The Nexus Of Sports And Politics.

I certainly do not mean to demean sports. In my opinion, participation in team sports is one of the very best ways to prepare for life. Through my participation in team sports, I learned the value of practice, preparation, competition, teamwork, determination, toughness, and sportsmanship. When I was young, sports challenged you to do your very best. If that wasn’t good enough, you congratulated the other team then you went home and you worked even harder to improve yourself.

Unfortunately, I believe the sports culture took an ugly turn sometime around the late 80’s and early 90’s fueled, I believe, by cable sports networks. It was about that time when I first heard college fans boo the visiting team before the game even started; when I heard sports radio jocks call out and demean amateur players; when I heard fans demonize opponents; when I heard someone pronounce the runner-up of a tournament as the “first loser.”

Whether or not it was coincidental, that cultural change also happened to coincide with the self-esteem movement distinguished by the idea that you’re special; that no one in the world is exactly like you; that it’s bad for you, or your child, to be average. Receiving a C on a report card was akin to receiving an F. Though returning WWII vets were once proud to call themselves “Average Joes,” modern Americans began to consider the term average to be an insult. Everyone seemed to believe that they were exceptional.

Winning and excelling became all important. The long-time American tradition of cheering for underdogs was replaced by cheering for “winners” even if their winning is the result of cheating.

Not surprisingly, that attitude has carried over into our politics. Our politics are no longer about policies and values that will benefit the majority of Americans. Now it’s about winning at all costs. For some, even that is not enough. For them, it’s not enough for their side to win. The other side must lose. They want to punish the “libtards.” They wear shirts saying they’d rather be Russian than be a Democrat. They display bumper stickers that say “Christians cannot be Democrats. Democrats cannot be Christians.” They call Democrats an angry mob. They try to suppress, or even outright block the votes of those who might vote against them. They gerrymander districts to ensure that their political opponents are under-represented. They attack their opponents with horrific lies and attack ads. They dump manure at the doorstep of Democratic headquarters. And they think nothing of stealing the emails and communications of Democratic organizations.

Thanks to people like Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump, there is no room for compromise. Indeed, a willingness to compromise is considered a sign of weakness. Such politics go beyond tribalism. For many Republicans, politics are an all-out war against the other tribe. But history tells us that, in order to survive, even the most primitive tribes eventually learned to stop fighting and seek peace. Those that failed to do so were wiped from the face of the Earth.

Should Americans Be Afraid Of Socialist Democrats?

Republicans are trying to frighten voters away from politicians who refer to themselves as Socialist Democrats, stating that these are people who want to give you “free stuff” with other people’s money. There is a small kernel of truth to that. But that has been the case for Americans since the very beginnings of our country.

In fact, the preamble of our Constitution can be interpreted as a statement of socialism: “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Moreover, history tells us that the Founders called for the Constitutional Convention in order to form a central government that could raise taxes to pay for the nation’s defense and to pay off the debts accumulated during the Revolutionary War. Clearly, the Founders were seeking ways to pay for the common good of all our citizens. That is a form of socialism.

Still not convinced? Then what do you make of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in which he described our nation as “Of the people, by the people and for the people.” There has never been a more powerful description of a socialist democracy!

Of course, democratic socialism can take many shapes. As Wikipedia states, “There are many varieties of socialism and there is no single definition encapsulating all of them, though social ownership is the common element shared by its various forms.” Today, most successful democracies, like the US, balance socialism and capitalism.

For example, our defense budget is derived from taxes, making our military a product of socialism. So, too, is the budget for FEMA, TSA and the other arms of the Homeland Security Department. Our public schools and, for the most part, our infrastructure – roads, seaports, airports and dams – are the products of socialism. Even our power grid and communications systems are a combination of private and public investment. Rural electric lines and many rural telephone lines were built as socialist projects by rural (socialist) cooperatives. Our public libraries, city halls, courthouses, sports venues and parks are paid for, or subsidized, by members of our communities.

In fact, most all of the things our city, county, state and federal governments do are supported by taxes, which amount to a form of socialism. Our space exploration and all of its discoveries, many of which benefited private corporations, were funded by our citizens. Similarly, many other scientific breakthroughs were the result of public investment. When our large corporations receive government incentives and subsidies, such as tax-increment financing and research grants, they are recipients of socialism. That is also true when those corporations pay such meager salaries that their employees have to rely on government programs in order to live. And it was certainly the case after the economic crash of 2008 when banks and auto manufacturers were bailed out by the federal government.

