Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Rio Olympics Make Sense Because. . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Baylor Fiasco

If you wrote this as a novel, unless it were a Carl Hiassen farce, people wouldn't believe it because of the two major elements to the story:

1.  Christian school.
2.  School president is former White House Special Prosecutor.

Then again, people might believe it because

1.  It is college football.
2.  It is college football in Texas.
3.  College football is a big business.

Add to that the confusion between the good book and idolatry.  Baylor fans worship God and Art Briles, the now-deposed football coach, and it made you wonder at times in what order. 

Football came first, as did the attention and money that went with it.  Protecting, among others, everyone's daughters, having a process for letting victims speak up safely and treating them with fairness, have a process to investigate allegations quickly, fairly and effectively, not so much.  And now Baylor has a huge mess that snowballed out of proportion because there were institutional failures too numerous to count.  Before anyone goes on a feeding frenzy, not all Baylor employees are awful people and not all Baylor football players are criminals.  All have to be careful to stick to the facts and not paint any situation with a broad brush.  Yes, it is a mess. 

How does it get this far?  I do not want in any way to diminish the importance of the victims here -- the women who were assaulted.  They have suffered immeasurably and no one not a victim can say "I know how you feel," because they do not.  But there are symptoms that are deeply rooted in our culture that give rise both to the offending behaviors and the lack of accountability that need to be addressed.  Among those are:

1.  Let's stop anointing football players as untouchable demi-gods from the time they are 10.
2.  Let's stop overlooking their transgressions because those transgressions might mess up their transgressions and ruin their chances at a "full ride."
3.  Let's figure out alternative ways for them to deal with their frustrations, aggressions and stress constructively and when they are not being watched.  In other words, let's work on their coping and social skills -- in a big way.   Society puts a lot of pressure on these kids to train and perform, perhaps too much so for young men this young.  That statement is not meant to excuse the bad behavior, but perhaps to identify a cause for it. 
4.  Let's examine how football coaches talk about women and tolerate what else is said about women.  Women are very important people, period, who command respect and treatment with decency.  They are not objects for football players' amusement.  And they have every right to say no all the time.
5.  Let's de-couple the good feelings a school might have or earn for itself from the success of any athletic team.  Football, after all, should be an extracurricular activity.  Sadly, in many places, it is a business, and at most FBS schools a poorly run one, as a huge majority of DI football programs lose money.  But if we could de-couple the two, somehow administrators would be able to treat every department and program equally and not have to look the other way because influential alums might deny donations or get them fired if they don't enable the football program to overlook bad behavior if otherwise three key players might get dismissed from the team.  The better argument is that every school that gives a kid a pass on bad behavior is doing him a disservice.  Everyone needs feedback and accountability, especially in these very formative years.  Show me a kid who doesn't get held accountable for more basic, non-criminal transgressions, and I'll show you a kid who will have trouble in the work force and perhaps in life.  Not holding players accountable for sexual assaults -- when then anyone who knew about the attack should be working elsewhere, not at a university and not with college kids.
6.  Let's stop putting college football coaches on pedestals.  They are not leaders who could run corporations (which require a lot more dexterity, inclusion, process and sensitivity) or who could lead governments -- at least as a general proposition.  Most are dictators who get things their way almost all the time.  Some are snake-oil salesmen, using kids for their own gain without caring about their progressing toward a meaningful degree.  Many live lives that are way out of balance.  They are human beings, flawed human beings, just like the rest of us. 

What happened to the Christian aspects of Baylor?  What happened to the moral high ground that Ken Starr used to define and insist that he operated on?  What happened to dignity and decency for all students?  And, Art Briles, what would have happened if your daughter was a victim?  Let's remember, if an assault happens to anyone's daughter, it could have happened to our own daughters.  And that's a scary thought.  Who was protecting those young women?  Shouldn't the adults in the room report matters up the chain, be prepared to demonstrate integrity even if it were to mean losing football games because of suspended or dismissed players, and be expected to care about and take care of all kids at the university? 

It's a sad day all around.  I just fear that there are other situations out there, perhaps many others, because universities get so focused on winning football games that they forget their overall missions and doing the right thing as much as possible.  There is much more to life than football games.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Why are There So Many Transfers in College Basketball?

Occam's Razor suggest that the simplest solution is usually the best one.  This ESPN.com article gives some flavor to how big this issues is.  Ergo. . .

