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Your 21st century NFL

The most-important player in football today is an unemployed NFL punter.

Even if you haven’t watched a single play this season – and I’m proud to say I haven’t – you may know Chris Kluwe. He’s the Minnesota Vikings punter who was an outspoken and effective spokesman for gay rights. He took on the issue through interviews, and in a fabulous 2012 open letter written to Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns, Jr. Burns had urged the Baltimore Ravens to silence one of their players, Brendon Ayanbadejo, who was campaigning on behalf of a Maryland ballot initiative that would legalize same-sex marriage in the state.

“I find it inconceivable that you are an elected official of the United States government,” Kluwe writes to Burns, and the rest of us. “Your  vitriolic hatred and bigotry make me ashamed and disgusted to think that you are in any way responsible for shaping policy at any level.” Kluwe’s highly entertaining prose goes on to describe Burns as “Mindfuckingly, obscenely hypocritical” and a “narcissistic fromunda stain.” Read the whole thing here, it’s worth a few minutes of your time.

Kluwe is still an activist, but he’s no longer a punter. He was released by the Vikings before this season, and now Kluwe is charging the team with firing him because of his pro-gay comments. There may be some merit to his claim – he seems to have been a decent kicker on a lousy team. And punter is an important position on a lousy team. Kluwe’s also said that his special-teams coach used bigoted, anti-gay language in meetings. The Vikings have promised to investigate. Fox, check out that henhouse!

I’m not naive. I understand why guys are touchy about defining their manliness in the badass land of the NFL. The Packers’ star quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, found it necessary to address Internet rumors about his sexuality a couple of days ago. “I’m just going to say, I’m not gay,” Rodgers told ESPN radio in Wisconsin. “I really, really like women. That’s all I can say about that.”

OK, Aaron. A little “not that there’s anything wrong with it…” might have helped, but we get the message.

The real message is we’ve moved on to the 21st century, and most of us are leaving behind bigotry and laws that discriminate. The polls show it. Americans are increasingly OK with gay rights, legalizing marijuana, gun control and helping the poor through unemployment benefits and by raising the minimum wage. Progressive positions.

Don’t expect institutions to lead the way. Congress, the mainstream media and even our schools tend to distance themselves from new ideas until it’s safe to proceed.

And don’t expect the NFL to lead the way, either. Not that institution, and not its fans. We witnessed that  this season with the Washington team owner’s refusal to consider changing its astonishingly racist nickname. It’s not an old debate, but it gained momentum this season. Some sportswriters are even refusing to use the name in print. Defenders of the team’s nickname simply have no answer to this question: Would you walk up to a Native American woman holding her baby and say, “My, what a cute little Redskin?”

There’s really nothing sacrosanct about a team nickname. Even one that’s been used for decades. But change comes only when the cold, dead fingers of intransigent defenders are pried loose from  their long-held beliefs. Daniel Snyder, an arrogantly entitled owner, calls his team’s racist nickname “a badge of honor,” and cites a poll showing a majority of Americans don’t want to see it changed. Well, sometimes the people are a little behind the times as well. Back in the ’60s, polls showed most Americans were against change in the civil rights laws. That’s when it really takes guts to make the right call. That’s leadership.

Here’s an idea that might help: Imagine a new team nickname and logo for Washington, and all of the official jerseys, hats, flags, kid’s bedsheets, action figures and associated sports gear that will be sold. Money. That’s something that’s always understood by the powers that be.

The misplaced story lines of the Super Bowl

After the Super Bowl XLVII halftime show, I left the neighbors’ house and went home. Again. I almost always leave the big game before it’s over. If I even watch it. Last year I was on a cruise ship in the Caribbean and happened to be passing through a bar where Super Bowl XLVI was on the TV, allowing me to witness the last 50 seconds of the game. So I guess I was counted as among the estimated 111 million people who watched that one.

Monday morning, I read that the Baltimore Ravens had beaten the San Francisco 49ers 34-31 in Super Bowl XLVII, a last-second thriller. Further analysis over the following days reveals that it was the No. 1-watched TV show in America for the week, seen by 108 million people. No. 2 was the 106 million people who watched the half-hour Super Dome Blackout. That must have been one very compelling darkened room.

Most of my friends are likely not surprised by my ambivalence – actually, let’s call it disdain – for the Super Bowl. They know I am a cynic, but most of them are also likely unaware that I was once a sportswriter and editor. I did that for a dozen years, more than two decades ago. Which does not, by any means, qualify me as a sports expert. What it does mean, however, is that I have a highly evolved bullshit detector when it comes to these events.

