5/29/07 The Good, the Bad, and the Unusual
I'm talking about three sports, two widely popular around the world, and another fairly popular in the lands of snow and ice. These are, respectively to the title, golf, soccer, and hockey. Lets look at them in reverse order.
Hockey, the Unusual.
People who grew up with hockey wouldn't consider it all that unusual, but it has a few quirks. It's a ballgame without a ball, it has a puck. The puck is really a ball with the top and bottom sawn off and then stuck in the freezer so it's hard as a rock. OK, not all that weird, but how about a game with two halftimes and three quarters. Must be a Canadian thing. What other team sport allows fighting as a part of the game. I mean a legitimate sport, not roller derby or something of that ilk. Alright, there is some punishment for fighting. Like a misbehaving child they get a time-out and must sit in the corner. In effect you get a five minute suspension.
The most unusual aspect of hockey, it's the only sport this side of tag team wrestling that allows you to substitute players while the play is going on. This constant substitution means the best players, other than goalies, sit on the bench over half of the game so it's harder for a hockey superstar to dominate a game the way Shaq can. Basketball talks about the best sixth man, but hockey gets down to the 14th man and beyond.
Soccer, the Bad.
How this game became the most popular team sport in the world is a mystery. The basic concept is fine, running around trying to kick a ball into a big net without using your hands, but the execution is awful. The offsides rule is possibly the worst in sports. What is it for, what good does it do. The way it's written it's virtually impossible to call right. The linesman must be able to see many things at the same time, the two defenders closest to the goal line, the position of the offensive players without the ball, and the position of the player making a forward pass. All this at the moment the ball is played forward. There's no way to reset things with an NFL style video review, either. They blow the call and that's that. And they blow it way too many times to be acceptable.
Soccer lovers will tell you, unlike those American sports like football, it's a game of continuous action. Well, it's a game of continuous play, not action. In fact there's very little action of consequence. Some games will have fewer than 10 shots on goal for both teams combined. A quarter of the game consists of the goalie holding the ball while everyone trots to midfield and mills around a bit waiting for the ensuing round of head pinball after the goalie punts the ball aimlessly toward the other end. Or there's what they call build-up through midfield where everyone jogs around the field knocking the ball back and forth where there's no real danger of a goal being scored. About as thrilling as the pre-game workout.
Add to that soccer players are the biggest whimps in all of sports. You only need to breath hard on a soccer player to knock him over so he begins rolling around screaming like he's been shot. A football or hockey player will have a finger reattached and then go back in the game. You'd think these South American countries dripping in machismo would produce tougher sons, but they don't seem to.
The bigger problem is the one most Americans would agree with, not enough goals. This is not a problem only from the lack of excitement that comes from lack of scoring, though that's part of it. Fewer goals puts a premium on each goal, making it more important than a run in baseball or a touchdown for instance. This means every ruling of the referee can loom large and decide a game. A missed offsides call, a penalty call or non-call can determine the outcome. Without doubt, there's more wailing and gnashing of teeth over getting robbed by the refs in soccer than any other sport. This makes soccer terribly frustrating, not only does a team have very few opportunities to score, the referee can wipe out your team's only go at goal with a blow of his whistle for a phantom foul or non-existent offside.
Golf, the Good.
What's so good about golf, you ask. As a spectator sport it leaves something to be desired. However as a participation sport it's terrific. In one respect it's the opposite of soccer in that the refs never decide a game. In fact you rarely even need refs to make a call at all. There's no judgement call of whether you scored or not, either it's in the cup or it's not. The only thing you need to keep track of is how many times you hit the ball and where it went. No offsides, no personal fouls, no ball or strike judgement calls, no three second violation, no time clock, no style points... and on and on. It's practically the only pure sport. The course is the same for every player. The only variable is the weather.
The great thing for players, especially older less fit players, is you can play as hard as you want and have a good time. If you feel like playing casually you can. If you feel like playing seriously you can. And two people can each play the way they want at the same time. The defense is the course, not the other player. Even a good player can play a duffer competitively if you offer a handicap.
If you wanted to, you could play by yourself and get the same experience. You may not win or lose compared to another player, but you can win or lose compared to par. Golf may not be the sport of kings as horse racing claims to be, but it is the king of sports.
4/25/07 The Die-Easy Sports Fan
I admit it, I'm a fair weather fan. I only watch or care if my team is doing well. Some will accuse me of not being a true fan. I can live with that. It's only sports. Sports are entertainment, a diversion for pleasure. If I don't enjoy watching my favorite teams when they're bad, I won't. Life is too short to volunteer to share someone else's failure. I have enough disappointments of my own, I don't need to vicariously lose through others.
There's a notion you should support the home team through thick and thin no matter what. This is like saying you should eat at your local restaurant no matter how good, or bad, the food is. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad depending on the cooks and wait staff and quality of ingredients. Why keep eating bad food hoping that it will be good someday. Sure, you'll get preferential treatment for being there in the bad times, but what good is the best table in a bad restaurant?
There seems to be a lot of people who try to apply logic and reason to being a sports fan. Rules of why you should support some team or other based on geography or association. Or that you can't be a fan of two teams that are rivals, you must love one and hate the other. Hard and fast rules about what makes someone a good fan or a bad fan, or a "true fan." Some people think there is only one approach to sports fandom and all others are stupid and foolish.
There is not much logic or reason for what entertains us and what doesn't. It's largely an emotional response. People have favorite colors and favorite pets and favorite foods and... I could go on and on. There's very little of reason involved. You like what you like and more likely than not can't be persuaded otherwise, by reason or any other method.
Sports is the only form of entertainment where the audience expects other audience members to support an act whether it's good or bad, whether you enjoy it or not. The old, "Root, root, root, for the home team." This support is due to the team because, well, because it's there. Wherever "there" is. There's no logic to this, but people have an affinity to the local team as a representative of the community, an extension of the tribe. "Our team," "We won," "We are the champions." The team is us. It doesn't matter the players are from somewhere else and paid to be here.
I'm not saying there's anything wrong with this, only that to not go along with this psychology is just as reasonable. If you like some team from somewhere else, so what. If that entertains you, go for it. If you're from Detroit and don't like Motown music but prefer Italian opera you're not a traitor to your city. You don't owe it to Barry Gordy or Detroit to prefer The Supremes to Verdi. Why should sports be any different?
This form of sports tribalism is also reflected in the view that one's first loyalty is to your neighborhood, then to your city (or college), then to your state, then to your conference, then to your country. Very logical as far as it goes, but there really is no good reason. This type of Michigan fan rooted for Ohio State to beat Florida, both times.
Others take the "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" tack. They root against any rival of their favorite team. Very logical as well, without any good reason beyond an emotional attachment. This type of Michigan fan rooted for Florida to beat Ohio State, both times.
So, where am I going with this. My only point is sports are frivolous, it's for your amusement. Support whatever team amuses you for whatever reason. There is no right and wrong way. Apply whatever arbitrary rules you want, it doesn't mean anything in any meaningful way. Mainly because sports are meaningless beyond the realm of entertainment. If you enjoy rooting for good teams or favorite players, do that. If you enjoy rooting for the home team no matter what, and bitching about how bad they are, do that. Maybe you just like a team's colors, logo or name, like Tottenham Hotspurs. Who should care, besides you.
Here in Detroit, we take great fun in trashing the Lions. They've been so inept for so long it's the only way to go. It's a sport in an of itself. And you have the advantage of never being heart-broken. You expect them to be bad and they never disappoint.
There is one thing, you need to root for someone. Sports just don't seem to be interesting unless you care who wins and loses. Then again, maybe that's just me.
3/19/07 The Big Tourney
The NCAA men's basketball tournament is in full swing. The teams are in full-tilt win mode and the fans are all atwitter. The sweet sixteen will whittle down to the great eight to the final four, then to the top two and finally numero uno. Fans and alumni are all bursting with enthusiasm and brimming with pride and anticipation, confident their team can and will win it all. Which brings me to something which really has nothing much to do with sports, but I thought the segway was useful.
Basically it's this, is it illogical for the fans of a particular team to believe that their team will win when all the other fans have the same belief about their own teams? Obviously they can't all eventually be proven right, but before the fact who's to say who's going to eventually win out. How can they all believe the same thing?
The premise is a bit misleading because each fan base does not have the same belief, they are contrary beliefs in various teams. There's nothing illogical about believing something contrary to what another believes. It's silly to think all the teams will eventually win, but not to think one will. And if one will, why not yours?
Actually, it's illogical to think if contrary opinions about anything exist then holding any one opinion is illogical. This would mean it's illogical to believe anything where contrary views exist. That that's illogical is illogical.
This brings me to religious faith, where someone argued to me that it's illogical for a Christian, for instance, to believe theirs is the true faith when a Hindu believes theirs is the true faith, too. Nonsense. It's like saying atheists are illogical believing there is no God since religious people believe there is. It doesn't matter in this last either/or case both can't be true, one is. If one is, why not yours? The same applies to multiple choice questions, if one could be true... why not your team? Before the game is played, nobody really knows.
Of course, if your team didn't even make the tournament, then where are you? Limbo, I imagine.
3/2/07 The Colon Award
For those not old enough to remember, there used to be a game in the NFL called The Playoff Bowl. The Losers of the championship semi-finals would square off to determine third place. Can you imagine a less attractive and more pointless endeavor. Who really cares who finishes third or fourth. I have a hard time remembering Super Bowl losers let alone something like that. Apparently the players didn't much care about winning or losing that game, or even playing it at all, because they nicknamed it The Toilet Bowl. And pity the poor fool who sustained an injury in that waste of an afternoon.
In the Olympics and some other tournaments they have consolation games to determine third place. But you get a bronze medal for that. I have no idea what trophy you got for winning the Playoff Bowl, if they even had one. But if folks want to hand out medals for third place, why stop there? Keep going on down with less and less precious metals for fourth, fifth, sixth... brass, pewter, nickle, lead, tin, bismuth, automotive "brite", that's the stuff that replaced chrome. Some kind of shiny plastic?
About the only game more pointless and less intriguing is the NFL all-star game, the Pro Bowl. Only the desperate that can't let go of the football season watch that. Other meaningless games are any played by the Detroit Lions after October 1st. OK, a cheap shot, but have you seen this team lately? (See "The Lousy Detroit Lions" below.) I think some fans around here would give them a trophy for finishing above 500. And get all giddy anticipating a Super Bowl just around the corner they just turned.
Well, Detroit has be involved in two Super Bowls. The city, not the team, as hosts. How the Forty-Niners and Steelers felt about playing and winning a Super Bowl in Detroit in January is one thing. How the losers, who I don't remember, recall the experience is another. No knock on the town, but it can be darn cold here in January.
Anyway, I say we bring back the Playoff Bowl and maybe, just maybe the Lions can get some new hardware for their trophy case. They've collected nothing but dust since 1957. There's been a lot of long, cold, gray winters since. Fifty and counting.
2/16/07 99 44/100 % Pure Cliche
Everyone knows you "play 'em one game at a time." Multi-tasking doesn't much work in that regard. Like many cliches, this one's been around a long time. Thing is, if they weren't useful cliches wouldn't stick around so long. These bland blandishments stating the obvious in comfortable, familiar ways hang on like a bad cold.
To keep some overused cliches from sounding too cliched, sports figures evolve them into new, improved versions. For instance, it used to be "I gave it 100 percent" was enough. (The current parlance is "leaving it all on the field.") Then inflation set in raising the bar so "giving it 110 percent" was required for maximum effort. Say what you will about the math education players get during their college careers, but 110 out of 100 seems like an unobtainable ratio.
Nowadays even 110% is not enough and jocks claim to give "a thousand percent." Whether this means today's athlete is ten times better than those of my youth I'll not venture a guess. It may be due to steroids, who knows. It might just be the turnaround time for cliches is much faster than it used to be, what with mass media saturation of cable tv, sports talk radio and the internet.
Yogi Berra had his own unique take on percentage of effort, "You give a hundred percent in the first half of the game, and if that isn't enough, in the second half you give what's left."
So, what am I getting at, you ask. Not much really. I'm not anti-cliche. It's just shorthand used over and over to answer the same questions asked by reporters over and over about similar things in sports which happen over and over. In some ways it's like a ritualized event. Nobody, the reporter, the athlete nor the viewing fan, expects much more than a cliche which is taken with a grain of salt by all. Nobody expects fresh and articulate off-the-cuff answers to stale questions, rehashing subjects that have been thoroughly hashed out before.
After all is done and said, athletes aren't wordsmiths, they're not Dr. Johnson or Groucho Marx or anything like. As the new most popular sports cliche goes, "It is what it is."
Just for fun, a few more quotes from Mr. Berra, (Yogisms):
"You can observe a lot by watching."
And one from his son, Dale, comparing himself to his Dad: "Our similarities are different."
2/7/07 Can the NHL be Saved?
I don't pretend to know the ins and outs of this issue, but people can easily see that the NHL has its troubles. Waning popularity, no big-time tv contract, no superstars familiar to the non-hockey watching public. Basically the game has no buzz, no legs outside the great white north, as it were.
Many a sports radio show host and caller have various clever and not-so-clever marketing suggestions to revive and grow the game. I believe they generally overestimate the power of promotion and advertising. My critique of these ploys can be stated briefly with the old ad-biz maxim, "Great advertising can get someone to buy something they don't like or don't want only once."
The problem is not lack of exposure so much as people simply don't want to watch hockey. Folks are mostly attracted to and passionate about sports they play, or grew up with. Let's face it, most Americans don't play hockey, as a kid or as an adult. It's not part of the culture, especially anywhere south of, say Chicago. There's no natural fan base in the south or west or most everywhere you go in the US.
Hockey is big in Canada and has a national tv contract showing several games a week all season long. "Hockey Night in Canada" is a fixture I've been able to see since the 60s here in Detroit beamed across the border from Windsor, Ontario. But you really have to wonder, why would anyone in Dallas, Texas care about hockey? Or Florida, or Phoenix, or Nashville? Do kids growing up on baseball, football, NASCAR and basketball become hockey fans as adults? Seems unlikely.
The NHL will likely never be on a sound foundation until it stops denying the obvious, it's a regional sport. Drop all those southern teams and move back north where you belong. Find some way to get "Hockey Night in Canada" into those northern American cities and you'll have what the NHL muckety-mucks only pipe dream of now, a natural, engaged fan base and a national tv contract. Only the nation is Canada and, as they like to say in LA apartment ads, "Canada adjacent." Call it Canamerida.
Either that or wait for the next ice age when everybody north of Orlando will play winter sports all year round. In other words, when Hell freezes over. Hell, Michigan that is.
1/27/07 Colts 260,