On This Night Of a Thousand Pars

June 19, 2007

One day, a crevice within the earth opened forth. Light spewed from the depths of everlasting fire, as molten formations bubbled up from beneath the hollow interior of the globe. Pools of flattened land, pockmarked with pits of fine sand, dense reeds, devilish pools of stagnant water, swarmed by gaggles of blasphemous geese and botanical engineering bordering on the profane formed on the surface. As the dust settles and the fields turn an artificial shade of light green, one can almost see the hand of Ol’ Scratch himself positioning steppes, leaving wind breaks in disrepair and poking inconveniently placed holes at regular intervals. One last gasp of bluish smoke puffs up from the inner depths of Hell, and if one were at the wrong place at the wrong time to witness this nefarious signal of doom, one would lay claim to being present at the auspicious birth of the golf course at the Oakmont Country Club, host to this year’s U.S. Open.

The difficulties of playing the great game of golf at Oakmont were pretty much the talk of Pittsburgh this past week. Many a commentator described, in graphic detail, the slaying of such golf giants as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Bubba Watson, their bloodied carcasses laid waste by hitting one over par all afternoon. The main reason, of course, that the US Open is so much discussed in Pittsburgh is that it distracts from the fact that it causes yet another reason, besides the biannual repaving of all the roads, to close half of the lanes in a city whose civil engineering was done in a time and an era where it was thought that road layouts should resemble a cross between a drunkenly-spun spiderweb and a placenta.

That’s not to minimize the difficulty of Oakmont. The winner—the winner, mind you—of the tournament was five over par, effectively meaning that the best players in the world couldn’t beat past the course’s inherent difficulty. It’s like not even getting tongue after taking the girl from the cigarette store who gets fuel points down at the clinic to Red Lobster for “dinner.” Par is supposed to represent the target for a reasonably good player, so when you have the cream of the crop in the golf world throwing golf bags into swan nests, you know that the engineering of the place was done with blatantly Luciferian intent.

The surprise winner, of course, was Argentine Angel Cabrera. In such a tightly contested game, Cabrera’s appearance adds a little bit of drama to an otherwise pedestrian event. Cabrera’s golfing prowess, no doubt formed by developing his observational skills during childhood by making sure he wasn’t “disappeared,” was mitigated by those who felt that with a hard-luck course such as Oakmont, chance played a little bit more than its fair share. He is known affectionately on the course as “El Pato,” or, literally, “the sumbitch who lucked out when Tiger Woods kept overshooting his fairway shots, not unlike his prospects for a lengthy marriage to a Swedish nanny.”

Another big story was the homecoming of James Furyk, who tied Woods for second place. Although Furyk hails from the eastern part of Pennsylvania, his family is from the Pittsburgh area, and spent many practice years in the area. Many at Oakmont were cheering for his victory, which almost seemed miraculously assured at certain points. This is somewhat miraculous in and of itself, since Pittsburghers tend to view Philadelphians with a certain level of contempt and irritation that one normally reserves for the unclaimed cards in the Most Wanted Iraqi Deck. Likewise, Philadelphians tend to take a condescending view of Western Pennsylvanians much in the same way that one views a nervous, lost puppy who through generations of social evolution somehow produced Rick Santorum. To see a native of close Philly suburb West Chester be cheered by Pittsburghers is a mellowing sight indeed. It’s almost heartwarming to see such a rare and magnificent sight, right before all the Pittsburghers in the crowd went home and moved to their new jobs in Arizona and North Carolina.

The Big Cranky Wet Blanket Awards goes to one Phil Mickelson, who unceremoniously failed to qualify after the second round. Mickelson has won the PGA Championship and the Masters twice, but has failed to come out on top in the U.S. Open in any given year, always settling for Buffalo Bills-level props. After practicing, he petulantly announced that practicing at Oakmont was about as useful as teeing off with a Titleist, since the course’s difficulty left the players prone to injury. This, of course, is something that seems to have been successfully avoided by approximately 155 other players. His putting was off, he was reluctant to drive hard due a his wrist injury, and he failed to measure up to his otherwise commendable #2 ranking, his only physical accomplishment over the long weekend being his ability to move his hands up to his throat with enough force to choke on the green.

