Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Coach's Duty to Report, And Our Duty to Train

The Illinois legislature is probably going to pass a law requiring higher education and athletic program personnel to report child abuse when they see it. Can't really argue with that one- you can maybe ask why it took so long, but I suspect that few people really understood the threat before Jerry Sandusky, and I dunno, I'm uncomfortable blaming people for not anticipating every possible act of evil.

That being said, at the end of the linked article, State Rep. Lou Lang (who I've met, and is pretty alright) makes a point that is well taken. See, a "duty to report" can only be the first step here. We also have to give higher education officials and athletic program personnel training to help them know WHAT to report.

Athletic programs, especially at the high school and collegiate level, are insular and hierarchical. The athletes and the coaches spend so much time together that they lose perspective. The coaches have so much untamed authority that it takes an act of affirmative courage to question them. This is what really happened at Penn State- Joe Paterno had been with Jerry Sandusky for so long, he couldn't IMAGINE that he'd be a sexual predator, and Paterno had so much power that no one thought to question him when he did...well, far too little to address the problem.

So, telling coaches and staff to report anything they see isn't enough, we also have to train them to look past their own biases and preconceptions. This is obviously a long, continuing process. It's not as simple as just passing a law (and I have a lot of sympathy for legislators, passing a law is actually extraordinarily hard). And, of course, we all have to do this harder, longer work (which is becoming a constant refrain on this blog).

But credit where it's due; this is a start, and a good one.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Odd Spectacle of the Trade Deadline

Yesterday was the NHL trade deadline. If you didn't realize it, I can't blame you. Nothing much happened. The big names stayed put, no surprising moves were made, and even the Canadian media's best attempts to hype things couldn't really make anything interesting. And that all gave me plenty of time to think about the ritual of trade deadlines in the Modern American Sports Industrial Complex.

I don't have any objective data to back this up- and thus, shame on me for asserting it- but it really seems like no one paid as much attention to trades when our parents were our age. Anecdotally, my dad has told me that he noticed the big moves, obviously- things like his beloved Yankees signing Reggie Jackson- but that he didn't really know the rules of trades. He didn't even know that there WAS a trade deadline. My dad enjoyed sports just fine without this knowledge. But I'm still pretty sure I'm better off.

I like that the curtain has been pulled back a little, that we all get a little better understanding not just of what happened, but how and why. It's a slim measure of accountability. It's not much; the big decisions are still all to often made by guys with no accountability and little real knowledge, but at least they don't get to do it all in secret now.

It also gives us more knowledge, and I think, as a general maxim, that we're always better off knowing more than less. Listen, we're going to waste a lot of time on these sports; we may as well actually understand how they work as best as we can. It's kind of a way of taking a measure of ownership of them; we don't just let the front offices decide that we don't need to know something.

Most importantly, it makes fandom more interesting. Now, it's not just about scoring 50 points a season; if a guy only scores 20, but only costs $1 million against the salary cap, that's still a good value. Likewise, if he scores 50 points but costs $45 million, that's not really good enough. We have more ways to evaluate these guys- which means more arguments over evaluating them, which is really the hallmark of fandom.

The other edge of the sword is, well, yesterday, when the hockey media brought out all the fanfare for...nothing, really. NHL Network had all day coverage, Puck Daddy did an 8 hour live blog, and the best they could report was that Detroit moved Commodore and Vancouver moved some guy I can't even remember (And I could look it up, but it rather makes my point the way it is, doesn't it?). That gets as obnoxious as cable news networks, no doubt. But there's an easy solution: just change the channel.

So, as much of a forest-from-the-trees problem as we can have sometimes, I really do think we're better off knowing more about trades, league rules, and sports finances in general. I rather doubt many fans would be willing to give up this knowledge. And if you don't believe me, just ask my dad about A-Rod's contract sometime. But...bring a lawn chair or something, so you aren't on your feet the whole time.

Monday, February 27, 2012

I've seen fire and I've seen rain...

Two things you won't find me talk about much on this blog:  God and NASCAR.

But after the Daytona 500 got delayed for over a day due to rain, it got interrupted again tonight.  I won't spoil the surprise, because nothing can do better justice than ESPN's greatest headline ever.

Reports are no one was actually injured (thank God {mention #1}), so I feel that I can be somewhat flippant about this.  There's probably a lot more to be said about this than I care to invest at this moment, especially regarding greed vs safety, especially coming after the death of Dan Wheldon in a crash just 4 months ago, but for now all I can think of are two things:

1) God REALLY doesn't want this race to happen, and

UPDATE:  Oh!  Apparently NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski posted video of the conflagration of doom to twitter.  And I'm not supposed to text while I'm just sitting at a red light?  What the hell is a NASCAR driver doing with a camera phone with tweetability in his car?  I'm not sure if this is a worthwhile evolution of sport or the beginnings of a bad Emilio Estevez movie.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Somebody Call the WAAAAH-mbulance!

I'm a little late on this one- it came to my attention about a week and a half ago, thanks to official Friend of the Blog Zoe (not to be confused with official Cat of the Blog Zoey). Something stuck in my craw about it, but I couldn't determine what.

Anyway, Jeff Schultz at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution took the NBA's temperature at just about the mid point of this abbreviated season, and found the results troubling. I can't disagree, although I'd prefer some hard numbers on whether or not this season has seen more injuries than previous ones (We here at CWS demand DATA, dammit!). Subjectively, I feel like I agree, and I think that's bad for the NBA, because I'm clearly losing interest every night Derrick Rose doesn't dress. But I don't really know if there's more injuries, or if it just SEEMS like there's more because the player I'm most interested in has been in and out.

On a more solid note, we have this, which Schultz is correct about:

"This isn’t all Stern’s fault. Yes, he saw dollar signs, as did the owners, in mandating a 66-game schedule when 50 would’ve been safer. But the players’ union signed off on this deal. They wanted the revenue, too."

Now, I can't abide by the players' risking their long-term health and careers for some short-term cash (or, more accurately, risking OTHER PLAYERS' long-term health and careers). But I feel like we're being a little hypocritical here. EVERYONE wanted this season to be played- the owners, the players, the fans, everyone. It wasn't just about revenue for all of those actors- the fans weren't gonna see a dime, obviously. Everyone was willing to give a little to make it happen, too, and the players ended up being willing to give a lot more, but we've been over this, that's their livelihood.

Moreover, we spend so much time in sports PRAISING players for putting their bodies on the line for the game. "Leaving it all on the field." "Being willing to bang bodies." The last scene of Major League, where Tom Berenger ruins his knees for the Pennant. It seems weird to now chastise players for risking their bodies just to play at all (especially because just playing at all IS a risk to the body).

But mostly, I'm just leery of any sort of "We must protect the players from themselves!" sentiment. I know, I know- these guys aren't medical professionals, they don't really know what their bodies can take. But they certainly have access to doctors, and I think if they want to take that risk, we kinda gotta let 'em. I mean, clearly we had to this time, or we just weren't going to get the NBA for a year.

Again, I'll call out their greed for what it is. But they were also willing to take a risk to make sure a game we all wanted to see was played. And as such, I think I'd just rather enjoy the game.

99% of the Country's Sports Fans Are Awkwardly Pandered To By 1% of the Country's Politicians

Okay, so, I saw Mitt Romney's Ford Field thing from last Friday, and I kinda ignored it, because there wasn't really much to say from a "progressive sports fan" perspective besides "LOLZ, STAGECRAFT FAIL." I figured that Mitt Romney and this humble blog could just go our separate ways.

Then Romney had to go to Daytona.

At Daytona, Romney was asked if he follows NASCAR, and he said:

""Not as closely as some of the most ardent fans, but I have some friends who are NASCAR team owners."

Jesus Christ, that's a tone deaf answer.

Look, I think that "Can this candidate speak coherently on sports?" is a TERRIBLE criterium to use in picking a President. And I say that as a big fan of Obama, who's probably the most cognizant of sports of any President in recent history. "Does he follow the same pop culture touchstones I do?" is pretty much equally bad, even if you just consider that a roundabout way of asking, "Does he get ME?"

But faking an affinity for the sport just makes the whole thing so much worse. And it makes it worse for the candidate, too, because we can always tell when he's faking it...and he usually ends up saying something clueless and out-of-touch like Romney did there.

Yes, plenty of politicians have made political hay out of their love of sports. Obama doing his bracket on ESPN, Bush throwing out the first pitch- and forever sullying- at my beloved Busch Stadium. But those guys had real passions for the sports. Bill Clinton never said anything memorable about sports (you'd only even know he was a Cardinal fan if you read his book, and OH GOD IT'S NOT WORTH IT). John Kerry tried to talk to some Packers fans when Wisconsin was a swing state, and he ended up saying "Lambert Field."

