And We Mourn for the Americans…

“We are all Hokies today,” said one email to an American sports radio show today, as the chatter about bad calls and draft prospects was cut off at the knees by the word out of Blacksburg, Virginia. Yes, Virginia Tech’s athletic teams are the Hokies, but nobody’s thinking much about spring football or the basketball season just past. “There’s somethin’ ’bout Mondays always makes me blue,” Steve Earle was just singing out of my stereo. The grim curtain of violence has just fallen again in the United States. Somehow, thirty-three dead in Virginia hits harder than another Baghdad bombing statistic, but we’re all human. The hurting is everywhere, but it’s hitting the Americans especially hard today.

This particular bit of grimness is farther away for us in Canada, but only good luck and good policing prevented a similar death toll in our own college shooting last fall. (I wrote about Dawson College here. The feeling is the same today.) Education and gunshots make a horrifying juxtaposition. I grieve for those students hurt in body and soul. I try not to imagine the parents of VaTech students, waiting and wondering, and especially for those who don’t wonder anymore.

The words of Bahá’u’lláh, 19th-century Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, come to mind as we all ask, like sports-talk jock Jim Rome did today, “What the hell is going on?” Just before the dawn of the 20th century, with all its apocalyptic confusion, Bahá’u’lláh — a Persian nobleman tortured, jailed and exiled for teaching the oneness of humanity and the renewal of civilization — wrote this:

The world is in travail, and its agitation waxeth day by day….How long will humanity persist in its waywardness? How long will injustice continue? How long is chaos and confusion to reign amongst men? How long will discord agitate the face of society? The winds of despair are, alas, blowing from every direction, and the strife that divides and afflicts the human race is daily increasing. The signs of impending convulsions and chaos can now be discerned, inasmuch as the prevailing order appears to be lamentably defective…”

We will know more, and it will likely make us sick. May it also make us work for the betterment of the world and the well-being of our communities.

Courage and Kennedy

I listened to the smack-festive verbal sparring of The Jim Rome Show yesterday and a hockey chat broke out! (Rimshot.) More important, it was one of those serious and heart-building conversations that Rome loves to slide in among the banal star interviews, general jock-sniffing and one-up “takes”. Normally, a Rome interview with an athlete takes up 8 or 10 minutes of a 12-minute program segment, but with Sheldon Kennedy yesterday, he went on for four full segments, a commercial radio hour, and with good reason. (At his site, I think you can hear old shows. It started in hour two.)

Many Canadians, even non-hockey fans (Surprise! There are millions of ‘em…), know about Sheldon Kennedy. His book came out last spring in Canada, and maybe it’s just been published in the States. Certainly, the story is not so well-known there, but back in 1996, near the end of an eight-year NHL career, Kennedy was the public face of a prosecution of his former junior hockey coach, Graham James, for sexual abuse. Imagine: in the closed-mouth, macho world of pro sports, Kennedy openly said that he had been his coach’s sexual prey on hundreds of occasions. James was convicted, and went to jail for 18 months; unbelievably, he still coaches in Europe. (Working with young people? Don’t know. Shudder.) Kennedy shook the hockey world and became another Canadian hero in the mould of Terry Fox or Rick Hansen: the victim of a cruel fate who cannot be beaten down by it. He even rollerbladed across Canada to bring light to this dark subject, because “I always thought, when it was happening, that I was the only one, and I couldn’t do anything or tell anybody.”

Of course, the book was to be next, everybody wanted it, but Kennedy was a basket-case. Self-medication, despair and demons that would not go away nearly killed him, but he finally got straight and got ready. The book is called Why I Didn’t Say Anything: The Sheldon Kennedy Story. He spoke with Rome yesterday, not for the first time, and what a stirring thing it was. He’s a Canadian prairie farm boy, now 36 years old, who speaks as sincerely and feelingly as ever, but now more eloquently and with greater knowledge of the wider social fact of sexual abuse. It’s painful but ultimately inspiring to listen to him. His breaths are deep. The struggle he still endures, after all the interviews, to tell his story again is obvious. Beside the obvious poignancy of so much that he says, I was particularly moved by two things.

He’s a dad himself (he has a young daughter, I think), and one of his core activities in life is to beseech parents to “pay attention to your kids!” Spend time with them. Know who they know. Don’t turn them over to anybody else – hockey coach, drama teacher, Scout leader, anybody – without being sure of this person’s character, motivation, methods. I have four sons, and that’s a scary and challenging thing to hear from a voice like that.

I was also moved by a simpler thing. Sheldon Kennedy is now playing hockey again for fun with a Calgary Flames alumni team. It’s incredible, startling, to hear the wonder in his voice as he speaks of a long-blunted love for this game that he was so good at, but which was not always good to him. “I don’t know how I played in the NHL,” he says. (Talent, for one. Even in the midst of his junior hockey nightmare, he twice had 50-goal seasons, and scored over 40 one year between Detroit and its AHL farm team.) “I never felt this way about the game then. I wish I’d been able to play with the passion that I have now…” And for this brave man, that’s far from the greatest of his losses. It took him nearly ten years to heal enough to write this book. (With Rome, he thanked the work of AA and elsewhere, he has given great credit to Aboriginal friends, their sweat-lodges and their spiritual support.)

Rome was moved this day, and so were his listeners. It was the worst and the best of sport all in one radio hour. Wow. Wow. What a man is Sheldon Kennedy. (If only JR hadn’t had to follow this pathos with a bland football coach. When will Byron be able to play again? How did you feel about losing to the Texans? The show goes on, and must, I guess, but I got whiplash.)

Rome: Replaced in a Day?

I tuned in for a while today to the Jungle, the Jim Rome Show, which occasionally rants from my radio between noon and three. Rome is off this week, and Jim Lampley faces the wrath of Rome’s faithful clones for part of it. (And it’s oddly touching how encouraging they are of Mr. Lampley, and how they miss the sarcasm in his voice as he thanks them for their support. After all, he’s only been a national sports voice, and a remarkably articulate one, since the ‘70s.)

For me, Lampley is to Rome as the gifted and accomplished athlete is to the undertalented plugger. I admire Rome’s preparation, how writerly his stuff is, which partly accounts for those famous pauses and repetitions. He never says um, but he also doesn’t compose elegant rants on the fly like Lampley can. (Who does?) As a word freak and former High School Creature, I get a small thrill when Professor Lampley points out a sentence fragment in reading a listener’s email, or insists prolifically that “unique” is a word that cannot be qualified. (Must point out, Jimmer, that a word needlessly and senselessly modifying “unique” would be an adverb, not an adjective. But carry on.)

But man, does he pontificate! What has built Rome, at least in part, is that callers who “don’t suck” can get paragraphs, sometimes entire smack-filled essays, in edgewise. All Dr. Lampley needs is a reference – ABC College Football? Yes, when I was there, Keith Jackson had just been turfed from Monday Night Football… — and away he goes! Since his youthful sideline ventures for ABC, I’ve lost track of Lampley a bit, mainly because I don’t pay much attention to boxing, and apparently he’s the Guru of Pugilism. (How does such a bright and voluble guy put up for so long with such a primitive sport? I’ve had my moments, especially during Ali’s career, where I could begin to feel the attraction of the intelligentsia for boxing. But I still can’t quite get with a sport whose purpose is brain damage.) I don’t know if I could stand him in heavy rotation, as he does get rather Cosellian, rather Dennis Millerite, I dare say, in his loquacity. Still, it’s fun to hear eloquence on sports radio. Sentences.

Dr. Jay Saves Soccer

Let me not be the last I never played the game North American pundit to step forward with some Golden Bull to save le foot from itself. Shoot, five billion people aren’t necessarily always right.

The Jim Rome Show normally saves its most juvenile smack for ridiculing the game North America forgot. “How very soccer of you!” is Rome’s favourite word of dismissal for any example of mob violence, shameless fakery or terminal dullness in sport. But the sportswriter John Feinstein was a guest host on the Rome radio show this week, and he actually has some intelligent regard for the game without being blindly attached to its traditions. He had a couple of interesting suggestions to make if FIFA ever decided it wanted to appeal more to North American audiences.

First, he said, eliminate the offside rule entirely. Or, follow the dearly departed NASL with its 35 yard lines that marked attacking zones within which offsides are allowed. Second, whatever you do, Feinstein argued, you can not decide a championship-calibre soccer match with something other than soccer. (You don’t decide a baseball series with a home run derby, or the Super Bowl with a field-goal competition. And now the Bus. Jerome Bettis once kicked a field goal in junior high, and now he’s doing it for all the marbles…) Feinstein was a bit vague on how you’d solve the Game Without End phenomenon, except to suggest that teams knowing they have to score to win will, well, try to score. There’s some truth to that.

Dona and Paul and I watched the 3rd place game, Germany/Portugal, together. I pay occasional attention to international soccer news, but almost never watch anything in between World Cups. What a pleasure to watch with these guys – one from Haiti, one from Togo – who know and love the game so well. (Good practice pour mon français, aussi!). Starting at halftime, I tried out Mr. Feinstein’s ideas, and a few of my own. No offside? My buddies just grinned. Silly idea. (The game would get all stretched out of shape, the beautiful buildup would dissolve into full-pitch dump ‘n’ chase; hockey with no icing, only worse. I could see that.) But what about no offside once a team has crossed midfield? They still weren’t too keen on the idea, though the 35 yard “freedom zone” seemed to intrigue Dona, at least briefly. Hey, would a 4-3 game be so bad?

No life and death by penalties? The guys had cautious agreement with the idea of deciding the game by playing the game, but how to do it? To my surprise, Paul and Dona were interested in hockey’s regular season (partial) solution, opening up the ice by going 4 on 4 for the overtime period; they also hesitantly admired the post-season “however long it takes” approach to deciding tied games. We kicked around the idea of removing a defender in extra time, the need for freer substitution, or at least a greater number of allowed changes. (By the way, how would you like to be Guy Number 23 on a World Cup squad, knowing that you’ll get 10 match minutes – if you’re lucky – in a month-long tournament?) But beyond all that, I also argued that the mentality of the game would change. If teams gotta score to win, then they’ll score. Or give up a goal in pressing to get one. Clearly, the Italians were content to go to penalties, even with their disappointing history in games decided by them. In a way, the penalty lottery ends up being an escape from risk, even though it is such a nervous affair.

Hey, how about simulation scoring? You know, if a guy’s going to dive, he should be scored by the judges. I’m like a lot of North American sports fans in finding the “simulation” of fouls and injuries bloody disgusting. If FIFA goes to two on-field officials, maybe that will help, but so would a video replay panel. Not during the match, mind you. The flow that FIFA maintains by refusing to allow commercial timeouts is a marvellous blessing. (I’m a basketball guy, but the TV timeouts, in addition to the strategic ones teams are allowed, makes the pace especially of pro ball infuriating.) Athletic matches complete in under two hours. WOW! How wonderful is that? No, here’s my plan: a team of judges watches match video, including replays. They count the number of times players are caught, as replays so regularly did, trying to draw a penalty by diving, writhing in badly-acted agony when there was NO CONTACT. Then the scores are made public. In yesterday’s match, Germany’s Michael Ballack received a mark of 3 from the simulation judges. Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo still holds the single-game high, with 7 certified dives. I suggest that 2 dives in any match equals an automatic retroactive yellow card. Or a scarlet letter on the match jersey. ‘D’ for ‘dishonour’, ‘S’ for ‘shame’, ‘W’ for ‘wuss’. I’m not particular.

In contrast to the worst of the football world’s fakery, all respect to Thierry Henry, star striker of the French side. He plays through fouls, still trying to score. “He never dives,” Dona told me during the championship game today. Alongside his strong anti-racism efforts, here was the Man of the Hour for me. And here, Fédération Internationale de Football Association and soccer lovers everywhere, are one Canucklehead’s prescriptions for what ails your sport. There’s so much right with the beautiful game – its simplicity, its universality, its accessibility to the poor, the often-genuine sense of fair play that is such a contrast to the blot of diving – that I can’t help throwing my suggestions your way. (You’re welcome!)

Jim Rome is Melting

If you don’t haunt sports radio, you may not know Jim Rome. I didn’t until I switched on The Team one afternoon and thought their regular 20/20 Sports Update guy was on vacation. This newbie (I first thought he was a young local producer pressed into service) seemed to be trying too hard to make an otherwise-average voice sound radio-rugged and testosterone-friendly. (And it cracks under the strain fairly regularly.) He allowed substantial pauses in delivering his opinions and had no fear (or awareness) of repeating himself. I didn’t know it that first time — I switched it off before long — but I had stumbled into The Jungle, into The Jim Rome Show, one of the biggest talk-radio programs in North America, which goes to show what I know…

Rome is known as “Van Smack” to his “clone” listeners (as in talkin’ smack, which used to be called trash-talkin’, which was once known as poor sportsmanship.) “Have a take. Don’t suck” is the challenge to callers, who try to write their way onto the radio, leapfrog their fellow Clones and attack the sports world’s Target du Jour. They consult their Putdown Thesaurus for the most caustic comments and fight-ring ridicule they can manage, hoping to get “racked” for their verbal punches without being “run” for going below the belt. Though I often find it more of a sociological study — “The American Male in His Basement Habitat” — I have warmed to Rome and his followers. It takes a much younger man than me to find the Jungle as funny as it thinks it is, but I often grin at the sheer goofiness of it. It’s a guilty pleasure. (It makes my wife wonder who she married, though. My vegan anarchist son wonders where he came from.)

Rome is very well-prepared, never slips into ums and ahs, and loves some of the best in sport alongside the cheapshots, cheek by jowl with the masculine gossip about the low points of athletic and other celebrity infamy. (Hello, Barry Bonds! Terrell Owens, who’d you push under the bus today? José Canseco, Paris Hilton, come on down! And how can we mock Michael Jackson this week?) The “King of Smack” also manages to pull in a great roster of guests, ironically enough, because his interviews are as bunny-soft (even fawning, at times) as they are meticulously researched. Rome knows his stuff, knows his demographic, and has parlayed it into a radio empire and a TV show called Jim Rome is Burning, which apparently is a condensed and Clone-free version of the radio program.

There is also a distinct thread of morality that runs through the Jungle. Juvenile my town’s not as stupid as your town rants and freakish obsessions with the screwups of the rich and silly are IN, but racism, homophobia, and primitive attitudes toward women are OUT. It’s oddly touching, the line Rome walks while alternately encouraging and mocking the sophomoric preoccupations of his core audience. But he is a loving husband (Allegedly!) and father, too, and he’s not afraid to get soft and squishy or even to go beyond the pro sports playpen.

Case in point: the Jason McElwain story. (It’s the autistic-boy-makes-three-point-good story, the “Miracle at Greece Athena High”. I wrote about it here.) Wednesday, Rome interviewed J-Mac’s coach, Jim Johnson, and yesterday it was his Mom. The whole thing is heartwarming (though I’m a little worried about Mother-Mac’s talk of a movie deal). These are good people to whom a memorable and soul-stirring thing happened. The coach was a great reminder of what sport should do and be. Jason’s Mom reminded us of what families (and especially, the kids) with special needs go through. “Not a week used to go by without Jason being picked on or teased somehow. Maybe that’s over now. We just hope he’ll be able to get an education.” It was sweet and refreshing, and it was obvious that the Jungle felt good about itself for having invited in such a ray of small-town light.

I like it when Rome gets sentimental, and the Clones eat it up like starving men (and a few deeply appreciative women). It feels like spring cleaning, like a warm and sunny weekend after a dull, slushy work-week. It was a fine series of interviews and commentary on its own, and a superb counter to the smack-tacular content of the average Roman day: dissing and dismissing soccer or the Olympics because there’s no tailgating for it in LA. And hey! Nobody’s masculinity seemed threatened at all.