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Cool Things You Didn’t Know About Buffalo

Cool Things You Didn’t Know About Buffalo

A visitor to Buffalo might wonder why people who live here play up our reputation, but while this city managed to turn itself into a punchline about chicken wings, snow, and football over the last several decades, there are a significant number of bragging rights we can lay claim to that hold up against even the biggest cities. If you have any trouble believing that we were once important, take a look at this list of firsts and inventions and people Buffalo produced.

1 – The internal pacemaker was invented here.

2 – Ironically, so was the air conditioner.

3 – And the windshield wiper.

4 – The roll-top desk and grain elevator were invented here too.

5 – The first American jet planes were manufactured in Buffalo in a plant on Main Street.

6 – Buffalo was the first city in the country with street lights.

7 – Presumably street lights powered by alternating current, which was invented by Nikola Tesla, whose lab was in Niagara Falls. Buffalo was also the first city in the world to use an electrified streetcar system.

8 – The first facility in the world dedicated strictly to cancer research opened in Buffalo.

9 – So did the first daycare center anywhere.

10 – At the turn of the 20th Century, 60 millionaires lived in Buffalo, which was more than any other city in the world. They all lived along a stretch of Delaware Avenue which is still called Millionaire’s Row. The houses still exist, but have mostly been outfitted as office spaces now.

11 – Buffalo is one of only three cities outside of Washington, DC to have hosted a presidential inauguration. The other two are New York City and Philadelphia, and they get asterisks on account of Washington having not been built yet.

12 – Eusebio, an honest-to-god, bona fide soccer legend whose name can frequently be heard accompanying Pele and Diego Maradona in the same admiring sigh, played the final few games of his career for the Major Indoor Soccer League’s Buffalo Stallions.

13 – Buffalo was the final stop of the Underground Railroad.

14 – Along those same lines, the first major organization for the equal rights of black people was the Niagara Movement. Their organizational meeting was held in Buffalo, although Fort Erie – right across the Niagara River from Buffalo – hosted the official founding meeting. They disbanded in 1910, but were the inspiration for the NAACP.

15 – We all know a lot of American journalism sucks, but two of the few truly respected journalists in the country, Tim Russert and Wolf Blitzer, are products of the University of Buffalo.

16 – Buffalo has produced more American professional hockey players than any other city in the United States, and the NHL has its widest audience in the city.

17 – Buffalo is the smallest city in the world to have its own subway.

18 – Louise Blanchard Bethune, the first American woman to have worked as a professional architect, lived in Buffalo. The city’s Hotel Lafayette is considered her greatest masterpiece.

19 – The Guaranty Building is the world’s oldest skyscraper.

20 – Prominent writers who have lived in Buffalo include Mark Twain, Matt Taibbi, Joyce Carol Oates, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gregg Easterbrook. The first black novelist in the country, William Wells Brown, also lived here.

21 – Christine Baranski, David Boreanez, Kyle Chandler, William Fichtner, Wendie Malick, Nancy Marchand, Chad Michael Murray, and William Sadler have called Buffalo home at some point.

22 – The first skin graft took place here in 1854.

23 – American Express founder William Fargo was once Buffalo’s Mayor.

24 – Buffalo established the first free school system in New York. (In your face, NYC!)

25 – The first railway suspension bridge in the world opened in 1855. Over Niagara Gorge.

26 – The cargo barge was created here. It turned Tonawanda and North Tonawanda into world-leading lumber ports.

27 – Both the inventor of the electric chair and the first man to be executed in the electric chair were from Buffalo. I’m not saying this to advocate the death penalty – in fact, I’m against it. But this was pretty noteworthy.

28 – The first high-speed railroad operated between New York City and Buffalo.

29 – Dog lovers, your dog licenses were first enacted by a law in Buffalo.

30 – John Nepomucene Neumann, the first canonized Saint from the United States, worked in Tonawanda. Nelson Baker, a Buffalo native, is currently a candidate for Sainthood. He set up homes for infants, unwed mothers, a boys’ orphanage, a boys’ protectory, a nurses’ home, a hospital, a basilica, a grade school, and a high school, doing work mostly in Lackawanna. He is currently designated as Venerable and, last I heard, was in the Beatification process. Our Lady of Victory Basilica is a renowned destination for devoted Catholics.

31 – Nelson Baker also invented direct mail advertising. I’m sure thoughts on this vary.

32 – The first wind tunnel was developed right across the street from Buffalo’s airport.

