Thursday, October 17, 2013

Batmen: Bearded Origins

Men fascinate me. The whole testosterone/manliness/hair thing is awkward. Don't get me wrong, I love growing out my hair and styling bangs and stuff...but the whole beard thing is weird. We women don't grow out our leg hair as a means of rallying. I'm just saying.

Beards. They come in many shapes and sizes. They come in different colors, lengths, thickness, and volumes. In olden days they were a sign of royalty, wisdom, virility, and also a sign that the man was hitched. Today, they can either be a sign of laziness, a need to keep the face warm in winter, and a new one: supporting a team. Ten years ago, it was a custom to have a team dye their hair to rally their team to the playoffs. It wouldn't be surprising to see key players on a team with their hair dyed blonde in support. Let's get real, here--that was really cheesy and was ten years too late considering the fact that we had the hair-frosting trends set in the 1990's. Today, the easiest (and healthiest) way to represent a team is to, well... "let their hair down."

The only thing I knew before this trend of any man supporting a cause by trimming their facial hair is for "Mo-vember," done every November to promote awareness for prostate cancer. In the sports world, athletes and male fans have insisted on going the whole nine and growing out a ZZ Top-styled beard in lieu of their favorite team.

For example, as you can see here, Dodgers pitcher Brian Wilson is rocking the Captain Lou Albano look. If you don't know who Capt. Lou is--which honestly determines how old you are--you can call it the Michael Gambon's Dumbledore look.
How does he sleep with that thing?
If you've been following the MLB Postseason, you can see that Brian Wilson isn't the only one sporting a beard. In fact, more than half of the Boston Red Sox are sporting a beard. It has gone so crazy that some of them have been growing and grooming them since the beginning of the season and they've created nicknames for some of the beards, like "The Serial Killer."

Nicknames. For their beards. Like they were their own children or something.

Moving right along...
The team that plays together, stays together. With that said, is this phenomenon another sign of superstition, or is it really a beckoning call to summon every defense and bulldoze the opposition?

Three years ago, I wrote about how superstitions are the religious glue that make the sports realm a tangible universe that fans and media outlets can portal themselves to. Different mantras and rituals exist in this mystical land. Heck, Bud Light had a whole advertising campaign built around it. Beard-growing has slowly, but surely become a growing (no pun intended) trend in sports over the past year or two. In fact, you could start to argue that it began a little earlier than that with numerous NFL players growing out their locks a-la Clay Matthews or Troy Polamalu. However, the beard sported by Brian Wilson himself during the San Francisco Giants' 2010 MLB Postseason run brought the "fear the beard" phase to the forefront, leading other fans and baseball players to sport the same look. While some considered it a "fashion statement," it almost had the same significance as a rally hat in the ninth inning or sporting a scarf on match day in soccer, but all day, every day.

Superstitions aside, this seems more like a unifying practice instead of a "if I shave, they're going to lose," kind of deal. Doing a collective action such as growing out beards shows a sense of unity among teammates and the fans. This is a very good sign. It reflects team chemistry and their passion to keep going. After all, if the fans are following suit, and you'd wanna help them out too, right?  Boston, normally called "Beantown" throughout the nation, has been referring to themselves as "Beardtown" throughout the Red Sox' playoff run. Fans are showing up to the stadiums wearing Father Time hairy beards and Santa beards in support, and with the weather getting cold, it's certainly keeping those fans warm with passion and excitement. [Good thing Halloween is coming up, eh?] Trends may come and go, but if there's any way to win over new audiences and grab more love and attention, bonding together and looking like a uniformed team is the way to go. Beards are a bit strange, I'll admit that, but if you've been watching the Red Sox in the playoffs, you can see a lot of the die-hard fans cheering on their team in the same way the team is displaying themselves on the field. In the case of rally towels...well, they're an added boost of momentum.

Can I grow a beard? No. However, I personally know people who have for different reasons involving sports. While it might seem strange to me, there are bound to be other people out there like you that do the same thing for the same cause in other ways. Thing is, you just have to make sure it doesn't get out of hand and your boss or your wife comes in with shears. It's a physical badge of fandom, and men (and women with fake ones) wear them loud and proud if their team is relying on their momentum.

I'm just going to feel bad for you if your team loses and then you have to shave the whole thing off. That is going to take a while, and it's probably going to hurt.

(Sucks to be you...)


Friday, October 11, 2013

The Struggle for Attention

When you're the middle child, you often find yourself struggling for attention and fight to get the attention in any way possible. This is for you guys out there. (points) (puts on aviators and strums guitar) As a soccer fan, it's time to speak up.

With the mainstream "big four" (MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL) touting their successes all over North America, other sports are struggling to gain their attention by other outside fanbases. For example, there are circles out there in North America that are die-hard fans of women's basketball, lacrosse, and softball. There is another circle that is bigger than these three combined, but still cannot break through to the big time no matter what goes on. I'm talking about Major League Soccer. Founded 18 years ago, this league has been through numerous highs and lows and has now become an outlet for older athletes to find refuge in the sports they absolutely love to play.

