Order Of Importance

To look at the news coverage, you’d think that the decisions of NFL players to take a knee, or sit, or stand at attention, during the playing of the National Anthem is the biggest news story in the world right now.  President Trump had to weigh in on it — of course! — and Facebook and other forms of social media are on fire with discussion of various perspectives on the protests.

jerry-jones-nfl-protestThe reaction to the NFL protests shows the uniquely powerful role of symbols like flags and the National Anthem — which is why they provide a very effective platform for the exercise of First Amendment rights, and have served in that capacity at least since the ’60s, when students protesting the Vietnam War burned the flag and American sprinters raised their fists while the National Anthem played during a medal ceremony in the 1968 Olympics.  If you want to provoke strong reactions and draw attention to your cause, you can hardly do better than taking action that can be interpreted as showing some form of disrespect when the American flag is being displayed or the National Anthem is played.

And yet, I can’t help but think that the coverage of the NFL protests is ridiculously disproportionate. Whether athletes who are being paid millions of dollars to play sports are standing, sitting, or kneeling during the National Anthem doesn’t really measure up on the importance scale with, say, the increasingly aggressive tone of communications about North Korea and the possibility of some kind of confrontation about it.  Nor does it compare to the utter misery and loss that thousands of people are suffering in hurricane-ravaged areas, or for that matter whether the United States is ever going to actually tackle critical big-picture issues, like the ever-present deficit spending that threatens to cast us over the fiscal cliff.

I think the real reason people are paying so much attention to the NFL protests is precisely that it’s small stuff, relatively speaking.  It’s easy to stake out a position on the protests, pro or con, on the social media engine of your choice, and there are lots of juicy side issues to explore — like whether the protests will hurt already declining NFL TV ratings, whether sports in America has become overly politicized, whether athletes will lose lucrative endorsement deals, and whether the focus of the protests has become hopelessly blurred when billionaire owners like Jerry Jones are joining in and taking a knee.  It’s easy to discuss all of those topics — a lot easier than making sense out of the North Korean situation or discussing how America should respond to it.

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Pro Sports In Vegas

The NFL has approved the request of the Oakland Raiders franchise to move to Las Vegas.  It’s not clear when the Raiders will actually start playing in Vegas, and the team will likely play another season or two in Oakland, but a new stadium is expected to be built for them in their new home in southern Nevada in time for the 2020 season.

ows_149067187344496The story here isn’t another move of a pro sports franchise; teams packing up and hauling their operations to a new town is old news these days.  The Raiders, who have shuttled back and forth between Oakland and Los Angeles and always seem to be either moving or on the verge of moving, are one of the hand-wringing teams that are forever working their local government for a more lucrative deal.  If Las Vegas wants to foot the bill for a lavish new domed stadium — which is expected to cost at least $1.9 billion, with the costs being split between revenues generated by an increased hotel room tax, the Raiders organization, and a Las Vegas gazillionaire — to get the NFL brand associated with Sin City, that’s its decision to make.

No, the real story here is that the Raiders’ approved move to Las Vegas is just the latest evidence of the increasingly accepted association of gambling and sports.  Gambling used to be one of the chief concerns of professional and college sports teams.  From the Chicago Black Sox throwing the 1919 World Series, to the college basketball point-shaving scandals of the ’40s and ’50s, to the suspension of Pete Rose from major league baseball for betting on baseball games, sports leagues traditionally reacted viscerally to any association with gambling.

But a lot has changed in America, and gambling has become much more commonplace and accepted.  When I was in Philadelphia recently the landscape was dotted with signs for casino gambling; the slot machines and table games that used to be reserved for Las Vegas can now be found in more than half the states in America.  Betting on sports events has become so routine that the lines and odds on games and matches are available to anyone with a few strokes of a keyboard, and one of America’s great annual pastimes is participating in the NCAA March Madness pool at the office.  There’s not as much of a taint to gambling as used to be the case.

But, is it good to have an NFL team in Las Vegas, where sports gambling is legal and people can make, or lose, huge sums of money if the point spread gets covered because of a flukey last-minute play?  Is it wise to have professional athletes living in a community where, at a party or charity event, they may hobnob with some well-heeled but shady characters who might drop a hint or two about how the athletes and their teammates could make some easy money without costing their team a game?  Could you envision a scenario where an NFL star has a bad run of luck at the gaming tables and is encouraged to even the score by missing a block or dropping a sure touchdown catch?  I suppose you can argue that pro athletes could be exposed to such characters, and temptations, anywhere in America, but gambling is so deeply engrained and accepted in the Las Vegas culture that I’m not sure other situations are really comparable to pro athletes being based in a place that is often called a “gambling mecca.”

