Celebrate the Small Victories

I’ve often thought we should treat academics a little more like athletics and last night watching the National League Playoffs reinforced that idea. I’ve been conferencing with my first year composition students on their second essays. Three days of repeating concepts I’ve been discussing for 2 months makes me question my teaching ability (and my sanity), but I like to meet with the students to individualize the comments. Here, I might say, is a spot you need to work on. We can talk through a process that might work for each student.

Meeting one on one, though, also lets me point to small successes (and sometimes they are very small, mind you), but these little victories are easy for students to overlook when they get focused on the final result. We’ve trained them, it seems, to focus on the end result at the expense of the small tasks that get us to the finish line.

As the Giants stormed the field after Travis Ishikawa’s walk off home run last night, we could see the unbridled enthusiasm of a job well done, but we saw that same excitement throughout the game. Every time a player performed the crowd celebrated in the moment. The tension was palpable even in my living room 2000 miles away and every single play mattered. Imagine, I thought to myself, if my first year composition students could generate such enthusiasm every time they wrote an insightful thesis sentence or a well-developed paragraph instead of being obsessed with the final grade.

We see this celebration week after week in sports. Football players chest bump after a hard hit, soccer players high five after a great pass, baseball players tip their caps after a diving catch–Imagine how different sports might be if we waited until the end of the season to celebrate these moments. Last night’s crowd would only cheer after the game when we found out if that diving catch in the second inning helped the Giants win. Instead, we celebrate in the moment not months later after we have a chance to average out the plays to see if they players made progress, find out if they were consistent, or see if they can perform some routine plays in a high stakes tryout. Sure, we might say to Adam Wainwright, you threw strikes all year, but we need to test you one more time to make sure the previous 25 starts weren’t a fluke.

I’m sure I’ve blogged about this idea before, and Bill James, in his Slate article “Verlander and Shakespeare” makes a similar argument, wondering why we are so good at producing athletes yet so bad at producing writers. He argues we should begin identifying writing talent earlier and creating opportunities for those kids to earn money and receive recognition quicker. Doing so would create competitive advantages for kids and, he implies, help us see writing as something worth developing. In essence, we should, James argues, begin treating elite writers the way we treat elite athletes.

There’s a lot to like about James’ argument and I’m always amazed how shy we are in our schools about celebrating superior writing and other academic achievements. Understand that I’m not talking about overall, long term academic achievement. We have dean’s lists and honor societies. Schools have banquets at the end of the year celebrating top 10 percent students and other academic achievements. These are often formal, sophisticated affairs where we treat academic achievement with a kind of gravitas we think lends it importance. Polite clapping isn’t exactly infectious enthusiasm.

Grades and academics are, we seem to say, above emotion, as if somehow and for some reason intellectual achievement is devoid of passion. More importantly, as James points out, we celebrate academic achievement after the fact with end of the year awards or recognition at graduation. Delayed gratification that leads to apathetic dissatisfaction.

I recognize the larger cultural context and the stereotypes. I can’t tell you how frustrated I get when people assume a smart kid is athletically inferior or an elite athlete lacks intelligence. Athletes and their supporters who mock non-athletes with superior (and often threatening) comments annoy me to no end, but I’m just as frustrated by intellectuals who refuse to recognize the value of athletics within the larger cultural pantheon of human identity. Sports matter and I have little patience for those who dismiss athletics (and athletes) as irrelevant simply because we celebrate their success more than we deify great writers or brilliant mathematicians. Intelligence and athletic ability aren’t mutually exclusive.

Don’t get me wrong. Rewarding long-term achievement and consistent academic excellence is great. Straight A students have proven they value the life of the mind and they have the discipline to work for excellence. They are the little mini-Derek Jeters of the academic world and we owe them our respect and sometimes understated, sophisticated humility befits the serious life of the mind.

But, we also need to let our bacchanal tendencies out of their cage a little more often in the classroom. It’s time for us to stop shying away from their daily intellectual successes and begin celebrating more like athletes.

