Sunday, December 28, 2008

What I Learned from Grouchy Smurf

Over the last couple weeks, I have heard many repetitions of the phrases "I hate winter" and "I hate snow." Recently, while conducting my regular shoveling routine, I had occasion to consider these utterances. My thoughts drifted to one of the icons of my childhood: Grouchy Smurf. I'm sure that if the Smurfs showed up on my snowed-in doorstep, I could effortlessly convince the majority of them to do my shoveling for me (though it probably wouldn't be worth the trade-off to have to listen to the accompanying singing). Yet, good ol' Grouchy would no doubt tell me exactly what he thinks about shoveling. From Wikipedia: "His catchphrase is 'I hate (something somebody else mentions)'".

I suppose the influence Grouchy has had on my life is a good argument for restricting media influence on children. I want to say that I was seven or eight when I went through my Grouchy phase. I fell in love with hate. Or, to be more precise, with the word "hate." If my mom informed me that it was time to take a bath, I would gleefully reply that "I hate baths." Unfortunately, each time I uttered the word I would receive a recrimination. I protested that Grouchy Smurf used the word too, but I sadly overestimated the cachet Grouchy held with my parents. Having no other defense at my disposal, I allowed my will to be eroded, and the "h-word" was dropped from my vocabulary.

But it was not entirely eradicated. It went through a period of latency, before emerging over a decade later, when I was a college student. I can clearly recall the exact moment of the re-awakening. I was on the way to a concert with a group of friends. Lyrics were being discussed, and one person commented on a line that he "loved." Without skipping a beat, another person murmured "I hate that line." I suppose the influence this moment had on my life is a good argument for restricting avenues of peer pressure on teen-agers. The word "hate" returned to my vocabulary with a vengeance. Yet rather than employ it as it is traditionally used, I embraced an ironic tweak. I followed the true spirit of Grouchy's intent--I used it to get on people's nerves. For example, if somebody mentioned an affinity for the movie Event Horizon, I would invariably say "I hate Event Horizon" (even though I had never seen the film). Eventually I got to the point where I amused myself by expressing loathing for everyday objects one would usually find hardly worth the effort of despising ("I hate napkins").

However, though I was free of the tyranny of my parents censorship, I curiously found myself once again facing recriminations for my use of this word. People who wouldn't blink at all manners of profanities and vulgarities would bristle at my casual use of the word. More than one told me that "hate is a strong word." I came to the realization that for many people, the word "hate," even devoid of context, is assumed to have some kind of power, and to use the word without a full appreciation of the power is to commit an offense.

I think this goes back to the primitive notion that words themselves can have incantatory powers. It's possible, then, that those who chided me for employing the word subconsciously feared that I was carelessly invoking a curse. While this might seem on the surface to be a terribly fearful outlook on life, it actually strikes me as more comforting than the alternative. If we can conjure up power by simply uttering a few syllables, that's one thing. But what if we can't? What if, in order to actually accomplish something of note, to move somebody to feel a certain way, to persuade, to arouse, to inspire, mere incantations aren't enough? What if we need to establish a context for our words, and then painstakingly parse our words, fuse our words, re-work our words, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate our words, and then finally hold them up for public consumption without the certainty that they contain any magic whatsoever?

I suppose it would be easier to shovel. And I hate that.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A College Play-off Idea That Should Make Everyone Happy

With the college football bowl season underway, I am detecting less venom than usual towards the BCS system. Perhaps people have grown weary of complaining about the same thing every year, perhaps they feel that this year's championship game is a reasonably fair match-up, or perhaps this year people are confronted with other, more pressing concerns. But it was about one year ago that I wrote that most sports leagues don't need a play-off to determine the best team, while pointing out that ironically the one association that needs a play-off is the one that doesn't have one. I don't think this has changed in the last year. But since we are no closer than we were a year ago toward reforming college football's postseason, I suppose I will do my part and present a proposal for a resolution that I think should make most people happy.

Before I articulate my proposal, let me first list what I understand to be key arguments against a play-off in college football:
1) There is no guarantee a play-off would be any more fair in its selection methods than the current system
2) There is a strong tradition inherent in the Bowl System (and the elimination of bowls would result in an economic impact on both schools and cities)
3) There a desire not to prolong the college football season
4) A play-off would diminish the importance of the regular system

I think all of these concerns can be met with an eight-team "Tournament of Champions" that would commence on New Year's Day. The eight teams would consist of the champions of the six major conferences, the conference champion of an additional conference (this year, Utah would be the obvious choice), and the highest ranking non-conference champion (which would allow this year's #3 team, Texas, to get into the field). These teams would compete in the four major BCS bowls around New Year's (personally, I'd love to see a quadruple-header, but I suppose it is possible to spread it out over two days). The Final Four would take place the week after New Year's (instead of the BCS championship), and the national championship game would be played around January 15. Here is how I think anti-play-off arguments are addressed:

1) There is no subjectivity in picking conference champions, so no team can say that they have been unfairly excluded from the championship picture. Furthermore, the system is a lot more inclusive than the BCS, as a school from a non-power conference has a legitimate shot at a national title.
2) All of the non-BCS bowls would not lose anything, and might actually benefit, as some prestigious conference runner-ups may fall out of the top tier of bowls.
3) There is a slight extension of the season for a limited number of teams, but it is likely that all participating schools would end the season before the beginning of their second semester of classes.
4) Because each conference is guaranteed only one spot in the play-off, competition for that spot would be so fierce that the regular season would continue to be very meaningful

And the advantages of this proposal are obvious: fans would be treated to a thrilling tournament, teams would have a chance to compete for a legitimate championship, and colleges, networks, and host bowls would reap a financial windfall.

But this probably makes too much sense to ever happen.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

How ESPN can Change the World

I had never heard of Mel Proctor before this evening, but apparently the veteran sports broadcaster is accomplished enough to have his own Wikipedia page (upon which I detect a note of sarcasm in the statement that he is "known for reading stats out of the media guide"). He is now calling college basketball games for the Big Ten Network, and therefore had occasion to broadcast the Wisconsin/UW-Green Bay game. His lack of familiarity with the Big Ten in general and the state of Wisconsin in particular was evident by his tendency to emphasize the wrong word in "Green Bay," as well as his identification of the Badgers home venue as the "Kohl Arena." He also made an odd reference to the Badgers "girls team" (rather than the standard "women's team"). But the most unsettling comment of the broadcast came when he gave a litany of concerns that Badgers coach Bo Ryan apparently had about the game, among those that with finals starting tomorrow (sic), the players' focus would be on "more than just the game at hand."

The idea that a college athlete's academic load could interfere with their ability to do their "real job" is one that is usually not articulated that blatantly, though the belief that a college athlete's primary allegiance is to their team rather than their academic courses is probably an unexamined assumption made by many sports fans. The only context that fans see the athletes in is the glamorous arena of competition, and though there is a vague awareness that they have a less-glamorous "day job," it really doesn't register that these nationally scrutinized young people sit in classes, take notes, listen to lectures, take tests, and write papers.

But is this unawareness in any way harmful? I believe it is because it promotes a culture that filters down to the student-athletes themselves, as they come to regard their athletic affiliation as their central identity and their student status a marginal one. The extent to which this is occurring in college sports today was revealed by a recent USA Today analysis of declared majors of college athletes. What they found was that at many institutions, athletes tended to "cluster" around a major, in highly disproportionate numbers to their institutions' general student bodies. For example, about half of all football and basketball players at Boise State are communications majors. Well over half of football players at Southern Cal are sociology majors. All seven upperclassmen on the UTEP basketball team major in "multidisciplinary studies." The obvious implication is that these players are taking on classes that will allow them to get high grades with minimal effort in order to allow them to focus on sports.

Is this a problem? Perhaps not for the elite athlete who will go on to a pro career. But the vast majority of college athletes won't be able to actually make a living playing their sport. USA Today profiled a few who felt like they wasted their free college education, some of whom have returned to school on their own dime in order to get a degree that will actually advance a career.

So what can be done about this? Any talk about how to solve problems relating to the balance between the demands of athletics and academics usually starts and ends at the institutional level. Colleges are given directives and initiatives, time passes, and new directives and initiatives are given. What needs to happen in order to break this endless cycle and actually implement change is for other institutions to step up and contribute. Specifically, I think the media should play a role in putting the focus back on the classroom.

Now, I'm not advocating making players grade point averages as public as their scoring averages or rushing averages, but I think that a player's declared major, which are already public, should be emphasized more. When starting lineups are introduced, in addition to height and hometown, majors should be mentioned. When players' stats are displayed, their major should always be included. This helps send the message that academics are an important part of a student-athlete's identity.

Furthermore, whenever a player is interviewed by a TV network or is the focus of a print media profile, there should be an obligatory question about school. And lest anyone suggest that it would make for boring television, I would actually point out that player interviews as presently conducted are almost always boring television. Having a player explain the focus of an essay they are writing or a research project they are doing would be a welcome change from the cliched questions and answers viewers are usually "treated" to.

