Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Confounding Sports Issues

1.  Professional baseball has been around for more than 100 years and pitchers seem to be getting hurt with increasing frequency.  You would think that with all the data that is generated that someone will map the movements of successful and injury-free pitchers and either draft for that profile or teach people what those with successful and injury-free careers do in terms of diet, exercise, sleep and motion.  Wouldn't you?

2.  The NFL draft has been around for a long time, too, and teams continue to find ways not to get it right.  Isn't there a football version of Nate Silver out there who could help a team get it right?

3.  College basketball programs still go for the "one and done" kids, but it seems harder for teams populated with them -- Duke and Kentucky and perhaps Kansas -- to win the NCAA title.  So would they consider the profile of the players they recruit?

4.  MLB has thirty teams, and that can make scheduling tricky.  The question is, are there cities where they might expand, if so, what are they?

5.  The NFL remains the most popular spectator sport in the U.S., even as more veteran players announce that they have serious health issues.  And those are the ones that we know about, as there must be some/many who suffer in silence in order to protect their privacy.  Will fan interest drop off over time over the guilt of knowing that you are watching a sport that can ruin the health of many of its players for life?  Shouldn't the fans worry about that and what it says about them?

6.  College players in men's basketball and football at many programs (and in some cases ice hockey and women's basketball) generate a lot of revenue for their schools (yes, even if 80% of DI football programs and/or athletic departments lose money).  Football players take great risks with respect to their health.  When will the time come when they get paid for their efforts beyond a scholarship and room and board? 

7.  MLB's average fan is 55 years old, and the games take a long time to complete, about 3:15.  I have been to two minor league games over the past two summers that ended in about 2:00.  The reasons -- a pitch clock and an "in between" innings clock.  When will MLB adopted both and make baseball more bearable to watch again?

8.  College basketball is very popular.  Yet, each coach gets about as many time outs as Elizabeth Taylor had husbands and the clock stops every four minutes for a media timeout.  What used to be a compelling product is almost unwatchable.  Basketball was not designed for the players to huddle every four minutes; basketball was designed to keep players moving.  Can the NCAA and the big networks who play for broadcast rights do something to make the games more watchable again? 

9.  The NBA has a lot of pizzazz, it really does.  Yet, the regular season seems endless, and then the playoffs do.  The regular season doesn't decided a whole lot after 55 games or so.  Assuming that's the case, can the NBA avoid the resting of players by cutting the season by a third and beginning the playoffs earlier?  Scarcity can do wonders for a good product -- it can make it even more popular.  No one wants to watch two twenty-win teams battle in March.

10.  When will the MLS take its next big step?  Can it, given the big bucks that Chinese teams are throwing at international stars.  The league puts on a good product, just not a great one.  It might never be the English Premier League, but could it rival another one of the top leagues?   Ever?

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Phillies and Clay Buchholz: The Folly of Signing a Veteran with A Lot of Tread on His Tires

Signing Clay Buchholz to fill a hole in their rotation was a no brainer for the Phillies, or so they made it seem.  After all, he once was one of the top starters for the Boston Red Sox, the very-much-better-than-the-Phillies Boston Red Sox, and, heck, at 32 he should have something left and could well benefit from a change of scenery.  So, the team inked him to a one-year, $13.5 million deal with the hope that he could win double digits, eat innings and perhaps pitch well enough by mid-season that he would bring a prospect or two in a trade with a contender.  Sounds reasonable? 

Or not?

Well, Buchholz suffered a forearm injury in a start the other night, his second of the year, and he is out for the year.  $13.5 million for two lousy starts and a 12.27 ERA.  Tough luck?

Or not?

Read this article and then let's talk.  The argument here is that the Phillies, had they done better and more modern due diligence, could have predicted this injury and avoided the investment. 

Now, I don't know what the Phillies did in evaluating Buchholz.  Presumably, they brought him in, gave him a fitness test, tested his flexibility, evaluated old injuries and looked at film on him.  No, not tape of past games, but x-rays and MRIs, particularly on past problem areas.  And then they pronounced him fit.  Sounds reasonable?

Or not?

