splash-footballmond

I’m a big Steve Almond fan.  I think he’s one of our smartest and gutsiest writers.  His latest book, Against Football (Melville House), is surely one of the year’s most provocative titles.  Almond offers a searing analysis of America’s most popular sport, going deep where most sports writers tend to stay safely in the shallows, challenging the reader’s assumptions about what the game means, and what its massive cultural import says about our society.

Steve and I had a great conversation on my podcast1 not too long ago, and this past week I had the chance to catch up with him via email for some follow-up questions.

 Dawidoff__NicholasExplain the term “Collision Low Crosser.”

Football has its own language. This defensive term describes players, usually linebackers, making legal contact with potential pass receivers crossing the field within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Beyond five yards, collisioning someone is a penalty. Since football is a game of precise timing and geometry, the point is to disrupt the pass route by diverting the receiver. The real inspiration of the phrase is how instantly it evokes the most basic elements of the game—speed, aggression, the interplay between space and time, plans that likely won’t come to fruition, how there’s always someone out there waiting to ruin your life. I like terms that imply a fresh, strange world existing within a world that seemed previously understood. Full Metal Jacket; Zero Dark Thirty; Collision Low Crossers.

Hey guys,

So, I’ve been brainstorming. Rolling around some ideas for a possible – gawd, this sounds, I don’t know, pretentious? – television script to develop. I’ve been trying to figure out which one (ones?) to more fully flesh out. It’s a little hard to be objective about my own work, especially when the subjects are all quite diverse, and I could really use some outside input. I was hoping if you had a few minutes you could give this a read and then offer some feedback. Let me know if something’s not clear, or you think needs expanding, or tightening. Otherwise, I’m pretty confident one or more of these could be keepers. Following are a few super short synopses. I await your responses!

Me!

It has become de rigueur for writers to write essays about what their parents have done to them–those vivid, haunting moments when everything changed and a young life was damaged forever. Few people, though, tell the opposing stories, the unforgivable things that we’ve done to our parents: mom’s wedding ring dropped in the toilet and flushed; dad’s convertible wrapped around a traffic light; and worse, the disowning, that time-honored tradition of deciding in our twenties that our parents are too backassward to deserve our respect.

We make amends. We grow out of our snobbery. But what I did to my father on December 28th, 1975 was more unforgivable than any of the usual offenses.

I know there was a lot of shit going on in heaven this past weekend, what with Jesus busy preparing the Papa Hem suite for Christopher Hitchens while simultaneously arranging for Kim Jong-il’s ferry ride to hell. But the good lord totally dropped the ball on number one fan Tim Tebow, who suffered a streak-ending loss to the New England Patriots.

Full disclosure: I would bang Tim Tebow with the intensity of a thousand suns. This amuses me because I find him absurd in just about every facet of his life, from his fervent religious belief to his home schooling to his colluding with pro life organizations. But that didn’t stop me from imagining what it might be like to go on a date with him.

 

My Date with Tim Tebow

Tim Tebow would pick me up in his maroon Ford F-150 exactly five minutes before he was due. He would saunter up to my door in pressed blue jeans and a polo shirt. He’d have on some kind of mirrored sunglasses.

Tim Tebow would wear Cool Water or something similar, because Drakkar Noir sounds foreign and (he thinks) only gays wear Calvin Klein. He’d probably use too much gel in his hair, but I would overlook this because holy shit, he’s Tim Tebow.

He’d take me to a steak house and ask if I was Jewish. He would sigh with relief when I said no, but would tighten up again (albeit to lesser degree) when I informed him I was Greek.

“Aren’t Catholics, like, you know,” he’d gesture at the side of his head with his finger, “weird?”

“Oh, I’m not Catholic anymore, I’m an athei–,” I’d stutter, remembering that atheism and Tim Tebow go together like Israel and Palestine.  Then, recovering:  “I’m kind of between religions right now.”

“Well, Jesus is great,” he’d tell me, reaching across the table for my hand.

Tim Tebow would talk exclusively about football and Jesus, the topics almost interchangeable. I’d nod politely while wondering what he’d look like naked and covered in blood. (Oh shit, did I just think that? Regroup, Stacie, regroup.)

“So…” I’d say, wiping my hand over the menu. “Appetizers?”

“I can’t eat shrimp,” he’d whisper across the table. He’d then cite the corresponding biblical passage forbidding him from doing so.

We’d order the same cut of steak. I’d try to tame the typical vacuum-like configuration my mouth takes on at steak houses. He would tell me about the time he circumcised a bunch of boys in the Philippines just as I was excising a piece of gristle from my otherwise glorious cut of beef. My hands would freeze in place as I rolled my eyes up to him slowly.

“Say what now?”

He’d explain that during his stay in the Philippines the ministry his father worked for decided that the best thing for these impoverished boys would be to take knives to their peckers in the name of the lord. I’d drink some water to keep from gasping.

“Totally, totally legit,” he’d assure me.

At the end of the night I would try to pressure Tim Tebow into doing it in the cab of his F-150. He’d look uncomfortable and decline my offer.  “Come on,” I’d groan.  “Jesus doesn’t care.”

But Tebow would hold firm, removing my prying hand from his thigh and placing it gently back in my lap. He’d then invite me to bible study the following week, referring to my complete lack of morals as “worrisome.”

“Jesus is my go-to guy,” he’d explain, citing his many championships and awards, all of them won with the kind assistance of the son of god. I’d mention offhand that I always took Jesus to be a Patriots fan. Tebow’s normally placid face would then twist into a mild sneer. He’d lean across my body to open my door and suggest that we call it night.

“What about bible study?” I’d cry out as he sped away.   And then, pathetically:  “I’m a sinner!  Let’s bone!”

The rest of the night would be spent in an increasing state of drunkenness, crank-calling Tim Tebow’s cell phone, pretending to be the holy spirit. After about three tries, he’d catch on and block my number.  And that would be the end of it.   For the rest of eternity, we would never speak to each other again.

