Posts Tagged ‘The Journal of Wild Culture’

Welcome to Super Bowl Week – Richard Sherman

January 28, 2014

“I don’t hate it enough not to love it.” So said a wag about professional football earlier in the 2013-2014 National Football League (NFL) season. The remark followed a barrage of stories about concussions and the news broke of murder charges against one time New England Patriots’ tight end Aaron Hernandez. The statement well expresses the love/hate relationship the thinking NFL fan (such as this writer) has with the sport. It features many of the world’s greatest athletes in a brilliantly marketed display of imponderable skill and sometimes frightening violence. On the field and off its young stars often behave as rich, absurdly privileged athletes who put their health at stake for their livelihood are wont to do. It’s not always pretty.

The incidence of concussions and the severity of other injuries underscores a fundamental truth about the NFL: if you play, you will get hurt.  Those of us who watch the NFL regularly live with an uneasy contradiction. We enjoy a brutal game which can inflict permanent physical and mental damage on its participants.

The NFL is far and away America’s most popular professional sport. Major League Baseball still lays claim to the moniker of being “America’s pastime,” but audiences for the NFL swamp that of both Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Basketball Association (NBA). In the United States, the National Hockey League (NHL) and Major League Soccer (MLS) are sideshows in comparison.

On the eve of Super Bowl week, one name has cut through all the noise and chatter about the NFL for football fan and non-football fan alike: Richard Sherman.

A week ago, Sherman made an extraordinarily athletic and exquisitely timed deflection to break up what would have been a last gasp, game-winning pass from the San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick to his receiver Michael Crabtree. Watching that play in slow motion is like watching the athlete as Nureyev. With the game on the line, Sherman elevated himself far off the ground while running at full speed and artfully raised one hand to deflect the ball away from Crabtree and into the hands of Sherman’s teammate for a game winning interception. Sherman made a breathtakingly superb play. But the real drama was yet to come. Sherman, to use the vernacular, proceeded to go off on prime time TV. First he made a choke sign with his hands around his neck while glowering at Kaepernick the San Francisco star who had just been victimized – not by his own bad play, but by a superior one from Sherman. Sherman then visibly taunted a disconsolate Crabtree slapping him on the bum and screaming into the ear hole of his helmet. In return, Sherman received a poke in the face-mask from Crabtree. Sherman was penalized for his taunt, but with 22 seconds remaining on the clock, all his Seattle Seahawks needed to do was run out the clock to victory and a berth in the Super Bowl.

Things took a bizarre turn when the game ended. FOX television had angled to interview Sherman live on the field before the players returned to their dressing rooms. The play-by-play announcers introduced broadcaster Erin Andrews standing by in a mêlée of players, team officials and camera people with a dreadlocked, helmetless Sherman for his instant post-game comments. Instead of humbly thanking the lord and his teammates in the well rehearsed and terminally boring patter practised by many professional athletes, Sherman bellowed that he was the best defender in the NFL, that the 49ers were stupid to challenge him and that Crabtree was a chump who got what he deserved. A visibly shaken Ms. Andrews stepped back from the voluble Mr. Sherman and gave the spotlight back to the lads upstairs. It was extraordinary unscripted television. For what it’s worth, Sherman is African American. Ms. Andrews is Caucasian and considerably smaller. In their brief interview, Sherman appeared almost deranged, extremely angry, arrogant and, frankly, more than a little frightening. His appearance immediately sparked a firestorm in the Twittersphere and about 72 hours of blanket coverage in sports and news coverage across the United States, Canada and beyond.

Hours later Sherman penned “For Those Who Think I’m A Thug or Worse…” an article for si.com, the hugely popular Sports Illustrated website. Sherman has been an occasional si.com contributor throughout the season. A calm, reflective Sherman explained his actions as part of the heat of the game, “To those who would call me a thug or worse because I show passion on a football field—don’t judge a person’s character by what they do between the lines. Judge a man by what he does off the field, what he does for his community, what he does for his family.” The next day, Sherman held court in a press conference. He was rational, articulate and basically non-contrite. In contrast to his outburst with the unfortunate Andrews, Sherman exhibited some warmth and considerable intelligence. In sum, this is one complex and often extremely media savvy dude. I suspect he will have the charm offensive in full gear on media day prior to the Super Bowl.