What if there are other ways to evaluate players?  Such as. . . looking at a succession of recent film of them in their workouts and in games and assessing what they do in workouts, all with a view of predicting whether what they do puts undo emphasis on a certain muscle group.  And, if an exercise regimen is not put in place to address that issue, the player will suffer an injury.  A classic example is former NBA player Grant Hill.  Injuries to an ankle plagued his career, so much so that he went to an advanced performance institute in California for an evaluation.  As the story goes, the way Hill moved and worked out affected his hips, and that effort ended up putting undue stress on the ankle he kept on injuring.  The institute prescribed a different workout regiment to address Hill's problem, and in the ensuing five years he missed only five games with the Suns, and none because of the ankle injury that had affected him previously. 

I understand the theory that "no one washes a rental car," but at $13.5 million for a year Buchholz was going to be a pricey rental.  And it's not that he had a ton of suitors.  Wouldn't it have made sense, then, for the Phillies to run him through the type of evaluation I described?  It could have evaluated Buchholz and anticipated this type of problem.  Or, did the Phillies believe that at $13.5 million Buchholz was an acceptable risk and that they have enough starters in the minors who could rise to the occasion should Buchholz get hurt?  But if that were the case, then why spend all that money on Buchholz?  The answer -- clearly, they want the minor leaguers to get more seasoning.

Fast forward to potential free agents, where you would want to perform this evaluation to protect your investment and to ensure that you can get the most out of  the player.  It stands to reason that a hot free agent might not agree to such scrutiny out of a (probably irrational) risk that the tests would uncover something career threatening.  Besides, free agency is an exercise in supply and demand.  The hottest free agents will get the least amount of scrutiny because, well, they're in short supply.

But is the problem statement all backwards.  Shouldn't MLB want to do this anyway?  Shouldn't the players' union advocate for this?  Players could get the best advice on fitness and excellence and that advice would benefit everyone, including the fans, who get tired of seeing pitchers break down year after year.  If I were a player, I would get this type of evaluation to help my performance.  Imagine the nagging injuries going away.  Imagine doing targeted exercises to improve muscle groups that can help avoid injury, precisely because of the player's anatomy and movements.  Sounds too good to be true, except that it is not.

So the Phillies now will have a not-completely-ready-for-prime-time starter come up to the big leagues to replace Clay Buchholz in the rotation.  The sad fact is that the Phillies could have avoided the problem altogether.

And they are not alone.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Which Records Will Not Be Broken?

Every time a significant record gets broken, discussions ensue.  Russell Westbrook broke Oscar Robertson's record for triple-doubles in a season, so the talked move onto other records.  So, I'll submit to you, will the following be broken:

1.  Cy Young's 511 wins in baseball.

2.  Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak.

3.  Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game.

4.  Wilt Chamberlain's 55-rebound game.

5.  Wilt Chamberlain's averaging over 50 points in a season.

6.  Byron Nelson's 11 straight wins on the PGA tour.

7.  Nolan Ryan's 7 no-hitters.

The list, of course, is endless.  Some sports' records are more memorable and more conversation-worthy than others.  Football stats, for some reason, don't carry as much interest in the conversation of sports fans.  Hockey stats don't transcend hockey fans.  But basketball stats -- in some measure because of the Herculean accomplishments of Wilt Chamberlain -- do.  And baseball has been made for stats since it began, only to undergo a revolution that made it even more made for stats, the difference being the first wave of stats was the equivalent of a photograph and the current wave is the equivalent of an x-ray. 

Let the discussion ensue.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

In Memoriam -- Wayne Hardin

You might not remember his name.  But you probably do if you rooted for Navy with Heisman winners Roger Staubach and Joe Bellino or Temple with some greats that included Joe Klecko or Penn State, whose teams in the late 1970's Hardin's Temple Owls tormented, losing two close ones, a one-point loss at Franklin Field and a three-point loss at Veterans Stadium where Temple had the ball late in a tie game only to caught it up and lose very late on a field goal by one of the Bahr brothers.  This was a game where Hardin leveraged every advantage he had, including having his nation-leading punter Casey Murphy punt on third down to keep the Nittany Lions deep in their own part of the field for a significant portion of the game.  But for that fumble, the strategy could well have led to a very sweet Temple win.

Wayne Hardin died today at 91.

