The Guardian, usually a newspaper with a working conscience, kvells about a recent boxing match:
The good news is that it was a very entertaining fight on the big stage, which is all too rare for boxing of late.
Time to repost some reflections on this ‘sport’ from a few years ago, in case you do not follow boxing and would like to understand it. For those who don’t know, boxing is an exercise that uses two remarkable devices in a very odd way. One of them is a servomanipulator of incredible versatility, delicacy and precision, a gadget that can play a violin or caress a cheek or fix a watch or carry a suitcase. The other is a computer with capacities we still haven’t exhausted. It’s small enough to carry around at all times, and it can write a sonata for the violin, do rocket science and every other kind of science, and give advice to children. Try that with your laptop. Oh yeah; this computer is capable of love…the real thing, not reciting a script.
What’s truly amazing about boxing is how these wonders are used. You might think the computer could be hooked up to instruct the servo to make something incredibly cool, but you would be wrong. In boxing, the game is to take the servomechanism and use it like a hammer to whale on the computer until its little lights go out and it stops working. Usually the computer can be rebooted after this abuse, but it loses something every time and eventually winds up with dementia pugilistica, mumbling and bumping into things, cadging free drinks in cheap bars. If this isn’t substance abuse, I don’t know what is. It’s right up there with using a big Rubens painting as a tarp over your woodpile, but especially blasphemous in its trashing of God’s most remarkable creations.
A century ago the guy swinging the servo had to be careful not to break it on the computer case, but not enough lights got put out for good business, so we now wrap it up in padding that allows super-destructive, full-force whacks, and everyone watching has a good chance of seeing some real damage.
Should this be legal? Probably; the boxers are grownups and have to be allowed to manage their own lives. What I can’t understand is how this savagery can even be discussed by people who claim to be civilized, much less sold for money and treated like a sport. I know, people get hurt in all sorts of sports, but this is the one where the whole point is to hurt people, and not just arms and legs but the part that makes us human. Sure, there’s lots of cant about the science of defense and tactical blows to the body, but it’s the KO that sells the tickets. See the camera linger over Rocky Balboa’s bloody, blind, weaving face in the movie: sport? skill? Give me a break.
Fight fans, you raise a troubling problem for a free society: what should we do about bad behavior that doesn’t justify being made illegal? Our habit lately is to want to outlaw anything offensive or immoral, but this is a letoff. Boxing should have its lights put out by social disgrace, the way we taught each other that lighting a cigarette in someone else’s house or a bus is uncivilized and disgusting. The next time you think you want to watch a fight, think about your kids watching you at the moment the blood sprays and the brain slaps the inside of the skull. The next time you walk into a water-cooler conversation on the fine points of this sick behavior, try walking away the way you’d leave a conversation about setting cats on fire.
Last night at the gym, I pedeled furiously on the exercise bike watching the tail end of a pretty bad national championship game. UNC emerged victorious, which is somewhat embarrassing for college hoops, given revelations of fake classes and other academic misconduct involving UNC’s football and basketball programs. As Michael Kinsley would say, the real scandal is what’s legal. These players should be paid.
Last year, the NCAA received about $1 billion in revenue from various March Madness media rights, ticket sales, corporate sponsorships, and more. The elite players who create this product receive college scholarships, but they are not paid anything near the economic value they create for others, most especially including their own coaching staffs. About 100 players per year from around the world enter the NBA every year, usually for a brief stint. Most high school and college basketball stars never make it. Some use their scholarships and college connections to do well in life. Others are chewed up and spit out by the college athletic industrial complex without enough to show for the experience and physical toll these physical games can take.
There are several ways to address this problem. I’m intrigued by the radical possibility some court will simply rule that the NCAA has no authority to regulate player compensation. The NCAA should be entitled to ensure that athletes are bona fide students. Athletes’ financial arrangements should be set in a competitive market. After initial chaos, some equilibrium would emerge. Who knows what that would be.
A less radical solution would include greater revenue sharing between the NCAA and college players. The NCAA might, for example, set aside $100 million each year to buy a simple annuity for each athlete in the
top 64top 16 teams–pardon the error. That would provide each athlete with a lifetime income of about $22,000 per year.
That wouldn’t make these athletes rich. It would provide a platform of basic economic security for these
832 208 young people, and provide them with the resources they might need to pursue further education once their athletic careers are done. The money is there, and they’ve earned it.
