Jocks among us

Missouri Tiger basketball coach Kim Anderson was talking about team discipline the other day after he had suspended a couple of his players who were found to have some drug paraphernalia in their apartment.  Police searched the place because one of their roommates, not a university athlete, had been arrested in connection with a house robbery.

It’s easy to ask how athletes at the top level of university sports can so often get caught with drugs or be involved in drug issues or have other problems. As is the case throughout society, it’s the few who bend the rules, who think they won’t get caught, or who don’t think at all, who embarrass the many who behave themselves.

One part of Brandon Foster’s article in the Jefferson City newspaper that caught this reader’s eye was a discussion of the athletes’ living arrangements.  “A team spokesman said the team makes sure players have a place to live and that they’re paying rent.  The team will help players find a place to live if they’re struggling to do so, but that’s rarely a problem because athletes tend to choose one of the many off-campus developments south of the University.”   And later, Brandon writes, “Anderson said housing with athletes is a persistent issue with college athletes.”

We are reminded of our own freshman year at the university, living in 313 Graham Hall.  Across the hall, just down from the bathroom and the telephone was the room where Charlie Henke and Joe Scott lived.   They were the leaders of the Tiger basketball team.  Henke was a 6-7 center, the tallest person I’d ever seen, and Scott was a 6-4 guard.  They had to live by the same rules all the rest of us in the dormitory lived by, including “silent hour” when students were supposed to be studying behind closed doors.  In truth, there also was card-playing but it had to be done quietly because our Residential Assistant, the den-dad of King House, would prowl the halls with sharp ears and no hesitation about knocking on a door to tell the inhabitants to “hold it down” or to non-verbally suggest that card-playing wasn’t what responsible university students did during quiet hours.

Charlie was an All-American in his senior year and still has the second-highest season scoring average in the Missouri record book.  He got a degree in conservation science but found his niche as a high school basketball coach and spent 22 years at Carrollton.  Scott, who was called “the Gainesville Gunner” by Mahlon Aldridge—who began the Tiger sports network broadcasts—went to law school and is a lawyer in Poplar Bluff.  I watched him set the still-standing school record for points in one game—46.  That was before the three-point line.  Scott has said that his father once figured he would have had 65 that night if there had been the three-point shot.   (I was also in the stands the day Henke and Kansas Center Wayne Hightower got into a fist-fight that led to an on-court brawl involving fans and players.  I wasn’t about to get involved.  Too many guys were much bigger and stronger than I was.)  Both Henke and Scott are in the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame now.

When we went to the post office in the cafeteria building that served the four dormitories in the South Residence Hall group, I would sometimes see Dan LaRose looming over the rest of us as he came to get his mail.  LaRose was a 6-5 two-way All-American end for Dan Devine’s football team who went on to a five-year career in the NFL.

Sometimes when I’d go into the bathroom/shower room there would be a guy in there swinging a baseball bat.  I think he had a minor league baseball contract.

This was, as I recall, university policy—that student-athletes lived in the student dormitories with all the other guys (Title IX hadn’t come along yet to create women’s sports of any substance and the idea of co-ed dormitories was not a matter of polite discussion).

One of the writers for the “Rock M Nation” webpage recalled a few years ago a jock who lived a floor above him in Hatch Hall, a 6-8, 275-pound tight end named John Matuszak.  Matuszak lasted only one year at the University. He was dismissed from the team after he beat up an Air Force Academy cadet who was a foot shorter and half a Matuszak lighter at a fraternity party.  He went on to a notable career in the NFL before he died young, at 38.  He’s considered an early casualty of steroidal drugs.

Anyway, in those days, those we still call student-athletes were reminded of the first part of their roles at the university by having to live with the student-non-athletes in the dormitories.

This was a looooonnnnngggg time ago when off-campus housing was fraternity and sorority houses or extra rooms in private homes or in the basements of homes.  But we don’t recall hearing about some of the problems that have made the news for several years in reporting on collegiate athletics.  The university has dormitory space for only about one-fourth of the students today and off-campus apartments are a big business in Columbia.

It was a much different time, a much different culture on campuses and in the nation.  Coaches have to deal with a lot of players who bring baggage to college with them that students and student-athletes didn’t have back then.   But having jocks among us in the dormitory had some values that worked both ways, it seems.

Would integration of the jocks with dormitory students work today?  Dunno.  It seemed to once upon a time.

But the whole climate is different now and coaches are dealing with young people coming from a totally different society.  Maybe there’s more growing-up that has to happen today than there was when a college education was a rarer thing.

We like Kim Anderson—spent a little time with him and his wife during a meeting in Joplin a few years ago—and we want him to succeed.  It’s painful to watch but surely not as painful as it is from his viewpoint.  Recalling the “good old days” doesn’t do much good in situations like his right now.  And, come to think of it, the “good old days” that we’ve just recalled weren’t all that good anyway.  The Tigers were only 12-13 that year, 5-9 for sixth in the Big Eight.  They would have losing records for six straight years before a new coach came in and posted a 42-80 record in the next five years.   Then Norm Stewart came to town.

He was 10-16 his first year and didn’t break .500 in conference play for his first three years.

Patience, folks.   Painful Patience.  But Patience.

I have an amendment

Representative Bart Korman, a Republican from High Hill, has introduced a bill defining sex between lobbyists and legislators or legislative staff as a “gift” and requiring lobbyists to list such gifts along with the more usual tickets to sporting events, meals, booze, and other favors in their reports filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission.  He says his bill “will improve the integrity and transparency in our process.”  It is also the most titillating proposed law in many years.

One weakness is that it is not clear whether the legislation requires a report to be filed for each “gift” or if the filer has to file during each filing period if the gifting is continuing, and whether a report should be filed with the giving ends,  much as a report is made when a campaign committee or continuing committee shuts down.

Some people would be exempt.  Lobbyists who are married to legislators would not have to report the amount of gifting that goes on within their marriage (although, apparently, any gifting on the side would have to be reported).  And if the two started exchanging gifts before they became lobbyists or legislators or legislative staff member, they’re not required to file a report, either.  So if you are a lobbyist who is a friend with benefits with someone who becomes a member of the legislature, you can continue to exchange gifts without reporting.

In other words, celibacy should not be a penalty for the companion of a lobbyist who is elected to the legislature or a legislator whose FWB becomes a lobbyist.

This is a great example of compassionate conservatism but we think it can be improved.

THE SPEAKER:   Gentleman from the 164th.

GENTLEMAN: Thank you Mr. Speaker.  I want to thank the Gentleman from the 42nd for this fine piece of legislation that will drive thousands of Missourians to the Missouri Ethics Commission’s internet site. I think that website is not used nearly enough by citizens who should want to know more about the people wanting their money and their votes. However, I think we can make those reports more likely to draw public attention to the commission website and make the reports more, uh, valuable to the public with a few minor changes.  Therefore, I have an amendment.