After all of the preparations, all of the drama, and all of the excrementally boring hours of golf footage, everyone walked away from the competition with equal parts satisfaction, anticipation, and the smug sense of satisfaction that someone, somewhere, ponied up $7 million for a bunch of grown men to hit small white balls with metal sticks for four days straight, and that someone wasn’t you.

Major League Offenses

June 7, 2007

Last time, I wrote about the excesses of crazy Hollywood girls, so it’s only fair to take a look at the male equivalent: the esteemed members of the NFL. There’s a lot of excess going on there, too, and I’m not just talking about the terms of Chad Pennington’s contract. The commissioner of the National Football League, Roger Goodell, recently established a Personal Conduct Policy as a response to the increasing occurrences of off-the-field misbehavior. The threat looms over the heads of players, threats such as suspensions, fines, and possible exclusion from playing in NFL games, the latter a particularly nasty threat to the league as a whole with the exception of the Detroit Lions. Still, it can be hard to remember who did what to warrant punishment, so here is a list of misbehavior in the NFL:

Tank Johnson (Chicago Bears)
Offense: Possession of a handgun; then, while under probation for this offense, a search at his home produced six firearms, including assault rifles. Also, his bodyguard was killed. Whoops.
Official Excuse: The multitude of weaponry simply displays his commitment to the Bears’ defense. Also, he was born in Gary, Indiana, where not carrying a firearm to do such mundane tasks as clubbing and grocery shopping was a criminal offense, the only way out being forming an R&B band with your creepy-ass brothers.
Penalty: Under the terms of his house arrest, he was not permitted to drive himself or travel outside the state of Illinois. A judge made an exception so that he could go to Florida to participate in the Super Bowl. He was thus granted the single, longing taste of the Superbowl, only to have it unmercifully destroyed by Peyton Manning’s incredibly unexplainable hand-eye coordination. Or perhaps it was the existence of Rex Grossman, I don’t know.
Precedent: No precedent, per se, but it is important to note that residents of certain other NFL cities such as, oh, I don’t know, Green Bay, Wisconsin, or Nashville, Tennessee, routinely bring assault rifles to home games as a matter of course, but usually for the purposes of assaulting deer who are trying to move in on their women when they go to after-game square dances.

Terrance Kiel (former San Diego Chargers)
Offense: Selling drugs and urinating in public. But the most important thing he’s in trouble for is that he tried to ship codeine-based cough syrup across state lines, which to me is by far the most amusing thing for an NFL player to be caught for, besides cottaging or certain kinds of securities fraud.
Official Excuse: He had an excrementally bad cough waiting for him in Texas.
Penalty: Free agency. Also, 10,000 hours of community service, which seems like a ludicrous number to me. I think I’d rather spend a year and a half in jail then spend every afternoon in the summer telling kids that while it’s cool to play professional football, you want to stay away from the funky stuff, and just ‘cause the package says “over the counter” doesn’t mean it’s kosher to buy it in bulk. Also, pee indoors.
Precedent: Legendary QB Dan Fouts was ones addicted to Halls Eucalyptus Cough Drops.

Michael Vick (Atlanta Falcons)
Offense: Vick is currently under investigation for housing a dogfighting ring in his house, which is conveniently being house-sat by someone that Vick has apparently never seen before in his entire life. The biggest crime, however, is spending $40,000 betting on tenuously illegal dog fights when you are currently making $167 million dollars.
Official Excuse: He doesn’t know nothin’ about nothin’. Vick claims that he’s being taken advantage of by the relatives that are staying at his house; however many contend that they can place him with ringside seats at the canine Ultimate Fighting Championships, which is technically slightly less stupid than the real Ultimate Fighting Championships. Vick is too involved with his fans to participate in dogfighting anyway, such as flipping the bird to the home crowd, blowing off congressional testimony, hiding inhalable jewelry in water bottles, and spreading genital herpes.
Penalty: Dogfighting is a felony, so if convicted will be traded to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Precedent: Despite his clean-cut reputation, Tiki Barber routinely consumed a raw Corgi in view of the opposing team’s locker room before every away game to intimidate his rivals.

