Stupidest Rule in Professional Sports

Hockey would be a great sport if they could only do one thing. Well, actually, there are a lot of things they could do, like get Wayne Gretzky to fight Tie Domi. But one thing really, really bugs me: it’s late in a close game, the teams are battling back and forth, the tension is building, the goalie is getting ready to skate to the bench, and then suddenly… it’s time out.

Yes, those dorks who run the NHL decided that the right thing to do at the moment the game is most exciting is call all the players over to the bench and just chat about things for a bit, while two million fans (or, in the U.S., two million fans) sit in front of their TV sets and grind their teeth.

This is the stupidest rule in pro-sports, or maybe the second stupidest, if you count “field goals” in football, or football itself, which consists of large, well-paid, mobile appliances running across a grass field and bumping into each other.

Of course, everything is relative. When I mean “stupidest rule in pro sports”, I mean, of course “stupidest rule in hockey” since most other pro sports–except for real football (soccer)–do exactly that all the time. American football, in fact, consists entirely of time-outs interrupted briefly, occasionally by short bursts of action. It takes how long to play the last two minutes of basketball? How many times may a batter step out of the batter’s box to adjust his batting gloves?

There is one thing they could do which might make the 30-second time-out a little interesting. They could put one of those mini-cameras with a microphone on the coach and let all of us in on the discussion. Better yet, we should be able to phone individual players and make suggestions like, “Mats, you gonna try and get a goal, or what?” or “Hey, Wayne, I hear that Tie Domi said some awfully crude things about your mother last night”.

And don’t do it like baseball did during the World Series. They let us in on the conversation, all right. It was apparent to everyone that the players and coaches were told before-hand when they would be on the air. What’s the fun in that? “Hey, Kenny, you gonna try and steal a base or what.”

I think they should have done it without warning anybody. Wire everyone on the field and let the broadcasters choose who to broadcast at any given moment.

More Keystone Cops

A police officer in St. Thomas, Jeff Dreidger, was recently charged with drunken driving. Several officers (four) witnessed him consume at least 6 drinks and he was administered two breathalyzer tests which both showed positive. Nevertheless, the Judge let him off, declaring that, in spite of all the evidence in front of him, in his humble opinion, “his ability to operate a motor vehicle was not impaired by alcohol”.

Funny–then how come he ran his pickup truck into a sign post.

The Judge’s name is Greg Pockele. If you ever appear before him charged with drunk driving, be sure to mention it’s okay because you were with your good buddy Jeff Dreidger.

Kudos to the officers, three OPP and one from St. Thomas, who arrested the jerk. The judge should be dismissed.

An officer in Toronto called a fellow officer, whom he had never met, to discuss a recent arrest. During the conversation, he referred to the suspect as a “nigger” and “ape”, unaware of the fact that the officer he was speaking to was black. The officer was reprimanded. Shouldn’t he have been fired?

You Never Know…
In Nova Scotia, another man charged with murder is released after DNA testing proved he didn’t do it. The Crown “stayed” charges– meaning they wish to be able to charge him with the same crime again within a year– instead of dropping them.

You Can’t Have too Much SWAT
In Mildmay, Ontario, 15 police, including a SWAT team, and officers dressed in camouflage and carrying automatic rifles, invaded a Radio Shack Store to recover some military parts which the owner had lawfully purchased at a Flea Market in Ohio. What’s going on here? Playing at war, are we? Oh boy, we get to dress up like the army and pretend to invade Red Square. Isn’t that what the “RS” stands for?

Keystone Cops

The Toronto Star recently reported that 99% of the complaints made against the Metropolitan Toronto police force are resolved in favour of the police, according the “objective” civilian complaints review process. That means that either Toronto has the greatest police force in the world– truly, the most amazing, perhaps, in history– , or the biggest liars. An officer responsible for handling complaints against the police force, with a straight face, actually insisted that the police really are in the right 99% of the time.

What kind of a person are you that you would say something so preposterous to a journalist, on the record? What do you really think of the people out there, that would make you believe they would believe you?

Now, even if you support the police (and with the level of paranoia in our society as high as it is nowadays, that’s quite likely), and even if you believe the Metropolitan Police force to be the best trained and most well-behaved in the world, it is statistically impossible that they could be right 99% of the time. It simply cannot be true. This kind of statistic is reminiscent of the old Soviet Union, when year after year, “record breaking” crops were harvested, proving the superiority of the Soviet system, while the people continued to starve.

When you think about it, it’s pretty scary that the police can get away with pulling this stuff. How dare they claim to be right 99% of the time? Who’s making this judgment? Who is in control here? Is there no civilian authority that can call this guy up and say, “What? Are you out of your mind? Don’t you realize how stupid that figure sounds? Do you want people to think you’re delusional? Withdraw the figure immediately and come up with something more credible, like 70%.”

