Category Archives: Sports Social Commentary

Finding a Parallel in Sports to Our Screwed Up Politics

Can you ever remember a time that you cared about the size of a politician’s hands?  How about a time when you actually thought it mattered that a politician needs to drink water all the time? I know that you’ve never heard a politician make reference to how well-endowed he is until Thursday night.  Usually, the dumb and inconsequential shots that people take at politicians are for either gossip or humor from the great Jon Stewart and Co.  But it has never come from the politicians themselves.

That time has changed.  The race for the Republican nominee, which has followed the path of Donald Trump, has gone off the rails.  (The Democratic race is more mature at this point, but I’m not gonna hold the current version of either party up as the epitome of how politics should work.)  At one point, it was only Trump that took personal shots at people for stupid reasons, but now, Cruz and especially Rubio have joined in.

And you know what sucks?  They’re right to do it.  It demonstrates a special level of immaturity not only for the politicians to engage in this kind of BS, but for the people of America to care as much as they do about it.  Of course, the American people are just that immature.  And I’m not playing politics and saying that Republicans are the ones who are getting too invested in this kind of 3rd grade-level of discourse, because people from all ends of the political end of the spectrum have become heavily invested in the shitshow that is the 2016 presidential race.

cnn newsroom

One thing to know about me: I’m the king of weird analogies that somehow make sense but also make you wonder, “What kind of weird, possibly insane dude comes up with that thought???”  So here’s one of my best ones:  The 2016 election cycle remind me of trade deadlines in sports.  Hear me out.

On February 17, a day before the NBA trade deadline, Amin Elhassan went on the Dan Le Betard show on ESPN.  Le Batard talked with Elhassan for awhile about actual basketball, and it was a pretty enlightening conversation.  Then, Le Betard called out the other guys who work on the show and said, “You guys didn’t even listen to a word of that!”  He and Elhassan correctly stated that nobody listens to real, substantive discourse, because they only care about what Le Betard refers to as basketball’s version of “gossip.”  The others on the show then proceeded to ask Elhassan about tons of rumors, most of them complete BS, because that’s what they cared about.  I’m pretty sure that none of the trades actually happened the next day, but that’s what entertained the masses: empty rumors.

(You’re gonna have to trust me that that exchange actually happened.  ESPN’s Podcenter still has the same template as they did in 2008, and they apparently don’t believe in people being able to find their programming.  Trust me, I searched for 20 minutes.)

The hockey trade deadline doesn’t get the same coverage as its NBA counterpart, but I noticed the same phenomenon.  It’s much sexier to write a Buzzfeed-style listicle like “5 teams that should trade for Loui Eriksson” than it is to write about how this team or that team has gotten better at controlling the neutral zone.  I also sometimes write such columns which are so more superficial, even though I started this website with the goal of writing more substantive columns.

tsn tradecenter

Our politics are the exact same way now.  I’ve largely given up on cable news networks (if you want to know what’s actually going on in the world, watch Vice on HBO), because they’re the best parallel to our sports networks on trade deadline day.  Random trade rumors that were probably taken off Twitter, meet false controversy over Hilary Clinton not tipping at Chipotle (which I’m pretty sure that no one has ever done).  “Sources say,” meet “My dick is huge.”  And Elhassan and Le Betard not being able to talk about actual basketball, meet CNN interrupting an important discussion about NSA surveillance to tell us that Justin Bieber is in front of a judge:

I’m not breaking any news by telling you that Americans often don’t focus on the important issues, especially when so many of my fellow millennials don’t have the attention span to read a full article.  But this isn’t just a millennial problem. It’s true that too many of us young people get our news solely from The Daily Show and Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook newsfeeds.  However, cable news networks, for example, have a median viewership age of 127 (all numbers approximate).  It’s not a new thing for people to only know the superficial details of the happenings in the world, as people have been ignorant since the beginning of time.

Let me ask you something; you know how the biggest difference between people’s political views usually revolves around taxes, especially on rich people?  My question for you is, do you even know the federal income tax rate for those in the highest tax bracket?  What about how much that rate has changed over time?  And how many people around the country who claim to care a ton about politics do you think could answer that question?

Here’s the answer to the first two questions, by the way.

Back when Rick Reilly was a great columnist, he loved to mention that sports were not an escape of real life, but a reflection of real life.  Unfortunately, that’s more true than ever in this case.  Now, I’m not saying that you need to stop reading fake trade rumors just for the hell of it.  I do that all the time, and you might even find me posting a column that is simply low hanging fruit, because it’s so freaking addicting to dream of Boogie Cousins leading the Celtics to 3 championships after Danny Ainge trades 7 assets for him.  The problem is that such thinking seeps into more important parts of our lives than sports.  It’s hard to find anyone who loves sports more than I do, and I’m convinced that nobody loves the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, and Bruins collectively more than I do.  Despite all that, I have to admit that a few things in life matter more than Dont’a Hightower’s impending extension or Marcus Smart’s potential to be the best player on a championship team.

Choosing who runs our country is one of those things.  If you want to buy into trade rumors and sports’ version of gossip, then that’s fine with me.  But don’t let it translate into politics.  The American people have begun to support their political parties and ideologies the way that we follow sports teams, and we can’t do that.  Not when it leads you to care more about the size of a politician’s package than the actual policies that are at stake.

Johnny Manziel Coverage Proves Public Stupidity

Earlier today, the Dallas Morning News reported the harrowing details of Johnny Manziel’s January 30 incident with his ex-girlfriend.   You really should read it and not just rely on everyone else’s account of the story, but here are the most important details that make the case such a serious one.  if the affidavit is true, then Manziel threw his ex on the bed, dragged her to his car in the hotel’s valet, slapped her and ruptured her eardrum when she jumped out of the car, threatened to kill both of them and then just himself, brought her forcifully to her apartment, and finally, only left when she picked up a knife in self-defense.

There are a few details of the situation that make it hard to digest and form a proper judgment.  The first is that Manziel is clearly on drugs of some kind, and I’d be surprised if it was only one substance.  He threatened to kill himself while driving, and his father stated that he wouldn’t live to his 24th birthday in 10 months if he doesn’t go to rehab.  It all reeks of a guy who’s depressed that he was on top of the world at Texas A&M, then turned to substances when he became depressed that he was so overmatched as an NFL quarterback.  That’s my guess, but nobody should pretend they know exactly what’s happening in his head.  Either way, Manziel does deserve some sympathy for his clear addiction.

I could go on for days about how much I hate that the American justice system is all kinds of screwed up when it comes to dealing with drug addictions — which the American Psychological Association stated was 50% due to genetic predisposition… and that was almost 8 years ago.  You know, back when the 8th-seeded Boston Bruins were an up and coming team who had a chance to compete for a Cup in the next several years with the forward core of Phil Kessel, Marc Savard, and Marco Sturm.  I could go on for days — screw it, weeks — about how Portugal started treating drug addictions as a public health problem and not a reason for punishment in 2001… and then their drug addiction rate was cut in half within 10 years.

However, with as much sympathy as I have for someone with a devastating addiction, the allegations that involve rupturing his ex’s eardrum and making her fear for her life are inexcusable. If Manziel did what his ex claims (which I have no reason to doubt, but they still are unproven), then the actions were reprehensible.  In fact, I’d argue that they’re far, far worse than what Ray Rice did, because not only did Rice’s wife not have her eardrum ruptured and not fear for her life, but Rice committed his act in a single moment, as opposed to Manziel’s whole night’s worth of malice.

So why does no one care about Manziel nearly as much about Ray Rice?  Well, there are a few reasons.  I don’t buy the idea that Manziel hasn’t been proven guilty but Ray Rice was automatically guilty since a security camera caught Rice’s punch, because we live in an era — especially when it comes to the internet — when people feel that they’re “supposed” to deem someone guilty so as not to doubt the victim, especially in the case of violence related to gender.  I wholeheartedly disagree with that mindset, by the way, and I’m not saying that we should close the book on Manziel and say assume he’s guilty.  I’m only saying that the allegations should be taken very, very seriously, and I’m surprised that more people don’t care, given society’s tendency in 2016 of assigning guilt without having all the facts.

