The Redskins, and another word we should change

A suggestion to those who genuinely hope that the football team in Washington will someday brand itself as something other than the Redskins: Change the name. Not of the team itself, but of the word you use to describe its impact. Take it from somebody who has monitored the debate from the sidelines. The vast majority of these arguments end up revolving around the word “offensive” instead of the word “Redskins.” And those arguments never end, because the word “offensive,” by definition, is relative to the eye of the beholder. What we have is the kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that only human language can create. Instead of debating whether a modern, empathic society should include the caricaturization of a race of human beings as one of its major entertainment brands, we end up debating whether a race of human beings should be offended by its caricaturization. And that opens up those on one side of the debate to charges of patronization. The merit of those charges is a different issue. The focus here is on constructing the proper argument, and the argument, “If X is offended by Y, then Y should not exist,” can always be reduced to an absurdity that is logically invalid.

John will be offended if we continue to call our football team the Redskins.

Dan will be offended if we cease to call our football team the Redskins. 

If we weight John’s feelings evenly with Dan’s feelings, then we cannot possibly incorporate our argument into the governance of our society. This is the logical inconsistency that #RedskinsFacts nation inevitably seizes upon, and the only counter to it is some variation of, “Dan is an asshole.” Now, Dan might very well be an asshole, but he will be an asshole whose worldview remains the same, and our net gain is limited to the individual satisfaction we derive from knowing that we are not as big of an asshole as Dan. Which opens us up to charges of self-serving elitism. And around we go.

Now, we can’t control Dan. But we can control the debate, and we can do it by focusing on a different word. Forget offensive. Offensive is a poor word. It is nebulous, relative, subjective. More than anything, it is passive. It places the burden of proof on the aggrieved party rather than on society as a whole. It suggests that the propriety of our behavior is dictated not by universal norms but by the company we keep. If our company is hurt by our behavior, well, that’s on them, because we can find plenty of friends who aren’t hurt by it. It’s our world too, homey. 

And that, right there, is the real question. Who’s society is it? And how do we want to define that society? Do we want a society where each individual decides for themselves what propriety looks like, and scoffs at those who think differently? Do we want a society where the majority dictates propriety, no questions asked? Or do we want a society where we measure propriety based on the values that all of us can agree are good things? Things like empathy, and progress, and acceptance, and the intrinsic value of human life? Respect. Maybe that’s the word. Do we want to live in a society where we pay homage to our successes or our shame? The Eagle, the Cowboy, the Giant, the Meatpacker, the 49er, the Seahawk, all of us gathered ‘round, on soft autumn afternoons, the anthem playing, the stars and stripes billowing, the military saluting. . .the Redskin. 

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From the Dept. of FWIW, Re: Impeachment/Immigration


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How the Manufactured Outrage Machine works

Contrary to what it may seem, members of the general public aren't more pissed off than they were 50 or 100 years ago. They just have more time on their hands, and more access platforms they can use to express their rage. Logging into a WordPress control panel is much more convenient than laying down type and printing a pamphlet. Where we run into trouble is that our now Easily Expressible Rage has met the same fate as every other natural emotion in a capitalist society. We've found a way to monetize it, and monetizing it means maximizing it, which means enflaming it, which leads to posts like this one on Gawker's Jezebel


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Short rundown: First black female student body president at Lawrenceville Prep posts a photo to instagram of her dressed like a stereotypical "Lawrenceville boi," complete with Yale sweatshirt, hockey stick, preppy shorts, and Bro Selfie Face. Student is removed as student body president because of her mockery of an apparently sizeable contingent of students whom she is responsible for representing. An overreaction? Perhaps, but you can understand the logic. If the president of the Republican National Committee, or the National Organization for Women was captured mocking a large segment of its constituency, one would imagine the reaction would be the same. The very nature of a position like "president" requires one to pursue one's agenda within the framework of the organiziation. of which he/she is president. If one's desire in seeking the presidency was to affect change, his/her modus operandi must be diplomacy. That's just the way institutions work. You might not agree with everything that the institution stands for, but you decided to make yourself a leading member of that institution, and the institution, being the self-interested entity that it is, can decide to remove you, via the appropriate processes, if it decided you are not representing its interest. 

All of this is logical, and even the author of the blog post in question cannot argue otherwise. 

But the Manufactured Outrage Machine does not thrive on logic. Logic does not drive clicks. Thus, the blog post makes a subtle pivot that typifies blog posts of its ilk.

The key graf:


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As you can see, the first sentence acknowledges everything that we have established thus far. Then we arrive at the second sentence, which essentially says, "But enough with all of the topical chatter, let's get pissed!" The blog post then procedes on a lengthy treatise on the fallacy of reverse racism, the irrational persecution complex of the majority, etc. All of it is accurate, and, judging by the reactions to the photo from some members of the Lawrenceville Prep community, is directed at a segment of people who display a typical lack of self-awareness. 

