Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

There Is No Title For This Piece That I Would Want My Mother To Read

By now, you all must have heard about the issue of football inflation. It’s inevitable, given the Importance Of Professional Sports, and given the Things That American Media Will Obsess Over, and given the Rabid Fan Bases Of This And That Professional Sports Team.

You may not have heard nearly as much about Nigerian mass-murders or Congressional legislative proposals or oil spills in Montana rivers; but you have heard about the Shameful Doings Down In Foxborough.

I just listened to the podcast version of my favorite political talk radio show – political – and I swear to you, the average number of times per minute that the word for “spheroid projectile” was uttered, with more than a hint of Beavis and Butthead, had to have topped a dozen.

(Now, I’m going to put in some serious effort to see if I can avoid using the “spheroid projectile” synonym even once, here. So that no one will snicker during this Very Serious Discussion of an Important Ethical Concern. I mean it. Cut it out. Hey! STOP.)

So, the only two things I need to say in setting up the thought that just occurred to me: [1] there are some people in this Great Land Of Ours who really need to get their priorities straight; and [2] there are some moments where the existence of slang in our fine language just plain s–

(I hate you all.)

Full disclosure: I’ve been a New England Patriots fan since I learned how to watch television. Not that the Patriots were on television a whole lot, back then, owing to their Inability To Win Games, and the NFL blackout rule, and all. In fact, while the vast majority of citizens of the sports-viewing nation who live outside New England have cultivated an intense dislike of that team, I come from a background of remembering when we disliked them for a diametrically opposite reason than the current one. And what’s that reason?

Ya know what? For the past decade and a half, the Patriots have won. Not always, but a super lot more than many teams in their league. Envy and jealousy will inevitably set in, amongst the fan bases of teams that have not won so much. I am not saying this because I’m amongst the fan-base of the team that has found lots of success; this is just true. Talk to fans of, por ejamplo, the Montreal Canadiens hockey club, the Manchester United soccer (sorry; football!) club, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics of the 1980s, the Dallas Cowboys of the 1960s and ’70s (really, who has the arrogance to call themselves “America’s Team”?) … and, much as this New Englander hates to admit it, … the New York Yankees.

Success breeds jealousy. Wish we could win like that (, say this year’s NBA Philadelphia 76ers, this year’s NFL Oakland Raiders, this past season’s Boston Red Sox, or Tiger Woods in the last few years).

But they cheeeeeeeeeeeated!

Sorry, and you think the New England NFL franchise is the only team that ever may have fine-tooth-combed the rule book in its quest for The Golden Loophole? You think there is a single sports team, professional or amateur, who hasn’t at least investigated little tiny ways to gain advantage, to get ahead, to prevail?

I have two words for all you fans of Upright Cosmic-Scale Overgrown Boy Scout Heroes Who Would Never Cheat: Kobayashi Maru.

I know, I know: it doesn’t make it right.

This all is by no means meant to suggest that I’m one of those “what-about-ers”, the people whose response to their team’s (political party’s) (denomination’s) misdeeds is to suggest that the other team (political party) (denomination) has done something equally bad. Both sides do it. Therefore my team isn’t so bad, really.

What they teach you in kindergarten is true: it’s best to play fair. Be honest, shoot straight, be honorable.

What you learn after kindergarten is equally true: humans are incapable of playing fair for their entire lives. Nobody can claim absolute purity. Even when millions, perhaps billions of dollars aren’t on the line.

The “both sides do it” argument is one with which I have grown increasingly weary in the last decade or so. That’s another post for another day.

But there are some moments when somebody takes that “both sides do it” wager and doubles down on it so hard it collapses the card table.

From today’s Dallas Morning News:

Pro Football Hall of Famer, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and Fox color analyst Troy Aikman didn’t mince words Thursday morning when discussing the Patriots, the NFL and Roger Goodell.

