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Back in the day, people used to ask Frank Deford who he thought was the greatest boxer. Nowadays, nobody even asks about boxing. (Getty Images)

Sports Reporting: The Way It Was... And Is

Apr 23, 2014

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Frank Deford

When I was a young, cocksure lad in this business, one thing I hated was for anyone in the Old Guard to preface an observation about sports by saying, "it used to be..."

Invariably, the point was that it used to be better.

I promised myself that I'd never become a "used-to-be" guy. But, for the benefit of today's young, cocksure lads in the business, here I go:

It used to be that people always asked me if athletes weren't making too much money. Nobody ever asks me that anymore. The only money issue I hear now is, "Why aren't college athletes paid?"

It used to be that people always complained to me about how television was taking over sports, with TV timeouts and different starting times. All they complain about now is when they can't get a game they want to see on TV.

It used to be that people asked me how many games were really fixed, because they'd heard it was lots. As if I knew. Instead people ask me how many athletes are doping, because they heard, for sure, that its lots more.

It used to be that people would ask me why Americans didn't like soccer. Now people ask me why the American media won't give soccer its proper due.

It used to be people wanted to know if athletes actually cheated on their wives that much on the road. Nobody ever asks me that anymore. Instead, they ask me if I think sports contribute to misogyny, because so many athletes are involved in brutal sexual assaults on women.

It used to be people always asked me who I thought the greatest boxer was, as if I knew. They stopped asking that, and then it used to be they'd ask me if boxing was ever going to come back. Now, nobody ever asks me anything about boxing.

It used to be that people would tell me all the time how sports build character. Now that athletes are regularly arrested for violent crimes, and that so many college athletes are participating in a giant fraud that the academic community supports, people don't tell me that anymore. Instead, they ask me, dubiously, "Do you really think sports build character?"

It used to be that people would always ask me who I thought was going to win the game. As if I knew. Now people always ask me who I think is going to win the game. As if I know.

Well, some things never change.

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Protesters play chess in Independence Square in Kiev last winter. Some would say that Russian President Putin is playing geopolitical chess when it comes to Ukraine. (AP)

Putin's Chess Moves In Ukraine: Brilliant Tactics, But Bad Strategy?

Apr 23, 2014

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Chris Arnold

The game of chess is a national pastime in Russia. And you might say that Vladimir Putin is playing a high-stakes game of geopolitical chess when it comes to Ukraine.

Western leaders are plotting how to counter Putin's latest moves with economic sanctions. So to get some insight into what might come next, we talked to an economist who knows Russia — who is also extremely good at chess.

Putin Playing From A Weak Position

Kenneth Rogoff is a world-renowned economist and professor at Harvard. He was also recognized as a chess prodigy when he was a teenager and became a chess grandmaster when he was 25.

Back in his chess-playing days — and later as an economist — Rogoff made friends across Russia and Ukraine — including Gary Kasparov, the former world chess champion who also ran against Vladimir Putin for president.

"Putin is playing from a very weak position," says Rogoff of Putin's game plan. "But he's very good at it. That doesn't mean he's not going to win. A really strong chess player doesn't need a good position to win."

Putin's position is weak because Russia's economy is weak, Rogoff says: It's too dependent on oil exports, which aren't supporting a decent standard of living for most of the country. Corruption is rampant, and most industries are not competitive with the rest of the world.

Most Russians live in near poverty by U.S. or European standards.

Russia has a large military, but an actual war with the West is extremely unlikely.

"It's going to be an economic war, [as] far as we're willing to push it," says Rogoff of this contest.

Putin's Style Of Play — Good Tactics, Bad Strategy?

In chess, you also want to know your opponent's style of play. So, what kind of player is Putin?

Chess players draw a distinction between strategy and tactics, Rogoff says.

Strategy is "where you're really looking far down the road: If I take the Ukraine, what does that really do for me? Does that make me better off?" he explains.

Tactics, on the other hand, "are very short-term ways to gain pieces and positions," he says. "He's a master of the tactics. He sort of sees a few moves ahead and he's very good at it. But what is the long term strategy? It's really hard to see."

