Sport


It’s just not cricket …

It’s that time of the year again, and the newspapers are full of reports about the Superbowl. Vox has been flooded with articles about why we hate the Patriots or why players keep getting bigger, and everyone is expected to have an opinion on this sport. Apparently this year’s effort was extra boring, and the half-time adverts were crap, and the Maroon 5 dude revealed that he has a tattoo in Times New Roman font[1]. This year I didn’t bother with this whole thing, because I have tried to get into American Football and I just simply cannot. I have tried, and I just can’t really enjoy it.

This is a bit of a surprise to me, because I can enjoy most sports if I understand them. Indeed, I put in a bit of effort over the past two years to learn the rules of NFL, I spent time watching matches (which are broadcast live here in Japan if you have cable tv, and which on replay are stripped of adverts and quite easy to watch), I put a bit of effort into studying some of the rules and trying to figure out what was going on. It’s my view that the single biggest reason most people don’t enjoy most sports is that they simply don’t know the rules, and that if a sport is played well by elite athletes and you understand the rules you will probably enjoy it. So I was surprised when I tried to learn the rules of NFL and I still found it simply unenjoyable. I have tried to find reports from others about why they don’t enjoy NFL, but there are precious few, or they are reports like this one that don’t really seem to explain the game’s problems. So I thought I would write a post about why I can’t get into NFL. Perhaps someone will comment to give their own opinion, or to explain why I’m wrong (nicely, I hope!) or perhaps not, but here I would like to outline some of my reasons.

Here I am not going to waste time talking about the many political problems of the NFL – the blackouts, the teams’ insatiable demands for government money, the racist team names, the fact that college football players aren’t paid, the disgraceful treatment of cheerleaders, the concussion scandals, the awful mismanagement of the knee issue or the blatant disgusting militarization of the whole thing – which are well known and are a good reason to boycott it on principle, but not an explanation for why the game itself is simply not enjoyable. I also don’t intend to talk about this as “my favourite sport is better than yours” or to suggest that NFL players aren’t great athletes or that rugby dudes are tougher than NFL dudes or anything silly like that. I thought I should like NFL – I like ball sports with heavy contact, I approve of violent sport, and I like watching men smash each other, and I enjoy most other ball sports when I watch them – but I don’t enjoy it. I also don’t intend to tell people what sports they shouldn’t like, or laugh at people for watching weird shit – if you like snooker or darts or curling that’s all cool and not my business – but I wanted to try and pin down why I don’t enjoy NFL, and see what other people have to say about that. For the record, my favourite sports in approximate order would be kickboxing/MMA/boxing, rugby, high quality English premier league soccer, AFL, some olympic-level sports, lower quality soccer, and then a bunch of other stuff in no particular order. I’m not anti-sport, and I’m not opposed to violent sport (I thoroughly oppose any efforts to ban boxing, for example, on pure civil liberties grounds). I also have done kickboxing (and other martial arts) for 25 years, fought in an amateur fight once, and enjoy regular training with rough men. I’m not squeamish about violent sport. So, here are my reasons, in no particular order.

