Before it makes dollars it must make sense

I spent most of Friday morning trying to switch up my work schedule so I could catch one of Dave Zirin's fifteen Austin-area appearances this coming week, and then passed the drive to Houston wincing in anticipation of a Sunday's worth of Vets' Day-inspired "support our troops" sentiment. This got me thinking on how thankful I was that the Association never would, or could, pull this off convincingly, and how, if the NFL (team) is America standing together as a whole against the world, good soliders all, the NBA (team) is all about the country's heterodox innards—the challenge of bringing them together while allowing them to stay true to themselves.

The two leagues even have radically different myths of success. The NFL is the equal opportunity, life by the boot strap, company man, faith in the system road to the big time. The NBA, partly because of the way the sport is structured, partly because of its willingness to admit certain things about American society, depends on the far more divisive, if less wholesome, self-made hustle. Football players, however cocky or charismatic, know they live and die with the collective; for better or worse, aspiring hoops stars recognize that their chance of making it depends on how much they can stand out from their teammates.

I'd then had it in my heart to suggest that the NFL represents America's brave international face and its role on the world stage, while the NBA more honestly stands for life in day-to-day America (why soccer can do both for many European and Latin American nations is beyond me). Jesse Jackson's support of T.O. actually supports me on this, since it's a non-item, and a non-PR opporunity, to point out that race figures prominently in the Association. Supporting Artest last season, say, would have been controversial in the all the least politically productive ways possible. Or, if you want to be charitable about it, taking Artest's side brings in way too many assumptions, ambiguities, and pre-existing arguments for it to symbolize a hard and fast milestone in sports race relations. Getting in the middle of anything about race in the NBA is, for lack of a better expression, stepping in it. By contrast, taking on race in the NFL is both novel and basic enough that it can avoid the sticky specifities of the situation—or, for that matter, of the real condition of the league.

But I've heard that some people have no such stomach for this side of the FreeDarko shack of thoughtfulness, so allow me to instead focus on something that totally disproves what I'm saying and operates on a far less wonky level: the latest Michael Vick commercial. In case you didn't know, Vick is the most preternaturally athletic performer the National Football League has ever seen. His quarterbacking stats are below laughable, and he runs less than he used to, in the interest of not wrecking his body for the sake of a first down (or letting defenses feel that they just have to plan on stopping the world's most elusive running back). But despite this, his Falcons are one of the league's true powerhouse teams (this week notwithstanding), and the mere fact of Vick's playmaking legs forces opposing teams to scheme on eggshells.

Vick's newest Nike commercial goes something like this: he's always been a holy terror on the gridiron, like nothing anyone had ever seen, since his days of childhood, someone who still plays like he did then. It's the last part that might as well be the message of the commercial: Vick still plays all freewheeling and improvisatory like he's in high school, that's what makes his game special, that's very important to him as a person. It's the ability to step outside of the strictures of organized football as we know, to do things as an individual that should be easily squelched by the sport's strength-in-numbers will to power.

The number one fear commonly voiced about the post-Jordan "decline" of the NBA is that athleticism would overtake skill, or that players would do their darnedest to try and make this come to pass. And while I think it's possible to argue that, for a minute, a kind of irresponsible skill set eclipsed actual basketball effectiveness, never, ever has raw athleticism been a league-wide substitute for having some sense of what the fuck you're doing. Even Amare and Wade, both of whom have styles built around death-defying athleticism, had to figure out how to make use of those abilities in the context of a game. Neither does what Vick seems to pride himself on, and what defenses so fear—him just busting out and doing what he feels, using his god-given talents to overcome the fact that, in the open field that eleven men should be able to stop one (the pass-catcher is incidental in his world).

Anyone who watches enough football gets used to seeing rookie running backs, accustomed to being able to turn the corner with ease, routinely getting shutdown until they recognize they're going to have to use their line more. The Association does have its share of teases who, from time to time, are able to temporarily harness the athleticism that got them drafted to put up numbers without the slighest bit of thought as to what they're doing: Darius Miles has made a career out of this, Stromile's used it as the credible springboard to great expectations in H-Town, and the Hawks were banking this entire season on it. But for the most part, this kind of player is thought of as being in a perpetual holding pattern of management waiting on potential and coaches expected to make good on it. None of them have, like Vick, managed to use boundless freedom and a rejection of technique into a credible formula for success. Vick may be the exception that proves the rule, but then again, no one's assuming that Antonio Gates will be the only failed basketball prospect to utterly dominate as a receiver.

But apparently no one wants to hear me talk about politics, so I'll save it.

(Feel free to mark down Sunday as the official FreeDarko Day of Unfunny, Unstylish Posts Concerned For the Fate of the World, and adjust your viewing habits accordingly.)


At 11/14/2005 8:19 AM, Blogger Brown Recluse, Esq. said...

i hadn't read that jesse jackson article, but it sort of makes sense that he'd have something to say. that's pretty bizarre that ralph nader has entered the fray, though.

i wonder what barbara ehrenreich thinks about the dress code.

At 11/14/2005 12:01 PM, Blogger Drew said...

I think soccer does that for most third world countries (i.e. England and Brazil) because most people there see life as fairly pointless acitivity chock full of backwards passing to the goalie and then is eventually decided by some fluke play or a total dumb-luck shootout.

At 11/14/2005 1:34 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

that's true, but then it also has the ability to stand-in for all things grand and national, like wars and pride in the face of calamity, etc. and i think in third world countries, it's even harder to claim that there's a clear connection between those things (at least insofar as they pertain to matters of state dignity) and daily life

At 11/14/2005 1:36 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

and i can't believe no one called me out on accidentally putting in a bj armstrong image, not a craig hodges one. i know the difference; i'm the one who made the point, wasn't I?

At 11/14/2005 3:22 PM, Blogger Brown Recluse, Esq. said...

i was wondering why you put a picture of b.j. armstrong in there. i thought it was craig hodges as soon as i saw the bulls uni, but then i was confused.

At 11/14/2005 4:58 PM, Blogger The Electric Zarko said...

Drew almost gets it right; he veers into soccer-bashing and misses his turnoff though.

Soccer works as both day-to-day life and as a triumph of the collective because it is the both the sport that most closely creates a metaphor for life and a game that often hinges on individual brilliance. Like basketball, you can win with the team (Spurs, Pistons); yet the people's choice will be the heroes (Heat, Pacers, Lakers).

To get back to the soccer-as-life, my theory on why American generally have a distaste for soccer is because we really want to believe that life is a meritocracy. Soccer is a reminder that this is not always the case.

Even if is the game that most often reminds us that the best team doesn't always win,if we look at the history of the World Cup, only 7 nations total have won it, 2 of which have won once as the host nation and Uruguay hasn't won anything since shortly after World War 2.

Randomness on the micro, consistency on the macro. Isn't that life?

At 11/14/2005 5:27 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

the nfl might very well be randomness on the macro, consistency on the micro. from down to down players and teams pretty much look like they're performing as you'd expect, but somehow the outcome is often unexpected.

At 11/14/2005 5:28 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

by unexpected i meant unlikely, not "for some reason you don't see it coming even though it's totally obvious," which would of course not be true

At 11/14/2005 6:31 PM, Blogger panoptican said...

The whole soccer is a third-world sport thing is not really true anymore. The United States is becoming a soccer country. It is the face of day to day life in the suburbs. Basketball really only applies to the cities. It's weird how's it working out too. Sort of reverse globalization (from America's perspective at least). It's pretty much replaced baseball as the suburban kids sport of choice.

At 11/15/2005 9:44 AM, Blogger Brown Recluse, Esq. said...

pan, i think you're talking about two different things: sports as recreation and sports as entertainment. i played soccer and ran cross country growing up, but i don't really watch soccer or marathons or whatever. i watch hoops. and the WB and america's next top model. more the latter, unfortunately.


At 11/15/2005 11:50 AM, Blogger emynd said...

"[Soccer] is the face of day to day life in the suburbs." Yeah but soccer has been the face of day-to-day life in the suburbs for at least 20 to 25 years. The "problem" (it's only a "problem" if you think soccer should be more popular in the US) is that kids grow out of their interest in soccer and want to play either football or basketball in middle-school and high-school. I'm not entirely sure why this is, but it probably has to do with the fact that little kids start playing soccer because it's just sort've innately fun to run around rather aimlessly kicking a ball. Eventually these kids start watching sports on TV and then want to basketball and/or football stars instead of soccer stars.

Soccer is a gateway sport in the US.

The most intriguing question to me is this: why is soccer the only sport where the participants eat orange slices at half-time? And where does this tradition come from? Is it European? And doesn't it give kids cramps?


PS. I love that Jim Rome's kid loves playing soccer.

At 11/15/2005 2:31 PM, Blogger emynd said...

Come on, people! Orange slices! I'm waiting for a response!


At 11/15/2005 2:37 PM, Blogger The Electric Zarko said...

Orange slices are an American thing, far as I can tell. It's probably intended to hydrate as well as provide a small amount of nutritional value.

As for recreational soccer, the reason that kids play it is because it's not dangerous (no bats, no thrown balls, no helmets needed), so it's the sport of choice for younger kids.

Once they get older, they move onto baseball and football, more traditional American sports that are also more dangerous for small children.

At 11/15/2005 5:01 PM, Anonymous aug said...

How are you all classifying third world countries? It seems you're saying everyone but the US is a third world country. England is definitely not a third world country. How it's that different from the US in that respect, I don't know.

As far as popularity, i think it comes down to the media coverage. And the reason the media and americans aren't insterested is because until recently, we haven't been good at soccer. I don't think Americans tend to shy away from it because we're so outclassed until recently. The slow, techinical, low flash, low scoring doesn't help either.

At 11/17/2005 2:50 AM, Anonymous Jimbo said...

Orange slices are not an American thing - it's a kind of unscientific soccer tradition.

Kinda disappointing to see the normally intelligent debate edge toward mindless soccer-bashing. I could speculate that Americans are entertained by soccer because they have short attention spans, but since I have only a superficial knowledge of American society, I'll say no such thing.

There are any number of reasons for the worldwide popularity of soccer - I'll just point out one, and it's probably not a good thing: tribalism. Supporters of soccer teams have a sense of ownership of and belonging to a team which does not exist in other sports. It does not, and probably cannot, exist in the world of American pro sports and its individually owned franchises. Something to do with the fact that every American sports fan knows that there's a chance 'their' team will move away from them in the dead of night...

Jimbo, Australian soccer player and American pro sports watcher.

At 11/18/2005 3:44 PM, Blogger The Electric Zarko said...

Jimbo is kee-rect, although it is less of a phenomenon in places like Australia or the United States, where there isn't a tradition to build upon.

It's also something that's changing at the higher levels of soccer, where the best teams no longer consist of players solely from the same country as the team, let alone from the same region. There's still a level of dedication and tribalism; however, it isn't as strong as what you see in the lower levels of soccer, where teams are still populated by people from the city that the team represents.

Which is partially why the English FA Cup is, arguably, the greatest sporting competition in the world.


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