Why The Fuss?

As pretty much everyone knows by now — even our good friend Lisa in far-off Ecuador — growing numbers of NFL players are refusing stand for the national anthem before football games and this has caused a great uproar. The roar was barely heard until the President stuck his oar into the mess and decided to stir it up. Most recently he has threatened to eliminate all tax breaks for the NFL to hurt the owners where they live and force them to insist that their players behave themselves. This has brought about a quantum leap in protest, much of it directed to the President’s insensitive manner of addressing the issue.

In all this confusion the central issue has somehow been lost. The President himself fails to make the distinction, as I mentioned in a previous post, between protesting the flag and protesting racial injustice. The latter is the real issue here and it has become lost in the emotional reaction of a great many people, including refusal to attend or watch games and even the burning of team jerseys, to what they regard as “unpatriotic” behavior.

The obvious question is why the hell do we insist on saluting the flag and singing the national anthem at sporting events? But I shall ignore it to focus instead on the reason there is protest, a protest that started with Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem in a pre-season football game over a year ago. Kaepernick has apparently been ostracized from professional football as a result and, in any event, is currently unemployed. But his protest started the ball rolling and it got a huge push from the President’s mindless threats to the players and owners.

We need to bear in mind the sort of prejudice the Blacks face every day. Think of the Jim Crow laws in the South that would disenfranchise them from the body politic; the existence of the KKK and white supremacists and their loud support of our sitting President who is himself a Racist (with a capital “R”); the  looks these folks get every day and, if the have the courage to marry or even date a white woman or a white man, the thinly veiled hatred they see all around them, especially in the South. And, of course, there is the seemingly random shooting of unarmed Black men by anxious policemen that seems to have become a growing problem in our Inner-Cities.

When I was in high school in Baltimore many years ago I worked in a grocery store after school each day with two Black men who drove the delivery trucks. We had a number of interesting talks and for the first time in my life I began to see the world a bit through their eyes. They would tell me, calmly, about the glares, the derision, and the contempt they experienced every day, and I recall one of the men saying in a plaintive voice how he just wished he could take his family out to a meal in a nice restaurant, so many of which had “No Colored” signs in their windows — even in the mid-1950s.

This was Baltimore, folks. Not the deep South. Maryland was neutral during the Civil War even though their sympathies were for the most part with the South — after all there was a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln as he passed through Baltimore prior to his assuming office which ended with him entering Washington in disguise and protected by Pinkerton men. It became a standing joke, but it was no joke. In any event, Baltimore was a Southern City and even in the 1950s there was wide-spread prejudice against folks of color. When school integration was ordered by the Supreme Court in 1954 there was considerable unrest and protest by groups of white people in the streets of Baltimore which reflected a deep prejudice that had been agitating just below the surface.

There is no way I can fully understand what it is like to be a Black person. But I can imagine, and I can sympathize. The current protest is over injustice and whether or not we agree with the methods that have been chosen to make that protest we need to keep our eye on the central issue. And we might want to recall that it is a peaceful protest and that this country was founded on protest and a concern for justice. There may have been a better way to draw attention to the problem, but at the very least the manner chosen seems to have brought about a discussion that was simply not taking place. And steps are being taken, small ones, but steps in the right direction. There is now dialogue occurring in many cities across this land to erase the tension between the police and the folks they are sworn to protect and serve, and in general to see what can be done to make things better for those who have to carry the burden of prejudice with them throughout their lives.

Eventually the dust will settle and folks will start going back to NFL games — after all they crave diversion! But one must hope that the steps this protest have initiated will get longer and stronger and the injustice that is being protested will be at least somewhat abated. It may never be totally eliminated (Lincoln thought it would not),  but we need to live together and America, we are told, stands on the principle of fairness to ALL.

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Both Feet!