Even property and medical insurance are examples of socialism because those who don’t have insurance claims help pay for those who do. In fact, our Social Security and Medicare programs are a form of insurance. And don’t forget that all churches and church property are exempt from taxes, which means they are also subsidized through socialism.

Truth is, socialism doesn’t inhibit our freedom. Much to the contrary, it’s liberating. It is because of the things created by socialist policies that Americans have had the ability to learn, to light their homes, to travel as desired, to build businesses, to rebuild following natural disasters, and to create without fear of failing. Indeed, it is because our Founding Fathers had the wisdom to create a form of government that allowed people to live independently while sharing the burdens of defense, education, and infrastructure that our nation became great.

And, of course, we’re not alone. Most advanced nations in the world are socialist democracies. Many of them offering more “free stuff” than our Socialist Democrats propose, such as universal healthcare, low-cost or no-cost college educations, low-cost or no-cost daycare, state-controlled pensions and more. Taxes in those countries may be higher than ours. But they consistently outrank us with regard to longevity, infant mortality and, just as important, happiness.

Any attempts to discredit Democratic Socialists and to further privatize such things as education, infrastructure, health care and retirement will only serve to weaken us and make our future bleak.

Hall Of Fame Indifference.

The induction of former San Diego Chargers linebacker, Junior Seau, into the NFL Hall of Fame raises a number of questions. Not about his qualifications for the honor. He is most certainly deserving. It raises questions about NFL team ownership; about the league’s Commissioner; about concussion protocol; about the equipment; about the game’s rules; about the sport itself.

More than a dozen former NFL players committed suicide after suffering memory loss and other effects of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) which is caused by concussions. And numerous other former players have been diagnosed with CTE. Yet for many years, the NFL has seemed to ignore the problems of concussions despite individual and class action lawsuits for unsafe working conditions. Most recently, the league settled a class action lawsuit out of court for $765 million. The settlement allowed league officials to avoid testifying under oath on what the NFL knew and when it knew it.

Likely that would have been extremely embarrassing.

Over the past 3 seasons alone, there have been nearly 700 reported concussions. And that’s just the concussions that were actually reported. How many aren’t? And how many are reported too late to protect the health of the players? There were several embarrassing incidents (including one during the Super Bowl) in which players wobbled off the field following vicious hits only to re-enter the game a few plays later. Then the next day or, in some cases, a few days later, the player was diagnosed with concussion symptoms.

Obviously, it was more important for the team to win the game than to protect the health of its players.

While it is true that the number of reported concussions has dropped each of the past 2 years, the number is still far too great. Indeed, if most any other industry experienced such injuries and unsafe working conditions, the media and the public would be calling for investigations.

Almost certainly, rule changes and improved equipment could reduce the concussions and other serious injuries. But there seems to be no real appetite for change. After all, this is football – America’s beloved bloodsport. It makes the owners, and especially the media, billions of dollars each year. Unfortunately, most of those who play the game and take the chances of permanently harming their health labor for much, much less money. Moreover, unlike other sports, their contracts are not guaranteed. So even if they are lucky enough to sign a multi-million dollar contract, most of that money could disappear in an instant; the result of a single violent play. Football fans will cheer and marvel at the play. It will be replayed in an almost continuous loop on ESPN and other networks. And the player who suffered the damage will be quickly forgotten.

For most players, they will experience one violent collision after another, some of which will cause concussions. And if the concussions happen often enough or if they are severe enough, the players will be forced to retire. Some will lose their memories and some of their motor functions. And some will do what Junior Seau did. They will kill themselves.

It’s time for change…real change.

Why Let Politics And Religion Divide Us?

In the past 20-30 years, politics have been increasingly used to identify and separate us. We are no longer people who hold a variety of complex ideas that we believe could improve the human condition. We have been reduced to conservatives or liberals…Democrats, Republicans or…gasp… Independents. We cannot have nuanced views. We must join a tribe. And, according to our political leaders, we must support that tribe unconditionally. Our tribe can never be wrong.

In the immortal words of George W. Bush, “You’re either with us or against us.” There is no room for compromise. Indeed, the Speaker of the House – the man twice removed from the presidency – cannot even bring himself to say the word.

Similarly, religion has become more than a personal belief or a matter of faith. It has become a source of identity…an exclusionary club that shows our superiority. “Only my religion knows the true path to everlasting life and salvation. Unless you join us, you will be going to hell.” You can no longer be an individual. You cannot, as Jesus commanded, “… go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” You must join a club…the bigger the better.

