Your humble blogger has a confession: he's not a huge fan of the Olympics. Actually, let me refine that statement a bit: I'm not a huge fan of how NBC covers the Olympics. To put even a finer point on it, NBC's Olympics coverage drives me around the f***ing bend.
Let's take yesterday's Opening Ceremonies as our example. First of all, NBC didn't broadcast the event live on any of the 564 channels they've commandeered for the event. It was possible to watch the live feed online, but NBC's definition of a "simple, one-time" step to do that seemed rather complex to me. In an age when social media is gonna be all over global spectacles like this as they're happening, this desire to constrain coverage to U.S. prime time seems laughable. Especially since it took all of 2 minutes to find an web end-around NBC's monopoly.
When America finally got to see the opening ceremonies, they were... um.... well, they very much like a British fairy tale as told by Danny Boyle: quite riveting, delightful at times, and a small dollop of gruesome. These kind of events, when sports, entertainment and politics collide, can be fraught with danger for commentary. So props to SI's Alex Wolff for some trenchant analysis:
[A]rtistic director Danny Boyle smuggled into the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics a worthy and important thing.
He gave us a chance to celebrate protest and dissent.
Four years ago, after a comparable night on the other side of the globe, the rest of the world had a moment of collective sadness for the London organizers. No way could the stagers of the next Olympics possibly equal Beijing's lid-lifting spectacle. But tonight we learned that if the guy in front of you zigs, it's best to zag. Boyle, the Oscar-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire, spent almost four times less money and deployed roughly one-tenth as many people. But he outstripped the previous Olympic host city by flaunting what the Chinese actively suppressed....
With The Queen in the house, we heard music from the Sex Pistols, the same band whose God Save the Queenwas banned by the BBC. Boyle meant for us to take to heart that line from The Tempest, read early in the evening by Kenneth Branagh: "Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises."
On these isles of wonder, tumult is a good thing.
Now, others might disagree that the execution was as sharp as Wolff's interpretation, but that's OK, that's a good conversation. It would certainly be a better conversation than what took place on NBC during the ceremonies themselves. Indeed, NBC was so keen to avoid any discussion of political symbolism that they edited out the moving dedication to the victims of the 7/7/2005 terrorist attacks (which took place shortly after it was announced that London would host the Olympics). Bob Costas threatened to go rogue and offer a moment of silence to honor the Israeli athletes killed at the 1972 Munich Olympics, which the IOC rejected doing during the opening ceremonies. Instead, he talked about the controversy during the parade of nations.
Ah, the parade of nations. To be fair, commenting on this kind of event has to be a pretty thankless task. Still, there has got to be a better way of doing it than having Matt Lauer read from his thinly-researched and geographically spotty crib sheet. Might I suggest that, next time around, NBC have one of its foreign correspondents on hand to handle some of the more geopolitically sensitive countries? Or to let them know who Tim Berners-Lee is?
Look, I get that the IOC and NBC want to keep politics out of the Olympics -- but that's pure fantasy. As long as Olympic teams are organized by country, politics will be omnipresent. There are two ways to deal with that fact: willful ignorance (which is the IOC position) or acknowledgement and discussion (which is what Wolff did in his column). Given that this is one of the few events in which the mass public might actually care about the rest of the world, I'm gonna vote for the latter.
[So you're saying you want the coverage to be wall-to-wall politics? Booooooring!!!-ed. No, I'm saying that politics plays a supporting role that cannot be suppressed, so why bother trying?]
Let the controversy about the Olympic Games begin!!!
The New York Times' Ashley Parker reports that Mitt Romney got into a spot of trouble on the first leg of his
fundraising foreign affairs tour:
Mitt Romney's carefully choreographed trip to London caused a diplomatic stir when he called the British Olympic preparations “disconcerting” and questioned whether Londoners would turn out to support the Games.
“The stories about the private security firm not having enough people, the supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials, that obviously is not something which is encouraging,” Mr. Romney said in an interview with NBC on Tuesday.
That prompted a tart rejoinder from the British prime minister, David Cameron. “We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world. Of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere,” an allusion to Salt Lake City, which hosted Games that Mr. Romney oversaw (emphasis added).
American commentators want to focus on what Romney said, but it strikes me as pretty anodyne. As Feargus O'Sullivan notes in The Atlantic, "it's not like Romney’s worries haven’t been expressed many times already in the British media." Or, for that matter, The Daily Show:
Furthermore, it's not like these are the only screw-ups that have occurred before the openng ceremonies.
Cameron's comments, on the other hand, strike me as pretty offensive. Salt Lake City is a lovely mid-sized city that pulled off a lovely Olympics. Why act petty about that? Why describe it as in the "middle of nowhere" when, last I checked, a fair number of airlines fly to Utah's capital?
Fnally, this comment from Cameron is also kinda disappointing:
Mr Cameron also refused to back calls for a minute's silence to remember eleven Israeli athletes murdered by terrorists at the Munich Olympic Games forty years ago.
The Prime Minister said it was important to remember what happened in 1972, but that planned memorial events were the proper way to do that.
His comments came after the widows of two Israeli athletes who were killed in the attack pleaded with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to allow a minute's silence during Friday's opening ceremony.
Ankie Spitzer and Ilana Romano, whose husbands Andrei Spitzer and Yosef Romano were among 11 athletes killed in the attack at the Olympic Village in Germany, handed a petition to IOC chiefs yesterday containing more than 105,000 signatures from people around the world backing the call for a silence.
The standard response to this kind of plea is that the Olympics is a celebration of sport and politics should be kept offstage. This is akin to saying that the Miss Universe competition has nothing to do with beauty -- it's not true and insults the intelligence of anyone within earshot.
Romney has walked back his comments already. I hope Cameron does the same on both counts.
Your humble blogger has, on occasion, opined about the intersection of sports and politics. This topic is both tempting and treacherous. Tempting, because a lot more people pay attention to sports than world politics, and so it's a way for the pundit to A) show how "in touch" s/he is with the mass p;ublic; and B) use the sporting moment-du-jour as a metaphor to make a point that was already in the pundit's back pocket. This is why most of my writings on this topic have been either to debunk the notion that sports really affects world politics, or just as another excuse to mock the Very Serious Foreign Policy Community.
Which brings me to New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin. In a month Lin has gone from being demoted to the development league to leading the Knicks to a globally televised victory over the defending champion Dallas Mavericks. It's a great story: undrafted , devout Taiwanese-American Harvard graduate bucking the odds -- as well as numerous outdated stereotypes -- to seize his moment in the sun and turn what had been a lackluster Knicks
decade season into something exciting.
This is a narrative that one simply has to enjoy. Professional basketball is, at best, my third-favorite sport, but I tuned in yesterday to watch the Kincks-Mavericks game. Unfortunately, I've noticed that some ink has been spilled and some keyboards have been tapped about him -- and here we get to the treacherous part of this post. Some sportswriters have used the opportunity to wax grandiosely about the Deeper Meaning of Linsanity. Some politics commentators have tried to use Lin to make deeper arguments about the fabric of society and sports.
