Why Sports is Sometimes Better Than the Rest of The World

The past weekend was cold and windy and slightly snowy here in Wichita, with plenty of state and national and international and personal problems for everyone to worry about in the upcoming week, but it worked out well for the local sports fans. In the grand scheme of things it’s not very important that the Wichita State University Wheatshockers basketball squad and the Kansas City Chiefs football team both won big games, but at this time of year in this part of the world one relishes whatever good news comes along.
Our beloved ‘Shockers blew a nine-point lead in the final minute of regulation on the road against the University of Connecticut Huskies, but hung on over two hard fought overtimes to escape with an 89 to 86 win. The victory runs their season record to 15-1, one of the six best in the country and second only to the Auburn Tigers’ and San Diego State Aztecs’ thus-far unblemished records, and after a home win earlier in the week against the University of Memphis’ then-22nd-ranked Tigers the ‘Shocks are alone atop the tough American Athletic Conference’s standings and will likely be in both of the top 20 polls today.
More than 50 years of rooting for the ‘Shockers have taught us to not be too hopeful, but we can’t shake a feeling that our boys are pretty darned good this year, maybe good enough for a couple of wins in the March tournament. They’re a very young team with one senior and six freshmen and four sophomores, and most observers expected them to be pretty darned good next year, but they’re already there, which has us looking forward to next year.
Wichita’s greatest sports passion is hoops, but folks also take their football seriously around here. The only college football in town is played by the Quaker-affiliated Friends University in the most tiny-school division, so local college fans are divided between the University of Kansas’ mostly hapless program and Kansas State University’s more respectable team and the perennial powers at the equidistant University of Oklahoma, but most of the football fans root for the nearest National Football League franchise, the Kansas City Chiefs. We’ve mostly given on watching football, what with the prolonged pauses for video reviews and the wife-beating and the head injuries and all, but we’re Wichitans and can’t shake a lifelong habit of rooting for the Chiefs when we check the scores.
We’re old enough to remember when the Chiefs won the IVth Super Bowl, way back in ’70, when star quarterback Len Dawson was smoking cigarettes in the locker room at halftime, and how happy everybody seemed about that. Our parents hosted a Super Bowl party for the neighbors, which was before that became a thing, the kids scrimmaged in the backyard afterwards despite the cold, and we’ve always wanted to enjoy that feeling again. Over the subsequent years the Chiefs have some great offenses and great defenses, but rarely at the same time, and every season has ended in a heartbreaking loss. The past few years the Chiefs have been pretty darned good, though, and this year they’re one win away from a shot at another Super Bowl title.
The Chiefs embarrassed themselves in the first quarter of their game against the Houston Texans, falling behind by three touchdowns, but we missed that and didn’t tune in until the second half when they finished off a 51-to-31 romp, so they looked good to us. The Tennessee Titans also scored a big upset win against the odds-on Super Bowl favorite Baltimore Ravens, which means that Kansas City and its superstar and non-smoking quarterback will be playing in famously loud Arrowhead Stadium as the odds-on favorite. Which means one can hold out realistic hope.
Which is no big deal, as we said before, but it seems to lighten the mood and bring people together around here. For reasons we cannot explain the Chiefs have a large following among Wichita’s lesbians, and all the ones on our block in the fashionable Riverside are flying Chiefs flags cheering loudly enough for us to hear them whenever the Chiefs score. If you find yourself standing in a long line at a bank or grocery store it’s something safe to talk about, even a sort of superficial bonding, and everyone’s a little cheerier despite the massive layoffs at the big aerospace factory in the south part of town because somebody at Boeing screwed up the 737 Max airliner.
We’ve lost enough games over the years to empathize with those fans in Memphis and Baltimore and Hartford and Houston, who surely have their weather and other problems to cope with, but we hope they’re brought closer together in commiseration, as always happens here in Wichita. As silly and pointless and head-injury-inducing as it might seem, sports has socially redeeming qualities.

— Bud Norman

Is Jeopardy! in Jeopardy?

