Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Truth about the movie "Concussion."

"The truth doesn't have a side." —Dr. Bennet Omalu

I wish I had the words of Dr. Omalu in my arsenal for when I taught the Foundations of Ethics: Morality and Justice. Though I am not teaching Ethics for the first time in 12 years, the importance of truth and its very nature underscores every course an educator must teach. We seek to bring it to students. It is also what this medical doctor—a pathologist turned coroner born in Nigeria sought to bring to the NFL. And his revelation of truth is the subject of the new movie "Concussion."

To be honest, I was skeptical of how Hollywood might portray the story. To a large degree, I was familiar with the story of Concussion because in the summer of 2014, I read the book "League of Denial: The NFL, Concussion and the Battle for Truth." I read it because the authors—Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, who are also investigative reporters and brothers spoke at a lunch at the Olympic Club downtown. I'm not sure I would have finished it otherwise. It was tremendously technical, both scientifically and politically. It's far from a "feel good" story, but I knew it was an important one. Teaching Ethics, I also know we don't call it the "ugly truth" for nothing. 

As written in "Will Smith shines a light on the dark side of the sport he loves," the cover story for the December 20, 2015 issue of Sports Illustrated, 

A desire to disseminate the truth usually ranks far down the list of Hollywood's motivations. It's also worth adding that almost all of the major studios have lucrative NFL connections.
Fortunately, I found myself checking the boxes as I watched the 2 hour film. Indeed, I would have passed the reading check quiz on "League of Denial" by watching Will Smith's latest film.

Screenwriter and director Peter Landesman would expect nothing less. He said, "this movie, like all movies based on nonfiction stories—if we're smart and if we care—goes through a strong vetting process to be sure we tell the best, most truthful, most impactful version of the story." This story, was based on an article written by Jeanne Marie Laskas for GQ magazine, in 2009. See below.

Watching Concussion and then reading the SI piece by Ben Reiter confirmed what I left the movie theater believing to be true. The death by suicide of former Chicago Bears Dave Duerson was the watershed moment—the linchpin—whereby the National Football League had to confront a problem that wasn't going away. The League could no longer be one of denial. I wrote about him in a blog tribute in February 2011: A Loss in the (Notre Dame) Family. It was shared on Notre Dame magazine's website. Although a tragic story, I believe it is one of the more important postings I have written. I carried those thoughts with me to the movie screen as I watched Duerson's own struggle lead to his demise.

Anyone who chooses to watch Concussion will leave with more questions than answers. Playing golf today, a friend asked if high school football will be around in 30 years. I did not hesitate to answer "yes." He retorted with "how many kids died from playing football last year." He told me the number is seven or eight. The only thing I could say in response is "how many boys are alive because of football." 

I know a significant number of parents who are very passionate about their sons not playing football; I do believe it is a personal and important decision. My only hope is that they are as passionate about their views on the usage of drugs and alcohol for their teens. I mean that.
Ben Reiter writes, the NFL hopes that "the movie offers an opportunity to publicly talk about player health and safety and what the league's doing to pursue the goals that we've set, then we welcome the conversation." It does and it should. I guess I'm used to organizations with money and power covering things up. In this case, the NFL should reclaim the words that emblazon their glass doors on their Park Avenue office in New York City. The league promotes: RESPECT—INTEGRITY—RESPONSIBILITY TO TEAM—RESILIENCY. Those ideals must fuel a commitment to learn more, be transparent, acknowledge the danger and ameliorate the risk.

I think every person who is hungry for the truth ought to find it. Some good sources on this particular subject include:
You may wonder why we care. Why do we spend so much of our time, money and energy on a game like football? Why are we so passionate about our home teams and make heroes out of its players? Because as the movie says "It's a mindless, violent game. And then it's Shakespeare."

I paused when I heard those words. We often do when we hear and realize the truth. And remember—it doesn't have a side.

Photo Credits
Dr Omalou
League of Denial
Will Smith

Saturday, December 26, 2015

We Listen to Music with Our Muscles: A Case for the Movie "Creed"

If there's one thing students enjoy, it's free choice.

