Thursday, May 22, 2014

They Say A Hero Can Save Us

Mmm, soak in that Chad Kroeger lyric inspired title
"Hate to see my hero @chriscairns168 getting his name dragged through the mud. Backing you all the way Cairnsy! #innocentuntilprovenguilty" That's a tweet from my personal Twitter account from the 10th of February this year. This was on the back of allegations of match fixing directed at Chris Cairns, which he was vehemently fighting against. The part of the tweet that intrigues me the most is the term 'hero'. Now, it's easy to see why Chris Cairns would be looked up to amongst the  New Zealand sporting community and particularly myself. Cairns was our best all rounder since Richard Hadlee and contributed some of the most memorable performances with the silver fern. His 102 against India to win New Zealand its only limited overs trophy thus far as well as his 7/27 against the West Indies to win us the test, comes to mind. It was not only these performances that endeared him to me but also his character. I will always remember injured Chris Cairns coming out  at number eleven to bat with Nathan Astle to put on 118 against England and almost winning us the test. While Astle scored an amazing 222, it is Cairns that stood out to me, trying to do all he could to win for his country. Cairns was not only a hero on the field. In 1993, his sister Louise was tragically struck down by a train. Chris remained strong and even honoured her by walking more than 1000kms to promote rail safety awareness. It's clear to see I hold a lot of adoration for Chris Cairns. Heck, I even went against the rule of meeting your heroes and now his signature is on my Beige Brigade shirt hung in my pool room along with the memories of a nice guy. So here's a guy who is talented at a sport I love, has overcome adversity and in my experiences is an affable character, is it any wonder that he's someone I would aspire to be like and dub a hero? These feelings are what has made this weeks accusations by Lou Vincent and Brendon McCullum that Cairns approached them to fix matches with him, all the more crushing. Imagine your hero being a cheat and bringing down every idea you had of them. While of course, he is innocent until proven guilty and I hope the allegations are refuted, this made me think. Did Chris Cairns ever ask to be my hero? Of course not. He was simply doing his job, yet so often sports stars are dubbed heroes and saddled with expectations. This has led me to explore the idea of the sports star as a hero and whether this is fair or not. Heroes are a constant within sports. Heck, even right now I have a ridiculous amount of worship for that beautiful Welsh man Aaron Ramsey for scoring the winning goal that gave Arsenal it's first title in over nine years.
I never doubted you, Rambo. Fiiiine, maybe a little bit.

There is of course the debatable idea of what constitutes a hero. Christopher Reeve, who portrayed the infallible hero of Superman claimed that a hero is "an ordinary individual who finds strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles". This definition fits in well with sports because of the narratives I alluded to in my last blog. With the media always seeking to create a narrative, there is always the ability to overcome something, whether it be physical injury, return from suspension, a tough background etc. Mark Twain provides what I would say is a great description for why we admire these people as he said "Unconsciously we all a standard by which we measure other men, and if we examine closely we find that this standard is a very simple one, and is this: we admire them, we envy them, for great qualities we ourselves lack. Hero worship consists in just that".
Now that's a moustache-pipe combo that you can worship
This makes total sense for my devotion and now despair for Chris Cairns. The admiration for being great and skilled at something I loved, leaves a clear path for hero worship. But is it fair? As aforementioned, are these athletes not just doing their jobs? Is it fair to think of them as some kind of infallible hero just because they're in the public spotlight? This mode has allowed for disappointment after disappointment. Take for example, Oscar Pistorious. Someone I personally admired for his story. An amputee from eleven months old, who doesn't accept being restricted to paralysed events and becomes the first amputee to compete in able bodied competition and even in the 2012 London Olympics. A phenomenal story of perseverance, hard work and not accepting restrictions placed upon you, that anyone could learn from. Fast forward less than a year from his appearance at the Olympics and Pistorious is found to have shot his girlfriend dead. While sanity and motive are questioned in current trials, it is undeniable that a hero was lost to many that day. To less shoot-y experiences, my own with Brendon McCullum come to mind. I still remember it vividly. A fresh faced twelve year old boy asks the BlackCaps wicketkeeper how he differentiates the Marshall twins and is ridiculed for his pre-pubescent voice, until Stephen Fleming tells him to stop being a dick (still got love for you Flem).  In an instant, someone who I admired and who's autograph I wanted, became a dick who insulted pre-teens. This is my first memory of a hero disappointing me and formed a grudge that was only erased by him becoming the first New Zealander to score a test triple century. 
299 and we've still got beef, buddy
I realise this makes me sound cynical beyond my twenty one years (being a BlackCaps and Arsenal fan between 2004 and last Sunday will contribute to this), deriding the idea of allowing sports stars to be your heroes but this my recent disappointment has allowed me to follow the thinking of Noam Chomsky. He stated "I don't feel we should set people up as 'models'; rather actions, thoughts, principles". While I have focussed on the negative and the disappointments, there are still plenty of sports stars who are not only great on their field but off it as well. Type 'JJ Watt' into google and find a young man, who is the best at his position but won't buy extravagant items in fear of his mother's chagrin. A man who will make special visits to bullied children to be their friends, who will fake propose to a six year old, who is sad that she cannot marry him. Here's a man who's actions demand recognition and admiration. Russell Wilson is another. Trawl through his Instagram and find multiple pictures of his weekly visits to Seattle Children's Hospital, fresh off winning the grandest achievement in his sport, in just his second year. Even within Seattle, Richard Sherman is another who is a worthy role model. Brought up in Compton, he fought against the stereotypes to turn to gang violence, graduates from Stanford and becomes one of the best corner backs in the NFL. Yet the media labels him a 'thug' for passion in the heat of the moment after performing the biggest moment in his career. A man who rose from the ghetto to become an articulate role model, advertising those of similar upbringings to not accept being boxed into societal norms.

Don't try him with weak ass media stereotypes
So what should be taken from this whole ordeal? Should we no longer pursue sports stars as heroes? Of course not. Perhaps the hero title should be dropped. Yet there are still many that perform actions that demand admiration and the title of role model, even if they receive less media attention than their wrongdoing counter parts. Instead, this admiration should be taken with a grain of salt. Sports stars are still human and are prone to mistakes, so you have to be comfortable with the idea that while they will bring you great joy, they may also disappoint you. But this is what makes sports great, is it not? The idea of the unpredictable, riding the highs and slumming with the lows and if we can accept that from sport than there's no reason that we can't accept that from those that play it. I want to leave you with a quote from someone who I still call a role model, that has resonated with me this week. Someone who has always acted with integrity on and off the field and come back from injury to be better than before. "When you are chided for your naivete, and you will be, remind your critics that an amateur built the ark. Experts built the Titanic"- Peyton Manning.
This cat is a hero that will never let me down

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Spectacle of Sport

Well I haven't done this in far too long but since I'm now a graduate (wooo!) and don't have much intellectual stimulation in my job, I thought I'd attempt to bring this back as a means of creative output. Topics can often be tough for things like this but I decided to go for a basic premise: my love of sport and its spectacle. Predominantly, people are drawn to things they excel at. Now I would never say that I am good at sport. I've never been the fastest or the most co-ordinated but I suppose every dog has his day (mine being a hat trick for the Metro under 10s, taking 5-15 when I was fourteen and batting three hours to save a game for the second XI) but I would in no way say that I am athletically gifted. What then draws me to spend hours every day reading about various sports from cricket to football to American football? The answer is the spectacle. Sport is a brilliant vehicle for unpredictable outcomes, unknowns becoming heroes, and endless passion. Sport is an international language that leads a young adult from New Zealand to form an association with people in London and Denver through my allegiance to Arsenal and the Broncos respectively. It can be understood and enjoyed by all, young to old such as myself and my grandfather. It is not race dependant nor is it exclusive but instead all encompassing. The unpredictability draws us together and it is two particular recent events that have made me think about this. One is the just completed 2014 NFL Draft and the other is the final day of the English Premier League due to finish overnight New Zealand time.

Me being average at sports since ages ago
My foray into American football is a recent development but it is quickly becoming my favourite sport. I have always loved statistics which is what endeared cricket to me despite my utter ineptitude at maths (I'm noticing a theme here. Note to self: start doing things that you're actually good at, ya dumbass). While cricket has averages, strike rates and the like, American football has yards per carry, yards per attempt, yards after the catch, I could really go all night but the just of it is that it is a statistician's dream. The NFL also provides some of the greatest sporting spectacle you can find in the world. The Super Bowl is an event watched worldwide even if the majority do not understand what they are watching. The draft is the epitomy of the spectacle that the NFL provides. Literally bright lights, cameras and the Radio City Music Hall in New York to select players out of college (what am I doing with my life again?). All of this but no actual physical activity! Yet plenty of what attracts people to sport: narrative.
Oooh flashy
These are young men reaching their dreams so the narratives are plentiful. Will the young, athletically talented man from the poor background be able to support his family is the prevalent narrative but this year threw out some interesting ones. When would the ridiculously talented but questionable character Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M be drafted? Would the first openly gay NFL prospect Michael Sam be drafted? Well firstly there was the struggle with Johnny. After sitting there sipping water for twenty one picks filled with close up after close up, Johnny Football was selected by the Cleveland Browns with the twenty second pick.
Mmm, bet you wish that wasn't just water huh, Johnny?
Will it be a good pick or will Johnny be another quarterback fail in Cleveland? This is surely a narrative that will be brought up for every one of the sixteen Browns games over the season and one I look forward to following closely. The other is that of Michael Sam. Late last year, Sam became the first ever NFL draft prospect to come out as gay. Many saw a chance for one of America's oldest games to step into the twenty first century but others saw bigoted comments and disapproval. Now Sam is a decent player, being named co-defensive player of the year in his conference last year, surely worth a draft pick but it seemed as if it wouldn't come. Then with the 249th pick of the draft, the St Louis Rams (the team that also selected the first black player into the NFL in 1946) called his name and produced this image.
Spine tingling
Again, narratives are prevalent as a man looking to achieve his dreams in the face of adversity is presented to the world. So I definitely look forward to hearing about Michael Sam the football player and less about Michael Sam the gay football player. This small sample size not even including games, shows the great sporting spectacle of the NFL and why it brings people together. The other event which is sure to illicit spectacle is the final day of the English Premier League.
While my Arsenal have long since been in the race for the Premier League title, the ending is still exciting. Liverpool, a club of great historical greatness, finally climbed back to the top until a late slip (sorry Stevie) allowed Manchester City back into the race. Now it comes down to the final day. If Liverpool win and Manchester City lose then the title will return to Anfield but all City need is to beat lowly West Ham at home to keep the title in Manchester. I remember City's title two years ago where a last minute goal from Sergio Aguero caused me to jump around at four in the morning as Manchester United missed out on the title. This was the greatest of sports narratives at hand. An Italian passes to an Argentinian, who scores causing thousands of English people to sing their names as the 'little brother' City upset United. Even within the game, sixteenth placed Queens Park Rangers were upsetting second placed City despite being a man down, demonstrating the 'Any Given Sunday' adage that makes me love sport so much. West Ham have pedigree in denying titles as they did twice to Manchester United in the 90s and also contain former Liverpool players, leaving a story book finish possible. I, personally think City will win the title but I've been wrong before about sport and will happily be wrong again but one thing is for certain, I'll be watching and loving every spectacle ladened minute of it.