In grade four, my baseball cap was stolen from me and my basketball was heaved on top of the roof of a nearby school. I was shoved against a wall, and a kid two or three years older grabbed the collar of my t-shirt, made a fist with it and punched me. Tears welled up in my eyes.
It hurt, but the pain wasn’t physical. I’d been hit harder or at least suffered more sting while roughhousing with my friends. The salty water in my eyes was the result of feeling violated, of feeling the brunt of someone else’s unnecessary cruelty. Thankfully, this wasn’t something that I had to endure over an extended period of time. It was a one off, but it remains a part of memory, more accessible than a thousand nicer things that happened to me at the same age.
Looking back now, I recall being big for my age. I know the bully’s undefended punch didn’t render me unconscious. It didn’t even cause much pain. I probably could have defended myself, and I might have kept my Blue Jays hat for a little bit longer. But that didn’t seem like an option at the time. It felt like a theatrical play in which the roles in the unread script were inherently understood. He was the bully and I was the victim. It didn’t even cross my mind to attempt to overthrow that hierarchy.
I thought of this again after Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin left his team’s training facility last week amid reports of a mental breakdown. The details were murky, but it almost seemed formulaic: prank in the cafeteria plus razzing from teammates equals a food tray smashed and a man in need of emotional counselling.
Supporters of the St. Louis Cardinals are referred to as the best fans in baseball. The term is more often used ironically than genuinely, but even if it wasn’t, it’s not the type of moniker that should give rise to anger in anyone who possesses a healthy perspective on life.
There are far worse exaggerations over which one might be more justified in getting upset. For instance, Budweiser is not the King of Beers. Obviously, ales, lagers and stouts would never subject themselves to a sovereign monarch. Energizer batteries don’t keep going and going and going. Eventually, they’ll wear out, and that moment is most likely to occur when you’re a quarter of the way through shaving your face with an electric razor.
We all know this. That’s why “the best fans in baseball” is so often used in a derisive manner. It’s a joke.
Nonetheless, the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Pittsburgh Pirates to gain entry into the National League Championship Series – which is big news – and because sports writers are typically of the unimaginative breed, there are several articles about St. Louis Cardinals fans being earnestly written and published.
It reminds me of the time I went to a White Snake and Scorpions concert. In line for a beer, a fight erupted between two drunks over which was the better band. White Snake fan won the fight by TKO when Scorpions super fan missed with a punch, fell to the ground and puked all over himself.
The arguments over how great/terrible of a fan base there is in St. Louis is actually worse. At least the two metal fans didn’t have a large platform from which they could spew vomit on all of us.
No fan base is better than another. “Oh, but we don’t chant racist slurs like those soccer supporters in Italy.” Congratulations, the best that you can say about a group that you belong to is that you’re not as racist as another group. You must really be so proud.
Any sample of sports fans is nothing more than a cross-section of humanity. Some good. Some bad. But mostly grotesque specimens searching for something to belong to that’s bigger than themselves.
League of Denial is as much a documentary about warning signs as it is about concussions in the National Football League. The two-hour Frontline investigative report premiered Tuesday night on PBS, and like any significant study, it brought forth as many questions as it answered.
Given the lead up to the airing of the documentary – most notably ESPN’s opting out of its original partnership with PBS publicly due to a lack of editorial control, but reportedly due to pressure from its already existing partnerships with the NFL – the content wasn’t surprising. It presented a convincing mix of anecdotes and research to build a case against the league for what appears at first to be a simple ignorance to the dangers of head trauma in football, but ultimately transforms into willful negligence. Somehow, the tone of the documentary is rarely accusatory, and almost always educational. The feature program leads viewers to ask their own questions rather than overwhelming them with its own conclusions.
While the format created an engaging program, it also created something about which it’s difficult to write. I don’t want to merely summarize what led to Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster’s death in 2002 or create a bastardized version of a white paper on how chronic traumatic encephalopathy affects the brain. A compacted amalgamation of the documentary would trivialize the issue more than add anything.
South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has had a disappointing start to his junior season. Well, as disappointing as two sacks and a dozen tackles over four games – all while garnering more attention from offensive lines than protein shakes and calorie intake – will allow.
Given the size of the hype caboose attached to Clowney coming into the season, it seemed that the only footage of college football recorded from the previous year was his hit on Michigan running back Vincent Smith at the Outback Bowl.
Quickness. Toughness. Power. A helmet sent flying. A fumble recovered. Never mind that it set up a go-ahead touchdown on the very next play, it remains the Mona Lisa of highlight reel plays.
