Monday, March 2, 2020

For Pete's Sake, Let It Go


   Pete Rose was cancelled 30 years before cancel culture was even a thing. He is cancelled still, for reasons that are almost laughable by comparison to what’s allowed to stand in 2020.
   Major League Baseball’s all-time hits leader was banned from the sport for life in 1989 by then-commissioner Bart Giamatti for gambling. It’s instructive to remember that this was not the 1919 Black Sox revisited. Rose bet on his own team to win, which is the most Pete Rose thing ever. One can safely assume that the guy who effectively ended Ray Fosse’s career in a home plate collision to win a meaningless All Star game isn’t predisposed to losing on purpose.
   The disproportionate severity of Rose’s banishment from the game that defined his life was brought into sharp focus by the recently-exposed Houston Astros sign stealing scandal. Not only did baseball allow Houston’s 2017 World Series Championship to stand, Astros players were given immunity and allowed to continue with lucrative careers that pay several of them more money in a few months than Rose earned in his entire playing career. But money is not the issue here.
   When the Astros scandal broke, Rose swiftly and smartly appealed - again - for a pardon and eligibility for the Baseball Hall of Fame. His latest petition for reinstatement rightly claims that Rose’s lifetime ban is “vastly disproportionate” compared to the punishment - or lack thereof - meted out to cheaters on the Astros and players who were caught using performance enhancing drugs. Well, no shit.
   Pete Rose isn’t a guy who was railroaded by the system and locked up for life for a murder he didn’t commit  But he is the guy who got 30 years for stealing a loaf of bread. Now more than ever, his case is a no-brainer, and baseball should do right by him, lift the lifetime ban and let him take his proper place in the Hall of Fame while he’s still alive to enjoy the moment. He has been disgraced and humiliated beyond any reasonable measure. Cooperstown already honours alcoholics, wife-beaters, whoremongers and cheaters. Surely they can make room for a guy whose worst moral shortcoming was that he wouldn’t bet against himself.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The Doctor Makes a (White) House Call


  There is no greater measure of the limitless esteem in which Super Bowl champion and native Quebecer Dr. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is held than this: cancel culture sat on its hands and swallowed its tongue when the Kansas City Chiefs offensive guard publicly acknowledged that he’s looking forward to visiting Donald Trump’s White House.    
   It’s become de rigueur among championship athletes in the Trump era to boycott the traditional White House visit, which plays well with the Orange Man Bad crowd who police social media for any sign of affinity for the widely-reviled (and equally widely-admired) US President. Anything that could be remotely construed as an expression of sympathy or support for Trump by a public figure almost invariably results in a concerted social media campaign to marginalize the malefactor, but Duvernay-Tardif didn’t hesitate when he was asked what a reporter presented as “the hard question” about visiting the White House.
   “Honestly, I think it’s a pretty easy question,” was the McGill medical school graduate's affable, even-tempered response. “I’m not going to talk about my political opinion...but it’s part of the thing.”
   Indeed it is. It was part of the thing when Boston goalie Tim Thomas boycotted the Bruins’ post-Stanley Cup visit to the Obama White House in 2011, and part of the thing when players from multiple championship teams in multiple sports spurned invitations from Trump administration.
   There’s a compelling scene in the final episode of HBO’s Band of Brothers in which Major Richard Winters crosses paths with his embittered former superior, Captain Herbert Sobel, who acknowledges Winters but doesn’t salute. Winters calmly but firmly dresses Sobel down, saying “We salute the rank, not the man.”  In an orderly society, the same principle applies to democratically-elected representatives. We can - and should - respect the office, even if we don’t respect the person holding it.  
   It’s called being adult and professional and taking the high road, and the high road in this case leads through the White House, not around it.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Kovalchuk is a keeper


