Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The "Sterling Line"

In the movie "42," there was a scene where Branch Rickey asked his advisors -- publicity man Harold Parrott and scout Clyde Sukeforth -- their opinions about signing Jackie Robinson.  Sukeforth offered some interesting advice, namely, that if you break a law, people might find you clever, but if you break an unwritten code they'll ostracize you forever.  That and the Donald Sterling mess, along with Riley Cooper's situation with the Philadelphia Eagles last season and then Delmon Young's incident with an Orthodox Jewish man in New York got me to thinking.  That, and, also, Penn State football coach James Franklin's contacts with an alleged rape victim while he served in the same capacity at Vanderbilt.  And that thinking boiled down to -- when do we permit people to make mistakes, when do we have a zero tolerance policy, does it matter what race they are and comment on, does it matter how hot the issue is at the moment, does it matter as to demographics, does it matter as to who has power and influence -- and, of course, should it.

Look, it's hard to defend Sterling, and while on the one hand it's good that the NBA acted quickly on the other hand they always had better make sure that they don't railroad anyone on allegations.  The annals of history are littered with rushes to judgment, destroyed lives and souls of nations.  No, I am not martyring Donald Sterling, but let's be sure that in the same vain that everyone deserves a vigorous defense that we all be careful that everyone take care that there aren't rushes to judgment on the one hand and free passes given out because, well, there aren't many Jews in the world, baseball players are more important, Delmon Young wasn't exactly contrite, and, who the heck gives a crap because he's an average baseball player and Jews only make up 0.2% of the world's population, when compared to the demographics of the NBA players, particularly.  To me, there isn't any room for any of this behavior, period.

Which begs the question -- where is the line drawn now?  Riley Cooper stays (after a particular generous display of forgiveness from Michael Vick, among others), has a great season and gets rewarded with a big contract.  Delmon Young's career hardly skipped a beat.  Right now, James Franklin's star is rising.  Players who have slurred gays have not suffered any consequences so far as I an tell.  Has the "Sterling Line" been drawn, i.e., that there will be zero tolerance for this sort of thing in professional sports, period?  Or has it been drawn for those in positions of authority only at the ownership level?  Or has it been drawn for those in positions of authority only at the ownership level who have in their past evidence of certain discrimination?  Or has it been drawn for those in positions of authority only at the ownership level who have in their past evidence of certain discrimination and who show hypocrisy by dating women of color?  Or has it been drawn for those in positions of authority only at the ownership level who have in their past evidence of certain discrimination and who show hypocrisy in dating women of color and who are dumb enough to say things that can be repeated?

Which is it?  If the "Sterling Line" is very clear that no "bad behavior" of this sort will be tolerated, the many professional sports leagues and teams are in all sorts of trouble already.  That would be my guess.  If the "Sterling Line" is ambiguous, based on facts, circumstances, what the person's position is, demographics, etc., then it risks being akin to "trial by the media."  If it's somewhere in between, then it's going to be very hard to define.  But suppose that a Magic Johnson were to come out and say that he thinks white players are inferior and that he never trusted owners because they were white (by the way, to be crystal clear, Johnson has not, to my knowledge, said anything of the sort).  What would his punishment be?  And is the hypothetical statement I posit any worse than what Mr. Sterling said?

And therein lies the conundrum.  The matter of Donald Sterling presented an easy target.  But others might or might not.  And then what happens?   The Reverend Jesse Jackson, when he ran for President, referred to New York as "Hymietown," a direct slur on Jews.  Riley Cooper used the "n" word at a Kenny Chesney concert toward an African-American security guard.  Delmon Young had his anti-Semitic incident.  All are still around; Sterling is gone.  So the question remains -- how do we decide and who decides?

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

On Donald Sterling

If he said what he said. . . then the NBA has a big problem on its hands.

I do hedge a bit here if only because I am wary of attempts at railroading people throughout history, including the Boston Massacre, the Scottsboro Boys and the Duke men's lacrosse team.  It can be much easier to fabricate evidence against someone today if you are technologically savvy than ever before  It also can be more plausible to do so against Sterling because of the fair housing lawsuit that he lost several years ago  So I do qualify my remarks on that basis, as it would be terrible to combust a situation on fabricated evidence.  Sterling has contended, at least to some degree, that he is suing the person who makes the allegations and, therefore, the source is suspect.  Attacking the source, though, can be a tactic of someone who is caught in the act.  Deflect attention way from the subject matter to the source and the means of collecting the information.  The latter seemingly tends to happen more than the former.  But both happen.

