Upside down in Trinidad

This time, the United States needs only a tie in its final World Cup qualifying match in Trinidad.

This time, home-standing Trinidad & Tobago (with only one win in nine qualifying matches) isn’t nearly the threat it was in 1989, when a T&T victory or tie would have sent the Trinboganians to the 1990 Italy-based World Cup instead of the Yanks.

This time, the atmosphere can’t possibly match the frenzy in Port of Spain 28 years ago, when all residents of the dual-island Caribbean nation appeared to be dressed in red; when the week leading up to the game was a wild party of Calypso and reggae music in the streets—“jump-ups,” they were called; when the passionate locals giddily chanted, “We goin’!” and “Bum dem!” (“Burn them” visitors.)

It might have been intimidating to our small group of American reporters if it hadn’t been so downright entertaining and spirited. And good-natured. Amid the cries of “Search and destroy!” smiling T&T natives greeted us—we were easy to spot—with wishes of good luck or teased us with calls of “Yankee Doodle went to town.” Followed by, “Where is your red?”

Red, the national color, was on sale everywhere. Caps, shirts, underwear, scarfs. Schoolchildren had replaced their standard uniforms (some red, but many of other hues) with all red. Songs from Trinidadian Calypso singer Blue Boy’s latest album, all related to the World Cup effort, were booming throughout the capital city: “Journey” and “Football Dance” and “Goal!” and “Trinidad Boys, Tobago Boys” and “Road to Italy,” with the lyric, “When the Yankees come to the stadium/We’re going to beat them like bongos.”

T&T’s team was called “Strike Squad” and prided itself on “Kaisoca”—Calypso soccer—a flowing, fast-paced, dynamic style that seemed superior to the mechanical, defensive methods of a U.S. squad severely limited in international experience.

That was seven years before the first legitimate U.S. professional league, MLS, debuted. The Yanks had not been to the World Cup in 40 years, and their mostly bland play through the ’89 qualifying process had their federation officials worried that the commitment to place the 1994 World Cup in the United States could be rescinded if the team failed to earn a berth in Italy.

So our little knot of U.S. scribblers was mostly of the belief that the Trinboganians, who clearly cared more about international soccer than the typical American, would have their wishes fulfilled. They chanted, “T&T, we want a goal. On the roooooad, on the rooooad, on the rooooad…..to It-a-ly.” During pre-game festivities, one T&T fan marched around the stadium with a sign, “Even Bush”—George H.W. Bush still was in the White House then—“supports T&T.”

We stayed at the famous “upside-down hotel,” built into the side of a steep hill, with the lobby entered from the top of the hill and the elevators going down. The 10th floor is at the bottom. Everything was just disorienting enough to be memorable.

The game was played on a Sunday afternoon. That morning, we U.S. reporters—there couldn’t have been more than six or seven of us—were invited to have breakfast at the hilltop mansion of then-U.S. ambassador Charles Gargano. He politely welcomed the representatives of such big-time publications as the New York Times, New York Daily News, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune. But it was me, from little old Newsday on Long Island, who got the long-lost friendship treatment. Because Gargano had made his fortune in construction on Long Island, and his son recently had built a site in my village of Babylon.

(A few years later, Gargano was in some hot water for iffy campaign contributions, but I can assure everyone that I never saw the man again).

Anyway, from Gargano’s perch above the city, we could look down on the National Stadium, already overflowing with more than 30,000 red-clad spectators more than five hours before kickoff. Among my fellow journalists then was the Times’ esteemed George Vecsey, who noted in his 2014 book, “Eight World Cups,” that then-T&T soccer federation honcho Jack Warner had had 45,000 tickets printed, creating a dangerous overcrowding situation.

Somehow, everything turned out all right, in spite of the Trinboganians’ crushing disappointment when the U.S. conjured an unlikely 1-0 victory. The Yanks’ decisive goal, a looping 30-yard left-footer by Paul Caligiuri in the 30th minute, arguably is one of the two most historic shots in American soccer history. (Joe Gaetjens’ 1950 World Cup goal that shocked England is the other.)

The exact time of the score could be questioned. Because there was no scoreboard clock, my wristwatch served as “official” timer for our handful of scribes. More remarkable than the U.S. victory—and the Yanks’ sudden efficiency after months of bumbling around—was the grand reaction of the T&T crowd.

It sent the American players off the field to warm applause (and more Calypso music). It called the weeping T&T players back for a final lap around the stadium with chants of “We want Strike Squad.” Following a chaotic round of interviews in the sweaty, cramped, celebratory U.S. lockerroom, several of us reporters walked back to our hotel just after sundown and were repeatedly called to by locals along the way.

