Friday, January 27, 2012

The Real College Recruiting Action is among Assistant Coaches

This time of year the sports sites like Rivals focus breathlessly upon the commitment wars among schools for elite student athletes. You can follow the preferences and visits of athletes and live through their waffling and changes and commitments. But to my mind, these seasons have become as much about recruiting and changes among assistant coaches at the college level. The influx of conference money, the increasing sophistication of playbooks as well as the need to get top recruiters has meant that assistant college coaching football salaries have risen faster than the head coaches in recent years.

My Washington Huskies provide an interesting but common case study. Steve Sarkesian, the dynamic young Head Coach of Washington, had held together his 9 coaches for three seasons, almost unheard of in the modern world of college coaching. Suddenly inside of two  months, the Husky’s wide receiver coach Demetrice  Martin left to join Jim Mora’s new staff at UCLA. After the high scoring Alamo Bowl screamer, Sarkesian fired the defensive coordinator, the defensive line coach and the defensive backs coach. Suddenly a stable coaching staff missed four important assistants. Then Doug Nussmeier, the Husky’s highly respected offensive coordinator left to join Nick Saban’s national champion Alabama team.

Now the team was reduced during the height of recruiting season to four coaches, and the stability shattered. This has become the norm in college athletics and the Husky’s response illustrates the speed of movement and the ripple effect.

Sarkesian acted decisively. First, he hired a new Defensive Coordinator Justin Wilcox from Tenessee for 750,000 dollars per year for a three year contract. Peter Sirman followed Wilcox from Tenessee for 225,000 and two years as linebacker coach. Both are successful, aggressive and good recruiters who are returning to their northwest home areas.
Sarkesian then raided California and persuaded Eric Kiseau to be offensive coordinators for 375,000 and Tosh Lupoi as Defensive line coach for 350,000. Both have very strong recruiting reputations on the west coast as well as great skill sets. Lastly Keith Heyward moved north from Oregon State University to be defensive backs coach for $150,000.
In addition Sarkesian reconfigured the positions, titles and salaries of the remaining coaches. For instance Dan Cozzetto, their formidable and widely respected offensive line coach became “run-game coordinator” and Jimmy Dougherty, the wide receiver’s coach added the title “pass-game coordinator.”

Now California must find two coaches, Oregon State one and Tennessee two which in turn will ripple out and impact other schools.

Several aspect of the Husky whirlwind illustrate the new world of Assistant College Coaching. First, all the coaches left for more money, often significant. Sometimes this is added to a chance to to return to home town turf. Second, all involved increases in responsibility and expansion of skill. Third, being a successful recruiter has become almost as important as technical expertise. Fourth, assistant coaches often start out working for very little either as graduate assistants or at lower level schools, but at elite schools they now command not just better salaries but multi-year contracts. This softens the brutal uncertainty of their jobs.

Coaching is a profession, not an obsession. Fans forget this and often feel jilted when a head or assistant coach bolts for another job. Of course fans forget that if a coach falters the fans will turn on the coach and call for his or her head.
Every college coach is a paid professional in a very insecure and unstable profession.  By their early thirties most of them have been fired or cleaned out with a coaching change or seen it happen to their good friends. They have had to scramble to find a new job and move family and kids to another town on the spur of the moment. A professional coach knows the fickleness of fans and the tenuousness of any job.

A good assistant will try to maximize their income given the uncertainty surrounding their jobs. So the moves from California to Washington make perfect sense for the California coaches. The Tennessee coaches make comparable salaries but get more responsibility and also a chance to return closer to home, a rare opportunity for coaches. The move to multi-year contracts is a huge boon to the younger coaches and their families.

But coaching also has a career path. Many aspire to be head coaches or coordinators. This means a progression: They succeed where they are; they take on more responsibility there or move to another school to get more responsibility; they often look to move to a higher ranked school in terms of talent and visibility.

Doug Nussmeier, a wonderful coach and person, exhibits the pattern. He served as offensive co-ordinator and QB coach at Fresno State. He moved to same position at a much better school in a higher ranked conference, Washington. I believe he is ready to be a head coach right now, but he reasonably took the job of offensive coordinator under one of the game’s great coaches, Lou Saban, at the national championship team. He will be a head coach soon and exemplify the classic career progression.

Sakesian’s restructuring of responsibilities for his remaining coaches also fits the career path. He permitted internal staff growth where coaches can acquire higher levels of training and responsibility at the same school. All are preparing for more responsibility at better places.

