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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Saturday, August 31, 2013

American Stadium Namers Could Take a Page from the English Premiership League on Stadium Names, But Some of the "Jersey" Sponsors in the EPL are Cheesy

Citizens Bank Park?

Lincoln Financial Field?

AT&T Park?

Qualcomm Stadium?

Stamford Bridge.

Craven Cottage.

White Hart Lane.

Carrow Road.

Sorry, but I think it's more dramatic to have a big game at Stamford Bridge than bank-of-the-moment-with-kitschy-undignified-unmemorable-commercials stadium.  Just my opinion.

That said, American jerseys are much more dignified, because you never know who your jersey sponsor in English soccer might be.  First, many of the sponsors are not English, and, second, some are related to the gaming industry, which is not a particular favorite.  Manchester United, the gold standard in the sport, has moved from AIG to Aon in recent memory.  I just couldn't imagine that you would have Tide laundry detergent as the logo for the Boston Red Sox, or Wrigley Chewing Gum on the jersey for the Cubs, or some other commercial product say on the front of the New England Patriots jersey, be it Remington Shavers or McDonald's Hamburgers.  Of course, selling that space could be pretty lucrative, couldn't it?  You could imagine that the Yankees might be able to draw $100 million a year for the naming rights to the front of their jerseys.  And that, in turn, could put more in their coffers to buy better players, develop a better farm system, etc.

So, at Stamford Bridge you have a team that has "Samsung" emblazoned on their jerseys.  At Fenway Park, the closest to an English Premiership stadium name, you have the Boston Red Sox.  Not the PF Chang's team, or the Chevron team or the Brooks Brothers team.  I suppose that you cannot have it all, but there's something to be said for not having naming rights for the front of jerseys.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Great to See Cardiff City Upset Manchester City Today

This is a big deal, so much so that the fans stayed at the stadium for a while to let it soak in.

To give Americans a perspective:

1.  Unlike U.S. sports leagues, the English soccer league system (and others) involves both relegation and elevation.  So, every year, the worst three teams in the top league, the Premier League, get relegated to the next league in the pecking order, the Championship League.  Correspondingly, the top 3 teams in the Championship League get elevated to the Premier League (and what's particularly exciting is that there is a playoff game -- rather unique in English football -- for the last of the three spots and all the spoils -- revenue in the tens of millions -- for the third and final spot).

2.  Cardiff City had a great year in the Championship League last season and was automatically elevated, joining another Welsh team, Swansea, in the Premier League.

3.  Manchester City is starting to resemble the New York Yankees under George Steinbrenner, albeit without the pedigree (nearby Manchester United has the Yankees' premier pedigree, but now lacks the abundant funds that an oil-rich sheikh from the Middle East has bestowed upon Man City).  Lots of great players play for Man City, which two years ago won its first Premier League title in 45 years on the last day of the season in the final minutes.  Man City now views with Chelsea, owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramowitch, for the title of the big bad wolf among high spenders in a somewhat-out-of-control Premiership (when it comes to spending).  The second 11 in the Man City organization is more highly rated than the first eleven for Man City.

4.  So, you would have figured that today Many City, with all its international stars -- Belgian defender Vincent Kompany, Argentine striker Sergio Aguero, Bosnian striker Edin Dzeko and many, many others -- would have walloped its hosts and left them and their fans wondering about how big a gulf it is between the Premier League and the Championship League.  Instead, Cardiff City held on for a 3-2 win to shock the Premiership and the entire soccer world.

5.  The American equivalent?  Take the winner of one of the AAA baseball leagues -- Scranton-Wilkes Barre, Lehigh Valley, Sacramento, Albuerquerque, whomever -- with the same roster -- and go visit the St. Louis Cardinals, Tampa Bay Rays or Detroit Tigers and win a five-game series (a rough equivalent in baseball).  Could it happen?  Possibly, but unlikely.  That is what happened today.

