Before the Super Bowl, I had huge issues of conscience about watching when I wasn’t being paid to cover it. However, it worked out because I witnessed the worst “strategy” I can recall from any major sporting event.
“They’ll just give it to the big guy,” I said as the Seahawks lined up on the 5-yard line with time to run four plays. Of course, Marshawn Lynch would lug it in. But the Seahawks’ offensive coordinator and head coach agreed on a second-down pass from the 1, and it was picked off, boggling the sports-savvy watchers, two of them Fleahawks fans.
I’ll leave the details to reporters who were there. I just want to say that in over 50 years of covering sports, I have never seen a decision that bad.
I’ve seen botched passes in the final seconds of basketball title games, pitches that got away in the World Series. I saw Harold Snepsts of Vancouver fire a cross-ice pass that wound up on the lethal stick of Mike Bossy, in a Stanley Cup game. I saw the referee totally miss (or ignore) the blatant Hand of God punched “goal” by Diego Maradona in the 1986 World Cup. I wasn't there, honest, but Babe Ruth, a very heady player, was thrown out trying to steal second for the last out of the 1926 World Series.
I can also think of coaches and managers making personnel decisions that backfired – Grady Little leaving Pedro Martinez in too long and paying with his job in 2003; the Dodgers’ choosing Ralph Branca instead of Carl Erskine in 1951; the bullpen coach, a fine man named Clyde Sukeforth, was scapegoated; my man Butch Van Breda Kolff kept Wilt Chamberlain on the bench in the final moments of an NBA championship game because Wilt had said he had a sore knee; Butch paid with his job. What happens to a very good coaching staff that puts the ball in the air with three downs and more than a minute to go, at the goal line?
The game was better than all the other stuff. John Travolta’s favorite singer sounds like chalk scratching on the blackboard. The half-time show was an open invitation to walk the dog, even if you don’t have one. And the commercials went nowhere. I laughed harder at Flo in a Salem-witch gig on the Progressive ad Monday morning.
Nevertheless, I’m glad I watched the Super Bowl. It’s like eating fried foods -- makes you appreciate healthier fare.
Pitchers and catchers!
(Here's what I wrote Saturday when facing my dilemma.)
After consulting theologians, ethicists, lawyers and soothsayers, I have concluded that I will not be committing a grave moral sin if I watch the Super Bowl on Sunday.
Since I normally denigrate pro football (and college football), it would seem hypocritical to watch the big game. However, I can justify it on these grounds:
1. I will be watching with actual fans. Laura and Diane moved back from Seattle recently with an attachment to the team they fondly call the Fleahawks. They know about the players and the coaches and bring real sports knowledge to the strategy. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a Super Bowl with fans. I’ve either been in the neutral press box or, semi-secretly, watched at home, purely for the sociological experience. To watch with authentic fans should be, how to say this, interesting.
2. I’m really only watching for the commercials. This has been my rationalization in other years when I hunkered down at home. The game takes forever, often is a dud, but I am entranced by the new and expensive commercials, sometimes crude and stupid, sometimes even touching, like the Eminem automobile spot a few years back, using Detroit’s struggle as the theme. Plus, I love the energy and pulchritude – young women in bathing suits in the frozen North. Most commercials I see on a certain liberal-bias news-chatter channel refer to maladies of the aging – things that don’t work very well anymore. This will be a relief to watch healthy young folks.
3. This could be a morality play. What with the deflated footballs, one could work up a good-vs-evil theme here, although that is always tricky when football coaches are involved. Still, feel free.
4. Let’s be honest: the athleticism is tremendous. The only football I watched all season was a Seattle playoff three weeks ago. I watched a receiver propel himself toward the corner, rotate in mid-air, and plant the ball on the flag for a touchdown, just before he crashed to earth. Huge defensive linemen performed balletic turns. Quarterbacks read defenses with half a ton about to fall on them. I get it.
5. The Super Bowl is essentially a rite of passage into spring training. The Los Angeles Dodgers stage workouts in their pastel stadium and photos go out all over the world, spreading the good news that darkness will pass and light will return. Pitchers and catchers in a few weeks. Hang on.
