Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Free Ryan Braun! Or the Real PED Problem in Pro Sports

Braun's PED use became apparent when he spontaneously combusted
Last week, Major League Baseball gave Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers a 65-game suspension for using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), and this week MLB is promising to dole out major suspensions to an unknown number of other players. Broadly speaking, MLB is being praised, by players and the sports media, for taking a tough stance on PEDs. The NFL has also taken an increasingly tough approach to PEDs, although it still doesn't test for human growth hormone use. The NHL and NBA are equally vocal in their opposition to PEDs, but those two leagues seem to have less of a problem in this regard, or perhaps it's just that their testing protocols are ineffectual. I'd argue that players have a perfect right to use PEDs, and should be encouraged to do so. More on this later.

The real PED problem in pro sports comes from the team owners and their use of a myriad of barely legal, and generally unethical, Profit Enhancing Devices (it's not the best made-up acronym, but bear with me). What are these devices? The predominant one is the use of blackmail to force state, provincial and local governments to either wholly or partially underwrite the construction of arenas and stadiums. The list of sports facilities built with public money for the profitable use of pro sports teams is a very long one. And even with an existing building that's owned by the city, as in Glendale, Arizona, teams can usually extract an "arena management fee" that doubles as a subsidy. The leverage used to obtain these free or nearly free facilities is the threat to leave town for even more generous municipalities, or the promise to bring a team to town and "revitalize" an urban core. The debts incurred by municipalities to finance these facilities are, of course, paid through taxes, which in turn leads to cutbacks in civic services to finance the debts. So if thanks to cutbacks your local EMS didn't arrive in time to save the life of your loved one, at least you can wipe away some of your grief by cheering for your local athletic heroes.

The profit-taking doesn't stop with milking cities for all their worth. In the latest round of collective bargaining agreements between the NHL, NBA, NFL and their players, the leagues all took a bigger slice of the pie. The most egregious of the bunch were the NFL owners. Owning an NFL franchise is a licence to print money, and has been for a very long time. Evidently the owners want to print more money, because they attempted to take an extra $500m from the players. All three leagues ended up paying their players less for the same work, which neatly reflects the reality faced by the vast majority of workers over the last thirty or so years. And the worst of the bunch are the US colleges, who hand out scholarships like candy to lure high school athletes into sports that earn billions in TV revenues. The college players receive none of those monies, and their "scholarships" are usually contingent on staying on the team or are limited to a small variety of easy programs that carry no prospects for future non-football employment.

And like any other large corporation, sports franchises can use the full gamut of accounting tricks and tax avoidance schemes to funnel profits away from their teams so they can go crying to local politicians and ask for an increased arena management fee or a new arena with more luxury boxes. This is a popular tactic with NHL teams. In the past week the Minnesota Wild have claimed a $30m loss. This is the same team that fearlessly splashed out over $100m on new contracts for Ryan Suter and Zach Parise one year ago. Something doesn't add up, but you can be sure Minneapolis city council will soon be getting a begging call from the Wild.

My point, and I do have one, is that team owners work ceaselessly to maximize the profitability of their sporting assets, and they'll use every trick in the book, some just this side of legal, to rake in more cash. Ryan Braun, and PED users like him, is doing exactly what pro sports team owners are doing: he's maximizing the profitability of his assets. In Braun's case, his asset is his innate ability to hit a baseball. Let's look at this from Braun's perspective: his natural, unaugmented talent is worth x dollars, but with the addition of PEDs his talent now has a worth of x + y dollars, with y representing a shitload of money. The math speaks for itself. I acknowledge that MLB has clear rules against the use of PEDs, but there are also rules, or at least principles, of accounting that say corporations should not obscure the truth about their financial status. Sports teams are notoriously slippery when it comes to basic accounting for the simple reason that they want to share as little as possible with the players. So why should Ryan Braun behave any differently than the owners of the league he works for? Like the owners, he wants to squeeze every last dollar out of his asset, and in his case the most efficient way to do that is with PEDs. From a Harvard Business School point of view it's a no-brainer--pass the PEDs!

