Sep 30, 2014

Too Big To Fail?

Americans are comfortable with a little bit of corruption.  It almost is like we have grown to accept that it is just going to happen and we just need to deal with it.  We have lived through so many different scandals that we have developed a very cynical nature.  There have been so many movies based on government conspiracies that I would wager most Americans believe that there is always some level of conspiracy going on.  It's just how it is.

There are two instances where Americans will no longer deal silently with corruption.  The first is when it starts to affect our life - especially our wallet.  As long as it is someone else's problem, it isn't a problem.  But when it becomes my problem, then we have a problem.  We had an animal living in the pond behind our house.  Well, we have a lot of animals living out there: turtles, fish, ducks, Canadian geese.  But we had this weird animal out there.  I would see it swimming along from time to time.  It looked like a beaver.  I would see it slithering through and diving under the lily pads.  I found out from some of my outdoorsy friends that it was a nutria - basically a giant river rat.  I liked watching it.  Well, one of my neighbors didn't think it was such a cute animal.  Apparently its activities were infringing on my neighbor's happiness.  The rat would come up into the lady's yard and eat her plants.  It would gnaw on the wooden wall constructed to keep water out of the yard.  And the leftovers from its snacks was clogging up our spillway, causing flooding in that yard.  To me, it wasn't an issue.  My yard has a very steep incline, so flooding is not a problem.  I have a fence around my yard, so the rat wasn't going to come up on my property.  But this lady starting making a stink.  She had a few other homeowners on her side due to garden and flooding damage.  She brought it before the HOA Board (which we both are on) and wanted us to pay to have the eradication done.  On top of it all, she was all weird about the animal being killed - which we all knew would be the outcome.  It was going to cost $800 to clear the pond.  I asked how much it cost for a box of bullets.  She didn't appreciate that suggestion.  Now it became my problem.  I didn't want the HOA to spend hundreds of dollars to pull this animal out.  It wasn't bothering me, personally.  I didn't even realize it was a problem at all.   (Things have a funny way of working themselves out.  The rat got run over by a car a couple of weeks later ... before we paid to clear the pond.  I had nothing to do with it.  Promise.)

This is kind of how we approach corruption in the US.  It isn't my problem.  It isn't hurting me.  Don't rock the boat.  But if it encroaches on my comfort, all heck breaks loose.  Look at the investment banking scandal of a few years ago.  Or the Enron/big business scandal.  Or the subprime mortgage collapse.  Or the automaker fiasco.  Those issues had been bubbling for years.  Was anyone surprised that financial advisors were cheating?  I doubt that.  What year did Wall Street come out?  We had been through all of this before, just with different financial elements.  Instead of junk bonds it was Ponzi schemes.  Was the subprime mortgage problem a shock?  How could it be?  How long could banks hand out mortgages to people who couldn't afford to pay for them before the process collapsed?  We know in the back of our minds that things are not always above board with companies, governments, industries, celebrities.  But we turn a blind eye and convince ourselves things may be different this time.  Until it interferes with our life.

The other instance were corruption gets us riled up is when it become blatant.  This is kind of a corollary of the first instance.  Instead of it interfering with our wallets or our lives, it interferes with our comfort.  It makes us feel embarrassed and awkward.   How could we have let this go on?  It makes us look bad.  We frequently see this with celebrities.  We cut actors, musicians, "reality" stars a lot of slack in our country.  It is like we know that they are going to make questionable choices and we are fine with that, as long as it is kept quiet.  If they want to smoke weed, that's fine.  Just don't do it in a park.  If they want to do lines of coke in the bathroom at the Chateau Marmont, that's fine.  Just don't film it and post it on Twitter.  If they want to run a dog fighting ring, so be it.  Just don't advertise the fights.  When those private foibles become public scandals, we throw our hands up in mock indignation.  "How could they do this?!?"  What we are really asking is "how could they be so blatant in their stupidity?"

