October 21, 2004

Red Sox Nation

Posted by shonk at 01:31 AM | permalink | 1 comment

Wow. Incredible ALCS. Simply amazing. I’m not even really a Red Sox fan, but, during the last four days, I’ve found myself obsessed with this series, even to the point of acting out those little superstitions that sports fans inevitably obsess about when a team they care about is involved in an elimination game. The way they came back from being down 0-3 is, to me, simply mind-boggling, since their saving grace in the series was their bullpen which, not to put too fine a point on it, is pretty shaky except for Foulke (who absolutely played his heart out in this series; I’m still slightly amazed his arm didn’t just fall off on Tuesday night).

Francona is far from the sharpest manager in the game, but he did what he needed to in the last four games of the series, never looking ahead and preferring to overwork his best arms rather than saving them for a tomorrow that might never have come. Obviously, only time will tell if this strategy will ultimately cost them the World Series, but I have to believe that had he, for example, not inserted Foulke in the seventh inning of game 4, the World Series would have been a moot point. There are situations when being over-aggressive is the only way to win, and when you’re down 0-3 to the Yankees, that’s one of those situations. And Francona, dumb as he may be, recognized that fact (that having been said, I’m still a bit confused about his decision to use Pedro in the seventh inning tonight [though, admittedly, not Tim McCarver-level confused]).

Of course, it helped that the team he’s managing has absolutely the perfect personality for carrying off such an improbable comeback (which is, incidentally, why this year’s Sox are such an easy team to identify with). And the best exemplars of that personality might be Ortiz and Schilling, one of which came through again and again in the clutch while never seeming to take himself too seriously and the other of which pitched a gem in game 6 on sheer force of will. Bill Simmons compared Schilling’s game 6 to the Willis Reed game and the MJ flu game which might sound like hyperbole but makes sense given the juxtaposition between his performance and the recurring images of his bleeding ankle that Fox kept showing.

Okay, enough sports clichés and replay-announcer gushing. Back to your regularly scheduled programming.

August 29, 2004

Who designed the Olympic stadium?

Posted by shonk at 01:18 AM | permalink | 4 comments

I was sitting at home on Saturday night watching the Olympics and, after about the fifth overhead shot of the Olympic Stadium in Athens, I began to wonder if I was the only one that thinks the stadium has a sort of labial aspect to it when viewed from above. Now, admittedly, the fact that I was sitting at home on a Saturday night and had just been subjected to at least an hour of Chinese guys in Speedos may have tilted my brain chemistry into whatever the hormonal equivalent of sexual frustration is, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the Greek Olympic committee hadn’t hired Georgia O’Keefe as an architectural consultant.

(And yes, I’m sure the fact that I haven’t updated in like three weeks means that my readership has all but vanished, but it’s been, shall we say, an interesting couple of weeks in my personal life. Hopefully, some normalcy will be returning soon.)

July 22, 2004

Yellow is a beautiful color

Posted by shonk at 12:16 AM | permalink | 6 comments

As I usually am around this time of year, I’ve been obsessed the last couple of weeks with the Tour de France. The coverage on the Outdoor Life Network is really outstanding, comprising live coverage in the morning, at least one replay of the live coverage in the afternoon and usually at least a couple of hours in the evening. A far cry from the measly half hour afternoon recap offered by ESPN2 back in the late nineties. Or, before that, the back-page story in the sports section in the early- to mid-nineties.

So what’s so great about cycling? Well, for one thing it’s very intriguing as the only team sport I know about in which the winners are individuals. We say that Lance Armstrong won last year’s Tour de France, not his U.S. Postal team, but without that team there’s very little chance Armstrong could have donned his record-tying fifth straight yellow jersey on the Champes-Elysees. No rider has a chance of winning without pretty significant support from his team, and I think it unlikely that Armstrong could have overcome his problems with dehydration and bad crashes were it not for a very strong effort from his team. The individual/team dichotomy also rears its head when two riders from the same team are in competition with each other. For example, in 1996, Jan Ullrich probably could have won the Tour had it not been for the fact that his team captain was the eventual champion, Bjarne Riis. Ullrich ended up with his first of five second-place finishes, though he did win the race the next year. A similar situation has shaped up this year, as Ullrich sits in fourth place, one spot behind T-Mobile teammate Andreas Klöden.

This dynamic is really just aspect of tactics of the Tour (and, by extension, other stage races). Teams with strong riders like Armstrong and Ullrich must protect those riders by serving as windbreaks and pacing the peloton to chase down breakaways, while teams without contenders for the overall title (and opportunistic riders) hope to gain glory (and sponsor airtime) by breaking away from the main field and trying to hold off the charge for stage wins. In the mountains, teammates serve as pacemakers, climbing as long and as hard as they can before breaking off, with no hope of winning either the stage or the Tour, simply to try to catapult their leaders over the climbs and further up in the standings. To me, there’s something inherently compelling in watching the likes of George Hincapie, Floyd Landis, José Luis Rubiera and Juan Azevedo from U.S. Postal, or Jens Voigt and Carlos Sastre from Ivan Basso’s CSC squad, or Giuseppe Guerini from T-Mobile, punish their bodies to try to put their team leaders in position for the race to the line and a shot at the yellow jersey despite the fact that they’ll never make the headlines (or, often, even the fifth paragraph) as a result of their efforts (and, furthermore, despite the fact that a rider like Azevedo might be able to finish on the podium himself were it not for his responsibilities to Armstrong). Armstrong and Ullrich may make the headlines and have the fat bank accounts, but they owe much of their success to their teammates and to the team managers who plot the strategy, timing escapes and directing chases. Admittedly, the reality of big stars depending in large measure on the support of their relatively anonymous teammates and coaches is not unique in the world of team sports, but in most team sports it’s the team that wins a championship, not an individual.

