TOM MANDEL: TALENT — IT’S WHAT YOU DO WITH IT
“I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and play with the Miami Heat.” — LeBron James
“Sometimes we don’t get to choose where our talents lie.” — Don Draper
Sunday afternoon was all about the Knicks, and Sunday night was all about Mad Men. At least for me. All day, I was overwhelmed with the amount of talent America was confronted with. Ball-handling talent, creative talent, 3-point talent, presentation talent, team talent, acting talent, you name it. We could look at the Knicks/Don and talk about talent going to waste. (Megan: “I’ve been working, thought you were too.” Don: “Nope.”) (Fire extinguisher: “You’ll get ‘em next time, Amar’e!” Amar’e: [punch]) Instead, let’s look at Megan and LeBron and what people choose to do with their talents.
It’s a really basic choice that most of us are confronted with at some point or another. Would I rather be good at something or happy doing something else? Megan is a talented copywriter. You heard right: I admit it. Girl’s got chops. She still hasn’t given us a “They’re Toasted” or “Carousel” moment, but Heinz and Cool-Whip are both perfectly palatable ideas. Unfortunately, Megan wants to be an actress. Emile Calvert said so, and his word is law. But she’s not as good at it (or hasn’t married the right guy yet, whatever. Details). She has a problem with her teeth, and she didn’t get the part. But she quits anyway. She said it herself: she’d rather be a failed actress than a successful copywriter.
Now let’s look at LeBron. He spent seven seasons in Cleveland, bringing home a whopping zero championship rings. He was a hometown hero, much beloved by the fans. Then he took his talents to South Beach to play with Dwayne Wade (thevelociraptor tagged along). It seems clear what his goal was: to win. He hasn’t succeeded yet, but he’s got many years ahead of him.
I hate LeBron and was sad to see Megan go.
What’s interesting about it is that they’re both selfish, just in different ways. Wanting to win and wanting to be happy are both completely self-centered desires.
The difference is that success isn’t what makes Megan happy. Lying on the floor of some acting class while Don listens to the Beatles does. Success makes LeBron happy. So he’s really making a decision to be happy, too. Yup, I just reduced LeBron James and Megan Draper to the same person: a selfish happiness-seeker who has yet to achieve his/her goal. On second thought, fuck Megan!
BUT DOING THINGS BECAUSE THEY MAKE YOU HAPPY IS NOT WHAT MAD MEN IS ALL ABOUT. So LeBron isn’t on Mad Men (allegedly). But Megan is. How dare she do something to make herself happier? Has she met the rest of the cast? Pete? Betty? Peggy? DON? I rest my case. Next time, follow everybody else’s lead and keep your talents somewhere that leaves you in that happiness flux of great television.
No, I’m not going to venture what Mad Men is all about. Yet. Stay tuned.
PS: Don can’t smoke in the Cool-Whip labs, Ginsberg loves wardrobe details, Pete doesn’t appreciate Trudy, and “Pizza Haus!”
About Tom Mandel: Tom Mandel lives above a bar, loves that he lives above a bar, and never goes.
DAVID KINNEY: THE BLOODSTAINED PYRAMID: MY FOOTBALL PROBLEM
Gallons of digital ink have been spilled in the last several years chronicling the apparent web of correlation between American football, brain injury, dementia, depression and suicide. It is a conversation that revolves around the various ramifications of an increasingly believable hypothesis: that football players routinely receive sub-concussive brain injuries, and that those injuries can contribute chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain condition linked to dementia, depression and even suicide in former football players.
I am not here to offer a solution. I am not a neuroscientist, and I last played football as a special teams benchwarmer at the Junior Varsity level. This is a personal article, because I am coming to the conclusion that watching football is inherently unethical. I also know that I am going to continue watching football.
Football is the most exciting of the American sports. It consists of moments of great anticipation, followed by moments of carefully choreographed, high-speed motion that are thrilling to watch. It is highly satisfying to watch the team you care about execute its game plan on each down. It is devastating to see them fail in an important moment. Watching football with a lot of people is really fun and a great excuse to get together with friends. I’ve never been into gambling, but some people really, really like to gamble on football. For some people, it is also a big part of their high school and college experience. For some cities, like Green Bay, a football team is a major source of civic pride. Like many an American, I very much enjoy watching football played at the highest level.
If what the science about CTE suggests is true, however, then a macroscopic look at the world of football reveals a problematic picture. The sport, like most highly competitive endeavors, has a pyramid-like structure. At the base is big-time high school football, the kind with ten thousand seat stadiums, the stuff of Friday Night Lights. A block above is big-time college football, the kind with hundred thousand seat stadiums and big TV money that is a major source of funding for many large universities. At the top of the pyramid, of course, is the NFL, which owns and sells the most lucrative television advertising space in the United States, which has affixed for itself a prominent place in the social culture of most Americans, and which pays some players exorbitant amounts of money.
