Saturday, July 28, 2012

"You Are What You Put On Tape"

I'm going to say two words:  Penn State.  And now you know what I'm going to discuss.  Or at least you think you do.  For about the past 70 or so years, you'd expect I'm about to discuss football.  For the past 50 years, probably Joe Paterno.  Well, I suppose those things are still true.

The title of this post is a quote from the coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Tomlin.  And what it means to say is that simply, on game day, it doesn't matter what you intended to do, or what your plan or intent was, or what you feel like or think your actions achieved.  What you performed achieved a concrete result, and it's there for everyone to see.

So let's start with the basics.  This is not a story about football; it's a story about sex.  Illicit criminal sex.  And as is usually the case with sex, only the people who were involved in the sex really know what happened.  And that's the heart of all the controversy with Penn State - who really knew what happened?

This we know - former football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky raped numerous boys on numerous occasions, over a period of many years.  This has been accepted as fact by a jury of his peers in a court of law.  By all evidence he did so on the grounds of Penn State University, using his position as an esteemed member of that institution to attract and entrap his victims.

This puts the university in a position of liability for its harboring of Sandusky, and it has called into question who among his superiors knew of his criminal activity, and what they did or didn't do to cease and prevent it.

And there, as I said, only the people who were there really know what happened.  And the most famous of them, Joe Paterno is now dead, and can say no more.

Now, most of them are going to face their own days in court for this, because they appear to have perjured themselves before an investigating Grand Jury in the leadup to pressing charges against Sandusky.  And that's fine, because the court will have its due process.  But the university commissioned its own independent investigation to be headed by an esteemed member of the law community and former director of the FBI, Louis Freeh.  And the Freeh Report appears to confirm the public's suspicions, based most tellingly on various e-mails exchanged among Sandusky's superiors, that everyone knew - especially Joe Paterno - and they covered it up to protect their own interests.

Appeared to confirm the public's suspicions - let me get back to that in awhile.

Since the report has come out, the NCAA has levied sanctions against Penn State's football team which effectively strip away everything it - and Joe Paterno - entered into record since suspicions of Sandusky's activity first came into evidence in 1998.  Let me say, I believe the NCAA got it wrong. Their justification of their punishment of Penn State is that Penn State made glorifying football success too important in its culture... but then they punished Penn State by removing football success from its record.  Does that not make football success appear to take on even more importance?  They punished the dead man by removing his name from their record books, as a response to the public's revised image of that dead man.  Ah, there's the public again.

The NCAA's response - and remember, the NCAA was not entitled to do anything to Penn State since it only oversees athletics - appears to have been based on the Freeh Report.  Now the defenders of the university and Paterno state their case.  The Freeh Report is flawed, they point out - it's independent, incomplete, not given due process of law.  Not everyone was interviewed.  Paterno is dead, no one can possibly know the truth of what he knew or did not; what he did or did not.

And on and on the lawyers will do their dance for years to come.

I think back to something I saw in 2001 that stayed with me.  Michael Jackson was about to release his first studio album in ten years, Invincible.  By this time, this album would reintroduce the King Of Pop to a younger audience, those who had only been children by the time he'd already ascended his throne, a generation who knew him not as a musical prodigy, but as "Wacko Jacko."  CNN interviewed people on the streets of Los Angeles, and I will never forget one young lady's response - "I think it's really good for him, considering he had to go to jail and all that."

Michael Jackson never went to jail.  But she'd assumed and believed that he had.

So that's my point about Penn State, and Paterno.  The lawyers can do all they need to.  The story won't end for a long time.  Anyone who wants to defend Paterno, including his family and his players, can certainly do so and may yet be proven correct.  But it looks like he knew everything, and it looks like he protected Sandusky, and that may be everything anyone ever chooses to understand.

You are what you put on tape.  Deeds, not words.  I think it's worth remembering.  You don't have to be a famous coach, or a star of any kind - it applies to all of us.  It may not stand up to due process, and it may not be fair, but ultimately those things may not matter.

I'm done now.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Greatest Thing I Ever Did See

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe..." - Roy Batty, Blade Runner.

I can tell you which teams played in every Super Bowl, and who won.  I poured a beer over my own head when Joe Carter hit the home run that won the World Series.  The picture of me on the right is actually a picture of me next to Terry Bradshaw.  I'm a sports fan.

On June 9, 1973, I was ten years old, and it was the greatest time ever to learn to become a sports fan.  (It's been said that every man thinks the greatest time ever in sports was when he was ten years old.)  I was watching Bobby Orr, and Johnny Bench, and Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, and I would never see their likes again.  But something was about to happen that would change me, and sink deep into my soul, and which would affect the way I look at sport and life and ways of being, forever.

Horse racing was part of the culture in Trinidad, and my family brought it to Canada with us.  My granny was very much a fan of the ponies, and when she would visit relatives in Toronto she would usually take in an afternoon at Woodbine.  Granny's advice was to bet on a horse wearing green racing silks, for luck.  (To this day I scan a post parade for horses in green silks.)  But on that day in 1973, everyone was watching the Belmont Stakes - we at home on our (first!) colour TV - because no horse had won the Triple Crown in a quarter-century.

Orr.  Bench.  Ali.  Now Secretariat.  How could I not root for Secretariat?  He was big for a thoroughbred.  He was chestnut red.  He had three white ankles, and a white stripe down his nose.  He wore clean blue-and-white checkerboard silks, with blinkers.  Big Red was gorgeous, and more importantly, cool.  And he was fast, having already set records in winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, which still stand today.  The horse was like a thunderbolt from the right hand of god, and the sports world had been waiting for him, so the occasion was highly charged.  I knew very little of this, of course, being ten.  All I knew was that he was joining my list of heroes, and I was hoping for him to win the race.

The Triple Crown is a gruelling test for a three-year-old horse, three races run over a span of five weeks each spring, at three different distances.  The final leg, the Belmont, is contested at a distance of a mile and a half, a distance which is not often run, and for which many horses are not bred or fully trained to run.  In the Kentucky Derby Secretariat had broken from the gate last, then run each quarter mile of the race faster than his previous one, not taking the lead till the top of the stretch.  In the Preakness he'd again broken last, then - presumably outraged - gone from last to first around the first turn and never looked back.  He'd already executed markedly different feats of speed and stamina, but none such as what was to come today.

There are some who say a horse should not be considered an athlete.  Utter nonsense.  (Know who aren't athletes?  Poker players.)  Every animal is an athlete, none more so than a horse.  What is the most basic athletic feat one can perform?  To run.  Considering what evolution means in the development of life forms, the physiology of horses has evolved to do one thing better than anything else - move forward over land at a high rate of speed.  To run.

That day, Sports Illustrated writer William Nack was in the barn with Secretariat.  "I had never seen a horse so fit", he later wrote.  "The Derby and Preakness had wound him as tight as a watch, and he seemed about to burst out of his coat."  He did.  Facing a mere four other horses in the field - Secretariat went off at 1-10 odds to win - he blew out of the gate immediately, taking only his beleaguered competitor Sham with him.  After only six furlongs Sham tired, and Secretariat ran on alone.  What happened next jockey Ron Turcotte would never take credit for, because no reputable jockey would ever ask a horse to do it.

Secretariat got faster.  He widened his lead.  Then - again!  The other horses were no longer on the TV screen.  The horse ran alone, on his own, faster and faster, like an ancient myth.  TV announcer Chic Anderson's iconic call - "He is moving like a tremendous machine!"  He never stopped.  Going faster still, Secretariat hit the wire at 2:24 flat, yet today the standing world record for a mile and half on dirt.  He won the Belmont by 31 lengths.

I have nothing to compare it with, to put it into any perspective.  A car winning the Indy 500 by 50 laps, maybe?  A hockey player scoring 20 goals in a game?  The beauty of it was seeing this animal run a race by himself, not in a walkover, but magnificently.  The mystery of it was in wondering why.  I later heard that horses naturally race.  When they run in the wild, they run in herds, and in the best of them, their instinct is to naturally move to the front.  It's just what they do.  Secretariat, on this day, ran without hindrance, without obstacle, without competition, faster than any other horse ever had.  For no other reason, apparently, than that he felt like it.

