Thoughts on watching the Olympics

The Sochi Olympics are over, and we watched them all, every night.  Which is to say, we hardly watched the Olympics at all.  What we watched instead was NBC’s nightly highlights show.  That is to day, we watched a slick, professional, well produced television program every night, hosted by Bob Costas and (thanks to his pinkeye) a few other hosts.  We watched those sports NBC deemed particularly interesting to US audiences, which is to say, sports that Americans are particularly good at, or sports where the outcomes supported a particularly uplifting/tragic narrative.

And I loved it.  That’s all I wanted to watch anyway. I wanted neat story-lines, I wanted well crafted television.  I wanted exciting finishes, or particularly lovely visuals.  In short, I wanted to skip all the boring bits.

I say it’s all I could have watched, but that isn’t true.  I was gone every night, up in Salt Lake directing a play, but my wife and I had weekends, we found enough time to watch the stuff we wanted to watch.  And I could have watched the daytime coverage (much of it in real time) on MSNBC and CNBC and the internet.  I didn’t; not at all.  Not even the hockey, a sport I basically only follow once every four years.  Or curling, a sport I adore, but have no idea how it’s even scored.  I was happy enough with Bad Eye Bob, and his nightly highlights show.

It’s true that there were way too many commercials, and that they intruded on the action, but we just fast-forwarded those moments. And they had all those up-close-and-personal athlete profile bits, in which we saw or heard how all the adversity the competitors had overcome.  Skipped all those too.  I’m an American, gosh-darn it.  I have a short attention span.  I generally was able to watch a nightly three hour broadcast in a little over an hour, by skipping all the boring parts and going straight to the coolest parts.

And what were the coolest parts?  Well, my wife and I both love the ice skating. I love the fact that it straddles the line between an athletic competition and an art form.  I like that; I’m a theatre guy, and what I like most is the artistry of it.  I’m also not any sort of expert in it.  So what I tend to overvalue is the artistic elements of the programs–the stories the programs tell, the attitude they express.  So, case in point, we were riveted by the ladies’ skating.  The Russian skater, Adelina Sotnikova, and the South Korean, Yuna Kim, were both exquisite, and I thought both deserved gold, and was happy enough when Sotnikova won it, with Kim taking silver. But bronze? The Italian skater, Carolina Kostner, who won bronze, struck me as peculiarly unartistic, especially her short program, skated to “Ave Maria,” with a heavenly chorus and a pious look to the heavens at the end.  I found Kostner an unattractive performer, but could see that she was a marvelous athlete, and that her program was very difficult.  Gracie Gold, the American girl who finished fourth, had a nasty fall in her free skate, as did Yulina Lipnitskaya, who finished fifth.  But I adored the feisty, sassy American Ashley Wagner, and the impish Japanese girl, Akiko Suzuki.  I also tend to want to disqualify skaters who fall, or who, in my wife’s phrase, ‘exercise the element known as the spinning butt slide.’  So I had Wagner with the bronze, on my personal, completely inexpert and ill-informed score card.  And now I fully intend to go back to ignoring ice skating as a sport until 2018.

As I will other sports that I kind of fell in love with this Olympics.  Like slopestyle, both in skiing and snowboarding.  It’s a nutty sport, combining jumps, spins, twists, plus a sort of obstacle course.  Like many sports at the Olympics, it looked like a sport for crazy people, but the kids who did it sure looked like they were having fun. All the snowboarding events looked fun, and I was delighted with the raffishly dressed, apple cheeked insouciance of the kids who performed.  They all seemed as delighted by their competitors’ good runs as with their own, and when they biffed (and all snowboard sports included biffs aplenty), they’d shrug it off: “ah, well.”

I’m just sadistic enough to prefer sports where the athletes fall, or even crash into each other, over sports where they’re essentially racing against a clock.  I loved snowboard and skiing cross, for example, in which groups of four or five skiers or snowboarders race down a hill with lots of jumps, and as they struggle for position, often knock each other off the course.  I much prefer short track speed skating over long track.  Long track’s a bore–they just skate really fast, and without checking out the scoreboard, you have no idea who is fastest.  Short track, though, had sharp elbows, fabulous passes, skaters leading into turns inches from other skaters.  It’s wonderfully exciting and fun.  Best of all, the short track relays, in which you ‘pass the baton’ (so to speak), by giving the next skater on your team a shove on the butt.

As a Norwegian/American, I should probably say something about Ole Einer Bjoerndalen, the greatest winter Olympian ever.  And I understand how difficult his sport must be–cross country skiing, combined with target shooting.  But to me, it’s a sport more respected than enjoyed.  I’ll grant that what Bjoerndalen does is incredibly difficult, and if we ever fight a guerrilla war in a Nordic country, I totally want that dude on my side.  At the same time, I don’t understand it well enough to really get into it.  I found myself fast-forwarding to the target shooting bits.  Sorry, fellow Norwegians; I’m a shallow American after all.

Before the Olympics, the stories were all about inadequate or incomplete facilities.  Those ended up not mattering.  It was a wonderful two weeks, watching marvelous athletes from all over the world ski and skate. It’s really humanity at its best, human beings celebrating the extraordinary capabilities of their fellow human beings. One American figure skater is 15 years old, and is now the seventh best in the world at her event. Can you imagine that, being 15 and seventh best in the whole world at something?  Amazing and lovely.  As NBC kept reminding us.

Seeing the other side

I like sports.  I like pop culture.  I also like blogging, and blogging culture. And that helps explain why I’m a big fan of The Sports Guy, Bill Simmons.  I’ve read his column for years, on ESPN.com, and now, on Grantland.com.

Which is why a recent Grantland column, casually and unreflectively outing a transgender woman, was so painful.  Clearly it hurt the woman in question, and may have contributed to her suicide. A writer I admire was complicit in an action that has to be regarded as contemptible.  And he knows it.

Simmons’ approach from the beginning has been what the Brits call ‘laddish.’  He’s a guy who likes sports, and for years he wrote from that outsiders’ perspective; not the perspective of a sports writer with locker room access and friendships in the industry, but the perspective of a fan, a guy in the stands. In recent years, he’s become more of an insider.  He’s on TV now, with his best buddy Jalen Rose and with Magic and Shaq–he knows famous people.  It hasn’t really changed him much, I don’t think. His voice has always been that of a barely-grown-up adolescent: casually sexist, juvenile, self-mocking, and really really funny. Every few weeks, he has a ‘mailbag’ column, in which he interacts with his readers–it’s jokey and crude and can be hilarious. Amidst the yucks and the ‘tournaments’ and the endless pop culture references was some really solid analysis, especially of basketball, the sport Simmons knows the best and writes about the most insightfully.  His Book of Basketball is a terrific history of the NBA, a solid book, but marred with dick jokes and movie references and all sorts of guy humor.

A couple of years ago, he started the Grantland website.  The idea was to find really good bloggers on sports and pop culture, and provide them with a forum.  And a paycheck–he wanted to pay good writers to write.  Simmons would serve as editor-in-chief, but he’d treat the website like a good magazine, with standards and integrity, a home for good writing, a fun site to visit.  I like it. I check it out a couple of times a week, especially on Fridays, when Simmons own column usually appears.

So last Wednesday, Grantland posted this story by a writer named Caleb Hannan, about an inventor named Essay Anne Vanderbilt, or ‘Dr. V,’ who had invented a magical putter. That is to say, the truest, finest putter ever seen on a golf course.  Hannan became as interested in ‘Dr. V’ as he was in her putter.  His phone interviews with her were bizarre, as were her stipulations regarding those interviews.  He bought one of her putters, and it worked as well as advertised.  He kept digging.  And he learned that ‘Dr. V’ had once been a man named Stephen Krol, that she had not received a degree from MIT as she claimed, but, as Krol, had worked as a mechanic.

