Monday, October 25, 2010

Pistorius, Cheetahs, Fairness and Augmented Humans

Last year the  NBA banned a new shoe, one with springs in the soles designed to enable basketball players to jump higher. For a sport where the physical size and talent of athletes surpass the traditional physical space of the sport, this makes perfect sense. It once again reminds us how important it is to control technology to keep the athletic accomplishment scaled to human beings.

The press release announced that "Under league rules, players may not wear any shoe during a game that creates an undue competitive advantage," The key to most interventions like this lies in the equal playing field defense or the fairness argument. If players/teams of equal talent and skill compete, then the ethics of sports competition requires that the outcome be determined by the combination of skill, practice, commitment and energy that makes up the essence of athleticism. If one player/team wore different equipment and created a different outcome based upon the edge created solely by the equipment, then that equipment should be banned or everyone should have equal access to it. Sports, unlike modern sail boat racing is about level playing field competition not technological arms races.

I've argued before that one of the central moral attributes of athletics is that it asks human beings to develop their human physical and mental capacities to achieve a level of excellence, what Aristotle and the Greeks would call a virtue. This defense of athletics argues that it exists as a central human practice in most cultures. It develops as an expression of physical intelligence, but also as  serious play priming individuals to skills needed to defend their tribe or community.

This drive to perfect  human capacities and skills through games grounds  why we both play and enjoy sports. We connect to the drive for excellence and the expansion of human potential in the best athletes as well as enjoying the unfolding of real skill wrought from practice and commitment.

This is why issues of technology is so vexing for sports. Most sports are mediated by technologies whether it be soccer (balls and shoes), running (clothes and shoes), tennis (rackets and shoes) etc. Even ones that seem minimally subject to it such as swimming through water turn out to be vulnerable to technological transformation through buoyant and streamlined suits. Two years ago world records regularly fell to the swimmers wearing the newest technology with technology trumping athletic excellence and level competition.

But the issue of technology and humanness has now gone far beyond policing shoes and swim suits. Track and field has grappled with a a very interesting struggle over the last three years with decisions and evidence about double amputee Oscar Pistorius who is a South African sprinter. He runs on two prosthetic cybernetic legs called "Cheetahs." Football players and other athletes have used them in competitive sports, but Pistorius sprints and no one can quite figure out if he is a human racer with the cybernetic legs or something else. The cheetahs are integrated into his nervous system but based upon flexible paddle like feet. At first he was outlawed because of the fear that the internal springs gave him advantages, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport ordered him eligible for the Olympics.

Now a new set of tests conducted by scientists hired by his own advocates have concluded that the lighter weight of his prosthetic enables him to cycle faster in running, roughly 15 percent faster than a normal human male runner. More recent studies are unclear, but all make clear that the fundamental dynamics of his running differ from two legged runners and might provide some substantial differences. In NASCAR this is handled by putting serious limits upon the technologies used so that everyone has same technology but may win by superior tinkering or efficiency maximization.

Two different issues arise here. The first is the equal playing field or fairness argument. If one player uses a new technology that provides a unique advantage only on him or her, then it should be outlawed, or as initially happened in swimming, everyone can adopt the new technology so the field is equalized. Although in the end the technology so outstripped the ability to regulate, that swimming went back to basics. The spread of composite rackets in tennis represents the same evolution. The competitions may generate new records that are enabled by the technology, but at least it is a fair race. The battle over Pistorius and his prosthetic legs reflects this moral argument about fairness. If the initial data is right, then he should not be allowed to compete with other human legged runners. If it comes in as equal or equivalent, then any changes in the technology must be retested for comparative advantages.

But the deeper issue is the one manifest in the swimming controversies and the decisions to back off from the high tech race that lead to newer innovations and meaningless technologically augmented records even if everyone used the new suits. (This resembles the arguments over steroid enhanced baseball records--if not everyone used them, they should not be respected because it is unfair advantage and not true reflection of what might have happened if everyone had used it.) But with steroids or swimming technology and most clearly with the Cheetah prosthetic, the question arises, is this really human athletics or sports anymore?

