Thursday, March 31, 2016

Book Review: "NFL Confidential: True Confessions from the Gutter of Football" by Johnny Anonymous

Johnny Anonymous is the pseudonym for a back-up offensive lineman living on the margins of the National Football League.  His writing will not make anyone forget the works of Jerry Kramer and Dave Meggysey, although it is surprising that few if any have attempted to write a book on what the grind in the NFL is like.  It's a hard-hitting, macho game, one where the code of "what goes on in the locker room, stays in the locker room" is held near and dear.  Even with the omnipresence of social media and the mainstream media. 

In sitting down to write this review, I had a lot of false starts.  One thought that kept coming to mind was something Truman Capote once wrote in a book review -- "This isn't writing, it's typing, and not very good typing at that."  Sadly, that thought continued to loop, because, quite frankly, while the book has some interesting moments, overall it is not very good.

There are some interesting points -- about racial divides, about the insensitivity of coaches, about playing in pain, but the main problem with the book is that the writer is just not likable.  He gives you nothing that makes you want to root for him.  And I'm not talking about the fact that he's not appreciative that he has unique talents that enable him to do something that many fans dream of.  Forget about that -- it's a harsh game that can have long-lasting consequences on a player's health.  No, it's just that Anonymous is a skeptic and smart ass at best and a cynic and jackass at worst. 

Oh, he seems to be a decent teammate, trying to use humor and sensitivity to bond with his fellow offensive linemen, whom he either bewilders or for whom he is a sense of amusing relief.  But his life is not all that interesting -- it's the NFL grind, an odd relationship with a significant other and no real interests off the field that make you want to care about what he does when he is in the locker room or on the field. 

Maybe that is the point of it all -- it's hard work, it's not that interesting, and there are risks to it.  Atop that, if you are not a star, you don't feel the sense of teamwork and comradery that the head coach, who basically is a name and about whom we learn almost nothing, must preach for the team to excel.  In a certain sense, Anonymous is a hamster on a wheel, trying to take breaks when he can, although cognizant that he doesn't own the wheel or the schedule as to who has to be on it when. 

If you read anything about the NFL, you'll read this.  If you glorify the NFL and think that being a player is a glamorous job and what are they all worried about, think again and read the book.  If you are looking for compelling insights about how a back-up lineman approaches his work and goes about his job and tries to fit in, skip this.  Because Anonymous doesn't develop those thoughts much if at all.  Atop that, he is ambivalent about whether he wants to continue as a player. 

But it's not an internal debate about whether to continue because he is having the same thoughts as former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, who wanted to walk away from the game before he started limping away from it.  Yes, long-term health concerns figure into this, but Anonymous just doesn't know whether he has the passion for the game the way some other teammates do.  His problem, in a nutshell, is that he has other possibilities and talents.  Those with no back-up plan and no other talents where they can command as much money are less ambivalent.  As with any vocation, those who show more interest and commitment tend to do better.

In the end, you don't know what to figure about Anonymous.  Many questions abound.  Do you dislike the fact that the book is written anonymous?  Do you like him because he is ambivalent or dislike him because he is not as transparent as he is trying to be?  Did you learn anything more about the workings of an NFL team than you had read before?  Do you dislike him because he is a sarcastic guy who has trouble following along? 

A worthy read?  Not really.  Why did I read it?  Because I hoped it would be the next in a line of "inside" books that shared depth of thought about what goes on within an NFL team.  While there is some good stuff in the book, there just isn't enough to cause me to recommend it.

Five U.S. Women's Soccer Players File Complaint with EEOC for Equal Pay

You can read the gist of it here 

Their union is negotiating with USA Soccer for more money.  Right now, they are paid one-fourth of what the members of the men's team are.  They generate comparable revenues and have been more successful.  Tactically, the five biggest names are the complainants -- Lloyd, Morgan, Rapinoe, Sauerbrun and Solo.  These are not marginal players.  These are not players the team can do without.

It also is arguable that several of these players have much more significant name recognition than any member of the U.S. men's team, or at least those not named Dempsey and Howard. 

