Archive for society
As if suicide isn’t rotten enough, it invariably raises more questions than it answers. That’s because suicide often doesn’t answer any questions at all.
Even a note left behind won’t necessarily satisfy all the curiosity. In fact, suicide notes are likely to create more questions than they answer, as well.
A suicide note is like a press conference where a statement is issued and the issuer scrambles away, without taking any queries.
Sawyer Sweeten is dead. Apparently it’s suicide.
Sawyer, on the verge of turning 20, was one-half of the identical twin actors who played Ray and Debra Barone’s twin boys on “Everybody Loves Raymond” (1996-2005). Sawyer played Geoffrey and Sullivan Sweeten played Michael. The twins’ older sister Madylin played older sister Ally on the TV show.
According to reports, Sawyer was visiting family in Texas when he apparently shot himself on the front porch of the house where he was staying.
In the early years of “Raymond,” star Ray Romano would say in the open that the show “is not really about the kids,” and he was right. The Barone children were often not seen at all in episodes. Not making kids foils or smart alecks was one of many ways in which “Raymond” was refreshing.
The Sweeten kids weren’t fed rapid fire one-liners by the writers. Their characters rarely acted out, and only on occasion was a “Raymond” storyline built around the children.
But today, it IS about the kids. One, in particular.
No word yet if Sawyer left a note. Not that it helps if he did.
Throughout entertainment history, the travails of the child actor after he/she is no longer an adolescent have been widely documented. I don’t know if studies have been made, so it’s anyone’s guess as to whether former child stars are, statistically, prone to big people-type problems more than “normal” kids. But certainly their issues are higher in profile.
I would imagine that some of the emotional/psychological problems that child actors face start with a question that we have all asked about said stars, either to ourselves or of others.
“Whatever happened to…?”
That may be the crux of a lot of this stuff.
Whatever happened to the kid actors after they grew up and their shows ended up in syndication?
But maybe the kid actors are asking themselves, “What do I do now, now that the spotlights have been turned off and the acting jobs have dried up?”
The Sweeten kids: Sawyer (left), Madylin and Sullivan
Some of the kid stars turned to drugs. Some turned to alcohol. Some turned to both. Others followed their lives on set with a life of crime, almost immediately.
With or without a suicide note, the questions surrounding Sawyer Sweeten’s apparent suicide will never truly be answered, because the only person who possesses the answers and who can expound is gone.
And it might be that Sawyer’s demise had absolutely nothing to do with his having been a child actor.
Romano, who reminded us back in the day that his show wasn’t about the kids, reversed that course upon learning of Sawyer’s tragic death.
“I’m shocked, and terribly saddened, by the news about Sawyer,” Romano said in a statement.
“(Sawyer) was a wonderful and sweet kid to be around. Just a great energy whenever he was there. My heart breaks for him, his family, and his friends during this very difficult time.”
Big sister Madylin Sweeten told us to do something that shouldn’t take an untimely death to get us to do.
“At this time I would like to encourage everyone to reach out to the ones you love,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “Let them have no doubt of what they mean to you.”
They were television advertising icons who resided on the banks of our cultural consciousness.
Mr. Whipple (Charmin bathroom tissue). Madge the manicurist (Palmolive dish detergent). The Maytag Repair Man. Even the Qantas koala bear.
Those were just a few commercial characters who invaded our living rooms in the 1970s and ’80s. Their ads—usually 60 seconds in length or even longer—were rarely the same. The format might have been nearly identical, and of course the tag lines were (“DON’T squeeze the Charmin!”), but each appearance by Mr. Whipple or Madge usually had them interacting with different customers.
The actors behind the characters were often nameless, as it should have been, but I’m sure their paychecks weren’t nameless—or paltry.
The pitchman on TV these days is usually a local litigator or a voice-over hawking prescription meds.
There isn’t really any character that is iconic—no one who, when they appear on the screen, instantly lets us know what product is being advertised.
Except for Flo, the Progressive Insurance Girl.
Played by Stephanie Courtney (we only know that because this is the Internet age), Flo first started appearing on TV in the late-2000s. Her cheery attitude, dark hair, blood red lipstick and ridiculously long eyelashes, all packaged in an all-white uniform, screams insurance at the moment of seeing her.
To Progressive’s credit, the Flo ads are kept fresher than most other TV spots, which can gag you with their repetitiveness and lack of variety (i.e. those same three Liberty Mutual Insurance ads that are rotated).
Progressive has put Flo in all sorts of situations, from riding motorcycles to consoling a man in a locker room to being tied to a stake (in an ad that puts Flo in different eras in world history).
But unlike the advertising characters from days gone by, who were mostly universally liked (or, at the very least, tolerated rather easily), Flo, for whatever reason, is a polarizing sort.
My mother, for example, can’t stand Flo. I, on the other hand, find Flo attractive in an odd way.
Trolling the Internet, this polarization is acute.
There are Flo-hating websites and forums, as well as those that are visited by men who make no bones that they would like to do some things (sexually) to Flo that are unfit to print here. Other comments on Facebook et al have been from females who like Flo just because they think she’s likable.
Courtney, for her part, has never understood the allure of Flo, sexually.
“The GEICO gecko puts out more sexual vibes than Flo does,” Courtney has been quoted as saying.
Regardless of where you stand on the Flo issue, one thing can’t be disputed: She’s a throwback to a time when TV advertising was flush with identifiable characters and mascots. Back when TV hawked more than just insurance, beer, cars and drugs.
Flo’s Facebook page has nearly 5 million likes, though that number has been dipping in recent years from its peak of 5.4 million.
Like them or not, the Flo spots at least are freshened up rather frequently. Her character, these days, is seen less in that all-white, fantasy Progressive Insurance “store” and more in various situations and venues.
And, no doubt, Flo has made Stephanie Courtney’s wallet fatter than it likely would have been had she been forced to stick to more traditional bit parts on TV and in the movies, as she was doing prior to Flo.
You pretty much love Flo or you hate her; it’s hard to be on the fence with her. She’s the Howard Cosell of modern television that way.
The GEICO gecko, by the way, should get props for its popularity and freshness of new spots.
Who would have thought that the world of insurance would take over TV advertising?
My first experience with spicy food came when I was a youngster.
I was a latch key kid, and that included lunch. My grade school was literally across the street from the house, more or less. So I would let myself in and prepare my own lunch, as early as age 11.
This was circa 1974-75.
Nobody reported my mother to Child Protective Services. I managed to not burn the house down. I’d fix my lunch, eat it, and be back in class on time.
Somehow along the way I have lost that efficiency in my life, but that’s another blog post entirely.
The point being, my first encounter with spicy foods came in the form of those Vlasic hot pepper rings in a jar. Again, I was 11 and I started nibbling on those tangy, vinegar-encased yellow rings, usually combining them with a sandwich of some sort.
That was some 40 years ago, and it was way before I discovered Szechuan Chinese food, Indian cuisine and Thai delights.
It was also way before fast food joints and snack manufacturers discovered anything remotely on the warm side, spicy food-wise.
Today everyone is pushing spicy food.
Jalapenos are all the rage now.
Everyone from Frito Lay to Applebee’s to Burger King are putting jalapenos in their offerings.
Spicy food is everywhere. Buffalo style (fill in the blank); “bold” menu items; Cajun everything; Thai this and Thai that.
Not that I’m complaining.
My yen for bold, spicy and tangy foods clearly started with those latch key lunches in the mid-1970s. Vlasic hot pepper rings was my first experience. I remember it like a woman remembers her first kiss.
But I eventually had to eat something other than hot pepper rings to satisfy my growing craving.
My mom and I used to eat Chinese food a lot but it wasn’t until I went off to college and started working in Ann Arbor that I realized not all Chinese cuisine was of the Cantonese variety.
Spicy Chinese food? Really?
Some co-workers were getting take-out at a Chinese place down the street and it served something called Szechuan, they said. Never heard of it, I replied.
Oh, it’s good, they said. Very spicy and hot.
I probably cocked my head, like a bemused dog does.
But I for sure said that I was in on that!
Part of nature’s nectar
The food arrived and I’m surprised my taste buds didn’t all drop dead of a heart attack.
Never before had they seen anything like Szechuan Chinese food come down my gullet.
What a taste sensation!
So that’s when I got hooked on spicy Chinese food (circa 1982). That would change from Chinese to Asian when I discovered Thai cuisine, some five years later.
If I thought Szechuan (and Mandarin) was hot, I had no idea when it came to Thai food.
Thai food was invented for people like me. Intense heat, but still adjustable for individual taste.
Siam Spicy, on Woodward in Royal Oak, gave me my indoctrination to Thai food. I foolishly ordered it “extra hot” on my first visit. I dismissed the sweet waitress’s warning.
I should have listened to her.
But that painful (literally) experience didn’t dissuade me. I had discovered a treasure trove.
In the early-1990s I found out about Indian food. More delightful salivating ensued.
So here we are today, 40 years after I lost my spicy food virginity, and only now is the food industry catching up.
It’s a generational thing, I’m sure.
I was born in 1963. Today’s target demographic was born some 20 years after that, and they, as a whole, are more in tune with hot and spicy food.
They are less afraid and more adventurous eaters than the generation preceding them.
The products and menu items today reflect that shift in taste bud stamina. Although when the so-called spicy offerings first started to appear, they weren’t nearly hot enough for my liking. Now the heat level is increasing as the demographic is getting younger.
The easiest bet I ever won came some 30 years ago, when a friend wagered that I couldn’t eat an entire bag of extra hot potato chips without drinking anything.
I won a case of Molson Brador beer. Like taking candy from a baby.
I still eat hot pepper rings, by the way. Today I call it comfort food.
Traditions are terrific things. Whether they run in families, bring together communities or even entire nations, there is no mistaking the notion that honoring tradition is a noble and cozy thing to do, when not misguided.
But let’s do away with the funeral procession, shall we?
In simpler, less crowded, less rude times, the funeral procession, particularly when done using the horse and carriage, was a fine way of respecting the newly-deceased.
Today, it’s more along the lines of a nuisance and, frankly, it can be dangerous.
The journey from church (or other nonsecular place) to the cemetery or mausoleum can certainly be a somber one. There isn’t a limousine leading the way with cans and string attached, with a hand-painted sign that says “Just Died.”
So I get it that commuting during an occasion of burial isn’t the most pleasant thing in the world. And I have nothing against respecting and honoring the dead.
But the funeral procession has worn out its welcome.
Today, with roads packed more than ever with vehicles, the idea of stringing together dozens of motorists and allowing them to pass through intersections and running red lights with impunity, simply isn’t very bright.
It’s nothing against the processioners, per se, although there does always seem to be one car that lags behind the rest, creating a potentially dangerous gap. It’s more about the rude, disrespectful motorists who aren’t part of the procession.
I just don’t think we need to drive en masse to a burial.
I think you can give folks the target address and driving instructions and say “We’ll see you there.”
An exception would be for something more stately, such as the funeral of a police officer or political figure.
If one of the purposes of a funeral procession is to show, in a very visual way, how beloved someone was, I am reminded of some sage words uttered by a wise person.
“The only thing that is going to determine how many people show up to your funeral is the weather.”
My inspiration here isn’t because I was recently inconvenienced by a funeral procession, though Lord knows that I have been. Nor is it because I have encountered strange and exasperating moments whilst driving in a funeral procession, though I once drove the entire way behind a car with no functioning brake lights (that was fun).
In fact, this really has nothing to do with inconvenience. It has everything to do with practicality and safety.
I don’t have the numbers, and maybe they don’t bear me out anyway, but I still think that you increase the chances of an accident anytime a funeral procession rolls on by.
Besides, they’re depressing.
What’s a more in-your-face reminder of mortality than watching 30 cars drive slowly by, following a hearse?
I see enough images of death and destruction on TV and the Internet to last me a lifetime, thank you very much.
Would death be any less significant and the occasion of a funeral be any less morose or somber if we stopped traveling to burials in herds?
I recall a stand-up comedian once remarking that as a show of life’s cruel irony, the only time you get to drive through red lights and stop signs is when you’re dead and can’t enjoy the gratification.
Besides, in my non-funeral procession fantasy world, if I really want to drive miles and miles in a tight-knit pack while pumping my brakes, I have that opportunity, twice a day: my commute to and from work.
My bar-hopping days are long gone, so maybe I know not of what I type.
So call me naive, but do we need bars to be open until 4 a.m.?
A hurried-through bill by the Michigan State Legislature would allow some bars to stay open until 4 in the morning on weekends.
According to the bill’s sponsors, it’s a matter of competition.
Senator Virgil Smith (D-Detroit), the bill’s sponsor, says the measure is needed so Detroit can compete with other big cities, like New York.
We are going after the lush crowd? Tourists will decide their destination based on bars being open further into the wee hours?
Another legislator said that the bill merely gives businesses that serve alcohol the option to stay open later.
“Who are we to tell bars how late they can stay open?” was the quote.
That seems to be a shocking display of being short-sighted. I mean, we aretalking about alcohol consumption here. There figures to be some degree of consequence to this bill, one would think.
As you would imagine, the law enforcement folks aren’t crazy about this, for multiple reasons. One is that the 4 a.m. thing just happens to coincide with when police staffing is thin. Another is that those stumbling out of bars and taking to the roads will now start to overlap with the people who leave early for work.
Ah, but there is a financial component to the bill. Money talks, as you know. Usually.
The bill lets bars and restaurants that pay a $10,000 annual fee sell alcoholic drinks until 4 a.m. Eighty-five percent of the money would go to local police, 10 percent to the state Liquor Control Commission and 5 percent to the communities where the permit is issued.
But even though the police are the beneficiaries of the extra cash, they are down on the bill.
What does that tell you?
Why stop at 4 a.m., by the way?
Some bars open as early as 7 a.m., which is a whole other blog post. So those establishments could close at at four and re-open three hours later. Seems kind of silly.
The bill passed in the Senate, 22-14. It now moves to the House.
Supporters like Smith say that the extended hours would help put illegal “blind pigs,” which are open past 2 a.m., out of business.
Not so sure about that. Seems to me that blind pig patrons will stay blind pig patrons, for the most part.
Nico Gatzaros, whose family owns Fishbones and the London Chop House, lauds the bill because it will help certain businesses, like taxis.
That reasoning should be filed under the “if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry” category.
In other words, with this bill, we hope the taxi business booms, driving home the soused.
Nothing from Gatzaros about how he proposes to get the drunks to call a taxi to begin with. Gobs of alcohol isn’t exactly a precursor to common sense and wise decisions.
But hey, who is the state to tell bars how late they can serve booze?
It’s not like it’s a public safety issue or anything.
Why does the ice cream man have the market cornered on driving trucks around the neighborhood, selling his wares?
Think about his clientele—six-year-olds, who aren’t exactly loaded. How much disposable income does a first grader have?
This may seem like a strange time to bring this up, because we’re hardly in ice cream truck season, but I say this is the perfect time to discuss this.
With ice cream no longer a viable purchase option at your curb, why not consider other items that a grown up would run out of his/her house to snatch up?
Liquor, for one.
Can you imagine if there was a liquor truck that cruised the neighborhoods? The driver would make a mint. Adults would be lined up down the street as far as the eye could see.
The possibilities are endless.
How nice would it be if you could purchase an apple pie from a truck in front of your home? Or a dozen doughnuts?
The items for sale wouldn’t have to be limited to food stuffs.
I’d have killed at times to be able to buy batteries off a truck. I would have been forever grateful if a Tylenol truck drove by, ringing its bell.
I wonder why ice cream became the item of choice when it came to retail trucks rolling down a neighborhood street.
The ice cream truck was one of the few American creations that never really spawned any offshoots.
Despite the popularity of selling ice cream from a truck, catering to grade school kids who don’t have any money, no entrepreneur ever considered marketing toward adults (who actually have cash) with items that don’t even need to be frozen.
I think an enterprising person could make a killing driving around residential areas the day before Valentines Day, selling greeting cards, chocolate and flowers. Or even a birthday card truck, because birthdays happen every day, and every day people forget to buy a card.
Following behind could be a postage stamp truck.
Allen Funt created television’s Candid Camera. But he was not the star.
If Funt were alive today, he would concur.
