Archive for the ‘Football’ Category

Remarkable, But Shouldn’t Be…

140209211519-michael-sam-top11-single-image-cutIt is a given that our culture is obsessed with football. A Super Bowl game that quickly became non-competitive recently drew 111 million fans. Top level college football programs averaged more than 45,000 fans per game last season. In football crazed communities from Boise to Tuscaloosa the college game is an occasion for tailgate parties that often begin the night before the kickoff. National “letter of intent” day when high school stars commit to college programs gets way more media coverage than the Syrian civil war.

You might say football is in a way a metaphor for American culture. We love the ritual and root for our favorites, while quietly wondering about the lasting impact of sanctioned violence on young brains. We exalt the elite coaches and their seven figure salaries all the while secretly knowing that college should be more about the classroom than the locker room. Perhaps the football-as-life metaphor never fit more snugly than yesterday when a University of Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam, a likely high National Football League draft pick, let the world know what his teammates had known all season long.

Michael Sam, a strapping 6 foot 2 inch, 260 pounder, the best defensive player in the best football conference in the country, is gay. His knowing Missouri Tiger teammates selected him as their most valuable player after a season in which they had come to know the real Michael Sam. I can’t help but juxtapose that kind of courage and sensitivity against the head-in-the-sand bias and insensitivity of too many politicians from Boise to Sochi.

Michael Sam’s announcement almost seemed timed for maximum impact on our culture, and to his credit his timing also served to put his standing in a future NFL draft in some peril.

As the New York Times noted, “Mr. Sam enters an uncharted area of the sports landscape. He is making his public declaration before he is drafted, to the potential detriment to his professional career. And he is doing so as he prepares to enter a league with an overtly macho culture, where controversies over homophobia have attracted recent attention.” The guy who was credited with 11.5 sacks during Missouri’s 12-2 season instantly became a symbol of how quickly public attitudes are changing regarding matters of sexual orientation and, at the same time, Michael Sam set himself up – potentially – for the kind of abuse pathfinders often encounter.

The University of Missouri has something to teach the larger society about all this. “We’re really happy for Michael that he’s made the decision to announce this, and we’re proud of him and how he represents #Mizzou,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said in a statement Sunday night. The coach’s classy responses came in reaction to Sam’s interviews with ESPN and the New York Times announcing he’s news.

Professional sports, perhaps particularly the NFL, have long been the athletic equivalent of the Idaho Legislature when it comes to recognize the fundamental human rights of our fellow citizens. Yet, as Jackie Robinson demonstrated in another civil rights context more than half a century ago, sports can also help the larger culture confront fundamental issues. Sportswriter Juliet Macur correctly says the slow, stone-by-stone dismantling of a professional sports wall of discrimination toward gays can now, thanks to Michael Sam’s courage, fall as though pushed by a bulldozer wearing Number 52.

“Same-sex marriage laws have been passed in many states,” Macur writes, “with more to come. Gay rights have been a major issue at the Olympics in Russia, where the government last summer passed a law that prohibits the transmission of ‘gay propaganda’ to children, prompting many groups and some athletes to speak out.

“Even Pope Francis has, in his own way, recently expressed support for gays, shocking conservatives when he said, ‘Who am I to judge?’ He said people ‘should not be marginalized’ because of their sexual orientation and ‘must be integrated into society.’”

Billie Jean King, who President Obama wisely asked to represent the United States at the Sochi Olympics (and in the process stuck a thumb in the homophobic Valdimir Putin’s eye), tells CBS that it “really it gets down to humankind. … We just happen to be gay. … We need to really shift where it’s a non issue. When it’s a non issue, it will mean we’ve arrived. It won’t happen in my lifetime but it’s definitely a civil rights issue of the 21st century.”

Here’s hoping Missouri’s Michael Sam has a great NFL career, but even if that doesn’t happen this articulate, intelligent young man will have displayed the kind of personal courage that some folks in public life would do well to try and emulate. Or, put another way: if Sam had enough courage to sit for an interview with the New York Times and ESPN and discuss the most personal aspects of who he is, perhaps its not asking too much that state legislators in Boise and other state capitols finally summon enough personal and political courage to really deal seriously with the civil rights issue of the 21st Century.

