Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Game-Changer: Why Sports-Writing Matters

   A few weeks ago, the Green Bay Packers lost a playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers. Green Bay is my favorite team, and I was pretty darn bummed out. Wearing my team jersey (with team t-shirt underneath), I trudged back to my dorm room. It sucked. I opened the door to find my roommate sprawled out on his bed. He is from California.
   Even though he is (self-admittedly) not the biggest football fan in the world, I congratulated him on the win. He gave a guilty chuckle as I went over to my side of the room and began to put away all of my team gear. “I’m sorry,” he said, “But hey, good thing sports don’t matter.”
   Sports don’t matter. Something resonated.
   In the journalism school here at Northwestern, a lot of professors seem to take the same approach. Sports are pointless. In the grand scheme of things, there are things people need to know, and things people just want to know. In other words, some topics covered by journalists double as downright services to the community. Covering sports, to the experts here at the Medill School of Journalism, is not a service. It never will be.
   I started a new class recently, with a new discussion leader, and to grab a sense of who each of us were as aspiring journalists, he asked us why we were studying the things we were. When someone brought up sports coverage, my professor looked him dead in the eye and had this to say, “Sports, cool. You know what your biggest struggle is going to be? Making me care about sports. I don’t give a shit about sports.”
   A few months ago, we had a guest speaker from the Texas Tribune. The open discussion-style forum somehow pivoted toward journalism as a public service (basically what was said above: by providing news, journalists are providing the average folks with a direct service that they need). The speaker began to rattle off some examples. Politics, people need to know that. International stories, people need to know them. Local conflicts, crime, health developments—people need to be informed of all those too. A kid raised his hand and asked about sports. The guy looked him dead in the eye and said something along the lines of, “Sports are absolutely not a public service. I have defended this point for years and years, and I will defend it until I die. Sports do not serve anybody. Sports don’t matter.
   Sports don’t matter.
   For four months, I have been told over and over that my desired profession—my dream job—is pointless. Sure, there is work to be done, jobs are there for the taking, and there is a market for sports writing, but ultimately, there are more important things than winning and losing.
   Medill is arguably the best journalism school in the world. There are kids in my class who are probably going to go off and cover the Middle Eastern conflicts for major outlets, or write for the Economist or Time about how to face the challenges America is up against today. People are going to go out and do “the important stuff.” They will be doing things that matter, and if what everyone is telling me is true, I will not be. My career could be big or small or anywhere in between. Either way, it does not matter, because if I go into sports, the things I will be writing about do not matter.
   All of this talk had me thinking—thinking about big things like the direction I wanted to take my writing and my blog and what I wanted to study and work on and expand on and explore. During the vast length of my short stint in journalism, I have been seeking to make a difference in the things I write. Sure, sometimes I joke about naked dudes in the locker room or mothers who show up to college parties, but this blog has always been about sharing opinions, thoughts, and stories on things that readers care about. That is what people read. People read things that they care about because it affects them, it relates to them, it stirs them, it moves them. Can sports do that?
   One of my favorite pieces on this blog went up almost 18 months ago. It was about 9/11. It was a reflective article on how sports helped America through its healing process. George Bush’s valiant first pitch in the World Series. Mike Piazza’s game-winning home run to lead the New York Mets to a win in their first game back in New York City.
   That day, sports mattered.
   I remember back in high school, our head football coach was diagnosed with cancer during my senior year. The following game, after the news was finally broken to the school, our team earned a come-from-behind win, on the road, with the assistant coach filling in on the sidelines. My small private catholic school came together as a community like it never had before.
   That day, sports mattered.
   On March 3, 1993, former North Carolina State head basketball coach Jim Valvano stood before the crowd at the first ESPY awards ceremony. He was in the midst of a year-long battle with bone cancer. Valvano announced the creation of The V Foundation for Cancer Research, complete with the timeless line, “Don’t give up . . . don’t ever give up.” He would die less than two months later. Imagine how many cancer patients, families of cancer patients, and friends of cancer patients have seen that speech. Imagine the impact. Imagine the hope. The gratitude goes to a basketball coach talking at an awards ceremony honoring the best in athletics.
   That day, sports mattered.
   Whether it is something as small as moving on past a tough loss, or something as big as finding the courage to continue cancer treatment, sports affect millions of people every day. True, oftentimes nothing special happens. Oftentimes a box score is all you really have at the end of the day, but as Bill Simmons, one of my biggest influences, says: 9,999 times out of 10,000 nothing out of the ordinary will happen, but the reason we keep watching—the reason we keep showing up and wearing our jerseys and maintaining our passion—is for that 1 in 10,000 chance that something special will take place. It could be a miraculous hockey game that brings all of the United States together in triumph, it could be a superstar who goes the extra step in making a difference within the community, or it could be a speech that inspires levels of courage, strength, and determination that we did not think were possible.
   There are more important things in the world than winning and losing, I realize that. Not everyone cares about the final score. The thing is, though, sometimes sports go beyond the numbers. Sometimes victories and on-field success can mean something greater. Suddenly, sports can have profound impact. Sports can bring emotion. Sports can make a difference.
   In my life, I owe a lot of memories to sports. I remember jumping up and down and hugging my father after hearing our beloved Diamondbacks win the 2001 World Series from my bedroom. I remember our high school football team running around on the field and crying after winning for our absent coach. I remember watching the Green Bay Packers win the Super Bowl in 2010 and wishing my grandfather, a longtime fan, was still around to be a part of the experience with my father and I. Even if all of the above examples could not sell you, take it from me. Sports have made a difference in my life, and they can make a difference in yours too, whether you work for the Texas Tribune or the New York Times or Al Jazeera.
   Just because something does not have a body count or a weather map or the attention of Anderson Cooper does not mean it is not important. Sports have none of these things, and yet, they still manage to fascinate us, move us, and inspire us. When something can reach down and affect us deep inside like that, it matters. Sports matter because they remind us of life’s ups, downs, highs, lows, twists, turns, and triumphs. Sports matter because every day we can turn on the radio or the television and see how hard work pays off. We can see how our dreams, our goals, and our own, more personal trophies are still within reach. Sports can lend motivation to the downtrodden, they can give victory to the hopeless, they can lift up those who may have fallen down.
   Simply put, sports show us the incredible power of the human spirit. Amid all of the chaos, tragedy, and sadness that we see on the evening news, our world still has room for people who show up to work every day and do their best and be successful. Our world needs that. Our world needs hope.
   Our world needs sports.

