Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Last Chance U

Netflix just dropped this documentary series about the 2015 season of the East Mississippi Lions, a juco football team that is ranked in the top ten and has been for a long while.  EM is located in Scooba, Mississippi, a town of about 760 people.  The roster is populated with kids who dropped out, flunked out or were kicked out of DI programs or kids whose academics were poor enough that they couldn't qualify for admission in the first place.  Those featured on the documentary are there to do one thing -- play football.  And then draw notice from recruiters for Division I schools and hopefully get into "the league."

Before anyone scoffs, the show points out that EM has 12 alums in the NFL, and the average DI school has about 7.  The combination of the circumstances of the players, the backwater nature of Scooba and the huge personality of the head coach, Buddy Stephens, creates a good show.  While the primary subject of the show is football, the show also is about life.  And, in many cases, how out of balance the lives of many of these kids are.  As one assistant coach pointed out, the kids should focus on their education because the average career in the NFL is about 1.5 years (I think that is probably a fraction over three). 

But they don't.  The featured kids prefer to do a lot of what teenagers do -- sleep, party, hang out, look for girls, talk on the phone or preferably text and incessantly listen to music.  Schoolwork?  It's a means to an end, and they'll do the minimum so that they can get the grades to move on to their next stop.  Many dream of getting to the SEC.  Some will, others won't.  But the featured kids seem totally unmotivated academically.  To them, a scholarship means a berth on a team where they can make a difference and hopefully go pro.  It does not mean an opportunity to get a good education and a decent job should the football thing not work out.  Which means that if it doesn't work out, some of these kids will end up back on the street corners of where they came from, and that's risky.  Why?  Because the high school teammate of one of the Lions' stars couldn't figure out a way to stay at his DI school, ended up back on the streets of some small Florida city, and was gunned down within 18 months.  No education and no skills equals a recipe for problems.

Some kids seem nice and likeable, others na├»ve, and even others selfish, entitled and not likeable.  Let's remember, though, that they are just kids.  But they suffer from a delusion that football can be everything and take care of their problems.  Or, if they're not delusional, they might contend that it's the only thing that they can do well.  It could be that they are right, but it could be that they haven't been challenged, have been passed through the system because they can play football well, and it could be that they just haven't put in nearly the effort that they do on the football field.  The academic advisor has to chase after the star running back to try to keep him eligible.  It's pretty frustrating, and in certain places the player would be suspended for his lack of attendance and effort.  Instead, this advisor, who should be nominated for sainthood, points out that the one essay where he gave a good effort was pretty good, so why not try?  The star running back mumbled an answer and gave an "aw shucks" type of look.  He just doesn't like school. 

The head coach, a volatile man a few cheesburgers short of a heart attack, wonders aloud whether he and his staff should be doing more to hold the kids accountable academically.  But that's it -- he just wonders, all the while building up the type of record that gets a statue built for you or a stadium named after you at EM.  He should remember that the one guy after whom the stadium was named in memory of whom the statue was built seemed to be remembered for being a bit nuts and for having pushed the envelope too hard.  I won't spoil it, but the team can reflect the coach's moods and temper.  Seeing is believing. 

So what to think of the documentary series and EM?  It underscores how important football is to certain cultures and how kids get put into the system, chewed up and spat out with nothing to show for it after all the years that they committed to it.  The kids appear to be solely focused on football or relaxation, entitled to skate through the way they want to off the field, and yet, that's not always fair.  Sure, they are in sweats a lot and have headphones on, but so do a lot of kids.  What's sad is that they don't seem to have a care in the world for their futures beyond football.  And if they don't care, there's only so much caring an academic advisor can do for them.  I wonder what the coach thinks or will think ten years out when he sees the predicaments of some of his former players.  Those predicaments will not be pretty.  But will they have been worth it for a league championship or a national championship?  Or if some kids make it to the league?

The documentary series is worth watching.  Like a fictional counterpart, Friday Night Lights, football isn't the entire story.  This series is about life.  While not all of the back stories are compelling, some are riveting. 

Which is as it should be.

After all, this is Last Chance U. 

