Wednesday, June 27, 2012

I, For One, Welcome Our New Robot Instant Replay Overlords

Here's DeWayne Wise's non-catch for an out from last night's Yankees game. Blah blah blah ridicuolous, blah blah blah easy fix, blah blah blah baseball needs instant replay.

On the other hand, I'm sure Cleveland is happy to trade that out for the knowledge that they're playing the game as close as possible to the way Satchel Paige played it.

(Also, I know baseball is all about deception, but lookit how nobody in the fan section questions the out- even the two guys staring at the ball. Fucking Yankees fans.)

Monday, June 25, 2012

Curt Schilling's Financial Woes: I'll Try Not to Laugh

Did you hear the one about how Curt Schilling, Red Sox legend and outspoken conservative, parlayed his baseball fame into a video game company, where he took loans from the government, but then turned out to be a major bust, costing the taxpayers money and wiping out his personal fortune? HAW!

Okay, in one sense, this is a vindication of the free market; 38 Studios does not appear to have done anything really worth paying attention too (And I'd argue that video games are one medium where there's a strong correlation between popularity and quality); it seems like it was just coasting off of Schilling's name, and ultimately, that's not enough, and the market made the company pay. It's nice when it actually works like that.

On the other hand, this is a stunning indictment of the free market; after all, Schilling's the one who took all the risk, and his company is clearly the one that underperformed. His kids had nothing to do with that- and yet, they're going to suffer for their dad losing his fortune. Why am I supposed to be happy about this invisible hand thing again?

Finally, there's the hypocrisy of it all- Schilling was an outspoken conservative, he campaigned for Bush and Scott Brown, he bleats on and on about small government...and then turns around and begs the state of Rhode Island for a loan? For something as frivolous as a VIDEO GAME COMPANY? Don't get me wrong, I love video games, but I'm plenty happy leaving that sector of the economy to the free market wolves (and I say that as a big government liberal).

Hypocrisy, of course, is hardly the most intellectual rigorous criticism; we all contradict ourselves at the outer edges of our philosophies. And honestly, I do have some sympathy for Schilling; transitioning to a post-sports life is hard, and he tried to do it by taking a risk into an unproven- but awesome!- field. It sucks that it didn't work out for him.

But it will suck more if he goes through this without realizing that most people asking for the government's help are just like him- good people who work hard, and just hit some bad luck.

NBA Finals Post Mortem: Pricks Can Win Championships, Too.

Dear me, do we really need all of these peons to LeBron James' personal growth as a man? His victory is interesting and well-deserved, and I don't mind analyzing the psyche of successful athletes, but I'm calling bullshit. The Miami Heat won the NBA Finals because they're an excellent basketball team and LeBron James is an incredibly talented player; they most certainly did not win because James "matured" or "hit rock bottom and returned" or "learned how to be a champion".

I mean, I'm sure James is slightly more mature this year than he was last year- but then, so is everyone, including Durant, Rondo, Duncan, Rose, and the rest of this year's non-champions. They've all faced adversity, too, not the least of which being James and the other excellent basketball players on the Heat. As for "learned how to be a champion", that's a bullshit fucking phrase that I'm not even going to attempt to fucking decipher without a shit ton of useless fucking profanity.

Unfortunately, my protests amount to very little, and the "LeBron James finally won because loss and unpopularity last season made him focus on what's important" narrative is already taking hold. The sports punditry is just incapable of handling it when someone they don't like wins- so they immediately recast that person as someone who only won because they finally came around to the things the sports pundits like. I guess that's the annoying cousin to Orwell's "We've always been at war with Eastasia" thing.

The worst part is, that kind of narrative setting cheapens the sport- it cheapens all sports. The best thing about sports is that it's a Grand Meritocracy. Eventually, talent wins out over rank, money, popularity, records- and yes, personality. That's amazing; it's what gives us upsets and underdogs and no-names making history. But more importantly, it's incredibly progressive; it's why Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente were ultimately inevitable, why Ted Williams gets a place in history even though he quarreled with the intolerant, close-minded Boston media, why Brett Favre gets no passes just because he fooled so many football writers into thinking he was jes' a good ol' boy havin' fun out there.

Ultimately, it means some pricks are going to win sometimes, but, well, suck it up; that's a small price to pay for all the amazing things we get out of the Grand Meritocracy. It's not worth hiding from or pretending it doesn't happen, like we're saying in this narrative on LeBron. When we put personality back at the center of things, we move away from the Grand Meritocracy, and toward some stupid bullshit political version of sports where the pundits tell us to ignore the score, they know who the real winners are.

The thing is, LeBron probably never was as much of an asshole as we thought right after "The Decision"- and nor is he a Saved Man, now; he's always been a little full of himself, but he's always been an incredibly hard worker. I'm confidant that LeBron has been roughly the same man throughout the last two years. And y'know what? That's complexity is more interesting anyway- to say nothing of a better sign for a future great athlete who is even more complicated.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Sandusky Verdict

It's okay to think that this is what justice looks like.

