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TMQ Tidbits of the Week

Once again, here is the best of Gregg Easterbrook’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback column on ESPN.com. You can read the football bits here. Due to the outcry about the officiating  in the Monday Night Football game, I’ve included the first bit even though it is football related. (Note: I do not necessarily endorse his political positions, but have included them because they point out blind spots that the campaigns are not talking about with positives on both sides.)

Bear in mind:

• Regular officials handed the ball to the wrong team to start overtime in a Thanksgiving 1998 game. Regular officials made two drastically bad calls in the final seconds of a 1998 Bills-Patriots contest, handing unearned victory to the Patriots. Regular officials made a drastically bad call in the final seconds of a 1998 Jets-Seahawks game, handing unearned victory to the Jets. Regular officials completely botched the ending of the 2003 Giants-49ers playoff game.

• There is a Seattle/Pete Carroll harmonic convergence in progress. Carroll was coach of the Patriots when horrible calls at the end handed a victory to him; is now coach of the Seahawks, who were just handed a victory; the Seahawks were victims of the 1998 horrible call in the Jets game.

• Calling Seattle and Green Bay back onto the field to stage a meaningless PAT was not a mistake. In high school, the scoring team can waive its try; in the NFL, a try must at least be attempted. This is a vestige of the old tiebreaker system, in which net points was the third tiebreaker. Now net points is the ninth tiebreaker, so clock-expired PATs seem irrelevant. But the requirement is there. Rule 4, 8, 2d: “If a touchdown is made on the last play of a period, the try attempt shall be made (except during a sudden-death period).”

After New England was given a bogus touchdown on the last play of the 1998 game, Buffalo coach Wade Phillips pulled his team, not allowing them to participate in a meaningless clock-expired PAT. Officials let the Patriots line up with no defense on the field; kicker Adam Vinatieri jogged into the end zone for two points. Regular officials did that. Had the replacements allowed Seattle to run a PAT with no defense on the field, today the sports world would be outraged.

• The subtext of all this is the union angle. The replacement officials crossed a picket line, metaphorically if not physically. Labor organizing is a huge issue in the current presidential campaign. NFL players and coaches may be millionaires, but they are millionaires who belong to unions. The players’ and coaches’ unions feel the NFL is trying to break them. Both players and coaches have an unstated interest in undermining the NFL’s attempt to replace union members with non-union officials.

• However this shakes out, don’t blame the replacements for a situation they did not create. They are people of average means who were trying to better themselves. They need to exit stage left, but deserve a measure of appreciation — say, first claim on future NFL officiating openings.


Important Documentary: The concussion documentary “Head Games” just premiered. This is a film everyone who cares about football should see. For the old-fashioned who actually go to theaters, screen dates and locations are here. The film is also available from iTunes and Amazon.

“Head Games” essentially is a theatrical version of the 2006 book of the same name by Chris Nowinski, a Harvard football player who suffered concussions, looked into the research, and became a crusader for reform of the football establishment’s view of “getting your bell rung.”

Nowinski is amazingly close to an ideal man — smart, principled, handsome and hardworking — though can have the evangelist’s fault of overselling. So too with Steve James, the director, who became known in the documentary world for his 1994 film “Hoop Dreams.” “Head Games” does a strong job addressing the issue of concussion harm, but veers into an all-encompassing conspiracy theory of everything wrong with sports. Indicative is a ridiculous scene in which a reporter stages an ambush interview with Roger Goodell, expresses shock that Goodell does not fully engage with being hectored in a hallway, then declares he was “scared out of my mind” because, it is implied, the NFL will retaliate against him. Oh, come on!

Flaws aside, “Head Games” makes important point after important point. We take for granted now the public attention directed to head trauma, but without Nowinski’s efforts that attention might not have happened. In addition to writing and speaking tirelessly about concussions, he shouldered the extremely unpleasant task of contacting the loved ones of football players who committed suicide and asking that brains be donated for dissection.

While there isn’t any doubt more reform is needed in the way many sports are practiced and played, football concussions have taken on a media holy-cow aspect. News organizations gave breathless treatment to this recent study showing that former NFL players are three times more likely to die of neurodegenerative conditions than the population as a whole. Unmentioned in the coverage was that the same study shows former NFL players live notably longer than males of their age group — suggesting the overall health of former NFL players is good, and that reduced mortality allows them to be alive long enough for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease to manifest. Knowing this should not diminish anyone’s concern for reforms to lower concussion risk. But as is often the case with stories that transition from unreported to media focus, the pendulum may be swinging too far in the other direction.

Regardless of how brain trauma research plays out, Nowinski deserves society’s thanks for compelling the football establishment to face the concussion issue. “Head Games” is a fine testament to his accomplishments.


Spoiler Alert — Mom Is Sure to Be Alive: “Revolution,” which premiered last week, is the latest big-budget prime-time attempt to capture the sci-fi /conspiracy/ apocalypse ground once held successfully by “Lost” and “Heroes.” Like previous attempts to take this ground using expensive action scenes and cut-rate writing — “Terra Nova,” “The Event,” “FlashForward,” “V,” “Jericho” — “Revolution” has “canceled by Christmas” written all over it. Thus TMQ must mock the series while there’s time.

Assume some mysterious force could stop electricity from flowing and prevent all mechanical devices from operating. To watch a “Superman” movie, you must suspend disbelief about superpowers. To watch “Revolution,” you must accept its head-scratcher premise. But within the premise, action should be comprehensible.

In the pilot, we see a man hurry home to his wife and adorable children, clutching a bag of groceries. He announces that it’s about to happen, and races to download a file to a flash drive. The wife knows what “it” is, and begins to fill the bathtubs and sinks with water. The man calls his brother to warn him that all technology is about to stop, forever. Then all technology stops.

Fifteen years later most of the world population is dead, cities are overgrown with vines and warlords rule what remains of the United States. We see the man running a village commune. He says his wife died because she left the protection of the commune walls. A sinister militia comes to demand the man’s surrender. When he resists, the militia mortally wounds him and kidnaps a teen, who turns out to be the little boy from the beginning. The little girl turns out to have grown into a fearless Katniss knockoff with a crossbow. The file the man frantically downloaded turns out to run an amulet that restores electricity. His brother turns out to have belonged to an elite Army commando unit. Now, the brother runs a moonshine establishment in the ruins of Chicago. The brother joins Katniss/B to search for the kidnapped boy. There’s the series setup.

Suppose you were a father and mother who knew all technology was about to stop working — you’d buy more than one bag of groceries! You wouldn’t wait until the last conceivable instant to draw water or copy the magic software. You’d stockpile inhalers for your asthmatic child, rather than do nothing, as is depicted. If the first two characters shown knew the blackout apocalypse was coming, why didn’t they prepare?

Fifteen years later, just before expiring, the man hands the power-restoration amulet to a stranger, not explaining its purpose. Lying mortally wounded, he tells his daughter to be strong but does not reveal his knowledge of how the blackout began. Since the amulet and the knowledge were the items of value he possessed at death, why didn’t he give either to his daughter?

The daughter walks to Chicago to find her uncle; what seemed like a rural village was the ruins of a suburb. The uncle declares he has not spoken to his brother since receiving the warning a moment before the blackout. At this point we must accept that the uncle, a highly trained commando, knew that his brother had vital information about whatever stopped all power on Earth from functioning — yet over 15 years, never simply walked to his brother’s nearby house to ask him what the heck was going on.

Canceled by Christmas; lucky to make it to Thanksgiving.


Two Cheers for Mitt: Everyone’s jumping on the obvious contradiction of Mitt Romney complaining that nearly half of the American population does not pay federal income taxes — a conundrum for Republicans, since this is the result of tax cuts under George W. Bush — while he himself paid almost no income taxes in 2010. Most of Romney’s money that year came as capital gains, not wages or self-employment income, the two main triggers of income taxes.

But it is a sign of our polarized politics that Democrats are saying Romney was wrong not to claim all charitable deductions, thereby forcing himself to pay more taxes.

Democrats would have been happier had Romney claimed every possible deduction, lowering his tax rate even further and embarrassing him politically. Unspoken in all this — not claiming deductions is admirable behavior!

Last year your columnist argued that if Barack Obama wants taxes on the rich raised, he should set a good example by voluntarily taxing himself. Obama has proposed phasing out charitable deductions for upper-income levels. Anybody who supports this change does not have to wait: “You’re not required to deduct charitable giving, or to claim any tax favor. Deductions and tax credits are options. If you think the government deserves more of your income, don’t claim them.”

