Friday, March 15, 2013

Glory, Grief and Real Life

Sometimes, like the Iowa Hawkeyes' C. Vivian Stringer, right, and Laurie Aaron in 1993, you celebrate those moments that life gives you to celebrate.
For athletes and sports fans, the seasons of glory tend to stay in your mind forever. Championships clinched, big games won and the chance to breathe some rarified air are what anyone who loves sports wants to experience.

In Iowa, 1993 was a year with plenty of that rarified air, and I've been thinking about that year -- specifically the 1992-93 basketball season -- a lot lately. Yet in my mind, I don't remember it as a season of glory. It was a season of grief.

Twenty years ago, the Iowa women's basketball team earned its first and only trip to the Final Four and had a team good enough to contend for a national championship. I was The Des Moines Register's beat writer for the Hawkeye women's team, and it was gearing up to be everything a sports writer dreams of covering, only to end up a different story altogether.

On the night before Thanksgiving, the 47-year-old husband of then-coach C. Vivian Stringer died of a heart attack. Her life and the life of her family changed forever. Somehow, in ways I still can't get my head around today, she joined her team six weeks later and continued the season.

In that same two-month period, was the death of Hawkeye men's basketball player Chris Street in a car accident and the deaths of the women's team's former ballgirl and its team physician.

People think sports writers have the easy job, that we cover fun and games. But people forget that those involved in sports -- as players, as coaches, as writers -- experience the same gamut of life as everyone else.

And it was all there in that season in Iowa City.

The national media figured it out, of course. Week by week, they came into Iowa City to tell the story of the team that was rising up from all this adversity to play beautiful basketball. National media were generally kind, but their presence made it all less about the individual games and more about the greater narrative.

And every time, there would be the questions. I would think to myself, "Please don't ask, please don't ask, please don't ask ... " and of course they always would. You could just see the energy drain out of the coaches and players as their moment of joy was interrupted by a reminder of the sadness around them.

These players and coaches were people I had known for years and had come to care about. I got to the point where I felt protective of them and would even just make up questions on the fly at press conferences to change the subject or mood. After months of this, I had begun to hurt for them, too. I'm certain my co-workers who covered the Iowa men's team that season felt much the same way.

Journalists are members of our communities, and what happens to our communities happens to us. We get to know the people on our beats, and life can creep into any beat there is, sometimes when we least expect it.

I recently learned the story of a former colleague, a longtime courts reporter. In 1988, he was at an administrative building looking for a story on a slow news day, and the coroner asked him if he wanted to have lunch with him in his office. My colleague declined and walked away.

Minutes later, a gunman came into the coroner's office and shot him to death. My colleague set aside his horror and grief, called the office of his afternoon paper and asked them to hold the presses. A half-hour later, he had the story written.

Last month, that former colleague died. I got the call on a Sunday evening, assigned a reporter to write his obituary, suggested some people he could call, looked through some photos to choose just the right one and edited the story.

As I closed the story, I closed my eyes. There were tears building, but I sighed, went back to work and kept them from falling.

To paraphrase a movie about baseball, there is no crying in journalism. It's not that we don't feel the need; it's just that if we ever started, we might never stop.

(This post first appeared as an essay in the Wisconsin State Journal and the Des Moines Register.)

Friday, March 8, 2013

Fans for the Ages Made a Difference

When the Milwaukee Braves won the World Series in 1957, it certainly wasn't just men who found it worth celebrating. (Francis Miller, Life magazine)
(A version of this post first appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal)

March Madness brings out all kinds of things.

It’s the time of the year when the malls in cities that host state tournaments are full of kids in letter jackets. It’s the time of the year you turn on the TV and hear all sorts of screaming teenagers. It’s the time of painted faces and oh, so many tears.

And for me, it’s the time of the year when I miss getting yelled at by my mom.

My mom, who died 2 1/2 years ago, always had one big rule you dare not break: You did not call her during the state basketball tournaments.

Problem was, I lived out of state for most of my adult life and in the pre-Internet days didn’t always know exactly when the tournaments were on. So I’d call her to say hello on a Saturday afternoon and the "hello" would be followed with "Don’t you know not to call me when the tournament is on?"

Yes, I knew that. I knew that because my mom was a huge sports fan. She didn’t play sports, she didn’t advocate for them per se but she was part of an important force that is often forgotten when there are discussions of women’s sports equality:

She loved sports, plain and simple.

My mom, who graduated from high school in the 1950s, was not alone in that regard. I have a friend whose mom yells at her if she calls when the Iowa Hawkeyes are playing. I had a college classmate whose mother sent valentines to her favorite college basketball players. One of my favorite work assignments in recent years was spending an afternoon with a fanatic 83-year-old woman who loved her Packers. I have an aunt who broke her wrist a couple years ago when she fell changing a light bulb so she could see the computer better to cast an All-Star vote for the Brewers’ Corey Hart (and as she lay injured, she asked her daughter to please cast the vote for her).

Beyond battles about girls getting to play, women like this made a difference just by loving sports. For every advocate who battled for opportunity on the playing field, there were also women who just loved their sports and made it perfectly fine for their daughters to love them, too. It’s an important part of the women’s sports equation that is often overlooked.

And if you look for them, these women are everywhere. Go to a baseball game sometime – minor-league or major-league – and you’ll see them. Look in a back row somewhere and you’ll see an older woman, scorebook on her lap, keeping track of the Ks and noting a 6-4-3 double play. I chatted with one of these women once at a Milwaukee Brewers game, expressing admiration for her vest that was loaded with buttons of current and former players and she told me all kinds of stories about who was her favorite and why.

