Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Lingering Items--Eternal Souls Edition

There's nothing like a redemption story. It's a yarn older than the written word, more beloved then a tale of true love and continues unabated in every form of entertainment today. It's nice to believe in the power of redemption evens when it's mostly just a dramatic device contrived as an efficient if not accurate way to convey complexity either the writer, the reader or both can’t fully understand.

Witness, if you'll excuse the reference, the common theme of LeBron James' capturing of his long sought after NBA Championship. Nearly every sportswriter with a breathless thought has defined the Miami Heat's triumph as the personal triumph of James as if he were a member of the Lost Tribes of Israel who suffered long and hard and made it out of the desert alive.

Some suffering. James is one of the richest athletes on the planet. He lives a life of opulence and privilege borne of his outsized athletic skills. That was true before the playoffs started and remains true today and for the foreseeable future.

But attaining the championship he previously couldn't is more a result of attrition than redemption. It was just James' turn in the barrel. The Heat's path to the finals was clear and easy, relatively speaking. The Oklahoma City Thunder's was harder and longer and their fatigue and inexperience showed in the end.

James already lived his redemption story anyway when he signed his first pro contract. It was the real triumph of overcoming the very long odds of his upbringing. Having long since arrived he long since surrendered any candidacy in the redemption sweepstakes.

Let's all be honest with one another about this. James was always going to win an NBA title at some point. He's the best player on the planet, he still works hard at his craft, and he makes those around him better. It was always just a matter of time. Now or next year or whenever.

The other reason James' championship can never be a redemption story though is far more central to the ultimate narrative. For redemption to work the protagonist has to reclaim his soul. That hasn't happened here because James remains soulless having sold himself for his quest. He's no Jabez Stone and he doesn't have Daniel Webster on retainer even if he was. The devil drives a hard bargain and never renegotiates.

James is a forever man-child perpetually caught up in an adult world he doesn't fully understand. He commands an audience because of fame and fortune but he'll never fully have their respect because children are mostly seen and rarely really heard.

There is no real chance that James will ever fully gain the perspective one needs for real individual growth. Fame and fortune obscure. Look at Michael Jordan. It hasn't yet occurred to him that he is the worst owner/basketball executive in history not named Isiah Thomas. Fame and fortune obscure.

James will go on to win a few maybe several more titles and earn more and more individual accolades. But they will never change the essential nothingness of his being.

It's not really that James stiffed the Cavaliers and did so like a total putz. That was just the gating charge when he entered the land of souls departed. It's that James divested himself of the value system he so richly earned by avoiding all the crap that life threw at him early for the fast track to a phony Promised Land.

Pat Riley, the NBA's Gordon Gekko in looks and outlook, was certainly a far more attractive option then a muddling Danny Ferry. And while Ferry probably did lack the chops to put all the pieces together it's not as if James wasn't complicit in Ferry's difficulty. Let's never forget the long shadow James cast on the Cavs franchise and how his every twitch and quirk set off alarms inside the Q.

The irony is that James isn't lazy. He works on his game in the same way every truly great athlete does. Perfect, to his way of thinking, is never the enemy of good.

And yet James just couldn't abide things not happening for him quickly enough. So he sought a shortcut, a stack decked and if that cost him his soul, so be it.

In certain ways James is like Roger Clemens another rare talent for whom great was never great enough. Clemens used more nefarious means to cheat the system but he was seeking the same kind of edge as James did.

Indeed there are plenty of characters thought the history of sports that sought a similar path. It's as old, too, as a redemption story.

There's no reason to begrudge James his accomplishments because rare is the goal achieved without some compromise. But James will always have to live with the fact that his goals weren't nearly as earned as they could have been.

Speaking of redemption stories, the Penn State apologists can begin theirs in earnest now that Jerry Sandusky has been convicted on 45 of 48 counts of child abuse. There will come a point this season, maybe the next, when someone isn’t writing about Penn State’s resurgence as a respectable university after if put Sandusky and his sick exploits in the rear view mirror.

Frankly I’m not sure that Penn State can ever be redeemed. Shouldn’t it be scarred for life for its complicity in the long term abuse by one of its more trusted employees? Most certainly each of Sandusky’s victims will be forever scarred so why should Penn State ever get a pass?

For those who always rushed to protect Joe Paterno by claiming he had done what he could to stop Jerry Sandusky, how in anyway has that view been vindicated now that Sandusky is a convict? It hasn’t. If anything that view becomes even more discredited when you consider the mountains of evidence that were stacked against Sandusky and realize that because Paterno hardly lifted a finger to have it stopped, the abuse continued long after it could have been stopped.

In so many ways Paterno was a virtuous soul. He did place great emphasis on academics. He worked hard to build the stature of Penn State. For so many and for so long he supposedly stood for what was right about college athletics.

But Paterno was never the country bumpkin character that he liked to fashion for himself when it was convenient to do so. More than anyone else, Paterno was well aware that all his good non-athletic deeds for the university gave him almost unchecked power on that campus. And Paterno wasn’t afraid to utilize that power when he needed it to ultimately advance the cause of his beloved football team. It’s been thoroughly documented, for example, how Paterno kept his misbehaving players out of the scope of normal university discipline. His greater good was always far more narrow then he'd admit.

So when Paterno supposedly reported the Sandusky allegations up the chain, Paterno had every reason to believe nothing would come of it unless he specifically gave the word to make something of it. That word never came and Sandusky continued in his employ subject only to a whisper campaign while he quietly went about abusing more vulnerable boys.

Penn State doesn’t get another chance. Paterno was complicit and so was the rest of the university administration. If the new administrative crew really wanted to show its worthy of some level of forgiveness then it would start by proving how much more important institutional integrity really is by abolishing the football program completely and take whatever other steps were necessary to reduce the importance of any remaining sports. They’d wash Paterno off the books completely and take down whatever statutes they erected.

It’s nice that Paterno had a positive influence on so many young men. But this isn’t a balancing act. You don’t get to cite those figures as a counterbalance because the unthinkable, unimaginable horror that Sandusky’s crimes visited upon all those victims trumps all.

If you want to understand how sad, how truly pathetic this will all become, just wait until the university finds it completely appropriate to play the victim card for itself. It will pay out millions to settle lawsuits and then use that blood money as some sort of proof that the university community has suffered enough. It hasn’t and it never will because money will never give these victims back what they lost most and it will never erase the insidious way the university and its most important employees allowed such atrocities to continue for years.


As a follow up to my column last week about Scott Fujita, it’s been interesting that Fujita has gone back underground, perhaps realizing that his mouth is his own worst enemy.
The other interesting thing is to listen to union chief DeMaurice Smith call for a new investigation into the Saints’ bounty case. That makes him an even bigger hypocrite then Fujita, if that’s possible.

Smith didn’t participate in any aspect of the first investigation. In fact, he specifically refused to participate in the investigation and actively encouraged the players to likewise not participate in it. If there was only one side of the story that was heard, all the blame for that goes to Smith.

But Smith has sensed, wrongly but that’s another matter, that public opinion is such that the average fan doesn’t think there was enough evidence to suspend the various coaches, administrators and players. The average fan, I think, doesn’t much care either way. No one’s going to march on NFL headquarters in New York because Jon Vilma’s been suspended.

Smith gave decidedly wrong headed advice to his members on this issue and now is deflecting by trying to put the heat back on Roger Goodell.

The NFL has certainly put together a strong case that the Saints had in place a bounty system and that all that have been suspended deserved to be. There isn’t one particularly smoking gun so much as it’s the evidence’s cumulative weight that matters. That said, there were arguments to make in rebuttal that never got made because of another failed strategy by the union.

Goodell will rule this week and for the most part close the book on this latest NFL scandal. Smith can grouse about the decision because that’s what he’s paid to do but hopefully the players’ whose lives and paychecks were adversely affected will eventually come to realize that those adverse affects were due in some part to the bad advice they got from Smith.


Since we’re on a litigation theme, this week’s question to ponder: Even though he was acquitted of lying to Congress, does Roger Clemens’ silence since that verdict came down tell us more than a guilty verdict ever could?

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