Friday, June 30, 2017

What writing does -- and how it does it

When I started this blog seven years ago, not knowing where it would go, I expressed a fear that many writers -- the real ones, the dilettantes, everything in between -- think about at one point or another.
I have many things to say about the sport, and my team, but, then again, so do many other people. I fear that it is perhaps possible that I have nothing new to say; I hope that is not the case. 
 A fear of being ordinary, of being derivative, of shouting platitudes into the howling winds of the sum of rhetoric -- what is more terrifying for a writer than that?

Seven years later, I don't know if I have written anything novel here. I like to think that I have, but I don't really know.

What I do know, though, is that I love words, and writing them, and trying to piece together a cohesive narrative about something that I love, as incomprehensible as that love is. Whether it's a standard gamer -- a good gamer is like a perfectly pruned word plant, the Shakespearean sonnet of sports -- or a feature or a generic news roundup, words give the writer a chance to approach an idea from infinite angles and perspectives.

As someone who has worked in journalism and done a lot of copy editing, writing is like the process of copy editing, in a sense. Copy editors exist because a second reader almost always catches errors the primary reader (the writer) doesn't see. A third reader, even, catches things the second did not.

It's a matter of perspective and experience. One copy editor has a better command of a certain subset of grammar, another is more solid in AP Style rules. Each pair of eyes brings a new set of experiences, knowledge and hyperspecific understandings of what works well.

The same, of course, is true for writing and writers.

My writing has evolved quite a bit over the years. The writing on this blog, for example, began with free-flowing, flowery, meandering prose and paragraphs like Thwomps (I was an English major, after all. Eventually, that writing was hardened by journalism school.

Get to the point. Simple is better. Be accurate, first, then worry about the rest. Bring the reader in, grab them and do not let them go -- this is not just an idea, it's an idea that carries with it an actual blueprint for its execution. Whatever you do, do not give them the chance to let go. Hook them in the lede, give them a taste of the conflict then go back to the conflict's genesis.

My writing about Michigan, too, has evolved, if I am being frank in my assessment of it. While I still write from the perspective of an invested fan, these days I try to do so as dispassionately and objectively as I can. I've moved away from some of the hagiography of the early days of this blog to something more grounded. I don't know the players, and don't want to project things on them just because there are things I want to believe -- so, it's best just to write about the games as they are.

Take, for example, this past season's Ohio State game. I wrote:
Never underestimate the rivalry's ability to find that spot, the one that hurts the most. A well-placed nudge to the unsuspecting elicits a yowl, a yelp, a cringing collapse on the floor.

Just when you thought the rivalry couldn't yield a more painful outcome, it did on Saturday, when No. 2 Ohio State bested No. 3 Michigan, 30-27, in double overtime. It was the first overtime game in the history of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, and thus presented Michigan with a chance to lose in a new way.

When the game ended, I quietly checked my phone for 10 minutes, taking in reactions from around the internet, positive and negative. But, eventually, I wondered if this game was even worth the consternation.

After so many losses of all kinds -- unmitigated blowouts, near-upsets of better Ohio State teams, upsets of better Michigan teams, close-but-not-really-close games, and so on -- is it possible that one more piece of kindling on the losing fire burn makes it burn any more horrifically?

How you deal with the loss is up to you. But one fact remains: In its infinite cruelty, the rivalry game in Columbus sought maximum pain, going to not one but two overtimes.

Sixty minutes was not enough -- the newest iteration of disappointment needed a little more time to cook.
 The hurt is there -- it's obvious (even more so in this one, since it's The Game). But there was once a point when I might have written about my stunned silence, my disappointment, my inability to cope with yet another loss to the Buckeyes. But why, how could this happen, how unfair and cruel and unfortunate?

Instead, it's about the type of loss. Overtime, a rivalry first, a new way to lose -- those are the headliners. Those ideas, through my personal prism, make my writing what it is. (By the way, this is not to say that I think my writing is great or to toot my own horn. This is all just a survey of how it has changed and what makes it mine alone.)

