The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
This is another Road Trip story with a happy ending. I attended the Kentucky Book Fair in Lexington last week to sign copies of my latest book, “Integrated: the Lincoln Institute, Basketball and a Vanished Tradition.” With smart phones and Sirius XM, sporting enthusiasts are never too far away from the madness, but the trip gave me a chance to get away and remind myself that I have another life out there somewhere. Only Brother Jerry’s offer of tickets to Rupp Arena made me depart from my respite to see Kentucky’s young Wildcats defeat East Tennessee State Friday night. But on the stand I would testify that I was there for the Book Fair.
For a writer, or a general facsimile thereof, signing your book at a book fair is like selling fudge brownies at a Sugar Festival. The patrons don’t need your product, they have a lot of choices from which to select, but once they pick yours, they can savor the sweetness of a good story well told, and you get to drink the cold glass of milk. Of course, some of the things I’ve written might be better enjoyed with a glass of Makers Mark, but a book fair is a great opportunity to talk about your work with book lovers and fellow authors alike as well as doing things a little differently yourself.
This author, who is more comfortable in front of a laptop, assumes a different persona at the book fair, turning into part huckster. My spiel to turn browsers into buyers went something like this: “How ya doin’? Getting all your Christmas shopping done here? If somebody you know likes basketball and its history, then my book would be a great gift.” (Speaking of which, you can click on the icon at the right and do some of your own Christmas shopping right here!)
One browser listened to my pitch but was more concerned with telling me of his experiences. Some browsers like to chat, and the author must beware of the ones who stand in front of your table talking while obstructing the view for potential buyers. You listen politely, at least until a potential buyer leans around Chatty Charlie to pick up a copy of your book and starts thumbing through it. That’s why many folks in retail are googly-eyed, keeping one eye on polite and one eye on potential until you finally offer Charlie your hand and turn to the potential buyer.
Another pitfall that faces the author, especially when the fair is close to his home town, is when old friends come to see you. That’s very nice until you see a familiar face but can’t recall the name. That happened to me at least twice on Saturday, when a buyer whose face was familiar but whose name I could not recall bought a book. If the name does not surface after a casual chat, my flummoxed response is “Who should I make this out to?” You hope they give you a name – a brother, a relative - and not the dreaded “Just address it to me!” That is when the writer employs Plan B and responds: “Spell it for me, because I signed a book once for a guy named ‘Smith,’ and after I signed, he told me he spelled his name ‘Smythe’.”
Overall, the days away were a good break. I sold some books, saw some old friends and made some new ones. And the visits with relatives and golf with Brother Jerry and our old SAE pal Frank Farris, made the road trip, as my beloved cousin Sharon says: “Fuuuuunnnn!”
I returned to my normal world while driving back on Sunday. I found the right Sirius-XM channel and listened in frustration to most of the Saints’ game with Washington. The Lovely Miss Jean, whose patience with long drives is short, endured my ranting at Sean Payton’s mid-game reluctance to hand Mark Ingram the ball. After he ran for a 36-yard TD in the first quarter, he largely disappeared. It seemed to the frustrated traveler that the Saints’ ground game was the only thing working. QB Drew Brees was getting whacked almost every time he dropped back and the crippled defense could do little to stop Washington’s pass or run games.
We were past Tuscaloosa when the Redskins took a 31-16 lead, and we turned into an Arby’s for a late lunch. (Best fast food in America!) When we returned to the car, I was finished subjecting myself to the misery of a lost cause, so I turned the Sirius XM dial to Classic Vinyl. That allowed me to take a breath and gave my bride a little peace.
Brother Jerry called around 3:30 and said he didn’t want to call during the Saints game, but “congratulations.” I said “for what?” He said “for the Saints winning.” I responded, “They got their a---- kicked!” And my brother, ever delighted at correcting me, informed us: “No, they won in overtime.”
And I thought to myself: "Holy s---! I'd better not leave town again. This team is special!"
The NFL’s death spiral has turned inward. After the League has endured external disruptions over National Anthem player protests, lower TV ratings, unhappy sponsors, lower attendance and concerns about whether the game is unsafe, Dallas owner Jerry Jones is leading an insurgency from within. Jones’ stated purpose is to stop a lucrative contract extension for Commissioner Roger Goodell that in reality would result in Goodell’s ouster.
