Driving Across 2/3rds of the Country

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.

Driving Across 2/3rds of the Country

LeBron’s Hated for Our Sins

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.

LeBron’s Hated for Our Sins

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

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.

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

The Most 2008 Movie of 2009, or, Economic Uncertainty and Ennui Explained through Prostitution!

It might be a consequence of living in New York (where it takes place, albeit in a very different New York than mine), but Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience unsettled me as much as any movie I saw last year.

Not bad for a barely plotted, mostly improvised, movie about a high-priced escort.

It’s no secret that most movies about prostitution aren’t really about sex, but it is interesting to come across one that isn’t really about intimacy, or even relationships. Instead, it’s about economics. And what’s scarier right now than economics?

Filmed and set during a few days in late October of 2008, The Girlfriend Experience captures the feeling settled over the city in the time just after the financial crisis well and truly blossomed, when we all realized, regardless of our professional proximity to Wall Street, that we were in long-term trouble. More than that, it nails the way in which New York (or most cities, I’d imagine) runs on a combination of money and dreams, and how a disruption in the former messes with the latter.

In The Girlfriend Experience, every character who isn’t rich is chasing self-sufficiency, and are circling those who have the money to make that happen. The characters with money, meanwhile, seem willfully ignorant of the effect they have on the people around them. They’re focused on their own emotional needs.

When the financial crisis starts mucking up the equilibrium of this system, people’s dreams are even more effected than their lives. What’s chilling is the sense that, in the absence of the hope for either upward mobility or “having it all,” there’s very little left except the sense that at some point most of us got sold a bill of goods about what it means to be successful or to be happy. Once those possibilities start disappearing from the table, the question “What now?” seems to echo through the movie.

And “What now?” was a scary question in 2008 that’s only gotten scarier.

The Most 2008 Movie of 2009, or, Economic Uncertainty and Ennui Explained through Prostitution!

The Most 2009 Movie of 2009

The movie released last year that felt most like last year was Crank 2: High Voltage. I’m serious.

If Up in the Air is an example of what we want a movie that speaks to the current moment to look like, Crank 2 is what such a movie would actually look like.

Yes, Crank 2 is the appallingly violent story of a tough guy who, moments after falling out of a helicopter (at the end of the Crank 1), is peeled off the pavement by a Chinese gangsters who remove his heart and replace it with a shoddy mechanical one. (They need to put in the mechanical heart to keep his other organs viable for harvesting, particularly his penis. Still not kidding.)

And yes, the tough guy’s malfunctioning artificial heart requires him to periodically electrocute himself to keep it running while he’s kicking ass through a bunch of racially specific gangs in search of his original heart. That’s not to mention his Tourette Syndrome afflicted sidekick or stripper girlfriend.

It’s all wildly offensive and racist, but so broad in both that it feel like it’s commenting on crazy action movie violence and stereotypes. Which is a nice way of saying that some audiences will laugh with the jokes while others will laugh at them, and both groups will feel mostly fine about themselves afterwards.

Crank 2 is like a period specific update of Caligula that’s replaced the sex with violence, and the violence with more ridiculous violence. Despite featuring a bushel of porn stars and a herd of boobs, it’s not a bit sexy. That it easily qualified as mainstream entertainment says nearly as much as its story.

The right way to watch Crank 2, copyright-aside, would be on a bootleg DVD, complete with the guy holding the camcorder occasionally talking back to the screen and getting the shakes. It feels practically designed for it. (And it’s basically how the movie was filmed in the first place.)

We live in a Wile E. Coyote world at the moment. We’re constantly being (metaphorically) beaten up and have the nagging suspicion that, though we hope the worst is over, we’re about to find out that there’s only air under our feet. Crank 2 captures that.

The Most 2009 Movie of 2009

How Jay Leno Might Cause your local Weatherman to Stop Taking his Medication

The lesson we learn from the Conan/Leno late night imbroglio might have more to do with the power of mainstreaming conflict than anything involving NBC, late night television, or comedy.

It’s harder than ever to get people to care about entertainment institutions, and if the current late night late conflict has shown us anything, it’s that conflict sells. (Well, it’s also taught us that NBC seems to have standards for executive performance that would make them right at home on Wall Street, but that’s a story for a different day.)

