Monday, February 28, 2011

I Do Sports

(That's me in action. Photo Credit to my brother, Mason Dent, the photo genius)

As long as there has been sports journalism (but especially with the proliferation of blogs), there have been people questioning how much writers actually know about sports. The assumption that is usually made is that sports journalists were the kids who weren't athletic enough to play sports, but quite willing to observe and love the game. So when a writer questions a player's toughness, or game strategy, or what have you, there is always the backlash of "they just don't understand, they're not out on the field, they never have been". I hate this attempt to belittle the journalists. For one, many actually have been athletes at some level, and, even so, it's not even necessary to make most insights about sports. Being an outsider looking in doesn't automatically make you ignorant. But anyway, more getting to the point of this blog post, I actually do play sports, though not one that's covered by any major outlets. Water Polo.

Right, after a long swim season (to get into shape for Water Polo), my season has now officially begun. If you have only a vague idea of what Water Polo is (don't worry, you are not alone), it's basically handball in the water. Ok, that was using another obscure sport in comparison, but it's really the only one that fits. You've got six field players and a goalie on each side. Similar to basketball and soccer, players play both offense and defense. The offense sets up with players on the perimeter surrounding one player in the middle, the hole set (the primary option on every possession). The goal floats in the water (or hangs on the edge) and is like a medium sized soccer goal. Oh yeah, you can't step on the bottom (regulation pools are all deep, so even the goalie can't), you can only touch the ball with one hand at a time, and there aren't any horses, dummy.

But that base description of the rules of the game don't really describe what's happening. Imagine swimming back in forth in a pool, sprinting each way. Pretty tiring, right? Now add treading water every time you stop swimming. In addition, on offense and defense you are grappling and semi wrestling with your opponent (if the ref can't see it, or its underwater, anything goes). In hole set, the battles for position amount to a battle in the trenches during an NFL game, or a center posting up on the low post, if that center and his defender were 100x more intense about it. Seeing someone dominate in the hole set, defensively or offensively, is truly one of the coolest things in sports.

Ok, so barely anyone knows of or watches Water Polo. But they should. Besides probably boxing or football, it's physically one of the hardest sports to play. That difficulty doesn't stop people from doing awesome things in the pool, though. I mean, just look at these 2008 Olympic highlights (ignore the awful music) (

So that's a summation of Water Polo. The point (finally) is that I, and probably plenty of other writers, know exactly what athletes are going through. I know the pain of two a day practices, the sheer joy after a big win, the complex relationships between a team and its coach. I know the effect a bad teammate can have on morale, the empty feeling after a loss, or after the whole season ends earlier than you want it to. The sting of losing to a rival, the relief when you beat them, and the build up to the game that you just can't wait for. Playing through injury. And I know what it's like to see a team come together, believe in each other, and do great things. (Sorry if that was too cliche). Sure, the sport is wildly different than many other sports, and the scale is much smaller (I'm not getting paid, I'm not on TV), but I know that the emotion behind it is universal, is real, and I can recognize it.

I'll try and keep anyone interested updated on how my season goes...

Friday, February 18, 2011

Soccer in America

So, I haven't written here in a week, out of a lack of time (homework and such) and a lack of things to write about, in sports. It's the February doldrums right now- we're not at March Madness yet, the NBA season has just reached the All Star game, and the NHL is just starting to heat up. (The Sabres, thankfully, have put themselves back into playoff contention, rattling off a 4-1-1 record in their past 6, and playing improved offensive hockey. Especially Drew Stafford, who had successive hat tricks. The shootout game against Montreal on Monday was just awesome). But anyway, it's a relative dead period in sports (and no, Spring Training DOES NOT count, ESPN. Stop showing me this crap). But I started reading David Peace's The Damned Utd and now I've been thinking. What is it that makes Americans so adverse to soccer? People loved Wayne Rooney's wonder goal against Man City, but you didn't see many clamoring to watch a full game. Let's dive in.

Ok, most of us know the common argument- the game is low scoring and boring (to casual fans). To which I respond, isn't baseball the same way? Yet it remains popular and embedded in our national consciousness. I think it goes deeper than that. Soccer is a game that the US has not been historically good at, doesn't always reward brilliant play, and doesn't reflect our own national history in the same way (sorry to get all AP US on you guys here). Some of these can change (like the USMNT's success), others can't, and will always be a thorn in the side of soccer's popularity in America, unless American sports fans go through a radical change in how they watch and appreciate sports.