Larry Zierlein (Pittsburgh Steelers)
Offense: This offensive line coach was caught forwarding a pornographic and inappropriate email to every single member of the NFL management team, which to me is the single most hilarious thing on the face of the earth. I hope it was that monkey that peed in his mouth. Though I don’t think that’s classified as pornographic. I think.
Official Excuse: Everyone makes mistakes, especially with these newfangled computers and somesuch. I mean, it’s not like he was riding a motorcycle without a helmet or anything.
Penalty: He is no longer permitted to have any of his wishes come true by forwarding a jpeg of a dancing frog wearing a party hat to his fourteen closest friends within two hours.
Precedent: Alan Faneca once sent $14 million to a deposed Nigerian diplomat and is hoping that Dan Rooney doesn’t find this out before contract negotiations start up again.

The Cincinnati Bengals
Offense: Hey, this is just easier, OK? The Bengals have somehow managed to make getting arrested an art form, apparently bringing those lessons learned from the cast of Diff’rent Strokes to the gridiron. In the past three years or so, we’re looking at an accumulated list of embarrassing offenses, such as but not limited to (and as of this writing): resisting arrest, providing alcohol to minors, DUI, DWI, spousal battery, vandalism, operating a vehicle while impaired, domestic violence, drug possession, and possession of marijuana.
Official Excuse: Forget it, Jake, it’s Cincinnati.
Penalty: They all have to learn how to pronounce “Houshmandzadeh.”
Precedent: The entire roster of the Buffalo Bills was eventually placed under citizen’s arrest in 1994.

Pacman Jones (Tennessee Titans, at least for now)
Offense: One of the more amusing things I get to do in this endeavor is to learn something new every day. Here I sit at my computer being all smartass-like, and yet there are certain cultural phenomena that I am blissfully unaware of. Apparently, the harsh evolution of urban culture has produced the concept of “Making It Rain,” whereas the subject takes a large amount of money presumably secured in small bills, throws the collective pile into the air, and watches in apparent glee as it flutters downward as gravity puts in its usual day’s work. Hey, to each his own, but I guess people who have $80,000 to literally play around with can do this sort of thing without a second thought. Though Pacman Jones did have second thoughts—he made it rain (oh, I can’t believe I have to type that) at a local strip club during the NBA finals, and then was appalled when one of the ladies had the nerve to actually pick up some of the bills. So much so that he grabbed her by the hair and slammed her head on the runway. The resultant chaos is the reason for his current suspension.
Official Excuse: $80,000 is a touch too much for a standard lap dance.
Penalty: Currently, Jones is on a one-year suspension from the NFL, the first in a more drastic application of the organization’s personal conduct policy. Also, he’s not allowed in any strip clubs anywhere except certain parts of New Orleans.
Precedent: While Jones only wasted 80 thou, the Cowboys wasted about $25 million on Terrell Owens. At least Jones got some bouncy cleavage out of the deal.

Death By Cricket

March 28, 2007

In this increasingly complex and globalized world, where we have Swedish furniture, Japanese steaks, and British jazz singers, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that an Indian-born Briton who played cricket in South Africa and coached the Pakistan team was murdered in Jamaica. Clue never had this.

Bob Woolmer was the coach of the Pakistan cricket team. After losing rather unexpectedly to Ireland at the Cricket World Cup being held in the West Indies, he was found rather unexpectedly dead in his hotel room in Jamaica. Unfortunately, this seemed to become an insurmountable obstacle to his developing career.

The intertwining global loyalties sound complicated, and, in a way, it is. I’ve seen Japanese game shows with less bewildering complexity. It’s got more drama than such famous gruesome murder cases such as O.J. Simpson, Jon-Benet Ramsey, or Sanjaya Malakar’s version of “You Really Got Me.” It’s got more twists than the ending of an M. Night Shyamalan film and Snoop Dogg’s visa application combined. (See how globalizingly progressive I am with my pop culture references?) But, as murder cases go, this one looks like it may stay under the radar of the American press unless an eight-year-old blonde girl somehow gets involved.

