Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Platform for Change

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Recent sports headlines have been dominated by an all-star NBA forward from Maryland.  No, not the ‘Skins fan from Prince George’s County.  Oh he’s gotten plenty of run after snubbing the Wizards, crushing dreams in Oklahoma City and inking a deal with the Golden State Warriors, the NBA’s first non-LeBron-James Evil Empire in years.  Pause The Kevin Durant Chronicles for a moment; a former resident of Baltimore, the land of orange, purple and Natty Boh, stirred up far more important publicity last week.

I’m not a fan of New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony.  Yes, he’s a big-time scorer who can flat out drain the orange.  But he’s an obligatory defender, his effort is questionable and there’s no evidence that he makes his teammates better.  One dimensional.  Generally overrated.  Not my cup of tea. 

That’s Anthony the player.  But Anthony the man and unexpected political activist?  That guy has my attention.  That guy has my respect.  In an overwhelmingly sad week that saw police shoot and kill Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and Micah Johnson kill five officers in Dallas, Anthony took to social media to express his outrage.  Here are his paraphrased thoughts (the post is worth reading in its entirety):

“We need to steer our anger in the right direction…towards the system.  Shooting 11 cops and killing 5 WILL NOT work…we need to come together more than anything at this time.  We need each other.  I’m calling on my fellow athletes to step up and take charge.  There’s NO more sitting back and being afraid of tackling and addressing political issues anymore.  THE TIME IS NOW.  DEMAND CHANGE.”

When confronted with domestic or international turmoil, I often turn to Fareed Zakaria’s book “The Post-American World” for solace.  In it, Zakaria argues that, by historical comparison, we occupy a peaceful world, one whose cultural and economic interconnectivity largely mitigates dangerous political discord and ill-intended personal or national ambition.  The evidence is convincing: We’ve achieved unprecedented levels of trade and economic prosperity; cultural barriers are reduced by travel and information exchange, and; large scale war between superpowers, the kind that results in massive casualties and global instability, doesn’t exist. 

Still, with alarmingly frequent terrorist attacks and senseless killings, it is difficult to remain hopeful in humanity’s grand earthly coexistence, despite Zakaria’s logical, fact-based counterpoints.  Human nature as it is, it seems that stereotypes will corrupt the small-minded, greed will infect the ambitious and religious zealotry will distort the worship of a god into an instrument of pure evil. 

The tendency for decent, loving and well-intended individuals is to respond to social calamity by controlling what they can – personal attitudes and actions and the world view of youths they influence – and steadfastly remaining part of the solution.  The development of strategies that promote the world’s safety, progressive international relationships and the infrastructure for social fellowship and equality is deferred to a nation’s leaders, a term often synonymous with politicians.      
Given the scope of today’s challenges, that is mostly an understandable and defensible reaction.  For what happened in Minnesota, Louisiana and Texas during America’s Independence week, it isn’t enough.  The world has a common opponent who is terrorizing free, peaceful people around the globe.  Yet here we are in America, the allegedly most diverse, open and tolerant nation in the world, struggling with senseless internal violence.  We have to demand better of ourselves, resist shameful stereotypes and appreciate and promote our common humanity. 

That is part of Anthony’s point.  The added layer is that while sports is a fun, joyous reprieve from the ugliness of everyday life, there comes a time when it should be more.  Anthony’s fed up and willing to use his NBA platform to be a change agent; he’s challenging colleagues to do the same.  We should all applaud his courageous activism and stand behind him, Knicks fan or not.  Otherwise we’re just individuals left rereading books or returning to other familiar outlets to soothe the pain of the latest crisis and retain hope in our flawed species.  For me, Anthony’s crusade is well-time; I need more than Zakaria’s wisdom to maintain faith in this world.     

Work v. Playtime

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

The last week or so has been a struggle.  I’ve watched Australian Rules Football, random College World Series games and “Without Bias”, a 2009 ESPN documentary on the death of former Maryland Basketball star Len Bias, three times.  I’ve even trolled the internet like a pathetic TMZ junkie for 
Johnny Manziel chatter.  Is a 2 a.m. table tennis tournament next? 

The problem: I’m a sports addict without an adequate fix.  I need whiskey shots, but the only elixir available is Coors Light.  I’m pounding Silver Bullets but they just don’t deliver the desired effect.  Maybe I need to go “Old School”, channel my inner Frank the Tank and deploy a beer bong. 
I should have a compensatory protocol; this happens every year.  See, the moment the Fightin’ LeBron’s defeated the Golden State Warriors and exercised Cleveland’s demons, sports fans were tossed into a cold, harsh world with only one active major sport (MLB).  No frozen pucks or slap shots.  No touchdowns or daily fantasy football binges.  No more three point bombs.  This is how Aussie football ends up on one’s television.  I even caught myself reading about Great Britain’s departure from the European Union.  #Brexit!  Help…

Finding inspiration in these depressed athletic times is difficult, but a Norseman - by trade, anyway - managed to do so.  When asked during a recent ESPN interview about his remaining NFL shelf life, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, 31, offered an interesting reply.  “Training camp, going through the grind, OTAs and all that – that will definitely be a deciding factor.  Physically, body-wise, I’ll be good.  It’s just mentally…it’s so repetitive that it’s more suited toward the young guys…it gets kind of boring.”

For the average person who trudges into work five days a week for 40 years just to keep the utilities on and some connection to the middle class, Peterson’s comments sound like pouty, million-dollar-athlete syndrome.  Oh yeah, it’s torturous to throw some weights around daily, casually run mock football plays in shorts and spend a little time with coaches in the film room.  Poor Adrian Peterson.  How does he survive the toil?  He’s a working man’s hero. 

