Sporting News

The wonderful world of sport, packaged to appeal to a city of blasé cafe intellectuals

It's fitting that our Best of San Francisco issue hits newsstands in the days following the year's best weekend — Northern California's Weekend du Sport. The Bay to Breakers footrace wasn't the only glorious sporting pageant to mark last weekend; Saturday around 1,000 cyclists attempted the famous Davis Double Century 200-mile bicycle ride a 90-minute drive north of here, while, another two hours north, Redding played host to Redding Rodeo Week.

Every year these events provide proof that there is nothing in this world greater than sport; that mankind's most profound moments are found in athletic endeavor; and that sport is a most ethereal celebration of that future day when human perfection prevails.

You want human perfection? Look at Fred Whitfield, who led the Redding Rodeo calf-roping competition as of Friday night.

“What was neat was that Wednesday night we had a horse basketball competition. Fred Whitfield drove in with his horse and saw the kids playing [against] the disc jockeys. He saddled up his horse and played on the kids' side. He played with his own horse, which is worth who knows how many thousands of dollars,” says Eugene Parham, a member of the Redding Rodeo Commission. “That's the kind of people you deal with in rodeo.”

Sadly, San Francisco is lousy with cafe intellectuals too focused on squalid city matters to learn the wonder of sport. It is with hope of converting a few of these lost souls to the sporting spirit that this week I set aside the mantle of news columnist, and pick up the sportswriter's pen. Today, in the issue where SF Weekly celebrates what's best about San Francisco, I'll use my space to celebrate San Francisco sport.

One of 2001's most coveted sporting prizes goes to Fineman Associates Public Relations, the winner of a Bulldog Award for Excellence in Media Relations and Publicity (known here as “The World Series of Spin”). Bulldogs are given out every year by Infocom Group, which publishes a newsletter advising PR flacks on how to pitch stories to journalists.

Fineman won its award for a two-week stint in 1999, when it shone the best possible light on a power struggle between the Pacifica Foundation, which runs a coast-to-coast chain of community radio stations, and staff at Pacifica's Berkeley affiliate, KPFA. In exchange for $50,000, Fineman successfully advised Pacifica management to allow KPFA volunteers and employees to return to work after the nonprofit broadcast group had locked out and otherwise censored its Berkeley on-air talent.

We invited Fineman Associates' Michael Fineman to the SF Weekly telephone studios to talk about FA's come-from-behind Bulldog victory. According to helmsman Fineman, his team used quick thinking, subtle body English, and an unbeatable finishing sprint to bring an uneasy truce to the Pacifica-KPFA standoff.

SF Weekly: So Michael, what was it like out there on the playing field? I hear it was touch and go for a while.

Fineman: Our objective from the beginning was to help our clients (i.e., Pacifica management) tell their side of the story, because at that point they had failed miserably in doing that.

SFW: Uh-huh. How about strategy? What was your game plan?

Fineman: They appeared to want to do the right thing1 all the way, and our sense was, as long as they demonstrated goodwill and good faith and a willingness to do what was right, then we could provide service to them. And many people let us know that they thought we were naive in those assumptions about the Pacifica people, but in our own experience, we found them to be honest people who wanted to do the right thing.

To complement Fineman's comments about the on-field action, I thought I'd invite Larry Bensky, former national affairs correspondent for Pacifica and current host of KPFA's Sunday Salon show, for a little press-box analysis.

SFW: So, Larry, what do you make of rising crisis-PR clutch player Michael Fineman, winner of this year's Bulldog Award? This could make him quite a force to reckon with as we enter the spring crisis-management season, don't you think?

Bensky: Their work for Pacifica was disgusting, overpaid, and full of shit. They attempted to convince the media, successfully in the case of the brain-dead editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle, that everything would be just fine if everybody would back off on both sides. The fact is this station is being stolen by a bunch of insider-dealing cronies.

SFW: I hear you, Larry. But I was impressed by the way Fineman and his team managed to pull Pacifica from behind after that organization had turned itself into a public pariah. What do you think?

