Saturday, July 25, 2015

Snakes in the NFL

From the moment I heard about the death of Ken “the Snake” Stabler on July 8th of this year, I felt compelled to blog about the injustice that has been done to his name.   My assumption was that this blogpost would focus on Stabler and Stabler alone.   After all, he was one of my all-time sports heroes -- one of the most dynamic personalities, effective quarterbacks, and clutch athletes I have ever seen -- and yet he died without ever making his sport’s Hall of Fame.   Stabler was the best quarterback in the history of the Oakland Raiders, one of football’s most storied franchises and a team I have cheered on for nearly five decades.  On the mantelpiece of my family room, I have placed a framed picture of Stabler and his sidekick, Fred Biletnikoff.   I even worked a reference to him into my second novel, “Moses the Heretic,” which centered around Judaism and the Israel-Palestine Conflict, not football.

Ever since Stabler’s death from colon cancer, I planned on writing a blogpost that would marshal all of Stabler’s credentials so as to convince objective readers that the man belonged in the Hall of Fame.   I was going to point out that Stabler was one of only three quarterbacks who were named to the NFL’s 1970s All-Decade Team.  (He and another QB tied for second place on that team.)  And yet even though the other two guys named to the team made the Hall, as did two other QBs whose careers similarly peaked in the 70s, Stabler was the odd man out.   I was going to point out that the Snake led his team to its first Super Bowl Championship, was the first QB to reach 100 wins without more than 50 defeats, and won a whopping 72 percent of his games during his decade with the Raiders, including 19 come-from-behind fourth quarter victories and 26 game-winning drives. 

In this blogpost that I intended to write exclusively about Stabler, I was going to talk about how he was known for his phenomenal accuracy, leading some people to call him a dart thrower.   The Snake was so accurate, in fact, that in 1976 – two years after he was named the Quarterback of the Year in the NFL – Stabler became the only quarterback to throw at least 250 passes and complete more than 65 percent of his throws, a record that would not be eclipsed until the 80s, after the NFL had changed its rules dramatically to make it harder for defenses to stop the forward pass. 

How great was Stabler in his prime?   Last year, the passer ratings in the NFL averaged 25 points higher than in 1976, but Stabler’s passer rating in 1976 was within ten points of the top rating in 2014.  In short, he was dominant, and consequently, he was feared and even hated by opponents.   But most importantly, he was adored by anyone who enjoyed the Raiders and their rebellious, maverick style.   With the exception of the team’s owner, Al Davis, nobody personified that image more than the Snake.

Indeed, it is Stabler’s image that was going to be the prime focus of my intended blogpost.  You see, the point of the post would be to argue that the Snake deserved to be in the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Stats.   Stabler was the ultimate Bad Ass, the ultimate party-animal-turned-sports-hero.  He is often linked to Broadway Joe Namath, who the Snake immediately followed as the starting quarterback for the University of Alabama, yet as ESPN’s Mike Greenberg put it, if Namath was “Hollywood Cool,” Stabler was “Pool Hall Cool.”  Kenny was known for his hard drinking, gambling and womanizing.   He looked like a Hell’s Angel when he took his helmet off, and even with it on you could see his unkempt dirty blonde hair flowing from the back.   

The motto of Stabler’s Raiders was “Just Win Baby” – meaning that they didn’t care if you never watched game film (which he didn’t), or went out carousing the night before the games (which he did); as long as you could bring the wins on Sunday afternoons, you were a Raider.   Stabler always seemed to find a creative way to do just that.   A number of his victories have been memorialized in NFL lore to the point where they have recognizable names.   There’s the “Sea of Hands” game, in which Stabler threw what looked like a prayer into a sea of Miami Dolphins, but the ball miraculously settled right into the hands of his running back, Clarence Davis, to end the Dolphins’ playoff victory streak.   There's the "Holy Roller” game, in which Stabler knew that the only way to win was to roll the ball toward the other team’s end zone, essentially faking a fumble; the gambit resulted in a victory for his team and a permanent change in the league’s rules.   There’s the “Ghost to the Post” game, where the Snake immortalized his now Hall-of-Fame tight-end, Dave “The Ghost” Casper, by throwing a high arcing 42-yard pass that seemingly stayed in the air forever until it was finally grabbed by Casper, ultimately leading to yet another of Stabler’s many playoff victories.   Finally, it was Stabler’s late-game heroics that forced the Steelers to come up with a miracle of their own – the play that became known as the “Immaculate Reception.”  I can’t imagine any other quarterback who has become associated with so many immortalized games – let alone a quarterback who never made the Hall of Fame.

