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Sports and Politics in the United States and “Sir Charles” vs. “King James”: Spat Between Former NBA Star Charles Barkley and Current NBA Star Lebron James Is Representative of Some of the Issues in Current American Society

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Since the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States sports and politics in the USA have become more and more intertwined; it is symptomatic of a nation divided by ideology, one where people are supporting their political positions as they would a sports team: unwaveringly and unquestioningly. ESPN, the leader in American sports media, has taken to using one of their websites to spread political messages (from one side only, it should be noted) while ESPN writer and vice president Roxanne Brown was solicited by CNN to provide her opinion on President Donald Trump’s inauguration:

 

No day in our nation feels more patriotic than Inauguration Day — the Marine Marching Band, the past presidents, politicians and power brokers braving the cold to flock to our nation’s capital. But it was hard not to look at the sea of white faces in the crowd, gathered for President Donald J. Trump’s swearing-in, and not see represented a shockingly different America than we saw on this same day eight years ago when President Barack Obama was sworn in. In fact, this was the whitest inauguration I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.

 

Apparently, judging by the last sentence, she was unaware that most African-Americans boycotted Mr. Trump’s inauguration. This absurdity aside, of course, it is notable that a sports reporter should be given such a space in mainstream American media. It shows just how sports has become a space of contention within the cultural civil war that the United States is experiencing.

 

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ESPN Now Sells Politics With a Side Of Sports. Image Courtesy of: http://www.breitbart.com/sports/2017/01/21/espn-offers-social-media-sites-platform-leftist-activists-womens-march/

 

ESPN, for so many years a channel devoted to sports programming alone, has recently completed a turn to the field of culture. The new SC6 (the 6pm/18:00EST) edition of ESPN’s flagship highlights program Sportscenter will debut on 6 February 2017. Senior vice president of Sportscenter and news Rob King had this to say about the show in an interview:

 

This show will be unique because it is an opportunity to look in on a conversation among close friends, colleagues and the people who they bring into their orbit by virtue of the topics they choose and the interests they have. Since we launched the midnight show with Scott Van Pelt, it’s been really clear that SportsCenter can be distinguished when it’s built around unique personalities and unique conceits, especially those ideas, personalities and conceits that work for specific audiences.

 

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The Anchors of ESPN’s Newest Show. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.espnfrontrow.com/2017/01/expectations-excitement-permeate-kings-view-sc6-michael-jemele/

 

The focus on “conversation”, “unique personalities”, and “unique conceits” [Author’s Note: An odd choice of words] suggests a larger role for the personal element than the traditional sports program would present. Sports reporter Andrew Bucholtz adds that

 

there seems to be less and less interest in straight news and highlights, and both ESPN and Fox are adapting to that. Fox went with the drastic move of killing the news-and-highlights version of Fox Sports Live and turning it into more of a comedy-focused late night show, while ESPN has focused instead on making highly identifiable and individual versions of SportsCenter, from Scott Van Pelt’s show to SportsCenter A.M. and more […]

 

Most importantly, Bucholz notes the change that this program represents; for him it “is interesting because in some ways it seems to be trying to walk the line between a debate show and the traditional SportsCenter. Smith and Hill certainly have backgrounds in opinion programming too (in addition to their journalism and reporting backgrounds, which King also notes)”. The fact that sports programming in the USA is moving to a “late-night show” or “debate show” format means that the personal opinions of hosts will come more to the fore, replacing the traditional format of the sports show which presents the “facts” in the form of highlights. Inevitably, this will allow for more discussion regarding the field of culture; it would be naïve to think that ESPN—a large part of the American “culture industry”—would refrain from putting politics into their new show as well. This type of format allows ESPN to seem apolitical while being just the opposte. French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu explains how this works in his book “On Television:

 

Pushed by competition for marketshare, television networks have greater and greater recourse to the tried and true formulas of tabloid journalism, with emphasis (when not the entire newscast) devoted to human interest stories or sports. No matter what has happened in the world on a given day, more and more often the evening news begins with French soccer scores or another sporting event, interrupting the regular news […] the focus is on those things which are apt to arouse curiosity but which require no analysis, especially in the political sphere […] human interest stories create a political vacuum. They depoliticize and reduce what goes on in the world to the level of anecdote or scandal.