I have posted before about the protest that is going on in the NFL (especially) by a number of players who refuse to stand for the National Anthem. It is a hot topic, indeed a large pond of hot mud, since there is a great deal of pointing of fingers and angry cries of “foul” but very little seems to be happening. The problem is the focus of attention is directed to the protests themselves and not to the problems that have brought on the protests — namely, the civil unrest, especially in large cities and most especially in poor neighborhoods where there have been numerous clashes between police officers and citizens who see the police presence as a threat.

This issue, as I say, is very muddy indeed and a number of the players — not only in football but in other professional sports as well — are actually working with those in the ghettos to help resolve the tensions that exist there between the citizens and the police who patrol the streets. What is needed is dialogue, of course, between the two sides so that an understanding can be reached between two groups of folks who simply see the world differently.

But of recent note is the insistence of our Fearless Leader to jump into the mud feet-first, throwing mud in every direction and generally making a mess of things. He sees things in black and white terms, as so many of us do. And he insists that the NFL Commissioner simply demand that the players stand or fire them. I kid you not! Simple solutions to complex problems: that’s in the man’s DNA. It’s the sort of thing that will appeal to a great many Americans who are offended by the protests and refuse to see beyond them to the real problems the athletes seek to draw attention to. But it is not going to help matters one bit.

This country was founded on protest. Those who ignore that are really not in a position to call the protests “un-American,” or “un-patriotic.” They are the very heart and soul of America. But the protests themselves should not be the focus of attention, as I have noted. We need to ask ourselves why certain individuals, many of them after deep soul-searching and at the risk of hatred and derision at the hands of those in the stands, would choose to disrespect the flag of their country. Is it possible that there is something amiss? Something that should be addressed? To be sure, there is.

We do love simple solutions and we find those who suggest simple solutions to complex problems reassuring. I give you Paul Harvey and Rush Limbaugh. It helps us avoid the exhausting effort of trying to figure things out for ourselves. Donald Trump is not the first to suggest a simple solution to a complex problem and he will most certainly not be the last. But the issue is there and it will not go away until people start to talk seriously with one another, to make a concerted effort to understand the other’s point of view. And shouting “Fire the bums! is taking this in precisely the opposite direction. To mix metaphors a bit, it is throwing gasoline on the fire. Or, to stick with my original metaphor:  jumping in with both feet simply makes the mud pile deeper and more smelly.

Opting Out

The latest in a long series of signs that college football is the tail that wags the academic dog is the decision of three star football players not to participate in this year’s Bowl Game Extravaganza.

The NCAA in its wisdom has instituted a playoff for the four teams deemed by a panel of experts to be the best four teams in the country. These four teams play in an elimination format with the winning team declared the National Champion. The attention of the television audience and sports enthusiasts around the world has shifted to these two games and away from the other Bowl Games — of which there are still countless numbers.

Accordingly, this year three of the star players on three of the teams that will play in the Bowl Games (but not in the National Championship playoff) have decided not to participate in the games because, presumably, they don’t want to get hurt and adversely affect their chances to garner a huge contract with an NFL team. Now, keep in mind, that at the “highest” levels of play in the NCAA Division I football players have always tended to regard their football careers as auditions for the NFL, many of them choosing to drop out of college after a year or two to play in the professional ranks. What does this have to do with education, you might ask?

The answer is simple: nothing whatever. But what it does as far as education is concerned is shed a light on the priorities at the “highest” levels of college football that reveals the lie that collegiate sports are all about scholar-athletes. It’s not. They all about high profits and entertainment for the masses that translate into wasted Saturdays and two weeks of non-stop Bowl Games in late December. (As I say this, I confess I do watch some of the games and I do love to watch stellar athletes in any and all sports because I have a sense of how hard it is to play that well in any sport. Still, there’s a rotten smell in the air.)

Any pretense that football is simply another “extra-curricular activity” at the college level — outside of Division III football where there are no athletic “scholarships” — is put to rest. It is clear from the three players who have decided to put themselves first and their teams last that they have received the message loud and clear: play for pay. College football is all about entertainment and huge profits for the various conferences in NCAA Division I football, and the players are all about themselves. There is an “I” in team, apparently. Put yourself first, make sure you don’t get hurt and ruin your chances of getting a large contract to play at “the next level.”

Many have pointed out — apparently as a kind of defense of college football — that such goings-on merely reflect the larger society as a whole. We shouldn’t put our focus on college football because those who play the game are merely products of the broader society in which they have been brought up. This is true, of course, but it is not so much a defense of college football as it is an indictment of our society as a whole. The message we are sending when players opt out of a Bowl Game or the teams cheat and risk scandals or coaches break their contract to sign with another school (for millions of dollars) is that one’s word means nothing. Honor and honesty are merely words. The team doesn’t matter. The individual is all that matters. I have even heard the talking heads who follow the sport closely defend the football players by saying “everybody does it.” In ethics this is a violation of basic principles, it is an expression of the false notion that two wrongs make a right. Just because others do it (and it is impossible to deny that others are indeed doing what they regard as best for themselves, regardless of the others around them) does not make it right.

The absence of those three star players form this year’s Bowl Game Extravaganza will not cause a ripple in the grand scheme of things. In itself it is trivial, but as a symptom of a larger problem, the applauding of unmitigated selfishness, it is certainly something to ponder.

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.

Hard To Fathom

In the face of the encouraging fact that for the most part Americans are generous in their willingness to help those in need, there is something deeply disturbing about the juxtaposition of the following stories:

On the one hand, there is news of the St. Louis Rams moving to Los Angles where they will play in a stadium complex — referred to as an NFL Campus — that will cost an estimated $1.86 billion. Specifically,

The owner of the St. Louis Rams plans to build an NFL stadium in Inglewood, which could pave the way for the league’s return to Los Angeles.

Rams owner Stan Kroenke, who bought 60 acres adjacent to the Forum a year ago, has joined forces with the owners of the 238-acre Hollywood Park site, Stockbridge Capital Group. They plan to add an 80,000-seat NFL stadium and 6,000-seat performance venue to the already-massive development of retail, office, hotel and residential space, Stockbridge and the Kroenke Group told The Times.

The owner of the Rams who is building the new “Campus” has expressed his willingness to pay the NFL, out-of-pocket, the required $550 million it will cost to move his team. Needless to say, the NFL owners voted unanimously to move the team. On the other hand, there is this harsh reality:

For the past four years, Syria has been in a civil war that has forced 11 million people— half the country’s pre-crisis population—to flee their homes. About 7.6 million Syrians have been internally displaced within the country and 4 million have fled Syria for other countries. The result is one of the largest forced migrations since World War Two.

The refugee crisis began in 2011, when thousands of Syrian citizens fled across the border to neighboring Turkey and Lebanon. By early July 2011, 15,000 Syrian citizens had taken shelter in tent cities, set up in the Yayladağı, Reyhanlı and Altınözü districts of Hatay Province, near Turkey’s border with Syria. By the end of that month, 5,000 of the refugees had returned to Syria. However, by late June 2011, the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon had reached around 10,000 people. By mid-July 2011, the first Syrian refugees found sanctuary in Jordan, with their numbers reaching 1,500 by December. On 21 September the European Union approved a plan committing itself to taking in 120,000 refugees. The newly elected Liberal Government announced that it would bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of 2015 and struck a cabinet sub-committee chaired by the Minister of Health, Jane Philpott, to fast track their resettlement.

Over the protests of the fear-mongers among us, the United States has also shown a willingness to allow a few thousand refugees to emigrate to this country as well. And as I say, we must read these clips while keeping in mind the fact that Americans are as a rule most generous in donating to causes. It is one of the more pleasing things to note about American character. But there are those very wealthy Americans who seem determined to squander their millions on unworthy causes. In their focus on the here and now of gigantic profits they are content to stand by and watch the impoverished and homeless increase in numbers in their own country, while (one suspects) totally oblivious to the needs of starving people in other countries around the world.

There is something bizarre about the fact that there are those among us who could do so much good with their multi-millions and who choose instead to spend all their time and energy finding ways to increase those millions. There is such a gulf between doing well and doing good.

