Sunday, December 23, 2012

Favorite Songs of 2012 - Songs 11-20

The list continues.

11. Beggar in the Morning by The Barr Brothers.

"I take my medicine on my knee.
Twice a day, but lately three.
Keeps the devil from my door.
And it makes me rich and it makes me poor."


This is kind of a creepy video. You  will either love it or hate it.

12. Get Burned by Sleeper Agent.

"I'm not cold, I'm just a shakin',
And a little of your love keeps me a bakin'.
I'ma get burned (get burned)
I'ma get burned, burned, burned, oh."


A silly but highly infectious song.


13. I Will Wait by Mumford & Sons.

"So break my step.
And relent.
Well, you forgave,
And I won't forget."


This video so makes me regret not seeing more of them at Bonnaroo.

14. State Hospital by Frightened Rabbit.

"And in the limp three years of board schooling,
she's accustomed to hearing that she could never run far.
A slipped disc in the spine of community;
A bloody curse word made pedestrian verse."


A bit of a departure for FR as they look at things from the woman's point of view in this song. Their new album out in February is called "Pedestrian Verse."

15. Lost in My Mind by The Head and The Heart.

"How's that bricklayin' comin'?
How's your engine runnin'?
Is that bridge getting built?
Are your hands getting filled?"


Another great song from their self-titled album (two others were on last year's list).

16. Went Away by The Maccabees.

"So hold me close, don't let me go.
I need you so.
Tell me something I don't know.
That I need to know."


Great guitar work in this song.

17. On Top of the World by Imagine Dragons.

"I've tried to cut these corners.
Tried to take the easy way out.
I kept on falling short of something.
I coulda gave up then,
 but then again I couldn't have 'cause
I've traveled all this way for something."


The only artist with two songs on this year's list, this song has a bouncy island beat. The next one does not.

18. Carried Away by Passion Pit.

"Listen. I don't really know you.
And I don't think I want to.
But I think I can fake it if you can."


My favorite song on their new album.

19. Deconstruction by Fanfarlo.

"So come on, let's dissect it.
Let's cut it up 'til it's gone.
Let's break it up into pieces,
and throw away what we don't understand."


Sometimes Fanfarlo's lyrics are hard to understand, but figuring them out is half the fun.

20. Same Love by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.

"No law is gonna change us;
We have to change us.
Whatever god we believe in,
We come from the same one.
Strip away the fear,
Underneath it's all the same love.
About time that we raised up."


The first appearance of rap in the countdown, this is definitely not your standard rap song, with its theme of inclusiveness (and pro-same-sex marriage).

Friday, December 14, 2012

Favorite Songs of 2012 - Songs 21-30

Here is the start to my list of favorite songs from 2012. As with last year's posts, and my Facebook posts from 2009-2010, these are songs released either in this year or the past year. A few entries, and a few more artists, appear on some real music critics' lists for 2012, but I assure you that is merely coincidence.

21. Everybody Talks by Neon Trees.

"Hey honey you could be my drug.
You could be my new prescription.
Too much could be an overdose;
All this trash talk make me itchin'."


Close to a guilty pleasure. But a pleasure it is.

22. Gold on the Ceiling by The Black Keys.

"Clouds covered love's barbed-wire snare.
Strung up, strung out, I just can't go without."


A little blues, a little straight-up rock 'n roll (T-Rex, perhaps?).

23. Grand Optimist by City & Colour.

"I fear I'm dying. From complications.
Complications, due to things that I've left undone.
That all my debts will be left unpaid,
feel like a cripple without a cane.
And a jack of all trades
who's a master of none."


I could see that it would suck, growing up a pessimist with an optimistic dad.

24. North Side Gal by J.D. McPherson.

"I got some good talk, but not enough game.
Wooing the sweet thing; oh ain't it a shame.
Every time I try.
Crazy about a north side gal."

 
The juke joint is rockin'.

24. JERK! by Stephie Coplan and The Pedestrians.

"Cut the small talk, cut to the chase, cut the cord, cut the crap.
Set the mood, set the tone, set the vibe, set the beat, set the trap.
Appear unimpressed with the dress that I bought today just for this.
Think of someone else while you're giving me that half-hearted post-sex kiss."


Stephie sent me a personal note enclosing her cd that I ordered from the band's website. If that doesn't get you on my list, nothing will. 

26. Love Interruption by Jack White.

"I want love to
forget that you offended me;
Or how you have defended me
when everybody tore me down.
Yeah and I want love to
change my friends to enemies;
change my friends to enemies,
and show me how it's all my fault."


A little dark, even by Mr. White's standards.  Love the video -- makes the lyrics seem plaintive rather than angry.

27. Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings) by Silversun Pickups.

"See you laughing in a picture;
but I know it's out of place.
You barely cried.
But you made it out alive."


A perennial list resident. I have no idea what the "artsy" parts of the video symbolize.

28. Hold On by Alabama Shakes.

"So, bless my heart. And bless my mind.
Got so much to do. I ain't got much time.
So, must be someone up above sayin':
C'mon girl. You got to get back up!"


I would love to see them live.

29. Songs for Teenagers by Fake Problems.

"Last night is all a blur to me.
I don't remember anything.
But at vaguely recall
being alone."