A good and ambitious assistant coach then seeks good money and stable employment. But stability is rare, so the money must go up to compensate. In addition, they want to grow in responsibility and expertise. Often they will look to work with particular coaches who have created coaching trees and know how to train and groom coaches for better position as Tedford at California and Saban at Alabama does. I believe Sarkesian is growing into the same type of teacher coach.

Today while the news hounds focus on the kids, some of the most critical recruiting and hiring occurs among assistant coaches. Keep your eyes open.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Sports Ethics: Show Up

 I was listening to Mike Golic on ESPN radio rail against a team that had lost a game badly that they should have won. He said, “You have to show up.” As I think about it, he hit upon a fundamental aspect of being a successful athlete, professional or human being for that matter. You have to show up.

What does it mean to show up? Well, if we think of it in terms of being an athlete on a team, much like being a professional engaged in a project with other professionals, it means a lot more than simply plunking down your physical carcass.

Show up physically is a start, but just being there physically is not enough. It is a start, but barely. We all know when we or others are just “going through the motions.” Your body is moving in space and time; it may even be performing intricate trained motions linked to achieving a goal. But the mere exercise of precision motions does not capture the requirements of high performance.

First, to show up means that the athlete must concentrate upon the physical performance making minute adjustments to adapt to the condition of his or her body and the context like wind or field or more importantly opponents. So showing up requires concentration upon the body and changing or adapting it as required.

Second, showing up means an athlete not only adapts his or her body and skilled action to the context, but he or she must be constantly learning from what is going on around them. Athletic success depends upon reading nuanced changes on the field and adapting accordingly. An athlete may have prepared and trained one way, but the other side may have made adjustments and in realtime  an athlete must embark upon a new approach when the old one is not working. This means changing tactics or even strategy—a different kind of fake, a different swing, and an altered position or set up or stance. Showing up means thinking, engaging and adapting our approach, not just being physically there. A psychologist would talk about being present with a person's entire perceptual, cognitive and emotional awareness, not just placing one's body on the field.

Third, showing up means the ability to call upon will and emotions to recover when patterns break. An athlete who shows up brings their full concentration, emotional discipline and focus as well as the full training of their body and skills. Showing up involves the ability to dig deeper. When an athlete discovers that their opponent is tougher, better prepared or trying harder than the athlete anticipated, then the athlete also digs deeper; ignores the pain; tries harder or pushes harder or exerts more force or sometimes steps back from trying to hard and flows better.

One of the most dangerous moments in athletic or professional life is when we are “surprised.” Our expectations are not met and the plans we had developed for how to deploy focus and energy fail. Too many people give up or panic when faced with such a surprise. Showing up means that the athlete in a competition not only “brings it” but also adapts as they need if the level of competition or challenge changes. He or she must recalibrate the level of energy or attention that they bring and overcome confusion or hesitation that arises when the opponents break a pattern or succeed quickly.

Not showing up has many mutations. An athlete can dog it and simply not be trying hard enough. They go through the motions but not with speed or precision. On the field, they do not bring full effort, strength or technique to bear in the competition. A person can dog it in practice and enter a competition not fully prepared, so showing up matters as much mentally and emotionally as physical. A player has got to be paying attention in the game and in practice to learn and change as needed.

Attention plus energy defines the key to professional success. If an athlete gets lazy in their perception and pattern recognition, they will fail and bring down their teammates with them.

Another variant occurs when a team expects to win. They do not take their upcoming opponent seriously. This overconfidence haunts coaches as they prepare teams. You can see it in practice that week. People do not show up for practice fully; they do not give maximum effort. Worse still an athlete or group of athletes stops taking pride in their work or they stop listening to their coaches. They do not watch tape as carefully or cut as precisely or execute as sharply. One individual can infect other members of the team and sometimes a team falls into the habit of not showing up during a week of bad practice. The results, as Golic railed against, are predictable.

The difference between showing up and not showing up often manifests itself even in one game. Last season LSU football has demonstrated a capacity to not be fully present for a first half of a game. Lots of young college teams fight though these issues; they are young and living lives as students as well as athletes. So more than a few college coaches must be not only excellent X/O guys to make adjustments at half or quarter or timeouts; but they must be able to call players and teams to themselves. To remind them that they are better than they are playing. A good college coach not only motivates but jerks teams out of lethargy He or she reminds the players that they are failing themselves and their team by not fully present to the game, their teammates or the challenge in front of them.

