Sunday, September 30, 2012

Moving Day

I've kinda been dissatisfied with Blogger's setup for a while, so I've moved the blog to Tumblr. Find us, follow us, harass us at

http://leftfieldline.tumblr.com/

See you soon!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The NFL Referee Lockout


So, it's the first Sunday of the 2012 NFL season and, not one week after Labor Day (the day we're supposed to celebrate workers in this country, even if anti-capitalists like Eric Cantor can't quite grok that fact), the league will have Scab Referees calling the games today. The NFL owners have locked out the regular, unionized referees in order to obtain some leverage in new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) negotiations. Notably, the owners want the refs to accept a gradual move away from pensions and a slower rate of increases in pay.

One thing to keep in mind here: this is a lockout, not a strike. A lot of fans conflate the two, and that's wrong. A lockout is an aggressive move by the owners to keep the workers from, well, working, even though they're willing to do so. A strike is when the workers affirmatively decide to stop working in order to force the owners' hands. The moves are roughly mirror images of each other, but the agressor party is different; in this case, it's the owners escalating the conflict.

Anyway, the replacement refs. They've been getting some withering criticism. They're mocked for having little experience- one was drummed out of the lingerie league, one admitted he's better at calling six man football (and how often does THAT skill really get used?), one is a labor lawyer by day (!!!). Their on-the-field performance has been roughly what you'd expect from such inauspicious backgrounds. They show little grasp of the rules, a poor sense for how the game develops, and trouble in front of crowds and cameras.

Of course, to be fair to them, calling a football game is really hard; the rules are numerous and complicated, the action is fast, the offending actions are small and subtle. There's intense pressure from crowds of angry fans, to say nothing of 300 pound linesmen who'd been told all week to "GET MEAN!" for this game.

All of which kinda points out why it's important to have referees- and any worker, really- with some kind of demonstrated ability to handle the job- in other words, the regular, unionized refs.

That's not to say that the regular, unionized refs are infallible, or that even the worst regular ref would be better than the best scab ref. It's just to say that if you're looking for someone who can handle a difficult job, the person who currently holds that job is probably a good place to start your search. With the unionized refs, you can expect a certain skill level; most of them have been here before, often for a very long time, they've built up relationships with other refs, the league, and other football institutions, and have access to resources necessary to improve their skills. This doesn't mean they're all good; but it means we can hold them more accountable if they're not. They've kind of got no excuse. On the other hand, when you've got a guy who couldn't even keep a job in the lingerie league, his fuck ups come with a "Well, What Did You Expect?" issue.

That being said, I understand why the unionized refs are having trouble marshaling public opinion to their side here. For all the fan's bitching about the scab refs, it's not like they think much better of unionized refs. In every sport, we only notice the refs when they fuck up- and thanks to football's voluminous, complicated rules, there's plenty of opportunities for that, even with the best of refs. Moreover, the refs are fighting for pensions, and if you're in the private sector, like me, that kinda comes off like fighting for a right to sex with supermodels. I'll probably never have a pension myself, so why should I be upset that anyone else doesn't get one?

I get that, but there's a simple answer- pensions make the world a better place. The more people who have a stable, sustainable retirement, the more stable and just this country's going to be. The less people who have to suffer in their twilight years, the less strain that's going to be put on our public institutions. Thus, even if I'm not going to have a great retirement (And if you're really concerned, I'll tell you where to mail the checks), I'm still going to benefit from the better world that will result from somone getting a good retirement. I understand that they get a benefit that I don't, and that that's not fair; the thing is, I don't see why the logical conclusion is that I should be agitating for that benefit to be taken away from them; I should be agitating to get that benefit for myself, too.

(And if you're noticing that this same argument can be applied to, well, most union disputes right now, such as Illinois' argument over public worker pensions, give yourself a Gold Star for the day. Or a Red Star, if you listen to Paul Ryan.)

Of course, not every employer can afford to give its employees are useful pension. I get that, there are economic realities here. But this is the NFL we're talking about, an $XXX billion dollar industry. It can afford a little long-term planning for its employees. And I'm not in the mood to stand against the referees for having the courage to demand such a thing when bargaining for their services, even if I don't.


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The NFL and Evolving Morality


I'm a little late to this one, but I still find it fascinating: Will Leitch, one of my favorite sports writers, has a pretty provocative piece in New York Magazine this week. The title alone ought to tell you what's up: "Is Football Wrong?"

There's certainly going to be a lot of people who immediately dismiss such questions. (Kissing Suzy Kolber kinda does, but that might just be the site's instinctive propensity for dick jokes). But- and this will surprise no one, as I have, at length, discussed my problems with the NFL- it's something worth discussing. The long term injuries in the NFL seem to be piling up, and I think it's okay to question if you want to keep watching that. And Leitch doesn't even get into Roger Goodell's dictatorial control over the league and the players, the league's woeful labor practices, and the way dreams of NFL glory are mutating college and high school football programs. There's good reasons to change the channel.

But still, I hesitate to call the entire game immoral, or even amoral. From a tactical standpoint, I think such terms necessarily imply a judgment call that puts fans of the sport on the defensive, less willing to consider any change, any improvement to the sport. From an equity standpoint, I don't think it's fair; all sports have their shitty, exploitative elements, who the fuck are we to declare what's better? Everyone should be allowed to like the sport they like without judgement, unless it's clearly, inextricably harmful.

Which brings me to my most important point: I don't think there's anything fundamentally immoral or amoral about professional football. I think the NFL pursues some immoral and amoral policies, and I think the NFL allows immoral and amoral things to occur. But I think those are policy failures with clear (if not simple) solutions. Player injuries can be addressed with better training, tweaked rules, better equipment, and better medical staff. Goodell's powers could be curbed by the other owners. Labor practices could change if the union and the fans stood united. I'm not saying these things will happen; I'm actually pessimistic about curbing Goodell's power or fixing labor problems. But I'm saying they could happen without fundamentally altering the sport. And that, I think, means that the amoral and immoral aspects of football can be separated from the game itself.

It's possible that I'm wrong. But I'd like to try it my way before I give up on football.

And if I'm right, then I think it's more important for the football fans with a social conscious to stay engaged with the sport. We need someone watching the sport to say this shit ain't right, and we want the Commissioner and the owners and the coaches to do something about it. I don't think it will be nearly as effective if those voices come from outside the football community; we've seen time and again that the major sports leagues are more responsive to their existing fan bases than to potential fans or lapsed fans (there's a lot of argument that hockey would be more popular without the fighting, but old time hockey fans still think it's essential, so the NHL keeps hockey; baseball refuses to adopt instant replay because it'll give George Will a sad; hell, even the NFL slow-walking new concussion policies is part of this). Plus, if you like football, you shouldn't have to do without just because Art Modell and Jim Irsay are turds. That puts the onus on the fans, and that's bullshit; we're not the ones fucking up the game here.

Of course, if you can't stand the carnage anymore, than you can't stand the carnage anymore. You don't have to watch, either. I think that's what KSK is kind of missing here; even if we can make a plausible case that the players have given well-informed consent to the risks, that doesn't necessarily make it fun to watch men doing long-term damage to themselves. But you can both like football and be struck by the consequences of the game as it's currently played. And if you are, I think you need to stay engaged.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Cold Comfort at Augusta

Augusta National Golf Club is finally allowing it's first two female members- South Carolina Financier (read: rich person) Darla Moore and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. Undeniable good news, especially given what this blog has said on the subject before.

And yet...Condi Rice? Really? Her? Ugh. It's okay to feel shitty that the first woman to get this perk is so...undeserving of it.

