The murky moral jungle of the basketball court

My nephew Robert, a thoughtful and enthusiastic basketball player, raised the issue of players who intentionally break the rules out of sight of the referees and then say, “It ain’t  a foul if the ref doesn’t call it.” Aren’t such players acting immorally and cheating?  he asks.

I took the bait and responded to his Facebook posting. We’ve had a lengthy exchange of views. Robert gives a lot of weight to a player’s intention and sense of fairness. I see non-pickup basketball more as a contract in which players agree to accept the refs’ decisions and penalties. The dark areas beyond the refs’ sight are a moral jungle where right, wrong and cheating are murky concepts.

Just the other night, I visited this moral jungle while playing in a B league game at the Capital Athletic Club in Sacramento. I helped double-team an opponent who was going up for a shot near the basket.  I contributed a deliberate forearm  shove to his side, knowing I could be called for a foul but confident that I would get away with it. The player missed his shot, and no foul was called.

Was this cheating?  I don’t think so. I prefer to see it as an appropriate response to the roughness allowed by the refs in this game. They were either interpreting the contact rules loosely or missing a lot. I had been whacked on the arm earlier and lost the ball. If I didn’t respond in kind, I would be hurting my team and putting my teammates at a disadvantage. Would that be that fair?

Referees have a lot of latitude in how they call a game. Some call things tight to ward off  rough play; others believe in “letting the players play,” especially at crunch time. Players have to figure out how a game is being called. What some may call cheating, others would see as a testing of the rules.

As far as I can tell, a player’s state of mind doesn’t matter. A deliberate bump to a shooter’s elbow is penalized the same as an inadvertent bump. Even the intentionality of an “intentional” foul is decided by the refs.

While good sportsmanship gets a lot of lip service, players are given limited opportunity to display it. For example, a player in an official game can’t call a foul on himself, as happens in pickup ball. If he knows the refs blew the call, he can’t get it reversed by taking the blame.  And for sure, players can’t call a foul on an opponent and expect the refs to accept it.

In a world in which right and wrong are determined by the subjective judgment of the refs, how much moral agency can be laid on the shoulders of the players?

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Owners of Kings show how to win at money game

It’s a new year with the same old story: the rich get richer while the working folks come up short.

The owners of the Sacramento Kings have seen the value of their franchise increase to $800 million, according to a Forbes magazine report this month. Two years ago, when an investor group led by Vivek Ranadive bought the team from the Maloof family, the franchise was valued at $534 million. That constitutes a gain of almost 50 percent.

In a show of appreciation, the Kings announced they would raise season-ticket prices for the 2015-16 season. That’s the second straight price hike for loyal fans since the new owners took over the gravy train. And season tickets don’t come cheap. Said the Bee: “A pair of season tickets can easily generate $10,000 or more, depending on where the seats are.”

For the average family four, a single outing to a Kings game costs $377.74, including refreshments and parking, according to the financial website

The sharp jump in the value of the Kings is partly the result of the new arena being built downtown, thanks to a huge subsidy extracted from unwilling Sacramento taxpayers. The arena subsidy could be anywhere from to $255 million to $350 million-plus, depending on your degree of cynicism.

Some critics of the arena subsidy contend city officials secretly agreed to help the new owners offset the $534 million team purchase price by giving them various freebies. This contentious issue has been the subject of a long-running court battle, as reviewed this month in the Sacramento News & Review.

The Kings’ owners also stand to benefit from a series of new national TV contracts that will pay the league and its teams three times as much as the current deals, the Bee said. The new contracts, worth a combined $930 million a year, take effect at the start of the 2016-17 season.

If you’re wondering who will ultimately pay for these TV contracts, it’s the working folks of the world, whether they’re sports fans or not. As the Washington Post reported last week:

“Cable TV is about to get more expensive for millions of consumers because of a bidding war between networks and the country’s most powerful sports leagues. Time Warner Cable, Cablevision and scores of rural cable providers are tacking on sports surcharges each month, the direct result of higher fees they are paying to ESPN and other sports networks to carry their channels.”

While the owners of the Kings get richer, local taxpayers, TV viewers and Kings fans pick up the tab. And they don’t even get a respectable basketball team in return. Under the meddling style of Ranadive and company, the Kings have racked up 81 losses against a meager 44 wins and seen the ouster of a coach who provided some ray of hope for them.

What a racket!

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“Selma” provides no bridge over troubled water

I still believe that freedom is the bonus you receive for telling the truth. Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.Martin Luther King Jr., March 14, 1968 speech.

In the contentious arena of race relations in America, does truth matter these days?

