Sunday, April 29, 2012

"Mad Men," Season 5, Episode 7, "At the Codfish Ball"

Last night’s “Man Men” episode did not really introduce any new historical events, but reiterates themes from the first six episodes of the season. “At the Codfish Ball” continues to reveal the growing liberalization of American culture during the Age of Aquarius.

Like prominent musicians of the 1960s such as the Beach Boys and the Beatles, Roger Sterling feels inspired by the LSD trip he had in last week’s episode. Rather than simply drinking and going through the motions as usual, Sterling is embarrassed that his wealthy family handed everything to him on a silver platter and now wants to earn his keep at the firm.  His first wife tells him not to be apologetic about his advantages and that she’s “not going to let a bunch of dirty teenagers in the paper disrupt the order of things.”  Her comment is an obvious reference to the anti-establishment rhetoric of the youth culture.

After Abe insists Peggy meet him for an important dinner, Joan suspects he will propose. In a twist, though, Abe suggests they move in together.  Though she agrees, Peggy appears disappointed he didn’t ask her to marry him.  While such arrangements are common today, it was rare for unmarried people to live together in the mid-1960s, even in liberal New York City.  Peggy’s Catholic mother is extremely unhappy with the new state of affairs, declaring they will be “living in sin” and that Abe is just interested in sex.  Even a decade later in 1976, “Three’s Company,” a television show that depicted a man living with two women he wasn’t sleeping with, sparked controversy when it premiered.

Upset over her mother’s disapproval, Peggy sarcastically says that she thought her mom would be “relieved I wasn’t marrying the Jew.”  Though her mother claims that religion isn’t the issue, intermarriage between Jews and Catholics was very rare in the mid-1960s.  In fact, it was uncommon for Jews to marry outside their faith until the 1970s.

The show continues to become more open about sexuality as the decade progresses.  Last week, we saw Peggy service a total stranger at a movie theater.  This week, poor Sally walks in on Roger being serviced by Megan’s mom!  Speaking of which, I should have mentioned earlier that we meet Megan’s parents.  Shockingly, they are yet another unhappy married couple. 

Megan has a professional breakthrough this week as she solves the persistent problem of the Heinz account.  Her idea is to produce an ad that shows families eating beans throughout history, culminating with one having them for dinner on a lunar colony.  Heinz loves the idea because in 1966, as the moon race launched by JFK continued, it seemed perfectly reasonable to suppose that people would eventually live on the lunar surface. Believe it or not, Newt Gingrich wasn’t the first to suggest it.  See

Smoking remains a point of contention as Don accepts an award from the American Cancer Society for writing a letter denouncing the tobacco companies in last season’s episode, “Blowing Smoke.”  Megan has reproached Don for his smoking on a couple of occasions this season, which Betty, a smoker herself, never did.  Still, Ken mentions that new tobacco labeling legislation doesn’t dramatically affect the industry and we see several people puffing at the cancer society dinner!

While “At the Codfish Ball” doesn’t have as many historical references, it was fun and entertaining.  Roger is back in form and Megan appears unhappy with advertising, despite her obvious talent for it.  It will be interesting to see how these characters evolve throughout the remainder of the season.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

"Mad Men," Season 5, Episode 6, "Far Away Places"

As has often been the case in “Mad Men,” gender is at the center of this week’s episode, entitled “Far Away Places.”  Both Peggy and Megan are frustrated that the men in their lives don’t want them to have a full role in the workplace. Meanwhile, the drug culture makes an appearance as we watch a dinner party drop LSD.

Once again, Peggy is more focused on her work than her personal life, a state of affairs that doesn’t sit well with her left-wing boyfriend, Abe Drexler.  Abe tells her that half the time she is not interested in having sex and then simply goes through the motions of doing it.  After Peggy says she needs a little time to rest after work, Drexler retorts, “You sound like my dad!”  While Abe works for the Village Voice and is often the house radical on the show, his attitude reminds us that the New Left of the 1960s drew the line at sexual equality.  In fact, second wave feminism grew out of the protests of women in the civil rights and antiwar movements who were upset about their exclusion from important decisions.

