Sports Stupidities

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Moonbats Right and Left: Duke and Rutgers

April 2007: the world breathes a sigh of relief. The stories about Anna Nicole's death and paternity of her baby were getting stale. Anyway, DNA will settle paternity, whereas back in the good old days people could speculate forever. If it kept up like this, soon there would be nothing in the news except real issues, and who wants that?

Fortunately, radio shock jock Don Imus created a huge flap by using a racial slur against the Rutgers women's basketball team. Then a few days later, the rape charges against three Duke University lacrosse players were dropped after a year of nonstop controversy.

I may be the only person left on the planet who has doubts about the Duke case. Right from Day One, the right-wing fruit bats were all over the case, calling it politically motivated persecution. Three white athletes accused of assaulting a black exotic dancer at a party. Could it be a politically motivated crusade by an corrupt, ambitious but inept DA playing the race card? Certainly. Could the dismissal have been the result of a politically motivated full court press by right wingers anxious to spring three privileged white kids on the pretext "boys will be boys?" Just as certainly. Only four people know for sure. The right wingers were constantly asking whether there would be the same kind of prosecutorial zeal if the victim had been white and the alleged attackers black. Fair question. Here's another fair question. Would the right wingers have been as vociferous about innocence if the victim had been white and the alleged attackers black?

Two undoubted acts of justice came out of this mess. First, the coach was fired. Well, he resigned, but we all know the drill. Second, the Duke team forfeited the rest of its season.

Why is this justice? Well, why do we have sports on college campuses at all? There is no skill whatsoever in any sport that belongs in a university curriculum. Basketball, football, and lacrosse are no more college studies than hairdressing, typing, or auto body repair. There is nothing at all wrong with any of those trades, but we teach them in tech schools, and sports skills are tech school skills, not college skills.

The only reasons we have sports in colleges are, first, the money, and second, the money, and somewhere down the list, some romantic notion that we are carrying on the heritage of the ancient Greeks, by way of Baden-Powell and Cecil Rhodes, by pretending to meld athleticism with intellectualism to create a well-balanced whole person. (Of course, if any university really believed this, they'd take the football budget spent on a handful of people and use it to let their student body spend a summer hiking the Appalachian Trail, say.) Traditionally sports on campus have been justified in terms of cultivating sportsmanship, teamwork, leadership, and a spirit of excellence. So if we're going to use values to justify college sports, let's insist that college sports deliver those values. The only justification for a college sports program is that it demonstrates exemplary conduct. Not just minimally acceptable ability to wear shoes and use the toilet, or non-criminal, but exemplary. Whatever happened at that party, everyone knows that it was a drunken sex party. Many of the other "innocent" players were there, as well (and created problems for their teammates by stonewalling investigators, by the way). If sports are about values, you don't host or tolerate drunken sex parties, turn a blind eye to substance abuse, get criminal charges reduced, or hook your athletes up with hookers. Duke let it happen, and Duke, unlike far too many other sports programs, paid the just price.

I wouldn't have used the epithet Imus used. I will say that the team he ridiculed will proudly graduate from Rutgers proficient in bouncing a rubber ball. They will probably graduate with other skills as well, since it's much less possible for female athletes to blow off college in the hopes of going into pro sports. But any way you cut it, they're spending thousands of hours honing skills that ultimately mean nothing. When you have to decide whether or not you need to buy flood insurance for your house or whether that investment opportunity is legitimate, how is being able to make a three point shot going to help you?

The old fuddy-duddies in Chariots of Fire who disdained Harold Abrahams for using a professional trainer had it right. Sports in moderation as part of a well balanced life are healthy. Sports as the focus of life are a perversion. Contrast the words of Harold Abrahams, who viewed sports as his ticket to social approval, with the description of Eric Liddell, the devout Christian who also happened to be a superb runner. Abrahams described a race as "ten lonely seconds to justify my whole existence." Wow. Lose and your whole life is meaningless. On the other hand, one character said of Liddell, "His speed is a mere extension of his life, its force."

