During the 2017 preseason, college basketball prognosticators liked what they saw in the Cats, with one →
The Recovering Politician
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 people — selected 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.
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.
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:
Well I’ll be looking for a new job if Forrest Gump loses today. https://t.co/CvOvsug9wc
— Drew Franklin (@DrewFranklinKSR) May 5, 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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:
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:
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?
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.
Would you play? Should we pay? Fire away in the comments below.
It’s been a tough week to be a liberal Zionist in Kentucky.
From the Cats loss to the Cards, to the POETUS’ nuclear noodging, to my own POTUS executing a Grayson Allen-like leg sweep to trip up Israel at the United Nations, I’m taking a writing vacation to console myself for the holidays with some fine bourbon.
But to appease the Ghosts of Chanukah Past, I share memories of a more halcyon time, when a marvelous big man with a marvelously Jew-ish name roamed the hardwood at Rupp Arena. Enjoy this 2014 piece, and a Happy Chanukah and Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night…
Whenever my East Coast friends ask how a Jewish bagel-nosher like me could win statewide office in the country ham-slinging Bible Belt, I tell them it’s simple: There’s only one acceptable form of idolatry here, and it’s Kentucky basketball.
(And don’t forget the explosion of anti-Christian madness every March when CBS Sports replays That Damned Laettner Shot every 15 minutes.)
But growing up here in the sports-crazy South, the paucity of Jewish athletic heroes has always been the source of great disappointment. No scene in cinematic history rings truer than this one from the classic Airplane! (written and directed, natch, by three Hollywood Hebrews):
For the YouTube challenged, here’s the transcript:
FLIGHT ATTENDANT: Would you like something to read?
PASSENGER: Do you have anything light?
FLIGHT ATTENDANT: How about this leaflet, “Famous Jewish Sports Legends”?
Sure, my grandfather had the Hebrew Hammer, Hank Greenberg, and my dad watched the Yom Kippur-skipping Sandy Koufax; but it turns out that my favorite childhood menorah-lighter, Rod Carew — the Hall of Fame California Angel and Minnesota Twin — was never actually a Member of the Tribe (sorry, Sandler).
And today, the most prominent Jewish sports “heroes” include steroid liar Ryan Braun, allegedly kosher Amar’e Stoudemire, and pretty much every controversial or detestable pro exec — late outlaw Al Davis, Redskins-assassin Daniel Snyder, loudmouth Mark Cuban, Browns-mover Art Modell, and…ugh…Donald Sterling.
Then along came Willie…
A few years ago, when word came from on high (or at least Matt Jones’ sources) that my beloved C-A-T-S had signed a super-talented, huge skinny dude named Willie Cauley-Stein, I felt like Kim Jong Un in a buffet line.
Now, for the uninitiated, I’m not suggesting that Willie Cauley-Stein “looks Jewish.” (Although he did once sport a fascinating Jew Fro). Indeed, I’ve been told for decades that I don’t “look Jewish” — and if I tried to show you surgical evidence of my covenant with God, I’d be arrested as a sex offender.
But the name “Stein” is as about as Jewish as it gets. Two of the Bluegrass’ most prominent dreidel spinners, Lexington Legend Alan and liberal icon Kathy, boast the surname. And even when it appears as a last name’s prefix (Steinberg, Steiner) or suffix (Bernstein, Goldstein), Stein is as much an indication of Semitism as the prefatory O’ is of the Irish.
Then the icing on the bundt cake: It turns out that Big Willie was raised from the third grade by his grandparents, Val and Norma Stein. I had visions of a 6 foot 6 inch, 13-year-old Willie hovering over the Torah at his Bar Mitzvah — and even better — his Jewish relatives struggling to lift him up in a chair during the hora circle dance later that evening.
But…alas…came the horrible news: Willie Cauley-Stein is not a Jew. The Steins of Kansas are among the rare subset of Steins who claim German ancestry, but have no connection to the people of Israel.
My world was devastated. My favorite current Cat — and likely the most charismatic and athletically-talented Kentucky cager in a generation — wasn’t part of our International Zionist Conspiracy. I had flashbacks to the awful moment in the Henry Clay High School cafeteria when I discovered that The Boss was Catholic. (Maybe the fact that “Mary” is the name of the woman in every other Springsteen song should have given it away.) I suddenly began to understand the horror experienced by my Irish friends upon their discovery that Barack O’bama and Hakeem O’Lajuwon weren’t wearin’ of the green.
Sure, we can put together a nice minyan prayer group every Saturday game at Rupp — with noted Chosens ranging from UK President Eli Capilouto, to Board of Trustees past chair Britt Brockman, to Medical Center head Michael Karpf, to Arts and Sciences Dean Mark Kornbluh, to rapper/super fan Drake (No kidding, Drake is Jewish!) But there’s no one on the hardwood to light the Sabbath candles.
So here’s my Chanukah wish. It would be obscene for me to ask anyone to consider modifying their faith for my own personal enjoyment. But if Willie Cauley-Stein can’t be Jewish, I would love for the emerging superstar to embrace his surname and consider becoming a Jew-ish Gentile.
Let me explain…
A decade ago, when I launched my national tour for The Compassionate Community – the book in which I discuss my political career as a devout Jew living in an inner notch of the Bible Belt — I ventured often into the rural hills and hollers of my home state. I’d speak passionately about my Jewish faith, quote the Talmud and the Rabbis; but, inevitably, there would be someone who’d come up to me afterwards to proclaim: “You are such a good Christian!”
If I could be a christian Jew, then consider my college roommate, Ron Granieri, who came to campus with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Hebraic faith, customs and moral code, quite impressive for a Roman Catholic from upstate New York. And because he was a compassionate soul with a wicked sense of humor, our other roommate — a future rabbi — annointed him as a Jew-ish Gentile. And a zeitgeist term was born. (Well, at least I’ve written about it.)
If Willie Cauley-Stein took me up on my offer to become a Jew-ish Gentile, he’d find it extraordinarily advantageous in his coming years of challenge ahead. Consider:
As he tries to bulk up his slender frame for the physical combat of in-the-paint professional hoops, Cauley-Stein would find himself surrounded by dozens of Jewish mothers, each noodging him to finish his dinner plate: “William?!? There are kids starving in Africa!”
As he works his way up the NBA ranks, he’d find common cause with so many of the Jewish folks who run the sport, from Commissioner Adam Silver, to nearly half of the league’s owners, to pretty much every sports agent not named Jay-Z.
