Monday, January 29, 2007

What's in a word?

Who are we? What are our goals? Why do we do the things we do?

Perhaps, if we spent just a little more time explaining ourselves and coming to grips with our intentions, things would be a great deal easier. Usually it comes down to a word or two.

I want to take the opportunity of helping you move from this deep headspace into something much more ridiculous: college football, and more specifically, the BCS.

So what is the designated purpose of the BCS? Is it to determine the best team or is it to crown the top team? Before we can feign to fix the system, we must determine its goal. So which is it?

If its purpose is to find the best team, then I wish you the best of luck. To figure out ‘best’, wins and losses are simply statistics in that situation. In 2003, an unknown USC dropped its first two games of the season, but went on to win ten straight, including the Rose Bowl. When the season was over, they were clearly the strongest and most potent team in football, led by their acclaimed quarterback, Carson Palmer. Voters couldn’t name them #1, though; not with two losses. Redemption came in a preseason #1 for the following year. Nor do best teams always win (just ask our basketball teams in international play). And let’s not forget that ‘best’ can mean the greatest solitary achievement as much as it does career-spanning dominance. In other words, a playoff is actually a worse determining factor of ‘best’ than voting!

Then perhaps it is to find the top team—the one that survives the gauntlet. If this is the case, why do we even dare to determine objectivity? What makes a team succeed in the Big Ten requires dealing with the cold, and in the SEC the heat. How do conditions and style of play factor into determining the “top” team? Such a subjective environment is ripe terrain for voting, not playoffs!

And speaking of the playoffs a second, are we ready for the effect they would have on the most popular sport in North America? Bo Schembechler, the late great coach of Michigan famously suggested that every year, his main goal was to win the Big Ten. If they did that, then the next goal was winning the Rose Bowl. National Championships are the territory of sports writers, not coaches. Playoff brackets would eliminate not only the beauty and diversity of college football, but it would eliminate all of the best storylines of this year and actually reduce excitement to a “who gets in” race, not to weekly contests. This season wasn’t just about the Florida blowout, but the Boise State upset of Oklahoma; Wake Forest, Louisville, and West Virginia looking like real power-house programs; and of course Rutgers. None of these are stories in a playoff scenario.

I have two big examples of this nightmare. First is Boise State. For as much as we would all love to see how they would do after defeating Oklahoma, the likely blowout to come would destroy the beauty that was their upset. As it is now, they have already stolen recruits for next year and will be even stronger. They completed one of the all-time great games that will not only be played regularly on ESPN Classic, but will be talked about for decades. That game, in the midst of a playoff, would become a lot less.

A Second example is the inevitable ‘wrong team wins’ scenario. Let’s say Indiana loses its four non-conference games, but sweeps the Big Ten. Do they get in the playoffs? What about the 11-1 Wolverines or Nittany Lions that lost by a field goal or (God forbid) a blown call? Does Indiana go? Do the voters ‘fix it’ for the computers like they did with Florida this year? Are the conference champs screwed over so that a better team can go?

College football is really not about ‘best’, it is about scholar-athletes that do their best and learn to be men. It is about millions of people watching on Saturdays as their favorite teams duke it out for bragging rights for another year. It is about statistics and feats of heroism. It is about flashy and gritty playing next to each other. It is about Senior Day and freshman sensations. It is about underdogs and upsets. It is about mascots and rivalries. It isn’t about playoffs, and it sure isn’t about 117 teams playing over 1,400 games just to have everything narrowed down to one winner and 116 losers.

Now bring on the draft! I can’t wait to see which stupid team drafts the biggest headache because of his ‘upside’.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Posing, Civility, and Blatant Lies

I used to be against small talk. I hated it. I hated the idea of having a shallow conversation with someone else just because society told me to. I refused to talk about the weather, for sure, but I didn’t talk about stupid non-news stories that should be in People, not The New York Times. I couldn’t care less if OJ was guilty. Not real news to me, and not a good topic for conversation. Similarly, I was told not to talk about religion or politics in ‘polite’ conversation. What else is there, really? The weather.

Most of the people who know me will freely suggest that they know this about me. And many will recognize the difficulty I have had in switching into a culture that detests controversy. Thank you for the prayers and concern you have no doubt had throughout this process. Regardless, I have learned to see what small talk is and the part it serves.

I have also been a proponent of removing the first steps from most “games”--which includes, of course, the game of conversation. Step 1 is the greeting “Hi” or “Good afternoon”, followed immediately by the unintentionally probing question of “How are you?” None of us wants the truth, but this is part of the formality inherent to the game. We say “pretty good; how about you?” expecting to receive the same response of “pretty good” or perhaps “fine.” The conversation then is allowed to begin, but in some cases, we need to ease into it with weather our common interests such as sports or other events or those fluff news stories. It takes forever just to get going most of the time!

My concern with these stages of the process is the confusion implicit in them. I am no longer obsessed with conversation “meaning something”, but I am a bit concerned with what is being communicated in fluff talk and whether or not both parties recognize the postures. If I answer the “how are you?” question to Person A with “pretty well”, then they (rightly) regard this as sufficient and move on. But if they hear me move on to Person B and answer instead “you know, my wife’s been pretty sick and we’re wondering what’s really going on”, then Person A will be rightly upset at not only my not disclosing this fact about myself and my life, but that I lied in suggesting that things were ‘fine’.

