Saturday, May 31, 2014

Good Sports - Bad Sports

Growing up we were taught to be good sports; to put your heart into the game, but always compete fairly and if you lost to take it as a good sport and not get upset about it: It’s just a game, you do it for fun.
Hopefully it still works that way when playing informally, but unfortunately sports today have become so commercialized and such big moneymaking machines that the term ‘good sport’ barely registers anymore. If there are big bucks involved a player will try to bend the rules if he thinks he can get away with it; anything to get the advantage.
In America club owners demand huge subsidies from local government and players demand huge salaries, but there’s no loyalty whatever to the fans or the city they’ve extracted so much from. The American system of sports is especially pernicious as it leaves all major decisions to the club owners who have exemption from anti-trust rules. They essentially function as a cartel and decide amongst themselves who can buy a team, which city is privileged to have one and how many teams make up the league. The latter is especially important for franchise value: the fewer the teams the more each is worth.
In every case but one - the Green Bay Packers (American) football club - the owners are rich people whose primary motive is income. They may like or even love the sport they possess a part of,  but that’s secondary to the cash flow. You don’t own a franchise worth upwards of half billion dollars without insisting that it pay off. This is exemplified in the case of Paul Allen, described in a recent article, Pity the Poor Billionaire, who though he had $20 billion in the bank, demanded a new $500 million stadium for his Seattle team or else he’d be glad to move it to a more grateful city. The city balked, refused his demand, so he financed an initiative with $5 mil of is own money and got the people of the state of Washington to buy it for him. At the time, $500 mil was a mere 2.5% of his fortune. As such he could’ve gifted the stadium to the people with the equivalent of pocket change and been known for generations as a great benefactor, instead he felt he had to extort every penny he could from the citizenry. The word Seattle is in the team’s name, but that doesn’t mean much, it’s obviously only a temporary arrangement. That’s the kind of people who own major league teams.
Sometimes an owner will make business decisions which pad his wallet while lessening his team’s chances of winning in the playoffs. The fans be damned. Or take the case of Donald Sterling, owner of the L.A. Clippers basketball team, who was outed recently as a racist… and that in a league in which 80% of the players are black. Recent articles I’ve seen in the leftist blogosphere suggest the team should be owned by the city or the people in some form. Great idea except the owners’ cartel would never allow it since it would completely change the mercenary aspect of the game and threaten their profits. Only one team is community owned, the aforementioned Packers. Only congress can end the power of the owners’ cartels.
Green Bay, Wisconsin is a small city of about 100,000 people and yet they support a competitive team in all aspects. Its team is the only one in all American professional sports that is community owned and by far has the smallest economic base. Yet it has won more championships than any other team in its sport, the last only a couple years ago. It was grandfathered in when the current ownership rules were adopted in 1980. All rules in all American sports today prohibit this type of ownership and for good reason; for the fans and city, public or community ownership is far preferred.
The way that football – soccer to Americans – is organized in the UK offers a superior alternative that could break the monopoly that the owners have over sports in the US. They have a premier league and secondary leagues. Each has eight teams. Each year the two worst performing teams in the premier league get relegated down to the next lower league and the two best from the lower move up. Instead of the owners’ cartel deciding how many teams there are in the league and which cities can have them, there would be no limit to the number of cities who could have teams or even how many teams a city could have – New York once supported three baseball teams. Any person, entity, community or city could organize a team from scratch, start at the bottom league and work their way up, though I personally prefer all teams be community owned.
There are quite a few mid-sized cities in America which could support professional sports teams but are shut out of the possibility by the limited number of franchises and unwillingness to put up the hundreds of millions necessary to secure a franchise. Portland, Oregon is a case in point. With a metro area of two million it could easily support football and baseball teams, but today has only basketball. There’s no way the people of Portland are going to take money out of schools, infrastructure and services and hand it to billionaire club owners, so they’ll never get to enjoy those sports in today’s setup. For me it rankles so much to see the great rip-off I’ve lost nearly all interest in professional sports.
