My daughter and I are out of town, visiting friends for the weekend and I won't have time to post in here. I will resume my usual duties tomorrow evening (Sunday).
I am sure most of you have seen or heard Tim Hardaway's comments, made yesterday to Dan Le Batard on Miami's Sports Radio 790 the ticket. But, in case you haven't, here's the meat of them, in response to a question by Le Batard about how he would deal with a gay teammate:
"You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known. I don't like gay people and I don't like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I don't like it. It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States.''
Hardaway has since apologized, saying that he regrets saying what he's said and also commenting that:
"There are more important things to worry about than my comments. We should be more concerned about President (George) Bush and all the people dying in Iraq."
But the cat, as they say, is most definitely out of the bag and there's been tons of reaction, but I am going to recount just one for now - Mike Greenberg's handling of the issue this morning. Mike Golic was sick this morning, so Greenie was flying solo. I have given Greenie grief here on a number of occasions, but Greenie really rose to the occasion today and, at times, was extraordinary. I don't agree with everything he said, but he gave the issue its due and handled himself beautifully.
Greenberg set the table with these comments:
"Where do we go with this? I am not the least bit surprised. Here's what i think: if you want to open up a dialogue on a sensitive subject, which I think, in and of itself is a good thing to do...each of us have different views and it matters differently to each of us...in some cases, homosexuality is a big topic, or abortion, or religion or politics...and I think it is intrinsically a good thing to open up a dialogue rather than keeping your feelings to yourself...I'd rather know where a person stands than not know and then I can judge people for myself, with some sense of reality and honesty about who they really are."
"dialogue means, by definition, that you can no longer control what everyone is going to say...(because Golic is sick) this program is a monologue today - anything I don't like, and don't want said, isn't going to get said.
You're John Amaechi, you're coming out...you had better be prepared for people saying things you don't like...and I don't like what Tim Hardaway said at all, and you can now judge him, but there is nothing you can do about. And you must remember two things: one if you think John Amaechi was the only gay player in the NBA at the time he was playing and that there are none now then you are flatly out of your mind, take that for what it's worth and, if you think Tim Hardaway is the only person inside or outside of sports who feels as he does, you're equally out of your mind.
As is in the nature of the medium, Greenie repeated a handful of lines, or variations thereof, throughout the rest of the morning (or at least the first couple of hours, when the discussion almost exclusively on that issue). One was about what a dialogue means, an important point with which I generally agree, with some caveats. The second was that everyone was "one thousand percent" entitled to their opinion, and Greenie was careful to say "I'm not sure my opinion is any more valid than yours." Greenberg also explained that he grew up in Greenwich village, was used to seeing same sex couples holding hands from the time he was a small child and really never gave it a second thought. So, a third point Greenberg repeated throughout the morning was that he strongly disagreed with Hardaway's comments. And, the fourth was that Amaechi - whom Greenie acknowledged was in an uncomfortable position - "opened the door, he began the dialogue, willingly."
Early in the show, Greenie rattled off a handful of stories that he could have talked about today - from the Celtics snapping their losing streak, to Duke snapping theirs, to Mariano's contract demands - but then commented that "there doesn't seem to be much point in going in other directions" given that this issue had "ramifications far beyond the world of sports."
Greenberg also read emails throughout the morning, and said they were running about 50-50, with about half appalled by Hardaway's comments, and half, if not supportive of the comments themselves, endorsed Hardaway's right to say them. And, Greenberg had Amaechi himself on the show to respond to Hardaway's comments, which I'll get to in a moment.
Despite alot of the content of my blog, I do not wish for sports talk radio guys to spend all of their time, or even most of it, talking about larger issues. I like the escape as much as the next guy and enjoy good conversations about what happens inside the lines as much as anybody. What I don't like is the extent to which a cheap moralism about petty concerns has pervaded sports discourse, while issues that, in my view, deserve serious attention, are ignored, or dealt with in a half-assed, ill-informed manner. If Greenie spends all of tomorrow and next week talking spring training, I'll be perfectly happy. But, what I give him credit for is recognizing that, today, something significant has happened in the world of sports, and giving a discussion about that something its proper due.
OK, a couple of comments. One, we've heard the "political correctness" trope for many years now. The phrase itself is insidious for a number of reasons, one of which is that it allows its wielder to don the mantle of authenticity and honesty and to, by implication, accuse the supposedly politically correct speaker of not speaking their true feelings, but of only saying something because it's the acceptable thing to say.This rhetorical move serves to deflect from the substance of a bigoted comment, as if all that matters is that someone spoke honestly, not that they might in fact be a hateful asshole, for example. It's a way of insisting that no statement, no matter how ignorant, or insulting, or ill conceived, or ill founded, can be judged. This is why this business about Tim Hardaway's right to speak his mind is bogus. Of course, it's his right, legally speaking, and no one is going to suggest otherwise. But, it's also the right of people who disagree with Hardway to not only disagree, but to disrespectfully disagree.
Let's be clear - what Tim Hardaway was saying was, "I hate you and you and your kind shouldn't be allowed to ever express yourself publicly or impose on me your disgusting existence." Why is utter disgust with that sentiment "politically correct?" And, why does Tim Hardaway deserve respect or presumption of validity in his feelings? If someone said to Dan Le Batard I hate Jews, or I hate Black people, and I really never want to have anything to do with them, would anyone feel compelled to say they "respect" Tim Hardaway's views, or even his right to air them. No one's going to jail here, so let's dispense with this red herring about rights. Relatedly, if political correctness is partly about people feeling compelled to cover themselves lest they offend people, or be misunderstood, isn't it politically correct to have to say, over and over again, "I respect Tim Hardaway's views," "his opinion is just as valid as mine, etc?" I don't respect what Hardaway says, I think it does say something unambiguously negative about his character, and the world is unequivocally a worse place because people believe the kinds of things Hardaway believes. I'm not going to write him hate mail, or call for his arrest, or anything like that, but it's little more than pc to bend over backwards to assure the Tim Hardaways of the world that such views have merit (Greenberg himself addressed this issue, as it turns out, as you'll see below).