The video clip became so popular that nanas were sending it in email forwards to their grandchildren. Of course, it contributed to unfair expectations on Clowney, causing many of us to imagine something right out of – pardon the dated reference – The Waterboy, with opponents relinquishing offensive possession just to avoid having to face Clowney on the field.
We might have gone a little bit overboard with that outlook, perhaps lacking a proper perspective. It’s a condition that seems to be chronic when it comes to Clowney.
On Saturday, the 20-year-old reportedly surprised coaches when – shortly before kickoff against Kentucky – he informed them that his bruised ribs (later found to be a strained rib muscle) were too sore to play. Following the game, head coach Steve Spurrier, expressed no uncertain measure of frustration.
I will just say he told me he couldn’t play. That his ribs hurt, couldn’t run. Said ‘I can’t play’. I said, that’s fine, you don’t have to play. We’ll move on. He may not be able to play next week, I don’t know. We’re not going to worry about it, I can assure you that if he wants to play, we’ll welcome him to come play for the team if he wants to.
Spurrier has since admitted to handling the situation poorly, but the cadre of college football pundits – whose realm of influence doesn’t consider subtlety a virtue – offered up no such mea culpa for their own hot takes criticizing Clowney.
Paul Finebaum on Jadeveon Clowney: His behavior has been disgraceful. He has been the biggest joke in college football.
It verges on profound how horribly mistaken and overwhelmingly myopic the aim of their criticism is. It represents a failure to consider anything beyond a knee-jerk reaction to the false violation of a misinformed principle: that student athletes should embrace their own exploitation to the point of risking their future ability to earn as much money as possible.
Clowney, at 6’6″ and 275 lbs is projected to be a top pick in May at the 2014 NFL draft. As such, he stands to sign a large contract with whatever team selects him. After two-and-a-half years of not only raising his draft stock, but also helping the South Carolina football program gain ground in the highly competitive SEC, thereby improving the university’s bottom line, the player – who has never received a salary for his services – doesn’t owe anything to anyone in college football.
Never mind the enormous assumptions one would have to make about Clowney’s injury to question his commitment to the team, it’s completely erroneous to expect him to risk anything at all given his current status. The school should be immensely grateful he hasn’t chosen to sit out the entire season.
It’s a strange bit of reflex that makes us champion certain causes over others without thinking. In the case of criticism being heaped on Clowney, we’re ultimately championing an unpaid young man risking his future earning potential to serve an enterprise whose revenue depends on that risk being taken. We want the sacrifice from the individual while asking nothing of the organization, nor the system that allows such exploitation.
Perhaps we ought to take a page from his coach’s playbook and realize that being on any side other Clowney’s lacks the proper perspective.
I love baseball. The way that talent mixes with randomness to consistently deliver exciting outcomes is almost perfect to me. It’s a social sport, with a slow pace that lends itself to conversation. It’s my favorite by a good measure.
I really like soccer, too. There are few vicarious moments that allow me to lose myself as completely as the build up to a potential goal in soccer. Football is fun to watch on Sundays, but if I’m honest with myself I’m just as likely to use it as an excuse for afternoon beers and unhealthy food as I am to thoroughly enjoy a contest. Basketball is like a people aquarium to me. It’s something I’ll keep on in the background and check into from time to time, but it doesn’t grab me the way that other sports do.
I’m too old to argue that my order of preference to sports is better than anyone else’s, and I only bring this bit of self-indulgence up as a means of comparing my relationship with other sports to hockey. I’m a casual fan. I’ll follow from the periphery during the regular season, spending the odd Saturday night – when there’s nothing better to do – in front of the television to watch a game. During the playoffs, I’m a bit more active. I’ll follow along with late night highlight packages in the early rounds, watch elimination games and pay close attention during the Stanley Cup Finals.
On Tuesday night, the 2013/2014 NHL season opened, and in the marquee matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens, a fight – the second of the night between Colton Orr and George Parros – broke out.
This is nothing new. These two players are employed by their respective teams in the unofficial role of enforcer. They’re both in the business of ice hockey fighting. What is new, or at least rare (a similar incident happened last year to Orr, who at the time, was once again performing a duet with Parros), is that the fight concluded with Parros missing a punch, falling, and landing chin first on the ice.
The Canadiens tough guy was eventually stretchered off the ice and taken to hospital, where he was unsurprisingly diagnosed with a concussion. There are few ways of better understanding the term blood curdling than to see a grown man attempt to pick himself up and fail after suffering a significant blow. Reduced to a fumbling fawn by violence, Parros was without pride, recumbent on the ice.
This was the lasting image for many who shared their outrage the next day. The first wave of which questioned the role of fighting in hockey, the second questioned those questioning it. Claims that hockey fighting was absurd were countered with arguments ranging from exaggerations on the importance of momentum to claims that the removal of fighting would lessen the entertainment of the game. And on and on it went throughout the week, and it continues even now.
The arguments are largely futile, only serving to further entrench two sides in a fruitless debate. I’m typically hesitant to express much when it comes to hockey, specifically because I don’t know it as well as most. I’m a casual fan of the game. I understand its virtues and I comprehend its challenges, but I’m not too interested in investigating either. I’m a Canadian who prefers the pastime of my Southern neighbor, not a general columnist attempting to feign expertise on a subject about which he knows little.
I’m even less eager to enter a fray in which both sides have reduced opposing viewpoints to the most base stereotypes. Anyone in favor of hockey fighting is an underdeveloped Australopithecus. Those who despise punch-fights on ice are presumed to house a collection of Baby Butterscotch Magical Show Ponies in a prominent position at their abode – they’re only taken out of the case above the mantle to be brushed, and then they’re returned.
Nonetheless, I began to wonder if both sides in the debate weren’t a bit too dependent on group think in their analysis, sheltered by their own social media feeds and failing to consider how it all seems to an outsider. For once, I thought, maybe the voice of the non-expert might provide some value.
I’m not trying to convince anyone or make someone see things my way. I have no scorer in this shootout. I merely want to share my thought process in coming to the conclusion that I have in the hopes that it provides something of value to the discussion. I don’t like fighting in hockey, but the last thing I want is for someone else who doesn’t like it to point to this, and use it against someone who does. That’s not the purpose of this. I’m not a hockey expert by any means. I’m a casual fan of the sport, and this is how I feel.
There’s a certain pleasure to be gained through the discovery of metaphors. It’s a quirky bit of nature, but we seem to understand ourselves better from a perspective that excludes us entirely. Without this, parables, poetry and playwriting likely wouldn’t exist, or at least wouldn’t carry as much significance as they do.
The amount of amusement we derive from piecing together parallels between narratives and our own lives is enhanced when those analogies seem almost accidental instead of crafted. It’s one thing to read a novel that’s meant to be an allegory, and quite another to come across something that’s not intended to mirror anything, but does so in a fashion that causes reflection.
Matching the sports we watch to the culture we inhabit is hardly new. It’s been done many times before. Perhaps the best example is the book Brilliant Orange, which rationally ties so many aspects of Dutch culture to voetbal. In Canada, before gift buying holidays like Christmas or Father’s Day a new book is released tethering hockey to what it means to be Canadian. Meanwhile, the United States has long stood by baseball as its country’s pastime, a connection that was most exhaustively made by documentarian Ken Burns, who dedicated more than 18 hours on public television to explaining the relationship between the sport and the nation.
The Emmy Award-winning series was broadcast on PBS in 1994 – not an especially good year for baseball – but even as Burns was preparing his epic ode, the rankings of relevance had shifted. Not so long before Baseball first aired, the tenure of National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle concluded. Under Rozelle’s three decade long stewardship, the NFL blossomed: Attendance increased by almost 600%, and every subsequent Super Bowl set new records for television viewership. It all combined to create fertile ground for his successor, Paul Tagliabue, to reap an even larger harvest in increased television coverage and the accompanying lucrative contracts from broadcast partners.
Football is enormous, it’s become far bigger than baseball in terms of popularity. Nonetheless, baseball still clings to tradition, backed by its long standing connection to America’s history, and all of its struggles, conflicts and contradictions.
There are both advantages and disadvantages to democracy, but the most favorable aspect that trumps all others is that, in its truest form, common people are represented in a way that allows them to influence the creation and application of law so that it reflects the generally accepted values of a society. Yes, this has and will continue to pose problems for minorities living in a society that doesn’t account for the comfort of others, but at the core of the democratic ideal is an allowance for social change and a protection against the elite hoarding power.
These are good things. However, we’re sometimes susceptible to trickery by the upholders of the status quo – who often have the most to lose through social change – exerting their influence to cause us to believe that certain values are more generally accepted than they actually are. This is frequently done on a political level, a cultural level and less seriously, on a sporting level.
In college sports, we’ve long been taught the virtue of amateurism. It’s a patently false virtue, originated by the high society organizers of the first Modern Olympic Games as a means of glorifying the accomplishments of the aristocratic athlete at the expense of the working class who required professional status as a means of paying for training. When we attach any amount of reason to the discussion around compensation for college athletes, it becomes abundantly clear that they should be paid for generating revenue for their school and risking their own ability to make future income by participating in athletic competitions where debilitating injury is always a possibility.