Tuesday, September 15, 2020

UNHAPPY ANNIVERSARY

 

               Stuck at home much of the time to hide out from the virus, wife Susie and I talk together more than we used to. A typical conversation goes like this:

               Me—"What day is this?”

               Susie—"Tuesday, I think.”

               Me— “Sure it’s not Wednesday?”

               Susie— “Pretty sure.”

               I’m very sure that exchange has been mirrored in the homes of many people reading this. When you’re retired as are Susie and I, and in virtual self-quarantine, the days run into one another, distinguishable only by the numbers on the calendar. Personal calendars, once crowded, now stand mostly empty. When we have two errands to run we don’t do both of them on the same day.

               The most-used cliché of the plague is that we’re all in the same boat, but it’s wrong. Were all in the same ocean but in different boats. The boat that Susie and I share is a good one— very good, in fact. We have a smallish but nice home on a large (1 ¼-acre) lot in an out-of-the-way part of Scottsdale, Arizona, on a cul-de-sac with no sidewalks or street lights and lots of space between houses. Without further labor we have enough income to support our needs.

               The bad news is that I’m 82 years old and Susie is 77, so we’re in the age group that has the most to worry about if the virus strikes. I have to laugh every time I hear that the most vulnerable groups consist of people over 65 or ones with a “preexisting condition.” There is no “or” about it-- just about everyone over 65 has one of those nasty things.  Susie and I are in relatively good health but we each have good-sized medical files.  Like many, I’m sure, every time I cough or sneeze I think, “Oh, oh, this may be it!”

               The reason I’m writing this now is that yesterday, September 14, marked the six-month anniversary of my personal history with virus fears. I’d heard about the affliction before that, of course, but with Arizona cases numbering in just the dozens didn’t take it too seriously. Indeed, things like the toilet-paper panic gave it a humorous cast. On March 14, though, Turf Paradise, the local horse-racing track where I’d spent just about every Saturday for years, announced it was shutting down. That meant a severe change in my routine, something old guys like me loath. It would be the first of many.

               Arizona experienced a general shutdown of about six weeks beginning around then, but it was spottily endorsed and enforced by governmental units, from the top down. Mixed messages prevailed and from the outset it became clear that we Americans were on our own when it came to protection. We still are, which is why virus statistics continue to fluctuate scarily, amounting to anything but control. Everything in the U.S. is politicized these days, and such obvious antiviral measures as mask-wearing is deemed to be controversial. In some circles foolishness is hailed as freedom.

               Susie and I take what we consider to be reasonable safety precautions. We wear masks in public, avoid large groups of people and utilize hand sanitizers. Susie shops, I swim four times a week in a large, outdoor public pool, bypassing the locker rooms coming and going. Once in a while we roll the dice and eat dinner in one of the restaurants we know provide for proper social distancing. We’d prefer to eat outdoors but our area has been too hot for that since June. Hey, you gotta get out occasionally.

               Other than that our options are few. Since we moved to Arizona in 1997 we’ve bailed out for cooler climes during July and August, lovely Santa Barbara, California, being our recent-years’ choice.  Not this year. No Arizona Diamondbacks’ games, either. Fall looms without theater, opera, my beloved Arizona Fall League baseball, or other public diversions.

               That has left us to such time-honored amusements as reading and crossword and jigsaw puzzles (the last for Susie, not me), and the tube. We’ve added Amazon Prime to our TV list, allowing us to watch such series’ as “Bosch,” a detective show set in Los Angeles, and the fast-paced “Intelligence,” about cops and drug dealers in Vancouver. I heartily recommend both.

               Sports, shelved in the plague’s early months (and the usual subject of this blog), have come back strong of late, albeit mostly before empty arenas. That has surprised many, including me. The NBA and NHL are successfully concluding their seasons in “bubbles,” and Major League Baseball lurches play-bound with limited travel after some initial stumbles. I didn’t think they could do it in part because I didn’t think their wealthy, entitled players could exercise the monastic discipline needed to stay “clean” amid a pandemic.  They pretty much have so far, but it remains to be seen if that will continue.

