Going Crackers

There is no question that the emergence of Jeremy Lin has been “linspirational” to millions of benchwarmers everywhere, but I’ve really been avoiding writing anything on the topic.  Many people have asked me why, probably because we have amazingly similar stories.  We’re both male, we both have spent time living in Manhattan, and we both have some trouble dribbling a basketball with our left hand.  But the story had been so thoroughly covered, I couldn’t think of much to add.  That is until earlier this week when ESPN published a now infamous headline.  After the Knicks finally experienced their first loss in eight games with Jeremy Lin as their starting point guard, ESPN published a headline on their mobile sites that read “Chink in the Armor”.

The offending headline was pulled after approximately 30 minutes, but not after being re-reported on ESPN News and viewed by possibly millions of ESPN customers.  A day later, ESPN issued a formal apology and announced the dismissal of one employee and the suspension of another.  That’s the part that got my attention.

When I was a young investment banker, one of my many altruistic and spiritually fulfilling duties was to assemble pitch books, or lengthy sales presentations for prospective clients.  The pressure to produce a pitch book quickly was intense, and staying at my desk all night was an expected and frequent occurrence.  One day, a peer of mine was cranking away on a pitch book for a potential initial public offering.  Who knows how long it had been since he had last slept, but when the books went out the door, the title pages didn’t read “Initial Public Offering” but rather “Initial Pubic Offering”.  Even the spell checker can’t help you with that one.  The partners ripped off the covers before they got to the client’s office, and we all got a hearty laugh about it later.

Now in my example, no customers were offended, our brand was not marred and it ended with a successful pitch.  No one lost their job as a result of what was probably a stupid oversight.  Not the case with ESPN.  It is certainly reasonable to assume that the writer of the headline was a bigoted jerk who thought he was being hilarious with the timely use of a not so subtle double entendre.  If so, he can enjoy the next phase of his career as an unemployable writer.  More likely, in my opinion, is that you had a late-20s employee who was scrambling like crazy to get a headline published after a high profile event before millions of customers cut over to Sports Illustrated to see who won the game.  The phrase “chink in the armor” does fit the context of an “undefeated” team experiencing its first loss.  Hours later the guy is out of a job.

I don’t blame ESPN for the actions they took.  They are a business, and if an employee does something that infuriates a group of customers, it can’t go ignored.  If the terminated employee had editorial responsibility, then looking out for offensive contexts was kind of in his job description.  My concern comes from the public reaction.

Even after the rapid apology and subsequent employee actions, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund called on ESPN to go further such that the apology “be aired prominently on ESPN’s television programs, so that it is clear to all viewers that this racist language is unacceptable.”  Jay Caspian Kang, writer for ESPN property Grantland.com, wrote that the headline “was completely unacceptable and made me seriously reconsider my continued employment with the company.”  Really?  Even if the comments were intended in the worst manner possible, would you really leave your job because a single employee out of your 6,500 co-workers was an a-hole who was quickly fired?  Heads up Jay, because with that many employees you probably also work with an anti-Semite, a communist and a felon.

Look back to my first paragraph, and note that I pointed out that Lin has trouble “dribbling” a basketball with his left hand.  In reality, no one who covers the sport will say it like that.  If you watch ESPN, or any other network, instead you will hear commentators say Lin struggles to “drive” to his left.  Wait a minute, is that some kind of shot at the stereotype that Asian’s can’t drive?  Of course not.  I did a Google search for the phrase “nipped at the buzzer” and got 492,000 results.  Are editors across the country scouring rosters to ensure there were no players of Japanese descent featured prominently in those contests?

I don’t mean to make light of racism and the smoking hole it continues to leave on the fabric of our country and the world.  Reactions to bigotry and racism are justifiably harsh and swift.  But the reactions to an appearance of racism seem to have become grossly disproportional.  ESPN commentators and analysts have had their own share of trouble, with arrests for everything from DUI to domestic battery.  Some have been dismissed, but some have not.  Even in the cases where an employee was dismissed, it took days, weeks or months for that to happen.  In the case of the Lin headline, justice was meted out  in less than 24 hours.  I have no doubt that management at ESPN decided an overreaction was the only acceptable reaction.

