Serena

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It’s hard to find language to describe the moment in which one of the most remarkable athletes of the modern era was penalized for code violations during the final match of the US Open Tennis Tournament.  The sequence of events that led to Naomi Osaka’s controversial victory revealed a great deal about the autonomy with which a chair umpire manages play in tournaments at the highest level, autonomy which allowed the decisions made by umpire Carlos Ramos to overshadow virtually all play during the tournament, certainly overshadowing Osaka’s victory and Serena Williams’ return to the finals of an US Open.

In the weeks following the Open, Ramos was vilified and congratulated, Williams was vilified and embraced, and Osaka, once again, overshadowed.  Partisan cultural responses were emphatic as the event was characterized as feminist implosion or sexist/racist injustice.  Billie Jean King, whose career is testimony to the difficulties facing female athletes, wrote in the Washington Post:

“The ceiling that women of color face on their path to leadership never felt more impenetrable than it did at the women’s U.S. Open final on Saturday. Ironic, perhaps, that the roof of Arthur Ashe Stadium was closed for the championship match. What was supposed to be a memorable moment for tennis, with Serena Williams, perhaps the greatest player of all time, facing off against Naomi Osaka, the future of our sport, turned into another example of people in positions of power abusing that power. ”

The issues for tennis, for sport and for society are profound and profoundly affected by the reality of injustice stretching centuries behind a tennis match in September, but I’m meant to be writing about sports, so I’ll approach the conversation by reminding readers that much of the idiocy in the sporting world has to do with our schizophrenic view of athletic competition.  On one hand, we believe that sports inspire virtue – dignity, humility, generosity, selflessness, resilience, courage, craft, and skill.  On the other, we have created a professional class of gladiators whose only purpose is to beat other gladiators.  Amateurs are not expected to humiliate opponents; professionals are not supposed to display personalized emotion.  Let’s call them warriors rather than gladiators for the moment, recognizing that it is only football and boxing that invite athletes to dare brain injury as the last reward for their service.

So, warriors, and warriors don’t mess around when it comes to competition.  We pay them to entertain us, and a certain amount of heated emotion often adds some spice to our enjoyment of the spectacle.  Bench clearing brawls, fistfights on the sideline , smack downs under the basket – all good fun.  OK, less fun when women are involved.  OK, not fun in those sports that are not deemed warrior sports but which pay like warrior sports.

Manny Machado throws his bat, charges  the mound, slices up Dustin Pedroia sliding into second.  He gets fined, pitchers throw at his head and knees and America’s pastime, “a game so fine it’s played on diamonds”, enjoys yet another classic summer.  Phil Mickelson stops a ball from rolling off the green and, in the words of Brett Cygalis reporting in the New York Post,:

“Phil Mickelson executed one of the most shocking breaches of the rules and etiquette in recent major-championship history, and the fallout from it is hardly over. That includes for Mickelson’s reputation as well as that of the USGA.”  The article is entitled “Phil Mickelson’s defiant defense of his shocking rule breach.”

See, slightly crazy.

Phil’s a good golfer; Serena is the greatest female tennis player in the history of the sport, and at thirty-six years old and a recent mother fighting to win every match she enters while continuing to represent female athletes, and mothers, and women, and women of color.  She is a warrior, and in the last set of a highly significant match that was not going her way, an umpire decreed that she had been cheating by being on the court when her coach made a hand signal to approach the net in playing Osaka.  Williams’ “implosion” was no more dramatic than Mickelson’s, but it was personal.  Apparently that’s an even bigger deal than throwing a ball at a batter’s face, certainly bigger than Mickelson’s shocking rule breach.

We have seen anger in sports and frustration.  I can’t think of another example, however, of the kind of confrontation we saw at Forest Hills.  The greatest athlete in her sport, a woman who had beaten the odds in becoming the greatest in her sport, refused to be called a cheat in the middle of a match in which she had not gained traction.  Serena is an emotional player and one who uses emotion to stoke her game; she had plenty of fuel before Ramos made the decision that she had been cheating  and that he needed to call her on it.  There was racquet smashing as there has been in many, many matches, but the significant difference between this moment and any other in the history of televised sport was that we saw both the human being and the champion in the same moment.