As regular readers of this publication know, we are avid followers of all the major sports. These days we don’t much follow football, what with all the head injuries and domestic violence charges and endless video review delays, but we still keep a keen eye on basketball and baseball and any sport where someone is doing something no one’s ever seen before.
Perhaps our very most favorite televised sport is the quiz show Jeopardy!, and lately it’s been the most riveting half-hour of entertainment in America’s daily popular culture. For the past 18 episodes has starred James Holzhauer, whom you might well have heard of by now because he’s playing the game like no one’s ever seen before. Watching this guy play Jeopardy! is like watching Babe Ruth play baseball or Wilt Chamberlain play basketball or Barry Sanders darting around a football field. There are numbers to back that up.
In Babe Ruth’s first year as a daily player he hit 45 homes to shatter the record of John “Home Run” Baker, who earned the nickname by smacking a mere 15 homers over a season. Chamberlain had a year when he averaged 50 points and 25 rebounds and more than the regulation 48 minutes of playing time per game. Sanders wisely retired just short of a head injury and some all-time records, but watching Holzhauer dart around all the arcane trivia on a Jeopardy! board reminds us of that.
Until Holzhauer came along the average winning score on Jeopardy! was around $20,000, which is a nice chunk of change for a half-hour’s work of answering trivia questions, and the record for a single-day score was around $73,000, which is even better. So far in his 18-game winning steak Holzhauer is averaging around $70,000 per game, and he holds the game’s top five single-day records, with a best of more than $130,000, and only a couple of challengers have come close to toppling him.
Although Holzhauer is surely driving the Jeopardy! accounting department crazy, the advertisement department is probably loving him, as the show’s ratings have been spiking with each of his victories. Holzhauer is a handsome and physically fit 34-year-old, and although he’s supremely self-confident and always smiling a slightly smug smile he doesn’t come across as arrogant or cocky. He’s always introduced as a professional sports gambler from Las Vegas, but he makes bets that pay off according to the dates of his apparently very happy marriage and the birth of his obviously beloved daughter, and he always send a shout-out to his parents and siblings and family and friends when he nails the Final Jeopardy question.
As much as he endearingly seems a family and friend values sort of guy, Holzhauer is also very much a Las Vegas sports gambler. He likes to go for the hardest and most high-dollar questions first, and rack up the big money on the way to the Daily Double questions he routinely gets, which allow a contestant to wager all of his earnings, and he always seems to know the answer. He’s usually several times ahead of his nearest competitor going into Final Jeopardy!, where you only need double the score to be assured of victory, and he usually calculates to the dollar how much he can afford to wager and then nails the question, racking up another record-setting total.
Of course Holzhauer’s dominance has spurred a controversy, as some people will always resent excellence. Holzhauer’s been in all the newspapers, and some of them are griping that his unorthodox strategy and astounding immediate recall of general information just aren’t fair. When one player is so clearly better than all the rest, the critics snipe, it takes all the fun out of the game.
Call us old-fashioned, but we still think there’s something to be said for unsurpassed excellence in any old thing that humans pursue, including the accumulation of knowledge and a quick recall of it on afternoon quiz show, and a self-confident willingness to bet 20 grand or so on the answer to a trivia question. Nor does Holzhauer’s talent diminish our interest in the game. Most days Holzhauer wins by the same lopsided lengths that Secretariat won the Triple Crown at the the Preakness, but we still well remember that display of all-time excellence.
On Monday Holzhauer found himself in a tight game, and it was better television than anything Major League Baseball or the National Basketball Association has on offer. One of the challengers was some endearingly boring and balding middle-aged egghead with impressive academic credentials, exactly the sort who usually wins on Jeopardy!, and he gave the champion a hell of run. Holzhauer took a double-digit lead by winning a big wager on a Double Jeopardy question, but his challenger landed on the next Daily Double, and although he’s clearly not accustomed to wagering double-digit sums he had no choice but to go in big to stay in the game, and after he gulped hard and correctly answered the hard question it went down to a dramatic Final Jeopardy!
Holzhauer was up a few thousand more dollars at that point, and when he correctly answered the Final Jeopardy! question he had a mere $18 more than his formidable opponent, who had also correctly answered and wagered enough that he would have easily won in an ordinary game and if only Holzhauer had gotten a very rare question wrong. Not since the great Boston Celtics versus Los Angeles Lakers rivalry back in the ’80s have we watched anything quite so riveting.
Our main sporting obsession these days is the blood sport of politics, but we don’t find anyone there of Ruth’s or Chamberlain’s or Sanders’ or Secretariat’s ability, much less Holzhauer’s. We hope all the games will go on, however, and that no matter how jealous human nature might be we continue toward a greater excellence in every weird thing that humans do..

