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There are Tougher Jobs Than Yours

As much as you might hate your job at the moment, please take some comfort in knowing that it could be worse. You could be Jussie Smollett’s agent, or the head of public relations for the Nike shoe company.
We must admit we’d never heard of Smollett until he recently alleged he was attacked in Chicago by two white men wearing Make America Great Again ball caps and shouting President Donald Trump’s campaign slogans and homophobic slurs, but apparently he’s a black and openly homosexual actor on a reportedly popular show called “Empire.” His story seemed suspicious from the start, even if several news outlets were quite eager for politically correct reasons to believe every word, and over the course of the ensuing investigation the story seems to have fallen apart. On Thursday Smollett was charged with filing a false report, his bond was set at $100,000, and Chicago’s Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson rather angrily laid out what looks to be a pretty damning case against the actor.
Johnson said the Chicago cops are in possession of a $3,500 check written by Smollett to a black “Empire” extra and his brother, who have reportedly confessed to helping stage the attack, and can be seen on the only videotape of anyone in the area of the alleged attack at the time it allegedly occurred, which does require a lot of explaining by Smollett’s lawyers. If we were invested in Smollett’s career, the best we could come up with is that no one with any Hollywood experience would so ineptly stage anything. There are surely plenty of white guys in Chicago that Smollett could have hired to play Trump-loving racist gay-bashers — late night television wag Stephen Colbert suggested finding them at a Blackhawks hockey game — and what kind of cockamamie criminal conspiracy pays by check?
Smollett is still considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, but when that probably happens his agent will be getting 15 percent of no income. All the Trump-loving Americans will boycott the career they’d not previously been aware of, and all those less favorable to Trump will be angry that he handed a news cycle to the Trump-lovers. Superintendent Johnson, who also happens to be black, was understandably angry that Smollett has made it harder for his police force to successfully investigate and prosecute the very real hate crimes against minority Chicagoans that are bound to happen sooner or later. By now faked hate crimes are so common that we always wait a while for evidence before weighing in the matter, even though actual hate crimes seem somewhat more common, so we sympathize far more with Johnson than Smollett. Sometimes hate crimes are faked in a sincere if horribly misguided effort to draw attention the problem of actual crimes, but in this case Johnson argues that Smollett was attempting to exploit America’s racist history to get a bigger salary from his popular television show, and we can’t blame Johnson being especially irked about that.
Meanwhile, over in the sports pages, Nike was enduring some dreadful headlines as well. In the early minutes of a very big-time college basket game between the blue-blooded arch-rivals of Duke University’s Blue Devils and the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, star Duke forward Zion Williams’ drive to the basket caused one of his high-priced Nike shoes to completely fall apart and sent him crashing to to the hardwood floor. Williams is expected to recover from the resulting “Grade One” knee sprain in time for the Blue Devils’ inevitable appearance in the national championship tournament, but several National Basketball Association players and other experts are advising him to not risk the big bucks contract that he’s expected to get after being a top pick in the upcoming professional draft, and our guess is that he’ll sign a big bucks endorsement deal with some other shoe company when he does.
Nike is a hugely profitable company, despite that it’s long been considered a pariah by the political types on both sides of the spectrum. Although the company headquarters are based in Oregon and it’s formidable advertising machine is located mostly in New York, Nike makes its shoes in low-wage Asian sweatshops and markets them to poor but status-conscious youths in the inner city, so the left regards Nike as a corporate villain on par with Wal-Mart and Koch Industries and the Monsanto Company. The sorts of conservatives who proudly sport Trump-branded and made-in-Asia apparel also resent the offshoring, and lately they’ve been further enraged that Nike gave a big endorsement deal to former National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who seems to have been blackballed from the league after he started all that mishegas about players kneeling during the national anthem. The kids who overpay for Nikes don’t seem to care about any of that, but they’re more likely to notice that projected college basketball player of the year because one of his nikes completely fell apart on him.
We have to admit that our cutting moves to the basket don’t put the same stress on a pair of basketball that those of the six-foot-eight inch and conspicuously well-muscled 280 pound Williams do, but even when we younger and in somewhat better shape, and could actually hold our own in a Wichita or D.C. pickup game, we never blew out any of our ugly but affordable Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars. To this day we remain faithful to the made-in-America brand, which remains a traditional favorite of both wholesome farm boy hoopsters and ironic punk rock fashion hipsters, and we’d urge those status-conscious ghetto youths to give them a try.
In any case, we’ll get through whatever today brings with the comforting knowledge that at least we don’t have to make any explanations for either Smollett or Nike to make a living. We’ll also be pleased we’re not one of Trump’s lawyers, but that’s another story for another day.

