Monday, November 28, 2011

The Clannishness of Sport

Human societies have long organized themselves into some variant of the clan. Medieval Genoa built itself around a series of alberghi, not inns as the word means now but urban redoubts for the major clans and their adherents. My own Liaosingh ancestors in Ireland fought as major vassals to the ruling lord against the British interlopers. You belong to a clan, you follow the policies and customs of the clan, or face disgrace.
Certain of our institutions suggest nostalgia for such belonging, which of course has its benefits. Sport is one of a long list of half-hearted attempts we make to recreate clannish safety. Half-hearted, because the allegiances run so shallow and the symbols seem so wan. Forget about the precision of heraldry, tracing the etiology of an intercourse of families. We have Carolina blue, Harvard (and Alabama) crimson, Stanford cardinal red. Notre Dame has two colors, Marian blue and Irish green; talk about imprecision.
The obviousness of the clan-sport affiliation in American society hits home hard at Thanksgiving. The Detroit Lions play football on Thanksgiving Day itself, and countless arch-rivalries play out on collegiate fields over the following weekends, culminating in the Army-Navy game, the one that most resembles a true clan rivalry, heraldic meanings and all.
Plenty of writers have weighed in on this subject, but it took on particular significance for me in an incident that occurred yesterday. My dog Abby and I went to the library; well, Abby went as far as the parking lot. Said lot actually belongs to a shopping mall, the temporary home of the library during new construction. The same lot also serves as a “park and ride” location for football games at UNC-Chapel Hill. Yesterday they played their rival from the next town, the Duke Blue Devils (dark blue, as opposed to Carolina’s sky blue). Their fans occupied little patches of clannish turf as they celebrated the occasion in that most American of locations, the parking lot of a shopping mall. Shallowness incarnate.
If the Gospel according to Matthew has forty-two begats, intercollegiate football has, for all intents and purposes, one: tailgating. I commented to a Duke fan that doing it in a parking lot seemed so odd, what with the stadium a couple of miles away from us. As a child and then a graduate student, I tailgated at that very clannish rivalry, the Harvard-Yale game, in Yale Bowl’s sprawling practice field which doubles as a parking lot on game days, or used to, anyway. Chateaubriand, rack of lamb, pasta, burgers, you name it, washed down by anything from Heineken or Sierra Nevada to Chateau Lynch-Bages, a very good Medoc from the village of St.-Estephe, I think. Doing it at a shopping mall reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s wonderful line when he reveals the origins of his hero Earnest “in a handbag.”
One group from Duke took all this rather seriously, with pitch-the-hackey-sack games and, of course, a football tossed around with admittedly no little grace. Abby provided the liminal moment, the edge at which it all made sense. We had approached the Dukies from the other, open end of the grass island they had occupied, when Abby unceremoniously pooped. I scrambled to cover her leavings, to the relief of the rather caustic revelers. Little did they know that by the time I got back to the scene of Abby’s “crime” with some pine needles from the base of a tree, said scene eluded me. Abby had unwittingly passed judgment on the whole proceedings and I left that judgment undisturbed; who knows whether the Dukies did.
I write all this with a mild sneer, but nobody shot anybody at a football game yesterday, as happened at a Walmart the day before, retailers’ Black Friday, the day of profits. Nobody got trampled, as also happened on Black Friday and as has happened at European football (aka soccer in this country) matches. And yet a drum major at Florida A&M University died of hazing injuries this week, clannish behavior at its worst: you want to belong, let’s see if you can take the punishment belonging requires.
That death casts a pall on the whole pastime. Football games across the country should have had a moment of silence, but did not, at least not the three games of which I saw various parts, all played by predominantly white schools, unlike the predominantly black A&M. Football and its halftime ceremonies should not be worth dying for, and such deaths as occur bear acknowledgment, at the very least. Such acknowledgment, however, generally occurs only within the clan. Outsiders be damned, at least for sixty minutes of (American) football.

Chapel Hill, NC

Penn State

Only one reason occurs to me as valid for wading into the mess that a single sexual predator has wrought in a college town obsessed with its football team: a fresh perspective. Hear me out; I think I have one.
Thus far we can only write about those on whose behavior in the Sandusky affair we have some at least alleged facts. For better or worse, that pretty much eliminates the victims, about whom we know very little at this point. That leaves Sandusky himself, Paterno, the Athletic Director, the Vice-President for Business Affairs, and the President. We will return to this group shortly, but one remains, a graduate assistant at the time of his remarks to Paterno about what he saw in the shower. McQueary has become an assistant coach, and given paid administrative leave.
Most observers see the issue for all these men as one of not going to at least campus police if not the legal authorities with what they knew of Sandusky’s pederasty, however they obtained that knowledge. I spent twenty years in academia, and really want to know what this argument has to do with the way college administrators conduct business. Has nobody noticed that a V.P. for business got involved as the Athletic Director’s superior?
Colleges and universities like to police themselves, to control embarrassing information that might cost them contributions. Football generates enormous sums and inspires intense loyalty at Penn State. Under no circumstances would any administrator at any academic institution want to go to the police, though a minority would anyway, as the right thing to do. Did the others learn nothing from the Catholic church’s pederasty scandal? Obviously not, at least at Penn State.
This case has complexities nobody has yet fully comprehended, but one individual clearly deserves to have his name cleared. Who on earth can reasonably expect a graduate assistant to go over the head of his boss, the beloved Joe Paterno, and approach the police? To think so flies in the face of collegiate hierarchies. He did his duty by telling Paterno, who did his by telling the A.D., at which point the buck gets harder to pass, but surely he or the V.P. should have gone to the police.
The fact that they did not condemns both them and the notion of separation of academia and state that the academy wants desperately to preserve. I still do not know if Paterno deserved getting the sack. The three above him in the pecking order surely did.

Chapel Hill, NC
November 12, 2011

Another Hospital Story...

… but not mine. The stories of this week—the second of the Herman Cain sexual harassment/assault saga, the first of the child rape tragedy at Penn State, and more heroically that of Veterans’ (or Armistice) Day—have overwhelmed the emotions of many. The Cain story has strengthened paranoia on both sides of split allegiances; the Penn State tragedy has produced as many allegiances as players, excepting any sympathy for the alleged perpetrator. Only the stories of vets seem to offer any reinforcement to our sense of humanity.
Not all vets’ stories end happily, obviously, but enough end with some reason for inspiration that they remain compelling in the telling and retelling, and particularly in the hearing. Perhaps some seek to escape the horror of war, or to overcome or even whitewash it. I suppose in a sense mine does all three, particularly because of a central element of it: my father never made it any further than Camp Croft, South Carolina, and a surgeon’s scalpel in Atlanta. My story also differs from most in that although my father plays the central role, a doctor played the role of hero.
My story takes place during World War II, at least the crux of it does, but involves two men who never fought a lick. The first of the dramatis personae, Russ Lynch, my father, played multiple sports in high school, a year of prep school, and college: football in the fall through his freshman year at Boston University (B.U.) after not making the team at Bowdoin College, hockey most winters except that freshman year at B.U., and baseball in the spring. Not only did those sports shape his life, they—at least football—may have delayed his death.
His freshman year at B.U. Dad, who played end in a two-way scheme tore the cartilage in his knee. The coach, thinking to do him a favor, brought the 160-pound convalescent the assignments for guard for the next fall. My father, his scholarship on the line, told the coach to get lost, rather less politely. Word reached the hockey coach, who saved his career by offering him the insane choice of playing hockey beginning his sophomore year. He took it, lame knee and all. He played defense for a year, then his natural position of center his last two years, captaining the squad as a senior.
I loved all his hockey stories as a kid, though he always left out the part about not making the football team at Bowdoin, whose campus and libraries I came to know many years later. That failure shamed him. Another did not: his failure to fight fascism in Europe or imperialism in the Pacific. In fact, he found it rather amusing, and a cause of gratitude.
My father turned thirty-one in early January of 1942, old for conscription into the military but not automatically exempt. Three separate doctors in three separate drafts found my father unfit because of his right knee, as well as his age. A fourth doctor in a fourth draft disagreed. The war bore on and the military needed men, period, fitness be damned.
En route to boot camp in South Carolina my father received his assignment as second man on a bazooka in heavy infantry. Perfect for a guy with a bum knee.
It gets worse. On the first day at Camp Croft, Dad had to climb and then jump off a twenty-foot wall on an obstacle. He warned his sergeant that his knee would not stand the fall. The sergeant took him for a slacker. He climbed and jumped, and his knee gave out so excruciatingly that when the sergeant tried to get him up with a swift kick Dad convinced the man he would risk his life if that boot touched my father. The sergeant got the point, finally.
The Army then did something remarkable. Instead of shipping Dad home, they hospitalized him. An orthopaedic surgeon looked at him. The doctor had developed a series of operations to reconstruct knees injured like my Dad’s. He offered my father six months in the hospital on the Army in Atlanta. My father became a guinea pig, and the surgeon improved my father’s quality of life immeasurably. I often thought of that story while watching my parents dance beautifully at our favorite restaurant on summer vacation.
So, yes, I grieve for the fallen, the amputated, the post-traumatic stressed, and weep with joy at those who return at least physically whole to spouse and kids and parents and siblings. I always used to think Dad cheated his way out of the war somehow, thus cheating me out of war stories to relish as another episode in my private cult of hero-worship. In reality, of course, that idiot drill sergeant and that inventive orthopod prevented my father—and possibly me—from being cheated out of a life.

Chapel Hill, NC
November 12, 2011