                At least equally important have been the truly massive testing regimes that professional sports have been able to institute, ones that dwarf those that exist in most other parts of our economy. Since their training camps opened last month the NFL has carried out daily virus testing for the more than 3,000 individuals who make up their playing rosters, coaching staffs and supporting personnel, enabling the quick identification and quarantine of infected individuals. It’s a telling societal commentary that our schools, hospitals and food processors don’t have it nearly so good.

It would be nice to report that help in the form of a vaccine was quickly on its way, but I’m troubled by efforts in that direction. The process is widely viewed as a race, with the first pharma company to declare victory able to claim a huge, global prize, but what if the third, sixth or tenth vaccine   to cross the line is the most effective?

               And what of complaints about spying involving the research drives? With thousands of lives at stake shouldn’t scientific cooperation be the rule, instead of competition?  I’m expecting to note another six-months anniversary come March. I’m praying that’ll be the last but I’m not betting on it.

                               

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

FOOTBALL ANYONE?

 

               The alignment of our planet with the sun dictates that autumn begins on September 22, but we know different, don’t we? It starts today, September 1. We know that because football is a fall sport that begins in earnest with the “S” month. Always has, always will.

               Except for this year. This year the pandemic reigns and September begins with not a pigskin being snapped in earnest at either the professional or major-college level. The colleges are in disarray, with two of the so-called “Power Five” conferences (the Big Ten and PAC 12) already having delayed the sport’s start until spring and the other three (the SEC, Big 12 and ACC) plunging forward, at least until further notice.

The National Football League is tiptoeing ahead, canceling pre-season games and scrimmages and holding practices of a sort as its September 10 starting date (a Thursday night game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans) approaches. But in Las Vegas, where the action speaks louder than words, it is only even money that date will be kept, and, no doubt, a longer-odds play that the season will be concluded successfully.

Back in June, when the pandemic was on the upswing, I addressed football’s prospects and found them wanting. Too many things could go wrong for a season to come off as hoped, I concluded. I still think so, especially with sports’ rolling racial boycotts now in play. I also was pessimistic about our three other major spectator sports even though they involve fewer athletes and, thus, fewer risks.

 As it has turned out, basketball and hockey have implemented “bubbles” to resume play, albeit in narrow confines and before empty arenas. Baseball limps along sans bubbles on broader stages, with each day’s schedule at risk to positive tests as the virus still percolates and regional spikes continue. Thirty one MLB games have been lost to virus-related cancellations, knocking schedules askew. A couple  more hard knocks would endanger the whole enterprise.

Hockey’s smartest move was to put its resumption in Canada (specifically in Toronto and Edmonton), where pandemic control has been far more successful than in the U.S.  That the NBA also is doing well is mostly a tribute to its players’ apparent willingness to live monk-like existences within the league’s Orlando, Florida, ring. Who knew they could do that? Can they keep it up?

The NFL leads the world in hubris but despite its bravado looks anything but confident as opening day approaches. Sixty six players and five game officials have opted out of playing this year and one could hear knees quaking around the league as 59 players tested positive before training camps opened two weeks ago. Most of those players returned after sitting out quarantines and there have been no reported positives since, but training camps offer the sort of mini-bubbles that won’t be replicated as travel for games begins.

The foundation of the NFL’s return plan is its ability to bull to the front of any and all lines and obtain a level of virus testing that, as far as I know, exists nowhere else in the U.S.  Daily testing of every participant began with the training camps and will continue until September 5, or until local positive rates dip below 5%. One report last week said that the league had used about 150,00 tests to that point.

Television reports from the NFL camps show a sort of football-like activity but not the sweaty, rigorous drills usually associated with the bruising sport. With its summer warm-up camps limited to about two weeks, baseball has had an unusual spate of injuries in its truncated season. Unless about 70 years of experience amounts to nothing, the casualty lists should be long when (if) football gets back into action.

Further, the NFL’s once-a-week play and 16-game schedule puts a premium on every game that doesn’t exist elsewhere. Baseball has been able to make up for lost games with seven-inning doubleheaders. No such option exists in football. What would a playoff picture look like if some teams play 16 games while others play 15 or 14?  Commish Goodell would earn his salary making those calls.

