Sports and Concussions

In the past week, we had a great discussion on In Media Res on concussions in sports. My piece was up on Friday, entitled “Smashed in the Head with a Sledgehammer” (subtle, huh?). Please take a read a leave a comment or two on the pieces there in the last week. Whether you plat a sport, have kids who do, or just like to watch on television, there’s lots there worth reading.


Newton’s Award Doesn’t Make the Grade

Awards are funny things in sports.  How do you determine who the best player is?  What do you base it on?  In baseball, this year the voters gave the Cy Young Award in the American League, for the best pitcher, to Felix Hernandez, who had only won 50 percent of his games.  It turns out that his teammates didn’t give him much support when he pitched in that they didn’t score many runs in those games.  He had an excellent strikeout ratio and earned run average and many of his other statistics were dominant, but his won/loss record was something of an eyesore for those looking only briefly at his performance during the season.  It’s worth it, clearly, to give a good hard look at these things when voting.

For Saturday night’s Heisman Trophy Award, the voters gave it to Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, who had a dominant season on the field.  He ran for over a thousand yards and twenty touchdowns and threw for over two thousand yards and twenty-eight touchdowns.  And his team went undefeated and ended the regular season as the SEC champion and the #1 ranked team in the country.  It’s not to see why he was selected – it was a magical season for Newton and his team.  But here’s the thing about the Hesiman.  It’s supposed to recognize the outstanding player in college football that year, but that player is also supposed to represent the integrity of the game.  This is where the voting seems suspect to me.

I’m not referring here to the controversy that exploded in November concerning an alleged attempt to execute a “pay for play” scheme.  For those who don’t know much about this controversy, here’s a brief summary.  Last season, after transferring from the University of Florida to Blinn College, a junior college in Texas, and then taking that team to the national championship for junior colleges, Cam Newton was looking to transfer to a major college football program.  His father, Cecil Newton, was involved in this search.  Allegedly, he reached out to people associated with the Mississippi State program and requested about $140,000 for Cam to commit to their program.  A variety of people involved have confirmed this.  Moreover, Cecil Newton allegedly told those reps from Mississippi State that in the end the money was too good from Auburn to turn down and that Cam would be attending that school.  Auburn officials have denied any wrongdoing on their part, and deny ever offering or paying money for Cam Newton to attend their university and play for their team.  Cam himself, meanwhile, has denied knowing anything about the “pay for play” scheme and has said that he chose Auburn because it was the best fit for him.

Altogether, it’s been something of an ugly story.  No one has come out of it smelling particularly clean, not even Cam.  However, the NCAA cleared him of wrongdoing and allowed him to continue to play and represent Auburn on the field.  Apparently, Heisman voters accepted this decision as evidence that Cam Newton was cleared, even while the stories about his father’s actions have continued.  His father, by the way, chose to stay away from last night’s award ceremony in order to not serve as a distraction for his son’s award.  Cam expressed displeasure at that decision but accepted the award.

Ultimately, I can understand the voters’ choice to treat Cam Newton’s performance as most important in their voting decision, and I can even understand the notion that if the NCAA has cleared him then they should treat that as clearance for them to treat him as a good and fair representative of the sport.  My problem with that, though, is that they seem to have ignored what happened with Newton when he was at the University of Florida – the things that led him to transfer in the first place.

Newton has said he left Florida because Tim Tebow – the starting quarterback for Florida, a former Heisman winner, and the all-around face of the Gator program – decided to return for his senior year rather than turn professional, which meant that Newton would have a second season of sitting on the bench while Tebow started for the team.  Newton wanted a chance to play and wanted to go somewhere where he could show off his skills and his talent.  Eventually, after a year at a community college, he found that place at Auburn.  However, it is not actually clear whether Newton left Florida or whether Florida got rid of Newton.  There’s no real difference in the grand scheme of things, you might say, but I propose that there is actually a major difference, because one version of the events has Newton making the choice to leave in order to play, while the other version of the events is more focused on Newton’s unsavory behavior while at Florida.  And when I say “unsavory” I mean unethical and possibly illegal.