THE SPEAKER:  Send it forward

(Doorman takes amendment to clerk).

THE SPEAKER:  Read the Amendment.

CLERK:   House Amendment Number One to House Bill Number 2059, page three, Section three, line 67, by striking the last sentence reading, “The reporting of sexual relations for purposes of this subdivision shall not require a dollar valuation,” and substituting thereto the following language: “The reporting of sexual relations for purposes of this subdivision shall require for each instance a dollar valuation, including but not limited to the cost of any meal, movie or other show or attraction, wine or other drink, limousine, carriage ride, or other forms of conveyance including but not limited to merry-go-rounds and airplanes affiliated with the gift, and any special clothing purchased or provided for the exchange of said gift. 

Further amend said bill with the following:

(4) The Missouri Ethics Commission shall require such information to be filed for each instance on a special form designated as Form 50, said form to also include the following information:

            —Was it as good for you as for the giver/recipient?

            —On ten-point basis, rate quality of giver.

            —On ten-point basis, rate quality of the receiving experience

            —Approximate length of time from beginning to end of gift exchange including any unwrapping. ______ hours ____minutes (approximations accepted)

            —Number of gifts given in 24-hour span ____

—Description of any restraints used (additional pages supplementary to the form are allowed).

—Mark one:  Daylight ___    Night ___

—Mark one:  Lights on ___ ­­­­Lights off ___

—Indoors ___ Outdoors ____

–Feathers?  Yes ___ No ___

—Were mirrors involved?  Yes ___ No ____

—(If applicable) Kind of vehicle in which gift was given

—(If applicable) Room in Capitol in which gift was given

—(If applicable) Description of non-Capitol room in which gift was given

—Description of any toys that facilitated exchange of gifts (use back of form if necessary.)

—Describe position(s) of the gifting parties during the time of the exchange (Additional pages supplementary to the form are allowed.).

—(If applicable) Describe any medications or other special applications that made the gift possible or of greater experience including but not limited to fruit and whipped cream (additional pages supplementary to the form are allowed.). 

—Number of participants:  two ­­­­­­­­­___   three ­­­­­­___Not to boast, but ­____

—Gift given to someone of different gender? Yes ­­­___ No ___ 5th Amendment ­­­___

—Was safe gifting exercised?  Yes ____  Uh-oh____

And renumbering following sections accordingly.

THE SPEAKER:  Gentleman from the 164th , Would you like to explain your amendment?

GENTLEMAN:  Thank you, Mr. Speaker.  I think the amendment is self-explanatory. As I said, I think it will encourage more people to find valuable information on the Missouri Ethics Commission website.  I move the adoption and will welcome any questions.

Get over it and fight back

St. Louis Rams merchandise has become St. Louis Rams memorabilia.  Look for big markdowns in sporting goods stores for jerseys that say “Gurley” on the back.  Don’t bother calling Stan Kroenke and the National Football League all kinds of nasty names. They don’t care and while you’re thinking up creative new epithets to apply to the situation, time is a-wasting. 

Mayor Slay wants to pout and says he’s through with the NFL.  And Offensive Line Coach Nixon says the league talks out of both sides of its mouth.  Get over it.  There are worse things than hearing the NFL say St. Louis is not an NFL town.  One of the worse things is accepting it.  There’s got to be a better answer to the NFL blasting St. Louis as “inadequate” than saying “am not!”

There’s a line in Meredith Willson’s Broadway musical of years ago, The Unsinkable Molly Brown “Nobody wants me down as much as I wants me up.”

St. Louis will survive and thrive without a pro football team. They’ve done it before.

But if St. Louis wants a replacement NFL team, it has to regroup immediately and be aggressive.  And go get the Oakland Raiders.  

The Raiders are the odd man out in the Los Angeles sweepstakes. They probably feel bruised, too. Speculation already is being offered that the Raiders will move to San Diego to replace the Chargers, who are likely to become Kroenke’s alternate-weekend tenants in his new stadium in a Los Angeles suburb.  St. Louis needs to nip that San Diego talk in the bud. After all, the NFL has dissed San Diego, too,. And there are all kinds of good reasons fans should be going to St. Louis Raiders games sometime in the future and some good reasons why the Raiders should want to play in St. Louis.

We know the Raiders don’t want to be in Oakland.  Heck, they’ve already left it once to go to Los Angeles from 1982-1994 and (believe it or not) decided to return to Oakland.  So we know the Raiders have shallow roots.  They also share a stadium with the Oakland Athletics, a team that once was the Philadelphia Athletics before they were the Kansas City Athletics and then the Oakland Athletics.  And the city of Oakland has refused to commit any taxpayer funds for a new football stadium.

Think of some other NFL history.  Think of the great Chiefs-Raiders rivalry.  Think of the marketing opportunities that could come if that rivalry was a cross-state rivalry that would make the annual Governor’s Cup competition TWO regular season, inter-divisional contests, not just an exhibition game.   

Stadium?  St. Louis already has one. It’s domed so the first Chiefs-Raiders game could be played in the sunshine early in the NFL season in Kansas City and the second one could be played as a season-concluding, everything is on the line on a frigid day game—indoors. 

Remember that Stan Kroenke felt the dome could be a top-tier stadium worthy of keeping the Rams in St. Louis if it got a $700-million upgrade, which now looks like an offer that shouldn’t have been refused.  So instead of the Raiders moving to Los Angeles to play in a $1.9-billion dollar stadium they wouldn’t be able to call their own, they could move into the domed stadium in St. Louis that would be upgraded to top-tier quality and they would be the only football  tenants.  And St. Louis can be an NFL city again with a Kroenke-certified top-tier facility for a price that is in NFL terms reasonably sane, not the financial disaster Kroenke claimed the riverside stadium would be.  

The team could keep its “Raiders” name because it would be appropriate to St. Louis.  Let’s not forget that Lambert-St. Louis Airport was once a world-class airport until a corporate RAIDER named Carl Icahn got his hands on TWA and messed around with it until TWA disappeared into American Airlines and the St. Louis hub just disappeared.  Don’t forget that some folks in Los Angeles might think of St. Louis as a city that pulled a raid on LA and took the Rams away to begin with.  We could probably find other examples of raids (including prohibition times in the city once called “Anheuserville” by some critics).   

 ESPN’s Paul Gutierrez, who covered the Raiders for eight years, says the NFL has declared San Diego and St. Louis “non-viable” for an NFL team (which might preclude the Raiders from moving to San Diego if the NFL is consistent).  He suggests San Antonio and Portland, Oregon might take a run at the Raiders.  But the “non-viability” of St. Louis  was based on comparisons to Los Angeles and the St. Louis plans for a new stadium that raised questions about financial viability from the NFL.  But if Oakland WANTS to move to St. Louis to play in a stadium renovated the way Stan Kroenke would have found acceptable—-well, we know the NFL is sometimes not a synonym for “consistency.” 