You must share your beliefs with anyone who will listen and try to force them on everyone else. You must ask others to share the expense of your clubhouses by proclaiming them free of property taxes. You must accept the belief that God has chosen our nation, our party and our sports teams above all others. You must thank God for every touchdown, every goal and every victory. You must petition the government to create and protect monuments to your beliefs on public property. You must demand that the public pray as you would pray before and after any public event. And if they won’t, you must condemn the non-believers for waging a “war” on your faith.

Does it really have to be this way? Are we so uncertain of ourselves that we must rely upon organizations and others to define us? Is there no longer room for individualism? No room for a diversity of beliefs and attitudes? Can we not tolerate others who do not believe as we do? Must we try to force our beliefs on others? Must we victimize others through racism, sexism and a variety of other ‘isms?

Mere labels cannot, and should not, define us. Is it not enough to be defined as human?

Whatever Happened To Sportsmanship?

Tom Brady’s involvement in Deflategate is further evidence of the decline of sports. At their best, sports teach the benefits of teamwork, hard work, determination, fairness and sportsmanship. But over the years, those attributes have been replaced by the effects of money and swollen egos. Witness the seeming indifference by the New England Patriots when caught spying on practices of opposing teams and Tom Brady’s ridicule of those who have suggested that manipulating the air pressure in footballs gave him an unfair advantage.

Unfortunately, Brady and the Patriots are not alone. When it was discovered that an Auburn University booster paid Cam Newton’s father at least $100,000 to influence his son to attend the school, no punishment was meted out to either the quarterback or the university. When it was determined that a Big 10 basketball program had broken NCAA recruiting rules, the fans howled with righteous indignation that “everybody does the same thing.” When Heisman Trophy winner, Reggie Bush, was found to have received thousands in cash to attend USC, he faced no greater penalty than volunteering to return his Heisman Trophy but the school was banned from post-season play for two years. And when Heisman Trophy winner, Jameis Winston was accused of raping a Florida State student, he not only continued to play for the university. He was rewarded by becoming the NFL’s number one draft choice.

In the NBA, it was well-known that the league had two sets of rules: those for Michael Jordan and those for everybody else. An NBA official was found to have influenced the outcome of a playoff game. He was fired and paid a price. But the entire affair was quickly swept under the rug.

Cheating in sports has become so commonplace that fans of the self-proclaimed nation’s best collegiate football league, the SEC, brag “If you’re not cheating, you’re not really trying.”

It hasn’t always been this way.

When “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and the Chicago White Sox were believed to have thrown the World Series, he and several of his teammates were banned from baseball even though there was little evidence of their transgressions. Pete Rose was banned from baseball and the Hall of Fame when it was found that he had bet on other Major League games, even though there was no evidence that he bet on his own games. But, today, it seems the only sports figures held accountable for breaking the rules are children. This past year, Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West team was stripped of its Little League title when it was determined that it had fielded players from outside its designated area.

Shouldn’t today’s collegiate and pro sports figures be held to the same standard?

If it’s serious about protecting the integrity of the league (or, more accurately, establishing some semblance of integrity), the NFL should ban Tom Brady from participation for at least a year. And given the fact that the New England Patriots have been involved in multiple cheating scandals, the NFL should ban the franchise from the playoffs for at least a year. It doesn’t matter that the Patriots almost certainly would have defeated the Colts with properly inflated footballs anyway. How many times have Brady and the Patriots used under-inflated footballs in the past? How many close games have the Patriots won as the result of their cheating? Isn’t that the point? No one knows but Brady and his staff of “deflaters.”

The misguided belief that all teams cheat is no excuse for Brady’s behavior. Not all teams or players cheat. And allowing behavior such as Brady’s only cheapens sports. Severe penalties are the only way to ensure the fairness of sports that are awash in billions of dollars. But I don’t expect the NFL to impose such penalties. It is far more likely that the NFL will suspend Brady for a game or two and fine him a relatively insignificant amount of money if, indeed, it penalizes him at all.

That would be a shame. Without rules, sports are little more than entertainment…and not very good entertainment at that.

We All Need To Take A Deep Breath.

After the spate of shootings of unarmed black men and children by the police, the failure to file charges, the massive demonstrations, and the retaliatory killings of two police by a mentally ill black man, it’s clear that we all need to calm the rhetoric. Charges by conservatives that the cop shootings were caused by NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio and President Obama are not helpful. Clearly, America has a problem with race and the increased militarization of our police forces.