Still At It

As you may have heard, Greg Hardy of the Dallas Cowboys is at it again. He was recently caught on camera on the sideline in the football game against the New York Giants freaking out, pushing and shoving his teammates and attacking special-teams coach Rich Bisaccia, knocking his clipboard down in the process. The aftermath was most interesting as owner Jerry Jones excused Hardy’s behavior and admired his “passion.” (That’s another word these days for “‘roid-rage”).

A brief story provides some of the nonsense passing for excuses these days as pampered athletes are so often out of control, slapped on the wrist, and then quietly worked back into the system only to go off the deep end again:

“He wanted to get in there and kind of get after some of the guys a little bit, maybe get them fired up,” Bisaccia said. “It was just not the right time. It’s really not an issue. I just had to communicate what we were going to do next on the return, so I just really wanted him to move on so we could get going.”

Teammates were also quick to come to Hardy’s side, giving him a pass because of his reputation for being an emotional player.

Added McCray: “It was surprising he was in there. I know when he came, he kind of pushed me a little bit. I just didn’t realize who he was. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, who is this?’ Once you realize it’s Greg, you’re like, ‘We need to make a play.’ We understand that was our fault to give up that lead and he was just showing us the passion to show us we need to fix it.”

Hardy was playing just his second game back from a suspension he earned after his domestic violence arrest last year. He made flippant remarks before his season debut, showing little remorse for the victim of the crime for which he was convicted before the case was dismissed. After those two games he is already tied for the team lead in sacks with three.

To clarify the last paragraph: a couple of years ago Hardy was found guilty in a court of law of beating his girl friend and throwing her down on a bed filled with assault weapons. He was suspended with pay for a year by the NFL and later given an added four-game suspension (without pay). Upon his return he said he would come out “with guns blazing” and made snickering remarks about Tom Brady’s wife, who is apparently very attractive. He’s a piece of work, this man.

In a fairly lengthy discussion of the incident on ESPN I was surprised and delighted to hear Tommy Jackson and Chris Carter, both former NFL players, condemning not only Hardy’s actions but the lame comments that were supposed to excuse his behavior. Carter, for example, noted that this gave him a “snapshot” of what Hardy’s girlfriend must have seen up close and real when Hardy turned on her. Jackson said he wouldn’t want to play alongside such a player whom he would constantly fear. Both condemned his behavior without reservation — as they did the excuses provided by Jerry Jones.

What is most interesting about this entire incident, which seems almost familiar these days, is the fact that Jones, whom Carter described as “the great enabler,” was clearly only interested in the fact that Hardy is an outstanding player and his “other problems” were beside the point. No, Jerry, these “other problems” are precisely the point. Like it or not, athletes are role models for our kids, and huge men who hit women should not be regarded as heroes. This is a time when the NFL is trying desperately to live down its reputation as the place where former (or current) felons go to work and play for obscene salaries.  This sort of behavior is not good for the NFL’s “image” — and should not be dismissed as merely a man exhibiting his “emotions.”

One must suspect that PEDs are involved — or is it possible that these men, who are literally larger than life, really have violent tempers from birth? It beggars belief. In any event, one can be assured this will not be the last “incident” involving huge men out of control. Gone are the days of self-control and the development of character as heroic.

Speaking of those days, I am reminded of a comment penned by Thomas Jefferson back in 1810 while describing kings and which seems so apt today of a great many of us, but especially the spoiled athlete:

“Now, take any race of animals, confine them in idleness and inaction, whether in a stye, a stable, or a stateroom, pamper them with high diet, gratify all their sexual appetites, immerse them in sensibilities, nourish their passions, let everything bend before them, and banish whatever might lead them to think, and in a few generations they become all body and no mind.”

Apt, indeed, though in this age of entitlement it doesn’t take “generations” for this to occur. Witness Greg Hardy.

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.