In these cases augmented humans are now participating, but it is not clear that equal humans are now competiting against one another. This is not about regular human beings using structured diets and intense effort training to achieve their excellence. The point here is that the human being with his or her work ethic, focus and integrated mastery of mind, emotion and skill achieves the outcome, not enhanced musculature or cybernetically or suit enhanced bodies. This person is no longer  strictly human and these are not strictly fair outcomes

This argument has lots of holes, but we need to keep thinking about why athletic achievement should be kept to human beings, not augmented more than human human beings.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Too Many Sports & Meaningless Games

Football, college and pro, baseball, pro, basketball, pro and soon college, hockey pro. What a very strange saturated time of year! I would like to think of it as nirvana for a sports fan, but instead it feels cluttered with sports going too long and starting too early. Too many meaningless choices reduce to confusion, not joy.

If you think about it, hockey in October makes about as much sense as baseball in November. Each professional season has elongated either through longer seasons or extended playoffs. The desire of owners for money, players for money, and insatiable television desire for product to fill windows drive the explosion of meaningless overlapping seasons.

Now we have a calendar where professional baseball overlaps with football by 3 months; both overlap with basketball and hockey by 1 month for baseball and 4 months for football. Then baseball starts again and overlaps with basketball and hockey for 3 more months. It means that on any month, there are at least 3 professional sports leagues competing and sometimes four. When you add college football and basketball, it gets absurd. A fan can be stupefied on any weekend by choices among professional football, professional basketball, professional hockey, college football and college basketball!!!

This money-driven approach really wrecks havoc with being a fan. The excess length dilutes the quality of game in terms of importance and the commitment of players. Two sports avoid this. Football does so because of the relatively small number of games--every game does matter and the violence amplifies the importance and intensity of each game. Baseball, for all its reverie like speed and too long season, puts a premium upon games because they do not have the bloated everybody but your grandmother gets to play playoffs. So games take on real meaning as does time of season. Streaks matter, and early season as well as late season steaks can make or break a season. I won't pretend that teams like the Mariners who are 20 games out in July still generate intensity, but the rhythm of professional football and baseball matter and carry intensity.

The endless seasons disrupt another once enduring dimension of sport. Sports created their own season and rhythm. So baseball dominated summer and autumn. Football dominated autumn and early winter. Both sports are played outside and the seasonality of the game meshed with the rebirth of spring and baseball and the return of school and football.

Amid the clutter and noise, three sports stand out. College and professional football get it right. Each game matters and carries freight and weight for playoffs, bowls, and championships. They structure conversation and interest of fans by weeks and league. College basketball gets it right despite the greed of the NCAA which has found the courage to self discipline itself by limiting games and tournaments to protect student athletes and prevent dilution. Games matter and play matters, and fans can stay engaged. Baseball really takes the opposite but just as effective approach, it plays 162 games and fills the air with games. Everynight becomes an opportunity to watch or listen or just hang out in front of a game. It keeps conversation flowing at a muted but realistic level that goes along with the rhythm of a long season where championship teams still lose over a third of their games. But both sports build on rhythm and a different sense of importance.

The World Series used to be over as the football seasons really heated up. The early mismatches had finished and deep league play commenced.Baseball's finest moment shone bright; now the two scramble and overlap and mash games together. To be honest baseball, despite the amazing intensity and sheer closeness of the playoff games, suffers. Football wins hands down because of the intensity and stakes of each game outweigh even the frenzy of playoff games.

What makes no sense from a fan's point of view is the early start and length of professional basketball and hockey. Everyone knows because of the greed driven structure of their playoffs that the early games barely matter. The desultory play reflects it; interestingly enough the TV ratings or lack of TV contracts also reflect that fans get this. Even rabid basketball and hockey fans don't fixate on the game until the last third of the season. So they might as well not be on air or play this time of year; they do but can be safely ignored. Random meaningless games played in hermetically sealed arenas pop up on TV in odd places and pale in comparison to football's intensity or baseballs final frenzy.

So the airwaves are full, but it hardly matters since half the sports are playing meaningless games. The other two remain the undisputed attendance and interest foci for a reason.