I’m sure the NFL’s brain trust has its reasons for not letting Stabler into the Hall.  His last few years in the league were duds, a product of a decade of hard hits and a bad-boy lifestyle.   Stabler also was implicated in various off-the-field incidents, including one in which he allegedly had a role in causing a journalist to be inappropriately busted for cocaine.   In the end, Stabler died after three failed marriages and three DUI citations.   He was not a choir boy, to say the least.   But he WAS a Hall of Fame caliber football player.   And for the past two weeks, I have felt compelled to say that.   

So why don’t I just leave it at that?   Because it isn’t enough to talk about Stabler’s life.  I am reminded also of his death – and specifically, the request he made about what to do with his body after he expired.   “He wanted to make a difference in the lives of others in both life and death,” posted the Stabler family on Facebook.   “At his request, his brain and spinal cord were donated to Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center (CTE) to support research for degenerative brain disease in athletes.”

Like many of his fans, I am proud of Stabler for making that choice.  And this weekend, only a fortnight after his death, the importance of this choice has been highlighted by yet another development involving the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

This time, the development involves a player who was inducted to the Hall.  His name is Junior Seau, and he was undeniably one of the finest linebackers ever to play the game.  A San Diego native, Seau was drafted in 1990 by his hometown Chargers and went on to be named a starting linebacker in the NFL’s 1990’s All-Decade Team.  Coupled with being named to ten All Pro teams and twelve Pro-Bowl teams during his dozen years in San Diego, Seau was always considered a “no brainer” Hall of Famer.  Not surprisingly, he was elected to the Hall in his first year of eligibility.  Indeed, after the selections were announced, I recall articles saying that Seau was “headlining” this year’s class, which will be officially enshrined in just another couple of weeks.

Unfortunately, the NFL has turned what should be a celebration of Seau’s career into a mockery of his life.  You see, according to the National Institute of Health, Seau suffered from CTE, the brain disease that inspired Stabler to donate his body to science and that has sucked the spirit out of so many football players after their retirement from the game.  Three years ago, having lived hopelessly with that dreaded condition, Seau fired a gun into his own chest and died at the ripe old age of 43. 
As a player, Seau was a classic.  Playing arguably the NFL’s most vicious position, he was a heat-seeking missile, throwing his body at top speeds into the body of other world-class athletes, creating one head-on collision after another for the better part of two decades.  After his career was finished, Seau’s life was just as classic.  He played a game that takes a tremendous toll on many body parts, but none more than the brain.  Accordingly, once his playing days were finished, so was his brain.  The result was, if not inevitable, clearly foreseeable.

When he was alive, Junior Seau said that if he were ever to be inducted to the Hall, he would want his daughter, Sydney, to give the induction speech.  Thus, when his induction was announced, Sydney began preparing her speech to honor her father.  But just this week, the NFL announced that neither Sydney nor anyone else would be invited to speak on Junior’s behalf.   You see, a few years back, the league determined that induction speeches would only be allowed for inductees who are still alive.  The league would produce a video for all the inductees, but for the dead ones, that video would have to suffice.  Reportedly, in Seau’s case, the official video will avoid the whole CTE topic.   That means that it will celebrate Seau’s playing days and nothing more.   There will be no discussion of how football contributed to his brain damage and ultimate suicide, and no discussion of how his family has sued the league to ensure that what happened to their loved one won’t happen to other players.

Imagine being in charge of the NFL and denying to Sydney Seau the right to say a few words on behalf of her father.   Imagine being in charge of the NFL and making a tribute to this man’s life that omits the cause of his death.   The only analogy I can think of is if the army claimed to celebrate a fallen warrior as one of the all-time greatest soldiers, but refused to let his family say a few words on his behalf and refused to talk about what led to his death.  It would mock his military service and disgrace the army for which he gave his life. 

