Quantum Hoops (2)

January 19, 2009

beaversmiling405What about the Quantum Hoops video?  The documentary is very ably put together.  It combines a bit of the history of Caltech and its athletic programs with the story of the amazing conference record of the basketball Beavers over the last few years.  Not only do they lose a lot, they most often lose badly.  Yet the documentary succeeds in finding the right tone and integrating the viewer into the problematic of a not very good team representing a high power academic institution in a fairly weak basketball environment.  We are far from epic hoop battles in the Big East or the PAC-10, but we want this group to fulfill its specific hoop dream.  Caltech will  not play in front of a large crowd or on national television.

Although the institution once fielded competitive teams in some of the major sports, Caltech does not give  priority to recruiting accomplished athletes.  In fact, the documentary is careful to underline the role that basketball plays in the lives of the students who make up the team.  Caltech is a Division 3 team and basketball is essentially a diversion:  for the players, it’s a complement to an arduous program of study, not a potential ticket to a professional sports contract.  Here we see  basketball at the collegiate level as pure sport.  The players are certainly serious about learning the game and improving their performance.  They want to win, to be competitive, but  most of them have neither the talent nor the experience to excel at even the D3  level.  As the promo for Quantum Hoops proclaims:  the team has more high school valedictorians than players with extensive high school basketball experience.

To adequately treat its subject, it is important that the documentary  not moralize.  We cannot help  seeing the humor in the ineptness of the team and the severity of its conference losing streak, but at the same time we must admire the academic accomplishments of the players, their real dedication to gradual athletic  improvement and their enjoyment of participation in sport.  So the errant passes and occasional airballs make us laugh, but that laugh never turns into derision.  We learn to admire their tenacity and appreciate the pedagogy of their excellent coach.  The commentary by director Rick  Greenwald  not only adds to our appreciation of certain details of the film, but also shows how careful he was to give the video the right tone.

But I have no intentions of being a film critic.  Quantum Hoops can attain cult status simply on the basis of its title.  Having gone through a few years of a joint math/physics major before deciding to definitively opt for mathematics, I have a modicum of appreciation of the difficulty of doing theoretical physics.  Attending a conference given by Paul Dirac at Syracuse University early in my undergraduate years was one great moment in my early academic life.  (Again my friend Dante Giarrusso was responsible for motivating this trip to our neighboring campus.)  The presenter at that conference was the head of the Physics Department at Syracuse during that epoch, the great Peter Bergmann, a one time associate of Albert Einstein.  I still remember the pleasure that he took in introducing Dirac that day.   So anyone who teaches and does research in theoretical physics has my admiration.  In fact, even for the profane, the history of the development of theoretical physics in the last century is fascinating.  (If there were footnotes in this blog, I would  here make reference to the very enjoyable, recently published book by Sheilla Jones,  The Quantum Ten,  Thomas Allen Publishers, Toronto, 2008.)

Of course, I have been a basketball fan for a long time.  My personal basketball career was less than illustrious, but I always understood attendance at our high school games as an implicit obligation.  The Syracuse Parochial League of that epoch consisted of teams from virtually all the parish high schools in the city.  Its caliber was not as good as the county league which featured larger schools and better players, but competition was fierce between certain rival schools.  In the same way, when I was a student at LeMoyne College I attended many home games, but the caliber at LeMoyne was far below that of  the neighboring  D1 powerhouse Orange.  So I would hardly look down on Caltech basketball because it is D3.  Success is, of course, relative.  We must remember that not every college or university possesses the institutional culture which demands quasi-professional athletic achievement.

So Quantum Hoops can also be used as a point of reference for a reflection on NCAA sports.  It is hard to combine stellar basketball talent and stellar academic achievement.  We recall  Bill Bradley and David Robinson, both of whom were exceptional NBA players.  They were outstanding athletes  by professional basketball standards and equally exemplary individuals  in both academics and social commitment.  Yet neither passed through a program of study as demanding as theoretical physics before landing in the NBA.

Bradley and Robinson both contradict the popular view that athletic stardom and a modicum of intellectual achievement are inversely proportional.  Using the Quantum Hoops video as background, we can appeal to them to bring the perennial topic of the relation between academics and sport to the forefront.  Weekend television in the Fall and the Winter is inundated with collegiate  football and basketball;  in many areas of the country, collegiate sports are more popular than the corresponding professional leagues.  American male athletes in the major sports (basketball, football, baseball) often grow up with the dream of one day playing professional ball.  That dream can quickly turn to illusion relatively early in their lives.  Playing NCAA sports is already an accomplishment, especially at the D1 level.  But even then, only a relatively few NCAA players will subsequently play professional sports in the major sports leagues (NBA, NFL, MLB).

The dynamic that characterizes participation in sport at that level is sometimes not appreciated by the public.  The sports structure is like a pyramid.  To make it to the top normally demands talent, work and a certain measure of luck.  Playing at a high level on that pyramid is already exceptional.  For example, we can easily name many great collegiate basketball players who either never got a chance to play in the NBA or were not quite able to make a career in that league.  A similar thing can be said for other sports.  I was extremely pleased that my son was able to pitch in D1 baseball, but more pleased that he combined a reasonable athletic career with graduation in 4 years,  a degree magna cum laude and  induction into Phi Beta Kappa.  At the same time, I saw others who misinterpreted their situation, ending up with neither a professional career nor a diploma.  I have no sympathy with the purist’s version of academia which would seek to ban organized sports from campus.  But there is a point of view from which  the Caltech Beavers can be considered successful and, if there is a lesson to be reiterated from Quantum Hoops, it may be the banal reminder that enjoyment of sport and personal success do not always have to be evaluated from the perspective of a culture mesmerized by professional sport.

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What’s wrong with bowling?

November 19, 2008

The question posed in this title is deliberately ambiguous.  We can ask it in the sense of  ” what’s wrong with participating in the game of  bowling ? “, which implies questioning  the cultural and social status of the game.  Or we can ask it in the sense of  ” what is not working properly within the game of bowling ? ”  which implies questioning the interior workings of the game itself from the point of view of those who participate in it.  Trying to examine the first sense of the question will forcibly lead to some discussion of the second.

It is a fact that bowling is looked down upon by many in the middle and upper income echelons of  North America.  (I would be tempted to use the word class rather than the term “income echelon” despite the widespread denial of its pertinence on this continent.)  It is often associated with “common” people, bad taste , lack of sophistication,  a little like country music.  Professionals, entrepreneurs, the cultural elite, the idle rich, do not bowl.  They sail, ski, play tennis, golf, handball.  If the office hits the lanes, it’s looking for quaintness: a chance to wear funny shoes, drink pitchers of beer and pitch strangely colored balls at a distant triangular formation of objects.  It’s a once a year affair, a part of what was called “slumming” in 50’s films.

Yet, I have a Ph. D. and I bowl.  During my graduate career, I once took a reading course from a great American research mathematician (algebraic topologist Mark Mahowald) who was as enthusiastic about his Thursday night bowling league as he was about his research.  I really do know people with accredited degrees who bowl.  In fact, bowling is growing as a competitive sport in U.S. colleges.  There is no a priori reason why bowling and intelligence should be mutually exclusive.  And there are bowlers whose incomes would qualify them as “well-off” or better.  So the common attitude about bowling can’t be completely correct.

On the other hand, that attitude is still prevalent in society at large.  One of the reasons may be the past association of bowling with ethnicity: Italians, Poles, Jews, bowl.  In other words, bowling is still identified with working class immigrants of the early to mid 20th century.  In many parts of America, there were not just neighborhood “bowling alleys”, but also lanes at ethnic social clubs with names like the Polish-American Veterans Association.  The great bowling towns were cities like Detroit, Buffalo, Chicago, old industrial centers with large “ethnic” populations.  When I was young, I lived within 25 minutes walking distance of three “bowling centers” (the politically correct industry term for what used to be called “bowling alleys”).  One of them was owned by Danny Biasone, also owner of the NBA Syracuse Nationals (now the Philadelphia 76ers), a friend of my father’s and the legendary inventor of the 24 second clock.  The Catholic high school I attended actually had 4 lanes in the building which housed the gym (actually an old basketball court) and the cafeteria.  The parish leagues played on those lanes.  My friends and I would sometimes bowl there on Sunday evenings.  That parish, Assumption Church in Syracuse, was founded by German Immigrants and would now be considered “inner city”.  There was no social stigma in bowling on those lanes.  In fact, in the days that I attended high school at Assumption, we had a female bowling team (but no male one, for some strange reason).  Ironically (given the fact that bowling apologists are always comparing the game to golf), I was once a member of the golf team: not that I was any good, but I was as good as most of my classmates, and during competitions I got to play private courses that were otherwise inaccessible to me.

When you ask academics about bowling, the best response you get is a condescending reference to The Big Lebowski. But there is academic recognition of a certain social function of bowling: Robert D. Putnam’s Bowling Alone is a contemporary sociological classic (with a great cover in its paperback edition).  In that book, league bowling in America is cited as an activity demonstrating exemplary social cohesion and “bowling alone” signifies the decay of that cohesion accompanied by the concurrent isolation of the individual in current society.  Putnam shows that, since the 1950’s, general participation in social activities ( league bowling, implication in local politics, volunteer work in neighborhood churches, active membership in service clubs, etc.)  has drastically declined.  This decrease of “social capital” will presumably not only have a negative effect on the social fabric (if I may add, this despite the new virtual solidarity of internet communication), but may also have dangerous consequences for the American ideal of participatory democracy.

The United States is no longer a nation which is attempting to assimilate the same immigrant nationalities which I previously mentioned.  With the gradual dispersion of those ethnic groups outside the cores of the old industrial cities (of the Northeast and the Midwest), bowling has somewhat changed its appearance.  Big tournaments are now often held in “non-traditional” bowling places such as Nevada.  The USBC ( United States Bowling Congress, bowling’s regulatory body) is in the process of moving its headquarters from the Milwaukee area to the Dallas region.  I don’t know if the demographic profile of the bowling public has been studied in depth, but according to the American Demographics web site (July ,1998 article by Lisa Krakowka), bowling was the most popular participation sport in the U.S. in 1997 (53 million Americans bowled at least once that year- basketball was second at 45 million).  The USBC put the number of participants at 66 million in 2006 (21 million of whom were between ages 6 and 17).  So there is a contradiction between the number of participants in bowling and the image of the sport.

Part of this image problem is due to the lack of differentiation of the various levels of participation in bowling . There are those who go out once a year at office events, families who go for an outing together. There are recreational leagues and, of course, more serious competitive leagues. The same is more or less true for golf (as I noted, bowling loves to compare itself to golf ), but somehow golf retains its prestige whereas bowling is often identified with its lowest participatory skill level.  It’s as if the mere mention of golf were to conjure up an instant mental image of mini-putt.

On the other hand,  it is only fair to say that the inflated bowling averages of today tend to accentuate the perception that it is not difficult to bowl at a high level. These inflated averages are the result of maintenance practices in bowling centers and advances in equipment design.  The bowling ball has become more powerful: easier to roll and harder hitting.  Combined with the practice of oiling lanes in such a way as make it easier to obtain abundant pinfall, the use of this equipment has brought scoring to unprecedented levels.  A player with relatively mediocre skills can perform well statistically on these lanes, but would not have the level of accomplishment necessary to compete on the more difficult lane conditions used by the PBA (Professional Bowlers’ Association) or in international tournaments.

Of course, the television image of bowling doesn’t help build its prestige. Locally televised competitions do not always feature the highest level players.  Participation is often emphasized more than skill.  Then there is the problem of the Professional Bowlers’ Tour. The PBA is regarded as representing the highest level of competition in bowling.  The final round of its weekly  tournaments was a traditional occupant of a time slot on Saturday afternoon network sports television for over thirty years.  The “Tour” had announcers and color commentators who were readily identifiable. by the general viewing public.  However, in the late nineties, through a series of circumstances, the PBA encountered sponsor problems, financial difficulties, and shaky television presence.  It was eventually  purchased by three former Microsoft executives who attempted to adapt it to a new audience.  Various experiments in television formats were tried to attract new sponsors and higher ratings.  PBA telecasts presently have a more stable format and a schedule on the ESPN cable network.  Some innovations (such as better explanation of lane oil patterns that determine the type of  ball speed,  rotation and trajectory to the pins that lead to optimal results) have been successful, others (such as sponsor names on plastic balls used for spares, attempts to make the bowlers ridiculously demonstrative so as to cultivate dubious “personalities”, etc.) tend to reinforce the old bowling stereotypes. This is also reflected in advertising.  The companies that sponsor the PBA telecast are most often far from Fortune 500 enterprises.  To make matters worse, the commentators sometimes lack professionalism.  The current analyst, Randy Pedersen, himself a former (excellent) player, tends to orient the broadcast to the lowest common denominator of viewer and himself often fails to rise above that level.

The professional ladies’ tour completely disappeared because of lack of sponsorship.  Attempts are being made to revive women’s professional bowling.  The lack of a stable media presence for female professionals is also disappointing, given the current skill level of women bowlers.  But even for male professionals, prize money remains low.  For example, the greatest player in the history of the sport, Walter Ray Williams, who has been a PBA competitor since 1980 and recently won his 45th tournament, has yet to crack total earnings of 4 million dollars.  The winner of last week’s tournament obtained $25,000.  This is derisory money in the today’s sports’ world.  The limited number of tournaments and low prize funds, combined with the expenses incurred by players who participate in these tournaments does not encourage the pursuit of bowling as a professional sport in the U.S.  International tournaments can sometimes lead to better paydays.  Despite a strong high school presence, an increasing popularity at the collegiate level and a strong level of international competition, bowling is still far from being recognized as a legitimate sports endeavor in North America.

** I must note that I am a USBC Silver Level certified (1999) instructor.  In 1998, I  was among the first 35 instructors in the world to complete technical certification by IPBSIA (International Pro Shop & Instructors Association).  I have assisted in instruction and translation at Buffa Bowling (Saint-Léonard, Québec ) and have worked at clinics for G. R. Bowling Inc. in both Québec and Ontario.