A Very Fine Rabbit Hole

As I skimmed the titles of hundreds of research projects, occasionally clicking to a subsequent page or backtracking to the previous when I hit a dead end, I tried to find an actual trend in what it was that piqued my interest. My eyes flashed over thousands of words–some of which sparked a pang of curiosity within me, others which made me feel actively annoyed, and many more that my brain seemed to process with no emotion attached whatsoever.

It’s kind of a strange thing, when you think about it to an exhausting point. The words I read were no more than lines on a computer screen, but still they could make me feel such an interesting range of emotions. Words by themselves mean nothing, but attach to them the cultural construct of meaning and they can transform into the most powerful tool known to man, capable themselves of transforming individuals and even whole societies.

Throughout my 21 years of life, I have constantly been defining myself by using (or purposely excluding) certain words; the right combination of them, I’ve hoped, would attach the type of meaning to my person that I sought after. While there’s always some flux in terms of the particular words used for this purpose, it seems that a select few must be preserved throughout my life in order to truly develop a consistent identity–a characteristic which appears to be essential to lead a fulfilling life. When I eventually pick a topic for the Capstone Project (a project which will represent the culmination of my work as an undergraduate student and which I hope to be able to have with me throughout the rest of my life), I want to ensure that it is focused on one of these core ideas that I will choose to base my lifetime values on. Discovering what exactly the bank of values I have to work with to achieve this end, however, may be much more difficult than can be put into words.

Revolution or Just Revulsion?

Over the past few years (and especially the last three of four months), the NFL, NCAA, and NBA have each approached the verge of complete implosion due to shocking, highly-publicized character issues of some of their more high-profile members. From Ray Rice to Donald Sterling, Jameis Winston to Adrian Peterson, these ridiculously profitable sports leagues have been shaken to their cores and the public has had to face the real possibility of drastic change amongst them, if not total collapse. These relentless controversies have been sources of discomfort and shame for sports fans across the country, but overall it seems that this difficult time is like the initial swallow of a gross-tasting medicine–it all sucks right now, but the fact that society is putting pressure on these sports leagues to hold their athletes more accountable in terms of their behavioral traits may represent a revolution in how we hold our athletic idols. The same rules need to apply to them, everyone is saying, and it’s time they stop taking advantage of their fame at the expense of public good.

This type of revolution seems like an objective good for the advancement of society. However (maybe this is just the bad taste left in my mouth from all this ugliness talking), I can’t help but feel that this movement is either misdirected or simply futile. A large factor in whether this feeling of mine is founded or not depends on the answer to the question, has it always been this bad?nfl_a_johnny-manziel_mb_600x400

Distinct from other public figures, superstar athletes can rise to fame on the basis of a few physical traits that are, for the most part, independent of social factors. Unlike politicians, billionaire businessmen, and even actors, athletes pass through few “filters” on their way to stardom other than physical fitness and level of commitment to their sport; the driving force behind an athlete securing a shot at fame is his or her ability to help their specific team win, a trait which is arguably independent from (and possibly detrimental to) that individual’s ability to be a “good” person. As a result, there seems to be a long history of star athletes chronically behaving as non-ideal citizens, a truth which was more or less ignored (or maybe merely tolerated) by the public until Jim Bouton’s 1970 book “Ball Four” brought to light some of the truly graphic details of professional athletes behaving like frat boys–and in some cases, much worse. Superstar athlete accountability became even more of an issue following the O.J. Simpson saga in the mid-90’s, an event which represented one of the first live mass-media coverages of the disgrace of a former athlete. Since that time, such events have gradually become more common until today, where public revelations and shaming of pro athletes seem to be almost a daily occurrence. It seems reasonable to assume that this increase in coverage of such incidents is merely due to the evolution of news agencies–especially sports-specific ones such as ESPN–which now have the resources to reveal the slightest blemish or slip-up of an athlete to the entire world, and that the “background rate” of athlete immorality hasn’t really changed over time.

Another thought is that this over-coverage of the personal life of star athletes, especially up-and-coming ones, is only aiding their development as spoiled crybabies with an inherent sense of entitlement due to their crazy physical abilities. Watching (i.e. suffering through) SportsCenter every day makes this concept seem rather plausible, as the anchors and guest-speakers seem to spend more than half of the show giving attention to seemingly trivial, non-sports-related issues regarding certain young athletes–Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston are good examples of this, but many more cases exist. This over-coverage of young athletes might be creating a deadly positive-feedback cycle, where these stars are put under the spotlight, make a behavioral mistake, are only made more popular due to the mistake, and thus start to develop this mindset that they can do no wrong as long as they still perform well on the field. If this is the case, the expanded coverage of such personal issues with such athletes (and especially the tendency of ESPN to linger on certain issues for a long time) may be contributing even more to the ugly cycle of athlete immorality that we currently find ourselves bogged down in.