It was Hardin who innovated, who elevated Temple's schedule, who engineered some outstanding seasons with talent that the linked obituary references.  He prepared for a home game against powerful West Virginia by having his players practice carrying him off the field after they won the game.  Big underdogs, they smoked the Mountaineers at the old Temple Stadium in the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia off Cheltenham Avenue.  He once deployed a "relief pitcher" strategy for his Maxwell Award winning quarterback, Steve Joachim, occasionally pulling him for a talented back-up, Marty Ginestra. 

His teams played hard, his teams executed, and his teams won a lot more than they lost.  It took decades to bring the program back to prominence.  Sure, a young former Alabama assistant named Bruce Arians made a go of it right after Hardin left in the early 1980's, but even the very promising Arians struggled and a whole host of successors did the same, some mightily.  It took the hiring of former Penn State player and assistant Al Golden a decade back to begin the turnaround; the Owls have been pretty darned good ever since.

I went to a lot of the games that Hardin coached; the Owls were in almost every one of them.  The team was fun to watch.  I'm sure Coach Hardin appreciated the turnaround on North Broad Street and at the Linc very much and probably jumped for joy when the Owls took it to Penn State two years ago.  He is in the College Football Hall of Fame, and Temple was fortunate to have him for a good part of his career.

May he rest in peace.

Guess Which Team is Baseball's Most Profitable Franchise?

I'll give you five guesses. 

Let's start with some of the bellwethers. . .  New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals.  The first four are rather obvious, and, well, the Cardinals just do it about as well as anyone and have done so for a long time.

All are wrong.  Want five more guesses?  Sure, you got 'em. 

New York Mets, San Francisco Giants, Washington Nationals, Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers. 

All are wrong, too.  I put those five in there because I figured that either the size of the city or recent success might figure into profitability.  Or demography, in terms of how large the city is.  You'd be closer there.

The answer, as it turns out, or at least according to one of the best chroniclers of American wealth, Forbes, is the Philadelphia Phillies.  That's right, the team that won it all in 2008, lost in the World Series in 2009, lost in the NLCS in 2010, lost in the NLDS in 2011, was about .500 in 2012 and has been a bit like the shopping cart sliding off the side of the mountain over the past five years (including last night, where they lost 14-4 to the Mets at home, gave up 7 HRs and only put pitchers on the mound whose ERAs exceeded 10).  This means that the Phillies have more operating income than any other team in the majors.

Of course, for the wealthy and rich and famous, winning does count for something.  I'm cure Cubs fans are thrilled with their World Series and could care less about the club's profitability.  That's not to say that their owners would tolerate a huge money loser -- who would or could -- but that they do want to spend money wisely because of two principles -- 1) you can't buy excellence, but you must pay for it and 2) the analytics show that the top teams also are among those who have the top payrolls.  The Phillies haven't tried to buy excellence (in terms of free agents) in quite some time and haven't paid for it in recent years, either, preferring to let big contracts expire without committing to new, big contracts.  As a result, their pitching staff is patchwork, their bullpen is an amalgamation of loose parts, and their lineup is waiting on the prospects down on the farm to deliver. 

What they benefit from is a loyal fan base, a fun ballpark to attend and a large enough demographic to support the team, along with a good TV/radio contract.  Now that this news is out, I'm sure that the sports talk radio hosts are having a field day with it and the fans will become more impatient for progress.  The key for the team know is whether their alleged cornucopia of prospects really bears any fruit. 

The news has to hurt Phillies' fans, as 2008 and the magic that was that season was not that long ago.  But some bad strategy in the front office -- ignoring analytics and letting the roster age without a plan to infuse the team quickly with younger talent -- led to the place where they are now -- one of the bottom third of all teams in the Majors. 

It's good that the team is showing a good profit. 

They now will need to invest that money in the talent to be a good team, one that can contend.

If they do not, the fans will ensure that the profitability drops.

And then they won't be atop any lists.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Daryl Morey is Right

I've blogged about this point from time to time over the years, with the question being:  what is the purpose of having such a long regular season if so many teams make the playoffs?  I like that question, but there are others that are better.  Including in that group are the following:  1) how many games does it really take to differentiate among the teams and 2) if you cut the season in two, would the teams with the records that slot into the playoffs differ from the roster of teams after a full season?