Let’s get real. Would you believe that 99% of the customer complaints against Walmart were false? Would you believe 99% of the complaints against a surgeon were false? Would you believe that 99% of the allegations of sexual abuse made against boy scout leaders or priests were false?

I don’t know what the actual number of legitimate grievances against the police force should be. The Toronto Star didn’t have any difficulty finding at least two representative cases that made the police look pretty bad but which the police resolved in favour of the police. (The investigating officer decided that the two police officers, who corroborated each others’ stories, were more believable than numerous civilian witnesses, who right out of the blue, for no reason at all, decided to make up a bunch of lies about two officers beating up an innocent civilian.) The point is, that even if you think the police are doing a great job, a terrific job, it is simply outside of the realm of human experience that they could be right 99% of the time, or that an honest judge would even think they were right 99% of the time even if, incredibly, they really were.

What this number really means is that if an officer pulled you over by mistake, dragged you out of your car in front of family or friends, kicked you and beat you with a club, and then tossed you into jail for a day or two until the mistake was realized…. well, who’s going to stop him? If he has any hesitations about exceeding the limits of “reasonable” force, they are swept away by his acute awareness of the fact that you have only a 1% chance of success in filing a complaint. This, my friends, is about the same percentage of success you could expect in a police state.

Or you might believe that there is virtually no chance that such a thing could happen, because our Toronto police are better, and more honest, and more virtuous, than any other police force in the world.

Some cops–and some civilians too—believe that we need to give the cops more latitude to deal with those hordes of criminals out there. They believe that most law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear. Right. Like Guy Paul Morin, Donald Marshall, Damien Echols, and David Milgaard. Anyway, the fact that a victim of excessive police force might be innocent is beside the point. The idea that police can use excessive force on anybody, criminal or not, with impunity, is repugnant to a democracy.

The solution is simple: a civilian review board should be set up to handle all complaints against the police officers. Appoint smart, fair, and dedicated people to the board. Tell the police that because we know they are competent and professional, we expect few complaints, but that even the most competent and professional people in the world make a few mistakes, lose their cool, and do stupid things sometimes. And if the police were smart, they would welcome the increased public confidence in them that would result from a fair and impartial review board.

Unfortunately, this is pretty well exactly what they did do a few years ago. The police complained so bitterly about actually having to be accountable to someone else that the Harris government, ever concerned about civil rights (ha ha) disbanded it.

Damien Echols

Unless his appeal to the Supreme Court succeeds, Damien Echols is going to die some time in the next year or two. He was charged with the murder of three little boys in the town of West Memphis, Arkansas. After a trial in which no conclusive physical evidence was presented, he was convicted and sentenced to death by lethal injection.

I think most people, even if they occasionally become aware of some negligence or corruption involving the police, generally believe that justice gets done and that bad guys get caught and life goes on. Give a thought, if you will, to Damien Echols, and to Guy Paul Morin, and David Milgaard, and Donald Marshall.

The most disturbing thing about the Guy Paul Morin case to me was not that the police made a mistake. (If you believe the police themselves, 99% of the time they are faultless.) It is the fact that the methodology used in handling the evidence was designed not to investigate the crime and identify a suspect, but to make a case against a suspect they had already decided was guilty. And they decided he was guilty because, well, he was a little weird. He was single and lived with his parents. He liked to play the recorder. And with the public very upset about the rape and murder of little Christine Jessop, there was a lot of pressure on the police to make good their mandate as protectors of the weak. Maybe they really believed Morin did it. Maybe they were happy to have a reasonably believable case. Maybe they were just plain incompetent. The bottom line is, the evidence against Morin was never very good but the police and the crown attorneys decided to pursue the case against him anyway.

If you look closely at the Donald Marshall and David Milgaard cases as well, the similarities are striking: shady informants, suppressed evidence, and intimidated or bribed witnesses. In each case, the police decided first who the suspect was. Then they seemed to see their task as that of playing a game, moving the correct pieces along a board until they had achieved the desired result, a conviction, without any regard for the truth. Along the way, they consciously discarded any evidence which might have implicated other suspects.

The pattern is repeated in the Damien Echols case in Arkansas, except the circumstances are far more egregious than they were in any of the three recent Canadian wrongful convictions.

On May 6, 1993, the bodies of three eight-year-old boys (Steven Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore) were found in a creek in Robin Hood Hills near West Memphis, Arkansas. The police investigated of course, but couldn’t identify a suspect. In fact, it appears likely that they let the man slip right through their fingers, when an officer was called to a local restaurant after a man covered in dirt and blood entered the woman’s washroom. The officer refused to go in and the man left. Blood samples taken the next day were conveniently misplaced by the time the trial rolled around.