Either way, it seems that the current state of this moral revolution in the sports world needs to be changed slightly to have any real effect. A good first step in this process might be for the public to focus more of their criticism on the sports news companies that may be contributing to this culture of entitlement for young athletes–a step whose goal should be to attack the root of the problem rather than to just distract everyone from the blame on the individual athletes, which still cannot be forgotten. However, it may very well be that the very nature of a star athlete is simply not compatible with the concept of a role model, in which case it might be time for all of us to re-evaluate what we can reasonably expect out of our “gladiators” so as not to be disappointed in this way again. No matter which of these courses of action is truly the right one, I just can’t wait for this revolution to run its course, for a new status quo regarding athlete accountability to be set, and to begin enjoying the actual drama of sports again.

Start Watching Game of Thrones. Now.

When the final credits flashed across the screen for the LOST finale in 2010, I remember thinking that it was going to be a long time before another TV show would be able to have such a drastic effect on the way that I view the world.

Luckily for LOST, it still retains its title as my favorite TV show ever, but only because Game of Thrones is such an elaborate experience that I really can’t justifiably classify it as just a TV show.

To start off: I have not read the books in advance. They’re helpful (and almost necessary) as supplemental references to keep the characters and plot-lines straight, but after watching the first episode and realizing that it had been the most amazing 50 minutes I had ever spent looking at a screen, I figured that I shouldn’t try to complicate it by experiencing pivotal moments from two different media.

Besides that complication, everything else about the show is pretty damn near flawless; this includes the impeccable acting, the elaborate action scenes, the captivating screenwriting, the intriguing setting in which all this plays out (which may be a “fantasy” world by technicality, but one which is strongly tied to true Medieval history and in which elements of the supernatural are utilized more to highlight the human aspects of the show rather than to provide loopholes for the characters), and the total unpredictability of the plot.

Any one of the aspects listed above would alone probably make Game of Thrones my favorite TV show ever, but one additional element forces me to classify it above any ordinary television program: the truth of the characters. Even in some of the most “complex” films and TV shows out there, character development and progression is largely in service of accomplishing the goal of portraying a generic message to viewers (e.g. good actions will always somehow be rewarded, even if in unexpected ways). In Game of Thrones, however, the characters are not created to portray a message; they are created to live and survive in the best possible way they know how. While other TV shows or movies may succeed in teaching me a valuable lesson about how to live my life, they don’t leave me staring at the ending credits thinking “I have never felt more human than right now.” Game of Thrones does. Every episode.

This accomplishment is something that must be experienced–it’s almost intangible, but I think I’ve identified a few factors as to what makes the show so dangerously powerful. The first of these is the complete un-Romanticization of everyday life; the show’s creators will show nudity even when it’s not meant to be erotic, they’ll show Kings relieving themselves on trees in between battles, they’ll show Knights choosing to rape villagers instead of maintaing their honor…if one example of this really stands out to me, it’s the King in one of the first few episodes recounting his first battle experience to an eager listener: “They never tell you how they all shit themselves [when they die]. They don’t put that part in the songs.” While other action movies or shows may elect to soften the ugly sides of battle or life in an effort to highlight “heroic” aspects of the characters (Why doesn’t Jack Bauer ever have to use the bathroom?), Thrones takes an unrelenting look at the characters’ lives, immediately creating a connection with a viewer who realizes that all parts of his life aren’t sugar-coated either. The empathy flows much easier after that’s established.

This empathy, or rather its shocking abundance and depth, is the second factor. The world created by author George R.R. Martin and brought to life by producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss allows for a totally novel mechanism by which viewers can empathize with the characters; by setting Game of Thrones in a time analogous to Medieval times on Earth, Martin allows for full utilization of one of mankind’s most powerful motivators outside of basic survival instincts: the need to feel as though you are not totally alone in a violent, unforgiving universe. In a time before instantaneous global connection, the despair of total loneliness and the feeling of a lack of societal stability were much more easily encountered, and the characters in the show spend nearly all of their time desperately reaching out for something stable to cling on to before they are hurled out into nothingness. This motivation manifests itself differently in every character, but most of them fall under the category of seeking to establish permanent, unbreakable bonds with either “the family name” or with the Gods (the safest places to turn in an unpredictable physical world). The connection of blood or spirit is one of the few things that these characters seem to feel as tangible, and for this reason every action, good or evil, performed by certain characters makes perfect sense to any viewer; there are no good or bad people, they all share common motivators between themselves (and with us) and their decisions are merely the sum of environmental conditions and the ever-present need to feel as though they are not alone…however that can be accomplished. Though many in today’s world don’t always encounter that feeling on a daily basis, the vividness of the scenes in Thrones is enough to allow viewers to put themselves in the characters’ shoes and feel the incredible motivation that such a fearful emotion could create.

