Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Watch a non-Hockey fan Discover the game during a Game 7

The post you're about to read is different than what you'll usually see on this site. Normally, I like to traffic in posts where we can deep dive into topics and analyze them with a more critical set of eyes to try to answer pressing questions. This is not one of those posts, but is to me at least, one of the most amazing pieces I'll ever write.

Last night, the hockey world was subsumed by Blackhawks/Blues Game 7, as it should have been. Playoff hockey is at its best when it's played as that game was. The NHL is desperate to attract new audiences to watch these games because what league/business isn't eager and clamoring to do so? As "Hockey Twitter" found out last night, someone new was watching.

(Note that there is some language in these tweets that I wouldn't normally include here, but it's not like Twitter gives me the option to edit these things)
A black sports fan from St. Louis discovered hockey in the middle of a Game 7. The NHL has struggled to bring in black audiences despite P.K Subban being amazing at everything and Don Waddell's feeble attempts to have most of the NHL's black players play on the Thrashers in their meek final days in Atlanta. Tony's timeline went viral in the best possible way as Game 7 worked to its apex.
Isn't that the way we all learned about hockey, through the Mighty Ducks? I can't wait until he finds out there was a team in the NHL named after that movie, and they play in a Game 7 tomorrow night! For learning on the fly though, he's done quite a decent job. Questionable language and racial connotations aside, Tony is letting the light of hockey into his life and having an epiphany before the internet's twitchy eyes, and it is wonderful in every way. He even found a way to endear himself to "Hockey Twitter" without even knowing it. Glean what you will from that on your own. So after the Blues won, fittingly, after giving this man the night of his life, Tony has been hooked. Although, someone does need to tell him about the whole fighting dying off thing. "Hockey Twitter" is normally not the most accepting and welcoming place in the world. Hardcore hockey fans are very protective of the game from the outside sports world, which means casual fans, general sports talk shows (and sadly women) are often left on the outside and alienated when they try to enter this world. Tony however, after letting the light of hockey into his life, wasn't just accepted, he was embraced and beloved by almost all hockey fans, and it was a beautiful sight to behold. And now that the Rams have bolted for Los Angeles, Tony needs something to fill the void. The Blues will fill that void. Not only does everyone get to watch him live-tweet more playoff games down the stretch, but he's been accepted into a family that isn't usually willing to expand its embrace. It was a very good night for hockey and hockey fans, and hopefully Gary Bettman was looking at this whole phenomenon thinking about ways of capitalizing on it. Or, on second thought, maybe we should just let Twitter and Reddit deal with it. Bettman might not "get it".

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Moralizing About Fans

By now, the immediate outrage of what happened at Game 3 between the Caps and Flyers last night has probably subsided. What started with a dangerous and frankly disgusting hit by Pierre-Edouard Bellemare on Dmitry Orlov devolved into Flyers fans throwing the light up bracelets attached to the seats at Wells Fargo Center to be used for the Ed Snider tribute onto the ice. Philadelphia sports fans are not know for their subtlety, or grace in defeat or anger, but last night felt like a new low. But is that because many of us at large spend so much time moralizing fandom and the conduct of fans, particularly in Philadelphia?

It's no secret that I grew up outside of Philadelphia obviously in a sea of Philly sports fans when I myself loathed most all Philly teams. When my elementary school held a pep rally for the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX (I was in fifth grade), I wore my Byron Leftwich Jaguars jersey to school that day in protest (and was forced to go to the pep rally anyway even though I made it obvious I had no interest), and had beer dumped on me at a Phillies game when I wore a Mets shirt, so maybe my views here are slanted in one direction. Or maybe, after dealing with the Philadelphia sports scene ever since I started following sports, maybe my experiences can shed more light on the situation. The real answer here is: fans and media love to moralize fandom, particularly for dissident groups and vocal groups of fans outside their own hemisphere.