The far more powerful proof occurs when a new coach takes the same talent group and transforms them. Sometimes this is a placebo effect or just a change effect like when a team wins the first couple game after a mid season managerial change in baseball. We know from neural imaging studies that a focused brain looks very different from a bored or unfocused brain. The integration of judgement, memory, and perception is tighter and faster than the much spottier and less integrated status of an unfocused mind.

The change of the San Francisco 49ers under coach Jim Harbough illustrates this phenomenon. With the same talent pool that had failed and underperformed for the three years, Harbough and his coaching staff converted the team to a new way of playing. I use the word “converted” precisely. Schemes changed, personnel adapted to new jobs, but above all Jim Harbough changed the moral, emotional and cognitive belief set of the players in them. The team showed up by altering their internal moral and psychological relation to the game; now they have won the NFL West. You can see this most convincingly in their tackling. Open field tackling (we now say" tackling in space") requires immense focus and awareness. The defender must be prepared and totally present since the ball carrier can fake, juke, shimmy, cut or do a hundred other minute actions with their eyes and body. The defender must read through all this and tackle mid level and lock the person up and wrestle them down or slow them down for back up to arrive. Harbough's Stanford team and his 49ers team demonstrate superb skill at this. Showing up and being present converge in execution.

Showing up has another aspect. It permits players to amass records of excellence. Showing up every day and being present to the situation and the requirements of the game permit players to play one day at a time and to execute and learn over long arcs of time. When Cal Ripkin Jr., the great Baltimore shortstop who set of record of 2632 consecutive games, entered the hall of fame, he stated this very simply, "I know some people look at the streak as a special accomplishment he said...but I looked at it as showing up for work every day and so, as I look out on this audience I see thousands of people who did the same thing I did - teachers, policemen, mothers, fathers, business people - but didn't receive the accolades I have and so I salute all of you for showing up t work every day and making the world a better place."

Ripkin also reminded us how vital being present each day to work and our colleagues is. All we have is each day of work and achievement and people.  Fame and glory are fleeting. He  talked about teaching hitting to a 10 year old boy who asked him if he played ball and what team and what position he played for. Sic transit gloria mundi, but the moment, the present moment that demands all we have, our integrity can never be taken.

In moral psychological terms, showing up means being present. A human being is present to him or herself or a situation or another person when they align their perceptions, emotions, body and cognitions to be open and attuned to the person or situation before them. They are alert, prepared and ready to respond, anticipate and act. Their perceptions are open so that the athletes read the entire physical and emotional communication of the other person or situation. When fully present their own perceptual radar expands to take in the range of physical, special and emotional forces around them as well as attending to the patterns unfolding with their own teammates and their opponents.

If an athlete or person does not show up, they will underperform, not adapt, and fail themselves, their sport and their team.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Nepotism Fails in Sports

Meritocracy brutally exposes family nepotism. Modern elite sport functions as a raw meritocracy and rips apart well meaning attempts by families to hand on positions as coaches or managers. The recent firing of Vice Chairman Bill Polian, the long time mastermind for the Indianapolis Colts, may have had a lot do to with his probably overmatched son Chris whom Bill had appointed General manager. This story illustrates an oft told tale just as the leaving of Jay Paterno from Penn State now that his dad was fired demonstrates. 

We can all understand the desire of a parent to set up their child in a good position. We can understand the even deeper desire to hand on a patrimony such as a successful athletic program.  Basketball coaching legend Eddie Sutton tried to do this after many successful years at Oklahoma State. He even made it part of his contract that his son, Sean, would succeed him. Coaching legend Bob Knight did the same when he made it a condition of employment that when he retired the Texas Tech program be handed on to his assistant and son Pat.

The ruthless world of elite sports unmasks weaknesses very quickly. This world only rewards success, period. A person cannot live on another’s competence. Competitors lurk waiting for coaches to fail and to snatch their jobs. In this world of intense struggle where successors lurk in the wings, loyalty takes on inordinate importance. A head coach or General Manager desperately needs allegiance and candor. For millennia, the human solution resided in nepotism. Officials appointed  blood relatives as allies and assistants. Family values may be one of the few bonds that can withstand the caustic pressures of competition. So not only did Pere Polian hire his son, but Mike Shanahan at the Redskins hired his son Kyle to be his offensive coordinator. Don Shula had launched his son Dave’s NFL career when at Miami as Bobby Bowden did for two of his children while coach at Florida State. I could go on but you get the picture.

