Turf Wars Episode I: Let the Kids Play

“It’s about to go down” is a lofty way to start a YouTube video, but sometimes it does indeed go down. Earlier last August at the Mission Playground, a public park located in San Francisco’s historically Latino but increasingly gentrified Mission District, one video does just that (see below).

Going viral on Bay Area local media and later picked up by larger sites like the New Yorker and TechCrunch, the video – shot by a seemingly-neutral bystander – shows an argument over the use of a soccer field. On one side is a group of teenaged Latino boys, identifying as locals who frequently use the park, and on the other side is a group of white men, later identified as employees of Airbnb and Dropbox. The video begins with a pan of the busy field and continues as the newcomers become increasingly confrontational while they try to argue their way on to the field.

Under the policies set by the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, the newcomers were able to buy permit time at Mission Playground, followed the rules when booking the field, and were upset when those rules weren’t respected. On the other end, the park’s regulars felt slighted by the sudden disregard for their own norms, which have prevailed at the park for as long as they can remember.

So who’s right?

Warning, some NSFW language included

After first watching this video, I very quickly took the side of the local teenagers. How dare some people, let alone older white men in a predominantly Latino community, try to run some kids off of their field?

But stepping back, it also seems unfair to blame the Airbnb and Dropbox employees for buying the permit and expecting the permit to be respected. The same situation has bothered me more than handful of times too. Whether it’s booking a study room or a soccer field, it never feels good to kick someone out of a space you planned to use. While the way that the newcomers handled the situation may have upset me (saying things like “who cares about the neighborhood?” and resorting to tactics you might expect only a toddler to fall for), I can’t fault them for following the rules.

I also can’t fault the local teenagers for not wanting to follow the park rules. They have created a well-respected culture with a merit-based spirit at its core. It’s simple: if you win, you stay. Not until the confrontation escalates do you see the teenagers frustrated with the newcomers themselves, who happen to represent the influx of new residents to the neighborhood. But up until this point, you see the teenagers challenging the newcomers to compete to stay. While it’s not exactly true to the Parks Department’s book, it’s hardly unfair either.

So maybe it’s the park rules themselves that bother me most. The Parks Department’s permit policy creates a system in which those who can’t afford to buy special time on the park are at the mercy of those who can. In this way, the permit policy undercuts the long-standing relationship and tradition that local teenagers have with the park. Recognizing this, and in response to community activists, the Parks Department later decided to remove the permit system.

While the permit policy removal seems like a victory for the Mission’s local teenagers, what does this mean for the neighborhood’s relationship to its newer residents, like the employees of Airbnb and Dropbox? Maybe they’ll just need time to assimilate into their new neighborhood’s customs, but maybe they don’t want to. Either way, they’ll have to play for their right to stay on the field.

A Fan’s Moral Imperative: Is Watching Football Ethical?

To prepare themselves for the Super Bowl yesterday, many people are asked themselves some important questions: What kind of dip will I make? How much beer do I need to buy? Will the toss be heads or tails? Which commercial will be the best? Will it be the 49ers or the Ravens? I can certainly relate to most of these concerns (though, I must admit that once the Redskins lost, I was just not invested in the postseason). But, maybe the question that few, if any, are asking themselves is the one that’s the most important: is watching football ethical?

For lifelong football fans, myself included, this might be a shocking question. Perhaps it seems like something only those in high academics would debate. But, with the recent death of Junior Seau, the ethicality of football has been front and center. For those of you who don’t follow the sports world, Junior Seau was a linebacker who played most famously with the San Diego Chargers, becoming a sports icon in the San Diego area. Seau retired in 2010, after playing since high school. In 2012, he committed suicide at age 43. Later, it was revealed that Seau suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a form of chronic brain damage that has been discovered in other NFL players who died, as well. For those who knew Seau, they say the last few months of his life were marked with abnormal behavior. Just this month, the Seau family sued the NFL over the brain injuries he sustained during his career as a linebacker.