I'm going to add my voice to the many, many people saying that this can't end here; Penn State officials like Graham Spanier have already been shown the door, and that's good, but they may have seriously run afoul of duty to report laws, and that needs to be explored. Moreover, the entire athletic department at Penn State needs to be re-examined and reorganized, with the express goal of making sure that no other coach ever gets this much power- both formally and influentially- again. That alone is a long and difficult process, and I don't envy the students and faculty at Penn State for having to undertake it. But, then, nor do I pity them, after their shameful display of tribalism in the immediate wake of the scandal.

Ultimately, though, we're all going to have to rethink how much we're willing to devote to college football. Because that's really the root of the issue here; football was just too important to Penn State, to Happy Valley and all of Central Pennsylvania, really, for its administrators to think of anything besides protecting the program. They had so much incentive to cover for Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky- their jobs, possible promotions, even the money and prestige of the school itself. That's not to excuse them; it's just to say that their poor moral choices are not the end of this story.

And Penn State was hardly unique. College football is at the center of hundreds of schools. Hundreds of school administrators are compromised in dealing with it. Hundreds of schools devote far too much money to it. And that means that even when evils far less than Jerry Sandusky's arise, school officials need extraordinary courage to confront them. That's a problem, and it's going to remain one so long as, every Saturday morning, we forget what happened Monday through Friday.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

David Hume, Head Referee. Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Moral Sense of Sports Tech

God has spoken.  We'll see if it's in place for 2014 in Brazil, but what the FIFA president wants, the FIFA president gets.  That being said, I obviously applaud this move.  This blog has repeatedly praised efforts to automate officiating as much as possible to remove the "human element".  Not because referees are unnecessary, but because questions like "did the ball cross the goal line" do not rely on human judgment.

So while we're discussing lines being crossed, what is and is not an example of when human judgment is necessary?  Well as much as I bemoan the subjective nature of soccer and basketball officiating, even I admit there are situations where you can't have a bright line rule.  An example is an aggregated yellow card.  Normally in soccer you get a yellow card for an egregious foul, such as tackling someone from behind when the ball has already left, or throwing an elbow up and catching someone in the head when you jump for a header.  But (confession time: I didn't know this until recently), you can also get a yellow card for accumulating multiple minor fouls.  Fouls that by themselves are not card worthy may get you a card by the 3rd, 4th, or 5th one.

This is a good example of when human judgment comes in.  It's a good safety valve for those times when one player hasn't just completely gone off the rails, but is still quite clearly being a dick.  Then again, even those minor fouls have gradations.  Is this your third time committing the exact same type of foul (kicking a shin and whiffing the ball)?  Or do you have three different fouls of different types?  Maybe you kicked a shin, then gave a forearm shove, then maybe some mid air collision while you both went for a header.  I'd say the former would be a better candidate for a card (you keep doing the same thing after being told not to), but the latter could be a situation where "okay, accidents happen when you're playing hard, but seriously, your 4th foul of any time is getting carded."

Another situation, again sticking with soccer, could be handballs.  If you intentionally block a shot with your arm in the box, it's a red card (expulsion) and a penalty kick.  If it's incidental (shot's coming right at you and you try to turn aside and the ball just happens to shank and hit your forearm) then the rules allow for other resolutions, such as a penalty kick or a free kick without a card (or even no call at all if the attacking team retains possession and the ref feels that stopping play is unnecessary).

Again, some things are boolean.  Like a light switch, they have only one of two possible states.  On/off, true/false, present/not present.  THESE are the things for which we want technology and to eliminate the human element.  Either the ball did, or did not, break the plane and result in a goal.  And in a low scoring game like soccer, we absolutely positively HAVE to get that right.

Other things have shades of grey.  Machines can't measure intent, nor can they assess moral value.  Is that 3rd foul too much?  I'd say no if each foul were different, yes if it were the exact same.  Were you trying to put your hand in the way of the ball?  Machines can't weigh circumstance.  David Hume once spoke about the moral sense of human beings, and to completely oversimplify his thousands of pages of philosophy, let's just agree that human beings can look at a situation and say "that just doesn't seem fair".  Machines don't have that capacity, but we do.  Life may not be fair, but one of the reasons we watch sports is because we expect THEM to be.  And while universal application of the rule set as written is the best way to ensure the literal playing field is as level as possible, we need that safety valve.  Technology in officiating protects the game's integrity from corruption, bad decisions, and ultimately the short comings of human physical senses.  Human judgment can be reserved for protecting the players from the machine's utter lack of moral sense.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Six Wasted Minutes

Saturday's Cardinals-Royals game was a pretty good demonstration of the need for expanded instant replay in baseball. Cardinals pitcher Joe Kelly caught a ball, threw to first baseman Allen Craig to get the runner on there (who hadn't tagged up) who then through to the second baseman to get the runner there (ditto).

