Thought of the Day: Cultural Appropriation

Basketball bores the shit out of me. But I have to tip my hat, assuming that is something distinct to my own culture and not some vile act of appropriation which will garner me condemnation from some other culture who has laid claim to hat tipping, to Jeremy Lin. Lin is a basketball player from California whose parents immigrated from Taiwan. And this season he took to the courts sporting some fairly ridiculous-looking dreadlocks.

Kenyon Martin, a retired basketball player who was born in Michigan and raised in Dallas, made headlines when he called out Lin for his new hairstyle, accusing him of “cultural appropriation.” Apparently, adopting styles that one group of people has claimed as its own is a bad thing. Which seems odd to me, because I’d think a group of people who have endured a history of abuse and oppression would actually take some comfort and perhaps even a little pride in what Martin claims is Lin’s desire to be a part of that group. I would think that Martin would celebrate the fact that Lin and others are openly embracing what they feel are traits distinct to his culture.

Lin certainly touched on this point in his initial response, noting that both players are members of racial minorities and suggesting that “…the more we appreciate each other’s cultures, the more we influence mainstream society.” He also astutely called out Martin’s hypocrisy, pointing out that Martin has Chinese tattoo’s. Clearly Martin had no problem appropriating Lin’s culture, yet was quite upset when Lin apparently appropriated his.

As the debate played out publicly, few have acknowledged the racist undertones in Martin’s remarks. For example, he referred to Lin as “this boy” and “these people.” Imagine the outcry if Lin had referred to Martin in such terms? It makes me wonder if David Duke should be angry with Martin for his cultural appropriation of terms deeply rooted in white Southern racist culture?

It’s also important to note that Lin is not a racist, and therefore his adoption of a hairstyle that’s widely considered to be a “black hairstyle” is not meant to mock or offend. This is not a case of a Klansman who is spending $50 a month in tanning salon so his skin can look less white. Lin plays in the National Basketball Association, where 74 percent of his colleagues are black. He has been surrounded by blacks and black culture for most of his life. And getting dreadlocks is evidence of how much he has positively embraced that culture.

For his part, Lin penned an insightful piece about his journey to dreads. Clearly his intent was to sport a hairstyle that was popular among his teammates and friends. Which reinforces my belief that anyone who supports black culture should celebrate Lin’s decision to get dreads as a positive affirmation of that culture (if indeed that’s what dreads represent, but more on that in a moment).

First, let’s acknowledge that hair is more than just hair in black culture. The afro has been seen as a black-positive hairstyle, much like dreadlocks, because it’s seen as more “natural.” Conversely, straight and smooth hair, often artificially created through a nasty-ass process known as “relaxing” it, has been seen as Uncle Tomish, trying to emulate white culture. And if you are unfamiliar with all of this, I highly recommend watching Chris Rock’s documentary on the subject.

But back to dreadlocks, their origins, and what they may or may not represent. This hairstyle was made popular by Jamaicans, specifically the Rastafarians, which leaves me wondering if Martin’s family comes from Jamaica. If not, then shouldn’t he be apologizing to Jamaicans – or at least the Rastafarians – for cultural appropriation? And to that end, why hasn’t Martin called-out other basketball players who are guilty of cultural appropriation, being non-Jamaicans who have appropriated the dreadlock hairstyle from Jamaican culture, such as Chris Bosh, Marquis Daniels, Kenneth Faried, Brain Grant, Latrell Sprewell, and Etan Thomas? Has he held his tongue because they are black? And, if so, does that make Martin a racist?

Of course, I have no way of knowing whether or not any of those aforementioned basketball players are third- or fourth-generation descendants from Jamaica, or perhaps Rastafarians, in which case the hairstyle would indeed be a part of their cultural heritage. Which raises the question of how much of a connection does one need to a particular culture to justify their alleged appropriation? And since science tells us we are all descendants from Africa, doesn’t that make this whole discussion kind of silly?

I don’t understand cultural appropriation. For starters, what specifically defines a culture? And what about distinctions within what’s presumed to be a distinct culture? Are there not cultural distinctions between black Americans, black Africans, and black Caribbeans? And, if so, are they allowed to borrow freely from one another simply because of the level a melanin in their skin?

Is there a white culture? And if so, are there things that non-whites are not allowed to appropriate from it? For example, should black women be allowed to straighten their hair, dye it blond, or wear wigs that achieve the same affect, given that those hairstyles are more traditionally associated with white culture? Should there be an outcry against blacks who wear Timberland boots and North Face jackets, both of which were initially popularized by whites?

Making these kinds of distinctions can get very confusing for those who complain about cultural appropriation. For example, is a white person not allowed to use a touch-tone phone, caller I.D. and call waiting because they were invented by a black woman? And is a black person then not allowed to use any phone because it was invented by a bunch of white guys, one of whom went on to create the lab in which the aforementioned black woman made her inventions? And would the latter fact negate her inventions because they were made in a lab created by white culture?

Given the world we live in, where cultures have been living together for ages, what makes something truly unique to a given culture? Koreans are believed to have invented pants, so does that mean the rest of us are appropriating Korean culture when we wear them? Should we apologize for our pants?

What makes such things distinct to one culture and not another? Is it because someone from that culture created them, or because someone from that culture borrowed it from another and then popularized it through their own culture? And who do you need to ask permission from before you “appropriate” something? Is it simply a question of acknowledging its origins and respecting them? If so, what exactly constitutes acknowledgement and respect?

