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Sports and psychology roundup

First, congratulations to the Carolina Hurricanes, and especially all their deserving veterans: Rod Brind’Amour, Glen Wesley, Doug Weight, Bret Hedican, Mark Recchi, Ray Whitney, and goal-scorers Aaron Ward, Frantisek Kaberle, and Justin Williams.  Also special extra bonus cheers to rookie Cam Ward, winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP, and Erik Cole, for coming back from a mother-lovin’ broken neck to play the final two games of the series.  Meanwhile, much love and respect to the Oilers of Edmonton, who rallied admirably behind a backup goaltender when no one gave them a chance to win.  “No one,” by the way, includes me: after Dwayne Roloson went down in game one, and Jussi Markkanen Ty Conklin (sorry, Jussi!) misplayed a puck with 30 seconds left in that game to give Carolina a highly improbable comeback win (down 3-0 with 23 minutes left), and then the Oilers came out like an already-beaten team in game two and got thrashed 5-0, I advised my friends in North Carolina to watch games three and four on their tele-vision sets, because the series (I assured them, with a great assurance) would not be returning to their hot and humid region.

So I was wrong.

But I hope some of you were watching game seven, because it was thrilling from start to finish.  Really!  Even the opening faceoff was fun!  The Hurricanes got many props from announcers Emrick and Davidson for coming out hitting, and they did indeed come out hitting; more important, however (and I still don’t understand why I haven’t been picked up as a freelance color commentator), they came out shooting.  In game five, they came out for the third period with the score tied 3-3 . . . and put all of two shots on net. In the overtime, they managed two fewer shots than that.  In game six, they passed many pucks around the perimeter many times, and wound up with seven shots after two periods.  (At one point they were being outshot 21-3.  It was embarrassing.) Last night, they opened with four quick shots, one of which went in.  Lo!  Sometimes that happens when you shoot the puck on the net.  About every tenth or eleventh time, on average.

I could recap the entire game, but you don’t want me to do that, and besides, there’s something else I want to ask about.

Let’s go back for a moment to the final hour of the U.S. Open on Sunday.  Much has been made of Phil Mickelson’s epochal collapse on the final hole; on this very blog, for instance, commenter Gary remarks,

the Vandeveldian drama was so sweet.  I can’t possibly be the only person who truly, deeply enjoyed seeing that stupid, self-satisfied grin wiped from Phil Mickelson’s fleshy face as he hit terrible shot after terrible shot on the 18th hole Sunday.  Really, considering Mickelson’s status and the situation (trying to win a third straight major), his meltdown is much, much worse than Jean Van de Velde’s.

Gary is right about the scale of that meltdown, and while I harbor no animus toward the self-satisfied grin on Mickelson’s fleshy face (I found the final 15 minutes of the tournament excruciating to watch, as if we were intruding on someone’s intense personal grief), I do resent the fact that the sports press basically awarded him the U.S. Open the moment Kenneth Ferrie bogeyed his final hole . . . on Saturday.  And anyone who takes a driver on 18, leading by one in the world’s toughest tournament, after hitting only two of thirteen fairways all day well deserves his spot in the Hubris Hall of Fame.  Add to that the fact that Phil hit his drive beyond the first tier of bad (the 3-1/2 inch rough), beyond the second tier of bad (the 5-1/2 inch rough), beyond the third tier (the long grass trampled down by thousands of spectators, which is often and unfairly preferable to the second tier), into a whole new dimension of badness, bouncing the thing off the corporate tent!  I ask you, how is a shot that awful not out of bounds?  And if it hadn’t flooped off the tent and back into Bad Tier Three, where Phil was overtaken by the insane idea that he could strike the ball cleanly onto the green in two, who knows but that it would have flown into the parking lot and onto I-95?  Anyone who hits that shot on the 72nd hole should not be allowed to win the Open.  The lanky kid who chipped in on 17 and survived two lousy, lousy breaks on 18 to tough out a par—he gets to win the Open.

But Phil, despite his meltdown, is not the point.  Instead, I spent much of yesterday thinking about poor Monty, 0-for-42 in major championships.  Here’s the deal.  He comes down the stretch, very much in contention and well aware that he’s the sport’s most famous runner-up, and he plays 15 and 16 so perfectly that he gives himself eminently makeable 12-footers for birdie . . . and misses them both.  Then he skulls his drive on 17 into the third tier of bad, plays a miraculous cut shot onto the green, and, oh my God, drains a 75-foot putt that almost brings him to tears.  He then steps up to 18 with thousands of pounds of pressure per square inch on his shoulders, and, unlike Mickelson, threads a perfect drive to a perfect location where he has a mere 172 yards to a pin placement that just happens to favor his swing.

And then what does he do?  He takes out a 6-iron, sets up, starts thinking (he later said he figured he would overhit the 6 with all that adrenaline), puts away the 6, takes out a 7, and hits a shot that your average weekend duffer could have hit: 20 yards short and in the deep, ugly stuff.  He winds up with a double bogey, taking five strokes over those last 172 yards: a terribly chunked approach, a vexing chip out of greenside Brillo, and a nervous three-putt to cap it all off.  He winds up one stroke back, just like Phil.

Now, I admit that watching golf isn’t much fun.  It’s a curious sport that way: both in TV land and on the course (where you can find over 50,000 people on the final day of a major—ask me sometime about my day in the gallery during the final round of the 1999 PGA Championship), the entire fan base is made up of people who play the game themselves.  Everyone else, I believe, hates it and wishes it into the furthest reaches of the cornfield.  But one of the distinctive things about golf is that although you see these men and women play a superhuman version of the game you play, launching 350-yard drives that hit landing areas 30 yards wide and getting up and down from terrain like that of the Amazon rainforest, you also know that at any moment, the golf gods might curse them, and then a truly horrible thing will happen.  Something so horrible, indeed, as to make one of the world’s best players look like an ordinary person who never quite learned what to do with a loft wedge.

