Friday, September 25, 2009

Basketball on Football Violence!!

Why can't University of Kansas football and basketball teams get along. For the second time in two days fights broke out between the two teams on University of Kansas campus. In the first fight involving up to a hundred students, starting guard Tyshan Taylor guard had been sent to the hospital and will miss six weeks of the season. One day later another brawl erupted, but this time the basketball team seemed to walk away, which makes sense when you think of the odds.

I'm not sure why any basketball team would take on a football team. I mean--14 against 80? Point guards against defensive ends? It's simply not fair, actually it borders on just plain dumb.

These fights cut against one of the deepest myths and achievements of college sports, the ability to bring together many and diverse kids and forge a team identity among them. The ability to forge unity through from aggression. This is not the pros where few players are not willing to invest any strong identity in the team they are playing for. After all they may be traded to the team across the field tomorrow, or they may be signed by them as a free agent in a couple years. Pro sports dilutes the passionate team loyalty that college sport depends upon. This esprit de corp accounts for many of the unexpected victories that college sports springs upon us.

The emotional bonding with teammates helps rebuild the identities and self worth of the young players on these teams. In revenue sports, many come from socially disorganized backgrounds where religion, gang and sport may be the only affiliations that enabled them to survive.

The team affiliation and loyalty help structure an alternative identity that enable them to make use of aggression and violence in productive ways. Fellow members becomes guides and models of how to self-control. They also support academic work since modern NCAA rules make playing contingent upon progress towards a degree.

So the team versus team violence in Kansas challenges us all to remember how this loyalty can cut both ways. Team loyalty should be a way station, a means to help young men organize their energy and aggression in a productive way that can graduate them to wider affiliations and loyalties to their school, profession and society. They are midwives for growth.

But team loyalties like all tribal loyalties can engender resentment and anger towards the "other" the outsider, the other team. Few pros buy into their "they are the enemy" but 19 year olds do in their lives, in their games, in their armies and in their sports. So violence flares between the two teams both of the same school, wearing the same colors and same loyalties.

It all seemed to start from simmering anger over a girl who switched loyalties or teams as it were. The switch became a collective insult that spread across both teams. They are kids who have each others back. The anger and insults spread to internet and bar taunts. The fights remind us again and again that the colleges in revenue sports recruit young men from rough backgrounds, exploit that aggression and anger and generate glory, stature and money from it. But this spills out into real life and we need the team loyalty to provide the matrix of discipline and focus to channel and graduate it.

When it turns on itself, we get football on basketball violence in our own colleges.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Myles Brand--an Unsung Legacy

Myles Brand, philosopher, University President, President of NCAA died on Wednesday. Accolades are justly showered upon him. But time and again one story is mentioned, he fired the loony and untouchable Bobby Knight as coach of Indiana. This focus is incredibly unfair to Brand as a person and leader. It touches on one moment that proved a President could stand up to a star coach. I cannot hope to do justice to him and his wide accomplishments but I want to mention three hidden aspects of his legacy that live on in the daily lives of students and members of NCAA.

First, he pushed hard for the academic reforms that permeate NCAA colleges and universities right now. After decades of exploiting student athletes with low graduation rates and perfunctory eligibility, Myles Brand and the Presidents asserted a critical level of control and implemented a series of reforms that are producing results and limiting some of the exploitations.

The reforms produced an alphabet soup of acronyms APR, PTD, GSR etal. The gist of all these reforms is that they were driven by data that identified the critical leverage points for ensuring that student athletes progress toward a legimate degree and graduate. They force colleges to monitor the quarterly, semester and yearly progress of student athletes. They demand that college athletic departments ensure the students are garnering 6 hours of credit, getting 27 and 36 hours per year and are choosing a real major as juniors. Most importantly the reforms align the interests of coaches with academic progress by imposing penalties upon teams that do not meet set graduation expectations and have students who leave the program ineligible.

None of these are perfect but from the ground level it means coaches have to take academic progress seriously to keep students eligible to avoid losing scholarships. The reforms ushered in a sea change in investment in academic support and coaching interest in moving students forward. At the day to day level where athletic support staff and faculty athletic representatives wrestle with coaches, students and athletic administrators to ensure academic significance, the reforms produces true leverage for academic proponents for the first time.

