(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Jalen Hurts: A Lesson in Character

It has been said that sports don't develop character -- they reveal it. 

Last night, Alabama trailed Georgia at the half.  While the entire team didn't execute well, the focal point of that execution became the Crimson Tide's quarterback, Jalen Hurts.  It just wasn't Hurts who wasn't playing well on offense for the Tide -- his blockers had their mistakes and his receivers had trouble gaining separation.  But Hurts didn't do as well as he normally did, and the Georgia defense did a good job of frustrating Alabama and its running game. 

So, if your running game isn't working, you have to pass the ball.  Well, Hurts isn't known as the best passer in the world, and the Alabama coaches had a decision to make -- stay with the guy who is a team leader and had gotten you this far, or call a huge audible and replace him with a freshman who hadn't played a down of consequence in his career.  That freshman, though, is better at throwing the ball, and the Alabama coaches thought that the change was justified.  We all know what happened afterwards -- the change further cements Nick Saban as a coaching legend, and the freshman substitute had a fairy-tale like game that climaxed with a flawless TD pass on fourth and long at the end of the second overtime to give Alabama its sixth national championship in nine years.  All of that has been written about a lot and many stories will continue to focus on this exciting game and the coaching of Nick Saban.

But suppose you're the quarterback who won 25 games in two years, including a national title as a freshman, played in the national title game last season and then gets benched.  Ironically, his name is Hurts, and there is nothing more than can hurt the psyche of a young man then to be yanked from a game -- the national championship game -- before a live audience of millions of people and with family and friends in attendance.  Yes, that has to hurt.  Young men could get angry, feel frustrated, humiliated, disappointed, upset that they were not getting a chance to redeem themselves, could question themselves, their coach's loyalty to them, the fairness of it all and whatever other emotions could boil over at such a critical juncture in their lives.

Jalen Hurts didn't.  He remained engaged on the sideline.  He remained supportive of this team and very much encouraged his back-up and gave pointers about different coverages.  Jalen Hurts did not play the role of the wounded turtle and retreat to his shell.  He stood tall, summoned the strength and emotional fortitude to know that he is part of a team and something bigger than himself, that a starting position is not an entitlement, and a whole bunch of other thoughts and emotions that went into the algorithm in his head that instructed him, "you are a leader, you have been a leader on this team, your team needs you to continue to lead, especially when the team is behind.  Stand tall, be supportive and continue to lead.  You might not be the quarterback on the field right now, but you are still a leader."

Alabama could have wilted after the half or after it found itself down 20-7 with six minutes and change left to go in the third quarter.  But the Crimson Tide had one more high tide left in them and kept finding the energy and determination to overcome disappointments within the game (an interception tossed by the back-up, a missed field goal at the end of regulation that would have won the game for them) to win the game. 

Jalen Hurts, the quarterback, was not on the field for almost all of that time, save one play where he ran the ball to set up the field goal attempt at the end of regulation.  Jalen Hurts, the leader, was all over that field in spirit, helping his team win in any way he could.  Sure, Jalen Hurts did not throw the game-winning touchdown pass, but he emerged a winner in multiple ways last night -- as a person of tremendous character, and with his second national championship ring.  Okay, so he didn't play at his best level last night, but it would be hard to imagine that he ever has led any better or revealed aspects of his character any better than he did last night.

Alabama wins for a reason.  Sure, the Tide can recruit with the best of them.  Other schools recruit well too.  But it's the culture of maturity and accountability that distinguishes the Crimson Tide from any other program out there.  The Tide have about eight players who will leave early and get selected in the early rounds of the NFL draft.  Jalen Hurts will not be one of them, and it's unclear right now what his future in football will be -- as a quarterback at Alabama, as a quarterback somewhere else or playing another position at Alabama.  And most people will not remember how he took his disappointment on Monday night; they will remember how his back-up -- a freshman from Hawaii -- took over in the second half and helped lead the team to victory.  But deep down, the person to whom Jalen Hurts has to answer -- himself -- should know that how he acted last night was extraordinary.

