Friday, April 13, 2012

Patriotic Correctness Redux

I am not a fan of Ozzie Guillen. Nor of Fidel Castro or Hugo Chavez, despite what some of my more conservative friends may think. And unlike my attitude towards Rick Pitino, I don't see those inclinations changing anytime soon.

Nevertheless, I am perplexed by tone of the criticism by Major League Baseball and head shill Bud Selig (you can add him to that list in the first paragraph as far as I'm concerned too) to a statement that Guillen recently made regarding Castro that led to a five game suspension from his new job as manager of the Miami (formerly Florida) Marlins.

In an interview with Time Magazine, Guillen, who has a notoriously large mouth which one foot or the other often seems to occupy, allegedly made comments that supported Castro. While initially saying that he "love(s) Fidel Castro" even Guillen immediately saw the danger in that comment and amended it somewhat.  "I respect Fidel Castro," Guillen said. "You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for he last 60 years, but that mother____ is still here."

Let me be clear: while I am not privy to Guillen's contract with the Marlins, I assume that the team is perfectly within its rights to suspend him for the comments he made as not in the best interest of the team. In fact, given Guillen's past history of stupid utterances reflecting his homophobia and, indeed, expressing his admiration for Castro, I would be astonished if Guillen's contract did not have a clause allowing him to be disciplined or terminated for comments deemed detrimental to the club.

While Guillen has (unconvincingly) tried to explain his comments by saying that he was thinking in Spanish and talking in English during the interview (so, Spanish for the word "love" really means "hate"?), I think we're missing something a little more fundamental here. 

It's clear that Selig didn't see Guillen's punishment as sufficient to quell the uproar in Miami over his comments. So, instead, he went out of his way to proclaim Guillen's opinions as, essentially, un-American in a transparent attempt to pander to the city's Cuban-American community (and to avoid losing their support at the turnstiles, on which Selig is banking to turn around the moribund franchise and fill its brand-new $515 million ballpark).

In his statement, Selig intoned, in part: "As I have often said, baseball is a social institution with important social responsibilities. All of our 30 Clubs play significant roles within their local communities, and I expect those who represent Major League Baseball to act with the kind of respect and sensitivity that the game's many cultures deserve."

So, basically, whatever your largest potential audience is in any location, pander to them. Only offer opinions with which they agree. And that bit about social responsibilities? Well, as long as the First Amendment isn't included, we're all for them.

Selig's hypocrisy is compounded, of course, by the fact that he took no action, and made no proclamation, about Guillen's comments regarding Castro in 2008. And most significantly, by his own appearance in Havana, seated beside Fidel himself, in 1998 at an Orioles-Cuban All-Star team exhibition.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos, Fidel Castro, and Bud Selig.
I know what you're thinking. It's not Photoshopped.

And so, we have the 2012 Selig, trying to sell tickets in Miami to the Cuban-American community by denouncing Guillen as not meeting MLB's "important social responsibilities" while we gaze at the 1998 version of Selig sitting next to the man Guillen is criticized for admiring. Why? 

Money. It was okay for Bud to sit next to Fidel in 1998 because, well, because Bud thought it the best way for baseball to make a few bucks at the time. And, now, it's okay for Bud to eviscerate Guillen for admiring the man he once sat next to because, well, because Bud thinks that's the best way for baseball to make a few bucks.

At least Joesph McCarthy had an ideological basis for his witch hunt. Trampling an entire nation's First Amendment rights in the name of freedom, while horrifying and divisive, had a patina of patriotism. Selig's trampling of an individual's rights has no such gloss. It's just business as usual for Bud, according to what he believes is best for his business. And if that pesky Constitution gets in the way? Well, just place yourself on the side of "social responsibility" and everything will be fine.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Hurray for the Uncoached

As this blog has evolved it's largely taken the form of commentary on timely events regarding soccer and sports in general and the possible lessons to be learned for society as a whole and coaches and athletes in particular.

As a former coach, I obviously believe that coaches are, at their best, essential to the development of players and teams. This is always true of team sports, where individual brilliance may be present, but has to be integrated into the machinery of the team in order for there to be collective success.

In individual sports, coaches used to be the exception, not the norm. But these days every tennis player has a coach, and every PGA player has at least one, and often more: swing coach; short game coach; psychologist; not to mention caddies and agents. 

I believe that all this coaching has taken some of the magic out of those sports. We now seem to have cookie-cutter formulas for success. In women's tennis, in order to be a star you apparently have to grunt/scream in agony on every shot (and it doesn't hurt to have a last name ending in "ova"). Men's tennis is now just a series of baseline displays of power, with two players firing ICBMs at each other until one succumbs. The players then move on to the next point, indistinguishable from the last, where the sparring renews. 

It's the same in golf where most of the players, especially those in the middle-of-the-pack, seem interchangeable. I'm always amused when a commentator analyzes some player's swing with the super-slow-motion camera and breathlessly describes the takeaway or the downswing or the follow-through. They all look exactly the same to me (except, of course, for Jim Furyk's). But maybe that's why I'm watching and they're playing.

I pine for the days when you could tell a player just by his/her swing, whether on the court or the course. Just saying the name Borg or McEnroe or Evert or Palmer or Player conjures up a very clear image in my mind, not of the player's face, but the player's stroke or swing and the way they played the game.

The classic Palmer follow through.

Which is why Bubba Watson's triumph at the Masters this past weekend came as such a breath of fresh air. As I'm sure you've read by now, Watson has never had a golf lesson and is mostly self-taught. His pairing with Louis Oosthuizen for 20 holes on Sunday provided the perfect contrast between the always-in-control-never-out-of-balance swings taught and learned by almost everyone these days and the swing-from-your-heels-or-toes-it-doesn't-matter-when-you-hit-the-ball-350-yards thrashing of Bubba.

Bubba's follow through. While with a driver -- look familiar?

Watson has commented before that he in all likelihood has Attention Deficit Disorder (which his wife readily confirms) and that he relies on his caddie to keep him on-task during a round. But he has consistently refused to hire a swing coach or even seek much advice regarding his swing. And, as far as I'm concerned, we're all better off because of it.

While the psychologist quoted in the article above likens an athlete with ADD to those individuals who used to be described as having an "artistic temperament", nothing about Bubba's game is particularly artistic. In his all-white outfits, wielding a pink driver with a pink shaft, hair flowing out of his visor like a frat boy at Ft. Lauderdale on spring break, the image is much more that of a mad scientist or a wizard. And all of us are enchanted.

Tell me you can't see Gandalf with a pink driver in his hands.

While Bubba evidently identifies most with the late Payne Stewart (who also likely had ADD), their games aren't much alike. The golfer who Watson most reminds me of is Seve Ballesteros, another mad genius whose imagination could help him escape the most unlikely of circumstances. Although, in Seve's case, it was usually much farther from the green than Bubba normally finds himself.

More than most, I understand the value of coaches and coaching, especially in team sports. And I certainly understand, particularly with my flawed golf swing and more flawed psyche, that coaches can benefit players in individual sports as well. But I also appreciate artistry or mad genius, particularly in individual sports. And that's why we all should celebrate Bubba's triumph.

He is every kid, who, hitting a ball he tossed to himself, shooting a three-pointer, or hitting a practice ball (on a vacant lot, or hoop without a rim, or sandy spot in his backyard) dreamt of hitting a walk-off home run, or making the last shot in the NBA finals, or sinking a putt on the 74th hole to win the Masters. It can happen. And you can do it all by yourself.

Friday, April 6, 2012

An Awkward Day for Coaches

Three events regarding American coaches were revealed on Thursday were so surreal I can't let them pass without offering a word about each.

