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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.”


The Iron Lady

It was only during a trip to Argentina a few years ago that I came to fully realize the import, in both Argentina and Britain, of the 1982 mini-war over the Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic. The war is still a raw and recent sore for Argentina and a (mostly) proud moment of triumph for what is left of a empire that once never saw the sun set.

The Argentine invasion of the sparely populated, wind-blown and British controlled islands came at a low point of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s popularity. But, in the wake of the Argentine aggression, when Thatcher summoned her best Winston Churchill and vowed to retake one of the last remaining outposts of the British Empire her stock began to rise and she truly became the Iron Lady of late 20th Century history.

Lady Thatcher’s death at age 87 will set off a wave of analysis about her role in world affairs, her relationship with Ronald Reagan, who she once called the “second most important man in my life,” and her political legacy. The final chapter on Thatcher – “steely resolve” is the favorite description today – will not be written for another decade or more as Great Britain, under the current Tory government, sorts out its place in Europe and the world, but this much can be said – she was, in the spirit of that great British term, a “one-off,” a tough, demanding, outspoken conservative woman who played politics with sharp elbows and a biting sense of humor. And she often played her role better than the men around her.

One can only speculate that the military junta who ruled Argentina in 1982 never in its wildest dreams believed that an economically troubled Britain so far removed from the islands they call the Malvinas and led, of all things, by a woman would actually resort to force to retake a little patch of rocky soil. Channeling Churchill and vowing not to let aggression stand, Thatcher assembled a War Cabinet, which she dominated, and deployed the British fleet and the Royal Marines. Thatcher’s Royal Navy, for good measure, sunk an Argentine battle cruiser after it had been well established that the generals in Buenos Aires where simply no match for the Lady at 10 Downing Street. The same could later be said for the old men trying to hang on to power in Moscow. Thatcher’s legacy certainly must also include a chapter on her role in defending democratic aspirations in eastern Europe, particularly Poland.

One of the best and most even handed assessments of Thatcher came today from Richard Carr a British political scientist and historian of British Conservative politics: “To supporters, she changed Britain from a nation in long-term industrial decline to an energetic, dynamic economy. To opponents, she entrenched inequalities between the regions and classes and placed the free market above all other concerns. Our politics, and many of our politicians, have been forged in her legacy.” That last sentence may best describe her real importance. Every British politician today has to reckon with Thatcher, just as every American politician must reckon with FDR, JFK and Reagan.

Like her friend Ronnie, the “B” movie actor from humble origins who became a transformative president, Thatcher, the daughter of a grocery shopkeeper who fought her way to the very top of British politics, helped define an era. As the Washington Post pointed out Thatcher modernized British politics to such a degree that future Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair adopted many of her policies and approaches.

“While unapologetically advancing what she considered the Victorian values that made Britain great, Mrs. Thatcher thoroughly modernized British politics, deploying ad agencies and large sums of money to advance her party’s standing,” the Post wrote today.  “The Iron Lady, as she was dubbed, was credited with converting a spent Conservative Party from an old boys club into an electoral powerhouse identified with middle-class strivers, investors and entrepreneurs.” Thatcher’s was the kind of re-invention of the British Conservative Party in the late 1970’s and 1980’s that some American Republicans only dream about for their party today.

Thatcher once said she never expected to see a woman as British Prime Minister, but it is a testament to her and her political party – mostly her – that she seized the chance when she got it and played her hand skillfully for 11 powerful years on the world stage. At her death there will be the inevitable comparisons with “the iron lady” of American politics Hillary Clinton, but in many ways the comparisons really don’t work. Sure, both women are tough and in many respects were tried by fire, but after those similarities the comparison breaks down.

