VAR From Imperfect: The Cleansing of Football and the Magic of the World Cup

VAR

The comic, ‘iconic’ image of referees helping make game-changing decisions from a truck no where near the pitch. This is VAR. Credit: digitaltrends.com

Football, even at it’s highest levels, is a fairly messy, frustrating game. There are more scrambling, flukey or mundane goals than any other, but when the game truly becomes beautiful, when everything is put together to score a beautiful goal, it makes the wait and the messiness worth it. It is this mixture of imperfection, scrambling to success, and sometimes, sheer poetry in motion that makes it truly the sport of humanity.

It comes with the territory then that football, and especially those in charge of it professionally, is far from perfect. This game of the world has become tainted by money and commercialism; it caters increasingly for the middle and upper classes with game tickets pricing out grass-root fans and coverage increasingly being held hostage on subscription channels like Sky or BT Sport. The World Cup, however, has managed to hold off a lot of these regressive progressions, being found more on free or more accessible stations world wide.

That said, there have been some new facets to the World Cup this year which have worked to undermine this higher level of engagement with the game. One of these ‘advancements’ is goal line technology, but while a lot of what this article will say applies to that, it’s been around for a while already. The main subject here will be the introduction of VAR, and how it is part of an ongoing insipid campaign to cleanse football of it’s imperfections, and some of it’s character.

Theoretically, I understand why some fans have called for VAR in football. Refereeing mistakes happen, to some degree, fairly commonly, and that can be frustrating for fans; but when you think about it, what are the most memorable, passionate moments you share with football? First, I would argue, are the rare moments of sublime beauty, like Archie Gemmill passing and ‘megging the Dutch to score in ’78, or Maradona running through the English to score; but secondly, I think it’s the moments of controversy, like Scotland definitely being cheated out of Euro 2008 qualification or Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’.

Scotland

The pain remains, as does the memory of what should have been after Italy end Scotland’s 2008 qualification hopes in controversial circumstances. Credit: Getty Images

Whether it creates something memorable like the Hand of God, or something painful, controversy creates conversation, debate, and something to wonder about. Righteous anger, disappointment, and sadness are as important and meaningful to the human condition as joy, and as dark as that sounds, they aren’t feelings we should be scared of. Often, they shape us. At the very least, having controversial incidents occur that allow you to talk about the football, be it in a friendly way or a more heated debate, is part and parcel of what makes the game so special. It’s part of it’s lifeblood.

Then enters VAR.

Now it’s crucial to note that VAR hasn’t ended debate in football altogether – talking heads seemingly can’t get enough of discussing ‘whether VAR has worked this time’, but what it has done is shifted the arena of contentious footballing incidents from the interpretation of the action on the pitch, to a swithering discussion about the purpose and processes of VAR itself. The memories of the incidents are muddled with images of referees looking at screens and hand-wringing over whether the ‘correct’ decision was made. The moments of joy, anger, or despair we might witness are dulled by the inevitable period of second-guessing while we wait for VAR to clear the incident.

My issue isn’t that I actively wish for refereeing mistakes to happen; rather, that I see the collateral value in them when they do happen. To use an example I mentioned earlier, as a Scotland fan, there is a certain righteous comfort I take in knowing (well, believing) that Scotland were good enough to qualify, had the World Champions bang to rights, and were just screwed over. In this World Cup, the specific issue that spawned this article was the Spain vs Iran match in which Iran had a goal disallowed that could have ultimately sent them to the knockout rounds and ‘dreamland’.

Group B Iran vs Spain

The whole Iran squad and coaches in ecstasy before their equalising goal was disallowed. Credit: EPA

By the letter of the law, the goal being disallowed was correct, Ezatolahi was offside. All I remember though is what a downer it was. Iran scoring against an – admittedly wilting – historic Spain side would have been memorable enough, to do so to earn a point against them would be even more significant; to do so on the way to progressing to the knockout rounds would have been the most significant moment in Iranian football history, and you could see it in the sheer outpouring of joy from the Iran players and coaches. Five minutes later though, the jobsworths at FIFA had overturned the goal, Spain went on to win, and Iran were later knocked out after another valiant effort against Portugal. A moment of joy became a mere talking point after the game, and while Iranians might won’t forget it for a while, they don’t have the same recourse as before – either the wry enjoyment of getting something past the ref, nor a real controversy to at least hold on to for consolation or motivation. It was the correct decision, there’s not much else to say.

Again, I don’t rub my hands at the prospect of a wrong decision in football, but in cases such as this, I see the value of them. That moment for Iran was a beautiful outpouring that was also truly relatable as a fan – it must be said – of a currently smaller nation. In previous competitions, the fallibility of the officials mixed with the power of the celebrations would have been enough to carry the day for the goal to stand, and I just don’t think that’s a bad thing. It would have been a defining moment of the tournament that would have helped shape it if Iran would have progressed. But no, the fun police were called, and normal service was resumed. It’s part of the obvious worldwide trend towards the automation of work taking the humanity out of society, but football is something that needs it’s humanity to maintain it’s magic.

I have been genuinely disheartened to hear commentators, pundits, and some fans alike praise with relief that VAR has led to the correct decision. Of course it’s good in a sense that the right decisions are made, but this obsession that ‘the correct decision must always be made’ fundamentally people’s relationship with the sport – it’s a space where all aspects of humantity, good or bad, wrong or right can be shown off, and it’s always beautiful in some way.

 

Hand of God

One of the most infamous, iconic moments in football history. A moment that would have been erased by VAR. Credit: ITV

An opening and closing argument for this is the Hand of God. Of course Maradona cheated, no one disputes that, but it made for one of the most memorable moments in World Cup history, and one that fed in to the aura of Maradona as a roguish nutter-genius. It’s almost anti-football (he literally handballs it) but it’s also a pillar of football experience. If VAR had been in place though, the goal would have been disallowed, Maradona booked, and an iconic match may not be remembered really at all. It whitewashes the game, and while there will be times the reviews will be welcome, it surrenders too much of that humanity away from the sport.

Another element of the game that is a rather dull talking point, again, at this World Cup is how to dissuade players from ‘unsportsmanlike’ behaviour, things like crowding the referee or most notably, diving.

Starting with the element I’m perhaps least protective of, the crowding of the referee has been an ‘issue’ for as long as I can remember. I must say, it’s not something I revel in, and it can be uncomfortable, but I think the hand-wringing over it has reached a bit of a critical mass, especially after the Colombia-England game in which the English pundits were falling over each other to demonise the Colombians. There are two ways to look at this, and the purists want you to see it both ways: either that they were intimidating the ref, or that they were using it as slight of hand to scuff up up the penalty spot. In the latter instance, it’s a bit of clever gamesmanship where the Colombians took the opportunity to try to salvage the situation; not something you would applaud, so to speak, but understandable. It’s harder to defend them intimidating the referee, but I also stop short of condemning them – heaven forbid they get a bit hot after giving away a penalty in a knock out game at the World Cup that was nearly the deathblow of their four-year journey! As bad as it is, the referee was never assaulted or anything, just noised up a bit. The fact that the talking heads want robotic ‘role models’ doesn’t mean you should expect it, and as a football fan, I like seeing some fire from the players.

Colombia v England: Round of 16 - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia

Surrounding the referees, diving, and generally cheap or dirty play was much maligned after the recent Colombia-England game. Credit: Metro

Next up is the monster bug bear of the modern game: diving.

To sound repetitious, I should state that I don’t condone diving, so to speak, but I also see it’s place in the game. Whether we like it or not, fouls and free kicks are a fundamental part of the game, and with football being such a free form of expression, of course players are going to engage with them and try to gain an advantage. It’s an aspect of football that I wouldn’t describe as beautiful as I would others, but I admire the extra element it adds to the game, even if it frustrates me too at times. For me, if someone takes a dive rather than stay on their feet for a viable attack, it doesn’t even really make sense, and when done badly, it certainly looks pathetic. That said, it’s a phenomenon of evolution and not worth existential concerns it creates in some people.

Here’s the thing – it already self-governs to a large extent. The players pundits tear their hair out over for diving, like Neymar especially at this World Cup, aren’t gaining much of an advantage. Those who overdo it, or do it without smarts are well-known and referees often look upon them with extra skepticism. Indeed, earlier in this competition, the deeply unpopular Pepe hit the deck after being overpowered by Diego Costa, stayed down, and wasn’t around to stop Costa scoring his excellent individual goal in that game. Between embarrassment and the risks of doing it, diving doesn’t go unpunished anyway.

That said, a simple solution to help address the issue in a more sensible way. Calls for every single dive to result in a yellow card will never be successful because no one likes dishing out yellows. I think they should be treated as normal fouls and judged on severity. Diving should only be an automatic yellow card if someone is trying to gain a penalty, otherwise, players should get yellows for persistent diving. That’s manageable and not too much of a puritanical solution I think.

There’s a saying that ‘rules are meant to be broken’, but I think something more along the lines of ‘rules are meant to be played with’. Maybe it’s because I love wrestling and Eddie Guerrero, but I admire the attempts of some players to try to gain an advantage for their team by getting one past the referee. Any structure or framework is just that, something man-made that can, and maybe should, be challenged. It’s where the greatest art and expression comes from, and while it may not always be pretty, it’s part of human curiosity, expression, competitiveness, or all of the above.

Think of the football that those with voices and power are trying to create: one where the players are all well behaved, reserve their passions for goals, and any controversy on the pitch is quickly mopped up. It’s not the same – it’s a procession lacking in the imperfections which make the sport accessible to everyone. Rather than aspiring to being kinda crazy geniuses like Cantona, Zidane, or Maradona, the ultimate footballer role-model will be clean, unquestioning cyphers.

Pogba

When Paul Pogba re-signed with Manchester United for near £90m, it was announced with a hype video cross-over marketing excercise between Pogba, Man Utd, Stormzy, and Adidas. It explains how a player can even be worth that much money in the first place. Credit: Adidas

I don’t think this is accidental. As with everything else, follow the money. The financially bloated, sponsor-dependent cottage industry that football has become doesn’t have much time for true individualism, and certainly not for controversy. It deals increasingly in idealised visions, nothing to do with the actual game but with image – haircuts, kit designs, video game covers, and social media impact. TV stations love being able to spend money on new graphics for goal-line technology and VAR but start wringing their hands after even harmless acts of character, like a delighted flipping the double fingers at the Nigerian fans after surviving their challenge. He got excited and expressed it in his own way, and people are still practically tutting at him. There’s no room for that. Well-behaved, quiet, humble players and clean games are better for the image of the millionaires and billionaires holding the purse-strings.

Even worse is that, those who call for a clean VAR process and demonise ‘dirty’ players take these positions while propping up far worse instances of questionable behaviour and corruption. They throw up their hands about the effect Neymar taking a dive has on the game while sat at a World Cup in Russia, and preparing for one in Qatar, while sat next to stadiums which will barely be used again, that local people were displaced so they could be built.

The World Cup should be hosted around the world in succession for sure (and I plan to write at length about that and related subjects in the near future so won’t expand too much here), but it needs to be done with a genuine understanding that the people want it and will genuinely benefit from it. The World Cups in Brazil, Russia, and Qatar don’t sit right for many different reasons. Brazilians protested with vigour hosting the World Cup, despite their love of football, because they knew they would never see the billions being spent on it again, billions that could go towards improving some of the country’s desperate social and infrastructure issues while this Russian World Cup is seen as a propaganda exercise for Vladimir Putin and his evil, oppressive, intolerant regime. Qatar provides a mixture of both issues. All three will leave their countries and maybe more beyond in worse shape. These are giant, troubling issues that are the real rotten core of the football bureaucracy, not controversy or foul play.

Maracana

The Maracana, treated during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil like the sacred home of Brazilian football, at a cost of around $500m, now lies practically abandoned and unusable. Credit: AP

On this topic, I see hosting major competitions  like the World Cup as a huge honor and morale boost. It’s not inherently bad as an idea, just in current practice. Scotland will beat England 7-0 in the World Cup final before this happens, probably, but this could be a hugely positive process. If FIFA actually worked with potential hosts in genuine good faith to help fund needed infrastructure improvements, to build stadiums, if necessary, and to only accept proposals which agree to do this in a sustainable way which doesn’t disrupt ordinary people’s lives unreasonably without costing tax-payers too much. Of course it’s possible – those with the coffers have no interest in them being lighter though.

Controversy, and players diving, or acting aggressive is no existential threat to the game, but the continuous inflation of ticket and jersey prices, and the ongoing process of excluding the working classes from the magic of the game is. We can trust the fans, we can trust the players and all of their personal flaws; it’s just those with power in football that we can’t, and that is the real existential threat to the game.

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ICW Wolf of Sauchiehall Street Review and the Current State of Indies in Scotland

ICW WoS poster

Wolf of Sauchiehall Street poster, credit: ICW

A few years ago, Glasgow seemed like the indy wrestling capital of the UK, and maybe even beyond. That was something I took a maybe misplaced pride in, but it inspired pride nonetheless. A few things have shifted over the past year or so though, and when looking at shows to attend recently, I really struggled to find something. The rise to greater prominence of feds like Progress, Attack, IPW, Defiant, and in outer Europe, OTT and wXw have expanded the pool of talent with notoriety and added more varied competition while in Scotland, the talent seems like something of a gold-fish bowl of the same faces.  As passionate as most fans and the workers remain, the scene up in Glasgow has started to seem pretty stagnant.

Then of course, there is Bram. The domestic violence allegations against him are shocking and upsetting, making many of those I know who follow Britwres uncomfortable with promotions that book him. That includes me. It’s made worse by ICW, SWA, and Pro Wrestling Elite, the main promotions in Scotland, closing ranks and apparently booking him feverishly with misplaced righteousness. Indeed, many of his colleagues including the likes of Lionheart, Kenny Williams, Viper, Session Moth and more came out to publicly defend Bram and endorse him. On a human level, they are clearly friends with Bram and it’s hard to blame them for supporting a friend, but to address a point they kept making, of course their friend who they are more of an equal to hasn’t treated them that way, and the fact that they’ve only seen his good side does not make him innocent.

Regardless of that, it’s a bad hill for ICW et al to die on and one that at least makes it harder to choose ICW in the aftermath. I myself had eschewed some cards thereafter due to the booking of Bram but have now been caught out a couple of times. The first time was last year when I went to see Pro Wrestling Elite in Ayr specifically to see Pete Dunne and was upset to see Bram on the same cared. Yesterday was the second time. After the excitement I saw on Twitter to do with wXw 16 Carat, I got a hankering to see a live show, and I saw a version of yesterday’s card which didn’t include the Bram match and snapped up a ticket, only realising he was booked a day or two before the event. I decided I would still go but would leave for the bar/bathroom during his match. Unfortunately, when the time came, I was so jammed in that I couldn’t really get out easily and so I decided to just watch the floor. Unfortunately, there is so much crossover between promotions here and such an old-boy style protection of Bram that if you want to see wrestling in Scotland, you may have to choose between supporting an alleged domestic abuser or not seeing wrestling which is a real sad state of affairs.

With all that in mind, I want to give some thoughts on the show and the talent there.

ICW DCT

DCT soaking in the chants before battling Big Grizzly. Not really pictured: Coach Trip who helps make DCT a very entertaining act. Credit: Me.

I had seen DCT and Coach Trip a couple of times before, but this was the first time I really got in to the fun of it fully. Big Grizzly is a huge impressive figure but wasn’t getting much of a reaction and seemed somewhat irrelevant to the hugely popular DCT.

Next up was Stevie Boy w/ Kay Lee Ray against the replacement for Jordan Devlin, Dickie Divers. Out of the three, i’m only really particularly familiar with Kay Lee Ray so while I was disappointed she didn’t have a match of her own, it was great that she was so involved with the match. I slightly recognised Divers but given the way Stevie reacted to him, he was clearly set up to be a jobber, but building on that first impression, these folks put together a really cool, interesting match. Divers kicked off the match, literally, with a stiff strike to Stevie and was chasing the upset. KLR kept involving herself to try to help put Divers down, and this was mixed with some more light-hearted moments surrounding easter egg shots and mini-eggs-as-thumb-tacks comedy spot which worked well. One spot I really loved was Divers nearly outsmarting the two to win. KLR was ubiquitous in the match and eventually, Divers put her in a figure 4 before rolling up Stevie so that she couldn’t interfere. That only led to a 2-count but Divers did manage the shock pin after Kenny Williams interference. Really a way to build to the Kenny Williams-Stevie Ray match at Barramania, but one of the most entertaining matches on the card and a great showcase for Divers. If he is indeed more of a jobber, matches like this should push him up the card.

ICW KLR

Was pleased to see the renowned Kay Lee Ray, even if it was in a secondary role on a card with no women’s matches. Credit: Me.

While I was happy to see Kay Lee Ray wrestle, her appearance as essentially a valet highlighted all the more that there were no women’s matches on the card at all. That’s really not acceptable in 2018, and while no particular match deserved to be bumped from the card (except for Bram-Lionheart, but that wouldn’t happen), ICW should have made more effort to book a women’s match. This may be a reason it’s lost a bit of an edge. She is an excellent inter-gender competitor too. I’m hoping to write about that topic in the near future.

I enjoyed The Kings of Catch vs The Purge, and it was a good match though The Purge seemed a little like another version of a gimmick we’ve seen a million times. I can’t really fault them for it, I just hope they get to develop it a bit more. The match was interrupted by a genuinely freaky video featuring a man in a Texas chainsaw monster mask which got actual reactions from the crowd. Unfortunately it was followed up by two people (I don’t know their names) from the video with the monster in a slightly different, cheaper-looking mask, playing the simple country monster and seemingly affecting some sort of hand deformity like you might see a disabled person have and if so, that it really disappointing. The country monster wasn’t that impressive to be honest and led to some ‘shit Mick Foley’ chants. I don’t think it worked. Anyway, a decent match undermined by that weird stuff.

ICW BTG

BT Gunn is definitely ‘over’ but I didn’t see much in this match to convince me of why. Credit: Me.

The came the Triple Threat for the Zero G title as the main event of the first taping. This was one I was very interested in because I wanted to see what the fuss was about regarding BT Gunn. I hadn’t seen that much of ‘The Oddity’ but didn’t think anything particularly much of him, so I was surprised to see ICW get behind him so much as to give him the heavyweight title as well as the Zero G title which is unprecedented I believe. His reputation has been growing and I wanted to see if it was justified. He was in a match with ‘The Phoenix’ Jody Fleisch and the ‘Power Forward; Mark Coffey, which is the first time I’ve seen him with that nickname. This match was pretty good, but hampered by a couple of things. First and foremost, Fleisch seems to be a very talented high-flyer but he seemed limited by the environment at The Garage with the low lights. He did some aerial moves, but it seemed like he had some things that he couldn’t do.

The second issue was that this highly-anticipated title match was essentially an angle, with masked henchmen of Mikey Whiplash abducting Gunn half way through, leaving just Fleisch and Coffey who would go on to double-pin each other. I rolled my eyes a little at this, but was more intrigued when Dallas announced that the title would be vacated, rather than it just being a shortcut to allow a normal rematch. Nice to see a different way of treating that finish. I’ve mentioned that I didn’t feel I really saw the full potential of Fleisch but the same goes, unfortunately for Gunn. He did some OK work, but spent a lot of time knocked out of the ring and being kidnapped, so I will defer judgement for now. As for Coffey, I was a bit taken aback by the ‘power forward’ monicker. I’m stuck between not really getting it, or getting how it relates to anything, so in that sense it doesn’t really work for me, but at least it’s different to some of the overdone staples in wrestling currently.

ICW Leyton Buzzard

Leyton Buzzard ‘in concert’ with his ukelele. A very entertaining segment. Credit: Me.

To start the second show taping seemingly, we were treated to ‘a concert’ from Joe Hendry intern, Leyton Buzzard. They leaned in to the Elias parody but Leyton made it his own by making it a more cheeky kind of funny and he really won over the crowd with it. Then came out Chris Renfrew. My enjoyment of Chris Renfrew has shifted greatly over time. When I first saw him a few years back, I didn’t really get him or the New Age Kliq, I thought it was a bit try hard and didn’t think the writing on himself was as cool as others did. I then watched his match with Grado at Square Go a few years back and enjoyed it a lot and was more content with him. On Sunday, I really enjoyed him. He has become something close to late-era Steve Austin in that he has an aura of unpredictable danger around him, and of course, he has a Stunner in his move set. His coming out and being unironically moved by Buzzard’s performance was warmly funny and even though it ending up in a Buzzard vs ref match with Renfrew as the special guest referee didn’t make a lot of sense, it was a lot of fun. I also enjoyed the closer of Renfrew and the victorious ref getting stuck in a trance pointing at an imaginary sign. Now at this point, WrestleMania sign gags are pretty tired, but this worked because of how much they committed to it. Both had to be carried/led out by several crew members while maniacally pointing at the imaginary sign. I am super impressed by Renfrew’s range from being psychopath to being genuine comic relief.

Next up was Ravie Davie vs Iestyn Rees. I don’t know much about Ravie Davie as a real guy, but I’m not a huge fan of the gimmick. It has the same issue as Session Moth Martina which is it strikes me as a classist caricature aimed at hipsters. People from all backgrounds like wrestling, but in the case of these indies, a big portion of the fans are middle class and it comes across as utilising a tabloid view of the poor. Iestyn Rees is a very different wrestler. I’ve seen him three times now and while i’m impressed by him and his look, he’s ultimately a bit of a Chris Masters which, to me, means he’s got everything expect for a unique charisma and stand-out skills. He’s very clean, but ultimately doesn’t create a lot of tension or excitement. He needs a bit of seasoning, but with that could be a bigger star. Not much of a match to be honest.

Lionheart vs Bram next. As I said before, I did my best not to watch, staring at the floor and I won’t acknowledge it more than that. I will talk briefly about Lionheart. Currently he’s working a veteran face character but it’s not one that works for me. He had two talking segments across the whole taping and both struck the same tone. He was going for a sort of badass pipebomb style promo but he says it with only imagined fire and with very little of interest to say. I must say he’s over with some people, but I don’t know why.

ICW Tag

A rare glimpse of traditional tag team wrestling. I welcome rest holds breaking up the action in such a high octane show. Credit: Me.

I really enjoyed the next match of Ashton Smith & Rampage Brown against Kenny Williams and Aaron Echo. I don’t really understand Echo’s gimmick, but I like Williams a lot and I really dug the brutality of Smith and Brown. They looked like they wanted to hurt Williams and Echo, and maybe even more. A good mix of styles and excellent tag team spots – something that ICW often loses a bit due to them frequently going to a tornado-style because of the no holds barred style.

The main event of the whole evening was Jimmy Havoc vs Mikey Whiplash. I don’t often like matches quite this violent, and I also don’t like the style of some of the sports in this match, but … this match really ended up working for me. It started out with each inviting the other to staple them. Watching live, I thought it looked stupid, like one of those (great) Laurel & Hardy slapstick sketches where they offer up themselves to the other for more punishment. The reality isn’t really far from that I guess in that it seems like some early bar-setting, trying to ‘out-hardcore’ the other and when I got that, I got in to it more. This was really just a brawl and while it didn’t make for a great wrestling story, it was a great experience. This match culminated with a Death Valley Driver from Whiplash to Havoc which led the pane of glass to explode with glass flying everywhere including in to the crowd. Whiplash took the victory and both paid their respects to the other, before agreeing to a rubber match in the future. In fact, I loved how Havoc addressed that. After being pinned following such brutality, he signed and then very casually said ‘that’s 1-1’. It was very funny and showed me something about the normality Havoc’s character attributes to violence and that makes for a cool character.

ICW Deathmatch

The aftermath of the Whiplash-Havoc death match. You can’t help but admire the heart of both men. Credit: Me.

I went away thinking the most about Whiplash. I’ve always liked Mikey Whiplash’s presentation but I was blown away by this event, not just his incredible heart in the match, but how significant he seemed. Some of the roster can feel they melt together a bit but while there are some who pretend to be dark or ‘alternative’, Whiplash is one of the few who really achieves it in ICW. He believably seems like a somewhat psychopathic sadomasochist with a kink to him. He stands out more than anyone on the roster by a mile. His entrance music is an absolute banger too.

If it was me, while I know he’s an older performer, I would put the title on him and let him put ICW on his back for a while, and I think Kenny Williams would be an excellent foil for him. I don’t know what history they have together, but you have the purest babyface there against a really dark cultist character. I think they would have excellent chemistry.

Overall, I enjoyed the card this Sunday. There were some fun matches and an excellent main event. That said, there is definitely something stale about the company now. I think they rely a little bit on the swearing and loud Glasgow-style banter in an attempt to seem cool and adult. While some of that is needed to give the fed some character, I think it is definitely over relied on and gets a bit grating. I can see why existing fans like it, and I like it in places, but I can also see why it would alienate new outside fans a bit. It just seems like it’s spinning wheels and I hope they can freshen up the regular roster a bit and take some cues from from other feds in terms of presentation. There is a bit of compromise to be had.

During an interview segment I didn’t review here, Dallas alluded to ICW maybe not being as successful as before, acknowledging the success of other promotions, but I put it down to scene-setting. Then, after the taping had finished, he came out again and did the same. This wasn’t being filmed so I don’t think it would really contribute much to the story, so maybe there is a feeling of distress in ICW. I want it to succeed and I want to be proud again of having something so impressive on my doorstep. This evening showed me what it can offer, but it also showed me reasons why it still might have a while to go.

 

 

 

Free Speech, Humanity, and Mediocre White Knights

dankula watson

Don’t make these people your heroes: Count Dankula (centre) and Paul Joseph Watson of Infowars and God knows who the other guy is. Credit: twitter.com

One of the more prevalent stories making the rounds in Scotland certainly, but around the world, has been the arrest and charging of controversial Youtuber, ‘Count Dankula’. Free speech and comedy have had a bit of a tenuous relationship for centuries as comedians defend their jokes from a mixture of the prudish, and most recently, liberal progressives. I have had an interest in this intersection of comedy and free speech for at least eight years when I wrote critically of the South Park creators for playing around with depicting the Prophet Muhammad. As a self-identifying progressive as well as a more shakily self-identifying comedy writer, free speech and what is ‘acceptable’ has been a dichotomy which has shifted uneasily between a few positions regularly often depending on the latest convincing opinion I have heard. Luckily, I have come to something like a final position, in no small thanks to this latest controversy.

Shortly before Count Dankula made his unfortunate rise to relative prominence, Ricky Gervais released his latest stand up hour, Humanity, on Netflix which created it’s own free-speech-storm – not Gervais’ first. The two men aren’t the same, and they represent different approaches to their material; one being a more sincere craft, and the other being formulaic clickbait, but both somehow ending up in the same position as self-appointed white knights.

It’s at this point that I want to make a couple of things as clear as possible so that what I say is neither misunderstood or wilfully misrepresented. A refrain for the article:
1) No one should ever be arrested for mere words unless they explicitly incite violence against specific people or groups.
2) You should be able to tell jokes about whatever you like, no matter how dark, but part of freedom of speech is receiving any criticism that accompanies it.
3) Criticism is not censorship.

That said, on first to Ricky Gervais, who has a track record of writing funny, considered comedy shows with heart – his seminal sitcom The Office remaining a masterpiece on all those fronts. He is indeed a controversial figure though and despite protestations, this is an image he cultivates and as his comedy has become less consistent following The Office, his ability to write with heart has also been hit and miss. The first real mis-step I remember from Gervais was in 2011 and the public telling off he received from Richard Herring for his flippant use of the word ‘mong’ which he then doubled down on by repeating the word along with mocking faces, asserting his right to say it and that there was nothing wrong with it. To be fair to him, he would later climb down and sincerely – I believe – apologise.

Gervais Golden Globes

Gervais during one of his famous Golden Globes performances, notorious for the roasting of those in attendance. Credit: NME.com

Since then, especially as a result of his Golden Globes hosting routines, he has become associated even more with controversy, and Humanity has been no different. When reading about the show, it became clear that the main charge against him was of transphobia, but before jumping to conclusions I wanted to watch the whole show for myself because even a whole 15 minute, seemingly self-contained bit can have a different effect on the context of a whole show. So I watched Humanity and i’m sad to say, I believe the bit in question is definitely transphobic, even if it’s not intended to be. He talks about how carefully he considers the targets of his jokes, but if that’s the case, he either made an unbelievable miscalculation or considered trans people a target. The bit starts off well. He’s reflecting on an earlier controversy of his regarding a Caitlyn Jenner joke, explaining how the person, morally, was the target, and not the fact that she is trans, as well as explaining a clever joke which played against old-fashioned jokes about women drivers.

Unfortunately, his clear disdain for Jenner leads him in to a bizarre second half of the bit where he explains ‘deadnaming’ and then gleefully and repeatedly does it before describing the decision to become trans as quite flippant and as similar to him identifying as a chimp and insisting people treat him as a chimp. He seems disgusted that trans people ask simple, basic consideration of others, and in comparing it to him identifying as a chimp brings to mind the kind of nut who responds to gay marriage with the ‘humans will be able to marry animals next’ complaint. It’s not funny, it’s awkward, and it makes a marginalised group the undoubted target of the bit. He’s clearly obsessed somewhat over his controversial Jenner joke, and in an effort to defend himself, has made a joke in bad faith which has gone on to punch down to trans people.

The rest of the show gets better in the sense that it’s rarely particularly offensive after that save for some clumsy lines and is capped off with some insightful routines about rape jokes, animal cruelty, and a warmly funny story about his mother’s funeral. The rape joke bit is especially eye-opening as it makes his point about free speech in a much more coherent way, saying that there is a difference between finding rape as a concept funny, and finding certain jokes which include rape funny. He gives a good example of a funny, totally harmless joke which plays with the word ‘rape’ while making it sincerely clear that a joke that trivialised rape as an experience or it’s victims would be out of order. The trans bit is the only really deplorable part of the show, and though there are a handful of funny bits, what it is overall, is mediocre. He is bogged down in his ‘shocking’ style, including a couple of lazy clangers about cancer where he seems to expect a laugh simply for making a dark cancer joke. He is hogtied by the theme of his show, and his overarching career theme of awkward offensiveness and often forgets to be particularly funny while performing his lecture about free speech.

He says as a quick aside towards the end of the show that it’s ‘never the point’ to offend people, but I beg to differ. The idea that he isn’t trying to offend people while telling so many jokes he knows are offensive doesn’t pass the smell test, and that’s a shame, because generally speaking, I think Gervais is sincere in trying to have a positive message in his comedy – he just has some blind spots, obscured by his interpretation of free speech. He says, quite rightly, that finding humour in even the worst of situations is important as it helps us through pain and through adversity, but I would then ask him how laughing at trans people helps with adversity?

 

Gervais athiest

How Gervais portrays himself as a literal martyr for Free Speech. A bit over-dramatic? Credit: New Humanist

I recently joked with friends that the modern ‘white man’s burden’ is constantly having to talk and be heard, and it apparent that Gervais feels his need to assert his unalienable right to do that is more important that the upset doing so may cause. That’s fine, and I defend his right to do it, but it points to the privilege he and some of the other people I will mention benefit from. He simply doesn’t know what it’s like to be joked about due to his race, religion, sexuality, disability, or  gender, and maybe that’s why it’s so easy for him to make and defend jokes about trans people.

