Blow, Nocera and Collins

In “Sybrina’s Sorrow” Mr. Blow says faith and spirituality are helping her mourn the loss of her son, Trayvon Martin, who was shot 15 months ago in Florida.  Mr. Nocera takes a gander at “The Way to Run College Sports” and says the business of big-time athletic programs should be handled by business executives. College presidents should be allowed to focus on academics.  Ms. Collins, in “Power to the Preschoolers,” says President Obama may have a great plan to get every kid in America in preschool, but nothing is going to happen without an enormous groundswell of public demand.  Like that will ever happen.  It might require [GASP] taxes…  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Sybrina Fulton hasn’t been able to visit her son Trayvon Martin’s grave site since the Florida teenager was buried 15 months ago.

“In my mind, I don’t believe he’s there. I believe, and I want to believe, that he’s in heaven, and I just want to believe that he’s looking down on me, and he’s smiling and he’s the one that’s helping God to help me move forward,” she told me in a nearly hourlong interview Wednesday morning in a New York City restaurant.

In that hour, Fulton talked openly about her pain, her loss, her hopes for the trial, her new role as a public figure and her overarching faith.

She is preparing for Monday, when George Zimmerman will go on trial for killing her son. Zimmerman claims that he shot and killed the unarmed teenager in self-defense. The prosecution — and Trayvon’s family — contend that Zimmerman profiled the boy, pursued him and murdered him.

Wednesday, Fulton explained to me how she has come to deal with the grief of losing her son.

She says she carries Trayvon’s high school ID with her everywhere she goes.

She said that she sometimes goes into his room, which she has left undisturbed aside from adding to it things that people give her in tribute to her son — paintings and posters and sneakers given to her by Miami Heat basketball players.

I ask her why she is collecting memorabilia in what sounds to me like a shrine. She explained: “Because those are the things that help me remember him. Those are the things that help me, to show me that there are other people that are standing with us and supporting us. It just helps me out.” It’s her way of mourning, of coming to terms with a loss greater than any person should have to shoulder.

She says she misses her son’s affection — “I miss him hugging me” — and she wants the world to remember him “as just an average teenager, just somebody that was struggling through life but nevertheless had a life.”

Given her description of Trayvon, I asked if she has been surprised by information recently released by Zimmerman’s defense team that was allegedly recovered from Trayvon’s phone and that appeared to show a boy who used marijuana, was involved in fights and had a handgun.

She said she wasn’t and that she’s dubious about the veracity of those claims: “I don’t know if it’s real or not.” I get the feeling that she doesn’t want anything to alter the image she has of the son she loved and lost.

I also asked about her grieving process since the day Zimmerman shot Trayvon through the chest and ended his life. She responded:

“When this first happened, I would say, was my deepest hour. And it was through my faith in God that I was able to keep moving forward because there is something within us as humans that says ‘you will never be happy again, you will never smile again, your life will be filled with rainy days,’ and through the grace of God I know that that is not true. I will smile again and there will be sunny days again.”

This is my second in-person interview with Fulton, and the difference in her demeanor is striking. The first time I sat down to interview her was last year, five weeks to the day after her son was killed. I met her at a restaurant near her house. She came with her mother. As I wrote then:

“She grows distant when she talks about her loss, occasionally, seemingly involuntarily, wrapping her hands gently around her mother’s arm and resting her head on her mother’s shoulder like a young girl in need of comfort. The sorrow seems to come in waves.”

Those waves of sorrow have been replaced by a reservoir of resolve. She now speaks of her loss with a practiced eloquence, that of a person aware that history is recording her words. And at this interview she came with her attorney and a public relations representative.

She now seems a woman on a mission.

The Zimmerman trial is likely to be one of the most-followed of the year and could prove to be the most divisive in decades. But division appears to be the opposite of Fulton’s focus. She now seems to see herself as a kind of spokeswoman for the grief-stricken and an evangelist for justice seekers.

She says of her new public profile: “I wouldn’t have applied for this position, but I gracefully accept. I am going to do the best job I can and try to help other families.”

And she reiterates that no matter the outcome of the trial, she wants everyone to “remain peaceful.”

I asked if there are any circumstances under which she could forgive Zimmerman. She answers quickly: “Yes.”

