Peter Richmond

Bednarik Did Not Make The Hit. But He Invented The Taunt.

March 21st, 2015
by Peter Richmond

He was the archetypal poster-boy for a lunch-pail league that was finally escaping its status as a sport whose reputation lay one step above pro wrestling (as Charlie Conerly’s widow once told me about the early days). The old NFL has gone all fuzzy and rose-colored in retrospect, but it harbored more than its share of madmen, with styles of play that were routinely borderline felonious (see Bill Pellington, Baltimore Colts, 1958).

Now the old Eagle linebacker Chuck Bednarik is dead, at 89, and amid all the deserved paeans to his balls-out style of play, we will not read this: That the first true taunt in NFL history, the seed that’s led to the routine mocking and self-celebration that asterisks the modern game, was laid down by Chuck Bednarik.

On November 20, 1960, in Yankee Stadium, Frank Gifford caught a pass from George Shaw, whereupon Bednarik tackled him, throwing him to the frozen ground, whereupon Gifford’s head bounced very hard, and knocked him out. Gifford instantly lost consciousness.

The ball popped loose. Bednarik did not chase it. Instead he stood over Gifford and began counting, throwing his arm down again and again, like a referee dramatically counting out a fallen champion. If he’d done it today, of course, flags would have filled the sky. But back then, tacky celebration wasn’t outlawed…because as far as I can tell, no one had ever done it, until Chuck did.

History has chosen to ignore the The Taunt, dwelling instead on “The Hit:” the moment that defined “Concrete Charlie’s” illustrious career. This passage from a Sports Illustrated profile in 2007 exemplifies the way the play has been long celebrated: “Gifford tucked the ball under his arm and turned back in the right direction, all in the same motion—and then Bednarik hit him like a lifetime supply of bad news”…except that, uh, no, he didn’t.

Even a cursory look at the play on Youtube makes it clear: Bednarik actually moves his head away so as to not go head to head, then, corrals Gifford by the shoulders — on icy dirt, Frank was going moving just above a fast walk — and slams him to the ground by grabbing both of his shoulder pads.

But don’t trust your own eyes. Listen to Frank, from the “The Glory Game,” which I co-authored:

“It’s time to set the record straight on that play. It wasn’t the Eagle linebacker who hurt me. It was the hard, frozen Stadium dirt that did the damage.

“Shaw hit me on a slant, coming across the field on our own 30 yard-line. I was wide-open, and as I looking to cut upfield, I didn’t see Bednarik coming full-speed at me from the far side of the field. Bednarik, taking aim, actually turned his head away. There was no helmet-to-helmet collision. There was no clothesline; his arms weren’t even raised. Bednarik’s left shoulder pad hit my left shoulder pad as we ran in opposite directions. Period. Our helmets never even touched.

“But with no traction on the hard turf, I was immediately knocked right off my feet. Now I was in free-fall, backward, with no time to cushion myself, my helmet slammed to the hard ground – just as Bednarik threw his entire weight on top of me, his stomach landing on my head. That caused the concussion: hard turf and a huge body as it piled on.

“There was no reason for Bednarik to jump on me; I’d fumbled the ball away before I hit the ground. He could have chased the fumble. He chose to throw himself on top of me. So if history wants to think that I was somehow leveled by the hardest hit ever thrown, let it. But the truth is completely different.”

The takeaway? How to truly remember Concrete Charlie (he sold the stuff in the offseason) at the very time we’re bemoaning CTE and concussions and uncontrollable violence? Maybe we should praise Bednarik for trying to set an example on the play, and not trying to hurt Frank. Those days of civility would soon pass, as we soon learned to gauge the likes of Lawrence Taylor not by the number of tackles he made, but the number of QBs he’d disabled.

Yes, he epitomized the old lifeblood of the game, this son of Slavic emigrants who grew up in the shadow of the Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces where his parents worked. But let’s not forget that he also opened the Pandora’s Box of Self-Promotion.

So the next time you rail against a wide receiver mockingly wagging a finger in the face of the cornerback who blew the coverage, pause and thank one of the true pioneers. RIP, Concrete Charlie. You were only human, like everybody else.

Game for the Ages. Too Bad You Had to Miss It.

March 16th, 2015
by Peter Richmond

To make it clear from the start: This is not going to be a screed about the controversial call at the end of the best, most competitive basketball game I’ve seen since Bird dueled Dominique in the old Boston Garden in Game 7 of the 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals, because I happened to actually attend both schools, and I didn’t really have a dog in this hunt. If the out-of-bounds call with 33 seconds left goes the other way, maybe Yale wins. But maybe Harvard did play an overall better game, so whatever.

