Angry St. Louis Rams fans should become Packers fans

PackersHelmetEdited

I never became a Rams fan despite the opportunities presented to me.

When I was in grade school, the Rams were the closest NFL team to my hometown. On the first weekday of each pro football season, most boys came to class wearing blue and white – the team’s colors back then – to signal their fandom, or to blend with the “in” crowd.

Years later in St. Louis, I bought a home within walking distance of the Rams’ stadium and was at Ground Zero for the huge showing of civic pride as the team won its only Super Bowl.

Around the same time, I became a sports editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and had a hand in gathering the information that thrilled the Rams’ fan base. I worked closely with the reporters and columnists who sifted team minutiae for tidbits about Rams players and plays. I learned how to spell Oshiomogho Atogwe before Rams fans did.

A few years after that, I joined a company that had a professional and public partnership with the Rams. On occasion, I worked beside Rams staff, players, and cheerleaders at community-outreach events.

All those chances to emboss the curly horn on my psyche – and still, nothing. The Rams remained as distant to me as New England, or for that matter, Newfoundland.

Why?

Well, for one thing, the qualities of pro sports that most fascinate me, going back to my youth, are best described by dollar amounts, not player numbers. I prefer watching what goes on behind the scenes – the business deals, the machinations, the politics. Perhaps because I am not a player-sized person and lack player-sized athletic talent, my attention gravitated toward the average-sized guys working off-field to make a winner, or struggling to maintain one.

For another thing, I never believe that any team on any field, court, or rink plays for “me.” Pro sports in America started without spectators; the crowds came later because the games were entertaining distractions from the workaday routine much like movies and circuses were. Soon enough, the players and team organizers realized they could charge for attendance, and a revenue stream was born to justify continuing the games for reasons other than sport.

Today, pro sports – football, in particular – rely on TV revenue to build wealth. The same basic principle of recreational diversion applies, only now an NFL team can profit without a single fan showing up in person at the stadium (although, if that were to happen, the team would lose out on huge income from sales of concessions).

Team owners understand and relish this stark reality, and that is why every pro football city outside of Green Bay, Wis., is at risk of suffering the same way as St. Louis. If an owner can be persuaded to think that better TV revenue exists in another city, that same owner can be persuaded just as easily to relocate his team to that city.

Green Bay will never suffer that indignity. The smallest city in the NFL, at just over 104,000 residents, also has the sweetest ownership agreement. Its Packers franchise is publicly owned by more than 300,000 stockholders, none of whom are allowed to possess more than 4 percent of outstanding shares. The Packers are also a registered nonprofit corporation – the only one in U.S. professional sports.

This happened because back in the 1920s, before the NFL as we know it was born, the team’s owners elected to hold a stock sale as a means of escape from beneath crushing debt. Since then, the Packers have had four other stock sales, the most recent in 2011-2012 to upgrade its home stadium, Lambeau Field.

No other NFL team can attempt that business model now. The league outlawed it three decades ago but grandfathered in the Packers’ arrangement.

I should disclose here that I am among those 300,000-plus Packers shareholders. Given my pro-sports proclivities, the notion of owning a couple shares of stock appealed to me more than owning a Brett Favre jersey.

This means I am in league, figuratively and literally, with Rams owner Stan Kroenke, except nobody will ever ask me for input on how to pay for three levels of depth at inside linebacker, let alone try to sell me on moving the Packers to a new stadium in suburban Los Angeles.

Another key difference between us is that I feel the pain St. Louisans suffer now from their wounded pride. I see that pain in many of the faces I pass in downtown St. Louis, and I read it in social media comments. This city embraces its pro sports profile much the way Green Bay does; its love for baseball’s Cardinals and hockey’s Blues verges on passion, and that is why St. Louis routinely ranks high on lists of best sports cities in America.

A thoughtful, committed NFL team owner would have paid to produce a franchise worthy of comparable passion. But as St. Louis learns for the second time, pro sports run on money, not love. Kroenke took his team to where he thought the TV money was better and the love was negotiable. If Kroenke truly thinks that is central to producing a successful team, however, Los Angeles will suffer a worse indignity than St. Louis by losing the same pro franchise twice.

Despondent Rams supporters should switch their allegiance to the Packers. The fans own the team, not the other way around. And because of that, the Packers aren’t packing to leave Green Bay anytime soon.

Resolve in 2016 to stop texting while driving

Distracted Driving

I drive 18 miles of interstate each weekday before sunrise. Ahead of me, lines of fast-moving tail lights stretch into the dark toward the horizon, toward my destination, like glowing breadcrumbs aligned along a well-worn trail.

