More tinpot dictators in the schools

Some educators think the point of school is to get students to do their own thinking.   Others, not so much: the little Caesars in Bucks County seem to think their school is about sports and (for example) the school newspaper is there to gin up pep rallies so the high school players can do their job, which is to amuse ignorant white grownups.

Seriously, how messed up is this: students learn journalism by having their copy dictated by racist administrators?  Who obviously haven’t read a newspaper in twenty years?

More generally, there seem to be no limits to the degree that sports, especially football, can corrupt a community and degrade its culture (can you say Steubenville?) if the grownups go infantile; the good people of Sayreville seem to be more upset about missing a season of football than an epidemic of sexual assault (though in that case the school leadership is on the ball).

School team nicknames have many strange conventions, especially the taste for war and predation. A game isn’t a war, or a fight!  I always liked MIT’s choice of a beaver (your cougars or whatever may occasionally have a beaver for lunch, but they will end up working for them after graduation).  More mysterious to me is all the Trojans; why would you name your teams after history’s most famous losers?

Florida State (and Tallahassee) have plenty to work on about football and bad behavior by players. But the school took care to get the Seminole Nation to OK their team name.  I think that’s OK, especially as the Seminole are local to the institution, and Seminole is not a derogatory word.  As to Neshaminny, while the logo itself doesn’t have the particularly vile quality of the Cleveland pro baseball team’s, the idea that it has some aroma of local pride only demonstrates that the district’s curriculum doesn’t have much of a unit on Native Americans. He’s wearing the headdress of people who live a thousand miles away, a ludicrous inconvenience for eastern forest people trying to get around in trees and brush.

Oh well, seen one Indian, seen ‘em all, and there’s a game Friday night.

Athletics at Berkeley update

In late spring, big-time sports at Berkeley hit bottom on several dimensions, but things may be turning around. In the last few anni horribili,  the Intercollegiate Athletics program saddled the campus with about $400m in debt to rebuild the stadium and construct an accessory building that is about a third conditioning space for athletes, a third party venue for boosters and possibly players, and a third coaching offices.  A scheme to play the spread between tax-exempt bond interest rates and market returns on endowment, plus selling premium seats on long contracts (the ESP program), to retire this debt is in some trouble (ESP sales are steadily declining year by year).  At the same time, we were humiliated by the worst graduation rates in the country (football) and in the conference (men’s basketball) along with on-field performance in those money sports (1-11 in FB, 7th in the conference in MBB) that, let us say, does not sell tickets or open donor wallets.

We sent our athletic director packing (she wound up at Penn State…the world is a strange place in many ways) and the football team is no longer an embarrassment, 4-1 so far even though we did not beat the point spread in last week’s squeaker. More interesting, a task force stood up by the chancellor last winter has come out with a report, focused on “the academic performance of student athletes and the overall quality of their campus experience”,  that he has pretty much accepted.  It has a lot of good stuff in it and deserves a careful read.

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Can’t anybody here play this game?

Is there no-one down your NFL HQ who took a PR course in business school? Today we have another domestic violence arrest, and as the player is not a star and the team can do OK without him, a quick suspension. But we also learned that Peterson and Hardy’s “suspensions” (also Dwyer’s, I think) are vacations with full pay.  I thought paid vacation was a nice thing that people usually want more of! Roger, Roger, you don’t want pictures of these guys partying on the beach with floozies popping up in supermarket aisles; drawing multi-million dollar salaries, there’s plenty left after their lawyer bills to do that.

This is, if possible, even more messed up than yesterday’s improvisations, and it’s bleeding out from the NFL and owners’ suites to all the players, because the Players’ Association contract agreement is looking like a place for violent thugs to hide behind.

Here’s what I think should happen when there’s good reason to believe a player has behaved heinously off the field (good reason is certainly an arrest and might well be a lot less): Continue Reading…

Watching the NFL twisting in the wind

The remarkably inept response of the NFL and three of its teams to players in trouble for various kinds of violent behavior has triggered an important but somewhat confused debate. Football is intrinsically a violent sport, where most of the action is big strong men trying to impose their will on other big strong men (fall down, drop the ball, etc.) not only by main strength as in judo but by ballistic collisions.  The game is already in some trouble from the brain damage caused by its repeated head impacts (helmets or not, concussions or not): it appears that about a third of players will develop Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, way more than the population base rate and occurring earlier in life.  At least as damaging has been the NFL’s shucking, jiving, and denial as the evidence of this risk came to light, and its tradition of treating players like used Kleenex after their playing value is exhausted  (they don’t treat their purely decorative labor all that well either, apparently).
As football players are celebrities, they make news when they misbehave off the field, and while their arrest rates are lower than the average for adult males , the proper comparison would seem to be ‘adult millionare males with at least some college’.  When the misbehavior is violent, all sorts of bells go off, as they have with the recent cases of Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, and Ray MacDonald.

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In defense of football

I don’t write to defend domestic violence, drug abuse, denigration of women, or the many other ways in which professional football players misbehave. I don’t write to defend what I consider to be the unjust withholding of money from college players. And I don’t write to defend lack of transparency and not paying for the health needs of players injured while playing.

I do write to defend the game of football, as it was played yesterday in a middle school game in Durham, N.C. I loved playing middle school and high school football, and I now have the privilege of being a volunteer assistant coach with my son’s team, who won the game 14-12. The other team easily could have won and both played well and hard. No parents misbehaved. The refs did a good job. And no one got seriously hurt. Continue Reading…

Values in sports

Michael Vick was suspended from the NFL and sent to prison for  bankrolling a dogfighting ring.  Ray Rice was given a two-game suspension (until the public outrage was perceptible even to the Ravens and NFL honchos) and a wrist-slap in court  for punching his girlfriend out.

Why the disparity? Could it be because Vick was abusing highly trained athletes who excel at a violent sport?

A Masterclass in Helping Kids Deal with Disappointment

The famous developmental psychologist Urie Brofenbrenner said that in order to thrive, every kid needs at least one adult in their life who has an “irrational emotional attachment” to them. When asked what that really meant, Brofenbrenner said “Someone’s gotta be crazy about them!”. That’s particularly true when a child has to cope with disappointment.

How do you let a kid know that you are still crazy about them when they feel they have failed? Ask Cumberland Little League coach David Belisle, who made this speech to the weeping boys who had just lost a heartbreakingly close game and been eliminated from the Little League World Series.

World cup reflections

Germany advanced to the World Cup final by a very rare, convincing, historic (7-1) beatdown, Argentina by one of the more typical squeakers.  The main deficiency of [world] football [US] soccer as a sport is the poor correlation between score and team performance, mainly because goals are so rare that they are swamped by randomness.  So in game after game, the team that wins didn’t necessarily play better than the losers.

Its main deficiency as a social institution is actually similar (though not intrinsic), and more important: almost two hundred million Brazilians are miserable this week, rending their garments as though losing a game indicated something important about them or their country.  From the press reports, it would seem that winning the world cup would have made made up for the failures in actually presenting the event (or all the expensive stadiums that will sit empty henceforth), or would count more than this real world-class victory.

There’s nothing wrong with team sports, being fans, and having unifying cultural institutions, and soccer has big virtues: it’s genuinely athletic, not very dangerous, and anyone can enjoy it with a ball and a largish flat place to kick it around in. But being proud of your local team as though you had anything to do with their success, or as though they say anything about you when they win, or as though the outcome of a soccer game has any enduring value anyway, is as genuinely stupid as being proud of your ancestors. The correlation between putting up a winning soccer team and being an admirable or successful nation is even worse than the correlation between a soccer score and quality of play.

This, on the other hand,  (Um a Zero was written on the occasion of a famous Brazil 1-0 win) is something to properly make Brazilian hearts swell, a bunch of kids from all over the world coming together in Boston to play a choro almost a hundred years old.

Best Ever Letter to Sports Illustrated

Today is a perfect time to post my favorite ever letter to Sports Illustrated magazine, which appeared on April 7, 1986.

Sir:

The article As Nearly Perfect As You Can Get (March 3) by Jack McCallum compared Larry Bird with six basketball superstars, one of them Oscar Robertson. Comparing Bird with Robertson is like comparing apples and oranges. Bird’s role on the court is completely different from the one Robertson played, and when one realizes that, one is then able to see clearly who should be called the superior player. Robertson’s role was to shoot, pass, steal, play tenacious defense and—the most vital aspect of the game—run the offense. McCallum mentioned that Bird’s shooting range and rebounding ability surpassed Robertson’s. Why would the Big O make a 30-foot jumper when he could maneuver his way through opponents and take a better percentage shot? And if I am not mistaken, he always did just that. Rebounding is another story, because the job of a play maker is not to rebound, but to run the plays, and the job of a forward is to get the rebounds.

When a game was on the line, when the team needed two points, when there was no one else to turn to, the Big O was there. People who had the privilege of watching him in action viewed his basketball heroics as “common” phenomena. I guess that is why some people have forgotten how superior he was. I, of course, will never forget.

You will always be No. 1 in my heart, Dad!
MARI ROBERTSON
Cincinnati