(Bourdieu, 1998: 44-56)

 

Here we can see that ESPN may be attempting to use an ostensibly apolitical program so as to insidiously—and indirectly—send political messages in a way that a traditional news program would not be able to. After all, a sports program is—usually—just a highlights program, presenting “facts”. SC6 strives to be much more, and it is important that we—as consumers of the culture industry in modern industrial society—are aware of what is actually happening.

My favorite American football team, the New England Patriots, has not been immune from this newly emphasized connection between sports and politics. (State) media’s New York Times profiled the close relationship between President Donald Trump and Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady, calling it an “uncomfortable love affair”. To further drive home the message, The Huffington Post published an article by Professor David Dennis Jr., who made one of the more ridiculous claims I have ever read (or heard): “Tom Brady’s Politics Are More Un-American Than Colin Kaepernick’s Have Ever Been”. I have written before about Mr. Kaepernick’s protest against the American national anthem (which cost the NFL millions of dollars because—shocker here—the NFL has many fans who actually like the United States). Professor David Dennis Jr.’s piece—due to its sheer absurdity—deserves a little bit of air time here. First the New England star Tom Brady is quoted in his own words regarding President Donald Trump:

 

“I have called him, yes, in the past. Sometimes he calls me. Sometimes I call,” Brady said. “But, again, that’s been someone I’ve known. I always try to keep it in context because for 16 years you know someone before maybe he was in the position that he was in. He’s been very supportive of me for a long time. It’s just a friendship. I have a lot of friends. I call a lot of people.”

 

Here, Tom Brady’s words seem pretty normal. Like say, something someone would say about their friend. And, since the United States is a free country, it would seem normal that one is allowed to choose who their friends are. Apparently, Professor Dennis Jr. doesn’t agree, adding a gratuitous racial comment by invoking “white privilege” in his commentary:

 

Brady was confused as to why his relationship with the president was even a relevant topic of discussion.

“Why does everybody make such a big deal? I don’t understand it.”

Brady’s obliviousness reeks of white privilege and dismissiveness; a #MAGA trait if there ever was one. But what’s most troubling is the way Brady’s Trump endorsement has been treated compared to Kaepernick’s political statements.

 

Professor Dennis Jr. then drops his bombshell claim:

 

Brady’s Trump endorsement, however, has been largely ignored when, in fact, supporting Donald Trump as President of The United States is far more threatening to America than taking a knee during the National Anthem.

 

I have no idea why merely voicing support for a candidate who was supported by almost half of the country could be “threatening” or even comparable to insulting all those who believe in American nationalism, but such is the absurd climate in the United States currently.

 

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A Picture of What State Media’s New York Times dubbed “the uncomfortable love affair”. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/01/magazine/the-uncomfortable-love-affair-between-donald-trump-and-the-new-england-patriots.html

 

At least former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka offered some choice words defending Mr. Brady telling the country to “grow up” and adding “Dammit. I thought this country was a country of choice!” On a separate show he called journalists “assholes” and criticized former President Barack Obama for “showing no leadership at all”. I can agree with Mr. Ditka’s last claim, seeing as how the United States—under President Obama—dropped on average a staggering 72 bombs a day in 2016 on foreign countries, leading to the odd situation where Mr. Trump is called a racist while Mr. Obama’s imperialism goes ignored.

 

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The Indomitable Mike Ditka, Sweater et al. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.pbtalent.com/blog/speaker/mike-ditka

 

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Sorry, I just Couldn’t Resist. Image Courtesy of a Friend Via Social Media.

