To go or not to go? A View from Inside Big-Time College Sports

A couple of days ago I received an e-mail from the Athletic Director (AD) at the University of Michigan, inviting me and other members of the Advisory Board on Intercollegiate Athletics (ABIA) to join the “University Official Party” on a trip, courtesy of the athletic department, to watch the University’s football team compete at the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida on New Year’s Day.

I have decided to decline the very generous invitation. It is not, I want to emphasize at the outset, that I think I have a complete understanding of this industry, and less that I believe mine is the only reasonable or morally appropriate response.  Far from it.  In fact, as I’m not a big football fan and the trip falls at a somewhat inconvenient moment, I really don’t think of my decision as having been primarily a moral one.

However, that’s not to say that I don’t think there are moral questions at stake, questions that go well beyond the specific issues and choices raised by this particular invitation.  Among these, I’m most interested in what role university faculty members, entrusted with the intellectual growth and overall well-being of their students, should have in relation to university athletic departments. So I share this information and, below, the feelings and thoughts that informed my decision about it in the hopes that it sheds light on the tensions at work in one small, but perhaps telling, corner of the massive entertainment industry that big time college sports has become.

Let me first share my reflections on sharing this information in this format, which I considered carefully. First, the fact that the athletic department offers this benefit to ABIA members is a matter of public record.  Likewise, all the information that I’m sharing concerning ABIA’s constitution and function come, as you’ll see if you follow the links, publicly available documents.  This is, I believe, as it should be: we are a public institution and I think our discussions regarding how to administer this institution should be available to the public. I don’t think we as a board should take positions or make decisions that we wouldn’t stand by publicly.  That said, I also respect my colleagues. Everyone I’ve worked with in this capacity has impressed me as sincere, thoughtful, and well-meaning, even when I disagree with them, and I do not wish to embarrass them or cause them discomfort.  For this reason, I have not here and do not intend in the future to share the remarks or views of my colleagues on the board, even in anonymized form.  I hope this will be sufficient to assure my colleagues of my intentions.

Now, I’m new to the ABIA and to the Academic Performance Committee (APC; a subcommittee composed of the faculty members on ABIA), having just started my first three-year term this Fall, so I confess I’m still fairly ignorant of how all this plays out in actual practice. But as I understand it, the ABIA’s role is to provide faculty input into the decisions made by the AD concerning the athletic department and the APC’s role is to provide faculty oversight concerning matters pertaining to the academic experience, performance, and eligibility of athletes—all this subject to the final authority of either the President or the Provost. There have been questions raised in the past at Michigan, and elsewhere, about whether this really constitutes adequate faculty control. (For details on the constitution and function of the ABIA and APC, and their history at Michigan, you can jump to the end of this post. As I say, everything there is drawn from publicly available documents to which I’ve provided links.)

But, seeing aside the historical details of ABIA at Michigan and beyond the specifics of the particular issue of the invitation to attend the Citrus Bowl, there remains the underlying, substantive issue, which I’ll frame in personal terms since that’s how I best process such questions: what (speaking now as a Michigan faculty member with a scholarly interest in matters of sport and society who regularly teaches students who are also athletes, and who know holds an administrative position on the only university agency through which faculty have input on the activities of the athletic department) should my role be?

I’d like, in part at least, to be the kind of person who, finding himself in this situation, can draw upon a set of stable, consistent, rationally derived moral principles to guide my decision making.  To my mild disappointment, however, I’m not locating such principles within myself.  Mostly, in fact, I’m encountering what feels like a pretty unstable mire comprised of visceral pulls and aversions, feelings, conscious and unconscious investments,  (some quite idiosyncratic, personal, and narcissistic), sparsely mixed with opinions whose strength is not quite matched by my still-growing knowledge about the issues.  It’s kind of a mess, and a mess that I find points my actions in different and sometimes contradictory directions at different moments depending on the the specific circumstances facing me.

That said, a promising, because relatively solid, starting point I find is my strong feeling of care for my students.  I’m not talking about students in general, nor about all students who are athletes. I’m saying I find I care very much about the well-being of my students, including those who are athletes.  But what does it mean, in this case, to act on that feeling? Some of my students are on the football team. I care about them and I remember that when I was an athlete, it meant a lot to me that teachers came to my games. I don’t mean to exaggerate the importance of this, but I’m sure that my football-playing students would feel some version of this.

On the other hand, they are also my students, some of whom have during this semester in my Global Sports Cultures course heard me describe the current state of research on the harmful effects of sub-concussive brain trauma sustained regularly by football players in the course of practice and games; or the vast sums of money that the NCAA and its member institutions, media conglomerates, and apparel manufacturers make off their efforts.  I’ve asked them, as I’ve asked all my students, to consider carefully their position in relation to these dynamics. What lesson—and I don’t mean this rhetorically, but genuinely—might they draw by my going to the Citrus Bowl—where they will collide with other young men as millions watch and millions of dollars are generated? I wonder.

Moreover, I care about my students not only as athletes or students, but in a holistic way; perhaps most of all in a holistic way. I feel responsibility for their growth and development and well-being as adolescent human beings.  As such, I’m concerned about the toll that their participation in college sports, as currently configured, may have on them. I don’t just mean the physical toll, but the psychological and intellectual toll. Don’t get me wrong: I’m aware that most of them would say that playing college sports is one of the most physically, psychologically, and intellectually satisfying parts of their life experience.  That may be true from their point of view and perhaps that is where my rumination should stop.  But I’m their teacher and mentor, not to mention their elder, with all the differences in perspective, for better and or worse, that comes with that. From that perspective, my concern only heightens precisely because they seem so innocently unaware of it. I worry, in other words, about their futures.

But I’m also a sports fan and have been for as long as I remember. What does that mean to me? It means that I’m drawn to the aesthetic beauty of athletic performance as a form of art and to the suspenseful narrative micro-dramas that unfold in the course of sporting events. It means that to some degree I’m identified with and invested in the success of particular teams, like those that represent Michigan, and to individual players, some of whom I know personally.

It means also, in my case, that I feel a desire to be in the close proximity of sports and of athletes.  I feel a rush from my personal acquaintance with athletes that others know only as distant objects, two-dimensional figures on a television screen or dots on a field or court far below their perch in the nosebleed seats.  Of course, I also know this is childish and perhaps foolish. I know—I just said—that they are just human kids and that their being constructed as heroic objects of veneration by fans, the media, and their institutions is part of the problem. In fact, this dimension of sports culture is part of what makes me averse and somewhat ashamed to be a sports fan when I’m talking to people who are not. And yet, there that childish, foolish feeling is, rising up and nudging me toward the thrill of seeing a bowl game in person (never mind that I’ve probably watched no more than a dozen of them on TV in my entire life).

Finally, what about my role as a faculty member on the ABIA? Can I really perform the independent advisory functions I have been appointed to perform when I am also accepting a gift from the university agency that I’m supposed to be independently advising and overseeing? Honestly, I feel that accepting the gift wouldn’t cause me to pull any punches I’d otherwise be inclined to throw. But maybe I’m wrong. Yet, even if I’m right, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a structural conflict of interest involved, nor does it mean that this conflict of interest should be ignored.

Some of my students, when I shared the situation with them in class the other day, suggested that I should go because, after all, that would put me face to face with decision makers and augment the scope of my influence over them.  Maybe.  Though, if I’m honest, I have to say I don’t really believe it.  For one thing, I’m not sure that a bowl game is a place where any matters that matter are going to be discussed. As I told my students, it’s not as though I imagine getting Jim Harbaugh drunk in the hotel bar and convincing him to agree, with tearful relief, to blow up the whole system like some NCAA Mikhail Gorbachev presiding over the dismantling of the Soviet Union. My wife, who has a talent for storytelling, thought this would make a great short story, especially if it ended with me, having broken him down, berating him to “get it together, man, ’cause, after all, you got a ballgame to win tomorrow!” I wish, kind of, but I don’t think that’s how it would go down.

In fact, since I’m being honest, I’m somewhat skeptical about the possibilities of anything that matters in college sports changing as a result of the discussions and decisions that are made in the meetings of the ABIA. That’s not because of anything that has occurred in my experience so far.  And part of me understands that meaningful change in human history has sometimes occurred in piecemeal fashion.  But I also understand that these sorts of piecemeal changes don’t always add up to meaningful structural changes; indeed, that sometimes they defuse the energies that might drive more significant changes.

In this case, though I reserve the right to contradict myself and change my opinion, I see college sports changing in ways that significantly address what I see as the injustices in them only because athletes rise up collectively and threaten, as the Missouri football team did a few weeks ago, to refuse to play unless changes are made, which is why I actively support the work of the College Athletes Rights and Empowerment Coalition (CARE-FC).  In the long run, I suppose my hopes for change lie in the belief that subsequent generations of athletic and university administrators, if drawn from the ranks of the more politically conscious of today’s younger generation, will imagine and implement a new system.  Maybe.

My therapist asked me today to imagine going to the game and sitting next to our AD, Jim Hackett, who in my few encounters with him has struck me as a sincere and caring person, one who has in his short time as interim athletic director left the program in better shape than he found it. What, my therapist asked me, do I imagine myself saying to him as we munch on Buffalo Wild Wings and watch, comfortable behind the plexiglass walls of a skybox, my students bashing into some Florida professor’s students on the field far below under the Florida sunshine? I had an answer straightaway. “Man, Jim, I love sports and I love my students, but I’m finding it hard to watch this.  They’re hitting each other so hard and I just can’t forget what I know may be happening to their brains on every play. What do you do with that?”  My therapist thought that would be a good thing to say. He said it sounded empathetic and inviting.  Maybe that would be good.  Certainly, I’ve found Jim to be an empathetic person.

But I must admit that the fantasies my imagination has generated—with and without therapeutic prodding—in response to this invitation suggest an investment I have in being important and being recognized as such; in being uniquely suited to somehow say the right thing, push the right button, and save the day.  “Bad Prof Fixes College Sports” the headlines in my imagination might read.  Those fantasies and the insecurities and investments they bespeak don’t feel like very promising ground from which to be making decisions.

So all this messiness might disqualify me in some eyes from holding the positions as professor, as scholar, or as board member, that I hold. I confess I feel that way myself sometimes.  But I wind up feeling that it shouldn’t be so.  On the contrary, I feel that faced with the enormous complexity of the situation called big-time intercollegiate sports in this country, and the powerful cocktail of emotions that situation stirs in just about everyone (even those who hate them and feel they have no place in universities) it might actually be better if more of the participants and decision-makers were honest with themselves and publicly forthcoming with others about their uncertainties and ambivalences.