The first reason that people aren’t as worked up about Manziel as they were about Rice has more to do with Manziel’s overall transgressions, rather than just this latest incident.  I would never bring up race without having a good reason, because race is too important to just throw around.  But let’s look at Johnny Football’s laundry list of screw ups.  He started off by — you know what, nevermind.  I don’t have the patience to go through all of this, and it’d add about 300 words to this column.  Just read the “personal life and controversies” section of his Wikipedia page.  Now, try and tell me that this guy would have been treated even close to similarly if he were black.  We’d hear cliches like, “We can’t have guys of his character playing in the NFL — think of the kids!!!!!”

Having said all that, race is a distant second factor in terms of the reaction to the January 30 fight specifically.  When we compare what Manziel did and what Rice did, there is one main reason why very few people are getting as worked up about Manziel: Video.  Rice’s punch was captured on video, and then it became sexy to how much you cared about how horrible of a human being Ray Rice was.  With Manziel, there may be more harrowing and stomach-churning details, but who cares about that shit?  Video is the only thing that matters.

There is no other way to describe this social phenomenon than to say that it is utter stupidity. If we’re all gonna proclaim that certain actions (especially violence against women) is disgraceful, then it shouldn’t be the video that makes such actions disgraceful.  Yet, that’s where we find ourselves.  The Rice situation was an even better example, because every football fan and non-football fan was shouting from the rooftops that the NFL’s handling of domestic violence cases was pathetic.  They were right, but where was the outrage in the previous cases?  Between 2006, the year that Roger Goodell took over as commissioner, and the Rice elevator incident, there were 57 cases of domestic violence.  A whopping 34 went undisciplined, and none of other 23 faced a punishment as “tough” as Rice’s original 2 game suspension.  No one cared until there was a video of one of the women getting her lights knocked out.

Pics or it didn’t happen.

During the Fall of 2014, I noticed that a common aspect of public opinion about the Rice case was a feeling that the public deserved some credit for making the NFL change its ways.  People really wanted to pat themselves on the back for enacting some societal good.  That’s fine, but if you’re gonna try to take credit for the positive response in a single situation, you should take the blame for not giving a single fuck about any of the other cases.  There were 57 other women who needed society to care, and nobody did.

That’s exactly what’s happening here.  I can’t stress enough that we shouldn’t deem Manziel to be automatically guilty until we have some proof, but don’t you think that it would only be consistent for the public to at least be aware of the serious allegations against him?  I may not believe in deeming a guy to be guilty without hard proof, but it’d be nice if there was enough public outrage to make Manziel have to answer to the allegations before the long, arduous court process commences.  But again, outrage only happens when there’s a video.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the hotel produced a video of what happened, especially with the valet.  There are always cameras in those kinds of places.  When that happens, the public will suddenly care and proclaim that Manziel should be given the death penalty.  I’ll be right here, wondering where you were when the story should have been a big deal, long before the video ever comes out.  But you might be too busy patting yourself on the back for making a difference in an issue that you just remembered to care about.

Sports Are A Drug

By now, you’ve seen all of these videos.  Or this one.  If you’re a Patriots fan, this one below should be your favorite, as it is mine.  (Skip ahead to about 7 minutes to see the roller coaster of emotions that the fans experienced.)

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.  In sports, we usually use that definition to critique dumb decisions made by teams:

“Why in the world are the Bruins still playing Adam McQuaid? Don’t they know he sucks?”

“Why do NFL teams go for 30+ year old quarterbacks who we already know can’t take a team to the promised land, instead of taking a flier on an unknown guy?”

“How could a Red Sox fan actually predict that Clay Buchholz will pitch 200 innings and be an ace for the entire season?  Haven’t they noticed his yearly DL stint?”

“Why did the Bruins give Adam McQuaid $11 million over 4 years???????!!!!! Don’t they know he sucks????”

(If you can’t tell, I’m not the biggest fan of Adam McQuaid.)

You know what is the one aspect of sports in which we don’t ask enough questions about people’s sanity.  Sports.  Being a diehard sports fan inherently encompasses the definition of insanity better than anything that’s actually rooted within the game.