Bensky: For them to accept an award for something like that shows how low the standards of the industry are.

SFW: Hmm. Thanks, Larry.

Next we turn to John Stauber, founder of the public relations monitoring group PR Watch. Stauber is co-author of Trust Us, We're Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Future.

SFW: So how about that Fineman Associates, John?

Stauber: I really think that this award is in the wrong category. It should have been Quick Buck of the Year Award. Apparently they were on the job long enough to pocket 50 grand. So this must have been the quickest buck in the ad biz. All they had to do was say, “You idiots, why don't you do what people want! You owe us 50 grand.'”

SFW: In other words, Fineman displayed the kind of fast-twitch muscle action, fancy footwork, and layered sporting strategy that has marked champions through time. Thanks for your thoughts, John.

But did Fineman learn anything in this round he might use in future contests? Will Fineman Associates seek to defend its Bulldog title. Where do they go from here?


Fineman: I would say that I am proud of my agency's role in this situation, that we came in with good intentions, and we counseled what was right and good, and our client listened, and at least for that moment in time, the right thing happened. The right thing happened, and the radio station reopened. [page]

SFW: It certainly did, Michael. Thank you.

If you ask any former athlete what aspect of competition he is glad to have left behind, you'll likely hear him describe the fear that throbs in a champion's chest on the morning before an important event. It's a terror born of the painful knowledge that prowess will someday fade, that the champion will lose; he will be forced to return to life as an ordinary man. It was a feeling that fading San Francisco champion Willie Brown no doubt felt, very early last Thursday morning, on Bike to Work Day.

Like Jacques Anquetil or Francesco Moser before him, Brown is in the twilight of his reign. Sure, he still won, but it seems that, these days, he prevailed through inertia, rather than through enterprise. But if the glory has faded, opponents still have to fear Brown's powerful, seasoned team — and his continued stature as patrónof the California peloton(2).

Brown arrived at the Huntington Square Park start line about 8 a.m., milled around a few minutes, talked to reporters, mounted his silver aluminum Specialized Crossroads bicycle, and then pushed off toward the front of the 25-strong group in the direction of City Hall. The first two blocks following the start were calm enough, with Brown pedaling smooth, confident strokes near the front of the pack. Wearing a “Still Da Mayor” baseball cap and a “Presidency of the United States” jacket, he looked every bit a champion. Then, somewhere around Sutter Street, up-and-coming challenger Aaron Peskin appeared as if from nowhere. Pulling an audacious move, he opened a gap between himself and the main group of riders that seemed harmless at first. But by the time O'Farrell had been reached, Peskin enjoyed a block-and-a-half lead, and it looked as if the old champion was going to be outclassed in his own back yard.

But as unexpectedly as he had broken away, Peskin looked back, slowed, and waited, apparently deciding to bide his time, and challenge another day. At the City Hall finish line, Brown spoke with supporters and journalists, then ducked into a limousine, heading home for a shower. A crowd of supervisors and supporters hung around for another 45 minutes, chatting congenially. Nobody mentioned the events of Sutter Street, but it was clear this sport would never be the same. There would be future attacks, future breakaways, and someday, the morning's events seemed to presage, the upstarts would not wait for Da Mayor to catch up.

A sports column wouldn't be complete without homage to the athletic endeavor that has become all the rage in San Francisco during the past year: sidewalk-automobile steeplechase. Ever since the Department of Parking and Traffic began yielding to miscreant motorists' desire to park anywhere there is flat space, our city's sidewalks have become automobile gauntlets.

In front of my apartment building at any given moment there are at least four automobiles illegally clogging the sidewalk. This means my older neighbors, neighbors who push strollers, and all but the most athletic or lithe of other passers-by are forced into the street. These forced pedestrian detours make for a spectacular sporting spectacle: Taxis whip around the corner at 30 miles per hour, braking in time to avoid a sidewalkless pedestrian, then continue on their way. I haven't seen any collisions yet, but I've got a lawn chair and a six-pack positioned on the roof in case there are.

