Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category

Class War: A Perspective on Wealth

weaalth distribution in U.S.A.

Source: Bing Images

©2016 By Bob Litton

WEALTH
1a. An abundance of valuable material possessions or resources, riches
1b. The state of being rich, affluence
2. Goods and resources having value in terms of exchange or use
3. A great amount, a profusion
The Free Dictionary (online)

* * * * * * * *

As long as I have been aware of societal divisions into classes I have hated the whole idea of a caste system and not strictly because of any income gaps. No, I am repelled by the notion that somebody could believe that he or she is irreversibly superior to me by divine right or other source such as a congressional appointment. I got my first taste of the totem pole culture while in the air force when I learned that I was expected to be always the first to salute and that I must always surrender place when even the spouse of an officer picks up mail at the postal window. That very much offended me and I still bridle a little when memories of those incidents come to mind.

Nor do I have any appreciation for the terms “upper class”, “middle class” and “working class”. I guess we are supposed to be thankful that the words “peasant” and “slave” are no longer generally descriptive of people in the United States and most other countries, but that is not enough: the whole class system must be erased entirely. (Sadly enough, slavery— or “involuntary servitude”— is still irritatingly present, although illegally, in my fatherland.) In the United States, class distinctions are not generally based on bloodlines as they have been in Europe and in Asia but on wealth, although family connections were more noticeably determinate up through, perhaps, mid-20th century.

During the last couple of decades the topic of “income inequality” has often appeared in newspaper and magazine articles and columns. Repeatedly the image of a very small portion of the U.S. population—the so-called “one-percenters”, those whom Thorstein Veblen called “the leisure class”— has accumulated more than a third of the nation’s wealth, and the next 19 percent possess more than 50 percent, leaving the remaining 80 percent of our citizens with only 15 percent of our national treasure. How did that happen?

Now the conservatives like to argue that the super-affluent obtained their riches through hard work, thrift, and prudent investments. To a limited degree that is true for some of the rich but not, I believe, for all of them. With the exception of “prudent investments”, those attributes cannot logically account for the vast wealth gained by the one-percenters. A person would have to enjoy an extremely high hourly wage to get wealthy through “hard work” (a phrase I handily contemn). Of course, most of us are aware of the ridiculously high “salaries” and bonuses lavished on corporate executives, even when their companies are losing money and are letting the CEOs go with “golden parachutes”.

In an April 24, 2014, column Harvard economist and regular The New York Times contributor Paul Krugman wrote that the primary route to riches for most of the one-percenters is not by way of “hard work”. Krugman applauded a recently published economics book by French economist Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century, in which the author asserts that the affluent don’t get rich from enterprise but from assets gained mostly through inheritance. Piketty calls for “progressive taxation as a way to limit the concentration of wealth”, wrote Krugman. Conservative critics have responded with ad hominem attacks, calling Piketty a “communist”, Krugman noted, because they cannot come up with any substantively valid arguments to refute him.

Some roads to riches, however, do involve initiative and energetic endeavor—along with considerable native intelligence. Two of the richest men in the U.S., for instance, started their eventual capitalistic enterprises while still in school, with assistance from classmates. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates wrote his first computer program at age 13 while in prep school and went on to refine his geek skills, with college classmates, to a point where he could start-up Microsoft. Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook working with four college classmates in their dorm rooms. More about those two later.

Many young people of our time, though, seek to win fame along with fortune in either entertainment or sports. The most worrisome thing about this trend, for me, is that only a very small number attain the stature and earnings they had hoped for. And the “earnings” of those who do seem as ridiculously out of proportion as those of the corporate executives.

Harrison Ford, for example, reportedly received from $10 million to $25 million (different sources cite different amounts) upfront for his final appearance as Han Solo in The Force Awakens (2015), along with .5 percent of the film’s gross earnings. Contrast that with the $500,000 his contracted base pay was for Return of the Jedi (1983), the $100,000 for The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and the $10,000 for Star Wars (1977). The .5 percent on gross sales of course significantly augments those figures.