Hannan’s phone conversations with Dr. V became increasingly worrisome.  At one point, she said that if he published his article, it would be tantamount to committing a hate crime. In one final, email, suicide note, Dr. V wrote this:

“To whom this may concern, I spoke with Caleb Hannan last Saturday his deportment is reminiscent to schoolyard bullies, his sole intention is to injure or bring harm to me … Because of a computer glitch, some documents that are germane only to me, were visible to web-viewers, government officials have now rectified this egregious condition … Caleb Hannan came into possession of documents that were clearly marked: MADE NON-PUBLIC (Restricted) … Exposing NON-PUBLIC Documents is a Crime, and prosecution of such are under the auspices of many State and Federal Laws, including Hate Crimes Legislation signed into Law by President Obama.”

And, on October 13 2013, Dr. V. committed suicide.

Last Wednesday, Grantland went ahead and ran Hannan’s story about Dr. V and the magical putter.  On Monday, Bill Simmons wrote this column.  It’s a remarkable mea culpa.  He carefully describes the Grantland editorial process, and then admits that the final decision to publish was his.

Here’s the gist of his apology:

To my infinite regret, we never asked anyone knowledgeable enough about transgender issues to help us either (a) improve the piece, or (b) realize that we shouldn’t run it. That’s our mistake — and really, my mistake, since it’s my site. So I want to apologize. I failed.

More importantly, I realized over the weekend that I didn’t know nearly enough about the transgender community – and neither does my staff. I read Caleb’s piece a certain way because of my own experiences in life. That’s not an acceptable excuse; it’s just what happened. And it’s what happened to Caleb, and everyone on my staff, and everyone who read/praised/shared that piece during that 56-hour stretch from Wednesday to Friday.

So for anyone asking the question “How could you guys run that?,” please know that we zoomed through the same cycle of emotions that so many of our readers did. We just didn’t see the other side. We weren’t sophisticated enough. In the future, we will be sophisticated enough — at least on this particular topic. We’re never taking the Dr. V piece down from Grantland partly because we want people to learn from our experience. We weren’t educated, we failed to ask the right questions, we made mistakes, and we’re going to learn from them.

Probably the most prominent trans-gender sports writer currently working in the field is Christina Kahrl.  She’s a founding editor for Baseball Prospectus, a site that provides the most in-depth and thoughtful baseball analysis found anywhere.  I say that unequivocally; BP is the best.  Of all the BP writers, I liked her work the best; a lot of BP writers are stat nerds who don’t write very well–she’s a stat nerd who writes brilliantly. So Bill Simmons contacted Kahrl, and asked her, basically, to tell everyone what he’d done wrong.  Here’s her piece on the issue.  Here’s her conclusion:

I’m also angry because of the more fundamental problem that this story perpetuates. We’re talking about a piece aimed at golf readers. So we’re talking about a mostly white, mostly older, mostly male audience that wound up reading a story that reinforced several negative stereotypes about trans people. For an audience that doesn’t usually know and may never know anyone who’s trans and may get few opportunities to ever learn any differently, that’s confirmation bias of the worst sort. I may not have made you care about people like CeCe McDonald or Islan Nettles or even Essay Anne Vanderbilt here, but better to fail in the attempt than to reinforce ignorance and contempt bred through the thoughtless trivialization of their lives and challenges.

Obviously, Hannan went into the story with the best of intentions, and Simmons published it without meaning to do harm. The tone of Simmons’ letter from the editor shows he chastened he feels by the entire incident.  I’m sure Hannan feels even worse about it.  But damage was done, and done without consideration or even the most basic human kindness.  Christina Kahrl is right to be furious, and Bill Simmons was right to give her anger a prominent forum on his website.

But we all do this at times; write in ignorance, repent at leisure.  I didn’t know much about transgender issues until I saw Matthew Ivan Bennet’s extraordinary play, Eric(a), on the subject.  I was so grateful to Matt for opening my eyes on this important subject.  I can be a laddish boor at times.  I want to do better.  I hope that this whole sad affair can help all of us feel more compassion and kindness and love and acceptance to all our transgender brothers and sisters. I would hate to think that Dr. V’s sad death doesn’t accomplish anything, that we can’t learn from it, and grow.  That’s why we’re here, after all.

 

Getting worse to get better

Ever since we moved to Utah over twenty years ago, I have been a fan of the Utah Jazz basketball team.  (I’m from Indiana–I’ve been a basketball fan since I could walk.  Something about Hoosier drinking water).  This year, for the first time in that history, the Jazz are terrible.  They’re probably the worst team in the entire NBA.  They won last night, beating the also-terrible New Orleans Pelicans, having lost their eight previous games.  (Did you hear that New Orleans is marketing team underwear?  Yep, the Pelican briefs.  Rimshot).  Anyway, the Jazz are awful.  And I couldn’t be more delighted.  I don’t care if we lose every game.  I know what they’re doing, and I fully approve.

Sometimes you have to get worse in order to get better.  It’s even a principle of Mormonism–the way repentance may require excommunication before you can begin getting your act back together.  This happens all the time in other aspects of life. Suppose you’re working at a job you hate. Don’t you get training for a better job? This happened to my son.  He graduated from college, got a good paying job as a stock broker.  Hated it.  Hated everything about it.  So he decided to switch careers, went to grad school.  He loves his field, and loves his new life.  His income took a big hit, but only temporarily–he’s now getting a first-class education that will prepare him for a career he loves.  Took a step back, in order to take a big step forward.  I have a son-in-law; terrific guy, works as a truck driver.  He decided to buy his own truck, essentially go into business for himself.  Short-term, of course, he’s going to have to pay for the truck.  But long-term, his financial outlook is vastly improved.  Small step back; big step forward.

That’s what the Jazz are doing.  Boy are they going to be awful this season. They’re an odd team; a mix of over-the-hill veterans and raw, talented young guys who haven’t quite figured out how to win in the NBA.  But help is most decidedly on the way.

