Monthly Archives: April 2014

Why do the greats come back? Part 2: Stephen Hendry

Snooker: Stephen Hendry backs himself to shine in ‘wild-card’ comebackLast week, Michael Phelps, now Stephen Hendry: two outstanding sportsmen have announced surprise comebacks at an age when most men are reading seed catalogues and pottering around their gardens. Why? The news of Phelps (who swims tonight, by the way) prompted me to blog an extract from my book Sport and Exercise Psychology: The Key Concepts, which is a sort of A-Z guide. For those of you who didn’t catch it, here’s the entry “Comebacks” again.

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The return of a once-retired athlete aiming to recapture his or her former position and status is, of course, a comeback. Recovery from long periods of incapacity caused by illness or injury sometimes warrant the term comeback, though it is usually reserved for the resumption of a sports career that was considered over. Comebacks are legion in sports and, while the aphorism ‘they never come back’ suggests that aging competitors’ attempts inevitably conclude in failure, several comebacks have been conspicuously successful.

Mario Lemieux came out of retirement in 2000 and, at the age of 35, resumed his garlanded career with Pittsburgh Penguins and played hockey with same kind of brilliance as he had in the first phase of his career. George Foreman returned to the ring in the 1990s after a 20-year break at 45 and enjoyed considerable success until retiring for good at 49. By contrast, Björn Borg dropped out of tennis at 26, when still a top five ranked player, only to come back ten years later. He suffered a series of ignominious defeats by modest players. George Best also retired in his twenties; this was the first of several ‘retirements,’ each followed by a comeback; the progressive decay of his once-formidable skill was evident in his every return to the soccer field. When he left soccer entirely, his progressive dependence on alcohol became life threatening.

Clearly every athlete takes risks when deciding to come back; the more prestigious the athlete, the greater the risk. For them, the possibility of a humbling is accentuated: witness the embarrassment suffered by multiple gold medalist Mark Spitz, his gray hair colored to conceal his age, but his physical decline painfully revealed in a sequence of defeats in the pool. Spitz won seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics and worked as a television analyst at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The experience of watching others compete frustrated him so much that he made his unfortunate comeback several years later.

The motivation behind some comebacks may be obvious. Borg, for example, had become involved in disastrous business ventures and needed money. Best too was lured by the temptation of riches.  The majority of retirees need to work and are poorly prepared to do so, having spent fifteen or so years in competitive sports. Lacking preparation for any occupation outside sports, many return simply to make a living. But, in the case of successful athletes who clearly have wealth enough to sustain them through several lifetimes, the motivation is less certain.

Journalist Blake Morrison suggested an interesting possibility in speculating on the much-discussed comeback of Michael Jordan: ‘The obvious explanation is that he misses the buzz ­ the adrenalin and applause … when a man’s celebrity is based on something he no longer does, he can feel very strange about it – exiled from himself and unentitled’ [sic]. Jordan was 38 at the time of the conjecture about his return, older than most comebacking athletes. Morrison argued that many men (he did not mention women) venture toward some way of ‘confirming and vindicating’ themselves as they approach 40. Harley Davidson motorcycles have a large market comprising males of that age group.

The ‘midlife crisis’ supposedly accounts for many fortyish men embarking on unexpected and often dangerous pursuits, presumably as a way of endorsing their credentials as active and dynamic agents rather than listless, middle-aged residues of people whose vitality and youth have long gone.  For athletes, the predicament is arguably more acute: for a substantial part of their maturity they are engaged in pursuits that demand vitality and youth, as well as many other physical attributes. Their sense of self as well as their public persona is based not so much on wisdom, sagacity, insight  or soundness of judgement, but on performance. When they are no longer able to perform to appropriate levels, managers, coaches, critical fans and the media rudely remind them of this. There is no room for self-delusion in sports. Retirement may be the result of conscious decision, but that decision is usually affected by the judgement of others, or, in some cases, serious injuries.  Once the echoes of others’ criticisms have faded and the injuries have healed, fresh perspectives appear and the athlete may sense the chance of proving him- or herself all over again.

Ray Leonard’s comeback seem to fit into this model. Regarded as a suitable inheritor of Sugar Ray Robinson’s mantle, Leonard led a triumphant amateur and professional career, establishing himself as one of finest pound-for-pound boxers in history.  A detached retina forced him out of the sport. Surgery repaired the injury and Leonard plotted an outrageous comeback, moving up a weight class to middleweight to challenge — and beat —  Marvelous Marvin Hagler (who promptly retired himself and refused several lucrative offers to come back). Leonard’s critics were silenced as he regaining his finest form, making several successful defenses, at one point stepping up a further weight class. The present writer interviewed Leonard at his camp while he prepared for what was to be his final fight (a defeat to Terry Norris) and sought the sources of Leonard’s attachment with his sport. ‘This is the only place I feel who I really am,’ said Leonard. (Leonard actually made two comebacks, the first — prior to the Hagler fight — lasting only one fight.)

Sport was the context for establishing Leonard’s self-efficacy, for validating himself, both through public approval and intrinsic gratification: in short, he regarded himself as  quintessentially a fighter — all other aspects of his character were secondary.  Deprived of his ability to fight, Leonard believed he could no longer be who he truly was.  Like Lemieux, Foreman and several other athletes who came back after long, prosperous careers (Leonard had already earned an estimated $30 million when he first ‘retired’), Leonard returned to sport because he felt deprived.  Stripped of opportunities to perform to an audience, to demonstrate their worth and to draw acclaim, athletes lose a facility that has been with them for the majority of their adult lives and which actually forms part of their lives.

Other factors contributing toward the comeback derive from the sports socialization — the learning process through which athletes acquire particular values, ambitions and designs. Athletes are usually immersed in sports culture by the time they reach eleven; in many sports (such as gymnastics and tennis), competitors are training hard and cultivating ambitions from about the age of six (Chris Evert was one such athlete who did not come back and famously declared ‘there is life after tennis’). By the time any sports performer is 13, he or she will have started to formulate plans. As ambitions in sports take priority, so athletes discard other career aims and involve themselves in an environment in which  significant influences include coaches, managers, scouts and, perhaps, agents. These form a type of protective enclosure, shielding the athlete from the travail and irritation that affect most people — like procuring a mortgage, paying bills, investing for the future. Unless the athlete prolongs his or her involvement in sport after retirement (as a manager, or tv commentator, for instance), he or she is likely to lose the enclosure and become part of a different environment. Coming back may be a way of re-entering what was once a comfortable environment.

Those who populate the enclosure continually dispense advice and one of the first caveats a propective athlete hears is that a career in sport is relatively short. As Billie-Jean King once said: ‘When athletes reach their thirties … everybody keeps telling them they should quit. They start to think they are slowing down because everybody asks “are you slowing down?”’(King made a money-motivated comeback at 40 and made it to the Wimbledon singles semi-finals). In other words, athletes often retire prematurely because of mere convention and, when they sense that other, perhaps older athletes have resumed their careers, they are inspired to follow suit. Comebacking athletes that approach or even surpass their previous form provide living proof that the comeback trail is not always a dead-end.

Competitiveness also comes, or is least heightened, through socialization in sports and, once an active career is over, challenges disappear.  Sometimes, they are replaced by new challenges; but what greater challenge is there than to re-launch a sports career? Socialized into rising to meet challenges, no matter how awesome, a retired athlete may construe the comeback as the ultimate challenge.  This seems to account for the comeback of rower Steve Redgrave, who, in 1996, after winning his fourth Olympic gold, ordered the media: ‘Shoot me if I go near a boat again.’ Four years later, he returned to win a fifth gold medal.

Finally, we should also acknowledge the explanation of Matt Biondi, who retired from competitive swimming after the 1988 Olympics, having amassed six gold medals. ‘I realized that it was ridiculous to give it up because I still enjoyed it’ (he won two more golds and a silver in his comeback). Competitive sports are a way of earning a living for professional athletes, but the initial interest in the activity was intrinsic. It is at least possible that, despite the years of arduous training interspersed by injury, the joy of competition lingers long enough to motivate a comeback.

Should the new Culture Secretary know about … er, culture?

Sajid Javid: the man who thinks big

So we have a new Culture Secretary. I wonder how he rates Daenerys Targaryenthe’s chances of snagging the most coveted seat of all, the Iron Throne. And whether he thinks Darren Aronofsky has succeeded in making an old religious story fresh, germane yet fantastical. Or if he’s wonderstruck by Liz Taylor’s 23.44 carat emerald pendant hanging from a circle of 16 step-cut octagonal Colombian emeralds, currently on display at the V&A. Or if Sajid Javid (pictured) knows about any of these. Or even if he should. That’s the thing about Culture Secretaries: they’re not very cultural. Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, to give the title its full nomenclature, is a cabinet position whose incumbent has responsibility for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.It was created back in 1992 by the Conservative government of the day and its first occupant David Mellor, a diastemic non-practising barrister, immediately dispossessed the position of any gravitas when he succumbed to weaknesses of the flesh and became known as the Minister of Fun. His scandalous behaviour – mild as it is by today’s standards (toe-sucking while wearing a Chelsea football shirt) – inclined him to resign. The office has never truly recovered: it’s still not regarded as a serious political position and, of course, the recent Maria Miller debacle that led directly to Javid’s promotion has hardly lent the office dignity.

