Thursday, March 24, 2011

Major Gomez

He walked into my office in full military regalia. There was a large display of medals on the front of his uniform jacket. His face bore the stone-cold look of determination.

It was the late 1980’s, and I represented the Forces of Defense of Panama in a commercial matter involving letters of credit, contractual disputes, and what was reputed to be the private jet of the then leader of the nation, General Manuel Noriega. Noriega had recently fallen out of favor with the United States, which questioned the legitimacy of his government. I had therefore been compelled to begin communications with representatives of the government of Panama in exile, individuals recognized by the United States as the true leaders of the nation. Because I represented a governmental institution that would survive the dispute between the factions fighting for control, it was important that I maintain contact with both sides, since the result of the lawsuit would affect whichever side happened to be in power when the case ended.

A few days before, I had received a call from Panama, seeking to set up a meeting. I was told that a certain officer named Major Gomez would come to the office to discuss the direction of the case.

From the moment he walked through my door, I could tell that Major Gomez was someone used to having things his own way. When I inadvertently referred to him as “General” he cut me off, declaring that there was “only one General in Panama.” He then proceeded to tell me, in no uncertain terms, what we needed to do to win the case.

It soon became apparent that, despite his bravado and desire for results, Major Gomez knew nothing about the American legal system. He also was not used to hearing the word “no.” He was therefore shocked when I told him that what he suggested could not and would not be done. I then laid out for him what would necessarily occur in the case, and I could see his brow furrow each time I responded in the negative to one of his “instructions.”

After a couple of hours, Major Gomez’s jacket was off and he was perspiring profusely. He was not hearing what he wanted to hear, and I could tell that he was struggling with how he would break the news to his superiors back home. At the end of our meeting, he left our offices, jacket draped over his arm, with a look of concern.

The case settled at around the time that the United States’ military removed General Noriega from power. I received authority to settle the case from both Noriega’s government and the government-in-exile.

I neither saw nor ever heard from Major Gomez again.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Crying Shame

Sports columnists are having a field day. When Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra disclosed during his post-game news conference Sunday that several Heat players were crying in the locker room, in the aftermath of the team’s fourth consecutive loss (a heartbreaking and gut-wrenching one-point home defeat to conference rival Chicago), the gates opened to a flood of criticism.

The team is soft and lacks leadership, critics said. Many opined that Spoelstra would not survive this latest crisis, just as they questioned his job security when the team opened the season with a less-than-stellar record of 9-8.

The Heat followed their early-season struggles with a string of victories that elevated them to elite status in the Eastern Conference, briefly surpassing Boston as the top team in the East before this latest losing streak saw them drop to third in the Conference (yet still atop their division). The players are clearly frustrated by their inability to defeat the better teams in the league, and Spoelstra’s honest comments, while ill-advised, simply highlight the competitive nature of those players.

The sporting press reacted to Spoelstra’s revelation with combined incredulity, cynicism, outrage and ridicule. Their unsympathetic (and, in some cases, mean spirited) comments brought to mind Tom Hank’s rant in director Penny Marshall’s 1992 film A League of Their Own. Hanks, playing Jimmy Dugan, a down-on-his luck, alcoholic ex-baseball player who has been made manager of a women’s team during World War II, has just reamed one of his players for sloppy execution when she suddenly bursts into tears. Hanks looks on in horror and exclaims: “Are you crying? There’s no crying! There’s no crying in baseball!”

This belief that professional sports are somehow above human emotion has been almost universally embraced by media commentators after Spoelstra’s comments. Yet the commentators are wrong.

Crying is very much a part of competitive sports. Just ask Jim Leyland, the fiery manager of the Detroit Tigers and former leader of the 1997 World Series champion Florida Marlins. Despite his rugged tactics and macho bravado, Leyland will sometimes cry at the drop of a hat, succumbing to emotion when faced with emotional moments. Long-time players retiring from their sport are also regularly reduced to tears when confronted with the realization that their careers are things of the past. Brett Favre’s breakdown during a year-end news conference, when he announced his retirement (the latest in a series of such Favre announcements, believed by many to be his last) is the most recent example of end-of-career tears.

Sports are emotional activities played by emotional people. Success by some is always achieved at the expense of failure by others, and such failure is regularly followed by second-guessing, “what if” scenarios and, in many cases, tears. That is why I question the overwhelming negative reaction to Spoelstra’s comments.

LeBron James and the Miami Heat set themselves up for ridicule when, after James’ ill-conceived ESPN special, “The Decision,” the team held an over-the-top event at the American Airlines Arena likened by many to a championship celebration. I therefore do not begrudge anyone the right to root against the Heat or gloat when the team falls short of expectations (although I will say that it is far too early for such gloating, with the Heat in first place and assured of a spot in the playoffs). But I do take issue with the reaction to Spoelstra’s comments.

Spoelstra’s disclosure that his players gave in to emotion humanized the team. And we should not ridicule anyone’s efforts to put a human face on athletic competition, even when the face is dampened by tears of frustration.