6.  Of course, Man City will round into form and get its lineup set, and Cardiff City's lineup could get exposed, but for a single day today, Cardiff City played the giant killer, and the whole soccer world watched, with the sentimentalists and romanticists among them praying and hoping that the six minutes of extra time -- huge in the soccer world -- wouldn't enable Man City to come back for a tie.  The soccer gods smiled kindly on Cardiff City, and, in turn, its players and fans will smile widely for a long time.

That's why they play the games.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Baseball Writers' Criticism of Ryan Braun is Hypocritical

Where were they when. . .

Lenny Dysktra showed up at spring training twenty pounds heavier looking buffed?

When Barry Bonds' head size grew four-fold?

When Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, sporting tight-end physiques, battled to break Roger Maris' record?

The list goes on and on.

So this morning I had to listen to Buster Olney, one of the Knights of the Keyboard, and one who totally missed questioning steroid-inflated performances, going into some depth on "Mike & Mike" about the faults in Ryan Braun's apology for using PEDs.

My first reaction was, "really, who appointed you judge and jury?"  Next was, "where the heck were you when this whole thing began, when you first began to see evidence?"  Next was, "you rode the wave, you enjoyed the heroics and the records, but you questioned nothing because you were afraid that a puffed up player might whack you or that the players' fraternity might shut you out.  Had you spoken up, the world would have reacted and revolted, and MLB could have ended this mess much, much earlier."

Gammons.

Verducci.

Stark.

Olney.

Kurkjian.

Conlin.

Others.

Hal Bodley apologized for his profession's major whiff at what could have been a huge story.  I have forgiven the miss, but I haven't forgotten.  So it strikes me as totally weird when Olney goes into some depth on this topic.  Sure, he has to cover it, but does he have to dissect it?

He's lucky that no one dissected his writing during the steroid era.  Talk about missing a ball put on a tee.  Who holds the Knights of the Keyboard accountable?

No one.

They have the best seat in the house.

They can be glorified fans.

They think they're protecting the game, but are they?  Aren't they protecting their good seat and the "in" they have with the insiders?

I'm not sure.  But the Steroid Era was disgusting, and they watched it but didn't cover it.

They were too busy elegizing those who were breaking records and cheating.

Instead of covering the real story.

I am not defending Ryan Braun.  He cheated.  But I don't really want to hear too much analysis from reporters who got away with Major League malpractice and still are around to cover the game.  That's equally bothersome.

Had they done their jobs, MLB would have cleaned itself up a while ago, so broad and loud would have been the public's disgust.  You wouldn't have had the Steroid Era, just a few steroid years.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

English Premier League on NBC

A few thoughts:

1.  Will Americans get up at 7:30 a.m. on the East Coast on a weekend to watch soccer?  I would venture to say that they will not do so in the other time zones.  It's just too early.

2.  I wonder if English soccer is going through what American baseball is going through.  The latter seems to favor -- when it comes to winning a championship -- teams that grow their talent at home versus teams that acquire great talent.  Compare and contrast, in baseball, the New York Yankees with, say, the St. Louis Cardinals, among others.  The former have bought players galore, and most recently that strategy hasn't worked for them.  The latter tend to be more patient, tend to have less money, and they've won the second most number of World Series save the mighty Yankees.   In the Premier League, Manchester City and Chelsea represent oil and oligarch money, while Manchester United (albeit with American ownership) has tended to grow its players at home more.  The latter has won more than half of the titles in the Premiership.  Man City did win its first title in 45 or so years a few years ago, but its great assemblage of talent fell short last season.  Put differently, Arsenal's coach, Arsene Wenger, has feared an "arms race" among some of the world's wealthiest people and has suggested a salary cap.

The same way we've wondered what's in it for perennial also rans in baseball such as Kansas City and Pittsburgh (both of whom are on the rise now, but who have suffered long droughts), you have to wonder what's in it for the likes of Fulham, West Ham, Sunderland and teams like that.  They don't really have a chance to qualify for the Champions League or win the Premiership.  Sure, their fans keep coming back the way you keep on celebrating holidays with family, but ultimately will they keep on doing so?

