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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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Absurd Debate Over College Athletics

I listened to part of the discussion Mike and Mike this morning about college athletics and, particularly, whether college athletes should be paid.  The reason that I call this discussion absurd is that there are so many more important things going on in the world than college athletics.  It's also absurd because the focus on college athletics is so out of proportion to what it should be.

First, it strikes me that most college athletic programs at best break even or lose money.  Some do make money, such as schools with elite football programs that are name brands around the country.  But more than 80% of Division I (FBS) teams lose money.  Which means that, correspondingly, their school's athletic programs lose money because football by far is the largest sport. 

Second, it is a bromide that alumni donations go up when a school wins a championship, but I am not sure that it is true.  It could be that applications go up, but I'm not sure that alumni donations do. 

Third, a scholarship should be enough compensation for student-athletes, with some caveats, such as -- a) they can get scholarship monies for two additional years beyond when they played owing to the large time commitments that they had to make, b) the scholarships are good regardless of whether a player gets cut from a team (that is, they should be renewable, period), c) the scholarships should be released if a coach leaves a school because the playing field should be even (that is, if the coach can leave without penalty, why shouldn't the kids be able to leave) and d) the schools should public iron-clad metrics regarding the percentage of athletes that get degrees, what they've majored in and what their jobs are after football.  And one other thing -- give them some more walking around money so that they don't have to yield to temptation, say $250 a month. 

But don't start arguing that they should be paid.  Yes, there has been a lot of attention paid to the argument that there is no such thing as an unpaid internship any more under Federal law, that either the intern gets college credit or gets paid.  There is a lot of case law on that.  But college activities should be in a different category, even if you allow for an exception for "significant revenue sports" -- football, men's basketball at many places, ice hockey at some schools and women's basketball at some schools.  Otherwise, schools would jettison their extracurricular activities because they won't have the money to pay players, they don't want to create a Hessian class of paid athletes versus unpaid band members, they cannot afford to pay the band members or they don't think they should give college credits to band members.  The costs could be astounding and bankrupting, lest anyone forget that the primary reason these institutions exist is to educate people and not to beat the arch-rival.  Failing that, eliminate intercollegiate sports altogether and run the best intramural programs in history.  And those would involve more students and keep more in better shape physically and correspondingly medically.

At some point we have to ask the fundamental question as to why these programs exist and what is the justification for them?  There really isn't any justification for them.  If the pro leagues want minor leagues, let them pay for them.  Don't require kids to go to college; the feeder system in European soccer works just fine.  The best players go into the best clubs' academies; they don't go offer to play for Oxford or Heidelberg or any such place.  And yes, look, some of these college programs are run like professional programs, I get that.  But perhaps it's time to end the pretense, let colleges educate, and let the pros run their teams.  And then the colleges don't have to go through the gymnastics that the huge NCAA rule book requires and the schools can dedicate precious funds to benefit a broader group of students.

I don't want to be a killjoy; there are parts of this country that revere their fan experience with college athletics.  I get that.  But there have to be limits as to the extent a school may go to land key players.  Paying them should just not be one of them.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Before Penn State Puts Up That Statue of Joe Paterno Again. . .

If you live in or near Pennsylvania or visit there, you'll see reminders of Joe Paterno and a lot of Penn State decals and license plates.  It stands to reason, as Penn State not only is one of the main state universities for Pennsylvanians, but also because it is a very good one.  Most Penn States will tell you how much they enjoyed it in State College, a/k/a Happy Valley.  They'll talk to you about the football team and about the Creamery, the ice cream venue in State College that offers the best ice cream on the planet (except for all the other stores that can make the same claim). 

Recently, about 200 former football players sent a letter to the university's president asking that they reinstate the Paterno statue that was taken down several years ago after the Jerry Sandusky affair came to light.  There was a media frenzy, the media version of a natural disaster, that befell the Penn State community and the NCAA.  Much action was taken -- by the Penn State board, by the NCAA -- and several years later all is not back to normal.