1.  You are dealing with kids who have had a lot of success in basketball and are running into failure for the first time.  Head coach and assistant coach woo the kid, project the kid to get all sorts of playing time, possibly to be a star.  Head coach and assistant coach are embellishing if not lying.  Not everyone can be a star, not everyone can get a lot of playing time.  Something has to give.  Kid might be lying to himself -- he might believe what his friends and coaches are telling him -- that he is the man.  Deep down, though, the kid might know that he has to develop his other hand, needs to get more stamina and has to work on his jumper.  But he chooses the easier path -- which is to believe -- totally -- what he is told in the wooing process.  So, after a season or two, when the coach who was sweet talking him turns out to be a meanie, a liar, favoring others and this kid sits at the end of the bench, he gets irritated.  Perhaps he got sold a bill of goods.  Perhaps the coach isn't being fair.  Perhaps he his mad at himself because he wasn't totally sure of the situation.  Most definitely, he isn't ready to give up the dream of finding a better spot.  Transferring, like second marriages, represents the triumph of hope over experience.  It's a leap of faith, especially if you thought you were burned.  And if you didn't think you were burned, you at least are more relaxed and say, "well, it wasn't a good fit for me, and I have to find a better place."  Remember, we're dealing with teenagers mostly, and they are not fully formed.  They are dealing with frustration, disappointment and failure -- many for the first time in their young lives.  They are feeling all sorts of emotions and have started to doubt themselves.  And it hurts.  A change of scenery could help.

2.  Social media doesn't help things.  It's much easier to figure out what is going on at other schools, who will have a need for your position in the following season or two, who might be leaving, who might be unhappy, what have you.  And the kids can read about themselves much more, too.  Imagine if you're eighteen and you read that you didn't show up the way people thought, that you're a stiff, that you aren't a good fit.  And then you match that up with the feedback you get from the coaches and your playing time.  And then you have your friends giving you all sorts of advice.  You're nineteen, your head is spinning.  It gets filled up with all sorts of clutter about your skills, your future, who is being honest with you about your potential and who has lied, what have you.  So, you tap into your network -- your parents, your AAU coach -- and you put out feelers to the schools that recruited you before and, if you're really savvy, schools that might have a real need for your position.  Now, those schools might have warts, too, and they might have openings precisely because kids they recruited didn't think that they got a fair deal.  No matter, because you are desperate to find a better fit and the coach at that school shouldn't make the same mistake twice.  You also might have grown and become more mature in dealing with your first disappointment.  In any event, the omnipresence of the media just heightens the players sensitivities.

3.  Coaches Never Stop Recruiting and Players Never Stop Being Recruited.  When there is an epidemic, there is a persistent, spreading problem.  So, most coaches must think that they are going to lose some of every freshman class.  Their assistants probably keep tabs with a select number of AAU coaches of players that they missed out on, ostensibly to find out about new prospects but clandestinely to see how those kids like their new schools.  Correspondingly, if a kid doesn't like his situation, he taps into his network, which includes his AAU coach, and asks that coach to put out feelers to some of the schools he rejected.  It can become a vicious cycle.  If you're a head coach fighting hard to compete every year, you do the "keep tabs, continuous recruiting of current college players" thing to make sure that you will have a robust roster every year.  If you're a player, well, you didn't become an elite player and draw Division I interest because you were clueless.  After some trending trouble, you'll put out some feelers to ascertain who might be interested in you.  And then the cycle gets worse.

4.  One-year renewable scholarships also are a problem, especially when paired with lucrative long-term deals for head coaches.  If you're a bit at the margins at your DI program, you probably should keep in touch with your high school and AAU coaches just in case you feel that the winds are blowing the wrong way and you might not get renewed.  And you might then want to jump before you're pushed, so to speak, so that the quest to transfer looks like it was your decision.  Invariably, if you were good enough in high school, some other DI coach will view you as a bargain and try to sign you up quickly.  I don't know whether granting kids a four-year scholarship that is automatically renewable would make a difference.  You would think that for some kids who ultimately might be happy sitting on the end of the bench that it might.

5.  The pressure on coaches to win and their lucrative compensation puts enormous pressure on them to win and might encourage unethical tactics.  I don't think I need to write anything more here.  The headline says it all.

