Posts Tagged ‘Sports’

Punchfest

Posted: February 26, 2017 in Cinema, Culture, Idle Nonsense, Sports
Tags: , , ,

Early in the process of socialization, one learns that the schoolyard cry “Fight!” is half an alert (if one is a bystander) to come see and half an incitement to violence (if one is just entering into conflict). Fascination with seeing people duke it out, ostensibly to settle conflicts, never seems to grow old, though the mixed message about violence never solving anything sometimes slows things down. (Violence does in fact at least put an end to things. But the cycle of violence continues.) Fights have also lost the respectability of yore, where the victor (as with a duel or a Game of Thrones fight by proxy) was presumed to be vindicated. Now we mostly know better than to believe that might makes right. Successful aggressors can still be villains. Still, while the primal instinct to fight can be muted, it’s more typically channeled into entertainment and sport, where it’s less destructive than, say, warrior culture extending all the way from clans and gangs up to professional militaries.

Fighting in entertainment, especially in cinema, often depicts invulnerability that renders fighting pointless and inert. Why bother hitting Superman, the Incredible Hulk, Wolverine, or indeed any number of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Segal, or Statham characters when there is no honest expectation of doing damage? They never get hurt, just irritated. Easy answer: because the voyeurism inherent in fighting endures. Even when the punchfest is augmented by guns we watch, transfixed by conflict even though outcomes are either predictable (heroes and good guys almost always win), moot, or an obvious set-up for the next big, stupid, pointless battle.

Fighting in sport is perhaps most classical in boxing, with weight classes evening out the competition to a certain degree. Boxing’s popularity has waxed and waned over time as charismatic fighters come and go, but like track and field, it’s arguably one of the purest expressions of sport, being about pure dominance. One could also argue that some team sports, such as hockey and American-style football, are as much about the collateral violence as about scoring goals. Professional wrestling, revealed to be essentially athletic acting, blends entertainment and sport, though without appreciable loss of audience appeal. As with cinema, fans seem to not care that action is scripted. Rising in popularity these days is mixed martial arts (MMA), which ups the ante over boxing by allowing all manner of techniques into the ring, including traditional boxing, judo, jiu-jitsu, wrestling, and straight-up brawling. If brawling works in the schoolyard and street against unwilling or inexperienced fighters, it rarely succeeds in the MMA ring. Skill and conditioning matter most, plus the lucky punch.

Every kid, boy or girl, is at different points bigger, smaller, or matched with someone else when things start to get ugly. So one’s willingness to engage and strategy are situational. In childhood, conflict usually ends quickly with the first tears or bloodied nose. I’ve fought on rare occasion, but I’ve never ever actually wanted to hurt someone. Truly wanting to hurt someone seems to be one attribute of a good fighter; another is the lack of fear of getting hit or hurt. Always being smaller than my peers growing up, if I couldn’t evade a fight (true for me most of the time), I would defend myself, but I wasn’t good at it. Reluctant willingness to fight was usually enough to keep aggressors at bay. Kids who grow up in difficult circumstances, fighting with siblings and bullies, and/or abused by a parent or other adult, have a different relationship with fighting. For them, it’s unavoidable. Adults who relish being bullies join the military and/or police or maybe become professional fighters.

One would have to be a Pollyanna to believe that we will eventually rise above violence and use of force. Perhaps it’s a good thing that in a period of relative peace (in the affluent West), we have alternatives to being forced to defend ourselves on an everyday basis and where those who want to can indulge their basic instinct to fight and establish dominance. Notions of masculinity and femininity are still wrapped up in how one expresses these urges, though in characteristic PoMo fashion, traditional boundaries are being erased. Now, everyone can be a warrior.

I attended a fundraiser a short while back. It’s familiar territory for me, filled with gifts culled from local businesses and corporations to be resold at auction, portable kitchens and bars to feed and libate guests to break down their inhibitions to giving, and lots of high heels and party dresses (with ample cleavage). Men rarely strut and parade the way the women do; tuxedos are the rare except. Secondary and tertiary activities are typical, often a DJ or live band that plays so loudly sensible people would flee the room rather than slowly go deaf. But monstrous volume in the era of amplified everything has dulled that reflex to nothingness. Or people are by now already deaf from habitual exposure to arena-rock volume filtered down to small venues. Folks simply, stupidly tough it out, ending the night with their ears ringing and their voices hoarse from screaming over the noise just to be heard.

Beneficiaries of fundraisers usually fall into two categories that are poorly served by American institutions: those seeking quality educations (including public schools that ought to be better funded through taxation) and folks suffering from catastrophic illness or disease that is ideally meant to be covered by health insurance but in practice is not. Auctioneers do pretty well enticing people to part with their money. It’s a true skill. But then, who goes to a fundraiser determined to hold tightly to their hard-earned cash? (Don’t answer that question.) Silent auctions may accompany the live auction, but the group vibe definitely contributes to some competition to outbid the next person (a wallet- or dick-measuring exercise?). Auction items are mostly luxury items, things normal Americans wouldn’t consider buying except when associated with charitable giving. Getting something for one’s charity (bought under or over its presumed market value) also shifts some portion of the philanthropic burden to those entities donating gifts.

All this is preliminary the most appallingly tone-deaf item offered for auction: a 4-person safari to a game preserve in South Africa to hunt and kill a wildebeest. When the auctioneer described the item, everyone in my vicinity looked at each other as if to say “what the fuck?” Certainly, humans have a long history of hunting game purely for sport (which is to say, not for food), and from the perspective of a South African safari outfitter, wild animals are a natural resource to be exploited the same way that, for instance, mining and agriculture is conducted throughout the world, but the last few years have seen a notable change of heart about killing animals, especially so-called romance animals (mostly large mammals, including whales, less so large fish), without need or admirable purpose. The outcry over an American dentist killing Cecil the Lion was an expression of that sentiment. So, too, was the killing of a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo after a child fell into the enclosure. (Personally, considering how few of them exist, I would privilege the life of the gorilla over the child, but that’s a mine field.) Pictures of Donald Trump’s sons standing over their trophy kills have also elicited significant disapproval. We are now acutely aware that wild animals are not an inexhaustible resource (and never were — consider the passenger pigeon).

I judged that bidding on the safari was no more or less robust than other auction items, but I mentioned aloud that if I were to bid on it, I would probably go on the safari but would also insist on merely paintballing the poor wildebeest, a relatively harmless proxy for killing it needlessly. Admittedly, the wildebeest would experience the same existential terror as if it were being hunted to death, but at least it would live. Or it would live until the next safari came round. Hunting and killing a wildebeest or other large game has never been on my bucket list, and its appearance at auction would not suddenly inspire me to add it to the list. That is the province of of a class of fools rich and insulated enough to still regard the world as their playground, with no thought of responsibility, stewardship, or consequences.

See this exchange where Neil deGrasse Tyson chides Sam Harris for failing to speak to his audience in terms it understands:

The upshot is that lay audiences simply don’t subscribe to or possess the logical, rational, abstract style of discourse favored by Harris. Thus, Harris stands accused of talking past his audience — at least somewhat — especially if his audience is understood to be the general public rather than other well-educated professionals. Subject matter is less important than style but revolves around politics, and worse, identity politics. Everyone has abundant opinions about those, whether informed by rational analysis or merely fed by emotion and personal resonance.

The lesson deGrasse Tyson delivers is both instructive and accurate yet also demands that the level of discourse be lowered to a common denominator (like the reputed 9th-grade speech adopted by the evening news) that regrettably forestalls useful discussion. For his part (briefly, at the end), Harris takes the lesson and does not resort to academic elitism, which would be obvious and easy. Kudos to both, I guess, though I struggle (being somewhat an elitist); the style-over-substance argument really goes against the grain for me. Enhancements to style obviously work, and great communicators use them and are convincing as a result. (I distinctly recall Al Gore looking too much like a rock star in An Inconvenient Truth. Maybe it backfired. I tend to think that style could not overcome other blocks to substance on that particular issue.) Slick style also allows those with nefarious agendas to hoodwink the public into believing nonsense.

(more…)

A couple of posts ago, I used the phrase “pay to play” in reference to our bought-and-paid-for system of political patronage. This is one of those open secrets we all recognize but gloss over because, frankly, in a capitalist economy, anything that can be monetized and corrupted will be. Those who are thus paid to play enjoy fairly handsome rewards for doing not very much, really. Yet the paradigm is self-reinforcing, much like the voting system, with promises of increased efficiency and effectiveness with greater levels of participation. Nothing of the sort has proven to be true; it’s simply a goad we continue to hear, some believing in the carrot quite earnestly, others holding their noses and ponying up their dollars and votes, and still others so demoralized and disgusted with the entire pointless constellation of lies and obfuscations that refusing to participate feels like the only honest response. (Periodic arguments levied my way that voting is quite important have failed to convince me that my vote matters a whit. Rather, it takes a bizarre sort of doublethink to conclude that casting my ballot is meaningful. Of late, I’ve succumbed to sustained harangues and shown up to vote, but my heart’s not in it.) I can’t distinguish so well anymore between true believers and mere manipulators except to observe that the former are more likely to be what few civic-minded voters remain and the latter are obviously candidates and their PR hacks. Journalists? Don’t get me started.

The phrase put me in mind of two other endeavors (beyond politics) where a few professionals enjoy being paid to play: sports and performing arts. Both enjoy heavy subscription among the masses early in life, as student sports and performing groups offer training and experience. The way most of us start out, in fact, we actually pay to play through classes, lessons, training, dues, and memberships that provide access to experts and put us in position to reap rewards later in life. Maybe you attended tennis camp or music camp as a kid, or you paid for a college education (defrayed perhaps by activity scholarships) majoring in athletics or theater. Lots of variations exist, and they’re not limited to youth. As an endurance athlete, I continue to pay entrance fees to race organizers for the opportunity to race on courses with support that would otherwise be unavailable without the budget provided by participants, sponsorship notwithstanding. Chicago’s popular 16-inch softball leagues are pay-to-play sports.

A second phase might be giving it away for free. As with paying to play, pure enjoyment of the endeavor works as a strong motivation and justification. This is probably more common in the community-level performing arts, where participation is just plain fun. And who knows? Exposure might lead to a big break or discovery. It’s also what motivates quite a lot of amateur athletes, especially for sports that have not gone mainstream. Olympic athletes (tertiary events) might fall roughly into this category, especially when their primary incomes are derived elsewhere. A third phase is being paid to play. If the audience or fan base is big enough, the financial rewards and fame can be considerable. However, those who enter the professional ranks don’t always demonstrate such great prowess, especially early on. More than a few blow up and flame out quickly, unable to sustain the spark that launched their careers. There’s also being paid to play but earning well short of a livable wage, which borders on giving it away for free or at least for too little. A final phase is being paid not to play. A mean interpretation of that would be that one is screwing up or blocking others’ opportunities to the point where it becomes worthwhile to pay someone to not show up or to go away. A more charitable interpretation would be that one’s employment contract includes time-off benefits that require continuous payments even when not playing.

As with my post about the differences between the Participation, Achievement, and Championship Models, I’m now content with numerous endeavors to be either pay to play, play for free, or play for too little. Participation makes it worthwhile under any payment regime, the alternative typically being sitting at home on my couch wasting my time in front of the TV. I never made it to the enviable position of being paid to play or paid not to play. Still, as an individual of some attainment and multiple areas of expertise, I admit finding it irksome to observe some truly awful people out there pulling in attention and wealth despite rather feeble efforts or abilities. The meritocracy may not be dead, but it often looks comatose.

rant on/

Monastic pursuit of a singular objective, away from the maddening and distracting rush of modern life, is a character attribute that receives more than its rightful share of attention. In its salutary forms, monastic pursuit is understood as admirable, visionary, iconic (or iconoclastic), and heroic. In creative endeavors, seclusion and disengagement from feedback are preconditions for finding one’s true voice and achieving one’s vision. In sports, the image of the athlete devoted to training for the big event — race, match, tournament — to the exclusion of all else is by now a tired trope. Indeed, in this Olympics season, athlete profiles — puff pieces of extraordinary predictability — typically depict competitors in isolation, absolutely no one else at the gym, in the pool, on the track, etc., as though everyone goes it alone without the support or presence of coaches or teammates. Over-specialization and -achievement are such that spectators are conditioned to expect successful individuals, champions, to bleed (quite literally) as a mark of devotion to their respective fields.

At some point, however, monastic pursuit morphs into something more recognizably maniacal. The author retreating to his cabin in the woods to write the great American novel becomes the revolutionary hermit composing his political manifesto. Healthy competition among rivals turns into decidedly unsportsmanlike conduct. (Lance Armstrong is the poster boy not just for doping but also for the sociopathy he displayed mistreating teammates and perpetuating the lie as vehemently and as long as he did. Further examples compound quickly in sports). Business leaders, discontented with (sometime obscene) profitability, target others in their market sector with the intent of driving them out of business and establishing monopolies. (This contrasts markedly with the ideology of self-correcting markets many CEOs falsely espouse.) In politics, high-minded campaigns and elected politicians formed around sound policy and good governance lose out to such dirty tricks as character assassination, rigged and stolen elections, partisanship, and reflexive obstructionism of projects that enjoy popular support. In journalism, fair and balanced reporting inverts to constant harping on preferred talking points to control narratives through sheer force of repetition. You get the idea.

It’s difficult to say from where this intemperate impulse arises, but we’re undoubtedly in a phase of history where nearly every field of endeavor manifests its own version of the arms race. Some might argue that in a cost-benefit analysis, we’re all better off because we enjoy fruits not obtainable without (some folks at least) taking a scorched-earth approach, raising the bar, and driving everyone to greater heights. The willingness of some to distort and disgrace themselves hideously may be a high price to pay, especially when it’s for simple entertainment, but so long as we aren’t paying the price personally, we’re willing spectators to whatever glory and train wrecks occur. I would argue that, ultimately, we’re all paying the price. Routine competition and conflict resolution have grown so unhinged that, just to be in the game, competitors must be prepared to go all in (poker lingo) at even modest provocation. As a result, for just one example, the spirit of America’s erstwhile pastime (baseball) has been so corrupted that balanced players and fans (!) stay away and are replaced by goons. A true level playing field probably never existed. Now, however, whoever can muster the most force (financial, rhetorical, criminal) wins the trophy, and we’re each in turn encouraged to risk all in our own monastic pursuit.

rant off/