Yes, in case you were wondering, I’m talking about pen flips after we turn a phrase, fist pumps when students ace that test, and even end zone dances when you know you’ve nailed that lecture on T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”

“Booyah! The l=2w + 3, biotch! Come back when you have some real algebra questions.” Spike the pencil to the ground and strut out of the room.

“I got your rhetorical devices right here! Let me know when you have topic where I have to be critical and think, cuz right now you’re just embarrassing yourself.” Flip the pen and high five the class as you go out the door.

I’m not talking about a Tiger Woods fist pump for turning in papers or putting names on the paper. We don’t chest bump just because the off road bike rider follows the trail to the end or when the volleyball player stays in the proper rotation. We celebrate beating the time trial for that section or earning the point that serve.

Passionately recognizing success isn’t about rewarding people for doing the ordinary. Do average work, and you don’t get the victory hug.

But maybe, just maybe, we need to start spiking the chalk after an insightful comment and pumping our fists when the numbers all fall into place during class. After all, if it’s okay for the baseball player, it should be okay for the scientist too.

Biting the Hand that Feeds You

Every time I hear rich guys say racist and ignorant things, my first thought is never sympathy for the victims of hateful speech, the social impact, or even the implications regarding free speech.

Mostly, I sit and wonder how someone who is such a dunce can get so stinking rich while I struggle every month to pay my mortgage.

Our latest entrant into the Hall of Shame is Donald Sterling, a man whose comments sound eerily similar to Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, another man who used his media fame to wax philosophical about “the Negro.” (Those are Mr. Bundy’s words, not mine.) Bundy, a man who wonders if “they were better off as slaves,” evidently felt confident his anti-government views would keep his supporters firmly behind him.

As often happens when people make idiots of themselves on the public stage, we are confronted with the implications of free speech. In these situations, however, we should be reminded that the beauty of America is, and this is really important, that we all have a Constitutional right to say anything stupid and ignorant we want. Prejudice is not illegal in this country, and, as we all learned in Sociology 101, prejudice and discrimination are two very different things. One is illegal and one is not.

Likewise, though, each of us also has the Constitutional right to suffer the consequences of a culture growing increasingly tired of old prejudices that preach hatred and degradation couched in mis-readings of religion and politics.

Bundy is sliding back into obscurity and losing support because a desire for small government transcends race and ethnicity. (It doesn’t help that we quickly found out he has been breaking the law for many, many years. Nothing like a man feeding his cows for free on government land who complains about people living for cheap in government houses. Some days it’s hard to tell the makers from the takers, isn’t it?)

Which brings us to Mr. Sterling, a man who built his wealth as a divorce and personal injury lawyer. Sterling, described once as one of the worst owners in the NBA, was today fined $2.5 million and banned from the NBA for life. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has vowed to take steps to force Sterling to sell the Clippers.

Everyone seems to be on board. There is, almost, a collective sigh of relief from the NBA world as we can turn our attention back to the playoffs.

Case closed. Another ugly moment swept under the rug and locked in the closet.

I state emphatically that I find Sterling’s comments reprehensible and disgusting (as well as incredibly stupid since he has gone out of his way to offend the very group of people who line his pockets with ridiculous amounts of wealth).

I ask again–why is he rich and I’m not?

I recognize that the LA Clippers are a part of the National Basketball Association and that Association has a Board of Governors and a set of rules by which they play. Silver and the Board are well within their rights, I’m sure, to ban Sterling from taking part in NBA activities in much the same way that any organization with by-laws has the right to hold members to certain agreed upon standards. I would imagine that the NBA, an organization whose players are 70% African-American, has something in its by-laws that states or implies being a racist is both stupid and costly. At the very least, I would guess they can fine him for behavior detrimental to the league, and I totally support such a thing.

But I’m not sure this case is that simple.

If I voluntarily join a group and I don’t follow the rules, I face the consequences of those acts. Heck, if I don’t like the rules I can go start a blog and share my thoughts independently of the by-laws I don’t like. My free speech is intact and the group gets to maintain its autonomous identity.

Sterling owns the LA Clippers, a business that is part of the NBA but not owned by the NBA. The NBA as an association can distance itself from Sterling, they can fine Sterling, and, in theory, they can kick the Clippers out of the NBA for not following its by-laws.

At the end of the day, though, Sterling’s business ownership is independent of his membership. Understand that I recognize the distinction I’m making here is philosophical and semantic. If the NBA boots the Clippers out of the league, they are effectively ending Sterling’s ownership because his business will likely have no venue with which to earn money. What are they going to do–play pick up games for tips at White Power Rallies?

The distinction, though, between fining, banning, and forcing someone to sell is important. The NBA can’t be in the business of revoking ownership when its members say and do distasteful things. Punishments and fines are one thing. Banning an owner from participating in the governance structure of an organization he has voluntarily joined is fine. He did, after all, know the rules and by-laws.

What the NBA is attempting to do, though, would be akin to the Better Business Bureau banning a local business and then forcing the owner to sell because he doesn’t want to join and play by their rules. Isn’t that a little bit like offering to protect a business and then burning them down if they don’t pay?

Forcing him to sell his privately owned company because we don’t like what he says moves beyond enforcing by-laws and begins to attack the very foundations of the capitalistic enterprise upon which we have, in theory, built our great nation. There is no evidence that Sterling broke the law regarding discriminatory hiring practices and there is no real evidence he has done anything illegal that would disqualify him from owning the business called the LA Clippers.

In much the same way that Sterling has the right to speak out regarding his views on race, and in much the same way that the NBA has a right to punish a member of its Association, Sterling has a right to run his company as he sees fit within the laws of our country.

He can, simply put, choose to run that company outside the NBA. Sponsors can then choose to support or not support him. Workers can choose to play on his team or not work on his team. Fans can choose to attend games or not. His business might fail, but that is his choice and his right. Any other option reeks of monopolistic control not just of a product (basketball) but also stinks of creating a litmus test for business ownership.

Sterling has very right to own his team and disengage from the NBA. He could go form his own association of Extraordinary Idiots Who Believe Stupid Things. Maybe Cliven Bundy can get a team together and join the league.

Of course, no one would be stupid enough to follow that business model. That would be like telling your girlfriend to stop bringing black people to basketball games.

A Night on the Town By Ourselves

I really don’t like Dallas. It’s nothing personal, though, because I’m not a big fan of Texas’ other cities, either.

My wife gave me and my two sons Mavericks versus Clippers tickets as a Christmas present so we could have a “guys’ weekend.” When we ordered the tickets, she told me “Maybe you guys could do this every year” and I could almost see the parenthetical (because then I can control the remote for 24 hours). My wife loves to travel and she loves her boys, but there’s enough gas in a middle-aged, slightly out of shape man and two teenage boys to give America energy independence if we just knew how to harness the power. I feel certain she’s at home with the windows open and Sleepless in Seattle on a continuous loop on the t.v.

It’s a win/win for everyone.

We booked a room within walking distance of American Airlines Arena in the historic West End. The Springhill Suites off North Lamar is a quiet, serviceable hotel with nice spacious rooms. I can’t speak for the full buffet breakfast yet but the coffee is decent.

The problem with Dallas isn’t the truly awful traffic, made worse by the least helpful road signs and exit notifications in the country, but the way the city is spread across miles and miles of space. Houston, San Antonio, and Austin, in many ways, suffers the same emphasis on suburban development. All three cities are simply hubs for the residential areas that surround them and none of them have any kind of public transportation system.

The problem is, I think, most clearly symbolized in the placement of major sports venues. While our hotel is a 12 minute walk from American Airlines Arena, we are a 30 minute drive (if traffic is okay) from the Dallas Cowboys $1.2 billion facility and Rangers Ballpark. Last night, Dallas had two winning basketball teams playing and the Cotton Bowl, a game with 80,000 fans packing the stadium to watch a very exciting game between Missouri and Oklahoma State.

Yet, when my two boys and I went out to eat, we walked across the street into Ellen’s Southern Kitchen. It’s Friday night in the historic West End, five blocks from Dealey plaza with two major sporting events in town and we walked in, sat down, and finished our meal 45 minutes later. No wait, no fuss, no rush.

Don’t get me wrong. It was nice, but it was also a little depressing. The excitement of going to a sporting event is the critical mass of people cheering and connecting within the moment. When Blake Griffin, Deandre Jordan, or Dirk Nowitzki make a great play, the entire crowd cheers (or groans, depending on the score). Colleges subsidize sports programs and cities utilize taxes to build stadiums to both help draw people to their campus or city, but also in order to create that intangible, difficult to measure emotional connection to place.

Sports, like churches, marriages, and family reunions, give us a chance to be part of something bigger than ourselves and, as disturbing as many people might find the claim, sports engenders a loyalty that supersedes almost every other community. Later today, 85,000 people will pile into Lombardi Field in almost sub-zero temperatures to watch the Green Bay Packers play a football game. I doubt most people would suffer through such conditions to listen to the minister talk about Paul’s Letters to the Romans and if you would do that for a family reunion, your Aunt Suzie’s fruit salad must be pretty damn tasty or you have better looking cousins than the rest of us.

And, let’s be honest, when you cheer for the Packers (or Cowboys/49ers/etc) no one cares about your sexual orientation, who you voted for, or your stance on the Affordable Care Act.

About five years ago, my family and I went to a Yankees game. I hate the Yankees, but riding the subway with thousands of strangers and then walking down the street, heading into the ballpark was, to use the easy cliche, electric. Two years ago, I was in Atlanta riding the wave of fans heading into a Georgia Tech/Clemson football game. Seattle has both its baseball and football stadiums next door to each other, allowing bars, restaurants and street vendors to line the curbs. Even Detroit, the largest bankrupt city in America, had enough sense to build their football, baseball, and basketball arenas within walking distance of each other. These cities help create a kind of carnival atmosphere that helps its fans form an emotional bond and develop an irrational loyalty as a community.

Last night in Dallas, fans drove in, had fun, and drove off. There was no large communal moment in the streets, in the bars, or even in the hotel hallways. There was no sustained emotional connection drawing strangers together because all the venues are so far apart and disconnected from the city itself.

My sons and I have had a great time. The Mavericks lost, but we saw some exciting basketball and some acrobatic dunks. Ellen’s Southern Kitchen is worth a dinner date. My younger son had the Big Ole’ Breakfast (eggs, bacon, sausage, biscuits and gravy and “the best hash browns ever” he told us). The older boy, suffering from a head cold, had the blackened catfish that looked delicious and with enough spice for him to actually taste and just enough so it didn’t taste like fish. My prime meatloaf was loaded with crispy onions, red, and green peppers. Too often, meatloaf can be too moist and the vegetables get hidden by tomato sauce, but at Ellen’s they pour just a little pan gravy on the top. Dipped in the mashed potatoes, each bite allowed four different, complementary flavors to mingle and linger on the tongue. Even better were the green beans sauteed in bacon and tomatoes. I think even the most hardcore carnivore would eat those vegetables.

I can imagine turning a Mavericks game into a family tradition for the Wegner men. American Airlines Arena is a nice venue and there is a balletic quality to 7 foot men running the court and leaping through the air in what should be physically impossible things to do. But, I kind of hope next year we have to wait longer before we eat and there’s a little more chaos in the streets after the game.

Hustle Beats Talent Unless Talent Hustles

One of the things I love about Washington Nationals outfielder  Bryce Harper is his hustle. Like Pete Rose, Carl Yastrzemski, Craig Biggio, and other great ball players from the past, Harper plays the game at 100 miles an hour, recognizing that his talent and the privilege of wearing a big league uniform carries certain responsibilities.