In the big scheme of things, whether Ken Stabler makes the Hall of Fame posthumously is not a big deal.  As Stabler reminded us during his last days on earth, there are far more important things in football than who makes the Hall of Fame, and none is more important than confronting the scourge of CTE. 

On August 8th, several Hall of Fame inductees will take the podium, introduced by a family member or a friend.  Each of them will be given an opportunity that has never been extended to the family of Ken Stabler and never will be extended to the family of Junior Seau.  My hope is that, in the style of the “maverick” Ken (the Snake) Stabler, one of these speakers will take more than a few moments away from their tribute to a living inductee and instead honor the greatest player of the class of 2015, Junior Seau.  Let this person remind us that for every man whose life has been graced by memories of gridiron glory, there’s another man whose football career led to the progressive deterioration of their brain.  Some, like Seau, have turned to suicide.  Others have turned to homicide.  Still others simply suffer in silence and depression.

For the league to brush this problem under the rug is worthy of the tobacco industry at its worst.   In fact, it’s almost worse in this context, for football is a sport that requires supreme courage to play at a high level.   When you think of a Junior Seau, it is precisely that courage that comes to mind first and foremost.  Yet there is nothing more cowardly than to run an industry that causes horrible brain damage in its workforce and then silences the critics.  Even the tobacco barons have to be impressed at the chutzpah.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Deal Everyone is Talking About

It probably stands to reason that I woke up this morning to a cramp in my left calf muscle and a couple of hours later started feeling stiffness in my lower back.  After all, it’s been a wretched rainy morning here in my nation’s capital.  A couple of days ago my country was rocked by yet another murderous episode of religious extremism.  And two days before that, our world’s leaders decided to hand their Iranian counterparts $140 billion of additional disposable income, which in only a few years they can spend on whatever Chinese- and Russian-built conventional weapons their hearts desire.  

It pains me to offer that assessment of the Iran deal because I don’t want to be compared with all the right-wing talking heads and politicians who are essentially comparing Obama to Neville Chamberlain.  I don’t see our President that way at all.  Obama isn’t sugar coating the situation.  He’s not saying that the Iranian Government can be trusted.  He’s not assuring us that the Middle East will be at peace.  He’s merely asking us, when we evaluate the agreement that he struck this week, to consider the constraints America has been under as the talks have progressed.   

Our fundamental goal, Obama argued, is to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons.   America’s leverage – economic sanctions – has rapidly diminished as our allies have lost their resolve to maintain those sanctions.   This deal presented an opportunity to push Iran’s nuclear program back for another 15-20 years, so we seized it.    Is it an ideal agreement?  Does it give us everything we hoped for?  Not even close.  But who can point to a better alternative?   By not inking the deal, we would leave ourselves only one option: the military scenario.   Not only does the American public oppose striking Iran’s nuclear facilities, and not only would such strikes likely increase all sorts of violent reprisals within the Middle East, but it is difficult to believe that those strikes would have any positive impact at all.  The military option would be like playing a game of Whack a Mole.   No sooner would we whack one facility than others would pop up.  We’d be talking about striking a country of 80 million people that controls a land mass nearly as large as Alaska.  This isn’t a country you’d attack unless you’re willing to make huge sacrifices.   And personally, if we really are willing to make sacrifices of that magnitude, I’d rather they involve reducing carbon emissions than fighting yet another war.

I realize that the next step for our lawmakers is to decide whether to support or oppose the deal.  But to me, that’s not the issue at all.   I consider this agreement to have been inked already.  Once it was announced on Tuesday, the other parties to the deal will consider it as if it has been put to bed.    Even if we Americans refuse to agree to Iran’s terms, that will only give us the opportunity to sever our own economic ties with Iran – not to require other countries to do the same.  Lindsay Graham has said that if he were elected President, he would stop American companies from trading with certain Western European countries unless they refrain from trading with Iran.   Does he really see himself as that strong a leader – strong enough to take on our corporations’ interests in Europe for the sake of America’s allies in the Middle East?    I think that Graham has about as big a chance to pull off his threat as Tiger Woods has of winning the PGA Tournament next month.  Actually, they both have two chances – slim and none.  