I don't blame the kids for wanting to transfer.  Sure, in a perfect world they should pick a school because it's the right fit for them and because they can get a good education.  And most DI basketball players would subscribe to that, especially because most will not play for money after college.  But they have to spend so much time to get good enough to get noticed, it's hard to blame them for not wanting to play in DI after putting all that time in.  Travel basketball is a year-round phenomenon, and the kids want to get the playing time and accolades that they thing that they have earned.  Besides, who wants to have his signing of a letter of intent be the crowning achievement of his career?  College should be the next chapter in a fun journey, not the end of the road for the player. 

The kids are standing up to an authoritarian system and authoritarian coaches.  It's hard to argue with.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

A Sign of the Times on ESPN.com

If you like sports, you read that website.  In the middle right, there is a list of headlines with hyperlinks to the text.  One of those headlines is that Everton sacked Roberto Martinez. 

Say what?

Everton is not a team in any of the major US sports leagues.  It isn't a university, either.  And yet, on the American website, the firing of the manager (read:  head coach) of an also-ran top-division English soccer club gets a headline of this prominence -- even at a time when ESPN has a website dedicated totally to soccer. 

What should we read into this?

1.  It's a slow news day, and, sorry, but outside Max Scherzer's striking out 20 of his former Tiger teammates there is no sports news this morning.

2.  Soccer has become a much bigger deal in the U.S.

3.  More global readers read ESPN.com than in years past.

4.  Many Americans got to know Roberto Martinez during ESPN's telecasts of the World Cup in 2014 and came to like him, so he's somewhat better known in the U.S. than, say, Guus Hiddink.

5.  Perhaps those who read ESPN.com right now do not find baseball as compelling as fans thirty years ago did.

6.  All of the above.

And why?  Well, for one thing, the average age of an MLB fan is about 56 years old, and hockey seems to have a limited audience beyond those who attend games.  It's the off-season for college football and basketball, and while the NBA playoffs can be fascinating, they don't hold the broad sports audience night after night.  Whether they should at this stage is a totally different issue.  But with soccer -- and the nascency of its being broadcast from England into the U.S. on NBC Sports Channel -- there is much more interested, especially because a) mostly all games but Cup games have concluded and b) we could be upon one of the most volatile transfer seasons in recent memory.

While this is great for soccer, it is not as good for those who got displaced.  My read is that the elders of baseball should be very worried about the demographics of their fans base.

As for Martinez, he seems to be a good guy who lost his team.  He's a natural in the broadcast booth, and here's to wishing him well and finding the next good job.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Who Would You Start Your NBA Team With?

This is a multiple-choice test.

a) Steph Curry
b) LeBron James
c) Kawhi Leonard
d) Kevin Durant
e) Russell Westbrook
f) James Harden
g) Anthony Davis
h) Other?

Curry is the two-time reigning MVP.  LBJ plays a unique position the way Magic did and is in the conversation for being among the five or ten best of all time.  Leonard is the silent assassin.  Doesn't show the effusive enthusiasm of Curry or the physical dominance of LeBron, but his basketball IQ is off the charts and he makes everyone better.  Durant is a deadeye shooter, among other things.  Westbrook has Allen Iverson's drive and Tiny Archibald's ability both to thread the pass and hit the jumper -- only better.  Harden might not be the optimal defender, but he does so many things well, even if Houston had a problem this year.  Davis is a great big man in a league devoid of good post players and post defenders.  Sound simple?

Argue away!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Kevin Durant Sweepstakes

He came in a distant fifth in the MVP standings, is one of the best players "never to win a title," joining the likes of Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and John Stockton, played an awesome game the other night to help the Thunder defeat San Antonio and even that series at two games apiece.  He's from DC, went to college for a year at Texas, and has spent his career with the same franchise.  It seems that if he were to stay, and Russell Westbrook along with them, that together they could be destined to be like Karl Malone and John Stockton, in the sense that they could play for a long time together, win a lot of games but not win a championship.  Now, they are distinctly different players from the all-time pick-and-roll combination, but their fates could be similar.

