Apr 26, 2009

All Money Ain't Good Money

Brandon "It Could Be Worst" Jennings

Ignorance seems to be spreading like the swine flu these days. First there was basketball player Brandon Jennings who decided to bypass playing college ball last season so as to play for a professional team in Rome, while awaiting the NBA draft this year. Jennings made an ass of himself when he declared to Bryant Gumbel on a recent Real Sports episode that in spite of his struggles as a professional basketball player in Rome this year that it could indeed be worst. According to Jennings worst translated to "I could be in college...I could be in class right now." If that wasn't bad enough, the news that former San Diego high school player Jeremy Tyler is dropping out of school to play in Europe next year demonstrates that the blind is leading the blind in this disturbing trend.

Had Brandon Jennings been able to pass the SAT in 2008 perhaps he would have been one of the stars of this year's NCAA tournament? Perhaps he wouldn't be suffering a death of insignificance over in Rome right now? While some have mistakenly labeled Jennings' move to Europe as "revolutionary" it is important to point out that Jennings was prompted to go and play in Europe only after his failure to achieve a satisfactory score on the SAT. How revolutionary is that? Maybe saving face might be a better way to describe what Jennings has done?

I realize that Jennings is making a nice seven figure salary playing for Lottomatica Virtus Roma right now. I also understand that Jennings is being touted as a potential lottery pick in this June's NBA draft. Nonetheless, I still think that Jennings decision is short-sighted and potentially a dangerous precedent should other young players like Tyler continue to follow this lead.

Of course the debate over young basketball players and the choices they make in route to a potential NBA career is a debate that has been going on for some time now. When Kevin Garnett decided to make the jump from high school directly to the NBA in 1995, he was the first high school player to do so since guys like Moses Malone, Chocolate Thunder, and Bill Willoughby had pursued this path back in the 1970s. The year after KG made the jump, Kobe Bryant followed his footsteps and before you knew it a slew of high schoolers were increasingly doing the same thing in subsequent years. Though KG and Kobe were quite successful--with last year's NBA Finals between their respective teams demonstrating the apex of what we might call the NBA's "high school era"--the league was eventually overrun with so many immature players that there came a need for a rule change. Beginning with the 2007 draft, players had to be 19 years old and a year out of high school before making the move to the NBA. It is this rule that players like Jennings and Tyler are now attempting to circumvent.

Some see this as a money issue and argue that players should be able to ply their trade in spite of their age if someone is willing to pay them to do so. Others add race to the equation and suggest that the age limit is really a racially motivated ploy to deny young black men, who make up the majority of the NBA, an opportunity to begin accumulating their potential riches. Still others sense a conspiracy on the part of the NCAA and their lucrative March Madness tournament which, the critics say, make tons of money off of the talents of the college players, who in turn, get none of the spoils. Yet, all of these arguments are seriously lacking in terms of both substance and foresight.

The point being missed here is that someone needs to concentrate on developing the person, as well as the player, as opposed to simply developing a kid's basketball skills. Not only do these young players need to perfect their jump shots and learn how to better defend the pick and roll, but what they often need, more than anything, is a sense of maturity. You don't make someone mature simply by putting a lot of money in their pockets. Maturity comes with age and life experience, and this is something that you cannot accelerate. In other words, you can't put 10 pounds of shit into a 5 pound bag.

I know, better than most, that a large percentage of these players aren't ever going to excel in college. I also know that a year of college is better than none. College ain't never hurt nobody. In an ideal world all these players would be seriously pursuing their degrees, but that's not realistic. Exceptional athletes are often pulled out of the normal scholastic environment at an early age. They are socialized to be athletes, not students, so when its time to be a student they often struggle because they've never been taught how to be one in the same way that they have been socialized to be an athlete. This is a result of the system that exists, though most people simply blame the players.

I don't expect a talented kid to fully understand the way that adults are manipulating him for their own gains. I do however hold the system itself responsible; including the player's family members in many instances. Often it's the families, who see these athletes as their own meal ticket, deserving of blame. I know that it has become a cliche to hear an athlete talk about the house that they are going to buy for Mom Dukes when they get rich, but I have news for you, it's not the kid's job to buy a house for the parent. That's the parent's responsibility. If family members and other invested parties would stop forcing these kids to "walk the track," as they say in the pimp game, then a lot of this rush to cash in would stop.

