It Rained On My Parade

Madison Bumgarner Fathead on display at the World Series victory parade in San Francisco, CA. October 31, 2014It’s been a while since my last blog post. A LONG while. I’ve been traveling more than normal, and I guess I just fell out of the blogging habit. It’s easy to do when your trips happen every few weeks, and involve weekend travel. Then your beloved baseball team makes it to the postseason. As a wildcard. And goes on the win it all, playing five nights out of seven for an entire month.

Every other year, like clockwork, my October is ocupado, thanks to the San Francisco Giants.

I’ll blog about my recent travel – which involved plenty of photography – shortly. But for now, I’m still basking in the post World Series parade glow.

The parade route wasn’t as crowded as in 2010 or 2012 – hopefully because it rained all morning, and not because we Bay Area folks are taking World Series wins for granted. Whatever the explanation, I managed to position myself in the first row against barricades on Market Street… where I stood waiting for the players’ floats for 4.5 hours, without water (except for what was soaking my hair and shoes), to avoid the need for a restroom run. Under no circumstances was I relinquishing my ideal photo-taking spot.

Totally. Worth. It.

What Can the Browns Do For You? Don’t Ask…

Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden, left, is sacked by Broncos defensive end Elvis Dumervil.
Associated Press

A fellow Northeast Ohio transplant to the Bay Area sent me this video. Growing up, she also had her heart broken year after year by the Cleveland Browns, so she understands me.

As I monitored the score in today’s game against Tom Brady’s New England Patriots (at Foxborough!) I thought there might be no need to blog this. The Browns led the entire game, yet still managed to blow it by allowing the Pats to score two touchdowns in the final 61 seconds. I chalk this up to their being so unaccustomed to, you know, leading.

It breaks my heart a little to laugh at the Very Angry Browns Fan. Browns players get crushed nearly every weekend, so it kind of feels like kicking a guy — or rather, 53 guys — when they are down.

On the other hand, as all good Clevelanders know… If you don’t find a way to laugh, you’ll cry.

Note to viewers: You can skip past the annoying ad at the start of this video after just a few seconds. Do it, you’ll thank me.

All Boys Together

Rock 'em Sock 'em Robot Toy
Image via ryan_larue, Flickr

So much is being written about the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal. Every hour brings another voice mocking Jonathan Martin for his “weakness” in backing down, or dog piling on Richie Incognito for his lewd behavior, explosive temperament and fondness for drunken, half-naked pool playing with his ass crack on full display.

I, of course, can offer no inside scoop from unnamed NFL sources, or related experience based on my days on the gridiron. (In fact, I had to Google “gridiron” to ensure I’m using it correctly.) Yet as more and more awful stories emerge – “He said WHAT?!?!” “They forced him to do WHAT?!?!?” – the bigger picture, and some simple truths, keep getting lost.

Richie Incognito sent Jonathan Martin racist, profane threats and insults via text message and voicemail. That fact is not in dispute. And the debate really isn’t about bullying in the broad sense, since anyone within five feet of a microphone or sports writer’s notepad this week has denounced bullying in the strongest possible terms. Rather the question seems to be whether these often freakishly huge men – who play an incredibly violent sport, requiring both physical toughness, and team loyalty and cohesion – should be held to the same standard of conduct as the rest of us. Should behavior that would constitute bullying in the normal world be characterized as such in the NFL?

In the age of anti-bullying campaigns like “It Gets Better”, it is disturbing to hear so many players and broadcasters suggest that Martin should have “manned up” and physically fought Incognito to stop his aggression. Granted, Martin is a big guy… but Richie Incognito is huge too (6 feet 3 inches tall, 305 pounds). Plus, if video footage is any proof, he’s also insane. Seriously, watch that video and TELL ME you’d fight that guy, even if you outweighed him by 50 pounds.

Indications are that other players followed Incognito’s lead, and Dolphin’s coaches turned a blind eye at best. At worst, staff encouraged Incognito to “toughen (Martin) up” after he missed two voluntary practices. They probably didn’t expect him to send vulgar, racist messages to achieve this — but my guess is, they didn’t ask for details because they didn’t really care.

