2001: A Space Odyssey, The Terminator and the BCS

Originally published on Medium.com.  Click here


Why did college football fans hate the BCS?  Look no further than the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, with a stop at the Terminator series.  Then glance at Google, Facebook and Amazon.

It might be hard for Millennials to realize, but there was a time when society was pretty scared of computers.  And that fear has morphed into a different kind of suspicion today.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Actually, even before 1968 and the release of 2001, we could go all the way back to the 19th century.  Advances in science began to unravel the mysteries of the universe, undermining religious faith.  A book like Darwin’s Origin of the Species sought to take God even further out of the equation.

Anxiety transitioned from the anti-evolution fundamentalists to the greater society coming out of World War II, as science demonstrated its ability to incinerate entire cities.  The emergence of huge, powerful supercomputers fed off this anxiety as well.

Now we’re ready to revisit Kubrick’s 2001, the film version of Arthur Clarke’s sci-fi short story, “The Sentinel.”  Its climactic tale (spoiler alert) of a computer that learns to kill on its own initiative resonated with a society that was suspicious of the room-filling, soulless supercomputers that were gaining power.

The theme remained popular, even into the 1980s.  The Terminator played off that fear with its dystopic tale of technology having taken over a future society.  A particularly nasty robot, portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, travels back in time to kill the woman who would bear the future human rebellion’s leader.

About the time that movie came out, however, Apple had begun to roll out its original Macintosh personal computers, with IBM close behind.  Suddenly a computer was not some military-industrial complex storm trooper; it was a cute contraption on a desk or table — producing documents, playing games.  Their developers were portrayed less as mad scientists and more as harmless nerds.

Eventually even the Terminator found a heart.  By the second film in 1991, Arnold was as helpful as a desktop, and actually came back from the future to protect the future rebel leader his robot model had tried to kill just a few years before.

But then, those computers were networked together, and again, a fear of their power began to emerge.  As technology progressed, a certain ambivalence set in. We feared that the “ghost in the machine” had the power to travel from terminal to terminal. But we also loved the features of cyber-life.

You had The Net, where Sandra Bullock faces perhaps the first identity theft ever, but you also had You’ve Got Mail, where AOL helped Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan find love in a way they never could face-to-face — or at least since their last romcom.

And along came Google. And its algorithms.

The formula for life decisions changed.  As Google successfully couched its searches in complex formulas related to Web surfing, and other companies applied the process to other areas, that Hal-based uneasiness began to creep in again.

What (or more precisely, who) were these computers that were taking so much control of my life.  When Amazon suggested I check out this book, or Facebook suggested that friend for me, how did they know?  We could reassure ourselves that for every nine rational matches suggested, that tenth would show a cluelessness that only the human touch could rectify.

It was all fine as far as our day-to-day lives and relationships were concerned.  But when it infected college football, well, that did it.

(At this point I should stop and give credit to an excellent panel at the IACS’s 2015 Summit on Communication and Sport.  The panelists — Marcus Paroske, Michigan-Flint; Paul Johnson, Pittsburgh; and Ron Burg, Wake Forest — sparked the thinking here.)

The BCS did something more disruptive than drag that face from our junior high past into our Facebook consciousness.  Its network of computer rankings and human polls played with the dreams and hopes of college football fan bases.  And with only two happy fan bases per season, it was doomed.

A variety of disasters — the 2003 split title, the 2004 Auburn snub, the seemingly annual exclusion of hopeful undefeated teams — enhanced the anger.  The minor tweaks satisfied nobody.

To bring the human element back in (along with bazillions of simoleons in new revenue), the BCS and its computers were declared obsolete. In 2014, the College Football Playoff replaced it, with a selection committee that would meet weekly starting midseason and would issue rankings — but mainly, would be human.

Did they ever act human, in its messiest sense. Sure, there were conflicts of interest, with former coaches and athletic directors rating their own teams, but that’s what happens with people. Per chairman Jeff Long’s descriptions, the system seemed to change from week to week, but hey, they’re not some computer you can program. They’re people. Like us.

In the end, it all seemed to work — and not just because the three games generated huge ratings and massive narratives.  So maybe the four teams that made the playoff also would have been the top four teams using BCS’s formula.  Still, this time, humans had made the decision.  So that made all the difference.

With college football thus secured, and our relationship with technology once more renegotiated, life was better. We could return to our Google searches, and our Facebook relationships, and our Amazon purchases

And let algorithms make the rest of our decisions for us.


Confidence in a Process, Not a President

First published by al.com.  You can link to that here.