Baseball purists argue that PEDs distort the statistical purity of the game; a player on drugs is putting up numbers that aren't an accurate reflection of his skills. True enough, but the financial maneuverings of owners can skew numbers just as effectively. The most obvious example is the New York Yankees. Because the Yankees have used their financial muscle to assemble de facto all-star teams over the past fifteen years, the individual stats of Yankee players have benefited enormously. For example, a cleanup hitter playing for the Yankees in that time period could come to the plate expecting to have more men on base, and his RBI totals would benefit accordingly. The same hitter playing for Kansas City or Pittsburgh, teams that can't or won't pay for better players, would have significantly poorer stats. Fans and sports writers often moan about big market teams using their money to buy up the best players, but that's just another case of an asset's profitability being maximized.

The other major sports leagues have salary caps of one kind or another, but that doesn't stop the owners from tweaking their sports, and thus the statistical results, in the name of profits. In an effort to make their games more entertaining, and thus more lucrative, the NHL, NBA and NFL have brought in all kinds of rules that have also affected the statistical character of their respective sports. The three point rule in basketball, the designated hitter in baseball, increased penalties for obstruction in hockey, and enhanced protection for quarterbacks and receivers in football are just a few of the rule changes that have altered the stats of these sports.

In sum, the major sports leagues and individual teams will use any and all available means to increase their profitability, and if that affects competitiveness or the stats of individual players, so be it. So why should players not adopt the same strategy? Taking PEDs is not illegal in the non-sports world. Doctors can prescribe all the steroids and HGH they want, so it could be argued that sports leagues are trying to restrict or control a perfectly legal activity. It's understandable that a company would argue against the use of substances that impair performance--no one, for example, wants a drunk bus driver--but where's the logic in decrying the use of something that improves performance? As long as the owners use every financial and legal trick at their disposal to fatten the bottom line, I see no reason players shouldn't do the same. And perhaps if enough players come out in favour of PEDs, or get caught using them, we'll finally have an honest discussion about the profit principle in pro sports. Play ball.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Book Review: Murder in Memoriam (1984) by Didier Daeninckx

France's conflict in Algeria from 1954-62 is to French culture and history what the American Civil War and Vietnam are to America. It's a conflict that was exceedingly cruel and bloody, and almost led to a coup d'etat in France. Needless to say, writing or talking about this war within France can still raise hackles across the political spectrum, and it's only in the last twenty or so years that France has really begun to have some honest conversations about its involvement in Algeria.

Murder in Memoriam is an agitprop murder mystery. The plot is about the apparently senseless murder of a university student, which, as it turns out, relates directly to the murder of his father twenty years previously. The father was killed on the night of October, 17, 1961, in Paris during the protests by Algerians for Algerian independence. But the goal of the novel is to throw some light on the brutal crimes perpetrated by the Paris police and the government against the protestors. It's estimated that perhaps 300 of these people were shot down in cold blood, beaten to death, or handcuffed and thrown into the Seine to drown. It's a massacre that wasn't spoken about for years in France, and, according to the introduction, this book eventually led to the man who was Prefect of Paris at the time being put under investigation. He was found to be a war criminal who had enthusiastically helped the Nazis round up Jews in France. He went to trial, was found guilty, and sent to prison.

Daeninckx's book works quite well as a mystery, and his Inspector Cadin is an enthusiastic and engaging detective, but the author's real purpose is to rip off the scab that's formed over France's memories of October 17/61 and the role of French citizens in the Holocaust. It's a tall order, but he pulls it off neatly, never sounding preachy or didactic. Algeria is still a hot button topic in France. A film made about the October 17 massacre a few years ago (the title escapes me) shied away from showing just how bloody it was. And a film called Days of Glory (2006) gives France's Algerian colonial troops, called Goumiers, the full Saving Private Ryan treatment for their role in the Second World War. This turns out to be a whitewash job as revealed in Jame's Holland's book on the Italian campaign. It's clear that the French, like any ex-colonial power, have an extreme reluctance to confront the crimes of the past. And for my dual review of two excellent Franco-Algerian themed films, The Battle of Algiers and The Day of the Jackal, click here.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Film Review: Pacific Rim (2013)

Godzilla & Co.: the earliest form of Muppet?
I'm not going to waste a lot time rubbishing Pacific Rim, so here goes: the robot vs. monster action is dull and repetitive; the creatures all look the same; based on their skill, the actors, with the exception of Idris Elba, appear to have been recruited from infomercials; the dialogue is so flat and humorless it was probably generated by a Scriptbot3000; and director Guillermo del Toro's visual flair has gone AWOL. Pacific Rim reaches a new low in soulless, generic, and flavorless CGI summer blockbusters.