If you don't think this is accurate, I want you to think back a few years to the Michael Vick dog-fighting scandal.  Vick was going along as a maddeningly erratic and fragile quarterback when we all started to hear about his involvement in a dog-fighting ring.  There were the usual denials, followed by proof of the existence of the ring.  Vick got arrested, tried, and imprisoned for his role in the whole thing.  During the whole process, we heard about how this is a cultural issue.  In the culture that Vick grew up, dog fighting was an acceptable practice.  Vick didn't know that it was a problem.  But it went public and we all went crazy.  Now, think about this.  In the years since Vick's dog fighting ring went public, how many dog fighting rings have you heard about being broken up by the cops?  With the amount of public outrage over Vick's crimes, you would think dog fighting is completely detestable in our country.  And in the dialogue, we kept hearing about how this was cultural - meaning that there are more of these rings going on right now.  Thinking back to how people wanted Vick banned for life from the NFL and imprisoned for a hundred years, shouldn't we have formed some kind of task force to uncover and shut down these dog fighting rings?  We know they are out there, right?  Why aren't there federal agents played by a young Kevin Costner busting into warehouses and backyards across the country, leading dozens of people into paddy wagons?  It isn't happening because it isn't blatantly in our face any more.  It slinked back into the shadows and we left it alone.  As long as Amanda Bynes isn't hurling phones and bongs out of hotel windows, Charlie Sheen isn't showing up drunk for interviews, Justin Bieber isn't racing his silver rocket car through rush hour traffic, these people can be crazy all they want.  Just don't embarrass us with your crazy.  Don't get your crazy on me.  As long as your favorite NCAA team keeps its player payments, arrests, and false test scores quiet, it is fine.  But if it becomes blatant, the team gets blistered.

All of this has come to mind as I observe the NFL.  The National Football League is a mammoth industry that generates gobs of money.  Its influence is not just felt in cities with teams, although those cities certainly do benefit a great deal.  Its presence on television brings huge ratings and advertising dollars to those channels.  Hundreds of companies are intertwined with the NFL: restaurants (McDonald's), soda companies (Pepsi), shoe companies (Nike), computer companies (Lenovo, Microsoft), pizza companies (Papa John's).  It goes on and on.  The NFL took in $1.07 billion from sponsorships last year.  The last television contract was for $8 billion.  That included CBS paying $275 million for the rights to simulcast Thursday night NFL games along with the NFL Network.  They don't have any exclusive rights.  Think about this - CBS is the number one network on television.  On Thursday night they already had the number one comedy show on television.  But they were willing to juggle their entire schedule for the right to run games that were already being shown on another network.  The NFL is enormous.

The spillover effect of the NFL leaves its mark on college and high school athletics.  As technological, medical, and pharmaceutical breakthroughs find success in the NFL, they work their way down the chain.  The same goes for game planning.  And for coaching techniques.  And for desired athlete qualities.  Yes, some things work their way back up the chain like the Nike and Under Armor uniforms from Oregon and Maryland or the wildcat formation.  But for every one innovation that swims upstream, a hundred flow back down.  As the offensive linemen in the NFL got larger and faster, that desirability moved down through the ranks.  As quarterbacks needed to become more mobile, that quality was harvested from below.  In addition to qualities trickling down, so did behavior.  The NFL players make a lot of high risk, high reward plays.  Defensive backs would launch themselves at wide receivers.  Kick coverage teams fly around with reckless abandon.  Running backs put their heads down and bull forward.  Soon college and then high school players began to play the same way.

Through all of this, doctors were concerned about the overall health of younger football players.  Only 6 percent of high school senior players will play in college.  Only 1.7 percent of college seniors will get drafted by the NFL.  That means 0.08% of high school players will ever make it to the NFL.  Out of every 1,000 high school players, not even one will make it to the NFL.  But that allure keeps players striving and aiming to be that one in a thousand.  So, even though there are numerous health risks, players keep going.  Offensive lineman pack on weight to reach the right size, even though they don't do it the right way and are really just massively obese.  Young teens start weight training before doctors would advise that practice.  These students tear up their knees, ankles, backs and doom themselves to a lifetime of pain.  They sow the seeds of drug addictions by using painkillers at a disturbing rate - in addition to other pills like amphetamines and steroids.

