June 24, 2007

Doping and Professional Athletics

Posted in Culture at 7:26 pm by ndsmith

This is an issue that I have thought about for a long time. When I was a developing swimmer, I remember the clean-up in the IOC over doping in swimming and other Olympic sports. Now the fruits of baseball’s inglorious rise to prominence in the late ’90’s are coming to term: Sammy Sosa passed the 600 home runs mark and Barry Bonds is closing in quickly on Hank Aaron’s record. However, I had not crystallized an opinion on this one until Boston’s sports guru Dan Shaughnessy recently wrote an article that prompted my thinking.

Sports columnists are paid good money to state opinions and stir up discussion. What is more, Shaughnessy was in good company when he roundly criticized Bonds as a “cheater” and someone unworthy of the all-time home run crown: Bonds received a horrid reception at Fenway, so far he has gotten a split decision in press coverage and an icy response from Commish Selig and even the great Aaron. And Shaughnessy has a way with words. The first paragraph reads:

Here he is, ladies and gentlemen, Barry Bonds — No. 25 in your program, No. 2 on the all-time home run list, and a Big Zero in the hearts of those who love baseball and its most cherished records.

The “moral” stand on this issue and the romanticism of a earlier time that comes with it are compelling and tough to criticize without looking like a libertine or a relativist. But I think this is the wrong way to go; this is the wrong stand to take. Shaughnessy is tentatively aware of the weakness of his own argument, inserting this admission at the end of a list of the many sins of baseball’s doped-up era:

And those of us in the press box celebrated the home run chase of ’98 without challenging its authenticity.

Despite the fact that Shaughnessy is forced to append such an admission to the end of a harangue of Bond’s moral right to the home run crown, he does not see the implications of his own thinking. What he says is that, in effect, the steroids issue is systemic, it arose because of the complacency of the sport’s oversight bodies and the capability of science, technology and money to determine athletic competition. This is the present state of affairs. Although only anecdoctal, I believe that doping was and is pervasive is some sports. I have heard that an acquaintance of mine who achieved a measure of success in professional cycling on the fringes of the Europeans circuit has said that at a certain level “everyone was doping.” A more universal story, perhaps, is told in one of Oliver Stonde’s better films, Any Given Sunday. At least as Stone tells the story, every measure of medical technology is routinely imposed on athletes in order to increase performance. This state of affairs lends to his depiction of the locker room as a cross between triage and manufacturing. Once he sets this scene, it is no great leap from the routine sorts of medical intervention (cortisone, pain killers, etc.) to banned substances.

There is no argument about whether or not we should stringently test professional and competitive amateur athletes and we should strive to eradicate the doping infrastructure from athletics. The problem is that when we make Barry Bonds the icon of our disapproval with the current state of affairs in professional sports, we are, in effect, punishing the most exemplary player of a certain era as a token of our disapproval of that era. Even though Big Pappi got himself in a bit of trouble for his generous appraisal of Bonds, I think he had it right when he said that no amount of steroids can give you a pure left-handed swing like Bonds’ (and Pappi is one who could judge). Barry Bonds has always been a pure hitter. How many home runs belong to steroids and how many came from his natural talent is a subject for academic debate. But why boo the guy who just happened to be the best at what a lot of guys were doing and what a lot of other guys were happy not to know too much about?

April 22, 2007

Ira Socol on Virginia Tech

Posted in Culture, Higher Education at 6:07 am by ndsmith

This is a nice commentary on some of the reaction to the recent tragedy at VT by Ira Socol who is better known for his work on higher education for people with disabilities. His commentary points out some of the problems already beleaguering University mental health care systems and suggests that “cracking down” on students exhibiting mental health problems will exacerbate them.

link. Also see this article from the perspective of a forensic psychologist.

Infant death rates rise in South

Posted in Culture at 4:00 am by ndsmith

Remember the old days when people used to say that Katrina had awakened us to race consciousness and particularly the links between race, poverty and vulnerability to natural disaster in the US South. Today the NY Times is reporting that infant death rates, defined as deaths in children in the first year of life, is again on the rise: from 9.7 per one-thousand in 2004 to 11.4 this year. The rates are even more dramatic for the Black population. Not only is the thought of more babies dying intuitively disparaging, but the infant mortality rate is really a bell-weather of the health of the general population.

Obesity and its accompanying health risks are thought to be major factors, and the Times reports that few women seek prenatal care for reasons of both money and motivation.

link.

March 18, 2007

Oh my!!

Posted in Culture, Leisure, Life, Politics at 2:35 am by ndsmith

Ladies and gentlemen, yesterday was the last Ride the Fire Eagle Danger Day. And if you don’t know what that means, then you must find out… now… here (it’ll only take a few minutes). And in addition to knowledge filling you in on what’s new, you will see animations, power moves, bits of the ORG, an intro broadcast from Hawaii…. and Jack Black, reporting the weather… from inside. All I can say is it’s fluorescent…. or was that evanescent. 🙂 Aaahhh…. it just makes me feel good inside.

March 9, 2007

Nacirema

Posted in Culture, Life at 5:30 am by ndsmith

I’ve been meaning to post about my great-uncle Neil, but I just never get around to it… Until I was motivated today after I pulled off the bookshelf a collection of articles that had been given to me via my grandfather, with the title Nacirema (wikipedia). I had an inkling about what the name might mean, but when I read the Introduction, it read like a real collection of scholarly articles on American cultural anthropology. In fact, Neil writes the final article, “The Mysterious Fall of the Nacimeran: This Vigorous Culture’s Obsession with Altering its Land and Waterways May Have Caused its own Death,” written in 1972 (I was delighted to have found the article online–hence the link). Put down your Harry Potter and read this article–it is wonderfully illuminating.

Over the last two years, as both of my maternal grandparents passed away, I had the unexpected good fortune of discovering a previously unknown family relative: Neil Baird Thomspon, a former professor of American Studies at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. He died prematurely of cancer in 1977. An intellectual and a man with vision, he took his illness as an opportunity not only to prepare the manuscript on which he was working, and which would be published two years after his death, but to prepare his own “humanistic” funeral. There is a surviving audio tape of the funeral that I have not heard; but I am told that in the car on the way back from Minnesota, I (a year and a half old) uttered my first word: wa-ter.

The book was completed by a colleague who wrote “In Memoriam” that “Because Neil was a careful and complete craftsman, his drafts and notes eased the final work of publication.” I cannot imagine much higher a complement to be paid. When I received a copy from my aunt last year, I read it with the enthusiasm of meeting someone I had longed to meet. There are many wonderful features of the book, but most of all its careful, concise and measured prose made reading it a joy.

The Foreword describes the book as “a vivid portrayal of the events which transpired during the Indian Wars Campaign following the Civil War and services performed by that relatively small Regular Army force engaged in securing the western plains for occupation and settlement by the white man.” More than anything, it is a meditation on the real life situation (‘on the ground’ as we say today) of the American footsoldier. Its title, Crazy Horse Called Them Walk-A-Heaps, expresses much of Thompson’s final assessment in a few, poignant words. Published in 1979, it provides a well-developed complement to, for instance, Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970). Using the Battle of Little Bighorn as its guiding point, it supplements that pioneering work on the Native American realities of the great plains wars with an equally sensitive portrayal of the American footsoldier himself.

Like any good historical account, Thompson’s study of the Regular Army has as much to teach us today about the politics of war as it teaches us to distrust our romantic visions of the past. Indeed, it seems that the United States was singularly unprepared to undertake its mission of securing the west from the “ravages” of the “lawless” Native Americans. The Regular Army was a rag-tag force of Civil War veterans, foreign recruits and vagabonds. They were underfunded, ill-prepared, inappropriately supplied and their various forts and encampments were only loosely connected. Meanwhile, the political establishment and the media back east kept the populous woefully ignorant of the real status of the ongoing conflict. In concluding a chapter called, “The Hydra-headed Monster: The Nation’s Interests and the Army,” Thompson writes:

Two of a kind, those–the soldier and the Indian. Disliked, feared, treated with contempt, they were kept from an intimate relationship by ambiguities, animosities and the greediness of those people who created the murky situation in which they were the primary pawns. And so the trooper and the warrior fought and killed each other while developing hatreds to last more than a lifetime.

Neil Thompson, like his brother (my grandfather), was a WWII GI and a devoted soldier. He does not bring to his analysis any a priori distain for war or soldiers. Just the opposite, his assessment of the R.A. soldier is admiring and illuminating. He sees the soldiers as victims of a bureaucratic tangle, brought about by greed for expansion to the west and an army that was unfit to fight a war over such a vast landscape, against a superbly trained guerrilla warrior. As the previous quotation makes clear, he extended the same respect and empathic perspective to the Native American warriors. For them, Thompson observers, horsemanship and the ability to navigate the landscape were simply part of life: “the lifestyle of the horse Indian produced a superior fighting man. His value system, his concept of logistics, his use of the horse, his tactical sense, his medical knowledge, all contributed to make the warrior.”

A chapter called “Gentlemen by Act of Congress: The Officer’s Corps” describes how the American soldier, though undertrained and underequiped, rose to the occasion of the war. Despite woeful conditions and a lack of funds, these soldiers made the most of it. Select officers who possessed innate military acumen adapted to the style of warfare waged by the Native Americans to some effect. Almost more remarkably, however, Thompson records impressive scientific observations of the topography, flora and fauna of the western plains carried out by officers. One developed into what Thompson calls a “litterateur,” writing some 86 novels, while others preserved a more modest body of information about paleontology or weather.

No, there was nothing reprehensible about the American soldier; and there remains a wealth of reasons to ponder over what we lost with the deaths of so many American Indians… It was simply the war itself, the policy that governed it and the way in which it was executed that made that period such a morally bleak era in American history.

In fact, Thompson is quite clear that the stated policy of expansion was hardly advanced by this foolhearty war. Indeed, it seems that white settlement, the railroads, disease and the destruction of the buffalo were the real reasons for the annihilation of the Native American civilization. In fact, the most positive outcome of the great war in the plains was that it readied an outdated and aging military for the wars of the twentieth century.

One can only conclude that the R.A. was really a quite minor factor in the “civilizing” of our last frontier. We can surmise that the men who faced the Indian Campaigns, risked life and limb against some of the finest light cavalry the world had ever seen, finally learned what it took to make a modern army. Those hard lessons finally forced that army into being.

As I mentioned at the outset, the book was posthumously edited and published. Though I believe the argument is complete and the writing certainly fluid, I wonder what more uncle Neil may have had to say. As it stands, the book seems to end abruptly. But the last few paragraphs portend wonderful insights:

Given such a slap-dash organization, the history of the Indian Campaigns could be little more than the series of ill-managed episodes that it was…. The Old Army was a grand spectacle–of individuals. It certainly was not a grand army. the historian finds it difficult to call it an army at all.

One wonders how he would have understood this claim in light of the broader identity and development of a nation of frontierspeople. A nation, as his tongue-and-cheek “Nacirema” article suggests, that is so driven by consumption and its desire to alter its environment that it would someday (gasp!) bring about its own demise.