Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Riding the "EL", Panopticons, and the Uncommonality of Common Courtesy

"Standing passengers, please do not lean against the doors."

"Please keep your belongings off the seat next to you so others may sit down."

"Please be considerate when talking on your phones or listening to electronic devices so as not to disturb other customers."

"Your safety is important. If you observe unattended packages, vandalism, or suspicious activity, inform CTA personnel immediately."

These are but a few of the affirmations that a typical customer encounters during their daily commute on one of Chicago's 8 train lines, known affectionately as the "El" (for Elevated tracks). There are subways and street level tracks as well.

This constant need for corrective instruction is indicative of how uncommon common courtesy is in our modern society that emphasizes individual satisfaction over collectivist modes of living. It is also a stark reminder of what English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham referred to as the Panopticon, in which the "sentiment of an invisible omniscience" is created. In essence, and by the very etymology of the word panopticon, the people never know when they are being surveyed or by whom so they begin to "police" each other. (It literally means the prisoners watching each other. This is where the allusion to the "inmates running the asylum" finds its origins.)

In one sense this preserves the safety of people traveling to and fro in public spaces and ensures the civility of open environments without using significant state resources for security. It encourages people to behave in a civil manner in public spaces owing to the specter of being reprimanded by the apparati of the law or, worse yet, rebuke and public humiliation by one's peers. On the other hand, prescient awareness of being surveilled by a state apparatus as well as one's peers can foment sentiments of distrust amongst and between citizens and even encourage some to "act out" as a form of protest against these systems, possibly escalating to the point of endangering the well-being of those in the immediate area. It has been my experience that the self-awareness and desire not to draw undue negative attention to one's self in public spaces is enough to combat this temptation in the vast majority of the citizenry.

What is the desired outcome for such systems in relation to those who are ordered by them? By those that design and operate them? Are they effective deterrents to acts of disorderly conduct in public spaces? Is there a bigger picture that maybe we're aware of? Not prepared to know?

If the gentleman's briefcase or woman's purse perched firmly on the empty seat next to them, or the iPod blaring chords of Black Umbrella Brigade at decibels that a dolphin would find objectionable, or the young hipster attached firmly to a train door on a virtually empty train car are an indication of anything, it is that no matter how much encouragement/instruction we receive from our omnipotent handlers with the melodic masculine voices, there's still a small partition in our souls that bear the immortal words of South Park's Cartman -- "I do what I want!"

Now, please stand clear of the doors. Doors are closing.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Michael Vick Conditionally Reinstated by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

Suspended NFL Quarterback Michael Vick has been conditionally reinstated to play professional football today by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Goodell will make a decision on Vick's unconditional reinstatement by Week 6 of the regular season, which means that the quarterback could possible see the field as soon as Week 1 although that scenario is highly unlikely according to ESPN.com, NFL.com, and the Associated Press.

According to the NFL news blog Vick, who's an unrestricted free agent, can now participate in preseason practices, workouts and meetings and may play in the final two preseason games. During the regular season, Vick can participate in all team activities other than games. Vick also will be periodically evaluated by Goodell during his suspension and will be mentored by former Colts coach Tony Dungy.

The NFL news blog also contained portions of Commissioner Roger Goodell's letter to Vick.

"Among the conditions of this reinstatement, you are required to abide by the terms of the supervised release that were imposed on you by the court, which include not committing any further crime, limits on who you may associate with, prohibitions regarding drug and alcohol use, possession of a firearm or other dangerous weapon, and forbidding you to own, possess or be involved with the sale of any dog."

"Apart from these conditions, you have submitted to me a written plan concerning your proposed living arrangements, how you will manage your financial affairs, counseling and mentoring plans, and your proposed work with the Humane Society and other groups. You have committed to me that you intend to abide by this plan, and as I said when we met, you are accountable for doing so."

"I am also encouraged by your recognition that you cannot do this yourself, and that outside mentors and continued counseling will provide you with valuable support and assistance. After discussing possible mentors with you, I have asked Coach Tony Dungy to continue his work with you and to initiate a more formal mentoring relationship with you. Earlier today, we discussed in detail with Coach Dungy the precise nature of that relationship, and I share your view that Coach Dungy can help you in many ways as you rebuild your life and resume your career. I will stay in close touch with Coach Dungy and his views will be part of my decision concerning whether and when you return to play. I encourage you and Coach Dungy to select other mentors and advisors who can help in other phases of your life."