Another major Hollywood figure, Carole Lombard, was the highest paid cinema star of 1937, during the Great Depression. Of course her earnings that year ($485,000) did not come anywhere near Harrison Ford’s, but we must allow for inflation. She did earn $150,000 for each picture, definitely exceeding the amounts Ford initially received for his first two Star Wars films. The main reason I mention Lombard here, though, is the interesting tidbit I picked up from an August 25, 1938, article in The Mercury. She paid four-fifths of her 1937 earnings on taxes; after that amount plus various incidental expenses such as her press agent’s fee, her net income was about $20,000, according to Mercury.  “‘But I have no kicks,’ she [said]. ‘I am pretty happy about the whole thing, and 20,000 dollars a year is plenty.’ She added: she was glad the government was spending the rest on public improvements….’”

Then there is the music industry. I recall viewing the film The Glenn Miller Story in 1954. It starred Jimmy Stewart as Miller and June Allyson as his wife Martha. I now can recall only three scenes from it, and even those only vaguely. The scene related below is the only one pertinent to this essay. (I transcribed the dialogue from the film as I viewed it recently on YouTube):

Miller’s parents come to visit him, Martha and their infant child in their new home — a mansion for the times. While Glenn and Martha lead his parents up the wide stairway, his father inquires about how his son has managed to pay for the house on a musician’s earnings:
Pop: “Paid for, is it?”
Glenn: “O yeah, yeah, all paid for.”
Pop: “Must be doing pretty well.”
Mom: “O yes, he’s doing pretty well. Don’t we hear him on the radio every night?”
Pop: “That’s only 15 minutes. Don’t suppose they pay very much for that.”
Mom: “Well, there’s the records, and he’s playing at the Hotel Pennsylvania.”
Pop: “How much do they pay for playing on one of those records, son?”
Glenn: “We get three cents a record.”
Pop: “Three cents, huh? Have to sell a heap of records to make it worthwhile, don’t you?
Mom: “But they do, dear.”
Pop: “How many copies of a record do they sell, son?”
Glenn: “O, of ‘Moonlight Serenade’ we sold about 800,000.”
Pop: “Did you say 800,000?”
Glenn: “That’s right.”
Pop: “O! Heh, heh, heh.”
Now, if you suppose that Glenn Miller’s orchestra spent a full 8-hour day producing “Moonlight Serenade”, then they grossed $24,000 on that one record. Of course not all of that went to Glenn, there were the members of his band and presumably a studio rental and sound technicians to cover, not to mention some income tax. Still, that was just for one record; when you consider similar days for a whole work week, Glenn still came out pretty well.

The above scene brings to the fore an important question. We may be amazed and even disgusted at the huge amounts recording artists make from their records and live performances; but when we look at it a little more objectively, three cents is a really paltry amount on a single record. It is only when we multiply it by the 800,000 purchasers that the earnings jump significantly. And the world’s consumer market has increased tremendously since the 1930s, when Miller was just starting out. How can we begrudge some musician three cents on a single record?

As far as record sales go, the gain hasn’t increased all that much since Miller’s time. From what I have been able to gather online, the most popular musicians of today—the “rock stars”—receive only 75 cents to a dollar on an album. No, most of their wealth comes from live performances and T-shirts. An average box office “take” for a live performance was noted as between $150,000 and $200,000; but the fee for venue rental can be as high as $50,000, and there are the truck drivers and “roadies” wages to pay. Still, one source claims that each member of the rock band Metallica has had from $5 million to $10 million in the bank from their start-up to the present.

The earnings of major sports have become similarly ludicrous. In December 2015, basketball star LeBron James signed a lifetime contract with Nike to act as their brand-enhancer. The exact amount was not revealed, but ESPN reporter Darren Rovell estimated it could be worth $1 billion. In 2014, James joined the Cleveland Cavaliers for $22 million a year. And, Rovell wrote, James “ranks as sixth on Forbes 2015 list of highest paid athletes.” James’ total wealth—from endorsements and business ventures as well as from playing basketball—has been estimated at $64.8 million.

