Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Tag: sports

The Impersonal University

For this discussion: Mike Rice, the administration and Rutgers faculty | Preserving class at Princeton

When I first started in political philosophy, I wondered about the French “liberty, equality, fraternity” versus the whole of American history. All of American history is the tension between liberty and equality, with we the people at various times emphasizing one to the detriment of the other and, in the end, both. Missing, in my experience, is any serious sloganeering on behalf of fraternity. We get plenty about factions fighting each other as the inevitable consequence of liberty from Madison, but not a lot about how we are bound together in a positive way as Americans. I always thought the key issue was this: fraternity is nice and definitely worth having – any political order worth a damn will foster it – but the nepotism and cronyism it can lead to can be a real problem for a republic, especially one that is taking in a diversity of peoples and interests.

In any case, I’ve linked to two pieces above which got me thinking about fraternity and the university. The latter is fairly straightforward. Ross Douthat argues that elite universities exist to preserve an elite class, that the diversity they say they’re striving for is a sham. He talks about the Ivies and others of this status being a social club for rich kids with powerful connections to meet other rich kids. Granted, this is all implicit in the term “meritocracy” – I am reading a bit into Douthat’s critique. It isn’t that our rich, powerful elites fail to work hard or eschew education. They do work hard and take their education seriously. This may make the advantages they have that much more powerful. It becomes that much harder to have class mobility.

I don’t know how much I care for Douthat’s column as a prescription for anything. (The general complaint is noted.) To me, the issue is whether everyone can live comfortably, be educated well, and “rule and rule in turn.” I’ve always been less ticked off at Harvard and Yale’s privileges and more concerned that other schools don’t treat their students well at all (i.e. there are plenty of elites at select fraternities and sororities in state schools, who have an entirely different experience at college than the guy sitting in the library reading all the Kant he can). A major reason I write is that those of us who are being educated owe it to everyone else to explain what we’re doing in school. Equality can come about through a lot of small, positive things. There’s no need for class warfare unless one has identified some awful, terrible corruption that shows no sign of going away.

The other article, though, points to an awful, terrible corruption being perpetrated on everyone in the United States of America. What I’ve been complaining about to friends regarding Mike Rice has mostly been this: how many people covered for this clown’s abuse and tolerated it for how long because of money? Of course, what goes on in college sports – whether we’re talking about coaches or administrators or boosters or whatever – is so mercenary that one would be hard pressed to use the term “fraternal” to describe any aspect of it. The primary reason for Mike Rice’s “rehab” was to secure getting into the Big Ten, which as we all know involves money with lots of tax breaks because we’re talking college here, and thus is far more important than curing cancer or teaching Shakespeare or the million and one other things a university is supposed to do.

Still, “so mercenary” is the key phrase from my rant. Both Princeton and Rutgers show how exploitative the university as a whole is. Either it is working to help perpetuate the Future Oligarchs of America (I believe that is a registered trademark) or it has a crass notion of school/local pride that it uses to generate advertising revenue (you will all not be surprised that ESPN is not very popular on campus). Either we claw our way to the top or emphasize mindlessness as the key to solidarity. There has to be something else worth aiming for here.

After all, it’s difficult to learn things and working together is a necessity. My Greek sucks and I do need help translating things in Xenophon. And hearing from people who know better on different topics than me is always useful. At the least, it’s a reminder that one always has to work for an education and that work never stops. It has to be continual and one does depend on what others have worked on carefully because we can’t fact check everything. We depend on each other to know. There is a basis for real fraternity in this Enlightenment country. One day, we may discover that.

Let’s Talk a Little about Sports in American Life

1. To those of you outside the United States who are curious: we do not just have professional sports leagues like the NFL and NBA. Nor are there just minor league teams, like the farm teams each associated with a Major League Baseball team.

No, we also have collegiate athletics. There are plenty of student-athletes who work hard for their grades and accomplishment in their sport. Some of the competition yields Olympians in things like fencing and track.

However, there’s also the spectacle of college football and basketball. Both sports attract large fan bases and some of the players make it into the NFL and NBA. There’s an enormous amount of money to be made and none of it has anything to do with education. The universities that participate are technically non-profit, enjoying some rather nice tax exemptions. The labor is unpaid and is often notorious for caring about things other than classes. Not so long ago, a booster (someone who gives money and support to a sports program) at the University of Miami acknowledged that he paid for prostitutes for football players. Visit that link and you can see a picture of the school’s president accepting a check from him.