(As an aside, does anyone else think someone needs to buy Dolphin coaches a dictionary, so they can look up the word “voluntary”? If they wanted players to attend so badly, perhaps they should have made the practices MANDATORY.)

So, what was Jonathan Martin supposed to do — take on the entire locker room plus Dolphin’s coaching staff? Even if he survived the fight, why would he expect Incognito or any of the lemmings on the team to have his back at the next practice?

Here’s a thought: WHAT IF Jonathan Martin — despite the nature of his chosen profession — just doesn’t think violence is a constructive way to resolve conflict? (Yes I know, NFL, I’ve just blown your mind.)

Incognito’s defenders call it harmless hazing that helps a team bond — you know, all that “band of brothers” stuff, which is a load of baloney. A brother short sheets your bed. He doesn’t force you to pay $15,000 toward a vacation, then say you can’t come along. There was no brotherly love or team building going on in the Dolphins’ locker room. It was bullying, plain and simple.

Brian Phillips wrote a great piece for ESPN’s Grantland, pointing out the irony of antipathy toward Martin — whose stated reason for leaving the Dolphins was “emotional issues” — in a sport where depression and suicide are rampant. This angle never occurred to me, as I watched the story unfold. It’s definitely worth a read.

I have wondered how much Martin’s Stanford degree factored into players’ treatment of him. Several African-American teammates remarked that he wasn’t “black enough”, whereas Incognito (who attended both Nebraska and Oregon, but graduated from neither) was “honorary” (i.e. an honorary black man). That topic is a little out of my wheelhouse, however it is worth quoting Isaiah Kacyvenski — a former NFL linebacker who holds both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard:

“Only in the NFL can a Harvard degree have negative consequences.”

What strikes me most is how this scandal reflects that tired, twisted mentality surrounding men who excel in any physically demanding sport — but none more than football. We saw it in Steubenville, Ohio. We saw it with Aaron Hernandez — lots of boys-will-be-boys-just-blowing-off-some-steam-blame-the-victim justifications and second chances, right up to the point he allegedly murdered someone.

When Jovan Belcher from the Kansas City Chiefs killed his girlfriend, then himself, in 2012 there was a chorus of, “What a tragedy! How do these things happen?” If we’re being honest, though, we all know how these things happen. They happen when we, as a society, hold young athletes to lesser standards. We overlook poor academic performance, violent outbursts and aggressive behavior towards women. Then, when they reach adulthood, we expect these MEN to magically demonstrate restraint, impulse control, responsibility and maturity, and we are shocked — SHOCKED — when they fail.

Who knows how the scandal will shake out for Incognito, Martin and the Dolphins. Bullying may have been a dirty little secret in the NFL, but now it’s out in the open and it appears the League will be forced to act.

There’s a lesson here for athletes, parents and coaches at the high school and college levels too — if anyone chooses to hear it.

A Belter of a Final

Scottish National Flag

Co-gháirdeachas, Andy Murray, 2013 Wimbeldon Champion!  And hats off to Djokovic too.  Amazing tennis was played by both men.

Truth or Consequences

Top of mind for me this week are the appeals of the New Orleans Saints’ GM and coaches accused of (at a minimum) ignoring a bounty system in their organization, as well as the suspension – and planned appeal — of Cleveland Indians pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez. Jimenez was recently suspended for five games, and fined, for intentionally throwing at (and hitting) Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.

Anyone who has watched too much Law & Order (like me) is familiar with the apparent appeal of an appeal. When judgment goes against the defendant, his attorney immediately rises and shouts “We will appeal, Your Honor.” And so it goes in sports. With a few notable exceptions, if you get a suspension and/or are fined, you appeal.

