March 24, 2013

Don't Kill the Refs

"If I show up at your door, chances are you did something to bring me there."

~Assassin for hire Martin Blank (John Cusack), in Grosse Point Blank (1997)

Several close games in this year's opening rounds of the NCAA basketball tourney have resurrected that time-honored wail from the fans of losing teams: "The refs screwed us." Usually the fans' ire is directed at a close call or no-call in the final minute of a tight game, particularly one that looks questionable or even flat out wrong in slow motion replay. But for that one bad call, fans contend, their team would have won the game.

The whining du jour comes compliments of Iowa State fans, who saw their 10th seeded Cyclones battle back against the 2nd seeded Ohio St. Buckeyes in a West Regional game, only to lose to a buzzer beating three-pointer. Cyclone fans (including many of my fellow Ironmen) are incensed over an offensive charging call against a Cyclone player with roughly a minute left in the game. Replays showed that the Ohio State defender should have been called for a blocking foul, and the Cyclones awarded the basket and a free throw with a chance to take a three or four point lead into the final minute. Many Cyclone fans are now crying into their beer about how "the refs cost us that game".

The problem with this mentality is that focusing on one call in isolation just because it happens in the last minute of the game ignores the first 39 minutes of the game. Although the call feels critical because the game is close to an end, the same call at any point in the game would have had the same impact—a three point swing in favor of Ohio State. Of course, Ohio State fans probably can point to a handful of calls earlier in the game that they disagreed with, calls which created the same or greater swing in favor of Iowa State (and truthfully, "bad" calls and no-calls tend to even out over the course of a full game). Further, events earlier in the game could have put Iowa State or Ohio State comfortably ahead, rendering any call in the final minute largely irrelevant to the outcome. Finally, focusing on that one call ignores the succeeding nearly full minute of play, during which: a) Ohio State missed the front end of a one-and-one followed by an immediate Iowa State rebound and turnover with the score still tied with 58 seconds left, b) Iowa State failed to secure a defensive rebound with 33 seconds remaining, and c) Iowa State failed to defend Ohio State's winning shot (though it was still a tough, clutch shot by Aaron Craft). [FN1].

If a team is in a position to lose a game because of a questionable or bad call in the final minute, chances are that team did something wrong in the first 39 minutes that put them in that position. The team may have taken poor shots, missed free throws, committed turnovers, failed to rebound effectively, or played poor defense. The coach may have failed to adjust his offensive or defensive sets to take advantage of the opponent's weaknesses, or failed to adjust his lineup to create the most favorable player matchups. A star player may have tried to force the action rather than running the offense, or committed a silly foul forcing the coach to bench him for a critical part of the game. A team playing its best basketball should rarely be in a close game in the closing minutes of a game. [FN2].

Referees obviously impact a game. But referees rarely "decide" a game, and when they do, it's usually because the style of game they call (loose or tight on fouls) favors one team or the other, not because they booted an isolated call or two. So although it's tempting to blame the refs for "losing" a game for your team because of one or two bad calls, odds are strong your team has only itself to blame.

[FN1].  In the interest of full disclosure, I refereed basketball at high school varsity level down to grade school games for roughly 18 years, including training and supervising college intramural referees during law school. In fact, back in the day, I wrote an op-ed in the college newspaper similar to this post. So I admittedly have a "pro-referee" bias.

[FN2].  In today's game, shooting from the field, free throws, and personal fouls were all essentially even between the teams. However, Iowa State committed 16 turnovers to Ohio State's 7, which probably had a much greater impact on the ultimate outcome than did the late block-charge call.

March 17, 2013

Dear Fathers: What If Your Son Is Gay?

Kurt's Dad:  My son's a homosexual, and I love him.  I love my dead gay son.

J.D.:  Wonder how he'd react if his son had a limp wrist with a pulse.

~Heathers (1988)

Friday, conservative Republican Senator Rob Portman published a shocking article coming out in favor of marriage equality for gays after years spent toeing the GOP anti-gay party line:

Two years ago, my son Will, then a college freshman, told my wife, Jane, and me that he is gay. He said he’d known for some time, and that his sexual orientation wasn’t something he chose; it was simply a part of who he is. Jane and I were proud of him for his honesty and courage. We were surprised to learn he is gay but knew he was still the same person he’d always been. The only difference was that now we had a more complete picture of the son we love.

At the time, my position on marriage for same-sex couples was rooted in my faith tradition that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman. Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective: that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love, a blessing Jane and I have shared for 26 years.

I wrestled with how to reconcile my Christian faith with my desire for Will to have the same opportunities to pursue happiness and fulfillment as his brother and sister. Ultimately, it came down to the Bible’s overarching themes of love and compassion and my belief that we are all children of God.

