Saturday, October 15, 2016


                Arnold Palmer died two weeks ago, at age 87, and while the sports world mourned his passing it also celebrated a life that was well lived by any measure. Arnie played great golf, saw the world, made a lot of money and, by all accounts, had a lot of fun. No one could ask for more.
               He wasn’t the best golfer of his era—Jack Nicklaus was—and another contemporary, Gary Player, also won more “major” championships. Indeed, Palmer’s period of golf dominance was roughly comparable to Sandy Koufax’s in baseball, a 1958-to-1964 span during which he went from age 29 to 35 and won all seven of his major titles.  That must be considered brief in a sport in which it’s not uncommon for men to play at a top level well into their 40s.
                Four of Palmer’s major titles came in the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia, whose wide-open acres suited his powerful but less-than-precise game. Two more came at British Opens played over similar layouts. He won just one U.S. Open (in 1960) and never did capture a PGA Championship. Player won all four of those crowns, as did Nicklaus, many times.
              Palmer, however, was far-and-away golf’s most popular performer as long as he competed, and one of the most popular athletes of any time. The son of a golf-course superintendent from small-town Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and with a flailing swing to go with his working-class origins, he exuded the sort of everyman appeal that was rare in what was, and still is, a predominantly country club sport.

When he flicked away his cigarette, hitched his pants, gazed intently at the flagstick and squared away to bash, we rooted for his every shot to go in, and despaired when it didn’t. The straightforward and unfeigned friendliness of his off-course manner reinforced his appeal. His “Army” included millions of people who never set foot on a golf course.

Still, Palmer’s most-lasting legacy has come not on the links but in the counting houses. With the visionary Mark McCormack, the late Cleveland lawyer and golf aficionado who founded the International Management Group, which under the initials IMG now just about runs golf, tennis and several other sports, Palmer became the first athlete to fully cash in on his celebrity. In doing so he set the pattern that Michael Jordan, David Beckham and Tiger Woods, and many lesser lights, have followed. It’s a whole new financial ball game these days, and they can thank McCormack and Arnie for that.

I had various contacts with Palmer over the years, starting with the front-page story on him I did for the Wall Street Journal in 1966, as a reporter in New York before my columnizing days.  Slugged “Arnold Palmer, Inc.”, it detailed the many business ventures in which the golfer had become involved under McCormack’s guidance.

Previously, golfers’ and other jocks’ non-competitive income had been pretty much limited to signing equipment lines, playing exhibitions and, maybe, being quoted on how much they enjoyed smoking Lucky Strikes. Sam Snead, whose Wilson-brand golf clubs topped the sales charts for decades, was paid no more than $200,000 a year for the use of his name and technical advice.

The revolutionary McCormack decided to turn the tables on all that. “Any time you sell an endorsement you know that the man doing the buying will benefit from it more than you,” he told me about his epiphany. “We figured, why shouldn’t we be on the other side?”

Because of his unique popularity, Palmer was the perfect instrument for McCormack’s thrust. Soon, not only was he endorsing products ranging from ice rinks to a dry-cleaning chain (no kidding), he also came out with his own lines of golf clubs, balls, bags and sportswear and took an ownership share in the companies that made them. Those ventures still were taking off in 1966 but his annual income the year before approached $800,000, of which only $57,000 came from his winnings on the PGA Tour.  By his death his net worth was $675 million, according to Internet sources, a figure that dwarfed his lifetime Tour earnings of $2.1 million and the $6.9 million he took in when his international and PGA Senior Tour prize money is included.

Through it all, and remarkably, Palmer remained much the same, approachable figure he was when he was younger. While some jock-tycoons (e.g., Tiger Woods) wrap themselves in corporate cocoons and parcel out their time and attentions parsimoniously, he was generous with his. A few years ago I wrote a book titled “For the Love of Golf” as part of the “For the Love of…” series of illustrated books I did for Triumph Books. The publisher asked me to contact Palmer to “write” the foreword; I put the word in quotes because the usual practice is for the author, or someone, to do the writing and the celeb to sign it.