Some argue that the money a university makes through sports goes into their educational mission. It’s safe to say there’s enough corruption and fudged numbers that it’s hard to determine. There’s every incentive to hide any deficit the Athletics Department might have. Safe to say, winning programs make money, losing programs not so much.

I’d like to tell you this sort of thing is confined to “sports factory” schools, but think about the fact that “sports factory” is a term I can use for an institution of higher education which makes sense to you. That tells you a lot about where our values lie. Tax shelters for rich administrators, bread and circuses for everyone, a complete breakdown in what an education means. More on this in a second.

2. Josh sent me two links recently which only make a call for reform that much more potent. The problem, as you probably intuit, is much larger than very profitable (for some) college sports. The city of Oakland in California just fired 25% of its police force, even as it is the 5th most crime-ridden city in the nation. It did not touch the money – $17 million – it gives the Oakland Raiders.

You could say, “haha, that’s Oakland,” but that’s again missing the bigger picture. In the United States of America, the NFL is a non-profit:

In the eyes of the IRS, the National Football League is considered a nonprofit outfit. Just like the United Way. Read that again. The NFL — a league that makes roughly $9 billion in revenue per season and will collected [sic] a guaranteed $27 billion in television money over the next decade — enjoys the same tax breaks as, say, your local chamber of commerce, because both are classified as 501(c)6 organizations.

The article I got that information about the NFL from is so important I’ll link it again. It is true the NFL and its various franchises are paying some taxes. However, there’s an enormous amount that is tax deductible and a lot of information that can’t be accessed. For more discussion about how professional teams operate: “Let’s Eliminate Sports Welfare.”

3. At this point you’re probably thinking “those Americans have a really unhealthy obsession with sports.” I’m not sure about this. Yes, there are some grotesque examples of hooliganism: fans of school teams and professional teams who curse and taunt and fight during games, riot after games. Still, fan awfulness in soccer/football globally is very hard to top.

I don’t know how obsessive we are as the American people. I think this: a few are really into sports and a few are really profiting. For most of us, sports are a default – there aren’t any new episodes of Adventure Time on; maybe we’re tired of practicing guitar. We’ll flip channels and watch someone throw a pass.

My guess is that if you say to someone “hey, your tax dollars are going for so-and-so’s new stadium” and give them a magic button to stop the flow of those dollars, they’ll hit that button the majority of the time. Even die-hard fans will probably say the tax base shouldn’t be burdened with what they love privately.

Still, one can imagine plenty of people going “meh” because they’ve got other things to do and think about. Right now, complacency favors the entrenched interest, even as we are undergoing a terrible recession where states are taking federal money for welfare and using it to patch other holes in their budget.

4. The genius of the American system, though, is that all you have to do is get a representative of some sort to make this his cause. Most really do care about governing well (fiscal cliff shenanigans notwithstanding). They don’t want to be remembered as a stooge of corporate interests or ideologues who couldn’t work with or for anyone. That’s where awareness and saying “hey, stop sports welfare” over and over come in. Give the idea enough cultural currency and the fix will follow.

There’s a bit more that isn’t quite an addendum. When we throw all these resources into sports at the collegiate level, we lose a lot in terms of education. It’s not clear that we create literate citizens at the university level:

A 2006 study from the American Institutes for Research found that only 31 percent of adults with bachelor’s degrees are proficient in “prose literacy”–being able to compare and contrast two newspaper editorials, for example.

We throw a lot of resources into sports. Again, I don’t know we do this consciously. To argue against those misplaced resources, in my mind, is a boon to the humanities. I don’t quite agree with everything Bill James says here, but his focus on the obvious shouldn’t be neglected:

American society could and should take lessons from the world of sports as to how to develop talent. How is it that we have become so phenomenally good, in our society, at developing athletes?

First, we give them the opportunity to compete at a young age.

Second, we recognize and identify ability at a young age.

Third, we celebrate athletes’ success constantly. We show up at their games and cheer. We give them trophies. When they get to be teenagers, if they’re still good, we put their names in the newspaper once in a while.

Fourth, we pay them for potential, rather than simply paying them once they get to be among the best in the world.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. Instead, we tell the young writers that they should work on their craft for 20 or 25 years, get to be really, really good—among the best in the world—and then we’ll give them a little bit of recognition.

We might be a bit better at identifying and rewarding achievement and diversity in the sciences. We can certainly encourage people to do more hands-on things like shop. But anyone who argues that we read or write too much, spend too much time preserving and evaluating the past, thinking about how best to express ourselves – anyone who says that is an idiot. You would think with all the writing and speaking on the Internet we’d have a more literate generation than ever before. I think a lot of people try and create some wonderful content. Imagine what they could create in a world that took literature, philosophy, history seriously.

An Introduction to American Football

The point of this is to explain some basic strategy and why the people on the field do what they do. I will be writing on more particular aspects of the game as football season progresses.

1. Downs: Attempts to march down the field and score points

Imagine you had 22 people to entertain, and all you had was a strange oblong-shaped ball and a 100 yard rectangular field.

You could set the ball down mid-field, and divide your 22 into 2 squads of 11 each, assigning them a half of the field. You could then tell each team to fight for the ball, and take the ball however they like from each other but get it onto the extreme (“end zone” is the football term) of the other team’s side for points.

Modern American football starts from that very simple setup, and gets extraordinarily complicated very fast because of its premium on violence. If you just let the players play, they’d kill each other. The modern game involves people running 20 yards or more to hit each other full speed so as to get the other player to drop the ball (a “fumble,” whereby any team can claim possession).

So what happens is that both strategies and rules have developed to stop play and make the most out of those stoppages. The game occurs in moments, called “downs,” for the most part. The ball is set at some place on the field (“the line of scrimmage”) and the side having possession (“offense”) lines up with the opposing defense lined up on the other side. Typically the offense has to get the ball 10 yards down the field after it is snapped (put in play) by running or passing to get a set of more downs; play stops when the ball carrier is down (tackled by the other team) or a forward pass hasn’t been caught (“incomplete”) or he has caught it but run out of bounds or scored.

2. Why does everyone line up in that funny way? Why can’t you just have 11 people line up randomly?

OK. We’ve moved on to the question of strategy. The modern game uses a very particular strategy for offense; there are many other possibilities, but we’re just going to stick to what happens usually. A human wall (every team fields at least 5 linemen) is created, one member of the wall has the ball and “snaps” it on command to the quarterback (QB) unless the play says otherwise.

Everything on offense runs through the QB. Why is this? Because he’s the one member of the team surveying the field and seeing what the defense is doing.

Get the strategy? The idea is a human wall buys one guy on your team a little bit of time. With that time, he may make a forward pass, and the QB is therefore outfitted with specialized members of the offense to get yards for downs. He’ll have wide receivers, players that don’t line up with the linemen but line up closer to the sideline. (A pattern exists called an “out pattern” where the wide receiver runs up the sideline then makes a sharp cut to get out of bounds; the QB must deliver the ball to the receiver as he is approaching the sideline. Typically that window of time and space is very narrow, but the play almost can’t be defended.) He’ll have running backs, who on some plays could be handed the ball and just run upfield, depending on the blocking and the defense, but coming out of the backfield as opposed to from nearer the sideline, give the defense more to fight with. There are also players called “tight ends” who are almost a cross between a lineman and a receiver; they can be left in a play to block or sent upfield to run a route and make a catch.

2a. Why can’t every play be a running play?

My dad used to wonder why a team can’t just have lots of very good, overpaid offensive linemen, and give the ball to any old running back, and just run every down. The problem with this is obvious: all it takes is one guy coming free from the defense to blow up the play, and since one guy has to have the ball, 10 other linemen plus the one back means that you’d be in a prime position to lose yardage every down. That one guy unaccounted for is dangerous business.

2b. So how do teams get big running plays?

Since modern offensive personnel, lined up however, is already a tactic – you don’t know if they’re going to run or pass, they’re set up for both really – you set up plays where as they develop, linemen and tight ends and even wide receivers get multiple blocks in. Part of this setup involves getting the referees to put the ball closer to one sideline than another. Putting a receiver on that “near” sideline forces the defense to pay attention to that side of the field, even though it’s narrow. You could then fake a pass or run that side, and come back and run to the wider side of the field; the linemen would get multiple blocks b/c they block to sell the fake, then block as the running back moved out to the wider side of the field.

3. How is defense even possible? The fact you set up an offense that varied means a lot of things exist to throw you off in the first place…

Defense is possible because certain formations are more adept at doing things than others. For example, if the offense comes in with lots of linemen and tight ends and one wide receiver, it’s a safe bet they’re running.

Furthermore, modern defensive personnel are very specialized themselves. A QB has a lot of reading to before the snap, both on and off the field. Typically a defense lines up 4 linemen, who attack right at the line of scrimmage, linebackers, who patrol the middle of the field or come in to hit the QB, and the “secondary,” quick fast guys who run with wide receivers or patrol closer to the end zone. Usually, if your QB is your field general for the offense, a safety, a specialized member of the secondary, is your field general for the defense, since he sees everything going on in front of him.

To get an idea how effective most defenses are, I’d say look at how many yards the average running play in the NFL goes for. I think it’s 3 yards, last I checked. All a defense has to do is key in on you and hit you, even those the offense has what is called “initiative” and can dictate the tempo of the game. Here’s what I’m thinking to illustrate the efficiency of modern defense: you always get 4 downs when you get the ball back. If you ran three times you’d pick up 9 yards, but not get a new set of downs. You’d be facing using your last down and you could be stuck on your side of the field.

4. Kicking

A large part of the modern game is field position. It’s a lot easier to go 40 yards than it is 80. So there are these things called “special teams” which come out every time field position is an issue.

A punting unit comes when an offense stalls midfield or in its own territory or is only shallowly in an opponent’s territory. The idea is to kick the ball away on 4th down and put the opposing offense in a bad spot.

There are also kickoff coverage units; every time an opponent scores, a team receives the ball by having it kicked to it. You obviously want to catch that ball and return it as far as possible.

Finally, there’s kicking a field goal, which is when you stall in an opponent’s territory but have someone talented on your team who can do this. Touchdowns that reach the end zone are worth 6 (with an extra kicked point, 7, with a two-point conversion, 8) and a field goal is worth 3.

Can Rutgers Be Saved?

After the disbanding of Rutgers 1000 – the end of formally organized resistance to “big-time” football and basketball programs at Rutgers – and Rutgers’ winning football season a year ago, one would have thought the controversy about commercialized athletics at Rutgers to be dead.

Instead it has a vigor like it never had before, a vigor it did not have when I was there and the sports teams were an annual disappointment to both boosters (they lost games) and critics (they cost lots of money and resources). Professor Dowling isn’t merely getting good press, he’s getting awful press – he has just been attacked as “racist” by the administration.

They’re scared of something, otherwise they wouldn’t have hurled that idiotic charge. But of what could they be scared?

But I think what they’re most scared of is Prof. Dowling’s bookConfessions of a Spoilsport. That book effectively means that history will know the administration to be the sad people they are: criminally negligent (if not actually criminal in some cases, there are seedier stories about President McCormick circulating) regarding the future of the University, doing anything to win cheap popularity and quick cash.

They have to react in the vile manner they’re acting now, perhaps: while it is not clear Rutgers can be saved, the reputation of the administration is all but destroyed, and the only defense left is character assassination of one’s betters.

I’m not a Pittsburgh fan…

262 — The number of yards Oakland was outgained by Pittsburgh in the Raiders’ 20-13 win over the Steelers. Pittsburgh had more total yards (360-98), first downs (15-9), a far better third-down conversion rate (7-of-19, compared to 1-of-11), the time of possession battle won by ten minutes — and they couldn’t beat what had seemed to be the worst team in football. Of course, Pittsburgh also beat the Raiders in interceptions thrown by their quarterbacks, 4-1 … and that was the ballgame, as Oakland returned two Ben Roethlisberger interceptions for touchdowns.

– from Manic Monday by Doug Farrar on

One of the things about the blogosphere is that it gives one the chance to be vocal when one needs to be.

I’m not a Pittsburgh fan. But there is no way Roethlisberger should have been back as soon as he was brought back from a motorcycle accident and appendix surgery. What if he got injured these past few games? The idea that his being back is in any way a respectable coaching and managerial decision is ludricrous.

Further, when he’s throwing 4 interceptions and not looking like himself at all and Pittsburgh is losing to what could be the worst team in the league, by far, doesn’t that necessitate a QB change? I mean, it’s not like there’s anything one is trading his health for – it’s not like he’s helping Pittsburgh win.

To not be a hypocrite, I should charge Andy Reid with staying with McNabb too long last season, and Gruden with letting Simms’ spleen get busted. Let me be clear where I stand: Football’s a tough enough sport, where one’s health is in jeopardy continuously. Fine. That doesn’t mean that one should be out there half-dying and playing the game. One doesn’t totally trade one’s health even in the Armed Services for a potential good; a commander that routinely ordered his men into enemy fire for the scarcest of goods – and, by analogy with Steelers, for no good at all – would not last very long.

So, for Bill Cowher and all of you in Pittsburgh management: Grow up and stop this macho crap. Your team sucks because you can’t watch out for your own players’ health, and you have an overly inflated opinion about just how much glory you’re getting for an awful lot of guts being spilled for no reason.

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