Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Warrior by any Other Name

Today I broadcast a high school play-off football game between the Indians and the Spartans. Incidentally, I also announced an Indians in the second week of the year, which was also against the Spartans. But that was a different group of Spartans. And it should be pointed out that the Indians that I announced are different than the team that used to be called the Indians, but have been ordered by the state of Wisconsin to quit being the Indians. (I suppose it's important to point out that I am in Wisconsin--there are enough schools in this state alone nicknamed "Indians" or "Spartans" to cause confusion; when you factor in how many teams nationwide have these names, it's beyond confusing).

"My" Indians might very well have to change their name someday, too, depending on if somebody files a formal complaint with the state Department of Public Instruction. Wisconsin recently passed a law allowing for challenges to Native American team nicknames on the grounds of racial and ethnic insensitivity. Of course, this is not a new controversy; in all the time I've been a sports fan I've never not known this to be an issue. In my state's history, the decision by Marquette University to change from the Warriors (a name under which they established a great men's basketball tradition) to the Golden Eagles ignited a firestorm that has lasted for years.

I was a young Marquette fan when the change was made, and I had missed most of the storied history that had been established under the "Warriors" moniker. But my reaction to the change then is pretty much my attitude now--I thought "Warriors" was a dumb name for a sports team, and I thought "Golden Eagles" was even worse. Unlike fans of the University of Wisconsin, who say they are going to watch a "Badger game," Marquette fans have always said, regardless of nickname, that they are going to watch the "Marquette game." Just like "Indians" and "Spartans," the name "Warriors" is so generic as to lose any power of unique identification, and "Golden Eagles" is just a lame attempt to somehow take the uber-generic "Eagles" and make it unique (and a failed attempt at that, as Marquette found themselves some after the change competing in the same conference with the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles).

While my criteria for a good nickname used to be rooted in a desire for uniqueness, I have now come to believe we are missing something important in this debate about tradition, identity, and sensitivity. We fail to realize that sports nicknames are essentially ridiculous. We've all been born into a world where our favorite teams are always identified by a pair of nouns, one proper and one common: a geographical location or name of institution, followed by some type of person, animal, or thing, usually pluralized. Yet we overlook the fact that we can easily get by without the latter. European soccer fans somehow manage to take their devotion to teams to extremes without nicknames. During the Olympics, we somehow manage to support "Team USA" without feeling the need to call them "The Eagles." The contribution of nickname to the fan experience is entirely peripheral, consisting primarily of logos and the design of memorabilia. And when we think about it, even this is ridiculous. The fact that the Miami Dolphins have an insignia of a friendly sea mammal on the side of their heads as they bash into guys with different color helmets should only remind us that to take sports too seriously is absurd.

So rather than ban Native American names, I don't think it would be terrible to just ban all nicknames altogether. Of course, tradition is too entrenched at this point to ever allow that to happen (to say nothing of the influence of marketing departments). And to be fair, I still cling to the idea of having some kind of unique identifier in place to mark my favorite teams as somehow special (though I am well aware of the absurdity of every fan wanting their team to be "special").

The Cleveland Browns haven't won anything worthwhile in a long time, but perhaps they can help us to reconcile the above problems. This is a team without a real logo, named after a guy (Paul Brown) who gave shape and identity to the franchise. I kind of like the idea of every franchise or every school going back into their history and locating a kind of "patron saint" of the franchise, one who embodies all the values and ideals the team would like to project. Even the staunchest Wisconsin football fan would have to admit that the name "Packers" is an incongruous name for a football team, but wouldn't "Green Bay Lombardis" capture something special? Would Marquette McGuires be a good compromise for Marquette administrators and fans?
To those who argue that such a radical move would take an avenue of fun out of sports, I'd again point to Cleveland. "The Dawg Pound" grew organically, as opposed to an arbitrary edict from a marketing expert. Even the Washington Redskins, owners of arguably the most controversial name in all of professional sports, have seen fans of their own accord embrace an alternate nickname for members of their team. Since the composition and chemistry of teams change over time, they could be constantly deriving new nicknames based on their current roster or style of play (and at the professional levels in particular they are constantly changing logos and colors anyway). So with a permanent "patron saint" moniker, and temporary fan-driven unofficial names, we could preserve tradition, preserve fun, eliminate offensiveness, and assert uniqueness.

And just in case you were wondering, the Indians beat the Spartans 15-13, and will now move on to play a school that I think has the best name in the state--the West De Pere Phantoms.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Narrative Consumption: Ignorance vs. Discernment

I may be an English teacher with a love of the literary classics, but I am not ashamed to admit that I have affection for the paperback thriller. I had actually never read one until a few years ago, when stuck without any reading material and time to spare, I found myself in a hotel gift shop with limited options. After perusing the back covers of their inventory, I settled on a book called Killer Instinct by a guy named Joseph Finder. The plot was laid out for me on the back cover: a salesman named Jason befriends a tow-truck driver named Kurt, gets him a job in security at his company, then faces a severe moral dilemma when a series of unfortunate accidents take place within the company, all of them somehow benefiting Jason. The obvious implication is that Kurt is orchestrating these events, and the book jacket implies that Jason knows he doesn't want to risk getting on Kurt's bad side. This seemed like an intriguing story to help me pass the time.

Unfortunately, the book didn't take up as much time as I wanted it to. Despite clocking in at over 400 pages, I breezed through it. But I still felt I got my money's worth. It was one of those proverbial page-turners that you can't put down, and in the end I was thoroughly satisfied with both the money and time I invested in it. Of course, the plot summary on the book jacket was what drew me in; I wouldn't have bought it otherwise. And therefore, particularly throughout the first half of the novel, there weren't any great surprises.

I've read a couple of Finder novels in the years since, and I've always glanced at the back cover to get a feel for what the story would entail. I imagine this is pretty standard procedure for most people. Particularly given the time investment that a novel demands, most of us are going to want to know in general what is in store for us before deciding to commit. And even though a movie or a television show requires less time, I would expect that very few of us go into these experiences totally blind about the plot. Certainly, it is hard to envision anyone plunking down movie tickets without doing a little bit of due diligence, and ditto for purchasing or renting a DVD or download. And even in viewing television, it seems unlikely that anyone with digital cable would sit down to watch a show or movie without hitting the "info" button on the remote.

The prevalence of entertainment options and the power of marketing campaigns have normalized all of this, and it is taken for granted that part of the entertainment experience involves the hype machine. But recently, I purchased another Finder book, and I started reading it without so much as glancing at the back cover. I was surprised when a plot twist occurred about forty pages in, one that almost certainly would have been trumpeted on the back cover. There is no doubt in my mind that I have derived greater enjoyment not knowing anything about the plot before jumping into it.

And this has made me question whether our society's approach to consuming narratives compares with previous generations. Cinema existed before television. In the early days of movies, did people simply go see whatever was playing, or did they have some idea of what they were going to experience? Did people who purchased novel serializations in 18th Century magazines know what they were getting into? Did playgoers in the Elizabethan era even know if they were going to a tragedy or a comedy when they bought tickets to the Globe?

Obviously, there is a trade-off. What we lose in narrative immersion we supposedly gain in discernment. But are we more satisfied customers than those who consumed entertainment less discerningly in previous generations (assuming they did)? Do we really sit through proportionately less turkeys and clunkers than our grandparents did? And even if we do (which I somehow doubt), is the trade-off worth it? Are we really enjoying our narratives as much as we could if we know what is going to happen? Can we really immerse ourselves in a story if we are constantly thinking back to what we have already learned about it?

