What Soccer (Football To The Rest Of The Civilized World) Can Teach Us About Life

Soccer’s a simple sport. That’s why it’s universal. Kick the ball into the other guy’s goal more than he kicks it into yours and you win. Now, throw a few off side rules into the mix, some great strategic thinking and some talent to pull it off and that simple sport becomes exactly what they call it: the beautiful game. Few things are as sublime as when eleven players hitch their collective will to putting a ball into the back of the other team’s net and then do it with surgical precision. Achieving that collective perfection might not be as hard as hitting a Major League fastball, but it’s not far behind. It’s absolutely do-able. But only by a few.

And yet — perfection aside — almost anyone can play this game and enjoy it for its own sake.

I’m a Tottenham Hotspur fan, I thing I came into being via marriage to a Brit whose family were Spurs supporters (well, my wife is and her brother is; their sister is a Liverpool supporter — splitter!). I’ve always loved soccer, back to when I first learned to play it at sleepaway camp when I was six. Growing up in Baltimore, I even attended Bays games (they played in the National Professional Soccer League for three seasons 1967 – 1969) at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium.

When my son wanted to play rec center soccer here in LA (he was five), I didn’t just sign him up, I volunteered to coach. Then I created a club team (Silver Lake FC). By the time I stepped aside (my son unfortunately got injured), SLFC had six teams and almost a hundred players. So, soccer has already informed my life in plenty of ways.

But, something that happened Saturday drove home (a baseball metaphor being apt as the LA Dodgers are about to start the World Series today against the Tampa Bay Rays) a particularly important lesson at a particular time. On Sunday, the Spurs counted their chickens before said chickens had hatched. They put three points in the win column before finishing the game they were playing in.

That will almost always bite you in the ass.

After years of struggling to figure out who it was, Spurs have got an amazing new stadium, a new top tier coach (Jose Morinho) and, after picking eight new pieces in the transfer window (they just acquired Welsh international defender Joe Rodon from Swansea for eleven million pounds — when they could have gotten as much as twenty million), seem two-deep at every position for the first time ever. Two weeks ago, Spurs thumped Manchester United 6-1 (after thumping Tel Aviv Maccabee 7-1 in a Europa League game). With Gareth Bale now back in the squad (and with the other new signings finding their feet), Spurs walked onto their pitch to face West Ham this past Sunday, feeling a little like football’s next gods.

When they had West Ham down 3-0 within fifteen minutes, they were convinced: they WERE gods. And, being gods, they could rest on their laurels instead of playing the rest of the game. That worked out to a 3-3 tie, West Ham shocking Spurs with 3 goals in the last ten minutes including a dunderheaded own goal by Spurs defender Davinson Sanchez.

When West Ham took the field in the second half, they played as if the game still mattered. Having nothing to lose, they pressed Spurs — and Spurs let them. They figured, why spend any more energy than necessary? Their three point lead was insurmountable.

And therein is the Life Lesson. You still have to PLAY the game. Talent without effort is worthless. Assuming you have anything in the bag will end up with you IN the bag.

Donald Trump is not going to win this election. If he finds some way to “win” it, it will not be a legitimate win in any way, shape or form. Just like the “win” in 2016 was illegitimate. FFS, Trump himself kept telling us it was illegitimate; our news media to this day refuses to believe him.

The Democratic primary process drew from a deep, deep bench with plenty of philosophical heft. The candidates (for the most part) were authentic, their public servant bona fides genuine. While Joe Biden may not have been the embodiment of Progressive aspirations, the Progressive’s aspirations have already become the embodiment of the party’s ideals. The door will be open to the full Progressive agenda — socialized medicine, debt-free education, UBI; the only way out of this fiasco will BE through Progressive policies like those.

Conservatism after all is what brought us to the cliff’s edge.

The first goal West Ham scored against Spurs came during a set play — a free kick into the box that West Ham converted via a beautiful header. Set plays into the box — usually in the form of corner kicks — are perfect examples of how random chaos works. In essence, you can have twenty-one players moving in various directions, trying to anticipate the flight pattern of a ball and where it might land or bounce. Balls ricochet. Even a mis-directed kick can re-direct into the back of the net.