The best thing to come out of the Imus mess is the number of responsible black writers like Jason Whitlock who are speaking out about the far worse language routinely used by black entertainers. In a piece in the Kansas City Star on April 11, 2007, he wrote

[Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton] don’t have the heart to mount a legitimate campaign against the real black-folk killas. It is us. At this time, we are our own worst enemies. We have allowed our youths to buy into a culture (hip hop) that has been perverted, corrupted and overtaken by prison culture. The music, attitude and behavior expressed in this culture is anti-black, anti-education, demeaning, self-destructive, pro-drug dealing and violent.

An Inconvenient Truth

Courtesy of Jack Shafer at Slate, May 23, 2007.

Al Gore and Thomas L. Friedman have co-discovered what ails our country. It's national inattention to the most important issues.

Gore blamed the obsession with celebrity culture for the republic's poor condition earlier this week on Good Morning America.

In condemning Britney-obsessed reporters and readers, Gore takes the easy route. If he possessed any real courage in his conviction that news coverage of the frivolous blocks the discussion of serious "issues," he'd attack sports coverage. Sports capture a billion times the attention that celebrities do and probably swallow 20 percent of the news budget of dailies. The reason Gore gives sports coverage a bye while castigating Britney coverage is simple: Sports fans talk back—loudly—and folks who crave entertainment-news coverage are too embarrassed to defend their innocent diversion.

"Running Up The Score"

This is my candidate for the most stupid expression in sports.

Some years ago, the Green Bay Packers lost to the Dallas Cowboys, and all 21 Dallas points were field goals, setting a new NFL record for field goals by a kicker in a single game. Afterward, some of the Packers complained that Dallas "ran up the score" to help their kicker get his record.

Guess what? If you're the offensive team, it is your job to run up the score. And if you're the defense, it is your job to stop it from happening. Granted, I wouldn't keep Brett Favre on the field to increase a 49-0 lead with five minutes to play (although after he became a parody of himself, I would). But if the other team was caving in, I wouldn't slow down, either. It was Green Bay's job to keep Dallas out of field goal range, and they failed. Seven times.

If you are hopelessly behind and don't want to risk star players getting hurt, put in second and third stringers. Or stand aside and let the other guys score. Or leave the field and forfeit. But don't expect the winning team to slack off in a chivalrous effort not to make you look as bad as you are.

Bad Calls

In the infamous 1972 Olympic basketball finals between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the U.S. team was ahead by one point when the final buzzer sounded. They left the court, but the timekeeper ruled there were still a few seconds on the clock. Play was resumed with the U.S. team hopelessly disorganized and disoriented. The Soviets put the ball in play, scored, and won the game, to the outrage of American fans.

I saw that game on TV. The U.S. team played like they were already counting their endorsement money. They played like they were up against a junior college team instead of a system that, for ideological reasons, took sports with deadly seriousness.

In the first America's Cup race, Queen Victoria was watching at the finish line when, to everyone's dismay, the America came into view. She asked one of her aides who was second, and he answered "There is no second." It is any team's job to blow the opposition so far out of the game that no imaginable bad luck can affect the outcome. If the 1972 U.S. team had played like U.S. basketball teams traditionally had played, they'd have been ahead by so much they could have been showering in the locker room when the Soviets went back on the court and still won.

To this day, the 1972 team has refused to collect its silver medals. So they have what they deserve. Nothing.

"He Cost Us the Series"

In the eighth inning of game six of the 2003 National League Championship Series, the Chicago Cubs were leading the Florida Marlins 3-0. A foul ball that would have been an easy out was deflected into the stands by a fan. The Marlins scored eight runs that inning, won the game, then went on to win the deciding seventh game, depriving the Cubs of the chance to go to the World Series for the first time in 58 years. The fan, of course, has been vilified far and wide for costing the Cubs the series. A Cubs fan bought the baseball and ceremonially destroyed it.

Say what?

This isn't a long fly ball in the ninth inning that could be the winning out, but scores the winning run when a fan snatches it from the outfielder. This is a team that blew a solid lead and went into total meltdown, wasted a long chain of opportunities to correct, and blamed the failure on an incident that had absolutely no bearing on the game. If the popup had a hair more forward velocity and went into the stands of its own accord, what would the Cubs and their fans offer as an excuse?

Dignity in the Olympics

When two U.S. runners finished 1-2 in an Athens 2004 race and grinned to each other at the finish line, with one possibly yielding to the other, commentators went ballistic. "This is the Olympics," they screamed. "Show some respect."

This is a joke, right? Olympic judges make drug dealers, hookers and kiddie porn producers look respectable in comparison, and in 2004 they set a mark for bias and incompetence remarkable even for them. And two runners who mug to each other at the finish line are going to tarnish the Olympics?

Poor Ron Artest

The incident where basketball player Ron Artest went into the stands after a boorish fan and was suspended for the rest of the season would normally be a simple case of poetic justice. A jerk of a fan gets punched out and an overpaid hooligan gets suspended. Not worth putting on this page.

The actual Sports Stupidity is a November 28, 2004 commentary written by Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post. She points out that Artest may get over $5 million a year, but the Feds take 39 per cent of that, the state another 8, and his agent and manager 10 to 15 each. We won't dwell on the fact that the agent and manager are deductible business expenses, and if the agent and manager aren't finding ways to shelter the rest they're not doing their jobs. That leaves Artest with maybe 30 per cent of his gross income, or $1.5 million. Then there's his CD.

Artest supports not only his immediate family, but six siblings and 13 cousins, whom he is putting through private school. He's supporting perhaps 25 people. Give him his due. Lots of people with more money (watch any episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous) aren't doing as much. $1.5 million divided by 25 is $60,000. He's supporting 25 family members on a paltry $60,000 per year. Each. After taxes. Everyone who has tried to support an entire family on less than $60,000 a year, before taxes, break out your violins.

Why do I get the distinct impression Jenkins wouldn't care nearly so much about the tax bite if this were the owner of a business that merely employed two or three hundred people? Why do I suspect that she wouldn't sympathize with the financial burdens of suburbanites trying to put their kids through private schools?

But the real victims are the people Artest is trying to "help." He sends talented kids to basketball camp, where some of them go on to athletic scholarships and maybe even the pros. Let's assume Artest does all the responsible things: he pounds away on the long odds against a pro career, insists his kids keep up their studies and stresses the importance of getting a sound college degree so his protégées will have something to fall back on in case they don't make the pros, or an injury cuts their career short. That still leaves tens of thousands of inner city kids who spend their most productive years practicing a fundamentally useless activity.

Because face it; Artest's skills, stripping away the hype, amount to bouncing a rubber ball. He can bounce it in ways that most people cannot, but his skills have absolutely no application to anything else. Inner city kids who waste their school years on the basketball court, and who sneer at academics because they dream of making it big in the pros, are the losers.

One Writer Gets It

That would be Mark Hasiuk of the Vancouver Courier, whose article "NBA: a ghetto gutter run by money grubbers" was published on Friday, December 19, 2008.

The NBA is America at its worst.

The once proud league, which peaked 20 years ago during the Bird/Magic/Jordan era, has morphed into a reality TV show, where money and image trump teamwork and athletic achievement. Players like Allen Iverson--perhaps the greatest basketball talent of his generation--spend more energy producing sneaker commercials than winning basketball games. NBA players wear saggy shorts, roll in posses and cuss on camera. Television ratings have dropped steadily since 1996. Basketball icons such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the late Red Auerbach have denounced today's players, calling them "thugs" and "bums."
How'd this happen? Who's to blame?