And as he struggles through his early seasons in the pros, he’d always be buoyed by a 4000-year, comforting tradition of self-deprecating jokes, meta-awareness of neuroses, and kicking the ass of aggressive adversaries. To quote the bard of all things Jewish — Jerry Seinfeld — Willie Cauley-Stein could be the master of his own domain.
So Willie, I wish you a very Merry Christmas. But if you have an inkling that I’m onto something, please put on your yarmulke, drink your gin and tonic-ah, and have a happy, happy, happy, happy Chanukah.
Every generation has its seminal moment…An event whose memory is etched onto our souls…We not only remember where we were and what we were doing, but also all of the hues, fragrances, and melodies of the millisecond…The excitements and anxieties and real-life-lessons shape us for a lifetime.
For the Greatest Generation, it was Pearl Harbor, and the free world uniting to defeat history’s worst menace. For Boomers, it was the Kennedy assassination, and the crushing swell of conspiracy and cynicism that ensued. For Millennials, it was 9-11, and the paralyzing dread of terror, metastasizing into the death of privacy and civility.
We Gen Xers often struggle to identify our epochal occasion. Was it the Challenger crash? The Berlin Wall fall? The tank in Tiananmen Square?
I would argue there was no instance more memorable nor more defining than the conclusion of an ice hockey contest that took place in Lake Placid, New York on February 22, 1980. In the medal round of the Winter Olympic Games, as the deep dark horse Americans skated out the final seconds of a 4-3 lead over the heavily favored Soviet Union, ABC’s Al Michaels iconically intoned: “Do you believe in miracles? YES!” Sports Illustrated later declared it the top sports moment of the 20th Century:
The “Miracle on Ice” had been preceded by the 1972 “Mugging in Munich.” That time, the hoopster boys in red, white and blue were heavily favored to preserve Team USA’s perfect Summer Olympics record by capturing the country’s eighth consecutive gold medal. Indeed, they led by one point when the “final” horn sounded. But the confused (and perhaps corrupt) officiating squad reset the clock, handing the Soviets second and third and fourth chances, culminating in a play eerily foreshadowing “The Shot,” except this time, Grant Hill-novich steps on the baseline, and Un-Christian Laettner knocks his defenders to the floor:
The hockey victory eight years later was more than sweet revenge. It was a triumph of David over Goliath, of good over evil. An amateur squad of college kids vanquished the highly-professionalized Soviets, whose national Olympic teams had been abetted too long by shady officiating and whispers of rampant drug use (that have amplified into clear shouts in recent years).
By the late 1970s, the intense US/USSR antagonisms that had peaked during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis had dissipated into a calmer Cold War. But as the decade concluded, the Soviets’ brutal invasion of Afghanistan revealed them again as the world’s most sinister force against self-determination and freedom.
Just two months later, the US skaters didn’t simply strike a blow against Russian Olympic mendacity; the flag-waving reverie that followed was a full-throated exclamation for democratic triumph, a return to glory for a country that had been beaten down by inflation, malaise and an agonizing Iran hostage crisis. The renewed sense of prideful patriotism and anti-Soviet antipathy helped pave the way later that year for the election of a President for whom the fight against Communism had been central to his personal psyche ever since he had appeared on the big screen.
Ronald Reagan did not simply tap into the nationalistic fervor unleashed on that Lake Placid rink. He also refocused attention on the Soviet menace. US anti-Communism had been deeply undermined by the self-serving antics of nefarious pols like Senator Joe McCarthy, and then the tragic official missteps that culminated in the disastrous Vietnam War. But Reagan recognized the continuing Soviet threat; and he exploded budget deficits by dramatic expanding the US military, and reminded Americans of Communism’s true nature. In 1983, the President unforgettably labeled the USSR an “evil empire”: “Let us be aware that while they preach the supremacy of the State, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world.”
Undoubtedly, this made an impression upon a 31-year-old KGB agent stationed in St. Petersburg. Indeed, Reagan’s words and subsequent actions helped lay the groundwork for the ultimate fall and dissolution of the global superpower that the loyal Soviet spy so adored. And when a few decades later he assumed national power, Vladimir Putin made it his life’s mission to restore the glory of the old empire, and stick it to hypocritical capitalists who had followed Reagan’s example.
Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin is a monstrous, murderous thug. His crimes against humanity are legion. In his own country, dissent is stifled through intimidation, imprisonment, and often assassination. His recent annexation of Crimea and destabilization of Ukraine have been marked by underhanded violence, brazen violations of international law and principle, and ultimately the murder of 298 innocents aboard Malaysian Air Flight 17. In Syria, Putin’s brutal aggression and civilian-targeted bombing campaigns are directly responsible for those heart-breaking pictures of wounded and displaced children that are filling your Facebook feed.
It’s no wonder that Vladimir Putin has been deeply unpopular in the United States. As recently as this July, when the two parties couldn’t agree on anything or anyone, Putin’s “net-favorable rating” (the percentage of those Americans who had a favorable opinion minus those who viewed him unfavorably) was approximately minus 50% among both Democrats and Republicans.
And then candidate Donald Trump began to double down on his praise of the Russian leader, comparing him favorably to the US President. And then President-Elect Donald Trump termed “ridiculous” the consensus conclusion of US intelligence agencies that Russia was responsible for hacking efforts that interfered with our elections. And now, according to a December poll, Putin’s net favorable among Republicans, is only minus 10%; while a full 35% of Americans who voted for Trump have a favorable opinion of the dictator. The Oval Office’s current occupant pointedly opined, “Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave.”
As I elaborated here, each side of our deeply divided and polarized body politic now too often looks across the aisle and sees the enemy. When the average Trump-voting, Breitbart-reading, Fox News-watching Republican watches Democrats blame the election results on the Kremlin, it’s a natural instinct not simply to decry the sore losing, but to find sympathy in the target of the accusations: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. While thoughtful GOP leaders such as Senators McConnell, Rubio, McCain and Graham call for investigation and protest Russian-friendly presidential appointments, they’re often too easy to dismiss by Trump acolytes as the kind of “establishment” Republicans who’ve messed up our foreign policy for decades.
