Later On

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Archive for January 25th, 2016

What Donald Rumsfeld Knew We Didn’t Know About Iraq

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John Walcott reports in Politico:

On September 9, 2002, as the George W. Bush administration was launching its campaign to invade Iraq, a classified report landed on the desk of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It came from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and it carried an ominous note.

“Please take a look at this material as to what we don’t know about WMD,” Rumsfeld wrote to Air Force General Richard Myers. “It is big.”

The report was an inventory of what U.S. intelligence knew—or more importantly didn’t know—about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Its assessment was blunt: “We’ve struggled to estimate the unknowns. … We range from 0% to about 75% knowledge on various aspects of their program.”

Myers already knew about the report. The Joint Staff’s director for intelligence had prepared it, but Rumsfeld’s urgent tone said a great deal about how seriously the head of the Defense Department viewed the report’s potential to undermine the Bush administration’s case for war. But he never shared the eight-page report with key members of the administration such as then-Secretary of State Colin Powell or top officials at the CIA, according to multiple sources at the State Department, White House and CIA who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. Instead, the report disappeared, and with it a potentially powerful counter-narrative to the administration’s argument that Saddam Hussein’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons posed a grave threat to the U.S. and its allies, which was beginning to gain traction in major news outlets, led by the New York Times.

While the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iraq was at the heart of the administration’s case for war, the JCS report conceded: “Our knowledge of the Iraqi (nuclear) weapons program is based largely—perhaps 90%—on analysis of imprecise intelligence.”

The rationale for the invasion has long since been discredited, but the JCS report, now declassified, which a former Bush administration official forwarded in December, nevertheless has implications for both sides in the 2016 presidential race, in particular the GOP candidates who are relying for foreign policy advice on some of the architects of the war, and the Democratic front-runner, who once again is coming under fire from her primary opponent for supporting the invasion.

Then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, whose military assistant was on the short list of people copied on the JCS report, is one of Jeb Bush’s foreign policy experts. Other supporters of the war, though they do not appear to have been aware of the JCS report, are involved in the various advisory roles in the 2016 campaign. John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is advising Ted Cruz; and Elliott Abrams and William Kristol are supporting Marco Rubio, whom Reuters reported is also briefed regularly by former Cheney adviser Eric Edelman.

The rise of ISIL and recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have given Democrat Bernie Sanders the ability to draw a straight line from the current Middle East chaos straight back to Clinton’s vote in favor of what he calls “one of the worst foreign policy blunders in the modern history of the United States,” a conflict that has claimed the lives of 4,500 Americans and some 165,000 Iraqis.

Rumsfeld was not under any legal or administrative obligation to circulate an internal DoD report, but not doing so raises questions about whether the administration withheld key information that could have undermined its case for war. Time and again, in the fall of 2002 and into early 2003, members of the administration spoke forcefully and without qualification about the threats they said Saddam Hussein posed. The JCS report undercut their assertions, and if it had been shared more widely within the administration, the debate would have been very different.

***

The report originated with a question from the man whose obsession with “known unknowns” became a rhetorical trademark. On August 16, 2002, Rumsfeld asked Air Force Maj. Gen. Glen Shaffer, head of the Joint Staff’s intelligence directorate, “what we don’t know (in a percentage) about the Iraqi WMD program,” according to a Sept. 5 memo from Shaffer to Myers and three other senior military officials.

On September 5, Shaffer sent Myers his findings, titled “Iraq: Status of WMD Programs.” In a note to his boss, he revealed: “We don’t know with any precision how much we don’t know.”

And while the report said intelligence officials “assess Iraq is making significant progress in WMD programs,” it conceded that “large parts” of Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs were concealed. As a result, “Our assessments rely heavily on analytic assumptions and judgment rather than hard evidence. The evidentiary base is particularly sparse for Iraqi nuclear programs.”

What Myers said when he received the report is not known, but by September 9, it had made its way across Rumsfeld’s desk, where it elicited his terse, typed summation: “This is big.”

But it wasn’t big enough to share with Powell, who in five months would be asked to make the U.S. case for war to the United Nations. Nor was it shared with other members of the National Security Council, according to former NSC staff. An intelligence official who was close to CIA Director George Tenet said he has no recollection of the report and said he would have remembered something that important.