The disconcerting thing is that the blog post ends up conflating two issues. The mocking headline suggests that the hurting "White Boy Feelings" is a ludicrious reason to remove somebody from her position as student body president. But the blog post itself ends up critiquing the legitimacy of the feelings themselves. Which results in one legitimate issue — the fallacy of reverse racism – implicilty undermining the legitimacy of a separate issue: a president being removed from her post for failing to represent her constituency.

The ability of a human being to think critically is such that he or she can empathize with the decision to remove the president, while also empathizing with the factors that led to the act that led to said removal. But the implication of the blog post is something different. You are either with us or against us. If you ever wonder why it feels our public sphere is little more than two factions yelling at each other, remember the subtle pivot.  But hey, who can argue with 28,970 pageviews.

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The NCAA is right about one thing: “Pay for Play” would end college football as we know it

The issue of compensating college athletes — for the sake of the argument, we are going to limit our focus to football – boils down to the question of whether Division I-FBS college football is worth preserving in its current form: 126 teams, 10 conferences, one [ostensible] national title. Is the greater good served by maintaining a governance structure in which schools like Vanderbilt and Kansas State compete, if only nominally, for the same championship as schools like Alabama and Oklahoma? Because if the NCAA's amateurism requirement is removed, it will set into motion a process that will eventually result in the vast majority of current Division I-FBS programs competing on a level akin to the current Division I-FCS. That means no national television appearances, decreased regional exposure and, in all likelihood, a gradual decline in attendance for all but the biggest schools.

You can argue whether such a scenario serves the greater good – I will argue that it does; the NCAA is basing much of its defense in the current O'Bannon trial on the argument that it does not – but know that if you attempt to argue that such a scenario will not occur, you will be arguing against 50 years of precedent in professional sports, 100 years of precedent in trust busting, and 300 years of precedent in capitalism.

To reach this conclusion, we must first accept the premises that college football players have a right to seek compensation for the services that they provide, and that the level of said compensation should be determined via an open labor market. The rejection of either premise is either an argument for a glorified version of the status quo, which is what the NCAA is arguing in court, or an extreme case naivete. There is no in between. For instance, there exists a school of thought that the NCAA should simply allow players to profit off their personal brand. Rather than allowing member schools to compensate players beyond the cost of attendance, the argument goes, the NCAA should allow players to sign endorsement contracts and earn royalties.

The solution seems sensible, until we realize that it would simply create an open labor market where the de facto employers are program boosters. It would enable Phil Knight to sign players to four-year contracts to “peddle Nikes,” and T. Boone Pickens to sign players to four-year contracts to “endorse energy policy.” It would lead to the formation of pools of booster money that operate very much like Political Action Committees, with individuals and businesses donating “endorsement deals” for the Football Action Committee to use to bid for players. Once again, you can argue whether such a scenario is better than the status quo – I would argue that it is – but you will be hard-pressed to argue that it would not lead to a dramatic restructuring of the sport as the schools with the biggest booster revenues outbid the rest of the current Division I-FBS member schools for players, and, ultimately, form their own major college football league that negotiates its own national television contract and stages its own playoffs, and thus reduces the vast majority of the current membership to a status akin to Division I-FCS. And at that point, we have a sports league that isn't any different from the one that would develop if schools themselves, rather than their booster proxies, competed for talent.

The presidents of Division I-FBS universities understand that any requirement that they staff their football rosters via an open labor market will create an economic landscape in which the vast majority of them cannot possibly compete. And to argue otherwise is to suggest an unprecedented cessation of the natural forces of capitalism, that, unlike every other industry, the top talent will not flock to where the compensation is greatest, and that the compensation will be greatest somewhere other than where the revenue is greatest.

Consider: In 2012, 11 different football programs generated a revenue total that was twice as large as the revenue total generated by Oregon State's football program. Ohio State, for example, earned $61.1 million in football revenue in 2012, according to data from the US Dept. of Education, while Oregon State generated $30.6 million. The key thing to note: Oregon State's football revenue ranked 39th out of 123 schools whose data the DOE provides in its database.

Marinate on that for a few moments. Theoretically, in an open labor market, 11 different football programs would have the capacity to spend twice as much on player compensation as Oregon State. If Ohio State offered a $1 million salary to each of the top 22 players in the country at their positions, and if Oregon State offered each of them a $500,000 salary, how many of those top 22 players would choose to play at Oregon State? Economic theory, and hundreds of years of experience, suggest virtually zero would. Now consider that 10 football programs generated more revenue than Ohio State in 2012, and that eight of them generated at least $10 million more, and that three of them generated at least $20 million more, and that the University of Texas generated $48 million more. Also consider that 85 football programs generated less revenue than Oregon State, and that 56 of them generated half as much revenue as Oregon State. In other words, each the top 11 programs in the country would have the capacity to outspend the bottom 45 percent of programs by a factor of four.