A major title was in play, but for Serena, it was her character that was at stake.  Her first responses to Ramos were not confrontational; they were plainspoken and courteous.  The most influential female athlete in the world did not pout or flounce or kick dust; she told the judge that she doesn’t cheat.  He didn’t care.  We saw Serena unable to return to play until the question of character had been addressed.  It wasn’t.

Every athlete has her day; that was Osaka’s.  She played well, better than Serena had played up to that point.  Tennis fans can appreciate a hard-won victory over a favorite, but we witnessed a man in a chair taking a game from a champion.  It was ugly.  Both Williams and Osaka were humiliated.  The fans were cheated.  Later Williams was fined for her behavior and Ramos was endorsed by the USTA.  Roger Federer who was not humiliated reminded us that, “… they have their job to do and that’s what we want them to do.”

Who’s the Draft King?

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I don’t gamble.  Not at all.  Never.  On anything.  The house always wins, my judgment is awful, I let emotion rule, I love a good story more than good odds, on any given day … and so on.

So, here I am about to put another twenty-five bucks in my Draft King account.

This comes up, of course, because the NFL football season is coming soon to a brain near me, and while hockey and baseball were my first true loves, I can’t not watch football.  Since I’m going to watch anyway, doesn’t it make sense that I ought to invest a little extra prep time so that I can see the game on a whole new level?  There’s research to be done and rosters to explore.  No more just grabbing a sandwich and a diet soda, plumping up the pillows on the couch and leaving family and the petty exigencies of life behind for a few (eight) hours.

No, my viewing now demands daily review of players moving to and from the trainer’s table and whirlpool, scanning scouting reports, keeping track of vets and rookies, new coaches, new schemes, suspensions, rivalries, contract extensions, and that’s just the start.

Let’s say I’m looking at a rookie.  Is he a high motor guy, a natural waist bender, does he have a bubble butt, is he quicker than fast, does he have oily hips, is he a dancing bear, is he a space player, can he click and close, can he throw an effective jam?

Full disclosure.  I have never asked any of those questions, but I do scan the opinions of those in the know, each contradicting the other, the result of which is that I’m lucky if I can make my twenty-five bucks last through the entire season.  Last year?  Ended up with one dollar in my account.

So I start this season with twenty-six dollars to plunk down, three bucks at a time.

I do understand that there is some dislocation of fan attachment when I’m less interested in the outcome of the game than the number of yards my tight end has put together or the number of sacks my defense has recorded.  Some would call it rationalization, but I consider myself now a fan of football rather than hanging on to a provincial attachment to one team over all others.

I might also be a Detroit Lions fan, so there’s that.

Look, I have principles.  I don’t goof around with college football, the last bastion of amateur sport; however, with no money on the table, this might be a good time to predict a top five finish for the University of Michigan.  My allegiances in hockey and baseball are so misguided and absolute that I’d be through my small stake after three games.

I like to think of myself as a student of the game of football, an earnest aficionado, but there are moments when I think of Romans roaring encouragement to that week’s favorite gladiator, urging a final act of mutilation so profound that no opponent could crawl from the arena.  Surely, hoping for a blitz so effective that the quarterback has to be scraped from the field with a spatula is nothing like that?

Well, as Julius Caesar is reputed to have said, “Alia iacra est” (The die is cast!).  My twenty five bucks are in; might as well cross the Rubicon and check out the stats on Jimmy Garoppolo.

 

Measuring Arnold

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My daughter grew up in California at a time in which the state and the governor seemed to be in a perpetual state of crisis; Gray Davis was recalled and removed within months of the start of his second term.  Then, the improbable candidacy of Arnold Schwarzenegger quickly went from dubious prospect to inauguration followed by a solid two terms as Governor of California, leading her to belive that Schwarzenegger completely measured up as highest office holder in the state.

