Archive for the ‘National Football League’ Category

The previous week’s thaw combined with the recent freeze to make large potato chips out of the frozen sections of snow and thin layers of ice. The crunch of every step would break multiple sheets, but never so much as to leave an imprint on the eighteen inches of ice below. It felt like you could see forever on the frozen lake, but look back after trudging for ten minutes and your starting point was immersed in fog, illusory curtains covering the recent past.

The plan was simple. I’d leave Saturday morning, and my brother would meet me halfway. From there, we’d travel to his ice fishing hut that was less than an hour’s drive from his home. In the days leading up to our excursion, my brother would send pictures of the inside of the hut. It had a heater, fishing rods, tools I’d never seen before and whiskey. It also had a tiny grill.

I asked him if it was for cooking the fish that we’d catch, and he let me down gently, “Oh, we won’t catch any fish to eat.”

My brother and I lead drastically different lives. He’s country. I’m city. The population of his town is under 10,000. Mine is over 2.5 million. He has cross-stitching and family photos on the walls of his house. I have movie posters and art work on mine. He can build stuff with lumber. I worry about splinters. He owns a fully stocked chest freezer. The inventory of the freezer atop my fridge consists of ice cubes, vodka and a couple of dark chocolate bars I’ll never eat.

Despite the overwhelming amount of differences between us, we share a similar outlook on life. Generally content to watch it unfold, we’re spectators deriving no shortage of amusement from all of the hullabaloo that others cause. This characteristic occasionally extends beyond a healthy detachment, but on the whole it seems a better perspective than most alternatives.

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the quazcast (1400 x 1400)

Welcome to The Quazcast – a weekly podcast that brings listeners in on a frank conversation between myself and a random person from the world of sports.

I might speak with a 90-year-old NFL kicker one week, the manager of a Major League Baseball team the next, and a bull fighter the week after that. The Quazcast is about digging deep and avoiding the cliché question and answers that too often plague sports interviews.

This week’s guest is former New York Giants running back Jarrod Bunch. A former first round pick out of Michigan in 1991, Bunch has moved on from his brief professional football career to make a name for himself in the world of acting.

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Miami Dolphins

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.

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A football helmet's health warning sticker is pictured between a U.S. flag and the number 55, in memory of former student and NFL player Junior Seau, as the Oceanside Pirates high school football team prepares for their Friday night game in Oceanside

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.

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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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2013 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game SixImagine how frustrating it would be for a knowledgeable general medical practitioner to pick up a copy of his or her favorite medical journal and read an article extolling the virtues of the humoral theory. Put yourself in a lab coat and pretend there’s a stethoscope resting around your neck as you peruse text proposing that when the four humors – blood, phlegm, black and yellow bile – are in balance, good health is guaranteed. It would be absolutely maddening to read claims that an imbalance in the humors is at the root of sickness.

The existence of more effective measures doesn’t always guarantee the use of more effective measures. While the specific example of a doctor practicing humoral medicine in the 21st Century would likely result in several malpractice lawsuits, our predilection for doing things not by the best means but rather the most familiar continues on a smaller scale that seldom ends up a matter for a court of law, or of life and death.

Consider the relatively unimportant endeavor of sports. When we talk about athletes, our conversations often lead toward opinions on their ranking. Player A is better than Player B because Player A does this. No, you’re an idiot for thinking Player A is better than Player B because Player B has this number of whatevers, and Player A only has that many. And so the world of sports “discussion” turns.

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Super Bowl XLVII used to play an annoying game when I was a child. I’d ask why. I’d ask why all the time and I’d keep on asking why until the adult I was asking would give up trying to answer. I’d ask why, not for the sake of curiosity, but because I knew that at some point it would be impossible for the adult to answer why.

Back then, it may have been a subtle way to undermine authority, but at some point in my development, the persistent questioning of why we do the things we do led to a realization. When we break down our motivations far enough, we come to unanswerable questions.

We’re a bit of a mess in this sense. We act on urges, drives and motivators, and then we deal with the repercussions of the actions that those compulsions prompt us to perform. As this happens, we constantly try and fail to understand from where the unexplained pressures of those obligations come.

Then, because we’re conflicted beings – curious enough to ask why, but often too lazy to accurately answer our own question – we either end our pursuit prematurely, or we answer the unanswerable questions with fictions. The urge to have an explicable answer isn’t curiosity. True curiosity leads to the unknown. The desire to have a neat answer is stronger than that. It’s so strong in fact that it allows us to convince ourselves of fictions, and explain away questions about motivation with nonsense.

This conflict is especially difficult for writers, who feel a simultaneous urge to not only understand motivation, but also explain it to others. It’s not a gift. It’s likely more closely aligned with a social deficiency. The majority of us do little more than read aloud the subtitles that foreign film audiences already see and can read for themselves, while the worst of us peddle fictions as truth and the best of us illustrate how little we all know about anything.

On Wednesday, when Aaron Hernandez was charged with the first degree murder of Odin Lloyd, I felt the urge to write about it. I write about sports for a living, and this subject seemed like it was important to sports in a big picture, what-does-it-all-mean sort of way. There was one problem: It wasn’t.

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