Callum Borchers' Blog

Sociologically significant sports (and class assignments)

Vick’s success ignites war between sentiment, sensibility

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Michael Vick has resurrected his career after spending 21 months in prison for running a dogfighting ring.

As I drove home from class last night with Kevin Harlan chronicling Michael Vick’s unprecedented football exploits on my radio, my sentiments were at war with my sensibilities. The Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback staged one of the greatest gridiron shows of all time: 333 passing yards, 80 rushing yards and 6 total touchdowns in a 59-28 win over the Washington Redskins. No QB had ever before passed for 300 yards and four scores, and run for 50 yards and two TDs in a single game.

The NBA is not the only place where amazing happens.

Nor, of course, is it the only place where bad behavior happens, and Vick’s transgressions are among the most despicable in recent sports memory. Then the NFL’s highest-paid player, Vick pleaded guilty in 2007 to federal dogfighting charges and spent 21 months in prison. The details of his animal cruelty remain gruesome memories for me and, I’m certain, many others.

When the longtime Atlanta Falcons quarterback made his comeback with the Eagles last season, there was some debate about whether he deserved a second chance or eternal condemnation. But, to be honest, I didn’t contemplate my own feelings toward Vick because he was virtually invisible, standing on the Philly sideline as Donovan McNabb’s backup.

His position seemed the perfect compromise: back in the league, but well below his former status.

Now, Vick is playing as well as anyone in the NFL and has led his team to a first-place tie atop the NFC East. He might be better than ever. And now, I have to decide whether to cheer or boo, whether to hope he earns a new contract this offseason or winds up balling for the Omaha Nighthawks.

Ignoring Vick is no longer an option.

At the moment, I’m in the cheer-for-Michael-Vick-in-the-game-of-life camp. I hope he’s genuine when he says he’s a changed man, though I’m skeptical when I read about shootings at birthday parties.

But I’m still not sure whether I can cheer for Michael Vick in the game of football. After last night, I really need to make up my mind.

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Written by callumborchers

November 16, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Newton story brings out best and worst in comments

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No ongoing sports story has generated more comment fodder than that about alleged recruiting violations surrounding Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. A Mississippi State booster and other sources claim the junior’s father Cecil Newton solicited money from that school during his recruitment last year. Cam Newton spent two years at Florida as Tim Tebow’s backup then transferred to a junior college in Texas. Auburn and Mississippi State were Newton’s top two choices when he planned to return to FBS, and his father allegedly demanded $100,000-$180,000 from the latter. There have been no substantiated reports about a payment by Auburn, which Newton has lead to an 11-0 record and No. 2 BCS ranking.

This story involves a black quarterback, lots of money, and SEC football — three components sure to elicit the best and worst in online commenting.

ESPN.com, of course, boasts some of the fullest comment fields on the Web. A Newton article it posted last Thursday drew 3,857 published responses, for instance. To my pleasant surprise (As a rule, I completely ignore comments, so I’m unfamiliar with the environment of even my favorite sports site), the content — if not the grammar, syntax or punctuation — of the dialogue was pretty reasonable. Readers engaged one another in legitimate debates about Newton’s knowledge of his father’s alleged solicitation of money, Newton’s Heisman Trophy candidacy, whether Auburn might have to vacate wins, and other related topics.

Some readers wrote several hundred words at a time and included not only their own opinions but also material from other publications. Many of the posts were critical — of Newton, his father, the schools, the NCAA, and even ESPN — but none I read were hateful. Readers are required to register with ESPN.com before they can comment, and they can report message board abuse by their peers to the Web site. The system seems to work, fostering legitimate conversations among readers.

By contrast, the SEC Rant message board at TigerDroppings.com fosters brain disease. The Tigers referenced in the site’s name are the LSU, not Auburn, breed, so naturally most of the comments weren’t terribly supportive of Newton. One post simply read, “Death Penalty!” and one commenter goes by the screen name CoonassBulldog.

As best I can tell, anything goes on this site.

As mentioned, I am not a fan of comments, in general. I believe they hold very little value and are often nothing but anonymous, venemous nonsense. However, I recognize many people do read and participate in message boards, and the sense of Web site  ownership engendered by interactivity constitutes just enough value to make comments indispensible. I think a news organization that returns to one-way communication by eliminating comments altogether risks alienating readers.

