It’s hard to find language to describe the moment in which one of the most remarkable athletes of the modern era was penalized for code violations during the final match of the US Open Tennis Tournament.  The sequence of events that led to Naomi Osaka’s controversial victory revealed a great deal about the autonomy with which a chair umpire manages play in tournaments at the highest level, autonomy which allowed the decisions made by umpire Carlos Ramos to overshadow virtually all play during the tournament, certainly overshadowing Osaka’s victory and Serena Williams’ return to the finals of an US Open.

In the weeks following the Open, Ramos was vilified and congratulated, Williams was vilified and embraced, and Osaka, once again, overshadowed.  Partisan cultural responses were emphatic as the event was characterized as feminist implosion or sexist/racist injustice.  Billie Jean King, whose career is testimony to the difficulties facing female athletes, wrote in the Washington Post:

“The ceiling that women of color face on their path to leadership never felt more impenetrable than it did at the women’s U.S. Open final on Saturday. Ironic, perhaps, that the roof of Arthur Ashe Stadium was closed for the championship match. What was supposed to be a memorable moment for tennis, with Serena Williams, perhaps the greatest player of all time, facing off against Naomi Osaka, the future of our sport, turned into another example of people in positions of power abusing that power. ”

The issues for tennis, for sport and for society are profound and profoundly affected by the reality of injustice stretching centuries behind a tennis match in September, but I’m meant to be writing about sports, so I’ll approach the conversation by reminding readers that much of the idiocy in the sporting world has to do with our schizophrenic view of athletic competition.  On one hand, we believe that sports inspire virtue – dignity, humility, generosity, selflessness, resilience, courage, craft, and skill.  On the other, we have created a professional class of gladiators whose only purpose is to beat other gladiators.  Amateurs are not expected to humiliate opponents; professionals are not supposed to display personalized emotion.  Let’s call them warriors rather than gladiators for the moment, recognizing that it is only football and boxing that invite athletes to dare brain injury as the last reward for their service.

So, warriors, and warriors don’t mess around when it comes to competition.  We pay them to entertain us, and a certain amount of heated emotion often adds some spice to our enjoyment of the spectacle.  Bench clearing brawls, fistfights on the sideline , smack downs under the basket – all good fun.  OK, less fun when women are involved.  OK, not fun in those sports that are not deemed warrior sports but which pay like warrior sports.

Manny Machado throws his bat, charges  the mound, slices up Dustin Pedroia sliding into second.  He gets fined, pitchers throw at his head and knees and America’s pastime, “a game so fine it’s played on diamonds”, enjoys yet another classic summer.  Phil Mickelson stops a ball from rolling off the green and, in the words of Brett Cygalis reporting in the New York Post,:

“Phil Mickelson executed one of the most shocking breaches of the rules and etiquette in recent major-championship history, and the fallout from it is hardly over. That includes for Mickelson’s reputation as well as that of the USGA.”  The article is entitled “Phil Mickelson’s defiant defense of his shocking rule breach.”

See, slightly crazy.

Phil’s a good golfer; Serena is the greatest female tennis player in the history of the sport, and at thirty-six years old and a recent mother fighting to win every match she enters while continuing to represent female athletes, and mothers, and women, and women of color.  She is a warrior, and in the last set of a highly significant match that was not going her way, an umpire decreed that she had been cheating by being on the court when her coach made a hand signal to approach the net in playing Osaka.  Williams’ “implosion” was no more dramatic than Mickelson’s, but it was personal.  Apparently that’s an even bigger deal than throwing a ball at a batter’s face, certainly bigger than Mickelson’s shocking rule breach.

We have seen anger in sports and frustration.  I can’t think of another example, however, of the kind of confrontation we saw at Forest Hills.  The greatest athlete in her sport, a woman who had beaten the odds in becoming the greatest in her sport, refused to be called a cheat in the middle of a match in which she had not gained traction.  Serena is an emotional player and one who uses emotion to stoke her game; she had plenty of fuel before Ramos made the decision that she had been cheating  and that he needed to call her on it.  There was racquet smashing as there has been in many, many matches, but the significant difference between this moment and any other in the history of televised sport was that we saw both the human being and the champion in the same moment.

A major title was in play, but for Serena, it was her character that was at stake.  Her first responses to Ramos were not confrontational; they were plainspoken and courteous.  The most influential female athlete in the world did not pout or flounce or kick dust; she told the judge that she doesn’t cheat.  He didn’t care.  We saw Serena unable to return to play until the question of character had been addressed.  It wasn’t.

Every athlete has her day; that was Osaka’s.  She played well, better than Serena had played up to that point.  Tennis fans can appreciate a hard-won victory over a favorite, but we witnessed a man in a chair taking a game from a champion.  It was ugly.  Both Williams and Osaka were humiliated.  The fans were cheated.  Later Williams was fined for her behavior and Ramos was endorsed by the USTA.  Roger Federer who was not humiliated reminded us that, “… they have their job to do and that’s what we want them to do.”





TV Dads

TV Dads

“Ward, I’m worried about the Beaver.”

That’s all it took to kick world-class TV dad Ward Cleaver into gear.

Let’s say that Beaver and his brother Wally order a baby alligator through the mail and keep it in the bathroom sink until it grows too large and is transferred to the toilet tank, an unsatisfactory home, and so is transferred again to the laundry tub in the basement, where it is discovered by the Cleaver’s  laundress (I know).  All is revealed, the mystery of stolen eggs solved, but Ward has to break it to the boys that Captain Jack (the alligator) belongs with his own kind.  The boys protest; they love Captain Jack.  Their love may be mixed with some slight entrepreneurial impulse as they have charged their friends to see the alligator, but let that pass.  In any case, it is up to Ward to have explain the facts of life as they extend to alligator adoption.

Does he slam down his fist and scream, “You put a filthy reptile in my laundry”?  No, he calmly explains that alligators grow and need to have the freedom to move as alligators should.  He goes on, “Take you fellas, for instance.  Now, some day, you’re going to grow up and go off and leave your mother and me.  You’ll get married and have a home and family of your own.”

Beaver is seven and responds, “Captain Jack’s gonna get married?”  At which point, dads I know might stumble.  Not Ward; he sets a reasonable boundary, supports the kids as they turn Captain Jack over to the local alligator ranch (I know), and surprises them with a puppy

The TV dads of my generation always knew the right thing to say and the  right way to say it.  Later on, when my own kids came along, TV dads became figures of fun, beginning with Archie Bunker, lumping along to Homer Simpson, Al Bundy, and eventually Frank Gallagher, and Frank Reynolds, dads who made Fred Flintstone seem enlightened.  My TV dads, Ward, Ozzie Nelson, Mike Brady, Danny Thomas, Andy Taylor, Dr. Alex Stone, did for me what humans in what we call the real world could not.

The shows I watched were situation comedies, and the situations which allowed comic resolution often involved kids messing up in some fashion then making that mess dramatically messier by inventing elaborate schemes to prevent parents from discovering what was clearly going to be a mess in plain sight.  One of the lessons I suppose I could have taken from the genre, that lying makes everything so, so much worse, was apparently too tough to swallow.  What did stick was an appreciation of measured, calm response to crises engineered by the unpredictable vagaries of kid brain.

We know more about the brain than we did when mine was sputtering most disturbingly; apparently, brains have differing sorts of competencies at differing ages.  I’d like to say, not better, not worse, as the vivid imagination of childhood is pretty much extinguished by the teen years in my experience, but I am aware that judgment, which is to say, good judgment, doesn’t really kick in until much later than we might expect, in my case at age fifty.  I may have been judgmentally delayed, but let that pass as well.

In any case, and the word case is appropriate because this distinction has been significant in the sentencing of teens who have committed major crimes, I am assured that the betraying brain (not a scientific term) just doesn’t have the equipment to inhibit impulses, even really unfortunate impulses.

This is not good in most instances, but was great fodder for the situation comedies I knew so well.  To be clear, even when skipping school or reading a sister’s diary, the youngsters on my screen were far more responsible and reasonable than I and my footloose cohort.  Adopting an alligator is dicey; dropping a wastebasket on fire from a window, on a teacher?  Hardly the stuff of conversation at the Cleaver household.

All of which is to say that I was impulse deformed for years and very much in need of counsel and correction.  From what I saw on TV, there was room in the world for kids who messed up.  A lot.  I didn’t make much use of the advice so kindly offered by Andy Taylor or Mike Brady, not at the time.  Much later, as a father, I found myself calling on the examples of fatherhood I had admired.  They were virtually faultless; l I still messed up, even as a dad, but there were moments of grace in which I actually listened and found words that did no harm.

