Goodbye Ahmad Bradshaw

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Ahmad Bradshaw is leaving the New York Giants one year after the departure of Brandon Jacobs. While Jacobs was a character, who made headlines for brash talk, Bradshaw’s name in the headlines meant one of two things: injury or dominating play. I’m glad Bradshaw had a truly awesome performance this past season in San Francisco before he once again struggled with various ailments. But I’ll always remember him best for his ambivalent, game-winning Super Bowl touchdown. He plopped into the end zone, butt first, having run it in an uncontested 6 yards, the Patriots’ defense giving up the score to get the ball back before time ticked away. His teammates were apparently telling him not to go in the end zone, but he had too much momentum. Had Brady come back and won the thing with a hail mary touchdown, I’d see things differently of course. But he didn’t, and so it was that Ahmad Bradshaw scored the winning points of Super Bowl 46 for the Giants. 

This year, with the Giants sitting out of the playoffs, there were still some delicious postseason moments - close games, surprising comebacks, tense moments, and even a wacky blackout. Toward the end of the Super Bowl between the Ravens and 49ers, San Francisco had 4 downs and 7 yards to come back from a massive deficit and steal the day. With only a couple minutes left on the clock, there would be no repeat of the uncontested score for one key difference: where the Giants only needed a field goal to go ahead, the 49ers needed a touch down. The Ravens defense held firm, and forced three errant passes after a 2 yard run. Game over. 

Had Bradshaw not plopped into the end zone, in all likelihood the kicker Tynes would have scored that winning field goal from extra point range. But you never know, do you? So goodbye, Ahmad Bradshaw, Super Bowl hero. I hope David Wilson and Andre Brown really are up to the task of filling your shoes (ideally with healthier feet), but even so, you’ll be missed. 

Top 5 Consolations

The Giants didn’t make the postseason, but…

5. I might still have a Manning to root for int the Superbowl.

4. Cowboys also missing the postseason due largely to Romo interceptions. 

3. Victor Cruz voted to the Pro Bowl.

2. At least I’m not a Jets fan.

1. They won the Super Bowl last year. I’m not greedy. 

Some Giants fans might be consoled by RGIIIs literal collapse due to injuries during Washington’s postseason home loss. But there’s nothing heartening about that situation. Like many, I felt completely outraged by how the Shanahan’s played their quarterback through injuries that clearly should have taken him out of the game. With word out now that former linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide, had signs of C.T.E. in his autopsied brain, it just feels like a bleak end to the football year. But it always seems bleakest when your team is out and done. 

With his own knee injury, and a stomach flu, my favorite tennis player Rafael Nadal will sit out the Australian Open after already missing almost half a year from competition. So it’s a sad couple months for sports. 

Grains of Sand

Part I

When writing a dissertation, one is often overwhelmed by the amount of information that needs to be digested and synthesized: primary and secondary sources, different intersecting narratives, competing methodologies and keywords. I’ve always been academically inclined (toward the humanities), but have never been the best at seeing the “big picture” or asking “big questions.” So I’ve fantasized from time to time about the possibility of total understanding - a sort of divine revelation of the interconnectedness of things. I even have a vision of what this would look like: a tangle of broken golden threads in the brain that suddenly fuse together. This is my idea of heaven. 

Today, I came upon a similar vision in the story “The God’s Script,” by Jorge Luis Borges. The magician, Tzinacan, is imprisoned for countless years, and passes his time trying to discover a single magical sentence, written by god and containing the power to ward off apocalyptic ruin. In the end, the revelatory sentence comes to him with the following vision:

"I saw an exceedingly high Wheel, which was not before my eyes, nor behind me, nor to the sides, but every place at one time. That Wheel was made of water, but also of fire, and it was(although the edge could be seen) infinite. Interlinked, all things that are, were and shall be formed it, and I was one of the fibers of that total fabric…There lay revealed the causes and the effects and it sufficed me to see that Wheel in order to understand it all, without end. O bliss of understanding, greater than the bliss of imagining or feeling." 

The magician never uses the power that would come through uttering the god’s sentence (“Forty syllables, fourteen words”), because the discovery of the sentence is the evisceration of the self. 

Borges juxtaposes the vision of divine understanding with a nightmare of suffocation under the weight of a disconnected multitude. This is the world with no understanding of how things connect and it appears as a cascade of sand. 

"I dreamt I awoke and that on the floor there were two grains of sand. I slept again; I dreamt that the grains of sand were three. They went on multiplying in this way until they filled the prison and I lay dying beneath that hemisphere of sand. I realized that I was dreaming; with a vast effort I roused myself and awoke. It was useless to awake; the innumerable sand was suffocating me."

The inability to understand the relationship between things, to to perceive the world as an undifferentiated mass of incoherent pieces…this is suffocating indeed. 

Part II

When I was growing up, I had a full set of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series on VHS. I especially liked the episode featuring the history of astronomy and the story of the genius Keppler and the carousing Tycho Brahe, with his golden nose. 

