What a Week It Has Been

Most of the time changes happens slowly. It’s only by looking back at a long stretch of time and reflecting that we recognize substantial differences in our reality. However, there are some weeks, like these past two, when so much seems to happen all at once.

After an outrageous and distinctly American act of terrorism, huge momentum has emerged to remove symbols of treachery and hatred from prominent places in the South. The highest court in the land affirmed President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, ensuring millions continued access to affordable healthcare. And, as the best sequel since Godfather Part II, the same court legalized gay marriage nationwide.

Much of what this means for our country and the legacy of President Obama remains to be understood. But, if anything, it should put to rest forever any ideas that his presidency has been a minor one. Quite the opposite is the case. For too long, too many have been quick to think that the president has failed to deliver. He promised change they say, but too much remains the same. This, quite simply, ignores objective reality. It’s one thing to disagree with what he’s done; it’s lunacy to suggest that he hasn’t done much. That has never been more obvious in any week during his presidency as this one.

Yet for all his tangible actions while in office, his greatest achievement is and always will be the fact of his election. He is, and always will be, the first black president this nation has ever known. That fact is inescapable and never more apparent than it was on Friday when he delivered the eulogy for the slain Reverend Clementa Pinckney. He spoke as only he could. In his oration, he articulated the astonishing and gut-wrenching flaws of our country, baked into it from the founding. But his words did far more than that. They went above and beyond the filler text politicians and leaders too often mumble to pay lip-service to the “conversation about race.” They were real. They were personal. They spoke to his own experience, to the experience of his audience. They lamented the dead. He made us remember what we too often forget and ignore or never even learned. He helped us decipher a small section of the American story, with tales of the past and present. As one of our greatest once wrote, “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”

Our president has failed in countless ways, but Friday he was there for all of us, carrying the light onward. Leading us with grace and song.

More reactions from James FallowsDavid Remnick, and Greg Howard.

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Remember the Titans, “Based on a True Story,” and the Sometimes-No-BS Wonder of Great Cliches

In lieu of a regular movie review this week, I thought I’d respond to a Deadspin post yesterday about Greg Paspatis, former kicker for T.C. Williams high school under coach Herman Boone. Of course we all remember said high school and said coach from the 2000 movie, Remember the Titans. For those who don’t remember, a quick synopsis, courtesy of IMDb:

It’s 1971 in Alexandria, Virginia and successful high school football coach Bill Yoast (Will Patton) has just been deprived of the head coaching job at the newly integrated T.C. Williams High School to make way for equally successful black coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington). Yoast debates pursuing opportunities elsewhere, but when most of his white players vow to sit out the season unless he coaches, he changes his mind and stays on as Boone’s assistant.

Throughout training camp and the season, Boone and Yoast’s black and white players learn to accept each other, to work together, and that football knows no race. As they learn from each other, Boone and Yoast also learn from them and in turn, the whole town learns from the team, the Titans. Thus, they are prepared to pursue the State Championship and to deal with an unthinkable tragedy that threatens to sink their perfect season.

Sounds cheesy, but so does every synopsis. It’s a great movie. Unfortunately for all of us who feel that way, the Deadspin post is not good news. It follows Paspatis’ efforts to tell the truth about the school and Coach Boone. From the article and what else I’ve heard in the years since the movie came out, it’s accurate and damning. It’s a story of a school twice as large as its rivals, which naturally dominated in the premier sport of the time and place: football. Herman Boone is not flattered either. Apparently he wasn’t really a good coach and a jerk and even worse, since the movie, has gone on a bunch of speaking tours designed for self-promotion above all, without regard for facts. Furthermore, the school integrated in 1965, six years before the film claimed it was desegregated. Race relations weren’t much of a problem during that season, or at least not close to as much as the movie claimed. Bottom line: any investigation pretty much tears most of what we love about the movie to shreds.

My dad grew up in Northern Virginia and his former high school remains a rival of T.C. Williams. He loved the movie, despite being aware of some of its distortions. He was also really nice to not crush my childhood idolatry of the movie in too bad a way. Perhaps I’m too biased, but I submit to you that it’s possible to love the movie as separate from what really happened. Like almost everything in this world, it was a tremendously flawed project, but one that we can still appreciate.

