Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Address Change

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Tuesday, November 22, 2022

The World Cup of Critical Thinking

For an atheist who does not care about religions, of which organized sports is also one, I do keep track of major religious events.  Like the soccer World Cup.

Why bother with something that I do not care about?

As I wrote in my commentary that was published on June 13, 2010, against the backdrop of the World Cup twelve years ago: "A sport is, thus, more than merely about the game itself.  It presents yet another opportunity to begin to understand the peoples of the world, and their cultures and politics."

To understand the people, their cultures and politics.  Best exemplified already by the Iranian team's response to their national anthem--they intentionally did not sing along and instead kept their mouths tightly shut as "an apparent show of solidarity on the world's biggest stage with the human rights protest movement that has swept their home country."  It is not merely a soccer team, is it?

Oh, and Iran lost to England. Note that Iran did not lose to the United Kingdom but to England. 

Meanwhile the US tied with Wales. 

Aren't England and Wales part of the UK?  How come they field separate teams? 

Aha, I have left you with more evidence that the soccer World Cup is a lot more than merely kicking the ball with the feet, unless god's hand intervenes, right?

The following is my commentary from June 2010:

How Soccer Explains the World

While India and China seem to be in the news all the time when it comes to economic matters, their noticeable absence from the World Cup tournament in South Africa might be obvious even to those who are not sports junkies.

With a combined population of about 2.5 billion, China and India account for almost two-fifths of the humans on the planet, and yet their teams did not make it to South Africa.  This is not merely the result of the preliminary rounds that determine the qualifiers for the tournament, but might be a reflection of the respective sociopolitical ethos as well.

When the Olympics were held in Beijing last summer, it was clear that China had morphed into a sports power.  Chinese athletes earned the most gold medals—51—but, the United States beat China in the aggregate medal count by ten.  This rapid rise in Olympics was triggered by the Chinese government’s extensive investment in facilities and athletes themselves.

It also turns out that political decisions to invest in sports mean that there is a lot more attention paid to individual performances—such as gymnastics or diving.  Team sports require a lot more planning and coordination at various levels, and are not amenable to delivering quick results.  Further, a football—er, soccer—team, for instance, is simply more than a mere collection of eleven players on the field, and is a wonderful illustration of the philosophical notion that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.  The net result is that China did not get past the third round of the qualifiers for this World Cup. 

The US offers quite a contrast to the Chinese approach in that there is no formal government investment in sports, including football, and expenses are met primarily through sponsorships and endorsements.  The extensive network of youth soccer programs has been slowly and steadily developing quality players and the US soccer teams are no longer taken for granted.

India has neither the Chinese approach to sports, nor does it have an American style bottom-up grassroots structure.  But, it is not because the Indian population or government is indifferent to sports.  For instance, later this year, in October, India will be hosting the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, and the government spending for it has generated immense controversy. 

Whether it is the Olympics or football, India does not suffer a shortage of television viewership either.  Millions, like my high school friend who lives in Chennai, even re-arrange their schedules in order to keep up with the telecasts from abroad.  But, this passion is not reflected in the results on the field—at the Beijing Olympics, India won one gold and two bronzes for a grand total of three medals. 

Such a situation is not a result of the attention on that other great game—cricket.  After all, teams from countries with significantly lesser population, like Australia or Sri Lanka, often humble the Indian cricket team.  And in field hockey, which is another popular sport in the Subcontinent, teams from the tiny Netherlands routinely rout the Indians.  In soccer, India’s team lost to Lebanon in the first round of the qualifiers.  It turns out that a billion people do not make a sports powerhouse!

A reason that is offered more often than not—even during my childhood years—is that the Indian culture advocates contentment.  Hence, the lack of a “killer instinct” that is needed to push oneself to be a winner in sports. 

As much as it is tempting to buy into this explanation, Sweden offers quite a comparison.  The Swedish folks, after all, have their own word for moderation—“lagom”.  “Lagom” is a way of life that emphasizes individual and social attributes such as enough, sameness, and average.  However, this has not precluded the Swedes from excelling in individual or collective activities. 

A sport is, thus, more than merely about the game itself.  It presents yet another opportunity to begin to understand the peoples of the world, and their cultures and politics.  Yet, if the game of soccer does not grab one’s attention, I suggest the following books as summer readings—“Soccer and Philosophy” and “How Soccer Explains the World.”

Fouls left to give

Every game has its own quirky rules.  American football has plenty of those.  Cricket is nothing but one quirky rule after another.  If one does not grow up playing the sport, explaining the rules of the game to a newbie can be extremely complicated.  Have you ever attempted explaining soccer's "offside" rule to one who has no idea about the game?

Remember how Calvin invented his own games?  Calvin had loads of fun inventing his own games and playing them--and it seemed like he never played the same game twice because he was always creating new rules, if not new games.  Like here, for instance:

Once you step outside your fanatical interest in any particular sport, you immediately realize that all those are nothing but variations of Calvinball.  If you are not convinced that it is all Calvinball rules, try explaining, for instance, the rules of cricket to a third generation Cubs fan, or the rules of American football to a maniacal Arsenal hooligan!