Funt, who took the idea of a roving microphone capturing unguarded moments from the days of radio and turned it into a TV phenomenon, also never liked the notion that his show made fools out of unsuspecting people.
Funt preferred to think that Candid Camera was more of a series of case studies on human behavior, rather than a gag-filled half-hour.
Regardless, the star wasn’t Funt, though he hosted the in-studio segments and often appeared during the hidden camera “case studies.”
The stars of Candid Camera were always the people—the folks whose behavior was being chronicled in a very unfiltered and unscripted way.
Therefore, the laughs that resulted were always from the audience’s glee at the reactions of the unwitting, caught by Funt’s hidden camera.
But that was then.
TV Land has trotted out a new version of Candid Camera, hosted by Funt’s son, Peter, and actor Mayim Bialik.
As in Allen Funt’s original version, the hosts in the studio don’t matter. Not that the younger Funt and Bialik do a poor job (they don’t), but they aren’t the stars.
The new version, however, falls flat.
It’s not the fault of Funt and Bialik. It’s the fault of the people. And that’s not even fair, really.
The charm of the original Candid Camera was not only watching normal people in abnormal situations, it was in the reveal—that moment when Funt, et al would finally let the unsuspecting in on the joke.
“You’re on Candid Camera!”
But back in the original show’s days, there weren’t cameras all over the place. There weren’t cell phones and tablets and the like, all equipped with cameras that could be whipped out at a moment’s notice, ready to capture just about anything the possessor wished to capture, newsworthy or not.
Today, people aren’t stunned or shocked by the presence of a camera, even if they didn’t know one was trained on them for a case study.
So the reaction to the reveal in the new version is, well, muted.
And a muted reaction isn’t very entertaining to the TV viewers.
Now, that might not be so bad if the situations the people are placed in made up for the less-than-spectacular reveal reactions.
But they don’t.
Candid Camera debuted in 1948 and there have been a few relaunches along the way. So we’re talking 66 years, essentially, of the show’s existence. That’s a long time and it’s hard to come up with fresh new stuff.
Allen Funt, back when this notion still had the power to amaze
But again, the society in which we live makes it awfully difficult for us to be flabbergasted anymore by what we see going on in front of our eyes.
Whether it’s a soap dispenser at a market that doesn’t stop dispensing or a retail outlet that charges a $10 fee to shop in the store as opposed to online (both used in the new version), does anything really surprise us anymore?
The charm of Candid Camera was rooted in two certainties that existed decades ago that simply don’t anymore—a much more impressionable public and a genuine amazement that a hidden camera could be set up. The people were video virgins, so to speak.
Today’s society is far less impressionable and there are cameraseverywhere anymore. In fact, it seems like we are all on camera more than we aren’t, when you add security cameras and the like into the mix.
I think it would be more of a surprise if the revealing person shouted, “You’re NOT on camera now!”
Still, I give TV Land credit for trying to appeal to those of us who remember when an evening with Allen Funt and company was truly a special event. The situations were comical, the reactions were priceless and the reveals were the cherry on top.
However—and it’s not TV Land’s fault—today’s society is just so damned hard to amaze and impress. And we are certainly not aghast at the notion of a camera lens shooting us through a hole in a wall.
The result is that watching the new Candid Camera is like dusting off an old Jack-in-the-Box and failing to be stunned by the clown popping out—while being wistful of the days when it did.
Editor’s note: The following e-mail arrived from none other than Peter Funt himself, who saw this post, on October 1, 2014:
Funny thing about the “original.” There’s no bigger fan of my Dad’s work than me, and I never suggest that my stuff is as good as his was at his prime. However, I find that our memories have a way of distorting and condensing and selecting from the past. I think what you and some other viewers are, in effect, saying is: When I recall the handful of fabulous reveals that Allen got over decades – perhaps seen in highlights or “best of” packages – they’re better than what Peter gets week in and week out. How true!
In a perfect world, Derek Flemming would have been able to march up to the driver of a car that cut him off, express some anger, and get back into his own vehicle—without fear of losing his life.
The 43 year-old husband and father of two young children would have vented his anger and frustration and still lived to re-tell the story to friends, co-workers and family at every opportunity.