I let that spirit underscore a movie project I reassigned in Sports and Spirituality. I suppose it was more of a "forced choice," in that the movies they were able to watch were the three films that have won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Can you name them? (answer at the bottom) and then I rounded it out with three movies featuring three different sports. It was exciting for me to learn what films my seniors were drawn to. The most popular choice was  the greatest of all boxing movies, Rocky. They were happy to have the opportunity to sit down and watch the 1976 masterpiece, written by Sylvester Stallone.

When we learned that the legend of Rocky lives on in the release of "Creed," we could hardly believe our good fortune. The conversation continues! It should.  As written in Sports Illustrated,
Creed may be, in essence, Rocky VII, but director Ryan Coogler's dynamic richly textured film is thrillingly fresh, full of speed and pop. As Adonis Johnson, son of Rocky's late friend and rival Apollo Creed, the impressively athletic Michael B. Jordan displays a real fighter's blend of grit and gentleness.
A number of students caught the movie upon its release over the Thanksgiving break. They were divided on how good it is. If there's one reason it's worth viewing, I think it's because of the role that music plays in the film. Music helps to tell the story in its own way. It's so rich in symbolism, that I have continued to think more about it. Here are few thoughts.
Adonis Johnson (Creed) leaves security, a job, family and a home in Los Angeles to train and fight where his deceased father once did—Philadelphia. The dramatic shift from the safety of his adopted mother's palatial estate in Bel Aire to a high rise apartment in tough part of Philly is underscored by the urban sounds of hip-hop music.

A life-long country music fan, when I lived in south, rural Louisiana, I thought that country music sounded better. It felt more authentic. I should have, I truly lived in the country. The message of this music—powerful, at times ridiculous, honest and open reflected the way of life I was surrounded by: trucks and tractors, beer, bad boys and beautiful women. Creed isn't much different. It gains ground as the boxing gyms and streets of Philadelphia become Johnson's home. The beats of rap, hip hop and new music by the composer, Ludwig Goransson.

In his own apartment, Johnson is disturbed by the music that blasts from the one below him. When he can no longer take it, he bangs on the door of the perpetrator, only to discover the source of the noise is a beautiful woman. Bianca, is a musical artist who creates and performs her own music. 
The role of music is tremendously symbolic in the relationship that develops between them. That which was once a total nuisance later serves a mechanism for how Johnson sees Bianca again. He is drawn to her concert, he learns about her world and who she is in what she does. And the irony continues, as when Johnson asks why she is wearing hearing aids, Bianca reveals that she is losing her hearing. She confides that she is not afraid—rather she wants to make the most out of what she can do right here, right now. Her fortitude speaks to Adonis on a much deeper level as he continues to struggle with who he is. He is reluctant to be known as Apollo Creed's son; he is unwilling to let go of his former identity and grow into a new one. Bianca, shows him another way.

Nietzche once wrote that "music is pure form." Every Rocky movie includes a training montage and Creed is no different. I don't know what athlete doesn't revel in these moments. I am forever inspired to work harder, run faster, and get stronger when the moments arise. In Creed, Adonis Johnson becomes Adonis Creed through his commitment to adopting pure athletic form. The music—pure form—used in Creed conveys that desire as it becomes reality—pure athletic form. 
The story continues to build as Adonis travels to Liverpool to fight Pretty Ricky Conlon. Although there is a musical climax that transpires amid bikers and another run through the very streets where Rocky ran in South Philadelphia, I believe one my favorite moments is an unexpected one before the fight begins.

Adonis has entered the ring and is standing nearly alone. He raises his arms and accepts the struggle that awaits. "Hail Mary" by 2Tac underscores his footwork and his mission. I don't know a ton about his music, but to me, his voice is haunting; it's so powerful. And so is this moment.

And yet, in spite of the new and fresh beats, the genius of crafting the old with the new, the very next scene let's the work of Rocky's musical composer—Bill Conti—flood the screen. It makes the movie soar. It did in 1976 and it does the same in 2015.

Filmmaker Ryan Coogler said "We needed it. But we needed it in a way that didn't take away from Adonis' own theme, from Adonis' own story. We felt like the movie had to earn those Conti sounds."
How important are those Conti sounds? NPR asked Oscar winning director John Avelton. "Without it, I don't think we'd be talking about Rocky or Creed or anything else. Imagine the movie without that music?"  Sorry, I don't want to.
In "Why the Creed Soundtrack is so Damn Good," Joshua Rivera writes,  But what's also interesting is that once-common musical ideas like motif have fallen out of fashion—when was the last time you saw a movie with a theme you could hum? The sort of instantly recognizable, heroic melody that has accompanied and elevated films like Rocky, or, hell, Star Wars, just doesn't happen as often anymore, and in that way, Creed's score is kind of a throwback. But it's a throwback that's full of so much that's new. Like hip-hop. movie Creed's use of rap in its soundtrack is innately tied to why boxing movies are so damn satisfying. Again, Creed is very much about legacy, about stepping outside of it and forming your own before coming to embrace the name your were born with, and similarly, a lot of rap is about self-mythologizing—building your own legend, loudly telling yourself the story the world will repeat when they can't ignore you any longer. It's about nobodies challenging kings just because they can. It's about having your back against the wall with everything against you and swinging back with your meanest verse.
Nietzsche also wrote, “We listen to music with our muscles." I left Creed feeling as though I undertook a 2 hour workout. I now understand why. And like the runner's high that I miss after a great one, a viewer will find a similar one in the music and story of this holiday film. Enjoy.

Photo Credits
In So Philly
Punching Bag

with Bianca
Final Fight

Monday, December 21, 2015

Christmas Giving: Sports and Spirituality Style

The pouring rain that drenched San Francisco all day today made it that much harder to motivate myself to head out and complete my holiday shopping. I know I'm not the only one who needs to finish the seasonal task. According to Business Wire's website,  
Black Friday has come and gone, but that doesn’t mean holiday shopping is in the bag. In fact, leading appliances, electronics and furniture retailer hhgregg (NYSE: HGG) launched its second annual holiday shopping survey1 to uncover the truth about holiday spending habits and found that nearly one in 10 (nine percent) Americans put off evenstarting their shopping list until the final week. Even more last minute? One in three (32 percent) say they sometimes or often shop on Christmas Eve. 
My inbox is flooded with merchants suggesting last minute gift ideas. One of my favorite retailers even has a countdown clock in the works. The Advent Conspiracy would not approve! It would however support what my friend's sisters tells her children. She says, "Jesus received three gifts, so you will too." She frames the three gifts around a poignant theme: something you need, something you want, and something to read. How fitting, so here's a suggestion, Sports and Spirituality style. 

Something to read:
Perhaps you want to give a gift to the ultimate football fan. While I do not recommend tickets to see the movie "Concussion," I do recommend the book "The Game's Not Over, In Praise of Football," by Gregg Easterbrook. I learned about it thanks to the Weekend Edition Sports segment of NPR. I was captivated by the author's bias and his point of view. You can listen to the interview here.

"He tells NPR's Scott Simon that football is a great game, but it's also the athletic expression of the United States. "It's too big, it's too loud, it's too expensive, and we can't figure out what the proper use of force is."

NPR writes, "The most popular sport in America causes head trauma. Some of its most famous players have been convicted of domestic abuse, and the game's most glamorous star has been accused of defying the rules with deflated balls.

Sounds like quite a marketing plan, doesn't it?

But NFL football remains the most popular, lucrative sport in America, even as fans question the game. How do you enjoy a playoff game if you think a team might be doctoring the footballs? Or that half a dozen players on the field have been accused of violent crimes? Or that a dozen might be suffering brain damage at the very moment you are cheering?"

Gregg Easterbrook ponders those questions and offers some compelling and practical suggestions for how the game can and should change. It's a book I want, need and would be happy to read! 

Something I want:

Although it might be more interesting to hear about a literal want—a shiny new toy or court side seats (not going to happen), I do want to be more generous and charitable toward others. And from what I've been told, the only way to acquire virtue is to practice it.

What's important to mention is that one need not give $100 or more to make a donation count. I believe it's the practice of it, that does. I was reminded in "Women's Day" magazine that "seemingly small donations to the right charities can make a big difference in the lives of people going through hard times." One organization they listed caught my eye—for it has a connection to sports.

$10 purchases a bed net for a family in sub-Saharan Africa to prevent malaria.

As written on the NBA Cares website, 
Nothing But Nets allows NBA Cares to join forces with the United Nations Foundation to not only raise awareness for malaria, but to allow our fans to be an active part of the fight against the disease. For a donation of ten dollars, our fans can not only purchase a bed net, but have the knowledge the bed net will be delivered to the people that need them the most through the impressive fulfillment process. From start to finish, Nothing But Nets will be there, and NBA Cares is proud to be their partner along the way.
And how much do I love that "in the summer of 2013, Nothing But Nets Champion and Golden State Warrior Stephen Curry joined the Nothing But Nets campaign on a trip to Tanzania to donate bed nets in a refugee camp. They distributed 38,000 bed nets and helped raise awareness about Malaria." To find out more about NBA Cares the league's social responsibility program, click here.

Something I Need
Honestly, I'm not sure I "need" anything, material. I have more than enough. But I do need my family—near and far. I need my friends, they listen to me. They put up with me; they show up. They make me laugh. I need my Catholic faith; I don't know how folks live without a grounding in God's love and mercy. I need meaningful work, and I feel fortunate that I have it. I need my colleagues for their support and my students for what they teach me. I need music because it lifts my soul. I needed those tickets to see Springsteen on March 13, 2016 in Oakland, and the Ticketmaster gods were kind. I need sports and live sporting events because they bring me time and again to new emotional highs and familiar and painful lows. The Masters in 2016 is sure to be one for the ages. Eternal life may look like Augusta, I will give a report from this side of paradise in April! I need my alma mater because it continues to give to me in ways new, challenging and overflowing. Lastly, I need Sports and Spirituality—the class, the blog, all of it. It's my signature and it's God's gift to me...and my gift to God.

Thank you for reading one posting or one hundred. Merry Christmas!

Photo CreditsAdvent Conspiracy
The Game's Not Over


Sunday, December 20, 2015

Serena Williams: "I Rise." 2015 Sportsperson of the Year

I am a total sucker for a good award. You know, the ones that honor a person for the some version of the "whole person." I believe in every age and in every community certain individuals rise to the top because of who they are andnot but—what they are. When an award gets it right, it's able to do just that. So it should go without saying that Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year is one of my favorites. 
For several years I made the case, like many contributors to SI, that this prestigious award ought to honor the number one tennis player in the world, Serena Williams. I love putting this particular award into historical context and guessing who "should" win it each year, and why. With the success that Williams met on the court long before 2015, I thought for sure she was a worthy candidate. I have written many times about her accomplishments on this blog; her 21 Grand Slam titles, three of which she earned this year are nothing to scoff at. She finished the year 53-3 at 34 years of age, and yet I don't think she deserved the 2015 award. My next blog posting will comment on that.

Rather than take away from an award that was rechristened the Sportsperson of the Year in her honor, I would like to acknowledge what she did—in typical Serena fashion via—what I learned and observed through her  acceptance speech. You can watch it here.

SOTY with her mother and sister.
Williams acknowledged that she was excited to receive Sportsperson of the Year, as this distinction has not been given to a woman in over 30 years. But her claim and the headlines that followed are misleading. While it is true that no singular woman has been named SOTY since Mary Decker—Double World Champion in Track and Field in 1983—many others have shared the award with a male athlete. 

As recently as 2011, Pat Summitt the All-time winningest coach in the NCAA, was recognized with Mike Krzyzewski, (who has the most wins in NCAA men's Division 1 history). Prior to that, the '99 US Women's National Soccer Team claimed the award as a group for their performance as World Cup Champions. Olympians Mary Lou Retton (gymnastics) won more than a gold in 1984 as she was co-named SOTY with Edwin Moses and Bonnie Blair (speed-skating) with Johann Olva Koss (of Norway) in 1994. Serena said for “For all the ladies out there, yes we can do it,” she said. “My hope by winning this award [is that I] can inspire many, many, many more women … to stand right here on this podium and accept another ‘Sportsperson of the Year,’ so yes ladies it can be done.” 

I don't disagree, but I also believe but some context for her feat should have found its way into her speech.
What was particularly inspiring to me is that Serena said "I still have goals and still have dreams of winning, and this award actually makes me want to work harder." Excellence requires on-going refinement and revision. It isn't static. Desire begets desire. Serena's hard work and determination got her to the podium where she beautifully stood, and she wants to do it again. (Although, it's interesting—the only athlete who has won SOTY more than once is Tiger Woods..)

