Eduardo Galeano & Dave Zirin (on FIFA)

In a frankly celebratory column at The Nation, its resident sports-and-social-justice scribe Dave Zirin wrote, in his usual blunt and acerbic style, of the arrests of the FIFA 14. The Federation Internationale de Football Association has long been accused of the most egregious forms of authoritarianism and corruption, and its slogan, “For the Good of the Game”, feels like satire in the wake of this sudden yet seemingly inevitable clampdown. (Having described FIFA’s leadership as “cartoonishly evil”, the satirist John Oliver nods his head vigourously.) Zirin is not waving pom-poms for the United States Justice Department — he’d be among those who also see a satiric tint in the name of that organization — but he has been calling for action on sporting corruption of many kinds for years. He wrote the book on Brazilian activism against global giga-events that you may have heard of.

Another writer to know better, who knew better than you and me about many things. Including the wearing of blue berets. (Photograph: Pablo Porciuncula/AFP/Getty Images)

Another writer to know better, who knew better than you and me about many things. Including the wearing of blue berets. (Photograph: Pablo Porciuncula/AFP/Getty Images)

Fittingly, Zirin invokes the late great Uruguayan journalist and histori-contrarian Eduardo Galeano. His Memory of Fire series of books on the colonization of South and Central America is a landmark of “people’s history”, and before that came the monumental Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. For many, though, his football opus Soccer in Sun and Shadow was his greatest literary gift. It’s among the most important and eloquent books on any sport, ever. Early in Zirin’s column, he quotes Galeano,

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The One That Got Away

Some people meditate on holy texts, and some people try to clear their minds of language. Some write, some run, some garden or knit or walk, some just sit or doodle or smoke as their way to reflect. Many people, of course, never allow their minds the luxury of slowing down (a little), of reducing the stream of incoming information (for a moment) so they can think. I build contemplation into my life in various ways, writing being one of them, and this week I have spent many hours reflecting on the Super Bowl, the championship game of the National Football League in the United States.  Some of this was intentional.

A monumental event, a cultural festival.

I sat down with friends to watch this game, which is an annual cultural earthquake that rattles every corner of American life. For football fans, including Canadians, it’s an important game,  but it goes 20,000 leagues past a simple sports championship. Some people seriously argue that there should be a week’s holiday surrounding Game Day, or perhaps following it. Consider: the last three Super Bowls (XLV through XLVII, and don’t leave out the Roman numerals!) have been the three most-watched TV events in American history. Nearly 50% of all U.S. households tuned in, 60% in Baltimore, home of the champion Ravens. By the tense conclusion, about 115 million Americans were watching. Every year, the size of the advertising bonanza grows, with companies shelling out nearly four million dollars to CBS, the broadcaster, for each 30-second slot. People all over North America are still chattering about the ads, which have become a spectacle in themselves, attracting excited interest even from those who wouldn’t cross the street to watch the game. Millions of dollars and months of preparation went into the super-diva Beyonce’s half-time show. It’s kind of a big deal.

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Super Bowl Monday II

A guided tour of America…

This is PART TWO of my extended riff on watching Super Bowl XLVII. Please click HERE to read Part One.  

11:25 a.m., Dalian, China. Jimmy, get out of the bathroom! Jimmy! JIMMY! 109 yards in 11 clock seconds, according to The Heads, went Jacoby Jones with the 2nd half kickoff. In the pantheon forever. the unbreakable record. Rayvens 28, Forty-winkers 6. (Cheap shot. Sorry. Also, the return was recalibrated at 108 yards. So there’s room for improvement. Whew.)

Off to the races from the 2nd half kick-off, Jacoby Jones gallops.

11:30. The lights go down in the Superdome, and the Three Wise Men and I share a collective Uh-oh! Talk turns to jihadists and fear-mongering possibility and Black Sunday – the movie – and this is the way the world goes.

11:32. The realtor as hero: the Century 21 Man saves the wedding. (We are all heroes, insofar as we support the consumer economy.) Blah. I’m getting tired of this. The thrill is gone. But the Blackberry commercial got my attention: “In 30 seconds, it’s easier to show you what it can’t do.” Great song, easy-going, in the background. Jimmy thinks it was Pitbull. I don’t know what that means. (Matters not, as the song was “Who Knows” by Marion Black; the Wise Men and Me ain’t got no soul.) Oh, my goodness, and Air Force One has been de-tailed! People have been sucked out of a plane at high altitude and we are all to believe that they are still alive! (How can fact and science and logic match up to Marvel-at-the-Movies?) It’s Iron Man 3. Coming May 3, coming to save the POTUS and his high flyers and redeem our boredom. (I was quite surprised to have had a good time at Iron Man, before it needed a ‘1’ behind it: good acting, and snappy dialogue along with the CGI. I’m not sure there are enough new ideas, in the same way that the Star Trek reboot will suffer the inevitable sequel Scarecrow disease: no brain.)

11:33. Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, CBS’s voices of choice, can’t be heard because of the blackout. Sideline reporter Steve Tasker doesn’t know WHAT the hell to say. Thank goodness for commercials.

11:35. “It’s Febberary…Febuary…Febwuary.” Isn’t it funny how nobody can actually pronounce that month? A little, I guess. Out-takes are always fun. Subway’s is doing something in February that we should all be very excited about. (No mention, then, of restoring the lost inch to their alleged footlongs. Scandal.). Oh, and earlier, various stars (largely unrecognized by me) congratulated the famous Jared on the 15th anniversary of his sub-inspired weight loss. An iconic tale of modern America: man beats obesity and keeps it beat. Heroes are everywhere. (Jared did not look well to me, when I replayed the spot next day.)

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Too Young to Die

Dearly beloved,

We are gathered here to celebrate the lives and mourn the passing of two fine men. To be truthful, we don’t really know much about them as men – their wisdom, fairness, ingenuity, compassion, responsibility – so we honour, as we often do, their career accomplishments. They were utterly dedicated to their chosen profession, and paid a great price for that devotion during outstanding careers in the graceful, and brutal, exercise of power. Millions had watched their rise, profited (in ways not easy to account for) from their successes, and muttered quietly about their eventual and inevitable fall. And now they are gone. They were thirty years old.

They still are, actually. Brian Westbrook and LaDainian Tomlinson

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Electronically Home

Once upon an adolescent time, and several midriff inches ago, I was a Blue Devil (though a long way from Durham, North Carolina and the Duke of universities…) That meant, mainly, basketball and football identity, which in both cases started off as a fairly pitiable athletic I.D. but evolved into something that I cared about and found some team success in.

Today in my Inbox were two blasts from my Blue Devil Past, with basketball and Aboriginal heritage in common. One was C.G., a slender, quiet forward on the Blue Devils hoop squads I ended up coaching years after my playing days were done. He played on some pretty bad teams, come to think of it, but they got better and formed the foundation of better things to come. He was a great kid, but I haven’t seen him in years. Launching his second marriage already. The kids are precocious! Heck, I didn’t get there ’til I was 38.

And after not being able to find her for years, I’ve had my third email in two weeks from a long-lost friend, a former resident of the Six Nations Reserve who, against all odds, fell in love with basketball and got good at it. (We’ll call her “Virg”, because, well, that’s her name.) When I was just learning how to shoot the ball, as opposed to winging a two-handed bazooka shot somewhere in the vicinity of the unsuspecting rim, Virg was launching her own unorthodox, long-distance, self-taught shots in our tiny high school gym and making them with amazing frequency. With very little coaching and almost no good competition, she went on to play varsity ball at the community college in The City. I believe this had something to do with her willingness to walk several miles home after practices with her team, guys’ teams, all by herself or with a white kid who also wore 22 and loved the game with the same hunger. (Hello again, Star!)

Thomas Wolfe said, a propos of what, I’m not sure, that you can’t go home again. Mind you, he didn’t have Gmail.

Football, At Your Age?

Another absurdly bright, uncannily warm autumn day found me crossing a football field this morning. Again. One of my main routes on the ankle express takes me through the grounds of the community centre on Donald Street. Behind it is a small gem of a gridiron, lighted and perfectly crowned, with that familiar blend of short tufts of green mixed with worn turf where the cleat marks dimple the dirt. Beyond the end zone on either end remain the baseball backstops that were the original anchors of this mid-city sports park. However, the football goalposts in shallow centre field, the bleachers along the chalked sideline, and the blocking sled which, outside practice grunting time, just blocks the right-field line make it clear: it is autumn, and Football is King. It has been all summer.