It would seem to be a reach for Durant to stay in OKC.  OKC, while a nice place, isn't a hotbed for nightlife or culture.  That said, it depends what Durant wants to do.  Does he want to stay in OKC and get a max deal, thereby lessening the likelihood that OKC could attract another piece to help them get past Golden State and the Spurs in the West?  Would he opt for a sign-and-trade deal, so that he can get a max deal and then get traded to a team of his choice, although that team presumably could be prevented from signing needed pieces because of cap space?  (That said, the cap is expected to go up a lot in the next couple of years).  Or, and this is the big "if", would he be willing to take less the way Tim Duncan has with San Antonio (or "had" in the sense that he is a role player now and not the all-timer he once was) and go to a team with other pieces and make them simply awesome -- such as the Warriors or Spurs.  Finally, to me there are two other looming options out there.  The first are the Wizards, who are in Durant's hometown, hired his former coach (Scott Brooks) and have a great backcourt with John Wall and Bradley Beal.  The second are the Celtics, which have a knack for getting great players, have a great young coach and a good nucleus.  If either of those teams were to land Durant, they would be among the top three in the East.  If the Warriors or Spurs were to land him, they'd be next year's favorite to win the NBA title.

Needless to say, the Wizards will make a big push and the Celtics should.  The Warriors and Spurs could get into a battle for him, too, with the stakes being huge because the team that does not get him will be behind the one that does, that is, if either were to get him.  The question for Durant is that if he were to stay in OKC, he would be one of two superstars on the roster.  If he were to go to the Wizards he'd be one of two also (but with a purer point guard in Wall), and if he were to go to Boston he would be the main guy.  If he were to go to the Warriors he would be the number two guy behind the two-time reigning MVP, Steph Curry, and if he were to go to the Spurs he probably would be on equal footing with Kawhi Leonard if only because Leonard is one of the rare superstars who doesn't seem to care who gets the credit so long as there is plenty of credit to go around.  Would any of that matter to Durant?

If the status on the team and money matter, then Golden State might be out.  On that basis, Boston would seem to be the best fit.  If the money only matters, then OKC probably can offer him the best deal.  If the money doesn't matter as much and the status does, then the Spurs might be a better fit.  And then, when you layer in the chance to win a title, the leading teams out West should be able to offer him the best chance at winning a title.

Got all that?  Durant is the big catch in this year's free-agent sweepstakes, a great player and rare talent who can do a lot of things well.  So many choices seem so compelling, though, that it is hard to speculate where he will land for next season. 

Friday, May 06, 2016

A Successful Over 50 Something Diet

Like many people in their fifties, I wasn't getting enough exercise, wasn't watching my portions or the intake of things that taste really good -- sweets and wine, for example.  I felt tired, sluggish, not in shape and carrying around too much weight around the mid-section.  Atop that, reports on obesity, diabetes and even the connection between too big a stomach and later-life dementia were worrisome. 

I self-reflected in January.  I thought about what Jack LaLanne once said, which is "If it tastes good, spit it out."  Or about what a friend said about why he worked out consistently -- "because when you look at groups of old men, you don't see any fat guys, do you?"  I shared my concerns with my wife, who offered this in the way of guidance -- "Make a project out of it, because when you put your mind to something whatever OCD you have kicks in and you'll achieve it."

I confess that I haven't always been a good listener and have tried to do things myself.  But having lost and gained back weight a few times since turning forty, I figured that I needed some guidance.  I read articles, I surfed the net, confirmed thoughts and got some new ones.  In the end, the website of Mayo Clinic was very helpful.  I purchased their diet app, worked on the "Live it" program for two weeks and followed it with the "Lose It" program.  Basically, you watch your habits, you track your portions and you watch your weight.  And, you keep a daily log -- of goals, of exercise and of your food intake.  The first two weeks are tough -- you limit yourself to 1400 calories a day -- and then you move into a mode where you simply have to watch what you put into your mouth and make sure that you move and then move some more.

And since that time, that's what I have done.  It's been over 100 days now, and for all but one of them I have exercised for at least an hour a day -- on a spin bike, on elliptical trainers, rowing machines, walking, stretching, using stretch bands, medicine balls, machine weights -- you name it.  A typical breakfast is a parfait of non-fat plain yogurt (very low sugar) with some flax cereal and mixed berries.  Lunch is a salad that has vegetables mixed in, along with a light spinkle of low-cal dressing, and with a few grilled chicken strips, and some fruit on the side.  Water is the drink of choice.  If I need a snack in the afternoon, I eat a portion of celery and carrots or an orange, apple or banana.  If I need a taste of sweets, I have a small piece of dark chocolate (about 50 calories).  Dinner consists of a protein, perhaps a half a sweet potato, some vegetables.  I'll have fruit for dessert, and perhaps a portion of popcorn.  All told, I fall within the prescription for fats, sweets, carbohydrates, protein, fruit and vegetables, not to mention exercise.  Now, if I were to go to a restaurant, as social events and work sometimes require me to do, I'll eat as lightly as I can -- no alcohol or one glass of wine and no dessert.  And if I were to indulge in a glass of wine and sharing a dessert with my wife, I'll ration the rest of my sweet calories for the rest of the week to fall within the guideline.