“Selma” film director Ava DuVernay, according to critics, has turned former President Lyndon Johnson, a key supporter of voting rights for blacks, into a villain for the sake of creating dramatic tension. She shrugs off criticism that she has misrepresented LBJ’s role.

“Everyone sees history through their own lens,” DuVernay contends. “This is what I see, this is what we see. And that should be valid. I’m not going to argue history.”

Artistic interpretation trumps historical accuracy, says U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who was a leader in the Selma marches and is depicted in the film. The role of art, he says, is not to re-enact history, but to offer an interpretation of human experience. In so doing, he says, “it enlightens our understanding of our lives today.”

I fail to understand how we can be enlightened today by falsifying yesterday. There are people running around who deny the Holocaust. Some Japanese politicians deny their country forced women into sexual slavery in World War II. A disturbing number of Americans think Saddam Hussein was responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. 

When a director of  DuVernay’s ability plays fast and loose with the truth, the distortion is all the more egregious. Says New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd: “Artful falsehood is more dangerous than artless falsehood, because fewer people see through it.”

DuVernay had plenty of vile white villains, including one who kicks a minister to death in the street, Dowd notes. “There was no need to create a faux one.”

By refusing to acknowledge the role a powerful white man played in the civil rights struggle of yesterday, DuVernay, who is black, stokes a growing us-against-them mentality in today’s society.

One unfortunate example of this trend was the inflammatory headline the Oakland Tribune newspaper chose to place on its front-page story about the Academy Awards nominations. Although “Selma” was nominated for both best picture and best original song, DuVernay and the film’s black actors were not singled out for awards. The Tribune’s main headline read:  “And the Oscar for best Caucasian goes to ….”

The snarky headline, reeking of bias and victimization, had no place in a mainstream newspaper, especially one that serves such a racially diverse city. The secondary headline, “Snubs of “Selma” cast, crew detonate diversity debate in Hollywood and beyond,” adds fuel to the fire by suggesting a disdainful dismissal of meritorius work. Was it really a “snub” or simply acting that fell short in the eyes of the judges? Should Oscars be distributed on the basis of diversity?

To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr.: I have a dream that directors and actors will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by excellence of their work.


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The joy of calling Macy’s about a phishing scam

Perhaps Macy’s executives are more annoyed than I am. Phishing con artists have been using the same 800 telephone number to impersonate Macy’s credit department staff for at least seven years, my modest probe discovered.  I’ve been trying to figure out what’s going on for only a few weeks.

Still, I wish I had received a thank you from Macy’s instead of a hassle when I tried to report the curious phone calls. We’re sort of in this fight together. Credit card scams can be a nightmare for customers and companies

 Here’s what happened:

Earlier this month, two messages were left on my home phone. The caller claimed to be a Macy’s representative and said a business matter needed to be cleared up. He did not use my name or my wife’s. He left the return number 800 511-3207.

I hadn’t used my Macy’s card in months. My wife said she had just received her December bill and knew of no problem. Despite deep suspicion, I decided to return the call. A fellow who identified himself as Ricardo and spoke with a slight accent, said I had reached the Macy’s credit department. He asked me for my Macy’s credit-card number. I asked what name was on the account. He said he couldn’t reveal that information unless I first gave him my card number. I said several people in my home had Macy’s cards. Which one did he want?

Ricardo said, apologetically, that he could not proceed until I had given him my card number – company policy. I told him I was suspicious about the call and asked for his last name. He spelled it out very carefully — M-A-N-G-A-H-I-S.

“Now may I have your card number?” he asked.

“Forget it,” I said, ending the call.

Curiosity aroused, I called the customer service number on my Macy’s card. It took a while to reach a human being. The woman immediately asked for my card number. I felt a wave of wariness, even though I had initiated the call. Then she wanted my name and address.  More alarm bells. Finally, she asked for the last four digits of my Social Security number.

“Look,” I said, “I’m trying to find out whether someone claiming to be from Macy’s might have been trying to scam me. I’m not going to give you any Social Security information.”

“I’ll note that you declined to give that information.”

 “Fine,” I said, and proceeded to tell my tale. The woman said that, given the nature of my call, she would have to turn me over to the consumer-protection department.

That sounded vaguely ominous. I waited a few minutes, and another woman came on the line. She had me repeat all the identifying material I had given the first woman. She also insisted that I reveal the last four digits of my Social Security number. Otherwise, the conversation couldn’t proceed, she said.

