The High and Not-As-High Price of Stupid Decisions

With great trepidation, I wade into a take on sports*. The one-time Super Bowl star New York Giants receiver Plaxico Burress accepted a plea bargain and, with good behavior, will spend 20 months in jail for accidentally shooting himself in the thigh at a Manhattan nightclub. The Cleveland Browns receiver Donte’ Stallworth spent 24 days in jail for running over and killing a man while driving drunk. The big debate revolves around whether the two men received equitable treatment under the law.

One the surface, it may seem easy to compare the two cases, however, there are some important observations. The offenses took place in different states, New York and Florida, respectively. Different jurisdictions make for different sentencing guidelines. New York has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation, thus not the best place to bring an unlicensed firearm into a night club. Then there were other mitigating factors, such as the state possibly having a difficult time securing a conviction because the victim in the Stallworth case having ran into traffic.**

It’s easy to see people found guilty of a crime receiving what appears to be different penalties for them and think that, once again, an injustice has occurred. Again, on the surface, it might seem like only one is paying a price and looks like the other is getting over. Though, they were both superstar receivers, when they faced serious legal trouble, they ran radically different routes.***

Donte’ Stallworth pulled over immediately after the accident. Though undoubtedly tempted to flee the scene, he tried to help the man and stayed around until the police arrived (even submitting to a blood test). He made a settlement with the family and a plea agreement with the prosecutor. Though a tragic situation, he made the best of it through his unconditional acceptance of responsibility for the incident. Owning it immediately, being contrite, getting with those he’d hurt, he tried to make things right and accepted the consequences of his actions (while not wanting this incident to define either him or his team).

On the other hand, instead of calling the police, Burress thought that he would try to outsmart the police. Not that he called them; rather, he had a teammate call his trainer. He tried to hide the gun and avoided taking an ambulance. He gave the emergency room staff a false name. And he ignored the advice of the counsel in his life and long refused to make a plea deal of any sort, employing a strategy of denial and delay.

We’re a forgiving people. We’re all about giving folks a second chance because, well, everyone makes mistakes and we get it. Just own up to it. Don’t blame others, play the victim, deny, trot out different theories of what happened, have to be chased down for an apology, or act like you did nothing wrong. It all boils down to how you respond when you get caught. How you get back up after you stumble and live with the consequences—from the shame to your contrition to your rebuilding of your life—that reveals who you are. Responsibility is a simple concept; it means to it means accepting the consequences for the things that you do. There can be forgiveness, though you are responsible for how you deal with the consequences.

Just don’t kill a dog.

*The fans are every bit as nuts as those in the gaming scene and this is far from my area of expertise.
**I just remembered, I’m as much a lawyer as I am a sports analyst. I’ll stop now.

***I hate puns, yet …

I Understand A-Rod

Give me a break, baseball purists: there’s no need for asterisks. No sport has prided itself more on cheating than baseball: from spit balls to corked bats to gambling scandals (from Shoeless Joe to Pete Rose) to, I don’t know, not letting black people in the game.

I know I took Michael Phelps to task for his brand of apology last week, but I’m almost sympathetic to Alex Rodriguez. Almost. Yes, he’s a cheater and has tainted his legacy and any future work he has in the sport. Yes, this one stung a bit more because so many pinned theirs hopes on the idea that HE was one of the clean ones who would allow for the redemption of the sport. And I’m on board with all of that. I’m up for stamping a big ole asterisk across the entire hall of fame at this point.

But part of me gets where he was coming from.

I know there’s part of me that when I’m about to release a new novella or story, I don’t want to let my audience of readers down. I want to put out the best product I can. I don’t want to disappoint even a single paying customer with less than my best. Ditto my publisher: when I get an advance, no matter how large or small, I feel the subtle pressure to earn out. Yes, I still cash the check if I don’t, but I still want to justify people’s confidence in me. I know what it’s like to look around at my peers and be surrounded by a lot of people who are naturally head and shoulders better than you. Folks who you know you had better work as hard or harder than if you want to keep up. As entertainers and artists, we all face that pressure to succeed, that pressure to be seen as worthy, that pressure to live up to your potential.

It seems like it doesn’t matter how large your salary is or how good your reviews are, many of us wrestle with lots of insecurity: about job, about ability, about what others are doing, how others perceive you. Talk about believing the lie: even when you’re widely regarded as the best, you might not see yourself as good enough, pretty enough (memo to plasticized Hollywood), smart enough, talented enough.