The Olympics is another case of a great sports idea turned on its head by the vast sums of money necessary to be a host city and the widespread disruption and dislocation that precedes the games. One of the reasons suggested for contributing to Greece’s financial problems was the cost of the 2004 Olympics, the most expensive to that point at $11b. In 2008, Beijing put on its extravaganza at a cost of about $42b and forced the dislocation of half million people. The London games in 2012 cost $16b. Prime Minister David Cameron famously said it was worth it for the great publicity it got for the city. Sixteen billion dollars for a publicity campaign? For a city that’s already one of the most touristed cities in the world? Of course we know politicians will say anything to try to justify their poor decisions. There are a lot of good things the city could’ve done with that money better than a one time publicity stunt.
While the Olympics are happening, local residents are faced with all kinds of inconveniences and after it’s all over a lot of the sports venues are demolished or left to deteriorate since most are built for one use… there’s no city in the world that needs or can utilize all those stadiums and sports venues.
Regardless of any long term benefits that might accrue to the host city it is a tremendous burden. The whole concept needs to be rethought. The ancient games were held on Mt. Olympus, why not return to the original location (or one similar) and hold the modern games there on a permanent basis? The games would be held in a rural setting and each venue built to last. There was a controversy recently over the Olympic committee’s decision to eliminate wrestling, one of the original sports, from the roster. In this new concept every sport would come up with the money to build its needed venue and as long as there was sufficient support from the community, it’d be difficult for a single committee to say which sport is allowed and which isn’t. Beach volleyball an Olympic sport but not wrestling? What kind of crap is that?
In a countryside setting there’d be space for visitors to camp out as well as hotels to stay in. That way even average people could afford to attend. What did a hotel room in London cost during the games? And since venues would be permanent and paid for by the sports themselves, the games would cost far less to hold and therefore ticket prices would also be far less. It would be a permanent sports center available for sports lovers everywhere and used between games for training or just enjoying.  
Finally a word about soccer - world football - my favorite sport, at least in theory. I played in school during a time when I’d quit smoking. After I returned to evil tobacco my chest hurt so much from all that running I had to make a choice: tobacco or sports. And since I couldn’t figure out how to quit smoking again, I gave up soccer. At the age of 40, after I’d quit smoking for the last time, I found a pick-up game and played every Sunday morning, rain or shine, cold or hot for four years until I hurt my back and could barely walk, let alone play. By the time I recovered, I figured my serious soccer days were over, besides over the four years I was always the oldest player on the field and thought I shouldn’t press my luck.
It’s energetic, uses lots of skills and allows everyone to compete, even a shorty like myself. Tall people have an advantage, but not like basketball where short people are almost totally locked out.
Unfortunately the way the game is designed it’s weighted so heavily towards defense that, when played professionally or with highly competitive teams, goals are few and far between. In what other sport can you witness a full 90 minutes of play without a single score? In championship games, after two overtimes without a single score, 0-0 (or 1-1, etc.) games are decided by a penalty kick. After the last World Cup, Sepp Blatter, long time head of FIFA, world football’s governing body, commented that it was a travesty for championship games to be decided by penalty kicks and he wanted to think of some way to improve on that method of deciding winners.
Penalty kicks are merely a symptom of the difficulty of scoring. With the rules and design of the game the way they are the better the teams get and more evenly matched they are the less likely they are of scoring. In the first round of the last World Cup, of a total of 48 games there were 6 nil-nil ties, 6 1-1 ties and 12 games decided by 1-0 scores. A total of only 24 goals scored in 24 games.
It’s boring and frustrating to watch a game for 90 minutes and not see one score. What’s more, when scoring is so difficult most goals are flukes or accidents and hardly indicative of better playing. Even if a game of 1-0 has a clear winner, it’s not at all clear that that was the best team, they were just lucky.
There are three factors that make scoring difficult. The first, and easiest to correct, is the size of the net: simply make the goal bigger. If you add one meter on either side and maybe 50 centimeters on top you will double or triple the number of goals scored.
Secondly, there are too many players on the pitch. It’s so crowded that players have no room to maneuver. As soon as one gets the ball he’s surrounded by the opposing team. It’s nearly impossible for a player possessing the ball, no matter how good he is, to make a run from the center of the field to the goal. They don’t get to show their stuff. I was taught to always pass the ball instead of kicking it far forward in the field, but players often feel so blockaded, that’s exactly what they do, even in professional games. In American football most plays involve small distances but occasionally, maybe once or twice in a game a player will get the ball and move it half way or all the way down the field. It’s very exciting and beautiful to watch. That cannot happen in soccer. I suggest a maximum 8 players on the field to give them room to maneuver. They’ll have to run more and cover more distance so it should be easy to substitute.
The third problem is the off-sides rule. This is designed to keep the players all bunched together, which again makes for a boring and low scoring game. It should be modified or eliminated altogether. Some combination of fewer players and a relaxed off-sides rule would leave a lot more space on the field and make for a much more exciting game.
Soccer has never taken off as a professional sport in America though enthusiasts are always trying to put a league together. Yet it’s the most popular sport in school. Easier scoring might make the difference, at least it would be a lot more fun to watch.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Eat Your Damn Veggies

Or not. It’s your life.
I’ve always believed that everyone has a right to choose their own poison. You want to smoke yourself, drug yourself, drink yourself to death? You want to starve yourself or stuff yourself? You want to gamble away your and your family’s future or simply commit suicide and let others deal with your perfidy and weakness? Go right ahead; knock yourself out.
And, needless to say, one person’s poison is another’s sustenance, besides the fact that there’ll always be disagreements as to what constitutes poison. This train of thought was prompted by gotcha facebook posts by two friends who’re always looking to post anything that promotes meat eating and disses vegetarianism.
One study came to the conclusion that there was no correlation between meat eating and health. The other claimed that vegetarians were not as healthy as carnivores. Let me start with a personal anecdote. About 20 years ago I visited a friend who was in his mid-sixties who had recently had a heart attack. In the course of our conversations I discovered that his cholesterol level was up around 340. A healthy, active vegetarian has a level of about 125, anything above 200 is entering the danger zone, 340 is stratospheric, catastrophic.
The fear of paralysis and/or death caused him to change his ways. He ate chicken with the skin and excess fat removed and fish. He dispensed entirely with red meat and made other similar dietary changes and went onto live another ten years. Now it’s entirely possible, though I think ludicrously unlikely, that his high cholesterol level had nothing to do with his heart attack. It’s also possible, though once again devilishly hard to imagine, that his change of diet had nothing to do with his ten additional years of life. It’s just an anecdote, not a scientific study, you can make of it what you will, but it made a big change in my own eating habits. I mean, who needs a heart attack?, Who wants to be stuck in a wheelchair because half my body is paralyzed? For the sake of enjoying lots of animal fat? Could bacon be that important?
According to Wikipedia, heart attacks usually happen “because one of the coronary arteries that supplies blood to the heart develops a blockage due to an unstable buildup of white blood cells, cholesterol and fat.”  Further down the heart attack page it cites a meta-study – a study of other studies – that finds no correlation between diet and heart attack (probably the study my friend referred to). Sounds like a powerful contradiction there: cholesterol and fats cause heart attacks but diet has nothing to do with it??? Where else would they come from if not diet? Further along on the page, along with that study there is a list of studies, some of which did find a correlation. It also included a list of international and national health agencies that recommend minimizing ingestion of fats, especially saturated fats and trans fats. Animal fats are saturated as are some plant-based fats like coconut oil, palm oil and chocolate. Trans fats are not commonly found in nature and are mostly part of processed foods so it makes sense that they’d be bad for your health.        
In trying to get a handle on this whole question I spent hours, it seemed, poring over passages with words like myocardial infarction, low-density lipoprotein, hypercholesterolemia and a mind boggling list of mind boggling others and the conclusion I came to, in spite of seemingly blatant contradictions, is (1) you can find whatever you want to justify whatever you believe in and (2) I don’t know half enough about the science to understand what I was reading. Besides, you know what they say: There’s lies, damn lies and then there’s statistics.     