— Bud Norman

Marilynn Smith, RIP

As avid fans of all the sports that men and women play, and regular readers of the obituary columns, we couldn’t help noticing the passing of Marilynn Smith at the age of 89. Although you might not have ever heard of her, she was a far better golfer than you’re likely to ever be, one of the barrier-crashing pioneers of women sports, and a fellow Wichitan as well, so we mourn her passing.
While growing up in Wichita, where local sports culture has long celebrated and cultivated the athletic talents of both of its boys and girls, Smith became known as the most fearsome pitcher in an otherwise all-boy Little League. By the time she was 12 she had an ambition to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals, then the closest Major League franchise to Wichita, but after a bad game she was forced to switch sports.
“I had taken off my mitt, thrown it against the wall and said a four-letter word beginning with ‘S’,” she recalled to the hometown paper back in 2006. “My mother marched me right into the lavatory and washed my mouth out with Lifebuoy soap, and my dad said they had better take me to Wichita Country Club and teach me a more ladylike sport.”
Smith didn’t immediately take to the sport of golf, as she considered it too sissified, but she had a knack for it. After a short while her father gave her a bicycle as a reward for playing the front nine in less than 40 strokes, and she then pedaled her way to enough lessons to win three state titles before she went off to the University of Kansas. KU didn’t have a women’s golf team back then, and despite its lucrative basketball business the sports department declined to pay for her travel to the collegiate championships, but in ’49 her dad drove her to the tournament and she won first place, a national championship which KU still probably brags about.
After that Smith turned pro, which turned out surprisingly well for her. There was no organized professional women’s golf at the time, just the occasional prize money tournament and stakes matches, but by the summer of 1950 Smith and a dozen of the other top women golfers joined together for the inaugural tournament of the Ladies Professional Golf Association right here in Wichita.
The first several seasons of the LPGA tour were dominated by Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who had previously been the best woman basketball player and track-and-field competitor and baseball pitcher and all-around greatest female athlete on the planet, and is still the most barrier-breaking sportswoman of them all, but Smith got her licks in. She won 21 times on the tour, shot a then-record 66 on a tough course, and in 1973 she became the first woman to do televised commentary on a men’s professional golf tournament. Way back in ’50 she was making $5,000 a year from the Spalding sporting goods company, those 21 tournament wins and numerous top-five finishes also paid off pretty well by the standards of the day, and she had a founder’s stake in in theLPGA, and was the longtime commissioner of it during its formative years, and it’s still a  worth-watching and very prosperous sports league.
Smith somehow made a pretty good living for herself from the sissified game of golf for 89 years, most of it right here in surprisingly pleasant Wichita, and we’re glad she did. These days all sorts of interesting women are making a living and a cultural mark in American sports, and our homegirl Marilynn Smith surely had something to do with that.

— Bud Norman

The Super Bowl and the Changing of the Seasons

Football season finally came to an unexpectedly dramatic end on Sunday, so we’re now only a few long weeks away from pitchers and and catchers reporting to baseball training and other harbingers of spring, and on Saturday the Wichita State University Wheatshockers played their best basketball of the season against their only serious rival in the Missouri Valley Conference and looked as if they’ll keep us watching well into March Madness. Our nearly as beloved Kansas State Wildcats won a road game against the second-or-third ranked Baylor Bears, the hated but secon-or-third ranked University of Kansas Jayhawks lost to Iowa State University, and for the most part sports provided us a pleasant distraction from politics here on the Kansas plains.
Although the game turned out to be a compelling come-from-behind and history-making victory by The New England Patriots over a worthy Atlanta Falcons squad, we don’t expect that Super Bowl LI set any ratings records. The past season has seen declining viewership across all the networks that have paid dearly for the broadcast rights, attendance and arrests for drunk and disorderly behavior at the stadia have been down almost league-wide, and even on Super Bowl Sunday none of our friends at church nor the more more unchurched friends we called in search of a Super Bowl party evinced much interest in the game. Some say that the second-string quarterback on a second-rate San Francisco Forty-Niners squad’s refusal to stand for the national anthem had something to do with, other say that the league’s characteristically politically correct stand on that had ore to do with it, several callers to sports talk radio programs we’ve heard it blame it on all the interminable video reviews and annoying advertisements that prolong less than hour of actual play through more than three hours, writers in sophisticated magazines and lawyers in pending legal cases note all all the worrisome injuries to the brain and other important body parts that players seem to suffer every year, and we suspect that all of it had something to do with the public’s ennui.
Nor did the matchup offer much in the way of a proper storyline. The New England Patriots were favored from the outset due to the record-matching number of Super Bowl victories they had won since coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady first teamed up a million years or so ago, and by now most of the football-watching country was tired of that storyline. Belichick is an annoyingly snarling fellow who seizes every advantage no matter how it might skirt against the rules of the game, Brady is an annoyingly handsome fellow married to an annoying gorgeous underwear model, both had run afoul of the football establishment during the much over-inflated “inflate-gate” controversy, and it was all to political for a football to endure. Despite being in New England Brady is also an admitted friend of President Donald Trump, and has even been photographed wearing one of those red “Make America Great Again” ball caps, so we assume that the portion of the American sports-watching public that worries about all those worrisome injuries to the brain and other important body parts were also rooting against the Patriots. That meant they were de facto rooting for the Atlanta Falcons, and we can’t imagine that did the ratings any goods.
By half-time the Falcons were up to a seemingly insurmountable lead, and then came Lady Gaga for the big half-time show, and we expect that the intriguing combination nudged the Nielsen numbers a percentage point or two. So far as we can tell Lady Gaga is a popular song-and-dance entertainer, and according to numerous YouTube videos she’s also a shape-shifting reptilian alien who is part of the Illuminati that surreptitiously controls The New World Order, and we have to admit that she put on quite a show-biz performance, even by our MGM standards. There was some anticipation that she would make sort of anti-Trump political statement, but she opened with a surprisingly rousing rendition of “God Bless America,” warming our old-fashioned hearts with some Irving Berlin, then segued into “This Land Is Your Land,” which we recognized as a composition of Woody Guthrie, who was pretty much a Commie but also a through-and-through Okie as well, and we doubt that either Lady Gaga or any of her fans were were aware of the very subtle implications of this beloved American folk classic. The rest of it was a high-kicking extravaganza the likes of which you’d have to pay good money to see at a Las Vegas casino, and Mr. and Mrs. Gaga’s daughter Lady is indeed as leggy and musical a lass as you’d be likely to see there, and all in all we found it pleasantly apolitical.
The other big attraction of these annual Super Bowl spectacles is the advertisements, and for the most part they were dreary but at least apolitical. The same Budweiser beer-brewing company that usually provides uplifting scenes of Clydesdale horses hauling their product through nostalgic small town streets through driving snow storms had an already-viral spot of its German immigrant founder encountering anti-immigrant prejudice on his way to founding an iconic American brand, which is now majority owned by Brazilian investors, and there was no mistaking a slightly political slant to that. Some other company selling computer services or some such modern annoyance had an ad that was all about diversity, judging from all the diverse faces that kept matching together in modern Madison Avenue style, but we had the sound turned down at that point.
We also missed most of the Patriots’ remarkable and record-setting and argument-for-greatest-ever comeback, right up to the time when we tuned into watch Brady and the rest of the cast tie it up and then play out 20 or seconds of defense to bring it into overtime. At that point we figured that Belichick’s and Brady’s experience and all those million years or so of Patriot dominance would win out, if our 50 years or so watching grown men play this silly game told us anything, and sure enough that’s how it turned out. We expect that most of the country was disappointed by the outcome, no matter how it might be spread out around the Electoral College, and like most of us we weren’t at all enthusiastic about either team to begin with, and even such a compelling game seems to be losing some appeal, but at least it provided some distraction from the state of the world.