It’s not that I’ve encountered any individuals who I’ve felt were insincere or deceptive in the their words or actions.  It’s more that I feel that there are systemic pressures in place that subtly lead all of us involved to disregard certain concerns or uncertainties as either out of place or unworkable or for some other reason not worth considering or not safe to say.  Airing these, as I’ve tried to do here might not lead to any immediate solutions. It might lead to some ultimately unproductive discussions.  Perhaps, even, it would create some chaos.  But imagine a conversation in which various “stakeholders” were free to say, “Man, we really love college sports, but this is a bit of a cluster fuck right now, isn’t it? Let’s try to do better!” or whatever their version of that might look like. Things could get interesting.  In any event, I guess I’m feeling that a little honest chaos would be preferable to what seems to me to be a somewhat dishonest order.

A History of ABIA, APC and Faculty Control Issues at Michigan

In accordance with the University of Michigan Regents’ Bylaws (section 11.58.1), I was appointed to the ABIA by the president from a panel of senate members chosen by the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, subject to the approval of the Board of Regents. The ABIA also includes two members of the faculty senate, the University’s Faculty Athletics Representative (FAR), two student-athletes, two alumni, the AD (who has no vote), and an executive officer of the University.  The Bylaws also specify that the faculty members on ABIA, myself included of course, will constitute—together with a representative from the  Registrar’s office—a separate committee, now known as the Academic Performance Committee (APC).

The ABIA’s functions are also defined by the Regents’ Bylaws. First, the ABIA advises the AD, who is supposed to seek and consider our advice on “all major financial and policy decisions with respect to the program on intercollegiate athletics.” Then, the ABIA makes, adopts, and enforces—”subject only to the ultimate authority of the president and the Board of Regents”—”the necessary rules and regulations governing all questions pertaining to the eligibility of players, intercollegiate relations, and membership in associations of universities and colleges organized for the regulation of athletics” (11.60)  As for the APC, its function is—”subject to the final authority of the provost”—”to examine and appraise the academic performance of intercollegiate athletes, to determine their eligibility for competition in intercollegiate athletics, and to take any other action regarding such candidates as may seem necessary or appropriate under the circumstances (11.59).”

Now, according to “Rule 3. Membership” from the Big Ten Conference’s 2011-2012 Handbook, “Only a university having full and complete faculty control of its intercollegiate athletic programs may hold membership in the Conference. Faculty control is achieved whenever authority over a university’s intercollegiate athletic programs is vested in a university agency composed entirely of faculty members or in which faculty members are in a majority.” I first encountered this passage before I’d been appointed to the ABIA and, at the time, I wondered whether Michigan had any such agency (i.e. “composed entirely of faculty members or in which faculty members are in a majority” vested “with authority” over the university’s intercollegiate athletic programs).

Colleagues with greater knowledge of our institutional history weren’t sure, but they explained to me that up until 2001, there was an agency with a faculty majority called the Board in Control of Intercollegiate Athletics.  This body appears to have been replaced by the ABIA and APC through amendments to the Regents’ Bylaws proposed by then University-President Lee Bollinger. Bollinger said at the time that “All of this is to make sure intercollegiate athletics don”t get out of control. The Athletic Department is not an independent body within the University but is subject to University policies.”  He went on to explain that the “Board in Control should be, and has been, unmistakably advisory the name should be changed to reflect that.”

According to The Michigan Daily‘s article on the change, “Bollinger said he wants to limit the authority of the Board in Control to issues in which academic and financial concerns collide, such as extending the sports season for playoffs even when such a move could compromise students” academic life by conflicting with exams,” but, quoting Bollinger now, “the question of whether our football players should practice in a national playoff should not be rested [sic] in the board.”

Apparently, some members of the faculty-comprised Senate Assembly Committee on University Affairs voiced concerns that this put the University’s policies at odds with both the Big Ten and the NCAA’s membership criteria.  Of even greater concern to the faculty at the time was the codification of the merely advisory function of the newly constituted ABIA: “‘If the president is the one making the final decision,” one faculty members asked, “is there a reason why the president should seek the advice of the Board in Control?'”   Bollinger, according to the article “said that although changes to the bylaws will place more power in the hands of the president, he does not believe the Board in Control’s concerns will be ignored or that the University”s Big Ten membership will be compromised.”  Some might argue that the APC’s authority over academic standards and eligibility or the President’s final authority on all these questions satisfies the membership criteria concerning “complete faculty control” described in the Big Ten Handbook.

I’m not so sure it does. But—surprise!—that might be okay with me since I’m not even sure that “complete faculty control” over athletics is a principle I support without qualification. I believe faculty with expertise in the matters constituting the intersection of athletics with the university’s mission (education, health and well-being, economics, ethics and culture) should be represented as the majority on a board that collectively has complete control. But I also believe that students (both non-athletes and, especially, athletes) should be on that board. Finally, I think it’s important to have representatives of the athletic department administration and the university’s central administration on the board, without a vote.

 

 

 

Damn Horses! On Paying College Athletes

The Allrounder (which I love and am proud to be a part of) published an interview with Duke University political theorist Michael Gillespie about the issue of paying college athletes, which he thinks is a bad idea. I don’t agree with Professor Gillespie’s conclusion. But I do recognize that it is a complex simple issue that reasonable people can disagree could only possibly feel one way about.  However, there are several comments he makes along the way, seemingly in support of that central conclusion that really, really do bother me and that I feel compelled to address.

The first came in response to the question of high profile coaches’ compensation, a concern of many, including many faculty.

” As [Duke Men’s Basketball Coach Mike] Krzyzewski pointed out to me once, almost all coaches are fired: they almost never retire. Or as one of our former football coaches put it when I told him that some of our faculty were really upset about his compensation: ‘I’ll trade my salary for tenure.’”

I’m not sure who that former football coach was, nor his salary. But I do know Kryzewski’s salary: $9,682,032…for one year. I’ve just started my 24th year at Michigan, my 20th with tenure. My total salary over those 24 years combined is not 10 % of Kryzewski’s annual salary. Is my job awesome? Yes! Is tenure sweet? Yes!  I don’t want his job. I love my job!  Would I trade tenure for a guaranteed one-year pay out of close to $10,000,000, with the possibility of another year if my students performed well? Hell, yes, in a heartbeat!

Oh, and, by the way, don’t forget that if my students do well, I also get to collect earnings for endorsing products, like the clothes and shoes I can make them wear, and I get paid to speak publicly because—even though “it’s all about the kids”—people believe my students do well because of some kind of special sauce running through my veins.  I’m not even going to get into adjuncts, almost a quarter of whom require public assistance of some sort to make ends meet, cause that’s another rant.  I’ll just stop here and say, Coach K, you want my tenure? Make me an offer.

Then, when asked whether the “educational trust” is being violated “if colleges and universities are only using athletes as pawns to increase brand recognition and generate revenue,” Professor Gillespie offered the following:

Well, as the adage goes, you can lead them to water but you can’t make them think. Whatever students (athletes or not) we bring on campus, we can’t keep them from being lazy in college, or getting into drugs, or lured by other distractions. Some kids go to college to get an education. Some don’t.

Damn horses! Here I am, leading them to water, and instead of drinking (or thinking), they just lazily let themselves get into drugs or lured by other distractions.  It may be true that you can’t “make them think,” but as the basketball adage goes, you miss 100 % of the shots you don’t take.  I mean to say, however meager my compensation may be by comparison with Coach K’s, it is pretty much my job description to “make them think.”  Yes, some of my students are resistant to this, for many different kinds of reasons.  It doesn’t matter: all of them are capable of thinking and it’s my job to make that happen.  In fact, it’s my job to make them thirsty.  Of course I will fail to do so at times and I may get discouraged from time to time, but that doesn’t relieve me of the responsibility to do my best.  And it certainly doesn’t justify the violation of educational trust.

At the end of the interview, he is asked “what do you say to those who can’t see the bigger picture and broader values of college sports?”  His response:

A little more, or even a lot more money, is not going to help any of these kids maximize on their educational opportunity, or athletic experience for that matter. With football especially, we really need to ask ourselves, what would all these football players be doing if they didn’t have an opportunity to play at the college level? The fact is that they probably wouldn’t be playing anywhere. And let’s face it, some them are the kind of individuals who could be given to some pretty violent behavior if they didn’t have the physical and psychological release that a sport like football provides. What our culture offers in that regard is no small thing.

Let me just emphasize this:

let’s face it, some them are the kind of individuals who could be given to some pretty violent behavior if they didn’t have the physical and psychological release that a sport like football provides.

I’d like Professor Gillespie to elaborate on just what “kind of individuals” does he have in mind.

But let me be more direct, cause I have skin in this game.  Here’s how it sounds to me: some of my students (those who are football players at one of the very few schools whose football program turns a profit) would pose a danger to society if it weren’t for the fact that we let them play football in exchange for leading them to the water of education (which we can’t make them drink).

Sure, some football players could be given to some pretty violent behavior if they weren’t playing football. I would guess that “some” college professors also would be given to “some pretty violent behavior” is they weren’t able to do the the thing they love, the thing that they’ve come to consider one of the core aspects making them who they are. Who knows, it’s even possible that some people in other professions are the kind of individuals who could be given to some pretty violent behavior if they didn’t have the physical and psychological release that their job provides.

Of course, it could be that the conditions of their job actually increase the need for physical and psychological release. What working conditions might do so?

Well, what if the job involves getting hit on the head so frequently and with such force that they have 3 times the risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy than the general population, and that will lead 1 in 3 of them to wind up with brain damage? Pretty stressful.

Or what if their bosses required them to routinely put in overtime—despite regulations prohibiting this—and threaten them with the loss of their positions if they fail to do so, all the while also requiring them to do another full-time job at the same time, and do it well lest those same bosses be embarrassed publicly? Pretty stressful.

Or what if the job involves working for free. Okay, not for free exactly, but you know the old adage, you can lead them to water, but you can’t make them think.

Damn horses!

In short, an esteemed professor of political philosophy at one of the most highly rated universities in the world believes that the solution to his (f)antasy that some college football players would break bad if they couldn’t play ball is to make sure they play ball in exchange for nothing more than the opportunity to enroll in a university.

Maybe mass incarceration could be addressed by requiring inmates to play football at Duke.

I realize that this is merely my rebuttal to some parts of this argument against paying them. It is not my argument for paying them.  I’m working on that.  But, if you want an approximation, you might check out this essay by Spencer Hall, which is just the most recent of many excellent pieces of writing in support of payment.  An even more intriguing response, I believe, has been to support college athletes in their quest to be recognized as employees who deserve protections afforded such status.  I like that tack because it doesn’t presume to tell the athletes what they want, but rather just seeks to help them get the right to say what they want and to negotiate for it from a fair position.