Out of all of the election’s ramifications, this should be the most frightening concern for serious Americans. We cannot allow Vladimir Putin to undermine democratic institutions across the world, especially in our homeland. Democrats must make clear that the effort to expose, understand, and counteract Russian hacking is not about re-litigating the presidential election. (We lost; you won; we will accept our silver medals, eventually.) Republicans must make clear that the essence of the party of Lincoln is the promise of freedom, and that the essence of the party of Reagan is a revulsion against totalitarianism. And the press can help restore its credibility by focusing renewed, objective attention on Putin’s misdeeds, and less on the partisan back-and-forth that plays into Putin’s hands.
The United States of America won the Cold War. It’s time we remember the bi-partisan resolve that resulted in that victory. And it’s time to understand that when we identify fellow Americans as our enemies, it only serves the interests of those who really do want to do us harm.
From the vantage point of my Rupp Arena section-mates last Saturday, the refereeing of UK’s upset loss to UCLA featured the worst officiating since Naismith introduced his peach basket. Lexi, the newly-monikered, super high-res replay scoreboard, did the men in black and white no favors: Briscoe clearly did not step on that back line; there was a blatant uncalled charge on Alford; and dammit, Doug Shows, why don’t you just put on a Bruin uniform if you want them to win so badly? At times I felt like I was at a Trump rally: After a particularly egregious call, I could have sworn hearing “LOCK ‘EM UP!” chants directed at the appropriately-attired whistle-blowers.
Hating on the refs is a deeply-rooted, long-enduring sports tradition. Indeed, these kinds of grievances are a natural tribal instinct: When a so-called neutral arbiter rules in favor of our rivals, they clearly are prejudiced or blind. When the call goes our way…well, duh…wasn’t it obvious?
In today’s political theater, the role of the clueless, biased ref is played by the mainstream media. While they’ve always been the target of bilious denunciation by fan bases on the left and the right (especially the right), Campaign 2016’s charges and counterpunches revealed an historically high level of mutual animosity. Team Hillary was furious about the grossly disproportionate coverage of her email “scandal,” while Team Donald was angry about…just about everything. Both sides worked the refs more furiously than any Calipari/Pitino matchup, helping facilitate further public disaffection with objective journalism. Partly as a result, a disturbingly growing number of Americans are accepting as “fact” the “news” that’s delivered by the screaming head partisans on cable television and the fake news sites littering the social media.
As the New York Times posited this morning, “the breakdown of a shared public reality built upon widely accepted facts” threatens our very democracy. We’ve descended from Clintonian spinning and bending and parsing of words (“it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”) to Trumpean deliberate mendacity — and there appears to be no one left standing with the credibility to police the truth. Political jockeying aside, an existential threat to our republic is posed when millions of Americans, conditioned to trust every pronouncement and tweet of their Dear Leader, begin to minimize or excuse Russian criminality and even lionize an authoritarian, murderous thug like Putin. (Millennials: Read this book by one of my favorite liberals. The Commies were really, really bad.)
The Grey Lady’s solution? The same thing we’ve heard from much of the media over the past few weeks: Double down on the status quo and hope for the best — “media organizations that report fact without regard for partisanship, and citizens who think for themselves, will need to light the way.” But just as I spent my last two columns urging my fellow progressives to reassess our own words and actions that helped contribute to the current political climate, the media should do the same — and adjust their practices to help lead us out of our current morass.
I’m no journalist (I only sort of play one on this site), but I offer the following recommendations:
Treat Politicians as Human Beings: Each is Flawed, but Few are Monsters
As I elaborated here, Democrats erred by demonizing decent human beings like John McCain and Mitt Romney: When a real wolf knocked on our door, no one believed us. But in a climate where public faith in politics is at historical lows — where Congress is less popular than lice or cockroaches — the hostile back and forth among parties and campaigns cannot be the sole cause: The press shares our dirty hands.
It’s long been a conservative talking point that the mainstream media is hopelessly biased against them. While undeniably there’s some truth to that, political scientists have demonstrated that the more potent and widespread press bias is toward controversy. Since Watergate, generations of aspiring Woodwards and Bernsteins have understood that seizing a politician’s scalp is the surest route to a Pulitzer, book deal or TV gig. More recently, in the era of declining newspaper revenues, journalists recognize that they will earn infinitely more clicks with allegations of corruption or personal misbehavior than any in-depth analysis of a complex policy matter.
A Kentucky journalist whom I deeply respect compares good political reporting to proctology. But to extend his metaphor (sorry), proctologists find a lot of stuff that stinks…but is benign. When the press feels its duty is to identify every politician’s fecal flaw — no matter how small or unrelated to the performance of official duties — it poses a real cost on public confidence in our democratic institutions.
To be clear, meaningful investigative journalism that exposes true public malfeasance is essential to our body politic, and I am not even close to proposing that journalists should simply reprint press releases or political rhetoric without careful scrutiny. But when the accepted default position is that every politician’s a liar; when a real one emerges, how could anyone know the difference?
Journalists Make Mistakes Too — Apologize and Learn from Them
In the youthful indiscretion of my 1998 congressional campaign, I butted heads with a young reporter on a small issue whose substance is lost to my middle age memory. I do clearly remember, however, that the scribe later went out of his way to call me and apologize for getting it wrong. Peter Baniak, now the Editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader, earned my undying respect. But what’s most remarkable is that in the intervening decade-plus of my political life, that never happened again. And I wasn’t always wrong.
Guess what: Reporters are human, too; they make mistakes. Yet with the exception of industry titans like the New York Times and Washington Post that employ ombudsmen to provide serious self-criticism, apologies are rare; and when offered for mistakes on front-page, headline stories, they often are buried in the fine print on page B-7.
Journalists would be wise to look to their counterparts in the sports world for a model. As college hoops referee John Hampton explained in a 2015 KSR interview, there’s continual self-analysis in his profession. It’s not simply the in-game reviews provided by instant replay: True accountability comes later when game video is scrutinized by league officials. Hampton told me that “beating the tape” is the whistleblower mantra: “We are under such scrutiny and review of the decisions we make and the calls that we don’t make. We’re reviewed and graded by supervisors and conference officials. When they go back and watch the video, especially the controversial plays and the plays late in the game, we’ve got to be good, accurate, right, or we’re not going to keep our jobs.”
I understand that limited staffing due to financial pressures would not permit every local paper to conduct a full proctological audit of every article and every reporter. But meaningful scrutiny must be applied when press coverage influences the outcome of a major contest — the equivalent of Don Denkinger’s blown call reshaping the 1985 World Series, or the Olympic refs’ unblown whistles handing Soviet hoopsters the 1972 gold medal.