The first question is as much rhetorical as anything else, but the NBA has a credibility problem because of Gregg Popovich's innovative brain.  Needless to say, if you can rest players, the season is too long because you do not care if you lose a particular game when the stars are resting.  Atop that, the advertisers and networks cannot be happy when their Saturday night marquis match-up is missing both teams' top three players (as happened recently).  The second question is something that your average mathlete can solve with the right data.  My guess is that a number between 50 and 60 as opposed to the current 82 might make sense.  You could spread games out a bit more, not have back-to-back games, build in more rest, make the games, well, scarcer.  Whether fans would be willing to pay say 1.5x the face value of a current ticket price if you reduce the number of games from 82 to 55 is an open question, however.  My guess is for some games, absolutely.  As for the last question above, Mike Greenberg of ESPN Radio asked and answered it this morning on his radio show.  Apparently, this year only two teams that would have made the playoffs on January 31 are not making the playoffs right now.  Perhaps the order of the teams in the standings is different, but the cream of the crop distinguished itself well before the All-Star break.

Atop that, there have to be all sorts of analytics that support a shortened season, including lengthening a player's career because he will have to take less pounding on his limbs as he runs down a wood floor that is positioned atop cement.  The playoffs could start earlier and be better (no, I would not take more teams).  The TV ratings will improve because each incremental regular season game means more. 

This would be a gutsy decision, akin to the government's repealing reams of statutes.  Why?  Because why governments are usually best at passing laws, they aren't so great at refining them or removing them.  Old laws remain on the books and sometimes can be used to prosecute people in ways that were long since forgotten.  That said, why is it against any rule -- written or unwritten -- that a sports league cannot shorten a season?  (Some leagues should also consider eliminating a few franchises).  That would be a courageous decision for the NBA and could also open up the possibility of international expansion.  For example, you could put a team in London, perhaps one in Madrid, Paris or Barcenlona.  Eastern teams could take a trip to Western Europe; Western teams could take a loop through Tokyo and Shanghai, for example.  The possibilities are endless.

Daryl Morey has been very successful as a GM and recently spoke out on the subject.  You can read what he said here.  He also is a very smart guy.

People should listen to him.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Ruminations on a Middle-Aged Man's Diet and Exercise Program, Part I

I lost a bunch of weight about 15 years ago, only to gain it back incrementally when I told myself that eating ice cream with the kids wasn't so bad and that I could keep it off if I wanted to.  The problem was that once you ate a little, you started to eat more.  And then your life was so pediatric in nature that juggling spousehood, parenthood and work was too much to provide time to exercise.  To stay awake, you ate foods to sustain you, usually of the variety that tasted much better than they offered nutritional value.  I also lost a bunch of weight several years back, but suffered a few injuries that prevented me from exercising, and, yes, the incremental eating came back.  Mind you, I tried, but I didn't have a nutritionist, coach, workout partner, healthcare professional or anyone helping me. 

I was tired at the end of 2015, stiff, out of shape and weighing about 25 pounds more than I thought I should.  I contemplated what to do next.  I have a membership to a good gym, and I also have some good equipment to work out with at home.  I went on line and read, enough at least to find a good diet app at the Mayo Clinic and to watch my portions and habits.  It's been over a year since I started, and I'm down 25 pounds and in very good shape.  I still have about 8 to go to get to my dream weight, and the final pounds are the hardest to lose and keep off.  Especially when you need to socialize and are a foodie at heart. 

So what did I do? 

First, I did the right things diet-wise.  I didn't go on a gimmicky diet.  But I did cut down on fried food, sweets and red wine.  I found that getting processed sugar mostly out of my diet, along with the alcohol, made me feel more relaxed and enabled me to sleep better at night.  I also made sure that I ate plenty of fruits and vegetables; my daughter remarked that within the past 15 months she's seen me eat more fruit than she had during the time she's been on this earth.  Typically, that can mean berries at breakfast, a banana with lunch, an orange or apple in the afternoon and some melon at night.  Four servings, perhaps five, all good.  I'll touch more upon the diet later.

