Pigskin Preview (i.e., Football Cliches)

September 2, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The previous post was about the University of Illinois football coach forcing injured players to go out on the field even at the risk of turning those injuries into lifelong debilitating and career-ending injuries. The coach and the athletic director both stayed on script and insisted that they put the health and well-being of the scholar athletes “above all else.” Right.

My point was that blaming individuals was a distraction and that the view of players as “disposable bodies” (as one player tweeted) was part of a system rather than the moral failings of individuals.

But systems don’t make for good stories. It’s so much easier to think in terms of individuals and morality, not organizations and outcomes. We want good guys and bad guys, crime and punishment. That’s true in the legal system. Convicting individuals who commit their crimes as individuals or in small groups is fairly easy. Convicting corporations or individuals acting as part of a corporation is very difficult.

That preference for stories is especially strong in movies. In that earlier post, I said that the U of Illinois case had some parallels with the NFL and its reaction to the problem of concussions. I didn’t realize that Sony pictures had made a movie about that very topic (title - “Concussion”), scheduled for release in a few months. 

Hacked e-mails show that Sony, fearful of lawsuits from the NFL, wanted to shift the emphasis from the organization to the individual.

Sony executives; the director, Peter Landesman; and representatives of Mr. Smith discussed how to avoid antagonizing the N.F.L. by altering the script and marketing the film more as a whistle-blower story, rather than a condemnation of football or the league. . . .

Hannah Minghella, a top [Sony] executive, suggested that “rather than portray the N.F.L. as one corrupt organization can we identify the individuals within the N.F.L. who were guilty of denying/covering up the truth.” [source: New York Times]

I don’t know what the movie will be like, but the trailer clearly puts the focus on one man – Dr. Bennet Omalu, played by Will Smith. He’s the good guy.

Will the film show as clearly how the campaign to obscure and deny the truth about concussions was a necessary and almost inevitable part of the NFL? Or will it give us a few bad guys – greedy, ruthless, scheming NFL bigwigs – and the corollary that if only those positions had been staffed by good guys, none of this would have happened?

The NFL, when asked to comment on the movie, went to the same playbook of cliches that the Illinois coach and athletic director used.

“We are encouraged by the ongoing focus on the critical issue of player health and safety. We have no higher priority.”

Coach and Economy

August 31, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Illinois football head coach, Tim Beckman, was just fired after a ton of evidence showed that he forced Fighting Illini scholar-athletes to play hurt.

[A] player, Simon Cvijanovic, alleged that Beckman and his staff pushed the athlete into playing with an injured shoulder and knee and lied to him about how long his recovery would take. He said that the coaching staff frequently berated injured players, threatening to take away their scholarships if they did not return to practice quickly after an injury.

Cvijanovic tweeted that athletic medical staff withheld information from him regarding the extent of his knee injury, and that he now faces a "lifetime of surgery" related to the deterioration of an injured muscle that was largely left untreated. The staff called hurt players derogatory names and dressed them in a rival team's colors during practices in an attempt to shame them, the former player said. [Source: Inside Higher Ed.

In response, Coach Beckman said,

The health and well-being of our student athletes is of paramount importance to me, and any statement made to the contrary is utterly false.

You can’t blame the coach for lying. What else could he have said?

The problem is not that the coach is a liar or that he callously ignores the risk of lifelong debilitating injury to his players. Beckman is surely not the only coach who pressures players this way, and it’s not because the coaches all lack moral character. Nor will firing one coach have much effect. Coaches “act like our bodies are just disposable” (as Cvijanovic tweeted) not because coaches are moral monsters but because the entire system of Division I football is focused on winning.

Deep Throat was right: follow the money. Winning teams at big schools can bring in big money – media deals, tchotchke sales, alumni donations, etc. That multi-million dollar contract that Illinois gave Beckman wasn’t for improving the health and well-being of the players. It was for winning.

As long as the team’s won-lost record was improving,* university officials were not concerned about what Beckman was doing. Or if they knew, they probably assumed, correctly, that this is how coaches coach. When the news first reported Cvijanovic’s accusations back in May, Coach Beckman’s boss, the Athletic Director, said that Beckman “has put the welfare of this young man above all else.” It was only after the investigation – triggered by the young man’s tweets – that the Athletic Director was shocked, shocked to discover that Beckman made footballers play hurt.