I’m not a professional coach and I don’t even play one on t.v. but I have coached various baseball teams and given private lessons off and on for about 10 years. When I talk to kids about the game at the beginning of the season, Harper is exactly the kind of player I talk about not, I tell them, because he’s talented with gifts most of us dream about, but because he recognizes that hustle beats talent unless talent hustles.

The goal, I tell the kids I coach, is to play the game to the best of your ability. But, and I try hard to avoid looking at that one kid who can’t (as my dad used to say) hit his butt with both hands, some of us aren’t very good. We can get better if we work hard, but that takes practice and time. And more practice. And more time. For some of you, I do look at them now, you won’t get better until next year. Or the year after. And some of you might want to start practicing the trumpet. Or the oboe. Or your writing. Or walking and chewing gum at the same time. (I don’t really say that last one but it’s tempting.)

But the one thing that doesn’t take time or practice is hustle. Every kid, every coach, every person can work hard on every pitch and we can always give 100%. You might strike out or make an error but I will never get mad if you are trying as hard as you can.

But you have to remember that you play like you practice. Life isn’t filled with important at bats and crucial pitches every day but the people who succeed are the ones who prepare and practice for that moment when things matter the most.  They put themselves in a position to succeed.

This, I say in my wisest voice, is a lesson you can take with you anywhere. You might not be a math whiz or have a facility with language, but nothing stops you from working hard and getting better. You might not ever be Einstein of Joan Didion, but you can avoid being Lloyd Christmas or Frank Drebin (they completely miss the references of course).

We have been lucky in our house that both our sons have taken this speech to heart. It’s possible, of course, that their primary goal is to simply avoid hearing me drone on and on and they realize hustling beats dad’s lecture but who cares, right? As a parent, I don’t usually care why they do something right, I’m just happy to take credit for it.

It’s also true that I stopped coaching my son about two years ago. Don’t get me wrong–I’m still there with the free advice and (despite what he might think) I still know more about baseball than him, but I also recognize that part of growing as an athlete is learning how to be coachable.

Good athletes, I tell him, have to be confident enough to know they will succeed but humble enough to listen to coaches teach them how to play.

Teenagers, though (or at least my teenage sons), find it hard to be humble enough to listen to dad. So I’ve pawned him off on someone else.

Either way, our boys have a great work ethic (unless it involves household chores) and I’ve never had to remind them to work hard in practice.

I also know, from my years working with 8-16 year old baseball players that most of the kids stopped listening to my opening practice speech sometime after I said Bryce and before I finished Harper.

But kids do learn by doing.

I finish my beginning of the year speech about practice by telling the kids that we will work on skills and we will practice hard. We will hustle and do everything we do with intensity because (if they have been listening) doing so in practice ensures they will do so in a game.

If we don’t, we will run or do work on our core. But I assure them, whatever we do won’t be very much fun. (I do hold out the carrot, also. Working hard might earn a wiffle ball game or hitting water balloons one practice.)

And I’m a man of my word. The first time someone stops hustling in practice, everything stops and the lesson begins. We might not get better but my players always get in shape.

And now that I have their attention, I remind them that no matter how good they might be, someone out there is better. And working hard. Because he knows that hustle beats talent unless talent hustles.

It’s Never Just a Game

My son and I watched the Miami Heat lose last night, ending their winning streak at 27 games. I think we were both disappointed, even though neither one of us are really Heat fans. For my son, I think he recognized a missed opportunity. The Heat were 5 wins away from breaking a pretty amazing team record. I’ll admit that I was hoping they would hold the streak and then lose to the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday.

While sports commentators do have a tendency to get a tad melodramatic (Dick Vitale never met an adjective he wasn’t ready to use), one of the guys on the post-game show wondered if this was a game that transcended the season. Fans, he noted, will remember where they were this night. At first glance, such a claim seems silly. After all, yesterday the Supreme Court heard arguments regarding the most important civil rights issue of our time. North Korea is aiming war heads at Hawaii. Simply put, I’m guessing everyone out there can list 10 things more important than the Miami Heat’s winning streak. (Well, everyone but the Miami Heat.)

