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In matters of life, death and football, question everything

This isn’t a secret, but you have to go to the bottom of my résumé to find it. Through the first decade of my professional journalism career, I was a sportswriter and editor. Lots of high school stuff. But I did venture into the big time. An interview with Mickey Mantle. And writing about Division I college football. The University of Texas Longhorns. The Washington State Cougars, I covered them for a few years.

And, in what was one step below that, what was then called Division I-AA, the University of Idaho. It was pretty good football. Very pass-happy. I watched virtually all of it from high above, as God might. From the press box. A view not unlike the one most college and NFL fans enjoy from their living-room couch, watching the game on television.

There was one Idaho game where I was faced with a tight deadline. As the game drew to a close, I wound my way down through the stands, and onto the field, which my press pass allowed me access to, so I could get a quick handful of interviews just as the game ended.

And it’s from the sidelines, standing alongside the players, that you really feel what the highest levels of football are all about. The speed of the players is startling. The hits, and the sounds of the impact of player on player, and players getting slammed to the artificial turf, is alarming. That close to the action, you see smears of blood on the uniforms.

The expertise of unnoticed professionals comes into play. Each team’s trainers know how to quickly get injured players off the field.

And I never thought much about any of it. Few people involved with the sport – coaches, players, sportswriters, fans – speak of it. Maybe they laugh it off. Or they worry about whether a key player will be available for the next game. But the violence is accepted. It is a part of the game.

Injury reports are as much a part of the game as each coach’s game plan.

Death? It’s rare. Almost non-existent as a calculation. Injuries? Not rare at all. Many football players carry their injuries with them through the rest of their lives. Knees that no longer function. The thinking process is fractured by blows to the head, bringing on early-onset dementia. Medications that are intended to heal lead to addictions.

You know where this essay is heading. Damar Hamlin.

Football fans watched on television as the Buffalo Bills defensive back died on the field, was brought back to life, died at the hospital, was brought back to life.

A decent guy and, by all accounts, a socially conscious human. Hamlin’s recovery is being celebrated today as the sport’s feel-good story of the moment.

But pull back from that wonderful news, and look at the bigger picture. The bigger picture of the violence that is the nature – and is celebrated – in football.

Years ago, in those sportswriting days, I was told of a high-school football coach who taught his players that, in the seconds after a referee had blown his whistle to stop play as they were running up to a pile-up of players, if someone from the opposing team was lying there, with his hand on the ground, unprotected… step on it. Step on the guy’s hand. Maybe break it. Put him out of the game.

This retrograde sportsmanship isn’t limited to football. I also knew of a high-school wrestling coach who spent an entire practice session teaching his team how to break an opponent’s nose by smashing it into the mat.

Why do we celebrate auto racing, when that kind of behavior behind the wheel of your family vehicle gets people killed?

As a sportswriter, I wrote about boxing matches without giving it a second thought. But this is a sport where the object is for one man – or woman – to disable an opponent, through tactics that you’d be arrested for if you engaged in them under everyday circumstances.

It’s a dangerous world out there, folks. People die of heart attacks while mowing their lawns. People die after their houses catch fire in the middle of the night. People choke to death while eating at restaurants and church picnics.

We weigh our choices. We take our chances. We suspend the rules of civil society if we can post the results on a scoreboard. And place a bet on the outcome.

The larger picture is not that an audience watched Damar Hamlin nearly die after making a tackle, on what looked like just about every play in football.

Football is not going away, and neither are chicken wings at the church picnic.

No, the larger picture is our willingness to accept a course of action as an inevitability over which we have no personal control. Close your eyes, there are more football games to come. But as philosophers from Euripides to Socrates to Albert Einstein to George Carlin remind us: Question everything.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

Time enough at last

Burgess Meredith, and the isolation of a good library.

As far as I was concerned, Major League Baseball’s Opening Day got off to a good start this week. The Cleveland Indians beat the Detroit Tigers, 9-0.

Waitaminute… the Tigers beat the Indians, 9-1.

No, the Indians beat the Tigers, 15-4.

Fantasy baseball. If there’s no sports news, we can just make it up.

Is anything more media-irrelevant in these coronavirus days than the sports pages? On Saturday morning, I browsed through The New York Times sports section. The star player of the Oregon Ducks, Sabrina Ionescu, has been denied her opportunity to compete for the NCAA Women’s basketball championship, because the season’s been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Sports announcers have gone to Facebook to post factious commentaries on their dogs eating dinner. A few dozen guys, connected through basketball, celebrated a birthday together; four have since tested positive for coronavirus, two others are dead of it. And the NFL draft of college players is still on for next month, so brace yourself for four weeks of sportswriters turning to the always-useless exercise of conducting mock drafts.

Disappointment. Dogs eating dinner. Death. The NFL draft. And mock drafts would be happening anyway, coronavirus or not.

We all have our ways of coping. Who am I to point a finger? For every chapter of For Whom the Bell Tolls that I will read today, I will just as likely sit through 90 minutes of They Saved Hitler’s Brain.

It did not help that just his morning, some web-site links arrived in the email, sent by My Friend Barbara. “For when you don’t want to read the news… or you run out of books, whichever comes first.”

The Voynich Manuscript.

She provided a link to The Internet Archive. Its goal is “universal access to all knowledge.” Digitized collections of websites, music, millions of books. Assembled by volunteers. It’s called Folkscanomy, “a system of classification derived from the practice and method of collaboratively creating and managing tags to annotate and categorize content.”

Once I had logged in, I found all of this… amazing stuff. A link to a site that shows every page of The Voynich Manuscript, a mysterious 15thcentury book written in an as-yet unbroken code, the pages filled with drawings of obscure herbs and cosmological references, and women taking baths.

Music, some of it relevant, as musicians post videos of their coronavirtual concerts. Hip-hop mix tapes. Religious sermons. Medieval Alien Jazz by Eat Rust, an atonal collection of electronic psychedelia with titles such as “Gather The Inner Organs Into A Neat Pile – It’s A Sign That You’re Still Alive.” And way more Grateful Dead concerts than I’ll ever need.

And there is The National Emergency Library, created especially for readers in our current pandemic. Here, I found the 1925 edition of Certain Mounds and Village Sites in Ohio, an exploration of some of the Native American burial mounds in the southeastern region of the state; I’ve visited a few of them. Here’s Orwell’s always relevant Nineteen Eighty-Four, not far from Rachel Carson’s prescient Silent Spring, 396 books and magazines about Dr. Who, and a photo magazine called The New Nude.

Anatole France.

Here’s a book I never would have known of, were it not for me being granted time enough at last: From 1925, Anatole France: The Man and His Work. The digital listing allows me to read the forward on the long-dead French writer:

“Had I been Nature,” said Anatole France, “I should have made men and women not to resemble the great apes, as they do, but on the model of the insects which, after a lifetime of caterpillars, change into butterflies, and for the brief final term of their existence have no thought but to love and be lovely.”

This morning has shed its skin and evolved into that classic episode of The Twilight Zone, “Time Enough at Last,” where the book-loving Burgess Meredith is the only survivor of a nuclear holocaust. He wanders up the steps of a public library, and finds books and books and books. Then stumbles and breaks his eyeglasses. “That’s not fair,” he wails. “That’s not fair at all. There was time now. There was – was all the time I needed…! It’s not fair! It’s not fair!”

Indeed. Under Feature Films, sub-head Sci-Fi / Horror…

Click …

Oh no. Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women. Zontar the Thing From Venus. Werewolf in a Girls Dormitory. Teenagers From Outer Space. Curse of the Swamp Creature. Roger Corman’s Dementia 13. The 1962 low-budget cult classic Carnival of Souls, which overcomes the zombie acing of its cast with eerie sets and foreboding organ music.

All this, and time enough at last!

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

Down goes Chief Wahoo

I was in Cleveland last summer to catch a pair of games, Cleveland Indians vs. the Boston Red Sox. And because I needed a change of wardrobe.

I bought a new Indians cap. The one with the block C. To replace the handful of Chief Wahoo caps I’ve collected over the years.