  • The weird stops and starts: I really cannot get used to the strange way the game stops, waits, everyone changes, and then it restarts. It doesn’t feel like sport to me, and it all feels strangely pre-determined. It feels more like work than sport. I just can’t get into the pre-organized changing of sides and ordering of attack and defense. Weird, given I am into turn-based combat in RPGs, but there you go.
  • The lack of ebb and flow: This is a big one for me and I think the single biggest spoiler. When the QB gets sacked or a pass is incomplete the game just … stops. No one fights for the ball, there is very rarely a change in direction of the attack, and it seems impossible that the flow of the game would change several times. When you watch soccer or rugby there is a constant shift and flow of possession, attack and defense, and no reprieve for either team when they have or don’t have the ball. If an NFL team is defending at 4th and goal, there is no sense in which they are under the cosh as they would be in a concerted soccer or rugby attack – they just have to foil one more play and then they are guaranteed the ball. Worse still, the attacking team don’t need to worry about the possibility that a pass will be interrupted or that they will miss the pass, because there is no penalty for this in the flow of the game. The only way the flow changes is if someone intercepts and catches the ball or a player straight drops it and the opposition scoop it up. This gives the game a really dead flavour. Nobody is risking anything, nobody is pressed, strategy isn’t built on what-ifs. So many times you get the 5th play and the team brings on a whole different set of players to punt, because there is this regular process that doesn’t change, shift or move around. It’s weird and I cannot think of any other sport except perhaps cricket which is so completely lacking in these sudden shifts of play.
  • The weird timing: There is something really strange about the way that time is calculated in NFL, as if time were not a thing at all. Teams have time-outs during which they keep playing, a one hour game seems to take 3 hours to play, the last 5 minutes just goes on forever, and every player has to be insanely careful about the implications for timing of e.g. an incomplete pass vs. being pushed out of bounds. I appreciate that rules are rules but why do there have to be so many weird and complex ways of simply keeping track of time? In any other game it’s simple: time passes at its usual rate until the game is over, and injuries are handled either by stopping the clock when they happen or adding time on. I don’t understand why there have to be so many weird ways of keeping track of time.
  • The strangely hypocritical rules: The weird timing brings me to the most frustrating thing I have ever witnessed in sport – a player being penalized for throwing a ball down in frustration and wasting 3 seconds of time, right before the game cuts to 2 minutes of adverts. What is going on with that? Why is time-wasting punished harshly in a game that takes 3 hours to play an hour’s football? Similarly, why is it a terrible offense to touch someone’s helmet but completely cool to hit them with a head-high tackle that is guaranteed to cause serious injury? It’s so pernickety, so finnicky, and so arbitrary.
  • The enormously complex rules: Most games have a simple set of penalties for all infringements, with at most two levels of escalation to deal with more serious incidents. But NFL has this intense system of penalties which involve decisions about whether to reset the downs and whether to penalize with distance, and seem to have an enormously complex set of rules that can be broken. It also seems in comparison to other games to have a lot of indecipherable decision points about basic aspects of basic gameplay, such as what constitutes a catch or pass interference. Every game has ambiguities and inconsistencies, but NFL seems to be consistent only in its ambiguities and complexity. It can be frustrating watching rugby and having to depend heavily on the referee’s judgment, but this pales to insignificance compared to the opacity of referee decisions in NFL.
  • The action is everywhere at once: When a play starts there is action happening all across the line and further downfield, and it’s very hard to follow all of it. I think this also means that in every play there are multiple infractions and it’s just luck if the referees see them. This is fine if complexity is your thing but it’s a uniquely weird experience that this is a ballgame yet almost all the action is off the ball.
  • The messy sideline situation: It really weirds me out that for the whole game there is this unruly mob of random people standing all along the sideline. Hundreds of people just shuffling around doing their thing. It’s so messy and weird. Every other ballgame has allocated places – a bunker or a coach’s area or something – but in NFL everyone is standing right down by the sideline crowding the game and just being messy. I guess it’s necessary because of the constant substitutions and changes of team (and we wouldn’t want to waste time!!!) but it’s just weird to me, like a pitch invasion is constantly being threatened.
  • The specialization: Every game has its specialist players but the level of specialization in NFL seems extreme, and not really much fun to watch. Vox tells me this wasn’t always the case, and that when substitutions were allowed more freely this led to the growth of specialization. It’s particularly focused on the quarterback, and I have never seen a game as focused on a single position as NFL. I guess this is a nice analogy for America’s political system, which is obsessively focused on the actions of one man, and I think it’s just as frustrating in sport as in politics. What kind of team game boils down to the decisions of one man? A weird one.
  • The weird camp machismo: I know it’s a bit of a cliche to say this but NFL players are really really camp, and it’s weird that Americans think they look super macho. I recall watching an interlude in a Japanese broadcast[2], and the American review was focused on some player from some team and talking about how incredibly tough and powerful he is. While the narrator was going on about this the camera was doing a slow-motion reel of this dude walking along, helmet in hand, with aggressive and threatening music playing. It was all a big and theatrical build-up to describe how aggressive and manly this dude was. The dude in question was walking slowly along the sideline with his shirt rolled up and tucked into his chest armour, showing off his powerful abs. So basically this super macho dude was walking along in spandex tights and a midriff top, and I’m meant to think that this is tough and not camp. It just doesn’t work for me. Don’t get me wrong, I know these guys are hard as nails, but what is wrong with Americans that they confuse camp and macho? You see the same thing in WWE, which is outrageously camp, and in super hero movies, which are wall-to-wall spandex and glowsticks. I guess there’s a reason that the players have to wear tight spandex tights with gussets, and have a towel hanging out of their back pocket that makes them look like a glistening furry or something, but I don’t know what that reason is and I suspect I wouldn’t be convinced even if it were explained to me. I just can’t get into the American vision of macho, and I think there’s a deep cultural insight somewhere in the fact that a country whose politics is steeped in misogyny and homophobia has so much difficulty distinguishing between camp and macho.
  • It’s dangerous by design: As I said, I’m into violent sports, but I’m not into sport that is designed to damage its participants. Even boxing has limits on the amount of damage its players are allowed to sustain. But much of NFL seems to be designed to damage the players, or specifically allows tactics that are at their most effective when designed to hurt. The bit where the linesmen crash into each other is obviously dangerous by design, but also the complete lack of any sanction for head-high tackles and neck grips means that players are rewarded for injuring each other. With players getting bigger and stronger every year, and no limit on their strength due to exhaustion as the game wears on, it’s inevitable that people will be seriously injured as a necessary consequence of playing the game. This is particularly shit if you’re a college football player who isn’t even getting minimum wage for your work, you’re betting your whole economic future on making it to the next tier, and then the game fucks you up because that is what the game is designed to do. Most sports have a pretty sharp pyramid shape and most people fall by the wayside and never make it to the top, but to be wrecked before you get anywhere good because that is what the game is designed to do isn’t very fair. Other games have introduced specific systems or rule changes to minimize the risk to players, without necessarily changing the overall level of violence or aggression, but NFL seems uniquely unwilling to do this. There’s a limit to how much I can enjoy a sport I know is designed to ruin its participants, and there are so many moments when the dangerous acts are gratuitous. It’s possible that NFL, being dangerous by design, can’t be changed, but in that case it will likely die as American parents forbid their kids from playing it. I won’t miss it if it does.
  • There’s no endurance penalty: In rugby and soccer players have to play for the full length of the game, which means that they have to balance the energy they put into individual plays against the need to go the distance. This is a natural part of any competitive system in nature. But in NFL the constant switches of teams mean that players don’t have to balance these things, and don’t get exhausted near the end as far as I can tell. This takes a lot of tension out of the game, and also eliminates one form of extreme effort from the enjoyment of the game. Particularly in rugby and boxing the last 10 minutes are a test of endurance and will as much as anything else, and losing teams have the chance to win something back by ruthlessly capitalizing on mistakes that happen when people are exhausted. The game also has a natural sense of having run its course, as the players are completely done for at the end, rather than having come to a bitter end because a weird unbalanced and unnatural clock finally reached 0. I also don’t really feel like I’m there alongside the players when they aren’t even sweating. It makes all the drama seem manufactured and culturally mandated rather than arising from the game, an impression that is simply reinforced by the injection of high drama through the narrative efforts of the announcers rather than arising organically from the contest itself.

Put together these things make the game seem dry and sterile to me, a manufactured contest rather than a real game. It doesn’t help that there aren’t many teams and a short season, which just increases the sense that all the drama is manufactured. The crowd also doesn’t have anything resembling the passion of similarly-sized European soccer crowds. Also what’s going on with every player saying which university they’re from when they introduce themselves in the pre-game team review? That’s super weird.

