Bob Schwartz

Tag: football

Without a Brand New Playbook the Democrats Are Lost

Sid Gillman is a towering figure in National Football League history—in fact, in the history of American football:

He began his coaching career in an era that taught that running the ball was the surest way to victory.

It was a philosophy with which he disagreed. “The big play comes with the pass,” he would tell anyone who would take time to listen. “God bless those runners because they get you the first down, give you ball control and keep your defense off the field. But if you want to ring the cash register, you have to pass.”

Sid went on to become the foremost authority on forward passing offense. He was the first coach to produce divisional champions in both the National and American Football Leagues. Gillman’s first pro coaching job came in 1955 when he became the Los Angeles Rams head coach. In his first year he led the team to a division crown.

The rest is history. Not only did opposing teams have to learn to defend against the big pass play, which opened up the field, but they had to develop new and innovative playbooks of their own.

Like it or not, there is a new playbook in American politics, at least from one of the teams. Maybe—hopefully—it will return to a game that unconditionally rewards excellence, competence, integrity, morality, ethics, reasonableness, responsibility, accountability, civility and honesty. But not at the moment.

This isn’t to suggest that Democrats adopt the Trump playbook. But just as with the football teams that had to play against Gillman, the Democrats have to spend time—much of which they wasted in 2017—doing more than tweaking the plays or even finding better players. The old playbook is not going to work in 2018, and for all we know, in the foreseeable future.

Whatever you hear the Democrats propose, whoever you see the Democrats running, ask yourself whether it is part of a brand new playbook, or just updated versions of the same old one. Because without that new playbook, winning will remain often out of reach.

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NFL Priorities

NFL

Which of these three NFL issues deserves the deepest continuous attention by the league, by fans, by the media, and by the public?

1. Frequent on-field concussions that demonstrably lead to players having permanent brain damage, diminished quality of life, and premature death.

2. Frequent off-field antisocial and possibly criminal behavior by celebrated players.

3. A possibly deflated football.

Note: It is possible that more scientists have been covered talking about the football that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady may have had deflated than about the concussions in the NFL.

The NFL and Ferguson

Roger Goodell NFL

NFL player Ray Rice beat his then-fiancée/now-wife unconscious inside an elevator in Atlantic City. Police officer Darren Wilson shot dead an unarmed teenager in the middle of a street in Ferguson, Missouri.

(To Rice’s credit, he had the courtesy to drag her body out of the elevator, while the Ferguson police left Michael Brown’s body on that street for hours.)

These two incidents are so much the same and so different. They tell us things we don’t want to hear, know, or think about. They also tell us one surprisingly good thing. The establishment interests can be just as committed to privileging a black American as killing him ruthlessly, under the right circumstances. Especially if there’s big money at stake. So we learn that ignominy is race neutral at last.

Until yesterday there was no publicly available video of the beating, though it was apparently available and seen by various authorities. The only public video until then was from the outside of the elevator, merely showing Rice dragging the body, not beating it. As one journalist now explains his defense of Rice’s mere two-game NFL suspension and not being charged with a felony:

The inside-the-elevator video shows Rice, a running back for the Baltimore Ravens, provoking, brutally assaulting and then casually and callously standing over his knocked-out fiancée (who is now his wife). His actions are sickening in their depravity and confirm a worst-case-scenario narrative I was reluctant to believe after seeing only the previously released, outside-the-elevator video.

I thought the full video would explain why: Why police originally charged Ray and Janay with simple assault. Why the prosecutor allowed Ray to enter a diversion program. Why Janay apologized for her role. Why Janay chose to marry Ray. Why the Ravens enthusiastically supported Rice and used their facilities in helping him rehabilitate his image. Why Goodell suspended Rice for only two games.

I wrongly and naively thought that she was the aggressor in the attack, that Rice reflexively shoved her to fend her off and she slipped, fell and hit her head [emphasis added]. I did not think a man could sucker-punch a woman on tape and have the police, a prosecutor, the victim and the image-conscious NFL all work to treat the assaulter in a sympathetic fashion.

Fell and hit her head. That reminds us of nothing so much as the stories reported by battered children (and wives and girlfriends) who “run into doors.” Except this is a journalist using his best investigative and inferential skills to draw an “obvious” circumstantial conclusion. He could be forgiven for drawing the same ridiculous conclusion as law enforcement, the NFL, and the Baltimore Ravens. Except that some or all of them had the inside the elevator video or at least more detail, and still came to the same conclusion, at least publicly.