All I'm saying is this, if we started focusing more on developing these ball players holistically, helping them grow into mature adults, as opposed to only developing them to play ball then maybe the ones who do make it to the league and make some money can actually keep what they make. This is a long term project than goes against the short term allure of trying to cash in as though you were at a casino. This all starts at home though, long before any of the shoe companies, street agents, AAU coaches or any of the other elements of the system itself even come into the equation.

As ignorant as Brandon Jennings might sound, his decision and that of Jason Tyler are more reflective of the way that they were raised and the people who raised them. If your parents and those who are supposed to don't give you any guidance where are you supposed to get it from? So in the absence of any real guidance one is left to pursue the dollar like a dope fiend pursues another hit. In the long run, this can't be good. Slow down, pump your breaks, if the player is good enough, the money will be there. Don't chase the money, let the money chase you! Otherwise, though there will always be exceptions, the reality is that an immature fool and his money will soon depart.

Apr 13, 2009

Cheap Thrills

The new HBO Sports documentary Thrilla in Manila would on the surface seem to be something akin to bringing a HoneyBaked ham sandwich to a banquet. The title, of course, refers to the last of the three epic boxing matches between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1975. Considering that Ali himself has been the subject of over 300 books along with numerous feature films and documentaries, one wonders what else there is to say that hasn't already been said?

Well, you can put those concerns to rest because Thrilla in Manila not only adds to the burgeoning list of material about Ali, but the film gives us another angle with which to observe Ali's reign. It just so happens that the new angle is the privileging of Frazier's point of view this time around. Like Mary J. some years back, if you could look in Frazier's life and see what he sees, it would understandably look quite different than the view afforded from Ali's vantage point. This shift in point of view gives us a new lenses through which to view Frazier, Ali, the fight, and that time period in American history.

To say that Muhammad Ali is an American hero these days is like saying that water is wet. Since his renaissance lighting the torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the former Cassius Clay has experienced an unparalleled love fest with the American public. The excellent documentary, When We Were Kings (1996) won an Academy Award, Will Smith starred in the Michael Mann biopic Ali (2001), and over time America began to reconsider the legacy of a man who was once one of the most hated men in the country for his refusal to enter the Vietnam draft. Ali went from one of the most hated to one of the most loved though. The fact that Parkinson's disease has robbed him of his ability to use his tongue in a critique of American racism is gone, along with the charisma and utterly engaging personality, yet many people have come to view Ali almost like he were a god. I think it is fair to say that Ali is one of the America's greatest living heroes now.

Yet, in spite of the contemporary love affair with the "Greatest of All Time," Thrilla in Manila demonstrates that there were many chinks in Ali's armor. Ali used Frazier as his verbal punching bag outside the ring, engaging in the worst kind of racial abuse, questioning Frazier's blackness and otherwise clowning him as an Uncle Tom. Ali always had the advantage of charisma to go along with his impeccable boxing skills. He used this charisma to promote himself and his fights quite well. Frazier, inarticulate on a good day, never had the ability to match Ali's telegenic presence and suffered immensely in this regard. Ali was the articulate one who exploited Frazier's inability to respond in kind. Normally this would not be an issue. Boxing is as much psychological warfare as it is physical, so the ability to psyche someone out is like a good left jab, another weapon in the arsenal. This along with the role that the verbal dexterity of signifying plays in the oral tradition itself and Ali comes out on top every time.

Yet it was the nature of Ali's taunts that made this exchange with Frazier so disturbing. Ali, who represented himself as the ultimate black man through his links with the Nation of Islam, criticized Frazier as someone who was simply not black enough. Further he said that Frazier was an Uncle Tom and in reality a pawn of the proverbial "white man." This is the equivalent of citing someone for racial treason. All this in the interest of selling a fight.

Thrilla in Manila is good because it allows us to see and hear Frazier. His lingering bitterness makes that much more sense now. The outgoing message on Frazier's cell phone voice mail where he mocks Ali's illness and claims to be the reason for Ali incurring this illness says it all. Frazier feels that Ali is now paying the price for all those years of verbal abuse.