Getting back to this year’s tour, the biggest story, as it has been for the last six, has to be that of Lance Armstrong, currently chasing an unprecedented sixth consecutive title. Which, I’ll grant you, is a compelling story, but the fact is that Lance has already won five in a row, so everybody knows he’s good, despite the fact that he’s past cycling’s prime age range (typically 26 to 30 or 31). He came into this race as the favorite, and much as people may have had doubts about his fitness, given his subpar performance in the Dauphiné Liberé and small victory margin last year, I don’t think anybody could seriously deny that he had to be considered the pre-race favorite. Which is in stark contrast with 1999 when, although apparently a more complete cyclist than he had been early in his career, Armstrong was best known for having battled back from testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain. He was mentioned as a possible contender, but I suspect that most people at the time thought just finishing the race would be miracle enough after having faced such long odds on surviving. He beat an admittedly weak field that year (lacking the likes of Marco Pantani and Jan Ullrich), but the entire 1999 tour was a revelation.

Anyway, today is a good day to write about the Tour, as Armstrong crushed the field in the most anticipated stage in years, a time trial up the famous hairpin turns of L’Alpe d’Huez, finishing over a minute before Ullrich, who finished second on the stage, and more than two minutes before Ivan Basso, the only man who had been able to stay with Armstrong throughout the mountains. With nearly a four minute advantage on Basso, second in the overall standings, it’s likely that only a crash can now prevent Armstrong from winning the historical number six.

I remember watching and reading about Armstrong during the mid-nineties, when he was known as a day-race specialist (and, admittedly, a good one, having won the World Championship in 1993) and something of a hothead. He was actually too muscular to be a complete rider, standing out among the riders for his large and well-developed chest and arms. Nobody doubted his talent, but he was a far cry from what he is today, the most complete, most dedicated and perhaps smartest rider in the world.

The biggest non-Armstrong story of this year’s Tour, though, has to be that of Thomas Voeckler, the French champion who held the overall leader’s yellow jersey for ten stages before finally relinquishing it yesterday at Villard-de-Lans (dubbed almost immediately Villard-de-Lance by the journalists after Armstrong’s stage win and reappropriation of the yellow jersey). Despite being a relative unknown and not having strong climbing form, Voeckler managed to retain his lead through the Pyrenees, finishing a surprising 13th in stage 13, ahead of climbing specialists like Roberto Heras and Iban Mayo. Voeckler gave the French fans someone to cheer for other than the annoying and scandal-ridden Richard Virenque, and that’s always a good thing. Let’s hope Voeckler, who has displayed tremendous class and resilience, can hold off his competition for the white jersey, given each year to the best young rider, where he still holds a 3½ minute edge over the field.

June 01, 2004

Revenge of the Greeks

Posted by Curt at 05:15 PM | permalink | 9 comments

It’s something of a mystery to me how a magazine with political editorializing as craven and sectarian as The Weekly Standard’s is able to not infrequently dig up excellent pieces of general cultural criticism, like this piece on Greek athletics. The author wins some easy points by observing, for example, that:

“The idea that the ancient games were apolitical celebrations of amateurism, for instance, is an invention of the late Victorians, who projected their idealizations of the Greeks back onto a reality that was as obsessed with money and prestige as our own times.”

It is especially amusing to me that he actually calculates out the amount that some athletes were able to earn from the more high-paying competitions, such as one competitor who supposedly earned the equivalent of $44 million during the course of his career. I suspect that the means of arriving at this sum is nowhere near sophisticated enough to accurately yield a sum this precise, but nevertheless it is useful for exposing the fatuousness of the envy-disguised-as-virtue of those who cannot stand the thought of others earning so much more than them and cloak this envy in the fradulent cult of amateurism which is supposed to have defined sports since the days of ancient Greece. As I have said before, whether or not it is “fair” that certain athletes earn so much more money than, say, elementary school teachers is totally irrelevant, as athletic compensation, unlike teacher compensation, is not at all coercive or publicly mandated, but rather simply a factor of people’s personal preferences about where they wish to distribute their money. There is even some meritocratic justification for this state of affairs, as only the best athletes become wealthy, whereas every teacher (apart from professors) is essentially paid equally.

Anyway, back to the article. This puncturing of the phony moral purity of amateur sports and the Greek athletic tradition is well-taken, but not a very profound point. Here is the true awakening paragraph of the article:

“None of the ancient competitive events involved team sports. Only individuals competed against other individuals, the athlete depending solely on his own ability and drive to win the crown that would be denied to all the rest—which is, one recalls, the universal condition of the leading characters in the tragic plays that filled the Greek stage. Greek tragedy always presents the isolated protagonist who must bear alone the burden of trying to achieve and then living with the unforeseen consequences of that success and the high cost of his aspirations.”

