Troubled football player to be saved by move to the suburbs

It could be the content of an urban sociology Onion article: ESPN reports that Johnny Manziel is showing progress by leaving the city for the suburbs.

Johnny Manziel is taking a positive step since checking out of a rehab facility in early April.

The Browns quarterback has moved out of his downtown Cleveland apartment and into a golf course community in a suburb west of town, according to a source.

Golf has been a constructive outlet for Manziel since his return, the source said…

The QB’s old home, the Metropolitan at The 9, was the site of an alleged Nov. 22 assault of a fan by a member of Manziel’s “entourage” at 2:36 a.m. Manziel was not listed as a suspect, and the fan, Chris Gonos, later apologized publicly. Manziel said shortly after the incident that the fan aggressively approached him.

Like many white millennials or young professionals before him, Manziel had his bachelor days in the city but now has decided to take up golf and live a more conservative life amidst the big houses and greenery of the suburbs. No word yet on whether he will add the frustration of commuting into the city to his list of issues facing him on a daily basis.

ESPN pushing unscientific “NFL Hazing Survey”

On Sportscenter last night as well as on their website, ESPN last night was pushing a survey of 72 NFL players regarding the recent locker room troubles involving the Miami Dolphins. The problem: the survey is unscientific, something they mentioned at the beginning of the TV reports. The online story includes a similar disclaimer at the beginning of the third paragraph:

But in an unscientific survey conducted by team reporters for’s NFL Nation over two days this week, Incognito does not have the same level of support from some of his peers. Three players participated from each team surveyed, with 72 players in all asked three questions. The players taking part were granted anonymity.

If the survey is unscientific, why do they then spend time discussing the results? If they admit upfront that it is unscientific, what exactly could the viewer/reader learn from the data? It is good that they mentioned the unscientific sample but their own statement suggests we shouldn’t put much stock in what they say next.

My thoughts about Tim Tebow in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

As Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos get set to play the Pittsburgh Steelers later today, I’m cited in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette discussing why Tebow has gotten so much attention:

The faith of most players and coaches doesn’t get the attention that Mr. Tebow’s has, however. What is it about him that has drawn so much attention and controversy?

One thing may be how visible Mr. Tebow is, said Brian Miller, an assistant professor of sociology at Wheaton College, a well-known evangelical school in Illinois. His practice of singing gospel songs while on the sidelines, taking a knee in prayer at the conclusion of the game, thanking Jesus Christ in postgame interviews and telling reporters “God bless,” before leaving all are hard to ignore.

“I think that ties to his outspokenness,” Mr. Miller said. “Any time someone talks about religion that strongly, people will react strongly.”

By contrast, players like Mr. Polamalu are quieter in the way they signal their faith or discuss it.

“When he crosses himself, he isn’t really talking to anybody, he’s not necessarily on camera,” said Mr. Miller.

The concept of “civil religion” helps explain the reaction to Mr. Tebow, Mr. Miller said. Civil religion is a term used in the sociology of religion field, he said, in which “you can invoke God sort of vaguely in American life” without spurring many objections. Examples would be a politician saying “God bless America” at the end of the speech or the phrase “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

But “when you get to specifics, like mentioning Jesus,” you have crossed a boundary from the socially acceptable “generic Christian culture” and into the realm where people become uncomfortable, or angry, Mr. Miller said.

Here are several additional thoughts about why Tebow has gotten so much attention:

1. Tebow is a young player and no one quite knows what to make of him: is he legit NFL quarterback? Can he win consistently? Can he replicate or even come close to the success he had in college at Florida? Do the Denver Broncos even want him to start next year or two years down the road? I would guess that since he is young and unproven, other players and some fans might take offense at his outspokenness because he hasn’t earned the right to do this yet. The social norms in professional sports are that younger players have to earn respect. He is not the first to be outspoken about his faith: Kurt Warner said some similar things and yet, while people did complain about him as well, Warner was a Super Bowl MVP and Super Bowl winner.

2. He is the star of the moment. Sports today are driven by stars and in particularly by quarterbacks in the NFL. Since Tebow was winning at one point, he got a lot of attention just as any new quarterback might. The fact that ESPN wanted to dedicate an entire Sportscenter to him says something about Tebow but also indicative of how sports journalism works these days.

Put it all together and it is a perfect storm of sports celebrity. And depending on the outcome of today’s game, the Tebow craze will either intensify (meaning the Broncos win) or slowly fade away (as other teams get more attention moving forward in the playoffs).

Argument: “The SportsCenter-ization of Politics”

This is a fascinating claim: political journalism today has adopted the genre of sports reporting/entertainment from ESPN. It all comes down to the entertainment of an emotional argument and who is “winning.”