Our current situation, two weeks before perhaps the most important election in America’s history, is a lot like the chaos inside the goal box — as a corner kick flies toward it — as an important match expires.

Turns out We The People have way more players in the box than the Republicans do — and we’re poised to score and take the points. But the Republicans aren’t playing fairly. Their pal Vladimir is hiding another ball that he plans to introduce just as the official ball reaches the box.

Vladimir — and the Republicans — will insist that THAT ball’s the real ball and the one we’ve been chasing — the real ball — isn’t.

Vlad, Don and the Re-thug-licans plan to run their fake ball to the other end of the field and literally throw it into our net, claiming an incredible shock-victory. They’ll insist that they absolutely followed the rules to a “T”.

Unfortunately for them, that “T” also stands for Trump. To borrow again from baseball, America needs to keep its eye on THE ball.

What If We Could Make Sports As Virtual As We’re Making Everything Else?

Back in the day, I was a Co-Executive Producer for two years on a Showtime sci-fi series called The Outer Limits (it was a re-boot of the sci-fi show that ran on ABC in the 1960’s). Thinking “sci-fi” comes naturally. Not being a hard core sci-fi guy though (like everyone else on the staff was), I tended to think character first, technology second (my favorite episode was sci-fi lite — it was about a neurotic, nosy woman who’s suddenly able to hear what all her neighbors are thinking; Jane Adams played the role & Helen Shaver directed the episode).

I once wrote a short story about a future world where war has been taken off the real battlefield and put into a virtual battlefield. By international agreement, the world’s countries have agreed to make their armies “imaginary”. They reflect all the manpower, machinery and dynamism that their country can realistically produce — and in what amount.

The threat of losing virtually — and being forced to either cede territory as a result or sue for peace (and have to negotiate a surrender) has made war rare except among rogue states. Among the first world nations though — virtual war is the only war. When America is forced to fight such a war — and loses, the General responsible commits an act of murder in the aftermath — an ironic (if heavy-handed) reflection of just how civilized humans can ever really be.

In a sense, the architecture already exists to make all war (old-fashioned bombs n bullets war, that is) virtual. The same goes for sports.

We know how to turn real world data into a virtual player whose skill sets and animation accurately reflect that data. With some tweakage to accuracy — and ways to bring in all the real-time data points that would reflect real time action (in a football game, that would be a minimum of 100 data points — 2 teams with 40-man rosters + coaching staffs + officiating crew) all producing real time assessments, predictions and animations that — with some additional tweakage to the humanization of the players characters — look and feel almost like the real thing.

So — in real time — both coaching staffs would call virtual plays in real time to virtual huddles from which the virtual players would all break to go run — or audible out of. Each player would be responsible for his own character (even if his character is sitting on the bench). If the Quarterback character runs an audible and calls the snap — all his players will have to do what they were going to do — which the massive server being used will animate in real time for a world-wide audience to see. All 22 virtual players (being run by their real counterparts) will have to react to the ball (which will have its own set of virtual real time rules to follow).

Now, keep in mind — the players won’t be able to live on their laurels. They’ll be training the whole time between games — just like they were going to do. There will be metrics and measurements that they’ll have to input (via devices that actually measure the data) so that their data and all opposing players’ data is always completely up-to-date and “real”.

Because the computer knows instantaneously what the play’s outcome will be, the computer also can visualize the play and how it plays out with perfect coverage that “just so happens” to always be in the right place at the right time — with multiple perfect angles. Because the computer knows for a fact what happened on the field and what didn’t — with its physics pretty much always perfect — there won’t be any call for “field officiating”. Refs will be left in (at first) mostly for nostalgia purposes. I’m not sure yet what (if anything) game related they could do, but — in time, their role, too, will be automated. You know Major League Baseball wants to go here already, don’t ya?

Want to watch the game? That will cost ya. We could do this in tiers. The more you pay, the more inside dope ya get. The closer to the actual flow of data you get. Perhaps there’s even virtual interaction with the players. Perhaps we create virtual stadiums with tweaks to view you get (and, at any time, you can also watch the basic “here’s the game” view the general, cheapest-tier-buying pubic will get.

The cheapest tier would be exactly like what we have today. It’s free — except there are ads. Buy a subscription and the ads go away — replaced by actual content.

The Giant “What-if” we’re going to have to solve — “what if we could never feel safe again in huge crowds where anyone in it could literally kill everyone else — without even knowing?” The venues, the teams, the networks broadcasting the games — everyone will have to worry about getting sued for contributing to all that death. It won’t matter how long it takes to snake through the system, the nuisance of it, the cost — it will all be burdensome and it will hang over everything.

Two years from now (at a minimum) when not only is a viable, safe vaccination created but is distributed and given in sufficient numbers to get us all headed back to whatever normal is, then we may begin to fill stadiums again. But, sci-fi being what it is, by then another unintended consequence may be threatening our health. Climate change has already melted parts of the perma frost, releasing organisms into the present that have been literally frozen into the past. We have no idea how our bodies will react to or handle these things.

Maybe that’s more horror movie than sci-fi. I’ll put my Tales From The Crypt hat on later.

Of Chaos Theory & Corner Kicks (And American Politics)

We all knew LIfe in the Age Of Trump was going to be challenging on a thousand different levels. I’m not sure we factored in the constant state of chaos Trumpism thrives on. That, it turns out, is what makes all the other challenges work — it’s almost impossible to attack any one of them while so many others are flaring up. The chaos stymies us. It frustrates us into cynicism — and inaction. Result? The chaos worsens, becoming unstoppable.

Chaos is a state of total unpredictability. Almost anything can happen — good, bad, indifferent. The study of chaos — Chaos Theory — attempts to find ways to predict chaos — to identify enough quantifiable elements inside the chaos so as to make prediction possible.

As Wikipedia puts it: “Chaotic behavior exists in many natural systems, including fluid flow, heartbeat irregularities, weather and climate. It also occurs spontaneously in some systems with artificial components, such as the stock market and road traffic.” Chaos exists in just about any system where human behavior pokes its nose. Like a soccor pitch…

I’m a Tottenham Hotspur supporter. That’s both a lovely experience — being part of a large, world-wide clan — and eternally crushing in its chronic “almost-ness”. Spurs have been top four or five in the English Premier League for years but never THE top. That consistency keeps a fan base happy but it never gives them the cathartic Big Win they crave. Last season, Spurs made it all the way to the Champions League Final against a superior Liverpool side. Another second place finish. So close… so far… .

Those who hate footie — Americans mostly who need constant action to engage them — don’t grasp the slow build drama of a soccer match. In England, every year, there are tournaments (the FA Cup, the Carabo Cup) where lesser teams from the lower leagues get to play against teams from the EPL Occasionally, the lesser teams flirt with jaw-dropping upsets. If a team can play solid, organized defense, they’ll always stand a chance. Keeping a clean sheet guarantees you at least a tie.

If you can score on a counter attack — then you have a chance to win, too. That’s the gamble. There’s another tool in the underdog’s belt though — chaos. For all its organization — with players keeping their shape and knowing where they need to be — a soccer game’s outcome can rely on the pure chaos unleashed when a corner kick gets taken.

Provided the attacking team’s goalie stays in his or her goal, that puts ten players trying to put the ball into the net against eleven players trying to stop the ball — and, hopefully either clear it out of the box to buy some time to regroup or initiate a counter strike because the attacking team’s defense is, for the moment, out of position. As much as teams may practice set plays, the circumstances at the time of any particular corner kick are unique to that game and everything that led to that corner kick.

If the player taking the corner kick lofts the ball into the box, here’s what happens: 21 bodies suddenly go into motion in 21 different directions. The kick could be well taken or not well taken — that, too, is part of the chaos. Weather conditions also impact what’s happening inside the box. Rain, for instance, can make getting traction harder. It can change the purchase a player going for a header gets as he digs his spikes into the turf and leaps. Wind can knock a ball down fractionally, change its arc just enough to impact all the players’ timing.

Anything can happen. A lesser player can score a goal just by being in the right place at the right time. He or she doesn’t even have to put the ball goal-ward with a drop of skill. The ball can reflect off them and into the net. It can hit them — then hit another player (altering the ball’s flight) before slipping past the goalie. The ball can even bounce off a defender and into the goal.

For all the skill and talent moving through those 792 square feet of space (the penalty area is 18 feet X 44 feet), it’s not uncommon for one of those talented, highly paid football soccer players to put the ball into his or own own net. Shit gets that chaotic.

You play the soccer game because anything can happen.

Metaphorically speaking (and I love me a good metaphor), the Age Of Trump is like a giant corner kick. We have lots of bodies in motion, all heading in different directions. Some want to put the ball into the goal — end Trump’s presidency — while others defend if not furiously then with total desperation.

There’s another player in the box though — us. We The People. We’re on this pitch to be sure. We’re the biggest bunch of players there actually. The game’s outcome will determine our future. That’s what makes it galling that, as usual, the Republicans are cheating at the game. But then, it was always an illusion that we started the game on a level playing field.

That has never, ever been the case.

Edward Norton Lorenz, creator of chaos theory (he “…established the theoretical basis of weather and climate predictability, as well as the basis for computer-aided atmospheric physics and meteorology”), also theorized “The Butterfly Effect”. Lorenz used a butterfly’s wings as a metaphor for how a minor perturbation — like a single butterfly flapping it’s wings on one part of the globe — could result in a tornado on another part of the planet several weeks later.

If Lorenz is right — and our ability to predict weather says he is — then even small disturbances can, in time, produce gigantic effects. It’s just the nature of chaos. That means that our political situation — as profoundly chaotic as it is — is not set in stone. Change any of the elements flying through the penalty box and we don’t know if or how the end will change.

But then, how the end “ends” is a lot more up to us than we realize. That’s the point. If enough of us butterflies out here in the public start flapping our wings — voting, attending marches and rallies, speaking up — we don’t know whether or not we’ll make a difference. But we could — the math days we absolutely could.

Who wins when the chaos ends? Who knows? Chaos is chaos is chaos.

And that’s why we have to show up.

Life Is Like Standing In A Batter’s Box — And The Pitcher’s A Sadist

I’m not the first person to visit this analogy. But I feel that analogy every day like I’m standing in a batter’s box and whatever’s out there pitching at me is seriously off their meds.

As metaphors & analogies go, life compares best to baseball (as opposed to football, basketball, soccer — or archery even). There’s a clock in baseball (9 innings) but it’s a flexible clock. There are no ties. The game will end eventually even if it takes an extra long time. And then there’s that feeling of “one-on-one-ness”. Yes, we’re all part of a team, but whereas in American football, a quarterback may hold the ball but he can’t possibly win one vs eleven. He can score from his one-yard-line all by himself with no one’s help but it’s pretty damned unlikely. He needs blockers. He just does.

In baseball, it’s pitcher v batter. A single batter can homer – produce the only hit, only run in an otherwise perfectly pitched game & all by him or herself, defeat the pitcher. The rest of the team has to pitch & play defense almost flawlessly to keep that 1-0 victory alive but — if they all struck out every time at bat, it wouldn’t matter; the win would still theirs.

So — there we are — bat in our hands, catcher and umpire behind us, Pitcher out on the mound staring us down. We’re all looking for the fastball right down the middle. Forget about it. Life doesn’t throw that pitch — ever. That’s not to say those pitches don’t exist — but Life doesn’t throw them. There’s that funny baseball-tinged saying that the wonderful Molly Ivins used to describe George W. Bush (or was it the equally wonderful Ann Richards?) — He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple. That’s exactly right. Life never threw any pitch that W had to hit to get where he got. He was born there.

Life does throw fastballs. Life throws them hard — right at our heads. Every day. Life lives to bean us.

The trick — avoid getting beaned while looking for something we can hit. The problem — Life’s not going to throw anything to hit. If it isn’t hurling high heat at hour heads, it’s throwing off speed junk and Uncle Charlies. Especially the Charlies.

The off speed crap usually hits the dirt before reaching the batter’s box. We swing at it anyway, looking foolish. The curve balls however — that’s where our hope lies. Learn to hit Life’s curveballs and you might not only get on base a few times, you may even park one right in the bleachers. Maybe even the parking lot.