 

You’ve heard all about it, maybe more than you want to know, but to recap: Last week Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator for the Penn State football team, was charged with sexually abusing at least eight young boys over a long period of years. Since 1998, the university has been aware of accusations against Sandusky. In 2002, an assistant witnessed him anally raping a ten-year-old boy in the team’s showers. The assistant reported it to the head coach, Joe Paterno, who reported it to the Athletic Director, who reported it to his boss. No one ever reported it to the police. Sandusky was the founder of a charity designed to help boys from troubled homes, and he continued in his role of mentor until 2010.

Four days after Sandusky was arrested on November 5, the Board of Trustees asked Paterno and the university’s president to resign, effective immediately. (The athletic director and his boss are being charged with perjury and have left the university on different terms.) Enflamed at the ignominious departure of a legendary coach, “the winningest coach in college football,” thousands of students at the school rioted. They toppled a TV van; they threw things; they knocked down a lamppost onto a car.

The punditry and blogosphere also exploded, in their way, but for mostly opposite reasons. Among the outraged, a story coalesced: With so much to lose, the powers that be at one of the country’s leading Division I football programs refused to do the right thing—to report this man to the police and curtail his chance at raping others. Meanwhile, students’ worship of their team’s coach warped their perspective to such a degree that they were blind to the human suffering that had taken place. The Onion has a much forwarded satire here about the fans’ response that gets it exactly right.

Outside of Happy Valley—the name given to the town of State College and its environs—most people are furious about what’s been allowed to transpire there these last fifteen years. I share this fury, to put it mildly. As I read the grand jury testimony last Thursday at work, an emergency response alarm sounded in my brain. I have a ten-year-old son, and I was molested as a child.

I’m not a big crier, and I didn’t cry as I read, despite being hit with waves of impotent rage and grief. But I had a very physical response. Electric shocks pulsed through me. I felt like Donald Sutherland in the 1970s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers—the same pointing finger and rhythmic cry. Stop him. Stop him. Stop them. Stop it. Warning. Warning. Stop.

My impulse to stop that man, to stop those acts from occurring, was as automatic as the urge to sneeze, to defecate, to cough. My inability to act on it caused the same violent physical reaction as would fighting the need to vomit. I was wracked with tension. I was shaking. I experienced an overall bodily crisis.

I wanted to stop the acts from occurring. But I also wanted the inputs to cease. The images. Stop it. Stop it. Stop reading. Stop thinking. Don’t go there. Don’t go. No.

Society views child sexual abuse as the most monstrous of crimes, a pure evil. It’s general knowledge that child sex offenders are pariahs in prison, labeled as subhuman by even the most deviant and violent among us and brutally raped, ostracized, terrorized. The reactions to the news from Penn State support this view. ESPN columnist Rick Riley writes, “The horror of it makes you want to punch someone.” He takes some small comfort, though, in the ravaging Sandusky is likely to endure:  “If all these charges turn out to be true . . . Sandusky will . . . be going to prison—a place where, with any luck, [he] will feel most unwelcome.” Many comments describe the damage the writers would like to wreak upon the rapist with their own hands. The assistant who witnessed the rape and who has not been asked to step down couldn’t be present at Sunday’s game because he received so many threats.

How could he? we wonder. How could they? How could someone look upon the rape of a child and turn away?

For answers, many have turned to Division 1 sports in general, and the rabidity of Penn State football culture in particular.

I’m from western Pennsylvania, and I know this football fever first hand. My own small town worshiped the game in all forms. It was a miniature, rust-belt version of Friday Night Lights’ Dillon, and as such, no different from all the other little towns dotting the hills and valleys in our half of the state. The mood of whole swaths of the population, not to mention the economy, turned on the fate of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The first time I visited Penn State’s campus, I was taken aback by the proliferation of life-sized Joe Paterno imagery. Like the portrait of a desert dictator, his visage was everywhere: in restaurants, bars, shop windows, office cubicles, sidewalks, dorm rooms. He saw all. He was all.

I was affected by the omnipotence of football. My first published story was set around a high school field. And part of me feels almost vindicated by the spotlight now shining down unfavorably upon my region. See? I didn’t make it up. The view really is that distorted. A sport really is the most defining and important thing.

And yet, every time the Penn State football program is mentioned as the cause of men turning a blind eye to the assault of children, I bristle. I feel this obfuscates the larger issue.

It’s the football program, yes, but it’s also the Catholic Church.

It’s hierarchical organizations like football programs and the Catholic Church, yes, but it’s also our families.

When we read about them, or learn about them, or watch them paraded into a prison yard with a sign around their neck, child sex abuse offenders are clearly monsters.  I think of Ronald McGorvey in Tom Perrotta’s novella Little Children—pale, weak-chinned, acne-scarred.  He shows up at the town pool wearing an ugly bathing suit, and everyone clears out of the water, moms grab their kids and clutch them to their bosoms.

At the term child molester, a common image leaps to mind—it’s that creepy guy with sickly white skin, that pocket puller wearing a thin poly-blend button-down shirt and bad glasses. As a matter of fact, one summer when I was in elementary school and playing with a friend in a near-empty building on the college campus where my dad taught, a guy who fit this description exactly followed us around for a while before cornering me and grabbing my crotch. When my friend’s dad came to pick us up soon after, we told him what had happened, and, catching a glance of the man, the dad chased him out the door and down the street. When we got home, we called the police. Everyone took me very seriously. Eventually, the guy was charged with assaulting a girl in a municipal parking lot.

But he wasn’t the one who molested me. That encounter was an anomaly. Approximately one of ten kids who are sexually assaulted don’t know the offender. Ninety percent of the time, children are sexually abused by someone close—an authority figure, a friend, a family member.