— Bud Norman

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Try to Remember a Time in September

September is perhaps the most sporting month of the year in America, and usually provides some refuge from all the political and cultural squabbles that dominate the rest of the papers, but not this year.
This year the big story at the United States Open tennis championship was the women’s final singles match, which ended with a big brouhaha about sexism and racism. The professional football season started with the same acrimonious debate about free speech rights and proper respect for the national anthem that had already taken so much out of the past two seasons. Most of the baseball races in the big leagues have already been run, and around this double-A city our beloved Wichita Wingnuts have played their last-ever game in the gorgeous and history-laden Lawrence-Dumont Stadium that is scheduled for the bulldozer, which has the home folks arguing.
Not having followed tennis closely since way back when the undersized by scrappy Australian Rod Laver was winning his calendar Grand Slam sweep, we’ll not venture any strong opinions about what happened in the finals match between American Serena Williams and Japan’s Naomi Osaka. As even such casual fans as ourselves well know Williams has dominated her sport for the past couple of decades, but after the recent birth of a child and at the ripe old age of 36 her dominance is soon coming to and end, so fans were eager to see how she’d fare against an-up-coming who was three months old when Williams won her first Gland Slam title, but everyone hated out it turned out.
Youth proved better than experience in the first set, with Osaka racking up an easy win, but Williams has a long history of impassioned but calm comebacks in the second and third matches, and everyone was expecting another classic effort to tie Margaret Court’s record of 25 Grand Slam singles titles. The umpire made a couple of calls that annoyed Williams, one of them claiming she had illegally been getting coaching from the sidelines, which Williams took quite personally, and she wound up screaming loud and long at the referee and breaking her racket on the court and eventually getting penalized by two games, which put the set and match out of reach against such formidable competition.
A hard-earned win by either the aging superstar or the youthful newcomer who was playing against her life-long idol in her first Grand Slam final should have made for one of those corny feel-good stories we always look for on the sports pages, but in this case it ended for the aforementioned brouhaha about racism and sexism.
Some observers opined that tennis umpires routinely endure far worse verbal abuse from male players, and should extend the same courtesy to female players, while others suggested that the fact it was a strong black woman doing the screaming and racket-smashing might have had something to do with it. We don’t follow tennis closely enough to judge all the arguments about the calls or how commonly cheating violations are called or that particular umpire’s history of enduring verbal abuse from male players, but by now we’re all too familiar with the sexual and racial contretemps, so we’ll venture an admittedly ambivalent opinion that it’s much ado about nothing.
Ever since the days of America’s superstar tennis brats Jimmy Conner and Pat McEnroe those poor umpire’s in tall white chairs have indeed been putting up with a whole lot of verbal abuse from the male players, but we’d rather they stop doing that and start handing out game penalties rather than begin putting up with such nonsense from the fairer sex. Tennis is perhaps the most international and multiracial played on this increasingly interconnected globe, too, and in a match between a black woman and an Asian in front of an umpire with a Latin-sounding name, with Williams chasing a 25th Grand Slam title, it’s hard to imagine racism was much of a factor.
We fondly remember the days when tennis was a game of white shorts and shirts and friendly post-match handshakes and the most genteel standards of sportsmanship and decorum, with such great African-American champions as Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe best exemplifying the best of it, and if tennis wants to return to that better era we wish the sport well.
As for all that fuss about football and the flag, we’ve pretty much lost interest in the sport and are fed up with both sides of its ensuing controversies. Let the players rack up the debilitating brain injuries along with the hits that will likely hobble them into a premature old age, as that’s their choice and they make plenty of money for it, but we’ll choose to watch baseball and then wait until basketball season comes along. If we get to go to any more games around we’ll stand and hold our ever-present hat over our heart as the national anthem plays, with due respect to the freedoms the flag represents, and the men who fought and died for those freedoms, but we’ll not worry how some football player we won’t be watching exercises his freedom.
The Nike sneaker company has recently signed a promotional deal with one-time star quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who started the whole kneeling-during-the-anthem fuss and is now out of the league, partly because defenses started figuring him out and largely because of his politics, and we note that their sales have since gone up, but that others are burning their Nikes and vowing to never buy another pair from the oh-so-liberal company that makes its products mostly in Asian sweatshops. There’s no point in us boycotting Nike even if we were inclined to do so, as we’re old and creatures of habit and plan stick with the classic Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star footwear that have adorned our feet since our junior high days on the pickup courts, and as far as we’re concerned you can wear whatever you want.
The demise of the Wichita Wingnuts and the destruction of that grand old Lawrence-Dumont Stadium hits closer to home, of course, and serves as a sad reminder that politics will always prevail over sports. The mayor and some local capitalists are promising a far grander stadium somewhere along the same picturesque location on the west bank of the Arkansas River, with the same postcard view of downtown, and the preliminary sketches indicate there will be luxury boxes on a second deck, and they’ve already signed up a major league-affiliated triple-A team that wasn’t drawing well down in New Orleans. What’s left of the local media is making a big deal, and the talk is that if you build it they will come in far great numbers than the few thousand who showed up to watch independent and double-A Wingnuts in an aging old park for the very last time.
That “if you build it they will come” stuff is straight from a bad Kevin Costner movie, though, and we have our doubts about all the rest of it. No matter how fancy a park they build you won’t be able to tell your kid that Satchel Paige once pitched there, or how ‘Shocker and Toronto Blue Jays star Joe Carter once hit a homer clear across the street and into the Arkansas River, or share any of other history that the seventh-oldest professional ballpark in America has racked up over the years. Nor do we expect that whatever the losing “New Orleans Baby Cakes” are re-named will be as entertaining as the desperate outsiders’ hustle of the winning Wingnuts, and there probably won’t be a smoking section where we can watch with our cigar-chomping friends, and they’re even talking about how it’s going to screw up the scenic MacLean Boulevard drive along the river.
You can call all these developments social progress, we suppose, and there’s no denying that all the players in all the sports these days are bigger and faster and more scientifically conditioned than the heroes of our long-ago youth. Still, the kiddos should know of a happier time long ago when September offered a few more weeks of respite from the most brutal game of politics.

–Bud Norman