Friday, March 30, 2012

"Luck", Horse racing, and the Inescapable Issue of Safety

This blog has not covered horse racing at all, and despite my father's constant letters, that pace is unlikely to significantly increase anytime soon. Still, I can't help but be fascinated by the sad end to the HBO series "Luck", a dramatic portrayal of horse racing culture.

For those of you who haven't heard- and judging by the show's ratings, that's most of you- the producers have decided to permanently halt production on the show after three horses died during filming. The word is, the show runners were real horse lovers, so this isn't just generalized liberal guilt; they really feel like they're killing pets.

In general, I don't have much to say about animal rights. I'm certainly opposed to cruelty- like the producers, I suppose, I can't help but personalize some animals as my own pets, and I don't want anyone to hurt my sweet baby-kins- but I accept that humans are at the top of the food chain. So I have one of those mushball middle opinions that make for boring blog posts.

But again...cruelty. I accept that animals are going to get hurt and die based on what we do, but I'd prefer it if it was for a bit of a higher purpose such as feeding people. I'm a bit more uncomfortable when they die just for sport, and doubly so when they die for a fictional TV show about the sport. So, I think the "Luck" producers made the right call.

My question, then, becomes if "Luck" is particularly more dangerous to horses than horse racing itself. If so, then okay, it's over and we can move on. If not, though, then I don't know how comfortable I can be with the sport as a whole.

This New York Times story certainly doesn't fill me with confidence. But as you can see, here it goes beyond endangering the animal: now, the jockeys themselves are getting maimed. Unfortunately, I don't know enough about the sport to tell if the danger is inextricable; this article makes a good argument that it isn't, that a cocktail of performance enhancing drugs (funny how often we come back to those) are spiking the level of risk for horse and jockey alike, but I don't know how true that is.

I suppose I hope it is true, and that I'd push for tighter regulations on doping. Because I really don't want to take anyone's sport away from them, or look down on anyone for liking one sport or another (besides Ultimate Tazer Ball, of course). So, I hope we can make a form of horse racing that doesn't needlessly sacrifice the horses and the jockeys. But if we can't, well, I can't really watch that kind of cruelty, to animals or anyone.

The Chicago Bears, Brandon Marshall, and Do-Overs

I'm pretty late to address the Chicago Bears' picking up Brandon Marshall, but fuck that, my blog, my time frame. You all are probably familiar with the story- the Bears picked up Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall in a trade with the Miami Dolphins. Marshall's had kind of a checkered personal life, including a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder and some running conflicts with coaches and teams.

Then, it turns out, he was accused of hitting a woman at a club two days before his trade to the Bears. The news came out after the trade, and there wasn't a really solid explanation of how much the Bears knew about the incident. So the question became: If the Bears had known about it, would they have gone through with the trade?

And my response is: Why in god's name would they have stopped?

This is the post-Michael Vick NFL. Off-the-field misconduct is simply not a bar to entry anymore. If the misconduct is continuous, that might be a different story, but the players are going to be given plenty of opportunities to shape up. And if they fail to do so, it's going to be their failure; the team isn't going to be punished for it, and any ill-impressions will be forgotten with the next winning streak.

Now, the Bears took a risk with Marshall, but it's not really any greater than what they'd take with any other player. Because here's the thing: if Marshall performs, his sins will be forgotten. If he doesn't, they'll certainly be brought up, but it's all going to be a proxy for "He sucks on the field." If the Bears picked up Tebow (the new NFL shorthand for "choir boy") and he sucked, he'd get called out, too. And the complaints will go up the ladder to the Bears' front office, but understand that the real issue is on-the-field performance, not off-the-field misconduct. The fans, the league, and the culture are going to forgive a lot if you win.

This is certainly troubling, but I'm not sure how much. God knows I've talked shit about Ben Roethlisberger and Ray Lewis, but I do want to believe in the redemptive power of sports. I want to give players second chances. And if nothing else, that all jives with my idealistic notions of The Grand Meritocracy and "If You Can Play, You Can Play". For anecdotal evidence, I'd point to Michael Vick himself, y'know?

I'm sure there's a line players can cross. There is a point where a player has done too much, wasted too many chances, hurt too many people. If he wants to save his soul after that, I'm not in a place to stop him, but I can certainly feel uncomfortable if he uses MY favorite sports to do it.

But, I don't know where that line is. I don't know if Brandon Marshall has crossed it. And I DO know that if he has, the Bears aren't the ones who'll suffer if he can't be redeemed.


Here's a collection of articles that might be smart, might be funny, might be both, might be neither, but definitely haven't given me enough gristle to write a whole post about.

1) Somewhere swirling around in my head is a post about "who owns fandom"- things like chants, nicknames, rituals, etc. I'm not there yet, so for now, read about how Jeremy Lin is trying to trademark "Linsanity". In a move that is equally timely, I'm going to invest in DVD players.

2) At least Tebow, as a former college athlete, is used to faceless behemoths arguing with each other over who gets to profit off of his name without really consulting him. Also, too: moneychanges, temple? Does any of that ring a bell?

3) We all agree that video game covers have supplanted the Wheaties box, right? Here's a list of all that pratfalls that creates.

4) Not that I've ranked too many of these, but clearly, the ATP has the best 404 error message page.

5) Probably be some more on this at a later date, but for now, rest assured that I have a Google Alert set for every time "Don Cherry" and "Wrong" are used in the same sentence. The substantive point here is that we don't really know how various rule changes will affect the "excitement" of the game.

6) As we approach the Stanley Cup Playoffs, you're going to need a quick, easy-to-read reference guide to who's won the Cup when. So, here.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

MAGIC JOHNSON (and a bunch of rich white dudes) BUYS THE L.A. DODGERS!!!

The news came out late last night, late enough to make it seem like one of those smokey backroom deals. The ownership group fronted by Magic Johnson- but including longtime baseball man Stan Kasten, movie producer Peter Guber, and ominous-sounding mega-corp Guggenheim Partners has agreed to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers off of Professional Villain Frank McCourt. They paid over $2 billion for the team. Magic is great and all, but tell me this "Guggenheim Partners" thing isn't trying to weaponize Dodger Dogs. Just try to tell me that.

Anyway, fun fact here is that Magic Johnson will be the first African American owner in Major League Baseball. Just how much control he'll get to exert is an open question; presumably, Stan Kasten will make the baseball decisions and Guggenheim Partners will handle the money (as well as silence any potential whistle-blowers). But he's the first to even be the public face of a team's ownership, as near as I can tell.

One can't help but notice that the first African American owner in baseball had to be accompanied by an experienced baseball man and $2 billion dollars. And yeah, he had to be Magic Johnson- absolutely beloved in his city and an HIV survivor who dragged the country, kicking and screaming, into broader acceptance of the disease. And on top of that, he's also become a rather successful businessman. That's a hard guy to say "No" to, and I don't think every African American owner needs to be quite so exemplary. It's certainly true that every white owner isn't.

Still, this is MLB ownership, the most insular and out of touch club on the planet. These are the guys who let it be known- and by the way, these are the guys who never say anything, they just "let things be known"- that they'd keep Mark Cuban out of baseball simply because he'll criticize things he doesn't like. So, baby steps here, people.

(Accuracy demands that I point out that the sale isn't final yet, and the MLB hasn't approved, but that feels like a formality at this point. With Kasten there, MLB likes this group very much).

One more thing: Frank McCourt, the Dodgers' previous owner (or still current owner, I suppose), bought the team for $430 million in 2004. He was an absolute disaster, and marched the team resolutely toward bankruptcy. As we've discussed before, just an utter shitheel. And for his troubles, he's going to get $2 billion for the team.

If any of you Dodgers fans want to go all Occupy Chavez Ravine this summer, I'll understand.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The NBA on Trayvon Martin: It's Personal

Professional basketball has something to say on Trayvon Martin. Mike already pointed out how the Miami Heat- yes, the designated Heels of the NBA- have responded to the tragedy in a surprisingly moving way. You may have seen that other players have also spoken out, and that the entire NBAPA put out a statement.

I'm actually surprised to see professional basketball do so much. I know that Martin was a Heat fan, and was watching the All Star Game on that horrible day, but that doesn't really seem to implicate the sport. This is still the league living in the shadow of the man who chastised us that "Republicans buy sneakers, too." This is still the league that, as Mike reminded us, instituted a dress code. This is still the league that lives in fear of the "thug" brand.

So why is professional basketball actually being a little courageous here? Well, precisely because of the "thug" brand.

Note carefully when players and teams started speaking out. It wasn't immediately after the tragedy, and it wasn't two weeks ago, when the nation really noticed and really became outraged. It was about a week after that, when the Professional Haters chimed in and tried to convince us that it was no big deal that some defenseless black kid was shot because he probably had it coming anyway. Because he was wearing a hoodie.