Two, on the one hand, Greenberg is right: Amaechi had to know what he was getting himself into and, once he puts it out there, he has to expect this type of reaction and, in the larger sense, it's in the nature of dialogue that once the floor is open, you can't control who walks onto it. On the other hand, it's not as if this ugliness doesn't exist until someone like Amaechi raises the issue. People's, including teenagers, lives are ruined every day either by the secrets they feel they must keep or by the consequences of their refusing to keep them. It puts an unfair burden on Amaechi to say he, in some sense, started this ugliness. I know that's not what Greenberg is saying, exactly. But, by repeatedly emphasizing Amaechi's responsibility, it does take the onus off the haters for how their views poison the atmosphere that people have to breathe everyday.
Amaechi himself addressed this point in his discussion with Greenie:
"these are the loud comments that pollute the air, that create the atmosphere that allow some of the tragic incidents of homophobia that we've seen, some of the attacks, some of the deaths, that creates the atmopshere of permissiveness that allows people to say these things...and make the lives of Lesbian and Gay young poeple in school miserable, it's what stops people in the work place, from coming out, as well being able to be fired in thirty three states for being gay."
Leaving aside the substance of the discussion this morning, the most striking part of the broadcast was how obviously Greenberg was - overwhelmed isn't the right word - struggling with the gravity of the issues. Normally a completely fluid and comfortable broadcaster, Greenberg took numerous deep breaths, obviously trying to gather himself and pause to think about how to make sense of it all. He also read numerous emails that really attacked him. One for example, named John, called him a coward for not calling Hardaway on his bigotry and failing to name the comments for what they were. After that email, Greenberg noted how rarely the show tackles such issues and "how important it is to hear what people think of the job you're doing." And, though Greenberg stood by his assertion that Hardaway has a right to his feelings, "it is cowardly on at least some level for me not to state what I think of it, and so I will say that I am disgusted, disgusted by what Tim Hardaway had to say and the notion that...I am unable to judge him and I disagree with that...you are right John, that it was cowardly..your basic premise is 100% right."
Finally, Greenie said:
"This is an extraordinarily difficult issue for me to discuss by myself and...I hope I did so in some semblance of a coherent fashion."
It's an unusual level of humility and thoughtfulness for anyone with such a large audience.
(Greenie later had commissioner Bud on this morning, and asked the right question about revenue sharing: namely how to guarantee that the recipient teams spend on baseball operations rather than pocket it. Then Bud, as is his wont, started lying about how revenue sharing has led to more competitive balance. But, we'll save that for another day).
One of the real contributions of Mike and the Mad Dog to sports media is that they demonstrate, at times, a real commitment to holding big sports decision-makers accountable to fans. Listening to them go after the hapless Scott Layden about his personnel decisions, when he was Knicks' GM, or Jets' executive Jay Cross about fan unfriendly ticket policies, is to get a glimpse into what media should be doing to political leaders: scrutinizing their claims, calling them on their spin and making them answerable for their actions. Sports teams are, in a profound sense, a public trust and, especially if municipalities, i.e. taxpayers, are going to be shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars to line the pockets of owners, the least fans can ask for in return is accountability. On their best days, no one I've ever heard of in the sports media business does this better than Mike and the Dog.
Which is one reason why it's so disappointing when, because they personally like somebody, they give him a pass. This is what Francesa (Dog is on vacation) did with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Monday. Everyone knows that the NHL's TV ratings have become a flat-out embarassment, raising serious questions about whether the NHL should even be regarded as a major sport any longer.
About last Spring's miserable playoff TV ratings, one account noted that:
Paul Swangard of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon explained to the Washington Post the severity of the NHL's broadcast situation.
"You look at the playoff [ratings] numbers, and they have been beaten pretty soundly by poker and bowling..."
And, of course, the TV picture only looks worse so far this year. Sports Media Watch has devoted two posts to the NHL's pathetic television picture. SMW concludes that:
And, of course, the TV picture only looks worse so far this year. Sports Media Watch has devoted two posts to the NHL's pathetic television picture. SMW concludes that:
The 0.7 rating (for the NHL all-star game) represented fewer than one million viewers, and was four times lower than the ratings for the Pro Bowl and NBA All Star Game -- and infinitely lower than the numbers for the Major League Baseball All Star Game.
All of this put together indicates a league in turmoil, with leaders running around with their heads cut off and no idea what to do. The league recently negotiated an extension with little-watched Versus, even though regular season ratings on the network are -- in all seriousness -- comparable to those of Cold Pizza. The NHL cannot be legitimately called the fourth major sport, nor can it even be listed with the second tier sports like golf or tennis, both of which can actually draw relatively large audiences under the right circumstances. The NHL is in the same class as the MLS, WNBA and NLL; it is the most popular of the third tier sports. And if David Beckham manages to work some magic in Los Angeles, the NHL may not even have that claim to hold onto.
