Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category

Film Review: Happy Valley

Happy Valley (2014; Directed by Amir Bar-Lev)

On a football field in the middle of a stadium filled with 100,000 spectators, men kneel as they are lead in prayer. It is moments before the start of a historic NCAA football game at Pennsylvania State University in State College, Pennsylvania, the first Nittany Lions home game in nearly half a century not to be coached by the legendary secular saint of the college game and the local pope of the symbolic diocese of football fanatics, Joe Paterno. With the university reeling from child molestation charges levelled against his longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, Paterno was judged complicit in the enabling of Sandusky’s crimes (or at least deficient in their detection and prevention) and removed from his longtime post amid a national media firestorm that shook the Penn State faithful’s communal self-conceptions to their very core.

But nothing may stop the onward march of the inexorable mass ritual of college football. One might as well cancel a Penn State home game as brazenly burn a medieval town’s cathedral to the ground: the complete apocalypse of the local infrastructure of collective meaning in either case would be entirely equivalent. And so the game is held against rival Nebraska, with overt attempts to render the occasion as a popular healing exercise highly conspicuous, a transparent thrust at turning the page from a feeling of mass shock and shame for a stadium full of acolytes.

Thus, at this most American intersection of violent athletics and faith (football as religion, religion as football, both so mutually miscegenated as to be genetically indistinguishable from each other) as the locus of collective identity, players from the Penn State and Nebraska teams cluster into a prayer huddle. The congregation leader is Nebraska assistant coach Ron Brown, whom we are informed is a radical Christian conservative with publically-expressed anti-gay views. Demonstrating his evangelical preaching tendencies, Brown tells the gladiators arrayed around him that in front of TVs across the nation, young boys gaze on, enraptured. He says that these impressionable boys want to know what manhood looks like, and they’re observing a fine example of it at that moment.

In Amir Bar-Lev’s remarkable documentary film Happy Valley, Brown’s framing of this seminal event in the history of the community’s and even of the nation’s understanding of the nature of masculinity takes on a depth and breadth that he could not have fathomed when he uttered it as a manly, rah-rah subcultural rallying cry on the field of Beaver Stadium in the fall of 2011. Happy Valley is profoundly about what manhood looks like in contemporary America, and it’s not a remotely flattering portrait. It’s a document of the consequences of unchecked patriarchal authority in an isolated social and cultural system, of the sublimated aggression and popular anger inherent to college football culture, and of the damaging, sociopathic perversions that those men in positions of power in such a structure can carry out under its protections.

Bar-Lev has been involved in some notable social-issues documentaries, including as co-producer on the slice-of-life Hurricane Katrina narrative Trouble the Water and as director of The Tillman Story, but Happy Valley is his most fully-formed and layered statement as a documentarian. His camera catches the discomfort of the intractable social conflicts that stem from the scandal, such as a protestor holding a sign denouncing Paterno’s failure to decisively act to end Sandusky’s crimes when they were brought to this attention next to Paterno’s on-campus statue. He gets into tense confrontations with fans and tourists taking their picture next to the likeness of Joe Pa, the incident acting as a narrative preface in the film for the eventual removal of the statue and commemorative site entirely.

Despite the initial strong reaction of the university to the damaging scandal, the campus and the community did not take long to circle the wagons, especially when the levying of heavy sanctions against the university by the NCAA gave them an outside oppressor to feed into an inflated sense of persecution. Happy Valley provides a decent account of Sandusky’s crimes, as well as his exposure and eventual conviction. But the film is much more concerned with Joe Paterno and the cult of personality he inspired in State College and its surrounding region, a cult that is shaken but never collapses. It’s a powerful portrait of a community’s almost unconscious labours to quarantine off any lingering sense of guilt rather than confront and reform the system that allowed terrible things to happen, to save the corpus of their collective identity by amputating the sources of shame like gangrenous limbs.

A living saint in his late years not only for his success on the field but for his philanthropy and focus on the academic performance of his players, Joe Paterno was depicted in a mind-bogglingly bathetic college town mural entitled “Inspiration” with a literal halo around his head. The artist, Michael Pilato, paints the halo out shortly after likewise removing Sandusky’s image from the mural, a highly ironic erasure given the complaints made in the film by Paterno’s biographer about the rewriting of history after the NCAA vacated all of Paterno’s wins with Penn State over his last 13 years with the team (a punishment that was later reversed). Paterno died of cancer a mere two months after being removed from his Penn State head coaching job and the shame of the scandal’s revelations, as if he could not live without his team or his community’s adulation.  Bar-Lev shows us vivid instances of that adulation on a mass scale, expressed in the thunderous roar of the stadium crowd, the chanting choruses of rally after rally in support of Paterno, and in the violent rage of the campus riots that followed his dismissal. He also shows Pilato symbolically sealing Paterno’s public redemption by painting a white rose into the late coach’s hand on the State College mural.

Happy Valley is less rosy about Paterno’s legacy. His family pays a quack psychologist a handsome fee to spearhead a public relations campaign to absolve not only Paterno but the entire community of complicity in Sandusky’s serial molestation (to summarize: no one could have known anything because Sandusky was an evil supergenius, of course). But Bar-Lev highlights the evidence in court documents and independent inquiries that Paterno did not merely report word of Sandusky’s misdeeds to his superiors at the university rather than to the police, but highly suggestive references to the coach’s role in discouraging the administrators from bringing in the law. And there is no easy redemption for Sandusky’s adopted son, who went public about his father’s abuse of him in support of the man’s other victims and was ostracized from the family as a result.

Such lingering reminders of shame are easily-spackled cracks in the gleaming facade of a college football culture, however. Traditional conceptions of patriarchal masculinity are destabilized briefly before being carefully shored up. The imperatives of collective identity, which always already support the patriarchal power structure, must be maintained at all costs. Happy Valley offers a compelling portrait of what manhood looks like in the preserved conservative heartland America co-built by men like Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky: exploitive of the weak, hagiographic of their exploiters, buttressed by belligerent groupthink and feel-good bromides and by the blazing light of mass sports spectacle. A scrupulously-maintained fantasy that obscures a dark reality.

Categories: Culture, Film, Reviews, Sports

Film Review: Moneyball

February 21, 2015 Leave a comment

Moneyball (2011; Directed by Bennett Miller)

Underdog tale, generation gap narrative, star vehicle, neo-romanticist sports film: Bennett Miller’s Moneyball is all of these things, sometimes practically at the same time. It narrativizes (and often fictionalizes) Michael Lewis’s book about the embrace of sabermetrics and other mathematical analytic models by the front office of Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics under General Manager Billy Beane in 2002. Well-acted and well-shot, Moneyball nonetheless incongruously commits the very sin that Beane sees the greying keepers of the conventional baseball wisdom committing on the regular and which he comes to believe he can no longer afford to rely on if he wishes to compete on an uneven playing field. It reduces complexity to simplicity, boiling down logical cogitation and rigorous data crunching to gut feelings and emotional motivations.

Given that Aaron Sorkin claims half of the screenwriting credit (with Steven Zaillian), this should not be unexpected. Sorkin framed the founding of Facebook in similar terms in The Social Network, a world-connecting platform whose creator alienated his best friend and was basely motivated by sexual/status-based rejection by both the opposite sex and the same sex. Therefore Beane (Brad Pitt) is driven not by the glory of winning or the promise of prestige or riches or even the personal satisfaction of success on his own terms, but by the sting of his own once-promising but failed playing career and by his love for his daughter (Kerris Dorsey).

Moneyball opens in 2001 with the A’s losing to the New York Yankees in the first round of the playoffs. It’s the have-nots vanquished by the haves, respectively, as onscreen statements of the glaring discrepancy in total team salaries lay bare. Beane’s frustration (repeatedly expressed in the film through the jock-ish outlet of throwing and breaking inanimate objects) in defeat deepens in the off-season, with his star players plucked by richer teams and the A’s owner refusing to expand the comparatively paltry payroll. It all comes to a head when Beane meets with his scouting staff, a roomful of old, mostly white men prattling on interminably about the shape of a favoured player’s jaw or how the ball sounds off the bat of a top prospect. Beane is blunt: his team cannot compete on the basis of the old rules of the game, and that’s all that these experienced but blinkered scouts or his stubborn manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) can offer him.

He’s offered the fresh approach he’s looking for by a 20-something Yale economics graduate named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, Hollywood’s premiere lumpy sidekick to presupposing alpha males at the moment). Beane comes across Brand in the offices of the Cleveland Indians, is impressed by his contrarian analysis on the basis of the complex mathematical algorithms devised and championed by Bill James, and basically bullies him into being his new assistant GM. A few unorthodox transactions and heated meetings with scouts and Howe later, Beane fields a baseball team that struggles to find its way but finally puts together an American League record 20 wins in a row before another first-round playoff exit.

“The Streak” (it even gets its own Tarantino-esque onscreen title to herald it) is the narrative climax of Moneyball, and the dramatic tension and unlikely hero element of the record-setting game is ripped straight from the inspirational sports movies whose emotional methodology Moneyball‘s core ethos seems poised to refute. But it never does, portraying the use of data to improve performance and results as a mere backdrop to the intangible magic of America’s hallowed pastime. Perhaps, ultimately it is, and neither Beane (who doesn’t even watch his team’s games live) nor the boyish Brand deny their enthusiasm for the game despite their willingness to reduce it to a torrent of numbers. Still, the record-clinching home run might as well have Randy Newman’s musical cue from The Natural playing under it, so staged is it in hands-aloft sporting glory terms.

Pitt plays his trademarked casually masculine A-type with straining thoughts on his mind to the hilt, and it got him an Oscar nomination to boot (as did Hill’s dialed-down work). Hoffman is subtly, inobtrusively convincing as the bluff, good-old-boy sort that invariably becomes a baseball manager (or maybe that baseball managers inevitable become; chicken or egg?). But what kind of movie, exactly, are they starring in?

It’s not an honest portrayal of a full-on Freakonomics-style overturning of conventional thinking, but then Beane’s revolution wasn’t exactly that in real life either (some of the risky signings of misfits portrayed in the film happened before the loss to the Yankees rather than after, and Howe was not as reluctant to go along with Beane’s philosophy as he is shown to be onscreen). It’s firmly couched in the language of the underdog sports narrative (the trailer below makes it look like a post-millenial major league Bad News Bears only with more long division), but that label only applies in the highly relative terms of the multi-million-dollar professional sports world and therefore loses much of its aspirational impact.

What Moneyball finally settles into becoming is a basically conventional sports drama, with conflict, adversity, and ultimately on-field triumph vindicating bold, non-conformist thinking and self-belief. Miller’s direction is controlled and calculated, like a fully-compiled spreadsheet, so it’s a particularly well-crafted example of such a film. But Moneyball aims for the heart and the gut when its subject moved away from such unreliable, non-rational calculi to gain an advantage over resource-rich rivals. A movie, of course, is not a data set. But like baseball, there’s useful information it can glean from one.

Categories: Film, Reviews, Sports

Film Review: The Armstrong Lie

January 24, 2015 Leave a comment

The Armstrong Lie (2013; Directed by Alex Gibney)

Lies are narratives. Narratives are lies. If those fortunate among us who have seen Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell learned anything from it, it’s that it’s very hard to separate the two, especially in the dimly-lit halls of human memory. But what about in the bright glare of the public eye? Is it easier to tell a purposely-shaped narrative from a lie when it’s told to millions of people, with millions of dollars riding on it?