And that’s what happened to poor Colin Montgomerie on that approach shot, I think.  He realized he had a decent shot at birdieing the unbirdieable 18th, and first he second-guessed himself, and then he . . . well, the technical term is “choked.” He froze up.  So did Phil on that 18th tee, blocking his shot out to the left just like any schmo who doesn’t complete his turn on the downswing.  It’s understandable (hell, I’ve played in only one tournament in my life, the 1977 Junior Publinx in Queens, NY, and I couldn’t get past the second round), especially in a game ninety percent of which is half mental, but still.  It’s a horrible thing.

So I was thinking about Monty and Phil, and then I was thinking about the Carolina Hurricanes getting so badly beaten in game six in Edmonton.  Last night, the cliché came to life: the Hurricanes were a different team altogether.  Now, I can understand how people freeze and choke in an individual sport.  The pressure simply gets too intense for the human nervous system, and you double-clutch, or you hesitate for a millisecond and all is lost, or all the strength leaves your limbs.  Horrible, but understandable.  What I don’t understand, even though I play a team sport, is how entire teams can experience collective psychological phenomena.  Even hockey turns out to be ninety percent half mental!  Now, as you know, I can’t stand sports commentators blathering on about momentum and how the assistant coach gave the players motivational medallions and how the team leader fired them up in the locker room, so I tend not to take seriously that aspect of team sports.  But it’s there, all the same.  An entire team suddenly becomes hesitant, or self-doubting, and then one guy makes an errant pass, and another guy commits a rare turnover, or a call goes the wrong way and the whole team becomes querulous and petulant.  I saw it happen to the St. Louis Blues in 2001 after Roman Turek began letting in goals that any decent goaltender (from the junior level on up) could have stopped.  To a man, they all began mishandling the puck terribly, almost as if to say, I don’t want this thing—you know, it could wind up in our net at any moment. But how does that work?

Two caveats: one, I know that Carolina played game six away and game seven at home, and I am aware that this makes a bit of difference, for both psychological (yay team!) and technical (right of final player change) reasons.  (In the 14 game sevens in Stanley Cup Final history, the home team has now won 12.) But still.  How in the world could the Hurricanes have come out so flat on Saturday, and so sharp on Monday?  It wasn’t like they were saving themselves for a game seven, you know.  They were just plain terrible in Alberta, that’s all.  And then they were good again! Mirabile dictu!  And now they have the Cup!

Two, I believe that contact sports are qualitatively different from non-contact sports in this respect.  In contact sports you have something to do with all that adrenaline, whereas in golf (say) you have to wait five or six minutes between shots, wondering (if you’re Colin Montgomerie) if your adrenal system is going to affect your shot selection.  Surely, if Montgomerie could simply have thrown a crushing body check to his playing partner, he would have chilled out a little on that approach shot, no?

Anyone with any insight into how entire teams of a dozen or two dozen people can have wild mood swings from day to day is invited to step up.  Extra special bonus thanks will go to anyone who has insight into the psychological turmoil of the Dallas-Miami series or the World Cup.

Speaking of the World Cup: people keep appearing in comments and reminding me that the rest of the world cares about this thing.  Well, I visited the rest of the world once, and it turns out you’re right!  People watch this “soccer” like it was football or something!  Two years ago, I was in France during Euro Cup 2004, and when I returned to Les États-Unis I filed this report:

I have long thought that soccer—known in some parts of the world, namely, everywhere but here, as “football”—is almost the perfect sport.  It involves intense, explosive large- muscle-group strength, incredible cardiovascular stamina, and stunning small-muscle-group finesse and coordination.  It also has nearly-ideal combinations of individual virtuosity with team effort, skill with chance, and synoptic strategy with sudden bursts of impromptu brilliance.  But unfortunately, the sport has deep structural flaws, the most notorious of which is its “offsides” rule, which prevents players from sprinting behind defenses.  And don’t even try to defend the inane “shootout” as a means of deciding games: at the very least, the players should run in from midfield and/or shoot from outside the penalty area.  Shooting from 11m out is a joke.  The main problem, though, is that the scale of soccer is too big.  The way I figure it, if soccer would just reduce the size of its field, reduce the number of players on the field, make the ball smaller and harder and flatten it on both ends, make the goal smaller, put up boards and glass around the boundaries, cover the field in ice, and give everybody sticks, then you’d have the perfect sport.

But in the course of watching Euro 2004 each night, I learned that (or I should say, Janet pointed out that) “football” does have an indisputable advantage over ice hockey in one key area: soccer players are far more handsome than hockey players—in some cases, astonishingly so.  When France tied Croatia 2-2 two weeks ago, you could have told me that the Louis Vuitton house squad was playing the Dolce and Gabbana office team, and I’d have believed you.  The next night, Italy played Sweden in the rain, which meant that players had to keep sweeping their hands through their hair (and let’s not forget that the international soccer gesture for “I can’t believe I missed” is the hands-through-the-hair, as well), and I’ll be damned if the game didn’t look like a two-hour-long Versace ad.

Ah, well, yes, ahem, I did pay attention to the outcomes of the games, even if Janet had her mind on other matters.  For those of you following the tournament in other English- speaking nations, there’s no question, England was robbed in that game against Portugal.  But then, what do you expect from a sport with such severe structural flaws?

And that’s pretty much all I can say about soccer. 

