Quick Review: League of Denial

I had a chance this past week to read the book League of Denial and see the PBS documentary by the same name. Some thoughts about the story of the NFL and concussion research (focusing mostly on the book which provides a more detailed narrative):

1. I know some fans are already complaining of “concussion fatigue” but it is hard to think of football the same way after hearing this story. For decades, we have held up players for their toughness and yet it may be ruining their brains.

2. The human story in all of this is quite interesting. This includes some of the former football players who have been driven to the edge by their football-related brain injuries. At the same time, the story amongst the doctors is also pretty fascinating, the chase for fame, publishing articles, and acquiring brains. Running through the whole book is this question of “who is really doing this research for the right reasons?” Even if the NFL research appears to be irrevocably tainted, are the researchers on the other side completely neutral or pure of heart?

3. The whole scientific process is laid out in the book (glossed over more in the documentary)…and I’m not sure how it fares. You have scientists fighting each other to acquire brains. You have peer-reviewed research – supposed to help prevent erroneous findings – that is viewed by many as erroneous from the start. You have scientists fighting for funding, an ongoing battle for all researchers as they must support their work and have their own livelihoods. In the end, consensus seems to be emerging but the book and documentary highlight the messy process it takes to get there.

4. The comparisons of the NFL to Big Tobacco seem compelling: the NFL tried to bury concussions research for a few decades and still doesn’t admit to a long-term impact of concussions on its players. One place where the comparison might break down for the general public (and scientific research could change this in the near future): the worst problems seem to be in long-time NFL players. When exactly does CTE start in the brains of football players? There is some evidence younger players, college or high school, might already have CTE but we need more evidence of this to be sure. If that is established, that perhaps kids as young as junior high already have CTE and that CTE is derived from regular hits at a young age (not the big knock-out blows), the link to Big Tobacco might be complete.

5. It is not really part of this story but I was struck again by how relatively little we know about the brain. Concussion research didn’t really take off until the 1990s, even as this had happened with football players for decades. (One sports area where it had been studied: boxing.) Much of this research is quite new and is a reminder that we humans don’t know as much as we might think.

6. This also provides a big reminder that the NFL is big business. Players seem the most aware of this: they can be cut at any time and an injury outside of their control could end their careers. The league and owners do not come off well here as they try to protect their holdings. The employees – the players – are generally treated badly: paid well if they perform but thrown aside otherwise. This may lead to a “better product” on the field but the human toll is staggering.

7. How exactly you change people’s opinions, both fans and players, regarding concussions will be fascinating to watch. It will take quite a shift among players from the tough-guy image to being willing to consider their futures more carefully. For fans, they may become more understanding as their favorite players consider what concussions might do to their lives. Will the NFL remain as popular? Hard to say though I imagine most fans this past weekend of football had little problem watching lots of gridiron action Saturday and Sunday.

Trying to craft a singular business message in a multicultural Chicago neighborhood

The Argyle section of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood has residents from many different countries but wants to craft a coherent message to attract businesses:

Now, the two men and their neighbors have embraced a city-sponsored plan to promote the area with a broader name: Asia on Argyle.

“It really gives us a chance to showcase Argyle Street … and bring people to a very unique cultural destination within the city,” said Ald. Harry Osterman, whose 48th Ward represents the neighborhood.

The campaign is the city’s latest effort to brand neighborhoods beyond the downtown business district as commercial destinations for tourists and Chicagoans. The effort includes sprucing up Argyle’s appearance and opening a night farmers market that eventually would include Asian businesses.

Such branding strategies have worked for some neighborhoods like Greektown, Andersonville and Boystown. But others have spawned clashes as people of different cultural backgrounds disagree about how the neighborhood should be promoted. What’s more, if a neighborhood becomes too popular, gentrification can dislodge immigrant settlers…

Argyle’s greatest asset, its diversity, has also presented some of its biggest challenges. Chinese immigrants were among the first newcomers to try to brand the neighborhood.

