Monday, April 30, 2007

Caught in a draft

Over the weekend, I spent more time than I care to admit following ESPN's coverage of the National Football League draft. Call it a guilty pleasure.

It's also an example of how things once considered an afterthought have been magnified by the media, like the electric shock administered to Frankenstein's Monster.

Thirty years ago, we read about the draft in our Monday morning newspaper. When ESPN came along in 1979, coverage of this annual ritual took an uptick. Now, there are "draft gurus" like ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. who do nothing else all year but track college players who might be chosen the following April. Draft-oriented Websites have proliferated. And ESPN now shows us every one of the 255 picks, complete with glitz, performance clips of the players, and contrived drama.

Is it really that important? Of course not -- often, highly rated athletes flop and undrafted players become stars. But fan interest is insatiable.

And it's not just the draft. In February, there's the NFL Combine, where hundreds of prospective pros are measured, studied and tested by hordes of scouts and "player personnel" types. The closest corrollary in history to this phenomenon was the 19th-century slave market -- except that in this case, the money is paid to the participants, not for them.

Nit-picking abounds at the Combine. If a player clocks 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash, he's considered fast; if it's 4.6, he's slow. Other tests include how many times the player can bench-press 225 pounds, how high he can jump, and how well he scores on an intelligence test. Meanwhile, there are countless face-to-face interviews with team officials.

With all this, however, the sports cliche is still king. The players chosen are always delighted to play for the team that picked them, the general manager or coach always praises that player as a possible savior. A new wrinkle over the past few years has been the "character" issue, a product of the growing list of college athletes who have found themselves at odds with their coaches or the law.

Confronted with the character issue, coaches always say: "We've looked into Rock's background and interviewed his coaches, and we've decided that burning down the campus dining hall was really not indiciative of his true character. Besides, he runs a 4.3 40." (The last sentence is unstated).

But if a truth serum were added to the draft party punch, here are some comments I'd like to hear, just for variety.

Coach: "We really wanted that linebacker that Denver took in the round before us. Unfortunately, we're now stuck with this guy."

Coach, in the later draft rounds: "Yeah, our fans booed when we made that pick, but he's not going to make the team, anyway. We had to pick somebody, and there were no good players left."

Player: "Why would somebody from Florida want to go to Green Bay? I hate cold weather. I may be smiling now, but I just text-messaged my agent and told him: 'Get me traded to the Miami Dolphins, whatever it takes!'"

Coach: "Does it concern us that Brutus has been charged with armed robbery, abduction and inciting a riot during his years at State U? Sure, and we realize that he's a thug. But we're hoping he'll channel his aggressiveness into hurting players on the opposing teams."

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Random thought upon reading the Sunday newspaper

One of the biggest obstacles to solving the problem in Iraq is the fact that the country is being fought over by two warring tribes that have been at each others' throats for as long as anyone can remember.

These groups have quite different visions of the future, and they seem determined to resist any sort of compromise. The majority faction continues to exert its control by whatever means necessary; the minority knows that the occupying force will be forced to leave in 2008 and plans to keep the pot stirred until then.

The Shiites and the Sunnis? No, I'm talking about the Republicans and Democrats.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

A Jubal jewel, or a rural myth?

There's no way I could have made this up. It's a great story, and I've been including it for years whenever I give talks on local history.

Last weekend out at New London Day, I told it to Mike Mahaffey, who impersonates Civil War general and post-war Lynchburg character Jubal Early at re-enactments. He grinned broadly.

"You've got to find out where that came from," he said, "so I can use it."

Basically, the story involves Early's father and uncle, who were raised on the family homeplace in Franklin County.

Jubal's grandfather passed on to his reward somewhat prematurely, and his grandmother grew lonely. Eventually, she and the overseer on the plantation became attracted to each other and planned to get married.

Jubal's father and uncle were appalled. Maybe it was because they cherished their father's memory and thought their mother should remain a widow forever. Or maybe they just disliked the overseer. At any rate, they vowed to do everything they could to sabotage the wedding.

On the morning of the big day, while their mother was upstairs getting ready, the two sons -- then in their late teens -- went out to the small family cemetery armed with two shovels and dug up the coffin containing their late father. Then they hauled it into the house, covered with mud, and set it at the bottom of the stairs the bride-to-be would soon be descending.

According to the story, Mrs. Early came downstairs in her bridal finery, saw what her rebellious sons had done and told them: "You can just put him back. I'm still getting married."

During my years in journalism, I've learned (sometimes the hard way) how stories can become embellished over time. Is this one of them? Or did it really happen? And if so, where could I find out more?