And there is an underlying reality to that fear. This is a “what have you done for me lately” culture, and even as a writer, you’re only as good as your latest story. You’re always one book not selling well enough from your career being flushed away.

We live in a culture of deniability and instant gratification. Where peer pressure and worrying about what other folks are doing gets into your head. Short-sighted though it may be, our desperation and competitive natures can combine into a mix of bad decision making. We could yield to the temptations, the short cuts, of plagiarism or self-publishing, rather than do things the right way, the harder way. Where we have to read more. Practice more. Experiment more. Push yourself more. Where we learn and grow from the failures that it takes to climb up the ranks. Where we learn what works, what doesn’t, what people are looking for as we’re being shaped into the artists and performers we were meant to be.

I understand. It was still a poor decision, but I understand the root of it. We can all rebound from our mistakes (say like an early PublishAmerica mistep). So I’ll cut Alex Rodriguez the tiniest bit of slack and take his remorseful, apologetic, semi-confession for what it was and allow for the possibility of redemption.

No Asterisks for Me

On August 7th, 2007, at 8:51 p.m. (Pacific Time), during his third at bat, on a 3 and 2 count, Barry Bonds hit his 756th home run, passing the all-time great, Hank Aaron. As I watched the moment (about ten minutes worth of the repeated swing, trot around the bases, and rejoicing), I was struck by two images: one, the shot of Barry sticking his arms in the air as soon as he hit the ball (against a back drop of fans who simultaneously stuck their arms in the air); and the shot of fans who placed asterisks above their heads.

Give me a break, baseball purists: there’s no need for asterisks. No sport has prided itself more on cheating than baseball: from spit balls to corked bats to gambling scandals (from Shoeless Joe to Pete Rose) to, I don’t know, not letting black people in the game. It has more than its share of “unwritten rules” that amount to vigilante justice (see Roger Clemons putting one right between the jersey numbers of Alex Rios because Josh Towers tuned up Alex Rodriguez for his antics many games ago). Players have repeated the mantra that “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying” and “it’s only cheating if you get caught.” So don’t talk to me about the integrity of the game and the sacrosanct nature of your numbers.

Barry Bonds has become the poster boy of the “steroid era” (by the way, I don’t think race plays a factor in why Barry Bonds has taken so much flak, unless a-hole has become a race). Did Barry Bonds take steroids? To quote Roger Lodge “You might as well ask me if O.J. did it,” because the circumstantial case is fairly conclusive.

Athletes are constantly looking for an edge. Steroids turns average players into pretty good players, pretty good players into all stars, and all stars into hall of famers. We have ‘roided up hitters playing against ‘roided up pitchers. Barry Bonds was a hall of fame bound player still looking for an edge.

For many, the record is tainted. Commissioner Bud Selig has ducked out from the Bonds homerun watch as much as possible pretending that his hands are clean. We want to believe all these athletes perform clean. When we thing about the Hank Aarons and Jackie Robinsons of the game and what all they went through, we feel that Bonds doesn’t deserve it (and certainly doesn’t live up to their legacy).

However, even as a non-baseball fan, I recognize that this is still an important moment with a shadow about it. I applaud the moment if not the person. Spare me any talk about your “hallowed numbers” because if nothing else, your complaints will only last until Alex Rodriguez takes the record from Bonds in the next decade.

Not As Entertaining

Meet Adam “Pacman” Jones: On the field, a terrific force in the NFL. Fast, great instincts, a nose for the football. Off, a public nuisance — perhaps worse. Slow to see reality, gutless, a nose for trouble. The Titans love the first Pacman. They tolerate the second one. Too bad. Where there’s smoke, there is usually a raging inferno named Pacman Jones … the club owner said [he] came and left with the man who did the shooting.

Whether we want them to be or not, athletes do tend to represent us. They are ambassadors of what we value and how we compete. This speaks to the importance of having character guys on our teams. Yes, we want to win, but we don’t want to win at all costs. Haywood Hale Broun is noted for saying, “Sports do not build character. They reveal it.” While sports should be teaching lessons about stronger teamwork or greater self-discipline, instead we get a “me, me, me” attitude, a culture of accommodation, and win at all costs mentality – all driven by money. Rarely is there anything to be appreciated as a “role model” among the athletes.

