Dispatch From a Tanker

It’s been tough following the Chicago Cubs the last few years. But of course they’ve been hard to follow for over 100 years now. Yet there’s a certain resignation of late, not only do us fans feel like there’s no chance they’ll win a championship this year, we feel like there’s no chance we’ll be good at all because, if we are, the best players will be traded before the deadline. This ensures great hauls of prospects and good draft picks, but there’s a sense of foul play, like we’re gaming the system. It goes against the spirit of sports to be OK with losing, especially for a multi-year stretch. Wait till next year has become wait till three years from now. It’s one thing to look at a team’s record and July and determine that it has no chance of making the playoffs, then trade players who provide short-term value in exchange for guys with long-term upside. It’s quite another to systemically dismantle a team to build it up again in a new image, sacrificing years in the process. Losing is not news for the Cubs (and pretty much all baseball fans), but in the past it’s been poor management or indifferent owners who are happy to count cash while the team floundered. At least in that instance you can complain about something beyond your control that doesn’t ultimately matter that match. That’s one of many joys in sports.

This management practice, known as tanking, is hardly new, but has been enhanced and enjoyed much wider usage of late. The most recent model is derived from popular business strategies, usually following a takeover or significant change in governance. The idea is that sometimes you’re working with something so flawed it needs to be burnt down, and in burning it down you can more easily acquire the long-term assets needed to build it back up the right way. It’s a bigger problem in the NBA, a league in which a team almost always needs a top-ten player to win a championship. The Philadelphia 76ers have made it very clear this is their strategy, drafting three guys in the last two years unable to compete in the following season and trading two starters during last year’s historically awful run. It is likely that in the next few years the NBA will reform its draft lottery to discourage the process and remove some of the incentive to lose on purpose (the 76ers are fighting these proposals). In baseball, the Houston Astros are the strategy’s poster franchise. They’ve fielded comically bad teams the last few years, way worse than the Cubs even, and maintained a rock-bottom payroll. They’ve shown no interest in adding valuable free agents and have tried all sorts of experiments a contending team would never attempt. While it’s cool I guess that they’re doing these things and some of them will undoubtedly work to reshape the game in good ways, their ballpark draws few fans. And why should it? As a fan it’s tough to get excited about a team that you know won’t compete and you know will be stripped of its best assets midseason.

I have a lot of trust in Theo Epstein, the Cubs president of baseball operations. He put together two championship teams in Boston and many of his players were crucial to last year’s World Series victory as well. However, I’m getting antsy. No only that, but I wonder if, in the next few years as the Cubs rebuilding comes to a close and they’re ready to compete again, I’ll have the same passion for them. I do believe that what they’re doing is the smartest, most rational thing to do from a long-term baseball/business standpoint, but I’m worried the strategy will incur some unexpected losses. Of course sports have always been a business, but being a fan is not the same thing as being a consumer – watching a game is not like getting a new iPhone. There’s such an irrational joy that comes from rooting for a team. The irrationality of it is a huge part of the point. I don’t want to look at it like a product that should maximize my entertainment. It’s like the marketization phenomenon I wrote about a few weeks ago. I don’t want business strategy to dictate everything in my life. Plus it all feels a little boring. There’s less spontaneity, less optimism, and in their place are inevitable and mind-numbing spreadsheets with five-year strategic plans. Maybe that makes more of a certain kind of sense, but it’s less fun.

Remember the Titans, “Based on a True Story,” and the Sometimes-No-BS Wonder of Great Cliches

In lieu of a regular movie review this week, I thought I’d respond to a Deadspin post yesterday about Greg Paspatis, former kicker for T.C. Williams high school under coach Herman Boone. Of course we all remember said high school and said coach from the 2000 movie, Remember the Titans. For those who don’t remember, a quick synopsis, courtesy of IMDb:

It’s 1971 in Alexandria, Virginia and successful high school football coach Bill Yoast (Will Patton) has just been deprived of the head coaching job at the newly integrated T.C. Williams High School to make way for equally successful black coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington). Yoast debates pursuing opportunities elsewhere, but when most of his white players vow to sit out the season unless he coaches, he changes his mind and stays on as Boone’s assistant.

Throughout training camp and the season, Boone and Yoast’s black and white players learn to accept each other, to work together, and that football knows no race. As they learn from each other, Boone and Yoast also learn from them and in turn, the whole town learns from the team, the Titans. Thus, they are prepared to pursue the State Championship and to deal with an unthinkable tragedy that threatens to sink their perfect season.

Sounds cheesy, but so does every synopsis. It’s a great movie. Unfortunately for all of us who feel that way, the Deadspin post is not good news. It follows Paspatis’ efforts to tell the truth about the school and Coach Boone. From the article and what else I’ve heard in the years since the movie came out, it’s accurate and damning. It’s a story of a school twice as large as its rivals, which naturally dominated in the premier sport of the time and place: football. Herman Boone is not flattered either. Apparently he wasn’t really a good coach and a jerk and even worse, since the movie, has gone on a bunch of speaking tours designed for self-promotion above all, without regard for facts. Furthermore, the school integrated in 1965, six years before the film claimed it was desegregated. Race relations weren’t much of a problem during that season, or at least not close to as much as the movie claimed. Bottom line: any investigation pretty much tears most of what we love about the movie to shreds.

My dad grew up in Northern Virginia and his former high school remains a rival of T.C. Williams. He loved the movie, despite being aware of some of its distortions. He was also really nice to not crush my childhood idolatry of the movie in too bad a way. Perhaps I’m too biased, but I submit to you that it’s possible to love the movie as separate from what really happened. Like almost everything in this world, it was a tremendously flawed project, but one that we can still appreciate.

Call me a sap, but I don’t understand how you could go into the movie on a normal day and fail to be moved on the way out. Especially if you’re a sports fan. It’s one of those experiences that makes you glad you learned all the sentimental cliches once upon a time. They are useful sometimes after all. Perhaps our love/hate relationship with cliches comes from a simultaneous acknowledgement of the fact that many of them articulate the way we want things to be, while reminding us of their impossibility, shallowness, and often banality. Of course it’s cliche to say “this movie shows us all humans are more alike than different” and “racial divides crumble when confronted with the power of the human spirit” and “humans are incredible when they come together.” But why does the fact that they’re often said take away their meaning? Aren’t they deep truths we should aspire to experience, prove true, and depict in art? Even more importantly, don’t stories exist to expose such truths that are too hard to see in the grind and messiness of everyday life?

Over time our cliches have been cheapened with Budweiser ads and political slogans and consolatory bromides and so much more, but we shouldn’t forsake them because they’ve been misused. Instead we should hold onto them that much tighter so they never lose their real purpose, because if all of them turn out to be lies then I don’t think anything’s true. We should always be skeptical when they appear but never abandon hope that this time we may be seeing the real thing. It’s so easy to be cynical because it’s so often justified, but this sometimes lets us off the hook. What’s much harder is to find the good in things and live by it. No wonder we avoid that search and censor those questions with snideness or choose to withdraw to avoid further pain. Maybe if we choose to embrace the messages of this movie (a movie not without the heartbreaks and irreconcilable tragedies of real life) we can make it mean something real. Of course it’s imperfect, spoiler alert: everything is. I’m glad Greg Paspatis is telling the real truth about T.C. and Boone because they shouldn’t get the credit for this. But that doesn’t mean that everything depicted in the movie is a lie.

The biggest flaw of the movie (apart from the fact that the actors are obviously not in high school, Boone’s wife has a horrible Southern accent, and that last TD run featured some absurd blocking from a skinny QB) is that it claimed to be “based on a true story” and that true story occurred in Alexandria, VA cerca 1971. It didn’t. But I think it is a true story of a different sort, one that’s been told and told and forgotten and rediscovered and forgotten again, all over the world throughout all of time. Let’s take this chance to remember it.

The Eccentric and the Damned

Over the last few weeks I’ve been regaling a non-baseball fan friend with anecdotes about former pitcher Greg Maddux. Maddux’s recent induction into the baseball Hall of Fame has brought to light some bizarre but hilarious stories about the really really weird stuff he used to do (and still does, he made a fart joke in his HoF acceptance speech). Notables include a running “your mom” series with a beat reporter and peeing on rookies in the shower while pretending to engage them in serious conversation (Total Frat Move has a nice roundup here, read if you dare).

Regardless of what happened off the field, mostly harmless though disgusting as it might have been, Maddux will always be remembered as a baseball genius and one of the best of all time. His 355 career wins are good enough for the eighth highest ever. Most of the time pitchers with his career numbers had great fastballs and incredible movement on their pitches, but Maddux didn’t. He relied on pinpoint control, exhaustive preparation, and a brilliant awareness of hitter tendencies (teammate and likely future Hall of Famer John Smoltz claimed Maddux could often predict where the ball would go based on who was at the plate and the upcoming pitch). He was also a fantastic defensive player, winning a major league record 18 Gold Glove awards. Because of his incredible ability to win games on a consistent basis, fellow players and coaches were fine putting up with his shit. Many members of the media really enjoyed him too. Eccentric is one of many words to describe him.

This brings us to another sports genius; a man who is completely dedicated to his craft – both athlete and student; a man whose off-the-field actions also cause us to furrow our brows. I’m speaking of Richard Sherman, cornerback for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. Unlike Maddux, Sherman is still active and in the prime of his career. Given the unpredictability of injuries, especially in football, it’s hard to say if Sherman will go down as one of the greatest of all time like Maddux, but if he stays healthy it’s very possible, if not probable. At the least, his spectacular play to clinch last year’s NFC Championship game will be remembered. As will his post-game outburst while being interviewed by a sideline reporter. It’s a simple fact that Sherman’s comments were unsportsmanlike and rude. But in the aftermath he was assumed by many to be unintelligent and vulgar, a thug. Five minutes of online research clearly demonstrates this is not the case. While at Stanford and excelling on the field, Sherman also earned a degree in communications, graduating with a 3.9 cumulative GPA. He has donated the time and money to start a foundation, Blanket Coverage, which is dedicated to providing school supplies to kids in need. He’s also a very eloquent speaker and writer. Very few boys who grow up in Compton reach the kinds of levels he has and we should admire and celebrate his hardest-won victories, which happened far from the field.