We do that a lot, you know—turn storyteller when we are wronged, whether it’s from poor service at a restaurant to being incredulous at a retailer’s return policy, among other things.
But then we get it out of our system and we move on, until someone else relates a story that fires your mental file cabinet into gear and your story gets retold yet again.
But Flemming paid the ultimate price in an act that unfortunately will have people—like yours truly—getting into “blame the victim” mode.
Flemming was gunned down at a traffic light near Howell after he allegedly complained to a driver who cut him off in traffic and who was—again, allegedly—driving recklessly. The 69 year-old man had stopped in front of Flemming’s vehicle at the light. Flemming exited his vehicle and said something like, according to his wife, who was in the car with her husband, “What’s your problem?”
Then Flemming was shot dead by the older driver.
I know we don’t live in a perfect world. If we did, my knee jerk reaction wouldn’t have been (as it was when I read of the tragic story), “Ooh…you shouldn’t have gotten out of your car.”
We have all been cut off in traffic. We have all been frustrated by rudeness in public. And we have all fantasized about what we would like to have done or said, if only we had thought about those reactions at the time.
You have no idea how many fictional, imagined conversations or actions I have wistfully thought of in my head in response to surliness, idiocy and the like. Usually I think of those responses when it’s way too late.
Maybe that’s a good thing.
Certainly Flemming, who was on his way to pick up his kids after their first day of school, would have made it to his children and would have had dinner with them that night, if he had only checked himself before exiting his vehicle.
You can call that blaming the victim all you like. You can say that a man should be able to stand up for himself. You can say that rude, reckless drivers deserve to be confronted.
You can say that Derek Flemming shouldn’t have been expecting the confronted driver to have a gun so readily available and with the demented mindset to use it at a drop of a hat.
But would you rather be right, confrontational and dead, or grumble to yourself—and your wife—and live?
People gather near the area where Derek Flemming was gunned down on Tuesday
It’s sad that this is the subconscious choice that we are now forced to make in this dangerous, violent world. Maybe it’s not so subconscious.
So the rude and the reckless and the surly get a free pass? Not necessarily. There are other ways to throw the karma back into their court.
In Flemming’s case, there is a device called a cell phone. And it accepts emergency numbers.
I walk our dog every evening and in the 10 years that I have been doing so, I have called the police some six or seven times. The reasons range from chickens appearing at a strip mall (true story) to a drunk man passed out on a sidewalk to high suspicions of domestic violence taking place at a private residence.
I call the authorities, calmly describe the situation and let the cops do their thing.
And I live to tell about it, which I have, several times.
Should Derek Flemming have gotten out of his vehicle and confronted a dangerous, reckless, rude driver? Or should he have dialed 911 and reported the reckless driver? Flemming was situated behind the older man, so a license plate number could have easily been reported as well.
This isn’t second-guessing. It’s not a case of hindsight being 20/20.
We live in a world where people simply aren’t to be trifled with on many occasions. No one knows who’s packing heat these days. Worse, no one knows the mental stability of those who are armed.
Did the 69 year-old driver feel threatened by the unarmed Flemming, who approached the older man’s vehicle clearly in anger, according to witnesses?
Playing Devil’s Advocate, you can say that the older man didn’t know if Flemming was armed or not. Just because Flemming didn’t approach with a gun drawn doesn’t mean he wasn’t carrying concealed.
Maybe the older driver panicked.
Regardless, Derek Flemming is dead. And he doesn’t have to be.
His epitaph, of course, ought not to read “He shouldn’t have gotten out of his car.” Flemming was a husband and a dad, and the owner of his own landscaping business. He was much more than a man who made a split-second decision that ultimately cost him his life.
As if we need yet another reminder that things are rough out there.
The National Football League’s roots in the 1920s were planted in sleepy burgs across the Midwest. It was a small town league, offering the curious something to follow until the next baseball season.
The franchises were located in such dazzling metropolises as Canton, OH; Racine, WI; Akron, OH; and Rock Island, IL. The locations were fitting, when you consider that the league itself was founded in an automobile showroom in Canton, on August 20, 1920.
In 1921, the Akron franchise (the Pros) was one of several which had one of its players double up as the coach.
