Sunday, September 30, 2012

Moving Day

I've kinda been dissatisfied with Blogger's setup for a while, so I've moved the blog to Tumblr. Find us, follow us, harass us at

See you soon!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The NFL Referee Lockout

So, it's the first Sunday of the 2012 NFL season and, not one week after Labor Day (the day we're supposed to celebrate workers in this country, even if anti-capitalists like Eric Cantor can't quite grok that fact), the league will have Scab Referees calling the games today. The NFL owners have locked out the regular, unionized referees in order to obtain some leverage in new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) negotiations. Notably, the owners want the refs to accept a gradual move away from pensions and a slower rate of increases in pay.

One thing to keep in mind here: this is a lockout, not a strike. A lot of fans conflate the two, and that's wrong. A lockout is an aggressive move by the owners to keep the workers from, well, working, even though they're willing to do so. A strike is when the workers affirmatively decide to stop working in order to force the owners' hands. The moves are roughly mirror images of each other, but the agressor party is different; in this case, it's the owners escalating the conflict.

Anyway, the replacement refs. They've been getting some withering criticism. They're mocked for having little experience- one was drummed out of the lingerie league, one admitted he's better at calling six man football (and how often does THAT skill really get used?), one is a labor lawyer by day (!!!). Their on-the-field performance has been roughly what you'd expect from such inauspicious backgrounds. They show little grasp of the rules, a poor sense for how the game develops, and trouble in front of crowds and cameras.

Of course, to be fair to them, calling a football game is really hard; the rules are numerous and complicated, the action is fast, the offending actions are small and subtle. There's intense pressure from crowds of angry fans, to say nothing of 300 pound linesmen who'd been told all week to "GET MEAN!" for this game.

All of which kinda points out why it's important to have referees- and any worker, really- with some kind of demonstrated ability to handle the job- in other words, the regular, unionized refs.

That's not to say that the regular, unionized refs are infallible, or that even the worst regular ref would be better than the best scab ref. It's just to say that if you're looking for someone who can handle a difficult job, the person who currently holds that job is probably a good place to start your search. With the unionized refs, you can expect a certain skill level; most of them have been here before, often for a very long time, they've built up relationships with other refs, the league, and other football institutions, and have access to resources necessary to improve their skills. This doesn't mean they're all good; but it means we can hold them more accountable if they're not. They've kind of got no excuse. On the other hand, when you've got a guy who couldn't even keep a job in the lingerie league, his fuck ups come with a "Well, What Did You Expect?" issue.

That being said, I understand why the unionized refs are having trouble marshaling public opinion to their side here. For all the fan's bitching about the scab refs, it's not like they think much better of unionized refs. In every sport, we only notice the refs when they fuck up- and thanks to football's voluminous, complicated rules, there's plenty of opportunities for that, even with the best of refs. Moreover, the refs are fighting for pensions, and if you're in the private sector, like me, that kinda comes off like fighting for a right to sex with supermodels. I'll probably never have a pension myself, so why should I be upset that anyone else doesn't get one?

I get that, but there's a simple answer- pensions make the world a better place. The more people who have a stable, sustainable retirement, the more stable and just this country's going to be. The less people who have to suffer in their twilight years, the less strain that's going to be put on our public institutions. Thus, even if I'm not going to have a great retirement (And if you're really concerned, I'll tell you where to mail the checks), I'm still going to benefit from the better world that will result from somone getting a good retirement. I understand that they get a benefit that I don't, and that that's not fair; the thing is, I don't see why the logical conclusion is that I should be agitating for that benefit to be taken away from them; I should be agitating to get that benefit for myself, too.

(And if you're noticing that this same argument can be applied to, well, most union disputes right now, such as Illinois' argument over public worker pensions, give yourself a Gold Star for the day. Or a Red Star, if you listen to Paul Ryan.)

Of course, not every employer can afford to give its employees are useful pension. I get that, there are economic realities here. But this is the NFL we're talking about, an $XXX billion dollar industry. It can afford a little long-term planning for its employees. And I'm not in the mood to stand against the referees for having the courage to demand such a thing when bargaining for their services, even if I don't.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The NFL and Evolving Morality

I'm a little late to this one, but I still find it fascinating: Will Leitch, one of my favorite sports writers, has a pretty provocative piece in New York Magazine this week. The title alone ought to tell you what's up: "Is Football Wrong?"