Don’t waste time crying in your foreign-owned beer, St. Louis.  Regroup.  Raid the Raiders. Convince them you’re much better than what they have and what they get can continue to improve.  And start squirreling away cash for the entirely new stadium you know will have to be built someday. 

IF, however, the name of the game is to spend an INSANE amount of money for a new stadium, then do something that fits with the city’s history and spreads the costs around.  Such as?

A new stadium OVER the Mississippi River, not next to it.  

Don’t bloody your nose snorting over this “impossible” idea.  One hundred and forty years ago or so, there were plenty of people who told James B. Eads that his idea of a bridge over the Mississippi of the kind he proposed to build was impossible.  Eads, not being an engineer, saw no reason to listen to his critics.   His impossible idea is now one of the symbols of St. Louis. 

There was a time when the idea of building a 630-foot stainless steel arch on the riverfront was ridiculed.   Yet, there it is and the city and the federal government are spending a lot of money to rehab it and the area around it.  It has turned an eyesore of a riverfront into one of the world’s great entrances to a city.  

A stadium over the river.  It would never work, you say, because it would weigh too much.  Not if you built it out of carbon fiber and industrial grade aluminum (if industrial grade aluminum is good enough for the Ford F-150 built in Kansas City, it’s good enough for a footballs stadium at St. Louis) or titanium.  What an engineering marvel that would be!   What an international symbol of a city forging a new technological identity in the 21st century it could become!  

The Eads Bridge is a 19th century symbol.  The arch represents the 20th century.  The stadium over the river would say so much about the 21st century people that we are, and it would be right in the middle of the nation, a draw for thousands, maybe millions of people, to see and visit on the other 41 weekends a year. 

Why build it over the river?  To spread the costs around.  Think of the Stan Musial Bridge.  Missouri didn’t pay for all of it.  Illinois paid for some of it.  Another Missouri-Illinois project that could lead to immense economic development on both sides of the river would revitalize both St. Louises and their surrounding areas would offer economic opportunities that would make the Lumiere Place and the Alton Belle casinos look like penny arcades when it comes to economic benefits. 

Need an example?  The Kansas Speedway has been a huge economic development success just across the border from Kansas City.  And every time something new happens in that area there should be increased embarrassment on the Missouri side because our legislature had a chance to provide incentives for that track to be built near the Kansas City airport.  Legislative shortsightedness cost Missouri big-time then. St. Louis suffered the same disorder with the Rams (the same way it did with the Football Cardinals).  Time to get a new prescription.    

Sure, you’d have to consider what would happen in flood times.  But that’s an easily-addressed matter, really.  This is a time for boldness, not bruised egos.  Floods?  A small, occasional annoyance.  They can be dealt with.   

It’s halftime and St. Louis trails but the game is not necessarily over.  Coach Slay and offensive line coach Nixon need a stirring clubhouse speech. 

“There’s no time to sit around licking wounds.  They’ll heal anyway.  Get a couple of stitches, put a piece of tape over it, put the helmet back on, and get out there.  We aren’t playing for tie and we’re not going to accept a loss.” 

In the end, the city still might be on the short end of the fight but there’s no dignity in getting knocked down and deciding to pout on the canvas instead of getting up to punch back.

 

Stan the Pan

To Pan:  To harshly criticize, to denigrate a performance, to give a poor review, to downgrade, to say anything about an opponent’s record while spinning your own performance to gain an advantage.

Stan Kroenke’s twenty-nine pages of vitriol aimed at St. Louis in his quest to move the Rams to more personally-lucrative Los Angeles is not anything new to those of us who have watched politics for very long.  His document sent to the NFL owners to justify his effort to return the Rams to Los Angeles sounds like the kind of stuff we find contaminating our mail box during election cycles.

The NFL might decide next week if the Rams can move.

It’s important in politics to paint as ugly a picture of your opponent as you can, particularly if you can do it before your opponent has the chance to put his or her superior virtues before the public.  In this case, though, St. Louis interests have been praising their purity to the NFL for several months.  The thing to watch now is to see if Stan’s fellow NFL owners believe him or believe St. Louis interests.

He has come down heavily on a city that hasn’t seen a winning Rams season in almost a decade, accusing fans of failing to support a team in which he has heavily invested.  He is critical of them because the team under his ownership has improved its win-loss record by fifty percent. We can’t call that “spin,” a political term, because we’re talking about football and footballs don’t spin unless the passer is really, really good. They wobble, flop, flip, bounce, go end-over-end.  The fifty percent improvement means that the Rams who were 15-65, the worst five-year stretch in NFL history, before Kroenke bought the team, have “improved” in the last five years to 27-36-1 in the last four years.

Here’s a great truth about statistics.  When somebody starts talking percentages, look at the actual numbers.  A one-hundred percent improvement in nothing is still nothing.

Fans whose annual economic base is measured in tens of thousands of dollars and therefore have some trouble grasping the concept of the costs of a new stadium in St. Louis or in LA, can understand the nine-year total of 42-101-1 and should be excused if they question whether that’s worth their own financial investment—particularly when the owner of the team has earned the image of a flint-hearted, isolated, potentate who thinks the sport they love is nothing more than a bottom-line focused business.

The truth is, that’s precisely what the National Football League is.  It’s a business.  It’s all about money.  And Kroenke is a shrewd bottom-line businessman who has not become a billionaire by being too cozy with people at the stadium hot dog stand.

We met his wife’s uncle one day.  Briefly. Sam Walton was in Jefferson City to meet with the folks who worked at the local Wal-Mart store.  Flew in in his little single-engine airplane.  Wore a suit that looked like something he would buy at a, well, a Wal-Mart store.  Mr. Sam looked like the kind of person who could stroll into one of his stores and nobody would notice him.  And he had that public image.  Mr. Sam seemed like the kind of guy who’d sit around a table at the coffee shop and talk with the folks.

Not his nephew-in-law, at least not to hear St. Louis interests describe him.

His request to move is a huge hatchet job on St. Louis and St. Louis interests are understandably outraged at some of the nasty things he’s said that are certainly open to legitimate challenge.  But a lot of the pickle St. Louis is in is of its own making.  Think back a few years when the city said it would spend sixty-two million dollars to upgrade the domed stadium where the Rams play football if the Rams would cough up an equal amount.  When the Rams countered by demanding SEVEN HUNDRED MILLION dollars in improvements, city officials gagged, coughed, snorted, and choked, “No way!”   Sixty-two million was it. Final offer.

An arbitrator ruled in favor of the Rams.  Seven hundred million or Stan Kroenke could move the team.  Outrageous, said the city and the state, which helped finance the domed stadium twenty years ago at a total cost of $280 million.