Did President Bush see it? Or Vice President Dick Cheney? If they did, it didn’t temper what they said in public. Cheney had already kicked off the administration’s campaign in Nashville on August 27, saying, “The Iraqi regime has in fact been very busy enhancing its capabilities in the field of chemical and biological agents. And they continue to pursue the nuclear program they began so many years ago.”

“Many of us,” he added, “are convinced that Saddam Hussein will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon.”

This was the beginning of what White House chief of staff Andrew Card later called a campaign to “educate the public” about the threat from Iraq.

Rather than heed the JCS’s early warning — as well as similar doubts expressed by some CIA, State Department and Defense Intelligence Agency officers — and seek more reliable intelligence, Rumsfeld and Cheney turned to a parallel intelligence apparatus they created that relied largely on information from Iraqi defectors and a network of exiles led by the late Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress.

On Sunday, September 8, 2002 — three days after Shaffer reported that evidence on Iraq’s nuclear program was sparse — the Times’ Judith Miller and Michael Gordon led the newspaper with a report with the headline, “US Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts.” . . .

Continue reading.

We were betrayed and tens if not hundreds of thousands died as a result—plus we now have ISIS to contend with, along with various nations falling apart in the Middle East (Iraq among them).

Written by LeisureGuy

25 January 2016 at 4:07 pm

Jane Mayer on the method behind the Koch brothers’ brilliant madness

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David Daley in Salon interviews Jane Mayer about her book about the Kochs, Dark Money:

Jane Mayer is the best reporter we have, period. In one truly essential book after another, she gets behind the scenes and to the real truth of the most important stories — and the hardest stories to cover — in American politics today.

Her latest book is Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, and damn if Mayer doesn’t unpack — clearly, tenaciously, intently — every tentacle of the Koch brothers’ megamillion-dollar operation to reshape politics and policy, no matter how brilliantly the Kochs tried to bury and disguise its roots. (Or, as she shares in this book, no matter how much digging private investigators believed to have Koch ties did into her personal and professional life.)

The book’s roots emerged from Mayer’s brilliant New Yorker stories on the Kochs, including this political thriller about the “billionaire brothers who are waging a war on Obama,” and this masterful look at how the Koch network and other wealthy and often secret GOP donors remade North Carolina politics after Citizens United.  Go order a copy right now, then come back.

We sat down with Mayer last week in New York to talk about the Kochs, the audacious Republican plan to remake state and national politics, the impact that conservative money has had on the media and universities, and much more.

I loved your history of the Powell Memorandum, which feels like the clarion call in many ways that started billionaires and big business thinking seriously about how to use their money to influence the political process. Lewis Powell had been a lawyer for the tobacco industry, and would become a justice on the Supreme Court, but in the early 1970s he sounded the alarm to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. That’s almost the starting line for the decades-long process of building think tanks and foundations and conservative media — but you dug out new information on what Powell was up to. How influential was he, and what did he help create?

I think it was the Rosetta Stone in some ways. It was 1971 and Lewis Powell had been a lawyer for the tobacco industry. He had felt firsthand the sting of the modern-regulatory state as the government began to crack down on tobacco for health reasons and he was trying to defend it. What I found that was new and interesting came when I got ahold of Richard Mellon Scaife’s unpublished memoir. It tells this story of how he’s in this little tiny club with Lewis Powell; they call it “The Committee to Save Carthage.” And what they want to do is be an elite that will get together and save America by really sacking American politics. They want to have basically a surprise attack on American politics — and they plan it. Richard Mellon Scaife’s got the money and Powell’s got the ideas. And what they build very deliberately is a counter-intelligentsia. What’s so interesting about Powell is that what he sees as the enemy is not the hippies, or the yippies, or even the anti-war movement necessarily, which was sort of still going in 1971.

He identified the enemy as the universities and the educated elite.

Right, the enemy for big business in America was the intelligentsia. The educated elite, the media, the scientists specifically, judges were very key. They wanted to change the whole judiciary and influence opinion-makers. And so they set out to build this counter-intelligentsia and Scaife describes in his memoir how he put — what he reckons by modern dollars — $1 billion into this project, which is a stupendous amount of money. It comes from the Gulf Oil fortune that he inherited and he’s working with Powell. Powell then gets on the Supreme Court, but they build the early foundations, literally, that created, and they use private philanthropy, which gives these families huge tax deductions to essentially propagate theories that serve their personal interests, their personal financial interests.