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Nothing, Everything, and Something: On Watching Association Football

In my Global Sports Cultures course this fall, we’ll devote two weeks to association football.  The first, early on, will focus on the issues at stake in the 2006 Men’s World Cup Final between Italy and France, in which French star and captain Zinedine Zidane head butted Italian defender Mateo Materazzi (who, it appears, had made some inflammatory comments to Zidane). Zidane was ejected and Italy won the match on penalty kicks.  The second unit, later in the term, will be on what you might call the Legend of Diego Maradona. In other words, we’ll look at how Maradona is perceived and, in fact, constructed by the media, fans (and haters), and artists. Some excellent, thoughtful material has been produced on both these topics. And these materials will anchor our discussions.  But I wanted to share some of what I’ll offer my students by way of orientation to the world’s most popular sport.

First thing, we’re gonna call it “football” or “association football.” Yes, I know we’re in America and if I don’t like it I can just, blah blah blah.  No, duh, I’m not going to make you call “elevators” “lifts” or make you raise your hand for permission to go the “lou.” Yes, I recognize the confusion since, as Michigan students but above all as Americans, football means something else to you, something much closer to your heart.  And no, finally, it’s not that big a deal whether you call it “football” or soccer.”  It’s more like a small deal that’s connected to bigger deals.  So let’s call this little exercise practice for the bigger deals.

Naming matters. They may in some ways be arbitrary, but they matter because we care about the things named and we care about the things because we’ve got something of ourselves bound up in them.  Through names we come to express and shape who we are as individuals and as members of groups and through names we exercise our power to shape our place in the world and the paths of our lives.  That’s what the rest of the world (except Americans and those who speak Afrikaans) are doing when they call the sport they love and devote themselves to “football” (or something that sounds like it).

What are we doing—in relation to them—by insisting on calling it “soccer”?

Let that question percolate in the back of your mind this week as you participate in this awkward linguistic experiment and learn more about the sport, its history, and its relationship to world politics.  I’m not saying we have to be absolutists or purists about it.  I’m not going to correct you everytime you make the mistake.  And I’m going to make the mistake myself.  But just while we’re working in this class let’s try the exercise and the experiment of adopting the language of the rest of the world and see if that doesn’t start to help us feel a little bit what the rest of the world feels and understand a bit of what the rest of the world understands.

Now, I’m imagining that few of you make watching football a regular part of your sporting diet.  I’m guessing that if I asked most of you why this is you’d say something like it’s kind of boring, you don’t like the dives players take, and it’s stupid to have ties broken by penalty kicks.  You might grudgingly admit that the players are impressive athletes, and you probably will know someone who (or you yourself will have) played as a kid, and, finally, you probably follow the fortunes of the US men’s and women’s national teams—USA! USA! (who in the world doesn’t love that?!)—every four years during the World Cup organized by FIFA (the International Football Federation).

All of this is the product of a combination of factors (involving corporate media, American popular culture, the structure of sports, and so on) that have, in effect, caused you to develop certain habits, expectations, and attentional rhythms in relation to watching sports.  I’m not thinking that two units on football is going to undo all that.  But I am hoping that by  being exposed to the ways, both painful and inspiring, that the rest of the world cares passionately about the sport—and in tandem with having to call it football—you can begin if not to care about the sport yourself, then at least to have recognized that there is nothing natural or objective or necessary about your disinterest or aversion.

That said, in the spirit of walking that path with you in solidarity, let me just share with you some feelings that I have when watching football.  I played it from the time I was a kid through high school, and was a pretty good player.  But it is not my favorite sport to watch.  In fact, my favorite sport to watch—basketball—is in at least one way about as far from football as you can get.  In the average 48 minute NBA game last year, 200 points were scored.  That’s more points than were scored by all the teams in any single World Cup tournament in history put together.  Now, I must say that the heroic individual goal scored against all odds is pretty stirring.

But that doesn’t happen all that often.  So football would seem to hold little promise for a hoops junkie like myself, accustomed to a basket being scored a couple of times a minute.

Still, despite all this, I enjoy watching football from time to time.  What do I enjoy?  Well, for one thing I like what appears to me like calm.  It seems not uncommon for players at times to jog or even walk up the field.  I like that. It reminds me that even in the midst of some important tasks it’s important to pace myself, which is to say, it reminds me of the importance of breadth in perspective.

In fact, I see in those islands of calm a demonstration of perspective in relation to some pretty fundamental life categories: time (I’m walking because I’m aware there will be another moment in which all my energy is required), space (I’m walking because I’m aware that the action is elsewhere right now), purpose (I’m walking because I’m aware that the needs of my team require me to conserve my energy), and self (I’m walking because I’m aware of my role in the unfolding action of this match).  These are pretty important life lessons.  I sometimes lose track of them.  And so I find it helpful, and refreshing and reassuring to encounter them in the midst of a football game.

The next thing may sound like  it contradicts the first.  I like the rhythm, in a football match, of long stretches of what seems like nothing, punctuated by instants of what seem like everything.  Because isn’t that a bit like life as well?  Let me explain with an anecdote.

Close to twenty years ago I took a class in Zen Buddhist Meditation at the temple on Packard Street here in Ann Arbor.  When I arrived for my first class, one of the assistants greeted me at the door and asked me to take my shoes off.  I wasn’t expecting it, but it didn’t surprise me since it fit with my preconceptions.  But, as I begin to sort of wrestle off my left shoe with the sole of my right foot, he gently stopped me, invited me to sit down on a nearby bench, and to pay attention as I took my shoes off, first one, unlacing, using both hands, and then the other, unlacing, using both hands.  And to pay attention as I placed them, carefully side by side, laces now tucked unobtrusively into the tops of the shoes, in the place reserved for them.  Now I was surprised, and a bit perplexed.  I also felt a bit ashamed, as if some longstanding clumsy oafishness on my part had suddenly been exposed to me and to the world.

By way of explanation, the assistant explained that 99 % of life is made up of things like taking your shoes off, mundane things—we see them as necessities, or transitions, or delays, or interruptions—that we do on the way to the “important” things that actually only make up 1 % of our lives.  We expect ourselves to perform at top capacity for those important moments and activities: to be fully present and prepared to think, feel and act in graceful concert.

But we haven’t given ourselves a very good chance to do so if we haven’t trained ourselves in presence, if we haven’t cultivated in ourselves the ability to be fully absorbed by and responsive to the needs of every present moment.  Paying attention during the 99 % of our lives that seem unimportant is, among other things, a way to prepare ourselves for those things that happen less frequently and carry greater emotional impact:  the career-changing professional opportunity, the wedding, the birth, the death of loved ones, our own aging, illness and imminent death.  Seems like football players get this.  Or at least, when I watch, I’m reminded of it.  And it seems I can never get enough reminders of or practice in that.

Now, as a spectator, it can be harder to maintain that focus that football players have throughout the match.  But, when I can manage to absorb myself in the long stretches of what looks—to my basketball eye—like nothing, I find, well, something.  Maybe not everything.  But something. And, moreover, I find the ways in which that something that previously looked like nothing is actually seamlessly connected to the parts that seem like everything.  Suddenly, the continuity of action that used to just get in the way of me getting more nachos or going to the bathroom for fear I’d miss something—everything!—becomes a riveting lesson in the dynamic, complex web of cause and effect that makes up life.

Who is to say, in that flowing river of action, where exactly the beginning and the end lie? Do you suppose that something has ended when a goal is scored? Do you think the players on the pitch feel that way?  Who is to say what was important and what was not important in the combination?  And who is to say what was necessary and what was accidental? For, it’s not that it suddenly appears that every thing led perfectly and inevitably to that outcome.  I can see all kinds of little chance wobbles and bounces and deviations as destiny runs its course.  At any moment, it seems, it could have gone a different way. But there it is. It went this way, and who is to say?

Then, when I stop looking at what is in fact something as if it were just a barren nothing between rare and precious everythings, then that something reveals beauties and charms of its own.  These may or may not have value I can perceive in terms of their relationship to, say, the scoring of goals.  But, in this absorbed state of attention, they possess an intrinsic value.  The arc traced by this player as he loops behind a teammate, while another teammate charges, straight, down the far sideline, the tap tap of two short passes, the ball tumbling along carelessly, before rocketing off the foot of a midfielder to sail, sail, sail—as bodies rearrange themselves in anticipation—before landing, corralled by the foot of a striker, who manages this even while keeping an eye on a defender closing in fast and hard.

This is something.  There is something in this.  Something that is valuable in itself.  And something that is valuable because of the way it is also nothing and everything and so temporarily collapses the hierarchical structure I’ve made of the world.  Sometimes, don’t get me wrong, this makes me anxious and stressed out and annoyed at the sport. Like I said, it’s not my favorite sport to watch.  But sometimes, the result is not the chaotic rubbled heap of ruined projects and plans (or at least not only that), but also serenity and the enjoyment of seeing possibilities playfully popping up at every turn.  That it can provoke this effect at all, in the face of the combined force of corporate media interests, American imperialism and, not least, the inclinations and aversions marking my own personality, is a testament to its power.

Why We Need Better Basketball History—for Darryl Dawkins

I did see Darryl Dawkins play, a lot.  Not in person but on television.  He loomed large in the imaginary series my best friend Robb and I would play out in my driveway or at the park.  He’s dear to my heart, as the pictured tee-shirt demonstrates. I like wearing it to teach my hoops class and drop knowledge of Darryl on the young ballers and scholars.  Now, already others—Rodger Sherman’s and David Roth’s are among my favorites—have written fine elegies to Dawkins.  And, for my part, I’m going to be talking about Dawkins this evening on the Over and Back podcast.  To prepare, I went into my hoops library to see how Dawkins is remembered in the annals of basketball history as they now stand.

Now, admittedly this was a cursory examination.  I obviously didn’t reread every work to see what they had to say.  I either reread the chapters that I expected or knew would cover Dawkins’ period in the NBA or else scanned the index in those works that had one. For the most part, I was merely somewhat surprised—perhaps disappointed—that this giant of my memory should be shoved into so tiny a space in the basketball history.

Sure, there are brief entries in the standard reference works.   And there’s the title nod and a side-bar in Tom Ziller’s fine chapter—”Punch-Dunk Lovelorn: The NBA’s Lost Years Reconsidered” on the 70s from FreeDarko Presents The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History and Dr. J makes a few passing references to Dawkins in his recently published autobiography.  Reliable Nelson George does offer a few of paragraphs of phrase for “one of basketball’s greatest lexicologists” in Elevating the Game, and recognizes that his celebrity “was built on more than just talk.”  But mostly he’s just not there (y’all will surely let me know if I’m missing something).

So, with some reluctance familiar to my readers, I turned to The Book of Basketball.  Surely Bill Simmons’ massive tone, rhetorically positioning itself after all as the bible of the game, would rectify this.  And yet, amidst all the words strewn across the 734 pages of the book, the name Darryl Dawkins appears a grand total of five times (really in just three different contexts).  Still, I imagine, at least there’s that.

So I looked inside.

And then my disappointment turned to rage.

And if could, this is what I’d have done.

But I can’t do that.

So instead, I’ll have to settle for what I can do and hope that it is enough.

Exhibit 1.  p. 15.  In the course of describing the 1981 NBA Eastern Conference Finals between his beloved Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers, Simmons recalls the moment that the relationship between Boston fans and Bird changed:

Leading by one in the final minute, Philly’s Dawkins plowed toward the basket, got leveled by Parish and McHale, and whipped an ugly shot off the backboard as he crashed to the floor.  Bird hauled down the rebound in traffic, dribbled out of an abyss of bodies . . . and pushed the ball down the court, ultimately stopping on a dime and banking a 15-footer that pretty much collapsed the roof.

Dawkins, known for the strength, elevation, force and majesty with which he destroyed backboards, is reduced to a clownish foil, ineptly sprawled on the ground as Bird hits the game winner.  But you know what, that’s okay.  Really. Because in that part of the book, Simmons really isn’t claiming to do history. It’s a Prologue, and an abashedly personal one at that.  So okay.  I’ve got my own versions of that in my basketball autobiography and I won’t begrudge Simmons his.

Exhibit 2. p. 112.  Now we’re into history.  This is the long third chapter of the book that offers a season by season recap of pro basketball history, each season summed up by a specific notable event or theme.  The 1973-74 season, according to the Book of Basketball, is to be remembered for five distinct ways the NBA was suffering, the first of which is that “Bidding wars and swollen contracts damaged the new generation of NBA up-and-comers.”  Hmmm.  To explain, Simmons brings in no less an authority than ex-Celtic player and coach, Tommy Heinsohn who (Simmons dixit), “explained beautifully in his award-winning autobiography” that

Darryl Dawkins is the perfect example.  The guy could have been a monster, should have been a monster, but nobody had the controls. Armed with a long-term contract, Darryl had the security of dollars coming in. . . . Unless you’re talking about athletes who are truly dedicated to the game, the only time these guys bear down is when their security is threatened.

This is simply disgraceful.  Heinsohn’s presumption and prejudice, in itself laced with (hopefully) unconscious racism, may simply be read as an expression of his personality, which, after all, is what an autobiography ought to provide.  That context should signal to most readers than any assessment contained therein are to be taken with a grain of salt or discarded entirely.  But the disgrace comes in that Simmons, as part of a history, actually cites this as an authoritative assessment of the state of the league at the time and, more disturbingly, as an account of the interior life of Darryl Dawkins.

Exhibit 3. p 132. We’re still within the year-by-year history, now up to the 1977-78 season which Simmons calls “The Blown Tire.”  He’s square in my budding adolescence now (I was twelve during that season) so my pique is up.  This, he claims, is the NBA’s “most damaging season” ever.  And among the problems, the “most harmful,” Simmons tells his readers, is “fighting.”  He explains that fighting had always been part of basketball and offers a few famous names.  A page or so later, he will tell the story, so often told, of Kermit Washington leveling Rudy Tomjanovich in December 1978, an incident that devastated both men for some time.  But in between the short introduction and the main event, he remembers an “ugly brawl” in the 1977 NBA finals that, he admits, didn’t appall anyone. It’s not very important, in fact, and yet it is described in some detail.

It started when Darryl Dawkins tried to sucker-punch Bobby Gross (hitting teammate Doug Collins instead), then backpedaled into a flying elbow from [Maurice] Lucas, followed by the two of them squaring off like 1920’s bare-knuckle boxers before everyone jumped in.  After getting ejected, Dawkins ended up destroying a few toilets in the Philly locker room.

Dawkins has now been made into the poster-boy for the second of the two major problems responsible for the NBA’s “problem” decade.  And, as in the first anecdote above, he appears as an inept clown, first failing a dirty punch, he strikes his own teammate, then inadvertently stumbles into another punch and ends by tearing, not rims, but toilets off the wall, and not to the terror and delight of audiences across time and space, but in abject solitude.

Dr. J, incidentally, who was, you know, there, remembers the fight differently.  He describes  Lucas throwing the first punch and connecting with Collins by mistake. But you know, memory can be tricky, so I’m not going to go with Dr. J just because he’s Dr. J and I like his story better.  Here’s the video, for the record.

Here’s what strikes me in the video. It happens before the fight.  It’s Dawkins sprinting like a gazelle—this man is 6-10 and 250 pounds remember—to beat everyone downcourt, alter the Blazers’ attempt to finish their fast break and corral the rebound, tearing it away from Gross.

There’s so much to remember about Darryl Dawkins.  He was huge.  Breaker of backboards, sure, that’s awesome.  But also a talented basketball player and a breaker of codes.  And while his nicknames and quips and his imaginary planet are funky in a way that today we experience as charmingly goofy and harmlessly deracialized, we should perhaps also remember that he was also a giant black teenage boy entering a sport and a profession that at precisely that moment, even as it never stopped drawing them into its maw, was growing ever-more wary and controlling of individuals like Dawkins, ever-more ready to spit them out at the slightest misstep.

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Now, this doesn’t seem to part of the story that Dawkins ever told about his life and perhaps that is to his credit. And, as I said, there are several moving tributes to Dawkins getting lots of clicks right now. If it didn’t bother him, maybe it shouldn’t bother me.  But it does.  After all, whatever else I am, I am a book guy, still.  So the histories that get published matter to me.  And the histories that sell millions of copies matter even more.  And I believe we ought, at the very least, to be able to write a history of the sport that doesn’t feature Darryl Dawkins as an emblem of everything that the white basketball unconscious at some point decided was a problem with basketball (and with America). But awaiting that history, in the meantime—and even if Darryl didn’t care—I still think it’s important to shatter not only backboards, but also the crusted crap that some writers have smeared over some of the cherished glories of the game.

The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent (Basketball) Knowledge

All my life, I have loved ordering my things.  My new Matchbox cars go in one line, and the ones I inherited from my older brothers go in another one, and the ones I found or stole from my friends go in a third.  The beer cans in my collection will be ordered in the shape of a pyramid ranged from most common at the bottom (ordered alphabetically by brand from left to right and bottom to top) to the most rare at the top (with an architecturally-required exemption for 7, 16, 24 and 40 oz cans, which get their own rows).

When I got to graduate school, a more experienced student advised me that success in our profession depended on the ability to make bibliographies. I’m not sure what he meant, but what I heard was: “order your book collection,” which was a snap for me because I’d already started…when I was seven and labeled Follow My Leader “Book # 1” in my own personal library.

At first glance, it’s not so mysterious—this drive to classify and order, especially not in the contexts of childhood and graduate school. For both of these situations involved for me much confusion and little sense of power and therefore, a deep feeling of vulnerability.  Of course I would order my beer cans when I couldn’t order my family or my own feelings! Of course I would create a bibliography to throw a net around the leaping beast of my own growing ignorance snarling and snapping at my heels!

The writer Jorge Luis Borges once made fun of me when he included in a story a Chinese Encyclopedia he made up: the “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.”  In its “distant pages,” Borges informs us “animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.”

His point, he claimed, was that “there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and speculative.”  Sure. I get it. But that doesn’t really apply to mine.  Or, at least, there are more and less arbitrary and speculative classifications of the universe.  Aren’t there?  I mean, what does his psychotic example (made up after all) have to do with something so naturally reasonably as putting my underwear, undershirts, and socks in one drawer, my shorts and tee shirts in the next one, and my pants and long sleeve shirts in the next one?

Maybe, from a certain somewhat superficial point of view, I’m justified in my indignation. But Borges is working the depths.  The reason that all such taxonomies are “arbitrary and speculative” is a simple one:  “we do not know what the universe is.”  The rug is starting to slip.  Not only do we not know what it is, Borges shockingly continues, but “there is no universe in the organic, unifying sense of that ambitious word.”

Oh shit, I think to myself. I thought there was.  Or maybe, I always felt there was.  In fact, I’ve always harbored the feeling, described by Borges’ compatriot, the writer Julio Cortázar, that the universe must “contain, in some part of its diversity, the encounter of each thing with all the others.”  What is that if not a description of a “universe in the organic, unifying sense of that ambitious word”? Each thing connected to every other thing.

I didn’t encounter this quotation until I was grown, but it echoed and articulated an inchoate feeling I’d had since childhood.  Maybe I couldn’t always discern the connections, but I could console myself with the knowledge that they were there nonetheless, and that if I could discern some then perhaps with enough patience and effort I could discern them all.  And trailing in on the coattails of these consolations came the deeper elemental indispensable comfort that if this is how things are, then, regardless of what I know, I was myself connected.  Regardless of how I felt, I was not alone.

But then there is Borges, who I suspect is right, and this renders my organizing impulse—my taxonomania—not only futile, but absurdly delusional.  If there is no universe (and—to cover all the bases—we don’t know what it is), then what is the point of any of it? Why not just leave my Matchbox cars in a heap on the carpet, a miniature model of some grisly aerial shot on the 11 o’clock news? Why even bother collecting beer cans or books? In fact, why bother reading books at all, let alone going to graduate school? In fact, what is the fucking point of doing anything at all if there is no universe, let alone an orderly one, let alone one whose order I can discover and mimic with my classificatory schemas?

Fortunately, Borges himself helps me stop this runaway train of existential despair.  For he goes on to say that “the impossibility of penetrating the divine scheme of the universe cannot, however, stop us from planning human schemes, even though it is clear that they are provisional.”  And Cortázar adds an encouraging word: “the poet if she cannot connect them by intrinsic features, does what everyone does when looking at the stars: she invents the constellation, the lines linking the solitary stars.”

He seems to be saying that the creative—making—activity of the poet really resides in a way of seeing; a way of imaginatively reconfiguring the relations among existing things to make new patterns (like a constellation).  Which I suppose is what Borges himself was getting at when emphasized the importance of “planning human schemes”; indeed, what Borges himself was doing when he invented the extravagant human scheme of the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.  None other than James Naismith himself was under the influence of such a view when he responded to his teacher’s assertion that “All so-called new things are simply recombinations of things that are now existing” by recombining elements of familiar games to invent basketball.

