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While We Still Have Time

In spite of the grimness of the times in which we live, there is still hope. If you feel, like I do, that the usual discourse about matters of critical concern tends to be superficial, misguided, and false, then you might find some solace and inspiration here. I will try to offer insight and a holistic perspective on events and issues, and hopefully serve as a catalyst for raising the level of dialogue on this planet.

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Location: Madison, Wisconsin, United States

I was born in 1945, shortly before atom bombs were dropped on Japan. I served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1971. I earned master's degrees in Economics and Educational Psychology, and certificates in Web Page Design and as a Teacher of English as a Second Language. I followed an Indian guru for eight years, which immersed me in meditative practices and an attitude of reaching a higher level of being. A blog post listing the meditative practices I have pursued can be seen here.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Tipping Point

Sexual abuse by a college coach is in the news again, this time by an assistant basketball coach at Syracuse. This case is a little more in doubt than the Jerry Sandusky case, but the likelihood is that there is merit to the accusations. The news last night showed old footage of the coach, Bernie Fine, patting a player on the behind. We won't be seeing this goofy practice any more. I always thought the ubiquitous pats on the rear end a bit creepy. It's not something I have ever done, nor had it done to me.

I believe it is safe to say that these sex abuse reports are going to be coming out of the woodwork. The probability that these two cases are isolated incidents is extremely low, for the simple reason that sexual predation of all kinds is a characteristic of our culture, and the power that coaches wield on our college campuses is vastly out of proportion to their contributions to the education of students.

Football in particular is vulnerable to sexual shenanigans. The game itself is a kind of sexualized violence. The tight pants, shoulder pads and helmet lend an aura of super-masculinity to already super-large men. When the quarterback reaches under the center to "call the signals" he puts his top hand against the other player's anal sphincter and testicles. This is totally weird, but it is done everywhere. Then the center "hikes" the football between his legs into the quarterback's waiting hands, whereupon the quarterback either runs, passes, or hands the ball off to one of his "running backs." Players block, clobber and grab each other in an orgy of violent physical contact, often injuring each other for life. Fans go wild watching this spectacle, and spend billions of dollars a year to work themselves into states of intense excitement before, during and after games.

In my previous post I wrote about some of the coaches I have encountered in my life. I forgot one of my favorite stories. In 1978 I worked at the Campus Inn in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Like the name says, it is directly across the street from the University of Michigan campus. On the nights before home football games the U of M football team would be sequestered there to keep them focused on the next day's game. My job included valet parking of cars, bellman, and driving airline flight crews (Pan Am, Northwest) to and from the Detroit Airport. Among the notables whose cars I parked were Warren Zevon ($1 tip, thanks) and Ella Fitzgerald (No tip. I even carried her luggage. Ba dweep doodly bop bow!)

I enjoyed the Campus Inn. It was a pretty relaxed place to work, and all kinds of goofy things happened there. Employees got free meals at the "Victor's Lounge," the hotel's restaurant. There was a waitress I worked with who was so completely dumb, sincere and gorgeous that I just had to fall completely in love with her. There was a second restaurant near the lobby, and one day a customer started choking on some food. The stupid waitress went into a panic and ran one way, stopped suddenly, and ran the other way, completely helpless, without a clue as to what to do. She was so innocent and selfless that I think it was then that my heart was stolen. She had the same kind of flowing strawberry blond hair as Farrah Fawcett, but was far more beautiful. I wonder what ever became of her. She deserved a lot better than she would likely ever get.

One of the steady customers at the Campus Inn was the U of M football coach Bo Schembechler. He had recently been divorced, so he would meet at the hotel with his assistant coaches and other hangers on in what today would be called a "posse." They would all come in on Sunday mornings for a late breakfast, yuk it up for a while, and then leave. I would hear them say things like "Let's go to Bo's place for beer and pizza." Or just "Let's go over to Bo's to watch the game." Boys' night out every day of the week.

One Sunday morning Bo came in by himself after parking his Chevy Suburban (precurser to the now omnipresent SUV) in the "tunnel" alongside the hotel. I told him he couldn't park there because it was a fire lane. The term fire lane has meaning. If there is a fire in the hotel, fire trucks need to get through the tunnel to where they can best locate to fight the fire. This meant nothing to Bo Schembechler. He breezed on past me as if I weren't there, not even bothering to look at me.

The street-facing restaurant was near enough to the front desk that conversations could be heard both ways. I groused to the front desk clerk about how Bo Schembechler was so arrogant that he thought he was too good to move his vehicle out of the fire lane. I went on about his post-season record, saying louder than I realized, "He can't even win a bowl game." At that point he had not won a bowl game, though he did later.

Bo and his posse never came back. I didn't miss them. He was just another arrogant coach to me. A few years later I was amused to watch him penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct at the Bluebonnet Bowl, a feat he reprised in his final game, the 1990 Rose Bowl (which he lost).

C'est la vie. By now a syndrome should be forming. Another coach story might make it clearer. When I moved to Madison in the early 1990s the easiest kind of work to find was in building maintenance, having worked in the construction trades and maintenance work for about twelve years. I found a job doing maintenance at a motel on the far east side of town, which sufficed until I could find something better. Most of what I did was painting rooms, with a lot of snow removal in the winter.

In March of every year the state wrestling and basketball tournaments are held at the University of Wisconsin, and every hotel and motel in town gets filled to capacity. The basketball team that stayed in the motel where I worked was in one of the smaller divisions, and I can't remember if they won or not. One thing I do remember is the partying that went on in the motel rooms. Not surprisingly, the cheerleaders paired-up with the basketball players, spending the night in the various rooms. The following morning was nonstop mayhem, with teenagers running around in the halls, going from room-to-room, and with some rooms remaining as private liaisons between intimate pairs. It was up to the coaches and teacher chaperons to get the students check out in time and on the buses to head home.

I remember one coach in particular, because he went around knocking on doors and demanded to be let in. A girl behind one of the doors said "I'm indisposed." The coach replied, "That's OK! I seen it before." He was almost a caricature of the dumb coach. "I seen it before" revealed his command of the English language. The "it" he referred to revealed his purpose for demanding to be let in. He said nothing about getting checked out and on the bus. He just wanted in on an obviously private and intimate situation between two students. If he had seen "it" before, he did something in the past that he shouldn't have been doing.

The coach and the chaperons were doing an irresponsible and incompetent job of chaperoning the students. Teenagers will be teenagers, but the adults in charge are supposed to be adults. Instead, what I saw was adults trying to be teenagers. I only worked at one motel during one championship season in one out of fifty states. If you extrapolate this to fifty states in championships throughout the school year every year, the creepiness of coaches is a silent epidemic.

I have yet another coaching story. During the early 2000s I worked as a substitute teacher when my regular job was slow. One day in about 2004 I was called to teach Physical Education (P.E., or Phy. Ed., as they say in Wisconsin) at one of the local high schools. The coach who taught the class was in his office when I arrived, but had to leave soon. He told me the last period was a coed class, and I wouldn't be able to get them to do anything. I had encountered this kind of attitude many times when substitute teaching, and thought "We'll see."

The class was indeed a challenge. They didn't dress in P.E. clothes, and weren't very interested in doing the day's activity, a softball game. I took the easy approach, telling them they could play in their street clothes, they could have mixed male and female teams, and that they could be on whichever side they wanted.

It worked. They played the entire hour, had great fun, and the most resistant girl in the class thanked me afterwards and shook my hand. One guy in the class was built like a football player, but a "troubled youth" type. He hit a long shot to the outfield, and ended up rounding the bases and sliding home head first. He was so happy I started feeling verklempt. Everyone on both teams cheered when he scored. These kids were the outcasts. I didn't treat them as outcasts, and they did as well as anyone, and had fun doing it.

One time when I was subbing in the 70s I was called to teach a high school math class whose regular teacher was the tennis coach. The kids weren't learning much. They told me all the teacher did was brag about his college fraternity. I got them working, except for one poor kid who the coach ignored completely. I thought taking an interest in him might help, but he was way behind the class, and it was too embarrassing for him to receive any attention. He should have been in special education, and certainly shouldn't have been in a class taught by a coach.