So, the bottom line, candidates: don't fake the sports love. We see right through it every time, and that's worse for you than just admitting you don't know much about the sport. Because, actually, "Is this guy just a big phony?" is a fine criterium to use.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Trending to the Basket

Soooo.... Vinny from Jersey Shore date raped his way onto the roster of the NBA's Celebrity Game tonight.  He rallied his Twitter followers to advocate on his behalf in order to get selected.

Personally, I think this is great.  I already liked that Stern bowed to pressure to include Jeremy Lin in the newly formatted "Rising Stars" Challenge, and I like that fans get to vote on who gets into the All-Star game.  I understand the problems with fan selection.  You get guys like Jeter taking out 30 year morgages on their inclusion.  But ultimately you're selling a product, and you want fans to watch, and fans want to watch certain players.

So I think next year the NBA should go further in having fans vote for who makes the Celebrity Challenge.  Let people campaign through the NBA's website.  Let them get Twitter votes.  I'd be more inclined to watch it.


Apparently, I know some folks who know some folks who know this guy, so I guess that's pretty cool. But more relevant to our interests is just how much this guy's website reflects one of my bugaboos.

I don't think I'm going out on much of a limb to say that we all have our favorite sports and teams. And the thing is, we want to watch...our favorite sports and teams. If you like college basketball, you don't want to watch the pros because it's "close enough". If you're a Raiders fan, you don't want to watch the Chiefs just because Fox or CBS thinks they've got the more interesting match-up that week. We want to watch what we want to watch.

And so, if you're fan of high school sports, that's what you want to watch. For a long time, that wasn't an option; no one really airs high school sports outside of the state championships, so you were stuck. But that's why this business model is so smart. It's not just recognizing that there's a market there, but it's giving the fans more choice on what sports and games they're going to watch. That's empowering, and the one thing sports fans desperately need right now is more power.

But it's also clearly enriching for the guys who figure that out, too. This guy is clearly doing quite well. Major League Baseball has seen its revenues skyrocket since it's incorporated streaming radio and television options. This is the one trend in sports I'm comfortable saying is the wave of the future; we're going to want more and more ability to decide for ourselves which game to watch. Eventually, we're going to get it.


Your collection of smart people bein' all smart about sports for this fine Friday afternoon.

1) Oh, look, Rob Neyer agrees with Federally Mandated Contraception Blogger Mike.

2) We do not cover MMA very much on this blog, so thank god for fans like Pinkstononfilm. He brings us an article on the MMA's own issues with player safety.

3)  Albert Pujols does not like the Angels referring to him as "El Homre". Dude, did you never go to junior high? Objecting to a nickname is the best way to make it stick.

4) I think I'm on solid ground in saying that, outside of the catcher position, baseball is the least physically threatening major sport. So, the fact that we can still see a number of big name players struggle to recover from injuries ought to show us that no sport gets to take it easy.

5) A bunch of my favorite baseball writers have a Kickstarter for a book about second tier baseball players- the guys who you loved as a kid, but realized as an adult weren't HoFers. If you've got some scratch, contribute.

What games are you watching this weekend?

Some More Bullshit on Ryan Braun

Eva Longoria's personal death blogger Mike said a lot of good stuff about Ryan Braun yesterday, so go read him again. But I have some more thoughts, again, in reverse order of relevance...

1) Fuck that, he's still a fucking cheater. C'mon, isn't mascara a PED?

2) As #1 shows, the PED issue has become nothing more than a rhetorical cudgel for opposing fans. For 80% of baseball, the issue is no longer about someone having an "unfair" edge, because the numbers were so massive and the oversight so lax, there was nothing "unfair" about it. Now, it's just confirmation bias. I don't like Ryan Braun, so I'm going to mention this little incident every time he comes up in conversation (and he comes up more than you think, since I work at an Axe Body Spray factory). I DO like David Ortiz, so I somehow seem to forget that he's been accused of PEDs, too. It's just a witchhunt now.

3) And as #1 and #2 are the case, I'm awfully glad that MLB's testing process seems to have some useful form of due process. As I indicated in the Manny Ramirez post, baseball is these guys' sine qua non in a way that even we fans don't understand. I don't like taking away someone's livelihood in a process that is wired for the accuser from the start. I'm not sure if MLB's PED testing program is as reliable as I want, but at least it punishes the MLB when it fails to follow its own procedures.

4) Braun's people are complaining that the results were leaked, and that that's going to tarnish his image even though he successfully appealed the decision. This is undeniably true (see: #1, above), and the fact that Braun's decision was overturned because MLB didn't follow proper procedures, rather than some proof that Braun didn't really take PEDs, won't help. But I'm not sure this is really the hill to fight and die on. The same impulse that makes me uncomfortable with a process that is wired for the accuser also makes me uncomfortable with a process that is completely secret until the final conclusion. Sunlight, disinfectant, whatever. Put it this way: if MLB had just come out and announced that Braun was suspended with no explanation, I would not be very sure that it was the right call, even though I hate Braun.

Anyway, this is all distracting from the real issue, which is that Bernie Brewer once killed a man. Take all the beer baths you want, Bernie; the blood will never wash off those hands.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Working the Refs

Today a panel of arbitrators ruled 2 to 1 in favor of Ryan Braun in overturning his suspension by the MLB for testing positive in the post-season for performance enhancing drugs.  The MLB has already issued a statement disagreeing with the decision.

I don't know the facts of the case, I wasn't privy to the evidence and arguments presented to arbitrators, and frankly I don't care enough to go hunting them down.  What I think this illustrates is a broader trend in our society to bemoan the outcome of any disciplinary system when that system acquits.

The Rodney King trial saw riots, the OJ Simpson trial fostered outrage, and the Casey Anthony verdict garnered death threats.  Republicans have spent years fighting the idea that terrorism suspects should be tried in civilian courts, and when the underwear bomber received life in prison Democrats responded to Republican criticism by saying "see?  The system CAN work."

What's disturbing about that last remark, that retort, is the idea implicit in it that had the defendant been acquitted, that the judicial system had somehow failed.  That we had prejudged the defendant and were grading our actual judicial system on its ability to validate our preconceived notions.

I spent a summer working in employment law on the employer side, where my job was to assist in the defense of an employer against charges of discrimination by employees.  Cases initially went before an arbitrator rather than to a federal court.  Now, I have a lot of good things to say about arbitration, but one area in which it struggles is the independence afforded our judiciary.  In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission cases, arbitrators are selected from a list of arbitrators agreed upon in collective bargaining between the union and the employer, and this list is subject to constant update.  So you get situations where an arbitrator rules against the union, or the employer, and that side then challenges their inclusion for future cases.  I don't know how arbitrators for baseball are selected, but don't think MLB officials won't remember the names of these arbitrators going forward.

Which, sometimes arbitrators and judges do get it wrong.  They are human.  But there's also a lot of sour grapes in our society whenever a court doesn't rule our way.  Whether it be cries of judicial activism or outright vandalism, we attack the system and its officers for any outcome we don't support.  And the hope is that by continuing to boo the refs, it'll shade their calls down the line.  At some point though we need to step back from our personal investment in any given issue and realize that any system of dispute resolution that doesn't occasionally invalidate our preconceived notions is no system at all.  It's just a rubber stamp.  That may be fine and well so long as you're the one doing the stamping, but some day it'll be you getting stamped.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Long Game, or How I Learned to What Football is (Currently) Doing Right

Last night Greg Popavich sat Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, his two biggest stars, despite not having injuries, in order to give the older stars rest in a compressed NBA season full of back-to-backs.  The Spurs were consequently rocked by the Portland Trail Blazers for a 40 point loss.  This loss leaves the Spurs as the #2 seed in their conference, right where they were before hand.

Now, I won't denigrate Pops for resting his aging stars to keep some gas in their tank.  Heck, I've advocated that Thibodeau should do more to limit the minutes of Bulls stars.  But it does say something that we are in the middle of a season in which coaches and teams play the schedule as much or more than they play the games.  Everyone has an eye on the playoffs, getting there in as good a seed as possible while leaving something in the tank and limiting injuries, and to do that you basically have to accept that you are not only going to lose some games, but that you are going to have to concede games.

This is largely a function of the compressed schedule.  Too many games in too small a time frame.  Even in a full season of 82 games (16 more) the extra 2 months space it out enough that you don't see such blatant towel tossing.  But I wonder if number of games doesn't factor in some.  If this compressed season were the same length but had 6-16 less games (a 50-60 game season), would we have enough rest to have teams treat every game equally?

I'm not enough of a baseball fan to know, but I will toss out the totally unsupported supposition that managers in baseball also take a less than urgent approach to all 162 games.  "Is this pitcher struggling?  Should I go to the bullpen?  Nah, it's only 15 games in and I want to evaluate his toughness."  The higher game count lets you experiment more.  

In some ways that's good in evaluating your talent or for getting your backups and younger players experience.  But as someone shelling out over $50 for a ticket, I want to see my team win, and not use my one outing for the week/month to tinker with lineups.  I can sit at home and watch Quenneville debate himself over who should be 2nd line center in HD for free while writing one of these blog posts in between catching youtube videos of corgis playing tetherball.