In the series, Carl Sagan memorably suggests that “the total number of stars in the universe is larger than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth.” I lived by the ocean back when I first heard this and the comparison produced its intended effect. I felt wonderment at the almost unthinkable magnitude of the universe. One day, walking along a rocky beach I came upon a flat, oval sandstone, about twice the size of my palm. I took it home and I had it for years, eventually taking it to college. It was my own galaxy.

I’ll never discover the sentence that reveals the bliss of total understanding. I can only make do with my limited capacities, seeing the constellations of the near stars and building the sand castles of my imagination. 

Branding and Irony

The New York Giants is a football team. It is also a brand. I am reminded of the latter fact pretty much every single day by an email from NFL.com asking me to buy NY Giants clothing, pillows, and plastic helmets that you can fill with popcorn. The email barrage started after I bought a Super Bowl Championship t-shirt from the website last February (my favorite shirt). Little does the NFL know that I’ve vowed to only purchase one item of branded apparel per Super Bowl appearance or victory. 

Today I was reflecting on branding and selfhood after reading a Slate book review of Sarah Benet-Weiser’s AuthenticTM: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture. The book argues, it would seem, that our contemporary society is saturated with branding, and that our perceptions and broadcasting of selfhood occurs within that saturated cultural field. What the reviewer, Paul Ford, finds particularly interesting is that Benet-Weiser does not condemn branding for commodifying or devaluing “authenticity” or true selfhood, but uses examples from branding to show how authenticity and the self are fundamentally fluid categories. Moreover, acts of creating selfhood through brands can be limiting but can also be empowering - thus the “ambivalence” of the title. 

Ford opens his review by criticizing people who are too quick to differentiate authenticity from its other. In particular, he takes issue with "How to Live Without Irony," Christy Wampole’s recent New York Times editorial criticizing the hipster’s tendency to approach the world with an attitude of perpetual irony. “The gist” of the article, according to Ford, is “that we should cool it with all the mocking detachment and just live authentically and kindly. Y’know?” But in fact, Wampole never uses the word “authentic” or “authenticity,” nor does she ever suggest that a less ironic lifestyle would be a less consumeristic one.   As an antidote to an overabundance of irony, she instead calls for “seriousness,” “forthrightness,” “sincerity, humility and self-effacement. To me, these all differ from authenticity in important ways. 

I’m a Giants fan. My fandom is neither ironic nor authentic - it’s something that I’ve embraced through circumstance,  affect, and yes, consumerism. If some non-fan wants to wear a throwback Giants t-shirt ironically, it doesn’t really bother me. But it’s true that when I wear the shirt, it’s a statement about a sincere relationship to a team that brings me both joy and pain (pain most recently…and insomnia) and connects me to a larger community within my adopted city. In contrast, when someone wears the shirt ironically, there is an element of insincerity involved in the sense that the person has no such relationship. 

At the same time, one can see how the dichotomy of irony / sincerity can be pushed too far (not to mention authenticity, because we’re all pseudo-authentic products of consumer society). I wear the Giants t-shirt sincerely, but does there not remain the hint of irony? The answer to that question may depend on what you think it means to be a fan and to wear branded apparel. I will never be a sports fan in the way of Walpole’s “examples of nonironic living”: “Observe a 4-year-old child going through her daily life. You will not find the slightest bit of irony in her behavior…She likes what she likes and declares it without dissimulation.” Indeed, children can be the most sincere fans. If I’d started liking football as a 4-year old girl, perhaps I would retain some of that innocence in my current fandom. But the problem with being an adult, is sometimes you just don’t like what you like. I like pro football. I like the games, I like the athletes, I like the coaches (well, some of them). But I also dislike pro football. I dislike the domestic violence. I dislike the brain trauma. I dislike the jingoistic celebrations of the military. Condemned to this ambivalence, is irony something that I should easily dismiss?  

***

Addendum on the Giants: 

Of course they lost to Washington! Of course! It is just like the Giants to demolish the two best teams in the NFC and yet lose two divisional games to inferior opponents. They are all too predictable sometimes. Tynes has only two missed field goals this season (not counting one that was blocked) and they were in those two division losses, both of which had a margin of victory less than 3 points.  

The Joy of Not Watching

It’s Saturday night and I’m in San Francisco for a family function. For some reason there is actually some debate about the following: should we get in touch with old friends who live here - on the opposite coast - or should we keep to ourselves Sunday afternoon at some bar where we can watch the Giants game.

It was to my great benefit that we chose the former. Having decided not to repeatedly check the score like a crazy football- obsessive during lunch the next day, I was blissfully unaware of the trauma unfolding in Cincinnati. When I got a text message from a friend and fellow Giants fan that read “this is miserable,” I knew I’d made the right choice.

Later the afternoon, my husband and I met another couple - friends from his college days - and they took us hiking and to a beach. The funny thing is that I enjoyed myself even more knowing that the Giants had lost badly. I was giddy with the exhilaration of escaping an afternoon of moping and yelling at the television. The Giants loss had made me happy. 

