Friday, December 29, 2023

Same As Ever

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

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Podcast-land is a vast landscape of diverse interests and budding obsessions.  Every media member, former athlete, B-list celebrity or grasping-for-fame influencer has one.  And much like a tour through any team roster, this massive ocean of multi-media content contains some standouts, a host of solid contributors and some unfortunate (that they exist) filler, sans any trace of killer. 

Avoiding the regrettable and finding quality topics of interest takes some effort.  I wouldn’t say it is an exercise that makes me long for the pre-digital days of five television channels and three radio stations, but there are certainly moments when the appreciation those far off, simpler times rises.  When lacking the opportunity to proactively pod-surf, say when life suddenly bequeaths you a rare hour to kill, finding an instant treasure in the podcast hinterland is daunting.  Channeling Dirty Harry, the obvious question is, “Do I feel lucky?” 

When faced with such a dilemma last week, the universe was kind to me.  The dumb-luck discovered podcast was “Plan English”, hosted by Derek Thompson.  The selected episode was titled “What Most People Get Wrong About Wealth, Fame and Happiness” and featured author Morgan Housel and his new book, “Same as Ever”.  It was fantastic. 

The title introduces the content.  Housel’s book, which features stories illustrating historical patterns and habitual human flaws, accentuated the conversation with proof of our repetitive “wrongs” and the hope that awareness produces wisdom, which leads to better choices, which leads to greater wealth, and a better understanding of fame and happiness.

This, curiously, got me thinking about sports and the holidays.  My brain: when you figure out yours, help me with mine.

Let me try to connect the dots.  You may want to grab a beer.  Nothing in sports is the “same as ever.”  Some things stick for a long time – Andy Reid coaching winning NFL teams, LeBron James dominating basketball, the Houston Astros in the MLB playoffs, and the Washington Commanders playing losing football, for example.  But nothing lasts forever.  That counterpoint’s examples: the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady Patriots dynasty, the Nicklas Backstrom-Alexander Ovechkin connection, and the Capitals and Wizards leaving D.C. (probably). 

For those of adequate vintage, this fluid dynamic creates a coexistence of nostalgia for the past, appreciation for the present and excitement for the future.  Two good examples are the Orioles and Nationals.  For the O’s, it’s impossible for anyone over 40 to see the warehouse at Camden Yards and forget the numbers counting down Cal Ripken Jr.’s march to the consecutive games played record, while also being jacked about the youngsters that arrived this season and the promise they offer for the future.  Similarly, for Nats fans, the yearning for Juan Soto, Trea Turner and that magical 2019 team is palatable; but the rebuild is underway and 2024 should mark the arrival of more future stars.

In my scrambled mind, this seamlessly transitions to the holiday season.  Whatever you celebrate, this time of year is often – and hopefully - synonymous with family gatherings and reconnections with good friends and loved ones.  It is that rare opportunity to dismount the hamster wheel, wrestle control over the pace of life and invest in cherished relationships. 

Of course, for those who have lapped the sun a few dozen times, the emotions of the holidays, like those of longtime sports fans, cover the gamut – the togetherness is special and the promise of the years to come is alluring, but these feeling share headspace with a hint of nostalgia for yesteryears and an ache for loved ones lost. 

The popular saying is life throws a lot of curveballs.  But curveballs are predictable.  No, life is more like a knuckleball – fascinating, beautiful and unpredictable.  As Hunter S. Thompson quipped about life’s complexities, “Hope rises and dreams flicker and die; love plans for tomorrow and loneliness thinks of yesterday; life is beautiful and living is pain.”  Recognizing the personal emotional complexities of the season, I supposed the holidays are simply a time to seek joy in moments, to find hope in a future waiting to be revealed, and to feel gratitude for memories now locked in the past. 


Vegetable Stands and Frozen Pizza

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

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

A modified bookshelf sits prominently in an inviting living room that is otherwise decorated with memorabilia spanning 40 years of D.C. sports history.  On the shelves are hundreds of vinyl records; some are new but most are old, several even older than their present owner.  Conditions vary from pristine (great survivors of an untold provenance) to the “well played”, the latter population delivering that warm, snap-crackle-pop through the speakers as they spin across a needle delicately navigating ancient surface grooves.

I have trouble explaining my affinity for these records.  And as a writer, my struggle for words is bothersome.  On the surface, it makes no sense.  I could compile all of these albums in no time – click here, click there and boom…they are on my phone, tablet or computer in digital form.  Access would easy and from anywhere.  The sound would be crisp and clean.  The total acquisition cost would likely be less.  Storage - simple.

So why would I choose to attend countless records shows, hunt down record stores in every town I visit and sift through stack after stack of dusty vinyl just to assemble this swelling mass of music artifacts?

I don’t know.  But I can hypothesize.  And Sports Illustrated (SI), the once great must-read magazine for sports fans, provided a fantastic data point for my contemplation. 

Life moves fast, so in case you missed it (I did), SI recently faced heat for getting caught using content generated by Artificial Intelligence (AI).  The content not only did not disclose it was computer generated, it was attributed to a human author – a person who does not exist in carbon form.  When sleuths confronted SI, it did what many exposed people and entities do now: deny, divert and embrace victimhood.  SI’s official response was it used a third party for content and was duped themselves.  Ah, so SI wasn’t being disingenuous, it was incompetent.  That makes things so much better.

Spineless SI aside, AI content isn’t coming, it’s here and is poised to spread.  Disclosure of its use, at least by professional journalistic forums (there’s no hope for social media), is critical.  From there, consumers will decide its fate and proliferation.  As a sports writer, is it threatening?  Somewhat.  It is difficult to comprehend how pernicious it could be.  But human writers should gladly accept the challenge.  I believe sports fans will always want content – good content, not lazy, slap-it-together generic poo - generated by a fellow human.  It ensures accuracy and source-authenticity; and, if a piece is well-written, I refuse to believe that a machine can adequately capture and convey the intricacies of and human emotions generated by a sporting event.  For example, if you’re telling me a machine can properly communicate the passions of degenerates at Philadelphia Eagles games, I ain’t buying it.

Gut instinct (something AI doesn’t have): at the end of the day, most people will tolerate some AI for basic information, but will continue looking to other humans for deeper meaning and more thought-provoking stories.  I think – hope – the same will apply to other artforms.  AI-generated movie scripts and scores, faux lip-synched “live” concerts, hologram shows (ABBA, KISS) and macro, AI-generated pop songs have their place, I suppose (being kind).  But brass tacks: how much ultra-processing can the soul stand?