According to this second version of the events, Newton was caught three separate times cheating in his classes in his two years at Florida.  One time cheating is a serious violation of student ethics and most college’s and university’s codes of conducts.  Three times?  How can one excuse or explain or justify this?  In addition, in November of 2008, in his second year at the university, Newton was questioned and arrested for his role in the theft of a laptop computer.  The arrest was for purchasing a stolen computer, with authorities finding the laptop in his possession.  The team suspended Newton, but he withdrew from the university after the semester.  Privacy laws bar colleges and universities from providing information concerning students’ records, so what happened for Newton in his courses is not for public consumption.  What about the arrest?  All charges were dropped after he completed a court-approved pretrial diversion program.  What does that mean?  He avoided prosecution by taking some classes and clearing some low hurdles, skipping out of trouble while helping the courts avoid further logjam.

But there is enough smoke here to suggest some type of fire, and by that I mean to raise some serious questions about Cam Newton’s ethics and integrity.  Cheating on three separate occasions is a very serious deal for an undergraduate and would lead most institutions to kick that student out of the college.  I have not seen him actually answer questions about his time at Florida – he tends to dismiss such questions by saying he’s focused on the present and on his time at Auburn.  Why do reporters accept such answers?  I’d tell him that’s great, but that it wouldn’t take much away from that focus to answer the questions about what happened two years ago.  (Reporters too easily accept non-answers from athletes, it seems to me, much like reporters during the George W. Bush years were all too willing to believe what government officials told them – Judith Miller, anyone?)  And the more he refused, the more I’d press and point out to him that not answering only raises further questions and concerns.  Newton doesn’t want to answer these questions, which leads me to believe that it is because he doesn’t want to talk about what happened there and then.  Because he has something he wants to keep silent, hidden, away from public consumption.

What’s at stake here are ethics and integrity, as well as the reputation of the sport.  This morning, I listened to “The Dan Patrick Show” on the radio, as he told of his conversation on Saturday with a recruiter from the SEC – the league of Auburn, Florida, Alabama, and a number of other football powerhouses.  The recruiter said that all the best college football players were for sale and that recruiters from teams from other conferences back away from recruits once a team from the SEC seeks a player, because those schools are willing to pay the money to get the player.  This was a distressing story for anyone interested in the integrity of the sport.  But I can’t say it’s much of a surprise.

I’m not suggesting that Newton might be the only player getting paid to play for a particular school, or that his representatives are the only ones seeking such compensation.  Sadly, I fear that happens often.  What I’m more concerned with is that voters didn’t do their homework and didn’t look closely into the story of his past – not only the recruiting but his time at Florida.  It seems to me that this is not a young man who serves as an honorable representative for the sport.

No one is perfect – we all make mistakes.  But Newton wants not only to avoid his past, he wants also to erase it, which suggests that he has never truly atoned for his mistakes and indeed has never done the actual and serious work of understanding the things he did wrong as a student and what he did wrong with the purchasing of the laptop.  By essentially erasing his past he isn’t doing the work of learning from his very serious breaches of judgment. By disregarding his past, by not raising questions, the journalists who voted for Newton did a poor job.  They were derelict in their responsibilities.  They were obligated to think harder about all this when they were voting for him.

Ultimately, whether Felix Hernandez had the most wins or best winning percentage wasn’t really a factor for the majority of voters for the AL Cy Young Award.  Looking closely at a number of statistics helped give voters a broader perspective on his season and his accomplishments as a player.  He had an outstanding season and is a fine representative for his game.  Cam Newton had an outstanding season too, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s much harder to argue that he is a fine representative for the amateur sport of college football.  Much like his work in his classes, it seems, this just doesn’t make the grade.

You Just Have to Want it Enough: Jim Rome, Individualism, and Sports

I’m not sure why, maybe it’s a slight case of masochism, but sometimes on the drive home I listen to Jim Rome on the radio.  Jim Rome, for those who don’t know, has a syndicated talk radio show where he talks about sports.  (He also has a show on ESPN that’s airs during the afternoon.)  He’s kind of horrible.  Not horrible in a vaguely pleasurable way like, say, Howard Stern, but horrible in a way that you always end up saying to yourself, “Why am I listening to this guy?”  And then turning it to a different station.