In what other aspect of our lives do we allow ourselves to get kicked in the face like the fans in the videos that I posted above, only to come back and be ready to get kicked in the face again?  The best metaphor for the behavior of sports fans despite the negative effects is that of drugs.  I am not an aficionado of hard drugs by any means — after all, I was born in Boston, so alcohol is my drug of choice — but the affects that drugs often have on people are evident.  When you’re at a really low point, you realize what the drug does to you, and you realize that your life would be better without it.  Ultimately, though, the addiction can’t stop without a serious awakening and altering of our mental state.

While crippling drug use is obviously more serious than being a sports fan, if you think I’m going too far by suggesting that being a sports fan is an addiction, you’re wrong.  Once you’re a diehard fan, you’re hooked.  (I include myself in this 100%.)

There are countless times where we’re all beaten down as sports fans, but we know that we’re gonna come back every single season in hopes that it’ll get better.  Lions fans can watch something like the ridiculous non-penalty call when the refs picked up the flag last January in Dallas, then watch Aaron Rodgers seemingly throw a football 587 yards for a Hail Mary on their home turf… and then come back in 2016 and say “This is the year!!!”  Tell me, in what way does that not fit the definition of insanity?

Even in Boston, where we’ve had 9 championships this century, we’ve had our fair share of moments that should make us wonder “Why do we care so much about these sports?”  There’s the obvious fact that the Red Sox had some of the most loyal fans in the world despite not winning a World Series for 86 years, but we’ve been through a lot of heartbreak in the successful 21st century, as well.  In fact, there have been the same number devastating playoff/season-ending losses than there have been titles.  The 2003 ALCS, 2006 AFCCG, 2007 Super Bowl, 2010 3-0 collapse vs. the Flyers, 2010 NBA Finals, 2011 Red Sox September death (That’s basically what happened, the Red Sox just keeled over and died during that month), 2011 Super Bowl, 2013 Stanley Cup Finals, and 2014 2nd Round vs. the Habs during the rivalry’s highest point (2011-2014, by my count).  You could even throw in the 2004 Bruins loss to the Habs during a HEATED series (screw Mike Ribiero), losing the reigning MVP during Week 1 of the 2008 NFL season, and mayyybe the Pats loss to the Ravens in 2012.  of course, a championship makes all of the heartbreeakworthwhile, but the point is that sports always provide us with tons of opportunities to ask ourselves “Why do we do this again?”

Because we’re addicted.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that being a diehard sports fan is inherently a bad thing.  Sports often provide important benefits to society, especially when children partake in them.  Even by simply being fans of the same team, we form a common bond with one another that is valuable in our lives.  I can’t tell you how many of my friendships have started by talking sports with the person.  The percentage of my friendships that have started through sports is probably embarrassingly high.  That’s a way in which the drug addiction metaphor fails, because a sports addiction doesn’t inherently damage one’s life as a whole.  And people don’t have to turn into a monster because of sports.  I like to think that I’m pretty good at letting my sports emotions dictate the way I treat people in other aspects of my life, and apparently all of Boston has a method of letting out their frustration and put a devastating loss out of their minds.  I guess that’s the other way that the drug addiction metaphor falls short, because a drug addiction almost automatically causes others around the addict to be affected.  But that doesn’t mean that sports aren’t an addiction.

I wouldn’t trade my status of being a diehard Boston sports fan for anything in the world other than family.  Rooting for Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, and Patriots are a part of me that I have no interest in losing, and it’s a part of who I am.  But I also won’t pretend that I could give up being a diehard sports fan if I wanted to.  Have you ever heard of someone who says about a substance “I can quit anytime I want to, I just don’t want to”?  Yeah, I can’t quit.  Good thing that I don’t want to.

What Role Do Sports Play in Race Relations in America?

In 2015, we’re supposed to be more connected.  We should be more aware of what’s going on around us, more empathetic to the tribulations and successes of others, and more united with those who come from different walks of life than we do.

It doesn’t take a Bill Belichick (my synonym for “genius”) to figure out that our society is nothing like that.  We are more polarized than ever, and modern technology is undeniably at fault.  Over half of millennials get their news from social media, in particular their feeds on Facebook or Twitter… which sounds fine except for the minor detail that people control what’s on their feeds.  They block out what they don’t agree with and don’t want to hear, just like a conservative can only watch Fox News or a liberal can only watch MSNBC.

