Saturday, September 13, 2014

Boycott the NFL

It has been two weeks since I wrote my mea culpa about being a football fan.   I detailed all of my qualms with the National Football League, but essentially said that I would watch its games anyway because I am a lifelong “addict.”   Well, that attitude won’t cut it anymore.  People of conscience are, in my view, obliged to boycott the National Football League, no matter how much we love it.   I’m not calling for a lifelong boycott, but at least a temporary one.  We have that league on the defensive, and it is imperative that we send a message: if the owners don’t clean up their act, they will feel the consequences in the only place they care about, the wallet.

Mind you – I’m enough of a football fanatic to be willing to make an exception for Seahawks and Broncos fans.  Their teams are so stacked with talent, that it would be a cruel and unusual punishment to deny their fans the pleasure of watching them put a whoopin’ on the other teams.  But those are the only exceptions.

Since I wrote my mea culpa, a video was publicly released showing the Ravens’ top running back connecting with a knockout punch against a very thin woman, and then dragging her out of the elevator like a rag doll.  Then, we all learned that this video had been released to the league office’s months ago, but as we all know, the running back received only a two-game suspension.   (We call that a vacation in my line of work.)

The NFL is a violent sport.   When the players leave the field, they clearly have a lot of pent up aggression in them and suffer from physical wounds of their own.   It is hardly surprising that they’d take out their aggression on other people (women and children, included) and resort to such pain killers as mass quantities of alcohol.  The result is a ton of domestic violence and DUI citations.    
In my last post on the subject, I spoke a lot about the dangers that the game brings to those who play it.  But in this post, I’m concentrating on the game’s dangers to innocent third-parties.  Either way, something has got to change.  Football is inherently violent, and we’re stuck with that.  Yet the NFL can at least take a zero-tolerance policy regarding reckless conduct perpetrated against third parties.  And since it has demonstrated no interest in doing so without outside pressure, what do you say we boycott the sport for a while and make the owners feel some heat?

Don’t go to games.   Don’t buy their merchandise.  Don’t watch the NFL channel.  Don’t watch the games on TV.  Don’t watch the pre-games or post-game coverage if it is exclusively NFL related.  Don’t support anything that is a major revenue producer for the league.  If you want to stay up on the action (as I do), read about it over the internet or watch recaps of the games on stations that aren’t paying megabucks to the NFL.  Make the owners feel that they have no choice but to put an end to the off-the-field reckless conduct associated with their players. 

The events of yesterday demonstrate the value of protesting against NFL player-induced violence.  The NFL’s best running back was indicted for the crime of negligent or reckless injury to a child.  Adrian Peterson, the best player on my beloved Minnesota Vikings, admitted to beating one of his children with a switch (that’s a flexible tree branch).  Peterson allegedly gave his son ten cuts on his thighs, bruises on his lower back, tush and scrotum, and cuts on his hand.  Some of these were said to be open wounds.  According to one of Peterson’s alleged text messages to the boy’s mother, “He got about five more pops than normal.  He didn’t drop one tear!  So that was another indicator I’ll have to try a system with him.”   Apparently, this was one tough four year old.  Yes, that wasn’t a typo.  Peterson beat up his four year old child.

This time last year, there is no question whatsoever that Adrian Peterson would be running the ball for the Vikings in their game against the Patriots.  But thanks to all the protests, the Vikings have deactivated Peterson for the game.   Gradually, and I do mean gradually (because other teams aren't being nearly as responsive as the Vikings), the league is beginning to listen to its protesters.

What do you say we keep the heat on for a while longer?  Please join me in this boycott and take a stand for public safety.    

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Reflections on Living in an Atomized Society

This week, I have seen multiple examples where progressive leaders were being toasted for their career accomplishments.   And in each case, the same topic was highlighted: the work they did for LGBT rights.  I wasn’t surprised that that was the area where they were most successful.  An argument can be made that here in the United States, the extension of equal rights to the LGBT community is the singular achievement of this generation, just as the extension of rights to women and minorities was the singular achievement of the previous generation.    I’m not suggesting that complete equality has been achieved in those domains, but we’ve come a long way from the days when women were expected to avoid the workforce, African-Americans were forced to use different bathrooms, and gays could not publicly proclaim their undying love.  It’s no wonder that people so often quote Martin Luther King, Jr. for the proposition that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”    In some respects, that is clearly the case.  My concern, though, is that those respects are limited.

The ways in which we are growing morally tend to be confined to the domain of individuals’ rights.  Yes, we want to extend opportunities to more and more groups of individuals.  We hate to see anyone denied an opportunity to enjoy herself or use her talents simply on the basis of race, color, creed or sexual preference.   But that largely stems from the fact that we are increasingly seeing ourselves as isolated individuals.  We define ourselves less by our gender, race or creed, and more by our unique interests and aptitudes.  Consequently, we are inclined to fight for our own rights and interests and to empathize with other individuals who are waging similar battles.  