Over the years, my husband finally convinced me that, no, you should not give up on a playoff basketball game if your team is down my 20, but I’ve never taken this lesson to heart when it comes to football. Last Sunday was the first Giants game I missed entirely since I got back to the US from a year in China, but there’s been a number of games I gave up - including one that the Giants won. Sometimes, when things are looking bad, a cost-benefit analysis kicks in and its best to save your own sanity and your own capacity for joy. Maybe this is just in retrospect, but I had a bad feeling about this game against the Bengals. Ever since the Giants’ offense started to disappear, I knew that all bets were off. But for weeks, I’ve also been holding out for the recovery and anticipating that it would come after the bye. Just as I had a bad feeling about the Bengals game, I’ve had a good feeling about the Green Bay game. I won’t be surprised if they lose again, even if they lose badly, but that’s not what I’m expecting. 

As for the two game losing streak, this is my enduring memory:

And, for no reason in particular:

Marathon

For entirely selfish reasons, I was disappointed that the New York Marathon was cancelled on Friday. Since I moved to New York City 8 years ago, I’ve always walked to the northeast corner of Central Park to watch the runners go by around the 23 mile mark. These first weekends in November are usually brisk but not too cold, with ribbons of gold dappling the trees around the lake at Central Park North. At the intersection of 110th street and Fifth avenue, spectators congregate to cheer and ring bells and it’s exciting when a phalanx of police on motorcycles pass by, followed by the elite runner or runners currently in the lead. 

I still took a walk around the lake this weekend. The sunny weather and the good cheer of park goers was leavened by the melancholy of lonely looking tree stumps left behind by clean-up crews after the damaging winds of the hurricane toppled trunks and blasted through branches. I saw many downed trees and stumps on Tuesday, despite the fact that Morningside Heights went relatively unscathed, with no power outages or flooding. Lower Manhattan, Long Island, Staten Island, and parts of Brooklyn were not so lucky, and the closing of the subway system impacted all parts of the city. Still, in the days following the hurricane, Mayor Bloomberg and Mary Wittenburg - the head of the New York Road Runners and director of the marathon - insisted for days that the race would go on. Then on Friday, it was cancelled. 

Even before the controversy over holding the marathon in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Mary Wittenburg had made headlines in the New York Times. Some members of the New York Road Runners have been critical of her leadership.  She has pursued corporate sponsorship and international renown for the marathon, while funneling proceeds of the NY Road Runners toward cultivating out-of-state talent. To some, her actions have been at the expense of local New York runners and a sense of community within the local running scene. 

After the hurricane, it was New Yorkers who rejected, disowned, and ultimately caused the cancellation of the New York marathon. Going through all five boroughs, the marathon has been branded as a symbol of New York City unity and urban splendor. But in the wake of the hurricane, vocal New York City constituencies condemned the race as a sign of insensitivity and warped priorities. Residents of Staten Island, who lacked power, faced looting, and mourned deaths in their community, were particularly bitter over the race that begins on their island, but immediately passes into Brooklyn. 

To me, the rancor over the marathon was not fundamentally about resources. Although I’m not sure how the race would have impacted an already recovering transportation system, I more or less take Bloomberg at his word that the race personnel and the disaster relief personnel were simply two different groups of people, and the marathon would not have negatively impacted ongoing attempts to help people in the worst hit areas. But critics are not just bitter about the allocation of resources. They seem to be bitter about the very fact of runners racing through the city, as apparent from some of the language used to describe the “self-indulgent” runners “cavorting” through the storm wracked streets. What this language manifests, I believe, is an animosity toward what is, in the United States, a very middle and upper class sport and leisure activity, and one that the majority of people feel they have no stake in. As far as I can tell, there was very little negative feeling about the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, or New York Giants playing in the area this week. On the contrary, there was a lot of rhetoric about “lifting people’s spirits” floating around before Sunday’s football game. But the marathon is different. It is an event that is supposed to bring the city together, but does not interest or impact most New Yorkers. Because people feel they do not have a stake in the marathon, in the wake of the storm it became a scapegoat for a larger frustration: a deeply felt bitterness over the very fact of inequality. Inequality defines this city every single day, but it can cut most deeply during a crisis. Why should some person from Italy, who paid $7,000 for the trip to New York, get to have her fun in the marathon while local people are suffering? Why do some people get to play while other people have to struggle? Why is there, every day and not just in these days following a weather disaster, a New York of the haves and a New York of the have nots?

Bloomberg and Wittenburg handled the cancellation of the marathon very poorly. They should have understood the possible challenges and latent tensions much earlier and made the decision right away. Instead, by canceling the event late in the week, they angered as many people as possible. For Bloomberg, it is not his only mishandling of a post-storm situation. His administration is severely mishandling the return of students to public schools beginning this week. At the Lower East Side high school where my husband teaches, the power has come back on, but the building has no heat. And yet, after a day of delays, the Department of Education has announced that teachers and students are expected to return to school in that building tomorrow. For these students, many of whom have probably just spent a week in cold, dark, and possibly unsafe living conditions, a return to school needs to be a return to normality and a return to a safe environment in which they can focus on learning. Canceling the marathon did not bring the heat back to their school building. 

Just Desserts

A Giants season re-cap. What if each Giants game was a dessert? What dessert would it be?

v. Dallas     “humble pie”

That’s what the Giants ate, according to coach Coughlin after the game. But if humble pie was really a pie, what would it be? Probably something very difficult to make but potentially delicious, ruined by a novice cook and leaving you with a bad taste in your mouth. 

v. Tampa Bay     carrot cake - no frosting

Carrot cake has potential, but without cream cheese frosting, it’s just a dry cake with carrots in it. We came away with a win, but played poorly most of the game. There was just a dab of frosting in the fourth quarter, just enough to make it worth eating in the first place.

@ Panthers ice cream

There’s nothing like an easy win, and there’s nothing like ice cream. It satisfies every time. This game also had a little element of surprise, because many expected the Giants to struggle coming off a short week. It’s like trying a new flavor and fearing you’ll be disappointed but finding it exceeds expectations.

@ Eagles low-fat vegan coffee cake

Desserts need fat, the Giants needed offense. So disappointing, but not altogether unexpected. 

v. Browns pumpkin pie - no whipped cream

Like carrot cake without frosting, pumpkin pie just isn’t as good without whipped cream. What turned out to be a commanding win just wasn’t as good when it involved going down 0-14 in the first few minutes.

@ San Francisco     ice cream cake 

What makes ice cream cake is so good is that three components come together in delicious harmony. The defense was the ice cream, the offense was the cake, the special teams was the ice cream. The result: creamy, cakey goodness. 

v. Washington     deep fried snickers bar

Full of flavor, but hard to eat. If you eat to many desserts like these, you’re liable to have a heart attack. Sure, it tastes really, really good to be 5-2 at the end of the day, but this dessert was too much to handle. 

Subs and Dealers

A lot of people have compared the NFL “replacement refs” to substitute teachers. The problem with this analogy is it seems to place blame on those hapless subs and the naughty players and coaches they can’t control. The real blame lies with the NFL. Imagine that the Chicago teachers union had almost universal public support backing their strike (a nice thought), but Rahm Emmanuel not only didn’t budge, but actually started the school year with a bunch of unqualified  high school graduates in for the teachers. Even as the classrooms get downright dangerous, Rahm stands his ground. 

Or imagine you have a crack dealer who gets consumers hooked on his product. Because addiction has created a captive audience, he starts to cut rat poison into the cocaine to lower costs. 

I wouldn’t wish a loss like Green Bay’s last night on my most hated teams (Eagles, Cowboys). What’s more, I wouldn’t want the Giants to win the way Seattle won - on a transparently bad call by an unqualified referee. No fans know better than Giants fans that there really is such a thing as a good loss. In fact, the Giants had narrow losses to Green Bay during the regular seasons the last two times they won the Super Bowl. Seattle played an amazing defensive game, especially in the first half, and could have come away with a productive close loss. Instead, they won a game they shouldn’t have and if they somehow eke into the playoffs this year, no one will forget that things should have been different. 

What bothers me most about this fiasco is its pessimistic implications for political action. If regular people can’t come together to save football, it’s no wonder that we can’t hold exploitative banks responsible for their actions or keep the taint of corporate money out of politics. Part of the problem in the case of the NFL, of course, is that the fans are so isolated. We’re all crossing a picket line every game we watch, but we do so in our individual homes, and that line is the power button of our remote controls. 

As an isolated actor, I’m not going to miss either the Giants - Eagles or Bears - Cowboys game next week. We’re still consuming Roger Goodell’s crack. But it’s starting to make us sick. 

The Dao of the Giants

1

The game that should be won is not the winnable game;

The game that should be lost, that is the winnable game.

2

When everyone in the world sees weakness

strength appears.

When everyone knows good as good, 

not-good arrives. 

Therefore being and non-being give birth to one another;

Difficult and easy give completion to one another;

Offense and defense form one another;

Speed and slowness fill one another;

Sound and voice harmonize with one another;

Ahead and behind follow after one another. 

22

Be bent so as to become whole, 

Be crooked so as to become straight,

Lose games so as to be victorious,

Sustain injury so as to become new.

Possess little so as to acquire;

To possess much is to be perplexed. 

Therefore the Giant, by embracing the One,

Becomes a model for the world.

By not showing himself, 

He becomes illustrious.

By not being self-important, 

He becomes prominent.

By not being given to self-praise,

He is given credit. 

By not promoting himself,

He endures for long.

Because he does not contend,

There is no one in the world who can contend with him.

When the ancients said, “Be bent so as to become whole,”

Could these have been empty words?