Perhaps we can't put the genie back into the bottle, but for the most part, we can choose to individually opt out. It is possible to go to the movie theater and ask for a ticket to the 7:00 show in Cinema 4, and see what unfolds. It's also possible to log onto Amazon and order books that others might recommend, even if we don't so much as read the back cover. I would recommend anything by Joseph Finder.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

History and Repetition

Math teachers must wish that they have a Santayana. Courtesy of the philosopher, history teachers can trot out the old adage whenever a student questions the relevance of the material they are learning: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

A cynic might point out that the majority of our citizens lack even basic knowledge of history. A quick Google search can reveal any number of surveys or studies over the last couple of years with potentially alarming data about lack of historical knowledge among schoolchildren: 57% can't identify that the Civil War was fought between 1850 and 1900, 25% think Columbus sailed the ocean blue after 1750, 99% of eighth graders can't say what effect the fall of the Berlin Wall had on foreign policy, 14% of high school seniors can explain why America became involved in the Korean War, etc, etc, etc.

Of course, there are reasons beyond Santayana that not only knowledge of history, but interest in past events, might be important. For example, one would think that the ability to rectify past injustice could be something worth pursuing. And when it comes to injustice, the killing of one third of a nation's population would seem to qualify. Torturing and working nearly three million people to death would seem to qualify. Having executioners switch to stabbing people because their hands were tired from slitting throats would seem to qualify. Smashing the skulls of children against trees in order to prevent them from one day avenging the deaths of their parents would seem to qualify. And if some of the perpetrators of these unspeakable horrors were still alive, one would think that there would be a strong interest in bringing them to justice, and an outcry if justice is not administered fairly.

But there didn't seem to be much of a global outcry last month when Kaing Guek Eav received a 19-year-sentence from a Cambodian tribunal for overseeing the torture and killings of 12,000 people in Cambodia in the mid-1970s. If he lives to 86, he will be a free man. He's one of only five former leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia to be indicted in the last couple of years, and the first to be sentenced.

But surely there was an outcry in Cambodia, right? Apparently not. This USA Today article, one of the few American media stories to examine the situation, asserts that native and expatriate Cambodians are by and large not happy with the verdict, but reactions range from resignation to outright apathy. A taxi driver who had relatives killed by the regime said that tribunals are "not good for the country. We don't want more suffering through the memories." And a 29-year-old farmer uses language that one might expect from a 29-year-old American asked to comment on Watergate: "I don't know much about the Khmer Rouge as I wasn't even born then." And his reaction to the tribunal's verdict: "He's so old now, why do they want to punish him?"

On one hand I'm aghast that the blood of so many innocent people can be forgotten (if it was ever known about) by not only the world community, but the victims' immediate community. And Santayana rears his head again: if we can forget about such atrocity in such a short amount of time, doesn't that increase the likelihood that it will happen again?

On the other hand, there is something in the above quotes which makes me wonder if there isn't cause for optimism. If people truly do study history, they will note that many conflicts have occurred as a result of entrenched grudges that echo through generations. And historically, these generational grudges were not limited to conflicts between nation-states (I think of Mark Twain's fictional Grangerfords and Shepherdsons). But if people truly do study history, they will also note that mass popular culture is a relatively modern phenomenon. It used to be that values and behaviors were inculcated with oral tradition, and the foundation of many of these narratives was a mutual enmity with another group. Now, we still may have enmities, but as the dissemination of cultural values has become much more complex and much broader, the shelf life of anything, including grudges, becomes limited.

In effect, the world is becoming more like a Middle School lunchroom. Enemies can become friends overnight and friends can become enemies. Insults and slights, real or perceived, are still punishable by violence, but these insults and slights can easily be erased from memory when a new distraction interposes.

Santayana might have been right, but one must also wonder if in some instances, those who cannot remember the past actually become less likely to repeat it--and if that might be a blessing rather than a condemnation.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Tickets to Ride

If a random sample of Americans were asked to, off the top of their head, name the 10 most popular entertainers in the world, Paul McCartney would probably make some lists. But undoubtedly, The Beatles would have made the top of everyone's list in 1966. To suggest that McCartney is more popular today than his group was 44 years ago is absurd. But consider this: in 1966 the Beatles played a concert at Shea Stadium that had 15,000 empty seats. Later that year, in their last ever concert at San Francisco, they sold 25,000 a venue that seated over 42,000. Last summer, McCartney announced a two-night stand at Citi Field in New York, Shea's replacement. Tickets to both shows sold out in less than five minutes, leading to a third show, which also sold out. Of course, tickets are a little bit more pricier today--while admission topped out at $6.50 for the Beatles' last show, a McCartney ticket could run $250 today (or higher if you consider the secondary market).

Around the time of the Citi Field shows last year, McCartney appeared on David Letterman's show. Letterman's ratings went way up that night, as an estimated 4.4 million people tuned in. Of course, this is a bit of a drop from the 73 million who tuned in to see the future Sir Paul when he played Ed Sullivan in 1964.

What to make of all this? Perhaps it helps to get some further perspective. The first Super Bowl didn't sell out. When the Baltimore Orioles clinched the 1970 World Series, they didn't do it in front of a full house. In 1962, the Los Angeles Dodgers set a Major League Baseball attendance record by averaging over 33,000 fans a game. In 2010, 11 teams (including the Milwaukee Brewers, playing in baseball's smallest market), averaged more than 33,000 fans a game. And this despite ticket prices rising at far beyond the rate of inflation. So baseball must be increasing in popularity, right? Not so fast--on the flip side, the Nielson rating for the 1973 World Series was 30.7, with a share of 57. The rating for the 2008 World Series was 8.4, with a share of 14.

There are a couple of obvious factors at work influencing these trends. Television ratings for any one program are obviously going to erode when you exponentially multiple the number of channels that someone can watch. Concert attendance will rise when the target audience acquires more disposable income. But I also think there are some deeper cultural shifts that are responsible.

It's common to hear theories that blame television for the shortening of attention spans. But to take this observation to a whole new level, perhaps we can blame television for making itself seem passe. I once read that a TV sports executive ordered that camera shots showing empty seats at stadiums be curtailed. He reasoned that people watching a game with lots of empty seats would start asking themselves why they were watching. But on the flip side, seeing live events packaged on TV as "can't miss" experiences may leave some feeling that mere TV viewing is for the non-privileged. Under that theory, purchasing an event ticket is more than seeking one night's entertainment, but also buying inclusion into a special class.

But aside from the monetary investment that goes into buying a ticket, one is also investing time. Of course, leisure time can be spent either away from one's home, or in the comfort of one's own abode. I've got to think that in the relatively early days of television--for as long as those who could remember a time before television made the economic decisions in households--the ability to receive a night's entertainment without the logistical demands of travel seemed to be way too good to pass up. But for those who grew up staying home and watching television every night, the idea of going out had its own allure. And of course, it is this generation that still wants to go to concerts and hear songs with lyrics like "Baby you can drive my car."

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Super Cops: A True Story

The day I got my "adult" library card had all the feel of a rite of passage. Our sixth grade class was bussed from our rural elementary school into the city, where we were taken into a back room at the public library. A venerable elderly librarian gave us a lecture about the responsibilities and privileges we now possessed, we each filled out a form, and we were given the sacrosanct card itself (which in lieu of today's magnetic strip, actually contained a piece of metal). We were then set free, for the first time, in the grown up portion of the library, able to check out absolutely any books we desired, without restriction. After grabbing a few baseball books, I cruised randomly through the aisles. I alighted on a colorful red book called The Super Cops by L.H. Whittemore. When I saw that the subtitle promised "The true story of the cops called Batman and Robin," being a big superhero fan, I was sold.

The book was already 17 years old by the time I read it, and containing accounts of the New York ghetto, it was nothing that a small-town Wisconsinite could directly relate to. But this didn't stop me from becoming absolutely consumed by this story. Even now, twenty years later, having read it only once, I can still tell you many vivid details about the short but incredibly eventful police careers of Dave Greenberg (nicknamed "Batman") and his partner Bob Hantz ("Robin"). That is, if you care. Problematically for an excited 12-year-old, I didn't know anybody who did. I do remember informing my mom about how Greenberg and Hantz shut down the Hayes Brothers drug operation, but it didn't seem to captivate her the way that LA Law did at the time.

I also remember quoting lines from this book at school. But unlike if I would have quoted something from Beetlejuice or Short Circuit, nobody cared. I did get a reaction once when apropos of nothing, I spat out the line "This is probationary patrol officers Greenberg and Hantz. We just made an off-duty narcotics arrest in the seven-seven precinct." A classmate challenged me by saying, "You don't even know what that means." "I sure do," I replied, "'Probationary patrol officers' means that they haven't become actual policemen yet, and 'off-duty' means that they were on their own time, 'narcotics' means drugs, 'a precinct' is an area that police are assigned to cover, and the 'seven-seven precinct' was the absolute worst in New York City. In other words, these guys who didn't even have their badges yet went looking to bust people for drugs in their free time in the worst parts of the city they could find." I remember my classmate being impressed, but not enough to ask to read the book himself.

As I was required to do, I returned the book to the library, and I never saw it again. And in the years that followed, I never heard any reference to Greenberg and Hantz. I didn't forget them, though. Every so often I'd see or hear something that reminded me of something from the book, even though I was apparently the only person I knew who had heard about this book, much less read it.

And if the World Wide Web had never been invented, that's probably how it would have stayed. I would have a pristine image of Greenberg and Hantz, last seen on the final page of Super Cops receiving promotions to the rank of detective. I would have been alone in my admiration of them, and their ultimate fates mine alone to imagine in any way I saw fit.

What I have since learned from Google is that although their story had apparently faded into obscurity by the time I discovered it, the publication of the book in the early 1970s garnered them some degree of fame. New York magazine ran a fascinating story about them. To my surprise, I found that there was a movie based on the book. Although that film underperformed, it supposedly inspired a much more successful TV series, one Starsky and Hutch.

I've also confirmed that I am not on the only person to have read (or enjoyed) the book. A total of six reviews have been posted on Amazon, an average of one every two years. All of them are five stars. The top review comes from a guy I wished I knew when I was a kid. Maybe we could have played "Super Cops" together:

From when I was 9 years old, The Super Cops was, and still is, one of my favorite books. I liked the idea of them working to save a community. The villains were more or less drug dealers. David Greenberg and Robert Hantz will always be heroes of mine. In college I did a little bit of research on the two of them, including speaking with real cops.

Unfortunately, his real life research results in some cold water thrown on my fandom:

In fact, their exploits were certainly exaggerated. The end of their careers was somewhat tragic. David Greenberg went to jail twice for white collar crime. Robert Hantz was accused of smuggling marijuana, and lost his Detective's shield because of it.

Ironically, about the same time I was becoming a fan of these guys, the New York Times was running a story about Greenberg's latest downfall.

Although part of me wishes I had never received this addendum to the book, another part of me welcomes not only the added knowledge, but also the implications of the receipt of that knowledge. For one, it is a concrete representation that obscurity is downright obsolete, and experience no longer need be in isolation. As long as you have an Internet connection, if interested, you can find like-minded souls.

Second, I am intrigued by the idea that narratives can be sustained through the end of any one medium. The story of Greenberg's conviction was only a story because of the book, so one has to credit Whittemore's narrative with influencing culture. But then again, we also see the limitations of Whittemore's influence, as the enduring image of these men that he wished to convey to the world has been tarnished. In lieu of a second printing of this book, the Amazon reviews essentially become permanently inscribed, and unavoidable, postscripts. The fact that the final word of a narrative no longer rests with the author, but rests instead with the subjects and the consumers, is fascinating.

And speaking of the final word, that's all I have to say--unless anyone wants to hear about an off duty narcotics arrest by probationary patrolmen in the seven-seven precinct.