Triple play, signalled the home plate umpire! The fuck it is, signalled the crew chief. The crew chief said Kelly trapped the ball, and only got the out at first. One out, and the runners advance. Ultimately, the Royals scored one run.

Cardinals manager Mike Metheney came out to argue, because he pretty much had to (And that's part of this bullshit). The umpires let him argue because they pretty much had to; even if he was making good points, they really don't have a useful mechanism for reversing those calls (if they do it just once, arguing will EXPLODE in the league).

So, fans watching in the stands and at home were treated to SIX MINUTES of Metheney and the umps arguing- without even being able to hear what they said!


This is so ridiculously shitty for fans, I made a list of the ways.

1) It slows down the game. I don't always care for this argument- baseball's deliberate pace is something that makes it awesome- but six minutes is quite a bit of time to waste, especially when it won't actually affect the outcome of the game.

2) It's all Kabuki. When Matheney walks out of the dugout, he knows he's not going to change the umpire's mind. For the reasons stated about, he can't. There's something to the fact that it psyches up the players, but c'mon, they're professionals, they can psyche themselves up without mind games. Meanwhile, the umpires also know that Mike Matheney can't change their mind; but they let him rage anyway, because they know he's just doing it to psyche up his players and they're not going to change their mind, so they might as well let him have his say. It's all just an act, a routine, a dance with the steps laid out decades in advance.

3) It's boring. It's just old men arguing. We can't even hear them curse at each other. Definitely not why we tune in to a baseball game.

4) It clouds what really happened. It becomes such an issue that the fans and broadcasters for both teams just go to their corners, and refuse to accept the real answer if it conflicts with their teams' goals. And since there's no immediate review, everyone gets to stew like that all game. In this case, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina came out afterward and confirmed that Kelly did not catch the ball. But at that point...


6) NO, REALLY, IT DOESN'T MATTER. The Cardinals won 10-7, and even if they hadn't, there were a thousand other things that could have changed the course of the game. One play never decides a baseball game. When it looks like it does, it's just because none of the other plays actually amounted to anything. So why waste so much time on it?

7) Which piggy-backs off of 4 and 6, it makes the Manager look like he's doing something, when managers are all bullshit, at least once the game starts. Managers set the line up, and that's it. They make some calls on relief pitching, but the pitching coach and designated roles do most of the heavy lifting there. This is the one in-game thing that a Manager can be seen doing, and even here, he's not actually going to change any minds. And baseball really needs to get away from the "Cult of the Manager" anyway.

What's more, this is all oh-so-easy to fix. Instant replay. Clear-and-convincing standard to reverse the call on the field. If the manager keeps bitching after that, instant ejection, no letting him have his say. I'm not saying we'll always get the call right- the Fox Sports STL guys had tape, but the remained convinced that Kelly caught the ball, while Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina said he trapped it. But at least we'll get AN answer faster and move on in a more entertaining way. Sure, it could take up to six minutes to review the tape, but at least during that time we'll be watching the replays and arguing about it (like we do in football and hockey), which is half the fun anyway. Just watching a bunch of old men argue is just denying us fans that pleasure.

And that, once again, is my big issue. We fans are having a worse game shoved in our faces when a superior one is easy enough to put together- and all in the name of tradition. And I don't know if I can sit through another six minutes.

We are all Len Boogaard

I was about to comment on this post by Craig, but I quickly realized I have more to say than just adding a short comment.  There's a lot to process, so I'm going to just label separate points (though they are not necessarily in order of importance).

1) There may be legitimate legal culpability here for individual teams and ultimately the NHL.  In my last post yesterday I pointed out how UEFA is fining individual teams for the actions of fans, and discussed the legal concept of respondeat superior.  To repeat, respondeat superior says that someone with supervisory powers can be held responsible for the actions of those they supervise.  In cases where the conduct wasn't known, the supervisor can still be held responsible if they should have known and could have found out or prevented such action through reasonable efforts.

Now go back and read that Deadspin article.  Two separate teams had official team doctors over-prescribing medication.  This is not a situation where Boogaard was forging prescriptions or had a back-alley dealer hooking him up.  He was getting his valid prescriptions from licensed professionals directly employed by his team, a team that stood to financially benefit from these doctors giving him more pain pills so that he could continue playing without obvious impairment.  Set aside any conspiracy theories.  Let's assume the team didn't know he was overdosing.  Let's assume the doctors didn't know he was playing them off each other and abusing these pills.  As Deadspin and Craig point out, it's very easy for them to have put a system in place to prevent it.  Whether you agree or not, our legal system is full of precedent that they had a legal obligation to do so.  Sticking your head and the sand and assuming nothing will ever go wrong is not a legitimate business practice.  You aren't obligated to prevent everything from ever going wrong, especially if criminal activity is involved, but you have to take reasonable efforts.  So this isn't a situation where there was a system in place whereby all prescriptions got reported up to the GM, and one of the eight doctors was sneaking out doses on the sly.  There was absolutely no oversight, accountability, or communication.

