Monday, September 22, 2014

Athletic Exceptionalism

In the past couple weeks we barely digested the brutality of the Ray Rice video before Adrian Peterson’s story filled the airwaves. And by week’s end Florida State’s Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston was revealed as perhaps the biggest jackass in modern sports after a string of incidents – part comic, part cruel, part criminal.

NFL star Ray Rice was caught on tape slugging his fiancĂ© in the face (who went on to marry him), fellow NFL star Adrian Peterson was charged with child abuse after “spanking” his 4-year-old son, and Winston, who was accused of sexual assault last year and cited this past April for stealing crab legs from a grocery store, was last week documented standing on a table on Florida State’s campus shouting vulgar obscenities at female students.

There are two ways to be outraged about these cumulative offenses – offences that add to an already long list of offences from top-shelf athletes. The first is the abuse of women and children by individual perpetrators. But the actions of the organizations charged with policing the behavior of these individuals bothers me even more.

When individuals fail us in a moment of anger or passion or vulgar stupidity, that’s one thing. When organizations that have supposedly consulted in reasoned calm and still resolved to fail us for the sake of protecting financial interests or avoiding organizational embarrassment, that’s another matter.

The child abuse charges against NFL running back, Adrian Peterson exposed the dividing forces that make it hard for organizations to take action – those defending the status quo, and the abusers. Retired NBA star Charles Barkley defended Peterson citing cultural and regional norms, saying that African Americans from the south simply spank their kids more. “Whipping – we do that all the time,” Barkley said.

When Barkley comments on social issues, he’s often like Dick Cheney commenting on national defense – they both specialize in being wrong.

When Peterson tore a branch off a tree and “spanked” his 4-year-old son, it broke the skin and injured the child’s scrotum. The debate here isn’t about spanking. It’s about child abuse.

I spanked my children, but not as a regular matter of course. Why teach children that violence is the go-to answer for a problem? Instead, I spanked them when their behavior was out of control or they’d endangered their own lives – perhaps run into the street. There would be time later for teaching moments, but at those instances I needed to dramatically get their attention in a flash. So I’m not against spanking. But if the palm of your hand on the back of a child's jeans isn’t enough, and you’re breaking branches off of trees for a weapon, and more importantly, if your child needs medical attention as a result of a spanking, then you didn’t “spank” your child, you abused them.

Debate over!

There are a lot of people who were raised in a lot of circumstances that gave them ideas about personal conduct that land them in jail. That’s not a reason not to put them in jail.

And our reactions are more than a little convoluted and contradictory.  We’re demanding legal action against guys who used violence or aggression in moments of need or anger – guys we love for the violence they use to win games for our entertainment.

But the bottom line: the NFL and NCAA have a problem on their hands and I believe it’s a problem with the athletic culture in this country. According to USA Today, since 2000 there have been 713 instances of NFL players having run-ins with the law that were more serious than minor traffic violations. For an elite, pampered class of individuals marketed as role models to kids and pitchmen in public service ads, that’s not such a great record.

We have to be a little careful in tarring all athletes over the actions of a few. I’m routinely dismayed by the media’s willingness to hold up examples of the extreme and sell it as the norm. The media sell violence, sex, and drama in much the same way Hollywood does. But the stories of top-tier athletes out of control are coming with such frequency it’s clearly more than just a few bad apples. Much as the Catholic Church had to accept that there was a systemic problem with child abuse among priests, the NFL and the NCAA need to accept they have a systemic problem with athletic exceptionalism. And they’ll have to face it and deal with it firmly and honestly, or a chunk of the public will turn their backs on these institutions, starting with the women they’ve been marketing to aggressively in recent years.

In the world of international politics, we speak of “American Exceptionalism,” the idea that America is so big and so strong and speaks with such moral authority that the rules restricting the behavior of other nations don’t apply to us. I think the same notion follows our premier athletes. They’re so big, so strong, so talented, and carry on their shoulders the hopes and dreams of so many fans, they are exceptional – the rules of social decency and criminal justice apparently don’t entirely apply to them.

If you’re like me, you routinely saw evidence of this athletic exceptionalism in high school and college – athletes given the best equipment and the most attention, parents who came for game after game and shouted with passion – but never came to the science fair, the spelling bee or parent/teacher conferences. I routinely saw athletes behave badly and pay no price, or saw higher ups cover for them. As a former teacher who had to grade athletes, I can't count the times I heard parents or coaches plead, "C'mon, he's worked so hard. Don't let one little mistake ruin everything this young man worked so hard for." In other words, don't give him the F he earned, give him a passing grade . . . so he can play ball Friday night.

Our actions show time and again what we value. The gravity that holds the rest of us to the earth does not weigh so much upon premier athletes. And I’m just cynical enough to imagine that if Ray Rice could be given no more than sensitivity training even though police had a video of him slugging his wife in the face, it’s likely the USA Today data hides the true number of incidents of abuse and misbehavior – the times an NFL player was allowed to walk without a report after telling a police officer, “Maybe you don’t know who I am . . .”

Think we don’t give preferential treatment to athletes? Next time you’re buying food or drink in the greater Indianapolis area, consider that our millionaire professional gladiators, the Colts, play in a stadium funded by taxes you’re paying on your beer, your latte, your dinner. And Jim Irsay, the owner of that team was caught last May intoxicated behind the wheel of a car filled with illegal pills and $29,000 in cash. For all my social media friends beating the drum for welfare recipients to be tested for drugs before they get their check - why don't we test Irsay and the Colts players? They take tax-payer money as certainly as any welfare recipient? 

Why don't we? Because they're "exceptional." The poor people who can't afford to attend the professional games we subsidize with our tax dollars will be tested, but not the boys at the top taking handouts. We even sanitize the language. The poor take evil "welfare" while the rich are "subsidized" with "job creating" public funds.

More than all of that, I’m bothered by how the NFL, the Ravens, the Vikings, and the University of Florida handled these situations. Forget for the moment about pampered individuals acting in moments of passion, rage, or arrogant foolishness, and consider the learned leaders – the boys at the top, who after careful deliberation in board rooms and consultations with law enforcement did literally the least they could do after investigating Rice, Peterson and Winston. They did just enough to say they’d done something – to cover their asses, but hardly enough to address the situations . . . that is until the public got a good look. The men leading these entities either don’t know what century we’re living in or they hold the spoiled child’s view of right and wrong: it’s only wrong when you get caught.

As long as we confer elite athletes with god-like status, some will act as if they are living exceptions to our rules.

Buy Kurt's book, "Noblesville"

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Philosophy Via Sitcom: Everything Happens For A Reason

“Everything happens for a reason.”

I cringe when I hear people say that, feeling a little like Sheriff Taylor on the Andy Griffith Show, the way he gently smirked, shook his head and rubbed the back of his neck when Opie or Goober mistook the true message in a teachable moment.

“Everything happens for a reason,” is usually an evasive misreading of what actually happened or worse yet, blatantly false. What’s more, it often feels like loser talk masquerading alternately as religious doctrine, superstition, Buddhism or folk wisdom.

I call it, “loser talk,” because it’s offered with a shrug of the shoulders after things don’t work out as hoped. Nobody ever wins a game, then pumps a fist in the air and shouts, “Oh, hell yeah! Things happen for a reason!”

There’s a classic episode of Andy Griffith when Andy is alerted by the feds that a delivery of gold will pass through Mayberry on the way to Fort Knox. He and Barney must provide security. Andy tells Barney and swears him to secrecy. Through a series of foolish, prideful stumbles, Barney tells person after person until all of Mayberry knows. Barney wants to blame it on town gossip – on the inevitability of the relentless forces of human nature, rather than blame his own actions.

I have experiences not unlike that in my real estate career. Clients will ignore my advice and make repeated decisions based upon false logic and ego, then when the bad thing happens that I warned them about, they very rarely say, “Wow, I blew it.” Instead, they shrug, “I guess it just wasn’t meant to be. Everything happens for a reason.”
If I’m lucky, they stop there. If I’m not lucky, they say, “Guess it just wasn’t in God’s plan.”

That makes me crazy. If there was a modern HBO version of Mayberry, Andy would say, “Now Barney, don’t blame God for the convoluted clusterfuck of bad choices you made.”

People want to blame the great beyond, when they ought to blame themselves.

I realize sometimes things really do happen for a reason. Aunt Bea carefully and lovely makes a pie with a flakey crust she fills with fresh apples and lots of sugar and cinnamon. Floyd the Barber coos, “Oooo, Bea, that’s gooood pie!” The pie was good, “for a reason.” Earnest T. Bass throws a brick through the jewelry store window and Andy takes him to jail. Earnest T. Bass went to jail, “for a reason.”

Cause and effect, plain and simple.

But that’s not what people mean when they say, “Everything happens for a reason.” They’re talking mysticsm. They’re talking fate and inevitability, as if there’s nothing they could have done to make things turn out differently.

That’s rarely true.

In one episode of Andy Griffth, Gomer outsings Barnie to win a spot on the Mayberry choir. If, “Everything happens for a reason,” is the mantra Barney repeats over and over to make peace with his disappointment, I accept that as reasonable. But if it’s the salve Barney rubs on his wounded ego – as if the unknowable blackness of the universe meant for him to fail, then I think he’s missing the point of the failure. Take singing lessons! Practice! But stop blaming fate!

And sometime things in fact don’t really happen for any reason whatsoever.

Truth is, I’m also in the, “Shit Happens,” camp. I’d like to think Howard Sprague would be in that camp with me. I can imagine his reasoning, professorial tone explaining to Thelma Lou that “there’s a lot of chaos in the world, entropy if you will, and so sometimes shit just happens.” Howard would explain to a disbelieving Thelma Lou in his familiar rising and falling notes that, “God didn’t pre-ordain everything and there’s no pre-written script dictating what will happen at every given moment to every single person. I think there are thousands or millions of possibilities depending on which turn you take or choice you make.”

"God doesn't direct every moment on earth?" Thelma Lou asks, searchingly." Howard answers with two words, "Free will."

If there’s ever a positive connotation to, “Everything happens for a reason,” it’s when offered in retrospect, when one realizes they’ve ended up in a good and happy place, despite the fact that something bad happened to them in the past, like they were meant to face that earlier obstacle so they could find true success later, somewhere else. Let's imagine Andy with his third season girlfriend, Helen Crump, looking back on his first season girlfriend, Ellie Walker. He might think he was always meant to find happiness with Helen, but first had to be tested by a breakup with Ellie. But I don’t believe that. When bad things happen, we adjust and learn, making the best of the situation we’re left in. If we’re really trying, it makes sense we’d end up in another good place. It doesn’t mean it was meant to be, it means we made-do with our situation. If the shit hadn’t happened with Ellie, and there’s no reason to believe it was inevitable, Andy wouldn’t need to hook up with Helen in season three. But things didn’t work out and so he adjusted and made things work with Helen.

Meant to be? Happened for a reason? That’s storybook talk. Andy made-do and Helen was a great gal. Isn’t that enough?

I think sometimes the phrase, “Everything happens for a reason” is a like that single, pathetic bullet in Barney’s shirt pocket. Maybe people who say it lack intellectual or emotional ammo. They just have the one single bullet-phrase to explain the disappointment of failure. And the unthinking use of the phrase by otherwise intelligent people, like that lone bullet Barney has – meant for a gun with six chambers, is an embarrassment.

Though I’m an outspoken guy, most of the time I ignore it when people pointlessly say, “Everything happens for a reason.” Just as Sheriff Taylor most often would, I purse my lips, smile knowingly and say nothing. 

It would take too long to explain all this anyway.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

My Affirmative Action Program

In the wake of events in Ferguson, I’ve had many discussions with folks about race and often come away saddened by the quick, self-satisfied judgments I hear white folks make. I’m not saying that everything coming from the African American community sounds entirely rational either, but I’m not immersed in their world, I’m immersed in mine, and it’s mostly white. I’ll speak to what I know. It’s an American history that for some reason, some of my peers never think to apply to their own success and comfort.

I’ll call this history, “My Affirmative Action Program.”

My grandfather Meyer grew up in a poor German-speaking farming family in northern Indiana in the early 20th Century. He went to school with his German heritage in tact. In fact, though all 12 of his siblings were born in America, they didn’t bother speaking English until they went to school – good schools by international standards at that time. As a young man he took that work ethic and education to the nearest small town, married my grandmother and got a job at the post office. It was a good gig for the 1920s.

I imagine the African American version of my grandfather. That man’s grandparents were slaves. His ancestor’s culture, religion, language were all beaten out of the generations that led up to him. And if he had a school, it likely wasn’t as good as the one-room schoolhouse my grandfather had. He too probably grew up in hard circumstances, but there was no post office job for him. Though he might have been a janitor at a post office making a fraction of what my white grandfather earned.

I once interviewed a local African American woman whose husband was the rarest of 1930s black men. He got a degree in chemistry at IU. After graduation he applied for a job at Eli Lilly. But he was told, “The only job we’ve got for you involves a broom and a mop.”

My grandfather wasn’t ambitious enough to get a degree at IU, but he qualified for a better job than his black IU peer. That IU chemistry grad never used his degree.

My grandfather learned that if you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll be rewarded. What did the black IU grad learn? I’m guessing he didn’t learn the same lesson from his experiences that my grandfather learned from his. He might have learned a bitterness that white people couldn’t understand.

When my grandparents’ two sons went to school, my grandmother got a job as a secretary. They bought a house in the 1930s and built equity with each payment. As they approached retirement, they built a new house and paid cash.