I called Donald “Doc” Giffin, the ex-sportswriter who was Palmer’s long-time factotum. He said sure, send it over. I next inquired about what sort of compensation Arnie might expect. Not to worry, said Doc, a couple cartons of the book would do fine.
I can’t help but contrast that reaction with the one I received in 1996 when I was doing a piece for a Wall Street Journal golf supplement on the 1986 Masters, which I covered and which Nicklaus won in memorable fashion. Wanting a few quotes to flesh it out, I phoned Nicklaus’s “people” about setting up a brief interview with the golfer.

 The guy I spoke to asked me what companies were advertising in the issue. I didn’t know and said so. Nobody’d ever asked me that. He said to find out and call him back. I did, and named Cadillac among several others. He said in that case Jack wouldn’t be speaking with me.

 “Why?” I asked.

“Jack endorses Chrysler,” the guy replied.



Sunday, October 2, 2016


                The Chicago Cubs are in the National League playoffs, so in the coming days or (I hope) weeks we’ll be hearing a lot about curses. Actually, one specifically, involving an animal. That would be the Billy Goat Curse, delivered by the beast’s owner William Sianis, a Chicago bar owner who in the 1940s was ahead of his time in his ability to manipulate the news media to his advantage.
             Maybe because his nickname was “Billy,” Sianis identified with goats and named his establishment the Billy Goat Tavern. He kept one as a pet and often took it along in his jaunts around town, attracting the sort of attention he relished. On October 6, 1945, he appeared at game four of that year’s baseball World Series between the Cubs and Detroit Tigers at Wrigley Field with the animal in tow and two tickets in hand, asking that both be admitted.

Here accounts diverge: according to some the pair got in but the goat was quickly expelled for obvious reasons; according to others the goat was repulsed at the gate and spent the afternoon tethered outside the park while his owner watched from within. Either way, Sianis later professed to be irate and telegraphed Philip K. Wrigley, the Cubs’ owner, saying he hoped the team never again would win a World Series.

The curse has worked wonderfully; not only did the Cubs lose that Series, in seven games, they’ve also never qualified for another, 1945 being their last pennant year. Their Series-win dearth dates back farther, to 1908, which is 108 years ago if you’re scoring. That’s impressive even to Buddhist monks, Australian aborigines and others whose time frames are wider than ours.

  What’s more, like all good curses this one has had an odd (eerie?) kicker. The goat’s name was Murphy, and last year, when the Cubs made it to the WS semis against the New York Mets, Daniel Murphy was the Mets’ batting star, going 9 for 17 with four home runs in his team’s four-game sweep. You can’t make up stuff like that.

The Billy Goat Curse certainly is Numero Uno on the sports’ curse list, but it’s not without challengers. Right up there with it is the Pottsville Curse, delivered upon the football Chicago Cardinals by residents of Pottsville, Pa., (current population about 14,000), who believed the 1925 National Football League title was unfairly stripped from their Maroons and handed to the Cardinals by a league ruling penalizing their team for playing an unauthorized game.

This curse hasn’t been wholly effective-- the Cardinals won the 1947 NFL title-- but the team has been a consistent loser otherwise and its woes have followed it from Chicago to St. Louis to its current home in Phoenix, Az. And when it finally made a Super Bowl, in 2009, victory was cruelly denied it by a last-minute Pittsburgh Steelers’ touchdown in a 27-23 outcome.

Also vying for the lead is the Bobby Layne Curse, delivered by the late quarterback. He was one of my all-time favorite players, a gritty sort whose whole exceeded the sum of its parts. He led the Detroit Lions to NFL championships in 1952, ’53 and ’57, and when traded to the Steelers during the 1958 season spit out that he hoped the Lions wouldn’t win another crown for 50 years. His curse has exceeded its time limit but shows no signs of abating. The Lions are one of four teams who’ve never been to a Super Bowl (the others are the Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars) and show no signs of qualifying any time soon.

I could go on about sports curses (The Curse of the Bambino , the Rocky Colavito Curse, the Honey Bear Curse) but you get the idea. Just about every team with a losing history can summon one up. Fancying myself to be a rational person, I don’t believe that otherworldly forces affect human events, but while I don’t believe in curses I do believe in psychology and think that winning and losing both can create their own momentum.