The application of these concerns is much more profound in the playing out of political chess moves. For the Anglican Communion to show an interest in reconciliation (demanded of it by Akinola) is fair and proper and the right thing to do. I’m all in favor of waging reconciliation, BUT The Network and ‘Global South’ and any other religious pirates never showed any interest in reconciliation--they are playing out this game knowing that these would be the steps taken by the Anglican Church, knowing what they would be able to get away with things (sheep stealing) without reprimand, and that they could easily win the media war with cries of persecution from a tyrannical and abusive church. This is all BS, and everyone involved in it can see this--but the people (in the pews, in the press, in other faith-groups) aren’t privy to this information. They still think it actually has something to do with sex.

The church itself was stuck by its predictable opening moves and they were easily exploited because of it. At the same time, it has also served to give cover to both the dissidents and the Communion, as they can both say “we tried to make it work, but…”. Perhaps starting at the initial conversation, which was that the fringe Right was looking for a way out for years, may have allowed for a dissolution of bonds of affection in an amicable agreement. “You want the church building, then pony-up for it!” It may have been doable. Perhaps even lines of communication may have been maintained after the inevitably messy resolution period.

In truth, none of this occurred, nor will any amicable agreement arise (easily) at this stage. There will be no cavalry arriving at the final moment or superhero swooping down. We are stuck in a morass because of common civility. Clarity of motivation isn’t a ‘tipping of one’s hand’, but a position of strength. Perhaps we’ll remember that for the next great controversy.

Monday, January 8, 2007

trial, execution: all in a day's work

In the United States, we love to kill people. Look no further than to put the subject of capital punishment on the ballot: it garners overwhelming support. For most people, the death penalty is mixed up in some religious sense of justice and a pop-psychological sense of receiving peace of mind after a tragedy—closure we like to call it. We think that killing another human being has some magical property that can positively affect ourselves and our community—which is no different from a ritual sacrifice.

We also are among the few wealthy industrialized nations to do it. Scratch that. We are the only wealthy industrialized nation that actively practices it. It is outlawed in the European Union, Latin America, and the Pacific. Parts of Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean still practice it—as does the Middle East.

The recent execution of Saddam Hussein was a disgusting abuse of power. There is no way that the man was ever going to get a fair trial, nor did anyone expect him to receive one—we just let the new Iraqi court system go through the motions. We detained him for his own safety, and days after his conviction, he was hanged. Not only would this never happen anywhere else in the world but Iraq, but this is the country we have created. There was no appeals process. There was no chance to make sure that his trial was fair. In fact, he died to the taunting and abuse of the Shi’ite majorities. We know this because some of them recorded these events on their cell phones.

The recent execution of Saddam was not only overly degrading, but has put the United States back into the pit it tried to extract itself from after Abu Ghraib. By allowing this brand new “democracy” that we have spent a trillion dollars on destroying and then rebuilding to act like a spoiled child is unconscionable. This act is reminiscent of the nihilistic acts of Saddam’s amoral sons—perhaps an act of retribution. Regardless of their actions, they are now the poster children for U.S. intervention in the world: our military power and the soul of our country are shining through this democracy-building adventure in Iraq. So how does it look? It shouldn’t surprise us that the soul we see is pretty ugly.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Skip playoffs--true neutral sites should be sought in college football

Yesterday's Rose Bowl should tell us something.

I'm not talking about either team 's performance or where they would finish in a playoff.
Nor am I talking about preparation or coaching.
And unlike last year, I'm not even going to complain about officiating (the ACC has better refs than the Sun Belt--that's for sure).

I am going to suggest a greater opportunity for balance and true performance.

The Bowl system has a history of one team inviting another to its home to play a postseason game: Gator Bowl, Aloha Bowl, and yes, the Rose Bowl. With the BCS, we have something else in place--the opportunity to appropriately evaluate teams and see how they match up with one another.

I'm not a playoff person because it doesn't actually produce what we claim it does: the truly best team. The World Cup is closer, with its bracket system that has each team play every other team before advancing. Michigan would likely match up differently with Florida than it did with USC, so playing one and not the other doesn't determine "the best team". How do you account for a weaker or less favorable bracket? We have lots of examples of the best game taking place in the semifinals, not the finals. And what about freak accidents and injuries? By allowing a vote, we get the opportunity to correct for mistakes.

But there is actually a more pressing issue that needs immediate attention: true neutral fields, conditions, and officials. When selecting match-ups, homefield advantage must be eliminated. I love the tradition of the Rose Bowl, but I am now sick of watching the Pac-10 play in their home conference/time zone, while the Big Ten has to fly out to sunny CA for conditions that they haven't seen since September, if then. How would USC have faired at the Big House or Ford Field? Would we be talking today about USC's speed and penetration? NO! We would be talking about how the Michigan defense confused and swarmed USC for 60 minutes. And a true neutral site? Who knows because it doesn't happen.

Here is the truth: Bowls disproportionately favor the SEC and Pac-10 conferences first, and Big 12 next. The ACC, Big East next, and lastly Big Ten.

Here is one solution: make every conference move. Pac-10 can't play in a bowl on the west coast, and the SEC can't play on the East.

Second solution: Move more bowl games to the midwest and/or northeast.

Until something is done, the Big Ten will continue to be handicapped by the conditions.