So this helps me see that there is more to my drive to organize and classify than merely the  Quixotic impulse to know and control the universe. I can see that in doing so I’m playing, exercising my imaginative and cognitive faculties in recurrent experimentation; I can see that I’m forging connections, maybe not so different from the ones I try to forge with my body and the ball on the basketball court; I can see that I’m making new and at least personally satisfying, possibly beautiful, patterns out of what the existing world has dealt me.

And so it goes: I have loved the discovery of sets in math, Ven diagrams, sentence diagrams, the great book on the shelf next to the one I was looking for in the stacks at the library, the moment when two friends who don’t know each other meet and hit it off, the perfect combination of passes and cuts and passes leading to an easy score in pick up ball, Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, kaleidoscopes, and, come to think of it, constellations.

map-constellations-sky

Which brings me back to books, to books about basketball, to my favorite twenty books about basketball. Here they are, in the order, top to bottom, in which I originally presented them.

Screenshot 2015-07-17 13.24.32

There’s so much more to be done with these “solitary stars” than force them into four, hierarchically ordered, groups of five. Sure, it flowed pretty naturally from the subject matter since this way of ranking things, like basketball players (which—oh—are not things), is familiar to me and my readers. And maybe it was even kind of novel or catchy.  But like other conventions of mainstream sports there’s at least as much that obscures (if not offends) as illuminates in such schemas, especially since, as I realized by the end, I didn’t really believe in mine: they were just twenty really important books about basketball and any schema I might plan for deciding which were more important were, well, as Borges might say, “arbitrary and speculative.”

Considering that, it could be fun or instructive or beautiful to connect these books differently. I’d hoped to build something like a dynamic “recommendation engine” (partly because of  that name), but alas such a device is beyond my capabilities. Instead, I resign myself to static pictorial representations of my taxonomies.  How might that look?  I could, for example draw a simple path connecting only those books that either consider basketball philosophically or consider the philosophical aspects of basketball.

Philosophy Path

 

Or a different path connecting those that portray failure (or tragedy):

Failure

We could combine these two paths together (philosophy now in red, failure in yellow).

failure plus philosophy

Already from this simple, arbitrary and speculative exercise you might, as a prospective reader with an interest in basketball, philosophy, and failure or tragedy, deduce that either FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Basketball History or Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story by David Wolf would be promising places to begin your reading excursion.  And you’d be right. It really works.

Now, you could do the same with paths of your own liking. Interested in money? I’d probably draw paths through LaFeber’s Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism, Murry Nelson’s The National Basketball League, Lane’s Under the Boards, Wolf’s Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story, Cohen’s The Game They Played, Leonard’s After Artest, and Andrews, Michael Jordan, Inc.. Let’s add those to the last drawing:

failurephilosophymoney

So now, you might go to LaFeber, Cohen, Leonard and Nelson’s books for a combination of money and failure, and you might throw Foul! in to get your philosophical consideration of the intersection of basketball, money, and failure (or tragedy). In addition to valuably denaturalizing the hierarchical way in which I first presented these books (and which seems so reflexive a way of classifying in sports), these kinds of groupings are a narrowing, a filtering process that can be useful if you want to impart some direction and focus to your reading experience.

But of course, speaking for myself what I make and have made of these books depends heavily on other things I’ve read that are not included in these twenty books. That’s another way of saying that my very selection of these twenty books as well as the way in which choose to define the paths I use to connect them to one another is itself the result of still other lines connecting these books (or subsets of them) to other books I haven’t so far included here, only some of which, by the way, having anything explicit to do with basketball. Here’s what a partial representation of this might look like.

hoopsplusoutside

Remember these pathways just represent three, rather broad, categories of similarity: philosophy, failure, and money. And I’ve only added, more or less off the top of my head, fifteen books not on my original list of twenty top basketball books. At this point, the classification process still narrows by selecting just some of the the original set of twenty books, but it also expand by adding a few others to the reading list.  So you might now have a list that includes Kafka, Agassi, and Spinoza alongside, from the original list of my top twenty basketball books, Leonard, Nelson, LaFeber, Wolf, FreeDarko’s history, Melander, Frey, and Cohen.

But finally, books aren’t the only thing, not even when we’re reading.  In fact, books aren’t even the most important thing, even when we’re reading.  For we are always—like it or not and more or less consciously—drawing lines between the book we are reading and something else that is not the book we are reading, and not a book at all.  Obviously this is a probably infinitely complex network of conscious and unconscious associations anchored in words, sounds, memories, fantasies, world events past and present and imagined, films, paintings, photographs, songs, TV shows, affects, sensations, thoughts, ideas, experiences, instances, and other people.

We could start filling in those empty shelves on the bookcase above with scraps of paper on which I might write down some of these non-book entities.  Imagine how vast that network of informing anchor points would be, just for one person.  Now imagine red, green, and yellow lines extending from those anchor points through the books that are not the top twenty basketball books and then converging at the various books in the top twenty.  Now add pathways in new colors to represent things like humor, race, technique, scholars, authors named David, books that are blue, imaginary books, amateur basketball, the early history of the game, gender, the perspectives of players themselves.

Now we have something so vast that I can no longer draw it.

Maybe it would look like this, but moving and enormous.

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It’s harder to imagine the books and the other nodes and the categories and associations that connect them.  And I know it’s no longer useful as a filter to provide direction to my reading.  But it does do something else for me. For one thing, I simply find the images beautiful.  I also find them a valuable visual reminder of the vast, complex network of life that springs to life every time your or I open a book.

This network may not be the universe, and so I may not find myself securely connected to every other point in the universe, as I might have obscurely desired as a child.  Indeed, there may not be, as Borges speculated, any universe at all. But this is okay because there is something else I’ve discovered in the process.  Borges’ “human schemes,” Cortázar’s “poet” drawing “lines connecting the solitary stars,” and my own less elegant attempts to convey networks of connection appear to me now as a kind of exercise or practice or maybe training.  But for what?

Sometimes, especially as I get older, especially as I work through the deaths of people that I have loved, I find myself wondering about the purpose of it all, which is to say, the meaning.  But maybe “life,” as Stephen Batchelor says, is “neither meaningful nor meaningless.  Meaning and its absence are given to life by language and imagination. We are,” he adds, “linguistic beings who inhabit a reality in which it makes sense to make sense.” If he’s right, then what I’ve been doing and calling exercise or practice or training is also the performance itself; the performance of living purposefully, of actively creating a meaningful universe, aware that in doing so we may contribute to the efforts others are making to do the same.

It seems I’ve wandered too far from books, and collections of books, and reading lists, let alone from basketball, which is why I’m guessing most readers even bother with this blog. And I’m feeling a bit sheepish.  But I’m hoping that’s okay, hoping even that for some readers the pathways back to these things—to hoops and books and reading—suddenly gleam, illuminating like the lights in the aisle of a plane, taking us where we need to go. Or else, maybe you can help me find my way back. Or not, I remind myself, since it’s okay sometimes to wander, to not have it all figured out, and to get nowhere.

 

The Culture of Moving Dots

Today I listened to a very well crafted, informative lecture by Rajiv Maheswaran on how basketball teams are using movement tracking devices and computing power to inform the decisions they make about roster composition, strategy and tactics.  Not only was the lecture itself admirable (something that, as a teacher, I care about a lot), but the human scientific intelligence and the technological power described in it leave me awestruck.  Moreover, the potential for the insights generated by this work to cut through certain persistent myths in basketball culture—myths that often harbor and purvey harmful social attitudes, especially about race—seems exciting to me.

Of course, as someone who has spent a lot of time analyzing the often irrational (if unconscious) attitudes embedded in the language and stories used to talk about basketball and basketball players from the game’s invention to the present day, the facts offered up by quantitative reasoning can be one useful instrument for countering these myths. And I can certainly see this presentation as a demonstration of the brilliant complexity of the physical and cognitive abilities of individual basketball players.  But still, quantitative reasoning and the technology and facts to which they lead remain just that—useful instruments—and ones whose utility depends, like that of any instrument, on the intentions of the user and the context of the use.  They are not, in my view any way, some sort of final horizon of human knowledge about basketball and its culture.  That’s why, despite these positive feelings, a reservation popped into my head almost from the outset, kept nagging at me throughout, and remained when I finished watching. 

At a linguistic and conceptual level, as I’ve expressed elsewhere on this blog, I’m concerned with the abstracting tendencies in basketball culture that lead us to see players as something other than human beings like ourselves.  So I get worried when Maheswaran boasts that in sports, through the “instrumenting of stadiums,” “we’re turning our athletes into moving dots.”

moving dots

we’re turning our athletes into moving dots.

There better be, in my view, some extremely compelling reason, some significant value delivered that outweighs for me the ethical cost of viewing (let alone “turning”) athletes—or any human being, for that matter—into a moving dots.  After all, psychologists have told us that seeing other people as moving dots, say on a radar screen, seems to make it easier to kill them.

But Maheswaran’s work seems driven by an assumption that the ability to track and quantify human movement is a desirable thing.  He asserts this more or less directly a few times in the course of his lecture, apparently to remind his audience of the practical value of the scientific research involved.  

So, he introduces his work with the relatively simple rhetorical assertion of value:

And wouldn’t it be great if we could understand all this movement? If we could find patterns and meaning and insight in it.

Then, after a detailed and informative explanation of how machines deliver NBA franchises information about shot selection and shooting ability, he explains that

it’s really important to know if the 47 [meaning the 47% shooter] that you’re considering giving 100 million dollars to is a good shooter who takes bad shots or a bad shooter who takes good shots.

Finally, in concluding he offers a touching glimpse of the personal value we might derive from non-sporting applications of this technology:

Perhaps, instead of identifying pick-and-rolls, a machine can identify the moment and let me know when my daughter takes her first steps. Which could literally be happening any second now.

Studying-Gothic-4

Think very carefully about this: are you prepared to live with what what you create?

Finally, he lands on a firmly optimistic and time honored Enlightenment era affirmation of the blissful marriage of science and progress in the quality of human lives:

Perhaps we can learn to better use our buildings, better plan our cities. I believe that with the development of the science of moving dots, we will move better, we will move smarter, we will move forward.

To some degree, I am with him on most of this.  However, I must say it’s no more important to me to know if the player that an NBA owner is considering giving $100 million to is a good shooter who takes bad shots or a bad shooter who takes good shots than it is to know whether my friend Johnny is moving his body in the most productive way during his shift as a stocker at the local Walmart. Beyond this, with regard to his final assertion, a great deal depends for me on what he means by better and smarter and even forward.