There are several things going on here:

1. The neighborhood may look to outsiders to have Asian residents but this is a broad category that comprises a number of different cultures and backgrounds. For example, immigrants from certain countries have different levels of education and income as well as unique social and religious practices.

2. Creating a singular pro-business approach is not just about internal coherence within a neighborhood but also appealing to a wider audience in Chicago and the region. It would be fascinating to get down to some numbers and see how many people might visit such a neighborhood and how it stacks up to other ethnically and socially known neighborhoods profiled in this article like Pilsen, Chinatown, and Boystown. Do you need a slogan? A logo? How unique does the neighborhood have to be?

3. One academic quoted in this story notes that we should ask who will benefit from new economic development and business in Argyle. The city of Chicago? Local residents? Real estate moguls? There are development and businesses choices to be made that move more towards the people of the neighborhood. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a zero-sum game where only one party can come out ahead but it is easy in such situations for people with power and investments to come out even better.

Contrasting styles: Emanuel vs. Daley in with whom they meet and consult

The Chicago Reader has an interesting piece looking at who Mayor Rahm Emanuel meets with – and how this differs from Mayor Richard M. Daley’s approach:

In many ways, Emanuel’s schedule strikingly contrasts with his predecessor’s. Richard M. Daley is a Chicago guy, born and raised. Except for his college years in Providence, Rhode Island, he’s stayed here all of his life. And it shows in the people who had his ear: in addition to pols and big-shot business leaders, his meeting schedule was packed with the ministers of small churches, local school leaders, and owners of neighborhood businesses like the local sausage shop (see “Daley’s A-List”).

Emanuel, on the other hand, grew up in the north suburbs, went to college in New York, and spent the better part of the last two decades in Washington, first as an aide in the Clinton White House, then as a congressman, and finally, for almost two years, as Obama’s chief of staff.

Much of his mayoral schedule is taken up by meetings and calls with wealthy out-of-towners, many of whom have donated to his campaign. Indeed, it seems Emanuel has learned from his mentor, President Clinton. Under Clinton, the White House was open to big donors who got to spend the night in the Lincoln bedroom. In Emanuel’s case, he either invites them into his City Hall office or makes time to hang out at one of his favorite haunts…

Some days, Emanuel meets with more multimillionaires within an afternoon than most of us will cross paths with during our entire lives. On June 30, for example, after the mayor spent 30 minutes in his City Hall office with U.S. Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner, he took 15 minutes to meet with Marc Lasry, the billionaire CEO of Avenue Capital Group, a hedge fund operation. That was followed by 45 minutes with Stephen Ross, a New York-based real estate mogul and owner of the Miami Dolphins.

There could be two ways to view this:

1. This is good for Chicago. Due to Emanuel’s connections outside of Chicago, the city will benefit. The new mayor may spend a lot of time with out of town millionaires but these people could bring money and jobs into Chicago through this connection.

2. This is bad for Chicago. Emanuel is less involved with the “little people” of Chicago that are important for getting things done and working the patronage machine. Emanuel is more of a corporate mayor (having less time for local leaders) while Daley at least mingled with the commoners and neighborhood leaders knew they could meet with him at certain points.

I wonder how much of this should be chalked up to different styles of leadership, personal history, or simply a shift in what it means to be a politician today where Daley was following the example of his father while Emanuel is operating under the idea that politicians and businesses need to work together (perhaps the Bill Clinton model?).

What to do when a quiet suburb may have too many downtown bars

Suburbs want their downtowns to be full of businesses, particularly restaurants, because they enhance the community’s tax base and provide a more vibrant atmosphere. But what happens when a suburb has too many downtown bars? Here is the situation in St. Charles, Illinois:

Simpson wants to open a business called the Alibi Bar & Grill at 12 N. Third St. Aldermen told Simpson on Monday that they welcome the “grill” part of his plan, but they aren’t big fans of the “bar” part. Simpson’s plan envisions a “restaurant-style sports bar that will serve American-style food, cocktails, beer and appetizers.” He plans on having live entertainment at the establishment as well. He’s even agreed to close his doors at midnight on Friday and Saturday nights just to win a more favorable view of his liquor license application. But aldermen on the city council’s government operations committee weren’t sold.