As I said, it’s probably a touch of masochism that I sometimes listen.  A little self-flagellation for my sins.

Last week, I was driving home and Rome was discussing the Dallas Cowboys-Houston Texans game that had taken place a few days earlier.  He said that in the previous week he had thought that maybe the Texans had turned the corner this year, that perhaps they had moved into the elite in professional football.  They had won their first two games and looked good, and the Cowboys had lost their first two and had looked pretty lousy.  Rome was expecting Houston to take the next step and to finally beat Dallas and to take control of the professional football landscape in Texas.  He spoke to a few of the players on Houston and he thought they were ready.  But then the Texans lost to the Cowboys and Rome was mad.

Now fans of teams can get mad when their team loses.  Fans invest emotionally in their teams and give all sorts of energy and time to rooting for them, so they often take losing personally and blame the players, the coaches, the management, and/or the owners.  But Rome isn’t exactly a fan – he talks about sports for a living.  And he isn’t specifically a fan of the Houston Texans.  No, he was mad for another reason.  I don’t think that reason was that he had predicted them to win.  I’m guessing – hoping? – that it wasn’t that shallow.  No, instead he seemed to take their loss personally for an altogether different reason.

Rome’s take on what happened was really pretty simple: he said that the Texans just didn’t want it enough.  Now, this is a pretty common cliche when it comes to sports, and I’m always amazed by it because it so rarely applies in any way.  Rarely have I ever known an athlete – professional, collegiate, high school – who didn’t want to win.  Athletes, by their very nature, are generally speaking competitive people.  Competition is part and parcel of sports, and especially so when it comes to professional sports.  Now, you might say, maybe Rome was not saying that the Texans didn’t want to win, but that they didn’t want to put the hard work in to winning that particular game, which usually has to do with preparation, practice, studying, and giving the extra effort during the game that might make the difference between winning and losing.

Yes, maybe he was.  But professional athletes DO put that work in – it’s their job to do so, and if they didn’t then the team would get rid of them.  It’s what the coaches do and what the players do during the week – study their opponent and their own playing so far that season, devise a strategy for the game, and practice execution of that strategy.  And if they don’t work hard during the week or during the game, then they won’t play for that team – or likely any other – for very long.

So Rome’s use of this cliche, while common, actually makes little sense.  Of course the Texans want to win.  Pro football players want to win every game they play in.  Pretty much ALL athletes want to win every game that they play.  More likely, the Texans’ strategy for the game wasn’t appropriate for beating the Cowboys or the athletes weren’t able to execute that strategy as well as they had hoped.  Or perhaps the strategy was fine as an approach to the game, but the Cowboys simply did a better job in that particular game or made fewer mistakes in their execution.  I would venture that one of these reasons was much more likely for the loss than the outlandish claim that the players just didn’t want it enough.  Of course they wanted it, but so did the Cowboys.  Wanting it doesn’t really have much to do with winning.

So I turned off the radio and cursed Rome for his stupidity and for his empty bluster, just as I do pretty much every other time I make the mistake of turning to his program.  And I went on my merry way.

But later I came back to this notion of wanting it.  Why, I wondered, has it become a cliche that you have to want it?  Why do people use this rhetoric?  Why has it taken hold in American sports culture?  What can we trace it to?  It seems to fit into an American ideology that privileges a belief in the power of the individual.  Individualism is founded on the idea that individual agency is possible, admirable, and essential: we have the ability to make our own choices in our lives, it is good that we can do so, and it is essential that we do so in order to make possible our own futures.  Individualism discounts the power of other forces acting on individuals and influencing or controlling what individuals can do or accomplish.  While some might argue that individual agency might be mitigated by social, economic, historical, or cultural forces, the primacy of individualism often overwhelms these arguments so that the idea of the individual in control of his or her own destiny remains a viable and, for many, crucial American belief.  These contingencies, often grouped under the ideology of determinism, are potential impediments to individual agency, but they tend to be dismissed by the greater American public as something extraneous or inapplicable to our experience.  Most people just don’t want to buy into the argument that maybe their are socioeconomic reasons for why individuals might be limited in what they can or cannot do.