At least for the football players. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Olympic Dedication

I read an article the other day about one particular U.S. Olympic team.  This is not a team that was featured in prime time.  It is not a team that won a medal.  Its sport is not one where people can play professionally anywhere in the world and make a living, let alone a lot of money.  The players do play for the love of the game.  And that's great.

But I am not sure that they are amateurs.  It doesn't seem that they have day jobs and then drop what they're doing to join the team when an Olympic cycle begins, say a year before the games.  No, it seems that they get a stipend to be on the national team, live at the national training center, and then, well, play for a long time.  One of the starters was quoted as saying, "I'm 27, and I have never had a job."

Is that a good thing?  If you remember the Olympics when amateurism meant something, you also recall the hypocrisy of the Iron Curtain countries, for many of their stars were in the military and their sole responsibility was playing for, in the Soviets' case, the Red Army team.  So much for amateurism.  In today's world, the Olympics only care about getting the very best, so no longer do you have the Belgian librarian who is the weight lifter or a school teacher who ran the 1,500.  Those days are long gone; they will not return.

I don't want to sit in judgment of the 27 year-old who never has had a job and who thus far has played a kids' game for a living.  My guess is that this person will go on and have a career in the sport, getting paid as a coach or as someone who can administer the national team.  If that's the case, then as this person ages this person will graduate to a role where she can get reasonable compensation, benefits and the ability to contribute to her retirement.  And, hell, it could be fun to play a kids' game for as long as you can without having to have a care in the world outside, well, playing the kids' game well.  Sounds like good work if you can get it.

The flip side to the argument is that "are you kidding me, why postpone real life by playing a kids' game that few understand or watch for as long as you can as opposed to doing something else with your life?"  And by something else, the person asking the question means, "something that is meaningful" because playing a kids' game forever doesn't seem to be meaningful.  Those making this argument will say why did the person get a college degree and then dedicate her young life to this pastime, especially when the U.S. doesn't have a history of earning medals in this sport? 

On the one hand, the pursuit is pure and for the love of the game and for a bond with teammates that is deep, meaningful and could last a lifetime.  It's not necessarily being a cloistered monk with few possessions who achieves various levels of consciousness that the rest of us cannot begin too, but it is dedication in a very pure sense.  You can make the argument that this is what certain academics do; they study a rare subject that gets little attention for the sake of doing it and for coming up with the type of discovery that might be able to shed light on civilization in a meaningful way.  Failing that, they would argue that the mere doing the work is pure and sets an example for all that purity in study has meaning, sometimes deeply so.

I don't know how I feel about this.  I don't walk in this person's shoes.  To a degree, I'm envious -- not having worked, wow!  To a degree, I'm aghast -- not having worked, what, do you live in a bubble? 

The past 17 days left this relatively anonymous athlete on a relatively anonymous team with a chance to gain some temporary notoriety -- as a team -- had they won a medal.  They fell short, and now they'll retreat to their national team headquarters, happy that they fared better than they did in London, but wondering about the next four years.  Not having worked until your mid-20's is one thing, but when you're in your early 30's and don't have a working track record, it makes it all the more difficult to get that first job.  We're not talking about an athlete with any endorsement money; she is not a swimmer.  We're talking about someone much further down on the sports food chain. 

The rest of us will say we enjoyed the Olympics, even with the air brushing over Rio's substantial problems, enjoyed how well the U.S. did (overlooking that the games increasingly seem to be a contest for the industrialized, nationalistic countries) and how well certain individuals fared -- Biles, Ledecky, Phelps among them.

And we will forget the rest.

That those who toil in relative anonymity continue on is testimony to their determination and perseverance.  There is something to the purity of it all. 

At least up until the point where it seems to be a bit extreme and pushes one's life out of balance.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Ironic Passive Aggressivenes by NFL Players

The NFL players have a union.  The NFL players have a collective bargaining agreement.  The NFL players are angry with Commissioner Roger Goodell for acting under that collective bargaining agreement.  Those players implicated in the Al-Jazeera PED scandal are angry that they have to comply with the league's investigation or else face suspension. 