You know, part of the sublime fun of last night’s third period, after Edmonton’s Fernando Pisani had scored to make it 2-1 with 18 minutes left, lay in knowing that according to the laws of physics, Edmonton would almost surely have another five or six great scoring chances before the end of the game.  And they did!  Let me know when soccer gets that exciting.  In the meantime, I’m going to suggest that the rest of the world start watching hockey.  It’s not just for the frozen north any more!

Posted by on 06/20 at 11:40 AM
  1. But in the course of watching Euro 2004 each night, I learned that (or I should say, Janet pointed out that) “football” does have an indisputable advantage over ice hockey in one key area: soccer players are far more handsome than hockey players—in some cases, astonishingly so. 

    Yup, and not just over hockey but over almost every other sport.  It’s half the fun of the game.  Now, if I could only get Schevchenko as a sugar daddy.

    Posted by  on  06/20  at  01:09 PM
  2. I watched the hockey game on TV last night; first hockey game I’ve ever seen in my life, I think. But I’m right in the middle of ‘Canes fever here in Raleigh, so I figured what the heck. And you know what? Exciting game. Fun to watch.

    And TOTALLY cute players.

    They all have beards! Proper beards, not those dumb out-of-date redneck goatees that all the baseball players have! It’s so adorable! They all look just like the bluegrass musicians and folk singer-songwriters that have given me so much romantic trouble in the past.

    Janet may be right that soccer players are more “handsome” than hockey players, but who wants handsome? I can’t picture any of those Dolce and Gabbana slickwads getting all sweaty mowing my lawn without a shirt on or going fishing in wading boots or sitting out on the porch playing guitar or buckling on a toolbelt before heading out to Habitat for Humanity.

    I’m a new fan.

    Posted by  on  06/20  at  01:33 PM
  3. Ah, good things come to those who wait.

    The sports cliché that comes to mind as an explanation of the ‘Canes behavior in Games 6 and 7 is “nothing left to lose.” I don’t doubt that they wanted to win Game 6, but they knew they had a cushion—if it didn’t work out the first night, they would have another chance.  There is a ferocity and an intensity that comes from the knowledge that it’s now or never.

    Posted by Matt  on  06/20  at  01:42 PM
  4. Good post Michael, but I believe it was Conklin who was in the Oilers’ net for the Game 1 miscue which led to the Brind’Amour winner.

    Posted by  on  06/20  at  01:42 PM
  5. So you think that soccer players are handsomer than multi-stitched toothless icers? That’s quite a stretch.
    Since you mentioned wishing people to the cornfield could you link to your take on the Bush/thinking bad thoughts post that caused me to start reading this damnable blog?
    Lastly how do you explain the TV audience not getting into this series especially after the OT game?

    Posted by  on  06/20  at  01:43 PM
  6. TOTALLY cute players...They all look just like the bluegrass musicians and folk singer-songwriters that have given me so much romantic trouble in the past.

    EEwwwwwuuu! Amanda, I don’t know if you are single or not, but one thing’s for sure: we will never, ever be competing for the same men! Ha!

    But ya gotta give it up to men’s soccer for one thing: soccer legs!

    And thanks for your comment to me in the previous post. That at least one person understood what I was trying to say means a lot to me.

    Posted by  on  06/20  at  01:52 PM
  7. Aha!  As goes Amanda French, so goes the world.  We will assemble a Hockey Hegemony one smitten fan at a time.

    Though I have to break the news that the beards are strictly a playoff phenomenon.  Hockey players are intensely superstitious, as a rule, and at some point in the last decade or two some of them got the idea that it was bad luck to shave during the playoffs.  Of course, this has the ancillary effect of making hockey beards a sign of manly playoff prowess, as the really shaggy folk-bluegrass guys make their way into the finals over the course of two long months while all the losers shave and head to the golf course for the off-season.

    But even when they shave, some of those players would make very cute shirtless lawn-mowers.  Matt Cullen is attractive in a kind of impish way (needs some hair work, though), and my stars, he played an amazing game last night.  Ray Whitney is better than a sharp stick in the eye, and Doug Weight has his charm, too.  On the other side, Michael Peca has a kind of tousled Guy Pearce thing going on, Chris Pronger has the Tim Robbins / Bull Durham look down pat, and Georges Laraque has a sweet smile that belies the fact that he crushes people to the boards like bugs.  And best of all, hockey players now come with 40 percent more teeth!

    I mean all this in a completely heterosexual way, of course.

    Posted by  on  06/20  at  01:55 PM
  8. I believe it was Conklin who was in the Oilers’ net for the Game 1 miscue which led to the Brind’Amour winner.

    D’oh!  You believe right, Shanti.  May Jussi forgive me.  I’ll go correct that right now, with a slash to acknowledge the mistake.  And while I’m doing that, I’ll also do this:

    Since you mentioned wishing people to the cornfield could you link to your take on the Bush/thinking bad thoughts post that caused me to start reading this damnable blog?

    Damnable?!?  Hah.  This blog is already damnedHere’s the link.  You’ve been reading since May 2004?  Wow, this blog wasn’t even damned back then.

    Posted by  on  06/20  at  02:06 PM
  9. Anyone with any insight into how entire teams of a dozen or two dozen people can have wild mood swings from day to day is invited to step up.  Extra special bonus thanks will go to anyone who has insight into the psychological turmoil of the Dallas-Miami series or the World Cup.

    As to the World Cup, I’ve got nothing, but with Dallas-Miami, here’s a couple of thoughts.  With the Mavs, there’s the Cuban factor, in which knowing that your owner is a 47-year-old billionaire going on 14-year-old dork could wreak havoc with your motivation.  As in, he signs the checks but does he have to hang out with us too?  Then there’s also the whole Nowitzky/Hasselhoff thing.  Say you’re Jason Terry or Josh Howard.  You’re grooving along, making some shots, maybe got some old school Earth, Wind & Fire like “Shining Star” on your mind, and then you remember Dirk talking about how he hears Hasselhoff songs in his head during key moments in the game, and then suddenly, you’ve got “Looking For Freedom” or “Hot Shot City” stuck in your head.  It’s no wonder the shots start clanging.

    Posted by corndog  on  06/20  at  02:08 PM
  10. I’d like to point out that I’m English and I don’t give a flying fuck about the World Cup. Football is dull (yes, I mean both games that usually go by that name). The only exceptions are when “football” is prefixed by one of two phrases: “rugby union” or “Aussie Rules”. Now those are contact sports.

    Hockey is pretty damn cool though.

    Posted by sharon  on  06/20  at  02:08 PM
  11. ask me sometime about my day in the gallery during the final round of the 1999 PGA Championship

    All right - what about it?

    Posted by  on  06/20  at  02:21 PM
  12. Uh ... testing one two three. 

    #11 was me.  Where’d my name go?

    Posted by  on  06/20  at  02:23 PM
  13. Okay, now my name is there.  Please accept my humblest apologies, effendi.

    Captcha word: “face,” as in trying to save.

    Posted by  on  06/20  at  02:24 PM
  14. You’re grooving along, making some shots, maybe got some old school Earth, Wind & Fire like “Shining Star” on your mind, and then you remember Dirk talking about how he hears Hasselhoff songs in his head during key moments in the game, and then suddenly, you’ve got “Looking For Freedom” or “Hot Shot City” stuck in your head.  It’s no wonder the shots start clanging.

    That would definitely drain every last ounce of vigor from my limbs, that’s for sure.  Thanks for the look into the poor Mavs’ heads, corndog!  There’s a whole lotta pathos goin’ on in there, apparently. 

    Now, can someone explain to me why the NBA Finals are 2-3-2 when every other playoff series in the sport is 2-2-1-1-1?  Especially considering that home-court advantage in basketball is more significant than in any other sport (even sports like hockey, where there are actually rules that favor home teams, and way more than baseball, which has used the 2-3-2 forever)?  Why precisely should the higher-seeded team have the 3-2 home-court disadvantage after five games?  I know this has something to do with those epochal Lakers-Celtics series of the 1980s, but still, I just don’t get it.

    And Sharon, Australian rules football . . . uh . .  . rules.  Completely awesome, terrifying, incomprehensible game.  I love it.

    Posted by  on  06/20  at  02:24 PM
  15. Not now, Alek!  Sometime later.  On a slow blogging day.  It’s kind of involved, because I had a privileged look at Sergio Garcia’s half-hour-long rivalry with Tiger, while back at home, Janet was convinced (this is why it’s a long story) that I was lost, and she watched hours of the tournament hoping to see me in the crowd.

    But I’ll say this much:  I’ve been to three tournaments (that was my only major).  They’re like no other sports experience in the world:  you miss 98 percent of the action, and yet you’re sometimes a couple of feet away from the participants.  And if you’re like me, you wander around the entire course.  On Sunday there aren’t a lot of people following the early groups, and before I left Hale Irwin at 13 (he was among the early contenders, despite being 55 years old) I said so long and best wishes to his wife, Sally, who was one of only four or five people in his gallery. 

    Posted by  on  06/20  at  02:30 PM
  16. “Aussie Rules”.

    While I don’t find anything interesting about the actual game of “Aussie Rules” football, they could make a whole series about the referees.  I certainly hope they are the most well paid officials in all of sports.  Anyone who has to make those silly gestures in front of crowds deserves more pay than the players.  American football referees successfully lobbied to eliminate the hurdling penalty, thereby eliminating the only silly gesture they need to make.  The accursed thing only happened about twice per season anyway.  Those poor Australian referees have to do the spastic-gunfighter-shooting-his-toes signal every few seconds.

    Posted by  on  06/20  at  02:35 PM
  17. "Now, can someone explain to me why the NBA Finals are 2-3-2 when every other playoff series in the sport is 2-2-1-1-1?”

    Basketball championships are played between an eastern and western conference team.  The early rounds don’t have coast to coast travel, so you can switch cities often without a lot of time in the air.  The championship, as you pointed out, can have LA to Boston flights.  It’s not as big a deal for the Mavs, because they have their own plane, designed for 7 foot tall people, but most teams charter jets.  As luxurious as they may be, they are not designed for 7 foot tall people.

    Posted by  on  06/20  at  02:56 PM
  18. Surely, if Montgomerie could simply have thrown a crushing body check to his playing partner, he would have chilled out a little on that approach shot, no?

    No doubt. Golf would have at least one newly dedicated fan, also.

    Posted by  on  06/20  at  03:28 PM
  19. Well, Venerable Ed, there’s a reason that Happy Gilmore is one of the ten greatest films ever made.

    And Njorl, OK, I was aware that basketball championships are played between an eastern and western conference team.  Why, you young whippersnapper, I was there in Hershey when Wilt scored 100 points, and I remember Syracuse squeaking out a thriller over Fort Wayne in ‘55.  And those ‘51 Rochester Royals were really something!  I haven’t paid much attention to the league once it pulled out of Fort Wayne, though.  The quality of play really deteriorated once players started jumping while they shoot.

    Anyway, thanks for the explanation.  So you’re saying it’s a good thing the Grizzlies didn’t draw the Clippers or Lakers in round one. . . .

    Posted by  on  06/20  at  03:47 PM
  20. You know, from what Sports Illustrated tells me, Tiger and Phil really don’t like each other much.  I can kind of imagine them coming into the final hole of a major, dead even, and rather than immediately teeing off, the PGA sets up a wrestling ring and they exchange body slams for a few rounds.  Then they play that last hole.

    Hey, I’d watch.

    Posted by Linkmeister  on  06/20  at  03:51 PM
  21. An idea about team sport psychology, based loosely on playing on teams as a kid and watching sports my whole life:  when you’re playing a sport well, you aren’t thinking.  That is, you’re not meta-thinking.  Awareness of timeouts left, of floor spacing, etc., becomes almost entirely instinctual.  When you flub something (or circumstances, um, flub you), you sometimes start thinking beyond the instinctual.  And when one person makes an error (say, Alex Gonzalez muffs a grounder after Steve Bartman interferes with a foul ball), you begin to think not only about that person but about your own performance. 

    And I think it works the other way around for good performances; a couple of guys on the floor are making shots, and even though you’ve missed one, the shooting guard got the rebound over a taller guy, the ball’s bouncing your team’s way, so the brain settles into the instinctual.

    That’s all off the cuff, of course, and oversimplifying at best.  And it’s all, as the captcha says, “talk.”

    Posted by Crazy Little Thing  on  06/20  at  04:58 PM
  22. the beards are strictly a playoff phenomenon


    I especially liked the red-headed (and red-bearded) one. He was all Vikingy. I forget his name. I don’t think he’s one of the ones you linked to, Michael. My friend Stacy said that our friend Beth is all like, He’s my boyfriend, he just doesn’t know it yet. And I was like, No he isn’t. He’s MY boyfriend. He just doesn’t know it yet.

    Oaktown Girl, I concede the soccer legs.

    Posted by  on  06/20  at  05:55 PM
  23. Gosh, Michael, if you were saw the ‘51 Royals, then you probably also remember the Minneapolis Lakers. Skip the golf stuff and tell some George Mikan stories!

    Posted by  on  06/20  at  06:19 PM
  24. Michael, you got a little sugar in ya, don’tcha hun?

    I so approve.

    Posted by Tyler Curtain  on  06/20  at  06:44 PM
  25. And in honor of Michael’s version of football:

    Sigur Ros explains why soccer players are so hot. 

    Posted by Tyler Curtain  on  06/20  at  06:46 PM
  26. Mikan was amazing—he moved so quickly for a big man, and for years no one could match him.  Completely hot, too.

    Posted by  on  06/20  at  07:34 PM
  27. I especially liked the red-headed (and red-bearded) one. He was all Vikingy. I forget his name.

    Red-head could be Glen Wesley or Mike Commodore. Commodore takes the whole playoff beard thing one step further and lets his hair grow long for much of the season, then works out some kind of charity thing to get it cut at the end of the season.

    (Capcha least)

    Posted by alice  on  06/20  at  08:37 PM
  28. Michael, Michael, Michael.  Your complaint about the offside rule in the real football is common.  My retort? Blue line, who needs it, just let players camp out in front of the net and imagine the hilarity that will ensue.  Line of scrimmage, why bother, just have receivers line up anywhere they damn well please.

    The offside rule is there for a reason and it’s a damn good one: it prevents cherry picking and forces teams to play both offense and defense.

    As for penalty shootouts, they are among the tensest things in all of sports.  Just ask anyone who supports England about the 1990 and 1998 World Cups and what agony the penalty shootouts caused.  Because that shot it NOT a gimme, at least if you’re wearing a 3 Lions crest.

    Posted by  on  06/20  at  08:40 PM
  29. As a Canadian radical, I must rail against “Hockey Hegemony”. But please, don’t take it to heart, or I’ll have to find something else to rail about.

    (P.S. don’t tell my neighbors… I could get wounded)

    Posted by Central Content Publisher  on  06/20  at  09:05 PM
  30. CCP, I meant “Hockey Hegemony” in a properly Gramscian sense, of course.

    Henry, I do understand the principle behind the offsides rule.  I just think that you’d be better off with a blue line.  As for penalty shootouts, think of a U.S. Open golf playoff that consisted of two players taking a round of five five-footers.  Sure, there would be tension, and someone’s surely bound to miss one or two.  But it wouldn’t be golf.

    Posted by  on  06/20  at  09:31 PM
  31. Structural Flaws, ahem.

    Those who don’t understand the concept of off-side are condemned to condemn it. Listen, it’s just the same as in any other sport. It’s a rule cleverly designed to enable the teams to play against each other, thereby creating a contest. The strikers ARE, of course, allowed to sprint behind the defence except they have be stealthy, intelligent, speedy and skilfull about it.  Is it a structural flaw that in (what you Unbritishlanders call) ‘Football’ that the defensive end is allowed to stand next to or directly behind the q’back?

    Second, the penalty shoot-out. Football (that’s proper football, y’know the one that is played with the feet rather than with the hands and 105 players in over- elaborate fancy dress outfits) is like life. Like the history of mankind it is often deigned to end up without a winner.

    The Penalty shoot out IS problematic for purists. However, the penalty shoot-out is only used in a tiny percentage of knock-out cup games and it was pretty much introduced as a way of pandering to televisions demands for scheduling. As we all know,Americans invented commercial TV with all it’s demands, therefore it is all their fault.