There are mixed reports related to Vick's reaction to Commissioner Goodell's decision. ESPN's Sal Paoaltonio reported that, privately, Vick was less than satisfied with Goodell's decision to hold his unconditional reinstatement up until Week 6 at the latest and that he plans to appeal the suspension as early as Week 1. However, ESPN's Chris Mortensen reports that Vick's advisors are elated by Goodell's decision. Ofcourse, the suspension and subsequent restrictions rendered by commissioner Goodell and Vick's course of action retroactive to the suspension are all contingent upon a NFL team showing interest in signing the 29 year old Pro Bowl Quarterback.

It is clear that, due to the nature of Michael Vick's offense, his less than truthful statements to Goodell about his knowledge of and involvement with Bad Newz Kennels during their first face-to-face meeting over 2 years ago, and the implementation of a strict Zero Tolerance player personal conduct policy by the commissioner, the severity of Vick's conditional reinstatement is intended to serve as both a deterrent to similar conduct in the future by NFL employees and a benchmark for punishment of similar offenses without regard for punishments that may or may not have been rendered by the justice system.

It will be interesting to see how Commissioner Goodell and the NFL Player's Union address the issues surrounding free agent wide receiver Plaxico Burress's current legal troubles. On Friday, November 28, 2008, Burress suffered an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound to the right thigh in the New York City nightclub LQ. The injury was not life-threatening and he was released from an area hospital the next afternoon. The following Monday, Burress turned himself in to police to face charges of criminal possession of a handgun. According to his lawyer Benjamin Brafman, Burress will plead not guilty. It was later discovered that the NYPD found out about the incident only after seeing it on television and were not called by New York-Presbyterian Hospital as required by law. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg called the hospital actions an "outrage" and stated that they are a "chargeable offense". Bloomberg also urged that Burress be prosecuted to the fullest extent, saying that any punishment short of the minimum 3½ years for unlawful carrying of a handgun would be "a mockery of the law."

Burress had an expired concealed carry (CCW) license from Florida, but no New York license. Burress reported to Giants Stadium as per team policy for injured but active players, and was told he would be suspended without pay for the remaining four games of the 2008 regular season for conduct detrimental to the team. In addition, the Giants placed Burress on their reserve/non-football injury list, meaning he was ineligible to return for the playoffs. Burress was also scheduled to receive $1 million from his signing bonus on December 10, 2008, but the status of that payment is unclear. The NFL Players Association filed a grievance, saying the team violated the collective bargaining agreement and challenging the suspension and fine received by Burress.

The Chicago Bears were one team rumored to be interested in signing Burress. Jerry Angelo, the general manager of the Bears, has since removed the team from consideration, owing partly to a lack of resolution to Burress's legal troubles until at least September.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Looking Towards Cooperstown 2010

Today, the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame honored three former players and one broadcaster with enshrinement into the premier institution in all of sports. Rickey Henderson, Jim Rice, and Joe Gordon were forever immortalized with plaques in baseball's hallowed ode to the American pasttime. As baseball players and fans, both past and present, celebrate the tremendous accomplishments of these remarkable gentlemen, I'd like to take a look forward to the Hall of Fame inductions of 2010 and three men that I feel are deserving of immortalization in upstate New York.

Andre Dawson

Nicknames "The Hawk", Andre Dawson played 21 seasons in the major leagues for the Montreal Expos, Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, and Florida Marlins. In 2,627 career games The Hawk amassed 2,774 hits, 438 homeruns, and 1,591 runs batted in. In addition, Dawson stole 314 bases despite battling chronic knee problems (undoubtedly agitated by playing on the artificial surface in Montreal's Olympic Stadium). Dawson finished his career with a .279 batting average, a .323 on-base percentage, and a robust .482 slugging percentage. The Hawk finished in the top 10 in batting average 5-times and 8-times in slugging percentage.

An 8-time all-star and 4-time Silver Slugger Award winner, Dawson was the recepient of the 1977 Rookie of the Year award. 10 years later, in 1987, he won the National League Most Valuable Player award after batting .287 and leading the league with 49 homeruns and 137 runs batted in, a .568 slugging percentage, 341 total bases, and a respectable .328 on-base percentage. He accomplished all of this while playing for a last place Cubs team. He was the runner-up in MVP voting twice, after the 1981 and 1983 seasons. Dawson was also an outstanding defensive outfielder. He was an 8-time Gold Glove Award Winner, including 6 in a row from from the 1980-1985 seasons. Dawson finished his career with a .980 fielding percentage and 157 outfield assists.