I am no scientist, but I am also no Luddite.  I recognize and depend upon the value of quantitative and scientific reasoning and its many technological applications countless times in the course of my daily life.  For example, at this very moment, I tap my fingers on a wireless computer keyboard that sends signals to my CPU that in turn transforms those movements into letters and words appearing on my screen in the post composition screen of a page on the internet. I may not understand the process in detail, but I know enough to know that my own work depends, directly or indirectly, on the work of people like Maheswaran.  And so I want to be clear that I am not adopting some sort of polarizing anti-technology stance whereby I’d advocate a world law banning the use of quantitative reasoning, science or technology in sport or elsewhere.

I am, however, advocating for a place at the table where decisions concerning the development and use of such instruments get made.  

I don’t mean a place for me personally (though I can think of worse candidates), but for people like me (but smarter and better informed—in other words, I can also think of better candidates) who have devoted much of their lives to studying the history of the relationship between human technologies and human values.  People, I mean, willing to attend to the annoying complexity of concepts like better, smarter, and forward.

Our technological power, as Maheswaran so ably demonstrates, is growing in leaps and bounds and the demonstrations, like his lecture, we have of it—themselves reliant upon new technologies—grow increasingly enticing and compelling to more and more people. Meanwhile, despite a shrinking budgets for higher education around the country, corporations and university administrators continue to prioritize spending for the development of facilities, faculty and resources in science, technology, engineering and math.

But this expansion has often come at the expense of investments in the humanities disciplines that have been the traditional home (in universities, at any rate) of critical conversation about the ethical costs and benefits of the developments we find so enthralling.  0When we contemplate, individually or collectively, using a new tool (which is how I see the technological application of scientific research), we must ask ourselves, informed by historical knowledge and by a deep interest in the causal web that extends around the globe, into the earth itself, and forward into the future, what we stand to gain and to lose by its use.  As you might imagine, the conversation that follows that initial query is likely to be complicated and messy and, dare I say it, inefficient.  But it is no less—and perhaps more—urgent that we have it on that account.

We need, in other words, to think very carefully and to talk about what we’ll gain and lose by moving “forward” into a “better” and “smarter” world in which we may all transform one another into moving dots.

America’s Game

Independence Day always leaves me feeling a little bit out of place. Some of it is just an aversion to noise and explosions. But it goes deeper.  On July 4th, my social mediasphere splits pretty evenly between, to be it briefly: “Yay freedom! Go America!” and “Boo oppression! Down with America!” and I find myself on a slow motion fall into the abyss stretched open up by these polarizing tendencies.

It’s not that I don’t feel either of the sentiments.  On the contrary, It’s that I feel both, and strongly. I could intellectualize this and give you reasoned arguments justifying both of these sets of feelings.  But, whatever the more refined, reflective sources of this today, I’m more attuned to the tangled roots of this feeling in an upbringing in which I was simultaneously extremely proud to be American and extremely ashamed.  Basketball, then and now, I just can’t extricate from those experiences, or these feelings.

My parents immigrated from Spain to the United States in the 1962 via a brief detour in Cali, Colombia.  My parents and my oldest brother (then 15 months old) landed in Cali in May, 1957 right smack into a local manifestation of Cold War violence—a period actually known as “la Violencia“— that would make Game of Thrones look like Disney and that gave my father, though (or because) he grew up during the Spanish Civil War, cause to reconsider his decision.

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A few days later another brother would be born and about two years later, my sister.  I’ve seen pictures of this.  Crisp black and whites with the five of them under exotic foliage by a swimming pool, or perched near the peak of a mountain in the Andes.  My father was a scientist who, disheartened by the research conditions in Franco’s Spain, accepted a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation to found a department of biochemistry at the University of Cali.

A few years later, it seems the opportunities for professional advancement were not my father had hoped and he began to look for new positions.  As the story was told to me, he came to be offered two positions: one at the University of El Salvador and one at the University of Oregon Medical School in Portland. He preferred El Salvador, but my mother put her foot down: “If we move again, it will be to the United States or nowhere.”  And so they did, in 1962, to Portland, where I was born in 1965.

My father learned English in school and improved it while doing his Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh in the late 50s. My mother learned what English she knew (heavily accented until the time of her death last year) from a friend in Portland and from her avid reading. Their accents were always a source of embarrassment to me growing up.

My siblings learned it the hard way, on the playground of the elementary school they were thrown into upon arrival in the United States, not knowing a word of the language. But English was my native tongue.  My father fought hard to make our home an island of Spanish, protected against the forces of peers and popular culture. To this end, we had a penny bank shaped like a soldier on the dinner table every night into which, every night, we had to deposit a penalty for speaking English.

 

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I remember sometime during the Miami Dolphins undefeated season hitting upon a terrific idea for eliminating the mockery and subsequent embarrassment my strange name—Yago, Yoga, Yogurt, San Diego—caused me at school. I would change it! I knew that my full name, Santiago, meant Saint James in English, and that the short form, Yago, could be translated as James.  The Dolphins that year had a running back named Jim Kiick. His last name struck me as some kind of stroke of cosmic genius: a football player named Kiick! How perfect that his first name was mine! My proposal to change my name officially to Jim Kiick fell flat. In fact, it launched my Dad into a tirade about how his gringo son was betraying la patria. The lament, voiced in Spanish at top volume, that “these kids are forgetting Spanish” rings in my ears to this day.

Language was thus the beginning of my sense of strangeness and unbelonging at home and in my world outside the home, but it was only the beginning. There was the fact, oft-repeated, with pride, by my father, that I was by virtue of my birth the only Colás who could become President of the United States. But given his disdain for so many of the things that to me, influenced by my friends and their families, defined America—baseball, Hee Haw, the Brady Bunch—it was hard for me to know whether to internalize his pride or his disdain at this Americanness.

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Our national identity was, anyway, more declared than anything else.  After all, we didn’t eat American food (and when we tried to it felt weird), we didn’t do American things like going to rural Wisconsin town to visit grandma and grandpa or our cousins.  We had Thanksgiving turkey and on the 4th of July I was taken to fireworks, but, perhaps because there was no history of doing so, no existing family version of these traditions, the experiences—even if I couldn’t have articulated it in these terms at the time, even to myself—always felt performed, as though we were the foreign factory workers that Henry Ford used force to wear outlandish versions of their native garb as they climbed into a 20 foot “melting pot” only to emerge Americanized. Only we never got out of the pot since in so many ways my experience showed me all the ways we—and I, despite my claims on the White House—were not American.

But we did watch and play basketball.  And, though few of my friends families seemed very interested in it (by comparison with football, baseball or even hockey), I think I wound up depositing all of these fraught investments—like generations of second-generation immigrants before me—into the sport and the sense of belonging I believed it promised. Promised, and mostly delivered. Though playing with my Dad sometimes only served for me to emphasize his foreignness by comparison with other fathers, enjoying games together in front of the TV or at the arena helped me forget that he, and by extension I, was not American.  And the skills I developed first in our driveway in competition with he and my siblings landed me a spot on school teams and—despite the shame I’d feel when my name was announced over the PA system during starting lineups—helped attenuate the sense I always had of being different from the other jocks, and so somehow alone.

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All these childhood feelings come rushing forth on Independence Day, when everyone around me is either innocently or aggressively parading a prideful American belonging that I’ve never quite felt.  Everyone, that is, except those whose experience or education has led them to an acute sensitivity to all the ways in which the nation, from the time of its very foundation on ideals of liberty and equality, has fallen so short of realizing those ideals.  My education and my experiences (if only second-hand) have taught me to see this as well. But I can’t shake a possibly naive, perhaps even childish, desire for it to be true: for America to be the land of the free and the home of the brave, and for me to fully belong to it and it to me.

It occurred to me yesterday that in some sense—despite baseball’s longstanding and football’s more recent claims to the contrary—basketball is America’s game.  But upon a talking with my wife, who shares some of these feelings on the 4th, I realized it’s not that it is so more than any other game, not in a generalizable way. Basketball is, however, the game of Americanness for me.  And it is more than just that.  For there are ways in which basketball in this country harbors (again, not necessarily more so than any other sport) within itself the otherwise polarized opposing tendencies that cause she and I to feel so strange and alone on Independence Day.

That is to say that the world of basketball—I realize now the previously unnoticed importance of my having structured my forthcoming book around the metaphor of basketball as a republic, a state, and an empire and of my own participation in it as akin to a kind of dissenting citicenzship—offers all of the best and worst that America itself offers.  Basketball offers insane corporate profits, tasteless mass spectacle centered on glorified individualism, economic exploitation, racism, discrimination on the basis of gender and sexuality, authoritarian ideologies, and empty dreams.  But basketball also offers the ongoing attempt to address social injustice, the exhibition of individual initiative and creativity working smoothly in the interests of a collective, the demonstration that effort, persistence and dedication can level the social playing field.

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It’s so hard to hold all this together in my heart and mind.  I write the last sentence and I immediately want to qualify it, hearing the voices of others (inside me) pointing out all the ways in which these positive things are either not so positive or not the whole story.  I’ve written this kind of thing myself plenty of times.  But then I want to resist that, and argue back, but do you not see and feel the exhilarating freedom unfolding unpredictably with every movement of a basketball player on the floor? That, I want to say back, perhaps childishly, that is America.  And I’ve written that kind of thing plenty of times.  But, and here we go again, that is not all that is America.  And so I come to feel that the sport, no less than the country I think it embodies, will always leave me falling between two polarized extremes.

And then I think to myself: maybe the problem arises because of the myriad ways in which our current discursive fora in this country encourage the expression of extreme, one-sided views of things. I know, I’m not the first to point this out.  But what I feel that I hear less often than this complaint is the attempt to address it by offering, in public spheres like this one, more complex perspectives on the phenomenon in question; perspectives marked not only by reason (or rationalization), but by feeling and, along with feeling, by contradiction and paradox and a budding sense that one’s word is not the last word.  That the thing we’re arguing about isn’t really anything in the sense that it’s not one thing and that it’s not a done thing.  That we’re contributing, with every word we write, to the further elaboration of that thing.  It’s all unfinished, a work in progress.  America is unfinished.  Basketball is unfinished. And, if that could be the meaning of those things—America and basketball—then I feel pretty much at home because I, too, am unfinished.

 

Why I Can’t Get Excited About NBA Transactions

This is the biggest week in pro basketball’s off-season.  Over the past week, avid interest in the big news and minute details of both the NBA draft and free agency has swept up citizens of the basketball world.  I consider myself a hoops citizen in good standing and, as such, I’ve tried to follow the speculation and the breaking news stories, but I’ve found my heart’s really not in it and I’ve started to wonder why.  The draft’s big news that Jahlil Okafor dropped to the three spot or that the Knicks’ Phil Jackson drafted Kristaps Porzingis left me cold.  How about today’s free agent signings? Is DeMarre Carroll going to make the Raptors better? Was he worth the money they paid him? I don’t care.