This concept directly leads to what I’ve identified as the third and final factor making Game of Thrones exceptional: the fluidity of the characters. Too many times over the first three seasons have I finished an episode filled with sympathy and sadness over the misfortune of a certain character, only to scold myself seconds later when I remember the disgusting atrocities that character had committed not 2 episodes ago. She doesn’t deserve your sympathy, I think to myself–a reflex reaction due to all the TV shows I have grown up watching where a main character will undergo a steady, predictable transition from good to evil, vice versa, or some kind of ambiguous (yet still fixed) intermediate. It took me until the third season to figure out why I kept empathizing so deeply with these unforgivably flawed characters: they do deserve my sympathy. Again, it takes some time to condition oneself to this new mindset, but almost every seemingly evil action in GoT can be traced back to that deep-rooted need to find lasting companionship in such a scary world–characters in the show will act in whatever way necessary to secure that feeling, which is why so many of them seem to bounce between “moral” and “immoral” over the course of the series by modern standards. If a moral action will allow him to carry on his father’s legacy and gain his friends’ respect, John Snow will do it; if an immoral one will earn the trust of someone he’s come to love, then he’ll do that. Characters do not develop linearly but seem to alternate between “good” and “evil”, making for an incredibly interesting and complex plot especially due to the huge number of main characters. These twists, and the understanding of what specific human emotions sparked them, make the plot of the show and the development of certain characters absolutely riveting–and as a result, you’ll find yourself lingering over them hours, days, or even months after first experiencing them.

To fellow viewers of the show, I hope this attempt to describe why it is so powerful will aid you in your never-ending attempts to convince reluctant friends to start watching. To those who don’t watch…please start. It takes more time and energy investment than the ordinary TV show to get the most out of it but that’s simply because it is no ordinary TV show.

Season 4 starts on Sunday. And Winter is Coming. Let’s go.

Alexis II

I spent my spring break walking amongst the mind-blowing ruins of Rome and the picturesque rolling hills of southern Tuscany, but the aspects of my visit to Italy that stood out to me the most were without a doubt the incredible social and interpersonal differences between the Italian people and Americans.

Before I dive into it, a couple disclaimers. I was only in Italy for a week, and only conversed deeply with a few native Italians; however, I felt as though I traveled throughout enough of the country and spoke with a wide enough variety of people to get a general sense of the priorities and mindsets shared amongst most of the population. Additionally, my aim in writing this piece is not to stereotype or objectify the Italian people but rather to describe and analyze the incredibly intriguing differences in lifestyle I noticed while visiting The Boot, some of which may be attributable to general European traits but all of which were noticeably different from the American way of doing things that I was raised with. In this analysis, I don’t intend to imply that either style of life is “better” than the other–they seem so incredibly different that they are almost impossible to compare, and both definitely have merits that couldn’t be accomplished by the other.

First, a few objective observations. The economic regulation of the people of Italy is more strict (i.e. progressive) than is it in the United States–the top tax rate in Italy is 43% as compared to 39% in the US and features a much lower threshold income. Conversely, the social regulation of Italians is more lax–exemplified in one way by the loosely-enforced drinking age of only 18. The apex of their government system, while effective at bringing about positive change within their country, is nonetheless very publicly corrupt–symbolized by, but not limited to, the antics of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

One of my main perceptions of the Italian people with whom I shared insightful conversations is that they came off as very nice, but when a situation arose in which a high-stakes  (or even semi-important) decision needed to be made, it seemed that the well-being of family and friends took absolute priority over the well-being of society as a whole. As far as I could tell, there was not a trace of that sense of “looking out” for a stranger in need when that person didn’t have much to gain from such an interaction; perhaps this consistent tendency could be a contributing factor as to why the political elites of the country engage in such corruption. This distaste for strangers was further highlighted by a pervasive xenophobia; all of the Italians I encountered made a backhanded comment about some stranger they perceived to be from a different country, using stereotypes to be intentionally malicious rather than simply funny.  Maybe all of this is what brought about the massive economic regulations in the country, such as the high personal tax rates and the nationalization of health care–if the government didn’t force this formal policing of social welfare then the people wouldn’t provide it at all and the slightest wobble in stability of the cooperative structure of the country could result in near-anarchic conditions.

