Friday, September 13, 2019

Here, under protest, is Body Clocks

It is a cliche to explore all of the ways that paying attention to sports has changed in the twenty-first century except to add that they have added a bevy of new and gut-wrenching ways for a sufficiently damaged person to be neurotic about sporting events. 

For much of the existence of modern sports fandom, people have wanted to know: what is the dang score? And people have come up with ways to get it, whether it is by having small children screaming it on corners with newspapers or radio broadcasts, or even those insane live scoreboards that they showed on Ken Burns Baseball where 58,000 people are screaming at some guy who is moving around little baseball guys and none of the people realized they would be set to a mournful rendition of the national anthem and a voiceover from a 1980s newspaper columnist living in a madman's library.


In the twenty-first century, we got even more options all of which I have used to follow a Northwestern game: radio broadcasts over the internet, pirated streams filled with the types of computer viruses that announce themselves with animatronic cackling skulls and can only be defeated by typing very fast, and those little internet scoreboxes that show an arrow moving across a field. 

But one of the stranger innovations that we have is an attempt to not figure out the dang score because the game is being recorded.  This first became possible with VCRs and their semi-complicated recording settings that baffled an entire generation of standup comedians.  But avoiding the score is a particularly twenty-first century peccadillo because all of us are armed with devices that are shrieking at us at all times and require a person who wants to be absolutely certain of watching a sporting event unfold has to be prepared to vanquish all sorts of squawking internet distraction to try to avoid any unwanted information.  The solution to this could be to simply not care but anyone who has attempted watching a sporting event where they already know the score but not what happened knows that is its own sort of neurotic hell, like watching a movie where the trailer has already revealed that Arnold Schwarzenegger will at some point emerge from a body of water holding the barrel of a tank in each hand and saying "Tanks for nothing" but having no idea what the context is.
The moment in Eraser when Arnold Schwarzenegger kills 
a computer generated alligator and says "you're luggage" is 
the greatest dumb Arnold one-liner I've ever seen only because 
it seems excessive to quip at an animal that has no access to human language

I recorded the Stanford game and turned it on at 11:30 at night only to be greeted with a new feature from the cable company that automatically shows where the commercial breaks are.  This is intended to be useful so that if you record an episode of Welcome Back Kotter you can fast forward through a commercial for fraudulent dental accessory class action lawsuit and not miss a single Sweathog insult, but in the context of a football game is maddening.  Here were little orange lines signaling a commercial break but also forming a hieroglyphic of breaks in play that could be anything-- turnovers, punts, touchdowns, Pat Fitzgerald going into a crew-cut reverie from an uncalled holding penalty and having to be shot with multiple tranquilizer darts to prevent him from going on a frenzied spree of linebacking across the Bay Area.  It was watching football with a manically flawed oracle at the bottom of the screen explaining in no uncertain terms that something unspecified but significant was about to happen.  This is no way to watch football.  I ended up using my arm to physically block out the bottom of the screen whenever daring to fast forward like a sane and rational person.

The other bizarre effect of recorded football is a shift in time itself.  I like to fast forward through everything but the plays, because I don't necessarily enjoy watching guys huddle up and announcers describing that #43 right there is making football plays because he is part football that's right Tim I think one of his parents was an actual football what we are seeing is a horrible abomination but gosh dang it can this kid tackle, but doing so always involves moving slightly past the action.  What that meant for me is that when Northwestern got the ball back with 30 seconds left, I fast forwarded enough to see a referee raise his arms to signal a touchdown and thought that it could only mean that Northwestern had managed to pull off an insane victory right play to salvage a fairly miserable game only to see that what had happened is that the Stanford defense viciously strip sacked and scored an insult to injury touchdown.

The opening game for Northwestern was bad.  The offense sputtered.  The team suffered numerous injuries.  Several Northwestern tacklers fell victim to Wile E. Coyote physics.  The encouraging thing is that at no point until the final minute in this hideous abomination of a football game were the Wildcats not in it against a ranked team on the road.

I have given up getting concerned over the non-conference schedule.  It is clear after last year that the non-conference games don't seem to matter and Pat Fitzgerald is solely concerned with taking Big Ten teams into overtime or at the very least punting 75 times before scoring a touchdown somehow and winning 13-10.  Stanford was at least a decent team, and it was a road game; the Wildcats are very content to lose to any team at any time in the nonconference schedule whether it is a ranked Pac 12 team or a defunct college team from the 1940s fielding a team of octogenarians.  In the past few years, Northwestern has lost to an FCS team at home and then won a bowl game and lost to a team that has literally never defeated a Big Ten team and then played in the conference championship game.  All this loss has done is probably eliminate Northwestern from the Playoff that they were unlikely to make and if somehow they actually get close we can just blame the whole thing on Body Clocks.

UNLV AND BEYOND

The Wildcats will open the home season against the University of Nevada Las Vegas and expect all of Ryan Field operate at maximum revelry: the Emaciated Wildcat Tunnel, the throbbing AC/DC music, and the single red firework that they shoot during the rocket's red glare part of the National Anthem while more often than not there is someone parachuting in with a gigantic American flag and sometimes it is terrifying because you are screaming "oh no oh no there's parachute guys  up there" but then the rocket harmlessly red glares itself past all paratroopers.

I cannot claim to pretend to know anything about UNLV football other than they do not go by the "Runnin' Rebels" except in basketball and the entire team is unexpectedly Confederate.  They are 1-1 with a comfortable victory over Southern Utah and a crushing loss to the Sun Belt's Alabama State.  Northwestern has already had a bye week and will be back in Chicago's Big Ten Time Zone. 

But what point is in trying to figure things like this out? Pat Fitzgerald's vintage of Northwestern is less of a football team than a variety of avant-garde football projects designed to undermine the concept of rational thought and projection.  In my brain, Fitzgerald is so angry at statistics and math that he has become a sort of Steakhead Foucauldian, casting football statistics as an exercise of a power structure and attempting to subvert it by losing to FCS teams at home while sinking to his knees and grass-staining his official Wildcat Coaching Shorts.  While it is clear and obvious that Fitzgerald operates as the head of a bizarre Overtime Cult, it may also be true that his secondary objective is to ridicule and dismiss the concept of S&P+ rankings.  This makes for a bizarre and stressful situation as a fan but given that the general expectation for Northwestern any given year is to get more or less rampaged upon, it is perhaps by continuously doing the unexpected such as losing games in which they are favored by double digits that allows them to inexplicably get to the Conference Championship game and irritate everyone.  This is the third goal of Northwestern Football, and my favorite.