The parent can hide the son when he is the head coach or general manager.  A competent child or sibling can flourish as a number two or three under the parent’s or older sibling’s protection. But when the parent steps down and hands on the program, he usually hands on a good roster. The son, the inheritor, can succeed for a couple years with the talent pool and remaining ethos of the father’s system.

But elite sport reveals problems quickly. Other teams and coaches dissect tendencies, lay bare flaws, outthink or out recruit. The son cannot rely upon the father’s talent or reputation and must go it alone. At the same time he lives in the shadow of his father and the lingering question of whether he really earned the job.

So three years and Pat Knight is fired.  Three years later, Sean Sutton is fired. Gerry Tarkenian tried to hand on the Fresno State program to his son Danny, but Fresno State had enough sense to stop that, although they did hire Tarkenian to begin with.

Genes may sometimes tell, but not as often as we would like to believe. Coaching or management nepotism in sport remains a high-risk low return approach. It almost never works.

I admit anomalies exist. Joey Meyer took over DePaul from his legend father Ray Meyer and coached for 12 years to a 231-158 record and 7 NCAA tournaments. Tony Bennett took over Washington State from his father Dick after three years and lead them to the NCAA. Before the bubble could burst, he moved to Viriginia where he is rebuilding the program. I know there are other cases, but this bequest approach fails far more than succeeds.

John Thompson III, who now coaches the Georgetown team his father John Thompson brought to prominence, illuminates a different path that works far better. He went to Princeton where he succeeded as a student and player and then became an assistant coach under Pete Carroll’s tutelage. He mastered a very different system and eventually became coach at Princeton and later at Georgetown. He earned it all himself and set his own career, his own philosophy. When he arrived at Georgetown, he did not inherit but earned the job.

A related approach occurs when a child or sibling is hired on and succeeds as an assistant coach, then gets hired to move on to their own program. Given the temptation to hire family, if you have to hire family, this approach works better. Bob Stoops coached at Oklahoma and hired as his brother Mike as defensive coordinator and associate head coach. Mike later took a job at Arizona where he had mixed success. But Mike Stoops earned the shot by his own body of work and he succeeded and failed at Arizona on his own terms. Similarly, Terry Bowden started as a graduate assistant for his father at Florida State, but left to earn his own reputation at a series of small colleges and great success and failure at Auburn. He is now  at Akron. Terry Bowden may have been launched by nepotism but made his career on his own merits.

Obviously these are anecdotes but I believe they illustrate an important point. Given the role of loyalty in sport and given the lure of family, coaches will hire family and managers will hire family. It only works as a launch that enables a child or sibling to cleave their own path and prove their own worth. They earn a program by work and success, not genetics.

The final irony, of course, lies in the fact that owners can get away with nepotism more than coaches or general managers. Wins and losses harshly define success or failure for coaches. Universities or owners mercilessly fire coaches and GM’s who do not win. But owners cannot be fired. They might create a family culture that hands on culture that can endure the vicissitudes of wins/losses, like the Rooneys in Pittsburgh. Better yet they can hire competent professionals who can assemble winning teams sometimes despite the owner's family.

Nepotism may or may not work with owners, but it is fatal with coaches and general managers. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Why Hazing Won't Go Away

Drum major Robert Champion of the  Florida A & M  band of “hemorrhagic shock due to soft tissue hemorrhage, due to blunt force trauma.” The injuries probably happened from running a gauntlet of the other band members in a hazing ritual. The university and administrators across the country have taken up, again, the endless and largely ineffectual call to end hazing. Initiation rites and hazing won’t end; they will hide underground, and it is important to think about why.

I do not want to deny the harm and ugliness for the individuals who have died or been demeaned or hurt by hazing in American colleges. I have no answers for how to end it or lessen it. I do want to think about why hazing exists, will continue and migrates underground and remains important to the young men and women who participate in it.

The Florida A & M band stood as a proud elite institution of highly trained and disciplined individuals committed to a common cause. They made grand music amid intricate and dazzling maneuvers on the field. My dad used to choreograph band movements, and I was mesmerized by their mastery.

