Monday, September 1, 2014

MO'NE!

               They didn’t have Little League when I was growing up in Chicago during the 1940s and early ‘50s.  We played 16-inch softball because it was best suited to the small playgrounds and parks that were handiest, and didn’t require much gear. But play ball? We did lots of that in season, mornings, afternoons and evenings until it got too dark.
              
              We played mostly choose-up-- three-against-three, four-against-four, or whatever alignments our numbers that day allowed. We tailored the rules to suit the circumstances, usually requiring pitcher’s hands out, right field out and the batting team supplying the catcher and umpire. Those last two things might seem iffy, but they almost always worked out okay.

We played some organized softball, too, in my case mostly at the gravel-surfaced McPherson School playground I frequented.  The playground director was a rotund political appointee named Ed Uhlich, whom we kids nicknamed “Uncle Ed” because he was anything but avuncular. He did, however, bestir himself to schedule occasional practices, hit fungoes to us and make out the lineups when we played other playground teams at the “midget” (ages 8, 9 and 10) and “junior” (11-13) levels.

 We had only so-so success in those leagues until the last year, when a couple of miraculously talented kids, including Billy Haig, who would become a basketball star at DePaul U., joined our ranks, and we won a city title. That’s the way I remember it, anyway. I’d feel better about the brag if I still had the medal to prove it, but, alas, it’s been lost.

By “we” I mean the boys my age who lived in the Northside neighborhood around the school.  There were girls in the nabe, of course, but we guys never (as in never) played sports with them. It wasn’t that we rejected them, it was that the subject never came up. Girls did other things for fun back then. I mean, they must have.

The pattern continued at Roosevelt High School, which I attended (1951-55); it had varsity sports for boys but not for girls. Ditto for the other Chicago public high schools then, as far as I know.  Any controversy engendered by that situation was all but unvoiced. Girls were cheerleaders, and that was that.

Now things are different; indeed, the spread of women’s sports has been the biggest change in the sports world since—well—ever. Simple equity demanded it, pushed along by the example of the Olympics (the one really worthwhile thing that institution has done) and Title IX, the 1972 Civil Rights Act amendment that prohibited discrimination by sex in any educational program or activity that received Federal funding. Forty-plus years later we’re still arguing about what Title IX means, but for thousands of woman and girls it’s certainly meant the opportunity and wherewithal to express themselves athletically.

   Mostly, separation rules on the fields of play: girls play girls and boys play boys. Once in a while, though, the pattern gets broken, as it did in the Little League Baseball World Series a week or so ago. There, in full view of ESPN, 13-year-old Mo’ne Davis, representing a Philadelphia team, not only pitched a complete game in the diamond sport’s annual kids’ classic but shut out her foe, busting 70 mph fastballs past bewildered boys. As they say, the crowd went wild. That included Sports Illustrated magazine, which put the youngster on its cover.  
            
             People get excited whenever girls (or women) beat boys (or men) in sports, even in horse racing, where the physiological differences between the sexes are less important athletically than they are in humans. I guess that’s because everyone loves an underdog. Truth is, though, that in the Little League eligibility ages of 11 through 13 girls are in the least-underdoggy phase of their lives, being on average a bit taller and heavier than boys of the same age (no kidding). Girls usually mature (i.e., go through puberty) earlier than boys, and thus have their growth spurts earlier. By mid-teens, however, boys usually have passed them, and by adulthood have about a 50% edge in “lean body mass” (i.e., muscle). That’s the basis of male athletic superiority.
          
            Every so often a promoter will turn a buck by challenging the above verity and staging a so-called Battle of the Sexes. The most notable of these came in 1973 when Bobby Riggs, a tennis champion in his youth but by then a 55-year-old hustler, ginned up (and won) a match with Margaret Court, a top-ranked woman. Having captured the media’s attention, he then took on a 29-year-old Billy Jean King, the reigning women’s Wimbledon champ, in a nationally televised match in the Houston Astrodome involving side deals that were much more lucrative than the $100,000 match prize.

 King wasn’t impressed by Riggs’ dink-and-lob game and whipped him, sending women everywhere off in search of tennis gear and instruction.  That was great but a more-accurate measure of the courtly difference between the sexes was a 1992 match between Jimmy Connors, only slightly over the hill at 40, and a closer-to-her-prime Martina Navratilova, then 35. Connors won 7-5, 6-2, despite getting only one serve a point in his service games and allowing Martina to hit into the doubles alleys.

