American Sports are MENTAL
AN A-Z for the European audience
In a recent interview to pay tribute to his late colleague Bill O’Herlihy, RTÉ soccer pundit Eamon Dunphy described the pursuit of sports as “ a serious matter of popular culture, but at the same time, a bit of fun and joy” . It is this double edged bat, stick or club that sport wields. On one hand, sport revolves around a most basic central premise of two teams chasing a spherical object around a cut field of grass. That core tenant, when viewed from a critical distance can seem rather silly: why do we care so much about which team of eejits gather up that round thing and throw it between/over/under/around those posts at the far end of a pitch with white lines painted on it? One of the reasons is as Dunphy points out; Sport has become rightly or wrongly, an important matter of popular culture. Society has elevated the status of its superstars by its highest accolade; salary. To think that we rage and spit fire about politicians granting themselves a 2% increase in salary in return for making some of the most important decisions in our lives. While at the same we raise not even half an eyebrow at a soccer player earning perhaps twice that wage in a week, whose decision making is focused on who should I kick this round white thing to next, and what will I do with my day now that training is over at 2.30pm.
In the series finale of ‘Mad Men’, the central character Don Draper appears to have found himself in a spiritual haven, a zen like state of peace and tranquility. Perched on a cliff top with a rushing ocean at his ears, he’s actually dreaming up the premise for one of the most iconic commercials of all time. The Americans may not invent everything, but they’re pretty good at perfecting them. Advertising, commercials, sponsorships, partnerships. If sport exists in Ireland as an important tenant of popular culture and as a representation of history and heritage, it exists in America mainly as the most electrifying way of entertaining the masses. Modern day Gladiators, sparring for your pleasure; with your hero’s apparel on sale right outside the coliseum. Dont get me wrong , the GAA wont open Croke Park unless they can be assured of a crowd of over 20,000 and you will be rightly gouged once inside for fizzy drinks, hot dogs and a pint of black stuff all priced way above the norm. But across the Atlantic its at a different level.
Let’s face it, American Sports are MENTAL. Not so much the sports themselves, but how they have been sculpted and shaped by the glacial movements of commercial advertising. The sporting endeavour has become an increasingly irrelevant aspect of the experience and its teams are involved in entertainment first, sport second. Take baseball, its not about how many runs your team scores, its how many corn dogs, beers, slushies and popcorns you can inhale before the Umpire points for the last out and the patrons are shovelled back onto the streets. Take the Superbowl; I once took a class in advertising in University in America. The week after the Easter Sunday of Advertising, class consisted of watching in awe at the art and guile the best minds in the business displayed in crafting these most perfect vehicles for selling, squeezed into the most expensive of shop windows, with more than half a billion sets of eyes stopping by to browse.
But its not just the ads, or the money, there are things happening in US sports I believe are truly farcical, let’s see if you agree. Here goes on the Talking Balls edition of : American Sports are mental — An A-Z. First up , A-D!
A is for … All Stars.
Every major American sport has an All-Star series somewhere in the middle of their vast seasons (NFL at the end) where the greatest come to take their bow in front of an adoring and appreciative public. Well, not quite. The basketball weekend has evolved into a bizarre set of skills challenges, circus tricks and show pony stunts. The one true spectacle of worth, the Slam Dunk contest has been so worn out that only first year rookies will compete, with the legends of the game coerced into looking on and waving a towel in mock appreciation. A hat-tip to 2015 winner Zac Levine who breathed a few mouthfuls of air into this unconscious body, but it looks like it’s too late for the defib on this one. A mid-season carnival, fine. Baseball puts a real, tangible prize at the other end of its All-Star exhibition — home diamond advantage to the winning team from the winning conference. It’s sort of incredible that this is offered to such a disposable game, despite the level of diligence that the different leagues pay it. Imagine the Premier League offering 3 extra home games to whatever team sells the most sticker albums. I’m not even going to dignify the NFL with a review of its annual boys on tour trip to Hawai. It’s laughable cabaret show is so lacking in at least half of the game’s content (i.e. defense) its like watching golfers hit drives and irons without having to put out.
MENTAL RATING MMM
B is for … Boras.
Do you know who the most important person in Soccer is ? Not anymore since Alex Ferguson started writing books! Tennis? Rugby? Generally speaking either the most important player (Tiger in his day) or the person in charge of the biggest tournament or competition . The most important people in US Sports, after the commissioners of the leagues are agents, a trend that is beginning to spread across the Atlantic. And the King of Agents is Scott Boras. No man controls the financial fortunes of players, teams and organisations more than Boras. His last 5 big contracts netted his clients a total of 1.15 BILLION DOLLARS in return for a combined 46 years of throwing and hitting baseballs. That’s the GDP of Tonga, x 3.