Here’s what they’re doing: basketball is a game played with five on a side.  If you replace a weak player with a star, you can improve your team by a tremendous amount immediately.  For example, the 1968 Milwaukee Bucks were a terrible basketball team.  They won 27 games, lost 55.  Their best player was probably Jon McGlocklin (from Indiana!)  Jon McGlocklin was a pretty good shooter, but that’s all.  If he’s your best player, well, you’re going to go 27-55. 
But by going 27-55, they got the first pick in the 1969 NBA draft.  And with that draft pick, they drafted a tall skinny kid from New York by way of UCLA, a guy just in the process of converting to Islam, which meant changing his name from Lew Alcindor to Kareem Abdul Jabbar.  Greatest low post scorer in the history of basketball, plus a tremendous shot blocker and rebounder, back then.  Same coach, all the other players stayed the same.  Jon McGlocklin went from their best player, to their second best player.  They went 56-26.  They went from a terrible team to a very good one. Next season, they traded for Oscar Robertson, one of the best point guards in the history of basketball (the Magic Johnson of his era; also from Indiana).  Jon McGlocklin went from their second best player to their third best.  (They also added a rookie forward named Bobby Dandridge, terrific defensive forward).  They won the NBA championship. 
You take an awful team, add a superstar, and become an excellent team.  Add another superstar, and you win a championship.  That’s how basketball works.  That’s what happened with the Boston Celtics, when they added Larry Bird.  Cornbread Maxwell went from their best player to their second best player.  And the team improved from 29-55 to 61-21. (Larry Bird, allow me to note, is from Indiana).  ‘
Right now, the Utah Jazz’ best player is Gordon Hayward.  He’s a fine player, can play guard or small forward, an excellent shooter and passer, very good defensive player, from Indiana.  So, you know, quality guy.  (Also, I’m reliably assured by my youngest daughter, a hottie).  But Hayward is really miscast as a star. 
But if we’re bad enough, we’re going to get a star.  Oh my heck, are we getting a star. 
Talent flow into the NBA tends to be cyclical.  Some years, the best college players are frankly not superstar quality.  Last year, the number one pick in the draft was a guy named Michael Bennett. (They should have drafted Victor Oladipo instead.  Best player on the Indiana team–obvious first pick). Right now, Bennett looks like a bust.  Looks a little over-matched out there.  There were some good players in last year’s draft, but no stars.  It was generally seen as a mediocre draft.  Happens.  
Monday night, ESPN showed two college basketball games, involving, obviously, four teams.  On three of those teams, the best player (by far the best player), was a college freshman.  Kentucky, for example, has this guy, Julius Randle.  Boy did he not look like a college freshman. Huge, incredibly athletic, insanely skilled.  Kentucky trailed badly at the end of the first half, and in the second half, Randle clearly just decided, ‘all right, enough’s enough.’  Just took over the game.  Unguardable.  You watch him play and you just know–barring injuries, he’s going to be a star. 
And he wasn’t the best player out there.  Duke was up next, and we got to say Jabari Parker play.  Jabari’s from Chicago, a town that, for basketball purposes, is essentially an Indiana suburb.  He’s also active LDS, a straight-A student, a first-class guy from a strong-supportive family.  Monday–well, there’s dominating, and then there’s dominating.  In his second game as a college player, he scored basically anytime he wanted to, grabbed 9 rebounds, made 3 steals, passed for a bunch of assists, guarded the other team’s best scorer and shut him down.  Afterwards, he was mad at himself–said he would give himself a C-minus.  Because his team lost.  To Kansas.
Kansas has a guard, Andrew Wiggins (and why he hasn’t been given the nickname ‘Ender’ I have no idea).  He made some stupid fouls in the first half, looked a little intimidated, didn’t show much.  Went out in the second half, and exploded–27 points, in barely half a game.  Led his team to victory.  And showed off an athleticism that even Randle and Parker, great as they are, couldn’t quite match. 
Those three guys are going to be the first three players picked in next year’s NBA draft, assuming they all decide it’s time to play in the NBA.  (Which they probably will, except possibly Parker, who wants a college degree).  One two three.  Randle, Parker, Wiggins.  Or Wiggins first.  Or Parker. And they’re going to be superb.  Five years from now, LaBron James will be contemplating retirement, and people will be arguing about who the greatest player in the world is, and it’s going to be one of those three guys.  
And if the Jazz continue to be terrible, one of those guys will be a member of the Utah Jazz, I think, and Gordon Hayward will be the second best player on the team.  I look at the Jazz, and I see a very talented forward, Derrick Favors, excellent rebounder and defender, who gets out of position too much, because he’s very young.  I see a capable big guy, a center, Enes Kanter, from Turkey.  Good athlete, can rebound and shoot, doesn’t really know what he’s doing out there.  I see a huge kid, Rudy Gobert, very tall, long arms, French–doesn’t really know how to play basketball.  Fabulous potential, though. That’s the whole team.  Talented, inexperienced.  Potentially potent.  Add Jabari Parker, and . . . wow.  (And an LDS kid?  In Utah?  Double wow). 
The Jazz stink right now.  I hope it continues.  Step back, so you can step forward. 

 

 

It’s over . . . for now

So, okay, last Tuesday night, the US national men’s soccer team was playing Panama’s national team.  In Panama.  It was a World Cup qualifying game, but meant nothing to the US team–we’ve already qualified for the World Cup, first in our group.  But this game still needed to be played, and was important; if Panama won, and Mexico lost, Panama would qualify for the World Cup.  If the US won, however, Mexico would qualify. Mexico was playing at Costa Rica, and could also qualify just by winning.  But late in the evening, the US was behind Panama 2-1, and Mexico was losing, also 2-1.

Mexico is a soccer-mad nation, and for their national team to not qualify for the World Cup would be a national bummer of epic proportions.  Panama is a much smaller country, what with being split in half by a ditch and all; making the World Cup would be super cool for them too.

Soccer games last 90 minutes, with the clock running continuously.  But during the game, guys get hurt, penalties get assessed, and the referee keeps track of how long the game is delayed by those events, and that time then gets added to the 90 minutes at the end.  It’s called ‘stoppage time.’  Which means, when the clock shows that 90 minutes are up, there are usually 3 or 4 minutes left to play. And goals scored in stoppage time count, obviously.

So after 90 minutes, Mexico trailed Costa Rica, and the US trailed Panama.  And it looked like Panama was going to the World Cup.

The Mexican national team stands to lose 600 million dollars this year.  If they don’t make the World Cup, their finances are that amount in arrears.  They hope that by making it to Brazil, to the World Cup, they’ll recoup those losses.

Sunday night, the Red Sox, having earlier lost Game One of the American League Championship Series, trailed the Tigers in Game Two.  In the 8th inning, they were behind 5-1.  If they lost the first two games of that 7 game series, they were unlikely to win the series.  Especially since the Tigers have the two best pitchers in baseball, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, ready to go as needed.

Also, the New England Patriots were losing to the New Orleans Saints at home, 27-23, with a little over a minute left.  The Patriots’ quarterback, Tom Brady, is superb.  But his best receivers are all hurt.  They’ve dropped pass after pass.  He’s working with third stringers, plus former BYU star, Austin Collie, who has been with the team two days and doesn’t know the plays.

The Tigers play in Detroit. Detroit is bankrupt.  Detroit is also home to the auto industry, which nearly went bankrupt.  One of President Obama’s signal domestic accomplishments was his loan, which led to the restructuring of the auto industry, saving thousands of jobs.  It would be really really good for Detroit to win the World Series.  This year.

The Red Sox are from Boston.  Boston has an annual holiday, Patriot’s day, third Monday in April. Schools are closed, also municipal buildings.  The Red Sox play at home.  And later in the day, the Boston Marathon is run.  This year, the Marathon was interrupted by two bombs, which killed three people and badly injured dozens more.  The Patriots also play in Boston.

Meanwhile, Tuesday night, John Boehner presented a bill in the House of Representatives that would re-open the government and allow us to avoid default on our nation’s debts.  This bill was pretty close to the Republicans last chance to get something substantive in their negotiations.  Assuming it could pass the House, pass on a Senate vote, and be signed by the President, all of which looked pretty iffy.

The US soccer team has a guy, Graham Zusi, plays professionally for Kansas City, barely on the National team, but hardly ever plays.  For the US, this game against Panama doesn’t matter–none of our stars are in the game.  But in stoppage time, Zusi heads in a perfect cross.  Game tied, in the 92nd minute.

Tuesday night, as the House is preparing to vote on Boehner’s bill, the conservative advocacy group Heritage Action vets the bill, says House Republicans should vote against it.  The Heritage Foundation is run by former Senator Jim DeMint.  For a few minutes, it appears that DeMint is de facto House Speaker.  In any event, Heritage Action’s memo scuttles the bill–rather than suffer a humiliating defeat, Boehner withdraws it.

Tom Brady moves the Patriots down the field.  A key fourth down catch is made by Austin Collie.  With five seconds left, Brady throws a touchdown to an undrafted free agent rookie receiver, Kenbrell Thompkins.  The Patriots, who looked dead, win the game.

David Ortiz, of the Red Sox, comes up with the bases loaded in the 8th, facing the Tigers best relief pitcher, Joaquin Benoit.  Ortiz hits a low line drive to right.  The right field wall in Fenway Park is very low; it looks like the ball might barely clear it.  Tigers right fielder Torii Hunter leaps, actually jumps over the fence.  The ball eludes his glove.  Game tied.  In the 9th, the Red Sox, who looked dead, win the game.

David Ortiz, Big Papi, is the only Red Sox player still on the team who played in the 2004 World Series, in which the Sox shattered the curse of Babe Ruth.  A big Dominican, he has been embraced in the city of Boston as few other athletes have ever been embraced by their cities.  The day after the Boston bombing, Ortiz asked to take the take the mic.  When he said, proudly, “this is our f-ing city,” the place erupted.  That was in April.  Now, in October, the season on the line, he hits a grand slam home run to win a game they had to win.