I was a Dodger fan in youth, the only acceptable choice for a New York red-diaper kid. I didn’t know any Giants fans. One day I sat down to breakfast and opened a paper newspaper and learned that the team was going to Los Angeles; might as well have said “moon to move to new galaxy”. In fact that move was not the cynical greedy play it appeared to be, more the result of Robert Moses and New York political leaders flubbing the job (on the Giants’ side, not so much, having more to do with fan indifference). But the disillusionment was extreme, and put me off baseball for decades…living in Boston for twenty-five years, I entered a serious flirtation with the Red Sox, but still gingerly.
Parents advise their kids, “don’t fall in love with someone who just wants your money.” Duh. OK, a professional team isn’t a charity for the benefit of fans (though the municipal/nonprofit Green Bay Packers are a notable exception). But the departure of the Raiders from Oakland for a much less promising fan base and market, entirely because Nevada pols are willing to dip into their citizens’ pockets* to line Mark Davis’ while the admirable mayor of Oakland put her foot down and would not be rolled, is a good lesson for all. Sort of like the same lesson currently on offer from Donald Trump, as we see the only thing he actually wants to do is put his marks/voters’ money in the pocket of his rich pals, Russian and other.
Now, the Raiders are going to be here for two more years, and tens of thousands of fans have bought season tickets. I wonder if there’s a nice class action lawsuit here: “I bought tickets to see my home team, ; now it’s just a bunch of guys in black uniforms. Refund!” Update 28/III: the Raiders are refunding season tix. Good for them.
*Technical note: the Las Vegas subsidy comes mostly from a tax on tourists. Well, if tourists can be gouged for those hundreds of millions without damaging the local economy, they can just as well be gouged for schools, streets, and the like (Clark County schools are seriously hurting), so in the end it’s the locals’ money being shoveled to Davis.
With our intercollegiate athletics department’s typical management finesse, we extended our football coach’s contract about a year ago…and fired him this week. He walks away with about $6m in severance, but that’s OK because we’re just finishing up the zillion-dollar severance payments for the previous coach, and the AD who is now at Penn State, so there’s lots of money just lying around that would otherwise be wasted on fixing classrooms, or scholarships for non-athlete students who just play sports for fun and don’t put any eyeballs on TV commercials. The intercollegiate athletics program at Cal costs about $30m a year (net), a sixth of a $180m campus deficit; a task force of alums, faculty, and staff is working on proposals to fix this.
The athletic director shares a set of insights that deserve attention, and translation:
We are continuously evaluating our program and looking for ways to make it better – whether that’s through additional academic support, recruiting, facilities, staffing, culture, leadership or anything else that can help our football program succeed.  Primarily, we want what’s best for our student-athletes  and have a head coach in place who is fully committed to our program and our university .
….Our objective is long-term financial sustainability for our department. In order to do this, we understand that investing in football is critical . We believe that this change will reinvigorate the program, stimulate lagging ticket sales and renewals, and energize our donor base. 
….We want to win championships. The success of our football program is vital to both our department and our university community , and its influence can be felt well beyond Berkeley.
1: Almost everything in this list costs money, and we intend to keep spending it no matter what that task force says, or what weird mission the outgoing or incoming chancellor thinks a university has. It’s our tradition of a decade here at Cal to keep throwing money at a mediocre football program, and we take our traditions seriously. Sooner or later, maybe as little as $6m later, inshallah, the larger forces of big-time college sports will abate, the bleeding will stop, and we will reach some sort of equilibrium, right?
2: To be clear; we retain the services of the conditioning coach who killed one football player, sent another to the hospital, and cost us $5m in a liability settlement. We certainly aren’t going to rein in practice times so they can sit around in classrooms or labs, or do a bunch of wussy problem sets. “What’s best for our student-athletes” is not what people outside the cult might think the phrase means.
3: This is just sports PR blather, of course, the language of press conferences and after-game interviews; $3m college coaches are fully committed to their careers and if anything, expect their employers to be committed to them with limitless staff, facilities, money, and perks. Pete Carroll’s effortless leap to the Seahawks from the shambles he left at USC is instructive.