Let alone the specific regulatory interests they have in front of Congress.

Right — it’s almost like a lobbying operation disguised as a charity. They build up the think tanks that we all know, the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute — which already existed but they pour more money into it — the Cato Institute becomes the special think tank of the Koch family, and several others. And these counter-intellectual centers start waging a war of ideas. Then they very deliberately move on into the universities too.

What’s so impressive to me is the ruthless efficiency of the right’s strategy. They had a plan in 1971. Year after year, they have stuck to and refined the script. They keep executing on all of these fronts — whether it is pouring money into judicial races, funding  free-enterprise professors at business schools, supporting the conservative media. Over 40 years, all of these projects have taken shape and paid dividends.

Exactly. And I think one of the things that’s most important that the Kochs have done is to subsidize programs in universities and colleges all over the country. It’s hard to count because they’re not transparent particularly, but there’s somewhere between 220 and maybe 300 universities and colleges now that have Koch-funded programs.

What they would say, of course, is, well, the universities are left-leaning and liberal — but the thing is what they’re doing is subsidizing one point of view, whereas the others have grown organically because it’s academic freedom, and that happens to be what the scholars are teaching and believing. They instead are waging a war of ideas, but one in which they push their own point of view by paying for it, and paying universities to push it. And it’s growing at a very fast clip at this point.

One of the things in the final chapter of the book, there is a tape of them talking about all of this, at one of the secret meetings the Kochs hold, with the donor group that they’ve assembled. And their operatives are saying, “We’ve created something that the other side (meaning the liberals) can’t compete with, it’s unrivaled.” And they say, “What it is is a pipeline, a talent pipeline.” And they describe it: You take the most promising students that you can convert to your point of view and you move them on through the other institutions that they’ve got, which are political think tanks, advocacy groups, turning them into people who work in their campaigns, authors, media personalities.

They talk about this in such an amazing way and openly, because they’re talking in front of their own group, that they’ve created an integrated network. And it is an integrated network.

Did you ever step back and just marvel at both the audacity and the success of what they imagined and what they pulled off?

It’s kind of astounding when you look at the thing all together. You understand when you look at it, that of course it’s been designed by engineers.

And what’s interesting is — it’s not what people often write about, in the daily press they talk about it as something that’s just about winning elections. They are aiming at elections, and they’ve won many and they’ve lost some. But it’s much more comprehensive than that, it’s much more ambitious than that. It’s aiming at shaping the whole conversation of the country. They want to be the gatekeepers for policy, what’s decided, how it’s talked about.

What’s the back story of this book? You’ve covered Washington for decades — how did you begin to realize this network existed and had such tentacles? . . .

Continue reading.

And definitely read the whole thing. It’s a startling story she tells, and it’s well-founded in facts.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 January 2016 at 2:17 pm

Flint, water, the purpose of government, and how to achieve accountability

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The Flint situation, like many situations before it, show an unresponsive government not fulfilling it basic functions and obligations and no real promise of accountability and punishment for misconduct (such as outright lying to the public, refusing to recognize evidence, and the like—all done to avoid spending money to keep from raising taxes).

Evan Osnos has a good report in the New Yorker, one that is well worth reading. It begins:

Last July, after more than a year of public complaints about the drinking water in Flint, Michigan—water so pungent and foamy that a local pastor had stopped using it for baptisms—reporters were calling the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. The response from the department was of limited urgency. In an internal e-mail to colleagues, a spokeswoman, Karen Tommasulo, wrote, “Apparently it’s going to be a thing now.”

The D.E.Q. tried to stop the water from becoming a thing, partly by downplaying concerns. A memo from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned that the city’s use of a new water source was exposing the public to unsafe levels of lead, but Brad Wurfel, the.department’s lead spokesperson [heh heh – LG], told a reporter, “Let me start here—anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.” Even after a group of Virginia Tech researchers found unsafe levels of lead, Wurfel disputed the importance of the findings because, he wrote, the group “specializes in looking for high lead problems. They pull that rabbit out of that hat everywhere they go.” He added that “dire public health advice based on some quick testing could be seen as fanning political flames irresponsibly. Residents of Flint concerned about the health of their community don’t need more of that.”
As it turns out, the residents of Flint needed much more of that. The state’s inept response is now a full-blown national scandal. President Obama has declared an emergency in Flint, making available five million dollars in federal assistance. Much of the blame falls on Governor Rick Snyder, who acknowledged, on Tuesday, that he had run out of excuses. “I am sorry; we will fix this,” he said, in his State of the State address. He thanked the whistle-blowers, and promised to seek millions more in state funds for bottled water, health care, and infrastructure fixes. Facing calls for his resignation, he told the people of Flint and elsewhere, “You deserve accountability. You deserve to know that the buck stops here, with me. Most of all, you deserve to know the truth.”
In his speech, Snyder promised to release his e-mails from 2014 and 2015, which may fill in some details of how he lost his way. Snyder, an accountant who ran on the slogan “One Tough Nerd,” was a first-time candidate when he won in 2010, in a Republican wave that also elected Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. He preached pragmatism and austerity, calling himself America’s “token-CPA governor,” and, as recently as this spring, he talked of a possible Presidential run. His image as a technocrat is, for the moment, finished. He acknowledged this week that Flint is tantamount to his Hurricane Katrina.
But, as in New Orleans, unravelling what went wrong in Flint will probably require more than the release of e-mails and a prime-time apologia. The headwaters of Flint’s crisis are not located in the realm of technical errors; rather, there are harder questions about governance and accountability in some of America’s most vulnerable places. Who controls policy and why? How does the public check those who govern in its name?
The lessons apply beyond Michigan: Two years ago, in West Virginia, chemicals leaked into a river about a mile from the largest water treatment plant in the state. It was one of American history’s most serious incidents of chemical contamination—and, not incidentally, West Virginia’s fifth industrial accident in eight years. As I described in the magazine in “Chemical Valley,” that disaster was the confluence of trends in campaign finance, lobbying, and ideology, which had allowed elected officials to scale back the state’s environmental regulations and enforcement. (In one five-year span, the state had recorded twenty-five thousand violations of the Clean Water Act by coal companies, but never issued a fine for them.) West Virginians were left feeling that one of the nation’s most impoverished states had been robbed. Denise Giardina, one of the state’s best novelists, told me, “Water—it’s the most elemental thing except for air.”
In Flint, people feel a similar sense of injustice, although the political causes are different. Many blame . . .

Continue reading.

Later in the article:

To some critics, Michigan’s use of emergency managers has been especially harmful to African-Americans. By one account, approximately half of the state’s African-American population is now governed by an emergency manager. Flint has had six emergency financial managers, or E.F.M.s, in thirteen years. Writing in The Root, Louise Seamster and Jessica Welburn described it as a policy derived from the “premise that democracy in predominantly African-American cities is unnecessary and that the state knows best.”

And in ProPublica Cynthia Gordy reports:

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan – in which the city’s drinking water became contaminated with lead, bacteria and other pollutants – has come to national attention in recent weeks. President Obama declared a federal emergency in Flint, freeing up $5 million in federal aid, but Flint’s water problems have been unfolding for almost two years.

Ron Fonger, reporter for The Flint Journal and MLive, has been writing about the water contamination since 2014, when the city began using the Flint River as its water source. From covering city council meetings and town hall forums, where almost immediately residents complained about discolored, tainted water, he has had a front-row seat to the crisis. On this week’s podcast, Fonger speaks with ProPublica editor-in-chief Stephen Engelberg about what caused the problem, who dropped the ball, and what happens next.

Continue reading and listening.

Following the podcast at the link. Highlights from their conversation:

  • For months, the government downplayed residents’ complaints.Fonger: If I wrote it once, I wrote it 100 times. The city and the state’s response was the water is fine; it’s tested and it meets all of the health and safety requirements of the law. They didn’t exactly say, “You people are crazy,” but they said there’s nothing wrong with the water. (4:09)
  • Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests revealed that the city’s testing had cherry-picked neighborhoods that didn’t have a lead problem.
    Fonger: We reported late last year, based on documents that we had obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, that the city filed false reports with the state. They certified to the state, as a part of complying with the lead and copper rule, that they were testing in homes that were at high risk of elevated lead. In other words, homes that had lead service lines. … Through FOIA, we requested the service line information that the city had for each of the homes that they tested. We found out that for only a very small number – much less than half – did they have any type of data to support that they were testing in areas that had lead service lines. That cast a large doubt on their sampling results, which they kept saying showed there wasn’t a problem. (9:28)
  • Flint’s socio-economic status – predominately poor, predominately of color – may have factored into how the problems were handled.
    Fonger: When people say that, I can’t help but recognize that there’s something to that. We are an old, great industrial town. Flint is where a sit-down strike produced what is the modern-day union movement; the United Auto Workers Union was born here. The city has taken a lot of hard knocks in the past 40 years. We’ve lost a lot of employment. Our crime is high. A lot of people who had the means to leave Flint did so. Our population has fallen from 200,000 to about 100,000. With all of those things happening, a lot of poor people live here. If you think about this happening in a more affluent area…I think the population generally would’ve been already more mobilized, and more politically connected, to be able to demand that this get addressed. (13:24)
  • While Gov. Rick Snyder’s office has released emails related to the water crisis, suggesting that officials derided concerns as “political football,” local reporters are calling for more documents to be made public.Fonger: I went through all of those emails, and I was underwhelmed by what we saw. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

25 January 2016 at 2:09 pm

A judge re-evaluates a stern sentence after the fact

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A judge wondered about a stern sentence he handed down and finds it was not right: Stefan Underhill writes in the NY Times:

IN 2006, I sentenced a man to 18 years in prison. I have been wrestling with that decision ever since.

As a federal district judge, I’ve sentenced hundreds of people, but I’ve rarely agonized as much as I did over this man’s fate.

He was the enforcer for a brutal gang of drug dealers in Bridgeport, Conn., known as the Terminators, and had sold heroin, assaulted rival dealers and murdered a potential witness. But after a falling-out with the head of the gang, he turned over a stash house to the police and fled the state. When captured in 2001, he immediately confessed to the murder and later testified as a star witness for the prosecution.

Thus arose my problem: He had committed horrible crimes, but he also seemed to be making an unusually sincere effort to atone for them. So which man was I sentencing? The murderer or the remorseful cooperator?

The prosecutor rewarded his cooperation by filing a so-called 5K motion, which allowed me to ignore the mandatory life sentence he otherwise would have faced. Still, after weighing the seriousness of his crimes, I sentenced him to 18 years, which was more time than even the prosecutor wanted.

I gave a speech encouraging the defendant to make the most of his time in prison. He promised to work hard and ready himself to lead a productive life after his release. But nearly everyone I sentence says something similar.

In the years that followed, I often wondered whether his remorse was strong enough to overcome his past.

In 2012, I had the chance to find out. While attending a conference on sentencing issues, I learned that he was serving time in a prison nearby. I wanted to know whether he had become a better citizen or a better criminal. So I asked a prison staffer if I could meet with him in private.

That the warden felt no need to post a guard was my first clue that he had changed for the better. He was working in his first real job at the prison industries factory and had been promoted to supervisor. He showed me recommendations from prison employees for good jobs on the outside. He brought a folder full of certificates he had earned for attending classes. He talked lovingly about his girlfriend and daughter, with whom he planned to live as a family after his release.

The meeting made me proud of his accomplishments, but sad that I had not been more confident in him. He still had several years left on his sentence, but it was clear that he had served enough time.

After I returned to my office, I contacted the prosecutor and his lawyer and encouraged them to find a way to get him released early. But they told me there was no straightforward way to shorten a federal inmate’s sentence, even if prison officials acknowledge that more jail time is a waste of time and money. So he had to stay in prison, at an annual cost of $30,000 to taxpayers. . .

Continue reading.

Contrast this with the “punishment” meted out to cops who do wrong. While Holtzclaw got 263 years, most cops, even those who kill unarmed people, get no punishment at all and indeed are often rewarded with promotions.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 January 2016 at 1:25 pm

Posted in Law Enforcement

Some interesting stories about US law enforcement

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Radley Balko has some interesting links in the Washington Post:

  • The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s office has concluded that an inmate who was locked in a small, hot shower for more than two hours until his skin began slipping off, and whose cries for help were heard from other inmates,  died an “accidental” death. And it took only three years to reach that conclusion.
  • Meanwhile, video from Denver appears to show that a schizophrenic man died after jail police threw him to the floor. They then strapped his lifeless body to a restraint chair and left him there for several minutes before realizing he was dead.
  • The bad news from this essay: Prosecutors face political pressure that can lead to wrongful convictions. The good news: Only a small percentage of people vote in these elections, which means it wouldn’t take a whole lot to influence the dynamics of these races.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 January 2016 at 1:07 pm

