Wednesday, August 8, 2018

At What Cost

As published in The County Times (countytimes.somd.com)


By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

A friend of mine, we’ll call him Conscience (it’ll make more sense later), loves college basketball and football. March Madness dominates his spring; on fall Saturdays he’s happier than a seagull with a French fry.  Conscience, a native of Indiana, roots for the Indiana Hoosiers on the hardwood and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on the gridiron.  He’ll bend your ear about both, whether you want him to or not.

Conscience is a pal and a peer.  We are both husbands and fathers and are just two months apart in age.  Our conversations are effortless.  We talk about life, families and music.  But mostly, we talk about sports.  I faithfully listen to his diatribes on the Hoosiers and the Irish; he faithfully listens to mine on all things D.C. sports.  It works.  Hand and glove.  Peanut butter and jelly.  Wings and beer.  The media and the president.  Errr…

In recent years, our discussions about sports, and particularly college sports, have grown noticeably more cynical.  We are at an interesting crossroads in life – young enough to remember when major college sports were still amateur athletics but now old enough to have lost all naïveté about the nasty business they’ve become.  Seedings, matchups, recruits and playful bantering used to dominate our interactions.  Now we often find ourselves debating scandals and corruption - USC football, UNC basketball, vacated championships, Rick Pitino’s disgraced exit from Louisville after a series of egregious missteps (infidelity, sex parties and under-the-table shoe deals), the latest SEC football recruiting violations, the FBI’s wide-ranging investigation of NCAA basketball, Baylor football and the absolute horror that is Larry Nasser and Michigan State. 

True to this twisted new age, the next time I see Conscience the issue du jour likely won’t be the fast approaching college football season - it will be Urban Meyer and Ohio State University.

Meyer, the head coach at OSU, is on administrative leave after misrepresenting (to be kind) what he knew and when he knew about the 2015 domestic abuse allegations against former assistant coach Zach Smith at the B1G conference’s recent media day.  In his flummoxed response to a direct question, Meyer acknowledged that he knew about 2009 domestic violence allegations against Smith (while both were at the University of Florida) but said he learned of the 2015 accusations a day before the press conference.  Since then, text messages have emerged between Smith’s and Meyer’s wives in the 2015 timeframe and Smith has admitted that he told Meyer about the allegations in 2015. 

Best case: Meyer was disingenuous.  Worst case: Meyer aided and abetted a domestic abuser for at least three years. 

Whatever the outcome of the on-going investigation, Meyer’s inability to precisely and accurately articulate what he knew and what he and the university did about it was wholly inadequate.  Is Meyer disgracefully ignorant of Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and all the public service announcements the NFL shot to combat domestic violence?  Did he somehow miss the #MeToo movement?  Did he bury his head during the Larry Nassar conviction and fallout at Michigan State, a sister B1G school?  Is he that callous?  That clueless about violence against women?

Time will answer these questions about Meyer’s character.  The immediate question for Ohio State and the question that will linger for all college institutions, professional teams and sports fans around the country is this: What is the price of winning?  Is it victory at all cost?  Or is there some ethical and moral foundation that simply cannot be compromised in the pursuit of rings, banners and trophies?

As Conscience and I have watched the college sports we love degrade into a cesspool of corruption, we have reached this conclusion: throw enough money, power and fame up for grabs and it will inevitably bring out the worst in our species.  That holds true for sports, politics and damn near every facet of life.  What are we willing to compromise to get what we want?  When does conscience kick in – that point when the method of winning trumps the raw lust for winning itself?   

I look forward to seeing my friend soon.  We have much to discuss…

Look What You Made Me Do

As published in The County Times (countytimes.somd.com)


By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Over the years, the musical cameos in this column have included the likes of Bob Dylan, The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Prince and, most recently, Blues Traveler.  This week’s title channels Taylor Swift, which is, depending on the reader’s perspective, either a new low or high for your friendly neighborhood sports writer.

To the proud “Swifties” and sworn opponents of bubble gum pop alike, I did not invite Ms. Swift to the party.  She arrived by pure chance and for the same reason all the other artists did – she happened to have a song that resonated, in this case her recent hit, “Look What You Made Me Do.”

In a way, we’re all innocent attendees of…this.  It wasn’t an anticipated topic for the writer or, I suspect, the reader.  But here we both are, required guests at a hastily created party.  Things move fast these days.  Just roll with it.  “This” will be worth it.  The experience might be good or it might be bad.  But you’ll feel something.  Promise. 

