‘I Never Had a Bad Game’

There is a quote in Once A Runner to the effect that the thing about running is you always know how you stack up. There is a time, clear and simple, and that time is either the best or the fourth best or the 37th best or far, far lower on the list. You know exactly who is better and who is worse. You can not lie to yourself.

(Unfortunately, this is not one of the more famous or inspirational quotes in the book — it’s pretty much the opposite of inspirational — so I can’t find it anywhere. But, this is why the book is much-beloved, despite it’s strange word choices and cloud of general late-1970s sexism. It’s beloved because there is a truth in it.)

I was thinking about that section of the book and how hard it is to hide from yourself in sports. I was thinking about it because it’s actually pretty easy in the rest of life to hide. It’s pretty easy to tell yourself that you’re doing better than you are, to pretend that if this was quantifiable you would totally be #winning.

I am not winning right now.

For a variety of reasons, I have been screwing up all kinds of projects. It’s really rare for me to miss deadlines or drop the ball on work. Things always come together. Right now, they haven’t been coming together so much.

There are a number of benefits to playing sports as a kid. It teaches teamwork and hard work. It also teaches you how to deal with failure, which is definitely why the whole ‘everyone wins’ part of youth sports is funny. (Sorry to let you in on a secret, but everyone will not continue to win the rest of forever.) Because of that I’m used to not doing as well as I want at races, to working really hard and not having it work out. You cry for a day. You evaluate what went wrong. Then, you move on and try again.

Or, if you want to be truly great, you forget that you ever failed in the first place.

Stop Asking Me Why I Run

In one of my classes the other day, we had an editor come in to talk about his experience and listen to our story pitches. He was funny, a former high-flying New York writer who succumbed to drug problems back in the day and is now on the rebound.

It was all cool until we got to my pitch. I had decided to write about what it’s like to race as a pro triathlete, yet never quite be good enough to actually make it. I thought it’d be interesting to people and interesting to talk about the system of never-was athletes underneath all the successful ones.

I got one sentence in — “I raced as a professional triathlete for three years.” — and he interrupted to say, “As an addict, you know what it sounds like to me, it sounds like you’re addicted.”

Um, yeah, I dunno, shrug, shrug.

He kept going: Why else would you do it? You must be addicted to it. Endorphin rush and stuff, right? I’ve heard of that.

Everyone thought this was genius. I kept shrugging — yeah, I dunno, this sounds more about you than me — until eventually I got really annoyed. Later, the rest of the class couldn’t quite figure out why it was really annoying, what if he just called it “passion” instead of “addiction.” And, anyway, they just all find the question of why anyone would do these sports so fascinating.

It’s not.

People tend to think that comparing a desire to run (et al) to an addiction is super witty. So original. So funny. See it’s supposed to be healthy, but it’s an addiction, so it’s not healthy; you’re addicted to being healthy. Hahahaha, I am so clever.

It’s actually probably the second or third most common thing people say. The first being, “Oh my god, that’s just soooo amazing. I could never do that. I don’t even know how you do that. It must take so much discipline.” Not that I’m not amazing, obviously, but there’s a creating of otherness here that I find strange. At the highest level of sports, yes, there is a degree of commitment and self-sacrifice that is not normal and that is also no different from what you would find at the highest levels of music or dance or writing or competitive holding your breath to see how deep you can dive. Any of these things are exceedingly hard and require a stunning degree of discipline, talent, and luck. But, I am not at that level. Neither are most of the people who run or do triathlon or bike or swim or Crossfit or whatever. I have very little insight into what it takes at that level. I am, most likely, at the same level (in our respective interests) as you, as the person asking the question and acting like I am so different from them.

Some people play video games. Some people sing a cappella. Some people are in competitive chess leagues. Some people are recovering drug addicts and former hard-partying New York writers. And, some people run. We are not so different, you and I. And, we are not all the same either.

Here’s the answer to your question: People do sports for all the different reasons that people do anything.

 

 

Behind the Scenes at College Football

USC-Oregon St

Yesterday, for one of my classes, we got to go inside the ESPN production trucks at the USC-Oregon State game. I didn’t take any pictures inside, because I didn’t want to get in anyone’s way, but above is the picture Audrey took of our credentials. That’s some fancy stuff.

