. Unlike Tressel who lied by omission, Pearl just lied outright, and then did it again. In a remarkable step the SEC (this tells how outlandish this was) stepped in and suspended him for eight league games after Tennessee slapped his hand. He was finally fired but only after his team did not go far enough in the NCAA tournament. Tressel of course will continue to coach.

Once upon a time in an NCAA long ago and far away, lying not just got you fired but not hired. Now teams regularly hire proven liars like Rick Neuheisel at UCLA or Kelvin Sampson at Indiana. So the world of the university where truth seeking is honored above all and lying remains a cardinal sin has made its peace with coaches who lie, coaches who win that is.

Thank God an athlete lied and actually got convicted! This reminds us that honesty and transparency lie at the foundation of sports; wish universities would remember that.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Dark Heart of Fans: Review of The Big Fan

He was beaten senseless for the crime of wearing Giants’ gear at a Dodger game. Two men dressed in Dodger blue attacked, knocked him down, then kicked him and fled to a car where a woman and child waited for them. Bad movie? Scene from the Sopranos? No, this is first day reality of baseball fans run amuck.

The awful incident reminds us of how important and fragile being a good fan can be. Being a fan involves a form of identification with a team, place and history. It can prop up fragile identities in a brutally mobile society where geography, work and even profession provide more and more attenuated identities. When recession strips away any illusions we might have about organizations being loyal to us, the few anchors we have for identity become even more important.

I’ve written before about how being a fan involves special obligations as well as special influence on the game and community. This incident in Los Angeles reveals the dark side of anger and mutual recrimination and hatred that fandom can unleash just like the destruction of the sacred grove in Auburn or the organized hooligans in Europe.

American movies and culture seldom engage what it means to be a fan, and when they do it usually reduces them to caricatures like in the movie The Fan where a psychopath kidnaps his idol.To many of us, however, being a fan does not involve being either a psychopath nor a malformed loner, rather we share it with family and friends and weave it into the texture of our lives, history and time.

Another movie reminds me both of the pathos, warmth and darkness of being a fan. The Big Fan tells the story of Paul Aufiero played with quiet implosive power by Paton Oswalt. At 35 he lives at home with his mother (what else), sleeps with a blanket embossed with Giants logo and has a picture of his favorite player hanging on his bedroom wall. He works at a dead end job as a parking lot attendant. But the dead end job provides time for him to compose with care and pain the rants he will unleash on late night sport talk radio. He inscribes them, almost etches them, with ball point on paper. He devotes his hours, mind and passion to his beloved Giants. What sound like spontaneous rants are composed defenses of his team replete with play analysis and statistics.

His mother nags him to grow up and find a life, but the point of the movie is that Paul believes he has a good life. He is not going anywhere and does not have the skill, education or quality of mind to move up. He knows there is no upward mobility world for him and for these good reasons he does not have a lot of ambition to do so. I mean why bother to dream or strive for what you know is impossible in this society.

But he does have his beloved New York Giants. The team dominates his life. He and his best and only friend Sal  attend the Giants games. In this modern world, he, like most working class families, does not have the money to actually attend the game. But Paul and Sal proudly tailgate in the cold parking lost watching a scratchy TV hooked to his car battery. 

This is OK. Paul knows his presence there proves his deeper loyalty to the team than the rich comfortable fans inside or the wimps who sit at home and watch. He knows he is their best and most loyal fan. The proof reinforces a strong and secure identity as the Big Fan. His role and  identity are reinforced by his late night radio moniker,  “Paul from Staten Island." His rants roll out with statistic, plays, and a mad logic of their own and generate his own avid following among the 2AM insomniacs who follow the ruthless, raucous, braying rituals of sport talk radio vituperation. He duels with his despised talk radio rival, Philadelphia Phil, who defends the hated hated Philadelphia Eagles. 

