Thursday, June 15, 2017

KIDS' STUFF

                The Arizona Republic is my local newspaper and I read its sports pages daily. They’re about par for the course for a regional paper, mixing a basic amount of national coverage (box scores and the like) with a heavier dose of area sports news. Phoenix’s big-league professional teams are covered not only intensively but also breathlessly; almost every day brings a feature describing how brave, clean and reverent one local hero or another is. It seems that the paper’s sportswriters deem themselves lucky to be able to hang out with such swell fellas.
               
               The pages keep their focus on the games at hand, rarely stepping back to ponder larger pictures. That’s why a late-May piece on local high-school sports by the paper’s Richard Obert caught my eye.  Under the neutral headline “Finding Balance in Today’s Landscape” it described a prep sports scene gone mad, with “overworked coaches feeling the strain of carrying a program year-round; administrators pressured by parents; parents spending ungodly amounts of money for [private] camps, coaches and clubs; and athletes pulled in different directions.”  It asks: “How does everybody keep their sanity in today’s high school sports world?”

                I’d guess that the description is quite foreign to anyone over 50 years old, and certainly to anyone my age (79). When I was a high-schooler sports were seasonal and kids spent their summers lifeguarding or bagging groceries, maybe playing some twilight pickup games in the parks.  A (very) few among us were standouts, but we attributed that to inborn abilities—gifts from God or the gods—and just another example of life’s unfairness. The rest of us shrugged and directed ourselves elsewhere.

                I’ve written before about the professionalization of childhood, most lately in a December 1, 2015 piece about IMG Academy, which you can see by scrolling way, way down. It’s a for-profit boarding school in Bradenton, Florida, at which, for tuition and fees topping $70,000 a year, kids starting at age 13 can along with schooling receive intensive coaching in a number of sports, including baseball, football, basketball and, even, lacrosse. The aim is to prepare the youngsters for pro careers or, at least, college-athletics scholarships, although what the place is charging would seem to wipe out any financial gain for parents a “free ride” might bring.

                Now, it seems that public and parochial high schools in Arizona (and probably elsewhere) are providing a similar if not as expensive experience. In football and basketball, seasons have become year-round or close to it, with organized practices carrying into the summers, and when schools don’t do it programs conducted by the AAU or other outside organizations do. “Spring football moves into 7-on-7 passing tournaments and big-man contests,” Obert writes. “Basketball goes into [July] club with June primarily the month coaches spend with their players in leagues and tournaments. …It never stops. There’s always something”

Kids -- boys especially-- are encouraged by coaches and parents to begin specializing at ever-earlier ages. Coaches are pressed to win so their teams will attract the sort of news-media attention that draws college scouts. Parents harass coaches about playing time for their offspring to the extent that some coaches make it known that the subject is off-limits. Schools recruit players away from other schools. Players transfer in search of greater exposure.

 If that isn’t enough the players, tied to social media like most of their contemporaries, compete intramurally for peer celebrity. “The more [college] offers you have the more [Facebook] followers you have and the more people know about you,” one highly-recruited football player was quoted as saying. “There’s definitely more pressure to perform well.”

That alone might be bad enough, but in individual sports such as tennis, golf and (yes) baseball, the drive to mold top-level skills starts well before high school; if a kid isn’t an ace by 13 he might as well forget it. The recent story in Sports Illustrated magazine about Hunter Greene, the suburban-Los Angeles teenage pitcher/shortstop who was the No. 2 choice (by the Cincinnati Reds) in last week’s Major League Baseball draft, tells how the lad has been playing in year-around travel leagues since age eight, logging at least 70 games annually. “He flew with his team to Omaha when he was nine; Florida, South Carolina and New York when he was 10, Ecuador when he was 12.”  Between games he was driven by his parents to L.A. for tutorials with ex-Major Leaguers. He does yoga with a private instructor three times a week and is trained in plyometrics (strenuous jumping exercises) after baseball practice. It might take a seven-figure initial pro contract to get his folks back to even.

Bryce Harper, the 24-year-old Washington Nationals’ slugger and top choice in the 2010 MLB draft, has a similar biography. He, too, hit the travel-team road at eight and was pushed through high school in two years with a GED so he could spend a year at junior college (majoring in baseball) and join the pros at 18 instead of 19.  The father of Kris Bryant, the young Chicago Cubs star, built a back-yard batting cage in which his son could start taking serious cuts at age five.  A former minor leaguer, dad Bryant now rents himself out as a hitting guru.