No: this is going to be a bitch about how one of the most hallowed, cool, historic athletic conferences in the land has officially been reduced to afterthought status — or, as someone named Carl said of The Ivy League, on the ESPN3 webcast, “The most historical (sic) league in the country.” (Other Carl-isms: “It’s a man world on the glass.” “They’ve come to play.”)

Then, what did I expect from a guy doing color commentary for a syndicated network I’d never heard of that sells live web streams to ESPN3? With all due respect to color-commentating Carl, that’s a pretty low bar.

And therein lies my bitch: an astounding, lead-changing, punch-counterpunch, breathtakingly tense basketball game between two colleges that have been rivals since 1701, with an NCAA tournament berth at stake, being played in the storied, sold-out 8,700-seat Palestra in Philadelphia (c. 1926; from the Greek “palaestra”), was not deemed by the WWL as broadcast-worthy. (That’d be World Wide Leader, as ESPN employees have been known to refer to their employer.

At the same time, over on actual television, the WWL featured a one-sided bore of a game between Arkansas and Georgia, played out in a half-empty cavern in Nashville called The Bridgestone Arena, named (for $80 million) by a Japanese company that had to pay the U.S. Justice Department $425 million last year for “price-fixing and bid-rigging.”

Forget the marketing illogic here, wherein ESPN decides to abandon a somewhat prized audience demographic (if the high-end advertisers in my alumni mag are any indication) in favor of people who are fans of Fayetteville’s Razorbacks. No: what’s truly dismaying is that the corporation that controls American sport deems style over substance, as in: athleticism over competition. As in: Neither of these schools stands a chance of making it very far in the March MoneyMadness brackets. They’re smart, so they must be stiffs. Anyway, they all run the country. Fuck ‘em.

No, Harvard’s Wesley Saunders and Yale’s Justin Sears (Ivy player of the year) will not play in the NBA. No, not a single player in this game unveiled an acrobatic 360, or took off from the foul line to soar into the stratosphere. Mostly what they did was pass, then pass, then pass, then pass again, kind of like the way Bradley, Debuscherre, Reed, Frazier and Monroe used to — or, more recently, Phil’s Bull teams.

But no, they are not caricatures of one-percent-ness. They’re kids, trying their brains out. When they win, their elation is really elated. When they lose, they are no less devastated.

Not that I was surprised that I had to watch the game on a MacBook. We’ve grown accustomed to the slight. And for the most part, we can live with it. It’s when people get snide about us that I want to cop a Howard Beale We’re not-gonna-take-it attitude.

Like two years ago, when CBS Sports’ web page headlined Harvard making the tournament, “Tiny Dancers.” Like Friday, when a Wall Street Journal writer advanced the game using terms like “geeks” and “uber-elite,” and referenced Yale’s secret societies.” And mentioned that Yale lost a player because he was touring with a college singing group (meaning, exactly, what? That he wasn’t man enough to commit to the court?)

For the record: In my four years at U-New Haven-Ivy League, I never met a student who was in a secret society. And if finishing 1492 in a class of about 1500 makes me uber-elite, I can live with it.

Here’s the bottom line: It’s hard enough trying to convince the world at large that going to an Ivy League school doesn’t mean you’re an alien, or someone whose life will be a guaranteed success without having to do any work. It’s downright weird to decide to tell other writers in a press box that you went to The University of New Haven (not to dis UNH) to avoid stereotyping.

If that sounds whiny then it’s whiny. Whatever.

But it’s harder still to come from schools whose sports heritages are historic(al), and whose games often feature an intensity you have to witness to believe — only to have the networks refuse to let anyone witness them.

Or even acknowledge them. The next day, these were the three top headlines on the ESPN web page:

“Comeback Kids give ISU Big 12 title”

“ND rallies for ACC title”

“Dos Anjos pummels Pettis, captures UFC title.”

Not a mention in the other seven headlines, either.

Carl was right: They came to play. For the ages. Too bad no one saw them. But why should I care? I’ve always had it made. Just don’t tell that to the bank that owns my house and the people who keep calling about those student loans I co-signed. For some reason, they won’t take silver spoons as collateral.

On why 47 white men committed treason

March 11th, 2015
by Peter Richmond

Isn’t it less depressing when you try and look for the possibly positive effects of negative events? So: Maybe this is what’s happening when 47 white guys commit treason, and lots more white guys ignore the Selma celebration and blaspheme the heritage of the nation of whose ideals they purport to be proud: between Fox being in free-fall, and gay marriage likely a given when our kids are our age, and Obamacare recruitment being even more successful the second time around, and the economy thrumming, the extreme Caucasians now know that they’ve entered into their endgame. Sensing that they will never again have power-traction, they are spasmodically, frantically acting the way any cornered beast does when mortally wounded: by resorting to the last resort available: extreme illogical action which, when taken, while causing a brief splash, always guarantees its own death. For in waging their last-ditch war on America, they are resorting to terrorism. And America doesn’t like terrorists, Mr. Boehner.