Not only does Boras put intense pressure on General Managers to construct their rosters with complex financial rigidity, very often Boras and other top flight agents can negotiate the destination of the player based upon who can offer him the most money and therefore commission, effectively controlling the destinies of future championships from afar. For example, Lebron James recently returned to his hometown of Cleveland. His agent Rich Paul, ensured that another of his clients Tristan Thompson came along in the deal. On the strength of holding the ace in Lebron James, Paul is negotiating a contract extension far beyond any reasonable assessment of Thompson’s value. It’s an interesting game of poker, but somewhat depressing that no matter how well run an organisation is run, a ruthless agent and high profile star are never behind.
MENTAL RATING MMM
C is for … Contract Year
All of us at some stage feel like we are underpaid and overworked. The concept of a ‘permanent post’ has all but disappeared, with jobs subject to funding cycles, philosophies of the prevailing governments and administrations. Consider the attitude then of a professional athlete, who attempts to extract as many years out of a finite resource, in an effort to stockpile enough your majesties to last them and theirs a lifetime. They too, are subject to funding cycles and performance related pay, with contract reviews. There is a great office sign that goes something like : I give 100% every week. 32% on Monday, 16% on Tuesday, you know how this one ends. The funny thing is, that’s exactly how US sports stars view their contracts , leading to phenomenon of the ‘Contract Year’. This is the 12 months leading up to the conclusion of the athlete’s project when the agent makes a frantic call to the client :
Agent : Yo, Carl, you up ?
Athlete(Carl) : Yeah man, its like, 12.15, of course I’m up, I got up 15 minutes ago. Why you calling early ?
Agent : I was just looking through your papers, you know you’re a free agent at the end of this season! Time to start puttin’ up some numbers big fella! WE gotta get you that extension! 4 years for 35 million!
Carl: For real? This year? Time flies man. Aiiiitt, its true spit from now on in. We gotta protect my endorsements too, bro. That right guard photoshoot paid for a beach house for my sister.
Agent: True spit. Yeah man, my Infiniti’s lease is up so we want a nice package here, everyone wins. Get your rebounds, get your 18 points a night, and we’re home free.
Carl: Cool. Hey good catch on the contract man, I knew you were the right agent for me.
Agent: Try to get the General Manager’s cell number for me will you? I lost all my numbers when I downloaded the new Candy Crush.
Carl : #Real Spit!
And so it comes to pass, that in the twilight of an already generous contract, with declining statistics and mediocre production, a player’s performance suddenly rises like sodas on a griddle: for a little bit, and for a while until the fire goes down … see Aramis Ramirez, Dwight Howard, and other great Free Agent Thieves
Mental Rating MMMMM
D is for … Deflate Gate
22 Nov 1963 : The day that JFK was gunned down. 09/11/89 : The night the Berlin wall comes down. But where you when; on January 18th 2015, the day that with some level of probability, more probably than possibly not, the night that Tom Brady let the footballs down.
In a Judge Dredd-like passing of judgement from a man who doesn’t seem to have a sense of any, Roger Goodell , commissioner of the National Football League suspended the most recognisable athlete in his league, Quarterback of the New England Patriots Tom Brady, for 4 games (25% of a season). This sentence came after a 243 page report produced by Ted Wells found that Brady ‘more probably than not’ had some knowledge that some of the balls used in the NFC Championship game had been deflated below acceptable level of pressure.
With arbitration between the sides proving futile, Brady sued the league and won his case, with Judge Richard M. Berman overturning Brady’s suspensions stating that Brady had been denied due process in his disciplinary hearings.
Goodell has a horrible track record with dealing out discipline to his players. In July 2014 after Ray Rice, now a free agent running back told Commissioner Goodell that he knocked his wife out with a punch in a Las Vegas Casino, Rice was suspended for a total of 2 games. Brady got 4 for possibly / maybe taking out air out of some footballs.
In the first half of the game in question when Brady was playing with his allegedly preferred deflated balls he threw for 1 touchdown pass of 1 yard, and also threw an interception. In the second half when the balls had been checked to be properly inflated, he threw better, for more yards and 2 touchdowns. Since the start of the year (where the Patriots are defending champions) the Patriots are undefeated, and Brady has thrown for almost 340 yards per game, the highest average of his career. Go figure the figures.
In March 2014 the US Bureau for Statistics reported an increase of 78% in the US population about knowledge of the ideal gas law. Not true, but believable, and an incredible month for a small group of physicists and chemists who starred on SportsCenter and featured in newspaper articles in the Sports section for the first time in their lives. And it was very funny seeing head coach Bill Bellichick come to the microphone and give statements about psi and pounds of pressure, a pressure he had never felt before.
Mental rating MMMMMM
Next up D — F , stay clicked in !