Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Dancing with illogic

Fire Joe Morgan (FJM) is one of those web sites that gives snarkiness a good name, as it takes very humorous shots at various forms of sports reporting. It gets its name from their desire to see the remarkably uninsightful baseball commentary of Hall of Famer Joe Morgan off the air, a desire as yet unfulfilled. But they have gone beyond deconstructing the inane Internet chats of Morgan, and have served as a check on ignorant sports commentary wherever they can find it.

Rick Morrissey is a sports columnist for the Chicago Tribune who has generally struck me as workmanlike; while he's not going to make anyone forget Red Smith or Joe Posnanski, he generally offers up reasonably interesting columns and only occasionally gets really stupid (though he has a huge blind spot when it comes to using statistics to enhance our understanding of sports, being from the tobacco chaw and grizzled veteran school of talent evaluation).

If I'm going to write a post based on a Rick Morrissey column, I feel compelled to jump over to FJM first to make sure they haven't already co-opted me. So when I read Morrissey's offering from yesterday, titled Floored by dance revolution, I went to FJM and was horrified to realize that they had written about him. This takes away a post from me!

Relief was at hand, though, because Ken Tremendous of FJM was writing about Morrissey's lame Sunday column, concerning the use of instant replay in baseball, and not his lame Monday column, about "Dancing With the Stars" (DWTS). So I can still jump in.

The column begins:
I have never watched "Dancing With the Stars." If I were to die today, I would consider that among my major accomplishments, along with never having watched "American Idol."

I don't care to watch people dance, I don't need a TV show to tell me who's a talented singer and I don't want to take part in the vapid conversation about which judge has it out for which contestant. Feel free to call me Mr. Sunshine.
One hopes that Morrissey has more accomplishments than not watching a show he doesn't like. But of course, that's not his point; as we've seen in countless columns of this type, he is about to criticize the very thing he's proud of knowing nothing about. In other words, ignorance is not going to prevent him from writing a cheap, easy holiday weekend column.

Rick, no one's trying to make you watch or listen to things you don't want to partake of (and "vacuous" is probably a better word than "vapid" here). But I'm sure you have a point here.
But Mr. Sunshine does understand when he is fighting a losing battle, and this would be one of them. Any silly ideas I might have had about sports being king in this country have been trampled under the feet of people doing the cha-cha-cha.
Now we begin to get to the point - sports is supposed to be king in this country, heaven forbid we allow Americans to decide for themselves what they want to watch or enjoy.

My personal note here: I have no interest in American Idol, so I don't watch it. I did see this past season of DWTS, as I was kind of intrigued by this group of stars. And you know, it wasn't totally bad. Yes, there's way too much filler, though not as much as in the last "two minutes" of any basketball game you might see, but it is interesting to see the development in just a few months of amateur dancers working with some top-flight professionals. I'm not sure it's a must-watch in a non-strike environment, but it has some entertainment value.

And had ballroom dancing been added to the Olympics, which could still happen, Rick would have to deal with it as a sport (I don't particularly want to see it there, but it is undeniable that Cheryl Burke and Derek Hough are athletes of a sort).

Jason Taylor is one very smart man. You sports fans out there might think that being an NFL player is about the best thing that can happen to a man. But Taylor obviously has been paying attention to popular culture. It explains why he recently chose to appear on "Dancing With the Stars" rather than participate in the Dolphins' organized off-season workouts. His decision incurred the wrath of Dolphins Vice President Bill Parcells, who believes a star defensive end should be working with teammates on football and not with "Dancing" partner Edyta Sliwinska on the fox trot.
Now we get to the crux of the argument. The legendary Bill Parcells, certified tough guy, so tough he makes sportswriters and sportscasters swoon in appreciation of his he-manliness, Parcells doesn't want one of his players dancing eight hours a day. He'd prefer if Taylor, in his own words, was sitting on the couch smoking a cigar during the off-season. Or maybe he'd like it if Taylor was engaging in some of the less-savory activities in which NFL players engage in their time off.

And now we wander off into the kind of false dichotomy so dear to Morrissey's thinking:
I have no numbers to back me up, but I believe as many people now know Taylor for his dancing as his six Pro Bowl seasons. Twenty million viewers watched gold-medal figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi and her partner beat Taylor-Sliwinska last week. Taylor wants to be an actor someday. What's the best way to get attention from Hollywood — with your helmet on or your shirt off?

All sorts of TV viewers saw Jerry Rice dance into the finals of the show last year and, upon hearing he had played football, wondered whether he had been any good. Same with 2006 "Dancing With the Stars" champion Emmitt Smith, who we're told could run the ball a little bit in his day.

If Rice were to walk down Michigan Avenue, he might have equal numbers of people wanting his autograph for his dancing prowess as for his football prowess. It seems a little silly that a man could be the best receiver in NFL history and a generation of children will know him for his burgeoning mamba skills. But that's the world in which we live, somewhere between endearingly goofy and stupefyingly shallow.
[I won't quote any more of Morrissey's column; it goes on in exactly this vein for a while, spinning together Howie Long, Joe DiMaggio, Keith Hernandez, and, in illogical non-contrast, Michael Jordan (you can't write a credible column in Chicago sports without mentioning Jordan), all to make the same point.]

Rick has already expressed his point, that the irreducibly important and significant world of sports is too pure, too holy, to be tainted by fame in other arenas. It's "goofy" or "shallow" to see Jerry Rice as anything other than a great football catcher, even though he can't be one of those any longer. Joe DiMaggio should have been consecrated as a man who got at least one hit in 56 consecutive games, not reduced to selling a coffeemaker.

Again, this is a false dichotomy. If Jerry Rice had not been on DWTS, then, as he walked down Michigan Avenue, he would be recognized by some people as a great wide receiver, and by others, not at all. It's not that the bright light of his fame has been transferred, it's that it has been expanded. Rick may not see DWTS as a proper vehicle, but it truly does not detract from the records Rice set. Jason Taylor would not have been recognized by most people, even football fans, who have only seen him in pads and a helmet - now he is.

And these outside events are actually positive for their sports. Do we think that more people won't be paying attention to Jason Taylor on the gridiron this fall, wherever he ends up playing? Helio Castroneves was a talented race car driver who no one but hard core fans cared about; now he is a DWTS winner, and has attracted all kinds of fans (even "grandmas") to his sport. This is a bad thing?

What Rick is trying to do is to aggrandize the field to which he's given his life. Sports is so much more important than dancing, or doing commercials, or any of these other things that athletes do, and that justifies the choice of it as a career. Great, classic men like Bill Parcells have given their lives to it, so it must be important.

But sports is every bit as much fun and games as DWTS or American Idol, and shouldn't be taken any more seriously. Jerry Rice was a cog in the big entertainment machine, a skilled, hard-working cog, but a cog, and now there are other pass-catching cogs. So Rice has moved to another station on the assembly line, and he did well there, as did Taylor and Emmitt Smith.

I love sports, I spend probably too much time watching them and reading about them, but I am never unaware that they have virtually no importance. They are entertainment, nothing more, they do not represent the true triumph of the human spirit or whatever pap is fed to us at the beginning of each telecast. Sports is equivalent to DWTS and American Idol. We do not elevate one by running down the others.

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