This all helps to paint a very different picture of Ali than the one we have become accustomed to seeing. In the end this is a good thing. I love Ali as much as the next person and I always have. But much of the commentary about him lately borders on hagiography. Ali was no saint. No one is a saint, for that matter. Yet Americans like their heroes to be perfect, superhuman, without flaw. It's hard for a lot of people to reconcile Ali's charisma, his boxing superiority, and his defiant refusal to go fight a corrupt war in spite of the punishment, with his more human qualities. There's a cruelty that comes across in Ali's disdain for Frazier. This is the kind of cruelty that stands out even more as one becomes aware of just how unkind Ali was to Frazier in his remarks. Like 'Pac on "Hit 'Em Up" Ali went far outside the lines of acceptable trash talking in his many racially tinged comments about Frazier, especially his mocking of Frazier's more extreme features, like the shape of his nose, for instance. Racists had long said that black people were descendants of apes and here was Ali calling Frazier a gorilla, while playing with a toy gorilla for the cameras.

Frazier now seems like a man content with his lot in life. He lives in the back of a funky boxing gym in Philly and seems to have little other than his spirit left. Yet he does seems at peace with himself. The subject of Ali gets him wound up, but this all seems justified to me. Some, who embrace a more religious perspective, might feel as though Frazier is suffering because of his bitterness and that he needs to let all of this go in order to be truly happy. I disagree. The fact that Ali's name, as Biggie might say, "taste like ass," when Frazier speaks it is real. I'm sure that thoughts of Ali suffering really feel good to Frazier at some level. You can be judgmental about this if you choose, but such feelings are more real than a lot of people want to admit. Frazier comes across as though, in spite of Ali's 2 to 1 advantage in their fights, that he got the last laugh. I think it's sometimes unrealistic to forgive and forget, though I can understand how this ideal is appealing to people. Frazier was wronged and in light of his own religious beliefs he feels strongly that Ali is reaping what he sowed.

Issues such as these gives Ali's overall story a much more well rounded dimension than simply praising him all the time. Ali is a human being with flaws and warts just like everyone else. Everything he did wasn't cool, just because he did it. His treatment of Frazier, in spite of the fact that Frazier had helped him out financially when he was out of boxing, as well as supporting his reinstatement to the sport, was beyond reprehensible. It's time we get beyond treating people as though they were superhuman. We need to see historical figures for who they are, not who we want them to be.

The contradictions that defined Thomas Jefferson, who while authoring the Declaration of Independence could own slaves and father several children with one of those slaves, Sally Hemmings, are the same type of human contradictions that recognize Martin Luther King Jr's immense contributions to humanity without denying the fact that he loved to get his freak as though he were a NBA player on a road trip. Ali could be an anti-Vietnam War protester, a conscious black man, along with being charismatic and a great fighter, while being an asshole towards Frazier, engaging in some of the same racial politics that he himself was criticizing others for. Ali was an exploitative hypocrite, a race-baiting manipulator, and an incredible human presence, all at the same time.

I'm not making Frazier a saint by default either. I realize that Frazier was easier for mainstream America to digest at the time. A poor, uneducated southerner from the depths of South Carolina, Frazier was about as non-threatening as one could be in an era when militant groups like Ali's Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party reigned in urban black communities. Yet those in mainstream America who embraced Frazier were using him too. These people didn't care about Frazier as much as they hated Ali. Frazier just happened to be the pawn who allowed them to couch their hatred of Ali in a convenient, yet ultimately disposable figure. It's like Frazier was everyone's whupping boy and he didn't have the ability to defend himself; at least not until you stepped into the ring with him.

One of the many interesting points made in Thrilla in Manila involves the drama in both fighter's corners before the 15th and final round of the fight. It seems like if Eddie Futch, Frazier's legendary trainer, had waited just a bit longer, Ali's corner might have thrown in the towel themselves due to the fighter's exhaustion. Imagine that. How different would history have been if Frazier had won the closely contested rubber match between the two fighters? Would Ali's legacy still be treated as we treat it today or would Frazier be remembered as the superior of the two? Who knows really, but like most history, the slightest alteration of facts often creates an entirely different historical record.

Regardless, I came away from this documentary gaining more respect for Frazier, while losing some measure of respect for Ali. It's hard not to like Ali. I mean the man is in a class by himself. But as we add more and more perspectives to our historical understanding of his legacy we come closer to a more thorough three-dimensional representation than the limited hagiography that has been masquerading as the real deal for too long now. That being said, you can't talk about Ali without talking about Frazier and so it's about time the other man in the ring that Manila morning finally gets his props too. Ali is still The Man, no doubt, but thanks to Thrilla in Manila and other broader representations of the record to come, we can at least say that though Frazier may not be The Man, he is indeed The Man sitting next to The Man.