Sounds like a happy song. Until you listen to the lyrics.

30. Country Roads by Mike Doughty.

"Almost heaven, West Virginia.
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River.
Life is old there, older than the trees.
Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze."


One of my favorite artists, singing about my favorite state.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Learning to Live with It

If you follow women's soccer, or the tabloids, you've probably heard about Hope Solo's drunken bachelorette/bachelor party/melee, followed by her appearance at a hearing on domestic battery charges that she brought against her fiancee (now husband), a former NFL player with an impressive history of run-ins with the law including DUI, possession with intent to distribute, and, most disturbingly, sexual assault.

Various folks have weighed in on what should or should not be off limits with regard to Solo and what appear to be some questionable life choices (not that that should be particularly shocking given her public declarations in the past). But my take is a little different. It's about the choices that coaches and teams are sometimes forced to make.

Coaches are fond of saying that they have one set of rules that applies to all players. But they know, and the players know, that that's not always the case.

At any level, coaches have to make adjustments and even exceptions for exceptional players. And they have to depend on the players to understand that it's for the good of the team that they do so, even if  the players that exceptions are made for aren't "team players."

After watching the U.S. Women's team in the Olympics, reading Solo's controversial comments regarding Brandi Chastain's commentary and the lack of public support that she received for those comments from her teammates and coaches, and then watch the last two friendlies that the team played against the Republic of Ireland, I wonder how much tongue biting and eye rolling goes on inside the team when Solo opens her mouth. Because two things are clear: first, Solo, true to her name, is not a team player; and, second, the team really, really needs her.

Um, that look pretty much says it all.

Admittedly, it may not be fair to evaluate based on two halves of two friendlies, but Solo's backup, Nicole Barnhart, looked very shaky in her two appearances. While her decision-making would undoubtedly benefit from more game time, she looked indecisive on crosses and balls in the box.

Keepers are like left-handed pitchers in baseball -- they're often viewed as the odd-balls, marching to the beat of a different drummer (no doubt in part because they are the only players allowed to use their hands). But that doesn't mean they can't or don't have to be good teammates.

It will be interesting to see how the new head coach of the National Team, Tom Sermanni, deals with Solo. Perhaps, like Pia Sundhage before him, he will decide that regardless of the distractions, it's best for the team that he tolerate them as best as he and the team can. But we should also probably hope (pun intended) that somewhere in the program a replacement is being groomed.


Sunday, November 25, 2012

Third Time's a Charm?

Amidst the orgy of turkey, Black Friday, and college football this past week you may have missed the announcement that, for the third time in the past 12 years, a women's professional soccer league will begin play in the U.S. this coming spring.

The WUSA was formed in the wake of the U.S. Women's National Team's triumph in the 1999 World Cup here in the U.S. Much as the formation of MLS following the men's World Cup in the States in 1994, the notion was that it was the perfect time to start a women's league with all the momentum that the sport had gained after the climatic final game, won by Brandi Chastain's famous pk.

That league folded after just three years though, drowning in debt caused, at least in part, by the signing of big name players from abroad and (based on the attendance and limited television exposure and dollars) high salaries for the players. The WUSA tried to hang on through the next year, holding a few "exhibition" matches which were essentially all-star games, but finally gave up the ghost.

Women's Professional Soccer jumped into the void for another three years, but it seemed even more doomed from the start. Feuding (and seemingly imbalanced), owners, lackluster crowds, and frankly dull play led to another three seasons, but even the most hard core fan would be hard-pressed to name more than one team, let alone more than one champion. The WPS played in 2009-2011, but in January of this year announced a hiatus and eventually disbanded.

The success of the U.S. Women's National Team this summer in London, however, led to renewed talk of another women's professional league. While the WPS had tried to associate with MLS and thus reduce facilities costs, the effort never seemed to take hold outside of, perhaps, Philadelphia. The announcement of the new league, however, came not from potential owners but from Sunil Gulati, the President of the U.S. Soccer Federation. 

Gulati, whose day job is a senior lecturer in economics at Columbia, believes he has finally developed a  "sustainable" economic model for the women's professional game in the States. The as-yet-unnamed league will work in cooperation with the U.S., Canadian, and Mexican Soccer Federations in paying the salaries of many of the players in the league. U.S. Soccer will also finance the administrative costs of the league, presumably while trying to ensure that costs are held in some close approximation to the revenues generated by attendance, television rights, and collateral income.

Gulati, at the press conference announcing
the formation of the new women's league.

The new league will also likely follow more closely the MLS model by limiting, at least initially, the number of foreign players allocated to each club ("foreign" meaning in this context non-American, Canadian, or Mexican) and to begin play in smaller venues to enhance fan participation and camaraderie.

While it remains to be seen whether a women's professional league is sustainable in the U.S., Gulati's plan seems to have the kernels of the model that could work. But what else would you expect from an Economics professor who has been called "the single most important person in the development of soccer in this country"? 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

This Ball is Always Round

Sometime back I mentioned in a post that one of my all-time favorite books about soccer is The Ball is Round. Unfortunately though, for many who play the game, the ball isn't always round. Or even much of a ball.

An article in The New York Times (which I first saw linked on Rachel Maddow's Facebook page) last week highlights an obvious fact: kids in the poorest countries not only do not play with balls that are round, they often play with balls that are not even balls but rather rough spheres fashioned from trash or debris. Efforts by relief organizations to provide them with "real" soccer balls often fail because the balls are quickly torn or otherwise deflated by the rocky conditions on which the children play their games.

Cue Tim Jahnigen and his quest to bring durable soccer balls to kids in the poorest countries in the world. The article recounts Jahnigen seeing a documentary about children in Darfur who found joy in playing soccer, even though the balls were made out of garbage and string.

Something of a renaissance man, Jahnigen has held a variety of jobs and engaged in a number of pursuits before turning his efforts to inventing an indestructible ball. You don't need me to recount the entire Times article (linked in the second paragraph) but it's an interesting story that involves, among other things, Crocs and Sting.

The balls are expensive, at least in part because it costs so much to ship them where they are needed (they are not only indestructible, they're also not deflatable). Still, if you're looking to make a charitable donation this holiday season, why not give a kid somewhere a ball that will always be there for him or her? You can buy a ball, or make a donation, here.

Lest it be completely lost on us, there is also a certain beauty to make-shift balls.  As I was writing this post, my friend Michael sent me a link to this series of pictures by Jessica Hilltout that she has taken of cobbled together balls. 

"Domingo's Ball, Mozambique."

These balls, or at least their photographs, certainly are artful. But those who play with them I'm sure would rather play with one that rolls true and stays round.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Time to Even it Up?

What I kind of remember about 1968:

The USS Pueblo.
The Chicago Democratic Convention.

What I remember about 1968:

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination.

What happened in 1968 that is still so clear it's like it happened yesterday:

Bobby Kennedy's assassination.
The World Series.

It's hard to convey to anyone born decades later than me how crazy it was to be a 10-year-old in 1968. Everything seemed relatively safe in my sleepy little Michigan town. Until "everything" started to explode.  Dr. King, the Olympics, the riots, the election, the Chicago cops. Who could you trust? Where was it safe? 

I watched most of the 1968 World Series at school. Not on my tablet. Not on my i-phone. On a grainy black and white t.v. in my school cafeteria. I hung with every pitch and at-bat, as did my classmates, Detroit, and most of the Mitten State.

The Tigers helped everyone forget, for a while anyway, the turmoil that was 1968. It brought together a  city and a state torn apart by race, by inequality, by war. And it allowed all of us, for at least seven magical games, to think about something simple - competition. And to collectively succeed at something when success at anything seemed impossible.

Baseball was my sport as a kid. It was the only sport I played as an organized competition and the one I followed more than any other as a fan. I still have my baseball card collection. I can still name the starting nine of the Tigers that year (from memory, without cheating: c Bill Freehan; 1b Norm Cash; 2b Dick McAuliffe; 3b Don Wert; ss Ray Oyler; lf Willie Horton; cf Mickey Stanley; rf Al Kaline/Jim Northrup; pinch-hitter extraordinaire Gates Brown). I remember Denny McLain's 31 wins, and the pitching of Mickey Lolich, and Earl Wilson, and Joe Sparma, and John Hiller.

One of my boyhood heroes.

The Tigers romped through the American League that season, winning the pennant by 12 games. But ahead lay the St. Louis Cardinals and their pitching monster, Bob Gibson. The Tigers went down in the Series 3-1 at a time when only two teams had ever come back from such a deficit to win a seven game series. Gibson was unhittable in Games One and Four, and yet, somehow, a self-described pot bellied, big eared unheralded guy named Mickey stopped him and the Cards in Game Seven to win the Series.

All of this seemed relevant this evening, as I watched the Tigers clinch their 11th American League crown and await their National League opponent, which appears likely, for the fourth time, to be the St. Louis Cardinals. The "Gashouse Gang" Cardinals beat the Bengals in 1934, the Tigers won in '68, and the Cardinals were best again in 2006. It seems time to me to even that scoreline.

The ultimate twist of fate? While this ten year-old was watching the series in his little town in Michigan, rooting for the Tigers, there was a nine year-old girl watching in a small town outside of St. Louis, rooting just as hard for the Cardinals. We have been married now for 30 years. A lesson, perhaps, that sports can divide as well as unite. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Life, Death, and Litigation

The murmuring has become a cacophony. The trickle a tidal wave. The silent suffering a public crisis.

What was once a hidden secret, shrouded by machismo and shame, is now public. Former NFL players are dying, or sickened, because they played the game they loved.

Most weren't injured all at once. Not in a Darryl Stingley-Jack Tatum moment. But a little at a time. Tackle-by-tackle. Collision-by-collision.

The NFL is trying to address the problem. Banning hits on defenseless players. Prohibiting helmet-to-helmet contact. Commissioner Roger Goodell's recent public relations nightmare, the Saints' "bountygate" fiasco, did not occur because the NFL is somehow suddenly opposed to the violent collisions that were its hallmark. The NFL is worried about its players. And worried about getting sued.

Alex Karras, a Lion of my youth, a Lion of life, died last week. He suffered from kidney failure. But more tragically, he suffered from dementia caused, he contended, by repeated concussions incurred during the Golden Age of football in the 1950's and 1960's.