The thing is, we would never accept that from other businesses.  Hospitals keep a tight rein on drug supplies.  Walgreen's does.  Hell, there are bars out there that mark their liquor bottles at the beginning and end of shifts so they can see if their bartenders are giving out too many free drinks.  Lots of people bemoan the perceived "fact" that athletes get special treatment in the criminal justice system.  But what about their employers?  Most of these leagues already possess anti-trust exemptions, and now we say they are immune to civil or criminal liability when it comes to player health?  Yes, these games are dangerous and a certain assumption of risk is carried with that.  But that doesn't extend to the locker room, or the team doctor's office.

2) Even if you disagree with the idea that there is or should be any legal accountability here, isn't there a moral obligation to do as much as possible to prevent such tragedies going forward?  Ultimately we are talking about human lives.  Yes, these athletes are paid lots of money (though hockey ranks pretty low on the list of major sports in terms of player compensation).  And yes, lots of people, probably myself included, might be willing to take the Faustian deal of reduced life span or reduced quality of life in later years to make what a star athlete can make for the next ten years.  But that doesn't HAVE to be the case.  Players aren't highly paid in order to take risks or endure damage to their bodies.  If they were, everyone on the roster would be paid the same.  No, they are paid as highly as they are because professional sports rakes in billions of dollars, and the highest paid athletes contribute the most to that.  Star athletes sell more sneakers and more tickets and more booze, so they get paid more as a result.

We can have both.  We can put systems in place to reduce injuries, reduce instances of substance abuse, and prevent a loss of quality of life for players after retirement without giving up the games we love.  This isn't about paternalism, or taking away people's choices.  This isn't about protecting people from themselves, but simply about protecting people, period.  We owe that to each other not just as fans, or as employers, but as fellow members of the human race.  And if that isn't enough to convince you, imagine if it was your child that found themselves in Boogaard's shoes.

I've Heard Enough

Are we all sufficiently happy with the Kings' first cup win? Good, 'cause here comes captain bringdown.

Provocative title aside, there's some genuine stuff to absorb here, so read it through once or twice. Follow the links. Given these facts, I find it exceedingly hard to believe that hockey didn't help push Derek Boogaard down his very tragic path. And if you can convince me otherwise, well, so what? Okay, so pressuring Boogard to fight for some misguided notion of "honor" that will have nothing to do with the final score and nothing to do with ultimate accountability for on-ice infractions didn't kill Boogard. That's supposed to be a point in it's favor? Okay, team doctor's giving him prescription painkillers with no examination didn't form an addiction with him. That makes it okay?

No, these things are shitty regardless of the admitted correlation/causation problem. They are shitty in and of themselves, even if every single player in the league were to end up lucky enough to avoid the most catastrophic and obvious effects of them. What's more, they're both shitty and easy to fix.

It's easy to ban fighting from the game. Every level but the NHL does it. Understand that I'm only talking about "easy" at one level; all you have to do is make a rule, you don't have to alter any other part of the game. I understand that you'll still have to push through some traditionalists, so it should be a slow process. But the solution there is clear, even if the math might get complicated.

It's even easier to hold the doctors accountable; Deadspin alone gives you a rough idea how. Who the fuck would object to that? More importantly, who gives a shit? Anyone that objects, name them, shame them, and move on.

No one is arguing that this will solve all of hockey's problems. Everyone knows that a lot of very serious injuries occur outside of fighting. But- and I'm sick of pointing this out- "you can't make it perfect" is a shitty reason to not make it better.

When these things come up, we hear over and over about how violence is part of these games and we can't have one without the other. I'm convinced that's bullshit in all cases, especially hockey. But even if I'm wrong on that in total- THIS bullshit is not part of this game.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Kicking the Dog

For anyone that follows international soccer, it is well-known that racism has long been a problem among soccer fandom.  For all the racial problems we have here in the states (and we have many, deep seeded problems), Europe has its own that extend beyond soccer.  This is largely due to the degree to which European nations are homogeneous.  The United States, as a nation of immigrants, is more racially diverse than any other nation on Earth, and so we've been forced to deal with each other.

FIFA and UEFA have been working to eliminate racist activities by teams and fans within the soccer arena.  I applaud this on its own merits, and also respect the degree to which sports teams and players can help shape social attitudes and perceptions.

That being said, I don't see where this is effective.  If German or Croatian players were making monkey noises at black players or showing up for the pre-game stretches in swastika armbands, absolutely punish the players, the coaches, and the organization.  What I don't get about fining the organization for the activities of the fans is that there is no direct link between the two.