During the same month (December 2015) that James contracted with Nike, pitcher David Price finalized a $217 million, 7-year deal with the Boston Red Sox. According to Jimmy Golden of the Associated Press, the terms of the contract are that Price be paid $30 million a year for 2016-2018, $31 million in 2019 and $32 million in each of the final three years.

Professional sports teams that used to be filled by white men only are now predominately black. I don’t know what happened to the white guys: Are they physically unable to compete anymore or are they too racist to engage in the try-outs? As for the blacks, professional sports teams have become the equivalent of the 1840s gold mines; they apparently dream from childhood on of becoming sports heroes; sports has become their pathway to success and financial security. And the team owners are playing this longing to the hilt: I read an article not long ago that related how scouts have been venturing to a certain country in Africa (which one I don’t recall) to recruit youngsters to come to the USA and show their stuff; unfortunately, a large percentage of youths who venture westward cannot make the grade, not because they aren’t talented enough but because there aren’t that many positions open.

Another source of over-the-top income is gambling, either in the stock market or in the lotteries.

Oprah Winfrey, for instance, bought 6.4 million shares of Weight Watchers stock in October 2015 for $43 million. Almost as soon as this newsy item was out, Weight Watchers stock skyrocketed by 90 percent, according to ABC News. Winfrey said she invested so heavily in the company—which was “struggling with declining sales and a looming debt of $144 million” (ABC)—because Weight Watchers had helped her and millions of others with their weight issues. (The prestige derived from her joining the board of directors very likely helped them, too.) In February 2016, however, Weight Watchers stock declined 29 percent, according to USA Today (Feb. 26, 2016), and as of that date Oprah had lost about $29 million on her investment.

Then there is the much less admirable mode of gambling in which a hell of a lot of poor people engage: the lotteries. As far as I am concerned, this is a national sin. Yet the fact that lottery winnings are so absurdly astronomical testifies to the willingness of many of my compatriots to be gulls. I recall a news story from 1987 about a New York City janitor who won $5 million in a lottery, went to work the next day and, as he was about to climb a ladder to screw in a light bulb, another bulb lit up (in his head). “What am I doing this for?” he wondered, “I’m a millionaire.” Fifteen months later, according to a 1992 New York Times story by Alessandra Stanley, the lottery winner died in an automobile accident; and, since he left no will, his family had to spend a lot of time and money on lawyers and accountants plus income and estate taxes before they could extricate themselves with an estimated $400,000. Many other lottery winners’ stories have reportedly ended in similar Dickensian tragedies, according to what I have seen on the Internet.

But the most ridiculous money-grubbing story I ever read about concerns that silly little ditty known as “The Birthday Song”. If you live in the English-speaking regions, you probably know the words to the song. (I won’t dignify them by calling them “lyrics”, as some people do.) And if you don’t know the words, they are absolutely simple to learn; no memorizing necessary. It goes like this: “Happy birthday to you/Happy birthday to you/Happy birthday dear Nancy (or whoever)/Happy birthday to you.” It is usually sung at birthday parties; Marilyn Monroe sang it to John F. Kennedy at a celebration for him, but it is a universal tradition for anybody’s birthday in my country.