6. Plus, the snacks will be good.
My wife says football is still stupid, people destroying their brains and bodies. The league never much cared until forced to, recently. Hard to forget that. Still, for therapeutic purposes, I have granted myself a dispensation to watch the Super Bowl.
Our relatives in London were hoping we’re okay. Our friend outside Tokyo was wishing us well. My friend in Ontario said they have had very little snow this winter. We've heard from Brazil and Norman, Okla., and Grapevine, Tex., and my sister Jane outside Atlanta, waxing nostalgic about childhood sledding on Red Brick Hill in Queens.
That is the difference between now and the great storms of the distant past. We are all connected.
Nowadays the storms have doomsday theme music on the all-news radio. Sometimes they live up to the hype. This one fell short of the worst-case. The storm veered eastward on Long Island -- which is 120 miles long -- and we got what looks like 6-8 inches to me, but officially could be 8-12 in this area, near the city. The lights have not flickered here.
There was no all-news radio back in 1947 when I was 8 years old. I don’t remember any warning whatsoever. It just snowed and snowed – 26.4 inches, one source says. Did my father miss work because he couldn’t get to the subway? (There was no “working from home” the way some members of the family are doing on Tuesday.) How long were we out from school in 1947? How did my mom feed us all? How long was it before my Irish grandmother walked to church? I don’t remember.
I remember two things from that Big One of 1947 – the Rose Bowl on the radio on New Year’s Day, touching off national envy of sunny California (Michigan beat USC, 49-0; I looked it up) and also a major thaw, days or weeks later, sun glaring in our eyes, rivers flowing down off the glacial hills of Queens, toward Hillside Avenue, kids sloshing up to our knees.
The point of reference in 1947 was the Big One of 1888 – 21 inches, according to one source, with drifts 30 feet high. Thirty feet? The newspapers of 1947 carried 1888 photos of wires sagging over narrow city streets, a locomotive overturned. People in 1947 who were the age I am now talked with great clarity about their own memories of 1888, without the help of electronic clips.
In recent years, the web sites of our age tell me there have been other two-foot storms in New York. They all tend to blur, which is a good sign, because it means we survived.
The worst hardship came from Sandy, two years ago, when we were out of juice for 10 days but people on the Atlantic coast, friends, suffered much worse. I have no complaints.
To Sam and Jen in Islington, Haruko outside Tokyo, Bruce in Hamilton, Altenir in Rio, RJ in Oklahoma, Jane outside Atlanta: we’ve charged our gadgets, put batteries in the mobile lanterns and flashlights, checked the all-weather cord to the generator from our lovely neighbors out back, that would give us a modest charge, if and when.
Fifty years from now, some people will tell their grandkids about the Big One of 2015. For the record: I just saw a snowplow down the hill, scraping the road clear, and our neighbor Kirk cleared our driveway for us. It's all good.
Type in the letters P-A-T-R-I-O... and the wizard of Google completes the thought:
Just that automatically.
If Robert Kraft, the owner of the Patriots, is doing his own searches he might be aghast to see where his team stands in the web. Kraft is in a position to win his fourth Super Bowl, but what might he have lost?
Kraft's name was already associated with a coach who spied on the Jets in 2007 and got caught. Bill Belichick paid a fine of $500,000 for that transgression -- riding-around money on the MTA.
Now the Patriots have won a lopsided conference championship game in which the footballs were deflated just enough to change their aerodynamics.
Did this help guide Tom Brady’s passes well enough to beat the Colts? Not enough to create the 45-7 score.
The NFL – in the age of concussion carnage and Ray Rice and the weekly police report – is not likely to void that victory. But with all the cameras at work in the stadium last Sunday, the NFL just might find evidence of a low-level employee named Elmo skulking around the ball bag with a one-dollar needle, deflating the balls while everybody else in the place was gaping at the obligatory NFL jet flyover.
Our theoretical Elmo was not acting on his own, any more than the Jets assistant was acting on his own when he, oops, edged onto the field and shivered a Dolphin ball-carrier in 2010.
