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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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Thanks, Mike and Mike!

Back in the day, when Bill Clinton was at the end of his eight-year run as President, I had a relatively long commute.  39.5 miles each way, to be exact, most of it on a major highway, only 6 traffic lights, but before EZ Pass.  There were no cell phones, just car phones (which got cloned with some regularity at major interchanges), and there was no satellite radio.  The offerings in the morning were slim -- music with endless commercials or local sports talk. 


The problem with the latter was that it switched from being informative to very opinionated.  Some of the hosts were better than others.  Some were kind and funny, others were downright insulting to the listeners.  My major issue was that I wanted to relax on the way to work and to learn something.  By the end of my very long drive, I found that something -- it was Mike & Mike on ESPN Radio.


When the show started, it didn't enjoy the commercial success that it has today.  Neither Mike Greenberg nor Mike Golic were household names.  There were many fewer commercials, and while I enjoyed the opinions of both hosts -- who are bright but also considerate -- their opinions did not dominate the show.  The reason for that was, really, who cared at that moment in time what they thought.  After all, they had no natural audience the way a former sportswriter in a big city might have on the radio.  And it was a national audience, so people did not want opinions on the latest controversy in any of the major cities.  Or, at least at great length. 


Enter Mike & Mike.  They had an easy chemistry, understood the nuances of developing a national audience, where they could lose people if they focused on too much of one thing over another.  They had the right type of egos -- that they could do a good job on their stage, as opposed to the self-absorbed who believe and act like they are better than everyone else.  They had great guests, and they did a good job of interviewing them.  Knowledge was shared, as was wisdom, with frequent guests such as former NFL player and college coach Bill Curry and former NFL player and coach Herman Edwards, among many others.  They also did not take themselves too seriously; they had fun.


I remember after listening for a few weeks that I talked with my wife at the dinner table about this new show.  I offered that I liked the format, that the hosts were smart and funny and opined that they would become household names over time.  I am not sure that they thought they would be when they started, but it goes to show you that if you sit down and try to do a good job without acting high and mighty good things can happen.  And boy did they!  Mike & Mike took off to the point where they are well known across the U.S. 


And now it comes to an end this Friday.  I'll remember the Bob Picozzi "Did you Knows-ees?," the singing of the "Good Morning Song," the various bets that were made over games, such as the results of football match-ups between Notre Dame (Golic's alma mater) and Northwestern (Greenie's alma mater).  I'll remember the great conversations with Bill Curry, the strong interactions with, among others, Buster Olney, Jayson Stark, Jon Gruden, Mark Schlereth, and the easy rapport that they had with almost every guest who joined the show.  Listeners (and viewers on the simulcast) never knew what new thing they would learn on a given day or what good laugh they might get because of the stories that one of the guests would tell.  Mike & Mike got into high gear early and, even more impressively, sustained their excellence for 18 years.


Sadly, words of their breakup leaked and it strikes me that there was some friction between the two men as discussions of Mike Greenberg's future as an AM show host on ESPN TV became public.  Both men acted professionally with one another on air during the summer, and it was impossible to tell that there were any hard feelings.  It's sad, if true, that this uneasiness and the hard feelings had to take place.  Both men deserved better than that.  They should take some comfort that they are going out on top of their game after 18, yes 18 years!  Most people don't know when to call it a career and have to be told.  In this case, both men are going onto other attractive ventures. 


To give the 18 years some form of context, I was a younger father with a newborn at the time the show began to air.  Today that newborn is almost 6'2" tall, is a high school senior, and wants to go into the media, most likely sports journalism.  That's how long 18 years is.  Mike & Mike, in essence, accompanied me while my wife and I were raising a young sports fan.


I will listen to Golic & Wingo when it begins to air and profoundly hope that Wingo will continue to be Wingo and not try to be Greenie.  I don't know if I will have the chance to watch Mike Greenberg on TV right away, but for about ten years I was a bit surprised that no major network had recruited him to lead their "good morning" show or even ultimately become an anchor on the evening news.  He is a good study, quick with facts, and has a good way of getting along with people on the air. 