If we want it enough, we can make it happen.  Rhetorically, Rome’s feelings about the Texans and their loss to the Cowboys came straight out of the ideology of American individualism.  And the way that this belief has taken purchase in sports culture makes sense when we consider that so much of sports is a measure of individual achievement: how many yards did that player gain, how fast can she run, how many points did he score, how many triple axels can that skater land – all of these are measurements not only of success in a competition, but in terms of what men and women can actually accomplish.  Determinism doesn’t really seem to have much of a place in sport.  Yes, men and women might be limited by what their actual bodies can do – we cannot jump ten feet high, we cannot run a hundred meters in five seconds – but at the same time, the keeping of records is an actual measurement of how individuals overcome these limitations and surpass what others have been able to do before.  Moreover, the limitations of class, culture, and other factors, in many people’s minds, have nothing to do with what happens on the field or court.  All of that is left behind and what is left is individual athletic achievement.  Which is why “wanting it” is so important, because wanting it is about the individual embracing the challenge of the competition and striving for success.

So when Rome claims that the team lost because they didn’t want it enough, what he’s really saying isn’t only that the Texans didn’t work hard enough, he’s saying that individual agency is the sole determination of success.  It’s paramount to an unshakable faith that the American Dream results from individual desire for success.  Nothing can stop you from your dreams as long as you want them enough. This faith, this belief, has always been of interest to me as a concept, and it is especially intriguing in Rome’s use because it’s not particularly hard to imagine impediments to the individual’s success in a particular athletic event – from ones having to do with injuries, strategy, execution, or the other team’s own determination – but also because it’s fascinating how pervasive this belief is in the world of sports.  It’s not something I had really thought much about before, but something that’s been on my mind in the last week or so.

And I have Jim Rome to thank for it.  Huh.  Who knew?

Finally Weighing in on “The Decision”

The dust has settled, at least in most places besides Northeastern Ohio.

LeBron James chose to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and to sign a contract with the Miami Heat.  ESPN chose to hold a one-hour special about “the decision.”  The owner of the Cavs threw a hissyfit and published a stunningly petty response to LeBron’s decision to go to Miami.  Pretty much everyone came across as something of an asshole, except for Pat Riley, who got all three of the players he wanted in Miami without seeming greedy or manipulative or pompous.

I’ve been thinking about all the hoopla for a bit now, and didn’t want to write anything at first about it because it was all so overblown.  What is there to say?  LeBron shouldn’t have gone on television to leave the Cavs – it’s not that he did something wrong in leaving, it’s just that he showed no class in broadcasting that choice in the way he did.  ESPN certainly should not have broadcast the special – it wasn’t journalism and it wasn’t entertainment.  It was boring.  Jim Gray should be ashamed, because as the guy who first came up with the idea of the show and then conducted the interview, he…well, he just kind of sucked.

Sheesh – it’s all been said. (And yet here I go…)

The most interesting character in all of this, to me, is the Cavs owner, Dan Gilbert.  Gilbert feels betrayed and feels that LeBron owed it to the Cavs and Cavs’ fans to remain a Cavalier.  I’m not sure why this would be, though I can see why Gilbert is angry.  He paid LeBron a lot of money and while the team had a great deal of success in the regular season – having he best record in the league the last two years – they have not won a championship and have only advanced to the Finals once, where they lost to the Spurs.  They’ve struggled to get by the Celtics and their “Big Three” of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen.  They’ve even struggled to get by Dwight Howard’s Orlando Magic.  Basketball-wise, they haven’t made good on the promise of LeBron’s talent.  But then again, they really haven’t had that good of a team.  One good player – one great player – doesn’t win championships at this point in time.