With no other likely suspects at hand, the police turned the focus of the investigation onto Damien Echols, a local teenager who was known to be “different”, by local fundamentalist Christian standards. Damien wore his hair long, dressed in black, listened to heavy metal bands like Metallica, and talked weird. The cops were familiar with him and didn’t like him. And some of the cops, fresh from a workshop led by a hopelessly inadequately trained “psychologist” on satanic cults, became convinced that Damien was their man.

I won’t go into all the details of the pathetically incompetent investigation, the politics, the leaks to the press, the intimidation, the bloodlust of the citizens. The details are available on the Internet at

Better yet, there is a riveting documentary on the case called Paradise Lost. Suffice it to say that the police had their suspect…. but no evidence. This might prove to be an obstacle to the average citizen, but the West Memphis Police were nothing if not resourceful. They pressed forward with the case anyway. Jurors aren’t necessarily bright, and the defense lawyers in town are even dumber than we are. What if we just make the guy look like some kind of weirdo Satan worshipper? Then we won’t need any evidence:

The judge took one look at the prosecution’s hopelessly inadequate “case” and tossed it out right? In America, you can’t convict someone of a crime without proof, right? Yeah, right. Maybe in a Disney film. The police tried to pressure Damien into a confession, but he was too smart for them. Well, how about Jessie Misskelley, a boy distantly acquainted with Damien, and very susceptible because, after all, he had the mental age of a five-year-old. It only took eight hours of relentless intimidation to get Jessie to sign away all his rights and make a “confession”. Never mind that the confession was incorrect about all the important details of the crime, and never mind that, as a developmentally delayed youth, his constitutional rights were ignored. The confession implicated Damien and Jason Baldwin and the two were arrested. And once Jessie realized that he was not going to be freed in exchange for his “help”, as promised, he immediately recanted his confession and denied any involvement. And never mind that he was placed by witnesses 30 miles away from the crime scene at the time the murders were committed… well, you get the idea.

The odd thing is that the dubious confession wasn’t even admitted into evidence at the trial of Damien and Jason. And without the confession, there was virtually no evidence at all. No motive. No weapon. The police couldn’t even demonstrate that they knew where the crime had taken place. The prosecution merely characterized Damien as a member of a Satanic cult (he was actually interested in Wiccan, not Satanism) and let slip that Jessie Misskelley had confessed and been convicted for the crime as Damien’s accessory… and the jury, which surely barely exceeded Jessie’s capacity for reasoning, convicted him. Even more preposterously, Jason Baldwin was convicted, apparently for the simple reason that he was a friend of Damien’s.

Damien was sentenced to death by lethal injection, Jason to life imprisonment. It is only through the good fortune of having HBO present with their cameras that their predicament got any attention at all. Even so, the appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court (howdy y’all) failed, and Echols’ only hope right now is an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, loaded with all those tough-on-crime justices that Reagan and Bush have been appointing for the past fifteen years.

It is hard to have any faith in humanity after becoming acquainted with all the facts of this case. But, hey, let me really add to your cynicism:

  • Mark Gardner, a fellow death-row inmate at Arkansas State Prison, has confessed to repeatedly raping and beating Damien Echols.
  • Damien Echols’ parents separated after the guilty verdict. In the fall of 1993, two men argued over Echols’ mother, Pam, while his father watched. One man shot the other dead.
  • Mr. Misskelley, Jessie’s father, inadvertently destroyed his house trailer while trying to move it in the summer of 1995. Later he accidentally set fire to himself and was burned over 75% of this body.

The families of the victims did not fare much better.

  • Melissa and John Mark Byers were arrested for burglary.
  • John Byers, who admitted beating his son with his belt the day of the murders, was charged by a neighbor with whipping their five-year-old boy with a fly-swatter and firing shots at their house.
  • Mrs. Byers was later charged with assaulting a pair of carpet installers after threatening them with a shotgun.
  • In March 1996, Mrs. Byers died under suspicious circumstances. It took more than six months for a toxicological analysis to be completed: it showed significant levels of an illicit drug was in her system at the time of death. Mr. Byers moved away, complaining about how weird his neighbors were.
  • Diane Moore ran over and killed a 26-year-old woman and was charged with vehicular manslaughter.
  • Terry Hobbs beat his wife with his fists, was confronted by his brother-in-law, whom he shot in the abdomen, and was charged with aggravated assault.

These are the normal, law-abiding citizens the police in West Memphis sought to protect from the deadly and dangerous Damien Echols?

From the documentary, Echols, who dominates the second half, comes off as the most intelligent and articulate persons in West Memphis, which, I guess, does make him “different”. But he was foolish enough to be cryptic, though honest with the police and in court when he would have been wiser to be silent. His attorneys did not adopt a wise strategy and it is only in comparison to them that the prosecution’s efforts resembled a “strategy” at all.

It is hard not to despair for humanity. First there is the atrocity of the murders, and the fact that the perpetrator is still free. Then there is the graceless lust of the victim’s families for revenge. Then there is the gross incompetence and negligence of the police. The hack of a judge. The phony “expert” on Satanic cults. The gullibility of the jury. The facetiousness of the Arkansas Supreme Court. The disgusting political machinations of senior politicians who fear that a concern for justice will be misinterpreted as softness on crime. The subsequent disasters in the lives of the victims.

A sensitive person could be forgiven for wanting to opt out of the human race. Let me confess that when I was younger, especially when I was in college, I thought there was a certain worldly-wise cache to this kind of cynicism. Secretly, we assumed that we would be proven wrong, that the world could be better, and that we would be admired for being aloof from it all. Well, I’m over 40 now, and the glamour of it has worn very thin indeed. Nowadays, it’s just depressing.

Seymour Hersh does an Albert Goldman on John F. Kennedy

Reporter Seymour Hersh has just published a book on John F. Kennedy in which he attempts to trash the late President’s memory by making allegations of sexual and political misconduct. In recent interviews, Hersh sounds like a victim himself, complaining about the terrible backlash which is making the response to his revelations concerning the My Lai massacre tame by comparison. He also acts as if he has discovered something new and shocking and should be admired for courageously  bringing it to the attention of the public.  One could almost believe him if he weren’t touring around promoting the book, and if the book was about anything other than titillating scandals.

Well, the public can be pretty stupid, and I think Hersh is counting on that. Informed critics have already lambasted the book as a rehash of rumours and rumours of rumours that have circulated for years. But the public will lap it up, the way it lapped up similar books on Elvis, John Lennon, and Princess Diana.

What about Kennedy? Was he a bad president? Those who think he was a lousy president can be divided into two schools of thought. The Hersh school, which might number a few liberal Democrats among them, thinks of Kennedy as a immensely successful fraud because he seemed more interested in sex than legislation. He had lots of personal charisma, but no real agenda. The conservative school thinks of Kennedy as a fraud because he was too interested in legislation, and the legislation he did present was bad because it was sometimes– but not always –liberal.

Both schools of thought miss the point. They don’t even come close to the mysterious allure of Kennedy and why so many people continue to admire him and mourn his death. For the answer to that question, one need only view some of the tapes of Kennedy’s press conferences. JFK remains the only President since FDR who seemed capable of thinking on his feet. He was witty and smart and reasonable, and didn’t sound like a whiney hack the way Nixon and Carter did, or a smug ignoramus like Bush and Reagan. Oddly enough, the only other President in recent times who was anywhere nearly as articulate was Johnson, who has an undeserved reputation as a loser.  Reagan was all folksy and down to earth and if that’s what passes for poetry in your household, so be it.  Nixon could be articulate, but he could not be gracious or reasonable: he was too small-minded and vindictive. And he hated Kennedy with a passion, for he knew, better than anyone else, that Kennedy had all the great attributes that he didn’t have. Above all else, Kennedy was confident and self-secure, and those are good qualities in a leader.

It is quite possible that, had Kennedy lived, he might have turned out to be a failure, but I think it unlikely. Without a doubt, he would have been less popular, because he would have had to make at least some unpopular decisions. There are some strong indications that he would have pulled the U.S. troops out of Viet Nam altogether, which would have saved America a decade of agony. He was leaning towards the right decisions on the immensely important civil rights issue. His brother, Bobby, as Attorney General, attacked the mob and corrupt union officials with a tenacity that has been unmatched before or since (instead, we have the colossal fraud of the “war on drugs”, $50 billion spent in four years on increasing the street value of heroin, thereby increasing the number of dealers). Above all else, Kennedy was modern in a sense that no President since was modern. He understood the passion of youth for change, for reform, for social justice, and he seemed actively engaged in trying to accommodate this passion within the realities of U.S. politics.

The shock that many of us felt after his death was more than grief for a dead leader, for Kennedy seemed to be a fundamentally decent, intelligent man. Our grief was permutated with a sense of realization that politics was back in the control of the filthy, smarmy, corrupt, petty, small-minded wheelers and dealers who had controlled it before Kennedy. Or maybe it had never really left their control, and Kennedy’s bloody murder merely revealed the truth to us. Either way, Kennedy had transgressed this old order and paid dearly for it (unless you still believe in the myth of Oswald as a lone assassin). In some crucial way, it doesn’t matter whether he himself was free of the corruption that surrounded him: the youth of the 1960’s thought there was reason to hope, and, through Kennedy, thought it was possible to effect reforms through the power of government.

Today, there is Bill Clinton. Newt Gingrich. Jesse Helms. Bob Dole. Eighty-five percent of congressmen get re-elected because once they are in power they are able to exchange legislative favours for huge amounts of cash from powerful Political Action Committees with which to attack their political opponents.  The average citizen doesn’t stand a chance of being heard, so most don’t even vote. It makes you want to puke.