Which isn't to say they wouldn't be justified if such a link could be established.  In American law we have a well established principle known as respondeat superior, which essentially says that those in charge can be held responsible for the actions of their agents.  The most common example is when police departments and municipal governments are sued because a police officer violates someone's rights, but you can also see it when a FedEx driver runs over someone or a CEO turns a blind eye to his accountants shredding books.  The argument basically is that even if you didn't know or direct the activity, if you were reckless in ignoring bad behavior, did not have adequate training and review methods in place, or took no effort to ensure qualified individuals were in place to handle the work, you are still partly to blame.  In some ways it's a policy decision:  rather than allow those in charge to dump blame off on a scapegoat, we make it financially disadvantageous to stick their heads in the sand, and thereby ensure they go out of their way to see to it that those they supervise do their jobs professionally and ethically.

And that would apply to a general manager if, say, one of his players broke a rule.  It could even apply to fans in those cases where the team exercises some control, for example at the home stadium where the team's owners also have an ownership interest in the arena and thereby the gate.  We could say "hey, you sold these yahoos the tickets, you let them in, you should employ security to see to it that these fans don't get out of control.  And your security should be so trained as to recognize bad behavior and remove fans who engage in it."

Now, this blog has written before about the problems with policing the non-violent activities of fans.  UEFA's activites go beyond even this, however, to what is basically punishing a road team for the activities of some random dumbass in that team's colors.  

The Euro 2012 cup is being hosted in Poland and Ukraine, in stadiums across those two countries.  The German and Croatian national teams have no ownership interest in those stadiums and therefore no control over who gets in and who gets taken out.  Even if there were some system for ticket sales whereby people could buy tickets through the box office of their home team, how exactly are they supposed to screen for this kind of behavior?

Ultimately, I guess, I'm just wondering what behavior by the national team this punishment on the national teams is supposed to either correct or encourage.  Are national teams supposed to show up with their own uniformed enforcers to remove undesirables (and are they allowed then to set their own standards on what is undesirable)?  Are they supposed to engage in some form of PR campaign to educate their citizenry?  The latter I'd applaud, but I don't view it as their responsibility, nor is it a fool proof system.  The NBA fined Kobe Bryant last year for calling someone a faggot, and the NBA itself has a commercial with Grant Hill fighting homophobia.  

You could argue that this is instead supposed to send a message to the fans.  "You act like an asshole, and we're going to punish your team."  Set aside the morality of that and just focus on the effectiveness.  Why do I, as a fan, care if my team gets fined money?  I care if they lose cap space or roster spots, or get assessed a technical foul, or lose a time out or get pushed back 15 yards or even if every player gets a yellow card.  These are things that affect the play on the field.  If the team writes a check though, it really doesn't impact me.  It may have a small impact on ticket prices, but with television viewing ticket demand is fairly inelastic.

So this looks like a classic example of kicking the dog because you can't find the cat.  UEFA has limited to no ability to directly dissuade or punish fans from engaging in these admittedly bad activities.  Their response, however, is to simply lash out at the nearest target they can find.  Plus, they are doing so in a way that gets them more money.  Just sayin'.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Progressive Guide to the NBA Finals

This year's NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder, present something of a dilemma for progressive sports fans. This may surprise you; after all, isn't everyone north of the Panhandle just reflexively rooting for the Thunder (or, more accurately, against LeBron James)? And, of course, they are- but that doesn't make the Thunder the white knights in the situation.

In fact, given the way the Thunder's history, you may find it very hard to root for them (Especially if you live in the Pacific Northwest). It sure seems like The Commish retaliated by recruiting some Oklahoma City money men to buy the Seattle Supersonics and move them to Oklahoma City. Dave Zirin lays out the situation and articulates the moral ramifications of it here.

As for the Heat, yes, "The Decision" was distasteful. And yes, the Heat all seem to reflexively whine the moment they actually have to work for something. But as Zirin notes: "Strip away the drama and the Heat are called “evil” because their star players exercised free agency and—agree or disagree with their decision—took control of their own careers." I think there's an idealistic level on which we have to accept that.

Moreover, the Heat's likability program seems like the media setting up a "narrative" as much as anything. James' comments are relentlessly, ridiculously dissected, like Cold War Kremlinologists determining who's out of favor based on the Premiere's pauses in a speech. Inevitably, sports pundits find something to object to, but I gaurantee James hasn't thought about what he's saying as much as those pundits have.

Yet, for all of that, Zirin's "Let's Go Heat!" conclusion is too simplistic- and it omits some key facts. I get that this is about fans exercising some self-respect, about telling the NBA it can't get away with what it did to Seattle...but then, what, exactly, are Oklahoma City fans supposed to do here? They got an NBA team out of it, and by all accounts, they're a pretty amazing fan base now. Should they not get to enjoy this, should they not root on their team, because Seattle's loss was their gain? What about Cleveland fans? Those fans got their hearts ripped out just as assuredly as Seattle did. If they root for James now, I don't see how that's an exercise of self-respect, nor do I understand why I should stand in solidarity with one, and not the other.

Besides, how is the Heat's ownership any better? As Kate Perkins points out, it's easy to line up the players of one team and the owners of another and find a pretty clear moral divide, but that's a pretty stacked deck. Ownership against ownership, the situation is more complicated. Miami-Dade County pays for the Heat's use of AmericanAirlines Arena, and the Heat even seem to be cooking the books to minimize the amount they pay back. The biggest difference here seems to be that the Heat's owners were more successful extortionists than Oklahoma City's.