   It's been a while since professional sports franchises were anything other than business opportunities for their owners. The cost of buying and operating a major pro team precludes all but the wealthiest one percent from treating it as a hobby or an extension of their ego, and the wealthiest one percent didn't amass their fortunes by making ill-considered investment choices.
  As much as Montreal Canadiens fans with beards gray enough and  memories long enough to recall Stanley Cup parades as an annual rite of spring might like to think that the franchise is still driven by the will to win, the sport's evolution suggests otherwise. In a 31 team league with a competitive playing field leveled by a salary cap, the odds of winning a championship are somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-1. For a franchise like the Canadiens that routinely exists on the playoff bubble, just making the post-season is a de facto championship, which might explain why Montreal fans in the early 21st century have a tendency to riot after winning a first or second round playoff series, in contrast to the late 20th century when only the Cup itself was deemed sufficient motivation to pillage the village. More to the point, the playoffs represent a bonanza for the owners - both in terms of revenue and, in the Canadiens' case, putting some shine back on a brand that has suffered to the point where sellouts are often sellouts in name only, and there are noticeable swaths of empty seats at the Bell Center.
   So why wouldn't the Canadiens keep Ilya Kovalchuk, whether just for the remainder of this season or with an eye towards re-signing him to an economically viable short-term contract over the summer? It's no coincidence that the Habs have been resurgent in the 2020 playoff race since plucking Kovalchuk off the hockey scrap heap. He's been their best forward since arriving in Montreal, with 12 points in 15 games, including two dramatic game-winning overtime goals. He's 36 but plays like someone ten years his junior and is clearly reinvigorated and enjoying the Montreal experience. He's been a valuable addition on the ice and in the dressing room and he's a joy to watch. You're going to trade away all of that at the deadline for a draft pick who could turn out to be the next Michael McCarron/Nikita Scherbak/Jarred Tinordi/Louis Leblanc/Danny Kristo? It makes no hockey sense and even less business sense.
   It's not even a conversation. Keep Kovalchuk and enjoy the ride.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

NFL Punts PETA

 
   I’m a food chain guy. I firmly believe that if nature did not intend for us to eat meat, pigs wouldn’t taste like bacon and Harland Sanders would have spent his entire professional career as a streetcar conductor, life insurance salesman or midwife (the Colonel had quite a colourful pre-fast food magnate career history). But I don’t begrudge animal rights activists their beliefs. Live and let live is a cornerstone for serenity, and the richest man in the world doesn’t need a nickle so long as he has peace of mind.
   The PETA (People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals) commercial rejected by FOX and the NFL for broadcast during Super Bowl LIV is an artistic tour de force. Whether or not you agree with the message, it’s brilliantly conceived, powerfully executed and delivers the message without resorting to the off-putting stridency that often characterizes the organization’s public relations initiatives, to PETA’s own detriment.
   Predictably, in a prevailing cultural climate where social justice warriors frequently eat their own (pun intended), the harshest criticism of PETA’s ad comes from another prominent branch of the do-gooder establishment. Black Lives Matter supporters are piling on PETA for appropriating former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick's take-a-knee protest against perceived police racism and brutality. In a stunning leap of logic, at least one commentator called the PETA ad an example of white supremacy. I'm nobody's moral compass, but it seems to me that undermining a prominent and powerful would-be ally in your pursuit of a more just society isn't your best move.
   Either way, the PETA commercial is a terrific example of how modern media can effectively deliver a powerful and legitimate message, regardless of whether it fits your own personal narrative. FOX and the NFL are well within their rights to control the message(s) they want delivered on their platform(s), but in the internet age, the message is going to get out anyway.
   Enjoy the game. And the commercials.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Heroes, Villains and Complicated Legacies


   In the immediate aftermath of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, the narrative was one of tragedy, and rightly so. Nine people were dead - among them three young girls, including Bryant's 13 year old daughter, Gianna. But within hours, the retrospectives on Bryant's life included the first mentions of a sexual assault charge brought against him in 2003 by a then-19 year old hotel employee in Eagle, Colorado. Like the bloodthirsty hounds that they are, the Twitter mob went on the attack, shaming and attempting to shut down anyone who sullied a fallen idol's reputation before his body was even recovered from the wreckage. A Washington Post reporter was even suspended in the subsequent social media melee.
   Quickly and inevitably, however, both mainstream and social media ignored the self-appointed internet police and began examining Bryant's legacy in its entirety. The sexual assault case is a huge part of that legacy. It never went to trial, but Bryant's reputation didn't survive untarnished. There was an admission of wrongdoing, an apology and an out-of-court financial settlement.
   It seems apparent from a distance that Bryant was able to put the Colorado incident behind him and rehabilitate his image as a family man and pillar of the community. There is no question of his professional success and his standing as one of the greatest basketball players of all time. But any intellectually honest assessment of his life must include the sexual assault case. We are defined not only by our triumphs and nobler qualities, but also by our failings and character defects.
   It is also possible to have a civilized disagreement about whether, when and to what extent Bryant's moral inventory should be taken. Thinking it wrong that his name is being dragged through the mud while his family grieves is as legitimate as believing that nothing short of a full accounting is necessary, even in tragic circumstances. What's not legitimate is when either side of the argument tries to silence the other. Polarity and intolerance of dissenting opinion are the enemies of intelligent, productive discourse.
 