— Bud Norman

The All-Too-Wide World of Sports

As summer slowly fades into to autumn, baseball just as inevitably gives way to football, with dreams of a mid-winter night’s basketball game to follow, and then the eternal promise of baseball’s spring training and another turn of the sporting globe. Alas, these days none of it offers any respite from all that awful politics that keeps going on.
The upcoming Labor Day weekend has a full slate of college football games, including such season-making contests as the top-ranked University of Alabama’s “Crimson Tide” against Southern California’s unranked but perennially tough “Trojans,” and the University of Oklahoma’s third-ranked Sooners knocking heads with a dangerous and 15th-ranked University of Houston squad, but so far the big football story this season has been some second-string quarterback on some second-tier National Football League team refusing to stand for the national anthem. As we scan through the AM radio offerings during our daily chores he’s being talked about on both the sports talk and political talk stations, and all of the more respectable sports and political media have been equally attentive, so by now it’s unlikely that any American hasn’t yet heard of The San Francisco Forty-Niners’ Colin Kaepernick.
Although we no longer pay much attention to professional football we vaguely recalled the name from a Sports Illustrated cover a few years back, when he was reportedly tearing up the league about being touted as a star, but apparently he has since declined to second-string status on a team in a similar slide, and we can’t recall him being mentioned until the recent brouhaha. The biracial and multi-million-dollar-compensated Kaepernick says he won’t stand for the national anthem of a country that oppresses its black citizens by allowing police to indiscriminately execute them, even though he’s hard-pressed to show how that’s actually happening, and he’s also taken to wearing socks that depict police officers as pigs. So far as we can tell the general public’s reaction has been that our oppressive country does grant him the right to express such idiotic opinions, but that it will exercise the same right to say that he’s an overpaid idiot.
That’s how these politicized sports brouhahas always turn out, yet they keep occurring nonetheless. Sometimes they involve a homosexual athlete, or a transgendered one, or one with some similarly fashionable predilection, but usually it’s something to do with race, sometimes even with Asians, and of in the case of falsely-accused lacrosse teams there are also occasionally class issues. Unless it’s Tim Tebow being criticized for some on-field Christian gesture or a cable network’s commentator getting fired for politically incorrect “tweets” or a rare college basketball coach wondering why the hell the president is on the same network making his bracket predictions, it’s almost always someone taking some trendy stand that all the trendy pundits consider very brave, and which the general sporting public lustily boos.
We can’t see how it’s good for business, but the sports leagues and the networks that bring them to the general public seem to relish the same stupid controversies. The National Football League was once the last bastion of unabashed old-fashioned American machismo, and we well remember the days of The Dallas Cowboys’ when plaid-fedora-topped Tom Landry was prowling the sidelines and Roger “Captain America” Staubach was quarterbacking “America’s Team,” but these days the league has its players playing in pink shoes, and celebrating the drafting of an undersized but homosexual linebacker, and standing by an employee who sits through the national anthem because of unspecified murders by police, but prohibits the current sorry iteration of the Cowboys from wearing stickers on their helmets to honor the very specific policemen in their city who had been murdered in the line of duty. By late fall the National Basketball League will be back in the business of protesting North Carolina’s law against creepy men hanging out in women’s restrooms, and probably celebrating its latest diverse draftees, and otherwise taking brave stands on various trendy causes, and probably fining one of their up-from-the-streets employees who predictably “tweets” a dissenting opinion.
More careful observers of professional football than ourselves are speculating that Kaepernick’s bold stand for social justice is actually a cynically shrewd ploy to protect his sizable fortune, the theory being that he’s so expensive from the glory days when he signed his contract that the team can’t afford to risk a big injury payout if they send him in as a mere second stringer, so he’s giving himself a case that he was cut due to his bold stand for social justice. This seems plausible enough, although we don’t follow professional football closely to have any strongly held opinion, but such bottom-line calculations can’t plausibly explain why so much of the entire sports industry seems to have gone similarly crazy. Most paying sports fans want to watch good game far away from the annoying distractions of politics, preferably somewhere deep within the last bastions of old-fashioned American machismo, and we can’t see how it’s good business to offer them a bunch of wimpy anti-Americanism.
Already the networks that broadcast these company’s offerings are seeing declines in their fortunes, especially the for-pay Entertainment and Sports Network that has lately dominated sports but is now seeing its increasingly obsolete cable business model dissolve, and one wonders why they’re sticking with those trendy causes that the general sports public so lustily boos. Our best guess is that all of them, that tattooed Kaepernick fellow included, share the same longing that everyone who has prospered in entertainment and sports has to be taken seriously as intellectual types. The easiest way to do this is always to champion some trendy cause that all the trendy pundits are also championing, then take the lusty boos of the general public as proof that you were right all along, and most of your entertainment and sports celebrities are intellectually and temperamentally incapable of seeking out any other way than the easy one.