 My other friend is on an anti-vegetarian vendetta so did a gotcha with a questionnaire survey done in Austria which concluded that vegetarians are less healthy, including that they’re more prone to mental health problems. In other words, herbivores not only like to eat nuts but they tend to go nuts. Carrots make you crazy, melons make you mad, lettuce makes you loony, beets make you batts. Once again you can twist statistics around your little finger and prove almost anything you want with them. On that basis I’m finished with incomprehensible and undecipherable medical facts and dodgy surveys and will stick with logic, reason and feelings for the rest of this essay.
After seeing my friend I followed to some extent his strict minimal fat diet. Though I continue to eat red meat, I always cut away the excess fat and try to minimize the amount, like one pork chop instead of two, a 100 gram hamburger instead of a 200 gram; in fact, the bigger burger now makes me feel bloated. I use meat to flavor a mostly veggie stir-fry. I never ate a lot of cheese or eggs but I do use butter regularly. I use chicken skins to make broth, but then discard them. I may be defeating half the purpose, but there’s no need to be fanatic about any of it… that is, unless you’ve already taken yourself close to death. To me a meal without veggies is naked and incomplete. I eat the lettuce on my plate as a matter of principle, as well as liking it, though most people look on it as decoration.
Back when I visited my friend my cholesterol was 193, getting close to problematical. Now cholesterol is calculated differently. On a recent checkup my good cholesterol was high and my bad was low. Was that good bill of health related to my change in eating habits? I’m convinced it was, at least partly because it makes sense.
Saturated fat is thick, heavy, greasy. It stands to reason that eating a lot of it would clog up your arteries. Some of that buildup, I surmise, can be counteracted with exercise which serves to jiggle loose some of those sticky, slow moving fat molecules. Eating lots of veggies would also seem to have the same effect as it stands to reason that as they move through the bloodstream relatively easily they would nudge loose those lazy, stubborn, clinging fats.
I spent two years as a vegetarian. I was caught up in the brown rice revolution of the late sixties. After eating a lot of vegetarian meals, my last meat meal before turning was a carbonara: with bacon, eggs and butter the essence of saturated fatty. Before my partner and I got half way through it we agreed that it tasted strange, heavy and oily. Vegetarian food is fresh, light, lively and easy to digest. Meat hits your stomach like a lead weight. That’s probably one reason why people like it: it makes you feel full.
I started eating meat again because I was craving it and since I came from vegetarianism strictly from taste and concern for health, rather than an outsized moral concern for animal welfare or an anti-meat ideology, it was no problem reverting back to being a carnivore. I believe it’s worse for your constitution and morality to crave meat while eating veggie than it is to eat meat.
Meat eaters don’t need to worry much or think much about getting proper nutrients, it’s all there in the meat, but vegetarians do; they need to be sure they are getting the proper balance in their diet, it doesn’t come automatically.
While I will accept some controversy and disagreement as to the relative merits of eating meat or not meat, there’s no question as to the impact on the earth of eating meat, at least in regard to how it’s produced in the west. The rise in middle classes around the world has the potential to waste the planet. It takes something like 16 kilos of corn to produce one kilo of beef, as well as far more land and water. Large areas of the Amazon are being cleared for cattle grazing and that’s happening to some extent around the world. Inputs to produce pork are much less than beef because they can be kept in tiny enclosures, but that necessitates heavy doses of antibiotics to keep them alive.
Ninety percent of all antibiotics in the US are consumed by animals, which has led to people receiving unwanted doses not just in the meat they consume but also in their water: antibiotics can be found in all American rivers. Part of that comes from rivers which receive runoff from areas with pork or chicken factories and part from human waste since sewage treatment plants do not remove the drugs. The biggest danger of the large volume of antibiotics in the environment is that it has led to superbugs that cannot be treated with available drugs.
If fat is a concern then pork is better than beef since there’s little fat within the meat itself and the exterior fat can be cut away, whereas, at least in a Western context, beef is laced with fat that cannot be removed. In fact, the fat is what makes beef tender and taste good. I recently read an article about a special beef cow that is so good, it’s steaks sell for $300 in some Hong Kong restaurants. According to the article, one taste and you’re sold. They included a picture of the steak: it was maybe 20% fat.