My grandparents were good, hardworking people. There’s nothing in the rewards of their hard work to apologize for.

My grandparents’ sons went to good white schools in an all white small town and both my father and his brother then went to Purdue and got engineering degrees in the 1950s.

Jim Crow laws were still in affect. It didn’t just keep the black versions of my father and uncle from white lunch counters and front rows in the bus, it kept them segregated in poorly funded schools. Few made it to college. I wonder how many blacks were at Purdue getting engineering degrees in the 1950s. The degrees weren’t handed out like candy. My dad and my uncle, worked hard, they struggled, but they did it with an opportunity that was systematically kept from their black counterparts. Their black counterparts likely lived with a bitterness that white people couldn’t understand.

Yet, there is nothing about the college degrees that my dad or uncle need apologize for. 

In my little Indiana hometown in the 1960s and ‘70s I went to safe, nurturing schools. I was blessed. I was born white and middle class in 1960 in an all-white town, attended an all-white school, and learned along side kids whose families had not-so-different backgrounds from mine. I say "blessed" because these were places with the best resources, where the spoils of earlier generations were concentrated so that even if you were white, poor, and uneducated, there were radiating waves of economic activity that provided you with a good job. And because you were white, you and your children were welcome to climb a ladder not so easily available to those of the wrong color.

My dad’s engineering job put me in a big house on a nice street with virtually zero-crime. And there was enough money to send my mom to night school and summer classes. She got a teaching degree and eventually a teaching job.

Though I didn’t try very hard in high school, I still got into college. I wonder how many of my African American counterparts could say they day-dreamed their way through high school and still got into college in the 1970s. I grew up watching black people on TV behave with a bitterness I couldn’t understand.

As a young man my grandmother sent me money every Christmas – first $100, and eventually a $1,000 each year. I once bought a trip to Europe with that cash. Later I used the money to pay for the raising of children. I would eventually build a career for myself as a small-business person, working, literally, sometimes seven days a week, earning every single paycheck. I still do.

There’s nothing in my success to apologize for. But I had a leg up. Over and over again.

Fast-forward to the year I turned 40. After my grandmother died a check arrived in my mailbox for $60,000. The only thing I did to earn that was to have the right DNA. It was my cut of the estates of a frugal postal worker and secretary. I’m not sorry I got it. I’m proud of my family heritage. But I’m Christian-enough to wonder about my African American counterpart – the grandson of the man who couldn’t get a post office job in the 1920s because his skin was black – the son of a man who didn’t go to college in the 1950s like my dad did because his skin was black and his own dad didn't get the post office job – and so as a result, he’s the same guy who didn’t get annual Christmas checks and then a big one for $60,000 like I did.

I invested that money in my home and my kids’ college funds.

Two of my kids have graduated college – the youngest is still in college. They have no apologies to make for their opportunities. But are they encountering black peers who grew up with a bitterness that is hard for them to understand?

I’m gonna guess yes.

It’s over 100 years since my grandparents were born into a country where being white meant unlimited possibilities if you were wiling to work hard, and being born black meant 2nd class status and limited opportunities, no matter how hard you worked . . . and then you were judged deficient for all the things you didn't accomplish. The money my grandparents earned in their privileged position is still at play in the lives of their grandchildren and great grandchildren – giving us an affirmative action program that wasn't available to everybody.

To this very day, research shows that black students are more likely to be expelled than white children for the same infractions. Reviews of arrests and sentencing records show the exact same disparity in our criminal justice system. Current research also shows that blacks who apply for jobs, home loans, and apartments are more likely to be rejected than their white counterparts with equal education and employment records. My black friends tell me, “If you think racism isn’t alive and well in America, you’re a fool.” It is a common feature of their lives. But it’s not out in the open anymore, it’s gone underground.

I’m not asking for any new law nor a new government program to fix this disparity. I’m simply asking my peers to stop callously judging struggling African American communities with questions like, “What’s wrong with those people?” or, “Why are so many of them in jail?” or “Why are they so angry? You can get ahead if you’ll just work hard and act right.”

I want my peers to think about their own family history and acknowledge the privileged shoulders of those they stood on to grab the success they found in life. I want them to be a little less self-satisfied and certain in the superiority of their own effort and a little more empathetic of those who’ve had less opportunity. If you don't know what I'm talking about, consult the Bible.

I don’t want my peers to apologize for their success or their peaceful, safe communities. I simply want them to broaden their view and acknowledge the obvious truths of American history and the affirmative action program people like us had.

There “but for the grace of God” I went, lucky that my grandparents were born white in early 20th Century America rather than black.

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