But there’s a related problem that has too long been swept under the carpet: Mental health.

No one has addressed the issue more thoughtfully than Royce White. White was one of the most brilliant college basketball players of the last decade. He also suffers from anxiety disorder which cut his NBA career short. But after reading his recent article which was published in The Cauldron, it appears that basketball may be the least of his talents. He is an intelligent writer and a staunch advocate for mental health. His article sums up the underlying issues that face police and our black communities…issues such as PTSD that have, thus far, been ignored by our elected officials, our major media and our national political pundits (who themselves likely suffer from some form of mental illness).

We can all learn from White’s insights. Read his article which I’ve linked here. Then take a deep breath and demand that your elected officials begin to address the issues of race and police relations…all of the issues.

The End Of Professionalism.

In the early nineties, I started noticing a new attitude from advertising clients. Where previous clients respected our opinions and were willing to pay for our expertise, clients began questioning everything from concepts to production to grammar. It was if our college degrees and years of experience meant nothing.

You see, this new generation of clients had seen plenty of advertising. They had computer programs to check spelling and grammar. Suddenly, they were experts.

Even worse, marketing directors and advertising managers would often hire their nephews and nieces to design print ads, brochures and websites because “they had taken a class in graphic design.” Where we had been held to account with a variety of measurements – awareness studies, focus groups, sales results, etc. – the nephews and nieces were exempt from all that. While these clients admitted the work might not be great, they said it was “good enough.”

Within a few years, large clients such as Frito-Lay were holding contests for amateurs to create their Super Bowl commercials. In reality, this became a new way to generate “buzz” and to cut costs.

The advertising industry isn’t the only one affected. The innundation of media, computers, the Internet, Worldwide Web, YouTube and “apps” have had the same affect on most professions. People with no specialized education or training now believe they are expert writers, artists, designers, photographers, film directors, video editors, football coaches, basketball coaches…you name it. For example, almost everyone is an expert on education…after all, everyone has attended some sort of school.

I realized this phenomenon had reached a point of no return when college football fans bought games which allowed them to play their team’s upcoming schedule on their home computer. They then announced the results as if they were predictors of the upcoming season. When the actual team played actual opponents and lost, these “gamers” were then convinced that the loss was the result of the coach approaching the actual game differently than they had on the computer.

Such idiocy is relatively harmless…until it spills into economics, science, politics and everyday life.

We now have politicians who think they know more about climate change than climatologists. Religious leaders who claim evolution is just a theory. (Of course it is…in the same way gravity is a theory!) Political leaders who claim the way to end poverty is to take away social safety nets. We have created a society of people who believe they’re experts about everything, and if they aren’t, they can just “Google it.”

It’s long past time that we again respect the real experts…the professionals who have spent years learning and mastering a subject. It’s time we stop seeing conspiracies around every corner (that only diminishes the real conspiracies.) We need to learn to trust again. And we need to earn that trust. Until we do, our nation and our civilization will never truly prosper.

Penn State’s 9/11?

Asked by a reporter how he felt about sanctions against the Penn State football program, one fan said, “I just can’t put my arms around it, it’s, to me, it was our 9/11 today.”

Ummm…no, it was justice.

In the Penn State fiasco, the only events remotely comparable to 9/11 were the sexual assaults of children committed by a former Penn State coach.

Unfortunately, this fan isn’t alone in his opinion.  Upon visiting the fan message board on Rivals’ Penn State website, you will find many, many other fans who seem far more outraged at their university’s punishment than at the real crimes.  Many want to fire the university president for accepting the sanctions.  Many want to sue the NCAA.  Many are furious at Louis Freeh for his report implicating Joe Paterno.  Many are outraged that their beloved coach’s statue was removed from their campus.  Many refuse to consider the culture that allowed Jerry Sandusky to abuse children for so long.  Many are in denial – convinced that their university could not have covered up the crimes.

Of course, Penn State’s fans are not unique.  The fans of such football factories as Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas, Texas A&M and USC would likely react in much the same way.  Their teams have been on top so long, the fans feel entitled.  They have lost touch with reality.  Many are all too willing to turn a blind eye to crimes committed by great players.  They dismiss their team’s cheating by saying “everyone does it.”  They ignore the fact that many of their star athletes attend their university only for football.  A degree program and grades are immaterial.  What really matters is another bowl win.