Fritz Pollard, who stood 5’9″ and who was listed as weighing all of 165 pounds, coached the Pros. Mainly a running back, Pollard’s tremendous speed and elusiveness as a player caused legendary sportswriter Walter Camp to remark that Pollard was “one of the greatest runners these eyes have ever seen.”
Pollard coached Akron in 1921—the league was known as the American Professional Football Association (APFA) back then—to an impressive 8-3-1 record, all while maintaining his roster spot as a running back, scoring seven touchdowns on the season.
But Fritz Pollard wasn’t just any coach in the APFA—he was the only African-American one in the league.
Pollard lasted just one season as a coach, and in 1926 he was dismissed as a player as well, when the NFL (name changed in 1922) booted Pollard and the other eight black players at the time out of the league, permanently.
Pollard wasn’t just a footnote in pro football history. After being kicked out of the NFL, Pollard organized all-black barnstorming teams, playing under names such as the Harlem Brown Bombers. This barnstorming continued into the 1930s.
The NFL didn’t go the black head coaching route again until 68 years after Pollard coached the Akron Pros, when Art Shell became coach of the Los Angeles Raiders in 1989.
While Fritz Pollard should be lauded for his stature as a league pioneer, it would be disingenuous to say that he paved the way for Shell to coach the Raiders. Nearly seven decades kind of dilutes Pollard’s participation toward Shell’s hiring.
But Shell, who played for the Raiders to the tune of a Hall of Fame career as an offensive tackle, is rightly recognized as the modern game’s first black head coach, and thus was indeed a trail blazer of sorts for those of color who followed him on the sidelines over the past 25 years.
The Lions’ Jim Caldwell is one who should give a nod of appreciation to Shell—and, maybe more so, to late Raiders managing general partner Al Davis, who hired Shell after firing Mike Shanahan.
It took the Lions a little bit longer than some franchises—but quicker than others—to hire an African-American head coach. Caldwell became the first on January 15, 2014.
Many Lions fans, if they had their druthers in January, envisioned Ken Whisenhunt as the one who would open training camp on Monday in Allen Park. Whisenhunt, who is white, was seen as the Lions’ first choice after firing Jim Schwartz.
But Whisenhunt spurned the Lions and never got on the private plane that was famously waiting for him in San Diego, ready to jet the Chargers’ offensive coordinator across the country where he would, presumably, get a contract offer in Detroit.
I am not, for a moment, suggesting that the popularity of Whisenhunt over Caldwell, in the fans’ eyes, had anything to do with race. For whatever reason, Whisenhunt’s resume excited the Lions fan base more than did Caldwell’s.
Frankly, the fact that Caldwell is the Lions’ first black head coach kind of slipped my mind until it was brought to the fore on Saturday, when the coach was honored by the Detroit Historical Society’s Black Historic Sites Committee for the distinction.
The celebration of Caldwell’s status was nice, but it was low-key and it should have been. For despite the fact that Caldwell is the Lions’ first black head coach, thankfully those of Caldwell’s ilk aren’t a novelty anymore in the NFL.
Not that the league couldn’t do a little better in that regard, as Caldwell pointed out on Saturday, but in his usual classy way.
“It’s (black head coaches) come a long way because of the fact that I think now there might have been 47 (African-American coaches) that have gotten that opportunity (in NCAA Division I football), if I’m not mistaken,” Caldwell told the Detroit Free Press.
“And in the National Football League there’s 17, I think, that have gotten that opportunity, even some of those that have been interim. So there’s been quite a few guys.
“I think it’s changed quite a bit in my lifetime. You can see some progress in that area, but certainly a long way to go.”
The Lions are the only team in the NFL with a black head coach and a black general manager, something that has happened just once prior in league history. That, too, should be celebrated, but not without some concern.
The NFL has always been a little slow on the uptake when it comes to minorities holding positions of power and influence, though progress is indeed being made.
But I don’t believe the fans in Detroit care if the football coach is white, black, blue or purple. The Lions haven’t won a league championship in 57 years. To give that perspective, remember when the Red Wings finally ended their Stanley Cup drought in 1997? That was a mere 42 years between Cups at the time.
Caldwell was not quite three years old when the Lions beat the Cleveland Browns to capture the 1957 NFL championship.