If the NFL season’s viability looks shaky, it is rock solid compared to that of the college game. Return-to-class reports from campuses around the land have revealed the sort of knuckleheaded behaviors and student contagion rates that have tilted national rates upward, including (indeed, especially) in states whose university teams play in conferences that remain determined to play football later this month. The U of North Carolina, an ACC school, reported 784 positive tests among enrollees last month, the U of Alabama (SEC) 1,000-plus, the U of Missouri (Big 12) 166. No breakdowns were reported but some of those kids have to be footballers, huh?

 Some schools in those conferences have canceled opening home games scheduled for early this month, including North Carolina State (ACC) and Iowa State (Big 12).  Two SEC members—Tennessee and Auburn—cancelled practices last week after positive virus tests.

Everything is political these days so it’s probably no accident that the collegiate will-play/won’t -play divide has mostly “blue” states on the cautious “won’t” side and “red” states among the gung ho “wills.” To say this is disturbing is an understatement; college sports are played by kids but run by adults who are supposed to look out for their welfare. Putting that second to make a buck or a point  buck is reprehensible, but no surprise.

 

 

 

  

 

Saturday, August 15, 2020

FORGIVEN AND FORGOTTEN

 

               If you plan to run for just about any public office in the U.S., a platform including the words “law and order” is advisable. True, those terms haven’t been in great repute of late, but I think they still carry weight. At the least, they’re better than most alternatives.

               But while we the people are tough on crimes and criminals rhetorically, this doesn’t always describe how we behave. In sports in particular we seem quite willing to overlook or forgive, especially when the wrongdoer wears a uniform to which we pledge allegiance. Even outlanders often get the benefit of the doubt when their offenses have faded from memory sufficiently.

               I’m referring specifically to baseball and we fans’ reactions to players who have been caught doping. Seventy Major League players have been busted publicly since the game finally instituted regular testing for performance-enhancing drugs in 2005, and while most of them have been individuals of no great reputation a good-sized handful had earned “star” designations. Almost all of those guys have been greeted with applause from their home fans when they returned to action, and their misdeeds either have been forgotten by opposing audiences or never noted in the first place.

And a couple of the more-notorious dopers (albeit ones who were convicted in the court of public opinion) seem poised to be voted into the game’s Hall of Fame by sportswriters who heretofore have considered themselves to be baseball’s conscience. How’s that for a kick?

Now, it’s true that on a general level taking PEDs doesn’t rank high on any scale of heinous offenses. Some people consider the practice par for the course in big-time sports, a smart move that’s worth a shot (joke intended) and no big deal if it fails. Truth to tell, though, it’s cheating in its most base form, an eyes-wide-open decision to tilt the playing fields in the interest of padding statistics and paychecks.  The edge it confers is as real as the Houston Astros’ recently exposed sign-stealing tactics. It deserves at least equal condemnation.

 That PED use is quickly forgotten is exemplified by Starling Marte and Jorge Polanco.  Marte, an outfielder of some repute, was busted and suspended in 2017 while with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Polanco became the Minnesota Twins’ starting shortstop in 2017 at age 24 but was caught using drugs the next season. Each served 80-game suspensions, the max for the offenses. Their drugs of choice, respectively, were nandrolone and stanozolol, harry-chested steroids favored by weightlifters. No question about intent there.

But maybe because they play for small-market teams that don’t get a lot of ink, both men have blended back into the game seamlessly. Polanco was rewarded by his team with a 2019 salary that was about six times what he made the previous year and was elected by fan vote to be the American League’s starting All-Star Game shortstop. Marte also got a nice raise in Pittsburgh on his return and when he was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks before this season his suspension was hardly noted. Interestingly, his home-run totals in his first two seasons post-steroids (22 and 23) were greater than in the years he was juicing, probably causing him to wonder why he tried the stuff.

If Marte and Polanco went quietly into suspension, Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez did not. Braun, a Milwaukee Brewers’ star when he tested positive for testosterone in 2012, contested the ruling on grounds his urine sample was mishandled, and won in arbitration. He screamed bloody murder, threatening to sue everyone in sight and accusing the guy who handled the sample of being anti-Semitic (Braun identifies as Jewish) and, worse, a Chicago Cubs’ fan. A year later, when he was snared again in the scandal involving the Miami performance lab Biogenesis, he shamefacedly fessed up and accepted a 65-game suspension.  Although welcomed back by Milwaukee fandom, Braun was booed elsewhere on his return in 2014, but that has faded. A 2015 All Star, he was featured in MLB ads promoting baseball’s return from this year’s pandemic, signaling that all’s been forgiven upstairs.

