Chinese Puzzle

I posted recently about the international incident that was stirred up when the General Manager of the Houston Rockets, of the NBA, dared to tweet that the Chinese people should be supported in their efforts to criticize their government. As a result the two teams that went to China to play an exhibition game were pretty much confined to quarters for much of a week while the public appearances that were scheduled were cancelled by the Chinese government. This is a big deal in that basketball is a very popular sport in China — especially NBA basketball. This may be the result of the fact that one of their players was a star in the NBA for years — Yao Ming by name.

In any event, upon their return to the United States the media in this country were eager to hear all about the kerfuffle in China and finally, after a day’s rest, LeBron James, who  plays for the Los Angles Lakers basketball team, spoke about the matter and in a rather long comment he said that in general we should not tweet about things without first being “educated” (his word, he should have said “well informed”) about the subject, and thinking about the consequences of those tweets in the international arena.

He was severely criticized on many fronts for siding with capitalism as over against “caring,” which is to say, worrying more about the profits that might come to the NBA as a result of good relations with China than he was about free speech which is much prized on this side of the Ocean — though not in China. We regard freedom of speech as a right, of course, though we fail to consider that rights are not absolute; on the contrary, they are always (even the right to bear arms) carefully circumscribed by restraints. We do not have the right to shout fire in a crowded theater, for example. Or, I would add, a right to bear automatic weapons designed for the military.

Now I am not a big fan of LeBron James. On the contrary I find his personality off-putting and I don’t particularly like his style of basketball, relying  much on his size and strength rather than the finesse I always associated with basketball. Moreover, I don’t see why he should regard himself as a qualified spokesperson for the NBA. But in this case I would like to defend him: I think he’s right. This was not a case of freedom of speech, it was a matter of common sense and awareness of the repercussions of the things we say and do. As he noted (and I really thought when he spoke that he was talking here to our President!) we need to think about the consequences of our words and actions. We, as a rule, tend not to do that, especially in this electronic age when buttons are pushed and we realize later what problems arose because of poor judgment and a too-quick thumb. I found that to be the case with at least one of my blogs. James is right: we need to think about the consequences of our words.

In and of itself, the incident is a tempest in a teapot as I noted in my previous post. But as a general trend and given the international repercussions of this seemingly insignificant  incident, we would do well to pause and think about the way we rush into things without taking the time to think about the consequences of our words and actions. That is good advice and in this case it was well intended; James was not denying our right to freedom of speech. He was simply urging us all (including those at the very top) to think before we tweet.

Tempest in a Teapot?

You have doubtless heard about the gigantic SNAFU resulting from a seeming harmless tweet that went out a few days ago. NO, not a tweet from Tweety Bird, but one from an NBA manager. CNN tells us:

Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey sent what may be the most problematic and potentially damaging tweet in corporate America this year.

Morey set off an international firestorm over the weekend when he tweeted support for pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong. “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” said the tweet, which has since been deleted.

