On professional sports: what many fans forget, ignore, or don’t know

This goes back to a spur-of-the-moment tweet I made yesterday. I still stand behind what I wrote even though some people almost certainly got the wrong idea:

And for the record… I really, truly, could not care less who wins the Super Bowl. I just hope none of the players get hurt.

A lot of people forget things about professional sports. When an athlete wants a salary that most average people deem inflated if not outright obscene, it’s easy to forget a lot of the cold, hard, unpleasant realities of professional sports.

The first of those is that for the players at the professional level, playing the game is their day job. Not only is it their day job, particularly in the cases of football, hockey, and motorsports, it is one of the most dangerous jobs in existence. And I’ll probably get flamed for this, but I assert that professional athletics is at least somewhat on par with law enforcement for danger level; it’s difficult to be completely objective on things like this, but my educated guess says that most football players have less than half the working hours per year of most beat cops. In particular, the sheer quantity of police officers with 10+ year careers compared to the relative rarity of NFL players with the same tenure pretty much speaks for itself. I would go as far as to suggest most cops who change careers inside of a decade do so willingly as opposed to being forced to do so from injuries. The NFLPA FAQ for those considering becoming an NFL player is rather clear:

The average length of an NFL career is about 3 and a half seasons. Although there are some exceptional players who have long careers that extend 10 or twelve seasons and beyond, most players only stay active for about three seasons. Players leave the game because of injury, self-induced retirement, or being cut by the team. This also means that while players may make more money than most people, they are only making it for an average of three and a half years. To make sure they are successful in the future, players must invest their money well and make plans for another career when they can no longer play football.

I invite comments from anyone with insight from the law enforcement community, or for that matter any other similarly dangerous career.

The second of these is that when rule changes are made to promote safety, that means for the players, this is a workplace safety issue. Without the players, there’s nothing for the fans to watch. I’m not saying the fans should be completely ignored, but there is no game without the players. The so-called “armchair quarterbacks” are quick to call the players all kinds of derogatory names like “sissies afraid to get hurt” when a league makes a safety-related rule change. Most professional sports fall outside the jurisdiction of OSHA; the players’ union and the league are all the players really have as far as who is looking out for their interests. (And in some cases, the leagues eagerly turn a blind eye until the union makes enough noise.)

Another is the perception that most athletes are millionaires. The NFLPA FAQ linked above refutes this:

Despite what most people think, not all NFL players are millionaires! For example in 2000, the minimum salary for rookies was $193,000. While the highest paid players in the league can make $7-8 million per year, most players make much less than that. … This year, the average NFL salary was $1.1 million.

Note that this is the average, meaning there are a significant number of players who make less than this.

I would go as far as to say an NFL player making the minimum salary, who suddenly finds himself playing for an entire quarter of every game from, say, the fourth week on, is probably not being adequately compensated for the risk he is undertaking! (To be fair about it the same could certainly be said of many police and fire personnel as well.)

(Quick aside: the average is different from the median; the former is the sum divided by the count, while the latter is the number of which half the numbers in the set are either above or below. I suspect the small number of multi-million-dollar salaries inflate this average to be much higer than the median, but would need to find the numbers to actually back it up. I believe the median to be a much more useful statistic which would probably go much further towards proving my point in this case.)

Finally, the career of most professional athletes, save for certain sports such as bowling or golf, is short enough as it is, without the ever-present possibility of career-threatening or career-ending injuries. As mentioned previously, especially in the case of professional team sports, there is the possibility of being cut (or, as the rest of us know it, getting fired) by the team. The reasons for an athlete being out of work are sometimes just as arbitrary as some of the layoffs and firings that happen in the corporate world.

So when I say things like that, there’s a reason for it. I do feel the New Orleans Saints played a great game and congratulate the team and its fans on the victory; while I did not really root for the Saints, I am capable of admiring well-played football by any team.

Today’s a great day for sports fans, all sports fans, to pause and give the proper credit to the players that make each sport what it is. Without the players, there would be no game to watch.

A new take on “motivation”

I haven’t done anything sports related for a while. This story is interesting not for what happened but for the athlete’s take on the event that transpired.

ESPN reports on Adalius Thomas of the New England Patriots being benched for speaking about about his team disciplining him for being late to a team meeting:

New England Patriots outside linebacker Adalius Thomas, who was disciplined for being late for a team meeting earlier this week and spoke out about it, was benched for Sunday’s game against the Carolina Panthers.

Apparently, his tardiness was due to the weather. At least that’s what Adailus told ESPN; while he was at it he threw in some more colorful commentary:

“That’s one thing about Mother Nature, you can’t control that. You can’t run people over getting to work… It’s not the Jetsons, I can’t jump up and just fly. What the heck am I supposed to do?”

And then later:

“Sending somebody home, that’s like, ‘He’s expelled, come back and make good grades.’ Get that [expletive] out of here. That’s ridiculous. Motivation?”

In summary, Adailus’s concern is with the assumption that his tardiness or absence was unexcused or unexcusable. It is certainly credible to me that the commute to the practice facility might involve a bit of travel through snow, this being the greater Boston area we’re talking about. (That excuse normally woudln’t fly in, say, Houston.)

While Bill Belichick has every right to run his team the way he sees fit, I have to question the wisdom of just sending players home due to tardiness that is not their fault. It’s just going to take a few minutes extra for the players to arrive when it’s snowing.

Really, it’s the same as any other job. That’s something the football-watching public forgets, way too often. I think most employers would be much more understanding and fair about weather-related tardiness.

Gender testing in sports: outdated?