ARod, a towering baseball figure over a 22-year career (1994-2016), was linked to PED use from the year 2000 and admitted to taking them during a 2001-03 period, before they were banned in the game.  Finally busted in 2013, he loudly took the deny-and-sue route, going so far as to dispatch pickets to march outside the commissioner’s office on his behalf. He was banned for the entire 2014 season for taking “numerous forms” of PEDs over “multiple years.” His penalty was unprecedented.

He returned for the 2015 and ’16 seasons with diminished skills and retired from baseball, but rather than fad away he’s flourished like a green bay tree. He’s a “Shark Tank” entrepreneur and A-list party guy with world-class girlfriend Jennifer Lopez, and is part of ESPN’s broadcast crew on Sunday night baseball, it’s top slot for the sport. He’s the front man for a group trying to buy the New York Mets, something he wouldn’t be if the owners kept a grudge. Hey, given time he could be commissioner.

  Rehabilitation also might be near for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, the aforementioned Notorious Two.  Despite brilliant diamond careers both left the game in disgrace after their long-term drug use was widely and convincingly asserted. Although neither was convicted, each faced criminal charges for lying about it under oath, Bonds’ conviction being overturned on appeal.

Predictably, from the first both were hailed as heroes where they played; Bonds is in the San Francisco Giants’ Hall of Fame and Clemens is in the Boston Red Sox’s version of same. Election to the real Hall in Cooperstown has been more problematic. Since both became eligible in 2013 for election by the baseball writers they’ve run as a kind of ticket, each pulling about 35% of the vote in their first three years (75% is needed for election), then creeping upward annually to 61% this year.

 They’ll be on the ballot for two more years and players who’ve topped 60% with time to go usually make it over the top. Next year’s Hall crop of first-year-eligibles is weak, so that might come sooner rather than later. If it happens the question won’t be whether we forgive them but whether they forgive us.      

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

              

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                                                                                                 

Saturday, August 1, 2020

GAMING NAMING

               The anti-racism protests that have roiled many American cities these last few months may or may not result in substantive changes in our society, but they have claimed at least one “W” of a symbolic nature.  That would be the decision of the Washington National Football League team to, finally, drop the “Redskins” appellation it has hauled around since 1937. Other teams with Native-American-inspired names still cavort on various playing fields but none of their monikers is as all-around-objectionable as the ’Skins’. It will be missed by few.

               The Washingtonians’ move no doubt will spur examination of more of the above-mentioned names, all of which have been under some sort of fire. The baseball Cleveland Indians have said they are mulling a change, and the Atlanta Braves have indicated they may move to nix the tomahawk-motion cheer that has become their trademark. My alma mater, the U of Illinois, some years ago dropped its Chief Illiniwek symbol, after prolonged strife. Dumping the school’s Fighting Illini nickname has been urged by some, but that might also require changing the name of the state, which is of native-inhabitant origin. So too, by the way, are 25 other U.S. state names, 26 if you include Hawaii.

               One Amerind name that probably will hang on is that of the Florida State U. Seminoles. Since 1978 the schools’ mascots have been Osceola, a noted Seminole chief, and his appaloosa horse Renegade. Before every FSU home football game an Osceola impersonator rides Renegade onto the field and casts a burning spear into the ground around the 50-yard line. The names, and the capering, have the okay of the Seminole tribe, but that approval might stem in part from its gratitude that the school had dropped previous Indian mascots, among them Sammy Seminole, Chief Fullabull and Chief Wampumstompum.

The desire not to offend turns many athletic entities towards the zoo when it comes to naming or renaming, with results that are drearily generic. How far schools will go to avoid that pitfall is best exemplified by Stanford University, which in 1972 changed its teams’ name from the Indians to the Cardinal. That’s Cardinal singular, as in the color, not the bird. (Gotta watch them touchy bird lovers.) The school’s mascot runs around dressed as a tree. Who could object to that?

