Sporting Ability Does Not Correlate With Virtue: The Superbowl Confirmation

It was pretty easy cheering against the New England Patriots yesterday. I’m a New York Giants fan, and the Giants specialize in breaking Patriot hearts, in shattering Patriot dreams–think Superbowl XLII and Superbowl XLVI; the Patriots are a New England team, and New Yorkers dislike all New England teams; the Patriots and their coach, Bill Belichick are notorious benders and tweakers of the rules of the game–think ‘Deflategate‘; the Atlanta Falcons were the underdogs, aiming to bring sporting success to a city that could use some good news–Boston is blase about all its sports championships. And so on. (Bear with me while I make note of these marketing clichés.) And then, this year, there was the political subtext–which wasn’t so sub, after all. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are Trump fans; the former has been used as campaign fodder by Trump himself.

Say no more.

Apparently, we had an unambiguous moral universe set up for us. Good vs. Evil. And Evil triumphed. Moreover, Evil did so thanks to an amazing, unprecedented comeback that ensured its quarterback, coach, and team have good claims–statistical and otherwise–on being anointed one of the greatest of all time. (The Patriots’ win also allowed the obnoxious Richard Spencer‘s crowing on Twitter about how he was cheering for one of the ‘whitest’ teams in the NFL to be fruitfully rewarded.) The arc of this moral universe is long and its local curvature doesn’t seem to indicate that it is bending in the right direction.

Sporting ability does not seem to correlate with virtue–of any sort. This sad fact has often been noted and commented on by sports fans; moral reprobates win championships and prize money galore all the time; good guys often finish last.  Indeed, the playing of sport itself does not seem to make the world a better place. Football, the particular sport under scrutiny here, has done a great deal to suggest that it does not deserve spectatorial attention, indulgence, or tolerance so long as it continues to be an inherently unsafe activity organized and managed in an unsafe fashion. There are, after all, good reasons to believe NFL owners have systematically misrepresented the long-term dangers of the sport and will not allow an open, unbiased investigation into its longstanding concussion and traumatic brain injury problems. (The systematic misrepresentation of masculinity, the glorification of violence, the tolerance of domestic violence by the NFL’s commissioners, its serving as a propaganda arm of the military, are but some of the many other sins that are laid at the NFL’s door. The loud, sexist, drunk, NFL fan is a well-known American archetype–a frat boy in a team cap.)

This is all pretty disappointing stuff but it is also enlightening. We should not expect too much when we look at a sports field; least of all should we expect to find moral or political arguments justified there. The right of a people to nationhood will not, despite many wins for their sports teams, receive confirmation on a sports field; the success of a national ideology will not be confirmed by a win in a World Cup. The good news for the sports fan and the sports marketer is that this warning is not an easy one to take on board; sports fields are symbolic battlegrounds, and they’ll remain that way. At least till we find another domain of human endeavor that lends itself so easily to such easy exploitation by story tellers and myth makers.

Notes On Winter Climbing In The White Mountains – I

Last week, I drove up to New Hampshire–more specifically, to the White Mountains in New Hampshire–to do a little guided climbing. (With the endlessly patient and tremendously knowledgeable Nick Aiello-Popeo of Synnott Mountain Guides in Intervale, NH.) Climbing in the winter is supposed to be hard work; this past weekend turned out to be just that. Friday saw some of the coldest weather of the year as temperatures fell to below zero Fahrenheit; Saturday featured steady snowfall, and then later, up on the higher reaches of Mt. Washington, high winds that eventually forced us back down, aborting our attempt to make it to the summit.

During my drive from Brooklyn to North Conway, NH, on Thursday I sensed, from the falling temperatures during the day, that the guided climbing that lay ahead of me would be good and frigid. My impressions weren’t mistaken; my abiding memory of my time in the White Mountains was the bone-chilling cold. Nick and I spent most of Friday practicing some elementary moves on Willey’s Slide and Frankenstein; on the former cliff, we did some basic ice axe and crampon work, moving up and down a snow and ice slope to get comfortable with controlled moves on those surfaces.

williesslide

I made a small belayed ascent using some front-pointing and low-dagger technique; the slope featured some thin ice over rocks which made this interestingly challenging for a total novice like me. We also spent a lot of time just trying to warm up: windmills galore issued from our freezing bodies. We then changed venues to a): warm up a little by returning to the car and driving to a new location and b) work on a steeper slope to do some ice climbing.

At Frankenstein, Nick set up a bottom belay–anchored to a tree a little way up the slope–and I made two ascents using a pair of ice tools and my crampons. (I rappelled down while being belayed by Nick.)

frankenstein

This was very hard work. I was clumsy and uncoordinated, and frequently slipped. To make things worse, the ice on the rock face was not very thick, making most of ‘sticks’ into the ice of not very good quality. My poor technique didn’t help either as I often forgot to front-point and ended up standing sideways on my boots, which had the bothersome effect of scraping off more ice and snow than was useful for my next move up the face. At one point, I heard Nick reprimand me gently from below, “Ice climbing isn’t a sport in which you can jump or lunge!” I took short breaks to rest and warm up my hands; I was learning in short order just how hard swinging an ice-tool can be when your hands are frozen. (Nick also provided a couple of quick lessons in ice anchoring; I continued to marvel at the amount of gear he carried, and how deftly he was able to manipulate it all while wearing heavy mittens in the freezing cold.)

Finally, with the light starting to fade, we packed up our gear and headed back to the warmth of the car. I headed back to my motel to get some sleep and rest before trying our ascent of Mt. Washington on Saturday. A report on that failed attempt follows tomorrow.

Politics As Spectator Sport In A Nation That Would Call Its Dictator ‘Coach’

It had to come to this: a ‘presidential debate’ would become as television-friendly as sports, that shadow-boxing encounters replete with campaign trail inanities and evasions would be reckoned the political-show equivalent of a honest-to-goodness fifteen-round heavyweight championship bout (with figurative seconds and blood buckets close at hand.) These allusions and analogies which have retained their air of metaphor became just a little more hardened last night: the Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton debate was expected to attain ‘Super-Bowl-sized’ ratings, even as television executives rubbed their hands with glee. Television executives have always craved the ratings that sports events bring them; how could they come up with entertainment that could match that pitting of hero versus hero on a sports field (of dreams)? Putting political events in opposition to sports events had always been a ratings disaster, a sure sign that the programmer in question did not know the first thing about the American people. The best was to hope for, and actively participate in, the transformation of political conflict into horse races that could be bet on, hyped up, complete with opposing fan bases who would put the ‘fanatic’ back in ‘fan.’ We got that this year. What matter the provision of a platform to an unrepentant, authoritarian racist if ginormous ratings ensue in exchange?

It felt like a big final; visions of pennant games and football conference championships and perhaps even World Cup qualifiers danced in our minds. Bars placed signs outside on sidewalks, advertising their telecast facilities and drink specials; the crowds gathered early and packed the viewing venues, expelling latecomers to sidewalks; friends made debate party plans; drinking games were invented. Network effects dictated that the only way to feel like you belonged yesterday was to participate, to pull up a chair in front of the nearest television so that you could make sure of your participation in the water-cooler conversations come Monday, er Tuesday, morning. The bizarre had been normalized; the politics as entertainment trope received yet another confirmation. (Especially because it featured a man who has been seen performing during wrestling events in the past.)

Perhaps nothing signals our apparent powerlessness as political subjects like this spectacle does: it takes place on a television stage, in front of a crowd shushed into silence; campaign trail activities that preceded it now suddenly seem like the opening acts of the megashow that television had been waiting for all along. We sit back, appalled and fascinated, nervously munching on our popcorn, downing our drinks, inhaling on our vapes, waiting for commercials so we can take a bathroom break (before realizing you can take a break any time). Sometimes we check in with our fellow spectators on social media, generating streams of commentary and hopefully witty hot takes. After the ‘game’ talking heads–including retired stars from yesteryear and today’s brightest sports journalists–break down the big plays, some of which will feature in next morning’s edition of PoliticsCenter.

