Archives for category: Sports

Ortiz: Thomas Anderson/Newscom; Bonner: Danny Bollinger/Getty Images; Parros: Jeff Gross/Getty Images; Valdes: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images; Janikowski: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Roger Lowenstein’s review of Charley Rosen’s Bullpen Diaries: Mariano Rivera, Bronx Dreams, Pinstripe Legends, and the Future of the New York Yankees in Bloomberg Businessweek, provides some great insight, by way of an idiosyncratic look at baseball, into our culture’s illogical addiction to specialization and the general human tendency to become guided by misperceptions simply because they’re measurable:

The aphorism “You manage what you measure” can explain a great deal of the world’s foolish behavior. The corporate chief executive who tries to kowtow to Wall Street rather than attend to business is, after all, simply enhancing his company’s stock price—which is what we measure.

The most savory part of the piece, however, is Lowenstein’s unorthodox claim that the closing pitcher may be much less important than we think. Indeed, that the very notion of preserving a great pitcher until the closing innings of the game is almost tantamount to the Lakers saving Kobe for the second half.

To fully understand the illogic of designating the closer exclusively for ninth-inning work – and other so-called specialists for the seventh and eighth innings – one must remember that runs are equally valuable no matter the inning in which they are scored. This extreme specialization is motivated less by strategy than by managerial insecurity. A game lost in the eighth inning provokes the question of who was pitching and why the manager didn’t yank him. A game lost in the fourth is simply a loss.

So, by extension, the more than $130 million Mariano Rivera’s earned during his, albeit exceptional, career as a closer is illogical as well (Rivera’s role is so specialized he’s only called out of the bullpen in the ninth inning and only if the game’s close – a fact that jacked the nominal value of each out he pitched last year up to $83,000). One has to ask, taking Lowenstein’s cue, ‘Is an out that comes in the ninth inning worth that much more than one that comes in the first?’ Of course, not everything involving dollar signs is amenable to reason. But Rivera’s outrageous salary does serve  to demonstrate at least one truth -nowadays, contrary to the conventional wisdom, it obviously pays to be boxed-in.

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In the first stanza of Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village,” a poem about the effects of the mass exodus of people from England’s sylvan villages to America, there’s a line that goes: “Dear lovely bowers of innocence and ease, / Seats of my youth, when every sport could please.” This, of course, describes Goldsmith’s representative village before everyone left, before the vitality went. The poem’s beginning is freighted with a strong pre-lapsarian nostalgia – these were the days of contentment, of community, of a healthy respect for natural cycles:

When toil remitting lent its turn to play,
And all the village train, from labour free,
Led up their sports beneath the spreading tree;
While many a pastime circled in the shade,
The young contending as the old survey’d;
And many a gambol frolick’d o’er the ground,
And sleights of art and feats of strength went round;
And still, as each repeated pleasure tir’d,
Succeeding sports the mirthful band inspir’d;
The dancing pair that simply sought renown
By holding out to tire each other down.

There’s a strong respect for, and satisfaction to be gained from, play or sport. Things are valued much more for what they are, by themselves, than for the marginal value that accrues to the villagers through their exploitation. All of this changes in the succeeding stanzas, where something extra is to be gained on top of the value one might get from the activities alone. The second and third stanzas introduce us to the imagery of kings, of princes, of tyrants accompanied by striking images of decadence and its logical extension – decay.

Which brings me to LeBron James’s despicable, shameful post-game press conference remarks on Sunday after the Miami Heat’s meltdown loss to the feisty (and much more respectable) Dallas Mavericks. There wasn’t too much that the King could say in response to all of those vassals who were salivating at his virtual decapitation by Dirk and his fellow executioners, so he put his own royal spin on the Schadenfreude:

“All the people that were rooting me on to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life they had before…They have the same personal problems they had to today. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want with me and my family and be happy with that.

“They can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy that not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal…But they’ll have to get back to the real world at some point.”

The most interesting thing about James’s comments is how eerily similar they were to his game 6 performance – passive aggressive, cryptic, just plain random. Who are they? And if they are who I just have a gut feeling his comments suggest they are – low- and middle-class blue- and white-collar workers (read most Clevelanders) – what do their miserable working lives have to do with anything?

Before I go any further down this track, I must admit that James’s comments can be interpreted an infinite number of ways and that I’m aware that my response would simply be feeding the perpetual frenzy of interpretation and misinterpretation surrounding his every move and word. They might and might not mean what I think (or perhaps, for the sake of making a larger point, want) them to mean. This post is largely assumptive – I’m assuming that James assumed X, Y, and Z in what he said and if he didn’t I’ll consider this post to be as much a commentary on everyone else’s assumptions of what James meant as on mine (for aspiring lawyers, this post might be a lesson to take away for your LSAT preparations).