And, SMW references a column by New York Times' sports business writer Richard Sandomir featuring the astounding nugget that a recently televised New Jersey Devils-Florida Panthers game attracted a grand total of 736 viewers in the New York area. OK, so who cares, you might ask? If hockey's not doing well on television, it could still be making money, as Bettman says it is (now that the league got the collective bargaining agreement it wants, it doesn't have to be quite so dishonest about its true financial picture). And, as Bettman pointed out to Francesa, everybody's TV ratings are down, and there are other ways to make money in this new media environment: NHL.com is doing very well, the league has begun a collaborative venture with Youtube, etc. And, I have no doubt that the league can make money even with piss-poor TV audiences. But, there are two things that bother me about the Bettman-Francesa exchange : 1) Francesa didn't mention any of the above-information about the sad state of hockey on television and 2) the business model of choice these days, increasingly catering to high end audiences in contexts of narrower access for the public at large, is itself getting a pass. On point number two, about which I have written before, the NHL is far from alone. The recent MLB decision to sell MLB extra innings only to Direct TV is a classic example of sacrificing audience access for money. But, if you listened to Francesa (and Russo) tear apart the afore-mentioned Jay Cross because the Jets had decided a few years back to start charging fans a $50 fee for the privilege of being on the Jets' season ticket waiting list, you'd hear a raging populist furious at how the big boys are ripping off the little guys. Yet, because Francesa basically likes Bettman, he doesn't even really question whether a business strategy that caters to high end consumers at the expense of broader access is an acceptable one. And, if you heard Francesa tear apart an overwhelmed New Jersey Nets executive about the Nets' lame opening night crowd in the Meadowlands last year, you'd hear a guy who has no patience for executives trying to spin an audience into believing that the "plan" is working just as they'd hoped, no matter how obvious to the naked eye that it just isn't so.
And, it's also true that Francesa expressed some skepticism about the business model for youtube and online and all the new media with the question: where's the money in this?
And, SMW references a column by New York Times' sports business writer Richard Sandomir featuring the astounding nugget that a recently televised New Jersey Devils-Florida Panthers game attracted a grand total of 736 viewers in the New York area.
OK, so who cares, you might ask? If hockey's not doing well on television, it could still be making money, as Bettman says it is (now that the league got the collective bargaining agreement it wants, it doesn't have to be quite so dishonest about its true financial picture). And, as Bettman pointed out to Francesa, everybody's TV ratings are down, and there are other ways to make money in this new media environment: NHL.com is doing very well, the league has begun a collaborative venture with Youtube, etc. And, I have no doubt that the league can make money even with piss-poor TV audiences.
But, there are two things that bother me about the Bettman-Francesa exchange : 1) Francesa didn't mention any of the above-information about the sad state of hockey on television and 2) the business model of choice these days, increasingly catering to high end audiences in contexts of narrower access for the public at large, is itself getting a pass. On point number two, about which I have written before, the NHL is far from alone. The recent MLB decision to sell MLB extra innings only to Direct TV is a classic example of sacrificing audience access for money. But, if you listened to Francesa (and Russo) tear apart the afore-mentioned Jay Cross because the Jets had decided a few years back to start charging fans a $50 fee for the privilege of being on the Jets' season ticket waiting list, you'd hear a raging populist furious at how the big boys are ripping off the little guys. Yet, because Francesa basically likes Bettman, he doesn't even really question whether a business strategy that caters to high end consumers at the expense of broader access is an acceptable one.
And, if you heard Francesa tear apart an overwhelmed New Jersey Nets executive about the Nets' lame opening night crowd in the Meadowlands last year, you'd hear a guy who has no patience for executives trying to spin an audience into believing that the "plan" is working just as they'd hoped, no matter how obvious to the naked eye that it just isn't so.It's true that Bettman acknowledged to Francesa that not everything was great and he insisted that everybody give it time. But, does anyone want to wager on the state of hockey on television three years from now, which Bettman says is a fair window for judging whether the Versus plan is working?
But, the elephant in the room is this: the commissioner made a calculated decision to shut down his sport for an entire year in an increasingly competitive media market in order to guarantee owner profits. He's accomplished the latter - the new structure delivers "cost-certainty" (business-speak for insulation from competitive pressures), but did it do so at the expense of a broader audience? I don't know the answer to that question, but I think it's a fair bet that Francesa would have, at the least, raised the point, if he had a different relationship with Bettman. Bettmann, by the way, posed an absolutely idiotic question to Francesa: how many businesses, let alone sports, have done this well after stopping work for an entire year? Well, gee, Gary, that's hard to say since no American professional sports league has ever tried that trick before. Does Bettman have data on all the other businesses that shut down for a whole year because their billionaire owners weren't making enough money, by which to compare the incredible success of the NHL after its year off? Naturally, Francesa gave this little rhetorical-question flight-of-fancy a pass, too.
Celebrity/Insider sports journalism strikes again.
I just got home from the UNC- Va. Tech game, and am too tired to post tonight (my excuse: the game went into overtime). I will be posting tomorrow. One quick note: before the game tonight, UNC's legendary radio play-by-play broadcaster Woody Durham was admonishing UNC fans for not being avid enough in their rooting. This is a long-standing issue at UNC: it was Sam Cassell, then Florida State's point guard who dubbed us the "wine-and-cheese" crowd back in the early 90s. In my defense, my friend JF and I sit in the upper reaches of the Deandome - we're not among the wealthy donors who get seats close to the court and spend lots of time sitting on their hands. In any event, Durham noted that just last week, SI.com attacked UNC's fans for arriving late and leaving early (a la LA Dodgers' fans, I might add).
So, sure enough, as UNC and the Hokies were locked in a tight and taut game late, when the clock stopped at the 2:19 mark of the second half, with UNC clinging to a one-point lead (they lost in OT, in case you missed that), a couple sitting directly in front of us got up and left. We were both baffled - and also wondered what the etiquette is in those situations - do we have a right to ask where the heck they're going?
