Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category

Michael Vick and Redemption

Written by Henry L. Chambers, Jr. on August 12th, 2009

Michael Vick is a former professional football player and a convicted dog killer.  Vick has sertmpphp3hkWmTved the sentence imposed on him by the justice system and is no longer incarcerated.  The National Football League has reinstated him and any team is free to employ him.  However, many protesters appear to believe either that he should not be allowed to play or that he should not be hired by any NFL team.  Undoubtedly, these folks have every right to refuse to support any NFL team or the league itself if it employs someone they do not like.  They even have the right to try to influence others to boycott the NFL.  However, the anti-Vick vitriol appears to be less about whether folks should like Vick and more about whether Vick deserves to play in the NFL.  That is, many of the protesters appear to believe that Vick has not sufficiently redeemed himself to play in the NFL and earn the accolades that come from playing in the league.  They may be correct, though that may be an argument for lessening the accolades derived from being an NFL player.

However, the question of redemption becomes more interesting when it is applied to Vick’s general employability.  It is unclear that Vick would need to redeem himself to work in a less glamourous field.  Indeed, Vick worked construction without much protest when he was on supervised release.  Presumably, if Vick worked a minimum wage job and was a member of the working poor for the remainder of his life, the protesters would not care.  Indeed, if protesters claimed that Vick should not be able to earn a living at all, the protesters would likely be on the defensive.   Many of the protesters likely would defend a released ex-con’s right to earn a wage from whomever would hire him.   Consequently, the protests in Vick’s situation appear to be soely about stopping Vick from regaining a privileged life.  That sounds far more like revenge than a real desire for Vick to demonstrate redemption.

Will She or Won’t She? Rachel Alexandra at the Preakness

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on May 16th, 2009

Will this talented filly beat the Kentucky Derby winner Mine that Bird? Calvin Borell, Mine That Bird’s jockey in the Derby, has jumped ship, horses, that is.  He’s chosen to ride the Kentucky Oaks winner, Rachel Alexandra. This horse is his regular mount and he was aboard when she won the Oaks.  That was an historic week for Borell, winning both the Oaks and the Derby.  He will make history again by riding a different horse in the Preakness after riding Mine That Bird to a Derby victory. The Preakness has never emanated such intrigue and excitement. Here’s a photo of the beautiful filly.

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Let’s hope the race goes off smoothly unlike last year’s Kentucky Derby when the filly, Eight Belles, the second place finisher, broke both front ankles and was euthanized on the track, or the Preakness of a few years ago when the splendid stallion Barbaro was injured eventually leading to his death several months later. Thoroughbred racing needs a complete reexamination concerning the breeding and training techniques which emphasize speed at the expense of the horse’s health and well-being.

She will. Rachel Alexandra beat Mine that Bird by almost a length as the stallion again came from last to almost win the race.

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Will they meet in the Belmont? I’m not sure that Rachel Alexandra can beat Mine that Bird in a mile and one half race.

March Madness, 65 Teams and A Question of Interpretation

Written by Henry L. Chambers, Jr. on March 18th, 2009

Today is either the eve of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship or Day 2 of the tournament colloquially known as March Madness.  How the issue should be resolved is an interesting otmpphplmxlob1.jpgne.  Until several years ago, the NCAA tournament was a 64-team affair.  Sixty-four was the perfect number of teams for the tournament and for television.   A sixty-four team tournament requires 6 rounds of head-to-head play.   Those six rounds were divided two to a weekend for three weeks.  The first week allowed for an orgy of 16 games each on Thurday and Friday and 8 games each on Saturday and Sunday pairing the first-round winners.  The first week created the group of remaining teams known as the Sweet Sixteen.  Three days of discussion about the first four days of the tournament ensued until the Sweet Sixteen teams played on the Thursday and Friday of week 2 when round three was played.  Round four was played on Saturday and Sunday, yielding the Final Four teams.  Another round of discussion ensued until those teams played during prime time of the Saturday of week 3, with the winners playing the national championship game two days later on Monday.

