Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category

Foxcatcher

February 18, 2015

Foxcatcher_First_Teaser_Poster

Foxcatcher, directed by Bennett Miller, from a screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, is loosely based on real events. In a way, this film is similar to Winter’s Sleep, in that it portrays how wealth creates distances between people, although it is structurally quite different.

Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is an Olympic Gold Medal wrestler who is just barely scraping by financially. John du Pont (Steve Carell), an heir of the du Pont fortune, offers Schultz a job coaching a wrestling team that will train on the grounds of his family estate. As time goes by, however, Schultz realizes that du Pont actually wants to replace him with his more charismatic brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo).

Du Pont is depicted as emotionally stunted and prone to self-delusion. It becomes clear that he is using the team both to promote himself and to fulfill his own fantasies about being an athlete. Both Mark and Dave Schultz work for him only because of the generous pay and state-of-the-art facilities he can afford to give them. In one scene, du Pont tells Mark that his only friend when he was growing up was the son of his mother’s chauffeur. He eventually found out that his mother was paying him to be his friend. Du Pont’s relationships with other people are all basically about money.

A sense of growing uneasiness pervades this film. Du Pont’s delusions of grandeur are combined with a hidden resentment of Mark and Dave. He envies them not just for their athletic ability, but also because they are situated in the real world in a way that he can never be. Their relationships with other people are not all defined by money. The film’s tragic climax is shocking, but at the same time oddly unsurprising. Foxcatcher is an examination of the subtly corrupting power of money.

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The Devil’s Whore

August 11, 2013

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It’s official now. I am embarrassed to have graduated from the University of Oregon.

The New York Times has an article by Greg Butler entitled Oregon Embraces ‘University of Nike’ Image. Nike, in case you don’t know, is a company that pays people pennies to make sneakers that they then sell for $75 a pair. Who wouldn’t want to embrace being associated with a company like that?

The owner of Nike, Phil Knight, recently paid for the building of something called the Football Performance Center. (I assume this is a fancy term for a training facility.) Bishop tells us:

    The Football Performance Center, which was unveiled publicly this week, is as much country club as football facility, potentially mistaken for a day spa, or an art gallery, or a sports history museum, or a spaceship — and is luxurious enough to make N.F.L. teams jealous. It is, more than anything, a testament to college football’s arms race, to the billions of dollars at stake and to the lengths that universities will go to field elite football programs.

    The performance center was paid for through a donation from Phil Knight, a founder of Nike, an Oregon alumnus and a longtime benefactor of the university. During a tour of the complex Wednesday, university officials declined to give a dollar figure, even a ballpark one, insisting they did not know the total cost of a football center where even the garbage cans were picked with great care to match the overall design. (Early design estimates placed the center’s cost at $68 million, which, based on the tour, seemed conservative.)

This is a scandal already. The University of Oregon is a public university, and as such it must maintain transparency about everything it does. Yet it now has a “Football Performance Center” that sounds like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and no one (except Phil Knight, apparently) knows how much it cost to build or about the details of its construction.

Butler describes the overall layout of the place:

    The center is divided into three buildings, all black and shiny rectangular blocks, connected by a sky bridge. Those buildings — and everything around them — are black and boxy by design. Made of black granite, corrugated metal and fritted glass, the elements are arranged like pieces of a Jenga game to show cohesion between units (they also look like the shell of an impenetrable force). A local newspaper quoted an architect who described it as a “Darth Vaderish Death Star.” The designers took that as a compliment.

So, these people feel flattered by being compared to a genocidal murderer. Interesting.

Butler and some other reporters went on a three-hour tour of this facility. This apparently left Butler feeling giddy, because he wrote this:

    For Oregon football, black is the new black, down to the black toilets in the locker room that were described, perhaps in jest, as stealth. The athletes wanted it to look cool, and architects balanced their needs — down to the custom green PlayStation consoles and pool tables made by the same Portland company that designed two for Michael Jackson — with those of the coaches, who are older and spend most of their waking hours in the center and wanted, more than anything, a diverse selection of after-shave.

