Sunday, April 1, 2012

Accidentally Like a Martyr

KMF awarded three Katie Evans Memorial Scholarships this weekend, to graduate students who look to do really interesting grassroots public health work this summer and fall in Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, and Bangladesh. You can read about the recipients and their projects by clicking here. This year's mix of Katie's family and friends, former recipients, and the public health experts we recruited to the cause, have worked since last October to promote the program and evaluate the applications. It's a complicated process that has become more sophisticated each year. I'm so proud of the good work that went into realizing such a fine outcome, and look forward to following this year's projects.

This weekend's Final Four games came and went. I didn't watch them. We took Walt to the San Jose Children's Museum all day Saturday, and then last night, as Stanford lost to Baylor, we were at the park. Walt loves the empty tennis court. He'll hold an errant tennis ball in his hand, up over his head, then let it drop, chase it, or point and watch me chase it. He'll stand on one side of the bench, while I stand on the other, poke his head out, then run to the other side. It takes so little space to entertain a child. We circle and circle the bench. We open and close the gate door. An hour later, I checked my iPhone. Kentucky beat Louisville. Ohio State led Kansas. We took our brand new basketballs to the outdoor court. Some boy shooting hoops rolled his ball to Walt. Walt dropped his small ball, scooped up the big one, ran under the hoop, pushed the ball out and threw his arms up, grinning as it rolled a few feet. To thank the bigger boy, I rebounded a few of his shots. Then, off to the slide, the swings, the benches for a snack. Jayhawks by two. Griner goes for 13 and 9.

In Grantland, Chuck Klosterman writes that John Calipari's victory is the inevitable defeat of amateur sports in America. If Kentucky wins, then the one-and-done approach is validated. Do I really care? If Kansas wins, then the conventional strategies and machinations of big-time men's corporate sports are yet again validated. The issue isn't remotely academic. Major men's basketball programs graduate so few seniors that the NCAA no longer publishes their graduation rates; instead, you can find the "academic progress rate," then transform it into a rough approximation of the graduation rate via Wikipedia. The basketball itself is getting pretty awful, riddled with the poor shooting, missed switches and rotations, and isolation plays of teams who play when teams haven't played together much. Most of the sportswriting about the tournament this year focuses on the same sports narratives--rivalries, redemptions, boys-become-men--that drive professional sports, with an added layer of irony that makes both buying into and rejecting these narratives feel naive. It reminds me of what Ted Hughes said inevitably happens to the young poet: s/he watches a lot of soccer, gets bored with it, and picks up a book (his "Football at Slack" maybe reflects his limited interest in sports).

It's easy to feel cynical about this year's party-driven political landscape. After a semi-dramatic fall and winter, Mitt Romney yet again looks poised to claim the nomination he was assured by the party establishment last summer. Like every Democrat, I admire the Romney who governed Massachusetts and saved the 2002 Winter Olympics, and I'm amused at the cipher for the cat-herding base Candidate Romney has become these last four years. The narrative to follow here, I think, is the opposition party nominating a milquetoast stalwart (think Mondale, Dole, Kerry) to hedge the incumbent's second term. How Obama wins 2012 seems plenty uncertain, and will make for interesting red, blue, and purple interactive maps in the coming months, much in the way ESPN generates "trade machines" for every major sporting trade deadline. Is it not enough to give the electorate the tools to proxy the outcomes and tropes, rather than allow them to manipulate them (by direct-democracy voting, or with large cash donations)?

In On Boxing, Joyce Carol Oates gives a concise history of the origins of Roman gladiator contests that begins:

"In the ancient world, among part-civilized nations, it was customary after a battle to sacrifice prisoners of war in honor of commanders who had been killed. It also became customary to sacrifice slaves at the funerals of all persons of importance. But then--for what reason?--for amusement, or for the sake of "sport"?--the condemned slaves were given arms and urged to defend themselves by killing the men who were ordered to kill them. Out of this evolution of brute sacrifice into something approaching a recognizable sporting contest the notorious phenomenon of Roman gladitorial combat--death as mass amusement--gradually arose." (p.41)

The rules of any competition, and so any sporting contest, serve primarily to entertain, then secondarily to pit exceptional strength against force and cunning. If it is troubling to ask whom is entertained, and to what end, then it also makes sense that the rules are correspondingly flexible, constantly circumvented and modified. Like political practice, the practice of a sport requires consensus and self-restraint in order to perform its perfection (think of playing pickup basketball with someone who travels constantly and refuses to pass, or touch football with someone who does not acknowledge being downed with the touch). And yet, like the exceptional poker cheater, a certain finesse is admired, and even pursued, so long as the appearance of fair play is sustained. Ultimately, sports do not perform ideals, so much as feign them. Like the referee who inbounds the ball at the end of the game before the defense is set, some victories seem more than preordained. They also lay the groundwork for still another variation on, or even initiation of, a sports narrative.

I was excited last week to buy a miniature basketball for Walt. I know it will be years until he can use it properly. How he uses it now thrills both of us. It brings him such joy to stand under the basket and toss the ball over his head, or to see the big kids let him join in and play. Probably, when he is older, he won't care, or even remember, whether he played well at this age. The rules will become clearer, as will the standards of victory and failure. Walt is a sweet toddler, and good-natured. I'd like to think he is a chip off the old block, the best of both his mom and dad, a parenting victory, an exceptional temperament arriving to its ideal circumstance. All of which, of course, initiates a narrative and assigns relative value. How else to read the tea leaves, if not to celebrate (or lament) the exception?

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