Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Why Basketball is the Most American of Sports

But I wasn't this good.... smh

If you can picture a scrawny, wild-haired 9th grade girl in oversized shorts, panting on the sidelines of the shiny basketball court, you can conjure up an image of me over a decade ago, wondering how in the world I ended up there. I was at tryouts for the JV basketball team, despite never having played a single day of organized basketball in my life. I naively believed that as a track athlete, I had the kind of athleticism that just needed to be guided by a firm but caring coach into excellence (like Blind Side!); the coach disagreed. Coach Murray gently told me to "Practice and maybe try again next year." Since she was also my geography teacher, it certainly made things a little awkward during 3rd period, but she was right. I had no business out there; so why was I?

Because I love basketball. Always have and always will. My earliest basketball memory is from the Chicago Bulls dynasty era. At that age, I followed my dad everywhere and whatever he did, I wanted to do. This particular Finals Season, I was watching the game with my dad and his friends. He proudly bragged to his buddies "Crys Cross is my girl; she won't fall asleep - she can hang." I have never fought sleep so hard in my life. In the end, I think Jordan, Pippin, and Rodman outlasted me, but I will never forget that series. I loved basketball then because my dad did. 

But as I've gotten older, I've begun to view even the simple things I innocently enjoyed as a child more critically. Yet the more I learned about basketball, the more I respected it. Which brings me here: 

Basketball is not only my favorite sport - it's also the most American of all sports. Here are five reasons why:

1. Basketball is more accessible than most sports (excluding soccer). All you really need to play is a hoop and a basketball. Compared to hockey, golf, and even football, basketball has a pretty low barrier to entry. What's more American than equality for all?

2. Basketball championships truly allow for the best team to win. As a Carolina Panthers fan (well sorta), I will never forget the Super Bowl of 2004, which in my opinion is the one we should have won. I remember thinking "Why can't we just do best of 5?" But that's not how football works. None of this "It at first you don't succeed, try, try again." It's a wrap and you're stuck hoping you can rebuild the magic next season. Not so with basketball. The playoffs series style (which admittedly is present in other professional sports), truly weeds out fluke wins and ensures the best team really does win. No whining allowed at the end about bad calls.

3. Success in basketball requires a unique hybrid of both individual and team success. 
(Ask Kobe) While football truly requires a unified team effort, and baseball can offer hope with a singular strong pitcher or hitter, basketball is a game where you need both. You need stand out individuals like Lebron James, Michael Jordan, and (I grudgingly say this) Kobe, to win a ring. But Lebron needed Wade, Jordan needed Pippin, and Kobe needed Shaq (at least at first). It's the perfect blend of teaching America's proud sense of rugged individualism as well as the mantra "There's no I in team."

4. Basketball is a true melting pot. 
More than any other professional sport, the NBA hires players and staff who represent an ethnic diversity that mirrors America's gumbo. 53% of its head coaches are minorities. 17% of its players are international athletes. 78% of players are African-American.

And speaking of diversity and inclusion....

5. Basketball is often the first of American sports to change for the better. a. 
This past August, the NBA hired the first female full time assistant coach of any professional men's league.
b. The NBA is the first professional men's league to hire permanent female referees.
c. One article said of the NBA's advancement of women: "Even women who end up working in other sports have basketball roots."
d. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports gave the NBA an A+ for racial hiring practices, higher than any other men's professional sports league.
e. Adam Silver's swift and absolute condemnation and forced removal of Donald Sterling -the (ex) Clippers owner who made racially insensitive remarks in a private phone call- is a strong contrast to NFL owner Dan Snyder's promise to never change the Washington football team's name which also happens to be racial slur. (By the way... the NBA has a history of changing offensive names; there are young Wizards fans who don't even know they could have been Bullets fans).
f. The first openly gay active professional male athlete in the U.S.'s four major sports came from you guessed it... the NBA. Although the NBA couldn't really facilitate that, Jason Collins' ability to come out does say something positive about the environment that the NBA has nurtured.

And there you have it. Baseball may be America's pastime, and football may dominate in ratings, but basketball is truly the real apple pie of American sports.

So am I right or am I right?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Why I'm Quitting Football

I have written this post in my mind probably a dozen times, and each time I mean it a little more. This post may be better titled "The Evolution of My Attitude toward Football." But before we get into that... a couple stories for you.

My freshman year of high school, I was in the marching band. More specifically, I was in the drumline. Before you conjure up images of a young female Nick Cannon wow'ing the crowd, I should clarify... I played the least glamorous (but very necessary!) instrument of them all -  the cymbals. There were two incentives for doing this. 1) I had a crush on one of the snare players, Jay Free (I mean with a name like that - how could you not?) and 2) Being in the marching band made me a part of something big - something very big - our high school football experience. 

I don't think it's a stretch to say that my high school had some Friday Night Lights elements. Our basketball team was #2 in the state, but our football players were the real celebrities. We had pep rallies during class time, cheerleaders sold gaudy ribbons, and it was a given that everyone was going to attend the game. Some of my fondest high school memories are tied to those made at football games with friends - watching my classmates score TDs and cheering till my voice was hoarse.