“Hey, Yankee.” Uhhhh, yes? “Congratulations!”

This time, I won’t be there. But it couldn’t match 1989, anyway.

McCartney: Not Just Yesterday

What Paul McCartney is doing on his current concert tour has got to be some kind of record. At 75, Sir Paul—still not grown out of his rock-‘n’-roll bona fides—continues to conjure a whole range of ballads, anthems, ditties, blues, heavy metal and sing-along stuff.

My wife and I took in his first of two appearances at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center last week, when McCartney cranked out three full hours of non-stop crooning and warbling and belting out of the brilliant material he has composed over more than a half-century.

Of course a good time was had by all in the sellout crowd. Of course the evening was a comfort to those of us who came of age during Beatlemania. I won’t go into my old (probably not winnable) argument that my generation’s music was better than the current fare. (Even though my daughter agrees.) But I will contend that McCartney, the act we’ve known for all these years, never has gone out of style.

Not everybody at Barclays was as, uh, mature as me. That has to count for something, both to legitimize my peer group’s taste and as proof of the Fab Four’s endurance. We’ve just passed the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. It never gets old. This summer, Sirius XM satellite radio debuted a Beatles channel. I listen a lot (and know most of the words.)

A recital-related sidebar here: A week after the McCartney show, we took in celebrated tenor Jose Carreras’ performance at Carnegie Hall. An entirely different scene, and I won’t pretend to know much about the operatic mix of speech-inflected pieces and more melodic arias, and certainly couldn’t translate the Italian and French lyrics. Still, it was Major League quality, another example of imperishable art. And Carreras, at 70, was another credit to undiminished power in our septuagenarian set.

Anyway, McCartney opened with “A Hard Day’s Night” at Barclays. I was just 17, in high school, when the movie came to Hobbs, N.M., in the mid-‘60s, and the only disappointment was how so many young girls in the theater kept screeching when I was trying to hear the music.

He sang “In Spite of All the Danger,” from the pre-Beatle days of John Lennon’s group, the Quarreymen. He kidded that that was “before my time.” Right. Me, too.

He offered tributes to departed Beatles Lennon and George Harrison, sang “Jet” and “Let Me Roll It” from his Wings’ days, plus recent goodies “Queenie Eye” and “New.” It was a nice time-warp tour.

Among his 40 offerings, he sang “Eleanor Rigby,” and that took me back to a 1995 visit to Liverpool and the Beatles Story exhibition there, built at the restored docks on the River Mersey. We took a stroll on the alley-like Mathew Street, where the Beatles began their rise with lunchtime gigs at the Cavern Club, and took a moment for a quick snapshot of the Eleanor Rigby statue on Mathew Street—dedicated to “All the Lonely People” and looking particularly forlorn in the late afternoon shadows.

Years later, when my daughter was spending a college semester in London, we couldn’t resist mimicking the Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover crosswalk stroll. The optics in our picture are all wrong. We’re crossing East to West instead of the opposite direction that was taken by the Beatles, and our camera was shooting to the South instead of North. But there was traffic to dodge. It had to be done.

My wife now has concluded that our rock concert days may be over. It was awfully loud at Barclays, no doubt a function of modern audio capabilities and the need to reach the portion of the 17,000 paying customers in the nose-bleed seats. A smaller room likely would better highlight McCartney’s vocals as well as his skills on the guitar and piano.

Wouldn’t have missed it, though. I thought of some recent McCartney lyrics that fuse the present with the past.

    They can’t take it from me, if they try

    I lived through those early days.

And we’re all still here.

The Islanders: Stranded off the Island?

The people chanted, “Bring them back! Bring them back! Bring them back!”

The New York Islanders were playing at the Nassau Coliseum last Sunday. (The place now identifies itself with one of those bewildering corporate names, but everybody still calls it the Nassau Coliseum.) The game meant nothing—a pre-season skirmish, a one-time-only tease to the traditional fan base more than two years after the team ran away from its home of 43 years.

But the place was packed and it was rocking, alive with the sing-song “Let’s go, Islanders” pleas that go back decades and the more recent, unrestrained “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!” goal celebrations. Hours before the game, the Coliseum’s parking lots had been filled with tailgating customers sporting team jerseys.

“Pretty close to what we had in the playoffs,” said the team’s marquee player, John Tavares, comparing the scene to the 2015 post season. “Through the roof for the warmups. The fans here have a tremendous identity and they don’t want to lose hold of that. And the players recognize that.”