Second, he created an institution that is devoted to data collection. The NCAA is home to statisticians and huge data fields. He insisted that policy not be driven by anecdote, the latest mess or demands of lobbyists. Wherever possible, as befits an academic institution, policy was driven by what data identified as problems and as possible avenues of change. It made the solutions sometimes Byzantine but also transparent. It pushed the organization to collect data,think about issues and move forward. The data sets also hold a treasure trove for serious scholars of athletics and academics.

Finally, he relentlessly promoted diversity and racial and gender equity in intercollegiate athletics. The corporatist governance structure of th NCAA spawns large numbers of positions and requires balanced representation of many interests. The selection committees are under constant pressure to ensure racial and gender balance in their appointments to the governance structure. Numerous training and advancement programs have been sponsored to generate pipelines for younger minority and female administrators. He helped further a pipeline of diverse leaders and one of his most bitter disappointments was the NCAA's inability to increase the diversity of football coaches.

No one sees these daily activities. Cumulatively these unsung changes have nested in the heart of bureaucracies to advance the uneven cause of data driven policy, serious support for students who happen to be athletes, and social justice. For that I honor and miss him.

(Photo courtesy of Chronicle of Higher Education)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Plato would like Football

Plato believed the ultimate reality of life existed as perfect Platonic forms. In Plato's ideal world every person has a defined role. Each person is trained and placed in a position that he or she can perfect like in the diagram at the left. All the positions unite together to form the perfect political order. Each political order lives in a world of endless conflict with every other state. His utopian world is one of perfectly ordered societies where everyone has a role engaging in endless conflict with other states.

Welcome to the ideal world of football.

In all of athletics, no sport possesses such an array of defined specialities, and very few are interchangeable--linebackers do not become offensive linemen and linemen certainly do not become halfbacks. This specialization makes possible the elaborate plays and intellectual chess that occurs at each reset between plays. Each play resembles a Platonic ideal requiring perfect execution. Each player has intricate responsibilities with multiple options to engage on every play.

In Plato's utopia each person devoted their life to mastering their position. In football, all position players practice by themselves. The offense practices apart from the defense like two states in a confederation. All come together for scrimmages, but most of a football player's life is spent with their position coach and fellow position players. The specialization enables the incredible numbers of plays in a modern playbook as well as the infinite variations and reads that unfold with each play. Every player must recognize the multilayered patterns implied within each emerging play. No sport demands such intellectual and pattern recognition skills of each player. It is a game of head, discipline and violence. This generates possibilities that intrigue and infuriate avid followers.

The Platonic form of offense meets the Platonic form of defense. Each play unfolds as an ideal diagrammed in the coach's mind. Plato would be proud. And yet. And yet. The plays are run by humans, and the baroque diagrams of ideal play crash into the jostling reality of unpredictable improvising actions of humans. One side seeks offensive perfection, and an equally committed group of defenders strives to disrupt the perfection. The only time you see the ideal executed flawlessly occurs when football oligarchs bottom feed against hapless DII schools.

 Plato's utopia fell apart over conflict; football reaches its fulillment in that conflict.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Force, Violence & Football

On the first day of college football season at the end of a humiliating loss to Boise State, Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount, still in helmet and pads, punched a bare headed Bryon Hout. You can see it on U-Tube. Prior to that Blount had attacked his own players and later had to be restrained by police from attacking heckling fans.

All athletics requires controlled force. Football moves force into controlled violence. The sport demands athletes unleash physical force that can do significant harm to individuals. Players wear body armor and must follow exacting rules to minimize that harm. Football players must walk a fine line of disciplined violence. The force that all athletes require moves into violence when the force can cause damage to opponents, not just overcome them. Football players are warranted to hit, tackle, forearm, block, butt and physically engage other humans in ways that off the field would get them arrested for assault.

The violence of the game represents controlled force to move other players in directions or stop them from performing their assigned tasks. It requires immense strength of mind and character to develop and channel the coiled violence that lives in all good football players. If you have ever been on the sidelines of a football game you become aware of the speed, size and sophistication that accelerates the force and unleashes the violence of player to player collisions.