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   "I think I'll deliberately drop the n-bomb in the middle of a live network report on the tragic death of a superstar athlete."
   Said no broadcaster ever.
   The lynch mob going after MSNBC anchor Alison Morris for a terribly unfortunate verbal fumble represent the very worst of race-baiting and cancel culture. She made an honest mistake on live television and issued an apology with an entirely reasonable explanation. Anyone who doubts her sincerity needs to examine their own motives.

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   "I wasn't a fan, but I'm sorry he's dead."
   That was the gist of one of the first social media posts I read as word hurtled around the internet that Kobe Bryant had been killed in a helicopter crash. If you feel the need to qualify an expression of condolence, you're probably better off keeping it to yourself, because it will be of no comfort to the bereaved.


Sunday, September 30, 2018

Habs Roll The Dice on Kotkaniemi, And So What?



  The last time the Montreal Canadiens had a first round pick on the season-opening October roster in his draft year goes all the way back to 1984, when Petr Svoboda took a regular shift as an 18 year old rookie. The circumstances were exceptional - and political. Svoboda was a Cold War defector from behind the Iron Curtain, so it’s not as if the Habs could have sent him back to Czechoslovakia, where Svoboda would have been summarily assigned to the Bourgeoisie Running Dogs of Gulag Archipelago League. The American Hockey League was an option, but a ridiculously deep Montreal blue line that included Larry Robinson, Rick Green, Chris Chelios, Ric Nattress and Craig Ludwig provided insulation sufficient enough that the Canadiens decided to keep Svoboda, who went on to enjoy a long and productive NHL career.
   Which brings us to Jesperi Kotkaniemi. For the first time since Svoboda 34 years ago, the Canadiens are going against conventional hockey wisdom and opening the season with their 2018 first round pick (third overall) on the NHL roster. Given Kotkaniemi’s excellent training camp, the hand-wringing over the decision has been relatively muted, with most of it coming from media “experts” regurgitating decades-old talking points about whether an 18 year old can hold up to the rigors of an 82 game schedule. I can only imagine what a farmer, coal miner or oil rig worker thinks when they hear about “the grind” of first class travel, star treatment and lucrative compensation to live a childhood dream. 
   That’s not to say the travel and the physical nature of the game don’t take a toll, and I understand the thinking behind giving young players more seasoning at the minor league level. But there are exceptions to every rule. Kotkaniemi looks NHL-ready, and the Canadiens have a nine game window to decide whether he’s mentally and physically equipped for the long haul. 
   This being Montreal, the obsession with how the Canadiens are handling Kotkaniemi is to be expected but it's still vastly overstated. Ultimately, only a handful of people have a substantial stake in whether Kotkaniemi succeeds at all: the player, his family and the team executives and coaches in charge of overseeing his development. No one else's life will be altered in any substantial way, whether his hockey career flourishes or he goes back to Finland and herds reindeer.  The media should be grateful for the story line, and all the rest of us have to do is sit back and enjoy the show. 

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Here's your hat, what's your hurry?

    I’m not a Bob Cole fan.  When you grew up on Danny Gallivan’s “Savardian spinorama”, “larcenous save”, “dipsy-doodling over the line” and “stepping out rather gingerly”, Cole’s “oh, baby”, “everything is happening” and “what is going on in Pennsylvania?” make for a pale imitation. Gallivan was a wordsmith - a master of the English language. Cole is barely literate by comparison. His play-by-play has been characterized by rambling incoherence and inarticulate bluster at the best of times. That said, I understand the appeal to the generation that grew up with Cole. Whatever his failings as a broadcaster, he is the soundtrack of their youth, and to criticize him is to diminish their earliest and fondest hockey memories. 
   As the curtain prepares to come down on his Hockey Night in Canada career - now in its 50th season - there is no denying Bob Cole’s status as a Canadian legend. It’s unfortunate, however, that he is being forced out. It’s also his own fault. He could have retired gracefully, on his own terms, some years ago when he started to lose whatever once passed for his fastball. But he hung on for dear life and complained publicly and bitterly when he was passed over for Stanley Cup playoff broadcasts last spring. The sour grapes were unbecoming for a professional of Cole’s stature and bespoke an attitude of ingratitude from someone who has led a charmed existence. Hopefully, when Cole is given the opportunity to say goodbye on Canada’s grandest media stage this season, he will do so with humility, grace and a prepared script.