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.