And yeah, James, Wade, Bosh- on one level, they were just exercising their rights as players, rights that they indisputably should have. But on another level, there are some clear anti-competitive impulses in their decisions. Look at what James said when he arrived in Miami, promising more than 7 championships. There's something monopolistic about what they were trying to do, and it's okay to find that distasteful.

So, we're left with two fuck-head ownership groups. One is a little more brazen about being fuck-heads, but the other is a little more successful at it. We've got one group of players who seems more likable than the other, but not as much as the media wants us to believe (and anyway, I'm sure one of you guys can convince me that Durant or Westbrook or somebody is a prick, too).

If you give a shit about social justice, there's really not enough difference to make a difference.

That's normal, of course; it's very rare for a player or team to so completely embody a progressive ideal that the in-game triumphs represent even symbolic victories, let alone tangible ones. And your rooting interest alone (outside of financial support, as I assume that if any of you have already bought a Durant jersey or hold Miami season tickets, you don't see the dilemma here in the first place) isn't a very effective way to encourage progressive change, anyway.

Still, I think it's fair to say that one team is less reactionary than the other...I'm just not sure which. I'll leave that up to you guys' personal judgment. And once you figure that out, you can root based on that- it's as good as any other reason to back a team. Just remember that if you want to make a more socially responsible NBA, attacking the issues- which really aren't team or player specific anyway, they're generally league-wide (or at least, league-tolerated) problems- is going to be more effective than which team you decide you hope has more points when you idly flip over to ABC.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Most Obvious Story In The World

The MLB Umpire's Union is the biggest source of opposition to wider use of instant replay in baseball and is specifically holding up elements of the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement that would have expanded it. Well, of course, right? It's good to have this story published (good reporting from Jayson Stark, great analysis from Rob Neyer), but it's hardly surprising that umpires are doing all they can to protect their power, prestige, and, oh yeah, jobs themselves.

Not that I have a whole lot of sympathy for the umpires. I don't have much interest in preserving anyone's power for it's own sake. And all the "human element" arguments are garbage- mistakes are not a selling point of the game. No one buys a ticket or changes the channel to a ballgame in hopes of seeing a blown call, or even with a bemused acceptance that one's going to happen. Indeed, the point of umpires is to minimize the number of factors- outside of skill and strategy- that can influence the outcome of the game. Preserving "human error"'s ability to do so is hilariously self-contradictory.

As for their jobs- I don't think there's reason to worry. There's still hundreds- thousands?- of things that have to be decided in a baseball game. No one wants instant replay on all of them, no one wants a computer deciding all of them. There will still be jobs for decades to come.

As for their job being harder- that's a simple matter for the rule book. Take foul balls- the rule book can mandate that an overturned foul call results in a runner at...well, whatever base makes the most sense.

And if that doesn't work, or if there's other plays that can't be so easily legislated, well, why does an umpire's job need to be easy, exactly? There's supposed to be a skill and a craft to it, a reason not just anyone can do it. Otherwise, what's the argument that umpires are necessary at all?

So, c'mon, umpires. Tighten your shit up. You're missing a great game over here!

Two more thoughts on this story:

1) This is kind of the hilarious darkside of my prior post on unions in sports. Major League Baseball can't move on something it knows it needs to do- it has, in fact, already agreed to do- because a union has a seat at the table. Which is a pretty good argument against giving a union an unchecked veto, but a pretty shitty argument against unions as a whole.

2) That it's the umpires holding up instant replay in the name of protecting their own jobs instead of the Traditionalists in the name of...err...tradition is actually a good sign, too. Not that we really should have thought Selig was in the Traditionalists' pocket (the very concept of Interleague Play pretty much disproves that), but still, that a union has more of a say over the game than the Glossy-Eyed sportswriters who long for the ill-defined "good ol' days" of the game? I'll take it.

The Green Fields of Chicago, Ctd.

President of the Red Power Ranger Fan Club Mike comments: "As long as there are quantifiable standards, I am fine with it being a marketing ploy. This is one of those vote with your wallet things. If being green nets you more fans and attendance, then both the team and the greens win, regardless of motivation."

And he's right. I'll even go one further- the very fact that teams now feel they need to use the promise of green stadiums, even as just a marketing ploy, is, in itself, a good thing. It means that the desire for sustainability has taken enough of a hold that a non-trivial number of people are voting with their wallets- and the owners are responding. It's even better that the environmental standards seem legit, but just the fact that teams want to convince us that they're green is a good thing.

Book Review: After Friday Night Lights

Over my recent vacation, I had the chance to read "After Friday Night Lights", the new ebook from Buzz Bissinger. Bissinger's original "Friday Night Lights" is firmly in the cannon of books for People Who Give a Shit About Sports (if not for People, full stop), so a follow up to it is right in this blog's wheelhouse.