The question to all of these issues is the following:  why?

The reason I ask is because the players have a collective bargaining agreement.  Their protests, frustrations and anger result from actions that the league has carried out or may carry out under that agreement.  For example, certain players who have not spoken to the league as a result of the Al-Jazeera allegations are annoyed that they have to cooperate with the league.  Put very simply, their anger and frustrations are wrong and misplaced.

Employers in this day and age are obligated -- perhaps by law if not policy of an at-times very unforgiving Department of Justice -- to investigate compliance complaints.  The Al-Jazeera allegations are serious enough that the league needs to investigate them.  And forget about the law, even.  PEDs can give a player and his team an unfair advantage.  By the league's own rules, such alleged misconduct must be investigated.  A corollary to that is a fundamental tenet of employment law -- if you don't cooperate with an investigation, you get fired.  By the way, refusing to cooperate because you might want to take the Fifth Amendment in a corresponding criminal investigation won't help an employee.  In many cases, employers fire those employees too. 

The players to a degree are lucky that they have a union and a collective bargaining agreement and should work with NFLPA leadership to maximize their benefits and protections under it.  But to the extent that the league is doing what it is doing and the CBA permits it (such as letting Commissioner Goodell -- without third-party review -- mete out discipline), they players should grin and bear it.  That's what they signed up for.

So what's their remedy?  The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (in what explicably was not a unanimous decision) upheld the CBA with respect to Tom Brady, despite all of the Patriots' public relations and the NFLPA's public relations arguing that this was an injustice.  Whether or not people liked the decision, again, it fell squarely under the CBA.  The players made a huge deal out of the Brady matter, but their frustration was misplaced. 

Instead of focusing their anger on the league and the commissioner, they should direct their comments to their union head, DeMaurice Smith, and urge him to develop a dialogue with the Commissioner to improve upon some of the things in the CBA.  Look, even if the league has a right to do certain things under the CBA, it also worries about its brand.  Translated, the Commissioner won't always win if he enforce or takes advantage of the CBA to the specific letter of it.  Doing so would convey a lack of wisdom on his part.  Atop that, Smith should try to make his points now to prepare the Commissioner and the owners for what the players might ask for in the CBA negotiations the next time around.  That would be a start.

But for the players to get the changes that they seek, they might need to strike and strike for a good period of time.  Historically, the owners have won to a much greater degree than in baseball (which has the most successful union in the history of unions) and basketball.  The reasons seem to be two-fold.  First, the average football player's career is a fraction over three years, which means that the average player really cannot afford to strike, especially for an issue that will be unlikely to affect him.  Second, football is a sport populated with players who have been told what to do since age 6 or 8 or whenever Pee Wee football starts.  The football player population seems less likely to talk back to its ownership than other populations do in other sports.

DeMaurice Smith and his executive committee would be well-served to get the messaging right.  They need to keep their membership focused on playing well and growing the revenue in the NFL.  They need to let them know that they are pushing on the key issues that they want to improve upon.  And they need to show progress on those key issues.  What they also should do is try to focus the players on anything but letting issues that they bargained for in the current CBA eat at them to the point of distraction.  That distraction will not improve the situation or make any individual player play better. 

Whether they like the ownership groups, the Commissioner or the league, well, that's up to them.  But they'd be better suited being aggressive in their discussions and negotiations than in public displays of anger and frustration that usually only get the better of those who are angry and frustrated. 

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Ugly Americans

I enjoyed the U.S. Swim Team's performance at the Rio Games very much.  The team exceeded expectations and looked like they had a good time doing it.  Young swimmers excelled, as did the tattooed grizzled veteran, Anthony Ervin, who had the swim of his life in the 50-meter race.  It was great to watch.

And that should have been it, at least until a couple of nights ago when a male quartet that star swimmer Ryan Lochte led did something stupid that caused them to have a run in with a private security guard who seemingly was right to inquire as to what Lochte and his three teammates were doing at the gas station in the wee hours.  Turns out, they needed to use the rest room, and, finding it locked, they kicked the door in.  The guard or owner, I don't recall, asked for some compensation to fix the door.  The swimmers offered $20, and that should have been it.  Basically, a bunch of young men (although Lochte, at 32, shouldn't come close to getting the "college boys will be boys" leniency) were out too late and did something stupid.  That probably should have been it.

