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April 30 2013


The F-Bomb

Screen Shot 2013-04-30 at 6.04.06 PMWhen I was in the last years of grade school and an underclassman in high school - both Catholic, middle class, and predominantly white - there was one word that almost always guaranteed playground or sandlot bloodshed among adolescent males.

The word was "faggot."

If you've seen 42, then you know its most heated scene consists of Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman standing on the dug-out steps shouting variations of our most hated racial epithet at Jackie Robinson - over and over, in a chanting cat-calling cadence that is designed to evoke a physical response. 

Fight or flight, the human instinct particularly sharpened in the nervous systems of young men.

Ben Chapman had nothing on some of the guys I grew up with, although their special milieu wasn't race, it was sexual orientation. "C'mone, faggot!" was the tag line of one particular 70s bully whose name does not escape me. You fought (and probably suffered) or you ran. I, for one, took off at full gallop. Others fought and were patched up by the school nurse. 

None of us questioned the underlying challenge. In point of fact, we barely understood it - except for those among us who were, of course, gay. I'm sure they got it. And I'm certain they suffered worse in silence than the cuts and bruises the non-runners tolerated.

What was this challenge? That being called gay - the term was not widely in use at the time; the more polite noun was actually "homo" - was the worst put down, right up there in fight challenge parlance with questioning the sexual proclivities of the maternal? And that it meant weakness, a failure of proper gender, the banishment of the outsider? I didn't stop to think - yes, I was too busy running. But I just wasn't prepared for it either. The culture would barely support the conversation. 

I feel some shame at this memory. In my amended biography, it would be nice to find a heroic chapter in which I stood up and shouted "yeah, I'm a homo - what of it, buster?" But my Pro Keds and their fleet tread provided the best option for my adolescent legs. I ran from conflict with the slur, yes - but I mainly ran from fear of physical violence. And when I didn't run, I was silent. Sad to say, we all pretty much were.

In truth, acceptance of this despised "other" was easy - in no small part due to the catechism of liberal 60s and 70s Catholicism. I felt no hatred, no real dislike, and little revulsion - certainly no more revulsion than I felt for the hormone inebriated monster that inhabited my own body. I read a lot and learned, in theory, about the many flavors of man at a fairly young age. But I didn't stand up, and of course, the moment passed. Older high school boys became more polite and less bullying, in general. And college provided the wonders of real diversity and experience. I stopped hearing "faggot" on the playground because I'd left the playground.

And then it was 1998.

In October of that year, a young gay student at the University of Wyoming was tortured and murdered near Laramie, Wyoming. His name was Matthew Shepard and his killers left him hanging from a wire fence to die because he was homosexual.

By all accounts, Shepard was a sweet kid, smart and promising. His father said Matthew was "an optimistic and accepting young man who had a special gift of relating to almost everyone. He was the type of person who was very approachable and always looked to new challenges. Matthew had a great passion for equality and always stood up for the acceptance of people's differences."

More than anything - yes, even more than the tragic AIDS plague of the 80s, I'd have to admit, though I was a "liberal" throughout - Shepard's murder made me realize the real stakes in "gay rights." This was a civil rights crusade. It was about the rights of non-heterosexual Americans to live as freely as everyone else. And it was about the forces of darkness, the spit-flaked speech of the playground, the incitement to violence and shunning and shame.

I began to think that it wasn't the Matthew Shepards of the world who needed the courage to come out of the closet - and be welcomed by the normal world - it was the rest of us who needed the collective courage to tear the damned closet down.

Nothing in American political life of recent vintage has been as stunning and inspiring as the success of equal rights - political, social and cultural - for gay citizens. That advance in less than a generation is one of this country's most hopeful signs for the future. And the refusal of my children's generation to even categorize LGBT people is astounding and welcome.

So in some ways, the brave decision of NBA center Jason Collins to come out in Sports Illustrated this week feels more like an important postscript. I know it's not, of course. Marriage is still before the U.S. Supreme Court. Sodomy laws remain on the books in many states. Religious establishments protect prejudice. Things don't change quickly enough.

Yet the reaction to Collins's courage was swift and validating - especially among his former teammates and professional athletes. That reaction in response to the elegant SI essay really matters, it seems to me. The passage in which Collins talks about wearing 98 in tribute to Matthew Shepard was deeply moving. (And how cool was it that Collins is a classic NBA enforcer, a journeyman Anthony Mason?) More gay athlets will clearly live in public. Their teammates will support them. Those athletes can change the playground rules. Sports culture is a stubborn hold-out on all fronts of sexual and gender equality. But under the hoop, maybe we won't hear the real F-bomb as much any more.

February 04 2013


Heckuva Job, Beyonce


Just seven years after the very halls of the Superdome were a national symbol of abandonment, the failure of government, and the disproportionality of society's response when it is so clearly divided by race and money, the National Football League turned its back on the people of New Orleans with a mammoth expression of glitz and electronics - a display every bit as pompous and crass as Air Force One tilting its wings so that George W. Bush could catch of a fleeting glance of flooded glory.

I don't blame Beyonce, really. She did the job she was contracted for, donned the latex and leather corset, and slunk professionally around a stage drunken with LED lighting and dozens of dancers who mimmicked her moves. Yeah call me a geezer, kiddies, but I thought the idea was that what happened in Las Vegas stayed in Las Vegas. Or is that just a slogan?

The NFL itself didn't even lip sync a concern for New Orleans, or the recognition that a national tragedy unfolded in the Dome, in the streets outside, and in the parishes to the south and east, where hundreds died waiting for help that never came. Last night's gaudy casino fest could have been in any dome, from Tampa to Minneapolis, Seattle to Indianapolis. It spoke not at all of the incredible city of culture that is New Orleans, one of the rare large-scale urban places in the United States that has heroically resisted the pull of social and cultural homogeneity.

What a disgrace. Where was the music? Where was the glorious sound of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and its deeply emotional tradition of New Orleans jazz, a form that to this day thrills the tendons, muscles and bones that lead human beings to move and dance and sway. Where were the modern jazz artists who call New Orleans home? Where were the blues artists who find NOLA to be one of the few places in the U.S. with enough venues to play two shows a day and sleep till noon? And where were the marching bands? Man, the halftime of any Ole Miss-Tulane game has better, more authentic music.

There was blackout in the third quarter last night. Perhaps it represented the still fragile state of New Orleans' recovery, and the city's delicate infrastructure. Or maybe the stadium simply blew a fuse with the technological schock-o-thon at halftime. The game itself was pretty good. But the blackout had another meaning to me. It may have featured Destiny's Child - but it most surely lacked destiny's children.

Shame on the NFL (and their sponsoring Pepsi overlords) for ignoring one of the great seats of American culture. Heckuva job, Beyonce.

February 11 2010


Hard Court Heroes and Smoke-Filled Gyms

The early days of New York sport are something of quiet passion of mine, from the Polo Grounds of John J. "Muggsy" McGraw before the first World War up through the post-war golden era. That's a half century that helped to define what New York is now, and what it always will be: a great metropolis and center of urban culture. Like music and art and finance, New York sports did not merely grow with the times - they helped the modern passion of New York burst into existence.

Two things stand out about that half century of competition: the sheer exuberance and the scale. The money was smaller, to be sure, but the competition itself was grander. There were times when you might guarantee that every ear nuzzled a radio speaker for a prize fight or a World Series game; it was an era when a pile of daily newspapers sent scores of sports writers into the field to capture the action. I've been reading No Cheering in the Press Box, Jerome Holzman's canonical 1973 work of oral history on that golden era and it's just a fantastic window into sports history, particularly the dominant New York culture. And while it's easy to erect a sentimental gauzy barrier and squint through its occluded viewfinder at the vanished age of flannels and afternoon baseball, Holzman's  history - compiled just before most of its subjects died - does contain an appealingly gruff and honest view of wonderful times. Everyone it seems, from Babe Ruth to the highest-paid writers of the day, lived closer to the ground.

And yes, they played for money in those days; Ruth and DiMaggio were famous hold-outs. But that exuberance was clearly there - they played because it was what they did, what they were good at, what they were obsessed with. And indeed, outside of baseball and prize-fighting, there were ranks of professional athletes of that golden era who had to be content with small change and a little glory. So when Carl Braun's widow says “he loved the game and he would have paid the Knicks to play for them,” you know it rings true.

Braun played professional basketball in New York in an era of wooden floors and wooden seats, in the mid-town Armory and the old Madison Square Garden. He is one of the great Knicks of all time, and still ranks fifth on its scoring sheets for a career, though he compiled his points in a slower, lower-scoring era before the shot clock, the extra step, and the three-point line.

Carl Braun was also the father-in-law of my buddy Scott Williams, a huge sports fan and long-suffering Mets denizen, so I paid some extra attention to some of the obits today and was struck at how today's super-corporate MSG culture (and frankly, its losing ways) stand in stark contrast to Braun's career. Straight outta Brooklyn and Garden City, Braun was a scoring machine who finished his career as player-coach in the late 50s with the Knicks, before adding valuable minutes to the Celtics' championship in 1961, his final season. He was a five-time all-star and one of the fledgling league's starts; just as importantly, he was a homegrown hero.

Yet the name Carl Braun doesn't live in Knicks history like the names on the 69-70 squad. Blame it on management. As Peter Vescey noted in today's Post, guys like Braun - and their below-the-rim era - are underappreciated in the extreme: "Braun, who scored more than 10,000 points in his NBA career, was seemingly unappreciated by his hometown team (his No. 4 does not hang from the Garden rafters)."

Here's saying it should.
Tags: Sports
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