As for exercise, as it turned out, I wasn't doing a great job of it.  I did a lot of cardio and some stretching, but no weight training.  By a lot of cardio I mean either 30 minutes on a rowing machine and then 20 minutes of a fixed bike.  But I went at it either leisurely or very hard; no in between.  I lost some weight because per the Mayo Clinic app I cut down on my portions and what I was eating.  That was good.  Then I went for a comprehensive physical.

As it turned out, I was doing too much cardio, not enough weights, not enough stretching, and not the right type of cardio.  So, I adjusted my exercise program to start out with a few minutes of cardio to get the blood pumping, a solid stretching routine focusing on core exercises (I pulled a few exercises from a yoga class I had attended), and then interval work on a fixed bike or on the rowing machine.  I worked out with a medicine ball and resistance bands, then lifted weights at the gym and did pushups at home.  The goal was to take weight away from the midsection and to elevate it to the chest muscles.  That coaching session with a personal trainer -- came with the comprehensive physical -- put my workouts on a good course.

As for the diet, I'll offer the following (all geared to try to eat about 1800 calories a day):

Breakfast -- nonfat yogurt with cinnamon, with a portion of flax flakes and a portion of low-sugar granola mixed in.  A portion or two of berries.  Water.

Work -- decaf coffee or green tea, drink more water.

Lunch -- salad with veggies, chick peas from the salad bar at a local supermarket, low-cal dressing.  A piece of fruit.

Snack mid-afternoon -- piece of fruit.

Dinner -- some protein (fish, chicken mostly), perhaps more salad and then steamed vegetables.  Also a change for a sweet potato every now and then, a small portion of whole-wheat pasta or a piece of bread.  Some fruit after dinner, sometimes a banana, sometimes some cut melon.

Snack (if needed) -- small piece of dark chocolate or some unsalted, unbuttered popcorn.

The key things are will power (to keep up the impetus to exercise) and discipline (to stay focused on the diet and on exercise).   Sure, you can have a steak to celebrate something and a piece of birthday cake every now and then.  You just cannot do that or have a drink routinely. 

I feel good -- stretched out, in shape and ready to go out into the world.  Sure, it can be fun to have ice cream sundaes or brownies or both daily, but as we age our metabolism changes and health problems can magnify.  I want to be one of those people who takes long walks when he is in his 80's and is flexible enough to keep moving and stay active.  There's one way to do that -- take care of yourself.

Who Will Have Drawn More People to Philadelphia (Who Will Spend Money) -- the NFL or the Pope?

Silly question, right?

As popular as the NFL is in the US, the Pope has a bigger following.  As much as American football fans might dislike the notion, there are more football (read: soccer) fans who are Catholic than American football fans.  The math is not that hard.

The Pope came to Philadelphia about a year and a half ago.  The city spend so much time on advanced public relations and planning for safety that people were discouraged from coming.  And, if they came, they might not have stayed in the city proper, and they most certainly did not patronize an amazing restaurant community in Philadelphia.  The city just made it hard to get close to where the Pope was visiting and, if you don't agree with that comment, you have to agree with the notion that the city gave off the perception that it would be hard to move around.

Estimates were that 2 million of the faithful were going to descend upon Philadelphia; those dropped to 800,000, but then experts pointed out that the Benjamin Franklin Parkway would have had to be four times its size to accommodate that many worshippers   As it turned out, 142,000 attended the papal mass on a Sunday in September.

Now the city and NFL are predicting that 200,000 will attend the NFL draft and related festivities on a three-day weekend at the end of April.  Do the math -- that's 58,000 more than attended the papal mass.  Then again, the last time a pope visited Philadelphia was about 35 years earlier; the NFL hasn't held a draft in the Cradle of Liberty for over 60 years.  Advantage:  NFL.

Of course, estimates are just that, and the weather will affect the number of attendees.  Have great weather, possibly exceed the estimate.  Have a nor'easter or a rain storm and 50 degree temperatures with wind, and the number will be much lower. 

It seems like the city isn't over-communicating about the congestion the way it did for both the Papal visit and the Democratic convention.  Which means that people might actually decide to come.  Let's face it, the average NFL fan is much more likely to open up his wallet to partake of the local gourmet fare than the average pilgrim (where the visit was the thing, not tourism or dining) and the average Democrat (where politics were the priority and absent dinners at steakhouses to scratch others' backs, food also was an afterthought).  The NFL Draft Party or whatever they are calling it is different -- first and foremost, sports tourism and food will be a priority.  Yes, the fine dining establishments might not benefit, but it could be a banner time for places like Pat's, Geno's and Steve's, among others.

