EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Hello, my name is Mike Tanier and I am a distraction.
I am a national media member who descended on St. Louis Rams camp specifically because openly gay defensive end Michael Sam is on the roster. My presence swells the vulturine press corps and focuses the searing spotlight of national attention on this gritty small-market team trying to go about the business of cracking .500 in professional sports' toughest decision.
My arrival presumably caused the Rams to divert attention and resources toward deflecting my judgmental gaze away from their culturally-relevant backup defender. My political-sensitivity Geiger counters disrupts cellphone communication as I scan for the faintest traces of scandal or discrimination.
It's a wonder Jeff Fisher does not swallow his whistle at the mere sight of me. I am like one of the inmates in The Great Escape, determined to make life as difficult as possible for my captors. I am Tony Dungy's worst nightmare.
Except that I am very much alone. There are only one or two other national media types here this weekend. Others are coming -- Kurt Warner is scheduled to arrive after I leave -- but national media members tend to make the rounds this time of year. It's really just the St. Louis media on the sidelines, which looks like the Giants or Jets media in the offseason, during a flu epidemic.
Insiders tell me the local television presence has been greater than usual, something Jeff Fisher alluded to during rookies-only sessions. But if you saw pictures of Tom Brady or Dez Bryant buried under an avalanche of microphones this week, rest assured nothing like that is happening here, to anyone. This is not a circus. It's not even a church parking lot carnival.
Not that I came to Rams camp specifically to raise a ruckus. The temptation is great to walk up to players and conduct interviews that go something like this:
ME: Are you distracted?
RAMS PLAYER: No.
ME: How about now?
RAMS PLAYER: No.
ME: Quick, turnaround! Michael Sam is performing a duet with Elton John!
RAMS PLAYER: I am not going to fall for that.
But that's not my style. Actually, it is my style, but I am a guest here.
When lining up camp visits, I looked at the Rams and asked: "What are the chances that the Westboro Baptist Church and a major LGBT rights organization hold simultaneous rallies outside the gates, meet face-to-angry-face across some service road no-man's land, and break into a spontaneous song-and-dance number (something from Godspell, presumably)?" Well, journalistic integrity and human curiosity left me with no other travel options.
Westboro is precisely 294 miles away on a straight stretch of I-70. Other types of crazies have driven farther for training camps, and as those morons protest funerals, it's not like defensive installation walkthroughs are sacrosanct. But they are not here. There is no obvious outpouring of progressive or LGBT support, either. There are just Rams fans, in Robert Quinn or Torry Holt or (God bless 'em) Sam Bradford jerseys, and not many of them. It thundered hard before Friday's practice, and Saturday's took place in a 95 degree sauna, so workaday Rams fans, culture warriors and potential rubberneckers may all have been kept away by the weather. If Dungy taught us anything this week, it's that deep-rooted beliefs are secondary to taking the easiest possible way out.
Here are a few quotes from the opening of camp to give you a sense of the tone and timbre of conversation here in this roiling caldron of sociopolitical transmutation.
When asked to talk about the youth of his roster, Jeff Fisher said: "We assign parking spots out there based on seniority. We've got third-year guys down there in about the fourth or fifth spot."
Sam Bradford then spoke about his leadership role. Keep in mind as you read this that he was not privy to Fisher's remarks and was not prompted to talk about parking in any way: "You know, with the parking order now, I get closer to the front every year."
So where are you on the parking order now, franchise quarterback? "The numbering system's kind of off. It's going by twos for a while, then it goes by ones. But I am pretty close to the top ten."
Note the disparity: Fisher claims that third-year players have cracked the Top Five, while fifth-year pro Bradford is shut out of yet another top ten list. Parking injustice can tear a workplace apart far more effectively than any inclusion issues. I've seen it happen in dozens of teacher's meetings:
SUPERINTENDENT: The new state policies tie your salaries directly to how well the junior high kids from the Tragic Meadows apartment complex score on the state's non-evolutionary science exam, and it is now against the law to assign homework on two consecutive days. Also, due to construction on Main Street, parking-by-seniority is temporarily suspended.