Selfies

If there are still doubters out there who insist that this is not the most narcissistic age ever, they should consider the “selfie.” As we all know, and which the always reliable Wikipedia affirms, a “selfie”

” is a self-portrait photograph, typically taken [seemingly endlessly] with a digital camera or camera phone held in the hand or supported by a selfie stick. Selfies are often [seemingly endlessly] shared on social networking services such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. They are usually flattering and made to appear casual. Most selfies are taken with a camera held at arm’s length or pointed at a mirror, rather than by using a self-timer.”

Indeed, according to the statistics I just made up, 93.7% of the information on social media is about the person himself or herself. Issues are largely ignored and other people only enter into the discussion if they happen to have some important relationship to the person posting the information. It’s all about “ME.”

Or consider the “self-esteem”movement about which I have blogged previously (seemingly endlessly) which has taken over our schools and which parents have swallowed hook, line, and sinker — despite the fact that all the evidence (which I didn’t make up) suggests that the self-esteem movement actually LOWERS a child’s self-confidence, their sense of who they really are in relation to others around them. But it raises their idea of how accomplished and bright they are and in recent studies of students around the world (which again I did not make up), despite the fact that test scores show that our students trail much of the rest of the world in subjects like language and mathematics, the students themselves are convinced they are the best and brightest. They have the highest sense of self-importance in the world. This is narcissism that borders on self-delusion. And, as we know too well, it has led to the sense of entitlement that pervades this culture in which a growing number of people expect to be handed things because they have a nice smile or are pleasant to be around. Or, simply because they can still breathe in and out. In addition, as Christopher Lasch has pointed out, narcissism can readily lead to violence as those who expect to be handed everything on a platter find their desires thwarted.

In the light of this, it was refreshing recently to read about James Harrison, a professional football player, who returned two very large trophies his sons received for merely participating in an activity. It was not only refreshing because it wasn’t another story about a professional athlete beating his wife or sweetheart, but about a professional football player who is practicing good parenting skills. As Harrison himself said about the awards:

“I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies!” wrote the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker on Sunday in an Instagram post to his 180,000 followers. “While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they earn a real trophy. I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned, and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best … cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better … not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut you up and keep you happy.”

Is it possible that this professional athlete knows more about child rearing than the so-called “experts” who dare to give parents and educators misleading advice? Imagine, thinking that praise should be earned and not simply passed out until it means nothing! Harrison just uses his common sense and gut feelings to do the thing he knows is right. I can’t help but believe that we would be much better off if parents and teachers followed Harrison’s lead than they are in raising and teaching their kids “by the book.”

Deflate-gate

Unless perhaps you live in Ecuador, where such trivial incidents are rightly ignored, you have probably been aware of the controversy surrounding the footballs used in the AFC Championship by the New England Patriots. Eleven of the twelve footballs used in the game were found to be under-inflated by about two pounds, making them easier for the quarterback, who selects the balls before each game, to grip and throw, especially in wet and cold conditions. Each team uses its own footballs, so this apparently gave New England an edge — though they clearly didn’t need one, stomping the Indianapolis Colts in the game by some forty points.

In any event, there has been endless discussion about the incident, making the Super Bowl itself a bit of a sideshow while pundits discuss endlessly the pros-and cons of what they like to call “deflate-gate.” In itself, it’s a tempest in a teapot, but  it became interesting when both the coach and the quarterback denied any knowledge of the fact that the balls used were below the pressure specified by NFL rules. Most experts, including a number of former professional quarterbacks, admit that the coach might not know about the balls, but they all agree that the quarterback must have known, because he handles each ball before the game to make sure it is as he likes it. In a word, the issue has now shifted to the more interesting moral question: who’s lying? It appears to be Tom Brady, the New England quarterback. Indeed, according to many, it must be.