Because appeals proceedings tend to be very secretive, it’s not always clear what is being appealed. Behind closed doors, is the accused claiming his innocence or just arguing that the penalty is too severe? Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun reportedly focused less on his innocence when appealing, than on improper protocol in the handling of his urine sample. He won, and became the first Major League player to successfully appeal a suspected violation of baseball’s Drug Treatment and Prevention Program.

Total vindication like Braun’s is unusual, however. The norm is a reduction in the fine/suspension after appeal, which makes the process feel more like a shady negotiation. It encourages players and coaches to appeal, because really… what have they got to lose? When was the last time you heard about an appeal resulting in a BIGGER fine or suspension?

Let’s consider Ubaldo Jimenez. He threw at Tulowitzki, and pretty much everyone knows it. “I shouldn’t be suspended,” he said. “Players are hit by pitches every day… I can’t get the ball to go where I want every time.” (If you’ve watched him pitch lately, you know the last part of that statement is true.)

Too bad Jimenez was so vocal about resenting his treatment in Colorado when he was traded to Cleveland; it’s well known that there was already bad blood with Tulowitzki because of it. After drilling him, Jimenez accused Tulowitzki of calling him “names”. So, his claim that it wasn’t score settling rings pretty false.

Very rarely, a sporting professional will consider appealing… but ultimately back away, and accept his punishment. Last year Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina was suspended for five games for bumping, and possibly spitting on, umpire Rob Drake after a questionable call. His statement:

“I am sorry for my actions and apologize for letting my emotions get the best of me… I have great respect for the umpires and the job they do. I accept full responsibility for my actions and will begin serving my suspension tonight.”

Molina may have truly wanted to own up to his bad behavior, and take his punishment like a man. Or perhaps he just knew the league had him dead to rights, going nuts on Drake. Regardless, it was refreshing.

While I wanted to be similarly impressed that former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams declined to appeal his indefinite suspension, it felt a bit less noble once I heard audio of him seeming to promise cash to any player who made a game-ending hit on San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Alex Smith during the playoffs.  You don’t get more dead to rights than that, I figure.

I will be disappointed if the Ubaldo Jimenez suspension is reduced. As it stands, he’ll miss maybe two starts? Baseball needs to send a message: There are no excuses for pitching at a hitter. It’s nonnegotiable.

Will the one-year suspension of New Orleans head coach Sean Payton withstand appeal? Payton’s argument that he didn’t know about the team’s bounty program doesn’t pass the smell test. As it stands, he got a one-year suspension that allows him to work in broadcasting (for example) and apparently does not entirely prohibit interaction with New Orleans staff and players. That’s not exactly taking him to the woodshed. A reduction in that punishment would be disgraceful.

I think Payton would be a great test case for INCREASING a suspension when an appeal is obviously frivolous and disingenuous, similar to how a judge can penalize civil litigants who pursue frivolous lawsuits.

At last, a teachable moment I can really get behind!

So the Pot Called the Kettle… Opportunistic and Insincere

Lance Armstrong
(Photo: Laurent Rebours, AP)

The United States Justice Department has announced that it will join a federal whistle-blower lawsuit against Lance Armstrong brought by Floyd Landis, his former teammate on the US Postal Service cycling team.

Former team director Johan Bruyneel and Tailwind Sports were also named as defendants in the suit.

The complaint states:

“Riders on the USPS-sponsored team, including Armstrong, knowingly caused material violations of the sponsorship agreements by regularly and systematically employing banned substances and methods to enhance their performance… Defendants were unjustly enriched to the extent of the payments and other benefits they received from the USPS, either directly or indirectly.”

This wasn’t exactly a surprise, since today (April 23) was the deadline for joining the suit.  And as anyone who likes to receive mail on Saturdays knows, the USPS is financially strapped and could really use a big injection right now.

Of cash, that is.  A big injection of cash.

Lance Armstrong’s lawyer’s response to the government’s action was classic.  He called the lawsuit “opportunistic and insincere”.

For a moment, I thought he might have been describing his client.

BOOM!

Too much?