But Stanford aside, college team names generally have it all over those of the pros, probably because here are so many of them that some have to get it right. There are occupational names tied to the school’s mission, such as the Purdue Boilermakers and the Leigh Engineers, and ones with a meteorological tilt, like the Miami Hurricanes and Iowa State Cyclones. There are whimsical names like the Hampshire College Blacksheep, and neo-whimsical ones, such as the Cal-Irvine Anteaters and the mighty Artichokes of Scottsdale Community College in my AZ backyard. There are plays on words, like the Pace College Setters.

Usually, college cheers echo the institutions’ names, but sometimes the reverse has been true. Georgetown U. calls its teams the Hoyas after its “Hoya Saxa!” yell, a Greek-Latin amalgam that the school says translates to “what rocks!”  Virginia Polytechnic Institute dubs its teams the Hokies after a turn-of-the-20th century chant that began “Hokey, hokey, hokey high/ Tech, Tech, VPI.”

Catholic-run Manhattan College names its teams the Jaspers after Brother Jasper, its first baseball coach. The University of Idaho’s Vandals nickname comes not from the ancient Germanic tribe but from a sportswriter’s exclamation that a long-ago school basketball team “vandalized” an opponent.

The origins of the University of North Carolina’s flavorful Tarheels nickname are lost in time. One version has it that state residents dumped tar into a river to impede British troops during the Revolutionary War, another has Civil War soldiers from the state telling detractors they would fight better if their heels also had been dipped in the plentiful gunk.  Indiana U.’s “Hoosiers” name is similarly obscure; it might stem from what early homesteaders in the state were said to have hollered when people knocked on their doors.

My favorite is the Billikens of St. Louis U. It seems that a billiken is an elfish, round-bellied statuary figure of Asian origin that used to be a popular good-luck charm. In 1910 a sportswriter decided that John Bender, the school’s football coach, looked like one and started calling the team “Bender’s Billikens.” The name stuck.

I have no expectation that Washington’s ownership will come up with anything clever or even interesting to replace Redskins. They’ve moaned publicly that a name change for an organization as august as theirs is no easy matter, requiring considerable thought and research. Executive brains must be taxed, focus groups convened. For the coming season (if there is one) the name “Washington Football Team” must suffice. Speculation has “Warriors” in the rename lead. Then it’s off to the zoo for “Red Wolves” and “Red Hawks,” although I read that somebody has copyrights on those names and would have to be paid off before they could be used

If the zoo it must be, I favor “Hogs.” Yeah, it has negative connotations, but it’s genuinely local, that being the team’s well known offensive-line nickname during its 1980s glory days. How about the “DisCos,” for a D.C. play? Or the “Lobbyists” or “Swamp Creatures” for a capital connection? If those don’t scare opponents, nothing will. 

 

 

 

                


Wednesday, July 15, 2020

IN THE SWIM


               Eons ago—way, way back when—a fish with stumpy fins took a deep gurgle, humped himself out of the ocean and began to explore the land. He liked it and stayed, bidding some of his mates to join him. Eons more later the evolutionary cycle turned again and people emerged, no longer fishlike. Nonetheless, deep in our genes there must remain a trace of fish because I’m never happier than I am in the water. These days my four-times-a-week swim is the center of my calendar; it is, in fact, my answer to the “what do you do?” question retirees often are asked.

             I swim, therefore I am.

This is a good time to write about exercise, I think, because our semiconfinement to ward off the corona virus puts a premium on it. Sitting around indoors all day isn’t good for us; it’s boring as well as unhealthful. In the Arizona desert where I live, where summer daily high temperatures regularly top 110 degrees, just getting out can be a problem. The inviting waters of our outdoor pools make that easier.

And by all accounts swimming is about as good an exercise as one can do. It’s a low-impact, whole-body workout, and it’s cheap— a 30-swim card at the Scottsdale municipal pools, which I frequent, costs $72, which comes to $2.40 per. For equipment one needs only a suit— little Speedos are best for swimming laps even though they don’t flatter most of us, uh, mature guys—and goggles, to protect the eyes from the chlorine in the water. Total cost for both is around $40. I also use $25 fins— so-called “trainers.” They improve the quality of the workout and give me a little, much-needed speed.

Lap swimming is supposed to be good for the heart and lungs and helps control blood pressure. It’s said to reduce the chances of catching colds or the regular flu in the winter. I sleep better when I swim.  I swear I read somewhere that it makes people taller and better looking. I’ve tried to look that up, and couldn’t, but I believe it anyway. It’s especially appropriate for this virus-ducking time because lane dividers keep swimmers separated and chlorine kills germs indiscriminately. Get in and out without being social and you’re OK.    

As a kid growing up in Chicago I couldn’t get enough of the city’s Lake Michigan beaches. The lake’s water temperatures rarely top 70 degrees—too cold for many—but they felt fine to me. I first swam in a pool at a day camp at age 11 and quickly discovered I could swim. Bike-driven outings to the wonderful Whealan Pool in the county forest preserves were a highlight of my pre-teen and teen summers, as were plunges into the big lake off “the rocks”—i.e., the breakwater-- at Waveland Avenue. Pals and I would dive for balls in the scummy, muddy water hole at the Waveland public golf course, and sell the balls when we could. It was a miracle we didn’t catch typhus.

I spent a year on the swimming team at Roosevelt High School but wasn’t fast; the best I ever did in a race was a third-place finish in a four-swimmer field in a 50. Our coach was Mr. Marx, whose claim to fame was that he coached 1936 Olympic backstroke champion Adolph Kiefer, the best athlete the school ever produced. I don’t recall Mr. Marx providing any coaching; indeed, I don’t believe he spoke to me during my team tenure.  I’m guessing he didn’t say much to Kiefer, either.

While I was in college I spent a couple of summers as a day-camp counselor, among other things helping little kids learn to swim. My main discovery was that any kid who would put his face in the water and blow bubbles could be taught, while those who wouldn’t couldn’t. From this I concluded that fish DNA might not be universal in the human genome.

I’m sorry to say I neglected swimming post-college, seeking more competitive and social sporting outlets. At one time or another I played softball, golf, tennis, racquetball and handball, and hiked. Alas, they’re all on my “used to” list now. Lured by Scottsdale’s lovely municipal pools, I took up lap swimming to supplement my hiking in 2005, and when strangled nerves ended the hiking seven years later it became my sole exercise outlet.  My initial workouts as a spry 67-year-old were 60 laps of 25 meters each. They’re 44 lengths now, or about two-thirds of a mile, equally split between stroking and kicking.

  I’m in the water for about 33 minutes, and for fun I worked out that I go 50 meters in about 80 seconds. That’s about four times the 20-22 seconds of world-class swimmers. That means the difference between duffers and the pros is a chasm; they’re a whole different species. At Scottsdale’s Cactus Pool I’ve been in the water with collegiate-level swimmers and they zoom by me like torpedoes. It’s an awesome experience.

Submerged as the competitors are, swimming isn’t much of a spectator sport. (What do you call people who attend swim meets? Parents.) It surfaces (ha-ha) only every four years, during the Olympics. There, people who are built for speed prevail-- tall ones with broad shoulders, long arms and hands and feet like shovels. The Aussie Ian Thorpe was one such model, Michael Phelps is another. They also must be willing to endure long, solitary hours of practice in a foreign medium with little to distract them. Americans have long dominated the international sport. I don’t know what this says about us, but it’s not all bad.








                

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

LOCO PARENTS


               I delight in quirks of language, even in languages not my own. Take, for example, the phrase “in loco parentis.”  In Spanish, where “loco” means crazy, it seems to mean something like “crazy parents,” but in Latin, its intended tongue, in loco means “in place of,” and applies to people or institutions that might assume parental responsibilities for youngsters. Quite a difference, huh?

               The phrase often is, or was, applied to schools or colleges. In ancient times, when I went to college at the U of Illinois, it was aimed mostly at women students with such rules as 10 p.m. weeknight curfews (men had none) and the notorious “three feet on the floor” dictum for couples who were, uh, necking in dorm sitting rooms and such.  Times change, though, and such strictures now are in history’s dustbin.

               But “in loco” has come up with a vengeance in regard to college sports during the present pandemic. Members of the “Power Five” football conferences (the SEC, Big Ten, Pac 12, Big 12 and ACC) called their teams back to campus last month for so-called “voluntary” workouts in preparation for the scheduled season ahead, with eye-opening results. At LSU 30 football players in an initial group tested positive for the coronavirus, at Clemson the score was 23 and at the U. of Texas 18, to name a few examples. Some schools cancelled their workouts, others put them off until better conditions prevailed. To say that it was an inauspicious start to the season would be to put it mildly.

