SI’s cover story this week is about the central tension in the NFL as a product and spectacle – the desire of fans to see big hits, and of players to deliver them, set against the potentially devastating health impact of being on the receiving end of a serious body (or head) blow. Tim Layden profiles, as it were, seven big hits from the 2006 NFL season, describing the particulars of the play, how those on the dishing out and receiving end experienced it, and putting it in the context of a sport in which “bloodlust” is an undeniable feature of the game. It’s an interesting article, but with a very disturbing and misleading slant, as I’ll discuss below.
Archive for July, 2007
Two recent articles beautifully de-construct two myths central to contemporary baseball discussions, one Hank Aaron vs Barry Bonds and the other on Cal Ripken vs. “the modern ballplayer.”
This baseball season, it fell to the sporting press to drag a reluctant Hank Aaron once more into public view, the occasion being Barry Bonds’ slow-motion pursuit of a stationary number. Now, anytime an old baseball personage hobbles back into frame, he is invariably described in awed, petrifying language better suited to, say, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The treatment of Aaron hasn’t been any different. A spin through the sports pages over the past few months reveals that he is a man of “cool dignity,” “quiet dignity,” “innate dignity,” “immense dignity,” “eternal dignity,” “unfettered dignity,” “unimpeachable dignity,” the very “picture of dignity” who “brought so much dignity to baseball” and who, “having exuded dignity his entire life,” continues to this day “exud[ing] class and dignity.”
Is Pat Tillman’s fate a sports story? As more disturbing details emerge of how he died, including the new revelation that he might have been deliberately murdered by his own men, does sports media have anything left to say about him? When Tillman first walked away from the Arizona Cardinals and a $3.6 million contract in 2002 to join the Army Rangers, it certainly was. Tillman’s decision was unprecedented in modern sports and, as a then well-known sports figure, his decision was naturally part of the sports news cycle.
But, it was also an easy story five years ago for a sports media obsessed with the spoiled, pampered, character-less contemporary athlete. Tillman’s selflessness, his commitment to something larger than himself, his obvious disregard for wealth were viewed as the perfect contrast to the typical athlete of today.
The 2nd annual Bada Bling weekend for charity hosted by the Chris Webber Foundation in Las Vegas happened to be one of the most incredible weekends fit for royalty. From the cream 2008 Escalades that chauffeurred everyone in attendance to and from the airport, to the weekend’s swank highlight, The Soiree’, hosted by funny man Charlie Murphy, everything was top notch and white carpet tight. The weekend kicked off Friday evening with a charity poker tournament that included everyone from Rip Hamilton of the Detroit Pistons to last year’s winner Miss California, Tamiko Nash. Hip Hop poet Nas, comics Charlie Murphy and Marc Curry, boxer Zab Judah, model/actress Claudia Jordan and a bevy of athletes and entertainers rounded out those who chose to spectate and mingle with their celebrity peers. The night concluded with a sick welcoming party at club OPM. Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick the Ruler performed their all time classics with old school tracks spun by Biz Markie.
A lot of ground to cover, but below I’ll cover the ESPN town hall on Barry Bonds in some depth.
It’s been a crazy few days in the world of sports. Last week, in a post about ESPN, I complained about the police-blotter approach so common these days in sports journalism. That was after the Vick indictment, but before the Tim Donaghy investigation became public knowledge. Those two newsmaking events, plus the ongoing homerun chase, featuring the intensely polarizing would-be king, Barry Bonds, still the subject of an endless grand jury investigation, has led many sports commentators the past few days to wonder which of the three major commissioners has it roughest right now. There’s an obvious answer – David Stern faces a threat to the integrity of his sport in a way that neither Roger Goddell or Bud Selig does. But, it’s all a dream come true, in a way, for sports media, as July is generally lamented as a slow sports month, and if you’re not a baseball fan, it’s the month many sports fans consider the worst of the year. With basketball in the rearview mirror and football tantalizingly close but still not under way, July is purgatory for the sports news cycle. Until this week, anyway.