Take the 2015 Kentucky GOP gubernatorial primary as a test case. Inarguably, newspaper reporting helped determine its outcome. Voters who watched the race closely may never look at media coverage the same way again. Public self-reflection could be invaluable in restoring confidence in journalists as objective arbiters of the truth.
Escape the Bubble
If you want to catch the Kentucky political establishment in its purest form, head to the Capitol Annex basement cafeteria while the General Assembly is in session. At high noon, you are likely to catch legislative leaders, top government appointees, and influential staff patrolling the salad bar. That’s why you’ll also see most of the leading Frankfort beat reporters on hand: There’s no more convenient forum to secure a quip or a quote before deadline.
Unfortunately, the talk of the town too often resembles a different cafeteria, the kind you’d find in any junior high school. Frankfort chatter usually revolves around personal gossip, political rumors and recriminations against rivals. It’s understandable why the press would have a jaundiced view toward our elected leadership. Worse, many of the media’s traditional sources outside of the capital — political consultants, college professors, good-ole-boy hangers-on — tend to parrot what they’ve already read or heard in the news, creating an echo chamber within the bubble that has no reflection on public reality. Any wonder how we missed the Matt Bevin landslide?
When I was in politics and wanted to understand what was moving my constituents, I’d hop in my car and head to the McDonald’s in Lawrenceburg for breakfast, or lunch at the late-great Jay’s Cafeteria in Louisville. If my time was tight, I’d call one of the many savvy county judges or sheriffs whose job it was to understand the mood of their communities. Democrats have learned the hard way that placing our full reliance on the polls and the pundits is a fool’s errand. Political reporters can fill that vacuum with their shoe leather. And by doing so, they can take a small step to returning the Fourth Estate to its rightful place as a fundamental pillar of our democracy.
From dodging politics over the turkey table, to a looming recount and counterpunch, to the death of one more Kentucky legend, this Thanksgiving weekend was poised to be yet another low moment in our annus horribilis. It seemed like we’re in the final episode of a long-running TV reality drama, with the showrunner up in the sky tying up loose ends.
But then the gridiron boys in blue pulled off a magical upset — over our interstate archrival, no less — restoring the bounce in our step that had been hamstrung by months of anger and violence and disunity. Yesterday, with the exception of a few square miles on the Ohio River off I-64, the Commonwealth joined in one voice of exuberant celebration: There was joy in Mudville…and Madisonville and Middlesboro and Midway and Maysville and Monkey’s Eyebrow…the Governor’s Cup was back where it belonged.
Every day, KSR does a brilliant job of addressing the hows and whats and wheres of Kentucky sports; it’s my role as the site’s annoying little brother to occassionally ask “why.” Why do so many of us who have never worn the jersey — the majority of us, in fact, who have no formal affiliation with the university — care so deeply and passionately about the successes and failures of these post-adolescent young men and the boys’ games they play?
I’ll spare you the Freudian exegesis; but suffice it to link the phenomenon to our sense of identity. We may root for our favorite professional sports teams, but the Kentucky Wildcats are part and parcel of our cultural and societal fabric. For many Kentuckians, the Cats are intertwined with our psyche; we can’t remember or even imagine a time that their successes didn’t embolden us and their failures didn’t dispirit us. Whether travelling cross-country or dealing with Internet trolls, UK sports reflect to the outside world how we see ourselves: our collective self-image.
This shared sense of identity can sometimes be a wonderful thing. As I elaborated here, college basketball provides the Bluegrass State a much-too-rare realization of a cohesive, interdependent community: Because we care so much, we put aside our sharp differences on religion, politics, lifestyle — indeed nearly everything — to join in common cause on game day or during tournament time.
But human nature provides a flip side as well. When our self-identity is so enmeshed with, and so reliant upon, a team or cause, the other tribe no longer appears as a rival, but rather an enemy: a force that deserves our vanquishing, their unconditional surrender. We develop narratives about our opponents that we hope will reveal their malevolence. Remember our glorious sense of schadenfreude when the spoiled, indulged, entitled Duke athletic program received its comeuppance in the 2006 lacrosse “rape” scandal? We soon discovered that our cartoon stereotypes legitimized false accusations that nearly destroyed innocent young men’s lives.
This darker facet of identity has received considerable attention in the nation’s general election post-mortem. The white-supremacist alt-right, holding so much of America in a nefarious light, has found an amplified voice through social media, and a perceived powerful champion in the President-elect’s anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric. Now with all the levers of power in Washington and most statehouses, it’s the GOP’s challenge to harness the anger and frustration that fueled its electoral victories to accomplish substantive change without playing into the alt-right-provoked identity crisis and undermining the constitutional protections that truly have made America great.
The challenge is even more profound for the loyal opposition. Democrats justifiably can be proud for bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice over the past century through creating and strengthening the social safety net and dramatically expanding civil rights. But Democrats have recently allowed themselves to become rhetorically pigeon-holed as the creature of “identity politics,” beholden exclusively to minorities seeking new rights, lazy welfare recipients addicted to drugs and government largesse, and a coastal elite that pays only lip-service to those dispossessed by their progressive policies — all while appearing to mock and shame people of sincere faith for socially conservative views. It’s no wonder that we’ve witnessed the flight of the white working class that most benefits from signature Democratic policies like progressive taxation and universal health care: How can they identify with a party that perpetually appears to be condescending and taking them for granted?
It’s even harder for Kentucky Democrats. With the Southern partisan realignment now complete, and the national party continuing to be a yoke around their collar, Bluegrass Democrats stand bereft of power and identity. Only the development of the latter will help secure the possibility of the former. But those who want to assign past blame and future responsibility to the state party apparatus don’t understand the modern political system. As demonstrated by Obama and Trump, by the DLC and the Tea Party, meaningful and potent energy, ideas, and campaigns must be generated today outside of the traditional party construct.
That’s why I find Matt Jones and Adam Edelen’s New Kentucky Project so intriguing. This site’s proprietor has helped shape and nurture both a virtual and real-life community built around our common identification with Kentucky sports. Politics and policy are much more daunting subjects, but Matt understands the new communications paradigm presented by the Internet and social media, and more significantly, that the future for progressives in Kentucky relies on the right message and messengers.
Ultimately, with public faith in our systems of government at historical lows, it’s time for both parties to develop new identities. I’ve preached for a decade that building a set of principles around our shared moral values — as illuminated by the universal principle “to love your neighbor as yourself” — could unite people from all backgrounds around a politics of the common good. But whatever party or policies prevail, until we can identify a shared identity that embraces all of us — a truly American identity that convincingly assures us that we’re all in it together — we will continue to slog through our polarized and paralyzed political morass.