"The Mad Duck" was not the archetypal dumb jock. Far from it. He clashed with coaches he thought tyrannical, acted, was a sportscaster, and a businessman. He was also one of the greatest defensive linemen in the history of the NFL.

Alex Karras, near the end of his playing days.

But as Karras' health failed, he became part of a group of former NFL players who sued the league early this year, claiming a variety of health problems as a result of head injuries caused by the NFL's alleged failure to provide safe playing conditions.

I don't know enough about the medicine to know if Karras and his fellow plaintiffs have a legitimate case. I tend to think that the science and medicine regarding concussions and their long-term effect is recent and still evolving. And as a result, it may be difficult for the former players to prove that the NFL intentionally submitted them to unsafe conditions and repeated injury.

One thing I'm relatively certain of, however, is that the NFL's recent emphasis on avoiding injury, sitting players with concussions until medical clearance, and the suspension and fining of players who engage in what used to be acceptable conduct on the field (leading with the helmet, spearing, dumping quarterbacks and running backs on their heads after forward progress is stopped) is the result of concerns for player safety, and also for potential liability.

Roger Goodell is the CEO of a multi-billion dollar industry and understands that his job is to maximize and protect the owners' product and their wealth. While Karras and his co-plaintiffs may or may not pose a threat to that wealth, the current generation of players, 20 or 30 years down the road, almost certainly does given what we now know about concussions and their long term effect on the brain.

Every time some announcer or pundit or former player or even current player decries the "softening" of the game, they are longing for a day when life was simpler, when we knew not what we asked of the players. And they ignore both the science and the economic might of what professional football is today.

All of this is, of course, too late for The Mad Duck and his generation. But if the changes, however motivated, allow us to bask a little longer in the reflected light of today's stars in the future, or to delight in the multi-facetedness of a player who we just saw as a brute, then that makes us all a little richer. And a little less guilty for watching on Sunday afternoons.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

What if We Decided Not to Blame Anyone?


"scape·goat/ˈskāpˌgōt/

Noun:
1. (in the Bible) A goat sent into the wilderness after the Jewish chief priest had symbolically laid the sins of the people upon it (Lev. 16). 2. One that is made to bear the blame of others.
Verb:
Make a scapegoat of.
Synonyms:
whipping boy - fall guy - goat"


After attending all three days of competitive play at the Ryder Cup, I too got caught up in the discussions in the aftermath of the Meltdown at Medinah. 

"Who should we blame?" all the commentators asked. Various candidates were offered (Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker, Tiger Woods, and Captain Davis Love chief among them). "Did we lose it or they win it?" was a conversation I engaged in as well. After discussing some of the above candidates, we decided it was a little of both -- some of our guys lost matches they could or should have won, some of their guys (chief among them Justin Rose) won matches they had every reason to believe they had already lost.

Jim Furyk reacts to a missed putt on the final day.

As the sting has faded though, I've been thinking more about our need (and by "our" I mean Mankind, Humankind, all us people, etc., not just Americans and not just the Ryder Cup) to attach blame and find a scapegoat. Particularly interesting, or troubling, is the definition above: "one that is made to bear the blame of others."

I understand that with multiple 24-hour sports, news, and golf television and radio it is inevitable that in the endless effort to fill air time every result and action will be overanalyzed. But I can't help but think that at least part of why we do so, or even listen while others do, is to find someone to "bear our blame." Not the blame of losing an exhibition golf match (anymore than our average counterpart in Europe can take credit for the victory), but for our collective discontent and feeling that we're no longer the masters of our domain.

So at least as far as this Ryder Cup goes, I'm not looking for a scapegoat, not placing blame. The Euros won, and did so with passion and flair. Let's just leave it at that.

Random observations from three days at Medinah:

"USA! USA! USA!" is insipid. C'mon people we can do better. I suggest that for the next Ryder Cup on U.S. soil (or even Gleneagles in 2014 for that matter) we enlist Sam's Army or the American Outlaws (which are U.S. Soccer supporter groups, not biker gangs) to instruct all American fans in some proper songs.

One of the five coolest moments in my sports spectating life was watching and listening as Ian Poulter and Bubba Watson got the fans amped up on the first tee on Saturday afternoon, then hit while they were still in a frenzy. If you didn't see it, you have to watch.




Not sure why, but golfers on the whole strike me as the most universally likable athletes.

Except for Sergio Garcia, who I've never really liked.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Fitting Farewell

Pia Sundhage's final match as the U.S. Women's soccer coach had all the right elements to encapsulate her nearly five years in charge. An early deficit, some dodgy defending, lots of goals, and in the end, a victory as the Americans beat Australia 6-2.

It's easy to forget that when Sundhage took over the team it was in complete disarray. The women had finished third in the World Cup in 2007, a result with which most countries (Canada comes to mind) would be ecstatic, but which was disappointing for the Americans in part because it constituted the second straight World Cup that they had failed to win, but mostly because of the way it had happened.

Then-coach Greg Ryan benched keeper Hope Solo in favor of long-time starter Brianna Scurry for the semi-final match against Brazil, which the U.S. promptly and embarrassingly lost 4-0. After the game, Solo publicly blasted Ryan for the decision (where have we heard that since?), splitting the team into two camps.

Alex Morgan, one of the fast, skilled young players
that Sundhage included in the U.S. Women's National team.

While the team regrouped to defeat Norway in the consolation game, the damage had been done. Ryan was dismissed and U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati eventually named Sundhage, the first non-American to hold the job, in his place.

Nine months later, the U.S. Women won the Gold Medal at the Beijing Olympics. Sundhage found a winning formula, based primarily on Abby Wambach and Solo, and stuck with it.

While the play wasn't always pretty, and there were some rough stretches (particularly during World Cup qualifying, when the U.S. lost to Mexico and had to defeat Italy in home-and-home matches to squeak into the Finals) the team began to play exciting, attractive soccer. Sure, there were more bumps along the way - especially the World Cup Final against Japan when the Americans twice surrendered leads and their slow defenders (yes, Hope, slow defenders) were exposed.

But two matches in particular, the World Cup quarterfinal against Brazil in 2011 and the Olympic semifinal against Canada this summer, were two of the most compelling soccer matches, men's or women's, I've ever watched. And Sundhage should also be credited for bringing youth into the team, Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, and Sydney Leroux being the best examples of quality players who blossomed under Sundhage's leadership.

Perhaps most importantly, Sundhage clearly enjoys coaching and imparts that joy to her players. Undoubtedly she worked them hard. But she has a whimsical side that occasionally causes her to dance or break into song.



Whoever replaces Sundhage will have big shoes to fill, and will inherit a team with high expectations for the next World Cup, to be held in Canada in 2015. He or she may well bring the Cup back across the border. But I doubt that whoever it is will do so with as much panache as Sundhage brought to our team.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Best Team Doesn't Always Win

Watching the United States' men's national team hit a cross bar and two posts during the first half of its match against Jamaica, I started to hear a voice.  My own, to be precise.

"Maybe this is going to be one of 'those games'," the voice said.

I can't remember if I've written this before, but I've said it many times, and believe it's true: soccer is the one sport among all in which a clearly dominant team can play well and still lose, or at least not win.

Maybe it's the size of the playing field, or the number of players, that allows a true underdog, in ability and physical skill, to have "a shot" more than other sport. I tend to think it's because of the nature of the game and its running clock. 

In basketball, a vastly outgunned team used to be able to stall the game and at least stay close, if not have the opportunity to pull a huge upset. With the advent of shot clocks at the college and pro levels,  that ability no longer exists. Given the relative lack of merit in watching a 12-10 basketball game, not many would argue with the rule, although it does limit an underdog's ability to slow the game.

In American football, the constant stoppage of play means that a certain number of plays, and therefore scoring opportunities, are guaranteed. 

This isn't to say that "upsets" don't happen in basketball or football. They clearly do, and the disinterested observer almost always roots for them.

But I'm not talking about upsets here. What can happen only in soccer, I believe, on more than a very rare occasion, is when one team is clearly outplayed on the field during a contest, and still wins, or at least doesn't lose. That is one of the reasons that I believe that soccer is the most compelling of all sports.

In my time as a coach, I was on both ends of results in which the obviously better team did not win. I can still remember my son's travel team dominating a match in the West Virginia Open Cup, only to lose on a fluke goal that bounced over our keeper's head. But I can also remember several victories in which we were outmanned and outplayed, but found a way to win.

Our high school team lost at least two games in my tenure as assistant and head coach in which we dominated possession, but couldn't push that ball across the line or under the bar. The worst was in sectional play, against our biggest rival, in which we controlled the game, lost our best midfielder, kept fighting, endured a lightning delay, and lost because the other team converted its only real chance to score (at least, that's the way I remember it).

But I also remember the Regional Final in 2009, when we outplayed our AA-A rival, but headed into overtime, then the second overtime, then the third, then the fourth, tied at 0-0. And I can remember, as clear as if it happened last night, our graceful forward scoring in the last minute of the fourth sudden death overtime to send us all into a frenzy.

It's that build-up, that anticipation, that frustration, that makes soccer great.

And the U.S.? It scored in the 55th minute on a free kick and made its path to the final round of World Cup qualifying much safer. And those crossbars and posts and great saves by the keeper made it all the sweeter.

The U.S. celebrates Herculez Gomez's goal against Jamaica.

Sometimes, the best team does win.

But that voice in my head didn't stop whispering until the final whistle blew.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Little Clause that Changed Everything

I have intended for a while to post about Title IX, which recently turned 40 years old. I wasn't sure what I would post, though, until the effect of this very American law was made clear by the most international of sporting events, the Olympics.

I am certain that the legislators that passed Title IX, and the athletic directors and universities that it impacted, did not appreciate the import of that law when it was enacted. The law simply provides: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

As we now know, that simple law, through its application (or imposition as the case may be) upon universities that receive federal assistance led to an explosion of women's sports in the U.S.

The recent Olympics and an excellent article in the Globe and Mail helped me realize that Title IX's impact has affected sports, and equality, well beyond our borders. Yes, the U.S. women's soccer team won its third straight gold medal at the London Games. And our women's basketball players, gymnasts, track athletes, and even markswomen again shone. But the fact that they did so against increasingly global, and talented, opposition speaks to the impact that the law has had over most of the world.

Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd celebrate their win over Japan.

It was bound to happen, I suppose: an increase in attention to, and spending on, women's collegiate athletics in the United States increased participation and proficiency as more and better female athletes were identified and received top-flight training and coaching. What was less obvious was that this would eventually have a global effect as other nations, intent on keeping pace in the competitive, nationalistic arena of international sports (seems like an oxymoron, doesn't it?), trained and identified female athletes or risked falling hopelessly behind.

Title IX's positive influence on women's athletics, though, has been local as well as global. At the start of every soccer season, when talking to parents about the upcoming season I would remind them that high school sports are about success. We were well past the stage where every player received a participation trophy; we were going to play and coach every match to win. That would mean that some players were not going to play much, if at all, in close contests.

I would acknowledge that the players and parents made a tremendous sacrifice to be a part of our team, in time at practice and time away from studies or home, and that each player and parent had to decide whether that cost was worth the benefit. If the benefit was viewed solely as playing time, then surely it would not be worth it for some.

But I also would always mention that the players on our team were offered an opportunity that simply wasn't present when I or most of the players' parents were in high school. And that was the value of simply being a team member. Team sports teach common effort, subservience of individual desires for the good of the whole, and build camaraderie far beyond the playing field in ways that simply cannot be learned in the class room, or even in individual sports.

I firmly believe that while we now see the results of Title IX in the Olympics and on fields of play, we are also increasingly seeing the benefit to society as a whole as women assume, and prove their ability to perform, jobs at the highest level in business, in government, and in coaching. Perhaps most importantly, sports teach women that it's okay to be who they are, that they are valued and equal members of a team and of society in every setting. And they help us to cast aside old stereotypes of what woman can and cannot, or should and should not, do.

As Mary Jo Kane, a professor of sport sociology at the University of Minnesota, who was quoted extensively in the Globe article, simply and succinctly noted regarding our current crop of female athletes: "They talk," Kane said, "about watching the Olympics as little girls and remember saying, 'I want to do that too.' And they have. They are no longer tokens or outliers or tomboys."

An impressive legacy for a 37 word statute, and a reminder that although change seems to occur maddeningly slowly at times, we continue to move toward equality on many fronts.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Dismantle the Program, Not the Statue

By now I assume you know that this Jerry Sandusky-Joe Paterno-Penn State thing has gotten stuck in my craw.

As a former coach, I just can't get past the selfish arrogance of Joe Paterno and Penn State's administration in covering up Sandusky's crimes. If there was any doubt that Paterno knew of Sandusky's perversions and did little or nothing to stop them, those doubts ended with last week's publication of Louis Freeh's report commissioned by the school's Board of Trustees. 

Not only did Paterno know, but Freeh concluded, he actively participated in efforts to hide Sandusky's crimes and predilictions from authorities and the public. A series of emails exchanged between school President Graham Spainer, Vice President Gary Schultz, and Athletic Director Tim Curley makes it clear that the three intended to call child protective services regarding Sandusky until Curley had a conversation with Paterno after which Curley wrote to the others that he wasn't "comfortable" proceeding with the report to authorities.  Not only did Paterno know, but he was the ringleader in the cover-up.

Now the talk is whether Penn State should take down a statue of Paterno that is outside of Beaver Stadium. But the statue is just a symbol of the program under Paterno's reign. The more important object that requires dismantling is the football program itself.


The other discussion taking place is whether the NCAA should punish Penn State for irregularities resulting from the Sandusky mess. Some think the issue is outside of the scope of what the NCAA investigates and punishes schools for - usually academic or recruiting violations. But the NCAA also punishes schools for "lack of institutional control". In fact, it is for that reason that it shut down the Southern Methodist football program in the 1980's.

How can institutional control be any more lacking than when the chief administrators and football coach/icon make the conscious decision to protect a pedophile and expose dozens of young boys to his predatory ways, all for the sake of preserving the reputation of their supposedly pristine program? How can institutional control be any more absent than when school employees, from part-time janitors to the Athletic Director, will not report a heinous crime like rape for fear of incurring the wrath of the head football coach?

The NCAA needs to send a message with its investigation and punishment of Penn State. Not so much to that school, which seems (too late) to have gotten the message (with the exception of Paterno's family, which continues to rely on an alternative history yet to be constructed in insisting that it will somehow restore JoePa's good name). Rather, the message needs to be sent to all the other NCAA Bowl Championship Series (I think that's what it's called now) administrators and coaches to emphasize that no one is above the law, no matter how revered they are or how much money they bring into the institution.

I saw an interview of former Florida State head football coach Bobby Bowden in which Bowden stated that he thought the NCAA shouldn't punish the Penn State program now. His reasoning was that because the bad actors are now gone sanctions would only punish student-athletes and coaches who were not at the school when Sandusky's and Paterno's acts and omissions occurred.

That specious argument could apply equally well to any violations that occur under a former head coach who is given the boot or leaves before he is caught (Butch Davis at UNC, Rich Rodriguez at WVU come quickly to mind). The whole point about "institutional control" is to not allow football coaches to become autonomous rulers of their little fiefdoms, answering to no one else.

Others complain that Penn State football is an integral part of school life and to take it away will damage to the school when it needs "healing". Again, isn't that the point? Shouldn't someone enforce the notion that football shouldn't be the central focus of any true institution of higher learning? And isn't the someone in this case the NCAA?

Let the Paterno statue stand as a reminder of the good and the evil that he brought to Penn State. But as for the program that he managed and mismanaged, it's time to take it down. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Let's Call it Courage

There are a lot of critics and pundits and journalists who object to the use of terms like courage and bravery and honor when it comes to sports. Sometimes even athletes join in, noting in interviews that the "real heroes" are those who serve in the armed forces or try to raise families on minimum wage incomes, or fight fires or walk a beat.

I too am sometimes off-put or even offended when sportscasters breathlessly whisper about an athlete's courage in playing in a game despite an injury or after the death of a loved one. This discomfort is heightened when athletes and coaches use military terms to refer to the games in which they participate.  No matter how difficult or grueling or against all odds a contest may be, when you go on to a field of play you are never going into battle.

But there are moments in sports, unlike almost any other endeavor other than war, in which courage is truly shown. One such instance occurred Sunday, when a soccer player made an appearance in the last five minutes of a match between the Seattle Sounders and the Colorado Rapids.

Steve Zakuani had been severely injured in in a match against the same opponent 15 months earlier. In April of 2011, Brian Mullan, a midfielder for the Rapids, tackled Zakuani hard near the touchline. Zakuani's foot caught beneath him and he fractured his right fibula and tibia. Zakuani was told by doctors he would never play soccer again. Mullan was suspended for 10 matches.

Through a long and painful rehab, Zakuani maintained a positive outlook, which he continued to demonstrate during the match (he was only on for about six minutes, but there was at least one slide tackle challenge -- not from Mullan -- that had me holding my breath) and afterward when he and Mullan embraced and exchanged shirts.

Zakuani and Mullan embrace, before trading shirts.

To make it through that grinding recovery, then step on to the pitch with the player who had maimed him (Zakuani had long before forgiven Mullan and Mullan, to his credit, showed genuine remorse from the start) can only be called courageous. Zakuani may or may not, ultimately, fully recover from his injury. But I can't imagine that anyone is not rooting for him to do so. And I can't think of any word that more aptly describes his comeback, and his actions, than courageous.

And as for the Sounders' fans, if you need any affirmation that the United States is becoming a soccer nation, just take a listen. Eddie Johnson, the Sounders' forward who has played in the English Premier League and Championship, Greece, and Mexico, in addition to MLS, said of the fans: "Man, that's the loudest I've ever heard it. that's the loudest I've ever heard a stadium." 


The whole video's almost nine minutes long, but stick around for the first minute and a half, when the Sounders' fans chant "Steve!" "Zak-u-ani!" back-and-forth. If that don't raise the hair on the back of your neck, nothing will.


Sunday, June 24, 2012

Civics 101

Okay folks, let's get something straight that I thought should have been clear after my post about Ryan Braun.

Most of us likely first learned this in 8th grade Civics class and since then have forgotten, misunderstood, misconstrued, or just plain ignored it. And it is this: "not guilty" does not mean "innocent."

I've been following the criminal trials of sports figures in Pennsylvania and DC with considerable interest over the past few weeks. I would assume that most lawyers, even those with limited criminal law experience (like me) saw the verdict in the Roger Clemens trial coming. The decision to take the Clemens case to trial, in the wake of the debacle of the Barry Bonds trial, was questionable to begin with. That the "star" witness of the government, Brian MacNamee, was a slimy, lying personal trainer/drug dealer didn't help.

The first trial ended by mistrial due to prosecutorial shenanigans that could have ended the case right then and there. Whether by mistake or a conscious decision, the prosecutors showed the jury a video tape that contained testimony that the Judge had already, clearly, ruled was not admissible. If it was a mistake, it was one that, in the words of the presiding Judge, "a first year law student" wouldn't make. If it was intentional, then it evidenced the desperateness with which the prosecution viewed its case. Either way, it wasn't a good sign.

When the Judge ruled that double jeopardy did not attach to the first trial, that the prosecution decided to take a second shot at Clemens was not surprising, but troubling. After seven weeks of laborious testimony the jury found Clemens not guilty. According to one of the jurors interviewed after the trial, the jury didn't believe MacNamee. Surprise!

Predictably, the Clemens verdict was announced as a complete exoneration. Surprisingly, the declaration came not from Clemens (who perhaps has at least learned something about prevarication through this process and merely said that he was grateful to the jurors and glad it was over) but from his grandstanding attorney, Rusty Hardin. After the verdict Hardin proclaimed: “I hope those in the public who made up their minds before there was a trial will now back up and entertain the possibility of what he (Clemens) has always said -- using steroids and HGH is cheating and was totally contrary to his entire career." 

Sorry Rusty, but the bit about steroid use being "totally contrary" to Clemens' career is simply absurd. Everything about Clemens' career, and particularly the dramatic, inexplicable improvement in his performance in his mid-to-late 30's (for example, his ERA at age 33 -- in the 1995 season-- was 4.18; at 34, 2.63; at 35, 2.05; and at 36, 2.65) screams PED use.