Thatcher was old school. She beat the boys at their own game. She may have been carrying a handbag, but when she swung that bag she aimed for someone’s head. She was also unabashedly full of convictions and understood power. “Being powerful is like being a lady,” she once said. “If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”‘

Is hard to envision The Iron Lady – she once famously told a Tory Party conference “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning” – making a YouTube video to announce a change in her position on same sex marriage. Thatcher was a true conviction politician, while Clinton seems to be falling into the same trap that ultimately doomed her presidential candidacy in 2008. She allows her handlers – Thatcher, by contrast, did the handling – to consistently portray her not as a leader of deep and important conviction, but as a woman of destiny, the first female American president who will get there as an inevitable fact of history.

Clinton may eventually find, as Maureen Dowd wrote recently in the New York Times, that she can learn new tricks and not merely be inevitable, but also necessary. “Even top Democrats who plan to support Hillary worry about her two sides,” Dowd wrote. “One side is the idealistic public servant who wants to make the world a better place. The other side is darker, stemming from old insecurities; this is the side that causes her to make decisions from a place of fear and to second-guess herself. It dulls her sense of ethics and leads to ends-justify-the-means wayward ways. This is the side that compels her to do anything to win, like hiring the scummy strategists Dick Morris and Mark Penn, and greedily grab for what she feels she deserves.”‘

There is, of course, nothing inevitable in history and acting on fear is never a winning strategy. Political leaders respond to events, as Thatcher did in the Falklands and to the Cold War in Europe, and either make their mark or are swept along by events they cannot figure out how to control. Thatcher left marks.

As Michael Hirsh points out in a piece at The Atlantic website, no one ever wondered – for good or bad – where Thatcher was coming down on an issue and, as a result, “she became the first female leader of her country, and she did it in such a determined way that her sex was almost an afterthought.” Put another way, Thatcher was a genuine transformational world figure by strength of conviction and by raw political skill. Nothing inevitable about that.

If Clinton does something similar she may some day have a chance to join the real Iron Lady in the history books. Today, however, there is only one female political leader – at least in the western political world – whose place in those history books is secure.


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.


It’s the Money

College Football…the Case for Reform

Taylor Branch is a serious historian, a man who has made his considerable reputation as perhaps the most important historian of the civil rights movement. Branch’s superb Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize and it is just about the best thing in print on the politics, history and turmoil that roiled the country as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pulled America forward, forcing us to confront our racist past and our unequal present.

Branch is an outstanding reporter and he has now turned his impressive investigative and analytical skills to the business of college football. His story – the cover piece in the current Atlantic – is an absolute must read for any fan, any skeptic, anyone who even occasionally wonders what big time college football has to do with big time higher education.

The Columbia Journalism Review said, “Taylor Branch’s cover story in the new Atlantic is a devastating indictment of the NCAA…a superb synthesis of the history of the NCAA, the hypocrisy of keeping athletes from getting paid while the commercialization of college sports (football and basketball, that is) runs amok, and why a reckoning may be in store.”

Frank Deford, who has long lamented the crass commercialism of college athletics, devoted his recent NPR commentary to Branch’s article that he called “the most important article ever written about college sports.”

I read Branch’s piece last week and came away with that once-in-a-while feeling that you have just read something really important, truly insightful and that you really learned a thing or two. His distillation of the history of the NCAA is simply fascinating. His insights into the business of big-time college football should be enough to make any big corporate sponsor blush. His characterizations of the scandals rippling through the game should make every college president in America queasy. But, since we’re really talking money and hypocrisy here, it will take something more than Ohio State firing a football coach or Boise State sacking an athletic director, to reform this system. It will happen, Taylor Branch forecasts, in a courtroom. He make a very compelling case.

Branch’s fundamental indictment of college football rests to two pillars: the NCAA is today, and long has been, a corrupt “cartel” determined to control as much of college athletics as it possibly can and that the so-called “student-athlete” is a fiction dreamed up by a long line of NCAA leaders who were determined to treat young athletes as indentured servants, while college coaches and the institutions themselves are enriched beyond the wildest dreams of most of the young men who labor for free.

