(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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Thursday, April 17, 2014

If the 76ers were a horse, someone would have shot them a long time ago

Thankfully, the 76ers' seasons has ended.  They fielded a D-League team for the most part, extras from the casting call lot who sometimes had their moments, but all of whom are forgettable.  One might be like the character actor with the squished face whom you keep on seeing in mafia movies as an extra standing behind the capo del tutti capo uttering a few lines, but that's about it.

Call it a tanking, call it a farce, call it a charade, it was anything but worthy of the price of their tickets.  If the 76ers' were a broadway show, they would have not lasted a week.  If the 76ers' were a team in the English Premier League they'd be relegated to the Championship League, its smaller stadiums and non-existent TV money.  If they were a horse, a merciful trainer would have put him down so that he would not have to suffer.

But, instead, they'll get rewarded with a couple of lottery picks (one theirs and one the Pelicans, to whom they traded Jrue Holliday) and a chance to field the Kentucky Wildcats of the NBA (plus the wonderful leader in Thad Young).  That said, the Kentucky Wildcats struggled in their regular season and finished strong this past year, but that doesn't always happen.  The NBA season is longer, and the average NBA team is full of older, stronger, more mature men who will push the young kids around (Hall of Famer Bob Lanier has a famous story about his rookie year, when the big center out of St. Bonaventure tried to muscle Wilt Chamberlain.  After a few times up and down the floor, as Lanier recalled it, Chamberlain picked him up, put him behind the baseline and told him to stay there the rest of the game.)  And they might have the wrong coach, for while Brett Brown apprenticed for an all-timer in Gregg Popovich, the team might need a coach who can bring along younger players better and mold them.  The Spurs, after all, blended veteran and younger players; the 76ers won't have any vets unless owner Josh Harris and Sam Hinkie can convince some premium free agents that with them and a young core, they can win pretty quickly.

So, next year, instead of a "Winless for Wiggins" theme they'll try to replace it with trying to get the crowd high on the potential of the magic of youth.  It will sound good for about fifteen games, until the league solves for the fact that the team is inexperienced, that the grind is hard, that there still are not enough stars and that the bench remains thin.  But the talent might be good enough to play them back out of the lottery, and back into the NBA's never-never land, where they could be good enough not to warrant picks to get them any better but bad enough not to get the good picks.

The rules shouldn't reward loading up your roster with extras.  And the fans shouldn't be dumb enough to pay for that type of team again any time soon.  That said, the team does have a plan, and if they execute on it in this draft and with free agent signings, all will be quickly forgiven.  The relatively new ownership will get one big pass because all fans realize that with the current structure of the salary cap and the draft, the course that the team pursued was the best one to re-vamp the roster and build a new, exciting team.  They could do just that.

But the league should change the rules a bit to prevent this type of lack of effort for taking place.  You should get good prizes for winning.  You should not get them for losing in this type of way.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Why Do Baseball Players Get Hurt So Much? And, Why Do Games Take Sooooooo Long?

A few years ago, I watched a 1980 highlight film featuring the Phillies.  Most players looked tall and lean, and they didn't get hurt as much.  Pitchers went longer into games, they weren't as specialized, and it seemed that they didn't get hurt as much, either.

Today, the players are bulkier, and it makes one wonder whether the training methods are simply out of touch.  Witness, a few years ago, and the story on how the 49ers got to the Super Bowl against the Ravens -- by being the least injured team.  How did they accomplish that?  Because they had an innovative strength coach who emphasized flexibility over bulk.  After all, if you're too bulky and not flexible, you're likely to pull or tear something.

One of the problems with baseball is that the extra bulk seemingly is a bad combination with sudden movements.  After all, it's hard for a baseball player to get totally loose, especially with how long games are (and I'd submit that if the ball is in play only 15 minutes of the 3:30 it takes to play a game, that players are more likely to be inactive for too long a portion of the game, which then increases the likelihood of a "sudden movement" injury.).  It probably is the case that the smaller strike zone, the permission for batters and pitchers to fidget more between pitches, and the increase in commercials has not only lengthened games but increased the periods during the game when players are inactive, thereby increasing the chance for injury.  The extra bulk doesn't help; extra flexibility would.

Today's players resemble linebackers; yesterday's resembled wide receivers.  The games were faster then, and, yes, they were better.  I recall going to Vet Stadium with my father to watch Steve Carlton pitch and getting out of there in less than 2 hours.  That was pretty cool, and the games weren't 1-0, either, as the Phillies could hit.  But they went faster, and there wasn't as much time spent on the DL.  Today, the games are slow and more players get hurt.  

Some might counter that the players are better and that baseball is innovative, but they aren't and it isn't, not if the games are slower and the players get more injured.  Sure, baseball draws, but at some point it might not.  Remember, only forty years ago horse racing was one of the most popular sports, perhaps because the track was one of the few places where one could place a bet legally.  Today, it's all but gone, and only gets highlighted when there's a big race.  Boxing also once was more prominent, but too many questionable judging decisions at the Olympics hurt it.  It used to be Americans watched track, swimming and boxing primarily during the summer games.  Who watches boxing now?

That's precisely what baseball has to worry about.  Soccer has increased in popularity after years of trying to break through (okay, so the MLS remains a bit of a "last chance" hotel, but the English Premiership gets a lot of play in the US, as will the World Cup).  The steroid era, and baseball's lack of repentance about it, stained it.  The significant drop off in hitting and the length of games plague it.

Get back to when fans could get in and out in 2:15.  That would make the game more fun.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Thoughts Regarding How to Avoid Tanking in the NBA

In various international soccer leagues, the bottom teams of the top league can get "relegated" to the second-tier league.  For example, in the English Premier League, if you finish in the bottom three, you get relegated to the Championship League.  No one wants that for his team.

Professional leagues in the U.S. aren't set up that way, but perhaps the NBA can take a page out of the "relegation" book.  Today, I'm watching the Fulham-Norwich match, which is compelling because Fulham right now is in the relegation zone (18th of 20 teams) while Norwich is 17th.  The game is exciting because both teams are trying not to get relegated, and I would submit that a game between two "mid-table" teams (i.e., middle of the pack) isn't as exciting because those teams don't have a chance to win the league or get relegated.

In the NBA, whose season is too long already, the top teams are trying to get healthy for the playoffs, while the bottom teams are content to lose so as to increase their chances for as high a first-round pick as possible in the draft, which is one of the deepest in years.  While the lottery was intended to prevent outright tanking (because the worst team isn't guaranteed the first pick, just one of the first three), the poor squads that some teams have fielded are just not watchable, and what league wants to have in its ranks a team that almost deliberately loses 26 straight because of a potentially lucrative draft?

Do away with the lottery, then, in one of two ways.  Either automatically disqualify the worst two teams from getting the top three picks and have a lottery among the next four or create a one-and-done playoff system at year's end among the worst eight teams to determine draft seeding -- whoever wins the mini-tournament gets the first pick, the loser of the title game gets the second pick and so forth.  How teams fare will determine who plays its games at home.  And, if you're not in the bottom eight, you'll end up with the 9th, 10th or 11th pick in order of your record.

Or, as I sometimes write, something like that.  The disqualification system will punish tankers because they cannot get the first pick; the playoff system will give eight teams a chance to play for the first pick. Either way, the team that fields a bad team purposefully will not get rewarded.

It's a simple proposition -- the league should not reward losing as winning, which is what they're doing with the current set up.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Thoughts on the Final Four Announcers

The chemistry wasn't there among Jim Nantz, Steve Kerr and Greg Anthony.  Especially when you compare it to the TNT booth with Clark Kellog, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley.  Sure, the latter are commentators only, but I just didn't get a whole lot out of Nantz and company.

Nantz gets high marks generally, but sometimes he becomes a cliche, as if he's trying to narrate the greatest game ever as opposed to call -- with some passion and excitement -- the game that's in front of him.  His game calls just didn't work in this Final Four -- you just shouldn't call hoops the way you call the Masters.

Then again, they put these things in horrid stadiums that reject the tradition of the game and the intimacy that has helped create some great memories.  Given that the best seats are in your own house, the TV gurus found a narrator for a mass-produced TV show.  And that's Nantz.

He's had a great career and is a good announcer, but it just didn't work in this Final Four.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Fascinating ESPN Comment

"No Tiger for the first time in twenty years at the Masters."

Wow, he's been around for that long.

And he's 38.  The window for catching Jack Nicklaus is closing fast.  After 43, he's in the danger zone.  He'll have twenty majors in the next five years.  How many can he win?

Friday, April 04, 2014

Enough on the DeSean Jackson situation, already.

Here goes:

1.  Chip Kelly did a great job in Philadelphia this season.  He has won on the big stage.  He knows what it takes to win.

2.  He has every right to shape the roster the way he wants to.  Interestingly, the Eagles recently cut a great character guy in Jason Avant, and that release drew a bunch of public comment too.  Avant is a role model, grew up in a  rough neighborhood, made his way to Michigan and, in his 20's, has helped raise a nephew from the same neighborhood.  Not much gets said about Avant, who, admittedly, is a possession receiver, but the continuous commentary about Jackson, especially from Philadelphia sports talk radio show hosts with not all that many sources, has been excessive.  Jackson did play well at times, but he also mailed it in at times (especially when he pouted and wanted a new contract).  He is replaceable.  Must be slow sports news days in Philadelphia.

3.  No Eagle cried out in anguish that he'd miss Jackson.  Not a single one.  And, in the day of prominent social media postings, that's saying something.

4.  Former Eagles coaches -- Andy Reid in KC and Marty Mohrninwheg (offensive coordinator for the Jets) passed on Jackson.

5.  The last chance hotel of the NFL, the Redskins, never known for chemistry, took him.  Given their track record, that should scare no one.

6.  Brian Dawkins was on the Mike Missanelli Show the other day (Mikey Miss is the leading sports talk show host in Philadelphia).  He backed the team, implying that Jackson needed to grow up and develop better habits.

7.  If what's said is true -- about Jackson's insubordination and chewing out Kelly in front of the team -- then he should be gone, period, and that's that.

8.  Stephen A. Smith might think that he scored a big coup with the Jackson interview, but the first portion shown on ESPN was awful.  Smith needed to press Jackson hard, and he gave him easy ways out.  Smith asked him whether he was hanging out with gang members, and Jackson replied, "Not if they're doing bad things."  Smith didn't follow up and ask the obvious, which is, "so you are hanging out with gang members, then, at times?"  That would have been an appropriate follow-up questions, but Smith didn't get there.  And had he, that might have begged the question of whether Jackson ever displayed gang signs during games.

9.  Chip Kelly has the Eagles on a roll.  He also sent a message.  It seems that his players are following him.  He also knows what he's doing, as he took a team that played terribly the year before he got there and made the playoffs and came within a few seconds of winning that playoff game.  DeSean will go to Washington, where he'll need to change his ways despite the enthusiasm of new head coach Jay Gruden.  It remains to be seen whether he'll do all things better in D.C. than he did in Philadelphia.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

On the NLRB's Ruling that Players Can Unionize and How College Sports Will Evolve

We could be reaching an inflection point.

A point of maximum change.

A point where the Hessians reveal their true colors, as do the true educators.

A point where some schools will have to determine whether they join the dark side and fight the Jedi Knights.

Okay, here's what I'm getting at, but bear with me as I construct the argument:

1.  In certain ways, student athletes are better treated than they were, say, before social media arose, anyone can videotape anything, and coaches were vulgar with language and sometimes abusive with their physicality.  That, of course, is a good thing.

2.  Student-athletes also get built-in perks that the average student does not get -- beautiful dorms in certain places for players on certain teams, tutors, top-class workout facilities, trainers, food.

3.  Student-athletes on scholarship have one-year renewable scholarships.  Which means that coaches can run players off and not renew their scholarships.  That happens, although usually quietly, with the late Rick Majerus getting bad publicity for doing this when he was at Utah.  Many others did this as well, and sometimes for good reasons -- the kid was too immature, too injured, required too much attention, wasn't a good enough citizen, or, in many cases, wasn't a good enough player and by jettisoning him, the coach wouldn't be risking blowing up a key relationship with a "feeder," i.e., an AAU coach.  This aspect of a scholarship would give any scholarship athlete cause for pause.

4.  Student-athletes on scholarship have a one-way commitment.  The school can tie them up, but if a coach leaves, they cannot transfer to an equivalent school and be eligible right away (except under very unusual circumstances, such as to get much closer to an ill parent).  That means that the student-athlete faces uncertainty when a new coach comes in -- and unless he or she travels and sits out a year -- he or she is stuck wondering whether they'll be a part of the new coach's plans or be shunted aside because he/she doesn't fit the new coach's style or simply because he/she isn't the new coach's recruit.  This aspect of the student-athlete-school relationship has irked student-athletes and their parents for decades.

5.  Student-athletes don't always have the freedom on campus to pursue the academics they want to, and some simply get passed through by taking joke courses, getting credit for their sport (yes, some schools get away with that), having tutors every step of the way and in unscrupulous situations, tutors and others do their work for them.  This means that if a student-athlete survives the ''renewability' issue, there's no guarantee that he'll get a degree in something meaningful where he's built some skills that will translate to a job and career after he uses up his eligibility (and that's a key word, as opposed to "after he graduates," because many in the revenue sports do not graduate).