The follow up focuses squarely on Bissinger's relationship with Boobie Miles, the highly touted tailback from the original FNL who is injured in a pre-season game- and promptly discarded by the football team, the school, and the entire community. Bissinger relates what Boobie's life has become after football; a string of meaningless jobs, a nomadic existence, a few brushes with the law. Bissinger also reflects on his continuing relationship with Boobie, which has included bailing him out on more than a few occassions.

Bissinger has become more radicalized since he wrote FNL. That's understandable, I guess; he famously had some dustups with the coaches and schools he covered in FNL after the book came out, and as the new book demonstrates, he's had to watch Boobie's life curdle from a very close spot. Bissinger acutely understands the plight of someone who's been used up and spit out by the Football Industrial Complex, and wants you to do the same.

Which is, of course, a laudable goal, but the fact is, Bissinger pulled that off- quite deftly- in the original FNL. Indeed, he already told us the story of Boobie Miles in that book, and while the specifics of Boobie's life after football obviously weren't there, the general arc was clear. To add on to it is just gilding the lilly.

Moreover, the book is told in the context of Bissinger's relationship with Boobie, which just feels self-indulgent. At it's worst, it feels like Bissinger is just bragging about how much of a Friend To The Downtrodden he is, with a few caveats about how maybe it isn't wise for him to continue this relationship (which kinda feel just as yucky as Bissinger's paternalism). At it's best, it's still a Who Cares? situation.

What's unique about this book is that it's short (Just 42 pages on my iPad) and cheap ($2.99). In other words, it wouldn't have been feasible to publish this book even five years ago; this could only work now, with ereaders and digital books storming the marketplace. Does the low investment of time and money mitigate the problems with the book? Not completely, but at least I don't feel ripped off. And if this is a harbinger of things to come- if the rise of ebooks means we can get some more medium-scale sportswriting, longer than an article but shorter than a novel- well, that's alright. The more formats the better, I should think.

And of course, anything that gets people rereading (or hell, reading for the first time) the original Friday Night Lights- or checking out the decent movie and the incredible TV show- is okay with me. I just wonder if some kind of anniversary edition and book tour wouldn't have served the same purpose, without adding so much detritus to the story.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Green Fields of Chicago

Last week, the Chicago Bears announced that Soldier Field had been certified as LEED Platinum. At the beginning of the baseball season, the Miami Marlins announced that their new Stadium, Marlins Park, had been certified Gold. And the University of North Texas' new stadium was the first newly built stadium to achieve LEED Platinum Certification. So that's three examples, and we've officially got a trend! WAHOO!

That sports organizations are paying any attention to the environment is purely good news, but I'll admit, my first thought when I read these stories was, "Yeah, well, what does that do for me?" LEED certification is, on some level, just a label, and I was afraid this was a marketing ploy, and little more.

And of course, any standard of environmental consciousness in a sports stadium is only going to do so much. Any time you put tens of thousands of people together just to watch something- okay, maybe to watch something and eat some food that you can't find within miles of nature- there's going to be a lot of waste. Indeed, it sometimes startles me to consider all of the resources used just to keep a baseball stadium open for one single game. Given that this is all only for recreation, it's really hard to see how stadiums could ever really be "sustainable".

So, I looked up what LEED certification actually means. (JOURNALISM!) LEED stands for "Leadership in Environmental and Energy Development". There's different levels of certification: Platinum, Gold, Silver, and simple baseline "Certification". The certificates are based on points awarded for a wide variety of different criteria, including sustainable sites, indoor environmental quality, and Energy and Atmosphere. Each of these categories takes in a lot of information, from where the building is situated to the plumbing to the architecture. It even contemplates buying renewable energy certificates to make up for the energy used during a game.

There's a lot of info there, and I encourage you to read through some of it yourself. For my part, I'm satisfied that LEED certification is legitimate, that when a team brags that it's stadium has been so certified, it's justified in doing so. It really has met some quantifiable benchmark, and that benchmark is reasonably environmentally conscious. If you're a green-minded sports fan, LEED certification is at least a good starting point for you. And as such, the Bears, the Marlins, the Mean Green...they done good.

And while sports stadiums may not be fundamentally sustainable...I don't care entirely. At some point, every human activity consumes something, and sports are as good as any other human activity. Hell, better than a lot of 'em. They're worth spending some resources on, though it's great that teams are working to limit the resources needed.

Mission Statement

The last post generated a little maxim that's worth remembering on this blog:

Sports Are Good (or, at least, they can be).

Something to keep in mind going forward.

Please Stop Telling David Haugh How to Raise His Kids

Last week, David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune continued the debate over injuries in football in the wake of Junior Seau's death. You can read Haugh's column here. It's mostly just an ode to all of the good football does for kids, borne out of Haugh's own experience playing the game in school. And that's fine; we here at The Left Field Line unequivocally believe that Sports Are Good (or at least can be). I'm suspicious that football provides Haugh's stated benefits in a way that other team sports (or hell, other group activities) do not, and Haugh is WAY too blase about balancing those benefits against the risks, but still: football does some good things. So stated, so resolved.