So those are the reasons I can’t enjoy NFL. Apart from “dangerous by design” I don’t think any of them are objectively bad things – they’re just things I don’t like, and obviously you’re welcome to not not like them. I would be happy to hear explanations or alternative interpretations of some of these things (except “you’re dumb for not liking this thing you don’t like”), or other comments on things that stop you enjoying this game. Also, tips on how to enjoy it! (Except “drink more” because the games are broadcast in the morning here).


fn1: And he’s not even a millenial!

fn2: Because Japan doesn’t broadcast the American ads and doesn’t play its own (because Japanese tv isn’t as rapacious as American I guess) they fill the advertising breaks with a review of the previous week’s games, which is prepared by the NFL. I guess the NFL has to prepare this for its overseas affiliates because we aren’t used to intense advertising and need something to fill the space. Or maybe it’s some weekly show. Anyway, it features weird overblown narration with a mixture of faux-highbrow imagery and bad puns, and we also get to see a lot of the sideline behavior of the players, which is frankly fucking awful.

Still not cool

Still not cool

Recently there have been three very different media controversies over sportspeople and politics in the USA, and I think all three are really good examples of how many countries treat their sports people in a really terrible way. In particular, I think these cases show the huge pressure modern sportspeople are under, and a lack of perspective on sport. The three cases in question, which all show very different aspects of this common problem, are Ryan Lochte, Colin Kaepernick, and Dwayne Wade. Each of these cases shows a slightly different aspect of the unrealistic and unfair attitude that modern sportspeople have to deal with, though of course being American they’re leavened with a whole bunch of extra race politics.

The first case, Ryan Lochte, on the surface seems a classic case of white “privilege” and a star treating ordinary people terribly. It appears that Lochte and friends, drunk after a big night out to celebrate being every American’s hero, trashed a public toilet and pissed on it, then the next day made up a story about being harrassed by local police. This led to uproar and cries of white “privilege” and terrible American attitudes towards foreign countries. Lochte is a kind of poster boy for this kind of thing because he’s obviously a kind of clueless jock, and although everyone wanted to suck up to the clueless jock in school, we all want to tear him down once his jockish ways lead him to ruin as an adult. Except in this case, everyone criticizing him seems to be overlooking the fact that he was forced at gunpoint to hand over money to pay for the damage he did by some kind of security guard or policeman (it seems likely it was a policeman). In Australia and the UK, and I suspect the USA too, if a policeman or security guard forces you to hand over money at gun point for any reason, any at all, that is either robbery or serious corruption. In Australia that act would have the security guard/policeman in jail, and possibly the petrol station owner facing charges of receiving stolen goods. Although much of the press is up in arms about Lochte being treated leniently, it appears to me that he and his friends were either treated in a deeply corrupt way, or treated exactly as the locals would be (perhaps with a foreigner surcharge). I don’ t know which, but I’m very sure that the way the police/security guard treated them was dangerous and reckless well beyond the level commensurate with the crime, and even if they’re used to guns, being threatened like that is a terrifying response to pissing on a wall and smashing a toilet. The coverage of Lochte’s misbehavior and subsequent “lie” stinks to me of a media class enjoying payback against the kind of person they think is an overpayed, unqualified idiot. Which he might be, but this is the same media class that lauds the olympics and feeds on just so stories of valour and struggle by people like Lochte for a ridiculously hyperbolic three weeks of jingoism. It’s a little rich to build up these people as pure heroes of American goodness, and then to knock them down as over-privileged idiots when they act like the jocks they are. The sudden surprise that a swimming star who has never done anything else is a bit out of touch and clueless is a little rich coming from a media that has done all it can to make men like this think they are gods – especially when the heart of the story is an actually quite terrifying story of police corruption.

Colin Kaepernick’s case then shows what happens if a sports star tries to show that they are not a clueless over-privileged idiot, and actually engage with the political issues of the moment. Kaepernick exercised his right to free speech by not standing up for the US National Anthem, apparently because he thinks the US hasn’t resolved its race relations issues yet, and he can’t stand proud of his nation while it is treating black people worse than white people. It seems to me, looking in from the outside at a nation that claims to have enshrined free speech in its constitution, that Kaepernick has every right to do this, and that he isn’t disrespecting his country by saying he wants it to improve before he honours it publicly. There’s a rich vein of important political debate to be mined here in a respectful exchange between opposing views about why a black sportsman would feel he had to take such an extreme position to make a point, but it doesn’t appear that much of the media took him seriously at all. He was derided for disrespecting the troops, told to stick to sport, and sneered at for being a rich man completely out of touch with his peers – again, sneered at for being over privileged. So here we have the media that got into uproar over Lochte not behaving like a responsible adult and for not respecting his role as an ambassador of the USA getting in uproar over an athlete who cares about using his public role as an ambassador to change things; and the same media that benefits from the huge money sportspeople make, sneering at this rich sportsperson for being out of touch. In Kaepernick’s case as a black athlete this latter charge is particularly smelly, since we know that it’s much harder for black people to be successful in the USA and sport is one of the few ways that mainstream racist culture has allowed black people to be successful; but now that this man is successful his very success is used as a weapon to discount his attempts to represent the political issues he believes in. Kaepernick seems to have behaved fairly well in response to this, meeting an ex-veteran footballer for a long chat and then moderating his stance to a one-knee protest that he claims simultaneously respects the troops but maintains the protest. He also has given a million dollars to community groups, which seems to suggest that the only way he can be taken seriously is if he gives up money for a cause. When was the last time a journalist was expected to give money to a cause before criticizing a politician or engaging on a particular issue? How many of the sports journalists outraged about Kaepernick’s behavior have given even a cent of their easily-earned money for a cause?

Finally we have the case of Dwayne Wade, who was thrown into the public spotlight after his cousin was shot in some kind of tragic drive by, and Cheeto Jesus used Wade’s family tragedy to further sink his electoral prospects in a singularly tasteless tweet. Wade didn’t ask to be thrown into the spotlight – he’s just a sportsman who wants to do sport! – but he made the mistake of mentioning gun control, which is disaster for any American in public life. He then had to give interviews about this issue, which is just terrible – his cousin has been murdered and he has to give interviews about how he feels about some stupid carnival barker using his personal tragedy for political traction. I think anyone reading this would feel a kind of deep dread at the thought of having to go on national TV to talk about their feelings in a case like this – and Wade has to do this in the context of Kaepernick’s ritual humiliation and the scorn shown to uneducated and ignorant jocks like Lochte. Wade seems to have managed to handle this by some deftly understated scorn, but many is the sports person who in this situation would melt down and suddenly become the bad guy of the case.

