Tuesday, May 17, 2011

David Ortiz Foster Wallace

Last night I started reading The Pale King while I listened to a Red Sox game on the radio.  This kind of multitasking never really works, and I usually end up absorbing nothing that I've read while I try to remember which team is batting.  But one passage from very early (page 11) in The Pale King stuck out.  An IRS employee named Claude Sylvanshine is on his way to take an exam to become a CPA.  He's terrified of the exam and of his potential failure.  He sees visions of his career in ruins, reduced to working as an airport janitor. He's so paralyzed by these visions that he can't even think about studying for his test:
Even the sight of a mop, rollable bucket, or custodian with his name woven in red Palmer script on the breast pocket of his gray jumpsuit (as at Midway, outside the men's room whose little yellow sign warned bilingually of wet floors, the cursive name something beginning with M, Morris or Maurice, the man fitted to his job like a man to the exact pocket of space he displaces) now rattled Sylvanshine to the point where precious time was lost before he could even think about how to set up a workable schedule for maximally efficient reviewing for the exam.
While I was reading, the Red Sox broadcast regained my attention.

The Red Sox were playing in Fenway.  Their game in New York the night before had ended close to midnight and they didn't land back in Boston until 3 AM.  After commenting on the team's late night, the Red Sox radio guy, Joe Castiglione, said something like, "Can you imagine you're the guy buffing the floors in the Delta terminal at Logan at 3 AM and David Ortiz and the Red Sox walk by?"

At which point, I said to my roommate Ted, "How bad do you wish you were a janitor at Logan Airport?"

Ted's response: "So bad."

I'm not sure if Ted meant what he said, but I did.  At that moment I don't think there was anything I'd have rather been doing than buffing an airport floor at 3 AM and having the Boston Red Sox walk by.  I probably don't really want to be an airport janitor.  It's probably a lot of work for not that much money.  And the Red Sox probably don't walk by all that often.  And I really hate cleaning stuff.  But at that moment I couldn't imagine anything better.  

Claude Sylvanshine couldn't study for his test because he was too busy daydreaming that if he screwed it up he might become an airport janitor.  I couldn't keep reading about Claude Sylvanshine because I was too busy thinking how great it would be to be an airport janitor.  I'm not sure I have a point, other than this: I'll bet my job (and Claude Sylvanshine's too) would be a lot better if David Ortiz et al. walked by once in a while.

Friday, March 11, 2011

NFL Owners: Too Much is Never Enough

The NFL labor talks are hung up on one issue: Financial disclosure. The players' association is demanding full financial data from all 32 NFL teams if it is to give the owners all or part of the $700 million annually that they are asking for. That $700 million is in addition to the one billion dollars the owners already take off the top of all league revenues, and the 43% of all remaining revenue that goes to the owners. The owners claim they are not profitable enough, but refuse to provide documentation. "Trust us," they're saying, "we swear we're not making enough money. Yes, we run the most profitable league in the history of sports, and yes the NFL brought in nine billion dollars last year of which we got roughly half; but 4.5 billion split 32 ways just isn't what it used to be."

What kind of gall does it take to plead poverty and demand $700 million dollars without providing any proof or justification? The league claims it needs the money to pay for expenses and finance new stadiums. Commissioner Roger Goodell claims the league needs (not wants, needs) new stadiums in Buffalo, Minnesota, San Diego, and Los Angeles. Savvy readers will note that the NFL doesn't even have a franchise in L.A. It needs a new stadium there so it can lure an existing franchise to move to the country's second biggest market. Where would that franchise come from? Buffalo, Minnesota, or San Diego, the other markets that so desperately need new stadiums. So, the owners are asking for an extra $700 million annually in part so that they can build four stadiums for three franchises.

