Saturday, February 28, 2009

Free Advice for A-Rod

Okay, I know I'm a little late weighing in on the A-Rod story, but it took a couple of weeks for inspiration to strike. I believe I have the absolute solution to solving his public relations problems, and if he doesn't take my suggestion, I think it is advice from which any active elite athlete could stand to benefit (sorry Barry, it's too late for you).

The problem confronting Alex Rodriguez is that he is now defined by his use of performance-enhancing drugs. His identity is now inextricably linked to this scandal. And simply put, nothing he does on the field will overshadow this. Even if he were to somehow break Barry Bonds' single season home run record it would probably arouse suspicion that he is back on the juice. And he would likewise be better off not breaking the all-time record, either, as that would again result in more negative publicity than positive. And if he tries to take solace in team achievements, well, he's the highest paid player on the highest paid team in baseball, and winning World Series is what he is supposed to do.

The way it stands now, when people play word association with "Alex Rodriguez," the answer is "steroids," and there is nothing he can do with a bat in his hand to change that. So in order to redefine himself, he needs to do something off the field, something so big that it would make everyone forget his sordid past. Now, if all he cared about was getting people to forget the steroids, his task would actually be pretty easy. All he would have to do is walk to home plate during a game buck naked, or send Madonna out to field his position wearing his jersey, or practice self-immolation in front of the Babe Ruth monument. But I get the impression that A-Rod not only wants us to forget the steroid use, he also wants to be liked (and to continue living). So this makes his task of making an off-the-field splash a little tougher.

If he could solve the economic crisis, Middle East unrest, or global warming, it would probably be sufficient to make people forget the steroids. But he thus far hasn't shown much in the way of messianic tendencies. He could put on a cape and go out fighting crime, but people would probably think he is back on the juice. More practically, he could work tirelessly for charities and donate large sums of money to good causes, but this would underwhelm the public. After all, he isn't making much of a sacrifice in donating even a few million. But wait a minute, at what point would a charitable contribution be enough to make people notice? At what point would the public, when playing "A-Rod word association," think "noble philanthropist" instead of "A-Roid"?

My answer--when he decides to give it all away. He is due about $238 million over the next nine years. Imagine if he were to come out and say, "You know what, I don't deserve to take another penny from this game. What I have done is inexcusable, and though I don't think this makes up for it, the only way I know to say that I am truly sorry will be to take the money that is due to me over the next nine years and donate it all through my foundation to people who truly need it. A significant amount of that will go toward the cause of preventing steroid abuse by young people. Meanwhile, I fully intend to continue to pursue my professional baseball career, but I will play for one reason only, my love of this great game."

Some would undoubtedly call this overly-romantic thinking. While I admit the unlikelihood of my scenario, I don't think it is romanticized. In fact, I think a cold cost/ benefit analysis would reveal this to be a good move. First, the guy already has made about $200 million playing baseball. Even after taxes, and yes, whatever divorce settlement he made, he already has enough to live a life of ease and luxury the rest of his mortal existence. Second, the public relations swoop would be fierce. Seconds after making the above announcement, Scott Boras's switchboard would be flooded with offers from Madison Avenue (and Hollywood). Hey, he never said anything about not accepting endorsement money. Third, he would solve his public relations problem. And last and least, he'd never have to worry about the temptation of trying to live up to his new contract.

But as I mentioned previously, this type of P.R. opportunity is not just open to A-Rod. Imagine if when LeBron James's contract is up after next year he says, "I care more about winning than about money. I'm willing to play for the minimum if the Cavs take the extra dough and sign D-Wade." Such a move would forever cement him in the court of public opinion as "The Most Competitive/Unselfish Athlete Ever." He is already called King James, but he truly would have a royal status in this country. And even if he had to give up a few bucks for that distinction (assuming he wouldn't turn a net profit after added endorsements are factored in), what is the value of such an honor worth?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, All in the Same Room

Speaking about his 1975 album Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan remarked that "you've got yesterday, today, and tomorrow all in the same room." In pursuing this approach to his art, Dylan was apparently inspired by a painting class he was taking under the tutelage of one Norman Raeben. But musicians and painters are certainly not the only artists who have attempted to blur the lines of chronology. At least since Homer started the Iliad with "Sing goddess the rage of Achilles," storytellers have been experimenting with narrative-within-narrative, and now it seems that about every other movie or television show presents the order of events in some kind of non-sequential pattern.

Still, I think that historically the attempt to subvert chronology has largely been restricted to art. Media has allowed us to perceive fictional worlds in which "yesterday, today, and tomorrow" are all in the same room, but no media has really allowed us to experience such a blending and blurring in our own world. But I think we are now in position to allow this historic desire to manifest itself, to advance from theory to practice, and that is because we now have the mediums in place to facilitate such a wish.

I attribute the success of Facebook in moving from beyond college dorms to an "adult" phenomenon to a lot more than a desire for grown-ups to be hip. The ability to compile a list of "friends" representative of one's entire lifespan, to simultaneously renew acquaintances from the distant past and to foster current acquaintanceships, is an example of allowing yesterday and today to exist in the same room (or on the same "wall" if you will), while there is also enabled a potential for social possibilities in an as-yet-untold tomorrow. And Facebook dutifully and conveniently records an archive of communications between "friends," so that even as threads are abandoned, they lie dormant with the potential for re-awakening (see last week's post regarding the de-privileging of the present over the past).

I use Facebook to illustrate the phenomena I'm observing, but really it is the Web in general, with an increasing proliferation of archival content, that is serving to annihilate the privilege of the present. Perhaps the most fascinating tangible example of this is the case last fall of the United Airlines stock panic caused by the rise to prominence of a six-year-old newspaper article. Though this is an anomalous incident, it serves to advance the paradox that even as we are undergoing a technological paradigm shift, "yesterday" has been afforded a greater status than perhaps ever before.

So now that New Media has enabled and activated an apparent ancient desire to deconstruct time, what are the implications for Old Media? To understand how Old Media can adapt (and ultimately profit), I think we need look no further than the 1990s MTV show "Beavis and Butt-Head." The eponymous animated characters were, in hindsight, proto-Internet commentators. Today, rather than sit on their couch meta-watching MTV, they would be on-line, and instead of offering their uncultivated commentary on music videos to the ether, they would be encoding them for public consumption. But crucially, their commentary, vacuous as it ultimately may have been, was always contextualizing the music video beyond its original airing. It was compared and contrasted with other videos, it was remarked upon in relation to social phenomena, and especially if it wasn't a contemporary video, it was re-examined in the light of the a la mode.

What old media needs to do is to simply substitute some meritorious commentators for Beavis and Butt-Head and adjust for the respective platform. To give a couple examples of how this could work: ESPN Classic would continue to air old games, but with new announcers who would re-evaluate the original game in a modern context. The CBS Evening News would re-air a feature on the AIDS epidemic that originally ran in 1984, and a commentator would discuss how attitudes have changed since then, and how much or little progress has been made in the intervening years. A newspaper called USA Yesterday could be published, in which the entire contents of old USA Todays would be reprinted along with a re-contextualization.

It may seem ironic that New Media has opened the door for Old Media to thrive, but it actually makes a lot of sense if indeed we have always wanted yesterday, today, and tomorrow to get along together under one roof. I guess I'll have to re-post this in a few years and explore the extent to which this comes true.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

On Human Communication: No More Privilege

Last week was a first for this blog, as I received a comment on a post a couple years after the fact (and how ironic the comment was on a post unironically titled "The Most Boring Post Ever." Of course, that was when this blog was young and I was more self-conscious about its entertainment value, something that anyone who reads this now is undoubtedly aware is hardly a consideration anymore). Anyway, I guess I should say that I think it was a first, as I never go back and read comments on old posts, and wouldn't have been aware of this occurrence had the commentator not alerted me to it in an additional comment appended to my most recent post. And though I could dismiss the entire incident as a trifling aberration, I actually find myself attaching great importance to it.

To be clear, any personal significance of this event is fleeting and nominal. I do not flatter myself into thinking that the words on this blog have any great potency to consistently exert influence across time. But the mere fact that on one occasion it did, portends to me no less than a new epoch of human communication. And though it might seem beyond trite at this point to speak of the revolutionary powers of technology, I hope it is worth the indulgence if I am specific about what I am seeing being revolutionized.

The somewhat infamous twentieth century philosopher Jacques Derrida argued that we think in binaries, and that we privilege one side of the binary over the other. He observed that in communicating with one another we privilege speech over text (that we tend to write to someone only because we cannot speak to them in person), that we privilege presence over absence (we are more likely to interact with those in front of us rather than those out of sight), and that we privilege the present over the past (we are more likely to respond to something that has just been uttered rather than a remark made ten years ago). And though this may have been the case from time immemorial up to and including Derrida's days, I think it is rather evident that these binaries are, if not deconstructing, at least cracking.

Though I have never engaged in the activity, it is my understanding that for many people, particularly the youngest among us, it is in no way considered aberrant to send a text message to someone in the same room as oneself, not as a substitute, but as an alternative to speaking verbally. And when the same device offers the option of contacting another either verbally or textually, the textual is increasingly winning out. So much then for the historic privileging of speech over text. And as any teacher has become all too aware in recent times, the same technology has allowed an absent person to supplant a present individual in one's attentions.

