Archive for the ‘Sports’ category

In Preparation For This Afternoon’s American Rugby-ish Semifinals

January 19, 2014

Given that the recreational enjoyment of that ever-popular friend, Mary Jane, is now legal in both the states in which NFL conference championships will be decided today, I can’t think of a better musical commentary than this one:

Party w. discretion y’all, mindful of the state of the law in the state you are.
Oh, and of course:  Go Pats! Go Niners!

Not With a Bang

November 14, 2013

How would football die?

Not by defections from the NFL — either of players or audience.  News like this is (so far) falling into  the business-as-usual folder for most who love the pro game, inside or out.

Three_Persons_Viewing_the_Gladiator_by_Candlelight

No.  If football as it is now played is going to die, it will be because this becomes a growing trend:

The nation’s largest youth football program, Pop Warner, saw participation drop 9.5 percent between 2010-12, a sign that the concussion crisis that began in the NFL is having a dramatic impact at the lowest rungs of the sport.

According to data provided to “Outside the Lines,” Pop Warner lost 23,612 players, thought to be the largest two-year decline since the organization began keeping statistics decades ago. Consistent annual growth led to a record 248,899 players participating in Pop Warner in 2010; that figure fell to 225,287 by the 2012 season.

The ESPN reporters who wrote that, Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada report that without being sure what drives the decline, the threat of long term brain damage is likely part of what’s keeping parents from enrolling their kids in the sport.  Sounds right to me — as the parent of a sports-averse 13 year old, I haven’t had to weigh in on this, but there isn’t a chance at all that I would let my kid play tackle football (and I have my doubts about soccer, too, as it happens).  I’m sure I’m not alone.

The article goes on to talk about some changes the Pop Warner folks are thinking about — the big one being a suggestion to ban the three point stance for linemen.  That move isn’t happening very quickly.  It may come about, and such a change might tip the scale for some families.

But let’s say football goes some large part of the way towards boxing, becoming (what it once was) a more minor, more geographically constrained sport — especially for the youth and high school game.  Say a couple of  school systems, and maybe a few universities, get sued for malign neglect of their student-atheletes’ interests.  Suppose insurance companies start hiking the charges for liability coverage — or dropping it altogether — for the less financially robust nodes of the football-industrial complex.

Won’t happen fast. Could come faster than many of us (me) imagine.

Right now, like lots of folks, I’m still drawn to football.  I still feel excited if I’m at a bar and see someone break something big.  But increasingly I can’t sit down and watch a game.  It feels like I’m looking at slow-motion executions, and I don’t like that one bit.

Not with a bang, folks.  With some moms and pops deciding not to sign a permission slip. With an insurance bill that the (X) Unified School District can’t pay.  And yeah, in part, with just a little too much prime time exposure of still young men who can’t remember why they got into the car to go they can’t remember where.

Image:  Joseph Wright of Derby, Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight1765.

For A Good Time On The Intertubes TODAY! — Sports, Genes, Human Potential edition

July 31, 2013

A reminder/follow up to Monday’s post.

This evening at 6 p.m. EDT I’ll be talking with author and Sports Illustrated Senior Writer David Epstein about his new book The Sports Gene.  You can listen to the show, Virtually Speaking Science live and later here — and  you can catch up on my episodes or those of other hosts (Alan Boyle, Jennifer Ouellette, PZ Myers) either by searching my name or Virtually Speaking Science at either Blog Talk Radio or on iTunes.

The show also goes up virtually live in Second Life (yes — it still exists!) at the Exploratorium’s in-world space.  If you’re into SL, or merely avatar-curious, come on down.  It’s weirdly fun doing this in front of a “live” studio audience.

Now to the substance. Let me get right out in front of it.  A book that looks at genes and human possibility — both physical and mental/emotional — is navigating a mine field of sloppy science, bad intentions, and terrible history.  David has managed to write a book that is smart, scientifically literate, clear and subtle.

Here’s the passage with which David begins his Epilogue:

Eero Mäntyranta’s life story is a paragon of a 10,000 hours tale.

Mäntyranta grew up in poverty and had to ski across a frozen lake to get to and from school each day.  As a young adult, he took up serious skiing as a way to improve his life station — to land a job as a border patrolman and escape the danger and drudgery of forest work.  The faintest taste of success was all Mäntyranta needed to embark on the furious training that forged one of the greatest Olympic athletes of a generation.  Who would deny his hard work or the lonely suffering he endured on algid winter nights? Swap skis for feet and the Arctic forest for the Rift Valley and Mäntyranta’s tale would fit snugly into the narrative template of a Kenyan marathoner.

If not for a batch of curious scientists who were familiar with Mäntyranta’s exploits and invited him to their lab twenty years after his retirement, his story might have remained a pure triumph of nurture.  But illuminated by the light of genetics, Mäntyranta’s life tale looks like something entirely different:  100 percent nature and 100 percent nurture….

And, a little later in this concluding essay:

In all likelihood, we over ascribe our skills and traits to either innate talent or training, depending on what fits our personal narratives.

One of the pleasures of the book is a proper debunking of the Gladwell version of the 10,000 hours story, and we’ll talk about that.  We’ll talk about genes, about the implications of genetic and human variation, on what use those of us who aren’t elite athletes can make of new scientific investigations into things like the genetics of brain trauma or injury, and much more.  I found this book deeply intriguing, a page turner, for all the complexity of some of the technical matters under scrutiny.  Most of all, for all its presentation as a sports book, or sports science book, I found it best read as an idiosyncratic doorway into an increasingly rich understanding of human possibility.  I didn’t need genetics to tell me that I never could have been an Olympic (or high school) sprinter.

Schiele_-_Laufende_-_1915_

It gives me a kind of joy to realize as a fifty something slowest-jogger-on-the-river that there is a growing body of knowledge that can help me think systematically about the best way to train the body I’ve got.  Cool stuff.

Last — a couple of factoids that turned up in my pre-interview with David that are too good not to share ahead of time.

For one, just for those who think we’re in post-racial America, David pointed out to me that the alleged inverse relationship between athletic prowess and intellectual skill only started to getting talked about in the US as African-American athletes gained access to previously all white or white dominated sports.  For another:  in the 30s, basketball, historically an urban sport, had a disproportionate number of Jews at high levels of the game.  So folks talked about a Jewish basketball gene, and you got some predictable crap about canny Jews knowing how to steal the ball and such like.

Oy — but fodder for some fascinating radio.

Tune in this afternoon or later as you get the chance.

Image:  Egon Schiele, Running Girl,  1915

Getting Harder To Watch

January 10, 2013

It’s now confirmed:  Junior Seau suffered what appears to have been a football-assisted suicide:

The former N.F.L. linebacker Junior Seau had a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head trauma when he committed suicide last spring, the National Institutes of Health said Thursday.

The findings were consistent with chronic traumatic encephalopathy [CTE], a degenerative brain disease widely connected to athletes who have absorbed frequent blows to the head, the N.I.H. said in a statement.

Via ESPN, here’s a quick summary of what that diagnosis implies.

CTE is a progressive disease associated with repeated head trauma. Although long known to occur in boxers, it was not discovered in football players until 2005. Researchers at Boston University recently confirmed 50 cases of CTE in former football players, including 33 who played in the NFL.

That gets at what’s most troubling, to me at least, CTE has turned up again and again in the brains of NFL dead:

Since C.T.E. was diagnosed in the brain of the former Eagles defensive back Andre Waters after his suicide in 2006, the disease has been found in nearly every former player whose brain was examined posthumously. (C.T.E. can only be diagnosed posthumously.)

Researchers at Boston University, who pioneered the study of C.T.E., have found it in 18 of the 19 brains of former N.F.L. players they have examined.

I really like watching football.  I’ve dedicated a lot of Sundays to the pleasure.  I’ve got a friend down the block in my new neighborhood with whom I’ve become much more rapidly close that mostly happens with new acquaintances, a bond formed over our regular sessions in front of his TV and scotch bottle.  Last season we caught just about every Patriots game together.

Three_Persons_Viewing_the_Gladiator_by_Candlelight

This year not so much.  Partly, real life is to blame — mostly the desire to spend more time with a son on the verge of teenager-hood and the accompanying (and looming) irrelevance of Dad.  But really, I’m finding it harder and harder to recover my eagerness for the sport given this knowledge:  as I watch, say, this Sunday’s Patriots-Houston playoff, I’ll take my enjoyment from a game that — played correctly, within the rules — is doing an increment of what will add up to grievous harm for some of the people I’m watching right in front of me, at that moment.

A little context.  I love great writing more than I love any sport, and I’ve long thought some of the best non-fiction I’ve ever read comes in the form of A. J. Liebling’s boxing essays.  After I read Liebling — way back in the early eighties — I started watching some fights.  At its best, it’s a completely consuming spectacle, full of all that sport is supposed to provide, stories of courage, skill, smarts, human weakness, pure athletic astonishment, the lot.  But I couldn’t stick with it. This was before Muhammad Ali’s terrible decline became obvious, but it doesn’t take such a high profile case to make the point.  They coined the phrase “punch drunk” for a reason, and that reason is obvious to anyone who watches more than a bout or two.

Boxing’s raw, obvious, stripped to the skin.  The point is to render your opponent unconscious, to so rattle his (and now her) brain that he or she falls down.

Football is, of course, not quite so insistent on damage; the hits are in the service of the goal of advancing or preventing the movement of the ball.   But still, stories like Seau’s make clear the risks that flow from the game:   especially at the level where everyone is so ferociously big and strong, there’s a quite possibly large fraction of players who will suffer as Seau did — not to the point of suicide, necessarily, but to some form of damage.

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about this a few days ago, talking about his decision to walk away from watching the NFL, reached before this last season.  I didn’t come to his conclusion this last autumn; I didn’t give up on the game altogether.  But the moral and/or emotional logic that moved Ta-Nehisi  is getting harder and harder for me to ignore.  I’m just not sure how much longer I can keep watching.  Might not make it through the weekend.

A last note:  Here’s Tyler Seau on his father’s death (via TNC.)

“It makes me realize that he wasn’t invincible, because I always thought of him as being that guy. Like a lot of sons do when they look up to their dad. You know? You try to be like that man in your life. You try to mimic the things that he does. Play the game the way he did. Work the way he did. And, you know, now you look at it in a little bit different view.”

Tyler added: “Is it worth it? I’m not sure. But it’s not worth it for me to not have a dad. So to me it’s not worth it.”

To get unreasonably personal with you: I lost my dad to an accident when I was 10.  I learned a lot from dealing with the consequences of that event.  I can’t tell you how much I’d rather have foregone that education.  You know what I’m saying?

Image:  Joseph Wright of Derby, Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight, 1765

I Am Never Going To Be A Steelers Fan But…

January 4, 2012

…this is how a class (and smart) act behaves:

Ryan Clark sat down in Mike Tomlin’s office and did something a little out of character for the normally verbose Pittsburgh Steelerssafety. He listened.

And when Tomlin told Clark he couldn’t play in Sunday’s wild card game at Denver because of a sickle-cell trait that becomes aggravated when playing at higher elevations, Clark just shrugged his shoulders and nodded.

“I said `OK coach,”‘ Clark said Wednesday. “It wasn’t any fight … does he seem like a man who changes his mind anyway? I knew there wasn’t going to be any changing in that.”

And for that, Clark is grateful. If given the choice, Clark would give it a shot even when faced with potentially dire consequences.

“Y’all have seen me play, I run into people all the time, so clearly I’m not that bright,” Clark told reporters with a laugh.

Tomlin told Clark that if Tomlin’s son Dino was in the same situation, he wouldn’t let him play, the kind of blunt assessment that Clark has grown to appreciate during Tomlin’s five years on the job. (via Sports Illustrated)

I’ve been watching football for a long time now.  I enjoy doing so, though I find myself taking less and less pleasure in it over time, the more I learn about the way the game — played as directed — eats up and spits out young men.

(Alas, for the viewer, consider the alternatives):

Nothing in this story changes that essential dynamic, of course.  But at least Tomlin — and the Steelers organization — get one key fact right.  The game (even a playoff game, forsooth!) is not life.

Ordinarily, in a Denver v. Pittsburgh matchup, I’d be struggling to decide who to hate more. (Born in Raider country, spent more than half my life in the land of the Pats.)  Not this weekend.

Though I struggle to type it:

Go Stillers!

Image: Winslow Homer, The Croquet Game, 1864

How About A Little xkcd Haute Snark?

May 28, 2011

Honi soit qui mal y pense:

I got the heads up to this from John Sundman, a Twitter buddy, (@jsundmanus) who complains that it “is factually wrong; an astoundingly rare occurrence.”  Guess why.  (Sundman’s answer after the jump.)

“discussants are not holding beers.”

Might As Well Get This One Out Of The Way Early in the Superbowl Hype Fortnight

January 26, 2011

Consider this a diversion from real life.  Still a downer, a bit, (or perhaps just a PGO).  But at least it’s guaranteed Bachmann-free.  Give me that….

As a born-and-raised Bay Area kid, I grew up on Brodie, Stabler, Lamonica, Plunkett — and then the glorious experience of watching Joe Montana.  Steve Young was the lagniappe.  With all that, it took me a decade or two after arriving in Boston to start actually caring about the Pats, and we all know how that has turned out.  All in all, I’ve had a sunlit time as a fan of the NFL, Franco F***K*** Harris and his maculate reception notwithstanding.

But over the last few years — and this year more — I’ve found it harder and harder to stick with the games.  I used to joke about how pro football was just 22 supremely fit young men, all taller, faster, stronger and just flat out more wonderful physically that I ever could have been pounding on each other themselves for my entertainment.  It wasn’t funny then, and it is less so now.

How not funny?   It happens that yesterday I was at the doctor’s office, waiting for one of those indignities visited up on those of us on the far side of fifty, when I came upon that eternal resource of the waiting room:  old issues of Sports Illustrated.


I picked up one from last September, and came across this piece by Selena Roberts.  Here’s her lede:

This couldn’t be the right room. It was only a clinic door, but when he swung it open, Wesley Walls passed through a portal to his future. He stood among bingo-hall sharks with their sock-hop memories, their early-bird dinner plans and their new ceramic hips. Just 41 in December 2007—four years removed from a career as a Pro Bowl tight end—Walls found himself stretching with the oldies after hip-replacement surgery at a facility in Charlotte. “I was doing physical therapy with some of my parents’ friends,” he told me six months after his surgery. “It was like, Hey, you’re that Walls kid, right? I thought, Man, I am too young to be in here. This can’t be happening, not this soon.

Roberts trades in the controversial number that each year playing in the NFL costs the player one – three years of life expectancy.  On a quick search I haven’t been able to turn up any real primary data — it may be out there (consider this a bleg), but we already know plenty about what an NFL career does to the living. Reading Roberts reminded me of the first story to really erode my ability to watch the game with unalloyed eagerness:  the Boston Globe’s 2007 story about Ted Johnson’s descent into dementia.  (In some ways, this story is even more depressing, given the age of player studied.)

The dementia reports are heartbreaking of course, but at least there does seem to have been some coherent response from the league and the players association — a push for better helmets, new rules, all that.  But the central message of Roberts’ piece is obvious, really:   the game played properly is a meat grinder.

That said, all the familiar arguments apply:  professional football players are well compensated adults who choose and (most of them) love what they do.  The facts here aren’t hard to track down:  any professional player knows, or should, that careers are short and injuries are an inescable part of the game.

I’d bet it is true that most rookies coming into the league can’t or don’t begin to imagine lives at forty constrained by multiple knee operations or what have you — but twenty something males (and women too, of course — but that’s for some other post) in lots of lines of work get to make decisions that to their older selves will seem dumb as hell.  Why should football players be singled out for enforced wisdom?

They shouldn’t — and Roberts wasn’t and I am not arguing that the game should die to protect young men who’ve made the calculation (whether they know they’ve done so or not).

Rather, the issue in that article was the proposed shift to an eighteen game regular season in the NFL.  Roberts pointed out that such a shift adds the equivalent of a year of play every eight…and it would ensure shorter careers and less time for fans to watch any great players whose prime should properly by measured in hits endured rather than seasons completed.

So the only affirmative claim I’m going to make in this post is that Roberts, and Peter King and the lots of others who have argued this are absolutely right:  leave the game alone.  Roger Goodell and the owners have laid the proposed shift on the fans; it is said we want more real contests and fewer exhibitions.  To be as charitable as possible in the face of the obvious, that justificaton omits the fact that two more games means an equivalent boost in the cash the owners get to pull off the game.

So, despite the fact that no one who gets to decide here cares what this fan thinks, I’m saying no. Don’t lay that sh*t on me.  Sixteen contests per season (plus up to four more for the good teams) are enough.  I want the players whose remarkable skills have given me so much excitement over a lot of years to last.  Even more:  I’d like to think that they will have better than a puncher’s chance of being able to lift a grandkid over their shoulders later on.

That’s all — but for this: I make no claim for anyone else, and I have no wish to tell the next supremely gifted and smart young athlete how to live his life.  But I get to decide how I want to live mine.  I’m 52 now, certainly not wise,  but I hope more mindful of taking my pleasures at no one else’s expense.

I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to watch the game.

Images:  Thomas Eakins, The Wrestlers, 1899.

François Boucher (1703-1770), after Paolo Veronese, Allegory of Wisdom and Strength: The Choice of Hercules or Hercules and Omphale, c. 1750.


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