Let's be blunt -- most of these efforts result in utter crap. Unfortunately, too many sportswriters know too little about the rest of the world to even try to comment on the social or cultural significance of Lin. Numerous idiots have not helped the sportswriting profession by writing things that result in apologies from said idiots for stereotyping Lin and amusing Saturday Night Live skits. We're not seeing the second coming of Red Smith in most of this output. As for the politics writers, well, the lack of actual sports knowledge in some of these efforts makes one almost nostalgic for George F. Will's Sports Machine. Almost.
So I was all set to blog a request for everyone to leave Jeremy Lin and his family alone... but then Gady Epstein wrote something interesting about the whole phenomenon over at the Economist about China's reaction to Lin and why their own sports programs could never have produced someone like him:
Mr Lin is, put plainly, precisely everything that China’s state sport system cannot possibly produce. If Mr Lin were to have been born and raised in China, his height alone might have denied him entry into China’s sport machine, as Time’s Hannah Beech points out: “Firstly, at a mere 6’3”—relatively short by basketball standards—Lin might not have registered with Chinese basketball scouts, who in their quest for suitable kids to funnel into the state sports system are obsessed with height over any individual passion for hoops.” Even when Mr Lin was still a young boy, one look at his parents, each of unremarkable stature, would have made evaluators sceptical. Ms Beech’s other half happens to be Brook Larmer, the author of the fascinating book “Operation Yao Ming”, which details how Chinese authorities contrived to create China’s most successful basketball star, Mr Yao, the product of tall parents who were themselves Chinese national basketball team players. The machine excels at identifying, processing and churning out physical specimens—and it does so exceedingly well for individual sports, as it will again prove in London this year. But it happens to lack the nuance and creativity necessary for team sport.
What of Mr Lin’s faith? If by chance Mr Lin were to have gained entry into the sport system, he would not have emerged a Christian, at least not openly so. China has tens of millions of Christians, and officially tolerates Christianity; but the Communist Party bars religion from its membership and institutions, and religion has no place in its sports model. One does not see Chinese athletes thanking God for their gifts; their coach and Communist Party leaders, yes, but Jesus Christ the Saviour? No.
Then there is the fact that Mr Lin’s parents probably never would have allowed him anywhere near the Chinese sport system in the first place. This is because to put one’s child (and in China, usually an only child at that) in the sport system is to surrender that child’s upbringing and education to a bureaucracy that cares for little but whether he or she will win medals someday. If Mr Lin were ultimately to be injured or wash out as an athlete, he would have given up his only chance at an elite education, and been separated from his parents for lengthy stretches, for nothing. (One must add to this the problem of endemic corruption in Chinese sport that also scares away parents—Chinese football referee Lu Jun, once heralded as the “golden whistle” for his probity, was sentenced to jail last week as part of a massive match-fixing scandal). Most Chinese parents, understandably, prefer to see their children focus on schooling and exams.
In America, meanwhile, athletic excellence actually can open doors to an elite education, through scholarships and recruitment. Harvard does not provide athletic scholarships, but it does recruit players who also happen to be academic stars. There is no real equivalent in China.
So China almost certainly has other potential Jeremy Lins out there, but there is no path for them to follow. This also helps explain, as we have noted at length,why China fails at another sport it loves, football. Granted, Mr Lin’s own path to stardom is in itself unprecedented, but in America, the unprecedented is possible. Chinese basketball fans have taken note of this. Mr Lin’s story may be a great and inspiring proof of athleticism to the Chinese people, but it is also unavoidably a story of American soft power.
Epstein is overreaching juuuust a bit with that closing -- if Lin is an example of American soft power, then all the galactically stupid puns and stereotypes that the Lin story has propagated is a demerit to that soft power as well. Also, last I checked, the countries that dominate the top of the FIFA rankings are not exactly models of laissez-faire in sports.
Still, Epstein has probably done the best possible job of trying to relate Lin to Deeper Global Meanings. Let's hope the rest of the writing class reads him and gives up their own futile quest to do the same.
The Official Blog Son and I were lucky enough to catch Team USA's thrilling come-from-behind victory over Brazil in the FIFA Women's World Cup. It was a great and controversial game, sure to be replayed on ESPN Classic for years to come. It also got me to thinking about how prominent thinkers and writers about world politics would use the game as a hook for their foreign affairs columns and op-eds this week. Here are their opening paragraphs:
I was quaffing hearty German pilsners with FIFA President Sepp Blatter in a luxury box in Dresden's Glücksgas Stadium (try the bratwurst!!) when he said something that hit me like a thunderbolt: "I can't understand why there's so much demand for video replay in soccer. You know, there is no instant replay in the real world." And really, that's what the global economy is like -- a fast-speed, arcing bullet of a free kick with no time to press the pause button. You have to use every part of your being -- your legs, your head, though admittedly not your arms -- just to keep pace.
Watching the thrilling run of the Americans leading up to Abby Wambach's header, I was struck by the complex, free-flowing sequence of passes that got the ball from the American end to Megan Rapinoe's left foot. It was such a seamless, interlaced network of exchanges -- dare I call it a web of them? -- that moved the ball forward. As the passes moved from one player to another, I bet social networking technologies moved even faster, alerting Americans that a Big Moment was about to happen. In winning, the United States showed the power of webbed networks -- or is it networked webs? -- yet again.
All of the Western media will focus on the "theatrics" of the USA-Brazil game, but it doesn't matter. This was an intramural match between Western Hemisphere teams, which means it was irrelevant. Japan's stunning upset of host Germany in the quarterfinals is the real story of this World Cup, yet another signal of how the one remaining Asian team will leave the three "Western" teams still alive in the dust.
This was an example of American exceptionalism and American will to power at its finest. Battling a set of rules and referees that were clearly anti-American in their effect, the noble U.S. side displayed dogged determination and grit, vanquishing their Brazilian counterparts. The only black mark on the U.S. side was the timidity of the U.S. coach Pia Sundhage in obeying FIFA's absurd and corrupt rules. Sundhage, from that socialist bastion of meek multilateralism that is Sweden, adhered to the letter of FIFA law in pulling Rachel Buehler after she was "red-carded." A true American coach would have instead followed the spirit of the law and sent an 11th player onto the pitch in place of the unjustly accused Buehler.
Americans will thump their chests, display their brassy jingoism, and bray to the heavens about how the refereeing in this game was "unfair" or "ridiculous." They'll claim that the referee's red card of Buehler and mandated do-over of the penalty kick during regular time was "anti-American." They'll overlook the fact that the Australian ref could have midfielder Carli Lloyd off the field for a flagrant, deliberate handball but didn't. They'll overlook the granting of a re-kick for U.S. player Shannon Boxx during the penalty kick phase. They'll overlook the aesthetic beauty of Brazilian star Marta's soccer artistry. They'll overlook the arrogance of U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo -- a perfect American name if there ever was one -- as she had the audacity to question the ref (if the officials weren't so obviously in Corporate America's back pocket, Solo would have been red-carded). They'll overlook the fact that the extra half-hour of play insidiously stacked the deck for the Americans, rewarding their better conditioning against the poorer and put-upon Brazilians. They'll overlook the 158 other things that I will now lay out in excruciating detail. Only when WikiLeaks focuses its might on FIFA will the soccer world be more just.