It looks like Paul  has little in his life to be proud of, but Paul sees it differently. He invests and gets psychic and status rewards  with his relation to the team. He also possesses a lodestar for his emotions and a way to invest his limited but real emotions and wealth. Watching him put on war paint for the games portrays a ritual of identity and community. Paul knows who he is.

The movies unfolds when he and his sidekick accidentally spot the team’s star linebacker and follow him through what may be a drug buy, then to a strip club. They humbly approach the linebacker for an autograph. Through a sad and funny misunderstanding the linebacker beats Paul into unconsciousness.

Three days later he awakes in a hospital. The linebacker is suspended, the Giants tank and his brother in law wants to sue the linebacker and team. Torn to his core and mocked and scorned now that his real life is revealed, Paul remains as stubborn as a reporter protecting first amendment sources. He will not betray his allegiance to the team even though his “hero” lacerated him and his vision.  Now he is scorned.

The  key of all our community versus personal allegiances is that we are loyal to a dream and vision, not to a reality. Cities, states, teams remain corporate shells and cold institutions inhabited by rotating personnel and our faithfulness to them emerges from our experiences of them and their place in our life and history. These loyalties stem from deeper reasons demonstrated by how Colin Firth’s loyalty to his soccer team reflect his link to his father and their complicated history in Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch.

The Big Fan ends with an act of violence! To redeem himself and prove his loyalty to himself and his dream identity, Paul seeks out his mocking nemesis on talk radio, the defender of the Philadelphia Eagles.  The Big Fan draws a gun on Philadelphia Phil and for a moment we fear that he will redeem himself like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver with an act of murder. But Paul shoots him with the paint colors of his Giants and makes redress for himself and his team.

Our Big Fan ends in jail. He has proven he loves his team more than himself, a core of human courage. The issue here is not whether the team deserves the love, but that he is capable of it. People have certainly devoted themselves to things more loony or more dangerous than a football team.  This love can pervert into jealous anger and hatred unleashing the violence in Los Angeles, but it can give life and a strange nobility to the life of a big fan. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Deep Sport--the Upside of Brackets & Drafts

Well my species based brackets got shot up, but so did everyone else. On the other hand I and millions, yes millions of other human beings did spend hours thinking and working on brackets, most of which failed. But people will do the same thing next year. The only good thing about mine was that I was wrong about the Wildcats and the arch-fiend did not make it to the finals. But I want to think about the whole idea of people making up brackets and mock drafts and fantasy leagues.

It can look silly, really. People spending tens of millions of hours (yes that is right)  to fill out mock drafts for the NFL or devoting time, thought, effort and discussion to fill out their NCAA brackets or manage their fantasy teams. It can look grotesque when ESPN and assorted talk radios obsess endlessly and turn the exercises into media extravaganzas.

But something else is going on here. To an outsider or nonbeliever, like my wife who regards it all with a bemused tolerance and disdain, all this effort looks like an immense waste of time. But to me something interesting is happening here. Mock drafts, bracket making, fantasy leagues, following the Hot Stove league all force fans to think, to think hard about the structure and nature of the game and team they love.

I believe thinking is a good thing. I believe that thinking hard about something is an even better thing. It expands a person's imagination and knowledge base and stretches their appreciation of something, in this case sport. It makes people "students" of the game. As a teacher I might prefer people spend more time thinking about politics or the meaning of life, but I'll take an activity that induces millions of people to research, imagine and think about sports. My wife adds that it increases math skills (whoa! never thought of that) and to carry on despite a broken heart!

To construct an actual  bracket requires a person to know teams, but more importantly to know something about teams. Can a team A's  2/3 zone deal with team B's speed or fast break? Can a team's long limbed defense take away another team's quickness or outside shooting. To ask these questions and to think about them means a person must delve into the configuration of a game and what is required where different styles of play confront each other.

Constructing a mock draft requires a person to reflect carefully upon their team and other teams. A fan has to ask what kind of offense or defense they should develop and what is required of them to compete successfully against other teams. A mock draft demands that a fan dig into the needs of a team and the skill and character of possible players.