Therefore, the best way to maintain two-way communication but prevent digital depravity is to require commenters to use their real names. An outlet with tremendous resources, like ESPN.com, might pull off anonymity, but I doubt the ability of most others to do the same.

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1176386/2/index.htm

http://www.tigerdroppings.com/rant/MessageTopic.asp?p=22675107&Pg=1

Written by callumborchers

November 15, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Emilio’s Pizza a tasty Tremont Street institution

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Walking into Emilio’s Pizza was like stepping into a fond memory. The Tremont Street parlor bears many characteristics of my favorite childhood pizza place in Nonantum: the wood paneling, classic checkerboard floor, and delectable Greek-style pie.

Owner Emilio Ventouris takes an order behind the counter he has manned since 1979.

Founder Emilio Ventouris emigrated from Greece — his native flag hangs alongside the Stars and Stripes next to a flatscreen TV, above the refrigerator — and opened this eponymous institution in 1979. He and his family also own and operate Sophia Italian Steakhouse in West Roxbury and Alfredo’s Restaurant and Lounge in Quincy.

Those establishments are more upscale than the South End pizza joint, but Emilio’s is the original, and on a weekday afternoon, Ventouris himself is still the man taking orders behind the counter.

“Are the mushrooms canned or fresh?” a customer asks, her eyes paused on Emilio’s popular steak, mushroom and cheese sub, after scanning the menu board.

“Fresh!” Ventouris exclaims, barely letting her complete the question. Canned food clearly has no place in his kitchen.

High-quality ingredients and simple flavors make eating a slice of Emilio’s pizza a familiar flavor experience. These pies are not exotic, just well executed. The crust is medium, somewhere between Pizzeria Uno and Papa Gino’s, and the sauce is slightly sweet. And, in a key display of restraint, Emilio’s avoids the overly liberal dousing of oil that sometimes foils even the best Greek pizzas.

With seating for 40, Emilio’s is big enough to accommodate a small crowd, but delivery and takeout form the foundation of its business. Emilio’s serves as many as 300 large pies on a busy weekend night, according to Ventouris.

Address: 536 Tremont Street, Boston

Phone: (617) 423-4083

Hours: 11 a.m.-1 a.m. daily

Plain slice: $2

Pepperoni slice: $2.50

Student discount: N/A

Signature dish(es): hot steak, mushroom and cheese sub; chicken parmesan dinner; ziti, chicken and broccoli alfredo

Vegan option(s): salads

Written by callumborchers

November 8, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Final project: down and dirty with BostonDirtDogs.com

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That good, old Red Sox cynicism remains as strong as ever at BostonDirtDogs.com, championships be damned! The self-proclaimed most-read Sox blog on the Web maintains the knowledgeable but negative perspective that characterized Boston baseball fans for 86 accursed years, despite the fact that the local nine won it all in 2004 and again in 2007.

Consider the item (I can’t really call it a story or an article) that has sat atop the site since Tuesday, when the San Francisco Giants won the franchise’s first World Series since 1954. Below the pun-tastic headline, “Rent Owns,” and the photograph of MVP Edgar Renteria hoisting the World Series trophy were the following lines:

The Giants Win the Series! The Giants Win the Series!

And It All Happened Because of Red Sox Castoff Edgar Renteria
This Just In: The Red Sox Are Actually No Longer Paying Rent-a-Wreck’s Contract
Brian Wilson: A Zany Closer with a Real Personality, Not a Manufactured One
Giants Remind Us That We Once Had a Fun Bunch of Guys to Get Behind
… Before the Red Sox Marketing Machine Took Over the Team and the Nation
And By the Way, Lincecum Obviously Deserved the MVP

This entry is packed with a little of everything: a reference to Russ Hodges’ iconic call of Bobby Thompson’s pennant-clinching homer in 1951, a slightly-veiled shot at Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, a not-at-all-veiled shot at team ownership. And then there are the seemingly-contradictory sentiments toward Renteria, simultaneously lamenting his poor play in Boston, in 2005, and the fact that he reinvigorated his career this postseason and led another team to a World Series title.

The post concludes with a cranky question: “Why can’t we keep shortstops like that?” 

Of course, most Red Sox fans don’t really miss Renteria — he’s batted .270, .250 and .276 the last three years — but that’s not the point. The point is his success in San Fran provides a chance to grumble, and no self-respecting Sox fan would forfeit such an opportunity.

