Coach and Economy

August 31, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Illinois football head coach, Tim Beckman, was just fired after a ton of evidence showed that he forced Fighting Illini scholar-athletes to play hurt.

[A] player, Simon Cvijanovic, alleged that Beckman and his staff pushed the athlete into playing with an injured shoulder and knee and lied to him about how long his recovery would take. He said that the coaching staff frequently berated injured players, threatening to take away their scholarships if they did not return to practice quickly after an injury.

Cvijanovic tweeted that athletic medical staff withheld information from him regarding the extent of his knee injury, and that he now faces a “lifetime of surgery” related to the deterioration of an injured muscle that was largely left untreated. The staff called hurt players derogatory names and dressed them in a rival team's colors during practices in an attempt to shame them, the former player said. [Source: Inside Higher Ed.

In response, Coach Beckman said,

The health and well-being of our student athletes is of paramount importance to me, and any statement made to the contrary is utterly false.

You can’t blame the coach for lying. What else could he have said?

The problem is not that the coach is a liar or that he callously ignores the risk of lifelong debilitating injury to his players. Beckman is surely not the only coach who pressures players this way, and it’s not because the coaches all lack moral character. Nor will firing one coach have much effect. Coaches “act like our bodies are just disposable” (as Cvijanovic tweeted) not because coaches are moral monsters but because the entire system of Division I football is focused on winning.

Deep Throat was right: follow the money. Winning teams at big schools can bring in big money – media deals, tchotchke sales, alumni donations, etc. That multi-million dollar contract that Illinois gave Beckman wasn’t for improving the health and well-being of the players. It was for winning.

As long as the team’s won-lost record was improving,* university officials were not concerned about what Beckman was doing. Or if they knew, they probably assumed, correctly, that this is how coaches coach. When the news first reported Cvijanovic’s accusations back in May, Coach Beckman’s boss, the Athletic Director, said that Beckman “has put the welfare of this young man above all else.” It was only after the investigation – triggered by the young man’s tweets – that the Athletic Director was shocked, shocked to discover that Beckman made footballers play hurt.

Will the NCAA now impose new rules on the treatment of injured players? If so, my guess is that the reason will not be an overriding concern with the health and well-being of players. I’m going with Deep Throat. The IHE story doesn’t mention it, but Cvijanovic has filed a lawsuit against the university. As with concussions in the NFL, a few successful lawsuits might lead to changes. Failing that, it will be the Humanitarian Impulses of the coaching staff versus the economic pressure on Winning. In that contest, Humanitarian Impulses is a big underdog. My advice: go with Winning and give the points.

* When Beckman took over in 2012, the team went 2-10 and 0-8 in their Big Ten division. Two years later, they were 6-7 overall and 3-5 in the division.   

There’s a Place for Us

August 29, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Metropolitan Opera’s Summer HD Festival offers free screenings of operas in the large plaza at Lincoln Center- a different opera each night. Tonight it’s Carmen, and the operas to come are nearly as well known – La Traviata, Don Giovanni, Tales of Hoffman, etc.

For the opener last night the Met chose West Side Story – the 1961 movie.

The great irony is that we were sitting in what had been the setting for the story – a neighborhood known as San Juan Hill. Back then it was a “slum”; today it would be called a low-income, predominantly minority community. It was San Juan Hill even in the 1940s, when it was still nearly all Black, as it had been since the turn of the century. In the 1950s, Puerto Ricans began arriving, and some Blacks moved uptown or to Brooklyn. Gang violence was rife – fights between the Black (and later Puerto Rican) gangs of San Juan Hill and Irish gangs from Hell’s Kitchen just to the south.

DIESEL:  What do you say, Riff?
RIFF:  I say this turf is small, but it's all we got, huh? I want to hold it like we always held it.

In the 1950s, however, the real turf battle was not between the Jets and the Sharks. It was between the residents of San Juan Hill and a gang led by Robert Moses and John D. Rockefeller III – not exactly an even match. It wasn’t much of a rumble.The winning side demolished the slum and build Lincoln Center.

I wondered whether many of my fellow moviegoers knew this West Side history, but then the speaker who introduced the film mentioned it. Some of the film was shot right here on location, he said, and in fact the film’s producers (or was it Jerome Robbins, the choreographer?) asked the city to delay part of the demolition so they could complete some of the dance scenes. The speaker related these as interesting factoids, as if to say, “You’re sitting where Maria and Tony’s balcony scene might have taken place,” and expecting us to feel a Washington-slept-here sense of connection to history. 

Instead, I was thinking of class and politics. I was thinking of The Urban Villagers and Boston’s urban renewal destruction of the West End; I was thinking of other Robert Moses projects in New York. Working-class and lower-class people displaced for buildings or highways that benefit middle class people, promoted and partly financed by upper-class people. The audience at the free movie last night had few Marias or Bernardos, Riffs or Diesels. Or Blacks. The paying customers coming from the ballet at the New York State Theater David H. Koch Theater just to our left were even Whiter and older.

As Lincoln Center was being built, some critics like Paul Goodman suggested that major arts centers should be dispersed to different places in the city, maybe even different boroughs. Why put the buildings for the opera, the ballet, and the symphony together in one place? (I was reminded of this when the noisy crowd coming out from the ballet next door made it hard for us movie watchers to hear what was happening on screen.)

But these grandiose projects of megalomaniacs sometimes work. And once they are in place, it’s hard to imagine the city without them – Paris without the Haussmann boulevards and buildings. They add to the greatness of the city, though thinking about a city in terms of its greatness essentially cedes the argument to the megalomaniacs. The other question to ask is whether they make life better for the residents of the city – and not just residents who like opera.

Charlie Parker

August 29, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

He died in 1955 at age 34. He would have been 95 today.

I’m sure that there is much sociological to be said about Bird and birth of bebop. As Howie Becker has taught us, art is collective enterprise. That’s especially true of jazz, and Becker’s ideas about art in general originated in his own experiences working as a jazz pianist. But individual artists are important, and Charlie Parker remains one of the great figures in American music. 

“Man, you gotta go up to Minton’s and hear the way this cat plays ‘Cherokee,’” musicians would tell one another. As you can hear in these two studio takes, Parker decided to dispense with the melody of ‘Cherokee’ (a standard from the big band era). In the first take, after the 32-bar intro (unusually long for bebop), Bird and Miles play the melody for a few bars. Then Bird calls a halt. In the second take – the one that was issued – after the intro, he just starts soloing on the changes.  The tune was listed on the record as “Ko-Ko,’ and that’s the way Parker played it from then on.

The drum solo is by Max Roach. Curley Russell was on bass. The pianist was supposed to have been Bud Powell, but he didn’t make the session, so Dizzy Gillespie was called on to comp on piano.

Killing Gun Legislation

August 27, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

When it comes to passing law,s do the gunslingers always win?

The father of one of the victims and the governor of the state have called for stricter gun laws. I’m sure they are sincere, but it all seems so familiar, part of usual post-massacre minuet.  The stylized and mannered sequence of steps: We need stronger gun laws. Now is a time for prayer not politics. Gun-death rates in the US are several times higher than in other countries. Second Amendment. And so on.

Laws are proposed. Then the gun manufacturers and their minions (NRA, et al.) get legislators to dilute the proposals or defeat them entirely.

Here’s a headline from eight months ago.

But the gun lobby does not get its way all the time. Yes, they win at the federal level. Yesterday’s on-air killings will not lead to any tightening of federal laws. By the time a bill is written and goes to committee, those shootings will be a vague memory. And although shootings hold the attention of the public, the grind of legislation does not.

But at the state level, gun-law advocates can sometimes make some headway. The anti-gun sentiments raised by the killings do not fade as quickly in places nearer to where the killing happened. Of course, in Texas or Wyoming, no amount of gun killing will budge the legislature. But in less absolutist states, a local massacre may enable gun law proponents to pass new laws. After Sandy Hook – an assault rifle massacre of twenty schoolchildren and six teachers – all newly proposed federal laws were killed by pro-gun US Senators. But Connecticut, where the crime happened, and neighboring New York passed stronger limitations or an outright ban on assault weapons.

The news media may also be a key element, and yesterday’s shooting expands the part they usually play. First, the shooting was broadcast live.  That immediacy may heighten people’s awareness of just how dangerous and deadly guns are. Seeing someone actually shot to death is far more powerful than seeing a reporter doing a stand-up against a background of yellow tape and parked police cars.  Second, because the victims were TV reporters, they were far better known than victims in other shootings, and local people may feel more of a tie to them. That closeness too may make people more sensitive to the danger of guns. Third, it’s also possible that the media themselves – now that two of their own have been killed – will be more sympathetic to anti-gun groups. If the armed and dangerous disgruntled employee might be not just a postal worker somewhere out there in America but a guy in the newsroom, the news editor might decide to give more coverage to the threat of guns.

I am just speculating of course.  I have to hedge with “may” (“X may have an impact”) and “it’s possible that . . .” because I do not know the published research on the connection between mass shootings* and the passage of gun laws more likely. I would expect that the variables to study include
  • the political climate of the state
  • the social position of victims – that is, the more similar that are to people who have the most influence on laws
  • the number of victims
  • the location of the shooting (public spaces or buildings vs. private)
  • the ostensible motive of the killer
*By some definitions of “mass shootings,” the minimum number of deaths is four. So yesterday’s killings, even including the shooter’s suicide, do not qualify as a mass shooting. I guess it’s just another one of your ordinary, everyday American shootings.