Plenty of women can beat plenty of men in plenty of sports, but at the top level of sports in which both sexes participate in pretty much the same events (mainly track and field and swimming), men’s records are uniformly about 15% better than women’s.  That’s also about the year-in, year-out difference in average drives on the PGA and LPGA tours, which is why the women compete on shorter championship courses than the men.

Mo’ne Davis seems like a terrific kid, poised and pleasant. Her team made the semi-finals of the Little League tournament, no small achievement. Interviewed on TV after one game in Williamsport she said that she likes to play basketball, too, and that her ambition is to be the first woman to play in either Major League Baseball or the NBA.  It’s good that she’s keeping her options open. 


Thursday, August 14, 2014

TIGER, AGAIN

               For years golf fans have speculated about the day when the sport would have to carry on without Tiger Woods to carry it. It seems that day has come, before most expected.

They played the PGA Championship last week—the fourth and last of the game’s annual “majors”—and Tiger wasn’t around for the weekend, having missed the 36-hole cut. His game, once a source of awe, has become an object of derision. “He’s not even limping properly,” quipped TV analyst David Feherty, as the sore-backed golfer hobbled off after yet another poor shot in the tournament.

Between 1997 and 2008 Woods won 14 majors.  After the last, at age 32, he was deemed a sure bet to break Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 in that august category. He hasn’t won one since in what should have been his most-productive years, and the line on his chart is pointing down.

If you follow this space you know that I’ve written about Tiger before. It’s hard not to because the arc of his career has been so spectacular. He was a golfing prodigy whose early deeds exceeded even inflated expectations; similarly, his decline has had elements of Greek tragedy.  I’ve never rooted for him because, from close up during my working-press days, I found him arrogant, mercenary and controlling, but it’s still hard to see him as he is today.

His initial successes only made the reversal more startling.  His first major victory—at the 1997 Masters-- was jarring, with a record-setting score and 12-stroke margin that caused the moss-backed custodians of Augusta National to lengthen and reconfigure their course to the point where comparing recent and past performances there have little relevance. Three years later he topped that by blowing away the U.S. Open field at venerable Pebble Beach by 15 strokes, a performance that caused a collective shudder among his links foes. For the next several years no touring pro would tee up in a tournament in which he participated without feeling his shadow looming over him. Not even Nicklaus in his prime inspired such fear.

I’ve long held that a main reason for Woods’ dominance was the simple fact that he was a better athlete than any of his foes, and they knew it. Unlike sports that prize speed, strength and agility, golf is about rhythm and timing, and some unlikely looking types have excelled at it, but golfers still are jocks at heart and worship the traditional athletic virtues. I recall that when the powerful slugger Dick Allen was with the Chicago White Sox in the 1970s he broke every clubhouse rule, often showing up for games late, hung over or both, and disappearing between innings to cop smokes. No Sox teammate was heard to criticize him, however, tickled as all of them were to have him on their side.
            
           Tiger’s physical edge began to slip with knee surgeries in 2007 and ’08, the price he paid for the effort he put into his dynamic swing. Worse yet was the blow to his psyche that resulted from the 2009 revelations that he’d been a serial adulterer with a taste for bimbos that put Bill Clinton’s in the shade. That came out in the most-humiliating way, when the golfer wound up in a hospital emergency room with injuries suffered after backing his car into a fire hydrant while being chased from his home by his wrathful, golf-club-wielding wife.
             
             From a carefully honed image for discipline and rectitude, Woods became a long-running gag for the Internet and late-night-TV comedians. Sample joke: Did you hear that Tiger wrote a book called “My Favorite 18 Holes”? A lot of people returned it after they found out it was about golf.

That would have been tough for anyone to take, but especially for Tiger, a prototypical ducks-in-a-row kind of guy. Thanks to the mythmakers at Nike and IMG who’d packaged him from the time he turned pro, and abetted by Sports Illustrated, he’d been presented as someone with gifts that transcended sports. His father and mentor Earl described him for the magazine’s profile written when he was 21 as “The Chosen One.” Said dad: “He’ll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations. The world is just getting a taste of his power.” If the golfer questioned that assessment he kept it to himself, as he did everything else that didn’t permit him to turn a buck.

Tiger scurried off for “sex-addiction treatment” after his fall from grace, and while he’s won some tournaments since his return-- five of them in 2013 alone-- he’s rarely been in the running in the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open or PGA, the only events he really cares about. This year he was sidelined for four months with back surgery to repair a pinched nerve. He returned (probably too soon) to play in the British Open, where he finished 69th, and in the PGA. Yesterday he pulled out of Ryder Cup consideration, saying he’d stay away from golf until his rehab was complete. Stay tuned.

