Thursday, December 1, 2016

NEWS, VIEWS

               NEWS: Bruce Arena replaces Jurgen Klinsmann as U.S. National Team soccer coach.
               
               VIEW:  It’s back to the future.
  
               Klinsmann’s ouster wasn’t unexpected in light of the U.S. team’s home loss to Mexico and trouncing in Costa Rica in the first two games of the final round of qualifying matches for the 2018 World Cup, but those two outcomes only sealed his doom. The real reason was the U.S.’s persistent failure to crack the upper echelon of the sport, a status many Americans feel is their due.
               
                 Klinsmann was supposed to have remedied that. Good-looking and charismatic, an international star as both a player and coach, the transplanted German took the job in 2011 amid high expectations. He seemingly justified them when his team won the regional Gold Cup in 2013 and in 2014 survived a tough divisional draw to make it to the round of 16 in the quadrennial World Cup, but it relapsed thereafter and never could regain its footing. Run-ins with critics over his lineup selections and training preferences (he clearly thought his players were better off playing with European clubs instead of those in Major League Soccer, the second-tier domestic league) greased the skids for his removal.
              
                In replacing him with Arena the sport’s governing body signaled it was more concerned with salvaging the current World Cup campaign than with seeking new approaches. Arena is a competent pro who coached the team from 1998 to 2006 but was fired under pretty much the same circumstances as was Klinsmann.  If Arena had any revolutionary ideas he would have tried them before.

               The fact is that despite a marked upgrade over the past 20 or so years the U.S. still suffers from a talent deficit relative to that of the major world powers. In countries like Germany, Brazil and Argentina, the best athletes immediately gravitate toward soccer, while here the sport must take what’s left after basketball, baseball and football have done their culling. Until that changes no number of USA! USA! chants will change things.
              
                NEWS: The National Collegiate Athletic Association docks Notre Dame 21 football wins.

                VIEW: Huh?

                In response to 2014 revelations that a member of the university’s athletic-training staff gave “impermissible academic benefits” (i.e., did papers and other course work) for eight football players over a two-year period, the group ordered that the school forfeit all its victories during the 2012 and 2013 seasons.  The absurdity of the penalty was immediately pointed out by Brian Kelly, the team’s blustery head coach, who said, in effect, “Ha!”

                “If that makes you [the NCAA, I guess] feel better, then that’s fine with me,” Kelly really said. “Putting an asterisk next to those games, that’s fine, too. We still beat Oklahoma. We still beat Wake Forest.”

    He could have said as much about the rest of the sentence, a one-year probation and a $5,000 fine. The latter amount probably is less than the team spends annually on that black grease players smear under their eyes on game days.

                Actually, though, the penalty was harsher than the ones (nothing) that attended two previous and much more serious incidents in a Kelly regime that began in 2009. That would be the 2010 death of a student manager who was sent up on a cherry picker in a wind storm to videotape a football practice and the suicide that same year of a woman student from nearby St. Mary’s College after her allegation of rape against a Notre Dame linebacker was deep-sixed by university authorities (the claim died with her and the player never missed a game). What the NCAA will do about the carful of Domer footballers arrested last August for speeding and marijuana and gun possession remains to be seen, or about the lineman who stomped on the leg of a fallen foe during the school’s game last week against Southern California.

                Notre Dame is one of those chesty universities that likes to brag it “does things right” in combining academics with the multi-million-dollar entertainment business it conducts. In truth, it’s a prime example of the degree to which schools will prostitute themselves to maintain such an enterprise. The NCAA’s hollow penalties abet that practice.

                NEWS: The National Hockey League declares that only players on league rosters can appear in its mid-season All-Star Game.

                VIEW: Huh? again.

                The action was dubbed the “John Scott Rule” for the journeyman player whose position (enforcer) appears in no lineup but who fans elected to last season’s game after he’d been demoted to the minor leagues by the Montreal Canadiens. The mockery that attended that selection increased when Scott not only was picked to captain one of the teams in the fest but also went on to win its MVP award.

In case you haven’t noticed, All-Star Games have become touchy affairs in sports in which injuries are rampant; both players and teams have come to conclude that the rewards the events produce don’t justify their risks.  The National Football League has discussed ending its game and allows it to survive only as a pantomime of the real thing. The NHL last season changed its All-Star format to a tournament of two, 20-minute, three-on-three games matching players from each of its four divisions, followed by a same-rules final matching the winners. It ain’t real hockey but now, at least, it’ll be contested by real NHLers.
               
                 
                 
               

                

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

SCOUTING REPORT

                Every baseball fan fancies himself a scout and I am no exception. While my credentials to the title may be lacking in some respects, I’ve seen a lot of ballgames and have this blog with which to broadcast my observations.  I also have close at hand the Arizona Fall League, maybe the best place ever to practice the scout’s art.

                Regular readers of this space know about the Fall League, but for others a brief recap. It’s the minor-league finishing school for top prospects that runs annually for six weeks, from the second week in October through the third week in November, this year ending on Saturday. Each of the 30 Major League teams assigns seven players to the circuit, usually Class A or AAers between the ages of 20 and 23. They are formed into six teams of 35 players that each play a 32-game schedule. Scores are kept, standings are maintained and a champion is crowned, but the real point is individual performance. The kids play for the scouts— the real ones more than the pretenders—with a big-league berth in a year or so as the prize. About 60% of them eventually make it, so it’s a worthwhile exercise.

                It doesn’t hurt that the league functions when the Phoenix area is at its best. Prime tourism time here is from Thanksgiving through Easter, but during AFL season the weather is closest to perfect, with temperatures in the 80s or low 90s, low humidity and dreamy blue skies that invite poetic descriptions.  If you’re a ballplayer in your early 20s, getting paid and playing mostly day games, and with the Scottsdale bars to graze in, it’s about as close to paradise as it gets.

                Spectators have it good, too. Admission is cheap ($8 for adults, $6 for seniors), parking is close and free and with attendance of less than 1,000 for most games in our excellent spring-training parks you can sit anywhere you want.  If your voice carries, you can share your opinions with the umps, players and your fellow fans, for better or worse.

                Every Fall League has its star, but this year’s is unusual. It’s TIM TEBOW, the famously pious ex-quarterback who, at age 29 and not having played organized baseball since high school, decided to give the professional game a whirl. The New York Mets indulged him with a minor-league contract and assigned him to the Scottsdale Scorpions, their Fall League club.

                Tebow made an immediate splash by performing a miracle. Before a first-week game a fan in line for his autograph fell to the ground with some sort of seizure. Tebow (and others, I’d guess) prayed for him and the man quickly recovered. That was a miracle, right? Local TV and some social media outlets said it was. You could look it up.

                But Tebow’s chances for sainthood appear better than his baseball outlook. He’s a big, impressive-looking guy, an athlete for sure, but while he looked like Tarzan he’s played like Jane. As of Sunday he was 8 for 51 at the plate with just two extra-base hits and 15 strikeouts, and his .157 batting average was the league’s second-worst for players with an appreciable number of at-bats.

                I saw him play twice, once as a designated hitter and once in left field. He had two fielding chances while I watched, one a fly ball that clanked off his glove after a short run and another on which he turned the wrong way twice and allowed to drop. Neither was scored as an error but both could have been.  One only can hope he has a Plan C.

                Among the actual prospects, GLEYBER TORRES, a Venezuelan shortstop in the New York Yankees’ chain, was the clear standout.  This was no surprise because he was the Yanks’ key acquisition in the mid-season trade that bought the monster relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman to the Chicago Cubs. Not yet 20 years old, Torres is quick of both foot and bat and led the AFL in hitting (at .382) as of Sunday. The Cubs could give up Torres because their brilliant Addison Russell has a 10-year lease on the position, but I’m sure the separation was painful nonetheless.

                Shortstops are the best athletes on most teams, and two more excelled here. NICK GORDON, a look-alike of older brother Dee Gordon, is a skinny, live-bodied 21-year-old who was the Minnesota Twins’ first choice in the 2014 amateur draft. He’s played well in 2 ½ minor league seasons, and should be a Twin by 2018. Another Venezuelan, 20-year-old FRANKLIN BARRETO, also appears to have the goods for the Oakland A’s, even though his arm marks him as a probable second baseman.

                 A trio of outfielders showed well when I was watching. ANTHONY ALFORD was primarily a college football player (at quarterback) for his first two years out of high school in Mississippi before opting for full-time baseball in the Toronto Blue Jays’ chain.  He has a way to go fundamentally, but he’s athletic and, at age 21, has time to develop.  GREG ALLEN, 23, a Cleveland Indians’ chattel, is swift and hits the ball hard. TYLER O’NEILL, 21, of the Seattle Mariners, is a kind of pocket rocket at 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds, but takes his at-bats seriously and swings big. His 56 home runs in his last two minor-league seasons (at Class A and AA) showed what he can do when he connects.
             
                There’s always room in the Bigs for good catchers and the Minnesota Twins’ MITCH GARVER looks like one. Solidly built, and possessing some batting power, he threw out three consecutive would-be base stealers in a game I attended, a rarity even at the Major League level. He’s 25, old for a Fall Leaguer, but catchers usually take longer than other players to develop.
               
               As a Cubs’ fan I take particular interest in their Fall Leaguers, but this year’s group didn’t sparkle. IAN HAPP, their first-round draft choice (the ninth pick overall) in 2015, looked competent but not exceptional at second base, and VICTOR CARATINI, from Puerto Rico, performed similarly at catcher and first base. The Cubs are well-stocked at all those positions so probably will use the two youngsters in trade.

