A taste of freedom

Today, football fans and non-fans alike celebrate the heart of the Independence Day weekend, a celebration that has long feted the signing of the Declaration of Independence:  the cornerstone event in the founding of our nation. I consider the Declaration to be one of the most important documents in recorded history, as important to human rights and freedom as the Code of Hammurabi and the Magna Carta. While I strongly support certain causes which I consider to be aspects of the rights of human freedom, I’m not particularly political by nature. I am, however, a fairly devoted student of history and to me, the Declaration was a huge step in our evolution as human beings. The recent massive movements to protests against repression and even regime changes that recently swept parts of North Africa and the Near and Middle East can legitimately be argued to have some of their roots in the signing and implementation of that document. It’s affected global policies adopted by the US and been a beacon to people around the globe.

What does this have to do with football? Very little, I suppose. But, I’ll tell you a story that does.

My lack of political belief (by which I’m referring to a belief in one party over another, not a lack of concern with the way our cities, states and nation are run) dates back to my days as a clinician. I was born in Chicago during the reign of Richard J. Daley, who ruled that city with an iron fist. My extended family tended to be Democrats until one of my five great aunts (Aunt Dixie, in this case) was kept waiting for quite a while in the soon-to-be President Kennedy’s suite at a downtown hotel, while the candidate was occupied with a hooker. Dixie’s Southern Baptist sensibilities were suddenly at odds with her political functions as a local (and vocal) party leader, and our family was thrown into a furor of debate. The next generation was mostly Republicans anyway, and found this a righteous excuse to decry JFK. Nowadays, such an incident would make national news. Back then, it was generally ignored or treated with a nudge and a wink as immaterial to his qualification for office. I have often wondered which approach makes more sense -- for the most part, I don’t care about someone’s personal life, sexual orientation or pastimes. At this point, we seem more fixated on the titillation factor than on governing, and it doesn’t seem to have served us well: good people decide against running for office due to the mudslinging and constant twisting of their backgrounds. There is, of course, a middle road, but I digress.

Daley was mayor when I was born in Cook County Hospital, and he was still mayor when I turned old enough to vote, a fact that wasn’t lost on me. I didn’t and don’t support the raging graft and corruption that was an endless part of the ‘Chicago Machine’, but there was a second side that seems to have been greatly lost to history - Daley really did make sure that the garbage was picked up on time and the streets were kept repaired, the trains ran on time and they were, for the most part, kept safe or Daley had someone’s head. Daley would frequently be driven around his entire domain, and if the town car hit multiple potholes on a side street, the alderman responsible for that district would be called on the carpet (a term that comes from British racing out of Newcastle:  a jockey, owner or trainer accused of breaking regulations would have to stand on a bit of rug in front of the ruling board to give their testimony) and improvement was demanded or the offender sacked. It was far from a perfect system, but as I noted when DIA - we called it DOA at the time -  was endlessly being built outside Denver, at least in Chicago you knew who to bribe (and how much) to get something done. It wasn’t a perfect or necessarily appropriate system, but it ran and often it ran well.

It was well after I’d begun my clinical career when the urge to have a political preference left me. I’ve had clinics in Illinois,  Summit County CO, Denver, Colorado Springs and Lakewood (to the southwest of Denver), and by the time I’m referring to, I’d treated the heads of both political parties from two counties. In all cases, out of a longstanding general interest in the subject, I’d talked some with them about politics and asked some questions of my patients.

In all cases, they expressed a substantially larger interest in playing ‘Gotcha’ with the other party than they did in governing well. I lost some of my appropriate clinical detachment with the last of them, asking plainly on an issue of the day what would be best for the American people. The party head looked at me as if I’d grown four heads, and told me firmly that what counted in that case were the points that could be scored on the other party, not the optimal outcome for the voters. Getting members of their own party elected was the first order of business - governing well was somewhere far down on the list. Again - this was true of heads of both parties. It’s also fair to consider that if someone considers the institution of government to be the cause of human problems, as some do, asking them to govern well is not unlike asking a vegetarian chef to create a brilliant Chateaubriand - it isn’t likely to happen. The two concepts are mutually at odds.

We’ve seen this circumstance somewhat recently in the statement of one party that despite the largest national financial crisis in 80 years, their first order of business was to make sure that the current President would not be re-elected. The fact that if they were suddenly to govern well, they would have a far better chance of succeeding in that didn’t seem to come up. I don’t prefer the opposing party, either - they often do much the same thing, although there has been a matter of degree to consider of late. This kind of bizarre obsession with ‘winning’ elections and its accompanying lack of concern for obtaining the best laws possible for their constituents has led to a constant state of gridlock in our national government; one that serves no one but the few currently in power, who rake in vast sums from lobbyists that are frequently diverted into personal accounts, and who often leave office only to sit as ‘consultants’ to the corporations that paid them the most, or to become lobbyists themselves. It’s true of both parties - it pervades our government, to the constant detriment of the citizenry.

But, what on earth does that have to do with football? Strangely, quite a lot.

We’ve seen the answer daily since March - there has been an emphasis, most blatantly from the attorneys involved, on posturing, arguing and doing little or nothing to end the gridiron gridlock and get back to playing the damned game - football, in this case, rather than governing. While the legal profession is an easy one to attack, yet an essential one to the functions of our country, it’s true that most of our Congressman - Representatives and Senators - are attorneys. They are taught, and taught well, to argue cases. That fact has played a prominent part in the lockout - on both sides.