Point 1, that the US hasn't been historically good. As proven with the Blackhawks in Chicago just last year, people will pay attention to a team if they are really good and have the opportunity to win the championship. (And, on the flipside, if you're past halfway through the season and the team is not in the playoffs if the season ended today, well, then, a lot of people are going to start focusing elsewhere...*coughcough THE BULLS coughcough*. Don't think I haven't noticed, Chicago.) The US Men's National Team, however, hasn't made it past the quarterfinals (2002) and didn't make the world cup after 1950 until 1990. So, for most of the 20th century, they have been afterthoughts. In the 21st century, they've been a team good enough to make it out of the group in World Cup Play (except the disaster in 2006) and generally hang with the big guns of international soccer (like the Confederations Cup win over Spain, followed by the loss to Brazil after going up 2-0 at half). Americans don't want a scrappy team that can just hang with the best. We want to be up there, fighting for World Cups. And until that happens, there will still be a large segment of the population who aren't going to pay attention.

Point 1.5-A short one. There are many soccer 'fans' in America who follow the archetype set by Stuff White People Like, that is, pretending to like soccer to seem more sophisticated. As Jeff Winger on Community said it best, "I'm a stylish American. I've been forcing myself to like soccer since 2004". So there's another problem with soccer in America.

Point 2, that brilliant play is not always rewarded. In a game like (American) football, every good possession usually results in at least a field goal, allowing teams not playing their best to at least be rewarded for being able to move the ball. If a team is playing really well, they're going to be scoring touchdowns on almost every drive. The score they rack up is indicative of how well they've played. Soccer can be completely different. A team that plays with brilliant build up, great passing and stonewall defense can still be shut out or held to one goal, depending on the quality of finishing, the goalie, and the opposing defense. So, oftentimes, great soccer is not rewarded with goals, or with many goals. Spain, for instance, won the world cup playing plenty of 1-nil games, but they were playing at an exceptional level. But Americans don't want to see hard work and brilliant set up unrewarded- the lack of payoff is too much. We have an ingrained sense of deserving something for a job well done, and soccer doesn't always reward a job well done. For some reason, people in America don't appreciate low scoring, well played games. To quote Community again,Professor Duncan, the obsessed Soccer fan, says "This game is really exciting through the first half", Jeff Winger replies, a look of boredom on his face "Yeah, really exciting, 0-0". And that's just the issue. A 0-0 game can be exciting. Maybe because we're a highlights culture that is always looking for the 'peak' of the event we're watching, we can't appreciate everything else that's happening in a well played game with little to no scoring. (I'd say Hockey has the same issues, but people are more willing to celebrate a hockey goalie's brilliant performance than a soccer goalie's.)

Point 2.5. Americans are very good at hating European things. Soccer fits right in there.

Finally, on to my history nerd interpretation of the issue, point 3. (American) football is a game that represents our past perhaps better than any other sport. When we were settling the frontier, there was a belief that we had Manifest Destiny. God himself wanted America to keep moving Westward (and, even at one point, he wanted us to have a sizable chunk of Mexico. Politicians are very wont to change God's will). Football mirrors this Manifest Destiny on every possession. You are given the ball at a certain point, and you are to gain territory, one chunk at a time. First and ten, take that, and take more, until eventually you've reached your own Pacific Ocean, the endzone. Take that, too. Kick it off, and defend your territory (the Revolutionary War, the Alamo, the Civil War- all instances of defending your territory). This a game that mirrors our country perfectly. As for other sports, Baseball is a game that represents the innocence of our childhood, gives teams alternating possessions (take this half inning! take the game! close out the enemy!), and, from its age and everyone waxing poetic about it, is also deeply American. Basketball has more points, rewards brilliant play, and features more highlights. But back to the history part. Soccer is uniquely European. Europe is a multi polar continent, meaning that power, throughout its history, has been distributed through out the whole nation, with an ebb and flow of who is the most powerful, leading up to the present, post Soviet Union continent we have now. Soccer has an ebb and flow to it's own possession and who has the upper hand. Similar to European history, it's very...liquid. Teams are usually constantly trading the ball and who has the momentum, there can be little flukes that win games, and it is rare to see teams absolutely dominate a team to a point where they have no chances and no period of play, however small, where they have the upper hand, just like the multiple iterations of European polar continents that have existed. (American) Football can have this domination (lord knows I've seen enough Bills games), but when two evenly matched teams are playing, there is still a sense of concrete possession, like that of our own history.