Golfers can play at a high level well into their 40s (Nicklaus won his last major at age 46; Julius Boros won one at 48), so the 38-year-old Woods is by no means washed up by the calendar. Maybe he’ll regain his mojo and storm the heights again, maybe not.  

There’s a new phenom around in Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, the 25-year-old winner of this year’s PGA and British Open, and two other majors before that. Nicklaus, who wants his record to stand forever, stuck a needle in the young man recently by saying there was no reason he couldn’t win “15 or 20” of the shiny baubles. TV ratings for the closely contested PGA Championship were better than they had been for years, so fans may be finding new reasons to watch.  Still, for a long time they’ll probably be doing it with an eye out for Tiger.


Friday, August 1, 2014

NEWS, VIEWS

               NEWS: National Football League pre-season games are about to begin. Fans cringe.

               VIEWS: What’s the best thing that can happen to your favorite NFL team between now and the Sept. 4 start of the regular season? Nothing.

               That’s right, nothing, because 90% of the news that will emerge from every team’s pre-season is bad.  I’m talking about injuries, of course. They’re inevitable when football is played and one only can hope that the mishaps his or her team suffers won’t queer its entire campaign, like a season-ending one to a starting quarterback or left tackle. That’ll happen to some, sure as the sun rises.

               So why does the world’s most-corporate sports league risk its most-valuable assets in contests that don’t count in the standings?  Partly because the boys need a bit of practice before the start of for-real hostilities, but certainly not the four-games’ worth that the schedule dictates. That’s a function of commerce, based on the premise that you can’t turn a buck if the store is closed. NFL teams soak their season-ticket holders full price for pre-season outings, and sell the games’ TV rights as well. For the guys in the owners’ boxes, that’s worth a torn ACL or two.

                The four-game slate dates from a time when salaries were lower and many players needed off-season jobs to supplement their incomes. Training camp and exhibition games were for getting into shape. Now, jocks are jocks 12 months a year and always are in good condition.  A dress rehearsal or two and they should be ready to go.

               The league knows this and has floated the idea of reducing the pre-season to two games while increasing the regular campaign to 18 games from 16. The players’ union says that would be swell if everyone’s salary were increased by 12.5% to compensate for the 12.5% increase in games that count. So far that’s been a no-sale, so the lunacy continues.

               In fact, most of the players who really will play during the regular season put in much less than four full games of pre-season work. Starters typically play just one or two series of downs in the first pre-season contest, about half of games two and three and little or none of game four, the rest of the action going to rookies and fringe vets. Still, any time they strap it on they can get hurt, and some will. That’s why we watch the pre-season through laced fingers.

               NEWS:  EMMANUEL MUDIAY SIGNS TO PLAY PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL IN CHINA

               VIEWS: Good for him.

               Before I get to the whys, a bit of who. Mr. Mudiay is an 18-year-old native of Congo who came to these shores as a middle-schooler, settling with his family in the Dallas area. Providentially, he grew to 6-feet-5-inches tall and excelled in basketball, so much so that he was the nation’s No. 5-ranked college prospect at the end of last season. A likely one-and-doner, he was widely wooed nonetheless, finally deciding upon sitting at the feet of Larry Brown, the much-traveled coaching guru whose current stop is Southern Methodist U. There, he no doubt would learn more about the jab step and the cross-over dribble than about subjects whose names end in ology.

               But a funny thing happened to him on the way to academe. A pro team in China offered him a reported $1.2 million to join it for a year, and he said yes. At last sighting he was packing and learning to use chopsticks.

                Pro ball abroad is a path more young basketballers should follow if they get the chance. Sport is an iffy business, with disaster always around the corner, and it behooves the talented to seize whatever opportunities are open to them, while they’re there. For its own reasons the NBA has decreed that it won’t accept players under age 19 and at least a year out of high school. For their own reasons colleges have created a charade under which some of those kids pretend to be students and the schools pretend to educate them until the pros beckon. It stinks all around.

               Young Mudiay will have to pay taxes on his $1.2 mil, and, probably, a sizeable agent’s fee, but he should complete his year of foreign study with at least $700,000 in hand. Even after buying mama a house he’ll have about $500,000 for his own use, a nice start in life by any measure. If at some later date he yearns to learn, he can pay his own tuition, pick his own classes and shoot hoops only when the spirit moves him. That’s win-win-win by me.