The Only Thing Wrong With Three New NFL Angelean Amigos: Why Stop There?

March 7th, 2015
by Peter Richmond

Traditionally, the greater metropolitan Los Angeles area has been to professional football what Uzbekhistan is to the PGA Tour. Back in the day, the Anaheim Rams and the L.A. Raiders would routinely draw, combined, what a single team was drawing anywhere back East — which is why three teams are seriously thinking of coming to town.

Kidding! They’re each considering an imminent migration because three owners with a collective net worth of $7 billion want more money. As the comedic Koch clan has recently made obvious: If there’s one truism about billionnaires, it’s that they’re desperate to be more billion-y.
So here’s a plea to all three very cool towns involved in this shell game:

Call their bluff. Let them all go. Fight the addiction to a sport whose stewards are more than willing to let the fan pay for J.J. Watt’s $100 million while routinely extorting their towns for stadia that lie dark about 350 days a year. Let them fight for an Angelean fan base that hasn’t existed since Roman Gabriel was handing off to Dick Bass in the then-relatively spiffy Coliseum under the watchful eye of George Allen.

St. Louis, San Diego, Oakland: You can be heroes! For more than one day!

Might it all happen? Well, this much is a good bet: The Rams will soon be coming back to their second home (they started in Cleveland) — maybe to a palace in Inglewood, maybe somewhere else. The Charger-Raider alliance in the Los Angeles suburbs? Somewhere between plausible and probable.

So, how cool would it be if three towns, each with their own urban ills, instead of frantically trying to save their squads, copped a Howard Beale “We’re not going to take it anymore!” stance and went cold turkey, middle-fingering Goodell’s megalomaniacal money-machine.

Here’s why it should happen, city by city:

In St. Louis, the Rams were short-timers from the moment Georgia Frontiere signed a twenty-year-lease on the most dour dome in sports history. The current owner, a guy named Kroenke, is married to a Walton — the family whose wealth equals that of forty-two percent of American families combined. (Pause to savor that fact for a second.) A move to Inglewood, where they’ll sell out for the first few novelty years, would make that forty-three percent, easy.

Here’s the good part: St. Louis won’t care. The capital of professional baseball, home to the Blues’ cult, has never been enamored of these Rams, not in the fashion of any true NFL town. Meantime, both the seminal American city and the county are in dire need of infrastructure improvement, education, and jobs. The $100 million that Kroenke wants the locals to pitch in for a stadium that ain’t gonna happen could go a long way toward boosting teacher salaries and getting Cardinal fans back to work.

San Diego? Yes, the city has loved its Chargers loyally, through the lean years and the fat years — a lot more than it loves it gangs.
What gangs? I haven’t heard about San Diego’s gangs. Of course you haven’t! As a former resident, I’m here to tell you: It’s a municipal statute: no news but good news is allowed to issue from the land that rain forgot. Not bloody likely (literally) that the West Coast Crips, the Asian Insane Boys, the Oriental Killer Boys and their peers are going to make it into Chamber of Commerce bleats. Not with (according to the L.A. Times) the San Diego gangs controlling most of the prostitution in Southern California.

According to the National University System’s Institute for Policy Research, the public cost of a new stadium to replace ancient Quallcom could top at about…$1.15 billion. A Charger move north to Carson would leave considerable coin on the table to deal with all sorts of issues in the mission town — starting, perhaps, with an ancient municipal water system whose street-busting geysers flood entire neighborhoods with disquieting frequency of late.

Here’s the beauty part of this move: true Charger fans will have less than a two-hour drive to see their guys. In Southern-California drive-time, that’s the equivalent of a 15-minute commute back East.

The sticky one, of course, is the Raiders. Oakland and its football team have the most storied of histories. It was once a truly magical vibe (see “Badasses,” Richmond Peter. HarperCollins, 2009). But note the past tense. As Al’s kid continues to show all the entrepreneurial expertise of a slug on qualuudes, the magic increasingly wears thin. The sorry truth: No matter what the future football fortunes in Oakland, they are never — never — going to come close to the vibe of the golden days. In the history of Oakland football, there were Snake, Freddie, Upshaw, Shell, Villipiano, Atkinson, Tatum, Plunkett, Hayes…and then a lot of, like, other players.

Wait: There was 1983 team, too. Which played in The Los Angeles Coliseum.