Gilbert’s anger, though, seems to be about more than LeBron’s commitment to winning.  For years, it seems, Gilbert has sought to satisfy every one of LeBron’s whims and wishes – from big things like signing certain players and hiring certain coaches to smaller things like changing the color of the seats in the stadium because LeBron didn’t like them.   This aspect of Gilbert’s pique, which his General Manager Chris Grant mentioned the day after LeBron’s signing, seems more than silly.  It’s petty.

Gilbert seems to have suggested that because he gave LeBron everything he wanted then LeBron owes it to him to stay.  I think it’s fair to say that this is never a good strategy when it comes to keeping a relationship together: “I built you a new house!  I bought you a new car!  A new dress!  I changed my hairstyle/my clothes/my friends for you!  You owe me – you can’t leave!  Wait, wait, I can change more!”  Besides pathetic, this complaint betrays a line of thinking that we might want to spend a moment on.

When LeBron expressed his displeasure with the color of the seats in the stadium, Gilbert – along with then-GM Danny Ferry – should have responded very simply.  “We’re sorry that you don’t like the seats, LeBron.  We sell out most games.  When people sit in them, can you tell what color they are? Are you having trouble concentrating? Your teammates haven’t expressed the same concern.  Do you think we should hire a sports psychologist to deal with this problem of yours?”  And then they should have hit back hard: “What does the color of the seats have to do with what goes on on the basketball court?  Did you ever go to the old Boston Garden?  Ugliest stadium ever.  They won an awful lot of games there, though, and more championships than anyone else.  I don’t think the color of the seats is the problem.”

I don’t want to call Gilbert, in his role as the owner of the team, the equivalent of LeBron’s father.  However, as any parent knows, “no” is a very crucial thing to say to children because it helps to set limits and boundaries and helps children learn to focus on what is important.  Gilbert should have helped LeBron focus on what was important for him to improve as a basketball player, as a teammate, and as a leader of the franchise.

The thing that really surprises me is the level of support that Gilbert has received from Cavs fans.  I recognize that they feel “hurt” and can imagine that having to watch that show was a painful experience for any fan of the team (or for anyone else for that matter).  Getting jilted live on television isn’t really what anyone wants to go through.  As I said earler, the television program was stunningly classless and revealed a striking immaturity on LeBron’s part.  But I don’t understand the notion that LeBron “owes” the Cavs anything.  Why would he?

He was an employee of the company and he received compensation for his work.  Sure, he was paid a lot of money, but if the company couldn’t afford it then they shouldn’t have paid it.  When LeBron’s contract ran out, he became free to put himself on the open market, field a series of offers for his services, and then make a decision as to where he wanted to work next.  He didn’t have a noncompete clause.  He could go wherever he wanted.  After all, he could have signed with the Lakers for a small amount of money if he had wanted.  But he wanted a major contract and that limited the amount of teams that could afford to pay him, because of the salary cap in the NBA.  He didn’t choose Miami for the money – Cleveland was the team who could pay him the most.  Instead, he chose to go where he thought he would have the best chance to win soonest.

Cavs fans bought his shirt, they bought tickets to the games, they cheered for him.  Uh-huh.  So?  That money isn’t LeBron’s.  It’s the NBA’s and more to the point, the Cavaliers’.  (Only a portion of merchandise sales goes to players.)  Sure, LeBron was paid a lot of money by Dan Gilbert to play basketball for his team, but fans are sadly naïve if they believe anything other than that the tickets they buy or the shirts they buy or the television package they pay for somehow goes directly to LeBron.  It goes to the owner.  The owner pays the players.  And I don’t think I’m going out on a limb in saying that Gilbert did not pay LeBron more than he was making from LeBron.  If he wasn’t making a profit, or getting serious tax breaks from the losses he was incurring – and therefore benefiting financially from his ownership of the team – then Gilbert wouldn’t own the Cavs.

Bitch if you want about LeBron “owing” you something, but it’s Gilbert who owes fans something, not the player.  Players play and get paid for doing so.  We hope they try their best, that they practice hard, that they study and prepare appropriately, and that they perform to their abilities during games.  But some of that is in their control and some of it isn’t.  More to the point, they are employees of a company who are paid for their work.  What they owe the company is determined by the company, not by fans or customers of that company.  When your iPhone service doesn’t work well, do you get mad at Steve Jobs or at Joe Schmoe at the factory?  If the company was unhappy with LeBron, then they should have fired him.  But they were happy with his services, or at least acted accordingly in continuing to pay him his salary.  They just weren’t happy that he decided to change what company he wanted to work for.  And that’s just too bad for them.  That’s what it means to have your contract end and become a free agent.  It’s not a plantation (even if there is a white owner and black worker).