There are probably not too terribly many people in America who have heard of Bob Woolmer or have seen too many reports of his death. I certainly know I hadn’t, what with my subscription to People You Don’t Really Care That Much About and Would Never Have Heard About Under Any Other Circumstances Anyway Weekly lapsing. But while I’m vaguely aware of the massively colonial popularity of cricket, I’ll be the first to admit that it is a singularly confusing game, much more complex than the blue lines on hockey, the passer rating formula in football, or, well, the murder of Bob Woolmer.

Perhaps I underestimate myself a little bit. The central concept of cricket is a largely simple affair, at least when compared to other sports of a similar type. Like most competitive sports, it involves overpaid entitlement farmers with insecurity complexes batting a small round object around for a few hours a week for about five months out of the year. What I find most confusing, though, is that the entire concept of cricket is based around the thought of, “Hey, you know, baseball is boring and all, but…do you think there’s a way we could make it even more incredibly dull?”

(Sports historians may point out that cricket was invented before baseball, a point that I would like to advise is “culturally relative,” by which I mean that I have lied, plus that it hardly makes my point any less true.)

Tying cricket to a murder is perhaps a rather drastic way to excite up the game, since, like baseball, cricket is one part exciting physical drama and eighteen hundred parts guys standing around in drab uniforms staring at nothing in particular and scratching themselves. (Obligatory joke: and that’s just the fans!) That perhaps wouldn’t be so bad if commercial breaks, graphics with incredibly esoteric statistics, and color commentary could fill in the numerous gaps, but cricket games also have the distinction of being much, much longer than most entire sports seasons. For example, the first game of cricket is widely believed to have started in 1550 AD and has yet to reach a satisfactory conclusion.

But back to poor Bob Woolmer. Much of the information of the case is being taken from the Jamaican Gleaner, a rather comical name for a newspaper based in a country not exactly known for its judicious fact-finding aptitude. And calling your newspaper the Gleaner is kind of like calling your cricket team The Pakistan Cricket Players. Perhaps all of that latent creativity went to those rasta hats and inventing ways to sell “Jamaica” window decals with a “surprise” taped in a sandwich bag to the back of it.

There are many theories for the cause of death for Woolmer. The Jamaican-led investigation points to the fact that he was strangled and is currently classified as a homicide investigation, though to be fair the phrase “Jamaican investigation” is roughly equivalent to “Bahamian marriage,” so take that for what’s it’s worth. The only popular theory is that is it a gambling-related murder, since the only other crime associated with organized cricket is killing precious days of everyone’s lives. Then again, murder in Jamaica is just about as common as booths selling T-Shirts proudly proclaiming “Jamaican Me Crazy!”, so it hasn’t been completely ruled out as a random hit.

Still, there are enough doubts that no one is certain what is going on. Not an unusual state of affairs in Jamaica, I’m afraid. Woolmer had complained about a myriad of medical ailments before he died, though this is of dubious value since asphyxiation is rarely a symptom of Type II diabetes. And family members have attributed stress and breathing difficulties to a possible medical verdict. But it’s enough that, regardless of which way the investigation goes at this point, the Jamaican police forces, the media, and supportive citizens will not rest until the answers have been found. Or 4:20, whichever comes first.

The Bear and the Colt

February 4, 2007

There’s a reasonably large sports contest that is going to be played soon, a de facto holiday in many parts of the country. Usually in two parts of the country more so than others. This year, the Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Bears will fight a grand simulated battle to the death, otherwise known as How Many Points Will The AFC Win By This Year.

In some ways, the two Super Bowl contenders have many striking similarities. They both come from two different yet easily confused states, at least in the context of putting together those awful wooden jigsaw puzzles third grade teachers are convinced are challenging because the state names have been removed but whose only impact on the American education system is that every male at the age of 12 thinks they were the genius that thought up that joke about what the shape of Florida resembles. They’re both teams who have overcome tremendous tests of faith and skill; the Colts have had a decades-long frustration of choking in the playoffs, whether it be Peyton Manning’s occasionally faltering laser-rocket arm or some idiot kicker. The Bears have to deal with the legacy of the Super Bowl Shuffle.

Granted, there are some differences as well. Chicago is the home of Oprah, the O’Leary cow, and that musical starring Richard Gere pretending to sing and Catherine Zeta Jones pretending to not be sleeping with him. Indianapolis is the home of David Letterman, car racing, and Hoosiers. One of Chicago’s nicknames is the “Second City,” a testament to how great cities with low self-esteem can become with a little bit of love, devotion, and a strategic economic location along Lake Michigan. Indianapolis’s nickname is the “Circle City,” with “Flat Land Stolen From the Indians City” and “Culturally More Significant Than, Uh, Let’s Just Say Botany Bay” already taken in the Least Imaginative City Nickname Ever sweepstakes.

The two quarterbacks are also stealing a fair amount of the spotlight, and with good reason. Peyton Manning has been the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts since approximately the Age of Reason, and has achieved important football statistics that make Dan Marino look like Brett Favre’s vagina, but has yet to win a Super Bowl ring due to (please choose all that apply) 1) A defense that couldn’t hold off an invasion of Italian photojournalists; 2) the insistence that playoff games actually be played as opposed to being determined by an automatic statistical resolution; or 3) the inability to convince the NFL to hold every single game at the RCA Stadium. So many feel that this is a grave injustice, despite the fact that Manning has thrown over 37,000 yards, 275 touchdowns, saved 415 babies from burning buildings, and personally bayoneted 1,735 Germans at El Alamein.

Rex Grossman, however, is a slightly different case. Unlike Manning, Grossman is a relative newcomer, having only started a few seasons ago. His performance has been both lauded and criticized for his uneven yet skillful playing. His career started auspiciously when he threw his first touchdown and immediately broke every finger in his right hand. In his second season, he led the team all the way to the preseason before severing several parts of his spinal cord and breaking both of his legs. And this season, he helped defeat the Seattle Seahawks after disjointing his elbow, snapping his neck, losing eight toes to frostbite, and simultaneously developing diabetes, chronic meningitis, and aplastic anemia. And he led the Bears to win over the Saints despite suffering from eight heart attacks and losing all muscular function in the right half of his body.

Despite the Super Bowl’s ominous presence, it’s not the only event this year for football fans. The feel-good story of the season, of course, concerns the New Orleans Saints. Last year, their home—the Superdome—was converted into a shelter for those who needed to recover from Hurricane Katrina, and, deprived of their usual stomping ground, ended the season with a painful yet forgivable given-the-circumstances 3-13 record. This year, though, they made it all the way to the playoffs, eventually falling gallantly to the Chicago Bears with an upset, allowing Reggie Bush only one elaborately conceited taunting the entire game. Since this is the first time the Saints have made it to the playoffs without being a wild card team in the history of all mankind, it had led many analysts to wonder when a hurricane can be engineered to hit Detroit.

Truly, the winner of the Super Bowl is, really, the fans. And by the fans, I specifically mean Peyton Manning. Regardless of who wins, Manning’s folksy manner and irrepressible charm just may—just may!—be able to be converted into a shot at an endorsement deal. I’m not a betting man, but I strongly believe we might be seeing him in a few commercials when this football nonsense is all said and done. Just a thought.

A Horse Is A Horse, Of Corpse, Of Corpse

January 31, 2007

This past week, we commemorate the passing of a sports legend who regrettably had a brief yet inspiring career. Barbaro, the promising winner of so many bottles of cheap whiskey across America, was laid to rest.

I’ve never really understood horse racing. Well, the obvious points of horse racing are there—expensively maintained expensive horses trot gallantly around in expensive racetracks while men in expensive coats drink expensive gin and tonics to place a $3 bet to show. But I never quite understood the apparent utility of creating this equestrian sport pretty much based on mechanics whose sole purpose is to facilitate some of the most complicated betting arrangements ever devised, the definition and determination of payouts in a sueprfecta being a perfectly reasonable prima facie case for alcoholism. There is also apparently a secret society of horse owners who have a perpetually ongoing standing prank to come up with the most nonsensical names for their horses, evolution apparently passing “Black Beauty” and “Buttermilk” by.