What happened last night was obviously heinous on the part of the Flyers fans who threw bracelets at Dmitry Orlov on the bench, and after that. Lou Nolan even said in essence, "what the hell are you people doing?" to the fans who wouldn't admit their team was outclassed. Having all of this boil over on the night the team honors Ed Snider punctuates the situation even more. The outrage that followed is not surprising, because this is another incident to throw on the pile of incidents that defines Philadelphia sports fandom which includes throwing D-Cell batteries at J.D Drew, snowballs at Santa, a courtroom inside the Vet, fighting Tie Domi in the penalty box, etc. One of the most popular Philly sports blogs is called "The 700 level", after the cheap seats at the Vet, so Philly fans know their history. But last night felt like the end of the rope for the town and its fans, even from those who accept this kind of behavior because "it's Philly". Even Ryan White showed complicity in "endorsing" what the few Flyers fans did at the end of Game 3. But moralizing fandom and condemning other groups of fans is nothing new, and with the internet the moral outrage is louder than ever.

Every group of fans has its bad seeds, though it seems Philly's bad seeds sprout bigger and uglier flowers. One of Twitter's favorite running jokes is about how St. Louis Cardinal fans proclaim themselves to be "the best in baseball", and then jump on them when some do stupid and insidious nonsense like calling now Cubs OF Jason Heyward the N-word. That rightfully deserves outrage, but not all Cardinals fans do that, just as not all Flyers fans would throw light-up bracelets at injured players from the opposing team. Hindsight is always 20/20, so saying that of course the Flyers marketing staff should have seen what occurred coming but they aren't cynical enough to actually believe anyone would do it, particularly on Ed Snider night. The media and other vocal fans can use that lens freely, while others can't. Whether it's #NotAllFlyersFans or #ItsJustBandwagoners, you could replace Flyers fans with any other group of fans across the world and name something stupid they've done. In Italy, fans of one soccer team threw flares at the head of the opposing goalie, and that's somehow common. It wasn't actually Canucks fans who incited the riots after losing Game 7 in 2011 to the Bruins, it was "anarchists in Canucks jerseys who aren't really fans". The emperor continues to find new clothes to wear, but still gets stoned every time.

Immediacy begets sweeping generalizations, not just in sports but everywhere. One of my tenets of sports fandom, like fandom of bands, actors, etc., is that it's inherently irrational. No rational human being would stake happiness and well being to the performance of a team playing a child's game for insane amounts of money that we the fans have no control over. It's the Roman Gladitorial Arena for the modern generation. What fans will "endorse", or let slide in the name of their team, will often times be slammed in all other instances because fandom is irrational. While what Flyers fans, Cardinals fans, etc. did is disgusting, sweeping generalizations of an entire group of people based on the actions of a few is what in other terms would be called "racism" or "sexism" or any of a number of other synonyms. Why in a sports context is this acceptable?

My sentiments of distrust and anger towards Philly sports teams and their fans has cooled as I have grown older, which means my own reaction to last night is vastly different than it would have been if I was younger. Maybe that misplaced anger and those frayed nerves have shifted to other groups of fans, but I still regret what I used to do and how I used to color an entire group of people wrongly because of the actions of a few lone wolves. There are plenty of Philly fans who would have thrown bracelets onto the ice that weren't at Wells Fargo Center last night, and plenty of fans at the rink who walked out in despair because of what they witnessed. What we shouldn't do is moralize and condemn an entire group of people because of this, because fandom comes in all different shapes, sizes and forms and some people take it too far.

While it may be easy to judge an entire group of people based on the actions of a few, we need to attempt to act rationally to prevent that. It's no doubt difficult, just like it is for those who wore the same Ed Snider shirts as those who threw solid objects at an injured player to accept what they've seen. Fandom isn't rational, and trying to rationalize irrationality only bring about more irrationality.

Such is sports, such is fandom.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

2016 Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions

Time for the predictions that are sure to backfire, and every year they always seem to. Difference is this year my team is in it somehow. Rare is the time when the Florida Panthers are in the playoffs and I attempt to be unbiased in my picks. So let's see how 2016 goes...

