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The Recovering Politician

Three Cheers for Ashley Judd

NASHVILLE, TN – MARCH 15: Actress Ashley Judd attends the championship game of the SEC basketball tournament between the Kentucky Wildcats and the Arkansas Razorbacks at Bridgestone Arena on March 15, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

While it’s impossible to quantify what qualifies as real leadership, Christopher Hitchens came damn near close when he highlighted two preeminent virtues: intellectual honesty and moral courage.

Today it seems laughable to expect our leaders to meet these ideals. Moral courage appears limited to those who won’t again stand for reelection (Hello, Senators Corker and Flake!) True intellectual honesty appears the refuge of naïve scoundrels who haven’t yet figured out that their gullible bases will accept whatever version of the facts their tribal leaders present them.  While the Trump Era has magnified both our national cowardice and factual disconnect, they’ve been around a while; I’m the first to admit that my own long-deceased political career fell far short of Hitchens’ model.

That’s why I was particularly intrigued in 2014 when the actress, humanitarian and Big Blue Nation superfan Ashley Judd expressed an interest in running for the U.S. Senate. Judd undoubtedly faced long odds in a red state against the formidable Mitch McConnell; but I believed that Judd’s candidacy would have served as a unique opportunity to genuinely debate meaningful issues. Because of Judd’s celebrity, the local and national media would have to cover her — this would have been the über-rare confluence of good ratings and earnest policy deliberation.

More significantly, having made her acquaintance in pro-environmental activism, I had come to admire how Judd’s public life modeled Hitchens’ paradigmatic virtues.  Judd had never been shy about tackling third-rail issues, be they the controversial practice of mountaintop removal mining, or her own childhood trauma with sexual abuse.

Alas, much of the rest of the state Democratic establishment disagreed. Perhaps too much intellectual honesty and too much moral courage could be a detriment in politics, especially for a liberal in a red state.  I guess Dear Leader was wrong: When you’re a star, you can’t get away with everything. Or maybe that only applies to male stars.

Should I say “applied”?

Over the past few weeks, there’s been a tectonic shift in our national discussion of gender politics.  Entertainment moguls, media stars, literary lions, even a beloved elderly former President, have come under scrutiny for their alleged mistreatment of women, ranging from crude conversation to sexual assault. All of the dominoes have yet to fall, but it seems that we’ve reached a new tipping point on the issue of sexual harassment.  Certain behaviors will no longer be tolerated.  Our daughters hopefully will feel safer in the workplace and the community; our sons hopefully will understand how much pain their actions can generate.

There are many courageous women who have stepped forward in the past few weeks to help bring about this potential revolution.  But none have been more significant than Ashley Judd.

The Fort Sumter of our Uncivil War was an October 5 article in the New York Times that began as follows:

Two decades ago, the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein invited Ashley Judd to the Peninsula Beverly Hills hotel for what the young actress expected to be a business breakfast meeting. Instead, he had her sent up to his room, where he appeared in a bathrobe and asked if he could give her a massage or she could watch him shower, she recalled in an interview. “How do I get out of the room as fast as possible without alienating Harvey Weinstein?” Ms. Judd said she remembers thinking.

The editorial choice was not surprising.  Of all of the incredibly brave women who stepped forward, on-the-record, to share their stories, Ashley Judd was the only A-lister, the only marquee name. Soon many incredibly brave women followed, many with famous names, some with the same ugly details of hotel room invitations and bathrobes and massage offers and showers.

But Ashley Judd opened the floodgates.  Judd took an extraordinary career risk, subjecting herself to potentially intense personal scrutiny and retribution.  In so doing, she made it much easier for others to follow her example and say #MeToo.

Intellectual honesty comes easy to the actress.  But that kind of moral courage can be excruciating to summon. As Judd admitted this week to fellow Kentuckian Diane Sawyer, she’d struggled with the notion of speaking out about Weinstein for years, even feeling ashamed for not stepping forward earlier.

But in the end, Ashley Judd became the living embodiment of Hitchens’ virtues.  And our society is all the better because of her example.

I hope the next time Ashley Judd comes to Rupp Arena to cheer for her beloved Cats, BBN will stand up to cheer for her…for standing up for her principles…and for all of the women in our lives.


Obituary: The “Student/Athlete” (1964-2017)

Obituary: The “Student/Athlete” (1964-2017)

INDIANAPOLIS — The “Student/Athlete” died on Friday, October 13, 2017, after decades on life support, at the age of 53.  The cause of death was asphyxiation, brutally smothered by one of its parents, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”). An autopsy revealed the murder weapon: an NCAA press release announcing that the University of North Carolina athletic program would receive no penalties for an academic scandal that one impertinent recovering politician termed “the most morally offensive institutional misconduct in the history of college sports.”  Minutes after the Student/Athlete’s passing, another lifeless body was discovered: the NCAA’s Credibility, whose death had been rumored for years.

The lineage of the deceased charts back to ancient Greece, where the concept of the Athenian Ideal of Amateurism was born. The term “Student/Athlete” was conceived in 1964, coined by the NCAA’s first executive director, Walter Byers.  Byers gave birth to the nomenclature as a shield against reformers’ efforts to compensate college athletes under workers’ compensation principles.  Byers named the baby “Student/Athlete” because “Student” comes first: The NCAA and its member schools, of course, have always placed primary priority on the educational training of their athletes, with sporting activities simply an incidental sideline to their personal development.

From the moment of its birth, however, the Student/Athlete suffered from a variety of debilitating ailments.  Coaches, boosters, and agent-wannabes regularly infected the concept through their efforts to grab for their pieces of the financial riches accumulated by the volunteer activities of athletes.

Occasionally, over the years, the NCAA tried to inject health and wellness back into the Student/Athlete by imposing sanctions on players and programs (outside of the Tarheel State, of course) when the amateur ideal was undermined.  These included severe violations of the principle…where the academic virtue of college sports suffered mortal threats…suspensions were levied, for example, on students accepting slices of pizza and used mattresses, assistant coaches butt-dialing recruits, and athletes posing for free in a charity calendar.  Most recently, the NCAA exposed and excised a metastasizing cancerous growth on the paradigm, through a months-long investigation in which they identified and commenced punishing coaches and agents involved in a landmark shoe company pay-for-play conspiracy.

Oh wait, that was the FBI.

Still, the NCAA was handed an historic opportunity to breathe new life into the Student/Athlete when it was presented with a scandal that subverted the very moral bargain universities cut with their students.  For nearly two full decades, in order to keep athletes eligible to play (and earn money for their institution), University of North Carolina officials steered more than 1500 players toward fake courses, in which they received no education; in fact, many had no contact with instructors.  The vast supermajority who didn’t go pro were subsequently cast adrift on the job market with fewer tangible skills and less training. This was a clear example of a complete loss of institutional control in a way that directly harmed the very young people whom the university was entrusted to protect. This was the textbook case of undermining the very concept of a “Student/Athlete.” Indeed, as Walter Byers’ modern day counterpart, NCAA President Mark Emmert, stated: “This is a case that potentially strikes at the heart of what higher education is about.”

But, apparently, since only about half of the students that attended these sham classes were athletes — since over 1000 non-athlete students suffered simultaneously from this sports-inspired ruse with a devalued diploma — the NCAA did not consider this enforcement action within their jurisdiction.  That’s some logic.  In the words of today’s most esteemed political philosopher:

(h/t anonymous embarrassed UNC alum)

The Student/Athlete is survived by Rank Hypocrisy, Utter Disbelief, Wealthy Shady Shoe Middlemen, a Devalued Sport, and a Pissed Off BBN.  Funeral services were held this weekend in the Dean Dome under the banner of a third championship that should have been vacated. In lieu of flowers, please consider the impossible: suppressing all of your basest instincts and rooting for Duke when they take on the Tarheels.


Bevin is Right: Pay the Players

In this polarized and paralyzed body politic, it’s all too rare to witness opposite tribes finding common cause in controversial policy battles.  But when Kentucky GOP standard bearer Governor Matt Bevin called earlier this week for the compensation of college athletes, your favorite liberal recovering politician stood up to cheer.

