SARGE AND HIS BOYS
Boxing is a sport of survival. Its practitioners learn to defend themselves with their fists, and many of them, realistically or not, count on their ring careers to lift them out of the barrios and the ghettos and lead them to a better life. The sense of hope that pervades the sport lends poignancy both to the death in the ring last November of Willie Classen (page 62) and to the plane crash in Poland last Friday morning that killed 87 people, including 22 members and officials of a U.S. amateur boxing team.
Capricious twists of fate put certain fighters on the doomed LOT jetliner—and left certain others off. The Americans were scheduled to fight in Katowice and Cracow and heavyweight Kelvin Anderson of Hartford was along only because he had failed to obtain a visa in time to make an alternate trip to East Germany. Flyweight George Pimentel made the trip after having lost a controversial decision in the semifinals of New York's Golden Gloves tournament; had he won, he would have stayed home to fight in the finals. On the other hand, Houston's Ronnie Shields passed up the trip because he had the flu, while heavyweight Marvis Frazier skipped it because the bouts in Poland didn't fit in with the career plans his dad, Joe, has carefully mapped out for him. Another heavyweight, Jimmy Clark, was delayed visiting relatives and missed the flight.
The 14 fighters who wound up aboard the jetliner when it departed JFK airport were neither the U.S. boxing team, as first reports had it, nor the collection of second-stringers that subsequent accounts made them out to be. Six of them were teen-agers and Bob Surkein, the AAU boxing chairman, said of them, "They were just babies. They got sweat suits with USA on them, and they wore them all over the country like the proud kids they were." But 23-year-old Lemuel Steeples, who won a gold medal at last summer's Pan American Games, was on the team, as were several others of proved or potential Olympic caliber.
March 24, 1980
The team's coach was Tom (Sarge) Johnson, a retired Army master sergeant who lived in Indianapolis. The 58-year-old Johnson was a good-natured man who made young boxers feel at ease in his company while still commanding their respect. "He liked to joke and laugh, but when he was serious, you'd better pay attention," Sonny Long, a flyweight who once trained under him, recalls. Johnson was an assistant coach of the U.S. team at the 1976 Olympics that produced five gold medalists, one of whom, Sugar Ray Leonard, said last week, "Sarge was just beginning to get the recognition he deserved. He was really the one who put together those five gold medals."
Johnson wasn't lacking for recognition in Asia and Africa, where he conducted clinics for the State Department. In Mali last summer, he made a point of exhorting local boxers to represent their country with dignity and never to make excuses; at the end of his stay, officials there staged a boxing program in his honor. He visited the Seychelles on the same trip and that country's national coach later said, "Sarge had the boys eating out of his hands." A U.S. embassy official in the Seychelles stopped by the gym and marveled, "I was able to observe the effect this man has on the young men. They love him." Johnson also had a profound influence on boxers in Kenya, which is scheduled to send a team to the U.S. next month. Because of the plane crash in Poland, the Kenyans must now change part of their plans. Although their boxers are going to fight Americans during the trip, Kenyan officials had taken the extraordinary step of arranging to have Sarge Johnson in their corner.
THE 28-CREDIT DASH
USC's Billy Mullins is fast—he won the 1978 NCAA 400-meter championship in 45.33—but could he be this fast? The Los Angeles Times reported last week that Mullins had received 28 credits in the fall of 1977 from four Los Angeles area community colleges—Pasadena, Los Angeles, West Los Angeles and Rio Hondo. Some of the credits, which enabled him to transfer the following spring to Southern Cal with full track eligibility, were for classes close in time and distant in mileage. For instance, according to the Times, Mullins supposedly took Economics IA at 8 a.m. at Rio Hondo, Chemistry 22 at 9 a.m. at Pasadena, 20 miles away, and Literature 1B at 10 a.m. back at Rio Hondo.
"I did a lot of driving," Mullins was quoted as saying of his whirlwind schedule. But the Times didn't let it go at that. It said that Mullins lives with his parents and quoted his father as asking, "How could he attend four schools? I don't remember anything like that." And E. John Larsen, the USC faculty athletic representative, conceded that Mullins would have had trouble attending Economics IA, Chemistry 22 and Lit 1B on the same day, even if he were wind assisted.
What can a U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics possibly accomplish? Although President Carter sometimes seems to contradict himself about the objectives, a boycott would, if nothing else, constitute an unmistakable expression of solidarity with the oppressed people of Afghanistan. Solidarity? Oppressed people? If this seems like a refrain out of the U.S.S.R.'s own songbook, you're right. Despite their insistence that the U.S. shouldn't be mixing politics and sport, Soviet officials have not exactly been bashful themselves about using boycotts as a political weapon.
Here are some of the events Soviet sportsmen have boycotted: dual track meets with the U.S. in 1966, 1967 and 1968, to protest American involvement in Vietnam; the 1967 World University Games in Tokyo, because of a dispute over the exact wording of North Korea's name; the qualifying round of the 1974 soccer World Cup, because it was to be held in Chile; the 1975 modern rhythmic gymnastics world championships, to protest host Spain's execution of Basque terrorists; the 22nd Chess Olympics in 1976, because it was held in Israel; and both the 1978 world shooting and 1979 women's world basketball championships, because in each instance South Korea was the host. The U.S.S.R. also has refused for political reasons to play Chile in the Davis Cup and has boycotted numerous sports events staged in West Berlin, including the European table tennis championships (1963), the women's team handball world championships (1965), the junior world championships in modern pentathlon (1973), the world speed-skating sprint championships (1976) and the world archery championships (1979).