Which of course circles back to those vinyl records.  Why the allure?  They represent the music’s original intended form.  Led Zeppelin’s “IV”, Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Mainstreet”, Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions” weren’t meant for a digital format.  An MP3 of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” piped into your brain via ear buds will never be an adequate substitute for holding an original album in your hands while the record spins and you work up a sweat dancing in your living room.  Records are music’s version of the local vegetable stand and farm-to-table food.  It's as good as it gets.  Digital music files are like facsimile autographs and frozen pizza. 

And much like frozen pizza has its place (especially at 2am), AI will no doubt become a regular source for sports information.  Let’s just hope it’s never more than niche.  Everything in moderation, eh? 

The Standard

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

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

At some point, the sun set.  The exact moment is foggy, shrouded by years of ineptitude.  Such details are irrelevant.  What does matter is that, for a time, it was bright – squint, reach for some cheap convenience store glasses, blinding bright.  Sundays would come and good times would roll.  Stressed vocal cords required days of recovery.  The stadium was packed by the blessed souls in attendance (there was a decades-long season ticket waiting list).  Games were appointment television for those lacking a ticket to ride.  Fans of division rivals were sent home in shame and with a regrettable beer buzz on the regular.  It was a destination town for players, a place they longed to be; the team turned the marginal into solid contributors and the good into masters of their craft.  The organization was run with class and ranked among the league’s very best.  Characters with character filled the locker room.  Supporters felt like more than just fans; we were part of something – our region, our town, our team.  A family.

And then?  Darkness.  The sun dropped below the horizon.  The light faded.  The beautiful colors glistening off the clouds disappeared.  Coaches departed.  An owner passed away.  Cornerstone players moved on without comparable backfills.  The head coaching gig felt like a series of temporary hires.  Big name players came to get paid, not to perform.  The losses mounted.  The business ethics disintegrated.  The passion faded.  The ticket waiting list disappeared.  There was no apparent accountability on the field or within the organization.  There was no legitimate ability to imagine anything beyond mediocrity.  There was, after three decades of rot, no hope…for the Washington D.C. football team. 

About six hours northwest of Southern Maryland, there’s a place that’s like ours used to be.  The journey there wraps around D.C., heads up the I-270 corridor, snakes through Hagerstown into southwestern Pennsylvania and due west on the PA turnpike.  After a short drive down I-376, it appears: Pittsburgh…Black and Gold country.  There, the beloved Steelers are in the midst of recording another winning season (they haven’t finished below .500 since 2003!) and are firmly in playoff contention – again and, seemingly, as always.  The fanbase is passionate.  The stadium is packed.  There is a palatable energy exuding from the franchise, into the city’s pores and through a nation of fans across the globe. 

But there is a fly in the ointment.  The Steelers are hardly winning in style this season and, by any objective measure, haven’t been Super Bowl contenders in years.  The alibies are sound.  The late-career version of Ben Roethlisberger was choppy, and transitioning from a Hall of Fame quarterback is often difficult.  Accelerating Pittsburgh’s fall from the league elites was Antonio Brown’s disturbing career self-sabotage and Le’Veon Bell ruining a budding legendary Steelers career in a bizarre contract squabble.  Regardless, for a city that is accustomed to winning titles, frustration has grown with the good/not great Steelers of recent vintage.  And now there’s this: the once whispered calls for head coach Mike Tomlin’s job are now aired openly.

Such are the quibbles of the uninitiated to the depths of NFL despair.

Removing all emotion, it’s remarkable what Tomlin has done in Pittsburgh in recent years.  The gap between roster talent and on-field results is significant – the latter being greater than the former.  But the importance of Tomlin to the Steelers transcends the overachievement of his teams.  Tomlin inherited a unique, winning culture in Pittsburgh and has dutifully sustained it.  When faced with adversity, he defiantly refers to “The Standard” – a level of expected performance regardless of circumstance.  Tomlin maintains a link to the franchise’s decorated past and is a cornerstone for a brighter future.  He’s a foothold for the organization: an example for new arrivals and a conscience for veterans with wavering commitment. 

Lose a foundation like Tomlin, and it becomes easy, perhaps inevitable, to remain adrift.  Same applies in any professional setting.  Same applies in life.  Without a North Star, so to speak, it can all go dark – trust me.  If you can be a beacon like Tomlin, do so; if you find one, grasp it tightly.  

A Complicated Knight

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

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

The NFL was my first sports love.  As I was coming of age, my football team, the one in Washington D.C., was consistently among the best - even the very best, several times over.  It is hard to imagine now.  The relics I retain from that era seem as much magical fiction as historical fact.  But it all happened, “Once upon a time”, as all good stories begin.

A close “2” and “2a” to the NFL were the NHL and college basketball.  I owe my love of hockey to my dear Uncle Wayne.  He dedicated so much time taking his son and me to Capitals games.  I’m eternally grateful.  Every nephew should have an Uncle Wayne.

As for college basketball, my timing was impeccable.  I was nine when Patrick Ewing and Georgetown lost to Michael Jordan and North Carolina in the national championship, 10 when N.C. State upset Houston’s Phi Slama Jama, 11 when Georgetown beat Houston to win the national championship, and 12 when they lost to Villanova.  I saw Ralph Sampson, Chris Mullin, James Worthy, Tim Duncan, Christian Laettner and Grant Hill.  I worshipped Terps such as Adrian Branch, Juan Dixon, Joe Smith, Walt Williams and Len Bias, my first sports hero. 

Unlike the NFL, NCAA basketball games were on every night.  A game between giants on a random Tuesday was a fabulous distraction from my horrendous attempt to flirt with the cute girl at lunch earlier in the day or the upcoming math test I had no interest in studying for.  Gleaning a few new moves to try at the next day’s basketball practice was emotionally safer than forays into adolescent infatuation and far more appealing than algebra.

After Maryland icons Gary Williams and Lefty Driesel, and long-time Duke head coach and Maryland nemesis Mike Krzyzewski, Bobby Knight was the college basketball coach who most preoccupied my mind.  The curiosity of Knight was multi-faceted: a brilliant basketball coach who won over 70 percent of his games and three national championships at Indiana, and an equally indisputable hot head who coached and seemingly lived like a 24/7 drill sergeant (hence his nickname “The General”). 

When a friend texted me last week that Knight had passed away, several superlatives and criticisms flooded my mind.  Ultimately, I managed but a two-word reply: Complicated dude.  

Knight won nearly 900 games.  He hung a bunch of banners.  He made Indiana basketball a national power.  His structured and disciplined approach and demanding coaching style turned many teenage boys into strong young men well-equipped for life.

Knight was also a bully.  He tossed chairs across the court and feigned use of a whip on players as a motivational technique.  He could be verbally and emotionally abusive.  And in the case of former player Neil Reed, there was documented physical abuse.  He was so spiteful over his dismissal from Indiana after an incident with a student that he shunned the university for years and skipped a 2016 reunion for his undefeated 1976 team. 