Maybe it’s time for universities to, once again, view football and basketball as mere sports.  Not as sources for endlesss amounts of money.  Maybe they should be more concerned with their academic reputations than their sports reputations.  Maybe they should focus on students more than athletes.

Well, you can’t blame me for dreaming.

The Politicization Of Everything.

The publicity for the Trayvon Martin killing served to emphasize the depths of our culture.  When the Samford, Florida Police Department announced that the killer, George Zimmerman, would not be charged, Martin’s family was understandably outraged.  They asked MSNBC’s Rev. Al Sharpton to pick up the case and publicize it nationally.  Of course, that meant that Fox News Channel and right-wing radio had to take the side of George Zimmerman.

If a travesty such as the Martin case can be politicized, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that every other part of our culture is viewed through the same divisive lenses.  We have politicized science, education, health care, contraception, religion, race, women’s rights, the environment, the military, our judiciary, veteran’s affairs, Social Security, Medicare, guns, energy, agriculture, sports and, of course, journalism.

That hasn’t always been the case.  Prior to the early 80s, evolution was considered settled science.  Few questioned our education system.  Religion did not intrude in the classroom, except in parochial schools.  Outside of our military, no one carried guns except police and criminals.  And the media were bound by high standards of objectivity.

What changed?

Following the debacle of Watergate, the moribund Republican Party made an unholy alliance with evangelical leaders. Later, the Fairness Doctrine was repealed unleashing conspiracy talk radio.  Evangelists flooded radio and cable television with conservative politics and the message that Christianity was under attack.  Greedy right-wing mouthpieces like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck filled the airwaves with their theories of a New World Order.  Rupert Murdoch built a media empire on hate and Teapublican talking points.  And worst of all, the National Rifle Association and American Legislative Exchange Council began writing legislation and recruiting state legislators to serve their ideological agendas.

And our conservative-leaning populace sucked it all in.

So here we are…arguing about racism, judicial “activism,” contraception, the origin of “personhood,” immigration, Bible studies and prayer in the classroom, religious messages in government buildings, cutting taxes for the rich, guns on campus, etc., etc., etc.

And all the while we’re arguing, the real problems such as a crumbling infrastructure, economic inequality, the exodus of high-paying jobs, too-big-to-fail corporations, climate change, the extinction of wildlife, an increasingly inaccessible and unaffordable health care system, and massive national debt are only getting worse.

Penn State Merely Reflects Our Culture.

Whatever the legal outcome of the charges against former Penn State defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, one thing is clear. The reaction of Penn State students to the firing of Joe Paterno reveals seriously twisted values. When the students filled the streets in protest, they were, in effect, saying we don’t care about the victims. Winning is more important.

We’ve seen this bankruptcy of values for many years in sports; particularly football. In places like Auburn, Iowa, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Nebraska, and USC, the institutions are expected to win at any cost. Athletes are allowed to assault, rape and rob with little consequence as long as they perform well on gameday. Boosters are allowed to make illegal payments under the table without fear. Coaches earn millions for finding ways around the NCAA’s rules. If they’re caught, they take the money and leave knowing they will be able to continue their careers at another school with the same values.

Before you think sports are unique in their lack of ethics, consider that the same kind of behavior is rewarded in politics. Politicians can lie and cheat without repercussions. They can pad their bank accounts and earn large pensions just by getting elected.

Business leaders are rewarded with multi-million-dollar salaries, stock options and bonuses for cutting employees and shipping jobs off-shore. The long-term health of their companies, or even our nation, mean little. After all, the executives can make enough in a year to retire comfortably.

This win-at-any-cost, ends-justify-the-means attitude permeates virtually every aspect of our society. For generations, the Catholic Church has swept child abuse under its sacramental rug then acted shocked by the outcry. Evangelical churches believe that it’s acceptable to lie to obtain new converts, to increase donations, or to rally adherents to their political causes. At the same time, they deny their political motivations and cover up their excesses.

Even worse than the excesses, themselves, is the fact that we all have been aware of them for decades. But we have done little to speak out or to try to change them. We not only accept that entertainers, sports stars and CEOs make millions a year while demanding even more. We admire them. We turn them into celebrities. And if they are caught for misbehaving or abusing their power and wealth, we turn on them. We vilify them. And we ask ourselves how we could have been so easily fooled.

If Sandusky actually did what he is accused of doing, he deserves our wrath. At the same time, we all need to look into the mirror and ask ourselves why his actions and similar actions of others are allowed to continue for so long.