That didn’t stop management from opting for greener pastures—that is, greater potential revenue streams—after the 2014-15 season by packing off to Brooklyn’s new Barclays Center. When Barclays’ developer Bruce Ratner subsequently bid to renovate the Coliseum, he secured the lucrative project by promising six Islander games there per season. Soon enough, that bait was switched and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman repeatedly has declared that the Coliseum is “not an option” in the Islanders’ future.

So what, exactly, was the point of Sunday’s event? To give those old paying loyalists one day of throwback atmosphere? To sell more than 13,900 tickets for an event that typically would have drawn no more than 5,000 or 6,000 on a football Sunday afternoon? To offer a genuine gesture of appreciation to so many abandoned customers?

It would be dangerous to rhapsodize too extravagantly about the Coliseum, opened in early 1972 and forever lacking in frills. It was built with $28 million and, even with its $165 million facelift—the slinky exterior is nice enough and the insides have been cleaned up noticeably—there still aren’t enough bathrooms.

The joint still doesn’t offer what the team wants in terms of modern amenities, more space for the one-percenters to lounge in high-end suites and the kind of luxurious locker room that 21st Century jocks have come to expect. (The New York Giants have a practice site dressing room shaped like an enormous football, pointed at each end and wider in the middle, where 10-yard pass patterns could be executed.)

But Barclays hardly has proven to be a better deal for anyone. The majority of Island residents miss their tailgating ritual at the Coliseum, grumble about the inconvenience of alternative travel by train, hate the obstructed views from hundreds of Barclays seats, mock the arena’s off-center scoreboard. Average attendance last season there was 13,101—well short of Barclays’ 17,732 capacity for hockey and a number able to comfortably fit in the supposedly too-small Coliseum.

The players have been unhappy with Barclays’ below-standard ice surface, and all indications are that new management already intends to leave Barclays more than 20 years shy of the team’s original 25-year lease. The plan is to build a new arena near Belmont Race Track, a mere 15 miles from the Coliseum.

Jilted Coliseum patrons might find some hope in the fact that it took eight years, from the initial proposal to opening day, for Barclays to materialize, so even with a Belmont arena soon approved and in the works, the team could be desperate for a temporary landing spot.

Why not the Coliseum, a building without a bad seat and guaranteed a hard-core spectator following that has been all-in on the identity front? Islander fans, like the original Islanders, are anti-big city elites. And proud to use the Islanders—who had been Long Island’s only big-league professional sports team—as proof that the often nondescript suburban sprawl they call home need not remain constantly in the shadow of the Big Town.

For the ceremonial puck drop at Sunday’s exhibition, it was a nice touch to bring back three members from the Stanley Cup years—Clark Gillies, Bobby Nystrom and, especially, Billy Smith. When the Islanders’ first of four championships, in 1980, was called New York’s first since the Rangers’ 1940 triumph, Smith shot back, “The Stanley Cup is not in New York. It’s on Long Island.”

On Sunday, one of those 13,000-plus Long Island fans left behind a sticker on a bathroom stall at the Coliseum that featured the Islanders’ logo and the appeal, “Bring Them Home.“

Chasing the total eclipse

Bland, Missouri, is not an adjective. Although it could be. Bland, population 539, has no stoplight. No hotel or motel. No hospital (not even a doctor). No high school. No supermarket. No local radio station. Two restaurants — one open only three days a week. The nearest city with more than 50,000 residents is Columbia, home to the University of Missouri’s flagship campus 60 miles away.

But on Aug. 21, the day of the eclipse, Bland had location. Latitude 38.301713, longitude 91.63294. Smack dab in the solar eclipse’s “path of totality.” And that made it feel as if Bland was the antonym of Podunk.

I was there for the commotion. There were rumors, there in the middle of Missouri — in the middle of nowhere — that so many people would rush into the center of the impending solar darkness that gas stations might run out of fuel in areas surrounding Bland. Schools and colleges for miles around, already in session, were closed for the day. A half-hour from Bland, in Rolla, the clerk at the CVS store said he had been inundated with calls about the availability of eclipse glasses. As far away as the Illinois border, 90 miles to the East, temporary highway signs warned of heavy traffic delays — “Plan Ahead” — on and around Eclipse Day.

In Owensville, 15 minutes from Bland, the priest began his Sunday homily about how we were at “ground zero” for the eclipse. Owensville’s Chamber of Commerce already had sold more than 500 “Midnight at Noon” T-shirts and arranged for Arndt Latusseck, an astronomer from Hildeschein, Germany, to relate his experiences witnessing five previous total eclipses, and how “five is not enough. You get addicted to it.”

It all sounded so apocalyptic. Tales of how people would weep to see the moon “eat” the sun at midday, how their lives would be “changed forever.”