Then, with under a minute left in regulation, and the score tied, a bunch more people left. It's embarrassing when the team's announcer has to plead with the fan base to root hard for the home team, but I suppose this is a price that a progra pays for moving into a cavernous arena, rather than playing in an intimate hothouse like Duke's Cameron indoor stadium.
Anyway, not a good night for the home team or the fans.
I had been planning on writing something about the praise Coach K had been receiving for this year's "over-achieving" squad, as Tim Brando put it during the UNC-Duke game last Wednesday night. It's a misapplied term for a team that has, I believe, eight prep All Americans and five McDonald's all-Americans on its current roster. The fact is that Coach K has, despite the loss of Shaun Livingston to the NBA draft before he played a game at Duke, and the loss of Luol Deng after one season, had great fortune these past few years. Last year's team had two star seniors, almost unheard of in this day and age, each of whom would have been a first round pick had they entered the draft prior to their senior seasons, and Coach K has had a remarkable string of talent enter the program over the past few years and stay as long as a contemporary coach could reasonably hope for. And, this year's sophomores, led by Paulus and McRoberts, were regarded by many as the best recruiting class in the country two years ago.
All of which is to say that, if this years team had over-achieved, it would be a testament, in part, to the fact that Coach K has done a relatively poor job of either identifying talent in the current crop, or developing it, or both. After all, when you bring a bevy of prep All-Americans, and the heart of your current team was the best recruiting class in the country two years ago, how are you in a position to have over-achieve just to have a good season? This isn't the Minnesota Twins, forced to scramble to put talent on their roster and retain it against teams with far greater financial resources. What the Twins have accomplished, or the Oakland A's - that's over-achieving. But, Duke has as much, if not more, access to the best talent in the country than any other program. DeMarcus Nelson is a junior who hasn't really developed. Josh McRoberts was considered a better big man than Tyler Hansborough coming out of high school two years ago. Greg Paulus has scored well recently, but is questionable running the point. Gerald Henderson has shown flashes, but is still far from being a star player. Other former blue chip recruits can't get off Coach K's thin bench.
Coach K's the best coach of the past twenty five years, an all-time great who has, it appears, recruited the best incoming 2007 class in America. Add that to the fact that he will lose no key players off this year's squad, and I think it's a good bet that Duke will be back at its usual perch next season. But, just because Coach K is an all-time great coach, doesn't mean he can't have a bad season. If this year's team is not as talented as previous ones, there's no GM or stingy owner to blame. Coach K brought these guys in - they're underachieving relative to the hype that accompanied them, and that's on him.
So, that's what I was planning on writing about, but now that Duke has lost four games in a row, the talk of over-achieving of ten days ago has turned into talk of "what's wrong with Duke" and of the possibility that they might even miss the NCAA tournament. Barring a complete collapse, I'd say that's an impossibility. Even if Duke went 7-9 and lost the first game of the ACC tournament, they'd still finish with 20 wins, one of the toughest schedules in the country, and good non-conference wins over four teams that will make the tournament - Georgetown, Indiana, Gonzaga and Air Force.
This is a circumstance that is ripe for over-statement, as Foxsports.com shows today. The teaser: "Duke, Krzyzewski, Losing Luster." The article itself, by Yoni Cohen, is a bit more measured, but it raises questions about the long-term trend in the program:
The Blue Devils' fourth consecutive conference loss raises an unpleasant question: Is the program's best days behind it?
Between 1988 and 1992, Duke's Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski guided the Blue Devils to five consecutive Final Fours and two national titles. But in the nine seasons that followed, he managed only three Final Fours and one national championship. In the five years since, Krzyzewski's record has been less than overwhelming: one Final Four and no national championships.
Cohen does acknowledge that most programs would kill for Duke's post-1992 record:
Most programs would rightly consider even Duke's recent run a tremendous accomplishment. March troubles aside, the Blue Devils have won a higher percentage of their games this decade than any other. But after Sunday's loss at Maryland, Duke finds itself in uncharted territory.
Most of the rest of the piece echoes what I've been hearing on sports radio throughout the day today - a combination of hand-wringing about whether Duke is going to make the tournament, and concerns about slippage in the program. Cohen concludes that:
If the Blue Devils aren't able to quickly turn their season around, Duke fans and critics alike will soon concur. They'll then ask if Coach K has lost some of his luster.
That question may be premature, given that Duke is still a good bet to make the NCAA tournament. It may also be callous, because even in the past five seasons, few coaches have had as much success as Krzyzewski. But it won't be entirely without cause. After several years of disappointing in March, Coach K's club is underperforming in February.
Before yesterday's loss to Maryland, Duke had lost three close games in a row, two in the last second. They could easily be 7-4 in the conference, not 5-6. Watching Duke lose close games at the end is unusual but, in and of itself, that doesn't bespeak of long term decline for the program. As I noted above, the program is bringing in top-notch talent next year, while retaining its five best players from this year's squad, unless Josh McRoberts decides to leave, which seems unlikely. The fact that, in a matter of ten days, talk of the great job Coach K was doing has transformed into talk about the long-term decline of the program speaks both to how over-rated Coach K's work this season was ten days ago, and how over-blown the program's problems are today. And, as much as Duke has dropped off in the NCAA tournament over the past few years - once a mortal lock for the final four, Duke has only been a mortal lock for the sweet sixteen in recent years - the team has become almost automatic in the ACC tournament, having won an unheard of six of the last seven. There's a lot of luck involved here, both in Duke's successes and its failures. The 2006-07 team is not a great team, and the coach should be criticized for that. But, every great program since Wooden retired has had down years in the midst of dynastic runs - UNC under Smith, Indiana under Knight, UConn under Calhoun - and it's likely that that's all this year is for Duke.