The city that did not want to spend more than sixty-two million dollars to upgrade the dome has now decided it can find $1.1 billion to build a whole new stadium for somebody and they sure hope it’s the Rams.

Surprise, Surprise, Surprise.  There IS blood in that turnip.  Seven-hundred-million dollars was off the charts.  One-point-one-billion is a four-hundred page document with some really pretty pictures of a football stadium that St. Louis hopes NFL owners will consider one of the greatest books ever written.

Think back, though, to 1989-1994.  St. Louis had no NFL team.  The city did not shrivel up and blow away.  People did not flee from the city appreciably faster than they have been dashing to the suburbs for decades anyway.  People still visited St. Louis for the reasons people visit St. Louis now—except several thousand didn’t go there for a specific purpose ten days of the year.

Remember a few years ago when the Cardinals wanted a new stadium?  There was talk that the new owners were looking at a site in Illinois and somebody said, “You know what St. Louis would be without the Cardinals?   Omaha.”

St. Louis should be so lucky as Omaha, a city without a major league baseball team, a National Football League team, or a National Hockey League Team.  But it does have more than 100,000 more people than St. Louis has.  And as far as we know, the city of Omaha and the state of Nebraska have not had to endure the financial agony of finding millions and billions of dollars so some millionaires and billionaires have new playgrounds.   Yes, we are aware that the Omaha metro area has half as many people as the St. Louis metro area.  In fact, the St. Louis metro area has one million people more than the whole state of Nebraska.  But Omaha as a city without major league sports seems to have something that St. Louis, a city with three major league sports, doesn’t have.   So let’s not belittle Omaha.

For just about everybody, except those who think saving the Rams for St. Louis is a holy quest, the entire struggle is not a meaningful part of their lives.  That would be, probably, something more than five-millions of Missouri’s six-million-plus citizens, some of whom like to go to Omaha and do go because it’s a whole lot closer to them than St. Louis is.

If the Rams go, they go. St. Louis will survive.

And to think all of this anguish could have been avoided for the bargain basement price of just seven-hundred mil.

What in the world ?

Two people are standing at the railing of an ocean liner gazing at the miles of Pacific Ocean all around them.  Nothing is out there but water.  All the way to the horizon.  All the way around them.

“Sure is a lot of water,” one observes.

“Yeah,” says the other.  “And that’s just the top of it.”

This observer has been getting emails from friends as far away as Vancouver and Los Angeles who have been watching, hearing, and reading about things happening at the University of Missouri for the last several days.  In various ways they have asked, “What in the world is going on at the University of Missouri?”  What follows will be long and does not pretend to be an analysis that will preclude other thoughts or actions that disagree or contribute to consensus.

The reporting of the way events have spiraled and spread has been most comparable to that first observer on the ocean liner: “Sure is a lot of water.”   That is not a criticism of the reporting.  Those who have been on the ground as journalists in situations such as this and—more prominently, in Ferguson last year—know that when you are being swept along by the tide there isn’t much time to think about how the coral was formed ten feet below you.  The same often is true for those who are drawn into participation in those events.  Thinking about the deeper issues that are involved or the deeper consequences that might result becomes secondary.   Passing judgment on participants, whether demonstrators, administrators, reporters, observers—the list could be longer if we try to think of more categories—is easily done from a distance and the situation becomes more complicated when others with other agendas try to capitalize on it.

So, to answer the friends and neighbors who have asked, “What in the world is going on…?” we offer some observations.  They are made from a short geographical distance and they are made by someone who is no longer in the business of being in the middle of the events or in a newsroom.

VIOLENCE

This is an important thing to remember.  No buildings were set on fire.  No roving gangs of demonstrators were going up and down Ninth Street throwing bricks through windows and looting businesses.  As far as we know, guns were not part of the demonstration(s) and nobody was hurt.  Some headlines were generated when a reporter and a cameraman were pushed around in a regrettable incident but the students who advocated a non-violent protest achieved that goal.  While some of their actions might be properly questioned, let us not lose sight of the fact that this is one incident that did not turn violent.

But their activities have created image problems or feared image problems for the university, for some of its schools, and the athletic department.  Andrew Kloster, a legal fellow with the Heritage Foundation, has written of what he calls “mob rule…in higher education.”  He writes about recent disturbances at Yale and the disturbances in Columbia, “Both situations involve student activists disrupting education, allegedly on behalf of education…At Mizzou, activists claimed that failing to deal with ‘structural racism’ was harming their education.  Both groups listed not specific harms, but rather vague interest in feeling good at their university.”

That kind of reaction, nationally circulated, is not what the protestors want to hear or want to hear said about them.   What can it teach them?  What can be learned from these experiences?  Is the result as simple as Kloster suggests?

Nobody was hurt in these protests.  At least not physically.  That’s important to remember.

WHO IS AND WHO IS NOT GONE

University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe is gone.  Columbia Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin is gone.  This observer met both of them during a meeting a few months ago and found both of them personally likable.  Wolfe was candid in our discussions and represented the university well.  Perhaps ironically, one of the products of our meeting was a resolution of some communications problems between the group I was with and the university.  Loftin, I thought, was approachable and willing to discuss the issues we brought to the table.  That’s a personal impression drawn from a single hour-long meeting.  I was not left with any perspective on relations between the people in University Hall and the people who were on the campus.  But clearly, those who saw things on a daily basis had distinctly different impressions.

Who’s still there?  A guy in the pickup truck.  A drunk white guy who went where he wasn’t wanted at the Legion of Black Collegians meeting.  The person who scrawled the feces swastika in a bathroom.  A spirit of intolerance that bubbles under all of society, occasionally seeping to the surface.  And intolerance knows no sides.  They’re still there.

THE EVENTS

Critics on the campus felt the school administration was detached and unresponsive.  On Monday, the day Wolfe resigned and Loftin announced he would be stepping down, the deans of nine of the university’s colleges asked that the Board of Curators to fire Loftin.  They cited a “multitude of crises” on the Columbia campus.  They said they had met with Wolfe and Loftin as well as Provost Garnett Stokes twice in October but had seen the issues they talked about continue to deteriorate.

A day earlier the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures notified curators that 28 of the department’s thirty faculty members had expressed no confidence in Loftin. The other two faculty members abstained.  A few days earlier, the English Department faculty had voted 26-0 for a no-confidence motion targeting Loftin.  Two faculty members abstained.

Loftin also was the center of other controversies including the elimination of health insurance for graduate assistants who teach many of the school’s classes.  The insurance was later reinstated. He also was unpopular because of the dismissal of the Vice Chancellor for Health Sciences.

He also was in the middle of a partisan political criticism about a doctor with some privileges at University Hospital doing abortions at the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Columbia.  As usual lately, anything to do with Planned Parenthood became an issue of political capital that transcended rational discussion. The situation has reached the absurd stage that one state senator wanting to firm up pro-life support in a statewide candidacy has demanded the university tell a graduate student to stop studying whether a 72-hour waiting period for an abortion really accomplishes anything.

