Thursday, May 12, 2016

Remember the XFL?

I do. And way back when it was trying in earnest to be a thing, I wrote about it.

When I first learned that Vince McMahon of all people was founding a professional football league, I greeted the news with skepticism about its chances of survival. McMahon may be a modern day P.T. Barnum when it comes to entertaining the masses, and perhaps he does have his finger on the pulse of the adolescent male audience, but none of this alters the most crucial factor to be considered. There is simply no need for another football league. The most diehard fan gets more than his fill with the NFL, NFL Europe, Arena football, and collegiate games. So if the XFL is to entice pigskin enthusiasts to emotionally invest in a whole new set of teams, it will have to offer considerably more than the same old same old. After all, the USFL, which legitimately attempted to compete with the NFL for talent by offering competitive salaries, failed in its noble attempt. For McMahon's league to avoid a similar fate, he would have to reach deeply into his bag of tricks. To his credit, the XFL does present some interesting innovations that promote more action and a quicker pace, not to mention increased violence and mayhem.

The fair catch has been abolished, and kick off returners cannot take a knee in the end zone but must attempt to advance the ball. Quarterbacks in the XFL are not protected by the in- the-grasp rule. Punts travelling 25 yards or more are considered a live ball, recoverable by either team. Only one foot needs to be in-bounds when making a reception or interception, like in college ball. The point-after-touchdown kick has been replaced by a far less reliable and more interesting one-down play from the 2-yard line. Both teams are given opportunities to score when a game goes into overtime (once again emulating the college game). And my personal favorite, instead of the opening kickoff scenario being decided by a coin toss, a mad dash for the ball that has been placed at midfield starts games off.

In addition to these tweaking of rules, there are plenty of additional changes regarding the coverage of games. Twenty players on each team have microphones implanted inside their helmets, providing viewers with audio of every hit and load of trash talking that takes place. This serves to give live action football the feel of a video game, which ironically brings matters full circle, since sports video games strive to capture the feel of actual games. The camera work in the XFL is particularly intrusive, with cameras inside the huddle and suspended by wire overhead. Increased focus has been put on artificially enhanced cheerleaders, who are allowed and are seemingly encouraged to date players and then fill us in on whatever it is McMahon thinks we might want to know about them. Broadcasters sit outside in the stands rather than being pampered in an enclosed booth. One of these broadcasters happens to be former wrestler, Jesse "The Governor" Ventura. Even the salary structure (these guys will deservedly be paid far less than NFL players) seems to be inspired more by televised game shows than traditional sports leagues. By far, the wisest decision made about the XFL was having its season begin in January, after the NFL's ends, for direct competition would have been suicide.

All of these elements to various degrees created intrigue about the birth of the XFL, but despite clever advance advertising, my skepticism remained in place. I knew the only thing that might possibly abolish it would be the games themselves. Week 1 arrived as put up or shut up time. As much as I love football, rather than watching it year round, I prefer to balance my sports viewing with basketball, baseball, boxing and tennis. Toss hockey, golf and a few other sports into the mix and there is already athletic competition of some sort to be found practically 24/7, 365 days a year. In order to stand out from the pack and lure us to a new product, the XFL promised the same brand of outrageousness and titillation that its predecessor the WWF delivers. Professional wrestling is not a sport, but rather, pure mindless entertainment that by its nature is tailor made for the theatrics of heroes, villains, and vixens. The WWF is a live action cartoon for an adult male audience. It's a unique commodity, one that isn't competing against or mimicking a more established enterprise. The NFL is a legitimate sports league, and therefore satisfies different desires than McMahon's wrestling venture. We watch football games because we want to see true non-rigged competition amongst athletes at the top of their field. Cheerleaders are a nice diversion, a choreographed touchdown celebration can be amusing, the occasional brawl after a play satisfies our primitive blood lust, but basically, we watch the games to see the games, not the side dishes. The XFL purposely promoted the sides more than the games themselves, so this is what its audience was anxious to see, and this aspect of the games would be essential to either holding or losing our interest. Close-ups of cheerleaders, larger than life characters without the benefit of scripts, and "Any Given Sunday" style editing were the chosen threads for the XFL's hopes to hang on.

Three weeks later, having watched XFL action both on television and nearly being deafened by catching a sparsely attended game live at the Meadowlands, I feel that my doubts have been validated. True, the XFL did pull in big ratings for its debut night. But this is accounted for by the curiosity factor that grows weaker with each passing week. I along with millions of others tuned in for the debut to see what delights Vince McMahon had in store us. Not much, as it turned out. Run of the mill football being played by a watered down talent pool. All of the hype in the world could not change what had been obvious from the get go. The game of football and its loyal fans never needed the XFL, and just as we have lived without it up until now, we'll be fine and will hardly miss it after its inevitable departure. Vince McMahon has earned my admiration for his effort, but in the end, nothing matters beyond the execution, which in this case comes off as forced and obviously inferior to what already exists. No doubt some further tweaking will be done as the ratings plummet. Perhaps quarterbacks won't be allowed to wear helmets on third down, or maybe the cheerleaders will get to run a few plays in blowout games. But I'm guessing it will be too little too late. At best, the NFL will benefit from the XFL's sure to be brief existence by borrowing a couple of rules, a few technical innovations, some snazzy team logos, and a handful of cheerleaders who will soon be looking for employment.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

What Kobe Taught Us

Kobe Bryant has announced that the 2015-16 season will be his final one as a player in the NBA. He had one hell of a career and will be missed by many who enjoyed watching him play the game of basketball at its highest level. Lakers fans are left to wonder who their next franchise legend will be. Those of us with long enough memories will remember that Kobe's legacy includes not only on court heroics, but also some off the court debauchery that threatened to stop his candidacy for Greatest Of All Time in its tracks. Ultimately he didn't let the disgrace get in his way of having a Hall of Fame caliber career. Avoiding a criminal case and meeting the right price in a settlement case probably has a lot to do with that. I have no doubt that by some people he remains unforgiven. That's his cross to bear.  But whoever's job it is to judge him, it for sure isn't mine.

Below is what I had to say (some of it dated, some of it timeless) about Kobe's extracurricular activities and what there was to learn from it back in 2003.

In the Summer of 2003, high profile athletes have been adept at getting themselves into trouble away from the workplace. About every other week or so, a story breaks about some player who has earned the spotlight’s glare for something other than the sports heroics expected of him. The usual suspects have had their fair share of mention for customary behavior, such as Mike Tyson getting into yet another out-of-ring altercation. When we see Mike’s mug shot on the evening news, we scarcely take notice anymore. Nor are we especially surprised to learn of various NBA/NFL/MLB players getting arrested over a variety of infractions that we know will cost them little more than pocket change and community service. But on top of the same old same old, a few athletes have managed to earn the type of media attention not seen since O.J. was trying to make that glove fit before a televised audience. Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett snagged a few headlines that otherwise may have gone to NFL preseason action and NBA offseason trades. By far the most grave sports story of this Summer was the murder of Baylor basketball player Patrick Dennehy, and the subsequent arrest of his teammate Carlton Dotson. But the story to capture the most national attention, due in no small part to the fame of its leading man, has been the arrest of Kobe Bryant for his alleged rape of a hotel employee in Eagle County, Colorado.

There has been much talk about the conjectured guilt or innocence of Mr. Bryant. It has been acknowledged by all parties involved that sex did take place between Kobe and a nineteen year old woman who caught his attention. Whether or not that sex was consensual, I leave up to a jury to decide. I do not personally know either the accused or the accuser. What I do know of Kobe is merely his reputation, and up until this Summer, it was as solid as they come. Before the accusations and denials began to fly, Kobe was the heir apparent to the legacy left behind by Michael Jordan. He has the requisite skills, the championship rings, the polished demeanor, clean-cut good looks, and a lovely young bride on his arm. Numerous endorsement deals were in his hands and plenty more were likely to come. Kobe is the anti-Allen Iverson, opting not to “keep it real” (a.k.a. having a huge posse and a multitude of tattoos), but instead, to keep it marketable. Other than having to share some of the spotlight with Shaquille O’Neal (granted, Shaq does take up a pretty big portion of it), and now also an influx of additional Hall of Famers by the names of Gary Payton and Karl Malone, there really was no discernible flaw in Kobe’s grand design. He needed only to fill up more highlight reels, collect a few more trophies for his mantle, and flash his pearly whites for Nike, Sprite, McDonald's, Nutella and whoever else could afford to associate their name with him. The last thing anybody expected was that instead of seeing countless wannabes sporting Kobe’s Lakers jersey this Summer, there would instead be sightings of people in “Free Kobe” T-shirts. But that is the very twist his road has taken, while a public intrigued by personal triumph, but far more fascinated by the downfall of a hero, goes along for the ride.

Rather than guessing what happened on that fateful night when Kobe broke his wedding vows to Vanessa, and despite lacking the zen-like wisdom of a Phil Jackson, I decided to postulate on what can be learned from this headline making event. I came up with twelve lessons.

1) Image is neither everything nor nothing. Rather, it is an intangible element that can be carefully crafted over time to make someone very popular and wealthy, and that can be demolished overnight.

2) Boys will be boys, most especially when they are pampered and praised like royalty. Regardless of how squeaky-clean Kobe’s image was, nobody was surprised to learn that he had engaged in extramarital activity. Never mind that he is a newlywed and a new father, or that his wife is drop dead gorgeous, or that his reputation was on par with Ward Cleaver. The flesh is often as strong or as weak as the options presented to it, and NBA stars are not short on options.

3) Even when a husband’s infidelity becomes back and front page news (not to mention a popular water cooler and internet chat topic), a good woman will forgive her man, provided that he can afford four million dollar apology jewelry.

4) Michael Jordan is still without peer when it comes to marketing himself as the most beloved and admired athlete of all time. Like Mike, Kobe should have known not to put his private business out in the public domain until the latter part of his career when he had already been immortalized by a sculptor and had his number retired by at least one team. Let’s see how well Lebron James does now that all remaining sponsors’ eyes will turn to him. There is simply no shortage of good breaks for that kid.

5) In remarking that Kobe Bryant's legal problems are good for NBA business, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban illustrated that you can always count on him to say something that will piss off Commissioner Stern.

6) I’m having some fun with this article, but if in fact Kobe is guilty of rape, that is certainly no laughing matter and he deserves to have the book thrown at him. No always means no, even when spoken to a superstar with the world at his feet. If Kobe didn’t learn from Michael Jordan, he should have learned the lesson taught to Mike Tyson by Desiree Washington. Otherwise, Mike and Kobe could end up as bunkmates in a prison cell any day now.

7) There actually are celebrity relationships to talk about other than Ben and J-Lo.

8) Mismatches are boring. When combatants do battle, what onlookers want most is a fair fight. By obtaining the likes of Payton and Malone for next season without even having to break their bank, the Lakers made themselves (at least on paper) a man amongst boys in the NBA. The distraction of Kobe Bryant’s legal problems may serve to make LA a little vulnerable after all. Parity is much more entertaining than slaughter.

9) There's always somebody willing to toss in the race card as soon as an opportunity arises to deal it.

10) "He-said, she-said" is an awful game that's no fun for anybody. No wonder Playstation never patented a computerized version of it.

11) Apparently Magic Johnson did not corner the market on Lakers superstars who engage in high risk sex.

12) Winning a Teen Choice award for most popular athlete does not grant one immunity from criminal prosecution.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

From Anna to Maria

To be young, blonde, leggy, and the WASP standard of beautiful is a valuable combination of commodities to be possessed by a woman in this country, a near guarantee for no less than fifteen minutes of fame. Add being reasonably talented at something to the mix, just about anything will do, and the sky is the limit for such a blessed individual. For the past several years, one of the most prominent stars to fit this description was the promising tennis player, Anna Kournikova. By reaching the semifinals of Wimbledon in her first time out at the prestigious tournament, greatness appeared to be her destiny. Over the next few years she became one of the most recognizable people in the world, photographs of her appearing every which way one could turn. It seemed that at least half of the internet was dedicated to her lovely likeness. The media fawned over her every move. Endorsements were tossed her way like beaded necklaces at a college girl on a New Orleans balcony during Mardi Gras. Minor movie roles followed logically, because if one has proven to have screen presence, the bigger the screen the better. I suppose if Anna was halfway able to carry a tune, a record deal would been inevitable as well. All she needed to do to maintain her stardom was be young (and she certainly had ample days of youth ahead of her), remain attractive (and it didn't appear that her Lolita style looks would be going out of style anytime soon), and win the occasional tennis match. A major championship or two would have cemented her legacy and kept her as the apple of the fickle media's constantly gazing eye for years to come.

As it would turn out, Anna Kournikova's time in the sun was far more fleeting than expected, her promise of the variety that is never quite realized. The championships she was supposed to win never materialized. This didn't matter much at first. Although critics who want sports celebrities to actually earn their popularity bitterly complained and maliciously teased, Anna's beauty was enough to sustain her immense popularity. Instead of receiving press for winning trophies, she instead garnered it for activities such as the famous men she dated. On the court, the Williams sisters took over dominance of tennis where Anna's friend and sometimes doubles partner Martina Hingis left off, grabbing ownership of just about every major tennis championship. Off the court, Anna Kournikova ruled. Her rivals were not so much Venus and Serena Williams as they were pop stars such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Rather than winning multiple tournaments, or even just one, she instead claimed the most attention from sponsors and magazines and professional celebrity fawners in spite of this. Fans, and let's face it, by fans I pretty much just mean guys who lived up to the definition of the word fanatic, flocked to Anna's matches for an up close look at her game, though tennis had little to do with what her true game was. Tournaments were not so much opportunities to win prize money and knick-knacks for the mantel as they were convenient locations for Anna to stage her entrances, and her increasingly early departures.