One final note: Duke is unranked this week for the first time since 1996, breaking a streak of 200 straight weeks in the polls. That's the second longest streak ever, according to the AP. UCLA was ranked for 221 straight weeks from 1967 to January 1980. And, the third longest streak was UNC's, from the beginning of the 1990-91 season until January 2000, a 172-week stretch. Why do I mention this? It so happens that both UCLA, in 1980, after its streak ended, and UNC in 2000, after its streak ended, made the Final Four that same season, in the role of underdogs. Is this the 2005 Steelers/2006 Colts/2006 Cardinals principle at work? In all cases, these are teams that had been great for significant stretches of years, suffering down regular seasons, but having "surprising" post-season runs. Don't count Duke out of the 2007 final four yet (much as you or I might like to).
Ned Barnett is a sports columnist for the Raleigh News and Observer who announced, in his column today, that today's piece is his last hurrah as a sports journalist. Barnett is moving back the news/editorial side of the newspaper, from where he came eight years ago when he first started writing about sports. Barnett is a solid columnist, a fan of sports who is less given to the kind of endless sanctimony and woe-is-me commentary about how bad today's athlete is that has become so commonplace in American sports journalism.
Barnett has some useful things to say about the state of that profession as he leaves it. For one, he offers a humble and worthwhile credo for how sports journalists should go about their work:
..."I" is a word I tried to avoid. It was an effort to keep the perspective outward. I didn't want this space to be my microphone. I wanted it to be a window.
Sports media have enough experts. I didn't pretend to be another.... Sportswriting is no different than other forms of journalism. What matters isn't what you know, but how good you are at finding things out.
One of the things that motivated me to start doing this blog was a persistent aggravation with the rise of a culture of celebrity journalism. That form of journalism, in which exposure and access - not hard digging and an emphasis on holding the powerful accountable - has had an insidious affect on American political discourse and public policy, both at home and abroad. It's a gutless, self-aggrandizing practice that does almost nothing to meaningfully inform citizens of what they really need to know in order to be well-informed. Mainstrean journalism, afflicted by the culture of celebrity journalism suffered its most shocking failure in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but the affliction well predates 2003, or 9/11.
Just so no one misunderstands me, the impact of sports celebrity journalism on American political and cultural life is not comparable to that of the Beltway Pundits. But, many of the insidious habits that have so afflicted celebrity political journalism, have also afflicted sports journalism. These bad habits include:
1) an endless re-cycling of mindless conventional wisdom masquerading as real insight
2) a persistent inattention to putting facts in proper context,
3) an insularity among celebrity journalists that ensures that, once bad arguments are introduced into that world, they are almost guaranteed to take on a life of their own,
4) and a constant harping on triviliaties (think Monica Lewinsky or Terrell Owens) at the expense of developments that really matter to real people.
As it happens, Barnett acquits himself well on all counts. He thinks for himself and has concerns that are worthy of column inches:
William C. Friday and the Knight Commission may sound like broken records when they lament the corrosive effect of commercialism on college sports, but they're right. One of the worst trends is the rise of celebrity coaches who are paid millions of dollars to direct the unpaid labor of college athletes. It's an inequity that could hurt college basketball and football if some players -- legally or otherwise -- seek their share.
So, it's refreshing to read Barnett speak, if indirectly to some of these bad habits. I would tweak Barnett's aphorism about journalists being defined by what they can find out, not what they know, to say that journalism is about what you can find out, not who you know. But, in any event, Barnett is making a call to sports journalists to do some work - to fact check, to follow-up, to call people on their claims, not just to take them at face value, just because you respect the person utterring the claims. It's a call not just to chatter on as if you have nothing left to learn, because you played the game yourself, or you've been talking on the radio for so long that you just know that you know everything there is to know.
I'm lumping a lot of people together - sports talk radio hosts, ESPN commentators, newspaper columnists and team beat writers, to name a few. And, the afflictions I mentioned above don't apply equally to all of these groups of sports journalists, nor to everyone equally within these groups. But, as is true of political coverage, the bigger sports conversations are driven by the bad habits of the highest profile practitioners in the biggest media platforms. And, though the stakes aren't as high, those bad habits reflect the same tendencies that have served us, as a society, so poorly. Barnett's comments, from which I am, I confess, extrapolating wildly, remind me of the larger source of the aggravation that motivated this blog in the first place.
Two items on off-the-field matters:
1) Jeff Perlman has a good piece on Amaechi today. We've heard a lot of talk the last couple of days about how what Amaechi's done is irrelevant because he waited until after he retired, which blunts the impact of his coming out. Charles Barkley has said that this is no big deal because everyone knows there are gays in locker rooms. LeBron James insists that the issue is trust - that players need to know where their teammates are coming from, and if a guy remains in the closet well, then it's not possible to trust that guy. The implication, of course, is that coming out is no big deal.
Well, Perlman begs to differ:
I have been a sportswriter for nearly 13 years. I have been in clubhouses and training rooms, baseball stadiums and horse barns. I've watched Barry Zito surf, Cord McCoy lasso a cow, Troy Aikman spit into a cup, J.D. Drew praise Jesus and Gary Sheffield praise money. I've chronicled what it's like to win, what it's like to lose, what it's like to love a teammate and what it's like to hate one. I've seen envy and elation, hunger and disinterest, excruciating pain and unrivaled pride.
