Simmons vs. Gladwell: The Future of Football

Bill Simmons, writing for The Ringer:

Forty years from now, we won’t remember a specific concussion that transformed the way we watched football. I remember joking about Troy Aikman’s Concussion Face in columns as recently as the early 2000s (and only because I didn’t know any better). I remember my feelings slowly shifting after that unforgettably violent Steelers-Ravens playoff game in 2009, a night plagued by multiple knockouts and a 30-second span when we thought Willis McGahee was dead. Not hurt — DEAD. I remember Jamaal Charles getting rocked in the 2013 Colts-Chiefs wild-card game, then being examined on the sideline and realizing, “Holy shit, it’s the playoffs and he’s still not coming back.” I remember Julian Edelman getting belted late in Super Bowl XLIX, right after his season-saving third-down catch over the middle, and talking myself into Edelman NOT being concussed … but only because of the stakes.

These dicey moments have changed how we watch football, that’s for sure. Twenty years ago, I would have written a joke about the Luke Kuechly Concussion Face and moved on to the next riff. Now I’m a little haunted by it. We have too much information about head injuries. I feel like an accomplice. Everyone wondered why the NFL’s ratings slipped for those first nine weeks, but Malcolm, maybe it starts there?

Is there a better combination of brains than Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell to discuss sports and pop culture in a slightly wordy, nerdy way that feels relatable while also academic? Maybe when Bill teams up with Chuck Klosterman? Imagine if the three of them just sat around watching TV all day? It could be its own channel.


Alex Rodriguez: Alien

Jeb Lund, writing for Rolling Stone:

So, tonight, he will not take the field in his final game, apparently too much of a liability for a team trying to convince itself that it's not going nowhere—a team that spent 2014 driving a .256/.304/.313-hitting Derek Jeter around the country in a ceremonial glass float like the Baseball Pope while local burghers at every MLB outpost heaved offertories at him.

A-Rod won't get anything so lavish. After 696 career home runs, he'll get a pregame ceremony, take his at bats, give a curtain call at the dugout and retire – that pre-funeral decades in advance of the real one.

I shield my eyes whenever I hear that small but vocal minority of Yankees fans who never warmed to A-Rod start yapping about “Real Yankees.”


The Outsized Life of Muhammad Ali

David Remnick, writing for The New Yorker:

In his early career, when he declared his allegiance to Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, rid himself of his “slave name,” and lost his heavyweight title rather than fight in Vietnam, Ali was vilified as much as he was admired. Millions hated Ali; he threatened a sense of the racial order; he was, in his refusal to conform to any type, as destabilizing to many Americans as he was to the many heavyweights who could not understand why he would just not come to the center of the ring and fight like a real man. He was, for many years, a radical figure for many Americans. For years, many refused to call him by his new name. “I pity Clay and abhor what he represents,” the columnist Jimmy Cannon wrote. Even Red Smith, the most respected of all sports columnists, compared Ali to the “unwashed punks” who dared to march against the war. 

If you read one Muhammad Ali piece, make it this one.


The Unbearable Whiteness of Baseball

Jay Caspian Kang, writing for The New York Times Magazine:

Baseball used to be seen as a reflection of the country’s progress on race. Its 1947 integration, which predated the Civil Rights Act by 17 years, has been upheld as a sign of the sport’s essentially democratic spirit; generations of writers and thinkers, like Philip Roth, Don DeLillo and Chris Rock, found in baseball an embodiment of America’s great experiment, contradictions and all. But there was always a saccharine dimension to the idealism about the game: Baseball represented a very particular, buttoned-up version of American identity, and players who deviated from it were often subject to harsh criticism.

I came of age during the reign of Ken Griffey Jr. My god, was he cool. And as all of my teammates were flipping their caps around and wiggling their shoulders and hips at the plate and perfecting the art of nonchalantly catching fly balls, I was being instructed to disregard all of it—wearing your cap backwards was akin to wearing a sign on your chest that said, I Don't Take Baseball Seriously; trying to emulate Griffey's stance would ruin your swing; not catching a fly ball with two hands would surely, at some point, lose a game for The Team.


