Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Jonah Lomu, RIP

Jonah Lomu, former New Zealand All Blacks rugby star, was a beast, a global sporting phenomenon in the 1990s who is just about without comparison. A wing with world-class speed in the hundred but built like someone who would be comfortable in the scrums Lomu could run over people but he was just as likely to run through them. The closest American sporting comparison I can think of is Bo Jackson in terms of the freakish things that he did. The closest football comparisons might be a hybrid of Marshawn Lynch and Chris Johnson, which is to say the ability to run people over while possessing Johnson's "Cop Speed" to run away from them. But he was far, far better at rugby than either of those two very good players ever was at football.

  If you are putting together an all-time rugby XV, the greatest team in the game's history, there might be no more obvious answer at any position than to start by filling in one of the wing slots with Lomu. He first came to the world's attention in 1995 during the World Cup, an event that became famous because of South Africa's home victory, though he had shown signs of what he would become before that. The 1995 IRB World Cup is best known for Nelson Mandela embracing the underdog Springboks who returned from global sporting isolation and helped the New South Africa establish its footing. (And only just "helped," whatever Hollywood and too many journalists would want you to think.) And yet the unquestioned star of that event was Lomu who ran past and around, over and through people. South Africa stopping Lomu was one of the biggest rugby stories of that cup, but he cemented his place in the event's and the sport's history. By the time of his retirement after a too brief career shortened in no small part by the kidney disease that would help take him from us today at the gallingly young age of 40, he held the record for tries at the World Cup with 15,  a number that would only be matched this year by another all-time great, Bryan Habana. (Habana is possibly my favorite player of all time. He would make more than a few all-time squads. And he would start over Lomu on no one on the planet's all-time side.)

Lomu's death is shocking because of his age, and even though it was well known that his disease was serious, hearing about it was stunning, a blow to the solar plexus, like hearing that someone beat up Superman or outran the Flash. Because Lomu was a superhero. A black-clad superhero who could make his enemies quake just by doing the Haka. He is one of my favorite athletes of all-time. If there is an afterlife its rugby team just got a hell of a lot better. And someone on the other team is about to get run over.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

DCAT's First Baseball Game and Childhood Baseball Memories

I was already a huge baseball fan by the time the 1980s arrived. I turned 9 in 1980 and had never been to a Red Sox game, even though at that point I could give you the Red Sox lineup from top to bottom (and yes, I could probably do fairly well in replicating the 1980 Red Sox lineup now. Fisk, Perez, Stapleton, Burleson, probably Glenn Hoffman, Rice, Lynn, Evans, and by this point Yaz at DH)  But we remember teams from our childhood in ways that we don't those from our adulthood. The 1995 and 1999 Sox both made the playoffs, in 1999 Pedro Martinez had the most impressive playoff relief appearance in baseball history, and I just did the 1980 lineup from memory and couldn't do the same for either of those far more recent teams.

It was May 3rd 1980. I used to spend a few weeks every summer with my uncle and aunt, first when they lived in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania and then when they lived on Long Island. I loved baseball and so did my uncle. In future years we'd go to Yankee and Shea Stadiums (I hate the Yankees with the white hot intensity of the thousand burning std's that Jessica Alba allegedly received from Derek Jeter) so often that to this day they are the two stadia I've been to most often after Fenway.

In any case, I'd just turned 9 and my uncle was in position to take me to my first baseball game.

I feel as if I remember everything about it. I remember the Vet in Philly, and this being my first time in a Major League stadium thinking it was the greatest thing ever, and not the total shit-show that the Vet was.  I remember seeing the players -- and I'm doing this from memory (I'll link the game somewhere above) -- Ron Cey and Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, and Dusty Baker. Steve Yeager at catcher, right? (I'm missing one.) And I know that former Red Sox player (and unfortunate victim of traditional Red Sox racism) Reggie Smith was part of that team. And the Phillies, who I came to like a lot (only 9-year-olds are allowed to have a "second favorite team," but I was nine and the Phillies were thus mine) consisted of Mike Schmidt, of course, and Bull Luzinski (more on these two later) plus Bob Boone, Pete Rose, Larry Bowa, One of the Maddoxes (Maddoxi?), and I think Bake McBride.