This is the NFL. Nobody thinks on his own, except Coach.
The way it looks, the footballs were softened, and not by accident. Does Bob Kraft really like being associated with this stuff along with Belichick's seventh Super Bowl?
Belichick’s values are questionable and his public persona is miserable. (To be fair, I have friends who know Belichick and describe his thoughtful side.)
Bob Kraft, 73, cares what people think of him. He and his late wife Myrna were active in many charities and good causes. I wonder what she thought of Belichick, and what she would think about a sack of tampered footballs.
I don’t think the NFL is capable of a moral stand, not with its ratings and income. But if the Patriots did what it looks like they did, Bob Kraft should wait til after the Super Bowl and then give Belichick a year off, without pay. At best.
As I sit here typing my little therapy blog – not in classic blogger underwear, I promise – I am supervised by a phalanx of editors.
They perch over my shoulder, the ghosts of deadlines past, monitoring my every whimsy.
Before I can push the “Submit” button on my site, I must satisfy editors who kept me tethered for all those decades.
They suggest temperate phrases like “alleged” and “so-called” and “was said to be” for assertions I cannot totally back up.
“You need to do this over,” I can hear Jack Mann or Bob Waters snarling at me in Marine patois when I was learning to play the game right at Newsday.
“Ummm, that doesn’t read like Vecsey,” I can still hear a Times national-desk editor named Tom Wark saying to me about a long profile of a bank robber who had earned a degree behind thick federal walls. “Could you run it through the typewriter again?” What a wonderful compliment.
“Ummm, could you make a few more phone calls?” I can hear Metro copy-fixers like Marv Siegel and Dan Blum, or Bill Brink in Sports, saving me more than once.
And early on Saturday mornings, right on deadline for my Sunday column, I would get a careful final read from the superb Patty LaDuca (about to retire, for goodness’ sakes.)
When I am talking to journalism students, one of my main points is that if you have an editor supervising your work, you are actually participating in journalism. But if you expect your precious words to appear in print just the way you wrote them, you are merely a blogger.
Editors keep you from making an ass of yourself. And sometimes the best editor is….yourself.
I was thinking about editors a month or two ago when a major movie studio allowed “The Interview” to come out with the premise of the dictator of North Korea having his head blown off. Charming. The self-indulgent director waved the “creative freedom” flag, and the studio heads folded, with predictable world-wide tremors.
Movie directors and producers could use a reality check from an editor – “Ummm, could you look that up?” -- when making films like “Selma” and “Lincoln,” as Maureen Dowd pointed out on Sunday.
More recently, a weekly satire magazine in France published a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad, touching off horrible violence around the world – violence that surely had been waiting to be fomented by opportunistic lunatics. Then the staff came back with another cartoon of the prophet.
Was any of that necessary? Journalists have this implanted in their brains at an early age, by editors. What are the consequences? What does the other side say?
Those of us who learned to present all sides – to make a few more phone calls – are lucky. So are the people who read (or watch, or listen to) those increasingly rare sources.
(I don't count Stewart or Colbert. I am talking about their sources. That is, journalists.)
* * *
One of the most rational posts on the Charlie Hebdo issue is by Omid Safi, the director of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center, for that great site, onbeing.org.
And here are a few others:
I always accepted William Blake’s observation, “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction” – until I listened to Michael Jordan one night.
Jordan had just made some amazing aerial maneuver for a dunk in heavy traffic. I cannot remember if it was in the Garden or Chicago, but I was there.
Afterward, a reporter asked Jordan how he had invented the move while in mid-air. Jordan normally sneered at “you guys” but this time he doubled up on his derision.
“I’ve made that move a thousand times in the gym,” he said, patronizingly.
Ever since then – 15 or 20 years – I have been vastly more respectful of repetition, performed by tigers of wrath, working on their moves 100 or 200 times per day in the gym or rehearsal room before they perform in the arena.
The value of reps was brought home recently while I was simultaneously reading two books that turned out to have the same message. Practice makes.