But, I’m not so sure the guy’s claim on ESPN is necessarily off base.

I can remember watching Pete Rose break Ty Cobb’s hit records and sitting through the entire Baltimore Orioles game so I could watch Cal Ripken, Jr. take a victory lap celebrating his consecutive game streak. Heck, I even tuned in when the Connecticut women’s basketball team won their 89th game a few years ago. I don’t really remember anything about the game, but I do remember that feeling of empathetic happiness as I watched them celebrate.

There are times, it seems to me, when some games and sporting events do transcend the season and capture the world stage. Last night’s game is fodder for conversations around the water cooler.

Even so, it’s never really surprising to me when I run into people who don’t like sports. I’m not shocked if people didn’t watch the game last night, and I certainly recognize that there are millions of people who don’t care that the Heat missed out on the record.

But it is always surprising when I run into people who are dismissive or hostile to sports. At a meeting this morning, one of my colleagues offered a spirited (and relatively aggressive) dismissal of ESPN, college sports, and wondered, quite frankly, why people waste their time on sports. Geez, I thought, I don’t like opera but I don’t think it’s a waste of time for those who do.

I also, though, get a bit peeved at people who are so dismissive of sports.

In 2010, an estimated 91 million Americans watched the Super Bowl. By comparison, the 2010 mid-term elections, with a higher than normal voter turnout, had 90 million voters. On any given fall weekend at the University of Michigan, U of Tennessee, U of Texas, and other major universities, 70,000 to 100,000 people march into stadiums to watch college football. And that’s just football. NASCAR races routinely draw 100,000 ticket buyers and baseball draws around 75 million over the course of the year. Add in basketball, soccer, hockey, and other professional sports and it’s not hard to imagine that sports saturates American culture. Consider that every major newspaper has a sports section. ESPN runs 24-hours a day with sports news alone, and Fox has regional sports outlets across the nation.

There is a reason we use sports metaphors to describe politics; not political metaphors to describe sports. Quite simply: sports has become America’s religion and sports figures serve as our mythological heroes, and, at times, our sacrificial goats.

It is easy to wax philosophically about sports, moving athletes into the pantheon of greatness and immortality. But, we do a disservice if we forget the practical and social importance of the way games impact American culture. Kevin Grace, University of Cincinnati archivist, notes that early American immigrants saw sports as “socializing force, an ‘Americanizing’ force.’” Understanding sports became a part of the fabric of the American tapestry for early immigrants. Sports offered a sign of American prosperity and American democracy. Men, women, children left work or school for three hours in the middle of the day to watch baseball; colleges battled for supremacy on the grid iron; and by the mid 1930s, nations battled for ideologies at the Olympics. For Americans, sports united us in our loyalty to our country and bound us to our communities. Athletes became our heroes, epitomizing the American dream and creating ritualized events that captured our imaginations.

Sports offer the illusion that order is possible, a momentary stay from the confusion of daily life. The playground movement begins in the early 20th century, coinciding with the rise in participation in sports. Early street ball games slowly moved to sandlots and play grounds. This participation fed a desire to escape the everyday drudgery of city life, a need to return to pastoral settings to express oneself. In a country where different traditions and different cultures were clashing, sports offered rules that transcended those cultural differences: Catholics, Protestants, Whites, Blacks—everyone got the same number of pitches and the base paths stayed the same.

It might be “just a game,” I want to tell my colleague, but sports in America represents the best and, at times, the worst our culture has to offer. In times of trouble, a nation might wonder “where have you gone Joe Dimaggio,” searching for the solidity and poetry that is sports. We watch as sports erects barriers and then breaks them down; we witness the triumph and tragedy on television, at the local YMCA, and in little leagues. Most important, sports in America gives us the chance to witness: to see and recount, to tell a story. In the telling and in the seeing, we bind ourselves in our shared culture.

And that strikes me as pretty darn important.