This is really a significant point, and one I don’t think I have ever heard articulated in quite this way. As much as people blather about our supposed American hyper-individualism, if this point about Greek athletics is true, as I suspect that it is, in sports as well perhaps as in other realms the Greeks glorified individuality far more than us, for while a Greek charioteer, for instance, represented his city, he also competed by and for himself, with all the responsbility of success or failure lodged solely upon his head. In so many of our sports, by contrast, we relentlessly emphasize the preeminence of the team, the group, the herd, to which every thing must be subordinated. I am not sure what the relative values of these two models are, but being a misanthrope myself, and having throughout my childhood been quite torn between my love of sports and my frequent loathing for teammates with whom I was supposed to cooperate and for whom I was supposed to sacrifice myself, it is encouraging to think that perhaps once upon a time individualism was the founding philosophy of sports rather than virtually the antithesis of its ideals.

On the other hand, I am pretty dubious about the author’s subsidiary point that this apotheosis of individual achievement represented an “aristocratic” temperament in Greek society which conflicted with the “radical egalitarianism” which arose during this period and led to the birth of democracy. Even putting aside the minor point that democracy was a purely Athenian institution and hence this “conflict” probably did not even exist on a societal level for the vast majority of Greeks, I am fairly suspicious about the idea of either the use of sports as a metaphor for elitism or its conflict with “egalitarianism.” In defense of his thesis about athletic individualism as a manifestation of aristocratic distinction, he claims:

“In ancient Athens, athletic competition embodied the conflicted feelings the non-nobles had for the aristocrats. On the one hand, the nobles, though possessing no more political power than the masses, nonetheless retained the glamour and allure of unique achievement and excellence owed not to law or procedure but to sheer superiority.”

I do not see how “unique achievement and excellence owed not to law or procedure but to sheer superiority” can at all be construed as “aristocratic” distinction. In fact, artistocratic distinctions seem to me to be inherently “owed…to law or procedure”; the converse of this would be a true meritocracy, which seems much less threatening to the notion of equality, unless one presumes that all achievement, all “superiority,” is a result of purely genetic endowment or divine ordinance. On the other hand, if one believes in the innate equality of all men, it is perfectly easy to reconcile this view with the idea of meritocratic superiority, because if all are created equal, all acheivements must be the result of the indvidual’s striving, not of some inherited talents. I myself am at all sure of the merits of the idea of fundamental equality or whether human achievements are primarily a result simply of inherited factors, but the point is that the sheer existence of meritocratic distinction and the idea of fundamental equality are not contradictory.

I also find this contention by the author extremely silly:

“A consequence of egalitarianism is a leveling of the citizens, a reduction of the distinctions based on talent and ability that give the lie to absolute equality. So relentless is this process that in Athens, Plato only half-joked, “horses and asses have a way of marching along with all the rights and dignities of freemen.”“

The obvious question is, if egalitarianism really can cause “a reduction of…distinctions based on talent and ability,” than how is it that the existence of these distinctions “give[s] the lie to absolute equality”? Assuming that we discard the spurious qualifier “absolute,” which the author seems to throw in as a straw man to make egalitarianism seem more ridiculous, it would seem to me that if egalitarianism really does erode meritocratic distinctions, then it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and hence is not “given the lie” to by those distinctions which for the most part no longer exist. So the author wants to have it both ways, but in reality it would seem that either egalitarianism really can erode distinction, in which case it is not contradicted by any cold, hard realities of the world, or it does not, in which case it is hardly a threat to the very concept of distinction, as Plato, Aristotle (and the article author) seem to think it is.

Of course, although he argues against egalitarianism on the basis of its supposed inefficacity, like people who do not eat meat because they think it is immoral but try to sell vegetarianism to others based on its supposed health benefits, I suspect the real objection the author has to egalitarianism is not that he thinks it will not work but because he, like probably the majority of the readership of The Weekly Standard, thinks some people simply are superior to others and that society should be stratified accordingly. Of course, he doesn’t actually have the courage to say this, other than quoting Plato about “horses and asses…marching along with all the rights and dignities of freemen.” Neverthless, when he claims at the end that he finds it to be a “tragic truth” that “We all aren’t winners, and we all don’t deserve prizes,” I find this lament to be all crocodile tears. I don’t think that he finds this “truth” at all tragic; I think that he thinks that this is exactly as things should be.

April 23, 2004

Penn Relays

Posted by shonk at 11:23 AM | permalink | 3 comments

The Penn Relays, the best-attended track meet (other than the Olympics) in the world over the last 107 years, have descended on campus for their annual three day duration. Since it sounded more exciting than studying, I decided to take some pictures:

Penn Relays

March 18, 2004

Keep an eye on these...

Posted by shonk at 09:40 PM | permalink | comment

  • blog maverick — Mark Cuban, the controversial and always entertaining owner of the Dallas Mavericks, has started a weblog. Cuban isn’t afraid to name names or speak his mind and I enjoy how he likes sticking it to reporters. Yesterday he was talking to reporters while on the Stairmaster about his latest fine from the league and told them that, instead of answering their questions directly, he would address them on his blog:

    The satisfaction of knowing that each will have to explain to their editors what a blog is — and argue for who knows how long about whether or not BlogMaverick.com is an attributable source — crept over me and that jaunt on the gauntlet flew by.

    As Eric McErlain points out, “[t]his is great news — both for journalists and sports blogs.”

  • An investigation into logic — Over at mock savvy, Neil is starting a series of posts that will do precisely what the title suggests:

    The motive for this embarkation is self-interest; for me, the most effective way to elucidate the many discrete questions that arise during the course of a study is to simply envisage them in some prosaic form, provide possible answers along the way, and hopefully ending up with some quasi-satisfactory results.

