Saturday, May 30, 2015

The National Significance of a Relatively Small Sports Headline

About five years ago, Princeton's lacrosse coach, Bill Tierney, announced that he was leaving Tigertown to move to the University of Denver.  The lacrosse world buzzed a bit -- on the face of it, this was a curious move because Tierney had built a juggernaut at Princeton, winning 6 national championships in 22 seasons.  The East is the lacrosse hotbed; very few schools play Division I lacrosse out west.

But there were two more important subheadings.  First, understandably Tierney moved to the best program possible out west because he and his wife were empty nesters and their three grown kids were out west and they wanted to be closer.  That made perfect sense.  The second subheading had two parts -- one, that you knew that Tierney was going to Denver to bring his all to the program and two, that it only would be a matter of time before he would build a national contender and win a title.

He built a national contender pretty quickly; he just won his first national title at Denver.

The national significance -- for years the lacrosse powers that be and are were trying to give the sport more national appeal, appeal beyond the fact that Notre Dame plays the sport and that Ohio State does. Until Denver's victory, no team outside the Eastern time zone had won a national title.  (Still, there are only a handful of Division 1 lacrosse teams outside the east coast).  A parallel could be women's basketball, where, for the longest time until perhaps the late 1970's and the early 80's, the national, big state universities had also-ran teams and the likes of Immaculata and Delta State dominated.  Well, if you argue that Denver's win might open the eyes of the bigger schools to go bigger time in lacrosse, you might see the likes of Stanford and USC and other big schools starting programs (and figuring out the balance within their athletic programs under Title IX).  And that could lead to many more schools playing Division 1 lacrosse -- in all time zones.

So, a veteran coach moved cross country to be closer to his grown children.  He builds a better program.  He wins a national title.

And now people care about the sport far beyond the East.  Denver's 2015 national title could be a defining moment for collegiate lacrosse.

Friday, May 29, 2015

The FIFA Indictments

I'm all for globalism.  I mean, why should the U.S. and Western Europe have all the fun?  Plus, if there is more fun and interesting stuff going on everywhere, perhaps there would be less violence.  In soccer terms, that means, from a theoretical standpoint, it's good to host the World Cup all over the world. 

But when you hear that Qatar was awarded the World Cup in the middle of the summer, it makes you wonder what soccer's main body was thinking.  After all, the World Cup in Brazil this past summer took place in weather hot enough that for the first time, play was stopped for the occasional water break.  What did FIFA think would happen in Doha?  That players will be allowed to play with "camelback" water sacks on their backs to enable during-the-game hydration?  Would fans be hooked up to saline IVs in 115-degree temperature.

Sorry, FIFA, but on its face, this award looked suspicious.  I mean, hold it in Qatar's winter and explain why and get the buy-in from the world's soccer leagues, fine.  That would have been less suspicious.  But in the summer -- it just did not make any sense.  And, of course, now there are allegations that certain people -- FIFA officials -- made a lot of cents out of the deal and perhaps the award to Russia for 2018.

Let's fast forward to FIFA's head honcho, Sepp Blatter, who has hired a good crisis management communications firm to try to separate himself from this alleged mess.  Either he is Sergeant Schultz from Hogan's Heroes reincarnate, suffering from dementia or truly believes that someone he can separate his leadership from what appears to be a culture where handshake greetings are of the "palms up" variety.  Or so it seems.

I've written on many occasions that we should not try people in the media and that law enforcement can be wrong, so the FIFA group deserves a good defense and its day in court.  That said, if the allegations are proven, Sepp Blatter has to go. 

The reasoning is quite straightforward -- if the allegations are true, then all this happened on Sepp Blatter's watch, which would mean that his form of leadership wasn't clear or ethical enough to dictate to his leadership that asking for bribes was forbidden.  At many companies, division leaders get terminated when lower ranking employees do criminal things because there is an automatic assumption that the culture was too lose and enable the bad behavior to occur.  Those dismissals are fast and not always right or fair, but they do send the message that the culture of the organization and integrity of the brand are more important than any single individual.

For right now, the world will watch the U.S. prosecutions unfold, and we'll all learn enough whether FIFA is really FEE-FA, a nefarious version of "pay to play."

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Big Trouble for St. Joseph's University and Potentially All Colleges -- Hazing Scandal Lawsuit

Imagine that you are a freshman athlete. 

You played all sorts of travel ball, invested in private hitting, fielding or pitching lessons, got up at very early hours on weekends for long drives to remote fields on hot days, played three games in a day, got yelled at, got dirty, used Port-a-Potties that sometimes were reminiscent of the sewer pipe that Andy Dufresne had to crawl through during his escape from Shawshank Prison, and your reward was that at some showcase tournament, a college coach came up to you and said, 'Hey, I like your game, would you consider coming to our school?'  Imagine the excitement, the rush -- I tried hard, and someone noticed.  Someone wants me!  And hey, there could be some need-based aid, merit money, other aid, this could help pay for college, too.  Maybe, maybe not, on the latter point, but then again you get to play a game you love at the college level.  Most people don't get that chance. 

You get to the college, and then all of a sudden it's like you're entering a new school in a bad neighborhood where the older girls act mean because, well, they are in charge and they can.  They force you to do humiliating things in the name of tradition and team bonding,  very humiliating things, things that go against your values and sadly the values of the Jesuits who run the school.  Things that would draw tabloid attention. 

If you speak up, you're finished.  You'll get ostracized.  You're a whiner, complainer, not a team player, a loaner, the weird girl, you don't get it, you're not part of the band of sisters, whatever.  And why?  Because you have good values and you have morals.  And God forbid, you tell your parents and they complain, well, that's just as bad if not worse.  What, are you not tough enough to stand up for yourself -- you have to go crying to mommy and daddy?  Omigod, you are such a wimp, why should we want you as a teammate.

It is this backdrop that freshman softball players at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia seemingly entered into.  And now, one of the players who was hazed is suing St. Joe's.  You can read the link to the article here

This is a troubling lawsuit.  Presumably, the plaintiff either left school out of anger, humiliation, embarrassment or being ostracized.  She will have a variety of claims, and the school will have to answer them.  St. Joe's does not want to get to a jury.  Where was the Athletic Department?  Where was the coach?  Was there training of coaches as to how to prevent hazing, teach against it, educate on it, recognize it?  Was there training of upperclassmen?  Many jurors will be parents.  Many also will have read headlines about how various dioceses dealt or failed to deal with allegations of abuse by priests (not the same topic, of course, but perhaps representative of a culture). 

If this were to go to a jury, the award could be devastating, as could a judge's opinion as to what the standard should be for a school to educate on and prevent this type of behavior.  Both could be very costly, both financially and to a school's reputation.  The damage to the victims has been done.

The plaintiff and those like her had to muster courage routinely to challenge and defeat opponents.  This time, they have to summon even more courage to challenge a school that was supposed to protect them and teammates that were supposed to be their friends. 

Once upon a time, they were young girls in pony tails, singing cheers from the bench, stealing bases and grinning on base hits or good plays in the field.  College ball was supposed to be the crowning experience, a reward for their dedication.  It shouldn't have to be an exercise in growing up way too fast and experiencing things that one should not be forced to experience. 

This case looms more largely than just a hazing incident at a relatively small, regional Catholic university.  If it is litigated, both the award and the findings could have widespread implications for athletic programs everywhere.  If institutions are smart, they'll examine their programs, policies and training to help ensure that hazing of any form does not occur.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Buster Olney's "Phillies Mount Rushmore"

You start with Steve Carlton.  Hall of Famer.

You follow with Mike Schmidt.  Hall of Famer and arguably the best third baseman of all-time.

Then you add Robin Roberts, ace of the Whiz Kids and another Hall of Famer.

And then you add. . . Jimmy Rollins?  Who, in all likelihood, will not make the Hall of Fame, even if he has had an excellent career.  To do so, you bypass Chuck Klein, an all-time great hitter and Hall of Famer and, also, Richie Ashburn, who, even dispensing with his huge popularity in Philadelphia, also was a Hall of Famer. 

I have written before that based on all-time WAR both Rollins and Chase Utley, who hold the record for being the National League's longest standing double-play combination, were borderline Hall of Famers.  Put simply, neither has had enough "good enough" years to date to warrant inclusion in the Hall.  That doesn't make them bad players, hardly.  It's just that they do not belong in the Hall of Fame, based upon where their production stands to date.

I know that you can argue that the requirements for the Hall are flawed, that there are some in there (Rabbit Maranville first among them) who do not belong, but that doesn't mean that Rollins warrants inclusion on this mountain more than either Klein or Ashburn.   He probably doesn't.

But Olney didn't seek to write the definitive piece.  He wanted to spark many conversations like this one.  Truth be told, if the Phillies' could have say seven on their Mount Rushmore, in addition to the top three, I'd add Klein, Ashburn, Rollins and Utley -- and in that order. 

And that speaks volumes about the first franchise to lose 10,000 games.  The franchise dates back to 1877, and there is hardly a crowd for this club's Mount Rushmore.  In contrast, there's such a crowd in New York that pretty soon the stars will be wearing numbers in the fifties because so many will have been retired.

Let the arguments commence!

This Headline Explains a Lot

The possibilities for commentary are endless. . .

Friday, May 01, 2015

Chip Kelly, the Philadelphia Eagles and the NFL Draft

There are coaches who have won multiple Super Bowls.

There are coaches with better records.

There are coaches who are better copy.

Yet, all 31 of those combined do not draw the attention that Chip Kelly draws by himself.  The big question before the draft was whether Kelly would offer Tampa Bay or Tennessee a deal along the lines of what the Vikings gave the Cowboys for Herschel Walker.  If history is a teacher, the student would avoid giving up a half dozen good draft picks or a combination of very good players and draft picks for a single player.  As it turned out, the mother lode the Cowboys got helped form the core of a team that would go on to win three Super Bowls in four years.  That fact, in and of itself, should have told Chip Kelly not to offer two or three number ones plus three pretty good players for the rights to draft Marcus Mariota.  That fact, in and of itself, should have compelled either Tampa Bay or Tennessee to agree to a package of Sam Bradford, Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks, this year's #1 and perhaps next year's and perhaps a #3 in either year for either team's #1 pick, under the presumption that those two teams need so much that they could fill their gaps much more quickly with a trade like this. 

But the GMs in Tampa Bay and Tennessee offered to the media that what was offered wasn't enough; Kelly offered that what was requested was too steep.  While many reporters weighed in that Kelly offer specific players, Kelly denies the suggestion.  He could well by lying -- now he has to live with those players and win with them.  Absent saying that, he risks facing a good player and getting that dreaded look that the coach is suffering his presence because he really wanted someone else. 

Now the Eagles and their fans have some certainty, to the point where the Birds should start offering Sam Bradford jerseys on their website.  Bradford, who once was an elite prospect, will go into the season as #1 on the depth chart and possibly ready to play.  If the Eagles draft wisely and land help on the offensive line and in the secondary, they could have an exciting team again.  Whether that team can win more than ten games and make the playoffs or make the playoffs and win at least one post-season game would remain to be seen. 

It was good drama while it lasted, but what was interesting was that the player the Eagles drafted (Nelson Agholor) went to USC, so Chip Kelly saw a lot of him in college (and, in fact, recruited him for Oregon).  What will happen when Kelly is so tenured that he'll not have had the benefit of recruiting the kid for Oregon, having him play at Oregon or having seen him play in the Pac-10?  Then what?

So now, instead of having Mariota mania, Eagles' fans are left wondering with how good their current team can be.  Everyone goes back to work, some will watch rounds two and three tonight (and four through seven on Saturday), listen to Mel Kiper, Jr. wax eloquent on each prospect's strengths and shortcomings -- all of that without his being accountable for how well he did or didn't do year in and year out in terms of predicting success.  The Eagles and the draft picks will say all the right things, but the proof will be in the team's record at the end of the season.  Sure, Chip Kelly and his minions can monitor the players' sleep and their diets, but. well, there won't be much excitement for a while.  The draft presented a bunch of "what-if" scenarios.  Now that Mariota is but a past fantasy, reality beckons.

And it's fraught with change and uncertainty.