Instead of bile, words offer a tool to express gradations of hurt or joy. On the 2015 Penn State game:
Even when things don't seem to be going so well, Michigan flexes, you look up and the opponent is done. Like that, disintegrated.
Run a video package over and over again, as many times as you like -- video can do a lot of things, but it can't define a feeling or give structure to an experience like the written word can. Words can tell you how to feel or perceive. Zoom in further: Words show you what one way to feel or perceive might be like.


Video will give you words to hear and visuals to process. In some ways, video is more effective than the written word. When I go down the YouTube rabbit hole of old Michigan games, and, for example, watch Chris Perry's touchdown scamper on Michigan's second play against Washington in 2002 -- no words can serve as substitutes for the roar of the crowd.

With that said, video is not a total substitute for words. As you've probably heard (or read), has decided to ditch its editorial team, essentially, in favor of a monomaniacal focus on videos.

Funny enough, this screenshot of the new-look site is actually a pretty good summation of the state of things there:

Aren't we all paralyzed by one fear or another? Like, for example, not having enough video content to watch?

I'm not going to spend too much time here on why this is a particularly silly business decision, partially because I touched on it a little bit the other day, but also because there is hard data on the subject. It's also not worth analyzing extensively because Jamie Horowitz doesn't seem to know what he's doing and is not a rational actor. I want to say this decision was about aiming for the lowest common denominator, but I don't even know if that's true, because it seems to be aimed at ... a denominator that doesn't exist, i.e. people who only want videos. 

Video is an invaluable component of any media operations, whether it covers sports or politics or Chilean sea bass cooking techniques. When done right, video can be more impactful and appealing to media consumers than writing. 

But video can never be a substitute for the written word. 


The fragmentation and balkanization of media these days means many things can be true simultaneously. Writing is good, but stories are best kept at fewer than 1,000 words or so to keep a reader's attention. Also, longform articles are good, too. 

Videos can be good, but are more effective at extremes: the social media world of Vine-length (RIP) items, short highlight packages or interviews, and even some of the documentary-style pieces ESPN does. Videos of network personalities talking? I'm not sure who wants that. 

A wholesale elimination of an editorial operation in the name of this video revolution is like throwing out an entire refrigerator's worth of good food because you like cheese sticks and want to fill your refrigerator with said cheese sticks. No matter how much you like cheese sticks, eventually you'll get sick of them and will be left wanting something else (probably as a result of the vitamin and mineral deficiencies developed while only eating cheese sticks). 

The good news is that the written word will persevere, no matter what the delivery mechanism is. Moreover, we're in an era with an all-time high level of access to writers of varying styles, perspectives and expertise. 

Even though isn't a great time for journalism, it's a great time to be a writer and, in turn, to be a reader. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Miscellaneous Minutiae: MAAR goes to Spain, Taco Tuesday and Walton in the City Beautiful

It's June, nothing is happening -- so, Miscellaneous Minutiae is back. 

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman took a trip to Spain, and it sounded delightful. From MGoBlue:

"I went to Barceloneta Beach, which is the main beach there," said Abdur-Rahkman. "I'd take the subway to the beach right after classes, and it was a great way to relax. I'm pretty sure it's better than any beach I've been to. I went swimming a little bit, but mainly just soaked up the sun.
"Putting your feet in the sand, letting the water hit your feet and watching the sunsets. I had such a great time there. Now it's back to the grind."
Abdur-Rahkman was there taking a class on how sports and society intertwine. I wonder what an America-centric class on that subject would be like...

"Now, class, in this module we'll discuss the inverse relationship between tweeting at high school recruits and said recruits coming to the tweeter's preferred school. Next slide, please. As you'll see, the data show a whopping 93 percent block rate..."

