Thursday, September 11, 2014

Mets' Sexual Discrimination Lawsuit: Oh, great, another excuse for the Wilpons not to spend money...

Yeh, I know, it's not really the nicest thing I could say about a lawsuit filed by Leigh Castergine, former ticketing executive with the New York Mets, claiming that the Mets, chiefly, their Chief Operating Officer, Jeff (Mandar) Wilpon, harassed Castergine about being pregnant and unmarried and then fired her after her child was born.

But as a bitter fan, who's seen them use the Madoff scandal -- which some reports indicate Sterling LP, which owns the Mets, actually profited from -- as an excuse not to put more money into the team, I hope I can get a little slack.

The allegations are pretty crappy, as if Mandar is still living in the age of Victoria.  Castergine alleges that Wilpon humiliated her at more than one meeting about her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and that when she went to the Mets' HR department (that's Human Resources, not Home Runs; the Mets don't really use the latter anymore) to complain, she was fired.  This after having received multiple bonuses for her excellent work at creating innovative ticketing plans to keep the suckers -- Met fans -- coming through the turnstiles.  (The suit mentions that some people compared her job to "selling tickets to a funeral.")  Indeed, Castergine claims that Wilpon told her that she could get even bigger bonuses if she got married.

If the suit's allegations are true -- and since it cites a board meeting where some of Mandar's demeaning remarks were made, it'll be pretty simple to depose the others in attendance and get at the truth -- then it obviously makes the Mets COO appear like a moralistic jerk (instead of, you know, just a jerk).

The Mets' public statement on this is that the suit "has no merit." They didn't say that the allegations are false, just "without merit."  It's worth noting that Castergine refused to accept a severance package because it was offered on the the condition that she not sue the Mets, or Mandar individually.

This story could be interesting because sports organizations remain male-dominated, and while there are more women in executive positions than ever before, sexist bullshit still happens.  (Would the NFL's take on the Ray Rice incident been as awful as it's been had their been any female executives or owners involved?)

It could also be interesting because I am envisioning yet another War on Women/War on Religious Freedom debate going on: "Hey, it's HIS business and he has the right to set policies with HIS (or should I say His) moral standards, and if this suit goes against him it's a blow to Religious Freedom!"

But then I remember, it's just the Mets. Maybe if it were the Yankees someone would care.

As a Met fan, the only hope I see is that these allegations are true, she takes the Wilpons to the cleaners and they have to sell the team.  (Could we persuade the court, if it rules in her favor, to force them to actually spend money on the product on the field instead of putting out a minor-league-to-quadruple-A team at best?)

By the way, the Mets first owner, Mrs. Joan Payson, was the first woman to own a controlling stake in a major North American sports franchise, when the Mets were formed in 1962.  I wonder if she'd have treated an executive who'd been so good at selling tickets to the funeral.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Short Meditation on Ray Rice, or, Georgia on My Mind

There was a lot of blather out there today about TMZ's release of the elevator video showing Baltimore Ravens running back -- now, former Ravens running back -- Ray Rice beating his then-girlfriend-now-wife Janay, which has led to the Ravens cutting him from the team and the NFL suspending him indefinitely.  Lots of people outraged that the NFL was so soft on him initially, giving him only a two-game suspension, and just as many people outraged at the outrage, because people should have been outraged before ("why did they need to see the video?" goes the argument).  Lots of questions about whether or not the NFL actually saw that video before rendering its suspension, etc. etc. 

Somehow, amid the blather, a thought came to me: what would Georgia think? 

ESPN's Colin Cowherd made a point on his show today that the NFL is one of many big-money, Good-Ole-Boy clubs, and that, like a lot of such institutions, they are real blind when it comes to women.  They had no clue how badly they blew the Rice matter this summer.  Maybe it was thinking about those comments that the one female owner in NFL history popped into my head: Georgia Frontiere, the late owner of the Rams, who died in 2008. 

Frontiere inherited ownership of the Rams, who were in Los Angeles, when her sixth husband, Carroll Rosenbloom, died in a swimming accident in 1979.  (Side note: When she married Rosenbloom in 1966, he owned the Baltimore Colts; when Robert Irsay bought the Rams, the two men traded franchises.) She received a ton of criticism in her first few years as owner; she was fairly high-profile, and it was pretty clear that the Good Ole Boys didn't like her.  It didn't help that not too long after she attained control of the team, she fired Rosenbloom's son from his top position in the organization -- he'd been groomed to take over the team, even though the will gave it to Georgia -- and by the mid-nineties, moved the team from L.A.  to her home town of St. Louis.  (The team actually moved out of the L.A. Coliseum to Anaheim about 1980 or 81; that deal had been done by Rosenbloom before he died.)  She often could be found down on the field hugging her players, and took crap for it.  (When the cabbage patch kids craze hit, she bought a whole, um, batch of them for her players to give to their children. I'm having a hard time seeing Wellington Mara, the late co-owner of the Giants and a pretty well-loved and respected man, doing that.) 

She made an interesting statement in her first press conference as Rams owner:

"There are some who feel there are two different kinds of people -- humans and women." 

Frontiere was not a beloved owner, but like a lot of owners, especially those who move their teams -- like Irsay, who packed up his organization in the middle of the night to move from Baltimore to Indianapolis -- she had supporters as well as detractors.   She was familiar with the spotlight (she'd been a chorus girl a long time before owning the Rams), but she was not necessarily any more visible an owner as some of the wave of Good Ole Boys who joined the club after she was in. (Jerry Jones comes to mind.)  

But I keep thinking about the meetings the NFL had over the summer, and wondering what kinds of conversations NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was having with his bosses, the owners of the teams, about what to do.  Even before this video was released, we know Goodell felt like he and the league blew it, laying down a clear policy on domestic violence because they got so much grief for how they handled the Rice situation. 

And I wonder, just wonder: had Georgia Frontiere been alive, and if she were present in any of those meetings about what to do with Ray Rice, would she have offered a voice that might have helped the league get tougher immediately, be proactive instead of reactive?   We'll never know of course, and as of right now, there are no women who own a controlling interest in any of the four major North American sports franchises.  (Jeannie Buss and her brothers, through the Trust set up by their late father, control the L.A. Lakers. Three WNBA franchises are owned in partnerships that are headed by women.)  There's no guarantee either that having a female owner would have resulted in a stiffer punishment for Rice this summer. 

But it does make me wonder. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Film Friday: Joan Rivers, Auteur: Rabbit Test, her first and last film as director

Only a handful of times will you see movie promotions that feature a non-acting director among the publicity.  It's one thing for Woody Allen to be on posters for Annie Hall, since he's the lead actor; it's another to have a trailer show Sylvester Stallone behind the scenes directing Stayin' Alive, the ill-conceived sequel to Saturday Night Fever

But in 1978, Joan Rivers, who died yesterday, was all over the publicity of her directorial debut,  loosely based on a French farce, Rabbit Test, starring Billy Crystal.  One of the main reasons for her presence surely was ego -- not just hers, but the fact that it was a very much a family affair: her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, was the producer.  But there had been so few women who got a chance to direct a film in Hollywood (you can find a few during the heyday of the studio system, since so many films were made, and star Ida Lupino, as an independent producer in the fifties, directed about a dozen films), and Rivers getting this chance -- which she created herself -- was a Big Deal.

Unfortunately, the film was hammered by the critics.  Roger Ebert acknowledged that the film tried to be funny: "That's what makes the movie quietly amazing: That so many different gags could not be funny." The Times' Janet Maslin wrote that "[w]hen one does laugh, it's in spite of the movie, rather than because of it. And these were the more polite reviews.  Despite the bad reviews, the film managed to make money, but Rivers never directed another film again, and it would be another decade or so before women got more and more opportunities to direct.  While Rivers was a major breakthrough artist in standup comedy, still capable of outraging audiences into her eighties, her talents as a director never got beyond this one effort.

I remember well the pub for the film; she was all over the place promoting it, thanks to her onetime patron saint Carson.  And Billy Crystal was known to audiences, as a comedian and also for his role as Jody on Soap, the first openly gay male character on a network primetime show.  It was not the kind of movie my parents would have let me see; the topic was sex after all, even though it was probably tame even by the standards of 1978. In some ways, I'd wish I had seen it then; it would have put many of the gags found in Airplane! (1980) in a different context.

As a comedian who honed her craft not only in nightclubs but on television, Rivers writes jokes and gags, not really a plot. (Presumably that's what co-scriptwriter and longtime friend Jay Redack was there for.) The quick moments and zingers -- both verbal and visual -- never add up to a coherent film, but then again, neither did the best films of the Marx Brothers.  But I'll give a quick synopsis anyway: Lionel Carpenter is a loser, a Momma's Boy who teaches citizenship at night school while pursuing an advanced degree in botany.  His army cousin (a hilarious, tasteless Alex "Moe Green" Rocco) helps him to get laid -- with a crazy USO volunteer, who attacks him in a closet and fucks him on top of an arcade bowling machine. The woman, like the gags she's a part of, is never seen again; we cut to six weeks later, and Lionel is not feeling well.  Gaining the sympathy of one of his students -- on whose skirt he threw up -- Lionel walks the young woman, Segoynia, home to meet her bizarre family, who seem every kind of Eastern European immigrant stereotype going back to... well, the Marxes again.  (One brother has a hat like Chico.) When old grandma reads the tea leaves, she declares Lionel to be pregnant.  Hilarity then ensues.

