Not Just For the Jock

in impassioned defense of sports talk radio

When Terry Pegula bought the Buffalo Bills NFL football franchise, grown men called the local sports talk radio station, weeping. My first inclination, not being native to Buffalo, was to mock and deride, but the parade of phone calls yielded one emotion-choked, sob-filled laudation to the Pegula family after another. It was striking.

Terry Pegula was vetted by the NFL and found worthy to own a franchise. His billions were earned in the nefarious practice of fracking. I think his rags-to-riches story runs along the lines that he started twenty years ago with a used garden hose, a shovel, and a broken bicycle pump, and now he says, “I’m keeping ticket prices as low as allowable. If I need more money, I’ll drill another well.” Beautiful. Fracking, by the way, is illegal in New York. People protest it and everything. The casual observer of New York state politics agrees with the hardened cynic that, as soon as the pols can figure out an equitable way to distribute the fracking money amongst themselves, fracking will become safe, legal, and rare.

The Erie County Executive is an infrequent guest on the afternoon show, not as a fanboy politician trying to score easy votes with a very special guest appearance doing homage to the local sports team, but as a representative answering the beck and call of sports talk radio show hosts who are demanding answers in behalf of their listeners, his constituency, concerning the economic impact of necessary infrastructure changes to accommodate the inevitable downtown temple stadium. The name Robert Moses is occasionally mentioned. The entire region erupts into boos and hisses, which summons our only United States Senator, who is a Munchkin, to pad into the region to eat chicken wings and to talk about the state’s only professional football franchise and the blue-collar work ethic, not knowing, apparently, that the blue-collar work ethic caused Bethlehem Steel to sail over the western horizon of Lake Erie about forty years ago. Times have changed. Sports talk radio has changed.

No longer is sports talk radio limited to endless griping about player performance by wannabe jock hosts named Bulldog. I say that ironically: our number one radio show is “Mike Schopp and The Bulldog;” Mike is the intellectually curious ex-sort-of-jock (I think he played tennis), while The Bulldog is the sensitive cultural observer whose twitter feed @bulldogwgr is far more likely to include a paean to a favorite alt-country rock band than it is to include a mention of a sporting event. His moniker was given to him, I think, because he is a gigantic, scary-looking biker dude. Mike is excruciatingly deliberate in his attention to detail, to the delight of listeners, and to the fury of wannabe jock callers; he is a disciplined arguer, a student of forensic debate, listening carefully to his interlocutor before agreeing or disagreeing based on evidence. I say, no longer is sports talk radio limited to endless griping about player performance by wannabe jock hosts and wannabe jock callers; instead, it has become all-inclusive, a kind-of crucible for many things theoretical, e.g., philosophical, economical, political, cultural, et. al., even familial–many things theoretical put into practice.

For example, the accusation that the football team from Boston cheated by deflating its footballs to give them some sort of advantage sparked much discussion on sports talk radio about authority and consequence: how it should be meted out and who should direct it. Also discussed were issues of human character, that is, how it comes to pass that honorable men cheat, which leads back to the question of authority (an important question in a free society), revealing a wisdom that honorable men cheat as much as they can, behaving virtuously only as much as they have to. What is, finally, the enforcing authority in this social microcosm known as athletics? It is, finally, money. The commissioner’s job is to submit a product to the market that makes his billionaire employers more billions. This is true for amateur athletics and professional athletics. How, then, shall fans affect for good the teams and players they love?

Have you ever wondered how a union contract with a multi-national corporation works? How the negotiations actually proceed, legally? How they play out, publicly? What is the purpose of this leaked information? And who leaked it? Cui bono, O Representative, cui bono? We pore over every detail for days, weeks, months, as long as it takes to get the contract made.

Thus sports talk radio.