Finally, is this really about culture, or is it about race? Are these claims of cultural appropriation nothing more than a backlash against years of deep-seated racism, or a way to reinforce racial stereotypes? Are they intended to be a form of cultural racism, or is that just an unpleasant byproduct of trying to hold onto cultural identity on an increasingly assimilating world?

As you can see, I have a lot of questions about cultural appropriation. And there don’t seem to be a lot of clear answers to any of them. But perhaps the most poignant question of all is whether or not we want to be drawing more lines between one another.

I, for one, have seen far too much racism, hatred, and bigotry in my lifetime – based on everything from race, religion, culture, and nationality. And it mystifies me why anyone, particularly someone who has likely endured a lifetime of overt and institutional oppression, would want to foster more of that in our society by trying to use something as simple as a hairstyle to build even more boundaries between us.

 

Stoking American Soccer

Soccer, as football is called here in America, has come a long way in the 50-plus years I have been on this planet. And just as its popularity has grown in the United States, so has the level and sophistication of the media coverage it receives.

Of course, as with all growth and progress, there has been some pain along the way. And we have certainly seen pain on the field (the collapse of the NASL, for example), as well as pain in the broadcasting booth (a competitive game being bumped by ESPN in favor of a college softball tournament, for example).

But things finally hit that nexus of American insanity last month when, during halftime of a Major League Soccer (MLS) match, former United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) player and current Fox Soccer commentator Alexi Lalas unleashed a tirade of criticism aimed directly at current USMNT players.

The Backstory
Now, to be fair, the USMNT has been struggling to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. US Soccer, which manages the USMNT, fired coach Jurgen Klinsmann late last year, after suffering two losses in the qualification process. Klinsmann was replaced by Bruce Arena, who earned considerable success as an MLS coach both before and after his previous stint at the helm of the USMNT.

Following Arena’s appointment last November, the USMNT has managed 2 wins, 3 draws, and 1 loss in World Cup qualifying. It’s worth noting that the two teams which the USMNT lost to under Kilnsmann in this round of qualification, Mexico and Costa Rica, are the two most competitive sides we traditionally face at this stage. With Arena in charge, the USMNT played both of those teams again, losing one game and drawing the other. To put this marginally better performance into perspective, of the six points available from playing those two teams, Klinmann’s side earned none while Arena’s earned one. In other words, we’re sucking ever so slightly less.

Those results, compounded by underwhelming draws against Panama and Honduras, have left the USMNT in a perilous position when it comes to qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. We currently sit in fourth place, thanks to goal differential, which means we would need to win a two-match playoff with either Australia or Syria to advance.

The good news is that our final two games – the first of which is tonight, at 7:00 PM, on ESPN (unless, of course, a college softball game goes into extra innings) – are against the two weakest teams: Panama, who we previously drew with, and Trinidad & Tobago, who we previously beat. And since Panama currently sit in third place, which is a direct qualification spot that doesn’t involve an additional two-game playoff, getting the full three points from a win in that game is critical.

The Double-Standard
Alexi Lalas has a reputation for speaking his mind. And he was very critical of Klinsmann from the moment the German World Cup winner was appointed to head the USMNT in 2011. While some of that criticism was fair and well-placed, much of it was not. Despite a slow start, Klinsmann put the USMNT in front of uncharacteristically tough competition as he prepared us for the 2014 World Cup, where he led the team to an impressive Round of 16 exit against Belgium in extra time.

But Lalas was far from the only pundit critical of Klinsmann. In fact, there seemed to be an ugly faction in the US soccer community who felt that “foreign” coaches should not be welcomed here (perhaps reflecting a microcosm of the xenophobia that propelled El Trumpo into office). And that was compounded by the fact that Klinsmann tapped a number of dual nationals for the team, players who were born overseas to an American parent, which has become a common practice among many of the more successful European national teams.

Since Arena took over, the majority of the US soccer media have been exceedingly soft on the American coach, cutting him plenty of slack. Perhaps because he had led the USMNT to what many consider its highest achievement, a 1-0 loss in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals to Germany, who went on to lose to Brazil in the final. Personally, I consider the USMNT’s best achievement to have been in the 2009 Confederations Cup, where – under coach Bob Bradley – we lost to Brazil 3-2 in the final after beating Spain, who went on to win the World Cup the following year, 2-0 in the semifinals.

Even after our last two results – a loss to Costa Rica and a draw with Honduras, which left the USMNT’s qualification in peril – Arena and his team received only muted criticism. Had Klinsmann still been at the helm, it’s likely that the press would have been attacking him ferociously from every angle.

The Rant
All that changed last month when Lalas, seemingly out of the blue, laid into Arena and the entire USMNT in his on-air rant. He named names. And when he didn’t, he said it was because they weren’t even worthy of calling them out by name. You can see a clip of his tirade here.

Was his criticism fair? Not really. Was it over the top? Of course. But Lalas wasn’t necessarily trying to be fair. And being over the top is sort of his job as a pundit.