Now Mitt Romney has done exactly what Obama said the rich should do — not claim all charitable deductions. This is admirable behavior. Naturally, Romney is being denounced for it.

The tax code should be rewritten to increase taxes on Romney and the rest of the very well-off. Just bear in mind, taxing the rich alone will not be enough to tame the deficit monster: Spending cuts and Social Security reductions still will be required. The “Buffet Rule” President Obama favors would generate somewhere around $50 billion in addition federal revenue each year, a small step toward repairing trillion-plus annual deficits.

But the need for higher tax rates on the rich should not stop anyone from being impressed that Romney voluntarily paid more than current law requires. Voluntarily paying more than required is not being a sucker. It’s being civic-minded.


Good News Ignored No. 1: Conditions in the United States are much better than anyone’s election rhetoric would suggest — international tensions and world military deaths at historic lows, all forms of pollution except greenhouse gases in decline, most disease rates declining, education levels rising, middle-class income stalled but middle-class purchasing power (considering falling real-dollar prices and smaller households) at a historic peak. Unemployment is the clear worst problem, trailed closely by poverty. Poverty, in history’s richest nation, is an outrage.

This commentary contends that while all politicians talk about unemployment, most don’t really care — most of the poor don’t take the time to vote, and those without college degrees don’t make political donations. So why care?

The smart commentary by Stephen Carter shows that poverty is a far more serious problem than the rising opulence of the 1 percent. Aside: Carter’s new novel, “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln,” is a fascinating read. In this “what if” fiction, Lincoln survives the assassination attempt, then is faced with an impeachment coalition of bitter Confederates and Radical Republicans who are furious that he won’t do more to punish the South.

Lately the poverty rate has been in the news with the national average at 15.9 percent; the rate is higher in many states. But poverty statistics do not take into account benefits such as food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit, which mails checks to many who pay no taxes. Federal benefits have increased dramatically in the last generation. This new Brookings Institution study shows that when rising government benefits are taken into account, the poverty rate drops to only about a third what it was in 1980 — meaning tremendous progress.

If poverty is easing and federal benefits are a main reason, why don’t liberals generally, and Barack Obama specifically, roll the drums for this? Reduction of poverty is among the leading government accomplishments of the postwar era. But because liberals generally, and Barack Obama specifically, like to cry doomsday about inequality, they don’t seem to want to highlight evidence that federal programs are working. After all, if federal programs are already working, why have more federal programs?

Any poor person would rather have cash income from work than increased government benefits. But as this commentary shows, claims about runaway inequality become much less worrisome when increased federal benefits are taken into account.

Now think about what happens when the Affordable Care Act goes into full force in 2014. It is not universal health insurance, which the United States needs. It is, rather, an income transfer program — taxes on the well-off will rise so average people who currently pay for their health insurance instead will receive it free or very cheaply. That’s income transfer. But because the transfer will be noncash — average people no longer having to pay for something they now must pay for, rather than receiving higher wages — the ObamaCare benefits will not show up in arguments about inequality.

Under the Affordable Care Act, many families will be better off by thousands of dollars annually. But leftists will make the same claims about rising inequality. Will Obama acknowledge that his own plan reduces inequality?


Good News Ignored No. 2: For decades the American political system has been in a state of panic about declining U.S. oil production. Jimmy Carter made oil panic a theme of his presidency; George W. Bush as recently as 2007 said, “America is addicted to foreign oil.” Now U.S. oil production is rising, imports are declining, and politicians aren’t talking about this.

Daniel Yergin, everyone’s favorite energy analyst, just told The Wall Street Journal that domestic oil production has been climbing for three years. At 5 million barrels a day in 2009, it’s 6 million daily now, thanks to improved drilling technology and the Bakken oil field find in North Dakota. Petroleum imports are declining. In 2005, the United States had to import 60 percent of its oil; now, it needs to import only 42 percent.

Presidents get too much credit when things go well and too much blame when things go poorly. Still, these numbers suggest Barack Obama has been a better president for oil production than was George W. Bush, whose White House was dominated by oil men. With the numbers on oil production positive, why isn’t Obama boasting? He could argue that increased domestic petroleum production is a success of his watch.

The trouble is that the enviros want a sense of doomsday about oil — or else how to justify green energy subsidies, such as the 20-year-old “temporary” wind energy tax credit about to expire? American success at oil production is the last thing environmental campaign donors want to hear!

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