In real life, child abusers are often people who we love. Who we respect. Who we trust. Or who at the very least are part of the tightly woven fabric of our daily lives. And it’s very difficult to make a quick shift in perspective, from one view to another diametrically opposed: This person I know so well, care about, work with? This very normal person—maybe even handsomer than most, kinder, more successful . . . . How can he (or she, but usually he) be evil incarnate? If we see signs, we can’t quite recognize them. The pieces don’t come into focus as a readable whole. When someone steps forward with an experience or suspicion, he or she is often met with confusion or hesitation if not outright disbelief.

Let me just say here that of course I think the university president and Joe Paterno should be fired.

But I also, generally, shy away from absolutism. I hold in high esteem the ability, the willingness, to look at both sides, to examine complexity. The simplicity of slogans—“Get a job!” “Love it or leave it!” “Just say no!”—drive me insane, and I vigilantly guard against people being judged prematurely. Someone who seemed weird, or gay, or different raised a big red flag in my hometown. They evoked a loud “ew” from the short-skirted girls cheering in unison; they flew in the face of the single, rumbled “let’s go” arising from the huddle. You tell me someone’s “different,”—a barely veiled insult in western Pennsylvania— and I’m going to try to befriend or defend that person.

My son’s chess coach was a little weird, but the kids loved him and we parents liked him pretty well too. He gave so much of himself. He got our kids enthusiastic about playing a thoughtful game that didn’t involve a screen. When he made an inappropriate overture to a child at a hotel where the state tournament was held, the parents who caught wind told the principal, who told the superintendent and informed the police. The coach was let go. The children cried. I’m enormously grateful that the administration was so confident in their actions, because I have to confess that I wasn’t, quite. I was frozen. And some other parents didn’t agree with the course of events at all. They thought it was too much. That the coach should have been granted a warning.

It’s very typical for well-meaning people to say: Are you sure? Am I sure? Did I really see that? To say: But I’m not clear on what really happened. To say, anyone can be misinterpreted or make one mistake. I think this is what thoughtful people often do. And people who are scared. And people who have a lot to lose.

And, also, people who just, simply, refuse to let this into their lives: No no no no no. Stop. No more inputs.

The very monstrousness of the crime is what keeps us from recognizing it. Our horror in its face turns us away.

And no, that’s not brave or moral. And of course witnessing a rape, hearing an account of the rape of a child from an eyewitness, is far different from hearing about an inappropriate invitation to enter a hotel room with a grown-up. But child sex abuse is an ultimate horror that also exists on a continuum.

In one part of my brain the alarm is still going off. This is very personal for me. In another part, I’m equally horrified, but … somehow … I understand what keeps people from acting resolutely

Sometimes I get panicky that I’m not doing enough to arm my children. I’m not overly protective. The older one is starting to bike around town on his own.

“You know if anyone touches you inappropriately that you should tell your dad or me,” I remind him. I don’t think he’s listening. “If someone touches you around your penis or butt, that’s inappropriate. You know that, right? But any other kind of touch or even comment that makes you feel uncomfortable, let us know.” He’s still not listening. I wanted “penis” and “butt” to grab him, but I think it embarrassed him and turned him off, instead.

“It happened to me, when I was about your age,” I say. This gets his attention. I tell him the story of the man who groped me. He’s takes it all in, listening closely.

“You can trust most grown-ups, but not all of them.”

I don’t tell him the other story about myself. The one that’s longer, harder, more complicated.

Don’t let anyone touch you. Don’t let anyone touch you.

We all let people touch us, though. We have to. We’re human.

My heart goes out. It will be upturned like the news van. And stomped on like a car roof.

My heart goes out.

Our deepest animal nature urges us to protect our children. There is something in our human nature—some good things, too—that can make it difficult to act on this primal need.

 

On weekends, my friends and I play pickup tackle football. Coop is the only younger kid who is allowed to play with us because he’s tough enough to compete with the older boys. By his junior year, colleges will begin recruiting him to play defensive back.

One Saturday, my father plays too. My friends and I are excited to see how he mixes it up. We’re fifteen. He’s forty-five but still in excellent shape, and we want to see if we can hit like him, hit as hard as an NCAA Division I athlete. None of us have played college sports yet.

Our two teams trade touchdowns without me going head-to-head against my father. Then my team kicks off, and the ball rolls right up to him. I shade to his side and come sprinting down, imagining that I’ll lay a vicious blow, imagining my father ripped off his feet, thrown wickedly to the ground. But he doesn’t pick up the ball, and I slow down. He steps forward and lets it roll between his legs. Slowly. The game stops as he stands over it.

I’m in front of him. “Pick up the ball, Dad.

“No,” he grins, “you can down it.”

We both hesitate. The ball is between his legs. Sitting there.

The game is live but we’re both standing still, waiting over the untouched ball.

“Come on, Dad. Pick it up.”

“No. Go ahead and down it.”

I’m confused, but I shrug and lean down to reach the ball.

My father bends with me, slowly, then tenses and swings his forearm like a short axe. I don’t have time to get out of the way. My nose snaps and lodges underneath my right eye. The hit takes me off my feet, lays me on the ground. I blink. Lying on my back. My nose opens and the blood spouts over my mouth, choking me, then off the side of my face. I stand up. The blood runs down the front of my white shirt like abstract art.

My father jumps toward me and I step back wobbling. He’s pointing and laughing and ready to block but I don’t make contact with him. Coop picks up the ball and runs off to the left. All my friends stop playing as Coop runs for an uncontested touchdown.

My father yells, “I broke your nose! I broke your nose!” He’s laughing so hard that he’s hyperventilating. He jogs down the field following Cooper.

My friend Doige says, “Man, that was fucked up.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

My father jogs back. “Want me to set it?”

My friends laugh at the ridiculous scene.

“I guess.”

My father sets my nose at mid-field. “You’re going to feel a lot of pressure, Pete.” He works his thumb left to right. My septum slowly moves out from underneath my eye. He puts his right thumb opposite. Counterpresses and wiggles. Counterpresses again. He shakes his head. “You should’ve seen your face when I hit you. You were so surprised.”