               Trouble is, things are likely to get worse given the recent virus surge, and more appalling.  Asking young men in the 18-to-22 years-old age group to endanger their health and the health of others in the name of sport by institutions that should be protecting them strains credulity.  The double meaning of the “in loco” line never has been more apparent.

               If you follow this blog you know that I view skeptically the chances of any our major team sports to successfully open or reopen their seasons while the virus persists; for details scroll down to my offering of June 1. My basic argument is that the exercises will contain too many parts that could fail, and whatever can go wrong probably will. Of our Big Three professional sports, I think that basketball (the NBA) has the best chance of making a go of it, followed by MLB baseball and NFL football. That judgement is based on the numbers, the NBA having the smallest casts and the NFL the largest.  The NFL also trails because its sport negates any kind of “social distancing,” in practice as well as during games. The league probably will require players to wear some sort of face shield, but many kinds of bodily fluids fly after foot meets ball.

               But if the NFL will have a tough time meeting its schedules, the colleges will have it tougher. For starters, “Power Five” conference teams have squads of more than 80 players in season compared to the 57 permitted in the pros, and while most professional players can repair to private homes when work is done collegians generally live in dormitories or shared apartments, in close quarters with others. College campuses are fertile grounds for the spread of diseases such as meningitis during ordinary times, and the pandemic multiplies the risk.

               The NBA will try to create a “bubble” around its players at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, during its renewed season. MLB and the NFL discussed but rejected such a course on grounds of practicality because of their bigger squads and the greater geographical spread of their operating plans. The idea of a college-campus bubble is ludicrous; those places will be full of “civilians” when classes are in session.

 The subject of what to do when the inevitable “positive” hits arrive is similarly fraught; where will infected collegians quarantine and who will take care of them when they do?  Going home to the folks won’t be a good option. Youth and good health will save most collegians from the worst effects of the virus but their parents have no such protection.

The differences between the pros and the colleges continue, also reflecting poorly on the latter. Professional athletes are adults who at the major-league level are well paid for what they do and for any risks they may take. They have unions to represent them as a group and agents who to do that for them individually. Collegians don’t have either and they’re not paid, at least by check.  More basically, professional sports exist to entertain and turn a profit for their owners. Period. Colleges pretend to other, more-exalted goals, although you wouldn’t know it from the way many of them behave.

It's not clear how much parenting people in their late teens and early twenties require, but the answer surely is some. The stereotype of a coach in recruiting mode has him promising mom and dad to treat their boy “like a son” while he’s at Gigantic State U., but too often the guy has more in common with Charles Dickens’ Fagin than with the Robert Young character in the old TV series.

Colleges’ failure to protect can touch the criminal, as in the cases of the Michigan State University team physician who was sentenced to 60 years in prison for sexually abusing women athletes in his charge over 20 years, and the Ohio State University doctor who did the same to male athletes, including wrestlers and football players, for a similar period. My alma mater, Illinois, fired a head football coach a few years back for belittling injured players and pressuring them to play. A spate of college coaches, both women and men, have lost their jobs in recent years after complaints about verbal abuse arose.

Perhaps worse are the cadres of “academic advisors” who steer young jocks into easy, low-content courses that keep them eligible, rather than toward more-demanding but more-rewarding offerings. Don’t be misled, every big-time sports-school does it.  Asking the kids to risk their health for Old Siwash is a short step from that. With “parents” like those they don’t need enemies.



              

Monday, June 15, 2020

SPEAK UP AND DRIBBLE


               In this extraordinary time of illness and anger, a couple of statements stand out. One was by the conservative commentator Laura Ingraham, who in an interview a couple of years ago told the basketball star LeBron James to “shut up and dribble” after he’d voiced criticism of President Trump. The other, just last week, was from Roger Goodell, commissioner of the National Football League, our most-buttoned-down sports entity. Videotaped from his basement and looking penitent, he said the league now encourages its players to speak out on public issues that concern them.