For instance, mattcw15 wrote, as a response to the YouTube video above:

Lebron’s translation: At the end of the day, all you people who hate on me will have the same miserable lives as you did yesterday. While I will continue to live my life with my family with the millions of dollars that I have. *smirk*

And ESPN.com’s Brian Windhurst wrote, immediately after including LeBron’s remarks in an article:

Yes, James could leave in his Bentley or Rolls Royce or Maybach or whatever vehicle he chose to drive. He could, indeed, go home to his mansion where his personal chef might have a five-star meal waiting. Then off to his plush bed with 1,500-thread-count sheets. In a few days, it’ll be off on a private jet for a needed vacation.

So, if the fallout to his comments offers any clues to their meaning, my analysis won’t be completely off, especially if everyone else (or at least a ‘critical mass’) has pretty much the same interpretation, which is that James was at least partially alluding to the comparatively petty, impoverished, unhappy, miserable, bottom 90%, 9 to 5 lives of most of his haters (read most Clevelanders).

My question then becomes: Why would James even want to bring everyone else’s misery into the picture? His comments are classic non sequitur. That is, until you think a few minutes more about the context in which this particular brand of superstar athlete was molded – both on the court and off of it.

To illuminate the extent to which James is (literally) a product of the culture, I’ll just put forth a brief scenario. Imagine Oscar Robertson or Bill Russell or even Magin Johnson (who actually went through the same kind of public whipping) in a post-game press conference, smoldering with James’s anger at being the object of so many people’s hatred and having to deal with the fact that his defeat will only indulge their satisfactions. Neither Robertson nor Russell had such vaunted, disproportionate wealth to even consider making a comment like James’s. And all three, however proud or even arrogant each might have been, shared the sobering, equalizing humility of times in which ‘winner-take-all’ could only describe transactions that happened on the court, during the course of a game that was still kind of pristine, when even superstars weren’t insured against confronting criticism, due or undue, from their failure to make a winning shot or carry their team in the closing minutes, by invoking truly unjust economic arrangements – “That’s why I get to fly jet-class when you can barely afford coach on Southwest. You may delight in me losing, but you’re still broke and thus unhappy and pathetic and not nearly as liberated as I am,” in so many words.

The saddest part about LeBron James’s comments is his utter ignorance of their implications. Only someone who feels entitled to his disproportionate affluence without realizing the arbitrariness and ultimate danger of that disproportion would say what James said. What makes him more deserving of multi- multi- millions than Oscar Robertson or Bob Cousy or Willis Reed or the man who invented the damn game or the engineer who contributed to making American Airlines Arena structurally sound enough for him to choke in? What makes him happier? What makes his contributions more significant to human civilization?

James doesn’t have to answer those questions. Neither does he have to answer questions about his self-coronation or his actions – these are mandated by God. “The Greater Man upstairs know [sic] when it’s my time. Right now isn’t the time,” tweeted the King. LeBron James is a member of the 1% now. He can afford to do what he wants.

But, really, he can’t. As Joseph Stiglitz’s penetrating article in Vanity Fair points out, there’s a price ALL Americans must pay for the ‘winner-take-all’ economy that finances LeBron’s parochial arrogance. There are consequences for the fact that the richest 1% control 40% of the wealth in this country, an 18% increase from just a decade ago. More than just reflecting the general corrosion of America’s human capital, a more inefficient economy, and a tremendous weakening of social capital and a sense of community, exuberant inequality makes a lot of people mad – particularly at the people in whose hands such wealth is concentrated and, as is often the case, hoarded, The result of this angst is that a lot of people with nothing to lose can make things, at best, very disagreeable for those with a lot more and at worst, disastrous for everyone, as Stiglitz articulates:

“The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live. Throughout history, this is something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn. Too late.”

Yes, LeBron James is a product of a culture in which matters of wealth, especially individual wealth, have superseded matters of the soul, such that a benchwarmer is content to stay that way so long as he’s sitting on a million-dollar contract or a superstar is comfortable enough off of the court that losing on the court isn’t totalizing to the point where it cancels everything else out. But the James – the man, the individual, the character – isn’t exonerated entirely by the zeitgeist.

Michael Jordan, even more of the capitalist icon than James, was nonetheless such a fierce competitor, whose appreciation of the game itself – for the sport alone, stripped bare of the endorsements, the bonuses, the salary – seemed all-consuming, that it wasn’t enough that he could ride in his Corvette to his suburban mansion after his muscles were iced – while everyone else had to go work the following day. After that heartbreaking home loss in 2006 to the Miami Heat, Dirk Nowitzki stayed at American Airlines Center until 5 am the next day, sans the trappings of his uber wealth. When he won, one of his seminal statements to the media was, “Nobody can ever take this away from me.” Translation: You can have the money. I’ve got the ring.