The production truck is an impressive operation. Every person — and there are a lot of them — has a specific job and all the jobs mesh together into organized chaos. One person is counting down; another is calling shots into a microphone to someone on the field and to someone in a blimp and to someone in another truck; another is discussing with the on-field reporter whether or not Will Ferrell will talk on camera; other people are editing replays on the fly. By necessity, live events can only be planned so much in advance. For the rest of it, you sort of just have to plan on knowing what to do when the opportunity arises. You have to rely on the fact that you’ll rise to the occasion. And, they clearly do, every week.

It actually reminded me a lot of Sports Night, except minus the comic screw-ups and romantic entanglements:

The number of flashing lights and buttons and screens is obviously overwhelming. But, I was thinking about it while we were there, and clearly you can learn. You can learn your job, and then the next job, and the next. Until it’s not overwhelming anymore. It’s just organized (and fun) chaos. I’m actually really good at working fast on tight deadlines, but every time I have to do live events it makes me nervous. Every single time I worry that this time I’ll forget what to do. Or, this will be the time that I reach into the well and there’s nothing there to draw on.

By now I know that I’ll come through the blank panic. Usually. By now I know I can count on myself. Usually. I wonder if the people in the production truck have the same fear, if they worry that this time they won’t be able to find the shots or keep up the pace, that they’ll let up for a second and our TVs will just show nothing. I’m sure the people on the field reach into themselves sometimes and just have to hope that they’ll still have it, that the game is so deep down they can’t forget it. And, then, I’m sure they have to make themselves forget the empty fear and remember to play.

The Problems With How We Treat Dopers

There was a small story the other day, not widely read, that I found fascinating and indicative of some of my concerns about how we deal with doping. Carolina Kostner, the Italian ice skater who took bronze at the 2014 Olympics, is probably going to get in trouble with Italian authorities for skipping a hearing where she was supposed to share information about her racewalker ex-boyfriend’s doping. Here’s what I find interesting about this:

Now this is taking place in Italy and, obviously, Italian law is different than US law, but I’m not sure under what authority she can be demanded to appear at a hearing about someone else — especially given that she retired from competition. This was, in part, the same problem I had with the federal criminal investigation into Lance Armstrong. Doping isn’t against the law, at least not here, at least not most of the drugs you can take. EPO, HGH, and testosterone are all legal drugs that can be acquired with prescriptions. Using them is not against the law, it is only against the rules of the sport, which — however much we think otherwise — do not govern the land.

(Clearly, yes, I understand the laws under which the federal fraud case against Armstrong can continue: because he accepted Postal Service money. But, that’s a whole other discussion about whether or not the Postal Service knew what they were buying. I’d argue when you pay for end results instead of what goes into them, then you get what you pay for.)

That also means that the system by which doping cases are decided is not within our legal system. It does not meet the standards we require in all court cases. It is not an innocent until proven guilty system. Sure, that’s what athletes agree to when they become athletes — though there isn’t another option — but it’s also something that the general public, up on a high horse and railing about how they were lied to, doesn’t seem to understand.

They don’t seem to understand that it’s a different system, which can be complicated, difficult, and expensive to prove your innocence, if you are actually innocent. And, even basic statistics would suggest that at least a few people who test positive have to be innocent. Not that you’d know that from how the system works.

Sure, most people who test positive probably doped. Sure, the testers are steps behind the dopers. Sure, you’re responsible for whatever you put in your body. But, if contaminated multivitamins never gave a false positive, then a banned swimmer wouldn’t have won a lawsuit against the multivitamin maker in an actual court of law.

Kostner likely has something to hide by not showing up at this Italian hearing, or else she’s just insanely stupid to disappear. But, for the Italian doping authorities to discuss stripping her retroactively of her medals and banning her from private commercial skating shows — for an allegation that is about her ex-boyfriend, not about her — seems beyond their scope of authority. How can they even control who does what in private commercial shows?

What Kostner, in this case, was supposed to testify to was that she had helped her ex-boyfriend avoid a doping test and also that she had seen him use an illegal altitude tent.

Altitude tents, which you sleep in to mimic the red blood cell boosting effects of living at altitude, aren’t illegal here. Living at altitude isn’t illegal in any country. Having a naturally higher level of red blood cells can’t possibly be illegal. On a theoretical level, it seems strange to me to draw a line and pretend that makes everything fair.

