Tuesday, April 26, 2011

When narrative goes too far, and inequalities fail

Regular readers will know that I'm pretty interested in how narratives shape our perception of sports. One of the most significant ones lately has been in the Vancouver-Chicago series in the NHL playoffs, where the Canucks led 3-0 before the Blackhawks won three straight games to force tonight's seventh game. Of course, that's led to plenty of pieces on how this is a defining moment for Vancouver, a historic occasion and all the rest. Those stories aren't necessarily wrong, as there certainly is a significant mental aspect to sports, and that mental element will be involved tonight; I give it more credence than Joe Posnanski does, even if I share some of his other opinions on storylines. What's happened in the series so far does have a bearing on tonight's game in my mind, so it's perfectly relevant to talk about the pressure, the situation and the rest.

What I don't like is when that analysis takes the next step, though, and ascribes narrative reasons to why one team lost and another won and narrative solutions as to how to remedy this in the future. We've seen this plenty of times before, with certain teams or players being labeled simply as "chokers" for poor performances in small playoff sample sizes, or authoritative declarations that there was some clear flaw in the team that lost; they didn't have enough depth, enough grit, good-enough goaltending or anything else. None of those claims are necessarily wrong or problematic on their own, as it's certainly worthwhile to try and analyze what went wrong and think about how it could potentially be solved. What bothers me is more along the lines of the shades of grey discussion; in essence, any particular claim about size, scoring, goaltending or the rest isn't necessarily wrong and could in fact be right, but pointing to one of those things as the definitive cause of a team's downfall and something that has to be remedied if they're going to win in the future is generally inaccurate.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Subdivisions, exclusion and communities in sports

I was reading Gary Smith's fantastic, tear-jerking piece entitled "The Wheels of Life" in my most recent Sports Illustrated magazine today, and it got me thinking. The piece is a superb tale of Dick Hoyt and his paralyzed son, Rick, and how they've worked together to compete in everything from marathons to triathlons for over 30 years. On one level, it's a great story of two people who have overcome incredible adversity to do things that many able-bodied people never will be able to, but I think there's a broader point there as well, and one that applies to our current sports world. Read this paragraph and see if you can figure out where I'm going with this:
Race day came a few days later. So closeted were the disabled in 1977 that many people, including Dick before the birth of his first son, had never laid eyes on a wheelchair or a quadriplegic, let alone one in a five-mile race. Dick's two other sons, Rob and Russ, wisecracked that the Hoyts' race number, 00, summed up their chances of making it to the finish line. Most people figured Dick would shove the kid as far as the first corner and peel off. None had a clue what happened inside Dick Hoyt's head when it bumped against a task.
What I take from that is that Dick and Rick's racing career isn't just a man-versus-himself conflict (them trying to overcome their physical limitations), or a man-versus-nature one (them trying to overcome the racecourse), or even man-versus-man (them trying to beat other racers), but also contains a profound element of man-versus-society. For them, racing is a way to prove that Rick in particular belongs and has value, despite the world's attempts to say that he doesn't. That point is emphasized more prominently in a later section of the piece, describing what happened after Dick experienced severe medical issues following their first race:

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Canucks - Blackhawks Game IV live blog

The last one of these was a lot of fun, so we're doing it again! Join me and a cast of Internet types for a live blog of tonight's Vancouver - Chicago game. Will the Canucks sweep the series, or will the Blackhawks live to fight another day? Find out in the live blog below, starting at 8 p.m. Eastern (5 p.m. Pacific). All are welcome to join!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Canucks - Blackhawks Game II live blog

I'll be live-blogging tonight's Canucks - Blackhawks clash with an assortment of interweb friends, including Beau Brace and Josh Koebert. Vancouver's up 1-0 in the series after a 2-0 win Wednesday night, but Chicago certainly can't be written off yet.  Everyone's welcome; drop in and give us your thoughts on the game, the series and the rest of the playoffs so far. The puck drops in Vancouver at 7 p.m. local (10 p.m. Eastern), so swing by and join us then!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

NHL playoff preview: setting up the first round

The NHL playoffs get rolling tonight, with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins going head-to-head in one early game, the Phoenix Coyotes and Detroit Red Wings facing off in another clash and the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals in a third. There are also a pair of late games, featuring the Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks and the Nashville Predators and Anaheim Ducks. There should be some excellent hockey on display tonight, and hopefully for much of the rest of the playoffs as well. Here's a preview of each first-round matchup, organized by game time (broadcast info from The 506):

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins - (5) Tampa Bay Lightning

First game: Wednesday, 7 p.m. Eastern, CBC (Ontario east, except Windsor)

This is an interesting one. The Penguins have a stronger defence and better goaltending (I'll happily take Marc-Andre Fleury over Dwayne Roloson), but their offence doesn't look as promising without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (at least to start). Meanwhile, Tampa Bay is deep up front with the likes of Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier, but their depth is an issue just about everywhere else. I like Pittsburgh in this one, but the Lightning shouldn't be an easy out.

Prediction: Penguins in six

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Writing, competition, golf and basketball: a response to Chris Jones

I'm really enjoying Esquire writer Chris Jones' Son Of Bold Venture blog and his take on writing. There isn't enough dialogue about the art and importance of writing out there, and Jones adds a lot to the conversation, particularly with his interviews (notable recent ones include ESPN's Wright Thompson, the Boston Globe's Charles P. Pierce and Glenn Stout, series editor of The Best American Sports Writing. With that said, though, I have to take issue with his two most recent posts, on awards and motivation.

To be clear, this isn't to say that Jones is wrong or that his arguments are invalid. Both of those posts deal heavily with his own feelings and his own approach, and that approach has obviously led to a lot of success for him over the years, so it can't be all that bad. It's not necessarily bad advice for young writers, either; everyone's different, and Jones' approach, involving writers "keeping score" and competing will undoubtedly work very well for some people. The only reason I'm writing this is to express my own feelings that while those may be valid ways to succeed as a writer, they aren't the only ways out there. That may not fit with Jones' avowed attraction to black and white, but it's reflective of one of the things I feel most strongly about; the shades of grey.