Monday notes

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(Christian Lattner’s “tap” on Aminu Timberlake’s stomach, 1992)

1) I see a lot of people are still finding their way to my “Russell Westbrook is Overrated” post. Ooh boy.

2) John Oliver is now arguably the most incisive political analyst on mainstream television, using the television version of long-form reads to explore important issues that usually receive cursory attention. Last night, Oliver took aim at the NCAA and carved it up quite adeptly. He was especially sharp in deriding the ridiculousness of guys like NCAA President Mark Emmert and Clemson football Dabo Swinney making millions while self-righteously insisting that it would be anathema to the “principles” of inter-collegiate athletics to compensate players. In what has, depressingly, become a standard feature of such anti-NCAA missives, UNC is singled out for its failures in providing legitimate educations to some of its athletes. In that context, Oliver did not miss the disturbing irony of the degradation of African and African American Studies to maintain a charade that disproportionately affects black athletes.

By the way, I’ve highlighted before the astounding statement that Emmert made last year, when he said that if players were deemed employees, they’d no longer be eligible for health benefits and would, instead, be relegated to drawing on Worker’s Compensation. What I missed was that this is triply obnoxious:

a) Emmert is, himself, an employee for fuck’s sake. He, of course, doesn’t have his health covered by worker’s comp, but by what I have no doubt is a Rolls Royce health insurance policy.

b) as has been noted by many, health insurance for NCAA athletes is sometimes a travesty, which makes it especially disgusting for Emmert to concern-troll about what it would mean for players’ health and well-being if people like him tried to screw with their benefits (and that is the implicit threat in his disingenuous pleadings).

c)the term student-athlete, as is now well-known, was concocted by the NCAA as part of a legal strategy to help institutions of higher education avoid paying out worker’s compensation claims for college athletes injured on the job. Which makes it both bullshit and nauseating for Dr. Emmert to pretend to lament that they’d be stuck with worker’s compensation, because the NCAA has tried to escape its responsibilities to athletes who’ve made such claims.

That guy is about as shameless as it gets.

3) Last night’s 30 for 30 documentary – I Hate Christian Laettner – had some interesting moments but was weak overall. Duke opponent though I am, I actually really enjoyed the basketball footage. OK, “enjoyed” is the wrong word, since I was aggravated all over again by, among other things, the worst single-play coaching decision in NCAA history, the one where then Kentucky coach Rick Pitino decided, in essence, to give Laettner an uncontested free throw line shot for the win in that 1992 game for the ages. But I certainly appreciated what a great college player Laettner was and the documentary did a good job of highlighting his quite extraordinary athleticism. That Laettner was a supreme jerk in his college days is not a surprise to anyone. But though one can’t make any real judgments about who he is today, he certainly came across as a sweet and loving father, so good for him.

But there were three things in particular I didn’t like about the documentary:

a) it was really just a more extended version of those old ESPN Top Five Reasons You Can’t Blame…(fill in the blank) programs. Those were OK, but they really didn’t merit more than the half hour they typically got. And given the very narrow frame within which Laettner’s story was told, I am not sure this merited more time than that (and the doc last night did, in fact, offer five reasons why Laettner was – ultimately unfairly – hated). I do think there were more interesting elements of the Laettner story to tell, but the filmmakers opted for the very easy and ultimately pat version of his bio. In a nutshell – he came from a blue collar background, had a great work ethic, was a terrific athlete, was really good looking, was hated for those reasons as well as because he was white, and ultimately didn’t care that he was hated, instead embracing the role of villain. Oh, and did I mention that he didn’t care and embraced the role of villain. And also that he was hated and didn’t care and, in fact, embraced the role of villain (I am trying to simulate the experience of watching the documentary, which repeated this point about 75 times in 90 minutes).

b) its treatment of race. One of the five reasons proffered for Laettner Haetting was that he was white. I think that’s true. There is an interesting dynamic in sports, especially in basketball, whereby certain kinds of white players attract particular animus. Laettner and his teammate, point guard Bobby Hurley are exhibits 1 and 1a. But others, including the late Neil Reed (whom Bob Knight famously choked in practice in 1997), 1990s Dukie gadfly Steve Wojciechowski and, at the NBA level, Bill Laimbeer got similar treatment. What was wrong-headed about the documentary was the converse suggestion that the UNLV teams of the early 1990s and then the Fab Five were deemed “cool” by all of America because black had become “in.” Whatever one can say about the mainstreaming of hip hop and other elements of black culture at around that time, it’s simply false that the overwhelmingly black Runnin’ Rebs and the all-black Fab Five were embraced by mainstream fans and sports media. Both groups of players were routinely deemed by a substantial portion of the sporting public as “thugs” whose style, attitude and very being were the ruination of college basketball and of American culture more broadly. As one small example of this off-the-mark treatment, though last night’s doc tried to pass off as the very definition of cool Michigan’s baggy shorts, these were the subject of endless condemnatory commentary. Embraced by lots of young black kids – sure. But by much of the rest of America – no way.

The larger problem here was the attempt by the documentary to cast Laettner in the role of racial underdog which, overall, is sheer nonsense.

c) the latter part of the documentary addressed rumors, circulated by some while Laettner was in college, that he and teammate Brian Davis were lovers. Indeed, one mind-blowing segment of the film last night was footage from a game in 1992 when Duke visited LSU, and Laettner was subject to loud and persistent homophobic serenading by the home crowd. One can imagine that, were such a spectacle to happen today, the PA announcer would tell the crowd that they’d have to stop and one can even imagine a threat of forfeit if they didn’t. The film then proceeded to adamantly debunk the rumor by, among other things, playing up what a stud and ladies’ man Laettner was. To the extent that the rumor-mongers at the time meant the characterization as a slur and that in 1992 such a characterization could be deemed as quite damaging to one’s public image, especially in sports, there is a justification for calling it out, either because it’s untrue or because it’s nobody’s business. But it’s a little uncomfortable when Laettner describes today how “hurt” he was by the old rumors. And when Seth Davis, on Mike and Mike this morning, felt a need to bring up the rumor again in order to assure us that Laettner is no gay man, it highlighted the problematic way the issue was handled by the film.

And if I were a Duke fan, I am sure I would have relished the opportunity to relive an incredible run in the history of college basketball.

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