Selfish.  Generous.  Mean.  Kind.  Highly effective.  Self-destructive.  It was all simultaneously true of Bobby Knight.  His traits were impossible to reconcile.  In a way, he embodied our complex world of coexisting contradictions. 

After his death, social media was filled with positive stories.  It was as if Knight’s supporters felt compelled to influence the narrative of his legacy, counterbalance the “yeah buts” and passively apologize for his significant shortcomings.  But Knight was certainly self-aware.  He had to have moments of self-examination where the broader impact of his behavior was considered.  That he never evolved and never yielded, despite a world yearning for him to do so, is disappointing.  It left qualified praise as the tone of his farewell. 

And that’s a shame.  But it was Knight’s choice.  There was – is - another way.  Coaches like John Wooden, Dean Smith, Bill Walsh, Mike Krzyzewski and Joe Gibbs followed a different, and more admirable leadership model.  Like Knight, they all won big, built a culture, benefitted a community and reached young men in meaningful ways.  But they did it with a grace that Knight never grasped and absent a complicated legacy. 

The Sanctity of Competition

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

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Remember when humans made telemarketing calls?  The next-level annoyance of the computer voice on the other end of those calls now makes one nostalgic for the uninvited, person-to-person contact of yesteryear.  Or what about when phones couldn’t suggest finishing words to text messages?  Or when homes lacked voice-commanded doohickies that could change the television channel or settle a trivia argument with a spouse?  How about stubborn automated phone trees for everything from a doctor’s office to a credit card?  Good luck circumventing these tangled systems to reach a live human.  And remember to listen to the message in its duration because “Our menu options have recently changed.”  Being lost in a corn maze has nothing on the hopelessness of a phone maze.

As for the writing craft, I do wonder what the future holds.  Perhaps it is time for a disclaimer to accompany this column: every single word you are reading was generated by a human (me).  No ChatGPT here, my friends.  Never.  Ever.

Professional integrity aside, artificial intelligence has arrived, and it promises unreconcilable change: a mind-scrambling coexistence of fantastic improvements, random frustrations, amazement (how far we’ve come) and fear (too far?).  As George Will once said, “The future has a way of arriving unannounced.”  And here we are.

Sports remain largely an analog-based respite from technology.  Sure, much has changed – how games are played, in-game communications, advanced statistics, athletic and orthopedic improvements, and the consumption experience (high-definition television, high tech stadiums, go anywhere viewing on handheld devices) – but sports are still about getting the better of the opponent on an individual or team level.  Did the ball go in the basket?  Was the puck buried in the net?  Was the ball barreled up at it crossed the plate?  The scoreboard is final judge and jury.  It is raw, unpredictable and fantastic. 

At the heart of sports’ allure is the sanctity of the competition itself – that unequivocable belief in the authenticity of the combatants’ struggle.  Without that, sports dissolves into nothing more than a charade.  The Big Lie, to steal from today’s toxic political parlance.  Something far worse than professional wrestling, fake reality television and faux live music concerts. 

It would be nice to report that such violations of trust never happen.  Nice just left the building, though, if it ever was present to begin with.  As with most things involving our species, the lure of fame, fortune, legacy and power has, on a few occasions, caused the integrity of sports to be recklessly peddled.  Quickly scan any moment in history and this is clear: hubris and greed are pervasive flaws. 

A few of the 1919 Chicago White Sox (Black Sox scandal) sought a pay day.  The New England Patriots (Spygate), the steroid users of the late 1990s/early 2000s and the 2017-ish Houston Astros (sign stealing) sought a competitive advantage.  Who knows what Pete Rose (betting on baseball) was thinking.  The famous are now infamous.  All wear a scarlet letter, their legacies graced with a well-earned asterisk. 

Unfortunately, that dubious fraternity may have another member. 

The University of Michigan football team, a speed bump on Ohio State’s path to the Big Ten crown no more, is now the conference’s elite team and squarely in the national title conversation.  With head coach Jim Harbaugh already under NCAA investigation and fresh off a self-imposed three-game suspension, the compliance hawks have returned to Ann Arbor amidst allegations of illegal sign stealing.  Pulling from a familiar damage control playbook, Harbaugh has denied any knowledge and a lower-level staffer has been suspended.  That we’re left to trust the NCAA, not exactly a bastion of business ethics, to deliver justice only intensifies the stench of this situation.

Beside holding our noses, where does that leave sports fans?  Simply to digest another alleged episode of remarkable arrogance.  What was the impact of Michigan’s willful disrespect for competitive integrity?  Like the Astros and Spygate, there was certainly some.  So much for sports being a safe space from artificial intelligence.  In a traditional sense, it is; but when it comes to nefarious information gathering, humans can be as troubling as the machines they create.     

Filling A Void

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

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Last Saturday, on an idyllic fall afternoon, the Baltimore Orioles did something they hadn’t done since 2016: take the field for a playoff game.  Between then and now, there have been many dark seasons, with three reaching the dubious 100-loss milestone.

Plagued by the cringe-worthy ownership of an ailing Peter Angelos and his family’s adversarial jockeying for team control, the organization, at least off the field, has been adrift (sound familiar, D.C. football fans?).  That chaos aside, the baseball operations have been crushing it.  The Orioles parlayed those poor seasons and draft capital into arguably the best young roster and farm system in MLB.  In 2023, ahead of all expectations, that talent announced its arrival with a 101-win season and the AL East Pennant.

Despite the euphoria, there is a tinge of sadness in Birdland.  A black circular patch with an inlayed orange “5” adorns the Orioles’ uniform.  The patch is a tribute to Orioles legend Brooks Robinson, who passed away on September 26th.  Robinson was 86 years old.

The measurables of Robinson’s baseball greatness are distinguished: 18 All-Star games, 16 Gold Gloves, league MVP (1964), Roberto Clemente Award (1972), two World Series championships (1966, 1970), World Series MVP (1970), Baseball Hall of Fame member and an unimaginable defensive highlight reel.  How good was he at third base?  For decades, if anyone at any level made a great play on the hot corner, teammates and opponents simply needed to utter “Brooks” with a tip of the cap.  You knew because you knew.  He was the best.

But in a full account of Robinson’s life, the baseball player would be in the shadow of the man.  Stories are the best way to understand Brooks Robinson, the human.  Scott Van Pelt, ESPN anchor and Maryland native had one.  His dad caught a Robinson foul ball at Memorial Stadium and gave it to Scott, who, as kids are apt to do, lost it down a storm drain after a stray throw.  Years later Van Pelt told the story within earshot of a Robinson acquaintance.  Apparently, the story got back to Robinson because, shortly thereafter, Van Pelt received a signed Robinson ball with a note that it hopefully eased the pain of the one that got away.