I did some measuring myself, back in 1977 when I met Schwarzenegger and had the opportunity to run a tape measure around his neck, not a feat I’d try again, and a little daunting even in retrospect.  This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity arose as Schwarzenegger appeared at the unofficial premiere of the film that was to set him on the road to stardom.  Through an odd set of circumstances, I was involved in the arrangement of that event and complied with the star’s command, “Go ahead.  Measure my neck.”

The film was Pumping Iron, a docudrama produced by George Butler, based on the essay, “Pumping Iron” by Charles Gaines.  It was the first film to feature Arnold Schwarzenegger, then known as an Austrian bodybuilder who had captured the title of Mr. Universe in 1966, Mr. Olympia in 1969, and whose sculpted physique virtually owned international bodybuilding throughout the 1970’s.  He’d had bit parts in two movies, one of which, Stay Hungry, had something of a cult following because of Schwarzenegger’s role.  Pumping Iron was released in  January of 1977 and was a commercial success, kick starting Schwarzenegger’s career in film and accelerating the development of franchised exercise and fitness gyms.

Buzz about Gaines’ article had grabbed the attention of Dino de Laurentis who was looking for a project for his daughter.  By the time Arnold and I met face to neck, he had been cast as Conan the Barbarian, a role that established him as the premiere piece of beefcake in Hollywood, a position previously held by the relatively ordinary muscular giant, Steve Reeves.  Beefcake, by the way, was the term used to describe hunky guys in Hollywood fan magazines; Betty Gable and Marilyn Monroe, on the other hand, were pin-up girls, and their photos were known as cheesecake.  Beef, cheese …no Vegan terminology in those days.

In any case, it happened that in those years I ran the Berkshire Film Society in Sheffield, Massachusetts, a very small association attempting to bring classic and experimental films to south Berkshire County.  Our theater was musty and cramped, our equipment was primitive, and our budget was exhausted.  I got a call from the far snappier film society in Salisbury, Connecticut, a near neighbor, asking if I’d like to join in hosting Charles Gaines, Schwarzenegger, and the as-yet-unreleased film, Pumping Iron.

I jumped at the chance for a number of reasons.  Two of the most stalwart members of my small cadre lived just outside of Salisbury and had been hoping we might find a way to connect the two groups.  The only celebrity in my bunch was Terry Southern, author of Dr. Strangelove and Candy, and a wickedly funny man (I do mean wicked) who shared with me an odd appreciation of the competitive world of bodybuilding.  We had both read the Gaines articles, seen Butler’s photos illustrating the essay, and thought the film would be a hoot.

The Salisbury Film Society booked the auditorium of Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, opened the screening to the public, and invited Hotchkiss students to attend as well. My job was to bring in an audience from southwestern Massachusetts, fairly easy to do as I also had an early morning radio show on the only station available in that corner of the state, and, more importantly, there is nothing to do at night in southwestern Massachusetts when the temperature drops below zero.

The auditorium was packed; as a fund-raiser it was a clear triumph.  The film was far better than I had expected, a great documentary about the competitive world of bodybuilding as well as a compelling drama featuring the self-assured prankster, Schwarzenegger, and his aspiring rival, hearing impaired and self-doubting Lou Ferrigno, later a slab of beefcake himself as the TV incarnation of the Incredible Hulk.

Ferrigno did not attend the screening, but Schwarzenegger was in rare form.  He had been at the top of his career for a decade and was eager to move into whatever niche Hollywood could find for him.  He had just found out that the Conan project had been green-lighted, Oliver Stone had been hired to write the script, and James Earl Jones had been cast as Thulma Doom, the fiend who had killed Conan’s parents.  It took another two years to get the project off the ground and into production in Spain; by that time, John Milius as director had re-written the Stone script, toughening the action to give Schwarzenegger more room to flex his personality.

That evening, in the question-and-answer part of the program, I asked if Schwarzenegger hoped to win a part in a film in which he wouldn’t have to take off his shirt.  I know, what the hell was I thinking?  With great restraint and good humor, Schwarzenegger took off his jacket and made a gesture as if he were about to un button his shirt.

The next question came from a student in the audience, asking how his physical features had changed since he had stopped training for competition.  There was considerable back and forth about various body features, dialogue that Schwarzenegger seemed to enjoy.

