Why do we care about PEDs?

Dan Wetzel at Yahoo Sports is one of the smartest and most insightful sportswriters around. Today he wrote:

Perhaps nothing upsets baseball fans and executives more than the double-standard reactions to PED use in football. The NFL is awash in this stuff, yet fans and media mostly shrug it off. In baseball every suspension is treated with over-the-top seriousness and a chorus of condemnation.

And in basketball, hockey and other sports, no one seems to care at all. Those sports get an even bigger pass than football.

There is a difference though. In baseball, the PED advantage enjoyed by power hitters was so obvious and significant it didn’t just change the game – consider how teams had to pitch around Barry Bonds in his heyday – but completely obliterated so many sacred records.

This is one of those observations that makes me slap the side of my head and go, “Duh! Why didn’t I think of that?”

Of course people are cheating in those other sports. Given the nature of sports like football and basketball, where muscle mass is a tremendous advantage, and basketball, tennis and soccer, where aerobic capacity is of paramount importance, they must be. That’s more or less what Andy Murray just said when he called for more drug testing in tennis. (Interesting isn’t it, that an athlete asking to be tested makes news?) As anyone who has ever competed in amateur sports knows, people cheat when there’s nothing at stake but a six dollar plastic trophy with your name misspelled on it. (Third place—Utherweiss.)

Thus Wetzel’s question: Why do we care in some sports—baseball, cycling, track, swimming, and not in others?

We care because sport is entertainment, and entertainment is about transporting us from the world we are in to a different world. If something interrupts us, it breaks the spell. We care in those sports where PED usage ruins the entertainment experience, and we don’t care when it doesn’t.

There are three ways PED usage can ruin it for us.

The first is by straining credulity. We sports fans are suckers. We want to believe in exceptional performances. We want to watch Tiger and Kobe not because they are good human beings, but because we know that there exists the possibility of an exceptional performance each time they compete. We crave exceptional performances.

However, we bring with us some amount of knowledge (or what we think is knowledge). We automatically compare what we are seeing to what has come before. And in the case of baseball, cycling, swimming and track, we cannot compare what we are seeing to what came before because the numbers are meaningless. As I have written elsewhere, we cannot compare today’s cycling performances to historical performances because of PEDs. We can’t compare home run records, or pitching victories, or 100 meter times. PED’s have taken away our ability to know what is exceptional.

(Yes, baseball players and cyclists have always used drugs [strychnine anyone?] but there’s no doubt today’s are better. Are we observing exceptional human performances or advances in pharmacology?)

That’s not the case in football, hockey or basketball. It might be some day. But so far, in basketball no one has broken a kneecap on the rim or put up 110 points in a single pro game or done something so outlandish that we sit up and say, “Wait, that’s not humanly possible.” Or as Wetzel says, if running backs started running 3.0 40s, our mental computers would start shorting out, because we would be watching something that just didn’t make sense. We might well suspect Ray Lewis of using PED’s to miraculously recover from what should have a season-ending injury. After all, he lied about murder, it doesn’t strain belief to think he would lie about steroids. But in the Super Bowl, he did not make forty tackles, twenty sacks, and jump ten feet in the air to slap down passes. He didn’t do anything that strained belief.

The second reason is PED usage in some sports undermines the credibility of the event itself. The East German women in 1972 and the Chinese women in 1990 fundamentally changed the nature of the swimming competition. For other competitors, silver was the new gold, and bronze the new silver, and just making the final was the new bronze. Yes, drugs might well also unbalance the equation in those sports we don’t care about like football, but it’s not obvious. In baseball, swimming, track and cycling, it creates imbalances so obvious we can’t ignore them.

And that obviousness is the third factor. We don’t like events where the outcome is pre-determined, or WWE would be in the Olympics. A basketball game in which many of the players are cheating doesn’t look that different from a basketball game in which they are not. Nor does a football game, because in both those sports, performance is team-based. In individual sports, it is obvious when someone is cheating. Baseball, cycling, track, and swimming are basically individual sports. There PED usage sticks out like a hypodermic in fruit salad. (Yes, technically baseball players are on teams, but in fact, 90% of baseball is individual vs. individual, pitcher vs. batter, batter vs. fielder.)

Again, it’s not about the sport, it’s about us. Seeing results which don’t make sense takes us away from the moment. Seeing events in which the ending is predetermined ruins the suspense. And when it is so obvious and visible we can’t ignore it, the spell is broken. We stop watching the game and instead start trying to make sense of what we’re seeing.

Look, no one really cares about the health of giant, wealthy, spoiled supermen and women. We don’t care when actresses carve themselves up or young girl gymnasts starve themselves. We don’t even really care about drugs. Maybe that’s what we’re really saying to athletes. It’s not that we really care about what you do to your body to earn millions of dollars. We don’t care about concussions or pain injections to allow you to play through injury or PED’s. We don’t blame you, even. We probably would do the same if we could.

That is, we don’t care except when it messes with our enjoyment of the game. Cheat all you want, but don’t rub it in our faces. Just knock the ball into the upper deck, not into the San Francisco Bay.

Tea Party Community: a league of their own

There’s a teaching in communications psychology called “selective perception” and “selective retention,” which theorizes that two people with opposing viewpoints could watch the same news report or movie, and only hear and retain things that reinforce their own views. So for example, two people watching the same presidential debate could walk away remembering very different things: the Democrat would remember President Obama’s plans to expand health care, and the Republican would remember Mitt Romney’s plan to create jobs and bring down the deficit.