The sweltering heat in Dresden clearly began to affect the crowd. They booed the Brazilian star Marta with all of her touches. You could sense a growing danger as the boos grew louder. The German fans, upset at seeing their own team get knocked out, had clearly decided to side with their tribal allies. It is likely that only Wambach's header prevented what would have been an unruly German/American riot, breaking down the tenuous social fabric. The riot would have started in the heart of Europe, but I have every confidence that, before long, the unrest would have spread to Halford MacKinder's heartland in the middle of Eurasia.
This match crystallized both the promise and the peril of the rising BRIC powers as they assume more responsibilities in global governance. The game put FIFA's many problems -- bad decision-making, a lack of transparency about the bad decision-making -- on full display. Even after the match, FIFA never explained why Brazil was awarded a re-kick following Solo's block of Christina's penalty kick. Instead of constructively seeking reform, however, the Brazilian side tried to free-ride off of FIFA's flaws. Marta constantly whined to the refs about the lack of Brazilian free kicks. Defender Erkia flopped onto the pitch in a transparent effort to stall play. Unless and until the BRIC countries learn to play cooperatively with the fading West, global governance will look as effective as FIFA's efforts to block corruption. Which is to say, not effective at all.
Readers are warmly encouraged to offer their own suggestions in the comments.
Step back for a moment and imagine what a "good" international organization should look like. Presumably, it should be relatively transparent and representative. It should earn a reputation for competency, efficiency, and an aversion to corruption. Stakeholders in the organization should feel that they are being consulted and their needs acknowledged if not always perfectly addressed. When confronted with a challenge or scandal, the organization should respond with alacrity and a respect for due process.
I bring this up because, right now, FIFA is the exact opposite of this ideal type.
The Financial Times' Roger Blitz and Stanley Pignal report on the mockery of global governance that is currently known as FIFA:
Fifa has become “unstable,” Sepp Blatter admitted as the president addressed the governing body’s annual Congress in the teeth of pressure for reform from several fronts and demands that the election to secure his fourth term of office be postponed.
The biggest pressure was brought to bear from the World Cup sponsors. Four of the biggest sponsors – Coca-Cola, Adidas, Visa and Emirates Airlines – have now gone public, calling on Fifa to act swiftly to restore its damaged reputation in the face of the bribery allegations that have sparked an internecine struggle between the governing body’s most powerful figures.
The European Commission, which has a say in how Fifa’s European TV rights are awarded, also made clear its displeasure in a thinly veiled attack on Mr Blatter.
Androulla Vassiliou, the commissioner responsible for sport, said: “The situation at Fifa is a concern for many of us and I have confidence that the current issues will be thoroughly investigated and resolved as soon as possible.
“Football and sport in general need good leadership and governance, above suspicion and firmly rooted in accountability and transparency.”
Mr Blatter, in a sombre address to the 208-member Congress, said: “”I thought that we were living in a world of fair play, respect and discipline ... I must unfortunately say this is not the case."
Dude, when the European Union is lecturing you on how to govern, you know you're in trouble.
So, corporate and state sponsors ticked off - check. Well, surely, FIFA will respond by sacking those responsible and getting off to a fresh start, right? Hey, what's this ESPN story saying?
Sepp Blatter was poised for re-election as FIFA president Wednesday, calling himself the "captain of the ship" and promising to enact "radical" reforms to tackle the corruption scandals that have engulfed soccer's governing body.
Blatter vowed to give more power to the 208 national federations at the expense of the 24-man executive committee by allowing them to pick the host of the World Cup from now on....
Blatter said the worst scandal in the body's history could be solved within FIFA itself and with him in charge.
"Reforms will be made and not just touchups but radical decisions," Blatter said in his speech to the 208 delegations attending the congress....
"We have made mistakes, but we will draw our conclusions," Blatter said.
Blatter was heeding the advice of IOC president Jacques Rogge, who told him on the eve of the election that only drastic measures to improve democracy and transparency had saved the Olympic movement when it faced a similar corruption scandal in the run-up to the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games.
Blatter said he would work to make sure the World Cup would in the future be picked in a vote by all federations instead of the two dozen executive committee members, several of whom have been involved in bribery scandals.
A few thoughts. First, what kind of election process is it when the scandal-beseiged incumbent is the only friggin' candidate? Bear in mind this is the same Sepp Blatter who declared that FIFA was much more transparent than the IOC -- which is kinda like Frederick's of Hollywood claiming that they're classier than Victoria's Secret.
Second, widening the vote to all members won't necessarily stop corruption -- if the International Whaling Commission is any guide, it will simply expand the number of actors who could be bribed.
Third, any anti-corruption campaign depends on Blatter. As Leander Schaerlaeckens blogs over at ESPN, however, Blatter serms to be doing his best Arab strongman impersonation right now:
Through [the crisis], Blatter has maintained that FIFA isn't in crisis, thus denying that he's pushed the organization over the brink of respectability. Amid the firestorm, the tiny septuagenarian Swiss leader has made it clear that FIFA shouldn't play by ordinary rules or be held accountable to anything or anyone.
This was never more obvious than when Blatter got fed up with questions from a hungry pack of journalists in a press conference Monday. "I will not answer this question," he said in response to a question about [CONCACAF president Jack] Warner. "I am the president of FIFA, you cannot question me." When the assembly was rightly outraged, he admonished it for a lack of respect for him and FIFA. And after taking a few more hard questions, he stormed off the stage, citing a lack of respect once more.
If only Blatter had been caught groping a chambermaid -- then there would be some real reform!
So, to sum up: scandal--ridden organization, pissed-off stakeholders, and an out-of-touch megalomaniacal leader who's about to be re-elected.
Ladies and gentleman, I give you FIFA in 2011 -- the only international organization that can make the Iinternational Olympic Committee and European Union look good.
Am I missing anything?
Rest assured, dear readers, I'm hard at work cobbling together the 2010 Albies. It's a Friday, however, which means there's a preternatural instinct to look for something amusing to blog about. Unfortunately, today's payroll figures don't cut it.
Fortunately, there's a golden rule for humor in world politics: sports + global governance = comedy gold. And sure enough, today FIFA president Sepp Blatter didn't disappoint:
FIFA President Sepp Blatter criticized the International Olympic Committee on Friday while defending his own organization against corruption allegations, saying the Olympic body handles its finances "like a housewife."
Mr. Blatter, a member of the IOC since 1999, said FIFA was more transparent than the IOC, and backtracked on plans to create an anti-corruption commission.
"Our accounts are open to everyone. ... We've [done] it since I'm the president. It wasn't done before," Mr. Blatter said in Qatar, where he is attending the Asian Cup. "The IOC does it like a housewife. She receives some money and she spends some money."
Mr. Blatter also said the IOC "has no transparency," and that any transparency was left to the Olympic-sanctioned sports themselves....
Mr. Blatter's criticism of the IOC comes as FIFA, soccer's governing body, faces an IOC probe.
The IOC ethics commission is studying evidence provided by the BBC after it broadcast allegations that FIFA officials—some with Olympic connections —took kickbacks from the soccer body's former marketing partner in the 1990s.