I’ve learned to pay only inadvertent attention to the hours leading up to the game, when the sports networks air hours of soft-focus, journalistically useless profiles on the athletes and coaches. Sunday, I shook my head in disbelief when all five TV analysts for the game, sitting behind their semicircle desk, were sporting American flag pins at precisely the same spot on the lapel of their sports jackets, as though placed there by an intern, perhaps under orders from a producer – who was likely not wearing an American flag pin himself – to subtly remind viewers that this is a Great American Event. Or perhaps a Republican presidential primary debate.

There were five major, relentless story lines to Super Bowl XLVII, and the national sports media didn’t get any of them correct.

Story line No. 1: The Harbaugh brothers. Brother John coaches the Ravens, younger brother Jim coaches the 49ers. Nothing against the brothers’ success, which may be well deserved from their end of things. But what does it mean that two guys born 15 months apart of the same parents each lands one of only 30 head-coaching positions in the NFL? It means the league hiring process is a private club. An old-boys network. Genetics doesn’t make NFL coaches, opportunity does. There’s some kind of gate-keeping mechanism at work. It’s likely not entirely race based, but that’s still gotta be a factor. Since the regular season ended, there have been 15 vacancies in top team positions – eight head coaching jobs and seven general manager positions. All were filled by white candidates. That’s in a league where 67 percent of the players are African-American.

Story Line No. 2: Ray Lewis. This was the final game in the linebacker’s career. Next stop, the Hall of Fame. That’s always feel-good story. But not to the families of the two men stabbed to death in 2000 after a party at a bar. Lewis was among those arrested that night. It was established in court that he had lied to the cops, and the white suit that he was wearing that night was never found. Lewis pleaded guilty to a charge of obstruction of justice and testified against two of his friends, who were acquitted. The crime did follow Lewis at a distance through the Super Bowl. Yet it did not obstruct the adulation showered on this man who was celebrated as an example of NFL toughness, but who has never answered disturbing questions about a double murder. Former NFL star Sterling Sharpe, once a teammate of Lewis, was assigned the key pre-game interview. Sharpe produced the predictably soft-focus, journalistically useless piffle. When he asked Lewis what the families of the two dead men should think about the acclaim that Lewis has received, the linebacker said something that should have made a journalist’s red flags fly:

“It’s simple, you know.  God has never made a mistake.  That’s just who He is, you see?  And if our system — this is the sad thing about our system — if our system took the time to really investigate what happened 13 years ago, maybe they would have got to the bottom-line truth.  But the saddest thing ever was that a man looked me in my face and told me, ‘We know you didn’t do this, but you’re going down for it anyway.’ To the family, if you knew — if you really knew — the way God works, He don’t use people who commits anything like that for His glory.  No way.  It’s the total opposite.”

In other words, Lewis’ success means God has judged him innocent. Sharpe said nothing of this logic, nor did he follow up on the identity of the mysterious guy who supposedly told Lewis, “We know you didn’t do this, but you’re going down for it anyway.”

Story line No. 3: San Francisco second-string quarterback Alex Smith was praised for the graceful way in which he handling losing his starting job to his backup, Colin Kaepernick, who looks like a star in the making. Yet Smith was having a fine season himself when forced to the sideline at mid-season after suffering an injury. That injury was the real third big story: NFL concussions.

For years, the NFL has not acknowledged the escalating evidence that players are suffering concussions at a frightening rate, resulting in damage to the brain. Consider the recent suicides of two heralded NFL defensive players, Dave Duerson and Junior Seau. In 2012, both men thoughtfully shot themselves to death with bullets to the chest, and I do not write that line lightly. It was a decision allowing for their brains to be autopsied. In Duerson’s case, he specifically texted his family before shooting himself, asking that his brain be examined. Both men’s autopsies revealed chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease brought on by repeated blows to the head. In fact, a recent study of the brains of 34 deceased NFL players showed that 33 of them had CTE.

The phrase “sports teaches good character” is obsolete. These games breed bad character and violence, and the NFL sells it. Nearly every play was followed by a player shoving or taking a swing at an opp0ntent. After a Kaepernick pass was intercepted, one of the Ravens pushed an official. “Did that guy just push an official?” asked the guy sitting on the couch next to me. “I think so,” I said. That should have been an automatic ejection for cornerback Cary Williams. Instead, unnecessary roughness penalties were called on San Francisco’s Joe Staley and Baltimore’s Corey Graham; pointless penalties, because they cancelled out each other. Williams remained in the game, as though the officials hadn’t seen what he’d done. But I’m relatively sure the official who was pushed noticed it. The game appeared to be completely out of control.

Story line No. 4: The halftime show. Praised as “electric” by overnight critics, I’ll give you my professional, music critic’s opinion. Beyoncé is charming and has a big voice, but the performance was flat, rushed and overwhelmed by a pyrotechnics-loaded budget. There were no emotional highs and lows, just huge flashing lights. Even Beyoncé re-uniting with her Destiny’s Child pals inspired no heart flutters. The most emotional moment was 26 kids from Sandy Hook Elementary School singing “America the Beautiful.” Twenty-six kids, representing the 26 first graders and adults killed in December’s tragedy in Newton, Conn. It was truly a heartfelt moment. But rather than allow the children to bring the song to its subtle conclusion, and allow 108 million people to ponder for a few thoughtful seconds what it all means, Jennifer Hudson was brought out in full diva-howl mode, stepping all over the moment.

U2 did it right at the 2002 Super Bowl. Just months after the Sept. 11 attacks, the band closed its performance with “Where the Streets Have No Name,” as the names of the victims scrolled upward, across a towering backdrop behind them, into the heavens.

Story line No. 5: No media outlet’s coverage of the Super Bowl is complete without an analysis of the commercials. That would have read like a joke back in the days of Vince Lombardi’s Packers winning the first two Super Bowls, but now the commercials are a much-anticipated event in and of themselves. Sunday’s were generally deemed a letdown. I personally found  it offensive to combine heartfelt images of American soldiers juxtaposed with artsy shots of Jeeps. Patriotism = Buy a Jeep? Really?

Other lesser story lines were ignored. How about the legacy this particular game owed to the city of Cleveland, which had its team hijacked by owner Art Modell and moved to Baltimore. No disrespect meant to Cleveland’s loyal, intense, supportive fans. But it was the money, you know….

It’s been scientifically proven that spending eight hours every Sunday during the NFL season, sprawled on your couch watching games, is a drain on your sperm count.

The Critical Mass

Cain and Paterno: The powerful, and ignorant, circle the wagons

The  week’s two biggest news makers, Herman Cain and Joe Paterno, share obvious elements. Both have been protected by tone-deaf defenders with an absolute unwillingness to accept the truth, to the point of lashing out against those with whom they disagree.

Did Cain sexually harass two, three, four, and maybe even five women? As the details emerged, his story evolved. He denied, conceded, contradicted himself and blamed everyone else (It was Perry’s people! The Democrat Machine!). And he split word hairs (Claiming to not remember if there had been a monetary settlement, because there’s a difference between “an agreement” and “a settlement”).

And Paterno, the legendary football coach of Penn State? He protected a friend, Jerry Sandusky, once his top assistant coach, a sexual predator whose victims were children. As did the president of Penn State, also dismissed on Wednesday. And the handful of coaches and school authorities who witnessed abuse, or were in on the discussion, and passed on doing the right thing. The police weren’t the higher authority in their minds. Penn State administrators were.

Ignorance, as both Cain and Paterno have plead, is not a defense in either case. As CEO of the National Restaurant Association, Cain should have been completely in the loop if a top executive in his organization was being charged with sexual harassment. Especially if he was that top executive. It was his responsibility as a leader. Paterno reported to several people, including the university president Graham Spanier, that one of his assistants had been caught in the football team’s locker-room shower engaging in a sexual act with an underage boy. As the leader of that storied football program – the CEO, if you will – Paterno should have been in the loop as well, making sure the episode was settled properly, and legally.  It was his responsibility as a leader.

It is obvious, neither leader showed leadership. Now the powerful circle the wagons, protecting each other from the powerless. And they divide us, even when the moral choice is clear. Cain’s supporters are a howling pack, consumed with the usual tactic of attacking the accusers. As the reprehensible Fox News commentator Dick Morris said of one of the women, “I look forward to her spread in Playboy.”  When the moderator at Wednesday night’s debate featuring the Republican candidates dared ask Cain a question about the allegations, some audience members booed. They don’t want to know the answer: Was this man who wants to be president of the United States ever charged with sexual harassment? Most important, they certainly don’t want you to know the answer.

And when it was announced that Paterno had been fired, simple-minded students at Penn State rioted. Very tellingly, they weren’t rioting because the school president had been dismissed, but because they’d lost their football coach.

So we not only had criminal allegations that went with little investigation. We also had two leaders, in positions of high responsibility, creating an environment that allowed such criminal behavior to continue to exist. As Paterno may now have learned, turning your back on a rapist is not a wise move.

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