               Those pronouncements represent the two ends of the spectrum of athlete activism in America, or the lack thereof. The subject has been with us for many years, but never as vividly as these past few weeks during the protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. As the turnouts at the nationwide rallies have shown, the vented outrage isn’t strictly a black-white matter, but they looked for leadership from African-American communities. Well-known athletes are among the most-visible members of these. 

               It’s long been apparent that the role of social activist doesn’t fit well with many sports standouts. Excellence in sports can be an all-consuming proposition, beginning very young and thriving in a hot-house environment that all but excludes other interests. In team sports unity is all, so subjects that may interfere with it are all but banned in locker-room talk, by tacit understanding rather than executive fiat.

 Over the years a few top athletes have ventured into social-political scrums, but mostly after their playing-field careers have ended. The basketball player Kareem-Abdul Jabbar and the football great Jim Brown come to mind in that respect, as do the tennis players Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova. A handful of athletes have had careers in electoral politics after they’d hung ‘em up, with ex-footballer Jack Kemp, the 1996 Republican vice-presidential candidate, and old-Knick Bill Bradley, a three-term U.S. senator, the most-prominent recent examples.

The dominant model, however, has been one of public neutrality, especially when commercial interests also are involved. Basketballer Michael Jordan, the best athlete and sports-gear model of his or, maybe, any era, steered clear of political frays with the memorable line “Republican buy sneakers, too,” and Tiger Woods, golf’s undisputed king as the centuries turned, followed a similar path. The boxing champion Muhammad Ali, a uniquely global sports figure, was not only apolitical but also antipolitical. He was an adherent of a religious sect that frowned on civic engagement and considered white people to be devils, although in later life he modified his views and came to be regarded as a benign figure.

The pressure to change has come from the racial nature of many current national issues and the left-right political divide that has been exacerbated by the Trump presidency. African Americans make up about two-thirds of the players in the National Football League and about three-fourths of those in the National Basketball Association, making those entities politically relevant whether they want to be or not. When the cameras roll, or when a microphone is thrust faceward, comment has become increasingly imperative. Noted Danny Trevathan, a Chicago Bears’ linebacker, after the football team’s meeting on the recent demonstrations, “you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable these days.”

That the main focus of the protests is police brutality gives it a special sports turn. The issue has a long history in the U.S. but of late it’s been linked in the public mind with the football player Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling posture during the playing of the National Anthem before games in the NFL 2016 season.  Kaepernick’s action was aimed at calling attention to the police shooting deaths on consecutive days that July of the unarmed black men Alton Sterling (in Baton Rouge, Louisiana) and Philandro Castile (in the St. Anthony suburb of Minneapolis), but the backlash led by President Trump, abetted by the NFL, turned it into a debate over respect for the anthem. Kaepernick, a San Francisco Forty Niner quarterback, lost his job in the aftermath, and has yet to be hired by any NFL team.  Whether or not he plays again will be a test of the league’s professed new attitude toward outspokenness.

The recent protests have dwarfed those that went before for a couple of reasons. One is the drumbeat of black lives lost in police hands, lately etched into painful memory by video recordings. The other was the school shutdowns caused by the coronavirus outbreak, which left millions of high-school or college-aged students free to march and march again.  The sheer weight of the protests seems to have created the sort of impetus for action that heretofore has been lacking.

As a young newspaper reporter I wrote that something or other “remains to be seen.” The phrase was exorcised by an editor who told me that just about everything does. That seems especially pertinent to the prospects for success of efforts to effect long-term changes in police conduct. New Federal or state legislation might tilt the seesaw in favor of change, but American law enforcement is mostly a local matter, with some 800,000 officers employed by about 1,800 different police or sheriff’s departments. Each has its own history, culture and leadership that will have to be addressed, one at a time. 

County sheriffs are elected, making them pretty much laws unto themselves. In Maricopa County Arizona, which includes Phoenix, Joe Arpaio was elected to six four-year terms in the office despite thumbing his nose at directives to stop things like racial profiling for arrests and immigration “sweeps” that netted citizens as well as the undocumented. He was voted out (in 2016) only after a Federal contempt-of-court conviction and the county’s bills for lost lawsuits over jailhouse deaths and injuries topped $100 million. Overcoming the likes of him in many places will require the kind of stamina the best of athletes possess on a physical level. Free to do so, maybe our sports heroes can help out there.