Friday, November 15, 2013


                William Safire, one of my journalistic idols, said it took three examples to make a column, so I use his dictum to lead into what follows.  To wit:

                THE MIAMI DOLPHINS’ BROUHAHA--  The first thing that was surprising about Jonathan Martin’s flight from the National Football League team is that a 6-foot-5, 320-pound man could be bullied, harassed or otherwise intimidated by a colleague as Martin says he was, by fellow behemoth and offensive-line mate Richie (no longer) Incognito. Exhibit A in his departure was a threatening, profane, racist screed that Incognito chose to text-message to Martin. The second surprising thing was that, apparently, Incognito didn’t know that anything sent electronically these days can be shared with the world instantly.

               The initial response of many, including the Dolphins’ GM to whom Martin complained about his treatment, was that Martin should have settled his dispute with Incognito by punching him in the mouth. Martin, however, is a well-brought-up young man— the son of two Harvard graduates—who doesn’t buy that approach to conflict resolution. That led some to put him down as a wuss, neglecting the facts that he was an All-American at Stanford U., a second-round draft choice by the Dolphins in 2012 and a starter at right or left tackle from his debut in the rock-‘em, sock -‘em pro game, things that should qualify him as manly on any scale.

              What wasn’t surprising about the episode to even passing followers of football was the involvement of Incogito. He’s been such bad news since his college days that it’s a wonder any team would take him on.

                Richie first matriculated at the U. of Nebraska football factory, and played well there, but was kicked off the school’s team after his junior year for “team-rules violations,” the label colleges use to cover up a wide variety of sins. While at Nebraska he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge stemming from a fight at a party, a rap that was bargained down from three felony counts. He also wound up on the list of witnesses against a Lincoln, Nebraska, man charged in 2005 with selling steroids to Cornhusker gridders and others.  He didn’t have to testify but the guy was convicted anyway.

               Richie next turned up at the U. of Oregon to complete his college eligibility, but was bounced before he put on his pads, also for undisclosed rules violations. As a pro he’s changed uniforms three times and has stood out more for his late-hit penalties than for his Pro Bowl-level talents. In 2009, as a Buffalo Bill, he was named the NFL’s dirtiest player in a poll of his peers taken by The Sporting News, no small distinction in that well-stocked zoo.

 It’s recently been revealed that police files in Aventura, Florida, showed that last year a woman complained that Incognito had groped her sexually and otherwise molested her while she was volunteering at a Dolphins’ golf outing. No charges were filed and the woman told reporters she couldn’t comment on the matter because of a confidentiality agreement she’d signed, indicating that she’d been bought off.

                Plenty of sociologizing has been used to explain the Incognito-Martin episode, but the clear facts are that football requires of its players the kind of of aggression that’s unacceptable in society at large, and that for whatever reasons a few of them can’t turn it off when the whistle blows or the game ends. Teams hire these guys (and others cozy up to them) at their risk, as the Dolphins have discovered.

               It’s worth noting that Martin’s mother is a noted lawyer specializing in employment matters in general and workplace harassment in particular.   He thus has at his disposable able, zealous and, no doubt, free representation, something that will make him formidable in any forum.

               BIG YANKEE SPITS BACK AT BIG BASEBALL—The 13 other targets of the Biogenesis doping investigations quietly accepted and served their penalties, but not Alex Rodriguez. The game’s highest-paid performer is fighting his 211-game suspension both in arbitration and in federal court. He’s accused Commish Selig and other MLB officials of conducting a personal vendetta against him, and has played the ethnic card by siccing at least one Hispanic group on baseball’s tail.   That’s a lot nastier than these things usually get.

               ARod can do this because 1) he’s very rich, having been paid about $250 million to play baseball to date, 2) doesn’t have much else to do, and 3) at age 38, a 1 1/3-season suspension, stretching into 2015, probably would end his baseball career, which could endanger the four years (and $86 million) remaining on his Yankees’ contract. With that at stake his decision to take his best shot is understandable.
              Arod is a repeat steroids offender, but isn’t going into battle unarmed. The likely main witness against him, the defunct Miami “anti-aging” clinic’s owner Tony Bosch, is a con man, and much of the game’s documentary evidence either was stolen from Bosch by a disgruntled former employee or purchased from third parties whose backgrounds and motives are murky. Arod’s legal team, headed by the big-heat Washington lawyer and lobbyist Lanny Davis, no doubt will exploit those issues, both in and out of the hearing rooms. Baseball needs off-season attractions and this will be a good one.

               GIVE PEACE A CHANCE—Can you imagine an NFL game without penalties? It’s hard, but conceivable. Fact is, there was half such a game on November 4, when the Green Bay Packers played the Chicago Bears at Green Bay. The Packers were charged with no (as in zero) penalties that Monday night, while the Bears were flagged just four times.  I didn’t realize this until I saw the box score the next day, but I remember enjoying the game, and not only because my Bears won.

               I looked it up and learned that there have been four penaltyless games in NFL history. The last was in 1940, when the league possessed none of its enormous present self-importance. Penalty-free games for single teams are less rare, but happen about once a season. 

                 Can an NFL team really go 60 minutes without breaking any of the league’s fat book of rules?  No, which means that game officials didn’t see any infractions worth calling on the Pack that evening. What a precedent! If it spreads, NFL games might be watchable again.