Call me a sap, but I don’t understand how you could go into the movie on a normal day and fail to be moved on the way out. Especially if you’re a sports fan. It’s one of those experiences that makes you glad you learned all the sentimental cliches once upon a time. They are useful sometimes after all. Perhaps our love/hate relationship with cliches comes from a simultaneous acknowledgement of the fact that many of them articulate the way we want things to be, while reminding us of their impossibility, shallowness, and often banality. Of course it’s cliche to say “this movie shows us all humans are more alike than different” and “racial divides crumble when confronted with the power of the human spirit” and “humans are incredible when they come together.” But why does the fact that they’re often said take away their meaning? Aren’t they deep truths we should aspire to experience, prove true, and depict in art? Even more importantly, don’t stories exist to expose such truths that are too hard to see in the grind and messiness of everyday life?

Over time our cliches have been cheapened with Budweiser ads and political slogans and consolatory bromides and so much more, but we shouldn’t forsake them because they’ve been misused. Instead we should hold onto them that much tighter so they never lose their real purpose, because if all of them turn out to be lies then I don’t think anything’s true. We should always be skeptical when they appear but never abandon hope that this time we may be seeing the real thing. It’s so easy to be cynical because it’s so often justified, but this sometimes lets us off the hook. What’s much harder is to find the good in things and live by it. No wonder we avoid that search and censor those questions with snideness or choose to withdraw to avoid further pain. Maybe if we choose to embrace the messages of this movie (a movie not without the heartbreaks and irreconcilable tragedies of real life) we can make it mean something real. Of course it’s imperfect, spoiler alert: everything is. I’m glad Greg Paspatis is telling the real truth about T.C. and Boone because they shouldn’t get the credit for this. But that doesn’t mean that everything depicted in the movie is a lie.

The biggest flaw of the movie (apart from the fact that the actors are obviously not in high school, Boone’s wife has a horrible Southern accent, and that last TD run featured some absurd blocking from a skinny QB) is that it claimed to be “based on a true story” and that true story occurred in Alexandria, VA cerca 1971. It didn’t. But I think it is a true story of a different sort, one that’s been told and told and forgotten and rediscovered and forgotten again, all over the world throughout all of time. Let’s take this chance to remember it.

The Eccentric and the Damned

Over the last few weeks I’ve been regaling a non-baseball fan friend with anecdotes about former pitcher Greg Maddux. Maddux’s recent induction into the baseball Hall of Fame has brought to light some bizarre but hilarious stories about the really really weird stuff he used to do (and still does, he made a fart joke in his HoF acceptance speech). Notables include a running “your mom” series with a beat reporter and peeing on rookies in the shower while pretending to engage them in serious conversation (Total Frat Move has a nice roundup here, read if you dare).

Regardless of what happened off the field, mostly harmless though disgusting as it might have been, Maddux will always be remembered as a baseball genius and one of the best of all time. His 355 career wins are good enough for the eighth highest ever. Most of the time pitchers with his career numbers had great fastballs and incredible movement on their pitches, but Maddux didn’t. He relied on pinpoint control, exhaustive preparation, and a brilliant awareness of hitter tendencies (teammate and likely future Hall of Famer John Smoltz claimed Maddux could often predict where the ball would go based on who was at the plate and the upcoming pitch). He was also a fantastic defensive player, winning a major league record 18 Gold Glove awards. Because of his incredible ability to win games on a consistent basis, fellow players and coaches were fine putting up with his shit. Many members of the media really enjoyed him too. Eccentric is one of many words to describe him.

This brings us to another sports genius; a man who is completely dedicated to his craft – both athlete and student; a man whose off-the-field actions also cause us to furrow our brows. I’m speaking of Richard Sherman, cornerback for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. Unlike Maddux, Sherman is still active and in the prime of his career. Given the unpredictability of injuries, especially in football, it’s hard to say if Sherman will go down as one of the greatest of all time like Maddux, but if he stays healthy it’s very possible, if not probable. At the least, his spectacular play to clinch last year’s NFC Championship game will be remembered. As will his post-game outburst while being interviewed by a sideline reporter. It’s a simple fact that Sherman’s comments were unsportsmanlike and rude. But in the aftermath he was assumed by many to be unintelligent and vulgar, a thug. Five minutes of online research clearly demonstrates this is not the case. While at Stanford and excelling on the field, Sherman also earned a degree in communications, graduating with a 3.9 cumulative GPA. He has donated the time and money to start a foundation, Blanket Coverage, which is dedicated to providing school supplies to kids in need. He’s also a very eloquent speaker and writer. Very few boys who grow up in Compton reach the kinds of levels he has and we should admire and celebrate his hardest-won victories, which happened far from the field.