On the basketball side, for a guy who has gotten as much run as him (albeit to varying degrees), his production as a senior will be key for a team that is replacing a lot of offensive firepower. As the article notes, he shot 48.9 percent from three during Big Ten play -- pretty good. That, combined with his ability to make things happen off the dribble make him a pivotal piece for the 2017-18 team.

Speaking of basketball, Derrick Walton went undrafted but signed a free-agent deal with the Orlando Magic.

As Michigan fans know, Walton lit the college basketball landscape on fire during the last couple of months of the 2016-17 season, carrying Michigan to a conference tournament title and a Sweet 16 appearance. As for the next step? It's always hard to predict which NBA hopefuls will wade through the swamp of Summer League play with a shot at a roster spot, but I can't help but think of a guy like Yogi Ferrell when I consider Walton's chances.

I know, it's a pretty facile comparison -- both sturdy, yet undersized Big Ten point guards; dynamic from outside; engines of their college offenses. For all of Ferrell's exploits in Bloomington, he also went undrafted.

Ferrell eventually signed a 10-day deal with the Dallas Mavericks and impressed so much that he signed a two-year deal with the team in February. He also made the All-Rookie Second Team.

Every year that passes, I'm certain that a lot of NBA scouts are not good at their jobs. As a Bulls fan, I know this all too well.

Teams missed on Ferrell, likely wary of his lack of size. But, like him, Walton plays bigger than his size, especially with respect to his rebounding numbers (something Michigan will miss in a big way).

It also helps that Orlando isn't very good. Looking at their roster, Elfrid Payton is a flawed, albeit capable NBA point guard. After that, it's less than ideal.

Perennial Bench Spark Plug Guy D.J. Augustin just finished the first year of a four-year deal, but his play was less than inspiring this past season. There's also the 33-year-old C.J. Watson, who is entering the final year of a three-year deal and is a candidate to be waived or dealt.

In short, there's clearly opportunity here for Walton.

A footnote: former Michigan State Spartans point guard Kalin Lucas, of the G-League's Erie BayHawks, is also on the Magic's Summer League roster. There may be some Spartan-Wolverine competition during the coming Summer League action.

All in all, I think Walton is in a good spot. He might not make the team to start the season (or even get a preseason camp invite) -- but as Ferrell showed, all it takes is a shot to impress.

The Orlando Pro Summer League runs from July 1-6.

It was a joyous Taco Tuesday, indeed. Only a matter of time:
Charlton already had a deal with Big Red soda in place, but on Tuesday it was announced that Charlton also would be endorsing Taco Bueno.
I look forward to future deals: Rashan Gary professing his love for Gary, Ind. in a tourism ad; John O'Korn popping Karmelkorn and Ian Bunting in the new, modernized Tom Emanski instructional baseball videos focusing specifically on the dark art of bunting.

Gators with familiar concerns. Looking ahead to Michigan's season opener, Gator Country has been highlighting question marks in each position group for Florida. The offensive line is one such group with question marks -- a familiar song for Michigan fans.

Also in familiar songs:
He takes over an offensive line that returns four starters in Martez Ivey, T.J. McCoy, Tyler Jordan and Jawaan Taylor. There is talent and experience, he just has to bring it out. When Davis took over, he made an interesting analogy, telling his players that it is pointless to have a Lamborghini with a bad transmission.
“We have a bunch of tough, physical, athletic football players that really haven’t maximized their football potential,” said Davis. “My job and why I’m here is to get the best out of them every day.”
If Michigan's defensive line takes a step down -- and, let's be serious, it will by virtue of relative depth compared to 2016 -- it won't be much of a step down at all, barring injuries. If Florida's offensive line is still figuring things out, it could be a good day for the Michigan defense, especially given the question mark at quarterback for UF.

What are words but mere distractions from tantalizing video content? is ditching the whole written word thing in favor of, yes, wait for it -- videos!