Posted in Law Enforcement

A comic strip that explains what “privilege” means, and explains it well

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The comic, by Toby Morris, is well worth reading. It begins:

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 10.33.33 AM

Another way to look at it: you are privileged in the US if your municipal and state government works hard to ensure that the drinking water supplied to your home is pure and does not contain harmful substances like lead. You are not privileged if those governments work hard to deny the obvious when your drinking water stinks, is brown, and contains lead and other pollutants and instead of fixing the situation try to deny the problem and ignore you.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 January 2016 at 11:06 am

Football and the corruption of moral values by money

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In John Grisham’s novel Rogue Lawyer, there’s a strange subplot involving the protagonists almost psychotically malevolent ex-wife and her efforts to see that he is allowed no time with their son. It took me a while to figure out what that was about, but in the course of the novel it becomes clear that the protagonist, a defense lawyer, will break laws to ensure that justice is served, and the ex-wife shows how harmful and malevolent actions can be done without breaking the law—that is, the law is by no means a reliable guide for ethical and moral action. It’s perfectly possible to act unethically and immorally and with malicious intent without breaking the law.

Take, for example, the world of professional football, including college football (which is professional in all ways—salaries, profits, business model—except that players cannot get paid and are not allowed to form a union, the better to protect profits. It’s quite clear that the players are subject to great physical abuse that often leads to brain damage, but the busiiness does not care about that: profits are the goal, the players merely means to the goal, and their long-term health is not even to be considered.

In the NY Review of Books David Maraniss reviews several books and two movies that discuss football’s impact on player health and whether that should be a concern, given the amount of money at stake. In a word, it’s a review of how money undermines values. Let me just quote a few paragraphs from the review, which is worth reading in full.

. . . Before all else, football must be identified for what it has become, far beyond the blocking and tackling—a colossal entertainment business that benefits from an economic system tilted in its favor.

The NFL, operating as a monopoly exempt from antitrust legislation, brings in $11 billion a year. The owners have been reported to pay their hand-picked commissioner, Roger Goodell, an annual salary of over $35 million. Most of the money comes from television. Easterbrook notes that on the list of the most-watched television events in American history, the Super Bowl holds the top twenty spots. Sunday Night Football onNBC has been the top-rated show on any channel since 2011, and ESPN’s Monday Night Football has been the number-one cable show since 2006.

The football games of the major college teams and conferences are not far behind as businesses, even as they enjoy the benefits of nonprofit tax status. Several conferences, such as the Big Ten, have their own lucrative television networks and, as Gaul writes, “are operated like entertainment divisions, with CEO-style executives and celebrity coaches collecting Wall Street–level salaries.” At the University of Oregon, known as “Nike U” because of the largesse of one billionaire alumnus, Phil Knight, founder of the shoe company, the equivalent of more than $180,000 was spent on each football player, by Gaul’s estimate. The “student-athletes” are tutored in the “Taj Mahal of academic services” buildings, a $42 million glass-and-steel modernist structure off-limits to other students, and trained in a Football Performance Center that reminded Gaul of an upscale shopping mall, replete with plush Ferrari leather meeting seats and locker rooms with “floor-to-ceiling glass walls and marble flooring imported from Italy.” The academic honors program at Oregon is housed in a basement.

Before all else, football must be identified for what it has become, far beyond the blocking and tackling—a colossal entertainment business that benefits from an economic system tilted in its favor.

The NFL, operating as a monopoly exempt from antitrust legislation, brings in $11 billion a year. The owners have been reported to pay their hand-picked commissioner, Roger Goodell, an annual salary of over $35 million. Most of the money comes from television. Easterbrook notes that on the list of the most-watched television events in American history, the Super Bowl holds the top twenty spots. Sunday Night Football onNBC has been the top-rated show on any channel since 2011, and ESPN’s Monday Night Football has been the number-one cable show since 2006.

