Too Big to Die

The first time I ever came across the word “overreach” in print, it was when I was reading a children’s encyclopedia. I don’t remember if the article was about France or the French Revolution (I guess it must have been the latter), but I do remember the little portrait of Robespierre and the caption beneath. It said that Robespierre was the most powerful man in France during the Reign of Terror until he overreached himself, and in the end was guillotined, too. I was struck by that description as a little person, not just at the idea of death, though that was certainly potent. It was the idea that someone who was in charge could stop being in charge, that someone powerful could ultimately be destroyed by the same instrument that they had wielded power through. I’ve been thinking about my elementary school understanding of Robespierre, of “overreaching” again, because of two pieces of covid-19 news from earlier today. The first is Rob Manfred’s quote that Major League Baseball may not begin for the 2020 season after all, and the second is the announcement that the Oscars, in response to the shuttering of theaters, will expand its eligibility window for the 93rd Academy Awards into February of 2021 and hold its ceremony in late April. Generally speaking I don’t like to write about current events on this blog as much as I used to do, but there’s something about that idea of overreach that smells the same in both, something that feels relevant to a vibe I feel about our last days of the American Republic.

Our organizations are inadequate to this moment, which anyone could have predicted based on how inadequate they’ve been for all of the moments leading up to this one. I can’t even keep track of all the articles and tweets and conversations I’ve read or seen or heard in which people note correctly that a system which has basically ignored the problems of the nation has found one that it cannot quite put away. The armageddon of the climate catastrophe can be forestalled until one is no longer around to worry about it, forever wars can be played out until a population is totally inured to it (or, in the case of my students, ignorant to their existence). Choose an issue, any issue at all, and one can look back and see government at all levels playing keepaway, as if the world we live in is like the NBA before the shot clock and not a possession in the last tenths of a second. This is overreach, the belief that the powerful may hold onto the ball for another tick, and that they will never have to hear that loud horn which signifies their time has run out. Overreach is being a police department which has watched—and reacted violently against!—peaceful protests in a city based primarily on police brutality, and still murdering Rayshard Brooks when he resisted arrest, putting two bullets into his back as he ran. Overreach is being the mayor of such a city and still calling for hundreds of millions of dollars into the police budget for the upcoming fiscal year. That’s what it looks like when decades have passed without the accountability that virtually all the rest of us are held to in one way or another.

Overreach is more obvious in the MLB scenario. Both the owners and players have correctly read the play stoppage as a prelude to the 2021 negotiations, and both have taken up arms in accordance with that knowledge. The players want to play as many games as possible, knowing that each game played means a larger prorated salary. The owners have, at every turn, sent offers to the players association which they must have known would be rejected out of hand, since they’ve been countermanding a decision made in cooperation with the union back in March. As the total number of games possible dwindles to something in the neighborhood of 50, a ridiculously low number, other possibilities are lying around. The recent draft was held at five rounds instead of forty, with bonuses for undrafted free agents capped at just $20,000. Expanded playoffs are a feature of the weird season, but it’s not difficult to imagine the owners pushing for a playoff system which is expanded to resemble something more like what the NBA has, which of course puts money in the owners’ pockets but which also makes the season basically meaningless and adds dead weight to the playoffs, when things ought to be more exciting. Before I started writing this I saw Bill Shaikin tweet that MLB wants to ensure that they will not be liable for any player contracting covid-19 during this season, which in my humble opinion oughtn’t to be played at all because, well, there’s still a pandemic on that we have no vaccine for. This all comes on the heels of free agency becoming a wasteland for players (especially those in the league’s middle class), teams baldly manipulating service time for young pre-arbitration players, rumors of contending teams dumping good players to cut payroll, and perhaps most amazing of all, the Mookie Betts trade. The Boston Red Sox traded the only player in baseball who has been better than Mike Trout for a season since Trout came up to the Los Angeles Dodgers, crying poor as they did it: they didn’t believe they could afford his next contract. (If a franchise as historic, popular, wealthy, and competitive as the Red Sox didn’t believe they could pay Betts market price, then I guess I don’t believe there’s any reason for them to exist.)

