Sunday, April 04, 2010

Take my coach... please. (Nonsportsmanlike Conduct!)

Why aren't sports more fun?

Or, more to the point, why aren't the people who make their living playing games more fun?

I understand why some occupations may not want to seem too lighthearted. Patch Adams aside, I probably wouldn't want my doctor being too funny, at least not all the time. I don't want to be getting ready for surgery and hear my doctor cracking knock-knock jokes. (I actually don't ever want to hear anyone, really, tell a knock-knock joke, especially not around little kids, because little kids don't get the point of a knock-knock joke, and they'll just start making up dumb ones. They understand the structure of a knock-knock joke, but not the method, and so you'll sit through a bunch of dumb "jokes" if you dare to tell a knock-knock joke to a kid.)

As an aside, did you know that Shakespeare is generally credited with telling the first knock-knock joke? Or, rather, the first modern knock-knock joke. Here's an actual example of that first "modern" knock-knock joke, from Act 2, Scene 3 of Macbeth:

Knocking within Knock, knock, knock! Who's there, i' the name of Beelzebub? Here's a farmer, that hanged himself on the expectation of plenty: come in time; have napkins enow about you; here you'll sweat for't.

Hilarious! And also, that proves the point I made about so-called "classic" literature here.

The use of the word "modern" in the website that credited Shakespeare with inventing the "modern" knock-knock joke makes you, or at least me, wonder, was there an old-fashioned version of the knock-knock joke? One that Shakespeare modern-ed up?

It turns out there was, and I've found it, located in The Lost Books Of The Canterbury Tales, my upcoming book reimagining the "Canterbury Tales" as re-enacted by the current stars of Disney television shows. While that book doesn't actually exist... yet -- I'm sure someone will publish it next week-- what does exist is this version of the original, first-ever knock-knock joke:


Whof roameth the country and perchanceth to knof /
on the forport auf me cottage?

'Tis no-one other than myfelf, the young midwife residing in the farm
2 larks up the lane, bearing an egg for thee!

That one had the audiences laughing throughout the middle ages, but eggs were funnier back then.

Other occupations, too, can suffer when you try to inject a little humor into them. I once had a jury complain that I had told too many jokes during a trial. The trial lasted 3 days, and during that entire 3 days, I told one joke: After my opponent had written a bunch of numbers on a chalkboard during his argument to support their damage claims, I was erasing it before beginning my own closing argument, and I said to the jury, as I did so "I bet you didn't know there was a math portion to this trial."

That was it -- but 3 of the jurors later said they felt I was a little too lighthearted. (They ruled in our favor, so I didn't hold it against them.)

There are, then, occupations that rarely, if ever, should be the subject of levity or lightheartedness, but even those occupations can bear a little humor injected into them. NASA, for example: there's little room for error or joking when you're busy launching things that have to crash into other things, as NASA primarily does these days, but NASA finds the time for a little humor now and then, like when they named the Venus probe VOIR, or "voyeur," because it was going to spy on the Goddess Of Love...

... on second thought, maybe I'll go re-read that Canterbury Tale knock-knock joke again.

So all professions... except one... occasionally try their hand at a little levity. The sole exception is the one human occupation that would seem suited for hijinks: sports.

Is it because they play games for a living that people involved in professional sports generally carry themselves with a seriousness that would be overdone if Bono were to have invented a cure for cancer and been charged with personally explaining it to God? Again and again when I check into what's going on, sports-wise, I'm confronted with the fact that almost nobody in the world of professional, or amateur, athletes, has anything even remotely resembling a sense of humor.

The latest example of this is a man who, family legend has it, is my second- or third- cousin, or some relation to me: Coach K of the Duke Blue Devils. (Of course, my mom also claimed that we were descended from Davy Crockett, and I'm pretty sure he was a fictional character, so take that possible-relationship with a grain of salt.)

Mike Krzyzewski -- who spells his name the same way my grandfather did before my grandfather changed his name to avoid harassment by drill sergeants in World War II (ah, the Army, where collegiality is important and people must rely on each other like brothers, provided that the brothers can make harassing ethnic comments about each other!) -- yesterday had a hissy-fit over this:

A photo that, honestly, I think is kind of funny -- slur on my family (?) honor (?!) though it might be.