Mike Golic is a great combination of a former defensive tackle/battler on the field with a kind manner, light touch and very good sense of humor.  He offers a great perspective and, like Mike Greenberg, interacts well with everyone.  While I appreciated very much the interactions with Golic and Greenberg, their "shtick" as it were -- Golic as the macho man and Greenberg as the wimpy metrosexual -- could be suffocating at times.  Golic & Wingo won't be tagged with that act, and the show will be better off for it. 


But the focus now is on Mike & Mike for the next three mornings before they call it quits for good.  I hope that when the show ends, they can do the equivalent of what Tim Riggins did on Friday Night Lights after he played his last football game.  The enigmatic, brooding, good-looking fullback grabbed his cleats and carried them back into the stadium, where he placed them in the end zone.  Then he walked away and did not look back.


Mike & Mike's closeout, as it were, deserves something as pointed, meaningful and sentimental.  It was a great ride.  Thanks for letting us all be a part of it.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Gym Workouts

I go to this mega-gym.  I mean, it has everything.  All sorts of rooms and machines and programs, a few pools, literally, something for everyone.  The owner is an entrepreneur, and to his great credit he always is innovating.  What started out as a small place is in certain ways a tribute to fitness.


Except there is one problem.  I tend to think that many are working out the wrong way.  There are the muscleheads who lift and look swollen but who do zero cardio and zero flexibility work.  There are the cardioheads who do only cardio, and even then they do not do it right.  I think of a friend with a sizeable gut who goes onto an elliptical with all of the force of a saunter in the park on a nice spring day.  He goes at one slow pace for at least a half an hour, but what does that really do for him?  And then there are the minority of flexibility types, who do things like yoga but only yoga.  No cardio, no resistance training.


I am not an expert on fitness or diet, but my doctors tell me that my heart is in good shape and my numbers are good, that my bone density for someone in his mid-fifties is fine, etc.  So I must be doing something right.  I don't want to preach to you as to what to do, except consult one of the fitness experts at your health club and get on a program that combines all three aspects of fitness.  Do some cardio, but interval work designed to get your heart rate up and staying up for say 20-30 minutes.  Do some resistance training, but make sure to balance upper and lower body and the anterior and posteriors of your body (i.e., front and back, as many just focus on the front).  And do some dynamic stretching, so that you remain flexible (feeling stretched out also is a stress reducer).  And change it up every now and then so that you do not get bored.


You will feel and look better.  You must be patient -- the hardest thing is to start and stay with a routine until it starts to feel good.  But if you are going to work out, try to get some good advice and try to do it right.  I see too many people in the gym who are out of balance and, in the end, could be doing more harm in the long run or, better but still not good, not doing much that really helps them.  Some go for social time, some go to tell themselves that they are doing something, and others really work it.  That means pushing and pulling yourself hard, breaking a sweat, lifting heavy weights, pulling heavy weights, stretching and going hard on an elliptical, treadmill, arc trainer, what have you. 


Don't just show up.  While showing up, of course, is key, have at it.  Make the most of your time at the gym, just don't tell yourself that you are working out and simply feel good about the act of showing up and going through the motions.  Remember, at times the biggest lies are the ones we tell ourselves.  The questions you should be asking are -- is this a good workout for me, is this covering the risk areas for someone my age, and am I pushing myself enough to get into good and better shape.  You might not like the answers initially, but keep challenging yourself so that you use your workouts to maximize your health.


You will be glad that you did.

Friday, November 03, 2017

What Really is Hurting the NFL's Ratings?

President Trump taunts the NFL about its ratings.