My first reaction to hearing about Seau’s tragic suicide was probably similar to many others who followed the story. Though terribly sad, Seau chose to play football and knew the injuries were a risk. Sure, the NFL could have provided more medical and psychological help to its players once they retired, but it doesn’t seem like we can hold them responsible for his death, right? But, then I started reading more and more about the perils of professional football.

In 2010 Malcolm Gladwell penned what has since become a rather famous op-ed in the New Yorker comparing football to dog fighting. Gladwell recounted the story dozens of former NFL and college players who are, or were, suffering from brain injuries. Line players can suffer up to 1,000 hits in the head in just one season. All these head injuries seem to have a real and scary effect on the players. Seau’s suicide wasn’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last. In 2006, Andre Waters, a defensive back, shot himself; Owen Thomas, a defensive end and former UPenn captain, hung himself; retired safety Dave Duerson shot himself in 2011; and former safety Ray Easterling shot himself just a week before Seau did. This is not an isolated incident.

But, football players choose to play football. They are never forced to play, and in fact few who desire to play at the highest levels achieve it. Moreover, they’re getting paid a pretty good sum of money, so that makes up for possible injuries and risk…right? The flip side of this free will argument is that football is, as BuzzFeed writer Kevin Lincoln wrote, “the contemporary equivalent of gladiatorial combat…killing young men slowly…our loyalty condones this and makes it not only acceptable but wildly profitable.”

Do both these arguments have merit? Certainly, no one is ever forced to play, but the cult of adoration surrounding football creates a whirlwind that becomes hard to stop. Perhaps most alarming is that these dangerous hits don’t start at the college level, or even high school. It starts in elementary school with Pop Warner. Moreover, it’s not as if the trauma of multiple hits to the head begins when a player actually makes it into professional football. It begins all the way back in elementary school and slowly builds. College athletes aren’t even paid for the risks they are taking. Should we really let children play a game we know to be dangerous and have potentially life-altering effects? And, football hits have gotten more severe over time as players get faster and bigger. Even President Obama shared some concerns about this in a recent interview, saying that although the NFL players are getting paid, “as we start thinking about the pipeline, Pop Warner, high school, college, I want to make sure we are doing everything we can to make the sport safer.”

Moreover, why isn’t the NFL doing more to help the current players and those entering the game at a young age. Rather than address the physical and psychological traumas of football, the NFL constantly finds ways to obfuscate and ignore the issue. It will be interesting to see what their reaction to the Seau family suit will be

But, even if the NFL were more open with their players about the potentially behavior-altering, traumatic nature of football, what else could they do? Short of banning football or capping how long players can play (which seems unlikely given the extraordinary pay incentives and loyal fanbase), as long as people keep watching football, football will still be played. So, do we have an ethical imperative to stop watching football? Should we demand real change in the NFL’s policies and incentive system in order to protect the players? Are we contributing to the disturbingly long litany of former NFL players who have committed suicide or been seriously affected by brain injuries?

It’s hard for me to address these questions. I have always loved football. I’ve watched games with my dad since I can remember. I have many good memories of Duke Football game days, Super Bowl parties, and Friday night games in high school. It’s not something that’s easy for me to come to terms with—yet, I can’t deny how troubling I find all the evidence mounted up against the NFL. I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that yesterday I was thinking about a lot more than what kind of wings I should get for my Super Bowl party.  

Football and Antlers

Thanks to the resurgence of antler sprays as highly questionable athletic supplements, deer antlers are still trending a month after Christmas.

For thousands of years, deer antlers have been used as a Chinese remedy for essentially everything (a quick Google search will yield a wide variety of results). While most of the antler benefits have not been scientifically proven, it is believed that these antlers contain high concentrations of IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1) – a protein that promotes cell-growth. As a result, many deer antler supplements have been dubiously marketed as performance enhancing wonder drugs due to speculations that IGF-1 will boost muscle growth.

The “antler issue” has been plaguing sports for a while (IFG-1 is banned in professional leagues such as the MLB and NFL), but it regained popularity recently when some high-profile football players became linked to the antlers. While it is discerning that professionals are using illegal substances, it is really alarming when Christopher Key, the co-owner of an athletic supplement supplier, informed the public that he has been selling these deer antler oral sprays to college football players, and that the usage is undetectable (he has also sold “hologram patches” to some players, apparently). According to Key, his clients are feeling more energized and winning big games left and right.

So while his spray sounds like the greatest supplement since vitamin gummies, it most likely does not work.

Oral delivery of IGF just seems…incredibly difficult, and a quick literature search did not give me any hard evidence on its effects. The same ESPN article that reported Key’s testimony also mentioned a researcher (with actual expertise) refuting the possibility of the spray working. Also, Dr. Jordan Moon calculated that there simply isn’t enough in a bottle spray to be effective – in fact, Dr. Moon believes that the athletes need to use up to at least 5000 cans of spray for it to work (it is also unlikely that the IGF is delivered 100%). Reading Key’s statements, they sound more like commercials than testaments, and Key did not mention how his spray can avoid blood tests. The reason why it is undetectable is likely due to the fact that there isn’t anything in the spray. New Zealand Medical Journal also raises more doubt on the legitimacy of the antler claims (fun fact: New Zealand is the world’s largest producer of deer antlers).

So all this sounds like another hoax (seriously, what is a “hologram patch?”), and the seller is either unethically selling illegal substances to student athletes, or unethically convincing college athletes to buy his useless spray. If Key’s clients experienced any powerful “level-ups,” it is likely due to the placebo effect. Key was quoted saying: “The whole idea is to compete without cheating. We are not bad guys.” And he is right because the  players do not have IGF-1 in their bodies.

But should these college players be punished if the spray doesn’t do anything? We still punish people for unsuccessful cheating (like copying down all the wrong answers), but this case is a bit different because we don’t know if the players know about the IGF-1. To them, they could just be another source of nutrition input, which is not that different from a family remedy of…umm…spinach pie that build muscles.

Or is it really that simple? While I doubt players really knew what they were putting in their bodies, I doubt they really thought they were just eating more carrots to improve their vision – a guy sold them a “spray” that is claimed to work wonders and not be detected by blood tests (life tip: if “not being detected”is part of the advertisement, it probably is illegal).

Obviously it is more unethical for Key to throw his deceived clients under the bus for his own benefits (it worked), but what about the athletes? Is it really “cheating” when your sketchily obtained “nutrition supplement” doesn’t provide you any advantage – and you just think it does? Most people won’t consider moms telling their kids to eat large broccoli to be an unfair advantage, so what about these undetectable nutrition supplements? If they should be punished, what are the punishments for experiencing the placebo effect?


P.S. Random, but this topic reminds me of rhino hunting

The Morality of Cursing “Go to Hell Carolina, Go To Hell”

Guest Post by Jing Song Ng

In less than three weeks, Cameron will be awash with bobbing blobs of blue: a stampede of hopping feet vertically propels faces encrusted with paint. Behold the enduring war cry: “GO TO HELL CAROLINA, GO TO HELL!” And golly, we feel great banishing our neighbors to the infernal pits. We gleefully rejoice when our team’s foul goes unnoticed. A twisted Tarheell ankle wrings out hoots of delight from the Crazies, even as the player’s face writhes in anguish.

Such is the ethics of parochialism: the practice of prioritizing the happiness of a select few over the happiness of the many.

For those not familiar with Cameron Crazies, check out this video of parochialism in action:

This communal frenzy is not morally bankrupt. There are three reasons why a good person could, or even must, have a parochial moral compass.

First and foremost, a good person has to be a person. As people, we thrive on our social relations, be it the narrative of an imagined community, such as America or Duke, or the biological ties which tether a father’s affection to his toddler. We cannot be shorn of special obligations. Caring for a select group of people who are an integral, inextricable part of ourselves can be construed as ethical self-regarding.