Owners elect a commissioner to do two things: Make Money and Handle Problems. There is no doubt that Goodell has made money for the owners as league revenue has surged to an estimated $14 billion. Goodell has been well compensated, pulling in more than $200 million in salary and bonuses since becoming commissioner in 2006. But the problems persist, and the popular perception is that Goodell has done little to halt the slide. That's a good reason but not the real reason.
Jones’ motivation is purely personal after Goodell moved to suspend Cowboys star RB Ezekiel Elliott after a prolonged investigation of several domestic violence incidents. It wasn’t the first time Jones stood at the gates of the NFL commissioner’s office, waving pitchforks and torches. Barely eight months into his ownership of the Cowboys in 1989, Jones joined a cabal of insurgents who protested the selection of Saints President and GM Jim Finks to succeed Pete Rozelle as commissioner.
After Pete Rozelle announced his retirement at the March owners’ meeting in Phoenix, a committee led by Pittsburgh’s Dan Rooney recommended Finks for the job. It was a logical selection since Finks was considered one of the top executives in the league, having built the Minnesota Vikings teams that appeared in four Super Bowls and the Chicago Bears team that won it all after the 1985 season. Even more remarkably, Finks had turned around the league’s doormat Saints into a playoff team in his second year. Finks also had the respect of the players since he had come into the NFL as a quarterback and defensive back with the Pittsburgh Steelers and was elected to the Pro Bowl in 1952. He would often walk down the hall from his tiny office on David Drive and spend time in the locker room talking with his players about their concerns and regaling them with stories of the old days. There were no flies on Finks.
However, there were objections to the process. Minnesota President Mike Lynn was the most outspoken, voicing outrage that the majority of owners did not have input in the process. It was personal for Lynn because Finks proved to be a tough act to follow. The Vikings had not made it back to the Super Bowl during Lynn's years in charge, and Lynn would never be a football man in the minds of the team or community. Lynn’s only football experience came in Memphis, where he was a theater manager who became active in trying to lure NFL exhibitions to the city. In 1974, Lynn was hired as an assistant to Vikings owner Max Winter and in 1975 was named to succeed Finks who had resigned to become GM of the Bears. The resentment likely started when Winter introduced his new president as “Mike Lynch.”
But in 1989, Lynn was successful at persuading other owners that the process to elect a commissioner was unfair. His goal was solely to deny Finks the opportunity he spent a lifetime earning. Rooney felt strongly enough about Finks’ support that he announced an owner’s meeting to formally vote on the new commissioner. Rooney was aware of the pushback and urged Finks to call some of the reluctant owners to smooth things over, but Finks refused. He told me privately, “If I have to campaign for it, I’ll have to owe people, and a new commissioner can’t do his job if he owes anybody.”
Lynn had persuaded ten other clubs to vote against the Finks nomination, including former Finks supporters Bob Irsay of Indianapolis and a new owner who was a surprise addition to Lynn’s cabal. Earlier that year, Jerry Jones, his son Stephen and head coach Jimmie Johnson had spent a day in New Orleans talking with Finks and his staff about how to put together a successful organization. Despite Finks spending time with a new owner and giving him a peek under the tent of success, Jones sided with Lynn and voted against Finks.
After much discussion and debate, Rooney realized the insurgents had locked arms and, more concerned about making a point than picking the right man, would never vote for Finks. He withdrew Finks’ name and switched his support to the No. 2 choice, Paul Tagliabue, the League’s long-time legal counsel.
Nearly 30 years later, Jerry Jones has assumed the Mike Lynn role and is rallying support to make a point. Having a major voice on who is, or is NOT, commissioner was personal for Mike Lynn in 1989 and it’s personal for Jones today.
If you watched the Saints’ game on Sunday, you were privy to a rare 3-minute segment that brought out the angels and the demons among NFL players, as well as a group kneel-down that, instead of a protest, revealed players' No. 1 fear.
The third quarter had just begun, and the Saints held a 16-3 lead over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Saints marched down the field before RB Alvin Kamara squirted through the Tampa line for a six-yard touchdown with 9:59 remaining. The rookie from Tennessee already had performed his best impersonation of mercury on glass in the last minute of the first half when he took a Drew Brees pass and weaved through defenders for a 33-yard touchdown. Tampa received the ensuing kick, but on the second play from scrimmage, TE O.J. Howard fumbled a catch, and the Saints recovered at the Tampa 36-yard line.