This past weekend, while attending Chris Webber’s Bada Bling in Vegas, I conducted an interview from my hotel room with newly signed Atlanta Falcon fullback, Ovie Mughelli. With all the controversy swirling around Flowery Branch, Ovie has taken the initiative to let his play do the talking on the field. Being a new Falcon, he doesn’t feel it’s responsible to comment on Michael Vick’s situation because of the federal investigation and all the uncertainty surrounding what has become a dark era in Atlanta professional sports. His thoughts remain positive and he hopes his upcoming season optimism will resonate with Atlanta fans. He thoroughly enjoyed his time as a Baltimore Raven and has his heart set on becoming one of the best fullbacks ever. His punishing linebacker devastating blocks gave former Raven, Jamal Lewis huge holes to rumble through in helping the Ravens become one of the most feared teams in the NFL because of their close knit spirit and fourth quarter clutch play. Poised to enter medical school after college graduation, Ovie, through NFL teams unexpectedly contacting his coaching staff and athletic director, chose to take on another challenge and play in the NFL.
Following up on my post from the end of last week, Newsweek wasn’t the only major media outlet to question the direction of ESPN this past week. Sports Illustrated had a satirical send-up of the much-maligned “Who’s Now?” series. I can’t find the piece on-line, but three quick samples here:
1) on how the panelists were picked: “based on such factors as who was not on vacation, you selected three Nestor Chylaks of NOW-ness. At rehearsals, I’ve heard, panelists received mild electric shocks whenever they said either apples or oranges. It worked! Now 12,000 to 14,000 times a day, one can view a kind of Algonquin Round Table minus the tiresome wit.” (Chylak, by the way, was an MLB umpire from 1954 to 1978).
2) on how the “winners” of each round are selected: “People say Internet voting isn’t scientific, but it can tell alot about America. For example, the daylong deluge that lifted Jeff Gordon past Barry Bonds said something about just how many unemployed white people there are out there.”
3) on flaws in the series: “By giving credit for buzzed-about affairs, [the show] unfairly penalizes the competent adulterer.”
To sum up, author Charlie Leerhsen’s conclusion: pull the plug. NOW.
Like lots of other people in the blogosphere, I have spent my fair share of time criticizing various facets of ESPN’s operation. From the lazy and ill-informed nature of a considerable portion of ESPN radio, to the blather on Around the Horn, to the sometimes sycophantic nature of Mike and Mike, not to mention the network’s general blurring of the line between shameless self-promotion on the one hand and self-importance as a serious news organization on the other, there’s plenty to criticize (and, did I mention the painfully insipid “Who’s Now”tournament that’s currently running?). But, these concerns are, arguably, not the most important ones. ESPN, in fact, is failing on a more profound level.
Warning: rant below.
Last week, Florida Marlins’ president David Samson was found whining his head off about how the Ichiro contract (a five year extension valued at $100 million) spelled the ruination of baseball. Pardon my french, but how many times do we have to hear this sort of crap? Every big new contract sends a shiver through the spines of weak-kneed owners and their media shills everywhere. Major league baseball managed to pull in more than $5 billion in revenue last season and, according to its commissioner, has never been in better shape financially than it is now. Ichiro’s team, the Mariners, themselves reported a net profit of $23 million last season. And, Ichiro has been the face of the franchise since he arrived in 2001, having adopted the team’s star-power mantle from Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey, Jr. and Arod, all of whom had departed Seattle in the previous three seasons.
Michael O’Keeffe is a sportswriter for the Daily News, a guy who takes his job as a journalist seriously and, as a consequence, is one of the best reporters in the business (he’s also a self-professed fan of The Starting Five, which is always nice to hear). He graciously agreed to sit down with me (virtually) to talk about his new book and about his views on important issues of the day in sports. His book, The Card: Collectors, Con Men and the True Story of History’s Most Desired Baseball Card (co-authored with Teri Thompson), was published this Spring by Harper Collins. It tells the story of how the T-206 Honus Wagner baseball card, originally printed in 1909 (also known as the Gretzky T-206 because the Great One once owned the card) became the most sought-after card in the world, having sold most recently for over two million dollars, and the nefarious circumstances under which that card came to be deemed so valuable. Along the way, O’Keeffe tells some fascinating tales, including how revenue from Topps’ baseball cards allowed Marvin Miller to transform the Major League Baseball Players’ Association from an inert talking shop into one of America’s most powerful unions. And, he explains how two working-class African American men, in possession of their own T-206 Honus Wagner baseball card, got shut out of a memorabilia market desperate to buy almost anything.
There are very few professional athletes today that use their personal resources to become agents of change. Since being selected with the 12th pick by Dallas (subsequently traded to Washington) out of Syracuse University in the 2000 draft, Etan has used his conscious and tireless voice to uplift the underclass, inspire those who search for positive understanding, and address controversial issues such as the pessimistic plight of inner-city schools, the death penalty, and abortion–among others. He’s written a book of poems, More Than An Athlete and has another forth coming tentatively titled Freedom to Speak. He’s written columns for SLAMonline and The Huffington Post, spoken on panels and participated in demonstrations; using his public personna to help establish a mass voice which will force those in power to judge their collective work accordingly. Those of you who are enlightened by an athlete unafraid to challenge the status quo will find purpose–past, present and future–in Etan’s words and social interaction. I personally choose to follow athletes of Etan’s ilk because he takes me back to a different time–1968–when athletes were not at all worried about offending anyone, but more focused on helping everyone.
Etan recently took some time out of his busy off-season schedule to give TSF a few words on what his socially aware consciousness is all about.
Thanks to the tech people at UNC, my virus problems have been resolved.
In this issue:
1) Peter Gammons finds a new way to bash Title IX
2) Amy Lawrence, of ESPN radio, confirms what we already know: talking about sports for a living on the radio does not require that you know what you’re talking about.
On July 4, Peter Gammons spoke with Bob Valvano on ESPN radio (thanks to MB for the tip). A few minutes into the conversation, the subject turned to the declining number of African Americans in major league baseball. Gammons and Valvano touched on the remarks made a few weeks back by Gary Sheffield and Torii Hunter on the subject. Gammons also observed that baseball has “become very much an elitist sport…you want to play AAU ball, it costs a lot of money. The inner city and the small school baseball programs are not very active.” Then Gammons said: “I don’t mean this to sound sexist at all…but…Title IX eliminated the opportunity for poor kids to play college baseball because you have ten scholarships for thirty players. You get seventeen women’s volleyball scholarships, but you get ten baseball scholarships. So, there aren’t full scholarships anymore in college.” Gammons went on to recount a conversation he had with Harold Reynolds a couple of years ago, when Reynolds was covering the college world series and among the eight teams and roughly 240 players, there were no African Americans.
Did Gammons offer any evidence as to the racial and income composition of the typical college baseball player today compared with thirty years ago? Of course not.
I am in New York right now, and not able to get in front of the computer for significant chunks of time, but I did want to get off a quick note about something I saw in the Times this morning. Due to a late voting push, Barry Bonds will be starting in left field for the National League All-star team next Tuesday in San Francisco. Much of the discussion over the past few weeks has been about whether Bonds, were he not voted in by the fans, would be added to the team as a reserve player. Some speculated that the commissioner might even step in to prevent Bonds from being named to the team. What’s been lost in that discussion, however, is what kind of season Bonds is actually having. Jack Curry’s article in the New York Times puts it this way:
“Even if the fans had not voted in Bonds as a starter, he is having a solid season and probably would have been selected by the players…” (my emphasis)
Not to pick on Curry here, but Bonds is having a “solid” season in about the same way one might say that the Great Wall of China is “sizable.”