Some people never grow up, it seems. I found myself walking across the quiet field, local seniors doing their laps around the perimeter. I may have appeared to be just strolling, too, but actually I was running instant replays of gridiron exploits recorded nowhere but in my jumbled memory. The highlight reel starts a bit bumpily: getting thrown around by a crazy corner linebacker in my first high school practices; being flung by an opposing lineman, like a rag doll in the jaws of a Doberman, as an undersized rookie slotback on his first run with the ball (and trying to wipe the phlegm off my face before I got back to the huddle); getting wide open on our terrible team’s first-play fly pattern, and watching our beleaguered QB’s beautiful touchdown spiral bounce off the shoulder pads I’d never worn playing sandlot ball on the town square. There were 54-0 and 63-0 thrashings by the bigger schools down the road. But it got better. We won more than we lost by the time I was a senior, and there were solid tackles and touchdowns and one particular leaning sideline catch that meant little in the context of a losing match but made me feel like a pro. For a minute or two at the time, but forever in my mind. The older I get, the more spectacular it was.

Yup, the hands used to work. They still do, but mostly for laundry and dishwashing and driveway basketball with children. (Yes, and typing, certainement.) And, likely thanks to a decision to put aside football after high school, I have pretty good knees for an old guy. But basketball left me with high maintenance ankles that whine and creak every morning, and so I’ve noticed something different about this fall, and perhaps the last few.

Time was when the cooling nights and the falling leaves meant only one thing, and this long after I’d hung up my helmet: time to run. Not just to run, but to juke, cutback, straight-arm a hapless linebacker, lower my shoulder and stretch for the first down. 20. 25. 30! He’s headed for the 35, the 40… Yup, even after I’d passed the 40-year marker, I’d be minding my own business, going for a slow old jog down any old street, red and yellow leaves along the curbside, and suddenly I’d be possessed. I’d feel a pointed leather spheroid under my arm, my eyes would widen, and the urge to hit the hole and get outside and turn it upfield overwhelmed me. Well, almost. I wasn’t highstepping past any helpless pedestrians or spinning out of the grasp of the postman. I’m a fairly sane neighbour. But every once in awhile, on a dark and quiet street, I would make a sweet little cut to avoid a looming mud-puddle. And there was that dog two blocks over, left yapping at only air…

But this morning I noticed something different. Even crossing a football field, even when I tried to get the old motor fantasies running, I couldn’t. The thought of making a sharp change of direction makes my ankles ache. I can still hear the plastic cacophony of pads and helmets popping as an 18-year-old ballcarrier – me – is gang-tackled to the ground. I can still re-visit the perverse joy of that socially approved violence, but I wouldn’t want to live there again. I can imagine coaching that game. Maybe. (Barely. And rarely.)

As in this park near me, baseball is sidelined. Televisions will turn to the MLB now that October is here, maybe even mine. I hear there was an exciting play-in game last night, the Rockies knocking off the Padres. (Can you name their cities?) There must be some baseball played somewhere in my city, but I never see kids playing it in my part of town. Now there’s a game I miss. I miss it even better than football, maybe ’cause I played it into my 30s. And even in mid-life, I can still imagine a nice pick, a quick throw (though my shoulder might groan for a week afterward) and, especially, swinging that bat. Even with that more easy-going game, though, I’d be best off playing it in the theatre of the mind. No pulled hamstrings there. No ice-bucket evenings. I’ve had my fill of those.

Ice Dreams

I grew up in a little Canadian town where we played ball near cornfields or in leafy squares, and got the hockey sticks out in late September. For reasons that I still can’t entirely explain, I became a hoops hostage in my mid-teens. I officially became a Basketball Guy, I think, during the UCLA Bruins’ astounding 88-game winning streak. I was a fan of Bill Walton and his Gang (and, later, of their coach, the legendary John Wooden), who were by early 1974 pursuing their third straight undefeated championship season. I remember my anguished disbelief when Notre Dame knocked off the Bruins in February to end the streak – it was a big enough game to actually be on television – and again two months later, when NC State (and the gloriously soaring David Thompson) beat them in the NCAA finals. (Or was that the semis?)

I had played the game for about a year and half by then. I was a grade 11 and thought I was getting good, but Haldimand County clay didn’t exactly ooze with hardwood competition. Or hardwood, for that matter: I played mainly on tile and that sort of parquet floor where the fingers of wood are always coming loose. I’ll bet there weren’t more than ten people in my town who even watched the Final Four that year, and most of them were the oddballs on my team whose skates were dusty, who believed that playing basketball was The Thing.

But before all that – with my Red River cereal and Riverview Dairy milk (home delivered!) – I ate and drank other sports: Hamilton Tiger Cat (and four-boy) football, Montreal Expos baseball (and endless games of “scrub” on the town square) and, especially, hockey (every kind, everywhere). I worshipped Gordie Howe from afar and the impossibly big and fast young men of the Junior D Caledonia Corvairs from as close as I could get. (I’d stick my nose right through the iron fencing that ran around the end boards.) The Sutherland Street Hockey League was fabulous in those days, and the games never stopped for long.

I don’t watch a lot of hockey in the regular season anymore, though I still pay attention. (I know the Ducks are no longer Mighty, and that Alexander the Great plays wing for the Washington Capitals.) But when CBC ran its annual Hockey Day in Canada last Saturday, I had cranked our coal-fired television up to watch. The Canadian hockey Goliath has often been something I wanted to take my slingshot to, but there’s still so much to love about the sport. I saw parts of all three games, but what grabs me by the heartstrings is what comes in between on Hockey Day: the grateful words of NHL players remembering their roots, the interview with that grinning guy who kept outdoor hockey alive in his Quebec town for 40 years, the rink that is the best hope of a struggling northern Saskatchewan community. I eat it up. It moves me to my sports-loving core. Gosh, I even got misty over the Tim Horton’s ad — yes, I insist on the comma! — with Sidney Crosby laughing and stickhandling with all the little fellas. I used to be one of those wee sprouts on skates, before Timbits or full facemasks had even been invented. And now, at an age where I should perhaps have outgrown these things, this ol’ basketball coach still has occasional hockey dreams: all that speed, the cool wind on my face, maybe one more great glove save from my goalie days…

Back in my hometown, there is a new twin-pad arena complex that has the town pretty excited. (Somebody had the smarts to get a new library built in the bargain. Come on, boys, you can read, too! ) I hope kids smile when they play, that they’re taught the speed and skill of that wonderful game, not just systems and corner grit. I hope the parents have some perspective. (I often had too lofty ambtions for my basketball coaching back in what folks always insisted was a hockey town, but there was one benefit: nobody thought their kid was going to the NBA.) The great Canuck poet Al Purdy described professional hockey as “this combination of ballet and murder”. True. But at its purest, and in the deepest caves of my memory, it’s a cool and an ever-gorgeous game. (And there are no goons, and no uptight, gum-chomping coaches. And I get to play forward whenever I want. And man, I can really fly out there…)

A Little Nightmare Down Home

It’s a sleepy place, with a languid river running through it. People have nice lawns and enjoy quiet. But in 1996, I was taking my new wife, a city girl, home to live in my little town, and she was worried. “Does anything happen there? Will there be any interesting people?” I understood, but my roots were deep and everything was there – my mother, my kids, and teaching and coaching at my alma mater high school – so we packed up our honeymoon kit (and the caboodle) and moved back – to Caledonia, Ontario, “a Grand place!”

Prodigal son that I am, I’d always thought so, but I’d also come to see how suburban sprawling my childhood village had become. (Caledonia is three times bigger now, yet its downtown has suffered. There are three stoplights and two Timmy’s on the main drag. Too much!) Diana fit right in with my family and bore up well under all that local history, but she found interesting conversations hard to come by, never mind excitement. Now that Caledonia and its eternal neighbour, the Six Nations reserve, are at the centre of Canadian attention, Diana flings her hands in mock dismay.

“I lived there for six years and now it gets interesting?!” I know how she feels. I spent the better part of my life in Caledonia, and wish I was there now. I always tried to convince my students and my children (and myself) that Real Life is right where we live; there’s no magic source of delight and importance Somewhere Else. Well, town and reserve teens can’t complain about boredom now, and I have the small sour pleasure of not having to explain that I grew up “in southern Ontario, near Hamilton, you know, about an hour from Toronto”. (I also lived and taught in Hagersville during the Great Tire Fire. It’s small-town vindication of a weird and ironic sort.)