He’s still smiling.

My friends shake their heads.

We keep playing. The blood on my shirt dries to a starch. When I run hard, red mist comes out of my nose.

After the game, my father buys all us ice cream at a shop two blocks away. The girl behind the counter looks uncomfortable as I pick my flavor. My shirt has a two-foot peninsula of blood down the front and my right eye is swelling shut.

I’m a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. A fair weather one—I don’t start paying much attention until the playoffs—but lifelong, and when I give my attention to a game, I’m there all the way. My body reacts as if it’s the one straining and slamming. My tape measure’s out—just ram your shoulders forward one . . . more . . . yard. My mind spits questions about players’ mental states. It’s cathartic to get that far out of myself. So goddamn it I was angry at Ben Roethlisberger when the grumblings about his sexual assault charges started up again around playoff time. Why you killing my buzz, Ben?

I sought only the most basic information before turning away—a bar in Georgia, a bathroom, a college student, a lot of alcohol and a raft of bodyguards who might or might not have blocked a door, but charges were dropped, just as they’d been the year before when an incident had been reported in Nevada. And what was that one about again? Oh, never mind.

On the one hand, my hesitation was characteristic: I don’t follow celebrity scandals; I’ve clicked not a link about Charlie Sheen. On the other hand, I do tend to get obsessive about sexual assault stories that don’t involve the NFL. There was the dust-up when Keith Oberman and Michael Moore appeared to shrug off the rape allegations against Julian Assange. There was the gang rape of a fifteen-year-old girl outside her school homecoming dance. For these events and others, my initial reluctance—because who wants to spend their days thinking about rape?—gave way to frenzied clicking. I read everything I could get my hands on, hunted down small news items, scrolled through hundreds of comments in an effort to understand or to bear witness, I wasn’t sure which, and I got angry and brittle and nauseated in the process. I’m a woman who’s broken a lot of rules in the course of pursuing independence and played closely by a lot of others because I’ve been aware of how vulnerable that made me. I’m a woman who’s been afraid. The discussion around assault—especially of the she’s-lying or she-was-asking-for-it variety, and they’re almost all of that variety—can make my heart shake as if even now I were walking down a dark street or laying awake in a bed where I had chosen to sleep alone behind flimsily locked doors after talking too long to, or maybe just strolling past, a man. I’ve never been raped, but I’ve asked myself again and again whether that’s because I’ve been smart, or lucky.

To compensate for my own ill-informed unease about Roethlisberger, I gave loud voice to complaints about him at the dinner table. I wanted a pound of flesh from my husband—there’s nothing fair weather about his fandom—and I wanted, mostly I wanted, him to let me off the hook. And that’s what he did.

Football players are assholes, he said. The Nevada thing always looked really shaky, and the Georgia charges . . . it’s hard to say, but they were dropped a year ago. He was suspended for them. But he’s an asshole. The Rooneys are on him. The fans are off him. You don’t see many Roethlisberger jerseys anymore. It’s all Palamalou.

Troy Palamalu. A soft-spoken, philanthropic family man. Have you seen his beautiful hair flying like a badge of all that’s noble as he sails across a whole line to hold them at the two? It’s all well and good for feminists who don’t like football to call for a ban, but for those of us who do, can’t we watch it with our eyes open? And the Nevada charges—those ones at least—they were pretty thin. Women do go bat shit over celebrities.

Friends of ours came over for dinner this playoff season—Packers fans and fellow flag-football coaches. The Roethlisberger thing came up (guess who couldn’t quit picking that scab?) and we got into the discussion of what it must be like to be these guys. We talked about the aura that surrounds even the fourth grade football star at our kids’ school. The way a lifetime of such intense grooming and fawning and pressure—not the mention the blows to the head—must mutate players’ sense of self long before they make it to the pros, the way their career affects everyone around them. Of course they’re assholes. They’d have to be almost superhuman—like Troy Palamalu—not to be.

I like to swim in the grey area of almost any dirty pool, and when my friend posed the question of why the hell would a girl go into a bathroom with big, drunk Ben Roethlisberger, I was up for some discussion about how stupid women can be, especially when it comes to the mix of fame and men and money. (For the record, I’ve done some more clicking as I’ve been writing this, and it’s not at all clear that the Georgia accuser agreed to go into a bathroom with Roethlisberger.) We talked about our culture, how sexed up it is, how even clothes for little girls are provocative. How at four years old girls are already wearing short shorts with writing across the butt when they should be wearing smock dresses until they’re ten. But when I caught myself nodding as if there were some causal link between the selection in the Target girls’ department and rape culture, I took a few steps back.

Being stupid doesn’t mean that a woman deserves to get raped, I said.

No. It doesn’t, my friend agreed. And we were quiet for a moment. The men in the room had been quiet for a while.

Then my friend, who’s from Green Bay, ventured that Packers players couldn’t get away with such boorish behavior. Their coach is very religious; they live in such a small town; they all go to same churches as everyone else.

Maybe you’re right, I said doubtfully. Maybe she’s right, I thought, and I tried to kindle a flicker of hope. And then I thought about all the preachers and priests accused of sexual abuse and the statistics about how the states with the highest number of churchgoers are also those with the highest pornography usage, and I wondered about what keeps anyone clean when rules don’t seem to apply to them, and I wondered why we need so many rules, and why rule-followers themselves buck so hard against the laws they lay down. What is our nature?

Just a few days after the dinner, my eye alighted on news item recounting allegations of sexual misconduct against members of the Packers. They’d been participating in a charity golf tournament in the Wisconsin Dells, land of family water parks and theme restaurants, when two women claimed to have been raped by them. Charges were dropped after the women changed their initial story, although the consensus seems to be that sex of some kind was had.