The NFL owners aren't asking for this extra money because they're not profitable. It's accepted fact that every NFL team makes money. They're asking for this extra money to build stadiums for teams that don't exist because they're not profitable enough. Despite the blatant greed and logical fallacies of the owners' demands, the union has shown a willingness to cede to at least portions of those demands given just the one aforementioned caveat: Financial disclosure. Actually prove to us that you're not making enough money, the union is saying, and we'll give you more. And yet, the owners refuse. So, instead of free agency and mini-camps, we're approaching the players' union decertifying, the owners locking out the players, the players filing a class-action antitrust lawsuit, and months, if not years, of litigation.

The absurdity of the owners' position leads to one obvious question: What are they trying to hide? Why are they so dead set against opening their books? Are they crooked? Are they using Enron/Madoff accounting? Are they paying family members tens of millions of dollars? Or, more likely, are they just wildly profitable? Are they afraid that if the players or the public realize just how much money these 32 men make from pro football that their negotiating position will be irreparably damaged? If there's another possible reason for their refusal to open the books, I'm not seeing it. The owners clearly have something to hide; they're either crooks or extravagantly, unfathomably greedy.

Every NFL team makes money. Teams stay in families for decades, generations, raking in untold millions, year after year. The average NFL player will play, and get paid, for three years. When he retires he will get health insurance for five years, after which time, he will be all but uninsurable. If he is lucky, his back and knees will ache, he will get early arthritis, and he will have trouble with stairs. If he is unlucky, he will have post concussion syndrome, chronic headaches, memory loss, dizziness, depression, suicidal tendencies, and any number of mental ailments resulting from repeated blows to the head. His life expectancy will drop by 25 years. But he is getting too big a slice of the nine billion dollar pie. You know who is really getting screwed here? It's the guys wearing white collar shirts, sipping drinks in the luxury boxes. They say they need more money, they're not making enough. It's never enough. When asked to prove it, their only response seems to be, "Trust us, we need it, we know what's best."

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Lance Armstrong: Fraud for the Public Good

Sports Illustrated recently published a whole slew of new allegations against Lance Armstrong.  They're pretty damning.  Among the allegations:  A world renowned antidoping doctor, Donald Catlin, failed to report three urine samples from the mid 1990s, allegedly coming from Armstrong, that were positive for elevated levels of testosterone; Armstrong gained access to and used a discontinued drug called HemAssist (initially intended for trauma victims with extreme blood loss) to boost his blood's oxygen-carrying capacity; Specific accusations and anecdotes from former Armstrong teammates, aides, and confidantes.  Much of the information in the SI story comes from anonymous sources, and most of the accusations come from people spurned by Armstrong. 

There is still no positive test, no smoking gun, but in the end, it may not matter.  Lance Armstrong is approaching a tipping point (if he hasn't reached it already), where the sheer volume of accusations and circumstantial evidence will overwhelm the need for solid proof or a positive test.  We long ago reached that point with a whole generation of baseball stars.  These allegations may not be enough to get Armstrong thrown in jail, but it seems likely that they'll get him indicted by a federal grand jury, and they almost certainly point towards his guilt in the court of public opinion.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

No to Publicly Funded Stadiums

The NBA recently took collective ownership of the New Orleans Hornets. It seems likely that the Hornets will be able to opt out of their lease in New Orleans at the end of this season.  All parties involved insist they want to keep the Hornets in New Orleans, but they are ripe for a move.  The last major American sports franchise to move, the Seattle SuperSonics, did so because Seattle wisely refused to use taxpayer dollars to build a new arena.  Home to an exceedingly wealthy basketball fan and potential owner (Microsoft's Steve Ballmer), Seattle is first among whispered potential destinations should the Hornets move.  Seattle mayor Mike McGinn recently expressed both openness and skepticism when asked about the NBA's potential return: "We'd put any option on the table if someone came to talk to us...But we do have to look at, how much, and what's the return to us." While it seems a solid majority of Seattle citizens are still opposed to using tax dollars on a new arena, it bears reiterating what a truly crappy deal publicly financed stadiums are for the general public.

New York City has two iconic parks.  They are, perhaps, the two most renowned parks of their kind in the world.  One of them is always free and open to the public and hosts 25 million visitors per year. The other is private and charges admission to every visitor--as much as $1,250 for a few hours--and hosts under four million visitors per year.   Both are funded by a combination of public and private money.  The public park must rely on private donors for 85% of its funding.  New York City contributes about $3.5 million annually for its upkeep.  The second park was finished only two years ago.  It replaced a very similar, slightly larger park, which, if perhaps a little outdated, was still a much beloved historical gem.  To create this private park, 24 acres of public parkland were destroyed.  This second park cost $2.3 billion to build, $1.2 billion of which came at taxpayer expense.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Lebron and Obama

They came from humble backgrounds.  Raised in working class households by single mothers, each displayed precocious gifts early on and then rose meteorically to fame and power.  Both burst onto the national scene in 2004, and in the years that followed, very little went wrong.  Beloved by the nation like few others in their arenas, they both seemed like not only the most talented guy in the room, but also the most likable.  Even among their peers, there seemed little resentment of these men's outsized gifts.  Yes, they were blessed with extraordinary talents, but they were so at ease with themselves, so comfortable in their own skin, and so damn cool that there was no begrudging their abilities.  But, there comes a point when charisma and cool only take you so far.  Barack Obama may still be the smartest guy in government and Lebron James is probably still the best basketball player on the planet, but 2010 has proven both of them feckless and lacking in gumption and conviction.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

FIFA's Shameful Choice

"We go to new lands." That was FIFA President Sepp Blatter's entire cryptic rationale for choosing Russia and Qatar to host the next two World Cups. The choice of Qatar is baffling. Where to start? It's area is smaller than Connecticut, and its population of 1.49 million is about the same as Houston's. 3.59 million people attended games at the 1994 World Cup in the U.S. 3.18 million people attended the most recent World Cup in South Africa. Qatar is going to have to host a crowd more than double the size of its own population.

What kind of environment can these visitors expect? Average June and July temperatures in Qatar are 105 degrees. In the middle of the day, when games are sure to be played, temperatures regularly rise to 130 degrees. In the summer, Qataris tend not to leave the confines of air conditioning during the day, preferring to take a stroll at night when temperatures drop. Stay inside during the day, emerge at night. Sounds like quite a party. Speaking of party, Qatar has only two liquor stores in the entire country, and a permit is required to buy from them. Back to temperature: those numbers are historical averages. With global warming, it's impossible to tell how high they could rise twelve years from now. This summer, Moscow was ten degrees hotter than its historical averages. If that happens in Qatar, we can expect daily averages around 115 degrees and highs of 140 degrees. 15,000 people died in Russia because the temperature reached 100 degrees. What could happen in Qatar, with visitors coming to celebrate from around the world, if temperatures are 40 degrees higher? Qatar has promised that the stadiums will be air conditioned and will lower temperatures by as much as 20 degrees. Even assuming they can make good on this promise (they currently have no air conditioned stadiums), a fat lot of good 20 degrees does when the starting temperature is 130. FIFA is courting catastrophe by scheduling the world's biggest sporting event in such an extreme climate.

Cam and Cecil: Ignorant and Incompetent

On Monday the NCAA said that Cam Newton had violated his amateur status.  On Tuesday Auburn simultaneously suspended Newton and requested his reinstatement.  On Wednesday, the NCAA reinstated Cam Newton.  That's the timeline, no joke.  Newton was initially deemed in violation because his father, Cecil, had requested somewhere between one hundred and two hundred thousand dollars from Mississippi St. in return for his enrollment.  The NCAA is settled in its belief that this happened.  Newton was reinstated according to the NCAA because, "We do not have sufficient evidence that Cam Newton or anyone from Auburn was aware of this activity."  So, apparently, Cam Newton's father is free to shop him to the highest bidder so long as Cam Newton can plausibly pretend that he didn't know about it.