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Why I Am A Sports Junkie

America’s pro football league is in a feeding frenzy akin to the fabled salmon runs of the American northwest. This is the season when a few hundred players are on the move, looking for new teams. And in a month’s time another 300 players will move up from the college ranks to join the pros, via the annual draft.

These are heady times for me. At the most personal level I am particularly interested in what my team – the Patriots – will do to put together a Super Bowl winning team. But the entire drama is a major entertainment event. For me it is a combination of American Idol, Apprentice, Dancing with the Stars, The Oscars and Grammys all rolled into one. An entire network is devoted to the phenomenon, providing hourly updates. ESPN, the “worldwide leader in sports” is supplying high doses of coverage as well. But Twitter is by far the most active, with rumors, speculations and actual transactions flashing by on a minute by minute basis. In some ways it’s like the national election coverage.

There is however a sobering backdrop to the current buzz and hoopla. As one friend noted, some of these players will make in two years what the typical American makes in 40 years, and by extension he is not concerned about who gets cut or released by their team, or did not get that extra million or two. This sentiment is compounded by the stubborn economic doldrums that seemingly alienated all but passionate fans from the sometimes childish squabbles between billionaire owners, and millionaire players. Additionally, players have steadily lost goodwill with the high profile cases of illegal drug use, DUIs, domestic abuse and destructive excesses.

But here’s the good news; no one is obligated to care about this stuff. Sports indulgence is an optional life category. No one needs to care about sports in general or any particular sports. God knows, some of us care too much. Just look at the violent riots that occasionally occur with soccer, my favorite sport. Consider the vitriol spewed between Yankees and Red Sox fans. Or the periods of depression that follow a major loss by a cherished team or player. I still have bouts of intense heartache from Brazil’s world cup loss in 1998, Serena’s Wimbledon loss to Sharapova, the Patriots’ crushing Super Bowl losses to the Giants, and Merlene Ottey’s numbingly persistent Olympics losses.

soccer player

But the case for sports enthusiasm – and lots of it – is easy to make for me. I start with leisure. I once held a discussion on the legitimacy of leisure, and a doctor friend was quite taken aback, and questioned the value of leisure. A key sign of human progress is the ability to afford and enjoy pleasurable things. In years past coal miners and farm workers toiled long, hard hours for pittance. At nights they naturally needed to sleep, to recover from a brutally tough day and get ready for the next one. Most likely they could not afford much in the way of entertainment, and sports such as golf and cricket and the arts were more reserved for the upper classes. The modern world has its challenges too. Consider, we typically work five days a week, with each day bookended by care for our kids, getting them ready for school, doing homework, giving showers, etc. Weekdays are filled with necessary chores, be it grocery shopping, cleaning the bathrooms, or doing the lawn. So sports fill a gap; that space where we can plug into something to ease us out of the serious and potentially stressful aspects of life.

I am not a casual observer by any stretch. I am fully invested in sports. I have favorite teams and players in a wide range of sports, including cricket, tennis, soccer, track, football, basketball, hockey, baseball and golf. At any point I am looking forward to a certain game, or wondering about a certain player’s destination, what moves a team will make, and how much it would take to land a player.golf3

Great plays are as inspirational to me as great opera or art is to some people. I am in awe of the countless exhibitions of otherworldly greatness, be it a mesmerizing run by Messi, a powerful pinpoint Serena serve, a precision backhand by Federer, an exquisitely timed Brian Lara cover drive, a thunderous LeBron dunk, a perfect Brady pass, a scintillating curve sequence by Bolt, or an immaculate Tiger Woods stinger. Much of life is a monotonous procession of mediocrity. Most of us are B and C grades in most endeavors. Sports allow me to experience the peak of perfection in one walk of life. It is a glimpse into the wonderful possibilities of human capabilities, when the genetic lottery conspires with guts, ambition and opportunity to give us a transcendent talent such as Michael Jordan, Steffi Graf, Mia Hamm, Serena Williams, Tiger Woods, Pelé, Wayne Gretzky, Sachin Tendulkar, Babe Ruth and Usain Bolt.