This is one of the questions you might be asking at the conclusion of Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie, a troubled, open-ended examination of the controversial career of Lance Armstrong, the 7-times Tour de France champion cyclist, cancer survivor and crusader, and inspirational media icon who was exposed as a drug cheat in 2012 and stripped of his titles. Gibney’s documentary began its production life on the road with Armstrong as he attempted a high-profile comeback at the 2009 Tour de France, four years after winning the most prestigious cycling competition in the world for the seventh consecutive time. Gibney, known for his complex and conflicted issues documentaries, seemed an odd choice to document a legacy-cementing victory lap for an apparent living inspirational poster like Armstrong. Indeed, during the 2009 Tour, he was chided by those who recognized him for doing a puff piece on Armstrong.

Fortunately for The Armstrong Lie, the performance-enhancing drug allegations that followed Armstrong throughout his record-setting career like ravens came home to roost and Gibney found his valued conflict. Interviewing Armstrong and those around him during his career, Gibney gets at versions of the truth, but in Armstrong’s case they were always mitigated by his prickly, intense dedication to his own image as a self-confident, all-American winner whose story could change the world if the haters would just let it. Though he can no longer deny that he doped during his now-vacated dominance of the Tour a decade ago, Armstrong clings to certain details of the tale as tenaciously as he once clung to the claim that he never doped at all.

Gibney asks the right questions about how and why Armstrong maintained the illusion of himself as a clean cyclist, and gets some hard answers (respectively, how: with outright, aggressive denials and threats and bullying to potential whistleblowers, and why: for the money and the fame). He subsumes what must be his own bitterness at being duped and used by Armstrong for his own ends, alluding to the desire held by not only himself but by many millions of people to be fooled by Armstrong, to believe in what he called the “miracle” of his cancer recovery and subsequent sporting triumphs. At the core of this will to delusion is a most American willingness to buy into stories that are too good to be true, which almost inevitably are.

The specific question that neither Gibney nor any of his subjects bothers to ask, however, is why Armstrong was wrong for employing a drug-enhanced means that practically every cycling champion for years has likewise employed to reach the same victorious end. Of course Armstrong doped. If all of the men he was beating did too, then how could he beat them? The margins in a high-level sport like cycling are thin, and they cannot be so easily extended by means of work ethic and stirrings of inspiration. The question that no one bothers to ask is, Why is doping illegal in cycling if everyone will always do it? Why not explicitly allow and regulate rather than ban and implicitly allow on the sport’s dark side? The preference for ineffective moralizing and scattershot enforcement over pragmatic integration hurt cycling deeply, but then it’s been hurt that way for a century and seems able to stand the affliction.

No one can ask the question on camera, of course, since most everyone has a past, a present and a future in the sport to protect. There’s also a strange code to cycling, a set of arcane rules to team racing and the peloton, that compels cooperation and silence about what goes on behind the scenes, especially if what goes on happens to be against the rules of the sport. In such a closed world, what Lance Armstrong got away with seems entirely predictable and appropriate. His lie was a narrative, and his narrative was a lie. Public outrage is directed at him for telling it (and for using federal taxpayer money to do so, through the US Postal Service’s sponsorship of him and his team in the 2000s), and he doesn’t not deserve it. But that outrage must be directed inwards too, at those who accepted his lie as a narrative when really, truly, they ought to have known better.

Categories: Film, Reviews, Sports

NHL Jersey Ads and the Flickering Spirit of Sports

November 9, 2014 Leave a comment

Professional sports are massively popular conduits for corporate profit. To deny this or even to minimize its vital importance in the continuing perpetuation of any significant athletic competition would be foolish and blind. The will to profit relies fundamentally upon the deeply-felt, visceral, tribal loyalty of fans to their teams in particular and to their sport of choice in general. The force of their belief is irrational, and its purest iterations are unconnected to competitive success: witness the persistent home arena sellouts for the perennial basement-dwelling Edmonton Oilers. These deep reserves of loyalty and dedication are the stuff of corporate executive dreams, for they predict a lifetime of consistent consumption on the particular brand of the fan’s choice (if, indeed, the alignment was a choice in any conscious sense; such affiliations can be matters of family or community inheritance).

In the National Hockey League, the business side of the equation is as dominant as in the NBA, Major League Baseball, or the black-eyed capitalist colossus that is the NFL. Arenas have corporate name sponsors, the boards surrounding the ice are wraparound billboards, signature television broadcasts are run by corporate conglomerates who sell segment name rights to other companies. The NHL is a profit machine, and much of that profit is tied in with corporate marketing strategies that visually and linguistically associate the on-ice product with corporate logos and taglines.

And yet, like the other three major North American sports leagues, a line is drawn in the metaphorical sand when it comes to the sale of advertising space on NHL team jerseys. Unlike European sports leagues or domestic organizations like NASCAR, where paid logo ads are plastered onto uniforms with impunity, the NHL and its fellow leagues forbid such ads. And so it was with a tone of faux-resignation, the kind so often utilized to discursively presage paradigm-shifting alterations in the status quo masterminded by corporate decision-makers against the consent of consumers, that NHL COO John Collins said that jersey ads are “coming and happening”.

NHL fans have already objected to this suggestion at various magnitudes, and the core of their assumed objections was summarized eloquently by Paul Campbell at The Hockey Chat. Transgressing this last boundary, allowing corporate imagery to compete with and ultimately sully team jerseys and all that they are taken to mean, is conceived of as a serious body blow to the symbolism, the magic, the aura of the game, those who play it, and the teams and fanbases they represent. The team jersey has an “inviolability” and a “sanctity” that would, if ads were permitted alongside a team crest, be violated.

Campbell makes his point very well and it will doubtlessly resonate very deeply with many hockey fans, especially those with strong team loyalties who likewise share an aesthetic appreciation for the sport’s flashes of beauty (and may also appreciate its enervating but troubling bursts of violence). But considering jersey ads to be an unforgivable trespass on the near-religious significance of the sport to many strikes me as a curious distinction to make in a sports milieu already suffused and often disfigured by capitalism.