For Gervais, his controversy/free speech double-team has become a cottage industry. After his first Golden Globes performance where he ‘roasted the elite’, he was later invited back, and like Daniel Kaluuya at the end of Fifteen Million Merits, dutifully played the role of the provocateur. It’s not quite as edgy when your targets invite you to roast them. His comedy has become more dependent on him acting, to paraphrase, as ‘police for free speech’ on outlets like Twitter, and due to the gravitas of that topic, his fairly pedestrian comedy can be propelled to the zeitgeist of some fairly prurient conversations. Humanity is an OK stand up show easily co-opted as a platform for Gervais’ imagined martyrdom.

But Ricky Gervais is not the only person who has settled in to that niche. Enter, unfortunately, Count Dankula. Dankula, real name Mark Meechan, was until recently, a very little known YouTuber known for, if anything, a back catalog of drearily unfunny videos that mixed the lazy tropes of social media sketches and the ‘lulz’ of the Daily Stormer playbook. Bland sketches and memes. One of his latest unfunny sketches, depicting him training his dog to make ‘Nazi salutes’ at jokey commands such as “gas the Jews” and “Seig Heil” has ‘gone viral’, however, due to his being convicted of a crime for making it and may face jail time. It is no surprise that several people, and especially comedians, have raced to defend Meechan from this injustice, because that’s what it is. Getting back to the refrain from earlier, no matter how distasteful someone’s speech may be – and I think Meechan’s is more hateful than he has let on (more on that in a moment) – he didn’t explicitly incite violence against anyone, and so he should be able to say it.

As a Scot, I am as angry at the Scottish court who convicted Meechan as I am at anyone involved here. Not only is it embarrassing for my country to be the home of such an action, but it is also a phenomenally stupid move that has made this no-talent idiot a voice, but it has, in making him a victim of censorship, allowed him a martyr complex he is riding towards an undeserved relevance. Meechan has my support in terms of absolutely not facing conviction or censorship, but that’s where my support for him ends, and the reason for that comes from a look at the rest of his material and the company he keeps.

Dankula robinson jones

Quite the trifecta: Meechan palling up with Tommy Robinson and Alex Jones. Credit: Youtube.com

Though he denies having specific political beliefs, if you scratch the thinnest of surfaces on Meechan, it’s clear that he’s an alt-right personality. As mentioned earlier, his ‘comic’ choices, references, and explicit opinions are generally alt-right, right from the Daily Stormer style guide. Pepe the from is a prominent reference for him, using ‘autistic’ as an insult, using ‘globalist’ as a dog-whistle, memes, and flippant homophobia and Islamaphobia. He is deeply unpleasant, and uses ‘I was joking’ as a fallback, That’s fine of course, ultimately, but it is definitely dangerous. If the era of ‘Fake News’ is anything, it is one of manufactured confusion. The likes of Breitbart and the Daily Stormer may be evil, but they have their finger on the pulse of how people disseminate information online, and they know that even saying things like this as a joke has the desired effect. Here’s a quote from the oft-mentioned style guide:

“The tone should be light.

Most people are not comfortable with material that comes across as vitriolic, raging, non-ironic hatred.

The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not…

This is obviously a ploy and I actually do want to gas kikes.”

Apologies for quoting that word at the end there, but their hateful vitriol needs to be seen I think.

Dankula pepe

Meechan surrounded by the symbols of the alt-right. This is prevalent in his online presence. Credit: iNews.co.uk 

Consider this, and then consider that the more prominent figures he has since been cosiest to have been former EDL leader Tommy Robinson, Paul Joseph Watson, and Alex Jones. All different levels of insane and stupid, but all right wing bigots. Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean anyone who defends Meechan should be tarred with the same brush, but it should give the likes of Ricky Gervais, David Baddiel, Stephen Fry and more pause when it comes to the nature of their support. Meechan has been closest to Robinson and Watson, meeting them in person and appearing with them with not even a veiled enjoyment of them and their support. I therefore think it’s credible to think that he shares their bigoted beliefs on a number of topics, and given he is unquestionably reading from the alt-right play book of lulz, he isn’t necessarily doing so ‘just as a joke’. The more of this material the indoctrinated see, the more emboldened they are, and while his joke, in a vacuum, is in bad taste but ultimately innocent, in that ‘lulz’ context, it is more serious. Indeed, after the pug video being published originally, the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities received messages of abuse which made some members feel unsafe.

The difference between Meechan and Gervais is that I believe Gervais is sincere in what he says even if I think he gets it wrong at times, while I believe strongly that Meechan is riding the ‘free speech’ wagon to relevance and prominence. He is nailing himself to a cross over the injustice done to him, but that wasn’t the case when he was promoting petitions to criminalise Antifa groups due to their beliefs. In short, he doesn’t give a shit about free speech, he gives a shit about his ability to make racist memes and videos. It’s unfortunate that this is something we should all support, and that good people will fight for it when he wouldn’t do the same for you. I don’t know how familiar Gervais and the other comedians who have defended him are aware of the alt-right playbook, but this isn’t anyone who should be being held up as a protector of anything. He is a statistic, and a serious one, but when that is taken as endorsement, it is a problem.

While David Baddiel and others have later voiced some pause regarding the kind of guy Count Dankula is and his kind of material, Gervais has yet – I believe – to do so and has followed up his original comments with a tweeted picture of his cat with its paw up joking that it had watched the pug video. Maybe he’s just moved on since then, which is fair enough, but again clumsy. Gervais is possibly the most famous comedian in the world and like many celebrities, has a very loyal and organised fanbase. His popularising and typical doubling down on Meechan goes beyond defending this guy’s right to freedom and more towards endorsing him and the bad gag generally. This association is something the likes of Dankula and the rest of the alt-right are likely to bolster as it furthers their ultimate goal of making their hateful speech socially acceptable.

At this point, I would like to go back to my refrain:

1) No one should ever be arrested for mere words unless they explicitly incite violence against specific people or groups.
2) You should be able to tell jokes about whatever you like, no matter how dark, but part of freedom of speech is receiving any criticism that accompanies it.
3) Criticism is not censorship.

Stanhope

Doug Stanhope is an excellent example of a comedian with edgy, controversial material who doesn’t care if he offends you but generally does it in good faith. Credit: Ticketfly

Despite my criticism of the comedians here, that is all it is. Make your jokes, and unless someone is genuinely censored from doing so, who cares? If it’s funny, great; if it’s not, i’ll probably not watch again. That’s how it works. The shame here is that this baseline isn’t holding true due to the niche of comedians being offensive at the altar of free speech. Probably my favourite stand up is Doug Stanhope (I doubt he’d like this article but still) because as dark or offensive as he can be, it’s never in bad faith, he’s never punching down at people. He just writes what he thinks is funny, and while it’s not always to my taste, I know he’s not doing any of it maliciously and he doesn’t really care if he gets criticism for it.

In the case of Ricky Gervais, Count Dankula, and others, I think they protest too much. They pretend to be aloof while going on to make jokes or entire routines about those critical of them, and that makes for fairly dull material more than anything else.

That got me thinking, and while I don’t want to over-generalise, I think it’s clear that the vast majority of those who wax concerned about free speech are those least vulnerable to hateful speech: straight white men. To straight white men, the worst thing you can really say to them is that they’re wrong – we’re almost invulnerable to prejudice and can never truly understand it. That’s what privilege is. Perhaps if we knew they fear and de-humanisation of hate-speech we would be a bit less eager to ‘push the envelope’ just because we can. Personally, I would argue that if something is funny, it is worthwhile and it’s as simple as that, but that things aren’t really funny if they mock marginalised people or their experiences. People get it wrong at times, but don’t be scared to apologise if you do, it’s part of a healthy society to discuss these things. As ever, as long as you’re sincere, no one can ask more.

Freedom of speech is incredibly important, and should be fought for, but in defending it, we need to be careful not to embrace and put on a pedestal that sometimes hides behind it. I would rather admire the likes of Ricky Gervais for great material rather than mediocre material which seems more meaningful because it’s tacked-on to a debate about free speech. I certainly don’t want to even think about ‘Count Dankula’ at all again after I’ve finished this article. See him and defend him for what he is, a horrible person who has suffered an injustice, and not for this imagined view of him as a white knight of liberty. He’s not even funny.

How I Would Keep the Winter Olympics More Or Less The Same But Complain About Some Things

Pyeong Chang

South Korea hosted the 2018 incarnation of the games. Credit: The Week UK

This article is a direct companion piece to the stupidly titled How I Would Ruin the Olympics for a Lot of People and has a similarly stupid title because they should match I guess. That article was a fairly nerdy deep-dive in to the ‘spirit of Olympic competition’ and what events I think should and shouldn’t be represented there. This article isn’t about ‘the spirit of Olympic competition’ for two reasons: 1) because I’ve learned that exploitation is the major ‘spirit’ of Olympic competition (but I’ll let the likes of Dave Zirin and Jules Boykoff explain that better), and 2) because, crucially, I have never seen the Winter Olympics in the same light as the Summer games. While I see as the Summer games as a competition of remarkable physical competition steeped in ancient history, the Winter Olympics don’t have that same heritage based on sheer physical prowess and indeed, are less than 100 years old.

I’ve always had a very soft spot for the Winter Olympics. It shares the trait with the Summer Games of featuring sports very few people at all consider in the 4 years before games, but aesthetically, it is so much more unusually striking and beautiful. Every event is competed in an arena of glistening white, and instead of in a stadium, they are usually on stunning hillside settings. Maybe it’s my aesthetic enjoyment of these games that mean that I think the types of artistic disciplines I would eliminate from the Summer Games suit the Winter counterpart; events like figure skating which is so uniquely beautiful and awe-inspiring it barely even seems feasible or, less majestic but similarly impressive, other judging-based events like the ski and snowboard half-pipe. I can’t stress enough how fondly I regard the Winter Games when they are on, until they’re over and I forget about them like everyone else.

mixed curling

Mixed Doubles curling emerged as an exciting new version of the sport where two people play more intimately and with extra intensity. Yes i’m talking about curling. Credit: Team Canada’s Official Olympic website

I have always loved curling, partly because of it’s inherent connection to Scotland, and partly because it’s a puzzle game which is both relaxing to watch but requires excellent technique. I’ve also always found the sliding sports wonderful. All of the sliding events require such incredible bravery, I can never even imagine what they must be like to do, especially Skeleton, which involved going down the track head first but also the slightly goofier bobsleigh which is no less dangerous. I also have an almost grudging like of ski and snowboard cross because, while they are based on activities I find kinda bourgeois, the quick, tight racing is competitive and exciting in a way most racing actually isn’t. Finally, mogul, while also based on skiing is the only sport which effectively and interestingly mixes racing and judged tricks. It’s so fast, mesmerising and impressive that it’s always something I look forward to at the Winter games.