There's certainly going to be a lot of people who immediately dismiss such questions. (Kissing Suzy Kolber kinda does, but that might just be the site's instinctive propensity for dick jokes). But- and this will surprise no one, as I have, at length, discussed my problems with the NFL- it's something worth discussing. The long term injuries in the NFL seem to be piling up, and I think it's okay to question if you want to keep watching that. And Leitch doesn't even get into Roger Goodell's dictatorial control over the league and the players, the league's woeful labor practices, and the way dreams of NFL glory are mutating college and high school football programs. There's good reasons to change the channel.

But still, I hesitate to call the entire game immoral, or even amoral. From a tactical standpoint, I think such terms necessarily imply a judgment call that puts fans of the sport on the defensive, less willing to consider any change, any improvement to the sport. From an equity standpoint, I don't think it's fair; all sports have their shitty, exploitative elements, who the fuck are we to declare what's better? Everyone should be allowed to like the sport they like without judgement, unless it's clearly, inextricably harmful.

Which brings me to my most important point: I don't think there's anything fundamentally immoral or amoral about professional football. I think the NFL pursues some immoral and amoral policies, and I think the NFL allows immoral and amoral things to occur. But I think those are policy failures with clear (if not simple) solutions. Player injuries can be addressed with better training, tweaked rules, better equipment, and better medical staff. Goodell's powers could be curbed by the other owners. Labor practices could change if the union and the fans stood united. I'm not saying these things will happen; I'm actually pessimistic about curbing Goodell's power or fixing labor problems. But I'm saying they could happen without fundamentally altering the sport. And that, I think, means that the amoral and immoral aspects of football can be separated from the game itself.

It's possible that I'm wrong. But I'd like to try it my way before I give up on football.

And if I'm right, then I think it's more important for the football fans with a social conscious to stay engaged with the sport. We need someone watching the sport to say this shit ain't right, and we want the Commissioner and the owners and the coaches to do something about it. I don't think it will be nearly as effective if those voices come from outside the football community; we've seen time and again that the major sports leagues are more responsive to their existing fan bases than to potential fans or lapsed fans (there's a lot of argument that hockey would be more popular without the fighting, but old time hockey fans still think it's essential, so the NHL keeps hockey; baseball refuses to adopt instant replay because it'll give George Will a sad; hell, even the NFL slow-walking new concussion policies is part of this). Plus, if you like football, you shouldn't have to do without just because Art Modell and Jim Irsay are turds. That puts the onus on the fans, and that's bullshit; we're not the ones fucking up the game here.

Of course, if you can't stand the carnage anymore, than you can't stand the carnage anymore. You don't have to watch, either. I think that's what KSK is kind of missing here; even if we can make a plausible case that the players have given well-informed consent to the risks, that doesn't necessarily make it fun to watch men doing long-term damage to themselves. But you can both like football and be struck by the consequences of the game as it's currently played. And if you are, I think you need to stay engaged.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Cold Comfort at Augusta

Augusta National Golf Club is finally allowing it's first two female members- South Carolina Financier (read: rich person) Darla Moore and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. Undeniable good news, especially given what this blog has said on the subject before.

And yet...Condi Rice? Really? Her? Ugh. It's okay to feel shitty that the first woman to get this perk is so...undeserving of it.

Still, there's terrible people in every subset of humanity, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, creed, etc. But a step toward equality is a great and good thing, even if a terrible person ends up benefiting from it. Hell, there have been terrible men at Augusta for decades; why should terrible women be excluded? In some ways, we're not going to have true equality so long as only the most exceptional minorities get to move up in the world.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Olympics Post Game: The Triumph of Title IX, The Triumph of Community

This year, the U.S. Olympic Team came in first in the medal count, with 104 total medals and 46 golds. The big story, though, is the U.S. Women, who accounted for 58 of those medals and 29 of the golds. If the U.S. Women's Team had been their own country, they would have been fifth in the medal count. What's more, these women are not being shy at all about the role Title IX played in their success. Soccer star Abby Wombach says that Title IX is the reason she has a national championship ring. Fencer Mariel Zagunis, who carried the flag for the U.S. team, credited her increased opportunities, and even Scott Blackmun, the executive director of the U.S. Olympic Team, said it gives the U.S. team a leg-up on the competition because more female athletes start training earlier.

So, what we have here is a situation that indicates that Title IX isn't just good for female athletes, although it is; it isn't just good for ALL athletes, although it is; it isn't just good for sports fans because it gives us more sports to watch, although it does; it's objectively making U.S. sports more competitive on a global scale.