It's fun to watch exciting games with theatrics, lead changes and dramatic endings.  It's even more rewarding to watch them when you see young men dig deep and reveal a part of themselves that is truly amazing.  Jalen Hurts did that last night, and the Alabama nation should be thankful for it.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Rick Carlisle is Just Plain Wrong

If Rick Carlisle had his way, any network that pays the NBA big bucks to support the private jets, the high salaries, the nice locker rooms and the amazing practice facilities has zero right to provide any content that might stir up a controversy for a team or, heaven forbid, one of his fellow coaches.  That, in essence, is what Carlisle offered in a pugnacious, dismissive style yesterday at a press conference.  Put bluntly, he was trying to intimidate the sports media from doing its job.

The cause of Carlisle's anger is the NBA's current court jester, LaVar Ball, who can provide some compelling flavor in a professional sports world that is too full of sanitized quotes and teams who prevent access to star players.  Should Ball be the story?  In many cases, not really, because he is an attention hound.  That said, he also is the father of the second pick in last year's NBA draft, and that player is a member of one of the league's highest profile franchises, the Los Angeles Lakers.  On most days, Ball is a side show, and the media has come around to treating him as such, someone who is famous, like Paris Hilton and the Kardashians, for being famous.

But that doesn't mean that LaVar Ball cannot provide compelling news.  His quote the other day that the Lakers' players were unhappy and that head coach Luke Walton has lost the locker room is, whether Carlisle likes it or not, news.  That quote compels beat reporters to dig in and discern whether this is LaVar Ball's opinion, whether LaVar Ball is relaying his son's opinion, or whether LaVar Ball is relaying his son's report that other players have come to the same conclusion.  Yes, a lot of the above is hearsay, but that is why beat reporters dig in, cover the story and report. 

Many have criticized the media over this story, and Carlisle is not the only one.  There are those who offer that the media should not be listening to LaVar Ball or giving him an audience.  There are those who want to disqualify Ball automatically because his acts like a court jester and seems to say something almost daily that will draw him a headline.  And then there is Carlisle, who offered that ESPN should do whatever it can to make the league look good. 

Carlisle is a good coach and a bright guy; he didn't get a degree from the prestigious University of Virginia for nothing.  His point also has some logic to it, namely, that if ESPN plays big money for the rights to the NBA and wants to offer an outstanding product to viewers, it should endeavor to make the league look as good and robust as possible, presumably, even though Carlisle didn't say it, to make the league look more attractive to fans, who will tune in more, which, in turn, will make the product more compelling to advertisers, who will drive up rates, which will help ESPN's revenues, enable it to pay more for rights in the future, which will enable the teams to make more money and, accordingly, pay the Rick Carlisles of the world more, all the while giving them fewer headaches in the form of the self-appointed and by far best quote in the NBA this year.  Got it?

Good, because the logic is as good as far is it goes.  Look, I think that ESPN is not pure journalism, and it's original name, the "Entertainment and Sports Programming Network" suggests that it is more entertainment and less journalism.  But the journalism is there -- in E60, Thirty for Thirty, "Outside the Lines" and other stories that they cover.  And so long as it is there, they have the right, and perhaps even if in their at times conflicted role (whose Achille's heel Carlisle's comments tweak) to cover a story for which the main source is none other than LaVar Ball.  

That said, ESPN has put itself in this awkward position -- paying big bucks for the rights but also positing itself as the premier provider in the U.S. of sports news  along with content.  It has tenacious reporters who love to be the first source for a story, including Seth Wickersham, Adrian Wojnaroski and many others.  So, it stands to reason that if something is rotten in the Lakers' locker room, ESPN should be covering it.  And U.S. coaches and managers have it relative easy compared to soccer coaches/managers around the world, where the journalistic competition is fierce to break the hot story about what currently is making or breaking a football squad.  You might need to have a thick skin in the U.S.; in Europe, you need cast-iron underwear.

Reporting is a critical aspect of our society, and the better and more thorough the reporting the better off we all are.  Tremendous, withering criticism has been sent the media's way because of the way it has covered certain events (or not covered them) over time.  Emotions are high; allegations of "fake" news abound, even when the news is real and the accuser wants to deflect attention away from himself or the issues that are bedeviling him.  The press isn't perfect, and neither are the sources.  But it stands to reason that a credible person can be wrong on occasion and someone viewed as an abject nut case can be right.  And that is the journalist's job to figure out -- is LaVar right, or is he spouting off again, the NBA's version of "Old Faithful."