    Throughout the tour, Eugene Sandoval, design partner at ZGF Architects, and Randy Stegmeier, principal interior designer at Firm 151, returned often to their favorite buzzwords, which they said guided the design: sleek, bombastic, cutting-edge. They said things like, “the material palate is elevated to a very sophisticated level” and “you will see sequencing of form and function of space.”

Aside from the more opaque rantings of Nietzsche, this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever read. I am going to break it down, in the hopes of being able to tease out the various layers of meaning here.

    For Oregon football, black is the new black, down to the black toilets in the locker room that were described, perhaps in jest, as stealth.

So they likened black toilet bowls to stealth bombers. This may or may not have been a joke.

    The athletes wanted it to look cool…

The word “it” apparently refers to the Football Performance Center, although that doesn’t follow from the previous sentence. And how does he know what the athletes wanted?

    …and architects balanced their needs — down to the custom green PlayStation consoles and pool tables made by the same Portland company that designed two for Michael Jackson…

Huh, what? They use PlayStation consoles and pool tables to train football players?

    …with those of the coaches, who are older…

The coaches are older than the players? No kidding?

    …and spend most of their waking hours in the center and wanted, more than anything, a diverse selection of after-shave.

That’s right! Those youngsters can keep their PlayStation consoles and pool tables. We mature men prefer to spend our time perusing a diverse selection of after-shave. No real man – especially an older real man – simply slaps on some Aqua Velva. And I’m sure these coaches want to smell nice if they’re going to spend their days surrounded by younger men.

    Throughout the tour, Eugene Sandoval, design partner at ZGF Architects, and Randy Stegmeier, principal interior designer at Firm 151, returned often to their favorite buzzwords, which they said guided the design: sleek, bombastic, cutting-edge.

Sleek is the opposite of bombastic.

    They said things like, “the material palate is elevated to a very sophisticated level” and “you will see sequencing of form and function of space.”

Now I know why it was that I hated the architecture students when I was in college.

Later on, Butler tells us:

    The coaches have their own locker room, complete with a hydrotherapy pool and steam shower, made from blue stone slate, and, of course, dozens of kinds of after-shave in front of the bathroom mirrors, which feature built-in televisions.

It seems to me that a built-in television defeats the whole purpose of a mirror.

All this is being done to attract top football talent. What happened at Penn State University should be a warning sign of what can happen when a university becomes all about football. (It’s worth noting here that Phil Knight defended Joe Paterno.) The people currently running the University of Oregon are like blind men stumbling towards a cliff.

Joe Paterno and the Cult of Personality

July 15, 2012


A little bit of North Korea comes to State College, Pennsylvania.

The shocking revelations of the Freeh report continue to reverberate. Rick Reilly has written a powerful article, in which he expresses remorse over his own role in building the cult of Joe Paterno. Back in 1986, he wrote an article about Paterno for Sports Illustrated. While he was staying in State College, he received a phone call one night from a Penn State professor whom he does not identify:

    “Are you here to take part in hagiography?” he said.

    “What’s hagiography?” I asked.

    “The study of saints,” he said. “You’re going to be just like the rest, aren’t you? You’re going to make Paterno out to be a saint. You don’t know him. He’ll do anything to win. What you media are doing is dangerous.”

    Jealous egghead, I figured.

It seems that Reilly owes that “jealous egghead” an apology. This makes you wonder how many other people ignored warnings that Paterno wasn’t what he appeared to be. Or how many people were ignored, who argued that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to shower so much adulation on a man who was merely coaching a football team. “What you media are doing is dangerous.” It was dangerous, and it eventually blew up in people’s faces. When the Penn State Board of Trustees rightly fired Paterno, students rioted on campus. Look at the comment threads on sports blogs, and you will find that some people are still in a state of denial about what Paterno did. All this is simply madness.

If there is one thing that life teaches us, it is that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Joe Paterno, we were told, built a winning college football team while managing to remain completely principled. Yeah, right. In recent years, it became obvious that Paterno was coach in name only, yet people played along with the pretense, because the myth of Paterno had to be maintained at all costs.