Monday, January 21, 2013

NU vs. Indiana Basketball Diary--When Jumping Rope Kicks Total Ass

   The tricky thing about doing these running diaries is that whenever I cover sports events in person, I have a terrible tendency to compromise the actual article for my own fan experience. I want to cheer. I want to go crazy. I want to be in the student section. I want to lose my voice the next day and have everyone assume I am sick and then continue to find excuses throughout our conversations to stop talking to me so they can presumably go take a cleaner breath of oxygen somewhere else (that is how it works . . . right?).
   My point is, in this running diary, which covers the Northwestern basketball game Sunday against the visiting #2 Indiana Hoosiers, there are huge gaps of time between blurbs, and these are mostly because I was busy telling some Indiana player to quit being such a little bitch about a foul call or yelling at Olah to take a shot for the love of Christ. We can talk about that later, though. Excuse the time gaps—bottom line.
   I think this going to go well, how about you guys?
   Here we go, NU hoops hosting #2 Indiana. Let’s see what kinds of crazy go down this time.

11:58—The Indiana warm-ups, as noted by the student section here in Welsh-Ryan Arena, look a lot like bowling shirts over pajama bottoms. Maybe more like Willy Wonka’s nightwear mixed with Waldo’s or the mustached guy from Monopoly. You be the judge.

11:59—So in case you are not too familiar with college hoops, Indiana has a star forward named Cody Zeller, who happens to be one of the top projected picks in the next NBA draft. He is a pretty big deal. His nickname is also The Big Handsome, which is unfortunate for him, because he is anything but. Look at him. He looks forty, does he not? Like a white version of Greg Oden. You can just imagine him being a top five pick and then blowing out his knee ten games into the season. Yikes. This is morbid. Anyway, I digress—it is game time.

12:05—The whole student section simultaneously jumping up and down in unison really makes me wish we had more fans . . . what a shame.

12:07—Ladies and gentlemen, Jared Swopshire of your Northwestern Wildcats wins the opening tip against Cody Zeller! Wow! The fans are already going nuts. This is going to be a good one.

12:10—Three minutes into the action and Zeller misses his first three shots. The fans immediately take the opportunity to tell him that he sucks and that he will never make it in the NBA, and that he should have fun playing for the godforsaken Bobcats. I am loving this. The guy genuinely seems like a decent human being and we are all standing there telling him that his career will be one massive failure because he chose somewhere else to receive an education. Man, I love sports.

