Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Chuck's Blind Spot

Chuck Klosterman continues his somewhat bizarre transformation into Malcolm Gladwell with this piece in a recent issue of the awkwardly named ESPN The Magazine. (This post brought to you by A Special Way of Being Afraid The Blog.)

Klosterman is pondering the presumably widespread use of steroids in the NFL, and the impact this might have on how fans view the game. He begins on a roll, describing linebacker Shawne Merriman:
You do not need Mel Kiper's hard drive to deduce what these numbers mean: As an outside linebacker, Shawne Merriman is almost as big as the best offensive tackle who ever played and almost as fast as the best wide receiver who ever played. He is a rhinoceros who moves like a deer. Common sense suggests this combination should not be possible. It isn't.
But he then proceeds to a false analogy, noting that the Beatles recorded their most groundbreaking and influential work after they had been introduced to any number of recreational drugs, but no one judges their art by their drug use. Here's Klosterman extending the argument:
My point is not that all drugs are the same, nor that drugs are awesome, nor that the Beatles needed LSD to become the geniuses they already were. My point is that sports are unique in the way they're retrospectively colored by the specter of drug use. East Germany was an Olympic force during the 1970s and '80s; today, you can't mention the East Germans' dominance without noting that they were pumped full of Ivan Drago-esque chemicals. This relationship changes the meaning of their achievements. You simply don't see this in other idioms. Nobody looks back at Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" and says, "I guess that music is okay, but it doesn't really count. Those guys were probably high in the studio."
Now, if you're like me, you feel like you're watching someone confidently signal for a lane change with a 32-wheeler smack dab in their blind spot. So when Klosterman brings up an "easy rebuttal" to his theory, it provides momentary, false hope that the accident can be avoided:
Now, the easy rebuttal to this argument is contextual, because it's not as if Roger Waters was shooting up with testosterone in order to strum his bass-guitar strings harder. Unlike songwriting or stock trading, football is mostly physical; it seems like there needs to be a different scale -- an uncrossable line -- for what endangers competitive integrity.
This is ridiculous. It's true that the rebuttal would be contextual, but not because playing a bass guitar isn't as violent an activity as an open-field tackle. Put simply, bands might "compete," in some loose sense, to produce great albums, but producing great albums is not a zero-sum game. Revolver and Wish You Were Here can both be great albums, but two football teams cannot win the same game. Thus, if one of those teams is doped up and the other isn't, there's a competitive imbalance of a completely different kind, not degree, from whatever "edge" the Beatles gained from licking some poisonous toad. It's quite possible, philosophically, to imagine fans having no qualms about performance enhancers, as long as all players were allowed to use them and had equal access to them. Klosterman's column is entertaining as far as it goes, but given the fact that it ignores the very nature of the problem, that's not very far.


Blogger Dan Carlson said...

"Chuck Klosterman continues his somewhat bizarre transformation into Malcolm Gladwell..."

Brilliant. Just ... damn. Spot on, man.

9:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, you are brilliant, comparing Klosterman to Gladwell. I guess you can't like sports and be a good writer, otherwise you'd be Simmons. To understand the article, you'd have to realize that most of the NFL does have access to, and abuses the same drugs. You think Merriman is a rare example. Spot on indeed, ya wang.

10:52 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

I can't tell you how disappointing it is to me that it took a year and a half of blogging for someone to get around to calling me a "wang." Put another way, I can't tell you how disappointing it is to me that it took a year and a half of blogging to start attracting third-grade readers.

I can't lie: I prefer Dan's comment.

You can, in fact, like sports and be a good writer. You can, in fact, believe that steroid use is very wide-ranging in the NFL. What you can't believe is that Klosterman's analogy makes good sense as long as steroid use is officially illegal in the NFL, and to be honest, maybe even if it was officially legal.

8:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excuse me? In what way does Klosterman's analogy depend on the legality of the drug? It doesn't, but just for you - steriods are illegal in the NFL, and the weed the Beatles smoked was illegal too. What legality has to do with the author's point is still beyond me though.

Now, on to your poorly-argued criticisms.

1. You are correct in saying that artists don't compete against each other in the same manner as athletes. Luckily for Klosterman, he makes this very distinction in a part of his article that YOU CITED! See - "Unlike songwriting or stock trading, football is mostly physical; it seems like there needs to be a different scale -- an uncrossable line -- for what endangers competitive integrity." I would like you to note the first word of Chuck's sentence here, "unlike". He concedes that athletic competition is held in a different regard than art or craft. He already acknowledge the very difference you've based your criticism on. Read his article again please.

2. He is comparing steriod use to other "performance-enhancing" drugs, period. The athlete uses steroids to get faster/stronger, and the artist lights a doob to relax and open his mind to creative possibilities. The point being - both use a drug to enhance their own performance. That's it. The analogy works.

