John Chidley A blog about reading, writing, pop culture and sports.


What’s in a sport?

Bring It On: All or NothingLast week an old chestnut of an argument reared its head when a judge ruled that according to NCAA and Title IX rules competitive cheerleading is not a sport.

Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut had cancelled their women’s volleyball program in favour of the seemingly more lucrative cheerleading team.  The volleyball team’s coach sued on the grounds that cheerleading doesn’t meet NCAA rules or the Title IX law.

Using those standards the judge ruled that volleyball is more of a sport than its peppy replacement.

Almost immediately there was an outcry from the cheerleading community, crying foul and defending the honour of their beloved athletic pursuit. This brings us to that previously mentioned chestnut: what constitutes a sport?

Hampton Stevens wrote a well-considered response to the debate for the Atlantic’s website today. He argues that cheerleading is not a sport because the winners are decided by a subjective judging system.

In Stevens’ mind there are three qualities to a sport:

  1. People compete at it.
  2. Computers can't do it.
  3. Aesthetics don't count.

He cites examples too. Chess is not a sport because computers can play it. Croquet is a sport though, because there is a clear objective measure of the winner.

I agree with Stevens in principle. In fact, a source of much acrimony in my household this winter was my ongoing criticism of several of the “non-sports” at the Vancouver Olympics.

Like Stevens, I place a great deal of importance on the objectivity of the activity. As soon as judges are holding up signs with scores, I lose interest. However, even I can see a glaring omission in Stevens’ argument: boxing and other combat sports regularly go to a judges’ decision.

If there’s a close match, the judges have to decide the bout based on who dominated the fight, particularly which boxer landed the most head shots on their opponent. In other words, they have to decide how well each pugilist boxed. They have to judge the match on the aesthetics of each fighter’s strategy and style.

Judges miss landed blows and there’s often some interpretation of what is and isn’t a head shot. Also, we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought boxing judges were not corrupt or biased.

I’m not saying that boxing is as subjective as cheerleading or figure skating, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that all sports have a certain aesthetic aspect to them – even in the most cut-and-dry sports like sprinting judging can play a significant role in false starts and photo finishes.

That said, Stevens and the Connecticut judge are both right: cheerleading is far too subjective to be considered a sport.

Twitter buzz - While writing this article I posed the question to my Twitter followers:

@jchidleyhill Is cheerleading a sport? What constitutes a sport?

I got a few responses from my followers, including:

@rubedawg83 - Competition based on participants using BOTH physical and mental tools. Cheerleading - Yes, Chess & Fishing – No

@ToryBachmann - [...] Yes cheerleading is a sport

@Novinarwriting - Hmm Hard to take 'sports' shows like pool/darts/poker seriously

@twharry - Any sort of athletic activity where you can legitimately pull a groin while competing is a sport.


Athletes and coaches need to step up to prevent violence towards women

University of Virginia President John T. Casteen III spoke at a vigil held in memory of Yeardley Love.

Field lacrosse is supposed to be a gentleman's game. Referees can hand out penalties for swearing or, if they’re particularly strict, if anyone other than a team captain speaks to them.

In fact, one of the senior lacrosse referees in Ontario regularly admonishes athletes for swearing on the field by saying “Watch your language, I’m carrying a picture of my mother in my pocket.” He’s not afraid to hand out fouls for anything he deems to hurt the image of the game.

Sportsmanship toward opponents, officials and teammates is considered a prized characteristic in lacrosse players.

Unfortunately, this respect for the game doesn’t always translate to respectful or even legal behaviour off the field.

On Monday University of Virginia senior lacrosse player George Huguely was arrested and charged with first degree murder of Yeardley Love, a member of the school’s women’s lacrosse team.

According to news reports, the two had a relationship that recently ended. Huguely admitted in a search warrant affidavitissued to Charlottesville, Va., police that he and Love had an altercation and that he “shook Love and her head repeatedly hit the wall.”

It’s a shocking tragedy that has upset the community surrounding UVA. A young life has been snuffed out before it even really began.

This isn’t the first time that NCAA lacrosse has been rocked by controversy. In 2006 three members of Duke University’s team were accused of raping a black student from North Carolina Central University who was hired as a stripper at a party held at the house of one of the captains of the Blue Devils.

Although all charges were dropped against the three athletes, the messy affair created a firestorm around Duke’s campus and ignited racial tensions in North Carolina. The lives and reputations of many of the parties involved were ruined.

Obviously, the Duke scandal and the murder in Virginia are unrelated crimes that took place years apart and involve independent parties.

Still, they offer a sad commentary on the behaviour of varsity lacrosse players. Both incidents underscore the fact that many young men involved in athletics are violent, often towards women.

It’s not limited to lacrosse at the university level either. There have been many famous professional athletes accused of sexual assault including NBA superstar Kobe Bryant and, more recently, Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Coaches, captains, athletic directors and anyone else in a position of authority on these teams have to start stepping up and teaching their athletes the importance of respect and discipline on and off the field.

The emphasis placed on sportsmanship and good conduct when playing lacrosse should also be applied to real life beyond the confines of competition. Yes, winning is important. Drive and determination are too. But being able to succeed on the field is even sweeter if it’s accomplished by a classy, respectful person off the field.

I’m not saying that coaches can control their athletes or single-handedly stop domestic abuse. Everyone involved with sports, at all levels, should re-double their efforts to breed a healthier attitude toward women.

That Ontario Lacrosse Association referee has the right idea - banning swearing may seem quaint, but encouraging a gentlemanly attitude in all facets of life is a worthwhile pursuit.

Sadly, there will likely always be violence in society. It will never be completely eradicated. But in an atmosphere like a varsity team where young athletes are being shaped into men, role models like coaches or senior players should still do their best to encourage healthy and respectful interactions.

None of this can reverse the tragic fate of Yeardley Love, but her memory can be honoured by the athletic community as it addresses this issue.


March Madness: Day 12 – Some valium for the Madness?

We’re four days away from tip-off of the Final Four in the NCAA’s men’s division I basketball tournament – and my bracket is done.

Specifically, my bracket ended when the Duke University Blue Devils dropped the Baylor University Bears 78-71 on Sunday night.

I had picked Baylor to move on to the National Semifinal, and having already lost my other Final Four picks - Kansas, Kentucky and Syracuse – to upsets big and small, I was officially shut out.

Miraculously, I finished in a three-way tie for first place.

That’s right, this year’s edition of March Madness has had so many twists and turns that all six of my fellow poolies have been eliminated with three games still remaining in the tournament. Everyone picked Kansas to win, and most had the Jayhawks beating Kentucky in the Final.

As I’ve said in previous posts, my bracket strategy relies heavily on going with the favourites. I don’t know nearly enough about NCAA basketball to offer any kind of dissenting opinion to the experts or competition committee, so I just go with the flow.

Of course, this leaves me wide open for upsets wrecking my chances of victory. In that department, the 2010 tourney has been exceptional.

In fact, 18 of the 60 games so far have seen the lower seed prevail. By comparison, there were a total of 16 upsets in the entire 2009 tournament, including Michigan State (#2) overcoming Connecticut (#1) in the National Semifinal. The year before that, 2008, saw just 13 upsets.

Most surprising is that the only top seed left in the entire tournament is Duke, the team that all the experts had picked for an early exit.

In any event, this has been an incredible tournament, even if my stake in its outcome has been settled well before the whole thing is over.


March Madness: Day 5 – Rocked, Shocked, Jayhawked?

Northern Iowa?! What?!

Just five days in to the NCAA’s annual Division I men’s basketball tournament and already Kansas - my pick to win the whole thing - is eliminated.

It’s not just me who has been rocked by the Jayhawks early departure – literally every single person in my pool had them as the champions. They were the prohibitive favourite for just about everyone I know.

Northern Iowa has become Death, the destroyer of brackets.

I’ve never seen a basketball game alter the mood in the city of Toronto, let alone an amateur match, but there was definitely a buzz in the air in the hour after Northern Iowa’s 69-67 upset of Kansas. Passing people on my way to work I could overhear talk about ruined brackets and disappointing efforts.

Most poolies are now relying on their Sweet 16 and Elite Eight picks to see them through. It’s a very different reality that’s now in place. After all, most people build their brackets around a particular team who will sweep through to the finals. Without that cornerstone, the whole thing falls apart.

Fortunately for me, I’m in good shape.

I’ve made 29 of 48 picks, and have a possible 102 points still available. That showing puts me in the 55th percentile of all Yahoo! Fantasy Sports users. My bracket is literally not half bad, but it’s not much better.

Thank God there is some time off before the Sweet 16 gets underway. I know that it’s for the teams to try and rest and re-group, but at this point I think that the fans need it just as much.

I know that I am a neophyte NCAA basketball fan, but this is the most exciting March Madness tournament I’ve followed to date.

It started with the major upsets in the first few rounds, followed by the elimination of perennial mid-major powerhouse Villanova and then finally the shocking departure of the Jayhawks, the consensus pick to win the whole damn thing.


In any event, thank God for that break. Now we’ve got a chance to try and figure out what’s going on, and who’s going to win the championship. The Syracuse Orange? Duke? Northern Iowa?

I really don’t know.