It may traumatize my readers to learn that their proudly effete and elitist sports and politics essayist was once a two-time state champion athlete. But perhaps it may comfort you that my accomplishments came in the effete and elitist sport of tennis. Before I hit puberty.
But while winning was par for the courts, my most technicolor memories of that pre-adolescent era are of my worst losses.
I was a horrible loser. I’m still making up to my mom for the embarrassing tantrums, and the agonizing public self-flagellation to which I subjected her.
One defining moment came late in my career, when my doubles partner and I suffered an hysterical meltdown during a key match, earning a humiliating ejection. We both look back at that occasion wistfully, as a turning point: My partner harnessed his self-control and launched a successful college career; I applied the lesson to the rollercoaster ride of politics.
When we consider the moral value of sports, the notion of sportsmanship is the pinnacle ideal. While fans focus on the outcome of competition; for the athletes themselves, the most essential life lessons are drawn by how they learn to carry themselves afterwards.
Vince Lombardi was said to regret his catchphrase quote, “Winning isn’t everything…it’s the only thing.” Indeed, his iconic college counterpart, Paul “Bear” Bryant, elegantly encapsulated the indispensable value of losing: “It’s awfully important to win with humility. It’s also important to lose. I hate to lose worse than anyone, but if you never lose you won’t know how to act. If you lose with humility, then you can come back.”
In my helicopter parenting generation’s zeal to protect and shield our children from discomfort, we’ve often lost sight of the value of losing. Much virtual ink has been spilled about the ignominious ascendency of “participation trophies.” While most use the example for Ayn Randian-jeremiads about devaluing the impact of competition, I’m more concerned about how we best prepare the next generation for the kinds of setbacks that are simply inevitable.
This past Wednesday, at a routine checkup, I joked to my doctor that my health had taken a severe downturn around 9:30 the previous evening, when an anxious pit in my stomach metastasized into a wave of anger and then nausea, leading to a night of restless insomnia and a morning of acute depression.
OK, I wasn’t exactly joking.
Tuesday’s election hit me harder than any political loss I’ve suffered. My own failures in bids for Congress and Governor were telegraphed long before Election Day. Even after my mentor Al Gore’s agonizing month-long circus of a recount, I had faith that the bi-partisan checks and balances of government would help mitigate the disappointing Electoral College result.
This week’s bloodbath on the state level was certainly disappointing, but far from surprising. The inevitable Republican takeover of Frankfort was a long time coming; and while I fear a cultural retrenchment in the name of “religious freedom,” I understand that my personal positions on issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights are currently not shared by the majority of my neighbors. It is comforting to know that the state legislature will now be led by two men, Senate President Robert Stivers and incoming House Speaker Jeff Hoover, who — while far more socially conservative than I am — are good and decent men, care sincerely about public service and have built long careers of integrity, civility and bi-partisan comity.
But I am not nearly as sanguine about the prospects for Washington. I’m not going to use this space to re-litigate the merits and demerits of our President-Elect; like most Americans, I’m tired of arguing. I’m far more interested in heeding Bear Bryant’s advice — and following President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s example — to lose with humility.
In this context, that means accepting responsibility for our own roles in creating the current climate of disrepute.
All of us — left, right and cemter — have fallen victim to hyper-demonizing the opposition, imagining the worst and most corrupt of intentions in every politician that has an opposing worldview. We’ve cried wolf so often, that when a wolf finally appears, our critique falls upon deaf ears by a deeply polarized populace that’s become immune to the name-calling.
Liberals like myself, moreover, have too often acted illiberally. As we deplore discrimination of any kind, and properly insist on tolerance of minority views and rights, we must be more tolerant and accepting of opposing viewpoints. When we create a societal paradigm in which people of sincere faith are mocked and shamed for socially conservative views, we unleash a backlash in which truly deplorable statements and actions are rationalized as a legitimate response to “political correctness.”
And while we should never apologize for pursuing comprehensive long-term core policy objectives — be they climate change remediation or lifting the third world out of poverty — we’ve too often paid mere lip service to the detrimental impact on our folks back home: Here in Kentucky, we’ve done far too little to address the dire economic needs of our coal-dependent east and our manufacturing-depleted west.
But as Bear Bryant coached, losing with humility does not simply compel a period of introspection. Losing is the first step to coming back. And that takes action.
I have no qualm with the non-violent protests that have popped up across the country — that’s the hallmark of our democracy. But meaningful change requires hard work and due diligence. Don’t like the way our parties are run? Join in: sign up to be a precinct captain; find a candidate that shares your values; hell, run for office yourself. Or find an outside group seeking fundamental change for our broken system — like Matt Jones’ New Kentucky Project or the national No Labels campaign.
Even more significant is education. There’s never been a better illustration of MLK’s notion — that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice — than the blinding speed at which marriage equality gained global acceptance. That argument was won by sharing stories of love, hope, and family. Progressives must do a much better job of portraying the plight of the bullied transgendered teen, or the dangers of a return to back alley abortions. Fortunately, there are organizations ready to tell these and many other critical stories: Give them your money, and even more importantly, your precious time.
Losing is always painful, and for millions of Americans, this past week really hurt. Grieving is appropriate, but sulking isn’t productive. It will soon be time to get off the mat and back into the game. The future of our nation depends on all of us being good sports.
“Hello everyone. I’m Michael Jordan, and I’m here with Hillary.”
It was the final night of the raucous 2016 Democratic National Convention, and nearly everyone was in on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s joke. I suppose even the GOP nominee got it: The Hall-of-Famer’s follow-up — “I said that because I know that Donald Trump couldn’t tell the difference” — was neither fair nor particularly funny.
But the subtext was both ironic and telling. Three decades earlier, when North Carolina’s U.S. Senator Jesse Helms ran a racially-tinged negative campaign against an African-American opponent, Tarheel legend Michael Jordan was asked to speak out. Michael’s (in)famous response — “Republicans buy sneakers too” — set the tone for an apolitical career, and the precedent for a generation of star athletes to keep their mouths shut about politics.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, however, had emerged from an earlier, angrier era, and a much different mindset. Jabbar was raising his voice even when he was still Lew Alcindor, joining Jim Brown, Bill Russell and other sports figures in defense of Muhammad Ali’s 1967 conscientious objection to the Vietnam War. Today, with his own Muslim faith at the center of our national debate, Jabbar grabbed politics’ biggest stage to decry racism and help remind the country of the diversity and freedom that truly make American great.