To enter such a high performing team, a person must prove their competence. Any group worth its salt will test for skill when enrolling new members. But most groups, especially elite groups, require bonds of trust and will test further. Such groups build a culture and will create traditions of initiation rites. These rites will establish:

1)   Whether an individual deeply wants to join the group.
2)   Whether an individual will emotionally commit to the group and its cause.
3)   Whether an individual will be loyal to the group above other commitments.
4)   Whether this desire manifests in emotional and physical strength to suffer to gain membership.
5)   Whether the person can hold the secret with other group members.
6)   Whether an individual will respect a hierarchy of the elders.

Groups that celebrate their special status will strive to achieve all the above.

They will create tests of membership and I do mean tests. A test means that the person must prepare, endure and prove him or herself. A person can fail the test and fail to exhibit the emotional or physical strength to earn privileged membership. This failure is not about skill but commitment to the group as a group.

Hazing evolves naturally from this. Hazing involves the infliction of potential harm or suffering on the initiate. It creates a barrier that must be surmounted to prove worthiness. It usually requires a form of humbling to prove the group is more important than the individual. Conquering the suffering and humiliation earns acceptance. Many rites can be silly or stunts. They can be easy, hard, ritualistic, demanding or soft symbolic actions. It once looked like a gendered male phenomenon, but sororities and women's teams and groups have demonstrated their own competence at devising rituals and hazing on their own terms.

A person proves him or herself and becomes “one of us.” Passing the test proves their worthiness and trustworthiness—they enter the group in a deeper way beyond competence. The harder the test, as the Marines or Special Forces prove, the more abiding the loyalty. The challenges or tasks often establish a hierarchy to remind new entrants that they are entering at the lowest level and offer obeisance or “pay their dues” to gain higher levels. Ideally this should really occur on the field  in competition or task performance. Over time it does; on good teams people earn their spurs by reliable and trusted showing up that the others can rely upon.

But the deeper more atavistic belonging demands the initiation. For many athletic teams and organizations these rites drift off campus and out of sight of coaches or authorities. These are non-sanctioned informal initiations that the students have created and kept alive over time, not the inventions of transient coaches or authorities.

Their hidden and illicit nature make them all the more valuable. These tests of the young by the young degenerate easily into hazing. Peer pressure and the desire to be acknowledged drive people join in stupid, demeaning or dangerous behavior that the entrants would not indulge on their own. They can involve tests that may make sense to a nineteen year old—chugging a bottle of vodka—flashing a random group—running a gauntlet. Often they may feel funny to the perpetrators but feel humiliating or demeaning to those experiencing them.

If the hazing is done in secret, team members share a secret. Secret sharing seals them tighter and obligates them to not tell. Secret hazing cements their membership. Its very danger generates pride at having succeeded at something hard. It also means that next year they can impose the same hazing.

Hazing, initiating, rites of passage speak deeply to sealing membership  and consecrating belonging  with value beyond technocratic proof of competence and skill. It gives shared pride in passing a test, being worthy. Sharing suffering and sharing a secret bond them as much as the rite does.

The obvious problem with hazing is that groups can create rites that demean, wound or physically hurt members. Too often young unmanaged college students lose perspective or judgment or just get carried away with horrendous results. It is one thing for the special services to provide very hard tests of endurance that match the skill and character needed, and another for a sports team to create tests of rigor. But few student organizations have any justification for harsh actions so they invent other dangerous forms of bonding and subordination. But running gauntlets, a harsh punishment created in the thirty years war for traitors, or drinking to poison someone have little sense beyond stupidity. But then that may be enough for initiation into a 20 year old world.

Athletic teams all build rituals. They need stability and predictability that weave into daily life rituals to integrate but also address hierarchy. The team works at its culture and often initiation rites spur that identity.  Small rituals from carrying bags to cleaning up locker rooms make sense. Other rituals make sense in a different way. But rituals that go secret are seductive and powerful and for that reason invite abuse. The very thing that makes them attractive makes them dangerous when not tempered by any maturity or sense of purpose.

Modern coaches largely and ineffectually disavow hazing. They distance themselves for liability purposes but also because it really exceeds the limits of their own authority. In sports at least, they must  move beyond don’t ask, don’t’ tell and create real costs to hazing.  But the best thing they can do is to cultivate and support strong informal and formal leaders on the team. Beyond the bounds of rules and enforcement, these student leaders will draw the lines between initiation and hazing.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Quebec, the Canadiens and Sports Nationalism

When President Pierre Gauthier of the Montreal Candiens promoted non-French speaking Randy Cunneyworth to be interim head coach last month, he did not anticpate the firestorm of criticism from Canadien fans and Francophile anger. A mere week later he apologized to the fans all but guaranteeing that Cunneyworth’s tenure would be brief, “I'm sorry if we upset people (by not hiring a bilingual coach). Because that certainly wasn't our intention ... Having a bilingual coach is very, very important and will be part of the decision process going forward." Owned by a Molson with historic Montreal roots, this incident excavated the deep and sometimes dark roots of sport’s connection to politics and communal identity.