In the NFL, the release of audio tape of Greg Williams, the former New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator, and now in all likelihood a former coach in all respects, presumably sealed not only WIlliams' fate but also that of his former bosses, the Saints and head coach Sean Payton, with regard to the fines and suspensions placed on them by the league in the wake of the bounty program that Williams installed and Payton not only tacitly allowed but actively tried to cover up.

Meanwhile, in the NBA, Orlando Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy had apparently decided enough was enough and outed his superstar, Dwight Howard, who has been working behind the scenes to get Van Gundy fired. In the height of awkward moments, immediately after Van Gundy had completed his comments to the media about Howard, Howard appeared at the press gathering and put his arm around Van Gundy.

And, finally, news came from Arkansas that the University's football coach, Bobby Petrino, hadn't been as forthcoming as Van Gundy in his recent dealings with the press. Petrino informed the press on Tuesday that he had been involved in a motorcycle accident Sunday. What he didn't tell the press (and in fact lied about) was that there was another rider on his bike. A 25 year-old female employee (and former volleyball player) at the school, with whom he was, according to the school which has now suspended him, engaged in an "inappropriate relationship."

Petrino at his press conference. One can only assume
that the neck brace and scrapes are from his accident,
not what his wife did to him when he got home.

If one were to pick one word to describe each of the three coaches and their unusual circumstances, the word I choose for Williams is arrogant. Stupid and evil would work too. While NFL players and commentators debate whether what Williams said in his "pep talk" went beyond the bounds of decency, or at least normality where the NFL is concerned, there's something more simple at play in my mind. 

Williams knew, or should have known at the time that he made the speech, that he and the Saints were under investigation for their bounty program. He knew that they had been told to stop offering money to defensive players for injuries to the opposing team. And Williams knew that there was an individual from outside of the team (filmmaker Sean Pamphilon, who was making a documentary on Saints player Steve Gleason) present during his speech.

All of which has to lead one to conclude that Williams thought he was above the law. After all, he had gotten away with his antics for years before, first with the Buffalo Bills, then with the Saints. It was pure arrogance that led Williams to conclude that it was business as usual when it came to his the defensive tactics his Saints would employ against the San Francisco 49ers. That arrogance will surely cost him any chance to ever coach again. And rightfully so.

Good riddance Mr. Williams

My word for Van Gundy is honest. Coaching and honesty don't always go hand-in-hand, and sometimes it is almost inevitable that the two cannot coexist. In preparing a team for a game a coach will often have to stretch or ignore the truth, whether to convince his or her team that they have a chance, or that the other team has a chance. It's the same in dealing with the media, when coaches often have to defuse tension within the team, or not say what's really on their mind ("the referees didn't cost us the game" comes to mind as a statement that is often the exact opposite of what a coach is really thinking).

Yet Van Gundy chose to confront a question about Howard in a straightforward and honest manner. He could have chosen to plead ignorance, simply ignore the question, or shoot the messenger, but he gave an honest answer and then an honest assessment of the situation. And he was absolutely right. Many of us don't particularly care for some of the people we work for or with, but it doesn't, or shouldn't, stop us from doing our jobs as best we can.

Slimy has to be the word for Petrino. Not because he was apparently engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a woman half his age with a wife and four kids at home (history is littered with men and women much better than Petrino who have done the same or worse). Not because he abandoned his previous employer, the Atlanta Falcons, in mid-season.

But because he lied about the accident, first to his boss and then to the media, and then by all appearances made an appearance that was meant to draw sympathy to him (or attention away from the circumstances that surrounded his mishap). And asked a Good Samaritan who drove by the scene of the crash not to call 911. And because the week before his companion was hired as his team's "student-athlete development coordinator."

Head football coaches, especially those at big state universities, expect to and can get away with a lot when they win. But the way Petrino handled this situation, in an apparently calculating manner from the moment it happened, can only be seen as the acts of a selfish, and, yes, slimy man.

One day, three unusual and awkward moments for three coaches, who can be described in three words. How can a blogger be so lucky?