I suppose I don't have to explain why the players spoke up at that moment too much. Like Martin, they'd already been condemned for how they dress. Like Martin, they'd already been labelled for what a few idiots among their demographic cohorts had done. And if they, too, had been walking in the wrong neighborhood at 17, before the fame and fortune kicked in, I'm sure they worry that they'd have one more similarity to Martin.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Heat Weigh in On Trayvon Martin

Yesterday LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and the Miami Heat took action to protest the incompetent response of local officials to the murder of Trayvon Martin.  In some ways, this action was minor, more symbolic than direct, and even within the context of the manner in which they protested I can see at least one way they could have done more.  But everyone involved deserves praise for doing something, anything, when our culture not only makes it easy to sit back, stay out of it, and rake in the millions, but actively discourages athletes and other entertainers from weighing in on social or political matters.

Dwyane Wade posted a picture of himself wearing a hoodie to Twitter.  LeBron followed with a picture of the entire Heat team wearing hoodies to Twitter.  Both of them hash-tagged the photos in reference to Trayvon Martin and hoodies.

It seems minor, but is important within the context of professional ass hat Geraldo Rivera blowing the lid off the underlying racism of a lot of observers to this issue with his blame the victim comments about Trayvon Martin having a hand in his own death because he had the unmitigated gall to wear a hooded sweatshirt.  Never mind that this is the guy that went on internationally broadcast cable news to detail troop movements, endangering lives and resulting in his own expulsion from the country, an action that should permanently disqualify him from ever lecturing someone on else on responsibility.  Go back and look at his comments and realize he's only saying that hoodies are a bad option for black and latino people.  He explicitly excludes white and asian people.

(side note:  Fox News, the network that employs Geraldo Rivera and published his comments, sells hoodies.  I'm not sure if you have to enter your EEOC information to purchase one.)

Geraldo's comments are terrible, but you can be sure that he's not alone in America in thinking like this.  He's giving cover to Trayvon's murderer, he's feeding into racist fears, and he's all but calling for a national dress code for black and latino people.  In response we've seen hoodie rallies across the nation, and the Heat have stepped in to show that a choice in style isn't a representation of who you are as a person.  Someone wearing a hoodie can be a responsible, successful member of society.  We don't need to stop black and latino people from wearing hoodies, we need to combat the perception in our society that a particular skin color and clothing combination = criminal.  Do some people wear hoodies while committing crimes?  Yes.  I also seem to remember the biggest criminals in our nation's history, Bernie Madoff and the executives of Enron, were white guys in suits.  (Actually, can I Stand My Ground and shoot any white guy I see coming towards me in a suit out of fear he'll devalue my stocks?)

The Heat took action to combat that perception.  They stood up to say a hoodie is them, not a criminal.  That we don't need a national dress code for black and latino people.

I find this move particularly interesting, then, considering that the league for which they play DOES have a dress code.  The league adopted the dress code following the Malice in the Palace, a PR move characterized as attempting to reassure white viewers that the league isn't a bunch of thugs (and all the racial connotations that word carries).  The NBA was the first sports league to adopt a dress code, one that is very conservative and restrictive, and is also the league with the highest percentage of African American players.  If you think that's a coincidence, Geraldo and I have a joint venture that would like to sell you some ocean front property in Arizona.

It's also why I would have liked to see the Heat show up to their game last night in hoodie solidarity in direct violation of the NBA dress code.  I won't criticize them for not doing it, and I'm glad they took the action they did, I'm just saying that I think it would have been an even more powerful move.  And I think that all these things are related.  We live in a society where we nod our heads in approval to the NBA telling black men they have to wear a suit and tie to the gym where they are about to play an athletic event in shorts and jerseys, then turn around in shock that a black kid who wasn't wearing slacks and a polo got shot by a man with a history of racially motivated calls to 911 and have to listen to commentary that says the black kid would still be alive if he had been wearing a suit and tie.

It all goes back to the idea that black athletes have to play harder and play better than their white counterparts, and black people have to work harder than their white counterparts.  Tim Tebow didn't complete half of his passes last year, and he's a media darling.  Donovan McNabb has a career QB rating of 85.5, has been to 6 Pro-Bowls and one Super Bowl, and Rush Limbaugh calls him an affirmative action hire.  A white meth dealer wearing a hoodie gets a pass.  A black man can be an honor student or a millionaire, but he has to wear what we tell him.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Tim Tebow Traded to the New York Jets

Will, this is going to be FASCINATING.

The Jets have a history of...shall we say...hedonistic quarterbacks. Guys marketed specifically for a big, open, cosmopolitan city. That's not Tim Tebow, although he is a quarterback with a strong personal brand.

Believe it or not (you probably won't) I have little interest in seeing Tebow humiliated or villified or made into a hypocrite. His "LOOKATME LOOKATME LOOKATME I'M EVER SO PIOUS!" brand of Christianity grates on my to...well...high heaven, but I don't want to see him brought low just because he believes in god differently than I do.

But I do want him challenged. I want to see him made to answer tough questions and consider evidence that contradicts his conclusions. I want to see him think through all of the ramifications of his very public strand of Christianity, and decide how much of that he's willing to live with.

Because here's the thing: I have no reason to think that he is a fundamentally mean or stupid man. Indeed, I think if he were confronted with some of the problems of his line of thinking- if he had to tell a rape victim to carry the fetus to term, or had to explain to a gay American why he should be accorded fewer rights than anyone else- he would rethink his positions. And if he does, well, he could become a powerful advocate for a kinder, more inclusive form of Christianity. But, up until now, I think that, as the home-schooled son of missionaries blessed with preternatural athletic gifts, he has been rather sheltered from confronting those things.

Well. That's sure going to end in the NYC media market.

The Saints' Punishment Comes In

As a result of their three seasons of setting a "bounty pool" for opposing players, The New Orleans Saints will be fined $500,000 and two second-round draft picks. Head Coach Sean Payton will be suspended without pay for one year (irony: this means the Saints will save over $8 million), GM Mickey Loomis will be suspended for 8 games, and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will be suspended until Roger Goodell vomits.

I am...completely okay with this punishment. I think the "bounty pool" was a pretty egregious violation, and the punishment for that oughtta be harsh. I like that the punishment affects the management and front office, not just the players (I note that the further up the chain you go, the lighter your punishment is. That's weird, but given what we know about the situation, I do think it's fair to assume that culpability decreased further up the chain, too). I feel bad for Saints' fans for this upcoming season, but I don't know how you could have possibly structured a punishment without screwing them over, anyway. And hell, maybe this will inspire some more of us fans to think long and hard about how much violence we're willing to stand in the NFL, given that it now could have long-term consequences for our teams.

On the other hand, a lot of people I listen to are pretty apoplectic about this. I'm not sure I can follow them on this one. I understand that this punishment will not fix the problem of violence in football. I understand that it does nothing for players with concussions or long-term head injuries. But I don't know if anyone's saying it WILL, y'know? I mean, if this is the last thing that Goodell and the NFL do about violence, then yeah, it's not nearly enough. They can't clap their hands and say the problem is solved, like I said before. But I want to see if they do that before I condemn them for it.

I mean, the follow up is always important. But I don't see why this wasn't a good start.

Orange, Blue, and Brown

We'll just go ahead and continue talking about Illini basketball, since this is my damn blog and Mayan Artifact Blogger Mike never talks about his Aggies. Cool with everyone? Cool.

So, Shaka Smart, the head coach of Virginia Commonwealth University's basketball team and the guy Illini fans have all been sexting for the past two weeks, appears to have turned down the ol' Blue and Orange.

One of the attractive things about Smart was that he's a minority. That has some appeal to UofI trustees. I'm not sure I care as much. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big believer in affirmative action, and the idea that some organizations will be better for exposing themselves to a diversity of opinion. But I dunno if I think a college basketball team is one of those organizations. I guess it can help with recruitment- Smart would be able to connect with certain recruits that, say, Bruce Weber couldn't- but I'm not sold. Roy Williams is basically the whitest guy ever, and he doesn't have trouble getting talent. On the other hand, Urbana is a diverse campus, and it'd be nice for the high profile people to reflect that, but I'm not sure how much that's worth.

I guess I fall back to the "if you can play, you can play" mantra. If Smart was the best candidate for the job, then I'd wish he'd have taken it. I think he was, and I do. But on this one, his race or ethnicity just don't interest me much.

Monday, March 19, 2012

More On Hockey and Tolerance

Well, this is just delightful.

On the heels of Patrick Burke's "If You Can Play, You Can Play" campaign, we've now seen a very public affirmation of gay rights and equality in the middle of a hockey game. Very quietly and subtly, I feel like the NHL is taking the lead in tolerance amongst the major North American sports. And it's great to see progress coming from such an unexpected source- a sport dismissed as crude and vulgar, with fans labelled "meatheads".

Of course, I'm not sure the NHL fully deserves that reputation. As I've kinda briefly mentioned before, it's in an odd place in terms of tolerance. While actual hockey players can be just as big of jocks as the guys in any other sports, and while the NHL certainly draws players and fans from small, parochial towns just like every other sport, the fact is, the sport is centered in the more tolerant (At least legally, but probably socially, as well) Canada and mostly northern U.S. cities. This means that front offices, coaches, executives, and hockey pundits all live and work amongst a wider variety of people, and thus, probably pick up some tolerance along the way. The players do so, too, but have the added layer of playing with a large proportion of international players, which just makes them even more open to diversity.

I would not be surprised, in fact, if the NHL was a little bit out ahead of its fan base on social issues. But that's okay, sometimes, you really do have to lead the way. So the NHL's increasingly progressive stance on gay rights is a cause for celebration, not worry.

Baseball, Social Media, and Douchebags

So, Mike Napoli of the Texas Rangers said he was looking forward to hitting some home runs off of former teammate (and new Los Angeles Angel of Whatever) C.J. Wilson. Wilson responded by posting Napoli's private number in a tweet and letting thousands of followers- to say nothing of the followers of anyone who retweeted it- know how to directly contact and harass Mike Napoli.

Seriously, douche move, C.J. Wilson.

At first blush, this seems like a story that just could not have happened ten years ago. Who the fuck knew what a "tweet" was in 2002? But really, when you get this down to the granular level, it's a little more familiar; jocks talk shit about each other, the talking turns into a full blown beef, and the beef extends until one of the jocks does something stupid, if ultimately not really that harmful. The big difference is that thanks to the internet and social networks, we're all privy to the entire story. Hell, we could have been PART of the story, had any of us chosen to call Napoli (and maybe you guys did, I dunno, I'm not your babysitter).

So, while jockey douchebags are always going to be jockey douchebags, the potential for mischief is certainly a lot higher, if only because the audience has much greater access to the douchebaggery. I rather suppose that it takes some of the magic away; I wonder if my dad would have ended up quite as big of a Yankees fan if he knew Mickey Mantle was basically doing keg stands between innings (though I guess that my dad would have been a BIGGER fan after he went to college).

But if new technology and social mores make the douchebaggery more prominent, it also adds a useful corrective- we all get to call Wilson a douchebag, often in a forum that he sees. As Big League Stew pointed out, fans pushed back at Wilson, and he responded to them. While Wilson did not concede that he went over the line, he at least responded to the complaints, and was clearly put on the defensive. That's good. Because young guys  with preternatural talent are always going to act like pricks once in a while. But now, we the fans can play an active roll in calling out that behavior.

In Praise of the Bandwagon

So I was reading Craig's post about fans, and it got me thinking of not necessarily a counterpoint, but more of a corollary: that fair weather fans are not just an undeniable fact of sports, they may actually provide a valuable service.

It's almost a given in sports that die hard fans are better than bandwagon fans, and whenever a previously bad team starts turning around, and the seats start packing again, you're going to hear people crowing about how they were there all along, and these Johnny-come-latelys aren't true fans.  Some fan bases (see Red Sox, Cleveland) actually make commiserating in failure and sticking by the team through all the bad times less a point of pride and more a cornerstone of their culture.  Texas A&M goes out of its way to promote this kind of loyalty.  They have an entire term, "2 percenter", that is applied to anyone that doesn't support the team through thick or thin or has the unmitigated gall to skip out on a football game to study for a test or pick up an extra shift at work.  Or perhaps the following joke that I've heard told by the yell leaders at one of our pre-game pep rallies:

A former student arrived at the stadium for his first game since graduation.  Having bought season tickets, he was anxious to see what watching the game would be like from the alumni section.  He found his seat, which was next to a grey haired Ol' Ag.  The young man introduced himself, and asked the old timer how long he'd had season tickets.  The old man told him that he'd had this same seat ever since he graduated.  For the past 40 years he and his wife had never missed a game.  The young man noticed the seat next to the old man was empty, and asked him where his wife was.  The old man said she couldn't make it.  The young man then asked why no one else in the family had wanted to take her ticket.  The old man responded because they were all at her funeral.  Whoop!  Gig 'em Ags and beat the hell!

While I may not have the best comic delivery, I'm not actually exaggerating that joke.  And I include it here more as illustration of the value that some fan bases put on loyalty above all.  Look, the team may be 4-8, but come on, Old Man Winter over here skipped his wife's FUNERAL for this, so don't start bitching about $70 nose bleed seats and $5 hot dogs.

See here's the thing, and it's something you're going to see us repeat over and over here on this blog:  Sports, particularly professional sports, are a business.  Yes, they inspire us.  The wonderful book Soccernomics will even tell you that the benefits to a community of having a professional sports team tend to be more non-economic.  Ultimately though, you are consuming a product.

Now, you can be a fan of the product generally.  To some degree, anyone sufficiently invested in any sport will appreciate the sport beyond any one team.  If the Yankees/Red Sox and Cubs were ever playing in the World Series one Craig Colbrook would never cease stringing together expletives to describe how bad that series would be for the sport and humanity as a whole.  I'd also eat a light bulb if he managed to keep himself from watching at least one game of that series.  The fact that the Super Bowl is the media spectacle it is shows that our nation is obsessed with football beyond the tribalistic concerns of their city's team.

We still though want it to be OUR team in the championship game.

That being said, what can we as fans do to help ensure that happens?  I mean, obviously we can go to the game and we can cheer for our players.  And I'm sure some players really do draw some benefit from a raucous crowd cheering what they do.  In football especially we see how a loud crowd can disrupt an offense, drawing an extra false start penalty or causing the players to specifically train for the noise.  Usually though this seems to quantify more in pressure on the refs to call in favor of the home team, which isn't always a bad thing.

This is at best a short term benefit.  You might help them this game.  Teams still have strategic concerns.  How will they draft?  Will they maintain a high draft position for a big splashy recruit or will they trade down to spread the talent out?  Will they trade up?  Will they farm players or trade young talent for big name veterans?  Will they bloat their rosters with overpriced contracts?  Do they blow up the team and rebuild now or hold it together for one more shot at the title?  Do they give the coach another year or fire him mid-season?  Well, a lot of this can be influenced by what owners and/or management think will put fans in the seats.

Think about other products you purchase.  If you bought a new car from Ford, and it fell apart inside a year or two, the next time you went to buy a car you'd probably get a Honda.  That is, you might unless some great marketing campaign tugged on your heart strings regarding the value of buying American, or if you actually worked for Ford and so felt some kind of loyalty unrelated to the value of the product.  Sports teams realize this, and so they try to develop that kind of loyalty.  Because if you can sell the same number of tickets whether or not you put a great team on the field (see Cubs), then it relieves some of the pressure to ensure your product is the best it can be.

This can, however, create a problem where there is no pressure to put out a great product.  The Cubs haven't won a World Series in over 100 years, and yet they are one of the largest markets in baseball.  Sorry, that's not a curse, that's a result of selling out summer afternoon games to frat boys in the world's largest beer garden no matter how far out of first you are.  Yes, the Cubs have made moves in recent years to shake up the roster and management.  This was also a function of (a) needing to make the team more appealing to potential buyers when the owners put it up for sale and (b) the new owners having different priorities.  Before Mark Cuban the Dallas Mavericks were irrelevant.  He made them champions.  He is also a billionaire that sunk millions of dollars he didn't need into a team because he had a personal drive to see them win.

It may be galling to live any where but New York City and have to listen to someone that has never even seen New York state go on and on about the Yankees, and to ridicule your team when they don't make the playoffs.  It salves your wounds to point out that if the Yankees didn't win as much as they do, that guy wouldn't have gone to Wal-Mart and bought the hat.  But the thing is, the Yankees management knows that.  It's another maxim of sports fandom that New York is the most critical place to play, coach, and manage sports.  Yes, a lot of people are only fans of the Yankees or the Lakers because they are good.  But that could be a two-way street, and those teams may only be so consistently good because they never rest on their fans' laurels, they never take their fan support for granted.  They realize how mercurial their support is, and that #2 tries harder.  Their fans don't love them through thick and thin, their fans love them for results, and therefore their fans get those results.

The NCAA's Long March Continues

I rather suppose that you guys have already seen that Jamar Samuels of Kansas State has been ruled ineligible for the Men's Basketball Tourney. Put this together with Fab Melo, John Calipari's statements, and Dave Zirin's crusade to call out the NCAA, and it's getting harder and harder to ignore the NCAA's issues this March, even as the Tourney is getting more and more exciting. Don't get me wrong, the games are still- and maybe ought to be- the biggest story, but the undercurrent here isn't going away.