One side claims it was absolutely right and the university is absolutely wrong. And when the absolutely right side is the one that controls the university’s budget, academic freedom can become expendable—or at least a perception can arise that it is.  The university revoked the doctor’s privileges at the hospital.  Planned Parenthood and its supporters charged the university over-reacted.  As far as we know, the graduate student is still researching.

Student demonstrators aimed their biggest complaints at Wolfe.  An incident early in the school year in which someone in a pickup truck shouted “Nigger” at the student body president Payton Head appears to have begun the unrest. Several days later, a white man, described as drunk, interrupted a meeting of the Legion of Black Collegians and complained, “These niggers are getting aggressive with me” when the group showed him he was not welcome.

An incident during the homecoming parade last month, though, is what seems to have really gotten things rolling.   A group of black students stopped in front of the car carrying Wolfe and started talking about the school’s history of racial incidents since its founding in 1839.  Wolfe did not react and the driver of the car tried to move around the group and bumped a couple of the students.

About then, graduate student Jonathan Butler said he wouldn’t eat until Wolfe quit. Four days later, November 6, Wolfe issued a statement and an apology that seemed weak to the students in the homecoming parade event, and to the students whose resentment about administration detachment from campus concerns continued to simmer.  Wolfe admitted that the situation might not have deteriorated if he had gotten out of his car during the parade and talked with the students.

Or would such an action only have compounded the disturbance that day?  It’s easy to second-guess on that issue.  Many will argue the students were out of line by stopping Wolfe’s car at all, let alone for several minutes before the blockade was ended.

This writer recalls an incident in the Missouri Senate a couple of years ago when a group led by a number of ministers entered the gallery of the senate and stopped floor action with songs, prayers, and statements urging expansion of the Medicaid program.  Several were arrested and charged.  Their cases have yet to come to trial.  One of their arguments would be familiar to the students: they were frustrated by inaction on the part of those who could do something to deal with the problems they perceived.

And so a fair question has to be asked.  What is left when you think the powers-that-be are not responsive to perceived serous issues you have raised?

The organizers of the demonstrations, Concerned Student 1-9-5-0, (1950 was the year the university admitted its first black student) issued eight demands including an apology from Wolfe in which he would “acknowledge his white male privilege, recognize that systems of oppression exist, and provide a verbal commitment to fulfill (the organization’s) demands”.  The group demanded Wolfe’s removal and a presidential selection process involving faculty, staff, and students of diverse backgrounds.  The group wants a  mandatory “comprehensive racial awareness and inclusion curriculum in all departments,” increased percentages of black faculty and staff, more money for the university counseling center that will allow hiring of mental health professionals as well as increases in funding for social justice centers.

The demands and the rhetoric that appeared to some people as overcooked took the situation beyond discussion. By now, too, various political figures were weighing in with veiled suggestions that time was running out for Wolfe.

Then several members of the football team announced they supported the student group.

THE TEAM

The announced “strike” by several football players pushed the issue into national headlines.  International headlines in fact.  Suddenly the confrontation was on the BBC.  Suddenly it was on the national networks.   And it put the coaching staff in a difficult position in what already has been a difficult year.  They’ve already dealt with some unfortunate situations within the team this year apart from the win-loss record.  It was important that the team understand that it IS a team and this episode threatened to pit involved members against those who didn’t feel touched by the controversy.  Coach Gary Pinkel knew that however this event turned out, this incident had the potential to turn the locker room into at least two camps.  So the word went out that the whole team supported Jonathan Butler and was concerned about his health.  Pinkel has admitted, however, that some players were not enthusiastic about the “team” support of Butler.  And in a press conference after the resignations, he didn’t take a position on the departures of Wolfe and Loftin.

The upcoming game with Brigham Young was endangered.  The university could lose a million dollars and that was only a beginning.

There were doubtless some who immediately started thinking the football program was trying to run the university.  Some undoubtedly felt cancellation of the game, the season, the players’ scholarships would be appropriate because the players were getting outside their roles.   After all, the university is about education, not sports and—they might argue—the sports program was getting out of line.

Others could argue that athletes are also people and they do not give up being people just because they play sports.  In fact, some might argue on their behalf that the players’ actions were a recognition that some things are far more important than collegiate sports.   After all, these young men sit in classrooms with many of those who had pitched their tents on Carnahan Quadrangle.  They are not apart from them just because they play football.

The university basketball players also were talking about taking action, which coach Kim Anderson says he would have supported, when Wolfe resigned.

It is easy to dismiss the action of the football players and the backing they got from their coach and the school’s athletic director as the athletic department throwing its weight around.  But was it, really?  Or was it people who were students first creating by their actions a situation the athletic department had to deal with at a time when it had been only an observer that was focused on fulfilling its special role in the university?

Regardless, SEC coaches in their weekly teleconference praised Pinkel’s integrity in supporting his team.

The entrance of the football team into the picture made the news story, for whatever reason, one that could not be contained in Columbia. It went global. And nobody knew how much worse it could become if something didn’t happen at University Hall.

THE CHOICE

We don’t know and maybe will never know what kind of conversations were going on between the university administration and the curators.  We don’t know when or if somebody finally said, “Tim, the only way to end this situation is for you to leave.”   Or maybe he’s the one who told the curators that he realized there was no way the situation could be resolved as long as he stayed.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has reported the curators continued to support Wolfe, who left without any kind of a severance package.  The newspaper says that’s an indication he was not forced out.  But Loftin was a different case. The curators voted to assign him to a new job.  The newspaper says Loftin “made enemies out of deans, faculty and graduate students” and “frequently blindsided the curators with his decision making, stirring up controversies, then having to backtrack.”

http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/education/missteps-not-student-revolt-led-to-mizzou-chancellor-s-demise/article_f955e9cf-6fc8-5fb0-b2cc-1b798d53fccc.html

The student group wasted no time issuing new demands for an “immediate” meeting with the university system faculty council, curators, and with Governor Nixon “to discuss shared governance and create a system of holistic inclusion for all constituents,” as one of the group members, Marshall Allen, put it, saying the demands have to me met “in totality.”

The resignations create some breathing space.  There comes a time when heated rhetoric (“in totality,” for example) needs to be tempered so productive steps can be taken to produce change.   Shared governance?  That term as well as “a system of holistic inclusion” is good for pumping up a crowd.  Creating realistic definitions is harder.  The students are not going to run the University of Missouri.  Or the faculty.  But the point has to be acknowledged that the administration cannot be apart from the campus and the issues that personally touch those on it.

