Tales of Bittersweet Loyalty

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Professionals and Paranoia in Kansas City

In Baseball, Football, Kansas City on August 4, 2011 at 2:27 PM

Last week in Kansas City two different players left two different teams. Neither of the players chose to leave.

The first was Brian Waters, five-time Pro Bowl guard for the Kansas City Chiefs and 2009 Walter Payton Man of the Year in the NFL. One of the first orders of business the Chiefs took when the lockout ended was to release Waters. There had been some minor rumblings about this possibility during the off-season, so it was not entirely a surprise, given that Waters is 34 years old. But Waters was also a member of the executive committee of the NFL Players Association, and people in Kansas City immediately began to speculate about whether his union activities played a part in his release. (Aside from his role in the NFLPA, Waters has also been known to be generally outspoken during his career and not one to shy away from giving the media a good quote.)

The second player was a Kansas City Royal that few people outside of KC have heard of unless they are die hard baseball fans. Mike Aviles is a 30-year-old utility second baseman with a solid bat but below-average defensive skills. He was traded to the Boston Red Sox one day after making comments to the Kansas City Star expressing his unhappiness at being largely relegated to AAA this year. As with Waters, the speculation immediately began about whether it was his mouth that got him moved.

It seems unlikely that the Royals would engineer a trade in one day all because of a quote given to the local paper. Word is that the trade had been in the works for weeks. And Waters was no doubt nearing the end of his career. But that didn’t stop fans from wondering whether one or both of them were whacked. Some of this suspicion is part of the age-old battle between players and their front offices. But Kansas Citians have their own reasons to be a bit paranoid about the motives of their two major sports franchises.

Both the Chiefs and the Royals are run by general managers who made their names elsewhere. Chiefs GM Scott Pioli is the former vice president of player personnel for the New England Patriots; and the Royals’ GM is Dayton Moore, formerly an assistant GM of the Atlanta Braves. Both men were brought to Kansas City to replicate their former success, and both men have created organizations that put a premium on silence. The first anyone heard about either Waters or Aviles being finished in KC was when the teams announced their decisions in press releases.

Pioli is famous for saying and revealing as little as possible. And Moore is infamous for being thin-skinned when it comes to criticism. (“Classic Dayton Moore. The absolute first rumor of an Aviles trade came when the Royals’ official Twitter feed announced the deal.” This was the tweet from Kansas native and Baseball Prospectus co-founder Rany Jazayerli immediately after Aviles was traded. Jazayerli knows about Dayton Moore, because a couple of years ago he wrote a blog post that was critical of a Royals athletic trainer, which led to the Royals denying Jazayerli access to Royals players and management as punishment.)

Kansas City fans, for now, are willing to put up with the mafioso attitudes of their two major sports franchises. In some ways, it is a natural fit as midwesterners usually prefer their sports teams to be no-nonsense. In the KC area, this most clearly plays itself out with University of Kansas basketball, where the overwhelmingly white, suburban fan base is forced to reconcile itself to teams made up largely of black kids from the East Coast. Trash talking before games is an inevitable controversy in Kansas.

Fans of both teams are also desperate for a championship—or even any type of a significant post-season game. So they are willing to put up with front offices who exhibit a creepy bureaucratic efficiency as long as it results in the type of success that Pioli and Moore experienced with their previous teams. The good news is that both franchises do appear to be on the upswing, even though they are each a year or two away from being likely post-season threats.

So even though it is possible that neither Waters nor Avila were ousted for the nefarious reasons that swirled around Kansas City talk radio and the sports blogosphere last week, the suspicions were not unwarranted. Conspiracy theories are most fertile in closed societies, and in Kansas City both the Chiefs and the Royals have created a corporate breeding ground for paranoia. It may all pay off if the teams are able to contend for championships. But if they don’t, Kansas City will be left with dual legacies of controlling, humorless organizations. Not only will they not have won, but they will have refused to have a little bit of fun along the way. There’s nothing tragic about not winning, but there is something pathetic about refusing to have a little bit of fun along the way.

