Review: “Last Days of Knight” is flawed but essential

Cross-posting at 

ESPN is gambling these days.

The new “30 for 30” documentary, Last Days of Knight, gambles on three levels:

  1. It’s being shown exclusively on ESPN+, the company’s new pay service, a good way to draw attention to it but not the best way to get this film the wide audience that many previous 30 for 30 entries have found.
  2. It tells the story of a journalist, CNN’s Robert Abbott, who pursued the story for months. As an Awful Announcing review says, the film attempts to tell Abbott’s story and Knight’s, and it sometimes falls between the two stools.
  3. A lot of people still maintain loyalty to Bobby Knight after all these years.

Others can debate No. 1. The questions here are No. 2 and No. 3, and the disappointment of Last Days of Knight is that we get too much of No. 2 and not enough exploration of No. 3.

Like all 30 for 30 films, LDON is a slick presentation. And the story is compelling, even with the unusual focus on Abbott. CNN’s reporting became part of the story itself, for better or for worse, and you don’t have to be a journalism junkie to appreciate the insights on how everyone involved interacted with the media — Knight as one of several bullies, players and staffers afraid to speak, administrators being weasels, etc. Abbott’s reflections and the nitty-gritty at CNN, including some clumsy threats by people working on Knight’s behalf, provide a new angle to an old story.

But that story bogs down with an extended, guilt-ridden take on the post-scandal life and death of Neil Reed, the player Knight assaulted in a video that hastened his downfall. It’s a sad and yet sweet story of someone who reclaimed his own life and was clearly loved before his untimely death from a heart attack, but its placement in this film is odd, as if it’s suggesting Reed’s death was somehow collateral damage from Knight’s antics and/or the media coverage. Abbott regrets making Reed uncomfortable in his pursuit of the story, but it seems a bit much for him to interpose himself in the family’s mourning process.

And we’re left wanting something more. Abbott and some of his colleagues are seeing the old story in a new light. Anyone else?

Perhaps it’s me — I wrote about irrational mobs in my review of Jesus Christ Superstar — but I really wanted to see some reflection from the people who defended Knight when he was quite clearly indefensible. Knight, predictably, wasn’t interested in participating. But what about the students? Former players? Now that the heat has died down, what would they do differently?

But even if we don’t see such reflection on camera, we have to hope it’s happening elsewhere. It’s not happening in this dismissive review from The Daily Hoosier.

The value of a story like Knight’s is that it holds up a mirror to us. How much are we willing to excuse if a guy wins some basketball games? Can a man impart military-style discipline and behavioral values if he doesn’t live up to it himself or hold himself accountable?

We see hints of these questions in Last Days of Knight. Just not quite enough.


Ultimate boycott for gender equity

Want to go a step farther than Title IX? How about this: Title 9 3/4. And a boycott by players — mostly male — until each team in your league either plays mixed-gender games or fields an equivalent women’s team?

That’s the story I wrote for The Guardian today.


On Twitter, advocacy, hostility and objectivity

My Dad was an intellectually rigorous man. He majored in philosophy, racing through college so he could lead a platoon in Korea, then returned from the war to get his doctorate in the emerging field of biochemistry. He remained in the Marine Reserves, rising to the rank of colonel, and was a stern but beloved faculty member at the University of Georgia for more than 40 years.

At one family holiday gathering, he demanded to know everyone’s views on abortion. The answers ranged from the biological (we had one doctor in the room) to the theological (one Episcopal priest) to the anecdotal. For the most part, he was impressed.

So what was his position? “Oh, I still don’t know,” he said.

Dad was certainly opinionated about some things. In other cases (abortion, Israel, etc.), he saw a difficult balance of legitimate views. The common thread was the process.

The point of the story: I was raised to believe in the Socratic method of asking questions, sometimes taking it to the extreme. Journalism was therefore a logical (but frustrating) career choice.

It’s also a misunderstood career, especially these days.