It’s obvious that Tom Brady had something to do with this,” Aikman said. “I know going back to when I played, they’ve loosened up the rules in terms of what each team is able to do with the footballs coming into the game. Used to, the home team provided all the balls. And now, each team brings their footballs the way they like them and break ’em in. Used to you couldn’t break them in. So for the balls to be deflated, that doesn’t happen unless the quarterback wants that to happen, I can assure you of that.”

So what should the penalty be? Aikman, who has adamantly contested the NFL’s ruling against the New Orleans Saints for allegedly issuing bounties on players, used them as an example to challenge the NFL. … Aikman noted the difference between the Saints’ charge and the Patriots’ offense, and says the NFL must take a significant stand.

Sean Payton did not cheat,” Aikman contended. “There was nothing that Sean Payton and the Saints did that was illegal. And they did not give themselves a competitive edge. I maintain, regardless of whatever was said in the locker room, and in that locker room, is not anything different than what’s been said in any other locker room around the league. There’s no proof on the field of what took place that guys were targeting players. You can always pull out a play here and there.

Now twice, under Bill Belichick and possibly a third time, they’ve cheated and given themselves an advantage,” Aikman said. “To me, the punishment for the Patriots and/or Bill Belichick has to be more severe than what the punishment was for the New Orleans Saints.”

(By the way, I apologize to readers of this blog. I have forced you to wade through Mr. Aikman’s questionable grip on English grammar. Hell … maybe the grammar isn’t properly inflated …)

While we wait for Mr. Aikman to rise from his fainting couch, let us admire these words from Wikipedia (because that’s where you go to get accurate information, of course!) – which, among other things, suggest that Mr. Aikman is exactly wrong when he asserts that “there was nothing that Sean Payton and the Saints did that was illegal” [italics mine, for emphasis]:

The New Orleans Saints bounty scandal, widely dubbed “Bountygate”, was an incident in which members of the New Orleans Saints franchise of the NFL were accused of paying out bonuses, or “bounties”, for injuring opposing team players. None of the hits in question were ever penalized or deemed illegal by in-game officials. The pool was alleged to have been in operation from 2009 (the year in which the Saints won Super Bowl) to 2011. …

The NFL has long frowned upon bounties, or “non-contract bonuses” as it officially calls them; but an underground culture of bounties is known to exist, with teams turning a blind eye to the practice. …

The league constitution specifically forbids payment of bonuses based on performances against an individual player or team, as well as bonuses for on-field misconduct; the NFL holds that such practices undermine the integrity of the game, and also would allow teams to use such payments to circumvent the salary cap. The collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association also forbids this practice, as does the standard NFL player contract. Every year, the NFL sends a memo reiterating this ban to every team before training camp opens.

On March 2, 2012, the NFL announced that it had evidence that [Saints] defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had created the program soon after his arrival in 2009, and alleged that “between 22 and 27 Saints players” were involved. Williams and the players pooled their own money to pay out performance bonuses. It also asserted that head coach Sean Payton tried to cover up the scheme, and that he and general manager Mickey Loomis failed to shut it down when ordered to do so by team owner Tom Benson. …

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell responded with some of the most severe sanctions in the league’s 92-year history, and among the most severe punishments for in-game misconduct in North American professional sports history. Williams was suspended indefinitely, though this would be overturned the following year. Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season — the first time in modern NFL history that a head coach has been suspended for any reason — and Loomis was suspended for the first eight games of the 2012 season. Assistant head coach Joe Vitt was suspended for the first six games of the 2012 season. The Saints organization was fined $500,000 [the maximum fine permitted under the league constitution], and forced to forfeit their second-round draft selections in 2012 and 2013. On May 2, 2012, four current and former Saints players were suspended after being named as ringleaders in the scandal, with linebacker Jonathan Vilma being suspended for the entire 2012 season — the longest suspension for an on-field incident in modern NFL history.

