ARMS AND THE MAILMAN
You may not like Karl Malone's politics, but at least he's got
This is an article from the Nov. 29, 1999 issue
After hearing that Karl (the Mailman) Malone had become a
spokesman for the National Rifle Association, late-night
philosopher Jay Leno said, "Just what America needs--another
mailman with a gun." It was a funny line, but the implication
was wrong. Malone may or may not be on the side of the angels in
throwing his weight around for the gun lobby, but he at least
took a side. His new role as NRA mouthpiece is as much about the
right to free speech as it is about the right to bear arms.
For the past 25 years America's jockocracy has adopted a pose of
studied ignorance toward politics, using its profession as a
shield: "It doesn't concern me; I'm just a
baseball/football/basketball/hockey player." But several
athletes have chimed in eloquently--and lucratively--on the
phone wars (Michael Jordan backs MCI), the soda squabbles
(Sprite man Grant Hill says we should obey our thirsts) and the
stink over deodorants (Brett Favre lines up behind Right Guard).
We know what Andre Agassi stands in (Nike sneakers) but haven't
the foggiest idea what he stands for. Aside from the pulpit
rants of Reggie White, our favorite athletes' opinions tend to
be bought and sold: paid commercial convictions rather than
heartfelt beliefs. The modern athlete is a businessman, and to
pronounce on any topic of import or controversy might be bad for
business. Asked why he wouldn't endorse black Democrat Harvey
Gantt over white Republican Jesse Helms in North Carolina's 1990
Senate race, Jordan, a Nike man, said, "Republicans buy shoes,
Of course, an athlete's opinion doesn't necessarily make more
sense than that of your neighborhood checkout clerk (in every
locker room in America there's a guy who thinks Roe v. Wade is
an argument about how to cross a stream), but it's sure to be
more influential. Sports stars' endorsements might not move
political mountains the way they move product, but in a
celebrity-driven society their words have inordinate weight.
Voices carry better from a pedestal.
Malone chose to link himself with the NRA. After decades of
athletes' seeming indifference about any letters other than BMW,
that's a refreshing change. The Mailman could be ushering in a
new age of the athlete-activist. Next up: Quarterbacks for Gun
Control. --Michael Farber
School spirit claimed 12 lives at Texas A&M
Last Thursday in the predawn gloom of College Station, Texas, 11
Texas A&M students and one alumnus were killed and 27 others
were hurt after a 40-foot tower of logs they were building to
fuel an annual bonfire collapsed. The ritual lighting of a
bonfire to celebrate A&M football dates to 1909, when students
tossed scraps of wood onto a pile and ignited it. In the course
of nine decades the tradition evolved into Bonfire, a two-month
ritual in which students cut down 8,000 trees, haul them to
campus, stack them up to 55 feet high and then, on the eve of
the Aggies' game against Texas, douse them with diesel fuel and
The tradition of the A&M bonfire (shown above in 1995) came
under scrutiny after last week's accident, and not for the first
time. Nine years ago 87 A&M faculty members signed a petition
calling Bonfire a "waste of natural resources, a symbol of lack
of concern for the environment and a very conspicuous source of
embarrassment." Calls for an end to Bonfire resumed in '96 when
one student died and nine were injured in a car crash as they
returned from the cutting site.
The project is run by students, who pass down their know-how
from class to class. There have been reports of hazing and abuse
by Redpots, the 18 juniors and seniors who oversee the work.
(They wear hardhats called redpots.) Last year two members of
the school's Corps of Cadets--a campus clique whose members
shave their heads and wear military-style uniforms--punched a
female student after another cadet ordered them to take her
hardhat, and just last month a 5'4", 95-pound junior claimed she
was shoved because she had entered an area forbidden to any
woman who hadn't slept with a Redpot.
Tradition's hold at Texas A&M is so strong that the school has a
Traditions Council to affirm true Aggie rituals. Those that have
passed muster include kissing one's date after an A&M score;
Yell Practice, which sees male yell leaders escorting the
student body to the football field on Fridays before home games
for fight songs and war hymns; and Aggie Muster, a rite in which
each April 21 A&M alums the world over honor Aggies who have
died in the past year. There is also Silver Taps, a regular
campus ceremony to remember Aggie students who have died within
the past month. On Dec. 7 at 10:30 p.m., the victims of this
year's bonfire will be honored with chimes from the Albritton
Tower and three rounds of taps played by buglers from the
Last week Chad Hutchinson, a freshman who was hospitalized after
the accident, was as fired up about Bonfire as ever.
Anticipating next year's festivities, he said, "I'll be the
first one in line--me and 1,000 other students."
