Tag: sports

The Birth of a Sports Rivalry

cute fighting ducksHow do we communicate ideas to our audience?  What steps can we take to introduce advanced concepts to our students or the general public? Scholars work for decades on the content of their arguments but spend very little time thinking about how to translate their ideas for specific consumers of information.

In Phil Arena’s review of Braumoeller’s new excellent book, he makes a baseball reference, later noting that he does not even like sports.  This is a typical tactic in Political Science, if not all of academia.  We often make sports metaphors and analogies in order to push our point across.  No matter if you have never played an inning of ball in your life, most American academics are apt to make at least one baseball reference in class.  Most British academics are apt to make at least one reference to football, even if they hate the sport.

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Friday Nugget Blogging

Since I see Dan is kindly filling in on Friday Nerd Blogging while I’m on vacation, my casual Fridays post this week (if it is indeed Friday, I really have no idea…) takes a different tack, following on an old tradition from my days at Lawyers, Guns and Money

Quote of the week is from my youngest little nugget, quoted in an NPR story on how American kids are reacting to the Women’s World Cup:

“I’ve watched every one of their games. I’m pretty intense about it, because I don’t usually see the U.S. men’s team do very well.”

Now on Twitter, James Joyner objects to my son’s big-hearted, women-friendly kudos, stating rather condescendingly that the comparison is apples and oranges because these are

“very different levels of competition… our women are ahead of curve; men well behind it.”

Well, it’s hardly fair deny women the opportunity to play on co-ed teams with men and then use that as a way to dismiss their victories, but the fact that people like Joyner will do precisely that is probably the best argument for getting rid of gender apartheid in sports.

At any rate, Bill Plashke at the LA Times concurs – though only somewhat – with my son:

If I was asked to assemble a team of American athletes to compete against similarly composed teams from the rest of the world in any sport, the most important decision would be the easiest. I would take a team of women.

I would take a team that would play like a team, unselfish and unaffected, tough and tireless, playing for victory not credit, playing for each other instead of themselves. I would take a group like the U.S. women’s soccer team, and not because it is playing Japan on Sunday for the World Cup championship, but because of how it played in reaching this stage, stoic through their storms, sharing through their failure, winning not with shots off fancy feet, but passes off rock-hard heads.

I would take groups like the women’s teams that have won three of the four Olympic soccer gold medals, six of the nine basketball gold medals, and three of the four softball gold medals in such overpowering fashion that the International Olympic Committee eliminated the sport. I would take our women not only because Title IX has empowered them into a huge advantage over the rest of the world, but also because they consistently win in ways that our men sometimes neglect or ignore.

With their status often based on nightly highlights and rich endorsements, the men’s team athletes in this country are increasingly about themselves… Perhaps because they receive little of the attention and none of the riches, most of our women athletes are all about one another.

I do wonder if Plashke’s perspective begs the question though: are women’s teams better because they are women and women have some sensitivity toward cooperative play and teamwork that men lack? Are they better because they have to be in order to excel in the absence of “attention” and “riches,” as Plashcke puts it?

I am uncomfortable with these kinds of essentialisms and with the pro-gender-apartheid argument they support. And I don’t see them at the root of my son’s argument. For one thing, he knows better: he plays on a boys’ team that also rarely loses – and that will play later this month in the 3×3 U10 National Championship – due to the ethic of teammanship and cooperative play inculcated by its coach. So yes, cooperative play is better play, but men as well as women can learn these norms: it’s all in how they train and which values their fans support. Plashke’s argument is really a commentary on US sports culture, not the culture or biology of individual sports teams.

Nor do I think my son shares’ Plashke’s view that women are only doing well because they are subordinate – a view implying that equal attention, riches, even a chance to play on co-ed teams would change women’s sports culture for the worse. Rather, I see a young man who once internalized the notion that women’s sports were second best, simply because he had fewer opportunities to follow them in the media due to US sports culture, outgrowing this notion on the basis of new empirical evidence from individual US sports teams.

And empirical evidence for this proposition goes far beyond the anecdotal, as detailed in Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano’s pathbreaking book Playing With the Boys: Why Separation is Not Equal in Sports:

Dividing sports by sex doesn’t reliably reflect actual physical differences between males and females at all. Rather, it reflects antiquated social patterns and false beliefs. And what’s more, it reinforces, sometimes baldly, sometimes subtly, the notion that men’s activities and men’s power are the real thing and women’s are not. Women’s sports, like women’s power, are second-class.

