Thursday, June 24, 2010

Regarding Marty

I was on the sideline that day at the Bingham Cup in June 2006.  In fact I had just returned to the sidelines after having been removed by a teammate a few minutes earlier for getting a little too chippy with the opposition players and supporters.  The game had been back and forth with each team holding slim leads for short intervals.  My boys were losing by two in the final minutes to a team we had beaten handily just a few months before.  As the game went into stoppage time my club put on a furious attack, one that gained a few meters at a time but which constantly threatened to be stopped by a penalty, or a lost ruck, or any other number of things.  There was desperation in the air on both sides as the next whistle would certainly be the end of the game.

What happened next is far and away the greatest moment I’ve ever been a part of as an athlete.  With our attack stalled just shy of the half way line our scrum half Marty stood back from the ruck and called for another player, any other player to throw him the ball.  Somehow one of our flankers was able to toss the ball out Marty who stood approximately fifty-five meters out from the posts.  In one fluid motion Marty caught the pass and drop kicked the ball, it seemed, directly into the sun. 

Marty Dublin

Two years later I was on the sideline again.  I had missed most of the tournament due to my brother’s high school graduation, a ceremony I wasn’t going to miss as it was a bit of a miracle itself.  Still, I had managed to play in parts of two games that day.  Our boys had lost to our rivals from New York in the quarterfinals.  It was a bitter defeat.  As we watched the final Marty, our little Irish fireplug who’d be showing us around Dublin later that night, remarked, “Y’know Berto, I don't know if I can keep doin' this.  Every year we get close, but we never get over the hump like. I’m tired of just showin' up and playin' well.  I want to win the damn thing and I just don't know if we can do it.”

Marty Banner

Another two years go by, it's 2010 and I’m no longer a player.  Instead I’m back at Bingham as a referee.  It’s different, but I’m thrilled to be involved.  The top four teams roll through pool play leaving no doubt who the class of the tournament are.  The quarterfinals are also unsurprising as all four of the top seeds advance.  Then, in the semis, Marty and the boys are set to face their old rivals from New York.  Again, even though our boys had beaten them easily earlier in the year, New York, as they do every two years, is putting up a tremendous fight.  Some time in the last five minutes Marty gets his bell rung and is forced to come off the field to have bleeding controlled.  At this point his team, our team, is down by seven.  Again they mount a furious charge and with no time left they punch one across dead center between the posts. 

As I come back to the referee’s tent after my match another ref, also a former teammate tells me, “The Renegades are about to go to overtime against Gotham.”  The implication is that the conversion is a given.  It’s directly in front of the posts and Marty is coming back on to take the kick.  It’s a done deal.  Marty is one of the most accurate and strong legged kickers I’ve ever seen on a pitch at any level.  Hell, his nick-name is “Miracle Marty,” so named for how many games he’s won the club with his boot.  I figure I have plenty of time to report my score then go over and quietly, perhaps from a distance, watch the end of the match.

I remember Scott Norwood.  If the name doesn’t ring a bell he’s the kicker for the Buffalo Bills who missed a game winning field goal in the Super Bowl.  The Bills went to four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s, an NFL record, and didn’t win any of them. The closest they came was a forty-seven yard field goal attempt with eight seconds left that went wide right.  The kicker, Scott Norwood is usually associated with only that one kick.  It was part of the plots of the films “Ace Ventura” and “Buffalo 66.”  People blame Scott Norwood.  I feel for him.  I’ve done some kicking in my career.  I would describe my kicking ability as serviceable, sometimes even useful, but I was never great.  I was never Marty, or Scott Norwood.  At the time Norwood lined up for his kick against the Giants in January of 1991 he was the Buffalo Bills all time leading scorer, the next year he would kick the winning field goal in the AFC title game to send Buffalo back to the Super Bowl, but most people don’t remember that.  Most people remember “wide right.”  It’s not fair.  As a kicker I know what it’s like to line up a ball, set your self, approach and strike.  A lot of the time you know as you hit it if it has a chance.  As a kicker I have a particular empathy for the job and the people who do it.  Often disregarded as not being real players, kickers are thought to be nearly interchangeable, until you really need one.  One problem with kicking is that until you miss an important one people don’t really notice you. And because they don’t notice they don’t understand what goes into it, how any one of million different things can go wrong.  A slightly misplaced plant foot, a small difference in your strike point, a sudden gust of wind, tall grass that tilts the tee, ground that’s softer than it seems, any of a million things that can go wrong.  Certainly getting hit in the head and leaving the field for blood can have an effect on a kicker.