There is no video of exactly what happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson, though there are witnesses to pieces of it, an audio recording, and more than one autopsy. There the instinct on the part of vested interests and the establishment was to wait and see, but really to stonewall, cover up, and put the best light on the situation. That turned out to be a disastrous approach, but at least it got people talking about former unmentionables. Small consolation.

How is this any different than what is going on with Ray Rice? The vested interests tried to put the best light on his situation, and despite outrage, almost got away with it. How are the people who up until yesterday circled the wagons around Ray Rice, giving him the benefit of the doubt and a slap on the wrist, any different than those who have been circling the wagons around Darren Wilson, giving him the benefit of the doubt?

One difference is that Ferguson is a small predominantly black town with a small almost entirely white police force that appears to have some race issues, while the NFL is a huge enterprise predominantly owned and run by white people with a pro game substantially played by black men that appears to have some race issues. It’s those issues, along with other social, legal and moral ones, that have us all talking. About policing. About the NFL. About race.

The victims were both black, one a kid possibly involved in petty crime (there’s a video of that), the other a woman engaged to a professional warrior who could have easily killed her, rather than just beating her senseless after she “provoked” him (there’s now video of that).

Maybe from the first, Ray Rice should have taken the approach that will certainly be at the center of Darren Wilson’s defense, assuming he is charged: I was in fear for my life. Up until yesterday, lots of people would apparently have been willing to accept a story like that, if it served their interests. Thankfully, they now all have to stop pretending, and we can start asking what it all means.

Jack Cristil: The Voice of God is Gone

Jack Cristil Biography

There are two ways you might know Jack Cristil, who died this weekend at the age of 88. But maybe not.

If you’re from Mississippi, or an SEC sports fan, you know him as the The Voice of Mississippi State football and basketball for almost sixty years, until his retirement in 2011.

If you are a member of the Tupelo Jewish community, where Jack was an essential part of Temple B’nai Israel for almost that long, you know him, more or less, as The Voice of God. In addition to his leadership roles in the congregation, Jack frequently led services. Most of us have heard clergy and lay people at the pulpit with some memorable voices and presences. Jack stood above them all. That perfectly modulated baritone, driven by his deep and unshakable faith, gave us all the play-by-play for a different sort of game, season after season.

That extraordinary voice would mean nothing without the man behind it—just a trick of vocal cords and breath. But Jack’s mind and heart were even bigger than that voice. Which is why when he spoke on the radio or at services, or in the more intimate setting of a meeting or conversation, you listened. Some people get our attention by the way they say things, and Jack could get anybody’s attention. But others keep our attention because of what they say, and even more, who they are.

In case you still think that Jack was not so well-known or important, see the above book cover from a biography of him. You may not have heard of Jack or of the author, veteran Mississippi journalist Sid Salter. But the man who wrote the Foreword to Jack’s biography is a little more familiar—a Memphis-based writer named John Grisham.

And if that’s not famous enough, here’s a photo of Jack interviewing Elvis:

Jack Cristil and Elvis

Jack is gone, but anyone who has heard that voice, even once, will hear it forever. One of Jack’s favorite bits in services was to ask the congregation to turn to a particular page in the prayer book and to indicate having done so by being seated. Today, we indicate our love and respect by standing up. We hear you, Jack.

League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis

league-of-denial-raster-br10-8
You may not think that you want to watch the new PBS Frontline documentary League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.

You may not want to spend almost two hours on a documentary, even a superb one. You may not like football, may not know anybody who plays football at any level, may not care about the business of sports. Then again, some or all of those may apply to you.

It doesn’t matter. You can watch League of Denial online. Please watch it.

One of the many lessons you will learn, if you didn’t already know, is that we pay a price for everything. Or at least somebody does. The price is sometimes advertised and obvious, but sometimes hard to find or even hidden. The point is not that something is good or bad, right or wrong, but that we can only make informed and enlightened decisions when everything is known. No more or less.

The Year Begins with Baseball

Mom Marlins
The New Year finally begins. It is Opening Day for Major League Baseball.

Non-baseball people are turning away with a lack of interest or understanding. Even non-sports people know that football long ago took over as America’s pastime. The Super Bowl v. the World Series? Who are you kidding? When’s the last time the Rolling Stones performed at a World Series halftime. (Note: There is no halftime in baseball. Just a brief break known as the seventh inning stretch, where we sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame, not a Stones song.)