(Nothing demonstrates that more completely than my utter inability to find a sports bar here in Bali covering the Women’s World Cup finals. The ‘real World Cup,’ as people around me call it, was to be found in every pub in the city last year when I was in Thailand.)

Playing With the Boys, by the way, has been hailed on Amazon by NOW President Kim Gandy as a “home-run”:

This book shows that coerced sex segregation in sports does not benefit women, and in fact holds back women who are fully capable of competing with men–and that flies in the face of U.S. ideals of equality. Readers will never think of Title IX in the same way again.

If the US Women’s team performance in the World Cup helps sell this argument to nine-year-old American boys, that’s a step toward transforming the gendering of US sports culture… and that will be a far more powerful source of change than Title IX ever was. If so, I’m all the happier.


How ISA is Different from the Olympics

Blogging may be lighter than usual over the next week while I and many colleagues and co-bloggers descend upon the city of New Orleans for the International Studies Association Annual Conference – or, as I explained cheekily to my students yesterday, the “Olympic Games of IR geekdom” – a gathering where scholars from different schools of thought and methodological perspectives contend for the limelight, pitted against one another through the force of sheer intellect and passion for the study of world politics.

Upon further thought however, this probably ranks among the worst metaphors I’ve ever employed, for if there are any international relations scholars as megalomaniacal about their craft as are the athletes skating and boarding and luging their way toward gold up in BC, there is certainly no one in the academy cheering them on to such excess the way NBC has done the past few days.

Consider the coverage of the pair-skating competition, which I watched night before last with my daughter before departing. So maybe it’s a sign of devotion to their careers that gold-winning pair-skaters Shen Zue and Zhao Hongbo had to forego normal married life to live out of separate dorm rooms as they traveled to competitions; and that sweethearts on separate pairs of the US figure-skating team spent Valentine’s Day competing against one another on the ice; and that pair skater Yuko Kvaguti gave up her Japanese citizenship to pursue her Olympic dream. But valorizing the fact that Yao Bin, coach of the winning Chinese team, devoted his life to coaching a gold-medal winning team to the exclusion of being present for his son’s birth and childhood? (Because of his travel schedule, his wife named the child “Far Away” in Chinese.) I read such tales as signs of the dreadful interpersonal imbalance inflicted upon athletes and their families by the vissitudes of Olympic culture, but to sports commentators, these stories apparently signify Olympian credentials and global greatness.

I cannot imagine the President-Elect of the ISA, David Lake, being introduced to give his address this Thursday with commendations for neglecting his children, partner and country in the service of his commitment to the study of world politics. On the contrary, the ISA as a profession now includes childcare at its conferences, publishes articles in its journals on how to make the tenure, promotion and publishing process in the profession more amenable to families, and includes panels and workshops on work-life balance.

Why I wonder do we valorize athletes for exhibiting the very dysfunctional Type A tendencies that most of us are lobbying in our own professions and personal lives to counteract?

[cross-posted at LGM]


Who Dat? Old Chap!

The International Studies Association meeting is getting underway shortly in New Orleans. I’m not sure who’s very strange idea it was to combine academics and “Mardi Gras” – (I can’t wait to see the “Professors Gone Wild! Video…. Actually, I can… ) but we’re here and letting the bon temps rouler – as it were.

Of course this year’s Mardi Gras has a very important unofficial theme – the New Orleans Saints – who won the Superbowl this year. There are gold fleur de lis everywhere and on everything. I ran into a publisher last night who swore that he ran into a group of people who hadn’t stopped celebrating the victory since last Sunday.

Yet the joy of the Saints isn’t for New Orleans alone. It seemed that much of the Western world was cheering for them to win too (outside of Indianapolis, I guess.) Even in the UK, the Times posted a video (linked above) with their very posh writers saying “Who Dat?” to the camera.

I think this follows on my (slightly cranky) post this weekend which suggested that no one outside of North America was really interested in the Olympics, largely because Canada is boring (aside from other geopolitical considerations). Unlike the Beijing Olympics, there is no story behind the story.

But the same was not true for this year’s Superbowl, which NBC claims was the most watched TV event ever. (Although not everyone agrees.)Internationally, the Saints were so popular because they were seen as literally embodying New Orleans and its rise after Hurricane Katrina. The Superbowl in the UK was not just some strange American game broadcast on the BBC at 11pm. It was a highly symbolic match which represented a passionate American story… the kind the Europeans love to sink their teeth into.

The same thing could be argued about the New England Patriots when won the Superbowl in 2002. The nationalistically named team became symbolic of America’s rise after 9/11 and the imagery of that Superbowl was deliberately tied to 9/11. This may actually be a significant difference with the last Superbowl – that much of the linkage to Katrina was not as deliberate or politically motivated. Rather it this year it seems to have been done so by a media trying to push a story.

So, do we need stories behind the stories in order to better appreciate sports? Could the same be said about chess matches in the Cold War – where entire nations nervously bit their nails while uber-nerds of the superpowers battled it out? (I’m assuming that without the Cold War tensions that 99% of the attention to those matches probably wouldn’t have been there.)

I’m uncertain, but on the surface, it certainly seems to help.


The Oatmeal Olympics

Following on Charli’s excellent post about the Olympics, I thought I’d add my two cents.
If you live outside of North America, (okay, and Scandinavia) you probably didn’t know. The fact is the international coverage seems to be lacking, at least if my experience in London is to be judged by. Here, the Six Nations Rugby Tournament is getting far more coverage. Not to mention the Football/Soccer.

I have been trying to figure out why this might be the case. It may be, as has been suggested before, that the Winter Olympics are quite simply the “rich people’s games”. Virtually all of the sports, skating, skiing, skeleton, etc – all of these require vast amounts of money, years of training and expensive equipment. Compare this to the summer games: track and field (with pretty much any high school in the developed world possessing the equipment to at least get you started), baseball (needed: one bat, one ball, one glove), volleyball (needed: one ball), etc. Even “expensive” summer sports (like tennis) can be entered into relatively cheaply. Growing up on the (not so mean streets) of my home town suburbia, I used to play tennis with the neighbours in the street. And we lived on a hill.

Skiing, however, was out my family’s financial reach when I was growing up. To this day I still can’t ski and I really couldn’t care less about the sport.*

So bizzaro sports (seriously – can anyone actually explain skeleton? Why are there always cow bells?) for rich white people may be one cause of a lack of interest.

But geography has to play a key role here. There is a very limited number of countries which could host a Winter Olympics. You need adequate ski slopes, cold weather and snow (something of a problem this year, from what I understand). Plus, I’m guessing that if you’re from Africa or, say, the subcontinent, this isn’t the Olympics for you – expensive sports in climates that don’t exist within miles of your national borders.

Finally, I can’t help but wondering if it is just that Canada is boring. I mean, the lead up to Beijing was HUGE. The BBC ran daily leading stories on it for months. The games were seen as symbolic in all kinds of ways. China taking another step as a major global power. The crackdown on dissidents. The fact that a major earthquake happened just a few weeks before. I could go on.

In other words, the Beijing Olympics were interesting because China was interesting. And the Canadian Olympics? They’re boring because Canada is boring. Other than native protestors, there really hasn’t been much hoopla (and those protests haven’t received much coverage internationally). It may be the story behind the games which really captures our imagination.

So that’s why I dub these the “Oatmeal Games” – might be good for you and wholesome, but not exactly interesting. The breakfast food of the middle classes – when, let’s face it, we’d all rather be digging into some Lucky Charms.

*I did try to learn once in French. Let’s just say I got a lot of practice screaming “au secours!”


Metaphors of War: Superbowl Edition

Football and War have long been metaphors for each other, with players famously (and infamously in some cases) referring to themselves as “warriors” who will “do battle” on the gridiron led by “field generals” at quarterbacks, throwing “long bombs” to score, and Generals “calling an audible” to launch a “blitz” or a “hail-marry pass.” Indeed, those seeking to inject greater tolerance into American culture have long counseled that we do away with such metaphors, as they trivialize war on both sides of the equation. George Carlin saw this years ago. (Updatedrepaired link to Carlin’s baseball vs. football routine).

Today’s Superbowl between the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers provides a rare moment reflection on this seemingly inescapable current in American popular culture. The Cardinals offer a unique mechanism for this, as until this year, they were probably best know for being the team of Pat Tillman, the former Cards player who joined the Army and was killed in Afghanistan.

It also provides a moment to notice, as the Washington Post reports, that the NFL seems to have re-thought its role in this process:

In a little-discussed shift in recent years, the NFL has moved away from depicting its games in military terms. While the league continues to embrace the military as an entity, inviting Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of Central Command, to make the Super Bowl’s opening coin toss and having the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds perform a pregame flyover at Raymond James Stadium, the NFL no longer endorses using military terminology to describe its contests.

It is inappropriate, league officials say, to do so at a time when American forces are fighting two wars halfway around the globe.

“It’s a matter of common sense,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said as he stood outside the stadium the other day.

The same is true at NFL Films, an arm of the league that perpetuated for decades the image of football as controlled warfare by producing movies glorifying the game’s violence with phrases like “linebacker search and destroy.” In recent years the company’s president, Steve Sabol, ordered all allusions to war be removed from its new films.

“I don’t think you will ever see those references coming back,” he said. “They won’t be back in our scripts, certainly not in my lifetime.”

The sport that once saw itself as the closest thing in athletics to the military no longer holds to this once-cherished notion.

“We’re not going to fight no war, man,” Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Nick Eason said….

“They were basically cliches anyway,” Sabol said. “Just like you would hear coaches say, ‘That’s a guy I want to be in a foxhole with,’ they’ve never been in a foxhole and they’re trying to articulate that to a player who has no idea what a foxhole is.”

At the extreme, these metaphors were always silly, at their worst, they devalued the true sacrifices of soldiers and dehumanized the true destruction and human devastation wrought by actual war. Its a good thing that the NFL is moving in this direction.


The Mitchell Report and Global Governance

Obviously, the Mitchell Report is all the big news in the world of sports, culture, and politics this morning, and is receiving saturation coverage. Rather than try to add my 2 cents as a baseball fan, I thought I might try to tease out an interesting IR angle to the whole thing.

As I was driving home yesterday, I heard Selig in his press conference assert that Baseball had one of the most stringent testing drug policies (now) of any major sport. The radio commentators were discussing this and said, well, if by major sport you mean NFL, NBA, and MLB, then yes. But, compared to the testing at the Olympic level, it has a long way to go.

Earlier this morning, on my way into work, I heard Sen. McCain on ESPN, and they were asking him what, if anything, the government could do about this (and recall that most of the good stuff in the Mitchell Report is the result of government work–the hearing and several drug busts and plea agreements). McCain said (paraphrasing): Not much, except to fund the USADA to improve testing practices and perhaps work more with the World Anti-Doping Agency.

From an IR perspective, I think this raises a rather interesting question–given that there is a robust international organization with a well developed regime of anti-doping rules and norms that apply to international sport, why is it that the major US sports feel that they are somehow exempt or above or beyond these global norms? Past attempts to apply Olympic-level testing to US pro athletes (NHL hockey and NBA basketball players) by the USOC met with resistance from the leagues and players associations of those sports.

So, why is it that the US and US-based organizations place themselves above this global anti-doping norm? Many major international sports have an Olympic-caliber anti-doping regime, which requires tough random testing, and a number of their most significant events have been hit by drug scandals (Tour de France…). As US pro sports go global in an ever increasing way (particularly baseball and basketball), how can they make global inroads and yet flout a global norm on drug testing?


Run from Civilization

The very foundations of Western civilization are under attack in France–President Nicolas Sarkozy likes to jog.

From today’s Washington Post Style Page:

On the primary state television channel, France 2, Alain Finkielkraut, a leading French intellectual, recently demanded that Sarkozy give up his “undignified” exercise. Not only did he imply that exposing the boss’s naked knees is something that never would have occurred in the time of Mitterrand, much less Louis XIV, Finkielkraut claimed strolling is the proper activity of the thinking person, from Socrates to the poet Arthur Rimbaud.

“Western civilization, in its best sense, was born with the promenade,” said Finkielkraut. “Walking is a sensitive, spiritual act. Jogging is management of the body. The jogger says I am in control. It has nothing to do with meditation.”

Do your part to save Western Civilization–take a stroll.

Its quite serious. Western Civilization, built on a set of rhetorical commonplaces that articulate the ideas undergirding our contemporary democratic values and institutions (and a cannon) owes its very existence to the promenade. To Jog is to threaten the core identity of not only the French state, but the entire Western Alliance.

Or, maybe, its yet another way for the French to express their annoyance at all things American:

Sarkozy has fueled a French suspicion that running is for self-centered individualists like Americans, reports Charles Bremner, Paris correspondent for the Times of London.

“Patrick Mignon, a sports sociologist, noted that French intellectuals had always held sport in contempt, while totalitarian regimes cultivated physical fitness,” Bremner writes.

“Jogging is of course about performance and individualism, values that are traditionally ascribed to the right,” Odile Baudrier, editor of V02 magazine, a sports publication, told Libération.

If your president is into physical fitness and likes to run, he’s might be an anti-intellectual, self-centered individualist running a totalitarian regime…

This leads us to the only logical conclusion: Joggers, like strikeouts, are fascist. Do your part to save democracy in the West and take a walk.


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