Does this mean that their perseverance gives them recognition on the big North American Sports Stage? Oh heck no. Would you like an example? I'll give you one:

Philadelphia is well-known for being a sports city with a harsh reputation. Recently, the Philadelphia Flyers fired head coach Peter Laviolette, and mainstream media outlets claimed that Eagles' head coach Chip Kelly, hired in the beginning of 2013, was now the longest-tenured head coach in Philadelphia sports. This actually angered a lot of Philadelphia Union fans, even grabbing the attention of head coach John Hackworth. Hackworth, rising to his position in mid-2012, was asked about this mainstream statement in a press conference held a few days after the news broke. He stated: “I think it’s incredible that in this day and age, in the world we live in, with how popular our sport is, that in a city that says that it is such a sports town, to say that, ‘Eh, it doesn’t count as one of the top professional sports.’ I think that’s crazy” (CBS Philly). Even when Freddy Adu was a member of the Union, people didn't care. I don't even think they'd care if David Beckham came out of retirement and played for them. That is how many blind eyes are turned toward soccer in various regions. You can blame the media all you want, but with the perennial status of baseball and basketball and the high-octane violence factor of hockey and American football, soccer often gets pushed out in favor of the other four. Why? It is often perceived by the non-informed North American that it's a "high-class sport" filled with over-the-top injury fakers and that, simply put, it isn't a real sport. From a personal standpoint, I can't begin to tell you how many times I've heard both of those statements used in an argument as to why soccer couldn't survive in North American culture.

Major League Soccer has had many rough patches in the 20 years its been around, and most of it has revolved around their performance in the previous FIFA World Cup Tournaments. Fortunately, they've had the support from businesses and other endorsements to keep them afloat. On the other hand, the women haven't been so fortunate. It's sad, but the story of the 1999 US Women's team died almost as quickly as they rose. Sure, they had a run with a soccer league (the WUSA) but that ceased in 2003. With the 2004 and 2008 Olympic runs came the WPS, and that fell apart within a few years. They won the gold medal in the 2012 Olympics, and a new league, the National Women's Soccer League, was born. In fact, they just recently concluded their inaugural season. This gain by the women's team has also been seen as a huge gain for the US Men's team in years past. In 2002, they had an impressive World Cup run that led them to the Quarterfinal match, and that helped the MLS' cause after losing a few teams a few years prior. Their recent successes has also garnered attention from outside fans and gives the option for these outsiders to check out other leagues such as MLS.

Like other smaller-scale sports, soccer falls victim to a restricted fanbase. It isn't like the marketing and advertising is poor, but the only audience comes from the people who either A - grew up playing the sport in a recreational league, or B - grew up in the culture itself. Again, from a personal standpoint, I started playing soccer when I was about seven, and my interest in the sport spiked after watching the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup Final. After watching other leagues, I was immersed in the sport and learned to appreciate it more. Some people don't have the time nor the care to do the same. It can be a huge problem, especially when match day falls on a Sunday, which is when 90% of NFL games are played. Currently, there's the issue of the MLS season running into competition from the other three major leagues during the spring months (the typical MLS season and playoff schedule runs from March through November). If the MLS schedule were to change to align with the European leagues--August through May--You run into all four sports in one swift burst, regardless of whether it's the regular season or not. You either stick to what you know or get judged for doing otherwise. It's a normal part of society, ladies and gentlemen.

Another problem that could rise from this is the overall level of MLS compared to leagues in South America and in Europe. It's not like this is a pee-wee league compared to a league like the British Premier League [it sort of is, but let's roll with the punches here], but the sport is taken more seriously and is instilled in players at a very young age. Just as there are mini camps for baseball and football in North America, there are long-term camps and facilities that exist for teams in England and in Spain. These men and women are taught the mechanics and are raised by organizations to play for their squads one day and show elite talent through the years. We, the people of the United States, read that and think that is the craziest thing to ever exist. It almost comes off as inhumane. Truth be told, it's an art out there; it's treated like dance or gymnastics or music. You have to eat, drink, breathe, and sleep the sport. While I'm not saying that no sport is taken seriously here, sports aren't seen as attainable a career by American society because it takes more effort and it might have to begin at a younger age as opposed to starting a trade in college and building off of that. Admit it, the sports industry in the United States is heavily hit-and-miss, and you have to be in the right place at the right time (and HEALTHY) to hit it off somewhere. We're in a survival of the fittest culture as opposed to a youth enrichment culture.

When I think of how MLS is treated as opposed to the "big four," I think of Mean Girls.

MLS seems out of place when it comes to competing against the other major sports, especially since it is more of a tradition-based sport. In short, soccer can be considered a completely different entity and might be a bit overwhelming to outsiders that never gave the sport a chance as a youth or at any other crucial point in life. You cannot truly persuade someone to accept a sport; they have to walk into it themselves and decide whether soccer has a chance of being a major sport in North America. Of course, it doesn't help matters when the person is completely turned off to even watching the sport or even bothering to give it a chance. Such is life.

With that said, MLS certainly has the credentials to be the diamond in the rough in North America, and with some additional support from various soccer programs, we could have a force to be reckoned with when it comes to International play. Wouldn't it be nice to be fearsome in more than one or two sports?


Many thanks to Brian Barrish from The Soccer Desk for fact-checking.
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