One of the key moments in the ratings battle between the Conan’s nascent Tonight Show and David Letterman’s Late Show was Letterman’s involvement an extra-martial affair related extortion plot. With real life drama supplementing Stupid Pet Tricks, what active late night viewer wasn’t going to watch?

Naturally, since NBC’s stupid human trick put Conan on the spot, his ratings have been rising every night. Hell, the conflict even got me to watch Leno once. (On the wrong night, unfortunately, as I missed Jimmy Kimmel’s unreal appearance last night.)

So, while NBC’s brand is taking a hilarious beating, when it comes to the numbers that they really care about, ratings that will later be used to determine advertising rates, their ham-fisted handling of the Tonight Show has solved the very problem they were trying to address.

I’m wondering, why stop there? If real world conflict translates to advertising dollars, why shouldn’t a local newscaster, say, announce that they were going off their meds and didn’t know for sure what might happen? (Come to think of it, I just described Glenn Beck’s show…)

We’re living in a society that’s just about post-dignity and post-seriousness. Success, even in something as ultimately meaningless as television ratings, provides a patina of respect. It took American Idol, after its premiere, about two months to turn from a carnival sideshow exploiting damaged youth by exploiting their hopes for fame into a chronicle of the triumph of the human spirit. And Mr. Beck’s nuttiness has certainly worked out well for him.

So, I wonder if the lasting legacy of this very public conflict between millionaire comedians won’t be a sizable increase in the use of real world conflict to generate interest in cultural properties.

How Jay Leno Might Cause your local Weatherman to Stop Taking his Medication

Sarah Palin is being Exploited [media]

Oprah exploited Sarah Palin.

Sarah Palin knew this, of course. She signed up for it. It’s all part of the deal that people opt in to when they’ve when got a platform that’s larger than their employment prospects.

It’s a bad deal, though. And one that tells us some things about our deeply flawed media.

The deal is supposed to work like this: A notable figure writes a book. They spend the better part of a month giving interviews to as many venues as they can in hopes that the attention will get people to purchase the book. Then they take the money earned by the book out of the bank in singles, cover their bed it in, and roll around happily.

This quid pro quo is a much better deal for broadcasters than it is for authors (as loosely defined as the term may be in this case), and it diminishes both mediums. It turns book publishing into a de facto money laundering operation. Is there any doubt that everything Sarah Palin wished to express and accomplish with “Going Rogue” could have been done just as well with a series of interviews? Or 20 pages of bullet-points?

Worse, the arrangement gives an enormous free pass to a “news” culture that’s become to celebrity newsmakers what the NCAA is to athletes. In a time when the book business is ever more troubled, and the ability to draw an audience together for anything longer than a youtube clip is ever more valuable, how does it make sense for books to serve as the near exclusive means of monetizing interest, while television newscasters get paid millions upon millions for asking softball questions in service of  news broadcasts that serve as profit centers for multinational corporations?

Orpah and other broadcasters get a definable benefit, in ratings and advertising dollars, from having someone on who brings extra eye to the screen. If Sarah Palin brought one extra viewer to Oprah’s show, or to any of the other venues she’s been on in the last couple of weeks, why shouldn’t she be entitled to payment for the value she added?

Taking the idea a step further, imagine a broadcast where the journalists and their interview subjects shared the profits, in an above-board way.

Perhaps a profit motive might lead to someone like Palin answering questions that journalists typically don’t ask, like about Trig’s birth, or how she really feels about her political future. After all, nothing sells like conflict and revelations.

Most celebrity “news” interviews these days are non-confrontational to the point of propaganda. The news could cease showing their desperation for the ratings that come with a good “get,” and fearing that showing a semblance of spine would torpedo their chances. Instead, the could focus on offering the best financial deal, and preparing a show that would create the most possible interest.

We might even get more truth out of the deal.

(I, for one, would pony up $24.99 to watch Sarah Palin interviewed by Michael Moore on Pay-Per-View. Would the integrity of the news business really suffer in that kind of deal?)

It’s time for a new method of monetizing interest. (And if it only served to save us from all of those dubious books, that would be success enough.)

Sarah Palin is being Exploited [media]