However, a few years ago, the tournament added one team to make 65.  The problem arose because of how the teams were selected to participate in the tournament.  When the field consisted of 64 teams, the invitees included 30 conference champions who were automatically invited.  in addition, 34 at-large teams were invited.  However, several years ago, the Western Athleticc Conference split into the WAC and the Mountain West Conference.   The NCAA decided to give an automatic bid to both the WAC and the Mountain West and keep the number of at-large teams at 34, even though it could have dropped the number of at-large teams to 33.  The NCAA’s decision created a 65th team.  Consequently, the NCAA decided to have the two weakest conference champions play on the Tuesday of the first week of the tournament.  The winner then plays a first-round game on the Thursday of the first week of the tournament.   If Tuesday’s game is considered the first game of the NCAA tournament, today is the second day of the tournament.  Conversely, if Tuesday’s game is considered a “play-in” game, tomorrow is the first day of March Madness.  Not surprisingly, the NCAA considers Tuesday’s game to be the opening round of the NCAA tournament.  It does not want to downplay the importance of the game to the teams that have to play it.  However, the NCAA yet appears to call Thursday’s games first-round games.  How to deal with the issue is a question of interpretation, but a very interesting one.  Indeed, it is no less interesting than watching the former Bush Adminstration try to figure out what behaviors qualify as torture, though of far less import.

Let the games begin and let the Madness begin.

Hockey: The New Gentleman’s Sport?

Written by Henry L. Chambers, Jr. on December 3rd, 2008

Sean Avery, a National Hockey League player with the Dallas Stars, has been suspended indefinitely for crude comments made about NHL players going out with his former girlfriends.  The comments were likely directed at Avery’s former girlfriend Elisha Cuthbert and her current datemate Dion Phaneuf, an NHL player with the Calgary Flames.  The comments were made the morning on the day of a game between the Stars and the Flames. Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the NHL, immediately suspended Avery indefinitely and Avery did not play in the game. 

Bettman claimed that the suspension was based on the comments and the fact that they reflected poorly on the league.  This was not Avery’s first instance of bad behavior and almost certainly will not be his last.  However, suspending a player for speaking ill of his former girlfriend and her new boyfriend hardly seems the kind of behavior that requires league discipline, even if the former girlfriend is an American starlet.

Though the comments were incredibly tacky, it is doubtful that the suspension was based merely on the content of the comments or the number of Avery’s past transgressions.  The suspension may well have been based on the mess the NHL would have had to deal with had Avery and Phaneuf been on the ice at the same time.  In most sports, fighting is prohibited and punished heavily with fines and suspensions.  To the contrary, fights in professional hockey are common and condoned, though not necessarily encouraged.   Almost any perceived transgression is a reason to “drop the gloves.”  The likelihood or near certainty that serious and dangerous fisticuffs would have ensued if Avery and Phaneuf had been on the ice together may have been too much for the league to risk. 

However, if concern over a serious fight was a part of the league’s calculus in suspending Avery, was that concern reasonable?  Certainly, one can understand that those offended by Avery’s remarks may have been looking for revenge.  However, the proper response might have been to tell the Calgary Flames and Phaneuf that even though Avery’s comments were rude and crude, payback would not be tolerated.   Of course, it is tough to send that message when a minor beating for a negligible transgression is just part of the game. 

On the other hand, it may be even more troubling if the content of the comments were the reason Avery has been suspended.  The comments, though inappropriate, are not comments regarding hockey or the integrity of the game.  Rather, they were just mean things to say to his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend.  If comments in that context really are reasons to suspend a professional athlete and force him to miss at least one game paycheck for his trouble, maybe hockey really is becoming the new gentleman’s sport or maybe it is just a reflection of old prideful chauvinism.   Where is America’s number one hockey mom, Sarah Palin, when we need her to unpack this cultural riddle?     

Bowl vs. Playoff

Written by Henry L. Chambers, Jr. on November 28th, 2008

As I am not yet ready to comment on the Mumbai tragedy, I will stick to the lighter fare of college football.  The debate rages between opposing camps, those who favor a single national championship bowl game and those who favor a playoff to determine college football’s national champion. The issue must be important, as Barack Obama has weighed in on the issue more than once in the last few weeks.   

Those who favor a playoff have legitimate points, including that every other NCAA national champion is determined by a playoff, including those in other NCAA football divisions.  Those who favor a national championship bowl game also have legitimate points, including that a playoff will devalue the regular season and that the most talked about playoff system – a 16-team playoff – will add four games to a season that is already plenty long given the violence of each football game and the possibility of injury.

The fundamental problem with the bowl-vs.-playoff argument is that its key term is not defined.  If “national champion” is supposed to describe the best college football team in the country, it is unclear that any more than four teams should play for the national championship.  In few years are there more than three teams that can claim to be the best team in college football before the bowl season a the end of the regular season.  Never in recent memory have even five teams even had a plausible outside claim to having been the best team in college football based on their regular season performances.   Consequently, a 16-team playoff is nothing more than a tournament. 