The football games of the major college teams and conferences are not far behind as businesses, even as they enjoy the benefits of nonprofit tax status. Several conferences, such as the Big Ten, have their own lucrative television networks and, as Gaul writes, “are operated like entertainment divisions, with CEO-style executives and celebrity coaches collecting Wall Street–level salaries.” At the University of Oregon, known as “Nike U” because of the largesse of one billionaire alumnus, Phil Knight, founder of the shoe company, the equivalent of more than $180,000 was spent on each football player, by Gaul’s estimate. The “student-athletes” are tutored in the “Taj Mahal of academic services” buildings, a $42 million glass-and-steel modernist structure off-limits to other students, and trained in a Football Performance Center that reminded Gaul of an upscale shopping mall, replete with plush Ferrari leather meeting seats and locker rooms with “floor-to-ceiling glass walls and marble flooring imported from Italy.” The academic honors program at Oregon is housed in a basement. . .

Although the amount of money (and corruption) is enormous, what all this is about is to let people watch a game being played. For that end, the cost seems grotesquely excessive. I am not a football fan, but even if I were, the picture seems severely out of balance.

Another quotation from the review:

. . . Almond, a reformed Oakland Raiders fanatic, struggled with conflicted feelings for years, but finally concluded that “our allegiance to football legitimizes and even fosters within us a tolerance for violence, greed, racism, and homophobia.” Where Easterbrook sees the sport as that magnificent incarnation of the American character, Almond asks:

What does it mean that the most popular and unifying form of entertainment in America…features giant muscled men, mostly African- American, engaged in a sport that causes many of them to suffer brain damage?

And he sees no reason to trust that the NFL will clean up the game: “As fans, we want to believe that league officials will choose the righteous path over the profitable one. This is nonsense and always has been.” . . .

And also:

Since it cannot be diagnosed in living players, CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] is not a fully understood disease. Its symptoms appear to vary widely from severe dementia to depression to bursts of anger. But Lew Carpenter’s brain reinforced what leading neuroscientists now believe—that it is not severe concussions so much as the repetitive subconcussive blows that football players endure over a career that are more often the cause, the toll of thousands of collisions and jarring movements that shake the brain inside the skull. This calls into question whether the NFL’s concussion protocols and changes in rules can fix things. As Susan Margulies, a concussion expert at the University of Pennsylvania, explained to Charlie Rose, no helmet has been devised that can “effectively reduce the rotational acceleration, that sloshing within the head that’s happening in the brain itself.” . . .

So iit’s well known that players will have their lives ruined and/or shortened, but the sport continues because it makes so much money and Americans are unwilling to give up their entertainment regardless of the cost to others. I don’t get it. I would think that fans could find some other form of entertainment, but ultimately, I think, fans simply don’t care.

UPDATE: David Remnick has a column in the New Yorker on the same topic, which concludes:

When parents don’t want their kids to play a sport anymore—which largely became the case with boxing—that sport either dies or shifts to the margins. And yet it is hard to imagine football losing its place in the culture anytime soon, when the ratings for games, college and pro, are so high, and when so many young people—not least young African-Americans and rural whites—continue to play. Friday-night lights still shine bright across Texas. But it’s notable that some of the game’s toughest customers won’t let their kids near the gridiron. Not long ago, Mike Ditka, a legendary tight end and coach for the Chicago Bears, told Bryant Gumbel, of HBO, that he wouldn’t let a son of his play. “I wouldn’t, and my whole life was football,” Ditka said.
In fact, while the N.F.L. takes half-measures and pressures its critics, the better to safeguard its gold mine, each day brings another player who challenges our fandom. Last week, it was Antwaan Randle El, a brilliant all-around player for the Steelers, who told a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he has trouble walking down stairs and that, though he’s only thirty-six, his memory is failing. “I ask my wife things over and over again, and she’s, like, ‘I just told you that.’ ”
Randle El is just one of many players to point out that the violent nature of the game—the focus of our guilty pleasure—is the same thing that breaks spines, shatters bones, renders middle-aged men demented. “I love the game,” he said. “But I tell parents you can have the right helmet, the perfect pads on, and still end up with a paraplegic kid.” Ultimately, there may not be an adequate reform. It may come down to living with the pain (the pain of others) or learning to love the artistry of Serena and LeBron even more than we already do.

Many find it easy to endure the pains suffered by others.

 

Written by LeisureGuy

25 January 2016 at 10:27 am

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