Chinese authorities, challenged by months of protests in Hong Kong, have made it clear that business as usual with the league will cease until the NBA totally repudiates Morey’s statement.
The NBA has not “repudiated” the statement, which was cancelled very soon after it went out. In fact, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver supported Morey’s tweet thereby adding fuel to the fire and, of course, the President had to add his two cents worth. In any event, there’s a firestorm as China will now have nothing to do with the NBA and plans for pre-season games among a number of NBA teams that were scheduled in China, along with visits by the immensely popular players to various youth groups and charitable work among the throngs of people in China who find the NBA and its stars captivating have been cancelled.
There are a number of business repercussions as well, including the determination of a shoe company in China that was negotiating with several NBA players begging off and cutting ties with the NBA — under orders from the repressive regime in China, no doubt. In any event, this is a kerfuffle of immense importance in a day when our relations with China were already standing on the edge of a precipice.
I tend to agree with the NBA Commissioner who defended th right of Morey and anyone else to say what he or she may want to say. After all, our nation is founded on the right of free speech — among other rights.
But this never should have happened because it is not up to Morey — or anyone else in this country — to tell the Chinese how they should live their lives. Freedom of speech is one we all prize and rightly so. But the Chinese do not and to shout out in a tweet that the Chinese are justified to protest the actions of their government is iill-advised if not downright stupid. Especially, as I said, given the tottering relations with that nation resulting from numerous actions by our sitting President.
In a word, the right of folks to say what they want (within limits, I would think) is one we rightly pride ourselves on. But we cannot assume that other nations accept those rights — even if they should. And while the actions of a sports team on the other side of the earth may seem trivial in light of the many problems we face these days, it is simply adding fuel to a fire that had already been started when our President decided to impose tariffs on imports from that country not long ago.
We cannot possibly agree with the strictures laid down by the totalitarian regime in China, but it is a healthy reminder to those of us in this country who are faced with the growing possibility of an increasingly repressive government in this country that our freedoms are precious and there are those in this world who are not lucky enough to share them with us.
This is sad, and Morey was on solid ethical ground. But it was a political mistake and a lesson to us all.

Play For Pay

Nick Weiler is a kicker for the football team at the University of North Carolina. A week ago, with 4 seconds to go against Florida State, he kicked a 54 yard field goal to win the game and was therefore raised in the eyes of the Tar Heel faithful to the level of hero. Throughout his four years at North Carolina he has been an extraordinarily talented kicker and will assuredly be drafted into the NFL after graduation — if he graduates. Graduation doesn’t seem be a high priority for those who play football in Division I of the NCAA.

In any event, after the game-winning kick ESPN decided to send one of their reporters to visit with Nick for a day and do a “piece” showing their viewers what it is like to be the Big Man on Campus. As it happens, Nick doesn’t spend much time on campus, preferring to keep a low profile in his off-campus digs and just “hanging” with this friends — when not on the practice field. As far as I could tell from the brief piece very little of his time, if any, is spent in class or the library. In fact, if this young man’s experience is typical of athletes in Division I football, going to class is not much of a priority. It’s all about the game and about emerging as a star in order to have a chance to play in the NFL.

The sense that the sport is of primary concern at the Division I level was driven home to me personally not many years ago when a transfer from the University of Minnesota played tennis for my team for one year. She told me that as a Freshman she was told at that Division I school to take her classes before noon. After noon she “belonged to the tennis team.” This is women’s tennis, folks!! In contrast, we practiced two hours each afternoon and played most of our matches on weekends in order not to miss classes.

But, back to football. There are other stories like Nick’s. I had a good friend years ago who attended the University of Illinois back in the day of Dick Butkus who, it was said, hung out in the student union until, in his words, it was time to “go to work.” He was there to play football and he did that very well — well enough to become a Hall of Fame NFL player. And he also made movies to entertain us all!

These are anecdotes, of course, and don’t allow us to draw reliable generalizations. But, none the less, they give us a glimpse into the life of the semi-professional football players in Division I football — who are, reportedly, also given to violence off the field, especially toward young women. But, again, we must be careful about generalizations. I am sure there are a great many young men out there who actually respect women, go to class, and end up with a degree in hand at the end of four years. A few at any rate. Division I football programs are not famous for their high graduation rates.

In fact, I recommended years ago in an article I wrote for the Montana Professor (http://mtprof.msun.edu/Fall2001/CurtArt.html) that the athletes in Division I football — and basketball — be paid to play and not required to attend classes at all. Folks don’t care about these young men and what they might or not do after college — unless they go on to play for the NFL or the NBA which is apparently their dream. If they were paid a salary to play football or basketball then they could, if they wanted to do so, pay for some classes and actually earn a college degree just like their fellow students. And they would graduate without the huge debts incurred by their classmates!