(Side Note: The sole reason I will use politics in this piece is because it is a realm of our society that demonstrates our polarization quite definitively.  I am not going to take a political side, but I will call a spade a spade and identify both crazy political beliefs and people who are far too politically biased to even listen to the argument of someone on the other side of the aisle.  I don’t care if you’re a democrat or republican; I only care that you don’t believe that Obama is a Kenyan-born Jihadist who wants America to be ruled by some combination of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, or that the Ronald Reagan administration created AIDS and spread it to Africa to kill black people – looking at you, Kanye West.  Also, sorry for the Bill Simmons-length side note.)

But it’s not just social media or millennials that cause the division in this country.  Two years ago, NPR posted a column from Alan Greenblatt explaining “How Republicans and Democrats Ended Up Living Apart,” and it’s worse than you think.  In 1976, just over a quarter of Americans lived in landslide counties, or counties where the margin of victory in the 1976 election was at least 20 points.  Now, that number is over half of America.  Put simply, people don’t like living around anybody other than themselves.  Such division is only made worse through the record levels of gerrymandering that we see nowadays.  America was built on the idea that the people choose their politicians, but now politicians choose the people they represent.

You’re probably wondering where race enters the equation here.  Well, race is the epitome of this division that humans irrationally exhibit among each other.  Humans all originated from Africa, yet, over the countless generations, we’ve figured out a way to justify hating each other based on color of skin and where that color originated.  A crucial aspect of what I’m saying about the politicization of society in general is that it’s systematic, and what’s more systematically polarizing than racism?

Here’s the thing about racism though: It’s rooted within us; it’s a natural occurrence.  Part of being human is an innate tribal desire to put ourselves in groups and dislike those who are a part of another group.   Michelle Alexander, the author of the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, had a very interesting take on racism and its roots inside every human mind.  Alexander has stated that she believes that we all have certain tendencies and biases that we don’t realize, and when one notices such feelings inside someone else, they should bring it up in a constructive manner so that the offender can realize their bias and say, “Wow, you’re right, I’m sorry about that and I’ll be sure to check that in the future.”  (If you want a video of her saying it, my memory of it comes from her appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher in February 2014.)  Given Alexander’s expertise in writing about race, I find it incredibly fascinating and enlightening, and I believe she’s absolutely right about the biases and even bigotry that lies within all of us.

Here’s a quick story that demonstrates this truth more than anything else, and don’t worry, it’s not a dark story, but actually a funny one.  When I was in high school, two Catholic missionaries visited us after their trip to Africa to help children throughout central Africa get access to better learning materials and basic sports equipment like soccer balls and cleats. When they arrived, the teachers were so excited to have them, but the children started crying to an almost uncontrollable degree.  The missionaries asked the teachers what the issue was, but the teachers didn’t want to say.  When the missionaries pressed some more, the teachers responded by saying, “Honestly, these children have never seen white people before, so they think that you’re ghosts.”

Humans fear and dislike the unknown.  That’s a fact.  And when a person hasn’t been around different kinds of people throughout their lives, they’ll become skeptical of those who they deem to be different.  That’s why I’ll always view diversity as the key to alleviating racial tensions in America or anywhere else.  When we are around those of a different background, we learn to respect types of people other than ourselves.

So how do people connect when they don’t seem to have many similarities?  Well, a lesson that I learned in college about networking applies here perfectly.  My professor informed us that the best way to network is not to walk up to someone at a networking event or hit them up on Linkedin and say “Hi, I’d like to get to know you,” because such a method is too fake and direct.  (It’s pretty hard to be both fake and direct, but this is one of those rare times.)  In order to have someone in your corner, they need to be able to trust you and know what you’re about.  How do you do that?  By some activity outside of strict networking in which the person gets to know you.  My professor used the example of how playing basketball with a few people in the university’s registrar’s office helped him immensely, because they knew to trust him as a companion rather than just a coworker.  In a case like that, the person will get to know you and trust you in a more genuine way, and that’s how you get a real connection to someone, whether it’s from a networking perspective or not.