We’ve come a long way since the days when pro sports teams did whatever they could to project a squeaky clean image.  Now we’ll have an NFL team located squarely in the most gambling-oriented town in America.

Patriots And Parity

We’re only a few days away from the Super Bowl, and I haven’t heard anyone talking about the game.  I had lunch a few days ago with four male friends, and literally not one word was spoken about Super Bowl LI.  Donald Trump and his antics were discussed ad nauseum, but football didn’t come up once.

NFL: Miami Dolphins at New England PatriotsIt’s not just because of Trump, of course.  It’s also because nobody is particularly excited about this Super Bowl match-up.  This has to be the least buzzworthy Super Bowl since — well, maybe ever.  Who cares about the Atlanta Falcons, and how many times can a person watch the New England Patriots, anyway?

But let’s pause for a moment to at least give a nod to the Patriots, their grumpy and rumpled head coach Bill Belichick, and their quarterback, Tom Brady.  Since Belichick has become the Patriots’ top dog in 2000, they’ve made the NFL playoffs in all but three years.  They haven’t missed the playoffs since the 2008 season.  And, even more impressive, the Patriots, Belichick, and Brady have made it to six Super Bowls during that run, winning four of them.  That’s why it seems like the Patriots are in every Super Bowl as a matter of federal law.

What’s remarkable about all of this is that the NFL is specifically designed to crush any possibility of the kind of dynasty the Patriots have become.  The NFL seeks parity above all else.  Regular-season schedules are set up so the strong play the strong and the weak play the weak, with the league hoping that everybody ends up with an 8-8 record and fans who are hoping for a playoff spot up until the very last game of the season.  And, of course, after every year players who have done well who have become free agents can go to other teams, and assistant coaches can be hired to be head coaches elsewhere, and the playing and coaching talent gets redistributed.

The Patriots, however, refuse to participate in the NFL’s regime of enforced mediocrity.  They lose players and coaches, but under Belichick and Brady they always fill the holes and just keep rolling along.  In a world where everything conspires against them — thereby feeding Belichick’s innate sense of paranoia — the Patriots somehow rise above and just keep winning.  Their run is as remarkable, in a positive way, as the Browns’ record of consistent and crushing futility is on the negative side.

So we’ve got to tip our cap to the New Englanders.  Of course, that doesn’t mean we have to actually watch them, again, in this Super Bowl.

Glutton For Punishment

This afternoon I’m going to watch the Cleveland Browns play the Cincinnati Bengals.

That’s right.  I’m going to voluntarily subject myself to more than three hours of bad football, bad karma, and general haplessness.  I’m going to watch a truly wretched 0-12 team play a horribly underperforming 4-7-1 team in a game that is utterly meaningless, even to their own beleaguered fans.

brownsWhy am I doing this?  Well, for one thing I’m a Cleveland Browns fan.  It’s tough duty generally, and an especially awful burden this year — but I’ve consciously avoided watching most of the games until now.  At this point, it’s so obvious that the Browns suck that I have no expectations whatsoever of success.  The Browns are likely to lose every game this year; the only question is whether they will find new ways to suffer a self-inflicted disaster.

So why watch this game, when I’ve avoided the others?  Because the Bengals have had, if anything, an even worse season than the Browns.  Sure, they’ve won games, but everyone expected them to be a Super Bowl contender, and instead they’ve laid a colossal egg.  If the Browns have any hope of winning a game this season, it’s going to be a game like this, where their opponent also reeks and a few lucky breaks might actually produce a W.  And if that were to happen — something I’m not counting on, mind you — it would be sweet that it would be the Bengals who bore the shame of being the only team to lose to the Browns this year.

I’m a glutton for punishment.

Provocative Junk Mail “Re” Lines

We have a “junk mail” filter at work.  Most of the time, the filter just moves what is obvious spam into a “junk mail” folder without me looking at the email or doing anything to it.

donald-trump-money-worth_2015-11-16_19-44-39Sometimes, though — for reasons not known to me — particular junk mail will make it through the filter and be brought to my attention under the heading “Incoming Message Quarantined by Web Reputation Monitor.”  I’m not sure whether the filter concludes that such emails are more likely to be legitimate, or because they come from more plausible email addresses, or some other reason.  In any case, I recently got one of those messages, checked to make sure that the email wasn’t sent by somebody I know, and then stopped dead when I saw the “re” line:  “Trump reveals groundbreaking secrets to triple your income.”