Here is what I can say, with 100 percent certainty: Most jocks don't like, to use the popular word of choice from the locker rooms, the "fa----s."
I know ... I know. Watch my language. But let's be honest. That's what they are to the majority of professional athletes: Not gays. Not homosexuals.
F------ fa----s, often.
I have witnessed the scene time and time again. Basketball player wears a yellow jacket with matching shoes – he's a "fa----." Baseball player jogs into the dugout and trips over a bat -- "fa----." Wide receiver avoids crossing the middle of the field – "What the hell are you, a f------ fa----?" Why, just a few months back Steelers linebacker Joey Porter dipped into his linguistic catalogue and pulled out "Oreo fa----" to describe Kellen Winslow of the Browns.
And, Perlman has the guts to wade into sensitive territory, taking on homophobia among African Americans and devout Christians:
In many ways, it'd be overly simplistic to merely blame the athletes without searching a bit deeper. For many African-Americans, a disapproval of homosexuality comes with the racial territory. Being gay is looked upon as something ... weird. Something ... just not right. It stems from grandpa. And grandpa's grandpa. As rapper Kanye West noted last year, it's hypocritical for African-Americans to complain about bigotry when they apply their own form to others. From a young age, West noted, you're taught that gays aren't normal. Aren't righteous. It's not an easy cycle to snap.
Personally, I have a much harder time grasping the locker-room Bible thumpers; those myriad competitors who attend daily chapel, speak of love and outreach and togetherness – then damn gays to an eternity of hell. I've rarely heard a born-again Christian athlete openly complain about a teammate's vulgar language, or a teammate's blowing off autograph seekers, or a teammate's cheating by taking steroids. Factually, never has a born-again ballplayer refused to play with someone because he committed infidelity. But I promise you – in the spirit of Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese – that when the first active athlete does come out, there will be trade demands from devout Christians.
Myriad trade demands.
And, in the category of couldn't-have-said-it-better-myself:
Call me a New York liberal, call me a gay-loving freak, call me Wayne Krenchicki – here's an idea: Let's stop with the foolishness and the fear mongering and the obscure biblical references, and let's start using our brains. Gays are not going to dig through your locker or tell The Advocate about how big you are. They are not deviant, sinful, evil or, for that matter, wrong. They are human beings who – oftentimes – play sports with remarkable skill.
On a related note, thanks to empty panpticon for leaving a link in comments to the abstract of an academic article about the experience of gay athletes in collegiate athletics:
Although openly gay athletes were free from physical harassment, in the absence of a formal ban against gay athletes, sport resisted their acceptance and attempted to remain a site of orthodox masculine production by creating a culture of silence surrounding gay athleticism, by segmenting gay men's identities, and by persistently using homophobic discourse to discredit homosexuality in general. Sports attempt to tolerate gay male athletes when they contribute to the overarching ethos of sport—winning—but try to taint the creation of a gay identity within sport that would see homosexuality and athleticism as compatible.
There' some academic jargon to wade through here, but it reinforces Perlman's contention: that the word "faggot" is widespread in locker rooms and is meant to humiliate and marginalize those individuals who fail to live up to an athletic ideal - of the stud ladies' man who, by extension, is understood to be the kind of guy you want in the trenches with you, not someone you need to look over your shoulder at. The bottom line: Barkley and James comments are either naive or disingenuous: as I said the other day in responding to LZ Granderson, there's a reason no active professional male team sport athlete has come out: the climate remains too hostile and ugly.
2) Rick Reilly was on with Mike Francesa yesterday. One issue they discussed was a column Reilly wrote last year, "Nothing but Nets." To Reilly's great credit, the column highlighted the extraordinary death toll in Africa from malaria. Reilly was especially struck by how easy it is to prevent malaria: treated nets can be purchased for $10 a pop and, in the process, save a child's life. Three thousand children die every day in Africa from malaria, and Reilly is on a mission: he's now raised $3.1 million to buy treated nets, and Bill Gates has provided $3 million more to aid Reilly's cause (the Gates Foundation has, of course, spent many times that some of money on global health issues, including malaria).
Francesa had great praise for Reilly in general, and this particular column in particular and was clearly blown away to learn of what a killer malaria is. Academia is sometimes (actually often) castigated for being out of touch, disconnected from reality, cloistered, ivory tower - pick your term. But, one thing that must be said here: most kids on a college campus like UNC know about malaria, and an impressive number are working on projects to try to do something about it. I mention this because celebrity sports commentators have a platform from which they can really make a difference, but are themselves so often isolated from reality. When guys like Mike and Mike are learning most of their life lessons from Dick Vitale and Bill Curry (the latter of whom I do like a lot), no wonder most of their kvetching about the world around them reduces to petty crap about how rude or polite athletes are to reporters.
Again, all credit to Reilly for stepping outside the sports bubble.
Meanwhile, I am really just biding my time before stepping back into the ultimate bubble: pitchers and catchers.
I am buried under grant deadlines and such for the next couple of days. I will definitely post something every day, but I'm under the gun at the moment, so be advised.
I did want to say something about reader comments. I've said before that I really appreciate them, and I really do, and several of you have given me tips, leads, insights etc., that have really helped me. The fact that I have not responded to specific comments is not a statement in any way about whether they were worthwhile or whether I am paying attention. They were, and I am. But, I will try, going forward, to respond to comments directly, either in the body of a new post, or in the comments' section itself. I won't respond to every comment, but I will try to respond to those that expanded on a point I've made, or raised a worthwhile objection to something I've written or in some other way moved the conversation forward, which is what this blog should be doing, if it's doing anything useful at all.
