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Funbag

We Must Protect Soccer From Grubby Rule-Mongers

English soccer players in 1948
AFP via Getty Images

Time for your weekly edition of the Defector Funbag. Drew’s off this week. Got something on your mind? Email the Funbag. And buy Drew’s book, The Night The Lights Went Out, while you’re at it.


I don’t have some kind of thoughtful introduction, here! I am here to answer frickin’ letters, and this is an all-business type of deal.

Your letters!

Andrew:

During last week’s match between Liverpool and Manchester United, Mo Salah scored a goal in the closing minutes of the match to bring the scoreline to 2-1. Following the goal, Salah attempted to grab the ball for a quick restart, but had his efforts prevented—quite hilariously—by Bruno Fernandes. What followed was a comical scuffle reminiscent of two children fighting at daycare over a fire truck.

Are there any other scenarios in professional sports where something as important as the restart after a goal is potentially left in the hands of the players? In a game where ball-boys help retrieve and supply (well … usually) game balls on the sidelines, this whole thing seems completely unnecessary in the first place.

This was, indeed, a very funny moment. My kids have been watching the Premier League with me this season, and we were watching the Pool-United match that featured these hijinks. They both reacted to Bruno’s keep-away act as though they’d just seen him firebomb a pet store.

It is also, to a certain way of thinking, “completely unnecessary,” as Andrew puts it, in the sense that soccer’s rules-makers certainly could legislate this sort of thing pretty much all the way out of existence. Certainly a team trying to salt away a lead late in a game would never consider doing what Bruno did if that kind of obstruction came with, like, an automatic red card and ejection for the primary offender. Alternatively, you could perhaps imagine soccer doing things more like the NFL, where the clock definitively stops for a commercial break after a score and does not start again until play restarts, negating both the incentives operating on that silly moment: Salah’s desperation to restart play as quickly as possible, and Fernandes’s desperation to winnow a few more seconds off the clock.

But, like, then what? Is the Liverpool-Manchester United match better, more memorable, without that moment? Is it a more entertaining spectacle with a set of rules that safely scrub away all of what made that childish scuffle over the ball happen? No! It is more boring and dull.

A weird peccadillo of a certain stripe of American sports fans is their eagerness to add ever more torturous and game-ruining rules onto the on-field stuff in sports, until the humanity and fun are drained out of them, out of some blinkered insistence that this is all perfectable if only somebody clamps it a little more tightly into its straitjacket. This is how you get modern NFL football, a Monty Python skit parody of sports that could not be more hostile to all but its most dedicated cultists if it made their TVs spray pig blood at them. NFL teams nursing late leads waste time on purpose, of course—but only in the sanctioned ways! Otherwise they might subject themselves to four hours of standing around while the referees consult The Scrolls and attempt to explain their findings to the worldwide television audience.

I don’t want to plumb this too deeply—by God, this blog is crazy long already—but I do not think it is a coincidence that this is the culture of sports in the country with the most extravagant and gratuitous prison system in the world. Anyway to my way of thinking this is an outgrowth of some bad and ugly things in neoliberal society, one of the very most malignant of which is the essentially religious idea that the machinery of society rightly serves only its most abstract inhuman outputs—that it must be indifferent to human flourishing, that its operation can only be mucked up by any effort to make it directly give people what makes them happy. In sports this shows up as a dumb rejection of the idea that all of this is entertainment first, a silly entertainment product of an entertainment industry, a game show that exists for precisely the same set of reasons as The Gong Show. No! It is The Crucible Of Excellence! Only that which most absolutely squeezes humanity out of it can be allowed.

Adherents of this baloney are the people most vocally offended by the space soccer, by contrast, allows for messy human stuff: theatrical flopping, shithousing, time-wasting, and so forth. But it’s a great strength of soccer that as an institution it (mostly) seeks only enough rules framework to facilitate the human brilliance that makes any sport worth loving, and accepts the inevitable shagginess that results from that arrangement. Such as one goober pretending not to be playing keep-away with the ball after a goal, while the other team tries to scramble a quick restart, and then him and another goober nearly coming to blows over it! You can go to hell for trying to take this away from me!

Paul:

My boss is, generally speaking, a good boss. She’s nice to work for and she mostly leaves me alone to to my work. To be honest, she’s more preoccupied with projects that don’t involve me and she more or less trusts me to get my shit done with relatively little supervision. I’m not saying she ignores me and she’s always available if I need some guidance, but she’s pretty hands off, I really can’t complain all that much.

