Carry On, Mass Media Saturation …
Usually, big media stories seem to get played out and over-exposed so quickly. And usually, I just switch off the radio or close the browser tab. In the sports world, this effect is even worse, as sports-for-sports sake stories (e.g. “Is Tony Romo worthless?” “Is LeBron the greatest of all time?” etc.) or faux-moral stories (e.g. “Should Johnny Manziel be punished the NCAA?” or “Why the hell doesn’t Dez Bryant shut up?”) usually dominant our media channels. In one sense, this type of coverage makes sense, since it appeals to the broadest denominator (good ‘ol utility at work here), and it’s not like earth-shattering cultural stories pop up in the sporting world every day - although any close of Dave Zirin's stuff, like me, would disagree!
Every once in awhile, we get a sporting story that is deeply intertwined (or even generated by) with social and cultural issues that everyone has profound personal experience with. In these cases, the sporting story becomes a platform upon which we can have a “national conversation” about the given issue. Of course, these discourse moments are fleeting, but they happen. There’s still a space for conversations when the right kind of subject matter triggers an opening. For me, one of the chief power of sports has always been its ability to trigger such moments, thanks to its national and global reach. Although many have made this obvious point, it’s always worth making, sports happen during live time with live narratives during their seasons. Sure, you can DVR a sporting event, but nobody “binge watches” old NFL seasons (except for a few odd souls), like we do old HBO shows/seasons.
I say all this to set up my point: I hope the mass sports media stay saturated with the Incognito and Martin story. We need to talk about it. Especially us men with our crumbling sense of masculine identity and community. Because let’s face it, underneath this “locker room” story there’s a bigger story lurking - a story bigger than just Incognito and Martin, bigger than the NFL, or even bigger than myriad locker rooms around the country.
So Mike and Mike, Dan Patrick, Jim Rome, Colin Cowherd, SVP, ESPN, Deadspin, etc. keep talking about it. Keep taking those calls. Keep interviewing athletes about locker room culture. Keep the conversation going. Saturate us. Don’t let this unique opportunity for a national conversation pass, like so much else that’s fleeting in our cultures.
… sometimes, you just can’t find your pocket:
Arsene Wegner has never been more Arsene. At least this last sentence is the tempting utterance grabbed by my mind upon the occasion of seeing this love work of philosophical photography.
Wegner is man. Man lost. Man turning aside. Man playing air guitar. Man on Net Nanny. Man self-restricting his desire to spend gobs of cash on over-valued talent on the crack cocaine market that is the transfer market. Man lacking symmetry. Man lacking comfort. Man trying to do two things at once and failing. Man facing his futile existence. Man trying to get his hand inside his damn coat pocket.
Arsene, you are our canvas of humanity - a screen upon we play out our own loathing, desire, brilliance, derision, praises, and … well … everything really. Our souls commune with yours.
Arsene, you are our moving portrait.
A Resurrected Baseball Town?
Luckily, we moved to Pittsburgh - “The Burgh” - just as the Pirates were clinching a spot in the playoffs, thus ending 21 damn long years of American sporting futility. (Now the bricked walls of the old Forbes Field can safely turnover in their soil-graves.) And upon arrival, I’ve never seen a city so expressive in supporting its team. The excitement crested during the division series against the sacred St. Louis Cardinals, as thousands of Jolly Roger flags sprouted up on stoops, porches, window, flag polls, billboards, and cars all over The Burgh.
Yes, Jolly Rogers.
I was no different. We had a mini Jolly Roger going on the back porch. It’s no wonder Pittsburghers own the nation’s largest volume of the flags.
For a week, Steelers gear vanished (well, almost) and Bucs gear was worn by about half the population, it seems.
The gear, the gear. It was everywhere. Of course, I had my ballcap and a couple tees. Gotta fit in. Gotta self-signal my communal identity.
As buckets of red leaves fall off the trees, a few Jolly Rogers still linger on stoops and porches. But mostly the “Let’s Go Bucs” signs have been replaced with “Let’s Go Pens.” But the yellow “P” lurks around, reminding us of baseball’s death and rebirth in Spring. Meanwhile, I contemplate about what El Torro (Pablo Alvarez) and Cutch (Andrew McCutchen) are doing. Golfing? Fishing? Building model airplanes? Taking pottery classes?
