Monday, February 27, 2006


YMCA 11-12 SONICS, BOTTOM ROW: Mike Nunnally, Trevious Atkins, Tevin Mack, Laneyshia Fudge, Coach Dennis Mack. TOP ROW: Coach Jim Finkelstein, Devin Sheppard, Alex Berry, Chris Wright, Tim Pierce

The rebound came into the waiting arms of Chris Wright, who whirled and threw an outlet pass to Tim Pierce, who in turn threw a bounce pass to a cutting Trevious Atkins for the fast break layup. I turned to my co-coach and longtime friend, Dennis Mack, and said: “I feel like I’m in heaven!”

I have just completed my 15th season of coaching YMCA basketball. Years ago I used to joke that I was the worst coach in history, because I once took a team with three future high school starters- one of whom went on to play college ball- and managed to lose almost every game. But the truth is that there are intangible benefits to playing a team sport that greatly transcend wins and losses. Don’t get me wrong-- no one wants to be on a team that loses every game by a lopsided score. That’s not a positive experience for any child, and it’s a good reason why YMCA youth sports directors try to create balanced teams at the beginning of every season.

But team sports are important, both to society and to the individuals involved. As much as Americans idolize the lone hero-- including fictional characters played by John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Mel Gibson-- we also invest tremendous emotion in team sports. Whether it’s pro teams like the 2004 Boston Red Sox or the 2006 Pittsburgh Steelers, college teams like Texas football or Duke basketball, or local high school and youth teams, Americans of every stripe from every corner of the country take great pride and great interest in “their” teams. Two of my cousins who grew up Steelers’ fans in Western Pennsylvania, then moved to the Seattle area, were especially conflicted when this year’s Super Bowl pitted the Seahawks against the Steelers. And that’s a good thing, because not to care, not to be passionate about sports and teams, is to be deprived of one of the great pleasures in life.

That being said, there is definitely a line that is too often crossed, from the lowest to the highest levels. A referee who blew calls in an NFL playoff game being the victim of vandalism, assaults involving parents in youth sports teams, and cheating scandals from the age violations at the Little League World Series up to steroid use in track and field and Major League Baseball, are all evidence of a tragic loss of perspective.

A few years ago, after a YMCA season had ended, I received a letter from the father of one of my players. The letter writer had been one of those officious parents who would sit up in the balcony during practices and games, yelling specific instructions at his son that left the poor 9 year old completely confused as he tried to listen to both his coach on the sideline and his father in the stands, all the while paying attention to the game going on around him. During the season I had politely asked the father to refrain from yelling at his son during practices and games, and suggested that instead he spend as much time as possible working with his son on his individual skills in between practices. The father complied with my request, but apparently had some pent up feelings that he waited to express. The letter blasted me, telling me what a lousy coach I was, how I knew nothing about basketball, and how I should never attempt to coach children again.

I thought about it for a while, then politely responded in writing, pointing out that I couldn’t teach essential fundamentals like how to dribble or how to shoot during two one hour practices each week. I noted out that YMCA youth basketball wasn’t like a summer basketball camp where kids spend all day working on skills and team drills, and I let him know that I made no pretense to being a professional coach (we are all unpaid volunteers). I also mentioned that his child was no Michael Jordan-- the boy had a propensity to pick up the ball and run like a football running back, neglecting to dribble-- and suggested that he should let his child play and have fun and not make such a big deal out of winning or losing.

Three years later the officious parent was the coach of his son’s team in the same age level where I was coaching. We drubbed his team by more than 20 points, and I’d be lying if I didn’t reflect that there was some poetic justice in the outcome.

Every year, I start off with the same speech. I tell the boys (and occasional girl) that I can’t teach them how to be great players, but I will give them an opportunity to learn some fundamentals of playing as a team. I tell them that they will practice good sportsmanship, winning or losing with class, and that hopefully they will bond with their teammates and make some new friends. And I let them know that they will have fun. Because the minute it stops being fun, then we have failed as parents and coaches.

This year we started with nine kids (eight are pictured) who barely knew each other, if at all. By the end of the season they had had more than a few moments of beautifully choreographed teamwork, as each helped out the other, each looked to pass to the open man, and each delighted in the success of his or her teammates. We lost two and won four during the regular season, and in the playoffs we finished second in the six team league. But in the end, all of us were winners.

Thursday, February 16, 2006


Danish cartoons: not too funny, but definitely deadly

(This column will appear in the February 23, 2006, THE ALBANY JOURNAL)

People are dying in Pakistan because a Danish cartoonist drew a caricature of Mohammed in a Danish newspaper. Is that logical? Is it insane? And do Americans have any room to criticize when we have legislatures, school boards, and even Congress stirring up passions and wasting valuable time debating whether the Ten Commandments should be displayed in town halls, whether Bible should be taught in public schools, whether intelligent design is the academic co-equal of evolution, and whether we should declare that the American flag is a religious icon whose desecration would draw a prison sentence? (Note to the ignorant yahoos in Congress: an object can only be “desecrated” if it has first been “consecrated to a god or a deity.”)

The only advantage in the civilization sweepstakes that Americans have- so far at least- is that violent mobs haven’t stormed judicial buildings when courts ruled that their favorite religious icons couldn’t be displayed on public property or their prayers couldn’t be imposed on children of other faiths. So far at least we’ve managed to handle our religious disputes non-violently. Score one for the good ole U.S. of A.

Point two for us is that our most popular movie at the moment is a mediocre Steve Martin remake of The Pink Panther, the Inspector Clouseau Frenchified farce which has sight gags but no socially redeeming value whatsoever. Meanwhile, Turkey- our NATO ally Turkey!- has managed to produce The Valley of the Wolves-Iraq, a $10 million flick starring American actors Billy Zane (he played The Phantom about 10 years ago) and Gary Busey (one too many head injuries from motorcycle crashes, apparently). The topic of the movie? How American soldiers in Iraq machine gun small children and a Jewish doctor, played by Busey, harvests and sells their organs in Israel, the U.K., and in America.

Our country, which is in a race to the bottom when it comes to spectacularly bad taste (Jerry Springer, Fear Factor, and “reality shows” like “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé”) has been outstripped by this Turkish production, which is vile, bloody, defamatory, anti-Semitic, and wildly popular in Turkey, where it has set box office records.

Why would our only NATO ally in the region be so hot to see a movie that makes Americans out to be vicious killer scum? Turns out that Turks are highly offended by America at the moment due to the infamous bag incident. Haven’t heard of it? You’re not alone, because virtually no other Americans have, either. Here’s what Knight Ridder reported on it in a February 14, 2006, story:

“In that incident, U.S. troops arrested 11 Turkish special-forces officers in northern Iraq and walked them from their headquarters with bags over their heads. It was considered a bitter betrayal by a trusted ally. Turkish newspapers dubbed it the “Rambo Crisis.” Recent opinion polls rank it as the most humiliating moment in Turkish history.”

So here’s the deal. We have sunk so low that we are now hated by even our closest allies in the Middle East. A pretty sorry record for America, and even after the Bushies are long gone from D.C. and we are still digging out from under the enormous pile of debt which is their true legacy for America, we will be hated in every nation east of the English Channel.

In 2004 a Zogby poll surveyed six Arab nations and found that approval ratings of America ranged between a low of two per cent in Egypt (another ally on whom we have showered billions in aid) and a high of 20 per cent in Lebanon. Those holding a favorable view of the US in Saudi Arabia were four per cent, 11 per cent in Morocco, 14 per cent in the United Arab Emirates and 15 per cent in Jordan. That marked a relatively sharp decline compared to a similar poll taken in 2002, the year before we invaded Iraq.

In stark contrast to the stated views of our President and those who echo his talking points that the terrorists “hate our freedom and our values,” the same poll found that the only positive aspects of Arabs’ views of the U.S. were our freedom and our values. The most commonly noted positive attributes of the US (still only 24 per cent of the total responses in Lebanon and Egypt, 18 per cent in Jordan, 17 per cent in Morocco and just six per cent in Saudi Arabia) are "personal freedom", "opportunity" and American "entertainment" and "products." Just think how much lower we would have sunk if it weren’t for our blue jeans, rock music, and trashy movies.

So where do we go from here? My buddy Glenn (not a made up character like Lewis Grizzard, T. Gamble, and other famous Southern humorists have used as a literary sounding board) says that we Democrats can’t win an election just by pointing out where the Republicans have screwed up. Point well taken. But before we start doing something different, it might be smart to figure out what we have been doing wrong so that we don’t keep repeating our mistakes ad nauseam.

A good start might be to avoid coming across as big bullies who will get our way no matter what. Whether it’s attempting to manipulate oil prices, extracting trade concessions, or even pushing our democratic ideals on other countries, we need to remember our manners. Besides, installing democratic governments doesn’t necessarily mean that we have won the game. We can all agree that democracy and freedom are good things, but we might just take a moment to reflect that Iran has a democratically elected government, as do the Palestinians, and neither one of them is especially salutary in the areas of peace and human rights. We ought to acknowledge that democracies can be tyrannical, especially when the winners of the popular vote are infused with fanatical, exclusionary religious beliefs. Instead of being fixated on the issue of ballot boxes, we should, ever so politely, encourage expansions of freedoms for women and minorities in countries over which we have sway.

Secondly, starting a Moon Landing type ten year program for energy self-sufficiency would do more for our national security than any number of foreign military adventures. President Bush hit one correct note in his State of the Union, and that was our addiction to oil. It’s going to run out one day, and the sooner we prepare for that cold fact, the easier the transition to whatever comes next in the energy arena.

Thirdly, we need to recognize that America does have something important to offer the world, and it isn’t the arms or tobacco we are so happy to export to third world countries. It’s our educational system and our freedom. Instead of clamping down on immigration and visas, we should be encouraging the intelligentsia from every corner of the world to come here and study, and we should be encouraging some of them to stay and add to our heritage while others can go back home and, hopefully, emulate the best of what this country has to offer.

Sunday, February 12, 2006


(this column will appear in the 2/16/06 THE ALBANY JOURNAL)

“They believe in the fundamental American freedoms, and in Sen. Joseph McCarthy they see a man who would destroy those freedoms in the name of defending them. Because McCarthy is a liar and a bully, surrounded by yes-men, recklessly calling his opponents traitors, he commands great power for a time. He destroys others with lies, and then is himself destroyed by the truth.”

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times review of “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

I managed to make it to the movie theater the last night it showed “Good Night and Good Luck,” the semi-documentary about CBS News, Edward R. Murrow, and Joseph McCarthy. The understated black and white film delivered a powerful message of the dangers posed by demagogues in high places who garner power and fame by exaggerating fears of an insidious enemy. Although the movie opened with good critical reviews and has an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, it isn’t a popular hit, grossing about $28 million in 19 weeks (compared, for instance, to a commercial movie like Big Momma’s House 2, which has grossed over $54 million in three weeks).

There was only one person in the theater when I walked in at the scheduled starting time, and I jokingly asked her for permission to sit in her theater and watch the movie. She laughed and said “yes.” By the time the commercials and previews had run their course, there were five of us watching one of the two most important movies released in 2005, the other being Syriana.

Not coincidentally, George Clooney is integrally involved with both films, and he is nominated for an Oscar for supporting actor in Syriana along with his screen writing and directing nominations for Good Night, and Good Luck. With the exception of the occasional foray into mindless entertainment-- Oceans 11 and 12, for instance-- Clooney tends to attach himself to movies that matter outside of Hollywood cash registers. Whether it’s the offbeat, such as the modern tale of Ulysses in O Brother Where Art Thou, or the deadly serious, such as the nuclear armed terrorist in The Peacemaker, Clooney’s films often provoke thought.

It’s confusing these days to separate fact from fiction, history from current events. It was impossible not to see the obvious modern day parallels as I watched 1954 film clips showing McCarthy’s vicious bullying of ordinary Americans suspected (by him and no one else) of Communist sympathies, such as the poor, wretched, painfully honest Annie Moss, the black cafeteria worker in the Pentagon who was later assigned to carry messages from the military’s code room.

Unfortunately for the continued vitality of our basic freedoms of speech, privacy, and due process, we don’t have an Edward R. Murrow in our midst today, capable of bringing down a nationally prominent bully (and we now have so many!) Not that there aren’t courageous people in the media willing to skewer President Bush and other top officials, damning them with their own words by having the temerity to air video clips of their own speeches. The past few years, Jon Stewart and Michael Moore have led the fight to tell truth to and about power, but the former appears only on basic cable’s Comedy Channel (as he is quick to point out in self-deprecation) and the latter has been marginalized by effective use of the “big lie” technique. Last Fall Presidential Press Secretary Scott McClellan attempted to slander John Murtha by linking him to Michael Moore:

“... Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said that it is ‘baffling that [Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha] is endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic party.’”

CNN, November 18, 2005.

Probably the closest we have to a mainstream media Murrow is Tim Russert of NBC’s Meet the Press who last Sunday had members of the House and Senate on his program to discuss the NSA spying program, its implications for freedom, and the machinations and outright lies of President Bush in his public speeches about domestic spying.

What struck me most about Russert’s NSA show guests-- both Democrats and Republicans-- is that even when confronted with simple, direct questions, they had no qualms in telling obvious lies or refusing to answer. Former South Dakota Democratic Senator Tom Daschle, asked if he was wrong in voting to authorize President Bush to use force against Saddam Hussein in 2002, ducked, saying he wasn’t going to revisit that issue. Daschle could have frankly discussed the tragic October 2002 vote when he was Senate Majority Leader while the Democrats still controlled one branch of Congress. That grant of authority to President Bush has ended up costing this country so much in the last three years: lives, maimed bodies, hundreds of billions of dollars, and America’s credibility and goodwill.

For his part, Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was confronted with a video clip of these words from President Bush on April 20, 2004, two years after he turned the NSA loose with warrantless domestic wiretaps:

“Secondly, there are such things as roving wiretaps. Now, by the way, any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires -- a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so. It's important for our fellow citizens to understand, when you think Patriot Act, constitutional guarantees are in place when it comes to doing what is necessary to protect our homeland, because we value the Constitution.”

When Russert asked Roberts if the President had lied (he used a nicer word), Roberts himself fibbed in trying to avoid the issue by saying that the President was referring to “domestic” wiretapping. Russert quickly corrected him, noting that the President made no such distinction in his speech, and Roberts slithered away from the question.

When I visited the MSNBC website in researching this column, I noted that they have a place where viewers can submit questions to be asked guests on upcoming programs. Here are my four, and you can feel free to submit yours. After all, it’s our freedom they are trying to take away, just as Wisconsin Republican Senator Joe McCarthy tried to do 52 years ago:

On NSA spying, ask the next Congressman or Senator: "Are you saying that Al Qaida has you so scared that you are willing to give up Americans' freedom from invasion of privacy, guaranteed in the Fourth Amendment?"

On Iraq: "If the purpose of this invasion was to install a democracy in Iraq, then shouldn't we allow Iraqis to vote on whether American troops should stay or leave?"

On freedom and democracy in the Middle East: "Doesn't the electoral victory of Hamas prove that even if democracy is brought to the Middle East, that doesn't mean the end of religious fanaticism, state sponsored violence, or terrorism?"

On Jack Abramoff and Washington corruption: "Congressman (or Senator), wouldn't you agree that if we banned all private fund raising, banned all private contributions and gifts of any kind to candidates for office, treated them all as bribes, and instead publicly financed all federal elections, we could effectively end all of the abuses under the current system of PACs and lobbyists, and the result would be a Congress devoted primarily to the public interest and able to work full time on the people's business?

Monday, February 06, 2006


Twelve miners who died in the Sago mine are remembered

(This column will run in the 2/9/2006 THE ALBANY JOURNAL)

In 2001, President Bush appointed David Lauriski to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). A former mining executive, Lauriski spent the next years rescinding "more than a half-dozen proposals intended to make coal miners' jobs safer, including steps to limit miners' exposure to toxic chemicals." Lauriski resigned in scandal in late 2004 shortly after it was found that the agency had improperly awarded no-bid, single-source contracts to several firms, two of which had ties to Lauriski and one of his assistants...

Mine safety standards have been rolled back over the last five years. Under Bush, 17 of 26 regulations proposed by the Clinton administration were dropped or withdrawn, ... The administration has not proposed a single new mine-safety standard or rule during its tenure, The Government Accountability Office in 2003 faulted MSHA for "failing to follow through when it found violations," and said the agency did "not provide adequate oversight" to ensure that inspectors were enforcing compliance. The Labor Department Inspector General found similar problems in 2002.”


Americans are suffering from an overload of bad news these days, much of it tied to congenital incompetence at the highest levels of government. The most recent round of elections in Iraq had done nothing to stem the violence there, and we hadn’t even started rebuilding New Orleans, when reports came from West Virginia of a mining disaster just after New Year’s. We all held our breaths and hoped against hope that the miners trapped underground by an explosion would be saved in time. Many of us woke up to see headlines of the miners being saved, only to learn that the news reports were in error and all but one of the 13 trapped miners had died.

After those stories receded from the front pages, we were jolted awake by new reports of other mining fatalities in West Virginia-- two here, two more there-- until finally a frustrated and angry West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin declared a day long shutdown for safety checks in all of West Virginia’s mines.

What went wrong? The problem, as we have been accustomed to discovering the past few years, started at the top levels of the Bush Administration. The official cause of death of the 12 miners on January 2nd was suffocation from carbon monoxide poisoning. But by now we ought to know better. The trapped miners may have died because of overlooked and unenforced safety violations in a mine which had over 200 of them the prior year. They may have died because rescue teams which could have got to them in time had been dismantled or laid off by the Bush Administration in its assault on safety regulations which might cut into business profits. The New York Times reported that:

“... some of the miners, who survived at least ten hours after the explosion, might have been saved if rescue efforts had begun earlier. Federal law requires mines to have two rescue teams available, "but does not require mines to have their own rescue teams as long as another team can arrive on site within two hours." The first rescue teams in Sago "did not enter the mine until more than 11 hours after the explosion." This precise scenario had been a concern for years. The Charleston Gazette analysis found concerns over the last decade that the mine rescue system "is growing ever short on personnel and is in major need of reforms." Yet in 2002, in direct contravention to recommendations of the Clinton administration in 1999, then-MSHA director Dave Lauriski "halted work on revising MSHA's 15-year old mine rescue regulation."

What is undisputed in this disaster is that Dave Lauriski, like lethally incompetent FEMA Director Michael Brown before him, was carrying out the Bush Administration’s core philosophy of cutting or stifling government safety regulations and laying off essential government oversight employees while allowing the industry to (insert laugh track here) “police itself.” Whether it’s sudden death or slow death, the Bush Administration’s version of “freedom of choice” seems to be that it will allow Americans to pick their poison. Just last week the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) had egg on its face when the EPA’s own scientific panel objected to the agency's proposed public health standards governing soot and dust. The Los Angeles Times reports that:

“The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee asserted Friday that the standards put forward by EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson ignored most of the committee's earlier recommendations and could lead to additional heart attacks, lung cancer and respiratory ailments....Johnson proposed to exempt rural areas and mining and agriculture industries from standards governing larger coarse particles, and he declined to adopt the panel's proposed haze reduction standards....Some panel members called the administrator's actions "egregious" and said his proposals "twisted" or "misrepresented" their recommendations....It was the first time since the committee was established under the Clean Air Act nearly 30 years ago that the committee had asked the EPA to change course, according to EPA staffers and committee members.... committee Chairwoman Rogene Henderson, an inhalation toxicologist said their action was necessary because "the response of the administrator is unprecedented in that he did not take our advice. It's most unusual for him not to take the advice of his own science advisory body."

The Sago Mine which killed 12 miners on January 2, 2006, had 208 safety citations in 2005, over four times the number from the previous year, and many of the safety violations were "serious and substantial," such as roof-falls. Said former MSHA Administrator Davitt McAteer, "When the numbers are going in the wrong direction, management has not been doing its job. It's not the worst mine record, but when you've got three times the national accident rate, something is wrong." "The mine should have simply been closed," said Jack Spadaro, a former MSHA inspector who was granted federal whistle-blower status four years ago.

The worst part of the disaster was that it might have been prevented- if the MSHA hadn’t cut the emergency response teams available and dismantled the emergency response team based on Morgantown, West Virginia. The mining disaster should not have shocked observers of the Bush Administration’s familiar policy of appointing cronies, incompetents, and industry insiders (occasionally they get an appointee who is all three) to police their former employers. Scott Lilly reported in American Progress that:

“... Lauriski is best remembered at MSHA for his attempt to push through a change in regulations governing coal dust levels that he proposed and lobbied on behalf of as a senior executive with Energy West Mining Company of Utah. Since the change uniquely benefited only his former employer, it was opposed by not only the Mine Workers but also mine operators other than Energy West. Lauriski was able to side with the other mine operators on a host of other regulatory changes detrimental to worker safety. According to the New York Times, MSHA under his direction “rescinded more than a half-dozen proposals intended to make coal miners' jobs safer, including steps to limit miners' exposure to toxic chemicals. One rule pushed by the agency would make it easier for companies to use diesel generators underground, which miners say could increase the risk of fire.”

Lilly reports that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is now also controlled by those dedicated to its downfall and disdainful of the lives and health of ordinary Americans:

“Jonathan L. Snare (acting director of OSHA) brings credentials to OSHA that should give pause to any working family watching television coverage of the Sago Mine disaster. Before arriving at the Labor Department, Snare was a lawyer and lobbyist in the Texas-based firm of Jackson and Walker, LLP, a firm claiming to specialize in, among other things, “appropriate discipline of employees” and “union avoidance campaigns. Among his clients was Metabolife International, the leading provider of the weight loss supplement Ephedra, which was eventually banned after the Food and Drug Administration received numerous reports of deaths linked to its ingestion. A criminal investigation of the company was launched following an FDA request to the Justice Department to determine if the company had made false statements regarding the supplement. Since then Metabolife and one of its cofounders has pleaded guilty to numerous counts of tax evasion. While Snare’s lobbying activity involved him in some health and safety issues—although rarely on the side of consumers or workers—he seems to have spent much of his time on politics. He served as Election Operations Vice-President of the Republican National Lawyers Committee, General Counsel to the Texas Senate Redistricting Committee and General Counsel to the Republican Party of Texas.”

With the Senate and House firmly in the grip of Republicans, we can forget about any meaningful oversight of the “Lethal Weapons” appointed by the Bush Administration. If Democrats don’t take back Congress this year, America can expect another three years of disasters, deaths, and declining health as the likes of Brown (FEMA), Johnson (EPA), Lauriski (MSHA), and Snare (OSHA) are free to ruin the federal agencies charged with protecting our lives and our health.