Let the fun begin!

Thursday, April 06, 2017

The Silliness of the Final Four Sites

Caverns.  Canyons.  Huge barns.  Aircraft hangars.  Monstrosities. 

Call them what you will, but the recent sites for the NCAA Final Four for men's basketball are ridiculous.  They are not designed for drama and they don't take any of basketball's history into account.  They are clearly set up to maximize the revenue that the NCAA can make.  Period. 

Why anyone would want to purchase a ticket to sit up in the nosebleed section and watch the game with opera glasses when she/he can watching on a nicely sized television in her/his home is beyond me?  You get a good view of the game along with your cable package; you get an expensive and bad seat to some cavernous arena in a town with zero history for good basketball (in this case, Phoenix).

I had a conversation with my son the other day about appropriate venues, and those in Los Angeles, Kentucky, Indiana, New York City and Philadelphia come to mind.  First and foremost is Penn's Palestra, an amazing venue with about 9,200 seats that, when filled, makes every game there an exciting one.  Sure, tickets on StubHub might go for $10,000 apiece and there might be little room to house fans after taking into account friends, family and school bands.  But imagine the drama and the excitement in hosting the tournament's semifinals and finals at a place that is rife with college basketball's history.  Failing that, travel east toward Broad Street and then south toward the Wells Fargo Center, just a few football fields south of where the Spectrum, host to the 1976 and 1981 Final Fours, used to reside.  Bobby Knight won two titles there, and the atmosphere was electric, especially because it was intimate.  You can make similar arguments for basketball-only arenas (or arenas that host basketball and ice hockey) too.

I know, I know, those in favor of the cavernous caves will argue that the best national final of all time took place in one of these supersized barns two years ago when Kris Jenkins and Villanova beat Carolina on a buzzer beater.  Those proponents would argue that it did not take a Palestra to create that match-up, that it would have happened anywhere and that the experience for all fans was awesome and that as for the fans sitting in the outer zip codes of that cavernous arena, well, natural selection and free will combine to say that if they wanted to pay the money, let them pay the money.  When you get deep, you see that they have a point (even if all the money goes to everyone other than the people who create the drama -- the college players, who, if they held any other job on campus -- such as a computer consultant for Microsoft while enrolled in school -- could earn money and keep it). 

But still. . . does everything have to be about maximizing the bucks, the merchandise, the number of fans at the live event, the number of fans available to see an antiquated and dilapidated Steven Tyler play at a public site in Phoenix or Glendale or wherever he played on the eve of the big game?  Can't we play a basketball game in a basketball arena? 

The NCAA is rife with its hypocrisies, as are its member schools. 

It's all about the bucks, and the game loses in the process. 

The bucks dictate so many commercial breaks that it's hard for the game to flow, and those breaks plus a team's timeouts dictate how coaches coach.  The product is not as watchable as it used to be.  And when you put that game in an arena on steroids, it makes the long-time fan wonder if everyone involved with NCAA basketball has lost his mind. 

Princeton's Bubble

No, Princeton was not a bubble team for either the NCAA men's or women's basketball tournament.  The Ivy winner gets in and, except for the season for last when Princeton got in as an at-large bid, no one else from the Ivies gets in.

And, no, the Ivies don't have an "admissions" bubble.  It's not as if their single-digit acceptance rates (for at least half the schools) will swell to the low twenties because people stop applying to places like Princeton.  So far as anyone can tell, the Ivies are in and will be in as long as in is in, there is an in and they have tons of money.

The bubble can best be explained in this article.  Princeton built Princeton Stadium oh so many years ago (about 20 by my count), and then a wealthy alum named Powers gave enough money to name the football field after him.  Princeton apparently has tried to persuade wealthy alums to give sufficient funds to name the stadium after them, but no one has anted up (in contrast, Penn's stadium is named after its most famous community member, Benjamin Franklin.  Perhaps Princeton should name the stadium after one of its most famous community members -- Albert Einstein). 