Public obligation for a proposed new stadium in Oakland? Proposed to have fewer than 60,000 seats — and thus unable to ever host a Super Bowl? Starts at $300 million. If Mark Davis takes the money and runs, those funds might help alleviate, well, for starters, the second highest-violent crime rate in the nation. (Not including the police.)

Gertrude Stein was so wrong about Oakland: there’s a lot of there there. The city’s long-suffering don’t deserve to be played for fools by the fool son of a giant who once had the guts to take on the Park Avenue Gang.

Now: would a teaming of two age-old rival be all that unholy? Not anymore, not in a corporation where the geographic lines of its franchises are routinely held in thrall to its bottom lines. Casper falling on the Holy Roller, breaking San Diego’s hearts? As relevant and timely to the modern game as the Holy Grail.

Here’s the only thing wrong with Three Amigos: Why stop there? Why not start making plans for Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and Tennessee to join the migration? They could be their own division: The SoCal Six. Because you just know there are always going to be enough brain-dead municipalities in Lemmingland to beg for the grand status that an NFL team bestows on a hometown.

And more than enough civic-minded billionaires to grant them their wish.

A Paragraph on Winter, Womens’ Basketball and War

March 3rd, 2015
by Peter Richmond

You can endanger my health. You can freeze my car’s brakes. You can laughingly wake me up interminable morning after interminable morning knowing that you have defeated me before I have arisen because the snow has overnight now risen above my car’s roof and the outside temperature is lower than the IQ of a slab of recently mined slate. But when, in March, your omnipotent power decides to toy with whether or not the Moravian College Lady Greyhounds’ first game in the ECAC tournament (on our court!) might be cancelled tomorrow night? This is War.

On Anthony Mason’s Eulogies, and What’s Missing: That She Was 15

March 1st, 2015
by Peter Richmond

When Anthony Mason played for the New York Knicks he was fun to watch. He was tough in the paint and very physical. His emotions sparked the team. Raised in Queens, his home-town status made him kind of a hero. When he died Friday, at 48, of a heart attack, local writers waxed eloquently.

A columnist for the Daily News quoted a former Knick executive as saying, “He was a nasty character on the court who was capable of being an extraordinary gentleman away from it.” The columnist finished his piece thusly: “There have been other New York basketball stories. His was still a great one. Kid from the corner and off the streetcorners of Queens. Mase: Dead at 48. That was some heart that finally gave out.”

The New York Post columnist wrote, “Even after he was finally exiled to Charlotte, and for the rest of his career, the Garden would always cheer him. He was, after all, not only of New York but from New York. He wasn’t perfect, there were off-court incidents, there were things he said later on he shouldn’t have said. Never seemed to matter.”

A New York Times’ columnist wrote, “Mason was behaviorally indulgent (he also had issues away from Garden, some with the law), so few could resist rendering occasional judgment. But time had its soothing effects.”

Yes, it did. Time has apparently soothed February 7, 1998, right out of written history. On that night, according to the arrest warrant, Mason was charged with the statutory rape and sexual abuse of a 15-year-old in a limousine after a charity basketball game in Queens. The girl had told their older sister of the incident.

After Mason surrendered to police, they questioned him for five hours, and then arrested him. The Assistant District attorney said at the time that Mason knew the girl’s age. He was released on $20,000 bond. Depositions claimed that he had kissed and fondled the 15-year-old in the limo.

Four months later, Mason pled to a misdemeanor charge of endangering the welfare of a minor; had he been convicted in court, he’d have faced prison time, due to a prior weapons charge. (An assault of a policeman in Times Square in a separate incident was also settled).

When a man dies, it is human nature to not dwell on his flaws. When a basketball player dies, it’s sportswriting’s nature to not mention them specifically at all. When they involve taking advantage of a teenaged girl, this is inexcusable.

Whether whatever happened in the limousine was consensual or not is not relevant. What is relevant is that Mason was a child molester, according to the law, which was enacted to protect young girls who don’t have the ability to reason.

This is the neuroscience: The rewards center of an adolescent’s brain — the part that wants things — develops earlier than the prefrontal cortex, which serves to tell the rewards center, “Hold on. There will be consequences to taking what you want.”

The 15-year-old girl’s brain was not working the way Mason’s was. She was vulnerable in every sense of the word.

In an age when sexual assaults, domestic abuse and other ugly sides to professional athletics are finally being scrutinized, the death of Anthony Mason prompted not a single writer to examine our relationship to our heroes, or to question why we continue to wax nostalgically about a man who too egregious advantage of a girl. That is not a journalistic misdemeanor. That is a felony.

I taught 15-year-old girls for three years, and now teach 17- and 18-year-old girls. The idea of a large, muscular, famous 31-year-old man ever laying a hand on any one of them is something I will not allow myself to conjure. But if I ever came across such a man who had taken sexual advantage of any of the girls I have ever taught, I would not be responsible for my actions.

And if I ever had to write about him after his death, I would mourn his passing by asking, “We’re waxing fondly and rapturously about a man who pled guilty to criminally fondling a girl. What does that say about us?”

I don’t think I’d want to hear the answer.

On A-Rod’s Eternal Adolescence

February 26th, 2015
by Peter Richmond

Alex Rodriguez’ return to the playing field is not working out the way he’d envisioned. Then, Rodriguez’ regular efforts to garner our affection never do. It’s a given: The more he really, really wants to be liked, the more he mucks it up. And the more his judges pile on.

His handwritten apology to Yankee fans, issued on the eve of his return to baseball after a year-long suspension? Universal reaction: Obviously Insincere! The 12,000-word profile written by a Pulitzer-Prize winner in ESPN The Magazine, after the writer spent 100 hours in the man’s company? Featured not a single quote from Rodriguez, because, as the author said, “He’s a proven liar, a repeated liar…there’s just no point in quoting him.” Then, the New York Times columnist — sick of the “lies” — who  suggested that the Yankees should sever ties with him; to do so, said the writer, the team “will have to show two qualities not usually mentioned in the same context as Rodriguez: bravery and honesty.”

All kids lie. Demanding bravery? What is he, William Wallace? Or just a wildly insecure kid playing a kid’s game, never actually coached in mind as well as body, and as brave and honest, in general, as any knuckleheaded, swaggering teenager? I’ve bought into that pop-psych theory for 15 years now, and I’m sticking to it, ever since the two of us sat for a few hours in the wardrobe/makeup trailer for a GQ cover shoot on Miami Beach. He’d be sharing the cover with Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra. We were talking about how the three of them — the Mexican Garciaparra, the Dominican Rodriguez and the biracial Jeter — symbolized a new kind of era, and one that had been too long in coming.

“It’s like the baton has been passed…Let’s see if we can take it,” Rodriguez said, just as there was knock on the door and the famous photographer’s assistant was summoning the Mariners’ star to the set. Rodriguez was about to step out of the door of the trailer when he stopped and glanced back at me with a look, as I described it in my story, of “little-kid panic.”

“I don’t mean to say there aren’t a lot of other great players out there,” he clarified. “That’s not what I meant, you know?” He was genuinely, almost frantically, worried that he’d come off as pompous, even though it was a pretty benign quote.

I wasn’t surprised he’d been anxious to clarify. We’d spent a good two hours together, enough time for me to sense that Alex Rodriguez really, really wanted us to like him. Wanted everyone to like him. A lot. At one point that day, he’d asked me, genuinely, whether I, as a New Yorker, thought he should come to the Mets as a free agent. (I thought: he’s asking me? Doesn’t he have legitimate friends and advisors?) “Of course!” I said.

“What about Derek?” he answered. At first, I didn’t understand. “It’d be the coolest cross-town rivalry,” I said. Rodriguez dropped the subject. But I knew what he’d been worried about: going to a city where someone else would always be more beloved…or, more specifically, where being constantly compared to Jeter would ensure that, popularity-wise, as well as character-wise, he’d come up short. Way short.

He went to Arlington, Texas, to a team with no prospects for winning, in a town otherwise devoid of a-list athletes (unless you count Cowboy quarterback Quincy Carter).

When he finally did come to New York, it’d be tempting to say he’d outgrown that adolescent-stud mindset, wherein it’s second nature to grab for whatever you want, be it the babe, the beer/drug, the bucks…

…Unless you recall the night in 2007 when, on a Yankee road trip to Toronto, he ushered a woman who wasn’t his wife to a strip club, and then his hotel. Trailed by paparazzi. Hello, New York Post front page: “STRAY-ROD.” Or the time he flipped out during a midtown Manhattan appeals hearing, slamming his briefcase shut (according to someone who knows what happened in that room), and stomping crosstown to immediately blast the league on the most listened-to radio show in New York…when he’s trying to get back into said league.

Stupid behavior? No stupider than any 16-year-old kid star athlete getting into a car driven by a friend who’s already drunk half of the six-pack on the front seat. It’s an actual neuroscientific fact: the adolescent brain’s “rewards center” develops ahead of the pre-frontal cortex, which accounts for how many teenagers do things without seeing the possible effects of their actions.

Why’d he stop growing emotionally? Maybe as soon as the coaches at the University of Miami started treating him like very valuable meat, and coaches kept handing him up to the next level of the carnival, no one bothered to pay attention to the little kid crying out for attention. And yes, okay, so his reasoning circuits should be wired by now. But old psychological habits die hard when no one tries to genuinely, sincerely remedy them, wherein the more things change, the more they stay the same, if something he said in his eight-minute press conference on Monday is indicative of his mindset: “No mistake that I made has any good answer, no justification. It’s unexplainable.” As in: if there’s no explanation, how can I really be blamed?

*
Time was, the pastime promised an annual psychic rebirth when they unlocked the gates in Florida and the writers gave us the early news. Who’s going to be the fifth starter? Who’s the unknown minor-leaguer who’s going to emerge and win a roster spot, to everyone’s delight?

So maybe it’s fitting that we open this year with columnists piling on the guy. The headline on the Times column? “Lying, Lying, Gone. Fans Should Hope So.” After all: the current national pastime seems to be shouting and fist-shaking between any two sides at any give time: Right/Left, O’Reilly/Maddow, Creationist/Evolutionarian.

Why shouldn’t dialogue about the sporting pastime be any different? Why shouldn’t the first stories from Florida pile on a fallen man? Because he doesn’t deserve such shallow, one-sided, knee-jerk condemnation. Because he isn’t a man. He’s a lost little kid.
He didn’t kill anyone, or rip off subprime mortgage holders. Just his own legacy. Consider this: If a high-school kid serially cheats on tests, as well as his girlfriend, and then says he doesn’t know why he does it, we don’t condemn him for betrayal, for not being brave, for letting us all down. We try and help him see the error of his ways. And then, when he gets it wrong again, we shake our heads and try again to help him grow up. We don’t act as if he’s a cowardly, dangerous, treasonous betrayer of all that’s right and good.

Hey: If you’re a true fan, look at it this way. If we back off a little, give him the benefit of the doubt (again), who knows? Maybe he gives us a good season of baseball. Talented teenagers are capable of doing it, and so is Alex Rodriguez. So let’s back off and let him try and hit some doubles, okay? And stop pretending that the men in uniforms are statesmen? They’re the joy givers. Sometimes they suffer because of it, too. And if we praise them when they delight us, we ought to try and understand when they fail to.

Don’t check your calendar.

February 13th, 2015
by Peter Richmond

Perhaps, if you recently walked into your kid’s bedroom and noticed that the Philadelphia Eagles’ calendar for Black History Month featured wide receiver Riley Cooper — two years after he shouted, “I will jump that fence and fight every n***** here!” at a Kenny Chesney concert — you wondered, “How in the hell did that happen?”

Or maybe, like Jesus, you just wept.

“We do not oversee the production of the annual team calendar,” the Eagles said in a stunningly unapologetic statement today. “We do not provide any input about the players who are featured or where those pictures appear in the calendar. The NFL licenses the production of that calendar to a third party and we do not have an opportunity to review the material.”

Let’s assume that this is true, although, given the NFL’s recent general pattern of duplicity from Goodell on down, I don’t know why we should. Still, let’s take the statement at face value, and examine it a little more closely:

For Riley Cooper to have been selected as a calendar guy without the Eagles’ knowledge, this would mean that the mothership of a corporation in public-relations freefall — an industry that, despite providing a product for which the public seems to have an insatiable hunger, has recently managed, through remarkable mismanagement, to squander good will at every opportunity — entrusted the selection of players on a team calendar to someone who either a) didn’t think that Cooper’s neanderthal nature would diminish the calendar’s marketability — or the league’s — or b) was somehow oblivious to the sensational stain that Cooper visited on his league less than two years ago.

Okay: So maybe they put the calendar-selection task in the hands of an intern from, say, Cooper’s alma mater, the University of Florida, the college whose longstanding university-wide racial vibe made it pretty easy to understand why Cooper would shout epithets in public. But even in that unlikely scenario, someone above our intern would have had to sign off, no? If not several folks?

Something nags, though: if the Eagle statement is true, we’re being asked to believe that a franchise in a minutely marketed company had no desire to know who the home office had deemed its poster boy. That everyone from Jeffrey Lurie on down told the folks on Park Avenue, “You go ahead and select the role models for our fans. We’re still too busy trying to erase all the stories still out there about Mark Sanchez and the 17-year-old girl.”
No matter what happened here, this much is certain: Somewhere in the offices of a tone-deaf league, some tone-deaf white men gave their approval to bestowing marketing-star status to a man who (presumably having had some beers, wherein In Vino Veritas) shouted a word that was clearly not buried too deeply in his shallow brain-pan.

Of course, further speculation is fruitless until the league finishes its in-depth investigation, which, given that in 2013 they rubber-stamped the Eagles’ decision to discipline Cooper by…fining him, is likely to happen right after they grant an expansion team to Akron.

