Football As Never Before

Last week was a truly terrible week in international news, sports fans, and it couldn’t have come at worse time. The 21st century sports calendar is on a 24/7 cycle, so there’s no real “offseason” for sports (you can always fill up on NBA or soccer personnel shift news). But late July has seen our options for mass distraction dwindle to only cycling, tennis, golf and baseball. Personally, I find the Tour de France interesting only for the HD landscape tele-photography. I know there’s lots of competitions within the main competition, but it’s one international sport I can’t really get into. I’m more inclined towards tennis, but the US Open is still a ways off.


That leaves baseball. Up until the late 20th century, baseball was the opiate of choice for Americans looking to ignore the chaos of the world around them and numb themselves to the alienation of existence. I’m not going to wax poetic about its aesthetic virtues or handicap the midseason favorites, but I respect the game’s ability to survive and adapt. As live, in-stadium entertainment goes it is far superior to football, but the best thing about its mediated form is that it can be consumed as slow, steady drip-drip-drip.


All I’ll really say about baseball is that I’m not enjoying the introduction of instant replay. TV aesthetics seem to be magnifying the undecidability of bang-bang plays in a way that is not particularly entertaining, slowing the game down even further and making umpires’ decisions seem more arbitrary than ever. I know this is heresy, but in a 162 game season, I’d rather they just get the damn call wrong and let us all move on with our lives. This isn’t about preserving the “purity” of the game, but baseball is a perfect illustration of the fact that there some things TV technology cannot improve.  I’m sure that’s no consolation to all the Dodgers fans who are, unthinkably, STILL getting screwed by their team and Time Warner Cable.


The summer story of the  NFL is its struggle to reconcile the rabid homophobia of it’s locker room culture with the changing attitudes of its consumer demographics. Just today, the Human Rights Campaign criticized the New York Giants’ hiring of David Tyree, who tweeted against same sex marriage in 2011. Before that, this Chris Kluwe story exposed some of that conflict, as did NBC analyst Tony Dungy’s devious bit of homophobic rhetoric. To be clear, I see the “distraction” argument as a pure smokescreen, particularly from a man who, as many have pointed out, championed Michael Vick’s return to the NFL. Come fall the NFL’s stance on LGBT issues should be one of the biggest stories in US media full stop.


In international football news, the CBF, the bureaucratic brain trust in charge of Brazilian football, have appointed Carlos Dunga as the new manager. Dunga was a great player, but this is a backwards-looking move that indicates an entrenched refusal to come to grips with the crisis that manifested itself in Brazil’s humiliation at the end of World Cup 2014. The rich of world football, meanwhile, continue to get richer: Real Madrid have signed budding Columbian superstar James Rodríguez for a mere $108 million, while FC Barcelona have bought Luis Suárez from Liverpool FC for $128 million, in spite of the fact that he he won’t be allowed to use his feet or teeth for four months.

The Kevin Love news is everywhere, so I won’t link to that, but for the record I think he’s wildly overrated. More interesting on the NBA front is the lingering fallout from the Donald Sterling controversy. Sterling’s lawsuits and delaying tactics are now stimulating stories that Doc Rivers is thinking of walking away from the Clippers if Sterling is still the owner when the 2014-15 season begins. I’d certainly support Rivers’ decision to publicly shame the odious Sterling, but I think this is news is mostly designed to heap pressure on Sterling to sell the team while it’s at maximum value. These stories have the additional benefit of making desperate Laker fans froth at the mouth in hopes that the suddenly moribund franchise will become relevant again.

Finally, LeBron gave his neighbors cupcakes for screwing up their lives. I guess it’s thoughtful, but it’s still kind of staggering how desperate he is to be liked.


Great design on the note though. Spared no expense.


I couldn’t really find a strong video clip this week, so instead I’ll link to this New York Times story about Qatar’s attempt to rapidly develop a team in time for the 2022 World Cup, because, in case you’ve been living in a cave, it’s complete greed and hubris that is pulling the world towards a World Cup in Qatar.

It is time to pay attention to that kind of thing, because of course the World Cup is over for another 4 years, when it will be played in Russia. To wrap up Brazil 2014, Germany certainly were the strongest overall team in the tournament, and they just about deserved their win over Argentina, even if I was rooting for Messi to transcend Germany’s collective with individual brilliance. There’s been some debate about whether Messi deserved the Golden Ball award for best player or got it as a result of Adidas’s marketing pressure, as Diego Maradona suggested. I’d say that while Messi failed to produce the spectacular, there was kind of a void when it came to individual greatness on display at the tail end of the tournament, so it fell to him by default. But it is true that when I went to buy some new boots just before the World Cup started, an Adidas rep at the store where I was shopping said he was hoping for a Germany/Argentina final, so there’s no doubt Adidas—which is based in Germany—are thrilled with the result.