Asked about any of this, Soviet officials lamely reply that, well, the Olympics are different. But it also happens that the U.S.S.R. stayed outside what its leaders called the "bourgeois Olympic movement" from 1917 until 1951—a boycott, if you will, of 34 years' duration. And in 1968 the Soviets threatened to boycott the Summer Games in Mexico City unless South Africa were excluded. The International Olympic Committee, which also loftily claims to keep sport strictly separate from politics, eventually complied.
If the U.S. and other countries stay away from Moscow this summer, neither the IOC nor the host country should have any trouble pinpointing the precedents.
Harold Ware was born in Little Rock, moved as a child to Rockford (Ill.) and, after moving again, became a high school basketball star in Flint (Mich.). This season he averaged 19 points a game as a sophomore at Western New Mexico University, which is located in Silver City. Alas, Ware's school belongs only to the NAIA and thus didn't vie for a berth in the NCAA Division III tournament in Rock Island, Ill.
STRIKE SEVEN, YOU'RE OUT!
To demonstrate the potential devastation of the nation's current 18%-a-year inflation, David Wright of Burlington, Wis. has calculated what the effect of a similar rate would be on sports statistics. Wright finds that in five years, the 49 home runs that Dave Kingman hit to lead the major leagues last season would have risen to 112, a typical golf course would consist of 41 holes (with par at 165), a football team would need 23 yards for a first down (but would have nine chances to make it), the NCAA basketball tournament would probably draw 11 teams from the Big Ten (or, rather, the Big 23), a perfect game in bowling would be 686 and racegoers on Memorial Day would thrill to the spectacle of the Indy 1,144. And, oh yes, lest sports fans think they'd be getting more for their money because of this, the price of a ticket to a game that now costs $8 would be $18.30.
Following a rash of worrisome injuries to quarterbacks, the NFL changed its rules last year to give the men playing that vulnerable position the protection of a quick whistle while standing in the pocket. No more bulldogging the poor signal caller. No more wrestling him to the ground. The rule change worked so well that at last week's league meetings in Rancho Mirage, Calif., NFL rulemakers extended the quick whistle to the scramble zones, the areas to which the quarterback flees when his protection breaks down. You can still catch him, defensive linemen were told, but no more strangling, please.
But if quarterbacks will be even better protected, so will the defensive ends whose job it is to nail them. The NFL also warned that the use of the chop block, in which tight ends chop down on the knees of outside pass rushers, could henceforth be subject to an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty. The rules committee made it clear that the main intent was to dissuade coaches from even teaching the chop-block technique. If everything works the way the NFL envisions, the move to protect the quarterback and his pursuers will make the game less injurious while preserving its essential toughness, a good trick indeed. Still unprotected, though, are middle guards, who are frequently injured by fold blocks, a brutal tactic in which offensive linemen give the guard a little daylight whereupon one defender folds back and cuts the guard down at the knees. Maybe next year.
The NFL also discussed the possibility of increasing the number of officials for playoff games from seven to nine. This would permit the luxury of posting two officials, instead of one, in each of the far corners of the end zone as a team moves into scoring range. One of the officials would determine whether a receiver's feet were out of bounds, the other would watch the hands and arms for possession of the ball. But the almost inevitable result would be a stricter standard of officiating in the playoffs than in the regular season. There already were complaints last season that end-zone corner catches that raised no eyebrows all year were suddenly being ruled incomplete, a case in point being the nullification of the apparent touchdown by Houston's Mike Renfro in the Oilers' AFC championship loss to Pittsburgh. Adding two extra officials just for the playoffs would surely make matters worse by compounding the inconsistencies.
BUT THEY FORGOT THE TONIC
Last week's Associated Press report about Nick Akers, a British-born distance runner who lives in Edmonton, Alberta, proves to be only too accurate. In hopes of mustering the wherewithal to represent the Cayman Islands at the Moscow Olympics—he once briefly lived in the Caymans and, by virtue of that, was on the national team at the 1978 Commonwealth Games—Akers has accepted the financial sponsorship of the distillers of Britain's Vladivar vodka, in return for which he has legally changed his name to Nick Vladivar. The International Olympic Committee has so far been mum on this blatant bit of commercialization, but if Vladivar the man has any hope of promoting Vladivar the booze, he'd better improve on his generally dismal clockings. At the rate he's going, he'll never catch the likes of the 1976 Olympic gold medalist in the 1,500, New Zealand's John Walker. Or, if you prefer, Johnnie Walker.
THEY SAID IT
•Abe Lemons, University of Texas basketball coach, after punishing his players by telling them they couldn't return to their hotel in Abilene until 10 p.m.: "It was Sunday night and everything was shut down. I'd be doing them a favor by letting them come in early."
•Tom Bass, Tampa Bay Buccaneer defensive coordinator and author of two volumes of poetry: "If I had to work 20 hours a day and sleep on a cot in my office to be a good coach, I'd chalk it up. Some of my best defensive ideas come when I'm looking at sunsets."
•Rich Kelley, journeyman NBA center, who received a standing ovation from Phoenix fans following his trade to the Suns from the New Jersey Nets: "Give them time. They'll learn."