As the UAB Faculty Senate Tuesday announced a no-confidence motion in President Ray Watts to be debated at a special meeting in January, my mind went back to a similar mess at Auburn my first year on faculty: the 2003 Jetgate scandal that resulted in the resignation of President William Walker (among others) — and a no-confidence vote from the faculty.

For Watts, trouble emerged from his decision to eliminate the UAB football program — a decision made without faculty input and based on a flimsy consultant’s report that seemed to confirm a decision already made.

For Walker, trouble emerged when he led a November 2003 secret trip to Louisville to talk to then-head coach Bobby Petrino about replacing then-head coach Tommy Tuberville.  The story on the trip was broken by Jay Tate of the Montgomery Advertiser, and likewise shattered Walker’s presidency.

Much has been written about the Jetgate situation.  One parallel between Auburn and the UAB situation is that in both cases, the Faculty Senate would convene to consider a vote of no-confidence against the president.

The Auburn faculty senate met fairly quickly, on Thursday, Dec. 11, to debate a motion demanding Walker’s resignation in view of the embarrassing news reports.  In this case, the meeting was open to the public and the media, and Walker answered questions publicly. Complete minutes for the Dec. 11, 2003 meeting are still available — yet another testament to the openness of the process.

Watts, on the other hand, has been spared a public Faculty Senate grilling so far — instead, he apparently met with faculty members Monday in an “impromptu” meeting that was closed to the public.  My hope is that the meeting in January will be open to all interested members of the UAB community.

I still remember hanging out in the sound room in December 2003; it was about the only place left.  Faculty, students, and staff, in questioning Walker, would make statements, often savage, in advance of their questions.

In some cases, the speakers would return to their seats even as Walker was answering, as if the statement and not the question was the focus.

Two days before the meeting, Auburn’s accrediting agency, SACS, had placed the school on probation for excessive trustee influence in day-to-day university matters, particularly athletics.  Many felt that Walker had forfeited moral authority in leading the university through such a crucial process.

In the end, urged by Faculty Senate chairman John Mouton, the faculty voted 42-27 against calling for Walker’s resignation.  They did, however, vote in favor of a no-confidence motion by a 37-31 vote (a move Mouton also spoke out against), with five abstentions.  A motion to censure passed unanimously.

By the next month, however, Walker would resign on Jan. 16, 2004, two days after meeting with Gov. Bob Riley, who also acted as chairman of the Auburn Board of Trustees. Dr. Ed Richardson, former state superintendent of education, would come in on an interim basis until a presidential search could be conducted.

Granted, what happened at UAB is far more tragic: the loss of a football program and the effects it has on not only the university community, but also the individual athletes and coaches who find their lives turned upside down.

That a university president like Watts would make the decision in the way that he did — Faculty Athletics Representative Frank Mussina was not even consulted — is truly an indictment of his leadership style and deserves more than the glossing-over apology he offered in his statement.  No university president should ever make such an important decision in such a unilateral manner.

It would seem insincere and definitely appear glib and flippant to assure the UAB community that everything will turn out OK by using Auburn as a parallel.

Things did get better for Auburn: Less than a year after almost being fired, Tuberville led his team to an undefeated season, though Auburn was deprived of a chance for a national championship.

However, in late 2003 we did not face the elimination of our football program, and that is a huge difference.  If the football team cannot be restored, perhaps faith in UAB’s leadership can.

Whether this can happen under Watts — whose actions in this process show decision making skill far below his position and pay grade — is doubtful.

Still, the process of debating this needs to happen in a more open and candid manner than Watts provided UAB with his football decision.  Let’s hope this happens in January, as it did in Auburn in December 2003.

Sports Media Are Still Racist Against Black Athletes

First published by ViceSports.com.  You can link to it here.

Bradley Zimanek, a Montgomery Advertiser columnist, stirred quite the dust-up early this college football season when he suggested that ESPN personality Andre Ware favored Blake Sims as Alabama quarterback because both are black. The column caused a great outcry at the Worldwide Leader and even prompted Ware to go on The Paul Finebaum Show and deny the claim.

The column is flimsy at best, perpetuating the stereotype that black people are monolothic, even robotic in their behavior. One wonders if the author would contemplate whether he, in turn, would favor Sims’ competition Jake Coker simply because he and Coker are both white. Such a statement would be ridiculous, of course. Or would it?

If you believe the research, the problem isn’t broadcasters like Ware lobbying for black athletes. The problem is white broadcasters and sports writers favoring white athletes over black ones. And it has been happening for decades.