               Football has been described as violence punctuated by committee meetings. Now it’s violence punctuated by committee meetings and law-enforcement actions, the latter including the Talmudic-style rules discussions that go on while video reviews of officials’ calls spin out endlessly. No good play can be enjoyed until the field is scanned for penalty markers; “there’s a flag on the play” have become the six saddest words in sports. More zebra self-restraint would spare us some of that.    

Friday, November 1, 2013


                Centuries from now, if our institutions still exist, archeologists wishing to learn what life was like in 2013 would do well to check out our TV commercials. No other medium better encapsulates our values and aspirations. If we don’t like the pictures of ourselves they present, it’s our fault, not its makers’. Those folks are sharp and have money to spend, a tough combination to beat.
                The commercials that have caught by eye especially of late are in Pepsi’s “Are You Fan Enough?” series. There’s been a bunch of them, tied to National Football League teams and games. The kickoff ad, presented in the usual zip-zip-zip fashion, showed energetic-looking men and women wearing NFL gear and waiving team flags, others with painted faces, and a young man getting a team logo (the Pittsburgh Steelers’) shaved onto his head, interspersed with images of people quaffing the sponsor’s sweet, brown beverage. It ends with a shot of a bunch of beefy guys in a crowded stadium, leaning forward, pumping their fists and shouting apoplectically. 
              What if anything is happening on the field while all that activity is going on—the context, don’t you know?—is unseen and unstated. That’s because there is no context. According to the ad, fan fervor is an end in itself and worth celebrating for its own sake.  The French philosopher Rene Descartes defined the human credo as “cogito ergo sum,” which means “I think therefore I am.”  If he were alive today and writing Pepsi ads he’d put “we cheer therefore we are” into Latin, and be well paid for it.
               It’s a whole new ball game out there, one in which I’m not comfortable because I don’t qualify as “fan enough” by Pepsi’s standards. I’ve never painted my face in a team’s colors, own no team flags, don’t have enough hair to have a team emblem cut onto my scalp and never have come close to busting a gut over any sports action, although I’ve seen plenty of it.

                I do own some team gear but received most of it as gifts, from people who think it’s the kind of thing I’d like. I’m politely grateful when I get it but promptly pitch it onto a shelf in my closet, from where it rarely emerges. I have a classic Cubs’ cap I like—blue with a red “C”—and often wear to baseball games. I have a couple Olympic t-shirts from my columnist days that I wear in public from time to time, mostly because they’re good brags. Otherwise the duds get worn only around my house, when I’m in my wood shop or doing my morning exercises.

                   An obvious reason for my unease with the current stadium scene is generational: most people my age (I’m 75) didn’t make a display of their fandom during my formative years. We went to games, all right, and cheered for the home teams, but mostly we kept quiet unless something worth shouting about was taking place on the field. Stated differently, there were the games and there was the audience of which we were a part, and the two were separate.  Ditto for plays, concerts and other forms of public entertainment.

                Now the audience considers itself part of the show. I don’t go to rock concerts but I did go to a play a few weeks ago (“The Importance of Being Earnest,” if you can believe they’re still staging it) and the young fellow seated behind me (about 30 years old, I’d guess) whooped or hollered “Yeah!” at every on-stage verbal putdown, of which there were many. I wondered what Oscar Wilde would have thought.
                 There always have been people who think everything is about them, but today they predominate. In sports I think their ascendancy began in the late 1970s or early ‘80s when the stadium “wave” made its appearance on the West Coast and rolled across the nation.  The wave was nice in a way—a communal expression—but it also made the statement that the sports crowd can have an agenda that has nothing to do with the game before it.

                I feel similarly about the costumes some people wear to athletic events. For pure entertainment the best show in the NFL isn’t put on by Peyton Manning or Tom Brady but by the fans in the parking lot and stands at Oakland Raiders’ home games. People there have embraced the Raiders’ biker-gang image and celebrate it with fierce face paint, real or temporary tattoos, spiked hair, studded belts and collars, and muscle shirts. And that’s just the women!

                The above two examples are harmless, as was that “Rockin’ Rolland” guy who’d show up ubiquitously on TV wearing his rainbow wig and hoisting his “John 3:16” sign. (Where is he? I miss him.) Not so the latest manifestation of crowd exhibitionism, the sustained, ear-splitting roar.

                You may be interested to know that there’s a contest going on for whose fans are loudest, and that those of the NFL Kansas City Chiefs are winning. Their top decibel level during a game last month was measured at 137.5 by the Guinness World Record folks, beating the previous mark of 136.6 for an outdoor stadium set a week earlier at a Seattle Seahawks’ home game. Both readings were about the same noise level a jet passenger plane creates on takeoff, as heard by someone standing on the runway bare eared.

                The object of those clamors is very much game-related, designed to disrupt the signals of the visiting team’s offense, and the false-start and delay-of-game penalties they cause attest to their effectiveness. Is this fair? No, but so far the league hasn’t wanted to rile the beast by telling it to pipe down. Fans want to express themselves even at a risk of hearing loss, and Commish Goodell is letting them.

                The Pepsi people no doubt would rate the K.C. and Seattle screamers as “fan enough,” and worthy of drinking their product.  Me, I don’t care what Pepsi thinks. I prefer Coke.     

                NOTE: I have a new piece on Cub and White Sox prospects in the Arizona Fall League on, which you can check out with the link above. While you’re there see my piece on the old ogre Arthur Wirtz by finding “Wirtz Case Scenario.”