Summer Olympics: All About Sailing

All About Sailing

If summer is all about finding a way to be in the sun and the water, than sailing is the perfect activity. If your enjoyment of sports is based primarily on tactics, than it might be a great viewing opportunity for you, even if you can’t find a way to set up your television near a pool.

How Does Sailing Work?

All of the Olympic sailing races are “fleet races.” In this case, although speed is important, the word fleet means that a group of ships sails together, as opposed to individually around a course. In every category of sailing, the vessels are under strict rules to ensure that the difference between the best and worst (of the best) sailors in the world comes down to skill, not technology. Skill, in sailing has a physical component — who can adjust their sails the fastest or eek the most speed out of their boats by leaning far over the side as a counter-weight — and a mental component — who can read the wind and the water and adjust the fastest and best to the conditions to pick the optimal route. There’s also an element of luck, because no matter how you cut it, the conditions will be slightly different in every part of the water at every moment.

Why do People Like Watching

Sailing is the Olympic sport that approaches a tactical board game the most closely. Yes, there is a physical element to sailing, but that often gets lost in the wide-angle camera shots necessary to show several boats at once. Instead of watching athletes sweat, and deriving pleasure from that, viewers of sailing watch athletes think and take tactical risks, and derive enjoyment from that.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

Sailing events are defined primarily by the category of boat used. These categories are defined by weight and shape as well as feature, including such things as whether it has a trapeze (a wire from the mast down to the hull that allows a sailor to hang over the edge of the boat to create more speed), a jib (the sail that extends from the mast toward the front of the boat), or a spinnaker (extra poofy sail). Of the ten sailing events at this year’s Olympics, five take a two person crew and five a solo sailor.

How Dangerous is Sailing?

Sailing is a very dangerous sport. The most dangerous races are the long-distance ones which take ships far from land and far from help if something were to go wrong. Even in Olympic style racing, two ships colliding or any kind of equipment malfunction or human error can have disastrous consequences.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Sailing?

Sailing is a little off-kilter now, with men having an extra event, four, to three for women with a mixed crew (one man, one woman) required for an eighth event. You’ll also notice that for the most part, men and women race in different boats. The boats for women’s events are designed for lighter sailors than the ones in men’s events.

One interesting note about sailing is that until 1988 it was a gender-free event. There were no gendered events at all and women were simply expected to compete with men.

Links!

Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Sailing is from Monday, August 8 to Thursday, August 18.

Read more about sailing on the official Rio Olympics site.

Super Bowl 50 – Cam Newton and race in football

The Super Bowl is one of the biggest sporting events in the world. It’s certainly the biggest sporting event in the United States. This year, the game is between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers and will be held at 6:30 on Sunday, February 7 and televised on CBS. Watching any football game is more fun if you understand who the key characters are and what compelling plots and sub-plots there are. It also helps to know some of the basic rules of how football works. Dear Sports Fan is here to help you with both! For learning the basics of football, start with Football 101 and work up to Football 201. To learn about the characters and plot, read on and stay tuned for more posts throughout the week.

As is true of most American institutions, especially those with histories that go back 100 years or more, professional football has a complex, coded, and cruel history of racism. Although we have undoubtedly made giant strides toward correcting many of the racial issues in society and sports, many remain. The racial issues that remain are almost never talked about openly on television. Instead, they are referred to with a delicate coded language that you have to be on the inside of sports culture in order to catch. As surely as it is my goal on Dear Sports Fan to help people understand the basic terms of football, it is my responsibility to try to help sports outsiders understand the racist history and coded language of football. Super Bowl 50 provides a great opportunity to do this, particularly through the character of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.

In my previews of the last two Carolina Panthers playoff games, here’s how I’ve described Newton: “Quarterback Cam Newton is, and always has been a lightning rod for controversy. In college, he won a national championship with Auburn, and it was an even more open secret than with most high-profile college players that he had taken fairly large sums of money under the table for playing there. In the NFL, he’s been the subject of years of criticism for being too self-impressed, too brash, both criticisms that have suspiciously racial overtones. From a strictly football standpoint, he’s been an amazing success. He’s a combination of one of the top ten pure passers in the league with a top ten running back in a single body. Newton ran for over 600 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. This makes him an unusual double-threat for opposing defenses to fret about, especially when the Panthers get close to the goal line.”