With attorneys, I’m told, less emphasis is placed during their education on finding solutions to the problems before them - that’s more often the function of judges, juries, mediators and arbitrators - than on the skills of arguing their positions. It’s no surprise that the roots of gridlock in both football and politics are based in the same kinds of things - power, a desire to pass laws that limit other peoples’ freedom in ways that fit their own moral beliefs (something that the founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine deeply feared), greed, money, and an abiding desire to score ‘points’ with the public at the expense of the other side in the negotiations. I’ve heard it said that politics is existentially much the same as sports - onlookers who consider themselves ‘of’ the sport have strong opinions on who should win and cheer their heroes while booing their ‘villains’. I find a lot of truth in that. That’s also been the case with the lockout. One of the keys to making progress was to throw the attorneys out of the room. As they have returned, progress has slowed. Part of that is that most of the simpler areas have been worked out, and what remain are issues of a more difficult nature. Part, I suspect, is simply that arguing has begun to overcome negotiating again. Recent reports on the players’ attorneys in particular seem to support that perspective.

We are by turns angered, bemused, frustrated and perplexed by the foot-dragging in both situations. The lockout is, in many ways, the current political system in small, although a voting citizenry is lacking from the equation (and, so is a serious concern for the fan base). It is my continuing hope that reason and a desire to take a deep breath and actually do what is right will come to both circumstances. And, I predict nothing in either case - the ability of man to confound his own best interests is a matter or historical fact - and continuing perplexity.

In football, both the owners and the players have a long history of making strange and self-defeating demands on each other and the burden for this has landed most greatly on the fans. This, too, is much like the political system - the common people, and the common good, are not as greatly valued as the endless urge to ‘win’. It’s worth recalling that building a national highway system, something that we now take for granted (as much of it deteriorates to the point of danger) was denounced as ‘flagrant socialism’, a charge that I’ve frequently heard aimed at the players’ demands.

But it’s also worth remembering, on this important holiday, that the Founding Fathers were simply common men - landowners, for the most part, yet men much like you and me with weaknesses, strengths and foolishness in all, though in varying degrees. They fought bitterly with each other, argued, berated, threatened each other, acted out like schoolboys and they, too, often refused to find common ground. Yet they finally signed first a Declaration of Independence and then a Constitution that is a marvel of a document, having provided guiding principles for the country for over 200 years, with several key provisions including one man, one vote (although, embarrassingly, considering a person of color to be only three-fifths of a man) and the separation of church and state being lifted wholesale from the constitution passed by the Freemasons organization earlier that century (No, I’m not a conspiracy theorist nor a Mason - simply a historian. Franklin published the Freemason Constitution in 1734 as what became known as a Philadelphia version, as opposed to the pre-existing London version.) My hope for the sport of professional football is that they, too, can eventually pass a documented agreement that will stand the test of time and provide a decent set of guidelines for future agreements.

Will they? No one knows.  But if a group of farmers, tradesmen and local leaders can get together and create two of the most remarkable and noteworthy documents in history in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, there’s always reason for hope. The players have made outlandish demands since the 1970s, while the owners have a 90-year history that is filled with embarrassing mishaps, gambling, corruption, human fallibility and prejudice, yet the sport itself endures. Some of the fans have fled with this last situation - I have farewell emails from a few. But the game will return at some point next season and most of the fan base will sigh, take a deep breath and return to rooting for their chosen team, whether local or not. The most notable and laudable aspects of sport are a constant draw. What separates the two sides right now can be seen as a discussion of the central matter. That’s not even the money, although that’s obviously a major factor. It’s the issue of freedom.

There is little, if anything, that burns in people like the desire to be free. Personal freedom is deeply written across the human heart and resounds in the essence of the human spirit. The players want to be free to move around - to have the right to assemble or not as they see fit, to change jobs, to negotiate an appropriate wage (while we may shudder at the cost, it’s what you pay for a national entertainer), and to spend their personal time as they see fit while having a rational policy towards the all-too-common medical outcomes of playing that sport on a professional level. The owners want the freedom to set their own limits on the game, to move franchises as they see fit and to set the standards for negotiation.

Many of the owners simply inherited their franchises. Those individuals did nothing to create the league but be born into the right family. Some of them, without question, have taken their inheritance as a solemn trust with the public, while others have not. Some owners fought and scraped to gather wealth and to purchase a team - they feel protective of their own rights. Both sides have points in their favor - both overreach. It’s human nature.

The very creation of the NFL is but one very small aspect of what has emerged from the singular event of the signing of a document declaring what would become the United States of America as a sovereign nation of free people, people with the right to act in accordance with the songs within their own hearts, to be beholden to none, to be free of religious oppression and to have concourse with others in mutual support. It’s a document worth celebrating, and one that continues to inspire people in the U.S. and around the globe. On this day, I wish you the very best for you and your families. I sincerely hope that during the day that you take a few moments, at least, to count the cost in those who have made the final sacrifice for our nation, and also to the men who wrote a paper that turned the world on its head. Having done that, give a thought to preserving the essence of freedom for the generations still to come: it’s a sacred trust.

Happy Independence Day, my friends. May you find the good within yourself and others, find health for you and yours if that may be your karma, keep peace in your own heart whatever may come, and hold on to happiness in the coming year.


Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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