OLD TEACHER: I have been here 37 years, and I still park three blocks away under an elm tree where the birds poop all over the windshield of my Celica. When are we going to do something about this?
If I were Jeff Fisher, Sam Bradford, or Robert Quinn, I would let Quinn park ahead of Bradford, too.
The whole "distraction" theme is so overplayed that the word "Sam" in Earth City does not refer to Michael Sam at all, but to Sam Bradford, who is of course the starting quarterback. No one gets mixed up in conversation: reporters, photographers, coaches, players. If you ask anyone how "Sam" looks, they will say, "The knee looked fine, he moved around okay, but his passes suggest he is still shaking off some throws." Ask Fisher about the expectations for Sam, and he will say (actual quote): "The things we got from him halfway through the season last year. The production, the execution, the leadership that he displayed throughout this offseason."
If you want to ask a question about Michael Sam around here, you must specify "Michael Sam." But few people are asking questions about Michael Sam. I stood in about a dozen microphone forests and did not hear a single distraction question, just a question to Fisher about Sam's progress after a rather impressive day against backup blockers. Sam spoke midweek, at the media's request, about Tony Dungy's remarks, deflating the balloon in precisely 28 words. He is scheduled to speak again on Monday.
Sam is being protected from the press a bit, his media availability scheduled more tightly than that of the typical seventh rounder, who sometimes has to ask the reporters for interviews just to have someone to talk to. There is nothing unusual about a little player protection. The Giants media spent a month trying to get a few grunts from Osi Umenyiora during his weird bike-in protest of 2011: the best we could do was take blurry zoom-lens photos of him on a stationary bike. He looked like the Yeti impersonating Vincenzo Nibali. Limiting a player's press opportunities is not a distraction, but a standard operating procedure. So far, it has proven wholly unnecessary.
The battle for gay rights, as well as the soul and conscience of the NFL, was never going to take place in Earth City, Missouri. It's going on at 30 Rock, in Park Avenue, in Bristol, on your television screens and in your Twitter feeds, and in the brains of individuals with noisy pulpits and a great gift for unintentional irony. It has nothing to do with an actual openly gay player fighting to make a real roster under real summer sunshine. It has been co-opted by middle-aged heterosexual guys with tangential connections to the real issue, many of whom are trying to sell books. In that respect, I am not speaking truth to power, but simply piling on.
Center Stage, Co-Opted
The discussion about gay rights in the NFL was all about Tony Dungy and Chris Kluwe at the beginning of last week. Dungy wants the world to believe that he is not a cowardly homophobe; Kluwe wants the world to believe that everyone involved with the NFL but Chris Kluwe is.
Christian bookstore staple Dungy provided us with a challenging new Beatitude with regard to gay football players: Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for justice, unless it will cause things to run less-than-smoothly, in that case just go with the flow.
Progressive crusader Kluwe valiantly placed himself at the center of NFL's gay rights debate despite being neither gay nor in the NFL. A two-year old allegation that he was cut due to his gay-rights advocacy led Kluwe to Tweet endlessly and salaciously about all of the dirty laundry in the Vikings hamper, a percentage of which is somewhat germane to the possibility that Kluwe was the victim of ricocheting bigotry. Airtight legal cases are usually handled quietly through channels, while flimsy ones become ad hominem splatter-damage attacks in the court of public opinion, but that just may be critical thinking getting the better of my rush to judgment.
Dungy is an easy criticism target. Hearing him hide behind "distractions" is depressing on a variety of levels: it combines miserable coaching philosophy, lazy broadcasting and a very mealy-mouthed version of Christianity from a guy whose books are on the end-cap of the Bible aisle. Dungy the Media Guy believes the Dungy the Coach would be put-off by all the distractions caused by endless speculation and half-hearted condemnation coming from the likes of … Dungy the Media Guy. Dungy the Bestselling Author of Quiet Strength and Dare to be Uncommon, the one who doesn't have to look up a reference to Mathew 25:40 to know what it says, would be incensed if he weren't the same guy.
