Monday, July 7, 2014

Sport, Not a Sport: Soccer

The excitement of the World Cup is building to a crescendo, now that the Americans aren't around to make the rest of the world cringe with use of the term "soccer." There's no better time than now to break down bizzaro football, the world's most popular sport. A sport with a history involving kicking human heads and pig bladders, and is now played by underwear models.

So, what makes soccer a sport? The answer is straightforward. It's two teams trying to score points, and each can affect the actions of the other. To have a sport, you must have defense. What kind of sport involves sitting around and watching your opponent do their thing? (Besides when you're the DH in an AL baseball game. Pick up a glove, Papi!) No kind, that's what. If you can't impede your opponents progress, you may as well be playing darts.

The other integral feature of any true sport is objective scoring, not that soccer isn't rife with subjectivity elsewhere. A point should always be a point, no matter how many mobbed-up Russians are in attendance. Can we definitively tell, in a best-case scenario, if the ball went into the thing where the points are scored? If so, then you're on your way to a sport. Did the ball get there because an undersized drug addict illegally put there with his hand? You're pressing your luck.

Before moving on to what makes soccer not a sport, I would like to share some interesting history of the sport I learned from the venerable repository of human knowledge that is The parts of the world that use the term football when referring to soccer tend to be critical of America for calling American football "football." Somehow, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and parts of Ireland escape criticism for their use of the word soccer. The main argument against American football as a thing that should be called football is that the ball rarely touched a foot. Newsflash! Early iterations of Unamerican Football involved players picking up the ball and running with it. Sometimes they would use sticks to hit the ball. Players would also tackle each other gridiron style. Different teams played with different rules. Halftime was created to accommodate teams with differing views going head-to-head. My point is that Everywhere Else style Football used to look like polo without horses, so give us some slack about not using our feet to play American Football. Besides, if it weren't for weird British slang the word soccer wouldn't exist, so that's not even our fault.

So what makes soccer not a sport? The clock. The rest of the world may be okay with siestas and five months of compulsory vacation, but in the US of A, we're all about schedules. How long does a soccer match last? If you said 90 minutes, you're kind of correct. A more accurate answer is 90-ish minutes. It's 90 minutes, plus however much time is spent with players writhing on the ground in faux agony. That's the extra time. I don't know who determines the extra time, but apparently that person doesn't have a clock, because they add how much they feel needs to be added. But sometimes they get it wrong, usually when they add too little or too much time. I saw a match that had one minute of added time. Anyone who's seen a soccer game knows that no one gets up from a shin kick in less than a minute. If I were a soccer time keeper, I would just add three minutes, no matter what. No scarf wearing hooligan ever got upset by three minutes of added time. But even with the extra time, when the game stops is up in the air. The officials let the game go if a team is on the attack. The game goes until the people involved feel like it's time to stop. That's how I played Ninja Turtles in my back yard, it's no timing method for a professional sporting event. Unless you're playing to a certain number of points, there ought to be a buzzer.

Soccer in general is a casual affair. When a foul is given, the player kicking off can spot the ball where they want (as long as it's in the general area of the foul) and resume play when they want. Often you'll see the team with possession try to catch the defense off guard by doing a quick start. This strikes me as very slap dash and strange, since the officials have a can of spray paint holstered to keep players in right spot on free kicks. On some plays, the players can do what they want and on others precision requires temporarily defacing the pitch.

No analysis of soccer would be complete without a few words spent on the theatricality of competitors who find themselves in a prone position after brushes, near or otherwise, with opponents. Flopping isn't specific to the Beautiful Game. It's been in basketball for years in the form of the charge. No one actually thinks that when a charge happens, the defensive player was incapable of remaining upright. Falling down isn't a crime. Except in basketball, no one has to catch the vapors to draw a whistle. It's even started creeping into American Football in the form of players feigning injury to slow the game down. Much like in soccer, these players usually drop for no reason and were not touched by anyone else. When a player of American Football is suspected of this, he is chastised. Rules are being implemented into basketball to keep players from pretending to have been fouled. In soccer everyone stands around waiting for the injured party to finish their pantomime. Sometimes the official will cast a disapproving glance, if the player is really hamming it up. This is when the player knows that he only has 30 more seconds to get up.