On the John Amaechi story - it's getting a lot of pub. That's the power of ESPN. They're publishing his autobiography, they want to sell it, and they have the platform(s) to promote the hell out of it. If ESPN is ABC, CBS and NBC all rolled into on when it comes to sports media (and I'd say that it is), this an occasion when that's a good thing. As I said yesterday, we're still awaiting the verdict on whether it's a good book. But, the issue deserves more attention and gay male athletes coming out can, I think, have a disproportionate impact on breaking down stereotypes about gay men. And, given that homphobia represents, in many corners of America, one of the last remaining respectable forms of bigotry in this country, this is not a trivial matter. By himself, John Amaechi won't change that. But, if there's a critical mass reached, that's a different story.
At least two media types disagree that it's a big deal.
One is LZ Granderson, who writes for ESPN and is himself an out gay man. Granderson writes:
I am so over gay people.
Specifically, John Amaechi.
Not him personally -- I hear he's a delightful guy -- but gay people like him.
You know, the athlete who comes out after retiring, writes a tell-all, and then hears how courageous he is from straight columnists trying to appear "evolved" even though I've heard the word "f-----" come out of their mouths just as freely as some of the athletes they write about. I'm over it because we've all been here before. Like a remake of "Groundhog Day" featuring the cast of "Will and Grace," the country works itself up into a frenzy any time the subject comes up, true or false. Amaechi comes out ("Gasp, there's a pro gay athlete!") or Mike Piazza holds a 2002 news conference ("I'm not gay"), or the suggestive Snickers commercial airs, and then we go back to our same routine until another "courageous" soul comes out when he feels has nothing to lose.
According to Granderson, the big impact will come when an active player comes out:
I do not mean to belittle Amaechi's experience or the experiences of any other athlete who comes out after retirement. I am friends with gay, former pro athletes and look forward to reading Amaechi's book (to be published by ESPN Books). But I can't help but wonder: When will somebody simply man up? That is, come out while he is still playing and finally demystify this whole gay athlete thing once and for all.
I've read the magazines.
I've seen the interviews.
Hell, I've written the stories.
Closeted athletes are miserable.
They have thoughts of suicide, they can't perform as well as they'd like, they live in constant anxiety of being found out, and while their heterosexual teammates are out chasing skirts during road trips, they stay locked up in their hotel rooms afraid to make eye contact with anyone because the bellhop's gaydar may go off.
Get over it.
An athlete in 2007 who stays in the closet during his playing days does more to support homophobia in sports than coming out after retirement does to combat it.
Interesting twist on "man up," by the way. Granderson's also not moved by the notion that there are added pressures to stay closeted in professional sports:
And don't hand me the it's-harder-in-sports crap, either. I've been an out sportswriter for years now. I've been on TV, had my face in one of the largest newspapers in the country and my mug is sitting right next to this column. I've been called names in work meetings, received death threats and told I was going to hell more times than the devil. But you know what, I don't give a rip. Because at the end of the day I know walking within what I know is true for me is a lot easier than trying to run from it. Just ask Jim McGreevy. Or Mark Foley. Or Ted Haggard, who appears to still be running.
I think it's surely true that the impact of an active player, not to mention a prominent one, in a major professional team sport would be greater than a post-retirement declaration. But, I take issue with Granderson on two counts. One, Amaechi's revelations are already getting far more attention than any other male athlete to come out and that has to count for something. Two, Granderson can say it's no big deal until he's blue in the face, but the fact is: not a single male team sport athlete in North America has ever done it. Ever. You can call everyone cowardly if you want. But, you have to reckon with the facts - and the facts are that something profound is at work such that it has happened not even one time. Sometimes, attributing phenomena to individual behavior makes sense. But, when a population evinces uniform behavior, that's a good clue that something is happening beyond the individual level.
Another media guy unmoved by Amaechi's revelations is Joe Ovious, of 620 the Bull in Durham, whose co-hosted show I often wake up to. Today, Ovious was pooh-poohing the story on the grounds, basically, that he didn't care. Ovious tried to argue that there is a selectiveness to what stories get attention that he finds invalid. For example, Ovious argued, everyone was making such a big deal out of the two Black head coaches in the Super Bowl, when another minority, Tom Flores, had already won one (actually two), twenty five or so years ago. Ovious' co-hosts, Morgan Patrick and Tony Riggsbee demurred. Riggsbee noted that Blacks have faced a level of discrimination and oppression in American that Hispanics have not, and Patrick chimed in that the NFL is predominantly Black, in terms of players, whereas its not predominantly Hispanic.
Ovious remained unmoved, countering that Black coaches had already won NBA titles, back in the 1960s and 1970s. But, of course, that's a bad example, too. By the 1970s, professional basketball had become marginalized, identified as a Black league that had no cache with the larger public. Consequently, by the late 1970s, the NBA finals were being shown on tape delay at 11:30 at night. So, when Al Attles and Lenny Wilkens were winning titles, in 1975 and 1979, respectively, the sport had no claim to a hold on the popular imagination.
By contrast, football today is King, the dominant sport in America by far. So, too, therefore, is the significance of two Black head coaches in America's major annual television event. In fact, the last time a sport so dominated the American scene was probably back in the 1940s and 1950s, when baseball had a similar place in America's sporting culture. And, relatedly, de-segregation (then of the playing ranks, not the coaching ranks) was also, to put it mildly, a significant story.
Ovious isn't required to care about Amaechi, but what his comments show he's missing is any understanding of how sports affects and reflects larger public issues. Call me an old fuddy duddy, but sometimes it's nice to hear that sports commentators can put in proper context how events today connect to things that happened more than six months ago.
