Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The hard is what makes it great

Last week featured a back and forth between Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell, which is always thought provoking.

With regards to PEDs in sports (on which Gladwell has previously, both in this exchange and elesewhere, expressed ambivalence), writes:

So here is a second, completely different argument against PEDs. They rob the game of that kind of drama. Cyclists take EPO in the Tour de France to prevent themselves from physically breaking down in the last week of the race. But what if we want to see cyclists cope with the physical breakdown that comes in the last week of one of the world's most grueling races? From a fan's perspective, maybe there is as much pleasure from watching athletes cope with physical imperfection as there is from watching the kind of perfection that comes from medical assistance.

In essence this is why we (and ultimately the Soviet crowd) roots for Rocky Balboa over Ivan Drago.

And this is undoubtedly true.  Pick your most memorable sports moment.  Chances are it involves an athlete overcoming in the context of that competition some kind of physical or environmental roadblock rather than a simple exhibition of skill.  Kirk Gibson's home run.  "Here comes Willis!" Jimmy Connors' run in the US Open.  Jordan's flu game.  Sampras winning in spite of throwing up.  Tiger Woods winning the US Open on a torn ACL.  Kerri Strug doing that vault.  Or, as Gladwell mentions later, Tom Watson coming one hole short of winning the British Open at age 59.

This is why we only care about Olympic Sports, which frequently involve competing against the clock or for judges rather than directly against adversaries, every four years.  Even then, NBC has to import a narrative to make us care.  And absolute feats don't get our attention; it takes something like Michael Phelps trying to win 8 gold medals (overcoming the fatigue of a packed schedule) for us to take notice.

We understand that the skill we see on the field is the result of grueling mental and physical preparation.  But we don't see that, and thus don't celebrate that.

The other element, which relates to the current debates about concussions, is that they involve the athletes putting themselves at risk.  John Elway diving for a first down in the Super Bowl.

The problem, as we're finding out, is that it is impossible for athletes to overcome the threat of danger without actual danger.  And if there is actual danger, there are some athletes who will be unsuccessful in overcoming it.

So I'm ambivalent about things like eliminating home plate collisions.  I don't want to see anyone get badly hurt.  But at the same time, it does remove one of the few opportunities for physical courage from the game.  

It's probably not worth it if it means guys like Mike Matheny have to retire early, or Buster Posey misses a year from the prime of his career.  But it is something.

The problems with pajama boy

Let's break it down:

I am assuming the reader is supposed to identify with the man in the picture, given the likely demographics of President Obama's Twitter followers.  The message is that you, smart person who was able to acquire health insurance thanks to the president, should take some time during the holidays to talk about the experience with your less enlightened and skeptical family members, most likely his parents.

Now, let's look at the picture.

The text says he is drinking hot chocolate, which adults do drink on occasion but is generally a child's drink.

He is wearing pajamas.  But not just pajamas, but footie pajamas.  My nine year old daughter is currently growing out of her last sets of these.

He is also wearing a wristwatch.  An generally unnecessary accessory in the days of cell phones (which this man almost definitely owns), but particularly unnecessary in a situation that also calls for pajamas.

He is perched on his chair with a satisfied look on his face.

And why is he satisfied?  Well, the ad is encouraging us to talk about getting health insurance.  Presumably, he has either just done this or is preparing to do so.  Presumably, he was unable to get health care coverage for himself until health care reform passed.

So, is it possible to have a problem with this that's not rooted in homophobia?  Let me take a shot, going from general to specific:

  1. This is not unique to President Obama, but I have a problem with the president in his second term continuing to maintain a campaign website and campaign.  You've got the job., Do it.  
  2. I also have a problem with the president, or any politician, trying to turn us into foot soldiers to sell his policies.  Politicians are supposed to fight for us, not the other way around.  It's your job to evangelize about health care reform, not ours.
  3. I'm in particularly not a fan of the ideal of sending people to family holiday gatherings with talking points as if they're surrogates on Sunday morning talk shows.  Maybe the holidays should be a time where we enjoy each others' company rather than beat them over the head with our political views.

    In particular, for many of us, the "holiday" still is Christmas, which, for Christians, is a time to remember our God becoming incarnate to save us.  This invites us to instead talk about how, thanks to President Obama, we now have health care.
  4. The implicit message of the ad is, "Be like this guy."  A guy who apparently was unable to acquire health care for himself before the ACA, in spite of being apparently somewhat affluent and able-bodied.  So, our model of adulthood, or manhood, is a guy who needs government help to get himself health insurance, then spends the holidays telling other people about it.  Is it crazy to think we ought to aim better than that? Yes, health care reform came about because there was a need, but is needing that help something you should be proud to talk about at family holiday gatherings?
The ad does present an odd model, an childish person proudly dependent on the government.  It seems one have a problem with this without considering his sexuality.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Price of Glory?

I'm listening to Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad.  The book was published before James Gandolfini's death, which makes its beginning all the more poignant -- a story of a time during the filming of The Sopranos when Gandolfini went missing for 24 hours, then called the production team from a beauty salon with no money asking for a ride home.

It seems that Gandolfini did not always handle the emotional burden of playing Tony Soprano all that well, finding it necessary to work himself into an emotional frenzy to play the role, and this spilled over into other aspects of his life.

It certainly seems possible that if Gandolfini was not cast as Tony Soprano, he would still be alive today.


This is interesting me in considering the concussion problem in the NFL, and other issues of player safety.

The growing consensus seems to be that the NFL is exploiting its players, putting their safety at risk; the owners and league office are hypocritical money-grubbers who don't give a damn about player safety no matter what they say and do, and we should generally be ashamed for following it.

If James Gandolfini had spent 1999-2005 playing linebacker for the Giants rather than Tony Soprano, his death would have launched some soul searching and questions about the dangers of football.  But, as far as I can tell, no similar soul searching took place regarding television, that maybe networks should tone down their characters so as not to put actors at risk.

It is certainly possible that Gandolfini is an outlier in this regard.  The book goes on to mention that Edie Falco had no problems transitioning between her life and her portrayal of Carmela Soprano.  Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston seem to be able to handle their characters well enough.  Perhaps Gandolfini was just unstable.

By the same token, I turn on my TV every weekend and see Troy Aikman, Phil Simms, Chris Collinsworth, Rodney Harrison, Dan Marino, Boomer Esiason, Michael Strahan, Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, Tom Jackson, Cris Carter, Keyshawn Johnson, Shannon Sharpe, Steve Young, Trent Dilfer, Ray Lewis, and many other former NFL players who seem to be in full possession of their mental faculties.

Or maybe it's worth it.  Maybe if you told James Gandolfini in 1999, "Look, if you take this role, you will be the face of one of the iconic characters in American culture.  But it will require so much out of you that you will pass away a few years after the show ends," he would still take it.  Just like many NFL players say they would play if they were aware of the risks.

Maybe Gandolfini isn't an anomaly, but what is not anomalous is the pattern of what happens to child stars.  We acknowledge this, but don't really insist that anything be done about it, even treating people whose lives were ruined by getting too much too soon as punch lines (e.g. Lindsay Lohan).

Could we enjoy Mad Men without having children play Don Draper's children?  We don't even seriously consider the question.  If those child actors' lives are ruined by playing a role in an adult drama and becoming famous, and having their performance ripped apart on the internet, well, that's what happens.

This doesn't mean that the NFL is blameless, or that there's nothing we can do to make the game safer, or that a game that leaves a significant number of its participants mentally damaged is suitable mass entertainment.

But it is interesting how our outrage differs according to context.

Anatomy of a Cowboys Loss

As an Eagles fan, this current run of Cowboys mediocrity has been particularly enjoyable for me, with yesterday's loss to the Packers perhaps being the most enjoyable (especially coming on the heels of the Eagles' performance in Minnesota), with the possible exception of the 2008 season-ending 44-6 blowout.

I've noticed these losses seem to follow a pattern.

  1. The build-up.  These days, a Cowboys meltdown is all but an inevitability, so there's typically some pregame chatter about how the Cowboys need to recover from what happened last week, or the previous years, this is an opportunity for redemption, a chance to silence the critics, etc.
  2. The fast start.  The Cowboys will typically come out an march down the field for a touchdown on their first drive.  This will usually lead Troy Aikman or Chris Collinsworth to say something like, "There were some questions about Tony Romo this week, and he's answered them!" or "You can tell Jason Garrett has his team ready to play today!"
  3. Brain Fart (minor) The Cowboys will commit some seemingly minor error in the second quarter that will come to bite them in the ass later.  Maybe they'll commit a red zone penalty that will force them to settle for a field goal.  Maybe it will be a turnover in the 2 minute drill.  Maybe they'll let the other team get a cheap half-ending field goal.    In any case, they'll head into the half ahead, but on a sour note.
  4. Halftime  Talk up the Cowboys' first half performance, question whether they can sustain it for the second half.
  5. The Deluge  A series of turnovers, poor defense, and odd coaching decisions lead to the first half lead evaporating.  Typically punctuated by an especially grievous turnover or coaching decisions, at which Aikman or Collinsworth express amazement, perhaps even leading to Al Michaels or Joe Buck joining the pile-on.  Example:

    Buck:  You have to wonder why the Cowboys would call a double-reverse pass on 1st and 5 up 14 with 2 minutes to go on their opponents' 5 yard line.
    Aikman: That's exactly right, Joe.  And this is why the questions around Jason Garrett will continue to swirl.
  6. The Sideline Shots  My personal favorites.  Receivers bitching at coaches and QBs (Terrel Owens was always good for this).  Tony Romo staring blankly at the field in his backward baseball cap.  Jerry Jones with his arms folded on the sidelines.  The Cowboys coaches looking confused (though Wade Phillips also was better at this role than Jason Garrett -- Garrett looks more like he can't believe that his carefully laid out plan collapsed like this).
  7. Dashed Final Hope In spite of blowing the lead, the Cowboys will have a final chance to win the game, only to blow it with another turnover or blown field goal or some other miscue.
  8. The Postgame Jones will express full confidence in his coaching staff and Romo, and they'll prepare for next week.
This has been one of the few joys of being an Eagles fan over the years.

The thing is, I don't know that Garrett or Romo are that bad, or if they're unlucky.  It is fun to watch, though.