The story does a decent job of highlighting the absurdities of Blatter's claims, but the New York Times' Rob Hughes details the precise absurdities regarding FIFA's vote to have Qatar host the 2022 World Cup:
The vote for Qatar was jaw-dropping.
Only after the decision did FIFA executives, including Blatter, give credence to the notion that the tournament might have to be switched from June to January. It seems that FIFA is having second thoughts. Having accepted Qatar’s promise to build a dozen stadiums air-conditioned, the fear is that players or spectators could fry in the desert heat in summer.
Franz Beckenbauer, a former player who is about to give up his seat on the FIFA panel, was the first to suggest the switch. But FIFA’s own general secretary said it could not be right to vote for a tournament in June/July, then arbitrarily move it to another time of year. Blatter, on a visit to Qatar, however, contradicted him.
Bloomberg's Tariq Panja explains the problems with Blatter's proposal to switch the time of year for the Cup:
If the tournament is moved, major European competitions like England’s Premier League, Spain's La Liga and Italy's Serie A would be severely disrupted. Those leagues would need to shut down for about two months and a longer-than-normal international break during the season may lead to more injuries.
“That would demand a complete re-organisation of the whole world’s fixtures and I cannot see that happening,” Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger said at a press conference today. “If all the championships are not going from March until November and you re-organise and then the dead (off) season would be in December.”
Here's a good and simple rule of thumb: if an international sports organization has to choose where to host a high-profile, touist-generating moneymaker of an athletic competition, then it's corrupt.
The hard-working staff here at the blog would like to thank Sepp Blatter for managing to live up to the comic presence that his very name suggests. Way to go, Sepp!
The USA's thrilling, last-minute victory over Algeria yesterday seemed tailor-made for pushing the popularity of the sport in this country to the next level. Americans like winners, but they really like last-minute, come-from-behind winners, and this American team seems to excel in that area.
On the other hand.... I'm not sure I really want Americans to care that much about what happens on a
soccer field football pitch. To see why, consider this Steven Erlanger story in the New York Times about how the French elite has reacted to that country's ignominious exit from the World Cup:
The philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, who has often criticized the failures of French assimilation, compared the players to youths rioting in the banlieues, France’s suburban ghettos. “We now have proof that the French team is not a team at all, but a gang of hooligans that knows only the morals of the mafia,” he said in a radio interview.
While most politicians have talked carefully of values and patriotism, rather than immigration and race, some legislators blasted the players as “scum,” “little troublemakers” and “guys with chickpeas in their heads instead of a brain,” according to news reports.
Fadela Amara, the junior minister for the racially charged suburbs who was born to Algerian parents, warned on Tuesday that the reaction to the team’s loss had become racially charged.
“There is a tendency to ethnicize what has happened,” she told a gathering of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s governing party, according to news reports. “Everyone condemns the lower-class neighborhoods. People doubt that those of immigrant backgrounds are capable of respecting the nation.”
She criticized Mr. Sarkozy’s handling of a debate on “national identity,” warning that “all democrats and all republicans will be lost” in this ethnically tinged criticism about Les Bleus, the French team. “We’re building a highway for the National Front,” she said, in a reference to the far-right, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim party founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen....
Mr. Sarkozy himself called a meeting on the disastrous result on Wednesday, summoning Prime Minister Francois Fillon, Sports Minister Roselyne Bachelot and Rama Yade, the junior sports minister. In a statement, he said he had ordered them “to rapidly draw the lessons of this disaster.”
Now, to be fair, there have been a few moments in the past when a US team has performed so abysmally on the global stage that it prompted a minor, ugly political kerfuffle (I'm thinking of the 2000 Olympic men's basketball team). Still, in order, here's what I don't want to see happen in the United States:
1. Philosophers using a national team's sporting performance to opine about the state of the union;
2. Any politician blaming the performance of a national sports team on the country's government;
3. A Minister of Sport;
4. A head of state summoning the head of government and other policy principals to discuss the broad socioeconomic lessons that can be drawn from the failures of a f***ing football team.
The Nation's Dave Zirin bemoans the ways in which events like the World Cup promote jingoism and nationalism in the United States, but he's aiming at the wrong target. Americans will celebrate the successes of team USA and within 24 hours forget the failures. The ways in which the rest of the world inflate the importance of this event as some august commentary on their country's national standing are beyond silly. Wars, assassinations, and stock market downturns have been (sort of) started because of this kind of silliness.
I'll take American semi-engagement with soccer over French obsession any day of the week, thank you very much.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Apparently, rants about the World Cup generate a lot of traffic to this blog. With that in mind, one of the things that fascinates me about the World Cup is the orgy of self-examination it produces about when or whether Americans truly embrace
futbol football soccer?
From what I can ascertain, there are two clear camps. The enthusiast camp, epitomized by this Daniel Gross essay, suggests that it's just so hard to be a soccer fan in the United States:
Being a soccer fan at World Cup time in America is a little like being Jewish in December in a small town in the Midwest. You sense that something big is going on around you, but you're not really a part of it. And the thing you're celebrating and enjoying is either ignored or misunderstood by your friends, peers, and neighbors. It can be a lonely time.
Jonathan Chait's rejoinder to Gross' essay best epitomizes the rejectionist school of thought. Part of it is a genuine disdain for soccer, a game with lots of flopping and 0-0 ties and is ripe for Simpsons parodies. I suspect that another component is hostility to the trendiness of the game among DC media elites and intellectuals. My local sports radiop station has had a contest to name these people, and come up with "nilrods."
My hunch, however, is that neither of these descriptions fit the American attitude towards World Cup soccer. I've seen elevated but not overwhelming interest in the World Cup. Any honest assessment of soccer would have to acknowledge that the game can be boring for long stretches, punctuated by some moments of genuine excitement and athleticism -- not unlike baseball.
The fact is, there are plenty of sports in the United States that occasionally capture the intermittent attention of the casual sports fan, but won't "break through" the sports zeitgeist until and unless the United States fields a successful national team. This is how it tends to work with the Olympic team sports, and it's how it will work with the World Cup. If the United States can advance far in this tournament, Americans will become more interested; if not, they'll switch back to baseball and the NFL draft.
In this approach, the casual sports fan is using a strategy of "rational ignorance" -- i.e., not caring until the team is sufficiently successful. This is the kind of thing that political scientists tend to understand, but sports and politics junkies reject as somehow not representing true fandom. But it is how most people think about most things in life most of the time.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
By my metrics , the top seven great powers in the world right now are the United States, China, Germany, Japan, Russia, India and Brazil. Your results might vary a bit, but I assume everyone will grant that all these countries would fall into their top 10 list.
According to FIFA, the top seven men's soccer teams in the world are, in order: Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, Italy, Germany, and Argentina.
There's not a lot of overlap between those two lists. Indeed, the latter list includes three PIIGS countries plus a few others facing severe debt difficulties. Even if one expands the FIFA list to the top 20, only two more great powers (Russia and the United States) pop up.
Why the lack of correlation? I'd proffer three possible explanations. First, and most important, is culture. What the great powers have in common is possessing proud civilizational identities. While Germany and Brazil might have soccer-mad populations, in the other countries there are other sports -- baseball, hockey , basketball, rugby, and cricket -- that attract more attention and more dollars. The best athletes from most of the great powers don't go into soccer.