Still, there's terrible people in every subset of humanity, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, creed, etc. But a step toward equality is a great and good thing, even if a terrible person ends up benefiting from it. Hell, there have been terrible men at Augusta for decades; why should terrible women be excluded? In some ways, we're not going to have true equality so long as only the most exceptional minorities get to move up in the world.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Olympics Post Game: The Triumph of Title IX, The Triumph of Community

This year, the U.S. Olympic Team came in first in the medal count, with 104 total medals and 46 golds. The big story, though, is the U.S. Women, who accounted for 58 of those medals and 29 of the golds. If the U.S. Women's Team had been their own country, they would have been fifth in the medal count. What's more, these women are not being shy at all about the role Title IX played in their success. Soccer star Abby Wombach says that Title IX is the reason she has a national championship ring. Fencer Mariel Zagunis, who carried the flag for the U.S. team, credited her increased opportunities, and even Scott Blackmun, the executive director of the U.S. Olympic Team, said it gives the U.S. team a leg-up on the competition because more female athletes start training earlier.

So, what we have here is a situation that indicates that Title IX isn't just good for female athletes, although it is; it isn't just good for ALL athletes, although it is; it isn't just good for sports fans because it gives us more sports to watch, although it does; it's objectively making U.S. sports more competitive on a global scale.

That's worth celebrating.

But what's really interesting here is that so many female athletes are so quick to credit Title IX. It's not just in the Olympics; Theresa Edwards wrote lovingly of the law, along with Brandi Chastain and Jennie Finch. But it's still striking. I think athletes, as much as anyone and more than most, have the privilege of considering their accomplishments to be solely personal triumphs. They're the ones on the floor after all, they're the ones who put all the hours in the gym, they're the ones everyone's coming to see (That's why this blog takes the players' side so often in labor disputes). And yet, the fact remains, every athlete has had considerable help to get where they are; an incredible teammate or a good coach or an understanding front office; good schools or gyms or trainers; and yes, Title IX and state funding. That athletes* acknowledge this when people would hardly bat an eye if they didn't is pretty great. That people with inarguable individual talent recognize that we're all dependent on each other speaks very highly of them.

*- And it's by no means only the female athletes; Michael Phelps has spoken at length about how great his coach is. The female athletes are just the ones who were saying it this week, and it gives me a good springboard.

If you're noticing a parallel with current political debates here, well, good job, you caught me being un-subtle. But I really think there is something to the fact that when it comes to opportunities to compete, training, organized competitions to find and mold talent, and education, athletes know they didn't build that.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Very Special All Olympics Wind Sprints

The Olympics are fraught with both political overtones and incredible sports moments. As such, they tend to bring out the best in some of our progressive sports writers. Let's see what they've had to say.

1) What if every sport were photographed like beach volleyball? I've really been enjoying the beach volleyball tournament, and I can't deny that the bikinis have something to do with that. Still, it's disappointing that the sport and the athletes are reduced to butts, regardless of how tight said butts are. On a related note, Andrew Sullivan talks about sex appeal at the Olympics. This is one of the hard parts of being progressive; sex is pretty cool, everyone ought to have the right to look and feel sexy. But where does that end and treating someone as a sex object begin? I don't have a good answer here.

2) Poynter has an interesting round-up of the coverage of the Olympics, including some more on NBC's broadcasting shenanigans.

3) Will Leitch points out that NBC's Olympic coverage seems so bad to us die-hard sports fans because it's not for us- it's for the casual fans. I think that's okay; I'd prefer something more for us, but, clearly, we die-hards can figure out other ways to enjoy the games.

4) Science's continued impact on sports continues to blow my mind. Empirical data FTW.

5) Nancy Hogshead-Makar- who has retweeted a previous LFL post for the masses- talks about the end of her Olympic career. I'm constantly astounded at the idea of top tier athletes having to hang it up and rejoin the rest of us.

6) This is stupid, but within our wheelhouse. Listen, there's nothing wrong with loving your country- and frankly, love for your country isn't any dumber than any other reason to root for one sports team over another. This is why they hate us, so I'm calling it out. Here's a couple more- and better- pieces on Olympics and Nationalism.

7) It's easy to forget this because we spend so much time following true celebrities like Michael Phelps, or teenagers like Missy Franklin, but a lot of Olympians, when the Games end, have to work for a living. And our country's abysmal health care system doesn't make that any easier. 2014 can't get here fast enough.

8) On that note, the hit pieces on Lolo Jones are getting pretty obnoxious. Listen, the sport requires hustling to get financial support to pursue the Gold. Jones, being pretty and funny, is good at hustling. I get that it's annoying that she's better at that than she is at hurdling (though with a near miss in Beijing and a fourth-place finish this year, she's clearly not THAT much better), but for the media to now turn around and flame Jones for playing its game (complete with "Lolo Jones? You're talking about Lolo Jones, right? Say more mean things about Lolo Jones!" toadying from Michelle Beadle) is just gross.

9) Given that Pistorius didn't even make the finals, I really find it hard to believe that he's got such a tremendous advantage.

10) I defy anyone to watch the U.S.-Canada women's soccer game from the other day without being riveted. It's a shame that these athletes don't have a home league to return to. I've been fed a line of bullshit about how the free market "proves" that we shouldn't have women's sports, but frankly, if the free market can't sell Hope Solo and Alex Morgan (yes, I picked the conventionally attractive ones on purpose), that's textbook market failure.

11) Athlete defection has consistently been an undercurrent in the Olympics. Looks like this year is no different.

12) Gabby Douglas is already going down as one of the most memorable Olympians in recent history. Dave Zirin talks about her socio-political impact. For my part, I'm astounded by how self-possessed she is. She's completely aware that she's a black woman, and that that means something, but carries it pretty effortlessly.

13) I think I'll talk about this more later, but these Olympics really have been a triumph of Title IX and the Women in Sports movement.

14) Relive some classic London Olympics at Talking Points Memo.

15) Quite a bit has been made about the fact that Jessica Ennis, the undisputed star of Team GB, is multiracial. As with a lot of things, Billy Bragg put it best:

"Tonight, our society was wonderfully represented by a ginger bloke, an immigrant named Mohammed and a mixed race woman."

I'm gonna be sad when the Olympics end. But hey, only four years until Rio!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Badminton! Very, VERY Badminton!


Alright, let's talk about the Badminton scandal. For those of you who don't subscribe to the Fox Badminton Channel, eight women from China, South Korea, and Indonesia were thrown out of the Olympic Doubles Badminton tournament for trying to throw matches. The teams were throwing the matches in order to get a lower seed- and thus, a better opponent- in the elimination stage of the tournament. Watch the video of the South Korea/Indonesia match. It's almost hilariously bad. Honey Badmintoner don't care.

And I'm not sure I do, either; I like a little strategy in my sports. Gamesmanship is what makes this about more than just being naturally faster or stronger. That being said, I can't deny that the performance put on by these athletes was really unfair to the viewers, and maybe to the Olympic community as a whole.

I just know that the Olympic Community only has itself to blame.

First of all, the structure of the tournament allowed for this kind of sandbagging. Other tournaments- other badminton tournaments, even- do not. The major U.S. sports leagues offer home court advantage for the team with the most wins, so there's incentive to win out. The Badminton World Federation sets up its major events as plain old single-elimination tournaments, so there's the strongest incentive of all to win every match. There are ways to avoid situations like this, or at least to minimize them.

But, more importantly, the Olympics have just made winning Gold too big a deal to turn around and whine about sportsmanship. There's too many endorsements tied to Gold. Too much money. Too much prestige and fame. The national committees can only justify their existence with Gold Medals, so they put too much pressure on the athletes to go for it at almost any cost. Countries crown athletes as national heroes. I hear the sex is tremendous. Faced with that incentive structure, it's almost perverse to get mad at athletes for trying to work the system as much as they can.

Which isn't to say that the players are blameless; I can't watch that video and argue that they were being "good sports". And if you subscribe to the Joe DiMaggio theory of sports- every game is someone's first, and they deserve to see you give your all- then this should disappoint you greatly. My point is simply that the Olympic community has spent the last several years downplaying the importance of sportsmanship and what the fans deserve (you only need to try to follow NBC's coverage to get that last part).