The part of this story that scares me is that as I work to start my writing career, another may have just been ended over what could have been a naive, completely unintentional misstep.  Racism certainly still exists.  Lin reportedly heard racist taunts during his Harvard playing days, but even he when asked about this incident was quoted as saying, “I don’t even think that was intentional.”  I’m not Asian, and I’ve tried to recall the last time I’ve heard the offending remark used in an intentionally offending context.  I’d literally have to go back decades.  I asked some of my friends what their perspective was, and the reaction varied from “I kind of forgot that could be used as a slur” to “Do people still use that term?  Seems like a word someone in their 80s might say”.  It is possible that the culprit in this case wasn’t even aware there was a slur involved.  In fact, it has to be an encouraging sign that I can’t remember the last time I heard any racial slur that was not used as an odd term of endearment by the targeted culture or used in conjunction with some kind of artistic expression, like music or film.

When I first considered writing on this topic and the fear of unemployment that came with it, I wrestled with the concern that the piece itself might contain some unseen slight that made trouble for me somewhere.  Similarly, I bet there are not a lot of people who will pose in public that this entire episode may have been a tragic mistake.  For doing so could get them branded themselves a racist, and few can afford to have that happen.

But after I’ve given it more thought, a job is just a job, and the loss of that is not my true source of concern.  In reality, the outcome of this for me is that race will be a topic I stay far, far away from.  The real fear is that I and others will be intimidated into avoiding discussion of the issue entirely.  Constructive dialogue is a leading strategy for pushing racism out of a society, and the fear to talk about it serves to perpetuate the problem.

In addition, while bigoted perspectives should be addressed, foolishness or carelessness should not be  dealt with the same ferocity.  By doing so, we not only stifle legitimate discourse, but we dilute incidents that are a cause for justified outrage.  An Asian friend summed it up like this, “There’s real racism, real racist remarks and there’s this. They aren’t equal. Firing the guy makes us think it’s all equal.”

In the meantime, it seems we’ve moved our focus from vilifying real persecution to protecting against perceived insult, and I’ll leave the discussion of race to the independently wealthy or the successfully self-employed.  And I won’t write about Jeremy Lin either.

Alarming Discovery

Let me pose a scenario to you. Assume one day while my wife and I are away, several thousand, heavily armed, Cuban soldiers parachute into our back yard intent on using our house as a foothold for their invasion of the continental United States. The soldiers are a little lightheaded from too many Cohibas, and as they enter our home, they trip our security alarm. What happens? Well, if we didn’t have a current alarm permit on file with the city, nothing would happen. The alarm company and the city would determine that no permit is in effect, and law enforcement would not be dispatched. Within weeks we’d all be loaded into circa 1950 automobiles and locked up in camps where they force us to dance the guaguancó and drink Cuba Libres.

Yes, you read that right. No $25 permit, no cops. Think I’m exaggerating? Last month a shoe store in our city had an alarm go off. When the alarm company called the city, the employee accidentally transposed two digits of the permit number. The city declared the permit invalid and did not respond. When the alarm triggered a second time, the store owner called her alarm company and was told that due to her invalid permit she would need to investigate the issue herself. She did and didn’t see anything wrong. The next morning, she discovered that her store had been burglarized. Today, she assumes that the thieves were hiding inside the store when she did her inspection. Now instead of a stranger in a store infiltrated by an international shoe burglary ring, imagine that was you in your house with a hidden Hillside Strangler or Justin Bieber.

It seemed unbelievable to me, so I called both city information and my alarm company to find out more. I posed the Cuban Invasion scenario to both parties and asked what would happen. First, it turns out that neither the employees at my alarm company nor those at the city seem to remember the movie Red Dawn (If you are female or under the age of 35, click here to learn what Red Dawn is). Second, the answer was the same. No permit, no response. They also both implied that I should not drink so early in the day.

I get why the rule is what it is. The $25 fee is there to make the city money. If you could get police protection without paying the fee, many would not pay in advance despite being legally required to do so. But is no response to an alarm really the best strategy for maximizing public safety? They already impose fines when they respond to false alarms, so this isn’t about cutting down on wasted resources. Why not impose a fine for rolling on a house that has no permit? Make the penalty so painful, like a $50,000 fine and a week of guaguancó lessons, that no one would risk it. Consumers have the option of having their alarm company collect the fee, so why not make that mandatory? You could even allow the security company collect $26 and only pay the city $25 to offset their administrative costs.

This week, my permit bill arrived from the city. It was the first check I wrote, and I walked the envelope straight to the post box. Think how embarrassed I’d feel if after years of battling to repel foreign invaders, the news reported that the entire war could have been avoided had William Mosher of Denver, Colorado simply remembered to keep a current alarm permit. I would not be able to handle that loss of life on my conscience, and besides, I’m a terrible dancer and too many Cuba Libres can cause a killer hangover. I’m not going to risk it.