It is a vibrant salon, taking all comers, so long as you can make a reasoned argument for the passion you feel for your position. Pluralism, including old-school fans, casual fans, metrics fans (oh, the nerds!), and even trolls, expands the market, which fulfills the sports talk radio show host’s vocation. Pluralism has made talking about sports better, more informative, and more interesting. Sports talk radio has learned that substantial argumentation which includes the many facets of life which sports fandom touches is a euvoluntary exchange, much more pleasurable than the old model, which was a close communion of frustrated fans screaming at each other about archaic statistics and about the greatest team/player/coach ever. A sports talk radio show host cannot experience market growth if he condescends in this way to his audience, except when empathy for his general audience demands that he do so to an audience in specific.

Really, empathy for the audience drives sports talk radio.


Pleasurable, Exalted Terror

Edmund Burke wrote that “whatever is qualified to cause terror is a foundation capable of the sublime.” But instead of a category of aesthetics, in contemporary English the word is mainly used by the pretentious to flatter one another. It has thus lost much of the nuance that originated in Burke’s treatise On the Sublime and the Beautiful, in favor of yet another superlative for “good”.

Strictly speaking, something is sublime if it uses the infinite or incalculable to create an experience of beauty incorporating fear or overwhelming. For example, I reserve sublime to describe my first visit to the Niagara Falls, whose dramatic horseshoe of roaring waters transfixed me in a torrent of terror and tranquility.

Yet sublime does not have to refer to natural wonders or artistry. Indeed, many social phenomena can be sublime. Slavoj Žižek once argued that ideology related to the sublime, due to an influence over social reality that defied perception. Specifically, he claims ideologies require a “sublime object” that carries an irreproachable greatness, be it God, the King or the proletariat.

The general idea comes from Kant, who wrote that the sublime is a “formless object” representing our intrinsic inability to perceive vastness or complexity, thus elevating “nature beyond our reach as equivalent to a presentation of ideas.” In confronting such objects, we at once feel displeasure “arising from the inadequacy of imagination in the aesthetic estimation of magnitude” and a “simultaneous awakened pleasure, arising from this very judgement of the inadequacy of the greatest faculty of sense…”.

In ideological space, this inadequacy of imagination parallels the subject’s inability to articulate the nature of their deepest political commitments, which in turn creates a similar “awakened pleasure” in the knowledge that their cause defies a complete description.

In this sense, there is something strangely sublime surrounding the recent brutal interfaces between state and citizen in New York,  Mexico, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. To appreciate the scope and complexity behind these patterns of violence and protest is literally impossible. So out of necessity, our inadequate media elevates that which is beyond our reach to a coherent presentation of ideas. Indeed, it seems as if the news and social media act as a magnifying glass, concentrating public attention onto stochastically occurring tragedies until a spark creates ignition, giving producers the cue for the “national conversation” graphic along the lower third.

There are those that decry the news for being guilty of exploiting “sensationalism,” but this is a mistake. What is being constantly exploited is precisely our craving for the sublime. Indeed, the grotesque scenes of protest that play across our screens, straining eyes that alternate from face to crowd to face, are genuine objects of beauty. And this in turn explains why as a society we have never been more at peace, but also never more in terror. Pleasurable, exalted terror.

hong kong


Among moral philosophers there is a certain anxiety about making sure that their morality is grounded. That is, that it rests on unshakable metaphysical—or scientific—or pragmatic—foundations. The type of foundations is less important than the fact that they are sturdy rather than flimsy. In a largely unreligious era, this anxiety is especially pronounced.

This holiday season I learned something new about my family. I learned that I am fourth generation unreligious—coming from a set of chains that are unbroken all the way up to my great-grandparents on every side of my family. This is truly strange, given the very different backgrounds involved—Russian Jewish on one side and Cuban on the other. Lack of proper religion is a well-worn way of life that I was born into.

And yet my morality is grounded entirely in faith.

Ten years ago I went through something, and I came out on the other side changed. My friend and fellow Sweet Talker Sam Hammond introduced me to the notion of construal, from social psychology. This notion matched my experience perfectly, though my awareness of the theory is very recent. I saw a situation one way—a way that conveniently absolved me of taking responsibility or doing anything uncomfortable. Then I was confronted by a clear contradiction to that way of construing the situation, one that I couldn’t avoid or explain away. And so I began very uncomfortably to reconstrue things, including my role in them.

