Boring? Just add scoring

Some of the best workplace discussions are those which have nothing to do with work: the so-called “water-cooler” conversation that greases the gears of the white collar domain.

While office managers may look on with concern over lost productivity, they’re often as guilty as the rest, joining subordinates in Monday-morning-quarterbacking the big game or hashing out the best Christmas movie of all time. Perhaps those managers recognize some benefit to the occasional distraction from the day’s business. Surely it won’t matter if that TPS report is filed a few minutes late.

Our office is no exception, and I found it noteworthy to observe, twice in the last two weeks, the topic of “what is the most boring sport?” luring colleagues within earshot from their respective desks. For an undefined period of time (but we know when it’s over), work duties are set aside as the question becomes top priority. And when the designated BS session inevitably ends with no conclusive finding, we resume our paid duties in the hope that something we said got through. Well, given that this debate has come up twice, it’s apparent that, as with many of our legitimate meetings, nothing was settled and the oral arguments will resume at an appropriate lull in the future.

So I want to be ready. I’ve given the “boring sport” topic more thought than I’d care to admit, digging into what exactly it is about athletic contests that appeals to us. Call it defining the terms.

My theory in short: it comes down to scoring. It’s the essence of sports, the only way to objectively separate winner from loser. For purposes of our office debate, we’re talking about the “big five,” a predominant subset within the realm of organized spectator sports for which game progression and scoring operate independently of each other. Baseball, basketball, football, hockey and soccer all can advance and sometimes even end with or without scoring by either team. Contrast this with tennis or golf, for which scoring plays are integrated into the progression of the match. One can’t happen without the other.

Because of this difference, the big five have widely varying rates of scoring. That’s the crux of our “boring” question. The scoring play represents the ultimate gratification of our emotional investment in the game. How often that happens, and its degree of significance in the contest, largely accounts for our overall interest in the sport.

If I worked at fivethirtyeight.com, I’d have come up with a chart to illustrate the differences in the big five based on scoring frequency (or alternately, scoring ease). But let’s hammer it out in words. On one end of the spectrum is basketball, where teams score on a large percentage of their possessions. Accordingly, the value of a score is diminished. It’s for fans who have a high tolerance for repeated but small slices of gratification, with tons of baskets made, but not much interest in correlating a particular basket with the final outcome.

On the opposite end are soccer and hockey, where scoring a goal is comparatively difficult and therefore rare. One goal is a big deal. Two or three goals can be an insurmountable lead. And tie games are a common occurrence all teams and fans must accept. That’s OK, though. There’s nuanced gratification in a team’s ability to create scoring chances, even when they don’t hit home. Or in playing defense, which functions on the understanding that preventing an opponent from scoring is itself a form of scoring. And when there’s an actual goal? Let’s just say the celebration is more pronounced than when a basketball player sinks a jumper.

And then in the middle are football and baseball. Scoring tends to happen with moderate frequency, but typically not more than 6-7 times per team per game. That means a touchdown or home run can be the difference, but often they aren’t, meaning you may have to watch to the end to be certain. It gives fans a healthy frequency of gratification with enough “droughts” in between to give that gratification meaning.

So what’s the most interesting sport? I have my own views, but in terms of pure popularity, it appears basketball, with its many, many scoring plays to cheer, might have the brightest future. Repeated gratification, even in small doses, is the driving factor. The NFL and Major League Baseball seem to understand this as they continue to tinker with their rules to favor offenses and ease scoring. You can’t have bat flips and end zone celebrations without home runs and touchdowns. Soccer and hockey, with their well defined parameters and global audiences, have limited options (and limited appetite) for change and therefore will likely maintain limited appeal here in the U.S., where fans want to see points.

None of this accounts for the other myriad subjective and intangible attractions of athletic contests that capture people’s interest. It might be the sheer speed thrill of downhill skiing, the muscular artistry of gymnastics or the primal brutality of mixed martial arts. We like them… well, because we like them. It’s probably a social phenomenon worthy of discussion, but let’s save that for another day. I should really be getting back to work.

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A win for the fanatics

We’re all familiar with sports-as-war metaphors. I see them regularly in my day job with Packersnews.com: the “battles” between linemen “in the trenches,” the quarterback as “field general,” the NFL draft “war room.” It can be a bit much, particularly for those who have served and suffered in the real deal.

