All posts by David Von Ebers

The Curious Case of the Poor, Beleaguered Former Secretary of State

Condoleezza Rice, who served as Pres. George W. Bush’s National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, recently turned down an invitation to deliver the commencement address at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, to the dismay of many would-be First Amendment scholars and free-speech purists. Her reason? The wide-spread student protests that greeted the University’s announcement that she would speak.

CNN explains:

Condoleezza Rice, former US secretary of state announced on Facebook Saturday that she would not be speaking at the Rutgers University commencement this year, following student protests against her appearance.

The students made accusations against her in connection with the war in Iraq.

“Commencement should be a time of joyous celebration for the graduates and their families,” Rice wrote.

“Rutgers’ invitation to me to speak has become a distraction for the university community at this very special time.”

To no one’s surprise, Dr. Rice’s decision not to speak set off the predictable weeping and gnashing of teeth among those who believe the First Amendment requires every speaker to be able to speak whenever and wherever he or she chooses, and requires every person to listen to what any speaker has to say in every single circumstance. For example, on Wednesday the Daily Banter published a piece by self-professed “millennial” Olivia Nuzzi (oh, how I hate these pat descriptions of huge demographic groups – thanks, advertising industry!), who bemoaned the former Secretary of State’s fate:

Rice occupied one of the most important offices in the whole country. But you’re right, kids, she probably has nothing interesting to say or any good advice because she was involved in a senseless war.

Nice of you to acknowledge that bit about the “senseless war” that claimed the lives of more than 4,000 U.S. servicemen and women and an estimated 500,000 Iraqi civilians, Ms. Nuzzi. But I digress.

Yes, it is indeed possible that Dr. Rice might have some valuable “advice” – maybe even advice that doesn’t involve lying about a certain you-know-whose weapons of mass you-know-what. But the premise of Ms. Nuzzi’s piece is that the students at Rutgers (among other examples she cites) protested Dr. Rice’s appearance because they’re “afraid” of opposing ideas. “The entire point of college is to be exposed to different things,” she insists.

Now, I don’t profess to be as gifted as Ms. Nuzzi at reading the minds of thousands of complete strangers, but it occurs to me that she may be wrong about the motivation of those Rutgers students. Because it’s entirely possible that some or all of them object not to Dr. Rice’s words or her ideas, but to her actions. It’s not like Dr. Rice spent eight years sitting in a wingback leather chair smoking a pipe and musing abstractly about foreign affairs; she was directly involved in planning and selling an illegal war that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. God forbid we should consider the morality of what our political leaders do, but that’s some pretty nasty business. Why, it’s the kind of thing that might get you shunned from polite society. If there is such a thing.

So, the question arises: Is it altogether unreasonable for students who spent tens of thousands of dollars to get to that graduation ceremony (or who went tens of thousands of dollars in debt to get there) to have some strong feelings about their University bestowing a major accolade on someone with that that kind of track record? And don’t kid yourselves; it is a major accolade to be invited to speak at a big time college graduation … and it’s one that comes with a hefty price tag:

Rice was scheduled to receive a $35,000 speaking fee and an honorary degree for her speech.

Oh. That’s nice. Dr. Rice was to get $35,000 and an honorary degree. But, yes, Ms. Nuzzi, it’s all about being afraid of opposing ideas, not about lavishing cash and prizes on a possible war criminal.

And here’s the glorious irony of it all, which, perhaps, Ms. Nuzzi, being a “millennial,” doesn’t fully appreciate. The rest of us were (ahem) exposed to Condoleezza Rice’s ideas for at least eight solid years while George W. Bush was in office. And not merely exposed to Dr. Rice’s ideas – we were exposed to them to the exclusion of dissenting voices. Yes, that’s right. When Dr. Rice was serving in Pres. Bush’s administration, she and her colleagues were indulged by the most solicitous media I’ve witnessed in my 52 years on the planet. She and her co-conspirators – er, colleagues – appeared regularly on the Sunday morning talk show circuit, and many of them still do, to the nodding adulation of the Fourth Estate’s talking heads. The New York Times published the Bush Administration’s misinformation about Iraq above the fold on a daily basis, thanks in no small part to a reporter who had an uncomfortably close relationship with Vice Pres. Cheney and his henchman, Scooter Libby, and barely acknowledged its woefully shoddy reporting even after the Administration’s case for war evaporated before our eyes.

And those who disagreed with Dr. Rice and her friends in the Administration? Those “opposing ideas”? Yeah, they were ignored, unreported, marginalized, ridiculed, silenced.

Because Americans really were afraid of those ideas.

So after years of having her ideas crammed down our throats, we’re supposed to care that students at Rutgers said, “Enough already with the ideas, Dr. Rice”?