As I draw near to a set of those tail lights, I glimpse something else: the soft white glow from phone screens as people text or read while they drive. I see even more of them after dusk on the commute home, because traffic is heavier and slower at that time.

The least distracted among these drivers announce their divided attention by veering into other lanes and almost into other cars, or they drive 10-15 mph below the limit amid high-speed traffic with two wheels in another lane the whole time. Those drivers who fail to correct often wind up in a wreck surrounded by emergency vehicles on the roadside.

I see an average of one wreck per day along my short stretch of Interstate 64 in eastern Missouri. Usually, more than one vehicle is involved.

According to the National Safety Council, more than one-quarter of all car crashes result from smartphone use. But that percentage represents confirmed numbers. By my count, 60 percent to 70 percent of the people I can see in the other cars along my 36-mile round-trip commute have their faces angled down at their phones instead of up at the road, so I believe the NSC’s estimate is soft.

What happens when drivers stop looking at the road, even for what they think is only a moment? A study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that sending or receiving a text requires an average of 5 seconds – the time it takes to drive the length of a football field at 55 mph.

The overall distance is longer when you consider that few of us on the interstates keep the speedometer at 55.

I admit to being one of those distracted drivers until a few years ago when, along the same stretch of I-64 on a cloudless day, an SUV bounced off the concrete divider and careered across all four lanes into my driver’s side door, totaling my car. (My phone was in my pocket at the time.)

Neither I nor the other driver were hurt, but he resisted giving me his name, address, driver license number, or insurance information for my own insurance records, saying the crash was not his fault. This sounded odd considering the road was dry, the weather was perfect, and witnesses at the scene said nobody was near his vehicle when he lost control.

So, I said, “Fine.” Then I turned to the police officer who was interviewing us for the accident report and said, “Either you obtain his cell phone records for your investigation, or I’ll find an attorney who will.”

The driver’s insurance company cut a check for all damages within 72 hours.

Few things in life are certain except these: death, taxes, and the risk associated with distracted driving. Dozens of studies going back more than a decade confirm this danger, underline it, and yet so many drivers still ignore it. This is why I drive Interstate 64 with a grip on my steering wheel that could strangle a garden hose, and I watch not just the other cars but other drivers as well.

I know, the pressure to look at our phones while driving is great. Driving is monotonous, boring, so we use smartphones as a cure. On top of that, each of us perceives ourselves to be superhuman in some way – like thinking we handle driving distractions better than everyone else.

But nine people die every day in the United States from distracted driving, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the chief cause is smartphone use. Resolve to not inflate that statistic in 2016, and repeat that resolution – and stick to it – every New Year’s thereafter.

Remember Mike Brown – and William and Angela

Melted wax still stains the street and sidewalk on Park Avenue at 11th Street in south St. Louis where two people were killed in a drive-by shooting in March. The stains appeared during a candlelight vigil for the victims two days after the shooting.

Melted wax still stains the street and sidewalk on Park Avenue at 11th Street in south St. Louis where two people were killed in a drive-by shooting in March. The stains appeared during a candlelight vigil for the victims two days after the shooting. (Photo by David Sheets)

In Ferguson, Mo., at least three permanent monuments recall Mike Brown.

In south St. Louis, there are only stains on the street where William Crume and Angela Wysinger perished.

In Ferguson, a brass plaque bearing Brown’s likeness and another plate shaped like a dove flank where he was shot dead in the street at Canfield Green apartments a year ago. On the spot where the teenager’s body lay in the summer sun for four hours is a rectangle of new asphalt; Brown’s family had the old asphalt scooped up as a keepsake.

In south St. Louis, dark, greasy stains from candle wax remain on the pavement and sidewalk at 11th Street and Park Avenue in the LaSalle Park neighborhood. There, near a concrete light pole, is where Crume and Wysinger died in March, killed in their car during a drive-by shooting. Two days afterward, about 70 people lit candles and stood in silence around a 17-foot wrap of balloons, ribbons and stuffed animals tied to the pole as a memorial to the couple.

Brown died in a confrontation with police officer Darrin Wilson. Brown was said to be unarmed. Wilson shot six times at Brown for reasons that protracted scrutiny has not made entirely clear.

Crume, 23, and Wysinger, 26, were killed as shooters from at least one passing vehicle fired multiple times into their car as it rolled east on Park Avenue. The shots also injured one of Wysinger’s three children – ages 2, 7 and 9 – riding in the back seat. Police say Crume and Wysinger were unarmed and probably knew their assailants.