I didn’t forward the link to my friend. I was fighting my told-you-so obnoxiousness, but I also understood all too well her impulse to give her players the benefit of the doubt—most of us want to think we’re exempt. The world’s going to hell, but not my country, not my congressmen, not my neighborhood, not my man, my men, my boy, my boys.

To function fully, we almost have to believe that. When the story of the fifteen-year-old girl’s gang rape broke, about one out of every four or five commenters in the local paper lambasted the victim for having gone into the school’s darkened courtyard with her classmate in the first place, which is where the attack took place. What kind of girl goes off to imbibe alcohol alone with a boy? But what kind of world do we live in when a high school student is supposed to look around her classroom and see every male in it as a potential rapist? In my fits of compulsively searching for information about sexual assault, I’ve read about various universities whose rape prevention programs consist mostly of cautioning women to watch each others’ drinks when they’re at parties and to never walk alone at night or deviate from the campus’s blue-lighted paths. What kind of culture expects women to socialize in environments where they’re so likely to be drugged they have to keep their hand over their cup as they talk to a guy with whom they might be hoping to get lucky? We have to believe that the attitude that gives rise to the gang rape of a school girl, that accepts running rough shod over a woman’s hesitation as if any kind of resistance is a linebacker blocking a first down, is one that doesn’t permeate our own immediate world, where we work and play and fuck and fall in love and raise our daughters and sons.

Green Bay beat The Steelers in last months’ Super Bowl, of course, so news feeds are no longer flashing as many updates about players’ sexual misconduct. But the Roethlisberger issue’s been on my mind because I’ve been fixated on the recent story of the eleven-year-old girl gang raped in Texas by eighteen men and boys and by the outrage over The New York Times’ reporting of it. The backlash against the Times concerns its framing of the story, and in the debate about whether the writer is blaming the victim or just reporting on locals who are, here’s an oft-mentioned quote:

“Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.”

I’ve read so much about the incident in the past week that even if I could formulate some insightful thoughts, it’d be hard for me to write about my reactions without inadvertently plagiarizing. Still, I have to say this: So, according to some of the town’s residents, the girl dressed like a woman in her twenties. That makes it understandable that boys and men would gang rape her? Because it’s OK to gang rape twenty year olds? Because it’s . . . what?

She was eleven.

Yeah, I’m not ready to write about it.

But I’ve been staring at the train wreck since the article appeared. The people quoted are distancing themselves from the girl—she’s not like my daughter; I’m not like her mother—and sympathizing with their favorite team—their sons, friends, students. I don’t want to narrowly equate dropped charges against some NFL players with the documented gang rape of a child, but the two things are on the same continuum. I see them as part of the same lesson to be studied about people’s—my—reaction to things we don’t want to believe.

I had a dream when I was in college that’s recurred in various forms since. I was in a bedroom of a house, and I knew that in the next room a woman was being raped. Instead of bursting through the door and trying to disrupt the crime, I went downstairs, where a party was raging, and shrilly tried to rally a group of men to go up and into the room with me. Hysterical, I physically tried to push the men up the stairs when they weren’t moving fast enough, but I remember staying firmly behind the broad back I had my hands on. I remember being glad a guy was in front of me. When I recounted the dream to a friend, she said: I think many men give tacit approval to rape, and that’s what you were responding to. I was relieved at her analysis, which took a page from the women’s studies classes we were both enrolled in, but I felt it was off. My biggest sense upon awakening was that I had failed to some extent, that under the guise of rallying help, I’d been mostly self-protective.

We have to all work together on this one, though: How about we teach boys not to rape? How about we acknowledge that, yeah, you know what, life does have a lot of grey areas. We should talk about those. And if you have your penis out and something looks like a grey area? Guess what. It’s probably not one.

Last night, when my son’s eye caught on an article about the Roethlisberger accusations that I had open on my computer, I slapped my laptop’s cover down: That’s not for you to read, I said.

My son is nine, which I feel is too young for this discussion.

And that girl is fucking eleven.

* * *

If you want more discussion on the Texas rape and the media response, Jezebel’s covered the whole thing well, starting here.

Roxane Gay has an impassioned response at The Rumpus.

 

Recently I’ve been corresponding with a man on death row. I work for a newspaper which covers sports at the Ohio State University, the main focus being football and the continuing endeavors of the OSU Buckeyes. The condemned man who wrote to us is a self-described “displaced Buckeye” in a Florida prison. He wanted to know if he qualified for a subscription discount as his funds were “limited.”

Dear Dust

 

I was just reading about how that guy on FOX, Tucker Carlson, said that he thought Michael Vick should “have been executed,” for his role in the whole dog-fighting thing. Carlson then goes on to hammer Obama for saying Vick deserves a second chance. I’m an animal lover, so for a long time I hated Vick, too. But I do think people can learn and change. Our society tends to want to throw away what’s uncomfortable instead of dealing with it. What do you think?

 

Lassie

This is a continuation of a series of personal observations about my native country on its golden jubilee. For items 1-16, please see part 1. For items 17-32, see part 2. In this final installment I include a few observations I’ve culled from my father’s memoir of his life in Nigeria and abroad “Seeing the World in Black & White.” (SWBW) (AWP, 2006)¹

33. Modern Nigerian literature, ever vibrant, is certainly on the up. Young as it is Nigeria has already had an early generation of great writers, household names such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, not to mention the likes of Cyprian Ekwensi, Amos Tutuola, Christopher Okigbo, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, and even the prolific pulp novelist Dan Fulani. It’s almost too much to ask for more, but as it happens, we have much, much more with new generations exploding on to the scene, including poets Chris Abani, Uche Nduka, Olu Oguibe and lesser known contemporaries such as Chinweizu. But the real earthquake manifests in novel form, with the emergence of the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helen Oyeyemi, Sefi Atta, and Nnedi Okorafor. I can’t pass without a word for the recently deceased poet and playwright Esiaba Irobi. One of the neat aspects of these 21st century blossoms is that so many of them are young women.