It’s far too simple to say that we revere Maddux and condemn Sherman because one is white and the other is black. Such stark choices are almost never made like that in today’s society, thank goodness. And of course it’s possible to condemn some of Sherman’s actions without being racist, I just did that (again, anyone who thinks those comments weren’t unsportsmanlike and a bad example is just wrong, I’d love to do away entirely with post-game sideline interviews, but they exist and we should expect our sports heroes to be more composed than he was), but we often allow for more nuance in discussing people who look like Maddux than in people who look like Sherman. Those who dominate their crafts have to be very weird in some ways, being as good as they are at anything is very weird by definition. It’s not ridiculous to say that a very similar kind of brilliant and beautiful, but dark and twisted genius lives in both of them. How else would they be so compelling?

New Media Update

Two stories I’ve read in the past few days give interesting indications of where new media may be headed. One of them, by Tom Schreier and published a few days ago on Deadspin.com, is a first-person account of a young writer’s struggles to get ahead at Bleacher Report, the crowd-written online sports site. The other is a Lizzie Widdicombe New Yorker piece from almost a year ago about the women’s website Bustle.com, whose founder was Bryan Goldberg, also a Bleacher Report founder. The site hires a lot of young women and churns out content, a quick look at their website demonstrates that you have to scroll down for quite a while to get to anything produced more than 24 hours ago.

The model of both sites is similar in that they both enlist young, green reporters to write about what they like. With Bleacher Report it’s their favorite sports teams and with Bustle it’s current world events, fashion, pop culture, and pretty much whatever interests the writers on a particular day. The idea is that people want to read writers who sound like them and lots of regular people will want to write about things that they care about. From a reader’s standpoint it’s a quick-and-easy way to stay in the loop and both sites have provided good opportunities for people to take their passions to the next level. From a business standpoint it’s easy to organize and execute because it’s low cost. And, with sophisticated techniques to up the page-views to increase ad revenue, profitable. However, close readings of each of these two pieces inspire concern. Take this quote from the New Yorker story:

A well-researched exposé, such as the one Sports Illustrated recently ran about N.C.A.A. violations by the Oklahoma State football team, may take many months of work from a highly paid reporter and editor. But, in the end, Morrissey said, “it yields the same revenue as a ‘25 Sexiest Female Athletes Who Can Kick Your Ass’ post, which costs, like, two hundred dollars.”

And this one from Deadspin:

In my three years at Bleacher Report, I covered the San Jose Sharks while studying in the Bay Area, and the Twins, Wild, Timberwolves, and Vikings upon returning home to Minnesota. I wrote over 500 articles, generated nearly three million page views, and received $200 for my services.

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The Kids Aren’t Alright

Another Drew Magary piece worth reading came out a few days ago. This one’s on the childrearing culture that seems to have become the norm among upper-middle (and above) class parents. Magary deems it “America’s Kid-Competition Complex.”

We are a nation awash in competition. Want to work at Amazon? There are thousands of applicants hoping for the same thing. Want to go to the Hollywood stages of American Idol? Well then you’ll have to get past the throng of wannabes crowding the audition lines at the Twin Pines Mall, shown on TV with a tasteful crane shot. Wanna get into Harvard? HAHAHAHA NO ONE ACTUALLY GETS INTO HARVARD THEY JUST SAY 5.9 PERCENT OF APPLICANTS GET IN TO GIVE YOU FALSE HOPE. Wanna be president? You better be strong enough to withstand a million mobilized opposition-party workers laboring day and night to let the country know your mom is a whore. There are reminders everywhere that you and your kids won’t amount to anything unless you can beat a nameless, faceless legion of competitors. There is always competition out there, waiting and hungry and formidable. The whole damn country is a single-elimination bracket.

The rest of the piece continues in the same vein. Like all of his non-fiction, it’s awash in capital letters, vulgarity, and spot-on dark humor. Magary describes his experiences growing up and as the parent of young kids. To my mind, he’s detailing and asking questions of something that desperately needs to be detailed and asked questions of. Kid-raising has become ChildRaising, Inc. in America and it seems like a lot of parents are treating their children as some kind of business investment. While this pay dividends for a lot of kids who thrive in these kinds of environments and grow up to live very successful lives, it hurts a lot of kids too. Not just through their childhood, but for the entirety of their lives. Being engineered to be part of a rat race from day one of your life can’t be the most comfortable way to live. Besides, even if something like this were a net positive for society, isn’t there something a little troubling about treating kids, or anybody, as a commodity? Regardless of whether this leads lots of people to live financially successful, globally impactful lives, is it the right thing to do? It seems to me that those metrics are pathetically lacking in their ability to keep up with what most of life is about.