                
               Pitchers are hard to scout in the AFL because they perform only every third or fourth game, and then for but a few innings, but I saw a couple I liked. FRANKIE MONTAS, 23, from the Oakland A’s chain by way of the Dominican Republic, is a big, heavy guy in the C.C. Sabathia mold, and while the right-hander didn’t blow batters away he got all but one out in the five innings I saw him.
        
               MICHAEL KOPECH, 20, does blow them away but sometimes lets a few slip. I watched him pitch 3 1/3 remarkable innings in which he walked six hitters and hit one but allowed no runs. The Boston Red Sox farmhand has struck out 20 in 17 innings here, and will be dangerous once he gets his act together.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

TIZ A PUZZLEMENT

                Can you spell “vichyssoise,” the potato soup? I couldn’t, so I looked it up. Then I put it in the answer boxes of a recent New York Times crossword puzzle.
                
                Did I cheat when I did that? Some might say yes but I say no. I think it’s okay to check the spelling of a crossword answer that I’m pretty sure is right. I do that for some foreign words and for English words of which I’m not sure, such as whether a feudal lord is a “leige” or, correctly, a “liege.”  That’s why they print dictionaries.
        
                I bring this up because I love to do crosswords and spend a good deal of time at it; an inordinate amount, really. John Updike famously said that life is too short for crosswords, and I’m sure he was right, but I’m also sure he did them, because he was a wordsmith. I’m one, too (albeit a lesser one than he), and am similarly driven.

                Indeed, as I wrote in a previous (2009) blog that a few faithful readers might recall, I’m a kind of crossword snob, deigning to do only the Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday puzzles in the New York Times. (I used to do the Wall Street Journal’s Friday puzzle but stopped when they canceled my legacy subscription.)  I pay up (close to $1,000 a year) to subscribe to the Times, and while I’m a great fan of the paper I’m not sure I’d continue it if the crossword were dropped or changed in any substantial way.  I’m certain there are many people like me, so I don’t think they’ll be doing that. I’m further heartened by the knowledge that Will Shortz, the Times’ wonderful puzzles editor, is a good bet to outlive me.
   
             I don’t claim to be the sort of whiz who can zip through the Saturday offering (usually the toughest) in something like six minutes and 40 seconds. Rather, I’m a grinder who wears ‘em down through tenacity. I usually can finish a puzzle in one sitting of, maybe, an hour, but when I can’t I’m content to put it aside, rest my mind, and have more goes at it until I succeed. I’ve been stumped for longer than a day before the light goes on and I can fill in the remaining boxes. More than once that’s happened at 3 a.m. or somesuch, but it’s worth waking up for.

                Nonpuzzlers should know that what makes a puzzle difficult isn’t so much its answers as its questions. The tougher ones make one stretch for the third or fourth definitions of a word or look at the clues obliquely to discern their meaning.  When done cleverly, as often is the case with the Times’ offerings, a right answer can elicit a smile. For example, the answer to the clue “one may be built around a police station” was “tvdrama.“  The answer to the clue “it’s well positioned” was “oil rig.”  Cute, huh?

                Just about every puzzle worth doing contains clues one can’t quickly decipher. Ideally, one reasons them out with the help of letters from answers that have been completed.  Nobody knows everything, though, so sometimes that doesn’t work and outside help is needed. That’s where ethical questions arise.

                I’ve given this matter some thought (hey, I’m retired and have little else to do) and have come up with a list of do’s and don’ts to govern my puzzling. I think it’s okay to:

                --Use my regular dictionary to confirm the spelling of words with which I’m not familiar (see above).

--Use my crossword dictionary to find tedious matters of fact one can’t figure out on one’s own, such as the names of Nobel Prize winners long past or the capitals or currencies of obscure countries. (For example, Rabindranath Tagore was the 1913 Nobelist in literature, the capital of Zambia is Lusaka and the country’s monetary units are the ngwee and the kwacha.)

--Use my library to fill out or confirm things like quotations from Shakespeare or the Bible.

--Ask for help from anyone within the sound of my unamplified voice. (Wife Susie is an expert on food and stepson Marc, when he’s handy, knows about all there is to know about rock, blues and pop music.)

It’s not okay to:

--Phone or email outside experts for help.

--Use the crossword dictionary for help with synonyms, the stuff of most puzzle answers.

--Type the clue into my computer’s Google box and go to one of the numerous puzzle help sites for the answer.

Are my rules more lax than those of more-accomplished puzzlers? Probably, but I don’t aspire beyond my limits. Do I ever break them? Of course I do, as a last resort, to scratch the itch of curiosity, but I take no pleasure from any solutions obtained thereby. Crosswords, after all, are games one plays against oneself, so the cheater and victim are one and the same.

               

                 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

ARNIE

                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

CURSES!

                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

COLLEGE $PORT$

            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

GETTING A LIFE

                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.”