I miss the 2013 playoff run party - already.
Now we have the looming winter of Steeler mediocrity and the exotic “other” that is Pens hockey. First world problems, folks.
I began following the Pirates from opening day when I knew we were moving to Pittsburgh.This lead up, before our move, gave me some time to catch up the Pirates narrative of former glory and present futility. I particularly enjoyed Diana Moskovitz's “Pirates Diary” series on The Classical. She personalized the narrative of Pirates disappointment and chronicled her own reactions to the Pirates’ surprising playoff run this season. So by the time we moved to Pittsburgh, I was well acquainted with the narrative of futility and faded baseball fandom in a town that I’ve heard people describe as an “old baseball town.” Knowing this narrative is necessary for appreciating the significance of what happened in Pittsburgh this summer and early fall.
As the playoffs began, it was not uncommon to hear strangers chatting about the Pirates at the grocery store, coffee shop, preschool, church, etc. And I don’t mean polite chatter like: “Good game last night. So happy the Pirates won. What did you do last night?” No, instead I heard stuff about starting rotations, the merits of sequencing the pitching rotation in certain ways, detailed analysis of specific play. Solid stuff that you’d have to actually watch a few damn baseball games to say.
I’ve said and read that sport is communal, especially in relation to the discourse of meaning is creates among fan communities. But good lord, have I never seen such a sport community on such a large scale in this respect.
Which leads me to wonder if Pittsburgh is - indeed - a baseball town (whatever that means) foremost?
I need to read up on this topic. I know the basics about some of the history of baseball qua baseball in The Burgh, but not the cultural-social meanings, issues, interactions, class dynamics, etc. Or about the relationship between baseball and football here. The more obvious tale is a “blue collar” working class city embracing the grittiness and toughness of football - in a way that reflected the kinds of industrial work that was so prevalent in Pittsburgh for decades. As for baseball - I just don’t know the whole narrative yet.
My hunch is that baseball is a sort of dormant force here. Hibernating. I say this, because, as I’ve been observing, Pittsburghers are rooted folks, who transmit their fandom down the family line, as they would an heirloom. And that’s precisely it - fandom is an heirloom here. It’s passed down to the kids in a renewing cycle, not to mentioned exported by the large numbers who’ve emigrated from The Burgh over the decades. Because of the tradition of rootedness here, baseball is an object hierloom to pass on. If only the Pirates would actually win some games … and the finally have. Perhaps, there’s a sort of returning to the “first love” (baseball!). Of the thing that was passed from parent to child for decades and decades - a thing that predates football’s popularity, of course.
In another sense, Pittsburgh is simply a sports city, like Philly or Boston. And good god is it a sports town in a proud, seasonal, committed way. So the emerging Pirates madness is also partially a symptom of the city’s wider love for sports, I believe. The Burgh simply does sports well. It knows how to cheer for team and decorate the front yard. Fandom itself is a tradition in Pittsburgh.
If you haven’t seen it yet, you need to set aside two hours of your life and watch PBS’s Frontline documentary, League of Denial, which covers the story behind the NFL coming to grips with head injuries.
You can watch the full video here.
Naturally, the documentary - rightfully - caused quite stir, as it trended on Twitter, made the commentariate rounds (e.g. Andrew Sullivan’s Dish take and roundup) the next morning, and even made the sports talk radio circuit (e.g. Dan Patrick was quite candid about the NFL’s fault and the moral complications shot through our national pastime, football). For a moment, the NFL and head injuries were likely the biggest topic in the country.
For many people, I imagine the documentary was their first longform exposure to the NFL’s “crisis.” When I taught my “Sports and the Meaning of Life” course, I quickly learned that my sports fan students knew next to nothing about this issue. So I’ve learned not to expect sports fans, even NFL fans, to be able to talk much about head injuries and football, except for half-chewed on lines like, “But the players are compensated.”
After League of Denial, ignorance of the this topic is not an excuse anymore.
Here’s my take: the documentary is invaluable for its ability to synthesis the emerging body of research, characters, profiles, and chronology on the head injuries (albeit, mostly concussions) and football topic.
Even for someone like me, who’s been actively reading up on this topic for 6+ years now and - I would assert - is familiar with the research and characters involved, LoD was essential viewing.
Simply because the documentary’s pegs the main events, characters, and findings along a chronological narrative. After all, we remember stories better than discrete, yet connected elements. I’m no different.
There was nothing new, per se, in the documentary if you’ve reading about the topic for awhile. But that’s not the point. What matters is that everything I’ve read is now collected in one place: a documentary. Compression. Narrative. Easier to remember and comprehend now. Again, invaluable work.
For example, the major names/characters in the narrative are gathered together:
- Dr. Omalu
- Dr. Cantu
- Dr. McKee
- Dr. Kasson
- Dr. Pellman
- Mike Nowinski
- Alan Schwartz
As the narrative plays out, the NFL itself emerges as the big bad billion dollar corporate bully, as its “medical experts” collude to suppress and question compelling evidence that concussions suck and that the NFL very well might be liable for a hellhole of problems.
Furthermore, because documentaries are visual mediums, LoD is powerful precisely because of the visuals. It’s one thing to read about Mike Webster - and even see a couple photos - but it’s another thing to see footage of him being interviewed post-retirement, see images of autopsy with his unrecognizable ankles, mutilated feet, etc. Then you have the interviews with former players, wives, and children (as in the case of Mike Webster and Junior Seau’s family). Devastating. These segments should be grenades that cut through the militaristic rhetoric of toughness, courage, brotherhood, “getting back in the game,” “I’d do it all over again,” values and bromides that you hear from fans, players, and coaches.
In one part, the juxtaposition is stunning when Seau (on an NFL Films clip) brazenly asserts that he plays viciously, even if it means he falls apart when he’s 50. Then we have clips of his crying teen kids, who lost a father, whose life had deteriorated in a series of self-destructive episodes. Wrenching.
And moments like these are the documentary’s genius. Because, I doubt that many fans will actually take time to read much of the compelling stuff that’s already out there (I’ve included a list of favorite reads below). Football fans needs to be punched in the stomach. The punch can prod reflection from fans, hopefully and at the very least, lead to more intentional fandom in which the Faustian bargain of the gridiron is acknowledged.
In my mind, the documentary’s shortcoming is that it didn’t do enough to question fans and the ethics of watching and spending money on the NFL. I think even a 5 minute coda - slapped onto the end - would’ve made a big difference. I know the primary purpose was to explore the NFL’s role and responsibility with head injuries; however, the next logical question is raised: given the NFL’s culpability, should fans continue to support it and its product?
This question is the heart of darkness within the LoD's framing of the topic. My hunch is that fans don't want to go here. They don't want to tackle this question and the larger ethical questions about the game of football. They don't want to admit that, maybe, they should give football up, regardless if the league collapses or not some day in the distant future.
Finally, one other little contention I have with LoD: much of the talk around this topic involves concussions and the kinds of hits that used to make Sportscenter. While talking about concussion is necessary, it’s insufficient. We’re learning that sub-concussive hits, which are unavoidable - embedded as they are within the sport’s DNA - should probably getting the lion’s share of attention. While LoD does discuss sub-concussive hits, this discussion is somewhat lost in the larger battle between the NFL and concussions. I realize the documentary’s purpose dictates its coverage; however, if public awareness is also one of LoD's goal, then you have to give this facet of the topic more exposure.
7-on7’s, Texas-style, anyone?
Personally, I’ve begun the process of quitting football. Because for something that is such a vast national conversation and rooted so deeply in my family, I don’t know how else you do it.
I like to think of it as a weening process. First, it was cold turkey on college football, which was actually not that hard to do after we moved to Seattle (sorry, U-DUB!). Now it’s the NFL. As I’ve already written, Russell Wilson is literally the only thing that keeps me returning to the NFL. And after moving to Pittsburgh, more distance has been created between me and even that connection. Luckily for me, the Steelers suck this year. Suck bad. Meanwhile, the Pirates broke 21 years of futility and everybody here - us at the Timmons house included - went Bucco crazy. Jolly Roger flying form the porch and all. So the NFL has receded that further from my attention and fandom cravings.