Because it so accurately reflects the voice of Red Sox Nation, BostonDirtDogs.com became so popular within three years of its launch that Boston.com acquired it from founder Steven Silva in 2004. Part of the site’s masthead now reads, “BDD is a feature of Boston.com. The site is not produced by the Boston Globe sports dept.”

The relationship between between BostonDirtDogs.com and Boston.com is just one element of what should be a fascinating final project.

Written by callumborchers

November 4, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Live Tweeting helped me, if no one else

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Gotta admit, I kinda liked it. On Saturday afternoon, I live Tweeted the fourth quarter of a high school football game between Newton North and Norwood on my cell phone, and I must say that the stream of Tweets I generated proved to be extremely valuable — to me.

I can’t imagine anyone else was following my feed, partly because I didn’t tell the Newton TAB, for which I was writing a game story, about my Tweeting; and partly because people who really care about high school sports typically attend events themselves.

However, reviewing my own Tweets did help me write the article. The clarity of text on a screen beats that of my handwriting on a notepad every time, and it is very possible that I am a faster typer — even on a cell phone keypad — than I am scribbler.

For selfish reasons alone, I actually might do this again in the near future.

But, of course, we don’t Tweet for ourselves, so the question is What value does live Tweeting hold for readers? Well, I think that for big games — say, Thanksgiving or playoffs — there might be an audience, even at the high school level.

For instance, I spent Friday night at a family get-together that included my 16-year-old sister-in-law. She goes to Medway High School, whose football team was hosting Westwood that evening in a battle between two of the four teams tied atop the Tri-Valley League. She couldn’t attend the game in person, so a friend texted updates throughout.

It wasn’t Twitter, but it was the same thing — a game-goer using a cell phone to keep another fan in the loop. Pretty cool stuff.

So, it appears some people might use a Twitter service like the one with which I experimented Saturday. And, if not, at least I will.

Written by callumborchers

November 1, 2010 at 1:49 pm

Adaptive rowing debuts at Head of the Charles Regatta

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She doesn’t even have a disability, but entering the Head of the Charles Regatta’s first-ever adaptive race, Katherine McMackin might have faced the greatest handicap of anyone. The Capital Rowing Club coxswain was charged with navigating a three-mile stretch of river that many consider the most challenging head course in the world, in a four boat whose members had rowed together exactly once.

“Well, we rowed up to the start line,” clarified Natalie McCarthy, who manned the shell’s third seat.

Alright, twice, counting that.

“Everyone comes in knowing that they’re gonna have to change their stroke, which is a great thing because that’s not always the case,” said McMackin, somehow flipping her crew’s nice-to-meet-you status — in a sport that rewards team coordination in the extreme — from negative to positive. “Everyone comes in thinking, ‘OK, how can I get my stroke to match everybody else’s stroke?’ We were just really able to do that on Friday [during practice].”

Two days later, Capital won the 46-year-old regatta’s inaugural adaptive event — open to people with verifiable, permanent disabilities, who have functional use of their legs, trunks and arms for rowing — in 21 minutes, 44 seconds. Two of its rowers, Kathy Byington and Jason Beagle, are from the Washington, D.C. area, where Capital is based; the other two, McCarthy and Aerial Gilbert, are from the West Coast.

The crew needed a couple rowers; a couple rowers needed a crew. The U.S. national adaptive program facilitated the partnership — Gilbert was a national team member from 2002-07, and McCarthy has trained with the team at development camps for five years — but the foursome arrived in Cambridge without so much as a single synchronized stroke.

Consider it one more obstacle overcome.

“I was paralyzed in 1994 in a car accident, in my right leg, so I relearned how to walk,” Beagle said. “I’m not a runner — it’s not something that I do,” he added, laughing at himself. “But I found that I could row. So, for the last four years, I’ve been competing at U.S. masters, nationals. … This year, I saw [the Head of the Charles] as an opportunity to compete on a level playing field with other adaptive rowers.”

Two other crews, from the Philadelphia Rowing Club and the Cambridge-based Community Rowing Inc., entered HOCR’s adaptive race, bringing first-year athlete participation to a dozen. While the teams rowed for victory — “Next time, we’re gonna win,” said Lisa Boron, who coxed Philly’s second-place four — they also rowed for inspiration.

“For me, to get to be a part of the very first team that gets to row at the Head of the Charles [is special],” said Gilbert, who rowed collegiately before losing her sight as an adult. “I was hoping for years that they would include adaptive events here, and this opens the minds of people in boathouses all over the country, all over the world. And it also gives people the idea who have a disability that, ‘Hey, there is an opportunity for me.’”

Already, more teams are expressing interest in the 2011 event. Many elite adaptive rowers were unable to compete in this year’s Head of the Charles because they were in New Zealand, preparing for the World Rowing Championships, Oct. 30-Nov. 7.

HOCR expects some of those teams, as well as new club teams, to come to Cambridge next autumn, when there will be no scheduling conflict.

“Next year, we’ll definitely have more of a national team presence and Paralympic presence,” HOCR Adaptive Organizing Committee member Rachele Pojednic said. “We’ve gotten calls from Three Rivers, Austin, Canada, California. We’ll have a nice blend of elite and club rowers, and that’s what the spirit of the Head of the Charles is all about.”

Pojednic added that the regatta may expand its adaptive offerings to accommodate a range of ability levels. The mixed-gender, legs, trunk and arms event was the only adaptive race this year.

Whether expansion comes next year or in 10 years, adaptive rowing appears to be entrenched in the Head of the Charles. While the original participants are proud of their pioneering, they are also looking forward to future regattas, when they won’t be such novelties.

“I’ve always been one to appreciate the just-go-and-row [mentality] and set aside all the things that make it different or unusual,” said McCarthy, who went blind at age 10 but rowed with the varsity eight at Pacific Lutheran University. “So, I am pretty excited that they have this event now, and as the years go on, it’ll become more and more part of the event, part of the normal procedure.

“We’re just like every rower here; we’re respected just as much and in the same light.”

From now on, adaptive rowing won’t be new to the Head of the Charles, and Capital’s rowers won’t be new to each other. Not that unfamiliarity — or anything else — ever held them back, anyway.

“It went so well on Friday that we knew that when Sunday came, we were gonna have a great race,” McMackin said.

Written by callumborchers

October 29, 2010 at 10:59 am

Delving into Deadspin

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It’s certainly not journalism, but in the world of sports media, its influence is undeniable. I’m talking about Deadspin, the irreverent, rumor-laden website owned by Gawker Media that thrust itself into mainstream consciousness this month when it reported that Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre had sexted a New York Jets game hostess when he played for that team in 2008.

According to the report, Favre sent unsolicited photographs of his genitals to Jenn Sterger’s cell phone and also left inappropriate voicemails for the former model. Deadspin’s story prompted not only extensive coverage by other outlets but also an investigation by the NFL, which is still ongoing.

It is the Favre saga that compelled me to learn more about Deadspin for a class assignment. I was introduced to Deadspin in the summer of 2006, when I was an intern at The Dennis & Callahan Morning Show on WEEI. Those guys loved the site, which was only a year old at the time. I know other sports reporters who read it religiously, but I’ve never been a regular follower. I’m just not into its tabloid-style.

But, like it or not, I cannot ignore Deadspin. The site averages 1.2 million visits per day, according to sitemeter.com. It drew more than 5 million visits on Oct. 7, the day it broke the Favre story, and more than 7 million the following day.

To its credit, Deadspin doesn’t purport to adhere to journalistic standards. Site editor AJ Daulerio told The New York Daily News that his site paid a source — not Sterger — for the photos and voicemails. And, yesterday, Daulerio authored a post about the Deadspin Sources’ Gold Club that would make an ethics professor weep.

“In exchange for their consistent dispensing of useful and accurate information, they become, in some ways, privileged figures in the Deadspin universe,” Daulerio wrote. “… Any tips or gossip related to them (or their friends) will be shared with them first before they hit the site in any full-blown capacity. For example, if we receive a photo of a Gold Club member (or acquaintance) drunk in a bar, or maybe an accusation of office rumpy-pumpy or of noteworthy drug use or something worse, he or she will be informed and will have the opportunity to respond, and in some cases the item will be dropped altogether.”

Awful, but honest.

Deadspin’s approach allows it to acquire and publish information that traditional news agencies couldn’t and wouldn’t. And, I must admit there is some value to its work. While I can’t condone the manner in which Deadspin collected Favre’s photos and voicemails, I believe the story those materials produced — a superstar athlete exploiting his position to sexually harass a young woman — is newsworthy.

It’s not the sort of writing I’d like to practice — or even consume on a regular basis — but I can’t deny Deadspin is both fascinating and important in today’s media climate.

Written by callumborchers

October 27, 2010 at 1:41 pm