Cousin/Coach K didn't think it was funny: he thought, first, that it was harmful to his grandkids, who may or may not have seen the paper, since less than 30,000 were printed and they're all in the Indianapolis area, where I'm not sure any of Coach K's grandkids (who would be, what, my fourth cousins?) live. Coach K also thought it was juvenile -- that is, once he got done being flabbergasted that a paper could print such a picture of His Eminence:

"First thing I thought, 'That can't be...How could a newspaper do that? That's like somebody doodled. Actually, I thought I looked better. But it was kind of juvenile. Not kind of. Just juvenile. And my seven grandkids didn't enjoy looking at it. 'It's not Poppy.'... It is what it is. It's very juvenile."

It's juvenile, that's what it is -- way, way, way more juvenile than bouncing balls on a playground for a living. That is, you know, grown-up. Playing a game for a living -- or making your living off of unpaid kids playing a game for you, as Coach K does -- that's not juvenile. Drawing squiggles on the face of His Eminence is.

Among the things that apparently irked Coach K was that he was shown with devil horns in that picture.

To make sure you've got this straight, Coach K's team is the blue devils. He doesn't mind coaching a team whose mascot has horns, and is literally a devil. But he does mind if you draw blue devil horns on his picture -- when you should be bowing before that picture because Duke works hard and wins games. (So: "Depictions of what many people believe to be the incarnation of evil" = OK with Coach K; "doodling"= beyond the pale.)

Which they do; I'm sure the Duke players work hard and they win lots of games. But that's not the point; the point is that a lot of people dislike Duke. (I don't. I picked them in my bet with The Boy to win the NCAA Tournament, and I rooted for them last night against WVU.) Colin Cowherd made the exact same point earlier this week on his ESPN show, when he said that people hate Duke, and the Phillies and Yankees and USC, because they win.

Did Coach K take Cowherd to task for saying people hated Duke? If so, I missed the stories: Coach K appeared to let it slide that Colin Cowherd said people hated Duke... maybe because Cowherd didn't poke fun at His Eminence the way the Indy paper did?

Nah -- that wouldn't have anything to do with it, would it?

The Indy paper -- the Indianapolis Star -- has since apologized to Coach K. It was not immediately clear to me what they were apologizing for, since the article was about how people dislike Duke, and that's certainly true; have we now gotten to the point where the media is going to apologize for reporting news people don't like?

Then, in reading the actual apology, I got even more confused. The Star first apologized for the image:

The image was out of line. It ridiculed one of the best and most respected coaches in college basketball. Had we used the Blue Devil mascot, it may have been a different story, but using the coach's image was indefensible.

It was? It was indefensible to mark up a college basketball coach in a way that fans might, to make a point? Why can that not be defended? It might be decried as Perez-Hiltonesque, but is it really beyond defense for a newspaper to doodle on a photo of Coach K?

The paper then muddies up the water more:

It represented only one aspect of the story while ignoring the other -- the incredible success of Duke basketball.

Well, wasn't that the point of the story? The paper wasn't running a story about Duke's basketball in general; in that kind of story, a well-balanced discussion of the pros and cons of Duke-ball might be warranted. But that wasn't the story they ran. They ran a story about people disliking Duke ... which made the point about their success, at best, tangential to the story.

The mixed-apologies highlight what really bugged Coach K: it was his depiction and the fact that the story didn't pay enough obeisance to him that made him demand an apology. (Well, that and the fact that his grandkids hypothetically might have been confused because "It's not Poppy." It's all about protecting children. Coach K's grandchildren in particular.)

What bugs me about that -- aside from the negative light it casts on my family (C'mon, Coach -- you're hurting my reputation with your spoilsport attitude!) -- is that it demonstrates not just the hubris that comes with being a moderately successful camp counselor -- that's what a college basketball coach is, after all: he's a camp counselor for an elite group of young adults -- but also demonstrates that sports have no sense of humor.

It's next to impossible to laugh in and about sports -- Bill Simmons' painful diatribes about the Patriots notwithstanding -- without getting someone or something mad at you.

The problem exists in sports: The NFL cracks down on celebrations and jokes: Why can't Chad Ochocinco wear a sombrero on the sideline and pretend to slip a dollar to a ref to rule his way on a replay? It's okay to do a Lambeau Leap, but not okay to wear a sombrero? Aren't both a little celebration of the fun it is to be a grown man playing a kids' game and getting paid millions to do it?

The NFL, though, thinks otherwise: It'll let you play if you hang a dog until it dies, it'll let you go on the field if you run a man down while drinking and driving, but it'll fine you if you pretend to hand an official a dollar.