Except that Lochte fabricated a story, the motivation for which was unclear, that Rio cops pulled over their tax, held them up at gunpoint and took their wallets.  That story baffled the local authorities, who were reeling enough because of some of the crime that transpired during the games, some of it very violent.  Lochte's and his teammates stories changed, didn't square up, and it didn't seem plausible to those investigating Lochte's story that the robbers would have left the swimmers with their cell phones.  That's not the modus operandi of robbers in Rio, apparently.  In addition, Lochte seemed way too nonchalant about having a gun put up to his forehead (something that did not happen), and video at the gas station and then from the Olympic Village seemed to indicate that the returning swimmers were in pretty good moods despite what allegedly happened.

What's puzzling is why Lochte felt a need to concoct his story unless as a means to mollify whoever was monitoring the whereabouts of the swimmers.  But why he felt a need to do so after the swim races were over is baffling because it is not as though USA Swimming or the USOC would suspend him for missing curfew.  Instead, as can happen with webs of lies, the story took on a life of its own, and what it now appears to be is that unaccountable and entitled, privileged young Americans tried to impugn the integrity of the local safety situation to cover their rear ends because they made a mistake.  What Lochte and his buddies failed to assess was the degree with which the Rio authorities would fight back to challenge the story.  After all, the story drew international headlines, the types that might continue to scare away tourists because, well, if robberies could happen to these big, strong guys they could happen to anyone.

At one level, the whole thing is stupid, young people when they get together and party together can do stupid stuff, and the whole thing shall pass.  At another level, and at a time where Brazil is having too many down moments and the U.S. can suffer from looking privileged and entitled, the whole story looks bad.  It piles on another bad episode on Rio, and, at the same time, tarnishes to some degree the accomplishments of the entire U.S. swim team.  After all, if those four are representative of the others, then what type of entitled prima donnas do we have on our swim team?  (Note:  similar accusations could fly toward the U.S. women's soccer team, if only because of the post-loss comments of Hope Solo, who called the Swedish team cowards.  That doesn't make the U.S. women's team a collection of sore losers, but it does call into question why it has tolerated Solo's lack of good judgment and temperament over the years -- it can set a pall over the entire team).

Lochte left Brazil, two others swimmers were pulled off their plane home and another never got the chance to go to the airport.  For this thing to end peacefully and in the spirit of accountability, Lochte and his teammates should issue and apology.  And Lochte also should write a check -- he has a lot of endorsement money -- for say $25,000 to $50,000 to a local Rio youth sports program as a good will gesture to help patch things up.  But if he remains silent and stays in the U.S. without making this right, then you have to wonder about him.  And if he were to remain on the U.S. swim team should he not apologize and make things right, well, then that would say something about USA Swimming too. 

Lochte picked his sin; he cannot choose his consequences.  He and his teammates would be well-suited to make this a non-story going forward as quickly as they can.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Can the Summer Games Still be a Failure for the United States? Yes, They Can Be. . .

What, am I Oscar the Grouch?  The Grinch?  Scrooge?

Hardly.  And it's hard to argue with the numbers.  The U.S. has a huge lead in medals and the success of the swim and gymnastics teams has been terrific.  The track team remains a work in progress.

That said, I will posit that the games still could be a failure for the Americans for one reason and one reason alone -- the U.S. Men's Basketball Team.  Now, that's not to take anything away from swimming, gymnastics and women's basketball, and heck the women's soccer team bowed out and no one in Washington D.C. declared a state of national mourning.  But, basketball is our game, and men's basketball is particularly our game.  And I do remember when the U.S. went into mourning in 1972 for, among other reasons, the ripoff that the men's team suffered in the final against the Soviet Union.  People were glum about that loss for years, and to this day no one on that team will accept a silver medal for the crime that the team suffered at the hands of utterly incompetent if not corrupt officials.  (And there have been other disappointments since then as well).

Still. . . the U.S. men's basketball team is supposed to represent that the best America has to offer in terms of superlative skills.  We invented this game, and we're supposed to own it.  If we lose, we lose another sense of our invincibility.  Sure, it's nice to win all of those other medals, and we take great pride not only in the accomplishments but in the stories of the people behind those great works.  That said, if we lose in men's basketball, well, the Olympics will not have been a success for the U.S. 

No pressure, of course, but it is time for the leaders on the team to emerge and to encourage more concentration, more sharing of the ball, more help defense and more movement without the ball. 

This is our game.  We have some of the best players in the world on our team.  We should do better.

We should win the gold. 

U.S. Men's Olympic Basketball Team

The non-Americans seem to work the ball inside out and outside in and play help defense.

The Americans try to will their talent to win, and their talent is considerable enough that they should win the gold medal. 

That said, I agree with the pundits, most prominently Charles Barkley, who offered that whoever constructed this team failed to do a good job, because with the exception of DeAndre Jordan the team is populated with players who need the ball to be effective.  And because of that, you do not see a lot more than isolations and one-on-one play.  You certainly do not see the off-the-ball movement that the other international teams show or that, among others, the Warriors and Spurs have shown over the years.

The team also lacks leadership.  LeBron can coax, cajole and even coerce his teammates to greater heights, if for no other reason than he takes care of the little things and nothing seems to be too little not to warrant his attention.  The team seems to defer to Carmelo Anthony as its leader.  I'm sure Carmelo has his bright points, but he also has a reputation for being a shoot-first player whose defense is not his strong point.  I thought that Paul George might have played more of a leadership role, but clearly there is something missing.  Call it team defense, call it movement without the ball, call it sharing the ball, call it focus, call it something.  These players come from the best league in the world, and yet they are eking out victories against teams with much less talent. 

Will they win the gold?  Probably?  Is this a huge deal?  Probably not.  But it does go to show you that when you craft a team, it's a good idea to get some players better suited to international play and to the basic concepts of ball movement and team defense. 

Chase Utley's Return to Philadelphia

A standing ovation that lasted almost two minutes.

A tip of the cap from longtime teammate Ryan Howard.

A solo home run that warranted a curtain call.

A grand slam that also warranted a curtain call.

A home run by Howard, too.

Two home runs and 5 RBIs in Philadelphia on his first trip there as a visiting player; he had never done this while playing in Philadelphia.

Amidst the Olympics, still the lead story on Sports Center.

Sometimes things converge and you get a beautiful moment or a series of moments that become a beautiful chapter.

Last night at the Bank was one of those times.

As Harry Kalas once famously said, "Chase Utley, you are the man."

Great night.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

A-Rod's Retirement Has Gotten Me Thinking

Alex Rodriguez retired with a yawn last week.  Sure, some Yankees' fans will pay way too much to say that they saw the great A-Rod in his very last game.  Somehow, those fans' contentions will pale in comparison to the fans who say they paid a lot to say farewell to a true Yankee all-time great, Derek Jeter.

A-Rod's problems are well-chronicled, as are those of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro, none of whom are getting into the Hall of Fame any time soon.  A-Rod surely will join them on the bench, forever perhaps awaiting his turn for induction.  And the conventional wisdom is that these fellows cheated, that they don't deserve to be in the Hall.

I get all that and have written about the same.  Their shortcomings, no, transgressions, helped give me excitement that I didn't deserve.  Was my life so out of whack that I needed to see steroid-pumped up men whack the ball more often and farther than at any time in Major League history save a live-ball era in the 1920's?  No, not really, because I do recall having a conversation with my late father-in-law about McGwire's and Sosa's chase of Roger Maris's record and offering that when all was said and done, it would come out that they were using steroids and there would be a scandal.  He somewhat scolded me for being cynical, but later did admit that I was right.

And that's part of the problem.  I didn't want to be right.  But what's worse than that is that if I saw it and spoke about it, others who were closer to the scene should have too.  But they didn't, and they didn't apologize for their transgressions, either.  They defend themselves by saying that they didn't have any proof, that they heard things, but that they didn't have enough to go on to write the story because people's reputations were at stake, or something to that effect.  Perhaps, but they also fail to admit that they could have gotten their paper's investigative reporters on the trail in real time or that they feared becoming pariahs within their own profession and losing access to some great theater had they protested at all.  What's even worse is that many of these same people cast votes for the Hall of Fame.

That's right, we're talking about the sportswriters.  None of them lost their jobs over the steroids era or had their credibility and reputation publicly ridiculed.  In fact, some of them are more prominent now than ever before, and all vote for the Hall of Fame.  So it stands to reason, by my logic, that if those guys fanned on reporting the scandal and didn't suffer any consequences on the job and somehow still can vote for the Hall of Fame, that it's a bit self-righteous for them to shun the people who helped them earn their (somewhat undeserved) reputations and gave them a lot of exciting things to cover.  So, how can they in good conscious pass judgment on the steroids users when they themselves benefited from it.  Put differently, how hypocritical can they be?

On the one hand, if they deny access to the steroids users, then shouldn't they simply resign from their positions as Hall of Fame voters because they whiffed too?  On the other hand, if they vote for the steroids users, while they might be condoning steroids use, aren't they basically putting a blanket and punctuation mark on an era where everyone failed the game -- owners (who loved the money rolling in), players, writers -- all of whom had one of their worst eras in the history of the sport?

It's an awful situation, for sure, a low moment for baseball.  The writers let the game down too.  That's not nearly as bad as what the players did, but a blind man could have seen that baseball players were a lot larger then and that the numbers some people were putting up were statistically significantly above and beyond what others in prior eras had put up. 

I don't know if this new revelation warrants a "yes" vote for the steroids users.  I just would feel much more comfortable about the whole situation if those who blew the coverage still didn't figure so prominently into who gets into the Hall of Fame. 

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Let's Find a Few Permanent Venues for the Olympics

The Olympic Stadium in Barcelona lies dormant.  Montreal went into so much debt to host the 1976 Olympics that it took 30 years to pay it off.  The Sochi Olympics were iffy in their execution, and Rio looks to be a nightmare. You only have to be as dedicated and single-minded (or as crazy) to put up with the pollution that the waterborne athletes must.  What's worse, the IOC tries to extract a lot of high-minded commitments when soliciting bids, doubling down on the irony of the whole thing given that the IOC usually starts operating from somewhere just barely north of the gutter. 

So what's the answer?  In order not to bankrupt the entire world for games  when so many live beneath the poverty level, and in order to have good, modern facilities, good accommodations for visitors  and a safe environment for all, the IOC simply should focus on six venues that would rotate every twelve years -- three for winter games and three for summer games.  Perhaps they could host various competitions during intervals  to raise some funds.  I  don't know  where those should be  or what the process should be for hosting them, but they will get built -- with support from the IOC and its member federations -- and stay current.  Period.

The Rio debacle commands no less.   Brazil has a whole roster of problems that go beyond whether there are good shower curtains for the Australian Olympic team.  Their economy is a mess, their government is a mess, crime in urban areas is awful and  the country should strive to have many fewer people living in favelas.  So what do they do?  They go out and first host the World Cup, which went off surprisingly well, and now the Olympics, where pollution, crime and the Zika virus compete for front-page coverage around the world. 

My guess is that critics of this proposal would say it comes from an entitled first world and that everyone should get a chance to host the games, and sorry, Yankee, if you'd be more uncomfortable in Rio than say Los Angeles (which is home to air pollution, thousands of homeless people kept out of sight and a significant gang problem), where they speak English and you might get around more easily.  Perhaps I am blind to that.   But what is hard to dispute are the staggering requirements for people, organization, processes and funds to pay for these games.  And, if that's not in dispute, then let's work together to craft "permanent" locations that can  save governments around the world money and time. 

Everyone would still enjoy the Olympics.  The venues could be spectacular and accessible.  And safe.  And have uses for well after the games conclude, including as international conclaves for all sorts of sporting competitions. 

But with the IOC, who knows?   They could do just the opposite -- if the price is right.