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.  The bet here is that the parties will resolve this before the EEOC has a chance to weigh in. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Kobe Bryant's Parting Gift to the Lakers

could be resolving the awful intrasquad conflict that D'Angelo Russell created.  You can run a search engine and run down the story, but suffice it to say that Russell taped a conversation with a teammate, that tape got out, and that tape revealed some private behavior (not illegal) by the teammate that is less than flattering.  Right now, Lakers not named Russell are handling the issue by avoiding the very young and obviously immature point guard. 

It goes without saying that in addition to being a bad basketball team with a lame-duck coach and retiring megastar, the Lakers are a mess. 

Wounds like these, no, chasms like these, are hard to heal.  They could take years, and the problem is that careers are so short in the NBA that the Lakers do not have years.  They can try to peddle Russell, but right now he is damaged goods and it would be hard to determine what locker room, if any, would welcome him. 

Russell made a mistake.  He probably is hurting.  He did something that he cannot take back.  But how many young people have not made mistakes?   Okay, this is a big one, as it speaks to trust and integrity.  My guess is that Russell is learning a painful lesson and a mentor or two will guide him on how to behave in the future.  It stands to reason that Russell could so reform himself as a result of this behavior that he could transform himself into one of the best teammates a teammate could want -- if he gets the chance.

And that's where Kobe can come in, even if he only has eight more games as a Laker.  He can take Russell aside, talk with him about his own stellar and less-than-stellar moments as a teammate, and then review with Russell what happened.  He can work with Russell and others on an apology, and he can hold a players only meeting that he can mediate and where he can heal the problem once and for all, stress forgiveness, and clear the air.  Sure, it's risky for a variety of reasons, including the fact that Kobe Bryant won't be in that locker room next year.  But Kobe is a Laker, has always been a Laker, and certainly doesn't want to go out with the team in this much disarray.  True, it seems that Kobe has thought more about Kobe at times than the overall team, but he has shown a different side to himself this year.  He looks like an ambassador, an elder, a statesman, even, so perhaps he can play this important role, help heal the Lakers and put them on a course to improve in the upcoming seasons.

And, of course, give a helping hand to a young, misguided player desperately in need of one. 

The Lakers actually need Kobe now as much as they ever have.  The question is, will he jump in and try to resolve this or let it be someone else's problem?  I'm not sitting in judgment saying that he's a bad or selfish guy if he does nothing, as this is a very complicated situation.  But wouldn't it be something if he could help resolve this seemingly unsolvable problem?

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Some People Just Don't Get It: A Tale of a High School Hazing Problem

The setting:  suburban Philadelphia.

The school:  one of the best public high schools in the state.

The problem:  an unsupervised problem with many incidents over the years of unwelcomed sexual touching, including what only can be described as a rape with a broom handle. 

The result: firing of the entire coaching staff, sensitivity training, more supervision, more protection and all of the appropriate stop signs that get put up after the bad accident takes place.

The current problem:  These folks -- all connected to the football program in some fashion -- just don't get it.

Yes, there are cases where rules are enacted to solve esoteric problems that affect only one percent of the population or less, and that's because those incidents draw major, national headlines.  But this is not one of them.  Hazing continues to be a big problem; sexualized hazing does too.

In corporations, you can have people at the lowest levels do things that the head of a division did not know about.  In many of those places, if the problem was pervasive, the remedy is to clear out the leadership and start anew.  The reason -- something must have been wrong with the culture of the place that such systemic problems persisted for such a long period of time and the culture was such that no one felt they could speak up or had anywhere to go with his problems. 

The same holds true for societies, nations, groups, teams, schools, what have you.  And what happened at this high school was bad enough and lasted long enough that no matter how good an "x and o's" man the coach was and for how long, he also sat atop a culture that was badly outdated and ill-equipped to prevent let alone solve the types of bad behavior that occurred.  Basically, the coaches either ignored the locker room or turned a blind eye toward it, at least from the reports from the newspapers and from the District Attorney. 

I know, as one parent advised, that we shouldn't try the entire program by newspaper and throw everyone into the same bucket.  There is a difference, though, between a legal remedy and a culture one.  And I don't think here that we should get into semantics and try to figure out how the coaches should remain when the culture was so bad.  These coaches had a responsibility to all players, not just the starters, not just the stars, and not just the upperclassmen.  Young players should be challenged and welcomed to their teams with open arms -- they are the future, and as younger players they help the veterans get better by practicing hard and by challenging them.  They should be mentored and nurtured and not tortured or live in fear that at any moment after practice they could get ganged up on and forced to do things against their will.  It's that simple. 