While that aspect of Italian culture was shocking and slightly terrifying to an American visitor, the purely interpersonal mannerisms of Italians were an eye-opening breath of fresh air. It seemed that every part of the day–whether it be getting breakfast, working, or having a nightcap–was centered around face-to-face interaction and conversation with other people  encountered while doing these tasks; one of my acquaintances in Italy claimed that his favorite hobby was “chatting and _41340618_italians_416_afpdoing nothing else” (on a side note, the Italian language is also by design much more musical than any other language, making any conversative interaction that much more pleasant for everyday life). Italians seems to work to live, not vice versa, and as a result their days aren’t filled with the stress of making and breaking constant plans but rather with the enjoyable flow of learning from and sharing with other people. While some people (i.e. many Americans) may spend their entire lives working around the clock in pursuit of some ultimate, utopian goal, I was told by another knowledgeable local, the personality traits associated with this type of lifestyle lifestyle mean that they will never stop chasing such goals and thus can never really enjoy the fruits that they dream of; on the other hand, Italians make absolute sure that a good portion of their day is spent rewarding themselves and appreciating the better parts of life. Additionally, many of the people I spoke to expressed their distaste for the extremely strict drinking laws in America; since the age is much lower and less enforced in Italy, parents are encouraged to ease their children into adulthood by allowing them to at least participate in events like formal dinners at a younger age. This socially-encouraged easing, as one person told me, is why young Italians seem  to be more emotionally mature and able to interact with adults, and also why so many American young adults end up puking over a toilet seat their first few weeks of college and they are given a crash-course introduction into true responsibility and “adulthood.”

So there’s my first attempt at playing Alexis de Tocqueville when traveling abroad–an experience that I felt helped me grow as an individual so much that it’s going to be hard not to do the same next time I visit a foreign country. I left Italy absolutely amazed that, when so many of the products we consume and the media we access are identical in today’s world, the social and interpersonal aspects of our cultures could be so distinctly different. When virtually all of the world has already been “discovered” and uniformalized, it’s great to know that humanity still has the ability to exist and thrive via an astonishing variety of cultural traits and personalities. While the exact origins of this fantastic variety may be too complex to ever really describe, the wonder of discovering and observing them is something that will hopefully never be fully discovered for me or anyone else.

Steroids, Small Markets, and The Green Light at the End of the Dock

Let me preface this post by saying that I’m not writing it to defend Ryan Braun. I have no idea how I feel about him at the moment or if I will forgive him in time, I’m just sick of reading articles on this topic that are focused on Braun individually or on Major League Baseball as a whole. I’m writing this for the city that took the blunt force of the hit the moment that the 65-game suspension was announced.

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While my feelings on Braun are pretty ambiguous at this point, my feelings on the city of Milwaukee aren’t. I spent the last of my high schools years waiting impatiently, as the vast majority of seniors do, to get out of the only town I ever knew and see what other exciting things the world had to offer. Of course, I had been in college for maybe two days before I began to realize how significantly and inescapably Milwaukee had shaped my individual identity–an uncountable number of my values, mannerisms, and even speech patterns were unique to the Brew City and were invaluable in helping me develop into the driven, benevolent person I’m becoming more like every day. Luckily for me, my impatience to leave the Cheesehead State didn’t prevent me from, throughout my childhood, learning to identify with the common sources of pride  in the city I grew to love–most notably a thriving brewing industry, a kind-hearted, blue-collar population, and Milwaukee Brewers baseball.

While beer remains the most consistent source of Milwaukee pride on an international scale, baseball–despite its ups and downs–doesn’t lag far behind. When the Boston Braves packed up and moved into Milwaukee’s County Stadium in 1953, they became the first Major League baseball team to relocate in 50 years–a pretty serious risk taken by a generally conservative ownership group. The Braves’ management was nevertheless rewarded when, in their first season in Wisconsin, they  drew an all-time record 1.8 million fans and finished second in the National League. By 1965, when economic downturn due to job loss saw a massive drop in attendance and thus the sale of the Braves to Atlanta, the team had strung together 13 consecutive winning season on the backs of legendary heroes such as Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, and Eddie Mathews, had won the 1957 World Series against the New York Yankees, and set numerous more attendance records. Baseball, beer, and the Brew City were forever intertwined.