The situation did not exist in isolation; it was deeply tied to a great deal of my life in a number of subtle ways that weren’t immediately obvious to me. So once the reconstruing began, suddenly huge swaths of my life that I had taken for granted were looked at in a new light.

I won’t bore you with the details of what seemed important and dramatic to a 19-year-old kid. What I will tell you is that I had what you might call an epiphany without religious revelation.

I knew I had been a coward, and a liar, and derelict in my duty to the people in my life. At best I had been loyal, but it had been a worthless loyalty; it didn’t help the people who needed it and it stuck me to people who didn’t deserve it.

But more importantly, I knew that courage, and honesty, and justice, and loyalty of the right sort, were right. I knew they were real. I knew in my bones that I should be the sort of person who could be said to have those things. I knew, and I know, that we all ought to strive to be such a person.

I know that this faith of mine is grounded, in the sense that it is sturdy and won’t be blown over by sophistry or comfortable lies. I know, too, that it is sturdy, because when I connect with someone one on one and speak from the heart about it, I almost always see it resonate.

I also know that simply arguing from what I take as given isn’t persuasive beyond very contingent, very circumstance-specific conversations.

The reason that virtue ethics, as Deirdre McCloskey introduced it to me, is so appealing is that it seems to capture what it is I know better than anything else. Moreover, it is part of an enormous tradition, that has stood the test of time and been examined by a large body of brilliant thinkers. Some, like MacIntyre, ground it in tradition, as I am inclined to. Others, like Russell or Annas, are more cagey about what it is that grounds it, preferring to leave that work for others or possibly for later works. But all seem to capture something of what it is that I’ve found connects with other people, when I’m able to get them in a situation where I can really talk to them about this.

I am in a strange position. I am a moral realist, by faith. Yet I have no faith in the divine. I peruse the writings of, and writings on, Catholic church fathers in the virtue tradition, yet I am not Catholic, Christian, or a theist of any sort. I read Aristotle and read up on the Greek and Roman eudaimonic philosophers, rationalists to a man, yet I am not a rationalist. But I see wisdom in all of them, and from my strange little corner still feel they have a lot to teach me.

If anything stands in the place of a deity for me, it is Heraclitus’ river. At the time of my epiphany I, like most 19-year-olds and especially most 19-year-old boys, thought myself capable of greatness. That this was hilariously at odds with my boring, typical life is besides the point—after my epiphany, I came to see that there is great meaning in participating and contributing to the much greater whole of humanity and human history. When my grandfather had died earlier that same year, my father said that families are like an ongoing story; every new generation ensures that the story will continue for now. I see our lives as being that way in general—we’re all part of the ongoing story of our family, our communities, our nations; of human history itself. This is not only good enough, it is good; participating and contributing to this ongoing story just is what makes our lives meaningful.

Explaining this part of my beliefs, which I have no less faith in, is what I am the worst at. When I took my first ever stab at writing about it back in February, the general reaction could be summarized as: “what the hell are you talking about?”

And that’s fine. The big picture part, the process behind and in front of us, is in many ways the least important part. What matters most is striving to be a good person, and that is the part that I know I can get to resonate with people from when I have talked with them. People with a rather diverse set of metaphysical commitments seem to converge, or grasp towards, a very similar idea of what being a good person is like. MacIntyre thinks it’s because of an old way of thinking that is still alive in our minds. I’m not so sure it’s as contingent as that.

April of next year will mark ten years since my epiphany occurred. I was only a kid when it happened. In many ways, I am still too unread, too ignorant in the huge traditions of thought that have explored these questions, too inexperienced at life to be going around making grand pronouncements.

So I seek conversation, and beg your patience when I slip up and say something foolish, and try to stay humble, and appreciate every bit of feedback that I can get from people willing to give it in good faith.

But I do not doubt the core of my beliefs. And I have faith in the ground on which I stand.

One Is The Loneliest Number

More advent musings

John Derbyshire, who sometimes injudiciously shares naughty thoughts with the world, has notoriously wagered alongside Pascal, oscillating irregularly between a deistic agnostic and a fully materialistic atheist.

He chafes against the charge of “materialistic,” as I recall (and I can’t be bothered to look it up, but I know I’m not being unfair), offering as an argument that there is no alternative. On at least one occasion he criticized his well-meaning critics with this observation:

Those who appeal to Natural Law–some sort of appeal to the complexities of the cosmos–in an effort to re-convert him to Christianity commit a logical sleight of hand (and here the information is relevant that Derbyshire is a popularizer of advanced mathematics), that is, when they say, “How can you deny there is a Creator-God when the world is so magnificent? O John Derbyshire, you especially should know that there’s almost no mathematical probability that all this could just happen,” –when they make this argument, they are stumbling mathematically.

Au contraire, he would say. It did just happen. Those who argue that it cannot be have deftly removed the numerator from the probability.

Indeed, when I look at the work of God, and all its majesty and wonder, I come at it from a basis of faith. Of course I see the hand of God. But if I do not come at it from the basis of faith, I see the improbabilities having come to pass. It doesn’t matter the improbabilities of the physical world, both cosmic and quantum; it doesn’t matter the improbabilities of the emotional world of familial relationships and psychology; it doesn’t matter the improbabilities of laws of thermodynamics over against natural selection. They all, by all reckoning, just happened. It cannot be elsewise.

In other words, the numeral one is still atop the denominator, no matter how vast the denominator should happen to be. A chance of one in two is a chance of one in two. A chance of one in seventeen billion is still a chance, no matter how infinitesimal. Materialists rejoice as ones who walked into a casino once, and only once, placed a single chip upon a random number at the roulette wheel, and won. By chance, not miraculously. By chance.

Indeed, it is necessary to  maintain the numerator in order to remain a person of faith, i.e., a person of The Faith, which includes a Creator-God. If faithful people remove the numerator, they become fundamentalist materialists themselves, denying the confession of The Faith which includes a Creator-God. The Faith demands belief to be completely suspended, surrounded in its entirety by doubt. From that position of utter weakness, The Faith does its work.

That is to say, if there is not a one atop the denominator, there is no longer a declaration of The Faith; instead, adherents are reduced to arguing probabilities. From there, it’s a short slope to slide down into the denial of the Redeemer-God, when we bow our heads on Christmas morning, reciting that impossible thing, the number zero above the denominator, namely that, somewhere in between “Very God of Very God,” transcendent beyond apprehension, and “He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate,” there is the phrase which earns a hearty chuckle from our coevals who surround us entirely in the maelstrom of the agora, “He came down from heaven, was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”

There’s where the zero belongs: zero chance, not even a table upon which to place your bet. Let Pascal rot, or burn, whichever.


I’ve Got Plenty To Be Thankful For

Despite a lifetime of being inculcated with cynicism toward national holidays, it still behooves me to pause this Thanksgiving to give thanks for the good things around me, especially the people.

At the risk of sounding sarcastic, and, in truth, despite actually intending to be a tiny bit sarcastic for rhetorical effect, I must offer a deep and heartfelt thanksgiving to the young adults of the state of New York who have managed to stay healthy.

Why? Well, you may have heard that many sole proprietors were forced by Obamacare from their carefully crafted group health care plans, mostly through local chambers of commerce, onto the individual market, i.e., the New York Health Exchange, where socialized medicine lives in its dark recesses, like the angler fish.

With fear and trepidation I submitted myself to a broker who explained to me with deep and understanding eyes the nature of this state-controlled marketplace (which nomenclature seems a perversion on the level of the Abomination of Desolation), where I was initially mortified to find premiums for lesser products much higher than what I was accustomed to. Alas!

An artist's rendition of the New York State Health Exchange
An artist’s rendition of the New York State Health Exchange

Nevertheless, we did some poking around, played with some levers and dials, and –oila!– my premiums have gone down dramatically. Decorum prevents me from stating dollar figures and percentages (let the white papers do that in the detail you need), but it gave me, as I stated above, pause to thank young healthy people.

You see, I never actually minded paying full retail for health care as a sole proprietor. I enjoyed strolling into the environs of a health care provider armed with a high-deductible health savings plan, which meant that I walked with the snap and panache of a man dressed to the nines carrying a blue pearl eight-ball knob walking stick in one hand, and a roll of legal tender for all debts public and private in the other. I got what I was paying for.

Now I have exchanged that comfort for a hat in hand, glancing over to Mr. and Mrs. Adam Gurri, asking them for permission to garner attention and medicine, who, along with many young and healthy New Yorkers, are contributing out of their pocket for my family’s health care.

However, because of this redistribution (which, for the record, I did not ask for), my pockets are much heavier so that I might walk into a Rolls Royce dealership with the same snap and panache as I used to approach my doctor.

Indeed, with all due decorum and gratitude: to the young, healthy working people of New York State, thank you. I don’t know how long this arrangement will work, but, for the moment, it is working, and I’m grateful today.

The Englishness of Ice Hockey

An Enquiry

Everyone knows that hockey is Canada’s sport. Not everyone knows that hockey was invented by the English. There are some peculiarities to the play of the game that seem quaintly English, but I don’t know quite how to put my finger on it. Particularly in the penalty phases of the game there are Englishnesses, but from what philosophical tradition do they come? To wit:

  • Penalties in general: result in the offending player being sent off the ice for a designated period of time, during which his team must play with fewer players than their opponents.
  • Minor penalties: for minor infractions of game play, mostly involving “bad form,” as it were, putting the stick in the wrong place, clutching with the hands, crashing into an opposing player while he is in a vulnerable position, and the like, there is a two-minute penalty.
  • Double Minor penalties: for the same infractions as “bad form”, except involving an added carelessness, there is a four-minute penalty.

Okay, one can perceive some sort of sensibility at work here. However, another class of penalties highlights the peculiarities of the culture of ice hockey. I’m curious: do they illustrate a relationship to the culture which flourished on Great Britain until the middle of the Victorian Era? As follows:

  • Major penalties: for crimes of passion and premeditation, such as outright fighting with the fists, the offending players are sent off the ice for five minutes, but the offending players’ teams are not further penalized by having to play with fewer players; instead, play continues normally.
  • Misconduct penalties: for particularly egregious crimes of passion and premeditation, where, in the judgment of the game officials the player is out-of-control, there is a ten minute penalty. But, again, the offending player’s team continues to play normally.
  • Game Misconduct penalties: most oddly, for completely uncivilized game play, such as using the hockey stick as a weapon, a player will not only be sent off the ice, but out of the immediate playing area, being exiled, as it were, from the environs of hockey. What’s particularly odd about this penalty is that, like exile, the player may return to the ice after an extended period of time!
  • Match penalties: the player is deemed unfit for civil society and is ejected, never to return, also without further penalty to his team. What provokes such a penalty? Premeditated intent to injure or harm his opponent.

So (the layperson may reason) why is fighting not considered a premeditated intent to injure or harm? Well, I don’t rightly know, but I understand. If you will: a hockey fight is, in general, a gentleman’s agreement that the parties involved have some bad blood between them, stemming from some ancestry or another, perhaps not even of immediate provenance, but of ancient yore (e.g., an incident by completely different players from several games ago), and a fist fight will leech some of that bad blood. A match penalty, on the other hand, is a judgment made by the game officials that there is no gentleman’s agreement, that the barbarian has been unleashed. And that, my friends, will never do.

Mark Fraser, Cody McCormick

Aside from boxing, no other sport even tolerates fighting, much less develops a complex arrangement of unspoken agreements and concomitant delineated penalties.

Where does this come from?