A case for the case against high school sports

I met Greg at a bar in Manhattan back in late March; it was a corner joint on the far east side in the shadows of the Queensboro Bridge (or the 59th St Bridge, depending on what side of it you call home). On a lead from a British friend of mine a, I was there at 10 a.m. on a Saturday, our drinking scheduled to commence with the kick off of that day’s two Six Nations Rugby matches over in Europe. Few fingers were required to count the other Americans at this bar. Recognizing our table was a chair short, and in no need of his extra, Greg offered us the spot at his table, which was close enough to not notice the distance. He’s a talker too.

Greg said he played rugby at a competitive level a decade or so ago while living in England, his passion for it remained much longer than his durability, as bodies are wont to do. Our discussions during the matches uncovered a shared interest and knowledge in sports of all kinds, but particularly hockey—an exchange known to elude many Canadians residing south of their border. From that conversation, too, I learned that Greg runs adult soccer leagues that support teams for underfunded public schools with scant athletic resources. There’s a story in there somewhere.

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Oil change

Trade it.

That was my initial reaction after hearing the Edmonton Oilers won the first pick in the 2015 NHL Draft Lottery.  The consensus is that the Oilers will draft Connor McDavid, the central scouting bureau’s top rated player, from the OHL’s Erie Otters. Jesus, not the Oilers, was the general response from the hockey community, even though McDavid’s dad assured everyone his son was not disappointed, definitely not. This will be Edmonton’s fourth first overall pick in the last six drafts. Those picks weren’t totally squandered; all three have deepened the oil well. But having not made the playoffs in nine straight years, and only twice in the last thirteen, the thought—or more like the reality—of a prospect with Sidney Crosby-like hype going to the once legendary organization was depressing for fans and hockey insiders who haven’t forgotten what playing in Edmonton used to mean.

The last decade has been exasperating in Edmonton. The Oilers have loaded up on young offensive talent, but the defensive corps lingers like a cat’s dirty litter box—they use it because it’s there, but it stinks like hell. “It is, however, more than a little unfair to pin all of Oilers [sic] defensive woes on the netminding. Truth be told that the club has iced a subpar group of defenders in recent years, and for all of [Craig] MacTavish’s bluster about “impatience” and “bold moves” upon assuming the GM post, the collection of blueliners that subsequently came to town was underwhelming to put it kindly,” Bruce McCurdy blogged for the Edmonton Journal. So I found the notion of trading the number one pick to acquire an NHL-ready defenseman or, perhaps even and, a goalie appealing. The draft runs June 26-27 in Florida; that’s plenty of time to shop the pick in an effort to improve the back-end product for next season—and maybe forget that Devan Dubnyk became a Vezina Trophy finalist in his first full season away from Edmonton.

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F1 for dummies

Right now, after a wet and wild race at the Hungarian Grand Prix in Budapest, the Formula 1 circuit is taking a much needed four-week hiatus to recover and prepare for the remaining eight races of the season, including F1’s only State-side stop at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas in November. A new series of rules changes was implemented by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) that required teams to make significant changes to their cars for the 2014 year. Engine efficiency was the most major adjustment. Engine size, for example, has been reduced from 2.4-liter V8s to 1.6-liter V6 turbos; fuel loads are down 50kg to 100kg per race, and engines aren’t permitted to burn more than 100kg of gas per hour. And the enhanced energy recovery system, or Ers, explains the BBC, builds on the existing Kinetic energy recovery system that “harnesses kinetic energy from the rear axle during braking via an electric motor to be stored in a battery pack reapply under acceleration. Last year, it was allowed to produce 60kw for up to 6.7 seconds a lap. This year, however, it can produce 150kg for 30 seconds.” There were also cosmetic changes made to the exteriors, like lowering the nose and the redesigning rear wings, meant to improve safety and pole parity. As a result, some races have been tighter; some teams that sucked in past years don’t this year. Williams is rebounding from the team’s worst ever showing in 2013. And the same goes for drivers. Just ask four-time drivers’ champ Seb Vettel.

But for the mechanically illiterate, like myself, that doesn’t mean much. The basic concepts are easy to comprehend in terms of the effects on car performance and driver strategy; the more technical details are just that, and appreciating F1 as a competitive motor sport doesn’t require much more than this basic understanding. Here’s a quick CGI clip for non-gear heads, courtesy of the Infiniti Red Bull Racing crew, that breaks down the basics of the new rule changes effecting the cars, comparing its new 2014 model to that of 2013. It is, for us, F1 for dumbasses.

Is his wait over?

