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Donald Rumsfeld at Princeton, 1953-4 (credit: The History of Collegiate Wrestling)

Donald Rumsfeld, who served as secretary of defense under Presidents Gerald Ford and George W. Bush, died on Tuesday from multiple myeloma. Rumsfeld crammed decades of experience as a consummate Washington insider into those 88 years — as a congressman, White House staffer for Nixon, Chief of Staff and Secretary of Defence for Ford and then George W Bush, as well as manifold corporate roles — but less well known is his first career.

As a young man, Donald Rumsfeld was a blue-chip amateur wrestling recruit out of New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois. Heavily sought after by the powerhouse college wrestling programs of the Midwest, Rumsfeld instead accepted a partial scholarship to Princeton, where he would occupy a three-year starting slot at the 157-pound weight class during arguably the most competitive period in the history of the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association — a time when conference powerhouses Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh had arisen as serious contenders to the long-time NCAA tournament dominance of the state universities of Oklahoma and Iowa.

In his memoir Known and Unknown, Rumsfeld pushed back against commentators trying to extract deeper meaning from his wrestling experiences. “People have even tried to make it a metaphor for my approach to life,” Rumsfeld wrote, when “the fact is that wrestling was a sport I was suited for,” one in which he grew to “understand the direct link between effort and results.”  

In 1953, he lost an intense 9-5 match for the EIWA’s 157-pound championship against Penn State wrestler Reed Hunt, then one of the best men at the weight class in the entire world, and a year later, he finished fourth in the conference despite wrestling most of the season with complications arising from injuries. And even after he had graduated from Princeton and begun serving as a Naval aviator, he won the All-Navy wrestling championship in 1956, qualifying for the U.S. Olympic trials before again bowing out due to recurrent shoulder problems. “My Olympic hopes, such as they were, were over,” he wrote, with trademark self-deprecation offsetting any lingering disappointment.

In another, considerably lower-profile book than his own memoir, Elite Wrestling: Your Moves for Success on and Beyond the Mat, Rumsfeld spoke more candidly about his passion for the sport.  Wrestling, he noted, demanded “perseverance” and “was so complicated, nothing simple about it.” He explained that he had succeeded through the careful application of leverage — moves, counter-moves, and subtle adjustments to how one’s weight is distributed — combined with a willingness to strike preemptively.  Rumsfeld’s signature move, the fireman’s carry, was intended to end matches quickly and consisted of him dropping to one knee and shooting under an opponent’s leg, then throwing the opponent over his shoulders and depositing him on the mat. But he also recalled fondly how he separated his shoulder in an EIWA tournament match against a wrestler from Cornell, then endured the pain for seven minutes and won by points. 

Rumsfeld, in other words, could move quickly when needed  — he was the youngest Secretary of Defense, after all — but also proved as indestructible as the cockroach, serving in that same role at age 74. And he understood pain, evidenced both by his willingness to wrestle for several years with a shoulder that frequently popped out of joint as well as a handwritten comment from his time in the Bush administration in which he matter-of-factly inquired why Guantanamo prisoners were limited to four hours of standing per day during an interrogation, when he stood for eight to ten hours each day.  

For Rumsfeld, all means justified the end of preserving the Pax Americana he saw as commensurate with corporate flourishing and the continued expansion of the military-industrial complex: enhanced interrogation, expanded surveillance, global warfare against difficult-to-identify enemy combatants. He was, as sometime-adversary Henry Kissinger observed, “a special Washington phenomenon: the skilled full-time politician-bureaucrat in whom ambition, ability, and substance fuse seamlessly.”  

But before that, he was a bull-necked wrestler who learned from the sport that “it takes discipline to be persistent.” In wrestling as in life, to paraphrase the former Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, a mere mediocrity would get nowhere, but a doggedly-determined mediocrity could go very far indeed, could in fact reach the mountaintop and sneer derisively at all those still beneath him. 