“I really don’t think St. Charles needs more bars,” Alderman Cliff Carrignan said…

[St. Charles resident] Amundson lives in the downtown area and said the family-centered community he moved to has evolved into a weekend destination for young people on drinking binges…

Amundson’s comments spurred the rest of the conversation about how many taverns is too many in the city. Staff estimated there are between 50 and 60 restaurants in the city that have liquor licenses. Alderman Jim Martin has long crusaded against city’s tavern density.

St. Charles is a relatively wealthy and quiet yet growing community. While having new business is good, the issue of bars clashes with the community’s character: there is a line between being “family-friendly,” which I think many suburbs would wish to be known as, and having a vibrant restaurant scene, which I think many suburbs would also want. This is the same sort of issue that was brought up in Naperville late last year with a request from Show-Me’s to open a restaurant.

A community could deal with this in a few ways but there are two primary methods of control: zoning and liquor licenses. Certain uses, like tattoo parlors, are often not allowed, but suburbs can go even further to restrict the opening of new banks (Wheaton in more recent years). Restaurants are quite desirable for small downtowns as they can bring in people from outside the community and patrons might also spend money elsewhere in the downtown. At its best, a downtown might create a downtown entertainment district that includes food and entertainment (music, movies, theater, etc.). It sounds like those who are opposed to more bars in St. Charles are not opposed to more restaurants so perhaps the businessman will simply have to drop his request for a liquor license (though this would likely impact his opinion of the profitability of his venture).

More broadly, it sounds like St. Charles needs to make some decisions about what exactly they want in their downtown. Either path, toward families or food and entertainment, could work out but addressing the issue on a case-by-case basis will quickly get frustrating.

Quick Review: Those Guys Have All the Fun, Part 2

In Part 1 of my review of Those Guys Have All the Fun, I commented on some of the things I liked and didn’t like. In Part 2, I want to tackle what I saw were two main themes: the business side of ESPN and ESPN personalities.

The authors provide some guidance in pointing out the steps that ESPN took to achieve global dominance. Like all TV networks that want to compete, ESPN had to pay big money for league packages and it took until the late 1980s for ESPN to even acquire a piece of the almighty NFL. I was surprised by the strong relationship between ESPN and NASCAR (perhaps because I am not a big fan): ESPN was willing to take a shot with racing in its early days when other networks were not so the two entities grew in popularity together. And one prominent negative for the network came when they finally acquired Monday Night Football only to find that the NFL and NBC had worked out a better deal for Sunday nights.

But like all businesses, ESPN needs to generate money. The key to this is that from its early years, ESPN charged cable services a per-subscriber fee. As it added content, particularly the NFL, ESPN raised these fees and now the book suggests something like around $4 of every cable bill goes toward ESPN. With advertising and subscriber revenue, ESPN was able to build its company.

Also from the early years, ESPN aimed for a particular corporate culture that valued the company above individual stars. Once ESPN became more popular, this became more difficult as certain individuals, like Keith Olbermann, who is featured a lot in this book, wanted to do things their own way and also wanted to make more money. While some of the executives seem to suggest that this corporate culture was about creating a tight-knit family, it also sounds like this was a business decision as it would help keep salaries down.

Even within this culture, I was surprised by the amount of sniping between personalities. This takes place in all companies, particularly in high-pressure situations, but some of it seemed silly here. Certain personalities, like Bob Ley, were cited as respected team players while others, like Mark Shapiro, were depicted as divisive. But there were a number of stories about yelling and aggressive behavior that made it sound like work life at ESPN could be quite unpleasant at times.