And now we know just how much it cost.

ESPN Goes to Pot

April 21, 2012


A typical backyard in Eugene. Just kidding.

The good people at ESPN are shocked – shocked, I tell you! – to discover that some college athletes are smoking marijuana. The intrepid reporter, Mark Schlabach, reveals that:

    NCAA statistics show a bump in the number of stoned athletes. In the NCAA’s latest drug-use survey, conducted in 2009 and released in January, 22.6 percent of athletes admitted to using marijuana in the previous 12 months, a 1.4 percentage point increase over a similar 2005 study.

Only 22.6 percent? It seems to me that we have a crisis of honesty among student athletes, although the situation has improved by 1.4 percent since 2005. Schlabach continues:

    Some 26.7 percent of football players surveyed fessed up, a higher percentage than in any other major sport.

If I knew that 300-lb guys were about to repeatedly run into me, I think I would want some medication beforehand myself.

What really annoys me about all this, however, is that they’ve singled out my alma mater, the University of Oregon for abuse. Sam Alipour has written an article, in which he claims to rip the lid off the modern-day Sodom & Gomorrah that is Eugene:

    Nowhere is Oregon’s laissez-faire approach to marijuana more apparent than Eugene, the state’s counterculture and cannabis capital. “Business here is almost overwhelming,” says a student-dealer who lives on — no joke — High Street. “Here, everybody smokes.” Not surprisingly, The Princeton Review and High Times both have ranked the University of Oregon among the most pot-friendly schools. Another telltale, anecdotal sign: Into the 1990s, the Grateful Dead made Autzen Stadium a regular tour stop. “It’s the weed capital of the world,” says former Duck Reuben Droughns. “Long dreads. Girls with hairy armpits. Where there’s hippies, there’s weed.”

This offends not only my sense of civic pride, but my sense of chivalry as well. None of the women I know have hairy armpits. None. (I would demand satisfaction from this person, Droughns, were it not for the fact that he’s probably a lot bigger than I am.) And I have met maybe three people with dreadlocks since I moved here. Also, I met a lot more pot smokers when I lived in Boston, “the Hub of the Universe”. (There’s a drug joke in there somewhere, I just haven’t figured out what it is yet.)

Alipour also quotes a unnamed member of the UO football team, who says he and a bunch of other players got stoned just before the Rose Bowl game. Well, they won, didn’t they? Maybe they should get stoned before every game. Then maybe we won’t have any more embarrassing losses, such as the ones to LSU and USC.

Just a suggestion.

John Carlos

November 3, 2011


l. to r., Peter Norman, Tommie Smith, John Carlos.

We live to make history!
– John Carlos

John Carlos came to speak at the University of Oregon. He was one of two athletes – the other being Tommie Smith – who protested against racism in the U.S. at the 1968 Olympics by raising their fists during the playing of the national anthem. Carlos has recently published his autobiography, The John Carlos Story, co-written with Dave Zirin, who also spoke at this event.

Carlos started out by talking about his childhood. He grew up in Harlem. His mother worked as a nurse, his father owned a shoe shop. Carlos was offered a track and field scholarship to East Texas State University. It was there that he first encountered Jim Crow, finding segregated restrooms. “In Texas, my name suddenly became ‘Boy'”, he recalled. He eventually transferred to San Jose State University. The Olympics were coming up. Some people were organizing an Olympic boycott, to protest how the U.S. used the Olympics to create the false impression that Blacks are treated as equal citizens. Carlos was invited to meet with Martin Luther King, Jr., who told him that the boycott would be a great move. When Carlos expressed doubts, King used the metaphor of a lake: if you drop one rock in it, it creates ripples. During their conversation, King mentioned that he was going to Memphis to support a garbageman’s strike there. When Carlos asked him why he was doing that, King replied: “I have to stand for those who can’t stand for themselves.” Carlos recalled that when he looked in King’s eyes, he could see “no fear” in them. Ten days later, King was dead from an assassin’s bullet.

