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.

Continue Reading…

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.


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!

Notes on rappelling


1. It was for a good cause: creating a national organization to reduce the damage created by substance use disorders. Nonetheless, I decided not to shake my friends down with direct requests. The only appeals went out over this blog, Twitter, and my Facebook account. Nonetheless, a satisfactory number of friends, and several strangers, came through, for which I’m duly grateful.

2. As I discovered when I first posted my intention of climbing down a building, the very prospect terrifies lots of people. I take it that’s the point of rappelling as a fund-raising enteprise: it combines a high “shiver factor” that encourages people to give (“If he’s prepared to do that, I really ought to help out”) with virtually zero objective risk. As it happens, height isn’t something that especially scares me, so the prospect didn’t cause me any stress.

3. When you sign up, you get a note from the sponsoring organization explaining how completely safe the activity is and how much you’re going to enjoy it. When you show up – after your friends have put up the cash and you’re completely committed – the commercial outfit that actually runs the event gives you a release form telling you it’s dangerous as all get-out. You then have to initial in eight places, promising among other thants that you will pay for their legal defense, and any judgement, if someone else sues them as a result of your climb.

Note: doing things like that is what makes people hate lawyers and the institutions they work for. If participants have to sign release forms, the forms should be sent out well in advance, so people who want it can get legal advice before signing a contract. (I once walked out on a TV interview when they tried to pull that sort of Stupid Lawyer Trick on me: that wasn’t an option in this case.)

4. As far as I can tell, the note from Shatterproof was accurate and the drafters of the release form were full of it. You’re wearing a body harness and suspended from two ropes, independently shacked to that harness, either of them (as one of the pros running the operation said to me) strong enough to support the weight of a car. Despite my best efforts, I still weigh somewhat less than that. You’re wearing gloves and a bicycle helmet. One rope has a control device operated by the victim; pushing the lever to the left allows the rope to pay out faster, moving it to the right slows or stops it. No strength or skill is called for at this or any other point in the operation. The control on the other rope works on the principle of an automobile chest seat-belt; it pays out without resistance up to some speed, but locks tight if the speed exceeds that threshhold. I couldn’t describe how the mechanism works, but it looked reassuringly low-tech.

5. It was also reassuring that I was rigged by one expert, who double-checked his work, and re-checked by two more experts. By now I was absolutely convinced that there was no risk. On the other hand, all the precaution had the perverse effect of making me nervous. But at no point was it nearly as bad as the roller-coaster rides I recall from my childhood.

6. Once harnessed and roped, the climber gets a chance to practice, with a metal frame to anchor the ropes and a single step. (As a first-timer, I would have preferred a little bit more practice.) What’s not obvious is how you start. When you’re actually heading down, your legs are pretty much straight out; you’re walking down the building. But you start by bending at the knees, “sitting down” in a chair that isn’t there and letting the ropes take your weight. Then you put your feet down, extend your legs, lean back, and take that first step “over the edge.” Then, if you’re me, you learn from the pro watching your descent that the safety rope dangling off to your left is really supposed to be between your feet, so you have to take one foot off the building to adjust it. Again, if you’re me, that move – although objectively perfectly safe – sends your heart rate up a little bit.

7. From there on the only trick is to coordinate the rate of descent controlled by the lever in your right hand with the rate at which your feet are walking down the building. Again, with a little bit of practice, this would have been an athletic feat about on a par with riding a Segway, but without that practice I found it tricky. And my knowledge that I had a brake rope couldn’t take away the feeling of falling when I payed out the control rope a little bit too fast. The lever isn’t calibrated, and the short descent didn’t give me time to find a comfortable steady pace. Despite the gloves, I got a tiny bit of rope-burn on the hand that was holding the trailing rope, because I was gripping it unnecessarily tightly, I suppose as a left-over impulse from rope-climbing in sixth grade gym class.

8. Just to keep it interesting, the Westin Pasadena does not have a completely smooth surface. Several feet from the start, the protuberance that your feet are on comes to an end, and you have to swing in a little to keep your feet in contact with the building. Somewhat later, there’s another protuberance, which of course you don’t know is there until your feet hit it. Somehow those details got left out of the briefing.

9. Fortunately, there is no need to keep moving. Twice, for perhaps ten seconds at a time, I simply moved the lever to the “stop” position,” took my hands off the lever and the trailing rope, extended my arms and legs, and rested, letting the rope take my whole weight. Stretching that way helped me untense my muscles.

10. One of the pros had mentioned the option of letting go with my feet as well, and just dangling. I never did that, partly because the whole event was over so quickly; I didn’t time it, but I’d guess I was under three minutes top to bottom. If I were to do it again, I think I’d try the free dangle at least once.

11. The only discomfort, other than my hand, came from my shoulders, which I kept too tight as I tried to concentrate on managing the rope.

12. Aside from that first maneuver of taking one foot off the building, my chief fears were social rather than physical; I wasn’t afraid of falling, but I was afraid of looking like a clumsy idiot. Brad Rowe, who was there to provide moral support and take pictures, told me afterward that I didn’t look nearly as clumsy as I felt, but I want to check the video.

13. Rappelling wasn’t on my “bucket list,” and if I never have another occasion to try it I won’t feel the lack. My chief emotion, once I had myself unshackled, was relief rather than joy. Still, if I had to do it again, I’d expect to enjoy it more a second time, and I think I’d choose a longer drop over a shorter one. (The Westin is only 21 stories, and we only went down to a third-floor balcony, so this climb was only about 200 feet.)

14. By contrast, another participant I saw just after she came down was glowingly euphoric, so your mileage may vary. AT the other extreme, what was mild nervousness for me would be sheer hell for anyone with a more robust fear of heights, though none of the people I saw semed to have suffered much.

15. Note to self: Next time, be sure to get Spiderman costume back from the cleaners before the climb.

Update I’ve checked the video. Neither Brad nor I was right about the clumsiness of my descent, but I was closer. In fact, I looked about 5x as stupid as I felt. Apparently a task that takes zero strength and skill still requires considerably more than I actually have. (The others I watched descended much more gracefully.) Least foolish-looking screengrab above, and that’s all you’re getting.

Learning from Michael Sam

Jonathan Vilma is an NFL player who is not afraid of colliding with great, big, strong guys in fiberglass armor on the field. He is not afraid to sell his post-career lucidity for money.  He is courage on the hoof, is Jonathan Vilma, and yet he is afraid of someone looking at him with sexual interest that he does not requite.  Good for Jonathan! That diffidence, and his heartbreaking plea for our sympathy should he ever to face that challenge, expresses the chivalrous culture of his sport.  It is why every woman knows she is never at risk of sexual assault — or even a moment’s embarrassment — if a football player should look at her with sexual interest that she does not requite. Every one of these paragons understands how she feels, respects that feeling in word and deed, and in fact they are known to avoid bars and parties with women, lest they put one in that impossible “how am I supposed to respond?” state of anxiety that terrifies Jonathan.  Good for Jonathan, and shame on Michael Sam for threatening him with a situation Jon, and his peers, would never inflict on anyone.