Mike Penner (1957-2009)

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The last email correspondence I had with Mike Penner was predictable. I traded a few notes with him about some things and asked how he was doing a couple of month ago.

He responded: “Just trying to get through it.”

I checked this morning, and I still have an email address both for Penner and Christine Daniels. Mostly because I wasn’t sure which one to use after awhile. I’d send messages on both, figuring they’d reach him/her eventually.

But the news today that Mike apparently ended his tormented life at just 52 is heartbreakingly sad. It’s not fair.

Having covered some of the same beats with Mike — particularily the sports media — we crossed paths plenty of times, although I knew he’d rather have not left his house much of the time. He’d always send nice notes to me about something I’d written, and I’d return the favor. Mostly, the later.

I know of no one who has endured this daily, random hardship of trying to figure out gender assignment. For awhile, it seemed as Mike had it figured out. Once, it seemed to be settled, it wasn’t. I’m so sorry he had to endure such pain on a regular basis.

My condolences to him and his family, as well as to one of his best friends in the business, Billy Witz.

The Associated Press version of the story:

Los Angeles Times sports writer Mike Penner, who announced two years ago he was a transsexual and was changing his name to Christine Daniels, has died at age 52, the newspaper reported Saturday.

Penner was pronounced dead Friday at a hospital, said Los Angeles County coroner’s Lt. Brian Elias. He said coroner’s officials hadn’t yet performed an autopsy or issued an official cause of death.

The Times said in a story Saturday (linked here) that Penner was believed to have committed suicide. Penner had returned to using the name Mike Penner last year and was a Times columnist at the time of his death.

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In 25 years with the newspaper, Penner covered Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the Olympics, World Cup soccer, tennis and other sports. A fluid writer with a sharp wit, he worked at various times as a reporter, columnist and the newspaper’s Los Angeles Angels beat writer.

Times Editor Russ Stanton said Penner “respected our readers a great deal, enough to share with them his very personal journey.”

Penner revealed that journey on April 26, 2007, when he wrote a story for the Times headlined “Old Mike, New Christine,” in which he revealed he was taking a few weeks vacation and when he returned to his job as a sports writer it would be as a woman named Christine Daniels.

“I am a transsexual sports writer,” Penner wrote. “It has taken more than 40 years, a million tears and hundreds of hours of soul-wrenching therapy for me to work up the courage to type those words.”

The announcement sent shock waves through the sports world, but Penner’s bosses were supportive.

As Penner himself noted, when he revealed his plans to Times Associate Editor Randy Harvey, who was then the newspaper’s sports editor, Harvey “leaned back in his chair, looked through his office window to scan the newsroom and mused, ‘Well, no one can ever say we don’t have diversity on this staff.’”

After his vacation, Penner did indeed return as Christine Daniels, not only continuing to report on sports for the Times but also authoring a blog called “Woman in Transition,” detailing his experiences.

Making public the transition, he once said, was the hardest thing he had ever done.

“How do you go about sharing your most important truth, one you spent a lifetime trying to keep deeply buried, to a world that has grown familiar and comfortable with your facade?” he asked.

At the time of his announcement he was married, and he declined to discuss his family situation. He said he was undergoing female hormone treatments but declined to say whether he planned to undergo a sex-change operation.

However, he eventually dropped the “Woman in Transition” blog and returned to writing under the name Mike Penner.

At the time of his death he was writing a column for the Times called Totally Random that focused on offbeat, lighthearted and historic moments in sports. His last one appeared in the paper on Nov. 15.

Information on survivors and funeral arrangements was not immediately available.

== The April 26, 2007 L.A. Times column: “Old Mike, new Christine” (linked here).

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== An ABC News story in April, 2007, when Daniels made her debut (linked here)

== A story SI’s Rick Reilly did on Penner/Daniels in July, 2007 (linked here)

== A link to the Daily News’ “Out in Hollywood” blog by former reporter Greg Hernandez after hearing Daniels speak at a National Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association convention in San Diego in 2007 (linked here).

== A Feb., 2009 story in USA Today about how Daniels’ transgender attempt didn’t last and he’d returned to Penner (linked here).