Remember, we’re the nation that would call its dictator of choice ‘coach.’

Colin Kaepernick Will Not ‘Behave’ And That’s A Damn Good Thing

Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers will not stand during the playing of the national anthem at NFL games. As he put it, after refusing to stand during the 49ers against the Packers this past weekend:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color….To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way….There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

And he is prepared for the consequences, for after all, his employer, NFL fans and sponsors, and the media could, and almost certainly will, turn on him:

I have to stand up for people that are oppressed….If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.

There are several interesting aspects to Kaepernick’s stance. First, and perhaps most importantly, there is no ambiguity about his stance. This is not a call to ‘come together,’ to ‘heal,’ to ‘forget and forgive’; this is not a bromide or a platitude to split the difference and maintain a quiescent state of affairs. This is a combative gesture of protest, one designed to be provocative, aimed against a symbol that is all too quickly used as protective cover by insecure patriots. They will soon issue the usual furious canards about how Kaepernick has ‘insulted’ those ‘who have died for the country defending our freedoms.’ Second, in so doing, Kaepernick is not merely taking aim at the police; he is indicting a much larger set of institutions, cultures, and practices. Indeed, by rejecting a classical gesture of respect for a national symbol, Kaepernick is rejecting the claims of the nation upon him, one to whom he feels his allegiance should not be directed as long as it does not fulfill its end of the citizenship bargain.

Athletes taking a political stance are not unknown. Some professional athletes have to be pressured or shamed into doing so; they speak up quickly and retreat, worried that their livelihood as will be jeopardized. The First Amendment will not protect them against their private employers. Others–like Mohammad Ali or Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the 1968 Olympics–made more explicit gestures of protest and paid the price. In the American context, because so many athletes are African-American, they can expect that the responses to their political statements will be infected by a racism and anger and contempt that they know is never too far from the surface of their most dedicated fans. They know they are expected to be ‘good blacks’: do your act, entertain us, and when you are done, leave the stage quietly; do not stick around to torment our conscience or force introspection upon us; we like our athletes compliant and docile; do not remind us of where you came from and what you might identify with; indeed, you have no other identity than that given to you by your contract and your employer.

Colin Kaepernick has just refused compliance with these orders. He deserves our respect and admiration and support.

Brexit, Shmexit: Schadenfreude And How The Old Eat The Young

Old habits die hard. I like watching England lose: in soccer and in cricket mainly, but I’ll admit to cheering for Napoleon too. (I morbidly continue to study the Battle of Waterloo, hoping again and again that that damn fool Grouchy will show up.) English self-destructiveness–think David Beckham during the 1998 World Cup, and the national self-flagellation that follows, has always provided great entertainment for distant observers.

And so it has been with some truly ghastly interest that I’ve followed the epic meltdown of the European dream’s English chapter: first, the Trumpish silliness of the Leavers’ rhetoric, which became remarkably unfunny once Jo Cox was murdered, and then, the apoplectic fury unleashed by the insanity of the final referendum results: fifty-two percent of the English population voted to turn their backs on Europe–perhaps to stand facing, all the more resolutely, an America which threatens to emulate their xenophobic, racist, nativist, populism.

But I stopped chuckling soon enough, for as in the US, it turns out the old will eat the young:

57 percent of Britons between ages 18 and 34 who intended to vote in Thursday’s referendum on the European Union wished to remain in the bloc….In contrast, an identical proportion — 57 percent — of Britons over 55 who intended to take part in the referendum signaled that they wanted to leave, Survation found.

European labor markets will now become more inaccessible to English workers, a fact which will not bother those who voted to leave, because the majority of those who did so had few years left in the workforce; in general, the economic and political costs of this vote–a stock market crash, a decline in the value of the pound–will be felt more acutely by those who have more years left to live with it.

Equally damaging is the signal that England sends to the rest of the world: that its politics has been captured by the mean and the narrow-minded, by the spiteful and the vicious. This morning, on Facebook, I quoted that old man, John of Gaunt, and his epic complaint:

This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

Lamentations over the fall of England are, as can be seen, not new. But this paranoid pulling up of the drawbridge is especially astonishing when witnessed in its historic context: in an ever-more connected world, England, frightened by strange accents and brown faces, has voted for pathetic isolation, all the better to rummage about in corners, muttering vaingloriously about days of empire and exclusive Englishness.

Flood the Chunnel; form squares. The good old days are back.

Hiking The Devil’s Path In One Day: Because It’s There

The Catskills’ Devil’s Path is considered one of the Northeast’s toughest hiking trails–thanks to its 24.2 mile end-to-end length, elevation gain of nine thousand feet, its steep sections which require scrambling up rocks and tree trunks, and in the summer, its devilish lack of water.  Hiking it it one-day remains a serious challenge; yesterday my friends, Erik German and Steven Weinberg (the artist, not the Nobel Prize-winning physicist), and I hiked it in 17 hours and 30 minutes. Needless to say, I’m sore and tired. (So are they.)

We began on the hike on Wednesday morning after spending the night at Weinberg’s Spruceton Inn, which is conveniently located a short drive from the terminus point of the trail. Erik and I drove up the night before from Brooklyn, crashed at the Inn, and then awoke at 3:30AM to get organized. (We carried headlamps for the start and end of the hike, lots of snacks to keep ourselves fueled and to avoid the dreaded ‘bonk,’ some extra layers in case it got chilly, three liters of water each; I packed a pair of hiking poles as well.) We parked Steve’s truck at the Spruceton Road terminus, then drove in Erik’s car to the Prediger Road trailhead, which marks the starting point of the traverse. We began hiking at 4:45AM.

The Eastern section of the path (which runs into Route 214) is steeper, craggier, longer, and harder than the Western section. But the Western section is more hearbreaking because when you get to it, you have already done thirteen miles of hiking, which is a good day’s work by itself.  The long, steep, ascents have burst your lungs and loaded your quads; the breakneck descents into the notches have banged up your knees. (My hiking poles were of great help in the second half of the trail, by which time my left knee had started to complain.) And you’ve sweated several gallons of sweat.

Hiking the Devil’s Path in the summer means you get long hours of daylight; you also get warm afternoons and drenched shirts. We finished the hike at 10:15 PM, back at Steve’s truck, which we then drove in back to the Inn. (I can highly recommend using the Spruceton Inn in this fashion to facilitate your hiking of the Devil’s Path; the multi-talented Steven and Casey are wonderful hosts.)

Hiking the Devil’s Path in one day requires explanation. This is a trail that is most often done in two or three days. Hiking it in one day turns it into a test of endurance and patience; the body hurts, the mind grows a little numb. But when it’s over, what sweet joy. That sounds perverse, but it’s the same sentiment that underwrites most activities like this: you do them to see if you can, and then you bask in the glow of having done so. Food and drink tastes incomparably better; the world’s intractable tasks seem a little easier.

It does help, that in hiking the Devil’s Path with friends, you enjoy:  climbing five of the Catskill’s highest peaks, long walks on ridgelines and pine forest, many epic views from rocky overlooks, and best of all, their company and camaraderie on a strenuous task. I wouldn’t do the hike again–once is more than enough–but I’ll happily hang with this crew again.

Note: Steven Weinberg made a little ‘story’ about our hike. Check it out.

RIP Muhammad Ali: Once And Always, The Greatest

Muhammad Ali was the first Black Muslim American I heard of. Before his name entered my immature consciousness,  I did not know Americans could be Black or Muslim. (This revelation came to me during a classroom trivia quiz; ‘Muhammad Ali’ was the answer to the question ‘Who is the world heavyweight champion?’) It is hard now, more than forty years later, to adequately describe the presence that Muhammad Ali had in the lives of young boys like me in the 1970s. Ali was the Greatest; there was no disputing it. He went down, and he came back up. He had his jaw broken; he lost his title; he went to jail. But he kept fighting, literally and figuratively. I read his The Greatest as a young boy and quickly memorized its details: his Louisville childhood, his Golden Gloves bouts, his 1960 Olympic gold medal, his throwing the medal into a river in response to Jim Crow experiences at a local restaurant, the going professional, the precocious career, the fights with Sonny Liston, the draft resistance, the surrender of the title, the loss to Ken Norton, the epic bouts with Joe Frazier and George Foreman, the comebacks. (The Greatest ends with the Zaire fight; a postscript mentions the Thrilla in Manila with Joe Frazier.)

It was a story that once again, introduced me to a side of America  I did not  know about; it was an awakening and an enlightenment.

I think I dimly understood as I read Ali’s autobiography that I was not reading the story of an ordinary sportsman, that there was no way to make sense of Ali’s life without thinking about the racial politics in which it was embedded. You just could not. ‘Nigger’ is a very common word in The Greatest; you hear it when Cassius Clay wants to be served at a whites-only restaurant; you hear it in the story Ali is told by a black man about how he was castrated by the Ku Klux Klan in the American South; you hear it in the dismay over his conversion to Islam, as he changed his name to ‘Cassius X’ and then, ‘Muhammad Ali’; you hear it in the epithets hurled Ali’s way after he refused to participate in the war crime known as ‘Vietnam’; you hear it in the glee of those cheering for his opponents; you could, if you cocked your ear at the right angle, hear it in the recurring fantasy of the Great White Hope who would show up to whip this upstart black man’s ass and teach him some manners.

Because that’s what Ali didn’t have. He didn’t have manners. He was rude; he spoke about things people didn’t want sportsmen to talk about: racism, apartheid, white supremacy, an immoral foreign policy. He gatecrashed a party in which sports champions, especially black ones, were expected to be polite and deferential and grateful to their white backers for having been lifted out of the poverty that was otherwise their birthright. Ali would not settle for such handouts; he wanted nothing less than a full seat at the table.

Ali was a very good boxer too. He was the lightest heavyweight of all; he had great footwork; he threw a mean jab. He was never famous as a big puncher, but he still knocked out many of his opponents. His most incredible achievement still remains his beating George Foreman in 1974. It is worth remembering that Foreman had knocked out–in very early rounds–Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, two men who had taken Ali the distance in long, brutal, fifteen-round bouts of battering; Ali was expected to lose comprehensively to him. Instead, Ali knocked Foreman out in the eighth round with a straight right. An astonishing result in an astonishing fight.

There are people today who still imagine that sports can, and should be, divorced from politics. Muhammad Ali married the two; he was a sportsman who was a politician. He fought political battles every time he stepped into a ring and dropped into his fighting crouch; he fought them every time he answered a question at a press conference, knowing that reporters wanted copy that would confirm stereotypes of dumb, hulking, brutes who directed primeval force at their civilized white opponents. Ali walked away from fame and fortune when he was at the height of his powers; he could have simply taken up a cushy military job behind the front lines, visited some troops, performed the modern equivalent of a minstrel show and done his bit to ‘keep the troops happy’ with a few witty lines. He would have come back to safety soon enough, and could have fought every fight from that point on under the banner of ‘American soldier’ or ‘war veteran.’ He could have kissed the collective ass of national self-righteousness, and asked the nation to shower its kind blessings on him; instead he handed out generous helpings of stubborn defiance.

A couple of years after I had arrived in the US, I spent an afternoon drinking with a friend in a bar in New Jersey. As the evening crept up, an old man at the counter went on a rant about Ali, about how he could have been the greatest, but he threw it all away: “all he had to do was to serve in the military just like every other young man in his time did.” Yes, that’s ‘all’ he had to do. And he didn’t. He knew the simplicity and ease of the path not taken; he knew the difficulties of the fork he did choose. It is crucial to the Ali legend that we understand his greatest bravery lay not in his ability to take a beating, to withstand a punch; it lay in his defiance of commonsense and consensus, in his refusal to seek out easy popularity, to swim with the tide.

Ali was a black man in America; that fact alone made him a fighter. He knew that every time he stepped into the ring; and he knew his fights didn’t end when he stepped back out. His participation in that continuing struggle, and his awareness of it, made him the Greatest, once and always.

RIP Muhammad Ali.