SYDNEY, Australia — The spring sun might have been warm, but the Pacific Ocean off the edge of Sydney felt like an ice tray. I put my head down and tried to breathe in a steady rhythm as I swam faster than usual to warm up, keeping an eye on a couple of swimmers heading in my direction along the rocky coast.
When the distance between us shortened, both of them stopped and seemed to be pointing. I picked up my head.
“Bull ray,” said one of them, a woman about my age wearing an orange swim cap. I peeked underwater. It was midtide, the water was clear, but all I could see were rocks and sand about 10 feet below.
“Where?” I shouted as I resurfaced.
“Right there!” She pointed directly at me. “Right under you!” I pushed down deeper on my next dive, and then I saw it: a black blanket of a stingray, wider than I am tall, its wings fluttering at the edges as if getting ready for takeoff.
My heart raced with, what — fear, wonder, appreciation? Probably all three. Bull rays are mostly docile creatures, but their stinging spine is venomous. I was pretty sure one of them had been responsible for the death of Steve Irwin, Australia’s nature superstar.
I’m no Steve Irwin. Before moving from Brooklyn to Sydney in 2017 to open The New York Times’s Australia bureau, I was a dutiful landlubber. I’d go for a dip in the ocean a few times a year, splash around and then retire to a beach chair. My version of exercise consisted of jogging four miles, three times a week.
But in Australia, something changed. I went from ignoring swimming to hating it to craving the sensation of being submerged, stretching my body and mind with the ocean’s creatures and currents. Two years ago, I harrumphed my way into becoming a volunteer lifesaver at one of Australia’s most dangerous beaches. These days, I surf or swim in the Pacific four or five times a week.
I’ve made it to that point only because the people around me, from neighbors to my children, insisted that I participate. “Give it a go,” they said. Give up your individualism and reportorial distance, give in to Australian peer pressure and embrace something American life rarely celebrates: proficiency.
The word simply means “skilled in doing.” Not exceptional, not superior. Purely proficient. In Australia, it’s the level of competence required of all 181,000 volunteers patrolling the country’s beaches alongside smaller crews of professional lifeguards. Grandmothers, triathletes, politicians and immigrants, we all became proficient after six to eight weeks of group training on rip currents and rescues, CPR, shark bites, jellyfish stings and resuscitation.
Ocean swimming was a prerequisite — and an entry point for something more profound. Proficiency in the water, for me, has become a source of liberation from the cults of outrage and optimization on land. In up-and-down seas, I can be imperfect, playful, apolitical and happy as long as I’m moving. As a father and citizen, I often wonder: What might the world look like if we all found a place of risk and reward that demanded humility, where we couldn’t talk or tweet, where we had to just get better at doing?
Risk and the Ocean Through Time
The communal, sea-savvy culture that I fell into in Australia began 50,000 to 65,000 years ago when some of the continent’s first inhabitants made their way across land bridges and the seas to the northern tip of the landmass.
Australian surf lifesaving got its start in Sydney with men like John Bond, a soldier and medic who gathered and trained a few local swimmers around 1894. Commanding and mustachioed in photos, he is a revered figure where he happened to land, and where I did, too — in Bronte, a coastal suburb of Sydney encircling a small beach where southern swells often produce 12-foot waves and where rip currents can move at the speed of an Olympian.
I ended up in Bronte because the public school taught Spanish — which my children, who were 8 and 6 when we arrived, had mastered in Mexico and at their bilingual school in Brooklyn. In our new home, they had another language to learn. About nature. About a world where the sublime and the scary flow together.
Australia’s anthem describes the country as “girt by sea.” Worldwide, about 40 percent of the population lives within 100 kilometers, about 62 miles, of an ocean; in Australia, 85 percent of the country’s 25 million people live within half that distance. Speedo got its start here in 1914, and even inland — in arid towns the color of dust — public pools are as common as playgrounds. Somehow, swimming just seems to be everywhere, and expected of everyone. In Bronte, most people seem to know someone who has tried to swim the English Channel.
For my son, Balthazar, known as Baz, and his younger sister, Amelia, the integration process began with a junior lifesaving program called Nippers. For generations, it has been a Sunday ritual. Thousands of nippers ages 5 to 14 invade Australia’s beaches from October through March to race on the sand, swim deep into the ocean and practice using rescue boards. The cutesy name doesn’t begin to capture what the action looks like — every age group has its own colored swim cap; every child has his or her name on it and a neon pink rash guard, better known in Australia as a rashie. Parents trained as lifesavers are their guides in the water, wearing orange rashies to further brighten the scene.
But the longer I stayed, the more I started to think of it as summer camp (or boot camp?) for courage and community. The children pushed one another to finish every task. They confronted the punishing surf together. Fear and tears were simply ignored, not coddled, not denied.
One day, my son found himself at the center of it all. He was riding a board in, bobbing on waves twice his height until he reached the break zone. A wave lifted him up and — with the force of a freight train — crashed him into the shore, tumbling the boy through sand and surf.
I ran to him, trying to calm my racing heart as a gaggle of teenage girls gathered around him first. “Best wave of the day,” one said. Baz could barely breathe, his face was covered in snot, tears and sand. A few minutes later, he was smirking with pride and ready for another go.
My daughter proved to be even braver — she was the one persuading her skittish friends to jump off cliffs or go for long swims or for another ride on the rescue boards.
And then it was my turn. Baz challenged me. Amelia concurred: Dad needed to get his Bronze Medallion, the lifesaving qualification that would earn an orange rashie.
It was time to become proficient.
A Personal Struggle
A lot of people who have been swimming for sport or exercise since they were young write and talk about it with an affection usually reserved for romantic poetry.
My approach favored four-letter words.
In my first attempt to qualify for Bronze Medallion training, I failed. I couldn’t swim 400 meters in less than nine minutes, as required. I finished in 10 minutes 17 seconds, gasping for air.
That led me to take swim lessons in my mid-40s from the same enthusiastic young woman who taught Baz and Amelia when we first arrived in Australia.
Humiliating? Yes. But the worst part of swimming was the actual swimming. At Bronte Baths, the ocean pool carved into the sandstone cliffs at Bronte’s southern edge in the 1880s, every 30-meter lap felt like a climb up Mount Everest.
Eventually, I began to improve. At some stage, I switched up my freestyle technique, breathing every third stroke instead of every two, which helped me glide and see conditions to my left and right — which became more important when I ditched the pool for the ocean. Bondi Beach was where I had learned to surf, so I started swimming there. With no lanes and no one swimming next to me, I started to enjoy practicing and exploring. I marveled at silvery fish and underwater sand patterns. One day, I even wandered into a pod of dolphins darting and diving while I stared in awe for as long as I could hold my breath.
When it was time for me to try the lifesaving test again, after a few months, I finished the 400 meters with more than a minute to spare.
New struggles followed. As part of the training, we were expected to swim together at 6 a.m. It was spring: The water temperature was below 65 degrees. The quest for proficiency also involved group CPR and rescue simulations, which meant chest compressions close enough to smell each other’s breath. We were a bunch of strangers, men and women, around 15 to 50 years old, with different backgrounds, jobs and political views. None of which mattered. We bonded to build our skills. We passed not because we were great but because we were good enough — collectively, even after a wave crashed our swimmer off a yellow spinal board.
Proficiency, I realized, is not like victory, success or whatever else dominates America’s hierarchy of goals. It’s more forgiving, more inclusive, more noble — if we make it a priority. And do we? How often do any of us seek out a risk or a physical and mental challenge unrelated to work or achievement, with an allowance for error, interdependence and grace?
Researching a book about all of this — Australia, risk, community — I discovered the broader benefits of becoming proficient. Martin Seligman, an American psychologist well known for two very different lines of inquiry (learned helplessness and positive psychology), told me that a quest for competence can offset what he called a worrying trend of American fragility. For decades, he said, our culture has sought protection for feelings, believing that self-esteem is the spark for achievement. But that’s backward, he explained. People do not do well because they feel good; they feel good because they do well, often after failing and improving.
Maybe children are the ones to emulate. Here in Sydney, the new Nippers season has just begun. While my son has persuaded me to let him enjoy aquatic life with just water polo and surfing, my daughter continues to gain strength from Australia’s Sunday morning ritual.
Amelia is 11 now, and together we sometimes swim near where I saw that bull ray. Recently, when the surf was uncharacteristically calm, we jumped off the rocks by Bronte Baths and made our way south to where we had never gone because the usual waves would smash us to pulp. We could still feel the strong currents and we knew there might be sharks nearby, so we stayed close together. Neither panicked nor reckless, we swam a few hundred meters without noticing the distance until I saw another wonder of the deep — a blue groper, a giant fish the color of a noon sky that is so slow it is protected from spearfishing.
“Over here,” I yelled. “Blue groper!”
Amelia was next to me in a flash, then down below. I followed right behind, silent and at peace in a foreign realm, pulling myself toward the beautiful fish and the brave little girl.
Bob Blitz Held the NFL to Task Over the Rams’ Relocation
In a separate deposition in October 2020, N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell was pressed repeatedly on the question at the heart of the lawsuit: Did the N.F.L.’s team owners ignore their own relocation guidelines when they voted to allow the Rams to move? Goodell gave elusive responses on whether the owners had considered each of 12 predetermined factors or if they’d voted merely because a Los Angeles deal was available.
“And I will say it again that I think the ownership was very responsible in considering all of the various factors and really understanding the key issues and ultimately made a decision which is in the best interest of the N.F.L.,” Goodell said, according to a partial transcript of the deposition.
The realization that an answer like that was unlikely to satisfy a jury of Missouri residents, combined with the prospect of several N.F.L. owners being called to testify, made settling the case a more pragmatic option than opening a trial on Jan. 10, just weeks before the Super Bowl is scheduled to be played at SoFi Stadium, the splashy $5 billion venue in Inglewood, Calif., that Kroenke built after moving the team west.
In deciding to settle for $790 million, the N.F.L. closed its responsibility to Blitz and a city that has lost not just the Rams, but also the Cardinals, who left for Arizona after the 1987 season. But the league provided precedent for other scorned cities.
“The host cities may actually begin to gain leverage back,” said Daniel Wallach, a sports and gambling lawyer who has tracked the case.
For the N.F.L., the agreement ensures that a public rendering won’t happen and keeps private the juicy details of league business contained in the many documents pertaining to the lawsuit. It also ensures that the backbiting between team owners stays in house.
Before the league opted to settle, Kroenke and the other team owners appeared to be at each others’ throats as he, according to multiple news outlets, attempted to free himself of the indemnification agreement that held him liable for legal expenses and potential damages related to relocation litigation.
Now, Kroenke may have to pay for most or all of the settlement.
China’s Silence on Peng Shuai Shows Limits of Beijing’s Propaganda
When the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai accused a former top leader of sexual assault earlier this month, the authorities turned to a tried-and-true strategy. At home, the country’s censors scrubbed away any mention of the allegations. Abroad, a few state-affiliated journalists focused narrowly on trying to quash concerns about Ms. Peng’s safety.
Beijing seems to be relying on a two-pronged approach of maintaining the silence and waiting for the world to move on. The approach suggests that the country’s sprawling propaganda apparatus has limited options for shifting the narrative without drawing more attention to the uncomfortable allegations Beijing hopes would just disappear.
On China’s social media platforms and other digital public squares, the censors’ meticulous work has left almost no sign that Ms. Peng had ever accused Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier, of sexual assault. Like a museum to a previous reality, her social media account remains, without new updates or comments.
These tactics have worked for China in the past, at least at home. In recent years, officials have relied on heavy censorship and a nationalistic narrative of Western meddling to deflect blame for issues including the outbreak of Covid-19 and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
This time, though, the #MeToo accusation from a lauded and patriotic athlete implicating a top leader has no simple solution from Beijing’s propaganda toolbox. Any new narrative would most likely have to acknowledge the allegations in the first place and require the approval of top Chinese leaders.
“The central propaganda bureau does not dare go out on its own about a former Standing Committee member,” said Deng Yuwen, a former editor of a Communist Party newspaper, referring to Mr. Zhang’s position in the body that holds ultimate power in the party. “It would have to be approved by Xi Jinping.”
“For them, this is not just a propaganda matter, but also an issue of national security,” continued Mr. Deng, who now lives in the United States.
The level of censorship Beijing deployed to shut down discussion of Ms. Peng’s allegation has little precedent, said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley.
To the Chinese authorities, the plan of action for now appears to be one of inaction. On overseas sites like Twitter and Facebook that are blocked in China, the response has been muted and fragmentary. When Beijing-backed journalists have addressed Ms. Peng on overseas social media sites, they have studiously avoided mentioning the nature of her accusations, or their target.
Instead, they have sought to put an end to the questions about Ms. Peng’s whereabouts, releasing photos and videos of the tennis star that seemed designed to show that she was safe despite having disappeared from public life. Ms. Peng also appeared in a live video call with the leader of the International Olympic Committee that only raised more concerns.
To some, the apparent stage-managing of Ms. Peng was a reminder of the authorities’ use of forced confessions and other video testimony from detainees for propaganda. In 2019, a state run news service ran a “proof of life” video of Abdurehim Heyit, a prominent Uyghur folk poet and musician, to quell international concerns that he had died in an internment camp.
When Peter Dahlin, a Swedish activist, was detained by the authorities in 2016, he was forced to speak in a Chinese propaganda video about his so-called crimes. He said in a recent interview that he saw the state media’s gradual release of photos and videos of Ms. Peng as evidence that Beijing was monitoring her movements mainly to silence her while waiting for the outcry to die down.
“She is obviously under custodial control,” Mr. Dahlin said. “Everything she does will be scripted from beginning to end; she will be told exactly what to do, how to act, how to smile.”
A waiting game has helped Beijing defang attacks from individual critics in the past, be they dissidents or sports stars. When Hao Haidong, a retired Chinese soccer star, called for the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party in 2020, officials purged records of his career and waited as he faded from memory. Though Ms. Peng brings more international backing, Chinese officials may be betting the social media cycle of shock and anger will eventually dissipate.
For Beijing, the concern is that the blowback could interfere with the upcoming Winter Olympics, which China is hosting.
“They have to placate not just the usual critics in the West, but also decidedly apolitical tennis stars and sporting associations overseas, while at the same time burying all mention of Ms. Peng’s original charge,” said Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Australia and author of “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers.”
Understand the Disappearance of Peng Shuai
“It’s no surprise that the propaganda system is floundering,” he said.
In a strange turn, the only recent post about Ms. Peng that remains on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, is from the French Embassy in China. It calls on Beijing to respect its commitments to combating violence against women. But the seemingly curated comments on the post accused France of meddling in China’s affairs. Along similar lines, some Chinese journalists took to Western social media sites to question the motives of those who expressed concern about Ms. Peng.
“Can any girl fake such sunny smile under pressure? Those who suspect Peng Shuai is under duress, how dark they must be inside,” Hu Xijin, the editor of the nationalist Global Times tabloid, wrote on Twitter.
The narrative that Ms. Peng is being used by hostile foreign forces to undermine China has been echoed by other state media employees on Twitter. The posts have done little to appease concerns outside China.
“There’s no narrative even to really distract; there’s nothing substantive beyond character attacks on the West and Western media,” said David Bandurski, director of the China Media Project, a research program in Hong Kong. He added, “This is really the best they’ve been able to come up with.”
Within China, it remains unclear how many people are aware of the controversy. On Baidu, a Chinese search engine, queries for “Peng Shuai” spiked to nearly two million on Nov. 3, the day after she posted her accusation, but have since fallen to the tens of thousands. Ms. Peng’s frozen Weibo account, which does not appear in search results for her name, has gained 59,000 followers since her post — a blip in a country where top celebrities have tens of millions of followers.
Mr. Xiao, the research scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, is the founder of China Digital Times, a website that monitors Chinese internet controls. His group has tracked hundreds of keywords, some with only the faintest connection to Ms. Peng, that had been blocked from posts and searches. Only the most sensitive topics — like Xi Jinping, China’s leader; and the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 — have such long lists of blocked terms, he said.
In the weeks since, censors have begun to fine-tune their approach. Some broad keywords, like “tennis,” have been restored in searches. Still, Mr. Xiao said, the wide gulf between what can be said outside China and what can be said inside the country could continue to plague attempts to control the topic.
“They know they cannot feel secure. The Great Firewall leaks,” he said, using a term that refers to China’s blocks and filters that keep out foreign social media. “Millions of people jump the wall to read about it.”
Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting.
Brian Kelly Leaves Notre Dame for LSU
Brian Kelly will leave Notre Dame to become the football coach at Louisiana State, the latest in a series of changes at some of the country’s most storied college football programs.
The news was confirmed Tuesday morning by L.S.U.
The hiring follows the move of Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma to Southern California. Both shifts surprised the college football world, where coaches do not regularly leave elite programs voluntarily, and created enticing vacancies at the universities Riley and Kelly left behind.
The Fighting Irish finished the regular season 11-1 this year and, if a top team loses, could earn a berth in the College Football Playoff. Notre Dame was ranked sixth in the most recent rankings for the four-team playoff. The new rankings will be released on Tuesday night.
Kelly had seemed like an institution at Notre Dame after 12 years in the top job. He had a national championship game appearance in the 2012 season and a 113-40 overall record. (The wins in the championship game season were later vacated by the N.C.A.A. after a trainer was found to have done coursework for players.) This season, Kelly surpassed Knute Rockne with the most wins as a coach for the university.
As unusual as it is for a head coach with Kelly’s success to leave a program that is still in the playoff hunt, his move could potentially position him to finally win a national championship, something he could not do at Notre Dame. Kelly lacks a top tier bowl victory, with losses in the Fiesta, Cotton and Rose Bowls, along with the national championship game loss.
And Notre Dame, despite Kelly’s elite recruiting (he has produced a top-20 class every season since taking over the head coaching job in 2010), appeared severely outmatched in its recent playoff appearances, losing to Alabama and Clemson by a combined 44 points.
Louisiana has one of the most ripe recruiting grounds in the country. L.S.U. has had a class outside the top 10 only twice since 2010. Kelly will have access to as much talent as he has seen.
L.S.U. won the national championship after the 2019 season, only to fall to 5-5 in 2020. Coach Ed Orgeron announced this would be his last season in October, when his team was 4-3. The Tigers currently stand 6-6. Like his predecessor, Les Miles, he found that not even a national title guaranteed long-term job security in Baton Rouge.
L.S.U. reported that Kelly would be paid $95 million over 10 years, plus incentives, a significant increase from a salary believed to be in the $3 million range at Notre Dame.
“I could not be more excited to join a program with the commitment to excellence, rich traditions, and unrivaled pride and passion,” Kelly said in a statement that L.S.U. released Tuesday morning. He added: “I am fully committed to recruiting, developing, and graduating elite student-athletes, winning championships, and working together with our administration to make Louisiana proud. Our potential is unlimited, and I cannot wait to call Baton Rouge home.”
Scott Woodward, the university’s athletic director, called Kelly “the epitome of a winner.”
Reports had initially linked L.S.U. with Riley, who over the weekend denied he would take the job before he moved to U.S.C. There also had been in-state support for the University of Louisiana coach Billy Napier, but he chose to go to Florida.
Luring Kelly from Notre Dame, though, was an even bigger surprise.
Kelly started his career at Grand Valley State in Michigan, where he won two Division II national titles. He then spent three years at Central Michigan and four at Cincinnati, culminating in an undefeated regular season. That landed him the Notre Dame job.
The hiring of Kelly at L.S.U. helps keep the Southeastern Conference at the center of the college football universe: The conference has recently added the powerhouse teams Texas and Oklahoma, and its members Alabama and L.S.U. have won four of the seven national championships in the playoff era.
Another Southeastern Conference team, Georgia, is undefeated and No. 1 in the country this year. It will face Alabama (11-1), third in the playoff rankings, in the conference championship game on Saturday in Atlanta.
Alan Blinder and Alanis Thames contributed reporting.