Keep in mind that the NFL will fine you if you pretend that you're going to cheat, as Chad Ochocinco did, but if you actually cheat, you'll get off with just a slap on the wrist: Bill Belicheat was fined $500,000 for cheating his way through a bunch of Super Bowls, while OchoCinco was fined (among other things) $20,000 for the dollar bill joke and $5,000 for once wearing an orange chin strap. (And $30,000 for the sombrero joke.)

So the NFL doesn't care if you think the Super Bowl is rigged -- but you'd better not laugh during a game (or wear an orange chin strap), because this is serious business.

The NFL, remember, cracked down on other kinds of celebrations that migh have been fun, too, and has long been called the "No fun league," a play on their acronym that I'm sure they'll fine me for mentioning.

Instead of humor in sports -- instead of Favre singing "Pants on the ground" and Mark Sanchez eating a hot dog on the sidelines during a game (Sanchez apologized for being hungry), we get celebrations (?) of solemnity and anger: Bill Belicheat is lionized, despite his videotaping, because he's serious, he's all business. You almost never see a coach smile on the sidelines during a game -- even though they've got a life that involves telling people how to play a game, and then getting the best seat in the house for every game their team plays.

God forbid owners have any fun, either: The Titans' owner got excited, and had a little fun, when his team beat My Buffalo Bills this past year, flipping the "double bird" at Bills' fans. My reaction: chill out, old man: Your team is still terrible. The league's reaction? Fine him a quarter-million bucks. (The owner, Bud Adams, apologized, too.)("Flipping the bird," a boisterious reaction some people have in the spirit of the moment, always generates a fine and apology in the NFL, as Jets' Coach Rex Ryan can tell you.)

True, not everything someone says in the world of sports is funny -- Bruce Pearl's joking about rural Tennesseeans wearing Klan robes is an example of a not funny joke that deserves to not be heard. (I don't place much stock in apologies -- maybe Bruce could, instead of apologizing, fund a scholarship or two for rural Tennesseans to attend his school?) And Tony Kornheiser appears to have set out to corner the market in jokes-that-are-beyond-bad taste: He made a stupid reference to spanish-speaking people being servants on Monday Night Football, and then urged drivers to run over bicyclists in the road. (Tony apologized to Lance Armstrong for that one, Lance Armstrong apparently being the designated representative for all bikers in the world... even though he only rides on roads that have been closed to traffic.)

Still, even Tony shouldn't have had to apologize for his (stupid but true) joke about Hannah Storm, when he said:

"She looks like she has sausage casing wrapping around her upper body ... I know she's very good, and I'm not supposed to be critical of ESPN people, so I won't ... but Hannah Storm ... come on now! Stop! What are you doing? ... She's what I would call a Holden Caulfield fantasy at this point."

It was that comment -- not the racist or threatening remarks, that got Kornheiser suspended (briefly.)

One of the outfits that prompted that joke is this one:

Hannah's on the left, wearing an outfit that would get her kicked out of Catholic school, or kicked into a Britney Spears video.

Other sports-related jokes, jokes which may or may not be funny to you, don't require an apology. Fox Sports apologized for a cartoon skit which made fun of Jessica Simpson's weight issues. I don't recall any other media outlet apologizing for reporting on that "controversy." (I thought she looked fine, although the pants were ugly.) But sports reporters were forced to apologize... because there's no humor in sports.

That's why you can't mimic Pete Sampras' walk or claim he's a lousy tipper, Andre Agassi -- because sports aren't about fun. (Agassi apologized, naturally.)

Off the field, we still let sports have a little fun, provided it's the right kind of fun. Brett Favre can making fun of his indecisiveness, if Sears pays him to do it. Peyton Manning, who on the field appears to be under Skynet's control, has a comfortable jocularity in ads that make fun of him, too, as a kind of clueless, amiable guy. And privately, sports can poke fun at themselves if they don't let you watch it:

But if you make fun of sports, instead of sports making fun of themselves, you'll be shunned. That's why nobody liked it when Pete Rose wrote his apology on a baseball, and why nobody liked it even more... or less?... when they put an asterisk on Barry Bond's record-breaking (but not record-setting) baseball.

And, Indianapolis Star, you probably should have guessed that if writing on baseballs was forbidden, drawing on Coach K's portrait would be forbidden-er. And we all should have known that Coach K would not have seen the humor in a doodled-up version of himself, because when there's nothing fun-and-games about the mentality of men and women who make their living in the world of fun-and-games.

No comments: