Political Powerhouse UMass Goes for Gridiron Glory in Precisely the Wrong Era

Friday, January 25, 2013

The greatest athletic and advertising extravaganza known to man is almost upon us, Super Bowl XLVII.
So naturally it’s time to pose some heretical questions:
Has football peaked?
Has our nation’s most popular sport begun a slow slide that will end, many years hence, in afterthought status, as happened to horse racing and boxing?
More saliently, has the brain trust at the University of Massachusetts, a formidable redoubt of political power in this state, made a misguided bet on expanding their football program?
And if they have bet wrong, squandering taxpayer dollars in the process, money that could have gone to improve other aspects of life in the far-flung UMass empire, such as education, who if anyone will take the fall for that?
Football is in trouble in America because, it turns out, football is dangerous as hell. 
With each passing year, medical science uncovers more of the facts of how a significant percentage of pro football players have sustained permanent brain damage as a result of concussions.
When two very large, athletically gifted, fearless men run into each other at top speed on a football field, the consequences can be really ugly, as we saw this past Sunday night when Patriots running back Stevan Ridley was literally knocked out by Ravens safety Bernard Pollard.
The ball dropped from Ridley’s hands like a stuffed animal from a sleepy toddler’s lap.  Baltimore recovered the fumble and the game was basically over for New England.  Next day, sportswriters accurately pointed to Baltimore’s “toughness” as the key ingredient of their upset win over our former Super Bowl champs. 
No team can prevail in the National Football League (NFL) playoffs without being gladiator tough.  We specify the number of each Super Bowl in Roman numerals for good reason.
Given the seriousness and prevalence of injuries produced by football violence, it’s legitimate to ask why so many universities have eagerly turned themselves into breeding grounds for pro football players.  And for us to ask why UMass is trying to evolve from minor to major breeder.
Of course, that’s not how UMass officials described it when they announced their decision to move the team up to the elite Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) by playing in the Mid-American Athletic Conference, starting with the 2012 season.  They promoted it as a way to increase alumni interest in the team, sell more tickets to football games, and generate more revenue to support athletics in general. 
Accordingly, the team moved its home games from McGuirk Alumni Stadium on the Amherst campus to the Foxborough home of the Patriots, Gillette Stadium, which has seating for almost 70,000 fans.
Since the highest concentration of UMass alumni is in Eastern Massachusetts, university leaders hoped that droves of alumni would go to Foxborough, whereas alumni attendance in Amherst had traditionally been modest to light, especially considering how many graduates reside in Massachusetts and bordering states.
It didn’t turn out that way, not even close. 
For the first home game at Gillette, only 10,846 tickets were sold; by the last, that number had dropped to 6,385.  Contrast that with average home attendance at McGuirk over the seasons from 2007 to 2011: 13,937.
To make matters worse, the team flopped in the higher division, winning only one game in 2012 and losing 11.  Also, lower-than-expected ticket sales created a deficit in the football budget that had to be covered by a mid-fiscal-year injection of $715,000 from the university.
By the end of the season, the Faculty Senate at UMass was officially pissed off at the school’s costly stab at gridiron glory.  You’d have thought they were on steroids, the professors were so angry.
An “Ad Hoc Committee on FBS” of the Faculty Senate issued a report claiming the actual cost to taxpayers of the football program in 2012 was not $7.1 million, as indicated in the athletic department budget, but $8.2 million.
In early December, the Faculty Senate entertained a motion calling upon the administration “to immediately consider reversing the decision to play FBS football” and directing its Rules Committee and ad hoc committee “to work with the Chancellor and President to develop a plan for withdrawal from FBS football to be presented to the full Faculty Senate at its first spring semester meeting...”
The motion was debated at length but the meeting ended with no conclusive action on it.  Such is the nature of disputes in academia.
Among those attending the meeting, and who were quoted by The Republican newspaper of Springfield, was the president of the Student Government Association, who said, predictably, “It’s not always about money.  You can’t put a price on school spirit.”
Indeed.  Nor can you put a price on health or life itself.
No player I ever watched had more spirit, more love for the game, than Junior Seau, NFL linebacker extraordinaire and Bill Belichick favorite.  Last year, the seemingly laid back Seau took his own life at the age of 43. Post-mortem tests of his brain uncovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease linked to repeated blows to the head.  (Before we knew it as CTE, we called this condition “punch drunk.”)  CTE sufferers are prone to depression.
On Wednesday, members of Seau’s family filed a lawsuit against the NFL and a manufacturer of football helmets, asserting they concealed information on the link between head hits and long-term brain damage.
According to the New York Times, the Seau family “said the league not only ‘propagated the false myth that collisions of all kinds, including brutal and ferocious collisions, many of which lead to short-term and long-term neurological damage to players, are an acceptable, desired and natural consequence of the game,’ but also that ‘the NFL failed to disseminate to then-current and former NFL players health information it possessed’ about the risks associated with brain trauma.”
This will not be the last lawsuit like this.  Eventually, one will be successful, and from that date, we will count steps to the demise of the NFL as we have known and loved it -- and of the college teams that have witlessly served as nurseries to the NFL beast, in many cases with public subsidies.
The harder UMass tries to play with the big boys of college football, the bigger the target it becomes in a nationwide pool of potential defendants in CTE-related lawsuits.   Big-time state university plus big-time football equals poor public policy.
CORRECTION: In a recent post on the selection of an interim Suffolk County sheriff, I stated inaccurately that the appointee would automatically serve the four years remaining on the previous sheriff’s term; in other words, until 2016. (“With Plums as Juicy as Sheriff to Bestow, It’s Good to Be the Governor,” 12/31/13.)  In fact, the interim sheriff, if he wants to keep the job for the four unexpired years, must run and prevail in the 2014 elections.  I apologize for this sloppy error and for any confusion it caused.

Avid Readers Find Good Tea Leaves in Temporary House Rules Committee

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

When Speaker Robert DeLeo announced on Monday the appointment of a temporary House Rules Committee, the State House News Service said the move provided a “glimpse of the House in-crowd.”
Might it also have shown who is not as close to the Speaker as they once were?
Right now, the legislature is in a warm-up phase.  Although it began a new, two-year session on January 2, no committee assignments have been made, and the deadline for filing new bills has not yet arrived.  The real work of lawmaking and budget-making won’t start for at least a few weeks.
There is, however, routine business and some time-sensitive matters to tend to.  The temporary Rules Committee was formed to organize and schedule that work, and to set the table for the first weeks of the imminent, formal House sessions.
On the state government web site, the Rules Committee mission is described as recommending “special orders for the scheduling and consideration of legislation on the floor of the House” and recommending and proposing “changes in rules for the purpose of improving and expediting the business and procedures of the House and its committees.”
Nothing gets put to a vote in the House without the approval of the Rules Committee, and, in particular, of the committee chairman, who is always close to the Speaker, a trusted confident, an unfailing ally. 
If you’re a rep who wants her bill to pass, you have to go through Rules.  Serious power resides there.
“…DeLeo shed a little light on his most favored members on Monday,” the State House News Service reported that afternoon, January 14.  “During a lightly attended informal session, House leadership announced members of a temporary Rules Committee set up until permanent members are announced.”
Democrats designated as temporary “Rulers” were:  John Binienda of Worcester and Cory Atkins of Concord, who were the last incumbent chair and vice chair, respectively, of House Rules; Byron Rushing of Boston, Ron Mariano of Quincy, Kathi-Anne Reinstein of Revere, Ellen Story of Amherst, Garrett Bradley of Hingham, and Patricia Haddad of Somerset.
The Republicans assigned to the temporary committee were: Geoffrey Diehl of Whitman, Paul Frost of Auburn and Don Humason of Westfield.
All 11 of the temporary Rules Committee members had served on Rules during the previous (2011-2012) session, but not all of the previous committee members were named to the temporary committee.
The previous House Rules Committee had 15 members, so four were not selected for the temporary committee: John Fernandes of Milford, David Nangle of Lowell, Gene O’Flaherty of Chelsea, and Tom Petrolati of Ludlow. 
There are many possible vanilla explanations of why these four gentlemen are not serving on the temporary committee.  The amount of work on the House warm-up agenda may not require a complement of 15 representatives, for example; or the four members not tabbed for the temporary assignment may have other pressing items to deal with.
If, on the other hand, the story behind it is more colorful, i.e., significant, it will become apparent when the new permanent committee assignments are made and the new committee chairmen are named -- soon, in other words.

There's a Wiser Option than Jailing Lawmaker Guilty of Absentee Ballot Misdeeds

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Federal prosecutors had the goods on Stephen “Stat” Smith, the state rep from Everett, so he agreed to plead out.
In December, he admitted to two misdemeanors for his role in submitting “fraudulent absentee ballot applications and casting invalid ballots in multiple elections in 2009 and 2010,” the U.S. Attorney said. As part of the plea, he agreed to resign from the legislature and not run for public office again for five years.
Smith resigned January 1 and is awaiting sentencing.  Reportedly, prosecutors are going to recommend he be sent to jail for six months.
When a lawmaker breaks a law, any law, it is always a serious matter because it violates the trust voters have placed in him.  It also stains the honor of government service, perhaps the highest calling in a free, democratic society.
But Smith is guilty only of two misdemeanors, i.e., misdeeds, not felonies.  For committing those wrongs, he has suffered disgrace in public, one of the worst forms of pain, and has lost a coveted position in a city where politics is king.
A smart, self-made businessman, Smith was a natural on the political battlefield.  He could shake off a hard hit better than any of his peers.  He always smiled when his adversaries came into view, as if to say, “You want to fight?  Come on.  I’m ready.”
Until the news broke about Smith’s absentee ballot case, he was a big deal in Everett.  And there’s nothing to say he won’t be big again.  He was extraordinarily devoted to constituent services and finding people jobs during his six years at the State House.  A lot of people in his Everett-Malden district owe him. 
“In five years, I’m back,” he told a friend of mine.   
Don’t bet against a Smith comeback.
He ran for re-election last fall knowing the feds were investigating him, but he probably didn’t think he’d go down at the culmination of that process.  Regardless, Smith’s decision to plunge ahead with a re-election campaign will result in significant costs to the City of Everett.  Two special elections, a primary and a final, will be held to choose his successor.  Each will cost approximately $30,000.
It’s not a good idea to lock Smith up, to take him away from his family and his profit-making, tax-paying ventures, mainly in real estate, which could falter in his absence.  And it doesn’t make sense for the taxpayers to fund half a year of incarceration, meals, and medical/dental care for someone who committed two misdemeanors.
There’s a wiser, more just punishment available to the federal judge who will soon decide Stat Smith’s fate:  order the former lawmaker to pay the costs of the special elections for his replacement: $60,000. 