What all these stories have in common is the arrogance, self-focus, and irresponsibility of coaches I have encountered over the years. There were others who weren't so bad, but I would put them in the extreme minority. The ones I have described are the more typical. When you compound their already limited contributions to society with outlandishly high pay in college football and basketball, you can expect trouble. We have been seeing the results for decades, but now the dark side of the coaching profession is exploding in our faces.

Beyond just coaching, the culture of sports has reached a level of hyperbole that is obscene. Like the overinflated housing market of a few years ago, it had to come crashing down. With these pedophile scandals in sport the bubble has now burst. Along with the Occupy Wall Street movement, maybe we should start an Occupy college administration buildings movement. That's where the decisions are made. I wouldn't recommend an occupy athletic departments movement. It would be seen as anti-athlete.

Beyond sports, we are at a tipping point for which there is no turning back. Our system is corrupt. Not totally corrupt, but sufficiently corrupt. Sufficient for it to break down. The more it breaks down, the more that it will be broken down. A broken-down social system cannot be repaired. Witness the Soviet Union. Something new is on the way.

This is a good read on the Jerry Sandusky saga.

This would be a good theme song for Jerry Sandusky.

Here's Ella Fitzgerald scat singing. Somewhere I have a Matt Groening cartoon about scat singing being a form of torture, or level of Hades, or something like that.

Here's a funny update.

This update isn't so funny, but was entirely predictable.
Wikipedia needs money again. Support Wikipedia

This is something new I'm trying.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Golden Opportunity

There was a "moment of silence" before Saturday's Penn State football game. Symbolic moments of silence are a time-honored tradition at "American" sporting events, usually in remembrance of one or more people who have died.

This time it was different. Officially the moment of silence was for child abuse victims. Nothing specific, just children who have been abused somewhere, some time. Not how they were abused, not where, not how many, and not when. It was almost as if the school and the fans just up and decided to have a moment of silence for victims of child abuse.

It wasn't very convincing. The real mourning was for Joe Paterno, Penn State's football coach since 1966. That was forty-five years ago. I was a senior in college in 1966. Paterno played college football when I was one year old.

During Paterno's tenure at Penn State he won 409 games, the most of any coach in NCAA history. He attained that distinction on October 29 of this year, defeating Illinois 10-7. The record had been held by legendary Grambling coach Eddie Robinson.

Now Joe Paterno has been fired, leaving Penn State in disgrace after public disclosure of his role in the child molestation scandal involving one of his former coaches, Jerry Sandusky. Paterno knew about the molestations, but by all appearances participated in a coverup of the crimes, along with the university president and other officials. It would appear that the record for most victories trumped all other considerations in Joe Paterno's mind - his advanced age (84), criminal activity under his trust, protection of children, the integrity of the football program, his own integrity.

Like virtually everyone else in the country I was surprised and shocked at the news. I shouldn't have been. I wasn't so enamored of Joe Paterno. It seemed to me he stayed far past the time he should have retired. When Penn State joined the Big 10 athletic conference I thought it was a craven move to win championships and make money for the football program, to the detriment of the other 10 teams. Of course, it was, but that's the nature of the game.

In pondering the whys and wherefors of the Paterno scandal I looked back on my own athletic experience for insight. For every Heisman Trophy winner or All-American there are millions of other athletes who play at the margins, unheralded and in most cases unknown. I was one of those athletes, far back in the pack. Still, I played, and learned much in the organized sports that I played so ignomineously.

When I was ten years old my family moved to Kankakee, Illinois. It was a baseball town, and in 1958 the Little League team played in the World Series finals. They lost to a team from Mexico that had sixteen-year-olds on the team.

That same year I tried out for Pony League, the next level after Little League. I hadn't played in Little League, and in the tryouts faced fast pitching for the first time. The pitcher I faced, a guy named Jack Coy, was firing pitches at 90 miles per hour. In practice. What a waste. Major league scouts came to watch him pitch, but he later "threw out" his pitching arm, and didn't play baseball at all after Pony League.

The fast pitching scared the daylights out of me. I can still remember the sound of the pitches hitting the catcher's mitt. "Whop!" "Whop!" "Whop!" "Next batter!" I didn't make the cut.

The same thing happened the next year, without any batting practice. I wasn't a very good baseball player, and was smaller than most kids my age. When I was fourteen years old I was five feet tall and 85 pounds. I was pretty good for playing at the neighborhood park, but organized ball is on a different level.

Another thing stands out in my memory of going out for Pony League. During the mass tryout one of the coaches walked around, wearing his "Domestic Laundry" delivery driver's uniform, gripping a baseball the way pitchers do when they are breaking a ball in. He walked with swagger, and looked over the players like cattle at auction. Indeed, in the clipping at right the player assignments were referred to as an "auction," and players were "bought." I wonder what I went for.

Undeterred by this failure, I tried out for football when I started high school. I was the smallest kid on the team, but I was enjoying it, even though I was far back on what today would be called the "depth chart." My dad made me quit after about a month, telling me to devote myself to my studies, which I promptly stopped doing.

Roger Bannister at the finish line when he was the first person to run a mile under four minutes, May 6, 1954The following spring I went out for the track team, inspired by the great mile runner Roger Bannister. He was the first person to run a mile in less than four minutes, and I was inspired by his historic feat. I ran the mile at 4 minutes, 55 seconds in practice, and was put on the varsity track team, the only freshman on the team.

Unfortunately, I never broke five minutes again, and got steadily worse every year. In my senior year I gave up running the mile and switched to the half-mile. I ran a good race my first time out, but again got steadily worse each race.

In my junior and senior years in high school I played football again, without distinction. It was fun, though, especially in practice, where I often played defensive back. I could pick out who was going to carry the ball by the ways players lined up, which angered the coaches. Finally one of them asked me how I knew, and I told him. I thought this would get me some playing time, but I think the coaches resented me figuring something out that they should have known. They were pretty crappy coaches.

They did give everyone a chance, I have to say. I was put in at halfback in games where we were winning handily, and one time at fullback, where I gained one yard before being piled on by the defensive line. I got the wind knocked out of me, and the coaches likely thought I was dead. The other team had a guy who weighed 270 pounds, and a couple of others who were about 220. I weighed 125. My one yard got into the season statistics, and was better than some.

During my senior year in high school a friend organized a CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) basketball team, and invited me to play. He said we would probably end up in last place, but would have a lot of fun. That didn't sound like much fun to me, but I had an idea. I called a friend from the neighborhood, who was a star player on the public high school team that beat our team to win the regional tournament two years previous. He was six-foot-six, and was a fearsome talent, recently kicked off his college team for being a "gunner." He told me he would play if I paid his CYO membership fee, and I got the $11 from my dad, who believed he was paying for my membership. We won almost all our games, and would have won the championship had the officiating been honest. C'est la vie.

Strangely enough, basketball was probably my strongest sport. I went out for basketball when I was a high school freshman, and stayed on the team long enough to learn how to play defense - "Stay between your man and the basket" - and could jump pretty high. On the CYO team I was a good rebounder, and at five feet eight, played forward. I held the (then) highest scorer in the league scoreless, and we beat their team of public high school football stars by 28 points. It was the best team sport experience I ever had.

Ah, if I could only do this now.My greatest athletic performance was in Army basic training in 1968. Every few weeks we were given PT tests - physical training - to measure our progress in a number of tasks. I did pretty well in all of them, and surprised myself and the drill sergeants in "walking" the horizontal bars, where I maxed-out at 66. I think only one or two others in our company did better.

One of the greatest lessons I learned in the various organized sports I played (or attempted to play) was to be wary of men who become coaches. I remember as far back as grade school that I felt an unease around coaches. There was something kind of off about them. A guy volunteered as our grade school track coach when I was about 12 or 13 years old, and he was an incongruity. He didn't know anything about track, didn't know anything about coaching, was a hothead, and just had a really bad vibe. I don't remember what happened, but the track season didn't last very long, and we never ran in a meet. I never heard of the "coach" again.

I remember our high school coaches much better. They were typical of coaches I have seen elsewhere - pompous, egocentric, not very bright, favored their star players while ignoring everyone else, and not particularly good teachers. I've seen worse while substitute teaching.

The worst of all was when I had a job driving a school bus in the late 1980s to early '90s. The best money was in taking classes or sports teams on road trips. One Saturday I was assigned to drive the school baseball team to a game against West Aurora, a statewide power. The team lost the game despite a grand slam home run from its star player.

Usually when a game ended I would leave with the team as soon as the bus was loaded and everyone on board. Not this time. The coach had me turn of the engine, and proceeded to chew the team out for losing, not for anything specific, just for being losers. He was one of the biggest jerks I have ever come across. I felt like throwing him off the bus. The driver is the authority on the bus, and that was as close as I had come to telling someone to get out. From his tone it was pretty obvious that the coach only cared about himself and his job, and nothing for the players.

Nowadays sports are big business. Professional athletes make millions of dollars a year, and owners make even more, with some exceptions. College sports, technically amateur, have become an embarrassment. Coaches and athletic directors make millions, while players earn no money, at least officially. Schools are continually being caught paying players "under the table," or providing them with cars, clothes, TVs, and even prostitutes.

Here at the University of Wisconsin we have a perfect example. Athletic Director Barry Alvarez earns a salary of $1,000,000 per year. Football coach Bret Bielema's annual take is $2.5 million. Basketball coach Bo Ryan earns $2,111,364.

To get a better idea of how big the UW sports program is I took a tour a few days ago of the sports facilities. It's pretty unbelievable. Camp Randall Stadium, where the "Badgers" play football, holds over 80,000 fans. The Kohl Center, where the basketball and hockey teams play, holds 17,230. In a ranking of profits of major colleges in both football and basketball the football program makes the 22nd highest ($16,621,480), and the basketball program is 42nd ($10,126,893). Both are higher than Southern California's football program, 48th at $8,259,649.

Most stunning to me among the UW's athletic buildings is the indoor practice facility. It is imposing from the outside, but is even more daunting from the inside, with two underground levels. It has an eighty yard football field, a huge weight room, a sports medicine area, team meeting rooms, a tutoring center, and numerous other offices of which I don't know the function.

This is too much. It's too much everywhere. The two schools where I went to graduate school, Southern Illinois University and Northern Illinois University, both decided to go "big time" during my time at each. Money poured in, both from the state and from donors. Now they have expanded stadiums and big athletic budgets. The way college athletics began was to enhance the college experience for the players, making them well-rounded human beings through fair competition.

Now it is big business, the well-roundedness a matter of luck. The student athlete of today is athlete first, student maybe. Some go on to be doctors and lawyers and such, some to be coaches, some to sell insurance, and some go on to alcohol, drugs, crime and an early death. Many, especially football players, end up with serious brain injuries that cause lifetime difficulties. The important thing to the universities is that the athletes bring paying fans through the turnstiles.

The business of college sports has reached a zenith and nadir simultaneously. The money involved is beyond obscene, and now the scandals are rapidly catching up. The Penn State fiasco is the culmination of many years of malfeasance nationwide. If the most reputable sports program in the country covers up for a serial child molester and maybe worse, what, we must wonder, is going on everywhere else?

An even larger question is what is going on in the broader context of business, government, and other institutions. Sunday's 60 Minutes had a segment about how members of Congress from both parties, including the current and previous speakers of the House of Representatives, have been buying stocks based on inside information. These insider trades have yielded millions of dollars in free money. This is nothing new, but it is becoming clear that we have a comprehensively corrupt society.

Given the ongoing Wall Street fraud scandal, the corruption in our Congress, a corporate class that behaves with near-impunity, our increasingly fake mainstream news media, and the breakdown of some of our other major institutions, the larger question is if we are going the way of the Roman Empire. I think we are, but it is also a time of golden opportunity. There has been no other time since the Civil War that our country has been poised for fundamental change. With energy, wisdom, and more than a little good luck, we may be on the brink of a golden age.

Here's an update from Weekend Update.

For a further examination of institutional self-protection, this story from CNN is a good start.

Here's another little update.

Maybe all we need is a little more Bread and Circus. An explanation of the term might help.

We all have dreams of greatness when we are young.