Thursday, March 31, 2016

Hey Neighbor

Published previously by The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

The episode of Parts Unknown seemed like a time capsule from a bygone era.  Was this real?  The host, Anthony Bourdain, looked the same - slim, distinguishingly gray and weathered perfectly to command respect.  The digital television guide confirmed that I was indeed watching a fresh release of the CNN series, but little on the screen indicated this was a current-millennium stage.  The city’s infrastructure in the backdrop was dated and exposed an economic wound; the streets were flooded with American cars from the 1950s, most proudly showing the patina of 70 years of rugged use.  Despite the visual evidence, it wasn’t a movie set; it was a real life, real-time picture of America’s complex neighbor: Cuba.

Bourdain’s show did what it always does so well: explore the politics, culture and cuisine of the featured country.  Cuba, though, wasn’t just any subject.  Bourdain’s mere presence on the island, let along his shooting of an American television show, would have been unthinkable four decades ago.  That phenomena, rooted in America and Cuba’s chilly history and made possible by rapidly changing attitudes, appropriately dominated the show’s fascinating script.

Cuba is just 90 miles from Key West, Florida – 90 miles that for 50 years were an insurmountable diplomatic distance.  Between 1960 and 1962, Cuba and the United States endured the Bay of Pigs Invasion, a full trade embargo and the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The political upheaval put the neighbors’ relationship on ice – no trade, no travel, no diplomatic exchanges.  The North American cul-de-sac wasn’t at war, but the two neighbors became distant and distrustful strangers.    

Bob Dylan didn’t pen “The Times Are Changing” for Cuba, but the song fits the current United States-Cuba scene.  Since 2008, a year that saw Barack Obama move in just up Route 4 at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and Raul Castro assume the presidency of Cuba from his brother and long-time American antagonist Fidel Castro, momentum for normalized American and Cuban relations has been tangible.  The last eight years have seen Obama relax travel restrictions, Raul Castro trim bureaucracy on exit visas, America remove Cuba from its list of terrorist sponsors and the two countries reopen embassies and restore diplomatic ties.

A shared passion delivered another sign of progress: Last week, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team played a baseball game in Havana.  The Rays won, but the score hardly mattered.  The game was the first of its kind since our Baltimore Orioles played an exhibition game in Cuba 17 years ago and, since the Obama family attended, it marked the first time in nearly 90 years that a sitting U.S. president visited the island.

Significant change invites consternation and controversy.  Most Americans prefer breaking down remaining barriers with Cuba, but it certainly isn’t endorsed by all.  As Cuba and America thaw a vestige of the Cold War, some would-be American presidents are preaching increased isolation, including the construction of a wall - a physical manifestation of a very different approach to the future - along a shared border with another neighbor. 

Given the course of global events and the asymmetric threats to peace, democracy and religious freedom, strong, cooperative relations with international partners, particularly those next door, is crucial.  Walls aren’t cooperative.  Neither is maintaining sanctions against a neighbor for their one-time support of an American enemy, especially when said enemy – the Soviet Union – hasn’t existed in 25 years and the neighbor’s offending leader – Fidel Castro - has been out of power for nearly a decade.       

If a cooperative relationship is achieved, history will be unable to quantify the contribution of a single baseball game to normalized relations between America and Cuba.  Diplomatic political shifts take time and an incalculable number of change-promoting events.  Nevertheless, the game inarguably furthered a positive trend.  There was also a moment before the game that illustrated the crossroads the two countries have reached: A one-minute moment of silence was observed for the victims of the Brussels terrorist attack.  It was a silent pause between two old enemies figuring out how best to shake hands instead of defiant fists, while quietly acknowledging an emergent, common enemy we’d be wise to combat together.  

Two Different Farewells, One Grand Lesson

Published previously by The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

March announces the arrival of shamrocks, leprechauns, green beer and, for sports enthusiasts, the madness of the NCAA basketball tournament. 

But this piece isn’t about the coming of basketball’s greatest event; it’s about the once unimaginable farewell of two shooting stars across the area’s skyline. 

On September 9, 2012, less than four years but a lifetime ago, Washington rookies Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris debuted and powered the ‘Skins to a 40-32 upset of the New Orleans Saints.  In what would become a recurring storyline of their Washington tenures, Griffin was exalted after throwing for 320 yards and two touchdowns, while the steady, workmanlike Morris rushed for an oh-by-the-way 96 yards and two touchdowns.  The famous Griffin and under-appreciated Morris were born: The roles fit the players’ personalities, how they arrived in Washington and how each man chose to conduct his NFL business.