THE PROFS AND THE GREEK LADY

The Dean of the School of Journalism, David Kurpius, quickly put out a statement when a video went viral showing Professor Melissa Click helped block reporters from covering the post-resignation reactions of students in their encampment on the Carnahan Quadrangle.  The video showed Click calling for some “muscle” to help remove student Mark Schierbecker who was shooting video of a confrontation between freelance photographer Tim Tai and Janna Basler, the assistant director of Greek Life and Leadership.  Tai was shooting for ESPN News.

The video shows Basler telling Tai, “You need to back off.  Back off, go!”  When he asks her if she is with the Office of Greek Life, she responds, “No, my name is Concerned Student 1-9-5-0.”

Tai is heard saying that his First Amendment rights to be there are equal with the First Amendment rights of the students who have been demonstrating.

And a third person, identified as Professor Richard Callahan, the Chairman of Religious Studies, is shown with the protestors throwing up his hands to block the view Tai could get with his camera.

The J-School dean wanted to make it clear that Click is a member of the Department of Communications, which is part of the School of Arts and Sciences, not a member of the School of Journalism faculty.  The J-School also released a statement discussing how it had used the events of the last several days as teaching opportunities for future journalists.

The national reaction on social media and in mainline media to the actions of those faculty members has been generally severe.  The St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Click locked herself in the office all day Tuesday and at times could be heard sobbing.  At the end of the day she issued written apology for her actions, and said she had personally apologized to the journalists involved.  She resigned her tenuous tie to the Journalism School.  She had a “courtesy title” that let her serve on a graduate committee.  Although Tai says he has accepted Click’s apology, Schierbecker has told the Washington Post he has not.  “She made no acknowledgement that what she did was assault,” he told the newspaper.

Callahan is Click’s husband.  Thai has told the Post that he also has apologized “for getting in my face and yelling about it.” We’ve heard no word about whether his behavior also is being scrutinized.

Basler has been put on administrative leave and relieved of her duties as the Director of Greek Life while the investigation of her activities continues.  Tai says he’s had a personal meeting with Basler and has accepted her apologies.

There have been calls for the three to be fired.  Washington Post blogger Erik Wemple, for example, has written “These three university employees had a chance to stick up for free expression on Monday. Instead they stood up for coercion and darkness.”

Who’s right and who’s wrong in all of this?  From this reporter’s perspective (once a journalist, always a journalist), the students and the teachers were wrong.  The young journalists were legitimately trying to cover a story, to help listeners, viewers, and readers gain some kind of insight into the situation.  But this incident, as is the case with the larger activities, is not so black and white.   KBIA, the University’s public radio station that relies heavily on journalism students in its newsroom—and has done outstanding work in covering these events—published this story on its webpage:

http://kbia.org/post/rights-activists-and-media-no-clear-answer

And KBIA News Director Ryan Famuliner, a former Missourinet reporter, added some context to help people see “below the surface of it.”

http://kbia.org/post/4-things-you-might-have-wrong-about-mizzou-story

Tuesday, the day after the confrontations, protestors decided reporters were welcome at their encampment.  They took down signs telling the media to stay out and they passed out pages urging protestors to cooperate with the media.  The headline on the flyers said “Teachable Moment.”

OKAY, SO—–

We talked to a distressed former member of the Board of Curators the other day who fears these events have set a “horrible precedent.”   Some of those we have talked to who also have watched things from a distance suggest the university is in for an extremely difficult time finding someone to step into the president’s job.  “Who in his right mind would want it?” one person asked.

What has been accomplished by all of this shouting and pushing and demanding is that impediments the protesting students, graduate students, and faculty members saw to communications between the folks on campus and the folks in University Hall have been removed.  They’ve gotten the university’s attention.

Now, it appears, talking instead of shouting, discussing instead of demanding can start.

THE TEAM 2.0

No, the athletic department does not run the university.  It is, however, the most publicly prominent entity that represents it.  It would be nice if the public found the teaching of English, Journalism, Agriculture, Physics, Chemistry, Economics, and so forth to be something it would buy tickets to watch.  But the fact is the public is more likely to cheer for an All-American football or basketball player than it is to cheer for a Nobel Prize winner.  Another fact is that the university would continue to do its work educating students even if another fan never walks into Memorial Stadium.

However, the virtues of “the team” or as some of the players said, “the family,” should not dissipate as time passes and, in fact, might be good to keep in mind as the university re-shapes its administration.   Teams work when they share a common goal.  They fail when they break into factions.  Factionalism breeds resentment.  Resentment brings conflict.  And conflict destroys the family, the team.

Take a look at this effort to help us see below “the top of it.”

http://kbia.org/post/mizzou-football-sets-precedent-student-athlete-activism

One of the jobs of a coach is to hold the team together.  It would be fair to include questions to presidential candidates about how good a coach a new president and chancellor might need to be.

THE TEACHABLE MOMENT

One reason Click, Callahan, and Basler are in trouble is because they forgot that teachers remain teachers outside as well as inside the classroom. Whether the teachable moments represented by their apologies reverse the negative teachable moments of the confrontation with Tai and with Schierbecker is hard to determine.  Perhaps the changed attitude of the protestors the next day, when they removed the signs and welcomed reporters, indicates some learning has taken place.

Did the change of attitude represent a learning moment resulting from the teachable moment?  One would hope so, for students and teachers alike.

The events have created numerous teachable moments and they have provided learning moments as well.  And those moments go beyond the teaching and learning that might happen in the new diversity and social respect programs the university is moving toward.

POLITICS

Events such as these are potential minefields for politicians—witness the no-win situations Governor Nixon found himself in, or put himself in, last year in Ferguson.  These events also can be opportunities to say and advocate things that appeal to the public gut and gain some points for candidates and office-holders.  Before Wolfe’s resignation, various office-holders put out fence-riding statements that tried to sound, well for lack of a better word, leaderly without running the risk of antagonizing potential voters, protestors, and those who thought Wolfe and Loftin were just fine. “This is serious stuff,” the statements generally said, “and I am sure the right things will be done.”   Afterwards the same people who had not publicly come out specifically in favor of Wolfe’s departure courageously said he had done the right thing and they were glad he did.

But there’s another political matter that is hinted at in a part of the scenario that has been overshadowed by the events on the Carnahan Quadrangle.  One of the graduate students who sent a letter “For my dear friends outside of Missouri campus” alluded to it when she wrote, “for many of us, it was clear we were just expected to pay ever-increasing fees (mine are currently about $1000 per semester above and beyond tuition), ½ tuition waivers for some grad students (where prior had been full waivers, which drastically impacts recruiting and retention efforts), an insurance debacle…and ongoing racial discrimination.”

Students are going deeper in debt.  Some graduate students are paying increased fees.  Insurance coverage for them was dropped, then restored when they made enough noise.   And state support for higher education in Missouri is a fraction of what it was a decade ago.  Data compiled earlier this year by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association says funding per full-time student has dropped almost 28 percent in the last five years while college enrollment has increased by twenty percent.