The poster boy for early prep is Tiger Woods, the golfer. His dad Earl, an ex-Army officer, had him swinging sawed-off golf clubs while still in diapers. The kid broke 50 for nine holes at six and was playing in junior tournaments against teens when he was nine. The regimen, plus the genius-level physical aptitudes without which any amount of sports prep is pretty much useless, paid off for Tiger with early fame, glory and riches, but also with a middle age that, now, seems hellish.  One only can wonder if a different beginning might have led to a different result.


               
               
               

                

Thursday, June 1, 2017

UNBREAKABLE?

                Newspaper reporters meet lots of interesting people, and one of the most interesting I met was Dakin Williams. He was the younger brother of Tennessee Williams, the playwright, and gained most of his celebrity therefrom, but was a notable character in his own right, a delightful wit  and raconteur (you can look this one up). He also was a lawyer in small-town Collinsville, Illinois, who relieved the monotony of legal practice with runs for political office in his home state.

Dakin never expected to win those races but relished the chance to use them to mock a process that was (and is) ripe for satire. Probably his best zinger was one he unleashed on Adlai Stevenson III during their 1974 Democratic senatorial primary match, when he called the son the late presidential contestant “the potato candidate, because the best part of him is in the ground.”

One can say the same about baseball; no other American sport has as much history as the diamond game, or depends so much on it for its appeal. Football may have more fans (according to surveys) but few of them can spew out its most-basic records. By contrast, even only moderately learned baseball fans not only can do this but also can engage in discourse comparing holders of ancient records (such as Hack Wilson’s 1930 RBI mark of 191) with today’s playing-field standouts. Indeed, just summoning up such old names can bring us back to past eras better than any history book.

The subject baseball fans most like to argue is which of the game’s records are likely to stand forever, and which won’t. The ones that often come up quickest in the “will” category are Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, set in 1941, and Johnny Vandermeer’s back-to-back no-hitters, from 1938. Nobody has come close to either of them lately, the reasoning goes, so nobody ever will.

I disagree. I think both marks were freaks and, thus, will be outdone by other freaks. Yes, few players have hit the way the great Joe D. did, but the streak is a contact record and a few modern players, such as Ichiro Suzuki, have been quite good in that department. Someday one of them will freak out and pass 56, says I. And while breaking Vandermeer’s record would require pitching three straight no-hitters—a prospect that strains credulity—someone should match it sooner or later.

Any serious discussion of baseball records, or any other kind, must start from two premises: 1) forever is a long time and 2) things change.  It’s for the latter reason that the records I think will stand are those involving pitching. Topping that list are the marks put up by Denton “Cy” Young during a 22-season career that bridged two centuries (1890-1911). Those included most starts (815) , most complete games (749), most innings pitched (7,356), most wins (511) and, alas, most losses (316).  The reason is that pitchers no longer pitch as often or as long as Cy did, and probably never will.

Similarly, I think it’s safe to say we’ll never see another 30-game-winning season by a pitcher like the last one posted by Denny McLain, who went 31-6 in 1968, or more career shutouts than Walter Johnson’s 110. Working in a four-man rotation, McLain started 41 games that year (and finished 28). Today, with five-man rotations the rule and some teams occasionally going to six, pitchers rarely start more than 32 games in a season, and with bullpens playing a growing role complete games are rare. Denny always will have ‘68 to savor during or between prison stints.

 Johnson’s record, set between 1907 and 1927, will remain for the same reasons. The current Major League leader in career shutouts, with 15, is the L.A. Dodgers’ estimable Clayton Kershaw. He’s 29 years old and has played 10 seasons. At that rate he’d have to pitch 63 more years just to tie Johnson.

Another record in my “forever” category is Cal Ripken Jr.’s consecutive-games streak of 2,632 games, set from 1982 to 1998. That’s because nobody with any sense would want to break it. The former record—Lou Gehrig’s 2,130 games—stood for 56 years and was considered unbreakable until Cal Jr. came along. Last season no Major Leaguer appeared in all 162 games, so there are no current contenders for the mark. Everybody needs a day off now and then, even if he’s feeling okay.