Forty years ago people died in Quebec as Front de libération du Québec carried out a decade-long bombing campaign to support Quebec separatism. The uniqueness of Quebec’s French heritage and language inspired massive political resistance against th dominance of English Canada and especially the Ontario/Toronto axis. The artful statesmanship of Pierre Trudeau saved Canada and reached an uneasy but workable compromise for Canada and Quebec. Canada exists as a bilingual country, but especially in Quebec the enforcement of French as the “mother tongue” and primary language remains a critical policy and article of faith among Francophile Quebecers. While support for secession has temporarily abated, the ley lines of French—English Canadian tensions are never far from the surface. Montreal, the cultural and industrial capital of Quebec, embodies all these tensions.

Canadian nationalism always feels like an oxymoron to many Canadians, although the French are involved in a tangle over whether a beaver or polar bear should be their national emblem. To the French  Quebecois, however, nationalism matters as a defense against perceived English assimilation of them. To the extent a sport or team contributes to affiliation, hockey and Canada had always been linked. The NHL originated as a Canadian league sprawled across Canada with small and medium, cities joined together with a common passion and pride. In Quebec, the Habs assumed a deeper identity as the avatar of French Canadian pride and aspiration. Their 24 Stanley cup championships resounded across Canada as reminders of the French identity that resolutely would not fade away to an English hegemony.

The Montreal Candiens exist as a source and beneficiary of Quebec nationalism. Certainly, the team does not represent the direct or manipulated investments that an East Germany or modern China make to deploy athletics as an instrument of national pride (this is Canada after all). But history has joined Quebecois pride with Montreal hockey. Even as modern Canada evolves its very uneasy co-existence with Quebec, the team itself epitomizes modern global professional teams. The modern roster has three French speaking Quebecers, five Americans, 2 Russians and a Czech among others. 

So last month when the team promoted assistant Cunneyworth as its interim coach, he became the first non-French speaking coach of the Canadians. Non French Canadians had coached the team but always as bi-lingual and aware of the city and state’s sensitivity to the alignment of the team, language and Quebec’s exceptional status in the federation. The appointment of Cunneyworth represented a remarkable tin ear for the emotional and collective role of the team.

The interim internal promotion aroused a firestorm of protest from the press. Quebec sovereignists, always looking for a reason to agitate about what they perceive as English domination in Quebec, jumped all over the symbolic implications of the choice. Follow up polls revealed that French speaking Canadians also wish the team would hire more French speaking players.

It also reminds us how ley lines of communal identity attach to sport and teams, even in a place that seems as placid as Canada (at least to uninformed Americans). I also think it highlights how situational this can be. The Quebec situation still simmers, and some still wish to leave Canada. The last plebiscite on sovereignty for Canada was in 1995, and only 51% voted to stay in the federal union. Teams, even one owned by a beer company, still stand as surrogates for deeper emotional attachments and agendas where identities remain contested and politics remains unresolved.

This nationalist incident highlights a parallel but very different phenomena in the world of soccer. Like hockey the sport has become global with multi-national teams common. But all over the world, the national teams are coached by non-nationals. This often occurs with imports into countries developing their own teams. Recentlythe United States appointed German national Jurgen Klinsmann our national coach for his skill and success. More interestingly he is recruiting and grooming dual citizenship Americans from all over the world. Many of them are products of sports academies and not college soccer. To his mind this gives them thousands more hours of practice and success. For younger players, he farms them out to European or English teams for seasoning and training. 

Klinsmann’s approach and appointment reflect the natural evolution of an internationally integrated soccer world. Players sprawl across the globe playing for different teams at various salary scales. Playing for a national team involves giving up salary and a true act of commitment for the players. Badly done, this approach can resemble pick up games of all stars, but I think everyone learned from the total failure of the American basketball approach that relied upon talent and press clippings hanging around together.

