Telling Tales out of School

with Nick Martin

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  • Delighted to be mobile at 8 a.m.

    12/23/2014 3:08 PM

    I’ll be away until Jan. 5, so I’ll leave you with a bit of soccer, starting with the amazing experience I had a few weeks ago when Scotty beamed me down to a parallel universe.

    I had two skill-level matches with teenaged girls one weekday evening, and in 120 minutes of play, I can’t recall a coach yelling at me, or even muttering while making a miffed face.

    There was the one time when I went into contortions to avoid getting drilled by a ball, and the parents chortled loudly at me, leading me to hope that they have similar reflexes when they’re going on 67, but I digress....

    It was a very unexpected pleasant experience, and I realized that it’s been a year or two since I caught any flack from one particular club’s teams, two of whom played that night — I won’t name it, lest I place a curse on myself, but I’ve run into some very good coaches from that club who are unfailingly cordial and collegial. No, I won’t name that club, but now how do I get this image of Cary Grant at Mount Rushmore out of my head?

    Moving right along....

    Sepp, I told you back during the men’s World Cup about this problem, and you’ve yet to resolve it. I understand that my nagging you may jeopardize my retirement hopes of being named to the FIFA site selection committee, but nevertheless, I draw your attention again to Law 12 and the one bit in which there is a yellow card if the defending players fail to give the required yards on free kicks.

    You watch the pros, and the EPL refs are still pulling out their can of shaving cream, walking off the 10, marking the line, then doing the cattle roundup yee-haw scene from Red River to get all the defenders back behind that line, instead of just carding them for standing over the ball and preventing the kick’s being taken.

    So, Sepp, how do you expect me to deal with the kids who think it’s OK to stand over the ball, who believe that attackers are compelled to ask for yards and that I am compelled to mark off the yards?

    I’m wondering if my counterparts in youth basketball go through the same thing in school gyms on Saturday mornings. The ref knows travelling when he sees it, blows the whistle, and an incredulous kid goes, "What in the world is wrong with you, ref? I only took five steps — LeBron gets seven!!!!!"


    Meanwhile, what do you do when a parent bellows out, "How is that ever a corner????"

    Well, of course, it goes without saying that you immediately stop the match regardless where the ball is in play, walk over, look up respectfully into the bleachers, and explain that, well, yes, sir, it did look as though the attacking team did kick it out beyond the touch line from three-quarters of the way down the field, but I was close to the ball as I’m required to be, close enough that I could both see and hear the ball touch a defender as it went by, and since it then went all the way down the field and over the touch line, and since the keeper let it go out thinking that it was a goal kick, that the proper call was a corner. Sir.

    Of course I’ll do that.


    It’s occurred to me a few times while doing indoor soccer, I wonder how many marvellous goals would be offside once we go back outdoors in a few months?

    And coaches, you’ll let me know, eh?, if the sounds from my left knee are frightening the children.

    And seguing seamlessly....

    I already know from being told umpteen times that I’m the only referee in Manitoba who won’t let people play with jewellery, won’t let people play outdoors with sunglasses, won’t let adults play without a player’s card — "look at her hand, ref, now pretend you see a player’s card in her hand, and everyone will be happy" — and who reports if a team lacks a roster. It’s because I’m evil.

    Anyway, back to my point, about my allegedly being unique. There’s been a rule in indoor youth soccer for absolutely ages, that when the attacking team is on a kick or throw-in from a dead ball, that the attacking team can’t be inside the six-yard box until the ball is in play. Rule’s been there for years, players are constantly warning each other to stay out of the box, yet it still happens; and twice this indoor season I’ve had coaches tell me that no one has ever called it before.

    Not enough to prove I’m unique?

    How about that I am allegedly the only referee who won’t let a child play goal without shin pads, because he prefers not to wear any?

    I guess I’m truly evil, the Hannibal Lecter or Sheriff of Nottingham or Captain Hook of children’s soccer.

    All together now: Boo. Hiss.

    My initial reaction about UW’s RecPlex, along with the need for more water fountains, is that it’s a lot more running, which is a good thing for decrepit frail seniors, and the ball goes out of play less often than it does at UM, since UW puts three fields into the same space in which UM has four.