From my perspective, the worst thing about the Samuels issue is that it flies in the face of our (admittedly romantic) notions of sports as a Grand Meritocracy, where what matters is your ability, not your background. If you can play, you can play (To steal from the NHL). But here, being poor seems to be becoming a major obstacle in playing, as the "impermissible benefit" in question may well have been a former coach sending Samuels $200 to help with groceries. Samuels may be being punished just for being too poor to afford his own food.

I of course say "may be" because, I dunno, maybe his old coach (Curtis Malone of the DC Assault) is lying. What he's saying hasn't been proven- but that's the problem here. Nothing's been proven. Hell, evidence hasn't even been presented. All we have is that Samuels has been accused of something, and that's enough to rip him out of the biggest games of his life (and humiliate him by having assholes like me speculate on his financial situation).

Anyway. The Men's Basketball Tourney is going to bring in something like $10 billion dollars this year. And Samuels is going to be on the outside looking in because he had trouble coming up with $200. The Grand Meritocracy is breaking down.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Hand of God Picks A Side on Israel-Palestine

Soccer legend Diego Maradona has come out in support of the Palestinian people. Our western readers (reader?) may not be all that familiar with Maradona, but "soccer legend" is a pretty good place to start. Some people consider him the best soccer player ever, but there's not really a Jordan-like consensus on that point. So this is kinda like Willie Mays taking a stance a controversial political issue (which, of course, Mays did- but Mays had a bit more skin in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s than Maradona has in the Israel-Palestine conflict now).

Well. Except that Maradona was suspended back in his playing days for doing cocaine, battled addiction, had to get his stomach stapled to lose weight, and is generally a bit of a gadfly. So we're kind of in "controversial star takes controversial stance" territory here, and you've gotta wonder how much that's going to move the needle.

But still. Maradona's most recent contributions to soccer have been as a manager, and it looks like he'd like to do that some more, so he's got plenty of incentive to not drum up more controversy. That he's nonetheless willing to speak out on what he believes in is refreshing, especially considering that soccer is not exactly free of geopolitical tensions.

Pretty much since the era of Jordan, every real sports superstar has remembered that "Republicans buy sneakers, too." It's a shame that they're all so market-tested and practiced at the art of strategic silence. Not every athlete needs to be Muhammad Ali or Jackie Robinson, but a little more evidence of a social conscience would be nice.

Maradona is, god knows, an imperfect messenger for the Palestinian cause, or for the idea of socially conscience athletes in general. But at least he's trying to say something.

One Does Not Speak Ill of the King

Last week, Chicago Bulls Superstar and CWS crush object Derrick Rose criticized the referees in the Bulls' game against the Knicks, saying:

“I gotta be the only superstar in the league that’s going through what I’m going through right now,” Rose said late Monday. “But I can’t say too much about it.”

As you can read in the above link, Rose was fined $25,000 for the remark. My heart doesn't exactly ache for him, as I know he's got the money to cover such a fine without blinking.

But I still think this is bullshit.

I understand that the NBA has an interest in protecting the image of integrity and fairness in the game. Indeed, the league is still living in the wake of Tim Donoghy. But when the league is going so far as to fine individual players for criticizing referees- especially in terms as gentle as Rose did- it's just coming off as paranoid, defensive, and honestly, counterproductive.

Let's start with this: I think everyone has a right to criticize the people who have power over them. That includes professional athletes, and at a certain point, no one has more power over them than the referees (or umpires, depending on what sport you're talking about). I think it's fine to put limits on this: people shouldn't be able to falsely accuse their bosses of a crime, and I'd have no problem fining players for alleging bribes, conspiracies, etc. But the basic right to question authority shouldn't be denied.

The other major leagues get this. The NFL provides teams a formal process to complain about a call and even get it reversed. The NHL has set up a "Situation Room" to make sure that the calls from the referees are correct during each game. And baseball has ritualized complaints against its umpires to such an extent that it's considered a legitimate tactic to psych up your team.

But in the NBA, players, coaches, and even owners are disciplined just for saying that the officiating was bad in a particular game. And that does nothing to enhance the NBA's image. Seriously, the cat is out of the bag on the refs. We all know that they're human and that they fuck up, and our mind isn't changed just because the players themselves don't complain. In fact, trying to silence the critics of the refs makes it seem MORE likely that the fix is in. Far from putting the specter of Donoghy out of our heads, the NBA is reminding us of him every time they punish a player for criticizing a ref.

It's always important to question how well the referees are doing their jobs. It's not even specific to the NBA in the wake of Donoghy. It should be constant goal in all sports at all times to get their officials as close to perfect as possible, and you're never gonna get all the way there, so we have to keep working. That means questions and criticism. And when the questions and criticisms are limited to the pundits who don't have as much skin in the game, we're not going to make any progress on that goal.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Ones Who Remain

Peyton Manning's free agency tour is- THANK GOD- making sure ESPN doesn't have to stop talking about football for even one day. More importantly, it's reminding me that, soon enough, everything you love about your favorite team will be gone.

Well, that's a cheery thought, isn't it? But listen- Manning WAS the Colts for over 12 years. The offense ran through him, all major decisions- even financial and marketing decisions- were made with him firmly in mind. He was the face of the franchise in a way that I don't think any other NFL player could claim (Brady comes closest, but he has to share the spotlight with Belichick). If he can go, who can stay?

Everyone's going to be traded or released or even just retire eventually, and once they do, what do they matter for the team? The Browns aren't really any better off right now because they used to have Jim Brown.

So, what's permanent? What's worth rooting for over the long term, season after season? It's not the managers, either; they leave just as often as the players. Hell, when you've got a situation like the Knicks, the managers end up being LESS permanent than the star players. The front office has a little more staying power, but they're all about two bad seasons away from being swept out. The owners might be more stable- they're the ones at the top, after all, and their role on the team is decidedly not premised on health and age. It's kind of crazy that the most hated element of any team is also the longest-lasting. But even they die or sell the team or go to jail eventually. Jesus, even the Jerseys change every 20 years or so.

So, what's left? Well, the most important thing, actually- the fans. My dad has owned a New York Yankees cap and jersey longer than anyone currently on the Yankees' payroll. Given all the tickets and merchandise he's bought, he's probably contributed more to the team than A.J. Burnett, and he'll keep it up for years after the current Yankees roster retires (which, really, is coming alarmingly fast). And really, in the grand scheme of sports, my dad isn't an outlier; I can name a dozen other guys like him, and two dozen more who will be like him once they're old enough.

Any talk of dads and baseball starts to get pretty gauzy, so let's wrap this up before I cry. The fact is, fans are the permanent element, they're the ones in it for the long haul. And as such, sports policies that empower the fans become incredibly important. These can be simple things like cheaper ticket prices, or more complex, technical issues like open broadcast policies. They can even be abstract and hard to pin down, like accountable ownership and management. The point is, fans need to be actively engaged in sports, because after every trade deadline, after every post season, after every coach that's fired- the fans are still there.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The NCAA is Stumbling Out of the Gate

You probably heard by now that Syracuse's center- and future namesake for an electro-pop band- Fab Melo is out of the NCAA Tournament due to an "eligibility issue". There's not a lot of information on what this means exactly, but at least Syracuse phrased the decision in such a way as to perfectly evoke the NCAA's longest running, most pernicious perennial scandal.

Meanwhile, John Calipari- who, in an alternate universe, actually orchestrated Melo's "eligibility issue" and is going to nonetheless play him in every game because fuck you, that's why- is blasting the NCAA for paying only lip service to the idea of taking care of the student athletes.

And then there's Dave Zirin- someone who's been doing this whole "sports and politics" thing for a while- calling NCAA student-athletes the civil rights issue of our time, and making sure we all re-read Taylor Branch's remarkable piece on just how hollow a lie the "student-athlete" moniker is.

In other words, this is a rather inauspicious start to March Madness.

I'm not exactly bubbling over with sympathy, you understand. The NCAA has dug itself into a deep hole on these issues, and it's not going to get out until fans demand it get out. That requires attention. That requires some outrage. And yeah, that requires stealing the spotlight from one of the best events in sports. Of course, we'll probably forget all about this by the Sweet Sixteen, but we have to start somewhere.

One of the reasons all the major sports organizations can get away with some decidedly regressive actions is that a really good game or series or season or postseason comes along and everyone forgets everything that bugs them about the sport. I do it, too- fighting was certainly not a problem in the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, by no means! But if we keep letting the slate get wiped clean like that, all of these very real problems get reduced to off-season chatter.

Fab Melo's suspension (if that's the right word) sucks for Syracuse, and it probably sucks for the rest of us because it will make some games a little less interesting. John Calipari's statement sucks because it means we have to listen to John Calipari. But at least we can't easily ignore the NCAA's trouble with student athletes this March.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Presidents and Sports

Mitt Romney appears to be determined to get on this blog, despite my certainty that he's never even heard of it. As you may have heard, Romney was again asked about sports, and again put his answer in terms of his friendship with owners. It's worth asking how much we need to keep grilling Romney about sports, but in this case, I think we're stumbling toward a useful topic, perhaps in spite of ourselves.

