Deflate-gate calls for willing suspension of disbelief

Tom Brady 2015To enjoy the performance at the movies and in theater, audience members often have to suspend their connection with reality.  So, too, with another form of entertainment, professional football.  Is it really possible that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, legendary masters of detail and planned execution, knew absolutely nothing about the under-inflation of footballs?  Remember Captain Renault in Casablanca, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.” The phrase “strains credulity” comes to mind.

Owner Bob Kraft has said little beyond that the team is cooperating with the NFL investigation.  He was equally silent when the NFL investigation was focused on Ray Rice and other NFL incidents of domestic abuse. Would that Kraft’s late, beloved wife Myra were still around to speak truth to the overgrown boys of the NFL. Whatever the outcome of the current league investigation, the team’s brand is certainly diminished by this unrelenting story. But I’ll still root for the Pats at the Super Bowl.

Are there many other unanswered questions that deserve candid responses? You bet. Friday’s Boston Herald poses 12 such questions to be asked of Tom Brady.  I want to see scientists weigh in more with facts about whether and to what extent footballs inflated indoors at the lowest allowable level can dip significantly below that (12.5 to 13.5 pounds per square inch)  threshold when they’re taken out in the cold.  Data analysis (not by me) suggests the Patriots have incurred fumbles at an abnormally low rate the past few seasons.  Could this be a sign that the issue goes go beyond one game?

I want to know what the behaviors are across all the NFL teams. (A similar story dogged the Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers is said to like his balls overinflated.) Are the Pats being picked on because outside New England they’re the team America loves to hate?  Is New England really the Yankees of the NFL?  I’ll still root for the Pats at the Super Bowl.

Media coverage has been all Tom, all the time. On Thursday night all three major networks somberly led their nightly news with the story, seriously intoning that deflategate threatens the integrity of the nation’s most watched sport.  Integrity? Really?

We (journalists and readers/viewers alike) love this story because it’s such a distraction from the real problems of the world. Struggling European economies, Boko Haram, Russian aggression, ebola, Isis, global warming, inadequate and expensive health care, racial disparities in education. We have little to no faith in our institutions, highly partisan and gridlocked Congress, a disappointing President,  cheating PhD researchers, you name it.  So now Mr. Perfect, Number 12, may not be all he’s cracked up to be.  His image is, yes, deflated. But I’ll still root for the Pats at the Super Bowl.

Today’s Boston Globe has a column by Michael Whitmer outlining ten reasons the team is going to Phoenix next week.  He interrupts the media frenzy with what he labels “an actual, deflation-free football story.” He cites this year’s additions to the team like Revis and Blount, strengthened pass defense, kick blocking (five times this season), stabilizing the offensive line, in short, improvements in all their parts. They deserve to be in the Super Bowl.

Both teams have their bad guys and good guys, and the Seattle Seahawks are worthy competitors.  Few, if any, of the deflate-gate questions will be answered before the Super Bowl, a delay that will probably glue more eyeballs to CBS at 6:20 p.m. next Sunday.

We’ve long put successful sports figures on pedestals, but few, if any, are heroes possessed of courage and nobility.  They have very specific talents, which are disproportionately highly compensated.  Most have feet of clay, and it’s time for us to grow up and recognize that. But, whatever the truth underlying this overinflated story, it’s still okay to enjoy watching the game, and that’s exactly what I intend to do.

I welcome your comments in the section below.


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Walsh bows to Boston workers gag order


photo AP

photo AP

If you’re one of Boston’s 18,000 municipal employees, you just lost some important First Amendment rights. If your paycheck says your employer is the City of Boston, your boss, Mayor Marty Walsh, has contractually barred you from saying anything negative about the prospect of hosting the Olympics in 2024. Section 2.05 of the Joinder Agreement with the U.S. Olympics Committee says that no public employee may make comments that reflect unfavorably on or otherwise disparage the City’s Olympic bid or anyone engaged in the process. The document even contains the expectation that workers will speak positively  of the bid, regardless of what they think.

Walsh insists his whole life he has been a defender of free speech, and I have no reason to doubt his record.  But he appears to have passively accepted the restrictive language in the USOC agreement.  What was important, he said, was to get the agreement signed. He shrugged off that obnoxious section as “boilerplate.”  Big mistake! Boilerplate language in a contract is binding on the parties. What’s the punishment for a city worker who violates the ban? Is it a potentially fireable offense? Or something that might subject the employee to opprobrium or change of assignment?    If it was boilerplate and not to be enforced, as Walsh implied,  why accept it in the document in the first place? Did he even protest the inclusion of such language at all, or did he just roll over?