She continued:

“The spiritual side of me knows that eventually I will have to forgive him so that I don’t block my blessings. I know that. Am I ready to do that now? I am not. That’s something I pray for, I pray for my forgiveness. Because just like I want God to forgive me, I want to forgive others. But, I’m just not at that point right now where I can say that I want to forgive him.”

This is the kind of woman Fulton is — a tower of grace and a well of good will, a woman who misses her son desperately and is trying to make the best of an awful situation, the kind who perseveres through faith and is in search of forgiveness and peace.

And next up is Mr. Nocera:

So, are you convinced yet? Do you need any more proof that college presidents are not qualified to run a major entertainment industry like college football and men’s basketball? That whatever their academic and fund-raising skills, they are in over their heads whenever they involve themselves in the $6 billion-and-counting business that big-time college sports has become? Besides, don’t they have other things to do?

A few weeks ago, I broached this idea in a column about Holden Thorp, who is leaving the sports-obsessed University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for Washington University in St. Louis, where athletics don’t matter much at all. He was visibly relieved. His tenure as North Carolina’s chancellor had been marked by a long-running football scandal that, as he himself acknowledged, his academic background left him ill-equipped to deal with.

Thorp drew criticism for saying that higher education would be better served if college presidents weren’t expected to drop everything and micromanage the athletic department every time there was a problem. But look at what’s happened since. First came the public clamor over the way the president of Rutgers University, Robert Barchi, has managed — or, rather, mismanaged — a scandal that began when Mike Rice, the former basketball coach, was caught on video physically and verbally abusing his players. Barchi’s job may be in jeopardy, even though he has held it for less than a year. And, on Tuesday, E. Gordon Gee, the president of Ohio State, said he would be retiring on July 1 after some crass private remarks he made in December about other college teams were reported last week by The Associated Press.

Let’s take Gee first. He has been a college president forever. A prodigious fund-raiser, he makes nearly $2 million a year and was named the country’s best college president by Time magazine in 2010.

But whenever the subject is sports, Gee turns into a blithering idiot. A few years ago, in the midst of an N.C.A.A. investigation, Gee was asked whether he was going to fire the football coach, Jim Tressel. “I just hope the coach doesn’t dismiss me,” he said. (He eventually had to ask Tressel to retire.) In the most incendiary of his most recent remarks, he said that Notre Dame had never been invited to join Ohio State’s conference, the Big Ten, because “you just can’t trust those damned Catholics.” Gee has said plenty of, er, quirky things over the years, but it was his foolish comments about sports that got the headlines — and finally got him.

Then there’s Rutgers, which, as it happens, recently joined the Big Ten, seduced by the riches that only a conference with its own cable television network can offer. But to compete in its new conference, Rutgers needs a major athletic upgrade. Instead, it’s been chaos, with Barchi right in the middle of it. First, he decided not to fire the coach. Then he fired the coach. He didn’t want to fire the athletic director who had counseled against firing the coach — but had to fire him, too. Now the question is why Rutgers didn’t more thoroughly vet its new athletic director Julie Hermann, who has been accused of verbally abusing her players years ago when she coached volleyball at the University of Tennessee.

What does Barchi, a physician, know about building a modern athletic department? Nothing. His previous job was as president of Thomas Jefferson University, a medical school in Philadelphia. Before that, he was the provost at the University of Pennsylvania. He was recruited to tackle the difficult job of merging the University of Medicine and Dentistry into Rutgers, which, even before the merger, was a $2.2 billion institution with more than 58,000 students. Rutgers’ athletic teams, by contrast, have 1,000 students and a budget of less than $36 million. Yet Barchi is spending all his time dealing with Rutgers sports — and that’s all anyone is paying attention to. It’s nuts.

In recent months, I’ve begun to hear people in college athletics talk about the possibility of culling the big-time football and basketball schools from the rest of the N.C.A.A. and letting them play by a different set of rules. A number of the major sports universities would like to see this happen because they are tired of being henpecked by the N.C.A.A. and of being outvoted by Division III schools where athletics aren’t viewed as revenue-generators.

But there is another reason this change makes sense. We could just finally be done with it: acknowledge that big-time college sports is a serious business that has to be managed by business executives who have an expertise in sports management. Let this new breed of athletic directors maximize revenues to their hearts’ content, but create some real separation between the teams and the universities, and stop pretending they have any “educational” value. (And while we’re at it, pay the players.)

And let college presidents get back to what they actually know how to do: run their universities.

And give up all of that lovely money?  Acres and acres of rolling green cash?  Not gonna happen.  Now here’s Ms. Collins:

“Spread the word about President Obama’s plan to provide high-quality preschool for every kid in America,” twittered the White House on Wednesday. We all know that nothing on the planet compares to the awesome power of social media. But it may require more than a hashtag to bring this one home.

You may remember that earlier this spring, the president unveiled a budget plan that included a big initiative on early childhood education. Universal pre-K for 4-year-olds! More programs for low-income infants and toddlers! Big push for higher quality! And to help pay for it all, a new 94-cents-per-pack tax on cigarettes.

Everybody was so excited. “This is going to be wonderful,” said former Vice President Walter Mondale. (We will stop here for one minute and recall that when Mondale was in the Senate, he successfully led a bipartisan effort to make quality preschool programs available to every American family. Then Richard Nixon vetoed the bill. Flash forward 42 years, and here we are, backward.)

But about Obama’s plan. How could this not work out? The nation’s fabled upward mobility has come to a screeching halt because low-income kids start behind in kindergarten and never catch up. Nobody has come up with a better idea for fixing the problem than early childhood education.

“People in my home state are like — ‘Oh, my God! I’m so glad you’re talking about this,’ ” said Senator Patty Murray of Washington.

Residents of Washington, you are really doing an excellent job of lobbying Murray on this issue. But, honestly, she is not your problem. Patty Murray used to be a preschool teacher. If you happen to have any relatives in Kentucky, call them up and tell them to start nagging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“The Leader opposes tax hikes,” a McConnell spokesman said when asked about the president’s plan. Notice that he did not say cigarette tax. Kentucky lawmakers are so committed to tobacco that former Senator Jim Bunning once single-handedly held up President Obama’s nominee for deputy U.S. trade representative because he was angry at Canada for banning the sale of candy-flavored cigarettes. But there’s something about saying “I oppose using a tax on Marlboros to fund education of low-income 4-year-olds” that people seem to find unpleasant.

I am telling you all this because nothing major is going to happen for early-childhood education without an enormous groundswell of public demand. This is a cause that’s extremely popular in theory. But its advocates have no power to reward or punish. Lawmakers who labor on behalf of preschool programs may get stars in heaven, but they don’t get squat in campaign contributions. And the ones who eliminate money for infant care programs have no fear whatsoever that they’ll lose an election over it.

Look at McConnell. The Head Start programs in his state are already shrinking because of sequestration cuts. In western Kentucky, Audubon Area Community Services has had to close 12 classrooms and lay off 42 staff members. McConnell is running for re-election, but you do not see him sending out press releases demanding more money for preschool teachers. No, he’s bragging about killing an amendment to the farm bill that would have eliminated tobacco subsidies. (“I was happy to lead the fight to protect our farmers from another assault by Washington to go after our home-state jobs.”)

If you want to lobby, I’d start with the Senate. The House is impossible, working under a budget that cuts spending on health and education about 22 percent below last year’s level. This is part of Representative Paul Ryan’s plan to free Americans from the chains of government dependency, which proved so popular during last year’s presidential race. (In this chapter, we liberate 4-year-olds from the shackles of learning the alphabet.)

In the Senate, the budget is committed to expanding early-childhood education. But to do something big, you need new revenues, and there’s no mention of specific taxes. “I’m not going to say that we have to have a cigarette tax and lose it that way,” said Murray.

This is really a job for the Senate Finance Committee. So you might want to reach out to Senator Max Baucus of Montana, the chairman. Tell Max Baucus you want a cigarette tax! And then there are the reasonable Republicans. These days, to get a big breakthrough, you have to start with a bipartisan clique, like the Gang of Eight on immigration reform. If you have a Republican senator, feel free to write a note saying something like: “Quality preschool! Join a gang!”

There are plenty of ways to lobby without big money. Go to your legislator’s next town hall and speak up forcefully, while trying to avoid sounding like the people in the back of the hall who think the United Nations is after their assault rifles.

If all else fails, there’s always Twitter.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: