Dustin Parkes

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NCAA Football: South Carolina at Georgia
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.

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.

hockeyfight

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.

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uspw_918186 2There’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.

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osuhelmetThere 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.

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unknown-artist-the-wild-wild-east

The German Democratic Republic may have had a relatively small population – 16-million people – and a short history, but it was extremely successful at the Olympic Games. From 1976 to 1988, the country came second in three summer Olympics, only behind the Soviet Union. They also finished second at four Winter Olympics, and won more medals than any other nation at the 1984 winter games in Sarajevo.

It was just before 7:00 AM on an autumn morning in 1978 when 18-year-old Renate Neufeld was awakened by the Secret Police. Her dormitory, which was off-limits even to her parents when they visited, was invaded by Stasi officers, who – in their mechanical compliance to indiscernible demands – took the young sprinter away for questioning.

As a relative newcomer to the TSC Berlin Sports Club, Neufeld was unique. Like her classmates, she grew up in East Germany, but unlike the rest of the sequestered school, her daily routine through adolescence hadn’t been meted out by the Socialist Unity Party. Most of the students there were hand-selected at the age of twelve to become future representatives of East Germany at the Olympic Games. Since being chosen, they trained constantly to reach this goal. From physical exercises to nutrition, regimen and unconditional obedience was a way of life.

Neufeld, a champion hurdler in her teens, didn’t join the school until after she turned 17-years-old. Immediately, her trainer set her up on a sophisticated program that would make up for lost time and reap increased ability from her surprising and untamed talent. Included in this plan was a supplemental diet of grey pills and green powder that he referred to as vitamins. Once she began consuming these “vitamins,” her legs suffered frequent cramps, her voice deepened, facial hair grew on the top of her lip and she ceased menstruating.

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U.S. Open - Round OneEarlier this summer, a great many golf fans became acquainted with the seemingly miraculous story of Mackenzie Hughes. The introduction was almost as fortuitous as the culmination of circumstances that led the young Canadian to an entry at the U.S. Open in his first year as a professional.

The underdog may not have triumphed on the course at the Merion Golf Club in mid-June, but Hughes gave us something for which we could have little difficulty cheering: an upstart long-shot whose sense of awe at his own proximity to golf’s superstars was something that we might possess if we were to ever warm up for a practice round beside Tiger Woods.

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On a typical day at the Vaughan Soccer Centre, twenty kilometers north of Toronto’s downtown, hundreds of soccer players from all ages, backgrounds and skill-levels will enter through the complex’s main doors to compete and train. On Thursday, June 13th, nothing – not even the wind – could sneak into the 130,000 square foot field house after Todd Reichert, Cameron Robertson and the rest of their AeroVelo engineering team had set everything in place to do something that had never been done before.

The Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition was established in 1980 by the American Helicopter Society to award a $25,000 prize to the designers of the first human-powered helicopter capable of a flight lasting 60 seconds that reaches an altitude of three meters and hovers within the confines of a 10-by-10 meter area. It took nine years for the first attempt at such an aircraft to evemget off the ground. Then, in 1994, a second helicopter managed “flight.” However, both of the these designs managed to stay in the air for less than twenty seconds and only attained altitudes of 20 centimeters. For the next 15 years, even these modest achievements couldn’t be duplicated.

Then, in 2009, the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, an American aircraft manufacturer based in Stratford, Connecticut, pledged to the American Helicopter Society that they would multiply the prize money by ten. Suddenly – and not surprisingly – interest in the competition piqued due to the quarter of a million dollar prize purse.

Two engineering teams from among the many attempting to produce the first Sikorsky-approved helicopter emerged as the front-runners: The University of Maryland and the aforementioned AeroVelo.

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