The IOC has a reputation for high-handedness toward host cities. If the USOC or IOC demanded that the provision be enforced as a condition for the Boston bid going forward, what would  Walsh do? Is there no point at which Walsh would stand up to either of them and say enough is enough.?

Some nine public meetings are to be held to get public feedback on bringing the Olympics to Boston in 2024. What’s unclear is the extent to which negative feedback, with or without a referendum, will have any impact at all on Boston 2024’s determination to be host city for the games.  Are the public hearings just a pacifier?

Everyone whose lives could be affected by one or another venue, or on the roadways, should be able to speak out freely. So, too, should the myriad taxpayers, inside and outside the city, who are likely to be asked to cover the gap between private dollars and actual costs or suffer the burden of opportunity costs incurred in going forward. Does anyone in a position of power actually give a darn what regular folks think?

Maybe the only reason that people are not as angry with Walsh as they should be is the distraction of the Patriots and “inflategate.”  Rest assured, the Olympics bid is a much longer lasting issue.

No one, pro or con,  should be barred from free-speaking participation in the public Olympics process, and that especially includes people who work for the City of Boston.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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Rise up, ye garden party skunks

Olympic ringsDriving down the Mass Pike the day after Boston was tapped for the 2024 U.S. summer Olympics bid, there on the WGBH electronic billboard, the five Olympic rings logo against our beautiful skyline. A frisson of excitement. Wow; it’s coming here! Congratulations to the bidding group. And in a split second, I wondered what (and who) will get lost in the process.  I felt the locals had eaten the catnip and nothing was going to stop this bid from going forward.

Boston 2024 executive Dan O’Connell said as much to Adam Reilly last night on Greater Boston.  They’ll modify plans perhaps if, for example, there’s overwhelming opposition to a particular venue, but this baby is moving out.  Boston Mayor Marty Walsh says they’ll be listening to the public,  that this will be “the most open and transparent and inclusive process in Olympics history,” but he opposes a city referendum. (This is the same  man who championed the right of Bostonians to vote on casinos affecting their community.)There’s no doubt that the farther he goes down the road with the elite, self-appointed group of 2024 proponents, the harder it will be to pull the plug.

It’s not reassuring that it took Freedom of Information suits to get the organizers to let the media peek at their Bid Book documents. This morning Boston 2024 made public some renderings of venues.  But O’Connell et al won’t distribute copies of the bid because of  so-called “proprietary information” (and alleged pressures from the IOC). Excuse me, but whose city is this anyway? Plus, O’Connell explained, the proposal is already changing.    Well, we’re grownups.  We can understand when something is in flux.

Already there’s a tendency to label critics as so many skunks at the garden party.   Naysayers. As if every question were a symptom of craven negativity.  But we need those skunks to raise very legitimate questions. Of course, if ultimately chosen,we’re capable of pulling it off.  But should we?   What are the real costs? Not just in dollars, but in lost opportunities to do other things.

Supporters claim the only public dollars (beyond federal money for security) would be the $4.5 billion needed for infrastructure,  already authorized in state transportation plans.  But it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to realize that state priorities would be reordered to advance the Olympics and that projects for the central and western part of the Commonwealth  would be moved to the back burner.  This happened with the Big Dig, a huge and worthwhile project but a testament to wild cost overruns and diversions of road and bridge money from projects important outside Route 128. (Will Governor Charlie Baker, getting aboard the bandwagon, jettison his campaign promises to take economic benefits to the whole state?)

The data from other Olympics are overwhelming.  There is no economic benefit from being chosen, and most winning cities suffer great losses. Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist, who has just published a book on the subject, says Boston would be lucky to lose the Olympics. Boston’s budget can be expected, as the NY Times put it, to “trampoline.” 

Studies abound showing that notwithstanding promises that no public dollars will be spent (except for infrastructure), that promise is rarely kept. Host cities swim in red ink for years. The best that can be said  is that some residents  in host cities benefit from enhanced self esteem and short-term happiness from participating in a world spectacle.  Even claims that locals are inspired by the athletes  and  exercise more are baseless.

Olympics booster and Boston Globe business columnist Shirley Leung  made one good point in the reams she has written marketing the idea.  She has reported how New York, in losing its bid to London, came out a winner because of all the beneficial planning that was part of the process. If that’s what comes out of the Boston Olympic bid process, that is all to the good.  But planning our future should drive the Olympics bid, not the other way around.