I don't really have a problem with Presidents being friends with sports owners. Aren't they all? Obama is friends with the Rooneys in the NFL. George Bush WAS an owner. Successful men get along with successful men, I guess, and that's fine.

The problem is, Presidents really can intervene in sports, even if they really, really shouldn't most of the time (George Bush's steroids crusade was just...worthless). And if they do so solely on behalf of their buddies in ownership, that's no good. Owners are no more likely than any other stakeholder in sports (players, managers/coachers/GMs, media, and yes, fans) to know what's really best for the sport, and their interests really need the least amount of protection.

So, Romney's answer is useful inasmuch as it tells us if he would or would not take Presidential action on sports, and if he would do so on behalf of the owners. Right now, that "inasmuch" is not much; while Romney seems to think about sports in terms of owners, he doesn't really seem to think about sports much at all, so it's unclear if he'd actually do anything about them as President. But of course, the question wasn't really about anything Romney would do to sports as President, so we shouldn't be surprised that the answer doesn't hit that nail on the head, either.

Either way, I want to know more. We never really saw Goerge Bush's steroids crusade coming, and I'd hate to see a replay of that. For that matter, I'd hate to see quite a bit of Presidential action on sports (Obama's support for college football playoffs also makes me a little itchy, even though he hasn't really done anything about it). So, I think this is worth further exploration. I just hope that future questions are little more on point.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Bruce Weber and Being "Too Nice"

So, Bruce Webber, head coach of the University of Illinois Fighting Illini Men's Basketball team, is no longer head coach of the University of Illinois Fighting Illini Men's Basketball team. This is altogether fitting and proper. While the guy was justifiably loved in Urbana (hard not to like a guy when he tells you he's working his dream job), success had been fleeting since 2005, and hell, I could have coached THAT team to the Elite Eight, at least.

The consensus thought is that Webber was a very good man, but it just wasn't working. Indeed, many commentators have said he was too nice to be effective, especially as far as recruitment goes. I feel like that's true, although I can't really point to specific things that support this narrative (but since that won't stop any other member of the Sports Media Industrial Complex...). And yes, it's shitty that the modern college basketball culture pushes coaches into skirting the line on recruitment violations.

But y'know what? If it does, it does. I'll bitch about that some other time, and for now, concede that you have to be a bit of a prick to find success in college basketball. Fine.

But then, will someone will please tell Coach K and Roy Williams and Tom Izzo and the rest of the warrior poets who are supposed to be Molding Boys Into Young Men to go piss up a rope?

Understand that I'm not lamenting Weber's fate, and I'm not exactly rending garments over What College Basketball Has Become. I'm really okay with it just being a hardass meritocracy, where all that matters is the Win. I just want some goddamn honesty that that's what's up, not another fucking book of inspirational sayings from John Wooden.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Couple Thoughts On Ownership

I've been spending most of my nights reading the 2012 Baseball Prospectus, because I'm already married and don't need to talk to other girls ever again. The Los Angeles Dodgers' and New York Mets' chapters are, predictably enough, consumed with the teams' recent ownership struggles. If you need to get up to speed: Frank McCourt, owner of the Dodgers, has a bunch of shady business deals surrounding the team, and the ownership has become a central point of contention in his divorce from his wife (as always, Wikipedia has a good, simple primer). As for the Mets, well, their owner, Fred Wilpon, invested with Bernie Madoff. So that's just become it's own kind of country song. So yeah, the Dodgers and the Mets sure have some real winners in their front office.

I know that fans always hate the owners, and even if that didn't fit nicely into my 99-Percenter sensibilities (which it totally does), I'd be fine with that. In fact, I encourage it! Bitching about how the people running the team are fucking up and insisting that YOU know so much better is another one of those fun parts of sports (on the other hand, listening to someone else say that is one of those obnoxious parts of sports, but oh well). And, as we'll discuss below, it may be important, too.

McCourt and Wilpon seem kinda different from other owners...but maybe not enough. They didn't simply trade away a beloved shortstop or raise beer prices. They took affirmative financial actions that weren't really related to the teams, but implicated the teams nonetheless. They did it just to enrich themselves, and when it all went tits-up, they affirmatively hurt their teams. You can't say that about every owner. But unfortunately, you can't say this is just a "few bad apples" problem, either.

Because sports are a business, and very few owners become owners out of a weird sense of athletic altruism. They're all trying to make some money off of this. This isn't always a bad thing; honestly, the best way to make money in sports is to build a winning team.  But it does mean that there's always a risk the owner will screw the team and the fans in pursuit of a bigger payday.

As fans, our options in dealing with this kind of thing are limited. It'll be a warm day in Green Bay before I buy a fucking Packers jersey, even though they have the most progressive ownership structure in the NFL. And if everyone refuses to support a team when it fucks up, they run the risk of taking it to far and losing the league altogether. But maybe we can start by separating out "mere" bad management- unbalanced trades, backloaded contracts, etc.- from affirmative acts of greed, like trying to put the team up as collateral in some other business deal. 'Cause bitching about that first category is our privilege as fans. But bitching about the second may well be our duty.

Jim Irsay Makes THE DECISION

After 14 years, multiple playoff seasons and a Super Bowl ring, Peyton Manning has been cut from the Indianapolis Colts.  The Colts are going to draft Andrew Luck to be their QB of the future and save themselves $28 million dollars in the process.

Here's the thing:  I don't hate this.  From a business perspective, I think the Colts made the right move.  Peyton is a proven commodity, true, but with his health concerns and his age, he's got 3-5 years at best remaining.  Andrew Luck could play for another 14, and with the new rookie contracts will cost significantly less money, freeing them to pursue other pieces in free agency.  It makes sense.

The arguments for keeping Peyton essentially boil down to moral arguments:
1) The Colts contracted for the $28 million, and they should stand by their word.
2) Peyton has been loyal to the team for 14 years and wants to retire there, he has earned the chance after all he's done for the organization.

The response is that the owners and management have to put fans in the stands and deliver a good product.  If the Colts keep Peyton and pay him the money they owe him, they may have to either pass on Andrew Luck or other players that they will need in the future.  If Peyton gets injured or retires in 3-4 years (after declining quality of play), the Colts will be left with a whole in their roster, and will be a terrible team.  Are they morally required to suffer that scenario in order to provide Peyton his opportunity to retire where he wants?

I'd argue no.  But it does finally, fully expose the owners as motivated purely by money, and we as fans also need to stop berating players and coaches for pursuing greener pastures.  When LeBron James left Cleveland for South Beach, Dan Gilbert threw the biggest hissy fit in the history of sports, a fit that carried into the CBA negotiations and the beginning of this season when he protested to the proposed trade between the Lakers, the Rockets, and the Hornets that would have sent Chris Paul to LA.  We're already seeing management battling with Dwight Howard in Orlando over his future.

My problem with LeBron James was not that he left Cleveland, it was the method in which he did it.  I thought taking out a prime time special to announce it was incredibly narcissistic.  But I don't blame him for going to another team.  He's an adult, he can make his own decisions.  Dan Gilbert was not mad at the method by which LeBron left, he was mad that he lost his Peyton Manning in his prime, and he capitalized on the manner in which LeBron left to help drum up bad will.  But if LeBron were in Peyton's situation, coming off a string of injuries with an uncertain health future in the twilight of his career, but still under contract to eat up a huge chunk of salary cap, you don't think he would jump at the chance to dump LeBron in the ocean to chase a young player that could be the next Michael Jordan?  If you don't, I got some ocean front property in Arizona to sell you.  By the same token, had Peyton Manning bolted Indy after his first contract to go play in San Francisco or Dallas, I bet Jim Irsay would have been just as pissed and moaned about the unfairness of the difficulty in keeping a star in a small market.

Granted, Jim Irsay can only do this because NFL contracts are not guaranteed.  NBA owners are stuck with the full extent of a contract the instant they sign it.  But they still choose to sign it.  They make draft picks, they okay trades.  Screaming at the sky about the unfairness of a player not being stuck with them the instant they are drafted is disgusting, especially in light of an owner dumping a player that stood by him through the years and built a life with him in order to run off with a hot, younger version in a sports car he bought with all the money he saved.

Owners aren't loyal.  Owners don't have any principles after "maximize income, minimize expenses".  Well, Mark Cuban might.  But ultimately sports is a business, and principles like loyalty will always come second to money.  We've long complained of that on the player side.  Now we're seeing it on the owners' side.  So let's stop haranguing only one side for it.  Let's stop treating owners like innocent victims.  Either we throw up our hands in disgust and stop watching, or we just accept it for what it is, a business, and enjoy what we have while we have it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Yes, More About the Saints

So, the qualified "defense" of the Saints, if it is even that, advanced by some people in the greater NFL media, is that football is a fundamentally violent game, and that we shouldn't act so shocked that players are specifically thinking of the violence. As he often does, Drew Magary of Deadspin/Kissing Suzy Kolber articulates this position the most effectively, because he uses naughty words.

Now, I really like Magary. And I really do hate Gregg Easterbrook, the target of his ire in this column. I think it's absolutely fair to note that Easterbrook has made a handsome living off of thinking long and hard about football, and for him to act like this is the first thing to tarnish the game is disingenuous bullshit. He knows better, and if he doesn't, he shouldn't have a column.

But still, this "defense" leaves me kind of cold. Because here's the thing, I kind of agree with Magary on this...

"anyone who watches it makes a pact with themselves that it's violent, but that's OK because it's grown men playing it and it's AWESOME to watch"

...but if the terms of the pact are that I can't be repulsed by stuff like what Gregg Williams pulled, i'm not sure I'm willing to keep making it on any given Sunday. Which is fine. The NFL will soldier on just fine without whatever meager support I gave it (I've never been the biggest football fan, anyway). I just wonder if these people who are trying to kind of...move on from the Saints' scandal realize that this "defense" may be doing as much harm as good. Because if you really convince me that this is all par for the course in football, and that this is something that's just going to happen in the game, well, I really can live without watching.

Fortunately, I still think that that mindset is wrong. Magary is right that the line between "I'm going to hit this guy really hard!" and "I'm going to cause long-term health risks to this guy!" is blurry, but I think there is an important, useful difference between the two. And I think that with training, rules, punishment, equipment- we can keep bringing that line into better focus, bit by bit.

But this is one of those few times where I'll admit that I might be wrong. And if I am, I'd rather just cut my losses in this case.

You've Got to Understand the Rules

So, the justification for steroids in baseball- not that it was ever officially defended, but still, we have a good idea as to why the people who did it did it- was monster hits and home runs don't just help the team, they're also tremendously popular with fans. Individual fame and fortune awaited those who could mash 'dem balls the best, and if people were packing into the stands to watch home run chases (as in 1998), then the sport was better for it, as well. Similar justifications are used to excuse violent hits in football and even fighting in hockey (and yes, I understand that that's an icky comparison, but people are just going to have to accept that steroids have that in common with such repugnant practices).

Now, of course, the steroid witchhunt hit fever pitch in 2005-06, and Baseball instituted some new testing rules. From '08 on, we've seen a steady drop in offense across Major League Baseball. A lot of people looked at these two facts and said, "Eh, correlation, causation, close enough." But David Golebiewski at actually crunched the numbers and found a more plausible culprit: umpires.

Of COURSE! It had to be the umpires, right?

Anyway, the umpires have actually started calling a more accurate strike zone in the last few years. Pitches that batters used to get away with taking- often down by the knees- were now called for strikes, as they should be. The reason this is happening isn't completely known, though it's likely that since umpires now have access to things like PitchFX, they can actually learn from their own mistakes. Anyway, the results ARE clear: batters are getting less free pitches, so their numbers are going down.

There's a lot I love about this story. First of all, it's awesome that PitchFX and similar programs are bringing some accountability and evolution to the umpires. It's still pretty hard to "impeach" an ump, and I'm deathly afraid of anyone "overturning" their decisions, but at least they now have to study their own work and hopefully improve on it.

Second, this just goes to show you how much technology enhances the sport. Not only is PitchFX making the umpires better, but at the fan level, guys like Dave Golebiweski now have the means to investigate any claim about the game and share their findings with other fans. In some ways, we've always had this; Baseball's always kept meticulous records, after all. But you had to have a certain extra layer of crazy to really hunt them all down, and if you wanted to publish your findings, you basically had to go the Bill James self-published route, with no guarantee of the success James eventually had. Now, all the information is online, and you can publish to the same place. You still have to be kinda crazy to want to do it, but after that, the entry fees are low.

Finally, this shows me that rules made for the sports to bow to socio-political pressure and concerns about player safety are probably NOT the major factor in whether or not the games are exciting. If umpires calling a better strike zone is the critical factor here instead of the steroid ban, then it shows me that referees in football or hockey could keep those games plenty exciting without the violence with just a few tweaks to how they call the game. Listen, I'm as big an advocate for robot umps and refs as anyone, but we're a long way from that. Until then, calling the game is still as much an art as it is a silence. For all of our desire for clearly defined, bright line rules for the game- and for all the progress we have made and will make in establishing those- human judgment is still going to play a big role.

Which is all just a long way of saying that we really can draft sports rules that are less barbaric, and trust the professionals on the field to keep the game exciting.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Root Root Root for the Home Team: The Role of Home Town Broadcasters

So, I watched the Blackhawks/Red Wings game today. NHL Network used the Fox Sports Detroit feed, with Ken Daniels and Mickey Redmond calling the game. On every questionable play- and by "questionable" I mean "only the most delusional of Blackhawks partisans would have any problem with it"- they fell over each other to excuse the Red Wings of any misconduct.

The role of the home-town broadcasters is hard to pin down, I suppose. They almost certainly get close to the team, and their primary audience is the team's die hard fans, so there's a lot of incentive for them to give the team some rhetorical support. If they knew they were going to call the game for a national network (and NHL Network counts for that, more or less), then there's the added impulse to kind of help put the team's best foot forward.

But still, the primary job of the broadcasters is to inform the people watching, and to do so accurately and fully. The impulse to support the team on the air, that's actually what makes the job hard enough that they don't give it to just anyone. You gotta put that aside when the team is clearly on the wrong end of things.

Now, I don't know if the Red Wings were committing penalties that went uncalled today. I don't know how the game is called quite that well. But it's a tough, physical game with a lot of gray areas, so I'm sure that the Wings weren't just as pure as driven snow for all 60 minutes. And their broadcasters' job was to tell us that, even if their sympathies pushed against that.


Today's collection of deep thinking and sports, gettin' all sexy together.

1) A heartwarming story of Matt Holliday and leadership. I think it's a mistake to say this kind of thing absolutely doesn't matter. I just think it matters in an entirely quantifiable, observable way. That is, if it's going to matter, it's going to be because Kelton Wong benefits from the workouts, and his numbers improve, leading to more wins for the Cardinals.

2) Michael McCann breaks down the legal consequences of the Saints' bounty pool. Some of these are stretches, but almost all of these will be filed.

3) Sticking with the Saints, check out Friend of the Blog Chip's response to yesterday's last Saints post. I don't agree with him that this isn't newsworthy, but it's a good perspective, and he's dead on right that this is just one facet of sports' problem with injuries.

4) Junior Hockey in North America is moving toward banning fighting. The argument against this appears to be that the players just won't be ready for fighting in the NHL if they don't fight at the junior levels. Okay, so, don't fight in the NHL.

5) I wish I had something interesting to say about baseball's new playoff system that 'Duk over at Big League Stew didn't already cover. I feel like we're going to have to see how it plays out in practice.

What do you guys have?

Born This Way: The NHL and Gay Tolerance

Patrick Burke, scout for the Flyers and son of the Maple Leafs GM, has started a campaign called "You Can Play", with the laudable goal of stamping out "casual homophobia" in the NHL. "Casual homophobia" is defined as those times when you use a gay slur but aren't really degrading someone's sexuality. Like, "Stop being a fag" when you mean "Stop being a jerk." It's the kind of stuff that seems small to the people who aren't affected by it- I've certainly done it- but can create a climate of intolerance if people are just allowed to continue it unthinkingly.

In practice, this really isn't much different than the NBA's efforts to end a similar problem, though the NHL is being more proactive (the NBA only took action after Kobe Bryant and Joakim Noah got in trouble for publicly using slurs, though the NBA also cunningly used those two's desire to make amends to help sell the message). It's also fairly similar to the several MLB teams that have recorded "It Gets Better" videos.

But what does stand out from these other efforts is the specific players the Patrick Burke has recruited. To wit:

Rick Nash of the Columbus Blue Jackets; Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks; Brian Boyle of the New York Rangers; Matt Moulson of the New York Islanders; Joffrey Lupul of the Toronto Maple Leafs; Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers; Daniel Alfredsson of the Ottawa Senators; Scott Hartnell of the Philadelphia Flyers; Corey Perry  of the Anaheim Ducks; Andy Greene of the New Jersey Devils; Dion Phaneuf of the Toronto Maple Leafs; and Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers.