Carlos said that the lesson he learned from this is that one has to “make a total commitment.” At the Olympics, people began backing out of the boycott. It ended up with just him and Tommie Smith raising their fists during their medal ceremony. Peter Norman, the silver medal winner from Australia, wore an OPHR (Olympic Project for Human Righs) button as a sign of solidarity. Carlos said of Norman: “He is my blood brother, because he did the right thing.” Smith and Carlos were told to leave the Olympics early. They were both harshly criticized in the media, and they received death threats. Carlos also said that the Olympic committee put out the false story that their medals were taken away. He said they invented this story to intimidate any future athletes who might get out of line.


John Carlos today.

During the question and answer session, someone asked Carlos how he managed to have so much courage. He said, “I found me. Most people don’t know who they are.” In response to another question, he reminded the audience that 2,000 people were massacred by the Mexican government just before the Olympics. A student brought up the university’s recent plans to defund ethnic studies. “We need to know each other’s histories,” said Carlos. He also talked about the Occupy movement. He said that the movement is giving people courage to stand up for themselves. Another observation he made: “We’re going to have struggles for eternity.”

Dave Zirin

November 1, 2010

Dave Zirin recently came to the University of Oregon to promote his new book, Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love. In his talk and in the question-and-answer period, he covered a wide range of topics: from the greed of team owners to the problem of head injuries in football. Among other things, he pointed out the absurdity of private ownership of sports teams. He cited the example of Clayton Bennett, who bought the Seattle SuperSonics. When the city refused to give him half a billion dollars for a new arena, he moved the team to Oklahoma City, thus depriving Seattle of a team that had been a part of the local culture for forty years. Zirin argues that the only way to prevent this sort of robbery is to have public ownership of teams.

Since he was at the UO, Zirin had to take some potshots at the new Jaqua Center for Student Athletes. This gaudy and ostentatious building is supposed to house resources to help athletes with their academic studies. (Non-athlete students are not allowed in the upper floors.) Zirin ridiculed the amount of money that was spent on this monstrosity, and he argued it would be better to simply encourage athletes to go to the library, rather than isolating them from other students. The Jaqua Center was paid for by Phil Knight, at a time when the university has had to make its staff take pay cuts. Zirin pointed out that Knight could easily pay the state of Oregon’s budget shortfall ($3.5 billion) and remain a billionaire. Zirin then launched into a criticism of college sports in general. He pointed out that in most states college football coaches are the highest paid public employees, while three quarters of college football programs lose money. He cited the example of UC Berkeley, which raised tuition in order to pay for the refurbishment of its football stadium. Zirin feels that this state of affairs can’t continue indefinitely. He also expressed pessimism about the future of football as a sport, arguing that the high rate of serious injuries is causing the popularity of the game to decline, just as the popularity of boxing has declined.

Dave is the most perceptive sportswriter at work today. His talks are worth seeing by anyone who cares about sports.

The Tillman Story

October 12, 2010

The Tillman Story tells the story of Pat Tillman, who left a career as an NFL player to serve in the U.S. Army and who was killed by “friendly fire” in Afghanistan. It also tells the story of Tillman’s family, who struggled against a government cover-up to find out the truth about his death. Although the film contains no new revelations, it does give an interesting and moving portrait of Tillman and his family. Tillman comes across as a complex character: a jock who liked to read books, an atheist who studied the world’s religions, a risk-taker and thrill-seeker who was also thoughtful and considerate of others. The most striking thing about Tillman, however, was his belief in keeping obligations. We learn that after his tour in Iraq, the Army offered Tillman the opportunity to return to civilian life, but he insisted on serving the full term for which he enlisted. This same sense of obligation seems to motivate the entire Tillman family in their quest to find out the truth about his death and its cover-up by the military, in the face of an uncooperative government.