For a long time in football, even after the sport had been integrated, African-Americans were barred from playing quarterback either directly or because of unconscious bias on the part of coaches who thought quarterbacks required too much intelligence or leadership to be played well by Black athletes, who they felt were lacking in those qualities. Black players were pointed toward positions like running back, wide receiver, and any defensive role, all of which were thought to reward people with great “athleticism” or “natural talent” — both phrases used to describe African-Americans. The “athleticism” stereotype claims that African-Americans were either bred by slave-owners to be more physical than White people or are somehow genetically superior to White people (which offers an excuse to believe that the reverse could be true morally or intellectually). The “natural talent” descriptor is a subtle way of building on that idea while adding the insulting suggestion that Black athletes don’t practice, train, and study their craft as much as White athletes (who are often described as having “great motors” or as being “hard workers.”

As the cultural ban on African-American quarterbacks receded in the 1990s and 2000s, it was replaced by a new bias. Black people could be quarterbacks, but they wouldn’t do it the same way as White people had. The phrase “Black Quarterback” became synonymous with “running” or “scrambling” quarterback — a player who leveraged his athletic ability and improvisational skill to threaten a defense through passing or by running with the ball himself. Never mind that there had been plenty of White quarterbacks who had played with this style before, and some examples of African-American quarterbacks who did not play with this style (although most African-American quarterbacks have been scramblers… perhaps another example of bias in coaches who accepted Black quarterbacks only if they conformed to a single idea of how someone who looked like one way would play the position). The term “Black quarterback” also offered another way of attaching a derogatory association to African-Americans, because the accepted wisdom is that a scrambling quarterback will generally have a shorter and less successful career than a pocket passing quarterback.

Finally, in the 2010s, the NFL and football culture is beginning to accept that African-American quarterbacks can play the position with all different approaches. What remains of the bias, however, is a desire to control or judge Black quarterbacks on how their non football-related behavior on and off the field. Although the culture seems to be accepting that a Black quarterback may stand in the pocket and pass the ball instead of running himself, it’s still slow to accept that player’s personal expression through his clothing, public comments, and on-field behavior including celebrating with or remonstrating his teammates. This, then, is the final frontier for racial acceptance in football.

Cam Newton is, as I wrote before, almost the perfect lightning rod for all of this racially loaded history and emotion. He is a traditional so-called “Black quarterback” because of his power and proficiency running with the ball, but his equal success throwing the ball defies expectations. He also refuses to adhere to traditional notions of how a quarterback is expected to speak and behave. As a rookie, he famously stated that he wanted to be, not just a football player, but an “entertainer and icon.” This broke an unwritten rule, enforced more stringently, I would imagine, for African-Americans than White players, that players should focus only and obsessively on their sport. (Never mind that his opposite in this game, Peyton Manning, has hosted Saturday Night Live a half-dozen times and seems to be on every third television commercial.) On the field, he celebrates openly, joyously, and if you listen to some of his critics, notoriously. Again, this breach in football-decorum seems to be more noticed and criticized when a Black player breaches it than when a White one does.

If you’re looking for a positive ending to all of this, there is one. In sports, winning seems to wipe away almost all biases. Just by making the Super Bowl, Cam Newton has already silenced and even turned most of his critics. What’s more, the Panthers are favored to win this game, so there’s a good chance that Newton’s impact on race in football is just getting started.

NBA Basketball in 2015 is not selfish

The 2015-2016 National Basketball Association (NBA) season started yesterday. This offers a great opportunity to write about the current state of the NBA and one of the most persistent myths about the league. If you talk to enough people about sports as often as I do, you get used to hearing people say they “don’t like the NBA because the play is (or the players are) too selfish.”

There are two ways of interpreting that comment: a cynical way and a way that gives the benefit of the doubt to the person making it. Let’s start by giving the benefit of the doubt to critics of the NBA. Viewed in the best possible light, the criticism of the NBA as selfish is based on a belief that there is less passing in the NBA than there should be or than there once was. In the eyes of these critics, NBA basketball is typified by a player dribbling the ball up the court, telling his teammates to get out of the way, trying to beat his defender one-on-one, and then shooting the ball. In basketball terms, this is called an “isolation” or “isolation basketball.”