The winner of the proposed tournament will be deemed national champion though it is hardly clear that the winner will be the best team in college football.  This is no surprise.  Anyone who thinks the winner of the NCAA’s Division I basketball tournament is necessarily the best team in college basketball should look at the list of winners of the tournament, including two of its most inspirational – the 1984 North Carolina State Wolfpack and the 1985 Villanova Wildcats.  Golf provides an even better example.  The winner of The Open Championship (the British Open to most) is designated the “champion golfer of the year.”  Rarely in the last 10 years has that title meant anything unless it was being bestowed on Tiger Woods.

If folks want to see a post-season tournament with a clear winner, so be it.  However, if folks want to guarantee that the best team in college football is crowned national champion, as our president-elect seems to want, we are going to have to think much harder about the issue rather than default to a tournament.      

Barack Obama and Tiger Woods

Written by Henry L. Chambers, Jr. on November 5th, 2008

It may seem inappropriate to compare the accomplishments of the first African American president-elect and the first African American golfer to win a major championship.  However, they are linked in more than one way.  Both have been treated as supernatural chosen ones who have been touched from above.  This sort of hero worship is problematic and counterproductive because both are simply incredibly talented individuals who have outworked their competitors to hone their prodigous skills.  Though each possesses an incredible package of skills, they are no more skilled in discrete areas than their competitors.  For example, there are some orators who are as good as Obama, there are some people who are as serene as Obama, there are some people who are as bright as Obama and there are some people who have as much political sense as Obama.  However, no politician of this generation combines all of those skills in the same package.  The same is true of Tiger Woods’ golfing prowess.

However, Barack Obama and Tiger Woods share something infinitely more important.  Through their accomplishments, they give us a new way to conceive of what is possible.  Before Barack Obama arrived, it was almost impossible to imagine an African American president in America’s near future.  Similarly, before Tiger Woods arrived, almost no one believed that anyone would challenge Jack Nicklaus’ record of major golf championships.  By their actions, they eliminated the impossible.  Simply, they both – in their own ways – have forced us to dream again, to demand more of ourselves and to reassess our potential. In short, they have inspired us to believe it when we tell ourselves:  Yes we can.  

The Story of Harlan and Joba Chamberlain

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on August 31st, 2007

The intriguing story of Joba Chamberlain, a twenty-one year old sensation with the New York Yankees, has immense human appeal. Let me present part of the story in the moving words of Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal Star. I include virtually Christopherson’s entire article because the details of this wonderful story are worth savoring.

“The eyes of Harlan Chamberlain were flickering. He had dared to dream this moment could arrive and now it was being realized. On this Friday afternoon, almost 8,000 fans had filled Haymarket Park to watch his boy, Joba, pitch for Nebraska in an NCAA tournament game. “This is awesome. What a blessing,” said Harlan, scanning the ballpark with a prideful look. “My God! Look at all these people.” [Harlan, a Winnebago Native America,] said these words as he sat in a motor scooter overlooking the third-base line. His legs are crippled. Polio has ravaged the left side of his body, slowly making it deteriorate over the years. He can’t hear out of his left ear because of the disease. And still, the son will tell you, the man is stronger than most men who walk without a limp. “He exudes confidence more so than I do in myself sometimes,” Joba said. “He’s my stepping stone and building block for everything I’ve done in my life.” While pitching, Joba will sometimes look up to the stands and gives a secret signal. It’s intended only for Dad and isn’t to be shared with others.”He’s not only my dad, he’s my best friend,” Joba said. On Friday, whenever Illinois-Chicago would threaten to put runs across on Joba, that friendly voice would dominate the air: “Let’s shut ’em down, son.” And when the son did shut ’em down, the father would howl: “Yeeeeeeeeeah. Yesssssir, buddy!”