Other changes in baseball seem likely to preserve less-well-known records, such as Sam Crawford’s 309 career triples. Crawford played at a time (1899-1917) when baseballs were “dead,” fielders’ gloves were much smaller than today’s, ballpark outfields were more spacious and outfielders played more shallow, allowing balls hit between them to roll farther.  The active-career leader in the category is the N.Y. Mets’ Jose Reyes, with 123, and at age 33 he’s nearing the end of his playing days.  Ain’t nobody ever gonna top Sam.

Some other baseball records—in the hitting and base-running categories—might seem as unassailable as the ones named above. These include Rogers Hornsby’s single-year batting mark of .424, Pete Rose’s 4,256 career hits, Wilson’s 191 RBIs, Barry Bonds’ 73 single-season home runs and Ricky Henderson’s 1,270 career stolen bases. Hornsby’s mark seems most secure because hitters swing for the fences these days and his 32 strikeouts in 536 official times at bat in his record-setting year (1924) looks like a misprint today. It’s a definite “maybe” in my book.

Otherwise, though, changes in the area of human improvement are coming that we can already glimpse, and they could pitch many of baseball’s standards into the historical dustbin. Bonds’s home-run mark was set when steroid use was widespread in baseball, and nobody in this stricter-testing period has topped the 50 mark since 2007, but what’s forbidden today might not be tomorrow, and who knows what other chemical wonders science has in store? Further, experiments with the genome are proceeding apace, and the supermen (and women) of 2067 probably will joke about the primitive state of today’s game.

And, hey!, we might not have to wait 50 years to see a new age. The coverboy of the Sports Illustrated issue of May 1 was Hunter Greene, a 17-year-old California high schooler who stands 6-foot-4, weighs 210 pounds, hits a baseball 450 feet and throws one 102 mph. He might break a bunch of records, both from the mound and plate.

BUSINESS NOTE: A new edition of “For the Love of the Cubs,” featuring heroes of the team’s 2016 World Series victory, is just out, with drawings by the marvelous Mark Anderson, one of the nation’s leading illustrators (no kidding), and verses and fact blocks by me. It’s a great keepsake and gift item for Cubs fans of all ages. You can get it by clicking on the Triumph Books link above, at amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com, or at your local bookstore. 

  



Monday, May 15, 2017

Three HUHS? and a HMM

                Lots of odd things happening in the sports world and vicinity of late. Time for another News/Views.

               NEWS: Dad of an NBA rookie-to-be announces a line of $495 sneakers.

                VIEW: Huh?

                LaVar Ball, father of Lonzo Ball, the one-and-done UCLA basketball flash who is expected to be a top NBA draft choice in June, has been getting lots of ink and TV time lately, talking up both his son’s and his own hoops prowess. Among other things, he said he could whip Michael Jordan in a one-on-one game, both now and when MJ was in his prime. This from a guy whose sole Division I basketball exposure came in 1986-87 when he averaged 2 (that’s two) points a game at Washington State U.

                Now comes LaVar with his Big Baller Brand shoe, which he says will sell for the above price. That’s about $300 more than the top-priced shoes endorsed by the likes of LeBron James and Steph Curry. If it actually comes out, that is—it’s not scheduled to hit the stores until November.

                It should be noted that whatever their retail prices athletic shoes cost no more than $30 to make in Asia, where just about all of them are manufactured. Any additional value is added by branding and marketing.  To those who scoffed at his, uh, cojones for asking such a markup, Ball scoffed back. “If you can’t afford them you’re not a BIG BALLER,” he tweeted.

                NEWS: Alabama gives head football coach Nick Saban a contract extension worth about $8.625 million a year over the next eight years.

                VIEW: Huh?

                It’s no news that big-time college football and basketball head coaches make big money, but the extent of their haul becomes more eye-popping annually. Their salaries had reached the seven-figure mark when I turned in my press card in 2003 but they’ve ballooned since, rivaling those of the heads of Fortune 500 companies. These days, none of those guys at the so-called “Power Five” conferences (the SEC, Big 10, Big 12, ACC and PAC-10) makes less than a million annually, and the median seems to be around $3 million. Not bad for someone who, in the case of basketball, directs a 12-player “program,” as they call their teams these days.

                The package for Saban, whose ‘Bama teams have won four national championship in the past seven years, stands out even in that milieu. It’ll will pay him $8.125 million a year for the next eight straight up, plus a $4 million “signing bonus” this year. Prorating the bonus over eight years produces the $8.625 figure, although getting the full $4 mil up front makes the deal sweeter.  And remember that college coaches’ deals typically contain such additional lollipops as free country club memberships, private planes for personal use and free auto use, as if they can’t afford to buy their own.

                Writers wanting to make a point usually compare college coaches’ salaries with those of other public officials in their states, or profs on their campuses. The Alabama governor is paid $119,950 a year and a full prof at the U. of A. makes $186,636, each of which figure probably wouldn’t cover Saban’s car-park tips.  More telling is the fact that the two top-paid head coaches in the NFL—Pete Carroll and Sean Payton—make $8 million a year each, or less than Saban will pull down. If the pros call him again (he coached there before) he could turn them down on financial grounds.

                NEWS: Jay Paterno, Joe’s son, is elected to Penn State University’s board of trustees.

                VIEW: Huh?

                Paterno, 48, won election last week to the university’s governing body by vote of the school’s alumni, who pick nine of the unit’s 38 members. This is despite a work history consisting mainly of 17 years as an assistant on the school’s football staff (1995-2011) while his dad was head coach. He was fired in 2011 with other football staffers after the arrest of assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Sandusky’s serial predations upon young boys, conducted under Joe Paterno’s regime and often in university facilities, led to a far-reaching scandal that resulted in a 60-year prison term for Sandusky and, recently,  lesser terms for three high Penn State officials, including the school’s president at the time. Joe Paterno, who died of cancer in 2012 at age 85, never was charged, but if he knew what his longtime top aide was up to he never called the cops.

                Since leaving coaching six years ago Jay Paterno has been concerned primarily with refurbishing his father image, with a book he wrote and lawsuits he’s joined against the university for its handling of the case. He’s also pushed something called Paterno Legacy beer, which has been sold around Pennsylvania at football season the last few years with “Joe Pa’s” picture on the can.  If nothing else, his election ensures that, welcome or not, the Sandusky episode’s aftermath will continue to burn brightly in State College, Pa., during his three-year term.

                NEWS: A proposal to wipe out all world track-and-field records set before 2005 is making the rounds.

                VIEW: Hmm.

                Pierce O’Callaghan, chairman of the European unit of the IAAF, track’s world governing body, says the move would mark the start of a “new, clean, credible era” for the sport, which has been beset with doping scandals. If adopted it would limit records to ones established at approved international events Involving only athletes who had been subjected to the drug testing and urine-or-blood sample-storing rules begun in 2005. Records predating such requirements would remain on a “historical list” but no longer would be considered official, O’Callaghan said. IAAF President Sebastian Coe said the rule would be “a step in the right direction,” indicating it might be adopted.

                The idea calls to mind baseball’s struggle with records set in what I call its HITS (for “Heads In The Sand”) Era, stretching from about 1990, when steroid use seriously invaded the game, to the institution of credible drug-testing standards in 2005. Power-hitting numbers swelled in that period, setting them apart from those that had been set before, or will be set after. These include the top six annual home run counts topped by Barry Bonds’s 73, all of which were posted by him, Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa between 1998 and 2001.

                Baseball lives off its records so a purging of HITS Era marks probably would go too far, but marking them with asterisks would be a good move. They were set under unusual conditions and should be recognized as such.
               


Thursday, May 4, 2017

DERBY PICKS

Saturday is the Kentucky Derby, the one horserace non-fans of the sport notice, and as one of the shrinking  corps of racing aficionados I annually feel obligated to hype it. It’s a great event, a cultural phenomenon better experienced in person at rambling old Churchill Downs than on TV, and one that should be on everyone’s bucket list. I ticked it off mine in 1986 and went to the next 14, so that’s no longer a concern for me.

This year’s running shapes up as wide open, a change from the last two when strong favorites (American Pharoah in 2015 and Nyquist last year) prevailed. You can make a winning case for six or eight of Saturday’s 20 entrants without serious objections from me. The good news is that with the favorites expected to go off at odds of 4-or 5-to-1, and several juicy offerings at 15-to-1 or better, it should be a good betting race, with nice payouts for the astute (and lucky).

The Derby’s main handicapping challenges are its 1 ¼-mile length, 1/8-mile longer than most entrants have run, and large field of rambunctious colts that makes a lot of banging around inevitable. If your horse is among the badly banged, too bad and better luck next time.