According to the DOE data form 2012, 16 football programs generated more operating revenue – that's revenue minus expenses — than 87 programs generated total revenue. For example, the University of Alabama reported $88.7 million in revenue and $41.6 million in expenses, leaving them with an operating profit of $47.1 million. Kansas State, on the other hand, reported $31 million in total football revenue, which ranked 37th among the 123 schools in the DOE database. In other words, if Kansas State eliminated every other football-related expense and poured all of its football revenue into player salaries, and Alabama maintained its current football expenditures and limited itself to paying players from its profits, Kansas State would still have roughly $16 million less to spend than Alabama. Arkansas ranked 16th with an operating profit of $31.6 million. Again, that’s more than the total revenue generated by 87 of the 123 football programs. And Texas, the top program in revenue, generated more than twice as much profit as Arkansas.

The issue isn’t whether those 16 teams can afford to bid for players in an open market, or whether those top 36 teams could afford to do so, or even whether all 123 teams could afford to do so. It is that those top 16 teams would be able to outbid everybody else for players, creating a landscape similar to that of Major League Baseball before the luxury tax. The only way for it to work would be revenue sharing, and the whole reason we have the current environment is that the “Big Market” schools have spent the last 50 years doing everything in their power to avoid sharing revenue with the rest of the schools.

Instead of conferences based on geography, you’d have conferences based on revenue. Except the biggest conference would become its own de facto league, because it would negotiate its own national television deal, shutting out the rest of the schools from that revenue and, in essence, leaving them to wither on the vine. That has been the progression of every other professional sport, and there is no reason to think that it would not be the progression in this one. In fact, the only thing that has prevented it from happening is the desire of the big boys to continue to operate under the veil of amateurism, which requires an organization like the NCAA to perpetuate said veil. Once that veil is removed, college football's power players will have no reason not to do what they have been contemplating for 50 years, and what they somewhat accomplished with the creation of the BCS, which is shed themselves of the rest of Division I-FBS, and seize control of the market for non-NFL football and keep the revenue from that market that they currently share for themselves.

This has been the history of every sport that pays its players on the open market. Leagues consolidate, as was the case in the NFL and the NBA, and, to a lesser extent, in baseball, with the combining of leagues in interleague play, or they break away, was the case with the 20-team English Premiere League. It's pretty clear that the national television market will bear a league that numbers about 30 teams. And make no mistake: that is the market that the MCFL will target, because it is the market that has made the other sports leagues billionaires. The only thing preventing the formation of a 30-team super conference has been the ability of the NCAA to limit its labor expenses as a collective whole. But if those limits go away, then open competition will do what it always does. The first split will see the schools who either cannot afford to compete or who choose not to compete break away from the rest of the pack and either join Division I-AA or form their own league. Kind of like the Ivy League, except instead of refusing to offer athletic scholarships, these schools would refuse to pay players. At that point, the traditional football powers would form a committee to explore the television landscape, and after doing their due diligence would decide which other teams would join them. Remember, these teams are now trying to maximize their revenue in order to land as much top talent as possible, so it behooves them to keep the exact number of teams required to maximize the amount of television revenue received by each school. Precedent suggests that number is around 30. Those 30 schools elect a commissioner and then begin the messy process of deciding the optimal number of roster spots per team based on a labor cost/benefit analysis. Remember, there is a reason why NFL rosters have 53 players, and college rosters have 85 [on scholarship]. Owners do not want to pay any more for labor than they have to.

At some point, the players will form a union and collectively bargain a salary cap and salary floor. Until we reach that point, who knows, because the University of Texas will likely have five times the spending power of the bottom third of the league. And there's plenty more fun stuff to figure out. Like, for instance, do these guys have to go to class? And, if they do, what kind of environment is a college creating if it is sending millionaires – even hundred-thousand-aires – into the classroom and the social environment of a campus? What happens when an adjunct professor earning $60,000 a year notices that a quarterback earning $250,000 a year hasn't been attending class?

Make no mistake. This will happen, just like it threatened to do when 50 top programs formed the College Football Association in the 1970's, just like it started to do when I-A schools separated from I-AA schools in 1978, just like everything that Byron “Whizzer” White wrote in his impassioned dissent in the 1984 Supreme Court decision that gave individual universities the right to negotiate their own television deals ended up happening. This is how the free market operates. This is how capitalism works. The 30 (or so) richest teams get richer. Everybody else fades into the same relative oblivion enjoyed by current members of I-AA.

I believe such a scenario would serve the greater good, because it would force the university presidents at football powers to acknowledge what they have created, which is a professional sports league that already has many of the characteristics I described, except without players sharing in the revenue. And those presidents know that, at that point, the national conversation would turn to the real issue we should be debating: What in the hell are institutions of higher education doing in the professional sports business?  