 As I’ve seen in my horse playing, winning (I do win, sometimes) can produce a powerful, positive vibe that gives one confidence in one’s judgement and courage to move ahead, while losing brings the sort of self-doubt that causes the second-guessing of choices and pulling away from potentially worthwhile situations. In brief, the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings.

I also believe in competence, the lack of which is why the Cubs have had such a dismal record over the decades. Generations of team management have been hypnotized by the cozy dimensions of Wrigley Field and loaded up on power hitting to the detriment of baseball’s other, equally important, facets, namely pitching, defense and speed. Lopsided teams are losers, and until lately the Cubs have been lopsided.

Since 1945, the first year I took notice of them (at age 7), an overwhelming proportion of Cubs’ heroes have been sluggers—Sauer, Banks, Williams, Santo, Kingman, Dawson, Sosa, Lee. Good pitchers have been few and far between, and when the team has blundered onto one (Maddux, Jenkins, Sutter, Smith) it has allowed him to escape with plenty of tread remaining.

The same goes for speed: the only real burner in Cubs’ annals, Lou Brock, was dealt away (and to the archrival St. Louis Cardinals!) as a youth in a trade (Brock for Broglio) that ranks among the worst of all time, ever.  You can win a bar bet by asking the guy next to you to name the last Cub to lead the National League in stolen bases. The answer is Stan Hack, with 17, in 1939. Again, you can’t make this up.

Current Cub execs, led by the curse-breaker (in Boston) Theo Epstein, seem to have learned some history, because the team’s starting-pitching staff this season has been the game’s best, and its bullpen close to it. The Cubs are baseball’s best team overall going into post-season play, which is worth something even though the best teams don’t win, the teams that play best do.

 To break the curse they’ll have to win 11 games against three good teams, no small thing in a sport of small differences. Surviving that grind always is a long shot, but someone will do it. With a little help from above, it finally may be the Cubs.


Thursday, September 15, 2016


            If you’ve been looking for ways to pass the time on Saturdays, look no more. The college football season has started and our institutions of higher learning are papering the TV walls with their games, offering a buffet whose end is tough to spot.

On September 3, the season’s first weekend date, 28 games were on the television schedule in the Phoenix area, beginning with a 4:30 a.m. contest from Ireland pitting Boston College against Georgia Tech and ending with Northern Arizona versus Arizona State, which started at 8 p.m. and ended around midnight. Last Saturday, the 10th, topped that figure with 40.  And this in the out-of-the-way, lower-left-corner on the country, where traffic of all kinds is sparser than normal for our land.

And as the TV pitchmen say, “Wait! There’s more!” The Saturday games were in addition to ones that were aired on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday that first week, and there were three more on Sunday. The sport that used to be reserved for Saturdays so as not to interfere with classroom schedules now has regularly slopped into Wednesday and Thursday nights, and the colleges’ “gentleman’s agreement” to leave Friday nights to the prepsters has been trashed. These days, when a TV network phones an athletics director to inquire if his school’s team could fill an empty air slot, the answer is likely to be “Yes!” before the day or time is revealed. When you’ve in showbiz, the box office (in whatever form) calls the shots.

The subservience of academics to entertainment shows up in other ways. The football season starts before classes begin at many schools, so some freshmen play a game or two before they’ve attended a class, and these same kids can complete a full season of eligibility before they’ve earned a credit. Basketball season starts later, so prodigies at least have to show up for one semester, but many blow off the second before heading for the pros in this one-and-done era.

If you’re older than 40 you can recall when college football was a limited TV treat. The NCAA controlled it and parceled it out stingily, allowing a national game or two of a fall Saturday and/or a few regional games. After several evolutions its policy was governed by a rule that limited any school’s appearances to six in a two-season period.

 In 1981, though, the U’s of Oklahoma and Georgia sued, asserting that the practice violated Federal anti-trust laws, and after the case rattled around the courts for three years the Supreme Court agreed with their claim. That opened the box, with consequences that quickly went beyond the confines of the tube. In 2004, 20 years later, Wayne Duke, the longtime Big Ten commissioner and one of the NCAA’s original employees, declared that “the state of college football today is the direct result of that decision, including the arms-race mentality, conference realignments, money pressures and the dilution of the rules and regulations.”  Nothing that’s happened in the 12 years since in any way negates that judgement.