As much as Mr. Aikman is now an NFL analyst with the Fox television network, and is therefore a prominent member of the world of football journalism (…sorry, I just had to quell an attack of the giggles) … by way of his membership in the Dallas Cowboys football club during the 1990s, he is also a member of the NFL’s alumni association. Therefore he is somebody who ought to be able to express a hell of a lot greater sense of perspective about these two controversies, and the comparison betwixt and between, than he has.

In this corner: reportedly many more quarterbacks than Young Mr. Brady, Husband Of Gisele Bundchen, who have done the very thing that he’s has been accused of doing.

In the other corner: players whose reward for genuinely injuring other players might be measured in more than just loss of yardage. And a coaching staff which encouraged them to do it.

To coin a ferociously mixed metaphor … this is a slam dunk that ought to be easy to hit out of the park.

If it turns out that the Patriots broke the rules, sure, go ahead and fine ’em. Have at it.

But if the NFL were to take Troy Aikman’s advice and levy a penalty on the Patriots’ alleged inflation work that was in any way comparable to the penalty it assigned the Saints’ bounty program, it would constitute the final clinching proof that the National Football League’s priorities are screwed up beyond any hope of redemption.

What’s more important? Fewer pounds per square inch of pressure … or greater amounts of pressure on a quarterback because the pass-rusher might stand to literally profit from it?

Troy Aikman ought to know the answer to that. If he doesn’t, … I really don’t know what to say.

Other than: I think making the assertion that he did … probably takes an awful lot of testicular fortitude.

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January 23, 2015 Posted by | current events, Famous Persons, football, media, sports | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Sense of Proportion

On Saturday, October 16, 2010, there was a football game about which I have written before in this space – but the writing was not about the athletic activity itself. As a marching band alumni of the University of Massachusetts, I have spent a very long time paying not very much attention to the actual sports going on in the games that I attended.

A few games were memorable enough for me to remember the final score, but those were a scant few. My last home game was a 52-10 smackdown by Holy Cross – but I remember that the score at halftime was something like 20-7, and friends, being down by just thirteen to the HC then-juggernaut was a moral victory for the Men in Maroon. There was one exciting finish against “the hated UConn” that we witnessed, from the end zone that our guys were trying to defend (since we’re going on the field for postgame anyway, let’s go support our team!!), and I remember we lost heartbreakingly. The score was something to something, but the postgame show was killin’.

Well, whatever school I’d attended, I’d have been cheering for that team. But UMass football has a certain following, and even in the best of times that following can be described as local. Boston sportswriters over the years have written about UMass sports with a Bostonian’s faintly condescending view of the quaint little backwater burg of Amherst that most of them have never been near. The number of times that UMass athletics has been front-and-center on Boston newspapers’ sports sections can be counted on the fingers of two hands, at best.

But in a region where professional sports teams win championships with relative regularity, even the Boston College football program, a member of the mighty Atlantic Coast Conference which annually battles the Florida States and Miamis of the world, struggles for media coverage around here. New England loves its Sawx and its Broons and its Celtics if they’re winning; and in the last decade, we’ve gotten used to saying the word “Patriots” without having to look apologetic. Meanwhile, the UConn women’s basketball team is truly a team for the ages, and has been for years and years, but if you’re not standing in the 203 area code, you don’t hear much about them. And if you don’t live in western Massachusetts, college athletics based in Amherst don’t cross your radar.

So, people around here could have been forgiven if they heard the announcement, nearly three years ago, that UMass football was headed for the same college football stratum that features Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State, USC and Alabama … and gave out with the English translation of “quoi?”

 

Rumors had already begun to fly, on that October afternoon in 2010. The FBS days are coming. Just a matter of time. And UMass had experienced national football limelight before: they’d been to two Division I-AA championship games and won one of them. So, sensible. Success at one level causes people to consider the next level – in the spirit of “onward and upward”. Make the leap. And oh by the way, there are bucks to be made at that level of collegiate football. Very important.