In my lifetime, my favorite team, the Philadelphia Phillies, had probably its most exciting and successful stretch in the franchise’s long and stupid history. Trout and Clayton Kershaw are the tip of the iceberg of the historically great players I’ve followed with so much interest and adoration. I’ve been around for the the broken curses of Boston and both Chicago franchises, Cal Ripken’s endurance streak, the home run bonanza of 1998, Barry Bonds’ gravitational displacement of the sport, and, in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, quite possibly the greatest game of baseball ever played. My lifetime has also included the strike of 1994, the steroid era (and much worse than the steroid era, the people who turned grandstanding about steroids into a grift I’m afraid the discourse will never recover from), the threat of contraction to two franchises (one of which just won the World Series), the stunning subtraction of African-American players from the game, the elitism of youth baseball that prevents sandlot stars from ever having a chance at the big leagues, the tampering of the ball by the league, and the sabermetric austerity which has eviscerated payouts for those middle-class vets while roiding up the Three True Outcomes. When I was a kid, I thought the DH coming to the National League would have been a disaster. Now I’m not even sure it makes my list. The bad, as far as I can tell, is primarily the fault of the league itself, of its commissioners Bud Selig and Rob Manfred, and of team owners who have, all their protestations to the contrary, found professional sports just another investment in the portfolio instead of finding teams as the public trusts they by right ought to be. One can ask why players didn’t clamp down the steroids themselves, and that’s not an unfair question; shouldn’t they have guessed what the public reaction would be? (One is more convinced by the suggestion, which many players and non-players alike have made, that not taking steroids was a competitive disadvantage that could cost someone not just a better paycheck but the job they presumably worked their whole lives to attain.) But one can also ask why MLB did not seriously test players for steroids until faith had been lost, and the answer, of course, is the summer of ’98. The owners have had their cake and ate it too. Their names are not on the Mitchell Report; no one with a column delineating his Hall of Fame vote in excruciating detail mentions the Steinbrenners as bad faith actors while he excoriates Roger Clemens for steroid use. I have loved baseball better than any other sport since I was old enough to know what sports were, but the conduct of the league and the owners who prop up their wet mop of a commissioner—the conduct of cheapskates at best and, well, major league team owners at worst—jeopardizes that more than anything else in my lifetime. This is one overreach too many for me. It makes me wonder if they will cut bait on baseball once they’ve killed the Major Leagues, the same way that ranchers slashing and burning the Amazon will never look back at the charred paradise they’ve used up. Again, I don’t think any sports leagues should be in the process of restarting (a position which puts me dangerously close to the opinion of Kyrie Irving, which I am real nervous about), but at this point I can’t even imagine wanting to watch whatever shambles of a game they put out for a couple months, nor will I much care about the results of the bastard playoffs they’ll have designed. The players care; this is their work, their livelihood, and for many of them I think it’s a joy, too. The fans care; even with football and basketball ahead of it in the popular pecking order, I can’t help but feel that no other game better speaks to the national myth than baseball, if not its spirit. The owners don’t care; they’ve already gotten paid, and they can’t imagine what else might matter.

As for the Oscars, the situation is less dire but pound-for-pound even more depressing. One expects baseball owners act like supervillains and petulant prepubescents in a single package, because they’ve been doing that since there were owners to start with (the Reserve Clause, the segregation of baseball, collusion, etc.). One is a little less sure about the Academy Awards, because it’s not really a labor conflict, and also because less than a week ago people were in general feeling pretty good about the Academy. The news that the Best Picture field would be expanded to ten as opposed to including up to ten movies was received pretty warmly by just about everyone (except for me, because I think they ought to go back to the five picture field, stat), and although I don’t think anyone really expects the inclusion rider for which require a certain percentage of diversity for any movie that wants to compete for the awards to pass, it’s the kind of thing that the organization would do if they were serious about remedying the worst of the #OscarsSoWhite era. Between those changes the emergency openness to movies debuting on streaming platforms, and the Parasite win (seriously, that was a little more than four months ago), I can’t remember the last time people were patting the Academy on its back this much. But the news which came out today is the kind of news which shows a different kind of overreach than what MLB is doing. Rather than overreaching for the sake of greater gains no matter how destructive the grasp will be, the Academy is overreaching because it seems to really believe in what the rest of us call Oscarbait. It’s not about creating change for themselves, but to deny change when it would be welcome to so many others.