12:13—Zeller is fouled and immediately goes to talk to his coach about how to take a freaking foul shot. You stand behind the line and put the ball through the ring, you freaking circus act.
Was that cold? That was cold. Sorry.

12:16—Indiana calls a timeout. Seriously?

12:21—Indiana fouls again, but this time it is some douchebag named Will Sheehey wearing the number zero jersey. General rule: if you wear the number zero during your sports career, you need to figure out your life. Case in point: Gilbert Arenas wore the number zero and he brought to a gun into his locker room. Thank you and continue to the next window.

12:24—Over on the Northwestern offensive end I notice that some little punk kid is in charge of mopping up all the sweat in the paint. He does a piss-poor job. He totally half-asses it. Right there is why we are losing—some dumb six-year-old is over there in the middle of our side of the court doing a crappy job of mopping up the sweat. Ugh, I hope they are not paying him anything.

12:29—Much to my sheer delight, Indiana’s number zero air-balls a three-pointer. Whataguy. He will probably go far one day.

12:30—A friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, leans back from the row in front of me and says the following, “If we dunk in this game, I will abstain from sex for a week.”
Ladies and gentlemen, this is Northwestern University!

12:34—Zero is called for goal-tending. Lord, he sucks.

12:35—Speak of the devil, Zero goes down the other end, drives to the lane, crashes into a Wildcat, lands on his feet, promptly pretends to be fouled, spins, does a flip or some shit like that, crashes to the ground, flails wildly like some sort of weird mudfish, and yells for a call. The ref comes up, literally leans down to look into his eyes, blows his whistle right in his ear, and calls charging. No basket, Northwestern ball.
Man, I love sports.

12:43—Well, we have been here for more than half an hour and the ‘Cats have yet to break ten points. Olah needs to jack up a shot. Honestly, if Olah took a three on every single possession and we lost, I do not think anyone would care.

12:46—My buddy Ben, a future sports journalist, proclaims loudly, “Indiana’s going to be tough to beat this year.”

12:49—As the ball goes out to Swopshire in the corner, I realize that I become instantly on-edge every time he has the ball. I just have no idea what to expect. He could do a crazy dunk, he could take a difficult shot, or he could pull something weird out of his ever-growing fro. Classic sign of Northwestern hoops right there. Except the fro part. We do not have many of those.

12:52—Zero comes back into the game to talk to the ref, probably to try and try some weird behind-the-scenes bribery stuff. I hate that guy.

12:54—We cut to halftime. Sitting in the stands, I realize the show is going to involve young girls. This seems to be an odd trend in basketball games I attend, and yeah, it disturbs the hell out of me. This even happened during high school. Unbelieva—WAIT, WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?!

12:59—Throughout the entire phenomenon, we debate everything from who choreographs these sort of routines to how one actually chooses to follow this activity, but one thing was never debated: that this whole thing is a sport. Absolutely. Gosh, did you see the human jumprope?! Look that up.

1:07—During second-half warm-ups, I notice that Aaron Liberman has a kippah made by Under Armour. I had no idea this was a thing. I am blown away. Nike has them too. Wow, just wow. It needed to be said.

1:15—Number Zero enters the game toward the beginning of the half and promptly fouls somebody. At this point I am just saying it to say it. He does not even dignify further coverage.

1:28—Number 32 on Indiana check into the game, and based on the reaction from the (huge number of) Hoosiers fans, he is a fan favorite. He also looks like a convict—like Indiana has to pay his bail each week to play basketball and after every game he goes straight back to the can. I am afraid of him.

1:34—Some Indiana player is poked in the eye and goes over to the ref in dramatic response. Instead of sending him to the damn bench like a normal ref, the official puts his arm around him and probably tells him to stop crying and that everything would be okay. This game just sucks.

1:35—Swopshire dunks the ball on a fast-break steal, and abstinence was enjoyed by all! 

1:40—Zero fouls again. There was much rejoicing!

1:43—A ‘Cats three is followed by a block at the other end! We are within eight points of second-ranked Indiana! The student sections are going nuts! Indiana calls a timeout!
During the timeout itself, Indiana brings special red chairs out onto the court so the payers do not have to walk the extra three feet to the bench. How can anyone look at that and not think it is anything except pathetic? Ugh, Indiana is really dang weird.