So far Putin's move to grab Crimea has helped and hurt him. It helped by making him more popular at home in the short-term, the former grand master says.

But longer term, taking Crimea is probably hurting, he says. Nervous investors are pulling tens of billions of dollars out of Russia. Russia now has to support Crimea, and it is a poor region. The West is imposing economic sanctions, and if they haven't been tough so far, they may get tougher.

That leads Rogoff to think that Putin has not carved out a long-term strategy.

"I just don't see it," he says. "This definitely seems like they're flailing out, looking to try to grab some pieces, grab some territory, without thinking what they're going to do with it."

Putin's End Game: Russian Pride

So what is the ultimate goal behind his moves? Rogoff says, "I think there's no question the end game for him, what he's looking for, is pride."

Rogoff thinks Putin is most interested in returning some greatness to Russia. He says, "I understand he has portraits of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great in his office and I suppose he would like to have [himself] thought of in those terms — of restoring greatness to Russia."

If Putin's weakness is the economy and his end-game is pride, Rogoff suggests the West should show Putin an opening, something bigger than a few pieces in Ukraine

"The best thing for us is if Russia starts doing well and feel that they're benefiting from the world order," he says.

So what moves should the West make to push Russia in that direction? Rogoff says world leaders are still trying to figure that out.

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The theater troupe is kicking off its Hamlet tour with three performances at Shakespeare's Globe Theater in London. (AP)

As Shakespeare Turns 450, 'Hamlet' Tour Makes The World A Stage

Apr 23, 2014

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No one knows the exact date of William Shakespeare's birth, but devotees have adopted April 23 as the day to celebrate — and this year, the man from Stratford turns 450.

Shakespeare's Globe Theater — a recreation of the theater that hosted most of his plays — is marking the occasion with an ambitious world tour of Hamlet, the Bard's most iconic play, which the troupe plans to perform in every country in the world. Shakespeare's Globe Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole tells NPR's Renee Montagne that the tour is a bold, stupid idea.

"And the great thing about bold and stupid ideas," he says, "is that people understand them very swiftly. So when we go out to people around the world and say, very simply, 'We are taking Hamlet to every country in the world,' they immediately get the fun of it and the ambition of it."


Interview Highlights

On thinking of Hamlet as a genius, rather than a tortured soul

One of the most revealing things I ever saw about it was there's a wonderful bit of old television with Peter O'Toole and Orson Welles drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes and sort of arguing and being naughty and childish talking about Hamlet. And it's brilliant, but Orson Welles says something that I think is massively telling, which is: The important thing to remember about Hamlet is he's a genius.

Lear is an old dictator; Othello is a Moor in a white man's world. They all have those particular facets. Hamlet is just this sort of crazy genius of language and thought. And you have to play that energy and you have to understand very clearly who Hamlet was before the roof fell in on his head - before his father died and his uncle married his mother. And everything we know about him before that from his friends and his lover, Ophelia, is he was rather brilliant and spirited and beautiful.

And so, often in contemporary versions of Hamlet, he's so tortured and angsty and pained that — as well as being profoundly irritated by him for the whole evening because he's just so self-indulgent in his own grief — I think that skews the play away from itself. I don't think the play is meant to be about somebody who is in love with his own pain.

On punching up the play's physicality for non-English speakers

We're very aware of what Shakespeare wrote for and why Shakespeare wrote. And you have to be aware that these plays, especially Hamlet, were touring 400 years ago to countries that didn't speak English. Hamlet was played in a boat off the coast of Yemen in 1608. The company also toured it through what's now Holland, northern Germany, all the way to Poland. And so when they played it there they did a shortened version; they did a version with an emphasis on physicality; they did a slightly coarser, cruder, bolder version in sort of primary colors. We're not going that coarse or crude, but we certainly are aware that these plays were written to tour as well as to play for the globe. And so, you know, we want to reflect some of that spirit.