The ditty, you will note, contains only four words with an additional two stuck in as the addressee. And when it was supposedly composed by two sisters in Kentucky in 1893 no thought was taken as to copyright. The two ladies, Patty and Mildred J. Hill, used the ditty simply as a tool for teaching young children to sing. It reportedly first appeared in print in 1912, still without credits or copyright notices. Then, in 1935, the Summy Company registered a copyright. That company was bought by Warner/Chappell Music in 1988, when “Happy Birthday” had an estimated value of $5 million. Groups larger than small gatherings of relatives and friends had to pay royalties to the company for the opportunity to chirp the nonsense. For one such opportunity, in February 2010, the royalties reportedly amounted to $700. According to the Wikipedia article where I read up on this farce, “the song is the highest-earning single song in history, with estimated earnings since its creation of $50 million.” In addition, legal battles over the copyright issue went on for decades until February 8, 2016, when Warner/Chappell accepted a final judgment declaring the ditty to be in the public domain. For an entertaining summary of the lurid history of “Happy Birthday” I refer you to the Wikipedia article.

So, what can we do to “level the playing field” in economic, not sports, terms? Not a whole lot, I’m afraid, for greed and thievery will always be part of the human makeup. There are some proposals and movements, though, that seem promising to a small extent.

One is that old one FDR applied during the Great Depression and to which I referred when discussing Carole Lombard’s patriotic attitude: raising tax rates on the rich. Such is not going to happen, however, as long as the Republicans dominate Congress. Anyway, to me it seems a Sisyphean solution, attacks the symptom, so to speak, rather than the problem, and would certainly aggravate the tensions between rich and poor. But it might stabilize the income gap until a more satisfactory solution can be instituted.

A sort of obverse to that approach is what has been termed a universal basic income (U.B.I.), which New Yorker staff writer James Surowiecki wrote about in his June 20, 2016, column. The tactic here is to pay every U.S. adult a stipend of, say, $10,000 a year (children would receive a smaller amount). An experiment on this idea was tried in Dauphin, Manitoba, Canada, in the mid-nineteen-seventies, and, although a conservative government buried it quietly in 1979, later research indicated that while the guaranteed basic income was in force hospitalization rates had fallen, more teenagers had stayed in school, and work rates had only barely dropped.

New experiments on U.B.I. are currently underway or planned in Finland and in Oakland, California, Surowiecki reports. He writes: “In the U.S., the new interest in the U.B.I. is driven in part by how automation will affect workers. Bhaskar Sunkara, the publisher of the socialist magazine Jacobin, told me, ‘People are fearful of becoming redundant, and there’s this sense that the economy can’t be built to provide jobs for everyone.’”

I’m all in favor of a U.B.I., but even it might leave a certain discontent in people’s minds—the yearning to be useful and creative. I am too cynical to believe that every adult in the U.S. has enough imagination and energy to discover and develop a creative purpose or function or vocation on his/her own just to preserve his mental health. I can only hope I am wrong.

As long as we have businesses and industries that still employ people and that hope to retain their work force for a long period, another approach might fit: Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs). Actually, ESOPs have been around for years now, becoming popular in the mid-nineteen-seventies. According to the National Center for Employee Ownership, by 2014, seven thousand companies had ESOPs covering 13.5 million workers. I will let NCEO describe the system themselves, for they can do it more clearly than I:

“Similar to Profit-sharing plans, the ESOP is a trust fund into which the company contributes new shares of its own stock or cash to buy existing shares….Shares in the trust are allocated to individual employee accounts. Although there are some exceptions, generally all full-time employees over 21 participate in the plan. Allocations are made either on the basis of relative pay or some more equal formula. As employees accumulate seniority in the company, they acquire an increasing right to the shares in their account, a process known as vesting. Employees must be 100% vested within three to six years, depending on whether vesting is all at once (cliff vesting) or gradual.

“When employees leave the company, they receive their stock, which the company must buy back from them at its fair market value (unless there is a public market for the shares). Private companies must have an outside valuation to determine the price of their shares. In private companies, employees must be able to vote their allocated shares on major issues, such as closing or relocating, but the company can choose to pass through voting rights (such as for the board of directors) on other issues. In public companies, employees must be able to vote on all issues.”

There is more and important information in the NCEO statement that might interest you, but I will have to refer you to NCEO’s website (www.nceo.org) to read it, for my essay is already too long and I have a bit more to write.

All the media coverage over the huge disparity between the incomes of the super-rich and the rest of society apparently has had some impact: The Giving Pledge. According to its Wikipedia article, the Giving Pledge’s goal “is to inspire the wealthy people of the world to contribute the majority of their net worth to philanthropic causes, either during their lifetime or upon their death. The Pledge is a moral commitment, not a legal contract.” In June 2010, billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett formally announced “the Giving Pledge campaign” and began recruiting members. By August, forty people had pledged $125 billion. As of March 2016, one hundred forty-two individuals or couples had pledged an aggregate total of $731,860,000,000.

A year or two ago, before I had even heard of The Giving Pledge, I read a comment by Melinda Gates (Bill’s wife) in some news article to the effect that she didn’t need a billion dollars to live on and was planning to give some of her wealth away. I have long been suspicious of Bill because of his viciously aggressive business tactics, but I was also pleased by his reported charitableness: he reportedly has donated many, many computers to children in Africa. I realize that could be a subtle business tactic, too, since it might lead to future purchases of his Microsoft products in the future, but why “look a gift horse in the mouth”? (Come to think of it, the Trojans might have done well to have done just that!)

As for Warren Buffett, he has been one of my favorite people for several years now—ever since he urged Congress to make his tax rate higher than his secretary’s. If he approves of Bill Gates enough to associate with him in this Giving Pledge organization, then I guess I’ll have to accept Gates as okay, too.

The top five donors on The Giving Pledge roster are Bill and Melinda Gates ($77.3B), Warren Buffett ($66.7B), Larry Ellison ($49.3B), Michael Bloomberg ($37.2B), and Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan ($35.7B).

According to the Wikipedia article, “The pledge does not involve pooling money or supporting a particular set of causes or organizations. The pledge asks only that the individual give the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes or charitable organizations either during their lifetime or in their will….The pledge encourages signatories to find their own unique ways to give that inspire them personally and benefit society.”

I don’t know whether my curiosity derives from good old-fashioned journalistic instinct or from dirty old cynicism, but I wonder what these people’s motives are. Could they be reacting to the threat of a possible new revolution of the French sort? (You might recall that one year later the “Occupy Wall Street” movement began in New York City.) Could they be honestly sensitive to the inequity of the wealth disparity? Could they have concluded that a hyper-tax is looming ahead and want to determine for themselves where and how their contributions are to be spent? I can’t answer those questions, and I don’t think it is necessary that I do so. Although the Giving Pledge is not likely to benefit me individually or directly, if it reduces the number of solicitations for contributions that show up in my mail box each December, then I will be pleased.

Finis

 

 

Do Little Leaguers Win?

little-leaguePhoto: Bing Images

Text: © 2014 By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS: This column originally was published in The Monahans News in 1980.
I realize that December is not an ordinary month for baseball stories; however, I had Geoffrey Chaucer refer to this story in his
“Introduction” to my CD-ROM, where I had published it again. But I did not publish the Little Leaguer story in this blog prior to republishing “Chaucer’s Review” here on November 16. Obviously I should have presented it on this blog site before bringing Chaucer into the act; but what can I say other than I goofed. Anyway, that is the main reason I am pulling it out of retirement now. Of course, it is an interesting read, I still believe, with some provocative ethical and parenting issues brought to the forefront of our attention — not by me but by the little boy’s father.
— BL

* * * * * *

Not having any children of my own, I ordinarily don’t give a tinker’s dam about Little League baseball.  And frankly, it irked me to receive as many letters as we did about Little League when, from my point of view, there are more general and significant issues over which to empty an inkwell.

However, standing off just a bit to gain another perspective, I see that the Little League issue is not about Little League at all essentially, but about self-concept.  And self-concept does interest me.

I view poor self-concept as the primary cause of rape, vandalism and, yes, even Hitlerism and Kohmeiniism.  If you tell somebody enough times that they are no good, they will develop being bad into an art form.

Especially is it the case with children under twelve that, compelled by their limited experience of the world into believing that all adults know what they are talking about, these children can absorb a lot of negative vibes in regard to themselves.

Now, of course, children do misbehave and they fail in some areas—or at least perform under par in some areas—but please note that an action is not a person.  If Jimmy hits a home run while the bases are full, that means Jimmy hit the ball correctly.  It doesn’t mean Jimmy is a great baseball player.  Conversely, if Jimmy lets a slowly dropping fly-ball slip by his glove, it means he let a ball drop.  It does not mean he is the worst player on the team or even a bad player.

Haim Ginott, author of Between Parent and Child and Between Parent and Teenager, emphasizes the point that the performance should be the object of praise or criticism, not the person.  If you tell anybody they are a great athlete or musician, or whatever, you are not leaving them any room to absorb or respond to your comment (much less believe it).

Of course I realize that in the “real world” winning is the important thing.  But I respond to that by asking: “At eight and nine years of age?”  Let the children at least reach puberty before they have to cope with politics in sports.

Anyway, I really wonder who is winning when Little League is played “to win”.  A father of a boy who got to play ball half of one inning complained to me the other night that nine boys plus one substitute got to do virtually all the playing this season.

This particular father is one of the ultra-macho sort.  He’s the fishing and hunting enthusiast, has a good physique and he places a high premium on the image he projects to his son.  I could see he was genuinely hurt by the way his boy and several of the other boys were shunted aside for the sake of “winning”.  He told his son, “We’ll start our own team.”  So the father didn’t win, the boy didn’t win, and the reputation of Little League didn’t win.

I suppose somebody won the game, but I didn’t care who.

— The Monahans News, August 7, 1980

Heroes and Morals

By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS:  This essay originally appeared in one of our local newspapers while I was on the staff there. One can discern from the persons and events related that it is dated in a sense; yet, like other of my old commentaries, the message is still relevant. Otherwise I would not be republishing it here.
— BL

Do we really need heroes? That question flickered across my mind several times over the past decade as I read news accounts of major sports, entertainment and political figures toppling off their pedestals. Of course, they’re just humans with the same frailties as the rest of us. The magnitude of their collapses perhaps is greater, but that they collapse should not be surprising.

The more bothersome aspect of this situation is not what the idols are doing; it’s what the general population is doing. Take Elvis Presley, for instance. I was a teenager when he started making the hit parade. I liked his songs, and I thought he was hilarious on the Ed Sullivan show. The movies he made were a bit shallow, and I never intentionally watched any more after Love Me Tender. But during those early years, he seemed to me to be just a likable country boy with a unique voice.

Then he went to Las Vegas, started dressing outrageously through the tutelage of Liberace, and reputedly got heavily into drugs. He got fat. His songs and singing became boring in style and content, too larded with vocal and orchestral backup. He seemed to me to be relying on the laurels of his past and the blindness of his massive group of uncritical fans.

Elvis may not have been immortal, but his fan club apparently is. He became something of a UFO — sightings of the immortal one kept being reported hither and yon. Then he became an image on a postage stamp, with a silly nationwide survey performed to find out if the people preferred the early Elvis or the later on their envelopes. Like Marilyn Monroe, another victim of her external self and the adulation of the masses and who also was emblazoned on a postage stamp, he became an icon of our era. Now I see on television that Elvis has become the focus of a new American religion, replete with temples and priests.

The fallen sports idols are just as numerous as the entertainment ones. Baseball players Babe Ruth and Pete Rose come immediately to mind, boxer Mike Tyson, and football players O. J. Simpson and Mike Irwin. But of course that’s not a complete list. I worry about another athlete who’s right up there at the top and a hero to many young people.  Cynic that I am, I wonder: What is his Achilles heel? What would a collapse of his —such a magnitude! — do to the psyches of American youth?