It is also a distinction that is contradicted by precedents. Campbell does not mention that corporate sponsors have been emblazoning their logos onto the kits of major European soccer clubs for decades without evident ill effects on the sanctity of the game. Indeed, many of these clubs can boast of a level of fan loyalty and inextricable community identification that some of the NHL’s more marginal franchises would kill for (does it “mean” anything to be, say, a Florida Panther?), and the sport of international football enjoys a level of global popularity (and, at its best, an aura of sublime inspiration) that would make Gary Bettman weep into his ginger ale if he ever cared to contemplate it. Does Manchester United mean less to its legions of worldwide devotees because of the Chevrolet logo in the dead centre of its jersey? If so, I’d be curious to know how.

The jersey ad distinction also raises an interesting question about team logos themselves. Campbell cites the common NHL practice of skirting around the team crest on dressing room floors; to tread upon it is considered a transgression on par with stomping thoughtless on graves in a cemetery, if not worse. But is a team crest not itself a corporate logo, by any conceivable definition? If it is animated with a resonance that goes beyond that of the standard corporate logo, is that not a triumph of consumer conditioning and brand marketing rather than a statement of communal meaning as established through a shared history of experience? To what extent has that shared history, if it does predominate in the construction of team significance, been coopted by corporate forces for the sake of profit? Where precisely, in a contemporary North American culture consumed by corporatism, does the capitalist imperative end and the deeper spirit of engagement with the game begin? On the jersey, we are told.

The idea of the team jersey as an inviolable space reflects, to my mind, the interesting and self-contradictory magical thinking that undergirds the attitude towards professional sports in North America. In the United States, a nation whose identity is very much defined by its self-conception as a culture of liberty-chasing, free-market entrepreneurs, the business of professional sports is run and protected by powerful cartels that disregard supply and demand and other economic imperatives at every turn. For all of America’s stereotyped conceptions of European society, its major football leagues operate more closely on free market principles than the North American Big Four leagues.

Football clubs that lose money, run up debts, or are otherwise characterized by financial malfeasance are punished in competitive terms: Glasgow Rangers, the Toronto Maple Leafs of Scottish football (to Old Firm rival Glasgow Celtic’s Montreal Canadiens), were busted down to the fourth tier of the national competition pyramid after the liquidation of the club’s corporate entity in 2012. Competitive failures, in turn, carry economic consequences through the promotion/relegation system, wherein the clubs with a given league’s worst records are dropped to a lower division, replaced by that lower division’s best. Profits are higher in the better leagues, lower in the weaker ones, commensurate to the level of competition. Such regulations applied to the NHL would have driven storied franchises like the Oilers and Leafs out of the league as they have gone through recent cellar-dwelling spells, and money-losing Sun Belt franchises like the Panthers and Arizona Coyotes would have slid to lower levels or simply folded rather than been propped up by revenue sharing and league ownership.

Professional sports in Canada and the United States increasingly reflect the state of capitalism in those countries. In spite of corporate elites’ self-image as self-reliant, trailblazing individualists, their business model relies on being sheltered and protected from market forces, propped up by government subsidies and tax breaks, coccooned in silky privilege. This state of things could be roughly equated with the similar notion of some lingering core of pure spirit surviving deep in the game of hockey despite being blanketed by smothering corporatism. There is some flickering light of the sublime glowing in the heart of a sport like hockey, on that its many devoted fans can agree. But the extent to which it can be believed in on its own terms and not as another commodity, as a mere platitude in a marketing campaign, is unclear.

Categories: Culture, Sports

Film Review: The Damned United

September 20, 2014 Leave a comment

The Damned United (2009; Directed by Tom Hooper)

“I apologize unreservedly for being a twat.” So commences the solemn oath that Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) is made to swear by his longtime football management partner and (only?) friend, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall). On his knees in a driveway in Brighton, the outspoken, self-aggrandizing Clough must be humbled in order to accept the infusion of humility that Taylor provides and that is integral to the success of their partnership. The Damned United might be the best film ever made about British football (not a very crowded field, admittedly), and it encompasses many of the pathologies that permeate the game in its land of origin: class concerns, corporatization, skills and aesthetics vs. toughness and ruthless success, and masculine competitiveness. But at its soul it’s a bromance of frank sincerity: when the sundered Clough and Taylor reconcile on that Brighton driveway, it’s with a near-romantic affection. One half-expects a cathartic liplock with a swelling, emotional manipulative score.

But I am beginning at the end. The Damned United begins in the middle, with flashbacks to preceding events intercut with those in the text’s present, 1974. Clough, a former England international turned abrasive but successful manager, has taken the head job at Leeds United, recently vacated by his self-conceived rival Don Revie (Colm Meaney), who has left to manage the English national team after a crashing World Cup qualification failure. Leeds was the premier outfit in English domestic football under the exacting Revie, snatching league titles and cups with a bruising, pragmatic style featuring lots of fouls, simulation, and even referee intimidation. Clough, with an ample assist from Taylor and his sublime talent-scouting abilities, is a big-mouthed upstart, leading second-tier provincial club Derby County into the top flight and then to the top division title even as he alienates his club’s dollar-sensitive, cigar-chomping chairman, Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent).

The flashbacks to his Derby County success are juxtaposed with his brief but disastrous tenure at Leeds United (without the moderating Taylor, decamped to Brighton & Hove Albion), which ended after a mere 44 days, a handful of losses, and a combined player and boardroom revolt against his authority. Director Tom Hooper and his team craft a compelling portrait of Northern England in the rootless 1970s, all geometrically-arranged row houses, muddy football pitches, wood-panelled offices, and sickly-lit hallways with peeling paint. In one striking sequence, Clough sweats out a league rematch with Leeds from his Derby County office, smoking, drinking, and pacing while the multitudes on the terrace leap up and vocalize as one for every goal, chance, or foul.