As Branch says: “The term student-athlete was deliberately ambiguous. College players were not students at play (which might understate their athletic obligations), nor were they just athletes in college (which might imply they were professionals). That they were high-performance athletes meant they could be forgiven for not meeting the academic standards of their peers; that they were students meant they did not have to be compensated, ever, for anything more than the cost of their studies. Student-athlete became the NCAA’s signature term, repeated constantly in and out of courtrooms.”

He goes on to recount, in painful detail, stories where “student-athletes” have been seriously injured playing for respected colleges only to lose appeals that they be granted the basic protections of worker compensation laws.

“The NCAA today is in many ways a classic cartel,” Branch writes. “Efforts to reform it—most notably by the three Knight Commissions over the course of 20 years—have, while making changes around the edges, been largely fruitless. The time has come for a major overhaul. And whether the powers that be like it or not, big changes are coming. Threats loom on multiple fronts: in Congress, the courts, breakaway athletic conferences, student rebellion, and public disgust. Swaddled in gauzy clichés, the NCAA presides over a vast, teetering glory.”

In 1939, Robert Maynard Hutchins, then the young president of the University of Chicago, did what a college president would likely get tarred and feathered for today – he dropped football. Hutchins famously said, “To be successful, one must cheat. Everyone is cheating, and I refuse to cheat.”

Hutchins confronted the fundamental question: just what does ultra expensive college football, complete with lucrative sponsorship deals, high rolling boosters who play by high rolling rules and inevitable scandal have to do with education, scholarship and research. Hutchins answer was just as valid in 1939 as it is today – nothing.

Since reading Taylor Branch’s piece, I’ve read to other pieces of reporting on college football that strangely make his fundamental point in vastly different ways. The University of Chicago, Maynard Hutchins long in the grave, resurrected its football program thirty years after it was eliminated.

As the New York Times noted recently, “In 1969, football returned as a varsity sport, oddly enough during the Vietnam War era when many rebellious students were comparing blocking and tackling to bombing and strafing.

“Since then, the game has been thriving on its own measured terms in N.C.A.A. Division III, free of the highest level of competition. Winning is a preference and not an obsession. Players, though zealously recruited, are not given athletic scholarships. Championships are won but little noticed.

“Chicago presents its own kind of parable: going from all to none before settling on a path in between.

“We’re just a teaspoon in a larger sandbox,” said Dick Maloney, the team’s head coach since 1994. “There are places where football is more like a giant shovel, but I prefer it when everything is kept in perspective.”

In a front page piece, the Times also reported on the latest trends in college football uniforms, noting that the University of Maryland has done a deal with edgy gear manufacturer Under Armour to create a series of game jerseys, pants and helmets that the team will surprise fans with every week. Of course, four of the new jerseys are on sale by the college.

Just to connect the dots, as Branch does in his reporting, while the University of Maryland and dozens of other schools make a bundle on deals to sell college football jerseys and other team goodies, Ohio State University players are serving suspensions and have had four figure fines imposed for selling their own jerseys, rings and awards.

As Branch, Deford and others have pointed out, the NCAA never really goes hard after a big time football program. They’re simply afraid that real sanctions to clean up the college football cesspool might force the Ohio State’s and Miami’s to pick up their footballs and unite under a different banner. The NCAA can’t stand that thought. It needs the money. So, the NCAA spends about one percent of its budget on enforcement and typically only gets really snarly with some kid who may have trouble scrapping together the cash to get the oil changed in his car.

The University of Chicago’s Hutchins once joked that a student could get twelve letters in college without learning to write even one. Today the University that produced the first Heisman Trophy winner and then abandoned the Big Ten Conference is best known for its 85 Nobel laureates.

The entire system of college football – the organization, the big money, the ruse of the “student-athlete” – is eventually going to come tumbling down. There is truly a scandal here and like almost every scandal its ultimately about money and what the corruption of too much money and too little integrity can do to even the noblest of intentions.



On Wall Street and the NCAA

The nation’s political chattering classes have had plenty to chatter about over the last couple of weeks – debt ceilings, riots in London, The Gang of 12, Rick Perry, European sovereign debt, S&P credit ratings and whether Barack Obama can become relevant again.

Lyndon Johnson once reportedly switched off the television in the Oval Office after watching the revered and legendary CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite tell the country that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable. “Well,” LBJ said to no one in particular, “If I’ve lost Walter, I’ve lost the country.”

A voice of the inside the beltway progressives, the talented and occasionally snarky Maureen Dowd, isn’t Uncle Walter, but she writes like Obama may have lost her. What Dowd writes has a canary in the coal mine feel about it.

“Faced with a country keening for reassurance and reinvention, Obama seems at a loss,” Dowd wrote this week in the New York Times. “Regarding his political skills, he turns out to be the odd case of a pragmatist who can’t learn from his mistakes and adapt.

“Many of his Democratic supporters [in Iowa], who once waited hours in line just to catch a glimpse of The One, are disillusioned.”

Emory University psychologist Drew Westen, a sometimes “message guru” for Democrats, offered an even more scathing critique of the President’s failures in a highly commented upon Times Op-Ed piece on August 7.

Rather than name names and hold accountable those responsible for the continuing economic mess, Westen said, Obama has utterly failed to address the fundamental need for a president – any president – to be the national narrative setter; to tell a story about what’s gone wrong, how it can be fixed and how the bad guys responsible will be held to account.

In contrast, for example, with Franklin Roosevelt’s full throated condemnation of Wall Street and greedy business leaders as the villains of the original Great Depression, Westen say Obama punted from the first day of his administration. Said Westen, “When faced with the greatest economic crisis, the greatest levels of economic inequality, and the greatest levels of corporate influence on politics since the Depression, Barack Obama stared into the eyes of history and chose to avert his gaze.”

Obama, Westen said, can’t bring himself to assemble the suspects in a political line-up and identify the bad guy(s).

He’s got a point. With this morning’s headlines comparing the economic roller coaster ride of the last few days to the awful days in the fall of 2008, I’m hard pressed to think of anyone in a position of authority and power who has been held accountable for the jobs lost, the mortgages foreclosed and the lives uprooted.

Standard & Poors, by all accounts, totally missed the risks of the subprime mortgage meltdown in the last decade when it should have been front and center judging and publicly reporting such risks to the economy. Now S&P’s nameless suits downgrade sovereign debt in high-minded tones, while appearing on the Sunday talk shows lecturing Washington’s leaders on political responsibility. The ratings agency, meanwhile, lobbies Congress not to require that it report “significant errors” in its own performance.

Tim Geithner, the Treasury Secretary, who was at the New York Fed when the economy’s foundation began to crumble, apparently wants to leave his job as more folks call for his head, but Obama has begged him to stay. George W. in back on the ranch and the big Wall Street banks roll on, while the Congress systematically weakens the Dodd-Frank legislation and prevents the appointment of a tough consumer advocate.

Accountability is obviously on an extended summer vacation in the Hamptons.

Contrast the macro-world’s lack of accountability on the economy and little things like jobs and mortgages with the penalties for screwing up in college athletics. Boise State University’s long-time athletic director was fired yesterday by the school’s president in advance of the anticipated sanctions that will be leveled against the school for a variety of infractions involving college sports.

Some boosters immediately questioned the decision to fire a 30-year employee and there will be the predictable second guessing of Boise State President Bob Kustra. But as more of the story comes out, give the one-time politician turned college president this much: the new to the big-time Bronco athletic program is facing its first real big-time challenge with the anticipated NCAA sanctions and Kustra’s personnel action just set the standard for compliance at BSU for the foreseeable future. Good, bad or indifferent that is accountability.

The Ohio State University arguably took too long to fire its slippery football coach, but it happened. It’s now reported the school has paid just south of a million bucks to unravel what went wrong with the Ohio State football program.

In a perfect world there are no mistakes. No one needs to stand and take responsibility and be held accountable. But there is a real world out there that is messy and requires accountability. Particularly in a representative democracy, beset with deep economic, social and political problems, accountability has never been more required.

The British poet, essayist, humorist, and much more Dr. Samuel Johnson famously said “When a man knows he is to be hanged…it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” He might also have said it concentrates the mind of those who observe the hanging.

Accountability is not about grudges or getting even and it’s certainly not about shifting the blame. It is about understanding what when wrong and who was responsible, all in the interest of corrective action.

Dr. Johnson also wisely said “hell is paved with good intentions,” which is another way of saying good intentions don’t mend a broken economy or straighten out college athletics. Accountability isn’t the whole answer, but it is a pretty good start.


Spud Bowl

Bring on the Sour Cream

Let’s get this out of the way right off the top: there is no better potato in the world than the Idaho potato. World class. Dependable quality. The tuber gold standard. And the “brand” is valuable.

Years ago some enterprising fellow in New Mexico got the bright idea of importing potato sacks with the “Grown in Idaho” mark and filling them with spuds grown, of all places, in New Mexico. A stop was put to that pronto. You can’t have an Idaho potato grown in New Mexico. It’s like Champagne. You may call it champagne, but if it ain’t made from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France and bottled there, it isn’t “real” Champagne, it is merely sparkling wine. Same with an Idaho spud.

So, given the historic Idaho association with the Famous Potato, it’s a natural, I guess, that the once named Humanitarian Bowl football game is now the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. But Idahoans best brace themselves. The jokes are just beginning.

On Twitter, @TheRobMorse writes: “I’d like to see Chip Kelly coach against Hayden Fry in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.” And @ParkerShield22 says, “Gatorade shower replaced by players spreading butter and sour cream on winning coach and wrapping him in aluminum foil.” You get the idea and, believe me, there are lots more where those came from.

To be serious for a moment, the news of the renaming of the bowl should cause Idahoans – at least those with some responsibility for the state’s “brand” – to consider, well, our image. For a state frequently confused with Iowa – “I was in Des Moines once is that anywhere close to Boise?” – being almost completely defined by an admittedly superb agricultural product may have some real downside.

A lot of marketing folks would tell you, Idaho doesn’t have a brand. Maybe the same is true of most states. New Jersey’s brand? Hazardous waste sites and Tony Soprano. Kansas: The Tornado State. Or, North Dakota: You Can See Canada From Here.

Idaho is Famous Potatoes.

It’s a tough time for the state branding business. Washington State recently ended all state-sponsored tourism promotion. USA Today reported this week that at least 20 states have cut back on efforts to lure visitors, which really means they aren’t marketing whatever “brand” they have.

Not everyone is throwing in the towel, however. Michigan has been all over the air with its pretty good Pure Michigan campaign. Not bad for a state whose largest city can boast of a good baseball team, and not much else, playing amid years of decay. Montana, a state with a real brand, has big billboards in downtown Seattle and a new tourism promotion chief who has the good sense to market the state’s two iconic National Parks.

Idaho’s real marketing problem may just be that a state with such a vast collection of individuals will never be able to settle on one image, slogan or brand. Some Idahoans would be comfortable with calling our place “The Wilderness State,” but that certainly wouldn’t fly with the “no more wilderness crowd.” How about the “State of Big Hearted Rivers?” Nope. Rivers here are for more than floatin’ and fishin’, we use that water to grow, er, potatoes. The no-growth, “I wish it were 1950 again” types might opt for “Idaho – the tick fever state.” Not a winner with the economic development crowd.

Idaho: We Know Nuclear. Nope.

Idaho: Nevada Without the Gambling. Won’t catch on.

Idaho: Easier than Utah to Get a Drink? Even that isn’t really true any longer.

Idahoans should just embrace the iconic potato and the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl as the best we got. It’s has put us on the map, or the Internet, after all. Google those words today and you’ll get 1,500,000 hits. It’s not Iowa, yet, but it’s a start and it’s not – thank your potatoes – in a class with the Poulan Weed-Eater Bowl.