After an unsuccessful presentation, Peggy gets aggressive with the Heinz representative and he demands she be taken off the account.  It seems likely he would have had a different response if Don or another man had behaved in a similar fashion.  Speaking of Don, he continues to be indifferent to his work and demands Megan leave with him for a trip to upstate New York, even though she was supposed to help Peggy with the Heinz presentation.  Megan is frustrated and tells Don, “You can like to work but I can’t like to work.” After she doesn’t like the ice cream he orders and refuses to get in the car with him, the couple fights as Megan declares, ”Get in the car. Eat ice cream.  Leave work. Take off your dress. Yes master!”  The last phrase is likely a reference to the hit television show “I Dream of Jeannie,” (1965-70) where Barbara Eden’s genie routinely exclaimed, “Yes master!” to the requests from Larry Hagman’s astronaut character.  Reminiscent of his old battles with Betty, he drives off, leaving Megan alone at a roadside Howard Johnsons. 

Meanwhile, Jane and (gasp) Roger go to a dinner at Dr. Timothy Leary’s apartment where they “turn on” by dropping LSD.  With his philosophy of “turn on, tune in, drop out” Leary, who had a Ph.D. in psychology from Berkeley, was a real-life advocate for experimenting with drugs.  Though Roger is clearly affected by the LSD, he still enjoys his usual drinking and smoking while on his acid trip as the Beach Boys’ groundbreaking album, “Pet Sounds,” plays in the background.  Written by lead singer Brian Wilson while under the influence of LSD, “Pet Sounds” represented an important moment in the evolution of rock n’ roll from the sanitized music of the early 1960s to the more complex sounds of the latter part of the decade.  Released in 1966, Wilson’s work provided some of the inspiration for the Beatles recording of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” the following year.  The scene again reveals Roger’s disengagement from the events of the time, as the camera pans to Roger as Wilson sings, “I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.”

In another historical note, Michael Ginsberg reveals that he was adopted after he was born in a concentration camp.  The 1960s witnessed a growing awareness of the Holocaust as anti-Semitism diminished and American culture became more open to discussion of victimhood.  Many historians believe the 1961 war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel, when many survivors first offered public testimony about Nazi atrocities, served as a turning point.  The Six-Day War of 1967, where Israel quickly routed its Arab neighbors after weeks of rhetoric that the Jewish state would be annihilated, brought the Holocaust further into public discourse.

The episode ends with Bert Cooper reproaching Don for abdicating his responsibilities and putting “a little girl” in charge, a condescending reference to Peggy.  Don then stands alone in the conference room while the younger workers walk purposefully through the hallway, another sign of the rising power of the youth culture as well as Don’s diminishing importance.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

"Mad Men," Season 5, Episode 5, "Signal 30"

The banality of the suburbs is the central theme of this week’s Mad Men episode, “Signal 30.”  Pete Campbell is horribly unhappy living out in Greenwich and he and Trudy have become the new version of Don and Betty. They are the couple that appears to have everything on the outside: a plethora of consumer goods, a nice home, and a child.  The reality, however, is not nearly as pleasant, as Pete tells Don, “I have nothing.”

Suburbs have a long history in the United States dating to the late 19th century, when streetcars enabled people to escape the congestion and crime of the city for the more rural life of the suburbs.  It almost seemed that Americans had a Jeffersonian urge to return to something resembling the agrarian ways of their ancestors.  Of course, some native-stock Americans had less high-minded motives and were simply trying to escape the diverse immigrant population that increasingly dominated urban life in the early 20th century.  With the emergence of cars, suburbs grew significantly during the 1920s although their rise stalled during the 1930s with the onset of Great Depression.

After the end of World War II, suburbs expanded dramatically.  Assisted by the postwar economic boom and federal housing loans, millions of middle-class Americans left the cities in the 1950s and purchased their first home, with 83 percent of population growth occurring in the suburbs (Patterson, Grand Expectations, p. 333). New York City witnessed particularly dramatic change, as the suburban population rose by 58 percent as urban dwellers left for Westchester County, Long Island, and Connecticut (Polenberg, One Nation Divisible, p.333).  Some whites also moved because of the black and Puerto Rican migration to the city during this time.  Faced with the loss of a significant portion of their middle-class fan base, the city could no longer support three baseball teams and the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants left for California in 1957.  The Yankees did not have the city to themselves for long, though, as major league baseball created the expansion New York Mets in 1962 (note the conspicuous placing of Lane Price’s Mets banner in his office)

Critiques of the suburbs are almost as old as the institution itself.  During the 1950s, many intellectuals viewed the suburbs as bastions of homogenous thinking.The suburb,” the sociologist David Riesman wrote in The Lonely Crowd, was “like a fraternity house at a small college in which like-mindedness reverberates upon itself.”  Betty Friedan went further, calling them “comfortable concentration camps” for housewives in her classic feminist tract, the Feminine Mystique (1963).