Wide-open televising certainly has caused the money side of college sports to mushroom, and with it the stakes for staying on top. Realignment has scrambled traditional conference makeups and put each of the five so-called “Power Conferences” into the TV business directly. Four of them (the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and PAC-12) now have their own television networks and the fifth (the ACC) will go on air with theirs in 2019.

Each of the 14 SEC members nets a reported $37.6 million a year from their league’s network, and the 11 oldest Big Ten schools are right behind at $32 m per (new members Rutgers, Maryland and Nebraska have to wait for full shares). And that’s only for the airing of “second-tier” football and basketball games; the best games of all the big conferences draw additional millions from separate rights sales to ESPN, Fox Sports and the on-air networks.

Notre Dame has its own television football contact (for seven games a year, with NBC, worth $15 million a year from 2016 through 2025) and the University of Texas has a TV network devoted exclusively to its various athletic teams that will pay it $300 million over the deal’s 20-year term. Again, that’s just part of the total TV take for both schools.

To fill the air time college-football regular seasons have lengthened, from nine games in the 1950s when I went to college to the present 12 games. Add in conference playoffs and “offshore” games in places like Hawaii and that can grow to 14, and to 15 when the bowls are added.

Ah yes, the bowls. There were nine of them in 1959 and 41 last season, including such classics as the Bahamas Bowl and the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. It used to be that a team needed a winning regular-season record to qualify, but in 2010 a 6-6 mark came to suffice, and in 2012 that was dropped to 5-7. Last season 15 bowl teams had records of 6-6 or worse. Of necessity, that figure will grow if (when) more bowls are approved. Ireland, Australia and Dubai (?!) all have bids to add them.

What does it add up to? According to USA Today, 24 schools had athletics revenues that topped $100 million in 2014-15, led by Texas A & M’s $192 million. The Aggies’ ranking is a one-shot, buoyed by the $54 million it raised to build a new football stadium, but numbers 2 through 5 on the list (Texas at $183 m, Ohio State at $167 m. Michigan at $152 m and Alabama at $148m) are hardy perennials that needed no special boosts. Notre Dame also is up there, although the newspaper included only public u’s in its surveys.

With stakes that high the rewards for cheating are obvious, and the phone-book-sized NCAA rule book stands as evidence that the sports big-timers don’t trust one another. They’re all part of the same hypocrisy, and know it. You should, too.  


Thursday, September 1, 2016


                While I was watching the Olympics I kept thinking about the short story “The 80-Yard Run,” by Irwin Shaw. It’s about a man who, looking back from a perspective of 20-odd years, concludes that his life’s highlight was a football-field play (in a scrimmage, no less), and that everything since had been downhill. It’s a sad story, leavened only by thought that the guy at least had the run to look back on.
                That’s not something I think of when taking in the American-staple sports of baseball, basketball and football, all of which have come to offer lucrative futures to the keen and lucky few who qualify to play them at the highest levels.  By contrast, the Olympics are the pinnacle of sports such as track and field, swimming and gymnastics, whose later commercial opportunities are few. Thus, just about all the competitors who thrilled us during last month’s Rio extravaganza will have to move on to quite-different lives, either immediately or eventually.

                One might think that given the energy and discipline it takes to get to the top of any sport athletes would be likely to succeed in any endeavor they choose, but proof of that notion is elusive.  Eric Heiden, the five-gold-medal speed-skating star of the 1980 Winter Olympics, and Dot Richardson, the shortstop of the U.S.’s gold-winning women’s softball teams in 1996 and 2000, both became orthopedic surgeons, and Seb Coe, the record-setting British miler, went on to become a member of Parliament and  head of the world track federation, but other such examples are hard to find. Mostly, former O-Games stars can be found hanging on at the fringes of their sports, coaching, providing media commentary or hawking gear. Apparently, once you’ve heard the roar of the crowd it’s tough to leave the stage for the anonymity in which the great majority of mankind toils.

                It might be ironic but the Olympian I worry most about is Michael Phelps, whose 23 gold medals over the last four Games, and 28 medals overall, makes him the most successful Olympian ever. I don’t worry about his finances—with multi-million-dollar endorsement deals in hand, and a reported net worth of more than $40 million going into this year, neither he nor his descendants need ever lift a finger in toil should they so choose.