If baseball has somehow been eclipsed, it may be symptomatic. Whatever it is that has made football more popular than baseball might not be such a good thing. There are tomes by eminent scholars written about this. The time element alone is telling. Those leaning towards short attention spans and busy lives like football because something is always happening and it is time-constrained by a clock. For non-baseball fans, there are long stretches where nothing seems to be going on in a baseball game, except most of the players just standing around. Games can theoretically go on forever, and sometimes they seem to, exceeding five hours. Once again the chorus asks: Who are you kidding?

George Carlin, one of the sharptest and funniest observers of American life, focused on the differences between baseball and football. You can read the complete text and listen to a recording. Here’s an excerpt:

Baseball and football are the two most popular spectator sports in this country. And as such, it seems they ought to be able to tell us something about ourselves and our values.

I enjoy comparing baseball and football:

Baseball is a nineteenth-century pastoral game.
Football is a twentieth-century technological struggle….

Baseball begins in the spring, the season of new life.
Football begins in the fall, when everything’s dying.

In football you wear a helmet.
In baseball you wear a cap….

In football you receive a penalty.
In baseball you make an error.

In football the specialist comes in to kick.
In baseball the specialist comes in to relieve somebody.

Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting and unnecessary roughness.
Baseball has the sacrifice….

And finally, the objectives of the two games are completely different:

In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line.

In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! I hope I’ll be safe at home!

There are dozens of books containing art, poetry and writing about baseball. The other sports may have some, but not of the quantity or the caliber of these. As pointed out before, and it will be pointed out again, for a brief moment in the late 1980s, cut tragically short by illness, A. Bartlett Giamatti was the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. Bart Giamatti was the President of Yale University, a professor of literature, and a writer of note. When and only when the NFL, NBA, NHL, or any other sports league decides to appoint a person of equal credentials as their commissioner, then and only then will it be worth having a conversation about the big picture relative merits.

Bart Giamatti also wrote the quintessential essay about baseball. The Green Fields of the Mind is written not about Opening Day, but about the last day of the season for his beloved Boston Red Sox in 1977. He didn’t live to see that one of baseball’s most hapless teams would go on to become a championship powerhouse years later.

The essay is a poetic take not only on the refrain of baseball fans everywhere—“wait until next year”—but on the way that refrain works in our lives. It reflects the progress from the hopes of spring to the dimming of prospects in the fall, but only in the meantime. There is no justice in an excerpt of it, but here is one anyway:

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. Today, October 2, a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped, and summer was gone.…

That is why it breaks my heart, that game–not because in New York they could win because Boston lost; in that, there is a rough justice, and a reminder to the Yankees of how slight and fragile are the circumstances that exalt one group of human beings over another. It breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion; and because, after it had fostered again that most hungered-for illusion, the game was meant to stop, and betray precisely what it promised.

Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.

Finally, a rare personal note. Many, many families have memories tied up with sports. I am no exception. Those memories aren’t important because the game is, just as the game isn’t important because of the memories. They are just tied up in a package that you open on occasions. Opening Day is one of them. Above is a photo of my Mom, a few years before she passed away. She is watching a Marlins game. As Bart Giamatti wrote, “there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts.”

That’s another reason we love baseball and are happy it is Opening Day again.

Penn State: Worse Than Death

There is a theme in crime and horror fiction in which someone is not killed, but is instead punished by being allowed to live and witness the degradation and demise of all that he has loved and built.

That is exactly what happened for alumni, fans and boosters, with this morning’s announced sanctions against Penn State. In advance of the announcement, some speculated that the NCAA would be creative in its punishments and that in the end Penn State might actually wish for the “death penalty” of a cancelled season of football.

Done and done.

Every current Penn State football player is free to play elsewhere this season and in future. If he is on scholarship, he can choose to stay at school but never play, and he will still receive his scholarship. Current recruits are free to commit to other colleges. Four years of no post-season play assures that first-rank players are unlikely to play at Penn State. Scholarships will be cut back. And the all-time winning record of Joe Paterno has been toppled, just like his statue, by the vacating of all team wins from 1998 to 2011.

When Penn State fields a team this year, it will be a spectacle. The team will be bereft of talent, a ghost of its gloried self. Lose or win, it will perform under fifty shades of ignominy. Even now, there may be someone at the school thinking that Penn State might be better off volunteering to take the one year break that the NCAA did not impose. That dramatic step won’t happen, but it might help convince the very skeptical—who believe that the reprioritizing of college football is beyond the reach of the most well-meaning and contrite—that Penn State really gets the magnitude of what is wrong, and that it can be a reluctant role model for a better next generation of college athletics.