Caffeine isn’t banned. Cortisone isn’t banned, as long as you have a doctor’s note. Having the fastest equipment and the best trainers isn’t banned. Simply being bigger or taller or faster isn’t banned. There are clearly advantages people have — natural and not — that we allow. This raises a few intellectual problems for me. Banning some things creates a false sense of a level playing field, when that field hasn’t been level in a long time, if ever. It also seems hard to decide where you’re going to draw that line. If the legal hematocrit level is 50, then we’re saying there is no way anyone could naturally have a hematocrit over 50. They must be doping. And, yet, I have friends who have hematocrit levels in the mid-to-high 40s. One must assume that if I know people, who are fast but not that fast, in the mid-40s, then conceivably there is someone in the world who is naturally over 50.

Of course, I think doping is wrong and shouldn’t be allowed in sports. Of course, I recognize that doping distorts and corrupts who does well in what sport. (For example, cyclists who perform better at lower hematocrits have the most to gain from a doping regimen and then see the biggest jumps in performance.) But, I also recognize that a lot of our vilification of doping and dopers comes from our own need — “us” being the watching public — to believe that people can do these things and still be normal people, that they pay no consequences for their feats. We ask them to pretend and then we’re disgusted when they lie to us.

Why We’re All A Little Bit to Blame for Ray Rice

We now know beyond question, down to the exact direction of the punch and the look of the woman slumped over in the minutes after, that Ray Rice hit his then-fiance while in an elevator back in the spring. Arguably we knew that before, but now we know that we can’t pretend we didn’t know.

There is plenty to be upset about in the video — which I don’t feel like posting or linking to here, not because I haven’t seen it, but simply because I don’t like contributing to the turning of someone’s pain (her’s, not his) into entertainment. Yes, you should be upset by the video. Be upset about the existence of violence in relationships that are supposed to be the opposite of violent. Be upset, have your stomach churn, to know that this is what that violence looks like for millions of women. Be pissed off, be angry that we allow this to exist all the time, all around us, as long as we don’t have to face on video what happens behind closed doors. Know that the NFL most likely knew what happened behind those doors — knows what happens behind the doors of more than a few of its players — but finds it more profitable to feign ignorance. Know that you are a part of those profits. Because if you’re going to be angry, be pissed at yourself a little too.

The biggest problem I have with turning Ray Rice into an example of how we aren’t going to stand this kind of domestic violence in our national pasttime is that in doing so we’re taking ourselves off the hook for being a part of the culture that nurtures and creates him. It’s the same thing we do when we demonize dopers or force the exit of an executive for writing an email that said explicitly the semi-racist things that are undoubtably often said vaguely by most people in the upper offices. What we are doing is blaming one terrible person for being awful, making it their fault and only their fault, instead of acknowledging any fault the system might have for allowing them to exist in the first place.

Yes, 100%, absolutely, choosing to hit your fiance/now-wife is a personal reflection of your shittiness, for which no one else is responsible. I am in no way absolving him of knocking a woman unconscious and then dragging her out of the elevator.

What I am saying is that he is not the first and will not be the last professional football player to do so. What I am saying is that we deify these men for their prowess at violence. We shower them with money and ask in exchange that they catch a ball or throw a ball or stop someone else from catching a ball. That is all we ask. And, if they do it well, we throw parties and fund fantasy teams and buy their jerseys. We ignore these players’ many faults, for as long as we can, because it would not be an enjoyable game for us otherwise. (Obviously, football is not the only sport in which we do this, it’s just the biggest.)

Even the smartest and most down-to-earth NFL players, ones who seem like truly good guys, talk about how the violence on the field is hard to escape, how they have to turn themselves into animals to play the game and go into a different kind of mental space, which can be impossible to explain or shake off. There is more and more documented evidence that the damage (brain and otherwise) inflicted on players can change their personalities, can make them more violent and hard to live with. This is what the sport is.

Throwing Ray Rice out of the league and trading in his jerseys isn’t going to change that. (It probably is actually making things a lot worse in that household, in practical terms, if we really cared about helping the woman who was hit.) Firing Roger Goodell might make us feel better too, like real change was on the horizon. And maybe it would be. Maybe. Maybe there’d be counseling and education programs for players. Maybe they’d make some rule changes to get rid of the most egregious unnecessary on-field violence. Maybe NFL executives wouldn’t cover-up what they couldn’t ignore. But, it would take systemic changes that the public would have to call for. It would take us acknowledging a problem that is bigger than just one person.

Chasing the Real Danger

Embed from Getty Images

 

Thursday, Death Valley National Park announced its new rules regulating increasingly popular crazy endurance races (see: The Badwater Ultramarathon above). The park will no longer allow events during the day from June 14 to Sept. 9 because of heat and the chance of dying, etc. That effectively kills the traditional Badwater 135-mile race, moving it out of Death Valley. This comes on the heels of the Grand Canyon’s revised rules about Rim-to-Rim runners. This isn’t the end. We’re only going to see more places and organizers making safety rules to govern what was once the domain of extremists. There never needed to be rules regulating runners doing the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim route in one day, because there never were that many runners doing it. That’s no longer true.

There is a reason we’ve seen such an increase in extreme endurance events, in the (pseudo) intense adventure/obstacle events. It has something to do with a growing societal desire to chase what people are missing in their commuting and their sitting in offices. They want to feel the thrill of real danger, the excitement of the un-doable. Of course, real danger is dangerous. And real un-doable isn’t do-able for a reason.

My sister and I did a Tough Mudder once. It was fun, challenging, and different from regular races — right up until you had to run through a field of wires that electroshocked you at random. That part was stupid. Why would they mix that in with the physical challenges? Because the clientele demands a feeling of having defeated something tough and insane, something they can brag about to co-workers on Monday. But, that same clientele doesn’t have the training to do anything more physical. All it takes to run through electrified wires is the desire to do so. Tough Mudder feeds that desire.

Of course, Tough Mudder is now having to deal with the dangers that come with running these kinds of events. People die. People die in running races, in triathlons, in obstacle races, in ultramarathons. People die chasing the thrill of living. (People also die all the time for no reason.) That’s part of the appeal, even if no one admits it to themselves.

We are not ok with that fact — and for good reason. When we participate in an event, we believe that we will be safe and that preparations and precautions have been made for our safety. We also believe that we will have a real, genuine experience. These things are at odds. They will continue to be at odds as more and more people try to reconcile them. Ironman’s “hard” races tend to go out of business, while it’s “easy” ones sell out in minutes; no one wants to try and fail at finishing. They want a challenge that they can ultimately safely overcome. It has always been dangerous to run through Death Valley in the summer during the middle of the day. That was true when the Badwater Ultramarathon started in 1987 and a half-dozen crazy people tried to run the 135 miles to Mt. Whitney. They wanted to try because, not in spite of, the dangers. It is still dangerous, but now hundreds can do it. Or, at least they could — until we decided it was too dangerous to try anymore.

David Foster Wallace, on professional tennis

Oh, we’ll invoke lush clichés about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and restricted diets, the preflight celibacy, et cetera. But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up with bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider closely the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews or to consider what impoverishments in one’s mental life would allow people actually to think the way great athletes seem to think.

Learning to Care About Football

I don’t know anything about football. I mean I know the general rules because I grew up in America. But, I don’t care about it. Lots of people do, though. See:

John Martinez Pavliga/Flickr
John Martinez Pavliga/Flickr

 

So, as part of my student USC grad school education, I’m trying to learn to care. Partially this is useful because it may be hard to be any kind of semi-respected sports reporter (even if you’re a sports reporter specializing in not football) without knowing enough to have a conversation. Partially, though, it’s an experiment. Can I learn enough to know the intricacies? To care about them? To have opinions?

It’s not like I can’t learn things fast and like I don’t care about sports generally. And, it’s not like I haven’t read a ton of books about the behind-the-scenes of sports I previously knew nothing about. (Ask me anything about late-1990s gymnastics. I went through a phase.) I’ve even read a few football books, including some really good ones. But, football is so immersed in statistics and shorthand and references to the past that it’s hard for a newbie or outsider to be welcomed into the fold. Part of me thinks the diehard fans prefer it this way.

I don’t know that I’ll ever become a diehard fan. There’s too many people who know too much for me to ever catch up. The base level knowledge for a general middle-aged football fan in America is shockingly high. What could the country accomplish if that amount of effort and attention to detail had been directed elsewhere? Perhaps little more than fewer concussions and a well-developed fantasy Congress instead.

Still, I’ve already read more about college football than I ever have in the past. Steve was impressed with my knowledge of Josh Shaw. And, the whole first issue of my re-subscription to Sports Illustrated was dedicated to the NFL preview, which I mostly skimmed, except for the profiles, because everything started to blend together into gibberish. It’s like the world wants me to care about football, but it making it as challenging as possible. Jump right in. Who do you think will win this weekend? Next weekend? In January? But don’t you think UCLA’s program is making a turn-around? And, how will the 49ers recover from Aldon Smith’s suspension? What about Ray Rice’s suspension? And Josh Gordon’s? Don’t you have an informed opinion? Have an opinion! Get informed! Care!