    I, for one, am looking forward to it, as Neil has already shown a good deal of insight into the values and pitfalls of formal systems.

February 09, 2004

Sure, why not nationalize the Super Bowl

Posted by shonk at 01:15 AM | permalink | 2 comments

Okay, I have to admit, I was pretty sure that the statement I quoted in this post would be the dumbest thing I would read all day. Turns out I was wrong. Today’s winner comes courtesy of the Weekly Standard’s proposal to nationalize the Super Bowl :

bq. You cannot make the American public, least of all its children, travel a gauntlet of pornography in order to celebrate what has become more or less a national holiday. Among the solutions that ought to be on the table as we discuss what to do about this calamitous spectacle is that of nationalizing the championship game. Prevail on the NFL to let any television station that wishes the right to do its own broadcast. That way, those who want a comment-free version of the game can watch C-SPAN, those who want color commentary can watch one of the networks, and those who want a peep show can watch CBS.

Excuse me?!? Nationalize the Super Bowl? The only semi-coherent defense of nationalizing anything I’ve ever heard was based on the idea that people had a right to the thing being nationalized. So are we to gather that the staff over at the Weekly Standard thinks being able to watch the Super Bowl is a fundamental American right? As Aaron at Football Outsiders comments :

Possibly the stupidest idea ever. This column — no, not just a column, an editorial — from the Weekly Standard is also the official signal that the Republican establishment has totally, completely given up on limited government and the free market. Apparently, in the future, professional football will be rationed to the citizens through a Soviet-style government bureaucracy so as to limit breast sightings.

Here’s the simple solution to whatever problem there was with Janet Jackson’s bared breast, impotence pills and farting horses: if that sort of thing offends you, don’t fucking watch. The whiny retort, of course, is this:

But, but, but little kids want to watch the Super Bowl, and shouldn’t be subjected to that stuff. Why, it could damage them. Think of the Children™

First of all, if you’re doing such a poor job of raising your children that they would be damaged by a naked breast or a farting horse, you’re not much of a parent. You might want to consider the possibility that teaching your kids that the human body is evil, that the naked female body is even more evil, and that the torso of a naked female body is most evil of all is damaging your kids far more than a two second exposure to Janet Jackson’s unappealing mammary. Read The Professor and the Madman and pay particular attention to what W.C. Minor does to himself at the end (or, if you’re lazy, just read the fifth-to-last paragraph of this quick synopsis).

Second, we live in the age of TiVo (and, even if we didn’t, you could achieve the same effect with a VCR). If your kid wants to watch the Super Bowl and you don’t feel like he can handle the halftime show or the commercials, give him the TiVo replay sans accoutrements.

There’s one other thing about this article that raises my ire that I’d like to comment on: the seemingly increasingly common idea that state action is a legitimate means of persuasion. There’s no way in hell, outside of a federal law (or, I suppose, a truly gigantic federal subsidy) that the NFL is going to give up the massive amount of revenue that it garners from selling the rights to broadcast the Super Bowl, so this notion of “prevail[ing] on the NFL” is a thinly-disguised euphemism for “forcing the NFL”. News flash: there’s a big damn difference between persuasion and coercion and just because it would be someone else (i.e. the state) doing the coercion doesn’t make it okay. A lot of people seem to operate under the mistaken delusion that the state has supernatural rights that justify it doing things that no single person or other organization has the right to do. Do not make the mistake of confusing legality with morality.

February 06, 2004

Clarett Ruled Eligible

Posted by shonk at 11:03 AM | permalink | comment

Maurice Clarett, Ohio State’s wayward star running back, yesterday won a lawsuit he brought against the NFL for barring him from the draft in April. The ruling stems from the judgment that the NFL’s policy to exclude players less than three years out of high school is a violation of anti-trust law. From the judge’s decision:

The NFL has not justified Clarett’s exclusion by demonstrating that the rule enhances competition. Indeed, Clarett has alleged the very type of injury — a complete bar to entry into the market for this services — that the antitrust laws are designed to prevent.

I tend to side with Skip Oliva when he says, “It’s always a sad day when a federal judge decides what ‘enhances competition’ in the private sector”; the NFL, as a private organization, ought to be able to set whatever standards for employment it desires, and then suffer whatever costs are associated with maintaining those standards. Instead, the NFL (and, ultimately, football fans) will be forced to suffer the consequences (and I’m convinced they will be largely negative) of unskilled players with high “potential” like Clarett being forced into the league by judicial fiat.

Oliva responds to the reaction of Tony Kornheiser and Andy Pollin:

Kornheiser said the judge upheld Clarett’s “civil rights”—as if the men who died at Yorktown, Gettysburg, and Iwo Jima gave their lives so Maurice Clarett could force the NFL to hire him against its will.

And if you think I’m out of line invoking those battles, consider how many lives and businesses have been destroyed by the antitrust laws. The “civil rights” of Americans are violated every day by those who infringe private property rights in the name of “competition” and “fairness”. These laws—and I use that term loosely here—are nothing more than an excuse for handing unchecked, arbitrary power to the government.

