Sunday, September 11, 2011

Forgetting September 11

cross-posted from Dagblog

It's strange to be cajoled, everywhere you turn, to "remember" September 11. It's not like we've forgotten it. Who needs a reminder of this? It's like being told "Remember gravity!"or "Remember oxygen!" I am reminded every day, thanks. It's all around us.

I used to think very specifically about the September 11th attacks at least twice a day, for the simple reason that I owned a clock. Every day, morning and evening, one digital display or another would flash that 9:11 at me and I would notice. I would also be reminded when working out at the gym, nine minutes and eleven seconds after I had started on each particular machine; since I often used two or three on indoor-cardio days, I could count on my heart rate spiking two or three times every session. On September 11, 2006, I think I did exactly nine minutes and eleven seconds, as fast and as hard as I could, on five machines. I didn't need a reminder about the fifth anniversary, either.

Sometimes, these days, I look at my watch and it's nine thirteen, or nine seventeen. When I'm doing penance on the exercise bike I no longer tend to notice when the 551st second of the workout goes past. And I no longer look at all the big flat-screens at the gym with that dreadful apprehension I used to feel, thinking of what a horrible place that room would be the next time we were attacked, how it would be to have all those TVs playing the next September 11th footage at once. These days I can go two weeks, sometimes three, without experiencing a visual memory of people falling to their deaths. Is that forgetting September 11? Hell no. I'll remember the attacks until I'm put in the ground myself. There's no forgetting. It's too late.

It's true that I now remember September 11th differently than I did two or five years after the attacks. It no longer feels as if I am reliving the experience of the original day. I no longer feel the full emotion of that day seizing my body, the shock and numbed fury and stomach-churning grief. Or perhaps I should say that memory brings me those emotions less often, and less fully. I can think of that day without locking myself in an instant replay. I can remember it as part of a whole. But that is not forgetting. It's only in the last five years or so that it has become a genuine memory. Before that it was a flashback.

Sometimes, when I hear people saying "Never forget," what I hear them trying to say is "Do not change the way you remember those events. Do not gain distance from the feelings that you experienced that day. Do not allow the passage of time to change your perspective. Do not let September 11th diminish in significance. Make sure it looms across your awareness the way it did that morning, blocking out everything else, as if there would never be any other, newer day. Do not move your heart from that day." Maybe not everyone who says it means that, and probably not all of them mean all of it. But it's hard for me to know what else they could be saying, when they're talking about not forgetting things that are impossible to forget.

There are people who remember events in the past as clearly as if they are living them, every single day. They're called trauma victims. Many of our veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq can remember the traumas of battle there as if they had never left, as if the most terrible eighty seconds of their lives had never stopped happening. In fact, they can't not remember those horrible events, so they really will be in Afghanistan or Iraq until those memories become less vivid and intense, until they become painful memories instead of return tickets to hell.

Part of the response to a terrible event such as September 11th is to attach importance to it. The pain and horror you felt on that day can only make sense if it is somehow for a reason, if that event that cost you so unbearably much is monumental and unforgettable. That's an understandable reaction. But making that bargain means giving the terrible event power over you forever. Refusing to move on, because you need to honor the original pain, someday becomes a way to increase the pain. And you let the trauma take over your life.

I understand that many, many people need to find a meaning in the terrible events. But I cannot bring myself to. The things that happened that day were only bad, unbearably bad. They achieved nothing good. They had no reason. The were fully and entirely wrong. We did not become a better or stronger country because three thousand of us were murdered. We were a good country already, and we did not deserve to be attacked that way. No one who was killed, no one who lost anyone, deserved that loss. And we did not learn any lesson. Osama bin Ladin had nothing to teach us. He never could have. I will not give the terrorists or their murders credit that they do not deserve. I will not make September 11th the most important day in our history. It was only one of the worst.