“This” concerns the latest intersection of sports and politics.  “This” is the NFL and its on-going, unresolved issue of anthem demonstrations.  “This” found its way to these pages, again, because our provocateur supreme, Donald Trump, dropped the following Twitter bomb late last week:

“The NFL National Anthem Debate is alive and well again - can’t believe it! Isn’t it in contract that players must stand at attention, hand on heart? The $40,000,000 Commissioner must now make a stand. First time kneeling, out for game. Second time kneeling, out for season/no pay!”

Oh Trump…look what you made me do.  Spotlight redirected.  Issue resuscitated.  Scab picked. 

Is this issue genuinely on this president’s radar?  Questionable.  Perhaps it was just more of the Twitter deodorant Trump routinely applies to mask the smell of his latest crises – Russia, broken families and hush money to mistresses, in this case.  Or it could be just another reason to poke the NFL, a highly successful organization that Trump was unable to…trump…during his failed USFL endeavor.

Regardless, the president chose to take a still simmering league issue, shove it onto the national stage and heat it back to a rolling boil.  Thanks, POTUS.

I mean that.  See whatever his motivation, NFL anthem demonstrations remain an important and compelling issue (and among the most popular to ever appear in this column).  Trump’s needling of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell - who has grossly mishandled the situation – also resonates.  His suggested dictatorial remedy, though, is misguided (and likely un-executable with a unionized labor force).  The situation begs for dialogue, understanding and a mutual path forward, not a subversive edict.  Attempting to command away the uncomfortable and inconvenient is foolhardy.

More broadly, Trump’s tweet is appealing because it reminds of the indelible link between sports and politics.  The two have not and cannot be separated.  That this fact causes some displeasure is curious; society has and will continue to advance itself, in part, through sports. 

We are better – meaning more aligned with the idea of America as expressed in our Declaration and implemented via our Constitution - because of the likes of Jack Johnson, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Billie Jean King, Rubin Carter, Pat Tillman, Venus and Serena Williams, Shawn Green, Jessie Owens, Curt Flood, Brandon Marshall, Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson forced thought, understanding and change on various political and social issues.  We are better, too, for the cautionary tales of Barry Bonds, Pete Rose, Todd Marinovich, Lance Armstrong and the 1919 Chicago White Sox.  And we’ll be better, believe it or not, for Colin Kaepernick’s bold and courageous agitation.

Earlier this year, Fox News’ Laura Ingraham bashed LeBron James’s thoughts on the current president by saying “…keep the political commentary to yourself or, as someone once said, shut up and dribble.”  #AnonymousSources???  Anyway…following the “remain in your lane” commandment, are Ingraham and those irritated by the convergence of sports and politics now prepared to demand that POTUS “shut up and lead”?  I hope not, for if history is any guide, we benefit when politics and sports aggressively and consistently collide.  

Scotty and the Floppers

As published in The County Times (countytimes.somd.com)


By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Scott Pruett had a great week. 

Dude has been racing professionally on various circuits, including a short NASCAR stint primarily as a road course specialist, since Miami Vice was cool.  In January, after three decades behind the wheel of one super-motorized rocket on wheels or another, he called it a career. 

But the sunset he rode…rather drove into has been a bit obstructed by cloud cover.

Speculating, but the name association had to have been a drag.  Or inescapable nightmare?  That single vowel separating Pruett from the much more dubious Scott Pruitt - now former head of the Environmental Protection Agency who laid waste to every shred of the agency’s environmental protection that he could, displayed a moral and ethical compass similar to his boss and generally just couldn’t get enough of being a despicable human - was not nearly enough differentiation.  Not nearly. 

That’s over now, though.  And who could be more thrilled by Scott Pruitt’s demise…than Scott Pruett, eh?

As Blues Traveler might say, “But anyway”…this isn’t about Scott Pruett.  Or Scott Pruitt.  Or Blues Traveler.  It’s about another Scott and a different “band” – Scotty Boras and the Floppers.

With me?  Barely?  Understandable…

Statement of the obvious: Bryce Harper’s having a bad year.  Through last Sunday’s game Harper, the free-agent-to-be, is batting an abysmal .218.  He leads the team in homeruns (21) and RBI (50), and walks a lot, but with that paltry batting average it is difficult to have the game-to-game impact expected from a former MVP.

Harper’s confusing season also complicates what has promised to be, since the moment he arrived in the major’s, the most anticipated free agency sweepstakes since, well…ever?