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A brief history of NFL playoff almost-blackouts

Us writers need material to write about, which is why many of us are currently writing about the struggles of the Packers, Bengals and Colts to sell playoff tickets. Everybody has a theory on WHAT IT MEANS. It's the weather. It's the advances in television. It's America at it's most unexceptional. Me? I think we're too busy focusing on WHAT IT MEANS about the NFL instead of what it might mean about the American economy. Maybe things aren't looking as far up as many of the year end editorials attempted to convince us. The middle class has less liquidity and more uncertainty than it did 10 years ago, and maybe the marginal benefit of an extra set of fooball tickets thanks to the return of Aaron Rodgers is zero. That's just a thought, one that I haven't really researched enought to stand firmly behind it.

The reality, though, is that this stuff is a fairly common occurence, and by hyping it up as some PORTENT OF DOOM we are doing exactly what the policy was designed to do, which was pressure people into buying tickets. All of these stories are essentaily advertorials for somebody, anybody to buy a team's remaining inventory. Again, like I said, it happens all the time.

In 2009, the Vikings and the Cardinals both needed two one-day extensions to sell out their playoff games.

In 2008, the Chargers needed an extension to sell 500 tickets to their playoff game against the Titans.

In 2005, Clear Channel Seattle and KOMO Channel 4 both bought 1,000 tickets for the Seahawks first home playoff game in five years, leaving 1,000 remaining and convincing the NFL to label the game a sellout.

In 2003, the Colts had about 200 tickets remaining on the Monday before the deadline. It was their first home playoff game since 2000 and only their second since moving to Indy.

In 2002, the Dolphins had 19,000 tickets remaining on the day of the deadline. The year before, the Dolphins' playoff game against the Colts was blacked out.

And hey, how about this:

In 2000, the Eagles struggled to sell out their home playoff game against the Buccaneers. On the Friday before the game they still had 1,500 unsold tickets, prompting Fox Philadelphia to step in with a promise to purchase those tickets if they were unsold by game time. That guaranteed a sellout and avoided a blackout. The Saints also struggled to sell tickets that year, receiving two extensions on the deadline to guarantee a sellout.

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Reliving 2013 in Philadelphia through the writing that mattered most to me

Many folks will spend some of the waning days of 2013 reflecting on the year that was. A writer is assisted in this endeavor by the paper trail he leaves in the archives of his various platforms. It's a peculiar existence because so many of his memorable moments are moments that belong to others. The narrative of a writer's year is a composition  of slices of other people's existences that have been internalized and interpreted and published for public consumption. Here are the stories that best construct the narrative of my 2013:

March 13, listening to Roy Halladay cling to his belief.

Want to know how it feels to stand in front of a future Hall of Famer and question every word that he is saying? It sucks. It sucks because you know how much he demands of himself, because you know how hard he takes failure, because you have never seen another athlete treat every aspect of his existence with as much professionalism as Harry Leroy Halladay. More than anything, it sucks because you want it to be true, because the last thing this world needs is a little less excellence, because few things make you prickle with awe like watching a human being who, at that very moment, is the best in the world at his craft.

June 4, listening to Carlos Zambrano preach about his epiphany:

Zambrano knew he sounded crazy, and so he kept on talking, kept on explaining to his visitor the reason that people think words like his are crazy. Religion, it makes people uncomfortable, even more so when an athlete is the proselytizer. There are plenty of reasons why this is so. The violence, the judgment, the selfishness, the exclusivity. To many of us, God is the reason why good friends are miserable, the reason why wars are fought. It has not been a pretty 2,000 years for organized religion, and one of the reasons we flock to spectator sports is to distract ourselves from the earthly havoc that dogma has wrought.

But Zambrano does not give you an easy out. There is no break in the conversation that might allow for a, "Well, on another note, how did you feel about your sinker?" It isn't even a conversation. Rather, it is a monologue, a sermon, an outpouring of emotion from a man who truly believes that he has been born again, and that to separate Carlos Zambrano the pitcher from Jesus Christ the Savior would be like waving Roy Halladay off when he starts to talk about Harvey Dorfman.

March 27, feeling conflicted as I watched my alma mater make a run in a tournament that is increasingly disconnected from the real concerns of students.

Basketball is a beautiful game, and March Madness is a beautiful thing, and I never understood how beautiful, until my alma mater was thrust into a starring role. Like most La Salle alumni, I will sit in front of a television on Thursday night and I will yell and curse and exchange text messages with friends, and if the Explorers extend their improbable run for another couple of days, I will feel happy, and excited, and more than any of that I will feel proud.

Yet I will also feel something deeper, something darker, something sadder. Call it conflicted, perhaps even complicit, because behind the excitement of the action on the court is an educational system so dysfunctional it threatens to undermine the upward mobility that for centuries has made this country great. And it has reached a point at which I feel guilty taking part.