Eastern Conference:

Quarters:
FLA over NYI in 6
TB over DET in 6
PIT over NYR in 5
WSH over PHI in 7

Semis:
TB over FLA in 6 (I assume Stamkos and Stralman magically get healthy by the time this series comes around)
PIT over WSH in 7

Conference Finals:
PIT over TB in 6

Western Conference:

Quarterfinals:
DAL over MIN in 4
CHI over STL in 6
LA over SJ in 6
ANA over NSH in 6

Semis:
DAL over CHI in 6
LA over ANA in 6

Conference Finals:
LA over DAL in 5

2016 Stanley Cup Finals: Penguins over Kings in 6

Conn Smythe Winner: Sidney Crosby

Monday, April 11, 2016

2015-16 NHL Season Predictions in Review

I love when I get to look back at predictions I made six months ago and laugh at them, in most cases. God I was stupid and naive then, how could I have ever seen that happening? Was I mad? On magic mushrooms? Taking the day off? That's usually how it goes on posts like these.

Except this year, with my NHL predictions, most of them turned out to be broadly right. Does that mean I'm a genius? Hardly, as anyone who looked at my NCAA Tournament picks and NFL season predictions from last year will tell you. But at least my broken ego will be pieced together with chewed up gum and spit for these predictions, as my playoff ones percolate in my brain. Here comes the review:

My Eastern Conference Playoff Teams: WSH, PIT, NYR, NYI, TB, MTL, DET, FLA
Actual Eastern Conference Playoff Teams: WSH, PIT, NYR, NYI, FLA, TB, DET, PHI

One off. I even got the exact order of the Metro's Top 4 right, for what little consolation that brings. Most people suspected Philly wouldn't quite be ready for the playoffs this year, but thanks to the Habs falling off a cliff, there was an opening for a team like Philadelphia to sneak in. I won't take a victory lap for thinking the Panthers were postseason bound since they're my team, but it is nice to know that I could at least see the forest through the trees.

My Western Conference Playoff Teams: STL, DAL, CHI, NSH, ANA, SJ, LA, CGY
Actual Western Conference Playoff Teams: DAL, STL, CHI, MIN, ANA, LA, SJ, NSH

Seven of eight again, with only the Wild slightly undervalued. I expected the Flames to regress some, but not as much as they eventually did. The bounce back for LA and San Jose came as expected, and the Dallas Stars rose to the top of the West with their Texas firepower.

Now for the awards...

President's Trophy: Anaheim. Winner: Washington. The Ducks slow start doomed them here, but they still finished with the Pacific Division crown anyway. Amazing season in Anaheim.

Hart: Steven Stamkos. Will he win it? Doubtful. Probably going to be Alex Ovechkin for another 50 goal triumph, but Patrick Kane will be there too.

Calder: Connor McDavid. Will he win it? Probably not, thanks to Artemi Panarin, though he will be top three. He has been the most impressive rookie in his time on ice, though it was curtailed by a terrible injury.

Vezina: Braden Holtby. Will he win it? You bet. He tied Marty Brodeur's single-season wins record on the best team in hockey, there's not even a question, even though Roberto Luongo and Ben Bishop have a case.

Norris: P.K Subban. Will he win it? Nope. Going to be Drew Doughty because he doesn't have one over Erik Karlsson who should win it with his amazing offensive season on a mediocre team.

Selke: Anze Kopitar. Will he win it? Probably.

Jack Adams: Lindy Ruff. Will he win it? Nope, despite the fact that his team had a great season. Going to be Mike Sullivan for saving the Penguins from the brink, Gerard Gallant for taking a team that was decent last year and turning them into a division winner, or Bruce Boudreau for the amazing save of the Ducks he did.

So that's the predictions gone over. Let's get to the playoffs.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Thoughts on Crying Jordan and the Cultural Bandwagon

Anyone on the internet last night after the end of the National Championship Game between Villanova and North Carolina knew what was coming after Kris Jenkins sunk one of the most famous shots in NCAA Tournament history. After the palpable shock and awe passed, the logical next step was clear... Crying Jordan. The meme that has a lifespan all to its own; a meme that seems as ever-present as death and taxes. Naturally, since the internet was awash with new interpretations of an old classic, there was quite a bit of blowback. Aren't all bizarre cultural phenomenon met with the same reaction? 

The internet has a way of responding to those who don't agree with its chosen consensus though, and that is exemplified in the dissidents to the meme becoming the meme itself. That's a much too fancy way of saying "don't set your picture as your Twitter avatar and then hate on Crying Jordan, because you know what's next". What the puff pieces about Crying MJ don't realize, and probably will never understand, is that the lifespan of this joke and cultural fad sustains itself on precisely that kind of hate and misunderstanding. 