Here’s the thing: I know these people, on both sides of the now-famous barricades. For our shared six years in Caledonia, Diana and I lived around the corner from them in the town’s first condominiums. They had been built by Jack Henning (father of John and Don, the developers stuck in the current dispute) about 1970. Then, to this chauvinistic north-side kid, they seemed a ridiculous distance south of the river, since the downtown, the arena, older homes and the original stoplight were on my side of town. Now, the Zehrs and Canadian Tire superstores that appear in newscasts are farther south still, along with the new rink, library, high school and streets (Laird, Tartan, Douglas, McKinnon) in this Scots-flavoured town. Dear old Caledonia Baptist, my north-side childhood church, has its new south-end sanctuary right next to the disputed housing development.

John Henning played first base in the age group below mine, and was the first kid I knew to have a proper trapper. (Rumour was that it cost forty bucks. John had the country habit of spitting and rubbing in its pocket between pitches; it stank to baseball heaven.) He was a rookie on the Caledonia High football team in my glorious senior year – we won several games after years of being pounded – and became a touchdown machine when the Blue Devils dominated.

Listen: John and I, like his brother Don and generations of white kids from Caledonia, shared science labs, hallways and playing fields with kids from the upper end of Six Nations who came to town for high school. I played four years of football with Ben Thomas and Alfred Logan, and was a teammate of various Hills and Bomberrys, Porters and Thomases. So were the Hennings. I wonder how these young men from a parallel world, guys we “went to war” with as adolescent athletes, have felt about those barricades.

For too long, they separated a quiet town and the proud and struggling nations that have watched it grow, from a single mill, along the banks of their cherished Grand River. The barriers were tangible, often tense and angry, but they weren’t exactly new, just obvious. It used to be that, if you wanted to, you could pretend such divides didn’t exist. I’d spent enough broiling afternoons running the bases at the Ohsweken fairgrounds, enough road trips with Martins and Montours, enough basketball refereeing at J.C. Hill school, that parts of Six Nations were clear (and dear) to me. Until I got to high school, though, much of it was mystery. Some still is.

For some Caledonians, though, it has been easy to live as if the reserve wasn’t there. That time is over, and that’s not all bad. Suspicions and stereotypes have deepened, and buried antagonisms have surfaced right on TV. (To think it all happened on Argyle Street!) However, this is also an opportunity to build understanding of a more than merely tolerant kind. (“Tolerance”: something we have for bad smells or uncomfortable shoes.) We need to better know and cherish the tangled history along the banks of that lazy river, and the needs and hopes of the communities that share it.

I was back home on Victoria Day. I was among the hundreds waiting by the barricades. I hoped for calm; some didn’t. I was ashamed by the lobbed insults, sorry for the cops, and sickened by the certainty of greater violence. I cursed the damage to community relations, and my own helplessness. Diana and I drove to Ottawa that night with foreboding, awakened grateful that riots hadn’t enflamed a darkened town, and were astonished that the barricades came down later that day.

So peace is possible. So Caledonia is an interesting place. (Who knew?) It’s a piece of geography that speaks of Canada, and the months and years to come will tell us a whole lot more.

A slightly edited version of this piece appeared in the Forum section of the Hamilton Spectator on May 29.

Caledonia Gets Interesting

Back in 1996, when I was dragging my new wife back to my little town, she was worried. A city girl, she wondered, “Does anything happen there? Will there be any interesting people?” But my roots were deep and my sons were there, as was my job teaching and coaching at my alma mater high school, so we packed up our honeymoon kit (and the caboodle) and moved back to Caledonia, Ontario. “A Grand place to live!”

I’d always thought so, but influenced by my Diana, an environmentalist and Jane Jacobs admirer, I’d come to see how suburban sprawling my childhood village had become. (It’s three times bigger than when I was a boy, but its downtown struggles. There were, as of our 2002 move to Ottawa, three stoplights in town. Too much!) And my bride did find it dull, and though there were lots of JamesHowdenHistory and family there, interesting people were hard to come by, let alone excitement. Now that Caledonia and its eternal neighbour, the Six Nations reserve, are at the centre of Canadian attention, Diana flings her hands in mock dismay.