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The Rooters’ Rules: A Guide to Sports Loyalty

The Rooters’ Rules: A Guide to Sports Loyalty

Well, it’s that time of year again. Five months and 20 football games ago, the NFL set sail for its 2014 season. Now it’s playoff time, and the field of 32 has been narrowed down to 12 – actually, it’s eight now that Wild Card Weekend is over – and the biggest league in the United States will soon be crowning its national champion. You might be familiar with a particular NFL commercial which has been airing all season in which a typical midwestern woman explains how her family of Vikings fans gradually turned into a family with Eagles, Bengals, Cowboys, and Steelers fans, and I’m not sure I’m remembering the entire mass of adopted team loyalties there. Now, astute observers might have noticed that later versions of that commercial made a very subtle but important change to one of the lines: When explaining how one of the family members became a Steelers fan, they say he did it because he moved to Pittsburgh. The first version said he became a Steelers fan after he ate a few burgers at a local restaurant which were named after the Steelers’ quarterback. It’s a good change; the original version implied that the kid made a loyalty change because he ate a burger. I’m less finicky about attacking team loyalties than most other fans, but really, that one hinged on “Dude, why do you even bother at all?!” territory. As far as loyalty switches go, that one was inexcusable.

It did, however, make me start wondering about what rules we follow for keeping our sports loyalties, which allowed me to come up with this little guidebook about picking and holding onto your favorite sports teams.

General Guidelines for Picking a Team
First and foremost: If the area you live in has a particular loyalty to a team in the sport you follow, you must follow that team. If you live in a city that doesn’t have a team, then it’s helpful to follow whatever team the other locals are following – this is why it’s helpful to follow the Green Bay Packers in Wisconsin and the New York Yankees in New York – although it frees you up to pick any team you want. Your city isn’t directly involved with any sports rivalries the preferred team may have, after all, so you can do what you want.

If you’re in a place without a team, you’re free to try on teams like hats to see how they fit. You have to remember, though, you’re not necessarily looking for the best team. You’re looking for the one that’s the best fit. There’s a difference. Hanging on to the winning team for no reason other than an obsession with choosing the best team makes you look like a pathetic bandwagoner. If you choose one of the league’s face teams, brush up on your history because you’re going to need to defend yourself. Hell, brush up on your favorite team’s history anyway. Not only will it make you appreciate what you’ve gotten into to a fuller extent, it will help you understand the beliefs and traditions of long-term fans, and form a bond with the team.

If you live in a city without a team in the sport you follow and the league suddenly drops in with an expansion team, you have the option of either keeping your old team or adopting the expansion. You can do as you will; this is one instance where no one will bother you about a switch. You better be willing to suffer and grow if you adopt the new one, though; trying to jump back to the old one during a good stretch makes you a bandwagoner, especially if the new one is going through typical expansion pains.

When trying on teams, look for local connections. I started following an entire sport because a guy who went to my high school was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers. After he fell out of the NBA, I spent the next few years adopting new teams to see which one fit me the best, and I ran through loyalties the way a plow runs through snow. (I even started this blog during a phase of trying-on with the New York Knicks, and have run through three more teams since. Eventually, though, I made my way back to the Sixers. I’d like to see you accuse me of bandwagoning for THAT switch.) Feel free to waive a local connection if the team was ever based in your city and left, though; you wouldn’t stick with them if they walked out during your lifetime, so no one will blame you for avoiding them now.

Along those same lines: If your hometown did once field a team, but that team left before you were born, you’ve hit the statute of limitations. Don’t feel guilty about adopting them just because they walked off. Older fans may give you grief, but younger fans won’t care.

There’s no habit lower than fantanking. You spend your money to see the greatest athletes in the world play at their best, and yet you’re demanding they go against all their competitive instincts in a race to the bottom of the standings on the half-chance they’ll pick up the next great superstar in the next draft and be competitive in, oh, say, three more years? Read that out loud and see how absurd it sounds. Then try to imagine how bad it sounds to a guy who makes his living playing a professional sport. Those athletes aren’t going to be able to play forever, and asking them to play dead for multiple years while their teams maybe build a contender if everything goes right and a half-witted thought which doesn’t even guarantee success in a few years, so just stop it.

If you live in an area loyal to multiple teams, you get to pick only one of them.

You’re allowed to switch teams outright for the following reasons: 1 – The team moves; no one would blame you for adopting your old team’s archrival for that. 2 – The ownership is a complete embarrassment to the sport. We’re not talking about ordinary bad stretches here; every team goes through those. We’re talking about galactic sins which are evidence of an owner hating his fanbase. You think I never fantasized about leaving the Sabres after Terry Pegula bungled the front office? I did, but Pegula ultimately isn’t a villain. We’re talking guys like Dan Snyder, James Dolan (a major reason I finally concluded the Knicks would never be my team), Jeffery Loria, and Donald Sterling here. (Ironically, I ended up adopting the Chicago Blackhawks when they had reached this depth with their last owner.) 3 – Or you move to a new city and have reached your loyalty limit, and thus have to jettison one of your former teams if you’re hoping to fit in with your new community.

Loyalty Rules in Major Sports (MLB, NBA, NHL, and MLS)
You’re allowed to take from one to three teams, but before you go taking more than one, make sure you have some sort of connection with the host city first. A relative, a place you lived, your best friend moved there, something. If you’ve lived in more than three cities, then pick the teams from the cities that contributed the most to who you are.