Senator Portman's article drew plenty of criticism from fellow conservatives, hardly surprising given the influence of the religious right over Republican politics. More surprising—and disappointing—was sniping from many pundits on the political left who called Portman's change of heart a "confession of moral failure" or evidence of "a fundamental lack of compassion", causing "disgust" at Portman's lack of empathy and accusations of a "politics of narcissism".

All of the critics need to pipe down. There is no question marriage equality is a hot-button political issue, and a sitting U.S. Senator breaking with his party's position on the issue undoubtedly has political implications.  Yet I view Senator Portman's announcement as more of a personal and family matter, made public only because he is a fairly high-profile politician. Seeing the Senator and his wife publicly declare how proud they are of their son Will, how they love him as he is, not as they might have wanted him to be, and how they wish for their son to have the opportunity to be just as happy as they and their other children, only drives home for me how difficult the situation must have been for the entire family. Imagine being Will Portman, the gay son of a prominent politician whose party is anti-gay (often rabidly so), in a state where an anti-gay marriage amendment was cynically placed on the ballot in 2004 in a transparent effort to bring Republican voters to the presidential polls, whose father was even mentioned as a leading Vice Presidential candidate for an avowedly anti-gay Mitt Romney. Imagine the fear and anxiety that Will must have felt as he tried to work up the courage to tell his parents he was gay. Imagine Will's relief when his parents accepted him with love. Imagine Will's pride when his parents not merely accepted him, but went so far as to publicly advocate for his right to marry some day, in direct contravention of what would be politically expedient for his father. To me, Senator Portman's article was not a political statement, but a public declaration of love and support from a father to his son. I have nothing but admiration for how the entire Portman family has handled this situation.

Senator Portman's article was a strange counterpoint to another note making the rounds on the internet this week, a note in which a father told his gay son there was no reason to worry about coming out:

I overheard your phone conversation with Mike last night about your plans to come out to me. The only thing I need you to plan is to bring home OJ and bread after class. We are out, like you now. I’ve known you were gay since you were six, I’ve loved you since you were born.


P.S. Your mom and I think you and Mike make a cute couple.

This note was pretty much the opposite of my personal experience. When I came out, my friends were overwhelmingly supportive. My mother, however ... well, she returned my Christmas letter unopened, with a post-it note attached stating:

We have no desire to know anything about the lifestyle you have chosen. Your letter will just upset us, so I am returning it.

~Mom & Dad

Now, my parents and I eventually worked through the issue, and our relationship is stronger than ever. But my experience, and the experience of the Portmans, is a reminder to fathers of young sons everywhere—your own son might well be gay. Of course, the odds are overwhelming your son will be straight—he only has roughly a 1-in-20 chance of being gay. Still, considering around 5% of kids will turn out to be gay, you will almost certainly be confronted with the issue of a gay teen at some point in your life. If it's not your son, it will be the son of a friend, or one of your son's friends. So, how will you handle the issue of your son growing up gay, or his growing up with a gay friend?

If your son is interested in sports, will you steer him toward football, basketball, hockey, wrestling, or baseball because they are more "manly"? If you coach a youth sports team, will you tell your team they are playing like "fags" or "pussies"? Will you tolerate a coach or fellow parent who uses anti-gay language? Will you stand by and let the more talented or popular kids on the team use words like "gay" or worse to taunt their opponents or even their own teammates?

What if your son excels in a sport like swimming, diving, gymnastics, ice skating, or volleyball; will you be embarrassed to attend his meets? Will you be openly disappointed if your son doesn't want to watch sports or go hunting or snowmobiling or hiking with you? Or what if your son wants to participate in drama, show choir, band, dance, or art? Will you attend every show? Take him to rehearsals? Brag to your friends about his awards? Or will you tell your son that he should stick to sports? Avoid his shows with forced excuses? Hide your discomfort from your friends with uneasy jokes?

When your friend confides over a beer that his son is gay, will you silently give thanks that your son is straight? When you learn for certain your son is straight, will you breathe a sigh of relief?

Knowing that gay teens are at substantially higher risk for depression and anxiety, being bullied or assaulted, abusing alcohol or drugs, dropping out of school or having educational problems, and attempting / committing suicide, will you be the strong father, coach, or role model who is someone a gay teen can turn to for support?

If you learn your son is gay, will you love him just the same? Will your son know this even before you tell him?

Frankly, though, if it turns out your son is gay, there are only two questions that really matter:

Will you be proud of your son?

Will your son be proud of you?

Especially proud of my dad today

~Will Portman, @wdportman, 6:34 AM; 15 Mar 2013