Personally, I’m assuming that the Iran deal will go through, and at this point, I won’t be one to argue with those in Congress who vote to approve it.  But that doesn’t mean I’ll be jumping for joy.  And it certainly doesn’t mean I will be joining Secretary Kerry and the Iranian delegation in smiling about it – like in their photo-op on Tuesday.    You see, truth be told, I believe that this deal didn’t prevent Iran from joining the nuclear club but only delayed the inevitable for another 15-20 years.    And I wasn’t really worried about Iran using nuclear weapons during that time period anyway.   (My main fear about Iran getting nukes is that someday those nukes could get in the hands of a group of maniacs like Al Qaeda or Isis, but I don’t think that time has yet come and it isn’t likely to come any time soon.)    To me, where Iran poses a real, present threat is to the extent that they provide conventional weapons to Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terrorist groups in the Middle East.    This deal is likely to increase Iran’s prospects immeasurably in assisting their terrorist comrades.   If you’re Israel or a Sunni Arab State, you’re going to be in a lot more danger in the near future than you’ve been in the past.  

Just as the hard right wants to draw your attention to Neville Chamberlain when you contemplate what Obama has done, the hard left wants to draw your attention to Bibi Netanyahu.   They talk about how apoplectic Bibi is over the deal, with the hope that you will ask yourself this: who do you trust more to know how to deal with Iran, Bibi Netanyahu or Barack Obama?   Well, personally, if asked to choose between those two, I’ll almost always take Obama.   He seems infinitely more dispassionate, more compassionate, more scrupulous, and more rational.

But when it comes to Iran, Barack is certainly less knowledgeable.   His attention is devoted primarily to North America.  Bibi, his countrymen, and his counterparts in Riyadh and Cairo are focused primarily on the Middle East.  They know what an important player Iran is in that sandbox, and how dangerous Iran has become.  They know that this deal frees up tons of ballistic missiles and all sorts of less powerful but more portable weapons of destruction to be used by a country that seems hell-bent on destabilizing the Arabian Peninsula and Israel/Palestine.   

Do you want to know what is significant about the reactions in Israel?   It’s not that Bibi Netanyahu loathes this deal to the nth degree.  It’s that Bibi’s political opponents in Israel – the so-called “center-left” coalition of pro-Israel/pro-Palestinian, pro “two-state solution” Israelis – are also so deeply depressed by this deal that some plan on coming to Washington to lobby against it.  That’s what CNN and MSNBC need to be reporting.  That’s what the Democratic Party leaders need to be addressing.  If our trusted allies in Israel – not merely the titular head of the regime but also the progressives who share our values but possess greater knowledge – don’t like what we’re doing, shouldn’t we at least be listening to them?  Shouldn’t we at least ask ourselves whether the proponents of this deal are viewing this situation too simplistically?  

In a sense, the debates about this deal remind me of the debates about the issue of abortion.   All the attention is devoted to one question.  In the case of Iran, the question has been, “Is this a good deal?” In the case of abortion, the question has been, “Should we legalize it?”   But the fundamental issue in both cases is altogether different.   In the case of abortion, the issue should be “Leaving aside the debate over legality, how do we minimize the number of abortions in this country?”   (Perhaps we do so by promoting education, not legal coercion, and by supporting organizations like Planned Parenthood, which many “Pro Life” folks can’t stand.)    In the case of Iran, the issue should be, “Leaving aside the debates over whether Obama’s negotiating team was tough enough in striking this deal, how best do we minimize, going forward, Iranian aggressiveness with respect to CONVENTIONAL weapons?”

No matter how our Congress wants to respond to Tuesday’s agreement, those weapons are soon enough going to flood into Iranian ports from Beijing and Moscow.   It will be the job of Obama’s successor to react … both as the head of a sovereign nation and as the most powerful leader in the world.  Believe me, s/he will need your prayers more than your second-guessing.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Prayer

What follows is the prayer that I delivered as the representative of Judaism at the Iftar held at the Embassy of Pakistan to the United States on July 9, 2015.  I want to thank Ambassador Jalil Abbas Jilani for giving me the opportunity these past two years to deliver a prayer at this event.   And I would like to wish any Muslim who is reading this blog a very blessed Ramadan.  Your ability to continue to fast from Sunup to Sundown every day for a month in the middle of the Summer is truly inspiring.

