SportsProf

(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.

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Friday, September 12, 2014

Where Does the NFL Draw the Line Now?


  • Performance Enhancing Drugs.
  • Abuse of Animals.
  • Domestic Abuse.
  • Locker room bullying.
  • Saying Racist Things.
  • DUIs.
  • Child Abuse.
  • Bounty Gate.
  • Illegal Hits.
  • (Alleged) gang alliances.
Baseball has had to deal with the following:

  • Gambling by a player/manager.
  • Steroids.
  • Amphetamines.
  • HGH.
  • Adderall.
  • Spouse abuse (remember Brett Myers).
  • DUIs.
  • Bean balls
What is the standard for whether someone plays, gets suspended or gets banned?

How do we balance forgiveness and forgetting?

Is the professional sports on-the-field workplace different from the off-the-field one?  If you can help the team win the Super Bowl, will they cover for you?  But if you're in the front office as a data clerk, will they fire you immediately?  Should there be a difference?

Perhaps rosters and practice squads will expand, not only to address injuries, but also matters of character.  

Right now, the NFL has quite a mess on its hands.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

On the Ray Rice Situation: Is Something Just Wrong with Our Culture?

Here are a few basic premises and/or facts:

1.  Ray Rice hit his then girlfriend now wife in February (they subsequently married amidst this scandal).. 
2.  Ray Rice hit his wife very hard.
3.  Ray Rice hit his wife very hard and initially we saw a video of Rice dragging his wife out of an elevator at the Revel Casino in Atlantic City.
4.  Ray Rice was arrested, pleaded guilty, and went into a first offenders' program.
5.  Upon its initial review, the NFL (i.e., Commissioner Roger Goodell) suspended Rice for two games.
6.  After a public hue and cry (which Goodell's remarks at the NFL Hall of Fame exacerbated), the NFL adopted a policy that would require a six-game suspension for first-time offenders of its domestic abuse policy (this at around the same time that the players' union and the league were negotiating testing for HGH).
7. Video footage comes out of Rice's punch of his now wife surfaces -- it's pretty graphic.  Questions abound whether the NFL saw the video during its investigation and before levying punishment of Rice.  Almost every pundit is wondering aloud whether Roger Goodell lied about seeing the video or whether he should resign because the video came out and apparently the NFL didn't get it from the Revel or the NFL got it but either it wasn't brought to Goodell's attention or someone described it to Goodell, who opted not to see it.  What is unclear is how Rice characterized what happened in the elevator during the time before he dragged his wife out of it. 

People are frustrated and angry and upset, and for a whole host of reasons.  But isn't this just the tip of the iceberg of an over-glorified culture where kids who have talent are catered to from a young age and, as a result, can have a skewed sense of right and wrong.  Major colleges prostitute themselves to get them to sign a letter of intent, and sometimes provide girls to help them make their decision.  Schools do all sorts of things to keep players' eligible and sometimes pass them along in majors that are guaranteed only to keep them eligible as opposed to give them life skills.  They encourage kids to play hurt or have created a culture whereby if a kid were to take himself out of a game, he might lose his spot and perhaps, ultimately, his scholarship.  Schools have had boosters pay high school coaches a bounty if a key player chooses one school over another.  Players have used PEDs.  Players have used marijuana, have substance abuse problems and possibly all sorts of problems.  75% of NFL players end up broke, divorced or depressed within a short number of years after they are done playing.  They (barely) pay scantily clad women to dance suggestively at midfield and on the sidelines.  There are very few women executives, scouts, coaches or broadcasters, and the broadcasters tend to be model-like, well spoken women who report from the sidelines.  Do I need to add any more?

So, if you're outraged at Ray Rice and don't think he should play again, then let's ask a few other questions about culture:

1.  Do you still watch baseball, even though a) so many players were juicing they looked like linebackers, b) the records were totally skewed and c) baseball turned a blind eye while it all was going on (retrospectively, the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa quest to break Roger Maris's home run record was a joke)?

2.  Do you think that Penn State a) should be playing football now and b) should have had their sanctions lifted?  Let's not forget what Jerry Sandusky did or how badly Penn State handled its football culture, including letting Joe Paterno becoming bigger than the school (and institutions of higher learning should have a higher calling than adopting idolatry as one of their central reasons for existing)?