Sadly, other San Francisco residents don't share my enthusiasm for sidewalk track and field. The Senior Action Network, for one, has made a campaign of clearing the city's sidewalks of illegally parked cars. The pedestrian group Walk San Francisco, for another, says sidewalk hazards hurt San Francisco's quality of life.

“If we are going to have a livable city, it must be a walkable city. And if we are going to have a walkable city, then we need our sidewalks back. Our sidewalks are for walking, for children to play in, for talking to neighbors. They are not for providing free parking for those not responsible enough to obtain a legal space,” says Walk San Francisco Board President Michael Smith. “People will park absolutely anywhere they can get away with it: double parked on the street, in bike lanes, on the grass in our parks, in crosswalks, and of course on sidewalks. We need to draw the line. We need to make sure that we have our priorities straight. We need to protect our elderly, our children, our disabled, and our pedestrians in general, and not facilitate even more automobiles in our congested city.”

The Parking and Traffic Commission is far more sporting, as are our major media. The DPT board voted 3-2 earlier this month to ask for a change in state law that would allow cities to decide whether to let residents park on sidewalks. Currently, the California Vehicle Code, a boringly safety-oriented document, forbids any parking on sidewalks.3 Meanwhile, San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist Ken Garcia has written no fewer than four pieces championing sidewalk parking.

One San Francisco lifestyle guide sportingly suggests that “if you do park illegally for some reason, you should probably remember the somewhat counter-intuitive fact that blocking the sidewalk is a cheaper ticket than blocking part of a bus stop.”

Indeed, the $25 fine is low enough that people in my neighborhood every day find it cheaper to risk a ticket than obtain legal parking. Anxious to learn the rules of this fun new game, I contacted Diana Hammons, spokeswoman for the Department of Parking and Traffic, which enforces parking rules. The DPT recently suggested that the fine for parking on sidewalks be raised to $50 from $25, a sort of leveling of the playing field, if you will. But the agency seems to maintain a very sporting attitude toward sidewalk blockers. [page]

“The goal is always to achieve a balance. If there's two different sides — that's always a goal when you have two different forces. It's between pedestrians and motorists. It's competing interests,” Hammons says, by way of explaining the department's law enforcement policies. “Already, responding to the sidewalk complaints does take quite a bit of time. Someone has to be sent out to that location. It's not a priority to cite for sidewalk blocking, aside from phoned-in complaints. You can never have enough staff to address every single violation in the city. If you did, I don't think it would create a healthy atmosphere for the residents.”

DPT Deputy Director for Enforcement James Howard suggests residents determine which laws they will live by on a block-by-block basis. “We all need to sit down and talk about it. If you've got parking peace on the block, where the neighbors are getting along with the way things are, why change that?” he says.

So, it appears, lawbreaking that endangers the lives of the elderly, children, and the handicapped will be overlooked, so long as people living in the neighborhood are willing to go along.

That's bold sport indeed.

Let the games begin.

1 This wouldn't be a real sports page without the agate-type section at the bottom of the story announcing final scores. To wit …

Number of times platitudinous phrases and words used by Michael Fineman:

“Honest” — seven.

“Right thing” — nine.

“Good faith” — five.

“Heart” — four.2 “Peloton” was originally a military term used to describe soldiers marching in formation. It now describes the pack of bicycle racers that forms during the miles before a final sprint. The term is also used to describe the sport in general. “The European Peloton” means something like “the day-to-day goings-on in European bicycle racing.”

3 Parking Commissioner César Ascarrunz was among the two who voted against the sidewalk parking resolution. In comments phoned in after SF Weekly's Monday deadline, Ascarrunz said, “We've got to educate people; there are now 37,000 people working downtown who don't live here. Twenty thousand of them drive a car to work. Why don't they use public transit? We'd have 20,000 free spaces.”

Then, switching back to Spanish, four-time mayoral candidate Ascarrunz said, “Soy el único que trabaja para el pueblo. Soy el único.”

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