And I will confess that it has always been my hope, since even a few days after the attacks, that September 11th would be forgotten over time. Not for me, or by me. It's too late for anyone of my generation. But I want, have always wanted, for those days to become a distant, historical memory for the next generation to be born, and the generation after that. I want September 11th to become a boring fact in a history book, no sadder and no more important than Antietam or Little Big Horn or the Battle of Long Island. Because it won't be until the memory of September 11th fades that we have won.

The things that your country remembers forever are the defeats it did not come back from. The scars. The wounds. If our grandchildren think of September 11th the way we do, with shock and fear, if they are still angry about September 11 fifty years from today, it will be because we failed, because we never returned to being the country we once were. The point of fighting terrorism is for our grandchildren to live in a world where they are not in fear of terrorism. If they are still furious, and still fighting, fifty years from today, then we will have lost. I hope, I pray, for September 11th to become a faded and forgotten memory, a footnote written by violent men whose violence could not change the main course of history.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Comic-Con and the GOP Primaries

cross-posted from Dagblog

I spent a lot of the summer driving U-Haul trucks instead of blogging, so I didn't keep up with the early Republican jostling. Tonight, I'm going to do something useful with my time, so watching the Republican debate is out of the question. But the New York Times published a great piece about the Republican's political situation three months back. It simply didn't use the words "republican" or politics. It was a piece about movie studios and Comic Con.

Comic-Con, of course, is the country's biggest comic book convention, held in every summer in San Diego. It's an annual Mecca for fans of superheroes, science fiction movie franchises, and fantasy mass media. It's a place for people who can discuss Boba Fett's family history in detail, who have turned their smartphones into startlingly detailed replicas of Captain Kirk's communicator device, and people who not only come dressed as little-known comic book heroes but can sustain detailed arguments about the best alternate version of that character. (In other words, these are my people.) And media companies long ago realized that Comic Con was the best place to roll out new computer games and to promote big summer movies. The relatively small group of hard-core fans (and by "relatively small" I mean a hundred thousand and change) can build enthusiasm and word of mouth for upcoming science-fiction movies and video games, and they turn out to be the classic influential subgroup. Get those hundred-plus-thousand fans revved up, and they will go out and rev up millions of more casual fans across the country. They are the grass-roots activists for mass-media science fiction. They are Hollywood's base.

But it turns out that there can be misfires. The base is not simply a more intense version of the general population; they are, inevitably, distinct from that population. So sometimes movies that seem like perfectly good bets are in fact ruined by a poor reception at Comic-Con, often for reasons that movie executives didn't see coming and that the general movie-going public won't care about. (The Comic-Con fans might have very strong opinions, for example, about which version of the Green Lantern story gets filmed.) So they can kill things that might otherwise be viable. At the same time they can become rapturously excited about movies that ultimately appeal only to very hard-core fans, leading studios to invest tens of millions of dollars in films that then make, say, threes of millions of dollars. The base doesn't just like things more than the average person does. They like different things.

So it is with either political party that becomes enthralled to its activist base. Viable wide-release candidates can get killed off because they have no niche appeal. Niche candidates can be treated like the Next Big Thing by a base that cannot believe that everyone has not been waiting forever for someone Exactly. Like. This! And sooner or later the parties,, like the studios, have to check their guts and ask how big a bet they want to lay on the convention crowd's sense of the world.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Fixing College Football: Pay the Kids, or Don't

cross-posted from Dagblog

It's college football season, and that means corruption and scandal. (Margaret Soltan at University Diaries blogs superbly and tirelessly about that corruption.) We've actually gotten to the point where Sports Illustrated, not the Chronicle of Higher Education but Sports Illustrated, has called for a major university football team to be disbanded. But the moral conversation about college sports remains so focused on abstractions like tradition and idealism that the "moral" conversation itself is corrupt, and corrupting. Arguing about ideals is fine. Mistreating actual human beings in the service of your ideals is depraved. By that standard, few institutions in America are more fundamentally depraved than the NCAA. The ideal of the scholar-athlete is not a bad thing. But it becomes a bad thing when it is used to exploit and mistreat people and to promote dishonesty. The NCAA, which is essentially a group of college athletic directors, doesn't protect the kids who actually play college football and basketball, or allow them to behave honestly. It is actually focused on punishing the exploited kids even more, and on forcing them into hypocrisy. (One of the big football scandals this year centers on some players who traded their autographs for discounted tattoos. The NCAA views that as major wrongdoing.)

Let me propose two simple principles for college athletics: 1) the powerful should not abuse or exploit the powerless, and 2) lying is bad. That still leaves some room for things like school tradition, nostalgia, and the romance of the scholar-athlete, but those things have to operate inside the framework of the two principles. If your hallowed college traditions really can't survive without lying, exploitation and abuse, then something is wrong with your traditions and your school.

How should college football (and college basketball) continue without lying, cheating, and mistreating the players? Three steps.

1. Let colleges pay athletes openly. And make them pay.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with running a minor-league professional sports franchise. There is nothing wrong with an 18-year-old kid signing up with a minor-league sports team, getting a chance to develop as an athlete and hoping for a shot at the big leagues. And there is nothing wrong with that athlete getting paid. It's strenuous work, that involves both specialized skills and significant personal risk. When your enterprise is making millions of dollars off people who are risking concussions, spinal injuries, and damage to their ACLs, you should not be asking yourself if it would be wrong to pay them.

Nothing is wrong with a high school graduate who signs up with a minor league ball team. People who want to be professional baseball players but don't want to go to college have an avenue to do that. They get a job, and people pay them. Baseball players who do want to go to college are free to do so, and college baseball doesn't have the kinds of scandals that college football and basketball have. Kids who want to get paid in the pros do, and kids who would rather go to college do that instead. No one's confused. Nobody's lying. Neither minor-league baseball nor college baseball are hotbeds of corruption. And the most important reason for that is that the athletes are allowed to choose, and to pursue the rewards they actually value. A baseball player with no interest in a college education can just get a job, and those who want a degree can get one.

In football, and with a handful of exceptions in men's basketball, there is no choice. If you want to be an NFL player, you must first pretend to be a college student. You are not allowed to just train for your sport. Aspiring NFL and NBA players are forced to play for free, even when the colleges and coaches make many, many millions of dollars. (The sports media whines and moans when basketball stars get paying jobs after only a year or two of unpaid labor.) Talking about "amateurism" in this context is a lie, because the players do not choose to be amateurs. Rather, they are forced into unpaid labor by an unofficial but very effective cartel. The NCAA is, in effect, the price-fixing arm of the NFL and NBA.

If football players could choose between working as professional athletes or forgoing that in order to play college ball, then we could talk seriously about amateurism and scholar-athletes. In fact, many of the "amateurs" are indentured servants, and the education they are given in exchange for their labor is often a sham. The sheer demands of training in a pre-professional league such as, say, the Big Ten don't really leave the time, let alone the energy, for a serious full-time degree program. Pre-NFL football and pre-NBA basketball are consuming, round-the-clock pursuits. And when a player enters college ill-prepared as a student, which is pretty frequent, the intensity of the sports training program guarantees that they will never catch up. In fact, they'll keep falling further behind.

Colleges that wish to conduct pre-professional sports programs, with the big TV and ticket revenue, should be allowed to operate their professional teams openly and legally, dispensing with the fiction that the players are full-time students. The usual proposal that some new football minor league be created is unrealistic; that league would quickly be killed off by the existing college franchises, with their advanced development, capitalization, brand recognition and market share. A startup league could not compete with the professional-except-in-name-league. The solution is to rename the existing leagues and admit what they are.

Colleges who wish to do so should be allowed a charter or license to operate professional football and basketball franchises. They might be allowed some special tax exemption, so that the sports revenue can be used to run their non-profit. And they should be allowed to pursue different approaches. Some schools will want to operate their teams themselves. Others might outsource the sports franchise to professionals for a fixed annual revenue, essentially licensing the team's history and brand. (This should make schools conscious of the value of their brand.) Teams that go pro should be allowed to play teams that stay amateur, and vice versa. If Notre Dame wants to stay an amateur school, but keep playing teams that have become pro, they should be allowed. Whether or not this is a good idea will become clear in time.

Some schools, of course, will simply stay amateur, just as many have kept from having truly pre-professional teams. The Dartmouth Big Green is going to remain a team full of future surgeons and bond traders. Some schools will field a mix of amateurs and young pros, just as they do now, and that is also perfectly fine. Pro teams who want to add a college scholarship to their pay package should be permitted to do that, but not to stipulate that the scholarship be taken while the athlete is playing. (If you want to pay a kid to play tight end for three to six years, and give him the option of going to the sponsoring college for his BA when his playing days are over, that's a good thing.)

But if you're not going to educate a kid, pay him. If what he wants is playing time and a shot at the bigs, give him a salary and benefits. The market will work out the price for that. The economics of big-time college sports might change a bit. The coaches might not be able to demand seven-figure salaries when the players are no longer free. But an enterprise generating tens of millions of dollars, the way televised college football does, should be able to budget reasonable five-figure salaries for the kids whose bodies are out there on the field. And if big-time college sports can only make money by making the kids play for free, then it is morally indefensible.

2. Set up legal penalties for pretending to field amateurs

What you shouldn't be allowed to do is have a professional team and call them amateurs. This should not be policed by the NCAA, which has compromised morals and a ludicrous idea of what constitutes a penalty. Having a "high-minded" outside arbiter come in to "void" previous championships doesn't stop anything. Allowing people who have been wronged to sue on their own behalf, in court, can curb misbehavior quite effectively at times.

If a college sets up a professional team, or a team with a number of professionals on it, and then presents them as amateurs, then they are committing fraud. They are falsely pretending amateur status in order to increase fan interest, and they are defrauding the real amateur teams they play, who get made to look bad and whose student-players are put at physical risk. If a team full of pre-meds who train twenty hours a week wants to play a team full of young pros who train for eighty hours a week, that's one thing. But the amateurs, and their coaches, should know that they are playing the eighty-hour pros.

A team that falsely claims amateur status should be liable for all their football-based revenue, plus penalties, to the team they have played. If you want to get a prime holiday matchup against Notre Dame by claiming to be a bunch of scholar-athletes, and then use your under-the-table pros to beat up Notre Dame on TV, Notre Dame should be able to sue you for your share of the TV money, the ticket fees, the concessions and souvenir sales, the whole megillah. And the US Attorney should be able to come after you for fraud, including tax fraud. (Those who pay kids under the table do not pay employment taxes. QED.) The penalties have to be substantial, to make the financial risk of cheating prohibitive.

If boosters or assistant coaches have done the paying, the team should be held liable but allowed to recover their costs from the booster or assistant.

3. Set up legal penalties for infringing on the education provided to student-athletes.

If you're going to give a kid an education instead of cash, you should be required to give him the education. Telling a kid that his reward for playing football is a college education, but then making the demands of football so intense that he can't avail himself of that education, is the cruelest exploitation imaginable. If you're not going to give the athlete a salary, give him time to learn organic chemistry.

Don't let the NCAA set the rules for how many hours students can be made to train or practice every week, or how many classes they can miss for road games. Those rules and that policing have been completely ineffective. Give players who want the option of full-time sports training a chance to play in pro leagues, and allow scholarship athletes to sue if they are deprived of the value of their scholarship. This isn't about ideals or noble traditions. It's about contract law. Athletic scholarships offer a consideration in exchange for a service; you can get four years of tuition if you'll play on this specific team. If the student leaves the team, they give up the scholarship. But that has to cut both ways; if you're holding the eighteen-year-old to the requirement for athletic service, you have to let them get a real education. If you don't, they should be able to sue the school, and there should be potential criminal penalties as well. This of course will sound scandalous to many American sports fans, because it treats student athletics as real work, and the athletes as real people. It's considered terrible when a student athlete looks after his own interests. But if people are not allowed to take care of their own interests, or to be rewarded for their work, we aren't really having a moral conversation.