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The Media Learning Curve: Nov. 20-27, the more dubious the better

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First, more Dubious Dozen 2009 entrants who didn’t make it into today’s yearly wrap-up column (linked here):

* Horndoggery: n.: see ESPN

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The culprit: ESPN vs. Deadspin.com

The crime: Deadspin editor AJ Daulerio, more than miffed that the World Wide Leader mislead him on reports about inappropriate behavior by then-employee Steve Phillips (eventually let go after it was confirmed the baseball analyst had an affair with an employee), began his own pursuit of “horndoggery” rumors that continued to fill his email box about things going on at the company.
The ongoing link: http://deadspin.com/tag/espnhorndoggery/

The aftermath: ESPN president George Bodenheimer sent a memo to employees in October — which Daulerio obtained eventually (linked here) — calling into question “unwanted media coverage, including a series of Internet posts where the editor expressly stated that many of these items were based on rumor and that they had not attempted to verify their accuracy. Compounding this issue is my disgust that some of our own unidentified employees are leaking materials to the media thereby contributing in a significant way to these destructive efforts.”
So, “If anyone feels that we are not living up to our commitment or that your work environment, either in our offices or at any remote location, is of concern, you can and should bring that to the attention of your supervisor … or to me personally.”
Also in October, Daulerio published the entire lawsuit filed against Deadspin by former ESPN NFL commentator Sean Salisbury (linked here).
Oh, Deadspin also made note that on Bookmaker.com, wagers were being accepted on: “Next ESPN Personality Involved In A Sex Scandal.”
“I’d go big on the underdog,” wrote Daulerio. “Just sayin’. Despicably.”

* The Beer Goggles

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The culprit: Ed Podolak, Iowa football radio analyst.

The crime: With the team for the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl, Podolak, a former Hawkeye quarterback and running back, ended up enjoying himself so much, photos showed up on the Internet, starting with Jay Christensen’s The Wiz Of Odds (linked here). Three pictures of the 61-year-old, including one where he’s looking down the blouse of a women, were also posted on an Iowa State fan Web site.
It wasn’t Podolak’s first brush with public intoxication. In 1997, Iowa City police charged Podolak with just that, plus interference with official acts, after campus police found him sleeping in the grass on the University of Iowa Pentacrest.

The aftermath: “I am embarrassed by the pictures,” he said later. “It was late in the evening at the hotel. But I am responsible to represent the university and I am embarrassed by my actions.”
Too late. A week later he said he was going to “retire” from the broadcast booth. Then he came out of retirement in March, and has been calling Hawkeye games all season, logging his comments on his blog at his official website (linked here).

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Play it forward: Nov. 23-29 on your L.A. sports calendar

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MONDAY

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Check the T-wolves roster, please … One guy from Australia. Another from Montenegro. A big man from the Ukraine. OK, all clear. Release Ralph Lawler and Michael Smith back to their chairs, with both clutching their Clipper plush toy.
NBA: Clippers vs. Minnesota, Staples Center, 7:30 p.m., Prime Ticket, 980-AM.

No foolin’: After the Bruins’ victory over Cal State Bakersfield on Friday, they fell from No. 7 in the Jeff Sagarin USA Today computer poll to No. 104. And Cal State Fullerton did nothing Friday, but went up from No. 138 to No. 20. Pepperdine is … oh, what does it matter?
College basketball: UCLA vs. Pepperdine, Pauley Pavilion, 8 p.m., FSN West, 570-AM.

Keep your cameras pointed on the Titans owner up in the press box. We hear he can get pretty comical. Oh, right, he used to live in Houston, too. Probably has a lot of old friends he wants to let know he’s still thinking about ‘em after moving his Oilers out of town long ago.
NFL: Tennessee at Houston, 5:30 p.m., ESPN.

TUESDAY

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In an imperfect world, this would have been the game where Allen Iverson debuted in a Knicks uniform.
NBA: Lakers vs. New York, Staples Center, 7:30 p.m., FSN West, 710-AM

WEDNESDAY

Michael Jordan says that other players, aside from him, deserve to have their numbers retired. He didn’t mention any former Clippers.
NBA: Clippers at Indiana, 4 p.m., Prime Ticket, 980-AM.

After averaging more than a point per game in his first 20 games this season, Anze Kopitar has just three assists and no goals in his last five.
NHL: Kings at Edmonton, 6:30 p.m., 1150-AM (no TV).

THURSDAY

On Thanksgiving, there’s this basketball tournament called the 76 Classic (linked here), in its third year, played in Anaheim that’s supposed to mean something to someone. At least it does for ESPN — giving it some programming on a day everyone would just as soon not play. The Bruins are joined by Long Beach State, Texas A&M, West Virginia, Butler, Clemson and Minnesota. We’d just as well sneak out and go across the street to Disneyland. College basketball: UCLA vs. Portland, Anaheim Convention Center, 8 p.m., ESPN2, 570-AM. (Note: UCLA plays Butler or Minnesota, TBA, on Friday and couple play in the tournament final on Sunday.

Another Kings road game with no TV coverage. Who wants to pay the crew holiday salary?
NHL: Kings at Vancouver, 7 p.m., 1150-AM (no TV).

Hold this one at the old Pontiac Silverdome, for old time’s sake, now that it’s been sold.
NFL: Green Bay at Detroit, 9:30 a.m., Channel 11.

Hold this one at the old Cowboys Stadium, for old time’s sake, now that it’s been demolished.
NFL: Oakland at Dallas, 1:15 p.m., Channel 2.

Hold this one at the old Mile High Stadium, for old time’s sake, now that it’s somewhere.
NFL: N.Y. Giants at Denver, 5:20 p.m., NFL Network.

FRIDAY

Pass.
NBA: Clippers at Detroit, 5 p.m., FSN West, 980-AM.

Probably pass, as well.
College basketball: USC vs. Coppin State, Galen Center, 7:30 p.m., usctrojans.com, 710-AM

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SATURDAY

Prediction: Both USC and UCLA finish the season 7-5, with the Bruins holding the tie-breaker for eligibility to the WhateverItIs Bowl in East Matilda, N.M. Can the Trojans live with that? Would this little girl be disappointed?
College football: UCLA at USC, Coliseum, 7 p.m., FSN West, 570-AM, 710-AM.

Charlie Weis, meet your maker. Note: If Stanford gets near the 50-point mark, don’t be too upset.
College football: Notre Dame at Stanford, 5 p.m., Channel 7.

On Friday, Golden State (4-8) earned its first victory this season over a team with a winning record when it turned away Portland, 108-94. Keep an eye on newly signed forward/center Chris Hunter, a 6-foot-11, 240-pound D-Leaguer who made his NBA debut in the second half and was effective in containing the Blazers’ Greg Oden, holding him to five points. “I’ve never seen him before, never met him before, but that guy belongs in the NBA,” Warriors coach Don Nelson.
NBA: Lakers at Golden State, Channel 9, 710-AM

The Blackhawks end a five-game roadie that started in Edmonton and went to Vancouver, San Jose, Anaheim and here in 10 days. At least, it was warmer.
NHL: Kings vs. Chicago, Staples Center, 7:30 p.m., FSN West, 1150-AM.

SUNDAY

O.J. Mayo, on your left-over turkey sandwiches.
NBA: Clippers vs. Memphis, Staples Center, 12:30 p.m., Prime Ticket, 980-AM.

If the Nets are still 0-for-the-season coming in, expect the odds to favor the Lakers.
NBA: Lakers vs. New Jersey, Staples Center, 6:30 p.m., FSN West, 710-AM

Ask them to play a football game, and we’ll be there.
College basketball: USC vs. Nebraska, Galen Center, 1:30 p.m., FSN West, 710-AM.

The Sunday night game has potential.
NFL: Pittsburgh at Baltimore, Channel 4, 5:20 p.m.

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Get out to Hollywood Park for a tribute to Zenyatta, where she’ll be paraded around between races, fans get a DVD with highlights of all her 14 races (all wins) and you can buy a beer for owners Jerry and Ann Moss, trainer John Shirreffs and jockey Mike Smith.
Horse racing: Hollywood Park, Inglewood, first post: 12:30 p.m.

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More on Vijay: The success stories don’t end here

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The Vijay Amritraj Foundation Vijay Amritraj visits the Samrakshan Orphanage in India during a recent trip for his VAF foundation.

A postscript to today’s column on Vijay Amritraj (linked here):

Amritraj tells a story that occured a couple of years ago, when the women’s pro tennis tour had an event in India at the same time he was there to visit the Mitra Jyothi charity, which helps blind women shunned by their families and helps them create skills such as basket weaving and carpet making.

“I decided to present a check from the foundation to the head of the project — this 4 foot, 11 inch blind woman — at center court of the WTA event, and she stood there between me and Venus Williams,” said Amritraj, who is 6-foot-4. “Venus looks at me after this and says, ‘She makes me feel this big with all she’s done,’” as he holds his finger and thumb on his right hand just an inch apart.

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During a visit at his Van Nuys office, not far from his long-time Encino home, Amritraj had plenty of other tales about his visits with those in need in his native India, and how the motto of his foundation — In Giving, We Receive — means more to him now than it did when he started the non-profit in 2006.

For example — a group of mentally challenged men, prone to violent outbursts, are suddenly joking with him as he pays a visit to their group home and spends the next 90 minutes listening to them talk about the times they’ve seen him lose big matches during his impressive tennis playing career. He watches a surgery on a blind young man where they take a tooth from deep inside his mouth and implant it under the skin near his eye for form a natural membrane, which is then taken out and used as a cover for the new pupil, giving the patient the chance to see colors for the first time.

“It’s a wonderful gift to be able to give,” he says quite modestly. “And who’s to say which charity is better or worse than another? There have been a number of great philanthropic attempts from the United States. This country is truely a miracle worker. By far, Americans are the world’s greatest givers — by far — and for the way Americans are sometimes described around the world, I’ll never understand it. We have so much to learn from the people like the Bill Gates and Warren Buffets of the world.”

And from how they help the poor around the world. In India, it’s not just the visuals of children playing in the trash heaps of “Slumdog Millionaire,” being bought and sold as slaves.

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For the grace of God, Amritraj knows that he and his two brothers became pro tennis players almost by accident, then had success in the Davis Cup as well as on the pro tour as a doubles team and singles competitors that brought them both riches well beyond their dreams. Vijay, Anand and Ashok Amritraj — who all live in the San Fernando Valley now — were among the first Indians to play in top-flight international tour tennis. In 1976, Vijay and Anand were semifinalists in the Wimbledon men’s doubles.

Ashok is chairman and CEO of Hyde Park Entertainment in Hollywood, which has produced movies such as “Bringing Down The House, “Raising Helen,” “Shop Girl” and “Walking Tall.”

Vijay, the chairman of First Serve Entertainment, says he visits India seemingly once a month, in part because his parents still live there — they’ll be celebrating their 60th anniversary in December — but also to tend to some businesses there and, more importantly, visit some of the projects that his foundation is helping to fund.

He also travels a lot for the Singapore-based ESPN Star Sports network, doing commentator work on tennis and golf programming. His oldest son, Prakash, is a 26-year-old veteran now of the men’s pro tennis tour, several years removed from a championship season at USC. Amritraj’s other son, Vikram, is involved in hip-hop music production.

“I know, from my end, I’m very fortunate to have the parents I have,” said Amritraj. “I could just as easily been in a hole. Who’s to say how I ended up? My life has been so ludicracy blessed. I have to constantly ask myself — Did I deserve this?”

Consider making a donation or attending the Dec. 4-5 VAF fundraiser in Calabasas and Beverly Hills. Sponsors who have underwritten the event include American Airlines, Sony Entertainment Television, Disney, Rolex, IREO, Highglow, Tennis Channel, Standard Chartered and TATA.

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Vijay Amritraj accepts appointment as a United Nations Messenger of Peace in 2001.

== More to look at:
== The Vijay Amritraj Foundation official site (linked here)
== A list of the charities that the VAF funds, including St. Vincents Home for AIDS Patients, Center for the Aged and Mitra Jyothi, which provides education and life skills to blind women (linked here)

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Our Daily Dread: Lawler-Smith punished after one email objection; media hijinx ensue

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And that guy who did so — we’re going with a Clipper season-seat holder named Arya Towfighi, since the L.A. Times has so gracefully printed his name in today’s edition — is responsible for having Michael Eaves replace Ralph Lawler (and Don MacLean over Michael Smith, a noted improvement) during the Clippers-Nuggets broadcast on Prime Ticket Friday night.

Put on a raincoat and goggles if you’re ready to enter this crapstorm:

Issue 1: The coverage:

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== Today’s L.A. Times’ “HOLY $*!# MAN WALKS ON MOON” approach makes it look as if the U.S. has just declared war on Iran. A story with all-out caps, taking up more than 50 percent of the front page, buries an otherwise more interesting piece of news — the Clippers just registered their biggest win of the season, an improbable 7-point victory over the Denver Nuggets, who a week ago destroyed the Lakers. If you take the Times’ front page at face value, it looks as if: a) Lawler died, b) a mean looking guy for the Memphis Grizzlies wants revenge, c) it was a very, very, very, very, very slow news day and someone’s knee jerk judgment got in the way — almost as fast as someone’s did at FSN before this decision was finally made.
“WORDS GET IN THEIR WAY” read the headline. Story gets in L.A. Times’ way is how it came out.

== The L.A. Daily News — my employer — played it as a seperate story, inside, above the story about the Clippers’ victory. At first, I believed it was being overplayed. I wasn’t sure what the purpose of this “story” was about or the message we were delivering — outside of describing what was said and their was a suspension taking place.
Earlier in the night, when this story appeared on the Associated Press wire services, I was alerted to it by my boss. My intial reaction: There’s got to be more to this. I’ll make some calls, see what I can find out. Since that’s all the information we had — four paragraphs, without a transcript — we decided that it was worth placing at the end of the Clippers’ game story, which was reported by the Associated Press. We’d make note of it, we’ll follow up later if there seems to be more news to this. That was exactly how it was displayed in the Daily Breeze — on page 10 of their section today.
Somehow, the earlier Daily News gameplan changed, and it was displayed larger with a headline, but not that was a far more reasonable approach to it than how the Times went carpetbagging with it.

Issue 2: How this story came to be:
The Times, according to its story, was one of three place where this angered viewer sent his email, taking offense to how Lawler and Smith talked about Memphis big-man Hamed Haddadi, the first Iranian player to make the NBA, as he entered the game against the Clippers on Wednesday. The person emailed them a transcript of what was said about Haddadi — using terms that referred to Sasha Baron Cohen’s “Borat” character, pronouncing his native country as “Eye-ran.”
About 2-plus hours before the game, FSN West/Prime Ticket issued some sort of press release explaining why Lawler/Smith were being replaced by Eaves/MacLean, how what they said was inappropriate, issued apologies, and explained that they took appropriate action — with no mention that Lawler and Smith had been taken off the air. Sorry, but you not only buried the lead, you didn’t even report your “appropriate” action. That’s very appropriate for a company that, of late, has no tact in dealing with the local media, and I’ve come to accept that as well. It’s almost as if they’ve become the Clippers of the local media entities. It’s a place where good people no longer work, and other good people have been let go for budgetary reasons that go beyond any quality explanation.
In the end, this was apparently a story created for the Times, about the Clippers and with FSN West/Prime Ticket’s steering. They had ownership and were going to move forward.

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Issue 3: The punishment:
Did Lawler and Smith deserve to be taken off the air and made an example of for what they said? Not based on their inglorious track record.
The two have been a Punch-n-Judy nightclub act for the last eight years. Stories have actually been written about how “fun” it is to listen to them exchange crazy thoughts and ideas as another lame loss goes into the books. Why else would anyone watch a Clipper game, if not because they enjoyed the broadcaster’s chemistry, idle banter and poor-man Abbott and Costello routines. Neither are close to being my favorite broadcasters, but I accept the fact others like them, so, as an athlete says when he has no explanation for something: It is what it is.
So, let’s review — they are encouraged to get a little silly. And, here, they do. And someone hears it. How? Chances are — seriously — that no exec at FSN West/Prime Ticket would have even been aware this was said except for ONE EMAIL that was sent. In our opinion, they did cross a line, but nothing that is outlandish in this day in age. But by the same token comment, it should be reported, dealt with, explained, used as a teaching moment, and you shake your head and move forward. If one person is offended, you take note. If two are offended, you add it to the pile.
From what appears to be only ONE EMAIL, all this action took place.
But then again, considering the parties involved, it makes perfect nonsense. The Times, the Clippers and FSN West/Prime Ticket are stumbling over themselves today wondering if they did the right thing, while at the same time, probably feeling some pride that they did something newsworthy. It’s ripe for a Three Stooges script.

One other thing: The Times’ story adds that “this isn’t the first time Fox has disciplined an announcer for on-air comments,” and then gets into the Steve Lyons firing in the 2006 ALCS. That was Fox, the big network, handling something said after Lyons had been on thin ice for many seasons. This is Fox Sports Net West/Prime Ticket, a different “thing” in the Fox pecking order, and a stretch at best in what happened here.

Issue 4: More on the punishment:
Lawler and Smith get suspended.
Norm Nixon (linked here) gets a DUI in Marina del Rey last March. FSN West kept him on the air as a pre- and post-game studio analyst through the Lakers regular season and playoff run. If he was punished for this, there was no press release issued. If he was not punished…. find the logic.

Some great reaction today:
== The Miami Herald website (linked here)

Follow me now on Twitter: www.twitter.com/tomhoffarth

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