Saturday, February 28, 2009

Calhoun Agonistes

Today the UConn men's basketball team won its last home game of the regular season, ensuring that it will be ranked No.1 in the next national rankings and leaving only the season's final game between the team and its 11th Big East championship. Three seniors were honored, and a banner was unfurled celebrating Jim Calhoun's 800th career victory as an NCAA Division I head coach, achieved in the previous game at Marquette.

Calhoun, already enshrined in basketball's Hall of Fame, is only the 7th men's basketball coach in NCAA history to reach the 800 wins milestone. He's won 2 national championships at UConn, and this year's team, which Calhoun has said he loves coaching, appears well positioned to make a serious run at another title. So everything in Jim Calhoun's life must be just great, right?

Not so much.

You see, a week ago, at a postgame press conference, Calhoun had a testy exchange with local blogger, photojournalist, and political activist Ken Krayeske, who asked Calhoun how much of his $1.6 million state salary he planned to give back to help ease Connecticut's budget crisis. "Not one dime" was Calhoun's emphatic response, and the circus was on. A week later we've heard from everyone and his half-brother, up to and including members of the Connecticut legislature and even our Grandma Governor herself... and it doesn't look like the story is going away any time soon.

So here are my thoughts, for whatever they're worth:
  • Even before this incident I knew, from various news coverage and sports columnists, that Calhoun had the potential to, on occasion, Not Be a Very Nice Man™. But if you only listened to the reactions, and didn't see the video, you'd think he'd thrown a Bobby Knight-style tantrum. In fact, he doesn't say anything obscene or abusive or threatening; he doesn't throw anything or make any threatening gestures or leave the podium; and while he raises his voice, it would hardly qualify (at least on the video I've seen) as screaming or even really yelling. He gives a combative, rude answer to what was frankly a combative, rude question; as Hartford Courant "On the Fly" sports columnist Don Amore said in Friday's paper, "Reporters do get yelled at once in a while." (Print only, apparently; sorry for the lack of link.) It's part of the job.
  • There may be a serious conversation to be had about why we pay coaches so much money in this society, but ambushing Calhoun in public about his salary probably hasn't started that conversation, or really shed any light on the underlying issue, as the Courant's Jeff Jacobs (no Calhoun lapdog) pointed out recently. $1.6 million in salary (and much more in ancillary income) may seem like a lot of money for teaching kids to play ball, but by the standards of his profession, Calhoun is not overpaid... especially when you consider he's arguably one of the 7 best ever to do what he does.
  • It bothers me to single out folks and ask them to give back money they've legitimately earned just because they earned it working for the public. It seems reasonable when we're talking about highly paid public employees like Calhoun, who could seem to spare a dime or two... but it's all too easy to apply the same logic to rank-and-file public employees, who are already underpaid and underappreciated even in the best of times. Indeed, by some accounts, it was Krayeske's concern over proposed cuts to lower-level state employees. I salute that concern, but I fear that telling Calhoun "your money comes from the state, and the state needs it back" risks setting a precedent that will ultimately harm all public employees, rather than helping the less fortunate ones.
  • More broadly, it doesn't strike me as fair to single out individuals for systemic social problems. I'm a progressive: I support more progressive taxation, and I believe that the huge disparity between the poorest and wealthiest among us is a problem that urgency requires solutions. But it requires systemic solutions; just singling out wealthy individuals for demonization takes us farther from, not closer to, sustainable answers to this issue.
  • Finally, many of us think the UConn basketball program is a good investment. Not only does it create countless jobs far beyond the borders of the Storrs campus, but it makes countless Connecticut citizens happy. Not just the coaches and players, and the players' fellow students, but also people like me, who have no personal connection to the university but cheer its teams as our own. At UConn, due in large part to the personal efforts of Jim Calhoun and his fellow Hall of Famer, women's coach Geno Auriemma, basketball is a source of pride throughout the state. It's easy to say that times are hard, and some luxuries need to be discarded... but its just as true that in hard times, people need even more desperately to have things to cheer for, and to help them stave off the despair they can too easily fall into. Entertainment — including sports — has a long history of helping see us through dark times; we should remember that when we're tempted to demonize it as wasteful or frivolous.


Wow. Get a little busy at work, have a couple weeks of inexplicable sore neck, and somehow, before you know it, your $100 tennis racket needs to be restrung. And I haven't just been neglecting this blog, I've also been ignoring my Facebook page and commenting less than usual at Pharyngula. The truth is, I just haven't been spending much time at my home keyboard; the scary thing is how quickly a temporary lull can turn into weeks.

It's not that I haven't had things to say; I've just lacked the energy, or maybe the presence of mind, to say them. Starting this evening, I'm going to try and turn that around. More latersoon.