Professional hockey parallels the integration of soccer, but with a much smaller cast and much more closed world. Canada is small country with a disproportionate interest in hockey, and Quebec is as an even smaller state with a profound interest in hockey and its team. While modern professional players may come from all over as well as coaches, the Montreal Habs contretemps reminds us that the community affiliation runs strong and sometimes shallow, and sport is seldom just sport.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Contact College Cheerleading: A Modest Proposal

It is a New Year and I should be writing a thoughtful piece ruminating upon what happened last year and what might happen this year. To be honest I cannot make any sense of what happened and have even less idea what may happen. I also think lots of other folks are doing this for us, we do not need another pontificator. But in the spirit of the new year I have an idea about how to make college cheerleading into a real sport, so I thought this might be a good time to try it out.

I freely admit that I can never figure out cheerleading. I mean I understand it as a symbol and culture of gender dominance and social superiority, and it makes sort of sense as a place for failed gymnasts. I kind of get the pyramids and hurdles, hitch walls and flyers. I even understand the high tucks and tossing small girls into the air and a catching them. But I will never come to terms with the claim that it is a sport. But I have an idea about how to make it one, and this approach addresses one of its biggest problems, it gets away from another judged and point scored sport subject to all the limits and problems and turns it into a sport with clear winners and losers based upon field competition.

The real driver to make it a recognized sport comes from the huge business combines that have grown up around it, the sex appeal of the sport but above all the colleges who see it as a safe way around Title IX gender equity issues. It will also provide another guaranteed set of national championships for the SEC where the state and sports culture fits with and nurtures the sport with its gender overtones.

Leaving aside the ideology of the sport, I do not believe we should have another point-based judged sport. No competitively point judged sport has really solved the problem of fair and accurate judgment across time and places. Nor have they been able to eliminate bias and inconsistency. The whole process, even one as constrained as modern figure skating judging, is too fraught with subjectivity. We have all seen and groaned with the opaque and often indefensible judging we see in gymnastics and figure skating or rhythmic gymnastics and dance. I would really prefer we not foist another judged sport on the world. So if cheerleading  evolves into a sport, I think it should be one where the victories are clear and defined by definite outcomes. It should not depend upon obscure grading scales, biased judges and clenched smiles.

I have a modest proposal: how about CONTACT CHEERLEADING?

Two teams would enter onto the mat and be required to perform a specified set of tasks like a hitch wall with three levels or a double pyramid or certain number of back flips and tucks. The actual goals would be picked from a wide array of possibilities and teams would know the range and practice them in advance. They would submit their programs in advance with their defined outcomes. We could also have meets where the challenges are chosen on the spot and teams have to adjust in real time.

Now, here is the neat part. Rather than doing it on their own and being judged, two teams would be on the floor at the same time! They would race in parallel to achieve their goals. This is where it gets interesting. Each team will be simultaneously trying to stop the other team from achieving its task.

The team that achieves their task first WINS.

Now we have a sport--direct head to head competition, clear goals, limited time and contact opposition. Each contact cheer leading team would have its base and flyers and spotters but also defenders and attackers. I could see teams launching players into the air to knock down pyramids or others backing flipping over defenders to knock down bases. The sport would have flyers all over the place in real-time knocking down and building at the same time.

Re-envisioned as a contact sport both teams compete head to head in simultaneous time and space. We could even have noise meters to measure and record required decibel levels that they must reach when they cheer, build and battle all at the same time.

The sport could have specialists like sling shot people you could launch into the other team’s pyramid. Or you could launch anti cheerleader missiles where one small waif intercepts another stopping them from being caught or reaching the apogee. You could recruit small gymnasts as the missle and hunks to do the launching. Of course people would have to wear helmets to prevent mid air collisions but that’s ok, although it will get in the way of ponytails and hairdos. We would have to have much thicker padding on the mat.

Obviously this increases the safety dangers for what already is a very dangerous catastrophic activity. The mat size would have to be expanded and to keep people on the mat walls could be built. Actually the whole space could be enclosed either like a bouncy ball McDonalds world or a padded cage as in Beyond the Thunderdome or MMA fights. These would save participants from accidentally flying off into spectators or hard areas.

We might even add to the mat a trampoline floor that would prevent injuries, then we could really have high flyers and missiles, but it would make it hard to actually build the pyramid, so we need to nix the trampolines.

Anyway, these are just preliminary sketches for cirque de soleil, I mean contact cheerleading.

That’s it. We could cross MMA and cheerleading. All we have to do is work on the uniforms, and we are ready from prime time and an NCAA competition!!