But every once in a while, she gets a really bad idea and I’m often the person who has to execute it. This requires me to reach out to others for information and/or assistance and I end up either making people mad at me for “such a ridiculous request” or just embarrassing myself for “asking something so lame.” 

I’m not going to quit over this or anything like that. My boss is most of the time easy to work for. But I’m wondering if you had some advice for navigating these more difficult situations. Do I push back on my boss? Do I explain to the folks I’m working with that “it wasn’t my idea” and blame the boss for the assignment? (This could get back to my boss.) 

Any advice would be appreciated.

Paul, it’s tough to formulate detailed advice for this without knowing a bit more about your field of work, and thus at least something of the nature of these bad ideas. Are they bad because of practical concerns, or are they just, like, aesthetically lame? Is she telling you that she wants you to take the lead on opening a branch office on the moon, or is this more on the order of, “This mattress ad campaign needs more shrieking demons and dead bodies in it”? That makes a difference, I think.

But not too big a difference, thankfully. You say your boss is good, and that she generally trusts you to handle your work, which implies some trust in your professional judgment. That’s good! A good boss should be able to handle either a little professional feedback or some clarifying questions that lead to the clear conclusion that this latest idea is crud. A good boss’s ego will not be so fragile as to shatter violently at some tactful, professional, constructive resistance to an idea.

If an idea of hers seems like a “really bad idea” at the level that it cannot be worked on without making other people mad at you, you should be able to articulate some reasons why. I suggest taking a deep breath and simply trying this: “Boss, I’m concerned that shrieking demons and dead bodies might confuse some viewers as to what they can expect from this mattress experience. What do you think about maybe angling for some soothing imagery instead?” Or, alternatively, “Boss, I was running the numbers on the lunar branch office initiative, and I got some alarming figures for the overhead costs of supplying it with breathable air. Would you mind double-checking my math?”

I predict that your good boss will appreciate your willingness to act as a guardrail in this capacity, so long as you do it respectfully and without undermining her to others. I predict that this will lead to the improvement of some of her bad ideas, to the just abandonment of some others, to the clarifying elaboration of some, and to an overall reduction in the number of times you have to eat shit as the point guy on a dingus initiative. If not, then I submit that your boss is not in fact a good boss, but rather a big-time piece of crap! In which case you should burn her fucking house down!!!!!!!!!!

Timothy:

I am a 40-ish dad who can’t dedicate my whole life to tracking the consensus basket-blogger takes. But during the whole KD/Nets trade saga this summer I kept seeing takes like “getting KD would give [Team X] a top 15 all-time player.” My question: Says who? Who decided this and who got kicked out? Does that mean that someone like Oscar Robinson is kicked out? Is any player that played before 1985 automatically gone? Is the all-time team just volume scorers with a twitter presence?

It’s a silly thing, isn’t it? All basketbloggers do this; probably all Sports Knowers, professional and semi-pro and amateur alike, have met the temptation to do it. I’ve been guilty of some version of this way too many times to recount here: calling so-and-so one of the top five players in the NBA, or one of the top 20 of all-time or whatever, certainly without doing any counting on my fingers or anywhere else to see exactly how I’ve arrived at that figure and who I might be displacing in my ranking.

Generously, I think you could interpret the “[Player X] is a top-15 all-time player” thing as a good-faith effort to communicate, in clumsy shorthand terms, a sense of how extraordinary somebody like Kevin Durant is. Particularly in discussion of possible trades or free-agent signings: It’s a way of saying he is an incredibly rare caliber of basketball player, to frame the preciousness of an opportunity to add him to your team. In this respect I kind of think it actually does have some real, if slight, value, even if it’s not any better and probably a bit worse than simply saying “Kevin Durant is an incredibly rare caliber of basketball player.”

Less generously, I think the vague numerical figure also doubles as a baloney performance of expertise, dressing up a vague, vibes-based (but nonetheless probably accurate in Durant’s case!) superlative as some authoritative evaluation: There are as many as 14 players in NBA history who may have a valid claim to being Kevin Durant’s equal or better, but not more than that. Which, like, c’mon. That’s very silly. I can’t speak for all the various basketbloggers out there, but I know that I certainly have not done any rigorous work to verify Durant’s claim against Oscar Robertson’s.