In Panama, in the 94th minute, well into stoppage time by now, the game nearly over, another USA reserve, Aron Johannsson, strikes a ball sharply for the left corner of the goal.  It barely slides past the diving keeper.  Here’s a link.The USA, who looked dead, win the game 3-2.

In Costa Rica, the Mexican announcer hears the US score and goes berserk.  The Mexican national team, who looked completely dead, have qualified for . . . well, not the World Cup, but a playoff game with New Zealand, the winner to advance to the World Cup.  The announcer’s great: audibly weeping, he shouts ‘GOAAAAAALLLLLLLL’.  For a goal in a different game than the one he was announcing, played in a different country.  Then he says, in English, “We love you!  We love you forever! God bless America.”  And then, best I can make out, the same sentiments many many times in Spanish.

Mexico advances.  The Red Sox win.  The Patriots win.

On Wednesday, Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, the Majority and Minority leaders of the Senate, craft a bill that will re-open the government, and raise the debt ceiling.   Speaker Boehner calls for a House vote, which passes.  The President signs it into law. The United States of America, which looked as close to dead as it’s possible for the richest nation in the history of the world to look, just that close to default, our full faith and credit in jeopardy, probably the world economy at risk, has (barely) survived another crisis.

It’s been, to say the least, an exciting few days.  The Patriots survived.  Detroit and Boston, two cities who need some good news, remain locked in a titanic playoff battle.  Mexico, right now, loves America.  And a few other people whose patriotism seemed dubious did, finally, do the right thing for the country.  So dish up some ice cream, or whatever you celebrate with, and, very quietly, rejoice.  They play the Super Bowl every year, and the debt ceiling will have to be raised again in February.

Small victories

Two news stories this week caught my attention, both of which qualify as feminist victories, and are worth being celebrated as such.  The first is the selection of Condoleeza Rice to serve on the College Football Playoff Selection Committee.  The second is the nomination of Janet Yellen to serve as Chair of the Federal Reserve Board.  I do not mean to suggest that the appointment of two women to positions of prominence is noteworthy simply because they’re women. I say that these two outstandingly capable women should have been easy and obvious choices.  What strikes me as significant is not that they were selected for these jobs.  It’s that they were not not selected. Let me explain.

To begin with the less important job: former Secretary of State Rice’s appointment to the College Football job.  College football, unlike essentially all other major team sports, does not have a coherent, thoughtfully devised system for crowning a champion.  In college basketball, for example, the NCAA has a end-of-year tournament.  68 teams are chosen to participate in that tournament, and it’s very exciting, watching 68 whittled down to 64, then to 32, then to 16, and so on, until a championship game features the two surviving teams.  This year, Louisville beat Michigan.  Louisville is the champion.  No one disputes it.  They won.

Not so in college football, where for years, at the end of the season, ‘National Champions’ were chosen by opinion polls, basically, and not decided on the field of play.  In 1998, something called the ‘Bowl Championship Series‘ was created, which decided who would play who in the most lucrative bowl games, with one of those games chosen more-or-less arbitrarily as the ‘national championship game.’ The BCS is widely loathed by college football fans, and now, finally, it seems to be going away, replaced by a new committee, this College Football Playoff selection thing. That committee will choose four teams, which will have a little two game mini-playoff, the final of which will choose a national champion.  This new system is likely to be hated too, which is why the makeup of the committee is considered important.  The people who serve on it need to be prominent and respected, to confer upon the game itself some measure of legitimacy.

Condoleeza Rice’s name was floated a couple of weeks ago, and proved a controversial nomination.  Why?  Because she never played college football.  ESPN analyst David Pollock began by saying that the committee should be limited to people who had played college football. When pressed, he said essentially, ‘yeah, that means no women on the committee.’ Then Pat Dye, former Auburn coach weighed in:

All she knows about football is what somebody told her.  Or what she read in a book or what she saw on television. To understand football, you’ve got to play with your hand in the dirt.

Condoleeza Rice is known for being a particularly enthusiastic and informed college football fan.  But because she never played ‘with her hand in the dirt,’ she shouldn’t, in Pat Dye’s opinion, serve on this committee.

All right then, what credentials should a committee member have?  First of all, this committee’s work is going to be scrutinized by college football fans.  If you’re the fan of a good team, and your team isn’t chosen for this mini-tournament, you’re going to be seriously ticked off.  So whoever serves on it should be a person of prominence.  A former Secretary of State would seem to meet that criterion.

Does she know football?  Her father, with whom she was very very close, was a high school football coach.  She grew up watching tape with him, helped him develop game plans.  One of her best friends is Stanford coach David Shaw.  She was offered the job as Pac-12 commissioner.  She was one of the finalists for the job of NFL commissioner.  She knows the game.

This committee is going to have to sell their selections to the public, and to the business community (who will buy advertising and pay for sponsorships). Rice serves on seven corporate boards.  The committee also needs members who understand university politics.  She’s a director at Stanford.  Also, it’s a committee. A small group of people sitting in a room, making important decisions.  You think a professional diplomat wouldn’t be of value?

The rest of the committee has been announced.  As expected, it includes some prominent former players–Archie Manning, Oliver Luck, Pat Haden–as well as former coaches.  And college administrators (who never played college ball), and sportswriters (ditto). But guys who weren’t controversial, because they were guys.  People who learned about the game by listening, talking, watching.  You know, the way human beings learn things.

Condoleeza Rice is not just a good choice for the college football job, she’s almost ridiculously over-qualified for it.  The feminist victory is not that a woman was selected for a job in a traditional male preserve.  It’s that a preposterously capable person was not rejected for a job she obviously would be great at.

Likewise Janet Yellen.  No woman has ever been nominated to serve as Fed Chair.  But she’s been vice-Chair since 2010. She’s got a tremendous academic background at Cal Berkeley.  She’s married to a Nobel laureate in economics.  She served on President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors.  She’s got a raft full of awards and positions and honors.  Honorary doctorate from Brown.  Adam Smith award winner.

Most importantly, she’s been right.  Here’s The Wall Street Journal on her:

Predicting the direction of the U.S. economy with precision is impossible. But the Fed must forecast growth, inflation and unemployment to guide its decisions on interest rates.  The Journal examined more than 700 predictions made between 2009 and 2012 in speeches and congressional testimony by 14 Fed policy makers—and scored the predictions on growth, jobs and inflation. The most accurate forecasts overall came from Ms. Yellen, now the Fed’s vice chair.

For a long time, it looked like President Obama would choose Larry Summers would be the Fed nominee.  Summers is a sexy-rock-star type economist, former President of Harvard, generally referred to as ‘the brightest guy’ in whatever room he finds himself in.  But Summers was an enthusiastic supporter of Gramm-Leach-Bliley, the bill that essentially repealed Glass-Steagal, thus deregulating the financial markets, which led directly to the 2008 financial crisis.

And Summers is also a sexist pig.  Well, maybe not. Here’s a longish excerpt of the 2005 speech that got him labeled porcine.  He’s clearly just speculating, spinning out a theory he hasn’t thought through.  But any discussion of ‘innate differences’ accounting for the disparity of men and women in the sciences pretty much has to be controversial, and may well have been a factor in his decision to withdraw his name from consideration for the Fed post.

I’m more worried about his economic views. We don’t need a deregulation cheerleader at the Fed.  Nor do we need another Goldman Sachs-ist Robert Rubin disciple.  How about instead we stay away from the ideas from the guys who nearly destroyed the economy?

Opposition to Yellen is more obviously sexist.  The Wall Street Journal editorial page (which resides on a different planet than the rest of the Journal), worried that the ‘liberal diversity police’ were happy with the choice, calling her nomination ‘gender pandering.’  The New York Sun pointed out that the Fed’s role is to preserve the value of the US currency, not ‘create a female dollar.’  See, monetary policy requires a big tough man, don’t you see?  Someone, you know, male.