               NEWS: THE MAJOR LEAGUES’ TWO BEST ROOKIES ARE FURRENERS

               VIEWS: Whadidyah expect?

               With the 2014 baseball schedule almost two-thirds over it’s clear that the best rookie pitcher has been the Japanese Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees and the best rookie position player the Cuban first-baseman Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox. That result was pretty much predicted by the initial contracts each received—Tanaka’s for  $155 million over seven years and Abreu’s for $68 m over six—but the extent of their success still has been surprising.

               Tanaka, 25 years old, didn’t just handle Major League batters earlier this season, he handcuffed them, starting off 11-1 in the won-lost column with an ERA of 1.99. Then he fell victim to the elbow woes that are mowing down pitchers of all races and creeds. His availability for the remainder of the campaign is in doubt, but he did enough through June to warrant Rookie-of-the-Year consideration. He’s a helluva pitcher and we only can hope he’ll heal and again prosper.

               Based on Tanaka’s price tag the one for every-day-player Abreu, 27, now seems like a bargain, but it was questionable initially. He’d posted otherworldly numbers in his native country— in one season batting .435 with 30 home runs and 76 RBIs in 66 games—but the quality of the competition he faced there was below MLB level. Further, he’d gone almost a year without playing after his escape from the people’s republic, and was coping with sudden wealth and new choices in a quite-different land.

               The big fellow, however, hit with power from the outset in Chicago and currently leads the majors with 31 home runs. Just as impressively, the more Abreu sees of big-league pitching, the better he likes it; after hitting .254 in April and May he went .326 from June 1 through July 28. “The Sox thought they’d get a slugger but what they got was a real good hitter,” team broadcaster Steve Stone recently observed.          

               The success of the two underscores the growing internationalization of sports, including ones we used to claim as our own. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s a whole new ball game out there.




Tuesday, July 15, 2014

DOWN AT THE HEELS

               July usually is a quiet time for college sports, a period in which coaches hide out in dark rooms indulging their game-films obsessions and players take summer classes to make up the credits they can’t get during the fall or spring semesters, when their sports are in season. Boosters are left to their own devices for entertainment, mostly watching TV reruns or speculating about the campaigns ahead.
           
            This year, though, has been lively. The NCAA is defending itself in court over its use of player images in video games and, for a change, is losing. The major conferences are rumbling about making their own rules and threatening to split with the cartel if they don’t get their way.  Rarely a day goes by that a college athlete doesn’t embarrass his school by running afoul of the law, a subject I wrote about a couple of blogs ago. That’s one price the institutions pay for the business they’re in.
            
            The busiest campus is that of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and it wishes it wasn’t. A scandal has been unfolding there that goes back more than 15 years and is appalling even for the cesspool that is college sports. It seems that an entire academic department of the university-- African and Afro-American Studies, or AFAM-- existed mainly to keep jocks eligible for their sports by handing them A’s or B’s for courses that required no class attendance or much other effort. There’s evidence that tutors wrote papers for athletes and, if that failed, grades were changed, sometimes by forging instructors’ signatures. The irregularities date from at least 1997. Since a college generation spans four years, that means it affected about four generations of Tar Heel athletes. That included the school’s 2005 and 2009 national-champion men’s basketball teams.

Some of those allegations were investigated previously by the NCAA, lumped together with those of the more-common sports grist of “impermissible benefits” (i.e., payoffs) to athletes. In 2011 the organization hit the school with penalties to its football program that cost head coach Butch Davis his job, but it determined that the infractions were limited to football and looked no further.  Things might have ended there if two state newspapers—the Raleigh News & Observer and Charlotte Observer—hadn’t kept digging, something that no doubt riled more than a few of their readers and advertisers.

 The papers’ stories uncovered a far-wider mess and resulted in the indictment for fraud of Julius Nyang’oro, the AFAM department chairman from 1992 to 2012, for pocketing $12,000 (on top of his regular yearly salary of $200,000) for teaching a summer course that never met. They also brought forward Mary Willingham, an assistant director of the university’s tutoring arm, who said that pre-written term papers were routinely handed to jocks in several academic disciplines and that for years the university had been keeping eligible athletes who read at grade-school levels.

 Most tellingly, the scandal acquired a face when Rashad McCants, a star of the 2005 hoops-title team, went public in June with allegations that his education at Chapel Hill was a sham, consisting largely of unearned grades achieved in the no-show classes to which he was directed by his coaches and academic advisers. UNC and other schools guard athletes’ grades transcripts like state secrets, but McCants produced a copy of his showing that he’d received  10 A’s, six B’s, one C and one D in his AFAM classes, and six C’s, one D and three F’s in courses outside the department.

“When you go to college you don’t go to class, you don’t do nothing, you just show up and play,” he said on ESPN’s Outside the Lines program. “You’re not there to get an education, though they tell you that. You’re there to make revenue for the college…to put fans in the seats.”

Now the NCAA has reopened its investigation and the university is conducting an inquiry of its own, headed by an ex-U.S. Justice Department official. NCAA and institutional self-investigations often end in whitewashes, but UNC might not have that option. Nyang’oro, who’d refused to talk since his indictment last year, lately has said he’d cooperate with investigators after the criminal charges against him were dropped.  That’s a curious arrangement, indicating that the university’s reach extends into local law enforcement, but he’d likely have many beans to spill should he choose to.

Almost as bad as the charges against UNC has been its reaction to them. Its line has been to blame all irregularities on Nyang’oro and his secretary, and to chide the Carolina newspapers for their reports on the situation. Whistleblower Willingham was stripped of her administrative duties and assigned to shuffle papers in a basement office. She resigned and is suing the school.

Roy Williams, UNC’s much-decorated basketball head coach, channeled Inspector Renault of the movie “Casablanca” by saying at a press conference that he’d reacted to ex-player McCants’ charges with “shock and disbelief.”  “I have somewhat control over the basketball program. I don’t have control of the academic side,” he said in a classic non-denial denial. This is a man who is paid a reported $2.6 million a year to run a 15-player program, and probably knows what his players eat for breakfast every morning. It later came out that six of the 15 young men on Williams’ ’05 squad were AFAM majors, as were many other Tar Heel jocks before and after.

 The affair is especially telling because UNC is one of those chesty schools that likes to brag that it “does things right,” combining classroom and playing-field excellence without breaking the rules of either. The U of Michigan said that before it was learned that Ed Martin, a Detroit numbers racketeer, was the godfather of its Fab Five-era basketball teams.  Notre Dame, too, before it deep-sixed a rape complaint against a footballer by a woman student who committed suicide after the incident, and sent a 20-year-old student manager to his death videotaping football practice from a tower during a windstorm.

As a Southern institution, UNC might have been more sensitive than most to its obligations to the black athletes it has been recruiting only with relative recency. Yes, the players involved were complicit in their own exploitation, but their youth was an excuse their adult advisers lacked.

This is a matter that goes beyond sports, casting doubt on the integrity of a university as a whole. The NCAA shouldn’t be investigating it, the national accrediting bodies should.



               

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

THE CUP RUNNETH OVER

                When people ask me to name the best event I ever covered as a sportswriter, I answer without hesitation. It was the 1998 soccer World Cup in France. No 2?  Also easy-- the 1994 World Cup in the United States.
               
              The 1998 fest gets the nod in large part because it enabled me (and wife Susie) to spend five weeks in France on the Wall Street Journal’s dime, but both World Cups stood out from a sporting standpoint. The high athletic level of the games and the color, enthusiasm and good nature of the crowds made both occasions memorable.  To attend a World Cup is to love it.

                Thanks to ESPN’s brilliant, wall-to-wall coverage,   Americans have been getting a virtual World Cup experience this time around that’s almost as good as the real thing, and the results have been startling. We are more into the event than when we were the hosts, with sports bars packed to capacity  when the U.S. team plays and large crowds gathering in open-air urban venues to watch the action communally on big screens, just like in Europe and Latin America. Almost 25 million people watched the U.S.-Portugal match on TV, more than watched any game of the NBA or NHL finals. Little kids say they want to be soccer players when they grow up.

 With this exposure has come a marked increase in soccer literacy. A few years ago about all the typical Yank could tell you about the game was that the English star David Beckham was a cute guy with a cuter wife. Today many of us know what a “striker” is, and the terms “offside,” “cross,” “penalty kick” and “stoppage time” also have become familiar. I heard one radio sports-blab guy give a match score as “one- nil” without a hint of sarcasm. That’s progress.

True to form, however, our burst of soccermania has led some to conclude that the sport is about to rival our traditional Big Three of baseball, football and basketball for our year-around attentions. Not so fast, folks. Soccer is an acquired taste that’s acquired gradually, and will need more than a once-every-four-years goose to truly catch on hereabouts.  Americans who follow the sport (I am one of them) will need to exercise the quite-unAmerican trait of patience before we see it achieve capital-letter popularity.

The patience theme is apparent in the World Cup history of our men’s national team. The U.S. participated in three of the event’s first four renewals (in 1930, ’34 and ’50), before it was a big deal, but the game then receded into irrelevance on these shores and World Cup qualification wasn’t again achieved  until  1990. That team proved how far the U.S. had to go to compete against nations with greater soccer history and dedication; consisting mostly of collegians, it was sent home after three thrashings, outscored two goals to eight.

Things improved thereafter, with qualification coming in 1994 and ’98 and 2002, ’06 and ’10. Instead of with college kids those teams filled their ranks with pros, some of them with European experience. But they weren’t the best players on the best teams there, and although the 2002 edition surprised with a quarterfinals berth it never threatened seriously to bring home the funny-looking champion’s trophy. 

While it lacks the star it never has had, this year’s U.S. team is the deepest and hardest working yet, and probably the best coached. A long shot to advance in a group with Germany, ranked No. 2 worldwide, No. 4 Portugal and good-though-unranked Ghana (the U.S. came in at No. 13), the Yanks beat Ghana and came within a heart-stopping 30 seconds of victory over Portugal and immediate advancement.  They lost to Germany last Thursday, and while the score was 1-0 German domination of the game signaled that the road to the top still was long. Nonetheless, the U.S. made it to the round of 16, no small accomplishment and enough to fuel future optimism.

The long-view requirement is even stronger when it comes to building the sort of domestic professional league necessary for any lasting popularity gains. One pro circuit—the North American Soccer League—was launched in 1968 and made a splash in the 1970s with the high-priced signings of the superannuated international stars Pele and Franz Beckenbauer. It was gone by 1984, the victim of too-large payrolls and too-small attendance.

 The next try was Major League Soccer, started in 1996 with more-modest aims and budgets. MLS struggled until most of its teams abandoned large football stadiums as homes and built or found venues with capacities in the 20,000-to-25,000-seat range that created a snugger, more-intense fan experience for the size of crowds it was attracting.  It also has profited by organizing its hard-core backers into the kind of supporter groups that help European club teams thrive. Team names like Houston Dynamo and Real Salt Lake, however comical, are a further try to recreate a European club atmosphere.

 MLS has grown to 19 teams from 10 at its inception, and is said to be making money. Still, it’s a second-tier league with an out-of-synch summer schedule whose quality of play is well below that of the European “majors” in England, Spain, Germany and Italy, and is likely to remain so in the foreseeable future. American players who want to test themselves against the best will have to cross the ocean to do so, as they do now.

There’s no denying, though, that soccer culture is spreading in the U.S., and making a mark. FOX TV and the new NBC Sports channels have been broadcasting a regular stream of top-level European club games into this country, with good ratings.  We’re a big, rich market and it would be no surprise if the people who run, say, the English Premier League were mulling expanding into an American city or two, the way our NBA is said to be eyeing Europe.

 Picture it if you will: the New York Whachamacallits versus Man U in an EPL game.

 It’ll happen. Just be patient.


                

Sunday, June 15, 2014

BOOK 'IM, DANO

                When I joined the staff of The Daily Illini as a University of Illinois freshman in 1955, my first assignment was to the office of the Champaign police magistrate, Virgil Burgess. A police magistrate was a kind of justice of the peace, hearing traffic violations and misdemeanor crimes, and the posting was traditional for a journalistic newbie.
               
               I didn’t get much news from the beat but did get to know Burgess. He was a nice old man (maybe 15 years younger than I am today) who kept a pot of coffee going and liked to talk. Sometimes on Mondays he’d entertain me with accounts of humorous police busts of the weekend before, including those of U of I football players involved in bar fights. One player in particular, who’d later attain professional fame, was a frequent delinquent.         
               
           It never occurred to Burgess that I’d write up such matters. It never occurred to me or to the reporters for the town papers to do so. The view then was that boys would be boys and that jocks were especially boyish.  Underage drinking was no college-town sin and as long as no one was maimed the cops cleaned up and sent home the Saturday night brawlers. It was better for all concerned that way, everyone agreed.
               
            I think about that almost every morning when I peruse the sports pages. You can’t pick up the paper these days without reading about an athlete (or two or three) getting into trouble with the law. Assaults (mostly bar fights) are frequent raps, as are mixing booze and driving and (most distressingly) incidents of domestic violence.

 One football player, former New England Patriots’ tight end Aaron Hernandez, is charged with murdering three people. Another, ex-Pro Bowl safety Darren Sharper, stands accused of being a serial rapist. It seems that there’s a crime wave in progress, with many of the perps being guys we cheered when their teams took the field.
            
             I think the question “What’s going on here?” can be answered in part by the little story that began this piece. Time was when a sort of gentlemen’s agreement shielded well-known athletes from public gaze for bloodless improprieties, just as politicians were given a pass for sexual, uh,  peccadillos. The turning point for the latter issue came in 1987, when Sen. Gary Hart, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, was nailed in the press for flaunting his extramarital affair with model Donna Rice. Ten years later Bill Clinton was impeached for doing something John Kennedy reportedly did just about every day during his presidency. So the planet turns.

 Today we live in a tabloid world where every transgression by anyone with the slightest celebrity is broadcast immediately to an eager public. Almost everyone has become a cell-phone-camera paparazzo and few remarks, no matter how off-hand, go unrecorded.  It’s a wonder we have time to process it all.

That said, though, something clearly is up and needs to be accounted for. One piece of the answer that was absent back in the day but present now is steroids, which make the user antsy, irritable and far more likely than otherwise to fly off the handle. Sports organizations would have you believe that their testing programs have tamed the stuff, but don’t buy it. Scientifically speaking the users always are ahead of the testers, and as long as the stakes remain high they’ll continue trying their luck whatever the possible consequences.

Another factor is the air of permissiveness that surrounds good athletes in an increasingly sports-crazy society. Our most-promising young jocks float through childhood on a cloud of “yes,” their talents shielding them from rebuke by parents, teachers or their contemporaries. A pioneer in that regard was Pete Rose, who as a youngster was rewarded with cash from his parents for his diamond feats and given a pass on schoolwork if he performed well afield. Rose was ineligible for sports his senior year in high school because of classroom failings, but that was okay with his folks because he could play on a semi-pro baseball team instead. Little wonder, then, that in later life he felt free to disregard his sport’s bedrock strictures against gambling, or the tax laws.

 Much the same sort of thing surfaced again earlier this year when it was revealed that seven of the 12 players on the basketball team of Curie High School in Chicago played an entire season, through the city-championship game, while academically ineligible. Apparently, teachers and administrators didn’t want to spoil the kids’ fun with unpleasant news.

The most discouraging aspect of the rising criminal-jock tide is the number of collegians involved; few major schools haven’t been affected, most more than once.  And while the increased willingness of the college-town press to report such matters plays a role (things like Jameis Winston’s crab-legs caper would have been buried a decade ago) I think it also stems from the growing gap between real students and so-called student-athletes at schools in the sports business.

Athletes long have enjoyed privileged status on campus, but as athletics budgets have soared, and with them the stakes for winning, colleges are taking greater chances on the kids they recruit while not providing these often-marginal students with the time and help they need to succeed in the classroom. In embracing the one-and-done model in basketball, and countenancing not-much-longer campus tenures for top pro-football prospects, colleges are conceding that they are mere stopping-off places for young men whose goals have nothing to do with academic proficiency. While many of these guys are in college they’re not of college, meaning they may be less than receptive to education’s civilizing influences.

NCAA “reform” is in the air now, but I hold little hope for it. It’ll probably end with the schools tossing a few more dollars the kids’ way. That’ll satisfy most critics but won’t deal with the system’s real problem, which is the sacrifice of the schools’ educational mission on the altar of playing-field revenues. Until that’s addressed we can expect more academic scandals of the sort that’s playing out at the University of North Carolina, and more jocks’ names on police blotters.     



                 
               
               

               

                

Sunday, June 1, 2014

GOOOOOAL!!

                
BY MIKE KLEIN

In assessing the world’s take on the World Cup, the once-every-four-years football* festival that reconvenes June 12 in Brazil, the words of Bill Shankly, a Scotsman and long-passed manager of the Liverpool football club, are apt. “Football isn’t a matter of life and death,” he said. “It’s more important than that.” (*I use the term “football” instead of “soccer” because to do otherwise would mark me as a lightweight in these matters.)

With that, a few observations:

THE #USMNT

As an expat American living on KLM flights between Amsterdam and Copenhangen, nothing would warm my heart more than an unexpected strong World Cup performance by the land of my birth. The reason is simple. During the year, when I am involved in football-related banter, I invariably am mocked for my accent and origin and asked about the prospects of the “San Diego Patriots.”  A good run by the U.S. men’s national team,  better known to its Twitter supporters by the hashtag #USMNT, would alleviate my sense of disconnect and humiliation better than citing my adult-onset British passport as my right of entry into such conversations.

Unfortunately for me and “muh fellow Uhmericans,” legitimacy likely will elude us for another four years. That is because, following its first match against Ghana in the city of Natal, the #USMNT faces post-Natal depression with successive matches against superstar-heavy Portugal and powerhouse Germany while racking up the tournament’s highest number of frequent-flyer miles, making unlikely the prospect of its being one of the two teams that will advance from its group of four. A lack of stardust should breed caution among Yank partisans, with “star striker” (forward) Jozy Altidore having commanded mostly bench time at the club team, England’s lowly Sunderland. Nearly half of the American players ply their trade in the domestic Major League Soccer (MLS). It long has been said that “Brazil is the country of the future…and always will be.” The same can be said for the MLS, and the Yanks appear to be outgunned.

ENGER-LIND

Despite 18 years of abject mediocrity, supporters think England’s questionable, one-goal home victory in then1966 World Cup final should earn the game’s birthplace an automatic berth in each Cup championship match, or at least automatic consideration as a top contender.  But this year’s crew, while coached by the competent Roy Hodgson, lacks spark other than the perennially fearsome Wayne Rooney. Italy and Uruguay will contend with Enger-Lind (as Blighty is called by its throng of lager-fueled enthusiasts) for the two next-round places in Group D. Costa Rica seems the most-likely win for Hodgson’s crew.

A SWARM OF B’s

As I see it, the tournament’s three most interesting teams are Brazil, Belgium and Bosnia.

Brazil always is interesting because it reloads rather than rebuilds, having access to an infinite talent pipeline, and even the mockery that’s likely to fail on the nation for staging the event in mostly half-built stadiums shouldn’t deter enthusiasm once the samba gang takes the pitch. Veteran coach Luiz Felipe Scolari is back on the sidelines, guiding the usual plethora of fast, inventive players. The country’s second team could beat most countries’ varsities.

Belgium is an outside contender, enthusiasm in “de Hart van 
Europa/la Coeur de l’Europe” being tempered by uninspiring results following the brilliant qualifying campaign that earned the Diables Rouges/Rode Duivels their first Cup berth since 2002.  Belgium is long on stars, with defender Vincent Kompany the brightest.

Striker Edin Dzeko, Kompany’s teammate on the club-team Manchester City, the English Premier League champion, anchors Bosnia, the only country making its World Cup debut. While the lineup is think after Dzeko, the team has considerable public sympathy following its recent floods and a war, which while more than 20 years past is still in the front of many minds. I hope Bosnia’s tournament run will create a positive vibe for a misunderstood country that is one of Europe’s most attractive and interesting destinations.

NO TO THE NORDICS

A notable absence from this yrear’s Cup field will be the Nordic countries, fixtures in past events. Thanks to their teams’ failure to qualify talents like Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Denmark’s Christian Eriksen will be watching on their flat screens, with their horn-helmeted countrymen left to weep in their overpriced Carlsberg beers. Their color will be missed.

ORANJE!

My longtime favorite international team is Holland, mainly because I found the players’ accents spellbinding when I started paying attention to the Cup in the 1980s, well before #USMNT started participating regularly. Expectations of this year’s squad are low, but top-shelf coach Louis van Gaal has a record of wringing the most from his available talent. Oranje’s first test will be a rematch of last year’s Cup-final defeat by Spain. That likely will set Holland’s tone for the rest of its campaign, although its remaining matches against weak Australia and Chile should mean a decent shot at the next round.

 With 32 teams, long travel distances, unpredictable weather and iffy facilities and accommodations, anything can happen.  For me, the two biggest questions are who will lose to Brazil in the final and whether the tournament will pass without major incident.

THE BELMONT (me again)—Don’t get carried away by California Chrome’s bid for the Triple Crown, which is scheduled to conclude Saturday (June 7) with the Belmont Stakes in New York.  Since Affirmed last accomplished the triple in 1978, 12 colts have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness only to fail in the finale. Besides the race’s length of 1 ½ miles—a distance longer than 99% of American race horses ever run—CC will be facing fresher foes on a track over which he’s never raced. At likely odds around even money he’ll be a tough bet despite his ability.

As far as I’m concerned, the sooner racing dumps the Triple Crown format the better. Horse today are a fragile lot, neither bred nor trained to contest three long, hard races in a five-week period, and even trying them puts an animal’s career in jeopardy. I’ll be happy if CC completes the run unscathed.