“I lived there for six years and now it gets interesting?!” Well, my blissful life sentence in Caledonia was commuted after thirty years, so I know what she’s talking about. And I’d like to be there right now. I know these people, on both sides of the barricades. For our shared six years, Diana and I lived in the town’s first condominiums, built by Jack Henning (father of John and Don, the developers at the centre of the current dispute) in the 1970s at what then seemed an absurd distance south of the river; the town’s business area and its older homes were all on the north side. Now, the Zehrs and Canadian Tire superstores that have been appearing in national newscasts are farther south still.

John Henning played first base on Caledonia baseball teams the age group below mine, and was the first kid I knew to have a proper trapper. (Rumour was it had cost forty bucks. John also had the country habit of spitting and rubbing in its pocket while he played; it stank to baseball heaven.) He was a rookie on the Caledonia High football team in my glorious senior year – we nearly won the league after years of being a patsy against larger schools – and became a touchdown machine as the star running back when the Blue Devils actually won.

And John and I, like his brother Don and generations of white kids from Caledonia, had the experience of sharing science labs, hallways and playing fields with guys from the upper end of Six Nations who came to town for high school. I played four years of football with Ben Thomas and Alfred Logan, and was a teammate for shorter periods with various Hills and Bomberrys, Porters and Martins. So were the Hennings. And I can’t help but wonder who, among these young men from a parallel world with whom we all “went to war” as adolescent athletes, might now be on the other side of that barricade.

It’s a divide between the town and the proud and struggling nations that have watched it grow from nothing along the banks of their cherished Grand River. Today, the barrier is vivid and tangible, tense and angry, but it is not new. It just used to be quieter. It used to be that, if you wanted to, you could pretend it didn’t exist. For some Caledonians, like many Canadians, it was easy to live as if the reserve itself wasn’t there.

That time is over, for now, and that’s not all bad. There’s great potential for entrenching suspicions and stereotypes in the heat of this conflict, but – and call me naïve, if you like – there is also the chance in this standoff to build understanding: of the tangled history along the banks of this lazy river, and of the needs and aspirations of the two communities that share it. It’s an interesting place now. It’s a piece of geography that shows us a great deal about Canada, and what happens in the days and months to come will tell us a whole lot more.

[This entry was later expanded into a Hamilton Spectator Forum piece that you can find here.]

Boys Will Be Boys at McGill

In the football community in Canada, this was a small bombshell—they shut it down. Administrators at McGill shut down the entire football season over a hazing incident, apparently a long-standing tradition, that went public this year because one kid refused to take it lying down. (Or on all fours, more accurately.) And the ol’ jock wishes he knew more about it, because mixed feelings are jabbing at me rather unkindly, a sort of mental “Dr. Broom” (I presume).

Cynics might say, “McGill football, big deal, they get killed most weeks anyway” which is, as cynicism usually is, about as far from the point as it could be. It matters to young men; to some of them, the freshman that went home is a coward and a villain and thank-god-he’s-not-on-our-team (if they still had a team, that is). Initiation rituals are a bonding thing for a team. They are also a frequent outlet for sadism and interpersonal tyranny, so who knows which was pre-eminent at McGill? The school’s leadership decided that the former wasn’t a good enough reason to risk the latter, not to mention immorality and stains on the ivy-and-dignity image of the university.

Sometimes it’s embarrassing to love football. Sometimes I’m a little sheepish about understanding, at least a little, about what such a primitive ritual might mean to that particular crew. I remember ninth-grade initiation, when such things were still possible, and the perverse thrill of going through the “Ghost Walk”, a slide down a basement corridor a foot deep in rotting vegetables and other unidentifiable ooze. Being pelted by the football players with special glee tickled me, because they knew who I was. I felt good to have endured, to have come out with the smile on my face that said “Hey, that wasn’t so bad!”

So I get it. But I also get why a young man would refuse to “get it”, and know that it would have taken another kind of courage to say NO to getting probed by “Doctor Broom”. I wonder if he’ll ever play football again — the kid, not the Broom. I wonder if McGill will.