I didn’t see Marty’s kick.  I didn’t think I had to.  I was going to report my scores and then go quietly, and perhaps from a distance, watch the rest of the match.  When I got near the fields I heard what had happened.  Marty had missed.  The boys had lost to their rivals 15-13, just two points from a tie.  Not just a tie, but a tie with momentum!  A tie where they had just shown that they could win!  But it wasn’t a tie.  They couldn’t win.  Marty’s kick had sailed wide.  By the time I found him the game had only been over for a few minutes. His eyes were red and swollen.  I embraced him and held him for a good long time.  “Berto,” he said to me, “I fucked it up man.  I really fucked it up.  I cost us the chance and it was an easy one man.  How many times have you seen me make that kick Berto?  How many times?”  A million times.  I’ve seen him make that kick in just about every game I’ve seen him play.  I tried to remind him that even making that kick didn’t promise anything but another few minutes, that the other team could have taken the next kickoff back for a score, that ultimately it didn’t matter.  I knew it rang hollow.  What can you say to ease the pain of player who’s just missed the biggest kick of his life?  What did they say to Scott Norwood?  “You see Berto man, Becky and I are gonna be wantin' to start a family now. Y’see, I know this is my last Bingham Cup.  I wanted to win it.  I wanted my chance and I had it, and I fucked it up.”  All I could think to say was, "I love you Marty, don’t dwell on it, this doesn’t define you," and then go out and make sure we drank safely that night.

Marty kick

Back in 2006 the fields on Randall’s Island in New York are more dirt and needles than grass.  Throughout the three days of the tournament the British and European teams were incredulous about the condition of the fields they were being forced to play on.  The field for this game was especially sparse on vegetation and the dust clouds lingered in the air as strong men fell violently to the ground.  It was though this haze, staring into the setting sun that we watched Marty’s kick sail through air.  It too seemed to hang forever as if gravity was aware of the moment and wanted us to savor it.  I remember following the path of the ball, losing sight of it in the glare and haze, then finding it again just as it descended over the crossbar.  For a moment everything was still.  When the referee’s whistle split the air between what was inevitable and what was possible I remember thinking “Please let it be over.  Please don’t let there be another kickoff.”  The first whistle meant the kick was good, the second meant the game was over.  We had won.  The New York fans ignorant and arrogant began to cheer and rush the field clanging they’re infernal cow bells.  One of them ran up to me and screamed “Yeah! Yeah! How do you like that?”  “I like it just fine.” I replied, “We just won.”  As our sideline rushed out to pay tribute to the fifteen lads on the field the reality set in for the home side supporters.  They had just been beaten by a fantastic play, a 55 meter drop goal with no time left.  We ended up third out of twenty-nine teams.  It was the club’s highest finish in three appearances in the Bingham Cup.  The legend of “Miracle Marty” was now firmly established, and nothing could ever take it away.


Friday, June 4, 2010

Don't Phase Me Bro

 I think my views on use of force by law enforcement would surprise a lot of people.  Contrary to what some people may assume I’m pretty supportive of it in many situations.  My basic view is this, if you don’t want get tased, beat up, or killed just do whatever the cops tell you to do.  Even better, don’t get in a position where the cops are telling you to do something.  I say this as someone who’s had run ins with law enforcement.  I’ve had guns drawn on me, been in lock up, hidden from the police, been beat up by cops over a misunderstanding, been stopped for “fitting a description,” etc.  My experiences, cases that have come to my attention, and conversations and training with law enforcement have shaped my view on use of force.  It seems like the person getting hammered on is almost always in a position to avoid it if they could just keep their heads.  Also, public perception is skewed way out of line (often from watching too much fiction) from what I understand to be police training.  I bring this up now because this idiot who ran on the field at a baseball game and got tased provided a nice counter point to this guy who got tased when just about anything else could have worked instead.