If you like a team because of a particular player, then you like that player, not his team. I have no problems with switching teams to keep track of a player, but ‘fess up to it. The commercial I was talking about in my opening is a decent example of this – one family member decided she was a Cowboys fan because she met Emmitt Smith, although it goes a bit further there because she had a small bit of face time with him. I do think it’s important for players to try to make time for fans, and if a fan returns an especially pleasant encounter with an opposing player by switching teams, I can accept that. It’s not a solid excuse, but there are so many teams and players presenting themselves as above and beyond the regular folks that I can understand why it would warrant a switch.

When two of your teams play against each other, it’s okay to be neutral.

I can’t emphasize this enough: DO NOT pick a team just because it’s successful. You might be flying high on the recent successes of the New England Patriots, but Bill Belichick and Tom Brady will both retire someday, and when they do, the entire league is going to totally relish the traditional revenge beatings. The Los Angeles Lakers have turned into a freak show as of late. The Detroit Red Wings keep squeaking into the playoffs on a sixth seed, and all the big prize players want to play for their archrivals now. Every team has down periods, including the Yankees, and no one is ever going to admire you for latching on to a team from outside your area, either. So don’t expect anyone to pat you on the back for following whoever is doing well.

Loyalty Rules in Minor Sports
I emphasize keeping yourself local, but in minor sports, you have absolutely no excuse not to. If you’re following a minor league for a major sport, there’s an excellent chance of a team existing in your area. If you’re following a more unusual sport, it will probably be the local team that piqued your interest in it, so don’t turn your back on them just because the dominant team isn’t yours. Minor sports are difficult to follow in a lot of places, so you only get one team per minor league to carry.

Team existences in minor leagues can be insane. Minors think nothing of expanding when they don’t have to, winning three straight titles right off the bat, then folding two years later. Even the most diehard fans can get stuck without teams to follow for years at a time, because every league is a crazy cousin. Therefore, if you move from one area to another, it’s easiest to just switch to the team in your new home than to try to keep following the old one.

Don’t attack opposing fans. While this is always a good rule, it goes double in minor sports because if there are too many incidents, the league may not survive. The last thing they need is to lose fans because of you, so be hospitable.

Exceptions
Some sports are so odd that they require a few exceptional rules of their own.

College Sports
You can pick up as many teams as you want, as long as you were a student at those schools. If you never went to college, you get one team.

If you were a fan of a particular school but you attended college at a different school, it’s okay to keep pledging your loyalty to your old team, but you must always, Always, ALWAYS cheer for the team from your school. If your old favorite team plays against your school, yes, you have to cheer for your school. In short, your school’s team is your team, over and out, no matter how much you claim to prefer the other guys.

You don’t get to split your school loyalties based on sports. That makes you a bandwagon fan. You can only have one school to encompass all the sports, so pick the school that’s best at the sport you like the most.

European Soccer
After your team tryout phase, you get to pick one team. You’re not allowed to switch, ever. Even if your team gets relegated, they’re still your team, and you just have to wait it out until they make it back to the top level. If you made the mistake of adopting Cardiff City FC last season because their first promotion to the top level in 51 years was a nice feel-good story, too bad. You’re stuck.

NFL
Although I cited the NFL above, they’re an exception to every last one of these rules. You’re allowed to carry anywhere from one to 32 teams. The league doesn’t give a shit about its fans, so each and every fandom rule is void. Do anything you want. Someday, the way the NFL is going, it’s all going to be played on a soundstage before a live studio audience anyway, so don’t bother attaching any civic importance to it.

Me, Liverpool, the EPL, and Why You Need to be a Soccer Fan

Me, Liverpool, the EPL, and Why You Need to be a Soccer Fan

No, Steven Gerrard, NO!

Gerrard’s bad play against Chelsea will forever go down in Liverpool lore as something like The Slip, or The Drop, or The Fall. Something to do with the legendary Reds Captain falling down and going boom as Demba Ba streaked into open field for an entire half a pitch before booting a fireball behind keeper Simon Mignolet. It will go down as symbolic of more than just Gerrard tripping over his own feet; in that one moment, Liverpool’s stupendous season seemed to fall on its ass with him. One minute, there they were, one win away from a grasp on the Premier League title so tight the trophy was turning blue. Losing to Chelsea shouldn’t have been a death knell. Chelsea is one of the best teams in the EPL, and Liverpool was five points up in the standings. Then came that meltdown against Crystal Palace. If you haven’t heard this one yet, the Eagles were down 3-0 well past the 70-minute mark before they caught fire and mounted a full-out assault, drawing the game and basically killing Liverpool’s shot at their first title since 1990.

This, I think, has been my official induction into Liverpool fandom. I had already been following the team for a couple of years by that point, but with the advent of EPL matches on NBC Sports, I had finally developed my affection for one of England’s most stories clubs. I was able to watch them as they meekly snuck out of the gate, opening their season with three straight 1-0 victories, with every goal coming courtesy of Daniel Sturridge. They outright lost to Southampton, which was a League One club just in 2009. 2013 concluded with back to back losses to Manchester City and Chelsea. By New Year’s Day, the Reds were doing that bouncey/teasey routine. You know the one: The one where they’re playing just well enough to make you think they have a real shot, but you’re always keeping your defenses up because they slacked at all the worst times in the past. Then right on New Year’s Day, the Reds beat Hull City 2-0, and it began a magical run which would see Liverpool rise to the top of the EPL and dominate, not losing another match until April. They were beating the giants of the EPL and making it look easy. Behind record-setting MVP Luis Suarez, top-five scorer Sturridge, and emerging star Raheem Sterling, the Reds smoked Everton, torched Arsenal and Spurs, and in the biggest test of the year, took the rematch against the Citizens they were supposed to lose, thus setting up what should have been a very winnable final four matches. Now all that’s left is for us Reds supporters to weep into our beers again, singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” for another year while watching helplessly as Manchester City clinches a title which is theirs to lose.

It felt like the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals all over again, except this time there was no ref to blame in order to make myself feel better. Liverpool was the club I had chosen; or, rather, the club that chose me. I have to live with this defeat-snatching collapse on my head forever. It’s right now that I’m wishing I followed some mid-table club no one cares about, because at least my expectations wouldn’t have been so high. But nope, it had to be Liverpool that picked me.

Liverpool picked me. That’s kind of a funny think to think about, but it’s the popular adage of being a European soccer fan. In my case, it also happened to be true. When I made the decision to commit to a Premier League team and make my soccer fandom official, I had a certain set of rules I wanted to abide by, and those rules at first appeared to be pointing me straight at one of the big London teams – Arsenal, Chelsea, or Tottenham Hotspur. Arsenal was the most fitting candidate, and the Gunners’ matches were even being picked up by YES before showing EPL matches came in vogue. They’re the subject of my all-time favorite sports book, and are located in a place which is easily accessible to Americans. They even have a website catering to American fans which not only promotes the side, but tries to help interested Americans to really know and understand the team history and the way English soccer works. I liked Arsenal. I wanted Arsenal. I was fully expecting to go into life as an EPL follower supporting Arsenal. But something about them wasn’t feeling right. My following Liverpool doesn’t make any logical sense, but the Reds clicked with me in every way the Gunners didn’t, and so I held my head up high last year as I followed my newest sports team to a seventh-place finish.

Soccer climbed surprisingly high in my sports pantheon in the short time I’ve been following it. Since I’m caring about the NFL less and less these days, the EPL is leaps and bounds ahead of any team loyalties I had in the NFL and will probably be leaping up further. (Though it will probably never surpass my beloved NHL.) Even though the EPL, like any American sports league, is corporatized as hell, soccer still acts as sort of the hipster antidote to people fed up with the way sports are done in the United States. Soccer is the world’s sport, and as such, it’s one that, despite our efforts, will never, ever be Americanized the way the suits want it to be. Soccer doesn’t know commercial break timeouts; 24-7 draft commercialization which includes mock drafts and the grading of those mock drafts; threats to move; or boardroom rivalries. Yes, it has its corporate problems (corporate branding being prominent on the jerseys, ahem), but nothing that interrupts what happens on the pitch.

There are other appeals, too. Since substitutions are limited, the superstars often play the entire 90-minute game time, and it’s not unusual for a club to have to finish a game with fewer players on the pitch than their opponents after an injury. There are no division alignments or playoffs, meaning that whoever has the best record at the end of the season is the league champion, and there are a handful of other tournaments running concurrently with the league schedule which offer teams chances at other trophies. My favorite aspect of soccer is relegation. It gives teams incentive to do well, because if they’re too bad, they get kicked out of the league while the best teams from a lower league are brought up to see how much damage they can do. If they suck in the lower league, they get knocked back to an even lower league, and it keeps going. This means that, in theory, I could start an amateur club in England and eventually make it into the champion of Europe.

The EPL is about to conclude the kind of dramatic year that solidifies the fandom of interested fence-sitters. First there was the sudden transfer of Spurs superstar Gareth Bale to Real Madrid, the Spanish league giant which may be the best soccer side in the world. Bale was indomitable, and Tottenham Hotspur was looking like a rising power with him, but they sent him packing apparently for what was wrongly assumed to be a better shot at a league title now. Cardiff City rebranded themselves after getting to the Premier League for the first time in 51 years and fired their manager halfway through the season. Crystal Palace, another usual suspect for relegation, made the most of their promotion on a surprise run to the middle of the table after winning only one match in the whole first three months of the season, beating Aston Villa twice and Chelsea and Everton once each and playing Liverpool to a draw – ruining the season for both Chelsea and Liverpool. Manchester United’s new manager, David Moyes, led the Red Devils to a campaign which was disastrous by their standards, and was fired before the end of the season. The title race has been a fight without an immediately emergent winner. (Though we know it won’t be Chelsea, and we’re pretty sure it won’t be Liverpool.)

It all made the so-called football league in this country rather easy to forget. There’s less than 20 minutes of real action during NFL games, and breaking scoring records is commonplace because the commissioner keeps rigging the rules to make them nicer to offensive players. They don’t do this very often in soccer – a goal is a goal. I still enjoy watching NFL games, where there’s always a palpable sense that something incredible is about to happen, but watching 22 do-everything athletes on a field for 90 minutes is too great a show to ignore. The only real parallel we have to it in the US is the NBA, where the biggest stars can play a half hour of a 48-minute game.

Of course, the practical downside is what happens when the attachment finally arrives and you’re stuck supporting your team. Goal margins tend to be pretty low, so you’ll be on edge during every match, living and dying with every pass. It’s not enough for your favorite team to just be favored by a mile, because momentum shifts can be sudden and unexpected. That’s a fact that small teams cling to when they’re clearly overmatched, because no matter what the talent differential looks like, a single-goal lead is still a single-goal lead. Also, if you like a small club, god help you because there’s no salary cap in the EPL. You team needs to spend big and bigger if they want a shot at a title.

I’m quite happy following Liverpool and the EPL. I can’t say I miss the NFL.

Our Odd Sportsmanship Quandary

Our Odd Sportsmanship Quandary

Yesterday morning, I watched Stoke City FC play against Manchester United in the Premier League. Like a million other people in the first world, I learned long ago to hate Manchester United with a searing passion. So I reveled as I watched the heavy underdog Potters – a strictly mid-level club I don’t have any particular strong feelings about here or there – beat the defending champions Man United despite a last-leg onslaught which, thanks to a mighty rash of injuries, included a whopping seven minutes of stoppage time. When the 99 minutes of the match were finally whistled, I was happy Manchester United had lost. Naturally, I’ve been loving the past season of Premier League soccer because Alex Ferguson, the fearless leader of the Red Devils for the better part of the last 30 years – and the man who managed them to the 13 or 14 most recent of their 20 or so titles – retired after last year, and so the rest of the league has been reveling in the customary revenge beatings.

It doesn’t even matter quite so much that my team, Liverpool, is still in the mix and has a legitimate shot of winning the League Title. I’m just Manchester United’d the hell out, and the bottom line here is that I want them to lose. Sure, I can be the nice guy out in public, shake the hand of the average Man United supporter, and congratulate him for his team playing a nice game, but I don’t care to. If Liverpool just beat them for the first time in umpteen games, I’m going to be that guy wagging his finger in the other guy’s face, shouting the more explicit versions of the word “booya!” When Manchester United is involved, my sportsmanship goes right out the window.

That’s the big thing about sportsmanship. We’re hypocritical about it. After two weeks of hearing the word hurled everywhere as nothing but a veiled synonym for “quiet,” it’s time to address the idea for what it really is: A kids’ concept and a way to replace real parenting. It’s antiquated in the age of information, with everyone now thinking they have some kind of stake in the personal lives of the rich and famous. You would think we learned our lessons in the worst-case scenario of OJ Simpson, the public gentleman who was revealed in a murder trial, but for some reason we’re clinging to the image of the milk-drinking, Jesus-praising, white male athletes more than ever and offering weak cries of “sportsmanship!” whenever someone breaks the mold.

Richard Sherman broke the mold right after the NFC Championship game. After apparently being spurned for a handshake by San Francisco 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree, he forgot to hit the phantom adrenaline off switch which most people are under the apparent delusion exists. The result was that he exploded right at the camera when Erin Andrews stopped by after Sherman made the game-saving play. Now, Andrews was visibly petrified, but never in any danger – Sherman made no threatening comments, and nothing he said was directed at her. And yet, for a breach of some nonexistent social contract – and even though Sherman is a straight-A Stanford grad who runs one of the best charities in the country, is a student of the game, and is extremely well spoken and a good guy by all accounts – we decided to start labeling him and judging his character based on 30 seconds of an interview cutoff.

I’m well aware of the fact that professional sports feel different from other forms of entertainment; I mean, really, I don’t see very many people putting their whole emotional well-being into how their favorite actor or band is performing. If there’s a city somewhere that threw a riot to celebrate a Best Picture Oscar win, I haven’t heard anything about it. Regardless of how much sense it actually makes, though, we manage to keep placing our favorite professional athletes into a really, really specific mold: Quiet? Check. Christian? Is there any other kind of religion? Glory for the team above all else, never insults the hometown? Nice to have. We think different about sports because athletes aren’t associated with movie resumes; they run around in clothes which we believe symbolizes everything our hometowns hold dear to their cultures. There’s a whole argument to be made under that faulty logic since no one ever seems to care about a team’s image when the team is good, but I’ll save it. Most of these athletes don’t adopt the city they’re contracted to play in, anyway.

The aw-shucks, milk-drinking athlete who plays his heart out and then goes home to the high school sweetheart was crowded out of the building when Muhammad Ali told the Army where they could put their draft notices. Ali was the first to truly recognize and capitalize on the sports industry for what is really is, and also the first to recognize the fact that he was a private citizen with every right to share his opinions with whoever he saw fit to share them with. Professional athletes have always been doing things against the image of what clean-cut America desperately wants them to be, since King Kelly womanized and drank himself to death in the late 1800’s. Ali, though, was the first one to show that they didn’t necessarily have to hide it. He stepped up and became as much a showman and a symbol as an athlete, and 50 years after the fact – and with the likes of Chris Kluwe standing up for the rights of people who are widely still not treated like actual people – we’re still clinging to the gee-willickers image of Mickey Mantle, despite the fact that Mantle was another rabid womanizer who also drank himself to death.

At the professional level, in an information age with clockwork coverage and athlete salaries more than the gross domestic economic products of entire countries, showmanship is the real account of worth for athletes. These people make their entire living playing in front of enormous crowds, and the more they get noticed, the more opportunities they get for extra income (read: attention) which people are more than happy to give them. Right there lies the ultimate double standard: We’re happy to watch the games and pick out the players we like the best, who are more often than not the ones who are the best on the field. Then we shower them with extra attention and money for being that good and, when the inevitable ego inflation occurs, we suddenly get shocked and forget a lot of these players had millions of bucks suddenly land on their heads. It’s a wonder more professional athletes don’t end up like Randy Moss. Now, with Facebook and Twitter and all those other social networks giving us all-access passes into private lives, we should be getting nullified to the transgressions of the rich and athletic.

No matter how hot the spotlight gets, professional athletes are still people, and they have every right to live their personal lives without having to apologize or be vilified by a vindictive public which expects them to excel all the time, play injured, turn their adrenaline on and off at will, and accept public deification while keeping their heads down and gracefully accepting their free rides. Screw sportsmanship. If I want my team to win, I’ll take passion and fire over sportsmanship any day. Don’t expect me to contain myself when they really do win, either.

What’s Wrong with a Little Hope?

“If you truly expect to realize your dreams, abandon the need for blanket approval. If conforming to everyone’s expectations is the number one goal, you have sacrificed your uniqueness, and therefore your excellence.”
-Hope Solo

Doesn’t it make perfect sense that it would be Seattle Sounders FC keeper Hope Solo who would welcome Terrell Owens to the Seattle Seahawks on her Twitter feed? And later ask how long Metta World Peace would be on for his latest TV appearance? All three of them have been lightning rods for “controversy.” Which in their cases is a euphemism for “loud and brash with people hating them for no conceivably good reason.”

I’m a soccer fan. I started actively getting into The Beautiful Game about ten years ago during the 2002 World Cup. That was the World Cup set in Asia, when westerners had to get up so early to watch the games that there was no real point in going to bed in Buffalo if you closed the bar at the city’s traditional 4 AM time. When the local news did a report about people getting up that early and going to bars just to catch the matches, I started to wonder what the rest of the world knew that the United States didn’t and made it a point to catch at least one game. I caught that game a few days later and I can’t even remember which teams were playing against each other, but it was love at first sight. I caught matches regularly for the next couple of years, began following MLS when it began making headway onto the American sports radar in 2005, began keeping track of the European leagues in 2007, and in 2010 I took the completion step, adopting a team from Europe to follow in Arsenal FC, the legendary Premier League club from North London, before eventually settling on Liverpool FC.

Of course, dedicating oneself to the world’s most popular sport means cheering on the national team, no matter how badly they suck. The United States National Team – alternately called the Red, White, and Blue, or the Stars and Stripes, but most often simply the Yanks – has led a famously up and down existence. The men’s team has qualified for the World Cup only nine times. Their best finish was in their first appearance all the way back in 1930, when they finished in third place. After qualifying for the following World Cup in 1934, they underwent a 16-year dry spell before their legendary upset of the English national side, then the best in the world. After that, they missed the next four decades before coming to consistency starting in 1990. But one of the pleasures of supporting the Yanks is the fact that we get to cheer for the women’s national side as well, and… Well, Yank ladies can fucking PLAY. In the Women’s World Cup – established in 1991 – the women’s side has been absolutely dominant, winning the entire tournament twice (1991, 1999), the runners-up once (2011), and never finishing below third. They’ve qualified for every tournament. Their lowest-ever FIFA ranking was second. Despite my moral objections to the International Olympic Committee, you won’t often see me turn down a chance to watch Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, Heather Mitts, Hope Solo, and the rest of the women’s national side. Like my beloved baseball Yankees, these Yanks can virtually guarantee wins, so there’s no worry about IF they’re going to win. I love to watch the women’s Yanks because they have the greatest collection of talent anywhere, playing cohesively, in perfect unison, which doesn’t happen very often in American sports. I love to watch them because I want to see HOW they win.

Hope Solo has been a constant with the Yanks since 2000, with 124 caps (a fancy soccer term for appearances), and a magnet for sports commentators’ ire for some time now as well. See, she’s one of those people who doesn’t come with a mouth filter, so she tends to ruffle feathers. In 2007, she was famously benched during the Women’s World Cup. Solo hadn’t done anything to warrant a benching. She had led the Yanks to victories over Sweden, Nigeria, and England – all shutouts – before coach Greg Ryan decided to go on a hunch. In fairness to him, replacement Briana Scurry had an outstanding performance history against their impending opponents, Brazil. But she hadn’t played a full game in three months, and so her 36-year-old body wasn’t quite properly prepared to withstand a full onslaught against Marta and the rest of the Samba Queens. Brazil being, you know, Brazil, they humiliated and embarrassed Scurry and the rest of the Yanks in a one-sided 4-0 rout, and Solo flipped out. Going to the media, Solo claimed her replacement was the wrong decision, that she could have made those saves, and Ryan shouldn’t have made a decision based on a performance from 2004. After her outburst, the team decided she needed to be made an example of and benched her for the rest of the year. In 2010, she claimed to have heard racist insults coming from the stands during one match in which her Atlanta Beat played against the Boston Breakers, left the media session without speaking or signing autographs, and used Twitter to address the issue.

What’s been forgotten is that when Solo was benched, everyone was initially on her side in 2007. Solo wears her competitiveness on the outside, and her comments shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Being benched when you’ve proven yourself has to be frustrating, and it’s clear Solo was venting over the fact that Greg Ryan tried a radical strategy which backfired. I don’t know what everyone was so upset about in Boston. If Solo did hear people shouting racial slurs at her teammates from the stands, she was totally in the right to react the way she did. What’s the chance that she heard people shout slurs, though? They have to be next to nil. After all, Boston has a rich history of racial diversity and tolerance, right? It’s a well-known fact that no minorities have ever been wronged there, and that Boston has always been, is now, and shall always be a real bastion of equal opportunity where minorities are treated with nothing but the utmost dignity and respect, I’m sure.

Solo has owned the last couple of years. After the 2011 Women’s World Cup, she made waves by doing something a lot of famous women do: Get nekkid and let people take pictures of her for magazines. In a blatant example of how women can’t catch breaks and are held to double standards, people got on her back for this decision. Solo’s nudies are unique, though, because she wasn’t doing it as a celebration of her emergent status as a sex symbol for a magazine that catered to overly hormonal men. She did it for ESPN Magazine, which was photographing several athletes in the buff as a celebration of fitness and athleticism. The pictures are tastefully done and don’t reveal anything which would cause parents to scream about the children. Although the designated heartbreaker role for the Yanks was given to Alex Morgan in a landslide with Heather Mitts being the backup, Solo is a gorgeous woman who definitely turns her share of heads too.

Although the spread was only barely sexual and brought tons of positive attention to the women’s side, commentators still accused her of being there to promote the Hope Solo Brand Inc. The universal reasoning appears to have been that it SEEMED like she was in it for her own selfish reasons. I haven’t read even one convincing argument against her nude photos. Every last piece about her that mentions them dismisses them in a quick huff.

During the 2012 Olympics, she stood out in every way. The past couple of weeks have been a banner to both the otherworldliness and humanity of Hope Solo. After a June 15 drug test, she tested positive for a banned substance. I don’t need to repeat my belief here that drugs of every stripe should be legalized in order to excuse Solo; Solo didn’t need to be excused. The banned substance happened to come as an ingredient in her pre-menstrual meds, and after Solo gave the USADA her full cooperation, her story checked out and she was cleared. The positive drug test was reported. The checkout, not so much.

As Solo deftly defended the American goal during the Olympics, she was beset by controversy with nearly everything she said or did. With her autobiography coming out soon, Solo released an excerpt about being conceived in a prison. Then she talked about how she and her 2008 Gold Medal teammates from the Beijing Olympics partied all night and appeared on The Today Show drunk and on zero sleep, and also invited an unnamed celebrity up to her room. She got into a Twitter war with former teammate – and 1999 World Cup champion – Brandi Chastain. She went on Dancing with the Stars, which also pissed everyone off for some reason. The popular complaint was that she was seeking attention for her autobio, which is being released tomorrow. I’m not sure how right it is to jump to the conclusion that Solo was looking for the attention; after all, don’t books usually spend months in publication at the very least? She’s a marquee athlete, so the book was bound to be brought up whether or not she had kept her mouth shut.

The Olympics were rocked by scandal weeks before the opening ceremonies because someone revealed that the Olympic Village where the athletes are put up are also giant orgies. This makes perfect sense when you think about it. When you’re a teenager or young adult who has no real life because you’ve spent nearly every minute of every day training to build your Olympic-worthy physique, it’s probably tough to avoid being overwhelmed by hormones while sharing unsupervised housing with some of the most physically perfect specimens the opposite gender – or the same gender, for that matter – has to offer. All Solo did by mentioning her partying and celebrity fling was confirm the new perception of the Olympic Village being a giant frat house, and for my life I don’t see what was so wrong about that. Why is it that sports columnists are so offended by the idea that these athletes are human beings, who in many cases have been deprived of a real life, acting like regular young people? If anything, the Olympic Village is a fine opportunity to cut loose the old regimen, socialize, and possibly make a few friends among a big crowd of uniquely reared people who are able to understand the kind of strain and pressure you were raised under yourownself. I won’t even get into the fact that a “scandal” like this is actually good for the International Olympic Committee, because a nonsensical little scandal like that would be a useful cover for the fact that the poor and underprivileged people of Rio de Janeiro are being forcibly removed from their homes because of them.

Solo’s spat with Chastain was a bit of an overreaction, because Solo’s comments are a lot harsher than the comment Chastain made about her teammate which tipped it off. Chastain’s comment also had some validity. But what I got out of Solo’s reaction was that Solo was leaping to the defense of a teammate as if she had been a target herself. I like that because it shows how far she would go to protect and defend her team. Julie Foudy wrote that Solo’s outburst doesn’t show any signs of leadership, but don’t great leaders stand up for their troops? What’s more, her benching in 2007 was the result of her team getting pissed at her and voting in favor of it. Solo stood up for at least a few players who put her on the bench five years ago.

Stereotypically bullshit was the way the media rushed to attack Solo for trying to become her own brand name while defending Chastain, a woman who, after scoring the game-winning goal in the 1999 World Cup, ripped her shirt off, revealing her sports bra and the brand name plastered all over it. The reactions of sports columnists like Foudy, Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, and Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Sun-Times has been to try to deflect the fact that Chastain did that by pointing out everything Chastain accomplished with her teams, and saying the women’s team wouldn’t be where it is now if not for Chastain, claiming that Solo hasn’t done anything in comparison to her senior ex-teammate. The Olympic Gold Medal she won in 2008 is a pretty high honor, though, and her taking the Yanks to the brink of the World Cup in 2011 wasn’t too shabby either. She’s won a score of individual awards as well, and is considered the best in the world at her position. Think about that; soccer is the most popular sport in the world. Billions of people have booted the ball around the pitch at one point or another, including a countless number of women. Hope Solo is better than all of them. Trumpeting Chastain’s accomplishments just to degrade Solo is blatantly ignoring and rejecting everything Solo has done.

As far as her playing on Dancing with the Stars, I guess it was optimistic of me to think the media wouldn’t be piling on. That’s the sole basis of hating her for her Dancing appearance. They hate her for a lot of other things, so let’s hate her for going on a kitch show that lots of athletes have gone on before (with one of them, Emmitt Smith, actually winning the whole competition). Olympic athletes who haven’t retired are among the show’s alumni, but I don’t recall such outrage over Misty May showing up to play twinkletoes.

Let’s see: So far Hope Solo has been scrutinized this year for a smear coming from a media that didn’t do its research and won’t report the fact that she’s clean; adding her two cents to a fake scandal which upset people because it wrecked their images of Olympic athletes being pure, chaste, clean-cut people who wouldn’t dream of doing anything but perfecting their physical molds; defending her teammates from criticism (even though it was light criticism that was warranted); told a story to promote a book whose publication coincided with the Olympics; appearing in a magazine spread which glorified human physicality and brought attention to the Yanks for a good reason; and dancing on TV. Next thing you know, she’ll begin complaining that her team doesn’t have a league to play in for the upcoming soccer season, the bitch! It’s worth noting that one of the primary complaints coming from every sportswriter who attacked her was that she was going to end up being a distraction for her team. It’s also worth noting that her team hasn’t said anything bad about her. With that, I’m glad the women won the Gold, so everyone who used that excuse would have to eat crow. So far, Solo has shown a ton of class by not rubbing it in sportswriters’ faces. If she suddenly begins doing that, she has every right.

It would be refreshing if some columnist finally came forward and just told the truth: They don’t like Hope Solo because she falls outside the mold we’ve cast for our Olympian heroes. For that, she has permanently placed herself on my personal list of all-time favorite Olympic athletes. There’s nothing wrong with the quiet humility shown by other members of the team, but when all is said and done, in a park pickup contest, I want the player who defends the team that voted to bench her. I want a fiery, emotionally raging leader who leaves everything on the pitch. I want a person who is dedicated to her game but still can cut loose. I want the player who is vocal about frustration, has complete confidence in her own abilities, and believes her teammates are the greatest group of people in the world.

In layman’s terms so simple that even the amputee bigot Morrissey could recognize them, I want Hope Solo. She is the greatest thing to ever happen to the Yanks, and it’s a shame holier-than-thou-art sportswriters are too stupid to realize that.