Jabbar’s speech was not the most memorable, nor the most powerful, convention speech delivered by an American Muslim. That honor, of course, went to the man whose family story Kareem introduced: Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim U.S. soldier who died to protect his unit in Iraq, and whose emotional rebuke of Trump’s patriotism elicited yet another set of head-scratching counter-punches from the GOP nominee, prompting the further wrath of Khan, and sending media tongues-a-wag for a few more news cycles.
But Kareem’s larger-than-life presence on the Philadelphia stage symbolized the new post-Jordan paradigm: the marriage between sports and politics is again both thriving and enduring.
A well-worn quip in the nation’s capital suggests that Washington is simply Hollywood for ugly people. But while one-offs like the White House Correspondents Dinner might make the power tie set feel like movie stars, the more apt analogy is to the wild world of sports. Certainly, today’s media — mainstream and social — cover the two indistinguishably: The cable screaming heads debate the political horse races far more than any complex policy positions. The back and forth among candidates on Twitter and in stump speeches reads like locker room banter, or in the case of Trump, WWE-style braggadocio. Political addicts pore over polls and aggregated political data just as we scrutinize baseball box scores. It’s no wonder that the nation’s go-to electoral soothsaying site, Nate Silver’s 538, is owned by ESPN. And it’s no coincidence that the Bluegrass State’s arguably most popular source of political convention news — and inarguably, the forum for its most significant and influential political interviews in recent years — can be found on a sports radio program.
But most tellingly (or should I say, worse yet), as our politics have become more polarized and our governments have become more paralyzed, a growing number of Americans have begun to treat the parties with the same irrational, fanatic devotion as their favorite sports teams. Since Tim Russert’s era-defining 2000 electoral maps, we even have devolved into color wars, defining ourselves as “blue” or “red” — although less Cats versus Cards than Crips versus Bloods. We assign the worst of intentions to, and develop elaborate conspiracy theories about, our archrivals, while giving every benefit of the doubt to our fellow partisans. For much of the public that lives and dies by who wins and who loses, it’s the modern, vicarious version of combat, with the goal, to quote a then-aspiring politician, “to crush your enemies. See them driven before you. And hear the lamentation of their women.”
I certainly have fallen victim to this kind of tribal thinking. I reflexively defend my sports hero Tom Brady for destroying cell phone evidence in the Deflategate scandal, much as I excuse Hillary Clinton for deleting emails in the name of personal privacy. I honor John Calipari’s growth into a truly admirable advocate for player welfare, much as I respect leading Democrats for evolving on marriage equality. I have relished in the schadenfreude of intolerant conservative politicians being exposed for personal hypocrisy, just as I took delight in the Duke lacrosse faux-rape scandal “exposing” the narcissism and entitlement of the institution I love to hate — emotional instincts I abhor in myself and deeply regret.
But in this climate in which politics and sports can bring out the worst of us, the union of the two has begun to bring out the best of us. We’ve seen it with Kareem, Ali and other prominent Muslim athletes reminding the nation that Islam is not our enemy, and that a religious freedom that extends to all faiths is not only a core value of American democracy but indeed its founding principle. We’ve seen it with the sports world standing up for the LGBT community, particularly its vulnerable youth: last year, with the NCAA pressuring Indiana Governor (and now Trump running mate) Mike Pence to modify a discriminatory law; and just this past week, with the NBA pulling its all-star game out of Charlotte to protest North Carolina’s pernicious “bathroom bill.”
Most prominently, we’ve seen it over the past several months, with leading athletes stepping into the highly-charged discussion about renewed racial violence in the country. Since Ferguson, through Baltimore and New York and Orlando and Falcon Heights and Baton Rouge and Dallas and…tragedy after tragedy of innocent civilians and fallen police officers…our most prominent sports stars have spoken through symbolic demonstrations and heart-felt memorials. As public unrest seemed to reach a climax, four of the NBA’s greatest, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Dwayne Wade, took to the ESPY’s stage, decrying the killings, placing a spotlight on injustice, and in Paul’s words, “accepting our role in uniting communities to be the change we need to see.” It’s a recognition that black voices matter, particularly among disaffected and disengaged millennials who’ve given up on unpopular political leaders, but who might just listen to their sports heroes who serve as their role models, whether they want to or not.
The childhood idol of many of today’s stars certainly was listening. Just this past week, Michael Jordan — yes, the apolitical, controversy-averse MJ himself — declared “I can no longer stay silent.” Ali’s nearest rival for The Greatest of All Time, his father a victim of senseless violence, Michael Jordan embraced the activism of his protégés, symbolically uniting two generations of sports figures into common cause.
It would be absurdly naïve to suggest that our athletic heroes can heal our racial divide and solve our entrenched national problems. But in the midst of a dispirited body politic, the good will and team-oriented credibility lent by popular sports figures can help restore some sense of community to our nation. And just possibly, a closer marriage of sports and politics could take us a few steps down the aisle toward a more perfect union.
In today’s sullied, hyper-commercialized, sneaker-war-driven paradigm of “amateur” athletics, there’s something uniquely transcendent about the Kentucky high school basketball state championship tournament. Stripped of its excesses, the “Sweet Sixteen” is hoops at its purest, especially when a small-town team pulls off a David-like upset, proving the egalitarian nature of sport, and capturing the imagination of the Commonwealth.
As a high school sophomore in 1983, I bore front-row witness to one of the most magical moments in tournament history. But in a Hoosiers-in-reverse, Goliath won: My big city Henry Clay Blue Devils captured a 35-33 victory over the tiny town Carlisle County Comets, when Greg Bates (42, above) put back an errant Steve Miller (50) heave as time expired in the third overtime.
David Rambo had an even better view of the buzzer beater. The Comet senior starting guard was standing at the top of the key as he watched his brilliant high school career come to a heartbreaking conclusion.
“It really hurt; it hurt everybody because we had worked so hard for so many years to get so close,” Rambo recounts. The county had consolidated its elementary schools when Rambo was in the third grade; and Bob Petrie, a local P.E. teacher, had recognized the talent these young kids shared, and started training them for the future. “Early on, we set a goal of going to the state tournament,” Rambo remembers. “That season, we won more games than any team in state high school history…Getting that close to a childhood dream, to lose on what was really an air ball, that hurt, that really hurt.”
Rambo today recognizes the upside of the team’s unlikely journey, as do most locals. Greg Terry, a lifetime native who now serves as Carlisle County Judge Executive (sort of the mayor of the county), revels in the memory: “It was the biggest thing…the most exciting thing that ever happened in Carlisle County…There weren’t enough people in Carlisle County to put a fire out, and yet the whole state was watching us and rooting for us.”
Unfortunately, today, most Central Kentuckians couldn’t tell you where to find Carlisle County on a map. Indeed, the next time you hear a politician trot out the hackneyed cliché, “I’ve crisscrossed the state, from Paducah to Pikeville,” they’re leaving out Carlisle and the three other Kentucky counties that border the Mississippi River (Ballard, Hickman and Fulton) which are even farther west than “far-western” Paducah.
Ignoring the River Counties isn’t simply a rhetorical mistake made by candidates. As the Golden Triangle thrives economically and the struggling Appalachian East receives well-deserved attention from our political leaders, far-western Kentucky — or what locals call “the real Western Kentucky” — too often feels abandoned.
It wasn’t always that way. In the 19th Century, the Mississippi River served as the nation’s economic backbone, with steamboats hustling our country’s manufacturing and agricultural exports toward destinations far overseas. The Great Mississippi was intimate part and parcel of our national zeitgeist. In the greatest American novel, Samuel Clemens (using a pen name inspired by his time as a riverboater) captured the adventures of Huckleberry Finn and his pal Tom racing toward freedom just north of Kentucky’s Ballard County, located at the intersection of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.
The 20th century brought speedier planes, trains and automobiles; and then, at millennium’s end, a collapse in the U.S. manufacturing economy. Kentucky’s River Counties suffered acutely: The region’s best and brightest fled for higher-paying jobs; formerly thriving small communities began to resemble ghost towns.
The region didn’t lose its beauty, however: It features some of the most glorious natural settings, and remains a very popular destination for hunters, fishers and hikers. The residents didn’t lose their commitment to the future, either: The counties boast of a strong agri-business tradition and some of the most highly ranked public schools in the state. And they didn’t lose their spirit: The kind and compassionate people of the area pride themselves as the living embodiment of the admonition to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Now, the River Counties have been presented with a once-in-a-lifetime economic opportunity. As was the case in 1983, the whole state of Kentucky shold be watching Carlisle County and its neighbors.
It all has to do with an historical development more than 3500 miles to their south.
Last Sunday, a Chinese mega-ship sailed through the Panama Canal; the first vessel to enter since completion of a decade-in-preparation $5 billion expansion. With a new lane, deeper water supply, and higher-tech mechanics, the Panama Canal now enables a doubling of the waterway’s capacity, and nearly a tripling of its ship cargo loads. A much larger generation of shipping vessel, the New Panamax, will now serve as a competitive counterpoint in the ever-evolving transport business.
The global economics of importing and exporting will be forever changed. Before expansion, Asian exports to the U.S. typically have been shipped to California ports, where they are then taken by truck or rail to destinations east. But with West Coast ports over-crowded and troubled by labor conflicts — and with the cost of cross-country ground transport hostage to volatile fuel prices — global exporters now are presented with a new cost- and energy-efficient option: transporting cargo via mega-ships that sail through the Panama Canal, up the Mississippi, to the Ohio, toward Midwest and Northeast customers. In this new shipping archetype, Kentucky’s River Counties are ideally situated: at the confluence of the two great rivers, within 2 and 1/2 hours of St. Louis, Memphis, Nashville and Evansville, and within a workday’s driving distance of nearly 70% of the nation’s population.
The new economic model coincides with a new economic paradigm. With our global transformation from manufacturing into an information-based economy, remote rural areas such as the River Counties are no longer prisoner to geography and topography. With their lauded public education systems, partnerships with nearby Murray State University and West Kentucky Community and Technology College, and the pending expansion of affordable high-speed broadband, the River Counties are well-positioned to attract the high-paying, high-tech jobs of the 21st century.
Fortunately for the region, their political leadership is ready, willing…and united. With our national body politic polarized and paralyzed by hyper-partisanship, local leaders have put aside longtime cross-border rivalries and turf-consciousness. Buoyed by the business and civic leadership of their communities, the four River County Judge Executives have banded together to launch a multi-year strategic planning process – to expand regional assets, capitalize on joint resources and promote the region. This unprecedented, bi-partisan collaboration will help facilitate the navigation of a unique private sector/public sector partnership that could spur economic growth and progress to a region that sorely needs it. Local leaders have gathered for focus groups, divided into implementation committees, and are planning for a fall summit, attracting stakeholders, investors, and political leaders from across the state and perhaps the nation.
Carlisle County Judge Greg Terry, who is chairing the Steering Committee for the four-county effort, has been awed by the regional cooperation.
“We’ve been up against a brick wall for a long time and have never been able to get our act together,” Terry explains. “This Panama Canal expansion couldn’t come at a better time, and all of us are working together and making things happen.”
David Rambo, the Comet starting guard, understands that that kind of attitude is the only recipe for success. Now an Arlington banker who is one his few teammates to still live and work in Carlisle County — most have left to pursue jobs that weren’t available in their hometowns — Rambo has joined the four-county Steering Committee and will urge his colleagues to look to his 1983 team for an example.
“Today, the River Counties are the economic underdog. We have a limited talent pool, limited resources. But if people get focused early, we can be successful,” Rambo explains. “Our team’s practices were so intense that the games themselves were a relief…If we can get the River Counties focused on a common cause, and everybody does their best to work as a team, every day, there’s no limit to what we can accomplish.”
Eighteen months ago in this space, I shared my crazy idea to remove the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from Kentucky’s Capitol Rotunda, and replace it with a tribute to Muhammad Ali.
It turned out to be the most viral of my verbalizations, prompting a few TV news stories, a petition that secured hundreds of signatures, and of course, deep personal invective from my loyal clan of KSR comment-haters. And like most of my most brilliant brainchildren, the issue disappeared from public discussion almost as soon as it was raised.
Then just six months later, in the wake of the 2015 Charlestown tragedy in which a Confederate flag-waving murderer united the nation against racism, 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.
As we commemorate Muhammad Ali’s passing on Friday, there’s no better moment to replace the symbol of the nation’s worst era by honoring The Greatest of All Time.