The Cincinnati Bengals set a record for number of players arrested for off-the-field antics. Closer to home, two Pacers were just indicted for their participation in a bar fight. The Indianapolis Colts running back, Dominic Rhodes, was just arrested on the suspicion of driving under the influence. Coach Tony Dungy said that “It’s disappointing. How that’s going to impact what we do, we’ll have to see down the road. But Dom knows that it’s something I’m very disappointed in. But we’ll sit down and go through everything and try to sort it out and try to be as supportive as we can.”

In America, we live under the presumption of innocence, and a grand jury indictment does not translate into guilt. However, as mentioned with Pacman, though, where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire. The Colts have enjoyed a certain amount of a halo effect, in spite of Rhodes’ past domestic battery charge; in spite of Nick Harper’s domestic batter charge; and in spite of Mike Doss’ gun-firing incident. Like Bobby Knight when he was at Indiana University, we forgive a lot when you’re winning. You start to slide and all of a sudden you are cut a lot less slack.

Frankly, these athletes’ shenanigans embarrasses themselves, the cities they represent, and the game, distracting from what people should be focused on: the sport. The NBA, suffering through sagging ratings and attendance, attempts to rehab its image. Starting with dress codes to stiffer penalties for stepping onto the court to fight, the league wants to shed its “thug league” image. (Though, interestingly enough, the NHL was never characterized as a “thug league” despite the regularity of its on court tussles. That’s probably a blog for another day) . NFL players, protective of the league’s image, are sick of all the press for their stumblings off the field. The players themselves are taking the initiative to push for a “three strikes and you’re out of the league” policy.

Then again, maybe I’m making too big a deal out of all of this. Athletes, like actors or musicians, are entertainers. And as much as we, as a society, love to build people up, we love to tear them down, or at least make popcorn and enjoy their tumble from grace. We are just as entertained by the off-screen antics of our pop culture icons. Celebrities reduced to tabloid fodder, to the point where people can become famous strictly due to their tabloid exploits. Why should athletes be any different. The E in ESPN does stand for entertainment. And we are just as entertained by train wrecks as we are super star performances.

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So Close and Yet So Far

Sports franchises are often the face of the city, which is why it is so important that Indianapolis teams have quality character guys on their teams (memo to the Pacers). A lot of a city’s self-esteem is wrapped up in its sports franchises. We look good on Monday night television, but the Colts need to make it to the Super Bowl.

Do you know what you don’t come to my blog to read? Cogent sports analysis.

Yet here I am, thinking about the Colts and their chances of finally making it to the Promised Land. Do the Colts have a chance to win a Super Bowl this season? Nope, not unless they get some defense. You can make the playoffs with an over-powering offense, but it’s not consistently potent enough to overcome the defense deficiencies come play-off time. Defense wins championships. However, the Super Bowl is the only stage left, big enough, for them. Getting to the Super Bowl certainly matters to Peyton Manning. He needs the big game, not only that, but to play well in that game. Ghosts of Dan Marino will haunt him until he does.

A Super Bowl appearance should certainly matter to Indianapolis. Sports franchises are the public face of a city. It’s one reason why New Orleans is America’s second favorite team right now. We’re rooting for New Orleans vicariously through their team. Some folks make the argument that the teams take on the personalities of the cities, I don’t know if I would go that far. Whether we want them to be or not, they do tend to represent us. They are ambassadors of what we value and how we compete.

This speaks to the importance of having character guys on our teams. Yes, we want to win, but we don’t want to win at all costs. Haywood Hale Broun is noted for saying, “Sports do not build character. They reveal it.” While sports should be teaching lessons about stronger teamwork or greater self-discipline, instead we get a “me, me, me” attitude, a culture of accommodation, and win at all costs mentality – all driven by money. Rarely is there anything to be appreciated as a “role model” among the athletes.

We want attention for the right reasons as we try to escape the “what the hell were you doing out at 3 a.m at a strip club anyway?” shadow of the Pacers. The Pacers had a preseason publicity campaign because they knew they were facing a disenfranchised fan base (and worse, possible empty seats). Why? Because we want character guys as well as quality product. So we should appreciate good character guys when we have them, like Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison, when we see them. Especially when watching them is watching sports history unfold before us as they are among the best of all time.

I’m strictly a casual sports fan. I don’t live and die by a team (or else the Pacers and Colts would have caused me to slit my wrists years ago). We have a good team, an exciting team to watch. Will it be good enough to make it to the Super Bowl? Nope. Though I’d love to be wrong.

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If you want to make sure that I see your comment or just want to stop by and say hi, feel free to do so on my message board. I apologize in advance for some of my regulars.