A crusty curmudgeonly tv dad, Herbert Gillis, grocer father of endlessly besotted romantic Dobie Gillis may have offered the best advice of all:

“Once you bargain with the devil you are in trouble.  Oh, you can twist and squirm, but you can’t get off the hook.”

Wish I’d listened.















There’s sarcasm and then there’s ….

There’s sarcasm and then there’s ….

I would rather eat flypaper than get into it online or in the twitterverse, but my wife’s profession demands that she stay current with issues in the local community, and so, she inevitably comes up against surprisingly rabidly held differences of opinion.  A recent post in response to a well-meaning piece of advice (she reads me the good ones) uses the phrase “in a perfect world” with venom and sarcasm dripping in equal measure each time she uses the phrase, and she uses it in every sentence.  In a perfect world, the writer intimates, the suggested idea might be of value; in our world, no blinking way. With each repetition, however, the sarcasm increases in intensity, aggressively crossing a line somewhere around the fifth or sixth iteration. However obliquely crafted, this is an attack on the person offering a suggestion. It is not uncommon to find a writer in opposition to an idea, but why angry?  If angry, why sarcastic rather than directly confrontational?

Sarcasm interests me because it allows both injury and deflection: ” I never called you a drooling idiot.  I just suggested that there does not exist a universe in which your pathetic inanity might be remotely worth considering.   Have a nice day.”

Of course, there’s a lot of sarcasm out there, most of which is simply part of contemporary habits of language.  Some studies have found that sarcasm is almost a second language, occurring in about twenty percent of conversations, hardly noticed and virtually inoffensive.  “Yeah, right”, “Nice try”, “I’d love that”, and hundreds of other statements are sarcastic in that they are insincere, but so commonly used that they’ve lost most of their sting.  Most of us meet sarcasm often and early on and come to understand that while it is insincere and occasionally confusing, it’s a language we had better learn to negotiate if we want to fit in.  We use it without thinking, often as a comedic counterpoint to conversation, although even sarcasm  used to humorous intent can backfire at times: “No, you look fabulous”.  That might fly as bros shop for tee shirts, but fall flat at a fitting of a wedding dress.  In some instances, we had better mean that the person looks fabulous or keep our opinion to ourselves.

That’s all transactional sarcasm, give and take, sarcasm lite.  The darker, heavier, more bruising brand of sarcasm takes two forms.  The first, and the most confusing is intentional insincerity deployed to create emotional confusion, awkwardness, or embarrassment.  The second is the “perfect world” kind, anger passed off as humor.

To be clear, both of these more damaging forms of sarcasm are about power.  The origin of the word is with the Greek for stripping the flesh, and sarcasm used to exert power is intended to cut.  Anger thinly disguised as sarcasm is an expression of contempt, bullying to create injury.  My powers of diagnosis are fading by the minute, but the link between insecurity, defensiveness, fear, and angry sarcasm seem pretty clear.  Clumsy exertion of dominance is part of the sarcastic attack, but there’s fear at play as well; anger expressed directly takes a stand, is willing to be seen for what it is, and accepts accountability.  Angry sarcasm wears a shabby mask.

Intentional insincerity is harder to deal with.  This is trap-door sarcasm.  A person you think of as reasonably decent asks what you think about the food served at a party.  You answer sincerely, but are met with, “You didn’t think I actually meant I wanted to know, did you?  That’s funny.”  Trap door.  The bottom falls out.  You are made to feel stupid, or hypersensitive, or conceited, or thoughtless in responding to what you thought was an honest question or statement.  There’s no room to respond without playing into the trap.  This is condescension, manipulation, contempt, and cruelty hiding as a joke.

In a perfect world, to borrow a phrase, we say what we mean and mean what we say, and even in this imperfect world, it’s never too late to do better.  Language re-training in our house started when our kids were small.  We saw how the ordinary sarcastic joshing,  teasing, what was essentially sarcasm lite presented by friends, grandparents, strangers who meant no harm, confused and injured our children.  Yes, the occasional sarcastic comment slips out, but not often, and not to manipulate or dominate.  For example, I am baselessly accused of snoring when I drop off while watching television.  I jolt awake and ask, “was I snoring?”  I think you can guess what comes back.

Never too late to do better, family.