Passing Fancy

Book discussed: The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football by S.C. Gwynne. Scribner, 2016. 308 pages.   Few sports innovations possess the magnitude of the forward pass in football. It saved lives. Between 1901 and 1905, sixty-one players died (by some accounts, even more) either on the field or because of injuries sustained on the field—usually the result of being crushed on the bottom of a pig pile. But just because a player survived being crushed to death, doesn’t mean he escaped unscathed: intra-pile eye gougings and bone breakings were commonplace. Rather than take the…

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Passed Out in Paradise

America takes drugs in psychic defense. –Iggy Pop, “Neon Forest”   Doug Schneider lives in Green Bay and only rarely attends Packers games. Instead, as “watchdog reporter” for the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Schneider monitors the games from some undisclosed location where he listens to the police scanner and posts what he hears on Twitter, using the hashtag #scannersquawk. Watching the Packers game and following Schneider’s tweets at the same time offers a fascinating glimpse at to what goes on inside Lambeau Field — not just on the field but in stands. As might be predicted, the police…

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“O Sport, You Are Peace!”*

As I watched the Opening Ceremonies of the Rio Games and saw how the Refugee Olympic Athletes (ROA)1 were promoted, I was reminded of a racist joke that I heard as a kid: Q: Why isn’t Mexico any good at the Olympics? A: Cuz anyone who can run, jump, or swim is already over here. Recalling this unfortunate, ignorant joke (and its awful syntax) made me think about the actual physical demands of migration and the strenuous effort, not to mention the considerable psychological resolve, that it takes to flee the place you call home—because your life is…

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Awkward Changeover

Novak Djokovic won the French Open on Sunday. In doing so, he not only completed the career Grand Slam, he also currently holds all four major trophies, which is some kind of Grand Slam even if it isn’t the calendar year Grand Slam (which hasn’t happened in men’s tennis since Rod Laver won all four majors in 1962 and 1969). And yet, this momentous victory for Djokovic feels somehow hollow because of two conspicuous absences at this year’s French Open. Injuries to both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal forced them to withdraw (Federer before it began, Nadal in…

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“We Won’t Get Used To It”

This was going to be easy to write: an essay about watching Barcelona FC in Barcelona. About a tepid soccer fan (me), who doesn’t really know or understand the game that well, watching one of the world’s most famous soccer clubs with its native fan base. Maybe I wouldn’t end up understanding the game any better, but perhaps I’d learn something about sports fandom, or about Barcelona the city, or about myself. The thing would practically write itself—I would just need to supply some idiosyncratic perhaps even humorous anecdotes from my experience. This isn’t what ended up happening.…

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Toxic Narratives

In 1991, a fifteen-year old me travelled with my cousin and my uncle, a freshman basketball coach, to the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) basketball semifinals and finals downstate, which is what those of us in the Upper Peninsula call the part of the state shaped like a mitten, the land masses joined by the Mackinac Bridge. This was kind of a big deal. Rarely has so much high school basketball talent existed in one state at one time. Chris Webber was one of the most highly recruited and highly touted high school basketball players of…

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The Pathology of Privilege

In a recent interview, Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver tried to come to grips with his disappointing team, which, at the time of the interview, had lost nine consecutive games and fired two of its assistant coaches (while retaining head coach Jeff Hornacek). Yet, for Sarver, the problem had less to with basketball X’s and O’s or lack of talent and more to do with what he perceives as a generational weakness: I’m not sure it’s just the NBA. My whole view of the millennial culture is that they have a tough time dealing with setbacks, and…

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Monday Morning Melancholy

Last month, former New York Giants great Frank Gifford passed away at the age of 84. Amid the obituaries and remembrances of Gifford’s football career, his broadcasting career, and his stint as tabloid fodder were fond recollections of one of the last remaining figures from the golden era of Manhattan nightlife, when athletes and celebrities frequented famed hotspots like Toots Shor’s and the 21 Club. Gifford’s passing also prompted reminiscences of the literary work that he inspired, Frederick Exley’s 1968 “fictional memoir,” A Fan’s Notes, which, although a modest seller the time, became a cult classic, spawning…

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Passing the Buck

The press release announcing the new uniforms for the Milwaukee Bucks explains the significance of the shade of blue that wraps around the inside collar of the jersey: “The inside of the collar features a blue stripe, representative of the blue collar work ethic of not only the Bucks, but also of the city and state that the team proudly represents.” And indeed, perhaps no state has become more synonymous with the working class (and its struggles) than Wisconsin, which passed one of the nation’s first workers compensation laws in 1932 and was the first state to allow public employees to form…

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Big Data Meets the NBA

A little over a month ago, Charles Barkley went on a tirade about NBA analytics. He called analytics a creation by “nerds,” “who ain’t never played the game” and “who never got the girl in high school.” The attack combined just about all the rhetorical fallacies you can reasonably imagine—ad hominem attacks, straw men, petty name-calling—into a four-minute speech. Sports media swiftly attacked Barkley’s rant for being “completely useless” and Barkley himself for being an “idiot.” His argument, the nerds said, was yet another instance of a former player not understanding or wanting to understand the more complex statistical…

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