“It is science, yes,” Latusseck said. “But it also is cultural, psychological, emotional and completely mind-boggling.”

But, frankly, while the two minutes of “totality” provided a wonderfully unique experience — nothing in the sky but the black moon and its eerie halo, the corona — our small group of 12 quickly retreated indoors after that brief, spectacular show, out of the smothering Missouri heat and humidity that was intensified by the returning sun.

This whole idea, of trekking 1,500 miles from Long Island to Bland, Missouri, came from my nephew Jeff, a Hewlett-Packard engineer in Houston. My sister, Diane, happens to live in Bland (no Wi-Fi, no TV) on 111 acres of lightly cultivated land with four horses and two cats. In November, Jeff had realized that Bland would be in the “path of totality” and pitched to my brother (his father in nearby Victoria, Texas) how Aug. 21, 2017, would be an ideal time for a family gathering.

My wife and I were alerted of the unfolding plan only days before and were stunned to learn that flights to Missouri were booked, as well as most hotels in the Bland vicinity. When a person is 70-years-old, that person sometimes does not consider all the math. Twenty-two hours of driving over two days to witness two minutes of celestial stagecraft somehow makes perfect sense.

And the fact that Long Island was in line to see only 71 percent of the sun covered that Monday meant it wouldn’t get the sudden weird darkness that came over Bland at 1:14 p.m. on an otherwise searingly bright afternoon. What we experienced comes to the typical person’s hometown on an average of once every 375 years.

So it was worth the trip, including the speeding ticket in Bland (where rarely two cars are on the road at the same time). To a great extent, what struck me about the adventure was the whole exception-to-the-rule excitement in humdrum little Bland, fueled by my pre-eclipse research which included Annie Dillard’s dramatic, almost frightening, 1982 description of the 1979 total eclipse in Eastern Washington State. “I pray,” she wrote, “you will never see anything more awful in the sky.”

Unlike some predictions, my sister’s horses — we joked that their heavy-mesh masks to ward off flies were their eclipse glasses — did not run around in confused circles. Birds did not begin their evening singing hours early. Great winds did not stir.

For more than an hour, as the disc of moon slowly blotted out the sun, we had sat under a shade tree, occasionally peering through out solar glasses for an update, but with no discernable change in atmosphere or brightness.

The totality phase came and went so quickly that it felt a bit like some existential gag. Much appreciated, nevertheless, and a terrific excuse for a reunion of far-flung family members.

 

Olympic Tomorrowland

 

Coming (not so) soon: The Los Angeles Olympics.

In 2028!

There could be a robot uprising against humans by then, according to flamboyant inventor Elon Musk. There could be people settling a colony on Mars. There could be genetic doping in elite sports, Six Million Dollar Man stuff. A book and movie predict curtains for the whole world in 2028.

The time gap is so disorienting—the first Games to be awarded to a host city more than seven years in advance—that the typically sluggish buildup in Olympic interest is even more conspicuous, with an occasional drift into fantasy.

The New York Times reacted to the news by having its Los Angeles-based reporters imagine new Olympic events tailored to La-La Land culture, and came up with “most rides on ‘It’s a Small World’ without a nervous breakdown,” “least original movie idea” and “fastest out of Dodger Stadium to beat the crowds (and traffic),” among other snarky proposals.

Me? I think of a more logical L.A. cliché which has been around since the first Games in that city in 1932: Let the auditions begin for another Hollywood cattle call.

Tarzan movies long ago fell out of favor, but a 2030s action-film star very well could emerge from among the ’28 Games’ competitors, discovered by the people in dark glasses and canvas chairs. With all those hunks on the Olympic playing fields, ready to make a muscle; all those female gymnasts flying around in leotards like Superwoman, someone is bound to catch the eye of movie talent scouts.

Such gold medal-to-silver screen possibilities certainly were a topic of discussion going into the most recent Los Angeles Olympics, in 1984, when American boxer Tyrell Biggs predicted he would win the super heavyweight gold medal (he did), “and they’ll cut to my commercial right after the National Anthem….that’s good American stuff.”

It had happened something like that in 1932 to one Clarence Linden Crabbe, whose gold medal in the 400-meter swimming freestyle served as a screen test, leading Crabbe to ditch his law studies, change his name to Buster and put on a loin cloth for the cameras.

Based on that formula, Biggs was asked in ’84 if he could swim. “I can dance,” he assured. And while he never starred in a musical, turning immediately to a 14-year professional boxing career that included three world-title bouts (all losses), Biggs did appear on the small screen in television’s American Gladiator series in the 1990s. And a documentary of his life reportedly is currently in production.

But, back to the future.

By 2028, might the choking traffic on L.A.’s infamous freeways consist entirely of driverless cars? How much sunnier might perpetually sunny Los Angeles be amid advancing climate change? What about the U.S. Geological Survey’s recent study that southern California already is overdue for a major earthquake? (During the ’84 Olympics, there was “earthquake repellent” aerosol spray on sale around L.A. It seemed to work.)

It isn’t clear just how much sweating of the details should be held in abeyance until, say, 2027. It has been duly reported that International Olympic Committee officials chose to nail down a 2028 site so far in advance out of concern that the pool of host cities continues to dry up. (L.A.’s bid technically was for 2024, against favored Paris, but the IOC reasoned that it had better lock up both candidates now, while they were willing.)

Polls repeatedly have indicated Angelenos’ substantial public support for staging the Games, although—in the grand Olympic tradition of NIMBY dissent—there also is a NOlympics group agitating to scuttle the 2028 plans. Given L.A.’s abundance of competition-ready facilities and college dorms available to house the world’s athletes, there is a Bloomberg News suggestion that the IOC should consider placing all future Summer Games in Los Angeles. Or that L.A. at least be incorporated forever in a rotation of three or four permanent Olympic sites.

Such a reasonable approach would be far more cost-effective and rational than the current system, which makes every subsequent Games organizing team a collection of Olympic rookies. But when a similar idea was floated more than 20 years ago for the Winter Olympics, then-IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch dismissed it out of hand, declaring that “the Games belong to the entire world”—and therefore should continue to foster the exorbitant cost, daunting organizational challenges and political trap doors of competitive bidding.

At this point, it’s sounds like we have a winner for that least original idea for a movie.

 

Phelps’ “race:” Google “Jump the shark.”

Maybe Michael Phelps somehow assumed he was furthering his brand with that photo-shopped Discovery Channel concoction, purporting to match him against a Great White Shark in a 100-meter ocean race. Surely he didn’t need the money. Twenty-three times an Olympic swimming champion and with the ensuing goldmine of endorsements, Phelps has a net worth reported between $55 and $94 million. Possibly he felt the shark show promoted his stated wish, first voiced before he began collecting an unprecedented amount of Olympic hardware at the 2004 Athens Games, “to change the sport of swimming the way Michael Jordan changed basketball.”

But not a few people saw it as a humiliating stunt. Phelps certainly wasn’t in a situation similar to 1936 Olympic sprint champion Jesse Owens, who was an American hero at the Berlin Games but just another black man when he returned to the United States. Competing almost 50 years before the Olympics was opened to professionals, Owens earned four worthless olive wreaths and, once back home in Ohio, found himself trying to make ends meet by allowing promoters to stage exhibitions of him racing against horses, dogs and motorcycles.

“People said it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse,” Owens later wrote. “But what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”

And in Owens’ case, at least the man-vs.-beast gimmick consisted of actual races between real creatures. The Phelps-Shark flimflam—one Discovery Channel promo called it “The Battle for Ocean Supremacy”—went from extended carnival barking to a video of Phelps swimming alone in the waters off South Africa. The rival seen hustling alongside him was a computer-generated shark, digitally inserted into the action.

It was almost as silly as those old Land Shark skits on Saturday Night Live, when Laraine Newman or Gilda Radner would be lured to open her apartment door with the promise of a candygram, only to be devoured by a cartoonishly fake shark.

Patrick Redford, writing for Deadspin, called the Phelps-Shark contrivance “a spruced-up version of one of those videos they play between innings in baseball stadiums where three helmets race and [fans in] one section get free pizza if their helmet wins….”

Redford suggested that the Discovery Channel “at least make it goofy, since, you know, you’re having a guy pretend to race a shark.”

Both the Discovery Channel and Phelps protested afterwards that they clearly had signaled he would not be swimming side-by-side against a live shark. (I can hear Bobby Darin singing… “When that shark bites with his teeth, babe/Scarlet billows start to spread.)

Both nevertheless argued for the legitimacy of the competitive comparison and cited Phelps’ genuine fascination with the fish’s power and speed, and described Phelps as a real “shark nerd.” In fact, the elite swimming world in general has had a shark thing for a long time. Prior to the 2000 Olympics, the swimming gear manufacturer Speedo produced a “sharkskin” model amid the marketing of similar full bodysuits by big-name suppliers.

That Speedo suit was studded with tiny hydrofoils with V-shaped ridges like the “dermal denticles” on a shark’s skin, and it was worn by 83 percent of the sport’s gold medalists in the 2000 Sydney Games. Phelps, then 15 years old, had only one fifth-place finish in Sydney but began breaking records a year later wearing the sharkskin. Before long, the suit was judged to be “performance-enhancing” because it provided a buoyancy and muscle constriction that worked to reduce fatigue. In 2010, all full bodysuits were banned by swimming’s global federation.