Over the next 72 hours, 16 university presidents will bask in the attention that comes with a berth in the Sweet 16. But just as the NCAA Tournament offers a national platform for schools to market their messages to hundreds of thousands of prospective future students, it offers us a chance to emphasize the gravity of a message that seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Higher education in this country has fallen victim to the same inflationary greed that plunged our economy into turmoil 5 years ago, and the resulting market bubble threatens a generation of young Americans.

Aug. 18, watching years of mismanagement and poor decision making result in the firing of Charlie Manuel:

In other professions, the series of decisions that led to the firing of the most successful manager in Phillies history would be grounds for allegations of gross negligence. The dreck that fans at Citizens Bank Park have paid to witness this summer is the result of a total organizational breakdown, the kind that cannot be corrected with a "new face" or a "new energy" or any of the other foofy, B.S. fingered for probable cause by Amaro and others during yesterday's various media briefings. The players' performance does not look lackadaisical because they need inspiration; it looks lackadaisical because that is how bad teams look.

When the Phillies were tearing through the National League East for five straight seasons, they were not "willing" the ball to go over the wall. They were not "efforting" themselves around the bases. They were not "gritting" through the late innings of tight ballgames. They were a good team that played as good teams do, with an energy that exists only as a byproduct of talent. The Phillies had a command structure that was supposed to maintain that level of talent. That command structure failed.

April 9, realizing that the Phillies are a bad baseball team that is not worth watching:

THE GOOD NEWS is that the weather is expected to be 20 degrees warmer than the seasonal average this week, so there are plenty of things to do besides watch Phillies baseball. Take a walk, ride a bike, attempt to lasso an asteroid – anything would make more sense than sitting through another game like the one that unfolded at Citizens Bank Park on Monday night. Forget about the 2-5 record. Plenty of teams have overcome worse starts to make the playoffs. The Phillies themselves did so in 2007, losing six of their first seven games in a season that saw them finish first in the National League East. This is about the product that is being passed off as a baseball team every night.

Aug. 12, listening to Ruben Amaro Jr. talk about Delmon Young and, in doing so, illustrate one of the reasons the Phillies are failing:

Unfortunately for Phillies fans, there is little reason to think that Ruben Amaro Jr. was utilizing the diplomacy of flattery on Friday when he told reporters he believed Delmon Young was a better baseball player than the one he had just jettisoned from the RMS Phi-tanic. In fact, all of the information to which we are privy suggests the Phillies were quite confident in Young's ability to help the team contend, from the $750,000 major league contract they bestowed upon him ($750,000 more than any other contender offered) to their decision to list him first on the depth chart in rightfield.

"Honestly," Amaro said, "I think that Delmon's a better offensive performer than he performed for us."

And that should honestly concern any Phillies fan who thinks that the last 2 years will prove to be a minor smudge on the otherwise storied career of one of baseball's great organizational architects. Because the only evidence that Delmon Young is a better offensive performer than he performed for the Phillies are the 7-year-old scouting reports that the club included as part of its consideration before signing the former top prospect. Rational thought suggests that the 7 years of results that the player had compiled since the writing of those reports should have taken precedence. If they had, the Phillies would have been well aware that they were signing a player who hits for average power, who plays below-average defense, and who does not reach base nearly enough to make tenable his abilities in the first two departments.

Jan. 11, listening to the BBWAA feebly defend the propriety of its role in voting for the Hall of Fame:

But personal satisfaction in the custodianship of America's pastime is not why writers are paid to do what they do. On what objective level does it make sense for baseball writers to keep participating in a process that for the foreseeable future will result in a story in which they play a central role? The honest answer is that it does not make sense. And while the notion that an electorate composed of writers is more objective about player performance than many other alternatives, the writers themselves are now in the national spotlight because of the immense subjectivity they must use when casting their ballots.

We can write several more columns on potential alternatives that do not require working journalists to render judgment – and bestow fame and fortune – on players they have covered. And once the BBWAA resigns its role in the process, its members can write about those alternatives objectively.

Feb. 13, listening to Roy Halladay express optimism while hoping the general public does not hold him to his words:

The ability to lie to oneself, and to believe those lies, is a fundamental requirement for an elite-level athlete. The measure of an athlete's psychology is his ability to convince himself that the impossible can be attained. That psychology extends to his physical health, which, at most points during a season, is somewhere less than 100 percent. An athlete's job is to convince himself that he is not in pain, and, failing that, that the pain is not strong enough to hinder his performance, and, failing that, that the pain that is hindering his performance is within his control, that it can be overcome with the proper adjustments, be they mental or mechanical.

A major league pitcher must convince himself that he is capable of performing a task that the human body was not meant to do. This season, Roy Halladay's mission is to convince himself of the irrelevance of the fact that his body turns 36 years old on May 14.

Feb. 15, making the case for Domonic Brown:

Research suggests that the human brain, or some part of it, organizes information in a narrative fashion. Each one of us is storyteller. It is how we make make sense of the world around us, out of a life that would otherwise unfold as a never-ending series of random events. Except, sometimes our brains attempt to identify a narrative where there isn't one. We attempt to define an individual based on a small sample of evidence. We allow preconceived notions to skew our judgments. Nate Silver might call it observation bias. We mold the facts to fit the narrative instead of vice versa.

Me? I don't think the facts support the narrative that has emerged regarding Domonic Brown. I think we know as much about his future as a major leaguer as we did 2 years ago, when Baseball America ranked him as the No. 4 prospect in the game. And I think that the Phillies would be wise to put aside whatever it is they think a major league baseball player should look like and instead put Brown in a position to prove whether he is or isn't one.

Feb. 22, listening to Vance Worley talk about the personal impact of being traded:

A million thoughts flashed through his mind, the telephone still to his ear. The first was about the ring. Not the one he will not get a chance to win in a Phillies uniform. The one that was waiting at the jeweler, where he was scheduled to pick it up that day so that he could request the hand of his girlfriend in marriage. He had just signed a lease on a three-bedroom house in South Jersey, shipping a load of belongings out from his home in California. He was rehabbing from surgery that removed bone chips from his right, throwing elbow, but he was also planning the start of a new life, one of an East Coast family man.

Aug. 30, watching the NCAA make another laughable decision that once again calls into question the validity of for-profit amateur sports:

With that, it vanished, the last layer of pretense fading soft into the Indianapolis night. Where once hung a thick veil of hypocrisy, there now stood a maypole made of solid gold, its tethers attached to 124 men and women, each one scrambling madly after another, their greasy palms pawing air aflutter with hundred-dollar bills. From the seating bowl that encircled them swelled a rabid howl, television executives and university trustees sucking seven-dollar beers, cheering the sight of once-proud academics stuffing cash into their briefcases and their breast pockets and the waistbands of their suit pants.

The good news is that the robber-baron presidents who run the Bowl Championship Subdivision of the National Collegiate Athletic Association are no longer feigning interest in anything beyond the rivers of revenue that flow into their annual budgets once football season arrives. The tribulation of Jonathan Paul Manziel offered our ivory tower overlords another chance to propagate their peculiar charade. Instead, they powered down the Emerald City and stepped out from behind the curtain.

Dec. 10, watching Roy Halladay walk away on his own terms:

Rarely do we see the end before it flattens us on the ground. Few players more deserved to depart a champion than Harry Leroy Halladay, but maybe that makes his ending all the more fitting, because Halladay spent his career dominating a sport whose cold, cruel chance mocks the notion of karmic fate, and when That Which We Cannot Control finally threatened to overtake him, he responded with his final victory: He looked the beast in the eye, smiled, and walked away.

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The most illuminating moment of the Megyn Kelly video isn’t white Santa

The pretty anchor lady dipped her chin toward the camera and pierced the lens with her glare as the temperature on set appeared to drop by 10 degrees. The topic in question was a column by a writer named Aisha Harris that ran under the headline, “Santa Claus Should Not Be a White Man Anymore.” The anchor lady gave a slight but discernible roll of her eyes, punctuating it with a dismissive flip of her right hand, as she prepared for what seemed like another inevitable soliloquy on the pussification of America.

“When I saw the headline,” the anchor lady said, “I kind of laughed, and I said, ‘Oh this is so ridiculous, yet another person claiming it is racist to have a white Santa.”

But then something peculiar happened, something far more revealing than the anchor lady’s subsequent insistence that Santa, as well as Jesus Christ, were most definitely white men. The glare softened, and the smirk broke, and for a few precious seconds we saw the transformation that can take place when one human being is overcome with a recognition of the basis for another human being’s feelings.

“When I read the piece, the author, she’s African American, and she seems to have real pain at having grown up with this image of a white Santa,” the anchor lady said. “And she speaks about it kind of honestly.”

Social scientists have a word for the feeling with which the anchor lady found herself grappling. They call it empathy. And while this particular display of it has been overshadowed by the anchor lady’s subsequent rejection of basic historical and anthropological evidence, we should be careful not to ignore it, because what we witnessed offered a fascinating and instructive look inside a psyche that we are often quick write off as racist. During the sidebar that the anchor lady in question delivered to whatever children happened to be watching a news program at 10 o’clock at night, she suddenly became a child herself. I do not believe that Megyn Kelly’s insistence on a white Santa and a white Jesus makes her a racist any more than I believe that a child’s correspondence with a magic man in a flying sleigh makes him or her a schizophrenic. In both cases, the underlying cause is not a pathological detachment from a proven reality, but a lack of exposure to the facts and circumstances required to prove it.