6.  There's also the issue of stipends, money, selling merchandise with player's numbers on it and selling rights to video games for college teams, how colleges sell luxury boxes, tickets and all of that and how they generally make money off the revenue sports, particularly football.  But a closer analysis realizes that Pareto's theory works in college football too.  If you were to read the book that Armen Keteyan just co-wrote about college football, only 20% of the BCS teams make any money off football (thereby shattering the myth that football pays for everything else).  Those who make the money can make a lot of it, but most do not.  I haven't seen the statistics for college basketball, but suffice it to say that all 330+ D1 men's b-ball teams sell tickets to their basketball games, I'd submit that most of them do not turn a profit off basketball.  It would be interesting to see the statistics.

And that compels the question about how to compensation DI athletes in revenue-generating sports.  There are articulate arguments on both sides, and if you were to listen to "Mike and Mike in the Morning" on ESPN Radio, you can occasionally hear Jay Bilas argue for compensation for some student-athletes and Mike Golic argue against it.  Bilas' basic premise is that they should share in the profits; Golic's argument is that they get a scholarship and an education for free, and that's worth a lot.  Both are graduate of schools with excellent academic reputations.

7.  If you have to "pay" players pursuant to their union agreements for revenue-generating college sports, how does Title IX affect all that.  Most women's sports aren't revenue generating, but Title IX is a law that requires equal deployment of monies for men and women in college.  Again, this dynamic would add expense and contribute to a Darwinism that will create "super" schools and cause also-rans and wannabes to at trite.

8.  The NLRB's decision, along with rumblings that certain of the BCS schools might break away from the NCAA and form their own leagues, are why I think that major college athletics are at an inflection point.  And I think that these are some things we can  expect in the future:

a.  certain conferences will break off from the NCAA, form their own conferences, and figure out ways to offer scholarships and compensation.  These are schools that politically probably hate the NLRB's decision and will support fighting it to the end of time, but they are also the schools that have figure out ways to turn profits and will want to turn more of them.  You can guess who they are, and they also will risk compromising the mission of their universities by doing so, because priorities will become an issue.  Are the students the priority, or winning championships?  And the questions will get particularly tricky for public universities and compel elected officials to make decisions that will tell their electorates whether they care about all kids or just the glory for some and for the university's logo.  Some will bankrupt their athletic programs in the process because the competition will crush them.  Why should they be different from any other business?  Most SEC schools will win, but the wannabes will get crushed underfoot.

b.  certain conferences will remain in the NCAA, fight the ruling too, because all they can afford are scholarships.  It's hard to predict what happens to them.

c.  certain schools will get out of the business of intercollegiate athletics, or at least revenue-generating ones, altogether.  They won't be able to afford union negotiations for students, and they also won't want the dynamic of having two classes of kids on campus (above all other delineations that occur on a college campus), those who get scholarships and payments and those who do not (despite the eloquent arguments of Jay Bilas that sports are the only place on campus where students cannot get paid; talented kids in other areas can -- but he doesn't seem to have a counter for the contention that mostly if they do, it's not their university who is paying them, it's the marketplace).

d.  some schools will have to decide what their true mission is and where they want to spend their money.  Will they want to continue to fund inter-collegiate athletics, or will they dedicate that money to a totally new concept, as follows:

     (i) totally transforming their athletic departments to have an internal focus;
     (ii) creating vigorous intramural programs that fire up the whole campus, have "house" competitions, get lots of kids involved, get them into better shape (and what a good message that would say about national fitness and addressing related diseases, such as diabetes; and
     (iii) using all of the money dedicated for athletic scholarships to merit scholarships, which would change the focus of the university, re-define its mission and then let "minor" sports leagues pop up for kids who think that they want to go pro early but do not want to go to class or get an education.  Those leagues would have zero to do with universities and colleges.  And, this type of focus would remove any ambiguity a college might have about what it's true mission is.

I think that I've come full circle.  Given the pressures on economies, how expensive college is, the sometimes difficult arguments to justify huge expenditures on intercollegiate athletics, the NLRB decision and the quest for some schools for more revenue despite evidence that they can do a bad job educating the kids who draw the revenue, we could see a huge transformation in intercollegiate athletics.  The rich "haves" will go all out to create a special "athletic" class of kids on campus, who get scholarships and money, while the wannabe haves will hurt their institutions trying and failing, while the evolvers who walk away will do so by focusing internally on their schools, spending leftover money on merit scholarships, and have an "intramural" system that enhances school spirt and creates an even greater sense of community.  There are probably "in-between" possibilities, too, but we will see change.

We always do.

How Bad Must the Milwaukee Bucks Be?

The Philadelphia 76ers have lost 26 games in a row, and they still do not have the worst record in the NBA.

The Bucks do.

No truth to the rumor that both teams will be relegated to the NCAA Division III tournament next year.