Lee Majors was once “The Six Million Dollar Man”; Harper has designs on being baseball’s first $400 Million Dollar Man (bionics might actually be cheaper than Bryce).  With this season’s performance, his propensity to get hurt and minimal defensive contribution (right field…not a “high leverage” position), it’s hard to see the bidding going that high.

Ah, but Harper’s agent, the insufferable Scott Boras, has answers and solutions.  In a recent interview, Boras claimed that Harper’s talent has led teams to “starve him from the strike zone” and that defensive shifts are “discriminatory” for left-handed hitters.  To the latter point, Boras suggested that MLB modify the rules to allow its best offensive talents (like Harper) to shine.  In other words, Harper isn’t responsible for his struggles; he’s a victim of his greatness and an unfair system.  Oh the hardship.  Poor Bryce.  Boo, hoo, hoo…

While Boras was spewing excuses, the rest of his “bandmates” – The Floppers, a.k.a. World Cup soccer players - were writhing all over the pitch.  Have you seen this nonsense?  Players barely get touched (if at all) and fall to the ground as if assaulted by an Avenger and convulse like Dr. Frankenstein was shocking them to life.  Neymar, Brazil’s star footballer, has his own flopping short film.  And these are world class athletes competing in the sport’s crown jewel tournament?  It is a cowardly, deceitful abomination.  Note to flopping soccer players: when you disrespect competitive athletics, it is hard to respect you or your game. 

Now gather around children, it’s time for the grumpy old school man on the porch lecture, or…discussion. 

So what to make of this, kiddos?  Well, from Mr. Harper’s agent/apologist, we learned that if you aren’t performing, it’s someone else’s fault.  And, because you are so, so special, rules will be bent to ensure your success – even if they’ve been in place for a century.  Really, it’s no bother – you’re that important. 

Pardon me?  Oh yes, please hook up your little egos to that air compressor.  Full blast…   

Now while your sense of self-importance inflates, consider the soccer floppers.  What did you glean from them, boys and girls?  Yes!…that it’s okay to make a mockery of your profession, as long as it serves your needs, that dishonesty is just fine and that self-respect is overrated.  After all, winning and your image is what matters, certainly not how you played the game.

Which is all to say, hide your eyes kids…a horror flick is playing.

This Beautiful World

As published in The County Times (countytimes.somd.com)


By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

The Capitals won the Stanley Cup on June 8, 2018. I had waited for the moment for my entire life; being a long-suffering D.C. sports fan, it appropriately triggered a sports-based euphoria I had not experienced since the Maryland men’s basketball team won the national championship in 2002.

After a night of sweet dreams, I woke to this text from my daughter: “Dad, Anthony Bourdain died.” 

It would be an embellishment to say I consider Bourdain a hero - a term used far too casually.  I’m 45 years old, and like most of at least my vintage, I don’t impress easily anymore.  I’ve been disappointed by enough people, particular those occupying positions of power or of some famous persuasion, to apply a hero label to another human being only with great caution. 

Bourdain was, and remains, however, a person of great significance in my life.  I’ve watched all of his shows – “A Cook’s Tour”, “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown” – over the years and read his career-launching book “Kitchen Confidential”.  Wherever his work appeared and in whatever form, I consumed it.

My Bourdain affinity started simply because I love food and he consistently found the new, the bizarre, the simple and the exotic and presented it in a reckless, a devil-may-care, I-can’t-get-enough-of-this way.  But food became only part of Bourdain’s attraction.  The mysterious places, the cultures, politics and what it all said about us – humanity – became as much of the story as the food itself. 

Ultimately, though, it was the host - Bourdain himself – that kept me coming back show after show, year after year.  He looked comfortable in any setting, in any culture and with people from all walks of life.  He could dine at a table adorned with fine linens and the best china, eat noodles street-side while sitting in a plastic chair or devour freshly harvested game while sitting on a log near an open fire.  As a person whose counts among his greatest food experiences eating rockfish fresh off of a charcoal grill or devouring famous orange crustaceans dumped from a garage steamer pot and dosed with Old Bay, Bourdain’s style resonated.

Bourdain was able to connect with so many different people around the globe because he never judged a way of life or preached the virtues of his.  A man of many flaws, ones he expressed with great transparency, Bourdain was never arrogant or condescending to his hosts.  He led with his curiosity and expressed genuine appreciation and respect for wherever he was, for whomever he was with and for whatever he was eating.  It was never about what a destination and its people lacked; it was always about opening your mind, learning and appreciating the culinary and cultural creations of the people in some far off land.  That the land was unfamiliar, the language often different and the environment sometimes unimaginable just added to the charm and the seek-to-understand challenge Bourdain was issuing to his audience. 

Whether it was bull fighting, soccer in Marseille, France, baseball in Cuba or Japan or his own love of Jiu-Jitsu, sports were occasionally weaved into Bourdain’s plot.  But his show was always about sports – at least for viewers seeking a connection.  The lasting and indisputable lesson from Bourdain’s globetrotting was this: Despite differences in geography, ethnicity, culture or political ideology, humans are far more alike than different…and bridging divides to our common humanity takes little more than an inquisitive, fearless and respectful catalyst. 

Through the lens of sports, Bourdain’s work and this message was a discreet wink and a nod to locker room leaders, coaches and General Managers about how to mesh a collection of humans from all around the country or the world into a cohesive unit.  Through the lens of life, he left a formula for how bring the diverse members of our teams – our families, colleagues, communities and country – a little closer.  Whether we achieve any of it is on us.  But while Bourdain’s gone, we will be buoyed by the demystifying seeds of curiosity, decency and understanding that he spread globally as he “took a walk through this beautiful world”. 

When Grown Men Cry

As published in The County Times (countytimes.somd.com)


By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

This can’t be considered current content anymore, not in this age of 24/7 wire feeds.  Give me some latitude here – it’s an article I’ve written in my head countless times over the last 35 years. I’ve dreamt about it, wrote a fictional version for a high school assignment and flirted with it several times in this column.  And for my entire life, it’s been a recurring spring-time obsession, a time of year when it almost always had a chance of becoming reality, but never did – until last Thursday night. 

Every long-time fan of the Washington Capitals has their story.  Mine starts around 1982, when my uncle, in his VW Bug, began regularly jetting me and my cousin up to the Capital Centre – The Great Pringle – to cheer the likes of Dennis Maruk, Mike Gartner and Rod Langway.  Years later, a poster of Peter Bondra adorned my college dorm room.  For much of the Alexander Ovechkin era, my wife and I have made annual trips to Verizon Center/Capital One Arena to meet up with old friends and “Rock the Red”. 

Which is to say, like most fans of this prodigal-son-like team, the Caps are in my bones.  My emotional attachment is deep and as strong as it was in childhood.  The sustained affection is rooted in success: Having missed the playoffs only seven times since 1982, the Caps have been, by far, the most consistent D.C. sports team.  In recent years, they’ve been regularly among the NHL’s very best, winning three President’s trophies (given to the team with the best regular season record) since 2010. 

And yet, for all this regular season success, there was nothing, ultimately, but playoff anguish.  Unimaginable anguish.  Their history was a script for a horror film or plot for a Stephen King novel: too-many-to-count blown 3-1 leads, only two trips past the second round, one token appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals and numerous losses to the Islanders, the Rangers, the Flyers and the Penguins and the Penguins and the Penguins.

Considering the random nature of NHL hockey – follow the pinball/puck - and the sheer number of times the Caps had sent high-quality teams into the playoffs, this never-ending story of epic disaster defied all statistical explanation.  There was something else in play here, some dark force that sentenced the franchise and its poor, innocent fans to eternal condemnation.  Watching it all unfold, year after miserable year, was sports’ version of hell.  Hoisting a Stanley Cup was just something that happened to other teams in other towns – until last Thursday night.

At the beginning of every Caps playoff journey over the years, I have faithfully written down the number “16” (the number of wins needed to hoist the Stanley Cup) – on calendars, notebooks or dry erase boards - and started a hopeful countdown.  For 30-plus years, I never wrote down “0”.  In franchise history, the Caps had never reached the summit, their fans’ faith had never been rewarded and the sun had never come out – until last Thursday night…when the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup!!!

Oh…those…words…

I am so happy for so many: my Uncle Wayne for taking me to so many games, the players – past and present, the D.C. sports media who have dutifully covered losing teams and playoff heartbreaks and D.C. sports fans, a strong and hearty lot that has been unfairly criticized during this long streak of futility and distress.  We were always there, waiting to erupt and after 26 years of pain since our last major professional sport championship, The Darkness – that omnipresent villain - has been exorcised.  It’s the kind of stuff that makes grown men cry – this one included.

How did this happen?  Was there something in the water?  With the Cubs (2016), the city of Cleveland (Cavaliers, 2016) and the Eagles (2018) having won recent championships, you have to wonder.  Or did a determined organization and core of players just keep pushing through adversity, knowing that eventually it would all come together and be their time.  Maybe it’s that simple.  Maybe that’s the lesson we all learned amid the tears and euphoria – last Thursday night.