Sportscaster Rich Eisen had his story.  As a younger lad he was part of a charity golf tournament and, as youth sometimes does, vigorously imbibed the night before.  Nursing a hangover, he became frustrated when the shuttle to the course no-showed.  Eisen called the hotel front desk and asked if anyone was there from the tournament.  Somehow Robinson ended up on the phone with Eisen, addressed his concern and had a shuttle sent within minutes. 

I have two.  I was in Robinson’s company just once – an autograph show in Baltimore.  His interactions were fascinating.  Robinson treated everyone with the warmth of a long-time friend.  I mean everyone – staff, fellow luminaries, kids and star-struck, nobody autograph hounds like me.  The second is his voice.  I don’t remember Robinson the player, but I do remember him broadcasting Orioles games.  His delivery was so down-to-earth and unassuming.  To this 10-year-old kid, he made comic book stuff – major league baseball and greats like Cal Ripken Jr. and Eddie Murray – seem like reality (albeit an extraordinary one).  He invited you into the Orioles’ living room, so to speak.  All were welcome.  He made Orioles baseball feel like family.

Maya Angelou famously said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Whatever the name Brooks Robinson immediately brings to your mind, be it a signed ball sent to atone for an adolescent mistake, commandeering a shuttle to a golf tournament, a ridiculous play at third or even a voice over the airways on a perfect summer night, he made us all feel a little better – in the moment and about the course of humanity.  With Robinson’s death, the world is left less friendly, less humble, less decent and less kind.  His passing leaves a void; the challenge for those left behind is to fill it.   

Our Better Selves

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

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

The local Doppler radar looked benign last Saturday morning.  Light rain bands passed through D.C. and others loomed across the northern neck of Virginia, but Southern Maryland was precipitation free.  This was a surprise, given the warnings and promised weather calamity from tropical storm Ophelia.  But the visual was deceptive. 

A wider perspective revealed a massive system spreading rain from South Carolina to western Pennsylvania.  When set in motion, the image suggested this day would be best spent on the couch watching college football. 

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke those words a long time ago.  It came to mind when considering the stark difference between Ophelia’s narrow and expanded radar imagery.  It’s fascinating how seemingly unrelated things connect. 

Very different conclusions can be drawn from a simplified, micro or immediate consideration – a singular experience, a day or even a year - of an issue as opposed to broad, long-term analysis.  As a stock investor will tell you, growth isn’t linear; markets rise over time, but they do occasionally fall. 

The arc of social progress has encountered recent headwinds.  The FBI reported a 35% increase in hate crimes in 2021.  African Americans were the most likely to suffer from race-based crime; incidents against Asian Americans were also disproportionately high.  Sikhism and Judaism were the most victimized religions.  Hate crimes based on sexual orientation increased sharply, and gay and transgender victims were the most likely to be murdered.

A reflective pause to consider that last paragraph is appropriate.  Sobering.  Disturbing.  Infuriating.  Words that come to mind.  One that didn’t: surprise.  These statistics offered no revelation.  For a window into society’s pre-existing fear and consequential anger, see Bud Light. 

There is, as always, hope.  Sports are, despite obvious flaws, fabulously integrated (at least on the field); performance - not appearance, race, national origin or belief system - remains the ultimate determinant of advancement.  The best player in baseball is Japanese (Shohei Ohtani).  A Serbian (Novak Djokovic) is the greatest men’s tennis player of all time and the reigning NBA Finals MVP (Nikola Jokic).  The face of the NFL is biracial (Patrick Mahomes).  Women’s sports have never been better or more popular.  The WNBA is having a moment and its best player just happens to be lesbian (New York Liberty star Brianna Stewart).  While typing this piece (a tip of the cap from the universe?), news broke that Haley Van Voorhis, a safety for Shenandoah University, had just become the first female non-kicker to appear in a college football game.

Despite the hate crime statistics and palatable sense of national tension, these examples indicate a progressive, increasingly tolerant world.  Another recent sports event offered additional, macro-level evidence – a widened Doppler view, if you will – of social progress and Dr. King’s moral arc.  After Coco Gauff won the U.S. Open a few weeks ago, Billie Jean King was among the on-court luminaries.  King, after winning the 1972 U.S. Open, demanded equal pay for the women’s champion.  A year later, the same year King beat Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match, and 50 years before Gauff’s championship, the women’s and men’s champions received the same prize money. 

More time travel: Gauff’s victory occurred over 20 years after Serena and Venus Williams took over women’s tennis.  At the time, the Williams’s were more prepared to dominate the sport than the sport was ready for two dynamic, proud and unique African American talents from Compton, California to dominate it.  Thanks to the Williams’s, Gauff’s victory occurred in a very different world; her U.S. Open title was less a celebration of race and more about her being proof of the Williams’s legacy and the opportunity Gauff now has to influence young girls around the globe.   

This is all evidence of progress.  Slow.  Inconsistent.  But undoubtedly measurable progress.  That it comes from sports should not surprise; our games, while imperfect, have consistently been a leader on inclusion and acceptance, an example of our better selves and proof, even in the most challenging moments, that Dr. King’s quote is undeniable fact. 

Time Well Spent

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

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

The dog days of August deliver a recurring swoon on the sports calendar.  The prior basketball and hockey seasons are trailing memories; the upcoming seasons remain months away.  Baseball’s playoff races are just starting to simmer.  Golf’s majors are done.  Tennis has nothing to turn heads.  Football is mostly about fantasy drafts, practice games and ridiculous predictions.  To steal a phrase used to describe crappy albums, it’s all filler with no killer.  I actually caught myself watching a pickleball match and a Canadian Football League (CFL) game a few weeks ago.  Nothing against pickleball or our pigskin hurling northern neighbors, but these were not proud moments.

Solace was found, as it often is for middle-age men, in a Taylor Swift song (epic sarcasm!).  The appropriately titled “August” was the song and its soothing chorus, “But I can see us lost in the memory, August slipped away into a moment in time.”  It did indeed, and with it – September!

Pickleball.  Canadian football.  Therapeutic Taylor Swift sing-alongs.  Yeah, maybe not my strongest opening to a “View.”  Whatever.  I know this is a safe space, one without judgment.  Nevertheless, with dignity evaporating, September’s arrival was a welcomed tonic.  And just two weeks in, September has exploded with real football, an itch for playoff baseball and an epic U.S. Open that officially marked the arrival of Coco Gauff to tennis’ center stage. 

Starting with football, perennial powers LSU, Clemson and Alabama already have losses.  As do the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.  Deion Sanders, a phenomenal source of fun and intrigue for college football, has backed up his bombast by leading Colorado to a 2-0 start.  For Washington football fans, it’s like spring has arrived, the windows in a cold, dank house have been opened and fresh air is pouring in.  In baseball, the Yankees and Red Sox are “battling” for last place, the Mets stink and the Orioles appear poised for a deep October run – gimme all of that, all the time.