It’s not overt. No broadcaster or sportswriter this side of Rush Limbaugh is so self-destructive as to blatantly muse on the suitability of a black quarterback. Rather—and this situation has improved recently— the overwhelmingly white sports media consistently uses terms that enhance the image of white athletes while dismissing black athletes as being over-reliant on their natural gifts. White athletes are smart, hardworking, team players. Black athletes are freaks and beasts who get by on their natural gifts as opposed to their work ethic, which perpetuates the broader stereotype of black people as lazy.

The earliest research on this subject emerged as pro football solidified its hold on TV audiences in the 1970s. A 1977 study by Raymond Rainville and Edward McCormick (Extent of Covert Racial Prejudice in Pro Football Announcers’ Speech) that analyzed NFL broadcasts matched players of different races according to their stats (fantasy football meets content analysis!). They found that white players were more likely to be praised for good plays, while black players were more likely to be criticized for bad plays.

Almost 20 years later, James Rada of Ithaca College studied NFL broadcaster comments, in his study, Color Blind-sided: Racial Bias in Network Television’s Coverage of Professional Football Games. He found that when they described individual players, they would highlight intellect-related qualities for white players, but physical qualities (particularly their appearance) for black players.

In a 2005 follow-up study—Color Coded: Racial Descriptors in Television Coverage of Intercollegiate Sports—Rada looked at college football and basketball games. He again compared comments, but went deeper. His follow-up study actually found that positive comments about the intellect of players were equally distributed. Negative comments about intellect, however, were more often aimed at black players. As for comments about character, again, white athletes received a disproportionate share of positive comments, while black players were more likely to be the focus of negative character comments. And when the athletes were the subject of human interest stories—well, you can imagine which ones got the negative stories.

The situation has improved over the years. Andrew Billings (now at Alabama, then at Clemson) looked at broadcast descriptions of NFL quarterbacks in 2002—a time when black quarterbacks were not only emergent, but also prominent (Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick). In Depicting the Quarterback in Black and White: A Content Analysis of College and Professional Broadcast Commentary, Billings found that while many descriptors were equally distributed, physical skill was the main difference. If a black quarterback succeeded, it was attributed to his physical gifts. (Interestingly, if a white quarterback failed, the same factor was cited—but on the debit side.)

So what’s the big deal, you might ask. If all this talk is stealthy and unintentional we can resist the message, right? Not exactly. The very power of TV exposure is in its long-term subtlety. Considering the society-wide ritual that sports viewing has become, we can safely assume frequent long-term viewing, which means years and decades of having stereotypes quietly drilled into the American subconscious. While it’s tough to measure such impact directly, that doesn’t mean it’s not real.

And don’t think the problem is going away quickly. This kind of racial profiling still emerges in recent studies, and the phenomenon even happens within college sports information offices. A 2010 study led by George Cunningham of Texas A&M (Race Ideology Perpetuated: Media Representations of Newly Hired Football Coaches) looked at releases announcing the hires of new assistant coaches.

The releases were likely to describe white coaches as great strategists, while black coaches were noted for their recruiting skills and relationships with players. Little wonder then that black coaches have a difficult time landing head coaching jobs. The coaching stereotype implies that to hire a minority coach is equivalent to handing the asylum over to the inmates.

Perhaps the recent success of black coaches such as Mike Tomlin, David Shaw, and Kevin Sumlin will finally put such stereotypes to rest. But even Sumlin faced whispers that his coaching success was attributable to talented quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel. Maybe A&M’s success this year will put the final nail in that coffin—Michigan fans certainly are bristling at reports that Sumlin was passed over in favor of Brady Hoke. But at this point, the stereotypes are still kicking around.

Further, realize that these research results are not a byproduct of cherry picking by agenda-driven researchers. Most of these content analysis projects are rigorous, coding many hours of game broadcasts over a broad time span. The data consists of thousands of broadcaster comments —and those folks talk quite a bit. As for specific coding decisions—what’s considered positive and negative, what’s an intellect comment vs. a physicality comment—that is decided early on, and often more than one person codes the content.

Readers, of course, are free to reject the findings of any academic based on their own biases. Climate change isn’t man made, right? Actually, facts are facts and the fact is that black people were once banned from professional and college sports. While participation has equalized—exceeded equalization in some sports—the inheritance of centuries of mistreatment of black people in America endures. One of the many remaining obstacles to true equality—justice even— is lingering in the way people talk about race, even when they don’t realize they are talking about race. The media isn’t responsible for all of this, but it is responsible for closing the gap in its treatment of black athletes.