The theory holds true for cable television as well, with stations like MSNBC catering to the left-leaning news consumers, and Fox News catering to those on the right (the ones who claim to be “fair and balanced”).

Now, that theory extends even to social media. Meet Tea Party Community, the conservative Facebook.

The welcome/sign up page features the “Don’t Tread on Me.” Sample posts feature Obama holding screws with the caption “Free Obamacare suppositories,” and a photo of guns saying “My guns won’t be illegal, they will be undocumented. SHARE IF YOU AGREE!”

A note at the top of the forum apologizes for tech issues and wrongful banning from the forum with the following message:

Because we have doubled our membership count since our national launch,  we have been under severe attack by large hacking and troll groups which has caused discord for our managment team and  members alike. These groups despise what we stand for and seek to destroy us and silence our voice.

First off, we would like to apologize to our members that have had their accounts accidentally banned by our automated controls and fake reports to our moderation staff. We have now tuned our moderation software and have opted instead to let “You the TPC member” to help us keep our community troll free. We are also placing trusted members in moderator position to help accomplish this task.

The site looks a lot like an earlier version of Facebook (you know, the one everyone knew how to use before the revamps) and seems to be more open to strangers commenting on and liking posts and statuses than its predecessor – while you can friend other users on the TPC, any TPC user (friend or not) can comment on your posts and activity.

And the language used in its explanation of banning – referring to “trolls” and “silencing our voice” – has the site playing social media victim, as if other social networking sites don’t allow them to voice their opinions. But clearly, this is a community of proud conservatives creating their own forum for sharing their own ideas outside of an Internet they consider to be too liberal/reality based.

From the outside world, this looks like a crazy aberration of gun-toting, Jesus-loving “Keep the government out of my life and send the President back to Kenya” individuals who are tired of their liberal friends commenting on their Facebook statuses. And it is. But it goes beyond that. This community was designed as a “safe space,” for people to be as conservative as they want, to keep out “trolls,” meaning anyone with a differing opinion. It was designed as a self-feeding bubble of a site, to keep the conservative views of its users insulated. It’s very much the Fox News of social media.

Of course the Tea Party would start its own social media page, because the rest of the world is too left-leaning to accept. It ties back into the idea of “selective perception” and “selective retention,” where even if these Internet users stuck to Facebook like the rest of the world, they would most likely ignore posts that do not agree with their point of view anyway. Rather than accepting reality, they substitute their own.

I’m interested to see the future of this online community, and whether it evolves into a full-fledged tool for connecting like-minded people for grassroots causes or campaign purposes for Tea Party candidates, or if it fizzles out. Right now, the page seems like too much of a hodgepodge to truly organize – it’s a lot of angry people who want to keep their guns, put God back in the White House, bash Karl Rove for silencing Tea Party candidates, stop illegal immigration, and post a lot of really offensive racist and sexist content to the delight of racist and sexist internet users. Really, at this point, the TPC is just preaching to the choir and reinforcing the bubble that the Tea Party seems to live in. Whether or not this community will grow beyond discontent and ignorance is yet to be seen, but I have a feeling it will see the same rise and fall as the Tea Party has over the next few months.

James Joyce and the beginning of something…

My next book in the 2013 reading list is James Joyce’s classic first book of stories, Dubliners. I had read several of the stories both as a student and in teaching high school and college. “Clay,” “Araby,” “Eveline,” and “The Dead” (which clocks in at over 15,000 words and so might be considered a borderline novella) are all well regarded (and oft anthologized) classics of the story form.

What matters about good stories, though, is something besides their use in anthologies where they are inflicted on students (and their teachers) as tests of the ability of the first to decipher and attempt to comprehend work often beyond their ken (and God knows this is not getting better as we move into a post reading culture) and of the second, if they have any real love of literary art, of their ability to impart that love (and its attendant virtues of engagement, reflection, and, ultimately appreciation) to their charges. This is not easy – and most students (and, I must admit, though it pains me) their teachers – fail at this.

I’ve been a writer and teacher for a long time. Because, perhaps, I was meant to become a writer, I have always, it seems, engaged with stories in ways that others might not. Not only do I read for content (what the critic Louise Rosenblatt calls “efferent reading“), I read to see how a writer makes a story: how he or she constructs stories; what sorts of word choices he/she makes.

The late, great Rust Hills (I think it was) once claimed that the greatest opening sentence in any short story was the first line of Stephen Crane’s brilliant “The Open Boat“:

None of them knew the color of the sky.

From there Crane could, it seems, could have us be or go anywhere. It is magnificent.

And that’s something that hit me as I read Dubliners. I know of no writer of short stories – not Crane, nor Chekhov, nor Poe, not Lessing nor Mason nor Porter – who can begin so well as Joyce. See the following:

She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue. – “Eveline”

There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke. – “The Sisters”

It was Joe Dillon who introduced the Wild West to us. – “An Encounter”

Two gentlemen who were in the lavatory at the time tried to lift him up: but he was quite helpless. – “Grace”

Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet. – “The Dead”

One of the things one learns from the study of literature is that one of the first great storytellers, the legendary Homer, knew how to get us into a narrative. The term is in medias res – “in the midst of things.”

In Dubliners we are always in the midst of things. Right from the beginning….