That afternoon in 2010, though, UMass managed just ten points and lost to a University of Richmond team that itself only put up eleven – two of which came thanks to a safety, which means they didn’t exactly generate those points. The home-side stands’ muttering became more insistent as the game progressed.

And while those home-side stands were mostly full, the game was Homecoming. And there were legions of band alumni present for the celebration of the life of their recently-fallen leader. So the relative crush of fans was explainable by elements other than pure love for the game of football. Significantly, the visiting-side was its usual ten-percent full.

I have a distinct, clear memory of thinking out loud, “…and they think they’re in any way ready for prime time?”

Understand: I’m not someone who takes great pleasure in saying “I told you so”. Schadenfreude is not a hobby of mine. When I take part in it, it’s for a very darn good reason. Even then, only a limited number of people get alerted to its presence.

But for the record: the following April, when that announcement was made, and UMass committed to making the transition to Big Time College Football, I worried. A lot. And when UMass went 1-11 in its first FBS-schedule season, in 2012, I worked hard to consider that all the expansion teams of my youth had also endured initial campaigns that ranged from the paltry to the disastrous. The Montreal Expos, the Los Angeles Clippers, the California Golden Seals … there’s a rich history of humble beginnings that were overcome through patience and good planning, leading to heights of glory and success that …

Oh, wait. No there isn’t.

There had been lots of promises made. There had been lots of grand plans profferred. There probably had been lots of assumptions made, too, but surely those assumptions were based in careful aforethought and consultation with stakeholders?

Who knows.

 

But what didn’t happen included:

[1] Hordes of students boarding buses early on Saturday mornings, enjoying the ride from Amherst to Foxboro, filling the Gillette Stadium student section to overflowing, replicating the atmosphere of an Alabama home game, and happily re-telling the great football moments on the way back to their evening arrival back on campus. And telling those stories to more students, inspiring them to be part of the experience too.

[2] Multitudes of alumni, living in the Boston area and on Cape Cod and in Rhode Island, discovering that they had a shorter, more convenient, mostly-highway ride to UMass home football games than they would have if the games were held in the 413 area code – and becoming repeat UMass customers, when otherwise they might only have made an annual pilgrimage.

[3] Work starting immediately and in earnest, following the FBS-transition announcement, of a sweeping renovation of McGuirk Alumni Stadium, to accommodate tens of thousands of fans (and to satisfy NCAA requirements). I’ve seen the artists’ conceptions of the new McGuirk. It’s beautiful. A little out-of-character for the Pioneer Valley, true, but if you’re going to dream, dream big. Problem: the first time I saw construction activity that could be considered remotely significant was when I stood on nearby parking lots, teaching with the Drum Major Academy, fifteen months after the initial announcement.

And how fortunate to have an NFL stadium close-by, to stand in for the home stadium while the renovations were carried out. Well … sort of close-by.

Here, what rears its ugly head is my membership in the marching band alumni association … joining my membership in the general alumni association, as well as my membership in the association of people who enjoy football … in making a few observations.

The band followed the team to Gillette, of course. And in a facility far too large for any group (band, fans) smaller in number than 30,000 to make a true impact (go to a New England Revolution game: no matter how many seating sections they cover with tarps, and no matter how much gleefully incessant drumming and chanting and singing goes on, the joint is still not jumpin’) … the band continued to do their thing.

The band kept on performing their field shows regardless of how far away the small audiences were, or how dwarfed were the audience reactions by the sheer size of the room – you’re our audience, and whether you’re 20,000 or just twenty, we’re gonna put on a show for you. The band kept on cheering for their team, regardless of how little success that team was having – never our role to critique or complain while we’re in uniform and on the scene, but instead energy! enthusiasm! Regardless. If the joint is not going to jump, it’s not going to be because we lay down on the job.

And even so, the band has in fact adjusted their product to attempt to fit the needs of the moment, and of the new reality. The pregame show is now much more involved and active; more appropriate for an Ohio-State-like big-time atmosphere … and the difference is that much more obvious when the band’s energy isn’t met by a response from tens and tens and tens and tens of thousands of spectators, but that of only a couple of thousand early arrivals. Thanks mostly to NFL stadium security requirements, there aren’t any sideline tuba-pyramid (and other) antics. Noticeably, halftime field shows are populated much more often by productions that involve volume and musical “muscle” than, as its late director used to call them, “pretty moments”. And that’s not the band’s fault. It’s not really a fault at all. It’s a response to external stimuli. Here’s what will work in a 70,000-seat stadium that is the closest thing New England has to the Grand Canyon … and here’s what will not work. As long as UMass football is played amidst architecture of that scale, a delicate mezzo-piano clarinet section passage will be lost somewhere between band and cheap seats.

Yes, the plan is to return a portion of UMass’ regular-season schedule to Amherst next fall, and all of it soon thereafter. So it’s not fair to say that we’ll never again hear music such as we long-time band fans heard during the legendary Phantom of the Opera show in 1990 (“Christine, I love… you…”). But as rare as delicate musical sounds are, in the college marching band game, they can’t survive a Division I-A crowd. At the half-dozen Boston College home games that I attended some years ago, it struck me that most of the home-side fans appeared to be utterly ignoring the band on the field at halftime. To get FBS football crowds’ attention, you have to play at jet-engine decibel levels. It ain’t right … but it’s life at the top.

Lastly, but of “alumni importance”: the last two Homecoming games at Gillette Stadium were snarkily but accurately nicknamed “Faux-coming”. Homecoming – an event meant to bring alumni back to campus and reunite people and organizations – has been fractured, even as the university has gamely tried to re-package it into a week-plus-long celebration. I attended the annual “Multiband Pops” concert this fall and noticed that – by contrast with many past year in which the audience was packed into the Fine Arts Center like sardines – the hall was not close to sold out. I suspect this was partly because it was being held eight days and 93 miles away from the football game, instead of seventeen hours and a brisk walk. The numbers, and the intensity of the experience, have been diluted.

Sorry. As a band guy, I seem incapable of talking about college football without worrying in a disproportionate way about how it affects the band. Habits of a lifetime. But regarding the broader football product – is the damage done?

 

What was it that drove the University of Massachusetts to make the move to the football Big Time? Speaking of responses to external stimuli: what dreams and schemes rose up and insisted that attention must be paid, perhaps at the expense of more sober understandings of what is vs. what could be?

As is so often the case, I can imagine that money talked loudest – in spite of the documented fact that very few big-time college football programs actually turn a profit for their schools, even the famous ones. The lure of increased ticket sales, better access to government and business leadership (leading to greater investment), and more network television exposure (leading to greater media revenue) conceivably could have been too much to resist. Now, money is not the root of all evil. That aphorism gets screwed up all the time. Money just sits there. It’s love of money that is the root of all evil – or at least certainly it’s something that encourages really bad decisions.

I can imagine that the siren call of increased revenue trumped, as writer Douglas Adams once put it, a sense of proportion. I can imagine that there were plenty of people in the UMass-Amherst community who saw weaknesses in the logic of moving UMass football to the bigger time. And now, at least one article in a major newspaper suggests that this grand experiment could lead to the demise of UMass football.

Hyperbole, perhaps. A columnist writing as if his hair was on fire, to ensure readership. But whether or not this experiment is a fatal one, from the get-go it seemed flawed to me. And at least based on everything that I’ve known about UMass in general for the past thirty years, I can’t think of nearly enough about UMass football and the environment in which it exists that would justify Going Big Time.

Is it really so bad to be a relatively big fish (decently successful football team most years, with occasional elevations to Division I-AA title games) in a relatively small pond?

December 27, 2013 Posted by | band, current events, football, marching band, sports, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments