Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Federer and Nadal as Non-Religious Experience

David Foster Wallace's lengthy, well-regarded essay titled Federer as Religious Experience depicts Roger Federer as an incomparably gifted tennis player who literally should be worshiped. Wallace's experience as a successful junior tennis player no doubt heightened his appreciation for Federer's talents but Wallace became such a devoted member of the Church of Federer that he failed to fully grasp Rafael Nadal's equally compelling greatness. As Michael Mewshaw put it in his August 15, 2011 Newsweek article titled Rafa!, "Though Wallace dismissed Nadal as 'mesomorphic and totally martial,' it seems that almost everything he wrote about Federer applies to Rafa and that it was the Spaniard's apostasy in beating Federer over and over that clouded Wallace's judgment." Federer's "apostasy" has indeed inspired many commentators to twist and torture logic to its breaking point (and beyond) in elaborate attempts to avoid stating the obvious: Federer has had few answers for Nadal in their battles against each other and Nadal's career accomplishments are at least as impressive as Federer's. It is puzzling that so many tennis aficionados blithely dismiss Nadal's head to head dominance versus Federer as if it were a small dirt smudge carelessly smeared against a masterpiece painting, an irrelevant splotch easily removed by a good restorer; the reality is that no portrait of Federer or Nadal is complete unless it depicts just how convincingly Nadal has owned Federer: Nadal enjoys an 18-10 head to head advantage over Federer, including an 8-2 lead in their Grand Slam encounters after Nadal's 6-7 (5), 6-2, 7-6 (5), 6-4 victory against Federer in the 2012 Australian Open semifinals. Mewshaw adds, "A fantastic chimera, part bull, part bullfighter, Nadal has his own supernal gifts and wins not by making the game look easy, but by making it look every bit as demanding and difficult as it actually is. While Federer is planning points four shots in advance, Nadal often kills the ball before Federer has a chance to realize his arabesques of excellence."

Wallace's essay begins with an intricate--yet inaccurate (the New York Times later had to append a correction to the piece)--description of one point in Federer's 2005 U.S. Open match versus Andre Agassi; Wallace attempts to demonstrate why tennis observers--particularly those who also play the game--are so awestruck by Federer's skills. It is disappointing that Wallace focused more on breathlessly praising Federer than on accurately depicting the sequence from the Federer-Agassi match--lyrical flourishes are not more important than basic facts in a nonfiction article--but the larger issue is that, even though painting a vivid verbal portrait of a great athlete at work is a rare skill, such a portrait does not prove that Federer is greater than any one of several other players about whom Wallace could have also waxed poetic. When Wallace's essay was published in August 2006, Federer had played in 29 Grand Slam singles events, winning eight titles and losing six times in the first round. Bjorn Borg--the Sandy Koufax of tennis--won 11 Grand Slam singles titles in 27 appearances, never losing in the first round and only once losing in the second round. Pete Sampras won seven Grand Slam singles titles in his first 29 Grand Slam appearances, losing in the first round five times (he finished his career with a then-record 14 Grand Slam titles in 52 appearances, with seven first round losses). Rod Laver--who had five prime Grand Slam years stolen from him because of tennis' archaic rules preventing professionals from competing in the sport's most prestigious events--won six Grand Slam singles titles in 25 appearances as an amateur while suffering four first round losses (all in his first year on the tour) and then won five more Grand Slam titles as a professional for a career total of 11 wins in 40 appearances. Nadal won 10 Grand Slam singles titles in his first 29 appearances and did not suffer a single first round loss. Federer is an artist and Federer is a great player but Federer's artistry does not prove that he is greater or more dominant than some of his prestigious predecessors.

