Monday, June 23, 2008
Lowpoint in Sports
A scene repeated all across sporting America this weekend.
THE TIGER BLUES The longest day of the year always kind of sneaks up on me. But this weekend was the summer solstice, which begins both summer and the six-month long decline in the length of days. I was hardly expecting a sudden, coincident, all-time historical lowpoint. But that also occurred this weekend. Fortunately, there was plenty to keep us busy about the household -- mowing the acreage, cleaning out the garage, filling feeders to keep up with voracious goldfinches, hummingbirds, etc, and grilling burgers and gorging on homemade blueberry pie (w/fresh Jersey blueberries b'God) -- but in-and-amongst and after the domestic fun, we began to be aware of the shocking cultural milestone that had dropped on our heads.
The Hockey is done, except for their utterly inscrutable draft. The NBA season is over. The only NFL activity involves tracking which prima donna athlete refuses to tie his shoes in minicamp (Chad Johnson), and baseball entered the nadir of its season with a round of pointless inter-league games even the SportsTalk lunatics can't bring themselves to care about. Wimbledon wouldn't be playing out its boring early round matches till Monday. The Tour de France hasn't started yet, and are they really going to inflict that drug-infested scandal marathon on us this year anyway? And now, for the first time in over a decade in this customary dead spot of the sports year, there's no Tiger for the announcers to talk about during soporific tournaments like the one that's played a week after the U.S. Open. This is as close to zero as the sports world can get, now or ever.
We looked in vain through the weekend listings for the usual glut of sporting events covered by network and cable channels. Oh, indeed, there was a plethora of sad substitutes as programmers tried desperately to fill the void: Formula 1 racing, which hasn't raised my pulse above a flicker since the days of Niki Lauda and Jackie Stewart. Arena football -- who can watch that crap? -- it's like tabletop pool, a novelty that wears off within minutes of a first encounter. Olympic trials in judo (??) and women's gymnastics ("Oh, dear. She fell off the beam. How sad." How usual.) One of the cable channels was actually covering the NHL draft live! Live? Good God. ESPN was reduced to running professional bowling, automobile shows from last year, and promos for the -- wait for it! -- upcoming NBA draft! One of the Spanish language channels was showing "futbol" eliminations for the 2010 World Cup. 2010???!!! In what universe does that make any sense?
Which reminds me. Mighty ESPN also sank as low as devoting hours and hours of its precious airtime to the 2008 European Soccer Tournament. Worse, we actually watched some of it. Mrs. CP got a modest kick out of watching the hated Orangemen of Holland lose in the closing moments to Russia while I was mostly busy grilling burgers outside. And, then, on Sunday, out of a pitifully unfounded hope that something interesting would happen in the Italy-Spain quarter-final, we actually watched our second soccer game in one weekend.
The shame of it. What can I say? I am personally fond of Italy. There was nothing else on. The weather map insisted we were under imminent threat from severe thunderstorms all afternoon (which never came). And, yes, I should have known. As Instapunk regulars know, this site has assessed the appeal of soccer in some detail. But I, personally, had never sat there and watched an entire game of world-class soccer.
You'll never know. Words are inadequate. They played the entire 90 minutes of regulation with no score. Then they played two 15-minute overtime periods with no score. For the math-challenged, that's two full hours of "sport" in which nothing whatever happened. There are no 'plays' to speak of. One team starts out kicking the ball down the field, passing it to one another as if they have something in mind. But the other team always takes it way from them before anything can happen, and then they do exactly the same thing. Every once in a while two players make contact, one of them falls down and begins shrieking as if he's just been hammered into the turf by Brian Urlacher (no f'ing way, Jose) and the ref gives the guy who touched him a 'yellow card.' Then there's a 'free kick,' which is about as free as all other things European; the kicker faces a solid wall of opposing players between him and the goal. So he kicks the ball over their heads, over the goal, and into the crowd. Then they start again.
The only entertainment value is a kind of expanding wonder. What do they use for highlights on TV news/sports coverage? Crowd shots? Clips of players rolling around on the ground pretending to be hurt? Refs dealing yellow cards as deftly as Vegas poker sharks? All those kicks that go way left or way right or way o-o-o-ver that gigantic net? What statistics do the soccer encyclopedias compile? There's nothing to count or keep track of that might be a finite accomplishment or 'play.' Number of pointless steals of a ball from the opposition? Number of pointless losses of the ball to the opposition. The ratio of pointless steals to pointless losses? And what do their career statistics look like? A Hall of Famer like Beckham makes history by scoring, like, uh, three goals lifetime? And, uh, he played 19,000 hours of goal-free time in regulation?
I don't know. I don't know why the rules are systematically designed to prevent scoring. I don't know why players and teams are disqualified in the next game for routine fouls committed in this game, thus preemptively destroying the purity and fairness of tournament competition. I don't know why the rules deliberately remove the suspense of a down-ticking clock by adding unknown quantities of penalty time after regulation play, thus ensuring a built-in, premeditated anticlimax. I don't know why hundreds of thousands come to watch and weep and wail and sing and cheer. I don't know why I watched.
Somebody eventually won. On penalty kicks. Which, as far as I'm concerned, they could have done without wasting 120 minutes of running around futilely on the field beforehand.
Of course I do have some suggestions. I honestly believe, having watched, that there is a good game rattling around somewhere inside the boneheaded bore the current rules mandate. Adopt hockey's penalty box/power play format (pay now, not tomorrow), jettison the yellow card/red card bullshit, and penalize fakers just as sternly as those who commit fouls. (Who really wants to watch professional athletes making deliberate pussies of themselves? Not even Europeans should get off on that...) Quit adding penalty increments at the end of regulation. And, for God's sake, allow the fast break that makes basketball such a volatile and momentum-driven game. Let the lone superstar go one-on-one with the goalie in the heat of play on the field, as opposed to the artificial stasis of the post-game penalty-kick snore. If your game can't be decided by being played with all players on the field, it's not much of a game. It may be a kind of theater. But it's not a sport.
This is a sport. The kind of truly extreme moment soccer can never produce.
Not without big rule changes anyway. It can't come down to refs and pussies.
For example, in this one NFL play I can count three/four 'yellow cards,' easy.
Sorry. I know it's tres inappropriate. But right now, I'm really missing sports.
Hey, though. I'm just a dumb American. An American who will remember the summer solstice weekend of 2008 as the all-time worst moment in sports in my lifetime.
Otherwise, it was a wonderful couple of days.