Well, not necessarily:  Lionel becomes a media darling, honored by the President, but then suddenly, when the Indian Prime Minister realizes that men getting pregnant could mean an even more overpopulated world, she suggests to other world leaders that something must be done.  The President himself offers Lionel a hundred grand to "stop" having the baby. (This is five years after Roe v. Wade. More on that dynamic later.) The world turns on Lionel, who goes into hiding, but eventually having the baby... on Christmas day.

Rivers found a lot of work for many of her old friends and heroes.  By 1978, she'd been a very popular "square" on The Hollywood Squares game show, and several of her chums appear: Paul Lynde plays the OB/GYN, George Gobel the President, and Fanny Flagg his wife.  Squares hostPeter Marshall himself appears as himself, crying that because of Lionel's pregnancy, over five hundred questions the show has asked have been wrong, and that the show is going to have to be canceled! The great Imogene Coca, co-star with Sid Ceasar for so many years in the fifties, plays Segoynia's mother.  The most hilarious performance is by Doris Roberts as Lionel's mother, a Jewish version of the Marie Barone she'd play decades later on Everybody Loves Raymond.

To criticize the film for not adding up  seems silly, since it really isn't about that.  Come on: the Carpenters are nominally goyish -- we seem them going to a baptism and celebrating Easter --  but clearly Mrs C. is another variation on Sophie Portnoy.  (One funny bit comes outside the church, where Charlotte Rae, a family friend, asks the reverend, played by Tom Poston, if she can come in even though she's Jewish -- she thanks him, and then, touching his cross, says, you know we didn't have anything to do with that.)  Rivers works with these incongruities and comes to an interesting subtle double standard at work: an unmarried man gets pregnant, and he becomes a media star.  Think about that.

And then, when everyone turns against him, the President wants him to "stop" having the baby. The term "abortion" is not used.  How he should "stop" is not discussed.  He's just not supposed to have it.  And before all the media attention is poured onto Lionel, he is never even given a chance to consider the possibility (let alone "choice") of terminating the pregnancy: he's too much of a "freak" to have any say in the matter. Much like the circumstances of women who give birth to quints (and higher) and find themselves surrounded by media, Lionel becomes swept away (though I don't remember Mrs. Fisher ever going on a worldwide tour).

The world tour satirizes the ways mass media turn nobodies into heroes, but one liners fall flat; the visit to Africa is just plain horrible.  In its attempt to turn racist stereotypes on their heads, the scene just reproduces them.  It's embarrassing, plain and simple.  (The same could be said of the Peace Corps scene from Airplane!, though, yet that film was a blockbuster smash and is still considered a classic, y the likes of, well, everyone, including me..)

The Christmas birth of the baby carries the more obvious analogy for the film: "divinely" conceived, the child is to be the "newborn king," according to Segoynia, which is why her crazy family agrees to stand guard and protect Lionel. Eventually, Segoynia and Lionel fall in love, so that she becomes Joseph to Lionel's Mary. In case you missed it, let me remind you that Lionel's last name refers to Joseph's profession: carpenter.  (Unless you think that Rives and Redack came up with the name by listening to some Lite-FM station.)  Yes, the Carpenters celebrate Easter -- which is when the film begins, a celebration of Christ's death and resurrection -- but they are as Jewish as Mel Brooks' 2000-year old man.  The joke at the end -- a declaration that "it's a girl!" -- falls terribly flat, which is too bad, but again, this film is not about plot.

Rabbit Test never became a cult classic, and is unlikely to, even as a copy of the film garners a few extra hits on YouTube.  There are many jokes that miss (though many that hit), and the aggressive, one-liner style of Rivers' standup cannot sustain a narrative like this. You watch it because Roberts is really funny, because Rocco is great, and because frankly I grin big every time I see Imogene on a screen, knowing I'm going to laugh any second.  The film stands as a daring effort within its context, but Rivers stayed with her standup work, and enjoyed a lot more ups (and a few downs, like the sudden drop in the ratings of her own late night talk show, which some say contributed to her husband Rosenberg's suicide) in the second half of her celebrity.  Her significance should not be overlooked: Phyllis Diller may have opened the door, but Joan Rivers smashed it wide.