It’s ON, America

The Green Building at MIT
The Green Building at Boston’s MIT. (Photo: Matthew J. Lee / Globe Staff)

Thirty-six hours ago, Americans were reminded of a few things.  Obviously, and most painfully, we were reminded that no amount of security and vigilance can ensure our safety in the age of terror.

You may subscribe to the notion that nothing stops a bad guy with a gun, except a good guy with a gun.  (I do not agree, although that’s a subject for another blog post.)  But how do we stop a bad guy with a bomb?  Or two?  Sometimes we can, but on Monday in Boston we could not.

Today I’ve heard a few frustrated folks lament that an evil few can destroy the happiness and freedom of the many.  I don’t think that’s the lesson here.  Rather, the take-away message should be that there is more good in the world than bad.  As Patton Oswalt (!) so elegantly put it in a Facebook post that has now gone viral:

“We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We’d have eaten ourselves alive long ago…

When you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, ‘The good outnumber you, and we always will.’”

Much of that good has already been well chronicled this week, like the Boston Marathon runners, bystanders and volunteers who rushed toward Monday’s carnage as soon as it happened, rather than away from it.  Acts of courage and selflessness were everywhere, witnessed by helpless citizens of the world who could only tune in via social media and pray.

Twitter 1
By day’s end, Boston-area blood banks were fully stocked and thousands of residents had offered space in their homes to weary, terrified runners with nowhere else to go.

The New York Times suspended its pay meter (the tracking mechanism that prevents non-subscribers from reading more than a few online articles per month for free) to allow everyone access to news.

There were other acts of goodness, such as heretofore unseen restraint among most news outlets and social media users.  We were all urged to corroborate what we heard, before presenting it as fact.  Shocking tweets were challenged with, “What’s your source for that?”.  Many outlandish rumors sputtered and died under the weight of scrutiny.

The New York Post was the most glaring exception, exaggerating the number of casualties and claiming that a suspect was in custody within two hours.  The Twitter community rallied to bring the hammer DOWN on those hacks.

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Even President Obama was careful when addressing the stunned nation.  Some were frustrated that he avoided using the term “terrorism”.  I suppose it’s reassuring to label a heinous act, as a means of trying to understand it, but I was glad that the President chose not to influence the narrative by using loaded words when he lacked facts.

Once we catch whoever did this, feel free to label it however you like.

On a similar note, most Americans took a holiday from bipartisan bickering on Monday.  Let’s hope it’s an extended one.

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As always, sports proved a great distraction and rejuvenator for me.  Sports writers were especially respectful.  Despite the tragedy they had a job to do, but most showed sensitivity.  Hank Schulman, for example, tweeted this before sharing a link to his most recent blog post:

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Teams everywhere celebrated life and courage and community, and they did it with class.  The “United We Stand” banners at Yankee Stadium featuring the Red Sox logo?  Those choked me up almost as much as the Yanks playing Fenway favorite “Sweet Caroline” tonight, as fans laughed and sang along.  The resilient laughter – that’s what got to me.

In a way, sport is a great metaphor for the reaction to yesterday’s insanity.  America is complicated and messy.  Sometimes we behave badly, and fight ferociously amongst ourselves like a bunch of toddlers trapped in a room with only one toy.

At the end of the day, though, we’re a team.  If you attack one of us, you’re going to face the wrath of all of us.

Pity the evil person or persons who messed with my team.  We’re bringing our A game.  We will win, because the good guys always do.

If You See Something, Say Something

Photo: Mel Evans / AP
Photo: Mel Evans / AP

By now, nearly everyone has heard about the firing of Rutgers University basketball coach Mike Rice, in response to recently released video excerpts from practices where Rice shoved players and pelted them with verbal abuse, gay epithets and basketballs from close range.

To be clear, this is not a video of an isolated training session gone terribly wrong.  No one can claim that the coach just had ONE REALLY BAD day.  Maybe he had mellow, group-hug kind of days too… but this was a pattern.