What I do know, is that I can’t wait for the Madness to start up again. I’ll be watching every minute of it.


March Madness: Day 2 – I guess that’s why it’s called “Madness”

Old Dominion?! Seriously?!

In yesterday’s post I mentioned that my strategy for NCAA pools relies heavily on picking the favourites. After all, at least on paper, they are the better team. You might recall that I even mentioned that the tactic often costs me when there are major upsets, particularly in the first round.

So when there were no less than five shockers yesterday, you could imagine my delight. Further, the three upsets I did pick (UTEP, Florida, San Diego State) managed to lose. All told, I am now ranked sixth (out of six) with only half of my picks correct. Yikes.

My one saving grace is that I still have a possible 180 points available to me, third best in my league. Nonetheless, I need things to go well for me today if I’m going to recover.

At the same time, I thoroughly enjoyed all the games I watched yesterday, especially the upsets. Yeah, it was killing me in my pool, but they were incredibly entertaining.

Villanova’s match with Robert Morris is the perfect example. For my bracket to stay alive I desperately needed ‘Nova to win. But despite myself, I was cheering for the boys from RMU. It’s a cliché, but I just loved their hustle.

Of course, this is what makes March Madness great. That sense of desperation, that swelling of emotion with each shot, each steal, every made basket. Even an impartial observer gets wrapped up in the action.

That emotional investment does a lot to gloss over a lot of the problems with the level of play. There are glaring errors made by all the teams in the tournament, particularly when it comes to defence. I can’t tell you how often I caught myself yelling at the TV yesterday as I saw an ill-advised double team. Discipline is also always an issue with such young players, so tactics quickly fall apart.

But it’s that reckless play that makes March Madness so fun to watch; it’s completely unpredictable and usually has a wild finish. You never know when a team is going to fall apart.

I’m looking forward to seeing how day two plays out. Hopefully it’ll be as exciting as yesterday.... only with things going my way.


March Madness: Day 1 – For the sake of transparency

Here is my official March Madness bracket, thanks to the good people at Yahoo! Sports and their PDF generator. Click the link to see my rather uneducated guesses. No, I am not sponsored by KFC.

John Chidley-Hill NCAA bracket


March Madness: Day 1 – Ignorance is bliss

Ohhhhh yyeeaaahhhh!!!One of the most peculiar periods in the Canadian sporting year is the last two weeks of March.

That’s when, like everyone else in the civilized world, Canadians become obsessed with the NCAA’s Division I basketball tournament. However, unlike our neighbours to the south, we can come at it from an oddly objective place.

Let me explain.

Obviously, there are no Canadian schools in the tournament. There are rarely Canadians to root for, either. Like following the National Football League we’re left to our own devices to figure out which teams to pick. We are unfettered by any kind of loyalty or regional bias.

Really, in general, Canadians are blissfully ignorant of college basketball until about early March. There’s little coverage on Sportsnet or TSN. Only hardcore basketball fans who seek out games on the Score or online have any real knowledge of the NCAA game. Everyone else gleans what they can from American shows like Pardon the Interruption or Around the Horn. Our focus is, and always will be, hockey.

Does that stop Canadians from participating in March Madness pools? Not even a little. Practically everyone I know has at least one bracket, and suddenly basketball is on all kinds of TV channels. After all, there is no better way to while away the time once your NHL team is eliminated from the playoffs.

My only NCAA allegiance is to Syracuse University Orange. Not because of Carmelo Anthony, but because of their lacrosse team. After all, that’s where Gary and Paul Gait went. Not to mention the Powell boys. Also, it’s kind of local to Toronto. I guess that's nice.

Aside from that small preference for the Orange, I can enjoy the tournament bias free. Heck, I’m even indifferent to Duke University which, according to ESPN’s Bill Simmons, people hate.

Personally, I enjoy the fact that as a Canadian I can operate from a point of objective ignorance: It means that I rarely over-think things. My judgement is never clouded by preference or conflicting sources of information.

If 75% of users are picking a team online, it sounds good to me. I’ll never be tempted to pick an underdog, since, hey, I don’t know anything beyond the seeding. Historical trends? Don't know, don't care. It’s wonderfully liberating.

My strategy is to pick teams I’ve heard of, relying on the assumption that if they're on my radar up here in Canada, they must be good. Failing that, I go with the higher seed. If two well known teams meet at some point in my bracket, I follow the lead of my fellow online users. When I feel particularly daring I’ll take an underdog (usually a 12 seed over a five) but that’s as wild as I get.

It’s actually a pretty good system. It leaves me open to upsets, but that’s rarely a problem beyond the Sweet 16.

Now I can just sit back and enjoy the show, along with my free health care. The beauty of being Canadian.