We should long for the day when it isn’t.

 

What’s In a Name

Washington-RedskinsNow for something completely different…

While the nation dangles one foot over the fiscal cliff and while most of the federal government remains shut down, the epicenter of American politics has yet another crisis to confront – the name of its football team.

I knew the controversy swirling around the National Football League Redskins had reached crisis proportions when Lanny Davis, the slightly oily adviser to those in trouble, started issuing statements on behalf of the mostly tone deaf Redskins’ owner. Davis, you may remember, advised Bill Clinton in the Monica days and more recently helped out a charming fellow named Laurent Gbagbo who, before he was forced from power to face charges of torturing his political enemies, was quaintly described as the Ivory Coast’s strongman. Davis told the New York Times in 2010 “controversy is what I do for a living.” Welcome to the Redskins’ beat.

Davis was engaged – controversy is what he does after all – after President Obama weighed in on whether the Washington, D.C. team should change its name. “I don’t know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real legitimate concerns that people have about these things,” Obama told The Associated Press.

“These things,” of course, would be names and mascots for sports teams that at least some Native Americans (and others) find offensive. Now you might think with all that the president has on his plate from Syria to Ted Cruz, from a debt ceiling to tanking approval numbers that he would have deftly sidestepped the question of the Redskins’ name. But to his credit, even while giving half the country another reason to dislike him, Mr. Obama answered the question and a million dinner table conversations were launched.

Maureen Dowd began her column on the controversy with this: “Whenever I want to be called a detestable, insidious proselytizer of political correctness, I just bring up the idea of changing the name of the Redskins at a family dinner. What if our football team’s name weren’t a slur, I ask brightly. Wouldn’t that be nice?’

Redskins’ owner Daniel Snyder once said he would “never” change the name, but in post-Lanny Davis mode he struck a quieter, if no less certain, tone. “I’ve listened carefully to the commentary and perspectives on all sides, and I respect the feelings of those who are offended by the team name,” Snyder wrote to the Washington Post. “But I hope such individuals also try to respect what the name means, not only for all of us in the extended Washington Redskins family, but among Native Americans too.”

“This word is an insult. It’s mean, it’s rude, it’s impolite,” Kevin Gover, who is Native American and directs the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. “We’ve noticed that other racial insults are out of bounds. . . . We wonder why it is that the word that is directed at us, that refers to us, is not similarly off-limits.”

Here’s my guess: sooner of later, given a hard push by the ever image conscious NFL leadership and with what will surely be mounting pressure from political and business folks, the Redskins will take a new name. Gover, the Native American head of the Smithsonian museum, suggested a novel name – the Washington Americans. That may catch on and actually could be a tribute to the real Americans. But in the meantime Lanny Davis and others are left to defend the Redskins by pointing out that it’s not just the D.C. football team that has a potentially offensive name. There are the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Edmonton Eskimos. Not to mention the Utah Utes, the Florida State Seminoles and the Orofino Maniacs.

Orofino, Idaho, of course, is home not only to the high school Maniacs, but an Idaho state mental hospital. There is disagreement about which came first, the nickname or the facility, but the monicker has stuck through the years and helped create some memorable headlines. My personal favorite – “Maniacs Run Wild, Kill Kamiah.” Efforts to change the name have be labeled, well, crazy. Don’t mess with my Maniacs or my Redskins. No offense intended, of course.

The University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux are no long either fighting or Sioux. After prolonged controversy the school dropped the “Fighting Sioux” nickname in 2012 and currently has no name. State law actually prohibits the university from renaming its sports teams until 2015. Let me get a jump on that and suggest the North Dakota “Damn Cold Winters.”

While we’re on the subject, I don’t generally like sports teams named after animals. Too many Lions and Tigers, Badgers and Eagles. The best sports names are unique and help tell a story. The Packers, for example, or the 49ers. I like the name, but have never been a fan of the Dodgers. The Minnesota Twins make sense to me. Also the Montreal Canadiens. Not so much the transplanted from New Orleans Utah Jazz. I’m not sure jazz is even legal in Utah.

Mr. Controversy-Is-My-Business Lanny Davis says in defense of the Redskins that the name is 80 years old and, of course, is used with no disrespect. Really. I grew up near the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation in South Dakota and no white guy, at least one in his right mind, would call a member of the tribe what the Washington teams calls itself. The Confederate battle flag has been around for more than 150 years, but it is now widely recognized as a symbol of white supremacy. The Ole Miss Rebels banned the stars and bars from football games for just that reason. Atlanta was once home to the minor league baseball “Crackers,” but that slang put down of poor whites wouldn’t fly today.

“Come to our reservation,” says Ray Halbritter, head of the Oneida Tribe that is leading the effort to change the D.C. team name, and “get up before everybody, families with children, and start out by saying how many cute little redskin children you see in the audience. Then try and tell us that you’re honoring us with that name.” No one has taken Halbritter up on the offer according to Joe Flood who has written at Buzzfeed about Native American reaction to the name controversy.

Yes, the Redskins will eventually change their name. The only real question is how much turmoil will be created and how long it will take. After all, as Maureen Dowd says, “All you have to do is watch a Western. The term ‘redskin’ is never a compliment.”

 

Guest Post

My Call from No. 15

A guest post today from my Gallatin colleague Randy Simon.

At this point in my life I like and appreciate my morning office routine. I turn on the computer, fix a cup of coffee and check the daily headlines before tackling the day’s tasks. Call me a creature of habit, but I typically don’t like early morning surprises unless of course they involve getting a phone call from Green Bay Packer legend Bart Starr.

Which is exactly what happened today.

Halfway through my coffee and the phone rings showing a 205 area code. Like most people I’m hesitant to answer an unfamiliar number, but this time I’m glad I did.

“This is Randy”

“Hi Randy, its Maggie from Bart Starr’s office. Bart would like to speak with you.”

“Um, err, yeah, I mean yes, that would be great.”

“Hi Randy its Bart Starr, how are you?”

At this point I wanted to say, “Are you kidding me? Bart Starr? The guy who was the MVP of the first two Super Bowls and arguably the most recognizable quarterback in the history of the NFL. I’m great! In fact I’m awesome now that I’m talking to you,” but I managed instead to squeak out, “I’m well Mr. Starr, how are you?”

“Call me Bart. Mr. Starr is too formal.”

What ensued was an incredible 15 minute conversation with an NFL legend and Hall of Famer, who at 78, is still on top of his game.

For the past few months we’ve been working with Alicia Kramer to help her dad, Jerry Kramer, another Packer legend receive what is well over due – induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Marc Johnson, who usually writes in this space, wrote a convincing piece recently about why Kramer is so deserving of Hall of Fame recognition.

As part of our effort to secure support for Jerry, I had recently sent Bart a letter asking for his endorsement. I never expected a phone call, but was happy to hear that Bart has been sending letters to the Hall of Fame voters for several years endorsing Kramer’s nomination. Like us, Bart still can’t believe Kramer has not been inducted – and he should know. Bart had the best seat in the house to watch Kramer leading the way on those famous “Packer Sweeps.”

Bart is still an icon and continues doing things the right way. To this day, if you donate any amount of money, no matter how small the amount to his charity Rawhide Boys Ranch, he will sign the memorabilia you send him and pay the postage to return it to you.

Now, he’s repaying Kramer and backing a teammate who had his back for so many years. It’s a conversation I will never forget.

I wish everyday started this way.

By the way, you can support the Kramer to the Hall effort by sending your own Bart Starr-like endorsement to:

Pro Football Hall of Fame 
Attn: Nominations 
2121 George Halas Drive N.W. 
Canton, OH 44708

 

 

Jerry Kramer

Time to Right a Wrong

Forty-three years ago this past Tuesday, the Green Bay Packers issued a terse statement that began with these words: “Guard and author Jerry Kramer announces his retirement after an 11-year career that stretches back to 1958.”