In 1993, Dawson joined Hall of Famer Willie Mays as the second player in Major League Baseball history to hit 400 homeruns and steal 300 bases. In 1994, Dawson was awarded the Hutch Award, given to the active player that best exemplifies the fighting spirit and competitive desire to win.

Ron Santo

Ronald Edward Santo played 14 seasons for the Chicago Cubs and 1 season for the Chicago White Sox. In 2,243 games, Santo hit .277 with 2,254 hits, 342 homeruns, and 1,331 runs batted in. Santo had a career .362 on-base percentage and a .464 slugging percentage. Exhibiting exceptional patience at the plate, Santo led the league in walks 4 times and 2 times in on-base percentage.

To say that Ronny was an outstanding fielder would be a gross understatement. Widely considered the best 3rd baseman of his generation by his peers, Santo was a 5-time Gold Glove Award winner and amassed a respectable .954 fielding percentage.

Santo was the poster child for durability. He played in 160 or more games 7 times in his career at arguably the most demanding position on a baseball diamond with the exception of catcher. Santo played his entire career with Type-2 diabetes but didn't disclosed his condition to fans, teammates, or ownership until after his career had ended. Santo undoubtedly paved the way for athletes with diabetes to play not just baseball, but all professional sports.

In 1973, Ron was awarded the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award, given to the player that best exemplifies character and integrity both on and off the field.

Bert Blyleven

Born in Zeist in the Netherlands, the "Frying Dutchman" played 22 seasons in the big leagues for the Minnesota Twins (twice), Texas Rangers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians, and California Angels. Known for being a notorious dugout pranksters that frequently set his teammate's shoelaces on fire, Blyleven was a 2-time All-Star, 2-time World Series champion, and the 1989 Comeback Player of the Year.

Blyleven amassed 287 career wins (27th all-time) with a 3.31 earned run average and 3,701 career strikeouts, which is 5th all-time in Major League Baseball history. Bert completed 242 of the games that he started in his career. He led the league in shutouts 3-times and in innings pitched twice. Bly finished in the top 10 in wins 6-times, in strikeouts 15-times, and in earned run average 10-times including finishing 2nd twice.

Bert Blyleven is widely considered the best pitcher in major league history not yet elected to the baseball Hall of Fame.

Here's to the hope that Bert, Ronny, and The Hawk will all get that long-awaited call from Cooperstown in the summer of 2010.

Everyone Deserves a Second Chance (*dog killers excepted?)

On July 20th, suspended NFL quarterback Michael Vick was released from federal custody stemming from his convicton on federal dogfighting charges. Vick served 23 months at a federal facility in Leavenworth, KS., the last 60 days of which he was confined to his home in Virginia. Vick will now be placed on 3 years probation in addition to a 3 year sentence associated with conviction on state dogfighting charges. Vick's release comes 1 week before NFL training camps are set to get underway. Vick met Friday with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, tasked with convincing Mr. Goodell, who he last met with almost exactly two years ago (and vehemently denied the allegations of dogfighting) that he is truly remorseful for his past actions.

Vick will have to further convince NFL teams that he can return to his Pro Bowl caliber form. He last played in an NFL game on December 31, 2006 just months before Vick was indicted on federal dogfighting conspiracy charges. At age 29, it is not inconceivable that Vick could play several more years in the NFL. Many NFL experts predict that if Vick is rendered a second chance by a franchise it will most likely be as a running back or wide receiver and possibly as flanker in the revised spread offense, commonly referred to as the "Wildcat" formation. Vick passed for 11,505 yards and rushed for 3,859 yards in 7 seasons with the Atlanta Falcolns. Many of the 31 NFL teams are reluctant to take a flyer on Vick due to the threat of a potential backlash by season ticket holders and a public relations blitz from animal's rights groups.

"It is the barbarism that sets the crime apart," said Ed Sayres, president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "This was not a one-time transgression or crime of passion -- this was a multiyear pattern of behavior that demonstrates a startling lack of moral character and judgement." People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals contends that Vick should not be reinstated until he submits to a psychological examination to determine his capacity for remorse.

