My wife says that one of the reasons that she fell in love with me is that I wasn’t a guy who watched SportsCenter every night. (It took me several tries just now to spell the damn thing) I’m not that kind of guy. Ironically, I’m a die hard Cubs fan, and I read several blogs that follow the team in what is an exciting time to be a Cubs fan. I enjoy the storylines and a GM’s strategy for building a team, in this case, virtually from scratch. I grew up near St. Louis, so you can see that I must have lacked a fear of confrontation from an early age. I still try to catch every Cubs game on TV or radio, even when they suck.
My dad and I have been going to the Cubs Convention since 2004, not every year, but this year was our 4th or 5th one. The convention is a great opportunity for the die hard fans to meet players and have fun in a festive, baseball atmosphere in January. The event is now 30 years old, and this year, over 7,000 people bought tickets at $75 each for the weekend event.
First, an aside… For those of you non-sportsball fans, don’t worry, there’s stuff here for you.
Power Balance is a company that sells bracelets and other plastic/silicone accessories that claim to enhance physical performance. Their bracelets aren’t much different than the cheap cause-oriented “scauses” like the “Livestrong” bracelets, except that these Power Balance ones cost $30 each and don’t support charity. The company launched the product claiming that the small holograms in the bracelet react with the natural frequencies of the body to enhance power, balance, and flexibility. “Extraordinary!”, you might say. Where on earth did they find such compelling data? Well, it was pulled from deep within the scheming, cynical recesses of their asses.
I won’t go too deep into the Power Balance ocean of bullshit, but ESPN did a fabulous take down of these assholes years ago:
Power Balance is a brazen scam. Fortunately, the system worked in this case, and Power Balance was sued for fraud. Some reports have them being sued nearly out of business for $57 million dollars, but the company denies it. Either way, they were forced to issue the following statement in 2011:
“In our advertising we state that Power Balance wristbands improved your strength, balance and flexibility. We admit that there is no credible evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct in breach of s52 of the Trade Practices Act 1974. If you feel you have been misled by our promotions, we wish to unreservedly apologize and offer a full refund.”
Woo-hoo! No skepticism case needs to be made here, they admit that all this revolutionary science was developed through the intricate process of making shit up. Finally, we can move on, right?
Wait! Is that Shaq in a Power Balance commercial? Are all those players still wearing this crap? It turns out, that if you can convince idiotic or cynical celebrities to do something for money, their fans will do it too. The Power Balance scam continues unabated entirely on celebrity endorsements. The Sacrimento Kings are even naming their home arena after the company!
I was watching my beloved Cubs last year, and noticed that the a few Cubs players were wearing the bracelets during games. When I found out what they were, I was appalled. I don’t care that they’re useless to the player, but they might as well have worn bracelets that said “Invest with Bernie Madoff!”. Players have a responsibility as role models for fans, especially kids. If that wasn’t enough, the Cubs as an organization have gotten in on the heist, and they sell Power Balance bracelets on their website
Flash forward to this Saturday, when I attended one of the biggest events of this year’s Cubs Convention, a Q&A with new Cubs manager Joe Maddon and his coaching staff. The ballroom was packed with at least 4,000 fans. I heard several people saying afterward that they weren’t even able to squeeze in the huge room, let alone find seats. I couldn’t even find a square of wall to lean against, so I squatted down close to the side so I didn’t block any views. When the time came for fan questions, I lined up behind the mic.
The kid in front of me asked who would play third base this year. Another fan offered to buy Joe (the manager) a beer. Fan questions come in all shapes and sizes, but there are some common categories:
1. An old Cubs fan brags about how long he’s been a fan, and how much he loves the Cubs. He usually thinks the Cubs Convention is entirely for his benefit, and won’t shut up.
2. A cute kid asks an obvious or obscure question like “What’s your favorite movie” or “How old are you”. It’s quite entertaining and elicits some great humanity from the players. There’s a “kids-only” press conference that’s one of the best events of the weekend.
3. A mid 20’s or 30’s guy who reads everything “Cubs” and asks about an obscure prospect, stat, or strategy because they want to know the answer, but mostly to brag about how much they know about baseball.
I step up to the mic 4th. This is merely my memory of what happened, so take it for what it’s worth. For some reason, speaking at the Cubs Convention (which I do most years) makes me crazy nervous. I think it’s because it throws me back to my childhood when my school mates would mock my lack of spots knowledge, as if being fat and nerdy wasn’t bad enough. Even though I’m now much more confident and proficient in a plethora of arenas, even confident in my ignorance, I can’t get over these nerves when it comes to sports. My hands and legs were shaking, and my memory is fuzzy. I hope to find a video of the event soon to check my memory, but more on that later…
I remember asking the following:
“I’ve noticed a few Cubs players wearing these Power Balance bracelets during games. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a cheap plastic bracelet that’s advertised as ‘resonating with the natural frequency of the body to enhance athletic performance’. The company has been sued and forced to admit its fraud, but the scam survives on celebrity endorsements. Therefore, will you ask you players to stop wearing them?”
I didn’t know what would happen, and I really wanted to know the answer. I was pretty sure that they wouldn’t say “Yea, I’ll look into that” or anything even mildly affirmative. I had a few brief comebacks prepared for most responses. Unlike so many fans, I didn’t want to hog the mic, so brevity was important for me.
What I didn’t plan on was being decisively booed by the crowd. Immediately after my question, a few hundred people booed loudly. Joe responded by asking me if I would be willing to ask a player to stop following a superstition that the player thought was helpful. At this point, the boos got so loud, I couldn’t hear Joe or myself very well. I simply answered “yes”, and tried to say more, but there wasn’t much communication happening either way after that because the boo’s were in the thousands. I can’t speak for the crowd, but my guess is that any suggestion that the Cubs should sacrifice even perceived performance for the sake of something as trivial as morality was unthinkable, and that I should sit down before anyone got any ideas.
A staff member then came to escort me from the mic. This is not a common occurance. I watched several other fans ramble incoherently at the mic for >5min, and I’ve never seen staff try to escort them from the mic. I’ve seen fans actually yell at the Cubs president about ticket prices, and saw no move to stop him. I wasn’t kicked out of the room, but I wasn’t allowed to answer Joe Maddon’s direct questions. He continued responding by talking about superstitions in baseball, but I couldn’t hear any of it over the boos and a few people nearby trying to engage me. Joe was later quoted in the press: “I don’t have any superstitions, and I hope not to acquire them”. To be clear, I really like Joe Maddon. He seems like a very smart and thoughtful guy. I’d love to hang out with him and have a serious conversation with him over wine. (He’s quite the connoisseur)
I think that I was exceptionally polite during the whole exchange and all day. I remember being concise and considerate while asking my question. I wish that I had a chance to answer Joe, and ask him what sort of superstitions would not be allowed. Certainly a PED superstition is a no go. What if a guy wore a bracelet with a Swastika on it? What if he advocated the election of a specific candidate? What responsibility do players and coaches have for being good role models for fans? Tebow wasn’t allowed to write bible verses on his face when he joined the NFL, so where’s the line when it comes to religious symbols?
It’s also a question that I would love to ask the Cubs merchandising department, but I didn’t get that opportunity. It’s hard to imagine them defending their right to partake in a scam, since I know that they are highly discriminating of advertisers. They don’t have the tradition of “superstition” to fall back on. It may be that they don’t have any choice, because mlb.com sells them for most teams, but I want to know what, if anything, they’ve done to try and get them removed from the site.
I’m telling this ridiculously long version of an otherwise short story because I find it fascinating. I don’t feel particularly slighted by the Cubs, Joe Maddon, or the fans that booed me. I’ve spend 8 years running atheist organizations, and I’ve been a performer for over a decade. Heckling does little to me, especially when I’m sure that I’m right. I’m not shocked at the reaction, though it wasn’t what I expected. I’m disappointed in my favorite baseball team, but I don’t feel betrayed.
What’s fascinating is that I can’t imagine such a response in any venue other than that. What an unusual combination of people to generate such an overwhelming condemnation of a fan for such a question. I’m a Keith Oberman type of sports fan. I enjoy being a fan for the same reasons as everyone else, but I care about much more in life than whether my team wins or loses. Sports are not a break from important human issues; rather they are thoroughly integrated into them. We don’t check our morality at the door in the service of athletic competition.
Finally, I am surprised that this exchange has not been mentioned in the press. With the overriding interest in controversy, especially with new media, only a couple of sources referred to Maddon’s answer about superstition, but made no reference to Power Balance. A video of the event edited out this exchange. I wonder if any writers feared stepping into that arena, especially when there are corporate interests at stake. Or, perhaps I’m the only one who finds this interesting, but I doubt it. This is the sort of thing that the skeptic community does well. I would hope that, in the future, professional athletes and their organizations are consistently peppered with questions and criticisms for their complacency and for scamming their fans. “Superstition” isn’t a magic word that excuses stupidity or doesn’t count against one’s integrity. I won’t be letting this go, and I hope to gain a few allies.