Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Right to Wear Your Team’s Jersey Safely

The right to physical safety is fundamental. All other rights suffer if a person cannot expect physical safety. Sadly this matters for sports fans. In the United States the simple act of wearing your team’s jersey is inciting physical assault at games. This crosses a profound ethical boundary and encourages the slow advance of European hooliganism. Protecting the safety of fans, even fans wearing the other team’s jersey, must be fought for at every sports venue.

At this week’s 49er/Seahawks game the Seattle police announced they would haveundercover police wearing 49er gear. These actions extend a policy the police initiated to respond to assaults on fans wearing the opposing team’s paraphernalia at Seahawks games. In one case a Packer’s fan was jumped in a bathroom and in another a Viking fan was sucker punched. The growing problem gained national attention when Giants’ fan Bryan Stow was severely beaten and his brain damaged at Dodger Stadium in March 2011.

The collective egoism of fandom can transmogrify into ugly hatred of the “they” of opposing fans anywhere. It lurks as part of team and pack loyalties.  Political and religious fanaticism depends upon this primordial in-group glorification and out-group demonizing. In Europe, England and Latin America this dynamic spawns hooliganism and organized alcohol driven armed violence between opposing team fans, in some areas abetted. In the Byzantine Empire the pattern of violence spawned by the Greens and the Blues factions around Hippodrome races and gladiators could overthrow empires.

I don’t want to see American sports fans importing the moral ugliness of hooliganism. Yet it can sneak easily into the drink saturated, jaunty, rousing and fan craziness that surrounds many growing MLS soccer franchises. It already lurks in beer sodden bathrooms of football and baseball.

To me the police response with undercover officers makes strong sense. Teams have been strengthening codes of conduct and need to relentlessly eject people for drunken and unruly behavior. It helps when stadiums stop selling alcohol at earlier dates such as the Giants stopping sales after half time.

Now all this may seem silly to protect fan’s rights to wear a jersey.

The paradoxes of sports loyalty often connect to a sense of personal identity. Individuality gets constructed by weaving multiple loyalties and connections together. Many fans intertwine family, geographic, ethnic or school connections through team loyalty.

They share affiliation with others in thick or thin communities. People can hand it on through family. Team loyalty can be quite personal and idiosyncratic, but for true fans, it matters.

Individuals express their loyalty and individuality in many ways but often and simply by wearing gear. Wearing my Mariner’s hat manifests my loyalty to the team and love of the game and place as well as my stubborn and hopeless stupidity. It expresses my self and my loyalties.

Wearing a team’s jersey or hat or other paraphernalia, not only makes profits for the team and leagues, but also it permits the person to assert themselves and their loyalties. As much as I may dislike it when more Red Sox jerseys appear at Mariner’s/Red Sox games, I understand that wearing these to a “home” game often connects a person to their roots or history. 

It may not be the wisest thing to wear the opposing team’s gear to a home game; but people have a right to do this without fear of assault. Just as much as fans have a right to stand at a game with their children and not have the children abused with morally ugly language.

Nothing outlaws surly and boorish behavior. Free speech and free association permit and encourage fans to root and cheer and even boo during games. Ribbing and verbal sparring remain a part of the game; a person who wears their team’s colors to an opposing team’s game can reasonably expect the verbal sparring and razzing that comes with that territory.

But fans have the right to be safe in their person from physical assault and from moral assault. 

Who knew something as simple as wearing a team’s jersey to a game could involve real ethical stakes?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Oracle Ethical Debacle at the America’s Cup

Team Oracle may or may not win the America’s Cup. While the cup itself is a billionaire’s bauble, Oracle’s approach represents a perfect corruption of the competitive ideal. Larry Ellison, the world’s fifth richest man, has pursued this bauble for a generation. His boat finally won it in 2010 in a race with no design rules. The superior technology won. He then rewrote the rules to minimize the number of competitors; cheated on his own rules, then complained about the rules. This approach represents the pure distillation of arrogance, wealth and competitive disdain for rules where winning is all that matters.