My memories of the game, as opposed to the teams, is a bit vaguer.  I was nine, my brother was six, and I remember explicitly both that Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski hit home runs, and if they weren't back-to-back they were damned close (Note after writing this: They were back-to-back, which only means that 9-year olds think home runs are fucking awesome, because, well, home runs are fucking awesome). Those home runs came off of Bert Hooten, a name second only to "Boobie Clark" (a Bengals running back, as I recall) in the child's name hierarchy. And what was even more memorable is that it was the 2nd or 3rd (Note: 2nd) inning and my brother had to go pee. So my uncle took him to pee, in the childhood-trauma-inducing Vet, and missed both home runs. My brother could not have cared less. My 20-something-baseball-fan uncle cared very much. Never bring children to a baseball game if you care about that baseball game.

But here is the honest truth. I became a huge sports fan, wrote a book about baseball, and care about these things way too much. And yet seeing Steve Garvey and Mike Schmidt from the third deck vertigo seats was an absolute thrill, probably one of the biggest of my life, especially if we compare these things relative to the influence on my life at the time. Yet the thing I remember most to this day? May 3, 1980 was the Phillie Phanatic's birthday. They handed out the sort of fan gift you'd never get today -- a quality stuffed Phillie Phanatic that I kept for a shockingly long time even after I stopped caring about the Phillies (which was sometime around January 1, 1981 even if Tug McGraw jumping up in the air after getting the last out in the 1980 World Series is still etched in my brain).  I did not give a shit about the Phillies by 1981, but I bet I had that Phillie Phanatic through high school.

[Oh, and looking it up, as I did every memory in this post after I wrote it, Boobie Clark died of a blood clot in his brain when he was 39. Fuck. It's a lot better to be a kid.]

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

On Selma, Historiography and Movie Reviews

Be humble before the historiography. Don't make grand pronouncements about a literature you do not know.

That is advice I constantly tell my students. Indeed, I have often argued that while the dissertation is a vital proving ground for doing history, for bringing all of the training into practice and making your own contribution, the general (or comprehensive) exams are the central proving ground for the profession. For it is in that process that graduate students, aspiring historians, learn about the depth of literature and the development of historiographical arguments. And it is in that process that most of us came to learn to be incredibly wary of books bearing the subtitle "The Untold Story Of . . ." because there are few truly untold stories, and even fewer untold stories that sell themselves as such.

I was reminded of this several weeks ago when I saw Chris Nashawaty's Entertainment Weekly review of Selma. Now, I usually like Nashatawy's reviews. He's smart and he writes well. But in that review he argued something silly: "British actor David Oyelowo . . .  miraculously rescues the flesh-and-blood man from the myth. He reveals to us the King who’s not in our history books — his humor, his human failings, and his self-doubt." It is a silly argument made all the worse by the fact that as a pronouncement it reveals Nashatawy's almost aggressive ignorance in which he purports to speak about "history books" he has not only not read, but clearly does not even know exists.

 Far from revealing something about King absent from "our history books" Selma reinforces a King familiar to many. Nashatawy cannot have read any of the many (dozens of? Hundreds of?) books on King and the Civil Rights Movement that have been published over the course of quite literally three decades. King's humor, human failings, and self-doubt are nothing new to more than a generation of historians who have even dipped their toe into a widely published, widely reviewed, and widely praised literature that has hardly been confined to the shelves of university libraries. No one would expect Nashatawy to be familiar with this literature except when he explicitly writes as if it does not exist.

Be humble before the historiography. Don't make grand pronouncements about a literature you do not know.


As for Selma -- I really did think it was a fine, powerful movie. The director Ava Du Vernay did a generally effective job but she made some odd choices with exposition and on at least one occasion decided to fill a largely unnecessary scene with Michal Bay pyrotechnics -- I have no idea why she chose, in an otherwise closely rendered film focusing on the events surrounding the Selma March, to depict the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham except as emotional manipulation -- 1964, which she almost entirely skips over between the bombing and the events of Selma, was not exactly devoid of far more relevant events to the struggle for voting rights. I thought the casting of Oprah was gimmicky and distracting. But otherwise the acting really was spectacular almost across the board and it was in that arena that I believe that the film really did get snubbed during awards season. Du Vernay really did commit historical malpractice in depicting LBJ, and no, I do not believe that filmmakers get to hide behind the cloak of artistic license once they choose to take on historical topics, something Du Vernay and her defenders have tried to do since this criticism emerged. Her depiction of LBJ did not jibe with even the most critical, revisionist interpretations of his role in dealing with the demand for voting rights. Historical liberties in filling in gaps or trying to cover a lot of material quickly is one thing. No film can do justice for history's depth and expanse like a book can (my guess is that the word count for the script probably amounted to that of a longish chapter in a book) but she went beyond this and tainted an otherwise quite faithful rendering of important events, events important enough to warrant an honest, fair rendering. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Ambivalence of Forgiveness

I have a contribution to Columbia University's Dialogues on Historical Justice and Memory Network Working Paper Series: “The Ambivalence of Forgiveness: Dirk Coetzee, Eugene de Kock, and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” Please go check it out if you are interested.