Creating and managing a fantasy team means a person has to think about the structure of the game. They have to determine what makes an offense or defense work and then match people to the approach they design. Jim Collins in Good to Great would call it learning to get the right people on the right seat in a bus.

Doing all this means a person has to research a lot of information from a lot of different sources. It may seem a waste of time, but it engages a person in  research, evaluation and inquiring into the nature of the game.

These exercises ask people to probe the core of the sport. What is the essence of the sport? At their core sports like nature possess an elegant simplicity. The simplicity is revealed in archetypical moments: a precise baseball double play; a sweep strung out by the defense that cuts for either a gain or stuff; a quick fake, cut, pass for a textbook back door play. Each case demonstrates the triumph of skill, knowledge and execution. The archetypes illustrate the deep core of that sport. Baseball: individuals acting in unique space coordinating actions in non-clock time time; football: extended planned force meeting planned reactive force to move in space; basketball: speed, misdirection, clearing space for high percentage actions.

Each sport has a center, a deep core structure that players and managers internalize. Good teams and players and coaches develop approaches, even philosophies of approaching the game. No one ever masters or exhausts the core of a sport. In this sense, playing or appreciating a sport is like approaching art, you can never exhaust its possibilities, and even within formal rules like in music or classical painting, a person expands boundaries, evinces new skills and creates new possibilities. The form, the art, the game evolves through the engagement of mind and talent and competition.

The deep reality of sport plays out in the play of the field but also the play of brackets, drafts and fantasy leagues.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Interspecies Final Four Bracket

So!  My brackets did about as well as anyone else aside from an eight-year old bracket savant in Muskogee Oklahoma.

A Bulldog. Husky. Wildcat. And Ram. Who would have thunk?

For the elite eight I had a Jayhawks, wounded Eagle, a Husky, Cougar/Panther, Tiger, manly man, probably an Irish, Demon and Horse chestnut, no, I mean buckeye.

So we end up with two canines  (a good thing), one feline, and one Ram.
How does the interspecies final four play out?

Well here goes.

I think the Bulldog—Ram contest could really interesting. The Bulldog has to jump high, probably too high, and grab hold of the Ram’s neck and then wrestle it down. Now I have a lot of respect for bulldogs especially with their tenacious under bite, but this strikes me as a little too big a leap. On the other hand I figured out how the Rams got there. I mean, Rams, come on, I don’t even know what species they belong to!

So here is my theory. The Rams are not really Rams; they are demonic. Yep, that’s right. Think about it. Cloven hooves check. Curved horns check. Braying sounds check. So the Rams are not really Rams, they are demons and snuck in under sheep’s clothing as it were.

So the Ram/demons will win hands own in this one.

Now the Husky—Wildcat fight. Here is the mother of all interspecies fights, the archetype of them all cats versus dogs. The world is pretty deeply divided into Cat people and do people, and this battle defines it. I know because I married a cat person and live with cat children; it is very hard sometimes. The Huskies are noble, durable, courageous, loyal, strong, capable, smart and allies of humanity from its early days. They should win by virtue of intelligence, endurance, and nobility.

The Wildcats on the other hand are felines. They cannot be trusted, they cheat, they lie, they wait for people to die and then eat them. These wildcats have very long claws and no respect for rules that is how they win.

It is a sad commentary upon life as Machiavelli would tell you that often the noble good ones lose to the ignoble bloodthirsty cheaters. I fear this is what will happen here with those long claws, probably tipped in poison, I mean these are the Wildcats after all. So the Wildcats to the sorrow of anyone who cares about honor is sports will win.

Now the finals: Rams versus Wildcats. Well it should be no contest here. The Cheating, ignoble, poisoned clawed wildcats should win hands down. But, if I am right and the Rams really are demonic, then look for the overconfident Wildcats to get kicked where it counts and then gored.

So here it is: the Demons in sheep’s clothing, the Rams win.