I think it’s safe to say that in all these instances, these guys didn’t ask to be spokespeople for their country, for their racial group or for a gun control cause. They didn’t expect to be in these situations, and they probably assume – wrongly, it appears – that if they are they will be afforded the same basic human decency and respect that everyone else is. Instead they are subjected to a kind of trial by fire, in which the rules are constantly changing and their lack of education or eloquence or political sophistication becomes a tool to be used against them. They aren’t politicians or journalists or scientists, they’re sports people who have devoted their whole lives to a career that does not reward learning to speak well, articulate ideas or give nuanced responses to complex and difficult problems – and they also happen to be rich and, yes, privileged, often by random luck. But through this random luck and the subsequent privilege of wealth and exposure, they suddenly find themselves unwitting ambassadors, or prisoners of their own conscientious actions, or just randomly cast into a situation they probably can’t handle, with a jealous and mercurial public and media waiting to pounce on any error, and punish them for not living up to standards that they have been set up to fail by a sports complex intent on victory and achievement and entertainment over all else.

These guys aren’t the only recent cases, of course. There are some – like Hope Solo – that appear completely terrible from the outside, and others like the completely horrible treatment of Gabby Douglas for not being exactly like everyone else. I think it’s obvious that some – like the treatment of Kaepernick and Douglas – has an additional racial bias that they can’t control or in Douglas’s case even predict, but even for the “privileged” white boys or crowd heroes there is still this rapid and unreasonable fall from grace after they make a single slip. I think this is a deeply unreasonable and irrational way to treat sports stars. If you don’t like them being rich, don’t pay them so much; if you don’t like them behaving like princes and princesses, don’t treat them like that; and if you don’t want them taking unpopular political stances, don’t treat them like role models. If you’re going to sack a football player (or a cheerleader!) for some minor transgression against your role model code, don’t be shocked when they decide to act like a role model and take a strong political stance that is unpopular with your viewers – you told them to be a role model, so deal with it. If you’re going to take them out of school at 15 and sequester them in a jock- and testosterone-filled bubble, then pay them fantastic amounts and market them as heroes and sex symbols, don’t be surprised when they act like dickheads. And don’t forget that they’re human, and maybe won’t behave well when they wake up with a hangover after a night of being threatened with a gun by a corrupt policeman.  And if you do decide to treat these people with this kind of ridiculous and unpredictable double standard, don’t be surprised when some of the smarter ones troll you like this.

It’s very clear that a lot of sports stars are overpaid and treated like heroes when they’re just ordinary men and women who are very good at one thing that probably shouldn’t really matter. But this isn’t a situation of their making – it’s a world they fell into because they were lucky enough to be good at that thing, and usually in getting into that world they had to close off a whole range of other, probably safer options, and they also had to leave the ordinary world behind. I’m a big sports fan, but I’m in favour of salary caps and a more rational approach to sport that doesn’t elevate these people to some lofty pedestal and reward them with orders of magnitude more money than they need. But if that’s the world that we have created, I don’t think we should then drag these people down because they are rich, or they decide to use the fame they have been gifted for some cause, or because they’re clueless after living their whole lives in this bubble. It’s the sports world that needs to be torn down, not the people who live in it.

Watching history being made

Watching history being made

Last night in the half-time of a televised rugby game I saw an interview by Japanese TV with Eddie Jones, recently retired coach of the Japan national rugby team. The Japanese team was the absolute standout entertainer of the recent world cup, beating South Africa in an incredibly tense and brilliantly played game of rugby, and becoming the first team in world cup history to fail to progress despite winning three games in the group phase. This team is half “foreign”, and the captain was a man called Michael Leitch, who came to Japan in high school and stayed to take them onto the world stage.

Eddie Jones was asked about Leitch in the interview, and after discussing his playing qualities (Leitch is a pretty good player), described some of his personal qualities: that he is humble, hard working, and able to unite the “foreign” and Japanese players in the Japan team through both his language skills and his attitude. Jones also stated that he thinks the Japanese national team will always be a mix of “foreigners” and Japanese nationals, and as a result the captain will always need to be someone who can unite disparate cultures, playing styles and attitudes to rugby.

It’s only sport but Eddie Jones here is saying a really important thing about the role of migrants in any society. Every society has its weaknesses – Japan’s size in rugby, the UK’s poor mathematics, Australia’s voracious need for foreign ideas – but usually people don’t recognize their own country’s shortcomings. Eddie Jones, a man with a connection to Japan but obviously not Japanese, can see a shortcoming and can state it, but in general we don’t see the problems in our own societies. In well-functioning societies migrants fill those gaps, make them work, and help a society to achieve great things in areas where it would be otherwise weak. Michael Leitch is a really good example of a migrant doing that in Japan, but from overseas the Japanese team is often seen as illegitimate because of this foreign component. In fact the Japanese team is standing out as a representative of how migrants can make every society better, as is Japanese Sumo (which has allowed foreigners to compete and has not had a Japanese grandmaster for something like 11 years). Rather than deserving scorn or belittlement for having “imported” big players, the Japanese rugby team is a sign of how the future of a better world will be.

As a foreigner in Japan I often notice the different things foreigners offer to Japan, and our unique role here. Obviously I get frustrated with things when I don’t understand them or I am just culturally unable to handle them, and I’m sure Japanese get frustrated with me for being different and wrong; but also I appreciate the new insight Japan gives me into how to live and behave, and I think just as much Japanese people appreciate being able to change their modes of behavior and interaction to deal with a direct and frank Australian style of working and communicating. I say to people new to Japan from overseas: there are 120 million Japanese, they don’t need another Japanese person doing it badly. Following Japanese manners and customs is obviously important, but Japan needs your newness and (from their perspective) uniqueness much more than they need you to become like them. Living in a foreign country that is completely different to my own, I have very quickly come to realize that integration is a myth, and multiculturalism is the only realistic way that foreigners can become part of another society. The Japanese rugby team is a really good example of how that acceptance of and engagement with foreign ideas can improve a culture, and a great example of how the proper acceptance of foreigners into society can lead to huge new achievements.

Of course for every success story of immigration there is no doubt a downside – the cross-national marriage that failed, the criminal, the person who just didn’t fit in and made everyone uncomfortable. It’s inevitable that a project as challenging as welcoming complete strangers into your home will go wrong. But society is very good at absorbing and cushioning failure – that’s why we have it – and all those failures are of no consequence compared to the successes. Japan’s rugby team is a really good example of how those successes can benefit a nation.

We live in a time when immigration and especially refugees have become a controversial and scary topic. As a foreigner living as a migrant in a country completely different to my own, this fear of foreigners has special salience – it is scary and dangerous to think that it might one day come here, to this place that has welcomed me. I also think it’s a thing of the past, a strange and anachronistic spasm of old racism that is doomed in this modern world. I hope the Japanese rugby team’s successes can hasten its death, and make their small contribution to building a better world, with cultural differences but no borders.

The World's Only Undead Con Artist

The World’s Only Undead Con Artist

In late night wanderings through my TV subscription I regularly stumble on WWE Raw, which is the latest incarnation of World Wrestling, the phenomenon that gave us Hulk Hogan and Jesse Ventura. I have a vague affection for WWE, because it is so over the top, so ridiculous, and so dramatic that I can’t help but watch it – for about 10 minutes. Then the constant drama wears me out. Tonight I stumbled on a strange combination of scenes in which first some dude called Raynes was kicking the living daylights out of some other dude, chasing him into the broadcasting area and then backstage and smashing him with a television in scenes reminiscent of the great Rowdy Roddy Piper/Paul Orndorff blow up. Following this the head of the WWE corporation came on stage to talk about how he was going to employ the Undertaker to destroy his own son (because in American entertainment Daddy Issues are the big plotline), Shane McMahon, in the “Hell in a Cell” at Wrestlemania, until his son came on to, well, I’m not sure what his intention was but he ended up having the shit kicked out of him by the Undertaker, who is perhaps 60 years old if he’s a day, like Carl McCoy on a potent mixture of steroids, toxoplasmosis and pork fat.

I’m always surprised when I see this because it’s such a transparent mirror of major trends in American popular culture, and it’s such obvious fraud, but the crowd so obviously go wild for it. I can’t understand how people can go crazy for such a fake thing when there is perfectly good real fighting out there, and I can’t understand how people get fired up to support a bunch of people who are, mostly, bullies and savage arseholes.

And that got me thinking about Trump rallies. And wondering if we can get some insight into what’s going on in the Trump movement through the insanity of WWE. Consider the following aspects of WWE…

  • It’s all about breaking the rules: In a typical WWE fight there are rules and a referee, but everyone involved breaks the rules from the start, and the referees stand around yelling and protesting but the wrestlers ignore them, but in the end someone wins according to the rules. The rules basically exist only to confirm the superiority of the victor
  • It’s all about clashes of cultures: In WWE every wrestler serves as a representative of a sub culture, and they are pitted against each other in a vicious battle for superiority. There are goths (the undertaker), migrants (people like Roman Raynes), rich kids (Shane McMahon), hillbillies (the Wyatt family), etc. And they all fight each other according to their own code and culture.
  • The winners are almost always vicious bullies: Typically, within the framework of the rules that they are breaking, the victors win by ganging up on a member of another team (i.e. a subculture) and beating the shit out of them, or by cheating through the help of their friends and viciously hurting a lone victim, but still being declared the winner. Curb-stomping is the norm in WWE.
  • The whole thing is an obvious fraud: The fans all know that what they’re being shown is not the truth, but they lap it up anyway.
  • The corporation is all: All the actors in WWE are supposedly wrestlers for the same corporation, and some of the ongoing threads of drama concern the ownership and direction of the corporation. Given that the wrestlers are teams representing the different American subcultures, the corporation itself serves as a metaphor for America – America as a corporate entity where power is wrested from the current leader through violence and skullduggery

That sounds like the fundamental elements of the movement Trump is building, to me. A movement of bullying power-hungry maniacs who only care about the rules when it suits them, supported by people who know that what they’re being shown is a fraud, but don’t care because the bloodlust and the excitement thrills them, and they know they won’t be the ones in the ring. Obviously WWE didn’t make these things, but maybe WWE – an enduring phenomenon of American pop culture that grew up in Reagan’s America – exemplifies the cultural movements that have been building up to Trump. A popular cultural movement increasingly divorced from the basic rules of polite society as they might be exemplified in sports like American Football, getting increasingly trashy and outrageous, and where the rules present more a set of guidelines to be used to your own advantage than an actual set of restrictions on what you can do.

And in a remarkable coincidence, Hulk Hogan wins a 115 million dollar settlement from one of Trump’s implacable enemies over a 9 second sex tape at the same time that Trump is promising to unleash libel laws on the media…

If, as I have, you have been aware of and occasionally watching WWE in its various forms over the last three decades you will have noticed how it has become unmoored from its origins, increasingly glitzy, increasingly violent, and increasingly savage, at the same time as it has become more popular and more sophisticated, and obviously more fake. This is Trump in a nutshell – the unhinging of American popular culture, and the incursion of its savage and violent underbelly into politics. Even the wives are involved, a common trope in WWE. All those insecurities and violent clashes in the substrate of American culture, that are played out so apparently hilariously in world wrestling, have finally bubbled up into politics too. And this Republican primary season is going to be the Summer Slam of American politics, its final descent into the nadir of this toxic trajectory.

I have always had a vague affection for world wrestling. It’s going to be fascinating to see the culture of WWE get control of the nuclear codes…

 

 

Not militaristic at all ...

Not militaristic at all …

I am not a big fan of baseball, and I didn’t enjoy my high school days overmuch. Combining these two seems like a recipe for a bullying and unpleasant experience, and definitely not something I would have any interest in.