When Bud Selig and the distraught nucleus of diehard Brewer fans in Milwaukee finally obtained a replacement expansion team from Major League Baseball in 1970, the modern-day Milwaukee Brewers were born. Over the next 20 years, the team made more than a few championship runs with future Hall-of-Famers like Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, and Rollie Fingers and established the now-permanent image of the scruffy, blue-collar Milwaukeean who could out-work anyone more talented than them to find success.b__gormanthomas80

Then came a period, starting in 1992 until 2005 (or, my whole lifetime until middle school), that made the European Dark Ages look like a mildly overcast day. The Brewers went 13 straight years without posting a winning record and looked simply embarrassing and hopeless doing it. The team, which had once been a source of immense pride for the city and the state and personified the romantic image of a Wisconsinite, was now the laughing stock of baseball and anything but a symbol of the hard-working common man. For a “small-market” city such as Milwaukee, this loss of such a key part of its identity was an absolute bombshell in terms of its national and international recognition–a bombshell that I’m sure every member of the city felt close to their hearts (even if I wasn’t old enough to yet).

Finally, hope began appearing again for the Brewers organization in the early 2000’s: they opened a brand new, economically genius stadium called Miller Park, they were purchased by a savvy, committed investment banker from Los Angeles named Mark Attanasio, and they were being flooded by a new wave of young talent from years of wise drafting–headed of course by the now infamous Ryan Braun.

From the day he was drafted in 2005 out of the University of Miami, Braun seemed to be nothing but a godsend to both the Brewers and to the people of Milwaukee; a classic “All-American” type of athlete, he spent only a year and a half in the minors before taking the Major Leagues by storm to win the NL Rookie-of-the-Year award in 2007. As arguably the best all-around hitter in the game, he led the Brewers to their first postseason appearance in 26 years in 2008 and then within a game of the World Series in 2011 with his unimaginably clutch hitting, all while appearing in 5 straight All-Star games and winning the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 2011. Baseball was finally back in Milwaukee, led by “Our Cal Ripken”, as he was called by baseball writer Buster Olney; with a winning team on the field again, the Brewers drew over 3 million fans in 3 out of 4 years and were well above the average MLB attendance over the whole time period despite playing in the smallest market in all of baseball. They were an elite team–something that the city could take pride in again on a national scale and something I felt that I could brag about to all my new college friends.

On top of all of this, Ryan Braun had made a serious commitment to the city of Milwaukee as well as to the Brewers when he signed a team-friendly contract that would keep him in Milwaukee for most of his career at well below market value–this truly seemed incredible to Brewers fans after we had to watch the other young stars he played with (namely CC Sabathia and Prince Fielder) depart for bigger markets that could offer them much more money. Braun teamed up with Packers quarterback (and perhaps only person in Wisconsin more famous than him) Aaron Rodgers to open up a local chain of restaurants and to contribute money to charities in the Milwaukee area. It truly did seem like a new golden age of baseball in a historically great baseball town.

And then it all came crashing down. If you’re still reading this article, then I’m sure you know about the tragic downfall of Ryan Braun that had been slowly approaching since his “erroneous” positive test in 2011 and that hit the fan with his admission of taking PED’s earlier this summer. The biggest celebrity this town had known in over 20 years and the future of Milwaukee baseball for the foreseeable future–completely tarnished, along with the memories of the once-in-a-lifetime seasons that Braun had led the Brewers on over the past few years. We were a laughing stock once again–and what’s worse, we couldn’t even look back on the awesome success we’d had only a few years back without feeling sick and cheated. Instead of shedding Milwaukee in a positive light–as an over-achieving, odds-defying group of rebels that the 1980’s Brewers had done–Braun had represented the city as a smug, arrogant man who would choose cheating over hard work to achieve his goals.

But is this really fair? Not two months before Braun was suspended I went to see The Great Gatsby in theaters with a couple friends. As I sat there enjoying Baz Luhrmann’s amazing rendition of one of my favorite books of all-time, I was yet again mystified by the complexity of Jay Gatsby. When I think back on how I perceived his character in the book, I can’t ever remember regarding him as less than a hero–an idol whose ambition should be a striving point for all Americans. One of the final scenes of the film, however, is a montage of all the negative reaction following Gatsby’s death–how he cheated to make it to the top, how he didn’t deserve all his success, etc. Nick, and pretty much anyone who reads the book, sees Gatsby as a great man who had to do some unfortunate things to achieve his in-the-end worthwhile goal of winning back Daisy’s heart. So where is the limit? If your goal is worthwhile enough, who’s to say that you went about achieving it the wrong way?

I’m not going to pretend like I know Braun’s exact motives for using PED’s; I doubt anyone besides The Hebrew Hammer himself has any idea. There are many rumors flying around about the exact nature of his drug usage, but the most well-substantiated claim is that he took them for a few months in mid-2011 in order to recover from a nagging injury that occurred mid-season. If this is the case, that means that he was already a well-established Major League player who had already signed that massive contract to stay in Milwaukee. There doesn’t seem to be a different rational motive for his drug use outside of simply trying to help the team that he had committed to reach the success that the whole city had been dreaming about since the Braves jumped ship over 50 years ago.

Yes, Ryan Braun cheated. His drug use was unfair to other MLB players and to all of the fans who cheered him on, assuming him to be playing clean all the time; it was even unfair to the entire sport of baseball, which was using him as a key centerpiece to showcase their new “clean” game. He reacted arrogantly to the accusations and to this day has not yet given a full explanation or taken real responsibility. But if Braun had taken this “lozenge” simply as a means of helping his downtrodden city regain a key source of its pride that it so desperately needed, and not as a selfish supplement in an attempt to cheat the system and make more money (as is being portrayed by a surprisingly high number of sports writers), where does that leave us? Where does that leave him? The immediate reaction was deservedly scathing, but tempers should cool as time passes and clearer heads will prevail. Maybe, just maybe, he doesn’t deserve to be the pariah that every corner of the sports world is making him out to be forever.braun

The green (or, in this case, the blue and yellow) light at the end of the dock can sometimes be quite blinding, making us forget what exactly we’re stepping on in our never-ending quest to reach it. Braun definitely stepped on some wrongs things–this is for certain. But unless we can know exactly what light he was chasing, who are we to pass ultimate judgement on him? Am I being overly-optimistic about his motives? Sure. But are some people, such as Jeff Passan, being overly-pessimistic? Undoubtedly. And anyone who can play with this much passion for their city just can’t be as evil as he’s being made out to be.

March Madness–One of the few things we get right

Every march, following the final buzzer of the Big Ten Championship game, a group of about a dozen men gather in a room to determine the fate of 68 men’s college basketball teams in the form of the most exciting, over-analyzed, and impossible to solve puzzles in the history of man: the NCAA Tournament Bracket. This is no easy task, as the selection committee must juggle an infinite number of factors in an effort to make all the potential match-ups as fair as possible based on each team’s performance in the regular season, but each year this group of men manages to produce an incredibly balanced, fair bracket in a minimal amount of time. Sure, there are always some teams that complain about having too low of a seed or being snubbed from the tournament altogether, but these complaints are usually just background noise amidst the millions of analysts and fans praising the bracket’s construction and drooling over the commencement of the tournament.

Until this year, I had no idea how the selection process even worked–mainly, I guess, because it works so well that no controversy ever brought the process front and center. Apparently, the committee is composed of a fairly even split between members of the “power 6” conferences and the “lower” conferences. This surprised me, especially in light of the massive realignment that college athletics are currently undergoing; lately, conferences (especially in football) seem to be becoming obsessed with increasing the exposure of their member schools, as exposure is pretty much directly proportional to money. This is why it’s so shocking that the selection committee is so evenly split between power and lower conferences–with such a clear “partisan” split of the committee, the selection process should be totally bogged down by each respective division trying to force more teams from their level into the tournament in an effort to increase the exposure of those types of schools. In this way, it’s easy to draw parallels between the selection committee and the US congress, as both are experiencing an ever-increasing partisan split yet still are forced to cooperate in providing a service to the American people.

Despite these similarities, there is one crucial difference: the selection committee actually works. While approval ratings for Congress continue to drop to levels lower than they’ve ever been, the NCAA bracket is consistently regarded as one of the only “perfect” things in sports, a testament both to its quality of composition and quickness of release. So what’s different? Obviously, with Congress, the stakes of cooperating are much higher–but if anything, that should force them to compromise even more, as not getting the US budget released on time would be exponentially more catastrophic than skipping the NCAA tournament for a year (tragic as that would be) because the upper and lower conferences couldn’t settle on a final field of 68. The only real difference I can think of is the accountability factor. In Congress, representatives must fight for their job on an almost consistent basis, whereas the selection committee (which is composed mainly of school athletic directors) doesn’t have to worry about their selections directly affecting their job status. This means that senators and representatives must place the wants of their direct constituents above the best interest of the United States in order to protect their livelihood whereas members of the selection committee (whose votes are also anonymous) can fight for the best interest of college basketball without having to worry about the potential of their selection ruining their careers.

“…why did global warming only get a 5 seed?”