And yet, Williams attributes her success to the very fact that things were not handed to her. "I had to work hard. I had to dedicate myself and I had to be determined." She reminds us of a fact we all know, but continually need to hear. We are better, perhaps our best selves when WE go after it....when we see what we are made of. Yes, we need support and encouragement, but no one becomes SOTY because something is given to an individual. The fire of determination burns hot. The champions have been tested in it and are refined in the process. 

She said, "It requires discipline, hard work and determination. And most importantly self determination. She have to believe in yourself. You have to believe in you."

She mentions what she has overcome—health issues and personal loss. She names the judgment that she battled because of her size, gender and the color of her skin. She makes us smile and she makes us laugh; she did say she was a part time comedian. I wanted to know who else might be in the audience at her side—Drake? and I love that she thanked Sports Illustrated for "giving me a chance to rise."

I will conclude with the poem she shared, by the late Maya Angelou. It speaks to who she is, what she has endured and what's in store for sports fan everywhere. Congratulations Serena Jameka Williams on an honor that is overdue, the 2015 Sportsperson of the Year.

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise

At the podium

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Warriors 24-1: Why The Streak Still Matters

On Tuesday November 24, 2015 the Warriors made history when they beat the LA Lakers 111-77. Never before had a team opened the season with 16 straight wins, besting the previous mark of 15-0 set by the 1948-49 Washington Capitols and 1993-94 Houston Rockets. With each new opponent thereafter, the next goal—to beat the '71-'72 Lakers' streak of 33 games—creeped closer. And with each additional win, the team's confidence grew. The fans' did too. Heading out on a 7-game road trip, this team that was once mediocre at best, gave folks pause to wonder: Will they ever lose? A few had the audacity to write 82-0. Today, the Warrior faithful responded to the 108-95 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks by writing 81-1. I like it.
But, I have to admit, there was a little less spring in our step this morning. The heads of Warriors fans hung low for the first time in a long time. They shouldn't. The streak was a wonderful and exciting thing. Many times I thought to myself: it doesn't matter. Or does it?

If it hadn't been for an interview with Pat McCaskey for SportsUp Today, I don't know that I would understand just how much something like a streak can and does matter. That's because McCaskey taught me what his grandfather, George S. Halas, Sr., the founder of the Chicago Bears football team believed to be true. He said "the mission and purpose of the Bears football franchise win championships and help other people."

Many sports fans, athletes and coaches might not recognize that one leads to the other. As the Senior Director of special projects and a board member for the Bears, McCaskey does. He said “our community work would have more credibility if we had more championships.”

The Golden State Warriors are in an incredibly powerful position. Their social status and professional credibility couldn't be higher. If Steve Kerr decided to run for mayor of San Francisco AND of Oakland, I think people might elect him and paint the Bay Bridge blue and gold in the process.  A local cause or organization that calls on the Warriors team, or individual players will be met with a great platform to tell their story. They will find the media ready and able to give great exposure. People who might not otherwise care, show up to help or to give. 

Perhaps you are questioning McCaskey's conviction. As a counterpoint, I think of the Philadelphia 76ers. This team started the season 0-18. They had already set a record for the longest losing streak in the history of the NBA, with 28 defeats stretching over last season and the current campaign. Their streak came to an end on December 1 when they beat the Lakers.

It's hard for me to imagine a Philly based non-profit calling on the Sixers to promote their cause. Good, bad or otherwise, they probably would not want to be associated with an organization that can't compete. It's hard to get excited about a group that failed to put up a "W" in the win column for over three months time. Those in the Sixers front office ought to heed McCaskey's words of wisdom. Rather than aim to win championships, start with winning games. Don't worry about beating a 24-game win streak, try winning three in a row. You'll have a little more credibility...assuming you still have any. Philly is tough. 

According to Warriors interim coach, Luke Walton, "I bet there’ll a little bit of relief mentally going forward from this point on. It was a lot of fun.”And it was. And so is winning championships and helping people. Warriors, keep playing like you are, and you will. And, we're grateful for the fact you've already done both.

Photo Credits
Strength in Numbers

Philly finally wins