In truly becoming whole, one returns to it.

***

The Giants love to prove the television talking heads wrong. Before the Dallas game, every single announcer picked the Giants to win. They lost. Before the Panthers game, every single announcer picked the Giants to lose. They won.

Not only did they win but they dominated. I didn’t even know how to react. I’ve only been a football fan for 3 and a half years and for one of those years I was in a different time zone and rarely got to watch games. I’ve literally never seen a Giants game before last night in which I was not at the edge of my seat at some point. The performance was so complete, it would be hard to imagine all of the announcers picking the Eagles to win the upcoming match up. Unfortunately. 

My Cable Hates the Cowboys and Other Stories

Last fall, before the first meeting between the Giants and the Cowboys, my cable quit on me. One day it was working, the next day it wasn’t. I had to watch the game in a bar, and I left in the fourth quarter with the Giants down by 12 points. I didn’t get to see the the season-saving come from behind: Eli Manning’s two touchdowns and the final defensive stop, involving Jason Pierre Paul swatting down a potentially game-tying field goal attempt. I would’ve kept watching had I been at home. But what can I say - my cable hates the Cowboys. 

When the Giants and Cowboys met again at the end of the regular season, I was traveling for the holidays and watching at my father’s house. I can only assume that back in New York, my cable connection was having a hissy fit. 

For this year’s season opener between the Giants and the Cowboys, my cable must have been assuaged by the Giants’ Super Bowl victory because it let me watch the game. But the next day I turned on the TV to find the following message: “This cable box is not authorized for service. Please call your cable division.” Cable box, if you’re listening, I hate the Cowboys too, but it would have been nice to watch the US Open, the hapless Jets, and big brother Peyton Manning this weekend. Can you give a girl a break? 

***

In retrospect, it seems inevitable. If Coach Coughlin was preaching the mantra “Build the Bridge” - meaning let’s carry over the success of the Super Bowl to the next season - the outcome could only be jokes about a “bridge to nowhere.” It’s like how Vince Young called the Eagles a “dream team” before last season, and their season subsequently unfolded as a nightmare. But call me crazy, I really don’t think the Giants played that poorly - at least not irreparably poorly - in their opening loss to the Cowboys. There was ugliness, but a lot of it seems fixable. By the end of the game, Coughlin was playing his fourth string cornerback (Amukamara should be back next week). Jason Pierre Paul missed sacks by inches more than once. Victor Cruz dropped balls. Our rookie running back fumbled away our early momentum. And despite all of that, there were positive signs. Eli didn’t throw any interceptions. The tight end we got from Dallas made a couple plays, including a touchdown catch. Ahmad Bradshaw at least broke away for one excellent run. We were very close to getting the ball back to the offense for another fourth quarter miracle that could have tied the game. We can work with this. Besides, I didn’t have high expectations to start with. Every time we play a home game against a division rival that everyone expects the Giants to win (e.g. last year’s home games against the Vince Young quarterbacked Eagles and the Redskins), we are sure to lose. 

***

For an NFL team that plays the slow and steady game, doesn’t get too high and doesn’t get too low, the season opener was just another day in the office, writes Mike Tanier. Before the game, a lot was said about the different leadership approaches of the Giants and Cowboys organizations (here, for instance). Giants: your wide receiver shoots himself in the leg, you fail to make the playoffs, you lose important players in free agency, you win the Super Bowl - it doesn’t matter; the approach in the off season and the draft is going to be the same. Build slowly for the future and avoid destabilizing but flashy moves. Cowboys: if you had a disappointing season something must be done immediately…a coach must be fired, draft picks must be traded in order to sign a coveted cornerback, the Cowboys must be making national headlines. What approach makes sense to people? To fans? I’ve been reflecting on this question because it may portend something about which way the political winds are blowing this fall. The economy is bad. People feel like a change is needed. What should be done? Should we stay the course and stick it through with the president that shepherded us through the worst of the recession and has a reasonable plan for further growth? Or should we fire the “coach,” throw out the game plan, and try something totally different?

I know my answer.

Giants 2012!

The Essence of Sports

What is the “basic truth” of sports; their essence, the thing that makes us watch? In a recent article, Frank Deford suggests that sports are about bodies and what they can do. If you “doubt the bodies,” because of performance enhancing drugs, “there is no sport.” Deford rightly comes down hard on the scourge of drugs in sports, but for all the wrong reasons, in my opinion. He presents the problem of drugs as being one of authenticity as opposed to ethicality. This ignores the fact that technology is thoroughly intermeshed with modern sports, so much so that some have argued that the body itself may already be cyborg in nature. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from a profile of Donna Haraway, a professor at UC Santa Cruz:

“‘Think about the technology of sports footwear,’ she ways. “Before the Civil War, right and left feet weren’t even differentiated in shoe manufacture. Now we have a shoe for every activity.” Winning the Olympics in the cyborg era isn’t just about running fast. It’s about ‘the interaction of medicine, diet, training practices, clothing and equipment manufacture, visualization and timekeeping.’ When the furor about the cyborgization of athletes through performance-enhancing drugs reached fever pitch last summer, Haraway could hardly see what the fuss was about. Drugs or no drugs, the training and technology make every Olympian a node in an international technocultural network just as ‘artificial’ as sprinter Ben Johnson at his steroid peak.”