Markey Has 'Free' Shot at U.S. Senate. He Should Run Like There Are No Shackles

Monday, January 7, 2013

Ed Markey doesn’t need to win the race for John Kerry’s Senate seat, which is the key to the success of his campaign.
When confirmed as President Obama’s next Secretary of State, Kerry will resign from the Senate. Governor Deval Patrick will then set a date for a special Senate election within 145 to 160 days of Kerry’s resignation.  It’s special because it occurs outside the normal election cycle for federal offices.
A sitting congressman like Markey can run in the special without giving up his place in congress, so if he loses, he doesn’t really lose:  he’s still a member of the exclusive congressional club, with all the rights, duties, opportunities and privileges that entails.
It has been said, correctly, that Markey or any other member of the Massachusetts U.S. House delegation can make a “free” run at Kerry’s seat because the only price they’d pay for failing is a damaged ego.   (And what is more easily mended than the ego of a player on Washington’s world stage?)
Markey has been a fixture in D.C. since 1976, when he won the special election that produced a successor to President Kennedy’s friend, Torby Macdonald, who had died in office at age 59.  Of the 435 current members of the U.S. House, only eight have been there longer than Markey.  There’s only one federal legislator in all of New England who’s been in Washington longer than Markey, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont.
Over the 36 years (18 terms) he’s been in the congress, Markey has cast thousands of votes, delivered countless speeches, and issued enough press releases to blanket Route 95 from Boston to Washington a couple of times over.  If Markey’s public record were a book, it would be the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Yes, Republicans declare, all the better for rummaging through and shooting at!
Markey’s dad was a milkman and he himself drove an ice cream truck in the summer to earn tuition money.  True to his blue collar, union-saturated Malden roots, Markey has generally taken progressive positions on the issues.  The conservative National Journal has given him a “Composite Liberal” score of 89.2.
Of late, Markey’s favorite issues have included reducing carbon emissions to combat global warming; fostering the development of alternative energy, such as solar and wind power; protecting the privacy of children online; and adding safety measures at nuclear power plants and other vulnerable parts of our energy infrastructure, such as liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals.
Markey is an irrepressible quote machine for the media.  He once memorably suggested, for example, that global warming skeptics consider banding together in their own, new country.  “An iceberg four times the size of Manhattan has broken off Greenland,” he said in August, 2010, “creating plenty of room for global warming deniers to start their own country.”
Some Republicans have welcomed his entry into the Senate race, believing he’s been around way too long.  At age 66, they want to believe, he lacks the energy and excitement needed for a fresh, first attempt at statewide office.
“He hasn’t had a competitive race in decades, so I imagine his political campaign muscles are pretty atrophied,” Republican consultant Rob Gray told the Boston Herald.
Wishful thinking.
Markey got to the congress in the first place by beating 12 other candidates in a brutal Democratic Primary.  He was an obscure, 30-year-old state rep, a longshot who became a phenom, a prodigy who out-imagined and out-hustled the opposition at every turn. 
Now it’s true he’s hasn’t had many tough election fights since 1976.  Yet Markey never became fat, dumb or happy.  He never coasted through a congressional session.  He maintained his edge.  Also, he has remained wholesomely idealistic in a way seldom found outside college dormitories.
Among some office holders, of course, there’s a cynical view that issues are to be avoided if at all possible. 
“Issues,” a former municipal leader once told me, “can only get you in trouble.  I hate issues.” 
Markey’s approach is the opposite.  He loves issues.
If Markey were to ask me for advice on his Senate campaign, (Yeah, sure), I’d tell him:
Ditch the campaign consultants and pollsters; stand proudly, like another Ted Kennedy, on your liberal record; say everywhere plainly what you honestly believe; worry not about how you’re coming across; and run free, like you don’t give a damn if you win or lose.
“Because you don’t have to be a U.S. senator, voters will get that you’re telling them what you truly believe, not what you think they want to hear,” I’d tell him. 
“You caught lightning in a bottle in ’76.  It can be done again.”