The Indians and Major League Baseball announced on Monday that Chief Wahoo, an undeniably racist caricature of Native Americans, would no longer appear on the team’s uniforms. That’s been coming for a while, just one step in a long evolution. Indians fans who can’t give up on Chief Wahoo will still be able to buy plenty of souvenirs adorned with the smirking red face. It’s a tough job, eliminating Chief Wahoo, because he’s been a successful marketing figure in the baseball world for decades.

I myself own three jackets featuring Chief Wahoo including one, even more offensive than the modern image, worn on the uniforms of the 1948 World Series champion Indians. I’ve quietly retired two of the jackets, but I guess I’m guilty of evolving a little slowly myself. The third jacket is a beautiful leather coat. With a Chief Wahoo the size of a champion pumpkin on the back. A coat that’s perfect for this winter, as I sit in my house, looking out the window, watching the snow falling outside. Thinking:

I can’t give that up… It was a Christmas present. And it’s my warmest coat. This spring, I’ll put it away for good…

I’ve been reading comments from Indians fans who are dismayed that Chief Wahoo will no longer take the field with the team. These people seem decent enough, they don’t sound like racists. Chief Wahoo is tradition they say, he’s a friend, he’s been a part of the community for as long as most people can remember.

No. It’s as simple as this: A people’s culture is not to be belittled as a mascot. And after we put away Chief Wahoo, we go to work on the most-racist marketing opportunity in American sports, the nickname of the NFL team from Washington.

Twenty-four hours after my longtime favorite baseball team was stripped of its mascot, I can tell you: It didn’t hurt at all.

What about the Notre Dame Fighting Irish? That’s a culture as mascot. And perhaps a question for another day, while we evolve as a community. Yet it’s a question we’ll eventually have to ask. The urgency maybe isn’t there because Irish Americans, who were once a denigrated sector of immigrants, aren’t facing the same kind of discrimination today as Native Americans do.

You don’t think that’s the case?

Here’s what happened a few days ago in Phoenix, Arizona. Armed protestors waving American flags and Trump flags confronted people at the state’s Capitol building. They singled out dark-skinned people – lawmakers, state employees on their lunch break, and even children – calling them illegal and telling them to go home. Some were of Mexican heritage, some Native American. Light-skinned people were merely questioned if they supported “illegal immigration.”

In a video of the confrontation uploaded onto YouTube, a woman is heard shouting, “Those guys are illegal … They do not have any rights here. It is not their time. This is our time. Our nation. Our laws. Our streets.”

Rep. César Chávez, who was brought from Mexico to the United States as a child, said a female Trump supporter asked who he was and who he represents. “I’m an undocumented legislator,” Chávez replied. As he later explained to the Arizona Capitol Times, which covers politics in the state, he wanted the protesters “to understand that in this country, through a process, you, too, can be a part of a nation that provides opportunity to everybody. I wanted them to understand that an individual who came to this country undocumented at the age of three is now a member of the Arizona State Legislature.”

While defending a young student who was being harassed, Rep. Eric Descheenie said he was confronted by Trump supporters who asked if he was in the United States illegally. “I’m indigenous to these lands,” said Descheenie, who is Navajo. “My ancestors fought and died on these lands.”

When Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs later asked why no authorities were present to defend people who were clearly feeling harassed, she said she was told by an officer that law enforcement was instructed to stand down while the Trump supporters exercised their First Amendment rights.

That’s America today. And it’s getting worse, as we watch government agents breaking up families. Just this week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported a Palestinian man – a tax-paying, well-respected businessman in his Ohio community – who had been in this country for 39 years. “There are violent criminals walking the streets,” said Rep. Tim  Ryan, “yet our government wasted our precious resources incarcerating him.”

Baseball fans who love Chief Wahoo are not inherently racist. Yet circumstances in this country indicate they have to think a little harder about the larger issue. Whether it’s Trump fans expressing First Amendment rights, or baseball fans supporting their team, the difference may be one of degrees, but both groups are setting fires that must be extinguished.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Hit the “Subscribe” button on the under-renovation web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

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