It’s an attempt to put the assertion beyond dispute without actually working to establish that it is beyond dispute. I will cop to that. The argument I don’t want to have is this: Professional basketball is played at profoundly higher levels of skill and athleticism in 2022 than it was in earlier eras, when half the guys on the court were just goons like Greg Ostertag with elbows for hands. Therefore anybody who is doing world-destroying MVP type shit in 2022—who has what a reasonable observer would regard as a legitimate claim to being one of the world’s best players in 2022—pretty much by definition is better than all but a handful of players in history, because that player is doing it against the highest level of basketball ever played by humans. I tend to believe all of that stuff! I also have a hunch that an attempt at counting the players who ever were better than Kevin Durant would start to seem pretty dubious by the time you had used up all of your fingers. I just don’t want to get sidetracked into arguing it in the comments under a blog post about it being impossible for the Nets to get equal value in a Kevin Durant trade. The place to get sidetracked into that argument is Defector Slack, where I can cause Ray Ratto and Dave McKenna to have aneurysms by observing that Karl-Anthony Towns could ball up prime Wilt Chamberlain and stuff him into a toilet while swishing 29-footers with the other hand.

David:

If a particularly gassy person farts an average of 15 times a day for 80 years, they will fart 438,000 times in their lifetime. Has anyone ever doubled that and pooted a cool million times? 30 times a day sounds like an impossible figure but some people surely have had problem, and some people live long past 80. Also, some people probably get gassier as they get older, so the count shoots up in their final years. So has anyone ever farted a million times?

I guess maybe it’s not possible? At a certain frequency of farting, I feel like it becomes one continuous fart. And then you have not farted one million times, but rather have farted one 80-year fart. Which to my way of thinking is a much more significant accomplishment!

Halftime!

Alex:

What do you think the average scores of hockey and soccer games would be if their respective goal sizes were switched with each other? How do you think strategy would change?

It is very difficult for a guy on ice skates, wearing several pieces of Ikea furniture on his body and a birdcage on his head, to react to and catch or deflect a rock-hard puck the size of a deck of cards traveling at autobahn speeds from amid a fast-moving pack of people. For this reason the hockey goal must be small; with a soccer-sized goal there would be no point whatsoever in having a goalie and the score of each game would be like 50-49 if they played at the same pace. That might seem cool at first glance, but I feel confident the constant goal-scoring would become stultifying very quickly. More importantly, hockey’s tactical framework—here I am assuming it has one—would collapse, as it became clear that no one need do anything in particular to get goals, beyond shooting the puck at the goal.

Some coach would hit on the winning strategy of holding onto the puck and chewing up game clock. Since 100 percent of shots will go in the huge goal and it’s basically impossible to prevent the other team from shooting when it has the biscuit, possession becomes the most valuable form of defense; the thing to do is hog the burger and angle toward having the final shot of the game. Then they’d have to change the rules to introduce a shot clock. Either that or make the goal smaller!

What I am saying here is that hockey’s tiny goal and the difficulty of getting the puck into it is the reason why hockey is played at a fast and exciting pace: The only way to score goals in the present setup is to use fast movement to create opportunities and take a lot of shots. With a huge goal the game would slow down and become about attrition and control, rather than, uh, whatever the hell it is about now.

If soccer had hockey-sized goals, no one would ever score again. Some team might try out pulling its own goalkeeper—why bother having one?—in exchange for an extra attacker, except that you could put 50 guys out there and it would still be flatly impossible to score in a hockey-sized goal with a soccer-sized ball if the other team kept its keeper on the pitch. There would be no value in crossing the ball from the wings, because the keeper would never have to move from side to side to cover exposed areas of the goal. Even a strategy of shamelessly gunning for penalties is no good: It simply would not be possible to score on a penalty kick with a keeper standing in front of a hockey-sized goal. Ever. I can’t even imagine a credible strategy for making the keeper work particularly hard at stopping shots. The keeper could just stand there!

I hate this idea! Stop trying to ruin soccer! You can go to hell!

Ethan:

So I’m enough of a movie buff and have gotten used to movie tropes to the extent that often but not always if a movie has a twist I can guess it ahead of time. My question, if I tell someone what I think the twist is ahead of time is that a dick move in the same way a spoiler is? I maintain it’s not as it’s still just a guess and I could be completely wrong. But others seem to disagree. What do you think? Is there a certain percentage of correct guesses that affects whether you should tell your guess ahead of time or not?