The Koshien, however, changed my mind about high school baseball. The Koshien (甲子園) is an annual high school baseball contest that takes place across all of Japan, and comes to its glorious, bittersweet climax during the hottest months of the year – this week, in fact, in mid-August. High school baseball teams compete to become prefectural champions, and champions from each prefecture – two from Tokyo – then converge on Kobe in August for the finals. The finals are a knockout, with four matches played every day to whittle the teams down from 48 to 32, then through knockout rounds to the final, which happens to be tomorrow. Each match is 1.5 to 2 hours long and is played under the punishing August sun, in extremely harsh conditions[1]: temperatures above 32C (often over 35 this year!) and very high humidity. Today, for example, was 32C with 82% humidity and much, much more pleasant than last week when the quarter finals were being decided. The teams have to play continuously too: the semi final was today and the final is tomorrow, which means that the pitchers in the final will have been playing every second day now for a week or more in this heat.

When I first saw the Koshien a few years ago I dismissed it without watching it. Baseball in Japan is renowned for its bullying atmosphere, which verges on militaristic at times, and the idea of making schoolboys of 16-18 years of age play a contest in the middle of the day in this heat is a classic representation of just how callous and brutal its culture is. But this year one of my students revealed to me her passion for it, showed me the website and sang the praises of its passion and energy. Since I had a week off for the summer break I thought I’d check it out – and I was hooked immediately. It’s amazing.

It isn’t just the contest itself that is great – in fact that’s barely part of it at all. Rather, the culture and the style and excitement of the entire series gives it a feeling that ordinary baseball just can’t get. Similar to cricket at its best, it has its own sound and pace, and the crowd are as much a part of the event as the teams. Every team brings a huge contingent of supporters, wearing school colours and usually including a school band and cheerleaders, who make a constant racket throughout the game. This highlight reel is a good a example of the sound of the game – the school song (or a supporter’s chant) playing in the background, drums, pipes, cheering, and the flash of pom-poms as the cheerleaders go wild on a home run. At the end of the reel you can just hear the announcer in a classic, high-pitched voice introducing the next batter, with the honorific “kun” at the end to remind everyone that these heroes of ours are actually just high school kids. During the match the commentators prowl the stands interviewing fans, and showing the world what ingenious support methods the schools have thought up; they read support messages from school children and adults around the country, and every day they have a different pro-baseballer on to help with the commentating. This year the commentators have identified a man they call “Rugger san” (Mr. Rugger) who sits in the same place directly behind the batter in the front row, and is so named because he wears a rugby shirt every day – he has been there the entire two week period. It’s a serious, extravagant two week festival of sport, very similar to the Ashes or Sumo in the strength of its associated support culture, its deep connection with a season, and its importance to ordinary sports fans. But in this case it has its own bittersweet feel, because these are boys near the end of high school, who are going to get one – maybe two, for the younger ones – shots at glory, then graduate and move on with their lives and leave this fleeting moment of fame and joy behind them forever.

And this is where the Koshien really makes its mark, because it captures something about the strange and furious passion with which Japanese people look back on their high school days. From the west looking in we are often led to believe that Japanese high school is a terrible place, strictly regimented, heirarchical, full of bullying, where the creativity is drained out of little humans ready to turn them into drones for Japan’s massive corporate machine. But Japanese people see it very differently – to them High School is a period of freedom, openness, and passion, this sunny couple of years of freedom before they hit the regimentation of the outer world. High School is where a lot of Japanese people experience first love, and it is also the time when they form deep bonds of friendship that will last them through many years, even though they will likely move away from home for university and work, and only see those old high school friends once a year. This disparity between the western view of Japanese school and the local view is really striking – Japanese people I speak to are very often deeply nostalgic for their high school days, which they describe to me as a time of freedom and happiness. This is especially noticeable when you mention the Koshien to anyone who is old enough to have begun forgetting their high school days: they will become instantly, powerfully nostalgic, and it’s clear that the word conjures up sounds and scenes that remind them instantly of everything they left behind when they left school. On the weekend I mentioned that I had watched the Koshien to my hairdresser, and even though he was a rugby player at school[2], not a baseball player, he immediately became misty-eyed, singing the praises of the event and its special meaning in the same way as my student.

This passion I think also explains the special role of high school in anime. From the outside looking there appears to be a strong strain of schoolgirl fetishism, but there’s much more to it than that – anime and manga is also packed with stories about male high school sports clubs, which to me seem like they must be singularly boring tales, and also love stories about high school students. TV shows and manga that feature these high school groups and love affairs and dramas are actually appealing not to some weird fetish for children, but to a strong, nostalgic streak in adults. High school is also the setting in which first love occurs in Japan, and at least historically may have been the only time when Japanese people were truly free to form partnerships out of love rather than convenience and good sense. This is why so much of anime and manga incorporates this setting, and this is why the schoolgirl’s uniform and the schoolboy’s baseball kit are so powerfully evocative in this medium. Watching the Koshien helps to make sense of the power of high school in Japanese popular culture. The Koshien packs all those years of yearning for the change to come, of waiting for something to happen, that sense that you are someone special who is ready to bud and explode into the world, into two weeks of intense emotion and self expression, all while sharing that deep bond with your peers that only late adolescents can genuinely and uncynically revel in.

And so, it can even make baseball interesting. Truly, Japanese high school students have magical powers! The final is tomorrow at 1pm Japan time, and I think it can be viewed live on the Asahi TV website. It’s the 100th anniversary of the Koshien, the final contest is between Kanagawa and Miyagi prefectures. Tune in, and enjoy the unrestrained passions of high school once more!

fn1: People who haven’t spent time in Japan in August tend to poo-poo reports of just how oppressive the heat is, but once one has spent a day here in that season, and wilted under the intensity of the heat, one readily adapts one’s view. Australians really aren’t used to the humidity, so for example although I grew up in a town where daytime temperatures are routinely 8C hotter than Japan in summer, without airconditioning, I find Tokyo in summer far worse. It’s not just the urban heat island effect, which in Tokyo is extreme: basically it’s as if a huge mass of hot air rolled in off the ocean at the end of July, squatted down and decided to stay. There is very little wind, night time temperatures do not drop below 25 or 26 C, and usually there are very few clouds, but it is still so hot that everyone sweats just sitting still. It’s exhausting at 32C, but when it hits 35C it’s potentially dangerous …

fn2: In Japan hairdressing is a macho job and male hairdressers are rough, macho figures, so this makes perfect sense.

Industrial Workers of the World, Unite!!

Industrial Workers of the World, Unite!!

Cheerleaders from two US football teams – the Jets and the Bills – are suing their former bosses for unpaid wages, and as part of the case we get to see some fascinating insights into how the football teams tried to control the lives of their cheerleaders. These women paid incredibly poorly – something like  $150 for a game that lasts 4 hours and requires at least 9 hours’ practice a week, and they have to pay all their beauty and transport expenses themselves. They also didn’t get any healthcare as far as anyone is able to tell, which of course in America is a big issue since they would be receiving no public support – and they were working in a very dangerous job (which Dick Cheney famously used to minimize the evils of Abu Ghraib prison). But on top of this, they were subjected to intrusive and patronizing efforts to control their personal behavior, all outlined in a detailed manual for cheerleaders. For example, they were given detailed instructions on how their hair should look, and how they should behave in public. For example:

Do not be overly opinionated about anything. Do not complain about anything- ever hang out with a whiner? It’s exhausting and boring.

and

Keep toe nails tightly trimmed and clean. PEDICURES!

A lot of the advice in the manual is for behavior at public events, but a lot of it also impinges on personal life – the whole section on hygiene, while it contains good advice, is not your employer’s business, and the idea that your boss can tell you how you should look after your tea towels is just ridiculous. This level of control, though, seems to be something that the contractor feels they have a right to force on these women even though they are essentially unpaid volunteers. These women are allowed to be married or engaged but they will be sacked instantly if they fraternize with football players.

All these rules and controlling behavior remind me of a phenomenon in Japan that is almost universally viewed with scorn by westerners: AKB 48. I have discussed the onerous restrictions on the women of AKB48 before, and particularly the rule that they cannot have boyfriends, and it appears that they have a lot of similar petty-fogging rules placed on them. However, there are two big difference between the cheerleaders in the linked lawsuit, and AKB48: 1) AKB48 are paid for their work; and 2) Westerners generally view the phenomenon of AKB48 as a completely illegitimate piece of constructed culture, an indictment of a plastic entertainment industry. Exploited cheerleaders being micro-managed so as to form a constructed culture are seen as a labour issue (see the comments on the linked blog for examples of this); AKB48 are a manufactured culture that cannot be taken seriously.

In reality these two groups have a lot in common, beyond the fact that they’re both all-girl units. They are both tools in the construction of a culture, though the cultures they construct are very different. AKB48 are the pinnacle of J-Pop, though they’re often misrepresented in the west as paragons of “kawaii culture,” a phenomenon I think exists only in the minds of western commentators. They serve to perpetuate the image of replacability in Japanese female performance artists, and they also serve to reinforce the connection between cosplay and nerd culture. But on a deeper level, they are a machine devoted to replicating the imagery of the cultural pattern of hard study, careful adherence to group rules, and graduation into adulthood: they serve to construct and reinforce the idealized culture of Japanese high-school/university/jobhunting, and I don’t think that on a cultural level this is a coincidence. Japanese people have begun to question the ludicrous complexity and challenge of this cultural transition from high-school to work, and oh look! Suddenly a huge cultural phenomenon has appeared that is devoted to preserving its fundamental strictures. Of course, when westerners view AKB48 they don’t see them in terms of this deeper cultural reification, viewing them instead as a shallow constructed cultural artifact built on the trivilization of Japanese women. This is an incredibly shallow interpretation, which arises from the classic mix of racism and sexism with which westerners (and western cultural commentators) always approach any issue connected with Japanese women. When you peel back the layers of cute and the cosplay, AKB48 is a signifier of a very powerful cultural force in Japan, and serves to reinforce and reconstruct the process of maturation through adherence to group practice and strict patterns of advancement. Contrary to westerners’ interpretations of it as a cheap and exploitative manifestation of “kawaii culture,” it plays an important role in preserving and reinforcing certain aspects of traditional Japanese culture.

So what culture do the cheerleaders construct and reify? Many of the commenters on the linked websites viewed the cheerleaders as an irrelevant aspect of the football business model, something that could be done away with at no cost to the teams. While on a strictly financial level this might be true, it completely misses the importance of cheerleaders as signifiers of heirarchies in sport. They serve to show where football stands in the social hierarchy, who the cultural phenomenon of football serves and represents, who is welcome and who is not. This is why they have strict image requirements that reinforce the image of the available but chaste Southern Belle, and all signifiers of working class origins or alternative lifestyle are to be expunged. But they also serve to show where women stand in the heirarchy of football: women serve to watch and cheer, and only certain kinds of women are welcome. They signify the role of women as adornment for football and footballers, rather than active participants in a culture. In this sense they serve the same purpose as chainmail-bikini-warrior-women in role-playing: they tell women that they are not welcome here except as adornment, and set the terms on which women are allowed to engage in the hobby. But they play a further role than this in football, because these cheerleaders are required to attend fund-raising and social events on behalf of the team (including annual golf days!) and to entertain potential donors. The social guidelines linked to above primarily concern their behavior at these events. By selecting cheerleaders from a certain race and class background, training them to behave in a certain way and tightly controlling their behavior, the football team shows potential donors what type of organization they’re dealing with, and makes them feel comfortable that they are engaging with a certain type of culture. It projects an image of a sport where women know their place and take certain restricted service roles, and where a certain social order is maintained. These women serve as symbols of the expungement of any form of radicalism or uneasy ideas from the culture of football. This isn’t just a small point of etiquette: there are serious problems of bullying and hazing in football culture, and efforts to prevent and eliminate this culture of bullying will almost certainly have ramifications throughout the coaching and training system, and will require changes to the hierarchies of the whole system. The most obvious manifestation of this would be wholesale changes to the way the game is played: it currently has huge rates of brain injury by design, and the whole game will need to be changed to eliminate this risk. Positioning cheerleaders as the teams do reassures funders and supporters that change isn’t going to happen, through the public presentation of a cultural model that everyone secretly knows is frozen in a different time.