In case you missed it, this past Tuesday, Bevin told a Paducah radio station that the sham paradigm of amateur athletics is due for an overhaul:

I think we should pay college athletes. I really do. This idea that they’re not professionals is nonsense…The coaches are making millions of dollars a year. Shoe contracts are dictating what happens on our college campuses. Athletics directors and others associated with it that are making exorbitant fees. I don’t begrudge people making a high living. Good for them, and I mean that sincerely. But if that comes at the expense of those that are delivering the athletic prowess on the field, then maybe we should rethink the fact that this is really like the minor leagues for the professional sports associations, and they should be compensated and treated accordingly.

Bravo, Bevin!

When pressed on the details, the Governor’s response was enigmatic:  “I think we should maybe defer that comp — fair enough, they can defer it – but they and their families should be able to benefit from the sacrifices they make.”  But to be fair, the Governor has a plate full of many other contentious issues to allow for too deep a dive into the nuances of an equitable and just compensation system.

So in the spirit of bipartisan comity, let this failed gubernatorial aspirant re-submit and revise for the Governor my own five-point plan for a pay-for-play college athletic system:

  1. Pay the players a living wage.  It would be too abrupt a shock on the system to throw out the amateur model and replace it with a purely free market professional system.  But there’s no excuse for denying the disproportionately economically-disadvantaged athletic employee base all of the fruits of their labor. Surrounded mostly by students of higher means, lower-income athletes would naturally be tempted by gift offers from boosters and shoe company shysters. Accordingly, an hourly living wage — the same for each player on scholarship; adjusted slightly among universities by local standards of living — would provide athletes with walking around money for the occasional restaurant jaunt or shopping spree, as well as the exceptional luxury of flying their parents in for special games. And it won’t break the bank of our higher education system.
  2. It’s gotta be the shoes. Of course, as colleges in Kentucky and across the country face budgetary belt-tightening, supplemental funding sources would be welcome.  And in identifying new sources of revenue, where better to begin than with the folks that have created the latest credibility gap for college sports — the shoe companies?  Let’s re-allocate the already existing moneys now pocketed by wealthy coaches and shady middlemen to the individuals that need and deserve it the most, and stop forcing players to serve as unpaid jumping billboards for their product.   A fair percentage of any and all shoe endorsement deals could help underwrite an athlete compensation pool, which could potentially sweep in athletes beyond just the two major revenue-generating sports.
  3. Don’t forget about the girls. Gender equity in college athletics is one of the great successes of the modern civil rights era. And even though on only rare occasions will a women’s team generate meaningful revenue, the spirit, if not the letter, of the Title IX laws may require colleges to pay women cagers the same as the boys. Since big-time college football is for the boys only, NCAA policymakers should choose to compensate at least one other women’s sport to provide gender balance.
  4. Say yes to agents.  As any college hoops fan knows intimately, the demarcation line for college eligibility has often been the signature page of a sports agent contract. Coach John Calipari has a better, albeit controversial idea:  Let college players sign with agents now, without penalty.  This seems counterintuitive, but as Andy Staples persuasively elaborates here, instead of the current black market system where athletes develop subterranean relationships with questionable characters, the most promising players could legally and publicly sign up with agents who are regulated and monitored by the NCAA.  Conceivably, through a carefully designed registration system, players could take out significant loans from their agents, as long as it was executed in a fair and transparent manner.  Money is already pouring in the system; legalizing and regulating agents could provide that funds go to those that truly earn them.
  5. It’s the education, stupid.   Finally, and most importantly, remember that the primary mission of the university is to educate and prepare its student body for the postgraduate job market.  The core flaw of today’s NCAA is the ludicrous and pernicious assumption that every “scholar-athlete” has the preparation, the aptitude — or even the need — to earn a four-year, liberal arts bachelor’s degree. For decades, outside of sport, policymakers (including Governor Bevin!) have been encouraging youth from lower income environments and underachieving high schools to enroll in two-year vocational and technical colleges, where they can be empowered with the skills they need for the modern job market. That’s why it is incumbent on the NCAA and its member schools to direct athletes, when appropriate, to focus their academic attention on job skills and technical programs that interest them, prepare them for postgraduate life, and enable them to earn associates degrees at the university, or through an affiliated community college or vo-tech program. Accordingly, the NBA and its players’ union should effectuate a new “two and done” system, which will enable each player to earn sufficient credit to graduate with at least an associates’ degree.  And those that stay on past their two-year degrees can be enrolled in apprenticeship programs with local businesses, or compensated job training in the workplace.

Clay Travis: Boob of the Week

Clay Travis: Boob of the Week

“I’m a First Amendment absolutist. I believe in only two things completely. The First Amendment, and boobs.”

It was an iconic, Churchillian moment, an epigram of soaring rhetoric, the kind that lifts nations and propels societies forward.  It was reminiscent of former DC Mayor Marion Barry’s epic “B**** set me up.” Or, natch, Donald Trump’s “Grab them by the p****.”

In the President’s defense (yes, I wrote those words), Fox Sports analyst Clay Travis’ comments last week cannot be dismissed as “locker room banter,” the type of crude and sometimes cruel language men use when we think no one’s listening except our immediate co-conspirators. Rather, Travis’ words were a deliberate provocation, a studied pronouncement made on live national television, with the very intent of delivering viral content to a global digital audience.

The Big Blue Nation is all too familiar with Clay Travis’ m.o.  Over the past several years, Travis has emerged as John Calipari’s most dedicated and prominent troll.  As recently as last year, he claimed that Cal pays his players, a comment that our Matt Jones rightly called out as “irresponsible,” “shameful,” and indicative of a longer pattern of misbehavior: “He says things solely, solely to get attention, and it worked….He’s like, in my opinion, the Donald Trump of sports radio; just say something, throw it out there, act like people have to listen to it, then deal with it.”

Unfortunately in this Age of Rage, Travis’ game plan — and indeed his career — have been gaining traction.  From his perch at the website Outkick the Coverage, Travis has tapped into today’s tribal political zeitgeist, emerging as a cultural warrior on behalf of a mostly rural, white, conservative audience that often coincides with the President’s base.  Travis’ primary troll target has been ESPN, the sports network he constantly derides as “MSESPN” for its purported lack of attention to actual sports, in favor of the liberal political causes that selected athletes have championed.  Travis has reveled in ESPN’s declining ratings and recent layoffs, blaming them on the network’s focus on anti-racism protests, and gestures such as bestowing the Arthur Ashe Courage Award on the transgendered Caitlyn Jenner.

Travis’ shtick is emblematic of a growing cause célèbre among some fans (and notably many commenters on this web site): that athletes and commentators should “stick to sports.”  It wasn’t that long ago when I was chastising my fellow progressives for carping about stars such as Tim Tebow who loudly proclaimed their faith and support for conservative causes.  But now in our polarized body politic, it’s largely those on the right who have been critical of players, mostly African-American, who publicly register their discontent with society’s status quo.

Into this maelstrom leapt ESPN host Jemele Hill, who last Monday tweeted that “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/other white supremacists.”  I personally disagree with Hill: I believe that our President is a Trump supremacist, who puts his own personal interests above all others, black or white.  But I strongly support her right to share her strongly-held personal beliefs.  As I argued in my defense of Tebow, the notion that political speech should be limited to politicians is antithetical to our very democracy and our Bill of Rights protections.  And the idea that sports networks and web sites should be “safe spaces” from social commentary is as absurd and as dangerous as the recent acceleration of efforts, mostly from the left, to ban controversial speech from college campuses.

Ultimately, the idea that Jamele Hill should be fired for a tweet she typed on her own time is outrageous.  Do recall that NBC never considered dismissing a certain reality TV host who waged a multi-year, racially-tinged campaign, falsely alleging that our previous president was not born in this country.

On a recent CNN broadcast, Clay Travis actually agreed with me.  Until he didn’t.  Travis stated that Hill should not be fired because he’s a First Amendment absolutist. But in his next sentence, he argued that Hill should be fired because ESPN had previously fired Curt Schilling for a Facebook post that ridiculed the transgendered.

Confused?  Watch it for yourself:

Of course, Travis agilely deflected from his breathtakingly breakneck self-contradiction with an out-of-nowhere proclamation of his patriotic admiration for bosoms.  His comments weren’t particularly vulgar, nor have any of us been immune to making crude comments in private company. But in a serious policy discussion about a prominent woman, moderated by a professional woman, and broadcast before a national news audience, Travis was acutely disrespectful and way out of line — trying to attract attention to himself by intentionally and unnecessarily  offending millions of women (and their husbands and fathers) who take umbrage in being rhetorically reduced to their body parts.