Related to this are the skewed industrial policies for sport that some countries pursue. The Washington Post's Keith Richburg looks at why China is ranked 84th in the world, and finds the following:
As in industry, the government picks national "winners" in sports and funnels cash to create champions and win medals. But the support typically goes to individual sports like gymnastics, swimming and diving, and to sports in which Chinese have traditionally excelled, like badminton and table tennis. Soccer teams here are left to look for private sponsorship....
Politics comes into play, several sports journalists and others said, because sports ministry officials, particularly at the local level, would rather invest government money into promising sports prodigies with a quicker guarantee of victory. "It's related to their promotion," said Li Chengpeng, a soccer commentator and author.
Finally, perhaps men's soccer isn't the best metric here. Consider FIFA's ranking for women's soccer: U.S., Germany, Brazil, Sweden, Japan, Norway, North Korea and France. China is 10th and Russia is 15th. The correlation between political power and women's soccer proficiency is much stronger.
The true outlier here is India. Their men's team ranks 133rd, just behind Fiji. Their women's team is somewhat better, just besting Haiti. Even if soccer is not that popular in the subcontinent, it's a country with more than a billion people -- sheer numbers suggest they should field a semi-decent team.
I welcome any South Asian experts to provide some possible answers in the comments.
UPDATE: I should have known that team Passport would be all over this already.
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
I spent the last two days in the great state of Alabama, giving a talk on the financial crisis and national security at the Air War College's National Security Forum. The audience consists of Air Force colonels and community leaders.
In theory, I was there to impart wisdom, but I always find that I learn more from these experiences than my audience. Now, most of what happens in Alabama stays in Alabama, but I can say I learned the following four things:
1) The rooms at the Air Force Inn on Maxwell Air Force Base are charming -- and they come equipped with clubs and golf balls for guests to practice putting.
2) It's a really big ego rush when you walk into the lecture hall and everyone stands at attention for your entrance -- until, of course, you realize that they're not standing for you, they're standing for the base commandant.
3) I would describe my audience as somewhat right of center -- so it was surprising to me that, when I gently suggested that the War on Drugs might be the most counterproductive policy in existence, there was some robust support from the audience.
4) It's going to take a lot longer for the public's anger at the financial sector to dissipate than anyone in either Washington or New York realizes.
Last night, the Indianapolis Colts stormed back from 17 points down against the New England Patriots to win a gripping game by the score of 35-34. After the game, the most talked-about play was the Patriots' decision to go for it on a fourth down play with two yards to go at their own 28 yard line with a little more than two minutes remaining and the Colts down by 6 points.
Rather than punt the ball, Patriots coach Bill Belichick defied coventional wisdom and decided to go for it. Had they converted the down, the game would have effectively been over. Instead, they fell a yard short. The Colts therefore gained possession about 35-40 yards closer to the Patriots' end zone than if the Pats had punted.
The Boston press and national press have raked Belichick over the coals for this play call. You know, stuff like, "Everyone knows by now he should have played the percentages and punted the ball from his own 28-yard line with just two minutes left in regulation against the Colts." Are they right to do so? Over at his Freakonomics blog, Steve Levitt defends Belichick:
Here is why I respect Belichick so much. The data suggest that he actually probably did the right thing if his objective was to win the game. Economist David Romer studied years worth of data and found that, contrary to conventional wisdom, teams seem to punt way too much. Going for a first down on fourth and short yardage in your end zone is likely to increase the chance your team wins (albeit slightly). But Belichick had to know that if it failed, he would be subjected to endless criticism.
If his team had gotten the first down and the Patriots won, he would have gotten far less credit than he got blame for failing.... What Belichick proved by going for it last night is that 1) he understands the data, and 2) he cares more about winning than anything else.
Is Leavitt correct? Thanks to Football Outsiders, you can fill out your own percentages and see which decision maximizes your expected utility. Or you can read the Boston Globe's Adam Kilgore and appreciate the historical percentages:
According to [AdvancedNFLStats.com Brian] Burke’s tabulation, going for the first down gave the Patriots a 79 percent chance of winning. Punting gave them a 70-percent chance to win. Even after Burke made tweaks, the win probability never dipped in favor of the punt. If anything, factoring in how explosive the Colts’ offense is, the team-specific adjustments only made going for it more favorable.
“A lot of criticism is probably way over the top,’’ Burke said. “At the very least, it’s defensible. It’s not crazy. It’s not reckless.’’
Of course, the problem with football -- and politics -- is that decision-makers are usually judged by the quality of the outcomes rather than the quality of the processes. So, the result in both worlds is often excessive risk-aversion.
And so this blog post might end with absolution for Bill Belichick and a plea for a stronger appreciation for expected-utility analysis. Except life is not that simple.
On that play, it appears that Belichick made the right call. Except that Belichick also did the following things before making that call:
Sooooo... it's possible to defend Belichick's call on fourth down as the rational, utility-maximizing decision, but conclude that he committed a series of small blunders that got the Patriots to the point where they had to convert a high-risk, high-reward play. In other words, sometimes the criticized decision might be the right one to make, but the decisions that structured the controversial choice might not have been.
Question to readers: Looking at the Obama administration's foreign policy, which move echoes Belichick's play-calling?
[I]s the sacrifice of 58,000 Americans worth a bad Yankee team?
The answer is obviously yes.
This is a question that could tear apart the nation... Red Sox Nation, that is.
More here. I really don't think this is anything more than a coincidence, and I certainly don't agree with the blogger's estimation of Lyndon Johnson.
Still, if one wanted to develop a completely unsubstantiated hypothesis, however, one could posit that the explanation for this correlation is that under a GOP president, the mercurial owner of the Yankees faced fewer contraints to
royally f**k up interfere in the management of the team, resulting in some spectacular flame-outs on the diamond.
It's not true, of course, but it's a more entertaining urban myth than Obama's citizenship status or Bush's role in the 9/11 attacks.
As a resident of the Boston area for the past few years, I'm been very grateful for the Golden Age of Sport that has descended upon Beantown for the past decade. The three Super Bowls, two World Series, an NBA World Championship, and countless other exciting playoff runs (next year, Bruins!) have been nothing short of exhilirating.
They do not, however, make Boston the greatest sports city in North America -- according to one metric, we're only #2. Lee Sigelman alerts me to this Toronto Star effort to determine the best sports city in North America north of the Rio Grande. Their answer might surprise you:
For its relatively diminutive size and low Midwestern profile, Indianapolis is a sporting powerhouse. The city's National Football League Colts and National Basketball Association Pacers have logged wins 66 per cent of the time since 2000.
Perhaps best known for the Indianapolis 500, the city is home to the NCAA and many of its major tournaments, has hosted more than 400 national and international championships since 1980 and will welcome the Super Bowl in 2012.
They built this city on sports, says Bill Benner, a former sports columnist at The Indianapolis Star. "Indianapolis, beginning about 30 years ago, used sports ... as an economic development strategy. Using sports as the cornerstone played out beyond anyone's imagination."
With sporting success has come civic pride, says Stephanie Parks, one-quarter of a diehard Indianapolis family of sports fanatics.
"Being a sports capital is closely tied with the city's sense of self," says the mother of two athletic children seeking to follow in the footsteps of their pro heroes. "We own two businesses and during football season we have `blue Friday,' wherein everyone is to dress up in blue or wear their Colts shirts."
The Star calculated this by calculating, "percentages among professional sports teams in 37 North American cities since 2000" plus "bonus points for making the playoffs or winning a championship." I'll let my readers quibble about the validity of this measure.
No, what piques my interest is whether there's a way to go global with this kind of question. If one factored in other team sports --
soccer non-American football, rugby, cricket -- which metropolis could claim the crown of the Greatest Sporting City in the World?
Major League Baseball starts in earnest today. As longtime readers of this blog are aware, I am a diehard Red Sox fan. They are playing in what everyone acknowledges to be the toughest division in baseball, with three teams -- the Sox, Rays and Yankees -- fully capable of winning a World Series this year.
What will be odd, this time around, is that during this offseason the Red Sox did something really, really astonishing -- they followed a lot of the unsolicited recommendations I made 3 1/2 months ago (just to be clear, I'm arguing coincidence and not causation here).
Still, this raises an existential question as a fan -- what happens if your team does almost exactly what you recommend they do, but they don't win? Who can you blame then?
[Um, what if they do win?--ed. I'm a Red Sox fan. Times have changed, but I can still go to the dark place.]
Both the Hardball Times and Baseball Prospectus like these movies, so I'm hardly alone here. When comparing the Red Sox to the Yankees and Rays, what strikes me about the Sox is the (on paper) relative strength of their bullpen, bench, and farm system. Over a 162 game season, that has to count for something.
Of course, no matter what Moneyball says, you don't play games on paper. Play ball!!
The World Baseball Classic has been under way since Saturday, and this year's version of the event has been even more exciting than the 2006 inaugural tournament. Already, the U.S. barely edged Canada, 6-5 in a game that came down to the last pitch. As I'm typing this, Australia, having upset Mexico earlier in the week, is giving Cuba a run for its money (the Aussies are winning 4-2 in the 6th. UPDATE: the Cubans come back to eke out a 5-4 victory). If Cuba loses, I would hate to see Fidel Castro's blog post about it (hat tip: SI's Tom Verducci)
This is all prelude, however, to the biggest shocker of all -- in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the Netherlands eliminated the Dominican Republic, beating them 2-1 in 11 innings. This was the second victory by the Dutch over the D.R. in a week.
For those traditional Foreign Policy reading, World Cup-loving kind of readers, let me try to explain the magnitude of this upset in terms that you would understand. Imagine that the South Korean soccer team just beat Brazil in a match played in Uruguay. No, check that -- imagine that the Koreans beat the Brazilians twice in two matches. That's what we're talking about here.
The implications for the globalization of baseball are pretty good, as Verducci points out:
Major League Baseball can work all of its machinations to pump up interest in the tournament, such as marketing and broadcasting. But there is nothing more powerful to sell the tournament than the unscripted magnificence of the game itself, never more so than when what we regard as the meek overtake the mighty.
This is an age when it's fashionable to complain about everything in America going downhill. So it's worth pointing out that, compared to my youth, the Super Bowl is an event that has improved with age. This past decade the games have been far more competitive than the first 25 Super Bowls. The NFL has been smart enough to dispense with the military metaphors. Even the halftime shows have gotten better -- props to Bruce Springsteen.
Yesterday's game was thrilling, if a bit sloppy and very chippy. There was some excellent scrambling from Ben Roethlisberger and some outstanding wide receiver play (also a more recent and pleasant change: wide receivers with exceptional talent who don't shoot off their mouths, or their hips).
While the game was good, I'm not so sure about the ads. I liked the one with Jason Statham, and I loved the one with Conan O'Brien. Otherwise, it seemed like a down year. Enough with the f$%^ing Clydesdales, Budweiser. And that Alec Baldwin Hulu ad was funny peculiar more than funny ha-ha.
Readers, what did you think?
The New York Yankees represent the very worst of America. Overstatement? Consider the times. Cornerstone industries are faltering, taxpayers are being asked to bail out mismanaged financial institutions and their overpaid CEOs, and decent, hard-working men and women are being laid off or worrying that they could be next. Now consider the eight-year, $180 million contract the Yankees reportedly handed first baseman Mark Teixeira Tuesday. Stack it on top of the $161 million deal signed by pitcher CC Sabathia and the (relatively) modest $82.5 million promised to A.J. Burnett and you have the most egregious display of financial irresponsibility in the history of sports. The Yanks' insane overspending would be bad for baseball in the best of times. These are not the best of times.... What's wrong here is obvious. It's also not really new. Unlike the NFL, NBA and NHL, baseball has no salary cap. Those leagues do not have caps for the sheer, unbridled joy of finding loopholes and exceptions. They have them as part of an effort to maintain some kind of competitive balance among teams from different-size markets in disparate parts of the country.Sheridan's response is pretty typical of non-Yankee fans -- which is disturbing, because it's so wrong on so many levels. First, it would be awesome if American corporations acted more like the Yankees. One cause of the deepening recession is that firms are afraid to do anything other than hold cash in hand at the moment. The smart ones should invest in expansion -- capital is ridiculously cheap right now and they'll be well-poised once the economy takes off again. If enough firms acted that way, the economy actually would take off again. In signing these players, the Yankees have made long-term investments while keeping their expenditures constant relative to last year's payroll. Given their move to a new stadium, their revenues should increase. They have made these moves in order to improve their chances of competing. That's how corporations should behave. As for Sheridan's point about competitive balance -- well, let's go to Joe Posnanski, who has some useful data on this point:
it always gives me great comfort to see the following facts: -- Over the past 10 years, eight different teams have won the World Series. In all, 15 teams made the World Series -- half of the teams in baseball. -- Over the past 20 years, 14 different teams have won the World Series. In all 22 teams made the World Series. Now, we're at more than two-thirds who have reached the Series. -- Over the last 30 years, 20 different teams have won the World Series, and only four -- Cubs, Mariners, Rangers and the Expos/Nationals -- have failed to get there... I'm not saying that the Yankees will not win in 2009 -- that's an awfully good team now, absolutely the best that money can buy. But just remember that key fact: 20 teams have won a World Series in the last 30 years. And by comparison: -- Only 14 teams have won the Super Bowl over the last 30 years. -- Only 14 different men have won Wimbledon over the last 30 years. -- Only 13 teams have won the Stanley Cup over the last 30 years. -- Only nine teams have won an NBA title over the last 30 years.It is telling that the team sports with salary caps actually have more dynasties than baseball. In baseball, more money can make the Yankees better, but it can't guarantee them anything. As a Red Sox fan, I'm perfectly happy to have the rest of America hate the Yankees along with me. Holding them up as the symbol of what's wrong with the country, however, is pretty ludicrous. UPDATE: Thanks to YFSF, I see that Dan Szymborski has made a similar argument over at Baseball Think Factory:
The Yankees do spend more money than other teams in MLB, but the differences would be less drastic if the payrolls of many teams had been rising up to the waves of new cash that have entered baseball in recent years. Going by the NFL formula, very generous considering the MLBPA is far more powerful an entity than any other union in sports, the payroll floor for 2009 would almost certainly be in the $100 million range. 58% of league revenue, as the players in NFL get, would be, in baseball, an average team payroll of a hair under $120 million. It's pretty clear that while the Yankees are outspending everyone comfortably, the rest of baseball has just as much to do with the payroll disparity as the Yankees do. Now, what about the Yankee mindset? The Steinbrenners aren't anywhere near as rich or as liquid as some other owners in baseball such as Carl Pohlad of the Twins. The difference is that the Steinbrenners have always invested in their team, always striven to put the best product possible out on the field. The Yankees have certainly made some terrible trades, especially when King George was hands-on the most, but they were done with the motive of making the team better. Yes, the Yankees got a huge, undeserved payday from the locals for their stadium, like most teams in baseball did, but it's a mitigating factor that they're actually plowing those funds back into the on-field product. And the team never threatened to not compete until they got their sweet check. Perhaps a small difference, but I see it as a good bit more ethical than Kevin McClatchy demanding taxpayer moneys to help the Pirates compete and then turn around and use all the money to fund his failing media empire.