So, assuming that Sterling said what he said, the NBA has a big problem.  At many levels.  First, can it really tolerate a racist owner?  Second, will the owners, wealthy men who have corps of lawyers and public relations artists at their beck and call, yield to public pressure to compel Sterling to sell the team? The answer to the former is "heck, no," qualified, perhaps, with a statement, "except, to a degree, perhaps, we have done so for years, without knowing it."  The answer to the latter complicates the answer to the former, because the owners don't know how to define what would justify compelling an owner to sell a team.  To do so here might mean that they could do so for other reasons as well, and then the slope could become very slippery.  The owners, at least some of them, will contend that if their by-laws aren't clear, that they are dealing with a situation akin to the First Amendment.  They'll defend almost anything an owner does, but they'll let the court of public opinion decide whether that behavior is good or not and then let consequences happen.

Except that argument fails miserably when you are trying to protect a brand and an image and an overall business.  Sure, your neighbor can spawn all sorts of junk about an ethnic group, and the sunshine on that speech theoretically will disinfect the hatred among his more reasonable neighbors.  But with a product -- professional basketball -- that logic is much more complicated.  Permit a Sterling to own a team, and what are you saying to the fans and the players about the overall brand?  That it doesn't matter what an owner's opinions are so long as he owns the team and so long as he pays the salaries?  And then that gets further complicated because Sterling might have been dumb enough to say something that got recorded, but who knows, deep down, what some other owners' thoughts are on women, religious groups, other ethnic and racial groups, etc.  (I once had someone connected with a major sports league tell me that a former leader of that league was an anti-Semite, and this person still gets trotted out as a voice of reason when controversy surrounds that sport -- but that leader did not espouse his views in public, so he gets venerated -- at least with someone like a Sterling there is transparency).

Analogous to a degree is the Penn State football situation involving Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno and Penn State.  There is no doubt that Penn State had a defective culture that failed to address the Sandusky problem.  But did that mean that Penn State violated any NCAA laws other than bringing too much negative attention to an institution that is under fire and that has made boneheaded decisions in the past?  In a certain way, the Penn State situation was akin to putting a volleyball-sized baseball on a tee for Miguel Cabrera with the World Series on the line -- the NCAA could hit that ball out of the park blindfolded.  But just as it isn't within the rules for Cabrera to slug a volleyball off a tee to win the World Series, was it really within the NCAA's purview to whack Penn State over something that affected the broader university culture horribly than specific NCAA rules (and where the irony is that Penn State is more prone to graduate its scholarship athletes than almost any other school in the country -- and with meaningful majors at that).  Make no mistake, what happened at Penn State was awful, but did it mean that the NCAA really had the right to come in as hard as it did on the football program?  Maybe it did, but there is a strong argument that it did not.  That said, it was very defensible because the underlying conduct involved the repeated assault on defenseless young boys.  Or, at least very defensible in the court of public opinion than perhaps under NCAA rules.

And that's where the slope can get dangerous.  The NCAA did what it thought it had to do, all the while being woefully inconsistent in other areas (for example, the "bread and circus" environments that some colleges subscribe to or condone, where there are almost as many personnel attending to a football team as there are deans throughout the rest of a university to help students excel).   They had an easy target, and they hit it hard.  In the case of the NBA, it will be interesting to see a) what the by-laws say and b) what the owners are willing to do, especially because someone like Sterling will litigate -- to defend his name, because he has a history of litigating and because he has the money to do so.  And the NBA is nothing if not totally conscious of its brand and what it means to the international fan base.  On the one hand, it will have to defend its brand, and, on the other, it will want to get publicity on anything other than having a racist owner in its midst.

So that's the business part of the case -- the brand, the ownership structure, the by-laws.  But then there's the bigger point, and the more important one, one where values take precedence over everything else.  It's not so much the "what" -- that is, the product, but the "how."  As in "how do we work together to put the best product on the floor," and what type of people do we want in our league.  And there, the NBA has the moral high ground.  So do the other owners.  The NBA can be at the forefront of transcending race in this country.  Most of its players are men of color.  Many of its fans are.  They have some of the best athletes in the world.  The owners shouldn't worry so much about the technicalities than can twist them up forever.  They shouldn't worry whether the microscope of scrutiny could be focused on them for some obscure reason in the future.  Assuming that Sterling said what he said, they should do the right thing -- and compel him to tun over ownership to the league and then auction the team for a reasonable price.

While technically this might be about the brand and about setting precedent and about the by-laws, it's also about something bigger than all of that.  It's about core values, about having the right people making the right decisions that help reflect the best of what the league can offer to all its constituents.  A league that makes it comfortable for people of all backgrounds, colors, races, religions and sexual preferences to feel that they can relax and enjoy themselves in a safe environment.   Sometimes you have to take a stand that might cost you money -- in this case, the legal fees that you might have to spend in battling Donald Sterling and the money you'll spend to address publicity-related issues in the case -- but that's the right thing to do.

The league should act quickly and decisively to make it crystal clear where it stands on this point.

It's time for the owners to think broadly, not so much about their investments, but about what their leadership stands for and, correspondingly, what their league stands for.  They should give Mr. Sterling the same good, due process that they give everyone else -- quickly and fairly.  And then they should act.

The NBA has a crisis on its hands, but it can turn it into an opportunity.

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.