By sheer accident, I was reading Tim Howard’s “The Keeper,” skillfully co-written by Ali Benjamin, and Daniel Coyle’s “The Talent Code,” which I missed in 2009.
As it happens, I know both people – Howard as one of the nicest athletes, Coyle as a colleague at the Tour de France who has done epic work exposing cheating in cycling.
Howard recalls how he was taken in – for free – by Tim Mulqueen, Coach Mulch, a goalkeeper mentor in New Jersey: “He hammered ten in a row, so fast it was hard to get back on my feet between them. The moment I saved one, another was already whizzing past me.
“'Recover faster,’ he barked. ‘You can do better than that.’”
Coach Mulch also trained Howard to throw the ball rather than punt it, even in the closing desperate minutes. That way you have control. Fast forward to the 91st minute against Algeria in South Africa in 2010, when Howard started a full-field attack that kept the USA in the World Cup. The pass dated to New Jersey, two decades earlier.
Howard could have sulked when Manchester United brought in Edwin van de Sar. Instead, Howard studied how van de Sar threw his long body to the ground, cradling the ball. Tim Howard imitated the man who had taken his job.
The Howard book arrived over the transom from HarperCollins and the Coyle book was recommended by two disparate friends, a classical musician and a second-career keeper coach, who live 9,000 miles apart. Neither knew that Daniel Coyle is a friend of mine.
The cellist and coach were both impressed by Coyle’s scientific description of how the human system learns the lessons of repetition, through a material called myelin.
“(1) Every human movement, thought, or feeling is a precisely timed electric signal traveling through a chain of neurons – a circuit of nerve fibers. (2) Myelin is the insulation that wraps these nerve fibers and increases signal strength, speed, and accuracy. (3) The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.”
All the rest is practice. Gym rats. Musicians improvising with purpose. Teachers imposing order. Coyle has a great segment on a charter school (KIPP) in Houston. Students doing their reps, like Tim Howard diving for a save, over and over again, building up his myelin.
Wait a minute, that’s my city.
I seem to be saying that a lot these days.
Boston in 2013, London in 2005, New York in 2001, Sydney recently, and now the most beautiful city in the world.
If you have walked a city for a few weeks, you have lived there, it is yours.
The horror raised memories:
The first time, my wife and I, still kids, wandering on the theory of $5 a day, back in 1966, criss-crossing the river, bridge by bridge, just because.
Taking our children in 1976, five of us, walking to the Louvre on a chill April day, thinking, This is as good as it gets.
Our friend Roby and his grandson David driving us to our hotel, seeing the lights flash by, Paris at night.
Another friend had a corner apartment in a quiet district, a walkup, just high enough to feel we were looking out on an Impressionist painting.
And the most recent time, a full moon, our pal had the top down, and we circled the Eiffel Tower around midnight, just laughing at how outrageously gorgeous it is.
We know the block in Boston. Our London rellies live not far from the bus line the nihilists blew up in 2005. My wife knows the coffee shop in Sydney, a stopping point in her long walks in 2000. How could one not take it personally, when a few people hate so much that they could do this kind of harm? What do they hate? What do they resent?
Paris is our city, built on the arts and the sciences of the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the emerging Europeans. It shimmers for all of us.
The faces on the BBC and Euro News are familiar, so is the language. It’s our home, too.
So far away, I could only dig out the French national cycling shirt Roby gave me, 30 years ago. He was a national cyclo-cross champion in the 40’s, and later coached French cyclists. In 1982 he drove a few journalists on the Tour. When we had a question, he would pull alongside Bernard Hinault and ask why he was making his move at this time.
Roby loved his country. The first time he came to the States, he saw the Washington Monument up ahead and he started to cry.
“J’adore l’Amérique,” he said.
Today I put on Roby’s jersey – it’s way too tight, from too many washings, too many races – but I put it on, and I thought, “J’adore La France.”
(My friend in Rio, Altenir Silva, in the Comments below, recommends this clip from "Casablanca." I would add, let us also note Angela Merkel, front and center among world leaders, on Sunday.)