By making the promotion of academics even a small point of emphasis, the sports media has the ability to do a lot of good. By changing public perception about what it means to be a college athlete, media outlets can also nudge the public at large into a greater appreciation of the importance of learning and education. However, there needs to be a re-examination of the attitudes of media members themselves. I've long detected a latent (sometimes blatant) anti-intellectualism in sports journalism. From the dismissal of Dennis Miller from the Monday Night Football broadcast booth to ESPN radio's "Mike and Mike" cutting the microphone of a producer who referenced Machiavelli, there seems to be a resistance to allowing too much erudition into discussions about games that involve sticks and balls.

There has long been a mind/body dichotomy in our culture, with the respective archetypes of the uncoordinated bookworm and the dumb jock. I think it is time that this binary is shattered, and we return to a Greek or Renaissance-era paradigm, in which it is considered possible to excel in mind and body.

And maybe then the Big Ten Network will have a better pool of broadcasters to choose from.

Saturday, December 06, 2008


Recently, DC Comics published a story called "Batman R.I.P.," which apparently results in the end of the Caped Crusader, or at the very least results in somebody besides Bruce Wayne assuming the Batman identity (though it should be noted that the final outcome of the story is left intentionally ambiguous in order to force readers to buy more comic books).

Regardless of how successful or unsuccessful this story ultimately proves in convincing readers that Bruce Wayne's cape and spandex-wearing days is at an end, it's very title did succeed in convincing me that another cultural institution should be ended. I'm speaking of the practice of using the term "RIP."

Given the ubiquity of the phrase, it is somewhat surprising that its Wikipedia entry is only two paragraphs (and even those two paragraphs are uncited). Still, I did learn some interesting facts from the page, sparse though it may be. First, I was surprised to see that the term doesn't even originate in the English language, but was adopted from Latin requiscat in pace. It makes me wonder if the phrase would even exist in our culture had the first letters of the phrase not correlated with the first letters of the English translation.

But the most enlightening point for me was the connection between the phrase and a once-dominant theology of a bygone era. I wondered why "RIP" would exist on engravings of tombstones in centuries past, given the belief that after death, the soul would pass on to the next realm. What then would be the point of wishing a peaceful rest? I wondered if it had to do with a fear of grave robbers, or the fear that somebody could potentially be buried alive. But actually, I now know it has to do with the theological concept of "soul sleep," the idea that the soul is actually asleep prior to Judgement Day. However, though this concept was popular in centuries past, it has now been disregarded even by denominations that previously adhered to it. This would certainly explain why the only tombstones inscribed with this phrase in contemporary times (to the best of my knowledge) are Halloween props.

The truly amazing thing about the phrase is that, aside from just a few religious sects, it is meaningless to people of almost all worldviews. If you believe that immediately after death the soul goes to an eternal punishment or eternal reward, it is absurd to wish the deceased a peaceful rest. If you believe that death is the end of existence, it is still absurd to wish the deceased a peaceful rest If you believe in reincarnation, it is beyond absurd to wish the deceased a peaceful rest.

So the irony here is that we have an anachronistic phrase that still enjoys a place of prominence in contemporary society. Why would this be? Obviously, it serves some sort of function, even if it is completely different than its original function. Often, when we are confronted with loss and grief, eloquence isn't practical. Words fail us. We latch onto existent words and phrases, in the hope that in some small way they can express how we are feeling. So when we say "RIP" we don't mean "rest in peace," we mean "I will miss you," "I am sad that you are gone," or "You will be missed." So actually, by virtue of its very meaninglessness, it allows us express whatever meaning we want it to. Furthermore, in a society that is increasingly pluralistic in attitudes and beliefs about the afterlife, the vagueness of the term helps it to persist. Precisely because it is equally absurd for almost everybody, it favors no particular ontology.

However, I still can't help but be annoyed by the imprecision of the phrase. I want my utterances to be literally reflective of my actual beliefs, and I'm sure that most people would actually say the same. So can we conceive of a phrase which can substitute for RIP? Can we find a phrase that will still serve as a shorthand for deeper feelings, a phrase that can be versatile enough to mean multiple things, perhaps to people of varying belief systems?

Actually, I think we can. I can't do it in three letters, but I've got a four-letter substitute: GBFN. It can actually stand for a couple of things: "Gone, But Forgotten Never," or "Good-Bye For Now."

Still, I must admit that even this phrase isn't applicable in all situations. I wouldn't apply it to the death of a comic book character.