MY CONNECTION TO SPORTS - PART 1 - HUMBLE BEGINNINGS, I THINK
Updated: Jan 30, 2021
How many of you have heard of Bristol, Connecticut? Most of you probably, but apparently not nearly enough of you. I suppose it's not relevant enough, and not important enough, even though it was fine for the first 3 decades of ESPN’s existence, when I lived nearby in New York City, and that was the epicenter of the sports world. I would be remiss if I neglected to mention that after I arrived in New York in 2001, the New York Yankees were at the height of their powers, having just won their 4th World Series in 5 years. In the ensuing 7 years, the Yankees never won another, losing to the Arizona Diamondbacks in a memorable Game 7 for the ages in the difficult days following 9/11. They then followed that with a loss at the hands of the Josh Beckett and Miguel Cabrera-led Florida Marlins in 2003, and of course as we all know in 2004, the Boston Red Sox became the first team in major sports history to overcome a 3-0 series deficit, coming back to win 4 consecutive games, and in the process, lay waste to the 86-year "Curse of the Bambino" (Babe Ruth) in winning the first of their 4 World Series Championships this millenium. Basically, I had turned a once iconic and seemingly invincible franchise into a bumbling bunch of fools, and I cemented this claim for a second time when the Red Sox won another title in 2007. Heroes Pettite, Clemens, Posada, Boone, Matsui, (and eventually Cano, Rodriguez, and Sabathia), even manager Joe Torre, all stepped down, mostly in infamy, as losers. And oh by the way, Roger Federer (who happens to share my birthday - August 8), was also dominating the tennis world on a run of Grand Slam finals, semifinals, and quarterfinals that I don't believe will ever be matched in the history of tennis. And it's worth mentioning that the Ohio State Buckeyes (where I was born and have been a life-long fan) captured their first college football national championship since 1968, when they ended the Miami Hurricanes' 34-game winning streak to win the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. And the Miami Heat also earned their first of 3 NBA titles thanks to Dwyane Wade's epic multiple 40-point games to lead the Heat back from a 2-0 series deficit to the Dallas Mavericks, and conjure up images only ever really duplicated by the great Michael Jordan himself in terms of domination in the Finals. All of this and more occurred on my watch in just 7 years in New York. Around 2008, after 7 years of unfortunate, rather unspeakable and despicable events transpired in both my work and personal life, I decided I needed a change, and picked up my things to move west. Alas I arrived in Seattle, WA in July of 2008, and soon after I began working as a sports Sr. Producer at a small company called Gametapes, which was contracted by Comcast On-Demand. Due to a lack of talent, I soon became a commentator for high school football, volleyball, and basketball as well, but not too long after I left Gametapes in late 2009 (due to Comcast dropping their contract), things began to change. First, the Mark Ingram-led Alabama Crimson Tide won the BCS National Championship, defeating the Texas Longhorns. Then, the New Orleans Saints captured their first ever Super Bowl title, and later that summer, the San Francisco Giants won the first of their 3 World Series Titles in 5 years, a feat that had taken them 54 years to accomplish. Even the Netherlands (where my father was born), came within inches of winning the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. But the biggest changes were yet to come, most notably after I obtained a Master’s degree in education from the University of Southern California (which is yes, in Los Angeles) in 2010-11, and around the same time, coincidentally (and I think you can hear the sarcasm here), ESPN decided it needed to expand westward as well. Henceforth, we became acquainted with ESPN Los Angeles. Did I mention that literally the DAY I committed to go to school at USC, LeBron’s decision to “Take his Talents to South Beach” (yes I am a Miami Heat fan, as well as a Golden State Warriors fan) was announced? Immediately, a microscope was put on that "Big Three" team, and also on me, one which has never really disappeared, and I noticed one glaring change in the world of sports and the sports media. There was suddenly a newfound interest in children - academics, education, high-school sports, and young people in general. Lebron was frequently shown reading books in the Heat locker room before Finals and playoff games, something we certainly never saw him do in Cleveland, before or after his stint in Miami. Not that sports had completely ignored this in the past, but think of the kinds of self-centered hotheads we endured in the 90's and 2000's. Guys like Deion Sanders, Michael Vick, Terrell Owens, Chad "Ochocinqo" Johnson, and Michael Irvin. Do you think these guys really cared about kids more than themselves? I doubt it, no more than all the stories I heard about Derek Jeter hopped up on cocaine at the same clubs I used to hang out in when I lived in NY. But what a paradigm shift we have seen. Fast forward 13 years, and you guessed it, I am still a New Orleans Saints fan. It's important to bring the NFL into this mix, not only because I worked there from mid 2001 to early 2004, and was ultimately fired for no particular, or very corrupt reasons, but more importantly because they truly have been the leaders, or the “head of the snake” in my opinion, when it comes to corruption in all sports. They reminded us of this once again in 2018-19, when we just witnessed in Super Bowl LIE (53) - a game that required an entire city, and soon, an entire nation to turn its head and look the other way. To be honest, this is probably the most prevalent story because, although we have seen corruption in almost every major sport, both college and pro, the NFL is, has been, and perhaps always will be the “head of the snake” in all sports in this country. Along these lines, I'd say these crimes didn't only occur ON the field. The day they hired me, (after my so-called “best friend” who I’ll leave unnamed here, pretended to be me, after I had been calling the league for nearly 5 months trying to land a job, until they offered him the job, and he called me telling me that he had turned the job down, and if I wanted a job I could have it). Of course, I later found out that the NFL thought my best friend was me all along, and this really typifies the kinds of friends I had in life at this particular time, especially when it comes to sports. I also, 3 years earlier in 1998, lost almost all of my college buddies because I was the only one out of 10 of them to want to go to Super Bowl 