3.  While Aston Villa did outplay Arsenal and upset them, the referee in that game was abysmal.  It's hard to have a comparable discussion in U.S. sports, except, perhaps, for basketball referees.  Umpires rarely decide a game in baseball, and instant replay should help them solve for close calls other than balls and strikes.  Sure, a big play can alter an American football game, but both baseball and football are high scoring enough that calls usually don't determine the outcome.  Compare those games with soccer, where games frequently are decided by a goal.  Well, today, (the relatively young) referee Anthony Taylor lost control of the game, and made an awful call in the second half calling a penalty on Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny that gave Aston Villa  a penalty shot and, as a result, a 2-1 lead.  Koscielny also was issued a yellow card, which figured prominently about 10 minutes later when he was given a second yellow, which automatically results in a red card and an ejection.  While Aston Villa won 3-1, you could argue that Arsenal's aggressive play in the last third of the game resulted from its being down 2-1 and trying to salvage a tie.  That aggressiveness caused Arsenal to bring its defenders way up, and for the third goal Aston Villa took advantage of both having a man advantage and that strategy to score its third goal.  Absent the bad call by Taylor, you could argue the game ends at 1-1.

Atop that, Taylor didn't set a no-nonsense tone early, and particularly the Aston Villa players preyed upon his permissiveness.  Taylor seemed to have handed out an even number of cards, but it's hard to argue that Arsenal (despite Jack Wilshere's temper) was as physically aggressive as Aston Villa.  Put differently, you would have thought from watching the game that Taylor would have red carded a Villa player before an Arsenal player.

Aston Villa did get some outstanding play, particularly from its strikers and its goalie, the American, Brad Guzan.  Yet, the official's call was so crucial. . . well, it had a fundamental effect on the outcome. It's hard to see right now how that will play in the U.S., but, then again, unless there are hundreds of thousands of Arsenal partisans in the U.S., I doubt that the average viewer watched the match with the same eye it would for his favorite team in another sport.

4.  Was this game really a coming of age for Aston Villa, or was Arsenal just bad?  The latter had questionable play from its goaltender, two lunky defenders, suffered a bunch of injuries and had lackluster striker play.  While Aston Villa had a hand in that play, I am not sure how much the game said about Aston Villa as it did about Arsenal.

5.  The announcers were not all that memorable.  That's both good -- they are Brits and didn't say anything culturally stupid -- and bad, as they showed up more as "standard issue" broadcasters than say the pair of Ian Darke and Steve McMenamin, who led ESPN's team when ESPN had the rights.  This, of course, will change.  We don't require our broadcasters to be memorable; they worked well enough.

6.  The studio commentary needs some work.  The trio provided okay analysis, but none of the pizzazz that American football studio crews provide.  We also need to know the significance, historically, of those who are providing information.

It's great to see the English Premier League live on television in the U.S.

So far, so good.

Even if my Arsenal team got off to a disastrous start.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Washington Nationals Should Hire Charlie Manuel

When the Phillies were looking to replace Larry Bowa, they opted for first baseman Jim Thome's former manager, Charlie Manuel, who knows how to manage talent and did a great job with the Cleveland Indians, even if his Tribe team lost to the Florida Marlins in the World Series.  Manuel proved to be a good manager for a good nucleus of budding stars, guiding them to the playoffs in 2007 and to the world championship in 2008.  Had Brad Lidge had half as awful a season as he did in 2009 (when the Phillies lost to the Yankees in the WS and when Lidge had the worst season of any closer in ML&B history), the team might well have beaten the Bronx Bombers in the 2009 Series.  The team ran into the Giants' red-hot pitching in 2010, but had Cliff Lee been able to do what he was paid mightily to do -- be a stopper -- (he blew a 4-0 lead after 1 inning in Game 2 of the NLDS against the Cardinals, giving the Cardinals the confidence and impetus to go on to win a WS) -- they might have won three titles in five years.  Okay, so that's a lot, but they could have won two.

Manuel did a good job with motivated, talented players, reminding me of a comment that Sparky Anderson made when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame (and his introducer remarked that he was a great manager).  Anderson looked up at the sky while giving his speech and wondered aloud:  "Great manager?  I was blessed to have a  front office that gave me great talent, and I was smart enough to stay the hell out of their way."  Put differently, the '08 Phillies didn't need to be stamped out of a mold; they needed steering.

