Growing up with, rather than growing out of, sports

I’m 28 and the tectonics of my sports fandom have shifted irreversibly. Like the gradual reversion of a scar sinking into the fiber of one’s skin – in which eventually it becomes seamless and blended and meshed, as it becomes less ‘abscess’ and more ‘recess’, I find myself more rationally studying the sports landscape.

Part of this is due to immersion, as a writer, as well as a fan, I experience dozens (if not hundreds) of sports videos, clips, articles, columns, games and discussions per day, and I am forced to extract what’s important, relevant and profound. Part of this is due to exhaustion, as that very same drowning in sports content numbs and wears at the flesh between my earlobes and elsewhere. Part of this is due to dependency, as the longer I’ve liked and followed sports, the more of my ‘fix’ must be plundered to ascertain similarly heightened levels of intrigue.

Still, one very real, very gradual, phenomenon locked my attention and continues to stare it down: I’m now the same age as an athlete in their “Athletic Prime.” I’m no longer looking up to athletes as heroes or role models, I’m no longer college-aged, hoping to go pro, and I’m no longer a wide-eyed rookie hoping to grow into my tremendous talent or spread my wings into superstardom. No, I’m now the same age as “the guy.” Your franchise cornerstone.

I was sitting on the couch with the lady last week as she followed the oblong pigskin with me – her staring not so much at the TV, but rather through it, eyes half-glazed over in boredom/exhaustion/confusion – and that thought crept back into my head: “This is just a game.”

Then Marshawn Lynch broke through with the “run of the century”, a 67-yard scamper through which he broke (at my count) nine tackles, including a fanatical stiff-arm where he chucked a New Orleans defender halfway to Tacoma. It brought shivers to my shoulders and a silent scream to my throat. My emotions were, as follows, “HOLY SH*T! … I gotta text my friends … Where’s the video! … Amazing! … Why did the Bills trade him? … I am so mad … Tell me he turns into an all-time great … Where was this in Buffalo? … Sonuvab***h, Seattle’s not just going to cover, but win outright … What an upset!” This all went through my head in the span of 60 seconds. When I was a college senior, Marshawn Lynch was a senior, too … in High School.

I then realized, I am wildly engaged with, and three tax-brackets beneath, athletes who may be younger than I. But, yet, they appear to exist outside the constructs of age. I don’t feel older than them, but when empirically remember that I am, it bewilders me. I think, “How did they get to do what they do?”

Athletes talk endlessly about “doing what it takes to win” and “putting in the effort” and you hear about work-ethic, dedication and “leaving it all out there on the field.” And I realize that was never me. And that these folks who are, by and large, physical specimens that could outrun and outhit a Toyota Prius (quite easily, I assume), are also geared specifically to do just that, and have trained their brains to do so from a tender age. They’re young, they’re powerful and they’re committed. Say what you will about some of the legal transgressions or smack-talk, but these are some incredible human beings.

LeBron James this past summer caught a bit of flack for throwing Cleveland under the bus on Live Television. But he also donated millions to charity that same night, and consulted with financial planners, agents, coaches, players, family, friends, supporters, branding experts, CEOs and other professional athletes to make what he could out of a threshold situation. It was calculated, cunning and remarkably mature, especially for a 25 year-old. My 25th birthday, I got thrown out of a bar for vomiting in public, throwing a potted plant, picking a fight with a 60 year-old man and dropping a few drunken n-bombs. What’s the opposite of “doing what it takes to win?” Yeah, I did that.

So when I think of these young pups playing the game, giving their all on the field, and I refer to one of them as a “headcase” or “immature”, I say it with an off-hand, tongue-in-cheek reverence. Does it take a somewhat crazy individual to administer as much physical pain on another human being as possible for 60 continuous minutes once a week? Absolutely. And it probably predisposes them to locker-room outbursts, DUI arrests and the like. You gotta cope with it somehow. But immature?

Well, these cats are younger than I, making the same mistakes I did, and finding out the hard way there’s folks who want to take advantage of you and probably will. But, in every concrete sense of the word, these same people did it all the right way. For their every success can be measured empirically in stats and rings, wins and losses. Real life outside the lines ain’t that black-and-white. And they’re getting paid seven (sometimes eight!) figures over the course of a mere 5-to-10 years to measure their strength in that fashion. I respect that.