This blog is going on vacation and will return after the Michigan State game

Friday, August 30, 2019

College Football's Impossible Task

As college football kicks off in all of its maniacal indecency, an enormous number of fans, pundits, and college students hopped up on memes are going to attempt to do one of the funniest things that anyone does in American sports and try to explain which college football teams are better than other ones.

This futile task consumes sophisticated numbers nerds with homebrew formulas and men on television with necktie knots so large that they affect the positioning of their cohosts’ neckties, all of whom can be shaken awake in the middle of the night during a natural disaster and still manage to sternly turn to anyone in the vicinity and say “I gotta say, I like that defense but they’re not gonna win if they don’t hold onta that ball;” the burden also falls on people who are drunkenly yelling at each other in parking lots.

College football’s innovators have come up with several key methods to examine whether a team is better than another one such as having them play games against each other. This method, though, remains fraught with uncertainty. The vagaries of a single game resolve little. After all, football analytics specialists tell us that games decided by seven points or fewer are basically random tossups. And even more decisive victories can be explained away by other issues—in 2015, for example, Stanford lost to Northwestern in the opening game and spent the rest of the season claiming that it should not count because the effect of flying to Evanston for an 11:00AM kickoff had so disrupted their Body Clocks that only an uncaring philistine ignorant in the basics of human physiology would expect them to have been able to win. Other hazards of games include poorly-timed injuries and athletics scandals, and, most importantly, uncalled holding penalties, a particular malady that aggrieves internet message board commenters.

But far thornier is the problem of the teams that do not play each other, which is the vast majority of football games. In order to deal with this issue, anyone attempting to rate football teams must take into account conferences, opponents, how badly they trounced other teams or found themselves the victims of Body Clocks, etc. In a normal sport, there would be a manageable number of teams to allow them to all play each other. But the college football universe is vast and unfathomable, and at some point the only way to divine true football ratings is to imagine an entire architecture of hypothetical football outcomes through computer models or by taking a vision quest aided by psychotropic drugs. 

Every year, this issue culminates in the controversy over the Playoff and the Championship.  College football has no idea how to handle this and keeps handing the job over to various cabals of bureaucrats and groups of people who attempt to persuade them by flying airplanes with banners over stadiums or by cutting wrestling promos on Paul Finebaum who has become the Mean Gene Okerlund of college football.  The whole enterprise continually reeks of conspiracy theories about preferential conference treatment and baroque Pynchonesque societies of mascot syndicates going back to the middle ages.  College football is the only sport where it is routine for teams to claim national championships like they are pretenders to a throne, their armies of fans surrounding NCAA headquarters under the banner of an AAC False Dmitry.

The forces of the University of Central Florida besieging a castle under the false flag of the Colley Matrix
Despite this grumbling, the playoff picture presents the most sane way of judging college football teams.  Those are where the very few colossus teams play-- the Clemsons and Alabamas, and handful of other teams steamrolling their way across hapless opponents in a grotesque spectacle.  Those teams are unmistakably good by any metric whether it is by S&P+ or press rankings or the trail of limbs and helmets strewn over the field by any team unfortunate enough to line up against them and spend the next several hours exploring the chemical composition of their soil or field turf from millimeters away.  There are also the unmistakably shitty teams too-- UCONN and whatever sorry squad has emanated from Lovie Smith's beard in any given season who spend most of their time advancing on ball carriers as effectively as a group of henchmen menacing Jason Statham.

But in college football's Roiling Middle, there is no way to weigh the performance of teams.  They play with an oblong ball in conditions raging from feverish swamp to blizzard, they are made up of teenagers, and everyone in charge is a red-faced maniac named "Chip" or "Bobby" who manages to ascend to histrionic heights not experienced by normal human beings-- imagine the angriest you have ever been in your life, so livid that no circumstance whether being in public or running short on time to evacuate before a volcano erupts can stop you from hollering as loud as you can at the target of your wrath and doing it for four hours at a time and that is how the persons in charge of football comport themselves on a normal Saturday.  An analyst can devise the most sophisticated model in the world that takes into consideration wind conditions and how players did on their midterm examinations or whether or not the coach is wearing shorts and still somehow a team will absolutely annihilate a good team standing in their way and then go out the next week and lose to Rutgers.

The combination of certainty and chaos makes college football so compelling.  In the macro sense, college football is dull-- the same cluster of teams get the best players, build the most ludicrous Harold J. "Zip" Clobbsmann Football Performance Centers With Waterslides, and ultimately win the trophy; most teams enter the season knowing they do not and will never have a chance for a championship short of simply claiming one.  But week to week, some team with a number in front of their name will get obliterated, embarrassed, field-charged and forced out of the playoff picture or even knocked down in the Great Hierarchy of Bowl Prestige and even the staunchest green-visored number zealots will rejoice while fans of the losing team get performatively angry online and demand that the offensive coordinator be fired.

NORTHWESTERN PREVIEW

We're not sure how, but the Northwestern Wildcats will play football again, even after scathing reviews.  The 'Cats lost every single out of conference game including one to Akron, a team that hadn't beaten a Big Ten team ever in more than 100 years of trying. They also won the Big Ten West and played in the Conference Championship Game then won a bowl game after going down 28-3.  They played hideous football, had no functioning running game for large chunks of the season, rotated quarterbacks with the capricious whims of a Football Caligula, and still won the Big Ten West with three weeks to spare.  They played 14 games, more than any other Northwestern team in history, inflicting themselves on the entire country.  It was one of the most confounding, silly, and greatest seasons in school history.

Pat Fitzgerald has put together his program, and that involves grinding the clock down to nothing and waiting for a Northwestern player to perform a miracle or for an opponent to do something transcendently, operatically stupid at the worst possible time and it's happened more often than not.  Fitzgerald is the only coach who watches Friday Night Lights for the gameplans.  But whatever it is that is happening, it is working, and Fitzgerald has grown more prominent in the coaching ranks, getting more resplendently red and coming up with increasingly weird grumpy takes.  So far, Fitzgerald has inveighed against communism and cell phones; this season, expect him to take aim at reckless Auto-Mobilesmanship and the designs of the Kaiser in the Ottoman Balkans.

The big story for Northwestern is a changing of guard at quarterback.  Clayton Thorson has graduated and gone to the NFL where Philadelphia's fans have greeted him with shoulder-mounted bazookas.  Fitzgerald has been coy about his replacement.  It will be either Hunter Johnson, the heralded transfer from Clemson or stalwart T.J. Green.  Most expect Johnson to play, but football coaches love not saying who the quarterback is because they enjoy pretending they are stentorian generals controlling Sensitive Classified (Eyes Only) information, and they will not compromise the integrity of the mission.

The 'Cats will face off against Stanford in a sequel to the 2015 contest.  That game was a stunning upset and, as always mentioned, a catalyst for the hundreds of Body Clock jokes I have made for the last four years.  Say "The Big Game" to most people in the context of Stanford football and they will conjure images of John Elway and players wending their way through the marching band before arriving in the endzone and obliterating a hapless trombone player who was riveted to the spot like a Godzilla victim, but for me it was the time that Stanford lost a game and then mentioned Body Clocks and then me never shutting up about it.  False start? Oh, that's a body clock. Incomplete pass? Better check on your precious bodily fluids.  Honestly, there's fairly compelling evidence that West Coast teams having to play early games further east are badly affected by this, but latching onto incredibly dumb shit is a time-honored and essential element of college football discourse and I will never stop.  I probably won't even know what the score to this game is other than body clock to non-body clock.
Precious Bodily Clocks

If it is, as I have argued, nearly impossible to tell what football teams will do this season, it is completely impossible to predict what will happen in a Northwestern football season.  They will beat teams they should not, they will probably lose inexplicably to a bad team, they will attempt to send every game into overtime whether they are winning or losing, and they will confound anyone insane enough to get into the football predictions business.  No analyst can pin them down, no formula can constrain them.  They are strange and infuriating and they are defending the Big Ten West crown.       

Monday, August 12, 2019

COLD COPY: Bill Carmody, Basketball Zealot

Bill Carmody retired on June 18. Here is a brief appreciation of that I wrote and half-heartedly and unsuccessfully attempted to get published elsewhere. Readers of this blog will note that there is not much that is new here as I've rhapsodized about Carmody in previous articles on Northwestern's sports gimmicks and the strange sensation of watching Carmody take Holy Cross to the NCAA Tournament, but I am posting this here because I remembered that it exists.

Chicago Tribune reporter Teddy Greenstein wrote that at a Northwestern basketball event, one fan asked head coach Bill Carmody a “long-winded and ill-informed” question about changing his Princeton offense to fit his star players.  “No,” said Bill Carmody.

The thing to know about Bill Carmody is that he is a basketball zealot.  Carmody, who retired in June from coaching after stints at Princeton, Northwestern, and Holy Cross, believes wholly and truly in the Princeton offense.  There is nothing that basketball has thrown at Carmody in nearly a quarter century of head coaching jobs-- not rule changes, stylistic revolutions, NBA players, the bludgeoning crew cuts of the Big Ten-- that Carmody has not tried to solve with a series of slowly-developing back cuts.  “The only active coach who has been loyal to an offensive system for longer than Bill Carmody,” basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy tweeted, “is Roy Williams.”

Carmody won but not a lot, appeared occasionally in the postseason but never led a team past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, made a few quips at press conferences but never made waves as the type of larger-than-life character bred by college basketball.  His greatest achievement was to take his slow, methodical, and grinding offense, fuse it with some disconcerting and undulating zone defenses, and stock his teams with strange beanpole physiques and odd, catapult jumpshooters and players with a general rec-spec handball aesthetic-- and to bring all of this into storied basketball arenas and sometimes win.

Carmody learned the Princeton offense at the hands of its inventor Pete Carrill.  He worked as Carrill’s assistant for fourteen years and then took over the program in 1996.  His Tigers made the tournament two years in a row; in the 1997-1998 season, they were ranked as highly as seventh in the nation.

But it was Carmody’s stint with Northwestern that allowed him to push his system to its absolute limit.  Here, in the Big Ten, he would face name brand programs, legendary coaches, NBA players, and raucous, hostile arenas on the road and at home, where visiting fans regularly overwhelmed the few Northwestern fans who could still stomach turning out to watch their historically moribund team get clobbered twice a week.  

The Big Ten in the early 2000s was, with few exceptions, not a home for fleet, exciting basketball.  It appealed to fans of violent, fundamental defense and lumbering. Carmody surveyed this situation and decided, as he always did, that he would slow it down.  Northwestern teams passed the ball around the perimeter and looked to find a lane for a cutter or an open jump shot for all 35 seconds if necessary; they’d wait for a sliver of daylight or missed rotation or for defenders to just get bored and walk off the court to try to find a game of basketball somewhere.  Then Northwestern would shoot, run to the other end, get violently dunked on, and start it up again.

Carmody had little time for any gladhanding niceties foisted on a college head coach, things that cut into his true love which was standing around a practice gym with arms folded muttering “aw, c’mon.”  He seemed ill-disposed to the slick salesmanship involved with recruiting and he did not have much to sell-- Northwestern had never qualified for the NCAA Tournament, and a spot on the team before Carmody offered only the opportunity to get glared at by Gene Keady or heckled by a visiting fan at close range because the only way for players to get to the court at Welsh-Ryan arena was to shoulder past the hot dog line.  Carmody and his staff convinced some talented local players like Jitim Young (a 6’2” guard who somehow led the team in rebounding) to join, but also began recruiting heavily overseas where Northwestern’s reputation as a basketball wasteland had less resonance. This international backcutting unit managed to pull off heretofore unimagined feats: in 2004, they managed to win as many Big Ten games as they lost for the first time since 1968; several years later, they made the N.I.T. 

Under Carmody, Northwestern did the unthinkable and became decent.  He found his greatest player, John Shurna, a spindly forward with a hideous but unstoppable jump shot that came from his chest and fired like the spring-loaded projectile from an action figure.  Those teams found themselves knocking on the door of the NCAA Tournament. During the 2011-2 season, they came as agonizingly close to making the tournament as possible. The Wildcats took nearly every high-ranked team they needed to beat to overtime or the very last second and then someone would push a button for the buzzer and send them back to the N.I.T.  Shuna graduated, went on to play in Spain, and appeared in a New York Times article because he grew an enormous and ungainly beard.  They never made the tournament, and Northwestern fired Carmody after thirteen seasons.

Holy Cross hired Carmody in 2015, and something magical happened.  The Crusaders won ten games in the regular season. They lost all of their Patriot League road games and finished the regular season on a five-game losing streak.  Then, they somehow swept the conference tournament and cut down the nets. Bill Carmody was finally back in the NCAA Tournament with one of the strangest and least likely runs in the history of the sport.  And it was all there: the back cuts, the 1-3-1 zone lunging across the key, the one guy who could shoot threes, the offense grinding with the smoke and squeak of Victorian machinery designed to frustrate an opponent into just wanting to get this shit over with already-- this could have been any Bill Carmody team at any point playing the only type of basketball that he would ever allow himself to play.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

When Nixon Was In Nixonland

Richard Nixon looms over the twenty-first century.  There is Nixon as a cultural kitsch object, with his gestures and his catchphrases and deeply unsettling television appearances  and his damp paranoiac scowl that makes for an easy punchline.  There is Nixon now, in 2019, invoked as government hearings and special prosecutor's reports swirl around us-- former White House counsel and Watergate witness John Dean recently testified, and former Nixon ratfucker Roger Stone flaunted his Nixon tattoo and victory pose after his arrest.  But Nixon casts a larger shadow in politics.  In Nixonland, Rick Perlstein uses Nixon as a stand-in for American polarization along new axes, divisions based on apocalyptic language and violence. 

Nixon, in Perlstein's depiction, serves as an odd symbol of the political chaos of the 1960s.  He comes across as a ruthless striver (an Orthogonian, as Perlstein calls him using the name of the club of outsiders from college that Nixon formed in contrast to the natural, wealthy, elite Franklins-- Perlstein uses Orthagonians and Franklins throughout the books in a device that loses its novelty long before page 700).  Nixon is not a fanatic, but an opportunist-- he rises from obscurity by riding the wave of anticommunism in the Alger Hiss case, strengthens his anticommunist bromides by yelling at Nikita Khrushchev, and aligns with the hard right burbling in the Republican Party represented by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan only when it becomes his path to victory in the 1968 Republican primary.  Nixon certainly made decisions to intensify the tensions rivening Amercians-- his law and order campaign language that implicitly privileged police violence against protesters, his deal with Strom Thurmond to undercut integration efforts and by implication all civil rights, his vice president Spiro Agnew's operatic denunciations of the press in the mode of a hammy stage villain with an unreliable false mustache.  But it was Nixon's efforts to prolong and intensify the war in Vietnam as the horrific effects of the bombs and fading justifications for American involvement became more apparent that most dangerously divided the country. As bombs devastated Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, Americans became further enraged either in disgust for the war or entrenched in support for it.

Perlstein's biggest challenge in Nixonland comes from the fact that he is writing about the Turbulent Sixties, a time that exists in some readers' living memory or for younger readers, the endless discussions, reproductions, and omnipresence of The 1960s in culture as the Baby Boomers came of age and devoted a large percentage of media to building 1960s simulacra.  This is a strange situation.  While certain distorted elements of the past have been reconstructed and commodified (the "old west" springs to mind), the combination of readily accessible television and recording archives and media executives' decisions to prioritize this particular era for nostalgia has left entire subsequent generations marinating in The Sixties.  As we speak, someone somewhere is splicing "For What It's Worth" into a documentary.  The Rolling Stones are still on tour, and Danny Boyle has just made a movie about how Beatles songs would still vault a performer into superstardom that can be read as boomer cult of immortality.  What can Perlstein write about the Nixon-Kennedy debates after they've been so solidified into pop culture that the popular understanding of them can be summarized in 30 seconds on the Simpsons?

The toughest thing for anyone writing about the Nixon era not only involves historians' normal difficulty gathering sources, making sense of them, and assembling material into something that provides fresh insights or sells books, but also involves grappling with a time that has been churned over and calcified into a Gump-hued caricature that everyone already thinks they know about.

In Nixonland, the familiarity of headlines is part of the reason why the book is so compelling.  Perlstein brilliantly weaves them all together with an emphasis on what people were reading in newspapers and watching on television to give a sense of the chaotic and overwhelming events and how they were all almost immediately subsumed into some sort of political narrative.  Perlstein also highlights now-obscure issues that were a big deal at the time and since-forgotten ephemera.  In one case, Nixon, grappling with the Moratorium movement against the Vietnam War that had organized a massive, national protest in 1969, decided to do some PR by personally responding to a letter from a college student.  That student responded to Nixon's speech about the democratic process by denigrating it because he was the president of the Ignatius J. Reilly-esque Student Monarchist Society, and he demanded the iron fist of some aristocrat riven with inbreeding.

While Nixonland is about more than Nixon himself, Perlstein does spend enough time with Nixon to capture his own own innately bizarre Nixonness.  Nixon, preoccupied with his image after the 1960 election, spends his time obsessively shaving like he's some sort of damp werewolf.  Nixon, bingewatching Patton while marinating in scotch.  Nixon figuring out his greatest political asset, according to Perlstein, was his talent to get the sniffy elites and protesters despised by the voters he courted to hate him.  During a campaign for the 1970 midterm elections, Nixon and his press office arranged to show him abused by large crowds. At a stop in San Jose, Perlstein writes that Nixon chief of staff Bob Haldeman arranged for protestors to have time to surround Nixon's motorcade.  "Nixon lept up on the hood of his bulletproof limousine, made the two-handed V-salute, and jutted out his chin.  He told his handlers 'That's what they hate so see!'"
 
You hate to see it

Here Nixon echoed one of the most important moments of his career, an attack on his motorcade in Venezuela during a 1958 tour as vice president.  For this moment, and several other early Nixon episodes, the strangest accounts were those left by Nixon in a desperate, last-ditch attempt to sell himself.

SIX CRISES

Nixon released Six Crises in the wake of his loss in the 1960 presidential election.  Six Crises is by no means a good book-- like most politician's tomes it is boring, self-serving, largely ghost-written, and meant exclusively to pump up the author's profile before an election (it came out as Nixon was running his ill-fated 1962 campaign for California governor).  The ostensible point of the book is a manual for crisis management through Nixon's various humiliating fuck-ups, times people tried to bludgeon him to death, etc.  Instead, though, the point is to describe how Richard Milhous Nixon is a cool customer and always acts with propriety in the interests of the United States despite unscrupulous political rivals and vicious communists trying to foil him at every turn.

Nixon's posturing in Six Crises in 2019 serves as its own punchline because we all know how the story ends, with a Seventh Crisis, the series of political smears and setups and the bumbling boob-henchmen and the botched robbery and the coverup and the tapes that are all just Nixon sitting around the oval office grumbling about those bastards and hot pants and everything else that has been subsumed into the larger grotesquerie of Nixonia.

"Friday, November 7 was a bleak day at the start of a long, cold, Washington winter," one paragraph begins jackwebbically.  "It was a particularly cold day in the fortunes of the Republican Party and of Richard Nixon." According to his publisher Kenneth McCormick's New York Times obituary, Nixon wrote that section on the 1960 election himself and I would have really enjoyed an entire book in that style, just Nixon freestyling on meteorological portents and referring to himself in the third person: The wind whipped through parade as the boos cascaded around the limo like the leaves cascading from the trees.  But there was one man who was not whipped: Richard Nixon.  The thermometer said it was boiling but nothing on the face of the Earth was as hot as Richard Nixon as Khrushchev rained another blow on the Maytag.