Granted, objective journalism isn’t really in vogue these days. In sports, more journalists are embracing homerism. In journalism at large, Jay Rosen has raised pointed questions about the legitimacy of the “view from nowhere,” which is unrealistic. In my experience, blind adherence to airing “both sides” is ripe for abuse. Sometimes, one “side” is telling the truth and the other is lying, and it’s a journalist’s job to say so.

In my own work, I’ve certainly felt emboldened to be a little more opinionated in the last seven years or so. One reason: I think we’re in danger of losing the war on bullshit, so we need to be a bit more aggressive in challenging the liars. Another reason: I left USA TODAY, where the management of the time wanted to rock the boat as little as possible, and I found freelance clients (bless you, The Guardian and FourFourTwo) who offered a bit more freedom. And getting older gives everyone a bit more freedom to speak up.

But at heart, I’m still someone who likes to get to the truth. That sometimes means challenging people with whom I’d usually agree. I questioned the women’s soccer national team in their labor dispute over a few misrepresentations and lack of clarity — their lawyer refused to say anything beyond “equal pay for equal play” in comparison with the men’s team, even though the men don’t draw salaries and play different competitions.

A lot of people don’t get that. Anyone who asks questions must be the enemy. Scorn them. Mock them. Attack their credibility.

And, of course, some people are just jerks.

My default on Twitter is to engage. I do learn a lot from the discussions, and they help me get my thoughts in order, like an ongoing rough draft.

But I’ve spent too much time in the past year engaging with jerks. Or people who just don’t get it.

I’m actually going to do the opposite. I’m going to declare a Christmas amnesty and unblock a lot of people. Not all. I blocked an “Infowars” guy, and I’m not going down that road again.

We’ll see how long it lasts. If I had eternal patience, I’d run for a soccer board position.

To kneel or not to kneel (revised)

When Colin Kaepernick started kneeling for the national anthem last year and Megan Rapinoe followed suit, I was skeptical. In the circles in which I run, skepticism is a bad idea.

Outside the women’s soccer community, of course, opinion was more polarized. I was stunned to see people I’ve considered sympathetic to the Kaepernick/Rapinoe cause object to their protest, quite angrily. I even saw people profess to become greater Washington Spirit fans when Bill Lynch pulled the anthem switcheroo to keep Rapinoe from kneeling on the field at the Maryland SoccerPlex.

(One year later, I can’t recall seeing those people at any Spirit games, so perhaps I should ignore their input on the matter.)

I worried that the message wasn’t getting through. Maybe it’s because I gave too much voice to the counterdissent, or maybe it’s because I’m an aging, jaded journalist who knew how this would play out in the media. Or maybe I was looking at it with white, straight, male privilege. Or some combination of the three.

To this day, I don’t know. All I know is that it’s not simple.

The players who’ve really been at the forefront of spreading the message against racism — particularly the institutional racism that is far too forgiving of police who harass, shoot and kill black people — are in the WNBA, as this SB Nation roundup shows. I thought their mix of T-shirts and linked arms had the potential to get the point across. But just as many people outside the WoSo community are unaware of Rapinoe’s protest, a lot of people missed the WNBA players’ unified voices. (And they resumed their activism before Game 1 of the league finals today.)

Today, I have no reservations about the hundreds of NFL players taking some sort of action — kneeling, linking arms, staying in the locker room — during the anthem. And that, of course, brings out the haters again — people who are still so offended that anyone questioned the effectiveness of last year’s protests that nothing can appease them.

One such accusation: Oh, so you DIDN’T care when it was about black lives, but now you care because it’s free speech?

Wrong. I always cared about the underlying issue. Even some of the people who claimed to be bigger Spirit fans after the anthem incident care about the underlying issue. On Twitter and at this year’s annual general meeting, we’ve seen that plenty of people within the rank and file of U.S. Soccer weren’t at ease with the anthem protests, and they simply can’t all be bigots.

I disagree with them on the anthem protests. To be clear — I was never offended. I worried about the protests’ effectiveness, and I may have been wrong. I’ve been in a high school gym in Norfolk, Va., in which half the crowd sat and yelled at others to sit down during the national anthem because they felt the anthem celebrates slavery. If I’m not offended by that, I’m not going to freak out when Megan Rapinoe takes a knee.

What’s changed is this:

  • We have a new president who demonizes immigrants and cozies up to white supremacists. This is no longer an issue of local police. This is national. So protesting national symbols makes a lot of sense to me. (You can argue that the protests last year were aimed at racist attitudes that were so widespread that they effectively were national, and I respect that view. I would suggest, though, that what we see today is at another level — and it’s institutionalized.)
  • That president has challenged the rights of people to protest during the national anthem and remain employed. The only way to challenge that is to protest en masse during the anthem.

I can’t stress enough — if you think last year’s protests were effective or should’ve been more effective if not for the sensationalist, superficial media coverage, I respect that point of view. I still have some reservations about the protests’ effectiveness, but I recognize that, in the long run, the movement may be effective.

My views are certainly malleable, within reason. I’ve written before that I grew up not thinking about issues of sexuality and gender. I was raised in a medium-conservative Christian environment that had a few good life lessons and a few things that have required some deprogramming over the years.

What changed my mind? It wasn’t a bunch of people patting each other on the back for the cleverest insult behind my back (subtweeting, in the modern environment). For the most part, it was simply getting to know people who were different — gay, Muslim, Northeastern — and watching my stereotypes melt away. It was positive interaction.

In any case — my opinions aren’t that important. I’ve rejected what journalism professor Jay Rosen calls the “view from nowhere,” the twisted view of objectivity that makes us journalists consider everyone’s point of view equally even if one side is clearly malicious or dishonest. But I still believe in putting facts first, and my goal is to make my observations accurate. I didn’t spend 90 minutes tearing apart Stefan Szymanski’s declaration on behalf of the NASL lawsuit because I hate the NASL or Szymanski or the Cosmos — indeed, I found a couple of his points had merit. I did it because a lot of that declaration set off the b.s. detector that makes somebody a journalist.

So if you want to retreat into the “woker than thou” women’s soccer echo chamber, knock yourself out. (Yes, there’s an echo chamber for everything. I did a story on the Flat Earth movement, which has a surprisingly savvy echo chamber. There’s probably an echo chamber in which everyone competes to be the most dogmatic believer in the notion that Donald Trump is from Mars.)

If you want to engage on what’s happened today, I’m all ears. I’ve written 1,000 words here (exactly!). Your turn. Be nice. But be candid.

And congratulations to those who’ve demonstrated today that a Twitter troll, no matter what office he holds, isn’t going to silence anyone.

Can you have American football without the USA?

In May, the international governing body of football kicked out the United States’ federation.

No, we’re not talking about FIFA and U.S. Soccer. That’s right — USA Football was kicked out of the American football federation.

Well, one of them. The international federation of American football is called IFAF (International Federation of American Football). But we now have two of them.

Here’s how it breaks down: (The news site American Football International calls it “IFAF New York,” though it stills claims to be headquartered in France):

  • Insists USA Football is still recognized.
  • Claims recognition by the USOC (U.S. Olympic Committee).
  • Has partnerships with the NFL, NCAA and national association of high schools.
  • Recently organized a Women’s World Championship, which the USA won 41-16 over Canada.
  • Claims 71 countries.
  • Will have a Congress in Canada this summer.
  • Has appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, though who knows when the case will be heard. Not soon. (AFI calls it “IFAF Paris”):

  • Withdrew recognition of USA Football due to “multiple, continuous and ongoing violations of the IFAF Anti-Doping Code.” They claim USA Football did not respond to multiple warnings.
  • Recognized United States Federation of American Football (USFAF) as a provisional member in time to put a team (barely) together for the World Games.
  • Is itself recognized by the International World Games Association and, by extension if not by outright decree, the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
  • Organized the World Games competition, where it was technically an “invitational sport” and not part of the main program, in which France beat Germany for gold. The hastily assembled U.S. team lost to Germany, then beat Poland for bronze on two TD passes from Dustin Hawke-Willingham, a former Arkansas and NCAA Division II QB who has played several years in Europe, to Tyrell Blanks and Mario Brown.
  • Claims 103 members.
  • Announced a distribution deal with the Olympic Channel.
  • Is organizing a Beach Flag Football World Championships, which is a little disconcerting to us Robert Edwards fans.
  • Will hold a General Meeting in September in Paris.

AFI has some background:

  • A lot of people would’ve been in a lot of trouble if a U.S. team had not materialized at the World Games.
  • The organization split in 2015, with two factions in the same hotel holding separate elections, each claiming legitimacy.
  • The two factions made no discernible effort to reconcile, and the British and Finnish federations stated quite clearly in early 2016 that they did not recognize the Paris group.
  • In September, the Paris and New York groups held their own meetings and elected their own officers. (There’s an American in each.)

USA Football doesn’t do much in terms of press releases, at least not on its site. I also couldn’t find any comment on Twitter.

But the IOC will sort it all out in September.

The NFL vs. Colin Kaepernick: Whose bubble will burst first?

About 12 years ago, I was in a newsroom watching the NFL with an editor who had little use for progressive talk and considered many of his fellow journalists politically correct weasels. But he was more Libertarian than “conservative,” and he could see a bit of nuance.

nfl flag photo
Photo by rexhammock

As we watched the typical NFL anthem presentation, with a massive flag covering the field and military jets screaming across the sky, he said, “You know, if we saw something like that in Iraq, we’d be horrified.”

But the NFL is anything but horrified, even after being forced to return a fraction of the money the league and its clubs had received from the U.S. government for heartfelt but also wallet-felt military tributes.

So in this landscape, what do we make of Colin Kaepernick’s inability to find an NFL team, which at this point certainly has much more to do with his decision to take a knee during the national anthem and less to do with his skills? (Granted, if Kaepernick was at the same level as Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, an NFL team would probably cross the invisible picket line and sign him, but Kaepernick is still a better QB than a lot of the people snapping up free-agent contracts so far this offseason.)

What we really have here is a collision of political bubbles. Plenty of people simply don’t want to discuss the possibility that this sort of protest, fairly or unfairly, does more harm than good. It’s difficult to quantify such things, and it’s not fair to blame the 2016 election results solely at Kaepernick’s feet. But some people didn’t even want to discuss the possibility that such protests fired up voters who wouldn’t ordinarily bother to vote to get to the ballot box — or perhaps deflated the political enthusiasm of people who would ordinarily be sympathetic to Kaepernick’s cause. To even ask the question invites accusations of “white privilege” or worse. That’s life in a bubble.

But the NFL owners who are keeping Kaepernick out of work may soon find that they’re in a bubble of their own.

The Kaepernick response isn’t the first divisive move the NFL has made in recent years. They’re under legitimate fire for their slow response to the concussion issue. They’re not the most labor-friendly league — while NBA players and baseball players roll around in luxury, a lot of NFL players toil for salaries well below those in other sports. There’s no minor league, so players hoping to catch on with NFL teams when injuries deplete the rosters must keep themselves in shape on their own dime.

And yes, they revel in military propaganda that is ripe for satire. See Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk — if the experimental camera work is too much for you, just read the book.

In today’s fragmented media landscape, the NFL has been the one property that has managed to maintain its hold on the viewing audience. A “hit” TV show today would’ve been a massive flop 20 years ago, most sports are oversaturated and split the audience into tiny segments, but Sundays still belong to the NFL.

But that can change. Ratings were already substantially down last season.

NFL owners simply can’t afford to alienate anyone. To be fair, that means they’re going to be a little uncomfortable if a player takes a knee during the national anthem, riling fans and sponsors. But they have a spin machine that should be able to highlight the positives, including Kaepernick’s charitable donations that have continued despite his uncertain future.

And when Donald Trump crows that the power of his Twitter pulpit is one factor in Kaepernick’s unemployment, the NFL needs to wake up and recognize how this looks. Are owners in the NFL, a sport that celebrates standing up in the face of injury and adversity, really going to give in to the whims of a bully?

What does it say about the NFL when an ostracized quarterback is clearly more courageous than any owner in the league? Whether you agree with Colin Kaepernick’s protest or not, you have to concede that he is willing to risk threats and the loss of his livelihood to make a point. And NFL owners are afraid of a guy on Twitter?

This isn’t presidential politics. The NFL can’t win by playing to a rabid “base” with just enough support to carry the swing states. Its success is based on being the one thing that everyone watches, at least one Sunday a year and usually more.

If the owners don’t realize that, their bubble will surely burst. And we’ll all see the irony of a league that celebrates bravery being forced to pay for its cowardice.

SportsMyriad’s new direction

I’ve been putting off this announcement for a while, but I figure today is the perfect day for it.

I started SportsMyriad six years ago. I had just left USA TODAY to spend more time with my family and to pursue my passion of covering undercovered sports.

Mission accomplished. Now we all pay greater attention to Olympic sports in non-Olympic years. Everyone’s an expert on all levels of U.S. soccer.

So it’s time for me to push onward, moving the SportsMyriad spotlight to a sport that truly deserves more coverage.

I’m talking, of course, about professional wrestling.

It’s really the break I’ve needed. No more complicated discussions of gender equity. No more results wiped out by drug tests.

To an extent, I’m going back to my family roots. My grandfather, the managing editor of the Winston-Salem papers back in the day, would tell me stories of how they covered the squared circle. The shows ran too long for reporters to make deadlines, but the helpful promoters would call ahead with the results.

To those who have followed me in this quest to explore more sports, I say thanks. And I hope you’ll follow me as I give some publicity to people who’ve toiled in the shadows for far too long. It’s about time they get the coverage they deserve.

See you at the field … I mean … ring!

Back in the podcasting game

The new SportsMyriad podcast features me ranting about the U.S. women’s soccer roster, curling, Rio 2016 prep, youth soccer getting too serious, and of course, the bizarre lawsuit filed against Ronda Rousey by a guy who apparently lives at White Castle.

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Please let me know what you think. Yes, it goes too long — future podcasts will either be shorter or will have an interview segment.

Single-Digit Soccer: The elite-industrial complex crushes all

Why do we play youth sports?

We’re here because you’re looking for the BEST of the BEST of the BEST, SIR!

“Your boy Captain America here … to find the BEST of the BEST of the BEST, SIR! … with honors.”

But a funny thing is happening with the race to the top. A lot of people are dropping out.

ESPN’s Tim Keown has a good spleen-venting piece about this phenomenon:

This is the age of the youth-sports industrial complex, where men make a living putting on tournaments for 7-year-olds, and parents subject their children to tryouts and pay good money for the right to enter into it.

And if they don’t hit the “next level,” they drop out. Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal came up with numbers that bear this out. Baseball is in particularly bad shape, with towns having to pool together for Little League while numbers decline (or players just opt for “travel” baseball instead). But soccer wasn’t doing well in their figuring, either.

Other popular sports, including soccer and basketball, have suffered as youth sports participation in general has declined and become more specialized. A pervasive emphasis on performance over mere fun and exercise has driven many children to focus exclusively on one sport from an early age, making it harder for all sports to attract casual participants.

You can tell me this is OK, that we needed to make our youth sports more “serious” and specialized so we’ll have better athletes. Be prepared to keep arguing against a lot of us parents and writers who want our neighborhood kids to have sports options and haven’t seen elitism in youth soccer produce any players better than the scraggly-haired high school and college kids the USA used to send to World Cups.

Single-Digit Soccer: Keeping Sanity in the Earliest Ages of the Beautiful Game addresses a lot of these issues. Read more about it, then read it.