As for Gauff, what’s to say?  She was brilliant in winning the U.S. Open and in realizing the promise she has flashed; Gauff now sits on the throne of women’s tennis. 

What if it was suggested that these on-field/on-court accomplished paled in comparison to the clarity, hope and power of what has happened off the fields of play?  Remove the question: that is the suggestion.

First and last: what I’m about to say does not diminish the athletic accomplishment of team or individual.  Scoreboards produce joy and anguish, they challenge, validate and build legacies.  But in the end, the scoreboard is just the result of a completed competition; it is merely an aspect of sports and, arguably, a supporting storyline to a more significant narrative. 

Hear me out. 

What precedes the kickoff of every NFL game?  The national anthem: a few moments to pause, breath and reflect on our nation’s history, the state of our fragile democracy, our shared cause, threats to our freedom and the amazing place Americans call home.  After games, players can be seen shaking hands, embracing, maybe even trading jerseys – all acknowledgements of a shared grind and an appreciation for the opportunity and elite competition.

As for Gauff, the incredibly simplistic reaction would be to laud her as the latest tennis phenom to validate the hype with a major championship victory.  That conclusion would neglect the more profound: poise and maturity far beyond her 19 years, the inspiration she attributes to trailblazers Serena and Venus Williams, and the instant-influence she has on young girls nationwide, be they tennis players or not.

This all to suggest that when consuming sports, keep one eye on the scoreboard and another on the magic that happens on the periphery of the competition itself.  After the joy of wins and the pain from losses fades, how sports bind, how they inspire, how they remind us of our shared human experience – this is the stuff that fascinates, that educates and informs, that makes us fans for life.  And, I’d argue, it’s why watching a pickleball match or a CFL game on a sleepy August night is time well spent. 

The Enigma

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

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Hope is alive along the north shore of the Allegheny River.  The Pittsburgh Pirates recently selected Paul Skenes, a stud right-handed pitcher from LSU, with the top overall pick in the 2023 MLB draft.  Skenes has the kind of stuff to alter a franchise’s trajectory - in wins and losses, butts in seats and the national consciousness.  Of course, he’s a pitcher, a profoundly fickle and fragile position, so the dreams of Bucs fans are, as Elton John might suggest, a candle in the wind.  Nevertheless, the flame burns – for now.    

This begs the question: What if you could guarantee that Skenes would play 13 years for the Bucs, win 113 games, post a 3.24 ERA, notch multiple 15-win seasons and one 18-win campaign, never win the Cy Young award, record 30 or more starts just three times and pitch over 200 innings in a season just twice?  Would Pirates fans take that deal?

The short answer, without any context, is probably a firm “no”, followed by a hearty bite of a Primanti Bros. sandwich and a spirited Pittsburghian declaration of “Yinz crazy or something?”

The player who produced those statistics, the one Pirates fans would likely pass on, is Stephen Strasburg, another generational pitching talent and the top pick in the 2009 MLB Draft. 

The lacking context, of course, could change the answer.  Strasburg’s numbers alone are solid, but not spectacular – in whole or in a single season.  He was, though, a player who burned white hot.  His 14-strikeout debut in 2010 against Skenes’ Pirates was pure magic and somehow surpassed the ridiculous expectations.  It is not hyperbole to declare that game the moment when D.C. actually became a major league baseball city again – in its and everyone else’s mind. 

Then there’s the playoff version of Strasburg: a 6-2 career postseason record with a ridiculous 1.46 ERA.  In the 2019 playoffs, Strasburg was a perfect 4-0 and outdueled future Hall of Fame pitcher Justin Verlander in World Series Games 2 and 6.  And there’s really no argument that Strasburg’s Game 6 masterpiece, with the Nationals facing elimination, is the greatest individual performance in franchise history.   

But the injuries – Strasburg has always been as much tragedy as triumph.  Just two months after his franchise energizing debut, Strasburg blew out his elbow and was shelved for a year after Tommy John surgery.  He came back, but battled through all sorts of ailments in the years that followed.  Ultimately 2019 proved to be his last healthy season.  A chronic nerve issue in his neck and arm necessitated multiple surgeries and has limited him to just eight starts since that storybook night in Houston in October 2019.  Last week, Strasburg, who hasn’t pitched since early last season, announced his intent to retire in the coming weeks. 

Strasburg’s retirement will end one of the most unique careers in professional sports.  Using a real estate reference, I can’t come up with a “comp”.  Strasburg was more accomplished than Mark Prior or Kerry Wood, two other talented pitchers with injury-shortened careers.  He’s certainly more comparable to the shelf life of The Beatles than the Rolling Stones.  Was he a disappointment?  Not after his World Series performance.  But “what could have been” is still very much part of his story.

In the end, Strasburg will remain an enigma, a mashup of franchise-altering accomplishments, a championship parade, unfortunate events and unrealized promise.  To wrestle some clarity from Strasburg’s career, here are a few thoughts.  You just never know – no matter the talent or circumstance – what life will bring.  So have a plan and set goals, but remain present and recognize that plans are written in the sand next to a powerful surf.  Be steadfast.  Work hard.  Flat out grind when you must.  Celebrate wins and learn from losses.  And at the end of the day, the week, the month, the year or a professional career, find peace in knowing you greeted every moment, every curveball from life, with your very best – that is the formula for contentment, the antidote for regret. 

Hopefully Strasburg retires with plenty of the former and not a trace of the latter. 

And Then...Chaos

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

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Over the years, most of these bleacher musings have been drafted late at night.  With the sun long set and the day’s duties done, the body rests, the mind calms and the keys beckon.  Midnight often passes unnoticed; as a hard-wired night owl, the wee-est (a word?) hours of the morning provide the best inspiration. 

Music is a common companion – preferably something old and on vinyl.  The television is usually on, but muted.  Given the time, it is tuned to some far away, magical west coast sports offering from a place I’ve never been.  The memories are long and distinguished.  Boise State University’s blue football field.  An early fall snow during a game at BYU.  NBA games in Denver or Portland.  Dodgers games in the setting sun at Chavez Ravine - idyllic.  True to form, at this very moment, the Orioles game in Seattle is on and Bruce Springsteen’s “Greetings from Asbury Park” record is spinning.

There was a purposeful omission from those late-night sports credits: the Pac-12 conference, that great western bastion of college sports and, being three perfect hours behind eastern standard time, a treasured wingman during the crafting of many “Views”.  UCLA basketball games from Pauley Pavilion.  USC football from the Coliseum.  Oregon football’s latest fabulously tacky uniform.  Stanford-Cal.  Washington-Washington St.  Arizona-Arizona St.  Those names, places and rivalries – great memories.