On this issue, he’s exactly right. Anti-trust laws, even at their best, are some of the worst-written and most arbitrarily-enforced laws currently extant. Furthermore, even if one were to accept the validity of the anti-trust framework, the NFL is not anywhere close to a monopoly. The NFL is really in the entertainment business, where they face incredibly stiff competition from not just other sports leagues, but movies, music, television, etc. To say that they have a meaningful monopoly on much of anything is to miss the forest for the trees. Certainly, someone like Clarett doesn’t have much of a chance for high-salary employment anywhere other than the NFL, but neither the NFL, the courts, nor anyone else should be held responsible for Clarett making personal choices that leave him only a single viable option. Clarett has no more of a right to be employed by the NFL than a sociology Ph.D. has a right to a tenure-track job, instead of a job waiting tables or selling over-priced coffee.

As Skip notes in the comments to Eric’s post over at Off Wing Opinion:

The court found this rule violated the Sherman Act under “rule of reason” analysis which, like all antitrust law, is purely an invention of the judiciary with no direct basis in statute. The court found there was a “relevant market” for “NFL players” that the NFL exercised “exclusive market power” over. This is conventional antitrust trickery — defining a relevant market as the company’s own product.

Ultimately, I suspect Clarett will be eligible for the April draft despite the NFL’s appeal of the ruling. If the team owners who make up the league’s leadership were really serious about preventing Clarett and others like him from turning the NFL into the NBA, none of them would draft him. In fact, not drafting Clarett would be a good idea even if he weren’t an underclassman, as his litany of troubles at Ohio State do not speak well of his maturity and ability to handle the increased competition he will face at the NFL level. Unfortunately, as noted on Off Wing Opinion, “if that were to happen, we’d have another lawsuit, except this time the charge would be collusion.” Not that it will ever get to that stage, as some limp-wristed owner is sure to make select Clarett in the early rounds.

JC of Old fishinghat has a slightly different take; he sees this as a positive judgment, not necessarily for its effect on the NFL, but rather for what it will do to the NCAA. He has this to say to the statement made by Wally Renfro, senior advisor to the president of the NCAA, that “[f]rom an educational standpoint, we’re disappointed in the court’s decision” :

Oh how you weep for the children…you jackass! Many of these poor kids with immense athletic talent are forced to sit through classes they don’t want or need. If a player wants a college degree, there is nothing stopping him from getting it after his short NFL career is over. There is nothing inherently valuable about a college degree. Just ask Bill Gates, who realized his skills were more valued in the real world than in the academy. Colleges earn huge sums of money for putting these kids on the football field, yet the college kids see nothing but a scholarship that they never wanted in the first place. The reason these kids play is the expected value of NFL wages that may or may not come in the future. The NFL gets a cheap training ground, the NCAA gets a low cost fundraiser. Don’t put that “for the good of the children” crap in my face! If we want antitrust law to do something good, we should hope the courts would tear down the college sports monopsony of the NCAA, which is propped up by heavy state subsidies.

Hear, hear! The NCAA’s stance on amateurism is ridiculous and the only reason, in my opinion, that it hasn’t been slapped down by the courts is that the biggest beneficiaries of major-college sports are state universities. Football programs like the one at Ohio State bring in millions of dollars in revenues for the university, while the players receive only a scholarship to attend classes that most of them have exactly zero interest in. Of course, there are exceptions, like former Colorado defensive lineman and current MIT professor Jim Hansen, but Division I football players are, on average, more likely to fail AIDS awareness than get a degree in Aeronautical Engineering.

February 02, 2004

A speculation

Posted by Curt at 09:02 AM | permalink | 3 comments

The Patriots’ name and logo leads me to wonder how the Super Bowl would have gone had they been owned by, say, the U.S. government. Would Patriots ownership insist that covert surveillance of the pre-game show indicated that Dan Marino and Deion Sanders were in the stadium and that the Panthers might be planning to use them? Would they then admit that no evidence existed that either of them had played in the last five years, but still claim that Carolina might be planning on reviving their careers? And after the game would they claim that their pre-emptive strike had prevented the Panthers from having enough time to suit up Marino and Sanders? Would ownership claim after, for example, after the numerous uncalled late hits on Brady and the Patriots receivers that the officials were not enforcing the resolutions laid out by NFL playbook, and that NFL officials had in fact become obsolete? Would they even release injury reports? And finally, would they simply deny that the missed Vinatieri field goals occured or would they rather claim that a defeatist media elite was focusing only on the bad news, while at the same time unveiling plans to launch a rival network to ESPN which would broadcast only successful third-down conversions?

February 01, 2004

That's Right

Posted by shonk at 10:43 PM | permalink | 9 comments

Yes, you saw right, they really did show a naked breast during the most highly-rated network television program of the year.

December 20, 2003

Congrats to the Johnnies

Posted by shonk at 05:55 PM | permalink | comment

I’ve come to realize that I really, really loathe dial-up. Enough that I would rather read a book than get frustrated trying to read all the blogs and online news that I usually do. Since I’ll be stuck with dial-up for the next week or so at the minimum, expect entries to be short or non-existant for that time.

Despite the vagaries of my dial-up connection, I couldn’t help but notice that St. John’s beat Mt. Union in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl. For those that aren’t familiar with Division III football, that’s the Division III national championship. What’s notable about this is that aside from the fact that St. John’s coach, John Gagliardi, has been coaching there for 51 years and just this year broke Eddie Robinson’s record for most all-time wins by a college football coach, Mt. Union has won the last 3 consecutive DIII championships and had won 55 straight and 109 of their last 110 games. In other words, Mt. Union has been the most dominant team in college football for most of the last decade. As Gagliardi said, “Maybe it’s my year.”

October 08, 2003

Rush Redux, II

Posted by shonk at 11:44 AM | permalink | comment

A quick update to my previous post. Courtesy of Off Wing Opinion, I learned that John Lott, author of More Guns, Less Crime and The Bias Against Guns actually did some research to determine whether Limbaugh's comments had merit. From the National Review article:

The evidence suggests that Rush is right, though the simplest measures indicate that the difference is not huge. Looking at just the averages, without trying to account for anything else, reveals a ten-percent difference in coverage (with 67 percent of stories on blacks being positive, 61 percent for whites).

We also collected data by week for each of the first four weeks of the season on a host of other factors that help explain the rate at which a player is praised: the quarterback's rating for each game; whether his team won; the points scored for and against the team; ESPN's weekly rank for the quarterback's team and the opponent; and whether it was a Monday night game. In addition, I accounted for average differences in media coverage both in the quarterback's city and the opponent's city as well as differences across weeks of the season.

Accounting for these other factors shows a much stronger pattern. Black quarterbacks' news coverage is 27 percentage points more positive than whites. And that difference was quite statistically significant the chance of this result simply being random is the same odds as flipping a coin five times and getting heads each time.

Though I often tend to agree with the old saw about how "statistics lie, and liars use statistics", I have to say that I respect Lott as researcher, so it appears that I may have to eat my words.

October 04, 2003

Limbaugh Redux

Posted by shonk at 10:59 PM | permalink | comment

Now that the dust is starting to settle a bit from the scandal surrounding Rush Limbaugh's comments last Sunday on NFL Countdown, I thought I might add a thought or two before the issue becomes totally passe. For those that don't follow football, NFL Countdown is ESPN's Sunday morning pre-game show. In the off season, ESPN hired Limbaugh and Michael Irvin, the outspoken former Cowboy's receiver, to join Chris Berman, Steve Young and Tom Jackson in an attempt to inject a bit of excitement into the show and goose ratings. The format, basically, is that Berman and the three former players sit at the main studio table, talking about highlights, dissecting schemes and making predictions for the upcoming games, while Limbaugh sits off to the side and occasionally issues a "Rush Challenge" whenever he disagrees with something said or wants to argue. Or rather, I should say "sat", as Limbaugh resigned in the wake of his comments and on the eve of a coincidentally-timed prescription-drug scandal. Anywy, the idea was that Limbaugh, who is knowledgeable about the game but by no means an expert, would serve as a surrogate "average fan", objecting to analysis that didn't make any sense. Having watched the show once or twice, I thought that Limbaugh interrupted the flow of the show more than he added to it, but he did improve ratings, so he gave ESPN what it really wanted in hiring him in the first place.

Anyway, on to what Limbaugh said about Donovan McNabb, Eagles quarterback and Campbell's Soup pitchman:

I don't think he's been that good from the get-go. I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team.

Now, needless to say, that raised a few eyebrows. It's been the prime topic of conversation over at Off-Wing Opinion all week, was analyzed by Peter King and inspired a lengthy rant by Ralph Wiley, among many, many others. Even John Kennedy over at No Treason got into the act (and again, and again). As one would expect, not too many people were rushing to Rush's defense and I don't particularly plan to, either. I don't disagree with Limbaugh that McNabb is overrated, but I think the claim that he is so because of his race is dubious. The Barra articled linked by Kennedy and Off-Wing Opinion makes the best argument for Limbaugh's case: Barra claims, based on a statistical argument, that if McNabb were white, he would be less well-regarded than the perpetually mediocre Brad Johnson, but I think there are several important reasons why McNabb might be more highly regarded among the media and the average fan than just his race.

First, as "MaineCoon" opined in the comments on Barra's piece,

The fact is, it's much more likely that if McNabb is overrated it's because he plays a dynamic and attractive style of game that happens not to be as effective as one might think. But this explanation doesn't require one to make massive, unverifiable, implausible assumptions about liberal conspiracies, and so would of course not appeal to Limbaugh.

McNabb, whatever his shortcomings, is exciting to watch. He's fast, throws hard, has the ability to evade, make something happen out of nothing. Johnson has none of these talents; he may be more accurate, but reputations, in this day of slow-motion replay, are made more on the basis of spectacular highlights than consistent competence. McNabb has the highlights, Johnson doesn't, so it should come as no surprise that McNabb garners more Sportscenter time than Johnson. I'd also point out, as noted at Off Wing, "Johnson has played in offenses far more talented and dynamic than McNabb has ever enjoyed", so comparable statistics indicate greater ability on McNabb's part.

Second, though related to the first point, McNabb has far more potential than Johnson. McNabb is one of the best athletes in the NFL, which is high praise indeed; it's comparable to saying Bill Gates is one of the richest software writers in the world. Johnson, on the other hand, though surely a better athlete than you or I, looks about as stiff as a shirt soaked in starch all night. McNabb will always receive more favorable attention, if only because he has the physical tools to be a great player, even if he never capitalizes on them. McNabb may very well be overrated in large measure because of the potential for greatness that he has. This has nothing to do with race, as one can quickly confirm with even a momentary perusal of the career of Jeff George.

Third, and this may be even more important than the other two factors, McNabb is a very charismatic person, a quality rare among athletes. His omnipresence in commercials is a testament to this fact, as are his oft-aired interviews. McNabb is well-spoken, intelligent and relatively attractive, an ideal combination in this television age. Reporters are notoriously drawn towards quotable personalities and people who look good on TV, if only because good copy, good soundbites and appealing interviews sell newspapers and advertising. Hence, it should come as little surprise that the telegenic McNabb would be favored by the media over the stiff and awkward Johnson.

Finally, I would just point out that McNabb plays for Philadelphia, which means he's on the beat for Philly writers and only two hours away from New York and Washington, D.C., the two biggest media outlets in the country. Johnson, on the other hand, has had most of his success in Minnesota and Tampa Bay (failing miserably in Washington, by the way), both of which places are far from the centers of East Coast journalism that set the tone for media treatment.

These four points should make it clear that, black or white, it is only natural that McNabb would be more popular among the media than Johnson. In other words, overrated. Whatever factor his race may or may not have played in his being overrated is certainly hard to quantify and, in the presence of another bit of evidence, hard to give much serious credence. As Bill Simmons said:

I still think Limbaugh should have resigned from the show, not because he's racist but because he made the dumbest argument in the history of pre-game football shows. How can you argue that McNabb was overrated because of his color, when Steve McNair -- a black QB, last time I checked -- has been the most unappreciated superstar in the league for two straight years? Seriously, who's better than McNair right now? If you had to win one game, is there anyone in football you would take over him?

Peter King, incidentally, alludes to a similar point. Now, certainly, part of the reason McNair is underappreciated is that he plays in Tennessee, not Philadelphia or New York. Also, his value is, in large part, based on his grit and determination, rather than fancy highlights. Whatever the case, the point is that there certainly doesn't appear to be a media agenda to pump up black quarterbacks because of their race. When I made this point over at No Treason, Kennedy astutely pointed out that "There's a difference between an agenda and a common predisposition", but, supposing a common predisposition, it still doesn't make sense that it would benefit McNabb and not McNair.

That all having been said, I guess I can't completely discredit Limbaugh's opinion. Reporters tend to be more socially-conscious than most, and I'm sure many do want a black quarterback to succeed to confirm their particular social agendas. Some of that desire may even manifest itself in their writing and in their choices of who to interview and who to quote, though I suspect that this is primarily subconscious. However, even if we stipulate that, the ultimate arbiters of someone's "overratedness" are the fans who, in the case of football, tend to be more conservative than average ("progressive" types disdaining the wanton violence and commercialism of professional football). If McNabb is overrated, it is because he is overrated in the minds of the fans.

One final comment before I go: despite all this, if McNabb is overrated in part because of his race, I don't particularly see it as any more of an affront to decency than any of the examples of certain white athletes who have obviously benefited from their race. The most egregious example in recent memory is that of Jason Sehorn, who had one good year but benefitted massively from the fact that he (a) played in New York and (b) was the only white starting cornerback in the league (he's now playing safety in St. Louis, I believe). Sehorn remained popular long after his skills had eroded solely on the basis of his race (and, I suppose, the fact he slept with Angie Harmon). Other examples that spring to mind would be Jeremy Shockey, Brian Urlacher and, much as I like the guy, Ed McCaffrey. Were any of these guys black, they wouldn't get half the endorsement deals and screen time that they do. Moving out of the realm of football, we should surely add Keith Van Horn to this list, as he's been nothing but mediocre since the day he entered the NBA, yet still got compared to Larry Bird solely on the basis of his race. So, if McNabb does gets preferential treatment because of his race, let's not forget that he's not the only one. Warren Sapp may be one of my least favorite athletes, but he may be right about this:

Do we not have anybody that understands that there's way more scrubs in this game that are Anglos than there are black ones that are being pumped up? Trust me, it's not even close.

September 26, 2003

Athlete Compensation and the Color Purple

Posted by shonk at 03:13 PM | permalink | comment

I was reading about Emmit Smith's comments in support of Maurice Clarett over at Off Wing Opinion and I couldn't help thinking that Clarett's situation is likely to cause a bit of confusion among certain segments of society. On the one hand, Clarett is a young black man who The Man is trying to prevent from entering the NFL (and collecting untold riches). On the other hand, he's eventually going to get paid millions to run around with a ball under his arm while other people try to hurt him.

The compensation that athletes get is a sore spot for a lot of people, since people who do much more society-enhancing jobs, like teachers, get paid far less than athletes. I'm not going to engage in this particular normative argument, but would rather like to dispell certain myths surrounding this issue. First and foremost, this disparity in compensation between athletes and teachers is often trotted out as evidence of the shallowness and irresponsibility of Americans and the supposedly materialist American culture. While it is true that the high compensation garnered by athletes in America is a function of the aggregate values of Americans, it's folly to suppose that it is only American culture which promotes this sort of thing. In fact, in every country I can think of, athletes are better compensated than teachers. Certainly this is true throughout Europe, as evidenced by the amount paid to soccer stars like David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane. It's also true in Africa, as we can see from the preferential treatment afforded to members of the Nigerian national soccer team or runners like Hicham El Guerrouj or South Africa's elite rugby players. In Asia, we need only look to Pakistani and Indian field hockey or cricket stars, Japanese baseball players or any number of other examples. Even in Communist countries, which supposedly have values diametrically opposite to the stereotypical "American" values, world-class athletes, be they Cuban baseball players, Chinese gymnasts or Red Army hockey players from the old USSR, receive special attention and special perks. Of course, in many of these countries, the disparity between athlete compensation and teacher compensation is less, but then again in most of those same countries teachers are more poorly compensated than they are in the US.

My point is not to say that athletes ought to be paid much better than teachers, but rather to point out that virtually every society known to man does exactly that. So complain about it all you like (or better yet, do something about it), but don't chalk it up as another example of the stupidity of Americans.

Since I'm sure two sports-related entries in a single week are proving disconcerting for some of my audience, here's a more stereotypical blog entry:

One other thing that I realized today, but which doesn't really merit a separate entry, is that the color purple seems to play an integral part in my life. Through what I think is a series of coincidences, both my bike and my skis (probably my two most valuable possessions in terms of original purchase price other than my computer) are purple, and the primary school color of my undergraduate university was purple. I purchased both the bike and the skis used; in each case the only suitable model available at the time came in purple. And I never even thought about school colors in deciding where to attend college. Still and all, these sorts of coincidences are unnerving.

September 21, 2003

Salary Caps and World Domination

Posted by shonk at 01:40 AM | permalink | comment

Okay, I don't think anybody that reads this is much of a football fan, but lack of interest has never stopped me from ranting before. When you live in Philadelphia, you tend to become pretty hyper-aware of how the local sports teams are doing, especially the Eagles and especially when they're playing poorly. Not having watched either of their games this year, I have really no idea what is wrong with the Eagles, but I suspect part of the problem is that they're playing too many young, inexperienced players, especially in the secondary and on special teams.

The problem of young players is an age-old one in sports, as younger players tend to be faster, more athletic, more explosive, but also tend to be less mature, less experienced. The problem with a lack of maturity and experience is that it tends to lead to mental mistakes that can be costly: not recognizing a pattern, not knowing how to fight off the block, losing one's temper in a close game, not knowing when to conserve one's energy and when to give total effort. The tradeoff involved with having younger players filling important roles on a team is why most sports teams try to achieve a balance between youthful athleticism and veteran wiliness and leadership.

In the NFL (and most other sports leagues), this tradeoff is about more than just achieving that ideal balance with no constraints. After all, teams have the Collective Bargaining Agreement to deal with. The CBA is the agreement between the NFL Player's Association (union) and the league (owners). Within that agreement, everything from expansion to team size to meal allowances are spelled out in detail. Not least of the components in the agreement are the minimum salaries and the Salary Cap (what's linked to is the old CBA; I don't know if the new one is online or not, but I imagine it's similar. The language of the CBA itself is pretty intimidating; I recommend this Salary Cap FAQ). Now, those two components, acting in opposition, do much to determine a team's mixture of youth and experience.

Why is that? Because of this is the minimum salary structure for players on a team's active roster for the 1999 league year (again, the 2003 structure is similar, though there is an additional level for 10+ year veterans):

Length of Service

Less than One Credited Season $175,000

One Credited Season 250,000

Two Credited Seasons 325,000

Three Credited Seasons 350,000

Four Credited Seasons 375,000

Five or more Credited Seasons 400,000

What this chart makes pretty clear is that employing a rookie for punt coverage and backup secondary duties (a position likely to earn near the minimum) is significantly less expensive for a team than employing a five year veteran for the same job, which is important when one considers that each team's spending on salaries is capped. In fact, when you consider the fact that any player with at least four "Credited Seasons" is eligible for the NFL pension plan, a five year veteran is substantially more expensive to employ than a rookie. Now, I've highlighted some of the deficiencies of younger players, but it almost goes without saying that, when contracts are being negotiated, a general manager is going to have a hard time justifying the notion that a five-year veteran is almost three times better than an otherwise comparable rookie. After all, you can't quantify experience in the same way that you can speed or agility. The general manager might regret his decision after the season when the team comes up short in the playoffs due to the rookie inadvertantly touching a live punt (subsequently recovered by the opposition for the go-ahead touchdown mid-way through the fourth quarter), a common rookie mistake.

So what's my point? My point is that the way the minimum salary as structured in the CBA is detrimental to teams (and, incidentally, to marginal players: is it any coincidence that the length of the average NFL career is 3 1/2 years?). Teams have a strong financial incentive to employ rookies over veterans, yet it is the inexperience of rookies that time and again is decried by teams and sportwriters for a team's failure. Young players are likely to only have a couple of years in the league, not because they don't have the ability, but rather because they are forced by their own union to demand a higher salary than they are worth (if we suppose that a competent though unexceptional defensive back is worth $300,000, then such a player will become obsolete after only two years, even if his play does not decline).

This is typical of established unions, which tend to favor policies that do one thing: ensure the continued profitability of the union. In the case of the NFLPA, this means adopting policies that serve the above-average veteran player. Such players tend to be team leaders, so their support of the union is crucial. The young and marginal players being screwed by the CBA are unlikely to be influential voices in the locker room and, at any rate, are never around long enough (due in part to the minimums enforced by the CBA) to have any effect on the popularity of the union.

So, the moral of the story is, the next time your team loses because some no-name rookie got called for holding on a punt return, you might want to consider taking a moment out of the time you devote to questioning his parentage to toss in a curse or two for the self-serving NFLPA.

None of this is to say that owners and general managers are devoid of blame personnel decisions, but they get blamed all the time. The NFLPA deserves a few fingers pointed its way, too.

I think I'll hire some of the former NFLers screwed by the CBA to be my bodyguards when I achieve world domination; they're likely to be large, strong and have bad attitudes. Needless to say, I'll be sure to follow these handy tips along the way.