That's worth celebrating.

But what's really interesting here is that so many female athletes are so quick to credit Title IX. It's not just in the Olympics; Theresa Edwards wrote lovingly of the law, along with Brandi Chastain and Jennie Finch. But it's still striking. I think athletes, as much as anyone and more than most, have the privilege of considering their accomplishments to be solely personal triumphs. They're the ones on the floor after all, they're the ones who put all the hours in the gym, they're the ones everyone's coming to see (That's why this blog takes the players' side so often in labor disputes). And yet, the fact remains, every athlete has had considerable help to get where they are; an incredible teammate or a good coach or an understanding front office; good schools or gyms or trainers; and yes, Title IX and state funding. That athletes* acknowledge this when people would hardly bat an eye if they didn't is pretty great. That people with inarguable individual talent recognize that we're all dependent on each other speaks very highly of them.

*- And it's by no means only the female athletes; Michael Phelps has spoken at length about how great his coach is. The female athletes are just the ones who were saying it this week, and it gives me a good springboard.

If you're noticing a parallel with current political debates here, well, good job, you caught me being un-subtle. But I really think there is something to the fact that when it comes to opportunities to compete, training, organized competitions to find and mold talent, and education, athletes know they didn't build that.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Very Special All Olympics Wind Sprints

The Olympics are fraught with both political overtones and incredible sports moments. As such, they tend to bring out the best in some of our progressive sports writers. Let's see what they've had to say.

1) What if every sport were photographed like beach volleyball? I've really been enjoying the beach volleyball tournament, and I can't deny that the bikinis have something to do with that. Still, it's disappointing that the sport and the athletes are reduced to butts, regardless of how tight said butts are. On a related note, Andrew Sullivan talks about sex appeal at the Olympics. This is one of the hard parts of being progressive; sex is pretty cool, everyone ought to have the right to look and feel sexy. But where does that end and treating someone as a sex object begin? I don't have a good answer here.

2) Poynter has an interesting round-up of the coverage of the Olympics, including some more on NBC's broadcasting shenanigans.

3) Will Leitch points out that NBC's Olympic coverage seems so bad to us die-hard sports fans because it's not for us- it's for the casual fans. I think that's okay; I'd prefer something more for us, but, clearly, we die-hards can figure out other ways to enjoy the games.

4) Science's continued impact on sports continues to blow my mind. Empirical data FTW.

5) Nancy Hogshead-Makar- who has retweeted a previous LFL post for the masses- talks about the end of her Olympic career. I'm constantly astounded at the idea of top tier athletes having to hang it up and rejoin the rest of us.

6) This is stupid, but within our wheelhouse. Listen, there's nothing wrong with loving your country- and frankly, love for your country isn't any dumber than any other reason to root for one sports team over another. This is why they hate us, so I'm calling it out. Here's a couple more- and better- pieces on Olympics and Nationalism.

7) It's easy to forget this because we spend so much time following true celebrities like Michael Phelps, or teenagers like Missy Franklin, but a lot of Olympians, when the Games end, have to work for a living. And our country's abysmal health care system doesn't make that any easier. 2014 can't get here fast enough.

8) On that note, the hit pieces on Lolo Jones are getting pretty obnoxious. Listen, the sport requires hustling to get financial support to pursue the Gold. Jones, being pretty and funny, is good at hustling. I get that it's annoying that she's better at that than she is at hurdling (though with a near miss in Beijing and a fourth-place finish this year, she's clearly not THAT much better), but for the media to now turn around and flame Jones for playing its game (complete with "Lolo Jones? You're talking about Lolo Jones, right? Say more mean things about Lolo Jones!" toadying from Michelle Beadle) is just gross.

9) Given that Pistorius didn't even make the finals, I really find it hard to believe that he's got such a tremendous advantage.

10) I defy anyone to watch the U.S.-Canada women's soccer game from the other day without being riveted. It's a shame that these athletes don't have a home league to return to. I've been fed a line of bullshit about how the free market "proves" that we shouldn't have women's sports, but frankly, if the free market can't sell Hope Solo and Alex Morgan (yes, I picked the conventionally attractive ones on purpose), that's textbook market failure.

11) Athlete defection has consistently been an undercurrent in the Olympics. Looks like this year is no different.