Brown’s death triggered weeks of unrest in Ferguson and turned a magnifying glass on the way some municipal governments and police perform their duties. In many communities around the country, officers now wear cameras on their uniforms to account for their actions.

Little has happened in the wake of Crume’s and Wysinger’s deaths. The authorities presume the shooting was an act of retribution but still do not know who is responsible.

This week, millions of people worldwide remembered the events in Ferguson on the first anniversary of Brown’s death.

This week, hardly anyone will remember Crume and Wysinger.

But the young couple also deserve our attention, our remembrance, as much as Brown. His death, though tragic, raised awareness of pervasive social and legal imbalances in our government and the courts, and hammers home the need for changes in how the public and police deal with each other.

Crume and Whysinger died in an act of rage that hammers home the stark reminder of our obligation to be just and civil to one another. Lacking that, we risk leaving a legacy that amounts to little more than wax stains on sidewalks.

“You see a family shot up like this needlessly – the car was riddled with bullets. Just senseless,” Metropolitan Police Capt. Michael Sack told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in March. “It’s frustrating to have to deal with and try to find those responsible for it.”

‘It’s up to us to stop this’ : The shooting behind my backyard gate

Park Avenue Shooting Memorial

The memorial for two fatal shooting victims that grew to embrace a light pole on Park Avenue near downtown St. Louis started with a couple of teddy bears and a few flowers. (Photo courtesy of Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

Bright, multicolored balloons twist and bob around a concrete light pole about 20 yards from my backyard gate. People of all ages took photos of the balloons even as children tied more onto the pole.

In the adjoining community park, a couple hundred people talked, laughed, cried and held each other during a memorial vigil Tuesday as they recalled what happened a few feet from that light pole 24 hours earlier.

A bullet-riddled Nissan carrying two adults and a 9-year-old girl had rolled to a halt with one of the adults already dead and another dying. The girl was wounded but would survive. Their ride ended after a 12-block shootout with the occupants of another car who authorities say were targeting the couple.

I had heard the yelling from bystanders outside my second-floor window before realizing what was wrong. I saw the car go by, followed briefly by four people sprinting after it on foot. By the time I made it downstairs and out the door to investigate, a handful of wailing, distraught people were already reaching into the car to pull out the victims.

Police arrived mere seconds later. A detective at the scene told me they were receiving 911 calls about the shooting before the car had reached a full stop. Once they turned the corner, they only had to follow the sounds of the wailing.

More people rushed to the scene on foot at almost the same rate as the police, who drove in aboard 17 patrol cars and immediately closed the street in both directions. Officers cordoned off a wide area that extended all the way to my gate hinges.

The police anticipated trouble. When large numbers of African Americans are involved, they assume as much and show up en masse. Ferguson – 12 miles northwest of here – is to blame for that. The victims in the car were African American. The detective said the suspects likely were African American, and the growing crowd was upset and almost exclusively African American.

But the tension that was anticipated never materialized, because there was no rage, only outrage and frustration. The police were there like the rest of the crowd, trying to understand what brought two young lives to such a violent end on a tree-lined residential street, probably at the hands of someone equally as young.

One officer bent down on one knee just outside the loop of yellow police tape to talk with a group of boys, none of whom appeared older than seven. All of them, including the officer, had the same stunned looks on their faces, because at what age does one truly understand how anything like this can happen?

To the other side of me, a woman walked past holding her head in her hands and saying to nobody in particular, “I’m never letting my girl out of the house now.”

Then screams pealed out from several of the 70 or so people watching across the street in the park. They just learned the other adult in the car had died at the hospital.

At that, the crowd started to dissipate, with the strong and resolute assisting the inconsolable. The armada of patrol cars dwindled to 12, to eight, to two. The car that held the victims was the last to go, on the back of a flatbed tow truck, beneath the pale glow of that now-landmark street light, the only odd thing at that point being the sight of a single officer standing in the road watching the cargo being loaded.

For me, the hardest part was seeing the pain in the faces of those who either knew the victims or knew that this kind of internecine violence was not about to end. They were worried for their children and their friends and family, and said as much out loud, over and over. The police would be no help; the solution had to come from within.

And so the vigil formed around 5 p.m. Tuesday and lasted well after sundown. About 200 people showed up. They brought flowers and balloons, and a couple brought barbecue kettles. Posters of the dead were pasted to the light pole. The wrap of balloons reached 12 feet in height. And yet, police passed by only infrequently because for this second gathering the people themselves were doing the policing – directing traffic and trying to keep order. I spoke briefly to a few of the people trickling in and out; they replied in broken voices about taking back their lives.