This comes some 11 years after Leonard Little, a defensive end for the St. Louis Rams, crashed into and killed Susan Guttweiler shortly after leaving a birthday party. When tested, Little's blood alcohol level was measured at .16%, twice the statuatory level of intoxication in the state of Missouri. Little received 90 days in jail, 4 years probation, and 1000 hours of community service. The NFL suspended Little for 8 games, which cost him $125,000 or half of his seasonal salary. Six years later, in 2004, Little was again arrested for drunk driving and speeding. Due to his 1999 incident, prosecutors charged Little as a persistent offender, a felony. He was eventually acquitted of DUI, but was convicted of a misdemeanor speeding charge.

More recently, in March of 2009, NFL wide receiver Dante Stallworth struck and killed 59 year old Mario Reyes in Miami Beach with his 2005 Bentley Sedan. Stallworth was reportedly driving 50 mph in a 40 mph zone. When tested, Stallworth's blood alcohol level was reported at .12%, over Florida's statuatory limit of .08%. It was also reported that Stallworth tested positive for marijuana in his system. Stallworth pleaded guilty to DUI and second degree manslaughter charges, for which he received 30 days in jail, 2 years of house arrest, 8 years probation, and a life-time suspension of his driver's license. On July 10, 2009, Stallworth was released from jail after serving only 24 days of his original sentence. On June 16th 2009 Stallworth reached an undisclosed financial agreement with the Reyes family. On June 18, 2009 NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced that Stallworth would be suspended indefinitely due to his DUI manslaughter guilty plea.

Fans and media members contend that Michael Vick should be suspended for at least 4 games to start the regular season. Some go as far as demanding that the NFL suspend Vick for life for his his heinous crimes. Buffalo Bills wide receiver Terrell Owens is not one of them. Owens characterized commissioner Goodell's handling of Vick's status as "unfair" and suggested that that any thought of extending the quarterback's suspension would be similar to "kicking a dead horse" according to stories published by the Associated Press and NFL.com. "A lot of guys around the league need to speak up. I think the [NFL] player's union needs to step in because the guy's already suffered so much, and to add a four game suspension onto a two-year prison sentence, I mean, that's ridiculous." The NFL Player's Union's stance has publicly been that they will support Michael Vick in his personal life until commissioner Goodell renders his final decision.

The question is, what value do we as a society place on human suffering in relation to the suffering of other forms of life? I certainly don't condone Vick's inconsolable acts of violence against animals. They did not ask to be subjected to such dejectable actions for sport, amusement, and profit. However, the legal system has rendered what it has determined to be a fair punishment. Vick has suffered tremendous financial losses, having filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and forfeited over $70 million in guaranteed money and incentives to the Atlanta Falcolns. Vick will likely never sign another lucrative endorsement deal or be able to walk into a visiting football stadium or walk down the street for that matter without being subjected to sneers, jeers, and threats on his life.

Susan Dettweiler's family lost a wife, mother, sister and daughter and yet Leonard Little was afforded the opportunity to play the game that he loves and obtain substantial pay for his efforts. Mario Reyes' family lost a loving husband, father, grandfather, and brother yet it is highly likely that, in the near future, Roger Goodell will allow Donte Stallworth to continue his professional football career. The irresponsible acts perpetrated by Little and Stallworth coupled with the vacuous loss experienced by the dettweiler and Reyes families become no less palatable with the passage of time. The ability for Little and Stallworth to continue their lives is a testament to our faith in justice and capacity for forgiveness as a society. Why does Michael Vick's case seem to differ in the court of public opinion?

It seems that we as a society have become increasingly insensitive to the suffering of our fellow humans. The growing rate of homelessness, unemployment, and percentage of our citizens being imprisoned and executed annually is but one sign of this systematic epidemic. At the same time, the number of and influence exhibited by animal's rights groups such as PETA has become big business.

We are a country with a rich history of granting second chances to the most divisive characters, from politics to pro sports. Our foreign policy derides the leaders of foreign countries to practice a sanctimonious form of democracy that values the rights of individuals for the safety of the collective. This has been true in communist Russia and China,genocidal Darfur, and domestically here in the post Jim Crow south. It seems that, more often than not, when the specter of a media backlash, profit losses or decreased campaign contributions in the next election cycle looms large, blind lady Justice becomes disaffectionately nearsighted.

When did life become something you could buy?

Books of scripture abound with allegories alluding to the seemingly divine nature of second chance once crimes have been atoned for. The remission of sins are not contingent upon the political expediency or financial viability of the circumstances. Michael Vick has given up more of his youth and material wealth than the average person will ever be called to sacrifice in several lifetimes. Forgiveness, in the most sincere intimation of the word, obliges us to give much more from the exchequer of our collective hearts.