    As for scale. Let’s think about it this way. A football pitch is like having a full orchestra to compose for, hockey is like having a banjo and washboard. Football is Kind of Blue, Hockey is ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’,Football is a war, hockey is a battle. Football is Shakespeare, Hockey is an SMS. Hockey is a quickie up against the wall, football is some kind of tantric honeymoon.  Football is European History, Hockey is American History. I’m not criticising Hockey, but in its lack of scale it also lacks the infinite potential for beauty, fluidity and scope that football posseses.

    btw Sharon, it’s understandable that your Welshness means you are condemned to simply not understand football. I won’t hold it against you. But the only contact I ever see in Rugby Union is the contact the ball makes with crowd when it is kicked therein every ten seconds (give or take Gavin Henson’s hilarious tackle on Matthew Tait a couple of years ago). I recommend you try proper Rugby. Tackles that you can hear from the back of the stand, one about every ten seconds for the whole game, probably closer to hockey in terms of real contact - and without any of that wussy padding. I do appreciate Aussie rules, even though it seems even the players don’t understand the rules, if there are any. The responsibility to brawl in back-play seems to be the only law of the game. And,as well as their arm signals, do any refs in sport have cooler hats than those in Aussie Rules?

    Amanda - Alexei Lalas is your man. Now an ‘expert’ on ESPN, following up his starring role in Harry and the Hendersons or acting as Brian Blessed’s stunt double.

    btw Michael, I don’t play golf (purely as an act of class protest and the fact that I can’t really walk much), yet enjoy watching it, especially when Europe spanks the UnEuropeans and their Stepford Wives in the Ryder Cup. I once even went to a tournament and saw live the relatively famous incident where Bernhard Langer climbed a tree to chip his ball out of the crook between branches.

    Posted by thierry ennui  on  06/20  at  09:32 PM
  32. Mike Commodore is way cute. (In playoff season.) (IMHO.) Alexei Lalas looked promising—but then I followed the link to his as-yet-unreviewed 1998 CD on Amazon, “Ginger,” and listened to a few seconds of a track called “Pop School.” Uck.

    Hockey is better than soccer. Quod erat demonstrandum.

    Posted by  on  06/20  at  10:39 PM
  33. What about Furyk?  Harrington?  Some pretty painful collapses over the last few holes there, too (not to mention Padraig’s triple on 18 on Saturday).  Looking forward to US Women’s Open blogging in a few weeks!  Got any predictions?

    Posted by The Constructivist  on  06/20  at  10:45 PM
  34. I started following the hockey playoffs on Professor Berube’s recommendation but unfortunately had to quit due to my disgust with a sport that would let a hoodlum like Raffi Torres make the kind of impact he did the way he did it.

    As for soccer (how ‘bout calcio, that’s a nice neutral term) it’s hard not to love the world cup after watching the Brazilian fans partying around the tomb of Leland Stanford, literally in the trees in some cases, during the 1994 World Cup.

    Posted by  on  06/20  at  11:18 PM
  35. Raffi Torres was, in fact, the primary reason I began rooting really hard against the Oilers.  Shades of Todd Bertuzzi, folks.

    And I’m glad Thierry Ennui (if that is your real name) took the soccer-hockey bait.  But if soccer is “Kind of Blue,” hockey is clearly “Boogie Stop Shuffle,” a far more exciting piece of music.  I happen to enjoy the Yurpeans thrashing the Americans biannually in golf’s Ryder Cup, however, and am wont to see this—especially since the rules changes in the post-70s Ryder that have turned American routs into American debacles—as a hopeful parable about the eventual economic and political power of the European Union.

    Posted by  on  06/20  at  11:57 PM
  36. I’ve never been on a golf course in my life, but I greatly enjoyed watching the end of the U.S. Open on TV. The schadenfreude, she is wunderbar. And that Geoff Ogilvy was kinda cute, so he totally deserved to beat Mickelson and Montgomerie, who appear to be eating too many cheeseburgers.

    As for hockey hotties, I concur with half of your recommendations, Michael. (Send Matt Cullen, Ray Whitney, and Georges Laraque my way, will you?) Clearly, you’ll stop at nothing to woo more hockey fans.

    As for team collapses, who can forget the Cubs a couple years back? Bartman snatched that ball Moises Alou was reaching for in game 6 of the NLCS, and the Cubs transformed instantly from contenders into dispirited and hapless losers. To this day, I can’t understand why the players collapsed that way. Fortunately, Cubs fans will not have to grapple with any such shock this season.

    Posted by Orange  on  06/21  at  12:12 AM
  37. In the spirit of Crazy Little Thing at #21 - my personal take on the team buoyancy/malaise conundrum.
    Short version: Our roots as a social animal that for aeons has engaged in dangerous, yet vitally important collective tasks, has predisposed groups engaged in emotionally similar activites (such as team sports) to rapidly form unanimous - but generally subconcious -assessments of the prospects for the success or failure of the task at hand. These subconscious assessments, while not completely determinative, do have a significant impact on performance.

    Long version:
    Any social animal that engages in collective tasks (esp. dangerous ones like hunting large prey) must have a finely-tuned sense of the “short-term prospects for success, and evolving will of the group”. In particular, once engaged in an action, each individual must constantly assess “are we pressing on” or “breaking off” - The penalty for any wolf belatedly realizing that this particular moose ain’t happening can be sudden and terminal(1). (While on the flip the pack that continually breaks off too soon faces consequences just as dire, albeit played out over a longer time period.)

    Sports involve the complex interplay of layered systems: from motor skills and prioproception up through emotions to tactical and strategic thinking(2). Good social animal that we are, team sports adds the cooperative social element(3). Both the intense physical nature of sports and the intense emotions involved (often consciously “manufactured” to enhance performance) combine to make games analagous to dangerous group hunts or acts of intra-species aggression. Per the above, individuals in these situations will be hypersensitive to subtle cues and signals from their teammates (or even fans) and will at some subconcious cognitive level attempt to synchronize their assessments with others in the group. Now within the “artificial” context of the modern sporting game the consequences of forming the unanimous subconscious assessment are complex (and players and coaches will attempt to consciously overcome them), but I would suggest that a whole team having a nagging preliterate urge to “Run Away! Run Away!” will be (bewilderingly to outside observers - and maybe even to themselves) disadvantaged against a team with an analogous sense of “We Have Them! Finish It!”. Note that this may happen independent of the actual score - as per the Cubs example above - and probably can be negatively or positively reinforced by more conscious feelings of confidence or doubt (see Cubs again).

    (1) That is to say, that in a group, wolves etc. are experts at knowing when to “Cut and Run.”
    (2) One of the appeals of different sports is the differing mix of neuro-cognitive skills needed to acheive success. It is the collapse of the strategic part of Mickelson’s game rather than the physical errors that make it so horrifying/fascinating. Exercise for a Strategy class: Build decision trees for Mickelson’s first two shots on eighteen. Assume there are two possible strategies (Risky and Safe) and two possible outcomes (Success and Failure) for each strategy. Assign plausible payoffs and probabilities and then exclaim WTF?
    (3) I think being a social animal is a precondition for being involved in team sports - I do not think that it is for lack of size and strength alone that we do not have cat-sled racing.

    Posted by  on  06/21  at  01:29 AM
  38. One of the minor pleasures in my life is cursing Phil Mickelson when he’s being featured at a golf tournament. Yelling “Miss that three-footer” followed by the act itself really cannot be underestimated for amusement. I was rooting for Montgomerie all the way, but his perfect collapse on the 72nd hole was dramatically perfect. As Orange notes, Geoff Ogilvie is kind of cute in a Jake Gyllenhall way, and he deserved to win just for being the only player late in the day NOT to collapse at the 18th hole.

    You’re right about golf tournaments being unlike any other live sporting event. Remind me to tell you about the aura around Lee Janzen I saw at the Olympic Club as he came off the 12th hole during his second U.S. Open win (over Payne Stewart by one stroke). He was walking alone, without his caddy, through a small forest and I was the only person at the 13th tee, laying on the ground. He pulled up the rope to get to the tee, looked down at me, smiled, and I said, “You can win this, you know,” and he smiled again as if I was an amiable lunatic. And he did win it, with an umistakable golden glow around his head late in the afternoon.

    On a terrible softball team that I was on, our only win in two years was essentially through sheer magic. I was the crappy right fielder, there were two outs, bases loaded, and somebody hit a towering drive over my head. Except that I turned tail and ran, and at exactly the right moment turned around, put my glove up, time slowed down and the ball went in easily. This was followed by miracle plays by every other person on the team.

    It’s all witchcraft.

    Posted by sfmike  on  06/21  at  03:35 AM
  39. "He was all Vikingy.  “

    Hotdamn!  Vikingy is in!

    Posted by  on  06/21  at  10:33 AM
  40. Is there anything better than a game 7 in the Stanley Cup finals? I was rooting for Edmonton, but thought the game well played from beginning to end.  When Edmonton scored in the third it raised a really good game to a great one.  We don’t have a television, and so I watched in a bar with about three other people (including my spouse). A question we need to answer on this blog is what the NHL must do to attract an audience in the US.  Then we can send the answers to Bettman (who can hire someone to read them for him).

    Posted by  on  06/21  at  12:31 PM
  41. Re Soccer’s structural flaws:


    Next time you’re in Peru, check out a fulbito match. It’s essentially soccer played on an outdoor basketball court with much smaller goals. ("Futbol"-grande/"fulbito"-pequenito). The pace is as quick as say, basketball or hockey, and even for a non-sports fan like me, it’s wicked fun to watch. As to why it hasn’t caught on elsewhere… who knows? I blame soccer’s institutional snobbery. Anyway, you should certainly check it out if you ever find yourself in Lima some evening, bored, with nothing to do. I’m sure you’d prefer it to that (ahem) *other* sport.

    Posted by  on  06/21  at  12:37 PM
  42. Michael,

    Os Canarinhos (aka Brazil) are the best in the world and for the most part are remarkably ugly. My own beloved better half believes that, so I’m not insulting her countrymen.


    Futsal is relatively similar to futbolito, but is played indoors with a smaller ball and smaller goals (futbol da sala, hence futsal).

    Posted by Randy Paul  on  06/21  at  02:15 PM
  43. Tom,

    By the way: futsal is fully sanctioned by FIFA, so it’s not a matter of institutional snobbery; it’s a matter of duplication.

    Posted by Randy Paul  on  06/21  at  02:17 PM
  44. JP’s take is plausible and well footnoted, but I don’t think we need to go the ev psych route to explain why the Cubs “transformed instantly from contenders into dispirited and hapless losers.” We can just rely on a simple structural fact that physicists love:  things tend to return to a stable state, and deviations from such states tend to be fragile.

    Posted by Blar  on  06/21  at  04:26 PM
  45. There is such a thing as indoor soccer, played in an arena.  Astroturf beneath the feet; boards to crash off of and onto.  You’d love it…

    Posted by  on  06/21  at  04:32 PM
  46. I think JP Stormcrow nailed it up there in 37.

    I’ve often wondered about the goal-line defense in, well, football. It’s always seemed to me that it makes more sense to hold the line closer to mid-field. I mean, why wait until danger threatens before you REALLY dig in.

    Seems to me there’s two components to the answer: 1) tactics, and 2) animal wisdom (JP’s turf).