In short, the selection committee can make difficult, necessary decisions in a short amount of time that ultimately leads to a better result for college basketball because they don’t have to answer to the people they displease. Obviously, this would sound scary if it were applied to Congress as well, but I think we’re all at the point where we would try anything to change what’s happening in Washington now. Senators and representatives are puppets held up by their party leaders and are over-scrutinized about every decision they make by an increasingly polarized constituency. How do we get that to change? Anonymous voting? Longer terms in office? The abolition of parties? Did New Mexico really deserve a 3 seed? Will Michigan beat VCU? If you’re interested in either March Madness or politics let me know what you think about these ideas…or just attach your bracket and we can compare.

Wait…What?

Here’s an example of a prose-deficient paragraph from my past; it comes from an essay analyzing the themes of Heart of Darkness from my senior year of high school english class. I didn’t totally understand the themes I was discussing, especially the one featured in this paragraph, so I tried to compensate for my lack of knowledge with a lot of passive voice and over-complicated sentences. I think I used all these techniques to try and allow the reader to be entertained by the way the words fit together so they wouldn’t end up noticing the lack of sufficient support for my arguments…and it just ended up sounding really overwritten and confusing:

“A second aspect of Conrad’s philosophy of life channeled through his works of literature is that of the clear distinction between awareness and naïveté. Conrad frequently uses women as an example of this naïveté, yet occasionally also uses his male main characters to help portray this part of his philosophy. For example, when Marlow first sets foot in Africa, he receives a symbolic “slight shudder of the soil under my feet”(20). This shudder, though literally caused by a mine set off by one of the station workers, represents the massive shock that Marlow experiences when he realizes what is really going on in Africa. Back in the “civilized world,” he could never have imagined the horror and inhumanity of what his fellow Europeans were doing to this beautiful continent; he had been living in a “world of [his] own,” the fantasy world usually associated with women in Conrad’s works, women who are supposedly too simple-minded to comprehend the unpleasant realities of how the world really functions (14). Although it may seem at first glance that Conrad is merely using the words of Marlow to express his own sexist ideals, by the end of the novel it becomes clear that Conrad actually envies those who cannot comprehend the true horrors of the world. While Marlow converses with the blatantly ignorant Intended about Kurtz’ death, he refrains from telling this delicate woman the true conditions of her fiancée’s death because he claims “it would have been too dark,” meaning that he believes it kinder to keep this woman in her own world, untroubled by gruesome reality (96). Similarly, Conrad uses the tragic character Arsat to represent this hatred of complete enlightenment and envy of blissful ignorance. After watching his beloved wife die of illness, Arsat is left living with nothing but awful memories of war, death, and regret. This awful state is evidenced by his statement “I can see nothing,” referring to his belief that everything left in his life is dark, clearly wishing that he did not have to live with the troubling memories of what he has experienced before (Conrad 6). Thus, Conrad examines the gaping boundary between the enlightened and the naive in both of these works of literature.”

What is the World Baseball Classic missing?

(sorry to all you non-baseball fans out there, feel free to ignore if it’s not your thing)

Every four years, fans of soccer, basketball, and hockey gather in droves amidst massive media attention to celebrate their sport through a competitive, exciting international tournament. The World Cup, the Summer Olympics, and (to a slightly lesser though still significant extent) the Winter Olympics are traditionally three of the most hyped and most viewed events in the world and pit the best athletes in each respective sport against their foreign counterparts in one gigantic, memorable celebration of that sport’s international breadth. This March, countries from five different continents are gathering in the Southwestern US for just such a tournament to determine the world’s best team in the sport that is arguably second in the globe in terms of international appeal and…no one really seems to care.

I understood baseball being dropped from the Olympics. Obviously it wasn’t a great moment for the sport, but it made sense; why hold an international tournament for a sport during the middle of the season (even though hockey and soccer seem to make it work)? Even with this change, however, the World Baseball Classic received (and continues to receive) very little attention from the media and fans in the United States. Several reasons, including the relative youth of the tournament (it only began in 2006), exist to explain this, but none are more important than the fact that some of the best players in the world refuse to participate in an event that takes place directly before the Major League Baseball season. If they don’t care enough to play in it, why should we as fans care enough to follow it?

Obviously, each superstar athlete who declines to play in the tournament has their own personal reason, but the one main theme from this lack of participation seems to be the gaping shortage of competent pitchers–a troubling factor when the old baseball cliché “Baseball is 90% pitching” is considered. Too often do I turn one of these tournament games on and witness a 20-run slugfest that makes me cringe and crave the balanced offensive-defensive contest that turned “America’s Pastime” into an international spectacle. So what’s keeping the pitchers away?