That list is heavy on defenders, goalies, and assorted "tuff guys". It's light on flashy, skill-based forwards, even though some of them are bigger names (say, Ovechkin and Crosy, if we're still counting Cros as a hockey player). In other words, the list seems purposely made up of guys more stereotypically masculine, which is probably a smarter way to deliver the message. I suppose it will only really matter along the margins, but still, it's easy to imagine a lot of old time hockey guys dismissing, say, Patrick Kane's thoughts on integration.

Like I said, that's not a big deal, but it's good to see a worthy campaign play even the small deals so shrewdly. And "If You Can Play, You Can Play" is pretty much the ideal we're all striving for, right?

Faster Than My Bullet: Baseball, the Houston Colt .45s, and Promoting Violence

This is the Houston Astros' 50th Anniversary, and all indications are that they will celebrate by losing two games for each year they've been around. They're also going to wear a bunch of throwback jerseys, including one from the earliest days as the Houston Colt .45s.

But hold up, slow up, stop, control, says the MLB Commissioner's office. Houston can't display the Colt .45s logo- that is, a smoking gun- on their jerseys.

I'm torn on this. Generally speaking, I'm uncomfortable around guns and sensitive to policies that want to add a few more measures of control to them. On the other hand, "Colt .45s" is an awesome, evocative team name, perfect for Texas, and the logo is kind of cool.

In a broader sense, I'm not really sure what Baseball is accomplishing here. Any time Baseball wants to try to help decrease gun violence- or at least, not offer tacit support of gun culture- I'm right behind 'em. And the game certainly has every right to protect and maintain it's brand, and if that includes eschewing the imagery of violent weapons, very well. I certainly wouldn't argue that the New York Glocks or the San Francisco AK-47s would be team names chosen in good taste.

But at the same time, that logo is a stylized drawing of an Old West-style revolver. Isn't that a little antiquated?. In fact, it's probably a little closer to the Braves' tomahawk chop than it is anything that promotes violence in the modern world.

I dunno. On balance, I suppose I don't mind Baseball doing this. I just wonder if they couldn't have chosen their battles better.

Fight Test: How Hockey Media is Covering Violence in the Game

The big viral video in the hockey world this last week is here, where Mike Milbury and Jeremy Roenick get in a very contentious, almost physical, confrontation over Eric Nystrom's (really objectionably) hit on Kris Letang. It's actually a little embarrassing if you think of these guys as professional broadcasters. They talk over each other and interrupt, they clench their fists and puff their chests, and at the end, it descends into personal insults and angry recriminations. Roenick may well never back on set with Milbury.

In a sense, I can understand why the confrontation escalated so quickly. Roenick had great success in- and thus, was personally validated by- a system of hockey that did not go nearly as far in policing hits like this. I'm sure that on some level, he feels like any attempt to criticize that system is an attempt to denigrate his accomplishments. Milbury, meanwhile, while a former tough guy (in a much tougher era of the NHL to begin with) is also a hockey dad, and I'm sure he's thinking of his son as the concussion statistics swell and more players see an early end to their careers. It gets personal because it IS personal for these guys. It gets ugly because this is an ugly subject.

But the thing is, NBC didn't have to air it.

I just don't see what the viewers got out of this segment. It's just two men arguing past each other. Nobody challenges Roenick on his assertion that it was on Letang to protect himself (and it would have been easy, just ask, "Okay, how?"). Nobody refutes Milbury when he says Nystrom went off the puck and straight for the hit (though, of course, it'd be hard to refute him on that). Nobody explains the rules on hits, nobody says what the players could have done, nobody examines how the play could have developed (besides Roenick's ridiculous "What if Letang got the puck and skated all the way down the ice and scored an easy goal?" hypothetical). Milbury tries to provide a little bit of context for the debate on hits and concussions, but it's just one stat screen that they both blow past very quickly. This does nothing to educate, inform, or enlighten viewers about the world of hockey.

And it wasn't meant to. Watch the beginning of the video again. The host says that Roenick is brought out specifically BECAUSE he disagrees with Milbury. And look at the two men- they're tense from the very first second. This was a planned argument. It was a set up for these two men to get ugly. It was "Crossfire" on sports, and between Around the Horn and Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless, we have way too much of that shit already. Just men competing to see how loud they can yell at each other, and eventually, how personally they can insult each other. Fans get nothing from it, and sports look worse for it.

Hockey hits are a very important topic, and the debate is probably more necessary than the one on fighting. But the debate has to be real, not just Roenick trading his reducto ad absurdiam crap for Milbury's defensive peacocking. Anything else is an insult to the fans.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

All Over The World: Soccer and Basic Nationalism

The U.S. beat Italy in a friendly for the first time in 11 matches. This is a big deal for the U.S. Soccer team, and one would hope it can only be good news for  Soccer in America. Of course, the lack of media coverage isn't encouraging, but let's let it ride a little, huh? Anyway, the lack of media coverage of soccer is a whole 'nother blog post, and I'm not sure it would be an interesting one.

What's interesting to me is that the new head coach, Juergen Klinsmann, is getting a lot of credit, especially for his focus on getting players with dual citizenship to commit to the U.S. This is what really fascinates me about soccer. The international tournaments are so important, and no country's national league is so obviously dominant, that we get to see how nationalism plays out for these athletes. I can't think of any other sport where you get that. Baseball draws from a surprising number of countries for the "National Pastime", but international competitions are an afterthought, while MLB is indisputably the most important league, so the players only rarely have to think about which team they'll play for (the World Baseball Classic comes to mind, but has anyone cared about that since the first one? Has there even been a second one? NOBODY KNOWS BECAUSE NOBODY CARES). Hockey and basketball are both pretty international, but the Olympics aren't the be-all to end-all, and the North American leagues are, again, the consensus for the most talented, important leagues. And of course, football is almost exclusively an American thing.

But in soccer? Well, the World Cup is almost certainly the ultimate prize, even though it only comes around every four years. And as for the "best" league...well, who knows? EPL? La Liga? Even Bundesliga has its champions.

And thus, players have some reason to really consider what team they want to play for, and what country they want to represent. I think what we're seeing is that nationalism isn't the ultimate factor. Not just in the regular leagues- obviously, money is the primary motivator there, and I think that's just fine. But even in the international tournaments and friendlies, I think it's clear that players aren't just thinking about their country of origin.

Put it this way. Klinsmann is having some success convincing German-Americans with dual citizenship to switch to playing for the U.S. If nationalism were the primary factor...well...if their stronger ties were to the U.S., then they'd already be playing for it, wouldn't they? And if their stronger ties were to Germany, well, Klinsmann shouldn't be able to convince them to move over, right? So it doesn't make much sense that they'd be switching just because Klinsmann is talking to them. On the other hand, if something else, like, say, playing for legendary figure in soccer means quite a bit to these players, too, then finally, it all makes sense.

I don't really have much of a problem with this. I think pride in your country is worth quite a bit, but at the same time, we should all strive to be citizens of the world, and not let a flag get in the way of our goals and values. But it's really fun that soccer, unlike the other major sports, really lets us see that play out.

Some More on the Saints

I said in the previous post that just punishing the Saints won't be enough. We also have to reform the culture around the NFL, because sure, it's just that fucking easy, isn't it Colby?

The fact is, it's really fucking hard, and I'm not sure how to even begin. Roger Gooddell really has tried to rein in the most despicable, violent hits. But at some point, I fear he's trying to beat up the ocean. Not only has he been mocked for his efforts, but really, how do you play football without the hits? And if you have to allow the hits, where do you draw the line so that it's clear what's acceptable and what isn't? How do you craft a punishment that actually deters players, and doesn't just make them do a loss/benefit calculation?

And if you're part of the sports media, and hits are a legitimate part of the game, how do you report on them, how do you note who is good at them, without in some way condoning them? How do you stop the fans from getting excited about them? Jesus, I've spent two blog posts soul-searching about them, and I still get excited about them.

This is why I'm worried that Troy Aikman is right. It's hard to separate football from the violence, and it's hard to keep justifying the violence- especially when it comes time for us to start thinking about letting some of our kids play football. This isn't hockey, where there are major leagues and tournaments that really tone down on the violence. How do you have football without tackling?

This is one of those times where I hope I'm not nearly as smart as I think I am.

When the Saints Go Kicking Heads In

An official NFL investigation has reported that the New Orleans Saints maintained a "bounty pool" for the last three seasons, in which the defensive players were paid cash for injuring opposing players. The "pool" was maintained by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and head coach Sean Peyton knew about it (As did GM Mickey Loomis). Animaniac Blogger Mike got the ball rolling on this already, but this story is important enough to warrant a few posts. Don't be surprised if we return to it later this week.

Mike has admirably covered how horrible this is, and correctly noted that these players and coaches- in my mind, especially the coaches and GMs- need to be punished. My only addition is that that won't be enough.