Kramer, just 33 years old, had compiled an outstanding career in his slightly more than a decade on some of the most storied professional football teams in the history of the National Football League. Of course, he’s in the Green Bay Hall of Fame. Kramer was also a perennial All-Pro and Pro-Bowl selection, won the 1962 NFL title game by kicking a field goal, and greased the skids on the famous Packer sweep with the kind of speed and agility – Kramer played at 245 pounds – that is rarely matched by any offensive lineman, then or now.

If you don’t believe me look at some of the old film of Number 64 pulling from his right guard position and outrunning a Jim Taylor, a Donny Anderson or Paul Hornung to get in position to put a staggering hit on an opposing linebacker or cornerback. The legendary Vince Lombardi ran an offense based on a limited number of plays and he expected flawless execution every time, particularly when it came to the thundering Packer sweep. Lombardi considered Kramer the best of his generation as his position.

Jerry Kramer, for perhaps a variety of reasons, none of which withstand analysis, has not been voted into the NFL Hall of Fame in the 43 years since he hung up his pads. He deserves it. His time has come and, in fact, is way past due.

Kramer is the only player named to the NFL’s 50th anniversary team not in the Hall. Forty-nine other guys made the cut. For some reason he hasn’t. NFL films consider him the Number 1 player not in the Hall. Good enough for me, yet perhaps the most powerful evidence that Jerry Kramer’s gridiron greatness has slipped through the Hall of Fame cracks is contained in the endorsements the 76-year old Montana native, Sandpoint, Idaho High School grad and University of Idaho Vandal has received from his peers. The guys who know Kramer’s gifts the best, who played across the line from him, who tried to knock him on his backside, think he is clearly a Hall of Famer.

Gino Marchetti was as good as anyone who ever played defense in the NFL. In his 13 years with the old Dallas Texans and then the Baltimore Colts he was year-after-year a consensus All-Pro. Gino was voted into the Hall in 1972 and thinks Kramer should be there, too.

“I was truly shocked,” Marchetti wrote recently, “to find that Jerry was not a member of the NFL Hall of Fame. I know personally that there was no one better at his position.”

Frank Gifford, Roger Staubach, Alan Page, Chuck Bednarik, Paul Hornung, Bob Lilly, Doug Atkins, Bob Schmidt, Bob St. Clair, Willie Davis, Raymond Berry and Larry Csonka – Hall of Famers every one – say the same thing.

Before his tragic death in 2011, Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey said of Kramer, “We who played with him in pro bowls and against him during our careers vote 100% for Jerry to join us in the Hall.”

Athletes normally do not easily praise the virtues of their opponents 30 or 40 years after the battles are over. That so many of Kramer’s peers, Hall of Famers themselves, speak so highly of his talents is an astounding testament to his greatness. That alone should be enough to lift him into the Hall.

There are three theories about why Kramer hasn’t received the call to Canton, Ohio the home of the NFL Hall of Fame. One theory says he had the misfortunate to play on the great Lombardi Packer teams with so many other Hall of Famers. Those great Packer teams of the 1960′s won three straight titles, five overall and the first two Super Bowls. They were great and richly blessed teams, but saying that a great player like Kramer should suffer because he happened to play on a team with a locker room full of great players is like saying Beethoven only wrote nine symphonies, while Mozart wrote 41 and therefore they can’t both be considered great. Poppycock.

The Lombardi era was great because the great coach found, developed and then got the most out of a team of superb players, including Kramer. The theory that there are too many Packers from this era already in the Hall is bogus. In a place where only accomplishment should matter, there is room for a Mozart, a Beethoven…and a Brahms.

The second theory holds that the football writers who vote on Hall of Fame matters are of a sufficiently younger generation that they just don’t know enough about Kramer’s playing days and therefore they discount a guy who has been nominated several times in the past. But not knowing isn’t right.

Baseball writers finally got around to selecting the worthy Orlando Cepeda for the baseball Hall of Fame in 1999. Cepeda quit playing 25 years before. A careful review of Kramer’s career by the current selection panel will show, beyond a doubt, that his career is worthy. Cepeda waited for a quarter century, Kramer has been shut out for more than 40 years. It’s time.

Finally, in a perverse way it’s been suggested by some that Kramer the author – his best seller Instant Replay is still one of the best sports books ever – hurt his Hall of Fame chances because of his candid take on what life was – or may still be  - inside the NFL. If there is any truth to this theory it too is poppycock. Kramer was not only a rugged, physical, smart football player, he happens to write well, even elegantly, and his keen observations on Lombardi, his teammates, the media and football showcase that he was far from a one dimensional pulling guard. Kramer’s substantial literary accomplishments are just frosting on this offensive lineman’s career cake.

The latest effort to Get Kramer to the Hall isn’t the work of Jerry Kramer. He has said he’s often introduced as a Hall of Famer and he’s quit correcting the record simply because so many people think a guy with his credentials must just automatically be were the greats go to be remembered. He’s not losing sleep over the snub and his ego is in check. Kramer isn’t a guy to live in the past even though his stories about Lombardi and the Green Bay dynasty are still the stuff of football legend.

No, the effort to get Kramer his due has been spearheaded by his daughter with a little volunteer help from my firm and a whole bunch of people who like the big guy and feel like getting his plaque up on the wall in Canton would amount to one of the world’s little wrongs made right. The University of Idaho joined the parade this week.

In the whole scheme of things securing a moment of Hall of Fame recognition for an old football player hardly ranks with world peace or a cure for cancer on the list of society’s great causes. But recognition, especially when it is so obviously deserved and truly does reflect the enduring importance of excellence, is never a minor matter whether you’re talking art, literature, science or sport.

The Oscars wouldn’t be complete if Jimmy Stewart hadn’t gotten one. Steinbeck and Hemingway and Faulkner got their Nobel Prizes for literature. Heck, Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television, has a statue in the U.S. Capitol. 

Idaho’s and Green Bay’s Jerry Kramer performed on a different, grassy stage. His science was speed and finesse, his art courage and determination. Kramer used all those skills when he popped the most famous block in football history in 1967, opening a hole for Bart Starr to leap into the frozen end zone at Lambeau Field and beat the Dallas Cowboys. They’ve always called that game The Ice Bowl. It was 13 below zero at game time. Kramer will tell you it was a great team effort that did in the Cowboys on that bitter cold last day of the year and, of course, it was a team effort, but only one guy made the critical block.

It’s time now – past time – that the guy who iced that memorable victory, just one of his many greatest moments, had a chance to ice the champagne. Kramer needs to be in the Hall of Fame and when he is the football gods will smile because those gods know what’s right and this is right.

You can support The Get Kramer to the Hall effort by writing to the nominating committee on Jerry’s behalf. The address is:

Pro Football Hall of Fame

Attn: Nominations

2121 George Halas Drive, NW;

Canton, Ohio 44708

 

Weekend Reads

Robert Caro, Jerry Kramer and More

There is a fascinating piece planned for publication Sunday, and already online, in The New York Times on legendary Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro. Caro is about to release volume four of his projected five volume bio of LBJ. To date he has produced 3,388 fascinating pages.

Caro’s work is one of the greatest studies ever of the accumulation and use of political power. The piece also has great insights into the author’s methods, which could properly be described as “old school.” He dresses for work every day in jacket and tie, for example. Great piece.

Northwest Nazarene University political scientist Steve Shaw and one of his colleagues, English Department Chair Darrin Grinder, have just released an important new book that I highly recommend. The Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey wrote about the book – “The Presidents and Their Faith” – earlier this week. From Jefferson’s own version of the Gospels to Woodrow Wilson’s Presbyterian minister father to Richard Nixon’s Quaker roots, Shaw and Grinder give us wonderful mini-portraits of 43 presidents and their personal and political faith. With so much talk of politics and religion, the book couldn’t be timelier. Highly recommended.