To be clear, he was still huge.

He wore a suit that allowed him to look something like a mortal, but when he took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, the masquerade was over.  At the top of his game as a competitor, Schwarzenegger weighed about 245 pounds.  He was 6 feet 2 inches tall, and every limb had been developed for perfect symmetry.  A champion can’t have huge arms and skinny legs; everything has to be in perfect proportion, and he had been termed the most perfectly developed human for years.

Arnold Schwarzenegger could not have been more cordial in describing his training  routine and the resultant physical features; he thought of himself as a sculptor, working in his own medium.  His weight that evening was 235 pounds.  He had a 32 inch waist, his chest when expanded measured 57 inches.  I’m going to stop there to suggest that his chest was about the length of a kid just under five feet tall.  His thighs were 28 inches around, both of them, again about the size of a sixteen year old’s waist.  He tapered down to a mere 19 inches at the calf (more than a foot and a half), and his bicep when flexed was 20 inches in circumference.  The next time you see an AYSO team playing soccer, the ball they kick is only slightly larger than Arnold’s arm.

And so, it came to the neck.  Because I had been affronting enough to question the star’s career path, he beckoned me to the front of the auditorium, handed me a tape measure, and said, Go ahead.  Measure my neck.”

I was 5 foot 8 1/2 inches tall.  I had to ask Arnold to lean a bit so that I coud operate the tape.  I don’t know what I expected.  2 feet?  22 inches?  At that time, Arnold Schwarzenegger had a neck that measured only slightly more than 18 inches. As in all other things, in perfect proportion with the rest of his physique.

I was completely charmed by Schwarzenegger that night and have since seen him in almost everything he’s made.  We all have favorite roles, of course, and mine tend to fall into three categories.

Against all odds, he has a lively and gentle sense of humor, a quality best expressed in some of the lighter roles, such as Jingle All the Way, Junior, Twins, and to some extent Kindergarten Cop.  That film generated two of my favorite Schwarzenegger lines, delivered with that signature Austrian accent.  “Who is your daddy, and what does he do?” , and his querulous response to the child who fears he has a tumor, ” That is not a too-mah!”

Schwarzenegger became an action superstar fairly quickly, frequently appearing as the leader of an elite military or para-military crew facing overwhelming odds or as a sleuth on his own, facing overwhelming odds.  My favorites of these many films include Commando, in which his character’s survival skills are so advanced that he can smell invaders before they appear, and Total Recall, an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick Sci Fi adventure in which a special effects moment makes it seem that his head expands and explodes as he exposed to the atmosphere on Mars.  Critics had fun at his expense when Schwarzenegger was cast as a robot in the Terminator series (“Schwarzenegger a robot – now that’s type casting!”), but he made us feel for the machine.

Batman and Robin stands alone in the Schwarzenegger oeuvre.  I’m a fan of director Joel Schumacher, and the cast for the film was fantastic.  George Clooney was Bruce Wayne/ Batman, and Schwarzenegger played his nemesis, Dr. Victor Fries, a Nobel Prize winning molecular biologist whose body was altered as he tried to freeze his terminally ill wife.  Fries, damaged physically and psychically,  can only live in a suit that keeps him at a sub-zero temperature, thus becoming Mr. Freeze.

It’s a goofy sidestep in the cinematic history of Batman, a bit more like the early tv show than the Dark Knights.  Chris O’Donnell is Robin, kind of a bat bro, eager to break out of the bat-shadow.  Alicia Silverstone, fresh from Clueless, is Batgirl, not only a crime fighter in the making but niece of the Bat Butler, Alfred, played by the brilliant English character actor, Michael Gough.  Schumacher brought another contemporary trope to the film, casting Uma Thurman as an eco-terrorist, resentful that a chemical mishap has caused her blood to turn to aloe, her skin to chlorophyl, and her lips to a toxin that goes unnamed.

Mr. Freeze steals the show, I think, with puns that live eternal in the hearts of Schwarzenegger fans.  “Alright, everyone.  Chill!”, “I’m afraid my condition has left me cold to your pleas for mercy”,  “The Ice Man cometh”, and “Let’s kick some ice!