I know nothing about sailing except for hanging over the side trying to avoid puking for two hours the last time I tried. Every several years I do follow the America’s cup. The America’s Cup used to be a bumptious competition among millionaires sailing to win the “world’s oldest trophy” (sic). An oddity of the cup, the winner could write the rules for the next competition including specifying the dimensions of the boats and choosing the place.

Despite its rhetoric, the competition has never been genteel or nice. Millionaires let alone billionaires are seldom genteel or nice. The cutthroat wealthy litigated, fought, pushed boundaries, got penalties and fought for advantage from hiding keel innovations to new hull materials. The competition, however, remained on a relatively level and specified field with boat specifications.

While Ellison and his arrogance and money pushed it into the twenty first century with technology innovations, the cup degenerated into an ugly morass of international litigation among giant corporations. In 2010 a special sail off with no rules, lead to Oracle finally winning on the basis of running differing technologies against each other. The superiortechnology with no rules lead to the victory.

Oracle got to rewrite the rules of competition and choose the venue. It did so with a vengeance including outlawing appeals of governing board decisions and prohibiting anyone who litigated in court from competing. This was designed to avoid the morass that singed its winning competition.

He mandated a new class of cutting edge boat called anew class of super boats called AC72 catamarans—boats welded carbon fiber and airplane technology to sailing. This set minimum design specifications upon size and style and places some thing like a level playing field. It also pushed the design and technology to its furthestboundaries.   

The competition should then reduce to sophisticated and fine-grained tweaks. It would have some thing to do skill, training, integrated teamwork and reading the wind and course rather than technological superiority.

The boats are stunningly beautiful and fly across the waves at 40 plus knots. The boats are essentially flying wings with 13 story advanced fiber-carbon technology airplane wings as the main sail. They are majestic and stunning to watch and incredibly fragile and hard to sail. At least they created a “category” within which groups can tweak and build boats unlike Oracle’s sham victory in 2010.

Having defiled the concept of competition last time, Oracle proceeded to ruin any credibility it had as a team and culture as thoroughly as Lance Armstrong did for biking. Let’s follow this.

1.    They turned a millionaires sport into a multi-billionaire’s sport or corporate—much like what formula one racing has become. This year only five groups could even think about building boats to compete. The boats cost 100 million plus dollars. Along with Prada and the Artemis syndicate; the best competitor turned out to be Emirates New Zealand.
2.   Last year Oracle was caught cheating by spying on Emirates in New Zealand. Nothing unusual here, just regular cut throat cheating in a billionaire’s game. But having rewritten the rules, Oracle would not even abide by them. 
3.   After cheating once, Oracle cheated again when they overloaded the weighting in the World Cup races where 45-foot catamarans raced. These boats were regulated by exact specifications raced to test skill and train, not just reward technology. They were also serving as prototypes for the America’s Cup boats.
4.   The team and leaders denied all knowledge of the overweighting and cheating. To be clear, no one believes them. This is a team noted for its maniacal control and culture. Everything is controlled from top down and nothing goes unnoticed. 
5.   After cheating twice and then getting caught, Oracle paid a pittance of a fine of 670,000 dollars. But they also were penalized two races in the America’s Cup competition and started -2 races. They complained when they could not appeal; after they had rewritten the rules to no one could appeal decisions.
6.   This culture of cheating leads to an odd forms of pouting and utterly lack of loyalty. In the very first race, having proven their disdain for rules, the Oracle boat bleeped violation charges against Emirates four times in the first several minutes of the first race!  This tells you about the attitude of the crew and leadership obsessed with rules they have already broken.
7.   After falling behind in races, the boat jettisoned its navigator and ran out to hire a world famous navigator, probably the best money can buy demonstrating, not only do rules not matter when winning is all that counts but neither do people.

The Oracle team epitomizes a culture that values winning over everything. It even ignored the reality in 2010 that winning itself is defined by rules. They have assumed technology could defy or at least transcend rules. They illustrate how wealth facing sport unbound by competitive rules that level the playing field, turn competition into farce.

Oracle prefers a world without rules. Denied that, it prefers a world where they write the rules. Even given that they prefer to cheat on the rules they have written. Whatever aspirations Oracle have to some pseudo-samurai worldview that Ellison preaches, team Oracle has missed the fundamental point—a samurai lives by a code. Winning matters, but winning with honor matters more.