It’s far too simple to say that we revere Maddux and condemn Sherman because one is white and the other is black. Such stark choices are almost never made like that in today’s society, thank goodness. And of course it’s possible to condemn some of Sherman’s actions without being racist, I just did that (again, anyone who thinks those comments weren’t unsportsmanlike and a bad example is just wrong, I’d love to do away entirely with post-game sideline interviews, but they exist and we should expect our sports heroes to be more composed than he was), but we often allow for more nuance in discussing people who look like Maddux than in people who look like Sherman. Those who dominate their crafts have to be very weird in some ways, being as good as they are at anything is very weird by definition. It’s not ridiculous to say that a very similar kind of brilliant and beautiful, but dark and twisted genius lives in both of them. How else would they be so compelling?

From the Archive

I stumbled upon this 2004 Ryan Lizza profile of Senate candidate Barack Obama done for the Atlantic. It followed his famous convention speech in support of John Kerry and it’s pretty weird after ten years. There’s even a quote from then-Congressman and now Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emmanuel, (he was President Obama’s first White House Chief of Staff). It’s easy to read too much into it with that 20/20 hindsight, but Lizza does a great job here. Somehow it makes us remember the genuine appeal that was there while hinting at some of the future pitfalls. It’s not too long and worth a read.

Just Don’t Look

It can be tough to condemn things nowadays. While it’s important to criticize when called for, sometimes the attention that follows is greater than it would have been otherwise. People may think something is bad because of criticism, but it was because of the criticism that they took note of it in the first place. Calling something out gives it a certain status, when otherwise it may have disappeared or been far less impactful. It’s like playing a game where the object is to not think about an elephant. Without the framing you win, but as soon as you tell someone not to think about an elephant they’re thinking about it. It seems Republicans campaigning against Obamacare have found this out the hard way. A Brookings Institution researcher gives us some data:

His analysis, which he detailed in a blog post, compared states’ per-capita ad spending with their enrollment rates, and found that it was often the case that the more money spent on anti-ACA ads, the more Americans signed up for coverage—a trend made more impressive by the fact that, in the run-up to this fall’s midterm elections, the advertising budget of the ACA’s opponents was about 15 times the size of that of the law’s supporters.

Why?

“The first one is that with the negative ads, citizens’ awareness about this subsidized service increases, and the more ads they see, the more they know that such a service exists. … The other theory is that citizens who were exposed to an overwhelming number of ads about Obamacare are more likely to believe that this service is going to be repealed by the Congress in the near future … [so] he or she will have a higher willingness to go and take advantage of this one-time opportunity before it goes away.”

This connects with some of the problems I was discussing yesterday with new media models. Most sites sell ads based on visitors, so merely by looking at the site you’re contributing, even if you’re looking at to write about how it’s problematic. Publishing a post critical of those sites also gives them more attention. It’s a catch-22 that’s tough to resolve.

New Media Update

Two stories I’ve read in the past few days give interesting indications of where new media may be headed. One of them, by Tom Schreier and published a few days ago on Deadspin.com, is a first-person account of a young writer’s struggles to get ahead at Bleacher Report, the crowd-written online sports site. The other is a Lizzie Widdicombe New Yorker piece from almost a year ago about the women’s website Bustle.com, whose founder was Bryan Goldberg, also a Bleacher Report founder. The site hires a lot of young women and churns out content, a quick look at their website demonstrates that you have to scroll down for quite a while to get to anything produced more than 24 hours ago.

The model of both sites is similar in that they both enlist young, green reporters to write about what they like. With Bleacher Report it’s their favorite sports teams and with Bustle it’s current world events, fashion, pop culture, and pretty much whatever interests the writers on a particular day. The idea is that people want to read writers who sound like them and lots of regular people will want to write about things that they care about. From a reader’s standpoint it’s a quick-and-easy way to stay in the loop and both sites have provided good opportunities for people to take their passions to the next level. From a business standpoint it’s easy to organize and execute because it’s low cost. And, with sophisticated techniques to up the page-views to increase ad revenue, profitable. However, close readings of each of these two pieces inspire concern. Take this quote from the New Yorker story:

A well-researched exposé, such as the one Sports Illustrated recently ran about N.C.A.A. violations by the Oklahoma State football team, may take many months of work from a highly paid reporter and editor. But, in the end, Morrissey said, “it yields the same revenue as a ‘25 Sexiest Female Athletes Who Can Kick Your Ass’ post, which costs, like, two hundred dollars.”

And this one from Deadspin:

In my three years at Bleacher Report, I covered the San Jose Sharks while studying in the Bay Area, and the Twins, Wild, Timberwolves, and Vikings upon returning home to Minnesota. I wrote over 500 articles, generated nearly three million page views, and received $200 for my services.

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