Did this sharing of genres simply come about because ESPN has been successful? Or have ESPN staffers made a name with sports and then branched out into other areas?

Author explains writing “If Michael Vick were white”

An ESPN piece (and picture) that considered what might have happened if Michael Vick was white has received a lot of attention. The author explains his thought process here:

Tonight somewhere in America two men will be arrested for DUI. Many people get arrested for this every day. Surely some will be black and some will be white. Does the fact that people of both races will be arrested for this prove that it’s not a racial situation? No. Does the ratio of those arrests as compared to the population perhaps prove that it is in fact a racial situation? Sure, but almost every situation is racialized.

One black driver may be arrested because the police who notice him are hypersensitive to black drivers in BMWs, so he’s the victim of Driving While Black even though it turns out that he also had a little too much to drink. Meanwhile maybe another black driver is swerving and it’s obvious he’s a problem before the officers can clearly see his face. The point is race is too nuanced to be looked at in a simplistic way. And this “switch test” should be discredited and thrown out…

Am I saying that we’re in a post-racial society and race no longer matters? Absolutely not. “Post-racial” is a meaningless term that people who have a sophisticated understanding of race do not use without an ironic smirk. I hate that dumb term and am dismayed at the number of people who think it’s indicative of modern America. It is not. Race still matters. But I think nowadays it often matters, or comes into play, in ways that are more subtle or nuanced than we care to admit.

The key points here:

1. Race still matters.

2. Race is complicated.

Both of these points should be remembered when talking about this article or about other matters that involve race.

This reminds of one reason that I am a sociologist: we don’t rely on singular situations like this. Thinking about Michael Vick can be a helpful exercise but ultimately, it is just one case. Had a number of factors been different, Vick’s skin color, background, football performance, etc., the outcome would likely be very different. But if we look at the more complete picture, whether it is all NFL players or all of American society, we can see how race still matters. Take NFL players: there has been some interesting research about the quarterback position and how race plays into conceptions of who is able to take on that role. Take American society: there is plenty of evidence that the criminal justice system heavily penalizes certain kinds of crimes more than others, certain groups have much higher incarceration rates, and certain groups are treated differently by the authorities.

Another question we could ask: how does the Michael Vick situation illustrate different approaches of justice? I’ve suggested before that it seems like some will never be happy that Vick has tasted success again and this raises questions about whether Americans should pursue retribution or rehabilitation through the criminal justice system.

From luxury item to throwaway good: cable TV

Following up on Joel’s post from Wednesday, Figures from the last quarter suggest the cable TV industry continues to lose customers:

The phone companies kept adding subscribers in the second quarter, but Dish lost 135,000. DirecTV gained a small number, so combined, the U.S. satellite broadcasters lost subscribers in the quarter — a first for the industry…

Sanford Bernstein analyst Craig Moffett estimates that the subscription-TV industry, including the untallied cable companies, lost 380,000 subscribers in the quarter. That’s about one out of every 300 U.S. households, and more than twice the losses in the second quarter of last year. Ian Olgeirson at SNL Kagan puts the number even higher, at 425,000 to 450,000 lost subscribers.

The second quarter is always the year’s worst for cable and satellite companies, as students cancel service at the end of the spring semester. Last year, growth came back in the fourth quarter. But looking back over the past 12 months, the industry is still down, by Moffett’s estimate. That’s also a first.

The article goes on to mention a number of reasons for this: a bad economy so consumers are cutting back, younger people don’t see the necessity of cable, and there is a lot of content available through the Internet.

More interesting to me is the idea that cable TV is no longer the luxury good that it once was. Once the industry began in the 1970s and later consolidated, cable moved from being a rarity to being a necessity. As late as mid 2009, “11% of U.S. TV homes only have the capability to receive TV reception “over the air”.” Having cable simply became part of how Americans spend their disposable income. Cable became prism through which many Americans viewed the world. Certain channels arose, such as MTV which has been getting a lot of attention recently because of its 30th anniversary or ESPN which was the subject of an interesting book, and became part of the national consciousness. These channels, for better or worse, came to represent American culture and were exported around the world. I wonder if having cable at home signaled a middle-class lifestyle even if other traits don’t match this standing.

But now the world may have moved on. (At the same time, despite all the articles suggesting people stop paying for cable, bad economic times, and more competition, the drop in subscribers was only 0.2-0.3%.) How exactly will cable companies convince people that their product is a necessity, particularly among the younger generations? What will be the new narrative regarding cable that will push people to include this in their lives?

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 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.

Can the NFL over-hype itself?

As the NFC and AFC title games slowly approach, I wonder: can the NFL over-hype its product?