A little before Rob Manfred’s already infamous quote about not being “100% sure” of a 2020 season came out, people had already put together their takes on the Oscars moving themselves back. The general consensus, as I understand it, is that moving the eligibility window is about maintaining the brand. At the rough halfway point of the movie year (a halfway point which we now will not cross for a little while yet based on this new change), a movie like Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a genuine indie hit by Eliza Hittman, or a movie like First Cow, Kelly Reichardt’s latest and most profitable entry to her oeuvre, might well have cracked the Best Picture field in the absence of other work. Hittman and Reichardt would have both been favorites to snag Best Director nominations, which would have made them just the sixth and seventh women ever to do so. (Clarence Brown and Frank Capra, two wonderful directors and essential figures in American movie history, both were nominated six times; there’s just no way you can look at movie history and suggest that Frank Capra deserved to be nominated for Best Director more than All Women.) A Best Picture field which had to rely more heavily on what has been released in theaters and VOD so far this year would just be very, very different than what would usually get nominated. Imagine if The French Dispatch, Tenet, West Side Story, and The Trial of the Chicago 7, say, all had to be pushed out of the eligibility window for this upcoming Oscars. No one has any clue how good or bad those movies are right now, but they make four movies by four white men who have already gotten at least some consideration from the Academy (Nolan stans have been chilling their white whine in the fridge for months waiting to complain about how Tenet will be robbed for Best Picture). Nor is it a lock that any of them would be nominated for Best Picture, let alone win it. But the people making podcasts and writing articles back in January and February seemed fairly confident that those four were contenders, and so let’s imagine that they’d make it in. Look at last year’s ceremony, when the four women of color who were snubbed for Best Actress would have made a more compelling field than the four white women who comprised the majority of the nominees, when Greta Gerwig was passed over for Best Director to make sure the immortal Todd Phillips got a slot. Cut those four out of the field (or four other similar releases made by white men if you like, I’m not prejudiced about movies I’ve got no conception of), and all of a sudden the categories start to breathe a little more. I didn’t get a chance to see First Cow before covid-19 closed the theaters, but would it really be so bad if that managed to rack up a few nominations it wouldn’t otherwise have gotten? Same with Never Rarely Sometimes Always, or Emma. Would it shake the Academy Awards to the core?

The answer, apparently, is yes. It’s clear from the Academy’s actions that they like the way things are now. They want that particular kind of “Oscar movie” front and center. I don’t have to go over for the millionth time what it is, because you’ve been making fun of it since you were fourteen years old. If the Academy had any sense of what movies were good, then maybe they would have a leg to stand on, but not only do they fail to nominate good movies, they find a way to reward some of the worst stuff. In the past ten years, these people really gave Best Picture to movies like historically bad tripe like The Artist, sophomoric historical dramas like The King’s Speech, Argo, and Green Book, and flashy fluff like Birdman and The Shape of Water. And that’s just for the movie they think is best, to say nothing of the downballot stuff that has been some combination of inept, sexist, racist, and silly on the regular. I don’t love the Oscars like I love baseball, but they are for better or worse the shortcut that people take to good movies, the first step that a lot of Americans (including me) have used in a traipse through movie history. As much as I would like to believe they don’t matter, they really do. The statement the Academy made today was a statement about maintaining a status quo. It was about making sure that nothing which might really challenge the hegemony of the kind of toothless movies they tend to reward could crack the veneer of respectability they so prize. As much as people mourned the DOA Best Picture campaigns of The Dark Knight and Uncut Gems, just to name two, there’s nothing about them which feels particularly non-Oscar. Isn’t the history of the Oscars giving out awards for blockbuster pap for teenagers with no redeeming intellectual value, like they did for Titanic? Isn’t the history of the Oscars giving out awards for gritty New York drama, like they did for Midnight Cowboy? What the Oscars have not done is given out the heaviest statuette for a movie like Never Rarely Sometimes Always or Emma, which is to say movies by women about women. What the Oscars have not done, even as they have turned to stories of African-American misery for the big prize, is given Best Director to a black person, as seems more unlikely now that Spike Lee will have even more competition for Best Director. It’s not all that much more time, two months, but it is absolutely the kind of thing you do when you want to give every second you can to allow some movie in the mold you’re already familiar with to “earn” its way into the field.

Rob Manfred is overreaching to make sure that no one will ever have to pay Francisco Lindor anything close to what the market says he’s worth. John Bailey is overreaching to make sure that in twenty years, no one will look back on Wikipedia and say, “Gosh, why didn’t the Academy give Oscars to movies like Never Rarely Sometimes Always regularly?” All of it is in pursuit of power, and what’s especially vexing about it is that what people are asking for isn’t even that much power in return. The MLBPA already agreed to a luxury tax, which is a de facto salary cap. The MLBPA has already abandoned minor leaguers. The Academy could have just kept its eligibility window open until the end of the year, and it wouldn’t have hurt anything. Even if Tenet or No Time to Die never come to theaters this year, there is, to borrow a phrase from baseball, always next year. I haven’t heard Greta Gerwig or Barry Jenkins say that they’re boycotting the Academy Awards in protest, or promising to refuse any award they might be given. What these big organizations are doing matters little when people are in the streets for cause, when more Americans have been killed by this virus which we had time to prepare for than were killed by World War I. But they are microcosmic. What they are doing is representative of what other powerful people are doing, and all of it is odious enough that it cannot be forgotten. I am increasingly afraid too that we won’t be able to forgive, either. Don’t they know how history remembers Robespierre?

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