Penn State continues to mete through the claims of many men who claim that Jerry Sandusky abused them years ago and that Joe Paterno knew of Sandusky's problem and turned the other way.  There are allegations that other coaches, some prominent names now, knew of things, too.  Now, the Paterno family disputes these claims and has hired a high-powered lawyer to defend it.  No doubt, crisis communications firms are involved, too, trying to protect the images of Penn State and of the Paterno family. 

Many tied part of their Penn State existence and good feelings about the school to Joe Paterno, turning him into a walking, living God.  The gospel was how omniscient Paterno was, hard-working, smart, humble, and how he ran a clean program where most of his players graduated.  Penn State was in the conversation for the top ten teams in the country and occasionally contended for and won a national championship.  Atop that, a kid could get a very good education at a school that graduate and professional schools liked as well as employers.  That's pretty good. 

I get all that.

My sense is that among these 200 former players are those who credit Paterno for having changed their lives, who credit Paterno for helping them win a championship, who are angry that someone that good could be questioned and who may be in denial that Paterno did anything at all wrong.  You find a group of 200, and my guess is that you have a cocktail of motivations -- it's not all the same thing. 

There can be no doubting as to the good that Paterno did.  You can read about how he urged the university to upgrade the academic programs, helped raise funds and ran a great football program.  It's hard to counter that or take it away.  It happened.  And a lot of it was good.

But then there's this other stuff, and it's not over.  There haven't been final decisions or adjudications as to what Coach Paterno knew and when he knew it and whether he could have or should have done anything about it.  The Paterno family is arguing vigorously that the claimants are wrong.  Penn State is defending itself against liability.  The plaintiffs are asserting what they have held back for years -- that Jerry Sandusky abused them.  And Sandusky is serving a long prison sentence, one that is likely to see him die in jail.  He does not deserve to get out.

The issue of the statue is more complicated.  (I have to say that I am not unbiased -- I thought it was in poor taste that a statue was put up of someone who was still alive, and it lacked the humility that Coach Paterno was heralded as possessing).  The former football players stand firmly behind the Paterno family.  My guess is that they are not related to or did not know any of the victims.  The Paterno supporters would say that is irrelevant, because there is no evidence that Coach Paterno knew about what Sandusky was doing.  If they are right, then, assuming that you like statues, well, then perhaps Penn State should restore it.  But if they are wrong, then what?

Right now, it is unclear whether they are right or wrong.  But until Penn State goes through its process and the claims are settled or adjudicated, Penn State should wait to make its decision about that statue.  Happy Valley has not healed and is clearly not happy right now.  But those who run Penn State should not yield to the loudest or most forceful of voices.  They also should consider those of now grown men who had no voice and could not speak or get a hearing for years.

Until that happens, there can be no peace in Happy Valley.  And, right now, there is not justice, at least not complete justice, and at least not yet.

There are more important things than the statue.  Let the process go on and conclude.

And then decide.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Perils of the Modern Day Baseball Club

We heard it all last season.  Boy, are the New York Mets the team of the future.  Look at all that pitching. . . Harvey, de Grom, Syndergaard, Matz, Colon, with the first four being young, hard-throwing and very good.  Look out, NL East.  Washington, they said, had a tougher lineup, but the Mets' pitching, well, that was the difference.  It was fun to be a Mets' fan last season.

Going into this season, there remained reason to be very optimistic.  The starting pitching staff was intact, even with Jon Niese going to Pittsburgh and Zack Wheeler not ready.  But I cautioned a friend that any time you predict a dynasty, funny things can happen.  I offered that if the Mets were to have a starter or two go down -- and they inevitably do -- there could be trouble.  Well, Harvey has been erratic, Matz looks to be done for the year, and Syndergaard has a supposedly non-threatening bone spur.  Meanwhile, the ageless wonder, Bartolo Colon, at 43 is perhaps the squad's best starting pitcher.  Right now, Mets are in third, slightly behind the usually confounding Marlins.  It is not the season that Mets' fans had hoped for.  Atop that, they lost Daniel Murphy, the clutch-hitting second baseman, to rival Washington, and replaced him with the good but not-as-good Neil Walker.  The biggest blow was losing David Wright to season- and perhaps career-ending surgery.