3. When a young football player takes steriods, he's not working within a zero-sum game either. All he wants to do is be as fast and as strong as he can possibly be, so that he might get signed by the NFL. Sure, if he gets signed, this means that another player won't be. However, this is the same as one band getting signed to a label while another doesn't.

You conclude by saying that Klosterman's article ignores the very nature of the problem. Throw me in with the third-grader if you like, but I need an explanation on this. What exactly, is the nature of the steroid problem that Klosterman has ignored?

Thanks in advance.

10:29 AM  
Blogger JMW said...

OK, now we're talking. Your three points all have some validity, but they don't nullify what I'm saying. Let's go one by one, and then I'll further explain my original criticism:

1. You're right that Klosterman uses the word "unlike," thus acknowledging the difference between the recording of an album and the playing of football. Klosterman's a smart guy. I'm just arguing that the distinction he draws isn't the most relevant one for the argument he's making. (After all, there are probably thousands of distinctions between football and other jobs -- he hilariously makes one later in the piece, when he writes: "...there's probably an even greater difference between a morning of data processing and trying to cut-block Shawne Merriman.") But back to the point (it's probably dawning on you that this is going to be a long comment). You get upset that I ignore something that I CITED, but you also ignore something that I CITED, which is this: "Now, the easy rebuttal to this argument is contextual, because it's not as if Roger Waters was shooting up with testosterone in order to strum his bass-guitar strings HARDER. Unlike songwriting or stock trading, football is mostly physical..." Yes, Klosterman is drawing a distinction, but it's only the incredibly obvious one that states football is more physical than songwriting. But as I thought I made clear in my post, it was more important, in my humble opinion, for the purposes of this particular essay, for Klosterman to acknowledge the firm distinction between the TYPE of competitive advantage you gain using performance enhancers in football and in the recording studio. I would stand by the claim that any benefit in the recording studio is not even a competitive advantage, properly defined, because of the zero-sum argument, which you mention but get wrong (yes, a kid using steroids is just trying to get to the NFL, but any time he lines up against someone NOT using them -- and presumably, there are players not using them, especially at levels below the NFL -- has an advantage in a zero-sum situation. I understand that labels only sign so many bands, but this is very clearly not the example of a z-s situation that a football game is. In fact, if every band a label signs sells well, there's theoretically no limit to the number of bands it can sign.) Not to mention the fact that it doesn't seem to me that the correlation between drug use and "success" in music is nearly as clear as the correlation in physical sports, but that's another issue altogether.

2. You're right. The analogy works on this level. It's Klosterman's application of it to another level that doesn't work. You say he's comparing performance-enhancing drugs, "period." No he's not. He's comparing them and THEN he's wondering why no one judges the Beatles' accomplishment as somehow tainted when they would judge, say, a football player's accomplishment as tainted. And here we have to go back, even if kicking and screaming, to the zero-sum argument, which Klosterman could have dealt with in some satisfying way that wouldn't necessarily negate his argument, but which he failed to do.

3. I already dealt with this above, because I'm impatient. It's a character flaw.

Despite my third-grade taunt (which, in fairness, was in response to being called a "wang"), I understand what you're saying. And I actually think, like Klosterman, that you're right on the first level of the argument you're making: There's nothing inherently condemnable about taking performance-enhancing drugs. But when you say the Beatles' drug use was illegal, yes, on a social level it was. But those were larger social laws; the recording industry didn't have specific rules set up to keep people from expanding their minds before entering the studio. The NFL does have rules, and I agree they're routinely broken. They're very, very frequently broken. But because drug use in football is a largely unmonitored, hidden activity, we still can't know for sure who has an unfair zero-sum advantage and when they have it. If we did know for SURE that everyone was pumped full of the same stuff, it's quite possible that we would view the NFL's drug problem with the same careless shrug that nearly everyone has in response to the effect of drugs on Beatles records. Until we know it for sure, these are apples and oranges as far as competitive advantages go. But Klosterman essentially ignores that, doesn't he? Am I missing something?

11:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your last few sentences basically sum up Klosterman's article. We don't know for sure who's using what, but it seems pretty clear now that most NFL players are using some kind performance-enhancer or another. You suggest that we might treat this knowledge with the same blase attitude that we do with the Beatles' weed-smoking. This is exactly the question Klosterman wants us to ask ourselves. Now that steroid use is so prevalent - do we care?

Regarding the zero-sum, competitive advantage thing, you keep bringing up an in-game scenario where one player is using 'roids and his opponent isn't. It's bigger than this. If your an athlete, you want to be as big, fast, and strong as you can possibly be, regardless of winning games. If a drug can improve an athlete's 40m time, he's going to take it and look better to the scouts. The drug makes him faster than he was before. It's about self-improvement, not just beating the other man

And again, Klosterman does more than just make the obvious distinction of sports being more physical than songwriting. He writes (my 2nd time quoting this now):"it seems like there needs to be a different scale -- an uncrossable line -- for what endangers competitive integrity." For the last time, Klosterman acknowledges here that when competition is involved, we hold its participants to a higher scale than those who create for art's sake.
You continue hammering home that sports differs from Klosterman's other examples by virtue of the fact that it depends on one man defeating another. Well, Klosterman agrees.