Any team sound familiar?

The 2012 Nationals flexed their muscles and announced their arrival as a major force in the Majors.  This year, they have flat out underachieved, and the rumors have swirled that Davey Johnson might be out as their manager.  They don't need a Billy Martin/Larry Bowa drill sergeant type.  They need someone who can appeal to the potential greatness that the Nats' core of position players and starting pitchers have.  The team has much more talent than the Phillies, and Manuel has had winning seasons in all but two of his years as a Major League manager.

He also looks to be in good shape, looking big, strong and more relaxed than in a while during his "exit" press conference (at which no one mentioned that he was fired).  Clearly, he had some difficulty trying to manage the various moves that GM Ruben Amaro had made, and the team had struggled for most of the season.  A leader like Carlos Ruiz got busted for the first 25 games for Adderrall use, and then set-up man Antonio Bastardo loses 50 games for his deployment of success in a bottle, vial or tube courtesy of the folks at Biogenesis.   Over the years, he juggled injury-prone lineups mightily, doing some fine work in 2010 particularly when at one time he won pretty consistently playing the likes of Cody Ransom, Juan Cruz, Juan Valdez and Dane Sardinha.  Players loved him and still do; he's patient, he's wise, and he knows when to draw the line and enforce discipline.

Translated, he's just what the Nationals need -- a proven, patient winner.  Sure, he won't win awards for dazzling speeches, but it's not how it's said, it's what's said, and his players respond.  He was beloved in Philadelphia, more so than Larry Bowa, whom the fans liked a great deal as a player, and perhaps even more so than Dallas Green, who managed the team to its last World Series victory before 2008.

Yes, he's getting up there in years, but (and I've been quoting him a lot lately), as Bill Parcells once said, "you are what your record says you are."  Now, that might be a bit more generous to Manuel as a Phillie (who had very good talent) and totally unfair to Terry Francona during his tenure (where he had to manage glorified AAA talent, plus Scott Rolen and Curt Schilling).

Charlie wins.

Washington has tons of talent.

Seems like an opportunity.

On the Phillies' Firing of Charlie Manuel

Here are some things to consider:

1.  Under GM Ruben Amaro, the team has declined, from a WS appearance in '09 to missing the playoffs in 2012.  Last time I checked, the GM and the front office selects the players, not the skipper.

2.  As I have written many times before, the team got progressively older under Amaro's tenure.  Apparently, his nickname among fellow GMs is Ruben "No Tomorrow" Amaro.  Statistics demonstrate that as team age, performance declines and players get more injured.  The Phillies' teams over the past several years have borne that out.

3.  When the Phillies won it all in 2008, they had almost no one under a big contract.  They gave a pretty good-sized deal to closer Brad Lidge, whose performance fell off the table.  Big contracts, long-term contracts, have hurt the Phillies.

4.  Had the Phillies won it all in '09 (and had Lidge not had the worst season in the history of closers, they might have) or in '11 (up 1-0 in the NLDS, Cliff Lee blew a 4-0 lead after one inning to the Cardinals, who got re-born and endued up winning it all), we might not have had this decision or conversation.  Two WS wins in five years smacks of a dynasty.

5.  Give Charlie Manuel credit.  When he got here, the press ridiculed him.  Daily News columnist Bill Conlin dubbed him "Elmer Befuddled" because of his West Virginia style.  By 2008, he was the most beloved skipper in Philadelphia since Dick Vermeil (who resurrected the Eagles when he arrived in the mid-1970's and was beloved).  He did a good job here.  Yes, he had some good players, but he helped get them to the top.  No one can take that away from him.

6.  Ryne Sandberg won't make much of a difference unless he has the players, the team gets younger and it can stay healthy.  I do not believe that the aging DP combo of Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, both of whom have done a lot of good work in this town, will age well.  Their injury history is too vast.  Also, no one knows what the team will get out of a very disappointing/declining Ryan Howard.  Once he signed the big contract, that was it.  His case is not unique around the Majors, as many who have signed big contracts have not performed well.  Managers in baseball don't make nearly the difference as, say, NFL coaches, so the root cause of the Phillies' problems is not the manager.

