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As Boxing Lays (Not) Dying

Well I know I certainly can’t wait to see this fight. The preceding sentence is music to the ears of boxing promoters everywhere. This fight draws in the casual fan, and it’s the type of event that has been so sorely lacking in boxing for years—the teasing about this fight over the past 5 years hasn’t really helped, either.

But what of this notion that Pacquiao/Mayweather is the fight that will save boxing? If it hasn’t been framed as such yet, it undoubtedly will be. I know my pseudo-colleagues in the media well enough to know that someone will spin that which is so easily spun. (See this excellent story by Brando Starkey about the “death” of boxing.)

But it won’t.

It won’t save boxing anymore than the World Cup saves soccer every four years. And yes, if by some miracle you’ve read my story I wrote when I was in the throes of World Cup fever, know that on a certain level, it was just that. A passing hysteria, really, because as much trouble as I took to choose a team in the Premiership, and amid all of the thoughts that I now would become a more engaged soccer fan, I just, well, didn’t. The funny thing is, I’m pretty sure soccer is doing just fine without me.

This is really what I want to say about boxing: Mayweather vs. Pacquiao won’t save it because boxing is not dying. Here’s a quick story: I have slightly thin hair. But when people (rudely, I might add) ask me if I’m going bald, I tell them: It is thin, not thinning. Of course that’s usually after I slickly jab them with some razor-sharp wit. (Editor’s Note: That last part is a lie. It’s usually a recycled version of a yo-mama joke.).

But that’s just where boxing is now. It’s thin, but it’s not thinning. Pacquiao/Mayweather is a major event in a minor sport. It’ll be exciting and huge and it will make people wonder how we can make it like this always, but it just won’t be. And just because every event in boxing isn’t drop-dead amazing and grossing figures that makes Warren Buffett take notice from on top of his buffet-lined throne, doesn’t mean it’s dying, or even that it’s sick.

Be happy people. This is happening. But don’t look for some inherent flaw in the institution of boxing when it’s over and everyone goes back to their normal lives watching the Kardashians instead of the Klitschkos. Just keep punching people, and I’m sure everything will feel just as it should.

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Birdman

Musings on “Birdman”

It’s all I can do not to heave a wooden chair from the balcony of my 3rd floor apartment to see if, according to Edward Norton’s character in Birdman, it just isn’t high enough. “Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,” was annoyingly good. My one-sentence-twitter-age-viral review went a little something like this in my head: “Birdman is the highest peak in the mountain range of this generation of movies.”

The sheer breadth of themes and techniques covered in Birdman are made more astounding by how deftly the film structures all of them. The story can feel disjointed to a viewer expecting a more conventional plot; the film plays like a jazz suite at some moments, with deeper, more subtextual visual moments, abstract and surreal elements like the Riggan’s flight around Manhattan or the flaming meteor-like object that burns down through the frame in several scenes. The flowing jazz drum beats fit rather nicely into that narrative. But it never seems too pretentious or inaccessible, and maybe that’s a function of Keaton’s intensely mortal portrayal of the former superhero, Riggan Thomson.

And I am now convinced more than ever that contradiction, creating ambiguity in a film, and thereafter leaving viewers with decisions to make is one of the most important devices available in making art in this world of mass exposure. One of the primary conceits of the film is people wanting to be important and relevant; Keaton and Norton’s characters with the play; Emma Stone’s Sam Thomson with her relationship to her father; the entire viral media institution looking for that one moment to get eyes or clicks or views or whatever it is they look for; and where, I might ask, is anyone as important as they are inside their own head? There is nary a place. And so, as everyone who watches the film tries to figure out whether or not Riggan has super powers, or whether or not he killed himself, or tries to solve any of the other ambiguities built into the story, the writers can sit back knowing that they made people pour back over the scenes and events in their film. And even though the filmmakers playfully minimize the ego and self-worth of the human race as being worth no more than a single piece of toilet paper, harnessing that ego, reckoning with its flaws, is omnipresent throughout every possible level experience that the film presents, going even beyond the frame. They commanded that ego-driven attention in the minds of their viewers; and that, as Stone says, is power.

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THE NFL: GOODELL’S PLAYGROUND

I hate the leadership of the NFL. It’s our game, but it’s their playground. Roger Goodell was inexplicably vindicated today, and just should not have been. I hate to use forms of that word: “should.” Generally, I never presume to know better or to possess some higher moral knowledge than anyone else. Luckily for me, it does not take a righteous or penitent man to see the ugliness of the NFL’s leadership.

Let’s start first with the conclusions presented in the Mueller Report: unsurprisingly perhaps, no NFL officials knew the contents of the elevator video. That isn’t the troubling part. The troubling part is the way the report chose to handle the notion that someone, anyone in that office should have known. The gist of it is that the NFL probably could have done a bit more.

Let me attempt to put that in perspective. That’s like saying that the guy who drives out into a busy intersection “probably” could have stood to look both ways. It falls just disgustingly short of actually describing his responsibility in the matter. The report list things—simple, simple things—that could have, should have been done and, even if they ultimately yielded nothing, could have at very least shown that the NFL did something.

The NFL did nothing, and the fact is that besides a mighty yawp from some members of the media, no one in that office is truly accountable. Accountability by way of statements and press conferences is not true accountability. You cannot say you are accountable or responsible and magically have it be so. This, to me, exposes the true flaw in the leadership of the NFL.

Remember that press conference? The one where Goodell took responsibility? Where he said that he failed? That he didn’t do enough? That it starts with him? Here’s a question:

Think he took a paycut? Think he worked a few Saturdays extra? Do you think he did a wind sprint or two even? There were no consequences, save for, again, the outcry of a few media members. Sticks and stones, Goodell must think; words will never hurt him. And that’s true. Words will not have any actual impact on him, of this much I’m sure. But it works both ways:

Words like “I’m responsible.” Or “I failed” will never have any actual impact either.

The NFL’s leadership is utterly insulated by their own authority and the incredibly, wildly rich people that fund that authority.

It’s our game. But it is their playground.

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STU

A mistake I make too frequently in life is not taking note of the notable. I assume, in the moments when my consciousness is focused fully on something memorable, that even in subsequent moments I’ll remember the feeling I had and be able to hang on to it. Time moves me away from moments like that and yet I take actual, tangible, physical note of so little from them. But not today, not on a day that was so eminently notable, especially because it was marked by the passing of such an indescribably impactful person. Stuart Scott died today, so now, I’m taking note.

I’m taking note because, like so many of the people who had never met him, I am regrettably only now taking stock of what he meant to sports in our culture. In the days to come we will all begin to notice the idiosyncrasies in our personalities that were forged through countless evenings hearing his voice and seeing his face on Sportscenter. It’s difficult remember a world in which Stuart Scott was not at least somewhat present; but I never thought it would be as difficult to imagine such a world as it is now.

I watched Rich Eisen and Hannah Storm break fully away from their on-screen personas to share with us these incredible human moments—so stunning it was to watch them break news they had been crushed by only moments earlier, to see the love they had for Stuart in their eyes, and the pain they felt in losing him. And I looked into their eyes, and I listened to them, and though I could never feel exactly what they felt, the force that welled up inside of me, the power of it all, could only have been a testament to exactly who Stuart Scott was. He was ethereal and essential; a magnetic personality that just seemed to emanate from him effortlessly, and yet, at his core, he was solid heart. All of us out there who had never met him believed that about him, but Eisen and Storm and everyone who expressed their feelings about him hammered those beliefs into honest truth.

And I read every word that was written or spoken about him today. I watched every second of footage I could that was filmed in tribute to him. I watched and rewatched what he said at the ESPYs. And in the wake of such a sad and terrible and untimely and really devastating loss, my heart was full. I know that so many of us are sitting here thinking just how it could be that we could feel this way about losing someone we never knew. And I know we’ve seen the public mourn beloved figures so many times, but never known that it could feel the way it felt today. Stuart Scott showed me where my heart was today. He showed me by living in such a way that in the wake of his tragic passing, everyone who had a voice used them to express an amazing amount of both pain and love. And it was beautiful.