The Damned United leans hard on Michael Sheen as Clough, and it’s almost unfair how unerringly good he is. Sheen’s Clough is racked by insecurity and feelings of insignificance that feed into his egomania and silver-tongued arrogance, which he deploys more as a defence mechanism than as expression of his true desires. Sheen uses his self-satisfied jackal smile to suggest profound, disavowed self-doubt. His rapid rise with Derby County is psychologically diagnosed as being motivated by a slight by Revie, who did not shake his hand or even acknowledge him when Leeds visited Derby for a FA Cup tie. Clough is Salieri to Revie’s footballing Mozart (although Clough himself surpassed Revie’s club accomplishments later in the ’70s with Nottingham Forest, who won two straight European Cups to the zero for Revie’s Leeds).

But this Yorkshire Salieri has a closer confidant than a mere visiting priest in Spall’s conscientious Taylor, and The Damned United is unequivocal in its assertion that it’s their collaboration that made Derby County and Nottingham Forest great. Unlike Sheen as Clough and Meaney as Revie, the squat, earthy Spall does not much resemble the silver-maned Taylor at all, but he’s a fine choice to act as a human conscience to the blazing Clough. Sheen and Spall construct one of the great sports-movie bromances almost without our noticing until that deeply-felt conclusion. In doing so, they enshrine the intensely homosocial nature of English football as a brasher, more cutthroat proletarian echo of the aristocratic club-bound patriarchy that runs the United Kingdom in their time (and, without much variation, in our own).

Categories: Film, Reviews, Sports

Joy and Loathing at the World Cup

Once every four years, a month of summer is set aside by one of the world’s most bloated and corrupt sporting bureaucracies to pit national team against national team to determine the country able to field the best collection of players of the most popular sport on the globe. The cost is enormous, jingoistic nationalism and offensive stereotypes are given full voice, the American media establishment sniffs in glib imperialist disapproval, and some occasionally pretty spectacular football is played. Millions – billions – watch in rapt attention the world over, even in mostly unconverted North America, where immigrant heritage emblazons temporary noisy loyalty to faraway athletes wearing national colours. It’s at once a glorious display and the ultimate guilty pleasure, the discriminatory assumptions of the worldwide economic order marking the event even more strongly than, say, the Olympics.

And yet this contradictory nature, the World Cup’s comfort and delight coexisting with its stark illustration of international socioeconomic gulfs and intra-national mistrust and prejudice, is what makes the event so appealing and even cathartic. As a large-scale, highly-corporatized major sporting event, the World Cup is necessarily compromised by commercialization and sponsorship, to say nothing of the darker, murkier side of backroom dealings, match-fixing and illegal bribery that continues to dog high-level football. The hubristic greed and cluelessness of FIFA, as embodied by its evident shameless President Sepp Blatter of Switzerland, has 2014FIFAWorldCupgathered into a perfect storm not around the current World Cup in Brazil but the 2022 edition, granted to the tiny Persian Gulf petro-emirate of Qatar. Qatar’s World Cup, though still eight years off, has been jeopardized by allegations of bribery, reports of thousands of migrant worker deaths in the construction of the facilities for the tournament, and concerns about player health and safety in the scorching daytime desert heat and about visitor freedom and security in a Muslim state where alcohol, homosexuality, and many women’s rights are strictly forbidden. Moving the World Cup to winter has been discussed (though this would seriously disrupt the intricately-scheduled domestic league season across the game’s upper echelons in Europe), and FIFA Executive Committee members have even suggested that a vote may be taken to strip host Qatar of the competition altogether.

Current host Brazil, one of the most football-mad nations on the planet whose national team’s iconic successes (and failures) are an inextricable part of the country’s image and character, has not been immune to similar intrusions of real-world problems into the impeccable sports fantasy of the World Cup. Protests have riven the country over the government spending on the event, with inquiries and disclosures into the nature and amount of funds spent supported by the legendary striker Romário. Brazil has a long history of misuse of public funds, like many developing nations where socioeconomic gaps remain considerable, and such suspicion is usually richly merited.

This tension, along with the obvious, glaring problems with the Qatar bid that appear to have been swept aside by avalanches of cash, illustrate the animating contradictions of a sport run by a wealthy elite but whose grassroots appeal reaches deep into the poorer quarters of the globe for both its on-field talent and off-field enthusiasts. Just as football has often staged international conflicts (England vs. Argentina) and sectarian divisions (“Protestant” Rangers vs. “Catholic” Celtic) as safe, non-warlike athletic spectacle, it likewise stages its fundamental socioeconomic disparities as object lessons of larger forces at work on the economics of the sport.

What continues to amaze about the World Cup, however, is how all of these concerns drop away when the ball is kicked off and the world’s greatest footballers contest its greatest prize. The 2014 World Cup has already proven rich and exciting, with close games won in the late stages and a flood of goals, many of them quite magnificent. The central dramatic storyline of the tournament – whether host Brazil can win the World Cup on home soil after falling agonizingly, traumatically short when the nation last hosted the tournament in 1950 – has some compelling historical heft, and the history of the game does often privilege larger-than-life narratives. But football is, above all, an aesthetic experience unlike any other sport, and the World Cup, with its visual background of chanting fans in national colours and foreground of amazing athletic feats, is its quadrennial masterpiece, painted in full motion. Glory and triumph of the victors aside, this kaleidoscopic display of national distinctions and enduring commonality beyond all political, social, and cultural divisions is the fleeting shot of joy that the World Cup offers a wearied post-capitalist, post-imperial, post-colonial global village. The World Cup is as beautiful as it is ugly. How like life.

Donald Sterling and Dani Alves: Reactions to Public Racism in Contrast

April 29, 2014 Leave a comment

This afternoon the NBA announced that it has fined Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling $2.5 million and banned him from the league for life after the notoriously slimy character was recorded uttering racist statements to his girlfriend, including a now-infamous exhortation not to bring African-Americans to his team’s games as her guests, even if they happen to be famous former stars like Earvin “Magic” Johnson. It was a strong response from the league, and one that may lead to a protracted battle with Sterling over compensation for the team he is now likely to be forced to sell (if 75% of his fellow franchise owners vote him out, that is).

Sterling is a loathsome reptile whose rights and actions, such as they are in legal ownership terms, were difficult to defend even before this latest episode exposing his bigotry. But a loathsome reptile with huge piles of capital can slide on through a lot of difficulties, and Sterling has done so in the past. For this reason, it’s surprising and indeed almost shocking that the hammer is being brought down so swiftly and powerfully by the NBA. Racism as blatant and as indefensible as that which Sterling has demonstrated is almost universally reviled but rarely punished by institutions quite this strongly, this deliberately and publically.

Golden State Warriors fans amusingly protest Donald Sterling’s derisive comments regarding bringing African-Americans to “his” games during a playoff game against Sterling’s LA Clippers

Still, a prejudiced old white man with millions of dollars being punished for open discrimination in this way is in many ways a necessary public sacrifice for a social system that still benefits from discriminatory practices in many ways. NBA players, often African-Americans from lower-income backgrounds, earn lucrative contracts and comfortable livings thanks to their athletic and genetic gifts, but the billionaires who issue their paycheques reap even greater financial benefits. To whatever extent the arrangement is mutually beneficial, owners are surely the greater beneficiaries. As Chris Rock put it, Shaquille O’Neal is rich, but the white man who signs his cheque is wealthy.

The NBA is a majority African-American league that is deeply associated with black urban culture in the public eye, and no doubt felt a responsibility not only to its players, its fanbase and to the wider public but also to the maintenance of its marketing image to make a muscular statement against minority discrimination. Indeed, one could be inclined to argue that the league’s second-tier status among the major North American professional sports leagues – behind the hegemonic NFL and MLB and ahead of the more niche-level NHL – could be at least partly due to lingering racial prejudice among white American (and Canadian) sports fans.

I won’t get into that any more deeply, but dismissive sniffs at the league’s often-cocky and individualistic “culture” might come from a similar deep place of historical white supremacy as equivalent criticisms of hip-hop or of African-American culture in general do as well. But the very structure of the league – wealthy white men becoming wealthier on the back of the labour of young African-American males – itself echoes the Southern slaveowning order, if not quite as much as big-time college sports (at least NBAers are making a not inconsiderable salary for their pains; college players earn not a cent until a sliver of a percentage of them go pro). And so the central, centrist source of authority replied to this irruption of open racial insensitivity much as the American federal government reacted to the fall of the slaveowning South after the Civil War: by punishing particularly visible perpetrators of the unequal socioeconomic arrangement (Sterling as latter-day plantation owner) while leaving the underlying discriminatory assumptions of that same system essentially intact.

An alternative reaction to public acts of racist discrimination was demonstrated this past weekend across the ocean on a football pitch in Spain. In the midst of La Liga giants FC Barcelona’s fixture against Villareal, a fan derisively tossed a banana at Barca’s mixed-race Brazilian right back Dani Alves as he prepared to take a corner kick. A sadly common and moronic gesture meant to equate a player of African descent with a banana-eating ape, such racist displays have lead to players walking off the field in protest and hefty FIFA-levied fines to home teams at stadiums where such incidents occur. Alves’ reaction was, as you can see below, more casual and yet more profound.

Cool as anything, Alves reduced a hateful act to an appreciative laugh. A moment of dark humanity becomes a moment of light humanity. Using humour or satire to exposes discriminatory structures has a controversial history (just ask Stephen Colbert), but Alves’ act of defiance in the face of another burst of international football’s simmering racist issue was so nonchalant and elegant (just like the on-pitch style of top footballers like Alves) that it has taken on a shade of the iconic. The video of the moment went viral well beyond the circles of the sport, and has inspired a meme of banana-consuming selfies from other footballers and fans in solidarity.

Alves’ non-protest protest echoes Henry Louis Gates Jr. theoretic framework laid out in the The Signifying Monkey. Gates delineates the African-American discursive practice of signifyin(g) as a deeply-rooted cultural form of rhetorical and metaphorical appropriation and recasting as commentary on social and cultural conditions. Distinctions are made between oppositional signifying, which challenges and negatively critiques, and cooperative signifying, which “encodes admiration and respect”. Although the Brazilian Alves comes from a very different cultural source than any African-American, eating some of the banana utilized as an object of prejudice constitutes oppositional signifying disguised in the non-confrontational form of cooperative signifying. The crude racist implication is that Dani Alves, as a person of colour, is a monkey who likes bananas. “You’re damn right I like bananas”, Dani Alves implies, “many humans do, so watch me eat some banana. Yum.” This is not to say that how Dani Alves handled a casual, unthinking racist act is better or worse than how the NBA handled a very widely-disseminated and considered racist act. But there’s more than one way to peel a banana.

A Mullet in the Wind: The Retirement of Ryan Smyth

April 11, 2014 Leave a comment

After an even 20 seasons in the NHL, aging Edmonton Oilers forward Ryan Smyth has announced his retirement and will play his final game in the league Saturday night against the Vancouver Canucks. Probably the team most’s iconic and popularly beloved player of its post-championship-dynasty period, Smyth hailed from Banff, Alberta, loved the Oilers growing up, and was legendarily hit by 1980s Oiler scoring star Glenn Anderson’s car while working at a hotel in his hometown (they were later teammates in one of Smyth’s first seasons and one of Anderson’s first). Even if he was not an Oiler for his entire career (he was painfully traded away in 2007, only to demand a trade back in 2011), Smyth is identified with the team and the city and its perceived work ethic and tenacity as no player has been since local product Mark Messier in the Cup years.