Unlike Haraway, I think it’s easy to see “what the fuss was about.” It was (and is) about cheating - something any professor who has received a plagiarized term paper can easily grasp. To me, the essence of sports is competition. The terms that frame sports competitions must be decided in advance. When one party rejects these terms in a dissimulating manner, the social contract of the competition is broken. 

If we see the problem of drugs, by contrast, as one of inauthentic bodies, the logical extension of this argument would have to be that the paralympics showcase something less than authentic sporting events. In competitions between disabled athletes, we find many extreme cases of technological enhancements, such as state-of-the-art artificial limbs. But I think most people would accept paralympic athletes as fully genuine, and even distinctly inspiring. Double amputee track star Oscar Pistorius and doping cyclist Lance Armstrong have similarly used technology to enhance athletic performance. The difference is that Pistorius does so in a fully transparent way, while Armstrong, by all appearances, has been lying through his teeth for years. 

I enjoyed reading about the opening ceremony of this year’s paralympics in London. It acknowledged the prominent role of technology in sports by playing with scientific and technological thematic content. The ceremony was narrated by the wheelchair-bound physicist Stephen Hawking and at one point even turned “the entire stadium…into a representation of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland.” It’s amazing what technology can help human bodies achieve and, in any case, there’s no going back to a time when athletes were true amateurs, competing naked in contests of speed and strength. As a fan, that’s just fine with me. 

[A scene from the paralympics opening ceremony.]

Preseason!

Preseason football is meaningless as a spectator sport - so goes the consensus. The preseason serves certain purposes that have nothing to do with fans: established players get a chance to practice and warm-up for the season ahead and new or marginal players get a chance to attract the attention of their coaches and win a roster spot. But winning or losing has no consequence and starters play limited snaps. 

All of this actually makes preseason a great time to go to a game. Earlier this summer, my husband and I got tickets for the Giants - Bears preseason game. Because people with season tickets have to purchase both preseason and regular season seats, there were numerous tickets available for resale at well below their actual value. We got to sit in row 23 of the 100 level - close enough to hear the sound of colliding gear during tackles. My husband grew up a Bears fan and I’ve been a Giants fan since the 2007 season. The preseason let us enjoy some good-natured fan rivalry with nothing of real importance on the line.

The only disappointment was that we didn’t get a chance to tailgate. While we took the train from the city, we had friends driving in and had planned to meet them in the parking lot for some pre-game fun. But a flight delay meant that we didn’t get to see our friends until halftime. But we did enjoy some perfect weather and the sunset before going into the stadium. 

Since we had to settle for over priced stadium food, I was juggling a hamburger and a drink when I walked down the aisle to our seats, just in time to see a burst of fireworks and my Super Bowl champion Giants running onto the field. We were almost behind the goalpost of one end of the field and it was an incredible feeling to see the upper decks, crowded with fans, looming above me. Since we were so close to the endzone, a first quarter touchdown would have felt close enough to touch. But Eli Manning and the offense stalled in their approach and had to settle for a field goal. The Giants did score two second quarter touchdowns in the endzone on the other side of the stadium.

The Bears, for their part, had a shaky start. But in the second half, with the second teams in, the Bears made a comeback and won the game. The closest I came to seeing a Giants touchdown up close was when the backup quarterback lofted a pass into the endzone on almost the final play of the game, only to have it caught by someone wearing the wrong jersey. 

I got to see the Giants’s starters win the first half and my husband got to see the Bears win the game. Unfortunately, I also watched Prince Amukamara leave the field with an injury, making the Giants very weak at cornerback for the start of the regular season. But the possible travails of a new year can’t darken the still bright glow of last February’s Super Bowl victory. In the wake of victory, a wonderful calm.  

Hunger and Happiness

One of the great intangibles of athletic competition is “hunger” - the sheer will to win. But does hunger really impact sports at the highest level? In a post-game interview after his surprise second-round defeat at Wimbledon, Rafael Nadal would have you believe that it does not. Asked twice, rather awkwardly, if the loss would give him more “energy inside to fight for the gold medal” during the upcoming Olympics, he responded:

"I think the answer is what I said. When you win you have more confidence for the next tournaments. Is not when you lose you have more hunger to win the next. That’s not true. When you are winning you feel more confident, you feel, you know, playing better. When you lose, the confidence is less for the next tournaments. That’s for everybody. But seriously, doesn’t affect my motivation for the next tournament win or lose. That’s all." 