The truth is, isolation basketball has been on the decline for the last twenty years of NBA history and is now almost universally recognized as a losing tactic. Kirk Goldsberry, Grantland’s chief basketball illustrator and an excellent writer as well, wrote an article recently that summarized the shift in tactics from isolation ball to today’s NBA and explaining its statistical underpinnings. It is a wonderful article – clear and even poetic – and it explains why isolation ball, particularly when it leads to two point shots that aren’t layups or dunks, has become a tactic used only by the most clueless organizations. He writes with the strength of quantitative evidence:

Last season, NBA players attempted just over 200,000 shots. Fifty-three percent of these shots qualify as assisted, while 47 percent qualify as unassisted.1 Overall, the league’s shooters converted 45 percent of their shots — the assisted tries went in 51 percent of the time, while the unassisted shots scored only 38 percent of the time.

and also gives compelling anecdotal support to the theory. He quotes San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich as saying of today’s basketball, “You move it or you die.” Popovich is the most well-respected modern coach. He is seen as a guru of team building and on-court tactics. When he says, “you move it or you die,” he’s arguing that winning basketball has its foundation in teamwork and passing; in trust and interdependency. Want hard evidence? Look at a team assists statistic from last year. The team with the highest assist ration, the Golden State Warriors, won 67 regular season games (out of 82, by far the most in the league) and the championship. The team with the second highest assist ratio, the Atlanta Hawks, won the second most games in the league and made it to the Eastern Conference Championships before losing.

Even if the tactical shift in the NBA were in the opposite direction — toward isolation – it’s not altogether clear to me why that would be thought of as selfish. Selfishness has to do with intent. Tactics have to do with winning. If the tactic most likely to result in a victory involved giving the ball to a single player and asking him to do everything, then that would be the correct tactic. It would involve an incredible amount of unselfishness on the part of that player’s teammates, who would be asked to do the hard work of playing defense and setting picks, and on the part of the coach, who wouldn’t get very much acclaim for taking such a simple tactical approach. Maybe most of all, it would take unselfishness on the part of the player being asked to “carry the load” as they say in sports-lingo. Taking a majority of your team’s shots is exhausting. Carrying the ball up the court and taking every shot requires an almost super-human effort. This is close to what LeBron James was asked to do for part of last year’s playoffs because of injuries to his teammates and it clearly took a toll on him. He’s an incredible athlete, but even he had was visibly drained by the effort. Watching him force himself to keep handling the ball, keep driving to the hoop, and keep shooting when his body was telling him it would be easier to pass it up was a great lesson in unselfishness.

The last element of the question of selfishness in the NBA is the most delicate. In some ways, the criticism has nothing to do with tactics. The word selfish is a racially loaded word. I’ve written about this before. As basketball shifted from being a professional sport dominated by white and Jewish athletes to being one dominated by African-Americans, its default criticisms shifted as well. This is when basketball started being criticized as being selfish… and thuggish… and a whole bunch of other things that black people have been unfairly labeled as during the complicated and unfortunate racial history of our country.

It’s time to stop this. From now on, let’s all be more aggressive in our response to people who say they don’t like the NBA because it is selfish. They may not be racist — probably aren’t, in fact — but they are parroting a critique with a very bad history that isn’t at all, not even if you squint, supported by the actual evidence of what is going on in the NBA.

Is basketball the most selfish sport?

Dear Sports Fan,

What do you think of the NBA Finals this year? People seem to love watching LeBron James almost single-handedly beat the Golden State Warriors. They think it’s an incredible performance by James, and it is, but it also seems to confirm something I’ve not liked about basketball for a long time — that the individual is so much more important than the team. Basketball seems like an incredibly selfish sport. Is basketball the most selfish sport?

Thanks,
Eduardo


Dear Eduardo,

The skills and effort of a single person make more of a difference to whether their team wins in basketball than any other sport but that doesn’t mean that the sport is selfish. To answer your question, let’s examine why one player has a bigger impact on basketball than any other sport and then discuss whether that inevitably leads to selfishness. First though, we need to talk briefly about race.