A few years ago, a world without the Pac-12 would have seemed unimaginable.  Then last year, USC and UCLA, cornerstone Pac-12 schools, announced they would join the B1G Conference in 2024.  The money grab in college sports, masquerading as conference musical chairs, had reached a new level.  The next obvious question: would USC’s and UCLA’s departures prove fatal for the Pac-12?  Question…answered.  Last week, five schools – Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Arizona St. and Utah, announced they would depart the Pac-12 for the BIG and Big 12 conferences. 

Start drafting the Pac-12’s eulogy.  Total chaos just became reality.  Where does it end?  Do the ACC and Big 12 survive.  Or maybe they ultimately get carved up and fed to the SEC and B1G, thereby creating two super-conferences.  Suddenly Maryland’s painful move to the B1G a decade ago appears to be proactive genius. 

The understandable emotional reaction to all of this is to lament the loss of order, the familiar and how things used to be, and to point at the fluid landscape, shout it down as soulless greed and declare that once-great college sports will never be great again. 

There’s a lot of that going around, in sports and other aspects of life.  And I’m guilty in this case.  No Pac-12?  More shape-shifting?  Bah!  But that is nostalgia’s trap and regrettably na├»ve.

Stability is an illusion, a temporary state at best.  Change is the only constant, as they say.  And the mysterious and often cited “they” are, in this case, correct.  The loss of rivalries and player movement are disrupters, but when crying in our beers, ponder the gains.  College athletes are now free to roam and profit from their labor.  They are no longer indentured servants of the NCAA and universities, helpless to pursue personal interests when coaches move or programs go on probation.  With scholarships no longer four-year contracts, and with conference alignment more a casual intent than a marriage, sustained success is harder, but building a winning program is arguably easier (the test of that statement may be Colorado this season, where head coach Deion Sanders inherited a 1-11 team and has aggressively reconstructed the roster). 

Admittedly, that little pep talk was as much for me as it was for you.  The Pac-12’s cannibalization stings.  The classic rivalries will be sorely missed; much like this Maryland fan misses basketball games against Duke and North Carolina.  However, a Maryland basketball game at UCLA or a football game against USC at the Coliseum sounds fabulous, particularly if played late on a Saturday night while I am pounding out words for the following week’s “A View from the Bleachers.” 

As for handling life’s non-sports changes, I need advice more than I am positioned to give it.  If you have any, send me an email.  I’m always up late. 

Washington's Redemption

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

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

His escape had been years in the making, accelerating when hope of a retrial was dashed with the execution of a fellow inmate who could have vouched for his innocence.  He used a simple rock hammer to painstakingly tunnel through a concrete wall softened by age and moisture.  The main weapon of this grand grasp at freedom and revenge was his tenacious, bold, clever and steadfast mind.

Eventually the pivotal night arrived.  The details – including a financial trap for the warden and his corrupt operation - were set.  From his cell, he climbed into the tunnel hidden behind a poster and shimmied through the wall and into an opening above a sewage pipe.  With a storm raging, he waited for the crack of thunder, nature’s diversion, before striking the pipe with a rock.  He violently hammered the pipe until it exploded with a blast of human waste, climbed in and crawled hundreds of yards underground – beyond the prison walls and under its exterior fence – until the pipe dumped him into the river.  He rose, the river and rain washing him clean, physically and spiritually.  His face projected pure salvation. 

That was how Andy Dufresne escaped Shawshank Prison, regained his freedom and skipped off to a Mexican beach to live out his days.  He was an innocent victim: wrongly convicted of murdering his wife and her lover.  This being a movie, “The Shawshank Redemption” told Dufresne’s story and wrapped his happy ending in a bow. 

Dan Snyder’s ownership of the Washington football team promised no such redemption for its players, coaches and fans.  There was no obvious rock hammer, no great mind to hatch an exit strategy, no weakened infrastructure to exploit and no sewer pipe to crawl through (had there been, supporters of the Burgundy and Gold would have gladly done so).  No, Snyder appeared to be the hope-sapping, dream killing burden to bear until his personal expiration date.

Ah, but his absolute depravity intervened.  Snyder’s best contribution to our beloved franchise was being so awful, so vindictive, so incompetent and ultimately so dangerous to the fabric of the NFL, that he compelled the league and its band of 31 other owners – a tight fraternity wired for shameless self-protection – to break ranks and nudge him out the door. 

Unlike “The Shawshank Redemption” where the warden met a disturbing end, Snyder exits with $6B for the franchise he worked to destroy for 25 years with on-field incompetence and off-field disgrace.  Hard to say if that matters.  Snyder’s price for a clear conscience might be $6B, but I hope not. 

Enough about “him”.  Josh Harris and a new ownership team is in place.  Whatever this regime ultimately achieves, right now it, simply by not being “him”, has granted franchise loyalists redemption.  The alumni who built the legacy of this once proud franchise – guys like Art Monk, John Riggins, Darrell Green and Sonny Jurgensen – deserve it.  Current players who have had to perform in Snyder’s darkness deserve it.  Media who have covered a soap opera more than a football team deserve it.  And the fans, whose great memories of this team and of Sundays with friends and family…deserve it perhaps most of all.

There are two more applicable references from “The Shawshank Redemption.”  Dufresne had a passion for geology and the fascinating things “pressure and time” have created on our planet.  In the end, it was pressure – from sponsors, the media, minority partners, the NFL, fans willing to turn away from what they once loved and the brave women who exposed the moral rot of Snyder’s regime – and time…patience from all the above…that led Snyder to conclude that taking $6M and disappearing was his best option.

Lastly, Dufresne was a hopeful soul.  When speaking of it while incarcerated, “Red”, Dufresne’s best friend in Shawshank Prison, cautioned, “Hope is a dangerous thing.  Hope can drive a man insane.  It’s got no use on the inside.  You better get used to that idea.” Faithful supporters of Washington football, those whose hearts were trapped inside Snyder’s walls, had gotten used to that idea.  But we’re on the outside now and it’s okay to hope again. 

The Character Test

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

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

In 2009, then University of Connecticut men’s basketball head coach Jim Calhoun had a moment – at least his ego did.  With the state of Connecticut running a budget deficit, Calhoun, then making over $1.5 million per year, was pressed about being the state’s highest paid employee.  The question didn’t make it out of the reporter’s mouth before Calhoun launched into a holier-than-thou tirade where he cited the $12 million in revenue his team generated for the university and boasted that the state would see “not a dime back” of his salary.  The performance was indicative of a man who felt so untouchable that he had complete comfort being a horse’s backside and letting his prodigious ego roam.  It was distasteful, but at that point in time, with two national championships on his resume, Calhoun was not incorrect.   