The Ballot of Pedro & Pudge
In the 48 hours after Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez (right) was
named the American League's Most Valuable Player on Thursday,
Minneapolis Star Tribune sportswriter La Velle E. Neal III
received 325 E-mails, answered 100 telephone calls and amassed
another 75 phone messages, including 10 from one peeved
Bostonian on a pub crawl. By omitting pitchers from his MVP
ballot, Neal helped throw the vote to Rodriguez over Red Sox ace
Pedro Martinez, a stand that left Neal's popularity in New
England somewhere between Bill Buckner's and the Boston
Yes, Rodriguez was brilliant. He batted .332 with 35 homers and
113 RBIs. He gunned down 53% of would-be base stealers, easily
leading the majors in that department. But Texas won the Western
division by eight games with a lineup that also featured
sluggers Rafael Palmeiro (.324, 47 home runs, 148 RBIs) and Juan
Gonzalez (.326, 39 homers, 128 RBIs) in a year of absurdly
inflated offensive numbers. While most pitching stats were
similarly bloated, Martinez carried Boston to the playoffs by
leading the majors with 23 wins and a minuscule 2.07 ERA that
was a record 2.79 runs lower than the league average.
Yet Martinez lost by 13 points, 252 to 239, because he was not
among the 10 players listed on two ballots--Neal's and that of
George King of the New York Post. Had Martinez ranked fourth or
higher on both those ballots or first on either, he would have
King chose last week to disappear to the Caribbean on vacation,
but Neal stayed at his desk and defended his vote. "I am not
saying that Pedro isn't one of the 10 best in the league, but I
think the MVP should be someone who goes to war more than once
every five days," he says. "If I believe a pitcher shouldn't
win, why would I put one on my ballot?"
Here's why: The voters don't make the rules, the Baseball
Writers' Association of America does, and since 1931 the BBWAA
has sent a letter with each MVP ballot telling voters that all
players are eligible. Pitchers have won the award 20 times.
Still more damning to Neal's position, the two MVP voters who
cover the Rangers, Johnny Paul of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram
and Evan Grant of The Dallas Morning News, put Pedro ahead of
Pudge on their ballots.
Neal was left with his jangling phone and blinking cybermailbag.
"I hope that you get a case of gangrene, get eaten alive by a
pack of rabid wolves and rot in hell for all eternity," read an
E-mail from a Boston fan. That was not enough to make Neal change
his mind, though he admits that his position isn't absolute.
Asked on the Web site eYada.com what he'd do were Martinez to go
40-0 next year with a 1.50 ERA, Neal said, "If a pitcher has a
perfect season, maybe I would consider him." --Tim Crothers
NCAA TV DEAL
March to Madness
The NCAA made basketball news on two fronts last week. Last
Thursday, with a bid of $6.2 billion, CBS won the rights to
broadcast the NCAA basketball tournament from 2003 through 2013.
The average payout of $545 million a year doesn't match the
NFL's and NBA's multinetwork deals but dwarfs the $216 million
average the network is spending on its current deal with the
NCAA--despite the fact that last March's tournament drew
Also last week, the NCAA rejected an appeal by Central
Connecticut State, refusing to rescind the suspensions of four
basketball players. Their offense? They had given textbooks,
which they receive as part of their scholarships, to other
students. The four Blue Devils say no money changed hands, and
they have done some 100 hours of school-imposed community
service for breaking NCAA rules.
"The NCAA should invest a billion of its new deal and pay the
athletes $250 a month," says ESPN's Dick Vitale.
Is Vitale right on the money? You make the call. For now, as the
NCAA continues to treat its athletes with supercilious contempt
while reaping GNP-sized windfalls from their labor, you can at
least say this for scholarship athletes: They're getting a free
education in no-holds-barred capitalism.
That Sinking Feeling
Two things were clear after the first two rounds of the Louis
Vuitton Cup races, which will determine who'll challenge the New
Zealanders for the America's Cup in February. First, Italy's
Prada Challenger is the boat to beat. Second, when the wind
reaches 20 knots and the waves are cresting on Hauraki Gulf,
McHale's Navy had fewer breakdowns than the challenger fleet has
suffered on the waters off Auckland. The most spectacular came
on Nov. 9 when the New York Yacht Club's 78-foot Young America
split in two. The good news was that its backers had a
replacement ready. The bad news? The new boat was even lighter
than the first. By the end of the second round robin the new
Young America had forfeited two races after helmsman Ed Baird
heard groaning noises from the base of his new yacht's mast.
Toshiki Shibata, the bowman on Japan's Nippon Challenge, broke
his nose and jaw and lost several teeth when a shackle tore
loose during an Oct. 21, sending the spinnaker pole crashing
into him. On Nov. 11, Nippon's $200,000 mast snapped.