A Boston Globe editorial wisely intoned that Boston’s selection as the U.S. nominee “should only begin the public discussion of the wisdom of hosting the Games here, not end it.” Let’s hope the local media don’t get swept along in the tide of boosterism and seduced by sugar plum fantasies of economic gains at little to no taxpayer expense.

A full and public debate is essential, including perhaps a statewide referendum on a 2016 ballot. Listen carefully to the bid promoters and also visit the No Boston Olympics website.  Let’s be supportive of a well reasoned process and not be carried away by the glamour, hyperbole and mythology. If we do host the Olympics, it should be part of an overall long-term strategy for investing in our collective future, not just a five-week party for the well connected, one that leaves us and our children holding the bag for their fun and games.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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People protests in Paris diluted by political hypocrisy


photo AP

photo AP

In Paris on Sunday more than 1.3 million people solemnly marched a cold and windy 3.2 kilometers from La Place de la Republique to La Place de la Nation The crowd moved along the symbolically significant Boulevard Voltaire, the Enlightenment philosopher known for his biting satires and defense of free speech. This largest demonstration in French history was organized to pay tribute to last week’s 17 victims of a radical Islamic sleeper cell and to stand in solidarity against fanaticism and for freedom of expression. It was a moving and remarkable sight.

Dozens of world leaders and dignitaries, not wanting to miss a great political opportunity, flew to town and were bused to the front of the line, marching just long enough to have their pictures taken, walking arm in arm, symbolically standing together against terrorism. Hamas, Hezbollah and others who didn’t come sent their condolences. Right.

Much has been made of the conspicuous absence of the US President, Vice President or other high ranking administration official at the gathering. I’d like to have been a fly on the wall for the go/no go discussions. Clearly the Administration mishandled the communications, if not the presidential visit decision.

The security and distraction excuses are legitimate. (The perpetrators were well known to French authorities, and interagency communications there are not much advanced from 9/11 levels). There was less than 36 hours to plan for Obama’s safety. What would the critics of Obama’s no-show have said had he gone and been assassinated?

Obama’s security demands would have been even more disruptive to the participation of ordinary folks than that of other leaders. Eric Holder who was already in the City of Light for security and anti-terrorism meetings, and stayed for Sunday morning television interviews, should have been told to hang around for a symbolic 3 PM photo op. White House spokesman Josh Earnest conceded yesterday that the White House made a mistake in not having higher level US representation.

At times like this, symbolism matters.  Which is why there was jockeying by some world leaders for position in the march.  As The Washington Post noted, “political opportunism was in the air.” According to reports, the French had asked both Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to stay away because of security concerns and because of a desire to minimize distractions and politicking.  But reports that Netanyahu’s domestic political rivals would attend prompted the Israeli president, running for a fourth term, to reverse himself. And so, therefore, did Abbas. The maneuvering to be right in the middle of each camera shot has been ably captured by The Forward.  At least, President Obama was spared the indignity of such political ballet.

But all the kumbaya theater belied some troubling realities and rank hypocrisies. Netanyahu linked arms with the president of Mali, which doesn’t recognize Israel’s existence. Participating in the demonstration celebrating freedom of speech and unfettered press were the presidents of countries that severely limit freedom of information and expression.  Arab and African marchers (Gabon, Yemen, Egypt, Turkey, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates) have large numbers of journalists locked up in their jails. Saudi Arabia sent a representative while back home it was flogging a blogger for blasphemy. Putin sent a Russian representative to stand with Charlie. Even China, bastion of limited expression, sent words of support.

The list of hypocrites has been amplified by Reporters without Borders. A George Washington University blogger wrote: “Glad so many world leaders could take time off from jailing and torturing journalists and dissidents to march for free expression in France.”   (Outrageously, an ultra-Orthodox newspaper photo-shopped the women leaders out of the picture of the march.)

The marchers’ hypocrisy goes beyond their treatment of journalists.  Turkey, represented by its prime minister, has allowed jihadists to travel across its borders to Syria to train.  Many countries’ decisions to participate were dictated by domestic politics.  Clearly, the middle in France itself was determined not to let Marine Le Pen’s right-wing, anti-immigrant Front National appropriate the imagery for its own electoral ends. Le Pen was disinvited from the Paris event.