At every point along this pyramid, players are encouraged to spend their time getting faster and stronger than any healthy human needs to be, all with the goal of running into each other with as much force as possible. Increasingly strong padding helps prevent broken bones and bruised organs, but the jury is still out on whether any amount of padding can prevent concussive and sub-concussive brain trauma. These kinds of injuries aren’t necessarily caused by direct impact with the head, but rather can be caused whenever an impact causes movement of the brain within the skull. It stands to reason that one characteristic of the American football pyramid is that at all levels, players may be experiencing the kind of routine brain trauma that may lead to CTE, dementia, depression and suicide.
The second defining characteristic of the American football pyramid is an exploitative system in which players are largely paid in promises, while non-player individuals and institutions profit enormously. Very few of the boys who enter the bottom-level of the pyramid will make it to the small capstone at the top in which players are financially compensated for their play. Of those that do, many will not spend nearly enough time at the in the NFL to secure a financial future for themselves. A larger but still small percentage of American football players will receive a college scholarship as a result of their talents, and attend college where otherwise they would not have. However, these young men are often denied the full academic benefits of their time at universities, as they must devote massive amounts of time to their athletics, and are pushed through classes via tutoring programs and specially designed academic schedules. Unofficial compensation of college athletes through gifts or money, while certainly pervasive, is scandalized when discovered.
At every level, the American football complex sells an ephemeral promise to a disproportionately African-American and very disproportionately Samoan group of young men. When many of these young men are done playing, not only will they have failed to obtain meaningful financial compensation for their talents, but they will have also forgone their chance to acquire economically viable skills during their late teens and early twenties. There is a good chance they will have experienced head trauma that could negatively impact their lives in nightmarish ways. Meanwhile, coaches, universities, bookmakers, television networks and NFL owners will have made millions, sometimes billions, of dollars from football.
The players aren’t idiots. They know that their chances of making the NFL are very low, and they know that the game is dangerous. But they weren’t thinking about that when they first put on pads. They were just doing what boys do in the United States. When their high school coaches realized they were big and talented, did these coaches sit them down and say, “Listen, you’re risking serious long-term brain damage here, so you have to think very carefully about whether you want to invest yourself into this?” Are big-time football colleges saying the same thing to prized recruits? I don’t know for sure. Maybe there are some good people in this country who are having this conversation with young football players, but the fact remains that there is little endogenous incentive to consider players’ post-football health interests, especially when the athletes in question lack options outside of sports.
It is clear that American football is a problematic institution. It is built upon the dangerous exploitation of vulnerable young men, while it simultaneously owns the rights to the most popular television programming in the United States.
The NFL’s current solution to its brain damage problem is to legislate against dangerous hits using hefty fines, and to re-write the rules on the most dangerous plays, namely, kickoffs. There is another solution, which I have considered in the past, which is not being seriously discussed by the NFL at the moment. If the league reduced size and strength of the padding that players wear, they would be less comfortable hitting each other at high speeds. Rugby, for instance, is a game that is still quite violent, but the lack of hard, plastic armor limits the speeds at which players can even begin to consider hitting each other.
These measures strike me as unrealistic. Any attempt to legislate the way players hit each other is an attempt to slow down the game. Stomach-churning helmet-to-helmet hits are the inevitable result of a brutally violent game played at an extremely high speed. As mentioned above, the entertaining nature of football is due to the high speeds at which extraordinary acts of athleticism and coordination occur. Televised football is an entertainment product, and the faster the game is played, the better the product. Selling football without the size and speed we currently expect of the game would be akin to Apple ceasing iPad production to focus on iMac G3s.
The only rational conclusion I can draw is that watching football constitutes an unethical consumer decision. Of course, it is difficult to determine what is morally required of consumers in a free society. A lot of the economic choices I make could be considered unethical according to one standard or another: I eat meat (including, if someone else is paying, veal, foie gras, and all the other really inhumane stuff) and I buy a lot of things that I know are made in sweatshops. I have never been someone who loses sleep at night over the ethics of my purchasing decisions.
Football is different on a personal level because of the voyeurism with which I approach the system of cruelty that is essential to the product. It is true that many of my purchasing decisions are underwritten by cruelty to others. I wouldn’t buy an iPhone if it were significantly more expensive to make; the cruel realities of international labor economics are essential to my purchasing that particular product. However, when I buy an iPhone, I don’t do so because I want to see Chinese laborers toiling in terrible conditions. I buy an iPhone because I want a phone with the Internet on it. When I watch football, by contrast, I am reveling in the very thing that is so obviously troubling about football: very big men hitting each other very hard. It is not just that I can tolerate the inherent cruelty of football because I love the product; part of the reason I love football is also the reason that it is so cruel.
In the rare event that a Jets linebacker breaks through the Patriots defensive line, I want to see him hit Tom Brady really hard. Half of this bloodlust is motivated by a bogus normative framework that I inexplicably believe in, one in which the Jets are good and the Pats are bad, one in which that linebacker ought to hit Tom Brady very hard. But the other half is just based on the fact that hard hits are fun to watch. That’s the uniquely troubling thing about football, for me; not that it is violent, but that I love it in part because it’s violent. Some day one of the guys on the Pats or the Dolphins or any other team playing the Jets could kill himself, or not be able to tie his shoes when he’s fifty, due to brain trauma suffered playing football. I will not be able to change the fact that I stood up and cheered when he got hit.
