Not Super, But Still Interesting

I probably don’t have to tell you that the Super Bowl happened last Sunday. And I have a confession about that: I really don’t care anything about the game.

I haven’t been to a Super Bowl party since the event was in the XXXs, couldn’t name any player on either team other than Tom Brady, and even had to ask Google where it was being played. Is that anti-social? Un-American?

Now I did have the program playing on my tablet in the background while I did other things, so I guess the ratings people counted me as one of the billion or so viewers. But I find the periphery of the event far more interesting than football. The competition to create entertaining ads, the subtle (and not so subtle) political messages people try to inject into everything, Lady Gaga’s backup drones, the running commentary on Twitter.

Football1

Being completely oblivious to football during most of the season, I have to rely on others to explain why this Bowl became so Super, which is where a recent segment of the Freakonomics podcast, An Egghead’s Guide to the Super Bowl, was so valuable. That 30 minutes, half the length of the actual game play, was more interesting. One of the former players on their panel is even a PhD candidate in math. At MIT. Now that’s something I never expected.

One other item that caught my eye during the game were two high profile commercials (featuring “that person looks very familiar” celebrities) for web hosting companies2. Both ads were trying to sell the idea that anyone can build a compelling, profitable website for their business. It’s a nice, if somewhat inaccurate, story.

I know web publishing technology has advanced to the point where it really is easy to build a site. However, I also know that creating a site that people will actually want to use is still a very complex process. My advice as someone who has worked on many of these projects is, in addition to paying SquareSpace or Wix, spend something on a good designer.

Anyway, that’s pretty much my Super Bowl experience. I can’t recall much about the actual game, especially the second half since I went to bed after the Snickers live commercial (which did not live up to the pre-game hype).

Yes, I know there was a “historic”, first-ever, tie game that was won in overtime. And New England set all kinds of records. And there were possibly many other significant cultural aspects to this event. Sorry, I just don’t care.

Anti-social? Un-American? You decide.

3-2-1 For 12-11-16

Three readings worth your time this week.

It’s a long read, but this story at Huffington Post offers a great look at how the National Football League works hard to hook kids on their product (“tobacco-style” may be slightly hyperbolic), including the development of a fantasy league for 6 year olds. The League’s TV ratings have taken a big drop this season so the company has a lot riding on growing the audience. (about 32 minutes)

Patton Oswalt is a very talented, funny performer. But a year ago, his wife died suddenly at the age of 46, leaving him to raise their 7-year old daughter. In this honest, touching post he talks about his Year of Magical Parenting. (about 4 minutes)

IBM’s Watson made a big splash a few years ago playing Jeopardy. But if you switch to Monopoly, that big brain wouldn’t even know where to start. We hear a lot about artificial intelligence but an opinion writer at Wired says the current systems are more artificial than intelligent. And it’s likely to stay that way for a while. (about 3 minutes)

Two audio tracks for your commute.

Is college worth it? NPR addresses that question by following a group of students from suburban Washington, DC who graduated high school in 2011 or 2012 to discuss their experiences and the choices they made. It’s an interesting program but the pre-roll sponsor is Columbia University, which makes me wonder a little about the objectivity of the reporting.  (49:52)

Most people in the US don’t understand copyright, and especially their rights under the concept of fair use. In the first segment of a new podcast on the topic, Kirby Ferguson, who coined the phrase “everything is a remix”, introduces the idea that even Star Wars is a mixture of story elements going back centuries. A little geeky but still an interesting start. (8:50)

One video to watch when you have time

I am big advocate for using maps to help people visualize a variety of topics, and not just geography. This video from Vox is a great explanation of why all world maps are wrong and where the Mercator Projection, the format used by Google and most other mapping systems, came from. This is a good one to show your middle or high school students. (5:59)

Football Fantasy

What place should football have in high school?

According to a column in District Administrator, those programs could be a great source of income for districts. From ticket sales to advertising and sponsorships, there’s a lot of money to be made. Oh yeah, and… “they are a source of pride and promotional value for a region, and an important resource that can be used for school and community activities”. But mostly the money.

The writer of this post continues to explain that profits will come only if districts are willing to make some big investments in infrastructure. Like the $60 million stadium, complete with “state-of-the art video scoreboard”, built for one Texas high school. Or the 12,000 seat stadium to be shared by three high schools in a nearby Texas district. Or a “$62 million facility with 12,000 seats that will be used by seven high schools”. Also Texas. See a pattern here?

By the way, the fact that the primary examples in the article promoting high school stadiums are in Texas simply exemplifies that state’s traditional obsession with high school football. If you’d like a better understanding of that infatuation, I highly recommend the book “Friday Night Lights”, which forms the foundation for the movie and TV series of the same name but, in my opinion, is better than either.

Anyway, outside of Texas, he finds a few more, slighly less lavish examples of schools building new facilities for their teams and collecting large fees for naming rights, plus selling advertising and “promotional opportunities” to local businesses. Even income from television rights for high school games he says is a “revenue option”.

And that’s enough of this incredibly stupid idea: that high schools should be putting large amounts of money into, not to mention even more emphasis, on their sports programs. As a professor of sports management who literally wrote a book on the subject notes in the article, “Only a very few, highly successful football programs with large seating capacities and proactive corporate partnership arrangements could even come close to paying for themselves.”

Which mirrors college athletics in which more than half the programs in the “power five” conferences lost money in 2014, despite a decade of increasing “investment” at those schools. But that’s just the most visible part of the issue.

For the vast majority of the more than 4,000 colleges and universities in America, athletic departments should lose money. Their football and basketball teams don’t appear on national television, apparel companies don’t pay them millions for endorsement deals and they don’t have stadiums and arenas generating millions in ticket revenue.

So, district administrators should take a lousy business model, one that largely serves as no-cost-to-them farm teams for professional athletics and benefits relatively few students, and push it down into high school.

Where budgets are already lacking for actual academic programs. And where, for many schools, football already sucks up excessive time and resources, while also benefitting very few students and producing major distractions for the rest.

It’s a Texas Thing

A few weeks ago, our superintendent offered some remarks at the opening of a local conference, including a story about her conversation with some 6th graders. She asked about their favorite parts of school, expecting to hear things like lunch, recess or football.3

Football? 6th grade? Really?

It struck me as a very Texas thing to say.

Not surprising, I suppose, since she came to us a little over a year ago after spending her entire educational career in that state. And, between friends who teach in Texas and the memorable book Friday Night Lights,2 I know they start organized sports very early in their schools, evidentially including 6th grade.

However, around here resource wastes like large football programs are still limited to high schools. I hope changing that is not on her long, still largely private, list of revisions she wants to bring to our overly-large school district.