Now team A has the ball, and they will attempt to bring it across their very own America. Soccer is teams fighting it out for 90 minutes, trading offensives, blistering a war across their very own Europe.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Monday Sports Round-Up, Bills Draft Preview, Bulls News

I don't have too much to say about the Super Bowl that hasn't been said already. If you don't know that Aaron Rodgers played really well, the Packers forced three turnovers, and that it was a very well played game...where have you been? Great Super Bowl (we've been lucky the past few years) and it was good to see the Packers win, especially Charles Woodson (even though he was injured halfway) and Donald Driver. They're primed to be good for a while, because they have the second youngest roster in the league and lost some key players throughout the season due to injury.

What's left to look forward to is the labor deal hopefully being completed and the NFL Draft. Looking forward to the Bills early pick, but also have a fear that they will completely screw it up (which was echoed by my Dad). Screw ups would be taking AJ Green (WR, don't need another one), Cam Newton (QB, not NFL ready), or Nick Fairley if he falls (Bad character. Said he doesn't want to play in a cold weather city). Smart picks would be Von Miller (LB, a total beast, and we need help at linebacker), Da'Quan Bowers (DE, great pass rusher who would shore up our D-Line), Marcell Dareus (DT, also good for the D-line, to support Kyle Williams, and I guess Patrick Peterson or Prince Amukamara (both CBs with top level talent, but the defense needs more help up front than at CB. Wouldn't complain with either of these guys). The key is- we don't need a dominating offense, yet. The offense already showed it can put up decent points and stay competitive with bit parts. The defense was the huge problem with this team. Chan Gailey and Buddy Nix need to prove that their not obsessed with offense and speed and focus on what's actually going to help this team eventually contend for the playoffs. It's the defense that couldn't stop the run at all, and when teams passed, got regularly burned. Get it right, Buffalo.

Also, watched the Bulls game tonight. Bulls played it tight with the Blazers, but clearly missed Joakim Noah on defense on the inside, as LaMarcus Aldridge dropped 42 on the Bulls. Derek Rose did all he could, putting in 36, but the rest of the starting lineup (Deng, most importantly) faltered. God, if only we hadn't traded Aldridge for Tyrus Thomas back in the day. Anyway, the Bulls are still a very good team, and with Noah back, will be contending for the Eastern Conference crown.

When's March Madness start? This lull is already unbearable.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Super Bowl Super Pick

I've thought about this pick for what seems to be an interminable amount of time (this two week break is a killer) and changed it, it seems, a ridiculous amount of times (I hate when people use infinitely as a descriptor. If there were an infinite amount of universes,there would be an infinite amount of universes where the Cubs, Bills and Sabres are the winning-est teams in all of sports, and where I'm dating a model. It's that much. So quit it with the usage). Anyway, I can't quite put my finger on why, but I'm picking the Packers. It's a mixture of my heart, my gut, and my brains.

The heart- The Steelers have won six Super Bowls, and only lost one. Cosmically, that's not fair. Plus, seven championships would throw the Yinzers over the edge into even more obnoxious fans. And, after seeing the Packers beat Chicago's beloved Bears and causing a wave of bitterness in the city that warmed my heart, I can't help but root for them.

The brains- My initial feeling was that the Steelers would win this game because of their historically good running defense. But the Packers a)have had success running the ball recently, even against the Bears, because of brilliant blocking up front and tough running from James Stark and b) the Steelers can be beat in the air. Aaron Rodgers is playing on another level right now, similar to what Tom Brady was doing when the Patriots played the Steelers (and Brady had a huge day). Rodgers ability to put the ball into tight spaces, short or long, will let him move the ball efficiently against this defense. On the other side of the ball, the Packer have a ball hawking defense, so its possible some of the plays that Roethlisberger extends will be picked off instead of his usual luck. Plus, we have Clay Matthews pissed off that he lost DPOY to Troy Polamalu. He might state his case here. The Steelers are also starting their backup center against B.J. Raji. Sounds like a mismatch. Packers should be able to pressure Ben Roethlisberger from the inside and on outside blitzes by Matthews and Charles Woodson.