Many have called for Fox Sports to fire Clay Travis.  I disagree.  Such an action would only enlarge him as a martyr, broadcasting Travis’ trolling to even wider audiences.  And I believe completely in the First Amendment. Even when (or especially when) it is exercised by boobs like Clay Travis.

This can, however, be a teaching moment for the sports world.  You don’t like it when athletes or commentators don’t #SticktoSports?  Change the channel, or click on another Web site. But a better approach  is what I do when I see Clay Travis’ kind on TV: Turn up the volume.  Listen.  You might find common ground. Or strengthen your own convictions.

That’s the beauty of the First Amendment. We all live in our self-constructed political cocoons, watching the cable news shows or reading the social media feeds of those with whom we already agree.  We will only resolve our deep political divide if we listen to each other.  And let everyone have their say.  Even sports figures.

 


Jon Snow for President

The 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love has cruelly descended into the Summer of our Disrepair: our security challenged by a madman in North Korea; our infrastructure by an angry storm in the Gulf of Mexico; our psyche by hate-steeped terrorists in Charlottesville.

Football fortunately has returned to distract us; but until play resumed this week, many have fled the screaming heads on cable news for the comforts of fantasy.  It’s no wonder that the penultimate seventh season of HBO’s Game of Thrones captured record ratings:  When we turn off the TV, we can rest easy that the Westeros world of mad kings and child tyrants and murderous palace intrigue is truly “fake news.”

Ironically, one voice from this über-fictional forum has emerged as a clarion call for today’s real-life politics.  Sure, he would face some significant electoral challenges: The faux-bastard, resurrected-from-the-dead, dragon-mother-lovin’ pretty boy has a complicated leadership history and a controversial love life. But Aegon Targaryen, aka Jon Snow, just delivered the kind of inspirational oratory (akin to Reagan in 1964 and Obama in 2004) that deserves to capture the national imagination.

Let me set the scene without any too-substantive spoilers:  It’s the season finale, and for the first time, most of the series’ remaining principals — stalwart heroes, murderous villains, colorful aides-de-camp — gather together for the Dragon Pit Summit, an effort to broker a temporary cold peace so that a more vicious common enemy can first be vanquished.  An agreement is reached, with one caveat: King of the North Jon Snow is asked to remain neutral in any future dispute among two combatant queens.  Snow shockingly refuses, revealing that he had just secretly pledged fealty to one of the female rivals to the Iron Throne.

The détente collapses, and Snow’s allies pounce on his political naiveté:  The fate of un-undead humanity was undermined by an easily concealable truth, in a diplomatic climate where everyone expects mendacity. The show’s conscience and world-weary voice of reason, Tyrion Lannister, barks “Have you ever considered learning how to lie every now and then…just a bit?”

But Snow doubles down:

“I’m not going to swear an oath I can’t uphold.  Talk about my father if you want.  Tell me that’s the attitude that got him killed. But when enough people make false promises, words stop meaning anything. Then there are no more answers, only better and better lies.  And lies won’t help us win this fight.”

Since the scene’s airing, HBO showrunners have revealed the ironic date of its filming: November 9, 2016, just a few hours after Donald J. Trump was declared President-Elect.

Rest easy fair reader: This irony will not inform yet another screed against the current White House occupant. Indeed, Snow’s moral example is not a direct rebuke of the blatant, easily-fact-checkable untruths that constantly ooze from the lips and tweets of our chief executive.

Rather, it is a bipartisan indictment of our entire system, a climate in which hyperbole, word parsing and out-of-context rhetorical manipulations are accepted norms of political engagement.  Candidates and electeds are lauded for their dexterity in ignoring and parrying penetrating media queries; campaigns are praised for negative ads that devastate opponents with just enough of the truth to escape the grasp of a libel action.

Today’s successful politicians are all expected to lie every now and then…just a bit.

Jon Snow’s analysis of this reality is spot on. Exaggeration and evasion lead to small deceptions, which result only in better and better lies. In such a climate, truth becomes illusory, and the groundwork is laid for the body politic to cleave into tribes, each side only trusting its fellow partisans, and only the media and social media outlets that serve as echo chambers for the home team.

Words stop meaning anything. As a result, demagogues are empowered to stop even trying to ground their claims in rationality, logic, or facts, instead attacking the media and political enemies when their untruths are challenged.

We need a Jon Snow.  Or at least a political leader capable of a Jon Snow Moment.

One of my greatest regrets in my mildly successful political career was failing to seize my own Jon Snow Moment. I was being interviewed by an editorial board during my gubernatorial run.  I had been secretly a strong and passionate proponent of marriage equality since I first was made aware of the concept; but with my constituents overwhelmingly opposed, I had carefully concocted evasive answers on the subject to maintain both my moral integrity and my electoral viability.  But when asked a yes or no question — had I voted for the state constitutional amendment to ban the practice? — I couldn’t dodge. My whimpering, dissembling “yes” answer, while politically correct, was no profile in moral courage.

I’m confident, however, that there are others braver than I was.  But let’s not underestimate the challenge. Upending the political status quo is often as self-sacrificing a venture as Jon Snow’s recent forays north of the Wall.  While Never Trumper Republicans lambaste their leaders for failing to decry the nudity of the emperor, they may underrate the risk of offending the base these officials need to win election, or at least withstand a primary challenge.  When Democrats denounce their leaders for failing to reject the identity politics orthodoxies that have rendered us a minority party, they underestimate the difficulty of reassembling the Roosevelt or Clinton or Obama coalitions in today’s polarized culture.

I am cautiously optimistic, however, that our next President, of either party, will determine that the risk is worth it, that the best contrast to Trump’s inauthentic authenticity is speaking true truth to the powerful and the powerless.

American politics needs a Jon Snow.  Or else a long, cold political winter is coming.


What Moral Leadership Looks Like

What Moral Leadership Looks Like

In his seminal Vanity Fair essay on George Orwell, the late Christopher Hitchens encapsulated the essence of principled leadership: Orwell “showed how much can be accomplished by an individual who unites the qualities of intellectual honesty and moral courage.”

Today, an elected leader who unites these two qualities can be nearly impossible to find, especially amidst our polarized and paralyzed politics, where tribalism is ascendant, compromise is shunned, hyperbole is rewarded, and nuance is endangered.

Applying the moniker of “intellectual honesty” to the current occupant of the White House would be a challenging digression.  In the wake of yesterday’s terrorism in the streets of Charlottesville, “moral courage” would seem quite elusive as well.

While prominent Republicans such as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Cory Gardner…even Ivanka Trump…called out the racists, Klanners and Nazis responsible for the violence, Donald Trump pointed his finger to “many sides,” a case of false equivalency that was cheered on by the alt-right media.  The same Trump who in recent weeks lambasted Mitch McConnell, James Comey, and Jeff Sessions, cannot find the same rage for domestic terrorists.  The same Trump who repeatedly chided Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for refusing to identify by name “radical Islamic terrorism,” cannot seem to locate the words “white supremacists” in his vocabulary.

But the same day President Trump failed his test of moral leadership, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray aced his own.

After months of study and deliberation, Gray announced that he intends to take action to remove two Confederate statutes from the grounds of the city’s historic old courthouse.  One statue memorializes John Hunt Morgan, a Confederate soldier whose notorious raids were responsible for “pillaging” Lexington, and who was dismissed from command after disobeying his superiors and declining to punish atrocities committed by his troops.  The other commemorates a more complicated figure, former U.S. Vice President John Breckinridge, who ultimately served as Secretary of War for the Confederacy. While critics will undoubtedly label this an attempt to “whitewash” history, the mayor suggested a more appropriate location, the suburban Veterans’ Park.

It’s the right call.  The statues currently reside in the center of downtown, in front of what will become the city’s visitors’ center, precisely where we show off Lexington to the world.  The message their presence sends — celebrating the worst, most painful moment in our city’s history — not only engenders pause from tourists and employers who may want to relocate here, but it’s also completely inconsistent with what Lexington has become since their erection: a progressive, diverse, tolerant, and forward-looking community that shuns the abhorrent racism and divisiveness of the Civil War era and beyond.