Otherwise, what did this coaching staff and this program think that it was instilling in young men?  Leadership?  Character? 

The arguments "well it goes on everywhere" and "boys will be boys" don't cut it.  First, it doesn't go on everywhere, and, second, if it does, then it's wrong everywhere and should be cleaned up.  Second, aren't we trying to turn the boys into responsible young adults?  How does hazing and forcing people to do things against their will accomplish that?   And arguments blaming the school district's administration for a lack of supervision fall somewhat flat.  True, they deserve part of the blame for the culture, but it is also true that they delegated the oversight to the high school's athletic department and football coaches.  Besides, some parents were trying to deflect blame away from the coaches and onto the school board and superintendent's office when making this claim. 

What happened was terrible.  What happened requires a culture change.  And it would be hard if not impossible to have a coaching staff that failed in its supervisory role to be the architects and implementers of this type of culture change.  That does not mean that they are bad men.  That does not mean that they necessarily were bad coaches or that they did not have a positive effect on the lives of some of the kids they coached.  What it does mean is that they failed in such a critical area of the job that they need to be replaced.  The football team needs to hit the re-set button.

Yes, everyone is entitled to his defense, and the young men who stand accused by the District Attorney will get their day in court.  But the School District did an investigation, and it is required to act upon the findings of that investigation.  Not every investigation is perfect, and the coaches have friends in the community.  All of the factors raised in this post create a difficult cocktail for any community to digest.  That said, starting anew is the best way for this district to heal from the awful problem that plagued it for years.

Finally, I would ask anyone defending the football program, defending the coaches from losing their jobs, attacking the superintendent or the school board the following question:  what if your kid was the slender freshman on the football team who was held down by three upperclassmen and repeatedly penetrated with a broom handle?  What would you say then?

Friday, March 25, 2016

Villanova 92 Miami 69

Villanova = clinic.

A (Partial) Reply to Jay Bilas: Are Student-Athletes Employees/Should They Be Compensated Beyond a Scholarship?

Jay Bilas's thesis is that the prohibitions on student-athletes are wrong and unfair because no other scholarship student has restrictions on his/her interactions or movements.  For example, the brilliant computer science major can work part-time for a high-tech company and make big bucks or he can do an internship and in many places get college credit (which has a monetary value).  As a matter of Federal law, that college student has to get one or the other, as the days of the "volunteer" internship are over -- those internships do not comply with Federal law.  Therefore, per Bilas, what student-athletes receive -- a scholarship -- is not compensation, it's an expense.  The combination of the demands on the student-athlete's time, the precarious nature of his one-year renewable scholarship and the monies the schools make off the labors of the student-athletes demand compensation.  Bilas is big, he's forceful and he's smart, and those traits combine to make his arguments difficult to refute.

There are a bunch of schools of thought that counter Bilas's thinking, some of which are more compelling than others.  Here are three:

1.  The scholarship is compensation.  Monetized, a Duke scholarship is worth at least $250,000 over four years, or $65,000 or so per year if not more.  But let's call it a quarter million dollars.  And let's suppose that elite programs are an alternative to the NBA's Developmental League, which they might be (although one could argue that from top to bottom the talent on a D-League team is better than that on an elite college team).  By this standard, the elite collegians are making out well, because they are getting room and board for this value as well as the opportunity to get a very good education (not everyone is Ben Simmons, who eschewed that opportunity at LSU).  D-League players in comparison, make $25,000 per year.  And they don't get room and board (and the board, in some cases, can be a separate athletic dormitory that is far nicer than the average dorm on campus).  Sounds like Bilas's argument just fails, especially when you add to it that the purpose of the institution is to promote higher education and not run a minor-league basketball team.  Game, set, match?