But there’s a purpose to such staged combat. Sports provide a safe outlet for our primal inclination toward periodic social conflict. Uniforms and logos establish which tribes we belong to. The winner is decided in accordance with game rules enforced by mediators, all of which is agreed to by combatants who shake hands as compatriots regardless of the outcome. We’ve satisfied our tribal and territorial impulses, with no one getting (badly) hurt.

Modern organized sports thrive off of the cohesion that has otherwise gone missing in a much of Western society. Outdated concepts such as honor, loyalty and territorial defense still matter — at least in the stands. While players play for whoever pays them, fans exhibit a devotion that, as the “fanatic” root word indicates, borders on the irrational. It’s about the hometown, the colors, the mascot. “We” define ourselves by not being “them.” It’s a tribal thing.

All of this is fairly harmless (not to mention big business) as long as people let it go at the final gun. Sure, there will always be sporadic bar fights and intra-family snubs as a few of us take the big game a little too seriously. But what happens when a sports team grows beyond a mild dalliance into tribalism, beyond geographical borders and comes to define an ethnic or racial identity? That’s the subject of “Forever Pure,” an Independent Lens documentary recently screened on PBS.

“Forever Pure” explores the unique story of the Beitar Jerusalem Football Club, an Israeli soccer team that is historically identified with the nation’s political right. Supported by a rabid fan base that has not only embraced but steered the team’s ideological bent, Beitar demands enthusiastic and vocal allegiance from any Likud party member with political ambitions. So it was a bombshell in Israeli sports and politics when in 2012, Beitar’s enigmatic owner, Arcadi Gaydamak, signed a pair of Muslim players. Never mind that the two athletes were Chechnyan; for supporters of a team that had never signed an Arab player, the act was tantamount to treachery.

The documentary follows the football club through its turbulent 2012-13 campaign, as sports and politics intermingle to sometimes uncomfortable degrees. After a smiling, highly orchestrated public welcome to Israel, the two young Chechnyans are subjected to Jackie Robinson levels of taunts, abuse and threats from fans. Their Israeli teammates, some well-meaning and others reluctant, offer half-hearted encouragement that scoring goals and winning games will turn the crowds in their favor. But as the Israeli players begin enduring collateral damage from the stands, whatever initial lukewarm support extended to the guest Muslims fades, and all quickly sour on the experience.

Gaydamak presses on, touting motives that on the surface appear altruistic, although somewhat perplexing. He admits he has little interest in the game of soccer, or sports in general, and seems intent on conducting a massive social experiment. But as losses pile up and fan boycotts leave the team playing in a nearly empty stadium, the businessman succumbs to the bottom line and ultimately sells the club. For the Beitar faithful, purity, with all its racial and ethnic connotations, is restored.

Sports movies are notoriously sappy. If “Forever Pure” had been a scripted Hollywood feature, Beitar would’ve gelled midseason, rallying together for an improbable championship run that wins over fans. A Chechnyan Muslim would score in overtime to end the title game, and Jews and Arabs would hug in the streets. Pie-in-the-sky to be sure, but there are brief flashes in “Forever Pure” that hint at such possibilities. You want it to happen. The reality that makes that scenario impossible is an overriding political narrative that relegates the players on the field, the coaches on the sideline and the wealthy owner in the luxury box as secondary figures to the irrational fanatics in the stands.

Football vs. baseball

This is my favorite time of year for sports — when football and baseball align in a 3-week smorgasbord of athletic overload. Football season is just getting started, but it doesn’t take much for the NFL to ramp up to full speed. While nothing is decided in terms of division champs and playoff qualifiers, we’re already beginning to see the separation of contenders from pretenders. Meanwhile, baseball is in the sweet spot of its postseason. Soon will come the pomp and circumstance of the World Series, with every pitch, every swing, every scratch of the groin analyzed to pieces, and the game inevitably loses the sense of fun that the league divisional and championship series somehow manage to retain.

One of the opportunities that simultaneous football and baseball presents is a head-to-head comparison between two sports that otherwise occupy contrasting seasonal associations. Baseball’s 9-month pilgrimage begins every spring, a yearly renewal of hope that slides into summer laziness as the attrition of 162 games takes its toll on our attention spans. Football seasons congeal in sweaty August training camps before debuting under the crisp autumn sun and maturing through gray November rains and December flurries, punctuated by playoff runs to an exotic location for the February Super Bowl.

But for a few weeks, baseball and football occupy the same space in relatively peaceful coexistence. I enjoy each for its own merits, but during this time I consistently find baseball to be the superior game. Here are my layman’s observations that bring me to that conclusion:

Individual conflict: Playoff baseball stages some extraordinary drama, and a primary factor therein is the existential struggle between two individuals — the pitcher and the batter. Yes, fielders and base runners have a role in moving the game forward, but nothing happens until the pitcher decides to throw a pitch and the batter decides whether to swing or not. And so much of what unfolds during the game depends on the actions of those two men. Football’s action also tends to operate around a small number of skill players, but it never reaches the elemental faceoff between two individuals that plays out in each baseball at-bat.

Failure is built in: A baseball game by rule cannot proceed unless an offensive player makes an out. That applies a certain humility across a batting lineup, from sluggers to pinch hitters, who must collectively produce 27 outs, win or lose, in order to complete the game. In football, it’s possible to have everything go right for an offense. If it’s a 77-0 whitewash, the clock still runs, eventually bringing the misery to an end.

Gender inclusion: Football in many ways reinforces traditional, pre-feminist gender roles. Men do “battle” on the field while cheerleaders prance and preen from the sidelines. In the broadcast booth, men, many of whom are former players, offer thoughts both serious and glib on the action below. Women are relegated to “soft” off-the-field features, passing along team injury reports and mindless halftime interviews with the coach. Baseball doesn’t do much better, but at least its cousin, softball, fully welcomes women to participate at the high school and college level, providing experience with which to appreciate the finer points of the game. Just ask Jessica Mendoza, a former softball star who does color commentary for ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. Imagine that happening in an NFL broadcast.

Diversity: The Baltimore Orioles’ Adam Jones recently complained that baseball is no longer a black man’s sport. True, it can’t match the almost 70 percent share of NFL rosters that are black, but is that an accurate reflection of our society, or the world? Look through MLB rosters and you’ll find not just the whites and blacks that dominate the NFL, but players hailing from myriad Latin American and Asian nations, bringing a healthy mix of ethnicities and languages into the locker room.

Broadcasting tradition: This year has seen venerable ESPN NFL analyst (and Hall of Famer) Tom Jackson retire, with colleague Chris Berman soon to follow. The knock on them was the sports media game had passed them by, that the younger generation of fans couldn’t relate to them. Baseball, meanwhile, just shed a tear at the departure of longtime Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully. Bob Uecker remains a fixture in the Brewers’ broadcast booth, and no one is in a hurry to shuffle him out the door. Yes, they’re in their 80s, they don’t shout or sloganeer and they’re no social media mavens, but there’s something to be said for treasuring the game’s elder statesmen.

Of course, baseball isn’t perfect. Its staid traditionalism and comparative snail’s pace could be its undoing as younger fans disdain a sport that doesn’t engage with them on their terms. By contrast, the NFL has embraced digital media marketing like no other sport and continues to tinker with its rules to maximize exciting play, leaving it better positioned for the future. At the financial level, its salary cap makes small market teams economically viable and ensures a competitive league. MLB has taken baby steps in this direction, but it remains largely a league of haves and have nots.

All said, this is nothing more than a fun little exercise, a comparison born of the embarrassment of riches I’m currently enjoying. In a few weeks the World Series will anoint a champion, leaving me to devote my attention to the NFL season. Before I know it, the Super Bowl will bring that season to a close, and I’ll no longer have the luxury of considering the merits and flaws of two sports in repose.

Taking care of business

There are times in football when a running back or receiver busts loose, with nothing between him and the end zone but a smaller, lighter defensive back. The DB has a choice: 1) sacrifice his body any way he can to bring down the charging runner, or 2) half-heartedly grasp at an arm or leg in hopes of slowing him down or wrangling him toward the sideline. The second option, not uncommon, is what’s known as a “business decision.” A significant injury can derail a player’s season and possibly shorten a career that’s worth millions of dollars for each year it can continue. Why risk that to prevent one touchdown in a game that can turn on so many other plays?