As we all know, everyone in Europe loves football. However, during the World Cup everyone in America has been more interested in where James LeBron (the brother of Duran Duran frontman Simon) is going to be hitting home runs next year, and as such, they missed most of the tournament.

For those of you in that crowd, here’s a team-by-team look at the nineteenth World Cup, so that if you bump into any weird European types you’ll be able to talk to them…


ALGERIA

Algeria contributed very little to this World Cup. They failed to score a single goal, got voted the ugliest team at the tournament by the website beautifulpeople.com, and lost to Slovenia and the USA.

However, they did contribute something: the most boring game of football ever played. In their Group C match against England they managed a 0-0 draw notable for its complete lack of incident— the game was so devoid of action that a bird spent a period of the game perched peacefully on top of Algeria’s goal.


ARGENTINA

What the Argentines brought to the World Cup was sheer comedy value and one of the most surprising comebacks in football history.

In 1986 Diego Maradona was a World Cup winner and had eclipsed Pele as the greatest player of all time. Later on he became a cocaine addict… and then he became really fat… and in 2006 he almost died of a heart condition. For some reason he was then given the job of managing Argentina.

Argentina did well, but Maradona was the star of their World Cup— watch his eyes, and never, ever question his sexuality


AUSTRALIA

They won their last game, apparently.


BRAZIL

Brazil were pretty disappointing; they abandoned their traditional attacking style for something more defensive. They only got as far as the quarter finals and most of their goals were pretty unspectacular. The only really highlight of their World Cup was the goal scored by Maicon in their opening game against North Korea.


CAMEROON

In 1990 Cameroon were the first ever African side to reach the quarterfinals. In 2010 they were the first team to be knocked out. There were literally no highlights— three defeats and only two goals.


CHILE

Somehow, despite winning two games, Chile didn’t really leave much of an impression. They got to the second round, but then lost to Brazil.


DENMARK

Denmark won one game— against Cameroon. They lost to both the Netherlands and Japan. This means their highlight is either beating Cameroon or the hilarious own goal they conceded against the Netherlands…


ENGLAND

It was all pretty bad for the English— beginning with an embarrassing 1-1 defeat to the USA and ending in an actual defeat to the Germans.


FRANCE

France came to the tournament hated by everyone because they cheated to get to the World Cup. They were then rocked by the revelation that star player Frank Ribery had slept with a prostitute— not just any old prostitute, but an underage prostitute.

In a move guaranteed to amplify his robust authority, the manager, Raymond Domenech, announced he was quitting after the World Cup.  He then sent Nicolas Anelka home following an argument, and the rest of the team refused to train. In the last game, several players, including the captain, refused to play.

Every moment of the French World Cup was a highlight.


GERMANY

Germany were pretty much the only side to play with any real attacking flair. They were a joy to watch, and introduced many exciting players onto the world stage— players such as Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller.

There were many highlights for the Germans, and they ultimately won the third-place playoff against Uruguay.  They notched up impressive wins over Argentina, England and Australia, scoring four goals in each. Their best performance was against Maradona’s Argentina, although the victory against England was perhaps the most resounding and most satisfying.


GHANA

Ghana’s defining moment was when they became the first African nation to reach the World Cup semifinals. Well, that should have been their defining moment, were it not for the disgraceful actions of Luis Suarez, who stopped the ball going in with his hands.

Against Uruguay Ghana were the last African team in the tournament and had the whole of Africa—and most of the world— behind them. They were very, very impressive; they beat a good USA side and really, really should have beaten Uruguay.

That should have been their highlight, but I’m giving it to the victory over the USA instead— a glorious achievement and a joyous moment for Africa.


GREECE

Greece were unremarkable— other than beating Nigeria, 2-1, they were essentially making up the numbers.


HONDURAS

Their real highlight was just making it to the tournament proper. Only a few of their players are professionals, and it showed.


ITALY

For only the second time in history the reigning champions failed to get past the group stage. They didn’t really deserve to win the World Cup in 2006 and they were shockingly bad in South Africa. They fucked over almost every single person who’d bet on the World Cup by failing to beat New Zealand, Paraguay and Slovakia.


IVORY COAST

The Ivory Coast had a disappointing tournament. Their only real highlight was their victory over North Korea—or, if you’re reading this in North Korea, their humiliating defeat to the glorious footballing nation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.


JAPAN

They got to the second round, so I imagine they probably won at least one game…


MEXICO

Mexico were quite good. They also had strikers with rhyming names in Franco and Blanco. They beat France, ruined the opening game for the host nation and reached the second round.

However, the true highlight of their World Cup was the revelation that their thirty-eight year old striker, Blanco, was going out with the eighteen year old Miss Mexico. Ay carumba.


NETHERLANDS

The Dutch won every game in qualifying, in their group, and every game up until the final itself.

None of this matters; the 2010 Dutch team will forever be remembered for karate-kicking a Spanish player and pretty much getting away with it. In 1974 the Netherlands invented ‘total football’ which was a beautiful attacking style. They got to two successive World Cup finals in 1974 and 1978. They lost both, and presumably it was because of this that they decided to play like Leyton Orient on a waterlogged Wednesday night league game against Barnsley.


NEW ZEALAND

Like Honduras, many of New Zealand’s players were semi-professional. One of their players actually had to ask for time off from the bank where he worked in order to play. I love the thought of him telling his manager that he needed to go to South Africa for ‘anytime between two to four weeks. It probably won’t be four weeks…’

New Zealand were glorious. They drew with Paraguay, Italy and Slovakia. They failed to make it out of the group, but they were the only team to go unbeaten at the World Cup.

Although their result against Italy is probably the most impressive, I think their highlight was the draw with Slovakia due to the late and dramatic manner in which they got the result.