Some Calvin in the past came up with a game.  A couple of buddies were the Hobbes.  They played and had fun.  A couple more kids wanted in. Soon, these kids became adults and indoctrinated their kids into the game.

At some point, kids stopped coming up with their own Calvinballs.  I suspect it is not because kids are no longer creative, but it is because adults preclude the creation of Calvinballs by teaching them the bizarre Calvinball rules of other games. We make Calvinball even worse.  As we grow older, we are even keen on paying others to play Calvinball.  And we pay them gazillions of dollars.  Instead of getting dirty and tired from playing our own Calvinballs, we pay to watch tennis players, and basketballers, and footballers, and golfers play.  One of the most remarkably stupid things that we humans could have ever come up with.

Even worse, we want players to win at any cost.  In sport and in politics, we Americans and many in the rest of the world too have decided that winning is the only thing, even if it means to bend the rules as much as we can.  Fair play is apparently for losers!

Fair play has always been important to me and that carries over to every aspect of my life, whether it was at work from which I was laid off a year ago, or with family and friends.  To such an extent that I walk away from people--colleagues and family alike--if they sharply deviate from fair play and express no regrets over their actions.

Fourteen years ago--yes, in 2008--I authored a commentary on fair play and sportsmanship.  As you settle down to watch the soccer world cup that is played in an authoritarian emirate, or the college football playoffs that add millions of dollars to a select few, keep an eye out on the total lack of sportsmanship and you will be shocked at the barbarians that these games make out of humans.

Here is my commentary from May 27, 2008:

Flicking through the television channels the other day, I paused at a basketball playoff game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Utah Jazz, which was such a close one that it eventually was settled in overtime. 

The commentator made interesting remarks that are quite the norm in such contexts, analyzing who was in foul trouble and how many fouls each team had “left to give.” 

Fouls left to give? There is no more talk of sports promoting sportsmanship, camaraderie and cooperation. Instead, it is about “fouls left to give” until players are ejected. 

Increasingly, fouls and penalties are no longer results of players’ accidents or mistakes. Coaches and players systematically exploit this as a loophole with the sole intention of restricting the opponent’s performance. 

It is not uncommon to see a basketball player intentionally grabbing an opposing team’s player if that will prevent a sure two points. 

It is so often used against Shaquille O’Neal that we now have the sports jargon, “hack-a-Shaq.” A football cornerback might commit pass interference if it appears that without that penalty the wide receiver might coast into the end zone for a touchdown. 

The manner in which fans respond to these fouls indicates that they, too, see it as legitimate maneuvering. 

I wonder, then, if involvement in athletics might end up doing more harm than good. What will children learn if their coach teaches them to grab the player in order to prevent an opponent from scoring? Is the lesson to focus on winning at any cost, fully understanding that they have “fouls to give”? 

It is bizarre that we have zero-tolerance policies in educational settings, even as we could instruct the same children that they have “fouls to give” on the playground. 

It is no stretch to argue that this notion of “fouls to give” is becoming common in society. 

The havoc that Enron brought upon its employees, shareholders and the rest of the world was nothing but a reflection of its decision-makers’ thinking that their transgressions were within their “fouls to give.” Professionals advise corporations on how to exploit loopholes in the law — a variation of fouls to give. 

Political campaigning is along the same lines: Candidates or their surrogates intentionally commit fouls, then pay appropriate penalties and carry on, because, hey, that is how the game is played. 

As an academic concerned about more than mere curricular issues, I am always perturbed when students and colleagues commit fouls. You can, therefore, imagine my sheer delight with the recent softball incident in a game between Central Washington University and Western Oregon University, where I teach. 

In case you missed that news item: A lot was at stake because the winner of that game qualified for the regionals. With two on base, at the plate was a diminutive graduating Western senior who had never homered in her life. She hit her first home run ever, then badly injured her knee at first base while making her way around the bases. 

Two fielders from Central carried her around the bases, which counted as a home run for Western. The gregarious Central team went on to the lose the game, while Western moved on to the regionals, and won the first round there, too.

It was a remarkable story of sportsmanship and offered an absolute contrast to the “fouls to give” calculations that are otherwise the norm. 

In the spirit of using athletics to forge a greater sense of humanity, imagine the following scenario, which might sound as if it is coming from another planet. Well, given that I am from India, it might well be an alien thought! 

The next academic year, when the Oregon Ducks play hosts to Pac-10 football teams at the loud and boisterous Autzen Stadium, it will almost always be a midday or late afternoon game. That means that there will be ample time for the Ducks to play a different type of host again: to sit down with the visiting team and have dinner after the game. The bands from the host and visiting teams can play a few numbers as entertainment for the evening. 

An outrageous idea, I realize. But what a powerful message it can convey, particularly to the youth! The university even can make a fundraiser out of this, splitting the proceeds with the visiting teams.

It would be a huge step in the right direction. The focus, after all, is on the common cause of developing one’s skills and learning and playing the game to one’s fullest. I can easily imagine that such an attitude will quickly lead to players and spectators alike relearning the forgotten idea that there is no place for “fouls to give.”

In my book, nice guys never finish last, but are winners all the time.