Despite it's peculiarities, soccer has a solid foundation of points being scored by launching a projectile into a designated scoring area. And that's something no amount of phantom injuries sprayed with compressed air can take away.

SOCCER: Sport.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Sport, Not a Sport: NASCAR

For the first edition of Sport, Not a Sport (where I discuss the merits of various athletic activities, and whether they qualify as a "sport" me) I've decided to take on some low hanging fruit, NASCAR and race car driving in general. NASCAR is very popular amongst the farmer tan set. I assume. Race car driving, like GWAR, is a strange spectacle to outsiders but a passion for those who follow it. According an in-depth, peer-review study published in the scientific journal of Bleacher Report (they looked at some Twitter graphs), in 2012,  NASCAR was the second most popular pro sport. Only the NFL beat it out. A recent poll shows that "auto-racing" is more popular than the NBA and NHL. Anyone who doesn't follow NASCAR, such as myself, will find this information to be shocking. I don't really follow the NBA, but I know people who have favorite NBA teams and watch games regularly. I know people who will watch NHL and MLB games. Random ones, not just games with their teams. I can't name a single personal acquaintance who makes it a point to watch any kind of automotive racing.

On the surface automotive racing makes sense as entertainment. Fast cars and occasional car crashes. Things we all love. I've tried to watch televised NASCAR races and it is a slog, because they are going in a circle. Even Formula 1, where they throw in some right hand turns, doesn't do it for me. I don't know what it takes to be a fan of race car driving, but I don't have it. It appears that you need to be an American Southerner or a rich European. It's a strange sample group.

Let's move on to whether or not driving a motorized vehicle extremely fast qualifies as a sport. The "it's a sport" list consists of "it's physically demanding" and nothing else. This is the mantra of every NASCAR defender. It's harder than it seems. And I'm sure it is. Driving on a long road trip is tiring. Your arms fatigue, your butt starts to ache, and your leg gets tired if you aren't using cruise control. Imagine doing that at 180 mph, with no A/C, in a fire suit and wearing a helmet. You'd be tuckered out. I agree, NASCAR is a physically demanding method of driving a automobile.

The "it's not a sport" list is similarly extensive. That's right, there's only one reason NASCAR isn't a sport, but you only need one. It's a physically demanding method of driving an automobile. If your sport involves and internal combustion engine, then it isn't a sport. You're driving a car, which is how most of the fans get to the event. Which is odd. It would be like going to a football game by only moving ten yards at a time and stopping every seven seconds. My point is that Dick's Sporting Goods doesn't carry premium unleaded. A real sport only uses the term "running on fumes" as a metaphor. Actually any external energy source disqualifies an activity as a sport. I'm looking at you America's Cup. And surfing, which I didn't see coming, but there's going to be some collateral damage here in Sport Not a Sport. It's inevitable and I knew that, and so should you, dear reader. I'm just sorry that surfing had to be our first casualty. As cool as surfing is, it isn't a sport if the Moon is an integral piece of equipment.

Speaking of the Moon, did you know that NASCAR has it's roots in moonshine running? Drug smuggling is not a sport. What's next? Running a marathon with a balloon of heroin in your anal cavity?

NASCAR: Not a sport.

Rule Learned Today: External power sources are for commuting to work, not sports.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Wonen, Lord of the Mistlands

This is the story of Wonen. Of course you know that he roams the Mistlands, guiding our ancestors as they pass from death into the world beyond, just as he will some day guide you and I. And you know that late every winter, we celebrate Wonen’s Day, honoring those who have died in the previous year. But it was not always so. Wonen was once a mortal man. This is the story of how he became lord of the land between death and the afterlife.

Wonen Selkirk lived in the outskirts of Tobermory, a small village set on the edge of a plain. To the west of Tobermory stretched a thick forest. One needn’t venture far before the branches and leaves overhead grew thick and blocked out the sun. On cloudy days, as many are, even those familiar with the woods could become lost. At night, only the brave, the foolish or the pursued found cause to enter. Wonen lived with his father on the side of town nearest the Bràigh Forest, as it was called, hunting and trapping for fur and meat. His father taught him the skills of tracking and killing animals at such a young age, that when he grew into a young man he could get near enough to spit on his prey before setting loose an arrow. He had spent so much time creeping through the trees, that he was one of the few people in Tobermory who could stay in the Bràigh after sunset and still find his way out before sunrise.

Of their time not devoted to hunting, Wonen and his father, Gareth, spent a fair amount at the Inn, which did not have a proper name by virtue of not needing one. It was the only inn Tobermory could claim. Time at the Inn for the Selkirk men doubled as leisure and business. As a watering hole for locals and travelers, the Inn functioned as an ideal location to advertise their services and take any orders in need of filling. Wonen tended to leave the task of making business connections to his more gregarious father. This gave him time to make fleeting conversation with Arabella, a comely lass who worked at the Inn. Her parents had died when she was sixteen, and she had no other family. The Inn’s owners, the Cruickshankses, a miserable duo, had taken her in and put her to work immediately. After years of secret smiles and stealing away for moments of privacy, however brief amongst the noise and clatter, Wonen had confessed to Arabella that he loved her.

When he did, she wanted to fall into his arms and tell Wonen that she felt the same for him, but she dared not risk an open display of affection. Her stewards, Mr. and Mrs. Cruickshanks, would not share in her joy. They kept an ever watchful eye on her. Especially Mrs. Cruickshanks. She saw how her husband leered at Arabella, always keeping a hand on her as he muttered his orders. Even so, Mrs. Cruickshanks valued the free labor Arabella provided more than she mistrusted Mr. Cruickshanks, and she would let nothing take away the ward providence had granted her.

When Wonen made his confession, the only acknowledgement she could offer was a slight smile and an excited nod, imperceptible to anyone more than a few steps away. He could read her acceptance from this reaction, and in the elation in her eyes. Not more than a moment later she was gone in a twirl of skirts, gathering up pewter mugs and plates from the tables around the dining hall.

Wonen remained at his seat, admiring Arabella as she moved around the room and in and out of the kitchen, casting a broad smile when he could catch her eye.

“Do you need something else, boy?”

Mrs. Cruickshanks slammed a her knotted hand down in front of Wonen, jarring him from his thoughts. His smile wavered when his eyes met hers. He told her that he supposed he could use another beer and cup of soup. The lines in her face deepened as she glowered at him. She tried to loom menacingly over him, but her spine was old and weak and would not allow it.

“Thank you,” said Wonen, hoping his tone of finality made it past the hair in Mrs. Cruickshanks’ ears.

She humpfed and then left to find her husband. Mr. Cruickshanks was not pleased being cornered and scolded. His wild eyebrows danced like river reeds while his wife spoke conspiratorially. She gestured towards Wonen and Arabella, occasionally adding a jab to Mr. Cruickshanks’ chest. This did not escape Arabella’s attention. Later, while Mr. Cruickshanks scrutinized the young hunter and his wife fawned over a customer of means, she slipped a note to Gareth Selkirk. She instructed him to not read, and that he may only present it to Wonen after the two had reached their home. The sternness of her voice was such that Gareth feared what she might do if he disobeyed.

On the walk home, Wonen’s father spoke mostly of the business he had conducted. He also managed to work in a few questions about The Inn’s proprietors and the girl who worked for them. He sensed a change in Wonen when the topic of Arabella came up, but Gareth did not press further, fearing that it would go against the spirit of her orders. Eventually they arrived home, where it was safe for Gareth to present the note to Wonen.

Arabella wanted to meet him. The next night, after she had finished working at the Inn, and the Cruickshankes had fallen asleep, she would go to Wonen’s house and wait for him at the edge of the Bràigh.

When the night came, Wonen was anxious for the hour to arrive. He wandered his house to pass the time, unable to sit still or think of anything other than his love. He crossed the living room countless times. Finally, his patience exhausted, he went out into the night. Visions of Arabella carried him towards the forest’s edge. Walking across the field towards the trees, he composed an eloquent speech that he imagined would earn him many sighs and kisses. As he refined a bit honoring her fair complexion, a shout arose from the direction he was heading. He took off at a sprint. More shouts came from the darkness. Over the sound of his own breathing and footfalls, Wonen heard the sound of Arabella struggling with at least two men.