Will the NCAA now impose new rules on the treatment of injured players? If so, my guess is that the reason will not be an overriding concern with the health and well-being of players. I’m going with Deep Throat. The IHE story doesn’t mention it, but Cvijanovic has filed a lawsuit against the university. As with concussions in the NFL, a few successful lawsuits might lead to changes. Failing that, it will be the Humanitarian Impulses of the coaching staff versus the economic pressure on Winning. In that contest, Humanitarian Impulses is a big underdog. My advice: go with Winning and give the points.

* When Beckman took over in 2012, the team went 2-10 and 0-8 in their Big Ten division. Two years later, they were 6-7 overall and 3-5 in the division.   

There’s a Place for Us

August 29, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Metropolitan Opera’s Summer HD Festival offers free screenings of operas in the large plaza at Lincoln Center- a different opera each night. Tonight it’s Carmen, and the operas to come are nearly as well known – La Traviata, Don Giovanni, Tales of Hoffman, etc.

For the opener last night the Met chose West Side Story – the 1961 movie.

The great irony is that we were sitting in what had been the setting for the story – a neighborhood known as San Juan Hill. Back then it was a “slum”; today it would be called a low-income, predominantly minority community. It was San Juan Hill even in the 1940s, when it was still nearly all Black, as it had been since the turn of the century. In the 1950s, Puerto Ricans began arriving, and some Blacks moved uptown or to Brooklyn. Gang violence was rife – fights between the Black (and later Puerto Rican) gangs of San Juan Hill and Irish gangs from Hell’s Kitchen just to the south.

DIESEL:  What do you say, Riff?
RIFF:  I say this turf is small, but it's all we got, huh? I want to hold it like we always held it.

In the 1950s, however, the real turf battle was not between the Jets and the Sharks. It was between the residents of San Juan Hill and a gang led by Robert Moses and John D. Rockefeller III – not exactly an even match. It wasn’t much of a rumble.The winning side demolished the slum and build Lincoln Center.

I wondered whether many of my fellow moviegoers knew this West Side history, but then the speaker who introduced the film mentioned it. Some of the film was shot right here on location, he said, and in fact the film’s producers (or was it Jerome Robbins, the choreographer?) asked the city to delay part of the demolition so they could complete some of the dance scenes. The speaker related these as interesting factoids, as if to say, “You’re sitting where Maria and Tony’s balcony scene might have taken place,” and expecting us to feel a Washington-slept-here sense of connection to history. 

Instead, I was thinking of class and politics. I was thinking of The Urban Villagers and Boston’s urban renewal destruction of the West End; I was thinking of other Robert Moses projects in New York. Working-class and lower-class people displaced for buildings or highways that benefit middle class people, promoted and partly financed by upper-class people. The audience at the free movie last night had few Marias or Bernardos, Riffs or Diesels. Or Blacks. The paying customers coming from the ballet at the New York State Theater David H. Koch Theater just to our left were even Whiter and older.

As Lincoln Center was being built, some critics like Paul Goodman suggested that major arts centers should be dispersed to different places in the city, maybe even different boroughs. Why put the buildings for the opera, the ballet, and the symphony together in one place? (I was reminded of this when the noisy crowd coming out from the ballet next door made it hard for us movie watchers to hear what was happening on screen.)

But these grandiose projects of megalomaniacs sometimes work. And once they are in place, it’s hard to imagine the city without them – Paris without the Haussmann boulevards and buildings. They add to the greatness of the city, though thinking about a city in terms of its greatness essentially cedes the argument to the megalomaniacs. The other question to ask is whether they make life better for the residents of the city – and not just residents who like opera.

Charlie Parker

August 29, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

He died in 1955 at age 34. He would have been 95 today.

I’m sure that there is much sociological to be said about Bird and birth of bebop. As Howie Becker has taught us, art is collective enterprise. That’s especially true of jazz, and Becker’s ideas about art in general originated in his own experiences working as a jazz pianist. But individual artists are important, and Charlie Parker remains one of the great figures in American music. 

“Man, you gotta go up to Minton’s and hear the way this cat plays ‘Cherokee,’” musicians would tell one another. As you can hear in these two studio takes, Parker decided to dispense with the melody of ‘Cherokee’ (a standard from the big band era). In the first take, after the 32-bar intro (unusually long for bebop), Bird and Miles play the melody for a few bars. Then Bird calls a halt. In the second take – the one that was issued – after the intro, he just starts soloing on the changes.  The tune was listed on the record as “Ko-Ko,’ and that’s the way Parker played it from then on.

The drum solo is by Max Roach. Curley Russell was on bass. The pianist was supposed to have been Bud Powell, but he didn’t make the session, so Dizzy Gillespie was called on to comp on piano.