This is where the WBC really separates itself from the other quadrennial tournaments. Obviously, some kind of preparatory warm-up period is required for an athlete in any sport to compete at their peak ability but this “spring training” is especially key for baseball players–pitchers in particular. In a normal season, starting pitchers will begin Spring Training throwing

Was that a 10-year-old pitching?

around 30 pitches a game and slowly, week-by-week, work their way up to the 100-120 pitches that represents their limit in a regular-season game. If they were to force themselves to be ready earlier in the year of a tournament, it is very likely that their arms won’t be able to handle the increased workload and their entire careers could be put into serious jeopardy. It is important to note that this isn’t the usual argument to say, a basketball player declining to play in the Olympics because “he might get hurt”–an accidental injury is much different from a planned overexertion of a pitcher’s incredibly valuable and fragile arm. Asking a superstar pitcher to be warmed up a month in advance is difficult as well due to baseball’s unique status as an exclusively outdoor sport (which makes winter training a nightmare) and is unfair to a man just trying to make a living who sticks to a strict, effective yearly workout plan that includes (necessary) extended periods of rest.

Therefore, even the most patriotic pitchers may not choose to participate in the tournament unless they have a guaranteed multi-year contract, and even then the thought of disappointing their professional team by becoming injured may discourage them. And as long as the pitching remains sub-par, so too will the WBC’s exposure. So what can be done to encourage the world’s best pitchers to participate fully? Currently, the WBC sets a limit on the number of pitches a single player can throw each game. This is effective in protecting star pitchers, but leads to a fragmented, turbulent type of game that isn’t really a true reflection of how baseball is played anywhere in the world. One potential idea is to condense the tournament slightly (or break it up into 2 round played over 2 years) and move it to the middle of July, towards the end of the MLB all-star break. The pitchers and all other players would be in midseason form, guaranteeing a competitive tournament, but the revenue losses for the MLB would be huge. This could be fixed by guaranteeing the MLB a large portion of ticket sales and TV advertisements, but an understandably large opposition exists to this in other countries where the games may be played. If the MLB season were just to be extended to allow a full season AND the World Baseball Classic, the World Series would end up stretching into early December–obviously not an ideal situation. Another, more unrealistic, option would be to insure individual pitchers and clubs who agree to participate fully in the tournament…again neither easy nor ideal.

This is a problem unique to the sport of baseball, and one which must be fixed if avid fans of America’s Pastime, like me, wish to see how the sport has evolved and matured internationally; baseball is a sport with many flavors–from the ultra-passionate, smashmouth streetball of the Latin American countries to the fundamental, highly professional style of Asia to North American baseball, which falls somewhere in the middle of that spectrum–and it would be a shame if the world is not able to experience them all in one single, grand celebration of this great sport. Then again, highly competitive international competition is still relatively new to baseball, so maybe all it will take is time (and a few more early WBC exits for the United States) for the best pitchers in the world to adjust to the new calendar and learn how to pitch effectively in this window of time. For those of you who were able to stomach my baseball rantings while there is still snow on the ground, I’m curious to know how you perceive the world baseball classic. Did you know it was happening now or what teams are participating/favored? For the other baseball fans out there,what do you think it will take to make the World Baseball Classic the international spectacle it has the potential to be? Do you think it ever will reach that level? Should it?

Simple is Best…Especially for me

I’m really not good at getting used to new computer techniques, so I searched for the best, super-simple themes on wordpress. The Clean Retina Theme looks perfect to me; a spot for the title, an easily accessible menu, and a huge spot for a picture or multiple pictures to scroll through. And, I think it’s free…don’t know how to tell for sure because I think they conceal it better if it does cost money.

Are there any feel-good stories left in the world?

This past year has been incredibly brutal on people whom the public has formerly thought of as “heroes”; from Joe Paterno to Lance Armstrong to Oscar Pistorius, tales of corruption, cheating, and violence have torn down the images of men once regarded as perfect idols. I’m sure that I’m not alone in noticing that occurrences such as these seem to be happening much more in recent years than in the past–so much so that I’m now at the point where, after watching a feel-good segment on ESPN about a man or woman overcoming some adversity to win a championship, I wonder how exactly that person has deceived everyone to achieve what they have and when that deception will be uncovered.

Obviously, some famous scandals were uncovered before the explosion of over-enthusiastic paparazzi–Shoeless Joe Jackson and Richard Nixon are a few that come to mind–but it really does seem like each successive decade yields a lower percentage of unquestionable “heroes” than the one before it. So why is this? Is it due only to the increasingly aggressive media outlets in today’s world? If so, does that mean that many of the role models in the past also had dirty secrets that never got exposed? Or is it due to some kind of decaying morality in the world that more and more heroes do terrible things in order to succeed? Can someone’s story be so inspiring that it warrants deception to achieve it?