Calhoun’s situation – his psychological perch and his salary – were not and are not unique.  I suspect back then in 2009, and today, nearly 15 years later, the highest paid state employee is the men’s basketball coach or football coach of the state’s athletic crown jewel public institution.  Whatever you think of that, it is a reflection of capitalism and the dominance of sports as an entertainment entity in America.  Derrieres in seats directly fill university coffers.  More importantly, eyes on the television screen generate advertisement revenue, which creates lucrative television contracts and stupid money for institutions, especially those in the power conferences.

The pressure to financially keep up with the Joneses is enormous.  It led to Maryland’s departure from the ACC (still getting over that) and all sorts of other conference alignment chaos and cannibalism (USC and UCLA are headed to the B1G Conference for crying out loud).  The money is so obnoxious that the NCAA finally broke down and permitted athletes to profit via NIL (Name, Image and Likeness) agreements. 

For a long time, a powerful, charismatic head coach - a person who can turn adolescents into adults, who can establish a talent pipeline, produce professional athletes and appease university donors – has been the key to collegiate athletic relevance.  The formula has evolved over time, but it is an environment that created Paul “Bear” Bryant, Bobby Knight, Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden, Pete Carroll, Mike Krzyzewski, Gary Williams, Urban Meyer, John Thompson and Rick Pitino.  Current coaches like Nick Saban, John Calipari, Bill Self, Kirby Smart and Dabo Swinney have inherited college sports’ thrones and ruled even larger kingdoms. 

Those names…several make you cringe, right?  Nothing needs to be said about Knight and Paterno.  Carroll left USC in flames.  Meyer, Pitino…sheesh.  Bowden has had wins stripped from his record.  Self was suspended last season due to an on-going FBI investigation.  Smart is embroiled in controversy.  The price of winning is steep and the ethical risk is high, but universities are consistently willing to write big checks and roll the dice.  Money rules the day.

Northwestern is the latest institution to fall on its sword.  And this one cut deep.  In the second half of the 20th century, Northwestern was a football wasteland.  Then Pat Fitzgerald arrived in the mid-1990s, and the star linebacker led the Wildcats to prominence and a Rose Bowl win in 1996.  Fitzgerald returned to Northwestern as an assistant coach in 2001 and became head coach in 2006.  Fairy tale stuff, right?  Yeah, until it wasn’t…until it was discovered that Fitzgerald, at best, turned a blind eye to alleged sexually violent hazing of underperforming players.  In a typical grasp to save the iconic coach, Northwestern first suspended Fitzgerald for only two weeks, only to fire him days later, presumably after the transgressions transcended the bubble of major college sports and were subjected to common sense.

Whether it be the Catholic Church or politicians who often leave constituents longing for better representation (the great unfortunate political unifier), power, combined with little fear of consequence, often undercuts the most basic ethical and moral standards.  As Abraham Lincoln said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” 

Fitzgerald is just the latest to reinforce the wisdom of those old words.   

Debating Technology

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

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

The delirious crowd counted off the waning seconds in unison.  One team sauntered off the field stunned and dejected; the other basked in the ultimate victory.  A band played in the background and thousands of jubilant souls belted out the fight song.  Players donned championship attire.  Media swarmed for interviews with the conquering heroes.  League luminaries presented the championship trophy.  Clips from the locker room conveyed the childlike joy of a group that had ascended their profession’s summit. 

This was as good as it gets – for every executive, coach, player and ardent fan.

Those were the concluding scenes of Super Bowl XXVI, a resounding 37-24 Washington dismantling of the Buffalo Bills at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  It was Washington’s fourth Super Bowl appearance in 10 seasons and its third championship.  The organization was the class of professional football; its fanbase was among the largest and most passionate in professional sports. 

Much has happened in the world of Washington football in the years since that January night in 1992 – an understatement typed with palatable anger.  And so, when NFL Network recently broadcast an unabridged re-run of the game, I couldn’t help but watch, if only to remember what once was. 

The game demanded other comparisons.  NFL football, of course, is played differently now – more passing, deemphasized running and less hitting.  But the antiquated technology jumped off the screen.  The lack of high definition and limited camera angles offered a much different viewing experience.  Close plays passed without a review.  Replays lacked clarity and limitless angles.  Overall, the game seemed to have a haze over it as Canadian wildfire smoke had penetrated the Metrodome.

It wasn’t better.  It wasn’t worse.  It was just different.    

In the quiet reflection after the game ended, contemplating the differences between 1992 and 2023 were inevitable.  The “evolution” isn’t constrained to football; there were 30 years of technological growth to consider.  Phones are now all-encompassing personal communication and life-facilitating devices.  Face-to-screen time is far more common than face-to-face time.  Anxiety is up; mental health is down.  Artificial Intelligence is infiltrating our lives – first “customer support” bots, now artificial readers of college application essays and sources of music, among other more sinister uses.  Humans are no better than the machines.  Lives are carefully constructed and broadcast through social media platforms.  Photos are so filtered that if you met the person, in person, the resemblance would be distant, at best.  Eagerly published, hand-selected personal propaganda screams “Look at my perfect moment…and lament your mundane life”.  Likes and followers are oddly coveted forms social validation and misconstrued correlations to self-worth.

On the other hand, what an amazing world we occupy.  Virtual work.  Convenient contact with family and friends.  The ability to track kids!  Information access.  Greater diversity of thought.  A world with less firm boarders.  The ease with which we can do almost anything boggles the mind - especially minds (like mine) that remember when a paper map was required for road trips, new goods could be acquired only through store visits and adolescent boys had to woo adolescent girls via in-person charm or calls on her parent’s landline – both equally terrifying. 

With the Super Bowl XXVI re-run fresh in the mind, I attended a Brandi Carlile concert at Wolf Trap recently.  There was a moment where I just observed the delirious crowd – humans lost in an unplugged, live moment that required no internet connection.  I was left convinced that technological wizardry was not aiding human advancement.  But then I thought about how the tickets were acquired.  The GPS that led us care-free to the site.  The text messages that quickly brought our group together.  The communications we maintained with our kids, precariously left at home, during the evening.  The photos and videos we captured.  Much of it would have been impossible three decades ago.

Am I sold on tech?  Label me undecided.  But tech is here, for good or ill.  So, I’ll embrace it with necessary suspicion.  As the opening jingle to an old television show said, “You take the good.  You take the bad.  You take them both and there you have – The Facts of Life.”     

Blurred Lines

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

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Days after the last “View from the Bleachers” rolled off the presses and hit local newsstands, a sports bombshell dropped.  Normally when a seismic event occurs in the world sports shortly after submitting a column, I cringe and lament the lost opportunity.  This time, I appreciated the breather; this was a lot to process.   

Sworn enemies united, with no regard for the limits of the human imagination.  The script was straight out of Vince McMahon’s pro wrestling magic hat.  Hulk Hogan embraced the dark side.  Rowdy Roddy Piper stepped into the light.  Carolina and Duke, Ohio State and Michigan, and the Boston Red Sox and New Yankees merged to become one.  Batman and Joker joined forces; for good or ill it is not known.

The humorous grasp is a coping mechanism.  The PGA Tour’s decision to bury the previously assumed unburiable (not an actual word…English can’t even describe this) hatchet and merging with Saudi Arabia-funded LIV Golf is?  Shocking.  Infuriating.  Disturbing.  Sad.  Unethical.  Immoral.  Certainly, some of those things.  Perhaps all of those things. 

Brief history: LIV Golf was founded in 2021; events began in 2022.  Financially backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, LIV Golf was able to entice many of the world’s best players – Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, Phil Mickelson and Patrick Reed, among others - to join, or stated more frankly, to defect from the PGA Tour, with irresistible, soul-selling financial packages. 

Soul-selling – an intentionally pejorative term.  Accepting checks from the current Saudi regime is a test of conscience, or evidence of a lack thereof.  The issue?  Unfamiliar with Saudi Arabia’s human rights record?  The brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi?  Women’s rights?  Saudi’s ties to 9-11?  Get Google-ing.

Along those lines, several prominent golfers remained steadfastly loyal to the PGA Tour.  Tiger Woods was one.  The most vocal, though, was Rory McIlroy.  The war of words was no joke; neither were the checks the PGA Tour loyalists turned down.  And now the organization who they defended just wed the presumed enemy. 

Why did the PGA Tour yield?  The talking heads claim the unification will help grow the game of golf worldwide.  How quaint.  Also noted were on-going lawsuits and LIV’s near limitless ability to bankroll litigation in perpetuity.  Maybe that’s true.  Like Thanos, maybe this merger was inevitable.  What is certain is that both the PGA Tour and LIV are healthier financially as a combined force.  “Follow the money”, as Deep Throat said.

Since this column’s beginning many years ago, the entries connecting sports with a topical political issue have prompted the most comments.  In most cases, it was athletes or individuals expressing a political opinion; in others, I took some liberties to connect the sports and political dots.  The feedback ranged from spirited agreement, to passionate disagreement or an agnostic “stick to sports.”  This time is different: it’s an entire organization – the PGA Tour – eviscerating the imaginary line (yes, it doesn’t exist...never has) between sports and politics. 

With that welcomed time to process this merger, my thoughts are more reflective.  I don’t like it.  Never will.  I will consume golf differently now.  But the PGA Tour’s hypocritical okey-doke is just the latest evidence that most things in life come with irreconcilable conflict.  There is no perfect job or relationship.  Every product we use is uncomfortable for some reason – for the resources it requires, its contributions to climate change or the atrocious working conditions for the human labor that produced it.   No religion or religious purveyor completely walks the walk of the talk they talk.  Sports are littered with owners and players who are simply bad humans.  Capitalism itself rewards the most effective, not the most ethical or moral. 

The challenge, then, is to determine where to flex, where your passions lie, what your non-negotiables are and where your conscience becomes heavy – in other words, where the joy of sport (or whatever the topic) is overcome by the discomfort.  I know how I felt about golf before the LIV merger.  My opinion in future I do not know.  Right now, it makes me uncomfortable; the PGA-LIV Tour is a hard pass. 

Return to Form

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

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

The trained eye of an experienced sports fan can tell immediately.  The athlete is in motion, plants hard to alter direction and, without contact, crumples to the ground clutching a knee.  The replay delivers the damning evidence: as the athlete’s foot slams to the ground and body pivots, the knee buckles and collapses inward.

The athlete knows too.  It feels like disaster.  A movement they’ve done a thousand times is suddenly greeted with a disturbing pop, as femur slams into tibia, and the stomach-turning sensation of a major joint moving in a foreign and damaging way.

When you see it, you see it.  When you experience it, you experience it.  The only question is the extent of the collateral damage – a medial collateral ligament tear or meniscus implications.  The primary verdict is known: a torn Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL).  A season ends and a team’s and an athlete’s future are now uncertain - and it happens just like that (writer snaps finger). 

Modern medicine being the totally awesome thing it is, a torn ACL is more of a career-pausing than the career-altering/ending injury it was years ago.  But it’s still no joke.  Due to poor blood flow in the area and the fibrous nature of the ligament, ACLs don’t heal well on their own.  They usually require reconstructive surgery using either harvested soft tissue from the patient’s patella tendon or hamstring, or a cadaver.  Return to activity is somewhere in the nine-month range; return to pre-injury form is more in the 12-to-18-month range.  Doable, but not great.

In an April 2021 game against the Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets rising star point guard Jamal Murray penetrated the lane, planted his left leg, fell and slide in a heap under the basket.  The replay told the story.  The subsequent MRI confirmed the obvious: torn ACL.  The injury ended Murray’s season, cost him the next one too, and complicated the growth of one the NBAs best young teams.

Have you seen “The Super Mario Bros. Movie”?  It is a blast of irresistible nostalgia for anyone who grew up in the 1980s playing Nintendo or parents who reared kids in this millennium and battled Bowser on the Wii game consol.  I am both of those things; so, when my 16-year-old asked if his old man wanted to jump in the way-back machine and catch the flick, our tickets were punched.

The movie checked all the expected blocks.  There was much to absorb and many emotions were stirred.  But one message dominated our conversation on the way home: perseverance.  In many scenes, Mario faced doubts about his abilities (beware of fault-finders!) and seemingly insurmountable odds.  There were questions about his plumbing skills and chances in thwarting Bowser’s attack.  Without spoiling too much, he overcame them all with persistence, bravery and a palatable belief in himself.

Of course, happy endings are Hollywood’s greatest and most predictable trick.  Murray, in his rehab and return from an ACL injury, was guaranteed no such conclusion.  There was no script writer on standby to pen a fairy tale ending.  No matter…Murray is in the process of writing his own.

Murray returned to the court this season and, along with all-world center Nikola Jokic, led the Nuggets to the best record in the Western Conference.  The Nuggets charged through the playoffs, into the NBA Finals and are, as of this writing, just three wins from the franchise’s first NBA title.  Jokic deserves much credit, but in crunch time, it is often Murray who has taken the lead role. 

Suffice to say, Murray is a long way from that night in April 2021 when he laid under the basket, grasping a wounded knee, his once clear path to stardom now cloudy.  His return to form is a credit to him and his medical team; it is also a reminder that the tonic for any adversity is faith, hard work and perseverance.  Murray doesn’t have the hops of Super Mario - he isn’t leaping Koopa Troopas or Goombas - but his determined comeback would certainly prompt a tip of the cap from our favorite mustachioed video game and movie hero.