Saturday, July 24, 2010

What War is Good For

If I'm not careful, I could use last week's post as the basis for an idea every week from now until the end of the Mayan calender. I'll allow myself one indulgence this week, and then move on.

The concept of a bracketed tournament is one of the all-time great gimmicks of the modern era. Though "tournaments" existed among knights during medieval times, my amateur research seems to reveal that this word meant something different back then, that though there was a competition, it wasn't the kind of "survivor advances to play another survivor" model that we think of when we hear the word "tournament." Even as late as 1890, the word meant something different than what it means today, or the organizers of a new event in Pasadena, California wouldn't have called their inaugural parade the "Tournament of Roses." I've read a fair amount of pre-20th Century literature, and though competition has always been one of the recreational mainstays of society, tournament competition doesn't seem to have been a methodology for crowning a champion. It seems that a "king of the hill" method was employed until relatively recently, the kind that is still employed in professional boxing. And it's worth noting that historically, organized sports leagues initially didn't have play-offs--this was a later invention (college football, of course, still follows the archaic format).

Now, of course, we are mad for play-offs and tournaments. Bracketology becomes a national pastime every March, but one doesn't need to be a sports fan to feel the pervasive influence of the tournament format (I would include the elimination formats of reality shows like Survivor or The Bachelor as fitting the definition, as well). Everyone grows up participating in sundry tournaments, and often we end up competing in them whether we want to or not (I think of events like a "marbles tournament" in my elementary school and a "foosball tournament" in my college dorm).

What does this mean? It means that conceptually, the idea of the tournament is still evolving. The natural next step is some kind of tournament that would encompass the entire population of a nation. Right now, most of our investment in tournaments is by proxy; we pick a person or team and follow them, or we predict how we think the tourney will progress. But how awesome would it be if we could all actually participate in one massive, all-encompassing tournament? Logistically, it would be difficult to do such a thing, but I argue that given our advances in technology and communication, I think it is finally possible. It wouldn't be easy to set up a bracket with over 300 million people, but someone somewhere could surely write the necessary algorithm.

The bigger, more practical obstacle is that it is hard to find the type of event that literally everyone can compete in. Most activities or games would tend to favor people of a particular demographic (usually a younger one). But I can think of one activity that would give no favor to any particular individual-- the card game "war". Other than the very infirm, infants, and the criminally insane, anyone can play "war."

Therefore, I propose a national "war" tournament, perhaps one every 10 years. Figuring the U.S. population at 300 million, the tournament could be contested in 28 rounds, meaning the entire event could take less time than an NBA season. I don't anticipate that people would have to travel all that far until the later rounds, but we could levy a one dollar tax on everyone to cover the travel expenses of those who go deep into the tourney. Once we do get down to the final 128 or 64, media attention would intensify, so perhaps there is a chance for corporate sponsorships. And think of the great narratives that could be told when a handful of people from among the population are essentially plucked at random and given the opportunity to achieve immortality. We would latch onto and rally around the individuals in the "War" tournament in a way that we never have before, not even for American Idol.

I haven't yet determined what would be a suitable prize for winning the tournament, but I'm thinking some combination of a suit of armor, the position of grand marshal of the Rose Parade, and control of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory would be the kind of stakes that would encourage complete participation of the entire populace. This just might be the kind of war that everyone can get behind.

Friday, July 16, 2010

On Gimmicks

More than 111 million Americans watched at least six minutes of the World Cup. Google wasn't as helpful in helping me determine how many Americans watched July 4th fireworks displays a couple weeks ago (without any advertising revenue at stake, I could see how Nielson would take a pass on trying to measure that number). But I would presume to venture that the number of fireworks-goers exceeds even World Cup viewers. At a certain point, ritual and tradition builds its own inertia, and even though patriotic fervor ebbs and flows, every year from time immemorial people have been trudging to mid-summer fireworks--and to time immemorial, one can predict that successive generations raised in widely diverse environments will all partake of this same July 4th ritual.