Root, Root, Root for the Home Team–Or Else!

click to view George Carlin on sports

Over the course of late October and early November, I’ve spent various weekends at NCAA sponsored meetings as the faculty athletic representative. One of the notable elements of the American higher education system is, in fact, the way in which we link sports and university affiliation. As many college presidents will tell you, their athletic programs, in particular football and basketball, take up 2% of their time, 2% of their budget, but generate 80% of their publicity.

This is an easy thing to criticize from the outside. We struggle both inside universities and outside with the notion of the “student-athlete.” These are kids whose athletic ability opens educational doors.

More important, though, is the way college sports, at both major universities and at smaller schools, creates community and bonds people together. On any given Saturday in the fall, 100,000 people will fill the stadium to watch the University of Michigan play anyone. The NCAA basketball tournament in March generates billions of dollars for NCAA schools. In fact, and a little known one at that, the basketball tournament generates almost the entire NCAA budget. All those football bowl games generate revenue for the bowls and the teams.

But the sports fanaticism isn’t unique to American culture or universities. Jerry Jones built a palace in Arlington for $1.2 billion so the Cowboys could win half their games and the city of Arlington pitched in $360 million. Countries vie to host the Olympics so they can spend around $40 million. The jury is still out whether those investments pay off economically.

But they aren’t necessarily meant to pay off financially. In the NCAA, only about 15-20 schools have athletic programs that operate in the black. Yes, you read that correctly. For every University of Texas and Ohio State, there are hundreds of college athletic programs losing money. Last time I checked, though, I haven’t heard anyone cutting their football or basketball teams.

We are often identified by our affiliation and, whether we like it or not, more people watch the Super Bowl than vote. (Then again, the Super Bowl has a half time show. Maybe the presidential election should follow suit.) Sports has historically bound communities and nations together. We might vote for different parties, but when Real Madrid plays, or when Usain Bolt runs, we are all Spanish or Jamaican. (Unless you aren’t Spanish or Jamaican.)

Sports and athletic contests abound across the world culture. The European Association Football Leagues (that’s soccer to my fellow Americans) averages around 11-13 million fans a year in five different leagues. That’s 11-13 million times 5. American football (that’s the one where they try to kill each other every Sunday) only totals about 17 million fans per year.

And each week, fans live and die with their teams. Quite honestly, there’s little in life more fun than being in an Irish Pub during a World Cup match, especially if Ireland is winning. Drinks flow freely! But I would hate to be in Scotland or England should their teams lose. These “hooligans” riot and take to the streets. Their violent outbursts are rivaled only by American footballs fans who, periodically, go on burning sprees after a victory or loss by the home team. Fans become belligerent in cities across the world. 

These crazy people are our neighbors (or perhaps ourselves) who lead normal, productive daily lives, but each week they turn into fundamentalists whose moods are tied to various men (or women) whose exploits help define our cultural expectations for excellence. Athletes and the home team, quite simply, bind us to a community with shared interests.

This past summer, my family and I attended 6 major league baseball games in 14 days. Beyond the beer and hot dogs (Minneapolis has the best dogs, but Chicago has the best beer. Texas had the best game.), we see people with shared interests come together to support (and occasionally boo) grown men as they try to perform feats most of us can only dream about. Our expectations are part envy and part desire. When my home team wins, my choices are validated, but more importantly, my place gains prestige.

For a good long while, sports has replaced the sacrificial battles of the past. We’ve created, justly so, symbolic contests to test the will of our best and brightest. Like epic heroes of old, these men women are our ideals. When they win, our ideals win. When they lose, a little piece of us recognizes that our choice, our identity, might not be the best.

When I talk with my students about culture, I always ask them to look around as they try and understand a place. What do we see and how does that indicate value? Churches, streets, schools, bars, sports stadiums, businesses: If you landed in Arlington, I might ask, or Houston, Madrid, Mexico City, or any major city, what are the biggest buildings? Which ones hold the most people? It’s a softball question, isn’t it?

I’m no fan of violence (especially if I’m the victim), but I understand where it comes from. Sports, world-wide, offers us the opportunity to vicariously tap into our base, elemental physical humanity. I once interviewed the great sports writer Frank Deford and someone asked him why we are so adamantly opposed to steroids in sports. We have no such compunction about our policemen, firefighters, and military personnel. Deford told us that the steroids taint the human achievement. Great athleticism is like great art, Deford noted. Watch Michael Jordan fly through the air, Peyton Manning throw a football, Usain Bolt run, or Mary Lou Rhetton flip and you can see some of the best humanity can produce.

There’s our passion: sports offers us hope for humanity. Our emotions ebb and flow not because of the wins and losses, but because the wins and losses represent something about ourselves and our identity. Our teams, our home team, binds us together and gives us a shared sense of purpose with those who attend our classes, go to our church, or shop in the same stores. You might say tomato and I might say tomatah, but on Sunday, we all root, root, root for the home team.

As Dull as the Cowboys’ Offense

One of the best student papers I’ve ever graded was written by a young man at the University of North Texas who wrote about his abiding love, and occasional hatred, of the Dallas Cowboys. His was one of a trio of papers that semester that restored my faith (long sense in decline again) in freshman as intelligent human beings. The other two papers, one about film soundtracks and one about why women’s lingerie should always match (not as titillating as you might think), each earned an A, a feat that hasn’t happened since.

But the paper that really stands out (probably because the lingerie paper didn’t include photos) was the paper about the Cowboys. I’m reminded of his essay just about every Sunday during football season as my mood rises and falls each time Tony Romo drops back to pass–I’m just hoping he hits the right colored jersey.

The young man’s paper detailed his entire family’s Sunday rituals: Cowboys cereal bowls and coffee mugs, dad’s Cowboys tie, anxious glances at the Cowboys wrist watch as the minister droned on (he wrote that his family almost converted to Catholicism at one point so they could start going to Saturday mass), grey truck with blue seats–you get the picture. The first time I saw Dallas Cowboys toilet paper, I realize his is the family that would buy such a thing. When the ‘Boys win, it sits proudly on the shelf: when they lose, I’m sure there’s a strange satisfaction in putting it to its proper use.

I thought of the essay again yesterday afternoon as I drove toward Dallas. The Cowboys started at noon and I stuck around the house for the first quarter, but the drive loomed. Fortunately, the Cowboy’s play by play radio guys are great and coverage rolls throughout Texas. Except just outside Weatherford. As overtime started. I hit one of these dead spots where you lose radio service and phone service–the bermuda triangle of audio waves. In his essay, the young man wrote about his pain after a particularly hard fought Super Bowl loss. He pulled out his Dallas Cowboys pocket knife, flicked it open, prepared to slice his pennant to shreds. He soon realized the futility: the knife, bought when he was nine, was as dull as the Cowboys’ offense that day.

On my drive, the last thing I hear is the Cowboy’s driving toward the end zone, at the 9 yard line, ready for a field goal attempt to tie the game. And then it’s white noise, barely audible over my pained cursing. I can only imagine drivers passing me to the left, slowly edging away at 75 miles an hour, as they watch me bang on the wheel and push the seek button on the radio. Over. And Over. Because we all know that if you push it hard enough while cussing loudly it’s bound to work. Eventually.

Thirty-five minutes later, 5 miles outside Weatherford, I finally pick up the start of Cowboy’s post-game. And I know exactly how that young writer felt. “About all you can say,” the announcer begins, “is that at least they won. It was, in my memory, the best game between two bad teams we’ll see all year.” And you missed, I imagine them adding just for my benefit.

But I’m relieved nonetheless. The sun shines a bit brighter Monday morning and time heals the wounded soul whose post-game reaction, and over-reaction, dissects all the reasons the Cowboys were lucky.

After a Cowboys’ loss, it’s easy to declare them done, to vow never again will I waste three hours, and wonder when the Texans play. But sports fans have short memories and on Wed, I sneak a peak at the schedule, read the scouting reports, and make sure  the coffee mug is clean.

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

NYT > U.S. > Politics

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Dilbert Daily Strip

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)