Here's the problem: "I won't tell you how to raise your kid if you won't tell me how to raise mine." We've touched on this before, but that's a rhetorical dodge so big and obvious that anytime you see someone use it, you should immediately question everything else they've said on the subject.

Kurt Warner, Troy Aikman, Bart Scott, Drew Brees- they were all only talking about how they were going to raise their kids. None of them said that anyone else was wrong for coming to a different conclusion. None of them said kids shouldn't be allowed to play football, or that parents should be condemned for letting them do so. They were speaking only of choices they would make in their own life, for their own family. David Haugh's parental authority is perfectly intact.

In a previous post, I explained why guys like Haugh are feeling nonetheless threatened. But that doesn't make Haugh's argument any stronger. The issue here is: what should we do about injuries in football? And Haugh's just plain not addressing that. That's becoming a pattern in this debate; there's a sizeable group of people who don't really want to talk about injuries or figure out anyway of handling the injuries, they just want to shout, "Stop telling me what to do!"

(Haugh, at least, also spends some time talking about the benefits of football, but that's not any more on point. We all agree that football has its rewards, we're just trying to figure out the risks.)

That's a problem, because this is an important issue. The way that the football community addresses it is going to decide the future of the sport. The last thing we need is the distraction of hollow, quasi-libertarian catcalls.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


This is an interesting little bit of symmetry: The NFL referees' union has been locked out by the owners, and I'm writing it up on the night that the odious Scott Walker faces a recall from Wisconsin voters.

Walker kinda handily symbolizes the declining fortunes of unions and collective bargaining across the U.S. I'm sure you've heard it all before- union membership has been on a decades long decline in this country, and the unions that are left are generally weaker. Fewer and fewer people even have the opportunity to join a union.

And that sucks; we all have the right to bargain for the best deal possible for our labor, and that often means banding together. We're stronger together than we are apart, and we should have the opportunity to use that strength. Anyone who disagrees isn't just wrong and a reactionary; they're actually anti-capitalist.

But what's really amazing is that major U.S. sports seem to have avoided this decline. Obviously, every player in the team sports belongs to a union; the biggest sport without a union appears to be golf (and it's even thought about it). Much of the support staff is unionized, too- the refs, as we said. Even the hot dog venders, for crying out loud.

Granted, these unions don't always win every fight they get into (although the MLBPA has been stunningly successful over the years, especially when Marvin Miller was in charge), but just the fact that they still command a seat at every table displays a strength most unions have lost in this country.

I'd love to know why that is. My best guess is that the major sports naturally encourage teamwork in a way that makes union appeals particularly strong, and that players are, as a whole, much harder to replace that workers- in some ways, the players are the product (i.e.- you go to a sporting event to see the players, but you buy a car just to have a car). This is all only a guess, though. If anyone has any stronger data, I'd love to take a look at it.

Whatever the reason, it's actually another thing I love about sports. Right now, the exit polls indicate that Walker is going to pull out this election, and continue to be an abysmal failure until 2014. It's nice to have a little island of organized hope.

Class in Sports: A Lesson from Scotland

So, I was in Scotland last week. I'm not going to get a whole lot of posts out of that because it wasn't really a sports vacation, but there was one little situation that interested me. When we got in, a taxi took us from the airport to our apartment. Naturally, we got to chatting with the cabbie, who pointed out a few cites to us. He was sure to point out this:

Which happens to be Edinburgh's rugby stadium. He explained that rugby is pretty big in Scotland, but was quick to note, "Of course, rugby is the rich man's game."

I nodded and asked him what was more popular.

"Well, football, of course," he said, then spent an interminable five minutes explaining that what he called "football" we would call "soccer". My friends in Europe, please note that WE REALLY DO GET THIS, YOU DON'T NEED TO KEEP EXPLAINING IT.

Anyway, I said, "I see, so football's a little more for everyone."

But that wasn't quite right, and the cabbie corrected me. "No, not for everyone. It's just more the working man's sport."

It's dangerous to draw too much from one man's opinions, but this kind of stark class dichotomy in sports fascinated me. Here in the U.S., we note some slight demographic differences between the sports, but even those seem to be based off of stereotypes as much as anything measurable. We just don't have stark class dichotomies in our sports like that. Of course, we don't have quite as rigid of a class system in our history, either, so thereyago, really.

For the most part, that's a good thing, of course. Sports should be a place where everyone comes together. Not everything needs to be run through the meat grinder of partisan politics, and I'm kinda happy that few of us choose our favorite sports based on socio-political tribalism. But at the same time, well, sports are a multibillion dollar industry- it's really hard for me to believe that they have no economic or class implications. And if there are such implications, we probably need to pay attention to them.

Come to think of it, that's pretty much why I started this blog.