Horses running at or near the lead (such as Pharoah and Nyquist) get bumped around less than others, so I’m picking one of them to anchor my two exacta boxes. He’s ALWAYS DREAMING, 5-to-1 in the morning line. I like him because he easily won the Florida Derby, the best Derby prep, has been training well in Louisville and will have Hall of Fame jockey John Velasquez on his back. My other anchor will be McCRAKEN, also 5-to-1. “Horses for courses” is a racetrack saw and his course is Churchill, where he’s won three of three. ‘Nuf said.

One of my four-horse exacta boxes also will contain THUNDER SNOW (20-to-1) and GUNNEVERA (15-to-1). Thunder Snow is from the Godolphin stable, based in Dubai. It has sent previous horses to the race to no avail, but Thunder Snow seems to be a cut above those. He’s run eight races in three different countries, has won at 1 3/16th miles, 1/16th longer than any other entry has run, and has handled fields of up to 16, so he’s not easily cowed. I think he’s worth a play even though he’ll start from the No. 2 gate position, a tough draw. GUNNEVERA is a late runner who promises to be charging down the Derby homestretch. His backers must hope he doesn’t run too late, as most  late runners do.

My other box will be filled out by late-running HENCE (15-to-1) and PRACTICAL JOKE (20-to-1), a solid performer who always tries and who Dave Toscano, my handicapper pal, likes particularly.

Those picks, of course, assume no late scratches, and I’ll probably throw in a few other bets as the race approaches. But what the heck, it’s the Derby. As Joe E. Lewis used to say, “I hope I break even, I need the money.”



Monday, May 1, 2017

IN THE SWIM

             When I meet someone for the first time, and he or she asks me what I do, I tell them simply that I’m retired. If they press for more information (“I mean what do you DO?”), as occasionally happens, I ponder a moment and say, “I swim.”
                
            Yes, I also do other things, such as produce this twice-monthly blog, but my week-in, week-out occupation, no matter the season, is swimming. If I’m ambulatory I show up at about 11 a.m. at the outdoor, year-around-heated Cactus Park municipal pool in Scottsdale, Arizona, where I live, four times a week, usually Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

  My routine is to swim 50 lengths of 25 meters each, doing three cycles of eight lengths by “crawl” stroke and eight by kicking and finishing with one length each way. That works out to about three quarters of a mile and takes me about 31 minutes, aided by training fins. The sessions are the anchors of my days and I schedule all other things around them.  Ain’t retirement grand?

I do it because I can, and because it’s good for me. I’m convinced that the two best things one can do for oneself is to exercise regularly and not smoke. I broke that last rule for about 25 years until 1979, not counting the occasional cigar I puffed until a few years ago. My chest x-rays are clean so, apparently, I got away with the misdeeds. Not everyone is so lucky.

Do I enjoy swimming? As Bill Clinton might say, it depends what you mean by “enjoy.” I’ve loved being in the water since childhood, but I must admit that the constant up and back can be boring, and when my mind drifts I sometimes lose count of the laps. But I’ve learned that the first rule of regular exercise is never to ask yourself if you feel like it, either before or during the activity. Gloria Steinem has been quoted as saying, “I don’t enjoy writing, I enjoy having written,” and although I think I heard that line before her heyday I often apply it to my swimming (and to my writing).

Swimming has not been my first exercise choice. As I kid I pretty much grew up in my school playground doing whatever was in season. In my teens and 20s I played golf and got pretty good at it, but by age 30 home and work duties precluded this expensive, frustrating and time-consuming sport and I gave it up with hardly a backward glance. I turned instead to tennis and softball when the weather was warm and racquetball when it wasn’t.

 I played organized softball in the Chicago-area parks into my mid-40s and would have played longer if my teams hadn’t disbanded. I dropped racquetball when wife Susie and I moved to Arizona in 1997 and I no longer had ready partners at my skill level. Racquetball is a great game but small skill differences translate into big scoring gaps. I loved the game and still play it in my dreams (really).

I took up hiking on a dare at age 45, climbing a 14,000-foot Colorado mountain wearing Hush Puppies. It took about two weeks for my blisters and muscles to heal, but I loved the experience and tried to repeat it when I could. Living in Arizona opened vast new hiking vistas. I signed up with a land conservatory and soon was leading hikes and running its hiking program, as well as that of the local community college. Those duties soon pushed aside tennis, although I must admit that at about the same time (I was 65) I’d stopped beating players with whom I’d been competitive. No more losing helped make up for no more tennis.   