It’s additionally a case study of moral courage. Gray, who is considered one of the Democratic party’s leading candidates for Governor in the future, will be pilloried in many quarters of the Bluegrass State by individuals who either cling on to our antebellum past, or deride these efforts as manifestations of ever-spreading “political correctness.” As he proceeds, he might encounter entrenched opposition from the bureaucracies that must weigh in on the process.  And if gets to ultimate removal, he could be faced with the kind of specter seen in another college town this weekend, as the white supremacy movement metastasizes across the country.

Jim Gray, indeed, has set himself on a risky path, one that could undermine his political ambitions, and certainly will subject him to angry, painful denunciations and challenges.

That’s moral courage.

I’m hopeful that Gray’s fever spreads a few dozen miles down I-64.  In the summer of 2015, in the wake of an even more monstrous act of domestic terrorism in Charleston, Kentucky leaders, including Senator Mitch McConnell and now-Governor Matt Bevin, demonstrated their own moral leadership.  In the middle of a tightly contested gubernatorial campaign, McConnell, Bevin and most state legislative leaders joined a controversial call to remove the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the Capitol Rotunda.

Unfortunately, Davis still remains in place, and even weak-tea efforts to dress up the statue with “historical context” have encountered continual delays.

I have spilled enough virtual ink over the past few years at this site explaining why Davis needs to go.  But for those of you who don’t trust the credibility of a liberal recovering politician, check out this column from Jordan Harris of Kentucky’s new conservative-leaning think tank, the Pegasus Institute.  Harris counsels that

Conservatism values individual liberty, personal responsibility, human decency, free markets and works to defend Western ideals. All stand in contrast to Jefferson Davis’ political life. Some have been blinded to this, failing to see that the Confederacy was a revolt built on subjugation, not on the defense of liberty or the rejection of tyranny.

(Harris also wisely suggests that Davis should be replaced in Kentucky’s version of Statutory Hall by the likeness of Muhammad Ali.  That’s a discussion for another day.  But if you agree with him, sign this petition.)

If that’s not enough, how about some partisan red meat?  The Jefferson Davis statue was commissioned by a Democratic Governor, authorized by a Democratic legislature, and kept in place by more than a half century of Democratic politicians. Oh, and don’t forget: unlike Abraham Lincoln and Henry Clay, his marble neighbors in the Rotunda, Jefferson Davis was a Democrat!  Republicans looking for a clean sweep of the vestiges of Democratic influence in Frankfort should not ignore ridding the Capitol of the worst example of my party’s history.

I won’t soft-sell the political risk: Even at the height of national fury toward the Confederate flag-waving murderer Dylann Roof, a Bluegrass Poll revealed 73 percent of Kentuckians preferred Davis to stay where he is.  But it’s the right thing to do despite the political downside.  And that’s what moral leadership looks like.


It’s Time for Jefferson Davis to Go

It’s Time for Jefferson Davis to Go

 

 

One of the most transcendent joys of my life after politics has been shedding the language of compromised rhetoric and timid talking points.  Within a few months of leaving public office, I jumped at the chance to publish pieces with full throated defenses of marriage equality and legalized hemp, both at the time exceedingly unpopular in our Bible Belt Commonwealth.

But none of my post-politics essays have generated so much attention, and provoked so much controversy, than a 2014 Kentucky Sports Radio column in which I called for the removal of Jefferson Davis’ statue from the Capitol Rotunda, and its replacement with a likeness of Muhammad Ali.

To me, it was a no-brainer. Jefferson Davis, the Todd County native who served as President of the Confederate States of America, was a traitor who deserves opprobrium, not exaltation in marble.  Davis was a stalwart defender of slavery and the empire-building aspirations of slaveholders; but worse, he has emerged as the very symbol of the most shameful, most disgraceful era in American history.  Indeed, that’s precisely why Jim Crow-era politicians enshrined Davis in our state’s version of Statutory Hall.  And now, every day, strolling through our Commonwealth’s cathedral, our most important citizens — the officials who set our policies and the schoolchildren who visit — pass by the white statue that continually pours salt into our nation’s deepest wound.

There’s no more appropriate Rotunda replacement for the worst of the 19th century than the Greatest of All Time. Muhammad Ali was a proud product of Louisville. Like all of us, the Champ was a flawed man: In his early career, a time of acrimony and assassination, Ali was a polarizing figure, refusing to serve in Vietnam and blurting ugly, regrettable statements. But the boxer came to represent something much greater than himself, and his long-term positive political and societal impact on the state and the nation is irrefutable.  The Supreme Court decision that his draft-dodging prompted served as a milestone affirmation of our nation’s freedoms of religion and speech.  By preaching loudly and courageously about the segregation-infected political infrastructure, Ali’s inspiration of young African-Americans, struggling to find a voice in their communities, was unparalleled. As civil rights icon Julian Bond remarked, “It’s hard to imagine that a sports figure could have so much political influence on so many people.”

When my idea was first published, a bilious eruption of online commentary ensued, with hatred directed at me, Ali, and the forces of “political correctness” that dared to bleach out Civil War history.  On the positive side, the local media noticed, and hundreds signed a petition directed to state leaders.  But it wasn’t until six months later, when tragedy intervened, that the mission gained new energy.  In the wake of the Charlestown massacre, in which a Confederate flag-waving murderer united the nation against racism and its emblems, nearly all of Kentucky’s most powerful policymakers — including U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, Governor Matt Bevin, Senate President Robert Stivers and House Speaker Greg Stumbo — called for the removal of the Davis statue from the Rotunda.  A year later, the Champ’s passing prompted another round of honorific speculation (although we learned that Ali’s Muslim faith prohibits his representation in three-dimensional form, so the tribute must come in the firm of a portrait, picture or mural, in lieu of a statue.)

But to date, sadly, there’s been no action.  On the question of the Davis removal, the state’s Historic Properties Advisory Commission — which has the legal authority to make these decisions — has refused to budge, and even the Commission’s promises to produce new educational materials to accompany the statute have gone unfulfilled.  The loud political clamor post-Charleston has gone radio silent, perhaps in response to a 2015 Bluegrass Poll that revealed 73 percent of Kentuckians preferred Davis to stay where he is.

The intervening two years, however, seem like a political lifetime.  Since Election 2016 particularly, a new wave of activism has empowered movements to prod their elected officials to help bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.  Just recently, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu emerged as a national hero, and even prompted 2020 presidential speculation, for his courageous leadership (and powerful oratory) concomitant with the removal of a Jefferson Davis statue in the heart of Dixie.

So in the end, it’s up to you.  Sign this petition.  Call your state legislator.  Lead a march on the Rotunda.  Make your voice heard.

This is much greater than mere symbols in stone.  The messages our Capitol sends to the world are a reflection of our public morality. Help our leaders remove a painful embarrassment and replace it with a joyful source of pride.


From “Get Off Our Backs” to “Get Over It”: The Journey of Steve Beshear

From “Get Off Our Backs” to “Get Over It”: The Journey of Steve Beshear

One of my most awkward moments in my political career came near its end.

Perched in the front row of the balcony in the chambers of the Kentucky House of Representatives, I was participating in an annual rite of passage for Frankfort: the 2011 State of the Commonwealth Address.  The man at the microphone, Governor Steve Beshear, had appointed me to his Cabinet several months after I had abandoned my own 2007 bid for the Mansion and threw my support to him.  Leaving the race was agony, but the endorsement was easy: He was a good and decent man; and we shared similar values and positions on most issues.  One exception: After cutting my political teeth as a young aide to Al Gore, climate change remediation was a personal passion; and Beshear’s campaign rhetoric hewed closer to the traditional pro-coal boosterism of our black gold-rich state.

Midway through the speech, the Governor turned to my sore spot.  Jabbing his forefinger in the air, he twice yelled four words aimed squarely at the Obama Administration’s clean air regulators: “Get off our backs!”

The crowd erupted in a rare bipartisan display usually reserved only for military heroes.  Like the rest of those in attendance, my fellow Cabinet members stood to their feet and clapped uproariously.

Realizing I could be captured by the TV cameras airing to a statewide audience, I panicked: If I didn’t stand, I would be seen as disloyal and perhaps even justify a few unsavory press tweets.  If I cheered, I’d not only be intellectually dishonest; I might upset some friends watching from home.  So this future crisis manager came up with an awkward solution: I stood up, and pretended to look at my phone.

And, of course, like much of my political career, no one was paying attention.

One of the more fascinating revelations in Steve Beshear’s just-released new autobiography, People Over Politics, was that the Governor also was internally contradicted at that moment, and came to regret it:

Because it was too simplistic a message.  Because it reduced a complex issue into a four-word, black-and-white sound bite.  Because it settled on a singular explanation for coal’s decline at the expense of all others.  And because it helped further the deceptive message to the Eastern and Western Kentucky coalfields that the best way to build a vibrant future was to simply cling to the past.

People Over Politics contains all of the usual traits of standard political autobiography: Litanies of policy accomplishments to craft the first draft of history. Shout-outs to mentors, staffers, and family that propelled him on his path.  Shade thrown at rivals and adversaries (the nectar of press attention and book sales.)

But what’s most remarkable about People Over Politics is what’s atypical of the genre…and frankly, what’s atypical of politics circa 2017: Self-criticism. Nuance.  Humility.  As the country hurdles breathlessly through scandal, tweetstorms and hyperbolic shouting, Steve Beshear and his approach to government emerge as a sort of Bizarro Trumpism — and not simply as a quaint nostalgic reminder of a halcyon bygone era, but rather as a potential elixir for today’s toxicity.

Steve Beshear tried something nearly impossible in today’s polarized and paralyzed politics:  Securing center-left progress in a bright red state.  Beshear inherited a dispirited body politic, made cynical by the ethical scandals of prior administrations.  Further, just a few months into his first term, the Governor’s expansive campaign promises were undermined profoundly by the worst national economic crisis since the Great Depression.  For most of his time in office, Beshear continually was forced to thread the tiniest needle: Creating jobs and maintaining safety net services with scarce resources, while protecting progressive values in a Bible Belt climate.

It was the latter social-issue struggle that helped precipitate a premature undoing to Beshear’s early political career. The young Attorney General’s 1980 opinion that prohibited courthouse postings of the Ten Commandments haunted him in future unsuccessful bids for Governor and the U.S. Senate.  Some of the more interesting sections of his book relate to how the late-20th century religious wars informed the older and wiser Beshear on the social hot buttons of the new millennium.  While at the time, many liberals chastised the Governor for appealing a federal judge’s marriage equality ruling, and for signing off initially on tax incentives for a Noah’s Ark theme park, the reader will catch a rare behind-the-curtains glimpse of how the pro-LGBT, pro-science Beshear tried to subtly square the policy circle to protect progressive interests while retaining political capital.

Ultimately, of course, Steve Beshear used that political capital for his most progressive and consequential accomplishment, in the process making him a national hero for Democrats.  It is hard to over-estimate the political risks the Governor assumed by embracing the Affordable Care Act.  There have been few modern politicians less popular in the Commonwealth than the 44th President, and his local popularity was at its nadir during the rollout of Obamacare.  Yet, in the most challenging moment of his Administration, Beshear went all-in, expanding Medicaid and opening up the South’s only state-based exchange.  He rolled out the initiative with a coordinated and targeted communications strategy, articulating the benefits in a manner that transcended the deep political divide.  For those who could not accept any program associated with the President, he responded simply and clearly: “Get over it.”  Whatever your view of the action’s substance, it’s hard to deny that Beshear’s signature moment was a case study of putting people over politics.

It’s only been a few years since Steve Beshear left the state capital, but they’ve been some of the most tumultuous in our nation’s political history.  The political figure tapped to deliver the Democrats’ response to our new President’s first State of the Union address is revealed in People Over Politics to be the ultimate anti-Trump: a careful deliberator, operating in gray areas of our black and white political system, tempered by genuine humility.  Steve Beshear won’t be running for office again.  But any of the large and growing cavalry looking to pursue the White House in 2020, and once again recapture the great swath of red states in the center of our nation, would be wise to follow his example.


I Hate Forrest Gump

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It’s been a dispiriting spring for this sports fan.  Sabotaged by some shady refereeing, my Cats were eliminated from the Big Dance by an eventual champion that simply should not have been eligible to compete. My sure bet Derby winner, Classic Empire, got knocked around out of the gate, and couldn’t recover in time to finish any higher than fourth place.  And in the first-ever KSR Movie Bracket drama competition, the Big Blue Nation– my peopleselected as winner the most overrated, disappointing film of my lifetime.

At the risk of yet another pounding in the comments section below, let me state perhaps my most unpopular political opinion yet:

I hate Forrest Gump.

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I can vividly recall the excitement I felt watching the trailers. A dash of sports, a heaping of politics, and the promise of lots of laughs. The film was helmed by one of my favorite directors, Robert Zemeckis (I loved Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit), and starred my favorite actor not named Denzel or DeNiro.  Tom Hanks wasn’t yet “America’s Dad,” but he had just transcended a successful comedy career with a courageous, multi-layered portrait of an AIDS patient in Philadelphia, justly earning him his first Best Actor Oscar.

But Hanks’ repeat victory the next year for Forrest Gump was an Academy embarrassment.  Not only did Morgan Freeman’s rich and textured take on Red Redding in The Shawshank Redemption deserve the gold statue; Hanks’ two-hour, one-note performance could have been accomplished by any high school drama student.  With the exception of Gary Sinese’s colorful Lt. Dan, most of the rest of the cast was underwhelming as well. Robin Wright, so brilliant today as the steely, high-strung Claire Underwood on House of Cards, seemed miscast as the happy-go-lucky hippie Jenny Curran.  I found Bubba Blue to be cinema’s most annoying sidekick since Jar Jar Binks, embodying all of the coastal elite’s pernicious, patronizing stereotypes of small-town Southerners, so well torched by Matt Jones in his review of a recent Saturday Night Live skit.

Despite its promising premise and impressive digital magic, Forrest Gump suffered from lazy plot construction. Zemeckis appeared to mine the last twenty pages of a high school U.S. history textbook, simply trying to figure out clever ways to insert his lead character into all of the main events. (A device much more effectively accomplished by Woody Allen a decade earlier in Zelig.)  It was fun at first, but the pattern was so predictable that halfway through, I was just waiting to see which character would be diagnosed with AIDS.  (To make matters worse, unlike the brave treatment by Hanks and crew in Philadelphia, the disease wasn’t even specifically named.)

The movie’s most ruinous legacy, though, is the generation of much-lesser imitators it spawned. I’m referring to the spate of treacly rom coms– take Garry Marshall’s New Year’s Eve, Mothers’ Day and Valentine’s Day for the worst examples — which gather a similar assortment of one-dimensional boilerplate characters, and force them into artificial “moments” that are supposed to make our hearts swell or our tear ducts fill.  I’m left dry eyed wanting my ninety minutes back.

Now, contrast Forrest Gump to the film that it slayed in the championship round of the KSR Movie Bracket, a repeat of the epic Best Movie battle at the 1995 Academy Awards.  Pulp Fiction is a two-and-a-half hour breathtaking joy ride, filled with as much intense, heart-pumping adrenaline as the needle Eric Stolz thrusts into Uma Thurman’s chest in Act Three.  The acting is exhilarating: from John Travolta’s career-rehabilitating role as Vincent Vega, to Christopher Walken’s memorable brief turn as Captain Koons, to my favorite, Samuel L. Jackson’s epochal portrayal of Jules Winnfield.

Best of all is Quentin Tarantino’s peak-of-career screenwriting.  Compare Mama Gump’s hackneyed sloganeering to the brilliant and hilarious “filler” dialogue between Vincent and Jules on subjects ranging from Quarter Pounders in Paris to the sexuality of foot massages.  Now name a scene in Gump — or any other film for that matter — as tautly thrilling and emotionally potent as the apartment confrontation that culminates in Jules’ bone-chilling recitation of Ezekiel 25:17.

Checkmate.

Now, fair readers, I don’t blame this travesty of cinematic justice on you.

This election was rigged.

Forrest Gump was the Duke of the brackets, getting a clear ride to the Final Four, with only one excellent film, the erratic Saving Private Ryan, in its way.  The far superior Schindler’s List played the role of Kentucky, forced in the Sweet 16 to compete with the most talented film in the tournament, Goodfellas.  Further, by artificially limiting the contestants to the post-1980 era — hey guys, some of us were alive in the 70s — the contest unfairly omitted the two greatest films of the modern era. (Hint: They both have “Godfather” in their titles.)

Worst of all, I call foul on the most blatant contest-fixing outside of Russian hacking and John Higgins-whistling.  Witness this tweet from championship eve:

This election tampering was worse than the Comey letter and Podesta leaks combined: As Matt will be first to admit, Drew is the soul, or at least the belly laugh, of this operation. KSR surely wouldn’t be the same without him.  At a minimum, without Drew, we would have never experienced this one shining moment of UK fandom.

So, I am willing to accept a loss here for the sake of the team.  But if anybody undermines a Caddyshack victory in the upcoming comedy movie bracket competition, count on me to go all Ezekiel on them.

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Postscript:  I do give credit to Forrest Gump for providing me with my favorite Hollywood encounter.  I was hanging out at some sort of political event, when I spotted one of my favorite actors, Forest Whitaker, walking by with a small entourage.  I approached him to try to get a picture, but he appeared to sprint away, hurried along by his team to make an interview (or escape this interloper.) My feelings slightly hurt, I yelled “Run, Forest, Run!”  It was my finest hour.


A World Without Refs?

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Ever since the final 0.3 seconds of Kentucky’s season expired, tongues have been tattering across the Commonwealth about BBN’s newest anti-celebrity, 2017’s Christian Laettner: referee John Higgins.  For the first 24 hours, fans scrutinized the whistle-blower’s misdeeds on the court (Drew summarized them well here), and demanded NCAA intervention. (Yeah, like they’ll get to it after they sanction North Carolina.)  Then, a few miscreants went WAY overboard and threatened the referee’s roofing business, and even his life, on social media.  Finally, the national media blamed the backlash to the backlash on Coach Cal and the one-and-done system because…well…that’s what the national media does.

There are few causes that unite our deeply polarized nation more than deep and enduring contempt for the men in black and white. (The refs, remember, fueled Lynn Marshall’s infamous anti-UK rant a few rounds earlier.)  If Hillary Clinton was the vessel for decades of searing resentment by middle America against entitled, Establishment elitism, John Higgins is the virtual piñata for our spiraling shared antipathy to bad calls, missed calls, and conspiracy-theory-generating biases.

Which begs the question: Does college basketball really need referees?

Given the poor and declining court record, why can’t organized hoops copy the street pickup variety?  Even since Naismith hung up his peach baskets, the game has been played effectively and enthusiastically in parks, gyms and backyards without the need for third party officiating.  Over 90% of basketball contests (maybe 99%?) rely on the honor system; individual players admitting their own violations; or occasionally, the group debating and compromising to determine the proper cause of action.

Bringing this model to the collegiate level would have its definite upsides.  Undoubtedly, less fouls would be called — “let ’em play” would be the paradigm — both shortening the delays in between action and potentially providing a more exciting product.  There’d still be an independent check: stadium crowds could rain down their critiques, and television broadcasters could use their instant replay gizmos to expose dishonest players to opprobrium. Indeed, such a system could emulate campus honor codes, with self-reporting of misbehavior and far less incentive to game the system through subtle cheating like flopping.

OK, OK…Grayson Allen.  I surrender.

No umping would provide a significant unfair advantage to those athletes that don’t play by the rules, and to those coaches (like K) who enable bad behavior by refusing to punish transgressors.  In the end, there’s too much at stake — money, university prestige, fan passion, did I mention money? — to fire all of the refs and apply a new model.

But while we are stuck with the necessity of officiating in organized sport, referees in the real world are dramatically losing their influence.  And the stakes are obviously much higher.

A new MSNBC commercial places Meet the Press host Chuck Todd on a basketball court, citing the rules of hoops and concluding: “These days politics can use a little refereeing.  And we’re not afraid to blow the whistle.”

But unlike their counterparts on the hardwood, the media’s whistle is not binding.  A foul call that affects the outcome of a ballgame is irreversible after the buzzer sounds.  On the other hand, consensus media denunciation of an objective falsehood told by a candidate or elected official can all too easily be ignored.  We hate the refs, but are forced to accept their judgment.  We hate the press, so we reject them, period…and turn to our friends on social media for the narratives and alternative facts we prefer.  And we have a President — very popular among a significant minority of our country — who has pushed in all of his chips in an effort to undermine the fourth estate even further:  He’s termed many of them “fake news” and the “enemy of the people,” and just this week renewed his calls for strong libel laws to police journalists who report inconvenient truths.

There is, fortunately, one arbiter that still does retain formal authority to rein in political power: the judiciary.  But these days, the ump-ish notion expressed by Chief Justice John Roberts in his 2005 confirmation hearings (“My job is to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat”) seems a bit quaint.  As the nation endures yet another partisan bloodbath to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court — and the institution-undermining prospects of a filibuster-busting “nuclear option” — the neutral legitimacy of the judiciary is under threat.  And even at the traditional apolitical district court level, the President continues to undermine confidence by decrying federal judges for their ethnic heritage and political biases.

As a guy who cut his political teeth driving around a young Al Gore in his first presidential campaign, I was devastated by the Supreme Court’s 2000 Bush v. Gore decision: its out-of-left-field jurisprudence has aged even more poorly in the interim.  But like the then-Vice President, I accepted the ruling immediately; that’s how our democracy functions.  I worry that in the next constitutional crisis, because of the toxic subversion of our sacred officiating institutions, the losing side won’t be so willing to accept defeat.

The solution requires introspection and self-correction from all of our institutions.  As I discussed here, it’s critical that the press does more internal policing: Treat politicians as human beings, not Pulitzer targets; take responsibility for, and learn from, media mistakes; and escape their self-validating bubble.  Similarly, influential high court judges should try to emulate Chief Justice Roberts, who’s struggled admirably to forge a path that retains faith in a neutral judiciary (see e.g., Obamacare).

But in the end it is up to our political leaders, and frankly to all of us, to retain respect for the institutions that bind our democracy together.  Efforts to provide our youth civic education on the our system’s checks and balances are essential.  Yet grownups are the real problem.  It’s fine to complain about the refs in sports and politics.  But unless we invest some institutions with the legitimacy to arbitrate controversies, we will have a whole lot more to complain about.


Let UK End UNC’s Mockery of College Sport

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There’s something uniquely special about this afternoon’s Elite Eight matchup between the University of Kentucky Wildcats and the University of North Carolina Tar Heels.  Arguably, the two best remaining teams in the NCAA tournament square off, reprising their thrilling December contest, perhaps the best college game played all year, and certainly one of the most fun to watch.  Inarguably, the teams represent two of the greatest traditions in the history of college hoops; their marquee pedigrees evoking decades of memories of extraordinary basketball.

There’s also something uniquely disturbing about today’s contest.  The University of North Carolina simply should not be playing today.  Their postseason presence — following an almost-championship run last year — makes a mockery of undergraduate athletics.

More than two years after revelations surfaced that the school had engaged in the most morally offensive institutional misconduct in the history of college sports, the team plays on, without even a hand check on the wrist.

Every time I have made the above charge, I’m scolded for minimizing the Penn State football child molestation scandal.  Certainly there, the underlying crime was far more abhorrent.  But the institution’s crimes were limited to a handful of miscreants, and with this week’s conviction of former school President Graham Spanier for child endangerment, justice has been served.

By contrast, UNC’s academic scandal poisoned institutions all across campus, and the injustice lives on.  I’ve written several pieces in this space, but here’s a reminder of the ignominy to further boil your blood on Game Day:

  • Over nearly two decades, more than 3100 UNC students enrolled in a series of sham African and Afro-American Studies classes.  They were awarded As and Bs, even though they never had to take a test, or even to show up in class.
  • According to an independent report, commissioned by the University, the scam was perpetuated by a conspiracy among faculty members, administrators, and academic advisers, the point of which was to keep athletes eligible to play by steering them to classes in which the only requirement was a single paper…that was never read.
  • An example of the fraud?  Students in third-level Swahili were able to fulfill the school’s foreign language requirement by writing a paper on African culture in English, not Swahili.
  • The classes were an open secret on campus — word spread throughout the Greek system — in fact, more than half of the students impacted were not athletes.
  • When the independent report was released in October 2014, public outrage and media criticism was fierce, with one particularly unstable columnist even suggesting that the Tar Heels should receive the death penalty. A year later, new damning allegations were aired involving basketball tutors providing inappropriate academic assistance.  And just this past December, the school just received its third notice of allegations from the NCAA.
  • And yet…the NCAA investigation still drags on, with delay after delay sparked by new revelations.  The university’s response?  Throw out some of the evidence because a four-year statute of limitations has expired…because of all of the foot-dragging and new allegations.

