Monday, January 29, 2018

The Questions that the Michigan State Affair (and Others) Raise

Penn State.


Michigan State.

The Sandusky affair, the blatant disregard for sexual assault and the blatant disregard for sexual molestation and assault are stunning, troubling and horrifying.  Imagine, also, if your kids were the victims.  How would you feel?  And, if they're not, how do you feel?  Why should this type of behavior be enabled, tolerated and covered up at these schools?

But there are two other compelling questions that must be raised.  Are we na├»ve enough to believe that these are the only institution with these problems?  Are we now cynical enough to believe that every institution has this type of problem and that there are two types of colleges -- those that have been caught and those who have not?  Which school is next?  And what will the Michigan State do to amateur athletics, college athletics, high school athletics and college administrations in general?  Is the Michigan State affair just the tip of a huge iceberg that is about to surface and ram itself into each and every college?

The second question, equally compelling, is why these patterns of behavior seem to go on an not get hit head on with a sledgehammer and stopped?  Why don't people want to stand up and take on the odd behavior of a Jerry Sandusky, the sexual assault culture at Baylor, the molestation/assault culture at Michigan State?  People saw the behavior, they saw the signs, they knw things were going on and yet, they did nothing.  Or not enough.


I have given this some thought and posit that it takes a lot of courage to stand up because of a few factors.  First, you don't know if you will be believed.  Second, you don't know if you will be retaliated against (look into what happened to Mike McQueary at Penn State) or whether you will be committing career suicide, because who wants to hire a whistleblower?  Third, you don't want to risk losing all the trappings of your job -- the 401(k) or 403(b) match for your retirement funds, the defined contribution that a university makes to your retirement account, the tuition support for your kids' tuition, your tenure and rank at the institution.  Or you think that taking a stand is above your pay grade -- it is for someone else to do.  Or you think that others must know and are looking into it.  Finally, most people hate conflict, like going home to their comfortable chair, big-screen television and ice cream at night.  They like being comfortable, and raising an issue this serious is very uncomfortable.  And for some, there is no safety net, no safe landing space. 

All of these factors are plausible.  Many institutions try to build in mechanisms for people to raise complaints.  Hotlines can be very useful if people feel uncomfortable to raise questions in real time and in person.  But hotlines have some baggage -- the reporter at times only wants to go so far and many times does not want to meet with the investigators.  As a result, incidents reported on hotlines can be unsubstantiated, especially if they occur in isolation.  That said, were Michigan State to have gotten numerous reports about Larry Nassar, the odds would have increased dramatically that Michigan State had a Larry Nassar problem and that Larry Nassar had big problems.  Have one person make a claim that investigators cannot substantiate, and, well, it's an unsubstantiated claim.  Have ten people make claims in a concentrated period of time, and most likely there are enough dots to connect and dominos to fall that the likes of Nassar get outed, fired and prosecuted.

There are many great minds in higher education and law enforcement, and they need to partner to figure out solutions so that these affairs do not happen again.  There will be occasional bad incidents -- it is hard to avoid them -- but the goal would be to knock out patterns of behavior before they come patterns and tsunamis of crime to occur before they even become a two-incident trend.  Cultures must change; the money must not corrupt an institution and institutions need to realize that they need to hit incidents head on to protect their reputations as opposed to avoiding them because no one wants to deal with a scandal.  Deal with an incident head on and dispatch with it, and you'll get a reputation for an accountable institution that does things the right way.  Let things go because you don't want to do the right thing or bring embarrassment to the university, well, look at Michigan State right now.  Their brand is damaged, their proverbial ship is listing mightily.  And why?  Because despite many opportunities, no one in authority did anything.  And no one -- not Tom Izzo, not Mark Dantonio, not Larry Nassar -- should be bigger than the institution.  And in this case, MSU let Nassar and his "global" reputation become bigger than the institution to the point where no one would believe that such a legendary figure could be such a predator.  Everyone is accountable; the bigger the name, the higher the standards they should be held to and hold themselves to.  Why?  It's called leadership.  It's called accountability.

So how much of this remains out there?  The examples are not limited to pedophilia and sexual harassment, either.  For example, before privacy laws came into effect in the U.S. regarding healthcare, employers had free rein to examine which employees were biggest users of their healthcare plans, who had AIDS, and who suffered from mental health issues.  My guess is that the landscape is littered with busted careers because those who ran companies -- through their human resources departments -- scanned these records.  After all, who wanted someone making $40,000 a year in a clerical job using up $200,000 a year in AIDS medicine or who wanted a nut case working for them because the company knew that the rising star went to see a psychiatrist and might have gotten a prescription for a sedative?  I wrote the previous lines pejoratively, because, needless to say, that type of managerial behavior was deplorable.  Lord knows the billions in damages people suffered -- not to mention the damage to their reputations -- because of the speculation that must have swirled about them because of the peek into the healthcare records.  The privacy laws ended those "look ins" but the damage was done.    The AIDS patient was not evil, and neither was the person who was aware enough to get some help for his mental health issues.  Oddly, the evil was in the acts of the management, who wanted to sanitize anything and not give one rat's rear end about others' lives or a sense of community.  Compassion?  That obviously was for someone else. 