3.  Does it trouble you that when polled, more players would have wanted Richie Incognito on their team than Jonathan Martin?  Did it bother you that when that problem was investigated, it seemed like NFL locker rooms had a "prison yard" mentality (according to a great column by ESPN's Jason Whitlock) where you really needed someone to "have your back."  Did it bother you that Martin was picked on because he came from a very well-educated, accomplished family? 

4.  Do you watch Floyd Mayweather fight (given his history of abusing women)?

5.  Many professional athletes have many children by different women (it is not a majority, but sadly the examples are egregious).  Do you root for their teams?

6.  If you were a Packers' fan, do you have any qualms now about having rooted for Darren Sharper given all of the allegations against him regarding sexual misconduct?

7.  How do you feel about how many former players -- at any level -- are suffering in later life from all sorts of awful brain, spine and orthopedic injuries, to the point that there have been class-action lawsuits and awful tales about suicides and early deaths?  Is this something that we can accept out of what's now our national pastime?  And, if so, why?  The President has said that if he had boys he wouldn't want them to play football, and Ed Reed was quoted as saying that he told his kids that he played so that they wouldn't have to, something that boxers were wont to say fifty years ago.  And, most recently, John Madden offered a similar view to that of the President.

8.  Would you want your daughter to date a scholarship athlete at a major college, given how entitled they are, how much they are catered to, and how many people are there to help get them through and, at times, avoid accountability anywhere but the football field?

9.  Do you think that there is something wrong with our culture if you hope that a brush with the law or major personal transgression will not interfere with an athlete on your favorite team's ability to play in the upcoming game? 

I have written many times that everyone is entitled to a defense and that we shouldn't jump to conclusions.  I'm very open to all sides of an argument and enjoy the discussion very much.  As for the Ray Rice situation, the young man needs help.  So does his now-wife, who needs more and probably should get away from him, far away.  So does his father-in-law, to whom Rice looked as a mentor.  He should look out more for his daughter's well being than Rice's, as the next punch his daughter takes could be her last.  Otherwise, it would same that Janay Palmer is destined for a similar fate to that of Nicole Brown.

The Ravens' culture needs some re-assessing, too.  They so mishandled this situation that they should hire outside human resources and employment law experts to put in a Code of Conduct that makes sense.  Had it been someone on the accounting team who had belted his wife, been arrested and gotten publicity, my guess is that they would have fired him or put him on administrative leave.  Why should the on-field talent be treated any different?  They also should think very hard about how they addressed this situation from a public relations standpoint, such as having Janay Palmer go out there and apologize for provoking the incident, not having the owner out there and sending John Harbaugh out there after the video of Rice's striking Palmer became public.  Theirs is a "how not to film" as to how to handle this type of situation.

The NFL's culture needs some re-assessing, too, from how they treat all sorts of problematic situations, to who investigates to how they handle the media to giving the commissioner some help in the form of a structured panel of owners/advisors to help deal with these issues.  Much of this already might exist, but given that football has become the national pastime (for better or for worse), they fumbled this situation fairly badly.  Both the Ravens and the NFL could have turned it into an opportunity -- about character, about conduct and about honor.

The radio pundits also should be more measured in how they approach problems like these.  First, the likes of Ron Jaworski should refrain from saying, in essence, that they would have taken matters into their own hands if someone hit one of his daughters.  That's a rash, emotional reaction but not one that one would expect from someone as measured and affable as Jaworski.  I hope that he had the same sense of outrage regarding other abuse scandals of recent memory (such as Penn State and the Roman Catholic Church, among others, as well as the Michael Vick situation, whether he served his time in Leavenworth or not). Second, Jaworski should refrain from speculating that money changed hands in this situation.  Unless he has any proof, that's probably not a good place to go.  By the way, I think that Jaworski is one of the best guys out there.

So what bothers us about the NFL's handling of the Ray Rice situation beyond that it was sloppy and not straightforward?  Is it just that -- or a realization that many people's favorite game has so many warts that the league airbrushes -- warts that are not benign and in all likelihood could be toxic?  And if that's the case, then are we bothered because many of us will keep on coming back and are addicted to it, warts and all, toxic or not?  Put differently, how much are we willing to isolate and overlook to keep coming back to our pastimes and hobbies?  If your favorite team has a racist, a few bigots, one or two who abuse animals, a few deadbeat dads, a tax cheat or two, guys who don't pay their bills, guys who attend strip clubs, bad tippers -- do you like them because they are bad boys and rascals or do you walk away?  Would you want your daughter to date those guys?  Would you want your son to become like them? 