UCOR-Billboard4To begin with, with few exceptions, I’m not all that invested in the year-to-year vicissitudes of the different teams.  I do understand that some people are and perhaps this just says something about the nature of my fandom, which primarily skirts identification with particular teams.  I lived in Ann Arbor for about 15 years and was on and off again a fan of the Pistons, but only when they were good and even then, I found myself easily thrilled by a great individual performance by another player, even when it came at the Pistons’ expense. Now for the last few years, I’ve lived near Cleveland. I tried to get into the Cavs, but found that I only could do so when LeBron James returned to the team.  So to the degree that draft and free agency excitement is driven by fans’ investments in the fortunes of their teams, I’m just not built to thrill to the changes this moment brings.

Don’t get me wrong, I love basketball, and not just great individual performances.  I love great team performances as well.  In each of the last two finals, though I was hoping for LeBron’s Heat and then Cavs to win the championship, I found myself enthralled, in spite of myself, at the beautiful, varied shapes and movements that San Antonio and Golden State generated on the floor. But I don’t care about those franchises or those cities as such, any more than I care about the Cavaliers or the city of Cleveland as such. I don’t care how they do next year.  I think such entities, perhaps, are too abstract to stir my emotional and aesthetic sensibilities.  I’m more likely to be thrilled by particulars, by concrete moments, by events, by actual people than by institutions (like franchises) or abstractions (like “the city of ‘x'”).

And this might illuminate another source of my aversion (which some friends have pointed out to me): that these two events—the draft and free agency—mark the apex of the basketball world’s commodification of its players; or rather, the apex of their explicit, unabashed commodification and therefore a moment in which we may be most likely to lose sight of their humanity. I’m no economist and it may be controversial but I think commodification can be understood as

The subordination of both private and public realms to the logic of capitalism. In this logic, such things as friendship, knowledge, women, etc. are understood only in terms of their monetary value. In this way, they are no longer treated as things with intrinsic worth but as commodities. (They are valued, that is, only extrinsically in terms of money.) By this logic, a factory worker can be reconceptualized not as a human being with specific needs that, as humans, we are obliged to provide but as a mere wage debit in a businessman’s ledger. (From Dino Felluga)

Players are most obviously fungible bodies during this period, in which their rich individuality as human beings and athletes is reductively quantified to a particular potential value added and/or a dollar amount. That is to say, I guess, that in a sense this is the moment when a life is turned into a abstraction.

it-is-simply-a-cartel-the-story-behind-mls-winning-the-labor-wars-against-players-1425396738.pngOf course, given the context of the NBA as a capitalist cartel, I am certainly pleased to see players get paid, pleased to see each of them exercise what leverage they’ve acquired through their excellence in order to take advantage of the rare opportunities they get to cash in. And I have been excited to see former students of mine from the University of Michigan men’s basketball team enter the draft.  But that’s mostly because I know them, know their dreams, and am happy to see them live them; just as I am happy to see the student whose dream is to live in Paris, pick up and move there after graduation. But these exceptions just highlight for me that  the way in which this process gets talked about among fans and media observers for the most part disheartening, even embarrassing in the same way that when occasionally a non-sports fan friend of mine will ask some seemingly naive question about sports, it tends to jar open a defamiliarizing abyss in my own investment in sports so that—having no ready answer—I’m suddenly launched into an existential crisis about why I spend so much time in sports.

Sure, I always come around: the heart wants what the heart wants and “the heart,” as Pascal said, “has its reasons which reason can’t understand.”  But still, the trading of flesh—regardless of the price—bums my heart out.  I know, of course, the commodification of human beings is not just a problem in sports and I think it’s unfair for others to single sports out as some sort of egregious exception to how the rest of the world works.  Every for-profit enterprise entails the reductive transformation of concrete labor and of labor’s concrete creations into fungible quantities to be measured against one another: manufacturing, journalism, and of course, higher education.  In that sense, sport is no different, no worse perhaps and perhaps no better.

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But perhaps because I care about the language of sport and in the ideas and values this language reflects, conveys, and reinforces, because, in other words, I am a citizen of basketball, I find myself wanting a space in which, even in the midst of breathlessly reporting the slide of some prospect down the draft board or some surprise free agent pick up, we could pause to also talk about the bigger processes with which we’re complicit.

Here I imagine some readers—the few still with me after I defined commodification, I mean—shaking their head at my naivete.  Or others, resentfully pointing out my hypocrisy (I enjoy the fruits of this system even as I criticize it) as a means of protecting their pleasure against a critique. I want to say that I really don’t want to appear judgmental of anyone’s fun here.  Comparisons are odious, including comparisons of relative exploitation.  But I get that the exploitative commodification of NBA players probably isn’t and shouldn’t be tops on the list of the world’s injustices.  And I’m certainly not claiming that making space for this would change anything about how those processes work. So on those scores at least, such readers can relax.

But it certainly couldn’t make the world worse if we had more room to talk about how it felt to be—or even to watch others be—commodified, reduced to some quantitative measurement, traded.  Maybe even, if we talked about those feelings, we’d be more in touch with them, and more in touch with the unpleasant aspect of them.  And maybe then, if enough of us were more in touch with them, we’d start to look for another way to organize ourselves and our varied, concrete capacities to make new things in this world, whether those things are books, basketball shoes, or basketball plays.

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Teaching Values: Coaching the Right Way

In the wake of my posts last week exploring some of the history, assumptions and implications underlying various aspects of coaching, I had a great conversation with Nick Houseman at BBallBreakdown.  Nick is a coach, clearly an intelligent and caring one and so one who is looking to make coaches and coaching better. Perhaps in that spirit, he asked me the following question yesterday: “is there a debate about coaches using sports to teach overarching themes about life?”

I take it that Nick is asking not whether such a debate exists (for the record, there is quite a bit of scholarly discussion of this in the sport psychology, sport sociology and sport philosophy literature–contact me for some references), but rather, rhetorically, whether I believe that it is appropriate for coaches to use sports to teach overarching themes about life? My short answer is yes.  There’s no question that sports can provide numerous opportunities to learn, either through experience or instruction, about life; and a coach can be the individual who helps teach those lessons.  Moreover, as historians such as Dominick Cavallo and Clifford Putney (to name just two among many) have shown, sports have and probably will continue to be—for better and for worse—impactful arenas for imparting these lessons. In the case of basketball, for example, the game was in part designed to do so.  And individuals like James Naismith, John Wooden, Walt Frazier, Bill Russell, Bill Bradley, Mike Krysewski, and Phil Jackson, among many others, have authored volumes elaborating their ideas about what basketball can teach and how; even as scholars have complicated our understanding of how this might work best.

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But in specific circumstances (and leaving aside the kind of coaching behaviors that have left too many young people with a horrible impression of sports culture) , I might qualify my response depending on the answers to certain questions: what is the age of the athletes? What are the themes being taught and how are these being taught? And what is the social context outside of the sporting arena that might support (or undermine) the ability of individual athletes to incorporate these (presumably positive) lessons into their daily lives.  Each of these questions reflects underlying issues that complicate my answer.

Basketball for BoysThis may seem obvious, but generally speaking, I think it’s most appropriate and practical for coaches to impart life lessons to younger players. This isn’t because I think we can’t stop learning about life as we get older.  Life is complicated and challenging in ways that change as we age.  And none of us are ever too old to benefit from the experiences, perspectives, and wisdom of others.  However, in a professional context such as the NBA, where (depending on your definition) most or all of the players are adults, there is a danger that coaches seeking to impart life lessons may fail to respect or appreciate the life wisdom players already have and therefore take on a patronizing attitude.  That is, a situation can arise in which one grown adult is treating another grown adult as though he were less than adult. Because of the racial dynamic whereby most coaches are still white and most players still black and the history of race relations in the US, this such an attitude can become especially problematic.

Moreover, the NBA is a business in which coaches and players alike are employed to maximize, through their success on the court, the profit line of owners. It may not be practical in that context to prioritize life lessons.  And, in addition, the business aspect of the NBA means that coaches and players may not have the opportunity to develop the kinds of intimate personal relationships (knowledge of each other’s experiences and lives, trust, etc.) that should be the bedrock for any such instruction. However, in explicitly educational contexts (such as colleges and schools) and elsewhere that younger athletes are involved, I think using the sporting experience to impart life lessons can be appropriate and desirable, depending, as I said at the outset, on what the themes are, how they are being taught, and on the broader social context in which this is occurring.

It’s probably pretty common to consider, again taking basketball as an example, that certain qualities of character likely to lead to individual and team success are also valuable in life outside of basketball.  Hard work, self-discipline, physical health, enjoyment, graciousness, adaptability, individual initiative, cooperation, unselfishness, intelligence, self-respect and respect for others, and an appreciation of individual differences in personality and ability might comprise a non-exhaustive list of such qualities. I’ve certainly found in my life in and out of basketball that cultivating and exhibiting such qualities tends to contribute to more positive outcomes more often than not.  And most would agree in principle (even if some waver or fall short in actual practice) that these qualities should be prioritized over other values (such as winning) if and when they conflict.

I’m not claiming that these are universal values.  Some arguably are, some definitely are not.  Sometimes, the objection that they are not is voiced to prevent the specific experiences of certain socially marginalized group from being erased. Such erasure is a valid and serious concern.  But I wonder if it might be constructively addressed with careful attention to the conditions under which they are transmitted.  Perhaps this is naive on my part, but if it were the case, we could then avoid resigning ourselves to the position—which admittedly I find tempting, but ultimately counter to my experience, my reasoning, and my desire—that it is hopeless, or worse harmful, to attempt to use sports to impart life lessons to athletes we care about.

Some sociologists rightly observe that there can be in sport an excessive emphasis on defining well-being and development in individual terms. The concern behind this critical observation is that such an emphasis fails to take into account the role—both for better and worse—of society (and of other collectives) in the well-being and development of individuals. Because basketball is a team sport, and as the list of qualities I offered above suggests, this may be less of a problem when it comes to the actual values some coaches seek to impart to their young players. It’s hard for me at least to imagine a basketball coach sternly instructing his or her players to go after their own individual success on the floor at all costs and that this will stand them in good stead in life after basketball.  Even so, it may be the case that some coaches fail to recognize (for any number of reasons) the broader social context in which their players must operate; a context which might make some of these qualities less practicable or practically useful than would be the case on the team or in other social scenarios with which a coach might be familiar or, indeed, in some ideal society.

But I don’t think this means that coaches should refrain from attempting to instill the values they genuinely believe will be useful to their players on and off the court.  It does, however, mean that how a coach teaches and—equally importantly—embodies these values becomes very important.  And it does mean that we should all (coaches included, or especially) be invested in the broader conditions, both of youth sport and of the social and community contexts surrounding young athletes outside of the sporting context, that might make the difference between life lessons learned through sport becoming empowering tools for individuals and communities and such lessons becoming little more than cynically deployed empty promises leading to bitterness and mistrust.