That Yank Sounds a Bit Dodgy

In Soccer on July 8, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Over the 4th of July weekend, Portland Timbers rookie midfielder Darlington Nagbe struck one of the goals of the season against Sporting Kansas City. After Nagbe’s fellow midfielder Jack Jewsbury served up a free kick which was punched away by Kansas City goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, the ball traveled directly to Nagbe’s right foot. He juggled the ball once, juggled it again and then struck a devastating shot into the top left corner of the net from outside the box. Thankfully for me, it was Portland’s only goal of the night.  My Sporting side won a 2-1 victory on the road, while I got the benefit of watching an enjoyable but harmless goal.

Watching the game from Kansas City, I heard the call from television announcer Callum Williams. He’s the 21-year old Birmingham native brought in this year from the BBC to be the voice of KC’s newly revamped Sporting franchise. A couple of days later, I happened to see the goal again online. That video was taken from Portland’s broadcast, and it included another British voice (presumably that of Robbie Earle, the English-born Timbers’ announcer). I also watched another contender for MLS goal of the season, this one struck by Vancouver’s Eric Hassli. Naturally, the announcing team (taken from a national Fox Soccer Channel broadcast) was also accent-tinged.

Was I offended at being exposed—during the celebration of our glorious Independence!—to a barrage of blatant outsourcing to our former colonizer? No. I was merely curious. At first I assumed there had been a concerted effort by MLS broadcasters to hire their on-air talent from overseas. An attempt to cater to some notion of cosmopolitanism among MLS fans? Perhaps. But then I realized that it might simply be the natural result of too many American soccer teams and too few American soccer announcers.

During last year’s World Cup, ESPN secured the famous voice of England’s Martin Tyler to be the lead play-by-play man from South Africa. This was after the network’s infamous use of Red Sox announcer (and soccer neophyte) Dave O’Brien in 2006. Fans were outraged that for the biggest tournament in the world, ESPN had to settle for a voice from baseball. But the lack of elite soccer broadcasters makes sense: There has never been any reason for an ambitious, talented broadcaster in this country to have anything to do with soccer. But as the MLS has expanded successfully in recent years to Toronto, Portland, Vancouver and Philadelphia, there’s an increasing demand for quality broadcasting talent made up of something other than retired MLS players.

All the same, I can’t dismiss the possibility that the prevalence of Brits is based as much on branding as it is broadcasting. In American culture, the English accent serves as a shorthand in and of itself. The clearest use of this shorthand is Hollywood’s mandatory accent rule of ancient Rome, which stipulates that anyone portraying a Roman must speak in an English accent. This doesn’t mean just hiring English actors. It means that non-English actors must fake an English accent. My personal favorite iteration of this rule occurred in Gladiator, when Russell Crowe (an Australian actor) used an English accent (to speak what historically would have been Latin) in order to portray Maximus Decimus Meridius (a Roman General), a character who the film tells us is actually from Spain.

But of course the point of the accent rule is clear: England had the greatest empire since the Romans, and the English accent conveys the breadth, grandeur and haughtiness necessary to stand in for Hollywood’s idea of ancient Rome.  (It’s also clear that however much of an empire America is, we still haven’t cracked the glass ceiling of Roman movie accents. How many more countries must we invade?)

For soccer in America, the shorthand of an English (or Irish or Scottish) accent is also clear: Guys with accents know a lot about soccer. And in a country where Cheryl Cole may have been fired by American Idol for her Geordie accent, soccer fans make up one of the few groups who are happy to hear an English accent because of the credibility it conveys. Yes, some of those fans are ignorant snobs who just think the accent “sounds better.” But most simply want to hear games called by people who understand the sport.

I don’t have a problem with the trend of British sportscasters in America. Yes, it would be nice if our country were able to provide enough homegrown talent to fill the broadcast booths, because that would mean that soccer is strong in America. And yes, I do hope that the talent being brought to the states is actually talented and not just a cultural branding strategy. (For what it’s worth, in my very limited exposure to Callum Williams, he seems perfectly well-suited for his job in Kansas City.)

Because soccer is still a niche in America, it’s easy to get people pissed off about it. Right now, half of our readers are probably pissed off that I’m writing about soccer at all. The other half are pissed off that I’m calling it “soccer.” Instead of lamenting our over-reliance on foreigners and our country’s lack of soccer expertise, I’ll say that I’m perfectly happy to have as many British broadcasters as we need to cover MLS. I’m less concerned about America’s lack of homegrown on-air talent than our lack of a homegrown striker.