Ouch.

Roll back the clock about eight years ago and Phillies' fans had every reason to be optimistic.  They won it in '08, and they had everyone back, most of whom were at or slightly before their primes.  In '09, they should have won it again, but somehow Brad Lidge, who was all-world in 2008, blew up to an ERA of about 7.50, the worst ever for a full-time closer, and the Phillies lost the Series to the Yankees.  Had Lidge just had half as bad a season, the Phillies would have won it all.  In '10, the team suffered injuries, still had a good year until they ran into the red-hot Giants' pitching in the NLCS.  In '11, with players more healthy than in '10, they won over 100 games, beat the Cards in Game 1 of the NLDS, only to have ace Cliff Lee blow a 4-0 lead after 1 inning in Game 2, and lose that series in 5 games, with Cards' ace Cris Carpenter outdueling Roy Halladay and Ryan Howard blowing out his Achilles' tendon on the last at-bat of the series.  Arguably, that team should have won two World Series in those four years.  And while few will complain about winning "just" one, I'm sure many Phillies' fans will express disappointment that they didn't win another.  They were built to, and they probably should have.

The moral of the story is enjoy it when your team wins, hope that they win again soon, because the game changes, players change and adjust, players age and get hurt.  The Mets were awesome last year, but they also were two iffy wings away from a mid-division finish.  The Nats by no means are invincible, but it will be hard for the Mets to win their division without a healthy rotation.  That can be said for almost any team, of course, but it goes to show you the fine line between having a team that goes to the World Series and having a team that doesn't make the playoffs. 

All that said, you would figure in this day and age and with the rise of elite sports performance institutes that there would be better theories about developing and maintaining good pitchers and avoiding the gruesome types of injuries that seem to befall them.  It is 2016 already, and pitchers and the art of pitching isn't much more evolved than fifty years ago.  Yes, there is more specialization, but the pitchers continue to get injured.  That is what makes the game so unpredictable, as it is hard to figure out what a pitching staff will look like year after year.  In contrast, you will know what your basketball team will look like next year, even if players might slip a little, because you have very little risk of a basketball player blowing out his shooting hand and being out for a year.  Baseball generates a lot of money, so you would figure that they should be working on some programs to help add more certainty to a pitcher's career and a team's future.

Best Sports Month in Cleveland?

The Cavs win the NBA title.

The Indians have won twelve straight and lead the AL Central. 

Clevelanders -- enjoy it!

Thursday, June 09, 2016

The Stanford Rape Case

Much has been written and said.  It's hard to imagine how Judge Aaron Persky gave former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner the light sentence that he did.  We expect more out of the judicial system and the hypothetical average kid that goes to an elite institution such as Stanford. 

As for Persky, he goofed, plain and simple.  There are calls for his resignation, his recall and his defeat at the polls in the fall.  My guess is that many will remain hot on this topic to mount a serious challenge to Persky.  That said, the prosecutor in this case has not called for his resignation.  In fact, if you read far and wide enough, the comments that you read about Persky are that he is a good and fair judge.  That said. . .  it's hard to find many quotes from attorneys that would criticize sitting judges.  The reason -- they have to appear before them and so do their firms.  As a result, there is no upside to criticizing a judge publicly after any case.  And that leads to the ultimate question -- is there a meaningful way to hold the judiciary accountable?  We have learned as a society that we have failed to find good ways to hold police accountable, and I think that the same holds true for prosecutors.  And now this, this, well, issue, fiasco, travesty of justice, what have you.

Turner made a terrible decision and committed a terrible act.  What the heck was he thinking?  He picked his sin, and for some reason he was fortunate enough to hire good counsel and then draw a judge like Persky, who was in a lenient sentencing mood.  And while he will have to live with those consequences forever -- being registered as a sex offender, having that on his record -- he is far from a victim here.  True, there is a lot of pressure on Stanford kids, on recruited athletes, on kids with Olympic ambitions, but almost all of them do not sexually assault unconscious women.  Yes, there is a lot of alcohol on campus and promiscuity, but, again, that Turner was drunk should by no means excuse what he did.  Most if not all sexual assaults on campus involve alcohol.  By imbibing and then overimbibing, Turner adopted some very risky behavior that does not usually lead to happy consequences and in this case led to bad ones.  He does not deserve understanding and leniency because he was caught up in a culture of alcohol and sex.  Would Judge Persky have been tougher on him had he been sober?  If so, why?  This was not a case of "he said, she said" or "when does no mean no," and I am sure there are cases that are ambiguous and can be most difficult for triers of fact because, well, the facts are not clear.  We all have to allow for the fact that everyone is entitled to a defense and that sometimes the accused did not do it.  But here, two witnesses caught up to Turner after they caught him in the act.  This wasn't a case of ambiguity -- this was an out and out rape.

Much has been made of the letter that Turner's father wrote.  Turner's father might not have written the most eloquent or sensitive letter, but we all would go pretty far to get our child a good defense lawyer and then write to the judge.  Anyone who has kids can tell you that.  Privately, parents might lecture their children and hold them accountable, but everyone is entitled to a defense and family support.  That doesn't mean that a horrible crime did not take place; of course it did.  I know that there are some people who would argue that Turner did the crime and should do the time and that his parents only are further coddling him by trying to help him and protect him.  Well, parents love their kids regardless of whether they swim in the Olympics or commit a crime.  Those who are aggrieved will pick apart the case and focus on this, but I think that their time would be better spent looking at the California judicial system, sentencing guidelines, how the judge came to this decision and what can be done to make everyone more aware of problems like this on campus and how to prevent them.  And it seems that they are doing just that.

This one left me speechless.  I fully empathize with the victim and her family.  Her note -- read aloud on television -- gives us tremendous insight into what a victim goes through and how horrible her experience was.  First years in college -- and especially men -- should read it and synthesize it and try as much as possible to avoid situations that could lead to the type of behavior that Brock Turner displayed -- and should remember that any woman is someone's sister, someone's daughter, someone's good friend -- and how would you like that to happen to your sister, your daughter or your good friend?  I hope that the victim is getting the help that she needs to recover as best she can; sadly, Judge Persky's abdication of his role exacerbates her pain instead of lessening it.  And I hope that society can take a deep look into problems like the one that befell her and take steps so that no one has to endure what she did.  We will express our outrage at the system for the lenient sentence, and we will respond to that as best we can.  But the victim -- and others like her -- too quickly get forgotten.  And the only way we can solve for the broader problems is by never forgetting them, and continuing to reach out to them and embrace them. 

Atop that, we are a society that reacts after the fact and attacks symptoms rather than causes.  We might be seventy-five pounds overweight and suffer from pre-diabetes and hypertension, but we expect inexpensive pills to help us as opposed to attacking the cause by eating less and more sensibly and by exercising.  We abhor the behavior that Brock Turner displayed but yet it still goes on, much of it in all likelihood unreported.  Society needs to attack the cause of these attacks -- whether it's putting kids in college who do not belong there, treating recruited athletes like they are entitled, something special and unaccountable, creating way too much pressure on them, making alcohol too available, not offering means of dealing with mental health issues, including stress, teaching them values and ethics and good manners -- the list is perhaps endless.  That would help a great deal.  And it's very important.

Because the sister of an undergrad who goes to a party and makes the mistake of drinking too much should end up walked home to sleep it off and not sexually assaulted on asphalt behind a dumpster. 

I hope that some good can come out of the victim's eloquence and her plight, the bad environment at Stanford and on other campuses and the shocking decision from the court in California.  This type of stuff has gone on for way too long.  It's time for society to hit the reset button and do something about it.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Another Side to Former Flyers' Owner Ed Snider

Joseph Heller once wrote that "all that glitters isn't gold."  Snider, who passed away recently, was eulogized as the best sports owner in Philadelphia history and a true visionary in the world of sports.  This article here refutes that and reveals some facts about Snider that got whitewashed over the years.  When you read it, you can draw conclusions at various ends of a spectrum, either that these are lies, or that they're true but that Snider changed over the years, or that Snider's reputation was based on a foundation constructed of silly putty and wet tissues but burnished by a fawning media and his loyalty to sometimes competent and sometimes not ex-Flyers.  Read the article here.

My opinion is that Ted Beitchman's article is true.  I had heard some of the stories from family members and what Beitchman writes confirms what I had heard.  Look, Snider did develop the loyalty of his ex-players and I'm sure did a lot of good things for them and others.  But it doesn't appear that the Flyers were his idea and it seems to appear that he took advantage of Jerry Wolman's difficulties for his own personal gain.  What gets lost in the translation is that he was a horrible leader of the 76ers for 15 years and that his refusal to move away from Flyers' alumni and the 1970's style of play has kept the Flyers without a Stanley Cup since the mid-1970's (and some of that style -- the endless fighting, third men in and bench-clearing brawls -- has basically been heavily regulated and penalized). 

I'm not a hockey fan per se (I like playoff hockey), don't like the fighting aspects of the game and wonder whether any team has a multiple of fans beyond those who regularly attend the games.  The game is hard to follow on television and it's hard to identify with players who wear headgear. 

At the end of the day, I thought that the press missed out on the real Snider the way they missed out on baseball's steroids scandal.  They referred to him as "Mr." long past when they referred to any other figure as Mr.  I just couldn't figure out why.  He owned a sports team, cut an unbelievable and virtually unaccountable deal with the Roberts' family and Comcast to maintain control of a team he ceased owning (and running the 76ers horribly and the Flyers in an up-and-down fashion) and would have been fired after a few years of mismanaging the 76ers had there been any modicum of accountability and would have been fired after say five years given his history after the Flyers lack of progress.  Instead, he was put on this pedestal and given an entitlement to preside over not one but two sports teams because of what he did in the early-to-mid 1970's.  It was hard to believe and hard to take.

That doesn't make him an evil or horrible person, of course, just a person who had his successes (many, some big and all well publicized) and his failures (basically glossed over by a media who either was in awe of him or afraid of losing access or some form of retribution).  What Ted Beitchman does is to try to round out the picture of someone who was about as human in character as many others, if at times more so. 

Sometimes you just have to let it go, as Jerry Wolman did.  But other times to clarify the record the entire story should be told.  And Ted Beitchman did a good job telling it.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Cleveland Rocks or Cleveland Bricks?

A few thoughts:

1.  Because neither Steph Curry nor Klay Thompson hammer at people physically the way LeBron James or Russell Westbrook do, I suspect that many fans believe that the Warriors are a soft, finesse team.  As Kobe Bryant said the other day in an interview on ESPN Radio, both Curry and Thompson are "stone-cold killers."  For what it's worth, the NBA is becoming an outside game, which values finesse over the ability to toss the ball into the low blocks to a big man with a big rear end who can back in and put the ball off the backboard into the basket.  That big man is healthy, but having guys who can hit the three consistently is now the recipe to winning titles.

2. The Cavs are healthier and deeper than last year.  They need to show that depth more in Game Two than they did in Game 1.  Some believe that the Cavs will change their game plan and will win Game Two.  Somehow I don't think that the lapses that the Warriors demonstrated in the OKC series will recur in this one.  Last night, the Warriors had six players score in double figures.  They also have two guys who can harass LeBron James enough to make him work for everything.  LBJ had a pretty good night last night, but the Cavs bench was AWOL and for large parts so was Kyrie Irving.

