Greg Giraldo and Direct Confrontation on Television

October 6, 2010

Comedian Greg Giraldo passing last week brought to my attention a video clip featuring him that’s both remarkable and illuminating for being such.

I knew of Greg Giraldo mainly from his appearances on podcasts and some online clips, and he always seemed like a comedian who used comedy to hunt for truth. This remembrance, written by fellow comic and friend Ted Alexandro is very affecting.

Many of the posts about Mr. Giraldo link to a particular clip from the show Tough Crowd, in which he gets into it with, comic-turned-actor, Denis Leary, as an example of his wit and fearlessness. That clip is here, the conversation is about conflict with North Korea with the relevant bit starting at 3:20 (though the whole clip worth’s watching just to see how quickly he elevates the discourse):

It’s great TV. One smart person arguing with an even smarter person, and the two going directly at each other.

What’s remarkable about it is the tension that watching it, even now, produces. I think that’s because the clip shows us something that’s surprisingly rare on television, two people disagreeing with each other without compromise.

Cable news, mainly devoted to covering a political moment in which each party thinks the other is not just wrong, but crazy, hardly ever produces that kind of direct confrontation. If we had more of it, not to mention more social commentators like Greg Giraldo, our discourse might be in better shape.


I Miss Evil

September 24, 2010

I started out a little scared of Dick Cheney. And of Karl Rove. Further back, even of Newt Gingrich.

I was scared of them because it felt like they were working the levers of a system that I couldn’t perceive.

Even as a teenager it seemed so transparent that Mr. Gingrich was a thundering hypocrite, about both economics and personal morality, that he had to be playing a deeper game within American politics. That some hidden power was pulling the strings and trying to nudge America into a particular shape.

The early days of the Bush administration felt the same way. That there were hidden agendas that may have been kleptocratic, but that still required a basic societal stability from which to profit.

For a Progressive, the opposition felt evil, in the way that a Bond villain is. Or Doctor Doom.

Man, I miss those days.

Now when I look at the politics of the right, there doesn’t seem to be any hidden agendas. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of comforting, comic-book, evil, just inchoate rage from some (Ms. Angle, Mr. DeMint) and the desire to stay one step ahead of that rage for others (Mr. Boehner, Mr. McCain).

Now, not only do the ideas not make sense, but it doesn’t matter that they don’t make sense. There seems to be no fear of ruling over ashes.

I’d like my comic-book bad guys back.


How Starting Quarterbacks are like Network Pilots

September 23, 2010

A NFL team spends its whole preseason either figuring out who its starting quarterback will be or preparing the one they have for the upcoming season. Critical practice reps are devoted to getting the offense right, and all the pieces revolve around the signal caller.

And after that quarterback fails in his first two games, after less than 13% of the season has passed, they’re out. Possibly to never return to the starting lineup.

A network pilot gets written. Executives decide to film a pilot. Staff are hired. Actors are cast. Important decisions are made about every aspect of the show. The pilot works. The show gets picked up. Subsequent episodes are filmed.

The pilot airs on the network. It bombs. It may not even make it to a second episode.

In both situations massive upfront investments were made for no return at all.

Perhaps it speaks to unique nature of sports and entertainment that their markets can be so inefficient, or perhaps there’s room for innovation in both.


A Sincere Question about Professional Football

September 21, 2010

What percentage of offensive success is based on successfully executing a game plan vs. the defensive failing to execute theirs?

Basically, how often does a play work because the offensive is doing something right and how often is it because the defensive is doing something wrong?

(Which can get a bit fuzzy when lots of plays are designed to fool the defensive into making the wrong reactions, play-action passes and counters and such, but even throwing those out, I still think the answer would be fascinating.)


Driving Across 2/3rds of the Country

July 21, 2010

For the next couple of weeks I’m helping a friend bicycle across the US for charity.

I’m driving the support vehicle while she bikes, and we’re moving from campsite to campsite. I met her in Colorado, traded places with the first support driver, and we’re currently in Western Kansas.

I’m writing about the trip on her site, www.SarahAcrossAmerica.com. Come visit.


LeBron’s Hated for Our Sins

July 9, 2010

I’m a Knicks fan. So I’m bummed about LeBron James’ decision to join the Miami Heat (a team Knicks fans didn’t need any more reasons to dislike) and the two other top free agents. The reaction to LeBron’s decision, however, and particularly the way it was made and presented, has said a great deal more about sports media and fans it has about LeBron.

I’ve already read that the way the decision went down made being a sports fan feel stupid, showed LeBron James to be a selfish coward, and has Ohioans more likely to join the Tea Party. That even the way he decided, with various teams travelling to Ohio to make their pitch and then waiting for his word, has caused potentially irreparable damage to his brand. And we know that it caused a very rich man to write a letter in Comic Sans font.

But for writers and fans to complain about both LeBron’s decision and the manner in which it was made makes a complete hash of what we presumably believe as sports fans. And it directs anger at LeBron (not that he cares) for playing his part in a narrative we created for him.

The easy contradictions are about the basketball: We value team, but say it’s selfish for LeBron to want to join other elite players. We value championships, but demand that he win them the “right” way. We value selflessness, but have a conniption over a player taking less money to be on the team of his choice.

The more interesting contradiction is the media one. Somehow LeBron came to embody hubris in his free agent decision making process which, it’s worth noting, lasted all of eight days. He went from being a great teammate and the present and future of basketball to the embodiment of all-that-is-wrong. And it’s bunk. If LeBron did anything worth criticizing, it’s that he overly honored the story that we all spent the last several years writing him into. We created this narrative around him and then got angry when he tired of being just an actor in it, and became a producer as well.

LeBron’s impending free agency has been a front page NBA story for about the last three summers. Each July, the Knicks, and other teams, would tell their fans that, yeah, the team may stink this year, but wait until the summer of 2010 gets here! All those moves that make the team worse right now but free up funds for LeBron will finally pay off. Just wait and see!

Coming into this summer, six teams had a shot at signing him, and each had sold their fanbases on the idea that LeBron might be coming to their town. By meeting with all of the team, LeBron let each franchise feel like they had a shot. That the last couple of years of austerity weren’t a joke. And that’s selfish? LeBron was just providing additional chapters to the story that we were already demanding he tell. He took a meeting with the Clippers, the Michael Steele of the NBA, even. That smells more of benevolent patience than ego, to me.

And as to the selfishness of having the teams come to him, one after the other, to make their pitches? Imagine the response to the alternative. Would things have been better if LeBron spent a day in New York being feted by billionaires and celebrities, and then one in New Jersey with Jay-Z and the Nets’ Russian super-villain of an owner, and then taking South Beach, and then touring Chicago, and finally LA, with fans going crazy and throwing makeshift “We Love You” parades at each stop? What would Mitch Albom tell the children?

Not even his awkwardly produced “Decision” special said anything in particular about him. (Whether or not it said something about ESPN is a different matter.) After we demanded that he be the star in a reality show-type drama, how could anyone be upset that he decided to take some ownership over that process?

After the years of build up, and the expectations for sports salvation put on a 25 year old who hasn’t yet won anything, there was no way this story would end with anything but a backlash against LeBron. And, as is usually the case, the way we’ve backlashed says a great deal more about us than it does about him.


Why Tim Tebow’s Bad Throwing Motion Makes Me Feel Good about High School Sports

February 25, 2010

Tim Tebow is one the most celebrated college football quarterbacks of all time. He’s currently preparing for the NFL draft, and the only thing NFL teams are worried about is the fact that he can’t throw.

This makes me feel good about high school sports.

Tim Tebow can throw, of course. Well enough to lead a pretty pass-happy University of Florida team to 35 wins and just 6 loses in his starts.

The problem for pro teams has to do with how he throws. When he winds up, he takes the ball down to his hip, where it sits for a couple of beats, practically begging a defensive lineman to reach out and knock it away. Then, it starts to move forward in a loping windmill, again staying away from his body, before leaving his hand with a decided lack of zip.

Compared to model NFL throwers like Troy Aikmen and Dan Marino, who look like they’re cocking back and firing a slingshot when they throw, Tebow’s motion might as well be an Edsel on the Autobahn.

Leaving his politics aside, I’m rooting for him.

I’m fascinated by professional quarterbacks who have some serious flaw in their throwing motion. Besides making me feel good about sports in general, their existence seems to run counter to the idea of how people respond to incentives and in doing so gets at what makes sports unknowable and compelling.

Tim Tebow provides just the latest example of this type. For years, one of my favorite quarterbacks was Byron Leftwich, probably because of the iconic game in which he broke his shin and still led his team (Marshall University) to a near comeback, his teammates having to carry him to the huddle after each completed pass.

After being drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2003, Leftwich spent several seasons as their starting quarterback. During that time, and still, the book on him never changed. Great leader, tough as nails, physically huge, big arm (unlike Tebow), but with an overlong throwing motion that makes him vulnerable to being sacked.

As it was, Leftwich got very well paid for being a quarterback, but if he had a release that was just a bit faster he could have made a hugely higher amount of money. Also, he would have been hit less by giant men with who wished him harm.

Either of those seems like a good reason to learn to throw a bit faster, and yet, quarterbacks almost never change their mechanics once in the NFL, and Leftwich certainly hasn’t. There are plenty of could-have-been former NFL quarterbacks out there who could just never effectively change their throwing motion. Tebow’s currently trying and it will be interesting to see how that plays out.

Of course, it’s impossible to know if Tim Tebow with a different throwing motion is a winner. Or even what going to happen to him now that he’s trying.

All pro athletes, and quarterbacks in particular, rely on their confidence to such an extent that even if someone learned a faster delivery, a lack of confidence in it might be more disastrous than no change at all. Tebow spent his whole life throwing a football in a particular way and now, as he moves to highest possible level of competition, he’s going to change that?

(Which, oddly enough, gives us a reason to be awe of Tiger Woods, who, despite being wildly successful and only 24, totally rebuilt his swing in a effort to be better still.)

All of which, oddly enough, says good things about high school and, to a lesser extent, college sports.

When Tim Tebow first became a quarterback, a coach took a look at his athletic gifts and thought, “I can win with that,” instead of, “I bet I can tighten up his throwing motion to the point that pro scouts won’t be perturbed by it.” (Tebow’s college coach did the same thing.)

This is exactly as it should be. The odds of a high school football player becoming an NFL player as so small as to be basically zero, so the idea of preparing a great high school player for what will almost always be an imaginary pro career would detract from what high school sports are about.

That it didn’t happen in Leftwich’s or Tebow’s case makes me feel good about the innumerable high schoolers we’ll never hear about to whom it likely didn’t happen to either.


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