Secretariat retired to stud at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky, and lived to sire numerous stakes winners.  In 1989, he contracted laminitis, a painful hoof condition which often proves incurable, and was euthanized at the age of 19.  The veterinarian who performed the necropsy, Dr. Thomas Swarczek, discovered Secretariat's heart to be "almost twice the normal size" of an average equine heart.  "And it wasn't pathologically enlarged.  It was just larger.  I think it told us why he was able to do what he did."

It's now 2012, and no horse has won the Triple Crown in the past 34 years.  Critics of the sport suspect that horses just aren't bred to be able to do these things anymore.

It's now 2012, and I can watch this race again, as often as I want to, on Youtube.  I don't.  It makes me cry every time.

I've seen things you wouldn't believe.  Nicklaus.  Wilt; Bird; Magic; Jordan.  LT, and Sweetness.  But when I was ten years old, I saw something I know I'll never see again.

I'm done now.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Clockwork Angels - Rush

For Canada Day, so let's discuss the undisputed greatest Canadian band of the hard-rock era, Rush.  Just what you needed, another online review of the new Rush album.  But I have a point to make, I promise.

The fact is, I didn't even plan to buy Clockwork Angels till I read a review by esteemed blogger Tony Howard.  Tony likes the same things in music that I like... it sounded worth a try.  Why my lack of initial interest?  Well, though I consider myself a Rush fan and own most of their albums, I am one of those Rush fans who still idolizes the days of Moving Pictures.  Though I'd given their past few albums cursory listens since the 1990s, to my ears the songs just sounded like... more Rush music.  Rush is certainly a band with their own easily identifiable sound and style, and I understand the growth that's gone into their songwriting since the Bastille Days, but over the past few albums... sorry to say, the songs just didn't jump out and grab me.  Not this time.

On Clockwork Angels Rush have for the first time made an entire album a concept album.  In the past they've only taken that approach with sides of albums, or suites of songs.  I don't want to dwell on the details of the story, for though it is rather colourful and imaginative, it seems to have served a more important function on this album.  Rush have compared themselves to the world's smallest symphonic orchestra, and to my ears it seems as though writing songs as parts of a story serves to tighten the band's focus.  This is, in my opinion, the most cohesive Rush album in decades; the best of their past five or so efforts combined and compiled into one.  It's a fully realized statement of what this band can and perhaps should be.

Clockwork Angels may or may not be a starting point for someone unfamiliar with Rush.  It's a hell of a deep end to dive into, but it's representative of everything they are musically.  Over the past decade, especially with the release of the documentary Rush : Beyond the Lighted Stage, evidence has been given of the respect in which Rush is held by Canadians, and their influence on musicians worldwide.  This album seems to me to be a love letter to Rush fans, a band stripping away furtive experimentation and giving the fans exactly what they've always seen as the best of Rush.

This album is loaded with musical moments that take you back and forward at once.  Parts of songs remind you in a flash of classic Rush moments and riffs, as if they've sampled all their greatest hits and recombined into something new.  Though the production is multi-layered and atmospheric, to convey the many shifting moods of the storyline and scenery, the most arresting moments come when the backing drops out and spotlights shine on the players as a rock three-piece.  The effect is very much as Rush sounds live, and there are times - as in the solo section of "Headlong Flight" - when it almost sounds as if Rush are jamming, an electric surprise from this most meticulous of rock bands.

Of course the musicianship is peerless, with inspired and free-flowing performances from drummer Neil Peart and guitarist Alex Lifeson, but most of all Geddy Lee's bass is MONSTROGLORIOSTRIOUS.  This is easily the rock bass album of a year or a decade, and producer Nick Raskulinecz has captured what may be the nastiest, snarliest, grindingest bass tone ever.

Rush has not yet been inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.  Perhaps because they're Canadian; perhaps because of a lack of respect for progressive rock.  But there is a very short list of musical acts who have produced 20 studio albums over 40 years.  And I would suspect the list of those who can claim their 20th to be among their five best ever is even shorter.

I'm done now.