On one hand, it appears not. NFL television ratings have been excellent this year (regular season stats here). The league has a number of stars that draw a wide range of attention, from the good (Tom Brady, Peyton Manning) to the bad (Brett Favre, Michael Vick’s sage in recent years). Particularly at this time of year, talk about the NFL dominates the airwaves – a number of other sports are mid-season. The final four teams remaining in the playoffs are historic franchises that have passionate fan bases. Even with Bill Simmon’s recent claim that there is “there’s at least one great [NBA] game” each night, other sports can’t match the popularity of the NFL. The NFL even thinks it can sell $200 tickets for a “party plaza” outside of the Super Bowl.

On the other hand, it is A LOT of talk. In the weeks between playoff games, it seems that ESPN can’t stop talking about the next match-ups. In Chicago, everyone has been talking Bears-Packers. The teams already have played twice so how much more is there to discuss? Could it get to the point where fans tune out the week before and are just happy to get the game over with? And interestingly, it only gets worse for the Super Bowl: then we get the infamous “Media Day.” Though the Super Bowl gets tremendous ratings, how often does the game match the hype? In my lifetime of watching Super Bowls, I distinctly remember being disappointed by most of them. (A couple stand out in memory: the Giants-Bills match-up in 1991, Rams and Titans in 2000, the Bears-Colts in 2007, Patriots-Giants in 2008, Steelers-Cardinals in 2009.)

From a broader perspective, there is no guarantee that the popularity of the NFL will be maintained over the years, let alone continue to increase. (Gregg Easterbrook, ESPN’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback, points this out.) The first non-sports comparison that comes to mind are presidential elections. Yesterday, the New York Times reported how President Obama is getting his next campaign in order and plans to formally declare his candidacy in two months. From now until November 2012, this is what we will hear about in the news: who will challenge Obama, how much money will be raised, what are the issues, who has the best image, what do the latest polls say, etc. Don’t voters, at least some of them, get burned out by all of this by the time the actual election takes place? The idea that some countries have of holding more defined election seasons, typically announced by the current leader and lasting for a few months, seems preferable to this endless, over-hyped presidential election season.

I am sure someone has done research on over-hyping. For the NFL, the question is when will it saturate its market. Of course, one way around this is to expand your market and head overseas. (They are trying to do this with games in Toronto, London, and Mexico City in recent years. But the NBA is way ahead of them.) In the meantime, the sporting public will get heavy doses of talk, analysis, and replays. I, for one, will be very happy when it finally gets to 2 PM Sunday afternoon and we can actually see whether the Bears and Packers will win.

Debunking the Transformers 3 movie trailer

While recently in the theater to watch True Grit (perhaps to be reviewed later though I am not well versed in either Westerns or Coen Brother’s films), I saw the new trailer for Transformers 3. The trailer takes some liberties with an important moment of history and is debunked by ESPN’s TMQ:

Philip Torbett of Knoxville, Tenn., writes, “In the just-released trailer for the third Transformers movie, the premise is that the Apollo missions were a cover to explore a downed alien spacecraft. When the moon spins and the Apollo landing area is no longer facing Earth, the astronauts climb a ridge and explore the massive alien craft which is mere feet away from the Lunar Module. When the moon spins back, the astronauts quickly return to the lander and pretend to be collecting rocks. But the moon revolves such that we always see the same side. This makes the opening premise of the movie impossible, because any alien craft that landed in the Sea of Tranquility would have been continuously observable from Earth with a decent telescope.”

TMQ’s rule of sci-fi is that I will accept the premise — enormous instantly transforming living organisms made of metal that require no fuel or other energy and can fly without lift or propulsion, hey, why not? — so long as action makes sense within the premise, while laws of physics are observed. The moon is turning on its axis, but the same side always faces Earth. If the moon did not turn on its axis, as it revolved around the Earth, we’d see the dark side just as often as the familiar light side. The moon is “tidally locked” with Earth — its gravity creates tides in the oceans, while Earth’s gravity locks the light side of the moon facing us. That the moon is tidally locked — rotating on its axis, but the same side always facing Earth — is the reason we see the same surface features whenever we look up at the moon but never see the dark side.

The entire time the Apollo landers were on the moon, they were visible from Earth. Hollywood assumes that with science literacy being what it is, most moviegoers won’t know this. Did the scriptwriters know it?

A good question. When I first saw the trailer, I was torn between thinking it was absurd (quite the hulking alien spacecraft) and thinking it was clever (by being tied to an iconic moment in history).

Pointing out the issues with this backstory leads to a larger question: should we be willing to overlook historical or scientific impossibilities for the sake of having an entertaining movie trailer or film? Should a movie like The Social Network be truthful or be entertaining? I tend to dislike such changes though they can be done better in some movies than others.

We could also ask about how many viewers of the Transformers trailer or film would even think about this issue of the moon rotating.