“It’s up to us to stop this. It’s up to us to stop this,” one woman muttered.

Another woman who looked as if dressed for church touched my arm gently and said, “Please, be careful.”

We should all follow that advice.

You won’t believe what this journalist did using clickbait

Clickbait IconSee? I knew you’d click on the headline. Clickbait heads are useful that way.

Sure, clickbait promises more than it delivers. But in an age when mouse clicks can bring profit, clickbait heads are effective hooks for websites to attract business.

Clickbait is deceptive, misleading, and irresistible. That’s why headlines such as “Tricks Car Insurance Agents Don’t Want You to Know,” and “How iPads Are Selling for Under $40,” attract readers who should know better. These headlines promise content that reveals secrets, validates rumors, solves mysteries — and who doesn’t love that?

Well, journalists, for one. They insist clickbait content devalues news sites and demeans the journalism profession. A Google search with just “clickbait” and “journalism” in the search field turns up pages and pages of claims that the former is ruining the latter.

To some degree, this is true. Mislead any audience and you risk losing it.

What many journalists fail to remember however is that clickbait has been around much longer than the Internet — and they were the ones writing it.

Visit any library or newspaper database and scan the print headlines from 10, 20, 30 years ago. Headline writing was an art, a craft. News editors had limited space and time to explain a story no matter how complex, and it was a struggle almost every time. (Go ahead: Try explaining tax increment financing in six words or fewer, without using “tax,” or “increment,” or “financing.)

The goal was to make a big impression with small words.

That goal remains much the same online, but the audience is larger and there are many more news providers fighting for attention and survival. That’s why such sites as CNN, MSNBC, Fox, and my former employer, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — which is where I found the car insurance and iPad headlines mentioned above — resort to clickbait despite the criticism it brings.

Yes, clickbait is a necessary evil of doing business online. But if journalists believe clickbait is ruining their reputations, then journalists must take greater responsibility for solving a problem they helped create.

(A version of this post appears at KolbeCo.net.)

My mother’s luck

Friday the 13th icon

My mother’s birthday fell on a Friday the 13th eleven times in her life. Other people cringed at that; she shrugged it off.

Luck, whether bad or good, she insisted, was a byproduct of preparation. So, she crossed paths with black cats, walked under ladders when convenient, swept broken mirrors into the trash without concern, and never hunted for oddities in a patch of clover.

Her dismissiveness regarding superstition impressed me, emboldened me. I, too, count to thirteen without pausing at twelve.

But I think luck found her anyway, and maybe sought her out. Little else would explain how Japanese fighter planes missed strafing her childhood home near Pearl Harbor, or how she thwarted a black colleague’s likely lynching in Alabama by recognizing the voices from under the white hoods of their assailants and shouting their names, or how a tornado late one night in St. Louis missed her house but flattened the one next door.

Or how my mother managed to carry one child to term after three miscarriages and two warnings from her doctor to not continue trying.

Most of us tend to measure our lives against the final tally of blessings bestowed upon us, whether they are considered gifts or rights. We rely on the certainty of an unsubstantiated, ulterior force at our spiritual helm steering us toward a future greater and richer than we may deserve.

My mother was not so sanguine on these accounts. She possessed faith and a spiritual awareness, yet her favorite phrases were, “God helps those who help themselves,” and, “God is a busy man, and there are people way worse off than you. Work hard to make your own miracles.”

With her, not even blessings were left to chance.

Indeed, she suffered disappointment. Her marriage and health began failing around the same time and for the same reasons: too much alcohol and too little commitment. The frames she bought to hold pictures of grandchildren eventually held other memories. The golden years she aspired to spend in travel went instead toward caring for her own parents, one of whom lived past 100 and the other nearly so.

“Good god, I hope I don’t live that long,” she told me after her own mother’s memorial service.

Soon after, her turn toward mortality began. A long Pacific cruise tested her frailty and put her in the hospital for months. After returning home from that, a few months later, she suffered a heart attack and several small strokes.

At hospice, during one of her few lucid moments, she turned to my uncle who was visiting on her final birthday and asked, “I’m not going to get better, am I?”

He said no.

She sighed and after a long pause said, “That’s fine, that’s fine.”

My mother’s birthday fell on Friday the 13th eleven times in her life. Today would have been the twelfth.

I imagine she’s somewhere shrugging it off.

Is the Daily Egyptian’s demise a Dunn deal?

Daily Egyptian logoI haven’t seen the man in almost 30 years, yet Bill Harmon still intimidates me.