While that argument is hard to refute, there are counter-arguments to it.  First, college basketball at the elite level differs from the D-League in one very critical area -- the revenue it brings in.  The D-League doesn't have a significant TV deal or draw fans or get news coverage or sell merchandise.  In contrast, the elite college leagues and programs do just that, and the money can be quite big.  Second, on the one hand, you can argue that the $65,000 per year monetized value for a collegian far exceeds the D-League max of $25,000, you cannot end the argument there.  It does look good on paper, until you ask the question, well, what is the overall revenue that the 300+ division schools make on revenue sports (and there aren't many of them).  It could well be that at the elite schools the revenues and profit margins on major spectator sports are so big that the scholarship value alone does not compensate the player.  The numbers should be crunched, at least for purposes of argument.  Second, I don't agree with Bilas's far-sweeping statement that the scholarship is an expense with respect to all scholarship athletes.  He might have a case for basketball (men's and women's) at some schools and football at some schools (although a recent stat showed that 80% or more of DI football programs actually were losing money) and ice hockey at others.  But for most student athletes on scholarship, the revenues are paltry (in fact, the gross revenues from sports like football and basketball might support the rest of the athletic program).  As a result, to argue that a scholarship golfer at Vanderbilt or a scholarship rower at Wisconsin or a scholarship women's cross-country runner at Tennessee should be compensated fails.  Even if any of those teams in a given year were to win a championship, because only friends and family really notice. 

2.  What is the purpose of the institution?  Is it to spread knowledge for the public good, to train leaders and professionals of tomorrow, to elevate the public debate on issues of critical importance?  Or is it to win the ACC title and get to the Final Four?  Or win the Rose Bowl?  This is a critical discussion, especially because the revenues do not tell the whole story.  Generating revenue and generating profit are two different things.  Show me a business that runs for a loss for a while and either it's a biotech company on the verge of an amazing discovery or it's a company that will get acquired or go broke.  But it also would be a company where raises are slim and bonuses are non-existent.  Most college football programs run at a loss.  I'm not certain about basketball programs, but the operating costs are high, especially when you look at the compensation paid to the coaching and administrative staffs.  This is really a very high-class problem, because nations in the rest of the world must think that the Americans are crazy.  Costs of college have sky-rocketed, yet many alums worry about the beating the arch-rival more than they do figuring out how to pay their student loans. 

To get to the point, perhaps the answer is to de-emphasize college athletics almost altogether, to take them down to a DIII level or to eliminate them entirely.  Think of how that money can be used -- to make the education more accessible, to give out more aid, and to emphasize, instead, intramural contests in which a much broader section of the student body can participate and enhance their health and overall well-being.  Imagine having "house" versus "house" competitions at schools, and that those would be the biggest things on campus.  As opposed to having student-athletes who really don't have time to mingle with the rest of the unanointed in ordinary campus events.  Why would that be so bad?  And think of the benefits to the overall fitness of the country and the burdens on the healthcare system.  About 33% of the nation is either overweight or obese.  Think about how we could change that, lower the cost of healthcare and improve people's lives everywhere.

So, we're back where we started.  Should scholarship athletes get paid?  The answer is a qualified no.  Almost all of them receive more than ample compensation via the scholarships they get versus the arguable benefits their being on teams or successes could benefit their university.  The argument might differ for the revenue-generating sports, but then the question is one of numbers-crunching -- how much profit is actually generated?  But to say categorically that all should be paid is not what I think Bilas is contending, just the ones who play for revenue-generating teams.

And there, his argument is one that is hard to refute.  Just look at the kids on campus who start businesses and make a lot of money.  There are no limits on them.  But. . .

Then there is the issue of the overall tax-exempt status of institutes of higher education.  Sure, they do run some for-profit ventures.  Most major research universities license technologies that their professors invent for millions of dollars.  That does not get taxed.  Nor does the revenue from the major spectator sports or the television revenue.  Perhaps it should be, but there are complex tax rules about how much income they can generate without violating their tax-exempt status.  I don't think that paying revenue-generating athletes something atop their scholarships would violate that rule.  But it could. . .

violate Title IX.  Because the sense here is that the compensation would go mostly to men who play football, basketball and in certain cases, ice hockey.  Sure, the UConn and Tennessee women's teams might fall under this rubric too, but would it be legal for a school to pay only men on scholarship and not women.

Complicated?  You bet.

It's hard to argue with Jay Bilas (he usually wins his arguments on the radio), but I would contend that before paying student-athletes I would consider de-emphasizing athletics at all schools and returning to their primary missions.  Energy and money expended on recruiting, getting kids in and keeping them eligible would be better spent on developing a huge multiple of the kids playing on the revenue-generating teams better.  That's hard to argue with too -- spread the money out more for the greater good.  And end the paternalism and free feeder systems for the professional leagues, while they're at it.  As with Europe, compel the major sports leagues to develop their academies and pay their under-21's, under 18's, etc. and leave college for the college students.  In this fashion, the NFL could have a feeder league, the NBA could have a better feeder league and the conversation is over.  And that's much simpler than having the NCAA adopt another cumbersome set of rules as to what an acceptable stipend would be.

Sorry, Greenie, Golic, Jay and Seth Greenberg, but this is the simplest solution.  De-emphasize, and ensure that the president of the university is the highest paid person on the campus, and not a coach, and reinforce the emphasis on higher education.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The NFL is Taking a Page out of International Soccer's Rule Book

It's not quite yellow cards and red cards, but the principle is similar.

Yesterday the NFL announced that a player will get tossed from a game if he is flagged for two flagrant fouls.  No word about whether he'll get suspended for that ejection and have to miss the following game or he'll get suspended if he accumulates say five of these without getting ejected in any game. 

The NFL would be better served if it just adopted the yellow- and red-card approach that soccer has.  You can get called for a foul without getting carded, and that happens a lot.  But if you get a yellow card, you have to watch yourself because if you draw another one the penalty in soccer is stark -- you are out of the game, and your team then has to play a man down.  That won't happen in football, but the use of the cards would be a good reminder to the player, his coaches and the fans as to who drew a flagrant foul penalty.  And a red card, upon the issuance of the second flagrant penalty flag, would signify an ejection to all.  That type of accountability would change behavior in all likelihood, at least to some degree.  For the most part in soccer, it's not like players seek out drawing yellow cards.  Typically they come from aggressive challenges that go awry -- either the player arrives late and doesn't get to the ball first or is a bit out of control and bashes into an opponent too hard.  Malice doesn't usually come into it, even with the most frequent offenders.  There just is too much at stake -- such as causing your team to play a man down (and that hurt Arsenal against arch-rival Tottenham a few weeks ago).

But because it doesn't seem that the NFL ever will force a team to play a man down, suspensions and fines must follow.  Those would underscore the NFL's wish that flagrant fouls cease, such as the one that Bengals' linebacker Vontez Burfick committed against Antonio Brown of the Steelers in the AFC playoffs just several months ago.  (And, in this case, Burfick was suspended for several games).  Sure, the games are different.  Soccer can be rough but usually doesn't not involve the collisions that populate the NFL landscape.  And perhaps that's because soccer players don't wear combat armor.  In any case, the NFL has taken a positive step forward to ensure more safety for players and lessen the risk that any player will have to miss a game because of the overexuberance or excessive force of an opponent.

Change is hard, and, naturally, there has been some hue and cry from players that the NFL might as well make this a two-hand touch game.  Given the evidence out there about CTE and long-term health of former players, the trend is in that direction.  That said, with enough money and creativity behind the NFL, it is probably that those who run it will evolve the game into something that continues to draw fans while, concurrently, making the game safer for those who play it.

Otherwise, like dinosaurs, the NFL will become extinct.

Even if it is on top now.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Kirby Smart is in Charge of the Last Working Plantation in Georgia


Got your attention, at least.  Basically, the newly minted Bulldog football coach has announced that he will approve where players can transfer too and reserves the right to veto their choice.  That's much different from the policy of his predecessor, Mark Richt, who took the position that if a player wanted to transfer, he could go anywhere he wanted, because "life is too short."  Funny, because coaches can move anywhere they want without penalty.  Richt tried to follow that premise; sadly, Smart chooses not to.

Which means, if you're a recruit, that once you sign with Georgia you are putting your total future into Kirby Smart's plans.  If you're the third-string QB and want to transfer to another SEC school to compete for the starting job, he might well say no.  If you want to follow Coach Richt because you were close with him, he will say no.  Which is funny, because assistant coaches follow head coaches all the time.  People in the private sector follow bosses when they switch jobs.  But in this case, Smart is not only the boss, he's the overseer and plantation owner.  When you sign a letter of intent with the Bulldogs, you are agreeing in essence to permit Smart to have a say as to where you transfer if it doesn't work out in Athens.