Here’s the thing about Lalas, though. He’s actually a smart guy, and quite astute. Many have treated this as the rambling lunacy of an angry man who, like a large swath of our nation, has come completely unhinged. I beg to differ, though. I think this was a calculated move by Lalas to anger and thereby energize the current USMNT. Given this string of lackluster performances by what is unquestionably the most talented squad we have ever fielded (which makes our recent run of results all the more frustrating) and the critical nature of our next two games, I think Lalas was willing to stick his proverbial dick in the meatgrinder in hopes of giving the USMNT something to rally around.

This, of course, is the same sort of thing that the US military and college fraternities try to achieve with practices like boot camp and hell week. They use a perceived threat, which is typically a well-orchestrated artificial annoyance, to bring a group of people together, forming the bonds you only get when confronted by an external adversary. Lalas is the drill sergeant, the pledge master, and he just got in the face of everyone on the USMNT, creating an external adversary that will hopefully draw the team together in time to win their final two games. And for that, I thank him.

We won’t know if Lalas’ rant was effective until we play the final two games of our qualification campaign, with Panama tonight and Trinidad & Tobago on October 10th. And we may never know the extent of the damage it has done to Lalas’ relationship with the USMNT players, coach Arena, and US soccer in general. But the one thing that is already clear is that Lalas approaches his role as a commentator the way he approached his role as a USMNT defender: with passion, tenacity, and a commitment to victory at any cost.

Puto Is The Trump Of Chants

Like everyone else, the people of Mexico must be wondering how America, once the land of the free and the home of the brave, could have let such an emotionally and intellectually stunted bigot into the White House. Though, in fairness, they are probably more concerned with the man’s overt nationalism and well-documented xenophobia than with exactly how or why America lost its way.

Which left me wondering, as I watched the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup soccer tournament, how a people insulted and outraged by the words and actions of El Trumpo can so proudly scream “puto” every chance they get on the world’s stage…the fútbol arena. After all, barking out a homophobic insult is the kind of thing you would expect from a guy like Trump, not the reasonable and loving people of Mexico.

Sports Fan Behavior
For those unfamiliar with this phenomenon, let me explain. There is a certain school of thought among sports fans that if you shout something the moment an athlete is about to take an action, then you might be able to influence that action. I guess the idea is that a loud, sudden noise from the crowd might startle the player and cause them to falter. Although it is worth noting that you rarely see such behavior in sports traditionally favored by the elites, such as golf and tennis, where it might actually have some impact, while it has become quite common in traditionally working-class sports.

In soccer, which is the quintessential working-man’s sport everywhere around the world (except, perhaps, here in the United States), this scream-to-startle phenomenon typically occurs during a goal kick, arguably one of the game’s most low-risk moments (though some keepers have done their best to challenge that categorization). And with American fans, it will occasionally take the form of a deep build-up – “ooooooohhhhh” – bursting into a loud cheer – “HEEYYY” – when the keeper kicks the ball. This particular fan ritual originated during kickoffs in American football. And, especially with the long build-up, it is more of a celebration of play getting underway than an attempt to startle the player, in hopes of influencing the game.

A Fool’s Errand
For what it’s worth, I can’t recall this tactic – shouting or cheering something to startle or distract a goalkeeper (or any other player, for that matter) – ever having any discernible effect on a soccer game, here or abroad. For starters, you can’t be startled when you expect it. And even if the keeper were somehow caught off-guard by a sudden burst of noise, flubbing a goal kick isn’t nearly as bad as botching something like a penalty kick.

Frankly, it all seems quite silly to me. The behavior has become commonplace despite having no noticeable impact. But I guess fans want to pretend that they can have some sort of direct influence on the game, like they are helping to contribute to their team’s victory (though I have never seen a fan accepting a similar level of responsibility for their team’s defeat).

Mexican Fans
Mexican fans already have a history of some of the worst behavior at sporting events. Yes, folks, they invented “the wave.” Or at least they claim to have, at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, though there’s evidence that it has deeper routes in the National Hockey League, and may have first appeared in soccer at the 1984 Olympic final in Los Angeles. I have never understood this behavior, and laying claim to its origin makes about as much sense to me as claiming that you invented herpes.

Am I being too harsh? I don’t think so. You go to a game to see the game, right? But that’s kind of hard to do when the portly guy in front of you periodically leaps to his feet and throws his hands in the air, creating a “wave” of fans doing the exact same thing in a “wave” that “travels” around the stadium. Forget the fact that Chicharito is in on goal…these clowns would rather do calisthenics than watch their team play.

Sure, people will argue that it’s all part of the spectacle – that things like the wave energize the fans, and the players. But shouldn’t the game, or one’s love of the game, be enough to energize the fans, and the players? It would have to be a really boring game for me to seek ways to amuse myself and others. If you want a wave, go to an amusement park. Or, better yet, try the ocean. I hear they are really big there.

The Puto Chant
The wave aside, Mexican soccer fans have set another precedent for bad behavior. They are responsible for the aforementioned scourge known as the “puto” chant. And it’s not really a chant, but rather a word they scream whenever the opposing goalkeeper takes a goal kick. I’ll deal with the meaning, and the various attempts to defend the term, in a moment, but suffice it to say that it is considered – and largely intended – to be a homophobic insult.

In fairness, this doesn’t compare with the overt ugliness and violence you often find at games in certain European, South American, and Central American countries. But much of that comes from extremist groups who have latched on to a specific club or national team as a means of identity. And you can usually trace their bad behavior back to racism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, and general bigotry within their respective societies. Also, it tends to be a relatively small number of people who are openly expressing such things in and around the stadiums, whereas screaming “puto” is far more widespread phenomenon – often even a family activity.

