Thursday, November 30, 2006

Nice unis: Do clothes make a team? Plus, Five Best Logos/Five Best Uniforms

Fashion is not a topic usually associated with sports, but teams with cool, or at least not embarrassing, uniforms tend toward more success. When we think of Penn State football, who can not think of the cleverly simple blue and white uniforms? Or Yankee pinstripes? The Dallas Cowboy star? The Silver and Black?

The uniforms and logos are as much a part of the teams as the players who wear (wore) them. (Believe it or not there is an organization called the Society for Sports Uniform Research, aka SSUR, which has a good site with links to the history of logos and uniforms, including the blog Uni Watch: The Obsessive Study of Athletics Aesthetics.)

Is it any wonder that the Broncos, Buccaneers and Patriots started winning Super Bowls after their jerseys, pants and helmets started looking manly? (Note to the Cleveland Indians: get a new logo.) There are exceptions: the Arizona Diamondbacks, World Series winners in 2001, have ugly unis, the irreverent--but ghastly--Oakland As get-up has been worn by champs, and the rather cool Arizona Cardinals logo has never helped its team, but overall the traditional powerhouses: the Yankees, the Bears, and Michigan football have cool duds and nice design. The fashion world is a fickle one so the most iconic uni-logo combinations are usually more traditional and sturdy--the equivalent of the blue suit. But smart design plays a role: look at the Packers 'G' which just says working-class Wisconsin. Perhaps we are in the midst of football season so the NBA has not caught my attention yet, but basketball uniforms and logos seem rather hopeless: the Baltimore Bullets, circa 1949-1955, above left, showing a bullet going through a ball is a head-scratcher; and, above right, an old Pistons logo featuring a stiff, slow, goofy tinman with, presumably, no heart who appears to be tripping over his own metal foot. And yet it bothers me that the NBA powers-that-be keep "updating" logos year-by-year. There is a lack of continuity, nary a nod to the past.

Six best logos: Yankees, Red Sox, Chicago Bears, Michigan football (helmet and 'M'), Cincinatti Reds, Detroit Red Wings. (Honorable Mention: Florida Gators, Boston Celtics.)

Six best uniforms: Oakland Raiders, Yankees, Manchester United, USC football, San Diego Chargers (powder blue), Penn State/Alabama/Cleveland Browns football (tie). (Honorable Mention: Pittsburgh Steelers, Los Angeles Dodgers, Brazilian national soccer team.)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Pre-game: Knute Rockne speech

Words flowed out of Knute Rockne’s mouth like “champagne out of a battered oilcan.”
--Westbrook Pegler

Saturday, November 18, 2006

In The Stands: Cal Vs. USC

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Race and sports

Two of the most popular sports movies--Brian's Song and Remember The Titans--were, at their core, about race. Other entries in the genre: David Margolick's Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink, a book which came out last year, and Jeremy Schaap's forthcoming (February 2007) Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics. Meanwhile, Robert Redford is working on a movie about Jackie Robinson.

Race is woven around sports, and these truth-seekers have tried, or are trying, to make sense of it. Understanding, analyzing, and defining any subject is difficult, but journalists seem to do a good job of examining inequity...and...yet...they are usually looking backwards, telling their narratives through the clarity of perspective. Writers are less definitive when it comes to the current state of affairs, usually writing reaction stories, like when Dusty Baker talked about the superiority of African-American and Latin players in warm playing conditions. (One notable exception: William Rhoden's Forty Million Dollar Slaves.) Still I have read some real quality stuff recently that delves into ethnicity and sports in our modern world. Here is a roundup: the Chicago Sports Review on the word scrappy and how commentators never use the word to describe African-American players. Chicagoist's signature tongue-in-cheek take on the University of Illinois' banned mascot Chief Illiniwek. And Michael Lewis' recently published football book, The Blind Side, is also, in part, about race relations.

For regular coverage of this topic, check out Richard Lapchick, president of the National Consortium for Academics and Sports. He writes for ESPN.com and other publications; Lapchick's articles can be found here. [Full disclosure: I am writing a book for Houghton Mifflin, the publisher of Triumph.]

UPDATE 11/27/06: Michael Irvin apologizing for his racial comments--with a replay of his statement--about Dallas QB Tony Romo on last week's Dan Patrick Show [ESPN Insider req'd]. And Slate's take on Irvin.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

We Are Marshall

Justin McElroy of the Herald-Dispatch (Huntington, West Virginia) wrote a nice story today about the annual memorial service for the Marshall University football team. It's the 36-year anniversary of the DC-9 crash that killed 75 people—including 37 Thundering Herd players, five coaches and several boosters. The accident is considered the worst sports-related disaster in U.S. history. (A feature film, We Are Marshall, dramatizing the tragedy, comes out on December 22.)

McElroy's lede:

"William 'Red' Dawson is not usually comfortable taking center stage at the annual Marshall memorial service of the 1970 plane crash. The former Thundering Herd receivers coach usually watches from afar, leaning against an old sycamore where he can watch what’s going on but stay just out of sight."

Friday, November 10, 2006

Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait

A movie about Zinedine Zidane--three-time FIFA World Footballer of the Year and one of the most captivating athletes to follow on any playing field--was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May and has just started a run in London theaters. (As for seeing it in the United States, Adam Spangler of This Is American Soccer told me he saw a screening at the Museum of Modern Art--MOMA film listings here.) Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait has had mixed reviews. The International Herald Tribune didn't exactly love it, and Variety's critic, who screened it in Zidane-crazy France, said the film "reaped a spectrum of reactions...ranging from rapt fascination to irritated boredom and ankling." But at the very least, check out the footage on the movie's Website (click on "Videos"). The images are really arresting--the filmmakers set up 17 cameras around the field to follow "Zizou" throughout a match--and Mogwai's rich musical score captures the emotion of stadium-as-cathedral. Thanks to Analogue for the tip.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

History lesson: Bears Vs. Giants

Dave Anderson, the dean of sports columnists and a Pulitzer Prize
winner, has a piece in today's New York Times about the storied Chicago Bears Vs. New York Giants rivalry. The article includes a description of Red Grange's 1925 game. [TimesSelect Req'd.]

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Perspective: sports photography

In her book On Photography, Susan Sontag wrote, "There are a great many more images around, claiming our attention," and so photography (and writing) can sometimes feel stale in the image-flooded world of ESPN, the Internet, and within overly-orchestrated pro and college stadiums. But maybe the real blindness comes in the cliche way we look at the events. For evidence of gripping, original images, check out the National Press Photographers Association's "The Best of Photojournalism" winners. In the sports category the Beijing Shichahai Sports School by Tomasz Gudzowaty of Yours Photography/Fotoagentur Focus; the shot of the baseball by the Baltimore Sun's Karl Merton Ferron; the brilliantly composed photograph of Serena Williams (above) by Adam Pretty of Getty Images; and, a photograph--not a sports shot per se--that should put the spirit of sports in perspective: the Odessa American's Paul Zoeller's photograph of a nine-year-old boy born without any legs playing soccer.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


Saturday, November 04, 2006

Grace under pressure

Ernest Hemingway called it "grace under pressure." Football great Red Grange partially attributed his clutch performances to his calm mind, his ability to tune out the crowd. Physical gifts are important in athletics, but the ability to perform tasks, and do them well, in stressful situations, is perhaps the most interesting, and least understood, aspect of sports. Tom Brady, an average athlete by NFL standards, has elevated himself above the league's other QBs because of his ability to make smart decisions under the Klieg lights. In football, quarterbacks must possess psychological fitness because their decisions dictate all the action: the other players are essentially reactionary. While it is fun to watch athletes perform well, it is even more intriguing to watch them choke. Phil Mickelson's meltdown at this year's U.S. Open, Chicago Bears Rex Grossman's six-turnover performance on a mid-season Monday Night Football game against the Cardinals (the Cardinals!), and Drew Bledsoe--in another MNF game with the nation and his peers watching--throwing a dumb interception, one which cost him his starting job. While most people attribute choking to "thinking too much"--mentally going through a routine rather than simply performing it--recent studies say that choking has less to do with over-thinking, and more about distraction. Pressure co-opts working memory, leaving athletes without enough cognitive resources; the brain becomes so stressed that it can't perform--sort of like a computer with too many applications running.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

William Styron, 1925-2006

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Breeders' Cup

The Kentucky Derby has the lore, but Saturday's Breeders' Cup is the greatest horse racing day. It's the Super Bowl for pony players and it is an amazing event to experience in person. Too bad the Sport of Kings has faded behind soccer and boxing in the public's imagination, but in the history of sportswriting the track has inspired some of the greatest writing--Seabiscuit, the most recent masterwork.

William Nack is just brilliant when it comes to writing about thoroughbreds. Here is his lede from his 1990 Sports Illustrated article "Pure Heart": "Just before noon the horse was led haltingly into a van next to the stallion barn, and there a concentrated barbiturate was injected into his jugular. Forty-five seconds later there was a crash as the stallion collapsed. His body was trucked immediately to Lexington, Kentucky, where Dr. Thomas Swerczek, a professor of veterinary science at the University of Kentucky, performed the necropsy. All of the horse's vital organs were normal in size except for the heart."

Are Wrestlers People?

Often, as I have sat at the ringside, watching great, hairy lumps of living meat spank, throttle and wring one another, it has occurred to me to wonder whether wrestlers love and are loved and whether they really suffer. Or are they, like the fishworm, incapable of emotion and insensible to pain?
--Westbrook Pegler