Edmonton Oilers v Ottawa SenatorsFollowing hard on the heels of the trading of fellow longtime Oilers (and 2006 Stanley Cup Final run principals) Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff, Smyth’s retirement cuts the final tether connecting the last great Oilers team and this motley current crew of massively talented but perenially disappointing young players. As steady and effective as Horcoff could be, as exciting as Hemsky’s sublime bursts of skill were, they were neither of them the folk hero that the man known as Smytty (hockey nicknames leave much to be desired) became locally. In a town with a self-image tied in with tough, dirty oil field labour and other related proletarian overtones, Smyth was the exemplar of on-ice spade work and grim, gutsy determination that has come to define not only Edmonton’s conception of “good” hockey but Canada’s as well. His defining on-ice moment for many fans came during the second round of the 2006 playoffs, when he lost three teeth to an errant puck but returned in the same game to set up Horcoff for a triple-overtime winner (the only decent video of the lost teeth incident features some tacky and uninformed Chris Pronger hate, but there you go). It’s a moment out of old-time, smash-mouth hockey lore; had the Oilers gone one win further that spring and won the Cup, the teeth would have ended up in the Hockey Hall of Fame (who knows, they still might, though their former owner may not).

Despite this lunchbucket reputation, Smyth was a tremendously skilled player as well, topping 400 goals and 850 points for his NHL career. He was a scorer in his heyday, a power play specialist (tied for most PP goals all-time for the Oilers, topping the list with one more against the Canucks would be a sweet finish) and not a puncher or grinder. The tenacity and tolerance for punishment that characterized his front-of-net office on the man advantage were often emphasized, but the excellent hand-eye coordination and anticipation to screen goalies or deflect shots or bang home loose pucks before defending opponents could beat him to it testified to a high level of skill and ability. If his hard-working rep brought him closer to his fans, his gifted talents separated him from and set him above them. Like all great hockey icons, Ryan Smyth could seem both larger-than-life and just like the men and women rooting for him from the stands or the barstools or the couches.

For my part, I well recall persistent Smytty in-jokes among myself and my Oiler fan friends. His habit of scoring shovel-in goals from in close to the net (this one from the 2006 Finals is an object lesson; how did it go in?) inspired the running joke that he scored every goal with his head like a soccer striker. His flowing hair likewise lead to a nickname that never shook itself from my head: Mullet in the Wind. Now, with Ryan Smyth’s career nearly at its end, adapting the lyrics of a famous Elton John musical elegy to the departed to include this phrase is indeed a tempting final tribute.

Categories: Edmonton Oilers, Sports

Sports Documentary Review: 30 For 30 #7: The Two Escobars

January 26, 2014 Leave a comment

The dark, twisting tale of drugs, football, and murder told in The Two Escobars is a deep tragedy in many ways. The Zimbalist brothers’ riveting, propulsive documentary tracing the connections between infamous Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar and the similarly-named (but not blood-related) Colombian football star Andrés Escobar gives depth, context, emotion, and terrible immediacy to a shocking incidence of violence (many of them around the same time in troubled early ’90s Colombia, in fact).

But it pinpoints a grander tragedy as a result of the specific loss of the footballer Escobar, shot and killed shortly after scoring an own goal that doomed the highly-touted Colombian national team’s chances at the 1994 World Cup. The incident has been caricaturized by those who would dismiss the world’s most popular sport out of hand, who would paint its passionate fans with the same brush and define them all, but especially those in Latin America, as dangerous, irrational zealots who will kill for on-field allegiances. Smug North Americans will cite the Escobar killing, without details or nuance or even proper names, to dismiss “soccer” as barbaric, all while ignoring the logs in the eyes of their own sports of choice.

twoescobarsThe Two Escobars treats its twin subjects, its dual loci of fuzzy infamy, while tremendous seriousness and detail. The Zimbalists craft a narrative of late 1980s/early 1990s Colombia as a country marinating in the crooked profits of the cocaine cartels, with the larger-than-life Pablo Escobar, chief of the Medellín cartel, presiding over it all like a mustachioed Zeus. Though undoubtedly a ruthless, murderous criminal overlord whose operation sparked a level of violence and terror in Colombia that is almost unfathomable now, Pablo was hardly the one-dimensional villain that the American “war on drugs” rhetoric painted him as being. His associates (including his enforcer “Popeye”, who claims from inside prison to have personally killed 250 people, though “only a psychopath keeps count”) speak of him as a man of certain moral principles and codes that he refuses to transgress, unlike the drug lords who succeeded him. When he wasn’t sticking to this upright code by assassinating judges and government ministers who oppose his dealings, Pablo Escobar was a champion of the poor in the South American populist tradition. This meant using his huge profits from the cocaine trade (Forbes Magazine had him on their billionaries list in 1989 with a net worth of $3 billion) at least partially to build housing for Colombia’s vast underclass; upon his assassination in 1993, he was given a martyr’s farewell by lower-income Colombians at his chaotic funeral.

But Pablo Escobar was most passionate about football, and spent on it accordingly, building football pitches alongside the housing in low-income communities across the country. The Two Escobars also takes as fact that the drug lord funded Medellín club Atlético Nacional’s unprecedented rise in club football, climaxing with a Copa Libertadores title as South America’s top team in 1989. Although other rival cartels funded rival clubs, Nacional’s renaissance coincided with that of the national team, both of which were led by a steady, skilled defender named Andrés Escobar. A devout, earnest, and patriotic sort (at least according to his worshipful loved ones and teammates, who treat him as a martyred saint), Andrés is shown to chafe underneath the swirl of illegality that has at least partly made his opportunity for sporting glory possible. He also engages in philanthropic works to assuage his guilt, but still doesn’t feel quite right about being supported and fêted by a mass-murdering drug kingpin.

Matters come to a deadly head for both Escobars in the space of half a year, as Pablo is hunted down by his legion of domestic and international enemies and Andrés makes a high-profile on-field blunder that makes him a target as well. The death of Andrés is shown to be much more complex than conventional belief has held, not merely a case of disgruntled fans or even gambling criminals seeking revenge but perhaps more than indirectly related to the power vacuum in the underworld that the fall of Pablo Escobar created.

Like the best of the 30 For 30 films, The Two Escobars vividly illustrates the convergence of social forces and sport, demonstrating that neither is isolated from the other in either cultural stimuli or effects. It’s instructive to compare it with Catching Hell, another instance of a single error that affects on-field results leading to mass blame and ugliness. That Andrés Escobar did not survive the aftermath of his mistake and Steve Bartman survived the aftermath of his (albeit as a recluse) might only be a statement on the comparative levels of social stability and order in their given contexts.

But The Two Escobars may be the best film in the series, all told, as it tells its story with gravity and verve. Its documentation of Colombia’s social and political mayhem is painful and harrowing, and the transmutation of that hurt and tension into the glorious, kinetic joy of the national team’s World Cup qualification campaign marks it as a great sports film as well. When the upheaval and uncertainty back home works its way into the team’s game in the World Cup in the U.S., it operates as a disease, a phage that takes victims with virulent mercilessness. Andrés Escobar is not the only victim, only the most prominent, the most talismanic. Colombian football itself, the closing of the film suggests, is the ultimate victim (although the national team will be in this summer’s World Cup, its first finals trip since 1998, albeit possibly without recently injured star Radamel Falcao). The price eventually paid for the meteoric leap that Colombian soccer took under the financial support of the cartels was a steep one.

Categories: Culture, Film, Reviews, Sports

The Significant Complexities of an Errant Quenelle (And Other Words About French Things)

January 22, 2014 Leave a comment

Something very interesting, rather odd, and slightly complex has unfolded on the margins of international football’s richest league over the past month of so. To understand its intricate, sometimes self-contradictory workings, a bit of explicating is necessary. If you can stay with me, I’ll try to help it make sense, although I must warn you that it involves the confusing politics of the European hard right, questionable Continental humour, fisting references, several French people, and, most terrifying of all, a football club from Birmingham, England.

After scoring a goal against West Ham United in a Premier League match on December 28th, West Bromwich Albion striker Nicolas Anelka performed a celebratory gesture that was slightly obscure to many English spectators and surely wholly unintelligible to North American observers. With one arm pointed diagonally downwards, palm open, Anelka touched that arm’s shoulder with his other hand. On its surface, as you can see in the photo below, it seems a pretty innocuous gesture, especially as far as famously flamboyant professional football goals celebrations go.

But below the surface lay darker associations. The gesture is referred to as a “quenelle”, and is anything but innocuous, regardless of how it might be interpreted. Invented by French-Cameroonian comedian and political activist Dieudonné M’bala M’bala and now widely considered his trademark, the quenelle is a rude French working-class equivalent of flipping the bird or, more specifically, of the expression “up yours”. I leave it up to your curiosity to trace the convoluted connections of the name (which is actually a seafood dish) to the gesture and its implications (fisting, pretty much) in the Wikipedia link, if you will. Suffice it to say that it’s popularly associated with Dieudonné and his outspoken views, and Anelka is a friend of his who offered the gesture as a tribute and/or expression of support.

Dieudonné requires expressions of support, you see, because he’s often accused of flirting with antisemitism in his comedy and public statements. Although he rose to prominence with a Jewish comedian partner and ran for office against Jean-Marie Le Pen‘s quasi-fascist right-wing political party, the National Front, Dieudonné has since migrated closer to the socially-conservative, anti-immigrant, and often racist rightist popular movement in France. In addition to rapprochement with former adversary Le Pen (who is godfather to one of the comedian’s daughters), Dieudonné has depicted an Israeli settler as a Nazi on television, referred to the Holocaust as “memorial pornography” and has invited deniers to appears at his shows, and suggested it was a pity a Jewish journalist critical of him was not sent to the gas chambers. After being convicted on antisemitism charges eight times, Dieudonné has seen his live shows banned across France. To say he’s a controversial figure is, as you can imagine, a bit of an understatement.

Now, the quenelle is arguably not overtly antisemitic in intent or symbolism, though critics have suggested (imaginatively) that it does resemble an inverted Nazi salute. Dieudonné generally argues that it is an anti-establishment gesture, and it was on these grounds that Anelka has also defended it since the English FA charged him for making it against West Ham. “Up yours, oppressive system!” is the meaning suggested by its creator. The problem is that Dieudonné has become so closely associated with antisemitic statements (anti-Zionist, he claims, if there’s a meaningful distinction to be found) that it requires considerable mental effort to avoid the conclusion that the “system” being criticized so crudely and sexually in this gesture is not melded with conspiratorial conceptions of secretive Jewish power-brokers straight out of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The political messaging and the source of it would seem so deeply incongruous as to baffle North American observers. Far right antisemitic sympathies are not unknown on this side of the pond, but they are rarely if ever upheld by anyone but self-conceived Aryans. Why – how – can these protectionist views be held by a mixed-race Frenchman of half-African descent, a direct product of immigrants himself and an inferior subhuman under the aegis of the Nazi-derived Aryan ideology that he’s irresponsibly flirting with? To what extent do Anelka and Dieudonné’s legions of fans and supporters understand the implications of this flirtation, of the volatile “jokes” he engages in, and how much is their repetition of the statement a simple act of aggressive, supposed rebellion? And how much is Dieudonné seeking to satirize social and cultural sensitivity about taboo subjects, a time-honoured staple of edgy comedy product? Most vitally, is he succeeding at that?

The complex, simmering tensions in contemporary European society are writ large here, no doubt. Immigration from outside the continent has transformed long-insular societies like France’s into uncomfortable mosaics and strained its institutions and deepest ideals, sometimes beyond the breaking point, as seen in the intermittent banlieue riots, particularly those in Paris in 2005. But football has, in recent decades, provided a blueprint for an ideal of microcosmic cooperative efforts between Gauls of disparate ethnic backgrounds. Indeed, the country’s greatest recent sporting triumph, the 1998 World Cup title, was won by a team led by a midfield wizard of Algerian descent and featured many black Frenchmen in prominent roles. How symptomatic of a reactionary and uncertain political moment in French history that football now instead provides a confused and disturbing opportunity to express confused and disturbing ideas in the mass sphere.