But what last week's comment helped me to consider was the possibilities with which the present might be losing its grip over the past. To be sure, one could always hold conversations with others over previous statements, and in particular, previous writings. A canon of ideas has remained in-tact for centuries, allowing generations to wrestle with and engage with the ideas of antiquity. But what is different now is that an off-hand utterance has a much greater potential to ignite after lying dormant for untold periods of time. And even more exciting, there is a greater potential for anyone to engage with the author of an utterance, since not only is the presence/absence binary dissolving, but the privilege of familiarity over unfamiliarity is compromised by technology (as we are now living in a world in which it is not uncommon to "friend" people we have never met). And in a paradox that Derrida would have enjoyed, even though the practice of digitally encoding an utterance offers an added permanence, it also makes our statements more ephemeral; just as easily as a statement can be preserved, it can be re-visited and modified on a whim.

So what does all this mean? I have no idea. Maybe in a few years I will come back and edit this post and make it appear that I could see the implications of these historic binaries shifting. But next week I will further explore the idea of the breakdown in the perceived relationship between past and present, and what potential could exist for the news media to adapt to a new set of perceptions.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

How Ned Yost and Axl Rose Fight Postmodernism

Minutes after the Milwaukee Brewers disappointing 2006 season came to an end, then-manager Ned Yost said the following: "It is what it is. Why it is, I don't know." From that moment until Yost's firing with weeks remaining in the 2008 season, he repeated this phrase or a variation often enough that fans began to notice. A few examples from late last year:

7-27-08: "Have you ever seen anybody try to turn a pig into a horse? It is what it is."

8-4-08: (speaking of Mike Cameron): "He saves us a ton of runs out there. It is what it is."

9-5-08: "I don't like it. I don't think anybody likes it, but it is what it is."

But Yost wasn't the only one in a Brewer uniform to use this phrase. In 2007 when Rickie Weeks was asked about losing his starting job he said, "It is what it is." (He would use the same phrase when discussing his wrist injury in spring training the next year). One year later, when Bill Hall was asked about losing his starting job he said, "It is what it is." When a bad scoring decision cost CC Sabathia a no-hitter in September of 2008, what was his response? You guessed it: "It is what it is."

If this were a phenomenon isolated in the sports world, I wouldn't think much of it. After all, just last week I wrote about the banality of journalist/athlete exchanges, and it is obvious that athletes are going to spout cliches when called upon to answer questions, and this particular cliche seems like a deft way to avoid making any definitive or self-incriminating statements (and therefore a safe answer when asked about a potentially inflammatory topic, a context most of the above quotations would fall under).

But that doesn't explain why Axl Rose would use the phrase. Good ol' Axl actually had a longer streak of not speaking to the media than not putting out an album. And though Dr. Pepper didn't give everyone a free soda, Axl finally broke the former streak this week, in a lengthy e-mail interview with He pulled no punches in a diatribe against his record company, and had no problem speaking on behalf of his bandmates: "I can say how the band feels, and that is that to a man they hate the record company other than Universal International with a passion...they don't go around [complaining] about things all the time and they don't let it get in the way of whatever they're supposed to do here, but it is what it is."

And about the same time Axl Rose was typing this into this computer, DC Comics was releasing Superman #684, in which a superhero named The Guardian assumes command of the Science Police (long story). In his speech to assembled law enforcement agents, the Guardian says "You don't have to like it. You don't have to like me. But this is what it is."

Three quite different contexts: verbal interviews with athletes, an e-mail of a rock star, and a scripted statement of a fictional character. But when I see any kind of confluence among my three areas of geekdom: sports, music, and comic books, I know something is up. This sent me to google, where I was somewhat disappointed to realize that I had not stumbled upon this phenomenon myself, that William Safire had analyzed it back in 2006. About a year ago, addressed the trend. What these two sources seem to agree upon is that the phrase is used as an abdication of responsibility, a way to avoid accountability.

I certainly don't disagree with this assessment, but I don't think that is all that this is. Since the practice of evasiveness is centuries old, why has this phrase only become prominent in the last decade? I would argue that this phrase increases in frequency in an inverse relationship to Sigmund Freud's influence on culture.

One of Freud's most famous quotations (whether he actually said it or not) is "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." But what made that phrase noteworthy is its contradiction to the general tenor of his work, that there is a hidden meaning in everyday actions and words. This thread was picked up a few decades later by French post structuralists, who argued that nothing just "is," that everything is connected in an infinite chain of "signifiers," that everything is "overdetermined," in short that one can never "read too much" into anything because there is always more meaning to be mined. But the flip side of this is that if something means everything, and has no one "real" meaning, it actually means nothing.

However, as that philosophy became dominant, it invited resistance, and today Freud is more likely to be venerated by English majors than Psych majors. And though I would doubt that the likes of Ned Yost and Axl Rose are making a concerted effort to drive more nails into Sigmund Freud's coffin, I see their phraseology as part of an unconscious cultural attempt to bury him. And if Freud were alive today, he'd probably appreciate the irony in this. And if he were asked to assess the situation in five words, I can only guess at what he might say.