But I could be wrong. Maybe in perfect world, everybody would listen to opposing ideas all the time, in every situation. Maybe every time the Jehovah’s Witnesses ring my doorbell, I should to invite them in for coffee and listen to what they have to say. Because I might learn something! I’m sure Ms. Nuzzi does that, right?

In a perfect world, though, people who opposed the horrifically bad ideas espoused by Condoleezza Rice, et al., for eight years or more would have had a voice, too. They would have had the opportunity to speak, and to be heard, to the same extent as Condoleezza Rice and her pals in the Bush White House. And if that had happened, the whole listening-to-opposing-viewpoints might be a hell of a lot more palatable today.

Dear White Sox Fans …

Photo: “Wrigley Field, Home of the Cubs,” by Paul Cogswell on Flickr

Photo: “Wrigley Field, Home of the Cubs,” by Paul Cogswell on Flickr

Thank you for reminding us, again, that you’re fans of the South Siders.

Although, it was kind of a giveaway, what with the matching jacket and cap. Not to mention the faded “2005 World Series Champions” bumper sticker on your pickup truck. And the Sox flag you fly off your front porch year-round, rain, snow, sleet, and dark of night. Oh, and your baseball jersey collection. The one that represents each time the Sox changed their uniform – and their team colors (?!) – during the 1970s and ’80s. Except for the shorts uniform. For some reason, none of you likes the shorts uniform.

In any event, we get it. For reasons known only to you, it’s critically important that every sentient being in the universe knows and understands that you’re White Sox fans. And that you hate the Cubs. Yes, yes. We know. It’s critically important that everyone knows just how much you hate the other team from the city you call home. Or, from the city near the suburb you call home.

Fair enough.

But, actually, the thing is … the Cubs’ home opener is today. And we were kind of talking about that, if you don’t mind.

Oh, yes, right. Your team won the 2005 World Series. Got it. Again, the bumper sticker reminds us of that. But, you know … message received.

And, yeah, your team won the 1917 World Series, too. And the 1906 Series. That one was against the Cubs? You don’t say. I’ve never heard that before.

But, as I was saying. It’s Opening Day at Wrigley. The ivy’s not quite green yet, thanks to the murderously long winter we just endured, but there are signs. This is a team on the move. Not this year; probably not next year. But it’s a team with long term potential, as Grantland’s Rany Jazayerli explained in painstaking detail last month. Despite their disappointing finish the past two years – and the their likely disappointing finish this year – Team Epstein and Hoyer are actually making progress. And they’re making progress under circumstances that are far more difficult than they faced in Boston.

So, it’s an exciting time to be a Cub fan. Epstein, Hoyer & Co. are developing some great prospects in the farm system, like Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler. And they’ve made some crafty moves with the pitching staff, too, “trying,” as Jazayerli says, “to acquire underrated pitchers cheaply, and then flip them for something better if the opportunity arises.” All of this will take time, of course, but if you have a little patience, it  –

Wait. What’s that? Yes, yes. We know. You hate the Cubs. You want them to rot in hell. And did you mention, you’re White Sox fans?

Yes. Yes, you did.

Sigh.

UPDATE: Northwestern Football Players Allowed to Unionize

Photo credit: Northwestern University’s Ryan Field, by vxla on Flickr

Photo credit: Northwestern University’s Ryan Field, by vxla on Flickr

On Tuesday, I wrote about the efforts of Northwestern University football players, led by their former quarterback, Kain Colter, to win the right to unionize under the auspices of the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA). Now, I’m not saying that piece had any influence on the National Labor Relations Board, but let’s just say it seemed a little … um … coincidental when the Chicago Sun-Times reported on Wednesday that the NLRB’s Chicago Regional Director ruled in favor of Colter and CAPA.

In his opinion – technically called a “Decision and Direction of Election,” which you can download in .pdf format from the NLRB’s website – Regional Director Robert Sung Ohr found that Northwestern’s scholarship football players are “employees” within the meaning of Section 2(3) of the National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 152(3). He therefore ordered that “an election be conducted under the direction of the Regional Director” among the members of the “appropriate bargaining unit,” comprised of “all football players receiving football grant-in-aid scholarship and not having exhausted their playing eligibility,” to determine whether they wished to unionize. Northwestern University, No. 13-RC-121359, Decision and Direction of Election, at 2.

As earth-shattering as this ruling seems at first blush, it’s important to understand that this is the first step in a potentially long, drawn-out process, the ultimate result of which is far from clear. According to the Sun-Times, Northwestern has already indicated that it will appeal the Regional Director’s decision, which means, in technical terms, it will file a “Request for Review” with the full NLRB. In response to the Request for Review, the full Board can then affirm, modify, or reverse the Regional Director’s Decision and Direction of Election. (For further information, see “The NLRB Process” on the Board’s website.) And even if the full Board upholds the Regional Director’s decision, Northwestern likely will seek a review of the Board’s action in federal court.

Nonetheless, Regional Director Ohr’s Decision and Direction of Election makes an impressive case that scholarship football players are, indeed, “employees,” as that term in used in the law: They perform services which confer substantial benefits – including financial benefits – on the university; they are compensated for their services in the form of tuition and room-and-board grants; they are subject to rules and regulations to which other university students are not subjected; they devote an extraordinary amount of time and effort to football, separate and apart from academics; and they are subject to strict controls imposed by the university and the football coaching staff. Having a fair amount of experience in the field of employment law, I can tell you that those are the hallmarks of what the law considers “employment” to be. Nor does it matter how the parties to that arrangement characterize it; you can call your workers “employees,” “independent contractors,” “volunteers,” or “student-athletes,” but if the legal elements of an employment relationship are there, they are employees in the eyes of the law.

“As the record demonstrates,” Regional Director Ohr wrote, “players receiving scholarships to perform football-related services for the Employer under a contract for hire in return for compensation are subject to the Employer’s control and are therefore employees within the meaning of the Act.” Northwestern University, No. 13-RC-121359, Decision and Direction of Election, at 14. That should be apparent to anyone paying attention to the business of college football. Still, given the sentimental attachment to the mythical – and largely imaginary – notion of the “student-athlete” that permeates the world of college sports, it’s anybody’s guess whether Director Ohr’s common sense approach will prevail.

UPDATE: Northwestern Football Players Allowed to Unionize

Photo credit: Northwestern University’s Ryan Field, by vxla on Flickr

Photo credit: Northwestern University’s Ryan Field, by vxla on Flickr

On Tuesday, I wrote about the efforts of Northwestern University football players, led by their former quarterback, Kain Colter, to win the right to unionize under the auspices of the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA). Now, I’m not saying that piece had any influence on the National Labor Relations Board, but let’s just say it seemed a little … um … coincidental when the Chicago Sun-Times reported on Wednesday that the NLRB’s Chicago Regional Director ruled in favor of Colter and CAPA.

In his opinion – technically called a “Decision and Direction of Election,” which you can download in .pdf format from the NLRB’s website – Regional Director Robert Sung Ohr found that Northwestern’s scholarship football players are “employees” within the meaning of Section 2(3) of the National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 152(3). He therefore ordered that “an election be conducted under the direction of the Regional Director” among the members of the “appropriate bargaining unit,” comprised of “all football players receiving football grant-in-aid scholarship and not having exhausted their playing eligibility,” to determine whether they wished to unionize. Northwestern University, No. 13-RC-121359, Decision and Direction of Election, at 2.

As earth-shattering as this ruling seems at first blush, it’s important to understand that this is the first step in a potentially long, drawn-out process, the ultimate result of which is far from clear. According to the Sun-Times, Northwestern has already indicated that it will appeal the Regional Director’s decision, which means, in technical terms, it will file a “Request for Review” with the full NLRB. In response to the Request for Review, the full Board can then affirm, modify, or reverse the Regional Director’s Decision and Direction of Election. (For further information, see “The NLRB Process” on the Board’s website.) And even if the full Board upholds the Regional Director’s decision, Northwestern likely will seek a review of the Board’s action in federal court.

Nonetheless, Regional Director Ohr’s Decision and Direction of Election makes an impressive case that scholarship football players are, indeed, “employees,” as that term in used in the law: They perform services which confer substantial benefits – including financial benefits – on the university; they are compensated for their services in the form of tuition and room-and-board grants; they are subject to rules and regulations to which other university students are not subjected; they devote an extraordinary amount of time and effort to football, separate and apart from academics; and they are subject to strict controls imposed by the university and the football coaching staff. Having a fair amount of experience in the field of employment law, I can tell you that those are the hallmarks of what the law considers “employment” to be. Nor does it matter how the parties to that arrangement characterize it; you can call your workers “employees,” “independent contractors,” “volunteers,” or “student-athletes,” but if the legal elements of an employment relationship are there, they are employees in the eyes of the law.

“As the record demonstrates,” Regional Director Ohr wrote, “players receiving scholarships to perform football-related services for the Employer under a contract for hire in return for compensation are subject to the Employer’s control and are therefore employees within the meaning of the Act.” Northwestern University, No. 13-RC-121359, Decision and Direction of Election, at 14. That should be apparent to anyone paying attention to the business of college football. Still, given the sentimental attachment to the mythical – and largely imaginary – notion of the “student-athlete” that permeates the world of college sports, it’s anybody’s guess whether Director Ohr’s common sense approach will prevail.

Northwestern Football: Look for the Union Label

Photo credit: Northwestern University’s Ryan Field, by vxla on Flickr

Photo credit: Northwestern University’s Ryan Field, by vxla on Flickr

Damn you, Kain Colter.

As a die-hard fan of the University of Illinois, it’s my sworn duty to hate our in-state rival, Northwestern. And most of the time, I do. But you, sir, have caused me to set that rivalry on the back burner while I ponder this: In January, the Chicago Tribune reported that a group of NU football players led by Colter, their former quarterback, filed paperwork with the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago to form a union under the auspices of an organization called the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA). The NLRB’s website confirms that an “RC petition”–that is, a petition for a representation election–was filed on January 28, 2014.

According to the Tribune, the goal of CAPA is not to get college athletes paid for playing sports. Rather:

The group has a sizable list of demands that includes financial coverage for sports-related medical expenses, placing independent concussion experts on the sidelines during games, establishing an educational trust fund to help former players graduate and “due process” before a coach could strip a player of his scholarship for a rules violation.

The organization also wants players to receive “cost of attendance” stipends — most major-conference schools agree — and allow them to be compensated for commercial sponsorships “consistent with evolving NCAA regulations.”

As Colter says, “We’re asking for a seat at the table to get our voice heard.”

And, indeed, it seems as though Colter and his CAPA allies are motivated less by a desire for remuneration than by genuine concerns over health and safety. The Daily Beast’s Evan Weiner points out that “[t]he catalyst for the unionization movement came after the NCAA said in a court filing that it does not have a ‘legal duty to protect student-athletes.’”

That case, Kristen L. Sheely, et al. v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, et al., No. 380569V (Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Maryland), arose out of the death of Derek Sheely, the starting fullback at Division III Frostburg State University, after he sustained repeated head traumas during preseason football practices in August 2011. The Complaint in the Sheely case, which you can download in .pdf format here, alleges that the NCAA developed a weak plan–and an even weaker enforcement regime–to minimize the risk of concussions and related brain injuries in intercollegiate football. Worse still, the coaching staff at Frostburg State disregarded even the NCAA’s watered-down rules, forcing Derek Sheely to run brutal drills involving head contact even after he developed clear signs of injury. And they did so knowing the NCAA would do little or nothing to punish the school for its actions.

So, it was against this backdrop that CAPA and Colter filed their NLRB petition, raising the question how college football players are to protect their own health and safety when the NCAA provides little meaningful protection, and at least some of its member institutions flout even those meager guidelines. The answer, according to CAPA and Colter, is through collective bargaining–the same way unionized workers protect their rights in the workplace.

At a hearing conducted before the Chicago office of the NLRB last month, it was clear that pro-union college athletes face an uphill battle. Their primary obstacle is the hoary notion that they are “student-athletes,” a concept that has taken on nearly mythical significance in modern sports, but which has a less than distinguished pedigree. As The Nation sports editor Dave Zirin explained last week on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show, the NCAA concocted the term “student-athlete” in the 1950s in an effort to avoid having to pay workers compensation benefits to the wife of Ray Dennison, a Fort Lewis A&M football player who died, interestingly enough, of a head injury incurred while playing football.

But whatever validity the term “student-athlete” may have had in the past–and it’s doubtful it ever had much, at least with regard to major revenue-producing sports like football–the testimony adduced at last month’s NLRB hearings seriously challenges its continuing vitality. Even at a school like Northwestern, which is widely regarded as having managed to improve its football program while maintaining its strict academic standards, football has become big business. From CNN:

Colter testified at the hearing that he loved his experience as an athlete at Northwestern, but the picture he painted was a dim one for believers of the idea that student-athletes are students first.

He said football was dominating his college experience, consuming up to 60 hours a week during the season and up to 20 hours the rest of the year, he said. He and his teammates never got summer and winter breaks, couldn’t schedule certain classes and were required to adhere to dozens of rules or risk losing their scholarships.

“We are first and foremost an athlete,” Colter testified. “Everything we do is scheduled around football. … It’s truly a job.”

And it’s a job that generates considerable wealth for the NCAA and its member institutions–according to Forbes, Northwestern football earned $27,547,684 in total revenue during the 2011-2012 season (against expenses of $20,148,403)–separate and apart from the revenues the institutions generate through academics. So, it seems pretty reasonable, given the time commitment and the physical risks the players have to accept in order to generate that wealth, that the players be allowed to organize for the purpose of negotiating certain minimum protections for their own health and safety.

Unless, of course, the NLRB buys into, and thereby perpetuates, the legal dodge known as the “student-athlete.”

Northwestern Football: Look for the Union Label

Photo credit: Northwestern University’s Ryan Field, by vxla on Flickr

Photo credit: Northwestern University’s Ryan Field, by vxla on Flickr

Damn you, Kain Colter.

As a die-hard fan of the University of Illinois, it’s my sworn duty to hate our in-state rival, Northwestern. And most of the time, I do. But you, sir, have caused me to set that rivalry on the back burner while I ponder this: In January, the Chicago Tribune reported that a group of NU football players led by Colter, their former quarterback, filed paperwork with the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago to form a union under the auspices of an organization called the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA). The NLRB’s website confirms that an “RC petition”–that is, a petition for a representation election–was filed on January 28, 2014.

According to the Tribune, the goal of CAPA is not to get college athletes paid for playing sports. Rather:

The group has a sizable list of demands that includes financial coverage for sports-related medical expenses, placing independent concussion experts on the sidelines during games, establishing an educational trust fund to help former players graduate and “due process” before a coach could strip a player of his scholarship for a rules violation.

The organization also wants players to receive “cost of attendance” stipends — most major-conference schools agree — and allow them to be compensated for commercial sponsorships “consistent with evolving NCAA regulations.”

As Colter says, “We’re asking for a seat at the table to get our voice heard.”

And, indeed, it seems as though Colter and his CAPA allies are motivated less by a desire for remuneration than by genuine concerns over health and safety. The Daily Beast’s Evan Weiner points out that “[t]he catalyst for the unionization movement came after the NCAA said in a court filing that it does not have a ‘legal duty to protect student-athletes.’”

That case, Kristen L. Sheely, et al. v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, et al., No. 380569V (Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Maryland), arose out of the death of Derek Sheely, the starting fullback at Division III Frostburg State University, after he sustained repeated head traumas during preseason football practices in August 2011. The Complaint in the Sheely case, which you can download in .pdf format here, alleges that the NCAA developed a weak plan–and an even weaker enforcement regime–to minimize the risk of concussions and related brain injuries in intercollegiate football. Worse still, the coaching staff at Frostburg State disregarded even the NCAA’s watered-down rules, forcing Derek Sheely to run brutal drills involving head contact even after he developed clear signs of injury. And they did so knowing the NCAA would do little or nothing to punish the school for its actions.

So, it was against this backdrop that CAPA and Colter filed their NLRB petition, raising the question how college football players are to protect their own health and safety when the NCAA provides little meaningful protection, and at least some of its member institutions flout even those meager guidelines. The answer, according to CAPA and Colter, is through collective bargaining–the same way unionized workers protect their rights in the workplace.

At a hearing conducted before the Chicago office of the NLRB last month, it was clear that pro-union college athletes face an uphill battle. Their primary obstacle is the hoary notion that they are “student-athletes,” a concept that has taken on nearly mythical significance in modern sports, but which has a less than distinguished pedigree. As The Nation sports editor Dave Zirin explained last week on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show, the NCAA concocted the term “student-athlete” in the 1950s in an effort to avoid having to pay workers compensation benefits to the wife of Ray Dennison, a Fort Lewis A&M football player who died, interestingly enough, of a head injury incurred while playing football.

But whatever validity the term “student-athlete” may have had in the past–and it’s doubtful it ever had much, at least with regard to major revenue-producing sports like football–the testimony adduced at last month’s NLRB hearings seriously challenges its continuing vitality. Even at a school like Northwestern, which is widely regarded as having managed to improve its football program while maintaining its strict academic standards, football has become big business. From CNN:

Colter testified at the hearing that he loved his experience as an athlete at Northwestern, but the picture he painted was a dim one for believers of the idea that student-athletes are students first.

He said football was dominating his college experience, consuming up to 60 hours a week during the season and up to 20 hours the rest of the year, he said. He and his teammates never got summer and winter breaks, couldn’t schedule certain classes and were required to adhere to dozens of rules or risk losing their scholarships.

“We are first and foremost an athlete,” Colter testified. “Everything we do is scheduled around football. … It’s truly a job.”

And it’s a job that generates considerable wealth for the NCAA and its member institutions–according to Forbes, Northwestern football earned $27,547,684 in total revenue during the 2011-2012 season (against expenses of $20,148,403)–separate and apart from the revenues the institutions generate through academics. So, it seems pretty reasonable, given the time commitment and the physical risks the players have to accept in order to generate that wealth, that the players be allowed to organize for the purpose of negotiating certain minimum protections for their own health and safety.

Unless, of course, the NLRB buys into, and thereby perpetuates, the legal dodge known as the “student-athlete.”

The Sports Fan’s Infinite Capacity to Look the Other Way: NHL Edition

Photo Credit: Semyon Varlamov, by 5of7 on Flickr

Photo Credit: Semyon Varlamov, by 5of7 on Flickr

If you Google the name Semyon Varlamov, the first hit you come across will probably involve his less-than-stellar performance as a goalie for the Russian Federation during last month’s Winter Olympics. Like this story from Sports Illustrated:

When Semyon Varlamov was yanked in Russia’s final hockey game at the Sochi Olympics after allowing three goals in 15 shots, the shock wave was felt 6,269 miles away in Denver.