Some time ago during the Tiger Woods/Phil Mickleson debate, someone remarked that they preferred Mickelson because he was flawed enough and seemed more human and relatable. I don’t watch sports to relate to a player in my flawed state. What is the point? I see my flaws each day in the mirror, as well as on the odd occasion when I put on my cleats or take up a racket. When I invest my precious time to watch sports, I am interested in seeing the best. I am fascinated by the superlative results that accrue from a regimen of hard work, combined with raw talent and drive. So beyond a mere escape from the rigors ennui of daily life, top class sports is a chance for my spirit and mind to soar and exult with each dash of a highly conditioned body and each arc of a ball, delivered with exquisite hand/eye or foot/eye precision.

I love the business of sports as well. Where else can you combine your favorite sports with high finance, contract law and negotiations? Decades ago Olympic athletes could not compete if they ever took money from their sport. And today hundreds of athletes toil for schools for a pittance while the schools rake in millions. But just as I find nobility and dignity in my work, so too I give to the athlete that same nobility and dignity, for his work, when delivered free of illegal drugs and with the right attitude. Some argue that big salaries and all the money sloshing around in sports somehow tarnish the field. Not to me. I never worship at the altar of amateur sports, save for some memorable years in high school.

Athletes make millions, and not surprisingly that is viewed with disapproval, especially in a down economy, where many of us struggle to pay the bills. As the logic goes, why should a guy that catches or kicks a ball make more than a fireman or nurse that do “serious” work? Beyond a serious disagreement with the cost of attending ball games, I have no issues with the salaries paid to athletes in general. Sports are in great demand and anything that is highly demanded usually fetches a high price within a capitalistic society. Billions of dollars are swilling around in soccer, football, basketball and baseball. The athletes create and deliver the on-field product, and deserve their fair share of the pie. Yes, some are overpaid, and I fully acknowledge that fact. But by the same token there are many underpaid players, so I will assume there is a balancing effect somewhere, and assert that over time most salaries fall within an acceptable market-driven range.

footballLife is a mixed bag. We have serious, necessary things such as families, jobs, and the poor that demand and deserve our attention. Additionally, there is a need to engage in serious dialogue about those issues as well as others such as the state of our economy, bloody conflicts in diverse places, environmental issues and faith. But for me there is ample room for the less serious, the light, the whimsical; the stuff that fuels my rest, soothes my nerves and refreshes me. That is what sports do for me; and that is why I watch with passion and discuss with zeal.

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“When We Were Kings”

“In every heart, there is a drum that beats
Steady and strong, it does not know defeat
I feel it pound, and know the sound
Of true beliefs
In every soul, there is a memory
Of standing tall, the proudest we could be
I cannot fall, for I recall
We were born in majesty” – When We Were Kings, Brian McKnight and Diana King

Black History Month is winding down with a whimper, and I wonder, whither the Black race? There is a rich history, to be sure, and names such as Hannibal, Shaka Zulu, Frederick Douglass, King, Rosa Parks roll easily off the tongue. We owe many of them an everlasting debt of gratitude for suffering and dying so that we can walk free, have a vote and live wherever we choose. Black History Month is therefore a vital commemoration of the countless sacrifices of those brave, selfless souls.

But the “History” in Black History Month is far too prominent, overshadowing our present, and our future. One could persuasively argue that the present and immediate past have laid a solid foundation for a leap into the future. After all, we have a two-term Black president; Black CEOs (Ursula Burns, Melody Hobson, Ken Chennault, and Lloyd Dean); Black general managers in pro-football (Jerry Reese – NY Giants, Rick Smith – Houston Texans); and Super Bowl and NBA winning coaches. Magic, Oprah, Jay-Z and Michael are big time sports and entertainment moguls. And we are still basking in the accomplishments of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and – grudgingly – Clarence Thomas.

But there’s a pervasive gloom that dims or minimizes those outstanding accomplishments. Between 2005 and 2009 the three broad racial groupings (Whites, Hispanics and Blacks) all experienced a drop in household net worth, but Blacks remain firmly in the cellar, with $5,700 of net worth compared to $6,300 for Hispanics and $113,000 for Whites . Similarly, household income was just as dismal, as in 2008 Black households earn just 62% of what was earned by White households.
Not surprisingly, crime is a major issue for us. According to prisonpolicy.org, in 2010 there were over 2,200 Black inmates per 100,000 of population, compared to 966 for Hispanics and 380 for Whites. And with Blacks being about 13% of the US population, almost a half of all murder victims were Blacks, largely the result of black on black crime.