In other words, confidence matters, hunger does not. Or rather, hunger is a non-factor because the best players are always equally hungry - they want to win every time, so it’s more a constant than a narrative. This is consistent with Nadal’s even-keeled approach to each and every match and his claim that he’s never thinking about a championship, he’s only thinking about the next opponent, the next opportunity to tally a win. But it’s hard to believe that his motivation never fluctuates. Three men - Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic - have won the last 28 out of 29 grand slam championships. Yet if you look at all ATP tennis results, the same three have been dominant, but less ruthlessly so. If the top 3 win pretty much every major, why don’t they win every tournament? While one factor is the difference between playing best-of-three sets versus best-of-five sets (only the majors are best-of-five), another factor must be that the the top players draw on a their greater motivation to win the most important events.  

If we grant that “hunger” is not always consistent for different tournaments, one might also wonder if a player’s drive to win a particular tournament also changes over time. I don’t doubt that Nadal really hated losing to a completely unknown player at Wimbledon. But in the end, maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing for him. In his post-game interview he said himself that “The only thing I can do is go back home and rest, I need and deserve it.” Apparently that wasn’t the only thing he could do, because a few days later he was reportedly in Poland watching his beloved Spanish national football team win the European Championship. Nadal has been a vocal critic of the relentlessness of the tour - the number of matches that must be played and the speed at which one’s ranking will fall if tournaments are skipped. Earlier this year he reflected “to finish your career with pain in all parts of your body is not positive” and “I fear that [after retiring] I won’t be able to play soccer or ski with my friends.” Perhaps there is nothing to stymie motivation like constant travel, constant matches, constant obligations, and near-constant pain for years and years. It must have been great for Nadal to cheer on his soccer team and enjoy that hunger for victory vicariously for a change. I was rooting for Nadal, but I’m not sad he lost.

Instead, I’m happy that Andy Murray has maybe his best chance yet to steal a grand slam from the top three. Murray is a player who’s hunger is constantly questioned, partly because he seems like such a nice guy, and a guy who is generally content, even happy, with his long-held status as number four in the world. But like his new coach, the former player Ivan Lendl, has said, “If you become great, then you can become happy. If you’re happy first, it’s much more difficult to be great.” 

Personally, I decided long ago that it’s better to be happy. Most of us come to terms with our mediocrity. But maybe that’s why the narrative of “hunger” is so compelling for the common fan. It let’s us imagine that there is something beyond freakish natural talent; that any person can one day strive for greatness, and achieve it. 

Tantalized

The classic baseball novel The Natural has the most horrifying narrative arc related to eating that I have ever encountered. Life-sustaining food takes on a dark menace, as the eponymous “natural” - a baseball player of extraordinary gifts who makes damning choices - eats himself into the hospital right before a crucial stretch of games. He is led to the buffet table and down the path of destruction by Memo Paris, the object of his unrequited love and sexual desire. 

As he beholds the spread, “he was surprised and slightly trembly at all there was of it—different kinds of delicatessan meat, appetizing fish, shrimp, crab and lobster, also caviar, salads, cheeses of all sorts, bread, rolls, and three flavors of ice cream. It made his belly ache, as if it had an existence apart from himself” (177). 

He piles high his plate.

"He was gobbling it down and it gave him a feeling of both having something and wanting it the same minute he was having it. And every mouthful seemed to have the effect of increasing his desire for her (178). 

It is Memo he wants, but all she gives him is more food. 

"She took his plate to the table and the busy little chef heaped it high with corned beef, pastrami, turkey, potato salad, cheese and pickles…Roy polished his plate with a crust of bread" (178-179).

By the time she readies the third helping, he objects that he is “getting tired of eating,” but she urges him on: “Now let’s mix this lobster meat with hidden treats of anchovies, and here we will lay it on this tasty pumpernickel and spread Greek salad over it, then smear this other slice of bread with nice sharp cheese and put it on top of the rest” (180). 

With three bottles of lemon pop, he gets the sandwich down, and then drinks three bottles of lime pop to rid himself of the artificial lemon flavor. This leaves him feeling “food and pop drunk” (180), but he is not done with his epic gorging. He “drag[s] his belly through the hall”  and goes to the hotel “grill room” where he requests “six hamburgers and two tall glasses of milk” (182). He cannot tell any longer if he is hungry or not, but he gives in to his manic compulsion to eat. 

"The hamburgers looked like six dead birds. He took up the first one and gobbled it down. It was warm but dry. No more dead birds he thought…not without ketchup. He poured a blop on three of the birds. Then he shuffled them up with the other two so as not to know which three had the ketchup and which two hadn’t. Eating them, he could not tell the difference except that they all tasted like dead birds" (183). 

After this, he staggers to Memo’s room hoping to finally consummate their affair. Instead, he is hit as if by a “bolt of shuttering lightning” right “in the shattered gut,” and keels over in pain. (184-85). Although the author, Bernard Malamud, has yet to narrate the penultimate baseball game, in which Roy, the natural, ends his team’s season by striking out, the rising action has already already climaxed with the hero stricken by his own insatiable appetite. 