Then there is the risk of concussions.  Actually, it shouldn't even be called a risk anymore.  It has basically crossed the line to an occupational hazard.  The numbers are horrifying.  I've talked about concussions before on this blog and there is a ton of research out there telling the truth about concussion dangers.  Players get into dozens of collisions every game that are equivalent to a car crash.  Some players estimate that they get into two to three plays per game that ring their bells and possibly give them a minor concussion.  More and more players are talking about how they already have memory loss.  Bret Favre, who has only been out of the game for a couple years, said he routinely forgets where he is or why he went there.  Former players are committing suicide at an alarming rate.  There are massive health repercussions from ALS to depression to Alzheimer's.

Now we are facing the specter of domestic violence as well.  Ray Rice punches his fiancee out in an elevator and gets suspended for two games.  The NFL reconsidered its punishment after the country lost its collective mind once the video footage hit the airwaves.  Rice's lawyer has complained this is the NFL equivalent of double jeopardy, being tried for the same crime twice.  They actually have some valid arguments there.  There is just too much evidence that the Baltimore Ravens and the NFL knew the extent of Rice's actions and covered it up.  So because they got busted and went into damage control mode, Rice got his contract terminated and his ability to play in the NFL revoked.  Adrian Peterson, one of the biggest stars in the league, beat his four year old son so savagely that he had a dozen open lacerations on his body.  I won't say he disciplined his son because this goes far beyond discipline.  I have kids and understand the concept of punishment.  I also have seen discipline that crossed the line when I was a child.  Peterson was not just punishing his son; he was taking out his anger and frustration on him.  He obviously was not in control in that moment.  And it makes me wonder how many other times that had happened.

At the same moment all of this was happening, several other players were being charged with domestic violence crimes.  The owner of the Dallas Cowboys was being investigated for sexual impropriety - which was largely brushed off because the statute of limitations had expired.  As I watched the reactions of America, it was like it couldn't decide what to do.  This level of corruption and horrific behavior usually would have triggered our offense mechanisms.  But something stopped that.  It was like the fact that it was football and we all love football halted us from going further.  We got angry about Ray Rice and he was punished.  But it stopped there.  Some people were angry about Peterson, but others defended him because it fell under "corporal punishment" and no one wants to step on that issue.  He was deactivated for one game while the investigation started.  But the Vikings actually reinstated him for the next week before a bunch of people lost their minds and the team reconsidered.  In the midst of all of this, the commissioner understandably came under fire for his gross ineptitude.  He scrambled and danced in his press conference and managed to deflect the anger.

To be completely honest, I am fed up with all of it.  I am angry.  I have loved football as long as I have known about sports.  I have great memories watching football: Sunday afternoons with my dad, Super Bowl parties, UCF games, Jaguar games.  But I have reached a breaking point.  This year, I have watched very little football.  I have opportunities.  Last night I was sitting on the couch watching TV and flipping over to the game never entered my mind.  I shuttered my fantasy football league this year that I had run for over a decade.  This isn't just a busy dad finding other things to do.  This year should be the year I want to see the NFL the most.  My favorite team (the Jaguars) drafted a UCF player (Blake Bortles) who is now their starting quarterback.  I know his mom.  She taught both of my sons in preschool.  I remember him as a middle schooler.  I should be glued to the tv during the season.  But I just can't.

I'm not the only one that feels this way.  My favorite sportswriter is Bill Simmons.  I have read his stuff since he first got signed by ESPN.  I love his writing style and his passion for sports.  But I also love the fact that he is a fan first.  He is irate over all of this.  He has been attacking commissioner Goodell for his role in these scandals.  Finally Simmons snapped on a podcast and went off on the commissioner.  He called him a liar - something that the media almost universally has agreed upon.  The end result?  ESPN suspended Simmons for three full weeks without pay.  What!?!  A media member has been questioning the NFL for weeks and finally says what many fans are thinking.  And he gets suspended?  For three weeks!!!  To recap, Ray Rice was originally suspended for two weeks for punching his fiancee so hard she fell backwards and got knocked unconscious.  Then he dragged her out of the elevator like a sack of flour.  Two weeks.  Stephen A Smith, another ESPN personality who is a complete idiot, got suspended for one week for basically saying not to judge Ray Rice too quickly and that the fiancee "may have had it coming."  One week.  Adrian Peterson was originally suspended for one week for savagely beating his four year old.  The other domestic cases originally had no suspensions.  Mike Tirico, another ESPN turd, has been accused of several instances sexual impropriety with no suspensions.  Jerry Jones, owner of the Cowboys, was accused of sexual impropriety with no suspension.  Bill Simmons, tired of all of this bull, went off and was suspended for three weeks.  Why?  Because ESPN is the biggest partner of the NFL and pays $1.7 billion a year to show Monday Night Football.  The NFL told ESPN to get Simmons under control.  You don't believe that happened?  There is precedent.  Years ago, ESPN ran an original series entitled Playmakers that was supposedly based on the NFL.  There was drug use, rape, racism, homophobia.  The NFL threatened to pull out of their relationship with ESPN if the show wasn't cancelled.  Boom.  The show is gone.