Of course, NFL types have a reason to duck and cover before saying things one-fifth as poisonously anti-gay as the remarks that draw "amens" from congregations across America and applause from politicians that win major-party presidential primaries. David Tyree made anti-gay marriage assertions many of us vehemently disagree with in 2011 as part of the program by the National Organization for Marriage. Tyree was just hired by the Giants, who were promptly blasted by several civil-rights groups whose principal target should probably be the National Organization for Marriage. The NOM has the support of actual lawmakers, and its membership includes thousands of people in better position to discriminate in the workforce than Tyree. There is no blogosphere documenting the hirings, firings, snubbing and mumblings of "distraction" for teachers or waitresses, the way there is for football players.
So even a Christian soldier like Dungy is wary to poke his head too far above the foxhole. Kluwe, meanwhile, felt free to rat-a-tat-tat from his pillbox about his agenda, which stopped being "pro gay rights" and became "pro Chris Kluwe" long ago. His self-serving Twitter manifesto painted an unfortunate picture of exactly the kind of toxic employee who becomes expendable the moment a low-cost alternative is available: the loudmouth with a dozen axes to grind and a quick trigger. No one can be fired for their sexual orientation or political opinions, but "resident malcontent" is not legally-protected status.
I agree with most of Kluwe's politics, usually admire what he stands for and know full well that NFL coaching staffs harbor their share of hateful bigots (faculty lounges are no picnic, either). He just has gone off the rails. Kluwe's too pure for the NFL routine was undermined by his rush to Twitter, Deadspin, and MSNBC with every greasy innuendo he could think of, many of them irrelevant to any accusations of political discrimination. He has not gotten called out for it much, because some of us are in "are you comfortable enough, or would you like another pillow?" mode with a man who once spoke boldly when most were silent.
Like Dungy pointing fingers at imagined distractions, Kluwe's tattle tantrum betrayed a lack of self awareness, in an equal and opposite direction. If you claim to be a moral leader, make moral statements, one way or the other, even if some friends or foes find them uncomfortable. If you claim to be a victim of discrimination because of your advocacy, act like an advocate, not someone settling old grudges.
Oh, how I long for the peace and serenity of the first half of last week, before Kluwe and the Vikings lawyers went to the mattresses and Dungy hid his light under a bigger bushel, when Michael Sam battled teammates in one-on-one drills and was issued a parking space that is probably far back in the lot, though not for discriminatory reasons.
It was a simpler time, before the really big distractions.
The Wrong Message, Shouted Down
Sports leagues make lousy governing bodies and even worse religions.
In a nation where governing bodies and religions often do a terrible job being governing bodies and religions, it is understandable that we turn to the sports league that dominates our Sundays for guidance. Show us the way, we ask the silver idol of the Lombardi Trophy. Send us a message. Yet the idol is mute, or worse, only says something really stupid.
Ray Rice's two-game suspension for domestic battery is disturbingly short, though far longer than his nonexistent jail sentence for the same crime. The NFL failed yet again to serve as our moral compass: Shame on the league for taking such a soft stance and on us for expecting more.
Roger Goodell brought this criticism upon himself. Just as Dungy purports to be one of the weavers of our nation's moral fabric, Goodell's get-tough speechmaking and stiff penalties of the past positioned him as the sports world's Grand Inquisitor. Given something touchier than some cocaine convictions to defuse, Goodell took the same cheesy way out as Dungy: well, I kinda-sorta condemn this behavior, but …
Rice's slap on the wrist was roundly condemned. Roundly condemning the NFL's ethical shortcomings is on the short list of safe conversation topics (weather, Game of Thrones, NFL is evil, the wisdom of abandoning cable television, local NFL team's prospects for 2014, not understanding kids' obsession with Minecraft, food truck tacos) left in our fractious society. Rather than whipping out my indignation on the Internet to compare sizes, I took the opportunity on Thursday to explore my own feelings about Ray Rice and his two games in the penalty box.