Which is not to say that these people of extravagant gifts of limited social utility shouldn’t be denied their rights of speech, or that they won’t occasionally have something of interest to say. One of the more memorable moments of the past Olympics was when a Second Lieutenant in the Army Reserves with the less familiar name of Sam Kendricks stopped halfway in his run toward to individual glory in the  pole vaulting finals to stand at attention for a national anthem that was playing somewhere in the arena, looking around awkwardly for a flag to address, then picked up his pole and went on to win a gold medal. This strikes us as a more eloquent political statement than the likes of that Kaepernick fellow will ever make, albeit a much less lucrative one, and it  reminds us of the many other times when sports so well expressed the best of both masculinity and America. We recall some worthy sports protests against America’s imperfections, too, but that was back in a time when they were more easily explained and weren’t so trendy and required real courage.
There’s still plenty of baseball left, with The New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals still holding out hope for play off slots, and down here in the heart of America the Wichita Wingnuts head into their final regular season home stand with a comfortable lead in the southern division of the Double-A American Association, with no race, class, or gender issues to speak of, and those OU Sooners look good enough to keep us distracted through college football and into the Wichita State University Wheatshockers start of  another promising basketball season, and though winter will no doubt come there will just as surely be another spring training. All that politics  stuff will inevitably intrude, but we’ll try to enjoy the games.

— Bud Norman

The Wide World and Sports

Maybe it was because the stock markets and the politicians and the culturati took the day off in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., but the all the big news on Monday seemed to be about sports. At this unhappy moment in our history even the sports pages can’t offer refuge from economics and politics and culture, however, so reality seems to have intruded on all the stories.
The Winter Olympics are about to begin, for instance, and thus far the headlines have mostly been about the possibility of a terror attack. Although there are always worries about security at any international gathering the last significant terror attack on the games took place in Munich back in ’72 and was directed against the Israeli athletes, who are for obvious reasons not prominent in the winter events except for their Russian émigré figure skaters, but because these games are taking place in Russia there are understandable worries that Islamist nutcases will want to take revenge for that country’s efforts at self-defense in Chechnya and other Islamic outposts of its past empire. This time around there is a specific threat from the “Black Widow,” a deranged woman whose terrorist husband was killed in his deadly efforts, and one can only hope that Russia’s security forces will live up to their reputation for ruthless efficiency.
Winter sports have no appeal to us, as skiing is not a common activity here in Kansas and the Arkansas and Little Arkansas Rivers rarely freeze solid enough for figure skating or ice hockey, but we wish all the participants well. The other big story from these games concerns the Russian government’s recent attempts to discourage homosexuality, which has annoyed the west’s left far more than the Ukrainian famine or the purges or the gulags or anything the country’s former communist regime ever did, but here’s hoping that even the biathletes have a safe and successful competition.
As in every January, another big story is the Super Bowl. This year’s match-up features some team from Denver and another from Seattle, neither of whom are the Kansas City Chiefs, so we’ve paid little attention to all the Xs and Os and other minutiae of the pre-game analyses, but as always it provides plenty of manufactured social implications. The cheeky fellows at The Drudge Report dubbed the game “The Pot Bowl” to draw attention to the fact that both contestants reside in states that have recently liberalized their marijuana laws, but we suspect this might be mere coincidence. If legal marijuana truly does produce championship football we expect that Texas will quickly make pot-smoking mandatory, and that all the states with teams in the collegiate Southeast Athletic Conference will soon follow suit, so we await a definitive scientific judgment on the matter.
Another prominent piece of the pre-Super Bowl hype was a Seattle player’s on-air rant against one of the San Francisco squad that fell in the National Football Conference play-off game. We missed most of the game while attending a friend’s birthday party and have no idea what he was going on about, but we caught the post-game interview and it was vituperative enough to worry us that the fellow might do a drive-by shooting at whoever it was that had “dissed” him. Perhaps it was justified, as professional football is a rough game, but it seemed a unpleasant reminder of the kinds of deplorable people that America venerates each fall and winter, as well as the even more consequentially deplorable people that rule our economy, politics, and culture throughout the year.
Ah well, at least all three of our big-time Kansas universities are among the ranked teams in college basketball. The Wichita State University Wheatshockers are in the coaches’ top four, and there is hope for the world in the sports pages.