I don't get it.  The NFL makes a giant deal about women's issues in October for breast cancer awareness month.  It is the only time players can wear non-uniform elements, as long as they are pink.  But there are players beating up their girlfriends, fiancees, and wives and the NFL does nothing.  And we, as viewers, seem shocked.  Why?  These guys are hopped up on so many supplements and chemicals.  They are in a culture where rage and lack of control is encouraged on the playing field.  How long did we think it would take before that spilled over into their homes?  Didn't professional wrestling teach us anything?  Look at the number of former wrestlers who have died early, committed suicide, attacked their significant others.  One of the saddest stories was Chris Benoit.  He was considered a good guy.  Then he killed his wife, his son, and himself.  Why?  Depression, concussion damage, steroid damage.  "Well that's an extreme case!"  Really?

December 2012.  Kansas City, Missouri.  Twenty-two year old Kansas City Chief player, Javon Belcher, drives to the Chief's facilities.  He shoots himself in front of the head coach and general manager.  It turns out he had murdered his girlfriend earlier.  His body was exhumed last year and last week we found out that his brain showed evidence of CTE - the damage caused by concussions that causes people to lose their memories and control of themselves.  He was 22.  Look at the erratic behavior exhibited by NFL players.  Donte Stallworth is speeding and strikes and kills a man in Miami.  Ray Lewis (doesn't) stab a man to death in a parking lot.  Plaxico Burress shoots himself in the leg.  Josh Gordon keeps failing drug tests.  Jonathan Martin and Richie Icognito have the most unhealthy and bizarre friendship ever, complete with accusations of bullying and racism.  Jadaveon Clowney gets busted for driving over 100 mph down Interstate 77 twice in a week.  There is a laundry list of this stuff.  How long until this boils over?  How long until the corruption is actually bad enough to make us do something?  It is already blatant.  It is already out of control.  But I guess it hasn't affected us personally enough yet.

In 1991 there was a movie that came out called The Last Boy Scout.  It starred Damon Wayans, Bruce Willis, and Halle Berry.  It wasn't a very good movie.  It took place in the world of professional football with Wayans as a pro player and Willis as a detective or something.  There were tons of scenes that hinted at the excesses in the NFL: drugs, sex, money, ignoring injuries.  But one scene has always stuck with me.  It was one of the opening scenes.  A player was taking back a kickoff and pulled out a gun and started shooting the would-be tacklers until he scored and then shot himself.  It came out that this player was in deep with gambling debts and he felt he had to score to keep his family safe.  I thought that was ridiculous.  What player would shoot other players on the field like that?  Less than 25 years later, would you honestly be that shocked if something like that actually happened?  Chances are, it would be stunning.  But not shocking.  That should show you there is a problem.  If a sport actually has fostered an environment where a murder on the field would not be spin-your-head crazy, that sport is out of control.  My question is if that possible tragedy would even be enough to take down the NFL.

Sep 12, 2014

Thirteen Things I Love About My Son

Today, my oldest offspring exits childhood and enters adolescence.  That’s right: I am the father of a teenager.  To be perfectly honest, this terrifies me.  It is like the opening scene of a horror movie.  At least I would assume it is like the opening scene of a horror movie, not ever watching horror movies or ever having a teenager before.  I just know that the teen years are often characterized by people as very combative.  There is a lot of arguing, repeating yourself, wondering where your child’s brain went, arguing, teaching, praying, worrying, arguing, and arguing.  I’m not looking forward to that.  We have always said that Josiah has a lot of similar characteristics to me.  And I was a relatively easy teenager to deal with (compared to the stereotypical nightmare).  So maybe we will be fortunate.  Maybe all of that dread will end up being for naught.  

Either way, to mark the exit of my dear Josiah from child to teenager, here are the thirteen things I absolutely love about my son. 

1. He is unbelievably artistic.
Josiah has always had artistic ability.  Those people who have known him for a long time have marveled at his talents since he was a little guy.  And these have certainly never diminished.  He is an incredible artist.  There are certain styles he likes (Wimpy Kid, Lego, Mincecraft) and he can turn anything into those styles.  It is quite cool to see.  But he also can come up with his own stuff.  I wrote a children’s book and I needed it illustrated.  On a whim, sitting in carline one day, I asked him if he could draw me his version of the character.  Two minutes later, he shows me a picture and asks, “How’s that?”  It was perfect.  It was better than I had imagined it, but exactly how I had imagined it.  So he’s illustrating my book.  I am constantly amazed at his art skills.

2. More than just artistic, he is unbelievably creative.
There is a difference between artistic and creative.  One of the things I have always loved about Josiah is how he can create entire story lines and worlds out of nothing.  He got a stuffed dog for his birthday years and years ago.  Over the years, that dog has expanded to a whole group of stuffed dogs.  Natalie and Gabe also have a large collection of dogs.  Josiah came up with “Puppy World” for these dogs.  It changes and grows.  I will sit downstairs and listen to them playing the latest iteration of it and smile, impressed at how intricate everything is.  Josiah does origami, writes, sculpts, draws, and creates games.  I told him years ago that he has the creativity and brain power to create something on the level of Star Wars or Harry Potter.  I think he could end up like George Lucas, JK Rowling, or James Cameron - crafting a massive universe out of just his own creative mind.

3. His sense of humor
For a long time, I bemoaned that my son had no sense of humor.  I am generally considered a humorous guy.  So it vexed me a great deal that Josiah didn’t get my jokes.  And when he did joke, it wasn’t funny and was often inappropriate (not dirty, just not appropriate for the situation or conversation).  But, as he has gotten older, he has become extremely witty and funny.  Example - I recently purchased a waterproof bluetooth speaker for in the shower because, you know, dancing on a wet surface is a great plan.  I told the kids that it also could do phone calls.  Josiah chirped in, “And it can Face Time.  ‘Hey, AHH! Why am I talking to you in the shower?’”  

4. How he plays with Gabe
There is six years between Gabe and Josiah.  That is a pretty big gap.  My brother and I were five years apart, so I know that there can be difficulties between brothers with that kind of difference.  But Josiah and Gabe play together a LOT.  It may not always be smooth sailing, but it is really neat to see how they play together.  Minecraft, Angry Birds, MarioKart, Puppy World.  There are some days where they play all day together.  Of course, there are some days where they fight seemingly non-stop.  But we’ll focus on the good stuff for today.

5. His sweet heart
Josiah undeniably has a very sweet heart.  He deeply loves the people in his world.  Actually, that love also extends to animals, too.  We have been boarding a dog for on of Heather’s cousins.  The dog had been with us for four months.  He got picked up last weekend by his family so he could be closer to them down in Florida.  Josiah cried for two hours after Jaskee left.  He has that level of affection for things.  I remember when we would go and visit my mom or Heather’s parents.  When we left, Josiah would be despondent.  He missed them so badly.  He knows that Natalie has a hard time sleeping, so he will let her sleep in the top bunk of his room whenever she needs to.  I love the fact that he loves so deeply.  It will make him a great husband and father.

6. He puts up with me
Years ago, my kids came up with the word “funnoying” to describe me.  I was fun and annoying.  Josiah knows this better than most.  I mess with him a lot.  It isn’t a mean thing.  I think it is my way to connect with him and keep a level of closeness without the overt affection that a teenaged boy isn’t fond of from his dad.  Josiah puts up with me and, being honest, I think likes knowing that I care enough about him to be silly with him.  We actually have a very good time together in our silliness.

7. He is (mostly) patient with my ignorance
Josiah is our first child.  So that means he was our first toddler, our first kindergartener, our first teenager… I don’t know what to do in each of these seasons of life.  I try my best, but I am still learning on the job.  I make mistakes.  Josiah seems to understand that, which is awesome.  When I mess up, I apologize and we talk about it.  He knows that I am doing my best.  I know that he is doing his best.  That doesn’t make everything easy, but it means we still love each other through it all.  

8. He’s my movie buddy
Every dad needs a movie buddy.  Josiah is more than happy to go with me.  We have very similar movie tastes, so we look forward to the same films.  Marvel, Hobbit, Pixar.  My brother was my dad’s movie buddy.  I remember how much I wanted to be able to go with them.  It was the coolest thing when I was old enough to finally go and see Hunt for Red October and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  As a dad, I couldn’t wait until he was old enough to go with me.  

9. He is a great kid
There are times I wonder where Josiah’s brain went.  I mean, he is a teenager.  But the fact is that Josiah is a GREAT kid.  The stuff that we wrestle with is so minor compare to so many kids.  He wants to do the right things.  He doesn’t rebel or openly defy us (most of the time).  He stays out of trouble at school.  He doesn’t like it when the kids at school are acting up.  That is a priceless quality to have.  

10. His compassion
Going beyond his sweet heart, Josiah also has great compassion for others.  If he knows someone is hurting, it hurts him.  He empathizes so deeply with them, it makes it hard for him to stay calm.  There have been times where Natalie or Gabe have gotten hurt and Josiah has completely broken down.  Sure, in the moment it makes it much harder to deal with two people in distress than just one.  But I certainly would not want him to lose that compassion.  On those instances where I have hurt myself or have had my RA flare up, he wants to make sure that I get taken care of too.  This will pay off buckets when I am old and need a kid to feed me.  :)

11. His candy hoard
Josiah doesn’t eat his candy.  He hoards it.  Easter, Christmas, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, End of the Year.  When we moved from Orlando and packed up the boys’ room, there were buckets and bags of candy stashed different places.  What is so great about that?  Well, if I am having a hankering for Skittles, I know right where to go.  And, since he doesn’t have any clue how much candy he has, he never knows I just pilfered his stash.  Now that I think about it, that’s a pretty selfish reason.  I’ll try again.

11. His saving nature
Josiah doesn’t like to burn through things.  He hangs onto stuff, like candy or money.  He has saved up money on two different occasions to purchase something he wanted, putting off his immediate desires to get something better later on.  First, he saved up a bunch of money to buy the Lego Death Star.  But he instead used it to help buy our dog, Katie.  Then he saved up enough money again to but the Lego Death Star.  $400.  He gave up birthday and Christmas presents to get enough money saved.  Most kids that age won’t be that willing to save.  This could bode well for his financial future.

12. He is his own person
Josiah doesn’t try to be someone else.  He has his own personality and is content to be himself.  There are times as a parent I am trying to show him how he should change something - comb his hair, wear nicer outfits when going places.  But he is perfectly content to be himself.  He doesn’t like sports.  He knows I like sports.  He wants to be with me, but he just doesn’t like sports.  He likes t-shirts and shorts and tennis shoes.  He doesn’t like my music and doesn’t feel like he has to.  He is comfortable in his own skin.  How valuable of a quality is that?

13. He brings me joy and always has

I’ve told this story before, so I won’t elaborate.  One of the darkest days in US history was September 11, 2001.  The world seemingly fell apart before our eyes.  It was in that swirl of fear and uncertainty that Josiah was born.  As terrified as we all felt, I had this beautiful baby boy that had become part of my life.  It softened the pain and brought joy when there should have been none.  There have been many times where I have found joy in my kids when things were tough.  There are moments now when I am exhausted from work and weary in my body where I will sit on the couch and just watch the boys playing or look at some of Josiah’s artwork and smile.  It is like an external battery charge.  I love that I get to spend time alone with Josiah every afternoon as we wait in the carline for the elementary school to let out.  I love talking to him.  I have no doubt that God has big plans for him.  He is going to have a big impact on the people around him.  I can’t wait to see the man he becomes.  I am honored to be his dad.  Happy birthday, Josiah.