On the touring set's adaptability

We're going to be very free and open. The set is basically the suitcases that the whole thing travels around in, so it spills out of its own suitcases. And we're going to be playing in some very prestigious national theaters in some countries, but we're also going to be playing on beaches on Pacific islands. The idea is that it's infinitely adaptable to wherever we want to put it up.

On taking the tour to politically unstable countries

We monitor as many different situations as we can very closely. I think that when we get into [the] Central African Republic, we're probably going to be working very closely with NGOs and with organizations that are there working in refugee camps, and that might be our best way ... of getting in there and putting the play in that sort of environment.

We're going to Kiev and we're playing there the night before their elections, in about four or five weeks' time, and we're hugely looking forward to that, you know, we're excited. That's the sort of place where theater matters and is important.

On what makes Hamlet universally relatable

Hamlet says that time is out of joint. Hamlet is restless, dissatisfied, out of place in his own world. His sensibility is different from the world around him. And he's become an iconic figure for anyone who feels that they are out of place in their own world. You know, in England it still speaks to people who are restless and dissatisfied with the world they're in and hopefully it will speak in the same way to people anywhere.

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A Google data center in Oklahoma is shown. Google recently slashed prices for its cloud services; Amazon responded by cutting its cloud prices. (AP)

The Price War Over The Cloud Has High Stakes For The Internet

Apr 23, 2014

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"We delivered computing power as if it was a utility," says Matt Wood, Amazon Web Services' chief data scientist. Amazon Web Services is the reigning king of large-scale cloud providers, but it has some serious competition from Google and Microsoft. Google Cloud Platform manager Greg DeMichillie says cheaper costs make the cloud more accessible.

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This week, our tech reporting team is exploring cloud computing — the big business of providing computing power and data storage that companies need, but which happens out of sight, as if it's "in the cloud."

It's a timely topic, since there's a price war going on as tech titans aim to control the cloud market. Amazon Web Services, an arm of the e-commerce giant, is the reigning king of large-scale cloud services. If you've ever watched streaming TV on Netflix, clicked on a Pinterest pin, or listened to music on Spotify, you've used Amazon Web Services, or AWS.

"We delivered computing power as if it was a utility," says Matt Wood, Amazon Web Services' chief data scientist.

A decade ago, startups and other Internet companies had to set up their own data centers and computing backbones, which meant a serious capital investment up front and fairly fixed computing resources.

Now, cloud platforms like Amazon Web Services or its competitors — Google Cloud Platform or Microsoft Azure — provide that infrastructure by letting companies rent it out at a low cost. Think of it as the difference between generating your own power at home or just getting electricity from a grid.

"They can draw down exactly the right amount of energy that they need, whether it's to light a light or run a fridge," Wood says. "And they only pay for that electricity as and when they use it, and they pay for it for as much or as little as they need, as they're using it. So we offer computational resources in exactly the same way."

The effect for you is that new services, apps and startup companies — Airbnb is another AWS client — can spin up quickly, without much cost. And those companies can adjust to your needs faster.

"And that nimbleness that startups are so famous for is just as valuable inside large organizations," Wood says.

The eight-year-old Amazon Web Services was a pioneer in offering pay-as-you-go computing. And it makes big money — an estimated $3.8 billion in revenue last year. Its head start means AWS has had a near monopoly on large-scale cloud computing — a 2013 Gartner report estimates AWS controls five times the computing power of the next 14 cloud providers, combined. But now, competition is growing fierce.

"There will not be just one company that's the cloud provider," says Google Cloud Platform manager Greg DeMichillie. "There will be several."

Google recently slashed prices for its cloud services by 80 percent, starting a price war that the companies find themselves in now.

"We're going to continue to be very aggressive on that," DeMichillie says.

Amazon, Google, Microsoft and others are competing to dominate the cloud. The winner or winners will have a lot of control over the Internet. Their choices affect issues like data privacy, and as virtual landlords, their terms and prices could control who gets to build what on the Internet, and for how much.