For more on this subject, read this sobering response from a kid in a high school Magary mentioned in his article. Its titled “Next Week … Is My Seventh Funeral For Someone Younger Than Me.” That alone is enough to bring tears.

He’s Back

The biggest news of the weekend came out on Friday afternoon with LeBron James’s announcement in Sports Illustrated that he’ll be returning to Cleveland next season, forsaking the Heat and the team he won two championships with. Even post-Decision, I always had a rooting interest in LeBron’s success because of the impossible expectations forced upon him from high school. That didn’t stop many people from condemning him for that awful TV special, which frankly, he deserved. But with his new decision, and more importantly the manner in which he articulated it, he’s put the first decision behind him. It’s not that it will be forgotten or forgiven, but it’s part of a broader narrative now, rather than a giant stain on however many championships or individual accomplishments he manages to accrue.

But let’s please focus on the letter before anything else. It’s clear that these were LeBron’s true feelings and intentions, despite what I’m sure was extensive assistance from Lee Jenkins/his agent/consultants/et al. Exhibit A is these three sentences: “I went to Miami because of D-Wade and CB. We made sacrifices to keep UD. I loved becoming a big bro to Rio.” Read it out loud. It’s ridiculous right? It’s impossible for a sportswriter of Jenkins’s caliber to write that. It’s not that its content or style is that offensive to journalistic code, it’s that this sentence construction is anathema to anyone who goes through the ringer as a professional writer. They wouldn’t even conceive of writing something like that because they’d be sure the editor would laugh them out of the office. Their years of training and hard work would crush a style that radical out of them.

Now to substance. I found myself tremendously moved by LeBron’s words. Though Bill Simmons is a flawed writer, he usually gets the sentiment right, and this time was no exception. It was impressive that he was able to self-criticize much about the Decision without invalidating it completely or pandering. I remember watching his last few games with Cleveland and being stunned at the cast of players they put around him. Of course a great player chasing a championship would’ve seriously considered leaving and playing with two of the best in the league. It was his decision to make and we shouldn’t have looked down on him for the choice itself. But the manner in which he said it was outrageous. If our country falls apart anytime soon, historians somewhere will point to the party at American Airlines Arena and put it in the same category as Nero fiddling while Rome burned. But the Miami-as-college analogy (an experience LeBron never had) meant a lot to me as someone who left the place they had always known for school at a new one. Sometimes you have to leave so you can come back. It didn’t make up for what he’d done, but it made it into something we can more easily understand. Just like on the court, maybe his past failures will galvanize him to be even better.

I went into it expecting to be impressed, but not moved. I’ve followed the NBA and LeBron closely these past five years and I thought I knew all there was to know about him. I didn’t think anything he could say would surprise me at such a fundamental level. But it did. I love moments like this when something is able to overwhelm my default cynicism and defensive, analytical nature. It’s wonderful to feel something new – some idea or action or selection of words that can surprise and effect me in ways that are not immediately obvious. It really seems like LeBron is trying to be the best person he can be and not just the greatest basketball player of all time. He’s always been very conscious of his legacy, too conscious perhaps, but the fact that he’s trying to be the best he can be off the court is indicative of how much he cares about that part of how we remember him. Maybe the cliche of someone being “beyond basketball” isn’t so useless here after all. Call me a sap, but I find joy in that and I see no reason to deny myself that wonderful experience. Even if this was just one giant PR move orchestrated by LeBron years in advance, I don’t care right now. I don’t care because I don’t know that to be true and I’m not going to automatically assume the worst to be true without proof (contrary to my usual reactions to things). Either way he’s going back to a rough part of the country where his foundation has already made a difference and his presence and future years of work will mean so much more. We know he will make a real and positive difference in many lives. We know because people who live there are telling us this! And even if that weren’t the case we should believe in it anyway. What does it say about us if we can’t appreciate that?

Too infrequently we come into contact with stories that uplift us, and most of those are often so cheesy and manipulative that they make us quickly cynical about all such stories. It’s so easy and often more respectable to take the negative view on the events of the day (let’s face it, there are good reasons for that too). This may be a rare moment when we’re presented with a story that’s both real and powerful in good ways. We really have a choice (also rare) this time with how we take this. I’m going to seize it and enjoy with a lighter heart.

For more, read the incomparable Zach Lowe here and the carried away but enjoyable Andrew Sharp here. For a good narrative on Jenkins’s big scoop for SI, click here.