The screaming of this word has become so rampant among Mexican soccer fans that FIFA has sanctioned the Mexican Federation for it, more than five times. Of course, being FIFA, these fines are nothing more than a slap on the proverbial wrist, designed to do nothing other than help FIFA retain an image long-since destroyed by its own horrific behavior. And yet this disgusting practice continues. It has also spread to other Spanish-speaking fan groups, and even to some gringo wannabes in Major League Soccer.

For it’s part, the Mexican Football Federation (which governs Mexico’s league and national team) has threatened to physically remove their fans who scream the word during matches played by the Mexican national team. And officials in Russia, where Mexico is currently playing in FIFA’s Confederation Cup, have promised to place monitors in the crowd to help identify fans engaging in racism and other offensive behavior  – including the puto chant. Yet Mexican fans clearly engaged in such behavior during their team’s opening match, and FIFA, the Mexican Federation, and the Russians (who are not exactly known for their tolerant behavior, especially when it comes to homosexuality) did nothing about it.

Fortunately, thanks to public pressure, some action was taken in subsequent games, with rumors of a few fan being ejected for the chant (unfounded rumors, it seems, but that was apparently enough to deter the behavior). As a result, Mexican fans seem to have dialed it down a bit, at least for the time being. Hopefully this is the beginning of the end for this ugly, childish behavior, but the real test will come next month, during the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which also features the Mexican national team – and their fans.

So What Does Puto Actually Mean?
Getting an accurate translation of puto depends on who you ask. In Mexico, and many Spanish-speaking countries, “puta” is slang for a female prostitute. And puto, in the masculine form, technically refers to a male prostitute. But we’re not talking about a gigolo here. It’s meant to refer to the kind of working stiff that George Michael used to frequently enjoy brief, intimate, paid encounters with in public restroom stalls. To put it in Trumpian terms, it’s kind of like calling someone a “fag for hire.” Definitely a slur.

Puto apologists will make a number of different arguments, as the guilty often do, trying to rationalize their inappropriate behavior. First, they will tell you that it’s not an insult. That it simply refers to a male prostitute. OK, then, is calling someone a whore not an insult? And why are you calling an opposition player a male prostitute, if it’s not meant to insult them in some sort of fashion?

After that fails to hold its ground, they tend to fall back to the argument that the use of the word is commonplace in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking cultures. They will claim that it has become the equivalent of how we use “fucker” here in America, as in “That Fucker!” Which is funny, because now the argument concedes that it is obscene, and an insult, but not necessarily homophobic. After all, anyone can be a fucker. Even you, you fucking fucker!

Others will argue that when they use the word in the context of a sporting event, it means “coward.” And I guess if you are a self-delusional homophobe, you might argue that when you call someone a “fag” that you only really mean that they are a “coward” – which, of course, doubles-down on the insult because you are now implying that someone who engages in homosexual activities is also a coward. But if you truly mean to say coward, then why not just say “cobarde” – coward? Or, if you feel the need to add a little edge, I understand that “pendejo” works just as well, without implying any homophobic undertones. But they don’t use those other words, do they?

It’s like someone trying to defend an expression like “carpet muncher.” That phrase is clearly intended to refer to lesbians in a demeaning manner (though, given modern trends in personal grooming, it hardly seems appropriate these days). Sure, you could say that you are talking about someone who chews on carpeting as some bizarre form of flossing their teeth, but no one is going to believe such nonsense. That’s the kind of half-ass duplicity that has become a staple of the Trump administration.

Others will concede that it is a slur and try to defend it by saying that there are worse things that could be said. The Colombian who manages the Mexican National Team, Juan Carlos Osorio, has offered this lame, hollow excuse. It’s kind of like saying, sure, we threw a bucket of urine on their player, but at least it wasn’t feces.

Despite all these arguments, puto is meant as an insult. And given its cultural context, that insult is meant to be demeaning to both gay men and prostitutes. Which is not only wrong, but totally unnecessary.

Mexican Trumps
The puto chant is also demeaning and insulting to Mexicans, painting them as a homophobic and intolerant people. And it has become a national embarrassment, much like the tweets of Donald Trump.

Is “puto” the best that these fans can come up with? Is that the limit of their creativity? I know that’s how El Trumpo behaves, but aren’t you supposed to be better than that? And what of other fans – Americans and other nationalities – who have eagerly taken up the practice? It’s like a bunch of 13-year-old boys who just learned a dirty word in Spanish and think that saying it is absolutely hysterical.

Look, I have shouted some crazy stuff at soccer games. From “chicken bucket” to “you fucking Philistines,” I am not shy about barking out obscenity-laden rants at the officials, the opposition, and even some of my team’s more slack players. But I never cross the line into ethnic, racial, or sexual slurs. Why would I? It’s a game, after all, and we’re all supposed to be having fun, right? And if I do feel the need to vent my frustration, I would rather do so in a manner that might make someone laugh – not feel insulted, demeaned, oppressed, or threatened.

Hacerse maduro, amigos. Grow up, my friends. Otherwise, you are no better than Trump. And I believe you are.

Does God Play Games?

Is there a secret version of the Bible that I don’t know about? One that’s being covertly circulated among today’s Christians here in America?

I have to wonder, because I went to church every Sunday for the first 15 years of my life. I also attended Sunday school. My father was a Deacon in the Catholic Church, having earned a doctorate in theology, and my mom volunteered as a secretary for the local parish.

But many of the words and actions of today’s most vocal Christians seem utterly foreign to me. They profess their faith, but seem to act according to an entirely different doctrine.

So Many False Followers
As one example, I could focus on the Christians who go to church every Sunday in luxury automobiles and designer clothes. I do recall a Bible passage along the lines of, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Does Jesus want you rolling in to Sunday services in luxury vehicles that are designed primarily to flaunt one’s wealth and cost enough to feed a family of four for 10 years (quite literally…I did the math)? Is that how the Bible teaches us to behave? Is that how Jesus rolled? What about the meek inheriting the Earth?

I could also focus on the behavior of certain Christian conservatives, who often object to programs that help the poor and less fortunate, who seem far more eager to strike down their enemies than to turn the other cheek, and who focus on hate and intolerance when so much of their Lord’s message is about love and tolerance. What would Jesus do? Would Jesus oppose taxing the rich to serve the poor? Would Jesus build a wall? Would Jesus own an assault rifle?

Instead, I think I’ll take this in an entirely different and unexpected direction. I’m going to talk about professional athletes. Specifically, those who all too often invoke God in their preparations, performances, and celebrations.

Does Jesus Score…or Save?
I love sports. I’m not a betting man, and neither was Jesus…as far as I can tell. But I do love sports, for the benefits they bring to participants (from physical activity to learning to work together in harmony towards a goal) as well as for the entertainment and joy they provide spectators.

But why is it that some people clearly believe that God actually takes sides in such spectacles? Given all the misery and suffering in the world, why do people think God has any vested interest in who wins or loses something as trivial – in the grand scheme of things – as a game? Yet so many athletes, coaches, and fans invoke the blessings of their chosen God before, during, and after sporting events.

Even as an atheist, I’ve always found this behavior to be somewhat sacrilegious. Because, after all, these are just games. Our team wants to beat their team, to prove that we are more talented than they are, or at least willing to work harder – not that we are somehow “better” children of God then those other “lesser” children of God.

And for those who argue that it’s more than just a game, that modern professional sports are ultimately a business, this only makes such prayers and praise all the more sacrilegious. Instead of asking for God’s blessings to perform better than another group of individuals for the sake of entertainment, you are asking God to help you get rich – at the expense of others. Or, in the case of most professional athletes, even richer – and often filthy rich. Is that a lesson from the Bible? What would Jesus do? Was he all about gettin’ paid?

Let’s overlook the fact that many modern sports, their superstar athletes, and their legions of tribal fans engage in borderline idolatry. And the fact that many sporting events are played on the Sabbath, turning a day that’s supposed to be sacred into a day of frivolous spectacle and shameless profit. Even though, right there, we have evidence that fans, athletes, and owners are already violating 20 percent of God’s commandments.

But let’s put all that aside for a moment and ask whether it jives with the teachings of the Bible, Torah, or Qur’an to ask God to help you beat your rivals for financial gain and personal glory? And do you really believe that God helped you score that goal? Of all the things that God is supposed to be involved in, do you sincerely believe that this omnipotent being is actively favoring you to succeed in a sporting event, to provide you with personal glory and riches at the expense of someone else?

It’s strange that you rarely see a doctor, scientist, or winner of the Nobel Peace Prize thanking God for helping them achieve success or glory, when – if God were willing to intervene to help someone achieve success and glory – those are the kinds of things one would assume God would get involved with, at least if you take the Bible and its lessons to heart.

God-Given Greed?
It’s just as strange to see professional athletes talking about their God-given talent. And some of that talk goes beyond sacrilege and borders on blasphemy.

For example, American football player and infamous press conference pouter Cam Newton appeared in a Super Bowl advertisement entitled Cam’s Prayer. This “prayer” was a paid endorsement to help himself and others achieve even greater wealth (he earned $24 million the previous year, while the company who paid him to endorse their product had earnings in excess of $233 billion).

The voiceover – which the athlete surely approved, as it’s designed to make the viewer think it’s actually him speaking (and it may, in fact, be him speaking) – claims that God has given him these gifts, his talent as an athlete, so that he could be the best, that he could succeed, and gain wealth and glory by triumphing over his fellow man. It proclaims: “You placed purpose on my shoulders so now I come to you. Lord, give me the strength to finish this… my way.” Not God’s way, mind you, but his way. As if to say, damn it, God, give me what I want! You made me great (or so my Mommy says) now give me the glory and riches I deserve!!!

That doesn’t sound like the God I read about in the Bible. Bestowing special gifts on select individuals so that they can achieve riches and glory? No, I don’t think so. According to the Torah and Bible, God is more interested in putting gruesome burdens and obstacles into people’s lives to test their faith – not providing them with advantages that enable them to gain individual wealth, privilege, and glory.

But claims of divine favoritism are prevalent in the world of professional sports. Athletes flash shirts saying “I Belong To Jesus” as they mug for the camera and then thank the Lord for making them a winner before driving off in their Lamborghini to their mega-mansion so they can count their money. Sounds to me like they belong to someone else, perhaps even Satan.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there is some other version of the Bible, some other Christian doctrine that guides these people. For there is nothing in the Bible I’ve read that condones such behavior. In fact, there’s plenty that not only contradicts it, but outright condemns it as well.

What Would Jesus Do?
Which leaves me wondering, what sort of athlete would Jesus be? Would Jesus even take the time to play a sport? Or would he spend what little time he had in this world, what little time any of us have, and help those who are in need? And I’m not talking about making a handful of pro-bono tweets for a charity and a contractual appearance at a benefit dinner, but a full-on commitment to helping those in need.

Sure, you could argue that people are in need of entertainment. But that’s not really true, is it? No, people want entertainment. They need food, shelter, and compassion. There’s a big difference between want and need, just as there is a big difference between the what Cam Newton does and what Mahatma Gandhi did. And Gandhi wasn’t even a Christian.

Leicester City: The Most Remarkable Sports Story

If you are a football (soccer) fan, then you already know the story. But I wanted to share it with everyone else, whether you are a fan of some other sport or simply enjoy a good David-vs.-Goliath Little-Engine-That-Could Cinderella story.

In this day and age, it’s hard to find truly feel-good sports stories. Sports have become big business – huge-business. And it’s easy for fans to forget about things like passion, effort, and hope. But dreams still do come true.

My apologies for this being a little long, but it’s not necessarily a simple story, especially for those unfamiliar with the English Premier League. But I guarantee that it’s the best sports story involving Richard III you will ever read.

EPLogoA Little Background
The English Premier League is both the richest and most-watched national soccer league in the world. Top players from around the world flock to play for the league’s 20 teams. It generates $2.5 billion in TV revenue annually and is watched weekly by up to 4.7 billion people around the world.

The Premier League season runs from August through May, with each team playing a total of 38 matches – facing each opponent twice (home and away). The team with the best record (3 points for a win, 1 for a draw, and 0 for a loss) at the end of the season wins the league, which includes a sizeable financial incentive in addition to all the glory. And the top six teams earn a chance to play in the very lucrative Pan-European leagues (Champions and Europa) the following season.

The bottom three teams are relegated, forced to play in the second division the following year, which is as hard on the revenue as it is on the ego. Imagine if the worst three Major League Baseball teams were forced to play in the minor leagues the following season (with the top three minor league teams earning promotion to the first division).

The Unlikeliest Title Contenders
Founded in 1884, Leicester City is the team that currently sits in first place in the Premier League, with a seven-point lead and just five games left in the season. This is remarkable for a number of reasons:

  • In the past 25 years, only two teams outside the big four (Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, & Manchester United) have won the league, and Leicester City certainly wasn’t one of them (the only time they’ve finished in the Top Three was back in 1929).
  • In fact, last season was Leicester City’s first in the Premier League since 2003.
  • Seven years ago, Leicester City were all the way down in the third division.
  • At this point last season, Leicester City were sitting in last place and it looked like they’d be relegated back down to the second division (they ended up finishing in 14th place, just six points above relegation).
  • Leicester City’s best player, Argentine midfielder Esteban Cambiasso, left the team at the end of last season, and the players who were then brought in during the off-season to strengthen the squad were all relative unknowns.
  • In fact, Leicester City spent less than $38.7 million signing new players for this season. The team in second place right now spent more than $70 million. And the teams who have won the last few Premier League titles have spent more than that for a single player.
  • At the start of this season, the odds-makers predicted Leicester City’s chances of winning the Premier League were 5,000 to 1. In fact, most people expected them to be relegated back down to the second division at the end of this season.

Since no American sport has promotion/relegation, and there isn’t the same level of economic disparity between teams in our top sports leagues, I’ve struggled to find an analogy that speaks to the non-soccer fan. Maybe if the Toledo Mud Hens were somehow promoted to Major League Baseball and beat the Yankees in the World Series, that might be comparable. Though instead of the Toledo Mud Hens, it’s more like the Bad News Bears.

LClogoHow Could This Happen?
So how did this poor little team from the English Midlands manage to lift itself from 14th place last season and find itself on the verge of winning the Premier League this season? How do you beat 5,000-1 odds?

Leicester City didn’t bring in any big-name players. Their team doesn’t have any of the big-name superstars you might recognize. No, their team is comprised of rejects from other teams – passed over for being not good enough – and players plucked from relative obscurity in other leagues and lower divisions. Most of them weren’t even considered good enough to play for their country’s national team (until now, it seems).

For example, one of Leicester City’s stars this season, English striker Jamie Vardy, was working in a factory a few years ago and only played semi-professional soccer. Another standout, French midfielder N’Golo Kanté, was playing in the third division in France. And Algerian winger Riyad Mahrez, who is favored to be named the Premier League’s Player of the Year this season, was wallowing in the French fourth division.

Leicester City did get a new coach at the start of the season: Italian Claudio Ranieri. But he’s far from a proven winner. In fact, he’s never won a top-flight title. And the journeyman has been sacked so many times that he’s managed 16 different teams in his 30-year career. When he was signed by Leicester City, his instructions were to avoid relegation – expectations that seemed daunting at the time – not to win the title.

The Ghost Of Richard III
Which leaves us with only one possible explanation, and it’s one favored by many in Leicester, the most diverse city in England outside of London. In 2012, archeologists from Leicester University dug up a parking lot in the city to unearth the remains of Richard III (“Now is the winter of our discontent…”), who was killed in battle near there back in 1485.