I think this is also why the teams don’t want to pay their cheerleaders even so much as minimum wage. A culture that pays women to perform is fundamentally different to a culture that not only expects them to do as they’re told, but to be ready to perform for free on demand. Cheerleaders, unpaid and carefully groomed for public consumption, are the mechanism by which a highly macho and bullying sports culture tells the world how it views women and what it expects women to do, as well as how it expects women to contribute to the sport. Far from being useless adornments, they play a key role in reproducing the macho and closed culture of the modern sport.

When viewed as creators and reinforcers of cultural norms, both AKB48 and these cheerleaders show the difficulties that women face when they want to work in a field where their beauty, femininity and social talents are recognized and appreciated. On the one hand they are underpaid, micromanaged and exploited; on the other hand they are enlisted in the service of reproducing or constructing important cultural norms, a service of huge value to both their employers, the culture they represent and society more broadly. But at the same time they are attempting to gain appreciation and respect through the performance of femininity, which is generally derided in the west as a trivial thing, and so cultural commentators do not take them seriously either as people or as a social force in their own right. This is why AKB48 are not taken seriously by westerners inside or outside of Japan, and why western commentators cannot understand their huge popularity or why they have taken Japan by storm; and this is why cheerleaders somehow managed to spend years slaving away for a misogynist sports culture, helping to reproduce its bullying and hierarchical cultural structures, without ever coming to the attention of a union organizer or labour rights lawyer.

This is the price women pay for enjoying and attempting to be appreciated for their own femininity, a concept that in the west carries huge importance for cultural representation and as a site of contestation and representation of power, but which is universally derided and dismissed as trivial and unimportant, or as some kind of silly and youthful fancy. When western cultural analysis wakes up to the power and importance of femininity within our own cultures, then perhaps the Lady Gagas and cheerleaders of this world will be taken seriously by those who should be defending their rights – and maybe after that, by those who are restricting their rights.

Horses have never really liked me ... this one has just caught on.

Horses have never really liked me … this one has just caught on.

Last week I was invited by collaborators to attend the Nomaoi horse festival in Minamisoma, Fukushima. This festival dates back 1000 years, to the warring states (sengoku) period, and appears to have arisen from some kind of training ritual. It was cancelled in the year of the Great East Japan Earthquake but has otherwise been held every year, even during the war (as far as I know). It is a big event for the towns of Soma and Minamisoma, and I and other collaborators were invited as guests of our local project collaborator. He arranged us excellent seats for all the events, souvenirs and a formal dinner, so overall it was an excellent event. It’s a major tourism event for the town, but it’s also clearly of huge importance for the town itself, with (I think) this year 504 horses and riders participating, and probably an equal number of footmen.

Summoning the beasts

Summoning the beasts

The ceremony lasts three days, but I only saw the second day. This day starts with a parade through town by the samurai, all mounted on their horses and wearing their ceremonial armour. They are arranged in groups according to their sponsors: the most important sponsors are the three shrines that are the focus of the day, but other groups – suburbs, companies, etc. – can also sponsor a squad. The squads are arranged in the style of the armies of old, with a general, colonels, etc. Higher orders wear flags on their backs, and ride ornately decorated horses. They stop at regular intervals along the parade to announce their purpose, and occasional small dramas of military life are played out (with comedic overtones) during these moments.

A peasant's last sight

A peasant’s last sight

This parade is surprising for the amount of activity it involves – in addition to general’s conferences, there are occasionally lieutenants charging up and down the line, drummers announcing the arrival of a new squad, announcements of names and faces over a loud-speaker, and occasional tumbles – I saw one man thrown from his horse, and the people opposite me nearly got run down. The riders are all ages and sexes and all classes – I saw one of my collaborators (an internal surgeon) on horseback, followed soon after by a heavily made-up girl who would probably be judged to be pretty low-class by the locals (I’m not a good judge of these things). Very elderly men rode by on plodding draught horses, followed by children on ponies. The trappings were largely traditional, with the stirrups, saddles and girth all apparently modeled on the ancient fashion. We’ll come back to that …

After the parade we returned, with military precision, to our base camp for a 10 minute rest, and then headed to the racecourse. Here, the braver warriors gathered to race each other around a 1000m circuit as a huge crowd watched. This racecourse would also be the venue for the final battle, so I was to spend several hours here in our covered tent, enjoying my obento lunchbox and my free beer, and watching warriors try to kill themselves.

The battleground and warriors in transit

The battleground and warriors in transit

I say “kill themselves” because the races were incredibly dangerous. I watched 6 races, with 6 participants per race, and out of the 36 participants identified the following events:

  • 3 fallen riders
  • 2 hospitalized riders
  • 4 escaped horses
  • 1 injured horse

Fun for all the family! The riders fell because they were hurtling around a tight track on horses without proper stirrups, with massive flags strapped to their backs. The horse fell because it tripped over its rider. No one was wearing a helmet. This is the most dangerous festival I have ever seen in Japan, by a long shot, and with an injury rate of 1 per 12 participants would have to be one of the most injury-prone sports I have ever seen. It was at times quite hideous to watch.

Finally after the races were (mercifully) finished we got to enjoy the final battle. This battle is a mad scramble to catch flags falling from the sky, in which all the (surviving) samurai gather in the centre of the racecourse and charge after the flags. The flags are, of course, hurled aloft by fireworks, shot out of a kind of mortar, that explode with a huge roar high above the gathered horses. Standing on the hillside, I could look behind me to some of the resting horses and see how they panic when the fireworks cracked. Horses and fireworks mix so well, why not start a battle with a massive explosion? And then do it 10 times? The warriors compete for 40 flags, fired into the air over 10 bouts. I left after 4 bouts, and in that time I saw two warriors fall from their horses – and when they landed they were still wrestling over the flag they had caught. Now that’s commitment …

Capture the flag, samurai style

Capture the flag, samurai style

This festival is a thoroughly engaging and entertaining event, well worth taking the opportunity to view. It’s edgy, exciting and historical, and everyone gathered there is really involved. I strongly recommend, if you’re in Japan at the end of July, making a trip to Minamisoma to experience this unique Japanese event. Just don’t participate if you value your life!

 

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