Perhaps to compensate for all of the bile we hurl and tweet at celebrities during their lifetimes, we tend to glorify, even sanctify them in death, photoshopping their warts and retouching their blemishes. In the past 48 hours, it’s been tough to escape the over-the-top tributes to the Champ, many employing with straight-faced sincerity the same hyperbole that Ali self-recited with his mischievous wink and smile.
Like all of us, Muhammad Ali was a flawed man. Certainly, he was more colorful than your average Joe (Louis or Frazier); but the cheerful, inspirational poet-laureate of sport was also at times a mirror on one of the angriest times in American history. Particularly during the late 1960s, a time of acrimony and assassination, Ali could be a divisive figure, blurting ugly, regrettable statements about whites, Jews, women, even some of his African-American opponents.
But Ali came to represent something much greater than himself. And that’s precisely why he belongs in Kentucky’s version of Statuary Hall. Abraham Lincoln uttered horribly racist statements as a young pol, and engaged in ethically questionable chicanery to win election and secure passage of key legislation. But his coincident accomplishment of preserving the union and freeing the slaves makes him the symbol of everything that is right and good and just about our democracy. Henry Clay was a four-time presidential loser whose “corrupt bargain” scandalized American politics, epitomizing a rigged political system in which the elite ignored the people’s will. (Sound familiar?) Yet his subsequent work to head off disunion as the “Great Compromiser” makes him forever a celebrated role model for civility, public service and patriotism. By contrast, Jefferson Davis merited some extraordinary achievements — he was, for example, the prime mover behind the glorious modern U.S. Capitol’s design — but he will forever remain the very epitome of the most shameful, disgraceful undertaking in American history.
As our center of governance, the Capitol should provide a symbolic celebration of our Commonwealth’s unique greatness. And as Democrats and Republicans have united to evict Davis, there’s no more fitting Rotunda replacement than a proud descendent of slaves, as well as the most internationally influential Kentuckian of the modern era.
I’ve already had plenty to say about why Muhammad Ali belongs in the Capitol Rotunda. But a few points bear repeating.
Foundationally, he was and will always be a Kentuckian. Ali didn’t simply make a brief appearance in the Bluegrass State like Honest Abe: He was a proud product of Louisville, raised by a supportive middle class family and nurtured by a devoted neighborhood community. Despite the racism he endured in his childhood and early adult years, the Louisville Lip ultimately chose to locate his award-winning museum and civil rights center in his hometown, where he soon will rest in peace.
In a state, moreover, which reveres sport — and where the games children play do more perhaps than any other social force to unite diverse populations and to promote equality, selflessness and community — Ali stood far above his peers. As Sports Illustrated would recognize, he was the Sportsman of the Century. When he reigned, boxing was the sport of kings. Since The People’s Champion retired, the sport has lost most of its relevance. Indeed, the sport’s popular decline was precipitated by Ali’s physical decline; public awareness of the impact of his brain trauma de-romanticized boxing, and has helped prompt critical reform efforts to promote safety in other contact sports like football.
Most significant, though, was the invaluable role Ali played in redressing the ills brought to our country by Jefferson Davis and his ilk. His rise coincided with this country’s most moral moment — the Civil Rights Movement — and unlike other sports greats who shirked from politics (à la Michael Jordan who famously noted that “Republicans buy sneakers, too”); Ali, true to form, couldn’t keep his mouth shut.
Now, as noted above, Muhammad Ali was no mainstream moderating figure. Early on, he took issue with less confrontational leaders, joined the über-controversial Nation of Islam, emerged as a vocal proponent of the nascent “Black Power” movement, and called for radical change to the institutional racism of white-dominated society. Most contentiously, he drew upon his new faith, as well as his deep antagonism to Jim Crow America, to claim status as a conscientious objector and refuse to be drafted for the Vietnam War. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong – no Viet Cong ever called me N___,” he famously intoned. “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”
Compare that to many of his wealthy and well-connected contemporaries who avoided combat through deferment or claims of injury: luminaries such as Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Trump. Ali was no “draft dodger”; he confronted the issue head on, risking his career and even his freedom to honor his faith, as well as to protest what he believed was a deeply unjust war and a draft that placed a generation’s poor and disenfranchised on the front lines while their wealthier peers went to grad school or the National Guard.
Many Americans of an older generation will never forgive him. But whether or not you agreed with his principled stance, Muhammad Ali’s long-term positive political and societal impact is undeniable. The Supreme Court decision that his draft-confronting prompted served as a landmark sanctification of our nation’s freedoms of speech and religion. And by standing up loudly and courageously to the segregation-infected political infrastructure, Ali’s inspiration of young African-Americans, struggling to find a voice in their communities, was incomparable. In his later years, the Champ emerged as an outspoken champion for peace and social justice. His final major pronouncement decried the emergence of anti-Muslim hysteria, pointing to his example as a living, poignant reminder of the brilliance and resoluteness of American diversity. As civil rights activist Julian Bond noted, “It’s hard to imagine that a sports figure could have so much political influence on so many people.”
A man who achieved greatness through the most violent of sports achieved immortality as a loud and proud voice for non-violence. It is that personal and political evolution that has earned him a spot in the Rotunda, our Commonwealth’s cathedral, a daily reminder to our most important citizens — from the officials who lead the state, to the schoolchildren who visit our capital — of the meaning of our communal mission.
Some obstacles remain before The Greatest arrives in the Rotunda. First, Ali’s 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. (These leaves room for another statue — how about civil rights heroine, State Senator Georgia Powers?) Second, current state regulations require an honoree to be dead for 40 years before being enshrined. Of course, rules are made to be adjusted. Finally, despite the bi-partisan consensus for Davis’ removal, he’s still standing: the Kentucky Historic Properties Advisory Commission voted last August to retain the Confederate smear. But with a new Administration reversing many actions of its predecessor, this would be one rare 180 that this proud Steve Beshear appointee would heartily applaud.
Long after he is gone, Muhammad Ali’s legacy will continue with the millions, if not billions, of people who have been inspired by the personal risks he took to champion justice and freedom. Let’s pay the Champ one final honor — and take a large step toward repairing our state’s cultural fabric — by adding his statue to Kentucky’s Capitol Rotunda.
Agree with me? Please sign this petition, and I will deliver it to Governor Matt Bevin, House Speaker Greg Stumbo and Senate President Robert Stivers.
Disagree? Don’t pull your punches in the comments below.