His sharp-toned advice echoes in my head whenever I try to write or edit a news story. I cringe every time.

Believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

Mr. Harmon was the faculty adviser of the student-run Daily Egyptian newspaper at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale while I lived and breathed journalism there. He served in that role for nearly two decades. He was famous for, among other things, having two tools at the ready. In one hand he clutched a red felt pen that cut through a young reporter’s copy — and ego — like a butcher’s knife. In the other hand was an ever-present cigarette.

The walls of his office and the edges of his moustache were yellowed testaments to his nicotine habit, no doubt aggravated by the likes of cocky young know-it-alls such as myself.

He was gruff, direct, uncompromising, and when he was upset with a journalist for not asking a key question or missing the point of a story even the air in the room escaped to find safety. But when he issued praise, no honor was higher or possessed more value. It was the Pulitzer of my youth.

The staff of the DE strived daily to hear him utter that praise, however mild.

I mention him now because Mr. Harmon’s legacy, and perhaps that of the DE itself, may vanish this summer. Last week, SIU’s Board of Trustees, the principal governing body for the entire Southern Illinois University system, tabled further discussion of a proposed $9 student media fee that, in part, would deliver the DE from rough financial straits by covering an estimated $200,000 operating deficit.

The 98-year-old newspaper relies on advertising to pay the bills yet still struggles, as does every other university newspaper in the United States, to remain solvent. Most of those other student newspapers, however, already receive fee support, including the twice-weekly student paper published at SIU’s campus in Edwardsville.

SIU-Carbondale students endorsed the $9 fee when it was first proposed last summer. Then-SIU Present Glenn Poshard buttressed that endorsement by digging $55,000 out of his own budget to lend short-term assistance.

SIU President Randy Dunn

SIU President Randy Dunn

But on May 1, a new president, Randy Dunn, took over and brought with him a different perspective. He said last week at the trustees’ meeting that he preferred to reexamine the fee proposal and the DE’s finances, and suggested he might take a year to do it. As if the DE had not considered pinching pennies before now.

Despite its name, the DE publishes only four days a week, down from five a year ago. Staff salaries and student work hours have been slashed over and over. The salaries are paid out of advertising revenue, not out of the university’s pocket.

Current DE Managing Editor Eric Fiedler told the Chicago Tribune that he doubts the newspaper can last even a few months, let alone a year, without the university’s commitment. SIU-Carbondale School of Journalism Director William Freivogel said he intends to have the trustees revisit the fee when they meet again in July.

(Full disclosure: I am a member of the DE editorial advisory board, and Bill Frievogel was a colleague of mine for several years in the editorial office of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)

The easy thing to do now is voice frustration with President Dunn and the trustees for displaying what appears to be a laissez-faire attitude toward a teaching tool that just won 17 Illinois College Press Association awards and was key to the School of Journalism receiving reaccreditation this year.

But I can understand the president’s reticence, to a degree, and it may have less to do with money than with, well, discomfort.

When I was a student reporter for the DE, one of my assignments was to cover the university administration — the president, the chancellor, the vice chancellors, the provost, the deans, etc. The role required attending meetings, analyzing budgets, sifting through sundry official documents, and upholding Mr. Harmon’s insistence that “Titles don’t matter, damn it! Only the facts matter.”

Southern Illinois University logoOften, these administrators begged off from answering my questions, resented them, even ran away from them. Once, I learned through a couple of dependable sources that a handful of SIU officials planned to fly together to Chicago for a conference and discuss university business along the way. I met them on the tarmac at Carbondale’s tiny airport and insisted on going along, arguing that the context of their discussion was required to be public, not private.

At that, all but a couple of the passengers stepped away from the plane, fetched their luggage and left the airport. On his way out, one particularly vexed administrator stormed up to me, pushed his nose to within an inch of mine, and grumbled, “You just ruined my vacation.”

When I returned to the DE newsroom, Mr. Harmon asked, “Were they pissed?”

I replied that they were.

He smiled broadly, snorted and said, “Ha! Good.”

Great student newspapers such as the Daily Egyptian are, first and foremost, public servants both mindful of and responsible to their university communities. Their staffs should be as tough and as diligent as the staffs at small-town weeklies or big-city dailies, because how else do student journalists grow to become professional ones?

Great student newspapers such as the Daily Egyptian should insist on honesty and integrity, and demonstrate the same, no matter the issue or the authority. The least we can do is lend them our support.

They are not obligated to make anyone feel comfortable. Bill Harmon was keenly aware of that.

Perhaps President Dunn is not.