In March 2015, the remains of King Richard III were ceremonially reburied in a local Leicester church. At that point in the season, Leicester City had 4 wins, 7 draws, and 18 losses – sitting in last place in the league. After the reburial of Richard III, however, they went on to win 7, draw 1, and lose 1 to avoid relegation that season.

And they haven’t stopped winning ever since. Of the 42 games since Richard III was laid to rest, Leicester City has enjoyed 28 wins, 10 draws, and 4 losses. And they are five games away from winning their first ever Premier League title.

It’s Not Too Late To Tune In
On Sunday morning, you can watch Leicester City as they face West Ham, a London team that currently sits in sixth place and are fighting to secure one of the coveted berths in the Pan-European leagues next season. To find the times and channels for this and the rest of Leicester City’s games, you can check Fox Soccer’s weekly online schedule.

[In the interest of full disclosure, I follow Arsenal in the Premier League. The team led the league at the Christmas break, only to do what Arsenal usually do…which is fall apart towards the very end. They currently sit in third place, with the hope of winning the title now as remote as Leicester City’s was at the start of the season. However, I do take a little comfort in knowing that Arsenal handed Leicester City two of its three losses thus far this season.]

The Jingos of Major League Soccer

MLSup14This Sunday will feature the 19th MLS Cup, which is Major League Soccer’s (MLS) version of the season-end championship game. The New England Revolution, who finished in fifth-place overall, will face the team who finished second, the LA Galaxy, who eliminated the team that topped the table, the Seattle Sounders, in the playoffs.

In most soccer (football) leagues, the team with the best record over the course of the season is crowned the champion. In MLS, that team is awarded the Supporters Shield, a largely secondary honor. Which leaves one wondering why the team that performed the best throughout the season doesn’t receive all the glory? Why is there a perceived need for post-season play?

MLSogoEverybody’s A Winner In MLS
Part of the reason has to do with American culture. Most of our sports have a post-season, leading up to a championship game (or games). Apparently being consistently the best isn’t as important to American audiences. You simply need to be the best once, on a specific day.

Of course, the real reason behind post-season play is the money. More fans will tune-in to see presumably the best of the best compete. It’s a chance to sell more ad space and at higher rates, just as it is a chance to sell more game tickets and at higher prices.

Though MLS has an additional reason for its post-season play. Unlike most other soccer leagues, it doesn’t have relegation and promotion. In other words, the teams who performed the worst in a particular season do not get sent down to a second-tier league for the following season, with the best teams from that second-tier league getting promoted to replace them.

One of the benefits of relegation is that it ensures that the games played by teams no longer vying for the title – those in the bottom half of the standings – remain meaningful through until the end of the season. These teams may no longer be in the running for the title, or even post-season play, but theoretically their fans will remain interested because they are still battling for something: to avoid being relegated to a lower division.

In an effort to keep the fans of all but the worst MLS teams engaged through to the end of the season without the benefit of relegation, the league’s 10 best teams get to compete in post-season play for the MLS Cup. And that’s where things get really silly, because it’s actually harder not to qualify for this post-season knockout tournament than it is to qualify. The league only has 19 teams, so the majority of them get to advance, including one club that had 14 wins and 13 losses this season – hardly a record worthy of a post-season berth. Next season, when the league expands to 20 teams, the plan is to have 12 qualify for post-season play, creating a likely scenario in which teams with losing records make the playoffs.

The MLS “Right or Wrong” Mindset
I can overlook the unfortunate fact that the MLS Cup dilutes the importance of regular season play by allowing the majority of teams to participate in a post-season competition that is viewed as the ultimate prize. Without relegation, it’s understandable.

What I find harder to stomach is the delusional, jingoistic fervor of so many MLS fans (and even a few league officials) that clouds the league’s genuine improvements on the field with a sickening, fecal stench. Like some neo-nationalist ideologue on Fox News, they adamantly argue that MLS is one of the best leagues in the world. And anyone who dares to question let alone dispute that assertion is viewed as a traitor by them, branded a “Euro snob” or simply accused of not being a “real” or “true” fan.

In the interest of full-disclosure, I will say that I am indeed an American, and I have been playing soccer since the early 70s. I have, on occasion, coached, refereed, and even written about the game. And I recently started playing regularly again (albeit far more slowly). Yes, I grew up watching European soccer on TV. But I also became a fan of the NASL, back when that league was the top tier in America.

I tried to follow MLS when it first launched but, as a soccer fan, I found the product utterly unwatchable. Since returning from South Africa in 2010, I gave the league another look and have been watching it more regularly. I even bought a partial season ticket plan for my nearest club. MLS has vastly improved since its inception. And while it is more entertaining, it’s still nowhere near the level of Europe’s top leagues (England, Spain, Germany, and Italy, for example) in terms of the quality.

Also, let me be clear that this criticism certainly doesn’t apply to all MLS fans. The league has some amazing fans. In fact, I’d categorize Portland’s fans as among the best in the world.

US Men’s National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann. (image source: ussoccer.com).

But too many MLS fans consider it heresy to question the quality of the league. And their brazenly chauvinistic accusations and outright contempt made headlines when US Men’s National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann dared to offer an honest assessment of the league earlier this year, encouraging America’s best players to strive for Europe’s leagues because they are more competitive than MLS. Klinsmann has been tasked with developing America’s best talent to compete with the best the world has to offer, and the best the world has to offer play primarily in the top European leagues – not MLS.