I miss the Cup already, but I’m also relieved it’s over. As the tournament wore on, I found myself assuming the responsibility of being an ambassador for the sport to my friends in LA, a position which wound up exacerbating the defensive and abrasive aspects of my personality, and made me a serious pain to be around. This is 90% my fault and 10% FIFA’s as the tournament is designed precisely to promote the church to non-believers around the globe. So it’s a relief to be able to go back to appreciating the sport for what it is: deeply flawed and occasionally sublime. And I’d like to personally apologize to everyone I’ve menaced over the last month whilst I was in the grip of World Cup fever.

I also want to say a word about LeBron James’ decision to go back to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Although “Decision 2014” was a much lower-key affair than the 2010 version, LeBron has had an even larger impact on the NBA this time around, and dominated US headlines in the days before the World Cup final. As many have pointed this New York Times sport section front page offered a wry visual commentary on LeBron’s impact. His decision called to mind a presentation I saw at the SCMS conference in 2014 by Vicki Johnson, who teaches at UC-Irvine, about Cleveland’s melodramatic efforts to convince LeBron to stay in 2010. He broke their hearts then, and his return now is supposedly all about healing, but I’m having a hard time buying in to the emotion, especially since he only signed a 2 year contract. Popular opinion says that that contract is designed to expire so that LeBron’s next contract will coincide with the league’s expanding it’s salary cap, and LeBron himself has said that the deal is really all about maximizing his earning potential. That’s not nearly as romantic a narrative as “Northeastern Ohio is home,” but it’s the logic that people are citing as evidence that LeBron will stay in Cleveland when his new contract expires in 2016. That’s probably a good bet, but the skeptic in me can’t help but wonder if he won’t rip the hearts out of Cleveland fans once again. The Cavaliers will certainly be strong contenders in the NBA’s weaker Eastern conference, but James move to Cleveland has also thrown open the competition dramatically, and there’s no guarantee that things will pan out in Cleveland the way everyone expects. In fact, owner Dan Gilbert’s track record suggests the opposite: that Cleveland will struggle to attract talent and build a team around LeBron that’s good enough to win it all. So in two years, if Cleveland continues to be, well, Cleveland, will he really not be tempted to leave? Does he no longer care about winning titles? If 2 is enough, does that really maximize his potential, earning or otherwise? Will that be enough for NBA fans, in Ohio or around the globe?

I’ll try to be back next week, hopefully with something a little less text-heavy.


The Death of a Brand

Germany’s stunning 7-1 humiliation of Brazil brought to mind this classic Wieden + Kennedy Seleçao ad from 1998. Brazil lost to Zinedine Zidane’s France in the final that year, but at the time of this ad they were preparing to defend their title. I think of this commercial now because the footage of “El Fenomeno” Ronaldo and the rest of his teammates showing off in an airport really summarizes what Brazil as a brand has meant to world football for several generations. It certainly meant something to me. In the wake of the USA 1994 World Cup, Brazil epitomized the connection between soccer and creativity, style and the pure joy of play that drew me to the game and made it stand out as an exotic contrast to dominant American sports. Of course the jogo bonito was, even then, a carefully cultivated myth rooted more in nostalgia than fact. This commercial was and is a testament to the power of that myth, and I think so much of the shock I felt watching the game was the feeling that I was watching the air go out of that image. As a US fan who has always pointed to Brazil as evidence of the skill and beauty of a sport that so many Americans are eager to ridicule and dismiss, watching the Seleçao disintegrate in a crowded Los Angeles bar—an experience that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago—has left me deeply ambivalent. I feel I have witnessed a rare thing in contemporary culture: the sudden and spectacular death of a brand.

I’m going to try and restart this blog with shorter, weekly postings, and not just on soccer. Hopefully I’ll keep it up.



We inch ever closer to the moment when we all stop pretending there’s any difference between “sport” and “culture.”

We inch ever closer to the moment when we all stop pretending there’s any difference between “sport” and “culture.”

Here’s an article by FANB’s Robert Cavanagh of fantasy football. Enjoy! And hopefully we’ll have more here soon.