12) Gabby Douglas is already going down as one of the most memorable Olympians in recent history. Dave Zirin talks about her socio-political impact. For my part, I'm astounded by how self-possessed she is. She's completely aware that she's a black woman, and that that means something, but carries it pretty effortlessly.

13) I think I'll talk about this more later, but these Olympics really have been a triumph of Title IX and the Women in Sports movement.

14) Relive some classic London Olympics at Talking Points Memo.

15) Quite a bit has been made about the fact that Jessica Ennis, the undisputed star of Team GB, is multiracial. As with a lot of things, Billy Bragg put it best:

"Tonight, our society was wonderfully represented by a ginger bloke, an immigrant named Mohammed and a mixed race woman."

I'm gonna be sad when the Olympics end. But hey, only four years until Rio!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Badminton! Very, VERY Badminton!

Alright, let's talk about the Badminton scandal. For those of you who don't subscribe to the Fox Badminton Channel, eight women from China, South Korea, and Indonesia were thrown out of the Olympic Doubles Badminton tournament for trying to throw matches. The teams were throwing the matches in order to get a lower seed- and thus, a better opponent- in the elimination stage of the tournament. Watch the video of the South Korea/Indonesia match. It's almost hilariously bad. Honey Badmintoner don't care.

And I'm not sure I do, either; I like a little strategy in my sports. Gamesmanship is what makes this about more than just being naturally faster or stronger. That being said, I can't deny that the performance put on by these athletes was really unfair to the viewers, and maybe to the Olympic community as a whole.

I just know that the Olympic Community only has itself to blame.

First of all, the structure of the tournament allowed for this kind of sandbagging. Other tournaments- other badminton tournaments, even- do not. The major U.S. sports leagues offer home court advantage for the team with the most wins, so there's incentive to win out. The Badminton World Federation sets up its major events as plain old single-elimination tournaments, so there's the strongest incentive of all to win every match. There are ways to avoid situations like this, or at least to minimize them.

But, more importantly, the Olympics have just made winning Gold too big a deal to turn around and whine about sportsmanship. There's too many endorsements tied to Gold. Too much money. Too much prestige and fame. The national committees can only justify their existence with Gold Medals, so they put too much pressure on the athletes to go for it at almost any cost. Countries crown athletes as national heroes. I hear the sex is tremendous. Faced with that incentive structure, it's almost perverse to get mad at athletes for trying to work the system as much as they can.

Which isn't to say that the players are blameless; I can't watch that video and argue that they were being "good sports". And if you subscribe to the Joe DiMaggio theory of sports- every game is someone's first, and they deserve to see you give your all- then this should disappoint you greatly. My point is simply that the Olympic community has spent the last several years downplaying the importance of sportsmanship and what the fans deserve (you only need to try to follow NBC's coverage to get that last part).

It'd be different if this really were the Platonic Ideal of the Olympics- the countries coming together for the pure love of sports and athletics and competition, and determining a winner, while important, is secondary to just getting out on the field. But it's not; the Olympic Community has decided that Gold Medals are incredibly important. The national teams have decided to go all out to obtain them. And that's all okay; there's nothing wrong with going all out to be the best. But as that is the situation, I think this badminton scandal is only a couple degrees away from the Bears resting their starters in Week 16 after they've secured a playoff spot, or a swimmer going 75% in a qualifying heat. It's just pressing every advantage. If the goal is to win Gold, that's what you have to do.

If the Olympic Community wants to make the goal something else, I can grok that. I don't really think it's necessary; I think determination, long-term thinking, and cleverness are perfectly cromulent skills to celebrate. But if the IOC disagrees, I'm fine with that, too. We just need to understand that if we expect athletes to live up to our Platonic Ideals of sportsmanship, we need to make sure the incentive structure does so, first.

Friday, August 3, 2012

I Need to See a Mitt About a Horse

Stay with me on this: U.S. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has a wife (quiet with the Mormon jokes). His wife, Ann Romney, has a horse. This horse, Rafalca, competed in the Olympic Games in London in the event of Dressage. Liberals are making some political hay out of this. Barack Obama hasn't approved any messages or anything, but there's at least been some snickering from people who think Dressage is a weird, aristocratic holdover. And of course, there's something to that point of view; the event doesn't test speed or strength or agility, but just the horse's ability to perform a predetermined routine (And thus, the rider's ability to train them). The rider wears a top hat and tails, and the colloquial of "horse dancing" really isn't too far off the mark. If the Romneys enjoy that, the line goes, then they're hopelessly out of touch with "real" Americans (and I rather suppose the fact that only Ann Romney is into it doesn't matter; most of us aren't in a situation where it means anything if one spouse "owns" something and not the other).