Oracle in the America’s cup demonstrates what happens when winning is all that matters.

Oracle may win; but it deserves to lose.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Sports and the Natural World

Sports were born in nature where humans practiced the skills needed to survive in the wild. Just as pups practice joyfully pouncing, fighting, herding and pulling, young humans played everything from throw, catch, run, to hide and seek or treasure hunts honing their skills. They play and learn with a innate joy and satisfaction that inscribes the learning. Outdoors created sports as it has evolved and provides a critical aspect to athletic endeavor that is often missing when we sanitize or move competition inside.

Wild nature plays no favorites. The uncontrolled physical world  serves up chaos and unpredictability. Play in nature requires intense cognitive and perceptual skill as well as physical and mental adaptability. Athletics grew from this play into competitions linking and sharpening survival skills. Early sports evolved with the satisfaction of refining skills through competition outside in nature. Intrinsically people competed not only against themselves and others but against the vagaries of untrammeled nature.

Being outside in uncontrolled world intensifies the challenge of athletics. Nature plays no favorites and throws surprise and serendipity at humans. It ambushes humans with wide ranges of conditions that demand strength and preparation but also adaptability. The ability to compete under different conditions—heat, cold, humidity, rain, snow, sun and shadows, wind and beyond--all challenge people to develop sophisticated situational awareness of their environment when they compete in the “open.” As conditions change, humans need to adapt their skills on the fly to achieve their goals which puts more pressure on adaptive intelligence.

Nature does not value perfection, nature values selection and adaptation. Men and women who compete in real nature learn this. 

Outdoor action adds layers of complexity and surprise. Any simple action such as  running, throwing, catching or jumping require  added attention and revision in light of unexpected conditions. A golfer's swing must adapt to sun, shadows, humidity, wind direction as well as length and condition of the grass and roughs. Athletics in the natural world adds a dimension of test and challenge that is lacking when sports move indoors into more controlled and staged environments. We lose something even as we gain in spectacle and predictable execution.

Indoor sports in general such as track, volleyball or soccer differ acutely from their outdoor siblings. The indoor games tend to be faster with more regular and precise hitting given how controlled indoor conditions are. Indoor competition permits a level of execution and skill where protection from the vagaries of nature will not throw off a leap, hit, routine or run. Inside may amplify crowd noise and other participatory aspects of the game and fans, but it minimizes the extraneous impacts.

The move to indoor sports and climate and condition controlled obsessions minimize the impact of nature and serendipity on athletics. It strives towards a Platonic ideal of perfect form unleashed by perfectly controlled conditions that foster flawless execution. In this model, getting rid of wind, rain, sun, snow, temperature even humidity will create as close to frictionless ideal conditions as possible. These laboratory conditions permit a higher chance to achieve perfection. Pure form and technique unfold with exactitude untouched by the eddies of the natural world. 

This impulse to produce platonic conditions lies behind domes and similar buildings such as modern swimming pool design. The domes obviously have huge economic aspects and during their heyday permitted the illusion of perfect conditions. Domes also permitted baseball and football and sometimes basketball to cohabit the same fields. At the same time dome sports sobered and took away so much from games meant to be outdoors. Indoor play  eliminated the natural conditions that gave levels of excitement and test to sports. Indoor domes staged games but made them less real.

Disgust with this hyper-controlled approach to staged sports helped account for the growth of modern X sports that sought unmediated relations to nature such as surfing or snowboarding. These modern new sports that have evolved to embrace nature again. Most extreme sports grew up as embracing snow and concrete and differences. Parcours takes not only the natural world but also the lived city landscape to carve out a challenge on the run. This stresses cognitive training, scanning and pattern recognition far beyond what predictable weather and climate controlled situations demand.