A former college basketball star I know sees way too much of the New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers.
An intense player and demanding coach once upon a time, my friend has the distinct feeling he is observing a crime being committed.
We both knew players, decades ago, who dumped games, shaved points, to satisfy gamblers on one side of the point spread. Some (not all, I suspect) got caught. Many had their lives ruined; a few went to jail.
That is not the problem with the 76ers and Knicks, whose cumulative record was a ghastly 10 victories and 63 losses, as of Friday morning. The players are doing their earnest best to win but the owners are doing their dishonest best to keep the talent level down, in order to choose a top star in next spring’s college draft.
It enrages my competitive friend to see teams in the National Basketball Association skimping on salaries. He calls me and rails: What is the ethical difference between NBA teams ironically dumping games in plain sight by “virtue” of dumping salaries and the old point shaving by players?
My outraged hoopster friend asks if some of the executives’ activities are not some kind of crime, or at least a significant breach of competitive integrity? Why do the NBA poobahs allow such a public breach of faith with its fan base, the ultimate victims. Are the poobahs’ eyes shut to this “gaming of the system?”
I wonder if there is not some eager prosecuting attorney out there who could investigate the business tactic of tanking an entire season.
And what about the wealthy patrons who pay outrageous prices for seats and so-called food in Madison Square Garden? These folks did not accumulate their riches by being pushovers in their business lives. Is there not a potential class-action suit festering among the expensive suits at courtside?
Adam Silver, the still-new commissioner of the NBA, may be preoccupied by his announced goal of allowing gambling on his sport. Gambling used to be considered a vice. Now it is a way of raising money because people don’t like paying taxes for roads and bridges. Meanwhile, Silver has part of his league playing with inferior rosters in an attempt to reload, cover up past personnel mistakes, and take advantage of a system that is anti-competitive.
My friend used to dive for loose balls and rage against indifference. Now he sits in front of the tube and watches the Knicks and 76ers stagger around, according to the schemes of their ownerships.
I know of a former college player who got caught taking a few dollars to shave a few games. He’s never re-connected with teammates who would love to see him. He lives a clean life, after what he did. But the owners of NBA clubs sit in the front row and smirk.
Shouldn’t there be laws against owners blatantly trying not to win?
Whether it’s the owners or the players, dumping a game or a season emits the same foul odor.
At first it made me think of the cave paintings at Lascaux, France, not far from where our rellies Jen and Sam live. But when I asked Anjali about it, she reminded me that she had been to upstate New York over the holidays.
So it wasn't Paleolithic work by early humans from 20,000 years ago?
"We went for a walk in the woods," Anjali told me.
She spotted some wood by the side of the path.
"It was termites," she said.
Happy new year.
More photos by Anjali:
For a public figure compared to Hamlet or some of the major saints, Mario Cuomo had a fiendish side.
I once reminded him the way basketball players of St. Monica’s parish in South Jamaica, Queens, used to take advantage of two tile pillars smack in the middle of the court.
While Sunday Mass was being held on the main floor, the Leprechauns or the Shannons would usher in new victims to the basement. Joe Austin, Cuomo’s coach for life, taught his players to run the old pick-and-roll play on the valid theory that a tile pillar cannot be whistled for setting a moving pick.
When Cuomo was governor – a huge source of pride for those of us who grew up around Jamaica – I reminded him how unsuspecting visitors got our brains bashed in.
His laugh was long and villainous, from deep in the chest, as he mirthfully remembered suckers decked out on the floor of the rec hall. That was fun, he said. The man had articulate empathy for the poor, the marginal, of his home state, of his nation, of the entire world, but strangers in the basement of St. Monica’s – tough luck, man.
From what I heard, he carried this rugged ethic to the basketball games in Albany during his long tenure as governor.
In 1993, he told Kevin Sack of the Times: “I'm the most formidable figure on the court because I own the league.” He added, “They all work for me and I am notoriously ungrateful to people who make me look bad.”