In Cambodia, cows eat grass, real cow food. An outbreak of ecoli poisoning from eating beef in America a couple years back was attributed to bacteria that only live in cows fed corn instead of grass. Cambodian beef is tough partly from how little fat there is in the meat. A restaurant owner friend took to adding fat to his hamburgers to compensate for the lack of fat in the meat. If you love saturated fat, then great, but if you’re thinking about your health then, in my opinion, very dumb.
But you love your McDonald’s burgers you say (or whatever fast food advertising has captured your imagination). Maybe you do or maybe you really don’t. Pretty arrogant of me to question your likes, you think. (As it turns out, it was recently revealed that McD’s burgers are only 15% meat, the rest filler… but that’s beside the point.) A study was done a while back with 3- to 5-year-old kids. They were fed McD’s burgers in a plain wrapper and a corporate wrapper. Ditto with fries and baby carrots, which aren’t sold there. In every case a large majority thought the food tasted better in the corporate wrapper. The taste of the food had nothing to do with their choices… and maybe not yours either.
What if there was an equal amount of advertising promoting healthy food choices? How about ads for broccoli, snow peas, carrots? Change the whole dynamic, wouldn’t it? Not to mention the health of generations of people. But can’t happen because there’s not a lot of money in it, not like fast food or prepared food profits. Kids generally don’t need to be encouraged to like sweets or meat, it comes naturally, but they do often need to be taught to like veggies.
It’s like exercising. It’s something we all know is good for us, but because it implies that we’re doing it for a reason other than the exercise itself, we have a hard time getting ourselves to do it. Like a (fat) friend of mine who will take a ride to avoid a 200 meter, 3 or 4 minute walk. Why should I walk when I can ride?, he says. I turned it around and asked, Why not take the opportunity offered for a tiny little bit of exercise, since you mostly sit around on your ass all day? Maybe it’s the same with food. Maybe knowing it’s good for you can morph in your mind into liking it.
When I see someone remove the lettuce and tomato from their meat sandwich, I think, what’s the big deal about eating a little vegetable matter to offer some balance to your diet and help wash down your greasy meat?
When I see an old fart, especially a fat old fart, chowing down on a big plate of eggs and bacon (80% fat) or sausage (50% fat) with nary a vegetable in sight, or leave what veggies were served on his plate, I think, Can it really be worth it?
You don’t have to be fanatic or absolutist about it, just conscious. If I see organic food in the market that’s reasonably priced I’ll buy it even if it costs more because that’s one less time I’m eating poison. There’s no percentage in eating poison, nothing good can come of it. Moreover, that one time less might be the one time less that keeps me from getting cancer.
Let me finish with a story about Ram Dass, famed hippie/Hindu guru who started in the sixties. His first and most famous book is Be Here Now, which basically said whatever you’re doing do it right. I saw him speak around 2001 not long after he had a stroke which paralyzed half his body and put him in a wheelchair. His words were still golden, but because of the stroke it often took him a long time to find them; sometimes there was a minute between thoughts he could get out of his damaged brain. He told of the fast life and indulgent food choices that led to his stroke. He thought because he was an important spiritual person who millions looked up to, he didn’t have to follow the rules that applied to ordinary people.
Well, you’re no guru so you don’t even have a lame excuse for tempting the gods. When you are young, strong and resilient you can abuse your body to no end and still come back strong, but the harms in our diets as well as all the other toxins in the water we drink and air we breathe are such that they often don’t show up for decades. Don’t play the avoidance game and try to justify your poor diet by saying you live for today and don’t care about tomorrow, because you’re going to be just as interested in living and enjoying life when you’re 50, 60 or 70 as when you’re 20, 30 or 40. And it’s more than enjoying life now and dying early, it’s finding yourself in a wheelchair at the end of your life depending on other people to wipe your ass and change your diaper.. so no more excuses, Eat your damn veggies!