Full of Beans

I did something earlier today that I thought I’d never do, or at least not do after several years of unrestrained hyperinflation. I paid $3.74 (American dollars!) for a 16 oz., drip coffee. Before you cut me off and point out that just last week you paid almost that much for a café Americano in the lobby of your local Ritz-Carleton, let me emphasize that this 1) was a regular drip, 2) was only 16 oz., 3) was at an off-the street coffee shop, and 4) did not include a complementary Krugerrand. For context for those who are not addicted to caffeine, a Starbucks 20 oz. coffee costs around $1.20 less than this.

Coffee prices, unless you exclusively frequented your local Conoco gas station, have been out of hand for at least a decade. There used to be a time when coffee shops were places near college campuses you could go to have an espresso and a clove cigarette while you listened to some deadbeat insult an acoustic guitar. Today, coffee shops are big business with billions of dollars of coffee, food and music sales running through them.

As an aside, I remember a couple of years ago I stopped into a local coffee shop that had just opened in my neighborhood, and the barista (fancy name for “guy that makes your coffee”) went on and on about how much he appreciated my choice to frequent his location rather than the Evil Empire (fancy name for “Starbucks”) down the street. I casually observed that had it not been for Starbucks and their massive investment in the socialization of gourmet coffee, he would never be able to charge me $4.00 for a latte. Our relationship went downhill from there. I never went back, and he didn’t miss me for the next three months that he was still in business.

Anyway, back to my $3.74 drip. I was in the upscale Cherry Creek North neighborhood of Denver for a meeting, when I experienced one of those coffee cravings you can only probably relate to if you are a lifelong crack addict. I had about 20 minutes to kill, so I figured there was more than enough time to stroll down to the local Starbucks and spend what now seems to be an embarrassingly affordable $2.50 on a coffee. One block short of my destination, I passed a coffee shop, draped with banners, claiming it was the “top rated” coffee shop in town. How could I resist? Who knew that “top rated” was an award handed out by their accountants and was a euphemism for “most expensive”?

I’d actually been in that location before, it was previously a Peaberry Coffee, and I immediately noticed the décor improvement. A coffee shop that can afford mahogany should have been a big red flag. I shook off my intimidation, walked up to the counter, and after a completely confused glance of the day’s bean menu, asked for simply, “one large coffee.” I have to admit that after being informed of the price, I was intrigued. What was this coffee, and like a home mortgage why did it not come with some kind of estimate I needed to pre-approve? Was it brewed from some kind of special 20-year old, oak aged beans and also included a gram of cocaine and a week’s supply of high-end hookers? I needed to know more.

The secret, it turns out, to make a really expensive cup of coffee is to rely on lots of labor. The beans were ground especially for me, but not before a smaller portion of beans was used to clear the grinder of whatever blend had been previously served. The carafe which was used to collect my brewed coffee was pre-heated with what I can only assume was an organically warmed, free-range, artesian spring water. And while the Conoco coffee involves just you and a lever, this coffee involved two baristas, several specialized kitchen utensils, and over ten minutes.

To their credit, they could have charged me by the milligram of caffeine. It’s 11 PM, and I’m feeling like the coffee actually did include a gram of cocaine. But still, I feel scarred by the whole experience and might need to seek out some kind of “post traumatic purchase disorder” therapy to get me past this. I hope this is not a trend we will be seeing in our coffee shops in the future. If it is, screw Afghanistan and their oil. Invade Columbia, and let’s go to war for coffee.

I believe in unicorns, faeries and Lance Armstrong

OK, the Super Bowl is thankfully over, but we’ll have to endure the mania of NY fans for a while.  Just three months ago, fans were roasting quarterback Eli Manning as an underachiever.  Today they think his entry to the Hall of Fame is just a matter of time, and even a little bit of an insult to his legacy unless he gets a private wing.

One story that you may not have seen with all the big game hype was the latest chapter in the professional cycling doping saga.  At this point, I think it’s gone beyond a saga and passed over to multi-volume epic.  The two bits of news that came out were: 1) Alberto Contador, 2010 Tour de France champion, was stripped of that title due to a positive drug test, and 2) the U.S. Attorney office announced that they would no longer pursue Lance Armstrong as part of their investigation in to a doping program involving many of Armstrong’s team mates.

