Allen Barra

The best Civil War movie ever made gets its due

On Sunday and on July 24, Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events are presenting big-screen showings in theaters nationwide of “Glory,” in honor of the 30-year anniversary of its release. The greatest movie ever made about the American Civil War, “Glory” was the first and, with the exception of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” the only film that eschewed romanticism to reveal what the war was really about.

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Conservative Max Boot on the fine art of denouncing the Republican Party

Max Boot begins “The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right” with an inscription from W.H Auden’s “September 1, 1939”:

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What Is Going On Inside David Lynch's Head?

In what is surely as weird as anything in his films or TV shows, David Lynch is now best known for his recent remarks about Donald Trump. On June 25, the three-time Academy Award nominated director of “Blue Velvet” and “Mulholland Drive” and the creator of “Twin Peaks” made headlines, surely in many publications where he’d never had them before, when Trump bragged about his support among Hollywood types, quoting Lynch in The Guardian that Trump “could go down as one of the greatest presidents in history because he has disrupted the thing so much.”

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Is the South Dragging the Rest of the Nation Down?

In 1978, out of college without a job and having failed to establish Birmingham’s version of The Village Voice, I took a job as advance man for the Alabama Republican Senate candidate.

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Don Fehr's Drug-Testing Gamble

OK, so what really happened at the baseball labor negotiations last week? Why did the Players Association suddenly seem to cave on the issue of steroids and random drug testing? And does this indicate a faltering on the side of the union, or perhaps a thaw in the negotiations?

The answer is none of the above. The answer is that the union's executive director, Don Fehr, finally did a sensational jiujitsu move on the owners and reversed the momentum of the talks. The simple fact is that the owners don't really care that much about the issue of steroids. They have never made it the focal point of any discussion, and only brought it into the current debate when they thought it could be used to distract the players and score public relations points with the public. The owners' attitude toward "recreational" drugs, which can hurt a player's performance and therefore devalue him as property, and steroids, which, arguably, can increase the players' value as gate attractions, has always been hypocritical. They have always paid lip service to the elimination of steroids without ever making a serious proposal. The players, for their part, have always mistrusted the owners' intentions on this issue, and rightfully so, ever since then commissioner Peter Ueberroth attempted to violate a carefully worked out agreement and make himself the "Drug Czar" of baseball in 1982.

So what happened the other day is that Fehr finally cut his losses on this issue, and decided that the union had little to lose in agreeing to random testing compared to the beating it was taking in the press. Never mind that most of those commenting on the situation had little knowledge of the history of drug testing in sports. Many held up the example of Olympic athletes as a model; few noticed that the IOC has a blatant double standard in this regard, never having asked for testing on pro athletes such as NHL hockey players and NBA basketball players. One thing that Fehr must have realized was that the union in the long run probably had little to fear from the possibility of harassment when it came to random testing, since no Major League owner is anxious to make his own superstar look bad in public. In other words, I very much doubt if any influential owner is going to lose his big stars by virtue of a drug suspension before the playoffs start.

More to the point, what Fehr did was to simply defuse drugs as an issue in the negotiations. Now we're back to what the issue has been all along: the luxury tax on spending proposed by the owners, designed to hold down the players' salaries. Stay tuned.

Smashmouth Football Sucks

The ancient Greeks believed that time was cyclical and that everything eventually came back around. (Aristotle believed he was living in the time of the Iliad because Alexander was invading Persia, or something like that.) If you follow sports, you begin to feel the same way. Is the XFL the third or fourth attempt to establish a new pro football league?

I'm really not old enough to remember much about the beginning of the AFL except that it caused a big fuss in Alabama (and presumably elsewhere in the country) when Joe Namath signed for the then-astonishing sum of $400,000. (And did I say astonishing? That was probably the salary for both XFL teams in the league's first game.)

I also remember a World Football League and a United States Football League and some other football league and even an American division of the Canadian Football League, though I can't actually say I remember anything as specific as one of their games. What I remember best is that each time around the new league promised a new excitement that the old, boring NFL was no longer providing, and that that had something to do with playing "football the way it's supposed to be played."

In the case of the new XFL, this is supposed to be what founder or commissioner or whatever-the-hell-he-is Vince McMahon calls "smashmouth football." The problem with this, as Mike Lupica (to give credit where it is due) pointed out, is that smashmouth football is exactly what the Baltimore Ravens played to perfection in the Super Bowl, and outside of Maryland people weren't particularly thrilled about it.

Forgetting for a moment the cheerleaders in the stands (I'll never forget one Betty Doll with an idiotic grin on her face asking a fan if he thought "another player might go down" after someone had suffered a concussion) or the "candid" player interviews (where one player was so candid he ignored the interviewer) and the halftime locker room visits (which confirmed exactly what you thought about halftime locker rooms sessions, namely that nothing of importance is ever said), I am left wondering, after the XFL's enormous media blitz, whether the people that put it together really care about football as anything besides marketing fodder.

That they don't care about the players has been brought home with a jolt that had to cause a modicum of queasiness in the most dedicated wrestling fan. In the league's first game, a quarterback who probably shouldn't have been playing in the first place was blindsided by a tackler who'd run right past a blocker who seemed unaware that he had blown an assignment, or even that there was an assignment to blow. Anyhow, the poor jerk was sitting on the bench, injured and looking like he wished he was back at the post office or wherever while that moron Jesse Ventura, who knows as much about football as I do about governing Minnesota (or even as much as he does about governing Minnesota), berated his play and called him a quitter. Have sports fans, I wondered, become so crass that they want to see players hurt and humiliated?

It seems to me that there is a massive miscalculation at the heart of the XFL that has nothing to do with the many things that are wrong with NFL football, and it starts with this: In wrestling the violence is fake, while in football it's very, very real.

The last American Medical Association report I saw listed football at any organized level as much more dangerous in terms of serious injuries per thousand participants than boxing. Football isn't showbiz to the men who play it, no matter how much technique is used to market it. All the cleavage and overhead cams (a terrific idea, actually) aren't going to keep these out-of-shape, past-their-prime and never-had-a-prime players from getting wracked. In fact, they're going to contribute to it.

The big changes the XFL has made in the game, namely no fair catches on punt returns and allowing bump-and-run tactics on receivers downfield are geared toward creating more entertainment -- i.e., nasty collisions. That's what's wrong with the game, according to the XFL: not that it stresses brute strength over conditioning and stamina, or that coaches are smothering the game with their conservatism. The problem is that it's not violent enough. Or dumb enough.

Of course, what's really wrong with pro football is something that every fan acknowledges but that not even the XFL dares to admit: There are too damn many commercials interrupting the action.

An awful lot of time and energy is wasted on sports pages these days discussing phony issues that really have nothing to do with sports. The Ray Lewis controversy comes under the heading of the criminal justice system, not football. Whether Dennis Miller will bring a new audience to "Monday Night Football" is of primary interest to the entertainment press, not to sports fans. (After all the talk, talk, talk about it, the "Monday Night" ratings didn't go up at all.)

The XFL is another of these non-issues that will cease to interest anyone when the NBA playoffs, the NCAA Tournament and the baseball season arrive. Good sport drives out bad; it's a law that I've now seen applied in three previous incarnations of alternative pro football leagues. And it doesn't take an Aristotle to see that we've lived through this before.

I do have one piece of advice for Vince McMahon: Don't wait till the ratings sag. Sign up Andrew Dice Clay as an announcer, NOW.

Allen Barra is a sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal and a regular contributor to the New York Times, Playboy, American Heritage and Salon, where this article first appeared.

The Ultimate in Televised Sports

How's this for a sports fantasy: About 10 years from now you find yourself with some time to relax and a big, big weekend coming up. The Seattle Mariners and Boston Red Sox are on early in the afternoon, you've got the Knicks and Heat coming up late, and then that big welterweight "Fight of the Century" coming on about midnight. Sunday there's the golf tournament at 1, the auto race at 4 and the NFL game you've waited all season for at 8. You pop that corn, settle down in front of your TV and Internet screens, reach for the remote and lean back.

You flip on the tube just in time to get the match you've been waiting for. Here's Alex Rodriguez, hitter of the decade, batting against five-time Cy Young winner Pedro Martinez -- or is that four MVPs? You thumb a button, and there are Pedro's career numbers in a box -- it is five Cy Youngs. You push another button and there are his career numbers against Rodriguez. A-Rod is hitting .287 off him, 30 points lower than his career mark, but still higher than anyone else against Martinez.

Instantly, you get a red box that sections off Rodriguez's strike zone, showing you which parts of it he hits for what averages, and the blue lines tell you which part of the strike zone Martinez frequents. Then, the pitch. As it hits the catcher's mitt, you get the velocity, 92 mph, and a blue line showing you the trajectory and the spot where it intersected the red line of Rodriguez's strike zone -- only this pitch didn't! The umpire called it a strike, but he can't see what you saw, namely that the blue line never "passed" through the red box. You flip another switch and find that this ump is notorious for giving that pitch to the hitter: His success ratio at getting the call right is one of the lowest in the league. You wish Rodriguez had the same information you do and knew not to take that pitch again.

But he doesn't take the next one, and your screen lights up in an orange flash as the velocity of the ball collides with the force of Rodriguez's swing. You're told that he has gotten 96 percent of his maximum potential power behind the ball and you watch the spectacular arc as it soars over the right field wall. What a shot! Was that 430 or 440 feet? You flick a button and watch as a parabola shows the arc of the ball and instantly tells you the distance: 432 feet, the fifth longest home run of Rodriguez's career.

And that's just the first 10 minutes of your weekend. What part of this is fantasy? Well, besides the obvious reply from a Red Sox fan that no one will hit a 432-foot home run off Pedro Martinez, just one thing: the fact that it takes place 10 years from now. Everything you need to enjoy that dream sports weekend in your easy chair exists.

That doesn't mean you can get it all now, but it exists in one form or another. Oh yes, all this and much, much more. Forget just watching the event; in the very near future, you will be experiencing it. As Bill Squadron, chief executive officer of Sportsvision, phrases it, "Within five years, the multimedia experience will be the way most fans experience major sports events."

Squadron -- whose company gave the world the glowing hockey puck (Boo! said three-quarters of hockey fans) and the yellow first-down marker in football (Yeah! said 92 percent of football fans) -- is working hard, as are companies such as Trakus and Princeton Video Image (whose orange-colored yard marker is currently favored by CBS for its NFL telecasts), to make every notion we have about how to view sports obsolete.

Basketball? How about instant information on your favorite player's vertical leap, or colored "zones" highlighting his favorite shooting spots and what the percentages are from each? There are already some NBA arenas equipped with "Choice Seat" terminals where fans can order replays from various camera angles; it's only a matter of time till fans at home have the same options.

Boxing? No more plain old punch counts in which all left hooks are created equal. A tiny transmitter in the glove can tell us which punches really landed solidly and which ones were blocked and slipped, and, more important, with how much force they landed. The era of bad decisions should be over -- at least until Don King finds a way to influence a transmitter.

"We can blur the line," says Trakus' Eric Spitz, "between watching and playing." Then, after a pause, "But maybe that's not such a good thing." I assume he means not for everyone, all the time. The new fan-friendly sports technologies may make you feel like you've just taken a football to the head, a left hook to the rib cage or a hit from a 240-pound linebacker. All of this, of course, is terrific -- unless maybe you just want to watch the game.

A few years ago a friend of mine lent me some tapes of Red Barber broadcasting World Series games of the Joe DiMaggio era. There were no complex statistics, no hype and, of course, no visuals. Just poetry. When the wind was blowing the flag. A description of how the fielders were set. An anecdote or two about each player. With nothing to work with but words, Barber painted a picture of the game that kick-started my own imagination in a way that technology never could.

Increasingly in the age of instant replay, isolated camera angles and instant stat sheets, teams of announcers have tried frantically to keep up with the tidal wave of information, talk talk talking to us as if we needed every on-air second filled with ... commentary, something besides our own enjoyment of the game. The faster they scramble, the farther behind some of us get.

Don't get me wrong. I love all the new technology. I'm going to have every new toy that's perfected as fast as it's available. But I want at least one of those buttons on my instrument panel to offer me a little ... a little poetry, or at least a little tranquillity, maybe a channel or frequency where an announcer, now free from the burden of having to keep up with all the information, just talks about the game. And in the end, that may prove to be technology's greatest gift to the sports fan.

Allen Barra is a sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal and a regular contributor to the New York Times, Playboy and American Heritage, and Salon, where this article originally appeared.

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