First let me briefly relay my own experiences with law enforcement: 

When I was thirteen some friends and I were playing hide-and-seek (manhunt) in a neighborhood at night.  Naturally someone thought we were burglars and called the cops.  The cops showed up with guns drawn.  We avoided being killed by complying with their directions and everything got sorted out.  I was scary but OK.

When I was sixteen I was walking down the street one evening when two squad cars drove the wrong way down a one way street because I looked “just like someone who escaped from prison a few hours” before.  I sat on the curb for a while, they cleared it up, and I was on my way.

When I was seventeen I was stopped for skateboarding on UC Berkeley property.  The “cop” asked us about some graffiti nearby but couldn’t pin it on us.  He then asked for ID.  When I turned around to go to my backpack where my ID was he assumed I was running and proceeded to call four other guys to come help beat the crap out of me since with him being 6’2” and all muscled he clearly couldn’t handle my 5’10 120lb frame all by himself.  I’m still pissed about it but time and maturity have taught me that if I’d said, “Sure officer, it’s in my bag right over there. Can I go get it?” then none of that would probably have happened.  But I was young and trying to do what I was told, I just didn’t understand what it is that cops look for and more importantly, what they fear.

Cops are often constantly on high alert.  How many times does a routine traffic stop turn into a shoot out?  OK well, not very often but often enough that it has to be in the back of your mind every time you pull someone over.  How often do people run from the police?  Pretty often.  Certainly enough that it’s probably annoying and you feel like beating someone up over it.  The point is, understanding what cops are thinking and what they go through and what they’re looking for can help you avoid getting beat up. 

But where do you start?  It’s pretty simple.  The first thing to remember is it doesn’t matter if you’re “right.”  If you are right you will likely be vindicated in the end.  However, you are not going to get a chance to show that you’re right unless you first do whatever the cop is telling you to do.  Once the officer sees that you are compliant and not a threat they are less likely to beat the crap out of you and more likely to listen.  People more worried about being right than not getting tased have gotten themselves in more trouble than we can ever know.  In my experience if you get through the first few minutes of doing what the cop says and being respectful they can actually be pretty reasonable.  If you start off with how you know your rights and you didn’t do anything and fuck them then you’re probably going to jail or getting smacked around whether or not you actually deserve it.

This is not to say that cops don’t need to dial it down and learn to better assess a situation.  Clearly some cops are out of control and out to do harm for whatever fucked up reason.  The guy who shot a defenseless young man on a BART platform is an example of cops who go too far with little provocation.  A few years ago there was a case where the police, responding to a domestic disturbance, killed a deaf man in his own driveway because he was holding a rake and he did not understand their command to lay it down.  Soon after another deaf man was severely beaten by police in a parking garage because police attributed his “aggressive” gesturing and “babbling” to being on drugs.  Police officers need to be accountable for being able to read and react appropriately to different situations.  We can help them.  If we can stay calm and show that we’re not a threat it allows the officer time to assess without pressure.