What the development office at Princeton did do was to persuade some wealthy alum to donate $3.5 million to put a bubble over Powers Field during the cold-weather months so that various athletic teams can avail themselves of the surface.  You heard right -- $3.5 million for a bubble over a field.  This for a school that has some pretty outstanding athletic facilities already. 

The bubble?  Well, are Princeton's fundamental needs so taken care of that they can luxuriate in raising funds to put a bubble over the football field for $3.5 million dollars.  Sure, we know the game -- if the alum wants to give money to sports, there's no use asking him to endow a chair or to provide scholarship monies for deserving students.  The development office tries to match up desires of alums with needs of the school. 

But a bubble?  There are so many schools in so many communities that could put that same $3.5 million to great use.  Take Mercer County Community College several miles away, an excellent community college that serves a very broad part of the Princeton area.  Imagine what MCCC could do with $3.5 million.  It's hard to say that they would spend it on a bubble for their fields; they wouldn't.  And with global warming, a bubble isn't as needed as it might have been 40 years ago.

There are times that I don't get the Ivies.  I like sports, but to me they focus too much of their attention to playing on the fringes of Division I, trying to win certain win percentage trophies and get their mentions in national publications, all the while donating an extraordinary percentage of their spots to athletes, a much higher percentage than any of the schools that compete at the highest levels of Division I.  And for what purpose?  To mollify alums who keep them rolling in the dough that the sports they played will continue to be prioritized?  To build better people with better endurance and character who will make the world a better place?  Can anyone come close to proving that?  And do the student-athletes have qualifications as good as some of the brightest minds that might opt away from schools like this because they have zero interest in sports?  Might it be better to do away with intercollegiate participation totally and instead focus on intramural competitions that take less time but also could drive school spirit?  Questions abound.

Back to the bubble.  It seems that Princeton's development office has a ton of time on its hands and has obtained targeted gifts for Princeton's most important projects if it had the time to raise $3.5 million for a bubble.  A bubble for a football field. 


Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Why Would Someone Play Division III Football?

There are obvious reasons to the question posed, including, "well, I just love to play the game and this was where I could continue my career."  That is an answer, for sure.  Another answer could be that football helped me get into a better school than I could have gotten into without it, so I have a sense of duty to continue playing.  Another could be that one likes hitting people legally and figured that so long as someone would let him do it, he'd continue to do so.  Yet another could be that it's the buddy sport that I am best at and there's nothing like playing with and next to your buddies and hanging out with them.  Life will involve a lot of uneasy moments and requirements, so why not let it all out and have a lot of fun when I can?

But my question runs more deeply than that.  Those answers assume that the question is about a sport that has no long-term health consequences for the participants.  Basketball does not; football does.  So if you don't get a scholarship (DIII schools do not offer athletic scholarships), if you don't play before big crowds (presumably these places are so small that they don't have enough kids to fill their stands or the kids they have are engaged in other activities that eclipse the importance of watching a game), and if you don't have a chance to play for money somewhere, why do it when four more years of continuous pounding could increase your likelihood of coming down with all sorts of ailments that will alter your quality of life and potentially shorten your life expectancy?

We can go through the justification loop in the first paragraph all that we want to.  But DIII schools do not offer the argument that "well, these kids wouldn't even try to get there degrees if it weren't for football."  Heck, that should not be the argument at any college anywhere at any time.  That's the argument you hear from some people about why letting a high school basketball player with a challenging academic record to stay in school and play even though he is failing most of his subjects.  The proferred reason:  "well, he's in school, he's safe and it gives him something to do."  Wow, that is a low bar, even if understandable in some circles and even justifiable in others.  That is not this conversation, however.

Kids seek out DIII schools because of the outstanding education they should be able to receive.  That education could propel them into a graduate or professional program or a career that they can enjoy and help make their communities better places.   So, does banging one's limbs and head for 25 hours a week (plus the lengthy workouts with strength and conditioning coaches in the off-season) make any sense?  Couldn't alternatives offer a good level of competition without the risk, whether they be intramurals or non-contact sports?  For example, receivers and backs could be sprinters and linemen could toss the weights in the field events?  There are intramurals as well, and even non-athletic competitions that could develop the players as people, as citizens, as community members. 