I could say that the problem with football is a problem with human nature. After all, Romans used to go to the coliseum and see men actually fight to the death. Football may be a means through which each American can access the inevitable sadist in his or her self. But football doesn’t get couched in that kind of language often enough. The NFL sells itself as wholesome entertainment and a great part of American culture. For too long, no one wanted to acknowledge that these guys might be irreparably hurting themselves on every single play. While some of the men on the field get paid very well, they stand atop a pyramid of men who didn’t make it, men who might suffer throughout their lives as a result of football-related brain damage. The NFL makes money by televising an exploitative blood sport and selling advertising time during these broadcasts. I ought to be honest with myself about that.
But I am still going to watch football. The interplay between potential and kinetic energy that characterizes the pace of the game is addicting. The play-calling strategies, the tension of key moments and the highly irrational pride I take in the infrequent successes of the New York Jets will all keep me watching. I love to get together with friends on Sundays. There is a sports bar under the BQE that has cheap drafts and good wings, and I really like spending a few hours there. I know right now that I won’t be able to keep myself from watching this coming fall.
This is an unethical thing for me to do, but as I’ve said, my behavior as an American consumer is inevitably unethical. Much of my day-to-day life is made possible by cruelty against someone, somewhere, and I accept that. I’m just not going to bullshit myself any more when it comes to football. When I sit with friends and watch another agonizing Jets loss (and about fifty beer commercials that the NFL sold for thousands of dollars a second) I will have to accept that I did so in part because I really like watching large men slowly destroy each other’s brains for my amusement.
About David Kinney: David Kinney graduated from Dartmouth College in June 2011 and now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. He needs to get better at not leaving dishes on his nightstand.
Jesse Duthrie: Church of Sports
Being a sports fan is a lot like being religious. For most people, it’s a situation where they are born into their fandom: Their fathers pick their teams just like their fathers before them. Us fans follow the team from the minute we can count the runs on the board. We learn the names each season, and forget the ones who have passed.
Currently Aaron Rodgers is Pope Benedict XVI, which would make Peyton Manning John Paul II.
And like the religious zealots we see on the streets, holding their signs and shouting scripture into the faces of passersby, we see fans in radical faith of their team, regardless of their record or coaches. The Boston Red Sox are taking a turn for the worst? Doesn’t matter. They’re still that person’s team and they will stick with them through thick and thin (though I’d have to imagine that after Bill Bucker let that ball fly through his legs, a couple of people converted).
I’m from Connecticut, which implies a dichotomy of sports enthusiasm. On one hand there are the Boston die hards. These are the people who speak with forced Boston accents. They wear hooded Boston sweatshirts and baggy blue jeans. They follow the New England Patriots second, and their deity changes between seasons from Tom Brady to whoever the ace pitcher is that season.
They try to follow the Bruins and the Celtics, but anybody from Connecticut knows those sports are just intermission for the spring and fall.
On the other hand are the Yankee fans. They are elitist Connecticans, presumably spawning from the Greenwich corner in their oxford shirts and pressed khakis. These men typically don’t don any Yankee apparel, instead they trade their exterior presence for an internal knowledge; they can name the batting averages and ERAs of all the current members, and depending on how long they’ve been following the team, can tell you intricate details into each World Series win.
In the socio-economic diverse state of Connecticut, the Red Sox fans are the construction workers and the Yankees fans are the developers.
This makes my situation all the worse. At heart I’m a Patriots fans. Before you call me a “band-wagon” fan, I’ll say that I started watching the Pats when Drew Bledsoe was the QB and Tom Brady was still at University of Michigan. I watched them play for seasons with disappointing losses and never turned my back on them.
The crux of my position is that I’m a Yankee fan. My grandfather and grandmother lived in New York, and growing up, my cousins and uncles rooted for the Bronx Bombers.
It’s hard walking into a dive bar on a crisp fall day wearing my Patriots hat as the Yankees take on the Sox. I typically have to survey the bar crowd to judge whether or not I should be making any notice, and there’s a fear that I might get yelled at, or worse, punched in the nose, for supporting my team.
In my opinion, I should have the right to choose which team I want to watch. But that’s not the case here. The longer I live this double life of religion, the longer I can’t fully commit myself to true fandom. It’s as if I love the New Testament of the Bible but would rather get lessons from the Tao Te Ching than from the Old Testament. It’s a blending of religions.
I guess I’d better pick a side soon and stick with it. No more sitting on the fence. Either I’m a Boston man or Yankees fan. In the holy world of sports, there is no room for flip-floppers. Decisions must be made in order to restore the dogmatic institution of sports selectivity.
About Jesse Duthrie: Jesse Duthrie is a senior at Central Connecticut State University. He is majoring in English with a minor in creative writing. He writes for RELEASE News, a student-run publication focused on incarceration and prisoner reentry. Some of his writing can be seen at