I recall an experiment conducted by a writer for Sports Illustrated years ago with Rod Laver, possibly the best tennis player to have ever lifted a racket. Laver told the reporter that he could detect any changes to his rackets and the reporter challenged him to a test. The reporter placed a small piece of lead tape weighing less than half an ounce on the frame of one of Laver’s rackets and, blindfolded, Laver picked it out of a group of a half-dozen. His rackets were his livelihood. He knew exactly how heavy each one had to be and how tight the strings were as well. Similarly, Brady knew full well that the balls he was using were to his exact specifications. And those specifications were under the limits set by the NFL. But things don’t stop there.

Soon after Brady’s press conference where he denied any knowledge of the fact that rules were broken (no matter how trivial they seem to us) ESPN took a nation-wide poll and it revealed that the vast majority of fans in every state, except Nebraska(!), believe that Brady is telling the truth. Seriously? Is it possible that the majority of people in this country are that blind? It appears so — assuming that the poll was a reliable indicator. Despite the testimony of a number of people of unquestioned credibility, including John Madden, whom fans have always loved and trusted, the majority of people believe that the only man who could be responsible is, in their minds, not responsible. Which now takes us to the next stage of the issue, namely, the stupidity of the average American football fan.

This is therefore no longer about footballs and whether or not they meet NFL specifications. It’s about the willingness of vast numbers of people in this country to believe what they want to believe and ignore the facts that have been clearly set before them. Brady is the only one who could have under-inflated those balls — or had someone do it for him. But this fact does not penetrate the minds of those who cannot open them. Please consider that these are the same people who vote on our next president and the members of Congress. In my mind, that is what makes this issue especially disturbing. It’s not about football. It’s about the inability or unwillingness of so many people to see beyond what they want to see.

 

Intriguing Parallel

One of the little games academics often like to play — when they aren’t hunkered down in their offices worrying about tenure and promotion — is to look for similarities between the Roman Empire and modern America. The game can be fascinating, even if a bit of a stretch at times. But let’s indulge ourselves and look at some of the obvious similarities because, as we know, the Roman Empire disappeared as surely as the language they spoke. And this must give us pause.

To begin with the Roman Empire started out as a Republic and degenerated into a dictatorship. Our nation started out as  Republic (designed after the Romans, as it happens) and has now degenerated into an oligarchy, if not a dictatorship by the 1% of those who control the wealth and political power in this country. The similarity resides in the fact that in both cases, those who came to rule are not elected by the people and do not even pretend to represent the people’s interest.

The Romans had their bread and circuses. We have television and our iPods. In both cases, those in power use the entertainment to divert attention of the masses away from real problems to a world of make-believe where good fights evil and good, as defined by the power-brokers, always prevails.

The Romans had their gladiators. We have the NFL which looks more like its prototype every day.

The Romans used violence to deal with troubles, as do we.

The Romans persecuted the Christians while the Christians in America today exhibit complete intolerance for those who disagree with them and in extreme cases also resort to persecution and even violence out of the conviction that they have the Truth — e.g., the bombing of abortion clinics and the attacks on personnel who work there. In both cases the common element is intolerance of other points of view.

The Romans had their public forums and Senate debates, while we have TV talk shows. In both cases there is much shouting and very little listening, a great deal of smoke and very little fire.

The Roman Empire eventually withered from within and was less and less able to resist the barbarian hordes who surrounded the Empire and eventually not only came within the walls, but gained political control as well. We have reared our own barbarians. They have grown in numbers and are increasingly in control of political power. They hide in their mansions and wear expensive suits, or they pierce and tattoo their bodies and buy the latest automatic weapon from Walmart. In either case they seek power and are as small-minded, stupid, and self-seeking as were the hordes the Romans were unable to hold off.

The Romans became increasingly illiterate as their empire crumbled and learning withdrew into the monasteries. America is becoming increasingly illiterate and its citizens are unable to use their minds to follow the shell game the wealthy play at every turn and which deprives them of their freedom right before their very noses. And the irony is that the people don’t know they are losing their freedom because if they have cable they have hundreds of TV channels to choose from and they are easily persuaded this is true freedom.

But there are major differences. We exploit the earth that is supposed to sustain us and we have pollution on a grand scale and nuclear weapons enough to destroy the world over. The Romans did not.