Your reporter was in a meeting yesterday with a former legislator who recalled that when he started in the General Assembly a few decades ago, state funding for higher education paid about half the costs of educating a student. Now, he said, it’s only about ten percent.  There might be more accurate figures but the trend is accurate.

A seminar at Truman State University last March was called “Crisis in Missouri: The decline of state funding for higher education.”   The announcement of the meeting that listed discussion points said, “For decades, public support for higher education in the state of Missouri has declined precipitously.  The impact of this underfunding has been widespread and deeply felt: An increased financial burden on Missouri’s student population; An inability to recruit top teachers and scholars; a deterioration of the quality of education at our state institutions; A weakening of morale for the vast majority of those who work at those institutions; A culture on our campuses of frustration with the present and fear for the future instead of a culture of innovation.”

Fear.  Frustration.  It’s top to bottom in Missouri’s higher education system.  The definitions of those words differ according to position within that system but all strata have them.  Not to give the university administration a pass, but funding issues are a huge issue and at the highest levels are one of the primary ones.  The President of the University of Missouri is seen by many as a manager and a fund-raiser.  The chancellors are the on-campus managers.

But the buck has to stop somewhere.  And ultimately, Wolfe felt the whole package of bucks rose to his level and the best alternative was to leave so that healing could begin on a campus he loved.

But don’t expect the people in Jefferson City to do anything financially that would ease the concerns that dog all of our campuses.  Advocates of smaller government are more concerned with shrinking the state’s capability to pay its bills and obligations than they are in easing financial pressures on higher education and those it serves.   Or other services to the general public.

“You can’t cure a problem by throwing money at it,” some like to say.  That might be true.  But you certainly can’t solve many problems by financially starving them.  In 2013, then-auditor Tom Schweich released a study showing Missouri tax collections are about four-BILLION dollars below the amount allowed by the Hancock Amendment adopted in 1980 as a way to control over-taxation and over-spending.   But the legislature only wants to widen that gap.  So the concerns and frustrations of some of those who called for the departures of Wolfe and Loftin will go unanswered.

WINNERS?

It’s easy to pronounce winners and losers in these situations.  But that’s a mistake because many participants are both. Victory has a cost.  Loss has an opportunity.

Well, Wolfe is gone and so is Loftin.  An African-American temporary president who was the first black graduate of the law school has been installed.  An African-American law professor and associate dean has become an interim vice-chancellor for inclusion, diversity and equality. Curators have promised to restore “a culture of respect,” to hire more minorities, step up recruitment, and offer support to students who feel aggrieved.

Beyond that——-

Three people have been arrested for turning social media into anti-social media by making threats on the internet.  The threats, especially in a time when mass shootings are not so uncommon anymore, honestly frightened some people on the campus.

Someone painted out the word “Black” on the sign in front of the University’s Black Cultural Center; the paint has since been removed.  (Someday, maybe, there will be some discussions about whether cultural centers for various ethnic groups are long-term counter-productive to advancement toward a color-blind multicultural society many of these groups seek.  Someday. Perhaps not this day, though, when emotions that would detract from the kind of discussion that needs to be held are likely to rise.)

The person or persons so consumed by—whatever—that he or she put a piece of human excrement into their hand and drew a swastika on the wall of a co-ed dormitory bathroom and left feces on the floor is still unknown.  The student protests about racism overshadowed concerns by those to whom a swastika has a special significance.

Hate, ignorance, and downright idiocy are inescapable parts of our existence, whether on our campuses or elsewhere in our world.  The events in Columbia have a double edge—protests against wrongs perceived by one segment of society while a hate message that hurts another segment of society stays in the background.

Those of us who were in college in the days when one of the popular songs was “All we are saying is give peace a chance,” a time when demonstrators thought they could help stop wars by putting flowers down the barrels of the guns held by National Guardsmen trying to control demonstrations, still hope for peace and love and harmony.

Each generation has to confront that issue and each generation learns that there are those who think the flower children and their idealistic descendants (and forebears) are fools and troublemakers.  But a generation without ideals offers little to the future.

Comedian Pat Paulsen, whose satiric presidential candidacy in the days of the flower generation, put together a campaign book in 1968.  He wrote, “This book is dedicated to the time when all of us spicks, niggers, white trash, hunkies, wops, kikes, mackerel snappers, micks, gooks, chinks, red necks, beans and hippies get together as Americans.”

Columbia in the past week reminded us we still have a ways to go.

Perhaps this long, long reflection helps answer the questions from friends in Vancouver and in Los Angeles and gives some insight into the coral beneath the surface.

Imagine a sporting event—

We’ll be returning to the usual topics we normally address later this week.  But for now, imagine a sporting event, professional baseball, football, basketball, hockey—any of the big-time sports like that. Imagine thousands of people being allowed on the playing field before the big game, looking at the equipment, visiting with team personnel, team owners and managers, maybe spotting a celebrity or two. Then imagine the players being introduced and walking among the crowd to their positions before the crowd goes to their seats and the game begins.

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That’s part of the crowd on the main straightaway at Indianapolis late Sunday morning. Not everybody who had a ticket could be there but thousands of people had obtained passes through various channels for this experience that doesn’t happen in stick-and-ball (or stick and puck) sports.

Imagine any of the stick-and-ball sports that have members of the competing teams seated at tables before the event and thousands of fans without passes lining up to get their autographs or their pictures taken with the athletes. Imagine retired players being assembled to give fans a chance to do the same with them.

Imagine a crowd of 200,000 or more watching the event on-scene and imagine that they generally quietly tolerate the traffic jams getting to the arena and leaving it afterwards.

That’s what happens each Memorial Day weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the first race track to call itself a “speedway.” The climate and culture were similar at Charlotte, North Carolina that night where NASCAR held its longest race of the year—won by a Missourian this time, Carl Edwards of Columbia.

The past, the present, and the future—

All came together in one face Sunday at Indianapolis.

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Your reporter was, maybe, ten feet from Juan Pablo Montoya when he turned to talk to Ryan Hunter-Ray and Graham Rahal, two men moments from trying to beat him to the end of the race that they and thirty others would run at speeds upward of 220 mph most of the time.

Montoya will be 40 in September. That’s starting to get up there for athletes at this level of competition (the oldest driver in the race Sunday was 42). He was 24 when he won the Indianapolis 500 on his first attempt in 2000.

To his right, dressed in the yellow uniform, was Ryan Hunter-Reay, 34, who had won the great race last year in a wild closing-lap dogfight with three-time champion Helio Castroneves. And to Hunter-Reay’s right was Graham Rahal, who is 26, the son of 1986 winner Bobby Rahal. His dad is the Rahal of Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan Racing, the team for which Graham drives. Sunday was already his eighth 500 and a lot of folks are hoping that he or Marco Andretti (whose grandfather won in 1969) will someday win the 500.