This should be a great time instead its just a crowed time.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Getting the Legacy Right: Bobby Cox's Retirement

Bobby Cox is retiring from baseball. He has spent fifty years in the game and managed the Atlanta Braves for the last 20 years and 3 years in an earlier tenure, an unparalleled stint in modern baseball. He took a moribund franchise and transformed it into a high quality and high performing unit over two and one half decades guiding the team to 16 post seasons and 1 world championship. During that time the rest of the National League whirled through 106 managers.

The mandatory accolades and praises are appearing in all the news media, although muted because his retirement ends with a loss and is overwhelmed by the sheer range of sports crowding the pages as well as the dynamic of the baseball playoffs. He also did it right by announcing his retirement at the beginning of the season to give the team maximum chance to prepare for the transition and downplay the drama.

No matter who praises him, one nagging fact will be mentioned any time someone talks about Cox's "legacy." They will mention that in all these years, the Braves "only" won one world series. This "only" one stigmatizes Cox just as surely as the rap on many quarterbacks or great point guards about not wining a championship grates on them. I will leave aside the fact most players and managers never win one and how difficult it is to  consistently attain the playoffs in a world of free agency and debilitating economic inequality among teams.

Our writing on "legacies" almost always misses the mark. We focus upon awards, wins, and titles. They matter, sort of, but they are monuments and moments, dead and on paper. These markers only symbolize  the deeper reality of sports for players and fans.. The legacy of a leader and manager accumulates one player, one team, one game, one series, one season at a time.

Cox's contribution and legacy are more real than the penants and championships. He probably managed over 1000 players in his major league career. Nine former players went on to become managers and countless others coaches. Each player who passed under his tutelage changed because of Cox's interactions with him. What consistently comes across from players who passed through Atlanta was not that Cox was a "nice guy" but that he was a great teacher.

Baseball managers in the world of free agency manage relationships as much as tactics. They must adapt to the players they get from farm teams and from signings. Most managers work well with one kind of team--veterans, offense, defense, speed, pitching. Most managers can hold a team togethe for awhile an then the team or manager get tired of each other or flame out.

Cox was a master of connecting with human beings who happened to be baseball players. He was a master of helping players grow into their talent and work with them to live through the inevitable slumps and pains of a long career. This enabled him to hold players longer and to adapt his management style to the team he had rather than the team he wanted. His own record for being thrown out of games a record number of times, 158 to be exact, reflected a tactic to prevent his own players from being ejected. The best book on leadership of the last 20 years Good to Great argues that successful long term enterprises put "people first," "vision second." Cox figured this out and proved it can be done.

The other cumulative dimension is the delight that Cox and his teams provided for two generations of Atlanta baseball fans. Going to Turner Field is alot of fun and aside from the deep fried oreos and amazing hotdog sauces, the quality of play on the field, good or mediocre personnel, was always high. The teams not only provided delight and joy to those who loved baseball, but they year in and year out gave hope and topics of discussion to the population during the long sultry Atlanta summers and wonderful autumns. As someone who has lived with the Mariner's doom for 25 years, this hope and this baseball worth following and with a payoff matters profoundly to fans.

Finally, Cox's tenure demonstrates an oft forgotten fact in today's world of impatient, rich, micro-managing owners. Good teams build good cultures. Cultures take time. Good teams build deep farm/training systems and provide consistency in its teaching and in its leadership. (Leaving aside the Yankees and the pernicious Steinbrenner approach which devalues the moral and leadership components of winning through buying themselves out of any mess).  Cox reminds us all, including any owners who will listen, that consistency, relationships, working with talent, and teaching build consistent programs over time. Cox reminds us that good leaders and managers need the support to ride out the ups and downs in order to sustain the long term, not just the short term.

23 years of players growing; 23 years of fans provided with delight, joy and hope. 25 years to remind others of the way a good organization can thrive. These are not bad ways to be remembered..

Monday, October 11, 2010

Violating Team Rules II

I believe that setting and enforcing team rules profoundly impacts the quality of a team.  It also sets the standard by which a coach's mettle is tested. The other reason the phrase  "violating team rules" can be so important is to  protect the players. Whether it is North Carolina kicking a team star off the team, a high school volleyball coach suspending his five top players for a critical tournament or a pro coach suspending his star running back for "violating team rules," they all reflect the role of rules and coaches' authority and protecting the team member from unwarranted scrutiny.
Assuming we are not dealing with front page news like players running from police after being caught DUI or using papers written by tutors, the  default position of colleges and coaches and teams should be to protect the twenty year olds. In pro sports violations of drug rules are league infractions and are public, but most other violations also remain private. This privacy should not protect players from responsibility or due process, but protects their privacy of their relation to the team and to the coach. The umbrella terms "violating team rules" guards a player's their ability to make mistakes, deal with consequences and grow from them.

Social media domains are driving coaches nuts. Both involve social media and are leading coaches rules into new territory affecting the personal time and lives of players. Especially in college time on Facebook becomes part of the journey of self expression and self definition. Facebook, friends and teams go together naturally. 

The problems arise when athletes post uncensored shots of parties, drinking or comments about the shenanigans of  the team. Other coaches and web sites troll the Facebook sites for news about the team  such as injuries, fissures or tensions. The media blogs look for hints about anything scandalous and sites like the old lurk in wait to capture and humiliate student athletes in compromising positions. More dangerously incidents of stalking young athletes often begin on  Facebook. 
 At the same time an obsession with tweeting can lead to uncensored comments from young athletes. The comments and braggodocio can feed other team's anger or reveal important points. Tweeting just invites players to blurt out anything and seek attention or set themselves up as media stars  against the team culture. Some of the tweet blurts can  lead to inadvertent NCAA violations if players tweet about contact with recruits. More and more coaches are trying to rein in the social media world. Some coaches demand maximum privacy settings for social media sites and prohibit tweeting.  Others quietly  "friend" their team members or follow tweets to keep a covert eye on activities. 

A recent incident illustrates the problems. Bob Stoops indefinitely suspended Jaz Reynolds an Oklahoma wide receiver  last week. After a mass assault and suicide at Texas Reynolds  tweeted "Hey everyone is Austintx...kill yourself#evilaught."  Stoops correctly stated, "Our rivalry with Texas will not come at the expense of dignity and respect. We have great concern for what happened in Austin and I am incredibly disappointed that someone connected with our team would react so callously." 

Another vexing problem covers about how far rules should extend arises when an athlete gets in trouble by violating the law, not team rules. Here coaches, schools and teams are all over the place. I don't have a good answer, but felony investigations usually mean being kept out of practice and play until the legal system makes a decision about prosecution. It sounds like guilty until proven innocent, and it is; but coaches have to deal with too many off field distractions and need to worry about the reputation of the program, the university and themselves. No one wants to be playing felons, well that is not completely true. 

Most of the decisions are made on a case by case basis with attention given to whether the charge involved misdemeanor, violence, assault or violations  of team and state rules around alcohol or drug use etc. While teams and coaches should not be in the business of judging legal issues; they do have deep issues of reputation and culture and university norms to uphold. This means that arrests and prosecutions now become the domain for coaches to discipline players.

Rules can be enforced a number of ways. Most involve one on one impacts. You miss a class, you run or miss a practice etc. Some involve collective punishment. Athlete Z misses an exam; the entire team runs or practices at 6 AM. Morally this always has problems, but team culture needs team members holding each other responsible. Coaches are not always there and sustained effort and integrating norms into one's behavior rely upon fellow team members pushing, demanding and informally enforcing the norms. Sometimes the entire team needs to be reminded of this and sometimes the entire team's influence needs to be brought to bear on someone to move them to accept, abide and ultimately internalize the rules. Most athletes can run forever; early practices, more running, they can handle these; they hurt but they are doable. What ultimately matters to players and what ultimately must define the most important rules is playing time ,and on good teams playing time is tied to practice time. Coaches save the playing time issues for the critical issues, but coaches must be wiling to withhold playing time when the rules are on the line. 