With all that being said, it will certainly be close. Even with all the advantages I just named, the Steelers should be able to move the ball behind Rashard Mendenhall and Roethlisberger throwing to Hines Ward and Mike Wallace, and get some stops on the defensive side (and probably some illegal James Harrison hits). The Steelers are no slouches. But, in the end, my gut, it just says Packers, in a close one. Hope it lives up to the hype.

Also. Could everyone just turn off their TV for this Black Eyed Peas Halftime Abortion? If an atrocious band plays halftime at the Super Bowl, and no one is watching except for paid fans on the field, does it really happen? Also, if you go to a Super Bowl party for the ads, then you are lame and must remain quiet during the game, lest you draw the ire of everyone else. Finally, lay off the hyperbole after the Super Bowl. Not every game can be "the Greatest of All Time", sorry. Anyway, enjoy one of the few truly national events we have left. Go Pack Go!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

America's Team is a Crock

Because the Super Bowl is in Dallas and the media in Dallas is pretty focused on keeping the Boys in the media (WE MUST STAY RELEVANT), there's been a lot of talk of which team is "America's Team", and the Super Bowl matchup of Packers-Steelers has fed the fire of the debate. Steelers, Packers, or Cowboys? Which one is "America's Team"?

None. If anything, these teams could only be called "America's Frontrunners and Bandwagon Fans Team". Hmmm, about for the past 50 years or so, these three teams have been the most successful in the league. So its not that hard to see how each of these teams have gained a "national fanbase". Young fans growing up in the 60s,70s,80s and beyond without a hometown team (or with a crappy hometown team) began to warm up to the teams that were winning championships. Nowadays these fans will say that they liked the teams jersey colors when they were young or they liked a certain player. If that's the real reason, then that's stupid. It's embarrassing if you liked a team for that reason and then built a fondness for them based off. What I'm really thinking is that you chose the team because they were good. It's not hard, when you're a kid, especially without a strong influence from your dad (a huge, huge, factor in deciding your favorite team-and what decided mine), to like the good team. It's fun to like a winner. But that doesn't make the decision any less damning. You have no connection to that team besides that they were good.

So now, 50 years since the league started becoming really popular (the 1960s), there have been three franchises that stand above the rest in terms of wins, Dallas, Pittsburgh, and Green Bay (though Green Bay disappeared for a while after Lombardi left and only returned to prominence with Brett Favre, who inspired a new group of Packers fans). They are only nationally admired because of this success. There is no America's Team, though. There is no one team that represents the total character of America (as described in this great Deadspin Article, There are plenty of fans who hate, to a varying degree, all three of these teams. I hate the Cowboys, the endless media attention they get, their insufferable owner and fans, and the high and mighty attitude they have about themselves since they were coined "America's Team" (when all the bandwagon hoppers jumped on). The Steelers also have an annoying fan base (seriously, your towels are dumb) that are literally spread all throughout the country because everyone leaves Pittsburgh if they can, and a hypocritical high and might attitude about doing things "the right way" (We'll ship off Santonio Holmes for character issues, but we'll keep Ben Roethlisberger...). The Packers are probably the least annoying of the three, but they are also romanticized for doing things the "right way", have a fan base that is also high and mighty along with still being in love with Brett Favre.

There is no team that can be universally loved. The closest thing might've been the Saints after Katrina and up until their Super Bowl win. America, mired in its own recession, loved to see a team recover from such a tragedy to their city and lift the ultimate prize, just as we hope America will rise out of the slump and regain its preeminence (because we've perceived it as being lost). But once they won, they became just another team, nothing special, because we inherently love the underdog. Once they've reached the top, we celebrate, and then we cool down on them. Beyond that, there is no team that represents everyone, and one that everyone can love. Because football teams aren't anything like national identities. And that's great. Every section of the country has its own team, and it's just fine that way. That small pocket of fans that you identify with, who really love the team (i.e. NOT BANDWAGON FANS), that gives one a real sense of community. Anything bigger, and you're losing me.