Several years ago some football players on one of the best high school teams in North Texas were caught after committing several armed robberies of fast food restaurants. At their trial, coaches appeared, urging the judge to put the boys on probation and let them return to the football field, where they would be taught values and responsibility. The judge, in wonderment, looked up at the ceiling. The youths were already juniors and seniors who had presumably been in athletics since at least the ninth grade; if athletics hadn’t taught them values and responsibility by that point, it was highly unlikely to do so in the next year or two. All they would learn from such leniency would be that athletes can expect special treatment.

Perhaps we should teach our children to find values that don’t have to reside in models — in heroes — to give up the hunger for heroes. Hero-worship is basically idolatry — the enticing fruit in the Garden of Eden. But is that too hard? Is it even feasible to inculcate values that don’t have to be exemplified in some way? Can anyone stomach the medicine that “virtue can be its own reward” and doesn’t have to be a potion that will make them resemble their hero? To suggest it seems futilely to ignore the lust for the “larger-than-life” that has become a part of our cultural marrow.

It’s not Elvis’ fault that he became the subject of a cult nor Marilyn’s that she became the supreme sex symbol, although they must bear the responsibility for allowing their “talents” to destroy their personhoods. It’s not entirely the fault of those athletes that they developed the delusion that the general moral code is not binding on them; their fans cheered them right into the track of that delusion.

Former President Jimmy Carter was castigated for averring that America is suffering from a “malaise”. Yet that criticism was true; Carter was one of the prophets repudiated by his people. Presidential nominee Bob Dole blamed President Bill Clinton for the increased use of drugs by American youth. Clinton was just as silly as Dole, saying it was Congress’ fault because they had cut the anti-drug abuse program funding. Yet a poll by ABC-Newsweek revealed that the public doesn’t blame either party for the drug abuse problem. As usual, the people could see more clearly than their leaders. We can’t expect a personality — whether politician or entertainer or sports figure — to establish our goals and values for us. We, the people, must do that for ourselves.

Commentary in the Alpine (TX) Avalanche
Aug. 29, 1996                                  

Finis

 

Orpheus and Narcissus

By Bob Litton

SCENE: Small stage in a large auditorium with many wooden seats, all but about twenty of them empty. The stage’s maroon curtains are closed; half a dozen footlights (large candles in rusty metal holders) cast an orangey-yellow light on the curtains. In a few minutes, a slender male hand grips the right side curtain and pulls it slowly back a few feet. A mid-sized man dressed in a black tux, moving backwards and then sideways, comes from behind the curtain, then turns to face the audience. He pauses a few seconds as though trying to remember what he needed to say. Finally,…

ORPHEUS: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I regret to inform you that the scheduled host of this program, Bob Litton — a mild-mannered reporter and suave man-about-town with other, odder characteristics — cannot be here this evening because…because…he has split! I don’t mean he has left the building or the city; I mean that he has split in two. As a matter of fact, I am one half of him. My alter-ego name is Orpheus — the most adept and creative composer of poems in the history of Western Civilization…if I do say so myself–with all due modesty, of course.

The other half of Bob’s personality I expect to be here any second now. He’s a rather brash, boastful, and…I’ll go ahead and say it…boorish fellow. He continually seeks the limelight for every one of Bob’s achievements–achieved mostly through my influence, if you want to know the truth of the matter. Anyway, this overweight, self-glorifying alter-ego’s name is Nar…

A large man with long, blond, flowing hair and dressed in a royal blue, velvet smoking jacket with golden cravat, suddenly appears from the stage’s left wing.

NARCISSUS: Narrrcisssusss! I am perfectly capable of introducing myself, you little twit. I didn’t catch all that this early bird had to chirp, my friends….And you are my friends; of course, you are. Why, everybody is my friend…except those characters I don’t like. Those latter are the ones who aggrieve me by disagreeing with me. I raise my nose as I pass by their tables in the coffee shops, restaurants and bars. I would prefer to include this wimp to my left, but I can’t; he’s connected to me like a Siamese twin. We always confront each other every time Bob cracks up and splits. How we manage to keep it together when Bob is whole (so to speak) I haven’t figured out yet. But, I will; there ain’t nothing I can’t do.

