Thursday, November 29, 2012

On Race and Other Things More Trivial

No Longer a Marathoner?
After seven years of considering myself a marathoner, I might have given it up. I'll probably still run the occasional 26.2, but this fall both the Portland and Seattle Marathon went by on the calendar and I hardly noticed. Pounding the pavement for mile after mile is just losing its appeal. Have I just turned into a trail runner? Should I get rid of all those street shoes? No. No. That would be rash.

Hooked on the Podcast
The digital world is paying off for me. Not tethered to the broadcast schedule of radio or television, I can get just about everything I want on demand. No one is airing "Arrested Development" at the moment, but we just watched all three seasons on Netflix. (I still maintain that "Arrested Development" is the best written, best acted, and best produced comedy ever...but I'll save that for the next update, in 8 months).

More important than on demand television is the world of the podcast. I am hooked. On my runs these days it's all about RadioLab or How Did This Get Made. Sometimes some This American Life.

The podcast has revolutionized road trips and long runs for me. And once in a while I learn a little something.

Sometimes it is About Race
Remember how the election of Barack Obama was supposed to signal a shift in American attitudes about race? How we were now somehow a "post-racial" country? Sorry. White people love to deny their racism ("But I have black friends! How can I be racist?") and after Obama's first election there were a lot of satisfied Caucasians who leaned back in their easy chairs, put their hands behind their heads, and said "there. We fixed racism."

Of course everyone knows this isn't actually true. There is no doubt that the US has come a long way in terms of race relations, but in a way this makes it even more shameful that we haven't moved even further down the road toward equal treatment and equal opportunity.

This week, the University of Colorado (otherwise known as the University of California at Boulder) fired its head football coach after two seasons. Football coaches get fired all the time, often at great cost to the university, as this article from the New York Times discusses. So what's at issue here?

Jon Embree, a Colorado alum and former tight end for the buffaloes, was announced as the head coach in December 2010. He was given a 5 year contract. At the time of his hiring, Embree was the 4th black head coach in Pac12 history. He was 1 of 5 black head coaches in all of the BCS.This in itself is a problem, given that the vast majority of college football players are black, most often disproportionally represented in terms of the overall demographics of the universities they are recruited to. This means the vast majority of players exiting the program - either to the NFL or to other careers - are African American. So why aren't these players coming back as coaches? Why aren't they working their way up through the coaching ranks at the same rate as white coaches?

The day of his firing, Embree lamented the lost opportunity. He had been given just two years to salvage a program that everyone admits had been ruined by his predecessor. Could he have turned the program around if given the full five years of his contract? We'll never know. And there is the problem. Embree's biggest worry, he said, was that black coaches don't get second chances. Of the black head coaches who have been fired from major college football, only one has ever been given a second job at another school. That one was Tyrone Willingham, who after being fired by Notre Dame was hired at Washington.

As the football season winds down we are seeing more and more coaches shown the exits. Most of them are white. Most of them are being fired for under-performing. And many of them will get another big contract at another school.

Of course it is possible that Embree is just a bad coach. But we probably won't ever know. Racial equality in college coaching requires minority coaches to be successful, to show the world that black head coaches can win championships.

Here's what we do know: college coaches are paid huge salaries to win. And the men who support college athletics at major universities are powerful, rich, mostly white men. These "boosters" put pressure on the athletic directors by withholding their millions until their bidding is done. At Washington a well-known booster publicly offered the school $250,000 if they fired Willingham.

Two days after Embree's dismissal, former CU coach Bill McCartney lambasted the university:

"I think men of color have a more difficult road to tread," he said. "I think that many people don't realize it.
"I heard the chancellor say it doesn't matter what color Jon Embree is. To me, that offends every person of color out there. It's as if to suggest that everything is done on a fair scale. It's not done on a fair scale. Men of color don't have the same priveleges or same opportunities and they are under greater pressure when they step in. For some reason our culture has dialed up something that causes us to have less confidence in people of color. I'm telling you, this guy can match wits with any white guy out there. This Embree guy is the real deal. He was doing it the right way."

I am among the many who think that had Embree been white, he'd still be the coach at Colorado, and the sports radio hosts, sports writers, and fans would be talking about how hard it is to build a program up from nothing, how you need to give a coach four years at least to see if his recruits can change the landscape. Instead, Embree is out of a head coaching job and Colorado will surely replace him with a white coach from another program. Likely one who has been fired for failing to perform.

Being Pretty Isn't Enough
Like it or not, its movie season. All of the Oscar hopefuls are jamming the theaters between now and the end of the year. This year we once again have a couple of movies that are leaning entirely on their visual appeal. In the age of digital imagery and CGI, it has become enough to make a "stunning" visual showcase and call it a great movie. When did this happen? Sure, a movie should be nice to look at, but why can't we also have good story and good acting? Maybe I'm still just angry that Avatar got as much love as it did (that movie was a steaming pile of terrible), and maybe that's not fair, but there is no part of me that wants to see Life of Pi, simply because the reviews harp on its visual beauty and use that to make it ok that the story doesn't really work and the acting is just average.

I'll have to see it, since it will be nominated and those are the rules for our Oscar Party, but I am not looking forward to it. I'm not looking forward to a lot of the Oscar movies, actually.

The Colleague and I have seen a few movies so far this season, and with only one exception they have all been too damn long. I'll sit through a 3 hour movie. But only if it needs to be 3 hours long. Lincoln is long (just under 2:30) but just barely too long. A bit more editing and some thought about character development could have made it a solid 2 hour movie. The animated mess Rise of the Guardians is at least 30 minutes too long, and even the kids who forgive the plot holes and bad writing started squirming with 20 full minutes yet to go.

So far this season the best movie I've seen is Argo. Crisp, visually appealing, and well acted, Argo feels precisely the right length and there aren't any scenes that scream to be cut out. Like a good poem, every line seems important to the next. It's my 36 star lock of the week.