This year though, I didn’t quite enjoy them as much as I had previously though, and that’s why we’re here. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed watching some of the events, like the ones I have just listed, but I was able to put my finger on some reasons why it didn’t resonate with me as much this time, and it’s not just because they aired live in Britain between midnight and mid-day when I was at work.

Part of the problem was with some of the sports I’ve listed above as my favourites. Curling suffered from almost upstaging itself. The new ‘Mixed Doubles’ curling event was great – no less tactical but very exciting and made more sense. I only realised this after the Mixed Doubles was decided and they moved to the traditional 4-person men and women’s events and I realised that, while I still enjoyed the game, some of it’s slow pace and counter-intuitive rules made it seem a bit dreary in comparison. The primary problem is the relationship between scoring possession of ‘the hammer’ (the crucial last stone of each end). In the mixed doubles, like a serve in tennis, the teams exchange the Hammer alternately, regardless of the end result (pun intended). It’s an advantage which is necessary to the sport but shared equally for fairness and adding an interesting tension to the game, i.e. an advantage where there is pressure to press your advantage. This isn’t missing in the traditional game, but it is much weaker because the Hammer only switch sides when the team wielding it scores. Not only does that mean that often one team has the Hammer more than the other, but it often incentives ‘blank ends’. These often occur if an end isn’t forming the way the team with the hammer likes, and so they play to blank the end so they can keep the Hammer rather than risking only scoring one point and losing the Hammer. There are genuine tactics behind this, but a shamefully high number of ends are played through mechanically with each team knocking the others out of the ‘house’ until they run out of stones. This can take a while and has absolutely no tension to it. I still enjoyed watching it as I enjoy the sport, but the amount of time I spent watching meaningless playing of it became a disappointment.

skeleton

Skeleton requires a lot of heart to do and is very cool to watch, just maybe not four separate times. Credit: Team Canada’s Official Olympic website

There were other sports I enjoy which didn’t quite land as much because of how the competition (as opposed to the sport itself) was designed. This included all of the sliding events, the winners of which were determined by cumulative times over four runs. I understand the strength of this, it measures consistency, but it doesn’t necessarily reward the fastest run. That, to me, is the most important measurement in the sports but, in some circumstances, someone could own the fastest run but still not win. Even worse, because the event is realised over four runs, by the time we get to the fourth run, it’s often a procession where the contenders only need clean, steady runs to win because the gap is small. This isn’t always the case, but it happened with a couple of the events and made for a pretty dull conclusion with more tension at the start, rather than the end of the competition.

Speed skating is another sport which I had an affinity for that the design of the competition kinda spoiled. I understand that this ‘long track’ version of the sport is more of a time trial than the short-track version, but the look of it gives off, shall we say, mixed messages. Two skaters would skate at the same time, pair after pair until the field had all raced with the fastest time winning. The problem was though, that while everyone was just plugging in their time, they were sharing the track with someone else. This looks like a race, but as the commentators couldn’t stop pointing out, the two competitors weren’t directly racing. It looked like a race, but it wasn’t, which meant that the competitive promise that came from how it looked, was lessened by the lack of racing which only served to dampen the tension of the event. It was stuck between two things: a race and a time trial but was kind of neither totally either (it really is a time trial, but you still need to be faster than the other person overall of course). Seen as the event isn’t really a race, I think it would have worked better with a smaller field and each racer going one at a time and taking turns, one by one, to get their time in. I think that would increase the tension and the focus of each person taking on the entire field and the clock.

Even worse and, frankly, absurd was the phenomenon of the Netherlands short-track team breaking the world record but only getting a bronze because they were in the ‘B-Final’. Short-track is generally the more instinctive version of the sport, but this event is a real thing of nonsense. It happened because there was such a small field of teams and the teams that didn’t advance to the final for some reason were put in Final B, essentially a meaningless, ‘Best of the Rest’ race but because only 4 teams were racing in the medal-deciding ‘Final A’ and two were disqualified, they gave the bronze to the winner of Final B, who happened to set a new world record. It seems less ridiculous in that description, but it is still terribly counter-intuitive. Either Final B should count or it shouldn’t be raced, and so either the Netherlands should either have won Gold, or be knocked out in the semi finals. For the record, I think it should have been the latter. If you have semi-finals to qualify for the final, it should be a straight knockout or there’s no point in it at all; and so even though the Dutch were clearly capable of more, they didn’t show it in the semi finals and wouldn’t be skating again. Final A should just be the final and 1st and 2nd should have got Gold and Silver respectively and no one gets a Bronze.

biathlon

Biathlon. If they were really talented, they would shoot with the gun on their backs while they’re skiing. Credit: Berliner-zeitung.de

Then there are the weird events, and not in an endearing way, in a puzzling or disappointing way. I’m thinking first of Biathlon, the combination the impressive but dull cross-country skiing and, for some reason, shooting. I have no idea why this happens, and I don’t see the connection between the disciplines unless you’re trying to find the most technically gifted (and therefore worst) potential Bond Villain – guys that maybe would have killed Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me. Usually, weird combinations like this can be surreal and fun, but unfortunately not in this instance. Weird in a disappointing way were two versions of the Ski Jumping. The main version of ski jumping would be a great sport if it was just about measuring sheer distance, which , given the look of the event, it should be, but for some reason, they add in a judges portion for the style of flight and landing like that either significantly differs between jumpers, or even matters. It adds an x-factor to the most intuitive part of the sport and makes it a bit less impactful, though I still like it overall. I was very disappointed, however, by the Nordic Combined. I heard that it was a combination of ski jumping and then skiing and I was very down for it, imagining people jumping, landing, and then going straight in to a race. Instead, they did both sings separately, at different times of the day. Instead of being this cool, intense hybrid, it was drained of it by methodically separating them. I’m sure this design makes sense but even if it doesn, it doesn’t mean it’s interesting.

Finally, I want to talk about the trick-based judged snowboarding. As I said earlier, I enjoy snowboard cross, and I would like to add to that that you need to be very brave and talented to perform these tricks, but overall, I found the whole presentation fairly painful. To be totally unfair to the sport, I’m not used to watching it and it was rare that I really noticed significant differences between the tricks and could discern differences in difficulty and technique, so i’d be watching and someone would do something that looked great but would get a mediocre score, and then the next person would do something similar and the commentators would lose their minds. Maybe the sport is just fairly narrow in terms of what can be achieved, but for this reason, it somehow became a bit boring to watch even incredible stunts. The worst thing about the sport though is how ridiculously uncool the whole thing somehow is, from the big personalities, who all kinda seem like entitled douchebags (i’m sure they’re not, but they seem that way. Shaun White obviously is), to the try-hard, painfully hip commentators who can’t stop saying things like ‘gnarly’ and making lame jokes because I guess that’s the scene. It’s like Tim Westwood is commentating. This of course is a very personal and definitely unfair criticism but it’s one I had to get off my chest.

speed skating

The Netherlands won all their Golds in speed skating. They really like speed skating there for some reason.  Credit: SB Nation

Finally, and more seriously, while I have no interest in disqualifying events from the games like I would for the Summer Olympics, the Winter games do suffer from the same problem of medal weighting, doling out dozens of medals for some disciplines, and relatively few for others. There are 12 cross country skiing medals to be won, but only 4 for the luge, 22 for speed skating and just 5 for figure skating. Especially at the Winter Olympics, which has a limited selection of sports comparitively, this means that if a country specialises in a sport with a lot of medals, they can be over-represented on the medal table, for as much as that matters. Over half of Norway’s Gold tally came from cross-country skiing alone, and two more came from other skiing disciplines. Norway are excellent at skiing apparently and because there are lots of medals in that, they won the Winter Olympics. Every single one of the Netherland’s Golds came from speed skating, and because of that, they came 5th. Not only is this bad for the weigting of the medal table, but it makes for fairly repetitive action at times with events that are only marginally different from each other and allow for teams to pad their medal haul. I would like to see sports like skiing and speed skating have some of the events discontinued and try to diversify the events overall. I’m not claiming to be especially creative or a genius, but winter sports feel like a ripe setting to invent events for. However, for the fun of it, let me try:

Triathlon: Mass start snowboard slalom; 5k cross-country skiing; 1500m speed skating

Now this admittedly sounds absurd, but i’m not sure it is. Have it as a big race all at once and racers have to essentially change footwear at each stage. They are very different disciplines, but I can imagine there are athletes who can become proficient enough at all three to race. Athletes have to snowboard a longer slalom course all at once; they them change footwear in to skis and race for 5km (a thankfully shorter distance) and ski to/inside the speed skating arena almost like marathon runners entering the stadium; and then they speed skate for 1500m. Add that to the Winter Olympics.

Overall, I wouldn’t change much about the Winter Olympics, I don’t want to ruin it for anyone, but I do think there are ways to improve them, make them more diverse, and make them even more exciting by eliminating the more broken competitions. Regardless of the relative negativity here and the fact that i’ll soon forget about Pyeong Chang 2018,  I still look forward to the next games. There’s something magical about the Winter Olympics, even if they’re also a bit lame.

The Curious Case of Abbey A and the Question of Just What a Community Should Do

This article obviously references tweets made by people I know, like, and respect. Even if I disagree with these people on this issue, in most cases, I still respect them. I considered contacting people directly to let them know I was writing this but didn’t want to cause any arguments or further discord, so i’m writing this instead. Please know, this isn’t intended to ‘subtweet’ anyone, and in most cases, the positions or even wording I refer to are a composite approximation of many people’s. A full breakdown of what happened can be found here: http://lulzstorage.com/. Just an FYI, some of the content and images here may make for a difficult read.

If you’re a wrestling fan on twitter, and if you identify as a member of ‘wrestling twitter’, you will no doubt have seen mention of one of a number of controversies from Ric Flair selling then retracting branded sexual consent forms, to Powerbomb parting ways with co-founder Adam Lash over his public criticism of the streaming service broadcasting an IWA show featuring Michael Elgin, leading to strange debates about Powerbomb’s contractual obligations; and finally, the main event, the bizarre tale of ‘Abbey A’ and her clear faking of cancer and later death. The whole soup was a real mess, but this article will deal mostly with the Abbey A situation, and most specifically, what could, and possibly should happen to her as a result.

Until late last week, I had never to my knowledge heard of Abbey or read any articles or anything else by her while she was a somewhat well-known wrestling writer, so I had no preconceptions of her when I saw the story of her supposedly faking cancer and soliciting around $10,000 of donations for treatment. Indeed, when I first saw her tweets, I believed her and even tweeted something along the lines of ‘this is unbelievable, I can’t believe people are doing this to someone with cancer’. Moments later I was deleting that as it was clear that something was at least fishy about her situation.