Now he is set to open his first training camp as the first black head coach in Lions history—and the team still hasn’t won it all since ’57.
Jim Caldwell was properly honored on Saturday night, but that distinction should lose its luster pronto. The Lions were hardly on the cusp in this regard, as Caldwell followed Shell in Oakland by a quarter century.
Since Shell in 1989, the Lions have gone through eight head coaches before hiring Caldwell (including interim coaches). Three of those guys were assistants who’d never been a head coach in the NFL prior to Detroit—hired when there were eminently more qualified black men available at the time.
But that’s all ancient history now, right?
Caldwell’s being black won’t shield him from criticism when the Lions falter, and it won’t help give him accolades when times are good.
He will be judged solely on his win/loss record.
I think even Fritz Pollard would agree with that notion.
Sometimes the 24-hour news cycle gets extended.
Sometimes it’s a 48-hour or 72-hour news cycle. And, on occasion, a story manages to stay in the public’s consciousness for a week or more.
News stories anymore are like pieces of pasta thrown against the wall. Only some stick.
The Stephen Utash beating has beat the 24-hour news cycle, by far. Now the question is, Will it matter?
The Utash story is right out of a novel or a made-for-TV movie.
White suburbanite hits a young black boy with his pickup truck, in the city. The suburbanite stops to check on the condition of the boy and is then beaten senseless, perhaps to death (that’s a part of the story that has yet to be resolved), by a mob of black men.
It’s a story that almost had to happen, to provide the most recent litmus test of where we are as a society, particularly when it comes to violence and race relations.
The elements are all there, and if they weren’t, the story wouldn’t work as well. It would be a flawed test.
The driver was white, the hit boy was black. That’s the only way this can work. Any other combo would either not tell us anything we don’t already suspect, or it would be less newsworthy.
The white man is beaten by a mob of black men. Again, reverse it, and it’s just another example of what so many people already suspect, and what so many other people vigorously try to defend.
The person who intervened and got the mob to stop beating the white man was a black female nurse. Author, author!
The white man lies in a medically-induced coma as the suspects are rounded up. Score another for the fiction writer.
Oh, and whites and blacks come together in churches around town and try to pray the violence away. Money is being raised for the white man’s medical bills. Not bad, not bad at all.
And Detroiters did it all by themselves. They didn’t need anyone to zoom into town to rally the troops.
The author did a bang up job on this one.
Ah, but it’s all true.
The Utash beating has a shot—an actual, legitimate shot—at bringing white and black folks together in an effort to take a collective look in the proverbial mirror.
Thankfully, the words “vigilante justice” have been rinsed off this story, revealing it to be what it really is—senseless, animal-like violence that wasn’t advocating for anyone or anything, other than an opportunity to take something out on a poor man. A chance to get your licks in, for whatever reason.
Unlike others, though, I’m not convinced that the mob saw a white man and decided to go to town. Maybe we will never know for sure. Maybe the five (so far) suspects that have been arrested—four have been arraigned—will start chirping, even against each other. Maybe a motive will trickle out.
Maybe had the driver been black, he would have been beaten, too—once identified as the man who hit the boy. Again, we may never know. But we may, eventually.
The fact that no one in the beating mob—according to witnesses’ recounting of the incident—appeared to show any concern for the boy’s physical condition before they started whaling on Utash, is the most damning piece of this horrible crime.
And that’s why the vigilante label doesn’t fit and has been ripped off, rightly so.
You can’t have vigilante justice if you don’t know what the heck you’re justifying.
The facts, of course, weren’t all in when the mob sprang into action. They didn’t know—or didn’t care—that the child stepped off the curb into oncoming traffic. The boy was 10 years old—certainly old enough to know not to step into the street without looking both ways.
But that’s another discussion entirely.
It’s terrible, but often it takes something terrible to finally drum something into people’s heads.
We can only hope that Steve Utash—and let’s hope he survives and regains his wits—evolves into a turning point of sorts. He will not only be a man but a landmark.
Then again, the beating of Vincent Chin didn’t necessarily change anything.
But that’s the thing about hope. You’re willing to throw the history books out the window and say, “Maybe THIS time.”
Maybe this time.