Look, I won’t condemn you if you keep watching the NFL, like millions and millions of Americans do. I get it. As a lifelong NFL fan, I know the gridiron’s magical pull. The violence is compelling. The helmeted-players heroic. I get it.
However, I strenuously urge you to watch League of Denial and read up on this topic. You must, if you care about football and the NFL. No excuses.
As promised, a list of my recommended readings on the topic (head injuries and football):
- Jonah Lehrer: “The Fragile Teenage Brain" (Grantland)
- Jane Leavy: “The Woman Who Would Save Football" (Grantland)
- Malcolm Gladwell: “Offensive Play" (The New Yorker)
- Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier: “What Would the End of Football Look Like?" (Grantland)
- Jean Marie Laskas: “Game Brain" (GQ)
- Patrick Hruby: “Q&A: The NFL’s Concussion Deal" (Sports on Earth)
- Pat Conboy: “Zombieland" (The Classical)
Be Fed by the Tolstoy-of-Fantasy Sports
Everyone you know is probably in draft mode - that is, fantasy football draft mode. It’s that time of the year. I’m no different. A couple weeks, while in San Diego visiting my family, sons and father had a raucous time of great drama and taunting as we pulled off our draft, live and in person. This event is the both the highlight and climax of fantasy football for me. The next day, I returned to my dear fantasy baseball team, like returning to a long novel that is now roaring toward its well-earned climax. See, fantasy baseball has ruined me anything else fantasy-related. I’ll try to explain why.
I began playing fantasy sports reluctantly. First it was football - a friend’s league. Knowing nothing, I made the classic beginner’s mistake and drafted Tom Brady as my first pick, who was a year removed from the black hole that was 2008 for the consummate American boy. But because I’m very competitive, I do some reading and observing to figure it out.
Previously, I thought fantasy sports were pointless. You know, what else signaled the rise and fall of civilization, our modern malaise, and our alienation all wrapped up in one activity? Playing a little game with little avatars (really, just numbers) of real men just seemed so silly. I secretly judged those who played and mumbled vagaries about alienation and instrumentalization. Whatever. Even as I’ve played fantasy sports, I still vacillate between thinking the whole thing is just silly or somehow meaningful - an ambivalent state.
But my resistance melted away when a friend asked me to play in his fantasy football league. So I did, but I won’t lie: the experience wasn’t earth-shattering one way or another. I didn’t witness another cathedral of civilization crash down, nor did I discover that fantasy football is the best thing ever. Instead, I found something more banal - just people linked by a single friend (like the hub of a wheel), playing a game of weekly point scoring. Don’t get me wrong, I love games. After all, I devoted most of my life in middle school and high school obsessively studying (“training”) and playing competitive chess. I can totally do games. However, in my first experiences I found fantasy football to be a mix of slightly boring and slightly engaging. (Those of us who played gobs of chess joke that the “royal game” kills your enjoyment most other games.) Still, I soon found myself watching for the names of “my” players on the eternally rolling stats bar at bottom of NFL broadcasts.
By next year, I was three fantasy football leagues deep, including total domination of my brothers’ and dad league (I’m from a big family - enough to fill an entire 10 person fantasy league roster). However, I hated playing multiple leagues at once; the experience was too detaching and scattered. Keeping up quickly became a chore, but the whole thing also felt like cheating, because, if one league didn’t succeed, I could still squeeze a dopamine hit off another league. See, the downfall of civilization. Right here.
I’ll stop my whining here, since hell is other people’s fantasy sports teams. So please pardon the brimstone and lapping flames I’ve brought to you, who certainly don’t need to hear about the “agony” of juggling multiple fantasy teams - oh, the horror of it! A common first world problem, indeed.
Yet I’ll continue on, simply because so many of us play fantasy sports, and because I would find it incredibly odd if I/we didn’t have anything to say about an activity that more than ever consumes the corners (and more!) of so many lives. Something must be said about such a thing.