At first glance, Javid does not look to the manor born: son of a Pakistani migrant who bootstrapped his way from a penniless bus driver to a small business owner, Javid studied economics and headed for a career in finance until his political epiphany. He apparently sacrificed a £3 million per year income when he hitched his wagon to David Cameron’s star.His professional life so far is garlanded with achievements, like being the youngest ever VP of Chase Manhattan Bank in New York and a director of Deutsche Bank. But nowhere do we find evidence of an interest in the arts, or any aspect of culture, contemporary or historical, for that matter. Perhaps I’m being priggish. This is after all a government position and, as such, requires an unimpaired pragmatic mind, sound decision-making capacities and a sneering disregard for the taxpaying electorate when filing expense claims. I can hardly contain my indifference over Mr Javid’s appointment. Does being a commendably over-achieving workaholic qualify someone for this job? I am simple-minded enough to expect someone who occupies the position of Culture Secretary to have more links with culture than sharing the same hairdo as Vin Diesel. Having said this, I prefer Mr Javid to the outgoing Mrs Miller, even if she did have some experience in advertising, which is, after all, a creative industry and very much part of today’s cultural landscape. Much as I abhor her slyness, I’m not naïve enough to think she is in her own little universe in this respect. So, when I say prefer Mr Javid to Mrs Miller, I mean in the same way that I favour a sodium thiopental injection to being broken on the wheel. I doubt if Mr Javid will bring more than a Stakhanovite work ethic and a self-serving determination to climb the greasy pole to a job that teems with promise but rarely delivers. How many great Culture Secretaries can you recall? Mr Javid’s department is not exactly a political tinderbox: it makes policies for, among other things, arts and culture, of course; but also for gambling, museums, tourism, sport … Oh yes, and media ownership and mergers.

This last area might provide Mr Javid with a lively test. Richard Desmond, who owns Channel 5, has recently put his free-to-air TV channel on the market. The home of Australian soaps Neighbours and Home and Away in the UK as well as Big Brother is already attracting interest from American and Australian media behemoths. At about £700m, the terrestrial, free-to-air channel could be enticing, considering the potential viewing audiences in the UK (it’s 2013 Celebrity Big Brother drew more than 3 million viewers.) Discovery is favourite. But what happens should Discovery get together with BSkyB to launch a joint bid? The British satellite broadcaster’s majority owner Rupert Murdoch has close connections with Discovery’s boss John Malone and BSkyB has a long relationship with Discovery, carrying several of its channels on its pay-TV platform. It also supplies content to Channel 5’s news.So far, Murdoch’s attempts to set foot on terrestrial broadcasting have been frustrated and, of course, the Leveson Inquiry seemed to have slammed the door shut in 2012.Mr Javid’s pulse will quicken if he’s pressed into service on this deal; he’ll surely recall the Business Secretary Vince Cable’s maladroit declaration of “war” on Mr Murdoch in 2010 – a declaration that effectively put paid to his grand political aspirations. And he’ll remember how another ex-Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt had to fight for his political career after the emergence of a cache of emails between his office and Mr Murdoch’s multinational empire News Corporation over the company’s bid for the remaining part of BSkyB it does not already own.  Maybe an appetite for a down-and-dirty struggle with corporate string-pullers and egotistical politicos is a more relevant qualification than a familiarity with Game of Thrones, Noah or a Glamour of Italian Fashion: 1945-2014 exhibition ­-­though his documented enthusiasm for Star Trek may equip him handily. I hope he knows the 1998 episode “The Killing Game,” in which the USS Voyager is captured and turned into a holographic battleground where a struggle for world domination takes place.

via Telegraph

Peaches in our imagination

“Celebrities exist because people have the capacity to fantasize,” writes Andrew Houston. He goes on: “Fantasy is usually conceived as a scenario wherein a person’s desire is realized.” Houston, a drama scholar, believes celebrity culture functions as a kind of drama we stage in our own minds. Our dramatis personae are the actors we see in the popular media and we write our own scripts, according to our own wishes. As Houston concludes: “Our attraction to celebrities is a lesson in how to desire.” Celebrity culture, in this conception, becomes a theatre of the senses. I was reminded of this by the breathtakingly passionate response to the death of Peaches Geldof (pictured). Whether people actually knew her or not is irrelevant: she touched people in so many ways without even realizing it. Not always through her columns or even her media appearances, nor even by her presence. But by her imagined presence: what we thought her to be. Neal Gabler, a cultural historian, and film critic, has written: “Celebrity really isn’t a person. Celebrity is more like a vast, multicharacter show.” He suggests: “Celebrity is narrative, even though we understandably conflate the protagonist of the narrative with the narrative itself and use the terms interchangeably.” While he doesn’t define exactly what he means by narrative, I presume he refers to an unbroken account, consisting of incidents and people that connect to form an overall story. The story may be a chronicle, or a history to record of events and it may incorporate elements of a fable in the sense that it conveys a moral or lesson.  Peaches herself was and perhaps still is a narrative. Her death presents us with an occasion to reflect on why we find some celebrities endlessly fascinating. Below I extract a few paragraphs from the Introduction of the new edition of my book Celebrity Culture.