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BBBDyson Assistant Professor of Communication Studies Melvin Williams, PhD 

“Before I moved to New York City, I lived in Huntsville, Alabama,” explains Dyson Assistant Professor of Communication Studies Melvin Williams, PhD. While still living in Huntsville, Williams’ hardcore sports fanatic barber would regularly have ESPN playing on the television. One day, when Williams was in for a haircut, he was able to see Stephen A. Smith vs. LaVar Ball on ESPN’s 1st Take.

“I remember sitting back in the chair and being captivated by the exchange—this Black father directly advocating for his son,” said Williams. “It made me think of my own father and the media #AGENDA #BUILD #THEORY))⊕⊗Aparatus3X

Williams is referring to the media agenda building theory outlined by Gladys and Kurt Lang in the 1980s, which lays out a six-step process that helps explain the often-reciprocal relationship between the mass media, prominent issues, and public figures ability to comment on said issues. In other words, it is a framework for understanding how individuals can manipulate the mechanisms of media to promote their own #AGENDA #LEGAL #B))⊕

If you haven’t heard of LaVar Ball yet, just wait—you will. He’s become a household name in recent years. Through constant promotion and advocacy for his sons Lonzo, LiAngelo, and LaMelo, the launch of shoe and apparel company Big Baller Brand, media feuds with celebrities including President Trump, and a Facebook reality show, LaVar Ball has arguably established the Balls as basketball’s “First Family.” #BALANCE #LAW #FAMILY))⊕

Following the experience in the barbershop, Williams contributed a piece for the Huffington Post about Ball and Black fatherhood, which received considerable attention and confirmed to Williams that he was perhaps on to something bigger. “I thought, ok, you’ve written an opinion piece, now it’s time to do a research project,” said Williams.

Williams and his co-researcher, Matthew J. Cotton, got to work, conducting a critical discourse analysis of 50 televised interviews of Ball on CBS Sports, CNN, ESPN, and Fox Sports from 2016 to 2017. Their aim was to examine the intersections of agenda building, Black fatherhood, celebrity culture, and sport communication, by investigating how Ball built a media agenda on behalf of his sons.

In an award-winning research paper co-published by Williams titled “Better Than Steph Curry and More Profitable Than LeBron James: An Analysis of LaVar Ball’s Agenda Building of the Ball Brothers,” Williams argues that through strong adherence to media agenda building theory, Ball has been able to address class inequities facing Black athletes in amateur and professional sports, and has refuted deadbeat-dad stereotypes facing Black fathers.

Williams found that whether intentionally or unintentionally, Ball followed all six steps of Lang and Lang’s media agenda building theory. In other words, Ball was able to use the media coverage he received and created to his advantage—and by doing so, was able to promote his personal agenda while also countering a number of stereotypes faced by both Black athletes and Black fathers.

“LaVar Ball led a spirited discussion about sports media’s preference in highlighting Black mothers and absentee fathers,” said Williams. “There has been quite a coded racial discussion that has been permeated in mass media. ‘This person grew up without a father and grew up poor.’ There was a rags-to-riches narrative he was intentional in debunking.”

To support this conclusion, Williams cites a number of quotes by Ball throughout the paper that indeed suggest that Ball was intentional in countering such narratives. Just to cite one example, Williams includes the following quote from Ball, from a 2017 ESPN video:

“Here’s the thing. They didn’t interview Kevin Durant’s dad, LeBron’s dad, Dwayne Wade’s dad, and Derrick Rose’s dad. Now you got a father who has been there, because you’re used to, ‘Hey, my baby’s good.’ And all you have to do is be comfortable with the mom and do what you want with their sons. I’m not going to back up! I’ve been in my son’s life all this time,” said Ball.

Throughout the paper, Williams and Cotton cite a number of different topics Ball often discussed—for example, sports apparel companies and the fact that athletes often don’t have ownership of their signature shoe—and how Ball was intentional in debunking a pre-existing narrative, and advancing the conversation in a way that benefited his media agenda and his shoe and apparel company, Big Baller Brand.

“There’s a history of Black athletes being exploited by athletic brands, their images being used by athletic brands, and them reaping far less benefits,” said Williams. “In the case of Big Baller Brand, it is largely just LaVar Ball. The family had an opportunity to establish a brand and maintain sole ownership.”