I feel a lot better.  I have lost about 20 pounds since January, am sleeping better and feel more flexible.  I just had a physical, and my cholesterol is low, my sugar levels are fine and my heart compares to people decades younger.  That's not to say I don't have some issues and don't continuously need to figure out ways to deal with stress -- I do.  But having a consistent diet and exercising regularly are keys to better health and increased serenity.

None of this is rocket science, except the part that requires the will and discipline to stay the course.  It means the will to get up early before work to start exercising and the willpower not to snack unless absolutely necessary.  It requires the discipline to hold yourself accountable by keeping the logs that Mayo Clinic suggests.  That accountability is key -- it's the log version of holding yourself accountable that you are doing the right thing when it comes to honoring your diet and exercise regimen. 

My wife asked me the other day about cravings, and I said that you just have to let them pass.  Yes I do miss things -- I love chocolate -- but my forbearance gives me something more -- feeling better, feeling better about myself and ultimately feeling better about everything.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

All Hail Leicester City!

I heard a story once about a horse in a race, perhaps the Derby winner, or perhaps the Derby favorite.  I'm telling the story this way without the benefit of having checked it out on Google, but the story was that the favorite was the top thoroughbred of the time, a horse at the turn of the 20th century named Man o' War.  Well, Man 'o War ran the race and lost to a longshot.  The horse's name was Upset.  Because we didn't have television or the internet or even much radio in the day, the newspapers were plentiful and the sportswriters were creative.  And, as the legend has it, the word "upset," traditionally used to mean "turn over," as in "he upset the table," took on a whole new meaning.  To upset, in a competition, is now universally used to mean to pull off a big surprise, a shocker. 

Perhaps now they should change the word again to Leicester. 

Five years ago its star goal scorer, who was 24 at the time, about mid-career for many stars in Europe, was playing in something like a fifth division Sunday beer league.  Their two other stars, even younger, were playing a few years ago either for second- or third-tier French teams.  Promoted out of the English Championship League two years ago, Leicester fought for its life to avoid relegation back to that league after last season.  The team's manager, well, Chelsea fired him twelve years ago.  As for Leicester, well, it was never going to be mentioned in the same breath as Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United or Tottenham.  No, it seemed that Leicester would be lucky to remain in the middle of the table and perennially try to avoid relegation. 

Going into the season, Leicester was a 5,000 to one shot to win the English Premier League.  To do so, it would have had to pass over those six behemoths, plus the likes of a resurging West Ham.  It would be like starting in the Round of 64 in the NCAA tournament as, say, Monmouth and beating the legends in succession -- Indiana, UCLA, North Carolina, Duke, Syracuse and Kentucky.  It would be like promoting say the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs to the National League East and having them win the World Series.   Think about that.

Leicester enjoyed none of the reputation, tradition or money of the six teams I mentioned.  But what they had was belief, heart, chemistry and a tireless work ethic.  It's amazing what a team can accomplish when no one worries about the credit because if no one worries about the credit and simply focuses on the work there ultimately could be more than enough credit to go around.  In contrast, look at Chelsea and Manchester City, owned by gazillionaires with tons to spend on payroll.  The former got old on the back line fast, looked at times rudderless and leaderless and figured out that while money helps, it cannot buy things that propel teams to victory.  The latter suffered from injuries but some of the same issues -- they got older fast, and some of their well paid stars looked overpaid by the season's end. 

It could be the case that, among others, Schmeichel, Kante, Mahrez and Vardy become so expensive that they request transfers so that they can cash in and play in the Premier League or in places like Barcelona, Madrid or Munich.  That remains to be seen.  But, in the here and now, savor this triumph, regardless of for whom you cheer.  Because this triumph is one for the ages, the stuff that a Disney script is made of except that this is true.  Older manager, not a top choice among elite squads, up-and-coming players or several players who played at Leicester because that was the best they could do, all combining to do their best to win one of the toughest soccer leagues in the world as a 5,000-1 longshot. 

Was it an upset?  You bet.

Was it a Leicester?  Extraordinarily so.