Saturday, October 5, 2019

Football Aesthetics

One of the appeals of college football is that teams are more willing to adapt to unorthodox strategies because in a sport where a handful of teams have their pick of the players who hilariously vanish around, bulldoze, or do some combination of both to their unfortunately normal high school opponents, they need every advantage they can get. In this situation, you can see weird Big 12 future football where somehow everyone, including several members of the band’s saxophone section, are wide receivers, or vestigial 1940s option football that still exists mainly at the military academies where teams are still calling plays named “Col. Samuel N. Victuall’s Original Male Fisticuffs Powder” or “Hand the ball off/For awhile/Watch your scrotum/In the pile/Burma Shave.”

This is not Northwestern football under Pat Fitzgerald. In the early 2000s, Randy Walker helped bring then-new spread offense into a Big Ten where most teams were running out of the Crowbar Formation. Those Northwestern games were obscene touchdown fests where the Wildcats scored as much as humanly possible because they weren’t particularly good at stopping other teams, and they seemingly won every game by having the quarterback run around for 35 seconds and then heave the ball to the endzone. Under Fitzgerald, Northwestern has evolved into a much better defensive team that has introduced new types of players to the Wildcat canon: enormous run-stoppers going toe-to-toe with the Midwest’s beefiest linemen and ball-hawking defensive backs. Almost simultaneously, the ‘Cats have become a bruising ball control offense, still running the spread offense but doing so almost parodically.

This shift from offensive chaos to steady defense has been extremely effective for Northwestern. The team has had an unprecedented run of sustained success under Fitzgerald, the type of run that involves going to and winning bowl games, upsetting genuinely good teams, and forcing several fanbases to do the unthinkable and contemplate losing to Northwestern. But aesthetically it is a major change. To watch Northwestern football now is to revel in a festival of punts and a spectacle of guys leaping around the field with closed fists raised just before the punt.  Pat Fitzgerald and his coaching staff have decided that the way they prefer to move the ball should resemble watching someone angrily try to start a lawnmower for 90 minutes.

This was the story against Wisconsin, where Northwestern's defense shut down superstar running back Jonathan Taylor.  Wisconsin has an excellent defense of their own, and both teams mostly glared and snarled at each other until the Badgers were able to turn a few turnovers into points.  The Wildcats made a comeback in the fourth quarter, but Fitzgerald's aggressive moves to go for two both backfired and prevented them from getting it to a one-score game.  Fitzgerald said the numbers supported his moves and offered to teach a class in analytics that are derived from him sitting up all night in front of a giant chalkboard testing various formulas for point scenarios but the chalkboard is instead filled with imprints from him headbutting it.  

Northwestern plays Nebraska in one of their baffling annual contests.  The Huskers have also struggled this season and are coming off an ESPN Gameday dismantling at the hands of Ohio State.  Nebraska brought in Scott Frost to revolutionize their offense and bring about a new era of high-flying Huker football away from people demanding a return to the option and screaming "let's go 'shirts" blissfully unaware that all of the players are wearing shirts.  The Wildcats will attempt to smother them on defense and take them to overtime.  


Approximately one week after the Chicago Bulls fired bland VHS enthusiast Fred Hoiberg and replaced him with windsprint maniac Jim Boylen, I wrote that the Bulls had fallen into a pattern of replacing a Hair Guy with a Bald Asshole. Boylen came in, started emphasizing toughness, led the Bulls to their worst home defeat in the history of the team, pulled his starters in order to subject them to a ludicrously tough practice, and spurned a revolt. Bulls players reportedly began contemplating a minor industrial action to no-show the practice. The Bulls became the laughing-stock of the National Basketball Association. The Sacramento Kings, a burbling cauldron of organizational dysfunction in their own right, beat the Bulls, and their players mocked them by yelling at them to enjoy their windsprints. After Bulls players formed a Leadership Council because they were so concerned about their coach’s Last Chance U tactics and general unhinged vice principal aesthetic, Boylen responded that he was “jacked up and juiced.”
When you are jacked up and juiced

It is time for me to eat some crow. I was wrong about Jim Boylen. He is not a rigorous taskmaster who models his life and fashion choices after the aircraft carrier commander in Top Gun. Or, more accurately, he is not just that. His constant emphasis on players’ awesome souls and kick-ass spirits has revealed him as reaching a new level of coaching derangement: he is a New Age Meathead. 

This not necessarily a novel phenomenon. There has long been a crossover between professional athletes, who are attempting to push the limits of human possibility at the physical level, and all sorts of wacky wellness cures. And given the shifting ambiguity around nutrition, exercise practices throughout the years, there have always been quackery and strange practices to fill in the gaps. These involve muttonchop guys going around with tonics advertised with 2,300 word leaflets and people who wrote books about about how you cannot eat legumes or you will angry up the bean gland.  

The greatest trend of the twentieth century weird new-agey health stuff infiltrating sports were a brief run of baseball pitchers wearing phiten necklaces with titanium-infused magnets.  NYU's Scienceline got an explanation on how this all was supposed to work: "According to the company, the necklaces and bracelets work by stabilizing the electric flow that nerves use to communicate actions to the body. 'All of the messages in your body travel through electricity, so if you’re tired or just pitched nine innings, the electricity isn’t flowing as smoothly as it can,' said Joe Furuhata, a Phiten spokesman. 'Our products smooth out those signals.'” 

If you were to ask me who would be the most apt endorsement 
of the magical titanium magnet-necklace, I would say Josh Beckett
 before you even finished talking although please do not search 
my internet history to see if I have searches like "was travis hafner a phiten guy"

Those necklaces, combined with late '00s-decade baseball fashions like MMA shirts and disgusting, elongated soul patches, were part of a certain type of baseball pitcher's arsenal before fading away because they didn't do anything and they did not come free with the purchase of a Puddle of Mud box set.

Jim Boylen, to me, is an anthropomorphic phiten necklace, a strange confluence of weird pseudoscience and new-age quackery wrapped in the packaging of a classic toughguy sports asshole.  This means that he is tearfully screaming about how much he admires Wendell Carter's life essence after he breaks his ankle in a hamburger drill.  It is Boylen talking about his vision quest when explains why he played Ryan Arcidiacono 38 minutes.  One can imagine him putting his forehead through drywall after excoriating the team for being soft after losing by 25 instead of 13 and then being unable to sleep because he has just heard of chakras and is trying to see if Cristiano Felicio has them.  He is unknowable and bizarre and weird and is likely going to be the difference between the bulls winning 18 games or somehow scrapping for an eight seed in the putrid Eastern Conference and I am fascinated by what he is going to do all of the time.


Baseball season has come to its autumn climax, and as the tension mounts in do-or-die playoff games involving the game's greatest players, I am thinking about Todd Frazier.  Frazier, an aged power hitter for the New York Mets who is from New Jersey enough to use Frank Sinatra as his walkup music, comes across as a relatively placid personality.  He played his best ball on those early 2010s Reds teams.  I am thinking about Todd Frazier because Adam Eaton is up for the Washington Nationals and got into a fight with Frazier earlier this year, which revealed the two of them despise each other since they were teammates on the almost operatically bizarre 2016 White Sox.

The 2016 White Sox became a swirling morass of insanity.  As the crosstown rival Cubs went into the season as World Series favorites and somehow rent a hole in the space-time continuum that has plunged the world into chaos, the South Siders completely lost their minds.  The major issue was that left-handed platoon DH Adam LaRoche wanted to have his son Drake spend the entire season with the team as a sort of junior player soaking up the exciting and intellectually challenging atmosphere of a major league locker room.  Other players reportedly did not want a 14 year-old around all of the time, the team asked LaRoche not to bring his son into the locker room, and LaRoche retired instead.  This split the White Sox into pro- and anti-LaRoche factions, with Eaton calling the teenaged Drake a "leader in the clubhouse" and other teammates putting up LaRoche jerseys in solidarity.  Adam LaRoche then went in retirement to the natural path of extremely bizarre Christian sting operations in overseas brothels. 

LaRoche jerseys hang defiantly in the White Sox clubhouse like medieval pennants

Can we be sure that the Eaton/Frazier split was about the LaRoche controversy? No.  Their falling out could be about all sorts of normal baseball disagreements such as sunflower seed disputes or whether to play Creed or P.O.D. in the locker room or whether Bigfoot or Gravedigger was a better monster truck.  But given that the LaRoche spectacle hung over the clubhouse and that Frazier was a newcomer to the White Sox that season it seems likely that it's the case and also it is extremely funny to imagine a bloodfeud between Frazier and Eaton that involves multiple generations of LaRoche.  

Also that year pitcher Chris Sale completely flipped out and reportedly sliced up a bunch of throwback uniforms because he refused to wear them.

Frazier's fracas with his former teammate was not his only incident.  Somehow, Frazier got involved in something with Jake Arrieta that broke my brain and still continues to haunt me to this day.  In early July, Arrieta hit Frazier with a pitch and Frazier took exception.  The video shows him making disgusted remarks to the umpire and catcher and then yelling at Arrieta as he made his way to first before being ejected from the game and in a hilarious baseball pantomime of yelling and aggressive pointing at the officials.  After the game, Arrieta told the media that if he was still angry "he can come see me and I'll put a dent in his skull."  

This is an insanely violent thing to say about another person even in the context of baseball macho posturing, but it is not this bit of midseason baseball aggression that has broken me, it is the headlines.  Here is a headline from the Sporting News that is likely going to stay in my brain until I die:
Todd Frazier responds to Jake Arrieta Skull threat.  It is Todd Frazier responding. To a threat. So far so good. What kind of threat, you ask? A skull threat.  Just your everyday, ordinary skull threat, the two words that everyone knows when you put them together.  I have been thinking about this combination of words for months and they are just rattling around my head slowly causing me to go insane.

It's not just the Sporting News that had trouble with this.  Here is an ESPN headline describing the same incident:

I think that what is happening here is that our headline writers are completely unable to handle the concept of a baseball player threatening to dent another's skull.  Because that is the most colorful word in the exchange, they want to get it into the headline, but there's no precedent for players specifically threatening skull harm, so the reader is left completely baffled.  What is a skull threat?  Does that mean, as Arrieta did, specific attacks on Frazier's skull? Or does it mean Arrieta will threaten him by using skulls to scare Frazier with a grim Halloween aesthetic.  And anything can be a skull remark.  A reader could assume that Arrieta was possibly mocking Frazier's skull with the skill of a Mean Phrenologist. 

There is one other figure in sports who I would trust to have a handle on such pressing, confusing issues, and it's Jim Boylen, who I believe could easily explain why he loves Chandler Hutchinson's "awesome skull."

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