The Red Sox, having finally gained the upper hand in the rivalry with the Yankees by the virtue of two World Series championships in the last five seasons, cannot sit idly by and watch the Yanks make dramatic, if incredibly expensive, improvements. And that is what the acquisitions of Sabathia and Burnett were. The Yankees have not won a World Series since 2000, primarily because their starting pitching wasn't of championship caliber. On paper, at least, that shortcoming has now been directly addressed.Hey, that's right! Because when another team makes a free agent signing, the only possible response is to trade away promising young players or spend lots of money on free agents! Because since 2000, the Yankees' acquisition of expensive starting pitchers -- Jeff Weaver, Kevin Brown, Jose Contreras, Mike Mussina, Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright, and Kei Igawa -- has worked like a charm for them! [Is this fair to Mussina?--ed. No, he was actually worth the money -- but he's the only one on this list who qualifies.] At a minimum, the thirtysomething pitchers will fit right in with the thirtysomething lineup. Going after Teixeira might be an intrinsically good idea -- but doing it just because the Yankees have blown a lot of dough is pretty stupid. The Red Sox look to be in decent shape next year. Their top four starters are all back. Theo Epstein has addressed the bullpen with some trades this offseason. Bauman is correct to say that the Red Sox need an improved offense, but one could argue that better health is they key here. The Red Sox lost a lot of big run producers because of injuries last year -- it's reasonable to expect bounce-back seasons from Mike Lowell and David Ortiz in particular. The pipeline of minor league talent, from Lars Anderson to Michael Bowden to Daniel Bard -- looks pretty promising. All Theo Epstein needs to do is not listen to Mike Bauman and the Red Sox should be fine.
The Boston Red Sox today announced the team is holding prices at 2008 levels for all existing seats and standing room tickets available to the public at Fenway Park for the 2009 season. The team will also hold prices for all tickets available to the public for 2009 Spring Training games at City of Palms Park in Ft. Myers, FL. "We have been listening to fans, friends, and family about the challenges they are facing in light of the current adverse economic conditions," said Larry Lucchino, Red Sox President/CEO. "We are also grateful for the unwavering faith and support our fans have shown us year after year and we hope our ownership's decision to hold prices for the upcoming season will in some way help ease the burden on Red Sox Nation." The move marks the first time in 14 years, since 1995, that the team has held ticket prices across the board.As the Boston Globe's Chad Finn points out, 1995 was the first year after the 1994 baseball strike, so you'd have to go back even further to see a move like this that was taken in response to the overall economic situation. UPDATE: The current economic climate is even affecting Yankee ticket sales. ANOTHER UPDATE: David Pinto offers an intuguing alternative explanation: "I wonder how much getting a cut of ticket reselling plays into this?"
Brown: So are you going to run for governor? Barkley: I plan on it in 2014. Brown: You are serious. Barkley: I am, I can't screw up Alabama. Brown: There is no place to go but up in your view? Barkley: We are number 48 in everything and Arkansas and Mississippi aren't going anywhere.Dammit, the man stole my campaign motto: "Vote Drezner -- he can't screw it up any worse."
Rays fans are acquainted with regular-season losing, sure, but now it's time for them to be acquainted with another form of baseball suffering: The postseason near-miss. In the long run, it's for their own good: They'll better appreciate final victory when it eventually arrives, and they'll avoid the dreaded "Florida Marlins syndrome," in which a premature World Series win (or two!) ruins a city for the normal ups and downs of baseball fandom. All of which is to say that the Red Sox won't just be taking another step toward repeating as World Champions if they stop drowning in two feet of water and come back from 2-1 down to knock Tampa out of the postseason; they'll be doing the Rays, and especially Rays fans, a big favor as well.Well, after last night, I think Rays fans have lost their postseason suffering virginity:
Unless Josh Beckett and Jon Lester manage to pitch back to form on Saturday and Sunday, the Rays will still go onto the World Series, and Game Five of this year's ALCS will be remembered in the same way as Albert Pujols' monster three-run blast of Brad Lidge in the 2005 NLCS -- a great moment that did not affect the final outcome. The way I look at it, however, for the rest of this season the Red Sox are playing with the house's money. And, no matter what, I'll be able to remind the New York Times' William C. Rhoden about how his "Manny Curse" trial balloon popped in the most satisfying possible manner.
Francona is never going to get the Red Auerbach or Bill Belichick treatment around here. In the eyes of some old-school Red Sox watchers, he's not even on a par with Dick Williams. But when do we start looking at what is happening with the Red Sox and assigning some credit to the man in the corner office? Just because Francona doesn't intimidate people or try to portray himself as a genius, is that any reason to diminish what the man has done?And now Curry:
Although Francona has more World Series rings as a manager than Lou Piniella, Bobby Cox or Jim Leyland, he is not routinely mentioned as one of baseball’s elite managers.... Stop fans on any street that is not in New England and ask them to pick baseball’s best managers. Not many would select Francona. When Francona was presented with this theory, he said, “My dad would.”OK, enough -- do Shaughnessy and Curry have some secret bar where they meet a few guys named Sully once a month so they can write this kind of "fan-on-the-street" crap with a clear conscience? As a Red Sox fan who talks to other Sox fans, I have rarely, if ever, heard an unkind word directed at Francona during his tenure as manager here. In fact, most Sox fans think Francona excels at the three biggest challenges a Red Sox manager faces: a) keeping the players on the same page; b) handling the media; c) never panicking during the season. If anything, it's the national media -- I'm looking at you, BBWAA -- that underrates Francona. Consider that he's never won Manager of the Year. In the miracle year of 2004, he finished fifth in the voting, receiving zero first-place ballots. In 2005, he managed to get a team without a true #1 or #2 starter and no established closer into the postseason and finished sixth in the voting, receiving zero first-place ballots. Last year, despite helming the team with the best record, he finished fourth in the voting and received zero first-place ballots. Oh, and he's not going to win it this year, either -- Joe Maddon will. Why is this? The MOY tends to go to the guy who's team exceeeds expectations -- and since Francona's been around, the Red Sox have been expected to go in the post-season. GM Theo Epstein (deservedly) gets a lot of credit that might otherwise go to Francona. It's a regular season vote as well, so Francona's post-season success doesn't count. And Francona really is pretty self-effacing -- if it's an act, then it's a very convincing one. So, to use a poker metaphor, Francona usually holds better cards than the other guys. His skill at playing those cards, however, is underrated. If the Red Sox win the World Series again this year, however, my bet is that Francona's reputation goes sky-high. By some metrics, the Red Sox are still the best team in the league, but they've had to deal with a lot of injuries plus the whole Manny brouhaha. Unlike last year, they're not expected to win this year. Joe Torre is no longer in New York City. If he can exceed expectations again, then maybe the national baseball media elite will catch up to what Red Sox fans have known for quite some time -- Terry Francona is a damn fine manager.