Anthony J. Ferri, a professor of journalism, invokes a term used by Walter Lippman in a 1922, to link the imagined celebrities to the actual characters we read and gossip about. There is, he reckons, “a distinction between their real environment or the objectified world, and the ‘pseudoenvironment’ made up of the images in our heads of the world outside.” None of these helps us understand why we have become so drawn to celebrities in recent years, though Ferri offers the view:  “Celebrities, whether they are acting out a role in a particular medium or behaving badly in everyday life, help us purge our frustrations.” I’ll return to this, but for now merely want to record the thoughts of three writers, all from different intellectual backgrounds, but all agreed that, when we talk or think about celebrities, we are not referring to actual people, but rather to ideas, thoughts, concepts or mental impressions of those people. What Daniel Harris calls mirages: “Our contact with celebrities is so limited that we view them as mirages.”
“Fantasies? Images? Mirages? What kind of nonsense is this? Surely celebrities are real people” readers might respond. Clearly, there are such physical beings as Kim, Amy, Madonna and the innumerable other celebrities who populate not just our mental landscape but the cultural landscape. They’re not just physical people though, claims Nigel Thrift:  “The glamorous celebrity is neither person nor thing but something in between, an unobtainable reality, an imaginary friend, and an accessory.” The “unobtainable” person only becomes obtainable when we are actively involved. So when we come to examining celebrity culture, our focus should be “less on celebrity than on the mass public’s ability to create the celebrity, the ways in which the public can confer and deny, circulate and consume fame,” to steal a phrase from English professor, Stacey Margolis. What does she mean? Confer: grant or bestow. Deny: refuse to give. Circulate: move continuously and freely. Consume:  ingest; buy; use; preoccupy; completely destroy. Margolis uses these terms to describe how we can both award or take away, communicate and engage with fame. We make people famous; and we also make them obscure. Consumers are the final arbiters:  they  – that is, we – serve out the plaudits and the condemnations. And to people we don’t actually know. We shouldn’t underestimate the colossal power of interest groups in promoting and sustaining celebrity culture. Barry King remarks: “All kinds of performers – rock stars, sports stars, literary stars, actors, politicians – circulate through the media via appearances in diverse media forms and formats.” King doesn’t mean they literally circulate: he is describing how representations, images, or even sounds move continuously through media, which is also continuously moving, changing shape and size. The media are our confederates, as are the corporations that stand to gain, or lose, from the fortunes of people who vie for our attentions. A confederate is an accomplice, a collaborator, an ally; something or someone that is in league with us, and not manipulating, taking advantage of, or just playing us. There are costs involved in being part of a culture in which we attach value to the kind of people and objects that would not rate a moment’s thought as recently as fifteen years ago. Today, celebrities contribute to daily life at practically every level, from the institutional to the personal; and they’re factors in how we create and attach meanings to all manner of events that affect us. It could be argued that celebrities help us think about ourselves and, as such, incite us to refashion our self-identities.
via Theguardian


Peaches Geldof death: your reaction  What is your reaction to the death of Peaches Geldof (pictured left)? “We are beyond pain,” said her father, the musician Bob Geldof, when confirming her death, adding that “she was the wildest, funniest, cleverest, wittiest and the most bonkers of all of us.” The news has had a huge reaction, with record numbers of people viewing stories about it. In this BBC World Service discussion, Anne-Marie Tomchak,  Daisy Buchanan, Emily Davis and Shirley Halperin talk with Ellis Cashmore about the meaning she had for countless people and raise the question: why did she matter so much? Click the top link above for the discussion.