My guess is that Penn State, Michigan State and Baylor cannot be the only ones.  North Carolina and Louisville had scandals regarding phony classes and strippers/payments to players, respectively.  The laws that require the reporting of sexual assaults on campus can make any parent worry; it stands to reason that more reports of systematic neglect and aggressiveness against victims will surface, big-name coaches will be involved, and whole administrations might continue to fall.  Put different, the odds are that similar scandals are brewing at between 15-20% of the schools in the Power 5 conferences.  Which means, then, that there might be half a dozen more schools that have serious issues. 

I used to comment on these pages that I didn't want my kids to go to a college where any coach makes more than the university president.  My reason for saying this is that I want the schools to have their priorities in order -- not the bread and circus that can mollify the masses of students that go to the big places -- but an emphasis on learning, community and skills needed to graduate with confidence and become a productive member of society.  While I like sports, I could care less whether the schools' teams win the majority of their games or whether the school has to expel a star because despite what he means to the team he committed an act of violence.  Yes, as the Duke lacrosse debacle taught us, everyone is entitled to a defense, and I don't want to paint athletic administrations, coaches and players with a broad brush, but schools need to deal with acts of aggression or molestation -- against any student, not just an athlete -- with compassion and dispatch.  The accused must be afforded their rights too -- we cannot go overboard with trials by media or angry student groups because an incident happened the night before and tensions are running high.

Lastly, the NCAA is not the organization to deal with this issue.  Oh, it will jump in the way it did against Penn State because there was a huge public hue and cry and because the powers that be -- including the now-questioned Mark Emmert -- figured that they had to do something.  I am not sure that the NCAA has jurisdiction or that it should step in.  Law enforcement seems to be all over the case, as it should be.  That said, I think that the powers that be in the State of Michigan should realize the huge culture problem they have in East Lansing and take decisive measure to change the culture and make sure that they have their priorities in order. 

Something went really, terribly, horribly wrong.  My heart aches for all the victims and their families.  This is a huge crisis, and Michigan State must turn it into an opportunity, so that no person who walks on the campus walks in fear or walks concerned that if she has any concerns about her well being, that she will not be able to raise them and get a good, fast response.  That should not be too much to ask, but, apparently, on many college campuses, it is right now.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Philadelphia Eagles

Team trades for shutdown corner and loses him for 9 games after first series in first game.

Team loses very versatile, veteran, savvy do-it-all running back/return man early in the season, along with its kicker.

Team loses top special teams player not that long thereafter.

Team loses future Hall of Famer/left tackle and very good starting middle linebacker in the ninth game.

Not long after that, phenom QB, en route to an MVP season, tears ligaments in his knee, done for the season.

Team finishes 13-3 and is going to the Super Bowl.

Got all that?

Many pundits predicted that the Philadelphia Eagles would go 8-8, perhaps 9-7 at best with this year's team.  Among the question marks going into the season were depth at running back, the ability of a new receiving corps to out-produce last year's group, whether center Jason Kelce could recover from a bad season, and whether the oft-criticized defensive backfield could at least become average.  Atop that, there were worries about the age of starting left tackle Jason Peters (35) and the natural concerns -- nothing elevated, of course -- that Carson Wentz would continue to progress because despite all of the hype, the last half of the 2016 season didn't go all that well for the ream.  The concerns were marked going into the season and became magnified with the personnel losses that occurred during it.

What no fan could have predicted was the quality of work done in the front office (where once-maligned head of football operations Howie Roseman made few mistakes and should be everyone's executive of the year and head coach Doug Pederson, who, quite frankly, few were excited about when Roseman hired him, adjusted well with the personnel he has and coached the team most ably, weathering the losses).  What resulted by the season's end were the following -- a very much "plus" receiving corps, a vastly improved back-up TE in Trey Burton, a defensive backfield that became a big asset with depth, a starting QB who looks like the next great one, a back-up who looks like he might be in demand for a trade and several good running backs.

Teams need a lot of things to go right to get to the Super Bowl.  First and foremost, it goes without saying that they need to play well.  But more than that, they need to adjust their plans for the personnel they have and need to have sufficient depth, because it's a given that key players will get hurt for periods of time.  The Eagles have played well, and they have adjusted for changes to their roster.  The last result underscored the strength of the depth and the team's ability to insert new players and new schemes and take care of the opposition.  It has been impressive to say the least.

The City of Philadelphia remains giddy after the team's convincing win over the Vikings.  That same giddy group probably was in despair after the Vikings scored the game's first touchdown, but now they are starting to focus on the fact that the Eagles have never won the Super Bowl and must defeat a dynasty to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. 

This is a very solid team, replete with good leadership, an esprit de corps that screams "attack" when you see them walk into a stadium, lines that are good at pushing the opposition off the ball and a variety of skill players who can find the end zone.  The Patriots, deservedly so, are the favorites.   Until someone takes the crown from them, they have the right to wear it.  They can continue to burnish the reputation of an already-established dynasty and add luster to their far-reaching shine. 

And the Eagles can finally get to the top of the hill. 

Were they to do so, the City of Philadelphia will party perhaps like no championship has ever partied before.  Yes, the Phillies drew great crowds in 2008.  Fun time.  But if the Eagles were to win the Super Bowl, the parade and parties that will ensue will make the Phillies' celebration look like a toddler's birthday party at Chuck 'E Cheese's. 

As a lifelong fan, it would be fun to watch that explosion.

Fly, Eagles, fly!

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Jalen Hurts: A Lesson in Character

It has been said that sports don't develop character -- they reveal it. 

Last night, Alabama trailed Georgia at the half.  While the entire team didn't execute well, the focal point of that execution became the Crimson Tide's quarterback, Jalen Hurts.  It just wasn't Hurts who wasn't playing well on offense for the Tide -- his blockers had their mistakes and his receivers had trouble gaining separation.  But Hurts didn't do as well as he normally did, and the Georgia defense did a good job of frustrating Alabama and its running game. 

So, if your running game isn't working, you have to pass the ball.  Well, Hurts isn't known as the best passer in the world, and the Alabama coaches had a decision to make -- stay with the guy who is a team leader and had gotten you this far, or call a huge audible and replace him with a freshman who hadn't played a down of consequence in his career.  That freshman, though, is better at throwing the ball, and the Alabama coaches thought that the change was justified.  We all know what happened afterwards -- the change further cements Nick Saban as a coaching legend, and the freshman substitute had a fairy-tale like game that climaxed with a flawless TD pass on fourth and long at the end of the second overtime to give Alabama its sixth national championship in nine years.  All of that has been written about a lot and many stories will continue to focus on this exciting game and the coaching of Nick Saban.

But suppose you're the quarterback who won 25 games in two years, including a national title as a freshman, played in the national title game last season and then gets benched.  Ironically, his name is Hurts, and there is nothing more than can hurt the psyche of a young man then to be yanked from a game -- the national championship game -- before a live audience of millions of people and with family and friends in attendance.  Yes, that has to hurt.  Young men could get angry, feel frustrated, humiliated, disappointed, upset that they were not getting a chance to redeem themselves, could question themselves, their coach's loyalty to them, the fairness of it all and whatever other emotions could boil over at such a critical juncture in their lives.

Jalen Hurts didn't.  He remained engaged on the sideline.  He remained supportive of this team and very much encouraged his back-up and gave pointers about different coverages.  Jalen Hurts did not play the role of the wounded turtle and retreat to his shell.  He stood tall, summoned the strength and emotional fortitude to know that he is part of a team and something bigger than himself, that a starting position is not an entitlement, and a whole bunch of other thoughts and emotions that went into the algorithm in his head that instructed him, "you are a leader, you have been a leader on this team, your team needs you to continue to lead, especially when the team is behind.  Stand tall, be supportive and continue to lead.  You might not be the quarterback on the field right now, but you are still a leader."

Alabama could have wilted after the half or after it found itself down 20-7 with six minutes and change left to go in the third quarter.  But the Crimson Tide had one more high tide left in them and kept finding the energy and determination to overcome disappointments within the game (an interception tossed by the back-up, a missed field goal at the end of regulation that would have won the game for them) to win the game. 

Jalen Hurts, the quarterback, was not on the field for almost all of that time, save one play where he ran the ball to set up the field goal attempt at the end of regulation.  Jalen Hurts, the leader, was all over that field in spirit, helping his team win in any way he could.  Sure, Jalen Hurts did not throw the game-winning touchdown pass, but he emerged a winner in multiple ways last night -- as a person of tremendous character, and with his second national championship ring.  Okay, so he didn't play at his best level last night, but it would be hard to imagine that he ever has led any better or revealed aspects of his character any better than he did last night.

Alabama wins for a reason.  Sure, the Tide can recruit with the best of them.  Other schools recruit well too.  But it's the culture of maturity and accountability that distinguishes the Crimson Tide from any other program out there.  The Tide have about eight players who will leave early and get selected in the early rounds of the NFL draft.  Jalen Hurts will not be one of them, and it's unclear right now what his future in football will be -- as a quarterback at Alabama, as a quarterback somewhere else or playing another position at Alabama.  And most people will not remember how he took his disappointment on Monday night; they will remember how his back-up -- a freshman from Hawaii -- took over in the second half and helped lead the team to victory.  But deep down, the person to whom Jalen Hurts has to answer -- himself -- should know that how he acted last night was extraordinary.

It's fun to watch exciting games with theatrics, lead changes and dramatic endings.  It's even more rewarding to watch them when you see young men dig deep and reveal a part of themselves that is truly amazing.  Jalen Hurts did that last night, and the Alabama nation should be thankful for it.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Rick Carlisle is Just Plain Wrong

If Rick Carlisle had his way, any network that pays the NBA big bucks to support the private jets, the high salaries, the nice locker rooms and the amazing practice facilities has zero right to provide any content that might stir up a controversy for a team or, heaven forbid, one of his fellow coaches.  That, in essence, is what Carlisle offered in a pugnacious, dismissive style yesterday at a press conference.  Put bluntly, he was trying to intimidate the sports media from doing its job.

The cause of Carlisle's anger is the NBA's current court jester, LaVar Ball, who can provide some compelling flavor in a professional sports world that is too full of sanitized quotes and teams who prevent access to star players.  Should Ball be the story?  In many cases, not really, because he is an attention hound.  That said, he also is the father of the second pick in last year's NBA draft, and that player is a member of one of the league's highest profile franchises, the Los Angeles Lakers.  On most days, Ball is a side show, and the media has come around to treating him as such, someone who is famous, like Paris Hilton and the Kardashians, for being famous.

But that doesn't mean that LaVar Ball cannot provide compelling news.  His quote the other day that the Lakers' players were unhappy and that head coach Luke Walton has lost the locker room is, whether Carlisle likes it or not, news.  That quote compels beat reporters to dig in and discern whether this is LaVar Ball's opinion, whether LaVar Ball is relaying his son's opinion, or whether LaVar Ball is relaying his son's report that other players have come to the same conclusion.  Yes, a lot of the above is hearsay, but that is why beat reporters dig in, cover the story and report. 

Many have criticized the media over this story, and Carlisle is not the only one.  There are those who offer that the media should not be listening to LaVar Ball or giving him an audience.  There are those who want to disqualify Ball automatically because his acts like a court jester and seems to say something almost daily that will draw him a headline.  And then there is Carlisle, who offered that ESPN should do whatever it can to make the league look good. 

Carlisle is a good coach and a bright guy; he didn't get a degree from the prestigious University of Virginia for nothing.  His point also has some logic to it, namely, that if ESPN plays big money for the rights to the NBA and wants to offer an outstanding product to viewers, it should endeavor to make the league look as good and robust as possible, presumably, even though Carlisle didn't say it, to make the league look more attractive to fans, who will tune in more, which, in turn, will make the product more compelling to advertisers, who will drive up rates, which will help ESPN's revenues, enable it to pay more for rights in the future, which will enable the teams to make more money and, accordingly, pay the Rick Carlisles of the world more, all the while giving them fewer headaches in the form of the self-appointed and by far best quote in the NBA this year.  Got it?

Good, because the logic is as good as far is it goes.  Look, I think that ESPN is not pure journalism, and it's original name, the "Entertainment and Sports Programming Network" suggests that it is more entertainment and less journalism.  But the journalism is there -- in E60, Thirty for Thirty, "Outside the Lines" and other stories that they cover.  And so long as it is there, they have the right, and perhaps even if in their at times conflicted role (whose Achille's heel Carlisle's comments tweak) to cover a story for which the main source is none other than LaVar Ball.  

That said, ESPN has put itself in this awkward position -- paying big bucks for the rights but also positing itself as the premier provider in the U.S. of sports news  along with content.  It has tenacious reporters who love to be the first source for a story, including Seth Wickersham, Adrian Wojnaroski and many others.  So, it stands to reason that if something is rotten in the Lakers' locker room, ESPN should be covering it.  And U.S. coaches and managers have it relative easy compared to soccer coaches/managers around the world, where the journalistic competition is fierce to break the hot story about what currently is making or breaking a football squad.  You might need to have a thick skin in the U.S.; in Europe, you need cast-iron underwear.

Reporting is a critical aspect of our society, and the better and more thorough the reporting the better off we all are.  Tremendous, withering criticism has been sent the media's way because of the way it has covered certain events (or not covered them) over time.  Emotions are high; allegations of "fake" news abound, even when the news is real and the accuser wants to deflect attention away from himself or the issues that are bedeviling him.  The press isn't perfect, and neither are the sources.  But it stands to reason that a credible person can be wrong on occasion and someone viewed as an abject nut case can be right.  And that is the journalist's job to figure out -- is LaVar right, or is he spouting off again, the NBA's version of "Old Faithful."