Some former players have talked about Goodell's obligation to "protect the shield," the NFL logo.  But isn't that the obligation of everyone who works for the NFL or a team?  My experience has taught me that everyone has to own their own integrity and their own compliance -- and that if you wait for the commissioners of the world to come in, it's too late, and your culture is at best in disarray and at worst, rotten.

This is a bad situation.  If high-minded people are to turn it into an opportunity, then they have to look hard in the mirror and try to solve for quote from one of the league's all-time coaches, Bill Parcells, who once said, "You are what your record says you are."

And on many character issues, at many different levels -- from high school to college to the NFL -- that record of what we accept and what we tolerate is just not every good.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Support Your Local Bicycle Shop

Before it's too late.

We hear the same story constantly.  Your neighbor boasts of scoring a great bargain by either scouring the Internet for the best price or by using an iPhone app to scan a barcode at a local store and either find a better price at a rival store or on the internet (where mass retailers do not have the overhead costs that small chains or sole proprietorships do).  You might like browsing at the local store and you've known the proprietor for years (and think him to be knowledgeable and helpful), but somehow you end up using his store as a show room for other vendors and buy from them.  The result is that many stores are closing because they just aren't selling enough stuff.  People browse, but they do not buy.

I like my nearby small town and its bike store.  The guys who run it are nice, accommodating, and they know their stuff.  They carry different lines, offer you ideas about what you should buy and what might not be right for you, and are there for you to fix problems, small and large.  They have a nice sign, a neat store layout, and they put about a dozen bikes on the sidewalk every day during the good weather for potential buyers to see.  More than that, they add flavor and color to a town and helps the town say "this is a neat, warm, welcoming place."  (Okay, so the major landowner might not feel that way and a local tax policy might not be so friendly, but these guys stand tall, offer good products and add considerably to the town).

On weekends, when I drive by, I just smile, as I do on summer nights when I come home from work and they're still open, the bikes outside, the sunset framing them and at times casting a glow on them.  That glow exclaims, "this is why we live here," or "come inside the store, it gets even better."

I've purchased three bikes from them within the past five years, a tire or two, some bicycling wear and had another bike refurbished.  A friend offered that he shopped around a bit more and negotiated with a store owner a few miles away; another offered that they were just too expensive and went on the internet to buy bicycles for his family.  Both would admit that the store adds color and flavor to the town and its landscape and that it would be a shame if anything would happen to the business.  Yet, they don't support it.

I have little doubt that I could have gotten a better price from another vendor on the internet.  None.  But there are times where you need to support your community, appreciate what these men's good cheer does for the neighborhood, and, at the core, how cool it is to have a bicycle shop in your town.  When you want to have a community, there are times where you need to leave a little money on the table to do so.  Sure, you can drive twenty miles to get the bargain or spend hours on the internet looking, and for certain things that's fine.  But if we want communities and think about what makes them special, we need to support our local businesses.

I know that you cannot get this store's bikes from Target and Wal-Mart, but my guess is that there is a mega-store fifty miles away that offers a better price or someone on the internet who can sell it to you for cheaper.  But if too many of us do that, Main Street will have yet another vacancy.  And others will follow.  Our reasons for walking the town will diminish, as will our reasons for having a town in the first place.  Our houses will become technological marvels that will enable us to get everything through a screen, while our loneliness will increase and potentially our civility.

So, when you think about your next bike purchase or anything else for that matter, think about the type of town you want to have and the type of society.  Look, there is a time and a place for bargains, and, also, for good shopping.   And there's a time and a place for warmth, walking, good conversation and community.   Remember that too.

Before it's too late.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The Phillies Combined No-Hitter - Why Weren't the Pitchers Excited After the Game?

You would think that this was something to celebrate.  You have a team that has had another bad year, continuing a decline that began after the World Series victory in 2008.  They are playing sub-.500 baseball and are struggling for an identity.  They have a few good starting pitchers and a bullpen that could be starting to scare people.  They lack sufficient hitting muscle to scare anyone with their lineup. 

Yesterday, in Atlanta, ace Cole Hamels went six plus before yielding his bullpen.  The trio of Kenny Giles, Jake Diekman and Jonathan Papelbon helped him seal up a no-hitter.  All were excellent.