He was proud of being a jock, a minor-league outfielder until he was beaned in the pre-helmet days. He reveled in the ringer names he used in the amateur leagues -- Glendie LaDuke or Matt Denty or Lava Labretta (because he was ''always hot,” the governor of New York once told me.
Cuomo had a long memory, good and bad. For his inaugurations, he invited his gremlin mentor, Joe Austin, who ran a great baseball program on the field of Jamaica High School, when he wasn’t working the night shift at the Piels brewery. Cuomo would address remarks to “Coach,” and when Austin passed, Cuomo made sure that a street and park near the old Jamaica field were named for him.
We had a minor connection to the Cuomos – somebody in our extended family became a friend of theirs when the family moved into the twisting back streets of Holliswood. Matilda Cuomo visited our house once, a lovely lady, and my parents voted at the same hall as the Cuomos. The governor spoke well of our relative -- even when she became a hard-core Palinite.
He was a beacon to those of us who learned our lessons well in central Queens – that Jamaica Estates and Hillcrest are inextricably linked to South Jamaica and Hollis, that we are in this together. He brokered a housing agreement in Forest Hills when it seemed impossible. Maybe reason and compassion would work elsewhere.
In July of 1984, my wife and I were sitting in an outdoor restaurant in Santa Barbara, listening to a couple of stockbroker types at the next table discussing the Democratic convention up the coast, where Mario Cuomo had delivered his epic speech. The two money guys told each other that Reagan would sweep the 1984 election, but that Cuomo was now the favorite for 1988. And they were Republicans.
It never happened. Mario and Matilda Cuomo remained New Yorkers, perhaps a regional taste. He had wielded his elbows on the court, and maybe that kept him from needing to wield his elbows for the presidency.
The two of us, whacked by a cold, missed a nice party on New Year’s Eve.
Younger people staying home would line up DVDs or Netflix or something streaming. We played clicker roulette, with my only resolution to avoid the rancid pairing of Kathy Griffin and Anderson Cooper. (He is out; the joke never did work, people.)
There was a rather classy concert by the New York Philharmonic on PBS – jazz and an orchestra.
Then I started clicking. Four slender lads were running around a field, hair flopping in the breeze, coping with a grumpy old man with an overbite who kept insisting he was, at least, clean. Grandfather McCartney.
Suddenly it was 1964 all over again. I did not pay much attention to the Beatles at first but one morning I was listening to one of my favorite disk jockeys, William B. Williams, on “W-N-E-W, 11-three-oh on your dial,” as the jingle went.
William B, was normally cool – a champion of Nat Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Peggy Lee – but that morning he was denouncing a quartet of moppy-maned Brits for desecrating the air waves. He was so angry that he broke the Beatles’ new vinyl record, right on the air. I could hear shards clattering into the waste-paper basket. Geez, what was threatening William B?
One night that fall we lined up a baby-sitter and caught Hard Day’s Night. There they were, cheeky lads, goofing on people, minding Paul’s cantankerous grandpa, being pursued by girls, always in motion. We were smitten in 1964, and we were smitten again on New Year’s Eve, mostly by the music, but also by the understated irony.
Who will ever forget the glum lament by Ringo in Yellow Submarine, stuck at the bottom of the ocean, speaking in flat Liverpool dialect: “I want me mum.”
Or the agitator that was my favorite Beatle, John Lennon, putting Paul’s grandfather in his place in Hard Day’s Night:
John: You know your trouble, you should have gone west to America. You would have been a senior citizen of Boston. But you took a wrong turn, and what happened? You're a lonely old man from Liverpool.
Grandfather: [Sour] But I'm clean.
John: [Cheerful cynicism] Are you?
The lads ace their television appearance but their reward is not the birds of London but an update from management: “They think it'd be better if we pushed straight to Wolverhampton.” And that’s where the movie ends.
Two people home with a cold clickered around and found Jennifer Lopez and Taylor Swift conducting contemporary pop concerts with the charmless intensity of a new year’s resolution workout.
My wife delivered her critique: “The last 50 years, eat your heart out.”
Happy New Year.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.