Sports notes

December 20, 2009 at 10:43 am 2 comments

There are some incredibly interesting sports related articles worth reading and reflecting on…

  • ESPN.com has compiled all three parts (here, here, and here) of the fascinating exchange between sports broadcaster and writer Bill Simmons and pop social scientist Malcolm Gladwell (who considers Olympic swimmer Dara Torres “far and away the greatest athlete of our generation”). Their dialogue covered all things lowbrow and highbrow in modern sports, including athletes worthy of the title for Sports Illustrated‘s Sportsman of the Year, the power of journalists to change rules and regulations in the NFL, the inevitable growth of youth lacrosse, and conspiracy theories of how NBA commissioner David Stern sabotaged professional hockey. An excerpt:

GLADWELL

How random are our reactions to celebrity misbehavior? You’d think there would be some general moral principle at work here, but there just isn’t. Barry Bonds and Shawne Merriman allegedly did exactly the same thing: took performance-enhancing drugs that gave them a decided advantage over their peers. Bonds became a pariah. Merriman went to the Pro Bowl. Leonard Little left a party, got into his car and hit and killed a young woman. He blew .19 on the Breathalyzer. What happened to him? He did 60 days. Six years later, he was arrested for drunk driving again. He still plays for the Rams.

Michael Vick did bad things to dogs and went to jail for two years and become the personification of evil. I mean, I love dogs and I was appalled by Vick’s behavior. But in what universe is it a bigger crime to fight pit bulls than it is to get wasted and kill an innocent person? (Let’s not even get into Plaxico Burress, whose case proves, I guess, how unexpectedly seriously New York state courts take the crime of stupidity).

And now we have Tiger Woods, who fooled around on his wife and hit a fire hydrant. And in the middle of this absurd circus, the reigning King of Kings of the NBA and role model to millions is a man who not that long ago was accused of rape and lucked out of a trial because, by all appearances, he was able to buy off his accuser in a civil settlement. Huh? Maybe with your book royalties, you can endow the Sports Guy Chair of Celebrity Philosophy at Holy Cross to try to work this out.

SIMMONS

Uh-oh. You played the Kobe card. I’d cancel all future speeches in Southern California until 2029 to be safe.

I don’t think you need a philosophy class to figure this out. It’s all about our expectations for famous people. Football players are impossibly big and punish their bodies in an impossible way. All bets are off with them: HGH, steroids, painkillers, whatever. We’re ready for anything. For NBA players, we can’t imagine why any of them would use HGH — even though the drug makes a ton of sense because it would help any of them add muscle and recover more quickly from injuries — so when Rashard Lewis gets suspended for 10 games because of “elevated testosterone,” we shrug it off and assume there’s been some sort of mistake. (“Come on, the skinny guy who shoots 3s on the Magic? No way!”)

But in baseball — where the effects of PEDs can be so dramatic, where so many players have deceived us, where the physical changes are most visible, where PEDs can convert 15-homer guys into home run champs — we take it personally because statistics are so crucial for evaluating everything about baseball, and when you mess with that, essentially you’re ruining our ability to understand who matters and who doesn’t. This makes us angry. I know it makes me angry. I am drifting away from baseball — just a little — partly because I loved comparing players from different eras so much, and now I can’t. It sucks. I hate what happened. But that’s a whole other story.

What can’t be explained is why some athletes get more leeway than others for those indiscretions. I thought the reactions after the Rodriguez/Ramirez/Ortiz PED controversies this season were fascinating. Only A-Rod got raked over the coals. Only A-Rod was serenaded with steroid chants in every opposing stadium. Only A-Rod was ridiculed on radio shows and blogs with particular zeal. And really, it came down to the fact that America genuinely liked Big Papi and believed Manny was a lovable, harmless goofball. They didn’t have that same affection for A-Rod. It’s the same reason so many forgave Bill Clinton a long time ago, but Eliot Spitzer and Rod Blagojevich can never work again unless they’re co-directing a “Girls Gone Wild” video for Joe Francis.

GLADWELL

Yes. If the press likes you, you can get away with anything (see Favre, Brett). But there’s something else here. In last week’s New Yorker, my colleague James Surowiecki made the argument that celebrities can get away with something so long as it confirms — rather than contradicts — our pre-existing impression of them. Charles Barkley can get a DWI and a few months later still be taken seriously when he talks about going into politics. No problem. We believe he’s a carouser. Clinton can recover from Monica Lewinsky because we knew, going in, that he had a wandering eye, and we’d already adjusted our perception of him accordingly. Kobe recovered from the rape charge because he’s never pretended to anything other than an arrogant narcissist. But Kobe could never get away with pulling a Rod Artest and having a drink at halftime. That violates our core sense of Kobe as the stone-cold competitor.

  • As Sports Illustrated reports, “Former NFL star Dave Pear has a message for you. Don’t let your kids play football. Ever.”
  • Gladwell’s New Yorker article on the cognitive decline of football players and the above referenced SI article turned my attention to “Blood Equity“, a compelling expose of the NFL’s post-professional mistreatment of their ex-players. The trailer is below:
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Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

Play is the beginning of knowledge.

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