Friday, December 21, 2012


A few days after the Newtown school shooting, I saw a group of elementary students being led by their teacher down a New Orleans street. They walked in a single file line and held hands. They were joyful. The stark and obvious contrast struck me as I thought of the now iconic photo (right) of the 6-year-olds in Newtown being led away from their school after the carnage.  We are told those children had been instructed to close their eyes as they walked through the hallway inside the school building. But you and I both know that the most curious among them managed a glimpse of whatever it was they were not supposed to see.  Six year olds are curious beings. And of course, many of us know how traumatized they will be by what they saw in that clandestine glance at the unthinkable horror.

I believe many of us would agree that we who are way beyond six years old are somewhat responsible for their trauma. We allowed a society that was once more orderly to become anything but. We allowed and even enabled cultural shifts to happen all around us that resulted in a widespread disrespect for life.  We allowed dangerously disturbed human beings like the Newtown shooter to walk freely among us, without any type of therapeutic intervention. It is not our fault that the shooter planned and carried out the executions of young children. But it is incumbent upon all of us to realize that our coveted freedoms all come with a price.
The freedom to commit crimes in our society with uneven judicial consequences has resulted in more people committing violent crimes. 
If we mark mass murder in America starting with Columbine in 1999 (left), there have been 31 mass shootings since.  Thirty-one times one or more deranged Americans has planned and carried out violent shootings sprees. Only one week before Sandy Elementary, another mass shooting took place in a shopping mall near Portland, OR, at the height of Christmas shopping season. Shopping malls, schools, churches, movie theatres – it can, and does, happen anywhere in America at any time. And now it has happened in a kindergarten classroom in a town that seems like Anytown, USA.
Newtown’s population doesn’t even crack 30,000 people. The entire town occupies less than 60 square miles.  It was the hometown of James Thurber. Film director Elia Kazan (Splendor in the Grass, On The Waterfront) also hailed from Newtown. Bruce Jenner went to high school there. The images of the town we have seen on television suggest a sort of Bedford Falls quality from the classic holiday film, It’s a Wonderful Life. Parents of the slain children who have granted television interviews appear articulate, family-centered and noticeably all white. The town is, according to census figures, about 95 percent white.  Additional census figures tell us that the median household income in Newtown is over $100,000. So it would seem the last possible place in America for 20 school children and six adults to be savagely gunned down in an elementary school.

Therein is the possible explanation for the fully unwanted attention the town has received. That attention is doing the residents of Newtown more harm than good, and there is no sign that the national focus on the town will abate anytime soon.  Therefore, the first takeaway from this event is that we who do not live in Newtown need to be more respectful of those who do.  Specifically, media companies need to
back off – way off.  Why are reporters like Anderson Cooper and Katie Couric (right) working so hard to land TV interviews with parents of dead children who have not even been buried yet? Why are the networks and major cable companies not forming a smaller media pool to cover Newtown, rather than sending in hundreds of reporters from multiple companies?
ABC News producer Nadine Shubailat actually tweeted people she thought might be parents or friends of Sandy Hook elementary students, in her misguided efforts to land interviews. FOX News, in its overly-competitive zeal, misidentified the shooter as Ryan Lanza, who, it turns out is actually the brother of the shooter. Multiple news organizations reported that the shooter’s mother worked at Sandy Hook Elementary as a kindergarten teacher.  She did not. None other than the esteemed NY Times reported wrong information about the type of gun used in the shootings. The NY Times also jumped on the above-mentioned claim that the mother worked at the school.  I could go on, but just know that CBS, CNN, NY Times, NPR and Associated Press each reported inaccurate, unverified information about the shootings. Shame on every one of them, and especially on newly installed NY Times executive editor Jill Abramson, who was quoted (in the Times): “I am proud of every aspect of our coverage and beyond thankful to the people who reported and edited this horrific story. Our approach is always accuracy over speed.” Disingenuous?  You be the judge.

The second takeaway from this tragedy is, of course, the national debate about gun laws. Today a new Bloomberg study was released with a startling projection: By 2015, firearm fatalities will probably exceed traffic fatalities for the first time ever.  So here I will employ simple logic,
rather than politics: Gun advocates have been quite vocal since the Sandy Hook shootings about the need for more guns, rather than fewer guns. Many have gone so far as to say teachers and school administrators should be armed while at work.  I have been a teacher for several years and I can tell you that some teachers I have known should definitely not be armed. The argument to arm teachers assumes that teachers will routinely be more responsible gun owners/users than the general public. It should be noted that teachers are simply a microcosm of the public at large, which means the teacher population may include just as many murderous lunatics as the general population. That’s logic, not politics. Here’s some more logic: If the shooter at Sandy Hook had been unable to enter the building, the shootings would not have happened as they did. So, it would seem school building security should be the focus here, not adding more firearms to the general population.

Firearm advocates who have appeared in media interviews in these past several days seem more hell bent on protecting their Second Amendment freedom than they do on protecting 6-year-olds in kindergarten classrooms. What they never acknowledge is that the Second Amendment was written at a time when there were no such things as AR-15 automatic assault rifles (right)
capable of firing 800 rounds per minute, and originally intended for use by the military only. By the way, the Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms that Americans can have and use.  It does not say anything at all about prohibiting restrictions on the types or number of firearms. I do not see how any thinking individual reads that into the Second Amendment. Here are the exact words:  “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The bottom line has everything to do with moderation. No one is proposing taking away all Americans’ guns.  That will not happen, but let’s employ reason and caution. And no one is trying to prohibit the media from covering the Sandy Hook tragedy or any tragedies yet to come. But let’s employ discretion in the way stories are covered, and let’s get the story right before it is put out to the public. And when mistakes are made like the NY Times printed errors, let’s not have editors like Jill Abramson praise their publications’ efforts. And above all, let’s quit giving so much TV time, online exposure and print coverage to the shooters. Let’s ignore them so that potential future assassins will not expect to be lionized in media.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

THE NFL KILLING FIELDS: Too Rich and Too Violent

UPDATE: On Saturday, December 9, 2012, another NFL player died. Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jerry Brown, Jr., 25, died after a car driven Dallas Cowboy defensive tackle Josh Brent, 25, hit a curb and flipped.  Brent was arrested, charged with "intoxicated manslaughter." He was later released from custody after posting $500,000 bond. (Original post follows)
 I humbly admit that before this month I had never heard the name Jovan Belcher. I’m not an avid football fan, I don’t know much about the Kansas City Chiefs, and right now while the U.S. is teetering on the “fiscal cliff,” and while the Middle East is on fire, the last thing on my mind, and on the minds of many others, was Jovan Belcher.

Still, when the headlines shouted “NFL Suicide,” I paid attention. Then the details started to emerge. It is reported that Belcher, 25, spent the night at the home of another woman prior to coming home to murder his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, the mother of their three-month-old daughter, Zoey. It is further reported that before Belcher entered the home of the other woman, police had to wake him up as he was sleeping in his Bentley. Additionally, more recent reports reveal that following a November 18 game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Belcher exhibited short term memory loss.

 Let’s review what is relevant: First, Belcher (above) has been playing football for a long time. He played various positions for his West Babylon High School team inWest Babylon, NY. He then played for the University of Maine Black Bears Football Team. Then, in 2009, he was drafted by the Chiefs. So, if we do the math, Jovan Belcher was in football for about 12 years, or roughly half his life. Additionally, it is reported that Belcher, who drove a 2007 Bentley Continental (originally priced at approximately $189,000), was due to earn roughly $2 million in 2013. To break this down, let’s take note of the fact that 12 years of football equals many, many rough plays and knocks in the head. And let’s remember that the man being paid this exorbitant salary was only 25.

This matters for two reasons. First, it is now widely known that the NFL is finally acknowledging it has a concussion problem, league wide. The problem is historic, not new. And it is culturally clear that paying a guy who is only in his 20’s a multi-million salary is a recipe for some kind of disaster. If we dig deeper into Belcher’s past, it has already been reported that he had a history of domestic violence which was first reported in 2006 when he was a college student. Reportedly, Belcher had an argument with a woman and punched out a window. You may say that doesn’t rise to the unfortunate standard of domestic violence, but the fact is that rational, mature individuals do not punch out windows when they get mad at their girlfriends.