From time to time I recall my up-close-and personal with the future Mr. Freeze and Governor of California, wishing I had not been so snarky in challenging his acting skills.  He’s measured up and built a career, several careers, that would be the envy of any aspiring actor.

And … I’m pretty sure he could still crush me like a grape.

Will the real Jim Harbaugh please stand up?

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Remember why Quinn Nordin is kicking for Michigan football and not for Penn State?  Remember who plans slumber parties with prospective recruits?  Remember who presented the Pope with a Michigan football helmet?  Well, to be more precise, who presented the Pope with a Michigan helmet and a pair of maize and blue shoes?

 Remember who told his team not to eat chicken, a “nervous bird”?  Remember which Division I football coach wore number four as first base coach for the Detroit Tigers?  Remember which coach put together a rap video?  Remember which coach was the correct answer to a question on the Simpsons – “a sports genius that everyone hates.”  For that matter, remember which coach has a fan crush on Judge Judy.

Let’s also remember which coach was blasted for establishing “satellite camps”, 10 camps in seven states, then remember the coach who walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama when bringing a camp to Alabama.  Maybe remember who stood on Omaha Beach with his team as Taps was played in honor of the 9000 American soldiers who gave their lives there on D-Day.

The truth is that last season was tough, tough on the team, tough on the coaches, and tough on fans.  Losses to Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State, an 8-5 season and 4th place in the division hurt, watching a stalled offense hurt, watching quarterbacks flounder hurt.

There were some obvious obstacles to success last year, and hopes at the start of the season were probably unrealistic, but all bets are off when it comes to Jim Harbaugh and Michigan football.  In a landscape of taskmasters and oily self-promoters, Jim Harbaugh is both a character and a man of character.

He has strong feelings.  “I drink a lot of milk … A lot of milk.  Whole milk though.  Not the candy-ass two-percent or skim milk.”  “The football gods have provided us with heat and sun to shape the body and carve the mind.”  “My default is ‘yes’ when asked to do things.”  And, perhaps the most striking, in describing his attitude toward coaching, “I’m as happy as a pig in slop.”  He wore a Colin Kaepernick jersey at Michigan’s Sacramento camp and in an interview with Sports Illustrated observed, “For Colin, and what Colin’s doing and has been doing, when you really stop and listen and know where Colin is coming from…he’s trying to do this for his future kids, for my kids, for all of our kids. He’s a special person and a hero, in my opinion.”

A column by Bill Gordon, Ph.D., in Psychology Today examined America’s infatuation with Jim Harbaugh.  Gordon considered all of the qualities already mentioned, but took the question of Harbaugh’s popularity to those who know him best.:

“…  his many humanitarian deeds add yet another level of subconscious appeal.  I asked several top Michigan related Internet social media groups, such as Michigan Football HQ, The University of Michigan M Club, Michigan Proud and True, and Big Ten Talk why they liked Jim Harbaugh. U of M alumnus, Bruce Laing, encapsulates the majority opinion: He will instill toughness and accountability in the athletes, posted Laing in the University of Michigan M Club.  Our children’s futures are vital, so we embrace the importance of education, accountability and toughness because they galvanize that future; yet  another reason America is instinctually drawn to Harbaugh.”

Michigan has an extraordinary coach, a coach with rare ability to motivate, inspire, and teach.  We need all that only Harbaugh can offer. The team faces what may be the toughest schedule in college football, and there are still questions about the offensive line, running backs, receivers, and starting quarterback.  The opening game against Notre Dame is plenty daunting enough, and there will be moments of consternation on the sideline.

And that is when fans want the real Jim Harbaugh to stand up.  Yes, measured rationality is a good quality to present during a battle, but the team and its fans need a little wild man, a little Henry V, a little “we band of brothers,” some hopping on one foot, slapping of helmets, screaming at refs, tossing of clipboards.

We want to see the competitive genius of Jim Harbaugh at a fever pitch.  We want a Jim Harbaugh who is over the top and almost too much.  Just take off the headphones, Jim, and kick something.