The man deserved to howl. When Joba was a boy, Harlan would sit in his scooter and play catch with his son for about 25 to 30 hours a week. The father would catch the ball in a glove on his right hand. Then, he’d take the glove off and throw the ball from that same hand.”It was something I could do,” Harlan said. “I couldn’t really go out and shoot a basketball with him, but I could sit there and throw ball after ball.” Baseball was breakfast, lunch and dinner. When Joba was really young, Harlan thought his son was sometimes scared of the ball. So he bought some catcher equipment for $3 at a garage sale. He put the equipment on the boy and threw at him until he didn’t flinch.”I used to throw at his legs, his head, his chest, everywhere,” he said. While Joba was always a fairly good ballplayer–he hit .505 one high school season–the Lincoln Northeast product didn’t even pitch until his senior year of high school. “He could always throw hard. But that’s just what he was, a hard thrower,” Harlan said. He was a good enough thrower to play at the University of Nebraska at Kearney last year. But he wasn’t a good enough pitcher to sport better than a 3-7 record for the Lopers. “What woke my son up is when he got to UNK and realized everyone he’s pitching against is someone’s all-star somewhere,” Harlan said. Over the summer, however, Joba began to turn some flab to muscle. He strengthened his off-speed pitches. Confidence budded. He began to pitch. He came over to Nebraska last fall and earned a starting spot for the Huskers. By the Big 12 season, the sophomore was regarded as Nebraska’s ace. During the season, he compiled an 8-2 record and was National Player of the Week once in February. Said Harlan: “I’ll have people come up to me before games now and say, “So, your son is throwing tonight?” And though they won’t know I’m correcting them, I’ll say, Well, yeah, he is pitching.'” And you best believe people are always coming up to Harlan at Husker games. Everyone wants to tap him on the shoulder and say hello or ask how he’s doing. Before Friday’s game, one guy who seemingly had never met him asked: “How many Ks today?” Harlan responded: “Well, I dunno. How many ever the Good Lord gives us. “Turned out Joba would get four strikeouts. He pitched 5.1 innings–bothered by a right hand he injured fielding a grounder early in the game–and didn’t factor into the decision.

That people could care so much about his son is quite unbelievable Harlan. “I’ll have people I don’t know come up and say, “I think you’re awesome” or We’ve been praying for Joba,'” he said. “Those people to wouldn’t have to say anything. They get nothing for it. But they do it anyway.” Of course, Harlan also goes out of his way to communicate with the people. During the seventh-inning stretch of the game, he flailed his arms at the crowd like a choir director while “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” played. At one point, he also shared with those around him one of his son’s superstitions. “See that gum out there on the mound behind the rubber?” Harlan asked. “Joba puts a piece of gum out there after each inning. If he doesn’t do it, he’s in trouble. He’s very superstitious.” . . . .

He was a guy given what most would consider a terrible lot in life, acquiring polio before his first birthday. His family couldn’t afford the expenses to treat the polio. He ended up leaving the Winnebago Indian Reservation and living in many foster homes. That all came only after spending more than six years in a Lincoln’s children hospital. He’s had numerous surgeries since. And perhaps worst, because of his sickness, he was separated from his brothers and sisters. But yet there was his one brother, Keith, at the game on Friday. Joba’s success, it turns out, has helped bring a family once forced apart closer together. Their sister, Judy, was following the game on the Internet from Texas. So when Joba said after the game that “a lot of dreams are coming true,” he didn’t seem to be speaking for just himself. After all, three years ago, while Harlan was working as a staffer at a Husker regional baseball game he allowed his mind to wander for a few minutes. “I was sitting there dreaming about the possibility of Joba playing here one day,” Harlan said. “Now, that it’s come to pass … “His eyes were still flickering.'” Harlan’s dreams came true and then some.

Because I have dear friends in Lincoln, Nebraska,
where I lived for three years in the early to mid-seventies, stories about this hospitable city on the plains typically trigger memories of a place and time I still cherish. My last year in Lincoln, while collecting unemployment insurance, I worked part-time as a bouncer in a bar. The bar–Casey’s–was a favorite watering hole for a diverse group of people, and indeed, I hung out there even when I wasn’t working. But money, for me, was scarce and at one point I didn’t have a place to stay. One evening I was talking with some of the folks in Casey’s about the possibilities of finding a room. One of them kindly said to me “You can move in with me if you want.” That guy was Harlan Chamberlain and we lived together for three months. No, Harlan never taught me how to pitch. But if his generosity had been less pronounced–who knows?–I might have had the supremely unwanted experience of living as a street person. Thanks, in part, to Harlan, I was able to make it through that year before moving to Evanston, Illinois to teach philosophy at Northwestern University.

For me the story of Harlan and Joba is so precious, partly because it illustrates an indomitable spirit possible to overcome and even thrive in adversity. But more importantly, because of the relationship Harlan has nurtured with his son, the story has authentic resonance for intimate family relations generally. Any father, whose child considers him to be his best friend, has succeeded as a father par excellence. Harlan deserves the rewards of his efforts which, of course, include Joba’s pitching successes. But even more important than baseball, Harlan has raised a child whose connection to his father is as solid as a rock. That’s the true success here and the real heart of this compelling story.