So what happens when you turn 28? If you’ve aged properly, you’d think what happens is your admiration’s been de-mythologized. Athletes turn from heroes in a Greek sense, to heroes in an Algerian (not the country, the author) sense: It is their routine, their workman-like approach to the grandiose and mystical that’s admired, rather than the grandiosity and mystical itself.

In other words, you see the men behind the gods. You stop believing in miracles, and yet you start believing there’s men and women out there who can run through the five boroughs or New York City faster than any regular human can drive through them during a regular workweek, because you see it on the 6pm Sportscenter.

Less imagination, more incredulity. Welcome to the age of coming of age.

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Boston: Still Racist. Here's why.

Danny Woodhead is the name on the best-selling New England Patriots jersey so far this year.

What, no love for BenJarvis Green-Ellis? (I would love that spelled out on my jersey, if I didn’t, you know, hate the Patriots with the burning ferocity of 1,000 suns.)

In fact, he’s beaten out #2 (Tom Brady) and #3 (Wes Welker). This just in: If you’re black and play sports in Boston, you should probably think about relocating.

Boston’s sports fans are whiter than Wonder Bread. But why *that* city?

Black athletes have long taken note and candidly spoke about Boston’s rep as a racist city. But, coaches, players, fans and city execs have ultimately shunned the interview opportunity, which is odd, because it’d be a golden ticket out from under the cloud of racism that engulfs the city when it comes to sports.

We found an old Henry Abbott article, which helped shed some slight, based upon a study done by Boston Magazine.

But more than anything, Gonzalez found a disappointing willingness among Bostonians to pipe up. His story ends like this:

The city’s reputation for racism endures because we don’t want to talk about it, because the press seems more interested in reporting on the controversy than in initiating a useful dialogue, because athletes are more careful today than they’ve ever been. There aren’t many Bill Russells anymore-someone who speaks his mind because his conscience demands it. Russell once told me he thought of himself as a man first and a basketball player second. These days, with millions riding on endorsement contracts and a capricious media to navigate, candor is seen as bad business. In a way, that’s understandable, but it would be a powerful thing to hear from more of today’s athletes. Because what Russell realized that so many current players still don’t is this: The best way to move forward is often to deal with the past.

To that end, the city itself could probably learn something from the experiences of Guy Stuart, the Kennedy School lecturer. Before he came to Boston, Stuart, who is white, spent a decade working in black communities in Chicago. It was there that he learned a useful lesson: If you want to improve race relations, “don’t go around simply saying you’re not racist.”

UPDATE: More insight on the same topic from Vincent Thomas of SLAM. He concludes that, as a black man, he now has no trouble rooting for the Celtics, but he doesn’t wonder where the hesitation comes from:

You gotta admit, those Celtics squads — especially from the mid to late 80s — were downright NBA aberrations. It almost looked weird. You would be hard-pressed to find a playoff squad that rotated in three white players for more than 15 minutes a night by that time. The Celtics, on the other hand, would feature five, sometimes six white players in a nine-man rotation. And they were so good as a team and so tough to beat that it irritated the folks in black neighborhoods. They had made the NBA “theirs” and here comes a team full of Birds, Mchales, Waltons, Ainges, Jerry Sichtings and Scott Wedmans. There was nothing The Chief or freckle-face DJ could do to put lipstick on that pig, no lily to gild right there. Some of the media coverage played into racial stereotypes. Boston was portrayed as smart, tough, and industrious. To let writers and announcers tell it, the Celtics used skill, resource, fortitude, guile and toughness to outwit and outplay the predominantly black squads that relied solely on athletic gifts. (Interestingly, though, this enterprising squad’s coach, KC Jones, a black man, never hoisted the Red Auerbach Trophy as coach of the year.) Some of these perceived slights or biases were just that — perceived, drummed-up — umbrage. Still, it resulted in deep, pervasive, long-lasting backlash within the black community.

Boston’s alleged sports racism can be deduced from the following takeaways:

1. The extreme prolonged success of certain white players, or teams of disproportionately white makeup in Boston, has made it appear (to media and the outside, as well as players) that Boston is a city that cheers for white people. This is aided by the white players playing well. (Think Duke Basketball.)

2. Successful Boston teams and players are often described in stereotypical terms like ‘scrappy’ and ‘tough’ and ‘intelligent’, which is off-putting and gets flagged as racist.

3. The media reports on allegations of racism, and the Boston institutions accused of it (municipal and regional institutions, teams and coaches) refuse to entertain useful discussion about whether or not this racism, in fact, exists – which makes it look like they’re hiding something.