Not Buying It

As published in The County Times (countytimes.somd.com)


By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

The NBA’s regular season is a drag – a six-month, 82-game yawner offering few surprises.  The absurdly long odyssey is marred with scheduled off days for stars, tanking by bottom feeders and lackadaisical effort that would make the pending retiree buried in a cubical village look like an aspiring intern. 

At the root of what ails regular season basketball is this: there is no drama.  Oh sure, it is marketed as something significant, but it’s a manufactured marathon to pay the bills.  We all know what’s going to happen.  Mostly anyway.  At the start of every season, only a half dozen or so teams are in the championship conversation; in reality, the list of true contenders is even shorter. 

And yet, the NBA and the networks that spew regular season coverage expect consumers to take the product seriously.  Why?  Because there’s some burning desire to see what teams eke out the eighth playoff seeds in each conference?  Come on.  Even the best teams have only a passing interest in home court throughout the playoffs; now a top-four seed and home court in the first round suffices – and the (lack of) game-to-game exertion proves it. 

There are exceptions.  Russell Westbrook is a relentless competitor.  He would race you up the stairs.  LeBron James, to his credit, played all 82 games this year.  There are also many players fighting tooth and nail every night to stay on an NBA roster.  But mostly, the NBA’s regular season is charade.
Dislike the brutal honesty and cynicism if you want, but was a half of a year of basketball necessary to validate Houston and Golden State, and Cleveland and Boston, as the Western and Eastern Conference Finals participants?  No…it just wasn’t.

Pulling the string further, the preseason/October versions of ourselves would have declared Golden State, as the defending champs and with its Avengers-like cast of All-Stars, the overwhelming favorites to repeat.  Maybe Houston, with its notable duo of Chris Paul and James Harden, could offer some resistance in the Western Conference, but not enough to actually threaten Golden State.  Similarly, James’s Cavaliers and the rebuilt Celtics would be worthy adversaries in a Finals showdown with the Warriors, but this was Golden State’s title to win since Halloween.  It was fait accompli.  All other contemplated outcomes were just wishful, manufacture noise.

Then the season happened.  The destination followed the Golden State, Houston, Cleveland and Boston final four script, but the journey swerved way off the expected track.  The Celtics lost prized free agent addition Gordon Hayward for the season after he broke his leg in in the first game and G Kyrie Irving for the playoffs after the All-Star had knee surgery.  A struggling Cleveland squad flipped nearly half its roster in multiple moves before the trade deadline.  Warriors’ G Stephen Curry missed 31 games.  Houston often played man down too, with Paul and Harden missing 24 and 10 games, respectively.  No one was spared the fury of The Regular Season Monster. 

Whatever sins the NBA regular season commits against basketball fans, the playoffs are the penance – a fabulous display of intensity and desperation.  It is basketball at its best.  Once things got real in this year’s second season, the Fantastic Four of the preseason – Golden State, Houston, Boston and Cleveland – waved off the adversity, refused the ready-made excuses and arrived where everyone thought they would be – the Conference Finals.

Of the four, Houston and Boston impressed the most.  Boston lost its two best players and still came within one game of slaying King James’s Cavs and reaching The Finals.  In the west, Houston has, as of my submission deadline, pushed the juggernaut Warriors to seven games, something that on paper they had no business doing.  The easy play for both teams would have been to accept conventional wisdom – that Boston, sans Irving and Haywood, couldn’t threaten in the east and that Houston couldn’t actually push Golden State.  But neither team was buying the imposed limitations of outsiders.  Good for them and fortunate for anyone facing doubters in their lives.  Sometimes the only person in your corner is you; sometimes that’s all you need.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Father


Strong, poised and confident
A source of humor, a calm counterforce to malcontent
Provider and handyman
Wise sage and slayer of the boogieman

Everything he has always been

Cook, housekeeper, diaper changer and taxi service
Source of encouragement or a timely hug for reassurance
Emotional support, a sympathetic ear
Defender, advocate, an antidote to fear

Everything else he has become

Ads, T.V. shows and movies – methods to resist
That progress…so antiquated stereotypes still persist
To marginalize, overlook and mock
Mom’s equal cohort and the family’s indispensable rock

This despite the progress, what he now is

No worries, no apologies – it is what fathers do
The family’s drumbeat whose perpetuity is assumed
Credit isn’t necessary, nor is praise
Just a pat on the back on one dedicated day