The White House is hosting an international anti-terrorism conference on February 18th. One hopes that event will produce some substantive strategies to improve intelligence gathering and thwart terrorist attacks, at which point all the fussing over lack of presence at the rally will be long forgotten.

Tomorrow’s Charlie Hebdo will print more than a million copies of its weekly magazine. And journalists the world over will continue their work of getting information to the people, for them to decide when their leaders’ actions are true or hypocritical, symbolic or substantive, peace loving or dangerous.

I welcome your comments in the section below.



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Governor Baker: can he be a compassionate fiscal manager?

photo Boston Globe

photo Boston Globe

The late Governor Mario Cuomo, a stirring orator, told the once significant The New Republic in 1985, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose”  In a clear break from his predecessor Deval Patrick,  Governor Charlie Baker may never deliver soaring rhetoric. He  didn’t even do that during the poetry part of the campaign. But Baker was not elected to be the state’s poet laureate. Voters responded to his simple pledge to make government work better, to perform the prosaic tasks that most people care about, and  they  are looking forward to his delivering on that promise.  After Patrick’s managerial shortfalls, there’s a yearning for someone who can take Tom Menino’s urban mechanic approach statewide.

Citing John F. Kennedy’s values of courage, judgment, integrity and dedication, Baker made an okay inaugural address, well enough written, workmanlike, competent.  He restated the agenda articulated during his campaign.  Committing to challenge the status quo and try new bipartisan approaches, he said his priorities were eliminating the immediate budget deficit, closing the education gap (lifting the cap on charter schools), combatting the soaring rate of opiate addiction, making health care costs more transparent and bringing the benefits of a healthier economy to areas as yet untouched.

While his delivery was flat, his light and attractively boyish sense of humor came through during the ceremonies.  And if  listeners didn’t feel necessarily inspired, it was possible to feel reassured and hopeful about this decent man’s values, priorities and competence. Baker stands head and shoulders – literally – above virtually everyone else in government. It’s way too early to see if his physical demeanor will be a metaphor for future achievement.

But Baker inherits a significant budget shortfall.  More than half a billion dollars has to come from somewhere.  His new proposals, from combatting opiate addiction to closing the education gap, could cost significantly more money. Where will he get it? But he has already made his task more difficult by pledging to hold local aid harmless and not raise taxes and fees.

Charlie Baker has a reputation as a tough manager. He also showed on the campaign trail he is a person of compassion. I know him to be both.   Given the numbers he and we are facing, he will be tested early in the game.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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Mourning Paris journalists and attack on press freedom

Charlie HebdoIf I were technologically proficient, I’d edge this blog in black. How profoundly sad is the grievous slaughter of 12 yesterday in Paris, journalists and their police protectors at the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo.  What an unspeakable attack on press freedom and the underpinnings of democracy.  What a barbaric assault on humanity!

Say what you want about the French, who are sometimes satirized for their assumed attitudes of cultural superiority and occasionally over-weaning preciousness. They may have no First Amendment, but they have been stout defenders of freedom of expression since the French Revolution in 1789. That citizens have been taking to the streets carrying signs of “Je suis Charlie” says it all. Press freedom is in the French DNA.

Some commentators have said that just because you have a legal right to say something doesn’t mean it’s smart to say it. Charlie Hebdo had been warned to dial back their writing.  It is true that the right to free speech brings with it a heap of responsibility.  Free speech doesn’t include the right to lie, defame, libel,  or, as we learned in Constitutional studies, shout fire in a crowded theater. And terrorists should never have the right to veto permissible speech because of their ideological dogma.

This weekly satirical magazine, already targeted in a firebombing in 2011, is clearly an equal opportunity offender. It didn’t satirize only Muslims.  It also targeted priests, Orthodox Jews, politicians, authority figures in general.  (Check out today’s outstanding Boston Globe cartoon editorial.)   Contrast that with Wolf Blitzer’s cowardice on CNN in choosing not to show Hebdo’s cartoons yesterday afternoon.

Satire requires us to think.  It demands that the audience be able to differentiate between what is being said on the surface and the underlying truths. Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal in 1729 called for the Irish to eat their babies as a solution to poverty and hunger. Some readers were outraged that on the surface he was touting the nutritional value of healthy infants, but his writing stands today as a compelling call to arms in the fight against squalor and malnutrition.  As I said, satire requires us to think.  It can be tricky.

So, too, with the current social and political relationships inside France and across Europe. This horrific attack can only fuel anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiments. At the same time, policies regarding public safety,  self-isolation and civic engagement need to be revisited.  This cultural clash isn’t confined to Europe.  Pakistani citizens have been killed for objectionable speech.  Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries have been quick to criticize Islamaphobia elsewhere but are known for their intolerance in the name of Islam.

It would nice to think that this horror might be a turning point, where rational people of all persuasions could come together to fight militant fundamentalism, where media types could resist playing to our basest instincts. Unlike what Fox News would have you believe, thinking  Muslims, including the head of the Grand Mosque in Paris,  have condemned the  Paris attack.  Egyptian cartoonists have used the tools of the journalistic trade to condemn the extremists. The foreign minister of Egypt and the Arab League have decried the act of barbarism. As Nick Kristof points out in today’s NY Times, we can’t fall into the trap of thinking that there’s something inherently extreme in Islam.

The hope that something positive would emerge from the wreckage may be naïve. Too many disaffected, misguided or fanatical individuals have pledged to fight to the death against Western civilization. But, as Kristof reminds us, today’s battle is not between religions but between terrorists and moderates. We all have to stand up against religious profiling while defending the rights of Charlie Hebdo and others to engage in robust  caricature and satire.  This delicate balance is part of the challenge facing us today. We have to keep working at it.

I welcome your comments in the section below.


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Ed Brooke won and lost with grace

Ed BrookeWhen two-term Massachusetts Senator Ed Brooke woke at 3:30 in the morning on November 7, 1978 the election was already over.  And just after 8 p.m. that evening, as the first votes trickled in, his long-time aide Roger Woodworth knew that the sad outcome was confirmed.  “I’m afraid it’s not going to work tonight, kids,” he sadly told Brooke’s hardworking young stalwarts.  As the stately Senator bid farewell to the crowded Copley Plaza ballroom, many workers were in tears.  “The press has won,” said Emily Lipof, Brooke’s Newton coordinator, now well known as a Boston-area rabbi.

A brilliant career, first as the nation’s first black state attorney general and then as the nation’s first popularly elected African-American Senator since Reconstruction, had come to an end, influenced in large part by a media obsession with his personal finances, sourced by his embittered daughter enraged by Brooke’s divorce from his first wife, Remigia.  The new Senator, Paul Tsongas, never attacked Brooke’s integrity or mentioned his personal problems. Tsongas just did better in the cities and in the western part of the state, and capitalized on his unpretentious style and the heavy involvement of his wife (now Congresswoman) Niki Tsongas and their daughters, a refreshing contrast with Brooke’s family dynamics.  At the end, Tsongas congratulated Brooke on “his grace and courage.”  He said he had actually developed a great affection for Brooke.

As I had.  Covering him for The Boston Phoenix, I had sat with him for hours including on primary day, September 14, when we shared his traditional cherrystones and chowder election day lunch at the Union Oyster House.  He told me that “Losing wouldn’t be the end of the world for me. There are disadvantages to public life.”  While declining to attribute his divorce to his Senatorial responsibilities, he knew he was rarely at home. His divorce was the first in his family, and he was ever mindful that his mother and father had been together 51 years.

Later that night, he sat on a couch holding hands with his mother, Helen Brooke, watching the returns. That night all went well for Brooke, who defeated primary challenger Avi Nelson. Some six weeks later, it would all be over.

Brooke’s significance was more than symbolic.  He left his mark forever on the nation’s housing policy.  A W.W.II combat veteran who was awarded a Bronze Star, he spoke out vigorously against the Vietnam War. He successfully fought to defeat Richard Nixon’s despicable Supreme Court nominees Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell and, after Watergate, was the first Republican to call for Nixon’s resignation.  Brooke was a stout proponent of women’s issues, and an authentic patron of the arts.  He was the real deal.

“He carried the added honor and burden of being ‘the first’ and did so with distinction and grace. I have lost a friend and mentor. America has lost a superb example of selfless service,” Governor Patrick told the Boston Globe in reflecting on Brooke’s death.

At some point during that ’78 campaign, Jesse Jackson had come to Boston and, in his formerly charismatic preacher role,   Jackson declared in a rousing speech that Brooke was “a symbol of hope, not just for blacks….If he can make it from where he was to the Senate, white, no matter how far down, know they can make it.”  Elegant, charming and thoughtful, Brooke also modeled how to work across the aisle to get things done and improve people’s lives. He mattered for everyone, and his death yesterday is a reminder of how much society and governance have lost over the years.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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