Pausing the sail down the river of sarcasm, a fair consideration of Peterson’s soundbite must acknowledge two points.  First, while Peterson might not be the best mentor for fathers, he is among the NFL’s hardest workers, having once rushed for 2,000 yards less than a year after reconstructive knee surgery.  He is a symbol of the year-round commitment to fitness the game requires and the death of the pot-bellied era of Sonny Jurgensen.  Second, and more significantly, football, as compared to other sports, demands arduous preparation.  Offseason programs begin in April.  Organized Team Activities (OTAs) are in May.  Training camps start in July.  Preseason games are played in August.  The regular season runs from September through December and includes obsessive strategizing between games.  And for what?  Sixteen games at three hours apiece - 48 hours of glory.  And the best of the best only play half (offense or defense).  That’s a lot of work for very little playtime and a far cry from the 162 MLB games and 82 NBA and NHL games per year.  No wonder there’s so much exuberance and passion on Sundays – it’s playtime!

In that context, Peterson’s point is understandable.  Football demands a lot of squeezing for very little juice.  Looking to real life for comps, I suppose it’s similar to the maturation of a complex weapon system, a process that takes years and climaxes with a few test events.  Or a presentation that takes weeks to develop, research and practice for a single, two-hour delivery.  Or maybe it’s even like writing, a process the great Red Smith described in these terms: “Writing is easy.  Just sit in front of a typewriter, open up a vein and bleed.” 

Heading into his tenth NFL season, I get Peterson’s boredom with the grind.  Am I sympathetic?  What with a metaphorical vein open and an early morning alarm for another 20 years?  No, not hardly.  Pro football’s still a comparatively good gig, even if gamedays are rare treats.  

Hating LeBron James

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Four games into The NBA Finals, Player A has averaged 21.5 points, five rebounds, 4.8 assists and one steal per game.  Player B has averaged 24.8 points, 11 rebounds, 8.3 assists and 2.3 steals.  Player A is reigning MVP Stephen Curry.  Player B is LeBron James.  Since Curry’s Golden State Warriors are up 3-1, he’s so likeable and his daughter is so darn cute, his mediocrity is getting a pass.  With the Cleveland Cavaliers on the brink of elimination, James is being eviscerated, again.  See when James’s teams lose, The King gets blamed, fairness and objectivity be damned.     

In her song “32 Flavors”, Ani DiFranco sings, “Everyone harbors a secret hatred for the prettiest girl in the room.”  James personifies this lyric, in part: He’s often the prettiest player on the court, but the hatred of him is no secret.     

James is inarguably one of the greatest athletes of all time.  He’s in the company of Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, Jim Brown and Jim Thorpe.  At 6’8”, 250lbs of chiseled granite, James is a tank on the court.  He jumps like Jordan, runs like Bo Jackson, dribbles like a point guard and has the quickness of an NFL cornerback.    

This confluence of athletic gifts anointed James “The Chosen One” before he could legally drink.  Twelve years into his NBA career, it would seem James has done little to disappoint.  His accomplishments include 12 All-Star selections, four league MVP awards, two Finals MVP awards, 10 appearances on the All-NBA First Team, five appearances on the NBA All-Defensive Team, seven trips to The Finals and two NBA championships. 

But that’s just James’s basketball resume; his personal resume is comparably impressive.  Despite arriving in the NBA as a teenager with more expectations than any basketball player ever, James has navigated the fish bowl remarkably well.  He is a gentleman on the court, respectful of the media and a willing criticism-absorber for un-King-like teammates.  And unlike so many professional athletes, James’s name isn’t associated with late-night club incidents, DUIs, assaults on women, drug use or gun-related debauchery. 

Still, the world loves to hate on LeBron James; admittedly, he has obliged critics with legitimate material to fuel the skewering.  James’s game and persona have warts.  Despite generational physical gifts, James is a reluctant bully (unlike some presidential candidates).  When the spotlight is brightest, James often chooses to defer to teammates instead of dictating play.  For many players, this would be called “unselfishness”; for James, it’s considered a chronic weakness.  James also struggles in his own head.  His talent is obvious to the viewer’s eye, but James’s confidence, on occasion, inexplicably wavers.  Further, he’s failed to submit himself to an established coach (like Jordan, Magic Johnson).  And he rarely does himself any favors on Twitter.  Ultimately, though, there is this haunting statistic: The King’s a very un-regal 2-4 in The Finals.  Down 3-1 to the Warriors, the sharks are circling again.

So he isn’t Jordan or Bill Russell.  But we knew this five years ago – at least.  The Decision – James’s ill-fated televised announcement of his signing with the Miami Heat - and disastrous pep rally that followed happened six years ago.  Shouldn’t we have gotten our pound of The King’s flesh and accepted his place in NBA history as “one of the best”, not “the best”?    

I can’t think of another athlete like James.  He’s had missteps, but I’ve never seen an athlete whose accomplishments are so disrespected and one so disliked for no meaningful reason.  Do his critics consider him a failure?  Do they believe they would have done better if blessed with his skills?  Both are laughable suggestions and disrespectful of elite competition and the great teams James has battled. 

Here’s a worse thought: The tired trolling of James is indicative of a non-specific, destructive habit.  Whether buoyed by social media, a pervasive inferiority complex or a decline in civility, fault-finders are a swelling mob.  Damn the good in anyone if an ounce of fault can be found.  Through that lens, the vitriol criticism of James says a lot more about his critics than it does about the constantly embattled player.