Adonai, we in this room represent many traditions, and yet there is so much that unites us. We seek knowledge.  We thirst for universal prosperity and liberty.   And we care deeply about our youth, both for their own sake and for that of the future.  

Yet, when I take stock in this world at the dawn of a new millennium, what do I see?  That in the most affluent and educated communities – and especially among their youth – the interest in You is fading.  That in my own blessed United States of America, which is merely following the trends that began in Europe, the fastest growing religion is “none of the above”?

Adonai, when I turn on the television or open a newspaper, there is no shortage of talk about those who seek to destroy out of hatred.   But what about those who have abandoned You not in order to kill, but in order to tend to their own creature comforts?  What about those who have heard words attributed to You, words such as the words from the Torah, “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” and who ignore these words, not out of spite or resentment, but simply out of apathy?  Are these people not also worthy of our concerns?  Do they not also pose a threat to our world?

Adonai, I don’t see You primarily as a savior, or a beloved, or a friend -- though Your Holy Name can be all those things.  I see You as a commander.  And tonight I ask that we all feel commanded.  Commanded to confront apathy – about You and about all that is holy.  

May we have the insight to realize that only by putting our minds together, as representatives of different traditions, can we find the antidote to this scourge of rising apathy, cascading hedonism, and all that flows from them.     

May we have the perseverance to come together, both within our respective communities and as part of the interfaith movement, to shine a light on the transcendent, a light so bright that even the apathetic and cynical among us can’t help but notice.   

May we have the wisdom to recognize that above all else, You are a mystery – the mystery of what is truly Ultimate – and that it is our job to inspire people to search for You as a mystery, and never to tell them that we have all the answers and they must be fools if they don’t believe us.

Adonai, may we remain resolute that to serve and honor You is the ultimate privilege.  But above all else, may we remain forever humble.  For despite our understandable pride in recognizing Your unparalleled greatness and our own ability to serve You here on earth, You also remind us that there is no uglier sin than that of arrogance.   And tonight, we will commit ourselves never to be ugly.  And always to serve You in beauty.


Saturday, July 04, 2015

Reflections on the 4th of July

I’ve had the opportunity over the years to deliver a number of Unitarian-Universalist (UU) church sermons, but last Sunday was the first time I’ve ever been asked to deliver a talk targeted especially for children.  My topic was the relationship between Judaism and Islam, and the “props” that I used were a yarmulke and a Qur’an – two symbols that many of us think of in opposition to one another, but which in fact are actually quite harmonious.

My talk went along fine enough as I explained that “Jews” and “Muslims” were truly first cousins in the family of Abraham.  But I’m not sure that the UU kids were especially riveted by the profound similarities and differences between these two so-called “enemy” faiths.   That is, until I mentioned the holiday of Ramadan.   That holiday is especially noteworthy this year because it started only a few days before June 21st – the date when the period from sunup to sundown is at its apex.   I mentioned to the UU children that during Ramadan, Muslims refrain from all food and all drink, including water, from sunup to sundown for an entire month.  As I explained, the age at which Muslims begin this ritual differs with the person (traditionally, the responsibility commences with the onset of puberty), but some Muslims start this practice at age 10 and it is extremely common to start by age 12.   In other words, I told the kids at the UU church, millions of Muslim children age 11, 12 and 13 are spending an entire month from 5:30 in the morning until 8:30 in the evening not even drinking a drop of water, let alone eating a piece of food.

After discussing the basic facts about Ramadan, I asked the kids a question:  “How do you think the Muslim kids are able to fast for more than 15 hours every day for an entire month?”   I received but one response:   “Magic.”  

Magic, indeed.  It sounds like a silly answer, but what it reveals is no laughing matter.   Here we are, it’s July 4, 2015, and in an increasingly large swath of our society, more and more families are losing their passion for religion, losing their passion for patriotism, and losing their passion period.   In the place of passion, we can tranquilize ourselves with the relaxation that comes from browsing Facebook, binge-watching a TV show via Netflix, or traveling to a beautiful beach resort.  In other words, we can exemplify the perspective described by George Santayana as becoming increasingly dominant in the first half of the 20th century: “the mood of impatience, conceit, low-minded ambition, mechanical inflation, and the worship of material comforts.”