Teams can have way too many rules, other teams can have just one such as: 
 bring no dishonor on the team.
The few rules approach builds upon an ideal of judgement and pushing young athletes to think and reflect. It works  better for veterans than young players. The importance of the rules, themselves, should decline over time.  If the team has internalized the rules and goals; they will use peer pressure and example and other subtle and not so subtle devices to "educate" the younger athletes and "socialize" them into the norms. Heavy emphasis upon rules makes most sense for the young athletes or when a new coach is building a new culture. If it works, the rules evolve into norms and become much less visible and onerous. This internalization of norms and expectations of effort and discipline makes a program and is why most coaches will tell you it takes 3-5 years to really build a program rather than just resuscitate a team. The sad part is how few athletic directors or owners give the coaches the time they need to transform a culture.

When players don't play or leave the team for violating team rules, you can be assured it is serious These actions are   about violence, classes, loyalty to the team and the team concept. The actual rule violation might seem minute. But in the coach's mind, these violations impact team solidarity, commitment or possible legal violations. The coach has to defend and build a culture, and no one can be exempt. The coach has to prove to players and, to be honest, to him or herself, that their values and integrity of the team matter more than just winning. 

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Violating Team Rules I

You read it all the time. A player loses playing time, is benched or is held out of practice for "violating team rules." The coach will be tight lipped and expect that to be the end, case closed. In most cases the issue does end there and the privacy of the team and player are protected. But not all.  Butch Davis is confronting the  agony at North Carolina where the 14 players were held out of games for violating team rules; but the players also probably violated major NCAA rules. Keeping  them out involves not just team rules but protecting the integrity of a schedule, any victories and avoiding even more violations. 

Davis acknowledged that as coach he must do a better job of educating and monitoring the behavior of his players both those who consorted with agents but also those who had tutors write papers. I have discussed this issue of demanding absolute accountability from coaches and Davis, like others, now lives in the shadow of the USC penalties. 

The phrase "violating team rules" sounds both innocuous and mysterious. No one quite knows that the team rules are, and outsiders are usually not informed what team rules were actually violated. Sometimes everyone know because headlines stalk the team and players as with Oregon's quarterback Jeremiah Masoli or several years ago where Bob Stoops at Oklahoma held out his starting quarterback  Rhett Bomer for violating team rules, and later NCAA rules. I want to focuson internal team rules and not the obvious cases where athletes violate NCAA or state legal rules.

These coaching decisions define the boundaries of a team and its culture. Penalizing an athlete, especially with lost playing time tests a coach's courage and integrity to hold the team together to the coach's standards. Fine teams depend upon strong internalized values that players accept and act upon in a spontaneous way even under pressure or in face of temptation. The culture depends upon clear rules but lives through the examples and peer enforcement of older players. The key to an athletic team's culture begins and ends with the coach and the coach's ideals, courage and consistency in inculcating those norms. 

Acting to suspend, penalize or limit practice or play for players who violate team rules is essential to building a team culture . These actions are critical if a coach is to keep  control of the team. Every good coach demands accountability, and accountability begins with having clear expectations and holding oneself and players up to them.

All players know some athletes are more valuable than others. Most elite college athletes were elite stars in high school. More than a few were coddled as stars, and one of a college coach's great challenges is to meld the all stars of her or his recruited teams into teams of mutual support. The variable that unites them all are common rules and cultures. They all live by the same rules. A good coach must have and enforce the rules. The quickest way to lose a team is for players to believe either that a coach will not enforce rule and norms or, worse, that a coach selectively enforces the norms; stars get separate treatment.

Because rules serve as the rebar for building culture, they can cover anything. With the new emphasis upon academics, many team rules cover class attendance and  address deportment in class. Other rules reinforce ideals of respect for team and each other and stipulate being on time for practice, meetings or transportation, dress codes or language codes. Others guard team relationships with rules on fighting, celebrating or on bench conduct.  More and more rules  encompass off campus behavior such as drinking, drug use and curfews. Some try to protect the physical integrity of the team by prohibiting players from playing dangerous sports during season. More than a few athletes blow knees or ankles playing basketball or surfing or roller boarding. It drives coaches nuts.