You can’t hike every day so I took up occasional lap swimming to fill the gaps. I never was much for repetitive exercise but found that the water and sunshine made the pill tastier. When I turned 70 neurological problems began constricting my hiking range and after about three more years increasing foot numbness and back pain made the activity undoable. I still get around all right but about 10 minutes is my limit for standing or walking without a sit-down. That left swimming as my sole exercise option.

That’s not bad because, I think, lap swimming is the one exercise to have if you’re having only one. It affords a full-body workout with low impact in pleasant surroundings. You can find just about anything you want on the Internet and I’m happy to report that one website, healthfitnessrevolution.com, ranked swimming as the No. 1 fitness sport, one that’s “absolutely awesome for heart health, calorie burning and increasing lung capacity.” How about that?

There are other reasons to swim:

--It’s safe, with an annual injury rate of .l%, according to one on-line source. (Golf’s rate was 1%, 10 times higher.)

--It’s cheap. At the wonderful Cactus Pool I pay $72 for 30 swims, or close to two months’ worth. A couple of $25 Speedo suits every other year, and occasional new goggles and fins, and that’s it.
--You do it alone so there’s no need to accommodate other people’s schedules.

--It’s not competitive unless you make it so. A bad tennis game could ruin my day but I never swim bad.

--It provides a nice tan, which hides many of my dermatological imperfections.

I’ve tried hard to come up with swimming negatives but can think of only one—it doesn’t provide much to talk about. Sports like golf and tennis have thriving professional arms that allow participants to chatter away for hours about the attributes of their favorite players, but swimming pierces the national consciousness for only a couple of weeks every four years—during the Summer Olympics. And then there’s not much to say about the stars except that they swim really fast.

But enough about talk—we do that too much anyway. Gotta go swim!



                                                                             

Saturday, April 15, 2017

BAYLOR BARED

If you haven’t already seen it, you should check out the movie “Disgraced” on the Showtime cable-TV channel. It’s about the 2003 murder of Baylor University basketball player Patrick Dennehy by a teammate, Carlton Dotson, and the investigation that followed. It shouldn’t be hard to find if you’ve got Showtime—it reruns such programs repeatedly.

The murder itself was about as straight forward, and tragic, as those things usually are. Dennehy and Dotson were roommates as well as teammates, and, according to the “docudrama” and contemporary news accounts, shared a fondness for marijuana and guns. One day, at the remote location near Baylor’s Waco, Texas, campus, where they went to shoot, Dotson turned his gun on Dennehy, then dragged his body into some underbrush. It took police about a month to find it but when they did Dotson swiftly pleaded guilty and was whisked off to prison to serve a 35-year sentence.

As is often the case in such matters, complications came more from an attempted coverup than from the event that triggered them. Dennehy was on the Baylor campus under peculiar circumstances, not on scholarship but with considerable and improper financial help supplied or funneled through the school’s head basketball coach, Dave Bliss. Bliss was afraid the murder investigation would uncover this, and moved to blunt the probes by urging his assistant coaches and team members to lie by telling investigators that Dennehy got his money from drug dealing. This came out because Abar Rouse, the young assistant coach who was coerced into aiding Bliss’s scheme under threat of firing, secretly taped Bliss’s talks with players and turned the tapes over to authorities.

 Rouse was fired anyway and, interviewed for the program, said he’d been blackballed from basketball since. He now works as a teacher in a prison.  Interestingly, a number of prominent college hoops coaches, including Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, also were interviewed and said they’d never hire someone like Rouse because they considered his whistle-blowing method to have been underhanded. Fancy that.

Bliss was fired, too, and in 2005 was handed a 10-year NCAA coaching ban, but he fared better than Rouse after Baylor. First he was hired to coach in the professional Continental Basketball Association, and later at a prep school. In 2015 became head coach at Southern Christian U., in Oklahoma City, a job he kept until reaction following the release of the Showtime movie, in which he was interviewed at length and uncomfortably, caused him to resign.

Most interestingly, Bliss never was charged criminally even though his coverup attempt easily could have led to charges of obstruction of justice and suborning perjury. Relatedly, the program strongly implied that Baylor and Waco police and prosecutors hustled Dotson’s trial through the courts with an eye toward minimizing its public-relations effects on the university; among other things, Dotson got his plea-deal sentence without having to describe his offense or be questioned in open court, and despite the fact that his obviously addled mental state suggested an insanity defense. Said a Waco television-news reporter interviewed on the show, ”It was one of those things people here don’t talk about.”

Now fast forward to the 2008-15 tenure of Art Briles as Baylor’s head football coach. Briles’s teams thrived on the gridiron (they won 31 of 38 games in his last three seasons at the school), but that success was accompanied by what only can be described as a crime wave unleased by some of the young men he recruited. Its extent was summed up in a lawsuit against the university recently filed in Federal court charging that 52 sexual assaults had been committed by “not less than” 31 Baylor football players between 2011 and 2014. That action was just the latest of several that now pend in the courts over such allegations.

The revelations led to the 2016 firings or resignations of Briles, the school’s athletics director and its president, Kenneth Starr of Clinton-impeachment fame, as well as several other athletics department officials, but that didn’t end things. One of the men fired sued the university for libel, and in response three Baylor trustees compiled a 54-page report detailing some of the offenses that occurred during the Briles regime. Reported on in February by the ESPN.com website, the document said the coach and his staff created a “disciplinary black hole into which reports of drug use, physical assault, domestic violence, brandishing of guns, indecent exposure and academic fraud disappeared.”

The document cited cases in which Briles and other coaches sought to downplay or suppress further proceedings when presented with player-misconduct complaints, or didn’t notify police or university-discipline units about them.  When told by a third party of one allegation of a gang rape against a female student by several players, Briles’s first response was “Those are some bad dudes. Why was she around those guys?” the ESPN report says. When another player was arrested for assaulting and threatening to kill a non-athlete student, the victim was urged by a football staffer not to file criminal charges. Briles then contacted police in an effort to “keep things quiet,” the document states.

The document details the case of Tevin Elliott, a Baylor defensive lineman who in 2011 was suspended from the university for twice plagiarizing papers. Briles appealed the decision to President Starr, who bypassed usual procedures and overturned the ruling, keeping Elliott in school and on the field. The next year Elliott was convicted of raping a woman and sentenced to 20 years in prison. His trial revealed he’d been accused of rape three times previously and had a misdemeanor physical assault conviction on his record.

When such things are revealed the usual response is to blame them on individual “bad dudes” or a faulty “culture” on a single campus, but by now it should be apparent that the problems go farther and deeper. Both Briles and Bliss had held other head coaching jobs before coming to Baylor (Briles at Houston, Bliss at Oklahoma, Southern Methodist and New Mexico), and it’s doubtful they behaved differently in those posts. Indeed, Bliss was cited for paying players at SMU in the mid-1980s but the NCAA didn’t press its inquiry because the school already was under “death penalty” sanctions for its football-program violations.

In big-time college sports winning absolves any sin; Kentucky basketball hired John Calipari despite his teams at UMass and Memphis having to vacate Final Four appearances because of players’ financial or academic misdeeds, and Louisville embraces Rick Pitino even though his program entertained recruits with strippers and prostitutes on campus grounds.

The Baylor regents’ filing recounts a meeting of regents with alumni and other athletic donors while the Briles scandal was unfolding. When the regents explained that the coach’s recruiting of thugs  and trying to skirt the justice system didn’t square with the religious and educational “mission” of the Baptist-affiliated university, one donor responded thusly: “If you mention Baylor’s mission one more time I’m going to throw up. I was promised a national championship.”

 

   

Saturday, April 1, 2017

GALE & DICK, MUHAMMAD & GEORGE

                When Gale Sayers’s wife revealed a couple of weeks ago that the former great football running back has dementia, the Chicago Tribune website story was accompanied by a picture of Sayers and his Chicago Bears teammate Dick Butkus, standing side by side at some event or other. The photo looked recent and both men looked hale. That goes to show that looks can be deceiving, because Mrs. Sayers said that her husband had been displaying signs of the condition for the past several years.
                