Apr 3, 2009

Freedom of Speech...Just Watch What You Say!

Embattled professor Ward Churchill recently won a wrongful termination suit against his former employer the University of Colorado. The jury verdict confirmed that Churchill had been fired over his controversial political beliefs stemming from an essay he wrote that went against the grain in critiquing American complicity in the attacks of September 11, 2001. While the verdict is a victory for free speech and academic freedom the jury only awarded Churchill $1 in damages. The verdict sends the message that while the jury agreed that Churchill's freedom of speech had been violated, the lack of any real amount being awarded for damages suggests that the jury was imposing its own punishment for Churchill's controversial political statements. I guess this is better than finding that the termination was not wrongful, but in the end it's certainly not something to get excited about. The powers that be still held serve.

The days post Sept. 11, 2001 are far behind us now and as time has passed many may have forgotten just how frightening things had become in this country. Not because of Bin Laden mind you, but because of all of the flag waving, overly patriotic, gung ho sentiments of uber nationalism that had surged throughout the country. Those in power used the events of 9/11 as an excuse to justify all sorts of infringements on civil liberties and free expression. Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer's admonition at the time that "all Americans" need to "watch what they say, watch what they do" sums up this stifling climate perfectly.

I remember being a guest on Politically Incorrect during this time immediately after Fleischer's wrath had been directed at host Bill Maher for some comments that he had made that were thought to be unpatriotic. People on the set of the show were shook. Everyone was walking on eggshells. You could cut the tension with a knife.

This political sentiment of repression trickled down from the corridors of power. The same sweep of reckless right wing emotion that outed Valerie Plame as a CIA agent and prompted the draconian Patriot Act into existence also lead to Churchill being booted from his tenured post at Colorado. Samuel Johnson's famous quote that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel" is most certainly appropriate here.

While a university committee found inconsistencies in Churchill's research, the investigation itself was launched in response to the political outcries, both inside and outside the university, over his politics. The process was clearly tainted from the beginning. If there was a problem with Churchill's scholarship then the university should have uncovered this when he went up for tenure review. To uncover questions regarding Churchill's scholarship after the fact and under such a looming political cloud says that the university had not done their due diligence initially. It also speaks to the inadequacy of their tenure process.

Churchill has been accused of fabricating sources and other acts of intellectual fraudulence. If this is true it is most certainly not cool, but again, a thorough tenure review process should have turned up at least some hint of these discrepancies beforehand. To arrive at these accusations only after the political fallout from Churchill's non-PC statements about 9/11 is to sully the University of Colorado's academic integrity.

I am not naive. I have been a professor for the last 18 years of my life and a tenured professor for the last 12. I am not stupid enough to think that freedom of speech is a rock solid defense if you happen to say what might be considered the wrong thing at the wrong time. Freedom of expression sounds good in theory, but the reality is always a bit more complicated. Churchill wrote a controversial essay, saying the "wrong thing" at the "wrong time" and he was punished for his beliefs. Though the court verdict affirms the right to free expression in one sense the fact that this case actually ever made it to court in the first place is a strong indication of just how reactionary this country had become during the dreaded Bush years of our recent past. This sentiment is best summed up in a quote from a recent piece by Scott Horton in Harper's.

We may not have realized it at the time, but in the period from late 2001-January 19, 2009, this country was a dictatorship. The constitutional rights we learned about in high school civics were suspended. That was thanks to secret memos crafted deep inside the Justice Department that effectively trashed the Constitution. What we know now is likely the least of it.

The specious case against Churchill fits neatly into Horton's claim that we were for all intents and purposes living under in a dictatorship in post 9/11 America. It is during times of conflict that free expression is most important. If we are only free to speak as we choose in times of relative calm then the concept of free expression is really not free at all.

Let me be clear. Churchill is not a hero to me. The fact that such a case got this far speaks to the fact that Churchill didn't necessarily have his "shit together," as it were. If you are going to be someone who goes against the grain on purpose you need to be prepared for the aftermath. Churchill left himself exposed and he got popped accordingly. Nevertheless, the troubling political environment of post 9/11 America is the real crime here. Those who helped create this environment of utter repression are the ones who should be brought to trial.