 Belcher appears to have been a time bomb. Some say he was experiencing the pressures of having a newborn child, but it should be noted he was not really caring for the child. The child was in the care of his girlfriend, and at the time of his murder/suicide, his mother was also staying with the child. She now has temporary custody. So the newborn child explanation flies out the window. It is more likely that he is the latest in a string of NFL players who were given too much too soon, and who had no frame of reference for being an instant millionaire. It is also possible he is the latest in a string of NFL players who have experienced what is called “chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” (CTE) which is the medical term for a brain injury that has been experienced by many, many football players. It is too early to declare that Belcher had that condition, but the autopsy is likely to reveal the truth. Watch: The same condition was found in Junior Seau, the former San Diego Charger who killed himself in October with a single gunshot to the chest. Another player who killed himself with a single gunshot to the chest was Dave Duerson of the Phoenix Cardinals. Remarkably, Duerson left a note asking that his brain be used for research at the Boston University School of Medicine, which is conducting research into CTE caused by playing professional football. And there have been four other NFL players who committed suicide in the past two years. Coincidence? Not likely.

Professional football is a big part of the American culture, and probably always will be. That’s a good thing. But when the players are given astronomical amounts of money when they are barely out of college, and then subjected to intense violence on the football field with little acknowledgement
of the CTE problem from the league, the sport is no longer just a game. It is instead a countdown to tragedy. All kinds of tragedy. It is a Carolina Panther Rae Carruth,(right) found guilty in 1999 of conspiracy to commit murder after his pregnant girlfriend was shot four times through the window of her car. He is currently serving a sentence of 18 – 24 years in prison. It is a Donte Stallworth, charged with DUI manslaughter in 2009 after killing a pedestrian with his Bentley Coupe in Miami. Or a Seattle Seahawk Jarriel King, who at age 24 was charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct after an incident at his home in in which he and another man allegedly raped a 25-year-old woman. And the list goes on….Koa Misi, Caleb King, Kiante Tripp, Plaxico Burress, and more.

The NFL has become an out-of-control culture of excess. Why isn’t Commissioner Roger Goodell working toward solving these lethal problems, rather than focusing on trivia like the New Orleans Saints “Bountygate?” There are possible solutions. First, as antiquated as it may sound, perhaps NFL contracts need a more stringent morals clause – something like a domestic violence “one strike you’re out” stipulation. According to attorney Brian R. Socolow, in a report titled “What Every Player Should Know About Morals Clauses,” although such clauses are routine in NFL contracts, they are all highly arbitrary and negotiable. Even worse is the fact that sometimes the clause is not enforced if the higher ups determine the player is too valuable to the team.

Second, instead of throwing millions of dollars at a boy barely out of his teens to play football, why not have a graduated salary scale based on job performance? To give you some perspective, just know that there are 169 NFL players who were paid more than $5 million this year, according to Forbes Magazine.

While it is true that players realize greatly reduced income if they are cut, they are still guaranteed astronomical rates.
It is no secret, for example, that Tim Tebow, (left) 25, of the New York Jets is an underperforming player, who now has broken ribs, which make him almost a non-performing player. Still, according to public records, Tebow’s contract calls for him to be paid $2.1 million by the Jets. Just for perspective, know that the average income for a 25-year-old college graduate in the U.S. in 2010 (the most recent year for which figures are available) was $40,000, according to the U.S. Department of Education. There is something very wrong with this picture.

The NFL is dealing primarily with very young boys and men who have often been given a pass through high school and college because of their athletic skills. The passes they have been offered rarely come with any sort of guidance. By the time many of them get to the NFL, they are hit with big money, sometimes with inordinate public adoration and often with a type of freedom they are not prepared to navigate. Meanwhile they are kicked in the head repeatedly and encouraged to just keep on keeping on. In the case of young Jovan Belcher it all added up to one self-inflicted gunshot to his already-battered head. You may chalk that up to Belcher’s lack of personal responsibility. I, for one, place a significant portion of the responsibility for Belcher’s actions squarely in the offices of the National Football League.