I say thanks to Richard Sherman. He gave us a pull-back-the-curtains-on-the-Wizard glimpse into the NFL. It’s a tough game played by very tough men. However distasteful his triumphal, adrenaline stoked, macho outburst to Andrews was, it’s refreshing that he did not merely fall on his sword afterward in a pathetic, well-rehearsed apology. Sherman said in effect, ‘it’s all part of the game, man – play on!’ By accounts of those who work with him, including Peter King, Sherman’s editor at si.com and a justifiably respected dean of football writers, Sherman actually is an exceptionally bright young man who happens to be a great football player.

Off the field, management of NFL teams, the players themselves and television networks generally manage to present an image of fine young men that’s often at odds with the realities of a brutal, extravagantly financed game. Not all its athletes are stellar citizens. Imagine that. Whatever Sherman’s crimes are, surely they pale in comparison to other events surrounding the NFL this season. The aforementioned Hernandez stands accused of murder. Days prior to the Seahawks’ victory over the 49ers, former star defensive back and broadcaster Darren Sharper was arrested in Los Angeles on suspicion of rape. Reports state that New Orleans police are also investigating Sharper for sexual assault.

Oliver Stone’s feature film Any Given Sunday as well as the feature and series Friday Night Lights from producer/director Peter Berg illuminate the realities of football as an essential aspect of deep America from dusty high school fields in Texas to the professional gridiron. In his recent outburst Richard Sherman gave us a strong dose of the raw reality behind the usual NFL marketing and spin.

– This article was originally published by The Journal of Wild Culture. –

http://www.wildculture.com/article/richard-sherman-being-himself/1357

 

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Thinking of Rob Ford

November 28, 2013

As Rob Ford careers along his disastrous course, people the world over ask themselves, ‘What the heck is going on in Toronto?’ How could a city touted as a global model of good sense, safe streets and multiculturalism elect an unsavory buffoon like Ford as mayor? As a citizen of Toronto for most of my life, I shall attempt to respond.

First an etymological note: a few days after the events of November 18th, by which time Ford’s powers and budget had been seriously contained by city council, I dare say the coast is clearing somewhat. BRAVO, city council! Consequently, I have personally chosen to restore to the city its proper name , Toronto. ‘otnorot’ – which I’ve employed for the last year or so as the Ford catastrophe gathered momentum was chosen to suggest the backward state of our politics. I hereby set it aside. Hopefully, for good.

A wee summary of events for international readers. Ford, a long-serving city councilperson, was elected mayor in 2010. He replaced the outgoing mayor by campaigning on a tax cutting, pro-automobile campaign. His rule has been controversial all the while due to his strong views and belligerence. He withstood a conflict of interest civil suit. In May 2013, a video was shown to some members of the media that seemed to show Ford smoking crack cocaine. He denied the allegation. In recent weeks, Toronto police acknowledged the video’s existence and revealed they had been investigating Ford’s ties to criminals. Within days, Ford admitted to smoking the crack and drunk driving. He instantly became an international news phenomenon. He refuses to resign, but Toronto city council has severely limited his authority.

The gong show that provided fodder to comics and, found its way to international newscasts and late night American talk shows has abated for now. However, the positive developments of the past week do not mean that Ford is gone. I’m somewhat disturbed that the mayor’s antics provided comic relief. There’s nothing funny about Ford’s record on public transportation and affordable housing. The fact appears to be that his core supporters are sticking with him even though city council, including the majority of his principal allies, have deserted him. He adamantly refuses to step aside, even temporarily. It would appear that unless he is charged with a criminal offence or his health fails, he will be running for re-election in October 2014. More disturbingly, polls released in recent days suggest that he retains significant popular approval. Huh? Yes, you read correctly. Rob Ford, now exposed as a serial liar, having admitted to smoking crack cocaine and driving a car under the influence of alcohol while in office, retains an approval rating of just over 40 per cent.

How do we make sense of this? Jerôme Lussier with l’actualité, a French language Canadian magazine, has argued that Ford presents a particular sort of political attraction. (http://bit.ly/1e95Doo) Rather than offering voters a vision of something bigger and better than themselves, Ford’s very appeal is based in his loutish, inarticulate, ill-disciplined, taunting, uncivil manner. His political essence perhaps encourages voters to subconsciously feel that their own weaknesses and their own anger at shadowy elites are OK. His banality appeals.

Ford taps a resentment of elites even though he personally is privileged. People don’t want to believe that strong man politics works, but obviously it can. In his bumptious way, Ford exhibits some of the bullying, resilient characteristics of right-wing populism that produces a Berlusconi or even Mussolini during his rise to power. Such politicians can muster enormous support and devotion among their followers. Ford is a Toronto mutation of the theme. In his 2010 campaign, Ford made false claims about the level of immigration in Toronto. He was caught in lies about previous problems with alcohol and marijuana and about a public confrontation at a professional hockey game. He won the election.

The mystery of his appeal may also lie in some other unpleasant truths about Toronto. Ford reflects powerful sentiments of anti-environmentalism. While teaching at the University of Toronto, the great cultural theorist and scholar Northrop Frye wrote about ‘a garrison mentality’ at work in the collective Canadian psyche. I suspect that the impulse remains operational in Toronto and can provide for political success. In that 2010 election, Ford campaigned overtly against the expansion of effective public transportation and improving conditions for bicyclists.

In fact, Ford’s overt campaign against above-ground public transportation is one reason for the support he continues to enjoy. Toronto is a city of car addicts. The use of public transportation is a marker of class distinction in a way it no longer is in London, Paris or New York. Even avowed environmentalists routinely use cars in the downtown area. Ford and his ilk stoke the perception that public transportation is for the poor. The message is simple: if you’re a winner, you drive a fossil fuel burning car. In this respect, Ford’s signature shiny black Cadillac Escalade sports utility vehicle means he’s not so much an exception as an exemplar of deeply held civic mores and economic ambitions.

Unlike Copenhagen or Montréal, Toronto is distinctly unfriendly to the bicyclist despite enjoying favourable weather for about eight months of the year. There is precisely one street in the downtown core with a safe dedicated bike lane. Like the solitary wind turbine just west of downtown, that lonely bike lane bears testimony to a city where environmentalism is often more marketing tool and political rhetoric than a lived experience. In that light, it’s not surprising that Rob Ford found fertile ground for his mayoral ambitions.

In addition to dismissing bicyclists as losers, Ford also made political hay in opposing a fully funded proposal for light rail transit (LRT) to Scarborough, an eastern suburb of Toronto, in favour of a subway. The plan that Ford quashed would have seen that LRT already under construction with a proposed completion date of 2015. The new subway plan that he championed will not be completed until at least 2023, at a much greater cost and requiring a municipal tax hike. Yet, Ford is lauded by himself and his supporters a champion of the taxpayer’s best interest. Tellingly, Ford did not act alone in this subway fiasco. Council helped him reverse earlier plans. The same Liberal provincial government that now has taken its distance from Ford over his personal misbehaviour cynically supported his subway plan in order to win a by-election in the area. In 2013 in Toronto politics, that kind of thinking that says that  ‘roads are for cars and trucks’ is a winning strategy – with or without Ford.

First time visitors to the city who are  flying in from abroad are often surprised to learn there is no rail link between the airport and the city. As they enter the downtown area via limousine or taxi along a crumbling elevated expressway, they will pass by, to these eyes,  a rapidly expanding, hideous array of steel and glass condos and office towers that crowd the shore of Lake Ontario cutting the lake from sight of average Toronto citizens. Such developments are precisely the visible signs of supposed economic progress that fuel the politics of a Rob Ford. Garrison mentality indeed.

There is much to like about Toronto. We enjoy relative multicultural harmony. The arts scene is exciting. Our streets are extraordinarily safe and peaceful by global standards. Unlike some American cities, Toronto has many fine, diverse neighbourhoods in the downtown area. This was true before Ford’s 2010 election and remains so. What has been lost due to Ford? Meaningful progress on public transportation has been severely curtailed. A tone of civility and intelligence has been tarnished as a bullying, antagonistic style of leadership found a path to political success.

There’s no question that Ford is weakened…at least for now. Even the governing federal Canadian Tories have cut bait. Employment Minister Jason Kenney, one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s most trusted colleagues and an architect of the Conservatives’ successful wooing of voters in immigrant communities in the Toronto suburbs, asked Ford to resign. In his remarks en français, Kenney called the Ford situation “bordélique” which means extremely slovenly and inappropriate, but translates literally as ‘like a bordello’. A few days earlier, Harper had released a statement that called the Ford matter “troubling”.

Ford recently told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that he had experienced a ‘Jesus moment’ and that voters would be presented with a new man in time for his 2014 campaign for re-election. The potential redemption of Rob Ford will focus the challenge of the true meaning and real appeal of his politics. From my vantage point, the outcome is very uncertain.

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This article was originally published in The Journal of Wild Culture http://www.wildculture.com/article/understanding-rob-ford-political-animal/1332