When maximizing creature comforts becomes the goal, passion becomes a nuisance – and the Muslim children’s ability to thoroughly put aside those comforts sounds almost magical.   For many, the passions I have in mind get in the way of what’s really important:  “relaxing.”  If we need exhilaration to supplement our relaxation, we can get that from a bike ride, not a political or religious cause.   From the standpoint of today’s secular hedonist, the idea of parents encouraging their 11-year-olds to deprive themselves of food and drink for 15 hours every day is abusive, if not insane.  And when I put the question at the UU church as to how this feat of starvation was possible, the kid who responded thought first of magic, because the act at issue would either be viewed as superhuman or subhuman, depending on your perspective.  It’s certainly not anything a contemporary secular hedonist can relate to.

July 4th is a holiday that speaks to hedonism – far more than, say, Veterans Day, Labor Day, or Presidents’ Day.   While the Muslims fast, the contemporary American material-comfort-worshipper is literally pigging out on hot dogs and beer.  But of course, this day does have deeper significance for other Americans, including an increasing number of American Muslims.   The 4th calls to mind such statements as “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”   The 4th calls to mind a bold experiment to introduce a Democratic/Republican form of government that would be hegemonic on a massive scale.   The 4th calls to mind all the successes that have resulted from that experiment – successes such as the elimination of the “peculiar institution” known as slavery, the creation of a vast network of roads and a vast network of land-grant institutions of higher learning, the rise of a huge and fairly prosperous middle class, the use of the military to defeat totalitarian regimes, and the ability to put men on the Moon.  

Oh sure, there have been failures too.   We all know what they are.  We’re constantly reminded of how and where we fall short, including in this Blog.  But one day a year, Americans are permitted to think patriotically and proudly about what we have created and what we have stood for, which above all else can be summarized by the word “Liberty.”  We can, in other words, take immeasurable inspiration from that word and from our collective devotion to it.   And we can be passionate about our need to ensure that it never dissipates from these shores.

Whether or not they are citizens, you won’t find Muslims eating hot dogs or drinking beer – not after sunup, not before sundown, not ever.   Observant Muslims, you see, have a whole series of rules that they follow besides simply fasting during Ramadan, and those rules trump the conventions that have come to characterize American life.  But that doesn’t mean that Muslims can’t be patriotic Americans.   In fact, I suspect they can be among our most patriotic citizens – because those same passions that fuel religious faith can also be channeled into fueling wholesome patriotism.   In either case, we’re talking about a deep, enduring love for something that isn’t tangible, isn’t immediately translatable into material comforts or other pleasures, and that is associated in the mind of the lover with righteousness, honor and duty.  

That kind of love can be extremely powerful.  It can move people to accomplish tremendous feats of beauty, just as it can move people to commit horrendous acts of destruction.  When we become people of faith – regardless of whether the faith we have is in God or in the symbols of a nation – we depart from the “mood” that Santayana found to be so off-putting.   Then, even if we are only 11 years old, we can accomplish all sorts of things and feel privileged in doing so.

Don’t take my word for it.  Just ask the next person you see who is wearing a military uniform, or a priest’s collar.  Hell, just find a bird in a nest with five little ones beneath her; if that bird could talk, it would tell you the same thing.

Love and devotion are incredibly potent forces.   Those who tap into them aren’t magicians.  They’re just beneficiaries of that which makes life worth living.   With all due respect to my hedonist friends, you can have your beers and your hot dogs; I’ll take my appreciation for Jefferson’s quill pen and my anticipation for the spiritual bliss that is Yom Kippur (the central Jewish fast, which is just a miniature version of Ramadan).

So yes, Americans have their differences – different behaviors, different philosophies.  But at least on this July 4th, we can all agree on one thing:  thankfully, we can choose for ourselves which path to take.  In the Land of Liberty, there is nothing quite as holy as the freedom to choose.