Basketball traditionalists (older white guys) blame the overwhelming influence of hip hop culture in the NBA. But they're wrong. Hip hop, a cultural movement spawned in 1970s New York, has been dead for years. It sold its soul to corporate sleaze merchants, who repackage black music for a white suburban consumer base.

Nope, the remnants of hip hop--flamboyant chauvinism, jailhouse lingo, black ink tattoos--didn't kill the NBA. It was New York lawyers like [NBA commissioner] Stern, who cashed in on the athletic ability of young black men while ignoring the social realities of basketball in America.

According to a New York Times report, more than 70 per cent of black American children are born out of wedlock. Most NBA players hail from poor neighbourhoods--and despite token college careers--graduate from broken public school systems. They are often ill-equipped to handle multi-million-dollar contracts, or the expectations of a community desperate for positive male role models. To be fair, the NBA, like other professional sports leagues, is a business. And it's not responsible for the endemic problems of black America. But considering basketball's influence on black popular culture, the NBA has a responsibility to produce a "positive" product, not the ghetto garbage we see today. 

Just By Way of Additional Evidence

I give you "Athletes With Illegitimate Kids: Expanded And Updated 2009 Edition" at FanIQ, January 5, 2008. While there are representatives from all sports, two in particular predominate. Suffice it to say that the phrase "bouncing baby" is appropriate.

The Second Stupidest Rule in Sports

False start in football. Nothing else even comes close, except maybe the balk in baseball.

In both cases, a player is penalized for making a move that misleads the opposing player. Before the false start rule, players would routinely try to draw opposing players into an offside penalty. If you did cross the line of scrimmage, there was no penalty as long as you didn't touch an opposing player and got back into position before the ball was snapped. The idea was to have enough discipline and concentration to stay put until the ball was actually snapped. Of course, players back then could be expected to be more disciplined because they were paid so much more. Right?

The Really Stupidest Rule in Sports

Actually, something does beat the false start and balk for stupidity. Those, after all, are occasional infractions, and you can go an entire game without committing a foul. One sport built its whole essence around a stupid rule.

It has to be dribbling in basketball. What other sport imposes an artificial burden on players because the sport would otherwise be trivial?

Adding to the ridiculousness is that players practically have to carry the ball to the airport and fly to another city to be called for "traveling." If they're good ticket draws, that is.

Let's make the Tour de France riders ride tricycles. With flat tires. In the snow. No, let's make the Boston Marathon runners hop on one foot. How about we make Olympic swimmers tie a bowling ball to their ankle? Grease the horizontal bar in gymnastics? Play the U.S. Open in a gravel pit? Replace baseballs with golf balls or marbles?

Every other sport allows players to do everything possible to maximize their performance. Often to absurd lengths. Tight clothes and graphite bike frames, carbing up and drinking power drinks while running, playing golf on carefully manicured surfaces. If you're really all that good, why shouldn't you be able to use a Wal-Mart bike and street clothes for racing or be able to play golf in a gravel pit?

But only basketball imposes a totally artificial impediment for the sole purpose of making the sport more difficult. Because otherwise it's indoor rugby.

Needs and Wants

Every year around Thanksgiving we hear it: "We need a college football playoff system." Need. Those of us who speak English as our first language find this a novel use of the word "need." We're used to thinking of "need" as meaning "to feel an acute lack of something vital or essential," as in:

Putting a college football playoff system on the same plane as any of those needs is just plain sick. Can there possibly be a more useless piece of information than which college team is the best? None of the teams will have the same players next year; none of the teams will have any of their current players four years from now. And if we could somehow figure out which team is best in September, they may not be by November.

Without looking in a reference, tell me which college team was Number One in, oh, 1984. Then tell me any practical application of that information. You think college courses like Etruscan Poetry or Taxonomy of Bats are useless? They're practicality itself compared to knowing which college team is Number One. What person with the tiniest semblance of a life cares about which college team is Number One?

