The Lie in the Living Room

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“I wish I could have looked the other way. I really do. But I couldn’t. They told me we can’t make the NCAA look bad. I said, we sure as hell can.” John Shoop said.  He paid a price. But in the end, he says he gained far more than he lost.

Shoop was the youngest coach in NFL history. In 2001, his first year as Offensive Coordinator, the Chicago Bears were 13-3 and sometimes referred to their offense as the “Run n’ Shoop.”  After twelve years with four professional teams, he moved over to the University of North Carolina; yearning for the kind of player relationships he’d had when he first fell in love with football.  Less business.  More heart.

When he sat in living rooms, recruiting players, he’d meant it when he told their families he’d advocate for their son; that he would look out for his interests like he would his own son. He didn’t know that the NCAA had a different idea of advocacy.

John Shoop’s story is heavily featured in “Student Athlete”,  HBO’s scathing new documentary about the NCAA’s treatment of college athletes. He describes a system where players are exploited in a billion dollar industry propped up by mostly black players without any real rights and whose families live below the poverty line.  He believes his career suffered for speaking out. And yet, he wouldn’t go back and change a thing, despite being let go from two big time football coaching jobs; the first from UNC after an NCAA investigation and the second from Purdue. The N.Y. Times covered the story (See “Purdue Fires a Champion of Athlete’s Rights”)

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While Shoop has not advocated for players to be paid outright, he is troubled by the fact that everyone makes money except the athletes: the universities, TV networks, sneaker companies, merchandising, and clothing manufacturers.  It’s been Shoop’s experience that if athletes do get any tiny amount of money for incidentals, it is typically sent home to family. “When a student doesn’t have enough money to get home from school, pay the utility bill, or to eat in the off season, the NCAA forbids coaches (or any third party) from helping. If they do, the players are deemed ineligible; losing their scholarships and the hopes and dreams that came with it.” he laments.

Shoop grew more conflicted by the day. “I’m not sure I can say I was the person I wanted to be if someone comes to me hungry or in need, and I can’t help because the rules say I can’t.”

Representatives for the NCAA have stated publicly that student athletes are getting a free education in exchange. But, Shoop points to a grave injustice there, too. “These young men are promised an education. Just because you got the degree, it doesn’t mean you got the education. Athletes have a grueling schedule of weekend travel, daily practices, weight training, films, memorizing playbooks; all under the haze of a chronic lack of sleep.  So, there is little incentive to take challenging courses; the type that will set them up for a rewarding career. “

There are hundreds of NCAA rules that players can violate; some obvious – others not so. When a player violates one of them, Shoop says there is an appalling lack of due process. He talks of players being discouraged from having legal representation lest they “appear guilty” and being asked to sign documents that seal their fate, without counsel.

John’s wife, Marcia Mount Shoop, a Presbyterian minister, also published a book called “Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of the Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports”.  Together, their open advocacy of student athletes’ rights was described by the NY Times as being “…intolerable.”

fullsizeoutput_169bAfter leaving Purdue, the Shoop’s moved to a small horse farm outside Asheville, N.C. He took time to re-connect with his two children and reflect. Marcia became the pastor of a church. “When you coach in the NFL and college football, you’re a mercenary; a hired gun. If things don’t go the right way, you’re gone.”  Shoop took his masters degree in education from Vanderbilt and became a high school social studies teacher, helps coach the football team, and hosts a sports radio show for the NPR affiliate.

But, it is the change in his relationships with his two kids, and his faith, that has transformed him. By the time he left Purdue, he had not been a big part of his son’s or daughter’s life for 15 years. “If someone had asked me about my values back then, I would point to family and faith, but my actions said something completely different. I almost never made it to church because I was on the road. My kids are highly regarded athletes but I couldn’t be at their sporting events because I was coaching someone else’s kids at another sporting event.”

Shoop has become extremely close to his children who are in the final years of their education and athletics, and it has been the joy of his life. He became a deacon in the church which has given him the privilege to take home communion to elderly people who are shut in.

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John Shoop is grateful for his career in the NFL and college football. But in the end, he is most grateful for the life he is leading now. “Marcia and I wanted to make a meaningful life with our family and make useful contributions to our community. I think teaching high school is a strong contribution and I am overjoyed to be spending time with my children before it’s too late.” The Shoop’s still hold out hope for change in the NCAA. Marcia Shoop says they pray that one day, “…the players find their voice.”

From the Emmy’s to the State House

Thirty years in the business; nominated for five Daytime Emmy’s – the last for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Her go-to designers for the red carpet: Badgley Mischka and Marchesa. Sleek, honey colored hair. Smooth skin. Green eyes. Perfect teeth. She is beautiful and a genuine actor’s actor. But as much as she loved the craft, Beth Christian (formerly known as Beth Ehlers) gave it all up and walked away to create an entirely new professional identity.

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For a hefty twenty years, she was most well-known for playing the beloved “Harley” on CBS’s Guiding Light. She was discovered in a public school play at age nine; and had an agent by age ten. Her first movie role, as a teen, was with David Bowie in The Hunter.

To anyone who knows her, she’d always said, “One day, I’m going to go back to school and get my college degree.” For Beth, acting was never going to be a forever job; or the only thing on her tombstone. Millions of baby boomers make career changes in mid-life and sometimes they leave behind a very successful career.  And, if you’re newly divorced, have two children to support and you choose a career in politics, which is not known for it’s financial rewards, it’s downright scary.