3.  While I didn't post it here, I told others that I thought the Warriors would win the series in five games.  That's not because I think Cleveland is bad or worse than the Spurs or Thunder.  The Cavs are a very good basketball team.  That also takes into account the strong will and wish of LeBron to bring a title to Cleveland.  It's just that I think that the Warriors woke up and hit their stride both in the last five minutes of Game 6 against the Thunder and in Game 7 of that series.  They realized that they had to dig a little deeper.  Thompson led that effort in the fourth quarter of Game 6, and the team did a much better job as a whole in Game 7.  The Warriors are primed.  Instead of having a grueling series against the Thunder exhaust them, it sharpened their skills.  In contrast, the Cavs hardly had the challenges in the East that the teams in the West faced.  That showed in Game 1 last night.

4.  The James-Love-Irving troika is an impressive three.  While different, I'm not sure that it's as impressive as the Curry-Thompson-Green three.  It's hard to argue against the comment that James is the best player in the game.  But Love disappeared in the Eastern finals in the games in Toronto and Irving, while very good, also can be inconsistent enough that a very good team can exploit his inconsistencies.  Curry, when healthy, is at the pinnacle of the game, and Thompson almost singlehandedly in the fourth quarter of Game 6 against the Thunder saved the Warriors' playoff season.  Green is volative and voluble, a lightning rod for attention and stress, a player you want on your team but hate playing against, the type of catalyst who can combust your engine or, when he misfires, combust your team's chances with bad moments.  Based on last year in the playoffs and this year's regular season, I'll take the Warriors' troika.

5.  Of course, it's not just about three players.  The Warriors' bench outscored the Cavs' bench 42-10 last night.   That cannot continue if the Cavs are to win the championship.

6.  The series is far from over.  They say in soccer that the second goal in a game is the most important one.  Well, the second game in a series might be the most important one.  Sunday night's result will go a long way in telling us the type of series we are going to witness.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Rio Olympics Make Sense Because. . .

It's good to have the Olympics somewhere other than the First World -- Western Europe, the U.S. or Japan.  It's good to have the Olympics in one of the top ten most populated countries in the world.  The climate could be much better than Qatar's for the World Cup in six years.  Brazil's economy was once a raging tiger not so many years ago; now it is a pussycat in need of a rescue.

Its economy is a mess.  At the Confederations Cup two years ago there were massive protests complaining that a country in need of some basics was building so many stadiums for that tournament and the World Cup.  Yes, the World Cup was a success, at least through the roving eyes back in the U.S.  The stadiums looked great, the weather was tolerable, the broadcast crew the best thing since the days of ABC's Wide World of Sports, and the mural that was being painted was sublime. 

What we saw was the veneer, though.  Two years ago there were protests.  Last year there was a fa├žade.  This year the country is like the guy in the cartoon who fell into the shopping cart, got pushed, and now the shopping cart is running at Indy 500 speeds on a downhill slope toward a cliff.  The president of the country will be fired.  And then what?

Atop that, well-identified pollution problems plague the waters were rowing and sailing will be held.  Now there's the presence of the Zika virus.  Brazil's problems kind of remind me of the story behind Rasputin's death.  He was poisoned, clubbed, stabbed, shot and then thrown into the river.  When found, the cause of death was drowning.  The good news in that parable is that Rasputin was stubborn enough to hang in there.  The bad news was that he was so vilified and of such character that many wanted him dead.  Brazil, no doubt, will reveal national pride, but it has so many maladies it will be a wonder if they pull off the Olympics without a hitch, with no athletes getting sick, and without further hurting their economy. 

If you read this you like sports, but we have to ask ourselves periodically how much we emphasize sports over solving much more important problems, like hunger, human trafficking, global warming and pollution.  Building stadiums where people need basic structure or building a $62.5 million high school football stadium in a state with a lot of poor people just doesn't make a lot of sense.  There are times -- and places -- for competitions and for celebrations. 

It just doesn't seem that Rio in 2016 should be one of them or will be one of them.