— Bud Norman

On Sports, Water Heaters, and the Nation’s Fate

The news has slowed to a trickle at year’s end, as all the newsmakers have safely ensconced themselves in swell warm-weather vacation digs where they can do little harm, but the rest of the world seems to continue turning in its usual ways. Results of the National Football League’s last regular season contests provided plenty of fodder for the headline writers, and around here the big story was our aged water heater announcing its final demise by spewing water into the basement.
These occasional breaks in the news cycle are welcome, even for such politically-attuned sorts as ourselves. They not only provide a needed respite from worries about the country’s wayward direction, but also offer perspective on the political problems that will soon enough confront us.
One tries to imagine the likes of Rep. Nancy Pelosi or President Barack Obama confronting a gushing water heater at 3 a.m., muttering the appropriate curses as they desperately search for the valve that will halt the deluge, but the image does not come readily to mind. All water heaters will eventually betray you, as many of our home-owning friends have sympathetically assured us, but in the case of Pelosi or Obama or almost any other politician the more likely scenario has them delegating the duty of dealing with it to a servant, probably one of those oppressed minorities they always claim to care so much about, and it can be safely assumed that the price of a shiny new replacement will not seem so dear to them as it does it to the likes of us. This is a fundamental flaw in our democratic system as it is currently constituted, we believe, as we think that the more direct experience of dealing a spewing water heater would make the average politician less inclined to think the could manage the country’s health care system and more empathetic about the costs they impose in the effort.
Even the National Football League scores seemed somehow significant on an otherwise news-free weekend. So far as we can tell everyone in the league is a testosterone-raged and overly-tattooed thug or a pretty boy quarterback, but we have our arbitrary preferences about which cities get to brag on their boys. The Philadelphia Eagles vanquished the Dallas Cowboys to win their division and a spot in the playoffs, and our pop lives in Philly and has become a supporter of the team, and the Cowboys don’t have the same cultural significance they did back in the hippie days when a guy named “Tex” owned the team and clean-cut Vietnam veteran Roger Staubach was the quarterback and straight-arrow Tom Landry was prowling the sidelines, so we were pleased with the result. We have a brother who loves living in the Colorado Rockies and has become an avid aficionado of the Denver Broncos, who earned the top seed in the American Football Conference with a win over the hapless Oakland Raiders and will thus be favored to win it all, so we’re also pleased by that outcome. Our own Kansas City Chiefs lost a meaningless game to the San Diego Charters, giving the divisional rivals a spot in the playoffs that will surely please a beloved cousin who’s working for Qualcomm in that temperate city, and after the Chiefs’ past several years of futility we’re happy just for the remote chance of a playoff win.
Sports rooting being a purely personal pastime, we were more energized by the Wichita State University Wheatshockers basketball team running its record to a perfect 13-and-0 by beating a Davidson University squad that is far better than its record would indicate. We trudged through single-digit wind chill temperatures to witness the victory with a cherished old boyhood friend who is mad for “the ‘Shocks,” and who was later treated to a win by his beloved Green Bay Packers that clinched a playoff despite the team’s mere eight wins, and the victory was not only worth the cold but almost worth a new water heater. Throw in a win by the Kansas State University Wildcats’ football team over the once-mighty University of Michigan’s Wolverines, a team favored by an old girlfriend of ours, and it made for an encouraging final weekend of the year.
Sports metaphors are of limited utility, as are sad tales of such quotidian disasters as broken water heaters, but they’re all we’ve got as head into the penultimate day of 2013. Weightier matters await us in 2014, but we will gird ourselves with the lessons learned from the trivial. If the Kansas City Chiefs can turn around a 2=14 season into a playoff spot, if a gritty blue-collar college basketball team from such a gritty blue-collar city as Wichita can be ranked above the traditional elites of the sport, and if such klutzes as ourselves can cope with a basement-flooding water heater catastrophe, then surely there is hope for such a great country as America.

— Bud Norman

Looking N-Word

The professional football contest between the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos was what most interested us about the past weekend’s sporting scene, but all the chatter seemed to be about what has come to be known as the “N-word.”
This seemingly ineradicable racial slur is the source of recurring controversies, which are by no means confined to the sports world, but the latest brouhahas have all originated with athletes. Perhaps the word is more frequently employed by people in that occupation, or perhaps their inordinate prominence in society makes their use of it all the more valuable as a teaching tool by those who still hope to eradicate it, but in any case the sports conversation has lately turned “N-word.”
It started when a massively muscle-bound lineman on the Miami Dolphins was accused of bullying another massively muscle-bound lineman on the team, which is the sort of thing we don’t remember hearing about back in the manly era when Vince Lombardi was prowling the sidelines of National Football League games, and the offending behavior inevitably included a text-message that used the slur. Felonious threats of physical injury were allegedly made in the message, but even with the current craze for condemning bullying the slur got most of the attention. The offense was seemingly compounded by the fact that the message was sent by a massively muscle-bound white player to a massively muscle-bound player of mixed race, who was rather precisely referred to in the text-massage as a half-an-N-word, but the ensuing avalanche of stories somehow complicated what seemed a clear-cut case of boorishness. Teammates of all skin hues rushed to the accused player’s defense, saying that threats and physical intimidation were necessary to toughen up to the new employee, who had somehow reached the professional ranks despite the disadvantages of being raised by educated parents and matriculating at Stanford University, and that the language used was standard locker room fare. One dark-skinned player further explained that the accused player was an “honorary” “n-word” by virtue of his massively muscle-bound machismo and therefore entitled to use of the slur.
The notion that the word is acceptable when used by someone of a darker skin color is now commonplace. A professional basketball player who used the slur in a “tweet” was recently fined $25,000 for the offense, a sizeable amount even to someone drawing professional basketball player’s salary, and he offered the same justification. The resultant controversy prompted two well-known dark-hued sports broadcasters to admit that they use the slur routinely, with neither offering any apology for the habit, and one indignantly implied that criticism of the practice is an effort by lighter-skinned people to dictate the behavior of their darker brethren. Both agree that lighter-skinned people should not be permitted use of the word, but for reasons having to do with linguistic empowerment or something it should be widely used by the darker-skinned.
Although we have no desire to dictate the behavior of anyone, beyond the obvious rules against rape and robbery and murder and such that the requirements of a civilized society, but it does seem a sign of strange times that the stigma against racial slurs is regarded as racist and racial equality is to be achieved by having different rules of social etiquette for different races. We would prefer that the word fall into disuse for the same old-fashioned reasons that we were taught to avoid it, because it is rude and vulgar, but that seems unlikely now that rudeness and vulgarity are celebrated as authentic self-expression and righteous rebellion against rules that vanished decades ago. The great appeal of racial slurs is that they’re only words left with any shock value, and the easiest way to gain all-important attention is to shout them with a carefully posed defiance at a gullible media.

— Bud Norman

No Refuge on the Sports Page

Throughout Monday we did our best to avoid the news. This was a difficult chore for such habitual news consumers as ourselves, but we simply couldn’t bear any exposure to what we knew would be worshipful coverage of the inauguration. Longing for the pleasant diversion of athletic derring-do and old-fashioned sportsmanship we turned instead to the sports section, but alas, it offered no refuge from scandals, bad behavior, and further evidence of America’s sad decline.
There was lingering talk of Lance Armstrong, of course. One needn’t even be a sports fan to know that Armstrong was the gritty American cyclist who whipped testicular cancer and went on to beat those snooty Europeans in a record seven Tour de France competitions, as the feat made him so famous that he starred in sneaker commercials, gave his name to a well-funded cancer charity with its very own colored ribbon, and had a much-publicized marriage to a rock star before getting a much-publicized divorce. Last week he went on a two-part Oprah special, where all properly contrite celebrities go to offer confession, and admitted it was all done with various banned drugs and medical procedures. The story involved blood transfusions, testicle amputations, Oprah, and other subjects that give us the willies, yet we read far enough to see that yet another American hero had proved too good to be true.
Armstrong’s all-too-predictable downfall jostled for space on the sports pages with the quite unpredictable saga of Manti Te’o’s imaginary dead girlfriend. Those who follow college football will recall how Te’o, a soft-spoken yet fearsome linebacker for the University of Notre Dame’s legendary squad, was shaken by the deaths of both his beloved grandmother and his eerily perfect girlfriend on the same day yet somehow found the inner strength to lead his team to an upset victory over Michigan State just moments later. It was a mawkish tale even by the cornball standards of collegiate football, but the sports media played it to its full tear-jerking potential. Then some skeptical internet scoops discovered that the girlfriend never existed, and that the highly-paid sports press had fallen for an appealing myth with the same willing gullibility of their colleagues on the political beat, and now Te’o is the focus of so much ridicule that if you type his name into a search engine “jokes” is one of the automatic suggestions. We have no desire to pile on this thoroughly tackled young man, who is said to be a sensitive soul, and who might even be another victim of the hoax, somehow, but we will note that it’s a sad day when a big time college football star can’t find what Robert Goulet would call “a real, live girl.”
The professional footballers have gone a few weeks without killing anyone, so far as we know, but they remain as obnoxious as ever. One of the Baltimore Ravens’ star players celebrated the team’s hard-fought victory of the New England Patriots by accusing the defeated foe of arrogance, for instance, and described them with a word which is commonly used in locker rooms but prohibited here. The description might very well be apt, but it pains us to see athletes stoop the same sort of disrespectful trash-talking we have come to expect from our politicians.
Politics also intruded onto the sports pages with the latest news about Phil Mickelson, golf’s lovable “Lefty,” who announced that his touring schedule will likely be affected the new soak-the-rich tax code. Numerous professional triumphs and an affable appeal as a pitchman have made him Mickelson one of the rich, and by his accounting he’ll be paying as much as 63 percent of his gross income to various levels of government under the new rules, so it might prove more profitable for him to play less golf. Mickelson is a rich white guy who attained his immense wealth by playing a rich white guy’s game, and even someone with his marketable likeability is making himself an inviting target for the culture’s prevailing class resentments by speaking out about his tax burden, so his statements are as daring as some of his famed trick shots from the rough. Typical of what Mickelson can expect is a report at the all-powerful ESPN sports network, which somehow finds reason to wedge admiring references to the president into the most apolitical sports events, wherein the unabashedly disgusted correspondent seems to believe the government is entitled everything “Lefty” earns and that he should be grateful for whatever he is left with.
We applaud Mickelson’s stand, with the same enthusiasm we cheered his first Master’s victory, and hope that he’ll get people to thinking about how the new tax rates might similarly discourage other people from doing something even more important than golf. This is unlikely, of course, as some new sports scandal will soon divert the public’s attention from such complicated political matters. We’ll soon be back to the political pages, though, as this sports stuff is simply too dispiriting.

— Bud Norman

The Six Ring Circus

The Olympics are now underway, and that still seems to be a big deal.

Not as big as deal as it was back in the Cold War days, when every competition that pitted the good ol’ USA against the USSR and its various proxies had the feel of single combat for the future of the civilized world. The games were riveting then, with each American victory vindicating the free market system and every commie victory confirming the duplicitous nature of that evil system. Not every Soviet win was tainted, of course, but that basketball final in the ’72 games certainly was, and so were all the medals won by those testosterone-laden women swimmers from East Germany, and countless judges decisions, so there were always enough shenanigans to support a good-guy-versus-bad-guy storyline that makes sports spectating so much more enjoyable.

The demise of the Soviet Union was a boon to humankind, but it did take much of the fun out of the Olympics. When the Russians and their puppets skipped the ’84 games America won so many gold medals that the national anthem became tedious, and all of the subsequent Olympics have lacked a suitable villain. At the Sydney games in ’00 the big competition turned out to be the home court Aussies, and except for Mel Gibson, Yahoo Serious, some crazy gun laws, and an occasional tendency toward self-righteousness there’s really nothing to justify rooting lustily against Australia. China arrived as a major world sports power at the ’08 Olympics in Beijing, and that country has several suitably villainous characteristics, but most of its medals are still being won in sports that Americans don’t bother to watch. The Ummah doesn’t field a team at the Olympics, yet, but even if it did it probably wouldn’t pose much of a threat to America’s standing in the medal count.

The supposed virtues of the “Olympic ideal” are an insufficient substitute for the good-versus-evil narrative. That idealism has been in question at least since 1936, when the games became a propaganda production for the German Nazi party, and every Olympics in our memory has been marked by doping scandals, game-fixing, outrageous political gestures, the worst sort of nationalism, and general poor sportsmanship. The ginned-up controversies over the amateur status of the competitors that were once a fixture of the games has happily disappeared since the Olympics wisely decided to embrace professionalism, but they’ve been replaced by tedious brouhahas over some small point of political correctness. Before the opening a ceremony a Greek athlete has already been expelled for the games over a rather mild joke and some unsavory party affiliations. All the “Olympic ideal” talk has an unsettling hint of one-worldism about it, and the quadrennial controversies always suggest that the one world they have in mind will be a rather stuffy and humorless place.

Still, we’ll be eagerly tuned in to whatever’s still available for free on over-the-air television, and hoping that it is free of tragedy. For all its flaws, the Olympics still bring together the world’s greatest athletes to compete in a variety of venerable sports, and there’s something undeniably compelling about that. The competition invariably provokes the best of humanity, even as it routinely displays the worst, and seeing that extraordinary range play out on a world stage will always have an intrinsic interest.

So let the games begin, and go USA!

— Bud Norman