Tidbits – June 20
In this issue: 1) if we care so much about athletes as role models, why is a smoking golfer so funny? 2) baseball fights – no biggie. NBA fights – well, you know. 3) Whitlock on pensions.
1) Interesting reaction to US Open winner, Argentinian Angel Cabrera. Cabrera is portly and a cigarette-smoker, and puffed nervously in the clubhouse on Sunday while waiting for Tiger to finish his round. Monday, on Mike and Mike, Golic lauded Cabrera, noting that that was a guy that Golic could relate to. Today, ESPN’s David Schoenfeld offered a bemused history of athletes and smoking, while observing the contrast between today’s athletes and those of yore when it comes to health:
…most athletes these days are health nuts (well, except for NFL linemen, where there is no such thing as too many carbs). But that’s a change from the days of yore, when athletes smoked, ate bad food, drank too much, didn’t work out and worked as insurance salesmen in the offseason.
It’s certainly fair to argue that cigarette smoking doesn’t enhance your performance the way steroids may. But, I must say, I’m scratching my head a little bit at the lack of outrage over this one. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not personally outraged that Cabrera is a smoker. I think it’s incredibly stupid, and greatly increases his odds of a premature (and painful) death. But, that is a personal choice. It’s just that it takes so little to outrage our sports media nowadays, and even the most minor transgressions, committed by the right athlete at least, will stoke days (or more) of righteous indignation about bad attitudes and bad role models.
No professional sports league bans cigarette smoking and, of course, it’s a legal activity. But, is that really a good reason to ignore such a public display of cigarette smoking and, instead, spend so much time dwelling on players who might use marijuana, for example, impugning their characters and deriding a generation of athletes because of their use. It is well-established that there is no conceivable justification for making mairjuana illegal while cigarette smoking remains legal. The latter activity is incomparably more deleterious to the nation’s health and well-being than the former ever could be.
And, whether or not an activity is legal or has any relationship to the competition on the field has rarely been a hindrance to the incessant moral hectoring that is so much a part of the sports media landscape nowadays (as the recent Arod-with-blonde episode illustrates).
So, by all means, let’s celebrate a US Open winner who looks like he’d struggle to run a city block without getting winded. But, can we at least pause for one moment to ask why openly indulging a habit that kills over 400,000 Americans per year (and millions worldwide) is funny, while pot-smoking and steroids merit vilification? (Side note: while at the gym this morning watching CNN, I saw a discussion about anti-biotics and bovine growth hormone and the effect of the latter, commonly injected into cows, on children. Given that we know even less about HGH than we do about steroids, why are we so sure that there are legitimate health reasons why those should be banned, when we are freely injesting cow hormones in extremely large quantities.
2) At least two sports commentators asked the question following the weekend brawl between the Cubs’ Derek Lee, and the Padres’ Chris Young: why do NBA brawls signal the coming of the apocalypse, while those in other sports, including baseball, last for maybe forty-eight hours in the news cycle, with no accompanying hand-wringing?
The Mighty MJD, of Deadspin and AOL Fanhouse had this to say on Monday, referring to the Nuggets-Knicks brawl last December that got so much play:
You know why the Knicks got mad at the Nuggets? Because the Knicks thought the Nuggets were running up the score, and that’s something that’s really really mean. So Mardy Collins fouled someone hard, and then Carmelo Anthony punched someone, and it was TERRIBLE.
Because of this incident, every child in America over the age of four went out and the next day and purchased a handgun, and then used it to pistol whip a liquor store cashier.
But you know why the Cubs and Padres were fighting? Because the day before, Alfonso Soriano hit a home run, and then backpedaled a few steps, and that made the Padres mad. And then Chris Young hit Derrek Lee with a pitch, and the Cubs thought it was because the Padres were mad about Soriano’s backpedaling, and then Derrek Lee got mad, and Chris Young got mad, too, and then Derrek Lee threw a punch right at Young’s stupid face! And it was AWESOME.
Because of this incident, every child in America learned a valuable lesson about sportsmanship and accountability, and not showing up your opponent in his darkest moments. You don’t back down under any circumstances, because we’re good, clean, wholesome Americans, and these colors don’t run.
Okay, that’s about enough sarcasm for right now (Seriously, though, these colors don’t run). But why is a fight in basketball treated like the downfall of western civilization?
Why? Oh, I think you know why. Let’s quote the late Ralph Wiley on why:
“C’mon, admit it. You don’t like the NBA just because you don’t like the paint job, not the engine and chassis. You don’t like seeing them coming into this country of wealth with their coily hair, trying to pass themselves off as decent Americans. You despise what you consider to be their little charade — them and their whole frickin’ families …”
I hate to say that it’s a race thing, but it’s a race thing (I miss Ralph Wiley). It’s not even necessarily about the pigmentation of the participants. Baseball doesn’t get a free pass on this because 50% of the participants in their fight were roughly the same shade as Wilford Brimley.
Baseball gets a pass because it’s perceived as the “whiter” sport. Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say that the NBA doesn’t get a pass because it’s the “blacker” sport. Regardless of the individuals involved — all the same things would hold true if the fight was between Dontrelle Willis and Mike Cameron — it’s about the public’s perception of the individual sports.
Baseball is fathers and sons having a catch, it’s Roy Hobbs and Kevin Costner, the 7th inning stretch, hot dogs, and keeping score in the stands.
The NBA, on the other hand, is afros, corn rows, white tees, gold chains, Jay-Z courtside, Chocolate Thunder, overpriced shoes, “I am not a role model,” baggy shorts, and Gary Payton’s sneer. Things mainstream American doesn’t like yet.
I don’t know whether it’s because Wilbon read MJD’s piece, but that night (Monday) on PTI, Wilbon said more or less the same thing: that fighting in the NBA gets the attention it does because of race. Kornheiser weakly responded that five game suspensions (which both Lee and Young got) – are “a lot for baseball.” That, of course, is part of the point. Carmelo Anthony lost over 15% of his season for throwing a punch. Lee and Young will lose three percent of theirs.3) Speaking of AOL, Jason Whitlock’s most recent column criticizes what he calls the “reparations movement” for retired NFL players. The recent uproar over NFLPA chief Gene Upshaw’s angry remarks about former NFL playerJoe DeLamielleure have only further stoked the fires of indignation about how poorly retired NFL players fare under the NFL’s pension system. Upshaw has been criticized from many quarters including, famously, by Bryant Gumbel, who last August referred to him as a “house slave” for rolling over to the wishes of NFL owners on matters of health and pensions. In fact, the pension issue and the health issue are gaining traction in tandem. Regular stories now appear, especially by Alan Schwarz of the New York Times about the impact of repeated head injuries on the long-term health of NFL players. Both stories – the lack of pensions and the health angle – have contributed to an increasingly vivid portrait of crippled and neglected NFL retirees. And, given the league’s extraordinary wealth, there is a strong sense of outrage and injustice about the disparity between the sport’s current wealth and the state of former players.
In any event, something in this rankles Whitlock:
Funny how everyone turns sympathetic when angry, old white men cry about their years of sacrifice, exploitation and what rich, young black men owe them for it.
Yep, reparations make sense now, and union president Gene Upshaw’s blackness makes it easy for people to believe that he should have the necessary social conscience to lead the movement to take money out of the current players’ pockets and give it to the men who really built the league.
…What is now the richest and most powerful sports force in the world, the NFL, left many of its early combatants — who happen to be primarily white — physically, mentally and financially broken. Those formers players now want a cut of thhe pie that is making many of today’s players — who happen to be 70 percent black — filthy rich.
The movement is rapidly gaining momentum, and I can’t really say I’m against it. I’m just shocked to see so many old white men in favor of reparations. When Ditka, DeLamielleure and their friends in the media are done winning this battle, I’m sure they’ll be heading to Chicago to strategize with Louis Farrakhan about his reparations fight for descendants of slaves.
But did anyone ever promise Ditka and his gang 40 acres and a mule?
Or is this football fight for reparations being fueled by a sense of entitlement and growing jealousy among retired players about the money being earned by modern athletes?
A couple of thoughts. I think Whitlock is right when he argues that there is an element of the sympathy for the retired players that smacks of resentment at how good current players have it. Ditka, especially, regularly harps on how little today’s player remembers the game’s history and who came before and who built the game and all that. I am not saying he’s wrong about the average player, though I think more are aware of those things than are given credit for. But, I suspect professional athletes have long been indifferent to history and context until after they retire, the spotlight begins to fade and they have occasion to wonder about those things. Professional athletics is a self-absorbed endeavor by its nature. I can think of reasons why this may be somewhat more true for contemporary athletes, given the amount of money they make and the media environment in which they operate. But, the idea that previous generations had greater respect for their sport’s past and the men who built it – I am dubious about that.
On the other hand, there are important facts that Whitlock is leaving out. First, though the league is more non-white than it’s ever been (about 69%, including pacific-Islanders and others), it has had a substantial representation of African Americans for a long time. At the time of the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 (the AFL was regarded as much more open to African American players), the league was about one-third African American and was over forty percent African American by 1975 (here’s the abstract of an article about the history of race in the NFL). So, the current agitation for retired players, though it may have a White media face and a Black antagonist (Upshaw) would help a substantial number of African Americans.
Second, while Whitlock is right that Upshaw and the union have no legal obligation to help retirees beyond the agreements reached at the time those individuals were playing, other sports have redressed imbalances in pensions for retired players. According to an informative article in March in the San Francisco Chronicle, the NBA decided in February to substantially increase pensions for so-called “long-ago” players, those individuals who played before meaningful pension benefits were negotiated. While the union had no legal obligation to do so, NBAPA director and David Stern were convinced that it was the right thing to do, morally. Furthermore, the NBA’s excellent current pension system extends back to players who played in 1965 or later. Those players receive $17,000 per year of service (up to a maximum of $170,000), while NFL players who played before 1981 receive $3,000 per year of service, according to the Chronicle. It’s true that the NBA can afford to pay more per player than the NFL, given the relative sizes of the leagues, but the difference in league size does not account for nearly all of the disparity. NFL players also face additional problems when it comes to retirement, including their much shorter career spans (relevant given the reliance of pensions on years of service) and the much more serious health problems (and accompanying medical expenses) that retired football players are likely to face.
As an aside, the baseball players’ union, thanks to the remarkable foresight of its first director Marvin Miller, has a Rolls Royce pension and health plan for players going back decades. And, whereas vesting takes three years in the NBA and the NFL, for post-1980 major leaguers, it essentially takes six weeks.
Upshaw has probably been unfairly singled out for this situation. The NFL could, of course, afford to put more money into health and pension plans for older retired players. And, that need not come solely from players’ union dues and associated monies – the current owners have no less of an obligation to be aware of those who built the game and paved the way for their incredible good fortune than do the players.