A combination of twitter users did some digging, and the whole thing became, I admit, a bit addictive. One reason it garnered so much attention was that Abbey’s attempts to fool people, including the infamous use of a google image search picture of jelly, were so pathetically transparent that it made for easy jokes and memes. Another reason for it being such a talked-about topic was that it’s almost a caricature of evil – a person claiming to both friends and strangers that she had a terrifying terminal illness to grift money from them. As many people pointed out, no wonder it overblown comic and dastardly undertones appealed to wrestling fans so much.

Jello

Notable in it’s needlessness, Abbey faked nearly everything, even having a cup of jello. Credit: @Llamaoftruth

Though it was easy to laugh at Abbey’s ridiculous forgeries of doctors letters and the improbable appearance her ‘sister’ who took over her twitter after Abbey ‘died’, and to imagine what Abbey might do next, it shouldn’t understate how serious her crime is.

I want to be clear, what Abbey did isn’t serious because it’s a crime, but it is a serious crime. She defrauded many people of a total amount in to the tens of thousands of dollars across numerous crowdfunding sites. Yes, most contributions were fairly small, but not all of them, with some of them being substantial or repeated donations. I would also argue that the size of the donation is a minor point anyway. $20 could be a significant amount for someone who is kind enough to donate it – the reality of living poverty is a big reason why people create and donate to crowdfunders in the first place, so we shouldn’t assume these losses are insignificant. Indeed, not presuming is going to be a bit of a running theme here. My point is, this wasn’t a faux-pas, this was a con of people; many of whom clearly considered Abbey a friend. The fact that it was a particularly sick con – including the theft of a real (and unfortunately now deceased) cancer patient’s photo – doesn’t necessarily make it worse as a crime, but it does make it harder to forgive.

Drip

Abbey stole this image to legitimise her story. The picture is of Emily Agnew, who had died of cancer when Abbey used this picture Credit: @Llamaoftruth

Indeed, to my surprise, the final subplot of this whole messy saga was what exactly people should do about Abbey, if anything. While those at the forefront of outing Abbey encouraged those affected by her con to report her to the authorities, a not insignificant collection of twitter users, some of whom I genuinely respect a lot, started to openly mock and criticise the idea. One tweet that I think summed up this initial tone best read

“lol at all the fucking cops outing themselves on wrestling twitter right now”

Initially, I put this down to a kind of meme-style language you see online all the time, e.g. ‘if you believe X, you police’. To be fair though, this led to more detailed arguments, but arguments they were, and in time-tested twitter tradition,  these disagreements were drawn diametrically and with at least a sense of ill will; with, to paraphrase, one side believing that the police be informed about Abbey’s crime, and the other side not thinking so.

The ‘no police’ side’s argument, from what I can tell is that, while they didn’t like what Abbey did, they were worried that getting the police involved could be a mistake because she could end up being killed by the police. I don’t write that with any sarcasm, I understand the thinking. The world has seen many cases of the Police in the US, poorly trained and armed to the teeth, killing people and getting away with it, regardless of whether or not the person was a danger. I believe that most of the people cautioning against involving the Police indeed were just concerned about Abbey’s well-being and the potential of this befalling her being tragically disproportionate.

That said, I fall largely on the other side of the argument. While this fate absolutely can befall anyone, including white people, let’s not kid ourselves that the police are anywhere near the same level of threat to a white person suspected of fraud who they would go to investigate than they are to a young black man on the street. Similarly, even-though these tragedies do happen, the way people were talking about this, you would think it was likely that a call to the Police would end in the death of Abbey, with users discussing the weighing up of the crime with a person’s life. I’m no defender of killer cops, but even a suspicious person must concede that only a miniscule proportion of police call-outs, regardless of circumstance, will lead to death. I struggle with the notion that a logical person can reasonably believe Abbey being reported to the police would have any significant chance of leading directly to her death. It comes from a good place, but it’s hysteria.

There was another element to this argument, and that’s that the ‘no police’ side seemed to think that those who thought the police should be involved were ‘European’, didn’t understand the US justice system, and supported authoritarianism. Not only was this aspect of the disagreement insincere and needlessly partisan, but I don’t even think it’s true. In my line of work for a charity working with many of the most vulnerable in society, I am super suspicious of areas of government and police divisions, and I know all too well that the US and the UK at least share a lot of the same judicial problems. Our systems are geared to punish petty, largely victimless crimes as much as anything else (I’m thinking mainly of drugs, but there are many other similar kinds of crimes), and target vulnerable and/or minority groups disproportionately because that satisfies the tabloid right wing and boosts the profits of corporations involved with prisons. The only difference is that people aren’t shot in the streets in the UK because our police usually don’t have guns.

Fraud

Fraud is nothing new to Abbey, and there’s no reason to think she wouldn’t do it again if left to her devices. Credit: @Llamaoftruth

So I can’t stress enough that my belief that Abbey deserves to be reported to the Police doesn’t come from an authoritarian stance. If she was taking drugs or even defrauding a corporation (i.e. if she was committing a victimless crime, or a crime which only ‘punched up’) I would never support her being reported, but I can’t stress enough that I think there are real victims of her actions, and so restitution can and should be pursued for them at least without wringing our hands about it. People are assuming that ‘she must have needed the money’, that ‘she is obviously going through mental issues’, and/or ‘she needs help’ but do we really know that? As I say, I don’t really know anything about her personally, but they seem like leaps of logic for people to defend their position and make further assumptions that her victims don’t need the money, that her victims aren’t going through mental issues themselves, or that the trauma she has caused for people by deceiving them won’t create or exacerbate existing issues. These seem to be purely assumptions, but they are all in Abbey’s favour when, to be frank, I don’t believe she deserves that benefit of the doubt, especially given that further digging has shown that this isn’t her first time defrauding people and so it can be fairly deduced that a great deal of this was premeditated.

The next bit is not even an assumption on my part, but a general feeling – I can’t help but feel that giving Abbey so much the benefit of the doubt isn’t incidental, and that, in fact, it is to protect her from accountability. Abbey was a fairly well known personality in wrestling twitter, and one who seemingly outwardly displayed tendencies which are quite common in the community: e.g. mental health issues, depression, and, well, the love of this weird niche interest we share. Many people felt betrayed by Abbey specifically because they felt close to her, and I think this may explain why some of the ‘no police’ side are so protective – through the disgust at what she did, they possibly still recognise a peer they relate to, someone they like.

‘Accountability’ specifically has become a dirty word in this argument, but I think it’s exactly what should be aimed for here, partly because it’s something a lot of these recent wrestling controversies have lacked. Abbey has hurt people, stolen from people, sullied reputations, and on this occasion, has done so in a criminal way. I think that warrants a fair, balanced restitution. Her reputation is already shot, and whatever the punishment for the brand of fraud she has committed is, she deserves to face. Nothing more, but also nothing less. The wrestling community can’t go on shielding people from accountability – it’s a cloud that hangs over the whole culture and one that can really ruin the magic of it. While there isn’t equivalence in the crimes, we can’t in one breath call for the punishment of the likes of Bram and Elgin and then say it’s wrong to do the same for Abbey. Again, while the victims of what Bram and Elgin have done have suffered a lot more, there are still victims of what Abbey has done, and that shouldn’t be forgotten.

The Last Jedi: Good, Bad, but Not Much Grey

Rey

Rey was great in the TLJ but there was still someting … darker missing from her story. Credit: Inverse.com, Disney

I have a bit of a weird relationship with the Star Wars franchise. I watched the prequels first, and then watched the original trilogy. It was only with The Force Awakens when I marathon’d the whole thing that I really started to enjoy it with any passion. That leaves me in a place where I enjoy the films, but i’m not defensive about it. This Thursday was the first time I’ve wanted to see a Star Wars film the night it came out, and imagining a sort of cultural magic to seeing ‘the new Star Wars film’ on it’s first day, I decided I was going to do so. Walking out, that magic had dissipated though. This was a good, fun film, with some excellent premises, but not one that did a lot with them.

One thing that has untied all reviews, both good and bad, is that this movie has somehow taken Star Wars in a ‘bold, new direction’ is one that baffles me. It’s more light vs dark, Empire vs Resistance, and people being tempted or knocked to either the light or the dark. An eternal struggle indeed, and well-suited to a franchise knocking out a movie per year. I think what people are referring to is Luke not being a babyface hero and Kylo being conflicted in his darkness. Maybe it feels different, but I didn’t see anything materially different about the fabric of this film when compared to the others. The battle between good and evil is not something I am upset about, and is important to my favourite parts of the film, but depending on what happens in the third film, I think they pulled back from some interesting genuine development to the universe in favour of essentially keeping the whole thing ticking over til the next movie.

I don’t know how cynical I am about that. I completely understand that Disney will want to milk this cash cow for a much as it’s worth, and longevity in that sense is achieved by making the least appreciable progress possible with each film. At the same time though, it’s clear that a lot of love and attention go in to these films, and that the production of them aren’t purely mechanical. I don’t think they would be successful if they were made with that mindset.

That all said, there were aspects of this film that I loved, aspects I didn’t really like or understand, and aspects I liked but feel left some great moments on the table, depending on what happens in the next installment. Of course, i’ll talk about them now.

Rey and Kylo

The parallel journeys of Rey and Kylo was perhaps the most successful aspect of the film. Credit: Den of Geek, Disney

I’m going to first discuss, in the interest of positivity, my favourite part of the film based on a really well-realised premise, and that is the conflict and relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren. It’s so hard to create a heroic character with really well-defined motivations, and in Rey, someone who was essentially orphaned through negligent parents who has found a purpose in this intergalactic moral war though she is still at a fragile place within it. I could buy both that she would choose the light, but the film does a great job in making it believable that she could find meeting in this somehow kindred spirit of Kylo Ren and go dark. Kylo was similarly let down by a mentor figure and so it’s easy, as it always is with villains, to see how they became as they are.

One of the best established conceits in the film was this connection fostered between the two, both wanting to bring the other to ‘their side’, both predicting they would do so, and both apparently demonstrably doing it, only for the whole thing to fall apart because neither had really changed. There was a red herring of an almost clichéd heroic coming together devastatingly undermined by a logical crashing to earth. I believed Kylo was turning good, imagined how great and different it would be if Rey went dark (more on that later), and was genuinely shocked by the revelation that their intentions had mirrored each other enough to fight together for a short time, only to realise that they weren’t, indeed, on the same side, all flirtation and hope dissipated.