Roy is defeated by hubris and hunger. As he tries to ignite a career long delayed by a freak bullet that pierced his stomach (of course) at the age of 19, Roy relies on his natural gifts, but fails every test of self control. Written in 1952, The Natural is truly a novel for our own age of rampant obesity, energy over-consumption, and never-ending war. Roy keeps eating not because he is hungry but because he can, because he feels it is his right. The night he is destroyed by his stomach, numerous other characters warn of premature celebration as the team has not quite clenched its World Series berth. But like George W. Bush declaring “mission accomplished” in the middle of a war, Roy eats a victory lap before victory is his. And he eats as if food can cure the excesses of overeating, the way the US keeps fighting wars as if war will cancel out the wrongs of war. Even in the hospital, Roy is still dreaming of eating and sex. “He hungered in nightmare for quantities of exotic food—wonderous fowl stuffed with fruit, and the multitudinous roe of tropical fish. When he bent his toothy head to devour, every last morsel vanished. So they served him a prime hunk of beef and he found it enormously delicious only to discover it was himself he was chewing” (187). Roy is Tantalus, who has angered the gods and now must hunger and thirst forever with the fruit and the spring water eternally out of reach. If he had not demanded so much, he would not have been left with so little

Bernard Malamud. The Natural. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. 

Three Days

Monday

Rafael Nadal fully extends his arms to the sky, holding aloft his seventh French Open trophy. As he lowers the trophy, the heavy metal cup accidentally grazes his face, leaving a bruise that seems to symbolize the heavy weight that must be borne to achieve the status of champion. Not long before, Novak Djokovic double faulted on the first match point, sending Nadal to his knees. Joyfully, Rafa climbed into the stands, hugging the members of his team, jumping into the arms of his coach, Uncle Toni, even sharing a tender moment with Pau Gasol (considerably elevating my opinion of the basketball player. I’m glad he’s in Paris and not in the NBA finals. That would have been a real conundrum, since I hate both the Lakers and the Heat). During the trophy ceremony, Nadal seemed older than he ever has before, perhaps because of his unshaven face, or perhaps because, having just turned 26 years old, there really are the beginnings of wrinkles amidst the natural creases of his ecstatically smiling face.  

Due to rain, the contest between Nadal and Djokovic could not conclude on Sunday as it should have. This is fitting, for in the realms of sports and life, nothing went my way last weekend. 

Saturday

On Saturday, I received some bad news. By late afternoon, I’m despondently sitting on my couch. “At least I won’t get too worked up over the basketball game,” I tell my husband. “It’s hard to get upset over basketball when life interferes.” Indeed, the game is not stressful, if ultimately disappointing. As the Heat pull away from the Celtics in the fourth quarter, we turn the television off. But when I sense that the game must be coming to a close, I suggest we put it back on, because it’s the end - the last game for those players and that coach as a team. With the television on mute, we’re just in time to see Doc Rivers pull the stars, conceding defeat. The camera shows Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo walking back to the locker room. With Garnett, I’m sure the early exit is motivated more by despair than anger. With Rondo, I think back to the way Amare Stoudemire severely injured his hand by punching something after a first-round loss to the Heat, and I hope Rondo doesn’t self-inflict a similar wound. He’s like that, Rajon Rondo, a little unpredictable, a little petulant. 

Paul Pierce stays court side until the very end. His face is a perfect image of despondency. 

Sunday

Rafael Nadal looks dominant. He’s hitting winners and not making errors, while forcing errors from the racket of his opponent. As if blaming that racket, Djokovic throws it to the clay at one point. At another, he uses it to angrily punch a hole in his bench (drawing a warning for “racket abuse” from the chair umpire). No wonder he’s upset: there seems to be nothing he can do. After beating Nadal in three straight grand slam finals, Djokovic is all but getting crushed. 

Then something changes. There is nothing worse in sports spectatorship than watching the person or team that you’re rooting for slowly choking away an enormous lead. So suddenly, my idea that I can’t get too upset about sports because I have enough to worry about in my life seems to no longer apply because I’m watching in horror as Nadal loses point after point, game after game, until he has given up 8 games in a row, and the third set. During this stretch, Nadal loses almost as many games in a row than he had  in his entire semi-final match. “It’s a game of streaks, just like basketball,” says my husband. “He’ll come back.” But tennis is not like basketball. “He can’t even win a game,” I reply.

But then he does. And immediately after that, the match is suspended as the tournament-officials finally acknowledge the conditions - steady rain and wet balls - are not reasonable for play. Only later do I realize how badly the rain affected Nadal during the slide. Not only did he lose his concentration, but the wet balls kept him from generating his usual topspin, such an important component of his game. The next day, with fresh balls and better conditions, Nadal will return to form, breaking Djokovic as soon as the match resumes. But first, Nadal must spend an anxious night back at his hotel. And I too pass an anxious night, though sports are far from my mind.