Anyway, it turns out that real sharks typically don’t swim in a straight line for very long, so the Phelps 100-meter challenge was further skewed by another simulation. Scientists had to estimate sharks’ straight-ahead speed, then feed that data into their computer-generated aquatic racer. What they came up with was 36.1 seconds, which Phelps (38.1) couldn’t quite match. (Surprise, surprise.)

Business Insider quoted George Burgess, director of shark research at the University of Florida, that a side-by-side duel not only was impossible but that even the fastest of humans would “always get his butt kicked” by a shark.

“A far more interesting scenario,” Burgess said, “would have been if you give Michael a head start and put the great white behind him and see how fast he could swim with the white shark chasing him.”

In an espn.com post, D’Arcy Maine cast the whole show as a “joke.” Phelps’ mere participation in the hocus-pocus, Maine concluded, meant that “either being the best swimmer of all time isn’t as lucrative as we previously believed or he is really, really bored in his retirement….”

It’s certainly not the former case. As for the five million who were hoodwinked into watching, I have one word: Candygram.

The real O.J.?

Sometimes, when people learn that I spent a half-century as a sports journalist, they want to the inside scoop on what such-and-such athletic celebrity was “really like.” O.J. was one of those athletic celebrities in question.

As the New York Giants beat writer for Newsday in the 1970s, I had a few occasions dealing with O.J., at first when he played for the Buffalo Bills and later the San Francisco 49ers.

He already was football’s superstar and had been since his glory days at Southern Cal. The way he could find his way through the maze of defensive pursuers—floating, barreling, tiptoeing, darting—was fairly astonishing. Furthermore, he delighted in the public’s adoration, answering Beatle-like mania with charm and a personal touch. “He’s always kissing babies, hugging girls, shaking hands, signing autographs,” then-49ers publicist Dave Frei marveled. More striking to us in the writing press, ink-stained wretches accustomed to arrogant, uncooperative jocks, O.J. was among the most accommodating and respectful of interview subjects.

He also was wildly popular among teammates, regularly ushering his lower-profile offensive linemen into interview sessions so they could bask in his ball-toting successes. Opponents likewise admired both his prowess and demeanor. “Tackling O.J.,” a young Giants linebacker named Frank Marion told me after a 1978 game, “is like tackling a legend. And each time I got him, he’d say, ‘Nice hit.’ I just had to look at him and not let him get away. Because he can get away.”

Still, the magician doesn’t really saw the lady in half. Rather, he masters his particular vocation, as O.J. perfected his job and polished his popular image. Neither of which guarantees a look into the soul.

So, even before O.J.’s 1994 arrest in the knife murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman; before the low-speed Ford Bronco chase televised nationally; before O.J.’s acquittal in the spectacular trial and the subsequent 1997 civil trial in which he was found responsible for the deaths of Ms. Simpson and Goldman, I wouldn’t have claimed to know what he was “really like.”

I submit, in fact, that those four parole board members who just voted to free O.J. from a 2007 armed robbery sentence couldn’t know the man any better than I did. That is not to argue for or against the parole decision—that’s way above my pay scale—but only to point out how brief encounters with boldface names such as O.J., whatever the professional setting, aren’t particularly revealing.

When O.J. told the board he was “a good guy….I basically have spent a conflict-free life,” a courtroom prosecutor might have been moved to argue, “Objection, your honor. Assumes facts not necessarily in evidence.”

Much closer to an insightful summation of the man was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent profile in The Atlantic that described how O.J. always has been “an escape artist.” Beginning with his ability to evade tacklers on the football field, O.J. shook off poverty in the San Francisco projects where he was raised, slipped the usual restraints on blacks to cash in on endorsements and movie deals and survived that Trial of the Century. And once again, he’s out of the frying pan.

His life story—he’s 70 now—has played out as some mixture of drama, sit-com and soap opera, wherein he went from inspiring widespread fandom to giving many people the willies. In the 1970s, I was reporting on how he repeatedly got out of the toughest spots on the gridiron. A real escape artist. Any evaluation of his character beyond that slips my grasp.

Sneer and loathing in sports talk radio

As a sports journalist, I am offended that New York’s original sports talk radio station this week auditioned New Jersey governor Chris Christie for a job. Of course, as a sports journalist, I already was offended by sports talk radio, which long ago poisoned the discourse over matters of less-than-earthshaking importance.

And the unhappy truth is that Christie and sports talk radio’s in-your-face format share the same space on a Venn diagram. Regularly rude in his dealings with his Jersey constituents, Christie was predictably insulting to a couple of callers to station WFAN during his tryout. He even complained that he had been “screwed” by his potential employers for putting him on the air on “the two worst sports days of the year.”

But this is where we are with this vacuous programing. An NJ.com evaluation of Christie’s gig judged it a primary “strength” that he was “opinionated and combative.”

As opposed to, say, informative.

Here’s the point (reinforced by WFAN’s current self-congratulatory celebration of its 30th anniversary and the simultaneous fawning over the “legacy” of its caterwauling former partners Mike Francesa and Chris Russo): Conflict and partisan outrage may sell—especially to a target audience of young males—but they aren’t the least bit illuminating.

Yes, sports talk radio—fueled by the hassling, arrogant model of Francesa and Russo—has wildly proliferated since WFAN’s debut in 1987. And, by taking frivolous sports arguments from barstools onto the public airwaves, it has superseded the real sports journalism in newspapers and magazines, influencing far too many editors to dumb down their products.

In the new ESPN 30-for-30 film documenting the 19-year Francesa-Russo collaboration, there is plenty of detail about the pair’s celebrity and vocal version of professional wrestling. But, as Neil Genzlinger’s New York Times review of the show noted, “It would have been nice to hear Mr. Russo and Mr. Francesa reflect on how they viewed their roles—were they just there to entertain and antagonize in a quest for ratings, or to educate, facilitate and investigate?”

I think I know the answer. There never was any real possibility that a listener could learn much from those two know-it-alls—who, by the way, often displayed a complete lack of interest or familiarity with sports beyond baseball, basketball and football—shouting over each other’s deranged bellowing.

Naturally dozens, then hundreds, of radio stations (now 790 around the country) copied them. The disputes and sensationalism, the scorn and ridicule, quickly leeched into cable television and its Hot Take sports shows, wherein two or more so-called experts participate in skirmishes essentially boiling down to one fellow—it’s almost always men—making some blanket statement meant to reduce everyone else’s opinion to garbage.

Amid the rumpus, nothing is really thoughtful. Nothing adds to the marketplace of ideas. Nothing goes deeper than caffeinated judgments of a player’s or coach’s bumhood and how everything could be solved by taking the talking (screaming) head’s advice. (My friend Pat Borzi, a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, once astutely observed that “the best thing for sports talk radio is the home team’s 10-game losing streak.”)

The objective is heat, not light. Sports talk radio, rather than evocative, is merely provocative. It’s about rubbing two sticks together.

So here’s Chris Christie, often described as a bully and known to sometimes play fast and loose with the truth, campaigning for the job Francesa has said he will leave in December. Like Francesa, the New York Post’s Phil Mushnick wrote, Christie “treats listeners as if they’re too stupid to recognize that he messes with facts.”

Facts? As a journalist, I made a decision years ago: Switch the dial to NPR.

Defiling the American hot dog

This is to suggest that protesters at Coney Island’s annual July 4 hotdog-eating contest missed the point. Instead of objecting to the event’s promotion of violence against animals by showcasing their consumption, the five demonstrators detained by police should have been railing against the revolting public spectacle of people trying to outgorge each other against the clock.

The so-called winner of the (literally) nauseating pigout devoured 72 dogs (with buns) in 10 minutes and somehow was celebrated in newspaper and television reports which cast him as participating in a distinctive Independence Day American tradition.

In fact, the whole operation deserved bad reviews on multiple levels, beginning with its juxtaposition to the contrary epidemics of childhood obesity and world hunger. The former scourge has more than tripled since the 1970s, with one in five schoolchildren now dangerously overweight, while one in nine people worldwide suffer from chronic undernourishment. Those statistics ought to take the fun out of the Coney Island show—if it had any entertainment value in the first place.

Hotdogs indeed are an appealing and appropriate July 4 U.S. custom; it was estimated that our 324 million fellow citizens accounted for 150 million dogs eaten. But that averages out, roughly, to a reasonable two franks per person, and it likely would spoil regular folks’ holiday barbeques to see the leading hog on Coney Island wolf down the share of more than 33 people. In 10 minutes.

That put him, and his fellow “competitors,” somewhere between Dante’s third and fourth circles of hell—gluttony and greed. Not to mention their appalling wastefulness. Some people eat to live and others live to eat, but those partaking in the hotdog race were just eating to eat, fulfilling neither the primary (fuel) nor secondary (enjoyment) functions of food.