There's no doubt that this is kind of silly. Frist of all, we here at the Left Field Line firmly believe that everyone has a right to like the sports they like without judgement (though I'll admit that animal-based sports make me a little uncomfortable; story for another time, though). Second of all, what the fuck is a "real" American, anyway? And third, it's not like Mitt Romney's ever going to face a Dressage-related crisis in office. He's not going to have to decide between giving Dressage owners a tax cut and children health care. Similarly, Barack Obama is never going to have to decide whether or not to declare war on an arugula-producing nation; these just aren't relevant factors to the Presidency.

 But y'know what? It's not entirely silly. The fact is, we do need to know about a President's personality. If we know his personality, we know his decision-making process, his cognitive biases, his priorities. And in some ways, that's more important than, well, his policies. Presidencies almost always get swallowed up by unforeseen (and unforeseeable) events; think George Bush and 9/11, or Obama and the Tea Party. How they respond to those things is just as important as the plans they run on. But we can't know how they'll respond to those things, because they are, by definition, unforeseen.

So, we try to figure out a President's personality during the campaign. But, personalities are necessarily ephemeral, especially when we can only judge them through the filter of a campaign and the other filter of the media. So, we have to go on clues. What books do they read? What music do they like? Do they work out? How do they treat their family? And yeah, what sports do they like? Hopefully, we can put all of that information together and get a halfway decent composite sketch of the man.

Of course, Rafalca doesn't tell us anything about Romney we didn't already know. Oh, he's "out of touch"? His horrific tax plan told me that, to say nothing of his statements about being friends with NASCAR owners and thinking income inequality is about "envy". But it's all of a piece with this backwards-ass mindset, and it displays that mindset in a more visceral way, and as such, is kind of illuminating about Romney. Rafalca becomes a sort of political short-hand for all of Romney's bad policies and dumb sayings. That's fine; sports function as political symbols all the time. But we shouldn't mistake Rafalca, in and of herself, for a reason to vote against Romney, just a reminder of all the very good reasons to do so. Anything else is just unfair to Rafalca. And C'mon. She's an Olympian, for Pete's sake.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Olympic Opening Ceremonies, Progressive Values, and Hypocrisy

I'm on record as being a big fan of Olympic Ceremonies. Frankly, the sillier the better. Remember the Vancouver Closing Ceremonies, where they just brought out a bunch of inflatable moose and guys dressed as Mounties and Michael Buble was there for no reason, singing about maple leaves? Loved. That. Shit. So, when the London Opening Ceremonies proved to be every bit as spectacular and silly- and then, all of a sudden, celebrated Great Britain's progressive history- I was obviously quite pleased.

If you don't believe me on the progressive narrative, check out this from Andrew Sullivan and this from David Zirin. These two don't agree on much- Sullivan is a British Tory, Zirin an American Socialist- but they both know that Danny Boyle was trying to celebrate progressive values. There were suffragettes and punk rock. There was heavy suspicion of Dickensian captains of industry. There was a celebration of British soft power and culture. And of course, there was the NHS.

Of course, sports always claim to celebrate progressive values. Sports, supposedly- hopefully- represent a Grand Meritocracy where your background doesn't matter, only your ability to play. The field or court or ice or track is supposed to be a safe place where ethnic, tribal, or nationalistic rivalries don't matter; it's supposed to be a place where we can just play a game together, and while we're competing, there's clear mutual respect. Every sport tries to sell itself based on these values.

And a lot of times, it's bullshit. Most of the time, even when it's not, the meritocratic and diplomatic elements are lightly draped over corporate and kleptocratic heavy machinery. As Zirin points out, that's certainly the case in the Olympics, with the abject corruption of the IOC and the obsession with "brand protection". That opens folks like Boyle up to charges of "hypocrisy". But it's also a lousy reason to not celebrate progressive values; if that's the standard we're going to use, we're just going to end up with less celebrations of progressive values in sports. I find the argument that the Opening Ceremony would have been better had it accurately reflected a corporate mindset or had it avoided values altogether really, really unpersuasive.

Anyway, as I've said before, the fact that the major sports industries know they have to sell their product in progressive terms is, in and of itself, a victory. I'll celebrate that, then go out and make sure they live up to their ads tomorrow.