A couple of days ago, Dwil of Sports on My Mind had emailed me to give me a heads up that an ex-NBA player was about to come out of the closet in a new book. Dwil did some digging and surmised that the player in question was likely John Amaechi.
And, ESPN.com has now confirmed that:
John Amaechi, who played at Penn State and for five seasons in the NBA, will announce he is gay in an upcoming book.
The book, published by ESPN Books (owned by the Walt Disney Company, parent company of ESPN), is entitled "Man in the Middle." It is due to be released later this month.
Amaechi, born in Massachusetts but raised in England, would be the first NBA player to come out publicly. Few other men's professional major sport athletes have announced they are gay. Among them are football player Esera Tuaolo, baseball player Billy Bean and baseball umpire Dave Pallone.
The timing is interesting (and clearly coincidental) given the significant flap over a couple of Super Bowl ads with arguably homophobic content - including the Snickers ad that featured two guys inadvertently touching lips and then covering their tracks by ripping hair off their own chests. King Kaufman (you'll have to click through an ad), among others, specifically criticized the Snickers spot, which has now been pulled. (as an aside, Mike Golic said yesterday on Mike and Mike that that was his favorite Super Bowl commercial). And, of course, last week also brought publicity about Tony Dungy's apparent affiliation with a virulently anti-gay organization, though that story went entirely uncovered outside the blogosphere.
More importantly, ESPN clearly plans to give serious publicity to the Amaechi story. Amaechi will be featured on this week's Outside the Lines and ESPN.com will run excerpts of the book on its website next week. Obviously, on one level, ESPN is just trying to sell books. And, we'll have to wait and see about the quality of it. But, it's a significant step for the Worldwide leader to give this kind of publicity to the issue.
It's long past time for the sports world to have a more serious conversation about sexuality and homophobia. It'll be interesting to see where this leads.
With Duke-Carolina coming up, and pitchers and catchers reporting in two weeks, there's lots of stuff to look forward to. So, one more quick set of notes about the Super Bowl and its aftermath.
1) I heard Mark Schlereth this morning on Mike and Mike break down why it is that defenses wear down over the course of a football game, while offenses don't, even though they're obviously on the field for the same amount of time. Schlereth made some useful points - including noting that, usually, when an offensive lineman finishes his block, he's done for the play, whereas a defensive lineman has to keep pursuing until the play is over, and that this repeated getting knocked down, getting back up and running takes a toll.
But, the premise of this discussion is that the Bears defense wore down Sunday night, especially in the second half. And, that's not true. They simply got beat from the start. The Colts had an 80-yard touchdown drive and 100 yards of offense in the first quarter. They had multiple long drives on the way to 150 yards in the second quarter. They had about 250 yards offense in the first half, before it could really be said that they wore down. Then, after the five-hour half time show, when the Bears had plenty of time to rest, the Colts started the third quarter with two good drives that ended in field goals, racking up about 135 yards in the quarter. Then, in the fourth quarter, they essentially did nothing on offense, especially after the Hayden interception return for a TD early in the quarter.
There's no wearing down in this story. There's one line dominating the other from almost the start of the game.
2) Likewise, Greenie noted that Manning set an all-time post-season record with 97 completions. Greenie did note that Manning played four games, and that few QBs have played four games in a single post-season, but that this record nevertheless showed that Manning had a "huge" postseason. I know I have said it in one way or another a thousand times, but sportscasters continue to misuse and misread the meaning of statistics. From a statistical point of view, Manning did not have a huge TD. He threw three TD passes and seven interceptions. This was not planned, not a strategy to manage the game by becoming a significantly less efficient passer than he'd been during the regular season. Manning completed a lower percentage of his passes this post-season than he did during the regular season, and his yards per attempt was decidedly worse. I give Manning full credit for taking exactly what the Bears defense gave him on Sunday, best captured by running back Joseph Addai's ten receptions.
But, the story of this post-season is not how huge Manning was. He really played five or six good quarters out of sixteen. Was that good enough? Of course. Does he deserve to be considered one of the best QBs of all time? Absolutely. But the Colts defense and running game were a huge part of the their success, and Manning didn't plan around those successes when performed below his usual standards. Manning played three great defenses in a row - the Ravens, Patriots and Bears - so that needs to be accounted for. But, singling out a single statistic to prove how huge Manning's postseason was simply misses what happened this post-season.
3) I am fascinated by the degree to which Dungy's low-key style is being credited for his success. Greenie admiringly observed yesterday that "in a business filled with guys who are in-your-face and screamers...Dungy never raises his voice." And, Golic chimed in similarly. Lovie Smith has been credited for similar reasons. What fascinates me is that many of the same cast of characters who are so high on Dungy's mellow approach are the same people who defended Bobby Knight when he wrapped one of his players on the chin back in November. In an era when professional athletes are perceived to be running amok and to require a firm hand, why is Dungy's way of dealing with players - which is anti-thetical to the way critics think "inmates" need to be managed - so worthy of praise?
It's unstated, but I think Dungy's Christian-ness is playing a role here. Screamers and deeply Christian men are the two iconic authority figures in sports generally, and football specifically. Being deeply Christian is the easiest short hand among sports commentators for judging someone's character. And, because so much commentary about sports conflates good character with success, it follows, implicitly, that Dungy's Christian sensibility translates into a particularly successful approach to dealing with players.
To be clear, Dungy is clearly a great coach, and seems clearly to have his players' success. But, I do wonder whether, were he not a man of faith, but was still a nice, low-key guy, would he get the same credit for having such a successful approach to managing his players?