LeBron James has become something of a totem for a nation, and a world, that’s become so privatized that even erstwhile money-neutral things like sport, the ultimate reservoir of our common concerns and identities, has become hostage to the concerns of the well-endowed few. This sense of a rigged game is the impetus for most people’s hatred for what they perceived as  Miami’s scheme to control the outcome of something Americans have always believed (or at least have wanted to believe) is free and democratic – competition.

I’ll venture to provide a deeper, if a bit stretched-out, analysis of the country’s general animus toward the Heat. Our collective booing showed how dynamic and organic is most Americans’ sense of fairness and equality – even in basketball. But more than that, it may have also revealed a larger discontent; that underneath our seething ESPN.com comments and tweets and YouTube rants about the Heat is a sense that we’ve been cosmically screwed by society, not just as sports fans, but as citizens. I want to believe that our collective booing constituted a ‘language of the unheard’ – and unemployed, and hungry, and broke, and uninsured, and undereducated, and underpaid… We’re all Goldsmith’s villagers now.

“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay:
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made:
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroy’d, can never be supplied”

If only we could redirect the common, but mostly symbolic, outrage we aimed at the Heat, towards a much more realistic threat. We can start by collectively agitating those other LeBrons: Congress. The Bush Tax Breaks. Citizens United

Jim Tressel, in his heyday, was what college football, indeed modern sports, was supposed to be about.  He – like the wholesomeness of Oprah or Jordan (pre-Hall of Fame induction) or Barack Obama or Mike Krzyzewski – was a major plank in the argument for the soul of our present profit-driven, shareholder value-laden culture.  All is not lost, the rhetoric went; there’s still the possibility of decency intertwined with success; you can wear that swoosh or presidential lapel or have that billionaire bank account without losing yourself.  The problem with that argument, however, is that it tends to crumble with the individual.  And herein, as a dead English bard might say, lies the rub.  Oftentimes, we deify people who appear not to have lost their souls while climbing the world’s ladder, at the expense of blinding ourselves to the world’s normative corruption.  We focus on the one immaculate, apparently untainted tree in a forest of stumps and small growths.  Perhaps with Jim Tressel’s fall, we might gain some perception.

Reuters

There was a glimpse of this in George Dohrmann’s and David Epstein’s Sports Illustrated story on Tressel.  As I was reading through the litany of witness statements and allegations, proof piling on top of proof, which pointed to the possibility that all might not be as it seemed with Tressel, an avid Christian, there was a brief ember of the ‘real’ that glimmered through the frank admission of defensive end Robert Rose.  When asked about selling his players-only merchandise, Rose put it bluntly:

“I knew how much money that the school was making,” he says. “I always heard about how Ohio State had the biggest Nike budget. I was struggling, my mom was struggling. … It was just something that I had to do. I was in a hard spot. … [Other] guys were doing it for the same reasons. The university doesn’t really help. Technically we knew it was wrong, but a lot of those guys are from the inner city and we didn’t have much, and we had to go on the best we could. I couldn’t call home to ask my mom to help me out.”

The story about the fall of Jim Tressel isn’t really about Jim Tressel at all.  It’s about a culture that’s allowed profit to strangle its conscience.  The sports world is chock full of Jim Tressels, as Dohrmann’s piercing investigation into youth basketball, Play Their Hearts Out, attests.  We’d be doing ‘The Sweater’ a favor by realizing that underneath its senatorial stitching and regal facade lay not only considerable decency, but also a heart of darkness.  It would have been near impossible for anybody to succeed consistently under such pressure as Tressel did and stay clean.  Any sports writer who doesn’t acknowledge such a state of affairs is doing her readership a disservice.

What should garner more attention isn’t that Tressel messed up or perhaps was just a mess, period, without us knowing; what should bear scrutiny and investigation are the more fundamental questions such as: ”What about big time athletics and its various pipelines (AAU basketball, baseball in the Dominican Republic, inner-city ghettos, broken schools, broken homes, income-inequality…) make it such a seedy, exploitative affair in the first place?’

The upcoming NBA finals is playing out like a Rocky movie directed by Lupe Fiasco and produced by Ismael Reed.  Dirk Nowitzki is Ivan Drago, but instead of a villain he’s the Davidian hero who makes his entrance to Sly & The Family Stone’s “Underdog” blasting from the stadium speakers.  Lebron James is like Apollo Creed’s evil clone.  The Man v. Machine theme, however, hasn’t been reversed.  Only now, Nowitzki, instead of representing Russian steel, represents German efficiency. He’s a machine, but a much cooler, better built (Mercedes) machine, while Lebron has Creed’s flair and Rocky’s heart.  We’ll see which inverted side prevails.

We hate the Miami Heat for the same reason Sarah Palin hates ‘Socialism’ – there is that strange whiff of conspiracy, command, collusion, secrecy, control.  Something about them smells like an old Russian overcoat (moreover, Pat Riley looks like he could have been Putin’s successor).  Americans like to win, but we like the myths of merit and fairness and pure competition and bootstraps a little better.