When he reached the border of the forest, a weight struck him from behind, knocking him to the ground. It felt like two bags of boiled potatoes had landed on top of him. It was the Cruickshankses. Wonen tossed them aside and was back on his feet before either of them had managed to roll over.

“What are you doing? What’s happened to Arabella?” he said in a hushed shout.

“She’s gone. And it’s no use going after her. She wants nothing more to do with you,” huffed Mr. Cruickshanks from his hands and knees.

“Tell the truth or stay in the mud,” Wonen said with a boot to Mr. Cruickshanks’ side.

“We’ve sold her,” growled Mrs. Cruickshanks. “We know what you two were planning. You were going to take her from us. Leave us with nothing. We sold her off so we could get something in return.”

The couple hadn’t missed the looks between Arabella and Wonen. The previous night, a man looking to recruit or acquire girls Arabella’s age had also been at the Inn. Seeing what was blossoming between the two, they decided to take action and ensure a return on their loss.

“I will return with my love. And then I will return to collect your debt,” said, looming over them.

Mr. Cruickshanks stumbled backward at this declaration. Wonen turned and disappeared into the forest. The couple  watched him disappear through the trees, and, when they were sure he was gone, wobbled quickly home. Over the next days and weeks, they would look uneasily through their windows expecting to find him outside. But he never appeared.

Though it is true that Wonen knew the forest like no other, whoever had taken Arabella was also skilled at moving amongst trees and underbrush. He found himself stopping more frequently, listening for signs of their movements. Eventually there were no more and he was moving blindly into the night. The occasional freshly broken branch, or hint of a footprint, would bring hope that his direction was true. He walked all night, never feeling as though he gained ground. When day came, there was a haze like thick fog all about the forest. He saw no rays of sun, only a gray glow. He walked for the entire day. And he walked through the next night. As the second day came, still with skies like a gray sheet, he reached the far side of the Bràigh forest. Before him stretched a field with wisps of tall grass standing in bunches. Never before had he come through the other side of the forest. Wonen scanned the new landscape before him, aching for a hint of which direction to continue. He shook away a feeling of defeat and walked away from the Bràigh into the field.

Once out of the trees, he could see how thick the mist truly was. It was not long before the forest was erased from sight. He walked on for an hour before deciding to return to the edge of the Bràigh. He would backtrack in the hopes of regaining the trail of Arabella and her captors. Wonen was careful to follow his own footsteps in the damp grass, but they seemed to fade as he traced his own path. Unable to see beyond several hundred feet, he became disoriented. He was unsure if he faced the woods or not. Still determined to free his love, he concentrated on progressing in one direction, until he could find a landmark and his bearings. Wonen pressed on for many more days and nights, never finding so much as a sapling or fallen log. Only tufts of grass. The haze never lifted, keeping the stars at night from him.

There are some who believe that Wonen died in the Bràigh Forest, and that Arabella was sold as a house servant or worse. There are even more who believe that Wonen never stopped walking through the gray field, never stopped searching for the woman who returned his love. They say that, so dogged and relentless was he, death itself could not catch up to Wonen. He stalks the lands between this world and the next, one step ahead of death and one behind Arabella’s captors. But always pressing forward.

Back in Tobermory, Mr. and Mrs. Cruickshanks never again saw an easy night’s rest. Even many years after they sold off their ward, when the Inn hosted a crowd, they still scanned the sea of faces, fearing to see Wonen’s, knowing that he would return to repay them for what they had done. They’re only relief come on their deathbeds, because they did not know Wonen awaited them slipped into death’s embrace.

The people of Tobermory took to saying “Wonen unto him” regarding a person who had cause to look over his shoulder in dread, or committed an act that deserved reprisal. This was eventually shortened to “won’unto him,” which became “woe unto him.”

Woe unto him who looks upon love with anger and hate.