A recent article on SocialistWorker.org mentions the rather interesting and bizarre story of Caster Semenya, who won the 800-meter race in the IAAF World Championships about a week ago now. The bizarre twist is that Caster was forced to run despite strong controversy about her gender, or specifically, that she “may not be entirely female” as an article in the newspaper The Age says it.

This quote from Caster’s coach, Michael Seme, while at first appearing to be rather defensive of her, really only serves to add to the humiliation:

We understand that people will ask questions because she looks like a man. It’s a natural reaction and it’s only human to be curious. People probably have the right to ask such questions if they are in doubt. But I can give you the telephone numbers of her roommates in Berlin. They have already seen her naked in the showers and she has nothing to hide.

I can only hope and pray that quote was intended to be tongue-in-cheek. Even if it was, it is still very close to the boundary line of tasteless territory, if not over it.

It’s not just track and field. All throughout women’s sports, it seems like the fashionable thing to do is characterize the best in sport as too “tomboyish” or “mannish” as a derogatory term. And it is derogatory, every bit out of bounds as calling inferior male athletes things like “girly” or even derogatory terms which imply homosexuality, that I will not repeat here.

I think the worst examples are the things I have heard about the WNBA, most notably that most would-be WNBA spectators feel uncomfortable sharing the stands with what they suspect to be homosexual women (when I had the conversations with various people who brought this up, invariably, some very derogatory and unflattering words were used).

Further down we get to the story of Spanish hurdler Maria José Martínez-Patiño, who was stripped of a first-place title when discovered to have XY chromosomes, instead of the expected female XX chromosomes. The effects on Maria were devestating.

While as a practical matter some hard lines do have to be drawn, I think it may be time we as a society reconsider and reframe how we consider gender, particularly that there are multiple aspects of gender identity, many of which may not neatly fit into the two boxes of “male” and “female” we’re used to.

Quoting the article again:

While we are never encouraged to conceive of bodies this way, male and female bodies are more similar than they are distinguishable from each other. When training and nutrition are equal, it is increasingly difficult to tell the difference between some of the best-trained male and female Olympic swimmers wearing state-of-the-art one-piece speed suits.

Indeed, dare I say it, this is what it should be about: training, conditioning, nutrition, practice, and effort, not gender.

Most of the men’s swimming records are still significantly faster than the corresponding women’s records (source: Wikipedia article “List of world records in swimming”) but I suspect over time this will change to the point that one day we’ll see a women’s record faster than the corresponding men’s record. A bold prediction? Yes. But not outside the realm of possibility.

But until it’s obvious having two record books is silly, let’s not reward the winners with an attack on their gender, which is in turn an attack on their identity and dignity. We owe our fellow members of the human race at least that small amount of decency.

Is new technology in sports cheating?

While browsing recently I happened to find a very insightful article about sports and technology. Several major sports are referenced including golf, swimming, and tennis.

Of particular note is a quote from Martina Navartilova:

To me, using “illegal” equipment is the same as cheating with performance-enhancing drugs.

Or, put another way, cheating is cheating, whether with drugs or equipment. Navartilova’s reference to what would happen if we allowed major league baseball players to use graphite bats really brings it home. The technology is there, but allowing it would completely change the sport. Heck, we may as well not call it baseball anymore; it would make more sense to just rename the sport “Gone Home Run” because that’s what it would become.

Make no mistake about it: I am a fan of technological advances. I have posted on Twitter at least once how little I will miss CRT-based monitors, film, and magnetic tape-based media. (That could probably be extended to magnetic floppy disks as well.) There is, however, a very thin line between new world records set by performance of the athlete(s), and a new world record set simply because the technology which allowed it has only now become viable.

I don’t follow every sport; however, I do understand what Gary Hall Jr. is saying when he refers to times in swimming being measured in hundredths of a second, because races and world records used to be decided by those kind of time margins. When new world records in swimming are set by a difference of whole seconds in the past four years, you can’t tell me that it’s just the athletes that made it happen.

Is there really a difference between beating a world record by four seconds with steroids, or beating a world record by four seconds with a new swimsuit that simply didn’t exist five years ago?

The joys and heartaches of being a sports fan

So I got to watch (most of) the hockey game involving my favorite NHL team (the Colorado Avalanche) tonight. Besides realizing just how long it’s been since I’ve actually watched a game, I’m rather pleased overall; the Red Wings have historically been a very tough team for the Avalanche to crack, but tonight they did just that. Combine that with the Texans’ recent wins, and one could reasonably infer I have quite a bit to be happy for right now. And for the most part I do, except for one thing…

Maybe it’s a bit behind the times for me to be commenting about this just now, but this is big enough to me that it’ s still on my mind. I am still rather disappointed the WNBA decided to fold the Comets instead of looking harder for a buyer and/or running the team themselves for the coming season. On one hand, I already had another favorite WNBA team, that being the Connecticut Sun (which, for the moment, are now my only favorite team still playing), but this is still a huge loss. The Comets won four championships in a row, the first real dynasty in the WNBA, and arguably the only real, honest-to-goodness dynasty of any Houston-based team in any sport. I barely had any idea the league was looking for a buyer when I awoke to the news the team would be folded and the dispersal draft would be next week. (It also is rather unfortunate that the WNBA has actually had this level of experience with dispersal drafts and teams folding, but I’ll save that rant for another day. For now, suffice it to say that the WNBA is missing the elements of the men’s pro game that turned me off from watching basketball at all for a while, and I find it a real shame that the fan base is as small as it is.)

I do appreciate that the WNBA president has not ruled out a future return of the WNBA to Houston. I just hope that they keep the name and let the future owner display the championship banners once again when that day comes, because first and foremost, when it comes to the WNBA, I will always be a Comets fan.