Basketball has a complicated racial history in this country. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the sport was dominated by Jewish players, mostly from New York City and other nearby cities. Our current professional league, the National Basketball Association, was created in 1946 and so it caught the tail end of the Jewish basketball dynasty. The first basket in NBA history was scored by New York Knick, Ossie Schectman. A documentary, The First Basket, was named after this hoop, and describes the Jewish influence on the sport and league. Throughout the 1950s, Jews were replaced by African-Americans and by the mid-60s, most teams had close to a 50/50 split. From there, the league drew a progressively larger percent of their players from African-American households until it reached its current status as the professional sports league with the highest percentage of African Americans. According to the Race and Ethnicity in the NBA Wikipedia page, the NBA in 2011 was 78% African American. The reason why all of this is important is that race and racial stereotypes color the way many people describe activities, including sports. For the past 50 years of professional basketball in this country, that has unfortunately meant that the default criticisms of basketball players have mimicked negative stereotypes of African-Americans. Basketball players have been accused of being lazy and on drugs and they’ve been called thugs and yes, selfish. Compare that to what was written about basketball during the Jewish dominated 1930s, “the game places a premium on an alert scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart-aleckness.” Lazy? Selfish? Scheming? Smart-aleckness? It’s clear that we have to guard against racial stereotypes when we talk about the nature of basketball. We’ll proceed carefully.

A single basketball player can have a bigger impact on their team than any player in any other major team sport. There’s a simple numerical reason for this. Basketball is played five on five. Soccer is 11 on 11, football 11 on 11, baseball is nine (or 10 if you’re playing with and count a designated hitter), and hockey is six on six. Furthermore, a basketball player is able to play a greater percentage of the game than in most other sports. Football players play only on offense or defense, and often not even for all of the plays in either phase. Baseball players are limited to hitting once in every nine at bats and starting pitchers only pitch once every five games. Hockey is so exhausting that players are only on the ice for 45 seconds to a minute at a time before substituting. Soccer is the only sport where more players play a higher percentage of the game, but with 11 on the field at a time, it’s harder for an individual to dominate like a LeBron James can in basketball. The last, and perhaps most meaningful reason why it seems like a single basketball player can have a bigger impact on her team than in any other sport is how deliberate and individual offense can be. Basketball teams can usually create a one on one matchup for an offensive player, called an iso (short for isolation) whenever they want. The Cavaliers often default to this approach with James. That’s simply not true in other team sports. Hockey and soccer are too fluid and chaotic to ever consistently transform their sport into a contest of individuals. Any offense in football is evidently reliant on teamwork. The center has to snap the ball to the quarterback. The offensive line needs to protect him. The quarterback needs a wide receiver to get open and to catch the ball. Each part obviously relies on the other. In basketball, it’s easier for a team to transform a team sport into a contest between their best player and the opponent’s best player.

Being selfish has to do with motivation, not action. Google’s dictionary defines selfish as “lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.” The best basketball player on a team may do more than everyone else, but if he does it with the team’s goal of winning in his mind; if she does it because she wants her team to win, then he or she cannot be said to be selfish. One reason why people might think of the best basketball player on a team as being selfish is because the roles on a basketball court are so amorphous. We don’t call a starting pitcher in baseball selfish for throwing more pitches than any of the relievers on the team. We don’t consider a quarterback in football to be selfish because he barely ever lets anyone else throw the ball. It’s only in soccer, hockey, and basketball, where the positions all kind of look the same that accusations of selfishness come up. We’ve also been considering the best player on the team. What about the fourth, fifth, and sixth best players? The ones that are out there primarily to rebound and set picks? Just by being in the NBA, it’s safe to assume they were the best player on their middle school, high school, and maybe even college teams. They once were the ones doing most of the scoring and now their primary goal is to support the best on their team. There are more of those players than there are stars and they clearly cannot be called selfish, given how they give themselves up for the team’s good. Of course, it is possible for a basketball player to be selfish. She can refuse to pass to her teammates. He can shoot almost every time he gets the ball. For what its worth, LeBron James does neither of those things. He’s an excellent and willing passer. James could easily be selfish if he wanted to though, he touches the ball on most of the Cavaliers’ plays. Selfish players have an easier time being selfish in basketball than in other sports but that doesn’t make basketball a selfish game. It just makes it one where it’s easier to tell when someone is being selfish.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

Should the Washington Redskins Change their Name?

