At The Allrounder: Being A Mets And Yankees Fan

This past April, in noting the online debut of a new sports journal, The Allrounder, I noted its self-description:

The Allrounder will be distinct from existing sports media sites in covering the whole world of sport. The site will feature writers from different countries, whose expertise ranges from basketball, cricket, and hockey to all codes of football. And The Allrounder will aim for the global fan—for the Indian who is up in the middle of the night watching the Champions League, the American who follows Six Nations rugby, the Brit who cheers for the Maple Leafs, the Brazilian with a LeBron jersey, and the Aussie who loves baseball novels.

The Allrounder will also offer a different take on sport. Most of our contributors are academic researchers at universities around the world. The site will bring their insights out of the seminar room and make them available to educated, curious fans—without getting overly theoretical or ponderous. We’ll be smart without being stuffy or snide.

I debuted yesterday on The Allrounder with Confessions Of A Mets And Yankees Fan. I’ve only touched lightly upon many of the issues noted in there: the tribalism of sports fans and the hankering for ‘home’ being two notable instances. More on that later. Perhaps here, or there.

Why Do Yankees Fans Venerate Derek Jeter?

In an interview with The Allrounder, my friend Amy Bass (a Red Sox fan!) takes on the following question:

The Yankees’ longtime captain, Derek Jeter, is retiring this season and has been the object of widespread veneration throughout the league. Do Red Sox fans share in this respect of Jeter?

and answers, in part, thus:

Let’s start with the fact that the season-long farewell party to Jeter is simply ridiculous, and what are we really hailing? A player who seems to be a good sport, doesn’t seem to do drugs, and apparently has never hit a woman? Let’s not make that special – instead, let’s strive to make that the norm. It all comes across, whether ovations in the stadiums or Nike commercials – as highly manufactured….Likely the key about Jeter is that he never left, a rarity in the era of players moving constantly in search of bigger paychecks.

As I noted in a blog post over at The Cordon at ESPN-Cricinfo, Bass is certainly right about the semester-long farewell to Jeter: it has been tedious and over-wrought, a ghastly marketing stunt. But I think there is more to be said for the adulation for Jeter, to acknowledge some important dimensions of his appeal for New York Yankees fans, and perhaps elsewhere.

First, what Yankees fans–and some members of the sports media are ‘hailing’–are, quite straightforwardly, some impressive batting and fielding statistics.:

He is the Yankees’ all-time career leader in hits (3,464), games played (2,746), stolen bases (358), and at bats (11,193). His accolades include 14 All-Star selections, five Gold Glove Awards, five Silver Slugger Awards, two Hank Aaron Awards, and a Roberto Clemente Award. Jeter is the all-time MLB leader in hits by a shortstop, and the 28th player to reach 3,000 hits.

Jeter was certainly never baseball’s best short-stop, and perhaps not even the American League’s, but he did feature on a few World Series-winning teams (with a a .351 batting average in the World Series), in a time when the Yankees were not building their teams with just big-money purchases, and while he was no Cal Ripken in the longevity stakes, he did play major league baseball for twenty years.

Second, Bass writes “Let’s not make that special – instead, let’s strive to make that the norm.” But one way to make Jeter’s behavior the norm is precisely to reward it, and not its converse, to aid in the driving home of the message that nice guys do not finish last. We should stop adoring admiring those who take performance-enhancing drugs, and beat their wives and girlfriends, yes; but we should also make clear our admiration is most perspicuously directed at those who do not behave thus.

Second, “the key about Jeter is that he never left” taps into a deeper truth about professional sports and its constituent unit, the franchise. These entities draw upon tribalism and nativism as a marketing strategy; they tap into a deep desire for ‘home’ in a world made up of transient, shifting identities. This produces some truly ludicrous claims about how  professional sports teams reflect a ‘local character’ but it does show that fans, even as they are aware that they are cheering for the sporting equivalent of Ford vs. Chrysler still hanker for a deeper form of identification. Jeter is not a New York local; he is from Michigan. But by staying with the New York Yankees for his playing career, he tapped into a fundamental New York archetype. Most New Yorkers aren’t from ‘here’ they are from ‘elsewhere’; what makes them New Yorkers is that they stay on; they don’t leave this maddening, overpriced, deeply-divided city and head elsewhere. Jeter might have stayed because his early years here ensured he would always get the best contracts and following here; perhaps, shrewdly, he looked ahead at his place in posterity and reckoned he would be best served by continuing his allegiance to the Yankees. Whatever the reasons, he stayed on, he became a ‘true’ New Yorker. Not just a transplant who used this as a jumping-off pad for the ‘burbs.’ That, in New York, was always going to inspire affection.