On Contador, I give a healthy “yawn”.  I think I read somewhere that since 1961, 13 of the 25 Tour de France champions have been implicated in doping or performance enhancing drugs through positive tests or admissions of use.  The sport has been riddled with cheating for decades.  Find a champion, flip a coin and watch heads come up less often than a cheating champion.

The Armstrong thing is another issue.  His story is legendary.  Armstrong won the Tour de France seven consecutive years from 1999 through 2005.  In the midst of that, he survived a bout with testicular cancer, and his success serves as an inspiration for even non-sports fans.  Armstrong, due in part to his athletic record but also due to his tremendous work around cancer awareness, has a gigantic legion of loyal followers.  And to his credit, he’s had no positive tests, despite reportedly being the most tested athlete in world history.

From my perspective, however, his success without some element of cheating is just not believable.  There isn’t a lot that separates one elite athlete from another.  Competitors in 100 meter dashes are routinely separated by tenths of seconds or less.  And, as we have seen in track and field and more recently baseball, PEDs give athletes shocking advantages over the field.  I refuse to believe that an athlete could have completely dominated a sport, specifically a sport that has been riddled by cheating, and not have cheated himself.  It defies logic.

Sure, we’ve seen athletes dominate sports.  Edwin Moses didn’t lose a championship race for almost an entire decade.  Michael Jordan led the NBA in scoring for years, while also taking home defensive player of the year awards.  Wayne Gretzky scored more goals that any other player has scored points (goals plus assists).  But in those examples, and countless others, their successes didn’t come against a field of athletes later proven to have been chemically enhanced.

The defenders of Armstrong will point to the lack of a positive test, and claim it’s me that is being unreasonable.  But the way I see it is this.  Imagine I have a 100 mile commute every day, and I make that trip in right about an hour.  I’ve been doing it for years but have never been ticketed.  Now a reasonable person will conclude I’ve been speeding.  Maybe I have a radar detector, maybe after years of the drive I know where the speed traps are, maybe I got pulled several times but always cry my way out of it, but there is no way I could make the trip without breaking the law.  An Armstrong defender will point to the fact that I never got a ticket, and say there is no way I’ve been speeding.  The same goes for seven (SEVEN!) consecutive tour victories in an era of cheating.  There is no way that was done clean.

I’m not looking to diminish Armstrong’s legacy.  If almost every top cyclist was cheating, including himself, then his domination came on an oddly level playing field.  The fact that he was able to continue his training and successes despite significant medical issues is truly inspiring.  One cannot adequately describe in words the positive impact his philanthropic crusading has had on those whose lives have been impacted by cancer.

But if he did what he did without any special help, then he has to be considered the most outstanding athlete we’ve ever seen.  He would have flat-out owned word class athletes who were aided by cheating.  I cheered him in every Tour, and I’d like that.  But, that isn’t the truth.  Drugs move everyone up a notch.  Drugs turn solid pros into major leaguers, drugs turn major leaguers into all-stars, drugs turn all-stars into hall-of-famers, and drugs turn hall-of-famers into legends.  That is what we’ve seen here.

It’s not hard to see why Armstrong and his supporters still cling so tightly to the idea that he was 100% clean.  His image, one that inspires so many around the world, is worth fighting for.  But the incessant denials, amid performances that scream to the contrary, are doing more damage than good.  It just keeps the story alive, and as each of his contemporaries falls, Armstrong looks to be more and more in denial.  What happened is ancient history.  Everyone was doing it, and Lance was still the best.  Come clean, pun intended, and let’s move on.

Peyton Days

Pretty clear at this point that Peyton Manning will be a free agent in the next couple of weeks.  Colts Owner Jim Irsay is pointing to a Wednesday sit down with Manning, but I strongly suspect this is just to deflect the issue until after the Super Bowl passes.  Even if Manning was 100% healthy, I’d still let him go and move to the Andrew Luck era.  With the powerhouses we’ve seen emerge this season, the Colt’s are unlikely to win a title in the next three years, regardless of who their QB is.

Last night, Irsay was interviewed by the NFL Network and said, “If it helps us win, I’ll pay [Manning’s $28 million bonus] in a second. But when it comes to salary cap … we have real cap problems.  You can’t make a decision that straps you for the next three seasons…If we make a decision based on just affection, and we have cap problems for three years, the fans will call me an idiot.”  He should have said either “no comment” or “we’re cutting Manning”.  That was just saying it without saying it.