From the outset,  “Mad Men” has featured a heavy dose of the anti-suburban ideology.  Since season one, Betty Draper has seemed completely unhappy in the ‘burbs and I have always thought that her first name was an homage to Friedan.  Furthermore, Don seems much happier in his city life with Megan and doesn’t even want to go to the Campbell’s suburban home for a party on a Saturday night, saying, “that’s when you really want to blow your brains out.”  Afterward, he declares, “when I close my eyes and then I open them I want to see skyscrapers.”

Though Pete and Trudy’s relationship had been the strongest of any couple on the show, the birth of their first child and the move to the suburbs seems to have wrecked it.  She probably has postpartum depression and he appears miserable to the point that he makes a pass on an 18 year-old girl in his driving class (he never learned growing up in Manhattan).  In a move reminiscent of Don in the old days, he also has a liaison with a prostitute while wooing a client.

”It seems like time is speeding up,” says Jenny, the student Pete is pursuing.  Though a few contemporary events are mentioned, such as Charles Whitman’s mass shooting of students at the University of Texas, this episode focuses less on the social changes of 1966 than the previous four.  Instead, it centers on the age-old theme of the unhappy suburbanite, which has been a standby of film and television for over a half-century.

For more on the history of suburbs, Kenneth Jackson, The Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York, 1985)

Friday, April 13, 2012

Jackie Robinson Day and the Decline of Black Baseball Players

As major league baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day on Sunday, it is remarkable that the number of African Americans in baseball has fallen from a quarter of all players during the mid-1970s to 8.5 percent in 2011(Ruck, Raceball, 177; “2011 Race and Gender Report Card,” p. 1).  Indeed, Hispanics have surpassed blacks as the largest minority in the game and there is little sign that the number of African Americans playing in the majors will increase anytime soon. Though the integration of baseball was a seminal event in the civil rights movement, most young blacks going into professional sports today seem to prefer basketball and football.

It was not always this way.  During the first half of the 20th century, the major leagues were segregated, but baseball was at the center of black culture.  After players and owners drew the color line in the 1890s, a number of independent teams such as the Cuban Giants continued the tradition of African-American baseball.  With the Great Migration of blacks to the North during World War I, a fan and consumer base emerged capable of supporting a league.  Organized under the leadership of former pitcher Rube Foster in 1920, the Negro Leagues became one of a number of African-American institutions that sustained black life under Jim Crow.  Though they often labored in obscurity compared to their white contemporaries, players such as catcher Josh Gibson and pitcher Satchel Paige were among the best in the sport in the 1930s and 40s, even if they never played in the majors (Gibson) or didn’t during their prime (Paige)

After struggling during the Depression, the Negro Leagues thrived during World War II, as a number of forces laid the groundwork for integration. The fight against fascism and Nazi racism abroad exposed the contradictions between American rhetoric and American practice.  Black sportswriters agitated for major league teams to sign black players, with help from liberal politicians and the Communist Party.  The passing of Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis in 1944, who had long held the line on segregation, opened the door for change.  Brooklyn Dodgers’ GM Branch Rickey walked through it when he signed Jackie Robinson, then playing for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues, to a contract in 1945.

When Robinson played his first game as a Dodger on April 15, 1947, he debuted a year before President Truman integrated the military and nearly a decade before the epochal civil rights landmarks of Brown v. Board of Education and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Robinson faced incredible racism in his early years in the league, but excelled, paving the way for a parade of black stars in subsequent years, including Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.  As a result, the Negro Leagues declined and disbanded.  Not every team quickly followed Brooklyn’s lead, however, as the Boston Red Sox only became the final team to integrate in 1959.  While black players entered the league, there were no African American managers or coaches in the majors during this time, as the end of the Negro Leagues meant the loss of opportunities for blacks in these positions.