Most of the crises in the book unfold with a series of meetings, negotiations, speeches and television appearances.  The most interesting chapter, though, involves violence and  thrilling escapes.  In the spring of 1958, Nixon was sent on a tour through South America.  There, Nixon finds himself spat upon, screamed at, and attacked in what he describes as a series of literal communist plots.  "This paper [the Tribuna Popular, the Venezuelan Communist Party's organ] contained a particularly vicious attack on the United States and a front-page photograph of me, doctored so my teeth looked like fangs and my face like that of a war-mongering fiend." During a parade in Venezuela, Nixon's motorcade got ensnared in a road block and attacked; Nixon did find himself in legitimate physical danger.

My favorite passage in the book comes earlier in the Caracas chapter.  There, Nixon also meets with protest in Lima, where he describes shoving his way back to his hotel through a hostile crowd.  In this section Nixon reveals the funniest possible Nixon, Tough Guy Nixon:
Just as I reached the hotel door I came face to face with a man I later learned was one of the most notorious Communist agitators in Lima.  I saw before me a weird-looking character whose bulging eyes seemed to merge with his mouth and nose in one distorted blob.  He let fly a wad of spit which caught me full in the face.  I went through in that instant a terrible test of temper control.  One must experience the sensation to realize why spitting in a person's face is the most infuriating insult ever conceived by man.  I felt an almost uncontrollable urge to tear the face in front of me to pieces. [Secret Service agent Jack] Sherwood deserves the credit for keeping me from handling the man personally.  He grabbed him by the arm and whirled him out of my path, but as I saw his legs go by, I at least had the satisfaction of planting a healthy kick on his shins.  Nothing I did all day made me feel better.
Six Crises is clearly meant to prop up the seemingly dead political career of Nixon, and therefore he portrays himself as statesmanlike, at times even courtly.  But Nixon was also not going to write an entire book without sticking a few shivs into his variegated enemies.  The Caracas chapter, for example, ends with reports of his rival Nelson Rockefeller landing at his estate in Venezuela a few months after Nixon's escape and telling the crowd there "I have nothing to do with Nixon."  Nixon writes "I had received a cable from Nelson Rockefeller which read 'your courage and determination have inspired democratic forces throughout the hemisphere.  We all feel a great sense of pride in your action.  Congratulations."  That is the end of the chapter.

The section on the 1960 election allows Nixon to get in all of his jabs at Kennedy again, blasting him as inexperienced at foreign policy and able to get away with waffling on key issues all because he did not go on TV in the debate and look like he was going to crawl through the set and eat Americans the way Nixon did.  Nixon magnanimously concedes defeat for the good of the country while also presenting readers with a numbered List of Election Irregularities.  Nixon alleges that Kennedy used privileged information about plans to train insurgents to depose Castro to trap him in an impossible position.  Nixon, in the 1968 edition that I have, continues the argument in a vindictive footnote that ends "beyond this I have no comment. My book speaks for itself." 

IN NIXONLAND

"Our nation stands at a fork in the political road.  In one direction lies a land of slander and scare; the land of sly innuendo, the poison pen, the anonymous phone call and hustling, pushing shoving; the land of smash and grab and anything to win.  This is Nixonland.  America is something different," Adlai Stevenson said in a speech during the 1956 campaign. 

But Perlstein disagreed.  He saw Nixonland as intrinsically wrapped up in America.  "Nixonland," Perstein writes, "is the America where two separate and irreconcilable sets of apocalyptic fears coexist in the minds of two separate and irreconcilable groups of Americans."  Division, dirty tricks, and acts of political violence are not novel to the Nixon era, but are foundational parts of the country, what Philip Roth called the "American berserk."  However, there are novel features of the American landscape that Perlstein calls attention to: the specific realignment of partisan politics that has recontoured political parties into their modern form, the importance of television, the Nixonian attacks on the media emanating from Agnew and Nixon's dead-eyed Munster castoff Watergate-era press secretary Ron Ziegler.

And while Nixon looms large, Perlstein himself would caution against reaching too literally into the past.  Don't you dare fucking tweet at Perlstein that some political event is exactly like Nixonland like you're comparing the Denver Nuggets to Game of Thrones.  Nixon's brand of corruption surely reminded contemporaries of the past figures while few people before him could envision his own brand of flinty-eyed, Haldeman haircut paranoia, the past not repeating but echoing into grotesque distortions unimaginable until they already happen.

Monday, May 13, 2019

The NFL Draft is the Strangest Spectacle on Television

At least the Super Bowl, the NFL's great spectacle of football and bizarre halftime entertainment and people huddling in house parties to see how a truck is going to be sold to them does surround a football game-- one that decides which team gets rings, the parade, and a special on NFL Network where one of the available Baldwin Brothers will growl-narrate how that tough loss to Carolina in Week 10 was the turning point of the season that brought them together.  The NFL Draft, though, is the league's greatest achievement in Verhoeven spectacle, a three-day extravaganza of people reading a list of football players that subsumed no less than three entire television networks full of suit guys screaming made-up words like ELITE EXPLOSION-FACTOR.  The NFL brings out former players to yell about the picks, along with inspiring children and military personnel; eventually it devolves into inexplicable, demented skits such as this one about murderous hail of footballs:
The NFL Draft is so compelling to me because it is the NFL distilled to its essence.  The Super Bowl represents the NFL making its case as an institution woven inextricably into the American fabric, an unavoidable event that has turned itself into a secular holiday and must hold everyone's attention with things that Americans unequivocally like: musical extravaganzas, commercials where animated animals blast farts at each other.  The draft, on the other hand, is an even weirder phenomenon, a bizarre and arcane morass of scouting and salary cap esoterica involving amateur players that 95 percent of the audience has never heard of; the NFL has willed this into an unfathomably popular avant-garde television program.  The NFL has done this because the NFL exists in a strange bubble where the NFL draft and its celebration of tape-eating and incomprehensible scouting lingo and screeching about "elite measurables" and "questionable attitude" because a college player wore a coat or headbutted someone is the most important thing in the world. 

The NFL draft is extremely popular.  It exists on network television instead of broadcast on close-circuit television in a grubby OTB next to some depiction of that ubiquitous internet drawing of monkeys swordfighting unfolding in real life.  Thousands of people filled the streets of Nashville for the event in garish face paints to react in triumph or agony or, after the first round, general bemusement since they've never heard of the vast majority of the players and so they just do some generic football yelling.  Fans gather in bars or even their own stadiums to watch the draft on television solely, as far as I can tell, to generate internet memes when their team reaches for the wrong quarterback.  Few things in the NFL draft will ever be as funny as when the Bears invited Mike Glennon to their official draft party so he could watch them trade up to select his replacement before he sheepishly bobbleheaded his way out of there in embarrassment. 

When you're blindsided by Trubisky

Why is the NFL draft so popular?  I have no idea. The Internet Style Guide suggests I should simply take my own bizarre reasons for watching this and throw a "we" in the headline so I could write something like "We Watch the NFL Draft for The Excesses of Grotesque, Corporate Pageantry And Also To See Who Will Select Clayton Thorson" or, even better, "Stop Watching the Draft So You Can Write About It At Length for your Blogspot Website." 

The Philadelphia Eagles select Clayton Thorson in the fifth round in the 
background of a Street Fighter II Guile Fight

Part of it, if I were to venture a guess, comes as a part of the NFL's imperial domination of American sports discourse.  Part of it also comes from the excitement of player selection, where fans who support the lowest, shittiest teams can look at 45 seconds of some fifth-round guy shredding MAC defenses who had a very impressive time in the Cone Drill and imagine him doing the same thing to the Cincinnati Bengals.  And part of it is because even though a very small number of people watching have any sort of mechanism to scout players even by the dubious methods used by professionals, a consensus emerges before the draft about the top players and it is very fun to collectively mock teams for departing from it.

A TAXONOMY OF FOOTBALL TALK

My favorite part of the draft is its bizarre argot.  Not only does the NFL draft have its own stupid and incomprehensible jargon where very serious men with tie knots the size of an infant's skull come up with a dumber way to say that someone is big or fast, it also incorporates all of the numerous and idiotic ways people talk about football and sports in general in the twenty-first century. Here is a brief taxonomy:

1. Football-Knower lingo that is used by television personalities who have spent so much time around football that they have no idea how normal human beings talk and by non-professionals who really want everyone else to know that they have seen the All 22 footage.  The greatest exponent of this is Jon Gruden.  There's an old profile of Gruden from the New Yorker most notable for the impossibly ludicrous New Yorker diaresis dropped on the phrase "offensive coördinator" that details how he gets up at 3:17AM to spend hours and hours in a storage shed watching tape to prepare for his broadcasts in order to explain to viewers that (chuckle) lemme tell ya, this Peyton Manning is a heckuva quarterback.

2. Scout Talk about Motors, and Get-offability, and all of that nonsense.  A few years ago, the word they kept using was "sudden," which was a genuine literary invention-- you can imagine Mel Kiper, Jr. reading from a new short story to his writer's workshop "It only took an instant for the clouds to break over Richard 'Dreadnought' Grench's face or for a joke to curdle into a sulk. He was sudden--just like his swim move that let him lead the Big Twelve in Quarterback Hurries before the plantar injury against Baylor."  The weirdest thing about Scout Talk is when they start sizing up player's bodies by talking about "adding to their frames" and doing Butt Phrenology.

Every year, they come up with a sillier and more abstract way of saying the same thing but invent clumsy new term to make it sound more technical and complicated.  The NFL loves sounding technical and complicated.  Football fans love when their Football Men do Football Talk.  The result is a David Mamet play breaking out in between footage of some Big 12 receiver scoring touchdowns and mascots standing underneath a fighter jet.  I genuinely wonder what these draft expert goofballs are like outside this milieu, whether their bromides about twitchy motors is just some schtick they can turn off or whether they spend all their time bellowing at each other about elite get-off moves in diners or when being fitted for enormous pin-striped suits.

3. Advanced Stats analyses that exist mainly to throw cold water on the Scout Talk and to remind everyone about how essentially random the draft can be while simultaneously peddling numbers that actually correlate to draft success.  The Advanced Stats dialect exists mainly to heap scorn onto general managers who select quarterbacks based on them being tall and having strong jawlines and to explain that ninety percent of what happens in a football game is luck and will eventually regress to the mean.

4. Dumb Guy Analytics, which is when square-headed Football Guys clumsily try to repackage their anodyne Football Guy insights as some sort of advanced stats like when you get one of the infinite varieties of Trents Dilfer donning an extra large accounting visor and standing quizzically in front of a chalkboard that says Trent's Advanced Stats while he comes up with Quarterback Wins.  This is one of the best things about football and should only be encouraged.

5. Asset Chat that is part of the financialization of all things sports. The new buzzword in the NFL draft is Draft Capital.  The idea that drafting is far more random than the TV guys want to think and that the best strategy involves just getting as many picks as possible makes sense.  At the same time, the invention of complex charts about pick depreciation and analyses that examine the draft based entirely on byzantine pick swap strategies all read like this clip of a professional wrestler who is also wearing head-chainmail for reasons I have no interest in exploring:


There are plenty of other insane things about the NFL draft-- the militarism, the overwhelming and preening presence of Roger Goodell even as he gets showered in boos, the draft's devolution from ludicrous self-seriousness to bizarre skits, the inevitable and wearying tedium of the draft's final day-- but none of these things can ever be as strange and inexplicable as the existence of the draft and its attendant spectacle itself.      

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Review/Preview


It is impossible to write anything more evocative on Northwestern's tortured, miserable, last-place basketball season than this gif of Chris Collins on all fours slapping the floor, his eyes glazed with a sheen of madness.  This might be my favorite basketball gif of all time.  Collins is no longer coaching.  He is not drawing a play.  He is not giving an inspirational speech about rebounding.  He is watching his team hang tough with the number two ranked team in the country, he has seen a foul called, and he is reacting as if he is Charlton Heston and the University of Michigan has erected a Statue of Liberty in the student section.

One of the funniest things about sports, and college sports in particular, is the dichotomy between the figure of the coach as stern disciplinarian, here to shape athletes into better people under his or her gruff tutelage and the fact that we allow them to spend games in a maniacal reverie that would be otherwise baffling and unacceptable in any other context.  Successful coaches are allowed to parlay their fame into getting paid to go into a grain silo accessories sales executive convention and talking about Leadership and Discipline and Being A Winner Who Wins Like A Winner and then getting onto a field or a court to scream at an official while their heads flash red like an airplane wing light and their faces swell and bulge into an impression of the world's least subtle mime acting out a dogbite on the groin scenario and this is apparently fine.

There's a reason to draw a thread between Chris Collins's on-court histrionics and Northwestern's rough season because Wildcat fans are searching for a reason for a slew of early departures that have ravaged the team since Collins took over.  If there is one common theme for the Chris Collins era other than the triumphant 2017 tournament berth, it has been departure.  Several of Collins's recruits have transferred to make way for other players; one player alleges in a lawsuit that he was essentially thrown off the team and encouraged to give up an athletic scholarship via methods that included being barred from practice, remanded to landscaping duties, and getting accused of shirking through time cards that look like they had been forged and doctored because the person filling them out could not successfully spell his name.

This week, three graduated players with eligibility remaining have decided to leave as graduate transfers.  Barrett Benson, a presumed starter at center, graduated in three years in order to hasten his departure.  It is, I suppose, not fair to speculate on why players are leaving the program-- they may all have their own reasons, and the timing could be a coincidence-- but I do not think it is unfair to at least ask some questions about the guy above who looks like he's taking a foul call less well than the villainous cartoon character Skeletor.

The swirling mass of transfers has created an air of crisis around Northwestern basketball beyond its usual crisis of being Northwestern basketball.  The 'Cats had already graduated two all-time great players in Vic Law and Dererk Pardon, both of whom had been instrumental in getting the Wildcats to the tournament for the first time; Pardon's last-second layup to beat Michigan and clinch the tourney berth is the greatest Northwestern basketball play that did not take place in the 1930s and did not involve someone building a catapult to launch the ball towards the basket under the rules of the time. 


Two years ago, Collins stood in front of a jubilant Welsh-Ryan crowd talking about beginnings.  Now, he will spend an offseason scrambling to find enough players to fill out a roster.  It's not all doom and gloom; there are several good young players who will have an opportunity to find their footing in the Big Ten and, like his last team, learn how to play together to get back to the tournament or the NIT or one of those weird tournaments where there are no rules and are played in torchlight and the hoops are hollowed out cattle skulls.

A REVIEW OF NORTHWESTERN'S FANCY ARENA

Of course Welsh-Ryan is far nicer now.  They have seats now instead of bleachers.  There are new videoscreens.  The whole building is slick and new and covered in purple like the an arena on an alien spaceship.  It glistens.  There are somehow luxury boxes, even though the person who wants to watch Northwestern basketball but in a luxury box is impossible for me to fathom.  The thing it does most effectively and depressingly is to finally destroy the quaint illusion of Northwestern basketball and put it right in line with the bizarre and inexplicable spectacle of big-time college sports.

Opposing fans always loved to grumble that Welsh-Ryan was a glorified high school arena.  That's not necessarily fair-- it was bigger than a high school arena and also sometimes had halftime entertainment like live The Simon Says Guy-- but it was certainly stripped down in comparison to sleek Big Ten buildings.  The first basketball game I ever saw at Welsh-Ryan was a high school game, and Welsh-Ryan seemed just like a natural extension of what you'd expect to see-- bleachers, but more of them; a dot scoreboard, but one that could display cartoon ads.  I didn't watch college sports when I was younger so the idea of a college team playing in an arena that was basically the gym except without a bunch of side baskets made sense.
 
Old Welsh-Ryan arena just before tip-off for a Big Ten game

Northwestern basketball is big time college sports collecting the same insane checks as every other Big Ten team, but it was easy to pretend that it wasn't.  Welsh-Ryan was a creaky old barn where you could literally bump into Chainsaw Nick Smith on the way to the bathroom.  And for a long time, Northwestern was not very good at basketball.  Opposing fans would take over the arena, loudly complain about it, watch their players dunk for a couple hours and go home.  Even in the years when Northwestern was decent under Bill Carmody, they seemed to be playing a different sport filled with gangly goofballls doing slow motion backcuts and undulating zone defenses.

Of course, that is illusion: college sports are the same insane, exploitative spectacle even if the team plays in a dumpy arena that's biggest selling point was minimum distance from Gene Keady and even if the team was historically bad tournament-missers.  And yet, the spectacle of college sports, especially the NCAA Tournament which was built to allow people to get fully invested in obscure teams featuring guys named like Benton Wrench somehow beating NBA players, is absolutely incredible.  That is the dichotomy of the Tournament: a delightful show plowing along as it always, and if a few minutes' scrutiny makes it impossible that it can continue for another minute before collapsing under its own contradictions that feels like just about everything right now.

THE CHICAGO CUBS ARE AN ABSOLUTE BUMMER NOW

The Chicago Cubs have been in three of the last four National League Championship series.  They won 95 games last season.  A Cub was runner up in the MVP vote, a different player from the Cub who won MVP just two years earlier.  They are only three seasons removed from the greatest in team history, culminating in a championship that generations had been waiting for.  Also they appear to be in complete crisis and everyone is angry with them.

Part of this comes from the Cubs completely punting on the offseason.  They gleefully joined nearly the entirety of baseball in deciding that baseball players were too expensive and sitting out the Bryce Harper and Machado sweepstakes.  Beyond that, though, the Cubs did nothing else.  They fired a bunch of coaches and brought in a utility infielder and a couple of relievers as the Cardinals, Brewers, and even the basement-dwelling Reds improved.

While the Cubs could certainly bounce back into form with the return of a healthy Kris Bryant and Yu Darvish, there seems to be a sense of treading water.  The PECOTA projections picked the Cubs to finish last in the NL Central.  Hilariously, Joe Maddon is using this as bulletin board material without stopping to think that PECOTA is literally a math formula and there is no one to gloat over if the Cubs win more than its projected 79 games unless he is secretly funding a project to implant the PECOTA formula into a host body to assume corporeal form and then invite the shambling monster to the Cubs dugout to get humiliated by disco music and crotch-thrusting dance moves after the Cubs win their 80th game.  It appears the Cubs seem poised to fire Joe Maddon, their most successful manager since Frank Chance, because everyone is just sick of his shit.

But the more dispiriting Cubs stuff has been a parade of scandal and an accretion of generalized rich people mania thrust into public display.  If there's been a single thing the Cubs have committed to in the offseason it is disingenuous apologies-- those from Addison Russell, who remains on the team for some reason, those from the Ricketts family after the publication of Joe Ricketts's bigoted emails.  The Cubs will be donating money and working with groups and raising awareness this season. 

The most recent spate of Cubs e-mails published by Deadspin are less inflammatory.  In this case, they delve into the various shady accounting practices the Ricketts family used to purchase the Cubs, but they also include various embarrassing levels of vaguely Habsburg-level family intrigue where they all sent e-mails to each other instead of threatening to invade the Low Countries.  While Tom Ricketts complained that there was no money left to sign free agents, fans can rest assured that the family was all buying up local railroads to they could all try to destroy each other while sending long email chains where they are all dressed in nineteenth-century sidewhiskers.
 
"How am I supposed to tell my children that it is not 
their uncle alone who owns the Detroit, Toledo, and 
Ironton railroad, but the entire family has banded together 
to crush the operators, buy out their stock, and divert their 
cargo of precious pig iron to our own depots?" reads one email

And yet, the Cubs still have Javy Baez doing Javy Baez things, a healthy Kris Bryant, and a first game that was just a general annihilation of a tanking Rangers team featuring pitchers named "Kyle Dowdy."  It has been a long, impossibly cold, and miserable winter.  Baseball is an incredibly dumb sport that makes no sense and it one of the best wastes of time ever invented.  Let's hope the Cubs and the odious, bumbling family that owns them don't continue to find reasons to make us forget that.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Do Androids Dream of Electric Soccer Men

S.S. Milazzo have weathered heartbreak in the fourth division of Italian soccer.  Their quest to leave the mud-soaked pitches and empty bleachers in this soccer Siberia for the Holy Land of third-division soccer with slightly drier pitches, slightly larger stands, and maybe even their own van had been derailed by two heartbreaking extra-time collapses: one knocked them out of second place and automatic promotion; a second eliminated them from the playoff and doomed them to another season dodging elbows from part-time gym teachers and performance shorts salesmen.  They press on close to financial ruin.  The club is weighed down by hefty contracts paid to star players because the manager is sentimental and cannot part with those legends who have so nearly brought the team to glory. None of them exist.

Football Manager exists on a bizarre halfway realm between reality and fantasy.  There is an S.S. Milazzo in real life; the game features hundreds of real soccer teams across the planet from the flea-bitten amateur ranks of Britain's seventh division all the way to the juggernaut glamor teams where you can actually attempt to purchase a Digital Ronaldo or get angry at some unholy rendering of Chris Wondolowski.  But for me, the most satisfying way to play is with a tiny regional team and have the program invent all of the players, not only because the algorithm was designed by a genius to spit out names like Paolo Pasta, but because it creates bizarre parallel universe where the world's best player is an Austrian named Dolph Tobaggen. 
 
The legend

And it is always fun that, with gameplay that remains pretty much the same whether you're playing as AFC Headbuttston or Real Madrid, you can now find out that the titanic promotion battle that you are fighting in the sixth division while fending off the barbs of a rival manager and other teams trying to grab your top players is all taking place for teams whose real life setup resembles a storage shed with a meat pie concession.

The home ground of Redditch United, a team that I took over after it 
was promoted from league so low that that you are not allowed to play 
into the seventh tier and got it to the the second-tier Championship.  
Because I play an old version of the game, the league that S.S. Milazzo 
is in literally no longer exists  

The genius of Football Manager is that it somehow balances a diabolically complex system of controls where anyone monomaniacal enough can assign unique training schedules to all of hundreds of players in a youth system or futz with dozens of obscure sliders that spell out each players' specific role with randomness and utter chaos.  Other sports games allow a human to control at least one player in the field and therefore take over the game; a skilled player or one at least savvy enough to figure out that the NCAA video games have no idea how to stop a cornerback under center who can run very fast can ride those exploits to victory.  Football Manager leaves the game results up to a program that leaves the player to the whimsical vagaries of chance.  The most determined player who has studied hundreds of pages of the various guides that players have put on the internet to form a sort of Football Manager folklore can still watch a Ballon D'Or-caliber superstar make an idiotic glory-tackle in the box in a crucial Champions League tie or players commit errors so egregious that they are either the result of a computer glitch or an uncannily perfect simulation of an oafish bartender stumbling around in the fifth division.

It is in fact that inability to directly control the players that makes it so gratifying or infuriating.  When a person, for example, takes a team to a championship in an NBA game, it is because he or she has taken control of them directly and run the same pick and roll that the game has no idea how to stop over and over again; these digital Darkos and Luthers Head have no apparent agency in this process.  When a Football Manger player named Antonio Crescendo hits a crucial away goal to advance to the next preliminary round of a cup, or someone named Walter Poplar-Stodge flails ineffective to stop a breakaway, it happens passively onscreen in a way almost directly parallel to how we already watch sports.

And Football Manager also puts in shadowy forces above the player as well.  Each team is controlled by a board that operates according to its own whims.  The manager can do nothing without the board-- it sets budgets, must be appealed to in order to improve facilities or even prevent the pitch from gradually turning into a treacherous dirt pit, it can unilaterally cancel player transactions or sell top players out from under you with no warning.  And in the end the board can fire you.  There is no game over as far as I can tell in Football Manager.  Once you get fired from a team, you can try to take over other teams by sending out job applications; I once got fired from two bottom-division teams in close succession (I am not good at this game) and started simulating to see who would hire me next.  I kept fruitlessly applying to be the manager in any league that would take me while years flew by because I was curious whether at some point the game would force me to retire or go into real estate or die.

---------------------------

Football Manager's baroque interface, intimidating options, and repetitive gameplay would make an impossible and awful game if it did not manage to tap into the insane and frightening ability for human beings to inject pathos and emotional stakes into anything that can be vaguely related to human endeavor.  The lack of control in the Football Manager universe turns players into goal-blasting heroes or disappointing losers that are randomly-generated parts of some code.  I spent several seasons in the game in legitimate fear of a computer-generated player named "Ian Sidebottom" who regularly tortured my team in the dregs of the semi-pro Conference National.

Football Manager brilliantly abets this by encouraging users to emotionally engage.  A crucial part of the game involves finding which types of pep talks certain players respond to.  The game also simulates player disgruntlement-- players argue about playing time, demand transfers to larger clubs, and generally irritate you.  It encourages you to argue with other managers through the fictional media.  These interactions on my old version (2012) get boring and rote quickly, but I'm floored that there's an option to add your own text to interactions-- this does absolutely nothing in the game other than give you the satisfaction of calling a string of code that presents as Liam Tradgough, Manager of Brundleswain-Upon-Pants a bloviating pig fucker to absolutely no one.

Sports video games that have no outside plot other than winning the game count on players to instinctively engage with them the same way they do with sports.  I've put my team in financial jeopardy by having a hard time selling old players because they've become club legends.  I've worried briefly about what recruiting a superior point guard on a college basketball team will do to the old stalwart on the roster even though the game has no mechanism to simulate this and a player will start, sit on the bench, or get cut and sent to a digital afterlife of swirling ones and zeroes presided over by the whims of a game genies with no effect whatsoever.  This phenomenon even spills over to games with real-life players; who has not had some sort of lingering affection for some otherwise obscure player that had somehow starred for you in a video game and otherwise has been consigned to the dustbin of Remembered Guys?

On the one hand, it is a little strange and even disturbing how easy it is to reproduce the feeling of rooting for a sports team that has real buildings and people and eleven dollar beers with a digital edifice that, no matter how complicated, is essentially face painted on a volleyball.  On the other hand, it's also gratifying that sports games allow anyone inclined to graft all of the emotions and ludicrous habits of watching sports onto what is essentially a nest of interlocking spreadsheets.  There is a way of playing Football Manager bloodlessly, of accepting the fundamental fact that its soccer universe is a cardboard diorama and it's just a matter of figuring out what buttons to press to make the numbers go up, but to put hours into the game doing that without becoming attached to players or angrily and short-shortsightedly selling a player that has done something annoying or even, with full control of one's faculties, writing to a rival manager that he should live as long as it takes for humans to master cloning and shrinking so that he can finally climb up his own ass even though this insult is going to an entity that does not exist, is more insane.