But if you absolutely must have one, here it is. Double elimination. One loss is a bad day. Two losses and your season is over. Best of all, we could do this concurrently with the current system, and apply it to any past season. Games against already eliminated teams don't count for anything, except if you lose. Last team standing with less than two losses is number one - in the event of a tie, total games won and total winning margin against eligible teams is the tiebreaker. Here's an even better suggestion: if no team finishes with less than two losses, there is no Number One team that year. If we can have years when Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes aren't awarded, what's so special about football?

The Greatest Moment in Sports History

November 17, 1968. The Oakland Raiders and New York Jets fought a seesaw battle all afternoon, and with 65 seconds left to go, NBC cut away from the game to the movie Heidi. In that time, Oakland scored two touchdowns to win the game. Needless to say, football fans were furious.

Ironically, the network had already decided to delay the start of Heidi, but the flood of calls from football fans wondering if the game would be allowed to finish, and the flood from Heidi fans wondering if their show would start on time, totally locked up the phone system and prevented the word getting to the technician in charge. (The network explained that the technician did the right thing; the sponsor for Heidi had bought the time and if the technician had decided on his own to wait for the end of the game, he would have lost his job.)

On behalf of everyone who has ever had a favorite program delayed or pre-empted by a sporting event, I call this the greatest moment of poetic justice in history. For once, sports fans found out what it feels like.

Of course, they never will again. After this incident the networks decided they would never again cut a game short. So all you have to do now when you tune in to a delayed program is try to figure out how much the delay is.

Or will they? On  June 13, 2004, three golfers at the 2004 Buick Classic were in their second sudden-death overtime hole when the networks cut away to America's Funniest Home Videos. Ya gotta love it, a golf tournament being pre-empted by one of the few things to rival it for inanity.

And Now For Something Intelligent

Christopher Hitchens, well known militant atheist, may or may not be right about God, but he's dead on about a false God. Writing in Newsweek (February 5, 2010) he notes that other nations have complained that Canada has not permitted any athletes but its own to practice on the Olympic ski slopes. American Ron Rossi complained "I think it shows a lack of sportsmanship." Hitchens comments:

On the contrary, Mr. Rossi, what we are seeing is the very essence of sportsmanship. Whether it's the exacerbation of national rivalries that you want ”as in Africa this year” or the exhibition of the most depressing traits of the human personality (guns in locker rooms, golf clubs wielded in the home, dogs maimed and tortured at stars' homes to make them fight, dope and steroids everywhere), you need only look to the wide world of sports for the most rank and vivid examples.

Moving on, he observes:

Noticed how the sign of a bad high school getting toward its Columbine moment is that the jocks are in the saddle?

Lance Armstrong and Cheating

Lance Armstrong has been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles for using performance-enhancing substances. His titles will be given to the highest cyclist who was clean. That will probably end up being some French grandmother who was cycling home from the grocery store when the pack went by.

There are several reasons I despise cycling as a sport. Foremost is that the cycling organizations refuse to allow anything but Victorian-era designs to compete and thereby impede the development of really efficient and ergonomic bicycle designs. We need alternatives to automobiles and pretending it's still 1890 doesn't help.

Then there's just plain arrogance. An Australian driver, frustrated at Beijing-bound cyclists hogging the road, passed them, then slammed on his brakes, causing a fair amount of damage. If I'd been President, I'd have ordered the embassy to identify every American involved, yank their passports and send them home. No Olympics for you. Traffic laws stipulate that cyclists ride single file. Even if you're training for the Olympics. If you really must ride flat out, I bet there are some empty roads around Alice Springs that will do nicely.

But steroids are inconsequential. Rampant cheating in cycling began when cyclists wore anything but street clothes, rode anything but unaltered production bikes and trained by doing anything but cycling to and from their real, non-cycling jobs. The old codgers in Chariots of Fire who criticized Harold Abrahamson for hiring a personal trainer recognized a deep truth. It wasn't just unseemly, it was cheating.


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Created 19 May, 2004,  Last Update 04 September, 2012

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