Of course not everyone has the chances I’ve had to go to their trainings and discuss these things with law enforcement.  I do think a little common sense and empathy can help.  For example, do you perform better or worse at your job if someone is angry and contradicting you and being derisive just because you wanted to talk to them?  Does anyone you work with have a chance of killing you?  Would this add to your stress level? There have been a few high profile cases coupled with my own experiences that have shown me that the public in general just doesn’t understand police training.  One case that exemplifies this is the Rosebud shooting in Berkeley several years ago.  People I talked to were outraged that a woman who broke into the UCB Chancellor’s home with a knife, who then rushed at police with the knife, was killed.  Many people at the time expressed to me that “They should have shot her in the leg or something.”  This shows a basic lack of understanding borne of too much TV and to little knowledge of firearms.  In my dealings with law enforcement I’ve learned that cops are taught to avoid firing their weapons if at all possible but if they feel they have to fire to empty their weapon and shoot to kill.  Think about it, it’s hard enough to come to a decision to shoot someone (something I think many of us assume is taken lightly by police officers) but if you are in a situation where you feel like your life is in danger, your scared, stressed, and you have to make a quick decision are you also going to have the time and concentration to “just shoot them in the leg or something?”  No.  There is no nonchalance when it comes to firing a weapon.  If there were people would be getting shot in the leg a lot more often.  If you have to shoot someone you shoot to kill. There is no other option, there is no other reason.  You shoot because you believe if you do not shoot someone else may die.  Isn’t that how we want it?  Don’t we want shooting to be the last resort?  Don’t we want guns to only be used in life or death situations?  Isn’t anything else just a slippery slope towards shooting jaywalkers in the leg?  Besides there’s a simple way to avoid being shot by the police.  Don’t break into anywhere and don’t rush at them with a knife. If you can do those two things your chances of being shot fall dramatically.  But there’s a solution for you “shoot ‘em in the leg” types, a middle ground. It’s called the Taser. 

The Taser allows an officer to subdue a suspect from a distance in a non-lethal but effective manner.  There is clearly a time and place for a Taser to be used.  For example, if you are a moron who wants to run onto a baseball diamond during a game you should expect to be tased.  If you are somewhat peacefully speaking into a microphone at a meeting on your college campus you should not expect to be tased.  What’s the difference?  In some ways it’s a matter of time, proximity, and probability.  For the famous “Don’t tase me bro” guy the cops had plenty of time to assess the threat, plenty of bodies to physically take the offender away, they were close enough to subdue him by hand, he did not appear to be any sort of threat, and he wasn’t trying to flee.  He also had some reasonable reason for being where he was.  In other words the Taser use here was completely out of line.  Now look at the other guy.  Here’s a dumbass running around attempting to elude capture, delaying the game, with no reasonable cause to be where he was, in a context where fans have assaulted players, coaches, and umpires in recent years.  Also, I think it’s reasonable to have a strong deterrent to people doing something like jumping on a baseball field as opposed to having a strong deterrent to people peacefully expressing an opinion.  Expressing an opinion is a right, criminal trespass is not.  Again, it’s easy to avoid being tased at a baseball game, stay in your seat.  I applaud the moron’s parents for basically siding with the police on this one.  Conversely one should be able to assume that they can speak in an open public forum without being electrocuted. 

So what’s the take away?  It’s this, cops are people too.  They are people who work in a dangerous and high stress job for too little pay.  Yes, some of them are complete assholes.  A smaller number are dangerous bordering on psychotic.  Most of them can be completely reasonable and even helpful if you give them a chance and put them at ease.  The citizen bears some responsibility in how cops react to them.  It may suck to have to swallow your pride, forget that you’re “right,” and submit for a short period of time but it can be worth it.  If you are able to do what it takes to set a cop at ease you may even be able to have a conversation and help change their perspective a little bit.  I know it sucks to think, “I shouldn’t have to kowtow to these assholes just to avoid getting shot.” but that’s the reality.  Would you rather be right, or dead?  If you live you can always be right later on.  You can sue someone or write angry letters, or try to get a cop fired or whatever recourse is available after the fact.  But remember, even if it’s annoying, even if you’re sure you’re the subject of discrimination, if you  keep your cool initially you can get what you want when interacting with police officers. There’s no other viable path.  If you run, fight, or just act like an ass you will lose that interaction in that moment. You just have to remember that most of them are just honest people trying to do an honest job.  If you ignore that and then you get tased, you have to look at your own culpability.