Which means that while piped-in crowd noise in Atlanta and deflated footballs deserve acute examination, in the front office of a league that markets itself as a paragon of morality, whose games feature F-16 flyovers, field-sized American flags and sanctioned camo-dress for coaches, racism still raises nary an eyebrow.

Why Beers With Fidrych and Eckersley Symbolize Spring

February 9th, 2015
by Peter Richmond

That morning, I’d interviewed Dennis Eckersley at the Red Sox’ funky old spring-training compound in Winter Haven. We’d gotten along well for people who’d never met before. Then in his fifth year with Boston, after being traded from Cleveland partly because his first wife had been sleeping with one of his teammates, Eckersley seemed to a normal, funny, sardonic, friendly guy who also happened to throw a baseball for a living.

I’d arrived at the Orlando airport early for the flight back to Miami. With two hours to kill, I found a raw bar and a real bar combined, sat down, and saw Eckersley sitting and drinking a beer a few stools over. This was in 1984. In 1984, you could maybe run into a baseball player in an airport bar, and they wouldn’t freak, or ask their friends/entourage to shuffle you away; it was a time when the barriers between them and us hadn’t been completely erected yet.

Dennis emphatically gestured that I had to join him. I moved over. The bartender came over. I ordered my beer, and Dennis asked for another round for him and the guy next to him. “You know Mark, right?” he said to me. His friend Mark leaned over, and shook my hand, smiling big-time, his Roger Daltry-meets-Zeppo Marx blond curls rocking in rhythm to our handshake.

I’d never met Mark Fidrych; he was five years out of the game by then. But I never forgot that goofy smile, and the feeling he gave off that afternoon that he was not an athlete, just a nice guy in a tee-shirt and blue jeans maybe having beers in a local, darkened bar in the town back where he’d gone to high school, where he now drove a gravel truck, which is what Fidrych actually did in real life back home at the time.

Every year at this time, I think of those couple of beers with Bird and Eck. When spring gets close, and you can feel the game starting up because you’ve just read that the Red Sox’ equipment trucks are already heading South on 95, sometimes I wonder why I remember those beers more than, say, the long walk with Mattingly from an outlying practice field to the clubhouse in Lauderdale, or riding in a golf cart with Ozzie Guillen under an Arizona sun.

But the answer’s obvious: It was a cool couple of beers because I wasn’t interviewing Mark or Dennis. I was drinking with them, no notebooks or digital recorders in sight. I was drinking with two guys joined by a sport, and a home state (Massachusetts), and by the vagaries of life. Eck had a brother doing time for kidnapping and attempted murder; alcoholism, Eck had testified at the trial, ran in the family.

Fidrych was hauling gravel, and helping out at Chet’s Diner, his mother’s business up home in Northborough. He didn’t vibe as a guy who’d let the Rolling Stone cover go to his head, or the memories of the summer of ’76, when he unwittingly seized the game for his own, and entranced a nation. Not because he had the lowest ERA in the AL, as a rookie. Because he talked to the ball as he prepaid to throw it, and sometimes knelt to smooth out the dirt of the mound.

Now, in the Orlando airport, he was having beers with Eck because two years later, in 1982, two years after injuries had cut Fidrych’s career with the Tigers way too short, the Red Sox signed him, and while Bird didn’t make the cut that year, he did make friend in Eckersley. This was a no-brainer: Two guys who never thought of themselves as anyone but who they were in real life. The pitcher with the Fu Mancho and scruffy locks who looked like a rhythm guitarist for Little Feat, who had never bought into the star making machinery, and the former pitcher who now oversaw a farm and delivered gravel when the state highways needed to be patched up.

That’s why they were drinking beer and eating crabs legs in an airport: Fidrych had come down to visit his pal for a few days, see him pitch an exhibition game. Now Eck was seeing him off at the airport, because that’s what friends do.

When Fidrych died five years ago, at 54, it seemed insanely unfair. Not just for his family, but for a game that desperately needs nice guys who you can automatically like and root for. They’re way too few. At the time, I was tempted to contact Eckersley and tell him how sorry I was for the loss of his friend (we’d spent some more time together in the interim) But it wasn’t my place. My place was to have been lucky enough to drink a few beers with two guys who stand for everything cool that baseball players can still be.

And that’s why, every February, I start to think of the sights and sounds of baseball again: the sight that afternoon of Fidrych’s curls, the sound of Bird’s methodically cracking open crab legs as he laughed at whatever his friend was saying, because Eck has a pretty fine sense of humor.

This spring will bring some cool, stress-less baseball. But soon after, some player will do something dumb or nasty, and for some people the scandal will shadow the game and paint the athletes in a bad light. But not for me, because once I spent an afternoon with a couple of baseball players who loved their game. That day, they were happy and relaxed and humble without trying to be, and ever since, with the onset of every spring, in remembering, kind of like a dream, I get happy, too.

On how the glitterglitz never diminishes the glory of the game.

February 2nd, 2015
by Peter Richmond

Back in the time before time, in the days of innocence — say, before the Time Magazine cover story on January 5, 1977, announced that The Super Bowl was now a Certified Entertainment Phenomenon — we watched the game for the love of the contest and its graceful, brutal beauty, and then we went back to whatever we were doing, because other things mattered as much as football games did. Football games didn’t really mean much at all.

The men in the uniforms were remarkable athletes, yes — but that’s all we asked of them for a few decades, after the ’58 championship game planted the NFL in our sports consciousness: to play good games. For the next two decades, professional football players more or less earned a paycheck commensurate with what they contributed to society; the average offensive lineman’s salary in 1976 — about $35,000 — would be $145,000 today. The athletes put in a day’s work for a day’s pay.

Off the field, they were pretty average citizens, too. Even in the bourbon-soaked, badassed Madden glory days in Oakland (mid-Seventies), not a single Raider was ever arrested. Yes, fullback Marv Hubbard ritualistically punched out the dry-cleaner’s window next to Big Al’s Cactus Room in downtown Oakland after big wins — but he’d always leave the money to pay for it. Yes, Stabler and Biletnikoff would finish a fifth of Wild Turkey at 4 a.m., but they’d do it in their hotel room. (A few hours later, Snake would then pass for 358 yards and Fred would catch two touchdowns. Innocence, really.)

Then, for whatever reason (but maybe having something to do with turning our back on Carter’s altruism and allowing Reagan to spawn a Greed-is-Good subtext to our daily pursuits) a football tipping point occurred, and now, as we realized that spectacle was something owed us, we Americans wanted not to only see a game; we wanted to be entertained, at whatever cost. We wanted to get beyond our relationship with a second-class pastime and ramp up the glitter to an A-list level. We wanted a show.

And so, instead of the Los Angeles Unified All-City Marching Band giving us Sousa in 1976, in 1983, Michael Jackson was the halftime gig, whereafter the entertainment industry, with a cool new venue, would never look back on marching bands. The Super Bowl production would never again flirt with innocence (see, Jackson, Janet). The coin toss would morph into a ceremony involving about 138 people, including extended families. Television reporters and commentators with all of the insight of so many Homer Simpsons came to clot the sidelines.

The commercials paying the bills? At the start, the commercials were just commercials until, in 1980, Coke put a can of its syrup into Mean Joe Green’s hand, courtesy of a cute little kid in a stadium tunnel, and the Super Bowl Mini Film-Festival was born, wherein a cottage industry of media critics get to judge the theatrical value of mini-movies selling diabetes and obesity with a clown-smile, drunkenness with an innocent-lewd wink..

So that now, as with each annual neon-ed, all-day, all-night carnival, with the game bracketed on all sides by white noise and green-greed, last night the stage was set for us to decry the excess of the day, and how it diminished the game, and pine for the simpler times…until, as always, with the opening kickoff, the game rendered all of the rest of the shallow-show instantly irrelevant. From then on in, pyrotechnics be damned, pro football took over.

Three-and-half-hours later, the army of glommers who’d spent the previous year desperately trying to figure out a way to seize the game for their own profit had long receded, giving way to the crazy glow of that insane last few minutes: the duel between two cerebral, maniacal coaches, and between two extraordinary, and likeable quarterbacks, and between an unknown wide receiver and an unknown cornerback — all of whom conspired to give us, not epic entertainment, but epic sport…which must be why we keep coming back, to the games. Because if there’s one arena of human achievement that continues to defy the entertainment-industry’s machinery’s best efforts to render it soulless, it’s our games.

I don’t know about you, but at the end of the night, I wasn’t wondering whether Perry was on pitch, or whether Nationwide had messed up or nailed it. I was saying to myself, “Damn. What a great football game. What a great ending. When’s the next game?”

And when it gets here, it’ll get here in whatever fashion it has to. History is history. Now is now. So next year, I won’t care if Halliburton and Blackwater buy commercial time to air a musical-comedy commercial about covert weaponry, or Bieber and Tony Bennett do a medley of Nine Inch Nails, or the flyover isn’t just six F-16s; it’s a tactical bomber squadron of B-52 Stratofortresses dropping fake nukes onto the field.
I’ll be back. Because at the end of these nights, it’s only a game. And I can’t get enough of it.