It'd be different if this really were the Platonic Ideal of the Olympics- the countries coming together for the pure love of sports and athletics and competition, and determining a winner, while important, is secondary to just getting out on the field. But it's not; the Olympic Community has decided that Gold Medals are incredibly important. The national teams have decided to go all out to obtain them. And that's all okay; there's nothing wrong with going all out to be the best. But as that is the situation, I think this badminton scandal is only a couple degrees away from the Bears resting their starters in Week 16 after they've secured a playoff spot, or a swimmer going 75% in a qualifying heat. It's just pressing every advantage. If the goal is to win Gold, that's what you have to do.

If the Olympic Community wants to make the goal something else, I can grok that. I don't really think it's necessary; I think determination, long-term thinking, and cleverness are perfectly cromulent skills to celebrate. But if the IOC disagrees, I'm fine with that, too. We just need to understand that if we expect athletes to live up to our Platonic Ideals of sportsmanship, we need to make sure the incentive structure does so, first.


Friday, August 3, 2012

I Need to See a Mitt About a Horse

Stay with me on this: U.S. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has a wife (quiet with the Mormon jokes). His wife, Ann Romney, has a horse. This horse, Rafalca, competed in the Olympic Games in London in the event of Dressage. Liberals are making some political hay out of this. Barack Obama hasn't approved any messages or anything, but there's at least been some snickering from people who think Dressage is a weird, aristocratic holdover. And of course, there's something to that point of view; the event doesn't test speed or strength or agility, but just the horse's ability to perform a predetermined routine (And thus, the rider's ability to train them). The rider wears a top hat and tails, and the colloquial of "horse dancing" really isn't too far off the mark. If the Romneys enjoy that, the line goes, then they're hopelessly out of touch with "real" Americans (and I rather suppose the fact that only Ann Romney is into it doesn't matter; most of us aren't in a situation where it means anything if one spouse "owns" something and not the other).

There's no doubt that this is kind of silly. Frist of all, we here at the Left Field Line firmly believe that everyone has a right to like the sports they like without judgement (though I'll admit that animal-based sports make me a little uncomfortable; story for another time, though). Second of all, what the fuck is a "real" American, anyway? And third, it's not like Mitt Romney's ever going to face a Dressage-related crisis in office. He's not going to have to decide between giving Dressage owners a tax cut and children health care. Similarly, Barack Obama is never going to have to decide whether or not to declare war on an arugula-producing nation; these just aren't relevant factors to the Presidency.

 But y'know what? It's not entirely silly. The fact is, we do need to know about a President's personality. If we know his personality, we know his decision-making process, his cognitive biases, his priorities. And in some ways, that's more important than, well, his policies. Presidencies almost always get swallowed up by unforeseen (and unforeseeable) events; think George Bush and 9/11, or Obama and the Tea Party. How they respond to those things is just as important as the plans they run on. But we can't know how they'll respond to those things, because they are, by definition, unforeseen.

So, we try to figure out a President's personality during the campaign. But, personalities are necessarily ephemeral, especially when we can only judge them through the filter of a campaign and the other filter of the media. So, we have to go on clues. What books do they read? What music do they like? Do they work out? How do they treat their family? And yeah, what sports do they like? Hopefully, we can put all of that information together and get a halfway decent composite sketch of the man.

Of course, Rafalca doesn't tell us anything about Romney we didn't already know. Oh, he's "out of touch"? His horrific tax plan told me that, to say nothing of his statements about being friends with NASCAR owners and thinking income inequality is about "envy". But it's all of a piece with this backwards-ass mindset, and it displays that mindset in a more visceral way, and as such, is kind of illuminating about Romney. Rafalca becomes a sort of political short-hand for all of Romney's bad policies and dumb sayings. That's fine; sports function as political symbols all the time. But we shouldn't mistake Rafalca, in and of herself, for a reason to vote against Romney, just a reminder of all the very good reasons to do so. Anything else is just unfair to Rafalca. And C'mon. She's an Olympian, for Pete's sake.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Olympic Opening Ceremonies, Progressive Values, and Hypocrisy


I'm on record as being a big fan of Olympic Ceremonies. Frankly, the sillier the better. Remember the Vancouver Closing Ceremonies, where they just brought out a bunch of inflatable moose and guys dressed as Mounties and Michael Buble was there for no reason, singing about maple leaves? Loved. That. Shit. So, when the London Opening Ceremonies proved to be every bit as spectacular and silly- and then, all of a sudden, celebrated Great Britain's progressive history- I was obviously quite pleased.

If you don't believe me on the progressive narrative, check out this from Andrew Sullivan and this from David Zirin. These two don't agree on much- Sullivan is a British Tory, Zirin an American Socialist- but they both know that Danny Boyle was trying to celebrate progressive values. There were suffragettes and punk rock. There was heavy suspicion of Dickensian captains of industry. There was a celebration of British soft power and culture. And of course, there was the NHS.

Of course, sports always claim to celebrate progressive values. Sports, supposedly- hopefully- represent a Grand Meritocracy where your background doesn't matter, only your ability to play. The field or court or ice or track is supposed to be a safe place where ethnic, tribal, or nationalistic rivalries don't matter; it's supposed to be a place where we can just play a game together, and while we're competing, there's clear mutual respect. Every sport tries to sell itself based on these values.

And a lot of times, it's bullshit. Most of the time, even when it's not, the meritocratic and diplomatic elements are lightly draped over corporate and kleptocratic heavy machinery. As Zirin points out, that's certainly the case in the Olympics, with the abject corruption of the IOC and the obsession with "brand protection". That opens folks like Boyle up to charges of "hypocrisy". But it's also a lousy reason to not celebrate progressive values; if that's the standard we're going to use, we're just going to end up with less celebrations of progressive values in sports. I find the argument that the Opening Ceremony would have been better had it accurately reflected a corporate mindset or had it avoided values altogether really, really unpersuasive.

Anyway, as I've said before, the fact that the major sports industries know they have to sell their product in progressive terms is, in and of itself, a victory. I'll celebrate that, then go out and make sure they live up to their ads tomorrow.





Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Slaughter of the Sacred Cows

I really do apologize for the fact that we've had four posts in as many days on the PSU scandal, but I wanted to react to the reactions to the sanctions handed down by the NCAA.

Current players are being recruited by other schools.  Before going any further, because I can't resist this kind of thing, CALLED IT.

This is already causing pearl clutching amongst both fans and pundits.  My god, how unseemly!  How dare these jackals?!  My response:  good for them, and good for the players.  This is how our world works, this is college football as a minor league sport that doesn't compensate its players.  Life sucks, get a helmet.

1) If you didn't have a problem with the ruling that players are allowed to transfer without sitting, then why do you have a problem with schools allowing those players to make more informed decisions on where to go?  Before you say that's putting lipstick on the recruiting pig, what other means are they supposed to use?  The players deserve to be allowed to jump a sinking ship, and I don't blame the life boats for holding up signal flares.  For players trying to decide whether to go to USC versus Illinois, for example, it's in the player's best interests to know which one would give him more playing time or a scholarship.  Yes, the recruiting school is acting out of self interest.  So what?  This isn't a zero sum game.  The recruiting school can benefit by getting a good player, and the player can benefit by getting more play time, or having a chance to play in bowl games, thereby getting more exposure for a possible NFL jaunt.  That both sides benefit is a positive.

2) I don't hear a hue and cry over high school recruitment.  Schools pay scouts to go to high schools and report on players.  Players get trips to campus and put up for a weekend, trotted around campus by a hostess and wooed on the glories that will be theirs if they only commit, commit, commit.  Hell, high school recruiting is a business that transcends the schools themselves into multiple websites like this one, or this one, that evaluate recruits and rank draft classes.  Hell, there's a website that offers a service to help facilitate the process of recruitment for players.  ESPN has a whole section of their website devoted to reporting on it.  Rivals and ESPN will rank each year's draft classes.  If I'm allowed to mix my animal metaphors, the cat's out of the bag on coaches surveying high school talent like cattle at auction.  People not connected to the high schools or the colleges make a profit on reporting on it, it's that big.  Before we all get the vapors over this happening on a college campus, let's remind ourselves of the bigger meat market going on at the blue chip level.

3) As soon as the punishment was handed down, the point was raised that it punished the athletes more than the school.  Well, then let the students leave.  They aren't hurt at all, they get to move on to greener pastures.

No, I think a lot of this is coming from the idea that it's pulling a curtain aside on the little man working the levers of the great and powerful Student-Athlete mythos we've constructed over the decades that college football became a billion dollar enterprise.  We're supposed to think players should and will stick by their school through thick and thin.  We're supposed to admire those that tough it out in the face of sanctions and/or lucrative pro contracts to finish that degree and serve the college proudly, to become part of a proud tradition and alma mater that will always stand by each other.  Bullshit.

In this economy, a college degree and a dollar won't get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.  Neither will that degree get you a job at Starbucks if you don't already have 2-4 years of professional coffee pouring (my bad, barista) experience.  Unemployment for college graduates is higher than the national average, 10.4% in 2010 and 9.4% in 2011, with underemployment sitting at over 19%.  Wages fell 5.4% for such graduates from 2000 to 2011.  Average student loan debt is over $25,000.  The National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that for 2012 the average starting salary for a college graduate that actually found a job averaged across all industries is $42,000.  That's with business grads pulling up the educators and humanities.  Meanwhile, NFL minimum salaries under the newest CBA have actually increased by $55,000, to $375,000 for rookies and even more for veterans.  Look at that again, the salary increase for rookie players, with or without a degree, even if they were UNDRAFTED, is more than the average salary of college graduates going into business, or science, or mathematics, or engineering, or computer programming, or the education of our children.

Now, I don't begrudge the players making that money, I really don't.  As long as we are willing to shell out billions of dollars in ticket sales, concessions, and ad revenue for those tv spots, the players deserve their share of the pie.  But the idea that a player that has the opportunity to play in the NFL is better off foregoing that money in order to finish his education is an idea we seriously need to consign to the dustbin.  Undrafted, journeyman NFL players at the bottom of the roster make more than doctors and lawyers and some entrepreneurs.  They'd be crazy to leave that money on the table.

But Mike, you can't play football forever, especially with injuries.  Okay fine, then you take all that money you've made and go finish your degree.  Trust me, the college will take you back.  They'll take your money and finish off that piece of paper that won't get you a job at Starbucks.  Or you know, retire on your investments.  Open a small business like a car dealership or a restaurant.

But Mike, some of these players will blow all that money and not prudently invest it?  And so will normal college graduates.  Having a college degree doesn't prevent massive credit card debt or underwater mortgages.

Now, I'm not saying college education is worthless, but its value has been shown to be not worth the sticker price these past few years.  And what is college ultimately intended to be but a preparation for a career.  If you can make a more lucrative career by leaving early, then you've gotten all you need out of college.  You don't need to spend the time or the money completing it if you can make more money elsewhere.  Be wary that the folks telling you otherwise aren't in fact the same people that would benefit disproportionately from your talents if they manage to keep you, like a college football program keeping its Heisman Trophy winning quarterback so they can go to another multi-million dollar bowl game.

Take, for example, Matt Leinart and Alex Smith.  In 2004 Leinart and Smith competed against each other for the Heisman Trophy, which Leinart won.  Leinart and the Trojans then went on to win the national title.  That spring the San Francisco 49ers had the #1 draft, and the dynasty built by Joe Montana and Steve Young was poised to take Leinart #1 and pay him ALL the money.  Leinart instead chose to delay coming out.  He opted to return for a 5th year at USC, taking ballroom dancing to satisfy the two credits he needed to complete his sociology degree.

The 49ers drafted Alex Smith and signed him to a $49.5 million contract that included $24 million in guarantees.  Smith was their starter through these last playoffs (where the 49ers reached the NFC Championship) and has resigned for another three years.

Leinart went on to see his teammate Reggie Bush win the Heisman in 2005, and then saw Vince Young run over his defense to win the national title over Leinart's Trojans.  Leinart was drafted 10th by the Arizona Cardinals, and became the summer's longest hold-out in pursuit of a contract.  Ultimately that contract was signed, and on paper appeared to be worth more than Smith's:  $50.8 million.  However only $14 million of that was guaranteed as opposed to Smith's $24 million.  The rest was based on performance benchmarks and play time.  Leinart was promptly put on the bench behind Kurt Warner.  He eventually started 11 games that season, then bounced between the starting spot, the injured reserve list, and the bench (largely the bench in 2008 and 2009).  In 2010 Leinart was cut from the team, and picked up by the Texans as a back-up.  Two years later he was cut by Houston, and has signed for the Oakland Raiders for the coming season.  The move to Houston from Arizona alone is estimated to have cost him $2.5 million.

Now injuries happen, and Smith himself has been off the starting rotation in San Francisco and was forced to renegotiate his contract in 2009.  Without the tax returns or copies of the contracts in front of me I can't do a breakdown of who has made more money since 2004, but going into next season Smith's $24 million contract as the starter for a team that is a legitimate Super Bowl contender seems to weigh in his favor as having had more professional success despite having been the lesser prospect when he exited college.

So, in an effort to tie all these varied ramblings into a semblance of a final, overarching point, I think coaches informing PSU players that they are desired is perfectly ethical within the bounds of current practice and rules.  It is also providing a valuable service to the players by keeping them informed of their options.  The players have no obligation to the university to stay, and it may very well be in their best interest if they have the talent and desire to play in the NFL.  If they can make it to the NFL, they are better suited to do so than sticking around ANY academic institution to obtain ANY degree, and they should go at the earliest opportunity to minimize injury and maximize earning potential.  They can always come back later.  If that offends your sensibilities, you need to re-check your numbers.  The data gravitates towards players looking out for their own athletic prowess, not sticking by an academic institution that can't guarantee them greater success.  That individual players might do so may please our yearnings for some bygone, halcyon days of mythical yore where gentleman scholars competed on fields of valor before setting aside such childish antics en route to adopting positions as titans of industry.  In reality they're passing up more lucrative opportunities so that we can tell a story about how loyalty trumps greed.  In the end though, it's just that, a story, and once the column those sports writers glowingly hand their editors is consigned to the dust bin of history, so will be the careers of those individuals who marched off into ignominy for the sake of our ephemeral praise and the vindication of our fables.






Well, That Was Dispiriting...

So, unfortunately, I had to bring out the banhammer on blog commenter...err..."Anonymous". I KNOW, I KNOW, I LIKED HIM, TOO! But the fact is, after 30 some posts back and forth in the Title IX thread (which will stay up forever, as a monument to douchebaggery), we weren't getting anywhere with each other, and then he ended up threatening a job that I don't even have, so it was clearly getting out of control. Millionaire Blog Matchmaker Mike thinks the guy crossed the line when he first called me an "Asshole", but I dunno, I kinda am an asshole, so who knows?

For the seven of you who regularly read this, comments are going to change a little. I don't like any restrictions on commenting. But I like that mindless sort of tribalism even less. So, you're going to need OpenIDs, and everything will go into moderation. Comments will be allowed liberally; the only x-factor is going to be when I have time to look at them. I'll figure out a better system later, maybe a new platform, I dunno, whoooooo cares, my dumb blog doesn't even have pictures half the time. I just wanted to put it all out there for transparency's sake.


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Security Theater at the London Olympics



Listen, I know that a parliamentary government system is just naturally more efficient, but seriously, London's ability to pack every bad idea from George W. Bush's "Global War on Terror" into the two weeks of the Olympics is just breath taking. Let's go over what we've seen so far:

1) There's going to be a "fast track" court system for Olympic-related violations. Right, because what we really need to value is speed over accuracy when it comes to criminal punishment.

2) Anti-Aircraft guns in London parks!

3) And on top of flats!

4) 18,200 British troops providing security!

5) A private security firm- complete with bureaucratic inertia- contracted to do security. The wonders of the private sector!

6) An aircraft carrier in the Thames! Unmanned drones! RAF fighters squadrons!

7) Somehow, even more body scanners, license plate readers, and CCTV!

8) "Brand Protection Teams" patrolling the streets, making sure no one says the word "Olympics" incorrectly. I can't wait for the TV show.

9) Broad and ill-defined new police powers!

10) Threats to public protests!

And absolutely no sign that the new measures will be dismantled after the games are over (though, presumably, the troops will be sent somewhere besides an empty stadium).

On the plus side, Danny Boyle is directing the Opening Ceremony and has "leaked" this playlist. I'm actually legitimately excited about that.

It's one thing, like I said, in George Bush's War on Terror. But it's quite another at the fucking OLYMPICS, which are supposed to be all about peace and harmony, respectful competition, dignity and respect, and the international community coming together just to enjoy playing games together. That was always more marketing than reality, of course, but it feels like the Olympics used to work a little harder to protect that image. Then again, now they've got Brand Protection Teams, so maybe it's a wash.


Because, at some point, as Blog Blogger Mike said to me, the terrorists win either way. Either they blow something up, or the trick us into wrapping it in so much barbed wire and Kevlar that we can't enjoy it. Either way, whatever made the thing special is destroyed, and we're cowering in fear.


The worst part is, I genuinely love the Olympics. I love the ceremony, the weird sports, the athletes I'll forget in three months, the foreign locales and yes, even the "brotherhood of man" canard. Even if it's just a marketing ploy, well, I'm happy that the IOC thinks "brotherhood of man" is a marketable slogan. But there is an awful lot of bullshit to put up with at the Olympics- I know how big a pain it can be for the host city (I was in London last month, trust me, I noticed). I know the rampant corruption at the IOC. I know about the empty pageantry, the soft-focus Bob Costas documentaries, and the outrageous price tags. And I love it all anyway.


But you keep stacking crap on top of it- and all the hits from the darkest days of the mid-2000s is about as crappy as it gets- and I start to see the cynics' point. Don't get me wrong, I'll still watch. But this is disappointing.

Penn State Post Mortem Round Up

Big day today. Blog Duke of Glocester Mike had the initial reaction today and made some very good points about a private entity handcuffing a public body. Here's some more writers I liked today.

1) Dave Zirin spent most of yesterday preparing to be angry, and his column today doesn't disappoint. Particularly useful is his discussion of the NCAA's move into criminal law- the only real "unprecedented" thing in this situation.

2) Drew Magary excoriates the NCAA for brand management disguised as protecting its values.

3) Travis Waldron reminds us that Penn State did this because of a reverence for football- a reverence the NCAA has encouraged for years.

4) The Hang Up and Listen guys are dismissive of the "extra-legal" concerns- but are also very skeptical that the NCAA will take any other action to rein in runaway football programs.

5) For my part: Penn State deserved to be punished. I was nervous about collective punishment, but I also didn't know how you successfully targeted the program without hurting students, athletes, or other low-men-on-the-totem-pole (hot dog vendors and such). I was also nervous about scapegoating; Penn State was, as we've said before, kind of a symptom of college football's larger problems, and we can't act like punishing it solves those problems. But: Penn State did screw up, horribly so. And I've got no problem in making it account for that.

I'm concerned that the NCAA was the wrong body to do it. Like Mike said, it's hinky for a private entity to handcuff a public body. Like Waldron said, the NCAA is morally complicit here. Plus, the NCAA had to abandon its usual rules and procedures to get here. And I can't shake the feeling that continued criminal action would have been much better targeted. But, Mike's point about the NCAA's moral obligation is well-taken; I think I would have been satisfied with NCAA action so long as it had followed its normal procedures. As it stands, though, I'm uncomfortable.

Then, there's the fact that I'm pretty unimpressed with the punishment. The money is the eye-catching thing, but the alumni and boosters will ride to the rescue there. The postseason probably wasn't a factor for a few years anyway, and the loss of prestige will be forgotten as soon as Penn State posts a winning record and ESPN trips over itself to tell the story of Penn State' return to honor. Vacating wins? Just silly. Scholarships hurt, but it's the exact kind of hurt that football programs usually pass on to the students. Meanwhile, this is still collective punishment, the very thing I was worried about, and the NCAA's mandate that athletes be given free transfers- while entirely necessary- is going to set off an ugly recruiting derby that's going to remind you of every thing you hate about college football- as if you needed another reminder here.

So, it's kinda like the NCAA gave us the worst of both worlds- it assumed too much power to deliver too little punishment, and preserved all the worst impulses of the sport in the process.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Crime and Punishment

Well the hammer has been dropped.  Penn State faces massive sanctions from the NCAA, and while most people are avoiding use of the term "death penalty", PSU is going to be set back as a football contender for quite some time.

First, a couple thoughts on that:

1) ESPN's 30 for 30 series did an episode on SMU's receipt of the death penalty, and discussed (even showed) how other schools' coaches descended on campus like a flock of vultures to snap up talented players as a result of lifted transfer restrictions.  So [a] it will probably happen again, and [b] let's not wax too poetic in our concern for the current crop of players

2) PSU will eventually bounce back.  There are key differences between PSU and SMU, namely that one is a public university that operates as a state flagship while the other was a private institution, founded by the Methodist Church.  SMU was never one of the biggest schools in its state, being dwarfed in physical size and enrollment by the University of Texas and Texas A&M.  Penn State has a deeper history, a larger alumni base, and tuition rates that are roughly half of SMU's.  Why is that important?  Between state pride, family history, and Penn State being twice as affordable they should have an easier time finding players that could be motivated to attend without receiving a scholarship.  SMU's rise to prominence was due to the activities that got them sanctioned.  PSU's history of athletic success is separate from the events that led to their sanctions.

Now onto what I really want to talk about: whether this was a legitimate exercise of power by the NCAA.

In my post yesterday I already discussed my issue with the curtailing of NCAA standard due process.  I still stand by everything I said there, but that being said, I do support the NCAA handing down sanctions.  The particular sanctions in this case may border on moronic at times.

Vacating wins?  As blog overlord Craig points out, did they just vacate this blog post of Craig live-blogging a game between Penn State and Illinois? I mean, fans who watched those games did not just have their memories wiped like a Philip K. Dick protagonist.  Though this may affect Joe Pa's inclusion on the all-time wins list, and I'm okay with that.  If CBS doesn't put him up there at all, rather than put him up there with an asterisk, I think it's no less than his legacy deserves.

Reduction in scholarships?  This arguably punishes players more than the school.  My responses:  [a] see point (1) above about other schools picking up players.  [b] It's hard to imagine almost any punishment that could be both effective and not impact negatively on players.  I agree that any reduction in any one school's available scholarships is a loss to affordable education at large, and going forward I would like to see some kind of system in place where scholarships lost to one athletic program as a result of its malfeasance maybe simply shift elsewhere.  As Craig pointed out yesterday, Title IX opponents love to cite college wrestling as a casualty.  Well, why couldn't we shift those 10 scholarships a year over to create a wrestling team?  (This is an honest question in that I don't actually know the mechanics of Title IX and NCAA scholarships).

The fines and bowl bans I am utterly fine with.  Ultimately those hit the university where it counts: the wallet.  Football got to be king on the basis of the money it brings in.  A school could have the best water polo team in the country, but that coach won't get paid more than the university president, nor have more power.  It all comes down to money.  However a one time fine, no matter how high, wouldn't be sufficient.  The university could swallow its medicine, cut a check, and go right back to hitting up boosters for donations.  A bowl ban not only costs money, it costs prestige, which down the line costs even more money.

Now, ESPN is also reporting that a former infraction committee chair is calling into question the legitimacy of the NCAA's actions here in basically policing bad/criminal behavior, and not just behavior that impacts the competition on the field.

To that I say: so what.  Again, while I think the NCAA should stand by its normal due process, it's a separate argument to say they have a moral or professional duty to "stay out of it".  Isn't that what got us here to begin with?  The idea that "what happens on the field and what happens off the field never shall meet" is precisely why Penn State's in this position.  Furthermore, if the NCAA does nothing to Penn State after levying sanctions against Ohio State for players selling jerseys, or USC for Reggie Bush's family receiving gifts, then aren't they tacitly adopting a position that players making extra cash on the side is somehow worse for college athletics than coaches and school officials actively concealing heinous crimes?

Whether or not college players should be paid is a separate issue that we've already addressed and will probably return to at some point, but I will gladly stake out my position that player compensation ranks lower on the scale of moral reprehensibility than active concealment of child abuse.  Whatever the penalties levied, whatever process arrived at those penalties, I stand firmly in support of the idea that the NCAA had a moral obligation to address this issue, that their legitimacy would in fact be more damaged by sticking their head in the sand and saying "as long as no students got some extra cash in their pockets, it's not our problem."

There is still a legitimacy problem, though, in that ultimately the NCAA is a private organization, and it just took unprecedented action to harm the financial status of a public institution.  The people of Penn State voted to endow a public university, and they continue to support it through taxes.  Now a private board they had no democratic stake in has stepped in to cripple that institution.  Penn State answers to Pennsylvania taxpayers, but the NCAA does not.  The NCAA barely answers to Congress and had at least two Supreme Court Justices feeling it doesn't answer to the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

The NCAA, in theory, operates on the consent of the governed, but it is still a private body that is wielding powers akin to a sovereign, and doing so over institutions that are otherwise, at least partly, publicly financed.  That it did so in this case in contradiction of its own due process makes it even more disturbing, but I have a feeling that point will get lost in the discussion of the impact on Penn State specifically.  The Freeh Report was our answer to how Penn State got here, the NCAA just told us where Penn State is headed.  But as the dust clears maybe it's time for Congress to ask how the NCAA got here, and where it is headed.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Title IX and the Next Battle for Equality

Title IX turned 40 years old last month; it took me this long to write about it because, well, sometimes it's hard to talk about successes. At this point, the athletes benefitting from Title IX don't even know it; it's been a part of high school and college athletics for their entire careers. And at this point, it's almost shitty to point out how much they owe to Title IX, in that it takes away from their own accomplishments, like they didn't get their on their own, they had to have a "government handout".

But, the success of Title IX is real; at the high school level, the 294,015 women playing sports before Title IX jumped to 2,953,355. The 3,666,917 men became 4,206,549. At college, the number of women's teams has doubled. The policy enjoys the support of 80% of the public. It is, most likely, the single piece of progressive legislation that has touched the most people since the Great Society, and a monument to what well-targeted government intervention can do. In comparison to that, the frequent criticisms of Title IX seem trifling; the "women just don't like sports as much" argument rests on George Will's ability to read the mind of every single woman in America (and the bow tie indicates that he can't even read the mind of one woman). The idea that it forces schools to cut other sports (Wrestling being the frequent example) conveniently ignores the fact that schools keep paying their football coaches more than their University Presidents. There's just nothing there; Title IX is an unprecedented success, and that's hard to talk about. Sports Are Good, or at least, Can Be. Letting more people experience that is even better.

So let's move on to the next battle for gender equality- or rather, the next battles. Because the sad fact is, we're not nearly done. We need to stop treating women athletes like they're somehow more mentally delicate than men. (Edit: the original version of this post did not specify that we're talking about mental toughness; reader Anonymous helpfully pointed out that that wasn't clear). We need to get women's programs at colleges to some rough sort of parity in terms of scholarships and operating expenses. We need to stop shaming women athletes for doing things that vaguely remind us of sex. We need to get not just more female athletes, but more female coaches, athletic directors, general managers, and front office executives. We need more of everyone, period. And hell, along the way, we need to keep smaller sports- like wrestling- going.

The one thing all of these issues have in common is that they're exceedingly hard to legislate without some pretty major unintended consequences. When we're talking about Selena Williams' emotions or the Grunt-O-Meter, we're talking about broad cultural attitudes on women. When we're talking about scholarships and funding, we're talking about hundreds of schools each making individual (And incredibly difficult) choices between funding dozens of worthy programs. When we talk about female coaches and executives, we're talking about finding the right candidates who can say the right things in interviews with the right owners and directors. Title IX was amazing, but it can't do anything about that.

Instead, it's going to have to come down to broad-based shifts in society's attitudes about women and sports. It's going to force us to reexamine our priorities in sports, especially at the high school and collegiate levels. The bad news is, that's much harder, it's going to take a long time, and we're all going to have to pitch in. The good news is, it's a testament to how much good Title IX has done, that it's now a cultural issue, not a legal or structural one. We won- and now, the real work begins.

Thar ain't a tree high enough...

Initial reports are that the NCAA is going to hammer PSU tomorrow regarding the institutional failure to report and stop Jerry Sandusky's molestation of children.  Now, this blog will certainly have more to say when we see the exact nature of the punishment, I just want to remark now on the reports that this decision was reached outside of the standard NCAA process.

I don't actually have a problem with the NCAA not conducting its standard investigation.  The Freeh report is comprehensive, and it was commissioned by PSU itself.  If PSU's own report contains enough info to act upon, I don't think the NCAA needs to stand on principle in repeating the leg work.

What does bother me is that the decision was reached without a formal hearing.

When the details of the Freeh report came out, I was appalled, as I'm sure most of you were.  I had a gut reaction that "something" needed to be done to PSU and its officials.  Heads needed to roll, people needed to pay, grab the torch and pitchfork, rabble rabble rabble.


But that's exactly the point of due process.  Formal investigations and hearing processes are designed to remove inflamed passions from the process; otherwise you aren't dispensing justice, you are enacting vengeance.  It may satisfy our schadenfreude to "hammer" people quickly after some perceived wrong, but it gives in to our baser impulses and thereby weakens the legitimacy our system.  A mob with a gavel is still a mob.  We tend to get consequences disproportionate to the crime.  Even if you are an advocate of an eye for an eye, the animal brain tends to start screaming "An eye?  I want the whole !$%@! face!!!"

David Jones is reporting that PSU won't be appealling the punishment and thereby this whole thing is probably the result of some deal they struck with the NCAA.  If that's true it mollifies my concern to an extent, although PSU is still negotiating from a position of weakness here in the midst of a hue and cry.

Granted, all of this is a bit of navel gazing until the details are released in the morning.  We'll have more to say on the role of the NCAA in stepping in here at all.  But the degree to which this situation highlights a wild west lynch mob mentality is worth remarking on, because it's hard to imagine a more perfect example of a situation where we feel no sympathy for the accused, and it's precisely those instances where our darker impulses should be restrained.

And if you get the impulse to fire off a comment that this post makes me a supporter of child molestation, thank you for proving my point.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

WIND SPRINTS FOR 7/19

Here's some stuff better writers than me put together so I don't have to.

1) Deadspin's got a new piece on goalline technology for soccer, a sport in desperate need of more objective measurements. Next, maybe the refs can carry stopwatches!

I keep promising something on soccer corruption; I'll get there someday. In the meantime, note how Deadspin very smartly points out that the new technology won't really solve the issue; scummy refs are gonna keep on scumming until we stop them.

(Also, Deadspin, for all its dick-and-fart joke glory, has definitely been on a more progressive bend lately. See here and here.)

2) Alyssa Rosenberg is one of my favorite bloggers- and now she's added a dedicated sports columnist. Check out Travis Waldron's piece on Oscar Pistorius. Are we really going to argue that not having legs is an unfair advantage?

3) NBC is putting out a new App for it's Olympic coverage, and since I spend so much time bitching about access to sports, it's nearly all I could want. Tethering it to specific cable services is a drag, though.

4) The NFL is softening it's blackout policy. Careful readers with nothing better to do will note that a very early post focused on this, so, y'know, we win.

5) I got some very nice comments to my Derek Boorgaard piece from Paul Busch, proprietor of It's Not Part of the Game. So, I checked out, and so should you. It's a pretty useful in-depth look at fighting in hockey- a subject that is actually huge, but that I just can't devote that much time to. But someone should, so I'm glad it's out there.

Monday, July 16, 2012

College Football Playoffs and the Illusion of Change



The biggest news in college sports- which has to be Top Five for biggest sports story overall, right?- is the advent of a four team playoff in college football. Starting in 2014, a selection committee will pick four teams. The two semi-final games will occur on New Year's and be played at one of six bowl sites. Those six sites aren't quite defined yet, except that we know the Rose Bowl and the Champions Bowl will be involved. The championship game will be played on a neutral site, selected by bidding, on the first Monday in January- which the NCAA desperately hopes you'll start calling "Championship Monday".

This is a big step, and a lot of football fans are right to be happy. Once we get to the four teams, we'll have a rational, objective, transparent way to pick the best of them. What's more, this is the kind of thing that almost always leads to further changes (such as an expanded playoff or a rethinking of conference structures). But for now, I'm actually kind of stunned at how little changes. It's like the NCAA- and the conferences, who had to approve of this change- went out of their way to preserve as many of college football's bad ideas as possible.

The problem with the BCS system was that it was subjective; the number of wins was not the final word on a team's season, and even other objective measures (think the NFL's tiebreakers) didn't always matter. Instead, the BCS turned to things like "strength of schedule" that had no real definition. This made the BCS system opaque, unpredictable, and ultimately illegitimate. And here- well, wins and tie breakers still aren't going to be the final word. If they were, then that would be all, and we wouldn't need a selection committee. But we will have a selection committee, and its choice, rather than any objective measure, is going to be the final word. And thus, the national champion will still have a legitimacy problem (though certainly not one as big as it has under the BCS system).

My guess is that this is all to preserve the conferences- or at least, the major conferences (the SEC, Big Ten, etc.). After all, this national playoff is going to be the final word on each college football season, and if it were based entirely on objective performance, than all of the conferences' little gimmicks- individual tournaments, individual champions, traditional rivalries- would become irrelevant pretty quickly. The conferences would also find themselves under intense pressure to adopt uniform rules and standards on the (persuasive) theory that the objective measures would only really mean something if every team played under the same rules. If you take all that away from the conferences, you pretty much break them. Thus, a selection committee, that can at least stall.

The problem is, well, the major conferences are horrible. They're corrupt and collusive and actively trying to push out smaller conferences, and thus, drive down competition. If anything, this system gives them more power to do that; what are the odds that the selection committee's four team slate won't be dominated by the SEC, Big Ten, and Pac-12? Who wants odds on that? And so, the conferences stay put, regardless of whether they're any good for the sport, the schools, or the athletes.

Of course, the biggest problem in college football is that it's entirely unclear how much the college football heirarchy cares about being good to the athletes in the first place. They're not allowed to share in the tremendous wealth they create for the schools and conferences. Hell, they're not even allowed to profit off of their own names. Sure, the NCAA will point to scholarships, but even setting aside the fact that it's an open question as to how many athletes complete a useful degree, that compensation is not at all commensurate with what coaches, athletic directors, and administrators get. This new system is poised to make the problem worse; a national playoff is certainly going to be tremendously popular; participating teams are going to be flush with new revenue. But the players will still get the same meager piece of the pie they're getting now. If a particular player does something particular amazing, he'll still be in no position to capitalize off of his newfound fame.

And all of that new revenue- along with the fame and prestige- is going to be very tempting for schools, so they're going to throw more and more resources into the football program- and the football programs already suck up way too many of a campus' resources. Schools are also going to feel more pressure to leave famous, winning programs alone- which is to say, pressure to turn a blind eye to bad decisions.

Now, we all know you just can't devise a playoff system that will cure all of the social ills in college sports. Hell, the very presence of any playoff system is going to create the increased pressure for wins, revenue, and prestige. But you can devise a system that addresses some of them and doesn't make the others appreciably worse. Specifically, an objective-berth playoff system would create some legitimacy and cut the conferences down to size- and since the conferences actually reinforce the other major problems (exploitation of players and misallocation of resources), it would make progress on those issues, too.

Like I said, this is a step in the right direction- but it seems to be meticulously calculated to be as small of a step as possible.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Tell Me Your Job and I'll Tell You Your Politics



This week, NBA legend and Indiana Pacers General Manager Larry Bird came out against Ray Allen's decision to sign with the Miami Heat, saying:

“The one thing that bothers me the most is guys taking big pay cuts for a year to go down there and try to win a championship. There’s a lot of guys who like to ride the coattails of the best, and they’ll take a pay cut just to have an opportunity to win that ring.’’

First of all, I can't believe Allen is getting shit for taking less money to play for a proven champion after so many years of sports writers bloviating about spoiled players and a concerted effort from the NBA owners to drive down salaries. Some fuckers just can't win, I guess.

But the more interesting thing, to me, is that Larry Bird had no problem with Bill Walton narrowing his potential teams down to the Lakers and Celtics- and ultimately landing with the Celts- in the mid '80s. Hell, Bird was on the phone with Walton, encouraging him to ship up to Boston.

And this, of course, reminds me of Michael Jordan. During the 1999 lock out, Jordan famously told the owner of the Washington Wizards that if he couldn't make money on the Raptors, he should just sell the team, rather than try to cut players' salaries. But in last year's lockout, Jordan, as GM of the Charlotte Bobcats, drew one of the hardest lines against the players as the owners essentially made the same argument about profit.

So, what we've got here is two NBA legends who said one thing while playing, and another as executives. I can't wait for Magic to step in and be a twat to some Los Angeles Dodger!

Of course, I'm not sure Jordan and Bird are the absolute best examples of selling out; Jordan has famously cared about little besides winning and making money ("Republicans buy sneakers, too" and all that), and Bird wasn't really a progressive activist. But still, it's striking in that they've both done dramatic 180s on these issues.

The benefit of hiring former players as executives is, supposedly, that as former players, they have unique perspectives on the game. Hopefully, they have a greater understanding of how it works, but even at very least, they're coming from a different place, so they ought to avoid the groupthink of other NBA executives. For our purposes, we would hope that former players would understand that greater player freedom is good for basketball, and that the players are what the fans are coming to see- and thus, restricting player movement and suppressing player salaries are counter-productive and anti-capitalist, and that the owners' empty moralizing about players' salaries and loyalty is, well, empty moralizing.

But none of that works when the players, upon becoming executives, immediately adopt their old owners' positions, forget the things they learned during their careers, and directly contradict themselves. None of that works when they become the moralizers. When that happens, the same tired arguments get repeated and the same useless policies get perpetuated and it's 20 more years before we can have the kind of NBA we actually deserve.

Listen, we've all got bosses. We all have to smooth out some of our sharp edges for our jobs, we all have to pipe down on our most extreme views. And Bird and Jordan now both have the job of maximizing wins while minimizing costs, which is a different set of priorities than they had as players. But still, their analysis is flawed, their stated preferences will not actually improve the game, and when they were players, they knew that. Moreover, if anyone is in a position to buck their bosses and the expectations of their positions, it's Michael fucking Jordan and Goddamn Larry Bird. That they're not doing that- that they're perpetuating the same bullshit conflicts that have dominated the NBA since they themselves were wearing shorts- is pretty depressing.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Freeh Report

Former FBI Director Louis Freeh released his comprehensive report on the Penn State situation yesterday. It's fair to say that it doesn't draw any new conclusions- we already knew that Penn State used its institutional power to cover for Sandusky, and we already knew that Joe Paterno's role- whether one of active participation or willful ignorance- was enough to give the lie to his public image. But if the conclusions aren't new, there's still value, here; there is a value in laying out all the details, sordid as they may be, and in producing one primary source summing up the whole horrid affair. It puts everything in context, and gives us a good starting point to understand what happened.

(I say just a "starting point" because the report excludes some important information. Most notably, as Dave Zirin points out, the report is mostly silent on former PA Attorney General- and current PA Governor- Tom Corbett's role. Even if Corbett was ultimately in the clear, it was still worth discussing. But Zirin covers that; I'm talking about something else here.)


That context reveals, frankly, that Penn State isn't all that dissimilar from any other school with a big-time football program. Now, let's be clear, cheating athletes out of money and devoting too many public resources to football is not morally equivalent to covering for a child molester; both are bad, but the second is clearly far more intense. But they do have the same root causes; an over-dependence on college football, especially the money and prestige it brings in, and a blind desire to protect that program.

I'm not saying Nick Saban or Les Miles would try to cover up a crime committed by their defensive coordinators.But they do feel intense pressure to make bad decisions in the name of "protecting the program"- demanding more money than the school can afford, pushing athletes into easy, useless classes, accepting and endorsing the "student-athlete" system that deprives athletes of just compensation. And when they do these things, it puts pressure up and down the administrative chain at the school, so that athletic directors, school Presidents, even Boards of Trustees are pushed into the same bad decisions. It's not the same as committing an outright crime, but it comes from the same place.

What's more, the romantic "molding boys into men" narrative of college football creates a cognitive dissonance that makes fans, alumni, and students blind to these problems, or at least dreadfully slow to react to them. Penn State fans are having so much trouble understanding the depth of Paterno's culpability here because it's hard to reconcile that with his original image. And that's in the wake of an intense and horrible crime and documentation that is all but unimpechable. When it's a more mundane evil, like a recruitment violation or the NCAA/conference system cabal, it's going to be all but invisible to fans who are conditioned to think of their coach as a virtuous champion.

Fortunately, there's a lot we fans can do to relieve some of this pressure and clear up the cognitive dissonance. First of all, if we're alumni, we can stop making our money contingent on the football team, and stop giving directly to the athletic department. That's easy for me 'cause I don't have money, but if you're rich and reading this, it's not hard for you, either; donate to the school's general fund, or the English department, or me. Or, at very least, stop picking up the phone and raising hell after every losing season.

We can also, as fans, just try not to be pricks so much. Cheering for the team is great; pep rallys are awesome, spontaneously rushing the field or taking to the streets after a win is amazing. But rioting after a loss just makes you an asshole. Locking arms with a coach or player when you know he's done something wrong makes you a twat. These guys are human, they're going to fuck up. You're not a worse fan for noting when they do. You're actually better because you're expecting more of them.

Finally, we can let the penny drop on the "leadership" qualities of college football coaches and athletic administrators. They're not there to turn a bunch of high school kids into Medal of Honor winners, they're there to win football games. And that's an incredibly hard job with a lot of pressure pushing them in a lot of different ways. None of them are Ghandi; none of them are hired to be Ghandi, and really, none of us want them to be Ghandi (Ghandi always always ALWAYS got fooled into committing too much to the pass rush). The sooner we acknowledge and accept all of that, the better.

Because treating these guys as if they're something more than just guys with hard jobs in the public eye is how Penn State got into it's mess. And again, it's not always going to turn out that, but it's always going to raise the risks of bullshit. If we can decrease the risk of all the bullshit, including horrors like Jerry Sandusky, well, there's no reason not to try.


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Man, I Fucking Love the All Star Game



Setting aside all of the completely justified complaints about the MLB All Star Game- all the snubs, all the hype, and jesus god, no, this one should not "count"- I still love this event. Of course, I'm entirely in the tank for baseball, so consider that when I say this. But I'll defend my idea that this is a good use of our valuable sports-viewing time.

What I like best is that Major League Baseball has turned the All Star Game into a weeklong celebration of whatever city it's in this year. In this year's broadcast, we heard the history of the song "Kansas City", got a mini-tour of the Negro League Museum, learned that Kansas City is the "City of Fountains" and heard numerous peons to Kansas City barbecue (my twitter feed this week has also featured multiple arguments between baseball writers on the best barbecue in Kansas City). Joe Posnaski- former beat writer for the Royals, now one of the better baseball writers on the planet, summed all the KC love up in this post.

This is something sports really excel at. They can foster tremendous civic pride without using militant jingoism or sketchy racial politics. Teams just become part of a city's DNA, a reason to love your city and a way to feel a part of it without putting down any other place. They make us feel like we're part of something bigger, without that "something bigger" having to exclude a certain group of other people.

As I've said before, sometimes, these feelings descend into tribalism, and that's a blight on sports. But that doesn't change the very real ways sports can bring us together.

And anyway, that's not happening in Kansas City tonight.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Damned if you do, Damned if you don't...

Well the hypothetical grousing about South Africa's paraplegic Olympian has already started. Questions already arising IF he wins, is the win tainted? Do his "blades" give him an unfair edge? So let's get this straight...as long as he competes he is a human interest story, but if he does well suddenly it is a problem? He is only an inspiration as long as he doesn't win? Sorry, but this still strikes me as capableist pity. We are fine with disabled individuals being an "inspirational story", as long as it inspires the able bodied to go out and do the real work. If that is the case, then honestly I think those questions are the best thing that could happen for the disabled community. It forces is to deal with such individuals as equals, and not amusing also-rans. Even if we do determine such prostheses to be an unfair advantage (and there are good points to be made), I don't see Usain Bolt going in for leg replacement surgery.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

I, For One, Welcome Our New Robot Instant Replay Overlords

Here's DeWayne Wise's non-catch for an out from last night's Yankees game. Blah blah blah ridicuolous, blah blah blah easy fix, blah blah blah baseball needs instant replay.

On the other hand, I'm sure Cleveland is happy to trade that out for the knowledge that they're playing the game as close as possible to the way Satchel Paige played it.

(Also, I know baseball is all about deception, but lookit how nobody in the fan section questions the out- even the two guys staring at the ball. Fucking Yankees fans.)

Monday, June 25, 2012

Curt Schilling's Financial Woes: I'll Try Not to Laugh



Did you hear the one about how Curt Schilling, Red Sox legend and outspoken conservative, parlayed his baseball fame into a video game company, where he took loans from the government, but then turned out to be a major bust, costing the taxpayers money and wiping out his personal fortune? HAW!

Okay, in one sense, this is a vindication of the free market; 38 Studios does not appear to have done anything really worth paying attention too (And I'd argue that video games are one medium where there's a strong correlation between popularity and quality); it seems like it was just coasting off of Schilling's name, and ultimately, that's not enough, and the market made the company pay. It's nice when it actually works like that.

On the other hand, this is a stunning indictment of the free market; after all, Schilling's the one who took all the risk, and his company is clearly the one that underperformed. His kids had nothing to do with that- and yet, they're going to suffer for their dad losing his fortune. Why am I supposed to be happy about this invisible hand thing again?

Finally, there's the hypocrisy of it all- Schilling was an outspoken conservative, he campaigned for Bush and Scott Brown, he bleats on and on about small government...and then turns around and begs the state of Rhode Island for a loan? For something as frivolous as a VIDEO GAME COMPANY? Don't get me wrong, I love video games, but I'm plenty happy leaving that sector of the economy to the free market wolves (and I say that as a big government liberal).

Hypocrisy, of course, is hardly the most intellectual rigorous criticism; we all contradict ourselves at the outer edges of our philosophies. And honestly, I do have some sympathy for Schilling; transitioning to a post-sports life is hard, and he tried to do it by taking a risk into an unproven- but awesome!- field. It sucks that it didn't work out for him.

But it will suck more if he goes through this without realizing that most people asking for the government's help are just like him- good people who work hard, and just hit some bad luck.