I can understand the impulse to minimize the impact of nature on athletic competition for three reasons:

  1. Indoor creates a different sport. Indoor volleyball becomes fundamentally different from outdoor volleyball just the same with soccer, or track or swimming.
  2. Moving indoors makes sense when the basic skills of the athlete will be compromised or endangered by moving outdoors. Not having swim meets or soccer fields during lightening storms makes sense. Similarly asking gymnasts to compete outdoors endangers them given bar and beam and other exercises. The danger in addition compounds the inability to perform with precision and delicacy that is required of the sport. 
  3. Indoors or artificial elements might make sense to level the playing field or make it possible to compete more for simple reasons. Artificial grass fields make strong sense at so many lower levels of sports so that sports can be played with consistent integrity and level during rain and dry weather. Often the economic or weather requirements of grass make it uneconomic and unfair. Keeping fairness also matters in areas such as grooming ice or snow to ensure that the advantages of the draw do not only go the starters. Artificial fields matter to level the field across a season so that later teams on a day or during the season have equal and reliable fields to play on. All these involve attempts to limit outdoor nature on sport makes sense for reasons of danger, a different sport and a level playing field.

Domes symbolize this drive to escape nature of economic reasons. Ironically domes generate their own "weather." Air currents in the fan-based domes could be notorious. The ceilings made it hard to see and track balls while many of them played like pinball machines on the field and early generation grass. In addition they changed the entire noise dynamic of crows and atmosphere and in the old Kingdom balls regularly careened back after hitting the hanging scoreboard.

Done right, modern stadium construction permits best of both worlds. Baseball can cover itself for rains and be open for the rest. In baseball simple rain, unlike soccer and football, compromises the skill sets such as gripping a ball to pitch or holding onto a bat to swing. The rain and slipperiness can make the game dangerous for both batters and fielders. So the technology developed to permit the best of both worlds. 

Other sports, however, such as soccer and American football are built to stand the assault of weather conditions. In fact athletes revel in their ability to play in all conditions. I remember, not fondly, sinking in the mud on the side as our children played mud bowl soccer games. Thankfully in these areas artificial turf makes games possible. I can remember sitting in blinding snow storms "watching" Michigan and Ohio State slug it out in a unique midwestern approach to the game. Neither wind, rain, snow, heat, cold stop these games, although tornadoes might.

More interesting the reality of natural conditions generates real regional styles and challenges. Wild west coast pass happy offenses grew as much from weather possibilities as cultural proclivities. In the upper midwest, however, is much easier ito build a game around running and defense which thrive in  25-degree weather and snowy conditions. Similarly hot weather teams headed to cold weather and vice versa pose unique acclimation problems for teams that extend the range of their tasks and preparation. Home field advantage can vest as much in weather as fandom. The University of Washington teams would wait for sun conditioned warm California teams to travel to the misty wet northwest. Both the south and the Midwest touted and waited for out of region battles with their home field weather advantages.

I see this aspect of sports as fundamental to a deep split in philosophy and how one approaches sports and life. Plato would love domes and closed centers or pools that have exact temperatures and minimum waves and no wind. The first swimming Olympics in open water would appall him. For him the essence of sport lies in the approach to perfection of form. The essence lies in execution of form in space in time.

It's the difference between what an experiment looks like on a frictionless plane and what happens in real life. For Plato excellence would be expressed in how close to perfection in execution and precision one can come.

For Aristotle excellence consisted in how one adapted pursuing ends to the conditions a person faces. This approach generates  supple and intelligent virtue. Achieving a goal and win depended not just upon endless practice and preparation but also upon the ability to engage surprise. This can be what the opponent throws at you, but also the conditions that nature throws at you. This is life.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Athletic Development: Collegiate Model vs. Nationalism or Apprenticeships

The beginning of the college sports season is a good moment to think about college sports in a broader framework. In particular hows it exists as a model of development that competes with two alternatives--nationalist & apprenticeship.

Achieving athletic excellence takes years of commitment and is a high risk career aspiration. I want to examine three social models that have developed to further individuals on the path of becoming elite athletes. These development models emerged over time and have morphed often creating hybrids. For this discussion, I will call them the nationalist, apprenticeship and collegiate models. China, Europe and the United States epitomize them.

I want to focus on the life outcomes for the individual who sets out on these development paths. I will contend that the American model with its emphasis upon college as a final or intermediate stop for many aspiring athletes leaves the individual with much brighter long-term life prospects than an apprentice or nationalist based recruiting and training model.