Next, what constitutes the goodness of a good person? Goodness cannot be divorced from what it means to be a person. Nourishing the social identities we have either chosen or been bestowed with forces trade offs. A dollar spent on pediatric care could have provided Malaria vaccines that would have preserved more quality/disability-adjusted life years. However, being good involves being parochially other-regarding, selectively diverting our limited time, money, and affections to those who help us meaningfully flourish as a social being.

Finally, a healthy dose of parochialism can help us make decisions. A person cannot digest all necessary information to make a utility-maximising decision in every circumstance. Thus, parochialism helps us choose and lends clarity to the consequences of ethically-knotted decisions.

But note the caveat: “a healthy dose.” Dragged to the extremes, parochialism can be unbridled racism or a callous disregard for people considered the alien “other.” The idea of a person as a social being also expands the horizons of one’s moral considerations. As we bump, rub shoulders with, and converse with the “other”, more people trickle into our social life. However, come the 13th of February, the Grand Canyon between two shades of blue remains vituperatively, and quite ethically, profound.


Jing Song Ng (T’13) is a recently graduated Public Policy and Cultural Anthropology double major. At Duke, Jing Song was a dedicated member of Duke Debate and wrote a column for The Chronicle, “Jingapore Says.”

The Te’o hoax: Why we care so much, and why we really should not

The narrative is so beautiful: Girlfriend of mega-football star died of leukemia, and boyfriend carried his team to an upset in her honor. The football star then went on to become the second most dominant player in college.

Why second? Because that’s what actually happened, and frankly, first will just be a bit too cliché.

As it turns out, Manti Te’o’s girlfriend was not real; in fact, the “girlfriend” might had been a boy. Many people are now “vaguely enraged” (phrase borrowed from Kolsterman in his letters to Gladwell) because they ended up on the receiving end of the “just kidding” story of the year.

As of right now, nobody knows whether Te’o was involved in this not-so-malicious hoax. In fact, I made a meme for the occasion!


(I actually think it is also incredibly stupid for trying to dupe everyone, but the meme works out better this way)

So why do we care so much about this?

Gladwell, in his letters back to Kolsterman, described this sentiment very adequately:

Earlier this fall, I read many stories about how Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein didn’t even kiss his wife until they were both on the marriage altar. The public reaction was pretty much, “That’s strange, but I guess that’s nice.” It was just a little romantic detail that was widely believed, despite its superficial implausibility. Nobody thought that much about it (and — as far as I can tell — it’s completely true). But imagine if this had been proved to be a conscious fabrication. People would suddenly be outraged that Klein had lied about something they’d never previously cared about.

And I full-heartedly agree. I think there is even a bit more as to why many people are angry – because we really believed the story.

We believed the story because we love them. We love it when a basketball star overcomes sickness to hit the game winning shot, we love it when a squirrel rallies a team from behind to win the championship, we love it when an Asian basketball player defies underdog status and racial prejudice, and we love it when a football player leads his team to prominence after the tragic death of his girlfriend.

We also believe it because the media is powerful. It is our only way of finding out the “truth” short of going to South Bend ourselves and searching through Te’o’s internet history (oh wait, the media basically did that for us).

Because we believed in this story, we feel betrayed when we find out that it’s not true. This reminds me of a Barney quote from How I Met Your Mother: “People like being lied to. They just don’t like finding out they’ve been lied to.” How mad will we be if we find out that Michael Jordon wasn’t sick at all that game? Or that the squirrel was released on purpose to boost popularity? Or that Jeremy Lin is…um…not Asian?

It’s pretty crazy how much controversy a college football player can stir up nowadays, but really, why is this a big deal? Te’o is just a college student playing for his school. We shouldn’t even be paying that much attention to his personal life in the first place. Why are we giving SO much publicity to him? So what he was dumb and fell in love with a “girl” through texts and Twitter? Even if he did lie, is it worth broadcasting on national news over and over? Whatever Te’o did or did not do, it is better than Armstrong lying about doping, or Reggie Bush taking illegal benefits, or the Saints’ bounty program, or all the DUI and domestic violence stories we read on ESPN.