My dad loved sports, but my passion for them came from my mom. It was my mom who stood out on the deck one day in 1969 and yelled, "Al Sindor is on TV." I was 8 and didn’t know who this rookie Al Sindor guy was, but if my mom thought it was important to watch, then I’d come inside and check it out. It was the start of my lifelong love of basketball, which included clipping out pictures and articles of Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for a scrapbook.

The passion to watch sports held by my mother’s generation and the generations before them isn't what people normally equate with helping to tear down the walls of sports equality. But it was their love for this stuff that made it OK for little girls of the past to put on a baseball cap and go outside to play with the boys; my first ballcap was a birthday present from my aunt who hurt herself trying to vote for the All-Star. That love of sports is what made them eagerly sign up their daughters when the opportunities to play finally started to come. It’s so routine now; 40 or more years ago it would not have been.

It was this passion that made it OK with these women if their daughters grew up wanting to be sports writers (as I was) or TV sports producers (as my sister is), even if girls seemingly didn’t grow up to do such things. Their fierce love of sports, of just being a passionate, knowledgeable and unashamed spectator, is part of what laid the foundation for what came to pass in later generations in terms of opportunities on and off the field.

I just wish I could call my mom to tell her that. She probably wouldn’t even yell at me.

Fans of all ages show up for the Green Bay Packers' annual women's-only event and enjoy their chance to work out with players, including Jermichael Finley.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Man, This Week Has Been a Joke

Quvenzhané Wallis went from being on the red carpet to being the target of a blue joke. (AFP/Getty Images)

This has been a busy week for outrage.

The Seth MacFarlane-hosted Oscars got some people’s knickers in a twist, a crass Onion comment on Twitter actually resulted in an apology, which is something those offended by a Joan Rivers Holocaust comment are never going to get.

Throw in Swedish meatballs made of horsemeat and, as the week ends, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker being compared to Jeffrey Dahmer, and you've got something to outrage everybody.

Whew, I’m exhausted just typing it. But to me, it’s sort of the confluence of a lot of things in our culture right now – that line of humor that always seems to move a bit, a reactionary culture and people’s sense that they have to express everything they think the moment they think it.

Welcome to 2013.

Let’s start with the Oscars. I wasn’t a big fan of the MacFarlane hosting job, but then again I can’t remember one I’ve actually liked. Few can, so that’s why the outrage about MacFarlane seemed rather odd. It was coupled with some notion that the broadcast was terribly sexist, yet how many people at home were deciding which actresses looked hot and which ones didn’t?

One who looked cute, because she’s too young to be anything else, was 9-year-old Quvenzhan√© Wallis, a Best Actress nominee. With a puppy purse in hand, she was the epitome of sweetness in the midst of the often-tacky red carpet sideshow. So of course that was the perfect setup for the satirical website/newspaper The Onion to jokingly call her a word that is generally never uttered at a woman unless you want to get slapped or shot.

That was the joke, of course, that she is the opposite of that. But the use of that word aimed at a 9-year-old was something that many (including myself) thought crossed a line. Even so, I was more stunned by the Onion apology than I was the joke. Everything seems fair game these days, even children.

In Rivers’ case, there were those who felt she should apologize because, as a Jew, she should know better than to joke about such matters. Rivers has no plans to back down, and good for her even if I don’t quite agree that jokes about the Holocaust are a way of continuing a conversation about it. But I also don’t agree that there is one group of people who get to designate how others should feel about something that is part of their own history, too. 

Part of the reason much of this is exhausting to me is the humor involved is so lame. We seem to be caught up in a cycle of creating a punch line that involves shock and little else. There’s little nuance, there’s often little thought except the arrogance of “Well, you just are offended too easily.” Rude and funny are not the same thing to everyone. If so, every high school freshman boy in the world would have his own cable special.

I’m no saint. I work in a newsroom, and newsrooms are veritable petri dishes for the formation of the darkest of humor. I’ve often wondered what the outside world would think if they heard the things we say. Let’s just say the Onion isn’t that far removed from the things we wish we could put in the paper sometime. But it all generally involves some thought, commentary or wordplay and doesn't just rely on an obscene word or notion.

I’m old enough to have watched “Saturday Night Live” in its first seasons, when it really broke some ground on the comedy front. But in a world where just about any crude, rude phrase passes as humor, I wonder how many of those sketches would even make it on the air today?

Not everything was brilliant on “SNL” back then, it would take a very selective memory to make that statement. Yet an infamous sketch in which Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor throw every racial epithet at each other works as a commentary on society and not just because of the shock of hearing those words on TV. (The setup was that it was a job interview, and in our clueless world there probably used to be job interviews like this and probably still are.)

People are so dug in now, would they even get the joke? It’s amazing to me that the Onion – which I love – continues to thrive since satire seems all but dead. Two movies that say more about our culture than any I can remember in recent years “Citizen Ruth” and “American Dreamz” utterly tanked at the box office and few people I know have even heard of them. But poking fun at both sides of the abortion debate or lampooning our obsession with talent-reality shows is not a way to earn a lot of love from the people.

To me, all this is just exacerbated by social media, text messaging and call-in radio shows. There is such an abundance of ways to immediately express your thoughts that so many people feel compelled to do this every waking moment. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone; I get twitchy and want to click ‘like’ on someone’s Twitter comment even though that isn’t even possible. But everyone’s inner “edit” button seems to get worn down as the years pass and the results aren’t pretty.

In some ways, it’s a nice problem to have. Complaining about too much freedom is like complaining about too much sunshine. Either way, however, you have to be careful not to get burned.

The words Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor threw at each  other in a comedy sketch shocked, but also offered food for thought. (NBC)