(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 29, 2016

The 76ers' Problem with Its Ticket Holders

Ben Simmons broke his foot before the season and is out until at least January.

Nerlens Noel had knee surgery and is out indefinitely, has not played all year.

Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid are on a diet of restricted minutes owing to Okafor's pre-season knee surgery and Embiid's well-chronicled foot malady. 

The team worked hard to sell season ticket plans in the off-season.  Really hard.

It's bad enough to have four high first-round picks out.  What's worse, though, is that Embiid is getting needed rest, sometimes at home.  The tickets aren't cheap, especially not for a product as inept as the 76ers' product has been over the past several years.  It has been inept even to those who trust the process.  If it has not been, then they are lying to themselves.  There is some good basketball on certain nights and at certain times, but on other night it is plum awful.  It's a given that Noel (who doesn't excite the fans) and Simmons (who will) are out for a while.  Okafor seems like a dinosaur out there, a throwback to the days where teams pounded the ball into the post.  The fans are indifferent about him.  Embiid, though, is a different story.

He is everything the fans hoped for.  He is THAT tall, at 7'2".  He can put the ball on the floor.  He can shoot the three, and he is a presence in the paint at both ends of the ball.  Atop that, he plays with a zing, an oomph, a zest, a zeal, well, a personality.  Simmons might have one; Okafor does not, and neither does Noel.  Then again, the latter two might re-develop them after being cogs in Duke Hoops, Inc. and Kentucky Basketball Corporation, where the coaches and the brand take precedence over any individual, even if the individuals have transcending talent. 

Yet, the fans who have ponied up some very good money are looking at a D-League to D-League Plus team on any given night.  True, Okafor is hard to guard in the paint and foreign imports Ilyasova and Saric are good; the former can score and the latter can do a lot of things.  Nick Stauskas might have jump-started his career again, but Robert Covington is a shooter who right now cannot shoot and Gerald Henderson is a well-intentioned journeyman at the two guard position.  Point guards Sergio Rodriguez and T.J. McConnell are back-ups, and Jerryd Bayless is a journeyman too.  Put differently, they scare no one.  Healthy, the team is lopsided and has too many promising, potentially very good bigs.  Injured?  It is more balanced but without consistent appearances from good bigs it is not a good basketball team.

As for the fans, yes, they did pay their money, probably because they trust the process and the potential of Simmons and Embiid particularly is tough to argue with.  That said, they deserve far better than not knowing when Embiid will and will not play and in all likelihood some nice gifts from the 76ers because the fans this year did not sign up for a season without Ben Simmons and for a partial season of Joel Embiid. 

These fans might trust the process, but they are running out of trust for management. 

Friday, September 30, 2016

Nick Saban is Just Wrong about Blake Barnett

Fact:  Top program in country recruits elite players. 

Speculation:  To program in country perhaps recruits too many of them.

Fact:  Only one quarterback can play that position at a time.

Speculation:  Top programs recruit many elite quarterbacks, realizing that not all can handle college, the pressure, their system and that not all improve after high school.

Fact:  Quarterbacks transfer.  Blake Barnett, a five-star recruit out of California, just pulled the plug on his stay at Alabama, will transfer to a junior college and then be eligible to play for an FBS program this time next year should he have the grades and credits.  Read more about his story and Saban's reaction here.

Analysis:  Barnett did not quit in the sense that Saban says he did.  Saban gets the analysis partially right -- the kids do get all sorts of ideas in their heads about how good they are and how much they should be playing.  Heck, the top programs help foster a system that creates a star system among recruits and pumps them up with all sorts of ideas as to what they can achieve at a big-name program.  It's a circular system, in that that's how the big-time programs get these kids -- by pumping them up or underscoring the hype.  Atop that, it used to be the case that the programs had all of the power and that a commitment meant an unbreakable bond between school and kid, even if it turned out that the kid will sit for most of his career because, well, he isn't all that good.  But it also was the case that programs tried to and succeeded to run kids off the team, precisely because they weren't all that good.  Today it's the case that programs cannot offer an unlimited amount of scholarships (they are limited to 85) and that scholarships are one-year renewable, which means that if a kid has a bad year, the team can "non-renew" him and cut him loose without any commitment to his education.  So if a program can do that, what's wrong with Blake Barnett's departure?  Perhaps the timing -- he isn't sticking out the year and he has no promise of a smooth path to a starting job elsewhere -- but that's about it. 

