Sunday, July 29, 2012

Closing Big Smoke Signals...

Sadly, I've decided to close this blog and move my sports-specific discussion to my personal blog, Guilty Displeasures. It's proven too difficult to maintain two blogs, (and, y'know, go to work and spend time with my family...) especially when it's proven equally difficult for the other contributors to do the same.

So, if you're reading here and not over there, please feel free to redirect yourself! (And we'll just cross our fingers and hope that this project can work some time in the future...)

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Mocking the London Olympics' Opening Ceremonies

The Opening Ceremonies for the 2012 Olympics made all sorts of references to the children's literature that's been produced by British authors: Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, and Harry Potter were all rather prominent. But the book - or series of books, rather - that seemed to dominate the show was never actually referred to by name.

Take the landscape that opens the show, which looks something like this. The center of the stadium is filled with green, rolling fields, featuring a giant hill in the background. Idyllic, pastoral. It's Shire-like, even:

But then, after a bit of a show and speech, (by Kenneth Branagh!) the green burns away, smoking towers rise from the ground, and weary, dirty laborers replace the cheerful farmers-in-repose. It's supposed to dramatize the "progress" of the industrial revolution...

...instead, it looks ominous, even somewhat apocalyptic. I'm thinking less of industry and more of the orcs plundering Isengard. And though you can't really see it in this image, (you'll see it in the one immediately below) they're forging a ring in the center of the pillars.

Do I need to say it? We're looking at the heart of Mount Doom. (You've probably caught on by now, too - the English classic that goes unnamed, probably not even consciously invoked, but nonetheless haunts the ceremony is The Lord of the Rings. Apt, too, when you think about how needlessly expensive and exploitative these kinds of events tend to be!)

But we're not done yet! Because the Olympic flame is eventually raised, and it looks a little something like this.

"The Eye was rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat's, watchful and intent, and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothing."

Oh, yes. I went there.

Seriously, though, there was something vaguely terrifying about the entire process. How anyone could read the transformation of that adorable countryside into so much machinery-scarred Earth and smoke as anything other than a horror story... yeah, that's just confusing.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

When 'giving it your all' is giving too much

In an all too predictable scene from last night's Blue Jays game, Brett Lawrie leaped over a guard-rail, Superman-like, to catch a fly ball in Yankee stadium, banging his leg on a smaller railing as he came crashing back to the Earth. (Not that it really matters, but he didn't make the catch.) It doesn't look particularly ugly at first. And then it does with the benefit of a slowed replay and a better angle:


To quote the YES network commentators, Lawrie is one of those guys who "gives it their all". And according to Kevin Kaduk with Yahoo Sports, Lawrie "came away with...the respect of those who happened to be watching". But from all the comments I've read, Dirk Hayhurst comes closest to hitting the nail on the head...:

Let's make sure that this is perfectly clear: it isn't a coincidence that Lawrie is both a guy who 'gives it his all' and that he hurt himself, nor should we bemoan how unfortunate it is that such an accident and injury would befall someone who plays so recklessly. (Much less pay him respect for doing so.) It is, in fact, entirely foreseeable, and the injury is the direct result of his overly-intense style of play. And it shouldn't be encouraged.

Because it was also entirely avoidable. What's lacking from the discourse surrounding the injury is any discussion of, frankly, Lawrie's stupidity. Jumping into a concrete camera bay - a concrete camera pit, no less, because it looks like it's recessed from field-level by about 2 feet - is an undeniably stupid thing to do. And we shouldn't lament his accident, praise his vigour, or give him our "respect" when he does things that are unnecessarily dangerous. Instead, we need to hold him accountable, because in hurting himself he also hurts his teammates.

I'll admit that this looks cool, but, seriously,
it's also just completely unnecessary. Photo by the AP.

It's customary, when players are accused of the opposite problem - of playing too lackadaisically, of not running-out a ground ball, not playing hard when the game isn't close - to bench them. (Sometimes, this strategy is misused - like when a player fails to run on a play that's an automatic-out 99% of the time in an 8-0 game. But, sometimes, it makes a lot of sense.) And Lawrie, as a result of his own carelessness, is very likely to miss a game or two. That's maybe something, a de facto suspension, if you will.