But time can weigh heavily on the richest of us, and the 31-year-old Phelps seems at a loss for how to spend his. A swimming pro since his teens, and with little college to fall back on (he attended just a few classes at the University of Michigan after following his coach, Bob Bowman, there in 2004), his between-Olympics sojourns have been marked by lack of focus, alcohol use and, possibly, depression, making him (excuse me) a kind of fish out of water. He announced his retirement after the 2012 Games but, finding little else to do besides swim, rescinded it. Now he says he’s again retiring, and one only can hope that he finds challenges sufficient to profitably fill his remaining decades.

The Games star I worry about least is another swimmer, Maya DiRado. A late bloomer at age 23, the backstroker was a double-gold winner at Rio, surprising many, obviously including herself. Perhaps because she wasn’t a child whiz at her sport she combined it with academics at Stanford U. and emerged with a degree in management science and engineering, and a job offer from a major management-consulting firm.  She should grab it without passing “Go” or collecting the $200 she might earn by lingering in her glory.

What makes moving away difficult for successful athletes is the regimentation their achievements demand on today’s fields of play. Even in such little-noticed sports such as judo and fencing competitors with Olympic aspirations must put all other pursuits on hold, devoting years to single-minded training.  Schedules, usually set by others (coaches, mainly), are regulated down to the minute. Meals and sleep are programmed with an aim toward achieving maximum performance.  Once the last whistle has been blown, returning to the everyday world can seem strange and alien, much like astronauts regard it after coming back from long missions.

That sense came through strongly when I read some “Where Are They Now?” pieces in a recent Sports Illustrated Magazine. One of them focused on the “Magnificent Seven,” the group that won the U.S.’s first women’s team gymnastics title at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Ranging in age from 14 to 19 years at the time, they now are women in their middle-to-late 30s.

According to the story all are doing pretty well, but not without some travail. Rather than bow out at the top of their brutally difficult sport, five stayed in training through the 2000 Olympics (but only two—Amy Chow and Dominique Dawes-- made that year’s squad), and one—Dominique Moceanu-- kept trying until injuries finally waylaid her in 2006. Three of the group—Moceanu, Jaycie Phelps and Amanda Borden—still are in the game as coaches. Shannon Miller remains involved peripherally with a company that markets video workouts and health and fitness products.

Writer Greg Bishop devoted most of the article to Dawes and Kerri Strug, who seem to have had the most-circuitous personal journeys.  Strug, whose broken-ankle vault dramatically secured the U.S. gold medal, has earned bachelor’s and master’s degree from Stanford, taught in elementary school, held positions in the U.S. Justice and Treasury departments and is a wife and mother. She divides her life into two, sharply different periods, one on each side of her Games triumph. As a gymnast, she says, she traveled widely but never saw much bedsides hotels, gyms and arenas. Once on her own she was free to wander and wonder, and both were revelations.  “It was really interesting to form my own thoughts and opinions,” she told Bishop. “I wasn’t used to doing that. It was liberating and scary, too.”

The more-glamorous Dawes opted for show biz after weaning herself from gymnastics, performing as a dancer, actress and model. Then she got a college degree and gravitated toward sports administration. Since 2010, she’s been co-chair of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, in addition to being a wife and mom.

 She, too, spoke of a before-and-after. “I had to rewire my brain [after gymnastics],” she said. “I had to learn to let go. Look at our team in ’96—you didn’t see us smile. It was that intense. That’s why I don’t want my daughter to train for the Olympics.”  



Monday, August 15, 2016


            They’re playing football again, and I’m glad because I enjoy watching it, but I must report that I blush to admit that. I’ve come to feel about football as I do about boxing—that it’s gladiatorial and should be engaged in only by people who are aware of its risks.
            Until about a decade ago those risks weren’t fully clear, but they are now. Numerous studies have shown that, in addition to whatever other injuries football might cause, the repeated blows to the head that are intrinsic to the game can result in irreversible brain damage. This can manifest itself in memory loss, cognitive difficulties and chronic, debilitating headaches, in the worst cases leading to suicide.

 Blows that result in concussions are the most dramatic evidence of those dangers, but it’s also been shown that over time lesser impacts can have the same, cumulative effect. While research into the probability of players sustaining lasting damage is just beginning, what I’ve read indicates that about one in three men who have performed at the professional level can expect to come away with neurological ailments of some sort. Further, the longer one plays the greater becomes the probability of such an outcome.

Most people, I think, have come to share my conclusions, but the ones who run National Football League see them as an existential threat. As witnessed by its ten-figure settlement with former players who sued it because of its handling of concussion cases during past years, the league tacitly recognizes its problem. That perception was reinforced in May when it severed its connection with Dr. Elliot Pellman, the rheumatologist and former New York Jets’ team physician who was its long-time medical point man (i.e., denier) on concussion-related issues. On other levels, though, the league is proceeding as though everything is okay.

 Nothin’ to see here, folks, just move along.

One prong of its counterattack is its “Football Is Family” promotion, a series of national TV ads in which active NFL players associate their participation in the game with their respect for such bedrock American values as teamwork, community, conscientious parenting and appreciation of the military. It would be a cliché to describe the ads as “warm and fuzzy,” but no better phrase presents itself.

Another is its outreach to parents—and at the same time to kids—in its sponsorship of USA Football, a league it formed in 2002 for children aged 6 to 14, and in its newer (since 2013) funding of Heads Up Football, an online video program that (for a fee, natch) instructs coaches in blocking and tackling techniques, proper hydration and other topics that are supposed to contribute to greater football safety.

 That the coaches aren’t the only targets for the effort was seen in some off-the-cuff remarks before a coaches group last year by Bruce Arians, the salty head coach of the NFL Arizona Cardinals. “[Football] is the best game that’s ever been f---in’ invented and we’ve got to be sure moms get the message because that’s who’s afraid of our game,” said he. “It’s not the dads, it’s the moms.”

The NFL is so hipped on the “Heads Up” approach that it commissioned a private research group to study its effectiveness, then jumped the gun by last year hyping preliminary results that showed steep declines in concussions and other injuries among youth leagues that used the program’s methods. Trouble was, final results that later were published in a medical journal, and reported in the New York Times, showed that the declines appeared only among teams in Pop Warner leagues whose rules ban heads-on blocking and tackling drills that USA Football permits, and also sanction less full-contact practice time. Leagues employing Heads Up Football teachings experienced no injury-rate drops in games unless the teams involved also used Pop Warner practice restrictions, and had a smaller overall reduction than the preliminary figures showed.

To be sure the NFL, colleges and high-school and youth-football leagues are more concussion-aware than they were a few years ago, and have taken welcome steps to reduce the injuries and better deal with them. Formal concussion protocols have become part of the game at just about all levels, and TV broadcasters are less likely than before to chuckle when a player leaves the field after being “dinged” or “getting his bell rung.”

Still, the idea that football is a very dangerous pursuit seems to be taking hold, especially among the parents who have to sign the release forms that permit their kids to play. The Physical Activity Council, a partnership of sports-industry trade groups, reports that football participation in the 6-to-14-year-old age group dropped to about 2.2 million last year from about 3 million in 2010, and a survey this year by the University of Massachusetts’ Lowell Center for Public Opinion showed that close to 80% of adults—84% of women and 72% of men—thought that tackle football of any kind was not appropriate for children younger than 14.

Additionally, and perhaps tellingly, some NFL players are deciding that the risks they run by playing may not be worth the salaries they make by doing so. Such notables as Jerod Mayo, Patrick Willis, Calvin Johnson, Percy Harvin and Marshawn Lynch—all at or near their 30-year-old competitive and earnings primes—announced their retirements after last season, and while jocks have been known to unretire the fact that some are giving up even a year of seven-digit paychecks to increase the odds of escaping in one piece is significant.

Football won’t go away suddenly—we fans and most players like it too well for that—but it now comes with a warning label that can’t be ignored. And that’s a good thing.





Monday, August 1, 2016


                Every fourth year there’s a summer Olympics, and as it approaches the news-media predictions for the host city’s prospects always are dire. London (2012) was supposed to have gone under because of traffic congestion, Beijing (2008) from air pollution, Athens (2004) from that’s city’s normal chaos. While there was more than a germ of truth behind all those forecasts, they stemmed mostly from the press’s predilection to predict problems—it’s what we news types do. But in fact all those Games came off pretty well, as did most of those before them.