The irony in all of this is that the news segment in question actually increased my level of empathy for Kelly and the three disembodied heads that appeared on the split screens to her right. This may have been the most human segment in the history of cable news, because it was raw, it was honest, it was two minutes of ignorance in organic form instead of the calculated, manipulative version that is usually served up by the predators who operate these kinds of shows.

“I had the same reaction,” said one of those disembodied heads, a woman named Jebediah Bila. “Initially I was thinking, oh, this is more politically correct nonsense, this is more hypersensitivity in our culture, and then you read the piece and you really walk through the steps with her. . .and you realize if you were a young kid and you were African American and your Santa Claus was white, it would affect you when you went to school. Maybe you wouldn’t feel that you were part of that tradition.”

As they talked through these feelings foisted upon them by Ms. Harris’ piece, I felt a little bit like that business-suited man in the AT & T commercials, sitting in an undersized chair at an undersized table as a gaggle of adorable children attempt to communicate the thoughts flowing through their still-developing minds. I also felt a bit sad, because if, in the year 2013, we are still at a point where four supposedly educated grownups with vast audiences need two minutes of prime-time television to talk through the realization that maybe, just maybe, growing up with a white Santa Claus might have some impact on people who are not white, then one can only imagine how long it will take them to make the connection to the impact that some might feel growing up in a culture where all the Presidents are white (at least, all the “real” American ones), and most of the authority figures are white, and most of the businessmen and writers and professors are white, while most of the athletes and rappers and prisoners are black, and most of the shitty, underperforming schools are black, and where, yes, most of the religious figures offered as role models are whites, even when basic geography suggests that their skin was probably a hue far less pleasing to the western Judeo-Christian mind.

Ah, from the mouths of babes.


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Tackling the philosophy of compulsive insurance

It has come to my attention that an acceptable way to discuss a controversial topic without alienating a significant chunk of your target audience is to introduce said topic under the auspices of a “thought exercise.” Rather than committing to an idea, we simply use our god-given critical thinking abilities to consider it.

And so I invite you to join with me in a thought exercise:

Let’s say that I am careful driver. I never deviate from the speed limit. I hold my hands at 10-and-2. I keep my cellphone on silent in the glove compartment. Furthermore, I drive a car with all of the latest safety features. Cameras and warning lights everywhere. I have perfect vision, and an undivided mind. But one night, I am driving on a two-lane highway, and a deer strays out onto the road. I swerve to avoid it, but in doing so, I cross the double-yellow line, where an oncoming car is then forced to swerve to its right to avoid me, sending said car nosediving into a drainage ditch. I pull off to the side of the road, yell an obscenity at the deer, and run across to check on the other car. The driver is an older woman, probably in her late 60′s. She is unhurt. I help her out of the car. I take out my cell phone to call for a tow truck. I hand the cell phone to her so that she can provide AAA with some information. I don’t even think about the fact that I am just getting over a bout with the flu that kept me home from work two days earlier in the week. But a few days after we go our separate ways, the elderly woman ends up in the hospital, her immune system overwhelmed by the virus.

Unfortunately, this woman does not have health insurance, and she is hit with a five-figure bill for her stay.

Question: Is this woman alone to blame for her sudden financial predicament given her decision not to carry health insurance? Or do I merit some of the blame for infecting her with the virus that landed her in the hospital?

The question is an important one, because from what I can gather from folks on both sides of the health care debate, every individual in our country is alleged to be the sole guardian of his or her own health, and when we purchase health insurance, we do so to protect our own individual health. One side thinks we should have the freedom to choose against insuring our own individual health. The other side thinks we should not. Either way, the issue is framed with regard to our own personal health.

But what if we framed the issue in a slightly different manner? No doubt, an individual bears the bulk of the responsibility for his or her well-being. The individual chooses what foods he or she eats, what exercise he or she engages in, what substances he or she ingests. Yet does an individual choose what viruses he or she is exposed to, or what hazards he or she encounters when walking about town? Is it really logical for residents of a dense, industrialized nation to contend that an individual’s health, and his or her ability to treat that health, is a consequence solely of that individual’s circumstance? Or can we all agree that the circumstances of each individual will always be, to a certain degree, linked to the circumstances of the rest of the individuals in his or her society?

Any of us who drive a car already acknowledge this with regard to our fellow motorists. I am required to carry auto insurance not for my own well-being, but for the well-being of those who I have the potential to injure when operating my vehicle. Why, then, is it such a leap to think that each of us who operates a body should bear some responsibility for the harm that said body can inflict on others? We are all carriers.

The auto insurance mandate is not the source of constitutional challenges because purchasing auto insurance is still a choice: if you do not wish to do so, you can choose not to drive. To differentiate that mandate from one that requires every person to purchase health insurance, you can argue that we, as Americans, do not choose between operating our bodies and not operating them. Each of us has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Saying that we must purchase health insurance to live in America is saying that we must purchase health insurance. But it is at this point that the logic collapses, because the debate about health care is a debate about how much life, and what quality of it, each of us has the right to. How long does my right entitle me to live? If life begins at conception, then am I self-determinant from that point on? And if not, when does my self-determination begin? The fundamental question — and the fundamental disagreement — is what constitutes the life to which we have the right as Americans? It is the fundamental question that underlies every piece of legislation that this country has ever enacted. And I would suggest that, upon careful enough examination, somewhere within each of those pieces of legislation you will find at least a tacit acknowledgment that the operation of our livesĀ  is in some way dependent on the operations of the lives of our fellow members of society, in the same way that the operation of our vehicles is in some way dependent on the operations of the vehicles of the rest of our fellow motorists. And, in that light, the requirement that each of us — or, in our stead, our government — insure the bodies of ourselves and each other against the circumstances of ourselves and each other would not be an infringement on the basic rights conferred upon us by our constitution but an acknowledgment that our abilities to exercise those rights are inextricably linked.

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It costs $16,300 per month to house one family displaced by Hurricane Sandy

The city estimated that each of about 165 households that were scattered in 29 hotels last week cost about $16,300 a month in hotel room charges and city social services.

Hard to process this bit of information from a New York Times story on the city’s decision to begin evicting families still living in hotels nearly one year after Hurricane Sandy made landfall in the NYC metro area.

Source: Hundreds of storm evacuees in hotels face evictions, New York Times, 25 Sept 2013



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On Roy Halladay’s frustrations with the public sphere

First, read this.

Now, humor me for a few minutes with a game of make-believe. Let’s say you are a typical middle class Phillies fan who wants to take your son or daughter to a game. Let’s say you target a pair of average-priced tickets at $20 apiece. You budget $15 for parking and $15 for a couple of hot dogs and a couple of sodas. At a total price tag of $70, it’s going to be an expensive night, the equivalent of about 10 percent of your take-home pay for the week. The movies would be cheaper. So would miniature golf, or bowling, or any of a number of other activities. But you are willing to pay a premium so that your son or daughter can watch the world’s best baseball players perform at the sport’s highest level. In fact, you’ve decided to take your son or daughter to see Roy Halladay pitch.

Truth be told, you were conflicted at first. When you watched Halladay on television during the first month of the season, he looked nothing like the pitcher you want your son or daughter to see, one of the greatest right-handers of the post-strike era, the guy who pitched a perfect game against the Marlins and a postseason no-hitter against the Reds. The guy who pounds the zone with his sinker and cutter, generating weak contact and swings-and-misses on command. He’s returning from shoulder surgery after only three months on the shelf, you thought. How good can he be? Maybe I should target the Wednesday night game that Cliff Lee is scheduled to start.

But you are a well-informed average Phillies fan, and you’d spent the previous month reading stories about Halladay’s miraculous comeback in the newspaper. The writers couldn’t help but marvel at the skill the right-hander had displayed in his first few outings off the disabled list. Not since Beethoven, they said, had a man authored such masterpieces in the face of physical adversity. You listened to the radio and heard caller after caller bear witness to the sublime artistry that had been on display at Citizens Bank Park. He’s back! Same ol’ Doc! Like he never left!

So you plop down the credit card, shuffle through the turnstile, and spend the rain delay lecturing your child on the greatness that he or she is about to experience.

And then the game begins.


Roy Halladay is a frustrated man, and that frustration is understandable. He is also a human being, and the human thing to do is to root like hell for him to rediscover the groove he has been missing for more than a year. But Halladay is also a performer, one who gets paid $20 million per year because people are willing to spend one-tenth of their weekly pay to watch him perform. Folks like myself and Ryan Lawrence and Jim Salisbury and Chris Branch and Dennis Deitch and Todd Zolecki get paid to provide an objective retelling of those performances. We are also human beings, which puts us in a bit of an awkward position, because no human being wants to watch a competitor like Roy Halladay fail. But if we do not describe and analyze the reality of the performance, we are essentially valuing Halladay’s pride over the consumer’s ability to wisely invest his emotions and finances. I have no misconceptions about the importance, or lack thereof, of my job. But one of the things I have learned about this profession is that you cannot favor one person without doing a disservice to another. So you might as well favor the truth. And the truth is, right now, Roy Halladay is nowhere close to the pitcher that he once was, or even the pitcher that he thinks he has the potential of becoming. He could be in the instructional league right now ironing out all the issues that he thinks are being overblown. But he wants to be in the major leagues, pitching in front of people who did not receive a discount on their tickets because he is working his way back from surgery.

It isn’t fun for anybody. But it’s the way the business of entertainment works.

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