I hope that most logical, educated adults with reasonable priorities will agree that it was correct to fire Rice.  For once I’m with LeBron James, who tweeted this:

Lebron Tweet

Here’s an even bigger news story, though, with a bullet.  While the Rice video surfaced only this week on ESPN, Rutgers had known about it for months.  University officials allegedly sought to keep it quiet, and discreetly dispensed punishment of a three-game suspension, a fine and anger management classes.  Rice was fired only after the public got a glimpse of his unique approach to player motivation, and went nuts.

(It doesn’t help Rice’s cause that nearly every newspaper and website seems to possess a vast archive of photos of him screaming and gesturing wildly, while veins pop out on his forehead.  Even if you have never seen Rice coach, those shots make him look like a hot head.)

Now the spotlight is aimed squarely at Rutgers’ administrators – particularly University President Robert Barchi and Athletic Director Tim Pernetti. Pernetti has issued a mea culpa for dishing out such a light initial punishment, and vows to work to regain the trust of the Rutgers community.  Still, it won’t be a huge shock if he loses his job too.

The biggest head-scratcher is Robert Barchi, who claims he heard about Mike Rice’s intense behavior but had never actually seen the video until now.  So, he says, he supported a brief suspension and fine at first only because he didn’t have all the facts.

Assuming what Barchi says is true, I pose this question:  Have universities learned nothing from the Penn State fiasco?

You will recall that PSU football coach Joe Paterno’s defense was partly based on his claim that he had heard rumors about Jerry Sandusky being abnormally fond of young boys, but had never read reports of inappropriate behavior, such as those from the University Police Department.  I am always perplexed by that.  Wasn’t he even curious?

Similarly, Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley seems to have done his best to avoid detailed knowledge of events related to Sandusky.  For example, according to the 267-page Freeh Report, Curley was offered the name of Victim 2 (the boy involved in the shower incident witnessed by Mike McCreary) so that he could interview him, but Curley declined.  He declined?

Here’s a tip for educators everywhere:  You are responsible for the safety of children and/or young adults.  If you hear something that sounds sketchy… LOOK INTO IT!   If someone mentions a video of inappropriate and/or dangerous behavior, ask for a copy and WATCH IT.   If you get wind of a police report about one of your faculty members or students, READ IT.

Ignorance – especially willful ignorance – is not a viable defense.  It won’t fly in the court of public opinion.

Ray Allen from the Miami Heat says he is not having it.  Neither is LeBron, and once he’s done explaining that to you he might just punch you in the face.

Super Bowl XLVII: The Only Game In Town

 

The season is over, book and chapter

It’s “The Super Bowl: the Monday After”

We lick our wounds, and search for answers

What was the deciding factor?

 

First half, the Niners didn’t click

While the Ravens failed to miss a trick

They scored three touchdowns pretty quick

And intercepted Kaepernick.

 

At halftime, Beyoncé bumped and ground

That is, until the lights went down

The players stretched, and coaches frowned

Pissed-off Harbaughs all around.

 

But rather than just hit the showers

Down 15 points, they didn’t cower

The Niners used that dark half hour

To find their rhythm and their power.

 

Kap came out with guns a-blazing

“What a game!” we all kept saying

In between our bouts of praying

Until that last drive, so dismaying.

 

Things slipped away, the die was cast

This season’s magic didn’t last

Disappointing?  YES… but still a blast

Now bring on baseball, and make it fast.

Lance Armstrong, Git On Yer Bike!

Lance Armstsrong
Photo: Getty Images

Lance Armstrong has confessed.  Do you think it was his 2013 resolution to finally cop to years of using illegal substances just because it’s a new year, and all?

Oprah Winfrey’s two-part interview with Armstrong was fascinating. At times he was forthright, direct and truthful – especially at the start, when Oprah posed only yes/no questions.

Oprah Winfrey: Did you ever take banned substances to enhance your cycling

Lance Armstrong: “Yes.”

OW: Was one of those banned substances EPO?

LA: “Yes.”

OW: Did you ever blood dope or use blood transfusions to enhance your cycling performance?

