by Dave Alles
I am writing this on Father’s Day (Happy Father’s day, all you fathers!) but this has little to do with Father’s Day and more to do with sentimentality as an advertising tool, as a defense mechanism and the possible precarious future of football in the US and how that makes the NFL vulnerable.
Before I attempt to explain how that gallimaufry of loosely connected ideas fit together, it would make sense to introduce the one bit of Father’s Day material that triggered my mind to spin in such a fashion that I soon found myself in front of my trusty computer to write this post. It’s this Father’s Day commercial by Dick’s Sporting Goods:
Did you see that? It ticks a lot of boxes for a minute-long commercial, I think… It’s pretty well done, it’s interesting, I think it’s touching without being overly-sappy. It’s not the quality of the commercial, however, that got my mind running the way it (too often) does…it’s the message. The obvious Father’s Day message and the bonding through sports isn’t what interests me all that much and, truth be told, that may be the ONLY message they were attempting to convey, but I immediately picked up another message that deals directly with a story-line fans of the NFL (and, really, football in general) have been hearing a great deal about and a budding controversy the league, itself, has attacked head-long (pardon the play on words) if not a little late. That’s right, that sentimental advertisement about fathers and sons and football got me thinking about the growing dilemma of head injuries in the NFL and, more so, head injuries in youth football at the earliest stages all the way through high school.
Now, before I continue, I should admit that I am not sure what motivations were involved in the development of this particular Dick’s Sporting Goods commercial. There certainly was a sentimental angle to be played involving Father’s Day and the role that sports can play in the ever-developing relationship between (in the case of this commercial) a growing boy and his father. The fact that they chose to use football, in this particular advertisement, could have been a coincidence (this is a Father’s Day commercial and Father’s Day happens about as far outside of football season as you can get) or it could have been by design considering football’s massive popularity compared even to basketball and baseball (which are very much in season). While I think the intention was to show a single, father-son relationship and how it developed through their shared experience through football…my mind couldn’t get over the fact that this advertisement seemed, to me, like the first, openly sincere attempt to promote (and possibly save—I’ll get to that in a moment) the sport of football in the United States by appealing to our sentimental side as opposed to promoting football as pure entertainment. If your eyes just rolled back in your head, give me a moment and I’ll try to explain where I’m going.
Again, before I press too far down this path, I want to make it clear that there probably is no hidden or secondary message behind this advertisement and I would never want to accuse the good people at Dick’s Sporting Goods of an ulterior motive…but Dick’s, at the very least, is a sponsor of the NFL and sells (a great deal, I would imagine) NFL merchandise out of storefronts across the country. The health and popularity of football, from the NFL all the way down to Pop Warner and other youth football is of great importance to Dick’s, I would think.
So, let’s think about where football (and the NFL) currently stands in our society. By almost any metric, the NFL is currently the most popular professional sport, by a considerable margin, in the US…and considering all of the options sports fans have in this country, that is saying quite a bit in the NFL’s favor. With the popularity of pro football, and certainly college football and its own rabid following, participation numbers in youth football have been increasing for generations and, in fact, have more than doubled for Pop Warner football over the last 15 years. That’s pretty remarkable considering the expense in equipment involved for tackle football and the general complexities of the sport. Never-the-less, football in the United States has never been healthier, if the use of “health” isn’t a poor choice of words. And that’s the elephant in the room, isn’t it? Health, or at least the rapidly growing concerns about the health of those who play football may be putting the sport’s future at risk. Head injuries have become the hot-button topic in the NFL, with more and more players revealing the terrible toll a lifetime of football has inflicted on their bodies and, even more troubling, their minds. The well-publicized deaths of Andre Watters, Dave Duerson and, most recently, Junior Seau have been linked and/or have raised considerable concern over the devastating affects repeated head injuries can have on a player and how they can compromise memory and quality of life in later years.
I think for many, the varied health risks of playing football have largely been seen as a problem for someone else: The highly compensated NFL star. It’s not hard for many fans to discount the risks an NFL player takes to entertain the masses…it’s easy to argue that the physical risks are well known by the participants and they are usually highly compensated and enjoy the kind of fame and lifestyle so many who will never play in the NFL dream about. Myself, I think that’s a little harsh considering the brutal and, often, brief nature of the average NFL career. Many of these players toil for very brief tenures in the NFL and do so in relative anonymity (and at a fraction of the fortune) compared to their peers in baseball and basketball. I would argue that NFL players literally suffer for their art…but, in the end, it’s unlikely that the health risks to NFL players will doom professional football. That, however, doesn’t mean the NFL is not extremely vulnerable.