I saw a lot of business decisions in Super Bowl 50, but not on the playing field. It happened in between the action, during the commercial breaks, when advertisers call out the big guns for their annual bonanza of the comical, the outlandish, and in some cases, the just plain bizarre. Seth Rogen and Amy Schumer shilled for Bud Light, Willem Dafoe channeled Marilyn Monroe for Snickers, and Steven Tyler was doing some sort of schtick for Skittles (I think?).

What prompted these A-listers, each well established in their respective fields, to take on these gigs? We can guess it has little or nothing to do with the quality of the product they’re selling. Perhaps the wheelbarrows of cash parked under their noses? Yes, there’s that, but beyond the sheer dollars, there’s the power of name recognition. In show business (there’s that word again), talent is part of the equation — and these people have it in spades — but if your name isn’t known out there, you may as well be nothing. Just ask Betty White, who revived her career for the umpteenth time with a Super Bowl commercial a few years back. Few people may remember what the ad was for (our old friend Snickers!), but she’s enjoyed plenty of legitimate success since then.

Dafoe, for instance, must be aware that film producers have to consider more than acting ability alone when casting roles. They need a name that will sell tickets (or DVDs or streams) off the marquee, so to speak. Had Will Smith, for instance, not taken the lead role in “Concussion,” would the movie currently be enjoying the company of Oscar heavyweights?

So guess what: Rogen, Schumer, Dafoe and Tyler all made business decisions. It’s likely Aerosmith saw a bump in downloads/streams in the days after Tyler’s Super Bowl spot. And maybe plans for a concert tour have a little more juice than they did a week ago. So who am I to judge? A cornerback opting to bail on a tackle may realize several additional years of million-dollar contracts. Even his coach may prefer having a healthy, effective player at that position long term rather than saving one stinkin’ touchdown in one stinkin’ game. That’s between them. The bottom line is that, more often than not, the business decisions people make are nobody’s business but theirs.

Polynesian field of dreams

It’s understandable when high school football players confidently envision a future of NFL stardom with no apparent concern for what happens if things don’t work out. That’s what 17- and 18-year-olds do. But when parents, coaches and college recruiters buy into the fantasy, or at least enable it, we get the scenario explored in the new indie doc “In Football We Trust.”

Centered on a small but rabidly football-oriented Polynesian-American community in Salt Lake City, the film tries to establish a connection between this particular variation of the immigration story and how these new Americans quickly came to embrace the game that dominates our nation’s sports landscape. But along the way it exposes a phenomenon commonly found in American society — often (but not necessarily) among groups of lower socioeconomic means — in which in all hopes of success in life are pinned on athletic prowess.

The underlying premise of “In Football We Trust” rests upon how Pacific Islanders’ warrior culture suits them for the game of football. Indeed, the notion of a “Polynesian pipeline to the NFL” is not an exaggeration — according to the filmmakers, Samoans and Tongans living in the U.S. are 28 times more likely to play in the NFL than any other ethnic group. The film presents interviews with several current and former pro players, including Troy Polamalu, Vai Sikahema, Haloti Ngata and Star Lotulelei, as evidence.

But the high rate of success glosses over the reality of the NFL. It’s a hyper-competitive environment sifting through thousands of athletes, and only a relative few will make the cut. And Sikahema notes that as hard as it is to break into the league, it’s even harder to stay. The youngsters profiled in the documentary, all accustomed to churning out Friday night highlights with ease, discover the challenges of reaching the next level, namely a collegiate program prestigious enough to showcase their abilities and launch an NFL career. At no point do any of the adults in their lives temper the enthusiasm, and while no one wants to discourage a young person’s dreams, there are times when a dose of straight talk would seem to be appropriate.

Instead, the young men encounter varying degrees of setbacks, ranging from issues with academics/attendance and petty gangster crime, commitments required by their Mormon faith, and in one player’s case, a simple inability to pick up the speed and complexity of Division I collegiate football. Such mishaps are unfortunate but not heartbreakingly unexpected — all of us at some point in our lives realize certain dreams are not going to happen. The boys draw on family and other resources to cobble together backup plans, and life goes on, but needless to say, none of them finds their way into the promised land of the NFL.

You can catch “In Football We Trust” on PBS’ Independent Lens on Monday, January 25, or, for those of you in town, at this year’s Green Bay Film Festival in March.