               In Bears’ lore Butkus and Sayers personify the rough and smooth of their violent sport, their careers and lives uncannily parallel.  Born six months apart (Butkus turned age 74 in December, Sayers will in May), the two were drafted moments apart by the team in 1965-- Butkus with the No. 3 overall pick, Sayers at No. 4. Both were All Pro selections before being shot down by knee injuries. Both gained first-ballot election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

                Looking at the picture I wondered why their lives had diverged of late—why Sayers fell victim to the brain-injury scourge that is affecting many football veterans, while as far as is generally known Butkus thus far has been spared.  The ferocious Butkus, after all, played two years longer than the elusive Sayers, and at his linebacker position probably sustained the more and harder hits. If either man came away addled it would seem more likely to have been him.

                The same sort of comparison, I think, should be the new focus of research into sports-connected brain injuries, the subject that leads any current discussion of boxing, hockey and even soccer in addition to football. Except to the willfully obtuse, it now has been firmly established that the blows to the head that are routine in those activities can cause cognitive and communicative damage or worse, sometimes surfacing years after the athlete’s career has been completed. What needs to be established are the factors that separate those who fall victim to such tragic outcomes and those who don’t.

                Concern about the long-term effects of head trauma is nothing new; I wrote about them in a 1982 front-page story in the Wall Street Journal headlined “Silent Epidemic.”  Most of the examples in that piece were of people who’d experienced falls or car or motorcycle accidents, but the medical profession long has been aware that sports also can cause such injuries. What physicians call “dementia pugilista,” the Latin name for “punch drunk,” has been in the literature for decades, and it requires no great mental leap to equate the bang-bang-bang of football with what goes on in the prize ring.

                Surprisingly, the link didn’t much register on the national consciousness until the work of Dr. Bennet Omalu became public a dozen years ago. Dr. Omalu was a pathologist in the Alleghany County coroner’s office in Pittsburgh who was on duty in 2002 when the body of the former Pittsburgh Steelers’ center Mike Webster was brought in for autopsy. The Nigerian-born doctor, not a football fan, wondered why a robust-looking man of 50 was homeless and destitute, and prematurely dead of a heart attack. His examination of Webster’s brain revealed evidence of a type of brain injury called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, something previously found in boxers. When he later discovered the same pattern in the brain of Terry Long, another former Steeler who committed suicide at age 45, he published his findings in a 2005 medical journal article that gained attention.

                Dr. Omalu’s discoveries, and the pushback against them from the National Football League, were chronicled in an HBO documentary and in the 2015 movie “Concussion,” starring the popular actor Will Smith. By that time Omalu’s work had been widely confirmed and soon formed the basis of a lawsuit settlement in which the NFL agreed to pay about $1 billion to former NFL players who claimed they’d been misled by the league over the seriousness of their head injuries.

                Evidence of the link between football and the various forms of dementia continues to mount. A Boston University study of the brains of 91 deceased former NFL players showed that 87 of them showed signs of CTE, although perhaps not enough to cause acute symptoms. A 2016 Florida State University study of 40 living retired NFLers who’d averaged seven seasons in the league, using MRI scans and concentration and memory tests, showed that 17 of them (43%) had “measurable” impairments. Anyone who now considers pro-level contact sports to be healthful exercise probably also is a member of the Flat Earth Club.   

                Still, many and seemingly most men who engage in such sports walk away mentally whole; for one such example scroll down a couple of pages and see my blog on Alan Page, who followed 14 seasons of  battle in the NFL’s trenches with a distinguished career as a lawyer and jurist. Learning what characteristics Page had that his less-fortunate brethren lacked would do more to advance gridiron safety that any­ of the helmet improvements the NFL is said to be studying.

                Or look at George Foreman, the former heavyweight boxing champion who, after finally quitting the ring at age 48 after a 19-year career separated by a 10-year hiatus, today is bright and chirpy at age 68, continuing as pastor of a church he founded, pitching commercial products and occasionally appearing as a TV boxing commentator.

There’s painful irony in contrasting Foreman’s outcome with that of his most-famous opponent, Muhammad Ali.  Before their “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire in 1974, Ali hung the mocking title of “The Mummy” on Foreman, then a suspicious and inarticulate younger man uneasy in the spotlight. Now Foreman sails on while the once-glib Ali has died, having spent the last 25 years of his life palsied and all but mute from his boxing-related Parkinson’s disease.

Ali fought 61 pro bouts to Foreman’s 81. Ali was hard to hit for most of his career while Foreman was slower and more vulnerable.  Ali was the more favored in every easily visible way. But now it’s time to go beyond appearances to the molecular and find out what really separated the two men.