That said, in the post-game interviews, you would have thought that the foursome was relieved to have survived a collective hemorrhoidectomy.  Hamels smiled slightly but reverted to standard, trite post-game speech.  Giles had the bill of his cap so far down that you couldn't see his eyes, and he said he was happy even if his body language told you the last place he wanted to be was on camera.  Diekman was more relaxed and even mustered a smile, but his reaction was muted.  And then there was Papelbon, who was arrogant with the good-natured post-game reporter and simply said it was all in a day's work.  There was no joy in the man.

Attendance is down.  People still remember that spark that existed through the 2011 season, which now seems like a distant memory.  They realize that Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard aren't the players they were five years ago.  They like Hamels and adore Cliff Lee.  But they need something to keep them coming back and something to cheer about.

While the no-hitter most certainly is a season highlight, the pitchers' reaction seemed to indicate that it was not the biggest deal in the world and that there wasn't a lot of joy in it.  Okay, so they're competitors and wish the team were doing better, fine.  But at least have some fun in the moment and be happy, long season or not, hot day or not.  Jimmy Rollins looked excited, and the game to a degree is about entertainment. 

Teams win when they have a bounce in their step.  Fans latch onto teams that they can relate to, that give off positive energy and that play to the last out.  The Phillies were that team through 2011, playing at times with three bench players because of injuries, and then they got key contributions from the likes of Cody Ransom, Chris Coste, Juan Castro, Wilson Valdez and Dane Sardinha.  They had that special, extra something.  True, they were younger and better, but they also made it seem that there was nothing else they would rather be doing and that they loved performing in front of their fans.  When you energize the fans, they energize you right back.  And while yesterday's game was on TV, there wasn't a whole lot of energizing going on. 

I recall about eight years ago when the Phillies traded Bobby Abreu, their star, to the Yankees for four players who didn't pan out.  Then-GM Pat Gillick remarked that he had nothing against Abreu, but that it was time to let other leaders emerge on the team and that he didn't believe they could do so until Abreu left.  It wasn't anything that Abreu did per se, but it was that the energetic trio of Rollins, Utley and Howard was deferring to Abreu, who was more laid back.  That addition by subtraction, as it were, helped set a great team in motion.  Chemistry is key, even in a sport where players don't have to interact with each other all that much for a team to win the way they do in basketball or football.  Put differently, it's hard to believe that Jonathan Papelbon adds a whole lot to the mix in the locker room.

The Phillies, of course, have other problems.  Historically, their farm system hasn't been that good, and history even compels a conclusion that it wasn't all that good when it had the ability to trade prospect after prospect for the likes of Lee, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence.  That's because none of those prospects became a star and almost none became a regular.  Fast forward to today, and the cupboard down on the farm is rather bare.  A big payroll and few prospects doesn't augur well for a while.

Neither does a culture that has lost its mojo.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Arsenal: Were Robbie Earl and Robbie Mustoe Right?

Sadly, I think that they are.

Yesterday, on NBC's coverage, they both offered that what distinguished Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger was decisiveness in addressing and filling needs.  Last season, after having spent buckets of money, Chelsea struggled both at midfield and upfront, owing their third-place finish in large part to a stingy defense.  So what did Mourinho do?  He went out and got a creative midfielder in Cesc Fabregas and striker Diego Costa.  The result?  Chelsea have been scoring goals the way Liverpool and Manchester City were last season.

In contrast, coming into the season Arsenal knew that it abounded in wingers, defenders and offensive-minded midfielders, but not defensive midfielders or strikers.  So what did Wenger do?  He went out and paid more for a winger (Alexis Sanchez) than Mourinho did for Costa, but with several hours to go on transfer deadline day -- and with key injuries at defensive midfield and striker -- he still has not acquired one of either.  Atop that, Arsenal also needs an additional defender after the departure of Thomas Vermaelen to Bacelona.  And despite prolific rumors on the internet, Wenger hasn't acquired Marco Reus, Edinson Cavani or Radamel Falcao, nor William Carvalho nor Sokraitis.  Which means hi team remain small in size, desperately thin at striker and without anything new at defensive midfield.  What looked like a season where the Gunners could finish in the top three now looks like they'll battle United for fourth, coming in behind Chelsea, City and perhaps Liverpool.