What Happened When Venture Capitalists Took Over the Golden State Warriors

Bruce Schoenfeld, writing for The New York Times Magazine:

The N.B.A. demands that each franchise confer one owner, regardless of stake size, with nearly dictatorial power. Lacob wields his softly, just as he typically sits in the back of corporate board meetings without saying much, absorbing information, then guiding the discussion toward a decision. “I’m a professional listener,” he told me. “There’s a lot of smart people in the world, you know. I’m not the smartest. I’m just an integrator. The N.B.A. isn’t like the outside world. I can do whatever I want. But you don’t treat people that way.”

Even teams in small markets cost hundreds of millions of dollars these days. Unless you’re Steve Ballmer, the former Microsoft chief who spent $2 billion on the Los Angeles Clippers without the help of outside investors, most potential owners don’t have the wherewithal, or the gumption, to finance a purchase themselves. But rather than money without strings attached — investors who would have little involvement beyond writing checks — Lacob and Guber purposefully sought out entrepreneurs and businessmen with attributes and access that complemented their own. “Everyone he’s partnered with has a strategic reason to be there,” says Dennis Mannion, C.E.O. of the Detroit Pistons, who has held executive positions with teams in all four major American sports leagues. “You have this phenomenal bullpen of talent.”

So after the shareholder Dennis Wong, the managing director of SPI Holdings, advised Lacob on the real estate purchase for the new arena, Walecka helped with the financing. When I spoke with Swinmurn, he reeled off rapid-fire opinions on the design of the Warriors’ branded attire, the type of food sold at the concession stands and other disparate topics. Occasionally, minority partners can even influence what happens on the court. John Burbank of Passport Capital, who uses a deep knowledge of mathematics in his own investments, contributes detailed memos applying complex metrics to potential acquisitions. “I don’t know if any of it has 180ed us on a player,” Bob Myers, the Warriors’ general manager, told me, “but it has certainly moved us in a direction, one way or another. And he’s done it enough that it’s just the course of things now. It’s part of the process.”

This is a fascinating, engrossing piece of writing. I'm really worried now, too—all three of my favorite sports teams stand to be left in the dust if this is the future of sports ownership.


'Two men entered the ring for their first professional fight. Then something went wrong.'

Dan Barry, writing for The New York Times:

A fist of nerves, he walked down the glazed-tile stairwell to the finished basement, a space used for church dances and wedding banquets, but now an open locker room. Chandeliers glittered above the fighters trying to warm up and calm down, while the crowds upstairs cheered on the amateurs, including a sleepy-eyed 11-year-old who would knock out his grade-school opponent.

Taylor had longed for this moment. All those years of being picked on because of his size, all those street fights, all that anger needing redirection toward something constructive — all down to this. He had his hair in ropy dreadlocks and his tiger-patterned shorts, custom-made for $300, pulled high on his hardened torso.

Portable curtains in the basement separated the hometown favorites from the out-of-towners, the A’s from the B’s. Someone smart about boxing could walk in cold and tell which side was which. The local fighters are usually a notch above, in better shape, expected to win.

But Taylor’s been-around trainer, Jack Loew, heard this hammering sound, a whap, whap, whap-whap, from the curtain’s other side. He peeked and saw a sinewy teenager in red-and-white shorts pounding the outstretched mitts of his trainer with uncommon discipline. Whap-whap.

“We got a fighter,” Loew said to somebody.

Taylor was on his own side of the divide, warming up, when the curtain briefly parted to reveal his opponent. They made eye contact.

“Nothing like anger,” Taylor recalled. “Both nervous. Just looking at each other.”

The curtain closed.

This piece is told in several parts, from two different point of views, so it was hard to excerpt it. But I had to post it because it's beautiful writing employed to tell a terribly sad story about a violent sport. Savor this one.


N.F.L.’s Flawed Concussion Research and Ties to Tobacco Industry

Alan Schwarz, Walt Bogdanich, and Jacqueline Williams, writing for The New York Times:

The National Football League was on the clock.

With several of its marquee players retiring early after a cascade of frightening concussions, the league formed a committee in 1994 that would ultimately issue a succession of research papers playing down the danger of head injuries. Amid criticism of the committee’s work, physicians brought in later to continue the research said the papers had relied on faulty analysis.

Now, an investigation by The New York Times has found that the N.F.L.’s concussion research was far more flawed than previously known.

This is such a damning report that the NFL had a point-by-point statement ready to go to try and limit the damage, which The New York Times has already responded to. It seems impossible, but at some point in the next decade, I think we're going to see a paradigm shift in the American sports landscape. Football will eventually go away if it doesn't adapt.


MLB Gives Young Latin-American Players a Voice

Mark Feinsand, writing for The New York Daily News:

“That was a really tough night,” Pineda said. “I’m a little sensitive and I was sad. I wanted to explain everything. I forgot English, Spanish, everything that night.”

Beltran looked around the room and saw Masahiro Tanaka, Hiroki Kuroda and Ichiro Suzuki standing by their lockers with their own personal translators, ready to interpret their words at a moment’s notice.

“They all had their own guys, but when Pineda had the situation with the pine tar, it would have been great for him to have someone next to him so he could have expressed himself the way he wanted to express himself,” Beltran said. “There would have been no misinterpretation of how he was able to handle the media that day.”

I love sports, but I really love when sports provides us with something to aspire to, a map for how we can make the real world a better place. Imagine if we approached even half of the world's problems with the humility and care that this piece outlines?


Black & Blue

Patrick O’Sullivan, writing for The Player’s Tribune:

By the time I was 10, it got worse. He would put cigarettes out on me. Choke me. Throw full soda cans at my head. Every time I stepped on the ice, I knew that my play would determine just how bad I got it when we got home. I’d score a hat trick, and afterward we’d get in the car and he would tell me that I played “like a faggot” (that was his favorite term, which says a lot).

I thought it was normal. As a kid, you just don’t know any better. He would wake me up at 5 a.m. and force me to work out for two hours before school. I remember I had this heavy leather jump rope, and if he thought I wasn’t working hard enough, he would force me to take my shirt off and he’d whip me with it. If the jump rope wasn’t around, he would use an electrical cord.

He always stopped short of knocking me unconscious, because that would defeat his purpose. See, if I was passed out, I couldn’t train. 

This was a difficult one to get through. But, Sports Parents everywhere owe it to the Patrick O’Sullivans of the world to read it and learn the lessons.


‘Yankees Suck! Yankees Sucks!’ b/w No Pussy in the Pit

Amos Barshad, writing for Grantland:

LeMoine knew a guy in Sayreville, New Jersey, who ran the screen-printing business that made shirts for all the hardcore bands. On a whim, he ordered a small batch of shirts: “Ten Yard Fight” on the back, “Yankees Suck” emblazoned on the front. The night of Game 4, he headed to Fenway.

The T-shirts were an instant smash. In ’99, Boston was buzzing off the Sox’s appearance in the ALCS, and the streets were packed. The shirts started flying, not just to the hardcore kids waiting to say goodbye to their favorite band but to the masses heading into the park or spilling out of the bars of Lansdowne. They couldn’t tell you the first thing about Ten Yard Fight, but they knew that phrase, in that harsh sing-song cadence: Yan-kees Suck! Yan-kees Suck!

Twenty-four hours later, the Sox’s season was over. The Yankees won the series in five games and went on to repeat as World Series champions. But LeMoine was certain he was onto something. He sunk a couple thousand dollars into a small stock of shirts. And for the Sox’s home opener in 2000, he went out with a tiny crew, flapping forth a new version.

In line with hardcore’s aesthetics, the shirts were bare-bones. The phrase appeared in big block text in Berthold City Bold, the same font used by SS Decontrol. Effectively, it was the same logo as that of the hardcore zine Boiling Point. This time, the shirt featured just two words: Yankees Suck.

Unbelievable story. Excellent writing. But of course, there’s another side to tell, and Carolyn Zaikowski tells it with no holds barred:

First off, let’s get the biggest piece of mythology straightened out: the majority of these guys weren’t from Boston, or even its immediate surroundings. They were from wealthy suburbs, some over an hour away. Many of the folks highlighted in this article, including Ray LeMoine, screen-printer of kooky T-shirts and person I was friends with in high school, were from North Andover and Andover. To be clear, that’s about forty minutes north of Boston. Some went to elite high schools like Philips Academy. Many other “hardcore kids” I knew, including my high school boyfriend, were from the Lincoln-Concord area, one of the wealthiest places in the country, significantly west of Boston.

I’ll always be spurred on as a writer because of the simple fact that two words, just two words (Yankees Suck!) can be the jumping-off point for so much creative thinking and analysis.