The penchant for rules can proliferate out of control, and  some teams having sheets of them. The  more rules the tighter the box of accountability. But the proliferation of rules usually spells problems and makes it harder to identify what is serious and what is not.  I know and respect one coach whose only rule is  "do not dishonor the team." It treats the athletes as adults and works surprisingly well on a very close knit team with strong senior leadership.

Standing up for rules tests a coach's mettle and often defines whether the coach will hold the trust and respect of the team. If a coach does not suspend a player for a major violation, she or he will lose the team. If they apply one set of rules for the stars and another to the rest, they will lose the team.  We should admire and support coaches who have the courage to suspend and penalize for violations. 

It takes guts and integrity to keep a star player out of a vital game. As I've made clear universities claim to judge coaches on integrity but ultimately do so only on wins and losses. If a coach has the moxey to hold out a player to protect the rules, even if the player can impact the possible victory, we should praise and reward it.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Surviving on Loyalty Alone

If I were a Cubs fan I would wax poetic about the lost cause, generational loyalty and the pleasures of masochism. But I am not from Chicago or from Boston. I do have the experience of hopelessly rooting for the Kansas City Athletics, the worst team in baseball for 15 years, before they morphed into the Oakland power rangers. I have had to suffer through this season with the Seattle Mariners.

Sitting through another awful season and watching your team implode into the second worst team in baseball has not been fun. These experiences reveal for me what loyalty to team and cause mean.  Fans have a number of stances to take when all we have is loyalty to a team that is not worthy of our loyalty.

One stance takes perverse satisfaction in just how bad the team is. Bordering on Cubby self-flagellation, I can linger over exactly how the team played 16 games at home without scoring more than 3 runs. This team scored 0 runs in 9 of the 12  Felix Hernandez' losses. The team's incompetence will deny Felix his  deserved Cy Young. The team clean up hitter has hit 25 home runs. The team barely broke the 100 home run mark and stumbles around at 235 batting average. It comfortably snuggles at the bottom of every offensive category in the American league and probably some categories sabermetricians have not yet invented. The bathos mutates to pathos as the team staggers to the last out.

This approach has its rewards but comes too close to home. If our team loyalty does grow from our connection to community, memory and identity, wallowing in how bad the team is borders on self-loathing.

A second stance resembles responding to endless battering.  At first a fan gets angry; then makes deals with God to save the team; then goes into denial. A numbness sets in at the endless mistakes and ineptitude. At this point I turn off the sound while watching the games. Later a whimpering acceptance and finally despair set in. The sane fan ends up watching Burn Notice instead of the games.

Even the ritual firing of a manager and staff make little difference and feel as absolutely meaningless as they are. A sort of last gasp attempt arrives with the let's play for the future moment. Fans revel in each single or home run of a future star. Veterans are benched or dismissed, and the entire triple A team seems to arrive and get playing time. More miscues, more incompetence, more abject failure, only this time it can be attributed to growing pains and getting experience so that Justin Smoak or Mike Saunders or whoever we are pinning unrealistic hopes on can be excused. The horribleness at least possesses a meaning; it is prelude to future success. But, to be honest, when you are 28 games behind, on your way to 100 losses, it does not carry much weight.

For me the  solution to keep sane and loyal rivets on the islands of excellence and the beauty of the game itself. Granted not much beauty exists on a team this misbegotten, but moments surprise me as baseball always does. However,  I had the chance to watch Cliff Lee's laser concentration and exquisite control for three months. He incarnated exceptional pitching. I can view Felix Hernandez' burgeoning greatness and admire his growth, his amazing arsenal of pitches and his ability to stay calm even as his team betrays him night after night after night. Finally, I admire the meticulous preparation and concentration of Ichiro and revel in the precise movement and skill of his hitting and fielding. The exemplars epitomize what the sport can be, and amid the ruin of the season give the team a reason to exist.

At the end of the day, my loyalty resides with the team, but loyalty to the team manifests a deeper loyalty to the game, its beauty and fun and memory.