1:45—Zeller misses a dunk, and Olah finishes on our end! We are within six! Excuse me while I go crazy for thirteen minutes!

1:58—It is a five-point game now! There are two minutes and thirty seconds to go! Gaaaaaaahh! This could be legendary!

2:13—Game over. We lost. Son of a bitch.

   Things really were insane at the end there, sorry guys—definitely some jumps in time going on. At some point, one of the cameramen had to come on to the floor where our offense was trying to do work, and he had to mop up the sweat because the little punk who was supposed to do it was not doing it! The ref pointed out the sweat! He had to stop the game to point out the excess of sweat on the ground, where we were trying to win a basketball game!
   This was unacceptable, but either way, you have to be proud of how our ‘Cats played against Indiana. No one expected it to be this close at all, and would you believe it, we made it a pretty good game down the stretch. Sure, were there some issues with sweat-mopping? Yes. Was the halftime jump-rope spectacle at times more athletic than what we saw on the court? Indeed. No matter though, because we saw our Wildcats play a solid game against a good team. I am proud of our guys out there, and I know that sometimes these articles can be tough on the 
   We also learned to never ever wear the number zero . . . hold on, do you guys know if anyone on our team wears zero on his jersey?
   Let me check. Hold on.
   Omar Jimenez. Oh no.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

This Is What We've Been Waiting For--Zero Dark Thirty Review

   Zero Dark Thirty was one of the best movie experiences I have been a part of in the past year (unfortunately, it was too late to make the Top 10 Movies of 2012, but as the official release is not until Friday, it might very well be on a 2013 list), but it was almost ruined for me. No, not the ending, because we all know what happens, but the experience was almost ruined. Here is what went down: I am sitting there with a bunch of friends, and the movie is in the midst of its killer moment. The theater is dead silent. Everyone is locked in, absolutely captivated. Then, my buddy next to me, for reasons I will never begin to understand, decides to belt out, “’Murica!” completely spoiling the atmosphere of the moment. Guys, this movie is really good, so do your best not to be a total douche and ruin the vibe for everyone around you. Anyway, now that today’s lesson in basic movie theater etiquette is out of the way for people who cannot function in a society, we can move on to the review.
   Zero Dark’s biggest triumph is that is able to create a feeling of suspense and anticipation even though you know exactly what will happen. For a good two hours, this is a well-done war-room kind of movie, with solid acting all around, but never really anything that blows you away. Then, when the actual operation finally arrives, it enters another level. The shots are fantastic. The sound is unbelievable (one of the best uses of silence I have ever seen in a movie). The intensity is through the roof. It is one of the best military scenes of the past decade, absolutely.
   That being said, the first two hours need to be addressed. In a word, solid. You have some crazy interrogation moments, headed by the spectacular Jason Clarke, and some cool intelligence scenes. Casual viewers may be lost among all of the difficult-to-distinguish (if we are being honest) Middle Eastern names, and while Jessica Chastain is overall really good as the lead character, she only truly shines when her character is given some personality. When we can see Maya’s passion to find Bin Laden, and the joy she has in the CIA’s successes along the way, the character really comes to life. However, a few scenes exist where she seems to really struggle with saying the F word, of all things, and this can be pretty distracting. All in all though, this a really well-acted movie, and the performances carry the audience through the first three-quarters of the film all on their own. The plot is compelling, and frankly quite fascinating, but watching the characters working both behind the scenes and on the front lines is a joy. Not to ruin anything, but things become a heckuva lot more tense after one scene shows the behind-the-scenes jobs to be not quite as safe as they seem.
   The final act of the movie, the scene everyone has been waiting for, the reason you go to see this movie in the first place, kicks the whole movie right in the mouth. Guys, Kathryn Bigelow did it. Plain and simple. The operation with Seal Team Six to invade the compound in Abbottabad is one of the most memorable scenes I have seen in the past year, maybe even in the past 10 years. It was perfect. I do not know what else to say. It was perfect.
   Zero Dark Thirty, through the first three-fourths of the movie, is an extremely well-done CIA film. It has great acting, some hang-your-mouth-open moments, some cringe moments, anything you might want in a manhunt movie. Its only drawback through these sections are some slightly-awkward moments of profanity (I know it seems dumb, but it sounded dumb onscreen. That is the only way I know how to say it) and the sweeping-away of Jason Clarke, who does quite well within his interrogation scenes, but is not given much other material to work with. Despite all of this, the final operation is so fantastic that it sweeps all of your nitpicks aside and commands your absolute attention. Within this mega-scene, Zero Dark Thirty becomes the movie it was supposed to be. It becomes an experience.
   You go to the movies to see things like Zero Dark Thirty. Is it perfect? Nope, but the last half-hour makes up all of the ground it lost in the “beginning” and then some. This movie is exceptional. The tail end is unreal.
   9 out of 10: this is an experience you will not want to miss.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Explaining Violence in Our World--When the Only Answer Is That There Is No Answer

   Right now, someone right now is pretty pissed at Mike Huckabee for his continued comments on integrating religion back into American schools. Right now, a town in Connecticut is planning to hold a communal burning of all violent movies and video games. Right now, people are moaning at the NRA in defense of their continued belief that guns are not the direct cause of all of this violence. Right now, Bob Costas is taking a lot of heat for taking the exact opposite stance.
   Violence has rocked the United States as of late. Gun crimes have been more apparent over the last six months than ever before. Aurora, Newtown . . . we wonder what is next. Maybe even more so, we wonder what we can do to stop these atrocities from happening again.
   Everyone has their ideas, as was seen above, but at the same time, everyone has their objections too. Mike Huckabee--how wrong is he to press God onto our children? Would God have stopped the shooting? He can’t even do that, can he? Please. Burning violent games—how about we turn the focus on the flaws in parenting allowing those games to be played? The NRA—how dare they even think that guns don’t kill people. Guns are murder weapons; that is an easy one. As for Bob Costas—just let me watch my freaking football game, I don’t want your opinion; I want my highlights.
   No one is right, everyone is wrong. Or I am right and you are wrong. I know what is best for us, and you are stupid for thinking differently. Over and over and over. Everyone has good intentions, everyone thinks that what they have to say can genuinely help, everyone wants an answer. Maybe that is our problem though, because right now, there is no answer. We might never have an answer.
   When someone executes a mass-shooting, or a murder-suicide, or whatever it is, we always seek to know why. Why did Jovan Belcher shoot himself seemingly without warning? What made James Holmes toss tear gas into the movie theater at Aurora? What in Adam Lanza’s mind propelled him to go to an elementary school armed with fully automatic firearms? We can ask why why why as many times as we want, but the short of it is this—we will never understand. People are crazy. People are sick. People are depressed. We just do not know.
   This is a world with a lot of answers—you can Google something or ask Siri or look it up from your tablet—and our biggest struggle right now might be accepting situations when we do not have an answer. There is no fix-it solution.
   So what do we do? Do we try to explain things we cannot explain? Do we fight for our beliefs and opinions even though change might be impossible to bring about? Well, yeah. Sometimes, just being able to give an answer can make a difference. Think about when you take a test: do you feel better about a particular question when you take a wild guess as opposed to leaving it blank? Of course you do—you were at least able to offer something intelligent and reasonable, and you did not just roll over and admit defeat.
   See, that is what really matters here. In the wake of all of this violence in our lives, no one is leaving things blank. Everyone is trying to give an answer to explain the tragedies, and whether someone is right or wrong does not matter, it just matters that their answer is reassuring to them. Mike Huckabee is able to console himself through his religious life; he just wants to share his personal solution with other people. Bob Costas finds solace and sense in words against ownership of automatic weapons. He sees something that is able to potentially offer an answer, and in sharing it with you, perhaps he hopes that you find consolation too. Whatever you believe, whatever you think might amend the strife and eliminate the horrors from our world—it just matters that you believe it.
   Our world has a lot of answers, but in the case of unimaginable acts of violence, the particular answer is just that, unimaginable. When faced with something that we might not understand, we look all over for a solution, and it does not matter if this solution is right or wrong or popular or weird. Right now, it just matters that you have an opinion of what that solution is, because through the process of understanding, recovering, and healing, believing that there is an answer out there might be the most important part of it all. An answer means that one day this all might be preventable. An answer means hope.
   So instead of seeing someone’s outspoken post on Facebook or someone else’s politically-slanted television interview and growing angry at their idea, just remember this: it is just an idea. You may disagree with the methods, but the intention is what matters. In a time of unfathomable hardship for many families across the country, it is important that we look to be more sympathetic and less argumentative. Everyone just wants to help, and it would sure be dumb if we were to attack that help.
   After all, are we not supposed to be the normal ones?

   Our country could use some hope right now, and the last thing we want to do is stamp it out.