The Tillman Story is not really an anti-war film, although it does mention that Tillman thought the Iraq War was illegal, and that he read Chomsky. The film does, however, paint an unflattering picture of the military. Immediately after Tillman died, the Army began covering up what happened. They lied to the media and to Tillman’s family. They invented a story about Tillman engaging in a firefight with the Taliban. They used Tillman’s death as propaganda for the war. They even posthumously awarded Tillman a Silver Star medal that he didn’t earn. Interestingly, the film tells how Tillman expressed disgust at the staged “rescue” of Jessica Lynch. Ironically he himself was later used in a similar campaign of media deception.

The Army grudgingly admitted after some time that his death was actually a “fratricide”. They became increasingly uncooperative as the Tillmans asked more questions. The film contains a radio interview with an Army colonel who mocks the Tillmans’ desire to know the truth about their son’s death. The Tillmans’ efforts culminate in a Congressional hearing. We see a group of generals, along with Donald Rumsfeld, dissembling in front of the committee, repeatedly answering “I can’t recall” to questions about the cover-up. The Congressmen listen and then thank these people for their cooperation. The Tillmans are left without answers to their questions.

The Tillman Story will serve to dispel any illusions that people may have about the military being an honorable institution or about our government caring about its citizens.

A digression: The film mentions that Tillman, who was 5’11” (the same height I am, as it so happens), was considered short for the NFL. This made me realize why I prefer college football to the NFL: the players look more like regular people.

Peter Camejo

July 31, 2010

    Empty rhetoric is a form of capitulation.
    – Peter Camejo

I have just finished reading Peter Camejo’s memoir, North Star, which is available from Haymarket Books. Camejo is mostly remembered for having run as Ralph Nader’s running mate in the 2004 presidential election. However, he had a long and varied career before that. Although he was born in the U.S., he came from a wealthy Venezuelan family. He was a member of Venezuela’s yachting team at the 1960 Olympics. During the 1960’s, he was active in the anti-war movement. He played a leading role in the Battle of Telegraph Avenue, in which UC students fought with the Berkeley police. He became a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party. He ran for the U.S. Senate in 1970 (he debated Ted Kennedy) and for the presidency in 1976. (He reports that there were 66 undercover FBI agents working in his presidential campaign.) He was also involved in international work for the Fourth International. He tells of an incident in which he tried unsuccessfully to persuade a guerilla group in Argentina to release a businessman they had kidnapped. As I read about this, it occurred to me that under current “anti-terror” laws that exist in the U.S., he could have gone to prison for this. A striking example of how our freedoms have been eroded in recent years.

In the 1980’s he was expelled from the Socialist Workers Party. He founded a short-lived group called the North Star Network. He then moved into the field of socially responsible investing. In the 1990’s, he became involved in the Green Party. He ran for governor of California three times on the Green Party ticket.

I found the book fascinating. HIs accounts of his anti-war work provide insights into how to build broad coalitions, as well as how to confront police violence. However, I found his account of his time doing investment work less interesting, although he does give a revealing discussion of pension funds. He points out these funds are mostly managed by businessmen who are hostile to workers and to unions. He also points out that many environmental and conservation groups invest their money in companies that pollute, including oil companies. His account of the 2003 California recall election is amusing. (He gives an unflattering portrait of Arianna Huffington. Among other things, he points out that her attacks on Schwarzenegger made it easier for him to avoid discussing the issues.) I was disappointed that he never really discusses why the North Star Network never took off. I would think that might have been enlightening.

There are two aspects of this book that may well prove controversial. The first is his critique of Trotskyism. The second is his discussion of the left’s capitulation to the Democrats during the 2000’s. Camejo argues that during the 1930’s, when the Trotskyists were trying to differentiate themselves from the Stalinists, they became obsessed with having the “correct” interpretation of Marx and Lenin, as well as of events in the Soviet Union. The result, Camejo argues, is that they developed a rigid view of the world. (I have met Trotskyists who did seem to me ideologically rigid and obsessed with having the “correct” line on everything.) However, Camejo does admit that Trotskyists have played useful roles in political struggles – as his own participation in the 1960’s anti-war movement shows.

Camejo sees the left’s capitulation to the Democrats as an unmitigated disaster. It has paralyzed the left and made it easier for the Democrats to pursue pro-war and pro-corporate policies. Camejo has harsh words for Michael Moore, Medea Benjamin and others who threw their principles away to elect politicians whose positions they oppose. On this point, I agree completely with Camejo. It is going to take a long time to overcome all the damage that has been done.

Another of Camejo’s arguments concerns language. He argues that words such as “socialism” have acquired too much political and historical baggage, and that leftists must find new ways of explaining their ideas to people. I think Camejo may be right here, although I’m not sure how we would go about developing this new language. Camejo also urges leftists to study America’s radical history (such as the abolitionist movement) and to draw inspiration from it. I think this is an excellent idea.

One thing that struck me about this book is Camejo’s unwavering optimism, even after the collapse of the 2000’s. He expresses confidence that there will one day be a “Third American Revolution”. I certainly hope he was right about that.

Peter Camejo, presente!

The World Cup

June 25, 2010

There’s an argument going around among the Left about how we should approach the World Cup. The accepted wisdom says that we should only root for teams that come from former colonies, and under no circumstances should we root for the United States. I can’t really buy this argument. After all, we’re talking about soccer teams, not armies. To view the World Cup in this way is to invest it with more significance than it should have. What’s more, the young people playing these games have nothing to do with what their governments may have done in the past. (I can’t help but point out here that after Algeria lost to the U.S., one of their players slapped a female reporter in the face. Just because someone is from a former colony doesn’t necessarily means he’s saintly.)

Of course, there will be obnoxious displays of patriotism. However, American fans are by no means the worst offenders in this regard. And we won’t have to worry about the tea baggers hopping on the soccer bandwagon. Like their leader, Glen Beck, they probably think that soccer is a foreign plot to corrupt their precious bodily fluids. Which, if you think about it, is actually a good reason to root for the U.S. team.

Update: It’s clear that the U.S. have a way to go before becoming a soccer powerhouse. Ghana simply had a better team. American fans can at least find comfort in the thought that the U.S. didn’t embarrass themselves the way France and Italy did.

At the bar where I watched the game, there was a small group that rooted for Ghana. So much for the claim that American fans are too nationalistic. By the way, I’ve been told that the British tabloids are pumping up England’s game against Germany as a replay of World War II. Oh, brother.

Update 2: A British blog claims that the game was a defeat for U.S. imperialism. I don’t think so. Obama & Co. aren’t going to lose any sleep over a soccer game. However, Dave Zirin has a good article about why it has emotional meaning for Africans.

Looking for Eric

June 25, 2010

I had trepidations about going to see Looking for Eric, the latest film from Ken Loach. The trailer makes it look like one of those “feel good” movies. Usually, “feel good” movies make me want to slash my wrists. However, since I”ve always liked Loach’s work, I decided to give it a try. It turned out to be better than the trailer made it look. (It’s not often you can say that about a film.) It also turned out to be a “feel good” movie after all, but this was one that actually did make me feel good.

The film tells the story of Eric Bishop (Steve Evets), who works as a postman. Eric feels dissatisfied with his life and alienated from his children and from his ex-wife. He contemplates committing suicide. One day, while he’s stoned, his hero, the footballer, Eric Catona (playing himself), appears before him. Catona begins giving him advice on how to deal with his problems. His advice is especially needed when Eric’s son, Ryan, becomes involved with a gangster. The latter makes Ryan hide a gun that he uses for crimes. When Eric tries to make the gangster take the gun back, the latter sets his dog on him. The police raid Eric’s apartment looking for the gun, but they fail to find it. Catona advises Eric to tell his co-workers about his problem, saying “you must trust your teammates.”

Looking for Eric celebrates the idea that people can help one another with their problems. This is a notion that has become intellectually unfashionable in this age of neoliberalism. My only problem with the film is that it’s never really made clear why the gangster makes Ryan keep his gun, especially since the gangster looks rich enough to own an arsenal. I suppose, however, that it’s churlish to nitpick with a film that gave me so much pleasure.