7.  The team is negotiating a new TV contract, TV viewership is down, attendance is down, Carlos Ruiz was busted for Adderrall late last year and set-up man Antonio Bastardo was busted in the Biogenesis sting.  Roy Halladay has an iffy wing, Cole Hamels is having a bad year, Jonathan Papelbon says silly things and looks like he's in decline.  None of that is Manuel's fault.

8.  This decision is window dressing,  The Phillies want to get "younger," when they should have been doing so right after they won the WS.  Ironically, the decisions they made when they were on top came back to haunt them.  While Amaro gets credit for the Ibanez signing, the likable LF had one-half a good season in his three years in Philadelphia.  He got off to a great start and then had an overall terrible OBP, despite late-season clutch heroics for the Yankees last season and his defying time for the Mariners this season.  I've beaten that horse before, but the decisions were ownership's and Amaro's, and not Manuel's.

9.  For what it's worth. . . Manuel looks ten years younger at the press conference.

10.  Prediction:  He's the next manager of the Washington Nationals.  And he will lead them to victory in the World Series.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

In Advance of the World Cup 2014, a Few Observations and Questions

1.  Who are the favorites?

2.  Can Spain repeat its magic (although it did not win the Olympics), or will Father Time demand that someone else take over?

3.  Can Brazil host the World Cup and then the Olympics without a hitch?

4.  Will the U.S. realize that until its best athletes a) play soccer and b) start for the major European teams, the best they can hope for is getting to the elimination round?

5.  Will France regroup after the horror show that they staged in South Africa?

6.  If there are questionable calls in games, will people attribute them to the organized crime magnate in Singapore who is alleged to have fixed matches in Serie A and elsewhere in Europe?

7.  Am I wrong to predict a Germany-Brazil final?

8.  The oddsmakers will predict a Brazil win, right?

9.  Can Belgium, with some serious talent, be a dark horse?  Can the Belgians make it to the semifinals?

10.  Will England try to pick its best players and not just its biggest names, some of whom are past their prime?

11.  Can the Dutch make another deep run, and, if so, can they play a bit cleaner than they did in 2010?

12.  Is there anyone else who I am missing, outside having not mentioned Italy and Portugal?

Food for thought.

Thoughts?

Monday, August 12, 2013

That the Phillies Have Played Michael Martinez in CF for the Past Four Games

tells you all you need to know.

They are not a good baseball team.

To quote Bill Parcells, who knows a little bit about excellence, "you are what your records says you are."

Who knows how good the position players are in the farm system, other than to know that by most accounts many of the good ones are far way.  Which means that some will utter the fateful line, "Mom, I'm coming home.  They're throwing curves."

Martinez is not a good baseball player.  That it took him a long time to make it to the Majors and that the rising Nats let the Phillies grab him several years back in the Rule 5 draft ought to tell all fans something, that the Phillies are (still) trying to turn someone else's junk into their own brand of joy.  But it's just not working.  For those who remember Mike Easler, a slugger for the Pirates who didn't come up until his late twenties and then hit the cover off the ball, guys like him are few and far between.  There was a reason that Martinez took so long to make it to the Majors and there's a reason why his numbers aren't very good.  The quality of his play is what the "standard" numbers says it is -- terrible.

Let's also not get giddy about the newly re-signed Chase Utley's confidence in GM Ruben Amaro and his ability to reload the team and have it contend soon.  Utley made a business decision.  He and his wife split their time between a multi-million dollar condominium in Center City Philadelphia and San Francisco.  He's won his World Series, and he probably got a better deal from the Phillies than he might have gotten elsewhere, especially risking a blown knee or hip in the last several months of the season.  Also, it stands to reason (perhaps) that none of the West Coast teams offered enough value or were interested in him.  The Padres just aren't that good, and the Giants have foundered.  The Angels have problems, and the Dodgers already have a huge payroll.  That left the A's, but, then again, Amaro decided that he wants Utley to be a cornerstone and to teach the younger guys what it's like to be excellent and win.

Which means that if they keep shortstop Jimmy Rollins, they'll make a latter-day run of reprising the noted and very good double play combination that Detroit ran out there in the 80's and early 90's -- Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker.  But, let's also remember that that duo won one and only one World Series -- in 1984, when they helped their team get off to a 35-5 start.  They had very good careers, but no more titles.  History suggests that Rollins and Utley will have okay seasons throughout, but unless new talent helps lead the team offensively and a sad bullpen gets rebuilt, the team will not have the success that Amaro and perhaps Utley think that they will.  Then again, if you watched the press conference with Utley, his eyes were looking everywhere but at the camera or the interviewer, suggesting either a) he's just uncomfortable with the media, b) he's uncomfortable talking about himself or c) the proffered reason for re-signing -- that the Phillies can win -- isn't the real reason (which is it's convenient, a good deal, and I'd like to finish my career with one team).

The Braves are overachieving, but their core is younger and their bullpen terrific.  The Nats have greater potential than the Phillies and are one of the biggest disappointments this year.  But the future bodes better for them than it does for the Phillies -- they are younger and have many more exciting prospects than the Phillies.  And, lest anyone forget, the Phillies team than won it all in '80 was a very disappointing fourth in '79, and that was with the newly signed free agent, Pete Rose.  Which means that with a baseball version of a chiropractic realignment, the Nats could be just fine in 2014.

But Michael Martinez?  An aging core?  Hoping that Roy Halladay has something left in the tank?  A bullpen that seems bereft even if Baseball Prospectus had indicated in its yearbook that the Phillies discovered a lot of live arms in the latter half of last season.

Sorry, Charlie (and really Ruben and Dave), but the formula might just not work.  History and the numbers suggests that you're pushing a big rock up a big hill.

Michael Martinez starting four straight games in center field?

Where are Steve Jeltz and Ricky Otero?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

An American Original Passes Away

And some of the best things about him was that he was kind, generous and humble.  

His name:  Dick Kazmaier.  I won't write more about him, as the writing in the linked piece is much better than I could muster.

A friend was at a Princeton alumni event once.  He himself had played football at Princeton, albeit thirty years after the Heisman Trophy winner did.  My friend was recruited by big-time schools, but went to Princeton instead (something about getting the chance to play quarterback along with the academics).  He and a few classmates of his were talking to this very nice older alum, who shared his experiences about attending Princeton, studying there and playing sports there.  The conversation lasted about a half hour, and not once did the older gentleman talk about his own accomplishments, which were vast.  It was only at the end of their conversation that the men exchanged handshakes and caught each others' names, with the older gentleman offering his name last.  "It's nice to meet you," he said.  "My name is Dick Kazmaier."

My friend walked away from the conversation about as impressed as he'd been from a conversation.  For it's not every day that you meet a legend, and it's even less frequent when the legend exceeds what you might have thought he would have been like.

It seems like with many of his actions, Dick Kazmaier grew his legend through a form of everyday greatness that we do not see enough of.  It wasn't like he was anointed from the start; he joined a great program as fifth on the depth chart at his position, applied himself, and then broke out as a star.  Through it all, through what he did, through the little things, he showed how special he really was.

P.S.:  I was away on vacation when the news of his passing reached me, but I would have been remiss not to mention it in these pages.


Saturday, August 10, 2013

Report from England: The Football Culture

We don't have anything like it in America, I don't think, probably because our geography is so vast and teams and their fans are so spread out.  Atop that, where teams are in the same city, they aren't in the same league, and, when they play each other, it's not all that frequently. 

In contrast, England is a much smaller country, having about one-fifth the population of the United States.  The English Premiership has twenty teams, eighteen of which are in England (two, Swansea and Cardiff, are in Wales).  Atop that, six Premiership teams -- Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Fulham, West Ham and Crystal Palace -- are in the London area (a few more -- Queens Park Rangers, Charlton Athletic and Watford -- have been back and forth between the next level down and the Premiership over the years, and, being an American who has newly found international soccer, I am totally sure that my knowledge is incomplete, sometimes wrong and not so infrequently na├»ve).  That said, everyone has a favorite team, and there are lower-division teams in the London area as well.  Many of them.

Your taxi driver might root for Chelsea.  Someone working at Heathrow Airport might be a Manchester United fan, even though Manchester is on the other side of the country.  Your tour guide for the Rock 'n Roll hotspots in London might root for Tottenham, while the guy who works a ticket booth at your local Underground stop might root for Arsenal.  Moving toward the Liverpool Street tube stations and Spitalfields Market, you could find more West Ham fans (for some reason I do not know yet, West Ham is on London's East End, will inherit the Olympic Stadium and perhaps draw a rich suitor from the United Arab Emirates or Russia who will want to vie with United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, and Liverpool to see who gets one of four coveted Champions League spots). 

Imagine you live in New York, a city that has twenty million people living in the area.  Imagine that there's a team called Greenwich Village, a team called Gramercy, a team called Manhattan West, another called Manhattan East (the former located on the Upper West Side and the latter located on the Upper East Side), a team called Bronx, a team called Brooklyn and one called Staten Island, not to mention Long Island and, well, you get the picture).  Put them all in the same elite league, have a next-level league to which the worst three of twenty teams gets relegated for the poorest of performances, and have people all over the five-borough area rooting passionately for their different teams.  Have this league be among the best in the world, drawing the elite players from South America, Europe and Africa, and have this sport be the sport that everyone cares about the most -- more than baseball, American football, basketball (in England's case, cricket and rugby), and you'll develop an intensity that doesn't exist in America. 

It's not because it's about soccer, though.  It's easy for Americans to disregard soccer, say it's not coming hard to America, say it's not going to threaten baseball.  But what's hard to dispute is that there is one sport that almost everyone places above all others (save, perhaps, when a Brit can win Wimbledon) in such a concentrated area.  So, couple the sport that everyone agrees upon with compressed geographical proximity (even Liverpool, which has several Premiership teams in the area, is only about a two and a half hour train ride from London) and you'll see an intensity that cannot happen in America because we're so spread out.  I will be open to arguments, however, that Philadelphia's Big Five in college basketball before, say, the mid-1980's, the ACC on North Carolina's Tobacco Road (basketball only) and the SEC for football perhaps can match this intensity.  Sometimes, but not always.

So when NBC Sports features the Premiership, assuming that the announcers are totally ensconced in the English soccer culture, sample, watch, appreciate the skill, and try to capture the intensity.  It's a great game because there are 45 minutes of action twice in a game, no time outs, no clock stoppage, no out of bounds, no innings, no huddles.  The fans chant, attend no matter what, and carry on their rivalries all over the country.  The Underground is speckled with ads indicating how you can access the Premiership on your mobile phone, pubs all tout that you can watch the Premiership there, and Skyy sports advertises all over the places that the games are coming.

All I ask is that you read a little bit, try to discern the difference between Man U and Man City, know what "Better Dead Than Red," might mean in the United Kingdom, can identify Arsene Wenger, Roman Abramovitch, Wayne Rooney, Joe Hart, and soak it up a little bit.  Not at the expense of your football Saturdays or Sundays or the World Series or Midnight Madness in October.  Just arise a bit earlier on Saturdays or Sundays and catch the Premiership -- and the intensity -- when you can.

You might just enjoy it.

College Football's Arms Race, Part II: Oregon's Facilities

Take a look at this.

I am not sure that the owners of the St. Regis, Four Seasons, the Connaught in London or even the legendary Cesar Ritz could have come up with something like this.  And if they had, people would have remarked, "That's pretty neat and something you would expect from a luxury hotel chain that specializes in small details and the best comforts for its guests -- guests who are in the top 0.5% of the earners in the world and who like the best of the best -- and the latest -- in accommodations."  Save the mention of income, and you could imagine that the marketing departments of those chains would come up with copy that would tout all of the wonders of this facility. 

But take away the luxury hotel chains and think about this -- this is a college football program. 

And think about how expensive college is for the average family.  Think about how much debt some kids incur.  Think about how the albatross that that debt can be can stratify a society, can cause kids to marry later and perhaps not have kids and therefore not fortify a society that has done some amazing things in a relatively short time period.  An innovative society in so many ways, starting with a sustained form of government that is relatively young for the history of the world.  Think about what the purpose of colleges should be, versus what some have become.  And think about revenue-generating college athletic programs.

(I won't delve into the raging debate about whether college athletes should receive stipends or a share in the revenue of the sports in which they participate.  That will be for another post because there are big-time, BCS schools and Division III schools, and my guess is that ultimately if revenue is shared we'll have a greater separation between the big-time schools and everyone else.  There are interesting arguments on both sides, but let's put them in the proverbial parking lot for the moment.  I would submit -- and have you think deeply about -- whether the professionalism of college sports is a good thing given the magnitude of the problems our society needs to face, from an aging population, an expensive healthcare system and poorly funded public pension funds, among others).

So now we have Oregon's Ninth Wonder of the World -- this amazing complex that leaves nothing to the imagination, because both Phil Knight and Chip Kelly seemingly thought of everything.  And that underscores the question of the day -- whether, when historians write about the decline of the American influence on the world, they will point to tangents like this that overtook our society to such a degree that we neglected to put our best minds on problems that matter a whole lot more than whether a team that has not been a historical power can become a dominant one?  To me, something like this is evidence of just that.

Phil Knight is an American original and innovator and in many ways should be admired.  Chip Kelly is a football innovator who has done some amazing things with football.   But what I question is the extreme emphasis placed on this game.  Sure, Knight is free to donate the money as he wishes, and perhaps Oregon would have been foolish to decline the gift.  But doesn't this seem excessive?  Couple facilities with this with the non-coaching "staff" that I blogged about recently and that has become another arms race (Nick Saban has 24 of such "staff" at an average salary of roughly $75,000 a year)?  Is that wise?  Is that good?

I expect football fanatics to wholeheartedly disagree with me, and I expect alums of these big-time schools who love football and the overall experience to chastise me, too.  Sure, I'm from Pennsylvania, and Penn State has not done stuff like that (yet, perhaps), and holds itself out differently (and at great cost, and, yes, something terrible happened around that program over the course of the past decades).  And I am not jealous of Alabama and Oregon or trying to "dumb them down" so that Penn State and others won't fall too far behind.  But can't there be a medium here?  I know that the NCAA is cumbersome, ineffective and sometimes misses the point, but this arms race doesn't seem to bode well for anyone in the long run.

Especially the communities the universities are supposed to serve and the students the institutions are supposed to serve.   With the excessive and almost criminal costs of college in this country, we owe our students a lot more than beer parties, tailgates and a euphoric feeling that one can say, "I met Nick Saban at a coffee shop" or "yeah, I was there when they won three titles in four years."  Sure, some memories like that are fun, but isn't college supposed to help prepare us for our careers, to be better members of society and to better society?  While it is true that alums from generations ago might have been less specialized and that their careers didn't necessarily derive from their majors, the difficulties in finding a job and the expense of college have compelled students and parents to take a much different look at college, far from looking at where junior can have a good time and go into the family business to where junior can best prepare for her and his next steps in life, such are the costs and such is the competition. 

And because of that, I would submit that our universities owe everyone much better leadership and stewardship than to permit sports programs from becoming bigger than any institution.  The Oregon facilities are spectacular, but can anyone convince me that Oregon's football program does not have a disproportionate influence on all things at Oregon?  And why is that good for anyone save those intimately involved with the Oregon program?

The advent of non-coaching staffs and facilities that rival St. Regis resorts is not a good thing.  It's the beginning of a destructive arms race that suggests are society's priorities are (somewhat) warped.  That's not to say that college athletics cannot do a bunch of good things; they do.  It's just to say that in the case of BCS football programs, some are out of proportion to the overall educational mission and many will get that way. 

And we should question whether that's the type of society we want, and whether this emphasis is what our society needs.