Abracadabra 2000, backed by the Waikiki Yacht Club, was another
casualty, blowing out mainsails in two races before Nov. 11,
when a snapped boom cost the boat a race. The carnage reached
epic proportions that day, with 20-knot winds making seas so
rough that only one race in five saw both boats complete the
course. Even in that race, loser AmericaOne shredded its
spinnaker on the final leg.
Clearly, the designers of America's Cup yachts are pushing the
envelope of safety and common sense. But the Italians, who
through Monday had won 19 of their 20 starts--losing only to the
Cortez Racing Association-backed Team Dennis Connor during a
rain squall--seem to have hit upon a design that's both fast and
seaworthy. Still, the real racing lies ahead. After another
round robin that starts next week, six boats will race in the
January semifinals. If all six are still afloat, that is.
CASTRO IN THE DUGOUT
Battle of Lefties
Last Thursday in a raucous estadio in Havana, Fidel Castro earned
a victory cigar and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez entered the
pantheon of politicians who couldn't back up their smack. Chavez
capped a four-day state visit to Cuba by staging a baseball game
between former members of the Venezuelan and Cuban national
teams. Castro skippered the home club while Chavez pitched for
Fifty-five-thousand screaming, salsa-dancing, conga-thumping,
cowbell-banging fans cheered at Estadio Latinoamericano as
Cuba's hitters roughed up Chavez in the first inning, scoring
three times on three hits and a pair of walks. Chavez, 45, had
boasted after a training session earlier in the week that "the
fastball was humming" and had taunted Antonio Munoz, a leading
slugger for Cuba in the 1970s and '80s, after Munoz threatened
to take him deep. "Tell Antonio Munoz that I have a curve on the
outside corner," Chavez said.
Chavez lived up to his campaign promise by fanning Munoz in the
second inning, and by the time the southpaw statesman switched
to first base in the fifth, Venezuela had tied the game 4-4. The
prez's pitching line: 4 1/3 innings, 10 hits, four earned runs,
three walks and the one whiff.
Through five innings Castro played it close to the
vest--actually a blue windbreaker he wore over his trademark
fatigues--but in the sixth he pulled off the coup of the night.
He went to his bench for three white-bearded, potbellied pinch
hitters who turned out to be current stars of the national team
in disguise. With shortstop German Mesa, first baseman Orestes
Kindelan and pitcher Pedro Luis Lazo in the game, Cuba pushed
over a run and won 5-4. Said Fidel, "There was no other option
than to do what was necessary to win the game."
Look out below. Anything can happen when Shaquille O'Neal lets
fly with a free throw. Through Monday the Lakers' loose cannon
had canned just 58 of 147 foul shots, launching line drives and
air balls that had Wilt Chamberlain rolling over in his eternal
waterbed. Why won't Shaq try shooting them underhanded? Answer:
That would look unmanly. Question: This Joan-of-no-arc act is
Age of Manny Herskowitz, who worked as a ball boy at tennis's
Bengals losses in the 1990s, tying the Buccaneers of '80 to '89
for most NFL defeats in a decade.
Final round score by Gary Nicklaus--Jack's 30-year-old son--at Q
school, earning him a 2000 PGA Tour card.
Years since Penn State had ended its regular season with three
straight losses before doing so in '99.
NFL games played in domes last weekend--the league's first
all-outdoors week since 1983.
--The arena anthem Rock and Roll Part II (the "Hey!" song), by
the NBA's Raptors and the NHL's Flames, Maple Leafs and Oilers,
after the song's writer and performer, Gary Glitter, was
convicted in England for possessing child pornography.
--Spanish chess players at a recent national tournament. "It is
O.K.," one player said of having his urine checked for traces of
uppers and downers, "although I know people who are against it
because they feel humiliated."
--Dikembe Mutombo's lines in his Charles Schwab commercial.
("Creating a world of smarter investors.") Fearing that viewers
would have trouble understanding the Hawks' Congo-born center,
Schwab's ad agency hired an actor to redo his part. Mutombo says
he won't make any more Schwab ads.
--Stevin (Hedake) Smith, who will serve a year in prison and pay
an $8,000 fine for his part in the 1994 Arizona State basketball
point-shaving scandal (SI, Nov. 9, 1998).
--Dr. John Paul Stapp, who in 1954 rode a rocket sled that went
from zero to 632 mph in five seconds and stopped in 1.4 seconds.
"I said to myself, 'Paul, it's been a good life,'" said Stapp,
who lived 35 more years and died last week at 89.
This Week's Sign That the Apocalypse Is Upon Us
The NFL discovered that the song sampled in one of its ads,
Eminem's My Name Is, deals with suicide, drugs, rape and drunk
bad for business.
Bills center, after Sunday's 17-7 loss to the Jets: "We were
pretty opportunistic as far as picking really good times to blow