Ethan, it’s definitely a dick move. C’mon. You know it is. Don’t be obtuse about this. You’re better than that! You’re lying to both of us, and you can go to hell for it!

A movie is not a game in which you accrue points by demonstrating to others your expertise. Movie-watching, for that matter, is only a skill to the extent that it enhances your appreciation of the art form—specifically, your ability to see past the rickety plot scaffold and take in the stuff that really makes a movie good or bad. If what you’re getting out of it is simply an informed hunch about what plot points are coming, and a desire to show off by telling somebody, you can do better! I knew a guy who thought noticing minor continuity errors on the level of how much water a character had in their glass from one shot to the next amounted to, like, defeating Martin Scorsese at Movie Smartness. When he watched a movie, that’s what he was looking for, and all he had to talk about; the actual worthy movie shit—the ideas, the characterization, the direction, the beauty or ugliness of the images, the performances—sailed right by. Don’t be like that.

Here is what I propose: When you are about to watch a movie with some friends or family or whatever, simply ask them: “Hey, should I tell you when I’ve figured out what’s about to happen?” Not only as research—if they say no, fucking don’t do it—but also, yeah, a little bit as research. Build a data set on how many people want you to do this when you watch movies with them. I bet most of them politely decline! Because it diminishes the pleasure of watching a movie. Because it breaks all immersion, all suspension of disbelief, and reduces a movie to a dumb riddle. Because it’s a dick move!

Sam:

As an SF resident and Giants fan, whenever Wilmer Flores’s walk-up song comes on at the ballpark, I always ask who I am sitting with what would their anti-walk-up song would be. To clarify: if the ostensible purpose of a walk-up song is to get you pumped up and in the dinger mindset, what song would you pick to bring everyone—but especially the pitcher—to lose energy and focus? For reference, I pick “Needle in the Hay” by Elliott Smith.

I believe I’ve started a version of this conversation at every baseball game I’ve attended in the past 20 years. It always starts as a “What would your walk-up song be?” survey and quickly (d)evolves to the much more fun “What is the worst possible walk-up song?” discussion. I think “Needle in the Hay” is pretty good! But you can do better.

The thing with the walk-up song is that it exists within and gives an emotional valence to the interaction between the pitcher and the hitter. Baseball, like pretty much all other team sports invented and played primarily by men, is at least in part an analogy, a way of transforming messy or repressed human stuff into a discrete self-contained game. The team gives macho men a safe, socially approved context for loving a bunch of other guys; the rules and ball and lines give some form and abstraction to the sorting out of competitive urges that might otherwise find their expression in, like, two brick-headed dumbasses picking a fight in a bar. Most walk-up song choices reflect that latter utility: The hitter picks a real tough-sounding track about being the baddest ass-kicker in town and nobody being able to kick his ass or whatever, and it neatly sets up the whole thing for hitter and pitcher along the expected lines. OK, he is here to kick my ass, and I am here to kick his. What we are having is a contest of ass-kicking abilities, me versus him, but without the actual violence.

The thing to do if you’re looking to warp the whole thing and fuck everybody up is to pick a walk-up song with an emotional line that is just totally incomprehensible to that familiar setup. No song on earth, not even Elliott Smith at his mopiest, is going to be able to make the pitcher or the defense or the crowd feel actual sadness or grief or depression in the few seconds it gets to play; that’s too specific an effect to go for. What you want is to produce confusion and disorientation in the pitcher. You want him up there on the mound going What is this? What is happening right now? What am I now part of? Is this some weird type of deal or what?

The more illegible the song is as an analogy for pitching and hitting, the better. At least “Needle in the Hay” has a sort of curdled passive-aggression in it, something you can anchor some adversarial hostility onto. Imagine the icy dread that will enclose the pitcher’s heart as the opening verse of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” peals out over the public address system. The first insidious tickle of uncertainty behind the pitcher’s slack face metastasizing into full-blown flopsweaty terror as he listens to 10 seconds of Bing Crosby singing about Hawaii’s way to say Merry Christmas to you and comes to understand that he is dealing with a psychopath. Coming unglued inside as a demonic Chris DeBurgh bleats across the sky about how much he loves his wife.

By the time the first pitch leaves his hand everyone in the stadium will have forgotten why they are there and what they ever liked about the sport of baseball. You have taken tens of thousands of people, if not millions across the broadcast area, to a place from which there is no return. You’re the Event Horizon! You can go to hell, and take them all with you!

Max:

One of my new old man yelling at cloud takes is that the wearing of black nitrile exam gloves in every single fucking grilling/smoking social media video is out of control. Big Glove has convinced every single guy with a grill that he needs these to move the meat or grab a piece to taste it, as if getting some juices and grease on your fingers is bad. I don’t mean for handling raw meat, as these people are donning them for handling completely seared meat. These dudes seem to think that because guys in BBQ restaurants and on Food Network shows wear these, they also must do so at home to be PROFESSIONAL GRILLERS. What happened to just getting delicious meat juice on your fingers like god intended? The worst offender I’ve seen was a guy and his like elementary school aged daughter each donning nitrile gloves to try a piece of the dry brined steak he just grilled, which serves no purpose. You are not getting covered in steak juice from picking a single cut strip of steak up. If you’re that anal about it, just use a fork.

I’d never seen the black nitrile gloves thing until Drew and I went to that Barbecue God’s place in Georgia for an episode of our old Foodspin show. He wore them when he was preparing the meat, and he expected that we would, so we did. Anyway there weren’t any other gloves around, and though we were certainly welcome to use the bathroom, there wasn’t a sink for hand-washing close by in his backyard. I’ll confess there’s a certain grim coolness to them, in addition to their salutary sanitary properties: You feel ever so slightly more like An Operator with black gloves on. The grill assassin. I’m pretty sure that’s all there is to it.

At home, I have a box of nitrile gloves in the cabinet above the stove; they’re hospital blue rather than black, but I try to remember to wear them whenever I’ll be handling raw meat or seafood. Mostly I just don’t want to have to do the kind of ultra-thorough hand-washing that will make me feel confident I can resume the normal regimen of touching my face when I’m done cooking. As for people wearing them when handling cooked stuff, to me that’s preposterous. Eating with your uncovered hands is one of the primo features of being human.

John:

My grocery has started selling ghost peppers and Carolina Reapers. They seem pretty expensive: The reapers are $9 for 50 grams (about 10 chilis) and the ghost peppers are $8 for the same weight (about 6 chilis). Of what use are these peppers besides source material for ill-advised challenges on YouTube and TikTok? My chili (con carne, the stew not the plant) gets plenty spicy with a little arbol or cayenne in my powder mix. The same when I make South or South-East Asian food with spicy red Thai peppers. Is there any actually tasty, non-novelty use/recipes for ridiculously spicy chilis? Are the worth the price?

My sense is it’s good to think of the freak peppers as basically just very efficient spice-delivery vehicles. If you are in the habit of drying peppers and crushing them or grinding them into powder, then you will only need a tiny amount of it to add some real punch to whatever you’re cooking; a little jar of ground-up ghost peppers will supply you with a year’s worth of spice. If you like to make hot sauce, you can make a hot sauce that will uncurl hair with just a few drops added to your Bloody Mary or whatever; a very small amount of the stuff, responsibly bottled, will keep you in blazing hot wings for months. Chili oil made with Carolina Reapers will deliver Total Hell with just the faintest of drizzles on your pork dumplings or cumin lamb.

But also, don’t dismiss the degree to which other people’s palates can just be different from yours! People in your area who grew up with different cuisines—Caribbean, say, or Thai, or Sichuan—might genuinely find they can’t cook to their desired level of heat without using an otherwise recipe-wrecking quantity of arbol or serrano or cayenne peppers. They might need the real blazing hot stuff to get there.

Also also, it is fun to make screamingly hot stuff every once in a while. Dial it up to a hunnerd, buddy! You only get so many chances to become the Ghost Rider in your one human life.

Email of the week!

Steven:

At one point in our relationship, my (now ex) girlfriend and I were in bed together, and completely out of the blue and with an expression of utter bemusement she asked if I sit down to pee.  It’s true – this cis straight white man sits down to pee at home!  It’s great!  Since making the switch at some point roughly ten years ago my toilets are cleaner – my bathrooms in general are cleaner.  There’s no risk of spillage on one’s belt or pants.  It seems like a no-brainer to me.  I must stipulate that obviously using public restrooms requires keeping contact with anything to a minimum, therefore standing in public is a must.  No follow up questions about the nature of our society that judges people for how they pee, just that this has been on my mind for awhile and I needed to tell someone.

Well consider me told.