There aren’t any direct victims here, in fact, about $3,000 were raised for leukemia research in the girlfriend’s name. While it is not ethical to lie (if Te’o did lie), it certainly isn’t ethical either to construct this righteous image of a college football star and tear it apart in front of a national audience. The one thing we can be sure of is that the media is the winner. If there is a story that the media loves more than “new found strength due to death of a close one,” it is the fall of a hero.

Why is it that young adults have to give up their privacy when they choose to play for a popular sport in college? Or that they are assumed to be either flawless or dirty liars? These would not be issues if we just treat the athletes as who they are: college students playing sports. The Te’o hoax is funny and bizarre, but it really doesn’t mean much. We are mad because we bought into the system and it failed us, and if we zoom out to the bigger picture, that is exactly why being sports fans can be so devastatingly heartbreaking, so shouldn’t we be used to it by now?

The Olympics Spirit (BADminton edition)

For those who don’t know, and that may be a lot of you given NBC’s atrocious coverage, eight badminton players were kicked out of the Olympics for “match-fixing.” It did not involve bribery or anything of that nature, and the players did everything that is within the rules, but they did try to lose on purpose to get the seeding they wanted (video here).

Unless I am mistaken, it is allowed to suck in sports (please look no further than the school eight miles down*), and as for intentionally sucking? People do it all the time.

Every year right before the massive sixteen teams playoff, there are NBA teams that wonder whether losing on purpose would give them an edge in seeding**. Professional teams in the NBA, NFL, and MLB all rest starters after realizing they are playoff-bound, and from a more personal experience, I once “guarded” Brian Zoubek in a game of basketball, and I am pretty sure he intentionally sucked to make me feel better because at one point, I somehow ended up with the ball.

In the Olympics, favored swimmers never go all out in the preliminary heat to save energy, and in this year’s Tour de France, Wiggins slowed himself down to let his teammate win a stage in the technically individual event.

Of course, there are other “negative tanking” examples in this year’s Olympics: Makhloufi from Algeria, who claimed he was hurt during an 800 meter heat, used his fresh hurt legs the next day to blow away the field in the 1500 run. He was originally expelled from the Olympics, but fortunately for him, he was able to find one doctor that says he knee was hurting. Also, the Japanese women’s soccer coach openly admitted that he instructed his team to tie South Africa so they can play in a more favorable location.

Some of these are considered acceptable (Wiggins was actually praised, and I appreciate Zoubek for letting me touch the ball), and some, not so much. So why are people so angry with these badminton players? And Makhloufi?

Because they took intentional losing to a whole new level? Because the fans who paid to go did not get to see what they wanted? Because it violated the sacred Olympics spirit? Because it was unethical?

They were just trying to win the gold medal while staying within the rules. Yeah, it was ugly, but the Chinese didn’t want to play the only other Chinese group so they can both medal, which is usually the case when it comes to badminton. As for Makholoufi, he just wanted to make sure he brings back the fifth gold medal in Algeria history. It wasn’t within the Olympics spirit, but it didn’t warrant being kicked out of the competition, it certainly wasn’t as offensive as the tweets (see here and here).

It can probably be argued that the badminton players had an obligation to make sure the fans get what they wanted, but by the same logic, they also have the same obligation to their country to try their best to win the gold. Yes, sports are all about trying your best in the events, but they are also about using strategies (AKA, smart ways to win within the rules).

So was it ethical for the badminton players to throw away matches like that? Probably not, but I also don’t think what they did was so unethical that they deserved to be expelled from the Olympics. Though I do think Makholoufi should get kicked out for lying, I do not think he should had been expelled in the first place for stopping in the race.

People may disagree, but we can all at least agree that NBC really should do better.



*just kidding, Tar Heels, looking forward to another great rivalry year

** losing on purpose in basketball would be really comical if both teams tried – imagine flipping the court and many, many, fouls. I wonder which team would be the best at losing.