Announcer: Aristophanes’ Sternum is coming around the bend…but Stereotanz Diskotech is coming up right behind…and here comes the Treaty of Westphalia making a surprise push for the win…but it’s Invasion of Granada who goes…all…the…way!

Poor Barbaro had a promising start to his racing career, walking in undefeated when he won the Kentucky Derby. Alas, at the beginning of his attempt to complete the Triple Crown at the Preakness Stakes—the horse equivalent of either a Superbowl ring or a bucket of raw carrots—he started off crankily, causing a false start (and, presumably, a 5-yard penalty), and soon broke his leg in three places. Horse surgery is apparently more complicated than horse betting, and even though he was trotting happily about in the stables, eyeing up the mares and ordering Netflix, his doctors pegged his chances of escaping the baseball glove factory at a dismal rate, which immediately was tabled at 5:1 odds.

Something more complicated that horse surgery is horse terminology. At least I think so. Then again, I’m confused by the chain of command on CSI, so what do I know? A foal is a newborn horse, unaware of the life of running incessantly, pulling beer kegs, and “Why the long face?” jokes ahead of him. A colt is a horse known for choking, specifically in the playoffs. A filly is a young female horse waiting to get her first Bratz trapper keeper, so she can be classified as a mare. A stallion never calls the next day. A gelding is a horse that wishes he were dead. A roan is a horse that plays WoW for sixteen hours a day and hasn’t gotten the mail in six weeks.

For the past year, Barbaro has wavered in and out of positive diagnoses, until finally last week he was euthanized and marinated in artificial lamb and chicken flavorings. So ends the rather sad yet briefly glorious tale of one of horseracing’s newest sensations.

Some people have been upset at the coverage that a lame horse has received in the news, when there are much more important things in the world to be reporting, such as the war in Iraq or Tyra Banks’s dinner plate. But as effete almost-sports go, there’s at least some history to the pastime. The legendary Secretariat, who won the Triple Crown, broke the racing records at the Belmont Stakes, the Kentucky Derby, and the Preakness, won the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year (apparently the equestrian equivalent of getting two raspberry Zingers out of the vending machine instead of one), overthrew the government in the Hungarian Revolution, invented the iPod, and sired parts of Sara Jessica Parker, brought horseracing to a respectable level in the eyes of fans and nongamblers alike. Seabiscuit was another famous horse that managed to bring hope and optimism to many during the Great Depression who foolishly thought Father Coughlin or Mussolini might bring it instead. Seabiscuit’s numbers do not even come close to matching Secretariat’s, but a movie was made about him, so he is equally as important. And the cult of the Horse Whisperer has also added to the mystique. A Horse Whisperer is a technical term in horse circles of someone who—well, let’s face it, it’s a nut job who thinks they can talk to horses.

Horse Whisperer: Well, there, Barbaro, how’s that leg treating you?
Barbaro: I am in constant unimaginable pain.
Horse Whisperer: Well you’d better perk up. You want me to send you to the glue factory for a tour? Ha ha!
Barbaro: No.
Horse Whisperer: Don’t you mean NEIGH?
Barbaro: It’s unbearable! My legs are aching.
Horse Whisperer: Awww. Let me ask you something. Why the long face?
Barbaro: Please kill me now. Please.

Some people may disagree with that definition, but those people are 12-year-old girls who tend towards the Catherine the Greatish.

If there’s one thing the sad tale of Barbaro has to tell us, it’s that there is a rather efficient way to deal with those sports heroes whose careers can no longer be salvaged. No doubt Peyton Manning is sleeping with one eye open, for now.

Spend It Like Beckham

January 14, 2007

The announcement last week that the Los Angeles Galaxy had signed David Beckham to a five-year, $250 million dollar contract shocked most of America, prompting many observers to ask: “What the hell is the Los Angeles Galaxy?” and “Who the hell is David Beckham?”