The sports media focuses on the major health issues of former NFL players.  Most recently in the news were Super Bowl hero Dwight Clark and former Eagles' running back Charlie Garner.  Then there was the tragic case of Kevin Turner and the inspiring yet tragic case of former Saints player Steve Gleason.  My sense is that if the sports media were to peel back the onion further, they'd find cases of former college football players suffering from similar maladies because of the accumulation of too many blows to the head and body since Pee Wee football. 

The irony about the DIII players is that they are supposed to be smart guys, problem solvers who can play sports and excel in the classroom.  They, themselves, should be able to figure out whether playing DIII football is a good proposition for them. 

The country's population is such that these schools will continue to play the sport (risking the wrath of certain alumni were they to discontinue it) and there will be young men who find it glamorous and glorious to continue to play at this level.  Then again, the administration of these schools along with parents of young men are smart, too, and they evolve.  Perhaps the supply of potential players won't be the same, and perhaps the powers that be will evolve the game to the point that it ends up resembling Greco-Roman wrestling and lacrosse than the "three years and a cloud of dust" mentality that permeated the game forty years ago. 

I have tried to find a compelling argument to support playing the sport at this level.  I'm not sure it is there; I'm pretty much convinced it is not.

Did the NHL Pick the Wrong Fight?

The NHL informed the players' union that the league will not permit its players to play for their national teams in the next Olympics. 

On the face of it, it's a wise business decision.  The international soccer world is rife with examples of players who travel extraordinary distances on their "international breaks" to play several games for their national teams despite whatever condition they might be in save unable to walk.  I couldn't imagine how taxing it might be for Alexis Sanchez to travel from London to Santiago, Chile to play for his national team after a grueling round of games in the English Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League.  But until they hit a certain age where it seems acceptable to retire from international competition and use breaks to re-charge, players seem duty-bound to put on their country's uniform and go full tilt for their national teams.  Even in friendly matches, those that do count as attempts to get the team to qualify for a regional or international competition. 

And, when they retire from international competition, it's a signal that they are close to the end of their careers and that they might not be as in demand on their professional teams or for the major professional teams any more.  That retirement is bittersweet.  Sure, they will get more rest, but they also are not as in demand as they once were. 

Move over to the NHL, where the commitment to one's national team is not nearly as pronounced.  Now, the NHL doesn't want to lend its players or see them get hurt, the latter a risk that is run continuously in soccer.  It would be awful, for example, to see Diego Costa rupture an Achilles' tendon in a qualifying match between Spain and Monaco for the World Cup (presumably Monaco is not very good so the third-string striker for Spain would get the nod over Costa in that match, but you get the point).  Except that this is not a qualifier, this is for the ultimate international competition in the hockey world -- the Olympics.

The NHL has told its players that their national teams are not important.  The NHL is making players choose their profession over their country.  In the business world, there's an old saying, especially when it comes to commitments from employees and having them come to work in extreme weather, that you should not make employees choose between their job and their families.  People will elect to protect their homes and take care of their kids, who might have a day off from school, over their jobs.  They have to -- it's a necessity.  And unless they are required for an emergency and knew that when they accepted the job, they will harbor resentment for a while and you might "lose" them.  So, managers are extremely careful in those situations.

How about country?  How about telling a Swede, sorry, but you cannot play in the Olympics?  Or any player?  That's something that almost every player wants to do.  The NHL is making players choose their jobs over their countries, and it just doesn't seem right.  This is a leaden decision that puts business over raw emotion, over patriotism, over playing for your country and the love of the game.  It's all because of money, and when that's the sole motivator, bad decisions can result and bad feelings will result.  And these are bad feelings of the type that can last for a long time.

I doubt that this is the last step in the process.  The NHL might think it has the right to do so and that it has good reasons, but they should remember another old adage, that one doesn't win by being right all the time.  Public opinion and the players are against this decision, and the NHL cannot afford a lot of bad publicity.  Their TV money isn't staggering, and their fan appeal is limited, no matter how vocal those who are about hockey advocate for it.  There is no law out there that protects a league or its wealthy owners from themselves, but if there were one, it would get invoked here.

This is a bad decision.  The NHL should fix it.

You Cannot Tell Much from Opening Day Except That

the Padres are not a good baseball team and do not have much starting pitching.  They could well lose more than 100 games.  Just sayin'.