               Beginning Friday (Aug. 5) it’s Rio de Janeiro’s turn, and the naysayers have been more vociferous than ever. Rio is crime-ridden in the best of times and visitors had best beware, they say. The Brazilian economy is in the dumpster and the country’s political turmoil is at full moil. The bay where the sailing races are to take place doubles as a toilet.  The mosquito-borne zika virus, the Hemisphere’s new scourge, lurks in every puddle.

                I must admit that if I were planning to attend I’d be worried, especially about that last thing. I’d be worrieder yet if I were a woman of child-bearing age-- roughly between the ages of 16 and 40-- because the effects of zika are supposed to fall hardest on the children they produce, even though their own symptoms may be slight. That category, by the way, includes just about every female athlete who will compete, and males who are bitten will be at risk of infecting their young because the disease can be transmitted sexually.

                Athlete dropouts have been few, however, and mostly limited to tennis and golf, sports for which the Olympics are not a high priority. In part that may be because of the special precautions being taken, such as the adoption of an official Olympic bug spray (Deet) and a plan to distribute 450,000 free condoms in the Olympic Village, three times the number passed out in London four years ago. With about 10,000 athletes expected to be involved, that works out to about 45 per for the two-week fest. It reminds of the story of the man who, having bought a gross of condoms on a Friday afternoon, was told by the druggist to have a nice weekend. Mostly, though, the jocks’ disdain of danger reflects their mindset that they are invulnerable—that illness and injury are things that happen to other people, not them. Some will be wrong about that, but let’s hope it’s only a few.  

                But while the Olympics are likely to proceed pretty much as planned, it’s also timely to ask if they’re worth the trouble. Yeah, I know, they aren’t going away, if only because their massive infrastructure, propped up by such corporate-giant sponsors as Coca Cola, Visa, P&G and General Electric, puts them in the “too big to fail” category. When billions of dollars are being passed around, many hands will reach for them.

                Still, the Olympics’ foundation has shifted so many times over the years that it’s tough to pin down their reason for being besides the box-office one. Their modern version was begun in the late 19th century by European aristocrats who saw sport as a way in which they and their fellow upper-crusters could rub elbows; their standards of amateurism, which ruled the early Games, were used mainly to deny working people access to their fields of play.

 As the Games evolved politics took on an ever-greater, and less-savory, role. The International Olympic Committee, the self-appointed group that runs the show behind the cover of lofty ideals, long has favored authoritarian regimes where the graft is conveniently centralized, allowing Nazi Germany to fly its swastikas over the 1936 summer edition and completing the original Axis of Evil by giving both the 1940 Summer and Winter Games to Imperial Japan and the 1944 Winter Games to Italy before World War II intervened. That practice has continued with the IOC’s largess toward the USSR/Russia and China, both multiple awardees from 1980.

Like everything else about sports, commercial considerations have ruled Olympic decision making in the post-WWII era. While the IOC insisted publicly on amateurism during the first three-plus decades of that span crypto-professionals were allowed to compete under various, winking guises. Now the O’s are mostly for pros, and the major ethical issue has changed to doping, but the IOC’s prioritizing of its show above all else continues.

 This was illustrated in its handling of the overwhelming proof that Russia has engaged in a government-operated, long-running effort to dope its athletes and hide the evidence, one that thoroughly corrupted the 2014 Winter Games, which it hosted in Sochi, and maybe still continues. One sport—track and field—has banned from Rio 67 of the 68 Russian qualifiers, but rather than enacting a deserved total ban on the country the IOC kicked further sanctions back to its 27 other single-sport governing bodies, which vary widely in motivation and competence.  (The honorary president of the Judo group is the odious Russian prez Vladimir Putin.) As of this week about 380 athletes will march under the Putin (oops, Russian) flag in Rio, down only about 100 from the original list.

The five-ring circus is a great show, and like most of us I’ll be watching it. It’s a showcase for sports I enjoy that get short shrift in our crowded sports calendar. But each of those sports has an annual or biannual world’s championship that provides a similar forum without the Olympics’ baggage. In a better world those would suffice, but we’re stuck with the world we’ve got, O Games and all.


