Wednesday, December 27, 2006

USA TODAY: Fickle fandom

I have an editorial in today's USA Today about the changing nature of fandom.

It begins:

From now until college football's title game on January 8, thousands of sports fans will crisscross the country for bowl games, some to games steeped in tradition (such as the Rose Bowl), others to contests whose names invite a snicker (Chick-fil-A Bowl, anyone?). Fans don the team colors, barbecue meat byproducts and devour the constant football chitchat on the airwaves.

In one Seinfeld episode, the recurring character Puddy was berated for being a face painter. His retort: "Gotta support the team."

Well, I am one of them.

But my fandom in college football comes with a twinge of guilt. ...

For the rest of the article, click here.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Galloping Ghost 1.0

The first part of my Website (with much more cool stuff to come) is now live. Outstanding work by Analogue, the site's designers.

Monday, December 18, 2006

NBA: Is David Stern still the right man for the job?

David Stern has been one of the most successful leaders of any American sports league. Stern (b. 1942) has been commissioner of the National Basketball Association since Ronald Reagan was president, and although the league has had an incredible run under his stewardship, for the last several years it has felt stale. The NBA used to have a cool factor, a jazz-like irreverence. B-ball was actually fun. But lately, I don't know, it's like the players are trying to have a good time but the stern father won't allow it. There was Stern's edict that players have to wear, at the minimum, business casual attire. (Yawn!) And the labor agreement seems weak, like it was negotiated by George Steinbrenner. For some ill-conceived reason he brought out a new ball this season and the players hated it so much that he had to revert back to the good ol' leather one. And there have been two major brawls, the Pacers-Pistons riot, and the Knicks-Nuggets melee Saturday night. These were obviously not his fault but when the suspensions and fines were handed-out (NBA Statement here) it felt like a principal who had lost touch with the students.

The (lame) excuse for the dip in fan interest: the league doesn't have players like Bird, Magic and MJ anymore. Well, Elway, Montana, and Marino are long-retired but the NFL keeps getting bigger. And it is not like the NBA doesn't have some dynamic young talent--LeBron, Carmelo, and Dwyane Wade--and existing, but perhaps, fading stand-bys like Kobe, Shaq, and Iverson. While Stern has done a stellar job in the past, his, and the league's, recent record says otherwise.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Las Vegas, Sports Book, 10:06 a.m., NFL Sunday: Plus, odds to win Super Bowl XLI

It wasn't exactly the smart money. There was the guy in the #89 Steve Smith jersey drinking a G&T, rubbing his potbelly and telling his buddy that Eli Manning was a loser. (Eli happened to throw for 172 yards and three touchdowns in a win over the Panthers on this day.) And there was the fella, all dressed-up, a black Bible filled with yellow Post-It Notes on his lap as he looked over the morning lines, probably getting a little action down before church. A busty woman who looked like she had been up through the night, standing just outside the sports book, whispered on a cell phone, relaying the spreads to someone, presumably a boyfriend...the book was soon packed with sports gamblers, some people jawing with friends or no one in particular, others looking at the enormous television screens, listening intently to every inflection of Boomer Esiasion's words, studying Dan Marino's mannerisms, just hoping for a clue, confirming a hunch, information being calculated before making their way to the betting window.

What does Vegas think of your team at this point in the season? For odds to win Super Bowl XLI, click the image.

Fan behavior: How has the U.S. escaped bigotry in the stands?

[UPDATE: February 9, 2007: Several stadiums in Italy are banning fans because of security concerns following last week's death of a police officer during riots at a game in Sicily.]

Not surprisingly, sportswriters do not cover spectators in the stands too often. There is the game action, interviewing players and coaches, and, well, the fans are a complex mass of people cheering, booing, sitting silently, leaving early. The networks are trying to package a game so they are used as props: zoom-in on the guy painted green, or the toothy blonde...On the face of it, there is not much to the people watching the game. At soccer matches around the world, however, fans are a much bigger part of the story, and usually for all the wrong reasons. In Paris after a soccer match a few weeks ago, a black police officer protecting a Jewish fan shot a young man to death and wounded another while under attack from supporters hurling racist and anti-Semitic epithets. The incident followed a match between Paris Saint-Germain and Hapoel Tel Aviva. The examples are endless and frequent.

Although American fan behavior can be boorish, and a riot in a 2004 Pacers-Pistons game even become the story of the NBA season, U.S. fandom is not dominated by overt racism, as is the case in European soccer stadiums in which racial taunts are not uncommon. In fact, French national and Arsenal star Thierry Henry has headed a campaign against racism. (For further reading, check out one of my favorite sports books, Among The Thugs, about Manchester United supporters, and unruly fan behavior.)

But it begs the question: why aren't there more social problems reflected in the stands in the United States?

"In England local football (soccer) clubs have traditionally been characterized by a kind of local 'neighborhood patriotism' and their audiences and players have, for much of the history of the sport, been drawn from sections of the local white working class," John Williams, a senior lecturer at the University of Leicester's Centre for the Sociology of Sport, told me. "In such communities--and in the sport itself--a conservative territoriality and resistance to 'difference' and change has historically been quite strong. Mass black immigration to the UK only really occurred in the 1950s and black soccer players only made the breakthrough in soccer here very late on, in the 1970s--when they faced real racism, as a consequence."

In my research of American football (the equivalent, fanwise, of soccer in the rest of the world) of the earlier part of the century, there is on-the-field violence--sometimes much worse than exhibited in today's game--but the reporters covering the games did not talk about any disturbances in the stands and, for the most part, this relative peace has gone on for one hundred years. I don't mean to be pie-in-the-sky here. Of course, there has been racism--segregated seating, for example--but there is no comparison to modern U.S. fans and European soccer supporters. While U.S. supporters scream at opposing players, and players on their own teams who are not performing well (the Yankees Alex Rodriguez, for example), and sometimes get out of control, U.S. fans are a fairly respectful bunch, at least on the surface. It's always amazing how dumb luck, not some sort of cultural superiority, prevails in social structures.

"English soccer fans have often used racism as a convenient way of baiting rival fans," says Williams. "Unlike in sport in the USA, soccer invites opposing white fans into other parts of the stadium to watch the game. This means that 'us' and 'them' oppositions are powerful and immediate features of stadium cultures in the UK. Abusing rival black players can aid well with such sentiments, of course. There are no segregated opposing fans to bait in US sport, using racism as the instrument, as there are in England. In most US sports--certainly in football and basketball--blacks make up the majority of the top players now, and this has been the case for some time. Mobilising racism in the crowd in this context would be pretty difficult."