02 November, 2006

Election Season

Normally, I am what you might call a news junkie of the highest order. Be it magazines, blogs, e-zines or newspapers, I tend to consume information like Chris Farley at a Twinkie factory. I even have BBC world news set as my #1 preset on my radio.

All that being said, this is the time of year where I seriously consider pulling a Ted Kaczinski and locking myself in a remote cabin, all the while composing my manifesto railing about the evils of modern technology. What is the source of my frustration? Election season!!

During election season, a trip to the "Letters to the Editor" section of any major newspaper turns into a minefield of half-truths, conspiracy theories and some partisan ranting that would make any self-medicated street person proud. Near as I can tell, the political "opinions" tend to fall into 1 of 4 categories:
  1. George W. Bush & the Republican party are the source for all things evil in the world today and are the cause of war, pestilence, poverty, hunger and the inexplicable popularity of Ryan Seacrest.
  2. The Democratic party hates America, does not support our troops, is a bunch of lily-livered wussbags and are nothing but (this cliche is my favorite) bleeding-heart liberals.
  3. I am voting for [fill in candidate's name here] because they are on my side. The other guy doesn't care about the working family (oddly enough, both sides of the aisle use this one).
  4. Sombody ought to do somehting about [fill in flavor of the month issue].

Please, some one make it stop. My 6 year old and 4 year old argue with more intelligence than the candidates for governor or senator in my home state of Michigan. Both the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor seem set on bending the truth more than Uri Geller used to do to spoons. Debbie Stabenow in the race for Senate is going with the old tried-and-true political method of "If I say it enough times, it must be true!" in her race against Mike Bouchard. She has advanced the claim that Mike Bouchard served on the board of a company that outsourced jobs overseas...a pretty damning claim in the state of Michigan.

Problem is, the company in question (Jackson National Life Insurance) is quite sure it never outsourced a single job and is demanding a retraction. Stabenow's response? "Well, we stand by our ads becuase it's what we see as the truth." Interesting...too bad that doesn't work in other aspects of life. "Sir, we can't sell you this car because your claim of income of one gazillion dollars is untrue." "Well, I stand my claim because it what's I see as the truth."

The privilege of voting is what makes our country unique. The entire concept of candidates making their cases and informed voters selecting the best leader is the highest form of government on the earth today. Unfortunately, our society is now the equivalent of a high school lockerroom - only the prettiest and most telegenic have a shot at success and all substance it thrown to the wayside. Kinda sad that twice the amount of people who will vote for our government this November 7th will vote for an "American Idol" in a few months.

So now I will retreat into my Fortress of Solitude until the election has ended and the political brouhaha dies down...at least for a few months anyway.

16 October, 2006

Miami - Florida International...One unfortunate event or a snapshot of todays society?

Vegging out in front the tube after a day with the family on Saturday, I caught the late Sportscenter before I headed off for a couple of hours of shut-eye. The announcers threw out out one of those wonderful "teasers" before the break about another ugly University of Miami incident (okay, I'll admit it, I bit and hung on through 2 and a half minutes of late-night advertising).

What they showed over the next couple of minutes was the sporting equivalent of a train wreck. Players for both teams slugging it out like it was a scene from some Scottish battlefield...all that was missing was a blue face-painted William Wallace to come charging out out of the bleachers, broadsword in hand. It was not pretty to say the least. But then that little voice in my head (the one that always seems to get me into trouble) started to whisper into my subconcious..."C'mon, it was the heat of the moment. There's a lot of adrenaline out there. What happens on the field isn't the same as real life."

But is that the truth? Does one's actions depend on the situation you're in? Do circumstances absolve us of our responsibility to do the right thing?

The phrase "perfect storm" refers to the simultaneous occurrence of events that taken individually would be far less powerful than the result of their chance combination. Such occurrences are rare by their very nature, so that even a slight change in any one event contributing to the perfect storm would lessen its overall impact.

The melee that erupted in the third quarter of the Florida International-Miami game Saturday was a perfect storm. A complex matrix of factors was involved and is being trumpeted across the sports and educational landscape: The campuses of the two teams are nine miles apart, the Miami team is in a frustrating period, Miami coach Larry Coker is under fire, the Canes' reputation for thuggery seems to be returning, and the weaker opponent started the fight. The debacle is the subject of much evaluation and moralizing. It has evoked heartfelt apologies from FIU and Miami coaches and officials, and disciplinary action from each school and conference.

The aftermath is predictable except for one aspect. We are acting as if we are surprised. How could rational thinkers possibly be surprised? The surprise should be that we do not have more unbridled violence in our sports. We live in a culture that celebrates belligerence like we once celebrated religious holidays. We live in a culture in which a large percentage of fathers have abdicated responsibility to raise their children. We live in a culture in which many parents would rather be friends with their children than disciplinarians of their children.

Our kids play video games that make the FIU-Miami brawl look like a Sunday school picnic. We pack huge arenas to watch grotesque actors impersonate competitive athletes while bashing each other with metal folding chairs and throwing referees out of the rings. We allow our children to listen to song lyrics that call into question the most basic attributes of human decency. We pay millions of dollars to radio talk hawks like Howard Stern, who pound away at the fabric of reason and diplomacy. Football fans believe it is their absolute right to scream obscenities into the faces of coaches, coaches' families, players and players' families. No one is pressing for the solution to this growing menace. No one is putting it into context. "The coach must take responsibility," pontificates the former coach. "Fire the coach!" scream the boosters (who, by the way, always scream, "Fire the coach!"). "I wish the coach would teach my son how to behave," exclaim the parents.

The quasi-disciplinary response reminds me of an old story of a community in the North Georgia Blue Ridge Mountains. The twists and turns in the two-lane roads around the secluded village were so severe that cars periodically slid off the pavement and rolled down the mountainside with disastrous consequences. The astute town government met, and over a few mason jars of a locally produced beverage, made a landmark decision. "We gonna do something about this problem with our roads," stated the mayor. "We gonna build a hospital at the bottom of the hill where most of them cars end up."

It has been a while since I was in the middle of one of these fights, but once one has been there, one never forgets the fear and adrenaline rush. When you watch the films, it is hard to convince yourself that you actually did the things you did. You watch normally staid, reserved men, including yourself, going absolutely berserk, and you begin to question the whole premise of violent sports. Then you evaluate, take a hard look at yourself, and realize the truth. This kind of behavior lurks just beneath the surface of competitive athletes -- all the time.

Strong coaches and mature team leaders must come together, discuss their behavior, decide what must be done with the team, get it done, and go on about the business of playing hard and fair. The pitiful penalties will accomplish nothing. If they worked, the Clemson-South Carolina fiasco of 2004 would have been our last such incident.

There are two pains in life, the pain of discipline and the pain of regret. You choose. I choose. At times like this, the entire leadership cadre of organized sport chooses. We are at a crucial juncture. How we choose here will make all the difference in the potential perfect storms to come.