Stuart Scott, on the day he died and every day he lived before it, became more than a collection of quotes, or a symbol of bravery and love, or even a dearly missed and beloved sports figure, or friend, or father. His life, and the way he lived it, and the way it ended, became an indelible mark on the world.

Many have said that he didn’t lose his battle with cancer—we simply lost him. His words from the ESPYs have rung truer with every moment: today was simply his moment to rest, and to let all of us—regardless of whether or not we ever actually knew him—continue fighting, now with the love and strength that he showed us.

Rest in Peace Stuart Scott.

Seth Cohen, probably listening to Death Cab For Cutie, a band whose first song I ever heard was called "The New Year." Make sense now?

THE NEW YEAR

I haven’t been around too much in this space lately. Or at all, really. I’ve been scared; of writing, or failing at writing, of what it would be like if those aliens in the last Indiana Jones movie actually existed. Normal stuff. But I’m done with all of that. A new year is coming. It’s amazing the way we’ve created these spaces between periods of time; that somehow today is now and tomorrow is tomorrow but somehow this particular upcoming tomorrow will bring worlds of difference. It’s amazing because of course, at its core, the idea makes no sense; that’s why, for some people, New Years Eve is so anti-climactic. My sister used to close her eyes with five seconds left before midnight and say, “see you next year.” On the outside, nothing much really changes. We have to break the habit of writing down the previous year when we date things, but other than that and some confetti, nothing can change that drastically in five seconds.

Meanwhile, on the inside, everything can change. Even if you aren’t different. The new year is a microcosm of the reason why we have iphones and telescopes that look 60 million light years into space. We all want to change today. We all want to be better, or to do better, or even just to have better stuff happen to us. We’ve made tonight the ultimate night for hoping everything. Maybe that’s why, if you’re downtown in your city tonight, or out anywhere at all, you’ll see pretty much everyone that could possibly be in that place at that time. I’ve heard it called the universally human holiday. I’ve heard it called amateur night, which is one of my favorite descriptions (if you’re not smiling at that, you’re not imagining all of the people who find literally every excuse in the book to stay in every night finally relenting, and trying their very best to be real party animals. It can, it does, it will get ugly for some of them.).

So here is Hope Fest 2015, only I’m not waiting around to see if I’ll be a good writer again tomorrow. I’m ending 2014 the way I should have been spending it, writing something, anything, because regardless of if or when I do it well, it’s really the only thing I know how to do. This will be the year that I do do it.

And if you think I didn’t consciously just make a poop joke, the only person you’re kidding is yourself.

Lebron James; Or You Can Call Him “Al”

Why was he called "Al" again?

Why was he called “Al” again?

It’s time to get some thoughts down on Lebron James, here, in the wee hours before the decision that has built up like a tsunami finally breaks on the shore (or riverbank) of one lucky city. And a tsunami is the fitting choice of metaphor here; we looked out from the end of the Heat’s season and saw much calmer waters, after all. Just two weeks later, out from somewhere in the depths, a rogue wave seems ready to roll in and extinguish all of the fires that burnt James’ wine and gold jerseys four years ago (if you thought I wasn’t going for that potshot, you’re crazy).

The polarizing, attention-grabbing, seemingly narcissistic (though he’s said not a word) fracas surrounding the 2014 version of NBA free agency has been talked and written and speculated to death. It’s all been punctuated pretty hilariously by Mike Miller’s incredibly conspicuous placing of a #23 Cavaliers jersey in his home gym as he “lets one fly.” Yes, of course he was trying to mess with us, and to that end he deserves a Bush-esque “Mission Accomplished” banner. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t also foreshadowing Lebron’s likelier and likelier return to the Cavs.

I don’t think he knows anything. I think he hopes a whole hell of a lot of things. I also think, at this point, his hopes are fairly justifiable. So what now?

Well, in the me-centric world view that I enjoy visiting every once in a while, I like to think of the sports figures in my life as though they are here to help me get through the difficult times in life. We’re all the protagonists in our own stories anyways, right? Well in my story, Lebron has sort of been like Christopher Lloyd’s character Al in “Angels in the Outfield[1].” You all remember a fresh-faced Joseph Gordon-Leavitt and his guardian angel that helped the aptly named major league team from Anaheim make it all the way to the verge of the pennant; all so little Joseph could get his Dad back.

Lebron came to Miami four years ago and became the sports hero that I looked forward to watching in the Mays and Junes when I was (read: should have been) studying for law school finals. And since I get to draw my own connections between my life and the world of sports in this story, I get to look upon the 2014 NBA Finals as much more than simply “coinciding” with my graduation from law school. As great as making it out of law school was, it leaves me facing the real challenge: the Florida Bar.

And you remember the rule from the movie: the Angels had to win the pennant-clincher on their own. And maybe that’s what’s happening here. I’m going to face the Bar on my own.

So yea. Lebron is my Al. Is it a convenient rationalization for me to compare his time in Miami to a classic children’s film if he does decide to leave? Sure. But it’s my rationalization. What are sports if not just one more way to connect to the world, and to life, and make sense of our own experiences?

So Lebron, if you decide you’re headed back to Cleveland: Thanks. It was fun. No, it was more than fun. It was freaking divinely awesome. And if you decide to stick around?

I’m sure there’s some other rationalization I can come up with to fit that scenario, too.

Thanks, Al.

 

[1] Also featuring Danny Glover in his Lethal Weapon prime, the Tony Danza that Disney thought they were getting back when they made that Eagles field goal kicker movie, and a small but noticeable role from a young Matthew McConnaughey. If you haven’t seen it, you need to.

Admit It. You Like Soccer.

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That’s right. The jig is up America. We can no longer masquerade around as some outsider nation to the worldwide soccer phenomenon.  We’re no Brazil; it’s pretty unlikely that any widespread political unrest or urban violence will result if we are eliminated from the World Cup. But it’s safe to say that we like soccer here. A lot.

I know what you’re thinking, and yes, the fact that the stakes are impossibly high at the World Cup absolutely feeds the country’s interest in the sport. In America, we love the ultra-high level of competition in any sport; it’s why the WNBA struggles to find viewership, why the MLS routinely trails European soccer leagues in television audiences, and, of course, why nobody watches the Mets anymore.

 (Just kidding.)

 But there’s more to it than that.

And I know what you’ll say next, that it’s a chance to support the good ole’ US of A, a collection of moments that crystallizes the way sports can bring people, all people, together. It’s why one of the greatest sports films of all time was about the 1980 Miracle on Ice. It’s why we still remember Kerri Strug landing on one foot for a gold medal. It’s why we willfully forget the fact that a foreign company actually owns Budweiser.

But there’s more to it than that.

It’s in what we’ve seen on the field from our Men’s National Team these past few games. It was watching us play mediocre soccer for 80+ minutes and still pulling out a gritty victory against a confident Ghana squad. It was seeing the US severely outplay a Portugal team that was supposed to be the swinging scythe to Germany’s hooded figure in the Group of Death.  

It was the fact that we know what it’s like to watch us play well. Really well, in fact. It’s that we know what it’s like to see us score like a world-class team can.  And goals are the true addiction of soccer on any level; they are the results of lightning-like crescendos of passing and dribbling. It’s that electricity and rarity of the moment that soccer fans all over the world become junkies for. Don’t believe me? Type “USA Algeria Goal” into your browser’s search engine. What you’ll find is a video showcasing the sheer collective insanity that ensued after Landon Donovan buried a rebound in stoppage time to win the group.

It was a moment of more than pure, unadulterated joy; it was ecstasy, injected directly into our country’s sports jugular vein. And we loved every second of it. So much so that we will take off work, call in sick, close down the office, even stop freeway traffic like some apocalyptic movie scene, to see if we’ll get to experience another raucous, history-making moment.

So admit it. You like soccer. After all, they say that admitting it is the first step.

At least you’ve got everyone in America in your therapy group.

 

            

Redskin

By David Frantz

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We have heard, mostly in popular culture, notions of the so-called hive mindset of bees, wherein an entire population of bees functions with one conscience, one purpose, all centrally controlled by the Queen. Forgive the rudimentary nature of the science here; the accuracy of the notion is less important than its potential as an analogy for the way ideas course through society.

Take, for instance, the word Redskin, namesake of the Washington NFL team and a source of ongoing controversy in the seat of government in the U.S. as well as the seats of sports arenas across the country. Here, I guess Bob Costas is the Queen, as his monologue on one of NBC’s broadcasts of Sunday Night Football serves as a touching off point, not of the original conflict of course, but of the large-scale public awareness of the issue. Costas was incredibly matter-of-fact in his homily, exclaiming that “Redskin is a slur,” a conclusion only shoddily supported by real evidence.

It was that lack of evidence, namely that a large number of Native Americans were actually offended by the term, that led a federal appeals court to overturn a decision invalidating the cancellation of the Redskin’s trademark rights around 1999. There were a lot of consecutive words of negation in that last sentence, so allow me to simplify: In 1999, after a court cancelled the Redskin’s trademark for being offensive, a superior court reinstated the marks because they determined that the evidence presented showed too small a number of Native Americans that were offended by the term.

Easily ignored in the debate is this piece published by Slate.com, which presents the research of Ives Goddard, a Native American linguistic expert at the Smithsonian Institute. To summarize, Goddard controverts the fiction that the term originated as a slur with hard evidence, namely that the term was actually coined by Native Americans, among other revelations such as fabricated history about the word. I would be remiss if I did not also mention his assertion that the offensive nature of the word should be determined by modern feelings about it. But trotting out history in support of calling the term a slur is at best misguided, according to what scholarly peers have recognized as the “exhaustive” research of Goddard.

Goddard also mentions the mistreatment that the Oxford English Dictionary has afforded the term, labeling it offensive merely as an unfortunate result of violent U.S.-Native American relations over the past 300 years. But it is precisely at this point that more complex theories about perception and reality come into play; after all, if the argument is that the word is offensive because our veritable authority over the English language has called it offensive, how much of that has translated to truth in the present, even if it was baseless in the past? Commonly held notions, even ones that are demonstrably incorrect, can become prevalent enough in society that they become true; this is the hive-like function of society at work.

This sort of chain-reaction of public perception can almost render the true history of the term irrelevant, which is ironic considering the masses of anti-Redskins individuals who have been so eager to coopt history in opposing the usage of the term. But to go into a real analysis over whether the term has actually taken on the constructs of a slur within society would be to barge into an argument that is simply not for us “white people” to decide. After all, it’s only logical to gauge the offensiveness of a term based on whether or not the person the word represents is actually offended by it.

And so, by the same logic, it makes absolutely no sense for any person such as myself, who claims not a drop of Native American blood in my ancestry, to do anything but wait patiently on the sidelines while those actually contemplated by the word decide for themselves. It is not up to Bob Costas to proclaim that “Redskin is a slur” to a national television audience. It is not up to pundits or play-callers to advocate their own personal opinions on the word. It is, however, a symptom of our moralistic society that we tend to jump into the fray preemptively on issues like this, perhaps in part because speaking out on morality makes one feel, well, moral. But in our rushed crusade against injustice, I fear we have ignored what, and more specifically who, is really important here.

A friend of mine, with whom I have had impassionate debates about the subject, has always said one thing that I think no one could disagree with: If the name is truly offensive, it should be changed.

So, with our only real evidence to that point being the thoughts and feelings of Native Americans about the connotation of the word “Redskin” today, the one and only question is this:

How do they really feel?