Bonds, 756 and the Desire to Quantify

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on August 10th, 2007

A few days ago, Barry Bonds broke Henry Aaron’s Major League Baseball home run record when he hit the 756th home run of his career. Soon after the game, Bonds was asked if his new record was tainted. Given that he actually has hit more home runs than anyone one else in Major League history and there is no reason to believe any of the home runs were contrived, the question of taint was fairly clearly based on the allegations that Bonds has taken steroids or other unacceptable performance-enhancing drugs. The issue of taint appears to focus on two possible questions: How many of Bonds’ home runs would not have been hit but for his presumed (not proven) steroid use or how many home runs would Bonds have hit but for his presumed (not proven) steroid use?

The questions are subtly different in language, but quite different in implications. The first question takes the number of home runs Bonds has hit as a maximum and focuses solely on removing home runs. If a plausible case can be made that some or many of Bonds’ home runs would not have been home runs without the physical strength gained by his supposed steroid use, his record could be tainted because his home run total could be pumped up.

The second question focuses more broadly on causation and contemplates the possibility that Bonds’ presumed use of steroids may have cost him home runs over the course of his career. If, for example, steroids played a role in Bonds’ injuries and durability over the past few years–he has missed significant portions of the past few seasons–it is possible that they may have curtailed his home run hitting. His performance may have been enhanced, but his number of performances may have been curtailed. Similarly, if steroids helped Bonds’ strength at the cost of flexibility, it is possible that his supposed steroid use may have cost him more home runs than he gained. In that case, his performance may not have been enhanced at all.

The second question is the fairer question to ask, but neither question has any chance of being answered to any quantitative certainty. This is a problem because the questions are quantitative. However, the bigger problem with asking the questions is that they are likely stand-in questions for the qualitative one that is to be asked: Does Bonds deserve the title, Greatest Home Run Hitter, which has historically gone with having been credited with the most home runs hit in Major League history?

The qualitative question requires a comparison of players during eras that are so different that the promise of an answer is hopeless. Simply, Babe Ruth’s era (with its few teams breeding familiarity, dead ball, complete game pitchers and no African American players) is too different from Barry Bonds’ era (with its specialized pitchers, coast-to-coast travel, lively ball and players from all corners of the globe) to make comparisons convincing. As long as we realize that a “real” answer does not exist, we are fine.

At the end of the day, the dispute about Barry Bonds and the home run record is about the desire to quantify before making qualitative statements. The lesson that should be learned from the Bonds dispute should be that sometimes it is impossible to quantify before making qualitative statements and sometimes it is pointless to try.

I am sure some of my legal empiricist friends will tell me how wrong I am, but I am not convinced they have the statistics to prove it.

“BROOKLYN DODGERS: The Ghosts of Flatbush”

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on July 10th, 2007

Any Brooklyn Dodger fan should tune in to HBO Wednesday night at 8 PM. The documentary “Brooklyn Dodgers: Ghosts of Flatbush” promises to be a treat, although a bittersweet treat, for any fan of the captivating Brooklyn Dodgers during the period from 1947 when Jackie Robinson first became a Dodger to 1957 when talk of leaving Brooklyn became palpable. And if they don’t subscribe to HBO try to find a friend who does. I was growing up in Flatbush during the period (1947-57) depicted in the documentary. Being a Dodger fan was both a curse and an honor. Those irrepressible Bums could break your heart and thrill you beyond measure.

The Dodgers attracted many Brooklyners who themselves came from hardworking parents. Indeed, the Dodgers were a real working class baseball team. They tried hard, working in less than ideal circumstances, and they had great success, but could never quite win the World Series. The Bums symbolized the plight of Brooklyn glitteringly overshadowed by Manhattan. (The City of Brooklyn should have remained independent. At one time Brooklyn’s population made it the fourth largest city in the nation. We’d be better off on our own.)

In 1956, the Dodgers won the National League Pennant on the last day of the season. My friends in the neighborhood and I attended, watched on television, or heard on radio sometime through teletype announcements every game the Dodgers played that year. The year earlier, 1955, the Dodgers finally beat the Pinstripes from the Bronx. Johnny Podres, an unlikely 23 year old hero, closed out the ninth against the Yankees and for the first time in team history the Bums had won a World Series. That night, on Ocean Parkway, a six-lane, two-way thoroughfare carrying traffic from Prospect Park all the way to Coney Island, World Series revelers would stop for red lights (sometimes) and get out the cars to celebrate by banging on drums and horns and whatever else could make sufficient noise. This (dangerous form of) celebration continued into the next day. Little did the triumphant Dodger fans realize that nothing happens in Brooklyn without paying a price, sometimes a devastating price. 1958, the Brooklyn Dodgers betrayed the city–the City of Brooklyn, that is–and moved to Los Angeles of all places. There ought to be a law.