Federer acolytes are quick to point out that many great players--including Nadal himself--have anointed Federer as the greatest player ever but Mewshaw wryly notes that Nadal has good reason to say this: "Of course, humility is as much a part of the wallpaper of sport as Muhammad Ali's boasting. It's often good strategy to praise an adversary, all the better to aggrandize yourself. If Federer is the best ever and you beat him...well, you don't need to say the rest." Wallace's essay is an entertaining read but despite the large amount of technical and historical information Wallace included the lasting impression is not that Wallace objectively analyzed Federer's game but rather that he wrote a passionate fan letter about it.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Chess Teacher Bruce Pandolfini's Credo

Renowned chess teacher/author Bruce Pandolfini recently won the Chess Educator of the Year award. His excellent acceptance speech is worth reading in its entirety but his credo is particularly striking:

"When I sit across from a talented young person, I'm aware how in time that individual may become one of the most important people in the world. I consider myself honor-bound to guide such minds on the way to full attainment of knowledge and power. Perhaps I can inspire them to make their own special commitment."

It certainly would be wonderful if more teachers, educators and administrators viewed gifted children that way!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

More Insight into Bobby Fischer's Brilliant yet Tortured Mind

No reasonable and well informed person can dispute that Bobby Fischer was both a tremendous genius and a deeply troubled, mentally ill person. The fruits of his genius will live forever in the games that he artistically won, the tournaments and matches that he dominated and the great classic book that he wrote titled My 60 Memorable Games. Fischer's frustration about the republication and editing of his masterpiece book lends some insight into the nature of his mental illness and the way that the reckless actions of several people worsened Fischer's psychological imbalances. Edward Winter reports that the 1995 Batsford edition of My 60 Memorable Games contains over 570 changes from Fischer's original text. Fischer was understandably outraged that his creative work had been tampered with and he also alleged that Batsford neither had the right to publish his book nor had sent him any royalties after doing so. Winter takes no position on those two matters but he explains in detail how Batsford not only "butchered" Fischer's book but stubbornly refused to admit or correct this cascade of mistakes. As the affair dragged on with no resolution in sight, Fischer not only publicly lambasted Batsford but he even took aim at Winter, criticizing Winter for vastly understating how many changes Batsford had in fact made. Fischer had exhibited clear signs of paranoia for quite some time but the desecration of his great book only served to reinforce his belief that a grand Jewish conspiracy exists not only to conquer the world but to specifically target him.

The world was not out to get Fischer; the greed, carelessness and foolishness of various individuals does not prove the existence of some vast, organized conspiracy: the world is just messed up and does not function logically. Unfortunately, Fischer's mind was not able to accept and interact with the flawed world as it exists, so rather than acknowledge the true nature of the rampant chaos surrounding him he sought to impose order on that chaos by constructing elaborate conspiracies as an organizational framework that could explain why people act so illogically and foolishly. As a chess player, one of Fischer's greatest attributes was his ability to create order out of what seemed to be chaos but when you try to create order out of our messed up, chaotic world you may end up seeing (or inventing) connections and conspiracies that do not exist.

Winter notes that the David DeLucia collection of Fischer memorabilia includes a handwritten letter from Fischer to Osama bin Laden. Fischer considered bin Laden to be a kindred spirit because they both were wanted by the U.S. government and both were, in Fischer's twisted and paranoid world view, victims of a vast Jewish conspiracy. Fischer seriously believed that bin Laden would actually care about the books, magazines and other possessions that Fischer lost when the contents of his locker at the Bekins Storage facility were auctioned off after Fischer's representative failed to pay the storage fee despite being sent the requisite funds by the exiled Fischer. Fischer was rightfully outraged at what happened to his precious possessions just like he was rightfully outraged at the butchering of his book but in his tortured mind this rightful outrage simply fueled his paranoid delusions. Maybe Fischer would have been paranoid and delusional no matter what had happened to him but the fact that he repeatedly dealt with idiots and fools surely did not aid his peace of mind or fragile psychological state.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Mutiny on the Bounty: NFL Must Severely Punish Renegade Saints

Supposedly, "real" NHL fans don't want fighting taken out of their game and "real" NFL fans don't care about bounties paid out for hits that could maim a player or even end his career. If that is what it means to be a "real" fan then I am proud not to be a "real" fan because I believe that even in an inherently violent sport there still should be not just a written code of conduct--which the New Orleans Saints clearly and admittedly violated in several ways from 2009-2011--but also an unwritten code. Current and former players often speak of a "brotherhood" or "fraternity" that crosses team lines but the idea of an institutional mindset involving large cash payments expressly for "cart off" and "knockout" hits makes a mockery of such alleged unity.