It is interesting, however, that a film so thunderingly bad and tedious has managed to avoid being booed out of the multiplexes. A variety of otherwise intelligent people I follow on Twitter have praised it, or at least enjoyed it, and the film has a 71% "fresh" rating on Rottentomatoes.com. I think the reason for the film's generally warm reception is that it finds itself at the intersection where nostalgia, fan boy enthusiasm and critical fatigue meet.

There probably isn't a person alive who doesn't enjoy old Japanese monster movies. Whether you're nine or ninety, the sight of foam and rubber monsters kicking over artfully constructed Japanese cities, or engaging in two-fisted smackdowns with each other is always entertaining. These were movies intended for kids, but their energy, comic seriousness, and low-tech visual creativity earned them an adult audience as well. Pacific Rim is meant to be a modern, updated take on this genre, and a lot of reviewers, casual and professional, mention this without bothering to point out that Pacific Rim simply drains the goofy charm out of the genre and replaces it with assembly line acting, directing and effects. Their glowing reviews say more about their warm and fuzzy memories of films like Godzilla vs King Gidorah than they do the merits of del Toro's Mechaturkey.

The fan boy/girl dynamic at the SF/fantasy end of the filmmaking spectrum now has a cult-like quality. For these people any film that appears in their chosen genre is ipso facto a good film. Attach one of their favourite actors, directors or screenwriters to the film and they respond with the enthusiasm of a crowd in St. Peter's Square greeting a new pope. Read Aintitcool.com and you get a clear picture of the undiscriminating love fans have for whatever is new and shiny in their field. Some reviewers, one senses, mute their criticisms of films like these because they're afraid of coming off as curmudgeonly or of not being "aware" of what's being referenced or paid homage to. And I suspect critical fans within the genre don't want to be called heretics.

Critical fatigue is something I'm very familiar with. Many years ago I earned my crust doing script analyses for various film and TV companies. Over the course of five or six years I must have read over 400 scripts and treatments. The vast majority were vapid, derivative or incompetent, some even as bad as Pacific Rim. The problem with having to read so many crap scripts is that when an OK one comes along the tendency is to overreact and praise it to the skies. A slightly good script reads like Citizen Kane after you've read several dozen clunkers. The same applies to film critics. When you're being served up a steady Hollywood diet of films like Hansel and Gretel, Jack the Giant Killer and Pacific Rim, you begin to praise qualities in these films that aren't actually there. When critics say nice things about Pacific Rim they're actually talking about elements in the film that remind them of their affection for the SF genre in general and giant monster movies in particular.

I'll close with a radical idea: why not make an old school Japanese-style monster movie that has a guy in a rubber monster suit? No CGI. This isn't an idle question since there's evidently yet another reboot of Godzilla in the works. The argument that audiences wouldn't sit still for something so...artisanal, doesn't really hold water. Tim Burton and Aardman Animations both produce new old-fashioned stop motion animation films that audiences have no problem embracing. Admit it: wouldn't you rather watch Godzilla tripping over styrofoam skyscrapers and grappling with a King Gidorah swinging erratically overhead on barely concealed wires? I'd even watch something like that in 3D.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Skinny on the Fat Poor and the Slim Rich

Last week, the wife and I were vacationing in Connecticut, going to the beach, the casinos, and eating far too well. We've been going to CT in the summer for a few years now, generally seeing and doing the same things, but this time, thanks to some rainy weather, we did more exploring than usual. What we found is the town of Stonington, just a few miles to the north of the more famous Mystic. Stonington is one of prettiest towns I've ever seen, filled with characterful, beautifully-maintained homes dating back to the founding of America that have often (according to the plaques on many of the houses) stayed in the same family for more than 300 years. Think of it as ground zero for WASP America.

What makes Stonington of extra interest is the contrast it offers if, like me, you come from a place that's a little rough around the edges. I live in Hamilton, Ontario, a mid-sized city with more than it's share of poor people (more on that issue in this blogpost). If you visit Hamilton the first thing you might notice is that compared to Toronto, its more affluent, next door neighbour, there seem to be a lot of overweight, infirm people who smoke like chimneys, and the elderly almost all seem to be using walkers or mobility scooters or wheelchairs. On some days, Hamilton looks like a giant outpatient clinic.

Stonington is old in all senses of the word. The median age of the residents is probably in the fifties, and the median net worth of Stoningtonians is undoubtedly in the high seven figures. And from the look of the folks in the town this money is all old money. The kind of money that got its start in enterprises like whaling, logging, textiles, shipping, railroads, and, yes, even the slave trade. The townsfolk are the very picture of geriatric wealth and health. There are lots of people past retirement age, but there isn't a walker or scooter in sight, just an astonishing number of septuagenarians power walking or even jogging. My surplus 30 pounds made me the fattest person in town. It's no secret that with more affluence comes better health and less of a gut, but to see it on display like this is still startling. To go from Hamilton to Stonington and back to Hamilton is to realize that the upper and lower classes are now as physiologically separate as they are in terms of income.

Stonington is also a very blissed-out place. People are eager to greet one another, smiles are everywhere, and the overall level of friendliness is off the charts. If I didn't know better I'd suspect that the locals have a lot of Golden Retriever in their DNA. I was taken aback by this warmth until I realized that it's yet another indication of wealth and ease. People like these live their lives having either just come from a pleasurable experience or looking forward to one. This realization came to me while standing on the dock of Stonington's Dog Watch Cafe, watching people take water taxis to and from their boats moored in the harbour. A voice from a ship to shore radio asked for a pickup by saying, "We're anchored by the golf course. Pick us up on the port side." So there you are on your large, comfortable boat enjoying a spectacular view, and you leave that to come ashore to enjoy one of Stonington's excellent restaurants or perhaps just stroll around the town. Like I said, life without any dips in the overall level of blissfulness. Does work get in the way? I don't think so; most people seem retired, and the others, I'm guessing, are still living off the lucre amassed by their 17th century ancestors.

Later this summer the film Elysium, starring Matt Damon, is coming to a theatre near you. It's set in a future in which the wealthy live a pampered existence on a giant satellite orbiting Earth. The rest of us live in squalor down below. For a contemporary, real world glimpse of what such a reality might be like I highly recommend a trip to Stonington.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Last Good Day to Die Hard at the White House

This relatively unknown actor is in talks to takeover the role of John McLane
In the past month I've seen The Last Stand starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, A Good Day to Die Hard with Bruce Willis, and White House Down with Channing Tatum. Yes, I admit it, I'm a slut when it comes to big, noisy action pictures, especially the ones that promise loads o' gunfire. After seeing that trio of films I've decided to become more chaste in my love for the genre, because based on those films Hollywood has lost the ability to make an action movie not involving robots or comic book superheroes.

What's stunning about all three films is their absolute ineptitude in choreographing action sequences. I don't expect a lot from this kind of film when it comes to plot and dialogue, but can't they at least manage to put together a competent shootout? The three films are quite busy with with the shooting and the running and the baddies dropping like flies, but it's all done so unimaginatively. The guiding principle for these films is that more bullets and explosions equals more entertainment. Call it the John Woo syndrome. Woo's films have a cultish appeal based on their giddy enthusiasm for unrelenting and improbable gunfights, but their charm, as it were, lessens as each lead-filled sequence is spun out longer and longer. The father of all this is Sam Peckinpah, who created the epic, Grand Guignol shootout in The Wild Bunch. What makes that film exceptional is that the big shootout comes as the finale, and by today's standards it's relatively short. More importantly, the editing and shot selection in the sequence is brilliant: it puts us right in the action and keeps things visually clear, there's no confusion over what's happening or who it's happening to.

It's depressing that Hollywood seems content to make blockbusters that don't have a hint of craft or artistry or wit. That might be asking a lot of a "popcorn" movie, but it wasn't always so. The first Die Hard film, for example, succeeded because it was clever and well made, not due to a high body count or the massive expenditure of cinematic firepower. Today's action films have become two and a half-hour action-movie  GIFs; akin to the compilation videos on YouTube of "epic fails" and Russian car crashes. This isn't really filmmaking, these are just expensive fireworks show that start big, stay big, end big, and make sane people start to look at their watches. To see how an action sequence should be done, check out the finale of The Wild Bunch below: