Sunday, June 30, 2013

AZ's Slant on Sunday - Terror of Turf

I've had this topic in draft mode for well over a year and a half. I figured it was time to fully unleash on the topic after another former baseball player--former Phillies and Marlins catcher Darren Daulton--had been diagnosed with brain tumors. There is a link to his case, and it's a serious link.

When I first drafted this topic, I had just finished watching a feature of the 1980 World Series on the MLB Network. Since I'm from Philadelphia myself, I know by fact that four men who participated in that Series had fallen ill and died from brain cancer; the four men were Tug McGraw, Dan Quisenberry, John Vukovich, and [another Royal who didn't pitch in the series] Ken Brett. Now, if it was only one man who had passed away from this ailment, you would consider it to be a tragedy and go through the motions. However, I just named four men who played baseball in the same era, and both teams played in a ballpark that contained a common item: artificial turf (in this case, AstroTurf). Coincidence?

Back in the 1960's, artificial turf such as AstroTurf was all the rage. It was durable, it hardly required maintenance, and it was cheap. Many sports stadiums around the country (not just baseball) installed the artificial turf to save costs not only on grass maintenance, but on long-term care due to durability. While it had more cushion than standard grass and prevented hard-landing injuries, it handled sunlight differently and could--in many cases--burn an athlete's skin. Imagine being an outfielder and you have to make a diving catch in the middle of August.
Mordor, ladies and gentlemen.
Despite this minor setback, artificial turf was a common sight to see at many stadiums throughout the 1970's until the mid-2000's. It was a great display of technology and efficiency; however...there was a major dark side to the use of artificial turf before more advances in technology cleaned up the materials.

Do we know what this is?

This is lead.

If you know science, it doesn't take a lot of this to make a human or an animal sick. This element in a large enough amount can destroy the nervous system and cause disorders in the brain.

This could be found in AstroTurf.

Lovely, yes? As I mentioned above, this can cause massive problems in the brain. Due to great exposure of the turf, especially in different kinds of weather and other forms of activity, it isn't a coincidence that there have been numerous deaths of baseball players who have A) Played on AstroTurf at some point in their careers, and B) Had found brain tumors while in their 50's. [Note: Quisenberry, whom I mentioned above, is an exception. He succumbed to cancer at the age of 45.] The element had enough time to settle in and cause problems once certain parts of the body begin to phase out due to old age.

Aside from lead, there have also been more toxic elements found in the turf that could cause nerve and cardiovascular damage, such as zinc (in exponentially large amounts, of course), cadmium, chromium, and arsenic. Yes. Arsenic. Whenever it rains or is incredibly windy, these components can hit the lungs and settle in the body, and Heaven help you if you already have a preexisting health condition such as asthma. Drainage from the stadiums after rain could also get into the sewer system and mess with the water supply in various cities. Although an extreme scenario, it is a completely plausible one. What could be an issue on the field could bleed into a home issue, ruining residential homes and hurt common citizens. Birth defects? Lead poisoning? All could be completely possible.

With this revealed, the big question is this: Why on EARTH was this used in the first place?

Were we that stupid, or did we just not know how dangerous this stuff was? In this case, it was a "trial and error" at the expense of athletes later on in their lives. In a post-war era, this was an: "Oh my goodness, we just made something that will pay for itself. Let's throw it out there," kind of thing. If you ever saw those 1950's reels showing the "Kitchen of the Future," you could understand why something like this was so big, regardless of what materials were being used for the product. If it worked, it worked. While it was a great invention that saved a lot of money, it wasn't exactly the safest and healthiest thing manufactured [to compare it to a current issue, think of the whole "GMO" debacle if you're a foodie]. Since we know a lot more about particular materials and the effects it has on the human body, developers are a lot more cautious as to what they use in products that require a lot of usage and durability. Many athletes have suffered for this innovation, but if it weren't for their suffering--for the lack of a more honorable term--we wouldn't realize the dangers of the artificial turf that was used from the 1960's until the late 1990's.

Although there have been great advances in science to perfect the composition of artificial turf, it is still a controversial product, as all but two MLB ballparks play on natural grass. The two fields--Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg [Tampa Bay Rays] and the Rogers' Centre in Toronto [Blue Jays]--use a turf called FieldTurf, which is more rubber-based. Other forms of turf are being derived from plastics, and while there is still some concern and controversy with the kinds of turf fibers, it is in high demand in countries that are unable to grow large amounts of grass in their climate. Most of these countries request this material for their soccer fields. This is understandable, and economically speaking, could prove to be a better resort than attempting to grow exorbitant amounts of grass and not be able to take care of it as well as other countries could.

Unfortunately, we could see more athletes that could suffer the same problem as many before them due to the terrors of turf in the near future. Whether there will be faster diagnosis and treatment for these possible cases that will develop before that time, we can't be sure of that. While we should embrace innovation and technology, there always comes a price to these things.


For more information, these are the sources I checked out for this piece: (1, 2, 3, 4)

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Secret Life of the American Athlete

I find it absolutely fascinating when a professional athlete is charged with committing a crime and then all of these theories and so-called "fast facts" start spewing out of media outlets. Its almost as if they're saying "Let's give you more of a reason to find even more fault in this man. BOO HIM."

Unless you have been nowhere near a TV or radio as of late, you know who Aaron Hernandez is. If you're a New England Patriots fan, you're probably wondering how this all happened and whether you can get a refund on your jersey. Within the past week and a half, Hernandez's name and reputation have been flipped upside down and exploited for the country to see. Not only that, but they (as in private investigators) are also looking into his personal life, such as whether the tattoos that he owns are related to gangs or any other destructive behavior.

Photo from CBS New York
You read that right. They're going the whole nine here.

Aside from the jokes that Aaron Hernandez has now made the "NFL All-Prison Team," this case is receiving more publicity at this stage than the likes of the Michael Vick case, Ray Lewis' murder charge, Plaxico Burress' club folly, and even the O.J. Simpson case. Really. This has become more widespread of a case than the infamous White Bronco. Although there is the argument that the difference in media over nearly twenty years has caused this, the added severity of the crime and the supposed ties that are being implied is making this one of the biggest professional athlete crime cases in history.

While I'm not writing this post to pick on the media, a long stick will be used to some extent. Instead, I will be looking into a question that most sports fans refuse to ask in circles and themselves: "Can fame and fortune screw up professional sports?"

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, I wrote about how the inception of social media blurs the line between pro athletes and the public. The perks of that may be great supply, but it's rather scary to see how some men and women still hide their personal lives from the public. That might not be a bad thing, but to still be able to wield a giant facade and hide something maniacal in a global village is an impressive, yet frightening feat. There is a long-standing thought that money and fame can ultimately change a man. Some of the most humble of men have been affected by salary directly and indirectly. [Note: When I mean indirectly, I refer to someone like "Shoeless Joe."] Because the opportunity and options are there, forbidden behaviors are easier to access and the alleged "high status" of the professional athlete gives off an air of invincibility internally and externally. When that kind of high-status is involved, one can say that danger seems to lurk at every corner. This could be why you hear more instances of possession of weapons in public settings or domestic abuse cases involving weapons. These actions can spiral out of control and the personal life soon becomes public knowledge.

You see all of those kids liking a professional athlete? Those kids are now being told by their parents that the athlete is a bad person. Everything unwinds. The athletes you may have looked up to as a child may not have been the charity-loving and encouraging person you originally thought they were. While their hearts were in the right places once upon a time, some of the actions that they have taken part in cannot be reversed. In a judgmental society, it doesn't take much to lose societal respect and it could possibly take a lifetime to gain it. You often wonder whether the athlete thinks of the consequences before the action. Oftentimes the answer is no; immediate gratification and fixes subdue any sense of punishment or loss of invincibility. Once a public trial begins, the hope may be lost, regardless of whether the athlete is found innocent or guilty.

Going back to my original statement that this case is one of the biggest in modern American sports history, the expansion of technology and media knowledge is making Aaron Hernandez a household name. Because of the slough of information that is being leaked about the defendant, stories, gossip, and citizen theories are being developed at an exponential rate. For example, back when the Black Sox scandal came about, the only stuff that people knew were things they read in the newspaper or heard on the radio, and when the O.J. Simpson trial came about, there were the previously-mentioned outlets on top of television coverage in the growing age of cable news. The advent of the Internet meme and microblogging websites such as Twitter is making a complicated case easier for the younger audiences to understand. For example, microblogging is an algorithm, and the jokes of the Internet meme make what is a very expansive case almost minute and comical. It isn't necessarily a good thing, but it almost dumbs it down for a younger audience and leaves a hint of innocence and no desensitization.

Sure, when the personal life goes public, nothing is sacred anymore, but you also have to ask the ethical question of why an individual (not just an athlete) would bother to do such a heinous crime or practice to begin with. I am not the type of person to instigate on whether someone committed a crime, but it is often difficult to avoid due to the ability of society to shove something down the throat of someone avoiding all crises. Heck, even fellow athletes in other leagues have their own opinions about it, but there is the decency and common courtesy to not speak out about it; rather, these guys try their absolute best to not do that themselves. However, we cannot be the ultimate controllers of everyone's fates. The secret life of the American athlete may not be so secret anymore, but that should also mean that everyone is in check and privacy isn't so sacred anymore. Everyone might have to practice a little more morality these days.

Invincibility? This isn't a video game!


Thursday, June 20, 2013

Red Whines - Trash Talk to the Dump?

High school sports are touchy because it's still rather conservative on sporting policies and school-related politics are managed rather strangely in various states. Challenge accepted, state of New Jersey.

When you've got a big game coming up against a rival team from the other side of the city (or state), the result is usually a no-holds-barred brawl between not only the school teams, but the students, fans, and parents. The easiest way to get under the skin of the opposition is the most common "trash talk." This practice has been around in many forms all over the world of sports, most famously seen before boxing events and wrestling matches. In mainstream professional sports, there usually isn't much of a sign of it due to excessive media exposure and public image. However, you know it's there in a mutual sense. In the case of high school sports, there is often a plethora of these incidences involving trash talking. It can get a bit extreme, almost to the point of the brink of physical violence.

To prevent any more of these scenes, the state of New Jersey announced a policy fitting high school sports teams under the anti-bullying campaign in effect throughout the schools in the Garden State. If any student athletes discriminate another athlete based on race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, the school can face penalization and investigation through the Civil Rights Division.

Yes, they mean business.

This is what I don't understand: shouldn't the student-athletes have enough smarts to not do that to begin with? What is this, 1966? If the student-athlete is calling out other players on another squad because some of them are another ethnicity, shouldn't that already be handled by the coaching staff or even the teen's parents? I'm opening up another can of worms with that, so I digress.

The main reason for this, as I mentioned above, is to promote the anti-bullying movement being promoted in high schools around the region. The bullying/suicide issue is becoming quite the hot topic since the inception of social media among other technology, and state and federal governments are looking to prevent it from bleeding onto sports fields. Back in December, I argued (rather, complained) as to why issues like race and social status are still an issue even today, when events like the Civil Rights Movement occurred 50 years ago. And these were adults that were facing the problem. If teens can't handle diversity at this stage where we have already faced stigmas against race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, there might be a problem with their source of opinion. In the world of sports, athletes will have to face other athletes of different colors, beliefs, and social class. High school and even pee-wee sports are the practice grounds for tolerance and love for another even though they play for the other team. There's nothing wrong with rivalry, but name-calling and slurs are learned; kids don't just come up with it or decide to start doing it. If they're exposed to it somehow, it has to somehow be eliminated once they hit the field.

While this new policy is promoting sportsmanship and self-control among teammates, the anti-bullying movement is getting a bit too over-the-top. If everyone was nice to each other with no sign of abrasiveness, we would be all mushy and sugary and people wouldn't know how to vocally defend themselves and turn negatives into positives. Although bullying is a massive problem on social media outlets, the sports field is another story. High school student athletes may not completely understand the whole concept of respected competition yet, but they will, and this is where they have to learn on their own accord. If the members of a team respect each other and don't bully the other, I'm pretty sure it will be reflected toward the other team. You're already killing the opposition with your kindness to not kill them, so to speak. After all, it's an age-old fact that actions speak louder than words.

I'm not entirely against the whole policy that will be implemented in the fall, but it should also be implied that you really shouldn't be using certain kinds of phraseology to intimidate the opposition to begin with. If you can't say anything nice about their origins, you shouldn't say anything at all. I'm pretty sure "you guys stink and we're going to pummel you" is enough. Playful bantering never hurt anyone--don't take that away completely. TEACH the athletes to have compassion and respect; you don't have to create a LAW to enforce it. We're getting a little trigger-happy, don't you think?

You can read the article for the idea of this post here.


Friday, June 14, 2013

Softball, the Not-So Obscure

I was originally going to finish this blog post last week, but that never happened due to outside circumstances. Thanks for your unfailing patience.

Based on the events that occurred one week ago, there is something that resonates in my mind: Softball isn't dead. Not by a long shot.

Just because you don't see it very often on television or don't see it frequently on any kind of mass media, that doesn't mean the sport isn't popular. The sport of softball is actually more popular than you think. There is, of course, the competitive fastpitch, where women can throw 70mph fastballs and have a pitch count of over 150. There are also recreational leagues; some leagues include leagues for young girls, and others are for adults that play for bar leagues or even their own businesses. No, the adult leagues don't do the fastpitch, although that would be quite hilarious. These leagues use something called "high-arc" where it's tossed higher in the air and the batter has to cherry-pick to put the ball in play. When younger girls play, they almost use the same style but the pitch is straighter onto the plate; the pitching style is usually referred to as "slingshot." All three pitching styles mentioned involve timing and patience, and moving from one style to another is often a mess in adjustment. That might not be true for most people, but sometimes moving into different areas of the batter's box can really give one an edge while up to bat.

Even though it isn't a professional league, the NCAA Division I Women's Softball Tournament is a staple in numerous households each year. As I have said in several posts before, college sports are a different monster than professional sports, and the atmosphere at a college game has a different feel of electricity flowing through the field and the stands. Now that the tournament is over, women will be heading back home, either training for the next season, or preparing for their prospective career post-college.

There is often that chance that their softball careers end here.
Is it sad? It may be, especially if the athlete is All-American and is a star player on their team.

All is not lost! After the NCAA season, some young women are invited to train and play for the U.S. National Team, where they play International Friendly Matches or play exhibition matches against NCAA Division I teams. Unfortunately, softball was excluded from the Olympic Games beginning in 2012 [they have since been put on the shortlist for 2020, but it is competing with other sports including baseball and wrestling], and a grand stage was lost for them. After the information spread of the dropping of softball after the 2008 Beijing Games, the World Cup of Softball was established in 2005. It works in almost the same format as the Olympic Games, and the tournament takes place in Oklahoma City, OK--the same location of the NCAA Women's College World Series. Exclusion from the Olympic Games can only mean bigger and better things for the World Cup of Softball, and it keeps the sport from losing any sort of ground in popularity and the interests of young girls aspiring to play.

Here's another kicker for you: there actually is a professional softball league in the United States. I know. Soccer can barely keep one alive for three seasons, and there's a softball league. Allow me to indulge...

It is not well-known in many areas, but the partnerships it holds with several organizations has been keeping it afloat for nearly ten years. National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) began as the Women's Pro Softball League in 1997 until 2001 and was revitalized as NPF in 2004. Although there are only four teams, it has developed quite a following in the areas in which the teams are established, and the businessmen that are in charge of this league are shrewd enough to get decent-sized deals for these teams (albeit not widespread). You wouldn't think that considering the photo below.
2011 Photo posted on The Sports Nut Blogs on Facebook
I took this screenshot of the website two years ago, and the tab highlighted in red is still on there today. You could own a team. Right away, red flags started flying everywhere the very first time I saw this on their website. But no, it's not that easy, so don't think you can step up and own a team like in the film Major League. Anyway, there are four teams, and you start to wonder: "How are they still around?" One word: Sponsorships. That's right. These guys are solid in the business world, and they're doing everything right that the WNBA is scoring high in. Plus, these guys are also in a union with Major League Baseball, which is a massive plus. Even though the league looks small, it's extremely cemented, and it looks like the women that are playing are getting a pretty enough penny for it.

FUN FACT: Did you think professional softball was only for women? You're silly if you said 'yes.' Men's leagues actually exist around the world. There is a lesser-known league that is in practice in the U.S.
I remember one time they actually put one of the games on ESPN. Because it isn't fastpitch, men can easily pound home runs and rack up the score. However, there is actually a rule (I can't confirm this for other leagues), but each team is only allowed to hit a certain number of home runs in the game and any additional home runs over the limit are automatic outs. I'm not joking. I thought it was silly too.

In case you thought I was making this up, here's a video of it.

As a woman who played softball for over ten years, it's wonderful to see the sport getting as much development and care as it is in the United States. When you think about it, it doesn't have to have a professional league or an Olympic sport to represent it. If the passion is there, it's going to be contagious among girls on the teams and the people watching them. That's what makes the sport so strong. Would I like to see it become more mainstream in the States someday? Sure. It could be a great companion piece to professional baseball leagues around the globe. But for now, it's doing incredibly well as it is.

Just because softball isn't an Olympic sport anymore doesn't mean that the sport is dead. It may be more difficult to find than other mainstream sports like baseball and football, but it exists, and it's still incredibly exciting to watch.