All celebrity in professional sport is manufactured; Jeter supplied some authentic raw material.

Brazil Unravel, All Together Now

Eight goals were scored in the ninety minutes of the World Cup semi-final yesterday between Brazil and Germany. Unfortunately for Brazil, seven of them were scored by Germany. Five of them came in the first half, in an eighteen minute stretch that began in the 11th minute and concluded with a four-goal burst in six minutes starting in the 23rd and ending in the 29th. It was horrible and terrifying to watch; when the fourth goal was scored in the 26th minute, I experienced something I never had while spectating an international sporting encounter: I wanted the game to be stopped, for the carnage to be halted.

Even though it much vexes me to say this, the state of the Brazilian team in those fatal six minutes can be best compared to an army suddenly routed on the battle-field. A unifying principle, a point of resolution, a central anchoring–whatever it might be, morale, leadership, or espirit de corps–gives way, collapses, comes undone. And then, suddenly, visible for all to see, the crumbling, the shattering, the disorganized fleeing of the troops. Germany’s first goal, in the eleventh minute, had already done a great deal to suck the wind out of an already-suspect Brazilian lineup, not quite sure whether its bravado in the face of the Neymar injury and the pressure of being the hosts would hold up. But when the second goal was scored, much more went wrong.

At that point, some folks  just gave up. Their shoulders drooped; they stopped paying attention; they stopped running hard. But their opponents did not. The Brazilians soon found out that in international soccer, scorelines are as low as they traditionally are because defenses play switched-on. When they are disengaged, as Brazil’s most certainly was, the opponents, skilled exponents of football themselves, can score at will. Which they did, goal after goal.

It was terrifying to watch; a horrible demonstration of the worst fate that can befall a sporting unit. It was an acute reminder of the cruelty that is always possible in sport: the utter annihilation of hopes and dreams, every weakness and failing exposed and exploited under the most pitiless of examinations. At the twenty-nine minute mark, sixty-one minutes still remained to be played.

No one, not even the Germans, I think, would have been upset at the game being suspended at that point. It had ceased to be a contest, and had instead become a spectacle of the damned.

 

Soccer’s Clubs and Countries

Once the hubbub and the desperate hopes of the group stage have died down, the World Cup slowly settles down to normal service: the upstarts fade away and the big guns play on. Now, at the semi-final stage, the match-ups look decidedly familiar: Brazil versus German, Netherlands versus Argentina. (The final could be any one of a set of classic encounters: Brazil versus Argentina and German versus Netherlands being just two of them.) The World Cup is a tournament, which, thanks to its qualification phases, allows for plenty of dreaming–but it is also very efficient in providing brutal awakenings: underdogs can promise a great deal, but not for too long.

So, here we are, down to the usual South America versus Europe line-ups, down to the usual contestations of Best Continent for Soccer. But the hunt for the Best Continent for Soccer is a silly one. For this World Cup will prove, as usual, that European clubs and leagues, are the heart of modern soccer: that that is where talent is given its professional wings, paid an adequate wage, and thus nurtured and developed. South America, Asia, and Africa, still produce talent by the bushel; they have not been able to produce a suitable political economy for soccer just yet. The economics of the sport remain as important as ever–as important as ball control, heading, dribbling, shooting, goalkeeping, corner kicks and all of the rest. It is in the league, in the club team, that the fledgling player grows into the hardened professional; his closest co-workers are his club mates, not his compatriots.

In the world of professional soccer, players are professionals first, not patriots. After the Cup is over, after one nation and one national system has been appointed winner, it will be time again to acknowledge the actual champions of world soccer: the professional leagues and clubs that permit a world labor market of soccer players who ply their trade without regard for national borders. In international soccer, nationalism plays second fiddle to a more local allegiance, that of club.

Realizing this little fact about world soccer helps put the World Cup into helpful perspective: it calls for a temporary cessation of normal soccer conflict, in favor of a more classically staged one; it asks clubs to offer up their most moneyed investments and to subject them to the risk of expensive injury (and as in the case of Luis Suarez and Liverpool. a possible extended suspension); when the Cup is over, national flags will be put away and club colors will be donned again; opponents will find themselves back on the same rosters.