Spectacular. That, to me, was the crucial conceit of the film. Not the only good thing about it, but the bit that made it work at it’s best.

Another aspect of the film I liked was more thematic, and it seems a subtle theme in that I haven’t really heard anyone talk about it much, and that is nihilism in the face of this universe. The best avatar for this is a character I liked a lot – DJ. Before getting to his ‘place in all this’, I would just like to say, not that it’s important, that I was of the opinion that he was the character they were looking for and he just lost his distinctive pin in some sort of gambling caper. Regardless, they found DJ, and his approach to the whole thing interested me. From the get go, he realised how the battles of light and dark would never end and that for some people who aren’t somehow a fated protaganist/antagonist of the battle, you just have to make the best of it. For him, his approach is that he’ll risk his life to help you as long as it suits him. He isn’t two-dimensional, he’s touched enough by the meaning of Rose’s trinket to give it back to her, especially seen as he gets to loot a ship anyway, but ultimately, he puts himself first because he realises that his actions won’t really affect anything. He knows that the war is between a ‘good’ side and a ‘bad’ side, but that both weren’t as clear-cut as we may seem, as was shown through his revelation about both sides buying weapons from arms-traders. His betrayal hurt and was certainly a surprise in the moment, but at the same time, he just looked after himself. They were caught anyway and so he cut himself a deal. He’s a heel for doing it and he knows it, but he doesn’t believe that anything can change, so ultimately, he doesn’t care. Maybe it’s just me, but I completely understood and to an extent, admired what he did. I didn’t need quite such a pronounced stutter though.

Luke

The doubts and indifference shown by DJ and Luke Skywalker at points were part of an understated nihilistic theme which I enjoyed and would have liked to have seen more of. Credit: Digital Spy, Disney.

Luke Skywalker had some matching sentiments too, at least in the early going. In the original films, I basically thought Luke was a well-meaning milquetoast hero but here, with the benefit of actually experiencing the ups and downs of war, Luke wanted no part of it and realised how flawed the Jedi were. Ultimately, he will always side with light over dark, but he too has realised that the dark will never be stopped, and dejected, he took himself out of the fight. Even when he came back to fight on the side of the Resistance, it’s not that he’s changed his opinion about the Jedi, but more because he decides it’s the right thing to do based partly on his own history. There is a realism to this thematic approach which otherwise gets lost within the size and weight of the general Star Wars universe by the end of the movie, but it was one of my main takeaways coming out of it, and something I want to see more of going forward.

Another character I really enjoyed was Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo. This was perhaps one of the film’s best set-ups of a journey for the viewer. I think I was probably in the majority watching her apparently bring the whole Resistance drifting slowly to a whimpering end with frustration and wanting Poe, who was the only person with the plan it seemed, to take over. There are fair questions about why she couldn’t just tell him what they were doing, etc, but I think it was worth ironing over that for the power of the reveal that she was indeed sacrificing herself and her reputation for the ultimate safety and future of the resistance. By the time she had smashed herself at light-speed through Snoke’s ship, the most successful 180-turn of a character in such a short amount of time was complete. The quiet, slow-moving scenes of her actions were met with a palpable awe in the audience and were some of the most engaging and arresting in the whole film.

Speaking of arresting scenes, I would be remiss to not mention how beautiful some of this film was. I’ve seen a lot of people praising the battle/fight scenes. To me, if i’m honest, a lot of the battle scenes in Star Wars merge together for me. It’s all impressive, but nothing ever stands out. There were some beautiful parts in this film though, and i’ll highlight the two that stuck with me most. First, Rey in the dark side cave, reflected in a an endless time-lag. It was like a purgatory, and the sort of place that you can well imagine would make someone question themselves and their existence. A cool scene that genuinely seemed like it was happening in a unique, significant place. Secondly, the aesthetics of the planet Crait were stunning, even if it was just so other-worldly and different. Red dust shooting up over a white surface was a beautiful combination and I can say no more or less than I just loved who it looked.

The final positive point I will talk about is the Force and Luke’s explanation of it. His begrudged training of Rey was cool, but it was his expanation of what the Force actually is that appealed to me. Until now, it’s been hard to define – it seemed like something you could inherit in someway, a kind of honed skill which only few can wield. In some ways, that is true, but this film goes a long way to democratizing it. Yes it’s mainly an elite who get the chance to use it, but ultimately, it is just an element within life, keeping order, as real and invisible as gravity, but something that can be tapped in to and utilised if someone has patience and training enough, and something which really brings a balance to the universe. It is neither for good or bad, in fact, it almost ensures balance between the two. In that context, it is even more clear that no one side – the light or the dark – will ultimately ‘win’, but the explanation of it was a really satisfying one to help understand the universe. This isn’t always something Star Wars bothers with.

Flying Leia

Instantly meme-worthy, Princess Leia seemingly flies to safety in the middle of space. Credit: Disney

Now to start piling on the negative i’m afraid – speaking of the Force, that is where things also started going downhill. I don’t particularly care about the lore of the Force and certainly don’t have a problem with writers adding to that at times. There are two instances in this film that stand out as … not great though. The innocuous one is the already infamous ‘flying Leia’ scene. We know Jedis and people who are tuned in to the force can defy gravity somewhat and she’s in zero gravity anyway so who knows anyway; the problem was how ridiculous it looked. The explanation of the force as this democratic force of nature that can be tapped in to with great patience, skill, and concentration was a little undermined by the way this was shot, which reduced it to look more like a shitty Superman/Mary Poppins scene. What I felt was genuinely a bit of a leap though was the new feature of being able to see people before you through the Force. To be fair, this was central to two fairly important conceits of the film: Rey and Kylo’s Skype-like conversations, and Luke’s tricking of Kylo during the end battle. So I must admit, I don’t know how you achieve these key moments without the feature, but it doesn’t change the fact that it kinda stuck out to me as a convenient shoe in – more a fix of convenience than a tweak. I think to boil down why it stuck out so much, I thought a few times while watching: “Why has no-one ever done this before in a film?” The problem is the feature is so fundamental to the lore of the Force that it seems weird that the likes of Darth Vader or Luke (until now) or Yoda or Obi Wan (i.e. some of the real masters of the Force) wouldn’t use it if they had it. The Force is the equivalent of nano-machines in Metal Gear Solid, it can be used to fill in holes of logic or storytelling. When someone is needed to do something new, the Force can do it. That’s OK in itself, but I suppose here, this deployment of it seemed more nakedly utilitarian than other times.

Snoke

Snoke went from larger than life to cut in half with a hand motion he should have seen coming. We never knew ye. Credit: Disney

The real driver of this conceit was Snoke, and that brings me to the next point, one that seems to be shared by many. A disclaimer here: I don’t have any particular love for Snoke so i’m not sad he’s dead or anything. That said, in The Force Awakens, there is no doubt he was set up as significant to the whole universe at that point. What he turned out to be – a stepping stone for Kylo to coup détatch his top half from his bottom – was again, useful overall, but it did seem to leave something on the table. I don’t have a problem with Kylo killing Snoke, but it happened after we had seen Snoke only briefly and in a much less powerful light than in T.F.A. To use wrestling terms, even if Snoke is there to put Kylo over, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell his story. The more powerful he is, the more it adds to the perception of Kylo’s power when he kills him, and while his pre-death moments are impressive, I feel everything would have benefited from more work being shown with regards to Snoke – what did he want, where did he come from, how did he choose Kylo etc; I don’t even need loads of depth, just enough to make it a more meaningful shock than just a shock. If I had my druthers, this would happen in the next film. I know this may have been asking a lot, but just more of this and less of, say … side-quests that don’t really affect much.

Speaking of which, I cared so little about the Finn and Rose side-quest to find a hacker to open a door which neither succeeded or mattered. I don’t mind setting up expectations and then subverting them but this didn’t even really add any value to the film while taking up quite the chunk of running time. I mentioned before how I liked what DJ had to add and I like the idea of exploring Finn as more of a mercenary with himself and Rey in mind (even if that’s not the endgame) but that was lost among the weird buddy/love story between Finn and Rose. Rose wasn’t badly played and I am glad to see an Asian-American actress in such a role. I just had so little interest in the role itself that it kinda ruined it. Finn and Rey are always asking after each other but Rose is kinda inserted in to it all and not for the better. The one moment Finn is going to do anything of consequence (martyring himself to big battering canon) she stops him in a way that doesn’t make sense for her established character. She wouldn’t let him leave because her sister died for the Resistance but when he’s about to do something to help it, she stops him because she suddenly loves him. We’ll see if he even reciprocates, I guess, but after all of that, we see him and Rey just once together. I’m not necessarily ‘shipping’ them for chrissakes, characters are more than that, but they obviously care very much about each other and their reunion didn’t feel that impactful, undermined instead by a character I personally could have done without from a story I could have done without.

Kylo reaching

Rey and Kylo were so close, but so far away from joining forces in one of the best bits of the film. Great as it was, there was potential for them, together, to form something more interesting than they did apart. Credit: Disney

I’ve talked about what I could have done without, but here’s something I could have done with. The trailer seemed to hint at Rey being truly tempted to the dark side, and to be fair, the film does play lip service to this at times, but as soon as Kylo shows his true (dark) colours and she outright rejects it, and it’s clear that there her understandable questions about her ‘place in all this’ were never the same as a true temptation to the dark side. I’d heard a lot beforehand of ‘grey Jedi’ and it sounded like a great direction for the movies to go in at some point. As I mentioned, I loved the scene where they briefly fight together only to realise they are still on different sides; and while I never believed Rey was going dark, I did like they idea that their new-found connection led to some sort of new grey faction within the overall fight. I’m not sure exactly how that would look like – perhaps an anti Empire/Jedi Council/Princess faction who reject elitist ways and take a genuinely populist stance. That is something a better writer more knowledgeable about the universe could come up with. I was extremely excited when I saw the possibility of something like that because, to be honest, the fight has gotten a bit stale. This plays in to the ultimate impression I had of the film too, but the battle between light and dark doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, quite literally at this point. It’s like a big long argument where you can’t even remember why you’re fighting – you just are. To go back to wrestling terms, it’s 50/50 booking: sometimes the Empire is dominant, sometimes the Resistance seems to be turning the tables, but I never really buy in to any jeopardy for either side. I enjoy this battle, but maybe adding some genuinely differently-motivated actors to the story/universe wouldn’t hurt at all and would more likely prolong the franchise further in a positive direction.

The franchise, but especially this film, is really lazy about defining what the fight is actually about. Don’t get me wrong, it’s obvious that the Empire and Sith are evil – we’ve seen them blowing up planets and killing innocents, but mostly the film relies on us more or less just knowing that the bad guys are bad just because. It is a battle largely between elites and we rarely see how ordinary people are affected, and in this film we didn’t even have any state atrocities or anything, it was just team red vs team blue and we like team blue because they seem nicer and we know them. Going back to the nihilism, DJ is the closest thing to a common person without bias we meet, and he ultimately supports the Resistance, but he knows the morality of it all isn’t black and white. It would be nice to see a bit more of that rather than wondering about it as a viewer. This is where the Grey Jedi could come in I suppose. Basically, I genuinely support the Resistance and it’s clear I should do so. I just don’t really know what i’m supporting. Maybe a few films down the line the Resistance could overcome the Empire, take over, and we could see what they would do with it. That could be interesting.

I have a feeling it wouldn’t be likely though. Despite the second half of this article, the first half rings true. I did enjoy much of this film, and had a good time seeing the action and the effects and the characters we like, and that is worth something. If you asked me how it moved the overall plot along though, i’d be hard pushed to take up a lot of your time. The plot of the film is almost comically spinning its’ wheels. The Resistance are ‘on a string’, running, being caught, running again, being caught again, running, being caught again, and escaping. We lost Luke (though you’re never really lost in Star Wars), Snoke died but what did he ever do anyway, and the same for Captain Phasma, Holdo died but we never really knew her anyway. If JJ Abrams so wished, he could recycle the first scenes of this film almost exactly in the next film and it would make sense. That betrays a lack of story development. It’s clear why this is the case too. Disney want to milk every drop of money out of this as possible and so they need to make as many films as possible, and so they need to progress the overall story as little as possible. That is what happened here.

This to me was good, but also just kind of another Star Wars film. It promised a bold new direction, but pulled back from most of it to give people what they like and are used to, though with some wonderful scenes in for sure. This isn’t some unforgivable sin, but it will always have a limited impact on me, personally. That is basically all I can say. Lots of people love the film and I am happy to see that, but for me, as fun as it is, it is in danger of diminishing returns.

Reflections on Eli, his Career With the Giants, and the Hall of Fame

NFL: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys

It seems the sun is setting on Eli Manning’s career as a Giant following his sudden benching as Quarterback. Credit: Newsweek

Probably should add this disclaimer: I’m a New York Giants fan, so biased and a bit emotional as I write. Some of what I write about his benching may be a bit messy through this prism. That said, this is about more than that, it’s a reflection on the career of a fixture in my sports fandom.

I can’t really remember when or how I got interested in American football. Vague memories of the Channel 5 broom-closet studio in the UK with Mike Carlson and others talking about the game before it got to the (relative) level of notoriety it has now in the country with the ever-expanding slew of International Series games. I have vague memories of staying up to watch the Patriots first Superbowl win against the Rams in 2002, so i’ll go with 2001/2. Regardless, something must have grabbed me enough to give it a try, and after getting my head around the basics, I was hooked.

I also don’t know why I chose the Giants as my team. I remember going on a college trip to New York in 2006 though and being desperate to get a Tiki Barber jersey (I ended up settling for Jeremy Shockey, not being able to find a Tiki jersey and, if I remember correctly, choosing between Eli and Shockey – as an aside, having learned a bit more about Shockey’s character, and knowing the kind of guy Eli is, I very much regret that). So maybe it was to do with Tiki, or to do with visiting New York, i’m not sure, but though I clearly liked them before then, it was that trip that cemented the Giants as my team. There probably wasn’t a better time to latch on to a team either, as within two years, they would be winning a Superbowl with Eli at the helm.

It’s easy to both over-estimate, and under-estimate Eli’s role in both Superbowl victories. For me, 2008 was all about Defense, good coaching, and Eli managing the whole thing well while he was, I believe, a more active part of the success in 2011/12 becoming a post-season monster that year. What is clear though is that you don’t win two Superbowls by accident, especially at the Quarterback position, and his achievement in this regard is too often downplayed. The fact that he has won both Superbowls he has played in, and that both were against the Brady/Belichick Patriots makes it all the more remarkable.

Super Bowl XLVI

Better times. Credit: nfl spinzone

Eli was never one of the very best quarterbacks in the game, and further, was usually not even the best player on the Giants. He alone was not the reason for the Giant’s two Superbowls, especially not for the first one he won, but he was absolutely capable of magic. A smart, steady quarterback, it was often said (to the point of cliche at times) that there were few players teams would want in the post-season more than Eli – something about him could become irresistible at his best. His throws to Manningham and Tyree are the most memorable of course, but there were lots more, as well as the times he’d take it too far and it would end … less well. It could certainly be a roller-coaster.

Manning’s Giants tenure was, in another way though, the opposite of a roller-coaster – his streak of 210 games starting is a remarkable achievement, especially thinking of how common injuries to younger, more athletic players are now. It’s not just remarkable as an achievement for that reason though; that would be more trivia than anything else, but its the aura it brought to him and the team as a whole that was significant. Eli was a constant, a consummate professional, someone to depend on to play and give you a chance. That is something so many teams have lacked chronically in a way that has left them, be they talented or not, without many prospects. He may not have ever been the best, but he was always there, and he was always good. Sometimes great, sometimes not, but always good.

If i’m honest, that magic has indeed been less present in recent years, and talk of Eli being in the ‘back 9’ of his career seemed accurate. At the start of this season, however, the Superbowl window seemed firmly open, and my thinking was this would be the last chance for Eli before retirement. In that context, Eli and the Giants being in the place they are now is … surreal.

Getting to the grimy business of the benching, I probably don’t have much original to say about it. The essence of assessing the talent the Giants have makes sense, but the nature of it is curious. I have time for Geno Smith as a player; I think there have been flashes of talent and that he’s had a hard time of it in his career, but the notion that any sane management team believe he could be the answer at starter next year is patent nonsense. The only player it makes sense to show any significant time to is young prospect Davis Webb, drafted by the Giants in this year’s draft. The fact that Geno is starting and not Webb strongly hints that the coaches don’t feel Webb is ready. If this is the case, Eli should be starting, and therein lies the rub.

The fact that Smith is starting because the QB position must be ‘assessed’ smacks of scapegoating of Eli – it’s why the move is being referred to as a ‘benching’ rather than being part of a true ‘rebuild’ or ‘evaluation’. In the context of the pressure that Ben McAdoo and Jerry Reese are under, it comes across even worse, as them shifting the blame for the seasons’ failings on to a team legend to help save their skins. If the Giants were a playoff team except for the failings of Eli, it might be OK, but Eli is the last person to be the cause of this season’s problems. If anything, Eli has shown a slight upswing in form this year, keeping is tidy and doing what he can (an admittedly limited amount) with a threadbare cast of offensive linemen protecting him and weapons to throw to and compliment him. There are few Quarterbacks who could do significantly better than him if put in the same spot.

Eli Geno Davis

Eli with his temporary successor, Geno Smith, and possible long-term successor, Davis Webb, who he has vowed to support through this period. Credit: NY Daily News

Even if we take McAdoo at his word about the intention here, the treatment of Manning, and the position it has put him in is unacceptable and disrespectful to a true legacy player. In it’s sudden, casual nature, it shows a contempt for the team, Eli, and their achievements. Now it must be said that there is some mutuality to this. Eli was informed of plans to let him start and then hand over to Geno in the second half, in order to keep his starting streak going – an offer Eli, to his credit, refused. Of course to a player like Eli though, this was a false choice, not because of egoistic pride, but because it doesn’t measure up as playing to win, and having faith in him to do so. My feeling is that the offer was one that McAdoo and management knew Eli wouldn’t take, and was instead a way to cusion the impact of the move. Again to his credit, fighting back tears in a locker-room interview, Eli promised to help Geno and Davis prepare for games from a backup role. I won’t pretend to know much about Eli as a person away from the game, but everything I do know about him in the context of the Giants screams that he is a class act. That this is likely the way his Big Blue career ends belies all of that, and those responsible should be held to account.

The sheer shock and dismay (sometimes furious in nature) of Giants legends and former team-mates like Victor Cruz, Justin Tuck, David Carr, Osi Umenyiora, Shaun O’Hara, many more, and even players who never played with him like Carl Banks show what a class act Eli was for the Giants, and how respected he is and always will be. This feels like a big blow for the whole organisation, one that might have a long-lasting legacy, and a black mark on a team and ownership which is usually held up as a classy outfit. That John Mara allowed this to happen and agreed to it when he wasn’t even present to talk to the parties involved makes it all the worse.

Up until today, I presumed, with good reason, that Manning would be a ‘one man, one club’ guy and retire a Giant. He still may, but it has never seemed more possible than now that we could see him in new colours, perhaps those of Jacksonville, reuniting with Tom Coughlin. If Eli does move on, as long as he doesn’t play for a rival team (I suppose Washington would be the only possibility there, and that seems unlikely), I will pull for him. Given an offensive line, he still has a lot to offer, and I would like him to show it, not as revenge against the Giants, per se, but to show those responsible for this debacle, and also because I certainly wouldn’t grudge him one more success.

To end this on a more positive note, I come to the question that has followed Eli for years: the Hall of Fame. Now I know his career isn’t necessarily over yet, and people have different definitions of what a Hall of Famer is, or should be, but I think I can put this frankly, and briefly. To me, the Hall of Fame should be based on a mixture of the success and significance of the player in question. A Hof-er shouldn’t need a Superbowl ring, but if they don’t have one, they had better have been spectacular otherwise to get in. For me, I’ve already stated that Eli was never the greatest quarterback, but he is a two-time Superbowl winner and MVP, both times defeating that Patriots, who have never been otherwise beaten in the Superbowl with Brady and Belichick, and who were otherwise undefeated in one of those seasons. Not only is he a two-time Superbowl winning quarterback, but he defeated significant opponents both times. He is in the top 10 of all time for passing yards and touchdowns, he was a true ‘ironman’ playing 210 consecutive games, a Walter Payton ‘Man of the Year’ winner, and was one of the most recognisable figures in the game. If you don’t think that is Hall of Fame worthy, I don’t know what to tell you. See you in Canton, Eli.

A final, more personal note, as this blog might make obvious, the role of sport in everyday life fascinates me, and even nourishes me, and I’m suddenly faced with some questions I didn’t expect. The NFL and the Giants are happily acquired tastes for me in a way that football isn’t; football is something I was practically born with. Because of that, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation where one single person has been so closely linked with my enjoyment of a sport. Eli was always the central figure in my NFL fandom. The respect and love for Eli that I have will always be there, but given the nature of this event, and the lack of a figure to fill the Eli void, I can’t help but wonder how it might affect the nature of my following of the Giants. I suppose i’m about to find out.