In any event, let’s stop calling them scholar-athletes and going through the rigamarole of making them attend classes just for show. So many are in college for just one thing: to make it into the pros. So let’s be honest and admit that these are semi-professional athletes in what are, in effect, the minor leagues of their sports simply working to achieve a level of proficiency that will make them attractive to the professional teams.

In a word, what we do at present, in addition to exploiting these young men, is a sham and dishonest to boot. Let’s pay these men — even let them join unions — to play the games they love and wear the uniforms of their respective colleges and universities. But don’t make them go to class at all, even to take underwater basket-weaving and other non-challenging courses designed to make their lives as easy as possible while they maintain their NCAA eligibility to play games. If they really want a college education, they can pay for it like everyone else. If not, they can simply “go to work” each day and hope to land a huge salary playing at the professional level after a few years at the Division I level. At the very least, it’s more honest than what we do at present.

Genie Out Of The Bottle

You have doubtless heard about the sex scandal involving the basketball team at the University of Louisville. It is reported (again and again) that for a number of years a woman by the name of Katina Powell procured prostitutes and exotic dancers to attend to the needs and urges of basketball recruits in order to entice them into enrolling in the university. Reportedly this has cost the university “tens of thousands” of dollars and involved numerous high school recruits and their fathers or guardians over a number of years.

This is sensational and the media love sensational stories so it will become the hottest story around —  at least until interest wanes. But the real questions lie at the heart of this sort of thing, because we must suppose that Louisville is not the only school to be involved in doing whatever it takes to win. They are simply the ones that got caught, because Powell wrote a book about it and the police and the NCAA are investigating the reports, which appear to be well founded.  The real question is how this sort of thing can be stopped. And the answer, I fear, is that it cannot be stopped. There is simply too much money involved in Division I basketball and football to put an end to the sordid activities that coaches will resort to the get a “leg up” on the competition. And while  Rick Pitino. the coach at Louisville, has denied any knowledge of these going-on, it beggars belief that the man would not be fully aware of these activities. As a recent Yahoo News story notes:

Pitino has repeatedly denied any knowledge of strippers being paid to dance for or have sex with recruits, but in Powell’s first interview since her book was published, she reiterated to ESPN she finds that hard to believe.

Said Powell: “Four years, a boatload of recruits, a boatload of dancers, loud music, alcohol, security, cameras, basketball players who came in [to the dorm] at will … ”

What will be interesting now will be how Louisville responds. Will the school try to get ahead of potential NCAA sanctions and self-impose penalties or encourage Pitino to step down? Or will it do nothing besides continuing to insist it’s still investigating the veracity of Powell’s claims?

The standard response, of course, is that “everyone does it” and that is supposed to count as moral justification. But, even if true, it does not. I have written about the scandals involving athletes before (some would say endlessly) and this one really doesn’t differ in kind from the rest; it is simply more sensational because of the role played by prostitutes and the involvement of high school students — and their fathers or guardians. Louisville will almost certainly be found guilty as charged. The coach and perhaps the athletics director might be fired and there will be NCAA penalties. Whatever does occur, the whole thing will soon go the way of Ohio State, Penn State, Minnesota, and scores of other schools involved in scandals. It will be forgotten. What matters here is the success of the teams and, of course, the revenue they bring in.

I have suggested in the past that all athletes at Division I universities should be paid a decent salary and treated as professionals. If they then want to attend college they can pay tuition like everyone else. If not, they can spend it as they like and gamble on the remote possibility that they will be selected in the NFL or the NBA and become Professionals with a capital “P.” But this would not begin to solve the problems that surround college athletics because, they involve such huge amounts of money and, as in this case, they also involve young people who aren’t even enrolled at the school. There is simply no way to put a stop to this sort of transgression. The demand for sports on television — where the bulk of the money is generated — is insatiable and the networks couldn’t stop broadcasting the contests even if they wanted to. And, clearly, they don’t want to. They also make huge amounts of money.

Didn’t Jesus warn us all long ago that avarice is the root of all evil? These issues, along with many others too numerous to mention, seem to bear this out. In any event, moralizing aside, the genie is out of the bottle and there really doesn’t seem to be any way to put it back.

Olympic Impressions

Although I have made mention of the Olympic Games a few times in my blogs, it occurs to me that even though they are not quite over it would be fun to look back at the worst and best of the games — from my perspective, of course. The Games have inspired such brilliantly funny writers as Jennifer Worrell to write about her crush on Ryan Lochte in his skimpy speedo — though Jennifer complained recently that the thrill may have sent her muse to a nude beach in the Caribbean and she was struggling to find her usual cache of very funny words and phrases. [ Personally, I don’t think he was at the nude beach ogling women at all. I’m pretty sure I saw him at the local swimming pool ogling other men. I think he may be gay….not that there’s anything wrong with that!] Anyway, there are some pluses and some definite minuses as I take a look back.

To begin with there are the remarkable athletic feats that seem to pop up every day. I recall a woman on the Brazilian volleyball team streaking 15 yards away from the back line and then sliding to her tooshie to kick the ball back over her head to a team-mate who casually spiked the ball for a winner. No way! And there are the incredibly precise though not terribly elegant Chinese divers who barely make a ripple in the water as they enter after impossible twists and turns. And, of course, the skill shown by America’s modern-day Annie Oakley, Kim Rhode, who doesn’t seem to miss a clay pigeon anywhere within 200 yards. There are others too numerous to mention — including the gymnasts, all of them: how the hell do they do that!? But beyond all the athleticism, there are those special moments like the one where South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius, who ran with prostheses but did not qualify for the final, embraced and exchanged jerseys with a fellow competitor after the race.

The contests themselves reveal both the best and the worst in each of us. Though the gold match was exciting, I particularly recall the women’s soccer (excuse me “football”) match with Canada which went into extra periods with increasing tension until a header by Alex Morgan ended it amid the usual agony and ecstasy (and the hype) of victory. It was remarkable, but it presented us with good sportsmanship alongside poor sportsmanship, including “cheap shots” by both teams. But none of these matched the blows to the groins of at least two men’s basketball players that sent them to the floor holding themselves in pain, both involving NBA players.

But that brings us to the worst of the Olympics: the professionals. Clearly there are degrees of professionalism: there are leagues of professional basketball players in Europe who employ many of the players who play for the teams in the Olympics, and there are “Federations” all over the world that treat the athletes like royalty. We were told, for example, that one of the Chinese women who plays beach volleyball (yes, I watched!) practices 4 hours a day six days a week for 50 weeks a year and has done so for ten years! She is supported by her Federation and could easily be regarded as a professional. In fact, if we weeded out the professionals — those who get paid to play — we might end up with a handful of smiling faces holding a medal or two at the end — like the utterly charming Allyson Felix who was interviewed after her win in the women’s 200 meters and told about how excited she was to start teaching elementary school this Fall. But those cases are rare indeed.

At the top of the professional pile are the USA basketball players, male and female, who are paid obscene amounts of money to play the game year ’round and who should be excluded from the Olympic Games, without question. This point was dramatized when the men’s basketball team drubbed hapless Nigeria. It was painful to watch. But then professional tennis players who also make obscene amounts of money playing games should be barred as well. In fact, despite the fact that we would he hard pressed to separate amateurs from professionals for the reasons already given, perhaps there should be a rule that no one who plays a sport full-time should be allowed to compete in the Olympic Games — or no one who makes more than $100,000 — or the equivalent in Euros or Yen (above or below the table). Professionalism is the ugly side of the modern Games. Once money becomes part of the equation it starts to get smelly. The redeeming features are  the beauty, the athleticism, the friendships, and the positive joy of winning that lights the faces of the medal winners. For myself, I would prefer more of the latter and less of the former.