NIGERIA

It didn’t matter what Nigeria did in this World Cup, they were always going to  be remembered for this incredible display of incompetence…

It didn’t get much better for them either…


NORTH KOREA

They lost all of their games—they lost to Portugal 7-0. However, they did score against Brazil—they lost, but they scored against bloody Brazil! Kim Jong-Il was so impressed he decided not to kill any of the players or their families. Seriously.


PARAGUAY

The fact that they got to the quarterfinals says more about the quality of this tournament than two thousand lighthearted, humorous words ever could. Succeeding through a couple of draws, a narrow win and a shootout victory after a goal-free 120 minutes, they finally got knocked out by Spain.

Their highlight? Not letting their astounding mediocrity get in the way of their attempt to ruin the World Cup for everyone else.


PORTUGAL

It didn’t get much better than the 7-0 win over North Korea. In fact that was the only game they actually won or scored in. They drew both of their other games, 0-0.


SERBIA

They beat Germany thanks to some awful refereeing. It wasn’t a surprise, because Paul the Pyschic Octopus predicted it would happen. Other than that it wasn’t great to be a Serbia fan during this World Cup.


SLOVAKIA

Does it get any better than beating the reigning World Champions with a thrilling last minute goal? I mean, for a country that has absolutely no chance of getting beyond the second round…


SLOVENIA

Beating Algeria was about as good as it got, and even that wasn’t very good.


SOUTH AFRICA

Unfortunately their highlight was probably Tshabalala’s goal in the opening game of the tournament. They drew that game and went out at the group stage. However, their lasting impression will probably be the way they came out of the tunnel—singing loudly and joyously.


SOUTH KOREA

‘Highlight’ is probably too strong a word to describe their second goal against Greece. It would be harsh to label them as unmemorable, but it would be accurate.


SPAIN

They lost to Switzerland, and didn’t exactly set the tournament on fire. I was one of the few people who found their stupid little passes incredibly irritating and frustrating to watch.

They won every game in the knock-out stage, 1-0.

This does of course mean that they won the World Cup. This would be their defining moment—in the only World Cup in which they’ve gone beyond the quarterfinals.


SWITZERLAND

The best moment of Switzerland’s World Cup was beating the Spanish in their opening game. It would be unfair to say it all went downhill from there, but it was the only goal they managed in the entire tournament.


URUGUAY

The small South American nation punched well above its weight and had their best tournament since the two that they won in the 1930 and 1950.

Much of the success goes to Diego Forlan, voted the player of the tournament. Everyone loved Forlan, and everyone loved Uruguay—that is, right up until the point Luis Suarez robbed Ghana of their place in history. Even more annoyingly, Suarez then openly celebrated when Ghana missed the resulting penalty.


USA

The U.S. had a fantastic World Cup; they were unfortunate not to beat Ghana in the second round, and they demonstrated what those of us who watched the Confederations Cup last year already knew: America are a footballing force to be reckoned with.

The draw with England was impressive, but for sheer drama the highlight has to be Landon Donavon’s stoppage time goal against Algeria.



All I can do as a European is apologise and promise that usually football is much, much more exciting than this. Honest.



I could start off by saying I was a shy kid and I liked books more than people and my dad was a rough oilfield man and blah blah blah, woe is me, and now I’m a writer and everything is all better.

The reality is I was shy and I’m not sure why, because inside I felt I could soar as high as the sky if only someone would pay attention to me.

Like in the sixth grade I could stand in my back yard and make fifty straight free throws, but I was barely five feet tall and my feet were already bigger than my dad’s and I didn’t move around very well. Which is why on the playground no one passed the basketball to me and when they finally did I was so surprised I didn’t know what to do with it. Six years later I would make fifteen three-pointers in a single game on the way to 51 total points, but obviously in the sixth grade no one knew that.

On many sunset evenings I would run pass patterns in the front yard and my dad would throw the football to me over and over until I never let it hit the ground. “If you can touch it you can catch it,” he would say. But at school I was short and slow on my clown feet and no one would throw me the ball. The only time they did I scored a touchdown, but somehow no one ever remembered that.

If I had known it was possible I would have sold my soul to be Keith. Keith was the fastest human in our school and possibly the entire city of elementary schools, and like Superman he could score a touchdown every time he touched the ball. He could pour shots into the hoop like Magic Johnson. He could destroy you in kickball, in foursquare, in anything. All I wanted in the world was to be like him.

The situation was different in the classroom. In there I was dominant, or rather co-dominant along with my friend Kevin. It didn’t matter what subject it was, the two of us always finished projects first and tests first and read the assigned chapter first and then sat around wondering what was taking everyone else so long. If there had been teams to pick, we would have been captains, and if there had been a ball to hog, it would have been ours. If you scored lower than the 99th percentile in any subject on the CAT test, you melted from the scorching shame.

I wanted to believe I had a leg up on Kevin because we made the same grades but I was more social than him. Or not so much social as wanted to be social. I was shy but I didn’t want to be shy. Kevin was a vastly different animal. He didn’t listen to music. He didn’t like girls. I had a huge crush on this girl named Gigi ever since I saw her on the cafeteria stage dancing to Billy Joel. She had brown hair and green eyes and put her hands on her side-thrust hips when she talked to you. She had attitude. I knew she wanted to go around with me but that attitude was intimidating so I never asked her. Still, I talked to her every day while Kevin read the extra credit chapter. When I asked him why didn’t he listen to music or talk to girls, he would say, “A Jedi craves not these things.”

As much as I wanted it, I knew I didn’t really have a leg up on Kevin. He was just as smart as me. For that matter, Keith’s grades were almost as good as ours. And even though we were all close friends, along with Jason and Butch and plenty of others in the neighborhood, there was an unspoken pecking order. Keith, being both smart and athletic, was unquestionably at the top. Jason lived in Country Club so he had votes for second place, as did Butch, who was friends with all the girls and whose parents were cool enough to own a Datsun 280ZX. Kevin and I were a bit lower, but to be honest everything below Keith was kind of hazy, and one big victory could propel any of us skyward. And finally in the middle of the sixth grade I found my chance: the Spelling Bee.