Whether or not this is relevant to the discussion, I'll say it anyway: I don't find the meme funny anymore. I think it jumped the shark long ago. But, the internet doesn't really care for dissenting opinions. And I don't hate Crying MJ's preeminence after major events as the communal way of laughing at the loser, even if the joke itself is tired. Cultural phenomenon like this one thrive and survive in this pool of frustration. 

In 2000, "Who Let the Dogs Out" became the most ubiquitous song of the year, even becoming a theme song for the 2000 New York Mets. I love that team, but absolutely loathe the song. Most Americans loathed the song, but that didn't matter because during that year you still heard it everywhere you went, no matter whether you thought your own personal hate could put a dent in the barrage. Remember "Gangnam Style"? I know that's an episode in pop culture most people are trying to scrub from their memory with heavy duty bleach, but once again, whether you hated that song/internet meme or not, it didn't matter, because there were more people who wanted to ride the coattails of a runaway bandwagon. Crying Jordan, while its lifespan is longer than those two examples, isn't much different at all.

Whether Crying Jordan is now part of an internet vernacular, as Robert Silverman of Vocativ argues, feels besides the point. Crying MJ expresses a sentiment that's as old as the human experience itself: winners love laughing at losers. That will never change, as this is just a modern manifestation of that. Scholarly interpretations of memes also completely miss the point, too, not in their point, but in their method. It doesn't even really matter that making a Crying MJ meme doesn't actually take much thought or effort either. In a moment of intense emotional catharsis, either way, seeing something like that meme evokes a visceral reaction that makes even the stony-hearted smirk and chuckle, because what else can you do? We're human. Crying MJ is crude in such a basic way, but is no different than any other cultural appropriation of "laughing at the loser" that is such an indelible part of the human experience.

Crying out against Crying Jordan is worthless, because the meme itself is a cycle within a cycle. One day, it will be replaced by another meme performing the same cultural duty, and history will look on Crying Jordan with the same slanted gaze we look at other cultural phenomenon that seemed ubiquitous for a time then wilted away and now seem horribly dated. Complaining about disco in the 70's seemed worthless for a time, until one day disco wasn't worth hating on anymore. That day will come for Crying Jordan, and it may be soon. 

But remember, the cultural bandwagon and the tendency to hitch on to that trailer as it zooms past you is nothing new. Crying MJ is just another manifestation of that aspect of the human experience.

So the next time someone writes a "think piece" about how they are mad because the greatest basketball player of all time has been reduced to a meme used to laugh at losers, remember that human culture does this all the time, this is just another phase. 

It ain't worth getting Crying MJ'ed over. 

Friday, April 1, 2016

2016 MLB Season Predictions

A new baseball season is upon us, which means it's time for some predictions on what's coming down the pike. Last year's predictions went as they usually do, which means badly, but that's why erasers exist. It's a new year, and there's a chance to earn some redemption here. I will again apologize in advance to those who I have jinxed, but here are my 2016 MLB Season Predictions:

NL East:

1. New York Mets
2. Washington Nationals
3. Miami Marlins
4. Atlanta Braves
5. Philadelphia Phillies

There really isn't that much surprise in this order. The Mets have a dominant rotation that will only get better when Zack Wheeler returns, and even though the Nats have a more potent offense, it's hard to see them overcoming the Mets with all of the baggage in that clubhouse.

NL Central:

1. Chicago Cubs
2. St. Louis Cardinals
3. Pittsburgh Pirates
4. Milwaukee Brewers
5. Cincinnati Reds

The Cubs are a juggernaut, and even the mighty Cardinals who have won five straight division titles won't be able to match that. The Pirates will, like the Nationals, be competitive for a Wild Card spot this year but they've been outgunned by the two teams in front of them in their division.

NL West:

1. San Francisco Giants
2. Los Angeles Dodgers
3. Arizona D'Backs
4. San Diego Padres
5. Colorado Rockies

It's an even numbered year, and you know what that means.Their rotation figures to be fantastic with the additions of Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto behind Madison Bumgarner, and as long as they have enough offense they should be in pretty good shape. The Dodgers rotation has some major questions to be answered after Zack Grienke left for Arizona, and while their offense still has pop, the rotation figures to derail their chances at the NL West pennant. Do the D'Backs have enough to pass both the Dodgers and Giants? Probably not.

