A heads up: Jeff Pearlman has graciously agreed to be interviewed for TSF. I’ll have that interview up in the next day or two.
Two items of note from the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated:
1) Sally Jenkins has a terrific story about the Carlisle Indian School, the extraordinary institution for Native Americans that produced Jim Thorpe and, according to Jenkins’ title: “The Team that Invented Football.” Though Jenkins doesn’t use the phrase, Carlisle’s coach, the legendary Pop Warner, applied Moneyball principles nearly a century before that term entered popular parlance. Faced with a small student population and saddled with overwhelming resource constraints, the leverage that Warner found was the incredible speed and adaptability of his charges, which he parlayed into football’s first vertically-oriented offensive attack. Jenkins explains that, under Warner’s tutelage, “Carlisle mastered an astounding array of trick plays – reverses, end arounds, flea-flickers – and forward passes.” In carrying out such innovations in order to compensate for the fact that Carlisle’s team was giving up more than thirty pounds per player to the elite football schools, like Army and Harvard, Warner and Carlisle “transformed a plodding, brutal college sport into the fact intricate game we know today.”
And, it wasn’t just Thorpe’s greatness
either: Warner had built Carlisle into a legitimate national power
before Thorpe ever set foot on the field (Thorpe appeared in his first
game in 1907 – Warner arrived at the school in 1899). That Carlisle
accomplished what it did (including beating Harvard and Army) despite
its profound institutional disadvantages stands as one of the great
achievements in the history of football.2) In the same issue, the
hit-or-miss Rick Reilly misses. Reilly writes about Mike
Pressler, the Duke Lacrosse coach dismissed a year ago in the wake of the now discredited rape charges against three Duke players. Reilly’s column, “No Justice for the Coach” notes that Pressler was fired on April 5, about three weeks after the allegations were first made. Reilly recounts the fateful meeting between the coach and Duke athletic director Joe Alleva, in which Alleva told Pressler:
‘It’s not about the truth anymore…It’s about the faculty, the NAACP and the special interest groups.’ So, after a 153-82 record and a 100% of graduation rate in 16 years, Mike Pressler was canned.”
Because of the ultimate unviability of the charges against the three players, and partly because of the touchy atmosphere in which the charges were ultimately dismissed (in the immediate aftermath of Don Imus’ firing) – there’s has been a remarkable collective amnesia about the circumstances leading up to Pressler’s firing.
In fact, the Duke Lacrosse team had a history that preceded it, and it serves Rilly poorly to have pretended otherwise in his paean to Pressler. Here’s John Feinstein, famous sports writer and Duke grad, writing about that history last May:
“according to a report released on May 2 by seven members of the Duke faculty, there was a written report two years ago sent to top Duke administrators telling them that there was a serious problem with the behavior of the lacrosse team. What this tells us is that this party was far from being an isolated incident, it was part of a pattern that theschool chose to ignore.
It also tells us - definitively - that Tallman Trask, the school vice president who received the report and Joe Alleva, the athletic director who Trask mentioned the report to (without every giving it to him or being asked for it) should both be fired. Not reprimanded, not told to do better, fired. They had a written report from someone who worked at the school - not a member of the “out of control,” media as Duke apologists have taken to referring to as a cop-out for this debacle - but someone who worked for the school who had done research on specific incidents and found a pattern that concerned him enough to put those concerns in writing. Trask did nothing. Alleva did nothing.”
That “serious problem” with the Duke Lacrosse team included the disturbing fact that 15 of the team’s 47 players had been arrested over the previous three seasons, ranging from nuisance violations like public urination to more significant charge including, in one case, assault. Furthermore, the immediate precipitating cause both of Pressler’s firing and the cancellation of the team’s season, was not the rape allegations themselves. Here’s what the Associated Press reported last April 6, the day after Pressler was forced out:
“A lacrosse player’s e-mail rant about killing and skinning strippers in his Duke University dorm room has led to his coach’s resignation, the season’s cancellation and an internal probe into the school’s response to alleged violence by athletes.”
And, here’s AP’s account of the offending email:
“authorities unsealed documents stating that less than two hours after the alleged rape, McFadyen sent an e-mail saying he was planning an encore to “tonights (sic) show.” The message, addressed “To whom it may concern,” said, “however there will be no nudity.”
“I plan on killing the bitches as soon as the(y) walk in and proceding (sic) to cut their skin off,” wrote McFayden, a 6-foot-6, 225-pound Atlantic Coast Conference honor roll player who was one of five Duke players from the exclusive Delbarton School in Morristown, N.J., adding in vulgar terms that he would find the act sexually satisfying. The e-mail was signed with McFayden’s jersey number, 41.”
In an age where athletes’ character has come under such intense scrutiny, it’s noteworthy that this fact about Duke’s Lacrosse team has been lost to history. (USA Today’s front page cover story on Friday was about the unprecedented level of concern the NFL has shown toward the off-field conduct of potential draftees. And, a considerable focus of those character concerns is on what might be called the nuisance offense of having smoked marijuana).
If one wants to be very generous, one can argue that Pressler was, ultimately dealt an unfair hand in the sense that his team’s highly questionable “character” (at least if we’re following the standards for defining character set by contemporary sports discourse – namely any trouble with the law) would never have come to light had it not been for charges that ultimately proved unfounded. But, if Reilly had such a slam dunk case of unfairness to write about, then he needn’t have whitewashed the record of Pressler’s team’s disciplinary problems which are, ultimately, the responsibility of any collegiate coach worth his salt. That Reilly did omit such obviously germane facts from his account of Pressler’s treatment suggests that Reilly, on some level, knew his righteous indignation stood on a weaker foundation than he let on.