When, in the ’60s, Paul Simon wrote “I am a rock, I am an island,” he seemed to be ahead of his time.  Today, each of us is an island, and we don’t want anyone messing with our island.  So it stands to reason that we might not want other peoples’ islands being messed with either.  Our compassion extends that far.  

My question is, does it extend farther?   To the extent there are large groups of people living in poverty, do we care to make the societal changes necessary to eradicate their poverty?   To the extent our planet’s environment is being destroyed by global warming and other forms of climate change, do we care to make the sacrifices needed to reverse those trends?   To the extent our society’s infrastructure is falling apart and fixing it will become increasingly expensive the longer we wait, do we care to make these fixes now while we can still afford them?   To the extent our world is at war, and the soldiers are carrying around increasingly devastating weapons, do we care to fight for peace?   Or in each of these cases, have we simply decided that there isn’t much an isolated, atomized individual can do to solve any of those problems, so we might as well just tend to our own gardens?

When I was a kid, Paul Simon wasn’t our only songwriter.  We also had folks like Mick Jagger who sang: “Think the time is right for a palace revolution.  But where I live the game to play is compromise solution.  Well, then what can a poor boy do?    Except to sing for a rock 'n' roll band.  'Cause in sleepy London town.  There's no place for a street fighting man.”  Jagger was right.  In the major industrialized nations (like his and mine), the time for palace revolutions is over.   But at least back then, you had peaceful protests that mattered because folks flocked to the streets in droves, and there is power in numbers.  Those protestors, for example, literally changed the course of the war in Vietnam.

These days, some people still protest, but they are fringe players, whose protests are generally met with disrespect and fear.  Most of us feel every bit as powerless as Jagger did when it comes to making revolutionary progress, so we don’t bother to fight for social change.   We eat like pigs, escape through TV shows and ballgames, and sit alone in front of our computers.   Even when we’re in public, we spend much of our time looking down at a smart phone or an iPad.   This is life in the 21st century – live and let live.  And what we are “letting live” is poverty, climate change, rusting water and sewer systems, and seemingly-endless wars.  

Generations back, our ancestors also had wars and poverty … and they had rampant bigotry too.  But they also felt tied to their communities.  And those communities gave them a source of belonging and hope, not to mention a mission in life.   Was life better than it is now?   Perhaps not.   Technology has made us live longer and healthier lives – at least physically.  Spiritually, though, I’m not sure that we’re any healthier now than before.  And morally?   We’re different, but I’m not sure we’re better.

King was certainly right that the arc of the moral universe is long.   The jury is still out as to whether it bends toward justice.  Speaking for myself, though, I don't want to sit back and wait for the jury to return.   I want to help do my part in making King a prophet.   What do say we all make that commitment?   Let's be the ones who do the bending.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Confessions of an Enabler

Rick Reilly, of, wrote a column recently that spoke for countless Americans, myself included.   We will watch NFL football.   Yet we no longer feel good about doing so.  It’s almost like being a drug addict.   You’re not watching a beautiful game; you’re simply scratching an itch.   

Football has been my favorite spectator sport throughout my life.  Moreover, when I was a kid and it was time to play a pickup game, football would have been my sport of choice.  During Jewish school, when I was supposed to be learning the Hebrew language or the Jewish faith, I was instead day-dreaming about an upcoming NFL game.  If my team lost in an especially painful manner, I would go into my room and cry.   Even as an adult, I once walked into my closet, threw my butt on the ground, and sat there for 30 minutes.  During a trip to the upper Midwest, when my team was losing at halftime, I walked to the center of town without a winter coat on and made a phone call in the frigid cold – just to beat myself up over my team’s poor performance.   (Well, OK, that was my college team, but any NFL addict needs a little passion for college football, and I have more than a little.)

Only a few years ago, I spent a couple of days at an NFL training camp in a town that might as well be called Middle-of-Nowhere, Minnesota.  I had a great time watching the players stand around, run drills, and sign autographs.    If they had been looking at a wall watching paint dry, I might have enjoyed that too.  For each of the past 16 seasons, I have owned the NFL Sunday Ticket, which entitled me to watch any regular season football game no matter who was playing.  Based on any definition, I have been a loyal fan to “the shield” (i.e. the NFL insignia).  

This year, for the first time, I am starting a season without the NFL Sunday Ticket.  I am no longer paying a plug nickel to the league.  Will I watch games on TV?  Sure.  But not nearly as many of them.  I can no longer name all the players on any NFL roster.  Nor do I care to.  