So why is Nick Saban wrong?  Because everyone simply doesn't have to do as he says.  Is it frustrating that a coach "never knows" who will stay and go and therefore a coach is frequently on edge about what his depth chart at QB can be?  Maybe.  But the coach can alleviate that pressure through building solid relationships with his QBs and engaging in meaningful conversations.  That's not to say that Saban didn't try that or do that in his mind, but that's not always the case.  It's hard to think of the term "poor Alabama" in this situation.  The Crimson Tide will get over this setback.  I do feel for the QB, because, well, he's a kid, and kids go through a wide range of thoughts and emotions about major decisions.  It may be that he's not as good as advertised, and it may be that Alabama just isn't a great fit or that he fears he'll sit behind the current starter for way too long.  That's his right, and it's his right to leave.  Besides, why would Saban want him in the locker room if he is this unhappy?  Isn't the goal to provide for the kid's happiness first?

Sorry, Nick, but the kids have very little power as it is.  College football and coaches like you have made it so.  Just remember that in the absence of a greater balance of power, you create a situation where kids can feel too pressured and sometimes squeezed.  Change the system and you might not get a precipitous departure.  Maybe.  At the end of the day, you might have gotten it right -- these are elite prospects who have a lot of people whispering into their ears and who have come to a program like Alabama on a wave of hype, whether it's justified or not.  That's the world you chose, so occasionally you have to realize and come to grips with the fact that it will disappoint you.

Monday, September 19, 2016

On Sam Bradford

Great game last night.

Showed that he can begin to quarterback a good team.

Makes Vikings' management look good so far for making the trade.

Key things:

1.  Can he continue to play at this level?
2.  Can he stay healthy?

The further the Vikings go, the better the trade will look for them.

The better Carson Wentz does, the better the trade will look for the Eagles.

Neither QB, of course, should be judged on a single data point. 

But the Vikings must have liked what they saw last night.

As for the Eagles' brass, well, every time Bradford goes out and has a good game, a piece of them dies.

Friday, September 16, 2016

On Carson Wentz

I had planned a longer post, but figured I'd write just a few basic points on the topic:

  • Wonderful first game.
  • It was an NFL game.
  • It was against the Browns, one of the worst teams in the NFL.
  • He played in a pro system at North Dakota State and it shows why.
  • Funny how more low star recruits do better in college and have pro potential than higher star recruits.
  • He made some nice throws for touchdowns.
  • It was his first game, a very good start.
  • He is a rookie.
  • There will be film on him going forward.
  • He will get to watch film and study defenses too.
  • He will make mistakes.  There will be times where he gets sacked when he should have gotten rid of the ball or when he throws an interception when he should have thrown it into the ground or out of bounds.
  • His line is okay for now but will not be as good if Lane Johnson gets suspended.
  • The Eagles will need to sustain a running game to help enable the passing game and vice versa.
  • He is a rookie.
  • He will make mistakes.
  • Patience should be the operative word for all in the Philadelphia region.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Last Chance U

Netflix just dropped this documentary series about the 2015 season of the East Mississippi Lions, a juco football team that is ranked in the top ten and has been for a long while.  EM is located in Scooba, Mississippi, a town of about 760 people.  The roster is populated with kids who dropped out, flunked out or were kicked out of DI programs or kids whose academics were poor enough that they couldn't qualify for admission in the first place.  Those featured on the documentary are there to do one thing -- play football.  And then draw notice from recruiters for Division I schools and hopefully get into "the league."

Before anyone scoffs, the show points out that EM has 12 alums in the NFL, and the average DI school has about 7.  The combination of the circumstances of the players, the backwater nature of Scooba and the huge personality of the head coach, Buddy Stephens, creates a good show.  While the primary subject of the show is football, the show also is about life.  And, in many cases, how out of balance the lives of many of these kids are.  As one assistant coach pointed out, the kids should focus on their education because the average career in the NFL is about 1.5 years (I think that is probably a fraction over three). 

But they don't.  The featured kids prefer to do a lot of what teenagers do -- sleep, party, hang out, look for girls, talk on the phone or preferably text and incessantly listen to music.  Schoolwork?  It's a means to an end, and they'll do the minimum so that they can get the grades to move on to their next stop.  Many dream of getting to the SEC.  Some will, others won't.  But the featured kids seem totally unmotivated academically.  To them, a scholarship means a berth on a team where they can make a difference and hopefully go pro.  It does not mean an opportunity to get a good education and a decent job should the football thing not work out.  Which means that if it doesn't work out, some of these kids will end up back on the street corners of where they came from, and that's risky.  Why?  Because the high school teammate of one of the Lions' stars couldn't figure out a way to stay at his DI school, ended up back on the streets of some small Florida city, and was gunned down within 18 months.  No education and no skills equals a recipe for problems.

Some kids seem nice and likeable, others na├»ve, and even others selfish, entitled and not likeable.  Let's remember, though, that they are just kids.  But they suffer from a delusion that football can be everything and take care of their problems.  Or, if they're not delusional, they might contend that it's the only thing that they can do well.  It could be that they are right, but it could be that they haven't been challenged, have been passed through the system because they can play football well, and it could be that they just haven't put in nearly the effort that they do on the football field.  The academic advisor has to chase after the star running back to try to keep him eligible.  It's pretty frustrating, and in certain places the player would be suspended for his lack of attendance and effort.  Instead, this advisor, who should be nominated for sainthood, points out that the one essay where he gave a good effort was pretty good, so why not try?  The star running back mumbled an answer and gave an "aw shucks" type of look.  He just doesn't like school. 

The head coach, a volatile man a few cheesburgers short of a heart attack, wonders aloud whether he and his staff should be doing more to hold the kids accountable academically.  But that's it -- he just wonders, all the while building up the type of record that gets a statue built for you or a stadium named after you at EM.  He should remember that the one guy after whom the stadium was named in memory of whom the statue was built seemed to be remembered for being a bit nuts and for having pushed the envelope too hard.  I won't spoil it, but the team can reflect the coach's moods and temper.  Seeing is believing. 

So what to think of the documentary series and EM?  It underscores how important football is to certain cultures and how kids get put into the system, chewed up and spat out with nothing to show for it after all the years that they committed to it.  The kids appear to be solely focused on football or relaxation, entitled to skate through the way they want to off the field, and yet, that's not always fair.  Sure, they are in sweats a lot and have headphones on, but so do a lot of kids.  What's sad is that they don't seem to have a care in the world for their futures beyond football.  And if they don't care, there's only so much caring an academic advisor can do for them.  I wonder what the coach thinks or will think ten years out when he sees the predicaments of some of his former players.  Those predicaments will not be pretty.  But will they have been worth it for a league championship or a national championship?  Or if some kids make it to the league?

The documentary series is worth watching.  Like a fictional counterpart, Friday Night Lights, football isn't the entire story.  This series is about life.  While not all of the back stories are compelling, some are riveting. 

Which is as it should be.

After all, this is Last Chance U. 

At least for the football players. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Olympic Dedication

I read an article the other day about one particular U.S. Olympic team.  This is not a team that was featured in prime time.  It is not a team that won a medal.  Its sport is not one where people can play professionally anywhere in the world and make a living, let alone a lot of money.  The players do play for the love of the game.  And that's great.

But I am not sure that they are amateurs.  It doesn't seem that they have day jobs and then drop what they're doing to join the team when an Olympic cycle begins, say a year before the games.  No, it seems that they get a stipend to be on the national team, live at the national training center, and then, well, play for a long time.  One of the starters was quoted as saying, "I'm 27, and I have never had a job."

Is that a good thing?  If you remember the Olympics when amateurism meant something, you also recall the hypocrisy of the Iron Curtain countries, for many of their stars were in the military and their sole responsibility was playing for, in the Soviets' case, the Red Army team.  So much for amateurism.  In today's world, the Olympics only care about getting the very best, so no longer do you have the Belgian librarian who is the weight lifter or a school teacher who ran the 1,500.  Those days are long gone; they will not return.

I don't want to sit in judgment of the 27 year-old who never has had a job and who thus far has played a kids' game for a living.  My guess is that this person will go on and have a career in the sport, getting paid as a coach or as someone who can administer the national team.  If that's the case, then as this person ages this person will graduate to a role where she can get reasonable compensation, benefits and the ability to contribute to her retirement.  And, hell, it could be fun to play a kids' game for as long as you can without having to have a care in the world outside, well, playing the kids' game well.  Sounds like good work if you can get it.

The flip side to the argument is that "are you kidding me, why postpone real life by playing a kids' game that few understand or watch for as long as you can as opposed to doing something else with your life?"  And by something else, the person asking the question means, "something that is meaningful" because playing a kids' game forever doesn't seem to be meaningful.  Those making this argument will say why did the person get a college degree and then dedicate her young life to this pastime, especially when the U.S. doesn't have a history of earning medals in this sport? 

On the one hand, the pursuit is pure and for the love of the game and for a bond with teammates that is deep, meaningful and could last a lifetime.  It's not necessarily being a cloistered monk with few possessions who achieves various levels of consciousness that the rest of us cannot begin too, but it is dedication in a very pure sense.  You can make the argument that this is what certain academics do; they study a rare subject that gets little attention for the sake of doing it and for coming up with the type of discovery that might be able to shed light on civilization in a meaningful way.  Failing that, they would argue that the mere doing the work is pure and sets an example for all that purity in study has meaning, sometimes deeply so.

I don't know how I feel about this.  I don't walk in this person's shoes.  To a degree, I'm envious -- not having worked, wow!  To a degree, I'm aghast -- not having worked, what, do you live in a bubble? 

The past 17 days left this relatively anonymous athlete on a relatively anonymous team with a chance to gain some temporary notoriety -- as a team -- had they won a medal.  They fell short, and now they'll retreat to their national team headquarters, happy that they fared better than they did in London, but wondering about the next four years.  Not having worked until your mid-20's is one thing, but when you're in your early 30's and don't have a working track record, it makes it all the more difficult to get that first job.  We're not talking about an athlete with any endorsement money; she is not a swimmer.  We're talking about someone much further down on the sports food chain. 

The rest of us will say we enjoyed the Olympics, even with the air brushing over Rio's substantial problems, enjoyed how well the U.S. did (overlooking that the games increasingly seem to be a contest for the industrialized, nationalistic countries) and how well certain individuals fared -- Biles, Ledecky, Phelps among them.

And we will forget the rest.

That those who toil in relative anonymity continue on is testimony to their determination and perseverance.  There is something to the purity of it all. 

At least up until the point where it seems to be a bit extreme and pushes one's life out of balance.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Ironic Passive Aggressivenes by NFL Players

The NFL players have a union.  The NFL players have a collective bargaining agreement.  The NFL players are angry with Commissioner Roger Goodell for acting under that collective bargaining agreement.  Those players implicated in the Al-Jazeera PED scandal are angry that they have to comply with the league's investigation or else face suspension. 

The question to all of these issues is the following:  why?

The reason I ask is because the players have a collective bargaining agreement.  Their protests, frustrations and anger result from actions that the league has carried out or may carry out under that agreement.  For example, certain players who have not spoken to the league as a result of the Al-Jazeera allegations are annoyed that they have to cooperate with the league.  Put very simply, their anger and frustrations are wrong and misplaced.

Employers in this day and age are obligated -- perhaps by law if not policy of an at-times very unforgiving Department of Justice -- to investigate compliance complaints.  The Al-Jazeera allegations are serious enough that the league needs to investigate them.  And forget about the law, even.  PEDs can give a player and his team an unfair advantage.  By the league's own rules, such alleged misconduct must be investigated.  A corollary to that is a fundamental tenet of employment law -- if you don't cooperate with an investigation, you get fired.  By the way, refusing to cooperate because you might want to take the Fifth Amendment in a corresponding criminal investigation won't help an employee.  In many cases, employers fire those employees too. 

The players to a degree are lucky that they have a union and a collective bargaining agreement and should work with NFLPA leadership to maximize their benefits and protections under it.  But to the extent that the league is doing what it is doing and the CBA permits it (such as letting Commissioner Goodell -- without third-party review -- mete out discipline), they players should grin and bear it.  That's what they signed up for.

So what's their remedy?  The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (in what explicably was not a unanimous decision) upheld the CBA with respect to Tom Brady, despite all of the Patriots' public relations and the NFLPA's public relations arguing that this was an injustice.  Whether or not people liked the decision, again, it fell squarely under the CBA.  The players made a huge deal out of the Brady matter, but their frustration was misplaced. 

Instead of focusing their anger on the league and the commissioner, they should direct their comments to their union head, DeMaurice Smith, and urge him to develop a dialogue with the Commissioner to improve upon some of the things in the CBA.  Look, even if the league has a right to do certain things under the CBA, it also worries about its brand.  Translated, the Commissioner won't always win if he enforce or takes advantage of the CBA to the specific letter of it.  Doing so would convey a lack of wisdom on his part.  Atop that, Smith should try to make his points now to prepare the Commissioner and the owners for what the players might ask for in the CBA negotiations the next time around.  That would be a start.

But for the players to get the changes that they seek, they might need to strike and strike for a good period of time.  Historically, the owners have won to a much greater degree than in baseball (which has the most successful union in the history of unions) and basketball.  The reasons seem to be two-fold.  First, the average football player's career is a fraction over three years, which means that the average player really cannot afford to strike, especially for an issue that will be unlikely to affect him.  Second, football is a sport populated with players who have been told what to do since age 6 or 8 or whenever Pee Wee football starts.  The football player population seems less likely to talk back to its ownership than other populations do in other sports.

DeMaurice Smith and his executive committee would be well-served to get the messaging right.  They need to keep their membership focused on playing well and growing the revenue in the NFL.  They need to let them know that they are pushing on the key issues that they want to improve upon.  And they need to show progress on those key issues.  What they also should do is try to focus the players on anything but letting issues that they bargained for in the current CBA eat at them to the point of distraction.  That distraction will not improve the situation or make any individual player play better. 

Whether they like the ownership groups, the Commissioner or the league, well, that's up to them.  But they'd be better suited being aggressive in their discussions and negotiations than in public displays of anger and frustration that usually only get the better of those who are angry and frustrated.