You’ll never guess which white Patriots player has the best-selling jersey [Deadspin]

North American Field Guide to Sports Villains

What makes a great sports villain?

In sports, anti-heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Whether it’s an athlete who purposely devises a divisive image for public consumption or it’s somebody who achieves greatness despite the public’s overwhelming favoritism toward another involved party, sports villains are everywhere.

Who are the athletes that you love to hate?

Here, we break down the types and give a few examples in this week’s North American Field Guide of Sports Villains.

The Rogue Agent – The Rogue Agent is one of the hardest villains to spot in the wild. The Rogue Agent does an expert job of achieving success using morally and legally questionable methods to attain this level of excellence. Generally, a reputation as a Rogue Agent can only be acquired through many years of torturing the competition. (Ex: Bonds, Barry; Clemens, Roger; Belicheck, Bill)

The Let Downer – This species of sports villain doesn’t identify itself right away. This is somebody who, despite the public’s overwhelming support toward wanting to see success by some other athlete / team, wins the event or championship. Nobody remembers them down the line, but they’ll always be trivia fodder when asked “You know who finished second, can you tell me who finished first?” (Ex: Da’Tara; 2006 Italy World Cup team; Beem, Rich; 2004 Detroit Pistons)

The Spoiled Brat – This is almost always the highest paid guy in any sport, but can also be somebody who whines too much to get what he wants. He or she can usually be seen calling out teammates, forcing a trade or not living up to lofty expectations. It can also be a mouthy owner, one who fills the front page with demeaning quotes. You’ll identify with this list right away. (Ex: Rodriguez, Alex; Owens, Terrell; Bryant, Kobe; Jones, Jerry; Cuban, Mark; BCS, The)

The Golden Boy – They’re young. They’re rich. They’re attractive. They’re famous. They have the job you want and the notoriety to match. You’ve searched through all their crevices of their soul and can’t seem to find any flaws. In short, their perfection annoys you. These are the easiest villains to spot in the wild, just check the tabloids. Kill! Kill! Kill! (Ex: Brady, Tom; Romo, Tony; Jeter, Derek; Beckham, David)

The Quiet Assassin – This group consists of athletes who are so scary good, that they are actually quite boring. The Quiet Assassin always shows up on time and gives 150% and they always come through in the clutch. However, they’ve won so often that you’re sick of seeing them win. There’s nothing inherently unlikable about this group, but you just wish you could see someone else’s name engraved on the trophy. (Ex: Federer, Roger; San Antonio Spurs; New York Yankees; Detroit Red Wings; Jordan, Michael; New England Patriots)

The Incompetent Owner – All the money in the world can’t buy you intuition. These owners have been throwing money (and their mouths) at problems for years, and yet, simply cannot bring their franchises out of foreclosure. (Ex: Sterling, Donald; Angelos, Peter; Wilson, Ralph)

The Bad Apple – This is one straight up bad dude, despite loads of talent. This is the athlete that ruins their lives due to moral flexibility and/or uncontrollable vices. They can be addicts or “clubhouse cancers.” They are not to be confused with the Spoiled Brat. (Ex: Vick, Michael; Stewart, Tony; Woods, Tiger; Bradley, Milton)

The “Stuff White People Like” – Deemed successful after extended dominance of a given sport, yet amasses a disproportionately rich, white fanbase loaded with subtle prejudices. The ‘play the game the right away’ and are ‘fundamentally sound.’ (Ex: Blue Devils, Duke; Celtics, Boston; Tebow, Tim; Fighting Irish, Notre Dame)

The rust belt ship-jumper – This is a special category all its own, created especially for the folks who’ve bolted from Cleveland, Ohio and angered a nation in the process. (James, LeBron; Modell, Art)

Please continue to refer to this guide as necessary. Now that you’ve been educated, get out your binoculars and start discovering.

Who do I cheer for when my team doesn't make the playoffs?

I know it seems laughable now, but there was once a time when my beloved Buffalo Bills were a perennial playoff contender.

Between the 1988 and 1999 seasons (basically my entire recall-able childhood), the Bills made the playoffs 10 times – reaching four consecutive Super Bowls and winning 11 playoff games during that span. That kind of extended run of excellence is relatively rare, so my fan expectations were raised to unreasonable levels when it came to playing football in January.