It’s obviously nonsense. Janet Yellen is clearly the most qualified person in the country for Fed Chair.  Her selection is a major victory for the cause of gender equality. Not because a woman got a job only men had previously held.  Because the fact that the best person for the job was not denied it because of gender.  Nicely done, Mr. President.

Boycott the Russian Olympics?

The 2014 Winter Olympics are scheduled for mid-February, 2014, in Sochi Russia.  Recently, there have been calls for the United States to boycott those Olympics, a la Jimmy Carter in 1980. Back then, the issue was Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan.  The Soviet Union hoped for its Summer Games to be a huge propaganda coup–we wanted to head that off.  Now there are two reasons expressed for an Olympic boycott.  First, the Obama administration floated a trial balloon over boycotting over Edward Snowden, still comfortably ensconced in Moscow’s Sheremetyovo airport, a la Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg’s sort of oddly prophetic 2004 movie, The Terminal.  (Actually, I think Snowden may be out of the airport temporarily).  Anyway, the Russians aren’t interested in extraditing Snowden, and Snowden did a Very Bad Thing.  Essentially, he revealed that the NSA was involved in massive spying on US citizens, which thing we never suspected, despite the fact that precisely that kind of intel-gathering was central to the plots of every episode of 24, Homeland, and the most recent James Bond movie.  Anyway, over half the American people regard Snowden as a hero–we’re not going to boycott an Olympics over him.

But the other reason to boycott an Olympics is more serious.  It relates to the fact that Russia has gotten really weirdly religious in recent years, with the Orthodox church both insurgent and oddly fundamentalist.  One way this has manifested itself has been the passage (the unanimous passage), of ludicrously anti-gay legislation.  The law prohibits anyone from “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations around minors.”  Human Rights Watch called it “”a profoundly discriminatory and dangerous bill that is bound to worsen homophobia in Russia.”  Pride rallies, public displays of affection, or even just being openly gay can get you arrested in Russia.  A second law provides for three years in prison for anyone “offending the religious sensibilities of the faithful.” The latter was partly a reaction to the actions of Pussy Riot, the completely awesome Russian all-female punk protest band, who staged a massive protest in an Orthodox cathedral, and got arrested for it.  Both laws passed both Duma and the Federation Council, the two legislative bodies of the Russian Federation, with full support from Vladimir Putin.

The US has other beefs with Russia.  Obviously a big one is Syria, where Russia supports the thugocracy of Bashar Assad in that country’s miserable civil war.  Since the US supports (more or less covertly) the rebels opposing Assad, the whole thing has a distinct Cold War flavor; another US-Russian proxy war. We’d like to push for nuclear disarmament; Putin’s stone-walled us there.  Plus Putin stole Bob Kraft’s Super Bowl ring.  I know that last one isn’t very important, but it strikes me as oddly symbolic.

Robert Kraft is the owner of the New England Patriots.  In 2005, he went with a group of American businessmen to Russia, and met with Putin.  At a reception, Putin mentioned how much he admired Kraft’s ring.  Kraft’s Patriots had just won the Super Bowl, and Kraft was proud of the ring.  (Super Bowl rings are these really gaudy baubles).  Kraft showed Putin the ring; Putin put it in his pocket and walked off. Kraft would very much like it back.

Putin, when apprised of this story, insisted that Kraft gave it to him. Or maybe there was some kind of translation error.  Either way, he’s not giving it back, and that says something.  One is that the leader of the Russian federation has sticky fingers.  I see you nodding: don’t we Americans see Russia as essentially a kleptocracy–a massive criminal undertaking?  Another is that Putin likes his bling really ostentatious and garish.  But another is this: Kraft was part of a deputation of American businessmen interested in investing in Russia. And that’s important too. As loathsome as Vladimir Putin usually comes across in American media, Russia under his rule has been a fantastic success story.  We Americans have a lot of skin in that game.

We have to remember that Russia has essentially only known about 8 years of functioning democracy–the Presidency of Boris Yeltsin, who served in office from 1991-99.  Oh, and about five months under Alexander Kerensky in 1918.  When Yeltsin resigned, the Presidency passed to Putin.  Yeltsin was fantastically unpopular when he left.  He tried to transform Russia’s decaying industrial infrastructure to capitalism.  It was shock therapy, instant privatization.  And the price was immense corruption. A lot of Russian oligarchs sort of didn’t get capitalism and failed, leading to unemployment and suffering.  A few got it all too well, leading to criminality. . . and suffering.

And also fantastic success.  For example, another big sports story recently has been the NBA basketball team, the New Jersey Nets.  A Russian billionaire, Mikhail Prokhorov bought the chronically underachieving franchise, and got co-owner Jay-Z to front a move to Brooklyn. They built a huge new arena, which they can fill any non-game night by announcing a concert featuring their co-owner and his wife.  Meanwhile, Prokhorov has built a super-team.  Their line-up next year: Deron Williams, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson? They could win it all.  And that weird partnership–Prokhorov and Jay-Z, two self-made men, as long as you don’t scrutinize too closely where they got their start-up capital.  Russian billionaire?  In minerals?  Who got real real successful in around 1995?  And what exactly was Jay-Z doing before he found his rap muse?

“Behind every great fortune is a great crime.”  Honore Balzac.

Let’s face it: Putin‘s been a success. He’s popular in Russia because Russia has prospered as never before under his leadership.  Massive economic growth, high employment, tremendous growth in energy and industry and high tech and the automotive industry.  Yes, he’s former KGB, and yes he has ties to the Russian Mob, and yes he’s a weird guy, a narcissistic self-promoter.  He’s also the best Czar Russia’s had.  Because, let’s face it, Russia’s basically always been an autocracy. It’s always been heavily bureaucratic (there’s never been a time when Gogol’s The Inspector-General wasn’t hilarious), and it’s always been violent and it’s always been mean and cold and everyone’s always liked their vodka.  That didn’t change under Communism, and it hasn’t changed under Putin.

One difference is that the Orthodox Church, once banned, is again resurgent.  And Putin’s cultivated a cult of macho.  The sad result of that combination is a newly minted homophobia.  Which we’re against, and should be.  But we don’t want some ineffectual symbolic protest, I don’t think.  Can we make a difference?  Would a boycott be a good idea?

One symbolic action is to toss your bottles of Stolichnaya Vodka; that’s been happening, despite the fact that Stoli’s CEO condemned the anti-gay laws in very strong terms.  Another is diplomacy–I do think the Obama administration needs assurances that gay athletes will be safe in Sochi.  The LGBT community is furious over this, and absolutely right to be.  We should join their voices however we can.

But I’m against a boycott.  I think the best thing we can do is cheer for all athletes, straight and gay, and most especially those who wear a gay pride ribbon while they compete.  Most especially, we should cheer for Blake Skjellerup, speed skater from New Zealand, who has been an outspoken opponent of the boycott movement, saying “I’m an out gay man, and I’m going to a country where it’s basically illegal to be gay.  I think (competing) is a great statement of support.  I don’t know what greater thing I could do.”

Past Olympians, especially gay athletes, have opposed a boycott:  Martina Navratilova, Greg Louganis.  Harvey Fierstein opposes it.  Most have pointed to the example of Jesse Owens, and the statement he made when he competed in the ’36 Berlin Olympics.  I think we shouldn’t boycott.  Just cheer really loudly for Blake Skjellerup.  And any other out athletes at the Games.

 

Mike Kickham

Tonight, a young man named Mike Kickham will make his major league debut for the San Francisco Giants. One of our starting pitchers, Ryan Vogelsong, broke his hand, hit by a pitch, and will be out for two months.  Kickham is Vogelsong’s replacement.  He will be the first guy drafted by the Giants in the 2010 draft to make it to the major leagues.

Every year, Major League baseball conducts a draft. Amateur players (either straight out of high school or college guys) put their names in a pool, and teams draft them in reverse order. In other words, the team with the worst record in the previous system drafts first, and the team with the best record drafts last. When a player is drafted, that means that the team who selected him has exclusive rights to try to sign him to a minor league contract.  But the player doesn’t have to sign if he doesn’t want to.  The draft lasts fifty rounds, and of the players the Giants selected in 2010, thirteen did not sign.  If you’re a talented high school player, you have options.  You can sign a contract, and start playing for money right away. Or you can go to college, play college ball on scholarship.  Likewise, a college player drafted after his freshman year could decide that the money being offered isn’t good enough, and stick around in college another year.

The Giants are typical of most major league teams, in that they own and manage seven minor league teams, in addition to the major league club in San Francisco.  These minor league teams are all ranked AAA, AA, A and Rookie league.  The AAA team (in Fresno), consists of players who are basically ready to play in the majors.  AA (Richmond VA) is for the players who are close to that level.  The three A teams are not all equal.  The San Jose A team is considered a ‘high A team’, playing competition a cut above other A teams.  The other A teams are in Augusta GA and Salem-Keizer OR.  In addition, the Giants own two Rookie league teams, which play a much shorter season than A-level teams.  One is an Arizona League team (the entire league made up of teams from town in Arizona), and the other is in the Dominican Republic. All these minor leagues are professional leagues–the guys get paid, though not much.  Orem has a Rookie league team–the players live with families in the community.  The folks who live across the street from us in Provo fostered several Orem Owlz over the years.

So every year, 50 players are drafted, 35-40 are signed, and 35-40 minor league players already in the system are released.  They’re finished, their major league dreams permanently ended.  They played baseball professionally, but they never made it to The Show. They have a little money in their pockets, but it’s not much.  It’s brutally Darwinian.  You’re either good enough or you’re not.  If not, you’re gone.  So a young man drafted by a major league franchise faces tremendous odds against making his major league dreams come true.

At the majors, though, there’s a chance to make serious money, enough money to basically retire for life.  It’s certainly a dream worth pursuing.

To put it in perspective, Mike Kickham has been playing, up to now, on a minor league contract.  When he signed a contract, he was probably paid a signing bonus. He was drafted in the sixth round, which means his signing bonus was probably in the neighborhood of $20,000.  As a Rookie league player, his salary was $850 a month (though, again, his housing costs were minimal, as he probably stayed with a host family.)  After that, he could negotiate a salary every year, but even AAA players usually make something like $50,000 to $80,000.

But Mike Kickham will sign a major league contract today. He’ll show up at the ballpark around 3 or 4, and it’ll be waiting for him.  And the minimum major league salary is $490,000.  Half a mill.

As you can see, Kickham’s a nice looking kid.  Left handed pitcher, from Springfield, Missouri. 6′ 4″, 220. Born in St. Louis, life-long Cardinals fan. (Well, probably not anymore).  He played college ball at Missouri State, where his stats were unimpressive.  But the Giants pitching guru, Dick Tidrow, liked his delivery and his fastball, and persuaded the team to draft him.  He signed late his rookie year, pitched only 3 innings at the Rookie level, then was inconsistent in 2011, pitching at Augusta.  But he showed the Giants’ management enough that they jumped him to Richmond last year, where he really pitched well.  That got him advanced to Fresno this year, where, after a rocky start, he pitched exceptionally well his last 8 starts.

He seems like a nice kid.  His parents are both athletes–his father’s an amateur tennis player, and his Mom played college volleyball.  He has three siblings.  He’s bright–he was pre-med in college, and goes back to school to work on his degree in the off-season.

And after today, for the rest of his life, he’ll be a major league baseball player.  His name will appear in the Baseball Encyclopedia.  He will be able to tell his grandchildren about it, about pitching a ballgame in May, in Oakland (we’re playing the A’s) for the defending world champs.  He’s in The Show.  I hope his parents (Kevin and Dana) and his siblings (Danny, Caroline and Janie) will fly out for it.  Mike Kickham makes his major league debut today, and his life will never be the same.

 

F-Bomb defiance

The last two movies my wife and I have watched have been exactly the same movie, except that one of them was terrible and the other was really awfully good.  In the new Red Dawn (which we Netflixed because my wife has a crush on Chris Hemsworth), a rag-tag group of American insurgents fight against terrible odds against the technologically superior forces of the (snicker) North Koreans.  In Oblivion, a rag-tag group of American insurgents fight against terrible odds against the technologically superior forces of Melissa Leo (or, you know, space aliens using Melissa Leo’s voice and presence).

Oblivion‘s better than that.  I thought it was one of the better sci-fi action flicks that I’ve seen in awhile.  It was thoughtful and smart and although afflicted by massive plot holes and leaps in logic, you don’t really notice them much while you’re watching it.  Tom Cruise may be a loon, but he’s a fine actor, and looks great, and it made for a very satisfying night at the movies.

But, here’s the point I want to make, and it requires a pretty massive spoiler alert, so if you haven’t seen Oblivion, stop reading and go see the movie and then get back to me, but there’s a moment in both movies I want to talk about. Both movies are rated PG-13.  Both, therefore, get one F-bomb to play with.  And both drop their F-bomb at an identical moment in the plot.

In Red Dawn (the plot for which I’m also going to ruin for you, but I feel less bad about it, ’cause, get real, it’s not like you’re going to see the durn thing), the bad guy is Captain Cho, who the technologically superior (snicker) North Koreans have put in charge of their invading forces in Portland, where the movie’s set.  (Cho is played by Will Yun Lee, who is from, like, Arlington Virginia.  Hey, it’s a gig).  And of course, he has to have a final big fight scene with Chris Hemsworth.  And at the climactic moment of the fight, Hemsworth gets to drop his F-bomb. “F-you,” he says, or something similar.  So okay, in Oblivion, same thing–final confrontation with Melissa Leo, and what does Tom Cruise say?  Same thing, right before he destroys the Death Star. 

I found it interesting.  The same thing happens in Stephen King’s The Stand, where our rag-tag bunch of patriots have it out with the baddies in Vegas; same last line.  And while I can’t remember which movies it’s in, I know I’ve seen it other places as well.

It’s interesting how the F-word, once essentially a verb suggesting a kind of violent sexuality, has now become a word suggesting plucky defiance, a cheeky response to oppression.  Of course, the F- word has lots of other meanings–it’s plenty versatile, as taboo words tend to become.  But of course meaning depends on context, and in the context of PG-13 action films, it’s a positive thing. Sort of uniquely American, even.  As we patriotically give the figurative finger to our oppressors.

Of course, that’s also sort of a silly stance for us to take, given that we Americans possess the greatest military the world has ever seen, with military expenditures taking up a preposterously huge part of our budget, despite the fact that like the next twenty countries in terms of military expenditures are also allies.  In what sense is America a nation of underdogs?  We’re much more bullies than bullied.

And to give Red Dawn its due, that point does get mentioned.  Chris Hemsworth is an Iraq war veteran, and he says to his high-school-aged-army ‘in Iraq, we were the occupying force, and the insurgents were fighting us–here, we have to fight like the mujaheddin, we’re the bad guys, we have to fight a guerrilla war.’  Red Dawn does plug into what we might describe as a kind of Tea Party/conservative/Christian right paranoia, in which traditional American values are endangered, and we few patriots are left to fight the encroaching forces of, whatever, Kenyan socialism.  That stance, of course, is as ridiculous as the idea that the North Koreans could conquer Portland because of their (snicker) technological superiority. But whatever.  Why begrudge Tea Partiers their own action movie?