“I felt unmoored all the time. Acting was my identity and suddenly I did not have one. I was letting go of one existence but hadn’t yet become what I was going to become. That middle space was very frightening.”

Show business had changed; shifting over to packaged marketing, social media, and other commercial forces that, to her, had nothing to do with acting. She was frustrated that her contract with CBS prevented her from accepting some good prime time TV and movie roles. Harley was an enormously popular and entrenched daytime TV character but soaps were slowly becoming an endangered species. So, she sort of understood when Les Moonves told her agent, “Why would I let her off a show that she is helping to keep on the air?” She finally decided to leave the business.

She read voraciously for inspiration; authors like James Baldwin who said that, for any real change to take place, it means the loss of everything familiar – a loss of comfort. It’s a shaking loose of everything you once knew.

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At Rutger’s Bloustein School, she took her first Public Policy class and fell in love. Public Policy is everything: politics, law, social work, economics, etc. It’s seat belt laws, energy use, no smoking policies, and much more. If there is problem in society, can or should government fix it? Beth’s heart pounded out of her chest with excitement. She’d found her calling and went on to receive her B.S in Public Policy.

Beth went on to work for N.J. State Senator, Bob Gordon and has since become Chief of Staff in his new position as the N.J. Commissioner of the Board of Public Utilities; a pretty meteoric rise. That board regulates the distribution of public utilities including water and PSE&G. When Mr. Gordon was a State Senator, she helped to draft legislation and is very passionate about clean energy initiatives; particularly solar and wind farms.

Looking back, if her metamorphosis sounds easy, it definitely was not. Making a midlife change is a lonely endeavor filled with long stretches of self-doubt. She says, “Being solitary; alone in your head is so unbelievably hard. The people closest to me are really what helped me through it. I think you really need that person(s) who can see the light at the end of the tunnel along with you; someone to remind you that ‘you got this’.

And yet she is surprisingly effusive about leaving acting. “It wasn’t hard to regain my anonymity. I do not miss being recognized all the time. I do miss ‘Harley’. I lived her life for so many years. There are real feelings in acting. It’s not all pretend. When I cried, those were real tears generated from real emotion. I feel like Harley was a real person.”

As for what it’s like for an actor to be nominated for an Emmy and not win, Beth says, “It did hurt to not win for those Best Supporting Actor nominations because I put my heart and soul into those performances. But by the time I was nominated for Best Actress, I knew I was leaving the business and I really just wanted to get up there and say thank you to the fans.” But she is most grateful to her friends, for new love in her life, to her two nearly grown sons, and her ex-husband, to whom she remains very close.

She still gets recognized now and again, and she takes those opportunities to thank her fans. As for the future, the world of politics has become more exciting than ever and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if, one day, Beth Christian ends up in Washington, D.C. They’d be lucky to have her.

The Ferry Dock Scribbler

“Welcome to the existential hell of the car standby line at the Block Island Ferry!”,  Joey Houlihan bellowed to the twelve drivers.  Our cars were lined up in a dirt parking lot directly across from the dock in Point Judith, Rhode Island. At 10:00am, the sun was already scorching.  Having no reservations, we listened to the disappointing sound of yet another ferry pulling away from the dock without us aboard.  But the sky was cloudless and blue, so we relaxed and capitulated to the probable hours-long wait for the one boat with room for our car.  We spent the time standing around the tiny shack; getting to know Joey, who turned out to be the surprise of our vacation.

At 68, he has the gray hair, strong build and tanned skin of a self-described stevedore who has been around these docks since 1974 when he was in the Merchant Marines.  He doesn’t have to do this job.  He does it because it is home; the water, the people, the excitement of the beginning of a thousand vacations.  But that’s not all there is to Joey. And as the morning passed into afternoon, we felt like we’d known him for years.

Joey is a professional writer.  He has had three books published, one of them a collection of short stories called The Monkey’s Fist which we later learned was sold out at the island book store.  He writes a popular column for the Block Island Times called The Ferry Dock Scribbler.  He has been published in several magazines and also contributes celebrity interviews to AARP, The Magazine.

Joey writes every single day.  And on his days off from running the stand-by line, he can be found sailing his beloved boat, Reverie, in Narragansett Bay. He grew up there, earned a B.A. in Theater, a graduate degree from URI, and spent the heart of his career as a public school teacher. But, that feels like ancient history. Nowadays, if you’re a regular, or if you own property on one of the islands, Joey is a minor celebrity.  If you don’t know him, you probably know of him.  His friends also include artists and actors from all over the country; some of them the kind who like to escape to the type of anonymity that New England’s archipelago provides.

He is a fierce conversationalist.  He speaks quickly and seems to pour his whole body into raving about his current favorite author; Tom McGuane, whom he calls an “absolute master of literary device”.  He is equally in awe of nature and is mesmerized by a recent find – a feat of natural engineering.  It’s a giant osprey nest “the size of a small condo” which can withstand winds of at least 60-70 mph.

When Joey talks – about anything – you get the feeling that life is really just beginning at age 68; that something amazing is just around the corner waiting to be discovered and dissected; devoured and celebrated.  A friend dubbed him a “juvenile veteran” which made him laugh out loud.  Joey makes you want to jump in his sailboat and tack straight into the wind up to Newport Harbor, drop anchor, and go get a beer and some steamers.