 

Mr. Ditka’s point, regarding the need for Americans to “grow up” is one that is directly relevant to the spat between basketball analyst Charles Barkley and basketball star Lebron James. A longtime NBA analyst and former player, Mr. Barkley criticized Mr. James for his comments regarding his team’s front office when he asked for another player to help his team win the championship (they won last year while—somehow—managing a loss of forty million USD). Barkley said Mr. James’ comments were:

 

Inappropriate. Whiny. All of the above. The Cleveland Cavaliers, they have given him everything he wanted. They have the highest payroll in NBA history. He wanted J.R. Smith last summer, they paid him. He wanted [Iman] Shumpert last summer. They brought in Kyle Korver. He’s the best player in the world. Does he want all of the good players? He don’t want to compete? He is an amazing player. They’re the defending champs.

 

Mr. James responded with personal attacks on Mr. Barkley, calling him “a hater” and asking the rhetorical question “what makes what he says credible? Because he’s on TV?” Mr. James here seemed to forget that his open endorsement of U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and insult directed at those who voted for Mr. Trump (Mr. James called them “goofy” even though the majority of voters in Mr. James’ state voted for Donald Trump) were only made credible because he is on TV himself! Mr. James’ diatribe, however, continued (for video, please see nba.com):

 

I’m not going to let him disrespect my legacy like that. I’m not the one who threw somebody through a window. I never spit on a kid. I never had unpaid debt in Las Vegas. I never said, ‘I’m not a role model.’ I never showed up to All-Star Weekend on Sunday because I was in Vegas all weekend partying.

All I’ve done for my entire career is represent the NBA the right way. Fourteen years,      never got in trouble. Respected the game. Print that.

 

Later Mr. Barkley laughed it off, saying “I was laughing, clearly he did some homework … he Googled me and found some things … He was young when I was playing, so I appreciate that, but I’m not upset about it. … My criticism was fair, and I’m good with that … Some of the stuff he said about me is correct — doesn’t make the message I said about him incorrect. Some of them are intimidated about LeBron, [but] I’m not intimidated at all.”

A day later Mr. Barkley added that “It’s a different generation. If we don’t say everything positive about them all the time, we’re a hater. But I’ve gotten more support than I saw coming. To be honest with you, it’s been great. Especially the guys in the media who are like, ‘Thank you. I can’t say it because I need to talk to him.’ ” Here Mr. Barkley touches on a very important point, one that makes this odd exchange indicative of the current state of culture in the United States.

Lebron James really is of “a different generation”. It is one that, for starters, clearly has no respect for those that came before them. If it weren’t for players like Charles Barkley making the NBA popular in the 1990s, it is probable that Lebron James wouldn’t be the star he currently is. It is the same kind of lack of perspective that allowed Colin Kaepernick to take a shot at the United States…even though the sport he is paid to play is mainly played in the United States. Secondly, Lebron James’ generation is one that also has no self-respect. It is a generation that is all about “Me, Me, Me” and never “We, We, We”. It must always be praise and compliments; criticism cannot be accepted. Unfortunately, the current culture in the United States has become a culture of being “offended”, where comments one doesn’t like are deemed to be “offensive”. It is the same culture that does not accept the outcome of a presidential election because…the candidate they wanted did not win. Its an odd state of affairs, but the spat between Mr. Barkley and Mr. James goes some way to explaining how deeply engrained the cult of the individual has become in American society. If the country—and its culture—is to move forward we must at least attempt to move outside of our own personal selves and try to understand other perspectives. Otherwise, we are doomed to living in a fragmented and rudderless society where criticism—and therefore debate (whether about sports or politics)—is impossible.

 

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Sir Charles, Pictured With the Classic Phoenix Suns Jersey. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.casino.org/news/charles-barkley-says-lost-millions-gambling-dozens-occasions

 

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King James Looking a Bit Perturbed. Image Courtesy Of: http://ftw.usatoday.com/2016/03/lebron-james-could-leave-cleveland-says-stephen-a-smith
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My Favorite Nike Football Advertisements

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Since the release of Nike’s latest epic football advertisement Winner Takes All ahead of this summer’s World Cup many websites have been writing about the greatest football advertisements in history (Even Esqire got into it!) Unfortunately, many of the lists have been all too similar. So I decided to create a list of my own—one along the lines of one of the themes that this blog follows—football shirts. As I wrote about in the “About” section there is an air of nostalgia in the way that I follow football—the players and shirts are what define historical eras in my mind. Therefore, while “Winner Takes All” is certainly an incredible video that embraces the grass-roots football we grew up on, there are a few more out there that take me back to a simpler time, and still others that fully embody the true meaning of modern, “industrial”, football.

Here is my list that I hope may serve as a sort of anthology for some. I tried my best to include the directors of each film as well as the songs that provided the soundtracks, in addition to a list of the footballers featured in each advertisement. For this effort Vincent Battaglia’s website was quite useful, in addition to that bastion of free information (as long as it is double checked), Wikipedia.

 

Winner Takes All (2014, For the FIFA World Cup in Brazil)

Featuring: Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar Jr., Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Gerard Piqué, Gonzalo Higuaín, Mario Götze, Eden Hazard, Thiago Silva, Andrea Pirlo, David Luiz, Andrés Iniesta, Thibaut Courtois, and Tim Howard.

Since this is the most recent advertisement—and the one that sparked this column—it is a fitting one to start with. The theme of young kids playing in a pick-up game is one that many of us football fans can relate to, and for that I commend Nike in returning to the theme. As a kid in Turkey my friends and I definitely embodied the stars of our time, and that’s why this video stuck a chord with me. My poor foot-work made me more of a Tony Meola at the time—so Tim Howard (or the Hulk, of course) in this video 20 years on.

This advertisement also represents many facets of “industrial football”. Note that the players who appear in their team jerseys are those whose teams (national and/or club) are contracted with Nike. That’s why Eden Hazard (Belgium/Chelsea) and Mario Gotze (Germany/Bayern Munich) wear non-descript kits in this video. Hazard plays in Burrda Sport for Belgium and Adidas for Chelsea while Gotze plays in Adidas for both Germany and Bayern Munich. It is also why Kobe Bryant has a cameo—he is, after all, contracted by Nike. And he appeals to an American audience, one very distant from European soccer. When the bottom line is making money, it explains the rather bizarre scene of Kobe Bryant conversing with Andrea Pirlo—even if Bryant grew up in Italy and is reported to be a soccer fan.

Secret Tournament (Cage Football) (2002, For the FIFA World Cup in Korea/Japan)

Directed by Terry Gilliam

For More Please See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secret_Tournament

Featuring (Teams in Parantheses): (Thierry Henry, Francesco Totti, Hidetoshi Nakata), (Patrick Viera, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Paul Scholes), (Fredrik Ljungberg, Javier Saviola, Luis Enrique), (Edgar Davids, Lilian Thuram, Sylvain Wiltord), (Luis Figo, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo), (Denilson, Ronaldinho, Seol Ki-Hyeon), (Fabio Cannavaro, Tomas Rosicky, Rio Ferdinand), (Claudio Lopez, Gaizka Mendieta, Hernan Crespo), and Eric Cantona.

Music: JXL Vs. Elvis Presley “A Little Less Conversation”

In my mind this is the best Nike advertisement and it takes its place at the top of my list. It is the true roots of the game with players engaged in a quick competition that focuses on individual skill while in a team setting and just one rule, as Cantona charismatically explains: “First goal wins”. The twenty-four football stars are divided into teams of three, competing in a cage football match aboard a freighter. The winners move on and the losers are dumped into the ocean to swim ashore. Notably, none of the players wear their club or national team shirts—whether contracted by Nike or not. In this sense, then, it avoids the awkwardness of “Winner Take All” with Zlatan rocking the shirt of his club side Paris Saint Germain (Sweden are with Adidas) while Cristiano Ronaldo is in Portugal’s Nike shirt (Real Madrid are with Adidas) and Hazard is in a Nike training shirt bearing no resemblance to the kit of either his club or country (his kit allegiances are explained above).

There is also a bit of nostalgia for me personally. This is a clip that made a summer classic out of JXL’s remix of Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation”. The lyrics itself invoke a summer night of world class football which is fitting since the advertisement was released in the run up to the 2002 World Cup: “Baby close your eyes and listen to the music/Drifting through a summer breeze”. Lets also not forget that two of the three footballers on the winning team from the advert—Thierry Henry and Francesco Totti—are still playing; Henry is in the USA with Red Bull New York while Totti continues to turn back the clock for his only club, AS Roma.

 

Take It To The Next Level (2008)

Directed by Guy Ritchie

For More Please See: http://www.72andsunny.com/work/nike/next-level

And: http://www.adweek.com/adfreak/top-10-soccer-commercials-ever-made-130585?page=2

Featuring: Wayne Rooney, Arsene Wenger, Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marco Materazzi, Ronaldinho, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wesley Sneijder and others including much of Arsenal’s 2008 squad.

Music: Eagles of Death Metal “Don’t Speak”

This advertisement is up there simply because it is a tour de force of football and filmmaking simultaneously. This advert is shot entirely in the first person; we are put in the shoes of an aspiring Dutch footballer who is signed to Arsenal. We follow him through his own eyes as he gets his kits from the equipment manager at Arsenal and is humbled on his first substitute appearance by the likes of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo at Manchester United (Remember, both United and Arsenal’s kits at the time were—and still are—made by Nike). We follow the young footballer back to the training ground where he works hard—even vomiting from the effort—to become a top class footballer.

Guy Ritchie’s directorial acumen shows through when the kiss of a team-mate celebrating a game winning goal gives way to a kiss from a beautiful lady friend, transporting us from the on-pitch world of a professional European footballer to the glitz and glamour of European nights off the pitch. The excesses mean some failure on the pitch, of course (including a lost tooth) before more training ground work pays off for an amazingly struck free kick goal for the Dutch national team in what we assume to be the World Cup. Truly an inspiring and at times humorous three and a half minutes in keeping with Nike’s epic style.

 

Match In Hell/Good Vs. Evil (1996, For the UEFA European Championship in England)

Featuring: Eric Cantona, Paulo Maldini, Luis Figo, Ian Wright, Jorge Campos, Patrick Kluivert, Thomas Brolin, Rui Costa, Ronaldo.

This simply has to make the list if only because of the two (!) lines of dialogue. We are presented with a team of world football superstars from the era competing in a match in hell (Hell Trafford—perhaps a nod to Manchester United’s ill-fated trip to the “Hell” of Galatasaray’s Ali Sami Yen Stadium?? I don’t know . . .). In any case our superstars—including the faded star Thomas Brolin—are roughed up by a few undead footballers before coming into their own and defeating them with a hard shot by non other than Eric Cantona. Paulo Maldini’s immortal “Maybe they’re friendly?” could only be eclipsed by Cantona’s classic “Au Revoir” as he flips the collar on his shirt up in a way that only Cantona could.

For me the best part of this clearly “period” advertisement is that Nike had not yet taken a strangle hold on the brands presented in their advert—in the months leading up to Euro 1996 industrial football was still in its early stages. The team of “world all-stars” wear the shirts they’re famous for. Brolin is in Parma’s classic Puma kit and Figo carries Barcelona’s Kappa shirt while Cantona wears the Umbro kit United made famous.

 

Airport 90 (1998, For FIFA World Cup in France)

Featuring: Brazil’s 1998 World Cup Squad.

Music: Sergio Mendes “Mas Que Nada”

This is—judging by many of the lists I’ve perused—another favorite, and rightly so. Before the “Secret Tournament” made “A Little More Conversation” famous Airport 90 made Sergio Mendes’ “Mas Que Nada” famous. The advert features Brazil’s World Cup squad—the one that would finish runners up to France in the summer—making the most of a flight delay. Ronaldo, who was the darling of the football world at the time, is the most prominent star in this clip while Roberto Carlos and Denilson appear alongside him. This video evokes times of a more relaxed airport atmosphere, before the draconian measures that came into force in airports worldwide following the tragedies of September 11, 2001.

 

Write The Future (2010, for the FIFA World Cup in South Africa)

Directed by Alejandro Iñárritu

Featuring: Didier Drogba, Fabio Cannavaro, Wayne Rooney, Lassana Diarra, Theo Walcott, Patrice Evra, Franck Ribery, Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, Jeremy Toulalan, Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, Thiago Silva, Luis Fabiano, Ronaldinho, Cristiano Ronaldo, Andre Oojier AND Roger Federer, Kobe Bryant, Homer Simpson.

Music: Focus “Hocus Pocus”

Write The Future is along the lines of 2008’s Take It To The Next Level—it is, after all, a sequel. Unlike most sequels, however, this one more than holds its own. It chronicles two different outcomes of England’s future based on Wayne Rooney’s performance. He fails to stop Franck Ribery and France win, while the English stock market crashes and Rooney is reduced to a groundskeeper living in a trailer park. He stops Ribery and England win, the stock market goes sky high and babies across England are being named Wayne. Never mind that reality is somewhere between the two outcomes, its still an amusing advertisement. Perhaps the most realistic outcome is that concerning Cristiano Ronaldo—his star has only risen six years on.

As for a mention on the shirts in this advertisement note that Rooney is sporting the double diamond of Umbro in this Nike advert—since, at that point, Nike had bought Umbro. As a double dose of the globalization of world football Kobe Bryant also has a prominent cameo in this ad, along with the “like” button of social media. I can’t help but be thankful that social media made no appearance in Take It To The Next Level.

 

The Mission 90 (2000, For the UEFA European Championship in Belgium/Netherlands)

Featuring: Edgar Davids, Oliver Bierhoff, Hidetoshi Nakata, Luis Figo, Francesco Totti, Lilian Thuram, Josep Guardiola, Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, and Louis Van Gaal.

This is one of the last of the Nike advertisements that didn’t go full-scale into the global marketing of the game. Like the 2002 Secret Tournament ad the players do not sport the shirts of their individual teams—as such, the cast is open to footballers regardless of the teams they may play for. The plot is someone sensationalist, similar to 1996’s Match In Hell. The players are attempting to retrieve a ball because it is “rounder”, according to mission leader Louis van Gaal. Indeed, this is the match ball for the 2000 European Championships. The stars proceed to battle cyborg samurais before escaping with their bounty before the building explodes as the advert ends. Normal stuff, right?

 

My Time Is Now (2012, For the UEFA European Championship in Poland/Ukraine)

Featuring: Franck Ribery, Cristiano Ronaldo, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, Wesley Sneijder, Mesut Ozil, Neymar, and others—including . . . Lebron James??

Music: The Eighties Matchbox B Line Disaster “Chicken”

I rank this video last in my hierarchy of Nike football advertisements for many reasons. First of all, it is pretty ridiculous. Sure, many of the previous adverts listed here were ridiculous in their own right but please, hear me out. In this clip there seems to be no cohesive plot, and it seems to be a glorified pitch invasion. Having witnessed one such unfortunate event myself it doesn’t sit well with me to support such defamations of the game. Also, the blatant advertising put forth my Nike in this ad disappointed me. Yes, it is an advertisement for Nike, but please—don’t ram that down the viewer’s throats so crudely!

The fictional match is between Holland and France—both in Nike kits—while the players streaming onto the pitch are sporting Nike’s training line of apparel. As if all of that weren’t enough, Lebron James makes an appearance—a gross representation of the global advertising motives of Nike. I would have been much happier if a football goalkeeper made the “save” that James makes in this video since, well, it’s a football video! Nike chose to have Kobe Bryant return in this year’s Winner Takes All as the resident American sports star. While it is still a weird blurring of sport lines for money making purposes that makes me uncomfortable, at least Bryant has a history with the game of soccer as I mentioned earlier. I’m not sure of any similar natural associations that Lebron James has with football (other than his part-ownership of Liverpool, which is in the business realm).