By the way, I'm the same guy as before.

11:36 AM  
Blogger JMW said...

I can tell you're the same guy as before because, like me, you keep making the same argument over and over again. And I still think you're wrong. Yes, athletes want "self-improvement," but only toward the ultimate goal of beating someone else. Let's say two 15-year-olds line up against each other in a football game, one on steroids, the other not. After the kid on steroids drags him all over the field and impresses the scouts, you can go into the locker room and tell the undrugged kid that his opponent is "just trying to improve himself." Until everyone takes an identical pill before every game -- at which time we can start having some really fun and meaningful philosophical conversations -- you and Klosterman are making a good but very limited point.

11:47 AM  
Anonymous Nick said...

I think the point is that sports have rules, many of them precise to the point of punctillousness, that exist for the sole reason of preventing one team or player from gaining an unfair advantage over another. We want sports to be an inquiry into how far a human being like ourselves can push himself. In the music business, there are no rules, beyond those imposed by copyright law and the science of acoustics. Maybe it's this difference that Klosterman is pointing out. But what seems objectionable is the hint that because there are no rules in music, maybe there shouldn't be in sports, either. If this is to be taken seriously, it requires a radical retooling of our conception of sports.

11:59 AM  
Blogger F. Pants McFadden said...

Forgive me if I'm simply reiterating a point that's been made, but I don't think we do care whether musicians (or actors, in Sly Stallone's case) are on drugs, performance-enhancing or not. Nor should we, aside from a general desire that people not destroy themselves with drugs.

With music or other arts, all that matters is the end product. If Beethoven composed the greatest symphony in the world because he drank absinthe, I doubt anyone would think less of it.

The reason that sports is different is that it is based on the premise that there is a level playing field. Fairness is key. To be certain, modern nutrition, training techniques, vitamins and supplements blur the line between fair and cheating. But I think we can agree that HGH, anabolic steroids, and other substances that significantly alter body chemistry in a way that gives someone an unfair advantage are all cheating.

The point is, if a guitarist can smoke something that makes him play the best solo ever, I'm going to listen. If an NFL player takes a drug that lets him run at 50mph, I'm not going to watch.

12:26 PM  
Blogger F. Pants McFadden said...

I forgot to mention:

A good example is the use of performance-enhancing drugs in professional wrestling, as recent reports have suggested. Who cares? Pro wrestling is not a sport in that the outcome is determined. There's a script. It is not a performance based on the presumption that there is a level playing field. There is no need for fairness between competitors.

So, if HGH allows the guys to do better flips or throw some dude into more chairs, or be more homoerotic, I say bring on the syringes.

12:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pants McFadden said:

"If an NFL player takes a drug that lets him run at 50mph, I'm not going to watch."

I don't believe this for one second. And if by some miracle you do resist the urge to watch this, you'll be the only person in the world who did. Just like music, all we care about in sports is the end product - who wins, who jumps the highest, how jumps the farthest, etc. If I guy runs 50 mph, trust me, the world will watch.

Do we really care about fair? Maybe, but the general perception now is that everyone in sports is on 'roids anyway. The playing field is sadly, even.

Fun fact: in 1988, Ben Johnson won the 100m dash with an astounding, record-breaking time of 9.79. He tested for steroids the following day and his time was stricken from the Olympic record books. Since that day, three of the other four top finishers in that race have tested positive for steroids: Carl Lewis (the U.S. golden boy who said he knew Johnson cheated), Linford Christie (who's pretty much made of steroids at this point) and Dennis Mitchell (just a run-of-the-mill juicer). I would like to remind everyone that this was in 1988.

Point is, JMW - don't worry about that 15-year old kid who's not using steroids. He's not in the NFL, nor will he ever be. The fact is that performance-enhancing drugs have advanced to the point that they're challenging our notions of fairness and health. The rules governing professional sports are going to adjust to accomodate our new perspective.

- Same guy again

3:08 PM  
Blogger Mrs. White said...

Okay, I have very little idea what this argument is about and my knowledge of sports and Klosterman are both cursory at best, however I DO know that I can't stand it when people post anonymous, argumentative comments on other people's blogs, especially when there's name calling involved. It's great that people have alternate viewpoints that they feel compelled to share, but grow a pair and comment under your real name, or at the very least your Internet pseudonym.

(Sorry. I guess that was pretty bitchy, wasn't it?)

5:49 PM  

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