Let’s be clear: The UNC academic scandal subverts the very moral bargain universities cut with student athletes: In return for all of the acclaim (and money) you bring to the university, we prepare you for the workplace with free education and training.

Yet the students who took these courses received no education; in fact, many had no contact with teachers.  They were funneled through this fraud just to keep up their athletic eligibility. For the vast majority who didn’t go pro, they were cast on the job market with fewer tangible skills and less training.  Further, thousands of non-athletes were collateral damage, graduating with a devalued diploma.

The UNC scandal is the example of a complete loss of institutional control in a way that directly harmed the very young people whom the school was entrusted to protect.  The message must be clear: This can never happen again.

Indeed, when he first learned about the transgressions, NCAA President Mark Emmer stated that “this is a case that potentially strikes at the heart of what higher education is about.”  He was right then.  But now, as his institution reaps many millions of benefits from UNC’s continued presence in postseason, his own institution’s credibility plummets even further.

Maybe the NCAA will finally get its act together in April, take appropriate action against North Carolina, and vacate any of its potential wins in this year’s tournament.  And maybe our nation’s politicians will finally put aside partisanship, roll up their sleeves to find compromise, and foster some solutions to this nation’s most vexing policy problems.

One can dream…

But in the meantime, if you need yet another reason to be rooting for a Monk monster performance, a Bam re-boom, or D’Aaron domination, let’s hope that our Cats end a Tar Heel postseason that never should have begun in the first place.  Let a Cat victory serve as a remedy for NCAA inaction.


Tom Perez

Tom Perez

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The story of the email scandal that never was might be the best illustration of the character and talents of the newly elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez.

It was the fall of 2014, and Attorney General Eric Holder had announced his impending resignation.  Speculation about his replacement reached a fever pitch inside the Beltway, with interest groups lobbying for their favored pick.  Latino organizations seized on Perez, then the U.S. Labor Secretary, previously an Assistant Attorney General for civil rights, as a favored choice.  African-American groups were pushing then-U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch.  LGBT activists were promoting Jenny Durkan, the first openly gay U.S. Attorney, to break that glass ceiling in the Justice Department.

I couldn’t resist.  I picked up my iPhone and quickly penned a jokey email to my old friend, Tom.  “Hey buddy.  I’ve got a great idea.  I’ll announce tomorrow that we’ve been dating for over a decade.  You’ll definitely get the nod!”

I hit send and almost immediately regretted it.  My old friend Tom was now an Obama Cabinet official.  As his colleague, Hillary Clinton, was beginning to realize, personal emails were no longer a protected class.  And while I couldn’t guess at the time, in retrospect, the Russians might have already intercepted my missive.

Did I just torpedo Tom’s candidacy?  Would my ill-considered communique ensure the 2016 election of an erratic GOP strongman to the White House?

(more…)


Coach Cal Says to “Sweat for Surgeries”

Coach Cal Says to “Sweat for Surgeries”

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Last year, as reported in this space, Lexington’s own globally-recognized personal trainer Josh Bowen led a 24-hour fitness-a-thon that raised nearly $22,000 for the extraordinary local charity, Surgery on Sunday (funding 71 surgeries for local working families).

This year, everything’s bigger and better.  In this Trumpian era, Bowen has transformed himself into “Buff Gandhi,” a muscle-man with a compassionate agenda.  His goal this year is grander: to raise more than $30,000 – and pay for 100 surgeries.  And he’s bringing out the big guns to help ramp up the sweating and the money-raising:  BBN’s king this week urged his Facebook friends to join in the fun:

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If you are like me, and follow all of Coach Cal’s direct orders, click here to sign up, donate to a most worthy cause, and join Buff Gandhi and crew this weekend for an important and fun event.

Still need some convincing?  I interview Buff Gandhi below to better understand his motivations, and to provide a preview of Sweat for Surgeries 2.0:

 

 


No No North Carolina

No No North Carolina

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For much of my Kentucky youth, our North Carolina neighbors had our number.

On the hardwood, between Goose’s Greatest Game and Rick’s Resurrection, the Wildcats struggled mightily: from Joe B.’s impossible mission to match Rupp’s legend, to the scandal-plagued, whiskey-soaked Sutton era. Meanwhile, Carolina teams didn’t merely capture five NCAA titles between 1982-1993; they dominated the game, showcasing some of the most iconic moments in the history of the sport: Michael’s clinching corner jumper, Valvano’s victory dance, and…ugh…The Shot.

In the world of policy as well, the Tarheel State outshined our old Kentucky home. While a lawsuit was necessary to fix our public schools, and our state colleges and universities (pre-Paul Patton’s reform) foundered under parochialism and political turf battles; North Carolina was being steered by visionary leaders like Governor Jim Hunt, who focused laser-like on pursuing economic growth through raising educational standards.  It worked: As the state dramatically improved its national rankings from kindergarten through college, North Carolina’s economy boomed, and Charlotte and the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill Golden Triangle exploded into dynamic epicenters of financial innovation in the new economy.

These days, however, North Carolina is emerging as the epitome of what’s wrong about this new era.

Duke guard Grayson Allen’s opponent-tripping epidemic (did he do it again last night?) could serve as Exhibit A of entitled elites rigging the system for their own advantage. But I’m less bothered by this obviously troubled kid than I am by Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s outrageous flip-flop: declaring after one game (a conference loss, natch) that Allen’s “indefinite” suspension was over.  Honor, ethics and youth role modeling took a way-back seat to preserving the Blue Devils’ seed in the NCAA tourney.

Worse, I’m horrified by the very fact that the University of North Carolina is even playing hoops this season.  It’s been more than two years since an internal investigation revealed a pernicious 18-year institutional scheme to rob student-athletes of a legitimate education — razing the very foundation of collegiate sports.  As I have elaborated here and here, there’s never been a more worthy candidate for a death penalty sanction; and yet, as the school just received its third notice of allegations from the NCAA, the team continues to play, with only Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beater last year saving UNC the future disgrace of vacating a national championship.

Still, none of this compares to the ignominy of what’s transpiring down the road at Raleigh’s State Capitol.  With Governor Hunt long retired, the new sheriffs in town have so eroded the state’s governmental institutions that a much-publicized Electoral Impact Project (EIP) report declared that North Carolina could no longer be considered a functioning democracy. The state was awarded an “electoral integrity score” equivalent to the Communist dictatorship in Cuba.  (Contrary to some Trump fanboys and gals, I still think Communism sucks.)

The conclusory headlines from the EIP Report were a bit too fake-newsy for my taste.  But the underlying political situation is a legitimate source of great alarm.  Much national attention has focused on House Bill 2, the grotesque “bathroom bill,” in which legislators tried to win political points on the backs of vulnerable bullied teens, but instead provoked the ire of the business community, leading to the flight of jobs and treasured sporting events in protest.  In fact, there’s a whole lot more to complain about: from audaciously partisan legislative redistricting to civil rights-defying efforts to suppress votes.  When voters rebelled against the extremism by throwing out the offending Governor, the legislature unprecedentedly stripped his successor of long-held powers and then welched on a widely-popular deal to repeal HB2.

North Carolina’s sports and political scandals are inextricably linked by a common theme: the hubris of power.

Coaches K and Roy Williams know that they can circumvent moral judgment lapses that would sink lesser teams because they generate so much money for their institutions and the NCAA.  Carolina legislators ignore the long-term economic and reputational state impact because, well, they have the super-majorities to do what they want to help get themselves re-elected. That certainly doesn’t make it right. And as voters demonstrated by electing a Democratic reformer to the Governor’s Mansion in the midst of a GOP southern wave, you can’t get away with this kind of arrogance in the long run.

As Kentucky Republicans revel in their first week of total power in Frankfort, they’d be wise to learn the lessons of Carolina’s experience.  Power, when used appropriately, can be a very positive force for meaningful societal change.  While I strongly disagree with some of the bills rushed by GOP leaders though the General Assembly last week — especially the 20-week abortion ban which could allow rapists to sue their victims, if it weren’t so brazenly unconstitutional — I do respect their electoral mandate and their desire to enact conservative measures that have been bottled up by Democrats for decades.

But as the next several months progress, I’d advise Kentucky Republicans to remember that the most prized value of good leadership is the very opposite of hubris: It’s humility.  Democracies cannot survive if they are winner-take-all. While duly elected bodies have every right to enact their priority agendas, humble leaders recognize that there are large segments of constituents, sometimes even majorities, that disagree strongly with particular policies.  And they are Kentuckians too.

Fortunately, the General Assembly is led by two men who’ve modeled humility and bipartisan comity for decades. Senate President Robert Stivers was a critical partner of Democratic Governor Steve Beshear on issues that transcended politics. New House Speaker Jeff Hoover, the longest serving minority leader in state history, understands what it means to be silenced by power, and early on took some very admirable steps to involve Democrats in his transition.

In today’s polarized and paralyzed political climate, however, both men will find themselves under constant pressure to take measures that might elicit some short-term political advantage, but yet reap long-term economic detriment to the state.  I’m most nervous about a bathroom bill, which unfortunately has already been introduced…by a Democrat, yikes.  And while pension reform is vital, it can’t be at the cost of reversing decades of educational progress.  Hoover and Stivers will need the support of their caucuses to resist partisan temptation and understand their role at stewards for Kentucky’s future.

Of course, these might appear to be the hypocritical rantings of an out-of-power has-been whose party controlled the House for 95 years.  Guilty as charged.  But for two decades, this has-been lived through the entitlement-fueled, hubristic misuse of power by both parties in Frankfort, and understands that Democratic failures of humility helped land us on the sidelines.

That leads to my final point, to my fellow left-wingers: There is one North Carolina example that’s worth our emulating.  As explored here, “Moral Monday” has emerged as a successful role model for grounding the articulation of public policy and political protest in the language of faith.  This diverse, grassroots movement helped make the case that the enactment of policies which serve the poor, the disabled, the very young and the old were actually an extension of the moral values taught in the holy books of all great religions, centered around the admonition to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The effort undoubtedly laid the groundwork for last fall’s success.  And it was the right thing to do.

Ultimately, being the loyal opposition requires the humility to accept a political loss.  But it also merits speaking truth to power, responding directly and forcefully to hubristic actions that divert the Commonwealth from our shared values.


Would You Play?

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Stanford RB Christian McCaffery

You’re a college football phenom.  After helping lead your team to a solid winning season — short of the championship playoffs, but entry into a prominent, albeit absurdly-monickered postseason bowl game — scouting services project you as an early round NFL draft pick next year.  After growing up with modest means (or perhaps even in abject poverty), you stand to earn a paycheck next year worth hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars…life-altering money…enough to seed your retirement, help your family, maybe even buy a little bling and a few new toys.  The only thing standing in the way is the risk of a career-threatening, or draft-position-debilitating, injury in a game that, aside for bragging rights and school pride, is mostly meaningless.

Would you play?

Running backs Leonard Fournette of LSU and Christian McCaffrey of Stanford both answered no.  Playing the most injury-vulnerable position on the gridiron, each risked a significant, if not existential, financial loss.  Both, of course, were pilloried in the angry social media: by their fan bases who viewed them as traitors, as well as by some old-school analysts who believed they violated the fundamental tough-guy, play-even-if-it-hurts ideology of the sport.  (By the way, both LSU and Stanford won without them.)

Michigan tight end Jake Butt answered yes.  During Friday night’s Orange Bowl matchup with Florida State, Butt suffered a torn ACL, placing his once likely first-round NFL draft selection into jeopardy.  For what it’s worth, Butt had no regrets, later tweeting that it “never once crossed my mind to sit this game out and I would never change that mindset. I play this game bc I love it, my teammates, coaches.” (The Wolverines lost in a squeaker.)

Would you play?

For those of us in the contact-averse, receiver-route-running-challenged intelligentsia, the answer seems simple: As a standard economic calculation, a “no” answer is obvious.  But for decades, Fournette and McCaffrey are the clear exceptions, as rare as ACLU-placard-sighting at a Donald Trump rally.  Beyond the traditions of the game, beyond the peer pressure from fans and fellow students; appearing as a “quitter” or a “coward” or a “non-team player,” could impact a player reputationally, and perhaps even financially, in the short and long run.

But that’s changing.  As scrutiny into the long-term impact of football injuries expands, as NFL salaries spiral, and perhaps most significantly, as the obscene absurdity of big-time college athletics continues to be exposed as preying upon the young people who actually fill the seats and drive up the TV ratings, the old-school view is losing its hold.  Athletes have taken up for their teammates and rivals on Twitter, and columnists are complementing the sit-inners.  If at the 2017 draft Fournette and McCaffrey soar, while Butt plummets, a large number of their successors will be carefully considering skipping bowl games this time next year.  And if the trend continues, a slippery slope could lead to stars skipping meaningful playoff games, or even large chunks of regular seasons.

There’s no easy solution, but some salve can come in a remedy for much of what else is ailing college athletics:  It’s time we pay and truly educate college athletes.

As I explored more comprehensively in this 2014 KSR column, the NCAA, elite coaches, broadcast networks, and advertisers are acquiring ridiculous wealth at the expense of student athletes who don’t earn a dime.  Worse, more than a quarter of major sport athletes don’t graduate; and many that do fail to develop any meaningful job skills, or even middle school level reading skills.

While the NCAA two years ago voted to give a few conferences a little more freedom to compensate their students, it seemed more of a sham aimed at blocking comprehensive change being sought through the court system.  The NCAA should instead establish a meaningful pay-for-play system:  one that colleges can afford; but most importantly, one whose focus is laser-trained on the welfare of student-athletes.  It could look something like this:

Pay the players a living wage. An hourly living wage — the same for each player on scholarship — would provide athletes with some walking around money for the occasional restaurant jaunt or shopping spree, as well as the exceptional luxury of flying parents in for special games. And it won’t break the bank of our institutions of higher learning. Of course, schools would be burdened less if we identified supplemental funding sources such as…

It’s gotta be the shoes. While recent reforms have proscribed many of the abuses in the historically shady relationship between college coaches and shoe companies, it’s still unjust to force players to serve as unpaid jumping billboards for their product.   A fair percentage of any and all endorsement deals could help underwrite an athlete compensation pool. Taken together, this fund could help sweep in athletes beyond just the two major revenue-generating sports, because…

Don’t forget about the girls. Gender equity in college athletics is one of the great successes of the modern civil rights era. And even though on only rare occasions will a women’s team generate meaningful revenue, the spirit, if not the letter, of the Title IX laws may require colleges to pay women the same as the boys.  And speaking of what’s truly important…

It’s the education, stupid.   The primary mission of any university is to educate and prepare its students for the postgraduate job market. Current athletic academic standards instead often function to stifle opportunity or to encourage inappropriate shortcuts. The core flaw is the ludicrous and pernicious assumption that every “scholar-athlete” has the preparation, the aptitude — or even the need — to earn a four-year, liberal arts bachelor’s degree. For decades, outside of sport, policymakers have been encouraging youth from lower income environments and underachieving high schools (a common background for many a collegiate hoopster or gridder) to enroll in two-year vocational and technical colleges, where they can be empowered with the skills they need for the modern job market. That’s why it is incumbent on the NCAA and its member schools to direct athletes, when appropriate, to focus their academic attention on job skills and technical programs that interest them, prepare them for postgraduate life, and enable them to earn associates degrees at the university, or through an affiliated community college or vo-tech program. Similarly, the NBA, NFL and their players’ unions should effectuate a new “two and done” system, which will enable each player to earn sufficient credit to graduate with at least an associates’ degree.  And those that stay on past their two-year degrees can be enrolled in apprenticeship programs with local businesses, or compensated job training in the workplace.

In the end, we should abide by the motto and mission of our Fayette County Public Schools:  “It’s About Kids.”  In our passion for sports, we too often fail to fully appreciate and protect the interests of the teenagers and young adults who provide so much enjoyment for the rest of us.  While the Fournettes and the McCaffreys might still skip a game or two, we would provide meaningful integrity for a system that truly needs it, and we would finally respect, honor and truly compensate the individuals who make college sports possible.

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Would you play?  Should we pay?  Fire away in the comments below.