That underlying importance of the club helps highlight the central irony of the World Cup: it is the sporting world’s greatest celebration of nationalism–matched only by the Oympics–and yet, most of all, it helps showcase the importance of the transnational professionalization of a game. Without the modern sporting club, without its free agency clauses, without the modern sporting contract, there would be no World Cup as we know it either.

Being Reductive About Sport (And How Silly It Is)

Some folks dislike sport. I use the word ‘dislike’ advisedly; the members of this cohort are not offering critical, politically tinged analysis of sport’s entanglement with big business and its value schemas; they are not exposing sport’s use as an ideology promulgating system, it’s supposed facilitation of political disengagement; they are not critiquing sport for offering a domain in which sexism, racism, xenophobia, and nationalist chauvinism often find unbridled expression; they are not upset by the loss of productivity and the diminution of gross national product that major sporting events bring about. These folks just find sport silly, a waste of time, a ridiculous way for adults and children, men and women, white or black or yellow or brown, to spend their time, whether playing or spectating.  You know some of them; you might be one yourself.

There is a particular mode of description of sporting activity, much favored by these worthies. It is better shown than described. Here, for instance, is tennis: people knocking balls back and forth endlessly across a net strung up between two poles. Here is basketball: young men and women, possibly suffering from gigantism, run up and down a wooden court, trying to throw a ball through a hoop strung up on a wooden board. And here is soccer: twenty men or women run up and down a field, kicking a ball around for ninety minutes, all the while trying to maneuver the ball through and between a pair of posts put up at the end of the field.

And then, the inevitable question: why would you want to waste your time, hours and days of it, looking at, talking about, and getting all worked up over, something as inane and silly as these activities?

One would imagine, given the almost instantaneous self-parody that these reductive takes on sport produce, that the placement of such a question alongside others of its ilk such as–why spend so much time looking at ink marks on a page, or why travel to distant lands to look at ruined buildings, or why spend millions of dollars on hundreds of years old splotches of paint on canvas–would be obvious. But equally obviously, for those who employ them, such descriptions are instead, a marvelously witty puncturing of pretension.

My contribution to this ‘debate’ is going to be a good old-fashioned rehashing, from an older post on the laziness of reductionist analyses:

An absence of a ‘sense of humor’ it seems, is almost endemic to all reductive, ‘X is nothing-but or merely Y’ style analyses….They are also depressingly narrow-minded and lacking in imagination.

Wittgenstein once pointed out–in his critique of psychoanalysis–that a facile reduction of this sort was misguided for the most elementary of reasons: when it was over, you simply weren’t talking about the same thing any more. Boil a man down to flesh, blood and bones to show us that that was all he was, and what you’d have left was a bag of just that. You wouldn’t have a man any more.

Right.

Tribalism’s Easy Allure: Brooklyn Does Not Like Toronto Anymore (in the NBA)

Tribalism in sports is a curious thing; it is especially so in professional sports, where as I’ve noted, we encounter:

[T]he mystery of how millions of sports fans, here in the US, and all over the world, develop long-standing, passionately defended and articulated, emotionally infused, personal allegiances with large, profit-seeking, corporate entities, an enterprise that should be–but most definitely isn’t–akin to finding someone to cheer for in a Ford vs. Chrysler encounter.

Tribalism in sports is a much written about and theorized phenomenon; I won’t offer further analysis here (for the time being.) I do want to point to an interesting occurrence of it this week–one of personal interest.

As NBA fans are well aware, the first round of the 2014 playoffs are underway. In the East, Washington and Miami are already through to the next round. Meanwhile, the score in Brooklyn and Toronto’s clash reads 3-2 for the latter; Brooklyn need to win tonight to force the series into a seventh game this Sunday. Thus far, despite meaning to watch the Nets in action against the Raptors I have been unable to; personal and professional commitments of all stripes have conspired to keep me away from the television.

But I’m almost certain to watch tonight’s sixth game, and what’s more, I’m itching to see the Nets thrash the Raptors. A plain win won’t do; a shellacking is called for. What’s up Doc?

Well, I’m a little ticked off at Toronto. The Raptors fans have used the Brooklyn chant to taunt the team, its general manager Masai Ujiri, at a a kickoff rally in Toronto, pumped up the crowd with a loud “Fuck Brooklyn” and lastly some Toronto fans have even desecrated the Brooklyn Bridge. Fuck Brooklyn. Not Fuck the Brooklyn Nets.  Graffiti on our bridge. Yeah, my feelings are hurt. Sniff. They haven’t been assuaged by going online to read more about the Toronto chants and Ujiri’s outburts, and finding, unsurprisingly, hordes of Toronto fans  echoing Ujiri. (And on buttons too!)

Toronto is one of my favorite cities in North America. I have visited it a few times–though it’s been too long since my last visit–and have always enjoyed its cosmopolitanism, its multi-ethnic food, its intellectual life, the list goes on. I’ve been to some great parties in Toronto; met some wonderful people; seen some great sights.

But right now, I feel like giving Toronto the finger, of sending a few ‘Fuck you’s up north, across the border–where, like any other American, they won’t need a visa–straight up the CN Tower, to be emblazoned by klieg lights across the Canadian sky. Are they all like their mayor?

My reaction is juvenile, of course, as was Ujiri’s provocation. But there is no denying the surge of irritated defensiveness I felt on reading the relevant news and viewing the videos; I identify with my city, my home for over ten years, and have become susceptible to provocateurs who seek to get under my skin by dissing it.

Of course, they weren’t dissing it. They were dissing the team. Note that at various points in my post, rather than using the terms “Brooklyn Nets” and “Toronto Raptors” I have simply gone with “Brooklyn” and “Toronto”. It is this easy contraction, this easy conflation of the city and the team, that does considerable work for the professional franchise’s marketers. Ujiri knew this too, of course; which is why he didn’t simply say “Fuck the Nets!

And it works. Read the comments on this page and you’ll see how.

Ending the NCAA’s Plantation Racket

In Kevin Smith‘s Chasing Amy, Banky tries to talk Holden out of his crush on Amy:

Banky Edwards: Alright, now see this? This is a four-way road, okay? And dead in the center is a crisp, new, hundred dollar bill. Now, at the end of each of these streets are four people, okay? You following?

Holden: Yeah.

Banky Edwards: Good. Over here, we have a male-affectionate, easy to get along with, non-political agenda lesbian. Down here, we have a man-hating, angry as fuck, agenda of rage, bitter dyke. Over here, we got Santa Claus, and up here the Easter Bunny. Which one is going to get to the hundred dollar bill first?

Holden: What is this supposed to prove?

Banky Edwards: No, I’m serious. This is a serious exercise. It’s like an SAT question. Which one is going to get to the hundred dollar bill first? The male-friendly lesbian, the man-hating dyke, Santa Claus, or the Easter bunny?

Holden: The man-hating dyke.

Banky Edwards: Good. Why?

Holden: I don’t know.

Banky Edwards: [shouting] Because the other three are figments of your fucking imagination!

As I read news of the National Labor Relations Board‘s decision that college players have the right to unionize and allow myself a brief celebration of this victory for common sense, I also prepare myself for the inevitable defenses of the NCAA and its racket–college sports–from folks whom, in my kindest moments, I can only describe as deluded. It is for their sake that I have excerpted Banky’s rant above, for it could be easily rewritten with its three mythical creatures replaced by: the principled NCAA executive, the truthful NCAA lawyer and the honest college sport administrator. And standing over it all, the hallucination of the amateur student-athlete, who plays for passion and pride. Not money. No sir, not that filthy stuff, so visible in prices of season tickets, the salaries of coaches, administrators, the values of television rights deals, the spanking new sports facilities, gyms and stadiums.

Read the NLRB’s ruling and read the descriptions of college football players’ training and game routines, and ask yourself whether those descriptions accord with your sense of a college student playing sports on the side while he pursues a degree as his main vocation. Or do they better describe professional athletes who study a bit on the side? A choice sample:

During this time [football season], the players devote 40 to 50 hours per week to football-related activities, including travel to and from their scheduled games.

College sports is a plantation racket, from start to finish. Hold out promises of unimaginable riches to a community desperate for economic upliftment, pay them peanuts, shackle them to draconian codes of conduct enforced by hypocrites, all the while enriching yourself. That’s how it works. The student-athlete, the scholarship, the education in exchange for a few games; they sure do sustain a great deal of fantasy don’t they?

Thank you for tearing down the non-unionized wall, Mr. Ohr. Now, hopefully, later this year, the judges in O’Bannon vs. NCAA will take the necessary next steps.