One of my mom’s favorite stories is how I took to reading at an early age. I was prone to picking up books and trying to figure out what they meant and learned my ABCs when I was three. By the time I started kindergarten I was already reading, or so the story goes, and my mom always gets a twinkle in her eye when she tells that part.

So it was understood by everyone in our class that I would win the school Spelling Bee. It wasn’t in doubt. The bigger question was if I would win the city and regional competitions and go onto the national finals. I was that good.

Every afternoon, in the days leading up to the Bee, my mom picked up Words of the Champions and grilled me for hours. We spent little time with the first round words because I could spell those in my sleep. The grunt work was in the second round words, and third round words were for heavy lifters. School Bees, we understood, rarely made it to the third round words, but we studied them anyway. The word we loved the most was dirigisme, which I’ve never forgotten how to spell, though I never knew what it meant until just this year.

On the day of the school Spelling Bee, everyone congratulated me ahead of time. Keith especially had little doubt. “You got this, man,” he would say. He knew what a star looked like because he was always that guy on the field. But today was my day and that cafeteria stage was my field, my court, my 18th hole green.

My mom and I suffered through a mostly contentious relationship back then. It was rare to see her smile, but this day was different. She knew how much work we had put in and was ready to see it pay off. There were maybe thirty of us kids who filed on stage and found our chairs. I looked out at the crowd, seventy-five parents and teachers, and found my mom among them. She smiled. I knew this time, finally, I would make her proud. I couldn’t wait for the Bee to begin.

Especially when the emcee of the event announced that this year’s competition would consist of only first round words. I never found out why. But as murmurs and whispers passed over the crowd, I became even more confident. First round words were for babies.

As I said I was a shy kid, so when it was my turn to approach the microphone my heart was galloping in my chest. But the training paid off. I easily knew how to spell that first word and plenty of words after, and gradually the number of kids on the stage dwindled. Every time someone made a mistake, the emcee would ring a bell, like the kind you touch when you’re waiting at a counter.

Ding!

That tinny ring was the sound of death.

Eventually there were only four or five of us left. I was one. Kevin was one. Keith was one. Every time I answered another word correctly, Keith would give a knowing nod, silently cheering me on. Upon each visit to the microphone I had become more emboldened and was beginning to enjoy the home stretch. My victory lap. This is what it feels like to not be scared all the time, I thought. Finally. Because even though I had always been too shy to ever tell anyone, I knew one day I would overcome my fear and show my real self to the world. This day was the first step. The next could be the city Spelling Bee, and who knew what might happen after that?

I approached the microphone. I could see my mom in the audience. My heart was no longer galloping. The emcee read a word and I knew it immediately, another baby word. She read the word to me and somehow I thought of green stalks reaching toward the sky, of cobs spilling forth from them, I thought of that darkish yellow color you see in the 64-pack of crayons, the one with the sharpener in the back. The word rhymed with haze and blaze and faze and raze, but I wasn’t about to be fooled, because no word in the Bee could possibly be that easy. After all those hours of studying there was no way I would be presented with a word of only four letters, so rather than be outsmarted I confidently spelled the word I saw in my head, a word with five letters, a word like this:

D-A-I-Z-E

I was already walking back to my seat when I heard the sound, the death sound.

Ding!

I looked into the crowd and found my mother and the look of anguish was almost too much to take. I left the stage and lurched toward a seat below, my head swimming, fuzzy, barely able to see anything because I was in a daze.

Daze.

Daze.

Daze.

It only occurred to me later that I could have asked for a definition because “daze” is a homophone that shares its sound with the word “days.” Had I asked for a definition I would have immediately known how to spell it, because of course I knew what “daze” meant. I don’t know what the hell I thought “daize” was. All I know is I was too confident and too proud, I was looking to run before I first caught the ball, so I heard “daze” and I thought “maize” and I did not win the Spelling Bee.

My mom was gracious and consoled me even though I didn’t win. My friends were kind enough about it. Everyone was kind. But I knew, like they all knew, that I had blown my chance to win, had blown my chance to climb higher in the pecking order, and it was a bitter pill I could not swallow for a long time afterward.

I don’t remember what the winning word was, or how he fared in the city Bee, but I do remember Keith looking at me with a half grin on his face, almost embarrassed to be the last man standing in this long walk, the winner again, and me barely able to see him, my head lost in a white, shapeless daze.

* * *

P.S. Here’s a school photo of us. This is from second grade, not sixth, so we’re all a bit younger and shorter and perhaps more awkward. But at least you get the idea.

Super Bowl Sunday. February 7, 2010, 2:00 p.m.

If the hereafter has a switchboard, it’s jammed today.

There are prayers going out to the saints, for the New Orleans Saints. St. Jude might be getting a break this afternoon. He heard pleas for four decades, I’ll bet, for that lost cause of a football team.

My own grandfather requested divine intervention for his home team, year after year. Some weekends, I sat within earshot of him and my uncles as they shouted and prayed. Lord, the noise! Dear Blessed Mother, the fumbles and fouls! In my smart-mouthed youth, I might have asked aloud why they continued to cheer every season for such losers. I am almost certain I, too, muttered the slur, The Ain’ts. All involved, please accept my apology.

TNB Headquarters could not be more excited about this year’s Superbowl.

That’s not entirely true.  We could be more excited for plenty of reasons.  One of them would be if there actually were a TNB Headquarters.  Especially if it was someplace cool, like New Orleans, or Branson, MO.

But, while there are plenty of things more exciting, the game promises to be a good one.  For the first time in a decade, the Superbowl is a match-up of the two top seeds in each conference — the Indianapolis Colts, representing the AFC, and the NFC’s Saints, from the aforementioned Big Easy.  And both teams have offenses that sportswriters often describe as “high-voltage,” which is a fancy way of saying “electric,” which is a fancy way of saying “good.”