Of course, I didn’t try to open that spammy email . . . but I have to admit I was sorely tempted.  Aren’t you curious about what income-tripling tips “Trump” might offer?  Tips like:  Be sure to inherit millions from your parents?  Become a reality TV show star?  Contribute to the political campaigns of every candidate for every office, regardless of their party affiliation, so you have ready access to the levers of power?  Make liberal use of the American bankruptcy laws?  Invest in “Man Tan” franchises?

Having seen the Trump income-tripling “re” line, I found myself thinking of other spam email “re” lines that would just be too tantalizing to pass up.  Here are a few that I came up with:

“Hillary Clinton’s Guide to Data Security and Personal Ethics”

“Rappers and Buddhism:  A Perfect Combination”

“Choosing A Soul Mate The Anthony Weiner Way”

“Personal Humility in the NFL”

I’m sure there are others.

Why Are NFL Ratings Down?

Here’s some surprising news:  NFL TV ratings are down.  So far down, in fact, that the NFL league offices have taken the unusual step of sending a memo to team owners, trying to reassure them that the NFL brand remains as strong as ever.

AMFOOT-SUPERBOWL-NFL-PRESS CONFERENCEThe NFL’s memo says that its data indicates that the perception of the NFL and its players is actually up in 2016.  But the TV ratings for NFL games during the first four weeks of the season are down 11 percent.  Not all of that drop can be attributed to Cleveland Browns fans recognizing that their 0-4 team isn’t going anywhere and deciding their are better ways to spend their Sundays, Monday nights, and Thursday nights.  So what gives?

The NFL says it’s a confluence of events and predicts ratings will bounce back.  Other people think the presidential election is causing the drop-off, as males — the core audience for NFL games — have become more interested in presidential politics than football.  Others say it’s the protests of some players during the National Anthem, the fact that some stars like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have retired or aren’t playing, and the NFL’s decision to move more content to digital platforms.

It seems hard to believe that an awful presidential campaign might have suddenly caused long-time NFL fans to switch off games.  I suspect that the real reason is simpler — people are just tired of the barrage of NFL glitz and hype, hype, hype that has seeped into every crack and crevice of the game.  People like football because they like the game.  The NFL has done so much to change a game into a product that the game itself is getting hard to recognize.  I think many people are just tired of it.  I know I am.

Standing For The Anthem

In our sports-obsessed culture, when a professional athlete declines to stand for the National Anthem and says it is because he is protesting race relations and police brutality, it’s news.  In this instance, Colin Kaepernick’s actions have provoked some fans to burn his San Francisco 49ers jersey and generated reactions from all points on the political spectrum.

tsjcI don’t get the jersey-burning.  Of course, under the First Amendment, Kaepernick has a right to protest and advocate for his position on important issues of the day, period.  We all do.  Although some people increasingly seem hell-bent on punishing and eventually criminalizing free speech, through speech codes and “safe zones” and other contrivances designed to protect our delicate sensibilities from unpopular views — and, of course, quash the expression of those views in the first place — every American still has a right to peacefully express their views on topics like racism.  Kaepernick’s actions aren’t unAmerican; they’re quintessentially American.

And anybody who thinks sports figures should just take their big salaries and keep their mouths shut is kidding himself, too.  Sports have been politicized for as long as I can remember, since at least the 1968 Olympics when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists and bowed their heads during the playing of the National Anthem.  And the NFL itself has become increasingly involved in public issues, with events like breast cancer awareness weeks where the players wear garish pink towels and socks.  Breast cancer is a pretty safe public issue, but it’s a public issue nevertheless.  To the extent there ever was a line between sports and the real world, that line has long since been erased and crossed.

Kaepernick’s gesture shows the power of free speech — which is why the founding fathers were so interested in protecting it.  One player sits during the National Anthem, and it provokes a firestorm. Kaepernick obviously picked the National Anthem because he knows that every sports event starts with its playing and that it is a source of pride to Americans.  Showing disrespect for the Anthem is an effective way of drawing attention to your cause, just like burning a flag was during the campus protests in the 1960s.

Of course, we can wonder whether Kaepernick will just sit during the Anthem, or will go beyond exercising his free speech rights to actually do something to promote better race relations or address police actions.  The San Francisco police have invited him to come to the police academy to open lines of communication and learn about the challenges facing the thin blue line.  I hope he accepts that invitation, and uses the interest his one-man protest has generated to increase understanding and help improve things.  Sitting is one thing, taking meaningful action is quite another.