The decision of the government to try Clemens not once but twice on a case with flimsy physical evidence (cotton swabs in a beer can? Seriously?) and a reprehensible star witness likely gives Clemens ammunition to proclaim his innocence when staking a claim for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame, something that would likely be unimaginable (see, McGwire, Mark, and Sosa, Sammy) if his lying to Congress had merely been ignored.

Clemens posing with wife Debbie.
She admitted to being injected with HGH. 

Which, of course, may be the other problem. As an officer of the court, I firmly believe that oaths should be taken seriously and those who lie under oath should be punished. But can anyone in the general public get all that worked up about lying to Congress, particularly since people in much higher postiions (i.e., President, Supreme Court Justice) have done it and gotten away with it in the past? And don't even get me started with the propensity of politicians to lie -- there's an entire cottage industry devoted to fact-checking political ads for heaven's sake.

To be honest, my interest in the Roger Clemens perjury trial waxed and waned with its interminability, while that in the Jerry Sandusky case did not, as the prosecution wrapped up its case in less than four days of testimony. The prosecution undoubtedly could have called more witnesses and introduced more physical evidence but likely thought they ran the risk of numbing the jury to the gruesome and overwhelming testimony against Sandusky.

Some were surprised that the jury took as long as it did in deliberation and expressed concern that they might actually be considering a not guilty verdict. I thought at the time (and news articles afterwards have seemed to bear this out) that the jury was simply doing what the judge had instructed them to do: carefully consider the evidence with regard to each and every crime with which Sandusky was charged.

That the jury found Sandusky not guilty on three of the 48 counts against him speaks volumes of the care with which the jury considered the evidence and the charges, and likely makes any potential appeal by Sandusky much more difficult. That one of those counts was one against the unnamed and unidentified child that former Penn State assistant coach Mike McQueary testified about is also damning, as the jurors found his testimony particularly helpful in their overall deliberations, and yet apparently decided that there was not sufficient evidence of a sexual act in that case.

Both in the Clemens and Sandusky trials our system of justice was served. In Clemens case, it probably never should have gotten to that point. But while Sandusky was guilty, over and over again, Clemens was not found innocent. Don't let anyone tell you differently.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Who I'll Miss Most at Bonnaroo This Year

For a variety of reasons, I'm not making the trek to Southern Tennessee this year to Bonnaroo. While the headliners are not as enticing to me as last year's, there are a number of acts that I'm sorry that I'll miss.

Here, in order, are the Top Ten performers at Bonnaroo that I'm sorry I won't see (and a live performance from them as well):

1.  Ben Folds Five.  The group broke up in 2000; since then Ben Folds has gone on to a successful solo career and is one of my favorite artists.  Now they're back together and will release a new album in August. Here's a live version of "Landed" one of my all-time favorites from any artist:


2.  Radiohead.  Always ones to do things their own way, Radiohead is perhaps the most iconic act in this year's line-up.  I'd pay close to the price of admission to the whole festival just to see them.  Here they are live in Prague playing "There There":


3.  The Avett Brothers.  The only artists on this list that I've seen before and one of the five best concerts I've ever been to. Southern poets, great musicians, and entertainers; The Avetts look like they're right off the set of "Deadwood" or "Young Guns". Don't miss 'em! Here they are doing Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise:


4.  The Civil Wars.  Great harmonies, although I object to their being categorized as "Country." John Paul White was born in Southern Tennessee and grew up in Muscle Shoals, Alabama a stone's throw (okay 125 miles) from Manchester, TN. Heck, I might pay close to the price of admission just to see/hear this song (you have to wait through a long intro to hear the song, but it's worth it):


5.  Alabama Shakes.  Damn that girl can sing!  The rest of the band looks like they just rolled out of a frat house. Here's "Hold On":


6.  Delta Spirit.  Would be higher on the list, except that I'm not all that enamoured of their latest album. Still, there are some great songs on it and especially on their previous effort, History From Below, would make them a must-see in my book. Here's my favorite from the next-to-last cd, "Bushwick Blues":


7.  Dispatch.  How could I not go see a band spawned from Middlebury? Apparently they're back together (again) and have released a new EP. This is "Bang Bang" live:


8.  The Shins.  It seems that some bands are damned if they do and damned if they don't. The Shins' sound on their new album is a little more upbeat, a little more rocky, which seems to displease some critics but should make them even better live. Here they are doing "Bait and Switch" from their new cd, live at South by Southwest:


9.  The Temper Trap.  I can see these guys as 2012's Matt + Kim -- upbeat and great at connecting with the audience. Here's a live version of "Fader" from KEXP:


10. Alice Cooper.  Hey, the second album (okay, it was an 8-track tape) I ever bought was "Killer". Don't know if Alice still has it or not, but I'd be willing to find out. Thanks to my long-time friend Kevin Potter for introducing me to Alice many, many years ago, and to my Republican Dad for not flinching when I brought Alice into his house. Here's a recent version of my favorite Alice song, "Under My Wheels", judging by which he does still have it (wait out the long band intro, it's the best live version I could find):


Truth be told, I won't miss the dust, the crush of humanity, and not showering for four days. But I'm sure I'll regret missing these acts, along with many more this year. Maybe Bonnaroo 2013 is in my future . . .