ORPHEUS:Well, you can’t speak correct English! You’ve just used Non-Standard diction with your “ain’t” and you’ve crammed a triple negative into that last sentence.

NARCISSUS: I’ll leave the minor details to you, Glossary-Head. I aim for the big picture, the vast canvas. Anyway, getting down to business, what shall we talk about today? I know what: football. Yeah, that’s what I’ll talk about. After all, this is the apex of the football season.

ORPHEUS: What if I don’t want to talk about football? Which I don’t. I’m half of this act, you know.

NARCISSUS: Well, you didn’t speak up soon enough, so the majority vote is against you.

ORPHEUS: “Majority vote”?

NARCISSUS: That’s what I said. So…”And away we go!” Did you hear that commercial the other day by the coaches and athletic directors associations about how football isn’t just about competition; it’s about teamwork, integrity and skills development, about how many top football players also excel in academics?

ORPHEUS: I have heard of one who was a Rhodes scholar, Myron Rolle, a former Florida State University safety, who went on to play for the Tennessee Titans; but I think he’s the only one. For the most part, college athletes are allowed to enroll because their athletic abilities will help their colleges’ teams win games, championships and money. As one famous coach put it, “Winning isn’t just everything; it’s the only thing.”

Recently, we’ve learned through news reports that the New Orleans Saints were penalized by the NFL because their coaches…or a coach…had urged their players — through bounties — to purposely injure players on the opposing teams. Even here in little ol’ Alpine, the same sort of nonsense is…or at least has been…prevalent. I was talking to two native locals the other day at a restaurant. Now in their fifties, one, a rancher, and the other, a medical professional, had both played hard-nosed football here in their high school days. While their attention was being distracted by the football games then being played on two of the restaurant’s TVs, I mentioned the Saints news item. The rancher looked across our table at his friend and said, “He tried to injure the other teams’ players.” The medic acknowledged the truth of his friend’s remark without any expression of regret.

Then, even more recently, we’ve heard that some high school and college coaches do not follow medical advice to keep concussion victims off the field for longer periods of recovery. And the coaches are also feeding concussion victims extremely strong pills to relieve post-incident headaches…again despite doctors’ warnings. You tell me those actions are not dictated by the over-riding will to win?

NARCISSUS: Well, shit happens…but not all that much, I believe. Still, you have to recognize that the boys are learning teamwork, integrity and skills development.

ORPHEUS: Har, de, har, har, har!…to follow up on your Jackie Gleason allusion a while ago. A couple of decades back, several high school football players in the North Central Texas area were tried for armed robbery of some fast food places. Their coaches appeared at the trial and urged the judge to place the boys on probation so they could continue playing football where they would learn moral values and responsibility. The judge gazed up at a corner of the courtroom’s ceiling in wonderment. Those high school players — juniors and seniors by trial time — had presumably been playing football at least since the eighth grade. If they hadn’t learned anything about moral values and responsibility by the present moment, the outlook for any future improvement through contact sports was dim. All they could learn from leniency would be that athletes can expect special treatment. I don’t recall what their final sentence was and I can’t find it now on the Internet; it happened during the 1980s or early ’90s, when Internet archiving was not as thorough as it is now.

NARCISSUS: I don’t know how you do it, Four-Eyes. You always do your homework, and you never seem to give a damn about America’s revered objects, persons or institutions. You’ve called the pledge of allegiance idolatry, John Wayne a hypocritical non-actor, and now football the vice of our country. It’s no wonder you have few friends, and if I don’t get Bob to have you excised out of his brain pretty soon, I won’t have any friends either.

I have to go now. I’ve got an appointment at the barber shop. By the way, have you seen my mirror around here anywhere? I’ve misplaced it again.

The two elements of Bob leave the stage in different directions toward the wings.

Finis

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