(Do you play like, err, a man?)
So I’ll leave my first world problem behind and talk about fantasy baseball instead.
After my first couple years of fantasy football, a close friend asked me (again!) to join his fantasy baseball league. Immediately, it went well for me. My team, the Puget Pounders won the regular season title in the wake of dominating hitting, until the injury bug stung us in the playoffs (mostly unjustly!). This year is no different: my Pounders hold a 16.5 game lead on everyone else. My friends despair again, in the wake of the Pounders’ batting prowess.
(Can I tell you how awkward writing that last paragraph felt? Publicly describing something like a fantasy baseball team feels so embarrassing still. I can shake it! I can’t even bring myself to tell you who’s on my roster. If you’re curious, leave a comment below. Let’s just say that the whole thing clicked when I picked up this guy on the waiver wire early last season.)
It so happens that I was just getting serious about baseball as cultural pursuit and had begun reading some sabermetric basics like the Fangraphs’ glossary, Bill James’ historical abstract, and Jonah Keri’s articles on Grantland. The timing was perfect, since the idea of playing fantasy baseball quickly became a means to an end. Immediately, I had purpose: I wanted to see how the uniquely discrete data/statistical events featured in baseball played out over the longform narrative that is the baseball season. And the fact that I’m extremely competitive only heightened the project, since I could test ideas out empirical with a fantasy baseball team (e.g. - to get nerdy for a second - how heavily do you weigh OBP when pondering a hitter’s value for power, RBIs, or run production? Or how do you use FIP when deciding on a pitcher with that damned ERA number?). So I wanted to see how these ideas worked out, like little machines - perhaps like William Carlos Williams’ claim that poems are little machines - and see how my own meddling interacts with the ideas. (Why else do soccer fans obsess over the intoxicating power of the infamous Football Manager, the greatest video game ever made?)
In baseball, there’s a famous discreteness to events. Plays stand quite alone in that they begin and end - unlike sports such as soccer, hockey, and basketball (“complex team invasion sports”). This discreteness is one major reason the quantitative movement (i.e. sabermetrics) is so much more developed in baseball than in other sports. By playing fantasy baseball, you can tap into this body of work and watch - day by loving day - as count data adds up (e.g. strikeouts, hits, HRs, steals, etc.) and rate stats tick up or down (e.g. WHIP, OPS, etc.). The fun thing is that you get to follow this data for 162 days. Over a long stretch like this, the data categories for each player become little stories, especially as you begin to observe tendencies, like how hitters match up against certain types of pitchers, or vice-versa. To use an analogy, each player’s data categories combine like character traits of a major character in a novel, forming the whole character. Elsewhere, I’ve called fantasy baseball the “Tolstoy of fantasy sports.”
I can take this analogy a step further. This year, over email one of my friends and I discussed how we dread the mid-season redraft or dropping half the roster at the season’s end (we have a keeper league), because we get so attached to the players on our rosters, as we get attached to the characters in a long novel. The season’s longform narrative allows us to carefully observe the data move bit-by-bit, as developed emotional (yes, I’ll use the “e-word”) attachment to the players on our roster. Others in our league find being stuck with the same players all season long to be stifling and “boring” - you know, the folks who offer trades every week. Call me cussed, but I have yet to accept a trade playing fantasy baseball. Coincidentally, my friend and I have made the fewest “roster moves” in the league, yet comfortably sit in 2nd and 1st in our division. I wish for a cause-and-effect relation to this correlation of devotion.
Besides my friend and I’s novelistic approach, the other paradigm for playing fantasy baseball I see in our league is imagining that the whole thing is one hell of a long and damned fantasy football season. Participants get bored with baseball’s dog days and the tedious uncurling of the longform narrative, so they trade away or waiver wire away to keep their interest piqued. Otherwise, like, where’s the fun? In anecdotal fashion, I’ve observed that these folks tend to dominant their fantasy football leagues.
I suppose I have a boring old soul of the sort that enjoys Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bill James’ Historical Abstract, and so forth. So I don’t mean to condemn the way my other friends play fantasy baseball. It’s just that the way I play is a great fit for my personality, reading habits, and epistemological leanings. After all, fantasy baseball is still - no matter how you dress it up metaphysically - a silly game, like all other fantasy sports. Keeping this purpose in mind, there’s no shame is playing fantasy baseball to win and doing what you must to keep your interest chugging along all those months. Yet I won’t stand down this easily from my claims about something else going on. After all, we play silly games for reasons, some of which I find incredibly compelling.
What compels me is the way that the baseball season is a “living” (unlike say, Breaking Bad, Girls, Game of Thrones, Mad Men) longform narrative we can experience publicly. Playing fantasy baseball only deepens the narrative for me, since the “silly game” immerses you in the story - of course danger lurks here, too, but a story for another day - through the network of data points that constitutes each player’s performance. For me, playing fantasy baseball connects me to the narrative with the bonus of seeing how my own observations and thinking play out in the controlled environment that is a fantasy sport.
But I think there’s something beyond the narrative at work in fantasy baesball. For me, it’s also the way I follow the narrative that matters. By now, the idea that baseball’s glacial pace teaches patience is a sporting truism, often of nostalgic coloring. Rather than asserting that baseball teaches patience as a formed product, I’ll say that it exercises patience. Or, as NYU’s president John Sexton puts it, baseball “calls us to live slow and notice,” the central claim of his book Baseball as a Road to God. That is, there’s an activity or a doing involved here. And fantasy baesball is a unique opportunity for this doing, since it necessarily involves you in the baseball season as you manage your silly little team.
For me, the managing of the Pounders enacts Sexton’s “living slowly and noticing” philosophy - perhaps one of the only areas in life I consistently practice this mode of being. And practice it is, as I wait for a pitcher’s sample size to begin filling out before I make a decision, or notice certain tendencies to emerge slowly with my hitters, like Yadier Molina or Matt Carpenter’s remarkable seasons. Through fantasy baesball, I can practice living slowly noticing. Perhaps it’s troubling that fantasy baesball is the main outlet through which I practice these things (rather than, say, meditative prayer - I’m a Christian - or with my family), but the practice is there in whatever faint (pathetic?) form fantasy sports are. Besides, who’s to say that mindfully noticing a tree is somehow morally superior to noticing a baseball player?
I have one final point about playing fantasy baseball (and following baseball in general, I suppose): there’s a sort of letting go, a loss of control that’s involved. Over the long narrative of the baseball, so much can go wrong in a sport famously predicated on failure: fallacious thinking, injuries, surprise “career years”, System 1 thinking errors, or even just plain old boredom. It can provoke anxiety - I’ve written about this effect before - or freedom in the act of letting go when you’re confronting the loss of control. And here, fantasy baseball’s lesson is poignant, thanks to the longform narrative, as you build and build and build over a couple months, only to have the whole thing crash down. It’s existential stuff. Seriously! Luckily, it’s just a silly game in a controlled environment, even if you’ve got money on the line. So there’s some safety in the lesson. But accepting the uncertainty in teh practice ground of fantasy baseball is surely - at the least, perhaps again in the faintest of forms - equipment for living.
Hopefully, by now you can understand why I’m all in with fantasy baseball and feel ruined for other fantasy sports, especially with the football season upon us. The NFL’s sample size is just too small with the quick slam-bam 17 week schedule. There’s no breathing time, no time for slow living and noticing.
Again, I don’t condemn anyone favoring the 17 week thrill ride of fantasy football, it’s just that I sometimes want more than thrills for my silly soul. Perhaps you will too - someday.
A Reblogging on the Occasion of 4,000 Hits
A poem I wrote a year ago: ”Ichiro, Full of Blocks,” which I had the honor of reading to the Board of Trustees at Cascadia Community College during my last quarter teaching there.
Ichiro, full of blocks,
Yet still a screen
Upon which we play
Over truth and people.
Lead off, two hole,
His wane chinchilla jaw,
Clenched against age and
Whose thrumming slackens.
"I am a very rare kind of player."
But what else
Should he say, this graying shelf
Of entire cultures and peoples?
(Ichiro Suzuki, “The Hits Man” of multiple exposures.)