Over the last year or so, I have heard the idea that sometime in the not-too-distant future we may live in a society without football…and I have heard those ideas dismissed by so many who could not fathom our football-addled society giving up our weekend-long smorgasbord of high school, college and NFL entertainment…especially our need for that Sunday NFL fix before we face the reality of the following Monday. As much as congress likes to meddle with the machinations of sports in a half-assed way, it’s doubtful any politician will ever have the fortitude and/or career-killing instincts to sanction the NFL in a way that will threaten the league…but there may be stronger forces at work. I don’t think football in the US is in danger of having its head (the NFL) chopped off as much as it’s in danger of slowly withering from malnutrition as it its roots die away…and I am talking all the way to its grass roots. We’re all smart enough to know the inherent health risks of playing football are not just for NFL stars. We are learning more and more about the frequency of concussions in the game, even in youth football at the youngest levels, and as we start to understand just how hard those injuries can be on a young brain, I think we will see more and more parents think twice (at least) before encouraging their young boys or girls to participate in youth football, especially when there are so many other sporting options for kids under the age of ten. It doesn’t mean that the children of these concerned parents won’t grow up to be football fans. It might not even mean that many of these kids won’t end up playing football later in their adolescence. It is a trend, however, that must be a great concern for the stewards of the sport as high as the NFL, because this is how empires meet their demise: It never happens all at once. It happens by degrees. It’s not enough that sports fans across the country and around the globe are crazy about football. Someone has to play the game. The intense and entertaining fire that burns on the gridiron needs fresh timber or it will burn out. Now, unless football is made illegal, there will be always be athletes willing to play the game, risks be damned…but it doesn’t change the fact that the pool of athletes from which football can draw may become considerably smaller as more and more potential football players are pushed by their concerned parents to other sports at a young age. Pop Warner youth leagues may fold from lack of participation, denying or delaying even more potential (and willing!) football players from starting to learn the game. This might lead to more defections to sports like baseball or soccer or, at the very least lead to fewer experienced and developed players participating at the high school level. That would likely affect the college game and don’t think for a moment the NFL powers-that-be haven’t weighed the risks of what it could mean to their product. Other sports have seen similar declines due to similar changes in youth participation patterns. Boxing was once more popular than the NFL and NBA combined and it’s now on life support. Even baseball has been forced into a very proactive stance to re-introduce the game to inter-city youths. It’s hard to imagine football, as popular as it is, joining those sports in those kinds of struggles…but easier to imagine than you might think.
That’s what I was thinking about as I watched the Father’s Day/Dick’s Sporting Goods commercial: A high school athlete who played football, grew up, became a father and taught his son the game of football as they enjoyed their shared experience. It’s a sweet and relatable and recognizable idea…and one that may become less common in coming generations no matter how much those who run football would like it not to be so.
They chose football for a Father’s Day advertisement which airs on tv very much out of football season. It could be a coincidence or it could be a calculated choice. I just kept thinking it looked less like an advertisement for a sporting goods company and more like the first sentimental cry for help from the sport of football. It seemed like a pandering reminder of the how the game of football is a family tradition passed down from generation to generation…from father to son. It also seemed like a message from a game fearful of how tenuous that familial tradition and lifeline may become.
by Dave Alles
Johan Santana is not a politician, but he is probably ready to get out and campaign for the Human Element. I don’t blame him: The Human Element helped him make Mets’ history with the franchise’s first no-hitter. I don’t blame him…but he’s wrong.
If you have turned on your television anytime in the last few months you have no doubt realized that it’s an election year. Countless candidates of every political shade and flavor are pitching their platforms and many of them are doing it by spinning clever catch-phrases that sound like they should mean something, but when placed under the harsh light of rational scrutiny it becomes clear that they are nothing more than hollow platitudes meant to obfuscate as much as inspire.
I don’t mention this to necessarily poke fun at politicians (Having fun at the expense of politicians is pretty low-hanging fruit) but the vague and tired wordsmith-ing got me thinking about some other, sports-related debates that have sides which are argued (often poorly) with well-worn and widely accepted axioms that, when placed under critical scrutiny, are really pretty weak and actually do the exact opposite of making the point they were intended to make.
If you know me or have wasted any amount of time listening to me on ESPN Radio, you know I am not a fan of the BCS and its myopic overlords. Proponents of the BCS (and, really, unless you are employed by the BCS or one of the Bowl Games that survive because of the status quo, why on earth would you be a proponent of such a broken system? A discussion for another time, I guess) are not only the kings of a flawed system of determining a college football championship, they’re also the kings of some of the most twisted logic when it comes to defending their indefensible championship format. They do this by trotting out tired arguments that are as easy to parrot as political jargon and they sound like they are meant to mean something…but they don’t.