32 (Denver vs. Green Bay, Elway defeated Favre) after we worked there doing heavy manual labor for 3 weeks, and thus each earned a ticket to the Big Game. There were tickets on the 50 and 20-yd-line as well as the goal line, and only 1 or 2 seats up behind the end zone. You’d think my buddies would have offered me one of the best seats, seeing as how I was the only one going to the game, but they forced me to draw straws, and I drew the worst tickets. Nevertheless, it was a great game and a great time and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. But when the NFL finally did hire me, they actually referred to me as a “breath of fresh air”, mainly because I was Jewish, and they really hadn’t ever hired any Jews before, certainly not in these two lower-level departments of the company, known as Office Services (where I worked), and the Mailroom. During my time in Office Services, I was able to attend some high-level league events, such as the first ever NFL Thursday Night kickoff game between the NY Giants and the SF 49ers, when the league had the power and money to literally close down all of Times Square for about 15-20 square city blocks on a weekday afternoon! Now that’s money and that’s power! I also attended the NFL Draft as well as worked as an Instant Replay Communicator for a couple of pre-season games, and I operated the ticker for NFL Sunday Ticket at their satellite station in Stamford, CT for 2 full seasons. Indeed, the NFL knew who I was, but I started to notice a disturbing pattern each time I applied for jobs to try and move up and out of Office Services. I was rejected every time. The first person to interview me at the NFL was a real nice guy named Joel Bussert, and it was for a contract analyst position. He had already hired a couple other people who had attended Tulane University, where I spent 2 years as an undergrad from 1993-95. He was extremely impressed with me in the interview, and seemed almost ready to hire me, but suddenly he did an about face, and I was never hired for the job. Over the subsequent 2 years, I was turned down for jobs in NFL Europe and International (I have a very international family and was well qualified for these jobs as well). Perhaps the worst example came when I applied for a job in Youth Football (I am now a teacher BTW), and I was told it was down to 2 people - myself and another young woman with little experience, and I was all but told by another NFL employee, a former Patriots receiver, and my would-have-been boss, that I was a shoe-in because they wanted a male in this position and not a female. Of course, they ended up hiring the female with much less experience than me, after building me up to believe I would be hired for the entire week leading up to the 2003 NFL Draft. And of course, after that, begun the many incidents of harassment I started to endure from my co-workers in Office Services and the Mailroom. I received constant threats of fights, ridicule, was instigated into fights and arguments on numerous occasions with regards to my religion, the few political beliefs I had expressed during the 9/11 time of Terrorism and Bin Laden, and of course including the sports teams I rooted for. Eventually I learned that the real reason I was passed over for all the jobs I applied for was indeed my boss, Gerry, who had been giving a bad report on my work habits all along to every employee at the NFL I interviewed with, even though my yearly official work report with the company was always positive and complimentary. Apparently, the same thing had been done to Gerry by his boss, Bob, which had in turn kept him from being promoted for many years as well, and so on and so forth, you all know how this story goes. Most obviously was the Saints, but the league was actually pretty good at keeping their corruption with regards to that team under wraps, but it was obvious to me that after their collapse in the 2002 season that started 9-4 (with the Saints beating some 5-6 playoff teams along the way) to the collapse in the last 3 games that caused them to miss the playoffs, that this team would never really be accepted. But believe it or not, the most memorable quote I can remember came from my boss, Gerry, during dinner at the NFL draft with he and my co-workers. It was actually in reference to the Sacramento Kings of the NBA, as they were challenging the LA Lakers in the Western Conference Finals that year. This was a phenomenal team with the likes of Mike Bibby, Peja Stojakovic, Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Bobby Jackson, Doug Christie and others. But when I mentioned to Gerry and the others that the Kings would win the series, Gerry blurted out angrily, “You can’t fight city hall, Erez!” Needless to say, I was perplexed and mesmerized by this comment and asked for clarification. This nearly led to 2 fights with 2 of my co-workers, who tended to chastise me constantly just for having beliefs and a mind of my own. It was hard to believe, but indeed, I was always going to be a controversial figure in sports, no matter what I did, and I was beginning to realize this. And of course the type of corruption we’ve seen from the Patriots in the last 19 years or so, starting with the bogus “Tuck Rule” call, enabling them to win a game they clearly should have lost to Rich Gannon, Jerry Rice, and the Oakland Raiders, can only really be paralleled by the corruption we saw with the Lakers winning 5 NBA championships, including a 3-peat from 2000-2002 in which the Portland Trailblazers and the Sacramento Kings were each victimized by atrocious calls made by refs and clear media biases. And that really starts the whole LA aspect of corruption, which began in New York, and ESPN has since expanded upon since moving to a new headquarters there. Tinseltown always had its Lakers, but now, because of a new multi-billion dollar stadium that’s being built, we have to include the likes of the Los Angeles Rams, and even to some small extent, the Los Angeles Chargers, so we can raise money to build yet another NFL palace, this one even topping the likes of Jerry’s World in Dallas. And hey, just for the heck of it, let’s throw Vegas and legalized sports gambling into the fold now too, because let’s face it, no matter what we do in life, the almighty dollar rules, and this pattern only appears to be trending upwards in the future. But I would warn that sometimes it also rears its ugly head, and as it grows larger and more powerful, it demolishes all smaller things in its wake, in this case the hopes and dreams of honest, dreaming, and hope-filled athletes, just like a midwestern tornado ripping through America’s Heartland. But as we've all seen, sports is always a business first, and a source of inspiration second.