The website is laying off 20 writers and editors in favor of video production staff and, of course, hyping up the on-air "personalities" (I prefer the term "useless caricatures of caricatures," but that's just me). The layoffs include Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel -- the pair discussed their writing/podcasting futures in their most recent -- and possibly last -- episode of The Audible (which also features Dave Wannstedt talking about 2007).

I cannot fathom this decision, but I also can't wrap my head around just about anything Fox Sports is doing. Yes, I understand, they are trying to differentiate themselves from ESPN while, oddly, siphoning off the worst aspects of ESPN (e.g. Skip Bayless).

But now you're coming after the written word, Fox Sports? Word?

It might be intuitive to see all the social media being used by young folks and assume they want video content, not things to read. It's an easy logical leap to make. And, safely in my own media consumption bubble, perhaps more people want that sort of thing than I am estimating. That might be the case for some people -- I know it's not the case for me (it's also why I tend to avoid TV news, except for local broadcasts and major breaking news events).

In a sense, this will be somewhat of a referendum on the aforementioned: Do people actually want short videos explaining the news of the day? Will that drive eyeballs to the site? Maybe. If anything, it will be an interesting media experiment, not unlike seeing what happens when you take two curiously unmarked bottles of liquids in a chemistry lab and mix them together.

Even if the radical shift away from words and toward video proves successful, it is stupid.

Awful Announcing has an interesting longform rundown -- words, beautiful words! -- of the leadup to the decision to put the kibosh on the website's original, written content. During a meeting held in January, Jamie Horowitz, president of Fox Sports National Networks (and formerly of ESPN), laid out the new path to staff:
"What really does work is when you take things are good like ’11 Coaches Oregon Might Hire’, that might be something someone is interested in the day Helfrich gets fired, and we change to ‘Colin Cowherd’s 11 Coaches.’ We’ve seen this be very successful. You look at Fox News right now, O’Reilly and his take. That’s all it is. And there are many different ways. “Colin, some of our guys and girls want to write stuff.” Sometimes you might ghost-write it for them. Sometimes you might just hear them say things on shows and that can lead you to write a story about stuff they have said. And here’s a good example of something like that. Bradshaw says something interesting about Greg Hardy on a pre-game show, and immediately writing a story about what TB said. Taking our existing content and making that into news.”
Who are these people who want more of Bayless, Shannon Sharpe and Terry Bradshaw? Do they really exist?

Maybe I could find the answer somewhere on the internet -- perhaps an article with graphs, charts and words?

Probably not in a video, though.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Are you really a Michigan fan?

File photo
For those from Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, for journalists, for Chicago-area journalists, and everything in between, Mike Royko is a name that bounces off the page, rattles and rolls like a one-two punch.

One second, just minding your own business while walking through a gangway, you're blindsided by words -- simple, powerful and cutting. Pow, pow.

For the uninitiated, Royko was a legendary columnist in Chicago, most known for his work for the Chicago Daily News. He died 20 years ago, leaving behind thousands of columns.

Although his work came well before my time, I dove into his writing this week through a collection of his columns, "Slats Grobnik and Some Other Friends."

From penny-lagging competitions to his travels around Europe to skewering of Chicago politicians to his wry depictions of his pal Slats Grobnik, Royko paints a picture of life in Chicago -- the corruption, the characters, the cacophony of it all.

In his column April 11, 1968, titled "Are you really a Cubs fan?", he writes about the North Side club, which at that point in the early season was considered a contender. (In 1968, the Cubs finished 84-78, 13 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals eventually lost to the Detroit Tigers in a seven-game World Series.)

Royko began the column:
The bookies say the Cubs are contenders for the pennant, so it must be true. And now the city is crawling with Cub fans.
But are they really Cubs fans? Were they around, were they loyal, when everything the Cubs did was disgusting? Were they out there cheering when the only thing to cheer about was when the ball came off the screen and hit the batboy in the head?
There is one way to find out: If you are suspicious of someone, make him take the Cub quiz. It is guaranteed to weed out imposters.
Royko then delivered a set of 15 questions: some genuine, others not so much. Every sports personality mentioned in the series of questions was dubbed "immortal."

Q: What did the immortal Wayne K. Otto hit?
A: Nothing. But Hack Wilson once hit him. He was a sportswriter, so he probably deserved it.

Royko jokes that, "Five correct answers qualifies you as a true-blue Cub fan and permits you to paste this column to the front of your face."

The column, written 49 years ago, reminded me of Michigan -- as many things do.

The natural follow-up, then, was simple: Are you really a Michigan fan?

Now that Michigan has reached the pinnacle of human achievement with back-to-back 10-win seasons, including a 78-0 defeat of Rutgers, it's easy to be a Michigan fan these days.

Of course, more trying times still linger in recent memory.

Were you there when Michigan couldn't do anything right, save for beating Notre Dame? When the team fell flat on its face to start the 2007 season, when the Wolverines looked to beat a supposedly inferior team with a then-still-funny offense -- and also Appalachian State?

Well, were you?

What about when Michigan faced the indignity of playing at Minnesota on a Friday night in 2003? (Back then, that was a radical thing to do.) What about the 2002 Citrus Bowl, when Tennessee's Jason Witten and Donte Stallworth embarked on leisurely strolls through Michigan's secondary, like its component parts were trees in the Arb? Did you use the Saturday the week before the Game of the Year of the Decade of the Century to do yardwork, thinking Brady Hoke's Ball State squad wouldn't make too much of a fuss?

To prove your worth as a human being -- and also because it's mid-June and what else is there to do ... watch baseball? -- see how many of these 16 questions you can get right. (Because of yours truly's age, these questions will focus on the last 20 years or so.)

These questions were painstakingly considered and certainly not picked at random or on whims. Good luck.

Answer too many incorrectly and you might have an existential crisis on your hands.

Should that happen, just know you have until the fall to make things right.

1. The immortal Jacob Stewart recorded one career interception -- what was the name of the stadium in which he accomplished the momentous feat?

2. In 2002, Michigan defeated Washington to open the season on a last-second field goal by Philip Brabbs. On the final drive, Braylon Edwards fumbled a fourth-down reception (well, Washington fans might say "fumbled" a fourth-down "reception.") Who recovered the fumble?

3. "In the Big House" made its debut in 2011, brought to, naturally, the Big House by the band Pop Evil. From which Michigan town do the band members hail?

4. Yours truly once saw Calvin Magee, Michigan's former offensive coordinator, picking up food at a no-longer-existing Ann Arbor eatery. Which eatery was it?

5. Before John Navarre attained immortality and won a Big Ten championship at Michigan, he was at one point committed to another school. Which school was it?

6. Follow-up to question No. 5: the immortal John Navarre, after decommitting from the answer to question No. 5, attempted to get a scholarship spot at another school that was not Michigan. He didn't get it because the school had already taken two quarterbacks in the class. One of those quarterbacks became a future longtime NFL backup. Who was he?

7. The immortal Drew Dileo came to Ann Arbor by way of Louisiana, a state Michigan historically hasn't had much success recruiting. But Dileo, in fact, carried the torch from a fellow Pelican Stater who was on the roster the year prior to Dileo's arrival. Who was Dileo's Louisianan predecessor?

8. The immortal Chad Henne got the surprise start as a true freshman for the 2004 season opener when Matt Gutierrez was sidelined by an injury sustained in pregame warm-ups. Of course, Michigan won and the rest is history. Michigan's opponent that day started a new quarterback, too -- who was that team's starter the year before?

9. "The last time Brian Griese ran that far, his daddy was chasing him with a stick." Who said it, and when?

10. Rich Rodriguez had a tough time at Michigan, but especially against Ohio State. In his first season as head coach, the Wolverines lost at Ohio State, 42-7. What was the score at halftime?

11. How many times did Wisconsin pass during the second half of the 2010 game in Ann Arbor?

12. Without looking, how do you spell the name of the immortal running back who galloped for 313 yards against Ohio State in 1995?

13. Carl Grapentine's voice has filled the Big House for a long time. He's been the PA man full-time since 2006 (he filled in a few games for Howard King in 2005). But Mr. Grapentine isn't just about football -- in fact, he's hosted a radio show for far longer than he's welcomed the band to the field. On which Chicago radio station does he lend his voice on weekday mornings?

14. Who was the immortal -- wink wink -- Michigan defensive lineman who started 12 games in each of the 2001 and 2002 seasons and whose last name matches that of a Biblical figure?

15. Who were the four "metallic" defenders of the 1990s (think names)?

16. The reverse/end around is a beautiful play. As far as trick plays go for Old Michigan, they were decidedly subversive. You think it's going here, friend, but no! Who was Michigan's unofficial Designated Reverse/End Around Man of the early 2000s?

For the answers to these pointed, important questions, hit the jump. Answer at least five correctly and you have earned the right to print your answers, laminate the page and wear it pinned to your shirt at Michigan's season opener in Texas later this year.

That way, people will know you are true blue.

1. The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome -- a kind place it was.

2. Tyrece Butler, of course. (With today's replay system, there's no doubt a hypothetical review process for that particular play would have taken at least 10 minutes. And, who knows, maybe that hypothetical delay would've changed the flow of the game, its result and, thus, the course of history.

3. Muskegon. I have nothing else to add here.

4. Bell's Pizza (RIP). I don't know what he ordered. Calzone, maybe.

5. Northwestern, before Gary Barnett ultimately left Evanston for the Colorado job.

6. Navarre sought to play for Barry Alvarez, but the Badgers coach had promised his two quarterback commits he would not take any additional quarterbacks in the class. The future NFL backup in that Wisconsin class? Jim Sorgi. (Bonus fact: Alvarez asked Navarre to play defense. Check out this article from the ancient internet.)

7. Why, that would be fellow wide receiver and the eminently-Louisianan-sounding LaTerryal Savoy, of Mamou, Louisiana. He only made one career start (2008 Illinois) but he came up with two big catches during the game-winning drive of the 2009 Notre Dame game.

8. The opponent, Miami (OH) -- coached by the late Terry Hoeppner -- had to replace Ben Roethlisberger. In case you are curious, Josh Betts started that 2004 game for the RedHawks. The more you know.

9. Keith Jackson said it during Michigan's 1997 drubbing of Penn State in Happy Valley.

10. 14-7. I, then a college sophomore, was there. There could not have been more than a couple hundred Michigan fans in Ohio Stadium that day. Brandon Minor scored near the end of the first half. There wasn't much else to cheer about that day; that is, other than the season's merciful end.

11. Once. I was also there for that one. It was my last home game as a student. Montee Ball and future should've-been-Super-Bowl-MVP James White ran for a combined 354 yards (6.8 YPC). Calling it grim doesn't do it justice. Imagine a schoolyard bully holding a younger kid's head away at an arm's length as the youngster flails and shouts. Actually, it was more like the older kid just pummeling the younger kid. As for Wisconsin's lone pass of the second half? It resulted in a fumble, recovered by Michigan.

12. Tshimanga Biakabutuka. Most people around campus, I imagine, just called him Tim.

13. 98.7 WFMT in Chicago -- classical music on weekday mornings for Carl, the Michigan Marching Band on Saturdays.

14. The immortal Shawn Lazarus. The very idea of him is reborn in your mind, now.

15. Sam Sword, Ian Gold, Jarrett Irons and Glen Steele. The 1990s were truly a golden age for many things, but especially Michigan football names.

16. The immortal Calvin Bell. In 2001, Bell carried the ball 14 times for 158 yards and three touchdowns, good for a transcendent 21.4 percent touchdown rate. That, of course, put Bell among the greats of the game. They didn't call him Calvin "A Touchdown Every Five Carries" Bell in 2001 for nothing.