Hunter-Reay, who was never a factor, finished 15th. Rahal was fifth. Montoya took home a $2.4-million paycheck for winning the race for the second time. Hunter-Reay is a representative of Indycar’s present. Rahal is clearly representative of the sport’s future. And Montoya has one foot in the past, is very much one of the dominating figures of the sport’s present, and don’t think he doesn’t believe he’s very much part of its future, too.

And speaking of Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan Racing:

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Tolja he’d be there

David Letterman was in that crowd on the grid before the race. The biggest difference between him and others there is that he had a police escort and when his presence became known, photographers flocked around him. He was unruffled by the attention, chatting with keepers and tenders as he sat on the pit wall. Unfortunately, he later wound up with his face smashed against the wall on the main straightaway.

All of the team cars carried “Thanks Dave” messages on their rear fins but Oriol Servia’s car went further.

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Unfortunately Servia and last year’s pole winner, Ed Carpenter tangled coming onto the main straightaway on the 113th lap and Servia’s car went side-first into the outer wall, giving Letterman a couple of interesting souvenirs of the race if he wants them—the side pod that scraped the wall or the one that didn’t. Regardless, he could have a couple of interesting wall-hangings for the den he might spend some of his new free time decorating.

Now, some of you who regularly check this scribe’s entries normally expect to read pithy things about politics, government, public policy, social commentary, history, and other things that stimulate the mind (we hope). But every now and then there are things that stimulate the soul, that render all that other stuff emotionally meaningless.   Sports are those things. Your correspondent has been to World Series games, All-Star baseball games, NFL games in four Missouri stadia that have played host to three different teams, an NBA game (one is enough), a hockey game (worth another look someday), races at Churchill Downs (sorry, but something that only goes one lap and lasts for maybe a minute and a half, max, does not make this observer’s blood run faster). I’ve seen soccer and cricket and don’t know enough about either to develop the sophistication to appreciate them. Bowling is okay as a participant. We’ve watched arm-wrestling in Petaluma, cliff-diving from somewhere, curling during the Olympics (something about ice shuffleboard with big stones holds the attention, surprisingly), and bocce ball matches at a local restaurant.

But nothing does more for the pulse rate than the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea (Wimbledon, by the way, is not something many would stay away from church to watch). Diehard NASCAR fans undoubtedly think the same way about the Charlotte 600-miler that runs the night after the 500—and NASCAR has its own noisy  charm as we know from experience.

So let’s leave it at this: Get some earplugs. Get some tickets (there were plenty of available seats Sunday). Get to Indianapolis on Memorial Day weekend. Get to the track and to your seats. Soak up the pre-race atmosphere and then hang on and watch amazing things happen in front of you when the engines roar.

Beats the hell out watching the things that happened in front me while I was at the Senate press table all those years, I can guarantee you that.

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Maybe I’ll see  you at the place they call The Racing Capital of the World next year when the engulfing experience of this event happens for the 100th time.  Look for me ‘n’ Dave.                                                                       \

(pictures copyright by Bob Priddy)

On the grid with David

David Letterman has joined those of us who have left decades of the tyranny of a clock-regulated life and have started living by our own clock. He might have disappeared from my TV set but I know where he’ll be on Sunday. I’ll be there, too.

We share a great affection for the Indianapolis 500. Both of us were at the great Speedway for the first time when the fastest lap was about 140 miles an hour. Now the cars and drivers are aiming at 240. We’ve heard the great engines, from the Offy to the Novi to the Cosworth, the Fords and Buicks and the Chevvys. And the Hondas and Toyotas—even a Porsche once, an Alfa-Romeo and a Mercedes that was known as “the beast” by those who created it. We’re like tens of thousands of others who are drawn to a specific place and a specific event because it’s part of us.

We’ll be among the people in the crowd on the starting grid of the nation’s most iconic sporting event, the Indianapolis 500. I’ll be there as a reporter. He will be there as one of the owners of the Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan Racing. He’s not just a celebrity who has put some of his spare cash into a hobby. He’s serious about racing, as viewers should know from watching how much he enjoyed interviewing racing drivers on his television show.

We both were part of the crowd on the grid just before the start of the race last year.

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No, I didn’t interject myself into his personal space to say hello. But if I had, I would have told him that something he said more than a decade ago has stuck with me because I had never heard anyone who is so much a part of the sport say it—not in all the years I’ve followed and attended this great event.

The year he said it was 2004 and Buddy Rice was writing a Cinderella story for the then-Rahal-Letterman team as the race started to wind down with rain moving in.   Rice was in the car because the winner of the 1999 Indianapolis 500, Kenny Brack, had been injured in the last race of the 2003 season and wasn’t cleared to race. He had started from the pole, the first starting position, and was leading at the three-quarters mark.   A pit reporter for ABC television interviewed Letterman, who was obviously feeling the moment—the excitement, the tension, the anticipation.   Letterman told him, “It’s an unbelievable job Buddy has done all day. It’s a heroic effort.”

Later, when rain, thunder, and lightning stopped the race and forced the Speedway to move victory lane indoors so Rice could get the victory wreath, the traditional bottle of milk, and the celebration of his victory, Letterman described Rice and the rest of the team as “smart, brave, tough guys.”

In all the years of listening to or watching the race broadcasts or hearing people on the public address system during the race, I don’t think I ever heard anybody use the word “heroic” to describe the drivers’ efforts. But that’s an appropriate way to describe what these drivers are all about.

For them, dressing in their fire-resistant suit and climbing into a race car probably seems as ordinary as people like me putting on a coat and tie and going to the office.   It’s what they do. But what they do during their day in their office is so far removed from what we do or are capable of doing that is unfathomable to most of us.

It’s not the danger although danger is always present that makes them heroes. It’s the skills they demonstrate lap after lap, hour after hour, that puts them on a level far above most of us. There’s no break between rounds, quarters, or innings. There’s no halftime. For about three hours, the Buddy Rices who will climb into the cars on the grid at Indianapolis Sunday will have no breaks from the necessity of putting their tires exactly—exactly—where they have to be to go through a corner at more than triple our interstate speed limit or to pass a competitor who also wants that space. They have to do it while competing with 32 other Buddy Rices who want the same thing they want and they’re willing to live on a fine edge to get it.

To watch these drivers flash past at speeds television cannot properly convey, lap after lap, is something unique.   It is heroic.

Saying that is not a matter of hero-worship. Calling their efforts heroic accurately describes what they do. We accept mortals doing things that most of us consider super-human without thinking what an extraordinary thing they are doing.   That’s why his passionate description of what he saw unfolding in front of him is so memorable—because he captured the nature of those efforts with just the right, memorable, word eleven years ago.

We’ll both be at the first place to call itself a “speedway” watching men and women do something heroic on Sunday. We might see each other. I will know who he is. He won’t know who I am. And that’s okay because both of us know why we are there.