The way I feel, I haven’t left the league.  The league has left me.   It left me when it refused to go public about the full consequences of repeated concussions.  It left me when it refused to impose stiff penalties for players who repeatedly endanger other players’ lives with dirty hits.   It left me when it decided to impose significant punishments for minor transgressions, but minor punishments for domestic violence.  It left me when it condoned bullying in NFL locker rooms.  It left me when it fined players for wearing low socks or orange shoes, but  has refused to take a stand against team names that are racist.  (See, e.g., my local team, where the billionaire white-skinned owner employs primarily brown-skinned men to fight for the “Redskins”.)   

I realize that there is only so much that the NFL can do to clean up its sport.  The game is inherently dangerous, and it will always involve more violence than, say, golf.   But this being the 21st century, the league has an obligation to at least do its best to stay within the bounds of sanity.  Ray Rice is filmed dragging a woman out of an elevator after knocking her unconscious, and he gets a two-game suspension.   Brandon Meriweather is filmed spearing another player – his sixth offense for a dangerous hit – and he gets a two-game suspension.   Meanwhile, multiple players have been suspended for entire seasons for smoking pot.   

The NFL talks about getting tough on concussions.  But right now, Wes Welker, who has been concussed three times in the past 10 months, is preparing to go for four.   And Darrius Hayward-Bey, whose career has included five concussions, is heading back to the field as the well.   Is the NFL standing in their way?  Heck no.  It’s not like they are preparing to violate the league’s uniform policies by wearing the wrong socks – then the league would step in.  

In 2012 and 2013, NFL players suffered a total of roughly 500 concussions.    We now have reason to believe that a number of the men who suffered these blows will ultimately undergo terrible physical and psychological anguish as a result, and some may even take their own lives.   Does the league care?    Ask the next guy who Brandon Meriweather spears when he finishes serving his two-game suspension.  

Periodically, fans hear rumblings that the league wants to increase the season from 16 games to 18 games.  That’s two more head-banging balls a year.   Just what the gladiators need, right?  The fans aren’t clamoring for more games.  The fans like it when the players can stay healthy for as many seasons as possible before the players finally “give in to father time” and prepare themselves for a life of such symptoms as:  “headache, confusion, memory loss, loss of consciousness, vision change, hearing change, mood change, fatigue, [and] malaise.”  Those symptoms are taken from the NFL Player Concussion Pamphlet.  And they only reference the head injuries.  As we all know, many a player has so mangled his knees or his feet that he has had to retire before he could destroy his brain.  Some can never again walk without a limp, but at least they’re not suffering from “chronic traumatic encephalopathy” like the players who have had their “bells rung” a few times too many. 
In 2012, when the NFL players suffered over 250 concussions, Roger Goodell, the league Commissioner, “earned” over $44 million.  A tiny fraction of that money came from my NFL Sunday Ticket revenues.   Well, my fellow addicts, I can’t claim to have clean hands here.  I’ll surely watch some games, and because of folks like me, the league will command higher advertising dollars.   But at least I won’t be tossing them the big bucks any more.  I don’t plan on going to any games.  And I don’t plan on buying any more merchandise.   If the league wants more of my support, it had better change its priorities.  And its Commissioner.

I wonder who feels worse – Goodell, for accepting $44 million per year for running his league into the ground, or the player who wakes up every morning with his ears ringing, eyes blurry, and head aching.   I think I’d rather be the guy with the injured brain but the clear conscience. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

On Leave

Strangely enough, I am actually leaving the friendly confines of the Washington, D.C. area this weekend and will not have time to post.   The Empathic Rationalist will return again on Labor Day weekend.

Enjoy the rest of the summer.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Two Americas

Bethesda, Maryland is, apparently, a long way from Ferguson, Missouri.  We don’t have military style police departments.  We don’t have gaping racial divides.   We don’t have any visible signs of poverty.   And sadly, we don’t have a clue about what’s going on throughout much of our country.
Bethesda is not a gated community.  Depending on whether you include North Bethesda (where I live) or just the southern part of the town, it has anywhere from 60,000-100,000 people -- far too many to wall off from the rest of the society.   Yet even though there’s no physical barrier setting Bethesda apart, there’s no doubting its exceptional status.  For one thing, over 83 percent of its adult residents have at least one college degree.   The median household income exceeds $140,000 (it would surely be more if you didn’t count retirees) and the median value of a detached house is over $900,000.  Bethesda is the home of the famous Congressional Country Club, a frequent stop on the PGA tour, not to mention the National Institutes of Health.   It’s a place where highly educated and highly affluent people sleep, eat at fancy restaurants, play golf, and talk about noblesse oblige.   If you don’t know what that means, you obviously don’t live here.