But we like underdogs.  Nobody wants to root for the Yankees; we prefer the plucky underdog Red Sox.  We loathe the Lakers–go Jazz!  We liked Rocky over Apollo, the Karate Kid over his tormentors, Hickory High over all those big-time schools in Hoosiers. Right now, the NBA playoffs are going on, and although I like basketball, I can’t get that interested; Miami has the best team and the best player, and they’re going to win.  It’s depressing.  So, in their first game against the Bulls (who had, like, their best four players out with injuries), when Joachim Noah, the Bulls emotional leader said ‘F-you’ to Lebron James (caught on camera; you couldn’t hear him say it, but it was clear enough), I got . . . interested in the series. And the Bulls won .  . . one game. And lost the next four. The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, saith the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, but generally that’s the way to bet.  And we know that, we know that powerful forces usually do actually win over less powerful ones, no matter how gritty and endearingly courageous the underdogs might be.  None of that really matters.  In reality, the rich beat the poor, big beats little, corporations usually do win.  Which is why we like movies (fantasies) where the opposite happens.  And why movie-makers go to fantastic lengths to make sure the heroes are underdogs, even when it doesn’t actually make sense.

There’s a terrific ‘F-you’ TV commercial on right now.  This skinny little kid, with the world’s awesomest Mom, is bullied by kids who steal his football.  But our skinny hero happens to know a kid weightlifter, a kid welder, a kid bear wrestler (!), a kid fire-fighter.  And the final line of the commercial, “touch or. .  .” “Tackle!” is the F-you moment.  Heck, yes, we’ll play you for the ball.  By the way, our right tackle wrestles bears.

And yes, I know some people find the F-word offensive.  I get that.  And yes, there’s absolutely a morality of language.  The Ten Commandments forbid ‘taking the Lord’s name in vain.’  A sin of language.  Or ‘bearing false witness.’ A sin of language.  But those sins are also sins of context, as must be the case with anything involving language, where we’re always invoking, reflecting, creating culture. I’m a playwright, and if my characters need to drop an F-bomb, I write it. And don’t feel like I’ve thereby sinned.

And sometimes, when facing implacable institutions, all-powerful bureaucracies, entrenched enemies with their castles and their moats, the F word is a battle cry, a shout of courageous defiance.  My grandmother was fond of a poem, which she turned into a needle-point sampler: “it may not be classic, it might be profane, but we mortals have need of it, time and again. And you’ll find you’re recover from life’s greatest slam, if you never say ‘die,’ say ‘damn.’”  As language has shifted and changed from her day, we might rewrite it as follows: ‘when you find that you need all your grit, all your pluck, never say die, say. . . . ‘

 

 

Jason Collins

Yesterday, Jason Collins of the Washington Wizards came out.  He therefore becomes the first active male professional American major team sports athlete out as openly gay.

All those modifiers are necessary, because there have certainly been other prominent gay athletes.  Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King in tennis.  Greg Louganis, the Olympic diver.  Sheryl Swoopes in women’s professional basketball.  John Amaechi, in the NBA, and Dave Kopay and Kwame Harris, of the NFL, all came out after they retired, as did Billy Bean in baseball and, most recently, Robbie Rogers, an English premiere league soccer player.

What makes Jason Collins unique, therefore, is that he’s still an active player, a current male team sport athlete who still has to deal with whatever issues a pro locker room brings. All that icky showering and so on.  So, another milestone passed, another bridge crossed. And pretty uneventfully, in this case.  Since his coming-out article came out yesterday in Sports Illustrated, he’s received overwhelming Twitter support, including heartfelt and enthusiastic congratulations from Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson, from Steve Nash (“Maximum support!), from NBA commissioner David Stern (“proud you assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue”, from Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama, from fellow player (irony alert) Rudy Gay, and from RuPaul (“I’m still gayer than you!”).

All his former coaches weighed in positively.  Kevin Love and Metta World Peace (the NBA needs a guy named Understanding), tweeted their support.  Current players with Collins’ back; basically a Who’s Who of stars: Dwayne Wade and Al Horford, Paul Pierce and Baron Davis, dozens more.  There have been, so far that I know, zero negative responses from NBA players, past or present.  Collins says that if anyone says anything privately, he’ll deliver an elbow and a hard pick and then let it go.  There are basketball ways to deal with homophobia.

To me, it’s interesting that it’s Jason Collins.  Richard Greenberg wrote a terrific play ten years ago about this scenario. Take Me Out is about a baseball player coming out.  Saw it on Broadway and liked it immensely, while still quibbling over plot points.  In Greenberg’s play, the ballplayer, Darren Lemming, is a superstar; he was thought to have been based on Derek Jeter.  (Uh, after Minka Kelly, Hannah Davis, Jessica Biel et. al., no, I don’t think Derek Jeter’s gay.) Take Me Out opened on Broadway at a time when there were rumors about Mike Piazza, who probably isn’t either.  Point is, Jeter and Piazza are both first ballot Hall-of-Famers. Greenberg’s point is that to do something like come out, a player would need the protection of genuine athletic greatness.  No one’s going to hassle Derek Jeter.

That was then, this is now.  Jason Collins is hardly a star.  He’s a journeyman career backup center.

Here’s his profile: graduated from Stanford, with his identical twin, Jarron Collins. Both brothers are seven feet tall; neither would have a career if they weren’t.  Basketball is a sport that rewards height, and a seven-footer can play professionally without being particularly athletic.  Jarron Collins played for the Jazz, and both Collins brothers fit the same profile–they’re not very quick or fast or strong, and aren’t great jumpers.  So take a guy who is very tall, but not much of an athlete, a disciplined and intelligent man.  Well, he can learn how to shoot–shooting’s just muscle memory, just takes practice.  Both Collinses can hit a fifteen foot jumper.  Jason Collins can get good rebounding position, and he can set a pick or screen.  He can’t block shots, despite his size (he can’t jump), but he can hold his position and take a charging foul.  He’s not a good one-on-one defender (not quick enough), but will battle the other team’s center, using his size. He plays, in other words, an inelegant style of basketball, not pretty, but in a limited role, effective.  Make Jason Collins your starting center, and you’re not likely a good team, but bring him off the bench and play him 12-15 minutes a night, and he can help you.  My point is, that’s not really the profile I would have suspected for the first out ballplayer.  And yet, it really is exactly the same profile John Amaechi had–and Amaechi came out within a couple of years of retiring from basketball.  Don’t know what to make of that, probably nothing.  Just this: so far, at least, superstars haven’t been the ones to out themselves.  Maybe they feel like they have too much to lose.

I assume Collins likes basketball.  But as an intelligent, articulate, disciplined guy, with a degree from Stanford, he could have pursued a number of careers. Pro basketball pays the best. Ten years in the NBA will allow him the financial independence to do literally anything he wants to do with his life.  And he’s only 34 years old, a young man, with a bright future.

His announcement is interesting in other respects.  He’s an identical twin, and very close to his brother, Jarron, but Jarron’s straight and was apparently completely taken by surprise by Jason’s announcement.  Their Mom, though, wasn’t surprised by it; said she’d always known.

For those arguing that being gay is or isn’t biologically determined, the Collins brothers would seem to complicate the issue or confirm biases, depending.  I don’t think it matters.  Sexuality and sexual orientation are complicated matters, and for me, this happens to be one instance where the best evidence is actually anecdotal.  Jason Collins says he’s known he was gay for years, that it dates from when Jarron was dating a girl seriously and he wondered why he didn’t seem to feel the same way about girls that his brother did.  Why is that story not enough?  The dude’s gay.  Power to him.

And see, that’s where this gets fun. Jason Collins is a black basketball player, a center, and gay.  That’s how he put it in the SI article.  So count the exploded stereotypes; Jason Collins is not, I don’t know, swishy.  He’s a blue collar dude, a tough, hard-nosed player who plays a very physical style of ball.  He’s a pick setter, a screener, a rebounder.  He takes on the meanest, toughest players in the league, and he battles ‘em to a standstill.  None of that impacts, or is impacted by, his sexuality.

Why did he come out?  He says it’s because his roommate at Stanford, a straight guy, also a Kennedy and currrently a Congressman (Joe Kennedy) told him about marching in a gay rights parade, and he thought, ‘dude, he’s straight and he’s marching for my rights?  Why wasn’t I there?”