It was not merely her desire to soak up the limelight that impeded Anna Kournivoa's progress with racquet and ball, though her peacock tendencies certainly didn't help her game much. Injuries plagued the starlet's final years on the tennis tour, eventually forcing her out of the game for good. Anna Kournikova was no longer a professional athlete, but she was still a star. She merely needed to find something else to exhibit talent at. Problem was, she didn't have any other especially strong suits.

I wouldn't worry too much about her though. I suspect that her fifteen minutes are far from up. Anna Kournikova is famous, and being famous is now officially a career in this country. She merely needs to change her role models. Instead of trying to be a dominant tennis player such as Martina Navratilova, Anna can instead follow the illustrious footsteps of those who are famous simply for being who they are, such as Paris Hilton to give an example. Perhaps Anna will join Paris and Nicole Richie in the next season of The Simple Life. Then again, Anna and her agent will no doubt insist that she be the sole star of whatever vehicle she next chooses to ride. And like Paris Hilton, Anna can always gain some extra notoriety by the trendy act of appearing in a sensual videotape with her boyfriend. That just happens to Enrique Iglesias, son of Julio and a pop star, so their relationship gives Anna additional street cred, if the street happens to be Hollywood Boulevard. No doubt the pairing of those two would give the Paris tape plus Tommy Lee canoodling with Pamela Anderson a run for their money. No, I definitely wouldn't spend too much time being concerned over the downfall of Ms. Kournikova.

But there are still those who want their sex symbols to be sporty, fans who want the objects of their affection to be famous for something other than being famous. These people have needs, and their needs must be met. Right on cue, Maria Sharapova steps into the picture. She is the personification of youth, blondness, legginess, and the WASP standard of beauty. She even shares being from Russia in common with Anna, so comparisons are inevitable. As for talent, Maria appears to have an abundance of it. So much so that she won her opening match at this year's Wimbledon tournament, and then her next match, and then her next. She kept on winning until she was in the Final against Serena Williams, and then somewhat improbably, Maria Sharapova won again, won the whole damn tournament. So now, like Anna before her, she is the cat's meow, the media's favorite pin-up girl. A star has been born, and it remains to be seen how long this particular one will shine. On the court, Maria has already surpassed an entire career's worth of accomplishments by Anna Kournikova. Off the court she still has a way to go, but that red carpeted path seems custom paved for her to gracefully travel.

Will Maria be lured by the appeal of maximum magazine covers, celebrity relationships, and constant mention of her name in gossip columns? Will she instead choose to dedicate herself to tennis and prove that her Wimbledon triumph was no fluke, but rather, a harbinger of great things to come? Or will she somehow manage the neat trick of balancing both sides of her fame? However things turn out for Maria, one thing is for certain. All eyes will be on her.

John Rocker

Say what you will about John Rocker, one fact about the man cannot be denied. He certainly has personality. It’s abrasive, obnoxious, ignorant and unrepentant. But definitely not bland.

By now, sports fan or not, the average American probably knows who Rocker is, and many of them have been offended by him. Particularly if they belong to a minority group, are homosexual, or aren’t native born citizens of the U.S. Particularly if they live in New York city and ride the 7 train. I myself am a regular subway passenger in the Big Apple. Therefore, I can say in John’s defense that being jammed into a metal box with the huddled masses yearning to get to work can be quite aggravating. I will also admit, because I want to be as fair as possible, that if beer, batteries and curses had been flung at me for the sin of trying to do my job, I might be inclined to hold a grudge as well.
Here is one of many ways in which I differ from Rocker. If I was sitting next to a reporter from Sports Illustrated, I would make a concentrated effort not to spew the most vile, hateful commentary I could think up. That would make me more than just a bigot. It would make me an idiot. Or am I repeating myself?

And yet there is a part of me that applauds anyone who defies the regulations of political correctness. These rules do tend to be somewhat strict. Honesty is supposed to be an admirable trait, after all. Does the commandment about truthfulness become obsolete if the truth believed strikes some as tasteless and cruel?

Had Rocker remained true to his less than enlightened convictions, I may have formed a begrudging respect for him. Once the you-know-what hit the fan however, he resorted to self-serving excuses and flat out lies. Suddenly he did not mean the things he said in that interview, they were taken out of context, were the result of stressful circumstances. "My words got ahead of my head", is how he explained himself. He wanted to retaliate strictly against rabid Mets and Yankees fans, but ended up offending everyone who isn’t a member of the Aryan race. He now hopes to convince us that he doesn’t really consider a teammate of his to be a "fat monkey". That was just light hearted humor. I suppose we’re also supposed to believe that John is a proponent of immigration and does not have a racist or homophobic bone in his body. For his last trick, I’m guessing he tries to sell us all the Brooklyn Bridge.

The response of the powers that be in Major League Baseball to Rocker’s faux pas was nearly as ridiculous as his judgement was. He was forced to see a psychiatrist, as if being a redneck is equivalent to claustrophobia. Rocker did not hurl insults as he does baseballs because he’s crazy. Nor did he break the law, as first amendment groupies are quick to remind us. He has a Constitutional right to voice any opinion he wants, no matter how unpopular. Perhaps this is why Rocker instantly appealed his punishment (a $20,000 fine and 73 day suspension), in hope that it will be greatly reduced if not completely overturned. Then again, although the first amendment does keep people from being imprisoned for stating their beliefs, it does not protect them from the discipline of employers in the private sector. Rocker is legally entitled to speak his narrow mind, but has no right by law to play professional baseball.

There are those who feel he merely gave voice to beliefs that are commonly held but typically muffled. In some parts, not so muffled. Athletes have received lesser punishment for physically assaulting fellow players, officials and coaches; for testing positive for drugs; for being arrested and convicted of crimes. It is somewhat reasonable to feel Rocker has been treated unfairly, since he did not do anything wrong, but only said it. His supporters can stand up and applaud the man if they so choose. Others were appalled by what Rocker said, at what he appears to stand for. These folks also have a legitimate point. They can boycott Braves games, or perhaps show up at ballparks to let John know exactly what they think of him. Such are the plentiful options we have in a democratic society. Our government is so proud of this aspect that they are defying a foreign dictator and a little boy’s immediate family to keep the child hostage in the land of the free, home of the Atlanta Braves. But I digress.

I personally am glad Rocker said what he did, for I prefer that ignorance be brought to light than remain hidden where it can do covert damage. When there is an action, there is inevitably a reaction. Perhaps as damage control, Major League Baseball will arrange for the ascension of an extra minority or two to the ranks of upper management. Maybe more ballparks will stage cultural appreciation days, such as was done in Shea Stadium last year. If nothing else, the fallout from Rocker’s interview may help him develop greater tolerance. Given time, his head may one day catch up to his mouth. Plenty of ears on the 7 train will certainly be grateful for that.

John Rocker may have a valid point with one thing he said in his defense. "To make one comment like this doesn’t make you a racist." What little leaguers who idolize Major League stars like Rocker might not realize however, is that feeling and speaking as such is an effective way to get started as one.

Rush Limbaugh - Sports Commentator

Rush Limbaugh has had an unquestionably successful career as a Conservative radio show host and political commentator, managing to garner a fair measure of fame and fortune in the process. His efforts to make former President Bill Clinton squirm were quite effective, although they fell short of getting Clinton to resign or getting him impeached. The messages he ranted to the masses on his radio program were delivered so persuasively that they earned him a seemingly unrelated gig as a sports commentator. He was hired to give a fan’s perspective of football on an ESPN television program, much like Dennis Miller did for ABC on Monday Night Football for a couple seasons. The Dennis Miller experiment was ultimately judged a flop, though by no means a major catastrophe. Mr. Miller did nothing to embarrass himself, nothing that would cause people to picket outside of his office building. He simply proved to be far better in the role of stand-up comedian with a large vocabulary and somewhat foul mouth who comments on various societal issues, than he was at describing the happenings on a football field. No crime in that. Dennis Miller went back to doing what he does best, and the world according to Monday Night Football viewers was made a better place for it.

One of the people that Dennis Miller beat out for the MNF job was Rush Limbaugh. When it was decided that the Miller experiment was a failure, ABC wisely went after and secured John Madden, a seasoned football commentator whose job previous to broadcasting was as an NFL coach. His name is also associated with an immensely popular video game that allows couch potatoes to simulate the gridiron experience in their own homes. Madden was a natural fit for the gig. You’d think that ESPN would have learned from the MNF experience and gone after someone similar to the exuberant Madden. But instead, they were no doubt impressed by the success of The Best Damn Sports Show Period, which employs Tom Arnold to hang out with a variety of jocks and discuss sports in between making jokes at the expense of his ex-wife, Roseanne. And so, ESPN looked for an unconventional choice to team up with Chris "Boomer" Berman, Tom Jackson, Michael Irvin (fresh from his stint on The Best Damn Sports Show Period, now sporting a more toned down wardrobe), and Steve Young. These four guys, who all certainly know a thing or two about professional football, sit together behind one desk. A much smaller desk for one was brought onto the set and placed off in the corner, and the man hired to sit at it was Rush Limbaugh.

The gimmicky format of the show was allowing Limbaugh a certain number of challenges to make per show, imitating the challenges that NFL coaches make about questionable calls on the field. One of the challenges that Rush chose to make a few weeks into the gig was on the subject of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, Donovan McNabb. His take on the subject was that McNabb is overrated. McNabb has certainly been off to a slow start this season, justifying any criticism of his abilities that one may choose to make. To call him overrated after a few poor early season performances, discounting all of the success he has enjoyed throughout his career up to now, may be somewhat of an overreaction. But sports writers and commentators overreact to streaks and to slumps all the time. It was not surprising or upsetting that Rush Limbaugh jumped on the McNabb-must-go bandwagon. He was saying nothing that countless Philadelphia fans have not expressed at one point or another in a much harsher manner than Rush would ever dare use on national television.

Then Mr. Limbaugh gave his explanation for exactly why he believed Donovan McNabb had been overrated to begin with. Basically, he felt that the media covering professional football conspired to praise McNabb and position him on a pedestal he had not earned. The reason for this conspiracy was that they wanted a black quarterback to succeed in the NFL, never mind that there already were several successful black quarterbacks. According to Limbaugh, the Eagles success (making it to two consecutive NFC championship games and counting) was due exclusively to the prowess of their defense. Their quarterback was simply along for the ride, yet the sports media was determined to make sure he received most of the credit.

I will not bother to counter the stupidity of this opinion, because an overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary is already contained in statistics kept by the NFL, and plenty of others have already ripped into Rush, causing him to resign from his job at ESPN before the network would be forced to fire him. I will not resort to name calling, for Al Franken has already entitled a book: "Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot". I doubt I could put it any more eloquently or accurately than that. The person who made the best point on this unsettling matter was the recipient of the insult, and I don’t mean the entire African-American race, but specifically Donovan McNabb. He questioned why none of the other members of ESPN’s broadcast team had bothered to contradict Limbaugh. In the uncomfortable moments following Limbaugh's proclamation, I found myself wondering the same exact thing. Tom Jackson and Michael Irvin are both black, neither Chris Berman nor Steve Young are known members of the KKK, yet not a single one of them chose to voice a difference of opinion. Did none of them disagree with Limbaugh? Was I the only one staring incredulously at my television set, wondering if I had heard right? As it would turn out, I was not alone in my dismay.

Apparently, the lessons on political correctness inadvertently taught by Jimmy the Greek and Al Campanis did not make their way to Rush Limbaugh. Perhaps ESPN does not offer a racial sensitivity course to its new hires. This left Rush on his own to express whatever opinions came to mind, a recipe for disaster that ESPN probably should have taken into greater consideration before bringing him aboard.

At the beginning of this article, I remarked that Rush Limbaugh has been quite successful at his non-sports related body of work. I have a theory as to how this came about. It was a conspiracy on the part of the United Stated of America that a portly, insensitive, full of himself, opinionated Caucasian who is deeply in love with the sound of his own voice be made the champion of all political issues to the far right of reason, compassion and common sense. We don’t have to like him, but we do have to accept his existence and the microphone constantly placed in front of it, because the rise of Rush Limbaugh was inevitable, engineered behind the scenes by those at the very top of the American power structure. As for his downfall, Rush probably won’t need any assistance with that. He, seated at his very own desk, is capable of taking care of it all by himself.

Dress Code

NBA commissioner David Stern considers the league under his direction to be a class organization, and he wants to be certain that we all agree with him.  He realizes that a growing majority of professional basketball players are from America’s hip hop generation, yet this does not mean he intends to market the league predominantly to this particular fan base.  After all, luxury boxes and court side seats are still mostly purchased by those who belong to a more affluent demographic.  Those corporate types surely must not be neglected. 

If a Wall Street executive comes to Madison Square Garden for a rap concert, he knows he’ll look out of place if he doesn’t change out of his Brooks Brothers suit and into something considerably more casual before heading to the show.  If he comes to MSG for a New York Knicks game, that’s another matter entirely.  The fashion standard will vary widely, from fellow suits to those in loose jeans and bling bling to spare and every look in between.  It used to be that NBA players off the court but still on the clock could also choose to dress in whatever style most appealed to them.  Per David Stern’s latest edict, those days are now in the past.  A dress code has been instituted for pro ballers, and unless they don’t mind being fined on a regular basis, they have no choice but to adhere to it. 

This is not to say that the new dress code is particularly strict.  Most people in the workplace would consider the guidelines defining “business casual” in the National Basketball Association to be quite reasonable.   The league has banned sleeveless shirts, shorts, chains worn over clothing, sunglasses while indoors, and headphones during team or league business such as flights, public appearances and post game interviews, as well as sitting on the bench when not suited up to play.  Now required are collared dress shirts or turtlenecks; dress slacks, khaki pants or dress jeans; and dress shoes or boots or "other presentable shoes" with socks, and no sneakers, sandals, flip-flops or work boots.  In other words, the standard casual Friday look as you and I know it is acceptable to David Stern, but dressing like you’re onstage to accept a Source Award for best gangsta rap CD is not.  The arena of fashion is not the only one being policed by the commissioner in his effort to reform the somewhat thuggish image of the NBA post “Ron Artest Gone Wild”.  He also announced the inception of N.B.A. Cares.  With this vast public-service initiative, Stern vowed that the league, its players and its teams would raise $100 million for charity, serve more than one million volunteer hours and build more than 100 youth centers over the next five years.  As lofty an ambition as this may be, it is the new dress code that is garnering most of the publicity and stirring up controversy.

Many NBA players have no problem with the attire directives.  These are the players who already dressed accordingly and therefore won’t have to go on shopping sprees for more suitable wardrobes.  But since there are two sides to every coin, of course there are those who see the matter differently.  Among them is Indiana Pacers guard Stephen Jackson, who told ESPN that the league ban on chains worn over clothing is "a racist statement" from the league.  “I just think that's attacking young, black males," he proclaimed.  Does he have a valid point to make as he pulls the proverbial race card?  Not in my opinion.  A man’s blackness or lack thereof is not defined by how he dresses, so judging a person’s wardrobe is not one and the same as judging his race.  The hip hop generation consists of plenty of young white men who David Stern would be equally offended by.  Baggy jeans, tattoos, thick chains with large medallions, skullcaps, and whatever other pieces of apparel are currently fashionable in the hip hop world transcend race, color and creed.  What they do not transcend are rules that any private organization in this country has a right to make.  There are various jobs a person can hold that would allow him to dress as he pleases during work hours.  Bike messenger is one that leaps to mind.  Stephen Jackson is free to change vocations if the limitations of the NBA’s new dress code offends his delicate sensibilities, but he should keep in mind that opting to haul packages while riding a bicycle bumper to bumper with midtown traffic will come with a considerable reduction in salary.  The other way to go would be for him to become the owner of a business and set his own standard of appearance.  He could then choose to mirror the laissez faire frat guy look exhibited by Mark Cuban, or perhaps the inexplicable head of hair look perfected by Donald Trump.

It shouldn’t be necessary to state this, but wearing a shirt with sleeves and a collar will not automatically designate Stephen Fetchit/Lil’ Sambo status upon a young man.  There is a time and place to dress like a homey, and a time and place to dress like someone with a respectable job.  A tie is not a noose.  An NBA player doesn’t need to have gold and diamonds gleaming from every few square inches when conducting postgame interviews to convince us that he is obscenely wealthy.  We already know what these guys make, already consider them to be among the luckiest people in the world. 

So I’m afraid I just can’t feel the pain of Stephen Jackson and Allen Iverson on this one.  David Stern’s class war is not being waged against young men simply because they are black, but rather, against black men mostly because they are young and therefore instinctively rebellious against authority, even when the figures of that authority have nothing but their best interests in mind.  The NBA commissioner may have ruffled a few feathers with his new fashion rules, but he knows better than to bite off the hand that feeds him.  Hip Hop flava won’t be drained from pro basketball anytime soon.  Some minor image shaping won’t doom the league.  Contrary to what certain people might believe, demonstrating a little professionalism has never hurt anybody, and it has never subtracted the slightest bit of melanin from one’s skin or soul from one’s character. 

Private Club - Public Concerns

The privileged few in society born with silver spoons in their mouths and accustomed to most of life’s offerings being handed to them on a platter are rarely coerced into doing what goes against their wishes. Since attempting to treat them like regular folk with accountability to others tends to be futile, such attempts are rarely made. When someone nonetheless shows the gall to take off kid gloves and treat the privileged few as if they are subject to the same rules and regulations as everyone else, hell hath no fury like a spoiled brat being told what to do.

Martha Burk of the National Council of Women’s Organisations (NCWO) certainly understood this when she sent a brief letter to the attention of Hootie Johnson, chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club. In her note, she criticized Augusta’s long-standing (69 years to date) practice of excluding women from membership in the private club. This is not to say that Ms. Burk has a problem in general with private organizations. Most Americans accept the fact that the Girl Scouts have the right to exclude boys, and that college sororities should not be made to admit young men. There are plenty of boys-only and girls-only organizations in the U.S. that are allowed to conduct their activities hassle free. In the case of the Augusta National Golf Club, however, this particular private club happens to host the world-renown Masters Golf Tournament. By sponsoring one of the four major championships in the sport of golf, for one week in every year a very public spotlight is cast upon Augusta. The event is televised for the viewing pleasure of millions of people who tune in to see who will receive the coveted green jacket that is awarded to the tournament champion. Some people feel it is reasonable to say that the Masters, which is the youngest but also the most popular of golf’s four major championships, is public property. And since the tournament belongs to all of us, should it not be played at a venue that belongs (at least in theory) to all of us?

Hootie disagrees with the premise of this argument, and expressed his difference of opinion to Ms. Burk’s three-sentence letter of complaint with a three-page response of indignation. After all, for fifty-one weeks of the year Augusta is a private club, with the emphasis on private. There is no application to obtain, membership is offered strictly to those who are deemed worthy rather than merely being a matter of one's ability to afford entry. For one week of the year, Augusta presents the world of sports with the gift of the Masters. They offer this tournament with a lack of commercialization that has distinguished it not only from other golf tournaments, but from all major sporting events. Unlike other tournaments that are played on a different course each year, there are strong ties between the Masters, the course it is played on, and the organization that presents it. So the suggestion to simply move it elsewhere if Augusta refuses to change its policies would be met with much resistance. Augusta and the Masters have always gone hand in hand. Tradition serves in this matter (as it often does in the American South) as a double edged sword, with both praise and derision earned for the same act - standing still in a perpetually changing world. Augusta generates a sizeable chunk of change for its efforts, so hosting the Masters is not exactly charity. According to Johnson though, this money does not benefit the club membership, but goes back into the tournament or is given away. He finds it unfair for Augusta to be “penalized” by having to forfeit its private-club status because they do something that is universally viewed as good for the game of golf with minimal compensation. So regardless of one’s views on feminism or elitism, it seems that Hootie does have a well thought out answer for every one of Martha’s concise charges.

Nevertheless, Ms. Burk and the NCWO are by no means backing down. They intend to organize a protest at next year’s (April 2003) Masters if a woman member has not been admitted to Augusta by then. They will certainly be joined by others, including Reverend Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition, who are offended by the discriminatory practices of Augusta. As for going to the sponsors of the tournament for support, Ms. Burk need not bother. In a pre-emptive strike, Johnson cancelled the sponsorships of Coke, IBM and Citigroup, opting to broadcast the tournament commercial free rather than giving them the chance to snub the Masters. So when Tiger Woods attempts to earn a historic third consecutive green jacket, he will be doing so at a televised but nonetheless private show being put on by a private club. There will be picketers carrying signs and shouting disapproval, but will this be enough to budge the obstinate Hootie Johnson? Doubtful. Mr. Johnson and the club members that he speaks for live in a privileged world that has suited them just fine for a long time. They are quite slow to change, as is evidenced by the fact that it was not until 1990 that the first African-American member was admitted. This came a full fifteen years after Lee Elders became the first black man to play the Masters. Hootie does not rule out the possibility of a woman gaining entrance into his club someday. But he adamantly states that there is no chance of this event occurring prior to next Apirl, regardless of what Martha Burk and others do or say. This is his right under the law of the land.

To illustrate that there is national support for Augusta’s cause, they commissioned a poll. 74% of the respondents agreed that a private club has the right to choose its own members, and if that means single sex membership, so be it. Hootie further points out that women are allowed to play the Augusta courses, so long as they are accompanied by a member. This makes Augusta more progressive than certain other golf clubs where women are not allowed at all. With Hootie Johnson making several reasonable points, some people have criticized Martha Burk for making such a big deal of this issue when there are so many situations that seem more pertinent to the rights of women. How many lives will be affected to a significant degree if one or two wealthy women are allowed to become members of Augusta? Will this truly be a major step forward for the women’s movement? Why would any woman even want to join a club where she was so obviously not wanted? Perhaps my last question is irrelevant. The women’s movement, like the civil rights movement, like any movement undergone by those in a subjugated societal position, is not about gaining admittance to places that are welcoming. Rather, it is about forcing change against the will of those who want things to remain as they have always been, because they are the sole beneficiaries of an unenlightened society. Jackie Robinson did not join the Dodgers because Major League baseball players and fans of the sport were clamoring for a black man to take the field. He took the field, stayed on it, and excelled on it, in spite of opposition to his presence.

Of course, breaking the color barrier in a prominent sports league, or a school system, or a field of employment is not exactly equivalent to getting into country club. This is a significant point to many people, but not necessarily to Martha Burk. Her contention that the Masters is a public rather than private event can be rightfully disputed. She can claim however much she wants that this is a moral issue rather than a legal one, but legality is enforceable, morality is not. It is however rather difficult to argue against her viewpoint that the discriminatory policies of Augusta remind women of “the glass ceiling and unequal pay and all the reasons women are running second in America”. Such policies remind all of us, regardless of race or religion or gender, that the privileged few reside in a world that is above you and I, and they want it to stay this way. For those who have a problem with this state of being, maybe it doesn’t matter what lies behind the doors that a movement breaks through. Perhaps it only matters that the doors go down.