Many MLS fans don’t want to hear any of this. Again, like a Fox News pundit, they simply ignore any facts that don’t support their ideological conclusion. In fact, if you ask these fans for evidence as to why MLS is such a great league, the answer I always get is because it’s one of the most “competitive” leagues in the world. But is there any truth to that claim? And does being competitive have anything to do with being among the best?

Competitive Against Who?
Unfortunately for these myopic MLS supporters, the claim that the league is “competitive” is a fallacy. The teams in MLS are not competitive with the teams in other leagues. They may be competitive amongst themselves, but that’s rather meaningless. It’s like saying Hyundai produces the best cars in the world simply because all of their models are of similar quality. The real test is how their cars perform against those made by other manufacturers, just as the real test of MLS is how its clubs fare against those from other leagues.

CClogoAnd there is sufficient evidence that MLS does poorly, and consistently poorly, when faced with teams from other leagues in North America, let alone against those in the best leagues in the world. Friendlies are largely meaningless, since they’re not competitive fixtures. There’s no incentive to win and most sides field an experimental squad instead of their first team. So the best test of how MLS clubs compare to those in other leagues is the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL), a tournament in which the best club teams from each league in North America compete to be crowned regional champions.

However, American clubs have consistently failed to perform well in this competition. Soon after MLS was formed, its clubs had a good showing (when the tournament was still called the Champions Cup) with the LA Galaxy finishing second in 1997, winning it in 2000, and DC United taking the title in 1998. But since then, though, an MLS clubs have not fared well, with the lone exception of Real Salt Lake finishing second in 2011.

In fact, if you look at the 17 CCL tournaments in which MLS clubs have competed, they’ve only won two championships – less than 12 percent. Of the 34 opportunities to play in the final, MLS clubs have only shown up four times – also less than 12 percent. And even if you look at who made the 68 semi-final berths in the MLS era, which is something a “good” let alone “great” league ought to be able to achieve on a consistent basis, its teams only account for 26 percent of them.

If you look at the results of this regional competition, the clubs in Mexico are by far better than those in MLS (despite having the same number of seeded teams). And no Mexican fan would dream of comparing their league to the top ones in Europe. In fact, if you look at CCL performance, MLS is more on par with the Costa Rican league than those in Europe.

Since the creation of the FIFA Club World Cup in 2000, no MLS team has won the CCL, so they haven’t earned an opportunity to compete against the best teams from each of the other regional confederations. However, the CCL winners – teams proven to be better than the best in MLS that season – have never made it to the finals of the Club World Cup. In the 10 competitions to date, the best the CCL champions have been able to achieve is three third-place finishes and three fourth-place finishes. Which is proof that even these clubs (from the Mexican and Costa Rican leagues) aren’t as competitive as those from Europe and South America.

Don’t Bury Your Head – or Talent – in the Sand
Jurgen Klinsmann is right, in that American players need to challenge themselves by playing against the best players in the world – the vast majority of whom play in Europe’s top leagues. In the same way, MLS needs to stop comparing its clubs with one another and focus instead on how they perform against clubs from other leagues. That kind of open, honest assessment is the only way the game will move forward in this country.

To claim MLS is great because its teams are so competitive with one another, meaning no one is really any better or worse than anyone else (the league was designed that way, so that no one team can ever dominate), is like claiming that a boxing match between two armless men is competitive. Technically they are competitive with one another, just like Hyundai’s cars. But neither boxer would fare well against other title contenders. Nor would the bout between the armless duo make for very good entertainment, at least not for a boxing fan. Just as MLS, while vastly improved from its inaugural season, is still well short of the mark when it comes to competing with the world’s top leagues.

 

 

PBR FC

PBRstreefighterThere’s a Key Food supermarket across the street from my building here in New York City. But I avoid buying perishables there because they tend to get things, well, let’s just say a little bit later than other supermarkets.

That goes for beer, too. For example, in the spring they’ll have an assortment of holiday ales on sale. And in the summer, you can find some nice Maibocks. Summer ales in the fall. Oktoberfests in the dead of winter. That sort of thing, always pushing the “sell by” date.

So I wasn’t too surprised to spot this Pabst Blue Ribbon World Cup promotion appearing nearly a full month after the tournament ended. In fact, I was more surprised to see PBR rocking a soccer promotion. It is, after all, a classic working man’s beer, the malted equivalent of slapping a teammate on the ass, a gesture that is disturbingly common in sports like baseball and American football but not in the more masculine world of soccer.

Which left me wondering, if this quintessential blue-collar brew is celebrating soccer, has the sport finally “arrived” here in America? Or has the brand simply caved to the hipster craze, which seems to celebrate everything from retro “crafts” to “foreign” sports?

Either way, it brought a smile to my face. And a 12-pack to my fridge for only $9.99. I chilled it estupidamente gelada, ridiculously cold, like they do down in Brazil – so cold that I could barely taste the stuff.

And looking at their in-store display, I’m not sure what I like better: the bicycle kick with beer in hand illustration or the texting GOOOOAL offer. And I wonder how long they spent deciding how many O’s to include in GOOOOAL? And how much the promo agency billed Pabst for the hours they spent debating that decision?