I chose to stop writing about surfing a little over a year ago, save for the odd blog post. Surfing comprised a large portion of my work as a professional sports journalist. The last real surf-related project I took was for Wax Magazine, which was started by some cool and talented folks but pretty much embodies the NYC hipster vibe so often ridiculed in surfing culture (weird art, graphic t-shirts, Richard Kenvin, and no, absolutely, no thrusters!). Each quarterly issue has a theme. I contributed to the second edition–#5 is the latest–and don’t remember the theme. They asked me to write about wave pools. I’ve never been much for personal essays. I generally don’t give a shit about the writer’s life, per se, and thus assume most readers don’t care about mine. I’m not above essays, I just rarely write them. Instead, I chose to write a reported essay, the kind which you can find in most decent magazines: Esquire, Wired, the New Yorker, and so on. Think GQ’s John Jeremiah Sullivan, only far shittier. Since then, I’ve casually monitored wave pool development. And just today, in Australia, Stab magazine reported that Greg Webber, founder of Webber Wave Pools and a subject in my piece, has found a location to build his first ocean replicator:

Webber_Wavepool_SC_MainAfter all the chatter, we have a real geographical setting for Greg Webber’s first Wavepool: Glenview, on the Sunshine Coast. Part of a new $90 million waterpark that’ll give the Gold Coast a real good run for tourism bragging rights, the Sunshine Park planning application has been lodged by developers Waterplay Pty Ltd (who you’ll know from such wavepools as Wadi in the UAE and Sunway Lagoon in Malaysia).

Part of me still finds the whole venture gimmicky. But it’s fascinating nonetheless–and provides no shortage of debate in the surfing community. I decided to revisit my original draft from April 2013 in which Webber claimed his first wave pool was likely to be operating by March 2014 in Indonesia.  So a bit of a deviation from his initial intent. If WWPs look anything like the mockup drawings, people might be waiting in lines for waves in the very near future.

Below is an excerpt introducing Webber (before edits for typos, etc).

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Getting a leg up

Since the early 2000s, particularly in the last five years, dry-land workouts have evolved into dominant components of professional surfers’ training regimens. Mick Fanning, Joel Parkinson, Owen Wright, Taj Burrow, Taylor Knox, and Fred Patacchia are just a few prominent competitive pros that place a heavy emphasis on workouts on the shore that will improve their performance in the water. Parkinson and Knox have teamed-up with trainers to produce and market a series of surf-specific workouts; Burrow often travels with Johnny Gannon, a personal trainer behind surffitness.tv. Kelly Slater, 42, is quick to voice the importance of his dietary habits to the longevity of his career. In the big wave community, surfers like Ian Walsh and Mark Healey, among others, adopted cross-training routines to combat the pulverizing force of the towering waves they ride. Long gone, it appears, are the days of big time pro surfers getting by on skill alone, and letting the ocean rinse away last night’s hangover.


Bede Durbidge top turns.

Now, according to a slideshow and article feature on Surfline.com this week, that training is paying off—at least on the contest circuit. In a recurring segment called “Training Days,” Surfline interviewed Dr. Jeremy Sheppard, who serves as the sport science manager and head of strength and conditioning at Surfing Australia’s High Performance Centre—a beautiful training facility, just south of the Gold Coast, operated by the country’s national governing body for organized surfing. Surfing fitness, naturally, demands strong legs as much as core and upper body strength. “Almost every surfer I’ve ever trained lacks adequate leg strength,” Sheppard told Surfline. This is a problem, he notes, because the legs are a surfboard’s obvious source of propulsion. A few lines later, Sheppard announced: “We are publishing a study to determine the relationship between judges (sic) scores on turns and an athlete’s lower body strength level.” That’s news, but it should come as little surprise.

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Ten Years Ago Today

Pat Tillman. Charles Gabrean/Courtesy of Doubleday. Via NPR.org


Pat Tillman died in Afghanistan ten years ago today. Cause of death: fratricide. Friendly fire. He was 27.

I never knew Pat Tillman. But he is a hero to me. Tonight, ESPN’s Outside The Lines series devoted a full episode marking Tillman’s death, interviewing former Army Rangers who served with the Arizona Cardinals’ 226th pick in the 1998 NFL draft, including the man who took cover next to Tillman but wasn’t harmed, as well as the man who may have fired the fatal bullet. Towards the end of the show, one of Tillman’s former teammates said something to the effect that Pat’s greatness lay in his normalcy. I struggle articulating exactly why I look up to Pat Tillman; even in my head it can seem incoherent. But it’s got something to do with that normalcy, of that much I’m sure.

From what I’ve read and interviews I’ve watched, Tillman was driven by curiosity and compassion and loyalty. At times, committed to a fault. Tillman spent a few weeks in jail the summer before his freshman year at Arizona State University after he beat the shit out of another kid in a parking lot who allegedly attacked one of his friends, except Tillman went after the wrong person, leaving the victim in serious condition. And of course, his loyalty to his country ultimately put him in the situation in which he began questioning the U.S. government’s military policies and his own culpability–a situation that claimed his life. He made decisions I wouldn’t have. But he’s a hero to me because he was an above average guy who maintained his convictions while existing in a realm that easily empowers men to discard them. History is littered with the errors made by men locked to their beliefs. But Tillman’s inquisitiveness indicates to me he understood himself as inherently flawed, like all of us, and when he was wrong, he corrected course, allowing his convictions to be informed, in order to be the best person he could be, mistakes and all.

Respect is earned by how we work to buff out the blemishes. For a young man, Tillman’s self-awareness was impressive. He’ll be remembered for striving to do the right thing, and knowing it was important to learn from the times when he didn’t. That’s not a bad legacy to leave behind.


(Pat’s high school sweetheart and wife Marie established The Pat Tillman Foundation.)




Video games as sport?

south park: make love, not warcraftCleaning up around the house this weekend, an episode of HBO’s Real Sports hummed in the background (see clip below). One of the correspondents was discussing a story of which I had zero awareness: the League of Legends (LOL) championship. Apparently I was in the minority. The rise of eSports, and the preeminence of LOL, has skyrocketed in recent years. Sure, I knew gaming was way popular. I’ve played Call of Duty and Motor Storm and the annual iterations of EA Sports’s NHL; and I’m aware that competitions and tournaments cater to serious gamers. But my ignorance of LOL’s popularity was astonishing. So I decided to base this discussion on the game, and how its developers looked to conventional sports to design a sure-shot competition model—players and teams accruing regular season records, vying for limited playoff spots, and positioning themselves for a big pay day if they can walk away with the championship.

The numbers are staggering. In 2011, two years after the Santa Monica-based firm Riot Games launched its product, LOL already had 15 million registered users. The “free-to-play fantasy combat strategy game,” as Snider describes it, is easy to access online. All Riot Games had to do was attract players; and they had no trouble. Two years later, LOL now has over 70 million registered users, with some 30 million active users in any given month tallying one billion hours of game play. One. Billion. More people play LOL than play baseball in America—at every level combined. Try wrapping your head around those figures. Riot Games, which started out with a staff of 100, has since opened up offices around the world, employing 1,000 people, raking in $200 million in annual revenue and escalating investment from venture capital firms. The success of Riot Games stands in total inversion to that of Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios project, which collapsed monumentally in bankruptcy in 2012.

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King of Toné!

When it comes to your life’s work, I’m of the mind that when you’re blessed with a particular talent or skill set, if you can find a way to assign a sturdy and lucrative longevity to it, you’re on the right path.

Raphael Saadiq has done that. And after three decades of plying his trade behind the mic, here’s the proof: “Day Dreams,” a tune from his last album, Stone Rollin’ (2011). Some of his finest work–and he no doubt remains in a position to improve with age, say nothing if his deft fashion sense. Shrediquette boogie brought to you by guitarist Josh Smith. Here’s to seeing him live~

[Hat tip @redbullmusic]

Who They Want You to See


Last spring, an editor  approached me about writing a profile of David Murphy, a craftsman who builds custom surfboards out of his shop in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. The piece ran in a brand promo publication. Here’s the problem with articles like this: because they don’t appear in outlets of objective journalism, the unsavory aspects of a subject are generally shaved from the final text. Here is a PDF of the Murphy profile, but below I’ve included the section of my article that got cut–the portion about Murphy flaking on me more than once. And I knew it would get scrapped, but including it in the original draft was my way of expunging my frustration with the situation. My point is that reading articles in outlets that are not journalism-focused demands an added skepticism–an understanding that what’s on the page reveals only the fraction of the truth the promoters want you to know. Selling jeans, in this case. Regardless, Murphy is very talented and has an interesting background that made writing about him fun. Despite those limits on certain details, the piece turned out OK, and I was no less impressed with his breadth of knowledge and work samples. Now, as for whether I’m ready to shell out nearly a thousand dollars for a cork-deck surfboard to a guy who wasted several hours of my scheduled time, that’ll have to wait.

By the time I turned from the bar to see Murphy duck through the door of the Thai restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, wearing dark jeans lightened by foam dust, a loose t-shirt, and a weathered Imaginary Surf Co. cap, I’d been chasing him for nearly a week. We’d agreed to meet at his shop on Saturday, but that morning my calls went unanswered. So we rescheduled for a visit the next Thursday. Rain poured from dawn to dusk. Soaked through my rain shell, I idled at the loading dock, calling and texting Murphy. He never answered. I was, by late that evening when we finally shook hands, irritated. But beneath the ornate red lanterns and beside wooden walls the color of sunglass lenses, plates of vegetable curry steaming in front of us, my attitude warmed. Murphy apologized, and his explanations seemed plausible enough (apparently he mistook me for someone else with the same name). And like that, the talk turned to why we were meeting.

Give ’em the Hook

red hook crit 2013. race #1. [Photo by Takuya Sakamoto; Brooklynpaper.com]

The first race in the 2013 Red Hook Crit (short for Criterium) tore through the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal piers last night–a beautiful, 40-degree cloudless evening, the course along the Hudson lit by towering flood lights, powered by clapping generators, and a waning gibbous that had turned from a full moon just days earlier. The scent of herb lingered in the crowd, and skinny-jeans and Vans-wearing spectators convening on the truck docks and sitting high above on the roofs of trailers pulled on shared bottles wrapped in brown bags. EMT crews stood ready.

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