Education is a bit of a mixed bag. Department of Education statistics for 2010 indicated that 10% of bachelor’s degrees were conferred on blacks, not bad considering our 13% share of total US population. The gender split is troubling though; only 34% of those degrees went to men, indicating that black men are languishing when it comes to higher education.

It is a bleak picture, and we attempt to offer explanations for this apparent inability to climb from the bottom rungs of society. Our low status as a group undoubtedly prejudices us in the eyes of other races; when the Pew Research team polled respondents on their view of interracial marriage, Blacks were most in favor of marrying across race lines, while other racial groups were least inclined to marry a black person.

“When will this payday be?
For all these retired slaves
My forefather worked down here
On this great plantation
True he didn’t get no pay
For all their wasted days” – Payday, Joseph Hill (Culture)

For years we petition for reparation, but that boat has sailed. Interestingly, a friend recently posted an article where it was revealed that England compensated its slave owners for “loss of property” after emancipation, and France – with strong US support – forced the newly independent Haiti to pay fines for the seized sugar plantations. Bill Clinton of all people scuppered any talks of reparation, and us Black folks have come around to the realization that reparation is a pipe dream.

Some of us blame ongoing discrimination for our persistent problems. Discrimination is a fact of life, but it is devilishly hard to prove, and with the wealth of opportunities since the civil rights movements we would be hard pressed to say that discrimination is THE pressing problem of the black community. Commendably, as a group we are arriving at that conclusion. In 2009, just 34% of blacks say that discrimination is the reason for our lack of progress, while a solid 52% say it is our fault.

Considering the 400 plus years of oppression I am hard pressed to believe that we have exorcised all the nefarious effects of the past in a scant 50 years since the civil rights movement. However, there is no grand savior on the horizon, and while it is obvious that Obama is a Black president, there is no black agenda emanating from the White House. Any significant Black advancement will have to come directly from our own efforts.

Some of the most telling statements on the state of blackness in America rolled out of the 2012 Republican primaries, when Gingrich, Romney and Santorum offered to show Black people how to get a job, and boldly proclaimed their unwillingness to give other people’s money to Black people.
That to me was a call to action. Until we earn broad-based power and influence we will remain the permanent underclass of racial constituents, becoming even more marginalized as the Hispanic bloc grows.

And so I turn to our much maligned entertainers – the athletes, singers, rappers and musicians. They dominate these categories, rolling in the dough and gobbling up the power. Nothing is more amusingly uplifting than seeing Jay-Z huddling with Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. Here, Black boys are no longer “Blacks  living off welfare,” but movers and shakers, able to live the defiant Bob Marley line, “we’ve got a mind of our own, so go to hell if what you think is not right.”

“Yeah I’m talking business
We talking CIA
I’m talking George Tenet
I seen him the other day
He asked me about my Maybach
Think he had the same
Except mine tinted and his might have been rented
You know white people get money don’t spend it
Or maybe they get money, buy a business
I rather buy 80 gold chains and go ig’nant
I know Spike Lee gon kill me but let me finish
Blame it on the pigment, we living no limits” – Clique, Kanye West

We have to modify the Kanye philosophy, though. We have to enjoy our successes, but too often, when faced with great success we flame out quickly, with bankruptcy and welfare as the residue. Too many of our stars earn hundreds of millions of dollars, only to blow it on expensive cars, booze, easy women, gambling and child support. And even those of us without the mad money do engage in questionable indulgencies at times, wasting our money on fancy sneakers, party outfits, and excessive consumption while refusing to go into debt for college or invest in a business.

Obviously, there is a well-established Black middle class, armed with multiple degrees, good jobs in Manhattan and Boston, in a wide range of enviable professions. We can vacation in Paris, tour Vietnam, eat at the best steakhouses and get membership in prestigious clubs. But that is not a broad-based phenomenon; our status as a race is still dominated and defined by our brothers and sisters trolling at the lower levels.

What do we want as a people? King, Thurgood Marshall, Serena, Tony Dungy and Barack have done their part. How do we intend to use their platforms and legacies? We can sit back and simply chant their accomplishments while living with the high crime, low net worth and nonexistent dignity, or we can use those marvelous accomplishments to galvanize us into action, where we – en masse – go to school, save our money, run tight families and become a people of dignity and power.

“Now is the time, here is the mountain top
When one man climbs, the rest are lifted up
With every step we’re closer yet
To a higher destiny

And when we reach out to claim the throne

Every man will know” – When We Were Kings