This bounty scandal is inevitably being compared to the so-called Spygate situation but I still don't understand how something can be called "spying" when it involved someone in team regalia not even attempting to disguise the fact that he was gathering publicly available information. As King Kaufman put it, "Where a team has an expectation of privacy, it should get privacy. A guy standing on the sideline and flashing semaphores to the middle linebacker can't expect privacy." The Spygate situation did not affect the outcome of games, unlike three scandals that I mentioned in a September 15, 2007 BEST article: (1) the widespread use of steroids/PEDs by the 1970s Steelers teams that won four Super Bowls, (2) the use of steroids/PEDs by more recent Pro Bowl players like Shawne Merriman and (3) the salary cap circumvention that enabled the Denver Broncos to build and maintain a roster that won back to back championships.

The Saints' bounty program run by then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams with the knowledge (and thus tacit approval) of Coach Sean Payton allegedly included between 22 and 27 players, resulted in injuries sustained by two star quarterbacks (Brett Favre and Kurt Warner) during playoff games won by the Saints in their 2009 championship run and is an egregious violation of both written and unwritten rules. The written rules involve the prohibition against specifically and deliberately targeting individual players with the intent of committing injuries and also involve circumvention of the salary cap through the payment of bonuses; the unwritten rules, as indicated above, involve the gross (in every sense of the word) and flagrant disregard for the brotherhood that supposedly unites all NFL players.

Another very real and significant issue here is that the NFL has to swiftly and severely punish everyone involved in the bounty program not only to react to what has happened and prevent it from ever happening again but also to make it clear that from an institutional standpoint the NFL firmly comes down on the side of player safety. Hall of Fame quarterback and current ESPN analyst Steve Young noted that if he had been injured playing against the Saints during the time period in question he would have to seriously consider filing a lawsuit because of the organized and institutional nature of the Saints' program to deliberately and seriously injure opposing players. The NFL is already under fire for its current and historical policies regarding head injuries and post-career health care, so the Saints' bounty program is a legal, ethical and public relations nightmare for the league (not to mention possible implications regarding legal wagering on games whose outcomes were altered by "cart off" and "knockout" hits). If it is true that Williams ran similar bounty programs with other teams and/or that such programs are also in place on other squads that he was not involved with then that only makes the NFL's problem even worse.

Today on ESPN, former NFL defensive back and head coach Herm Edwards summed it up best: "Players and coaches alike all know this: it's a privilege and not a right to be a part of the National Football League. The intent to maim or take a player out or maybe end his career is not professional football. It shouldn't be coached that way and shouldn't be taught that way and shouldn't be played that way."

The idea of deliberately targeting a specific opposing player for a "cart off" or "knockout" injury is so repugnant that I would not be opposed to the NFL permanently banning Gregg Williams (and possibly others, depending on the extent of their involvement) from coaching in the league. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has repeatedly said that he holds owners, executive and coaches to an even higher standard than players, so if that is the case then in addition to issuing long suspensions to the participating players Goodell must severely punish Williams and the other coaches or executives directly involved in the bounty program. This is not a matter of "boys will be boys" or football being an inherently violent sport; there is nothing wrong with delivering hard, clean hits or with trying to use legal physicality to break the will of your opponent but deliberately targeting opposing players for serious and possibly career-ending injuries simply cannot be tolerated.



The hit that then-Indianapolis Coach Tony Dungy believes led to the neck problems that Peyton Manning is still dealing with was delivered by a Gregg Williams-coached Washington defense. Sports Illustrated's Peter King suggests that this topic should come up when Williams meets with NFL brass to discuss the extent of Williams' bounty programs.