"Snapchat didn't exist three years ago," DeMichillie points out. "You can go down your list of apps you probably have on your Android phone or your iPhone. Those exist because cloud platforms allow two developers with an idea to launch a service."

Gartner analyst David Smith says the price war is more about money than innovation.

"So if you have people on a 99-year lease type thing, going back to your landlord analogy, once you're there, it's difficult for them to move. That's the control point," Smith says.

For now, this competition means much cheaper bills for Internet businesses.

"That's good for consumers, it's good for developers, it makes cloud accessible to even more developers who have more financial constraints. So we just think it's a good thing for everybody," DeMichillie says.

Prices have fallen so fast that Amazon doesn't rule out the possibility that prices for its services could wind up at or close to zero.

"Yeah, I mean, where we can achieve better economies of scale, we'll continue to pass on those savings onto our customers," Wood says.

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Workers shrink wrap products at the Sertoma Centre located just outside of Chicago. (Courtesy of Sertoma Centre)

Subminimum Wages For The Disabled: Godsend Or Exploitation?

Apr 23, 2014

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Matthew McMeekin, 35, returns home from Rehabilitation Opportunities Inc., a nonprofit sheltered workshop where he and other disabled workers stuff envelopes, collate files or shrink-wrap products -- all for less than Maryland's minimum hourly wage of $8.25. Amazon Web Services is the reigning king of large-scale cloud providers, but it has some serious competition from Google and Microsoft. Google Cloud Platform manager Greg DeMichillie says cheaper costs make the cloud more accessible.

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The president recently signed an executive order raising the minimum hourly wage to $10.10 for workers employed by federal contractors — including those with disabilities.

That's a victory for disabled workers who can make just pennies per hour at so-called sheltered workplaces.

While some call sheltered workshops a godsend, others say they are examples of good intentions gone wrong.

Sertoma Centre, located in Chicago's south suburbs, is one such organization. It provides employment opportunities to about 250 people with disabilities through subcontracting jobs such as packaging bottles for microbreweries.

Pay at the Sertoma Centre and other sheltered workshops is regulated by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, a law originally intended to encourage the hiring of veterans with disabilities. It allows companies — including some federal contractors — to pay subminimum wages, based on how productive a person with disabilities is compared to a non-disabled worker doing the same task.

At Sertoma, workers might earn anywhere from 25 cents to Illinois' minimum wage of $8.25 per hour.

But the concept has increasingly come under fire by disability advocacy groups. They say the workshops reinforce a life of poverty, leaving thousands isolated and exploited by their employers.

Curtis Decker, who heads the National Disability Rights Network, says that sheltered workshops were originally a good idea, a place where people "could get trained, be protected and learn some skills."

But, he says, the concept is way out of date.

"Forty or fifty years later, we have... people in these segregated workshops not moving out, not getting into competitive employment and making well below the minimum wage," he says.

With the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, there's been more emphasis on placing the disabled in the mainstream labor market. Decker and others are calling for an end to sheltered employment.

They have the support of the Justice Department. Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels recently announced a settlement with Rhode Island calling for the state to provide typical minimum wage jobs for disabled workers in their communities, and to phase out many sheltered workshops.

"It is the promise of the American with Disabilities Act to open the doors of the American workplace to people with disabilities and to abolish the low expectations that have kept people with disabilities shut out of their communities for decades," Samuels says.

Gus van den Brink says the Sertoma Centre and other agencies do work to find jobs for the disabled in the community, but the focus should not be on shutting down all sheltered workshops. He says it would be nearly impossible for some people with severe intellectual disabilities to get a job at all. It's sheltered workshops, he says, that give them a chance to work and earn a paycheck.

"Some of the individuals may not even completely understand what the value of that paycheck is," van den Brink says. "But they know they are receiving a paycheck so they are getting a lot of self-esteem. They are very proud of it."

Even so, Assistant Attorney General Samuels says the Justice Department will work with other states to make sure some workers with disabilities have the opportunity to do their work, as she puts it, at "real jobs for real wages."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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