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Modest Proposal for College Football

So Ohio State beat Oregon in the closest to what the highest level of college football has ever had to a legitimate process for determining a national champion. This is better than the BCS, which was significantly better than the old bowl system. But it is not good enough. The two best teams in the Big 12 were shut out of the conversation based on back room machinations and of course teams from the smaller conferences were kept out entirely. The system is thus improved but still needs tweaking.

Hereby I present two proposals, one somewhat substantial but still in keeping with the overall structure of the contemporary college football landscape, while the second is more radical (and to my mind would be a whole lot more fun).

Solution 1: A 16 Team Playoff

It is perplexing to me that anyone could seriously embrace either a four- or even an eight-team playoff for one simple reason: There are ten BCS conferences. (In either of my scenarios the four independents -- BYU, Notre Dame, Army, and Navy -- would have to join a conference.) How can there not be at least ten places in the playoff system?

Thus it seems absurd to have a system that pretty much automatically excludes the winners of six of these -- possibly more if a major conference were to receive two slots in the final four, which could easily have happened this season when SEC West love was in full effect. And given how many of the programs in these second-tier conferences are state institutions, it seems unconscionable to hold them to the expensive (and almost universally money-losing) standards of the highest level of college football if you are not going to guarantee them a share in the process. So either drop the MAC, AAC, Conference USA, Mountain West, and Sun Belt down to the FCS level or guarantee them a seat at the table.

A sixteen-team playoff would solve this problem (and would be the biggest collegiate sporting event in America, far surpassing March Madness). Each conference winner would get an automatic playoff slot, leaving six places for at-large berths. And yes, the last team out will always stake a claim to deserving a shot at the last space, but with every conference winner claiming a space no team could plausibly claim to "deserve" a shot at a national title. Nonetheless the at-large berths could go to the five power conferences with one remaining truly at-large spot remaining.

And don't let anyone use the argument that this would get in the way of final exams -- the NCAA holds a playoff system at every other level, including Division III where in many cases academic standards and expectations run laps around their FBS counterparts. And March Madness takes place during a month when almost every campus in the country has midterm exams and projects scheduled at some point.  The NCAA offers a true and comprehensive national championship process for every sport at every level. The idea that the most prominent of these sports at the highest level is just to complex is absurd.

Solution 2: An 8 Team Playoff, With Conference Realignment and Promotion and Relegation

This is actually my preferred solution, but I don't think it could happen. In this scenario we pair conferences, one power conference with one of the smaller conferences (I would match the ACC with the AAC, the Big Ten and MAC, the SEC and Sun Belt, the Big 12 and Conference USA, and the PAC 12 and Mountain West.) Then you create five tiers, much like in association football (ie soccer). And in so doing you create a promotion and relegation model within these five groupings.

Obviously this would represent a dramatic, indeed radical shift. And every year some of the big boys would lose their spot in the privileged conference and would drop down, with a minnow taking its place, but that would also create real competition. Why should Colorado, with its horrible football program, be guaranteed a piece of the PAC 12 pie while Boise State knows that even going undefeated does not guarantee anything in the face of the cartel that runs the FBS?

This system, much like promotion and relegation in world soccer would also make for many more meaningful games at the end of the season as teams at the lower level fight for promotion and teams at the bottom of the major tiers would have every reason to play well at the end of the season to guarantee their place in the top tier. Indeed, this system could even be expanded to accommodate the FCS, though that might take time, as you'd have to tier those conferences as well. In the end, though, we would have a much more exciting and fun system that would allow teams to play at the level they belong, the level they have earned.

In this realigned, restructured college football world an eight-team playoff could be fine, with the winners of the five top tiers getting automatic berths and three at-large slots. Naturally after a few years the world would clamor for 16 teams, which would be fine, but eight teams would nonetheless fit fairly well. in some ways after winning in this tiered process the national championship tournament would be a lot like the Champions League(s) that exist in global soccer, UEFA's being the most respected.


Thursday, January 01, 2015

Welcome 2015! (Good Riddance 2014)

Happy New Year!

While from a personal vantage point 2014 was a fine one for me and mine, it sure seemed like an annus horribilus for society at large. perhaps 2015 will be better. I will make an effort to write more about it here even if no one will actually be here to read it.