Last season, Wenger tortured the faithful until inking center mid Mesult Ozil on transfer deadline day, so there remains hope that he can improve his striker situation significantly.  For, if he does not, it is hard to see the Gunners advancing meaningfully in the Champions League or winning key match ups in the Premiership.  The Gunners have talent, that is true, but will they have enough offensive versatility to make opponents fear them and enable them to pour on the goal scoring.  After seeing Yaya Sanogo struggle at Leicester on Sunday, it seems clear that the Gunners need help up front.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

On the Premiership's Opening Day

We gathered in our Arsenal gear yesterday to watch much of the Premiership's opening day.  It's hard to conclude much from one game's worth of play, but here are a few thoughts:

1.  Manchester United Needs a Midfield and Experience in the Back.  First home opener loss in 42 years?  Yikes.  Was it that hard for ManU to sign players because they are not playing Champions League football this season?  Or was the turmoil too much?  It's hard to reason that United are a top-4 team this season.

2.  Arsenal.  Predictably, it was Palace who scored first, this after their manager quit the day before.  That's the guy who rallied them from a woeful start to an 11th place finish and became manager of the year.  It stands to reason that Tony Pulis will be among the top candidates to step in for a Premier League squad when a team or two sacks its manager mid-season.  But the Gunners rallied, first with a good header from Laurent Koscielny in stoppage time right before the end of the first half and then from a relative tap-in from usually in the right place at the right time Aaron Ramsey, who, when healthy, is one of the world's best midfielders.  That said, Arsenal looked a bit tentative out there, in contrast to the pace that they had set int he Community Shield game against City.  Jack Wilshere disappointed, and it's hard to see them winning the league with either Olivier Giroud or Yaya Sanogo being the two main options at striker.  Of course, the squad was without defensive stalwart Per Mertesacker and playmaker Mesut Ozil, so it's hard to read too much into one game.

While it would be great for the Gunners to add three more players before the transfer window shuts, it's doubtful that a) they have the money to do so or b) they could mesh all of those players with the team now.  But it seems that they might need another option at center back, a central defensive midfielder who can push people around (Patrick Viera, where are you when we need you) and a striker.  The names Manolas, Carvalho, Cavani and Reus keep popping up, and it would appear that Liverpool might try to outdo whatever Arsenal does.  That said, if you were in your mid-twenties with lots of cash, would you prefer to live in Liverpool or London?

3.  Tottenham.  Will they play much better this year because they had so many roster changes last season that it was difficult for two managers to get them to mesh?  While they might not draw pre-season raves or predictions that put them in the top four, they are formidable and not to be overlooked.  Then again, when you play in the league with Chelsea, City, Arsenal, Liverpool and United, among others, it's easy to get overlooked when the pundits pick the top group.  Spurs' late goal once again demonstrated that any fan who forgets them does so at his peril.

4.  Liverpool.  I was surprised that they also didn't go for Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin while they were signing Rickie Lambert, Dejan Lovren and Adam Lallana away from Southampton and how they could have let Luke Shaw get to United from the Saints.  One thing is for certain, though, and that is when you read articles and posts from veteran writers and observers about talent pipelines, Liverpool is at the top of the heap.  They will miss Luis Suarez greatly -- how could a team not miss him -- but in Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling, they have a lot of firepower up front.

5.  A Potentially Humorous Interlude.  I have been thinking that certain Premiership players fit the bill of the "All Prison Gang" looking team. Right now, among the nominees are Martin Skrtel (who could be the skipper), his out-of-favor backfield mate Daniel Agger, Jonjo Shelvey, Raul Meireles, among others.  Do you have any nominees?  That's a tough-looking crew, and nominees are welcome.  Shaved heads, stark hair, lots of tattoos are prerequisites for membership on this not-so-elite club.

6.  Chelsea and City.  Sure, I should have written about them first because they are the favorites.  One of the principal differences seems to be that the ownership of the former is much less patient than the ownership of the latter.  The pressure is on Chelsea to win the league for the first time since, well, Cesc Fabregas left North London for Barcelona, and should Jose Mourinho for all his talk fail to deliver, he could get sacked too.  Lots of good players at Stamford Bridge, but with the mixing and matching of newcomers with veterans, the squad might take a little while to gel.  That said, they open with Burnley, a promoted team that already is among many pundits' list to get relegated this season.  As for City, they have to be relaxing, because much of the off-season talk has focused on Chelsea and then on Liverpool's and Arsenal's quests to add players and win the league.  City stayed with the leaders last year and then pounced after Liverpool met a tragic ending to its season by playing their way out of the title.  Can they repeat?  It's hard to argue that they will not.