The scenes from Ferguson, Missouri are surely viewed as appalling to residents of Bethesda.  We’re used to seeing pictures of police states, but not from our own country.  The idea that local police departments in America commonly possess assault weapons wouldn’t surprise the locals; we recognize that not every American town is as squeaky clean as ours.  But what wasn’t widely known before this week was that local cops have been wielding grenade launchers, body armor, armored vehicles, and night vision lenses.  You just don’t need that stuff when you’re patrolling Old Georgetown Road and Democracy Boulevard.

I have been too busy lately obsessing about Israel and Palestine to devote enough attention to Ferguson.   And let’s face it – like the 96% of Bethesdians over 25 who are not unemployed, I’ve been too busy at work to give the news the full attention it deserves.  But I’m guessing that this episode in Ferguson has caught a fair amount of attention in my hometown, and I attribute that primarily to the fact that it is reminiscent of a Hollywood flick.  Yes, no matter how rich and educated you are, you’re still captivated by the sight of mean, not-too-lean, and all-too-anonymous cops,  protesters who are “mad as hell and [are] not going to take this anymore,” a martyred  teenager, and all sorts of racial overtones.  You can go online right now, pluck down a mere 16 bucks, and see a movie with those elements at the Regal Bethesda Theater.

I don’t mean to disrespect the entertainment value of the Ferguson story, but folks, popcorn and a Coke won’t do this story justice.   Yes, this raises issues about the militarization of American police forces.   Yes, this raises issues about racism in what many Fox News watchers call a “post-race” America.   But what it really raises most for me is the fact that America is no longer a nation defined by its middle-class.   It’s a land of “haves” and “have-nots.”   

The “haves” not only enjoy more wealth but hold disproportionate power over the political system.   Members of their social class dominate both houses of the U.S. Congress and the various state houses.   How do you think most of them got elected in the first place – money!  Then, once they come to power, they can enact regressive tax laws, like the one ensuring that regular income is taxed at a higher rate than capital gains.   Moreover, if you are affluent, you tend to live in a secure environment.   When you see a policeman, it’s likely because someone’s cat got caught in a tree.   Life is good in towns like Bethesda.  That’s why folks are so shocked when they are reminded of towns like Ferguson.

In present-day America, the rich get richer and the poor get incarcerated.   That’s especially the case when you are poor, black and male.   According to the NAACP, current trends suggest that one in three black males born today can expect to serve a prison sentence.   That number goes up even higher if you exclude relatively affluent families.  An article in Vox reports that when you compare prison sentences for similar crimes, black men serve for 20 times longer than white men.   I have no idea if those figures are accurate, but I don't doubt that there is a big, big problem here.  The upshot of all this is that we’re dealing with entire communities that have no political power, are being disrupted by lengthy prison stints, and are understandably alienated from the country that has been so good to people like me.

According to the great American myth, with a little “luck and pluck” any American can rise from rags to riches.  But I’ve read some of those Horatio Alger stories.   They don’t say anything about growing up in a place where your male role models have already been hauled off to prison, your schools are underfunded and dilapidated, and the authority figures put a target on your head simply because of your skin color and gender.  When I was growing up in – where else? – Bethesda, I could be pretty mischievous.  So were most of my friends.   As I put myself in the situation of someone who grows up in present-day Ferguson, Watts or Hunts Point, I somehow don’t picture ending up in Stanford or Harvard Law School.   

In the last couple of decades, only one Presidential candidate made much of a mention about the social-economic divide that is destroying this country.  He turned out to be a huckster.   When John “two Americas” Edwards built for himself a 28,000 square foot house, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.   Edwards became the perfect symbol of American hypocrisy.   We are a nation run by really rich people who act like they don’t care about the poor, and really rich people who act like they do.  And I do mean “act.”  As for those who truly are poor, they never get to see Pennsylvania Avenue or Capitol Hill from the inside; instead, they get to see places like Lompoc, Beaumont, and Leavenworth. 

Something must change, folks.  It’s time to have a national conversation about poverty, race, and gender.  And this time, the “gender” I have in mind is my own.   We need to take a very close look at the way poor black males live in this country.   Are we giving them the chances that the Declaration of Independence says are guaranteed to all “men”?   That beautiful document was written by a hero of mine who, unfortunately, was truly blind when it comes to skin color.  Nearly 2 ½ centuries have elapsed since he talked about the “unalienable rights … to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but it should be obvious to anyone that we’re still nearly as color "blind" now as we were then.  

America is on notice of the problem – much as we’re on notice of so many other societal and environmental scourges.  The question is, will we address it, or will this crisis fade from our collective consciousness once the protests in Ferguson have stopped?   I have my guess.   Hopefully, I’m wrong.