But I'm not sure that's good enough. Players get benched for hurting the team because they don't try hard enough - why not bench Lawrie because he hurt the team by trying too hard? (No, seriously.) For his own good, even. Because if someone isn't able to convince him that, occasionally, it's just fine to ease up, he's not going to be long for this sport. And that's bad news for anyone and everyone who's associated with or simply likes the Toronto Blue Jays

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Irreverant sports blogging at its best

Over on Tom Tango's The Book blog, he recently posted a couple of links to the mid-season report cards at Lookout Landing, a Seattle Mariners blog. And he did this not because mid-season report cards are particularly informative or interesting - most of them are boring, unnecessary, and usually both - but because these specific report cards are. fucking. hilarious. Tango describes his writing thusly: "His takedowns are done in a good-natured way, not in a mean way.  He’s the baseball equivalent of Larry David.  And that’s a compliment to Larry David."

And he's right - this is amazing sports writing. So amazing, in fact, that I think even a non-fan can appreciate that this stuff is comic gold. Any of us who write about sports and are even occasionally clever or ironic - or just aspire to appearing to be clever - should probably take notes:

"The grades are also subjective, and I came up with them in two minutes, and if you disagree with any of them, you might consider paying less attention to these grades and more attention to your personal relationships which I can only imagine are actively deteriorating."

"[Franklin] Gutierrez came back from a long time off and was pretty good and then he got hit in the head by a pickoff throw that got by one of the most sure-handed first basemen in baseball. I'm not a believer in luck. Not at all, to the point where it actually irritates me when people act as if luck exists, and they either do or don't have it. It's nonsense and I can't stand ever setting foot within a casino. But if I had tickets to watch an archery competition, and I got to my seat, and I noticed Franklin Gutierrez was sitting one seat over, I would probably go home." [Neil: I actually laughed out loud at this one, which is always just a little bit embarrassing.]

"Strictly from a performance perspective, 71 pitchers have batted at least 20 times so far this year, and 20 of them have posted a higher slugging percentage than Munenori Kawasaki. Remember that extra-base hit that he lined? That was the one."

"Iwakuma's nickname is 'Kuma', or 'bear', and like a bear, he spent much of the previous few months hibernating. On the rare occasion he was awoken, he pitched like he was groggy and irritated. It's like the Mariners don't have the first idea how to handle a bear. They learned how to handle a moose."

"When healthy, [Shawn] Kelley's a guy who posts dominant ratios without ever feeling like a dominant pitcher, and for that reason he's probably doomed to a life of being under-appreciated. And a reliever in the major leagues bringing home piles and piles of money. I mean I guess he won't have the worst life."

Friday, July 13, 2012

Why I boo

At the risk of sounding totally miserable, I wanted to write a few notes about why I choose to boo some teams and athletes. I'm not sure that they're all good reasons, but I'm also not sure that they need to be.

Obnoxious Fans

Yankee fans! I have no idea where this picture is originally from...

For good or ill, this might actually be the number one factor that determines whether I come to hate a sports team. For instance, I can't stand the Yankees largely because of the fans they attract - people who think the team is entitled to a spot in the playoffs, to the best player available at the trade deadline, to the best free agents. And who pretend that the Yankees' ability to do these things with regularity is totally disconnected from political economy, and that it isn't a result of the team's absurd financial privilege. Similarly, I can't stand the teams that tend to attract fair-weather fans, even if it's really through no fault of their own. During the Euro Cup in Toronto, Italy and Portugal attracted droves of obnoxious, drunken jerks for no other reason than the 5 million bars and clubs that have moved into Little Italy and Little Portugal. But do I hold that behaviour against the teams? I sure do.


Sad Tiger. Photo from Getty Images.

When I don't particularly care about a sport, I may actually have an interest in seeing the favourite play - if I'm going to watch something that I don't follow, it makes sense to see it played at the highest-level possible. But in most cases, I like to see favourite get bounced in favour of someone that's totally unheralded and/or unexpected. (Okay, so this has just as much to do with my love for the underdog. It still holds, though.) Also? I'm a big fan of watching hubris play out on the faces of professional athletes. (See: Woods, Tiger.)

Bad Owners/Stakeholders

Marlins' owner Jeffrey Loria, perhaps the most reviled man
in Montreal Expos' history. Photo by the Miami Marlins.

It's tough to like the Blue Jays when they're owned by the richest owners in baseball. And it's easy to hate teams when their owners, say, defend the use of Chief Wahoo (The Cleveland "Indians"), blame the fans for the team's lack of success (The Tampa Bay Rays), or manipulate the system and the local government in order to extract the most profit possible, with absolutely no intention of building a good team (The formerly Florida Marlins). Look: it's impossible to enjoy professional sport unless you're willing to accept that a bunch of old guys are becoming absurdly wealthy as a result. But the least we can ask is that they be honest and non-exploitative (well, less exploitative) about it, right?

Religious Right-wingers

Screen shot from C-SPAN, via Esquire.

A lot of people felt sorry for Albert Pujols when he got off to a terrible start this season. Not me. After learning that Pujols and Tony LaRussa attended a rally organized by Glenn Beck in 2010, I actually found myself hoping that his career would meet a swift end. (Of course, Pujols subsequently "explained" that he didn't know anything about the politics that were involved. Right.) Similarly, I instantly dislike anyone who insists that their performance has something to do with God's will, and isn't mostly random. (Because it is mostly random - that's why the L.A. Kings won the Stanley Cup.) And I dislike these sorts of athletes especially because they apply the standard so inconsistently - if, when they win, God wanted them to win, why is it that, when they lose, God never wanted them to lose? If winning is somehow proof that God approves of them, why is it that losing isn't taken to be proof of the opposite - that if God chose to make them losers, then he just doesn't like them very much?

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Castor Semenya still has something to prove

Whenever I teach the flimsiness of biological sex definitions to undergraduate students, I approach it via international sport and the repeated failures of "sex-testing". (Well, actually, I start by asking the students explain how we "know" someone is a man or a woman, and then to subsequently explain how they "know" that I am a man.) I won't bore you with a history lesson - you can find some of that here, or a more detailed and interesting account in books written by people like Anne Fausto-Sterling. Suffice it to say, sex-testing has been such a disaster for international sport - from a human rights standpoint, from a PR standpoint, from a scientific standpoint, from a basic fairness standpoint - that the last Olympic venue to sex-test all of its athletes was Atlanta in 1996.

Why? The problem, if you're new to the study of sex and gender, is that there's no universal standard for what makes a woman a woman. According to New Scientist, the Olympics actually uses several experts from several fields, each with their own measures and definitions: "an endocrinologist, a gynaecologist, an internal medicine expert, an expert on gender and a psychologist". Obviously, then, it's not surprising that the system eventually broken down for lack of a single, satisfactory definition.

(International sport doesn't actually care if someone who's competing as a man is a woman, or if a man is a mutant, for that matter. Michael Phelps is an evolutionary wunderkind who would probably fail his sex test if he were a woman, if only because his body deviates so significantly from human norms that those deviations are bound to overlap with stuff we usually associate with sex characteristics. But he's not a woman, so no one cares how his natural ability to not create lactic acid impacts his sex.)

Is he a man? (Or is he a muppet? A muppet of a man?) Photo by Al Bello/Getty.

Now, that's not to say that sex-testing doesn't still happen - it does, and a few Olympic athletes have quietly failed their tests since 1996. But there's no more pretending that a single test (or even a series of tests) can adequately address the variety of sexes offered by human beings.

But that system, and its problems, only really came to light - and blew up - when Caster Semenya became a lightning rod for the discussion in 2009. You might remember her as the World Champion long-distance runner who, it was suspected, might "actually" be a man. Officially, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) was concerned that she might have a "rare medical condition" that gave her an unfair advantage. Nice euphemism.

(Returning to Phelps, again - strangely, no one has ever suggested that his "rare medical condition" is unfair, have they? And furthermore, don't you kinda have to have a "rare condition" of some physical sort or another in order to become an elite athlete in the first place? It's not like Usain Bolt is that fast only because he trains harder than everyone else, y'know?)

Athletics South Africa (ASA) would later admit that they had administered a sex-test without Semenya's knowledge. (And subsequently suppressed the results!) And the IAAF eventually agreed that Semenya's World Championship would stand, but said nothing about whether she would still qualify as a woman for future events. (At least, not until the next World Championship was nearly upon them.) Or, for that matter, what defined "woman" for their purposes.

Caster Semenya in 2010. Photo by Erik van Leeuwen.

Getting back to my gender class, though - recently, and in response to the whole Semenya thing, I've been telling my students that most sports orgs have acknowledged the problems inherent in sex-testing and dropped the tests altogether. And that's kind of true. (There have been allusions to "secret" investigations. Obviously, I can't say much about something that may or may not exist, and that no one is talking about regardless.) But what's happened, and it seems that no one really knew until a few weeks ago, is that sex-testing has reappeared in a new and unexpectedly backward way.

Given that they can't effectively police the borderlands between male and female, this year's Olympics will police one specific element of their bodies: their testosterone levels. From the Toronto Star:

recent rule changes by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body of track and field, state that for a woman to compete, her testosterone must not exceed the male threshold. If it does, she must have surgery or receive hormone therapy prescribed by an expert IAAF medical panel and submit to regular monitoring.

What. The. Fuck. Hormone therapy? "The male threshold"? Who decides what that "threshold" is, anyway? And if we can't define male, how do we even begin to go about defining its threshold level? I'm not sure if this is lunacy or idiocy.

“What’s been going on here, for over 50 years now, has been an attempt to modify and refine the rules so as to be fair but also to be scientifically accurate and appropriate,” says [IAAF endocrinologist Dr. Myron] Genel. “We’ll get it right.”

And as long as they think there's a "right" test out there, somewhere, we can be certain that they'll continue to get it wrong.

One last quote from the Toronto Star article, this one from Bruce Kidd, a Canadian sports policy adviser who links the needs to define "real woman" with some very old politics and opinions:

“It’s still the old patriarchal fear, or doubt, that women can do outstanding athletic performances. If they do, they can’t be real women. It’s that clear, it’s that prejudicial,”

Monday, June 25, 2012

Diving, crying, and the masculinity of international football

During either the last World Cup or the one prior to it, a soccer fan tried to recuperate the game for me on the basis that it valued a different kind of masculinity. He argued that my disdain for diving came from a particular kind of North American masculine ethic that valued 'sucking it up' and 'taking it like a man', where injury needs to be hidden rather than expressed. On that front, he was probably right. As critical as I might be of the self-destructive masochism that underlies the way boys are taught to play sports, I also slip into it very easily - in the last two years, I've finished games in which I've broken a bone in my foot and bruised my ribs. (Not in the same game, mind you.)

The kind of masculinity being performed on the pitch, he suggested, was a much more theatrical one that didn't shy away from being emotive and demonstrative, even hysterical. I'm not exactly convinced, because I'm not sure that's exploiting/celebrating an injury or an opponent's miscue - because, technically, a foul is incurred if a player touches his opponent before touching the ball, but the kind of foul is often dependent on how dramatically the fouled player goes down - is really all that laudable. Or, for that matter, that the kind of demonstration required of a dive is something we want to encourage:

This dive is actually pretty hilarious - not only is he leaping, whilst ostensibly
being tripped, but he did so well before the contact (which didn't happen)
could have happened.. No credit available.

I was reminded of how much dives annoy me during Euro 2012, when a player in one of the closing Group round matches (I think it was during England-Ukraine, but I don't actually remember...) was touched - arguably, he was also lightly pushed - on the shoulder and collapsed in a heap, grimacing and clutching his lower back. Amazingly, this dive was so egregious and shameless that it was also one of the rare instances where the commentators saw fit to criticize its obviousness.

That said, Euro 2012 has also reminded me that some good comes with the bad, and that this freedom to emote also means that players are able to behave in ways like this:

Polish players after their elimination from Euro 2012.
Photo from European Pressphoto Agency.

Unlike nearly every major American team sport, soccer players routinely cry - tears of joy, tears of frustration - after games. And with the possible exception of players who are known to dive - like Cristiano Ronaldo - no one makes a particularly big deal out of it. It's treated as if it's normal and natural. Because, well, it is.

I'm not sure if that's enough to balance my hate for diving. But it's something.