The 1960s and 70s were the heyday of African American participation in the majors as well as the game’s popularity in black America.  As ESPN’s Michael Wilbon recalled, “The talk in the barbershop wasn’t of Wilt and Russell nearly as much as it was of Aaron and Mays.” (Washington Post, April 14, 2007)  In the face of racism and death threats in 1974, Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record.  The percentage of blacks in the major leagues reached an all-time high of 27 percent the following year as 16 black players, comprising 40 percent of all non-pitchers, played in the 1975 All-Star Game (Ruck, 177-178).

The change seemed to begin in the 1980s as other sports emerged.  The National Basketball Association (NBA) had nearly gone bankrupt during the disco era, in part because some viewers and advertisers saw the league as “too black.”  The merger with the American Basketball Association (ABA) in 1976 brought Julius “Dr. J” Erving into the league, reviving it, followed by the arrival of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, whose rivalry helped make it comparable to football and baseball in terms of popularity.  The arrival of Michael Jordan then sent the league into a stratosphere by the 1990s, with millions of young black (and white) kids wanting “to be like Mike.” 

Football grew and surpassed baseball in popularity while featuring plenty of black players on the field, but there was one major position that remained closed to African Americans as late as the 1980s—quarterback.  Racial stereotypes suggested that blacks did not have the intelligence and leadership skills to run an NFL offense.  It was routine for pro coaches to move a black college quarterback to another position after he was drafted.  Those that insisted on playing QB had to leave for the Canadian Football League (CFL), as future Hall of Famer Warren Moon did for several years in the early 1980s.

The Washington Redskins’ Doug Williams punctured this myth when he threw five touchdown passes in a victorious MVP performance in Super Bowl XXII in 1988.  In the following years, Donovan McNabb, Steve McNair, and others achieved success as quarterbacks.  The Atlanta Falcons and Oakland Raiders drafted Michael Vick and Jamarcus Russell 1st overall in the NFL Draft in 2001 and 2007, respectively, something that would have been inconceivable as late as the 1990s.  Though black QBs do not yet face a completely even playing field, they are unlikely to be forced to change roles anymore.  The opportunity to play the prestige position has encouraged more young African Americans to pursue football at the expense of baseball.

The number of blacks in the game remained reasonably high, as there was a lag before declining youth participation impacted the percentage of African Americans playing the game. As late as the mid-1990s, there were still as many blacks as Latinos in the majors and Ken Griffey, Jr. and Barry Bonds competed for the title of “best player in the game, ” though their choice of the sport was no doubt influenced by the fact that they were both the sons of star players.

For the most part, it appears the decline of black players reflects greater sports options rather than discrimination.  Both college basketball and football hold out the promise for earlier stardom than college baseball, and there are far more scholarship possibilities for the former than the latter. Under Commissioner Bud Selig, major league baseball has made great efforts to rejuvenate the game in urban areas through its Revive Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI) program.  Still, some African-American players, such as the Los Angeles Angels’ Torri Hunter, have complained that management’s search for Latin players comes partly out of a desire for a cheaper and more malleable work force.

As players take the field with Robinson’s historic 42 on their back, there will be relatively few African Americans in the lineup or on the mound, though nearly 40 percent of the participants will be people of color (2011 Race and Gender Report Card, p.2). Indeed, no sport better reflects the multiculturalism of today’s US more than baseball with its large Latino and Asian contingents.  Without Jackie Robinson’s courage 65 years ago, the contemporary diversity of the sport would be inconceivable.

Sources: Rob Ruck, Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game (Beacon Press, 2011)
“2011 Race and Gender Report Card,” The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports.  

Monday, April 9, 2012

Mike Wallace and The Evolution of American Journalism

Mike Wallace’s career parallels and illustrates the major shifts in American journalism during the second half of the 20th century.  In the aftermath of the unifying experience of World War II, reporters were more inclined to accept public pronouncements from government officials.  Following the twin shocks of Vietnam and Watergate, however, journalists became more skeptical and confrontational, and Wallace and “60 Minutes” helped lead the way.