Fans of the Colorado Avalanche wondered how their goaltender’s ego would hold up over the remainder of the NHL season.

Upon returning to Denver, Varlamov showed he had taken the disappointment in stride.

Or, you might come across a story about the five-year contract extension Varlamov signed with the Colorado Avalanche shortly before he left for Sochi. Like this one from CBSSports.com:

The team doesn’t release the money on the contract but ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun reports it’s for $29.5 million, or $5.9 million per season. Whoa, that’s a lot of cash.

Indeed that is a lot of cash, which is not bad for a Russian guy you’ve probably never heard of unless you’re a fanatical hockey fan or you happen to live in Denver.

But here’s something about Mr. Varlamov you’re not likely to come across unless you know where to look. Last November, he was arrested by Denver Police and charged with second-degree kidnapping and third-degree assault. The victim? Evgeniya Vavrinyuk, Varlamov’s 24-year-old girlfriend with whom he shared an apartment. According to the Denver Post:

She told Denver police he came home drunk Monday and kicked her, knocked her down, dragged her by her hair and told her in Russian that “if this were Russia, he would have beat her more.”

Sounds pretty serious, right?

Not to worry. By December, the whole thing had been swept under the rug. See, the prosecuting attorneys determined that they lacked sufficient evidence to prove Varlamov guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, despite the fact that Vavrinyuk’s physical injuries were consistent with the story she told police. So, the state dropped the charges.

Well. That was convenient. What with the Olympics coming up just a couple of months later in Varlamov’s home country and all.

“From the start the organization as well as his teammates supported him,” Avalanche spokesman Jean Martineau said at the time. “And with today’s DA’s decision, this file comes to an end.”

Except, it didn’t come to an end for Evgeniya Vavrinyuk, Varlamov’s girlfriend – the one with injuries consistent with being kicked, knocked down, and dragged by the hair – who stood by her story even though the state elected to pursue it no further. In a statement released the day after the charges were dropped, Vavrinyuk said:

I am saddened by the decision of the Office of the Denver District Attorney not to pursue the case, but I understand that it is difficult to have enough evidence to prove domestic violence cases. I maintain that all of my statements to the press and investigators have been truthful throughout the process.

As I told police, I was badly beaten by Semyon in the early morning hours of October 29th and very scared, but decided that I had to report it as he had been abusive throughout our relationship and would not change. I left the residence that we shared with only my personal items, $10 in my pocket and nowhere to live. I was very much vulnerable, alone and confused in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language or have any family or support system. While Semyon continued to play hockey, his fans and his employer, the Colorado Avalanche, rallied to his support. Meanwhile, many people made derogatory remarks about me and several people profited from my dire circumstances, including those whom I unfortunately trusted.”

Vavrinyuk also said that the October 2013 incident was the fifth such incident of abuse during their relationship, and that, although she had visible injuries from the latest attack, the police wanted to see whether she had scars from prior incidents.

So, yes, despite his weak performance in the Olympics, life goes on for Semyon Varlamov. Life with a new contract, and with the support of his teammates, Colorado Avalanche management, and, apparently, Avalanche fans. But for Evgeniya Vavrinyuk, it’s not that simple.

Meanwhile, the rest of us can go on with our lives, too, suspending our natural instincts in cases like Varlamov’s, pretending that we actually believe the dismissal of the charges against him is some sort of vindication of the man and his character, that it somehow proves the attack on Vavrinyuk – allegedly, the fifth such attack – didn’t actually happen, even though we all know that incidents of domestic violence happen and go unpunished all the damn time . . . because that’s business as usual for sports fans, isn’t it?

Because the alternative would require you to . . . to do what, exactly? To speak out? To boycott games? To change the channel? To let the NHL’s sponsors know you don’t support domestic abusers and won’t watch them play?

Good god, man. That would take away from the enjoyment of the game! And lord knows, we can’t have that.

Golf, Handbag Tossing, and What Constitutes a “Real” Sport

Photo credit: Herring Cove Golf Course, New Brunswick, Canada, by New Brunswick Tourism on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tourismnewbrunswick/5080505287/

Photo credit: Herring Cove Golf Course, New Brunswick, Canada, by New Brunswick Tourism on Flickr.

In late 1999 or early 2000, the Chicago Tribune compiled a list of the top 100 Chicago sports moments of the 20th century. Over lunch one day with a conservative friend, I bemoaned the fact that the Tribune had omitted Khalid Khannouchi’s 2:05:42 finish in the 1999 Chicago Marathon, then a world record. Khannouchi was the first marathoner to break the 2:06 mark, shattering the previous world record by some 23 seconds, and although his record has been broken many times over in the intervening years, setting a world record at the Chicago Marathon helped solidify its reputation as one of the top races in the world. Indeed, Chicago is now included as one of the World Marathon Majors, along with New York, Boston, London, Tokyo and Berlin. So my point about Khannouchi was valid.

My conservative friend, however, was not impressed.

“Nah,” he said. “That’s not a sport.”

“Wait, what?”

“Look, it’s not a sport if it doesn’t involve the use of a ball,” said he.

“So bowling’s a sport,” I said, “and so is pool. But running 26.2 miles in a little over two hours … that’s not a sport?”

I mention this because last week Tbogg at The Raw Story happened upon a tweet from professional golfer Steve Elkington–which, predictably, Elkington subsequently deleted–in which he cracked wise about openly gay NFL prospect and SEC defensive player of the year Michael Sam:

ESPN reporting Michael Sam is leading the handbag throw at NFL combine. …

No one else expected to throw today

Ha, ha. See, its funny because gay. Am I right?

Sigh.

In any event, I’ll leave the subsequent disemboweling of the homophobic golfer to Tbogg, who can do it better than I can. But I will echo an obvious point here: Sir, do you, as a golfer, really want to go athletic-toe-to-athletic-toe with a real, live football player?

Now, I’m not saying that golf isn’t a sport, because I subscribe to the theory that, like music or art, a sport is anything people decide to call a sport.

But if, like my conservative friend some years ago, you really want to pick nits over what constitutes a “real” sport and what doesn’t, golf just might end up on the wrong side of the ledger. Sure, golf requires tremendous physical skill. But physical skill isn’t the same as athleticism. Woodworking requires physical skill. So does painting, or sculpting, or playing a musical instrument like piano or the drums. Sewing requires physical skill, as does cooking a gourmet meal, laying tile, or hanging wallpaper.

Athleticism, though, is more than physical skill. It’s more than just hand-eye coordination, or physical deftness. It’s speed and strength and endurance and agility. It’s quick wits and peripheral vision and the ability to make split-second decisions. It’s having an awareness of everything that’s going on around you, even if you can’t see it, and having the physical ability to react to it. Basketball, hockey, American football, soccer–these require athleticism. And, since we just wrapped up the Winter Olympics, even the stoner-sports like skiing and snowboarding require genuine athleticism, too. Hell, figure skating, ice dancing, rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming all require far more pure athleticism than golf.

And, you know what? So does running a marathon. Especially at a world-record pace.

But no matter how you define what is or isn’t a “real” sport, that definition doesn’t involve any consideration of an athlete’s sex, hetero- or homosexuality, gender identity, or whom that person may or may not sleep with. Steve Elkington may want to keep that in mind the next time he attempts to ridicule a 6-foot-3-inch, 255-pound first-team All American who racked up 12 sacks and 19 tackles for a loss in the toughest conference in college football.

Or, he could just stick to swinging a golf club.

Oh, Canada: Hockey’s Most Diverse Country

Canadian Flag

Canadian Flag, courtesy of wisegie on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/whizzer/6078031187/lightbox/

 

As Chicago Blackhawks fans struggled with the existential question of the 22nd Olympic Winter Games–how to root for USA Hockey when the two most Blackhawk-laden (and consequently most successful) teams hailed from Canada and Sweden–a more interesting story passed largely unnoticed here in the States. On Sunday, after Canada (featuring the Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, and Patrick Sharp) beat Sweden (with our Johnny Oduya, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Marcus Kruger) to win the gold medal, Team Canada goalie Carey Price won the Directorate award for top goaltender in the Olympic tournament.

The accolade was well deserved. Price won two key shout-outs–over the U.S. to get into the gold medal game, and over Sweden to win it all–and, in the five games he started in net, had a goals-against average of 0.59 and a save percentage of .972. But it’s his personal story that’s the stuff of feel-good Olympic legend.

See, Carey, the son of former Ulkatcho First Nation Chief Linda Price, grew up in tiny Anahim Lake, British Columbia, a town with a population of 360. According to the CBC, Anahim Lake is so remote and so far removed from hockey facilities that “Carey’s father bought a small plane and learned to fly so his son could play the sport.” Moreover, Linda Price believes her son’s connection to his First Nations heritage is a key to his success:

I think the sense of connection to our land and where we come from helps keeps us all grounded in who we are.  We cannot become disconnected and caught up in a whirlwind of popularity and become disconnected from the “real world.”

Our culture has been to maintain the simple life and appreciate the blessings our creator has given us. Fresh air, clean water and clean environment are important to us and sustainable living habits.

It should not come as a surprise that in a sport that is, frankly, uncomfortably white, one of the few players of Native North American heritage comes from Canada. Since Willie O’Ree first broke the NHL’s color barrier with the Montreal Canadiens in 1958, the League has struggled to attract more diverse players and a more diverse fan base. According to the Boston Globe, during the lockout-shortened 2013 season there were only 44 non-white players in the NHL out of a total of 720. That’s just about 6 percent of the entire League. Wikipedia lists 27 current and 46 past Black NHL players, while Ice Hockey Wikia lists 8 current and 6 past Asian players, and only 4 total players of Latin American descent, of whom 3 are active.

Canada, however, has, in relative terms, been a beacon of diversity in the otherwise lily white world of professional hockey. With a population of a little over 32.5 million, of which approximately 2.5 percent are Black, Canada has produced the vast majority of Black NHL players. Indeed, 20 of the 27 current Black players in the NHL hail from Canada, as did 39 of the 46 past players. That includes luminaries such as Willie O’Ree and Hall-of-Famer Grant Fuhr, one of the best-known goalies of the 1980s and 1990s who won five Stanley Cup championships with the Edmonton Oilers. At the same time, the United States, with a population of more than 316 million, of which 13.1 percent are Black, boasts only 6 current Black players (the other being the Blackhawks’ Johnny Oduya, a Swedish national partly of Kenyan descent), and only 7 past Black players.

Of course, historically Canada has produced far more NHL players than any other country. Even today, with the significant increase in players from Scandinavia and former Soviet bloc countries, a little over half the League is Canadian, whereas the United States produces only about a quarter of the NHL’s players. Still, the numbers don’t lie: Black players from Canada outnumber Black players from America by more than three to one.

While there may be any number of reasons for the disparity–hockey is considerably more popular in Canada than in the United States, and perhaps athletes of all backgrounds have more options here–the numbers suggest that the NHL’s diversity efforts in the States have been far less successful than the League would like. But if a guy like Carey Price can make it from tiny Anahim Lake, BC, all the way to the NHL and to the Olympics’ gold medal game, the institutions of American hockey should be able to do a better job reaching people of color right here at home.

Pete Seeger: A Worried Man Passes Away

Dad - Guitar

 

When I was a kid, my dad used to play the guitar. He had a reasonably decent six-string acoustic – the same guitar my brother Tom would later cut his teeth on – and he’d play old-timey folk songs like “There’s a Hole in the Bucket” and “Worried Man Blues”. That’s him on his 45th birthday, standing in the kitchen of our ancient house on Oak Park Avenue. I was 4 years old at the time.

Years later, sitting in a college dorm room in Urbana, Illinois, I would listen to the Clash’s debut album over and over again, and in it I heard the strains of the folk songs my father used to play on that old guitar. It’s not an accident. John Graham Mellor, better known as Clash frontman Joe Strummer, first called himself “Woody Mellor” – a tribute to the great Woody Guthrie, whose music influenced him as much if not more than rock bands like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. The roots of punk rock were sewn in American folk music.

So, when I fired up the computer on this intensely bright, intensely cold Chicago morning and I learned that Pete Seeger passed away Monday at the age of 94 – just two years older than my father would have been had he not died nearly 20 years ago – it struck me how Seeger’s music formed a chain that linked the generations of my family, from my dad playing his six-string guitar in the kitchen, to my older siblings protesting the war in Vietnam, to me, sitting in a college dorm room, listening to the record that changed everything.

The New York Times’ obituary describes Mr. Seeger as a “singer, folk-song collector and songwriter who spearheaded an American folk revival and spent a long career championing folk music as both a vital heritage and a catalyst for social change,” all of which is true. It recites the facts and figures and vital statistics of his life: He was born in 1919. He attended Harvard. He dropped out of college, moved to New York City, and got involved in the music business. He served in World War II. He refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He culled together “We Shall Overcome” from various traditional gospel songs, and it became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. He influenced everybody from the Byrds and Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen.

But what’s missing from all these recitations of the man’s accomplishments is this: He had a deep, personal impact on the people of his generation – the generation of my mother and father – and on the people of my generation, and on the generations that followed. See, it’s not just the people who went on to make records or to give great speeches or to change the world who were touched by Pete Seeger. It’s ordinary, rank and file people like us … without whom some of those changes may not have been possible.

When my father passed away in 1994, my niece Abby was in eighth grade. At his funeral, while most of us were incapacitated by grief, Abby stood up and delivered an amazing eulogy. She talked about how much her grandfather meant to her, and how proud she was of the things he’d done in his life. At the end of her remarks, knowing it was one of my dad’s favorite songs, she sang the opening verse of Pete Seeger’s “Worried Man Blues”:

It takes a worried man to sing a worried song …

You’re goddamn right it does.

Thanks, Pete.