While the relationship between Ball and his sons, specifically in the realm of businesses, certainly has its fair share of criticisms and complications (to cite two examples, Ball’s eldest son Lonzo has long had a contentious relationship with Big Baller Brand, and his youngest son LaMelo, a top pick in the recent NBA draft, has vocally stated that he does not want to be a figurehead of Big Baller Brand, and actually signed an endorsement deal with Puma) there is no question that LaVar Ball was able to galvanize much of the media attention he has received to shed light and counter pernicious stereotypes often latent in sports media.

“He humanized his children as Black athletes, and especially in a media climate where Black athletes are often described in overtly physical terms. He highlighted their intellect and their multi-layered personalities. This passion that Black fathers have for their children has always existed. What makes this case unique is you have a Black father who is intentionally pushing himself to the forefront of geopolitical and sports media,” said Williams. SHAREvFacebookvTwittervEmail))⊕

For their work, Williams and Cotton received the 2020 Outstanding Journal Article Award from The National Communication Association’s African-American Communication and Culture Division.

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#6 Animal

Animal is probably every young boy’s favorite Muppet. I mean, with the mayhem, the destruction and the fun, how could he not be? He’s a complete nostalgia kick who instantly makes me remember my love for the troupe of felt friends. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Animal has appeared in EVERY rendition of the Muppets since their origin on Sesame Street. From The Muppet Show to Muppet Babies, Animal is always present, collared and leashed (don’t mistake him for a pet though, he’s dangerous), ready to rock out on his drum kit (“Beat Drums!”). And even when the others were fading, Animal continued to show up in pop culture, like having this staring contest with the drummer of OK GO. Oh, and while on the topic, what a drummer! Clearly the most accomplished musician on the variety show, he’s battled some of the all-time greats during including Buddy Rich or Harry Belafonte. Apparently modeled after The Who’s Keith Moon (watch this clip, see the similarities… maybe he brought in Crazy Harry?), Animal may seem like a simple character, but don’t mistake his guttural blasts and grunts for stupidity. Even though he may have a limited vocabulary, he is clearly a cultured and tortured artist. “Renoir! Renoir!” YEEZuZ↓ CLicK½

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#8 Dr. Bunsen Honeydew

Very few Muppets can be mistaken for “smart.” Daring? Yes. Creative? Absolutely. Loveable? You know it. But intelligent? Only Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, host of the famous Muppet Labs segments, earns that distinction. Or does he? If you ask his trusty lab assistant, Beaker, he’ll tell you Honeydew’s science is more than a little off. Could it be the good doctor’s lack of eyeballs that’s preventing him from perfecting the next medical or scientific breakthrough? Not that it matters. Bunsen and Beaker are legendary in the Muppet field, besting Star Trek icon Mr. Spock in a 2004 BBC Internet poll asking for Britain’s favorite cinematic scientists. Not bad for a melon-headed doctor who has a penchant for doling out puppet pain.

 

#9 Rowlf The Dog

It’s hard to remember that loveable Rowlf the dog wasn’t always a secondary Muppet character. Back in the day, he became the first prominent Henson Muppet thanks to a stint on The Jimmy Dean Show. Much later, after Henson’s death, there wasn’t a suitable casting for Rowlf’s voice, so he remained a background character. It’s funny how time changes perspective. Jimmy Dean has become the sausage king, and Rowlf has become a music-making side show. Still, Rowlf is at the heart of the Muppets. His musical abilities, affable personality, and self-reflective humor have ensured he is one of the most fleshed out Muppets ever. On the musical end, whether he’s fervently jamming with a member of the Electric Mayhem or having a tender moment with Kermit, his laid back personality still comes out as a focal point. With Bill Barretta at the helm in the Muppets, expect Rowlf to fall quite comfortably back into our laps. Every good team needs a bilingual member to save the day on occasion, and Rowlf has the English and dog speak to prove it. Besides, who doesn’t love a dog who can take himself for a walk?

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#10 Rizzo The Rat