7.  Everyone Else.  It will be interesting to see how Southampton fares after losing so many good players, how Palace does after their wonderful season, if Everton can provide an encore to stunning year last year (and whether Romelu Lukaku emerges even further and makes Chelsea's front office look really bad), whether Hull can recover from its collapse in the FA Cup final, whether Stoke will make some noise and whether West Ham have improved significantly.  I do wonder what it must be like to be a Stoke, a Hull, a Burnley, Leicester, Newcastle, Sunderland and any team not named Chelsea, City, United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham.  Is everyone else just playing for as high a place as 6th?  Financial Fair Play rules can help level the spending a bit, but at the end of the day can any of the other 14 teams in any given year make a significant run for the title and take it?

All good fun.  As for my Gunners, I hope that they can win the league, but realistically they need at least one if not two more pieces to make a serious run for the top spot.  It was good for them to win a trophy last season and get that pressure off them.  Now it's time to see if Arsene Wenger can add one more star to his roster and move the team forward even further.

Philadelphia and the Taney Dragons

The Taney Dragons play another game in the Little League World Series today.  Mayor Michael Nutter is hosting an event in Center City to celebrate and cheer on the team.  While the gathering might draw the crowds that the World Cup did, I would suspect that over 1,000 people will show up to support this wonderful team and participate in a great story.

A girl pitcher.  A city team.  An integrated team.  A girl pitcher who is a great athlete, bright, a media star and who wants the media to talk with her teammates.  They might not win it all, but this team and the people behind it are a celebration.

A celebration of humble, earnest parents coming together to give their kids a good experience.  A Phil Jackson-like zen master of a manager who puts the kids and their experiences first.  By doing that and emphasizing the importance of the process, the rituals and, yes, the journey, this team wins.  It's not about lunatic dads roaming the sidelines, intimidating umpires and other coaches and bullying children because they themselves are frustrated with their lives and their jobs.  Clearly, there's something more than that, and that's why the team is where it is.

The Taney Dragons might not win the whole thing, but they have won a lot so far and taught people from all over a great deal of good things.  Sadly, bad news travels faster and grabs the headlines.  And it's summertime to boot, which means that at times people's attention wanders away from the news to vacations and other things.  But this is a compelling story worthy of telling and re-telling and sharing and teaching.  Amidst much turmoil and disappointment (which the immediacy of news and the overall availability of it constantly helps reinforce), there is a gem from the City of Brotherly Love that bears magnification and warrants celebration.

The Taney Dragons.

You go, girl. . . and boys!  You've taken so many so far already.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Arsenal Reunion at Red Bulls Stadium Yesterday

When you try to live in the moment -- and just enjoy something and not worry about everything else that is going on in the world that you don't control and even in the one over which you might have some influence  -- it's just a lot of fun.  And when you reflect back on that moment -- as I am doing now -- you realize why that moment was so special -- precisely because while you will have good moments in the future, moments like that one might not recur, if only because of the passage of time.

My son is fourteen, at an age where he can tend to grunt answers and not be overly communicative.  I joke with him that at times when I'd like to have a conversation I would appreciate answers in words of more than one syllable and sentences of more than one word.  Which of course has led to some pretty amusing poly-syllabic two-word sentences.  With a smile, because he gets it (or as much as any fourteen year-old can, and I hope he thinks I get it as much as a dad of a fourteen year-old can).

We're big Arsenal fans, having caught the magical bug that is the love of the Premiership about five years ago when we went to Arsenal's home opener in North London, got the scarves that they gave out to fans and watched the Gunners demolish Portsmouth 4-1 (Abu Diaby scored two goals; Aaron Ramsey and Thomas Vermaelen one apiece).  We took the London Underground to the stadium (along with about 59,998 others, as no one drives there),  sat in a sea of red, sampled the amazing Arsenal store (about the size of eight CVS drug stores), and watched some very precise ball movement and counter-attacking.  We had played EA Sports FIFA for a while (I confessed to my son recently that when he was about five I would move my defenders out of the way so he could score), but that trip took our being soccer fans to a whole different level. 

Over the years, we've followed the team more over the internet than watching it on television.  That said, the coverage on NBC SportsChannel, both on television and streaming video, enabled us to watch almost every game last season.  Last summer we got back to London to watch the Emirates Cup, a pre-season round robin that featured Arsenal, Porto, Galatasary and Napoli -- at a much better price point, too, than the home opener.  We enjoyed great soccer and great weather and further galvanized our attachment to the Arsenal club.

We were particularly excited when we saw that the Gunners would be making their first appearance in a while in the U.S., in an exhibition at Red Bulls Stadium in Harrison, New Jersey, right outside New York City.  Tickets on StubHub averaged about $250, but we were fortunate that we were able to obtain ticket at face value (about $46 apiece) through a friend.  The thought of not having to travel all that far and expensively to see Arsenal -- even with back-ups playing a half -- and Thierry Henry -- was just too good to pass up.  (A college-age kid told us that he had paid $170 apiece for he and his girlfriend on StubHub -- not sure it was worth that much money, especially given the cost of New Jersey Transit and PATH tickets atop that -- $53 for two people).

The day started in the early afternoon with a drive to Princeton Junction and a one-hour train ride to Newark's Penn Station, where we bought PATH train tickets to take a two-minute train ride to Harrison.  For those traveling to crowded events, always remember to purchase round trip tickets for your journey (it avoids standing in a long line on your return trip and the potential to miss your train).  From there, it was about a ten-minute walk to Red Bulls Stadium, where we ran a gauntlet of outdoor Red Bulls-oriented activities.  The FA Cup, which Arsenal won last year, also was on display for those who wanted to take a photograph with it.  The Red Bulls Shop, which is small, featured some Arsenal gear, and I do think that the Red Bulls missed out on a huge opportunity to align with Arsenal and open up a sizable tent store in the parking lot full of a broader and deeper variety of Arsenal gear (they would have sold, in my estimation, between $250,000 and $500,000 of merchandise -- including the new kit shirts -- had they done so).

What transpired once inside was a packed house and a fun day.  We say Bergkamp, Nasri, Ozil, Mertesacker, Henry, Bendtner, van Persie, Fabregas, Vermaelen, Cazorla, Arteta, Giroud and many other jerseys -- home and away, new and old.  The really current fans had the new kit jerseys, which looked very nice.  My son and I had last year's -- he Chamberlain, me Ramsey, and the dry-fit shirts felt very good on a not too hot and not to humid day (but remember, if you sit in the upper deck of the stadium, because it's closed in, which is great to ward off rain, the air doesn't circulate as well as it does downstairs, and heat rises).

It was an exhibition in the purest sense, with fans rooting for good soccer as much as their own teams.  Arsenal fans cheered Henry, and Red Bulls fans cheered Arsenal players.  While the Red Bulls won 1-0, both sides had plenty of chances, and, among others, Henry and Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal put on some amazing dribbling skills.  Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger wore a red shirt and blue pants, not his trademark blue suit with a white shirt and a red tie and, of course, not his famous black puffy coat.  He also was roundly cheered.

My son and I talked about the intricate passes, the saves of both goalies, the potential of Arsenal younger Gideon Zelalem (and whether he'll play internationally for the United States), the speed that Henry still has (while people talk of him as an elder, he's only in his mid-thirties and makes the most out of his long stride), the fact that Arsenal great Ian Wright's son is a star for the Red Bulls and scored the only goal yesterday and which players the Gunners might sign in transfer season.  It was just the two of us, in the upper deck, sharing a game, talking soccer.

On the way home, my son thanked me for getting the tickets and thanked me for taking him.  He's nothing if not polite, nothing if not appreciative for opportunities that my guess is some kids take for granted.  I'm most grateful for these opportunities, too, opportunities to share experiences, opportunities to grow together.  More than he, I think, I know that these won't be as frequent five years from now as they are today.  By then he'll be off at college and be more along into building his own life, emphasizing this own interests that lead to a career and perhaps a location that is not all that close to where his parents live.  But I'm not sad about that or even wistful, because good relationships endure and thrive through all sorts of factors.  And that's far off, too.  No, I choose to celebrate the moment, to create opportunities, to make good memories.

And yesterday, at an exhibition game that required a drive and two trains to get to, we made yet another memory.  Of a favorite team making a rare appearance in the United States, of nice weather, of a fun game.  While I enjoy being a part of Arsenal nation, I cherish the platform that it provides to bond further with my son.