One wonders what effect this will have on Collins’ career.  I think it’s quite possible that his career may have ended were it not for this announcement.  This last season, he was a back-up center for the Washington Wizards, a terrible team. A bad, older player on a bad team, in other words. His contract is over, and he’s now a free agent, able to sign with anyone.  I wonder who wants him.  He’s not actually all that good–never was.  Maybe New Orleans, backing up Anthony Davis.  He could be a mentor for a talented young center, as much a coach as teammate.  And New Orleans would certainly welcome him, one would think.

But my gosh, the reaction is interesting, isn’t it?  No negative responses, none?  Nothing but support, from teammates, coaches, league officials, politicians?  Everyone happy for him, everyone saying ‘good for you!’  It’s not like homophobia has disappeared, but isn’t driving it underground a victory?  Have we really come this far, that fast?

One last detail: players can choose their uniform numbers. Last year, Collins changed his number to 98.  Yesterday he explained why.  It was in honor of Matthew Shepherd.  Poor Matthew Shepherd, of Wyoming.  Beaten to death by homophobic psychopaths.  In 1998.  So Jason Collins is out.  So, here’s one more voice, added to the chorus: Good for you, big guy.  Hoop it up, dude, and we all got next.

 

 

 

The NFL Draft

I spent three hours last night watching what has to be the most incomprehensible TV program possible for anyone outside the loop.  The loop, in this case, is hard-core fans of the National Football League, and while our numbers are legion, we’re not ubiquitous; football haters likewise abound.  And not to get too gender-cliche-y, the NFL draft does strike me as a potential battlefield in the war of the sexes.  It’s a guy thing.  Guys like football, action movies, and NASCAR; gals like gymnastics/ice skating, chick flick romcoms, and mini-vans.  Of course there are also lots of exceptions–girls who like football, for example; not to mention Danica Patrick.  But cliches exist because they have some basis in reality.  ESPN has both male and female anchors, and yes, Chris McKendry does draft analysis, just as Linda Cohn is a hockey expert.  Still, I watched the draft last night, and while my wife was exceedingly awesome about it, she conspicuously didn’t watch with me.

Anyway, the NFL draft.  Boy, is it weird.  I’m sort of a football fan, even, and I get how weird it is.  So here’s how it works: college football players are put into a pool of candidates, and NFL teams take turns choosing which ones they want; they then have exclusive rights to sign their selections to a contract.  Yes, it’s exactly the same system used to pick sides in junior high school gym class: “I’ll pick Bobby; okay, I pick Sam.”  Imagine that every person who graduated from college in Accounting were then meticulously ranked and underwent accounting skills tests and interviews, and then every Accountancy firm in America got to pick, in order, which ones they wanted to hire. That’s the basic principle.

I watched last night because of Ziggy.  Ezekial Ansah, who played football at BYU this past fall.  Ziggy is from Ghana, where he played a little basketball, but no football at all, ever.  He joined the Church, came to BYU, and then was persuaded by roommates to try out for the football team.  The roommates thought maybe Coach Mendenhall might find some use for a guy 6’5″, 275 pounds, who was also a fantastic natural athlete–incredibly fast and quick.  And, by all accounts, a heck of a great kid.  Coach worked him out, and couldn’t believe what he saw.  My favorite Ziggy story–apparently at one point, he told his roommates that he thought he’d quit the team.  He liked it and all, enjoyed the camaraderie, liked the coaches and his teammates, but he came from Ghana, after all, needed to put his education first.  I mean, it’s not you could make any money at this football thing, right?  Right?  (Ziggy was drafted fifth, by the Detroit Lions. Last year, the fifth pick in the draft signed a contract for 18.5 million dollars.)

I am a deeply conflicted football fan. I probably would not have allowed a son to play high school ball, for example; not that either of my boys wanted to.  It’s a dangerous, violent game, with serious health consequences for way too many players.  It’s also beautiful, with an occasional athleticism that takes your breath away, and the guys who play it professionally talk about how much they love it, and miss it when they can’t play anymore.  And I look at the NFL draft, and part of me is thrilled for these guys, for the bright (and wealthy) futures their drafting portends.  It’s about opportunity–an opportunity for guys to do well, but also an opportunity for teams to improve themselves.  That’s why we watch–we want to see who our favorite team drafted, and fantasize about how great they’re going to be.

But you also can’t help but notice another resemblance–to a slave auction.  Before the draft, there’s the NFL Combine, where all the players run and lift weights and jump and undergo interviews and take intelligence tests.  Are weighed and prodded and examined.  And the top physical specimens are then selected, without having any choice in the matter.  Ziggy Ansah blew everyone away at the Combine–he’s a sensational athlete.  He also has less football experience than anyone else in the draft.  He’s seen as a ‘project,’ with a ‘high ceiling.’  For that potential, the Detroit Lions will be gambling 18-20 million dollars. And Ziggy will have no choice but to move to Detroit.  He’s from Ghana.  Perhaps he would find a gentler clime more congenial.  Tough noogies–it’s Detroit or nothing.

Now, if he’s a slave, he’s an exceptionally well compensated one.  The draft exists to ensure competitive balance–bad teams get the best players.  And nobody is forced to participate–either in the Combine or the draft. You can choose to do something else with your life.  But if you want to play professional football. . . .

And this is on television? Yep.  The teams select players in ten minute increments. So what happens is that a team picks a player, announced by Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, and the guy who got picked comes up and poses for a picture with him, and then these ESPN talking heads analyze the choice.  Chris Berman (aka Boomer) starts off, but defers to the real experts, Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay.  For years, Mel Kiper was the draft guru.  He was employed by ESPN at what I have to assume is a preposterous salary just to do this, just to work, basically, one day a year.  And, my gosh, the guy really is an expert, with an encyclopedic knowledge of essentially every player on every team in all of college football, their strengths and weaknesses, and how they fit the needs of the NFL teams considering them.  Then, the last couple of years, ESPN hired McShay, a second guy to do the same job.

And it’s one of the highest rated shows on television. Hour after hour, we watch.  Imagine high school graduation.  Imagine, then, that the principal took ten minutes between announcing each graduating kid.  Imagine that your basic high school graduation ceremony took three days to complete. Now imagine it being televised, and getting a twenty share.

Also, if you’re a fan, you’re a fan of one team, right?  I’m a 49ers fan; I root for the San Francisco 49ers.  Obviously, for a kid in Indiana, I would root for sports teams from the Bay area.  Anyway, I was rooting for Ziggy, but after he was drafted, I kept watching.  I wanted to see who my team picked.  And I had opinions!  On who they ought to pick!  I was hoping for a defensive end, a cornerback, or a safety.  They picked Eric Reid, a safety from LSU.  I knew a lot about the guy; fast, good tackler, could be the next Ronnie Lott.  I liked the pick.  And I am, at best, a casual football fan.  In other words, I watched TV for three hours, tension building, anticipation mounting, for one moment that lasted maybe ten seconds (“The San Francisco 49ers, with the 18th pick in the NFL draft, select Eric Reid. . . “)

It is, a lot, like graduation, where you wait in uncomfortable chairs for that moment when your kid gets her diploma.  Or, like, her 3rd grade play, where you know she’s playing the crucial role of Third Tree, and you sit there waiting for her one line (“Trees also provide shade”).  Which you already know, because you drilled her on it for, like, days.  That’s what you’re there for.  You could give a darn about all the other kids.

It’s complete, utter insanity.  The NFL draft, its massive popularity and the fantastic ratings it gets on TV, it’s completely crazy.  It’s not just the most boring show on television, it’s the most boring show you can imagine anyone ever putting on TV.  And I’m, at best, a casual fan of the sport; mostly, I’m conflicted about whether I should keep  watching football.  Let alone a show about sorting young wizards into their respective Houses (Mel and Todd arguing about who Gryffindor drafted). Neither of them wearing a Sorting Hat.

And I watched it for three hours last night.

And it’s on again tonight.  And I’ll probably watch it tonight too.

Guys, let’s face it.  We’re nuts.  Why on earth do women put up with us?