One last complaint: “He was one of us,” many fans have said.  Well, he is from Akron, but LeBron hasn’t been “one of us” since he was anointed “King James” on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high schooler.  I’m from Boston, and still identify as someone from there, but I don’t owe it to anyone to choose to live and work there.  He might be from Northeastern Ohio, and he may plan to live there part of the year and after he retires, but lots of people leave their hometowns for employment opportunities.  It’s pretty damn small-minded to think that this person has to stay in town or else he has betrayed everyone and everything.

I don’t know whether LeBron will enjoy success in Miami, as an individual or as a member of the team.  There are still lots of good teams out there and winning takes place on the court, not during the offseason.  What I do know is that you can’t slag him for going.  It’s what he wants and what he earned through his hard work and his achievements.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to root for him.  LET’S GO CELTICS!

Red Sox Observation

The starting catcher next year for the Boston Red Sox will be Victor Martinez.  There will be no captain of the team, because the Red Sox will not pick up the option on Jason Varitek.  By the following year, either Dustin Pedroia or Kevin Youkilis will be captain.  My money’s on Youkilis, actually.

Ab Crunches and the Single Parent

Having been serving as a de facto single Dad for the past week, I’ve had a lot to handle and not as much time as I would like to do some of the things I would have liked to do (such as writing on this blog, for instance!).  One of those things was going to the gym to work out.

After throwing my back out a few years ago, putting my wife in a position where she had to do pretty much everything around the house for about six weeks, I joined a gym and began to get into cardiovascular shape and embarked on some fairly simple weight training.  Central to what I wanted to do, though, was to strengthen my core so that I didn’t throw my back out again (it was a brutal experience).  Lots of ab exercises and lower back stretching.

Not going to the gym this week has raised a pretty simple question for me: how do single parents work out?

The only times I could have gone this week were following work, after I had picked my kids up at camp.  (I couldn’t go early morning because I needed to be home to take care of them, and it has been a busy week at work.)  But each day the kids were tired after a full day at camp and I didn’t think I should put them into daycare at the gym for an hour or hour and a half.  Doing so didn’t seem fair to them or particularly considerate to their needs.  They needed to regroup, watch some television or do some reading.  Plus I needed to get home, get dinner prepared, and start the long process that leads them toward bedtime. (The same issues would have held true during the school year.  My kids are wiped out when they get home from school.  They need to rest or just veg out.)

It seems to me that single parents who wish to work out need to place their children into this type of daycare at the gym, though, if they want to stay in shape, because they have limited options as to when they can work out.  But what does this lead to?  Getting home later, starting dinner later, and getting them to bed later: more tired kids, more stress in the home.  Whereas I will be able to arrange for piano and tennis lessons after school this Fall, as well as sign the boys up for soccer and get them to practices and games, all while still being able to get to the gym because I can share these responsibilities with my wife, I wonder if these are the types of opportunities that are less accessible for single parents for whom working out is not only a desire but perhaps also a need.

The reality is that many people need to get into shape for health reasons – perhaps for weight reasons, or heart reasons, or to rehab an injury.  Short of taking time off from work, what are the options for those who are both the primary wage-earner and caregiver of their families?

This obviously raises class issues.  Not everyone CAN take time off from work readily.  Not everyone can afford a gym where there is daycare, let alone a gym at all.  While some people can work out at lunch, not everyone gets enough time off for lunch to do this and still eat.  How do these people manage?

My wife returns tonight and I’ll be heading to the gym tomorrow morning, I’m pretty sure.  And I’ll be sore from running and from lifting and from all those ab exercises that are so tortuous.  Still, that soreness will be a sign that I’m one of the lucky ones, really.