Alarmingly, the yearly Coney Island binge is just a single stop on a circuit of eating contests conducted by an organization calling itself Major League Eating, which claims it provides “dramatic audience entertainment and offer[s] an unparalleled platform for media exposure.” MLE calls its eaters “an increasingly celebrated breed of athlete.”

These “athletes” challenge each other at speed-eating cake, corn-on-the-cob, butter, chicken wings, glazed doughnuts, pie. And even if no animals are hurt in some productions, it’s enough—more than enough—to make a person sick.

Korean Olympic choreography

I just read the news today (oh, boy): South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, has publicly proposed forming a unified Olympic team with North Korea for February’s Winter Games in PyeongChang in the South. Even wilder: South Korean Cultural, Sports and Tourism Minister, Do Jong-hwan, has floated the idea of the North co-hosting the Olympics, with a yet-to-be determined number of ski events at the North’s new Masikryong ski resort.

“Pipe dream” is too mild a description. Any heartfelt longing to advance dialogue and reconciliation between the two Koreas, and the idea of doing so through the world’s most visible athletic festival, is certainly welcome. But the Korean War, after 64 years, technically is still on. The two sides agreed to a ceasefire in 1953 but never signed a peace treaty, and just last month, Moon cited the “high possibility” of renewed military conflict over the North’s recent nuclear and missile tests.

The sports reality, furthermore, is that no North Korean athlete has yet qualified to compete in PyeongChang and, beyond that, officials in the North have not stated a willingness to participate in the Games. Choi Moon-soon, governor of PyeongChang’s Gangwon Province, told CNN this week that having the North host events is impossible, while Reuters reported that North Korea’s International Olympic Committee member, Chang Ung, confirmed that assembling a North-South team is unrealistic given the present political climate.

But the shadow boxing goes on—just as it did leading up to the 1988 Summer Olympics in the South’s capital, Seoul. Back then, North Korea spent more than a year angling for a role as co-host, demanding that it stage eight sports, which was then one-third of the Summer Olympic program. The IOC, keen to be the globe’s fence-mender, bent its charter—which stipulates that the Games are given to a single city—by offering to place three sports in the North.

As the point man in those IOC negotiations, then-IOC vice president Dick Pound experienced “something almost ritualistic” about the North’s bargaining tactics that was unrelated to real possibilities. “The North Koreans never seemed to hear what they were being told,” he said then.

A year before the Seoul Games, Pound reported that, when the IOC declared its final tender was three sports in the North, “North Korea said, ‘The latest offer is very encouraging progress toward putting eight sports in North Korea.’” The IOC nevertheless persisted with the talks because, “if you could get anyone across that border into North Korea to compete, into such an acknowledged trouble spot, it would really be special,” Pound said.

That still applies. But so does this: “South Korea,” he said, “could go up there and win a gold medal. That means that the South Korean flag goes up the pole in North Korea, and the South Korean anthem plays. And that’s unthinkable in the North.”

In 1988 as now, there were pockets of sentiment for North-South rapprochement, especially among student radicals. At the time, that passion manifested itself in regular, orchestrated demonstrations in which some students would hurl bricks and rocks at riot police, who answered with tear-gas guns and parcel-post-like trucks firing volleys of tear gas.

I witnessed one of those set-piece demonstrations on the steps of Yonsei University in Seoul with my friend Jay Weiner, then a reporter for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. And, while there was nothing pleasant about being caught in a tear-gas storm, the whole scene—contained within a couple of blocks—produced more a sense of choreographed fervor than of real danger.

A quarter-mile from the most intense action, folks from the neighborhood sat under umbrellas at small sidewalk cafes and drank ginseng tea, and little children bounced on a mattress under a street overpass. Coughing, weeping women streamed out of the university gates, eyeballs and skin burning from the tear gas and their mouths covered with handkerchiefs. But a middle-aged fellow strolling along in his Hawaiian shirt shrugged off the fuss.

“You learn to live with this,” he said. “We Koreans love clashes, although I must say, I don’t think these students understand much.” One student at a neighboring university told us that the “joke on campuses is that these kids don’t want to take tests, so they demonstrate. And the joke off campus is that the radicals are ‘spring mushrooms’ who pop up each year and then get a job working for Hyundai after graduation.”

Those spring mushrooms continue to appear, and the Olympics has been a venue for the hope, however dim, of a reunified Korea. Though the North wound up skipping the ’88 Seoul Games altogether, there subsequently were two occasions at the Summer Olympics, in Sidney in 2000 and Athens in 2004, when teams from the North and South marched together in Opening Ceremonies under a flag with the generic map of the Korean peninsula.

In both cases, though, the North and South competed separately. And to read the news these days (oh, boy) is to be reminded that neither side has won the Korean War.