Today the Washington Redskins beat the Chicago Bears in a back and forth, exciting 45 to 41 game. Although they were able to outlast the Bears in a contest with very little effective defense, the Washington professional football team may not be able to outlast their opponents in another contest. Proponents of keeping the team name, Redskins, find themselves, like their team, without an effective defense.

The Redskins began their existence in 1932 in Boston under the name of the Braves which matched the name of the Boston baseball team they shared a field with. The next year, according to Wikipedia, the team moved to Fenway park where the Boston Red Sox played (and still do,) and changed their name to Redskins to match Red Sox better. In 1937 the team moved to Washington D.C.

It’s not completely clear why a movement to change the name has picked up momentum over the past year but it has. In recent weeks there has been a flurry of comments from prominent figures about the name. Television commentator Bob Costas used his platform on Sunday Night Football to argue that the name is “an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present day intent.” Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer claimed that the team should follow the trend of common usage which suggests that most people wouldn’t use the word Redskins “because the word [is] tainted, freighted with negative connotations with which you would not want to be associated.” President Obama even said in an interview that if he were the owner he would think about changing the name.

A few voices have come out in defense of the name. Foremost among them is the team owner, Daniel Snyder, who wrote a public letter to fans that was reprinted in many newspapers. Snyder sites public polls that show that most people, even most Native Americans are not offended by the use of the word “Redskins” in the team name. He also takes what I consider to be an unbelievably wrong-headed tack in arguing that the name should be preserved because of its great and historic legacy during the 81 years of the team’s existence. I can’t believe that in arguing for the preservation of a name with connections to a genocidal history that anyone thinks playing to its history is a good idea. Often vilified ESPN columnist Rick Reilly makes an interesting case for the name by (after first giving himself the street cred to make this argument without being accused of being racist by name-dropping his “father-in-law, a Blackfeet Indian”) sharing stories of mostly high-school teams with similar names whose predominantly Native American population are proud and defensive of. Reilly’s best line addresses Native Americans who defend the name, “Too late. White America has spoken. You aren’t offended, so we’ll be offended for you.” This paradox is also addressed in the best article I’ve read on the issue. Published on Deadspin.com and written by a Blackfeet Indian, Gyasi Ross, the article looks at what he believes the larger issue is — the unequal treatment of Native Americans as compared to other minorities by the mainstream public. He writes, “NO non-black person has ever gone rummaging through American cities in search of a black person who’s not offended by the word “nigger,” and then held them up as proof that the word isn’t so bad. ”

Of course this controversy has stirred up some of people’s best, worst, and most comedic instincts. Design company 99 Designs ran a contest to redesign the team’s logo with three name suggestions: Griffins, Warriors, and Renegades. They received 1,887 submissions in one week. PETA shamelessly stole an idea from a Tony Kornheiser column in 1992 and suggested that the team keep their name but change their logo to the potato of the same name. The Onion put its stamp on the issue with a fictional quote: “We’ve heard the concerns of many people who have been hurt or offended by the team’s previous name, and I’m happy to say we’ve now rectified the situation once and for all,” said franchise owner Dan Snyder, adding that “Washington Redskins” will be replaced with “D.C. Redskins” on all team logos, uniforms, and apparel.”

One common reaction to the controversy from many writers, bloggers, and podcasters has been to stop using the name Washington Redskins and instead go with the awkward “Washington Professional Football team” or the euphemistic “‘skins.” This seems as likely to help the team avoid the issue as it does to force them to change it. At Dear Sports Fan we’re going to keep using the name Washington Redskins until the team changes it, which we hope they do soon. Of all cities, the capital of the United States should be the most careful when it comes to team names that send racist or violent messages. Dan Snyder should emulate the former owner of the professional basketball franchise in Washington D.C., Abe Pollin, who got rid of the name “Bullets’ because of his feelings about gun violence.