LA: “Yes.”

OW: Did you ever use any other banned substances such as testosterone, cortisone or Human Growth Hormone?

LA: “Yes.”

OW: In all seven of your Tour de France victories, did you ever take banned substances or blood dope?

LA: “Yes.”

OK, then.

Things got murkier, however, when Oprah’s questions turned open-ended.  It seems Lance’s definition of a “no holds barred” interview is different from mine.  (He’d told the Associated Press that Oprah could “go wherever she wants, I will answer directly, honestly and candidly.”)

In fact, Armstrong often hid behind a vow not to accuse or talk about anyone else – even when he hadn’t been asked to do so. He also frequently took the Sarah Palin tack of answering a different question than he was asked.  For example:

OW: Have you called Betsy Andreu? Did she take your call? Was she telling the truth about the Indiana hospital, overhearing you in 1996 [during your cancer treatment, admitting to doping]? Was Betsy lying?

LA: “I’m not going to take that on. I’m laying down on that one. I’m going to put that one down. She asked me, and I asked her not to talk about it.”

Betsy Andreu spoke on NPR today — she was disappointed in this answer and clearly wished Lance would have responded candidly and admitted that her story had been true.  But in this case, I guess a simple yes or no did not come so easily.

In short, he avoided most embarrassing details and as a result, Armstrong remains as enigmatic as ever.  He admitted to using illegal substances, but evaded requests for details about the doping program and the doping culture.  He claimed he didn’t recall stashing syringes in soda cans after he and fellow riders injected EPO, while fans congregated outside – a claim made by Tyler Hamilton in his book The Secret Race. Seriously?

The most riveting exchange between Winfrey and Armstrong was on the subject of bullying, and accusations that Armstrong threatened teammates who didn’t want to use EPO. Hats off to Oprah who reacted with healthy skepticism as he bobbed, weaved and split hairs about whether the expectations he set for winning as team captain could have been interpreted as ultimatums by his riders.  He claimed he never gave a directive or made a threat, but was this just a matter of semantics?  He didn’t back down, but he wasn’t making a whole lot of sense either.

I think he was lying.

Speaking of semantics:

OW: You said dozens of times in interviews you never failed a test. Do you have a different answer today?

LA: “No I didn’t fail a test. Retroactively, I failed one. The hundreds of tests I took, I passed them.”

But the problem is, he did fail a test during the 1999 Tour de France.  Or at least, any reasonable person would say he failed it.  He tested positive for corticosteroids, and needed a bogus, back-dated prescription for saddle sores to get a pass.

I keep thinking of the UPS commercial about logistics, with the jingle take off of “That’s Amore”…

When you’re caught in a lie, and you try to be sly… that’s semantics.

After segment one of Oprah’s two-part interview, I was left unsatisfied.  I still had no clue why Armstrong chose to come clean NOW.  Even he couldn’t explain it at the start of their conversation.  (How could one of the world’s biggest control freaks, who is obsessed with driving his own narrative, come to an interview to be seen by millions unprepared for that question?)

If you watched segment two, though, you know the answer:  He’s doing it to have his lifetime ban on competing in sanctioned sports lifted.  I was blown away when he told Oprah, “I think I DESERVE IT.”  Excuse me? How on earth do you figure?

It’s true, Lance Armstrong took most of the responsibility for his own bad actions.  He repeatedly said “I deserve this”, referring to the lost endorsements, and public disgrace.  So how can he rationalize also deserving to be readmitted to sports, after just a hand-slap suspension?

He talked about other cyclists, and their more lenient penalties for doping.  But as Oprah pointed out, he was different.  “You knew that you were held to a higher standard. You’re LANCE ARMSTRONG.”

He thumbed his nose at the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) and the US Anti-Doping Agency, by “brazenly and defiantly” denying doping for 13 years, so he was the big fish they wanted to catch.

Either Lance Armstrong still just doesn’t get it, or I don’t.

I say it’s Lance.