China is to maintain its censorship of overseas websites even for journalists covering the Beijing Olympics, undermining earlier claims by the International Olympic Committee that international media would enjoy unfettered internet access during the Games. Beijing routinely blocks access to thousands of overseas websites considered politically or socially suspect as part of a sprawling and secretive internet censorship system. However, the government had been widely expected to offer unfiltered internet access to the more than 20,000 journalists covering the Games, which open on August 8. However, the Beijing Games organising committee (Bocog) insisted on Wednesday that it had never promised full freedom. “During Games-time we will provide sufficient and convenient internet access,” Sun Weide, Bocog spokesman, said. Bocog was already providing “sufficient” access, Mr Sun said, even though journalists have complained about blocks on overseas websites such as that of Amnesty International, a human rights group that this week issued a report on preparations for the Games.... The sharp contrast between Beijing’s refusal to suspend censorship controls and the IOC’s previous assurances will cast a renewed spotlight on the international sports group’s handling of preparations for the Games.The IOC's reaction to this has been... er... schozophrenic. The Australian reports that the IOC knew this was coming; the Times of India says the exact opposite. China still wins domestically if it receives critical coverage; the IOC, on the other hand, will lose what little credibility it has remaining.
Over the next 20 minutes, Hamilton hit a total of 28 home runs, including 13 in a row at one point. He hit a series of blasts into the upper deck, a few more scattered through the right-center bleachers, a pair of balls into the "black seats" in center field. Along the way he converted a crowd that had been fairly apathetic to that point -- largely ignoring Yankee broadcaster Michael Kay's repeated requests that they cheer one guy or another on -- into Josh Hamilton's 50,000 biggest fans. Chants of "Ham-il-ton" and "M-V-P" spread from the bleachers to the crowd, each bomb off of Hamilton's bat raising the volume a bit more.Enjoy the break!
I see people. I see annoying people. I see annoying people wearing blue hats with a red B on the front. And they're . . . they're . . . everywhere! Yes, it is the seemingly annual invasion of the denizens of Red Sox Nation. (Motto: In Us We Irritate.) It is a nation whose currency is based on being cloying, self-important, pompous, overly loud and, regrettably, ever-present, and the economy is great. Axis of Evil? You make your list of nations that belong and I'll make mine.... The Red Sox, thanks largely to their streak-breaking championship in 2004, became cuddly, cute, popular, and attractive to great scads of casual fans who wanted to glom onto the gravy train. There's nothing cuddly or cute about a team with a $133 million payroll. You can't be an underdog if you spend like the Kennedys. If the Red Sox - who struggled to draw one million fans under the penurious final seasons of Yawkey family ownership - were once a cold-water walk-up on Kenmore Square, they are now a gated compound on the Cape.As a longtime Sox fan, I can kind of understand where Ford is coming from. The Red Sox clearly aren't underdogs anymore -- and, with continued good management, never will be. On the other hand, Ford kind of contradicts himself at the end of his column:
Earlier this year, Hank Steinbrenner, part-owner of the Yankees and son of legendary windbag George Steinbrenner, said he doesn't believe in Red Sox Nation. "Go anywhere in America and you won't see Red Sox hats and jackets, you'll see Yankee hats and jackets," Steinbrenner said. "This is a Yankee country." At the moment, judging by the national deficit and some unfortunate policy missteps, this actually seems to be a Kansas City Royals kind of country. But we'll leave that debate for another time and focus instead on this question for Mr. Steinbrenner: What in the world are you talking about? There are Yankees hats out there, certainly. I see them in plaid and argyle and all black, and worn sideways with no bend to the brim. Those are prevalent, and I honestly don't know what they are, but they are not baseball hats. Everywhere else are the blue hats with the red B on the front. Those are stained and weathered, and the brims are curved to keep out the sun. The people who wear them have a big team that pretends to be little, a team that won a championship in 2004 and then another last season. They are very happy with themselves.It seems to me you can't begrudge a fan base that was loyal through the seventy lean years and is now reaping the seven fat years. Hat tip to David Pinto, who makes an interesting point:
Red Sox Nation, however, is a truly remarkable phenomenon. Boston combined first rate marketing with deft team building to take Boston from a locally loved team to a national brand. Both on the business and baseball side, the management group should be admired for that, and other teams should try to emulate that success. Ford's team, the Phillies, have a chance to build that kind of brand right now. Maybe create the HURH club, for Howard, Utley, Rollins, and Hamels. Instead of complaining, try beating them at their own game.The problem is, the Phillies play in Philadelphia, the city with the meanest sports fans in the country. My father can tell war stories about how, as an ER doc, he'd see the hospital overflow with people following any sports event. I've seen Philly fans up close -- hell, they'd begrudge Gandhi for life if the guy booted a grounder. If the Red Sox don't win it this year, I'll be pulling for the Phillies, however, just to see how Philly fans deal with success. Five years of sports success in Boston has gone a long way towards eliminating the sourness that pervades the Philly sports scene.
Jeterate (verb) meaning ?to praise someone for something of which he or she is entirely unworthy of praise.? Example: ?The father could not but jeterate his daughter for coloring on the wall because she looked so cute.?.... See, the thing is Derek Jeter is such a good baseball player ? I mean, we are talking about a no-doubt, first ballot Hall of Famer here ? that people don?t need to jeterate him for his fielding. The guy sucks as a defensive shortstop, OK? He?s brutal out there. Every detailed defensive number shows it. He?s back near the bottom again in zone rating and range factor and, I?m sure, the Dewan plus/minus. Plus every scout who pays attention knows he can?t go two steps to his left and his arm is subpar. It?s OK! Really! He doesn?t have to be Mark Belanger. He?s a great hitter! He plays every day! He?s makes up for some of his flaws with his awareness and mental stamina! I wouldn?t be bothered by his defensive liabilities, I really wouldn?t, except, well, you know, so many people don?t think he HAS defensive liabilities. They give him freaking gold gloves. They knight him Sir Derek of Defensive Wizardry because 238 years ago he tagged Jeremy Giambi and jumped into the crowd on a foul ball.This is not the part that made me laugh (well, OK, I'm enough of a Sox fan to admit to a cackle or two here). No, you'll have to click on the post and read Posnanski's imagined dialogue between the minds of Derek Jeter, Bobby Abreu, and A-Rod to understand why I was laughing out loud. Hat tip: David Pinto.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.