As a fan with cable and internet, I'm fascinated by the chess game that is this NBA season.  I'm fascinated by the strategizing of when and how much to rest players with an eye towards the season as a whole, and not just this game.  But that's only because, as a fan that isn't buying tickets and has so much media exposure, I have that luxury.

Football, on the other hand, at both the college and professional level, has done so much more to make every game count.  You never see teams take their foot off the gas.  And while in the injury regard this can be bad (pushing players to get back sooner than may be advisable), it does make me as a fan more invested in every outing.  

Blog Overlord Craig may, and plenty of sports writers and statisticians certainly do, say that the more games a season has the more the law of large numbers will show us what a team's real capability is.  But is that really the case if a team is only ever playing at 85-95% much of the time?  Does the worship of sample size overlook too much of the human element?  Not just physical, mental, and emotional fatigue, but calculated slacking?  Craig has specifically lauded playoffs where statisticians decry them.  That's because the smaller sample size admits more intangibles (like "heart") and luck.  I would also argue it is the only thing that mandates 100% focus and effort.

Notwithstanding my other post today on football's coming decline, I think the smaller sample size of the football season helps capture this playoff mentality throughout the entire season.  Going back to my post from earlier today, continued expansion of the football season to 18 or more games risks not only player health, but team focus.  Perhaps the two are indistinguishable.

Pride Goeth Before the Fall

So this happened.

I don't have a lot to add to this story that other pundits haven't already, but I missed the Wind Sprint and this to me is a big story and ties directly in to what we have talked about and continue to talk about on this blog.

I think Aikman has some very valid points.  I know it seems ludicrous when you look at football's numbers right now, but Aikman's taking a long view, as in one or two generations long view.  The boys at PTI have discussed how boxing used to be a huge part of American culture, and even baseball has fallen from its loftiest of perches.  Baseball will always be big, and it will always be with us, but kids on the playground these days don't exclusively dream of playing center field for the Yankees.

Cultural shifts happen.  To some degree baseball's king status was a result of it being the only game in town for the longest time.  Baseball as a professional sport was already an adult when professional basketball and football leagues were entering their awkward teenage years.  Even though the seasons of the sports don't perfectly sync up, baseball was bound to lose some fans to the other sports, even though I would argue that more professional sports helps create a professional sports world that overall enhances the value of any particular sport.  ESPN, for example, wouldn't exist if MLB were still the only pro sports league.

So what cultural shift could knock some wind out of football's sails?  Aikman mentions two things:  overexpansion/overexposure, and injuries (specifically concussions but I will address the broader point).

Aikman has a good perspective on this.  Growing up in Texas I watched Aikman bring 3 Super Bowl victories to Dallas, and then he got knocked out of the game for getting too many concussions.  The Cowboys haven't been back to the Super Bowl without him.  Father Time catches up to everyone.  Emmit Smith and Jerry Rice hung around arguably longer than they should have, arguably damaging their brand by petering out over the course of a couple lackluster seasons, although they didn't harm their relationship with their former fan bases the way Brett Favre did.  But how many more years did Aikman have?  Brady looked like he was on the downslide the past season or two, and then this season he resurged and led his team back to the Super Bowl.  In fact, Vegas is giving the Patriots good odds to return next year.  Yeah, Emmit petered out a couple years after Aikman, but quarterbacks have longer careers than running backs because they don't take as many hits and don't rely on their speed (which is quicker to go than arm strength).   Aikman retired after receiving his 10th concussion at the age of 34 after 11 years in the league.  For comparison:  Peyton Manning is 35 and has played for 13 seasons, and the only thing that will keep him from playing longer is injury.  Tom Brady is now 34 and has been in the league for 12 years, and without the injury concerns of Peyton or Aikman, looks fine to play several more years.

So injuries cut short Aikman's career (like they might do to Peyton).  But that happens right?  It happens to lots of football players.  Heck, Greg Oden just had another surgery that will bench him for the remainder of this year.  Oden may never play again, and never got the chance to play a full NBA season despite being a #1 draft pick, and his sport is far less violent.  But stories like Oden in the NBA are far bigger outliers than career ending injuries in the NFL, and while I don't want to put QBs on too big a pedestal here, Peyton's injury and the Colts performance in 2011 put a particular exclamation point on the statement that teams can live or die at the QB position, more so than at any other position in the sport that right now is the most popular.  If your franchise QB goes down, your season can go with it, and for playoff teams that creates a ripple effect throughout the entire league.  The NFL recognizes this, and they've basically developed Marquess of Queensbury rules for pass-rushers.  QBs are more protected by officiating than probably any other position in sports, and yet they still get hurt, and when they do a team, the city it sits in, and TV networks selling advertisements for those games watch millions of dollars go up in smoke.

Injuries are a part of any sport, but football is the only one that involves contact by design.  Yeah, you bump and shove in basketball, but then you get called for a foul.  Hockey has checking and fighting, but you still have penalties and ultimately the hits aren't the fulcrum around which the sport pivots.  But in football you tackle.  Every play will result in one of two outcomes:  a score or the ball carrier getting knocked to the ground.  Every play sees linemen at the least hitting each other.

Half my friends from college that played football in high school have some form of nagging injury.  Their wrists pop from years of jamming pads, or they have a slipped disc in their back, or their knees pop from that time they tore lateral cartilage.

All of this leads into the upcoming cultural shift for football:  The more we learn about these health risks, the more parents will discourage children from playing it.  Aikman is a Hall of Fame, multiple championship winning QB, and in that article he's quoted as saying he'd rather his own kids play something else.  Peyton and Eli Manning got where they were by having the genes and mentoring of Archie Manning.  Aikman could produce similar athletic progeny, and yet he'd rather them play soccer, or lacrosse, or basketball.

I can sympathize.  Aikman says he wants his kids playing something else, but he won't actively discourage them.  I, however, will actively encourage my kids to play other sports.  I will actively dissuade them from playing football, and I will absolutely prohibit their playing it at the Pop Warner level.  Not only are injuries just more endemic to the sport, but I don't trust the coaching.  The NFL this year had to institute a new rule mid-season where a player that takes a hit to the head has to get cleared by an independent doctor not indebted to the team before he can return.  Why?  Because these professionals put Colt McCoy back into a game after taking a brutal helmet shot in which he suffered a concussion.  Trained professionals either missed the concussion or actively ignored it.  I certainly don't trust amateur coaches at the high school or little league level who encourage kids to "rub some dirt on it" and "suck it up".  The past decade has seen multiple instances of high school kids dying of heat exhaustion while training for football because the coaches push too hard.

So the prevalence of injuries in the sport currently combined with the attitude shift of parents I think creates two problems for the NFL that boil down to the same root:  absence of talent damaging the product.

1) Current teams like the Colts are losing their best players to concussions and other serious injuries that harm viewer interest.  The 14-2 Colts under Peyton Manning are exciting to watch, and I'll pay to see that.  The 2-14 Colts without him are an embarassment, and even if my team is going to beat them by 30 points, I can find other things to do with my time than watch it happen.

2) Up and coming generations of athletes are being increasingly encouraged to play other sports.  Athletes like LeBron James can play any sport they want.  They are physically gifted.  And if my son were equally gifted, I would press him very hard to play baseball or basketball, because salaries in those sports are comparable but careers are longer and safer.  Over time and multiple generations, the best and brightest will be in other sports.  Football will always have players, but it will be settling for the lesser athletes, kinda like boxing now vs MMA.

Add on top of this the NFL wants to increase season length to cram in more games for more money.  Guess what happens when you play more games?  You get more injuries.  As seasons get longer, your franchise players will have even bigger challenges staying healthy, and the product will be even further damaged.

I don't know what the answer is, but as a fan of the sport it is good to know that lots of minds are thinking about it.


So, some students from University of Minnesota Duluth- where, I suppose, one could major in coming up with hockey chants- have been reprimanded for "racist chants" against the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux. The chants included something about "smallpox blankets". Obviously, the specific chants and taunts used aren't being reported, as who wants to reprint that shit?

This immediately reminded me of the 2006 NFC Championship game between Chicago and New Orleans, where one Bears fan held up a sign that said something like, "CHICAGO BEARS: FINISHING WHAT KATRINA STARTED." This is just that level of charming.

My obvious antipathy aside, I'm kinda torn here. I think the UofM students- and that Bears fan- clearly went too far. But I like a loud, boisterous crowd. I like chants and taunts that just kinda skirt the edge. I like the idea of fans getting in opposing teams' heads. And as anyone who's been to a college hockey game will know, the "smallpox blanket" thing, while by no means genteel, is also not the worst thing said at an average game. So, I don't know where to draw the line.

I think I'm going to just be a pussy and say no line needs to be drawn at all. Going back to what I said in the Tim Thomas post, the answer to bad speech is more speech. So, the UofM students are free to say whatever ugly, racist shit they can justify to themselves- and the rest of us can say that they're being ugly, unjustified racists. Maybe that kind of public embarrassment won't be enough to reign in these kinds of douchebags. But I'd like to try it before we start  treating a hockey game like a tennis match in the queen's personal box.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


New blog feature- every few days or so- basically, however long it takes us to collect enough links- we'll post a bunch of links to other thoughtful, progressive sports writing out there. Stuff that really interested us, but may not inspire a full blog post. Here's the first one.

1) Barry Petchesky at Deadspin has a pretty thorough frisking of Bruce Bochy's decision to not let Buster Posey block the plate. Lot of good stuff in there. All I'd add is what Imposter Blogger Mike said after my post on fighting in the NHL- even if this doesn't really solve the problem, any move toward player safety should be welcomed. Perfect isn't the enemy of good, and all that.

2) In honor of The Simpsons' 500th episode, two different reflections on "Homer at the Bat", my father's favorite Simpsons episode. One from Erik Malinowski at Deadspin, the other from Larry Granillo at Baseball Prospectus.

3) A preview of this Sunday's "Real Sports" segment on the KHL tragedy from over the summer. We'll spend a lot of time talking about how the major sports leagues treat their players like chattel, but honestly, these small, international leagues- which often don't even have the money to protect their players- are a huge part of the problem.

4) The St. Louis Cardinal hipster. I imagine you could write this post about every team in baseball. Everyone tries to give no-names and has-beens one more shot. That's okay. It's good for the players and great for the fans.

5) There's apparently a growing subculture of geeks and hockey. I support and endorse this alliance.

6) If Rick Santorum keeps talking about 1970s relievers, he just might win my vote.

What do you guys have?

Monday, February 20, 2012


GOOD NEWS, EVERYONE: Manny Ramirez has signed a minor league contract with the Oakland A's. My Three reactions to this, in reverse order of relevance:

1) THANK GOD. Manny Ramirez is unquestionably a nut, but baseball is more interesting with the nuts around. Sports are supposed to be fun, and Ramirez was fun, even if it was only in the "fun to hate" sense.

2) This is pretty much the prototypical "Moneyball" signing. For a long list of reasons- most of which aren't really about what he can do on the field- most teams don't want Ramirez, even at a steep discount. But, he may still have some productivity in him. And since no other team wants him, the As get to find out just how much productivity  for about the cost of a lottery ticket. This has all happened before, and it will all happen again.

3) This shows you just how hard it is to quit this game. Ramirez almost certainly has nothing else to do with himself. He never developed any outside skills; he never needed to. The usual roles for former athletes- coaching, broadcasting, etc.- are almost certainly closed to Ramirez, as well. His skills were always instinctive and ephemeral; he can't teach it or explain it.

So, I can't blame him for wanting to delay the inevitable, for wanting to wring every possible second of baseball out of his body before it becomes impossible for him to continue. In fact, he reminds me of Rickey Henderson, who famously ended up in some beach ball league in San Diego or something, just trying to play a little longer, maybe get one more look from a major league scout. It wasn't just that these guys have nothing else to do; they have nothing else they want to do. Baseball was the defining aspect of their lives, it validated them. After enough years of that, they really do think baseball is an incredible part of their lives.

It's ironic; Henderson and Ramirez were both, in their time, held up as pretty good examples of what was wrong with pro athletes. But in the twilight of their careers, they're willing to take extreme pay cuts and endure intense humiliation for the one thing we like most about athletes: unbridled love of the game.

Human, All Too Human

"Are you a man?  Grow up!  Play the game!  You're a professional!"

One or all of these statements have been the response from sports pundits who other sports pundits (in a psychoanalytical circle jerk) ask about the impact of trade rumors on players' performance.  Exhibits:

1) Lamar Odom at the outset of the NBA season.  After David Stern personally vetoed the Chris Paul-Lakers-Rockets trade out of a complete conflict of interest in attempting to sell the Hornets, Odom was reportedly unhappy in L.A. because they had wanted to trade him.  He was sent to the Mavericks for a pick in what was at the time considered one of the most lopsided deals in recent memory.  (Other reports were that the new Lakers coach had personal problems with Odom and the Lakers office was unhappy with the publicity his marriage to a Kardashian was causing.)

2) Dwight Howard asking for a trade to a new team every week.  (At this point I think the Colorado Rockies, San Francisco 49ers, Boston Bruins, and Team Livestrong are on the wish list).  Is this affecting his chemistry with his teammates?  Are they trying?  Do they feel like he's thrown them under the bus?

3)  Joakim Noah in Chicago is a fixture of any trade rumors for Chicago (whether for Dwight Howard or anyone else).  Noah's numbers were down at the beginning of the season and so this question came up for him as well (Noah's response was that he feels the burden of expectation now that he's got a bigger contract).

4) Pau Gasol.  Craig mentioned one particular rumor in an earlier column.  This is by no means the only trade rumor involving Gasol.  Gasol was part of the Stern nixed Paul trade at the outset of the season.  Since then he and Bynum have been fixtures of Howard trade rumors.  For all I know Gasol for Deron Williams rumors are also bouncing around out there (if not feel free to credit me for starting them).  Regardless, today on Mike and Mike in the Morning we had Kobe quoted as ripping his front office saying that he liked playing with Pau but if they are going to trade him just "!@%!@ do it already".  This led to the speculation of whether Pau's play this year has been impacted by the constant trade rumors.

In all of these examples, someone will look at the players in question, who may or may not be impacted by the uncertainty surrounding their career, and tell them to STFU, to man up, to grow a pair, to take off that skirt, to grow up, to act like an adult, and they will iterate and reiterate that these grown men are professionals and they are paid to play a game.  Maybe playing in Charlotte isn't as exciting as playing in L.A., but if that upsets you then you can cry yourself to sleep on top of the $10 million you are making.

First of all:  Yes, true, they are adults, and they are professionals.  They receive substantial compensation (some more than others) to engage in an activity children, college students, and people that work less than 80 hours a week engage in for fun and exercise.  They aren't performing brain surgery.  They aren't being asked to fix our economy or teach our nation's children how to read (though some do).

But they aren't robots, either.  They are still human beings, and a lot of that gets lost in the make-up of sports labor.  Compensation aside, when players sign a contract with a team their options become significantly limited.  If a normal person is unhappy in their job, they can quit.  If a better offer comes along, they can take it.  If they want to relocate, they have the option.  Signed players do not have those options, and in every sport the contract structure favors the owners.  Some sports more than others.

Let's say you're a young quarterback drafted onto a 2-14 team.  Your team is giving up 4 sacks a game and you suffer your first concussion as a rookie, and then your team goes out and trades its draft picks for an aging receiver, signs a linebacker in free agency, and just tells you to get rid of the ball quicker rather than beef up your o-line.  Well guess what, you're stuck.  You can't leave, because that team has the exclusive right to your services for the next 4 years.  That's not calendar years, that's years of play.  You can't even quit, sit on your couch for 4 years, and come back, because the contract tolls until you come back.  You could spend your best years languishing on a bad team under a severe risk of injury.  For every Peyton Manning there are half a dozen David Carrs.

Now let's talk about Peyton Manning.  Those overpaid athletes, in football at least, almost never see every dime of their big contracts.  Football contracts by and large are backloaded and aren't guaranteed.  Owners can freely cut a player whose price tag got too big, despite having freely negotiated those terms.  I wouldn't be surprised if most owners gladly bloat a contracts numbers to induce a signing knowing they will never pay the back end of it.  Peyton Manning specifically is owed $28 million this coming season.  He won a Super Bowl for the Colts, and had them in the playoffs in the 2010-2011 season.  He gets injured this past year and the Colts drop to 2-14 without him.  But that's okay, because now they get to draft Andrew Luck, who ESPN can't stop fellating or declaring to be the best talent of a generation.  Oh, and by the way, they will be able to draft him under the new CBA's brand new rules regarding rookie salaries (non-negotiable scheduled payments based on draft order like the NBA has).  So they get possibly the next Peyton Manning for less money than the Panthers are paying Cam Newton.  Jim Irsay has been tripping over himself trying to find more social media outlets with which to make Peyton Manning feel unwelcome.  Peyton Manning, the guy who not only made the Colts relevant, but has hospitals named after him in Indianapolis, and has declared repeatedly he wants to retire as a Colt.  Irsay's response:  Fine, but first we need to renegotiate that $28 million I freely negotiated earlier for no other reason than I just don't feel like paying it.

Free agency has helped balance the power some, but the majority of the cards are still in the hands of owners.  The NBA almost lost a season after its best season in a decade due to owners like Dan Gilbert hating the fact that they can't dictate to players not only how much they get paid but where they will play and for how long.  No wonder then that the players' union caused a shit storm when their spokesperson talked about NBA owners having a "plantation mentality".  Set aside the racial implications (which are important), it is a fact that when owners start talking trades, they treat these human beings the same way schoolyard children treat toys, lunch box treats, or playing cards.  They are assets to be traded, not people with feelings, desires, and ambitions; nevermind home mortgages, friends, and children in a specific school district within their current city.

No other profession can treat workers this way.  Imagine, for a moment, that you are an engineer.  You went to college specifically to study engineering for the purpose of entering the field of alternative energy development.  You work for a company that engineers solar panels.  After five years, your company comes in one day and tells you they are shipping you off to work for Shell's oil fields in Qatar, so pack your bags, because Shell is sending them two mid-level managers.  Or maybe you're a PR rep for a Democratic senator and suddenly he tells you that there are some promising interns coming up the ranks of the College Republicans at Harvard that they've been promised in exchange for shipping you off to Washington state to help a Republican governor get re-elected.  Oh, and you can't quit unless you never want to work in politics/engineering again.

Yes, these players are quite often very well compensated.  But let's also recognize that their compensation is due to the fact that the sports themselves make massive amounts of money.  Players aren't paid millions in compensation for giving up their freedom of contract, they are paid millions because sports make billions.

Does all of this mean that we need to cry a river for Peyton Manning or Pau Gasol?  No.  I'm not reaching for the Kleenex, nor do I expect you to be.  But it bears repeating that, however much money players make, they are human too.

Sports and History

I'm generally weary of works that purport to examine the "season/game/play/drive/double-switch that changed the world". It's like the "Great Man" theory of history, and while individual agency and actors matter a lot, I think it ends up obscuring the broader societal trends that were really driving the action. I think that the single, discrete events in sports that have really changed the world are few and far between, and probably already covered to death.

That being said, I read this preview of Tim Wendel's "Summer of '68: The Summer That Changed Baseball, and America, Forever", and I didn't hate it. That's impressive, considering I'm sick to my dick of anything talking about 1968, the winner of the Boomer Generation's prestigious "You Just Don't Know What It Was Like, Man" award for 42 consecutive years. But this article, at least,  focuses on what that year meant to some professional athletes, and those stories are interesting. It doesn't really argue that those athletes changed much of the Vietnam-montages-set-to-Jimmy-Hendrix-guitar-solos around them.

Instead, it indicates that the athletes were, just like everyone else, affected by the world around them. And if you- like me- spend a lot of time thinking and writing about how sports affect us, it's really useful to see the reverse, how broader society affects sports.

Sports histories aren't very interesting when they're a collection of scores and stats, and they're not very useful even when they include vivid descriptions of plays and games. But when they place the sports and athletes in the context of the rest of the world- in other words, when they're just a sort of context to help us understand what else was going on at the time- they're incredibly rewarding.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Let's End Today On a Positive Note

Over the weekend, a bunch of teams' pitchers and catchers reported to spring training. The rest are going to trickle in one by one over the next few days (here's a previous post with a URL to all the reporting dates). It's funny; baseball is played, in some professional capacity, for over seven months of the year. Literally, the majority of my life as a sports fan has been taken up by baseball. And I still miss it when it's gone. 

I think that of all the bullshit we fans have to put up with- the owners' greed, the leagues' disregard for the players' safety, the players' selfishness, the other teams' fans' tribalism, the pundits' bullshit- the entire concept of the offseason is the hardest to deal with. We all know why there has to be an offseason- the players just cannot go year round, and even if they could, that would just make the games meaningless- but understanding why it must be kind of just makes it more galling. 

So, goddamn am I glad to have baseball back.

(Someone Else's) BREAKING NEWS: Derrick Rose wants Pau Gasol

The Spanish news outlet Marca is reporting, and the website Sheridan Hoops is confirming, that Derrick Rose has told the Chicago Bulls' front office that he'd be pretty happy if they could swing a trade that would bring them L.A. Laker Pau Gasol in exchange for Carlos Boozer and some pieces-parts lying around in the basement of the United Center.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about this very trend, calling it (i.e.- stealing someone else's term for it) "the rise of the player/general manager." Looks like Rose is the newest man to seek that title. At this point, it's pretty much the mark of true superstardom- does your team listen to your roster demands? Great, see you at the ASG.

God, that previous post is horribly convoluted. Here's the cliff notes of my thoughts on the matter: GMs almost certainly know more about roster construction, and should have the final say. But you can't argue with players wanting more ownership of their destinies. Wholesale roster construction like the odious MV3 in Miami is obnoxious, but mere requests should be welcomed.

I wonder how these things go? How did Rose "let (this) be known) to Bulls' management? Was there a meeting? Did Rose start a letter writing campaign? Or is it much less formal? Did he just text Gar Foreman while out on the town? Is this maybe one big game of telephone and everyone's got it wrong, Rose just wants some Kung Pao Chicken? I don't get it...


This afternoon, my beloved Chicago Blackhawks beat their divisional rival the St. Louis Blues 3-1. This was their first game at home after a disastrous road trip. Since that road trip started, the Hawks' record is 9-3, and the three wins have all come in the last three games.

However, there's an old adage that a team is never as good as it looks on a winning streak, nor as bad as it looks on a losing streak. I think that's what we're looking at here. The Hawks woeful run of games caused them to drop from sixth in the sixth in the division. They're eleven games over .500 with 71 points. Even the goalies- who have come in for the most criticism in the 9 game skid, and most of it was deserved- are 21-14 (Crawford) and 11-7 (Emery).

This is not to say that the 9 game skid wasn't pretty bad, or that the team is destined to hoist the Cup. It's certainly not to say that Crawford and Emery are perfectly fine goalies. It's just to say that, well, the season is long, and it's made up of a lot of parts that seem really great and a lot of parts that seem really horrible, and both ends of the spectrum don't really tell you much about the season as a whole.

There's this weird bifurcation in sports, where what is actually important- the season as whole- get abstracted into a stat line while what is actually a bit more frivolous- any single regular season game- is immediate, visceral, and exciting. This works for players; they don't have to think about being 8 points back in the standings, they just have to think about the next game, the next period, the next SHIFT, even. Just start with having one good shift the next time you're on the ice, right? Worry about the shift after that when you play it.

The role of the fan- and I do think fans have a role to play in sports- can't be broken down into discrete events quite so easily. I think we fans do need to spend a little more time taking the long view, remembering previous successes (some of which may not be as long ago as it seems) and recognizing that all it takes is one game, or one goal, or just one funny hop for a losing streak to end.

I'm not saying we should avoid the excitement and joy of a single game- watch me at a game, I cheer everything, include the announcement of the raffle winners- and I'm not saying we can't criticize the team when they're mired in a losing streak. I can talk about sample sizes and flukes all day long, but something clearly went wrong during the Hawks' 9 game losing streak, and it's fair to ask if that can't be fixed before the playoffs. Let's just keep in mind that this, too, will pass.

It's an almost Obama-esque commitment to keeping your cool, staying on an even keel, and playing the long game. And that's a lot to ask for a lot of us, myself included. But it's something to aspire to, at least.


This is going to be part one in a continuing series that we'll call "Buzz Bissinger should shut the fuck up and just enjoy his well-deserved royalties from Friday Night Lights."

If you've been following the NBA even just enough to know what those letters stand for, then you've heard about Jeremy Lin. Sportswriter-cum-curmudgeon Buzz Bissinger certainly has. Here's his column. He makes some interesting points, such as saying that it's ridiculous to think that Lin is better than Jordan or Chamberlain.

It's important that Bissinger say this, as Sylvester Q. Nobody has been repeatedly making just that claim from his daily column in the Nowehere Daily Nothing-Courier.

The dutiful frisking of strawmen completed, Bissinger addresses the racial component of Lin's fame. YOU MEAN THAT JEREMY LIN IS ASIAN AND MOST OF THE NBA ISN'T? HEAVENS TO MURGATROID. I NEVER WOULD HAVE NOTICED IF A GROWN MAN NAMED BUZZ (who does not have the excuse of having walked on the goddamn moon) HADN'T TOLD ME.

The problem here isn't that Bissinger is obliviousness to the most obvious facts of the situation, though; it's that he's critical of anyone excited by Lin's diverse background. And that is just wrongheaded.

Diversity is a VIRTUE. We are better off when we acknowledge that different people have different backgrounds. We're better off when we learn from these backgrounds, and appropriately adapt our own lives to what we've learned. If we dismiss everyone's different backgrounds as "irrelevant", we're just cheating ourselves out of the whole story.

So, the NBA and the broader basketball community is right to celebrate its ability to attract players of different backgrounds. It is right to celebrate its successes in promoting diversity. It is right to take a little pride that someone can find success and fame in the NBA even if they don't fit the typical NBA profile. It is well justified for the NBA- for all of us, really- to be happy when the Grand Meritocracy that sports are supposed to represent actually seems to work.

Of course, we have to be careful that the NBA isn't making Lin into a token. We can't let the NBA just point to Lin and say "RACISM OVER." But let's wait and see if that actually happens before we start yelling about it, huh?

The NBA, like society as a whole, has plenty of hang-ups about race (the Fifth Blog Cylon Mike has a plan for a blog post about race and the NBA dress code). It's learning as it goes. We all are. And the work is never really done, we're always going to have to figure out how to live alongside different kinds of people. But it really is okay to smile a little when we have some success at it.


As CWS foreign correspondent (that is, me wearing a beret) reports, last weekend was the first meeting for Manchester United and Liverpool since their match on October 15, 2011- which, as EPL watchers know, was punctuated when ManU left back Patrice Evra accused Liverpool forward Luis Suarez of racially abusing him throughout the match. Suarez denied it, but was suspended for 8 games anyway.

Last week, when the clubs met again. Ever ManU/Liverpool game is closely watched as this is a big rivalry, but the racial incident was certainly on everyone's mind. Evra and Suarez lined up for the traditional pre-game handshake...and Suarez refused to shake Evra's hand. Very publicly, very dramatically. You can see it here. See? KABOOM.

It's very odd to me to see an athlete intentionally and publicly extend a controversy like that. I know that this is a complicated situation- race is at the heart of it, and Suarez is Uruguayan, Evra is a black frenchman, they both play for an English soccer league- there's a lot of moving parts. But still, most athletes just want to put stuff like this behind them, and I don't understand why Suarez would be any different.

I wonder if sports aren't making an already frought situation more complicated. The hands-down worst aspect of sports is how tribal it can get. Ty Cobb can spike another player, Michael Jordan can invent entire fictional backstories to make guys out to be jerks, a bunch of pricks can attack Bryan Stowe, and Canucks fans can start a riot, and on some level, it's all explained by the fact that sports created this heightened emotional state and the obvious conflict. It's way too easy for the other team and the other fans to just become The Other- and from there, you can justify almost anything.

To bring this back to Suarez, ManU and Liverpool are major rivals, and the EPL isn't entirely known for having a laid back attitude about rivalry games. The players had spent most of the previous days studying how to beat each other, and right at the moment Suarez and Evra were to shake hands, the teams were on the verge of a grueling, 90 minute physical conflict with each other. Emotionally speaking, that's a very hard time to show even a minor act of contrition.

None of which is to excuse Suarez; we're all expected to control our emotions, and if an athlete really has a problem with another, he's wiser to channel that into his action on the pitch. My point is only that this might explain Suarez' behavior; even if he was able to put aside the tribal instincts of racial abuse, well, he was in the thrawl of another tribe, too; his team.

Soccer heavily promotes itself as a tolerant, diverse game. It has some right to do so (stories like this rather convince me, at least). To a large extent, the pitch can be a refuge to ethnic, racial, and nationalistic strife. But we need to recognize- and let's let the Suarez/Evra conflict remind us of this- that sports only have a limited utility in solving such conflicts. Indeed, there's a real danger that sports just exchange one conflict for another, and the other may be little better.

Friday, February 17, 2012

We Report What We Decide

So LeBron James has indicated that he's open to playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers again, which of course means that ESPN has exploded into ZOMGWTFBBQ mode.  Here is the quote:

"I think it would be great, it would be fun to play in front of these fans again.  I had a lot of fun times here. You can't predict the future. Hopefully you continue to stay healthy. I'm here as a Miami player and I'm happy where I am now but I don't rule that out in any sense. If I decide to come back, hopefully the fans will accept me."

A couple points:

1) A search of google, YouTube, and ESPN's web site could not reveal a transcript of the interview in which LeBron's comments were made.  Meaning we don't know what the interviewer actually asked.  Was the reporter asking soon?  Eventually?  Ever?  Why can't ANYONE post a video of this interview or a transcript to show us the exact context of the answer?

2) LeBron himself gave no time frame on such a return, nor did he list it as a certainty.  He didn't say he intended to come back, or even that he wanted to come back, simply that he wouldn't rule out the possibility.

Now, with those two things in mind, let's run through some of the reactions:

1) Michael Smith on ESPN's First Take used the language of infidelity in regards to LeBron, saying that Miami went from being the mistress to the second wife.  The panelists then discussed whether Miami fans should be offended.

2) Michael Wallace for ESPN continued the sexual talk and piled on condemnation by writing an article entitled "LeBron wrong to flirt with Cavaliers reunion."

It isn't a reaction, actually, but back in January Sam Amico of Fox Sports speculated that LeBron would return to Cleveland in 2014 when his contract in Miami is up because he doesn't like the management there.  Anyone doubt this will breathe new life into such speculation?

LeBron didn't take out an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer polling the city what they would think about him returning in 2014.  He was in Cleveland for a game against the Cavs, and a reporter asked him if he'd ever come back.  What was he supposed to say?  I mean, he had options.  He could have said "no comment."  He could have said "no way."  He could have said "as soon as possible."  He could have said "I am your Lord God and thou shalt have no gods before me."  There is an infinite combination of words in the English language, but I don't see anything in LeBron's statements to invite such sermonizing or speculation.  Maybe he will one day return to Cleveland.  Maybe if he tries Cleveland will tell him to get lost.  Who knows?  Who cares?  We are talking about something that probably won't happen ever, and even if it does, couldn't happen before 2014.  ESPN is spending hours discussing a possibility two or more years down the road when they won't spend 5 minutes out of 1440 minutes a day talking about hockey, or soccer.

That's the crux of this, is that this didn't become a story that they reported on.  They created this story.   I think the "worst" think you could say about this is that LeBron was offering an olive branch to a city and franchise he snubbed because deep down he wants everyone to like him.  Whether that's a character flaw or not isn't something I'm interested in discussing right now.  What it isn't is an invitation to speculate on the timing or probability of a return.  But ESPN ran with it anyway, which is going to lead me to punch myself in the balls by bringing up the dreaded name of Tebow.

ESPN is still, today, mentioning Tebow and Tebowmania.  They are using Linsanity to bring Tebow up.  During the regular season and the playoffs they used any excuse to bring up Tebow, going so far as to mention his name 160 times in a single hour long broadcast of SportsCenter.  Throughout all of this, they would open the discussion with a defense of why they were bringing it up by saying "it's all people are talking about."  But maybe the only reason people are talking about it, is because ESPN, as the biggest name in sports news, made such a big point of promoting him.  This blog already had one post comparing the stats of Tebow, Joe Flacco, and Alex Smith during the regular season that showed how Tebow was worse than them in every measurable way.

I am actually not hating on Linsanity, but what percentage of the people that are aware of Jeremy Lin are aware of Ty Lawson and his work with the Denver Nuggets, or Kyrie Irving in Cleveland?  But Lin plays in New York, which nets more exposure, and he is a more compelling story at the moment when you factor in the win streak and the personal struggles he's overcome.

But let's recognize that in saying that, sports reporters are making an editorial decision.  ESPN is making specific programming decisions.  They have an agenda, and they are pushing it.  By tying Tebow into Linsanity, they are explicitly using a player they didn't create to try and maintain the relevance of a player they did create.  And while they never doubted Tebow, watching First Take the past two days you'll already see the knives coming out to tear down Lin.  Yesterday they declared the death of Lin puns, and today they are already anticipating the bubble popping, the other shoe dropping.  When Lin (and the Knicks, let's not forget them) finally lose (which they will), I wonder what the story will be then.  But there will be an angle, and ESPN will be crafting it, not reporting it.  Perhaps it's inevitable, maybe it's desirable, but what it isn't is something they are blameless of doing.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Dwight Howard and the Art of Negotiating

Sports have given us a lot.  Positive and negative role models, hours of entertainment, schadenfreude, the list goes on and on.  For anyone teaching a class on negotiation, they're a godsend of easily accessible examples.  Dwight Howard, in his weekly quest for a new trading partner this year, has become a one man factory of such examples, and particularly of showing how to negotiate in the context of other known bidders.  And to not only start a sentence with a conjunction, but also to rip off an old country singer, let me point out one of the most important things to remember in any negotiation:

"Know when to walk away, and know when to run."

In any negotiation you need to know when you are getting hosed, and that you hurt yourself more in taking a deal than you do in just walking from the table and trying your luck elsewhere (in court, the open market, with the team roster you already have, etc).  Sometimes you can actually back another party off of unreasonable demands simply by turning your back on them.  "We'll just have to settle this in court" can sometimes lead to that 11th hour phone call that is willing to accept an earlier, better offer of yours.  "No thanks, that's too much" might result in the counterfeiter working in the basement of a Chinese convention center grabbing you and telling you that yes, actually, they WILL accept your offer of $5 for that new pair of Air Fordans.  Other times it may mean that Dwight Howard is not coming to Chicago, and while that isn't as exciting as "ZOMG!  DWIGHT HOWARD IS COMING TO CHICAGO!" it can also be a very good thing.

Now, I have been one of the people hoping that Dwight comes here.  Lots of sports writers that know and get paid more than I do have weighed in on why it would be good for Dwight and the Bulls, and lots of sports writers that know LESS than I do but still get paid more have speculated on the details of how such a trade might go down.  This is where we enter territory of WHY?  WHY IN THE EVER LOVING NAME OF GOD OR C'THULHU BOTH WOULD I DO THAT?!

For instance, I have seen trade scenarios for the Chicago Bulls giving up Noah, Taj, Butler, Deng AND draft picks in order to get Dwight Howard, who is an unrestricted free agent (UFA) this summer and can pack his bags and leave.  Even in a sign and trade where Dwight executes the extension in his current contract we'd only be sure of getting him through 2013.  So let's see, we trade away our young core and upcoming talent to rent a guy that has thrown his teammates under a bus all season?  A guy that, while the most dominating center in the league right now, only gets that title because the league is bereft of good centers?*  

Then you've got some guy on ESPN outlining the trade that could send Dwight Howard to Golden State.  I will say this, I don't know what the trade he outlined is, there I professed my ignorance.  The reason is because my brain was too busy spit-taking cerebral fluid out of my eyeballs, and I just changed the channel.  There is no scenario where Dwight Howard stays in Golden State past July 2012.  The fact it took him half a season to put Chicago on his list, but the Nets were on there from the start, shows that he is as much or more about location and market exposure than he is about winning championships.  Golden State is an also ran.  Sorry 'Ciscoans, but the Lakers will always eclipse you, and right now the Clippers do too.  You are in a life and death struggle with the Kings for 3rd most important team in your state, nevermind the rest of the country.  I'm not saying that you'll never be good, but Dwight Howard ain't staying there.  He wants to be in L.A., or NYC.  He can be convinced to go to Dallas.  He's barely considering Chicago.  If Howard gets traded to Golden State you can clock his time there with an egg timer.  And in the meantime, Orlando will demand that Golden State gut itself of what little talent it has.  Orlando doesn't just want picks, they want stars to come in and sell tickets that they would otherwise lose with Dwight gone.  So while I didn't actually watch the suggested trade, I can't see it happening without moving Monta Ellis, who still has two years left on his contract, compared to the 5 months they'd be getting out of Howard.

Either of those trades are terrible for the Bulls or the Warriors.  So you walk away.  Orlando can scream to the night sky all it wants about the unfairness of its situation, and how you can't expect them to give up a player like Dwight Howard for just some draft picks or maybe the #2 star on your team.  They want matching value or close to it.  People in hell want ice water.  

All of Orlando's leverage here is based on the fact that multiple teams want Howard.  Howard's gone in July.  If Orlando doesn't trade him for something, they lose him and get nothing.  Thing is, most teams know that.  Mark Cuban is already preparing to dump salaries like Pat Riley did two years ago to get LeBron and Bosh in the hopes that he can similarly get DWill and Dwight in Dallas.  If Dwight doens't get traded, he's the biggest name in free agency and can go where he wants, get paid what he wants, or both.  So you can wait out the trade season and get him without giving up anything.  

Unless, unless, someone swoops in between now and the end of February with a deal that sends Howard to them.  Thing is, Howard can STILL walk in July on that team, only now it loses not only Howard, but the pieces it traded to get him.  The only situation in which that makes sense is if you think Dwight gives you the chance at a title run (see Bulls, Lakers) and/or you think you can convince Dwight to re-up with you in the offseason (see title run, heavy market exposure in NYC/L.A.)  New Jersey can't make at title run post-trade with Howard (because they can't make a playoff run without him).  Maybe Dallas, maybe the Lakers (I don't see what Howard/Kobe gives them that Bynum/Gasol/Kobe don't, but whatever, I'll give them benefit of the doubt).  Definitely the Bulls, provided they don't trade away half their damn team in the process.

OR, Dwight and Orlando execute a sign and trade, giving you Dwight through 2013.  It gives you more time to build your case to keep Dwight.  You get to play out this season, and build around him more next season if you don't win it all now.

So this possibility of a sign and trade is the only thing that will keep Dwight from coming available in July.  If you really want Dwight, and you know another team is willing to give up assets to make a sign and trade, then you need to outbid them.  Orlando's leverage here is not based on Dwight's worth.  It's based solely on the fact that there is competition.  That being the case, every team needs to watch bidding more than it can bear to pay.  It's not a real negotiation, it's an auction.  But Orlando will want to walk into any negotiating room and demand more than objectively the deal is worth.  If no one else was interested in Dwight, the Bulls could tell them "hey, we'll give you Noah and a draft pick."  Orlando could say no to that deal.  Then Howard walks in July.  If Orlando doesn't make a trade, they lose Dwight and get nothing for next year.  If the Bulls don't make a trade, they continue compiling the best record in the East.  And that's the key here.  Maybe the Lakers have nothing to lose in shipping Bynum over for Dwight.  The Bulls though, have the best record in the league.  They have problems and concerns, but they are winning.  They are favorites to reach the Eastern Finals this year and next.  They can easily get the raw end of any deal, because they don't need to make any deal.  Knowledge of that gives them the greatest power in any negotiation:  the power to just say no.

*Seriously, when Bynum is starting in the All-Star game I give up on the 5 spot.  I started watching basketball when Ewing, Olajuwon, and Robinson were still playing and Shaq was the up and coming rookie.  Olajuwon and Shaq battle it out with most sports writers to round out the top 5 centers of all time, but Ewing and Robinson would take Dwight's lunch money and hang him by his underwear in a locker.  Then you still had Alonzo Mourning out there playing solid, Dikembe Motumbo getting just as many blocks as Howard, and Vlade Divac not embarassing himself in L.A.  Okay, maybe that last part is debatable, but did he embarass himself any more than Bynum did last year in the playoffs?

Monday, February 13, 2012


The big news in baseball today is that the Oakland A's have signed the Cuban Defector Yeonis Cespedes to a 4 year, $36 million dollar deal. I really wish the Cardinals played the A's this year so that I could hear Mike Shannon take a crack at that name.

I don't have a lot to say about the contract. I'm kinda of the mindset that players have a right to go out and get whatever they can get on the market. Or maybe I'm just deadened by a lot of other big contracts this off-season. And hey, I've got some affection for the A's, and Cespedes is a good story, so this'll be fun.

On the other hand, I can't get over little things like this:

"The first assumption is that Cespedes is actually 26 as he and his agents claim."

Or this:

"Maybe it’s more possible that everyone calmed down a bit and realized that a 26 year-old — hopefully — Cuban player is not necessarily a sure thing no matter how flashy his workout videos and short-season statistics were."

MUST we do this every time a Latino player inks a big, surprising, deal? I got pretty sick of it late last fall with Pujols, and don't think I've forgotten that similar rumors have plagued Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz.

I get the concern. Cespedes is already 26, and may need a year of seasoning at Triple A. If he's actually 27 or 28, then yeah, this is going to be like that episode of "Cheers" with Sam in the minors, or "The Rookie". And if he's actually going to be 32 at the end of this contract, maybe he won't be as sharp as he would've been at just 30.

But at the same time, there's no magic age where players turn into pumpkins, and there's plenty of guys who's primes last into their early 30s (Pujols, again, springs to mind- at 32, he had a season worth Cespedes' $9 million a year. And if he was actually older, well, my point is stronger). This may be much ado about nothing.

More importantly, though, it's just frustrating that so many Latino players are getting hit on the same issue, with the same absence of evidence in each case. I know that there's real money on the line, and I know that there's a real possibility some of these guys are fudging their ages (Hell, I'm sure someone's done it before). But from now on, before we start talking about that, I'd like some evidence a little stronger than, "Well, he comes from a place where they don't keep records all that good!"

Sunday, February 12, 2012



Sorry for the short notice, but if it helps, I know there's only like, 2 of you who read this anyway.

The NFL blackout rules make no sense to me, and they're at best counterproductive to the teams that don't sell out. It's like 1930s baseball owners who thought radio was going to hurt their ticket sales.

Time for another statement of Progressive Sports Fan First Principles: Awesome sports should be as viewed by as many people as possible. Sports viewership should be democratized. The means of sports viewership should rightfully be in the hands of viewers. I don't know, something, YOU GET THE POINT.

Go forth! FANS UNITE!


This story seems a little overblown, but it's interesting, nonetheless.

Similar, personal story: my wife and I thought about postponing our wedding because we'd heard it the weekend of a Cardinals-Cubs series, in which case her dad and I wouldn't have been able to be in the same room, much less become family. We were wrong about the schedule, so everything went ahead as planned.

Stories like this are why I'm so interested in the moral, political, and social dimensions of sports. Sports just affect us so much, even if we're not sports fans, even if we can't see how they're affecting us. Sometimes, it's because we're letting them affect us too much; we let it get personal or worse, tribal. Sometimes, it's that the actors in the sports are getting too myopic and not seeing how they hurt the sport, the fans, or even themselves. And sometimes- quite often, I would say- the sports affect us, and it's harmless, maybe even beneficial.

In each case, it's worth exploring. It's worth identifying what's what, and calling out the people responsible. Because sports and our obsession with them aren't going away- or at least, they aren't going to without a lot of discussion.

Unsafe At Any Speed

Ralph Nader has decided he has something to say about the NHL.


Nader is looking to prevent concussions by ending fighting in hockey. He also wants to eliminate all shots to the head. These are laudable goals, and I support them in every way. I have my doubts on Nader's ability to accomplish them, but Nader is just one part of the drive to end fighting, and that drive was already well under way before he got involved. An end to fighting WILL come in the NHL, and I will not be surprised if we see it in the next decade.

My worry is that we're making the debate over concussions too much about fighting, and we're downplaying the other major causes of concussions. That we're going to finally outlaw fighting and just say, "PROBLEM SOLVED! RAISES FOR EVERYONE!" Look at Nader's letter. He wants head shots outlawed, too, but he discusses fighting more, and saves his biggest rhetorical flourishes for fighting.

If we're talking about concussions, we can't end it there, though. Crosby and Giroux weren't concussed in a fight, they were hit during regular play. Those kinds of concussions are just as serious, probably more prevelant...and much harder to solve. It's going to be lengthy process of continued player discipline, continued improvements to safety equipment, better training, and maybe  even new rules that will sacrifice some of the things we like about the game.

In other words, there's no easy answers, and even the hard answers aren't clear right now. And in some ways, I think that's why we're turning to fighting, because it's something we CAN solve rather easily (all we have to do is shut Don Cherry the fuck up, at this point). It's like the old saying, "I'm kicking the dog because I can't find the cat." (Jeez, some of my old sayings are violent). Viking of the Blog Mike's argument is that it's like having a Diet Coke at dinner- yeah, it only saves you 50 calories, but that's still 50 calories. He's not wrong. I just want to make sure that the NHL doesn't think that that's enough.

I still think that fighting, in it's current form, takes an incredible physical and mental toll on the players, and it makes the fans come off as far too barbaric. It's turning off potential fans and thus, limiting the sport. I still fully support ending it, and the sooner the better. But my priority right now is player safety, so I want to make sure the reform doesn't end there.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Pain and Sports

Well, this is quite something, isn't it?

I can't blame you if you're surprised; it's not every sport that explicitly encourage physical pain. But I get it if you're not surprised, too; there's an awful lot of sports that try to look the other way at pain.

We the fans certainly complicate matters. We hate to see "head hunting" or "targeting", but we love big hits. We love "giving the other guy something to think about". We love seeing a player rise above the pain. And our list of "Dirtiest Players" often grows one shorter when our team picks up certain guys from free agency. I mean, I've certainly rooted, mostly in jest, for Tim Tebow to break a collarbone, and my opinion of Dan Carcillo certainly changed when his uniform did (though it's back to normal, now that I know he's useless).

There is a difference between enjoying a strong, physical sport and just cold baying for blood, but man, I'll admit that that line is only a molecule thick in some spots. Hockey is instructive here (and as this blog goes on, we'll definitely talk more about that); I really can see a moral difference between checking and fighting. But there's checks and then there's targeting the head. There's fights and then there's scuffles after the whistle. There's a lot of grey area, and I don't envy Brenden Shanahan in sorting all that out.

There's no real bright line rules to guide us in those closer cases, and I can't really propose one here. But maybe I can suggest a frame work to get us thinking about this.

I think the question is intent. If a player is intentionally trying to hurt another, or if any sport or rule explicitly encourages hurting a player (even just to the extent that he's drops the ball or fumbles the pass or misses the puck or whatever) it's suspect. There's still a lot of gray area, and some sports I love are probably implicated. Bt it's a start.

I think it's clear how Ultimate Tazer Ball runs afoul of that standard; the defense's entire means of accomplishing it's goal is physical pain. I know there's only been minor injuries so far, but man, that seems like walking the razor's edge.

Of course, I can only speak to why I wouldn't watch such a sport, and why I would tell other people not to do so, either. As far as participating in it goes, I really have little interest in denying someone their right to fuck up their own body. But as far as we, the fans go...well, at a certain point, we just start to look too much like Romans.


Fun Fact: Both Tim Thomas and Ted Nugent were born in eastern Michigan. Must be something in Lake Michigan.

Anyway, I guess at some point I had to address Tim Thomas' recent political statements, considering that whenever someone talks to me about the President, they refer to him as "YA BOY, Barack Obama".

(And he IS ma boy, so step to the right, haters. Well, further to the right, if that's possible at this point.)

Now, Thomas' statements are ridiculous. But the proper response to Thomas' dumb statements is to explain why it's dumb (here, I'll start: the birth control "mandate" is not at all about religious freedom- indeed, the Catholic Bishops' position represents an infringement of the religious freedom of employees of Catholic employers, who may not hold the same religious views as the bishops. And the "FIRST THEY CAME!" speech is so cliched, I'm actually asleep right now just from typing the first three words of it). The proper response is NOT to act as if Thomas shouldn't have spoken up at all; indeed, it's better that he DID speak up so that I can keep calling him dumb.

NHL pundits are doing just that, though, trying to silence of dismiss Thomas' statements as not even worth discussing (And yet, they let notorious thought criminal Don Cherry still run free). This isn't just the wrong tactic; it's also pretty weird in the world of sports. Aren't we used to athletes and such saying conservative, or at least libertarian things? When Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa went to some dumb Glen Beck rally, we heard some cosmopolitan Cardinal fans wring their hands (most notably Idol of the Blog Will Leitch), but for the most part, it passed without comment. When Rush Limbaugh sat in the Patriots' owner's box for the Super Bowl, the most anyone said was booger jokes.

I don't quite know why the NHL punditocracy is reacting differently (my guess is it's because NHL pundits are a little more liberal, since they all live in Canadien or northern U.S. cities are are pretty used to covering a lot of international players), but it's unfortunate. It's actually got a parallel with how the NFL pundit class is treating Giselle right now. In both cases, we've got someone with fame/expertise in one field opining about another. And maybe their opinions are misguided and ill-informed, but no one's really explaining what they're getting wrong, they're all just saying, "LOL, STFU Giselle/Thomas". At this point, the biggest difference is probably that Giselle's never eaten a cheeseburger.

Listen, I know being a progressive sports fan is hard. The big name players are all rich, too many of them are religious, the even-richer owners hold way too many of the cards, the system rewards selfishness way too much, war imagery and rhetoric is far too prevalent, etc. But I think any list of progressive "First Principles" would include a broad view of freedom of speech. And that means that the solution to dumb speech is MORE speech.

In other words, if you, like me, don't like what Thomas said, you need to engage on the issue, not just act like he shouldn't have spoken up. It's harder, but hey, that just means it's more worth it.

Super Bowl Post Mortem

The New York Football Giants (and that's the only Berman-ism I can stand) went 9-7 in the regular season this year. Then they won the Super Bowl.
This is, of course, what you get with a single-elimination playoff structure with one game rounds. Sometimes, weird shit is going to happen- a blown call, a QB having a bad day, an ill-timed injury, hell, even bad hops are going to decide some of these games- and thus, some teams' seasons. (The same is true, to some extent, with any playoff system. Baseball's post season has rounds of 5, 7, and 7 games, and they haven't exactly avoided flukey champions).
But y'know what? Playoffs are fun and exciting precisely BECAUSE anything can happen when the stakes are that high. Hell, I figure watching a six seed beat a #1 is one of the divine pleasures of being sports fan (so long as you're closer in sympathy to the #6). So I'm not really interested in relitigating the role of the playoffs; they're fun, we all have fun with 'em, and they make a metric choda-ton of money, they're not going anywhere.
What I'm more interested in is if we're really sure that the Giants were such a mediocre team. Because here's the thing: Yeah, a half dozen playoff games are a lousy amount of data points to determine who the best team is.
But 16 regular season games aren't that much better.
Look at the evidence. The Giants spent the first half of their season plagued by injuries. Justin Tuck. Osi Umenyiora. Most of their defensive corps was banged up until the last few weeks. I'm sure true Giants fans can name a dozen other things- let's just call them X, Y, and Z.
By the time the playoffs rolled around, though, they were healthy again, X, Y, and Z were solved (like in math class!). And perhaps consequently, the Giants started winning some games. In other words, I think it's fair to argue that the Giants' regular season was flukey, and their playoff run was more representative of their skill.
It's kind of fashionable amongst the more nerdy segments of sports fandom (and I consider myself that) to decry playoffs, saying that they're too small a sample size to really tell us who the best teams were. But when you're already working with a small sample, and you've got some reason to doubt some of the results in that sample, aren't ANY more data points good? In other words, aren't their situations where the playoffs don't just obfuscate, but really illuminate?
I guess I'll put it to you guys: were the Giants a mediocre team that got some flukey wins in the playoffs, or did they have a flukey regular season, but became themselves in the playoffs?