Is ESPN’s “The Last Dance” The Most Overrated Sports Documentary of All-Time?

ESPN’s documentary about Michael Jordan’s last season with the Chicago Bulls is getting serious buzz because there’s no competition. Current sports programming consists of reruns of “classic” games; or in the case of golf, tournaments; and forced National Football League trade and draft drama.

The documentary, based on the first two installments, underwhelms. There’s one way to judge docs. Do viewers with no prior interest in the subject become interested? And how much so? I’m already down with pro basketball, so I’m not the best judge, but I have a hard time imaging basketball agnostics jonesing for it after watching the first two episodes of The Last Dance.

It does have one redeeming value. Jordan’s unbelievable smoothness on the court never gets old. One day in 1984, after class, I was (once again) putting on a clinic in UCLA’s Wooden Center. In walked Jordan, in town to pick up the John Wooden award as college basketball’s best player for 1983-1984. Watching him that day school the UCLA varsity was like watching Baryshnikov in his prime. I can still see him effortlessly filling passing lanes and making steals with ease. It’s a shame no one thought of asking me to check him.

One other thing I’ve found somewhat interesting is Phil Jackson’s player-centered leadership. Which begs a question, what the hell happened to Jackson in New York? That’s the documentary I want to see. How does a coach go from the top of his profession to utter and total incompetence?

One other, other thing of interest, is Magic’s and Bird’s pointed, effusive praise of Jordan. In the LeBron versus Jordan debate, it’s worth noting that LeBron’s contemporaries don’t speak of him with the same reverence.

The fact that Pippen was grossly underpaid, the sole focus of Episode 2, is not nearly interesting enough to anchor the hour. And Jordan’s mistreatment of the General Manager, a subtheme, is just kind of pathetic. Except for learning about Jordan’s and Pippen’s family backgrounds, off the court, nothing about Jordan or Pippen inspires.

Instead of a zoom lens on Jordan, Pippen, and Krause, the producers should’ve used a much wider angle one. So far, viewers have learned absolutely nothing about what it was like to be a teammate of Jordans. Toni Kukoc, the silky smooth 6’11” Croatian great is invisible. Harper, Kerr, Longley, invisible.

Give me more of Jordan splitting defenders and elevating for mid-range jumpers (since we don’t see those anymore) and more of the high flying one arm sideway slams that I always found difficult to pull off. But even more than that, give me some subtleties, nuance, ambiguity as it relates to the whole team. Their success suggests the sum was more than the individual parts, but the documentary, so far at least, fails to illuminate that dynamic. And that is a fatal flaw.

download.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

Andrew Luck’s Sudden Retirement From Football

The 29 year old Indianapolis Colts quarterback making $35m/year suddenly retired Saturday. Everyone is shocked, including me, but for a different reason than most.

Over his injury riddled career, the Stanford grad made $100m on the field and lots more off of it. If Luck earns 4% on 150m he’ll have $6m a year to decide how to spend the rest of his life. He should be okay especially since he’s said he is going to make Indianapolis home.

What’s most shocking about his retirement is that it’s not more common. I don’t understand why more elite players who have made $10m+ don’t quit before their brains and bodies begin breaking down.

Scientists know football players are at risk from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries. These are 25 year olds who have another 50-75 to go. Professional football players keep getting larger and faster. Playing professional football is often compared to getting in a car crash every Sunday.

The Colts owner says Luck is passing up $450m in future salary. So what. What is the value of one’s brain and body?

How much money is enough, $150 million no doubt, but why not $5m? Spend and invest smartly and watch it grow over time. Why aren’t many more players heading for the exits. Why isn’t Chris Borland the model?

Early during Sunday’s training ride, six cycling friends and I buzzed Tumwater High School. Cars lined both sides of the street for half a mile. Pop Warner junior football is alive and well in Tumwater, WA. Which I find perplexing.

It makes perfect sense that parents want their children to play sports, but why choose the one where one’s health is most likely to be compromised. Tradition?