LaGarrette Blount's attack on Byron Hout exposed the violence that underlies the game. It felt naked. Blount still had his helmet on, but Hout was bareheaded.It felt unfair since the violence is controlled and designed to be force and the helmets are vital to protect players from the violence on each other. It's an incessant press upon everyone that can easily incite people to sheer violent actions out of the rules that prescribe limitations and intent to their actions. Two years ago a coach of the New York Giants literally stepped onto the field to trip a player while sideline incidents of coaches attacking players are not unheard of.

In his apology Blount got it right, "I lost my head." All athletics depends upon the head forging character and decision to control the physical forces and emotions required of the sport. Blount lost his head and discipline and attacked an unprepared opponent outside of the rules and without the protection of his helmet.

Blount losing it against his own teammates, Hout and the fans played into another reality and stereotype. A violent black man assaulted not only fellow black players but a white unprotected opponent. We know that the majority of high profile football players are recruited from harsh backgrounds where young minority males use football as their way out. Their discipline and commitment provide the means to claw out of environments most of the middle class white spectators cannot imagine. The young men are raised in an environment saturated in violence and must transcend it to get a college scholarship. The paradox is they get out by learning to master and deploy their own internal rage in a sport that depends upon that swirling vortex of energy.

Good coaches and team cultures figure out how to integrate this violence into a self discipline controlled deployment of force for an end. The control must be both modeled by the coaches, pervade the culture of the team and be internalized by the players to make it work. It is also critical for the players to understand how to accept and internally master their own anger and motives that can fuel the force but spill over into violence. A first year drafted player at his first camp was taken aback by the fights that broke out on the field during the intensity of practice. He commented upon how the intensity of the practice trained him to figure out how to master and deploy the force. "The game of football is violent. Some teams embrace it, and some teams don't. We're one of the teams that embrace it...we're always trying to be on that edge, pushing it as far as we can without being overboard...It's usually the intensity not the violence that leads to the fights during practice." 

Blount's breakdown strips naked not only the violent structure of the sport but also reminds us that the colleges and professional teams harness and exploit that internal explosive force inside the young men. They exploit it.

Blount has been justly suspended from playing for the rest of the season. But Oregon is letting him keep his scholarship and practice with the team. The team benefitted from the coiled violence within him, now they should help him deal with it.

(Photo courtesy ESPN)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Funny Color Time: Football Autumns

The characters who are "Waiting for the Interurban" in the Fremont area of Seattle are now wearing purple and gold jerseys in honor of the start of college football on Saturday. The Washington Huskies all wear purple and gold. All over the country college alumni, fans and students will be wearing their college colors. Whole stadiums will be monochromatic. At Florida State garnet and gold will dominate the stands. In Michigan maize and blue waveswill role and at Nebraska blood red will announce the fate of opposing teams.

The colors bind us together. They proclaim our allegiance. Just as warriors wore them to identify themselves to each other through the ages, they bind people in recognition and support of a common cause. Walking through downtown if I wear a University of Washington shirt, people will inevitably say "Go Purple" or "Go Huskies." If they are from Washington State, they will make rude gestures or worse.

The colors may be silly, I mean who would pick orange and blue for Virginia (it used to be grey and crimson to celebrate the blood shed by the grey confederacy, what can I say, it's Virginia!) No self respecting daughter would let their dad leave the house clothed in maize and blue or purple and gold or green and gold like the Ducks of Oregon. But we do and our fashion conscious daughters and sons join us.

The colors connect us to our own memories of college or youth. They often may be one of the few things students at mega-universities have in common. They let us identify as tribe and nations. They help us participate in the rituals of being connected to others, connecting to a team or a history. And they permit us to do silly things, it's easier to yell and shout when everyone else around you is dressed in the same silly colors and doing the same. This is not always a good thing since it can encourage irresponsible behavior. Have you ever sat next to a group "Red Sox nation" people at a baseball game?

The colors even have their own histories and are very persnickety. Florida State is garnet. Alabama is crimson. Mississippi State is maroon. Don't confuse them. Princeton's orange comes from the William of Orange of the House of Nassau after which Princeton's first building is name. Michigan's notoriously ugly maize and blue comes from the graduation seal on 1859 diploma. Despite college marketing departments best efforts to tone colors down or make them more palatable, they remain gloriously resistant to fashionistas. You can compare old college and pro baseball and football colors, to the more market driven color coordinated marketing schemes of recent teams.

The start of college football is a time to celebrate bad taste in colors, ritual, symbols and the chance to announce who we are by the colors we wear.