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via Bbc

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After Chris Hughton’s sack from Norwich, English football is left looking ‘hideously white’

On the eve of this year’s Super Bowl, John Wooten, a former NFL player, posed a question as to when he and his fellow advocates and supporters of the Rooney Rule would accept their work was done. Independent journalist Robin Scott-Elliott reflects on how football management in England seems to perpetuate itself, leaving few opportunities for black managers. My colleague Jamie Cleland and I pondered the same situation, asking fans (1) whether a form of institutional racism affects football; and (2) whether a type of Rooney Rule could be applied to association football. This has been effective in the NFL, but positive discrimination is held in suspicion in the UK. Click here for the full text of the article: On BLACK FOOTBALL MANAGERS

This is how fans view football’s dark side

Football’s Dark Side: Corruption, Homophobia, Violence and Racism in the Beautiful Game | Ellis Cashmore | Jamie Cleland | Palgrave MacmillanAssociation football is the richest, most popular sport in history with a multicultural global following. It is also riven with corruption, racism, homophobia and a violence that has for decades resisted all attempts to tame it. Cashmore and Cleland examine football’s dark side: the unpleasant, sleazy and downright nasty aspects of the sport. Soon-to-be-published.

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Crisis in grassroots football

Late Kick Off East: 2014: Episode 5James Burridge is joined by Paul McVeigh for the programme featuring the latest news, talking points and behind-the-scenes reports from the region’s eight Football League clubs. Click on the above link. At 4:45 seconds there is an item on the crisis in grassroots football in which I contribute a couple of points about how competition inhibits the acquisition of skill.

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via Bbc

The Hillsborough Disaster 1989

Twenty-five almost to the day after the Hillsborough disaster, a fresh inquest has begun. It is expected to last up to a year and may finally bring a definitive conclusion to a landmark event that has become part of the collective memory of all Brits and perhaps every football fan in the world. Above is a recent interview I gave to Australia’s ABC Radio, and below an extract from my book Sports Culture: An A-Z Guide.
A total of 96 Liverpool fans died as the result of a tragedy at the Sheffield Wednesday soccer club’s stadium on April 15, 1989.  It was found that 658 too many spectators could have been allowed into a section of the Hillsborough stadium.  Fans were crushed; it was also discovered that wrongly-sized barriers were fitted. The disaster, which was witnessed on television by many relatives of the victims, took place prior to a game between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in the semi-finals of the Football Association (FA) Cup.  In an effort to relieve a crush outside the stadium, the police ordered a large gate to be opened, allowing hundreds of fans to pour into the overcrowded enclosures at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium. A government inquiry into the incident, chaired by Lord Justice Taylor, laid the blame squarely on the South Yorkshire police, who, he concluded, failed to plan for the arrival of large numbers of fans.  But, to the fury of relatives of the deceased, senior police officers refused to admit at the the inquiry any responsibility. Rumors that Liverpool fans caused the crash by arriving at the stadium late, drunk and without tickets compounded the grief of relatives.   At the inquest, held in 1991, the coroner refused to admit evidence relating to events later than a cut-off point of 3.15pm on the day.  The jury returned a verdict of accidental death. Two years later, families of six of the victims applied for judicial review, asking the High Court to quash the verdict and order a new inquest that could lead to a verdict of unlawful killing.  It was refused.  But, in 1996, a television docudrama Hillsborough uncovered new evidence suggesting that the police must have known the severity of the overcrowding when they opened the gate.  A closed-circuit camera was said to have been working, contrary to evidence at the inquest: the police video and new medical evidence disclosed in the television program precipitated a review in 1997 to establish whether a fresh inquiry was justified.  This was ruled out in February 1997.
A disaster comparable in kind and scale to Hillsborough occurred in Guatemala City on October  16, 1996 when 82 people died beneath an avalanche of bodies at a World Cup qualifying game between Guatemala and Costa Rica.  A crush in a tunnel and fans trapped at against fences at the densely-packed Mateo Flores stadium evoked parallels with the Sheffield tragedy. Fifa speculated that forged tickets may have triggered the crush: fans holding tickets were denied entrance, so kicked down an entrance, causing fans inside to cascade down to lower levels. In both cases, there were fences that effectively prevented the free movement of spectators and no monitoring of crowd density inside the stadiums.  This pair were but two of a series of stadium disasters that have occurred through the twentieth century.   Ibrox Park, Glasgow, was the scene of tragedies in 1902, when a stand collapsed and 25 fans were killed, and in 1971 when 66 died after barriers gave way.  In 1968, 74 were killed when fans headed toward a locked exit and were crushed against the doors.  49 people were trampled to death in a Cairo stadium in 1974.  In 1985, 39 people died at the Heysel Stadium, Brussels; hooliganism was blamed.  A grandstand collapsed at Corsica in 1992, killing 17 spectators.  But, the worst sports tragedy occurred in 1982 in Moscow where a reported 340 people were killed at a European Cup soccer game.