Why choose football when there are innumerable safer options? Case in point. You may have missed it, but Sunday in Atlanta Rory McIlroy made $15m by winning professional golf’s final playoff tournament. Hitting a golf ball, not being hit. Don’t expect him to retire anytime soon.

 

 

Wednesday Assorted Links

1. Someone call Child Protective Services.

2. Why every cyclist needs a pool noodle.

3. The future car.

4. How accurate is HBO’s Chernobyl? Spoilers throughout.

5. Add college library books to the endangered species list.

6. High school athletes in California are turning away from football.

 

Passing on the Super Bowl. . . Again

During last year’s Super Bowl, the Good Wife and I had friends over for dinner. An enjoyable, television-free evening, one guest peaked at her phone late in the game. Despite learning a historic comeback/collapse was underway, we still weren’t motivated enough to turn on the game. I didn’t see a single play.

It helped that I didn’t care about either team, but like a lot of people apparently, I’m watching far, far less football than in years past. Of course, I’m still weaning myself from UCLA football. That’s been made easier by my team’s apparent decision to quit tackling, which looking at the data, makes sense.

Before you watch this year’s game, read “I’m the Wife of a Former NFL Player. Football Destroyed His Mind,” by Emily Kelly. About her husband, Rob.

“Over time, I had started to notice changes. But this was different. And things became increasingly frightening.

He lost weight. It seemed like one day, out of the blue, he stopped being hungry. And often he would forget to eat. I’d find full bowls of cereal forgotten around the house, on bookshelves or the fireplace mantel. The more friends and family commented on his gaunt frame, the more panicked I became. By 2016, he had shrunk to 157 pounds. That’s right, my 6-foot-2 football-player husband weighed 157 pounds (down from around 200 when he was in the N.F.L.). People were visibly shocked when we told them he had played the game professionally.

Besides damage resulting from football-related concussions, my husband has never had a diagnosed brain injury. He’s never been in a car accident or fallen off a roof. He never did steroids and, after struggling with alcohol abuse for about six years, off and on, after retirement, hasn’t had a drink in eight years. And he’s only 43.”

And:

“He went from being a devoted and loving father and husband to someone who felt like a ghost in our home. For a couple of months one winter he was so depressed and detached, he couldn’t muster up the energy to speak. My questions went unanswered until I simply stopped asking them. The silence was unnerving.”

Lastly:

“After years of little to no sleep, he alternated between sleeping either three hours a night or 20. I’d wake up to find every blind and curtain in the house closed and Rob sitting on the sofa with a blank expression on his face. He no longer felt comfortable driving, refused to leave the house and cut off contact with everyone.

Specific details about how he wanted his funeral to be, and his demand that he be cremated, were brought up with excruciating frequency. One particularly dark time, he went five days without eating anything; he drank only water and a few swigs of chocolate milk. He was suffering deeply and barely surviving. My love and affection seemed to offer no comfort or solace. I felt helpless.”

Winter has taken a toll. This Sunday evening, I think it’s high time to squeegee and sweep the garage floor.

Why the Seahawks are 3-4

Maybe it’s because the teams they’ve played have a combined record of 19-3.

Or maybe it’s because the offensive line is making minimum wage.

Or because the receivers can’t get any separation.

Or because Marshawn Lynch’s mom has put a curse on the O Coordinator.

Or because the Legion of Doom suddenly can’t stop anybody down the stretch.

Or maybe the Seahawks mediocre record is the result of key defensive players—Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas in particular—getting PAID.

Sherman and Thomas grew up with little and are highly intelligent. Now they’re making tens of million a year, meaning their portfolios are probably generating more passive income than they earned on their rookie contracts. Even if they have a career ending injury tonight (when they get to 3-4), their families are independently wealthy.

Both spent the off-season rehabbing serious injuries and earned their eight figure contracts by sacrificing their bodies for the good of the team. Also, and here’s the key to my hypothesis, Sherman is a Stanford graduate meaning he has to be reading all of the incredibly depressing CTE literature being produced by medical docs studying retired players’ brains.

So two years ago, knowing the NFL stands for “Not For Long”, they were making 5-10% of what they’re making now and had never been to a Superbowl. They were motivated, they were physical, they were focused.