Pundits surmise many theories as to why ratings are down, from the quality of product to the time it takes to play games to the protests by kneeling, the protests against the kneeling, the lack of scarcity (i.e., the NFL is on TV three days per week), the availability of other entertainment alternatives, the abhorrence of what has happened to former players and an unwillingness to watch a game where its players could get maimed for life, the obsession with fantasy football at the expense of watching the games and the presence of the Red Zone, which enables fans to pick highlights over the games themselves. 


All are good theories.  I subscribe to each of them.  There are those who are protesting because Colin Kaepernick does not have a job.  There are those who are boycotting because they believe that the protests by kneeling are an assault on the flag and the military.  (The contrary view is that the protests are against police brutality or insensitivity and are not in opposition to the flag or the military).  There is a lot of entertainment from which to choose, and college games can be more compelling (if not in conflict) because if the big-time teams lose one game, well, they could be out of the playoff picture.  Put differently, there is a lot of football on television all the time.  The games also take a long time; lots of stoppages, and one recent game I watched took four hours to complete.  Some friends feel guilty because of the "after" stories of people like Kevin Turner, Rickey Dixon, John Mackey and many, many more.  Some seem to care more about winning fantasy points than watching the games.  I tend to watch the Red Zone when my home team is not playing; I don't want to endure the timeouts and stoppages, I just want the action.


There is no single reason.  I am sure that for some who no longer watch there are combinations of factors.  All of these reasons are problematic, plus the fact that the average age of an NFL fan is about 50 years old (baseball fans are even older).  I do not know what the solution is, but an 8% drop has hurt those who cover the games -- they just cannot generate the revenue through commercials that they could if the viewership went up.  Atop that, I am ignorant as to whether companies prefer internet advertising to television advertising.  ESPN's financial troubles are well-chronicled.  Hindsight suggests that they overpaid for TV rights, and since they cannot generate sufficient advertising revenue or subscription revenue they are letting staff go.  And that begs another question . . .


Is viewership down because cable subscriptions are down and, therefore, Millenials are watching through streaming video or pooling resources to watch games or going to bars to do so.  If there is one bill in the house homeowners hate, it is their cable bill.  If isn't that, it's the cell phone bill.  And if something has to give, are people preferring to get what they can through Netflix and Amazon Prime and not wanting to pay for television.  The decline in subscriptions to cable networks suggestions that there is something to this argument.


The NFL is popular, yes, but something strange and potentially transformative is going on.  In 20 years, it will be virtually a flag football league, played more like lacrosse in terms of hitting than what it used to be.  The statistics seem to suggest that, as you just cannot have increasingly bigger and faster players hit each other hard -- even if they only do so in games and not at practices -- and not have that hitting occur at a staggering cost to the participants' well being.  As it is, even putting that problem aside, the game has issues because stars get hurt and then their teams can turn into mush.  Green Bay has struggled without Aaron Rogers, Indianapolis is pathetic without Andrew Luck, and Houston will list and limp without Deshaun Watson. 


I have written before that pro football is on top but that it could drop significantly because of decisions it is and is not making and because of factors beyond its control.  If I were the NFL, I'd spend my money on an Evolution Committee before spending too much time and energy on other matters.  Many factors are trending down, and, if they combine, they could create a storm that, when it happens, the pundits will say the owners should have seen coming.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Thoughts about the US Men's National Soccer Team Debacle

All they needed was a single point.


A draw.


Against Trinidad & Tobago, the worst team in CONCACAF.  (For the uninitiated, this is the relatively easy group that the US finds itself within FIFA and must come in third in the group to qualify for the World Cup.  The toughest competition -- Mexico).


Okay, on the road.


Okay, on a bumpy field.


Okay, before a stadium that was more empty than full.


And they lost 2-1.


Compounding a terrible display was the fact that in order to remain third in the group behind Mexico and Costa Rica, the US needed Mexico to defeat Honduras and Costa Rica to beat Panama.  Neither came through.  Those results meant that Panama is going to the World Cup and Honduras is in a playoff with Australia to try to get there.  This is the first time the US has not qualified for the World Cup since 1986.