Coach-Gray-Sports-Coach-Tip-No-18-Coach-John-Burns-1024x1024Take care of your body might be the most fundamental tenet of all coaches and the athletic principle with the most obvious relevance to daily life.  The habits of physical self-care that a young athlete might cultivate in the context of their sporting experience may well become a life-long habit with clear benefits.  But, in imparting that lesson, are we taking adequate account of the situations that athlete may be facing in their home or community that might undermine their efforts at attending to their physical well being? Do they have adequate nutrition, for example, or the opportunity to cultivate proper sleep hygiene?

Respect yourself and others: another fundamental lesson to be learned through sports.  But self-respect and respect for others are not cultivated in a vacuum, through sheer force of individual will (even if such a will is a necessary condition for their cultivation). So when we teach young athletes to respect themselves and others (teammates, coaches, officials, opponents) are we considering whether or not the conditions exist in their lives outside of sport in which such a lesson might take root and grow?  Are they respected by their teachers? By law enforcement? By their peers? What about the coach? Is the coach, in his or her interaction with players, showing respect? Or, indeed, exemplifying the other lessons of life and of character he or she seeks to instill in them?

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I think one could go down the list of qualities that I mentioned above and ask of each of them: is the coach exemplifying them? Is their adequate social support for the cultivation of these lessons in a wholistic manner? If not, is the coach (and others claiming to care about the well being of the young athlete) working to ensure that the conditions exist outside the sport—in the family, neighborhood, community and country—in which these qualities can be both practicable and practically useful?

Obviously, as literal questions, the answer will be sometimes yes and sometimes no, depending on the coach.  But I mean them more as rhetorical questions designed to illuminate the more challenging areas that I fear are obscured by the broad popular consensus that sports are a good arena in which to learn life lessons and, therefore, that coaches are the appropriate instructors for such lessons.  I mean to be, in other words, pointing out some of the conditions that I think we need to meet if the potential of sport (and coaches) to work in this positive way is to be fulfilled.

The Triangle Myth

In thinking about basketball culture, I’ve found it useful to think about certain recurrent themes, images, metaphors and topics of discussion as myths.  I don’t mean “myths” in the sense of falsehoods. Instead, I mean myth in the definition given by scholar Robert Segal as a story that conveys a belief that, whether it is true or false, is tenaciously held by its adherents.  Another scholar once referred to myths as “cultural dreams.” If you accept that dreams can shed light on our deeper feelings and attitudes, wishes and fears, then it can be useful to explore the shame of these cultural dreams called myths, for they can help us to better understand the things we feel collectively as a culture but perhaps are not in touch with enough to articulate directly.  Better understanding these things, in turn, can help empower us to change those things that we discover may need changing, just as better understanding our individual fears and wishes can lead us to improve our lives.

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Nicholas Dawidoff published an elegantly produced, honest and informative inquiry into the Triangle in yesterday’s New York Times. The piece inspired this post and I’ll be using examples from it to illustrate just what I’m talking about. Discussion of the Triangle doesn’t always take on the form of a story, thought it almost always includes stories (such as the story of Tex Winter, who originally devised it, or the story of Phil Jackson’s implementation of it when he was coaching the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan to multiple championships). But, regardless of the prominence of narrative in discussions of the Triangle, I think it’s still useful to probe them for those tenaciously held beliefs; useful, in other words, to speak of something we might call “The Triangle Myth.”

So what are the defining element of the Triangle Myth? In no particular order, the Triangle Myth consistently affirms several beliefs: 1) the complexity of the Triangle; 2) a strong association of the Triangle with the success of Jackson-coached teams in Chicago and Los Angeles; 3) the beauty of the Triangle; and 4) the qualities, especially moral qualities, required of players in order to run the Triangle effectively.

All these elements are visible in Dawidoff’s article. Indeed, the complexity of the offense appears as one of his motivations in writing the story.  He writes,

The system is basketball’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, renowned for being highbrow and difficult to understand. Yet trying to get through an abstruse book about the essence of cognition is one thing; that basketball could be over our heads is somehow harder to take.

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I found the idea of Triangle particularly intriguing. An offensive system that had won all those championships in full public view yet remained off-limits to others — that seemed provocative, a sports riddle.

This leads him to embark upon a quest he describes (albeit ironically) in a quasi-mythological terms:

Was Triangle the golden basketball mean? Was it a mirage? Mine would be a quest of sorts, deep into the heart of Winter.

In the course of this quest, he interviews a number of college and professional coaches and players.  The result is a veritable compendium of variations on the Triangle Myth.  So, we hear former player and current analyst Jay Williams testifying to its complexity:

You hand me a piece of paper and say, ‘Jay, define the triangle for me,’ it’s kind of like a kid with Magic Markers drawing a cartoon. It’s all over the page. So many series of actions, I get lost trying to explain it.

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The whole article revolves around the enormous success Jackson enjoyed using the Triangle, the challenges he has faced in implementing in New York, and the vicissitudes of other coaches and players efforts to work with the offense.  We find, moreover, none other than Kobe Bryant extolling the its beauty:

We were successful because we played in such a beautiful system.

Meanwhile, Stanford University women’s coach Tara VanDerveer compared it to improvisational jazz:

“The ball movement is beautiful!” she said, sounding the way people do when they are discussing the source of deep significance in their lives.

Meanwhile, both Jackson and his acolyte, Steve Kerr (first year coach of this seasons NBA champion Golden State Warriors) lament the difficulty of finding players with the requisite qualities for understanding, accepting and implementing the Triangle.  Thus, Jackson, speaking of his challenges as President of the Knicks:

Identifying players who can be good at it is our chore.

And Kerr elaborates the complaint:

Players grow up with the pick-and-roll, so they don’t naturally play without the ball. So many one-and-done guys are incredibly gifted,but they’re not seasoned fundamentally. In Triangle, they’d be completely lost.

Ultimately, in addition to fundamental skills and intelligence, players are required to possess the moral qualities of unselfishness, self-discipline, and trust.  They must be willing, first of all, to place the team’s interests over their own individual interests or rather more precisely: they must identify their individual interests with the team’s interests.  But also, they must be willing to trust their teammates to do the same and, moreover, the offense to produce positive outcomes for the collective.

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Former Bulls’ player Horace Grant brings all the elements together:

You need intelligence to run Triangle. We have great one-on-one athletes out there in the N.B.A., but to be as one, you need to know your role in Triangle. It was a smooth operating machine. Baryshnikov in action! Picasso painting! A beautiful thing!

What Bethlehem Shoals once called the “NBA bildungsroman” of Michael Jordan laboring selfishly and unsucessfully year after year in a Sisyphian task of rolling the Chicago Bulls up the hill of the NBA playoffs only to fall back down again before coming under the firm but benign and quasi-mystical guidance of Phil Jackson and the Triangle serves as the exemplary moral tale here, sisyphus-1549which Dawidoff dutifully recounts, in the form of a quotation from then-Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause:

Michael’s smart as hell. It took him a few months, but then he realized what he could do in Triangle. He went back to Carolina, and all he did all summer was work on post stuff. For the next eight or 10 years, he scored more points in the post than most centers did.

So all the elements are here: the Triangle is a bafflingly complex system, associated with some of the most unparalleled team successes in basketball history, but its complexity, together with the individual skills and moral traits required to implement it are beyond the reach of most of today’s players. So having reviewed these examples of the constitutive elements of the Triangle Myth, let me look a little more critically and deeply.

The first thing to note is the logic whereby an offensive system (or “rubric” as Dawidoff nicely terms it) that has been successfully implemented in specific circumstances is viewed as a kind of tactical, moral, and aesthetic ideal to which coaches and teams should aspire.  This is important because it only through this elevation of the contingent into the necessary that it makes any sense for coaches to complain that they don’t have the right circumstances (read: “players”) in which to implement the Triangle.  

The tacit idea here is that running the Triangle is the best of all possible basketball worlds, the Eden every coach and team would blissfully inhabit if only those players—unschooled in the fundamentals, lacking the intelligence, or unwilling to sacrifice their own interests for the good of the team—weren’t mucking it up.

The Triangle may well have been enormously successful, perhaps more successful than any offensive system in basketball history, and many may consider the patterns of ball and body movement it generates to be beautiful.  It may even exemplify certain moral traits reasonable people would consider desirable such as unselfishness, self-discipline, and trust.  I don’t have any problem with assenting to any of this.  My problem comes when in idealizing the Triangle through the Triangle Myth it becomes yet another bludgeon with which to hammer players (past and especially present) for what they appear—through the lens of this mythto lack.

The deficiencies of today’s players seem to me to be enumerated so frequently that I fear people will come to really believe that NBA players lack fundamental skills, or intelligence, or moral qualities like unselfishness, self-discipline, or trust.  When the list of deficiencies is harnessed to the cart of a powerfully compelling story like the Triangle Myth, I think such distortions become all the more likely to be accepted as truths.

Anybody’s who has been reading me ever, but especially lately, probably knows that this is the moment to remind you that most NBA players are black and most NBA coaches are white and that it’s troubling to me to see basketball culture repeat, as though in a social vacuum, any number of criticisms of black men that have been a staple of racist discourse in this country for centuries.  That Michael Jordan (who is obviously black) is trotted out as a counter-example is itself another staple of such discourse: the exhibition of an African-American who through determination and individual virtue manages to hoist himself above his culture and so to fulfill the expectations of the dominant, white culture.

Instead of this, we might remove the distorting lenses furnished by myths like that of the Triangle.  In doing so, we might appreciate that in every NBA game we witness dazzling exhibitions of fundamental skills honed through long hours of solitary practice, of moral virtue cultivated in, often times, the least nourishing of soils, and of a kind of embodied intelligence that—because we fall prey to the longstanding assumption that minds and bodies are two separate facets of the human being and that the mind is the sole residence of intelligence—we’re likely to overlook because it is not expressed in the forms—such as speech—we expect.

As a teacher (a kind of coach if you will) I try—when I am at what I think of as my best, which is certainly not always—to approach my classes as though the students already possess the basic skills and dispositions required to make the course a success.  I assume they are all intelligent, curious, and open to learn from and teach one another.  But I recognize that intelligence, curiosity and openness take different forms.  And I spend a fair amount of time over the first few weeks of each semester getting to know the specific individual and collective gifts a given group of students will be bringing to the table.  Only then, having established that I respect and value them, have I earned in turn th respect that allows them to accept and meet the challenges I offer them to go further and to stretch themselves.

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