The fact is, I'm barely surprised by this. I didn't predict it by any means, but there is an easy, logical progression from the general demeanor of the NFL and football media to actions just like this. It's not just that hits are a fundamental part of the game, and that the field of play creates several "blind spots" (such as the bottom of the pile) where the players can outright attack each other with impunity- though they are, and it does. It's not just that injuring a star player is an effective- though abhorrent- tactic. It's that we openly laud a lot of the violence in the NFL.

We count down the biggest hits on Tuesday morning, with Chris Berman and his crew hooting and hollaring all the way (Note: the NFL has asked that we stop doing this. It has also been mocked for doing so). Roger Gooddell's efforts to reign in the most violent excesses of the game are widely mocked by the media and harshly criticized by the players. "Bounties" have actually been openly talked about in fan circles for YEARS, and while nobody holds Kissing Suzy Kolber up as an authority, the language is still out there. And I'm as bad as anyone. I've gone into multiple games openly rooting for Brett Favre, Aaron RAHDJAHS! and Tim Tebow to break their collarbones (must be something about quarterbacks with ostentatious touchdown celebrations, I guess).

My point is, current NFL culture incentivizes a lot of violent behavior, and does not really explain where the line is. And as that's the case, of course some people are going to cross the line. I'm not saying we shouldn't punish the Saints players and coaches; the fact is, EVERY team was operating in the same culture, and the Saints are the only ones who did something so ridiculous (...I hope?). So, obviously, players, coaches, and teams still have a choice here. But when the entire defensive organization of a team is implicated, along with the head coach and GM, this clearly goes beyond the "few bad apples" defense. The NFL must punish the Saints for this, but if it doesn't also change the culture that allowed this, it won't be enough.

One more point on this. The Saints were ranked 24th in defense for 2011. 25th in '09, when the Saints won the Super Bowl. 2010 was obviously different, with the team coming in 4th, but still, the trend is clear: the "Bounty Pool" was not producing appreciably better defense. And if all the violence isn't producing better football, what's the point, exactly?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Stepping In

So this happened.

Now, obviously (I hope) we can all agree that this is horrific.  But I honestly think part of the problem is that we all look at each other and say "oh, the league will penalize this appropriately."

Maybe we shouldn't wait or hope for that.  Maybe, MAYBE, we should look at this as support for lawsuits.  If I were an offensive player, and I received an injury, ANY injury, against the New Orleans Saints, I would be filing a case in federal court against the players, the coaches, and the ownership of that team.

In addition to any other specific claims, I would be making specific intentional and negligent tort claims via respondeat superior logic against the team.  Setting a bounty against opposing players isn't just barbaric, it is illegal.

Think about this.  What other field are you allowed to announce a 4 or 5 figure reward for someone physically injuring a rival of yours?  That doesn't happen, but we're supposed to look the other way because what, it's sports?  If anything we should be looking at this even harder because it's a GAME.  I can't imagine a more shameful curtain pulled aside absent Pete Rose betting on the game.

I don't expect careers to end over this, which is a travesty.  But our court system can, and should, consider this as added evidence to hit everyone involved where it most counts:  their wallets.  The fact that these people will finally realize they aren't above the law or common human decency should be a bonus.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Free Throw Line Between Genius and Madness

I was recently asked what it was that made Michael Jordan so great.  I had to think about it for a minute, because I think there are a lot of factors that combine to make Michael Jordan into JORDAN.

Now, let me first say that while I live in Chicago and root for the Bulls now, I did not grow up a Bulls fan.  I grew up in Texas.  I didn't even watch pro-basketball until high school (football being king in Texas).  Obviously I saw the occasional game, but I didn't actually follow the sport until 1994 when one of my best friends invited me to watch the Houston Rockets in the Finals against the New York Knicks.  That cemented me as a Rockets fan through the end of the Dream Era, and I hated the Bulls in the late 90s.  All of that being said I still think Michael Jordan is the best shooting guard of all time, and may be the best basketball player of all time.  But why?

There are the numbers, of course.  He's third on the all-time scoring list while being tied with Wilt Chamberlain for first in points-per-game.  Third in all time steals ranking fifth in steals per game.  Hit a third of all the three pointers he ever took.   The awards.  The highlight clips of all his game winning shots that have entered the cultural zeitgeist.

There are other cultural factors that I'll return to in another post (mostly to do with marketing and history).

There is also the mentality.  Now we can go back and forth about the degree to which intangibles are bullshit, whether Jeter gets more credit than he should, whether Tebow's 4th quarter heroics are a function of will or a function of defensive excellence by his team couple with defensive breakdown by his opponents (like going to a prevent defense that softens up short passing zones and opens up running lanes to prevent big plays when a tight man coverage plus a blitz has been working all day).  And I am going to be the first one to say that I don't care how much you want to win, you still need a certain level of physical skill and ability.  Tiger Woods on his worst, hungover, post-divorce day will beat me over 18 holes even if I know my family is back in the clubhouse with a gun to their heads.  Mentality though can give you the edge when all other things are equal or close to equal.

There has been some research recently on the prevalence of sociopathic tendencies amongst politicians and CEOS.  See here.  I find it fascinating, because it boils down to this:  the traits that we associate with sociopathic behavior, while crippling in most social contexts, are a boon in the more "cut throat" worlds of politics and business.  Lack of empathy, comfort with deception, these are things we almost expect out of the rich and powerful.  Lo and behold, evidence of sociopathy may be as high as four times the normal population rate amongst that sector.

So are there are other mental disorders that can benefit you in other areas?  We laugh at anal-retentive, type A personalities, but no one wants a scatter-brained accountant.  We kind of expect artists to be daydreamers.  What about athletes?

I'm not saying Michael Jordan is a sociopath, but he is hyper-competitive.  No matter how humble and nice his commercial persona was, on the court Michael Jordan was an asshole.  He wanted to win every night he stepped out there.  Actually no, he didn't want to win, he wanted to beat you.  He wanted to curb stomp you and have you know it was him that did it.  If you tried to forfeit he might stalk back to the locker room, duct tape you into your uniform, and drag you onto the court so he could destroy you in front of every girl you'd ever had a crush on.  The man invented insults that other teams never said about him, convinced himself they were real, and then used that slight to fuel himself.  The flu game wasn't about beating the Jazz, it was probably just to show the common cold that he wouldn't take its shit.  The man didn't want to win, he needed to win.  It was a psychological compulsion, probably of such a powerful nature that it should be classified a disorder, but it drove him to relentlessly improve his game.  In the end, it made him a champion, and for that we forgive all (see Kobe, hotel, Denver).

Belated Black History Month Post

Jesus, this blog is a shit show. I had a Black History Month post all ready to go, I was gonna put it up yesterday and then, boom, nothing. We had to go and talk about Penn State AGAIN. Sorry about that, folks. Let's make up for it now.

You see, every sports network likes to throw up something for BHM, and they all just like to talk about Jackie and then get back to, I dunno, talking about who's the Most Now or whatever retardery ESPN is getting into this week. And I hate that. There's a lot other interesting people to look at. Crusaders like Arthur Ashe. People who held real power, like Wayne Embry, the first black NBA exec. Trailblazers in leagues that are still grappling with integration (Aren't we all?) Like Willie O'Ree in the NHL*. Or hell, the history of blacks in NFL, from the their sporadic numbers in the early century to the de facto color line in the 30s and 40s through the Rooney Rule today (boy howdy, are we going to get into the Rooney rule sometime).

*- O'Ree really fascinates me because he played for the Bruins, right around the time the Red Sox were finally giving in on integration. Boston remained a hotbed of racial tension until the 80s, but there he was, before Pumpsie Green, even.

But the fact is, baseball is my area of expertise, so...yeah, I have something to say about Jackie.

The legend goes that everyone- Branch Rickey, the Dodgers, Jackie Robinson himself- knew that Robinson was not the best African American baseball player in the country. But, he had the best temperament, the best demeanor. He was the one deemed most capable of dealing with the pressure- and yes, outright HATE- of being the First African American in Major League Baseball.

From everything I've read, this is true. And demeanor is important. Not because of bullshit like Derek Jeter's "intangible leadership qualities" or whatever, but because a proper demeanor is what turns raw talent into tangible accomplishments. I would say the big difference between Michael Jordan and Lebron James is demeanor. So, I don't want to dismiss Jackie's incredible demeanor.

But our constant focus on it is still horseshit.

Because here's the thing, if Jackie Robinson wasn't the best African American player, he was still REALLY FREAKIN' GOOD. His career slash line was .311/.409/.474. Six time All-Star. 197 stolen bases. That's a damn good career, regardless of the background.

I think all the talk of "he wasn't the BEST, but..." ends up just diminishing Jackie. It's not intentionally racial, it's more about the fundamental bias of sportswriters in favor of "character" and "leadership" and, again, "intangibles". But the effect is the same- it makes Jackie Robinson sound a bit more like an Affirmative Action hire rather than the legitimate Hall of Famer he is.