    This one afternoon, I’m walking down Spence to the entrance, and a dad going to watch asks me for directions, so we’re walking together through the campus, and we see this young man showing all the outward trappings of being a student, and he’s standing against the wall of Wesley Hall and doing something which would definitely be TMI.

    And he looks up and grins at us, and I point out to him that the buildings are all open and they all have public washrooms, and he says, "I know, I work in one of them today, peace and love, gentlemen."

    Yes, I know, Annette, I could maybe have skipped that one.


    I had one a while back that I’d never seen before, not as a ref or coach or parent, or even watching on TV. I award a free kick just outside the penalty area, kicker asks for yards even though the wall looks fine to me, and as I’m stepping off the yards and the defenders are relaxing while the ball is dead, the ball whistles past my ear and over the net. And I card the player, because there must be something somewhere in Law 12 about scaring the &%**% out of the ref.

    And, second half, identical circumstances but this time the other team having a direct free kick, and despite its never having happened before in my experience and everyone’s having seen the card, I’m halfway through stepping off the yards when the ball rockets past my ear.

    And now for something completely different....

    I’ve been getting some assignments with really young kids, and I’ve made a point of calling stuff that gets parents griping about "Come aaawwwnnn, they’re only nine", or, "Have a do-over".

    And I figure, if I let it go, when will they ever learn how to play properly? And each time I call something, I explain to the kids what happened and what the right way is to do it.

    When child the elder played hockey, they didn’t ignore icing or offsides just because they were nine.

    One of the things I see, especially with girls, is that the ball is bouncing, and they stick their arms up over their heads to supposedly get them out of the way of the ball. It makes it really hard to bring the ball under control, the way they’re twisting around so awkwardly.

    So I showed the girls what they were doing, and said that because their hands weren’t supposed to be up in the air like that, that if the ball touched their hand that I would call hand to ball and give the other team a kick. But if their hands were down by their sides where they were supposed to be, and the ball touched their hand or arm without their making any attempt to touch the ball, that I would call ball to hand, and we’d all just keep going.

    One of my wife’s colleagues told her that I’d been doing her kid’s match, and she was very pleased to see how I explained everything to the kids.

    Praise from a parent? Sorry, my world view has just been shaken, I’ll need a moment or two to regain my composure....

    Of course, I’m constantly learning, and players and coaches can be very helpful about the rules. A few examples in the last year or two....

    It was a high school coach who told me that I can’t give a yellow card in the first minute of the match, after I carded a guy for getting his foot so high on the challenge that he booted the other guy right in the ear.

    I had a player tell me one night that I have to give two warnings before a yellow, so each player would get two freebies.

    Teenage boys, of course, believe that you can do The Red Wedding on the field, as long as somewhere in the carnage you get a toe on the ball.

    Apparently, if a woman approaching my vintage is playing in goal for the first time, she can’t be expected to know that it’s not OK to run outside the penalty area and flatten an opponent.

    And not one on which anyone complained, but stood out for me — I was refereeing women in my demographic, and called a player for getting her boot up high on the challenge, and all her teammates ran over and congratulated her for still being able to get her leg that high.

    I doubt anyone is still with me, but nevertheless...

    Switching briefly to soccer that’s a level or two above that which I normally referee, we have our tickets for the World Cup in June and are really looking forward to it.

    Andreas, we will so totally be cheering for Sweden when they play Abby Wambach and Sydney Leroux.

    I know I should be happy that my lads are hovering in the top 10, but I still can’t figure out how Newcastle United is above relegation. I have the same faith that the Magpies won’t do a collapse of mythical proportions as I have for my mighty Maples.

    And as for Euro, is England really allowed to have players who can run fast and make sharp, short passes?

    It’s looking good for The Three Lions, but I recall reading that John Cleese said going into the men’s World Cup earlier this year, he can handle the despair, it’s the hope he can’t handle.


  • Warm and fuzzy feeling not enough for this donor

    12/17/2014 1:56 PM

    I’ve said before that the harmless, positive stories can often create more problems than do the ones mired in controversy and allegations.

    Saturday’s paper featured an interview I did with Alexa Yakubovich, a new Rhodes Scholar who’s graduated from Grant Park High School and the University of Manitoba, and who has already done a master’s at the University of Oxford, where she’ll pursue a PhD.

    Full disclosure, I was an organizer and chaperone at Yakubovich’s safe grad, but she was not among my daughter’s close friends.

    Yakubovich is a brilliant young woman who has immersed herself in the arts, and in raising money for cancer research; she’s conducted academic research into AIDS and the barriers to health care that women in poverty face, into homophobia in schools, into the lack of water on Manitoba reserves.

    The story ran as the weekly In Conversation With, a feature in which we have a short intro about an individual, with whom we then do a Q&A and publish our back and forth as a transcript.

    The focus was on Yakubovich’s achievements, what she’ll do with this gifted potential, how hard she’s worked to get where she is.

    Inevitably, outstanding students win a lot of awards and scholarships along the way. The story was about Yakubovich, the person she is, the person she may become.

    So, after the article ran, I received an email from a community group, a non-profit organization which had awarded Yakubovich financial aid. This community group demanded to know why there was no mention of it and its generosity in the article, had Yakubovich not told me about it, or had I chosen not to publish it?

    I told the group that it could talk to Yakubovich, and it could talk to my editors, but that we don’t discuss the details of our interviews with third parties. I gather she’s getting some grief — Yakubovich is an empowered, highly-educated adult, and she can decide how she wants to handle this.

    But it leads me to ask, why did this particular group choose to provide her financial aid — was it to help out someone who has the potential to make a real difference in the world, or to have the community commend its members for their selfless generosity?

    The story was about an outstanding young woman, and it was not a list of every award she’s won and every group or individual or organization or institution that has provided her with money and assistance and support along the way. That list would probably take up more space than the article I wrote.

    This is not the first time I’ve encountered such behaviour from a tiny minority of philanthropists and community volunteers.

    A while back, I was invited to be a speaker at Crossways in Common, advising inner-city non-profits on how to get media coverage. And as is my wont, I seemingly disgressed and told a story about what we’re likely to publish in certain situations, a story whose eventual point is appropriate in this current context.

    This would be back in Stratford in the mid-70s, when I was in the Perth County bureau for The London Free Press. There was to be a warm-and-fuzzy event, in which a community group had raised money and was presenting new wheelchairs to two disabled young girls.

    I duly attended, taking my prehistoric camera along, and having sat through the ceremony, prepared to take a photograph of the two girls in their new wheelchairs.

    The group was collectively horrified and outraged.

    This was a women’s group which people had to be invited to join, as I recall — whoops, sorry, my bad, that should be a ladies’ group, gentleladies in fact, members of the noblesse oblige gentry and all FOOFs (fine old Ontario families).

    Could I not get it through my thick head that the story — and accompanying photograph — was to be about the group, listing the names of all the members involved in the project, with special attention paid to the president of the group and to the chairs of the committes which had played key roles in doing this deed for which the community-at-large should overwhelmingly display its everlasting and public gratitude?

    To get out of there in one piece, I took a huge group shot, but I also photographed the two girls with their wheelchairs, and that’s what ran in The London Free Press, and the story talked about who these two girls were and how the wheelchairs would help them. And, of course, it hit the fan, and freeps city editor of the day, the late Jim O’Neail, is one of those editors in my career whom I remember fondly.


  • Somewhat bizarre correspondence

    12/15/2014 5:11 PM

    It was hard to keep score on what brought me more derision and scorn, my writing about the suspension of a high school teacher over attacks on natives posted on his Facebook page, or my Saturday Special on the move away from Christian-themed Christmas concerts in public schools.

    Not that the backlash, most of it from anonymous trolls defending the teacher or defending Christian traditions in public schools, surprised me.

    One guy, who apparently lives in the Interlake, did sign his name, in a rather odd email.

    He wanted to know why I would write about the teacher, when I allegedly don’t write about Ben Levin, the former deputy education minister facing child porn charges in Toronto. He said that ‘political considerations’ should not deter me. And he copied his message to me, to a whole bunch of people whom he didn’t identify and of whom I have never heard.

    A subsequent email that one of his recipients copied to me leads me to believe that they’re on the lookout for anything that could cast a negative light on aboriginal people trying to get into politics, but maybe that’s just my misinterpreting and taking stuff out of context again.

    Anyway, I replied to my initial correspondent that one situation had nothing to do with the other, that the amounts of relative column inches of disparate stories have no connection, and that I have, in fact, written about the charges Levin is facing, back in the summer of 2013 when the charges were laid.

    By the way, Toronto Star court reporter Alyshah Hasham tells me a trial date could finally be set when Levin next appears in court Jan. 9.

    Back to the email... I told this guy he should elaborate on what he meant by my being deterred by political considerations, and if he had some shot to take at my integrity, he should just come out and say it.

    Oh, heavens no, says he, the political considerations were that Levin has been a deputy minister of education in both Manitoba and Ontario.

    And why would that possibly deter me? He won't say.

    At least he had the gumption to sign his email.


  • All the no-news that's fit to print

    12/8/2014 3:56 PM

    I’m overdue to update you on stories on which I have absolutely nothing to report.

    It’s less than four months since former Red River College president Stephanie Forsyth left under a mutual agreement on which no one has ever elaborated, so what would be the big rush in starting a search for a new president?

    I keep bugging RRC, I keep getting told that the search plan and applicants’ criteria will be along one of these days.

    Meanwhile, acting president David Rew is still mulling over his review of how that marble from the culinary arts building ended up in the kitchen of the former president’s former home on Wellington Crescent.

    And meanwhile meanwhile, Advanced Education Minister Peter Bjornson 2.0 is still working on the review of RRC that his predecessor James Allum launched, that investigation into allegations about the finances and morale and employment practices at the college.

    So, there, do you feel better informed now?

    A day or two after the election, my colleague Aldo Santin interviewed Robert-Falcon Ouellette, in which the surprisingly strong mayoral candidate talked about his plans to establish an elite, private university in Winnipeg for indigenous students.

    I’ve asked Ouellette for an interview twice about his proposal, and twice he’s said he’ll get back to me when the time is right.

    And I have asked UM how it feels about a fairly senior university administrator with responsibility for indigenous students working on his own time on something that would, at least on the surface, appear to be in competition with his day job. UM says it hasn’t had a talk with Ouellette yet, as far as anyone knows.

    Seguing seamlessly....

    You wouldn’t have been aware of this one, but a senior labour leader contacted me right after the election, someone whom I don’t believe I’ve ever met — so you know it isn’t Manitoba Teachers’ union boss Paul Olson — who wanted to talk to me about the local school boards, with some context about the labour support some candidates received.

    We agreed to meet for coffee, but he cancelled at the last minute. I’ve emailed last week to see about trying again, but have had no further word.


    I and several of my colleagues received a lengthy email from a local student, who wants us to do a story on her, based on her having gotten accepted by a prestigious school in the UK amidst international competition for spots, and being only the second generation of her family to go to university.

    So here you have a bright young woman, who attended an academically-strong prestigious private school in Winnipeg, comes from a family of learned professionals, and got into a school overseas...all sorts of Winnipeg students get into the Ivy League or Oxford, and surely there are some as smart as I who also got into York, and probably a few who got into Trent or Victoria as did my kids, and we don’t do stories about all of them.

    And she figures she rates a story.



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About Nick Martin

Nick Martin is the old bearded guy at the back of the newsroom, the most experienced reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press, having started his career in Ontario in 1971.

He’s been covering education for the Free Press since the spring of 1997, after decades primarily covering municipal politics, including a four-year stint at the Ontario legislature for the London Free Press.

Nick moved to Manitoba in 1988 with his Winnipeg-born wife, who is a professor at the University of Manitoba. They have two kids, both of whom graduated from Grant Park High School: son Chris and daughter Gillian.

Nick has won a national journalism award from the Canadian Association of University Teachers, two Manitoba Human Rights Journalism awards, and the Ontario Reporters Association investigative award.

Nick is a long-distance runner, having finished and survived 18 marathons and 15 half-marathons and 30-kilometre races, and having (barely) survived 10 years as an outdoor and indoor soccer coach.

Nick became a soccer referee in 2007, delighting in his 60s in outrunning 16-year-olds and keeping his distance from obstreperous coaches and parents.

Nick and his wife have discovered a mutual love for kayaking at their Whiteshell cottage, and are both regulars at the Reh-Fit Centre. They hold season tickets to both the Manitoba Theatre Centre and the Warehouse, and as empty nesters, have rediscovered the joys of an active winter vacation.

A native of Jarrow-on-Tyne, England, Nick is a member of the Toon Army as a Newcastle United supporter, and a proud citizen of Leafs Nation.

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