Never one to let a crippled opponent off the mat, Coach Sean Payton called a post pattern to veteran waterbug Ted Ginn, Jr., who cradled Drew Brees' catch as he fell backward into the end zone. Ginn was so pumped up that he propelled himself over the end zone wall into the adoring crowd. His paean to the Lambeau Leap, likely to become known as the Dome Dive, took Ginn into the arms of a young family whose father was holding a child, probably a year old. As he balanced himself on top of the wall and in the laps of the family, Ginn handed the ball to the baby, who immediately fumbled. Luckily, dad recovered it.
It was a great moment and one that warmed anyone who saw it. “Wow, what a nice thing to do,” Who Dat Nation sighed collectively. “That Ginn is a true gentleman, a great pro! A true NFL angel!”
The Saints were now up 30-3, Tampa QB Jameis Winston was out of the game with a bum shoulder, and the Bucs were reeling. Backup Ryan Fitzgerald tried to get the Bucs going, but his first pass to WR Mike Evans was knocked down by Saints rookie corner Marshon Lattimore near the Tampa bench. Apparently, words were exchanged between Lattimore and Winston, who then came onto the field as the rookie had turned to leave and poked Lattimore in the back of the helmet. Lattimore turned and gave Winston a retaliatory shove at which time Evans came running in and delivered a cheap shot blindsided hit to Lattimore’s back, knocking him down. The melee lasted a few more seconds, but the masses were incensed.
Payton ran to the middle of the field and demanded that Evans be tossed out of the game, the Dome crowd was screaming for the demonic Evans’ head on a pike, and viewers who saw it were wondering how thugs like Evans are even allowed to play this glorious game? Lattimore later called Evans’ hit “the sneakiest of sneak moves.” The League office will likely have more to say this week, but it was not a highlight that you’ll see distributed by NFL Films.
Then, only two minutes later, the mood changed again. Brees dropped back to pass as Tampa’s rush end William Gholston was sparring with a Saints offensive lineman. It appeared the two bumped helmets at least twice, then Gholston went down in a heap and lay motionless. The medical staffs of both teams rushed out onto the field, where Gholston lay for several minutes. His Bucs teammates came onto the field and formed a crescent around their fallen teammate, who was being loaded onto a spine board with an apparent neck injury.
Many of his teammates kneeled, some prayed, and even some Saints players were seen kneeling in sympathy. There were no more cheap shots in the game the Saints would win 30-10. Sideline reporter Jen Hale encapsulated the moment when she said: “The injury quieted down both sidelines and reminded the players just what they have to lose.”
I’ll make this short and sweet. I’m about up to here with NFL protests, mush-mouthed owners, whiny players and a league office now under attack from within. The latest insult occurred Sunday when fans in Houston attended the protest, and a football game broke out.
I’m not totally blaming the players for all this because the alleged adults in the room continue to precipitate these reflections of society's current era of ill feeling. Since our Commander in Tweet ignited the tinder a few weeks ago with his criticism of protests during the National Anthem, the conflagration cooled into some thoughtful discussion about issues and what we all can do to make things better. Then the smoldering coals flared up Friday when it was reported that Houston Texans owner Bob McNair told an NFL owners meeting that “the inmates are running the prison.”
Players immediately took offense and decided to protest their owner’s comments by kneeling during the Anthem before the Texans’ game with Seattle. How many times have you criticized some organizational snafu by saying “the inmates are running the asylum?” Sort of like a university president complaining that he can’t get anything done because of a tight-sphinctered faculty! But McNair’s poor judgment in using the term “prison” triggered reactions from many NFL players for whom prison is nothing to joke about. Many African-American players have acknowledged friends or relatives who are in or have been in prison for various offenses. Some have even commented that except for football, they might have joined their childhood friends in activities that earned prison time or even a violent death.
That is nothing to joke about, and McNair should have been more sensitive to such feelings. McNair met with his team on Friday, explaining that his comments referred to the rift between the league office and NFL owners. Dallas owner Jerry Jones has been named as one owner who is holding up a contract extension for Commissioner Roger Goodell. The players apparently heard, but they didn’t listen.
Of course, one could argue that the players’ reaction is a reflection of the increasing over-sensitivity of our society. A past where injudicious comments were ignored or even forgiven is, well, in the past. Of course we have issues. Of course we have problems like subtle – and sometimes overt – racism. But instead of sitting down together, identifying and ostracizing the true offenders, and seeking solutions, our first reaction is to make a scene that, while strengthening one side, alienates the other. I used to think that in civilized societies disagreeing parties could sit down and come to a resolution.
That’s not true anymore, from Congress and the Washington swamp to professional sports. We have become a divisive, litigious society whose worst nature has seeped into the high-profile world of games where we formerly could go to forget life for a awhile. The trend even touched the World Series when Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel last week chided Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish by pulling at the corners of his eyes and calling Darvish “Chinito,” which is Spanish for “little Chinese boy.” It did not matter that Darvish is Japanese. The Cuban native Gurriel will be suspended the first five games of the 2018 season, a penalty that would be far greater if the offender had been white and the target black. But so far that unfortunate scenario has almost exclusively belonged to the NFL where the two sides are fighting fire with gasoline grenades.
And the collateral damage might be the sport’s popularity. The turmoil, distrust and perceived villains among players and management has fans of the new NFL grousing and likely wondering if all this is worth the price of admission. I look at the NFL today, and I don’t recognize it from the NFL where I worked for 20 years. My old NFL was like the movies – you attend for the feature film and get a color cartoon as a bonus. Today, you pay to see a game and you get player protests, tongue-tied owners and fans threatening to boycott.
This screed turned out longer than I had intended, but my concern lingers. If all this division and shouting continues, I fear the new NFL won’t last nearly as long as my old NFL did unless both sides begin to show some respect for the other and take concrete steps to prove it.
I have always been a fan of human triumph in the face of overwhelming adversity, especially when it is sports teams that seem to draw energy from their community. Our favorite teams are responsible for so much of a community’s pride and attitude that some towns even take on the team’s identity as its own. And that’s why I’m pulling for the Houston Astros when they meet the Los Angeles Dodgers Tuesday night in the World Series.
It is interesting how we turn to sports to lift our spirits after a calamity, and that is what the Astros have done in their city, still recovering after Hurricane Harvey deluged southeast Texas with epic flooding less than two months ago. I might not feel that way if I had not experienced the ravages of Hurricane Katrina and saw first-hand how a city and region extracted what little joy existed from the Saints. I remember just two months after the storm and we were living in Baton Rouge when the Saints played the Dolphins at LSU Tiger Stadium. Although the Saints lost the game, it was more important for those who had been displaced and had lost so much to have some sense of normalcy to lift our spirits.
"Who Dattitudes" received a booster shot the following season when a new Saints team with a new coach and a new quarterback hosted the hated Atlanta Falcons at the newly renovated Superdome. Steve Gleason’s blocked punt that resulted in a touchdown and eventual victory provided a psychological boost that seemed to mitigate the turmoil of insurance snags and “road home” snafus we were all fighting. Gleason’s block was the greatest single moment in Saints history until a Super Bowl championship two years later – while the city and region had begun the rebuild – instilling a conviction that things were going to turn out well after all.
Sports teams' prominence in the wake of catastrophe has happened before. In 2001, weeks after 9/11, the New York Yankees put a city on its back and became the sentimental favorite to win World Series before losing in seven games to the Diamondbacks. In 2013, the Red Sox picked up the mantle after two bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon exploded, killing three people and fracturing a city’s morale. Just five days after the bombing, the Red Sox returned to Fenway Park, and slugger David Ortiz enhanced his legend when he stood up and declared: “This is our f---ing city! And nobody’s going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong!” The Red Sox went on to win the 2013 World Series, giving the city a much-needed boost in morale.
Oddsmakers are not swayed by sentimentality and have installed the Dodgers as a 58% favorite to win this year’s Fall Classic. For Major League Baseball, an exciting World Series will not regain all its perceived losses to football from the past several decades, but the timing could not be better.
The NFL has done enough during the first two months of the season to have die-hard fans considering the call for a November 12 boycott of games. That might have worked a month ago, when the fervor of anthem-kneeling and arm-wrestling with the White House was top of mind. A few souls in San Francisco or Cleveland who have already given up on the season will go fishing that day, but that happens every year for fans following dismal teams.
Still, the Astros’ postseason run has been a welcomed diversion for an area where more than 100,000 homes were damaged or destroyed and where streets are still littered with debris from the mitigated shells of buildings. The Astros might not be logical favored to beat the Dodgers, but I’ll be rooting for them just the same.