It’s no debate that increasing the effect that diversity has should be done primarily with regards to children, as racial tensions become rooted in a person from a young age.  It’s quite hard to get an adult to respect someone with a different sexual orientation, gender, or race when they’ve been a bigot for so many years.  Kids are the focus, and school should be the best way to integrate children and — more importantly — to instill a belief inside their heads that superficial differences between people don’t matter.

But what if the classroom doesn’t do it, as is the case in so many schools across the country?  I shouldn’t have to tell you that school districts reflect the statistics of polarization based on where people live that I included in the beginning of the column.  If adults move to homogeneous areas, then their kids will grow up in a homogeneous environment.  Furthermore, many school districts or private schools often make matters worse through their attempts at “diversity,” and my high school was no different.  The school or the district’s intentions may be pure and logical, but there are unintended consequences.  At my high school, we had a “diversity rate” of a little over 11%, and yes, that means that almost 89% of the students were white.  Many of those who weren’t white came from rougher areas of Boston and were brought to school on a bus, and they were the only kids who came by bus.  The black or Hispanic students often felt that they weren’t at home in our school partially because there wasn’t enough diversity for anyone who wasn’t white to feel at home.  The white students often believed, whether they’d admit it or not, that the non-white students were there for disingenuous reasons.  There were few overt racial incidents at the school, but there was not nearly as much social integration as there should have been.  Does that sound like the kind of melting pot that we want America to be?

That’s where sports (finally) show up in this column.  What was going on at my high school (and so many others… you’ve all heard the stereotype of the black kid who has a 4 hour commute on 3 different bus lines to get to a white school) is akin to the networking example from my professor.  You can’t just say “Here, white and black kids, you’re together now.  Be friends.”  No, people gain genuine trust for someone else through activities.  And sports offer a solution.

When children — or anyone really — are playing sports together, they’re not focusing on someone’s race.  During a game or practice, you’re not judging someone by what side of town they live on, but by whether or not they’re gonna make that layup if you dish them a backdoor pass.  Of course, I can’t be too cut and dry with this, as nothing can eradicate racism completely, especially if it’s deep rooted within a family.  Also, sports often can teach kids horrible ethics if they’re coached improperly by the coaches or parents, whether that involves playing dirty to get ahead or a ferocious sense of competition that can’t be toned down in the times of life when it shouldn’t come up.  For the most part, though, sports can serve as a means by which children learn to put aside all the BS that humans often use to judge each other and instead focus on their counterparts in a different way.  Like I said before, when you perform an activity with someone and especially when you succeed at it, you gain a genuine sense of trust for that person that can break down racial barriers.

On a more minor level, even rooting for sports teams can be a method of integration.  Humans naturally have a tribal desire to put themselves into a group and dislike anyone who is in a different group, which is the root of racism.  Sports fandom provides an outlet for fans to carry out those tribal instincts (Yankees fans are scumbags, am I right?) without actually hating each other in a vitriolic way.  When someone crosses the line and confuses their sports hatred for actual hatred, then that’s a problem with potentially terrible consequences, as you can witness at just about any Oakland Raiders game.  But generally speaking, being a fan enables a tribal side of us to come out in a way that doesn’t harm the world around us and provides a high level of entertainment.

The angle of children playing sports is the most important, of course.  With the level of polarization that our society has reached, it’s imperative that we fill the minds of children with acceptance rather than separation.  A shared activity is the best way to foster respect, and sports can provide that level of social tolerance in a way that even school often cannot, so long as the sports teams themselves consist of diverse members.  The polarization in this country is out of control because it comes so naturally to people, and we need natural, genuine ways for adults and especially children to champion tolerance in the face of such division.  Sports can play that role in our broken society.

If you think I’m overrating the social importance of sports or that I’m taking too big of a leap in anything else that I’ve said here, I want to hear from you and have an adult conversation about it.  Please either talk to me on Twitter at @duckboats_ready or respond in the comments.  The only thing that I ask is that you don’t simply say that I’m wrong or that you disagree, but that you specifically say where in my logic that you think I went array.  When analyzing someone’s analysis, we need to talk about it in depth, just like our country needs to discuss race relations, the role of sports in our society, and the specific role of sports in race relations with far more depth than we already do.