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.

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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.

If We Televise Poker, Why Don’t We Televise Writing?

Click to view Bowling for Soup video

With a high school son playing baseball, we’ve recently felt compelled to join the booster club. If you are like me, just the mere thought of such a thing sends chills down the spine. A few years ago, I was president of our little league. We worked on fundraisers, fields, coaching clinics, and we worked to create a fun and competitive environment for baseball players.

But, mostly, I refereed political disputes, egos, and tried to put out little fires before they engulfed the league. The first month on the job I had to kick out an umpire who had been accused of child molestation. By his ex-wife. Who I also had to remove from volunteering. And then there was the concession stand volunteer who was a convicted embezzler. Fun times.

I had this vision of the booster club as a kind of little league on steroids driven by football, football, football, and maybe a few other sports. I’m sure that there are booster clubs out there that are, in fact, train wrecks filled with egos and uneven preferential treatment. Fortunately, our’s is, actually, pretty darn fair. While football does get the largest amount (justly so considering it is the sport that generates the most money and interest), our booster club does a pretty equitable job of distributing the funds we raise.

And raise money we do. Always. Constantly. Beef jerky, t-shirts, caps, tamales, bows, ribbons–if you can slap a logo on it, we are by god willing to sell it. (Fortunately, we don’t do that cookie dough thing like the younger grades.) The selling is, strangely enough, relatively easy. When you approach someone with a t-shirt that says football,  baseball, or basketball with the school’s logo, they will buy it. Certainly, school pride and community pride play a role, but I’m convinced people are willing to pony up the money because they can see a direct, tangible result. If you buy these shirts, we can buy these cleats. If you buy these dining cards with coupons (even though they are a huge rip-off–does anyone really use all those?), we can buy a batting cage net/ soccer balls / re-turf the field / add to the weight room. Better equipment equals a better team which equals playoffs. Simple.

 

One wonders, then, why we don’t have the same structure for our academics. Bill James asks the same kind of question when he wonders why we are “so good at developing athletes and so lousy at developing writers.” If you haven’t read James’ article, take the time to do it now. He notes that “The average city the size of Topeka produces a major league player every 10 or 15 years. If we did the same things for young writers, every city would produce a Shakespeare or a Dickens or at least a Graham Greene every 10 or 15 years. ”

James makes the case that we treat athletes and writers differently. No doubt. Writing isn’t a spectator sport. (Nor should it be. Trust me. After years of watching kids write in class, I can’t imagine anything more boring. It would be like watching poker with little camera shots on the cards while we speculate on the next move. Who would ever televise such a thing?) I have a difficult time imagining the roar of the crowd after a well-turned phrase. But I also never imagined I would see the spelling bee on ESPN.

But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reconsider our approach to certain core subjects. We know, via data, intuition, and experience, that successful students read, write, and do math well. People can be successful and not know history, understand chemistry, or play a musical instrument. (I’m not saying they should, but the ability to do those things is dependent on the base understanding of the core skills.) If you can’t read, add, or put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboards), things will be tough.

As James notes, we identify athletes early and we work on their strengths. At one point, I was giving hitting lessons to little league players getting paid $25 for 30 minutes. Without advertising, without trying, I had 8-10 kids every week. I was cheap. The going rate out here is between $35 and $50 for 30 minutes. Kids would show up with the right equipment, eager to improve. I invested some of my money in the tools necessary to develop specific skills. When you combine the right tools with desire and energy, good things happen.

We’ve carried that idea into high school sports. The booster club doles out funds for the best equipment and successful schools hire the best coaches. You might argue this is a misuse of funds and that we should be redirecting that money to the classroom to improve learning but I argue those aren’t mutually exclusive things. Fundraising is not a zero sum game. James is right: we need to treat writing (and other subjects) more like sports. Stop paying me to teach your kid to hit or throw if he’s not very good. But, if he can estimate the cost of your groceries before you check out, find a dang math coach.

Imagine, if you will, that we were willing to spend money on private writing coaches for those kids who excelled at putting pen to paper instead of hiring a tutor only for kids who struggle. Imagine if we set up story competitions. Imagine, if you will, if we had a booster club for 5th grade Language Arts and, more importantly, when I bought that tub of cookie dough the student (or someone) could tell me exactly which books, which coach, which tool we were buying and how that would improve success. (Better yet, let’s stop selling the cookie dough and focus on items where the school gets more than 40-50% of the money.)

More important, imagine if we hired (and paid) teachers the way we hire coaches. And, one last trip into the imaginary world: imagine if we gave teachers the same

Click to view clip

freedom to discipline, drill, and require practice that coaches get on a regular basis. Can you picture two dads (or mothers because they are worse) getting into a fight over who is the better writer? Instead of just a sports huddle on the local radio, we also had a reading huddle?

These things can work in conjunction with each other. We don’t have to pay coaches less in order to pay teachers more. We don’t have to spend less on football in order to spend more on math.

But we do need more academics, more administrators, and more parents to treat learning like a contact sport. Learning to swing a bat isn’t an option if you want to play baseball and learning to read isn’t optional if you are going to be educated. Let’s start paying attention to those coaches who are getting the job done, and let’s start treating teachers like coaches so they can do their jobs just as well.

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 > 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.)