Yet every tradition starts somewhere, and even as the mere repetition of a ritual imbues it with a certain solemnity and venerability, we lose sight of the fact that the ritual itself is at root, a "gimmick." This word has a negative connotation (and in the case of the second listed definition at, a negative denotation), but I don't mean disrespect by using it. The World Cup is also a gimmick-- a multi-billion dollar, world-encompassing gimmick, but a gimmick nonetheless. The concept of having nations from across the globe send teams of guys who kick a ball around to a central location every four years to engage in competition for a literal cup is a (very cool) gimmick.

We love gimmicks. We pay money for gimmicks, we give our time and attention to events that are arbitrarily declared to be important... and we are often the better for it. The sense of community and collegiality that grows up around shared cultural events (to say nothing of the economic stimulus that such events can provide) often justifies our emotional, temporal, and fiduciary investments.

Most gimmicky events start up serendipitously and/or organically. They often start small and become big. But I'm wondering if we can't reverse the blueprint. I'm wondering if we don't have room on the calendar for a few more gimmicks, and if we can't institute them from the top down. Think of it as a high school "spirit week" for the whole country, perhaps.

For example, a tried and true promotion that baseball teams have long benefited from is the "Turn Back the Clock Night." Teams wear old uniforms, entertainment from a bygone era is offered, and prices are often rolled back. What if we blew that concept up to encompass the entire country? For example, the first Friday in August every year would be "National Turn Back the Clock Night," with a different decade featured on a rotating basis. Let's say that the first year would be '70s night. TV stations would play reruns of Happy Days and Charlie's Angles, radio stations would play Boston and The Bee Gees, bars and clubs would turn into discos, movie theaters would show Star Wars and The Godfather, people would be encouraged to dress in 1970s fashions, and ideally, businesses would offer promotions at 1970s prices. There would probably be a few killjoys who would mock the concept, but I think as a whole, the nation would embrace the gimmick. Like fireworks, it would have a unifying effect, drawing together people of diverse beliefs, classes, and cultures. Added benefits: it might even be educational for young people, and there just may be an economic advantage.

Of course, there is a saturation level, at which point there would be a public backlash against the gimmicks. We couldn't have a gimmick event every day or even every weekend. But not all of them would have to be grand in scale, either. Perhaps we could get some mileage of out something so simple as a federal declaration recognizing September 19 as "Talk Like a Pirate Day," with Barack Obama giving a short prime time address in pirate-speak.

And would it be pushing things too far to suggest that we appoint a new cabinet position: "The Secretary of Gimmicks"? If it ever does get to that point, I would hope this blog post would qualify me for bipartisan support.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Choice of the Chosen One

I didn't watch the LeBron special on ESPN Thursday night. I had planned to at least catch it on radio, but since I was on the radio myself at the time, I had to modify those plans. I was broadcasting a high school baseball game between the Spartans of West Bend West High School and the Cedarburg Bulldogs. It was senior night at West Bend, the last conference home game. The Spartans had already wrapped up the conference championship before the game began, but they did have some unfinished business. They had lost only one game all year, and that was to Cedarburg.

Cedarburg took a 4-0 lead, and then they were up 6-1, before one of the three Spartan seniors hit a solo home run to make it 6-2. Things were still looking bleak going into the sixth inning (the second-to-last in high school baseball), but the Spartans scored four to tie it. And that's the way it stayed for a long time. Most high school games last less than two hours (which is why I had every intention of catching the LeBron show), but this one ended up going well past the three-hour mark. Both teams had excellent relief pitching and made some terrific (sometimes gave-saving) defensive plays over the next hour.

Finally in the bottom of the 11th inning, the same senior who had a home run earlier in the game (a kid named Eric) came up. In the middle of his at bat he fouled a pitch off. When I looked back at him he was down on one knee, in obvious pain. He limped over to his dugout and was thrown a sports drink. It became apparent to everyone that he had a cramp. He took a chug, went back to the batter's box, and lined a single to center field. Two outs later, he was at second base, and the Spartan batter hit a grounder to the right side. When the Cedarburg fielder threw wildly past the first baseman, Eric came around third, and he started cramping again. He stumbled toward home plate, and then belly flopped on it, scoring the winning run in dramatic but less-than-convincing fashion. Instead of being mobbed by his teammates, he was given some distance as he lay on the ground and writhed in a combination of joy and agony after winning his final home conference game.

I did a short post-game show, and as I was taking my headsets off a little bit after 9:00 p.m. Central, I turned to a couple of guys still sitting in the stands behind me. I asked if they heard where LeBron said he was going. One guy shook his head, while the other stared at me blankly as if I had asked him if he heard what time the Martians were landing.

It would be very easy for me to use this high school baseball game as a counterpoint to the much-maligned LeBron show, to use one as an illustration of all that is right in sports and the other as a sign of all that is wrong with sports. I could easily join the cacophony of critics, claiming that LeBron's prime time announcement was a travesty to the sensibilities of middle America, that anyone with a true sense of how to appreciate sports was sitting on a set of bleachers somewhere watching kids battle through cramps (or eschewing ESPN for some small town radio station, listening to the likes of me intoning about the exploits of high schoolers).

But in the final analysis, I don't think LeBron needs to apologize for anything. I'm unmoved by the chorus of voices accusing him of being egotistical or "vainglorious" (a word that, incredibly, I saw in multiple places). I'm unmoved by Will Leitch's already much-circulated article in which he asked "Why are we watching these awful people?" and histrionically lamented that "the NBA, the hunger laid bare and the wound gaping for all to see, may never be the same. And the fear is that we won't be the same. The fear is that we've truly seen the ugly, dark heart of sports, and we won't be able to come back." I'm unmoved by a personal e-mail I received in which someone asserts that "it is one of the moments that does make you step back and just look at the barrenness of it all."

I'm unmoved because nobody said the same two weeks earlier when the NBA held their player draft. Granted it wasn't all about one individual on June 24, but there are a lot of similarities. Fans waited in suspense while teams announced who would be playing for them in the years to come. There was a sense of spectacle, with tall man donning baseball caps that clashed with suits, ESPN commentators interviewing athletes and debating and discussing with each other, and frequent commercial breaks (though commercials on draft night didn't benefit any charitable causes). We're just so used to rituals like this we don't even notice the absurdity anymore. It sometimes takes the perspective of a non-sports fan to point out the obvious. When I explained the LeBron James situation to my mom (who couldn't have told you where the King has been playing for the last seven years any more than most of us can name the Prime Minister of Lesotho), she was equally unmoved by his supposed show of egotism. Her exact quote: "Isn't that what sports is always like?"

So it's not that fans are opposed to the idea of sports being made a spectacle. Heck, LeBron himself has long been a spectacle-- he who was put on magazine covers on high school, he was declared "The Chosen One" at the age of 16, he had a biography written about him before he played in an NBA game, and he has individually accounted for millions and millions of dollars in ticket sales and merchandising revenue for not only the Cleveland Cavaliers, but for the entire league he plays for. And in recent days, he picked up over 400,000 Twitter followers almost immediately after opening an account.

The evidence above would seem to indicate that LeBron not only should have gotten away with his TV stunt without criticism, but that he should have been rewarded with even more attention and adulation. Factor in that he took a pay cut (he could have made more in salary with the Cavs and more endorsement money with the Knicks or Nets) in order to play for a championship, and this should have been PR gold. What went wrong?

There are two problems here. One is that by all accounts, the show was ultimately boring. Maybe sixty minutes was too long; maybe if he had Magic Johnson's charisma and smile it would have been more appealing; maybe not having some vuvuzelas playing in the background doomed the show to tedium. In our society, asking for our time and then not giving us entertainment in return for that investment is downright sinful.

But the other sin that LeBron committed pre-dates the age of entertainment. While our culture is programmed to manufacture heroes, we still don't want them getting too cocky. In many ways, we still take our cues from the ancient Greeks. At the first sign of hubris, we want to see our heroes learn humility. We want to see their wax wings melt. It's okay for ESPN to show your face all day long, until you make the move to request that they show it. It's okay for someone else to call you "The Chosen One," but when you start acting like you are special, you can expect a backlash.

But whether or not LeBron James wins a ring in Miami, I don't see his Nikes melting anytime soon. His story isn't the real tragedy here. The tragedy belongs to anyone who chooses to let this incident have any bearing on their ability to appreciate a good game. After all, there is more than one way to cross home plate to score the winning run.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

On Outbursts

I ran across a fascinating article in USA Today this week. The short version: behavioral researchers are concerned that as people are exposed to more outlandish emotional outbursts in their entertainment (think reality television in particular, where a recent study found 52 "acts of aggression" in an hour versus 33 per hour in scripted programming), they are becoming more apt to regard over-the-top reactions as normal:

"People can be seduced into thinking that's the most common way of reacting to life, when it's not," says Roderick Hart, a professor of communication studies and government at the University of Texas-Austin. Because of this "tutoring" of emotions, Hart says, people are becoming culturally conditioned to think "it's OK to be more overreactive. Reality television has hyped all the emotions. You can't just be happy. You have to be ecstatic. You can't be upset. You have to be violently angry," he says.

In my daily life, I can't say that I've seen greater incidents of emotional outbursts. Granted, I don't get out as much as I used to (one becomes a bit more sheltered with a four-month-old child), but as far as I can tell, it is still a bit of a cultural taboo to show too much emotion in public. And in recent years, I've been impressed with the lexical evolution of a certain word. When I was in high school, if someone were to utter the word "drama," they would be referring to theater class. But high schoolers today use the word derisively to refer to the practice of imbuing social situations with too much significance. Come to think of it, this application arose roughly simultaneously to the genesis of reality TV. So perhaps instead of increasing undesirable behavior, it may be argued that this programming instead turned a mirror on society, and made us more aware of the ugliness of our own pre-existing behaviors.

Yet I am more apt to find resonance in another aspect of the article:

One example is the flak President Obama has taken for not displaying enough anger at BP's failure to stop the gushing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He has been called "No Drama Obama," and the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed his job approval ratings down to 45%....says Scott Schieman, a sociology professor... "there's definitely research that suggests when people display anger and it's perceived as appropriate, the person is perceived as more competent and more in charge."

This reminds me of the criticism I've seen this year directed at Milwaukee Brewers manager Ken Macha. Given the mostly disappointing season the Brewers have suffered, managerial criticism may be inevitable, but the type of criticism has been interesting. Rather than second guess his decisions or dissect his leadership capabilities, fans are angry that he never seems upset when things go poorly. A local sportswriter even felt the need to address this in a column.

Now, President Obama and Ken Macha may have somewhat different occupations, but one thing in common is that the public usually sees them filtered through a television screen. Could it be that even if we are successful in recognizing the inappropriateness of applying the ethos of reality television to our day-to-day lives, we may unconsciously equate milieus that share the medium of television (even if they share little else)?

So if it is true that we are expecting our presidents and baseball managers to act like candidates on The Apprentice, what can be done to alter these expectations? Perhaps the key is to recognize that it is not necessarily a spontaneous outburst of powerful feelings that the public craves, but rather that they are looking for something, anything, they can perceive as authentic. There is a reason that the word "reality" became the moniker by which the entire genre has become known-- people are looking for the genuine, and the easiest way for an actor or a producer to present that (even if what they are presenting is ultimately anything but genuine) is to emote. But I don't think it is the only way.

Therefore, I think that if the President wants to improve his poll numbers, a nightly video of just a couple minutes in length, in a laid-back setting, and posted on the usual social networking sites, in which he describes what he did that day and what he is thinking about important issues, would appease the public demand for authenticity. I'm well aware that the White House website posts a weekly video address, but a teleprompter-assisted stump speech isn't going to connect with a generation raised on Simon Cowell.

And as for Ken Macha, my advice would be to... sorry, I've got nothing.