I don’t want to go into great detail about the preponderance of hypocrisy in the highest levels of the college game (because this posting is really supposed to be about something else), but to give you an example I present to you faulty BCS axiom #1: “To win a BCS title in college football the regular season matters.” You hear that one a lot from the BCS and it’s used only when it’s convenient for those who argue against the sensibility of a playoff. Alabama couldn’t even win its DIVISION(!) of the SEC and yet played (and won) the BCS Championship game. Honestly, how important could the regular season be when you can fail to win any conference hardware and then take home the ultimate prize? It’s an argument that is made because it sounds good and right and righteous and it makes the BCS seem merit-based…right up until the point when you realize that there have been several teams over the history of the BCS who have failed miserably during the regular season who have still been rewarded with a place in the BCS Championship game. At the same time there have been a great many teams outside of the BCS conferences who face an impossibly uphill battle just to be considered for the big game regardless of their accomplishments. It’s the kind of logic that will tie you up and “De-do-do-do, De-da-da-da” the heck out of you if you let it (tip of the cap to the Police). The BCS is full of these catch-phrase arguments which are pulled out of their bag of tricks to make whatever point is convenient in the moment, but if you put them all together you’d find they make a circular argument which makes no argument at all.
The point of this (and there is a point, I promise) is that you don’t have to rely on political theater or the nonsense of the BCS to find seemingly well-meaning arguments, boiled down to a clever or home-spun phrase that seems to make a valid point that is hard to refute…when, in fact, baseball is full of them.
Boy, oh boy is baseball rife with a problematic belief system that has been embraced and calcified by generations of fractured logic and superstition. It’s a sport that has, above every other sport, the ability to measure individual and team performance through extremely useful, innovative and intelligent statistical analysis, and yet still has stewards and power-brokers of the game who insist that what they see through the distorted lens of their own perception is more valuable than cold, hard facts. Baseball old-schoolers have spent decades discounting and discrediting Bill James and his ever-growing legion of Sabermetricians, favoring batting average over on-base percentage, even while repeating old yarns about how “a walk is as good as a hit” (oh, by the way, there is compelling statistical evidence that a walk may actually be worth more than a single…but, again, some other time). Baseball is full of those old, folksy axiom/arguments that collapse in on themselves when studied too closely.
There is a new baseball argument that, on its surface, sounds like it is sincere and has a vague kind of importance that is hard to argue against in the same way it’s hard to argue against a politician touting “family values” even though you don’t know exactly what their values might be. I am, of course, talking about the argument that “The Human Element” is too damn important to the fabric of baseball to even consider considering the use of instant replay. The human element. THE HUMAN ELEMENT. The humanity of it all! What’s not to like? It sounds important and personal and understandable and relatable. I mean, we’re all human, right? Gotta keep the humans involved and give ‘em something to do during a nine-inning game. It sounds like it’s getting right to the core of the issue…but what the heck are we really talking about here?
Human-kind has always wanted to fly. Once we figured out that flapping our wings like Icarus wasn’t going to get the job done we turned to mechanics (and Bernoulli’s principle) to help us get airborne. And we have used mechanics, and then electronics, to help us with all kinds of tasks, menial and otherwise. Cars, televisions, computers: They all have become increasingly important parts of our existence and, the more we have come to rely on them like old friends, the more we have wanted them to act like old friends in a more human way. It seems to me we have gone to great lengths add a human element to our lifeless helpers. We used to just give our cars and possessions names. Now we can talk to our cars (and they talk back!), we can ask our phone about the meaning of life (and they have a pithy rejoinder!), we can yell at our computers when they run slow (sadly, no auditory solution for a sketchy web connection) and we get a comforting (or eerie, depending on how much you dread the possibility of a Terminator-style apocalypse) response. It’s meant to make us feel good. I know I’m impressed. So it’s not hard to see how the idea of keeping the human element in baseball can lead to an almost visceral response. We work so hard to humanize things that don’t have feelings outside of what we project upon them, how could we intentionally rip the “humanity” out of our national pastime? Here’s the thing: Just like your phone doesn’t have a heartbeat, baseball doesn’t have an opinion on global warming or what makes art or whether it’s okay to charge five-bucks for a small cup of coffee. It doesn’t get moody or have a sense of humor or have an endearing nervous tick when it watches a scary movie. It’s not human and it doesn’t possess human qualities that one enjoys watching develop in their children. When people argue about keeping “the human element” in baseball they’re not worried about ruining baseball’s ability to laugh…there’s only one human element even remotely being discussed when the discussion of “the human element” comes up regarding instant replay in baseball: The very human ability to screw things up and get everything wrong. That’s it.
Of all the things that make us human, the ability to screw up is not one of our more celebrated qualities. Heck, it’s not even one of our more human qualities. Cars don’t start, computers crash, dams break. Failure is not hard to find and few people are in any great hurry to embrace those failures…except for the misguided in baseball who think that getting things wrong every now and again makes everything right. Look, I know there are very real and practical concerns involving replay in Major League Baseball. I, for one, believe having umpires on the field is a good thing. But baseball is big business and it curries to the interest and passion of a fickle fan-base which has no time to have a game be determined by a call that chafes against logic, merit, fair-play and the untrammeled vision of instant replay from half-a-dozen different camera angles. Injustice infuriates most people and they don’t want it in the sports diversions that temporarily take them away from the injustices they have to endure in their daily lives. When a bad call is made and a deserving team loses, it’s the kind of indignity that will drive fans away from the game. There should be no expense too great to make sure that what happens in the field of play is rewarded. No expense. Not if you want the fans who pay the bills with their continued patronage to remain invested in your product.
Over the weekend, Johan Santana threw the first no hitter in the history of the New York Mets franchise. That’s the way it will go down in the record books. But it didn’t happen. Carlos Beltran hit a sixth-inning double down the third base line and I have yet to see a replay from any camera angle that tells me different. The very human umpire got that call wrong. For that umpire’s blunder, Santana and the Mets were rewarded with a very special and historic evening. They sure seemed to enjoy it that night…but just knowing that it should not have been: will that eat at their subconscious, having been given something that was not truly earned? It would only be human of them if it did.
by Dave Alles
You can’t throw a megabyte in the blogosphere this week without finding dozens and dozens of posts about Tiger Woods, his remarkable come-from-behind-on-Sunday victory at the Memorial and what it means…or might mean. Is Tiger Woods back? Is the pursuit of Jack Nicklaus and his hallowed records back on? Is it safe to believe once again? I suppose those questions will be (or, at least, could be) answered soon enough.
What I found interesting about Tiger’s win, and the breathless response in all levels of media, is what it says about all of us who care to have an opinion on Tiger Woods, then and now. How our perception of Tiger today is framed by how we think we remember Tiger during his prime.
Less than Tiger Woods trying to be Tiger Woods once again, this win got me thinking more about how vulnerable we are to our own memories.
You have, no doubt, heard of people with photographic, or eidetic, memories. Some of these savants can read 100 pages of Les Miserables in French and transcribe every sentence down to the word and punctuation or can glance at complex schematics of a jet engine and not miss a detail when asked to draw what they have seen. It’s impressive…in the way that space travel or a heart transplant is impressive. I know these things exist, but I don’t have any practical concept of how they happen. (It’s a good thing that society is not counting on me to build bridges or design combustion engines or figure out better ways to cure athletes foot…because we all would have to walk great distances to each and every destination and we would all end up with itchy feet.) I have no idea how eidetic memory works. I can barely remember what happened over the weekend. And I am not alone. Almost everyone has memories that betray their collective experience. I know this because I talk to people everyday who have terrible memories: They can’t remember names, they can’t remember details of prominent events, they can’t even remember what they said five-minutes ago. That so many of us have faulty memories is not remarkable…what is remarkable is that so many of us incorrectly believe our memories are pristine accounts of the history we have witnessed with our own eyes.
When I worked in television we frequently fielded angry calls from troubled viewers upset with that night’s newscast. Sometimes their consternation stemmed from a philosophical difference, sometimes it had to do with a perception of bias on the part of the reporter doing a particular story. Very often, however, viewers would call to complain about something specific they heard on the news…or, at least, thought they heard. Now, it is not unfair to say that most news-gathering organizations have their flaws: Strict deadlines and questionable sources, among other hurdles and challenges, can lead to mistakes and less than perfect reporting. That being said, in the case of television news, every newscast is recorded and archived and, as they say, “the tape don’t lie.” More often than not, the viewers who called in disgust over something they had heard, never actually heard the thing that made them so upset. We’d review the air-check of the show in question and find the offending comment simply didn’t exist. There was little point in arguing with these viewers because a) they were already upset enough to call and b) they usually responded with the frustratingly-hard-to-counter “I know what I heard” argument even though what they think they “know” and what they actually “heard” are not one-and-the-same. It’s not hard to figure out how this happens: Many of us frequently watch, or listen to the news while doing other things. We’re making dinner or unpacking our briefcase after work or engaging in light conversation while the news prattles on in the background of our lives. The occasional words and facts that make it from the TV, through the haze, to our ears gets filled-in with whatever our distracted subconscious can provide to make it whole…even if that “whole” ends up being something different than what was actually broadcast through our own TV. I meet people every day who hear a fragment of a sentence and then let their subconscious create a narrative that is something completely off topic and, to be fair, I do it all the time myself.
That takes me back to the point where our belief in our own memory does not always hold up to scrutiny in the times when we are actually challenged with the inconvenient details that make up the reality of a true historical record. I suppose having a photographic memory would be nice, but maybe not particularly valuable if you don’t understand the context of what you remember (You may be able to recite Les Mis in French, but if you don’t understand the language…what’s the point?). For those of us without photographic memories and have to rely on actual, physical photographs, sometimes that’s not enough either. We can see a picture of ourselves in our younger days doing something familiar and what we remember can be specific or it can be vague…but it will rarely be complete. We just don’t remember everything that happens to us on a given day, in a given moment. We remember (correctly or not) some of the pieces, some of the people, some of the feelings and emotions and the rest gets filled in by our subconscious and that becomes the narrative we embrace. That becomes the history as we remember it, even if we know it’s incomplete, and over time that narrative calcifies to the point that we are sure that the events of that day, memorialized in a single photograph, happened exactly as we “remembered” it. And that’s why it’s such a mind-blowing shock to the system when we are forced to learn, through the undeniable proof of, say, a recorded air-check of a newscast, that what we “remembered” and what actually happened in the moment in question are incongruent.
Okay, what the hell does this have to do with Tiger Woods and his “turn-back-the-clock” victory at the Memorial? People want to know if Tiger Woods is back. There are golf fans who desperately want to believe that Tiger will be back to the days when he was savaging the best fields in golf with his “B-game” and winning the most challenging of major championships on one leg. Fair enough. I am among the people who are desperate to know. But before we can answer “if” Tiger is back we need to decide what standard he has to meet to merit a celebration of his “return.” Certainly piling up some wins would be a good start, but would it be enough for the masses? Tiger didn’t just win in his hey-day, right? He dominated. He eviscerated. He emasculated golfers and golf courses alike. That’s the Tiger most remember. So, what is the standard? Is it merely the winner’s-circle at a major championship? Is it a return to that time where the competition quaked in his mere presence? Does he have to reveal that place deep within his heart where he believes he can do whatever he wishes on the golf course and then shows the game to back up that faith in himself? Maybe all of these things go hand-in-hand to some extent, but the answer to the question of “Is Tiger Woods back?” will be difficult to answer in a satisfying fashion for all who dare ask because of our own, individually shaded memories of the man when he was at the height of his powers.
Look, Tiger Woods has certainly made himself into a polarizing and divisive enough character thanks to his varied and well-chronicled stance on marital fidelity. We can probably all agree that there is very little to agree on when it comes to Woods’ perception off the golf course. But on the course, in the sweltering heat of a US Open or the high winds of the British, Tiger has always been defined by his success. Even then, his success was so massive and overwhelming and his victories so stunning and comprehensive that it was difficult to put into context what we were seeing. No praise seemed too high for Woods and no expectations seemed too great and, because his accomplishments were all his own and not part of a team effort, it was not hard to see Woods as more machine than man…more deity than duffer. While that may seem like a long time ago considering Tiger’s play of the last couple of years, every time he wins and every time he takes a majestic swing and turns back the clock, those memories come flooding back…and unless you have a photographic memory of Tiger’s career or perhaps have taken great care to catalog his failures more than his victories, you might find yourself like the rest of us wondering if the great golfing machine-god that we all remembered has returned to awe the sporting world once again, one stroke at a time. That might be an awfully high bar to clear because, in truth, we’ll likely be expecting Tiger to achieve a sustained level of excellence that has been distilled by our memory and purified of the day-to-day failures that even the great Mr. Woods had to endure in his prime. We remember the magnificent and cast away the so-so and if that reconfigured ideal of all success and no failures is the standard Tiger has to achieve to “be back” like so many might hope, then it’s a standard he’ll never come close to achieving. Our memories may very well have made Tiger Woods even greater than he actually was (if that’s possible—see even I’m doing it!) and if he wins a bunch of majors in the coming years and we still find ourselves wondering why it still doesn’t feel like he’s all the way back to being the Tiger Woods of old, all we have to do is look deep into our own memories and remind ourselves: “I know what I saw.”