Smart earned a good reputation as a defensive coordinator at Alabama, thus making him very attractive to Georgia.  Ironically, if he were under contract at Alabama and his boss, Nick Saban, took a similar point of view, Smart might be coaching anywhere but the SEC.  Instead, he moves, without penalty, to Georgia.  So why does it make sense that, consistent with the SEC transfer rules, that a player may not do the same thing?  And don't argue that he can so long as he clears it with the head coach.  That doesn't make sense.  He simply should get his release, transfer to a school that's good for him and sit out a year (if it's a DI school).  End of story.

Instead, welcome to Smart's world.  Sign your letter of intent and take your chances.

If you do, you might be doing the Smart thing, but you won't be doing a smart thing.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Book Review: "Legends of the Game" by John Feinstein

Let's establish a few premises before I delve into the book:

1.  John Feinstein is a good writer. 
2.  John Feinstein has written a lot of sports books.
3.  John Feinstein went to Duke.
4.  Duke is the arch-rival of North Carolina.
5.  Jim Valvano is deceased.
6.  Dean Smith is deceased.

So, it is against this backdrop that Feinstein wrote the book, whose basic premise is that there were several extraordinary coaches coaching at the same time in the ACC and particularly very close to each other in North Carolina.  If college basketball coaching were to have a Mount Rushmore, two would be in the conversation.  The third, well, he had a personality that dwarfed that of the other two.

The book roughly covers their history and their interactions.  It places Mike Krzyzewski firmly in first place on Mount Rushmore, glorifies everything good about Jim Valvano (and there was so much good) and airbrushes the bad stuff (recruiting violations that happened on his watch) and takes continuous potshots at Dean Smith for being snarky and doing everything to get an edge, without highlighting the great aspects of a wonderful coach and teacher (as if there are no blemishes on Coach K's personality, interactions and character -- c'mon, John!).

Sorry, but while I like Feinstein, nothing everything he writes is brilliant, and this book misses.  As for some aspects of the book -- the unqualified glorification of Coach K particularly, I recall a review that  The New Yorker's legendary critic Pauline Kael wrote of the movie "The Sound of Music."  It was the shortest movie review ever -- "Not for diabetics."  There just was no balance to the portrayal. 

The book does have its shining moments, to be fair, including how the relationship between Krzyzewski and Smith came around full circle around the time of the latter's illness that led to his death (from ice cold to extremely warm) that I will not spoil.  Sadly, though, those moments (which include some new or at least different insights into Valvano) do not outweigh the book's lack of balance and relatively surface discussions about things that many of us knew and would like to have seen more "backstage" information on. 

If you want an elegy to someone who gets put on a pedestal daily, read this book and, if you're a Coach K fan, you'll ratify all of your thinking about him.  If you do not, you'll be disappointed.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Idiocy from the Ivy League

The Ivy League announced yesterday that it was joining the 21st century in men's and women's college basketball by ending its holdout and creating a post-season basketball tournament.  With typical "Ivy League" flair, they chose to be different.  They will not include every school in the post-season tournament, just the top four.  To top it off, they have anointed Penn's iconic Palestra as the host site for the first tournament, potentially giving the Quakers a huge home-court advantage if they were to finish in the top four in the league next season (and with the crop of this year's freshmen that I saw on Tuesday night in Princeton, they should have a good shot).  But the latter point is not the point I'm trying to make -- the tournament has to be hosted somewhere, it's great that it will start at Penn, and, presumably, will shift to other venues.

What's silly about this is that the Ivy League season as currently constituted means something.  It means that these kids have to go out there and play on back-to-back nights seven times and earn their championship through superlative play during the regular season.  It means avoiding trap games, say, the night after you beat Harvard in Cambridge and then need to avoid losing to currently an inferior Dartmouth squad.  It means holding your own against Penn and Princeton on back-to-back nights.  It means taking care of business during the regular season.  It posits certain games -- such as this year's Princeton-Yale game in Princeton a few weeks ago -- as playoff-like contests.  That's exciting. 

Most conferences have their tournaments to generate funds to help the schools and the conference pay for their programs (and let's remember that many DI athletic programs do not make money).  The Ivies have huge endowments.  The Ivies also can offer tremendous aid packages that make their schools more accessible probably than any time in history.  And if you don't think that the Ivies are flush with cash (and do not have a seemingly never-ending stream of funds available through loyal, wealthy, nostalgic alumni), then you have not been to an Ivy campus lately and seen construction or renovation projects.  So, if money is not the reason, then what is?

Because everyone else is doing it?  That's a terrible reason.  That's the type of reason that gets people into trouble.

Because the regular season is too taxing and doesn't always yield the best team for the tournament?  The evidence does not support that.  Terrific Ivy teams have won their regular seasons and gone on to distinguish themselves in the post-season. 

Because it is change and change is good?  A fundamental rule about making changes is that you should be sure that you have a problem to solve in the first place and that the change will be better.  The Ivies have not made the case for this change.

Because the money will help?  See the argument above.  That's a non-starter.

Because the tournaments will give the Ivies more exposure and more drama and that should be good for the leagues?  Remember, this is the Ivy League.  These schools generate enough exposure daily just by being who they are and waking up in the morning.  They really need more exposure? 

For such smart folks, they possible focus on cents just doesn't make any sense.  Perhaps the Ivy League is bored.  Perhaps the Ivy League figured it needed to make a splash with basketball given that they just made one with football (not about permitting the league champion to participating in the post-season, mind you, but eliminating tackling in practice).  What's next -- that they'll come up with all sorts of rules to protect hitters and position players in baseball? 

So much for the Ivies' regular season.  Finish in the top four, pay your money, take your chances.  Win two games in March, and you'll go dancing.  Perhaps you'll even get a fifteen-second spot on the following morning's Sports Center heralding your team's dramatic win as a #3 seed.   Hurrah!

The Ivies had a good thing.  Too bad they had to go commercial with it.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The NFL Free Agency Sweepstakes and Draft Anticipation

These things seem to draw as much if not more excitement than the actual seasons. 

The sad truth for NFL fans is that the teams -- with all their money -- have yet to be able to figure out the magical formula for staying relevant year in and year out, with one exception -- the New England Patriots.  True, they have Tom Brady, but it makes you wonder why analytics departments of the other teams haven't examined the Patriots' way year in and year it and tried to copy the formula.  Sure, they have perhaps the best quarterback of all time, but teams have won Super Bowls over the past ten years with good if not Hall of Fame quarterbacks. 

Instead, you hear annually about your team's first-round pick invented fire, and you also hear about two or three free agents who will fill big holes and take the hometown team to the next level.  But how frequently do those statements turn out to be true?  And isn't it the case that teams typically have blind spots for areas that will become problem areas if only because a) they were thin at that position, b) they were hoping someone would regain form from better, prior years' play, c) people get hurt or d) people start to slide and the team didn't foresee it. 

And yet, everyone plays amateur cap guy, GM and scout all wrapped up in one.  That's a bit amusing, too, when you think about it, because it seems that football is the hardest sport to grade, especially when compared to the other major sports.  How does the average fan really know what makes an offensive lineman better than the next one?  The same for any defenders.  It's easier, perhaps, to gauge skill position players on offense, but the rest?  Seems pretty hard to tell.

We sit buy and wait for our streams on Bleacher Report or the people whose twitter feeds we follow to spew out the next kernels of wisdom about why the Giants had a great day (if they did, as the spending seemed desperate), how Howie Roseman made some wise moves and why the Dolphins have people scratching their heads.  In trying to keep things simple, I harken back to something Bill Parcells once said, which was, "you are what your record says you are." 

The discussions and speculation are fun, football junkfood for the off-season.  At the end of the day, only a certain number of teams make the playoffs and only one will win the Super Bowl.  And then will measure the worth of the decisions of coaching staffs and front offices.

But for now, this is all football fans have, and they are making a banquet out of it.

Monday, March 07, 2016

NYT Article on SMU and Larry Brown

Yesterday's article on the trials and problems of one-time "uber" recruit Keith Frazier underscore what is wrong with amateur basketball in general and college basketball in particular.  And it begs the question "why is Larry Brown still permitted to coach at the college level?"  Sanctions followed him at UCLA and then at Kansas, and now he is portraying himself as a victim.  Brown is one of many from the Dean Smith coaching tree, and he should ask himself what Coach Smith would have done in any of these circumstances.  Answers such as "the NCAA is overreacting" or "everyone else does something similar" just should not cut it.  I do think Brown is a good coach, but whether he can play by the rules and also educate his kids is something that has been in question for a long time.  Sad state of affairs about which no one should be proud, but Brown should look no further than himself for responsibility for the situation.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

The Ivy League Bans Tackling in Football Practice

And now the evolution begins. 

Football faces a choice -- evolve or become extinct.  Clayton Christensen wrote of how companies atop their industries made decisions while going great that contributed to their extinction.  Football is atop the sports world, but years ago so were boxing and horse racing.  The former suffered from corruption and decline from the charisma of the Ali-Frazier and Sugar Ray Leonard Olympics; the latter suffered from the legalization of gambling almost everywhere.  At one time, a horse race was the only place outside Las Vegas where one could place a legal bet.

Football has violence, it has action, it has pageantry and, well, it is an event because there are so few games.  Basketball, ice hockey and baseball are games; football games are events because each game means so much in the standings.  That gives football an advantage -- scarcity in a sports world that suffers from gluts sometimes as pronounced as the current one facing the oil industry.  Just go on your cable network and find how many college basketball games each night -- five, six, eight?  But there are still only very few pro football games on Sundays.  Yes, there are as many college games on a weekend as there are basketball games in a night -- but they are limited for the most part to weekend.

Football eclipsed baseball as the national pastime years ago.  In a very recent post, I wrote how baseball lost its lead -- labor strife, steroids, specialization and the length of games.  I don't know what might eclipse football, but the collateral damage that it creates for the young men playing it is too hard to ignore.  The game is violent, collisions happen, the men are oversized to begin with, and having oversized men bang into each other constantly in practice and in games is not good for their long-term health.  There have been too many reports about orthopedic injuries, neurological injuries and mental health problems for football not to evolve.

It has been said that innovation can come from FCS and DIII schools because their coaches have less to lose than say those at the DI category, FBS or whatever they call it today.  You can see offensive variations, defense schemes, what have you, but the latest innovation from a league comes from the Ivies of all places.  The football there is not all that good, although the money and attention spent on it is rather disproportional to the mission of the average school in the league.   But the problems are the same -- short- and long-term injuries.  And today the Ivies took the brave step of banning tackling in practices

The reason, of course, is to cut down on injuries.  And it's just a start.  Perhaps their scientists are trying to create a bodysuit that combines the breathing of UnderArmour with the resistance of Kevlar and the cushion of an airbag so that any player can take a good hit in a game and have the bodysuit absorb it, as opposed to their bodies, all the while being fast, mobile, what have you.  Or, they'll try to evolve the game using flag football's and fencing's technology, having touches replace tackling.  Which would turn football into a Greco-Roman style of lacrosse, where maneuvering your opponent with upper body wrestling moves will replace tackling.  That still doesn't solve the problem of heads bumping into each other, but there are innovators out there working on better helmets.

Football has been a great game to watch, but it is at a similar crisis point to the one it faced around the turn of the twentieth century when President Teddy Roosevelt compelled reforms because too many players were dying in games or from injuries sustained in games.  Today's crisis is that too many players suffer long-term consequences from the evolution of the game as a hitting game that could end up in a violent, early death. 

The pros and colleges need to examine this innovation carefully (the legendary coach at St. John's College in Minnesota had banned hitting in practice years ago, saying "players have mothers, too.") and figure out how to follow it and innovate the game further.  For if they don't, more and more young men will walk away from the game and find other things to do that will not have them hobbled and forgetful in their thirties, like Antawn Randle-El.

First, hitting in practice.  Second, much better equipment.  Third, hitting in games.  Fourth, a transformed game that will be fun to watch but that won't risk the long-term health of the young men playing it.

Is that too much to ask from the most innovative society on earth?