What if Rice runs for an 85-yard razzle-dazzle fourth-quarter touchdown to beat the Browns in Week 3? How do we acknowledge that? Do we take the awkward, throat-clearing tone of the Criterion collection commentary track for Manhattan? Ahem, compartmentalizing for a moment some of the uncomfortable, er, subtext, this is a breathtaking work of filmmaking. Perhaps we can hope Johnny Manziel throws four interceptions and swaps Gatorade for Mad Dog 20/20 at halftime, making it easy to politely change the subject.
What if Rice rushes for three touchdowns in Baltimore against the Panthers the following week? When Ravens fans cheer, do we cluck our tongues at them? Maybe Ravens fans need to organize a chant, like De-FENSE or U-S-A: WE ARE CHEERING FOR CIVIC PRIDE AND TEAMWORK, NOT THE RUNNING BACK. Might be a little wordy.
What if Goodell imposed an eight-game suspension: Would we then feel comfortable at Rice's return for the Steelers game? If it were a one-year suspension, what would our perception be in training camp, 2015? It's a squicky thing to put a precise number on, but at some point, Rice's act of violence becomes "old news" from a practical standpoint. In some not-so-distant future, I will type "Ray Rice rushed for 54 yards" without acknowledging, in print or in my mind, that he is different from any other player. Every other NFL writer will do the same; voices of dissent will be relegated to the message boards, where they will demonstrate their sensitivity to the underlying issues and severity of the crime by coining catchy nicknames like "Ray Wifepuncher." Is there an unwritten waiting period, like the designated period between breaking up with someone and changing your Facebook status?
Here's a simple question: Will you draft Ray Rice for your fantasy league? No hiding behind the "he had a bad year last year" deflection, buddy. Sure, you will pass him up in the first, second and third rounds. But then he will be sitting there, possibly into the late rounds. Will you stand on principle in the 12th round, when it's Rice or Fozzy Whittaker? Perhaps you will. But what happens when your buddy's obnoxious brother-in-law selects him? Do you frown and shake your head? Start an argument? What will your buddy's sister think?
Your league could suspend Rice for the year. Will you take the Panthers off the board too, to resist the temptation of cheering for a Greg Hardy strip sack? Another alternative: You could draft him and vow to donate any winnings to a woman's rights organization or domestic violence shelter. Personally, I plan to keep Rice off my roster, somehow convincing myself that I can retain both the moral high ground and the cash.
Some poor sucker is going to have to write the first "what impact does the Rice suspension have on your fantasy draft strategy" article, if it hasn't happened yet. That's rubber meeting the road: domestic violence is a plague on our society, but you have a friends-and-family league to dominate, and I only make 25 bucks per article, so let's talk Bernard Pierce.
When does the first "Ray Rice Redemption" article/television interview drop? You know it's coming. Is it a job for Oprah? Tony Dungy? Is all of this preordained and prepackaged? Was all of our foot-stomping and swooning on Thursday just the choreographed chorus in an elaborately-staged public tragedy? Is "media circus" just a cellphone app?
We feel powerless in the face of some of the nigh-unsolvable problems people like Ray Rice represent. We voice our outrage, and it provides a little catharsis, and we feel better. One day, we realize that all we are doing about all of these problems is voicing outrage, not to lawmakers but each other, about a rotating series of topics. Instead of activism, we get comfy with loud-but-sedentary passive-aggressivism.
Making a few angry remarks about Ray Rice's suspension is the second-least a person can do to actually make things better.
The absolute least a person can do, of course, is get angry at Stephen A. Smith's remarks about Rice's actions.
Rage Seeks Target. Must Have Own Talk Show
Stephen A. Smith is a braying jackass. That's essentially his job description. Given over 24 hours to prepare for a television segment on a delicate subject, a period he could have spent researching domestic violence statistics, state and local penal policies for domestic abuse, various sports league's handling of past crimes and allegations, or anything else that would add substance to the national conversation, Smith babbled out some addle-brained "blame the victim" boilerplate. He then took to Twitter explaining his explanations, making matters infinitely worse.
We quickly pounced, our indignation getting a second wind after a very busy week. It was the last of this week's multiple scorngasms, this time directed against a person who said stupid things about another person who did a reprehensible thing. Weariness set in, as did dislocation from the original subject matter. Attacking Smith with the same vehemence as Goodell, and actual perpetrator Rice in turn, with roughly the same intensity that was used on Dungy (for a few mutterings) suggests that we have some modulation issues in our reactions to major events.
The NFL no doubt realized it would be hammered for the Rice decision. A one-year suspension would have been more satisfactory, and it may have been more PR-savvy, for those willing to compromise on a right thing done for wrong reasons. Perhaps the league thinks that one media maelstrom is very much like another. We will scream ourselves hoarse and then return to the box office anyway, so what does it matter? Sadly, the NFL may be on to something. How can we change society, or even the NFL, when we cannot even force ESPN into hiring two non-morons for their midday shows?
Our voices might be better heard if we did not sound like we were just flitting from conversation topic to conversation topic, distraction to distraction.
While the NFL dithered with Rice, Panthers defender Hardy was found guilty of two counts of assault on a female and of communicating threats. The testimony against Hardy by his victim painted an even more harrowing picture than what we saw in the Rice video: a queasy pattern of behavior involving jealous rages, intoxicants and the casual handling of firearms.
The Panthers are waiting for the NFL to discipline Hardy. With an actual conviction on the table, I hope Goodell throws the book at him, though I am not basing my worldview on it.
Hardy's criminal punishment was a 60 day suspended sentence with 18 months of probation. No jail for a not-isolated night of horror, even with the victim testifying. That's our legal system and tax dollars at work. We just may have societal problems that transcend the opinions of Stephen A. Smith.
Everything is a Distraction, and Therefore Nothing Is
Michael Sam really was a distraction this week. A welcome one.
He was out on a football field, stretching and running drills with second stringers. For those of us who spent most of the week tracking the Dungy-Kluwe-Rice-Screamin' ragestorm, the sight of a bunch of guys with 90s on their jerseys walking through playbook installations soothed sore eyes. I spent two days in media rooms last week, in Giants and Rams camp, watching Twitter pile-ons that amounted to little more than the noisy din of a restless mob. Never before have kickoff-coverage drills looked so good.
So put down your smartphone. Disengage from that Twitter battle. Look, out there on the fields! Young men are preparing to play football. The NFL is about to produce the one product the NFL can be reasonably expected to produce: America's favorite sport.
What's more, the man conspicuously absent from the eye of our controversy hurricane is just going about his business. Sure, he is more interesting than the average seventh-round pick, but it is a matter of percentages, not orders of magnitude. I was in Jets camp during Tebowmania, in Eagles camp during the Riley Cooper saga. I know what I speak of. This is fascinating in its lack of fascination.
We're as distracted as we allow ourselves to be, by the people, events, and topics that we choose as our distractions. Tuning out debate, particularly debate that comes unglued from its subject, overshadows underlying issues and takes on a life of its own, is all a matter of focus. The Rams and Michael Sam are focused on drills. We must remain focused on civil rights for all, workplace fairness for all and protecting abused women and children. We focus on those goals by doing things. And when it comes time for a diversion, we watch sports or Game of Thrones or our kids playing Minecraft.
And as for me, the court jester who came to St. Louis seeking controversy but found it everywhere else but here, I have my own distractions. Before I leave, I plan to figure out exactly where Sam Bradford parks.