NL Wild Cards: 1. St. Louis Cardinals, 2. Los Angeles Dodgers.

AL East:

1. Toronto Blue Jays
2. Boston Red Sox
3. New York Yankees
4. Tampa Bay Rays
5. Baltimore Orioles

The Blue Jays lost David Price who changed that rotation midseason last year, but they will have full season of Marcus Stroman, which should offset that loss. But, their rotation still leaves something to be desired, as does the bullpen, even with Drew Storen. But, they will still probably lead the majors in most offensive categories anyway. The big spending, analytics dumping Boston Red Sox have a revamped rotation and an offense with pop, but there are still questions, just like there are with their rivals the Yankees. The Blue Jays offense is probably going to be too much to overcome.

AL Central:

1. Kansas City Royals
2. Cleveland Indians
3. Detroit Tigers
4. Minnesota Twins
5. Chicago White Sox

I'm not making the same mistake underestimating the Royals again. Not doing it.

AL West:

1. Texas Rangers
2. Houston Astros
3. Seattle Mariners
4. Anaheim Angels
5. Oakland A's

Texas baseball is going to dominate the AL West this season, and it's no surprise considering what both teams bring to the table after last season's surprises. But the Astros have a few more questions than the Rangers do, which is why they are where they are. None of the four contenders for the pennant blow anyone away, which is why fine margins can end up deciding who wins here.

AL Wild Cards: 1. Houston Astros 2. Boston Red Sox.

Playoff Predictions:

NL Wild Card Game: Cardinals over Dodgers (sorry to see you go, Vin!)
AL Wild Card Game: Red Sox over Astros

NLDS: Cubs over Cardinals in 4
             Giants over Mets in 5

ALDS: Royals over Red Sox in 4
             Blue Jays over Rangers in 3

NLCS: Giants over Cubs in 7 (Even Year Devil Magic)
             Blue Jays over Royals in 6

2016 World Series: Blue Jays over Giants in 6 (no more Even Year Devil Magic)

Awards Predictions:

NL MVP: Kris Bryant
AL MVP: Carlos Correa
NL Cy Young: Madison Bumgarner
AL Cy Young: David Price
NL Rookie: Corey Seager
AL Rookie: Byron Buxton
NL Manager: Bruce Bochy
AL Manager: John Gibbons
NL Homer King: Bryce Harper
AL Homer King: Miguel Sano

Giants even year devil magic, y'all. But sorry to the many Blue Jays fans on jinxing your team in advance.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Duke Lacrosse and the Lessons Journalism and the Media Haven't Learned

Watching ESPN's latest 30 for 30 film on Duke lacrosse was a chastening experience. I was but 12 and preparing for my Bar Mitzvah when this story was national news and dominating the 24/7 news cycle. The case was a confluence of every "war" in modern American society; white vs. black, rich vs. poor, men vs. women, etc., which meant it was a natural story to project many different societal ills on. While the film did a brilliant job exposing the flaws in the American Justice System, it touched on something more apt for this space... the ills of modern journalism.

Even at that time back 10 years ago, the 24 hour news cycle dominated the world. Ratings + the need to fill air time meant that a story like this became a natural target for eager and overzealous journalists to impress this new need for content on. The need for content does not supersede the need for accuracy and proper coverage however, and this story is a prime of example of how not to cover a crime story. Local and national news made the same mistakes and fed off of the circumstances of the case rather than the case itself. And in the world of social media and the even more prevalent need for clicks/ratings, imagining the coverage of a similar story in 2016 is almost sickening.

In the court of law, all who are charged are innocent until proven guilty. While that standard is certainly malleable, it is one that has held up ever since the foundation of the country. What is different, and fundamentally so, is that in the court of public opinion, guilt is always presumed. The controllers of the court of public opinion are those presenting the story to the public, and that is the media. "The media doesn't tell us what to think, it tells us what to think about". In many ways that statement is true, but increasingly, the media is telling us both what to think about and what to think about what to think about. In the Duke case, what was being presented to the media painted a picture of a heinous crime committed by lacrosse players against a black female escort. What actually happened was a terrible confluence of circumstances that led to an overzealous public official using a case for his own personal gain. Many of the modern ills in society were projected onto the case that had no reason to even be in the same discussion, and it was largely because of what the media presented to the public as truth, and none of that "truth" was anywhere near it.