Another point of contention amongst the personalities was the strong emphasis on journalism, primarily attributed in this book to John Walsh. Many of the interviewed on-air personalities suggested they thought of themselves more as journalists in wanting to accurately and quickly report a story. Some personalities had some other thoughts and ended up leaving. Employees generally sounded like they didn’t get wrapped up or emotionally invested in individual stories, which I found a little surprising since the network seems to thrive on covering particular prominent athletes like Michael Jordan or Lebron James.

But this issue of journalism is where ESPN often seems to get into trouble these days: are they a news organization that just happens to only cover sports, or are they an entertainment company? The lines are blurred when ESPN becomes the story rather than reports the story and this seems to happen a lot. I understand why ESPN would want to appear more objective and ethical but I think they also need to acknowledge that they entertain and viewers are drawn to interesting voices and ideas.

(A side note: frankly, I am glad that the 1990s Chicago Bulls won their championships then compared to the over-analyzed and over-covered sports world of today. What might have ESPN done with such a dominant team and stories like Jordan’s gambling if their current form existed then? Back then, it seemed to be more about highlights than analysis – but I suppose they would argue that people can find highlights all over the place and so ESPN has to give them something else.)

These two issues, the business side and personalities, raise some questions:

  1. What would it take for ESPN to begin a decline or lose its prominence in the sports world?
  2. Why hasn’t there been a better competitor to ESPN over the years? (Perhaps they couldn’t access subscriber fees?) Ted Turner is portrayed as a competitor at times for league packages but he ends up fading away.
  3. How is ESPN viewed by other networks? There is some of this in the book but it is limited.
  4. Is ESPN’s corporate culture similar or different compared to other TV networks and other firms in other industries?

On the whole, I found this book to be quite engaging. If you are familiar with some of ESPN’s key shows and personalities, there is a lot of interesting material here. But if you want to better understand how ESPN became the behemoth that it is today, this is a good place to start.

Quick Review: Those Guys Have All the Fun, Part 1

I recently read Those Guys Have All the Fun,  a best selling non-fiction book. Through interviews with many of the business and on-air personalities of ESPN, this tells the story of the sports network’s first three decades. Here are my thoughts on this large book: in Part 1, I will tackle how the book was carried out and in Part 2 I will address what I saw as the book’s two main themes:  important business decisions and personalities.

1. As someone who fondly remembers ESPN from when my family first had cable in the early 1990s, I knew most of the products and many of the personalities that the book was about. It was funny to remember the programming that ESPN had at that time including fitness shows in the morning.

1a. This book reminded me that ESPN and all of its channels need a lot of content to cover 24 hours a day. In the early days, they struggled for content but even in recent years, I was struck by a comment from a manager that poker was a brilliant find not just because it was popular but because it filled a lot of hours cheaply.

2. I think this book wants to be authoritative but I think it tries to cover too much and talks to too many people to do this. It is an impressive feat to have talked with many of the important people from ESPN’s history and I assume that the authors have a lot more material that they didn’t include.

3. I don’t think I particularly like this format where the authors provide little overarching commentary and let the interviewees tell the story. The authors could have provided a little more summary material and this would have helped connect the chronological periods that each chapter covers. Letting the people involved tell their stories is interesting but ultimately there is an overarching story to tell.

3a. After I finished, I wondered who they didn’t talk to. I assume there were some employees who were not interested in participating and how they might have told a different story. In the end, this tends to be a very positive book about ESPN.

4. Bristol, Connecticut comes up a lot, almost always as a joke. It would have been interesting to hear from community leaders and residents about how they viewed the rise of ESPN as most of the employees don’t think very highly about it.

5. There is an assumption throughout from employees that sports are everything. Occasionally, events like OJ Simpson’s car chase and trial or 9/11 remind them that there are other important things going on in the world. I would be interested in hearing these employees talk more about the relationship between their job in sports and the rest of their lives. Is anyone in the company worried about a sports 24/7 world?