Mike Mahaffey and I would like know.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Don't sell these people short

I never know which columns might tweak a nerve somewhere "out there." One I did earlier this month on short shoppers and tall store shelves was apparently one of them.

It came about because of a determined woman named Grace Jamerson, who marched into our office one day and said she was passing around a petition to present to local department and grocery stores asking them not to stock merchandise in places where only professional basketball players or supermodels could reach it.

"This may not seem like a big deal to you," she said, eyeing my 6-foot-1 length suspiciously, "but it is to me."

Where the petition went from there, I'm not sure -- but shortly (no pun intended) after the column appeared, I received several e-mails commending Ms. Jamerson (who is 5-foot-1, incidentally) for her activism.

One of those came from Christopher Hamre, vice president of the New York-based National Association of Short Statured Adults. He took issue with my writing that Grace Jamerson "admitted" to being 5-foot-1.

"Being short isn't a criminal act or a fault that someone needs to admit to," he said in the e-mail.

He did thank me for bringing this issue to the attention of the world (or, at least, Central Virginia) and referred me to the NOSSA Website.

"The National Organization of Short Statured Adults or NOSSA," I read there, "is a non-profit organization of men 5 foot 7 inches and below and women 5 foot 2 inches and below in height. NOSSA is a united organization of short men and women from around the globe, promoting the message of self-empowerment for all of its members, providing a supportive environment in which to share experiences, and committed to opposing heightism in society. Heightism is based on the belief that short-statured people are inferior and undesirable."

Napolean Bonaparte would have taken exception to that premise, certainly. And so would John Smith, the heroic figure of Jamestown, who was only a little taller than Grace Jamerson.

My Dad, meanwhile, was right around the upper limits of NOSSA size. When he went off to service in World War II, he was taller than my 18-year-old mother. When he returned, she had put on a growth spurt and passed him. I don't think he ever got over it.

Some studies have shown that we tend to elect candidates and hire job applicants who are taller than their competitors. There's also the issue of bullying in school, a practice often inflicted upon short people. NOSSA wants to address that.

The two-year-old organization has also condemned the use of Human Growth Hormone on otherwise healthy children just to coax a couple of inches out of them.

If they need a national spokesperson, I'd like to recommend one -- Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues, who starred in the National Basketball Association despite his 5-foot-3 stature.

In the meantime, my former co-worker Mitzi Bible takes a practical approach to the problem when she goes shopping.

"When I can't reach something," Mitzi said, "I just ask a taller person to get it for me. I've never been turned down."

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Nobody remembers Andrew Kehoe

After fatally shooting his wife, the man set his farm buildings ablaze. Then he went to the nearby elementary school and detonated explosives he had secretly hidden there, killing dozens of children. Finally, when rescuers arrived, he set off a bomb inside his vehicle, incinerating himself and the school superintendent and wounding several others. When it was all over, Andrew Kehoe had killed 45 people (including himself) and injured 58.

Oh, my God, you're thinking. Was this a copycat killing linked to the Virginia Tech carnage? Another Columbine? Actually, no -- Andrew Kehoe did his damage nearly 80 years ago, on May 18, 1927, in Bath Township, MI.

His motive, it was determined, was anger over a property tax increase. Talk about an overreaction!

A couple of people told me about this -- my co-worker Sarah Watson and Jeff McCleese of Appomattox, who has spent 20 years in law enforcement.

"The Virginia Tech thing was terrible," McCleese said, "but it wasn't the worst school massacre ever. I think it's important to point out that bad things have always happened."

The difference was, there was no mass media in 1927. Today, Andrew Kehoe would have had his picture on the cover of Time Magazine. Back then, the shock waves from his deranged deed hardly spread outside of Michigan.

I saw a lot of good things in last week's coverage of the Tech shootings, but also the usual tendency to oversimplify. To me, it was a bit disturbing when TV commentators and newspaper reporters kept talking about Seung-Hui Cho "setting a record," as if this was some kind of sports event.

Moreover, the fact that Cho was given a hard time by classmates in high school was advanced as a logical explanation of what he did. So why doesn't everyone who hated high school (about half the population) run amok?

Truth is, we'll never know what went through his head. Maybe he was paranoid, and thought everyone on the Tech campus was out to get him. Perhaps it was a case of delusion plus gun plus opportunity.

Can we prevent something like this from happening again? Not very likely. I would prefer to focus on the courage and grace the Virginia Tech students demonstrated in the face of adversity and sadness -- and hundreds of media interrogators.

The good news is that crazed killers account for only a tiny percentage of those who depart this earth prematurely. Like being eaten by a shark or struck by lightning, it's a matter of being in a very unlucky place at the wrong time.

That's how it was in 1927, when Andrew Kehoe had his own deadly little tantrum.