Thinking about 2016 and the rapidly changing media landscape means cases like this don't have the time to develop as legal cases before the media jumps in and projects itself onto the case. While the media should not do the job the justice system has to do, it does provide a valuable public service and checking the government for its actions and calling it out when it steps beyond its bounds. Good journalists develop sources and find ways to collect information the public cannot easily obtain, and not much of that was done with Duke lacrosse. There were alarm bells all over this case and the way it was handled, but some in the media had already presumed the outcome but needed the path to it, just like Mike Nifong. While it is incredibly evident that a system that rewards guilty verdicts instead of the truth was abused here, the media needs to call it out, not enhance its use. A DA that was lagging in the polls and was eager to climb them took on a case that sparked conflict among a racial divide in a city that was colored by it doesn't sound alarm bells to anyone? In many ways, the media makes these publicized court cases worse, because the flaws in the system are only exposed more and in some ways enhanced.

One of the parents of the players charged in the case said the media couldn't be trusted, and in many ways he's not wrong. There is a common refrain in the public space now that "journalism is dying". In fact it's the exact opposite; quality journalism is more important than ever. So many people claim to report on the news and clutter the space with needless opinion there to garner hits and nothing else instead of the importance being put on quality, in-depth, targeted reporting that only the best journalists can do. Plenty of that is related to the financial state of the industry, but good journalism will always be appreciated by the public, and the media's job is still to check the government in its overreach of power. The Washington Post's stories on the NSA with Edward Snowden fundamentally changed modern human society, and that was in 2013. There is a reason why journalism is the only profession mentioned in the Constitution.

So 10 years on, what can the media learn from the embarrassment of the Duke lacrosse case? It can learn that what is put out in public is done for a reason, and that reason isn't necessarily for the betterment of the public. Doing background on everyone involved in the case is important, but there needs to be a better standard for what and what isn't newsworthy. When worthy questions need to be asked of procedural issues in a case, journalists must ask it. We cannot do the DA or defense's job for them, but we have the ability to find out information that the public simply cannot (for instance: we can gather police records as they are public information. The process might be slanted but we have the patience to do so). Each case is fundamentally different from ones that came before it, even with precedent in the courtroom. The core tenets of the film was not on rape culture or class issues, though they certainly played a role. The film focused on what was a fundamental corruption of justice, which has made it harder for the public to believe rape victims when they report what happened to them in the future. The fact that the privileged white guys were just as much of a victim as Crystal Mangum makes the entire situation even murkier and worse.

No doubt it will be tricky to cover cases better in the future because of the demands on the media as of now. In sports of late, the issue of sexual assault and rape have become hot button issues, and the media's coverage of the cases that have become public have been rather shallow. And because of the public's chastening experience with the Duke lacrosse case, it makes every subsequent sexual assault/rape case even trickier to cover because the public inherently is wary to believe the women because they've seen instances in which they were lied to; not by the women, but by those who were supposed to protect them. Everyone must do better, and watching Fantastic Lies, it's pretty clear on where journalists need to improve if we are to provide a better service to the public for what our fundamental job is: finding out the truth. Showing sympathy for those who are sexually assaulted and projecting guilt in the court of public opinion are two fundamentally different things that should stay separate.

Journalists occupy such an important public space and even with the issues facing the profession and the industry, we must all work harder to do our jobs as good as we can, which means we can cover complex cases like the Duke lacrosse case with the care, precision and thoroughness they deserve. It is easy to take a case and apply lenses to it that do not belong, and we have to do better to prevent that from happening. Journalists have an obligation to report all sides of a story, even in tetchy cases like these. We have to work even harder to do that.

The film and the case touched a sensitive nerve in society because of all the factors at play. But one that needs to be touched on is that journalists have to do better, much better, especially now, because if we don't, even more fundamental societal ills can fester unchecked.