5a. Is ESPN set up to serve the ardent sports fan or does it make a concerted effort to draw new viewers? Certain events or sports, like the full coverage of the World Cup, might attract new viewers.

6. The issue of sexual harassment comes up throughout but the conclusions are unclear: has ESPN sufficiently dealt with this or has this book simply helped sweep it under the rug? And how many readers of this book would care about this issue?

7. I think more attention could have been paid to the Internet, how ESPN’s site compares to others, and how the company has balanced between TV and the Internet. I’m not very fond of all the video on ESPN’s sites and probably read more commentary on SI.com where the emphasis is more on the articles and insights than the overwhelming force of ESPN. Is there sniping within the company between the Internet and TV sides?

8. From a sociological perspective, there is a lot more analysis that could be done with this information. There is a quote toward the end from a Fox Sports executive that struck me: ESPN’s overall ratings are low. Yet, they draw a lot of attention. Perhaps this is because it is a favorite of males. Perhaps it is because they tend to dominate sports coverage in the US. Perhaps it is because their size has led to a number of competitors and websites devoted to their doings. But it sounds like ESPN has cultural influence beyond its ratings and this could be explored further.

Part 2 of this review will follow tomorrow.

The sociological origin of the term “McJob”

With McDonald’s hiring 62,000 employees on April 19, a journalist looks at the sociological origins of the term “McJobs“:

The term McJob first appeared in the summer of 1986, when George Washington University sociology professor Amitai Etzioni wrote a column for the Washington Post decrying the “highly routinized” jobs at fast-food restaurants and their effect on American teens.

“By nature, these jobs undermine school attendance and involvement, impart few skills that will be useful in later life, and simultaneously skew the values of teenagers -especially their ideas about the worth of a dollar,” Etzioni wrote.

He went on to criticize the culture and routine of working at McDonald’s and other fast-food companies, noting that the jobs do not provide opportunity for entrepreneurship like the traditional lemonade stand, or the lessons of self-organization, self-discipline and self-reliance like the traditional paper route.

“True, you still have to have the gumption to get yourself over to the hamburger stand, but once you don the prescribed uniform, your task is spelled out in minute detail,” he argued. “There is no room for initiative creativity or even elementary rearrangements. These are breeding grounds for robots working for yesterday’s assembly lines, not tomorrow’s high-tech posts.”

The article then goes on to describe how McDonald’s has tried to fit back against the term, including a 2007 from “the British arm of the company…to get the Oxford English Dictionary definition changed.”

On one hand, such jobs may not be great and this is what Etzioni was getting at: they generally are low-paying and in many places don’t pay enough to be considered a “living wage.” A work like Nickel and Dimed (a review of the theater version here) portrayed such employees as having difficult lifestyles and little hope for the future. More broadly, we could think of these jobs as emblematic of a larger process of McDonaldization, coined by sociologist George Ritzer, that describes the rationalization of the modern world.

On the other hand, we live in a country that really pays attention to job reports with less interest in what kinds of jobs were actually created. The April jobs figures showed good jobs growth but we could inquire about the quality of these jobs: are they well-paying, sustainable jobs that will pay American workers for decades to come? Or, were the majority of jobs middling to lower-skilled jobs that serve American consumers in the service industry?

In the end, we have a society that is quite dependent on such “McJobs.” The term is unlikely to go away though it clearly applies to a lot more corporations and areas than simply McDonald’s. Just as Walmart tends to get singled out as emblematic of big box stores and suburban sprawl because of its revenue (still at the top of the Fortune 500), McDonald’s size and influence draws attention (Super Size Me, anyone?). But as a society, we could have larger and ongoing discussions about what kind of jobs we wish to hold and to promote. In these discussions, we need corporations like McDonald’s, Walmart, Starbucks, Apple, and others involved to think about the American future.