Griffin, of course, was the second overall pick in the draft, an electric, Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback who relished the spotlight, had charisma to burn and injected a demoralized fanbase with an overdose of hope.  Griffin parlayed his fame and instant NFL success into a personal brand.  He hawked sports drinks, athletic shoes and subs.  He spewed slogans, tweeted virally and developed a personal logo.  Robert Griffin/Clark Kent was transformed into RGIII/Superman.  It worked in his fabulous rookie year, but as he encountered injuries and adversity, the intensely prideful Griffin passive-aggressively quarreled with coaches, dodged blame and was unable to accept the reality of his severely degraded performance.  

Morris, meanwhile, was an anonymous sixth round selection from Florida Atlantic.  He befittingly arrived in Washington in a vintage 1991 Mazda 626.  With nothing guaranteed, the humble Morris fought his way onto the roster and parlayed a strong preseason into a starting job that he would hold for four years.  Morris was consistently available, productive, the consummate teammate and a beacon in the community.  Despite two Pro Bowl appearances, Morris lived below the radar, generated no drama (unlike Griffin) and demonstrated a quality of character that is the dream of any organization and the goal of every well-intended parent. 

Considering Griffin’s cataclysmic demise, it would be easy to point a finger at the one-time wunderkind quarterback with the unquenchable thirst for fame and pontificate about how his narcissism and endless flirtations with extraneous football activities contributed to his fall.  To further the point, Morris, a guy that did everything the right way by any old school measure of personal success, would be put forth as the example of how to earn your way in the world.  The problem is, after four years in D.C., both players found themselves in a similar state: unemployed.

A 2016 ‘Skins roster absent both Griffin and Morris would have been unfathomable after that victorious September Sunday in 2012.  But here we are on Planet Bizarro. So if Griffin made many missteps and Morris did everything right, yet both arrived at the same unfortunate place, is there any sense to be made of this?  Any teaching point to glean. A success formula to follow? Any nugget of wisdom to file? 

There is, but only if differences are ignored and Griffin and Morris are considered as an inseparable duo.  If I walked into a classroom and 30 sets of young eyes were staring at me in anticipation of a life lesson, here’s what I’d say…

As a new team member, earn your place.  Don’t act entitled and don’t do things that separate yourself from the group.  If you have a problem with someone, talk to them directly and in private - social media isn’t your friend.  Accept constructive criticism.  Own your mistakes.  Be self-deprecating.  And if you rise to a leadership position, absorb blame and deflect credit.  But know that even if you do all these things, the world is inherently unfair.  It will deal you an undeserved hand.  It will discard you at the hint of decline.  When it does, recover, get up and steadfastly chart a new course on the bumpy road to success.

I’m betting on a second act for Griffin and Morris to validate that last point.  

Thinking Downstream

Previously published by The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Last fall, Katina Powell, a previously unknown former escort, published her book “Breaking Cardinal Rules: Basketball and the Escort Queen.”  It exposed a sordid trail of debauchery that will, if confirmed, leave a lasting stain on the storied basketball program at the University of Louisville and on the record of Rick Pitino, its Hall of Fame head coach.

In the book, Powell alleges that from 2010 through 2014, Andre McGee, a former player, Graduate assistant and Director of Basketball Operations at Louisville, financed several parties at an on-campus location where escorts provided, shall we say, “adult services” to Louisville basketball players and recruits. 

McGee has since resigned from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where he was an assistant basketball coach.  Pitino has steadfastly denied any knowledge of the alleged parties and remains on the Louisville bench.  Think about that: One of the most powerful men on campus and the face of the athletic department, if not the entire university, claims ignorance of parties that supposedly happened nearly two dozen times over a four-year period.  Maybe Pitino is innocent, but if these allegations prove true, his institutional control was incompetent.  If this was a football program with dozens of coaches and 100-plus players, Pitino’s story might be plausible.  But basketball?  A sport with a handful of assistants and a roster of roughly 15 players?  Unacceptable.  And let’s not forget, this is the same Pitino who, in a 2009 extortion case, admitted to an extramarital affair and paying for his mistress’ abortion.  Fast-forward seven years and this man of questionable morals is requesting the benefit of the doubt.  Louisville, in retaining his services (and thereby determining him the best man to lead the program and its student-athletes), has obliged.  You wouldn’t be alone in questioning that decision.

The NCAA’s investigation is on-going, but there’s apparently some fire behind Powell’s smoke.  A few weeks ago – and here’s where it gets complicated – Louisville President James Ramsey announced that it was “reasonable to conclude that violations had occurred” and that, as a consequence, the university would self-impose a one-year postseason ban, effective immediately.  It is a classic preemptive action ahead of near-certain NCAA sanctions.  

The significant collateral damage of such a decision, as is the case with most NCAA scandals, is its impact on the innocent – the current players.  Few, if any, of the kids on Louisville’s roster were involved in these alleged parties; yet, while Pitino continues coaching and many former players polish their 2013 NCAA championship rings, the 2015-16 Cardinals deal with the sins of their Louisville ancestors and their own shattered NCAA Tournament dreams. 

This situation – the un-involved present bearing the burden of the shameful past - is so common in major college athletics now that it is easy to attribute it only to major college athletics.  In fact, the immediate reaction to the ban wasn’t to laud Louisville’s proactive discipline or to speculate on what the schools action means long term, it was to express sympathy for the guys wearing the colors today. 

But this story isn’t just about Louisville basketball.  It isn’t even just about college athletics or sports at large.  It’s about parents raising responsible, respectful kids and turning them over to appreciative teachers and communities.  It’s about workers setting a high standard and managers mentoring and grooming their replacements, a collective effort that produces a healthy organization.  It’s about using the planet’s resources judiciously and not consuming them recklessly.  It’s about not attending parties with escorts, literally or figuratively.  All of us, in all of our various roles, must remain acutely aware of those downstream and make sound, responsible and selfless choices for them in the present.  Our efforts should produce beneficiaries, not victims. 

Visitors to the beach in Ocean City, Maryland are greeted, at nearly every access point, by this trademark phrase: “Leave only your footprints.”  It’s a simple request: Leave our Maryland treasure as you found it (and feel free to improve it by grabbing any trash on your way out).  Those who visit after you will be glad you did.  If only the forebears of this year’s Louisville basketball team had been so courteous…

The Sheriff’s Complicated Farewell

Published previously by The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Two weeks have passed.  Much has already been said.  I should have moved on.  The Broncos won.  Peyton Manning, in what was likely his last NFL performance, delivered a fairy tale ending.  The Sheriff’s riding off into the sunset with a Lombardi Trophy in hand.  Finito. 

But the story is gnawing at me.  So here it is, another Manning eulogy, although different from most others.  If anyone deserves a lengthy farewell, it’s the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards, touchdown passes, Papa John’s franchises and goofy commercials.  Manning’s earned the extraordinary attention. 

The persistent intrigue isn’t based on Manning’s alleged HGH use.  I’m a calloused veteran of sports and PEDs now.  It wouldn’t surprise me if he did; very few people – in sports or life – are what they seem.  Besides, a definitive answer is unlikely, so why expend the energy? 

Manning’s on my mind because I don’t know what to make of the supposed fairy tale ending, and I’m unconvinced the quarterback does either.  This wasn’t John Elway in Super Bowl XXXIII - a final epic performance from one of the game’s great quarterbacks.  It wasn’t even a synonym for the still capable, if not dominant, Ray Lewis’s Super Bowl XLVII farewell.  Manning’s decline began last year, but he physically disintegrated in 2015.  A turnover machine early in the season, Manning was mercifully shelved with a foot injury in week 10.  Until the regular season finale, when a healthy Manning replaced an uninspiring Brock Osweiler in a desperate attempt to win a critical game, it looked like the great quarterback would exit the game as a backup.  Instead, The Sheriff won his second Super Bowl.

The fly in the fairy tale’s ointment is when Manning returned, a different version took the field.  Consider these statistics.  In Manning’s eight complete regular season games this year, he averaged 38 attempts, 268 yards passing and 7.35 yards/attempt.  His interception ratio was 4.43%.  In Denver’s three playoff games, Manning averaged 31 attempts, 180 yards passing and 5.9 yards/attempt.  His interception ratio was 1.45%.

Do you see what happened?  Manning’s attempts, length of throws and interceptions were all down.  This was intentional management.  Head coach Gary Kubiak correctly concluded that Manning, a five-time MVP and one of the NFL’s greatest quarterbacks, was now below average but still capable, if constrained, of avoiding enough bad plays so as to let the all-world Broncos defense win the Super Bowl.

The question is what Manning thinks of all this.  Is he thrilled for the career and legacy-preserving lifeline or slightly annoyed at Kubiak’s manipulation of his final ride?  The fairytale theory says the former.  It postulates that Manning, the consummate teammate, had accepted his obvious limitations.  But that would ignore the enormous and often reality-bending ego possessed by elite athletes and, I think, the likelihood that this great victory was tinged with some remorse. 

Contemplating Manning’s situation triggered an unexpected excursion into Buddhism’s three forms of pain/suffering or “Dukkha”: physical (a broken arm), change (loss of a loved one, closing of a favorite restaurant) or conditioned state (a situation where a pleasurable act can cause pain in the midst of providing its pleasure).  That’s an extreme oversimplification of a complex concept, a consequence of my very elementary knowledge, but the relationship to Manning’s situation is obvious.  Isn’t it reasonable to conclude that Manning’s in the third state, meaning he found the playoff ride pleasurable (as football is conditioned to be) while also feeling, in the midst of the pleasure, disappointment for his incapacity to even be a facsimile of his once-great self?

This isn’t a criticism of Manning but rather a challenge to the conquering hero storyline.  As life unfurls, our relationships with people, things, professions and interests evolve.  This evolution can increase the pleasure of experiences or complicate them with some level of sorrow.  Watching Manning’s Super Bowl run, I saw a man struggling to resolve the gap between his past and present abilities.  At the sport’s apex, Manning had reached an equally pleasurable and difficult crossroads in his relationship with football.  It was a fascinating conclusion to a great career, if not the perfect fairy tale.  

Leading With A Smile

Published previously in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Cam Newton is a direct young man.  The greater Charlotte area’s euphoria still simmered after the Panthers’ 49-15 destruction of the Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game when Newton dropped this nugget at a press conference: “I said it since Day One, I’m an African-American quarterback.  That may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to.” 
Wow.  So much for setting an even pace and avoiding controversy during the obsessive two-week media buildup to the Super Bowl.  Newton looked the world in the eye – critics and supporters alike – and introduced the elephant in the room. 

I love it.

Twenty-eight years ago, Doug Williams became the first African-American quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl.  As significant as Williams’s accomplishment was, it proved not to be revolutionary: It took 26 years for Russell Wilson to finally match Williams’s feat. 

The NFL, the quarterback position and race is and will remain an issue.  I don’t know NFL player demographics, but my eyes tell me that a majority are African-American, yet only five of 32 teams had an African-American as its primary starting quarterback.  That’s not necessarily an NFL issue – a quarterback is trained long before his NFL eligibility – but it’s a curious (is that the right word?) situation the league advertises, via its massive stage, every year.

Newton’s race isn’t the issue it once was, but it still matters.  Most people don’t care; but some, sadly, still do.  Incomprehensible, race-based hate lingers.  Despicable people like Dylann Roof walk among us. And, despite progress, a pathetic segment of the population still has an issue with Newton just because his skin is a different hue. 


So I’m glad Newton threw some verbal haymakers.  I’ve been drawn to him all season; bluntly acknowledging the truth – that he navigated an additional level of complexity in his career - just adds to his appeal and what prompted me to write this piece in the first place: Newton’s amazing growth as a man, leader and quarterback. 

The pre-2015 version of Newton was often and fairly criticized for having terrible body language.  Adversity caused Newton to visibly mope, place a towel over his head or sit alone on the bench.  Situations could get the better of him and he felt entitled to disconnect from the moment.  It wasn’t a good look, especially from the franchise quarterback, the supposed leader of the team. 

This season, Newton’s been different: He’s taught a nation to “Dab”, he’s handing footballs to kids after touchdowns and has an infectious, perma-smile affixed to his face.  Newton set a positive tone early in the season, backed it up with his play and got his teammates to buy-in.  His self-confidence and comfort in his own skin is apparent; the joy he exudes is refreshing.  This is a young man who is obviously aware of his detractors, but he has grown impervious to the negativity.

Newton’s transformed non-verbal communications have resulted in a 17-1 record, a birth in the Super Bowl and a likely MVP award for the once sulking quarterback.  I’m not a huge believer in mystical forces but Newton’s positive energy has had a palatable impact on the team.  You can feel Carolina’s togetherness.  They’re a pro football team having college-like fun. 

While watching Newton, two local athletes come to mind: Stephen Strasburg and Bradley Beal.  Strasburg and Beal, despite being young, wealthy and insanely talented, are both oddly inclined toward melancholy.  Nagging injuries and pouty looks are common; smiles are not.  It’s hard to tell if they are playing a sport or forcing down vegetables.  The vibe I get from them is they expect something to go wrong, as if they have some fatal attraction to darkness and fear the light. 

Not everyone’s a cheerleader, but attitude is a controllable component of success.  As Stephen Covey once said, “Sometimes the most proactive thing we can do is to just genuinely smile.”  Is Newton a “7-Habits” junkie?  Probably not, but he’s living Covey’s point and the results are inarguable.  Strasburg and Beal should take notice.  I suppose we all should.  Group Dab anyone?