I also remember the annual Powder Puff game which was the one time where Southern belles were given free reign to unleash our aggression against each other all in the name of good old-fashioned American football. Hair was pulled, flags were ignored in lieu of tackles, and cheery sweet cheerleaders often turned in to actual bulldogs - incidentally also our mascot. I never failed to be blown away by how transformative football was for people. (And by the way, my class won every year due to the outstanding phenom - Heather Bryson #allidoiswin). 

I shared this with you to give you some background on my affinity for football. I'm familiar and for obligatory reasons, I'm a semi-engaged Carolina Panthers and USC Trojans fan. I was actually disappointed when I arrived at my undergrad, Howard and realized that ironically, the marching band stole the football team's thunder. But I can count the number of professional football games I've actually attended and I'm more likely to be watching Netflix on Monday rather than Monday Night Football. 

Yet and still, I have made an active decision that I can not in good faith support professional football, even passively. 

A few years ago, when reports started to snowball about the dangerous effects of repeated concussions for boys as young as those in the Pop Warner league, I decided that if I ever had a son, I wasn't comfortable with him playing football. At first, I was somewhat embarrassed by what I thought was a smart but mildly overprotective decision until I started to read that NFL players - people who had made MILLIONS from the sport weren't letting their kids play either (Drew BreesKurt WarnerTerry BradshawBart ScottRayfield Wright, and more).

It probably didn't help that this past year, I devoured the Friday Night Lights series, and in the first episode, the star quarterback was paralyzed after a tragic hit (fictional sure, but jarring nonetheless). 

After a spirited debate with a very close friend of mine who argued that the values of children playing football outweighed the risks, I did some research. As it turns out - it was worse than I thought. A few important facts:
1. The risk starts early - "In a study of second grade football players, the average player sustained more than 100 head impacts during the course of about 10 practices and 5 games... some exceeded a force equivalent to a big hit in a college football game."
2. The effects are life-long and severe - "Repeated concussions could put a child at risk for such crippling conditions as early onset dementia, Parkinson's disease and other neurological disorders that require neurosurgery."
3. The more educated people are, the less likely they are to let their kids play - "One in three Americans say [concussions] make them less likely to allow a son to participate in [football]." 

With all those facts and a myriad of less risky activities available to my hypothetical children (basketball/tennis/chess anyone??) it made it relatively easy for me to proclaim that my kid wasn't playing football. Risk your kids' knees with street basketball? Not awesome, but fine. Risk your kids' brain and set them up for early dementia? Unimaginable.

So at this point in my research, I'm thinking "Alright, my kids will be safe - Fight On Trojans!" But it just didn't feel right to cheer for the charming Cam Newton or my classmates at USC knowing that if they were my kids, I'd be less than enthused. Seems a little selfish to have an attitude of "I would never let MY kids do this - but you go right on ahead and entertain me NFL!"

Right about now, many of you are thinking "Well those are adults and they made the decision to play knowing the risks, and they get paid millions of dollars to do it; I'd say it's no big deal." Let's consider this:

1. The average NFL player's career lasts 3.3 years and the average salary is $1.9 million before taxes. That's a relatively short window to make money that you may have to invest in your health after you retire.

2. Much of the research related to concussions and brain injuries has been released this year. Do they really know?

3. The average life expectancy of an NFL player is 59. Remember, these folks are allegedly super rich and in great physical shape; why are they dying so early? Are a couple decades off your life worth a few million in a few years? 

Here are a few additional disturbing facts for you: 

1. 30% of NFL players develop Alzheimer's or dementia. That's 3 in 10. A good chunk of your fantasy football squad. 

2. Former players in their 50s develop Alzheimer's and dementia at rates 14 to 23 times higher than the general population of the same age.

3. Players between 60-64 develop these diseases at as much as 35 times the rate of the general population. 

So when a fan screams "I love you Russell Wilson!!" you gotta wonder... do we? Do we care enough about these players to hope that they have more in tact than their ACL? Do we place a higher value on the entertainment we get from men crashing into each other than we do on the lives of those very men?

For some people, Alzheimer's, dementia, and Parkinson's are clinical distant words that sound like something bad that happens to other people. But not so for those who've witnessed it up close. For as long as I could remember, my grandpa's Parkinson's caused his wrist to tremor violently, generating a source of laughter and incessant impersonations from the neighborhood kids. And much more tragically, the autopsy of NFL player Jovan Belcher who committed a murder/suicide a year ago, revealed brain damage consistent with CTE, a "degenerative brain disease found in athletes and others with brain injuries."

Can professional football be safe and still be entertaining? I don't know. 

But for now, the serious health problems are ones I'm not comfortable with financing through fanhood. (And the R**skins name, domestic violence cases, and penalty against Husain Abdullah certainly don't help.)

For a great read from a real football fan who is opposed to football because "our allegiance to football legitimizes and ever fosters within us a tolerance for violence, greed, racism and even homophobia" I recommend Steve Almond's "Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto." (Excerpt and interview with him here.)

Here's an alternative read on why "being a football fan is indefensible": here.