    On the tactical front, defense is easier at the goal line because the offense has fewer reasonable options. You don’t have to allow for the possibility of, e.g. the long pass. At the same time, this is an energy-intensive game and you’ve got to be sparing about the maximum adrenaline effort. Animal wisdom won’t let you amp-up through mere will; ostensible threat needs to be near.

    Posted by Bill Benzon  on  06/21  at  06:29 PM
  47. One of the solutions, Michael, to your snickers-over-spinach preference of hockey over soccer might be indoor soccer: Soccer played in a hockey rink (minus the ice). With boards, penalty boxes, subbing on the fly and the whole thing. It might not surprise you that it’s strictly a North American sport.

    As far as golf, I’ve never gotten into it, but the most unlikely sporting events can produce some amazing moments. I happened to be watching the end of the Daytona 500 (or whatever race it was) when Dale Earnhardt died. Vaguely tragic as it was, it made for sublime TV: Darryl Waltrip--the commentator--was ecstatic that his brother, Michael, had finally won a race, but his effusions of joy became increasingly tempered with concern for Earnhardt, as it became clear there was something seriously wrong. Amazing stuff.

    Posted by sasha  on  06/21  at  07:29 PM
  48. I started this post a hundred times and could not cut it down to less than a million words, so I will not get into why the World Cup is the greatest sports event in the Universe, but I will give my opinion on the penalty shootouts:

    Yes, they are unfair and too dramatic to be sound. As a Frenchman, I have been brought up on shady memories of the most dramatic World Cup game ever, France-Germany 1982. I’ll spare you the details of that one, you can still see the whole thing on the internet if interested, but just so you know, it has violence, intensity, drama, and as is often the case, the French get robbed and lose in the end, albeit with a valiant display of furia francese.

    The reason why it would be nuts to ask of players that they run from midfield for shootouts is quite simple: whenever you reach penalty shootouts in a game, it means you’ve been playing for over two hours without outscoring each other. At that point, most players can barely stand on their feet. A penalty kick during the game usually comes because one way or another, you unlawfully prevented the other team from getting a good shot at goal from within the box. So that’s exactly what they get: the good shot at goal they would have had, had they not been illegally stopped. As Henry Holland mentioned earlier, those really are not as easy as they look anyway.

    About offsides: Now that the World Cup is on ABC, I imagine they will soon start Magic marking that offside line over replays.

    A final anecdote on the subject of footballers’ hairdos: In World Cup 1998, the Argentinian coach Passarella had calculated that long haired players spent too much time brushing it off their foreheads, so he demanded from his players that they either cut their hair or stay home. It didn’t do them that much good, but you know.

    Posted by Alfred  on  06/21  at  10:02 PM
  49. One nearly objective criteria to administer to any comparison of the relaitve merits of team sports is the juke-to-paste ratio.  I have not watched much hockey or soccer in some time, but I have spent counless hours watching sports.

    Soccer’s juke-to-paste ratio is high enough that some hard kicks of the ball may have to count as pastes to avoid using scientific notation.

    Hockey comes in pretty close to one.

    If you like some paste with your juke, hockey is more your thing.

    Posted by  on  06/22  at  02:53 PM
  50. Australia into the final 16 - first time ever. Now that’s sport.

    Still, I’d probably watch hockey if it weren’t for those dumb roller skates.

    Posted by  on  06/22  at  08:42 PM
  51. For Amanda and others: My partner Jim W., who’s from a Canadian/Detroit hockey family, sends along his understanding of the origin of the playoff beards.  I’m agnostic:

    It will take a some more research to discover exactly who and when, but I feel certain I remember why the hockey playoff beards got started. Some 12-20 years ago a player showed up for a playoff game unshaven, with the explanation to his coach that the game was too important to risk having to play it with the distraction of a nick on his face. Those of us who shave everyday know this doesn’t happen very often, but it does occur occasionally if you use a blade rather than an electric razor. Particularly if you’re in a hurry and perhaps a little nervous regarding the events of the day.

    Moving quickly through a cold environment turns this minor mishap into something that can definitely be distracting.

    Other players soon picked up the habit, probably in part because it allowed them to defy the strict dress code that all teams once enforced regarding facial hair. (I think New Jersey is the last holdout in this regard during the regular season, but even they now allow players to grow playoff beards.) Within a few years it became a playoff superstition/tradition league-wide.

    Posted by Nell  on  06/22  at  09:03 PM
  52. Playoff beards - was a little surprised that there was a Wikipedia article on the subject. Does not add much to the above - but does say that it is believed that the tradition started with the Islanders in the early ‘80s (as did several other articles I found.)

    The Wikipedia on playoffs has all the playoff format stuff you could ever want and more. It did confirm what I thought I remembered - that the NBA tried a 1-2-2-1-1 several times in the late ‘70s.

    Posted by  on  06/22  at  11:20 PM
  53. Like Alfred, I could go on forever about football, but I’ll leave it to the great Bill Shankly to sum up;

    “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.”

    Posted by  on  06/23  at  12:45 PM
  54. Surely, if Montgomerie could simply have thrown a crushing body check to his playing partner a game-show host, he would have chilled out a little on that approach shot, no?

    Someone built a movie around this idea…

    Posted by  on  06/23  at  01:24 PM
  55. Playoff beards are actually pretty common in football too, except there is no such thing as playoffs in football. But you know, for cups and what not.
    The main difference being, looking vikingy in soccer is a lot more meaningful than in hockey.

    Posted by Alfred  on  06/24  at  07:12 PM
  56. Ok, let’s get one thing straight about hockey right here, right now. Never underestimate the kinky factor. The guys not only are wooly bullies with playoff beards;the dudes wear garter belts. Women dig that, eh?

    Posted by  on  06/30  at  10:16 PM





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