Baggage claim

It’s a new year, and one of the highlights of its nascent days will be, like last year, watching Clemson play for a national championship.

Last New Year’s Eve, I flew my Clemson graduate daddy down to South Florida, where I lived at the time, and we watched the Tigers book what would be the first of two straight title dates against Alabama by steamrolling Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.


We had the best time. We tailgated with a hairy man with a tiger tattooed on his belly. We listened to the Clemson marching band shake the Southland with Tiger Rag. We stood and cheered and spelled C-L-E-M-S-O-N so many times (with accompanying arm pumps) that my chest hurt for days afterward.

A few days, beers and poker games later, I dropped him off at the airport.

The Fort Lauderdale airport, to be specific – the same airport where I’d picked up my parents the previous June for a combined Mama’s birthday/Father’s Day trip that included Dodger games at Marlins Park. The same airport where I'd watched my stepdaughter shed her cool teenage skin and run into my husband's arms. The same airport where I’d picked up a dear friend who needed a change of scenery, another one on a business trip, another one who took her first flight to see me. 

The same airport where, yesterday, a man took a gun from his checked baggage, loaded it in the bathroom, and opened fire, killing five people and wounding six more.

To pick from among horrible things, I can’t even say I’m shocked. No one in this country can, not after we decided that the bullet-riddled bodies of 20 schoolchildren weren’t abominations that outweighed hefty political contributions. There’s nothing new to say, really, about the latest in a never-ending line of mass shootings in America – except, having stood where people most recently fell, I now feel this truth in my bones: It’s only a matter of time until it happens to you, or someone you love.

I can avoid this reality, snuggled underneath layers of blanket and cat and sampling seasonal beer while watching hours of football and college basketball as the last of the Saturday morning snow melts from stunned Southern trees.  I can avoid this reality cloistered in a house that has become a sanctuary of convenience and necessity, where my only conversations with other humans take place online, where messiness and blood are safely on the other side of the warped front door that requires a good hip check to lock.

I can avoid this reality until I am waiting eagerly to see faces I love, or in line at a restaurant, or walking around a university campus that, 21 years after I first left it, is haltingly reintroducing itself, at the same time as some fucker with a gun and a righteous grudge.

I know we think it can’t happen to us. But thoughts and prayers have just as much chance of keeping us safe as elected officials who have irrevocably abdicated that responsibility.

So I’ll have another sip and watch Jadeveon Clowney’s middle finger to those who thought he was a bust and try not see people taking cover in the Hibiscus Garage or cowering behind ticket counters or bleeding beside a baggage carousel where I’ve hugged my daddy.

It’s not that hard. Complacency is a faithful friend. But it’s also a liar.


Auld lang syne already

I suppose people die every year. Lots of people, in fact.

Truth be told, as much as Prince’s music (or George Michael’s, or David Bowie’s) provided a soundtrack to pivotal moments of my youth, as much as I loved Carrie Fisher as a princess when I was a little girl and came to admire her as a woman as I became one, as much as I read almost every word Pat Conroy wrote or watched Alan Rickman bring memorable characters to life, I haven’t really lost anyone this year – not in the way many people have. I haven’t buried children or suffered with sick parents or mourned the laughter of a friend.

My own health is good (though I could stand to get my ass to the gym).  My career, which floundered for a few years, seems to be back on track (though I have come to accept that Disposable Income is a myth, like unicorns and tasty low-calorie chocolate). My personal life, though perhaps unrecognizable from a year ago, is in many ways a more peaceable place.

I don’t say all this to tempt the universe into taking umbrage at my good fortune and striking down bits of it. I’m just trying to shake this fog, thicker than the billows that obscured the ocean on the last day of a holiday trip to Folly Beach, that has settled into my brain and body and heart as this year keeps bashing us about its hard-walled sides.

The election and its wake continue to weigh on me. Each day, I fasten my safety pin and get the coffee creamer from a fridge with a thank-you note from Planned Parenthood for my measly contribution pinned to the door. I try to stay motivated in the fight. Some days feel like progress; others pointless.

As much as I long for 2017, I know its predecessor has wrought irrevocable changes. Pitchers and catchers report in 45 days, but Opening Day won’t be the very pleasant good evening it’s been my entire life. College football will soon crown a new national champion, and my daddy’s team is once again in the mix to claim the title, but the sport’s deep-seated vein of entitlement and misogyny is getting harder and harder to compartmentalize. (It is not alone in this, to be sure.) The NFL’s on-field product declines while its off-field issues fester. The specter of long-awaited NCAA sanctions hangs over the heads of top-tier college basketball programs even as conference play heats up.

Still, I hope. I hope to eventually be able to stomach news reports and magazine covers detailing our political reality, even as I find meaningful ways to combat it. I hope to find new music and movies to appreciate, though old loves will never lose their place. I hope happiness I once envisioned is still possible, in a modified but familiar form.  