Here are some thoughts:


1.  Christian Pulisic is by far the US's best player, the only world-class player on the roster.  (Tim Howard was, but at 37 he is past his prime).  Likewise, while Clint Dempsey had his moments on the international stage, he, too, is past his prime, as is Michael Bradley.  Neither of them, in their primes, was nearly as good as Pulisic, who is only 19. 


2.  The US needs several dozen more Pulisics -- talented youngsters who are playing for elite teams in Europe -- and, get this, actually playing, as in starting.  Until this happens, the US will not fare better than advancing out of the group stage and perhaps winning a single game in the knockout round.  The talent just is not there.  Sure, you can argue that before 2010 Spain had a ton of talent and never won and that the same holds true for the Belgians, who are loaded with world-class players.  But even if some talent-laden teams falter (France in 2010 in South Africa), other talented teams come to the forefront, not the US. 


3.  The US needs its best players to play in Europe; the competition in the top leagues -- England, Spain, France, Germany and Italy -- is better than it is in MLS.  MLS makes life too comfortable and doesn't offer the intense soccer atmosphere that Europe does.  The cultural mindset has to change.


4.  Imagine how bad the US would have been over the years if the US hadn't had armed forces bases in Germany, soldiers who married German women who gave birth to sons who became good players.  What this says is that the culture for developing soccer players in the US needs an overhaul.


5.  The US needs to recruit better athletes into the soccer developmental system.  It also needs to create an academy environment where the best youth players are not trying to get into college but are vying for placement with teams in the top leagues in Europe, even if it means moving far away from home and then going out on loan.  That's just the way the world works in soccer.  The advent of studies showing the danger or playing American football might steer some talented youths into soccer.  Apparently, Odell Beckham, Jr. was an outstanding soccer player.  Imagine if some talented NFL players were soccer players -- imagine Megatron, Calvin Johnson, as a goalie.  He'd still be playing, and the bet here is that he'd be one of the best in the world.  Darren Sproles?  He's be an outstanding two-way midfielder, no question about it.  How about Zach Ertz as a center back?  Beckham Jr., not to be confused with soccer's main Beckham, would be a striker or central attacking midfielder.  The possibilities are endless.  Just prying 5 of the ESPN top 300 football recruits every year into soccer at age 14 could do wonders for the US's developmental program.


6.  The bureaucracy has gotten stale.  I have nothing against either Sunil Gulati or Bruce Arena, except that we need a full-time head of US Soccer and pay her/him accordingly and that we need a coach who is not recycled.  I have heard great things about Tab Ramos, but I wonder if the US should poll the top managers in Europe and recruit and up-and-comer, say an assistant from Manchester City or Juventus or some squad like that -- and put him in charge.  Otherwise, the risk is to recycle people who have had mixed success.  The US could find a real star, and it needs new ideas.


7.  The roster selections should be devoid of politics, and the lineup likewise.  I recall a discussion years ago about the English National Team.  Sure, it was okay to have both Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard on the roster, because both were stars, but it was far from clear that they should be on the pitch at the same time.  There also were players on the roster who got there because of lifetime achievement awards versus being the best for the team at the time.  A case in point is Pulisic -- it seemed like it took both Juergen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena too long to work him into the starting lineup, even when it was clear that he was the best player on the roster and perhaps, even at 19, in US history.  The latter contention is a reach, but within the next three years, barring injury, the fans will be saying that.


8.  Good organizations are strong from the core on down.  Steve Samson, once the U.S. coach, offered that the US was a nation of midfielders.  The reasoning was that kids are treated almost robotically in youth programs and have little opportunity to play pick-up games and freelance the way they do in other parts of the world.  The NYT magazine several years ago had a great article about the Dutch system; while the Dutch system is off-kilter now (Netherlands missed 2016 Euros and will miss the 2018 World Cup), they had a good idea for developing young players and helping fund the soccer federation. 