Most Americans simply aren’t aware of the astronomical popularity that soccer holds in the rest of the world. The first step for Americans, of course, is to understand that when you say “soccer” you really mean “football,” which is what the sport is called everywhere else in the world. It’s kind of like how “liberation” in the US means “oil” in other countries. Although soccer isn’t necessarily called football everywhere. Football still means football in Canada, as in Canadian football, which is the same as football (not soccer-football but football-football) in America except they have rules where nobody gets hurt and everyone always wins. And in Australia, football either means football (not Canadian football or American football (not soccer-football) but Australian football (not soccer-football)) or rugby league (though not rugby union), depending on the location of the native speaker. And Australian football (which is not Canadian soccer-football or football-football and is not rugby league (which is not rugby union)) is different from American football, in that everyone always gets hurt and no one ever wins except the Australian health care system.

Soccer has been a pretty hard sell in America. It’s doesn’t have the violent orchestration of football; it’s not the comatose statistical hinterland of baseball, nor does it have the comforting predictable dependability of basketball. It fails to equal ice hockey’s balanced doses of chaos and slumber, and it can’t even compete with the ineffectual window-cling martyrdom of stock car racing.

In America, soccer has pretty much been exclusively reserved to male children, who enthusiastically participate in soccer until they hit the age of twelve, that golden, free age when adolescents realize that if they put on a numbered T-shirt and kick around a pigskin they can actually hit people at full force with no repercussions whatsoever, and suddenly soccer’s hands-off-everything rule seems incredibly lame. Girls, on the other hand, will continue to play soccer past this age until they have made a conscious decision to be straight.

Soccer’s rules are, compared to other sports, simple. Soccer can be boiled down to:

1) Try to kick the soccer ball into the goal.
2) Expect to run a lot.
3) Don’t pass out.
4) Don’t touch the ball with your hands. Everything else is cool.
5) If a referee hands you a card, you can headbutt him with impunity.
6) Expect to be hit in the jimmy at least once a game.
7) Contrary to everything listed above, the goalkeeper can pretty much do whatever he wants, including arson

Symmetrically, fans also have some rules to follow, in no particular order:
1) Get gloriously drunk before the game
2) Riot

Additional rules that make soccer different than most league sports is that of the clock timer. When the World Cup made its tour in the United States in the mid-90’s, much was made out that the clock never stopped—if there was a time out on the field, they just added that time to the end of the clock and they kept the clock running. This resulted in a clock that never stopped. This seemed incredibly nonsensical to me, since it’s the functional equivalent of just stopping the damn clock, and it makes it a lot tougher to break away to show a commercial for Frito Lay Cheddar Disc-Shaped Things or Cranberry 7Up. Plus I guess they used some sort of metric time, because a game of soccer seemed to last approximately 18,000 years, unless there is a tiebreaker shootout, in which the entire world would grind to a halt, the spectral ethos kowtowing to the most simple solution of such a complex problem.

Major League Soccer was formed in America in the early 90’s, as part of a deal to bring the World Cup to America. While it has struggled, several markets have actually turned a profit, most notably the Los Angeles Galaxy and FC Dallas. Most teams, however, are financially struggling, such as the Tampa Bay Money Pits, the Kansas City Bleeding Red and the Miami Complete Waste of Everyone’s Time and Money.

Events may soon help soccer’s popularity in America, however. A few generations of kids growing up after playing soccer in their childhood may help, and a culling of unprofitable franchises has unfrozen some valuable resources. The biggest boost American soccer has received is the impending arrival of David Beckham. Beckham is the Michael Jordan of soccer, in the sense that he is set to make more money than most nations on the basis of being incredibly good five or six years ago but not so much now. Proponents hope that Beckham’s star power will bring some class and gravitas to American soccer, while detractors fret that Beckham’s arrival will simply imply that anyone who is 30 years old and married to a rock star will be able to play soccer.

Still, soccer is slowly earning a higher profile in America, which certainly can’t be a bad thing. Diversity in sport is important for many people, from youth camps and fitness experts to ESPN2’s Thursday afternoon lineup. And who knows? Maybe some Monday morning we’ll all be complaining about the MLS salary cap keeping the Colorado Rapids from being competitive, or how that red card in last night’s game was a grave injustice. Maybe not that soon. But in today’s globalized world, anything goes. As long as you don’t use your hands.

Gimme an “A”! Gimme a “C”! Gimme enough money to post bail!

January 7, 2007

There are few things I can say with any amount of certainty—those few things pretty much restricted to declarations of pecuniary thresholds when held hostage in a third world country with a dubious grasp of proper law enforcement methods—but one thing I can say is that I’ve never wanted to be a cheerleader.

Now, it’s not too terribly hard for me, as a male, to dissociatively imagine the level of comfort I would have with such a feminine role. I mean, it’s not difficult to understand the appropriate level of desirability that being a cook or a seamstress or—before Maureen Dowd comes at me with a chemical peel—a Speaker of the House would have with me. I can cook toast and cold cereal and, on warm summer days, certain flavors of Otter Pops, so I have an endless amount of respect for those women that can prepare a meal that tastes good and simultaneously has more than one chemical on the periodic table involved. And my idea of wardrobe repair involves hanging around with people whose clothes are in worse shape than my own. And, uh, whatever else it is that women do.

Which is, apparently, jump around a lot in 4:4 time. Cheerleading is a big, big industry; often, it is the only real athletic program most high schools have aside from the occasional lacrosse team or home economics. ESPN often airs cheerleading competitions, though they also show diving, billiards, and Texas Hold ‘Em, all of which seems roughly equivalent on the me-not-caring scale of things. And, in many home-town games and small-market venues, cheerleading is often seem as the most important part of the football game except for the football game.

About once a year, though, there’s some big scandal involving a small local cheerleading squad, almost always in Texas, doing something wildly inappropriate. The lurid details of the resultant sanctions are then soon released, usually involving dismissal from the squad and, more devastatingly, being made into a TV movie for the Lifetime Movie Network. And this usually comes as a shock to those kinds of people who for some reason believe that you can involve more than eight women in an organized activity without their being some kind of a violent emotional disagreement.

The most recent scandal involved teenagers who went out underage drinking, posing in provocative poses, and hamming it up at a store called—wait for it—Condoms To Go. This would have been nothing more than standard high school hijinks—well, standard for today, anyway; hell’s bells if they were doing that kind of thing when I was in high school. No one would have made more than an improper passing comment except for the fact that 1) they did all of this while still in their cheerleading uniforms, and 2) they subsequently posted the fruits of their exploits on the Internet.

When things like this happen—and for my money, it’s not often enough and almost never recorded on a reproducible media format to my liking—but there’s something about the entire thing that seems singularly hypocritical. The cheerleader has always been a sexualized character, and modern society builds them up and pretends to be shocked when the behavior matches the role and their idealized standards crumble.

Plus men do this kind of thing on a more often than not continual basis; simply witness a group of men when there aren’t any women around to impress, or, perhaps more easily, just watch the CW on a weeknight. Though if you do, I doubt there will be as much chanting or uniform wearing; if so, you may be observing test subjects with inclinations differing from the appropriate control group. But the fact remains that if men were to post the same types of things as these young ladies did, there would hardly be any interest at all unless there was a cement brick smacking someone on the head involved.

And, in some regards, this is unfair. People enjoy the presence cheerleaders for their functional purpose—being prompted to spell out compound words and clap white-male style to songs in the public domain—but then hold them to irresponsible standards. Most cheerleaders pursue interests and intellectual activities outside of the empty-headed stereotype that has been forced upon them. In an idealized world, cheerleaders would be respected for far more than their pruriently athletic prowess.

Cad #1: I heard that after last week’s game Cindy read Proust with three football players at the same time.
Cad #2: Oh yeah? Someone told me they had to pump six quarts of Dostoevsky out of Mary Lou’s stomach.

But it’s difficult to shake such stereotypes when these scandals appear like clockwork every so many months. Then again, we all have our stereotypes to deal with, I guess; why should cheerleaders be any different? Overcoming adversity is one of those character traits I find women have in abundance. That and their unerring sense of sarcasm. I hope.