Since the dawn of the third millennium A.D., the Bills have been shut out of postseason play. I now know what it must be like to be a Detroit Lions fan.

When hope is lost and your team has played its last game, your next move is crucial. What team should you back when the playoffs begin?

I present to you three ground rules:

1.) Any team from your division is out. You detest these teams during the regular season and wish pestilence upon their coaches, so you have no business cheering for them once the playoffs start. That’s like cheating on your girlfriend with her über hot best friend – provided said best friend is tactlessly trying to set her up with other guys and constantly whispering in her ear what a drunk, degenerate, immature gorilla she is dating. It might feel good while the cheating’s hot and happening, but after it’s over you’ll feel like crying to an Air Supply album.

2.) Any team that has absolutely no shot to win a game is out. *Ahem* NFC West. You don’t want to be left without your team after the initial wild card weekend. What good is switching horses in midstream just to finish racing one week later? You should have known better. Now you do.

3.) Any team the national media has a not-so-subtle crush on / has created a bandwagon for / or has overexposed to the point of fatigue is also out.  You want a true underdog, not a media-fabricated “true underdog story.”

Please choose wisely, and remember – regardless of which team you select – to savor these games, for in five weeks you’ve seen the last of football until September arrives.

The sad, sad story of Shawne Merriman

There was once a time when Shawne Merriman was the most feared linebacker in the NFL. That period, however brief, has long since faded.

The Chargers placed Merriman on IR today, effectively ending his career in San Diego. Policy mandates his release upon returning to health, terminating his contract.

He could technically be re-signed in the off-season, but after numerous injuries and transgressions, A.J. Smith’s seen just about enough of the player once nicknamed “Lights Out.”

In his first three seasons, Merriman recorded 39 1/2 sacks – including 17 in a suspension-shortened 12 game season in 2006.

Then came the injuries.

In 2008, he underwent reconstructive knee surgery, missing the entire season. The following year, he was banged up with more knee and foot problems and recorded just four sacks. This season, he re-injured his calf and is now done.

It doesn’t help that he’s been mouthy about the Chargers front office, and he was arrested after domestic violence charges were levied against him by his then-girlfriend, ex-Myspace hottie Tila Tequila.

He’s a troubled man with an injured body and soul. He’ll get another shot, as all men with his freakish tier of talent do. But he won’t be the same player he was when he was young and wild, playing with the same reckless abandon as the way he’s lived his life so far.

San Diego to release Shawne Merriman if he gets healthy [ESPN]

All Eyez on Me: Why Jenn Sterger needs self-created chaos

It had to be Sterger. Had to.

When reports surfaced over the past 24 hours that Brett Favre had been sexting and making poor passes at a Jets PR person, it had to be Sterger, right?

Who else would leak this story first to blogs rather than authorities, or her lawyer, or Favre’s wife?

Favre’s 41 years old and been in the league and the spotlight a long time. There’s no doubt,  ol’ Brett’s probably had some run-ins with the ladies before. He’s a man with status. But this is the first we’re hearing. Why? Sterger.

Sterger knows the power of media exposure. She rode the coattails of Brent Musberger’s school-boy crush all the way to a weekly feature column at SI. She created a stir removing her implants (“they had served their purpose”) that put her back on the blogosphere, leading to gigs hosting segments on ABC, and with the New York Jets – when this all supposedly went down.

She leaked the news to Deadspin in August. She weighed in on Erin Andrews and Ines Sainz. She’s a master promoter of her own brand … which is, if I have this right: “hot chick tangentially related to sports.”

This new bomb will no doubt elevate her to even more stratospheric levels of fame, and will paradoxically boost her career. Male eyes watch sports. But male eyes also watch women. There will be book deals and magazine covers and stints on TV.  She’s a keen puppy … she’s followed Erin Andrews’ career arc, and knows how to exploit the system to her advantage.

Eyes will follow Sterger for as long as she’s beautiful. But by continuously feeding the fame machine with her ‘struggles’ and ‘opinions’, she’s ensuring dollars will follow her around, as well.

The Reclamation of Michael Vick – A Triumph in Aesthetics

Michael Vick is a starting quarterback once again.

Andy Reid did a 180 and tabbed Vick to go in Week 3, replacing hard-luck Kevin Kolb.

The Eagles instantly become must-watch television from this point forward, and – more importantly – Michael Vick once again becomes one of the most popular players in the NFL.

Wait a minute, why are we pulling for Michael Vick again?

Vick was incarcerated for the inhumane treatment and murder of fight dogs. He’s been linked with (allegedly) shootings and drug busts, and has treated fans and the press poorly. By any intellectual measure, one would conclude that Vick should draw ire and venom from the public. One would think.

But here we are this season, watching Michael Vick do what only Michael Vick does. It’s a flooring and enrapturing display of marvel and remembrance. We missed Michael Vick.

We missed him escaping, juking and outrunning defenders. We missed him firing (with that wobbly slinging motion) slithering 60-yard spirals downfield. We missed having fun watching a quarterback play quarterback.

Peyton Manning’s too surgical. Tom Brady’s too predictable. Tony Romo’s too arrogant. Vince Young’s too inconsistent. Brett Favre’s too old. Kurt Warner’s too retired.

Michael Vick’s unparalleled athleticism and creativity were novel in Atlanta, and downright nostalgic now. The NFL is a better place with Michael Vick under center.

But why? It certainly doesn’t stem from his character.

And it’s not like Vick piles up incredible stats. His passer rating is middling, his yardage is pedestrian and he’s never come close to setting accuracy or touchdown records. He also has a bit of a track-record of throwing ill-advised interceptions.

But despite what the numbers tell you, you’re rather sold on his astonishing talent. It’s because you trust your senses before you trust your smarts.

Philosopher Dennis Dutton once proclaimed the “Aesthetic Universals” as:

1. Expertise / Virtuousity
2. Nonutilitarian pleasure
3. Style
4. Criticism
5. Imitation
6. Special focus

There is no doubt as to Vick’s expertise and virtuosity in the art of playing quarterback. We don’t demand that Vick’s play keep us clothed or fed. His style is signature and instantly recognizable. We can discuss and critique and marvel at Vick in social settings and to ourselves. Vick’s jaw-dropping escapes from defenders have a raw, instinctual feel to them which reflect us actually running away from threatening entities. Finally, when we watch Vick play quarterback on Sundays, it is given our own undivided attention, as we ritualize and set aside time to be entertained and engaged.

Michael Vick’s ability to play quarterback is the most aesthetically sublime our world has yet known. His slinging motion is unorthodox and unique, but the finesse and symmetry with which the ball spirals out of his hand is nearly perfect and breathtaking. His stupefying escapes and wild scampers through traffic and down the sidelines know no parallel.

Revered athletic feats are often deemed so by satisfying innate human cravings for beauty. An upper-deck home run’s long arch, a powerhouse 360 windmill dunk, a between-the-legs deke in hockey. Soccer, our world’s most popular sport, is often referred to as “The Beautiful Game.”

Witness Secretariat’s “He is moving like an incredible machine!” in the Belmont, or Barry Sanders spinning off tacklers, or Ken Griffey Jr.’s sweet swing. These are tremendously beautiful visual stimuli to which we are engaged reflexively. We don’t need to intellectually process these events to appreciate and be awed by them.

During the Masters, the highest-rated golf telecast each year, the viewer is bombarded with still shots and video of azaleas in their full magenta bloom, of the crystal blue waters of Rae’s Creek, and of the gentle rolling pastures of green grass mixed with perfectly proportioned pockets of white sand. The commentators note this and remark of it constantly. Augusta always hosts the Masters, and is the only major held at the same course each year.

When one sees a sublime landscape, or a breathtaking vista, the pulse quickens, the eyes widen and the face perks up. These are innate reactions that preempt intellectual assessment.

The Primary Visual Cortex, which processes these events, are located in the lower rear of the brain, just slightly removed from where the brain stem meets the spinal cord. It’s in the primal portion of our brain close to where reflexive responses occur.

It’s also close to the Limbic System, our brain’s center for pleasure and satisfaction. The two systems share common neural pathways. All events experienced by the eyes reach this segment of the brain first, before they ever have a chance to reach our frontal lobes, which regulate assessment and judgment.

Michael Vick’s ability to play the game of football is an otherworldly beautiful and entrancing work of art – one which satisfies aesthetic universals and stimulates our senses on an almost sub-conscious level, and on a level we react to long before we remember, “This jerk killed innocent animals.”

Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Vick may have said and done some awful things, but how does it feel to watch him play?

Electric. Invigorating. Mesmerizing. Ecstatic. Michael Vick tickles all the right neurons in our pre-frontal cortex.

We’re wired to be astonished; we don’t care by whom.

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We’ll see you tomorrow.