I refused and told her I was worried about a scam related to Macy’s credit cards. She reiterated the need for my Social Security information. I raised my voice and reiterated my concern. She said she would have to consult with her supervisor. I asked whether she would like the 800 number that had been used and the perpetrator’s alleged name. She said she would.

When the consumer-protection lady returned, she sounded very guarded. She spoke in generalities. A Macy’s representative would rarely make an “outbound” call for credit information but if one did, he or she would be able to name the appropriate account-holder. I was right to be suspicious. Furthermore, she said, that 800 number was not a Macy’s number.

Had I been more on my game, I would have grilled the consumer-protection rep regarding how a scammer targeting Macy’s cardholders might have come by my home phone number and what the company knew about the 800 number.

After hanging up with Macy’s, I did a few Google searches. I quickly discovered that the number 800 511-3207 is the subject of numerous complaint websites and has attracted nasty comments since at least 2007. Here’s one  website and here’s another.

While Macy’s provides some online tips about phishing scams, I wonder how the same 800-number scam go stay in operation year after year, and how many unwary Macy’s cardholders have gotten screwed.

A day after my call to Macy’s, I received a third message from a purported Macy’s credit rep. This time it was a woman making the pitch for a return call. I deleted the message.

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Sacramento’s heritage tree ordinance complicates pruning process

P1030462I try to be a good neighbor and maintain the positive feelings that generally prevail in my Land Park neighborhood in Sacramento. Most folks are friendly and cooperative. I view the hit-and-run incident I described last week as an aberration, as inexplicable as the former neighbor who saw fit to allow her dog to bark for hours at a stretch.

When my next-door neighbor pointed out last summer that the birch trees in his front yard were struggling to contend with my ever-spreading valley oak tree, I was sympathetic. I told him I would look into having the large tree pruned. Now that the dormant season is upon us, that’s what I have been doing.

I envisioned the cutting of a few large limbs cut, both to resolve my neighbor’s problem and to get the tree away from my roof. But I was afraid that such big cuts might deform the tree’s symmetry as well as harm it. I wasn’t sure how to proceed, and the stakes are high. I have come to admire this tree in the 15 years I’ve been married to my wife. But she was present at the planting of this tree 30 years ago and has deep emotional ties to it. She has reminded me of the wonderful photo of her son as a little boy standing next to the young tree. 

I decided that hiring a certified arborist might be wiser than the using the tree trimmer I have used for less daunting jobs. A friend suggested I check out the Sacramento Tree Foundation’s website. There I found this warning – “Hire a Certified Arborist as if your tree’s life depends on it!” — and a link to the International Society of Arboriculture. The ISA website provided an easy way to search for certified arborists in the Sacramento area.

I plucked a few names from the list and checked them out via the Contractors State License Board  and Angie’s List. They all looked solid. I set up an appointment before Christmas with one of them for early January. The fellow rescheduled a week later. He gave me a three-hour window on the Monday of the following week. Thirty minutes after the window slammed shut, the fellow called and said he had been delayed. Could I wait an hour or so? No, I said. And no, I didn’t want to reschedule.

“I have a theory that when things like this start badly, they don’t get better,” I said.

I next tried Master Tree Care in West Sacramento. A estimator came out a few days later. He was right on time and seemed quite knowledgeable. When I explained some of the larger cuts I envisioned, he informed me that my valley oak, a species native to California, was among those designated as “heritage trees” by the city of Sacramento. Pruning was strictly regulated and a city permit was required. I could probably forget about eliminating limbs thicker than 3 to 4 inches, he said.

Was all that true, I wondered?  Did I really have a California heritage tree on my very own property and could the city regulate what I did with it?

I returned to the house, with the pricey estimate in hand, and went to my computer. I found a Sacramento Press site titled “Ask the County Law Librarian” and an explanation of the Sacramento city ordinance covering heritage trees. It mentioned misdemeanor fines from $500 to $1,000 dollars and administrative penalties ranging up to $25,000.

I followed up by reading the Sacramento City Code, Chapter 12.64. Any hope of getting around the code vanished when I read that it applied to “any native Quercus species, Aesculus California or Platanus Racemosa, having a circumference of thirty-six (36) inches or greater.”

My valley oak — Quercus lobata, I believe – has a trunk circumference of 93 inches.

Well, that’s that. I hired Master Tree Care and work should commence soon. I’m optimistic the tree will come out looking fine. And I rather like the fact that I live in a city that puts a high value on preserving native trees and has a heritage tree ordinance on the books.

Whether my neighbor will be thrilled by the modest pruning required by the ordinance remains to be seen, but, hey, the law is the law, and it’s for the common good of the community.

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