I hope my Gamecocks give South Florida a game in the Birmingham Bowl, which kicks off in a little more than two hours. I hope my Dodgers make it to the World Series. I hope Vin enjoys retirement for a long, long time.

I know 2017 will not be immune to the problems that have permeated 2016. But I am done with this year and its constant sorrow. It’s time to walk on through. Walk till you run, and don’t look back.

As this New Year’s Day approaches, I have seldom been as ready to begin again.


Getting comfortable with rape culture

I suppose I’m not done talking about this.

Today, Tuesday, a Minnesota television station released the University of Minnesota's 80-page report on the school's investigation into 12 football players in connection with an alleged sexual assault. The report details the basis for the discipline received by 10.

It also details a great deal more.

I made it to page eight. Then I became pretty sure I was going to throw up at my desk, and I had to stop.

That desk is in a building on the campus of my college, a place where I laughed and lived and made friends and memories. I attended football games there, like the girl in the report. I went to after parties, like the girl in the report. I sometimes drank too much and made questionable decisions, like the girl in the report.

Thank God, fate, blind luck, what have you, that’s where our similarities end. But it is not hard to picture a scenario in which they would continue – for me, for my child, for anyone in the exact wrong circumstances.

People, we have to do better. We just have to. Yes, we must encourage our girls to be careful about putting themselves in dangerous situations. But we must also teach our boys that girls, that human beings, are not something to be passed around. Someone’s poor judgment should not become someone else’s excuse.

The sports world I know and love has to do better, too. The discussion can’t just center on the players in question, on what rights of theirs may have been violated, on whether they should boycott a meaningless bowl game (the main purpose of which is to fill a TV slot for ESPN). Rape culture can’t just be a PC term tossed around to assuage anger. When evidence of it exists in such graphic detail, it must be acknowledged, and investigated, and addressed – and maybe, one day, prevented. 

I can't imagine any coach, any athletic director, any university president reading about how a football player and a recruit blocked a bathroom doorway, how they repeatedly tried to unzip the woman's clothing while cajoling her to help, how people crowded around and watched and at least three shot video, how text messages were exchanged and deleted, and thinking, "Oh, well. Good thing we cleared that up. Now, where's that Washington State scouting report?"

Whether what happened in that dorm room rises to a particular state's legal definition of rape, whatever factors prosecutors considered in deciding the case would be too difficult to pursue, is absofuckinglutely not the point. The fact that one of the men involved reportedly told police that he wished the woman didn't remember his name comes a little closer to it. 

I did get as far in the report as one letter to a student explaining that, after the investigation by the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action into the September incident, he had been found to have “engaged in sexual misconduct by sexually assaulting and harassing another University of Minnesota student.” The letter “offered” the recipient the “sanction” of expulsion to “resolve this matter informally.”

The letter also said: “Reading this report may cause expected emotions or reactions. You may want to consider reading this letter and the EOAA report with a support person to help you process your reactions … “

I suspect that’s a boilerplate paragraph included in all such letters. All the same, how thoughtful.

As noted earlier, I can’t just turn on SportsCenter to escape this ugly reality. There, I might see the video of Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon punching a woman in the face. Or I might hear more talk about the new head coaching position landed by a man whose unsavory past includes a scandal involving recruiting “hostesses.” Or I might hear more about the latest wrongdoing at a school facing NCAA sanctions for, among other things, paying women to have sex with basketball recruits.

When such things have become normalized, we can’t be totally shocked when admitting to sexual assault does not disqualify someone from, say, becoming president of the United States. When such headlines do not enrage, when such news does not demand action and accountability, when the victims become background material in stories focused on the real priorities, we can’t be surprised when the next nauseating report scrolls across the bottom of our television screens.

By doing nothing, by shaking our heads and changing the channel, we are all asking for it to continue.


Learning by example

Sports is supposed to be my refuge, a place where familiar, simple things insulate me from the anxiety surrounding just about everything else these days.

I have to tell you, sports has been doing a piss-poor job in this role as of late.

From an alleged gang rape involving football players at Minnesota to the just-released video of an Oklahoma running back punching a woman in the face to unethical conduct earning an irritated shoulder shrug to less-than-upstanding individuals getting sweet new coaching gigs right and left, I don’t really feel safe turning on SportsCenter anymore.

Golden Gophers players are threatening to boycott an upcoming Holiday Bowl appearance because 10 members of the team have been suspended in connection with a sexual assault investigation. The number of “men” – we’ll use the term loosely – involved in the “encounter,” as media reports have termed it, ranges from five to 10 to 20. Some reports say the woman in the incident in question consented to sex with two of them; others indicate she may have been too drunk to do so and describe her fumbling for clothes she couldn’t find while screaming and trying to push bodies off hers.

According to CNN, there are at least two cell phone videos. An 80-page report issued Tuesday by the university says there were three. It also describes people hovering in the doorway of the dorm room, talking and laughing, jockeying for position. 

I, obviously, don’t know the details, as, praise God and everything holy, I was not in that room. Here’s what I do know: If you’re a football player, a “man,” a human – hell, I imagine most dogs would’ve done something – standing in that doorway, two acceptable thoughts should go through your mind. One: This seems wrong; maybe I should try to stop it. Or, two: This seems wrong; maybe I should get the hell out of here. The latter is a bit on the cowardly side, but it’s understandable. Less so are two other options: This looks fun; let me get on it; or, this looks fun; let me record it.

Even if the woman was swinging naked from the chandelier, issuing gold-plated invitations to any and everyone to join the “encounter,” something in your brain – young, impressionable, alcohol-clouded and hormone-ruled though it may be – has to balk at jumping into the fray. If it’s too much to ask to think of the woman in question, surely university standing, playing status or possible criminal charges should filter through. One of the men involved reportedly told police, “I wish she didn’t remember my damn name.” Well, son, why are you having sex with a woman you don’t want to remember your name? Does that seem like a good idea?

But by all means, let’s focus our sports chat discussions on whether the football players should be allowed to boycott the bowl game, and what repercussions they might face if they do. The players say the rights of their “brothers” to due process have been violated and their reputations tarnished because they’ve been named in some media outlets even though charges haven’t been filed. (My heart breaks.) For the record, scholarships are contracts. Letters of intent are legal documents. So sure, boycott. If you lose that scholarship, you have as much right to cry as Donald Sterling or Phil Robertson or anyone else who learns that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences.

UPDATE: Saturday morning, Minnesota players announced they're dropping the boycott and will play in the bowl. Well, whoopee. Guess that's that, then.

In comparison, other issues raising their tired, ugly heads seem to shrink, but they do bear mentioning. The Oklahoma Supreme Court ordered the release of a video showing Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon punching a female student in the face – breaking four bones – after the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters sued to obtain it. In the video from the July 2014 incident at a sandwich shop, Mixon gets into an altercation with the student, who appears to slap his neck before he floors her with a right hand. As Mixon walks off, people try to help the woman up. She slides off a booth back down to the floor.

Mixon has apologized and was suspended from the team for a year. He led the Sooners to the 2015 Orange Bowl, where they lost to Clemson, and is expected to enter the NFL Draft after Oklahoma’s Sugar Bowl matchup with Auburn on Jan. 2.

It's a sick commentary that my first thought was to compare the video to others I've viewed of athletes hitting women. It's not so bad by, say, Ray Rice-in-an-elevator standards. But it's pretty bad in human decency terms.

Former Wake Forest assistant football coach and radio announcer Tommy Elrod didn’t hit anybody. What he did apparently do is offer game plan information to Demon Deacon opponents, beginning in 2014, as part of a grudge seemingly borne from not being retained after 11 seasons on the Wake coaching staff by current head coach Dave Clawson, hired in 2013.

So far, Louisville and Virginia Tech have admitted receiving the information. Virginia Tech said a former assistant was involved and, to its credit, apologized profusely. Louisville responded … differently, with AD Tom Jurich initially bitching that the news was distracting the Cardinals as they prepared for their bowl game before grudgingly suspending implicated assistant Lonnie Galloway.

Initially, Jurich said that the matter involved “a few plays” before issuing this tone-deaf sentence: “I’m disappointed that this issue has brought undue attention to our football staff as we prepare for our upcoming bowl game.”

Odd that Jurich would have a problem with undue attention. After all, he hired Bobby Petrino again. After repeatedly lying about interviewing with other schools, Petrino signed a 10-year contract extension at Louisville in 2006, months before leaving to become head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. That job lasted 13 games. Petrino left a note in his players’ lockers hours before being introduced as Arkansas’ head coach, but he was run out of Razborback land after an April 2012 crash with his mistress on the back of his motorcycle.  

(Oh, and Louisville’s basketball team has been charged with four major NCAA violations. One involves a former staffer who allegedly paid women to dance for and have sex with players and recruits.)

Petrino, however, wins football games, as does Steve Sarkisian. Sarkisian, fired from the University of Southern California in 2015 for incidents stemming from a reported drinking problem, went 34-29 from 2009-2013 at a Washington program that had won 12 games in the previous five seasons. That, and not the lawsuit Sarkisian filed against Southern Cal for firing him without accommodating his efforts to seek treatment for alcoholism, must have been what Alabama coach Nick Saban was thinking of when he said “He’s got a really great track record and has done a really, really good job wherever he’s been” in announcing Sarkisian as Alabama’s new offensive coordinator on Friday.

Sarkisian replaces Lane Kiffin, now head coach at Florida Atlantic. Kiffin is no stranger to head coaching positions, though keeping them is a different story. In 2007, he became the 31-year-old head coach of the Oakland Raiders, where he went 5-15 in one and a half seasons. He then spent one season as head coach at Tennessee before bolting for Southern Cal, where he won 25 games from 2010-2013.

While Kiffin’s record is respectable enough, he’s made a habit of burning bridges behind him. Late Raiders owner Al Davis ripped into him after his short tenure in Oakland ended, saying “I think he conned me like he conned all you people.” At Tennessee, he accused then-Florida coach Urban Meyer of recruiting violations and was also implicated in an NCAA investigation of Tennessee’s recruiting “hostesses,” whose visit to a high school in South Carolina to smile pretty at potential recruits was deemed illegal. (Are we sensing any sort of theme here?)

Kiffin also infamously told former University of South Carolina wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey that if he played for the Gamecocks, he would “end up pumping gas for the rest of his life.”

Kiffin left Knoxville after a year to return to the Trojans, where he’d been offensive coordinator. I got a text from a Tennessee player I’d covered in high school, saying, “See what I mean about him?” He wore out his welcome there, too, before landing on Saban’s staff.

All this has made me tired. Tired of the same stupid shit and the same stupid faces. Apparently, if one wants to be an immature, lying, unaccountable adult, that’s fine, as long as you win football games. If personal responsibility or integrity isn’t your thing, just make sure your X’s and O’s are on point, and you’re good to go – and go, and go somewhere else.

Seems like a fine example to set for the young people, and they seem to be quick studies.




I’m trying to find some Christmas spirit.

I started by trying to put up my tree, a little fiber-optic number I’ve had since my Myrtle Beach days, purchased at Target by my mother, whose old cross-stitched ornaments have adorned its branches for 10-plus years.

That plan was thwarted when I realized the box that plugs the spinny light CD in the stand into the wall apparently wasn’t ready to leave Florida yet.

 I did succeed in getting holiday-themed placemats and the pretty purple-and-gold runner my previous boss gave me on the dining room table.

Then I gave up and decided to have a glass of wine with Dave Pirner at noon.

I opened the three windows in the house that will shut and lock again to let the December air in to keep me company.

Tomorrow I start yet another new thing in a year that has had quite enough of those for my taste. This, I hope and think, is a good one. But more unknown territory. It’s OK. That’s starting to feel familiar.

Seems like I should be getting somewhere/Somehow I’m neither here nor there

I spent a few minutes on Facebook this morning before retreating in abject fear.

I wish all days were filled with wall-to-wall football. I understand football. Well, except for targeting, and exactly what a catch is.

My ESPN app is a safe haven. The news it brings me doesn’t seize my stomach muscles and tighten my throat. Baseball hot stove heating up. College hoops injury updates. A John Saunders article, which is sad, but not in a humanity-is-damned kind of way.

Syracuse and UConn tip off at 7 p.m. Oh, right, that’s kind of an ACC game.  I wonder if I’ll ever get used to that. Probably not, as I still think Seattle is an AFC team and the Brewers are in the AL.

Speaking of Seattle, the Seahawks won big last night, though Earl Thomas was carried off the field and started tweeting about retirement, which kind of sucked. The aerial shots of a city I’ve now seen for myself made me smile, and vow to return for a game next year. I want to take my friend, who showed me that lovely place and to whom the universe owes a bit of peace.

Peace was the subject of yesterday’s sermon at church, though it wasn’t really a sermon – not in a Southern Baptist way. As I sat in the pew, joined by another friend, the minister spoke of God’s peace, which was not to be viewed as snowy white doves and Christmas carols. God’s peace, she said, is division – taking intentional steps to disrupt what is conventional and comfortable and rearranging the pieces of what was familiar into something more powerful for more people.

Now my phone, on shuffle because decisions are difficult, is playing All This Could Have Been Yours. It’s a mournful, reflective tune from a 2010 album called Black Ribbons by Shooter Jennings (Waylon’s son) and band Hierophant. It’s strange and category-defying and post-apocalyptic and sometimes just perfect.

Maybe it’s better not to have a tree. Less work all around. I’ll go to my friend’s annual holiday party – such an event that it has its own Twitter account – and then drive down to the beach to listen to the waves and winds with my mother.

And now we’re back to the Runaway Train that started all this surprise afternoon introspection. Random does nothing to decrease the chances of repeating yourself.

As the music shifts to the well-worn comfort of Lucinda's glorious gravel voice, I remember there's also Monday Night Football. Not what it was, but what is, and it's something.

And I'll leave you with, as I'm so often left to, My Own Devices. Happy holidays. Let your dim light shine indeed.