During the early postwar period, most Americans expressed a faith in their leading institutions that seems stunning today.  Polls routinely showed that 2/3 to 3/4 of Americans trusted the government to do the right thing all or most of the time.  Such beliefs underpinned the “consensus” liberalism that dominated politics between the late 1940s and mid-1960s, as both Republicans and Democrats supported programs like the interstate highway system, public housing, and the G.I. Bill.

As a result, the media did not challenge politicians in the same way they do today.  Reporters often accepted Senator Joe McCarthy’s accusations about communist influence in government without engaging in serious investigations of his charges. Many simply couldn’t believe that a senator would prevaricate about such an important issue.   As George Clooney’s 2005 film “Good Night and Good Luck” demonstrated, journalists such as CBS’ Edward R. Murrow eventually took up the cause of fighting Senator McCarthy, though they largely did so after his power started to fade following the end of the Korean War in 1953.

The deceptions surrounding the Vietnam War during the 1960s inspired a change in the ethos of American journalism. In the early years of U.S. involvement, reporters such as David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan watched U.S. military advisers claim that their South Vietnamese allies were winning a war that the journalists thought they were actually losing.  After the Americanization of the war began in earnest in 1965, the Johnson Administration repeatedly claimed the U.S. was making progress against the Viet Cong (VC) and their North Vietnamese backers (NVA), even as casualties mounted.  Reporters grew so frustrated by the lies of the military leadership that they began to call the military briefings in Saigon,  “the Five O’ Clock Follies.”  After the shock of the Tet Offensive by NVA and VC forces in January 1968, the continuing pronouncements by U.S. commanders that they could see “the light at the end of the tunnel,” lost any credibility.

“60 Minutes” premiered on CBS that same year and Mike Wallace was one of the original correspondents.  Reflecting the more cynical climate of the time, the show pioneered the “newsmagazine” and became the leading edge of investigative journalism on television.  When the show began, Wallace was a relative unknown but his confrontational style made him the star of the program, impressive given that it featured (at various times) leading journalistic lights such as Harry Reasoner, Morley Safer, Dan Rather, Ed Bradley, and Lesley Stahl.

The Watergate scandal and the Washington Post’s iconic coverage of the story furthered public cynicism about politics while enhancing the prestige of journalism.  Bob Woodward’s and Carl Bernstein’s investigation into the scandal for the Post, as well as Hollywood’s portrayal of their work in “All the President’s Men” (1976), inspired a new generation to pursue careers in investigative journalism.

During this era, Wallace and “60 Minutes” thrived, particularly after it began airing on Sunday nights.  The quality of the show’s reporting, along with the lead-in provided by NFL football on CBS, made the program one of the most successful in television history, as it was no. 1 in the ratings for five consecutive years (NYT, April 9, 2012).  The show’s ticking clock became iconic and the program inspired numerous imitators, including “20/20” and “Dateline”

By the 90s, some bemoaned the more confrontational tone of the modern media, claiming that a generation of reporters striving to be the next Woodward and Bernstein turned every scandal into another Watergate, regardless of its merits.  Such criticism became particularly strong during the Clinton impeachment coverage of 1998-99.

Some also believe that corporate ownership of the major broadcast networks has compromised the independence of their news divisions.  Even the venerable “60 Minutes” did not escape this controversy, especially when corporate officials at CBS, fearing a lawsuit from a tobacco company, watered down a Wallace report about a whistleblower in the mid-1990s.  This led to an unflattering depiction of Wallace in Michael Mann’s 1999 movie “The Insider.”

Finally, others critics think the media has reverted back to 1950s-style journalism, alleging that the New York Times and other mainstream outlets simply regurgitated the Bush Administration’s claims regarding the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  Even Woodward, who became an icon of establishment journalism, came under fire for writing two books that painted the Bush Administration’s wars in a positive light.   Whereas conservatives have criticized the media for “liberal bias“ going back to the 1960s, liberals began to distrust the mainstream media in the early 21st century, turning to nontraditional sources like blogs for news.

Throughout all of this change, Wallace and “60 Minutes” continued to thrive in the ratings.  Indeed, one could argue that “60 Minutes” is the most successful program in the history of television, given that the show has remained a hit for over four decades.  Though Wallace himself retired in 2006, “60 Minutes” continues to be the most enduring example of the skeptical journalism that emerged from the 1960s and 70s.

"Mad Men," Season 5, Episode 4, "Mystery Date"

Crime and urban riots, two key issues during the 1960s, moved to center stage in this week’s episode, “Mystery Date,” which takes place in July 1966.  The Vietnam War and drugs made a secondary appearance, though one can safely assume they will return in prominent fashion during upcoming episodes and seasons.

Violent crime rose dramatically in cities across the country during the 1960s, especially during the second half of the decade.  In New York City, crime increased by 137 percent between 1966 and 1973 (Cannato, Ungovernable City, 527).  Working alone on a Friday evening and afraid that someone may have broken in, Peggy cautiously explores the office and discovers that Dawn, Don Draper’s new secretary, has been sleeping in his office on some nights. Dawn feels she doesn’t have a choice because no cab will take her back to Harlem at night and her family thinks the subway is unsafe.  Her fears are heightened because of the highly publicized rape/murder of eight nurses in Chicago as well as the race riot in the Second City.  

Peggy insists that Dawn stay with her and they seem to bond over being outsiders at the firm.  After all, Peggy was the only female copywriter at Sterling Cooper for several years and Dawn is now the only African American working at any position at the office.  Their bonding ends on an awkward note when Peggy glances nervously at her purse and appears afraid that Dawn might steal her money during the night.

Meanwhile, Henry Francis’s mother Pauline and Sally Draper are also frightened by the nurse killings, even though they would seem to be safely out of harm’s way in the Westchester County suburbs.  Sally’s adolescent fears are understandable, but Pauline Francis’ bizarre behavior, which includes conspicuously holding a knife for protection, only serves to heighten them.  With Sally unable to fall asleep, Pauline gives her some kind of sleeping pill.  Could this be the start of a larger drug problem for Sally?

The urban riots of the 1960s, which characters have mentioned in previous episodes, continue to garner attention in the show.  While there were several disturbances in 1966, they have been overshadowed historically by the more violent and destructive riots in Watts in 1965 and Detroit and Newark in 1967.  Several characters mention upheaval in Chicago, which did boil over in what civil rights historian Taylor Branch described as a “miniature Watts,”  where two people were killed between July 12 and July 15 (Branch, At Canaan’s Edge, 501-505).   Erupting after police shut off fire hydrants during a heat wave, Mayor Richard J. Daley blamed the violence on Martin Luther King, who was then in the middle of a major campaign for open housing in Chicago.  In fact, King and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), who were in the midst of their first foray into the North, worked hard to prevent the riot.

Vietnam also enters the picture as Joan’s husband Greg returns following a tour of duty in Southeast Asia.  Instead of having a joyous homecoming, Greg, who is an Army surgeon, tells Joan that he has to go back for a second tour.  Joan is furious when she discovers he volunteered to return, declaring, “Who goes back?” sarcastically adding,  “I will throw a parade for you everyday for preserving freedom!” Reflecting the growing domestic divisions during the second year of an Americanized war, Greg alleges that, “If this was World War II and the Japs were still attacking us, you’d say yes! Of course!”  Joan responds, “Soldiers wanted to come home from World War II also.” 

Unable to continue with Greg, who has repeatedly shown contempt for her throughout their relationship, Joan asks him to leave for good.  The episode ends with Joan in bed with her mother and son, with sirens blaring in the background, perhaps another sign of the growing disorder in America during the mid-1960s.

Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge, (New York, 2006)
Vincent Cannato, The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York (New York, 2001)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Decline of Opening Day

As a kid growing up in the 1980s, I was always extremely excited for the opening day of the baseball season.  In the pre-Internet days, I remember calling a USA Today 1-900 toll number to find out the results of the first games of the season.  Over the last 25 years, though, the buzz surrounding opening day seems to have diminished.  Throughout the bombastic exchanges between Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless on ESPN’s First Take Wednesday morning, the two barely discussed baseball, even though opening day was the following day.  Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon did the same on Tuesday’s Pardon the Interruption.  What has happened?’

One key reason for the lower buzz for baseball’s start is the rise of the National Football League (NFL).  Though football was already the most popular sport in the country by the 1980s, the gap between the NFL and major league baseball has grown significantly since then.  Last summer, discussion of the NFL lockout overwhelmed discussion of the baseball season.  Football, not baseball, is the national pastime today.  See

Another factor is the proliferation of sports across the entertainment landscape.  Late March and early April are much more crowded than they were was a generation ago.  “March Madness” and the Final Four dominate the discussion in the weeks before the debut of baseball.  Though the Masters has always been held around opening day, the first golf major of the season has also risen in importance since the Reagan era.  With the emergence of Tiger Woods in the late 90s, the event has grown in popularity, with casual sports fans much more likely to tune when Woods is in contention (which is virtually always the case at the Masters) See

With Tiger retuning to form following his scandal-induced slump, anticipation for this year’s “tradition unlike any other,” is as great as any in recent memory.  Frankly, I’m more excited for the first round at Augusta National than for opening day.

Baseball continues to have a tremendous following and can still produce incredible excitement. In fact, it’s hard to think of any sports night in recent memory more gripping than last season’s final slate of games, when the wild card berths in both leagues remained at stake.  Nor can many events match the drama of last year’s World Series, in which the St. Louis Cardinals won, even though the Texas Rangers were one strike a way from winning on two different occasions in Game Six.  Nevertheless, it seems like the buzz around the start of the season isn’t what it once was.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Tigers Woods' Impact on Golf, 15 Years After First Masters Win

“There it is. A win for the ages,” declared CBS’ Jim Nantz as Tiger Woods closed out his historic victory at the 1997 Masters.  Playing his first major as a professional, the 21 year-old Woods dominated Augusta National for four days, setting a new course record as he crushed the field by an incredible 12 strokes.  This triumph by an African-American golfer carried an additional resonance because it occurred at Augusta, a Georgia country club that had only admitted its first black member in 1990.  Indeed, no African American had even played in the Masters until Lee Elder teed off in 1975.  Golf would never be the same and the sport seemed primed for meteoric growth as Tiger set his sights on breaking Jack Nicklaus all-time record of 18 major championships.  While the Tiger era produced incredible interest in golf, its impact has not been as revolutionary as might have been expected 15 years ago.

In the decade after his first Masters’ victory, Woods became the biggest draw in all of sports, as the PGA Tour experienced huge ratings gains and purses grew. The TV viewership for tournaments he won often exceeded the audiences for NBA games in the immediate post-Michael Jordan years.   From 1999-2002, Tiger achieved unprecedented success, winning 7 of 11 major titles at one point, including four consecutive wins for a “Tiger Slam.”  After stumbling while retooling his swing in 2003-04, Woods returned to dominate again from 2005-08, winning nearly half of the events he entered, including 6 majors.   At a relatively young age, Tiger made a plausible case that he was already the greatest golfer ever.

In some ways, though, Tiger’s impact has not been as dramatic as some imagined in the spring of 1997.  Many foresaw a surge of minority golfers onto the PGA Tour, but Woods is the only African American playing regularly today.  In 2011, another black player, Joseph Bramlett earned his tour card, only to lose it when he finished 196th on the money list (only the top 125 keep their memberships) Of course, Tiger is half Asian as well and may have inspired a slight increase in Asian-American players.  Witness the emergence of Anthony Kim and a few others.

Some believed Tiger’s success would spawn rising participation in the sport across the country.  Instead, the number of golfers declined over the last decade, falling from 28.8 million in 2000 to 26.1 million in 2010. (Golf Week, May 9, 2011) The reasons for this drop are complex, ranging from the Great Recession to the high cost of clubs and country club memberships. With “Mad Men” returning, we can see that gender roles have changed and the days when a husband could just tell his wife he was going to go play nine holes after work have long since passed. 

More troubling for the future of the sport is the dramatic decline in youth golfers, with 24 percent fewer kids playing in 2008 compared with 2005.  Despite Tiger’s celebrity, fewer young people are taking up the game while more are playing tennis, where youth participation grew by 28 percent over the last decade (Wall Street Journal, May 21, 2010).   The rise of tennis over this period is particularly impressive given the fact that there hasn’t been a major American star on the pro circuit since Andre Agassi’s retirement in 2006.

After his infamous car wreck outside his Florida home on Thanksgiving 2009, Tiger struggled on the course for the following 2 ½ years, but he finally won a tour event for the first time since that fateful night, surpassing the field at the Arnold Palmer Invitational two weeks ago.  Despite the bad publicity surrounding his divorce, Woods remains the biggest draw in the sport, as the ratings for his victory were 129% higher than the previous year’s final round.  With Tiger’s resurgence, anticipation is high for this week’s Masters and Woods will be one of the favorites, along with longtime rival Phil Mickelson and 23 year-old Rory Mcllroy, whose dominating win at last year’s U.S. Open evoked comparisons to Woods’ first Masters triumph.

Now 36, Tiger has won 14 major championships, leaving him five short of breaking Nicklaus’ record.  If Tiger can continue to regain form, his chase of the Golden Bear’s mark will likely raise interest in the sport once again.  But it appears the “win for the ages” didn’t quite change the world in the way some anticipated.

Monday, April 2, 2012

"The Hunger Games" and Reality TV

I very much enjoyed “The Hunger Games,” which is a worthy successor to “Harry Potter” as a young adult franchise with appeal to grownups.  Based on the first of three books written by Suzanne Collins, it is already a huge hit at the box office and will spawn sequels that will be released in the summer or Christmas movies seasons, rather than the spring doldrums.  Featuring traditional themes from literature and movies, “The Hunger Games” also offers a biting critique of reality television.

The plot is as follows (MASSIVE SPOILERS).  Reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery, a 1984-style totalitarian society holds a drawing each year to select a young boy and girl from each of their 12 governing districts to participate in a competition against each other.  Called the Hunger Games, it resembles the Triwizard Tournament from “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”—only it is to the death.  The story then follows Katness Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeka Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who have been chosen to represent District 12, as they participate in the competition.  The concept of the 12 districts is very familiar, echoing “Battlestar Galactica’s” 12 colonies, and is likely influenced by the biblical notion of the 12 tribes of Israel (If you don’t remember your Torah or Old Testament, just listen to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”).

The “Hunger Games” features elements of several reality television shows and portrays government officials aiming to promote the best story line possible at whatever cost.   The implicit comparison of agents of a dictatorial regime with television executives is quite harsh.  With echoes of “Project Runway,” consultants dress up contestants to look attractive in an Olympic-style opening ceremony with chariots and other Roman overtones.  Indeed, the whole competition seems to revolve around giving the oppressed populace, “breads and circuses” to distract them from their plight, as the old Roman Empire did (one character is even named Caesar).

Once the competition begins, participants make alliances a la “Survivor” with various contestants working together against other groups and individuals.  With the whole society watching, participants need to earn the favor of the viewers, like on “American Idol,” in order to get help from the audience to combat injuries and other obstacles.  The characters resemble their counterparts from other films depicting teenage life going back to the John Hughes movies of the 1980s, as our hero and heroine are outsiders from a poorer district.  Meanwhile, their most vicious competitors hail from a wealthier district where, in an echo of the Cold War-era East German sports machine, some are trained from birth to compete.

In order to frustrate the growing popularity of Everdeen, whose success is spawning dissent in the poorer districts, the government changes the rules of the game to allow two competitors to win, as long as they are both from the same district.  After our heroes, who have developed a romantic attachment, join together to successfully outlast the others, officials change the rules back. Rather than try to kill each other, Everdeen and Mellark decide to take poison, a la Romeo and Juliet, but the government declares them both winners before they can carry out their plan.

Their chief handler (Woody Harrelson) warns them that this act of defiance may have consequences for them, saying they must sell the story of their romance to the state.  Everdeen and Mellark appear as guests on a talk show for a postmortem reminiscent of “The Bachelor” to discuss how much they care about each other.  The ground is then laid for a sequel, as the Kim Jong-Il-like “Great Leader,” played by Donald Sutherland, appears displeased at the reception the victors receive upon their homecoming to District 12.

I have written about the emergence of a lighter feel to action movies as memories of 9/11 fade, but the “Hunger Games” contradicts this trend.  Indeed, the film’s plot resembles the darker themes of the latter “Harry Potter” movies.  It may be that the movie reflects the book, which was published in 2008 and was developed in closer proximity to the tragedy of 9/11 (Collins cites the Iraq War as a major influence).  Furthermore, a friend of mine suggested that one of the legacies of 9/11 might be that books for young adults now feature darker and more mature themes.  In any case, I look forward to the next movie in the series, though it is likely I will have read the books by then anyway.