4: Chronicle reporting is occasionally sloppy, and in this case we are not informed whether Williams clicked his heels together three times and closed his eyes as he said this last. Nor whether the “we” actually includes any living person on earth with a three-digit IQ.
5: This combines a statement of fact with a religious utterance based on faith. No, it’s not vital to the community, not even close, though its ruinous cost certainly inflicts a lot pain on the rest of us. My department just completed a faculty search and not one of the candidates asked about the prospects of the football team or even knew our record. We lost a prof to Stanford a few years ago, and in all our discussions of his move he never once brought up Stanford/Cal football. I have talked to dozens of undergraduates and grad students over the years and not found one who came to Cal because our football (or men’s basketball) teams were better than those at other schools to which they were applying. I have been here semester after semester, talking to colleagues in social science, humanities, and hard science across that university community, and the salience of football in our socialization, community spirit, and plain water-cooler schmoose is similar to the salience of pro wrestling. Big-time sports may be ‘vital’ for Clemson or Florida State, but not for us.
What can we expect in the near future? The new coach will need to do some really desperate recruiting of defense players at the least, and develop a quarterback (unless he decides to bring in a graduate transfer ringer as Dykes did this year). The program will be even less attractive to high school stars, however, so I have probability of about 0.3 that we will be reading about recruiting violations of the type fictionalized in the memorable movie Blue Chips, or recruiting and oversight failures of the type that recently humiliated Baylor. Meanwhile, ticket sales will keep going down, the athletics deficit will grow, and the new chancellor will find his feet stuck in the big muddy from his first day.
With proper accounting for facilities operation and maintenance, Berkeley’s Division I Intercollegiate Athletics program costs the campus about $30m per year. As the school is facing a very sobering $180m structural deficit, this has finally attracted the serious attention of our administration, and the chancellor has appointed a task force to suggest ways to get it under control. I have been a regular critic of this operation for several years (search “athletics” on this blog for examples) and the task force was gracious enough to ask me for input on their project. Special for Cal faculty: the task force has scheduled a Town Hall listening session Mon., December 5, 2 to 4 PM in Sibley Auditorium.
Here is a compilation of the rather bleak recommendations I provided to the TFIA when I met with them:
At least every few months, the Intercollegiate Athletics (IA) enterprise at my school gives us something new to be ashamed of. This fall, it’s the opening of a new aquatic center, for about 120 letter athletes only, that commits a whole catalog of the typical sins of that firm [sic: it has it’s own .com website], and the injuries it inflicts on the university.
To start with, it’s in the wrong place, a large lot on a corner close to downtown that badly needs street activation, across the street from land uses (a track stadium and the existing aquatic center) that also don’t generate any foot traffic. The city fathers are furious that the university used this valuable lot for something that could have gone anywhere. For more on the location mistake, see Sam Davis’ takedown.
It has been touted, at a time when the cost of the IA program is attracting serious criticism, as being completely funded (about $15m) by the generous donors, and here we confront one of the most persistent qualities of IA, which is its insouciant, arrogant, mendacity, especially about money. A building like this needs to be cleaned, heated, repaired and maintained. It is actually rather expensive to keep a great big pool of water warm enough to swim in, outdoors in the climate of the Bay Area, and there are light bulbs to change, etc. A rule of thumb some institutions use for planning this is that maintaining a building requires an endowment approximately equal to the cost of the building itself. At 5% return on such an endowment, the new pool will cost the campus about $750K per year to keep the lights on and the doors open, or about four full professors. Those light bulbs and gas bills will be paid for with real money. You might think IA would pay for this, but that operation is already costing us about $30m a year in net subsidy, so even the part they might pay for directly just comes right back to the campus.
Completely funded by the donors? Let’s look at this again:
Donors gift (thank you) $7.5m
State and federal funds* 7.5m
Campus gift of land (10m)
Operation and maintenance (15m)
Total net ( $10m)
So “completely funded” actually means “paid less than a fifth of the cost, reached into our pocket and the taxpayers’ for about $17.5 million, and put a $750k/year tapeworm in our lunch.” Talk about leverage! Don’t you wish you could muscle your public agencies to house your hobbies at better than 5:1?
Just to add insult to injury, IA is going to give about a third of their exclusive time at our existing pool back to the other 40,000 citizens of the university for recreational use and physical education.
*the gift is a charitable deduction against state and federal income, and the donors are certainly in top brackets.
This weekend’s movie recommendation was, for me, all the proof I’d need to know that Tom Hanks can be adorable even when he’s a jerk. In Penny Marshall’s A League of their Own, Hanks is the inebriate coach tasked with pulling together a team of misfits to compete in the country’s very first women’s baseball league in the 1940s.
Among the tired and formulaic film genres out there, sports movies usually take the cake as the most wearisome of all. When it’s a team-based game, especially, the formula is so familiar you can probably do the whole thing blindfolded, replacing only the adversity-du-jour for taste. Here, Geena Davis plays Dottie Hinson, whose preternatural gift for baseball attracts the attention of a talent scout who’s looking to recruit her for a new team (a delightfully slimy Jon Lovitz). She reluctantly joins only at the desperate urging of her younger sister Kit Keller (played by Lori Petty), who’s eager to leave small-town Midwestern America behind for something bigger.
But the world of baseball into which Dottie and Kit intrude makes the sisters’ welcome as harmonious as is to be expected for the 1940s. What could be a ripe moment for commentary that offers something a little more substantial than the usual sports comedy gets left behind in favor of rehearsing the same inoffensive and lightly sentimentalized mold as the previous installment from Marshall and Hanks, the director-star combo responsible for Big from four years earlier.
Upon arriving, the sisters meet their team-mates at tryouts. Stock characters abound, from Rosie O’Donnell’s loudmouth Doris to Madonna’s salacious Mae. Even the presence of the odd-one-out, Megan Cavanaugh’s frumpy Marla, represents the exception that proves the rule that a team of women athletes has to be caricatured, charming (and preferably attractive), and uniformly sympathetic before they’ll be considered remotely viable.
Hanks has no reservations at all about hamming up and enjoying a caricature. He plays Jimmy Dugan, a washed-out former big-leaguer who happily cashes his paycheck in exchange for showing up to games and posing as the team’s manager. The sinecure expectedly transforms into a source of redemption, as the team-mates teach him to find fulfillment again in the game rather than the bottle. Nonetheless, along the way Hanks has plenty of opportunity to show off his extraordinary gift for physical comedy – just keep an eye out for one scene in particular, where he has to learn the demands of restrained and constructive criticism.
We needn’t worry about the usual tumult in this sports yarn, though: the opposing teams are all similarly situated hopefuls, catapulting themselves through the glass ceiling; it’s not long before the team-mates click with one another; and the periodic reminders by David Strathairn’s executive Ira Lowenstein that the league depends on funding barely rise above blips on the radar. In fact, the team’s sympathy is pretty much impregnable. Neither the obstacles placed before women entering a male space nor the woes accompanying notifications about husbands lost in the war overseas consume more than a few passing moments in the team’s ascent to victory.
Unfortunately, as fun as the film is, its resolute refusal throughout to grapple with the rich themes available to it up until the final scene make the conclusion to A League of their Own a rather jarringly mawkish detour. The women rendez-vous at the Baseball Hall of Fame to commemorate the significance of the country’s first all-women’s baseball team, and to commiserate about the losses suffered in the intervening years. But in a film that so studiously maintained a light-hearted tone for almost two hours, the final eight minutes are a jarring descent into something else entirely—and it’s not even all that clear what.
Despite its weaknesses toward the end, A League of their Own hits a solid double when you need it most.* Enjoy!
*No, I really oughtn’t be trusted with hackneyed sports metaphors. I strike out every time.
It’s hard to imagine Berkeley’s public presence degrading below the state our sexual harassment episodes have brought us to, but we have been doing a job on ourselves in intercollegiate athletics as well. Today’s news has a twofer, a sexual assault accusation with a sports angle. Sigh.
The football and men’s basketball teams’ academic performance has apparently turned around and we are no longer at the bottom of the NCAA; both teams also did creditably on the field this year. Good. Unfortunately, we are learning that some really ugly stuff is festering in both programs, never mind that the campus subsidy of this operation is back up to twice the $5m per year a prior chancellor very firmly instructed them to live within. In football, you may remember the death in practice of Ted Agu in 2014, which resulted from an inhumane, abusive training style practiced by strength and conditioning coach Damon Harrington, aggravated by failure to take care of him when he collapsed, and pervasive, insistent lying in the university’s subsequent engagement with the police and the legal system. Continue Reading…