We believe in Jim Harbaugh and only want to see him do what he can do best.  After all, when it comes to looking at leadership at the top of the Michigan football program, “Who’s Got It Better Than Us?”

Twenty Four Days Until Kickoff

College Football, Sports history

I receive the occasional urgent message from and about University of Michigan sports, primarily alerting me to the importance of the next football, hockey, basketball, or volleyball game.  I scan them all, which is odd in that I did not attend the University of Michigan, have not sent children to the University of Michigan, and have very few friends or acquaintances who are connected with the University of Michigan.  And yet…. on game days I sit in my living room in Oregon wearing my lucky Wolverine cap and any one of my Michigan t-shirts or jerseys.  I wear a less lucky, sweat stained Michigan cap out in the world, responding to those who recognize and share my fondness for the university with a hearty “Go Blue!”.  Two of my children have grown up with my elaborate game day rituals and have become Michigan fans, slightly less likely to wear Michigan gear and much less likely to stop strangers on the street to talk Michigan football, but loyal to the Blue nonetheless.

I’m not entirely sure how it is that sports keep me sane, and my game day behavior certainly does not look like measured sanity, but for a few moments I’m not keeping track of global warming, the loss of species, political chicanery,  inequality, injustice, and the looting of America.  Thoughtful observers of my quasi-fanaticism will argue that we’re talking more than a few moments, as I do enjoy the four-day ramp up to the next game and allow myself a day or two of celebration or consolation after the last game.  I enjoy those pick up conversations as well, some of which are with fans of other programs.  I don’t have much in common with several acquaintances, but I do know that they are as captivated by sport as I am.  I know who their team faces on Saturday and am more than willing to run through their lineup even if we never get around to my current favorite topic: Michigan’s chances in the opening game against Notre Dame.

I’m not stupid.  I know that Michigan’s chances against Notre Dame aren’t great.  Well,  I know, but how can I?  Who really knows?  Hope springs eternal.  One leg at a time.  And so on.

I experience a second level of puzzling emotional instability even as I name Notre Dame or more frequently, Ohio State.  I do have friends with attachments to those universities.  They are good people; they have not poisoned my pets or stolen my identity.  And yet I loathe their alma maters with unvarnished ferocity.  This does seem marginally unreasonable.  And yet …

I’ve lived in each quadrant of the United States and have found that with one exception, each asks a newcomer to commit.  Duke or Carolina?  Alabama or Auburn?  Florida or Georgia?  I grew up in New England where state universities served their constituents well but had not attached themselves to signature athletic programs at the national level.  As I travelled through the greater world then, I had no ready rejoinder when put on the spot.  I have significant memories of the years I lived and worked in Michigan.  One of my children was born there.  Ann Arbor was within easy driving distance and season ticket holders were generous, inviting me to Michigan’s stadium, The Big House.  I sat with 107,601 rabid wolverines and gave my heart away.

It’s been a bleak summer here in Oregon; the heat is brutal and fires continue to funnel smoke into the Rogue Valley.  The Red Sox are running away with the division title and LeBron is going to the Lakers.  Bleak, I say,  and unlikely to change, but when the “24 Days to Kickoff: alert hits my mailbox, the fog lifts, the clouds part, and for a moment, all is right with the world.

I do have a life outside of Michigan football, one in which I care for my family, consider the great questions and think long thoughts.  I read a fair bit and write as well.  There’s the grounds work to do and dogs to romp.  After all, game day is just one day … except that I’ve just committed to writing for GBMWolverine again, bringing the older fan’s perspective to a young man’s game.  I think that will be ok; an hour or so a day is relatively easy to grab, especially as I have followed the Marie Kondo’s advice and actively begin the art of tidying up, keeping only those things that “spark joy”.  I’ve got another box of books in the car, mostly history books untouched since my college years.  I remember them fondly but not a lot of joy sparking when I took them down from the shelf.

I’m a work in progress.  Keep the flannel shirt?  Time to admit that I really don’t need three sets of golf clubs?  The Barbie Michigan Cheerleader set?

A work in progress.