Now, they’re watching their wealth surge every thirty days regardless of what the stock market does, they’ve been to the Superbowl twice, have one ring to show their grandchildren, and they’re learning more all the time about the long-term damage they’re likely doing to their brains. If Thomas and Sherman are not playing quite like their families futures depend upon it, it’s because their families aren’t anymore. If they’re not playing every game like it’s the most important thing in the world, it’s because it isn’t anymore. It makes perfect sense if they’re wondering if sacrificing their long-term health still makes as much sense, because it doesn’t.

The cult-like 12’s only think about what it would be like to make Thomas and Sherman money. They’re not reading the scientific studies that detail the brutal costs of Not For Long glory. I don’t blame Thomas, Sherman, or anyone else in the Seahawk backfield for having lost their edge. If one or more of them are having an existential crisis that’s affecting their play, it’s perfectly rational.

Youth Fitness Should Trump Athletic Competition

“Combined participation in the four most-popular U.S. team sports—basketball, soccer, baseball and football—fell among boys and girls aged 6 through 17 by roughly 4% from 2008 to 2012.” [Wall Street Journal]

Docs and others are worried because “It is much more likely that someone who is active in their childhood is going to remain active into their adulthood.”

Forgotten in this discussion is the fact that there are lots of ways to be active. When it comes to youth, we focus far too narrowly on athletic competition at the expense of fitness.

One common theory for the decline is that social networking, videogames and other technology are drawing children away from sports. And of course football faces a more specific challenge, “growing concern that concussions and other contact injuries can cause lasting physical damage.” The Journal speculates on other causes including increasing costs of participation to excessive pressure on kids in youth sports to cuts in school physical-education programs.

I was intrigued by one student’s story in the article:

Fifteen-year-old Jessica Cronin is the daughter of a former three-sport high-school athlete. But Jessica doesn’t participate in high-school sports, choosing to spend her time outside of class volunteering in her community and going to her temple youth group each Wednesday. “I considered doing track, but it takes up so much time,” said Ms. Cronin, a sophomore at Bethlehem Central High School in Delmar, N.Y.

Since most fifteen year-olds can run 6-7 miles in an hour, I suspect Jessica prefers her community service and youth group activities because they’re based on cooperation more than competition. Most young athletes don’t care about winning as much as their coaches. They’re not anti-competition per se, they just can’t relate to, and therefore resent, many of their coaches “win at all costs” approach.

That’s why a lot of young people gravitate to alternative sports like ultimate frisbee and alternative activities like skateboarding.

Survey youth basketball, soccer, baseball and football coaches about what’s most important to them and their athletes long-term health probably won’t make the list. Too many youth coaches are fixated on scoreboards and win-loss records. School principals, athletic directors, and parents aren’t doing enough to train, hire, and reward coaches who think about team sports as a context for healthier living.

Switching from a competitive team sport orientation to a fitness one should start with wider, better lit roads with generous sidewalks so that most young people can walk, bike, blade, skateboard, or run to and from school. Next physical education classes should emphasize life long activities including walking, running, yoga, swimming, and related activities. Students should be encouraged to compete against their younger selves to walk, run, cycle, and swim farther faster.

When fitness trumps athletic competition physical education classes and team sport practices will be more fun than video games. There should be little to no standing around. I have fond memories of some high school water polo practices where our conditioning consisted of a crazy obstacle course that culminated with a celebratory jump off the three meter board. We improved on the coach’s design by firing balls at one another mid-air. Granted a nose was broken and that was in the Pleistocene Era before the first lawyer emerged from the primordial ooze. Practices would be shorter because the emphasis would be on quality of activity more than quantity.

Who is with me?

 

We Can’t Handle the Truth

Concussions are brain injuries. When you read “Jay Cutler suffered a concussion on Sunday,” substitute “brain injury” for concussion. For example, “Recently, Michael Vick had a really bad concussion brain injury.”

And another. “The NFL should have strict protocols in place to establish when a player has been concussed,” should read, “The NFL should have strict protocols in place when a player has been brain injured.”