A couple points to remember:

1)   The odds against succeeding as an elite athlete are very high—maybe 60,000 to 1 against a 15 year old athlete becoming a professional in the United States.

2)   Achieving elite status takes immense investment not just from the athlete but from other sources in training, infrastructure, coaching and arenas of play.

3)   Most aspiring athletes fail and are ejected from or quit the developmental systems. While sports have different peaking ages especially in the early development sports such as diving or gymnastics, the vast majority of aspirant athletes are “retired” by age 23.

4)  Athletic development begins with self-selection usually by parents + children, but quickly links to networks of scouting, recruiting and investing to push athletes along.

Athletics beckons folks as a domain of fun, achievement and reward. In some societies, it offers jackpot returns as professional players or as elite national team players in the Olympics and World Championships. The jackpots exist in terms of money from team salaries or sponsorships either as a professional or as a national or independent player. Successful elite athletes can earn glory and make good livings, become rich and be celebrities, but we need to remember  these odds resemble those of a lottery.


The easiest systems to identify are the nationalist systems that categorize sport as an extension of national identity and a tool of soft power. The Olympics epitomize this. The classic examples are  Germany or China’s huge investments in 1936 and 2008 Olympics to create center stages for states to deploy sports to strategically enhance their prestige. Olympic medal wars that media avidly followed during the cold war Olympics transformed into surrogates for claims of national superiority. 

The ultimate example of states deploying sports as a national prestige enterprise still remains East Germany. It forged a thirty-year athletic factory that produced numerous Olympic and World championships far beyond what their wealth or population could suggest. The state sponsored nation wide athletic clubs and recruited promising athletes at an early age. They segregated these young athletes into schools with intense training regimes augmented with rigorous systems of performance enhancing drugs. This resulted in Valkyrie women who dominated swimming and track and field for twenty years. It was followed by forty years of illness and side-effects to the men and women subjected to the science experiments and routines of drug usage.
In the nationalist model states scour the society and sponsor state sports clubs, teams and schools from age five and six. The modern Chinese model of juguo tizhi or "whole-nation sports system" represents the most comprehensive modern variation.  Sports authorities scout and recruit the best young athletes. The state then invests heavily in them usually from as early as age 6 and on. Usually the athletes leave their parents and go to separate schools where the children focus upon sports and may get the equivalent of a low-level high school education.

The states ruthlessly cull athletes who do not measure up. This results in tracking and sometimes moving recruited athletes off to physical education programs or simply out of the program. The athletes are segregated from society, trained as athletes and barely as students and most end up on the streets with little real education or life possibilities.

The stars are feted and pushed relentlessly as well as culled if they do not succeed. The celebrity and status come at the cost of significant political constraints upon conformity for the nationalist athletic has to represent the ideals of the country. Generations of athletes who have escaped national systems can understand the modern travels of China's Li Na who resents how she was forced to play tennis as a way to escape and now has left the system only to find herself covered, praised and excoriated for every deviation from the government's norms. Even then many world champions or Olympic competitors end up retired by age 24 with no education or skills to speak of. Often they fade back into the woodwork with low life chances unless picked up to help train the next generation.


The apprentice model starts like a free market model. No central mechanism controls or invests in the athletes. Individual kid’s talent and desire as well as parental influence pave the sports route. Parents matter a lot when they invest in and push the children.

Many kids find the sports on the street or at local clubs or schools. They end up playing in diverse social places and migrate slowly into local clubs. The entry-level costs are very low, and lots of kids and families partake here. The market competition gradually weeds out kids and parents in three ways. First, the ones who do not develop quickly end up playing in recreational leagues that are fun and enjoyable but have no future paths. Second, some will get advantages because parents will invest more time and resources in them getting them training and performance that will be noticed. Third, a group of promising kids will be seen by scouts or teachers and join a network that has some resources, teachers and the possibility of a path up and out through sports.

In apprentice systems that dominate European sports especially soccer, clubs scout extensively and recruit young players into their feeder clubs and then leagues. These young players become very young professionals by American standards getting food, lodging travel and training and playing time plus stipend by age 14-17.

Athletes move up in the system through different degrees of play and coaching. A severe culling can occur here as competition increases. In many areas, international players from Africa, Latin America and the United States end up playing in the systems. The competition gets very intense among very young professionals who parse out to many different levels of professional teams and leagues. While soccer typifies the model it is the substructure of most team sports such as volleyball or crew or basketball.

The apprentice system gives very little weight to non-sport or formal education. Because so many players come from the working class or below, few have families that push formal education. Some clubs make erstwhile efforts to encourage education, but once on the road and training for elite status, formal education falls by the wayside.

This has the advantage of culling talent earlier and creating immense number of hours and expertise earlier. Apprentice systems produce higher quality younger players, but trade off formal education and long term life changes. When players leave or are left by the apprentice system or clubs, they have no real formal education and no occupational training except their sport. You can see this in the USA national soccer team coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s announced preference for recruiting young Americans raised and trained in Germany rather than those who actually go to college.

The cast offs of the system have few real career options or training for higher education and end up at 22 ill prepared to advance. The results are large numbers of failed apprentices with few life possibilities or skills beyond finding some place in the existing sports system. The professionals in such systems can have longer careers because of the higher number and gradation of leagues. So a class of travelled second level elite players inhabit the worlds of international apprentice based soccer but also basketball, volleyball, cricket and similar sports sustained by apprentices and sponsored European corporate teams or professional teams. But the vast majority of ambitious athletes who commit to the system end up retired early without formal education and limited life possibilities.


Here the often-maligned American collegiate system can shine. Most American elite athletes channel through higher education. Young athletes in most sports aspire to college scholarships rather than going professional. Even those seeking to be professionals usually go through college to get there.

This collegiate model possesses a distinct advantage for the athletes. The athletes filter into different divisions of elite play, but still get to compete in the sport they love. They find appropriate levels of competition and experience the joys, challenges, problems and dimensions of intense athletic competition but also college education. They can graduate with a higher education degree that opens up a much higher level of work paths and higher income.

The American system can accommodate strong Olympic and national team feeders. In most sports the ultra-elite of American college athletes can go on to be on national or Olympic teams or take time off to compete. In addition, many sports such as gymnastics, swimming or diving and track and field and end up offering scholarships to players after their Olympic competition possibilities have peaked. 

At the same time wannabe Olympians or professionals need not go this route. Large numbers of swimmers, skiers, gymnasts, tennis or golf players take independent parent or sponsor financed tracks to compete and forgo college. This happens exclusively in many winter sports such as various forms of skiing and X sports.  Many top golf and tennis or soccer players never end up in college and bypass directly for professional leagues at a very early age. Similarly the major-league baseball systems provides a European club style developmental track for high school graduates, but it ensures they got through high school first.

There are more rational ways to get to colleges. But given a choice, I would rather have an aspiring athlete aiming for a college scholarship rather than aiming to enter a professional apprentice track at age 14. At college they have the chance to develop as athletics but also develop as persons and acquire deeper social and intellectual capital. This makes it makes it a much richer and more defensible developmental approach for athletes.  The college approach has profound strengths for the development of the individual person given the low probability of any elite athlete of making a career out of it. 

International student athletes who come to the United States provide some insights. I remember one international rower telling me, “I can come here and perfect my rowing and get a degree in accounting. At home I would never get a chance to go to school given my national team commitments.”  Another mentioned, “at home I had a choice. Play and take the chances to become a professional or quit and go to school, if I could afford it. I came here, played for five years, got a good degree and realized I would never be a pro.”

Meeting and working with international athletes and students changed my view of the American system with its focus on helping athletes become students; its capacity for people to compete at multiple level; and the outcome of elite athlete aspirants who end up with degrees and life chances beyond their sports.

To me as an educator the real success and advantage of the American college athletics systems lies in the outcomes for the person. When it works, and it works well the vast majority of the times, 90,000 athletes each year graduate with college degrees and have experienced four years of elite play at their appropriate levels; have had the chance to gain an education and mature with peers and in the classroom; have learned to carry themselves as a person and student as well as an athlete. Their life chances and callings remain far more open and challenging than the young athletes who are retired by age 23 in the nationalist or apprentice based systems.