Insightful piece in The Atlantic by staff writer Conor Friedersdorf that explains why national Republicans have spent 20 years searching for the next Ronald Reagan and haven’t found him.

“Today, would be Reagans with less charisma, less executive experience and less time spent honing their thinking and communication skills are somehow expecting to succeed even as they operate in a less advantageous political environment. Of course it isn’t happening. And it’s no wonder conservatives are divided in who they support.”

And finally, I am very aware (and happy) that baseball is back in action. My Giants open today in the city by the bay. But, the best sports book I’ve read in a while is an older book, published in 1968, Instant Replay by Green Bay Packer great and University of Idaho grad Jerry Kramer. The New York Times called Kramer’s book the “best behind the scene glimpse of pro football ever produced.”

Some think the book’s candor has contributed to Kramer being passed over for the NFL Hall of Fame. If so, that’s ridiculous. Kramer is the most deserving NFL player not in the Hall and that oversight, at long last, should be corrected. Get a copy of the book and read it. It’s great.

 

Penn State

Where to Begin

There is an old story about the very last in a long, long list of speakers at one of those interminable political dinners that go on and on into the wee hours. This last guy finally gets his chance to stand before the crowd and all he can think to say is that “everything that can be said has been said, it’s just that not everyone has said it.”

I feel that way about the Penn State scandal. It seems like this story, and the commentary about it, has been with us for a year rather than a little more than a week. Maybe it’s all been said, but here goes.

There is much tragedy here; indeed almost Shakespearean in its scope. The young men abused and likely marked for life by their ordeal. The legendary coach brought low because of his inattention or something worse. The public institution in the glare of intense national attention struggling to right itself. The appalling violence by students reacting to the news that Coach Joe Paterno had been sacked. The palpable sense that Paterno stayed too long and could have with a few words and even fewer actions taken greater responsibility or perhaps have even prevented a tragedy.

American football fans – and I’m one, occasionally – love the mythology of the college game. “Student-athletes” giving their all for old State U, the stern college coach – think Rockne or Bryant – giving the inspirational half-time speech, the cheerleaders, the spectacle, the perfect Saturday afternoon in the fall. But, increasingly those myths seem like shiny Hollywood gloss on the NCAA football story. The historian Taylor Branch’s recent investigation of college football highlights many of the problems and in light of the Penn State story deserves to be read as a forecast of more troubles to come.

The lessons from the Penn State story are many and none very good. It’s said that Paterno, the Ivy Leaguer, with his decades of football success, helped drag Penn State from a dumpy state school to a legitimate research university. That might even be true, but it begs the question of just what events emanating from Happy Valley over the last 10 days have anything to do with higher education?

College football at the Penn State level is pure and simple about the money. Paterno’s program earns $50 million annually for the college. Joe Pa is Penn State football and he rode the juggernaut all the way to a grand jury.

Seems to me the key thing to watch in the next few days is whether fundamentally anything changes at Penn State – or elsewhere in college football – as a result of the child abuse scandal. Great universities are supposed to be places of exploration, discovery, renewal and reflection. Time is wasting on any and all of that at Penn State. In this case, actions really will speak louder than words.

A real statement of Penn State’s values would have been to dedicate the revenue from the school’s last three games to a child abuse prevention or counseling program. The school could announce today, as Joe Nocera and others have suggested, that it won’t participate in a bowl or championship game this year and then cancel the entire 2012 season in order to review – top to bottom, side to side – what it wants from its intercollegiate sports programs.

If Penn State wants to reclaim it “core values” as its acting president has said over and over again, then it needs to stop, assess, look back and reflect.

Ultimately a former assistant coach will likely be held to account for his alleged crimes, but a higher education institution built on a foundation of the myths of the college game must do more, much more, to reclaim its soul.

Don’t hold your breath.