The loss to Trinidad and Tobago and the corresponding missing out on the World Cup is a huge blow to U.S. men's soccer.  MLS had started to generate momentum, and the advent of the English Premier League on television in the US started to generate more interest.  What remains now is an interesting dichotomy -- a stronger and growing appreciation for the international game, and a decreasing one for the U.S. game.  The next president of U.S. soccer, and the next coach of the men's national team, will have to deal with that. 


Regardless of the politics, who is the next president of the federation and who is the next head coach of the men's team, one major fact remains -- you cannot sustain winning without top talent.  The debacle within CONCACAF demonstrated this markedly.  You can have the best organization in the world, but you cannot win without talent.  Right now, only Pulisic would have a chance to make the World Cup squad of the major contenders in 2018, and he might not make all of them.  He wouldn't start for any of them -- Germany, France, Spain, Brazil, England, Belgium -- and he probably wouldn't make the German or French teams.  Remember this, Belgium is a country about 1/22 the size of the U.S., too, with about 15 million people.  They have a roster that most would envy.  The U.S., with about 315 million people, cannot find 11 players to contend seriously internationally.


Whoever takes the helm of US Soccer needs to figure out how to chance all of this in a hurry.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The College Basketball Mess

Among the defenses that do not work with law enforcement is "everyone does it." 


Among the mantras of law enforcement when it comes to investigations is "you must keep on look under rocks until there are no more rocks to look under." 


Given that there are a lot of rocks, a lot of people who will be willing to point out those rocks in exchange for a deal and the amount of money paid to college coaches to sustain winning and the amount of monies that college athletic departments get for shoe endorsements, you have a cocktail of ingredients that is easily combustible and can shout out "scandal" all by itself.


Using a different analogy, the four indicted assistant coaches are the first four dominoes to fall.  Because the schools where they worked recruited against many other big-time schools, other dominoes sit close enough to them that they can fall, too.  Not just assistant coaches and shoe company reps, but also AAU coaches and, yes, head college coaches. 


College sports used to be an extracurricular activity along the lines of the chorus, the newspaper and the debating club.  Those college sports that derive significant revenue can be important to universities athletic budgets.  I say "can be" because I recently read an article that indicated that more than 80% of Division I football programs lose money (defeating the argument that the football programs at many schools fund the other athletic teams).  Regardless of profitability (which is problematic because the universities themselves are tax-exempt organizations), the football and basketball programs can generate significant revenue for the university.  As a result, those who lead them command significant salaries.  The dollars are so big that it makes you wonder what the purpose of the head coach is -- to mold young men, to make money for the university or to perpetuate himself in his job (regardless of tactics and whether he really molds young men) in order to keep earning staggering sums of money.  The more that money is involved, the greater potential for all sorts of problems.


This scandal should (and I emphasize should) enable university boards and presidents to take full control over the mission of the university and not be held hostage by popular coaches or win-at-all-costs-hungry boosters.  This scandal should end the horrible paternalism of the professional leagues and create avenues for talented teenagers to go professional the way they do in soccer globally.  Right now, the best player in the U.S. is a 19 year-old who stars -- yes, stars -- in Germany.  His name is Christian Pulisic and he is very, very good.  He comes from Hershey, Pennsylvania.  Why can't it be that a top high schooler from Baltimore cannot sign with the 76ers out of high school, play on their G-League team and then have a professional career?  If you do this, you'll take out of the college game kids who really only want to play basketball and stop the charade of making them go to college.  I know I have thrown out many concepts here, but something significant is plaguing college sports. 


Money, the wanting for it by those who either make a lot of it or are on the cusp of doing so or the lack of it for those who need it (the kids whose families don't have it and who play before packed arenas and don't get paid for it).  The recent enforcement of labor law rules regarding internships helps frame the issue.  A kid who is an intern either must get college credit or get paid; he may not work for free.  College athletes in revenue-generating sports (profitable or not) don't get college credit and don't get paid.  Yet, their coaches get paid in the top 0.5% of all earners in the United States.  Something is awry, and it's sad that the universities haven't been able to address this issue themselves.  Now the Federal government will, and in the form of deferred prosecution agreements or corporate integrity agreements or both. 


And that is only after they get done with what promises to be a long and widespread investigation.  I forget who said this, but it rings true -- "No head coach of a major college football or basketball program is resting easily now."


Stay tuned.



Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Interesting Article the Other Day

about a quarterback competition at an FCS school. 


Three competitors -- one, a freshman, one a transfer from an ACC school and the other a transfer from a Big 12 school. 


The school?


The University of Pennsylvania.


No, I am not bashing the Ivies and Penn in particular in this post (there are many other reasons to take pokes at the Ancient Eight and Penn both seriously and for fun).  What I am pointing out that is if the Ivies use their transfer allotments selectively (that is, most transfers are not transferring because they play sports and are wanted), they can help their cause tremendously.


Enter the Princeton Tigers, who have, in the aggregate, the best overall athletic program in the Ivies (and, if not, one of the top two or three).  The wags will say, well, if you lower your standards and take good kids who, absent the sport, wouldn't have had a chance to get into the school, this is what can happen.  Let's put that argument aside, because I do not believe we ever will achieve full transparency on the delta between the non-athletes' admission profiles and the athletes' admission profiles.  (Again, this is not meant to be a swipe, just a discussion).  Think about this, though -- Princeton has done this without any athletic transfers in the past 25 years (and, no, the circumstances behind the football playing Garrett brothers don't count because they were unique and also more than 25 years ago). 


None. 


I once discussed the topic with a Princeton assistant football coach who lamented that the Tigers did not take transfers (one of the reasons is that the size of the school was the smallest or second smallest in the Ivies, and it's hard to take transfers if a) kids don't drop out or fail out and b) if they don't go abroad to study -- there just isn't surplus room).  I offered that it would be nice if the football team could get four a year, because that could really help.  His answer surprised me.  He said, "we don't need for a year.  Heck, we could use one every three years if it's the right one."  And then he told me the story about how the team was short at a critical position because one player left school and another broke his leg and how if they were allowed to take this one kid from one of the service academies or a place like Northwestern, I think it was, that the results for the team could have been a lot different.  Just one player, too.


Princeton will start taking transfers in the next year or so.  Will they take QBs from BCS schools?  They apparently don't need to, because they just landed a QB recruit who turned down offers from many BCS schools because of the high quality of the education he can receive in Tigertown.  Will they augment a key position if they can?  Absolutely.


But so will the Physics Department, Jazz Ensemble, etc.


And so it goes.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Time Is Mean to the All-Time Greats

Example Number Infinity -- Watching Usain Bolt pull up in the 4x100 meter relay in the World Championships on what was his final anchor leg for Jamaica.  The sports gods just are not kind to all but those who are in or near their prime. 


Jim Brown walked away at the top of his game.  So did Barry Sanders.  Sandy Koufax did too.


Bolt was close to his prime, and he deserved better. 

Chase Utley's Ejection the Other Night

Was a head scratcher, wasn't it?  It appeared that he asked the second base umpire to move out of his line of sight.  Next think you know, the umpire ejected the 38 year-old veteran and one of the most respected players in the game. 


Yes, I really want to see umpires eject one of the all-time greats.  Okay, don't get on me about the fact that Utley is not a Hall of Famer (I would argue that he is a borderline one; sadly, injuries derailed more opportunities for a WAR number that would have put him in).  But to eject anyone for that request?  Was there anything more to it than that?  Or did the umpire have a bet with a friend that he could get on Sports Center if he ejected a famous player on a pretext?  As for the latter, I doubt that came close to happening.  Simplest solution is that the arbiter just had a bad night.