Friday, July 15, 2016




             The big news of the early free-agency period in the National Basketball Association was the signing of Kevin Durant by the Golden State Warriors, the league’s 2015 champions and this year’s runnerup. Reaction to the move was predictably negative, with most people castigating the player for leaving his Oklahoma City Thunder team for an already-loaded foe. People in OKC responded by burning their “Durant” jerseys and boycotting the restaurant he’d opened there. Maybe he should have thought about that last thing.

But hey, put yourself in Durant’s shoes. How would you have liked it if you’d been drafted out of college by a firm in Seattle, as he was, then traded off to Oklahoma City to practice your trade there for at least the next three years of your career.  You’d have been on the phone to your lawyer (and congressman) pronto.

We fans accept the pro-sports-draft systems reflexively. Most of us root for the teams we do for reasons beyond reason or, even, understanding. Early in life we form an attachment to a team, usually one based in or near a city in which we live, and that’s it, we’re stuck with it. We can no more change it than we can our skin color, shoe size or any other intrinsic personal attribute. Perversely, our team’s failures can act to strengthen the bond; otherwise no one would be a Cubs’ fan.

Our allegiance is to the name on our team’s jerseys, not to the players who wear them. This can blind us to the system’s inequities perpetrated in the name of competitive balance, so when a LeBron James jumps the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat (and, later, the Heat for the Cavs) we howl. It’s okay for teams to trade players, whether or not they want to be traded. It’s also okay for big-money outfits like the New York Yankees to sign just about anyone they desire; we wish only that our teams could do the same. But woe be unto the player who picks a team he wants to play for and follows through on the wish.

The legal bases for free agency are the labor contracts the leagues have with their players’ unions. The NBA’s comes up again in December so, maybe, the matter will be revisited.  Free agency won’t be junked, however. This is America where even athletes get to pursue happiness, eventually.



The Chicago Cubs got off to a roaring start this season, posting the game’s best record for the first 60 or so games. Then they lost 15 of their 21 games (and eight of their last 10) before the All-Star Game break and had their divisional lead cut to seven games from 12 ½.  Cubs’ fans who thought baseball had become an easy game have had to sober up.

They should have seen this coming, of course. Baseball is the sport of the long haul and the small difference, where the best teams win six of 10 games and the worst four of 10. That norm is inexorable, sparing few.

 Still, some of the reasons behind the Cubs’ slump should be addressable. One is the injury bug that bites just about every team but hit the Cubs’ outfield particularly. Gone for the season or long parts of the first half were Kyle Schwarber, Dexter Fowler and Jorge Soler, who, preseason, shaped up as the team’s usual starters in left and center fields, and the handy man Tommy LaStella. He’s already back and leadoff-man Fowler will be soon; his absence coincided with the team’s decline. Schwarber won’t be back this year. Soler, young and athletic but injury prone, now looks like trade bait for late roster additions.

The Cubs have good depth but, even so, have been hit by the same things that plague all slumping teams, including bad starting and relief pitching and a failure to hit with runners on base. My take is that those things are at least partly attributable to the sort of fat-headedness that often affects the nouveau riche; the team’s early success may have been so easy that the players came to assume it was their due.

The prime example of this, I think, has been the team’s top starting pitcher, Jake Arrieta. Eerily unhittable for most of last season and early this one, he’s become all too mortal of late, his win percentage plummeting as his ERA soars. The reversal coincided with the lavish publicity he’s been receiving and his decision to bare all for ESPN Magazine’s “body issue.” Shifting his focus from his own wonderfulness back to his craft just might help him regain good form.

Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon has been widely praised for his ability to keep his teams focused. That wasn’t much tested during a much-better-than-expected 2015 season and this year’s sprint, but it will be now. Everyone earns his money one way or another.



LeBron James and other NBA players punctuated this week’s ESPY Awards telecast by speaking out against gun violence and racial profiling by police. Other stars, current and ex, are taking sides in the presidential race. This is especially notable at a time when many top athletes see themselves as “brands” to be marketed to the widest possible audiences.

I think the outspokenness is fine—jocks have every right to use their celebrity to support any cause they wish.  They’d better wear raincoats, though, because splashback is inevitable.