Monday, August 15, 2016

WARNING LABEL

            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

IS THIS TRIP NECESSARY?

                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

NEWS, VIEWS

NEWS-- KD LEAVES OKC FOR CA

VIEW—WHY NOT?

             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.

NEWS—CUBS FADE

VIEW—IT WAS INEVITABLE

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.

NEWS—MORE SPORTS STARS EXPRESS THEMSELVES ON SOCIAL, POLITICAL ISSUES          

VIEW—AGAIN, WHY NOT?

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.

  


Saturday, July 2, 2016

nitpicKINGS

            Sports officials always are unpopular— it comes with the territory.

Umps and refs are booed wherever they go, their adverse-to-the-home-crowd decisions remembered, their favorable ones forgotten. Ditto the $2,000-suit stuffers who run our professional leagues. David Stern helped build the National Basketball Association from a cottage industry to a world force during his 30-year tenure as commissioner (1984-2014), but he’ll always be reviled in Phoenix because he enforced a rule against Suns’ bench players joining an on-court fight during a 2007 playoff game.

  Roger Goodell gets the raspberry every time he steps to the podium to announce a choice in the first round of the National Football League draft. Why? Because he’s Roger Goodell, for one thing, but also because almost every ruling he makes displeases someone. As Abraham Lincoln once put it, every time he filled a job he created a dozen enemies and one ingrate.

But sports officials rarely go out of their way to court public enmity, which is why the flap that arose during the recent U.S. Open golf tournament was exceptional.  Dustin Johnson, who would go on to win the tournament, was on the fifth green of the final round when an official detected his ball moving as he was addressing it. The man discussed the matter with the golfer, who denied responsibility. The official ruled no foul and play continued.

Seven holes later, though, another, higher official told Johnson the matter had been reviewed and that a one-stroke penalty might (repeat, might) be levied against him. Johnson and the rest of the field (and the viewing audiences at the course and at home) completed their rounds not knowing how the issue would be resolved. In the end the penalty was assessed but Johnson got everyone off the hook by winning by more than a stroke, making the matter moot trophywise

Several points should here be made. One is that the ball movement involved was so slight that it took me several slo-mo TV replays to detect it. Another was that the movement was backward and, thus, gave the golfer no advantage. Another was that there was no evidence that Johnson either touched the ball with his putter or grounded the club so as to cause the movement; it wasn’t like he kicked his ball out of the rough while no one was looking. But for such a nit the most august of our national golfing events was thrown into disarray.

The episode is understandable only when one realizes that the sport involved was golf, whose rules book makes the New York City phone book look small, and that the tournament in question was held under the auspices of the U.S. Golf Association, which exists to fill that book.  The USGA is staffed largely by country-club types for whom golf is an avocation, and nits is what it does.

 For reasons rooted in antiquity the USGA also runs the annual U.S. Opens for the men, women and seniors, and the national and regional amateur events. The rest of the golf we see, also mostly “open” tournaments (open to amateurs, that is), is run by the Professional Golf Association (PGA) on the men’s side and the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) on the women’s. These are business organizations operated by, and for, the professional golfers themselves. That arrangement, by the way, is unlike that of our professional team sports, which are owned by, uh, owners, and where the players are employees. Just sayin’.

It is axiomatic that no officials are more officious than volunteers, and the USGA exemplifies that point perfectly.  Golf is an outdoor game, played on large acreages open to the elements, so the rulings the group makes must account for many situations. But more than occasionally those rulings are counter-intuitive, to say the least.

Say, for instance, that your ball comes to rest in a bunker right behind a half-eaten pear that someone has carelessly discarded. Can the pear be removed without penalty? Nope, says the rules book. It’s a “natural object” and, thus, is part of the hazard.  I’m not making this up.

Self-importance is another USGA trait. Every other golf tournament on the planet has long settled end-of-regulation, first-place ties with immediate playoffs of one or a few holes, but not U.S. Opens. If their 72 holes end with players deadlocked a next-day, 18-hole playoff is ordained.  The tournaments are attended by a small army of auxiliaries, including the news corps, TV crews and technicians and the hundreds of people who provide on-course staffing, many of whom come from outside the tourney area. These folks must rebook their plane reservations and hotels and rearrange their work schedules to accommodate the USGA’s notion of fairness.

Their sole consolation is that it used to be worse: until 1931 the group required a next-day, 36-hole playoff to resolve first-place ties. That year Murphy’s Law kicked in and George Von Elm and Billy Burke again tied after the extra 36. They were sent out the next day to play another 36, with Burke eventually winning. I’m not making that up, either.

After ‘31 the playoff was reduced to 18 holes but only with the provision that ties after that required 18 more holes.  The additional 18 wasn’t lifted until the 1950s, when sudden-death after 90 holes finally was introduced. Some blue-blazer types still are tut-tutting about that, no doubt.





Wednesday, June 15, 2016

ALI

              Muhammad Ali died a fortnight ago, at age 74, and the response was overwhelming. He was hailed not only as a great athlete but as a great humanitarian as well. African-Americans, including those too young to have known him as a boxer, cited him as a role model both for his prowess and attitude. People of all races testified that the benign presence of his later years was an antidote to the fractious era in which we life.
            
              The outpouring was remarkable to someone my age (78) who can remember when Ali was regarded quite differently—as one whose braggadocio, quirky anti-Vietnam War stance and espousal of an overtly racist religious sect alienated and puzzled many. That all that appears to have been washed away testifies to his own evolution and to the healing powers of time. Shakespeare to the contrary notwithstanding, the good men do can live after them while the evil oft is interred with their bones. So let it be with Ali, we now say.

              But while one must swim upstream this month to suggest that the fighter was less than saintly, any real assessment of his life must be more complex.  The easiest part is its athletic component: as a boxer in his prime he fully lived up to his self-proclaimed title of “The Greatest.”  He might not have punched as hard as some heavyweights but most experts (and I) agree that his speed, grace, resilience and ring acumen were unsurpassed in his weight class. Indeed, the late Jimmy Jacobs, who owned the “Greatest Fights” archive, the world’s largest cache of boxing films dating from the 19th century, and who was Mike Tyson’s first manager, once told me he thought Ali was the fastest fighter ever, of any weight. That was no small feat for a tall man who performed at more than 200 pounds.

               Ali was only slightly less conspicuous outside the ring. Handsome (he’d say “pretty”), glib and charismatic, he attracted crowds wherever he went, and his playfulness was contagious, charming even the skeptical.  At the same time, his outspokenness and refusal to be patronized was startling for his era and set a standard for African-Americans that transcended sports.

              His refusal to be inducted into the military, assertedly on Muslim religious grounds, was puzzling because, then as now, Islam is not a pacific religion. Nonetheless, his stance must be regarded as courageous because it cost him far more than it did most others who followed that course. As a result of it he was stripped of his titles at his fighting peak and couldn’t get a match for 3 ½ years.

              Ali’s love of verse and one-liners, and gift for mimicry, caused him to be widely hailed as a wit. My full time sports-writing career began after his 1981 retirement from the ring, so I never spent time with him up close, but conversations with those who did revealed that many of his jokes were borrowed and repeated endlessly if they got a laugh. Still, they say, he was quick to size up his audiences, and his desire to entertain must be credited.

              But if Ali was smart he was not wise. His personal life was messy, including four marriages and three no-doubt-expensive divorces, and he left seven children by his wives and at least a couple more to duke it out over his estate.  His personal finances were equally chaotic; although his ring income has been estimated at more than $50 million (it would have been many times more in recent years) he was serially scammed by his handlers and had little put aside when his fighting days were done. The way I get it he lived in retirement mostly off latter-day endorsements and appearance fees. About all that remained of his ring income was a trust fund established for him by a group of businessmen in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, shortly after he turned pro in 1961.

              Worse was his management of his career, which lasted much too long. This is typical of athletes generally, including those engaged in his brutal sport, but in his case it had tragic consequences in the Parkinson’s disease and other ills that left him mute and palsied for the last 20 or so years of his life. That was an especially sad fate for one who had been so verbal and agile.

 If a Hollywood screen writer had called the shots Ali’s last fight would have been the one in which he evened the score with Joe Frazier in 1974 at the age of 32.  But needing the money, or seeing nothing better to do, he soldiered on. As he grew older he became easier to hit. Most of his 15 bouts after Frazier II were grueling affairs, 12 of them going 10 or more rounds. Boxers’ ages are better measured in rounds than in years, and those took a mighty toll.

I think that Ali’s influence on the greater world was strongest—and least fortunate—on our notions of sportsmanship, or how we regard winning, losing and competing. Sportsmanship always has been partly sham because no one enjoys losing and hard feelings often arise among competitors. But athletes’ treating opponents with respect cushions them all with the knowledge that sports needn’t be a zero-sum game and that when they lose they’ll receive such consideration in return.

Ali would have none of that. For him boxing wasn’t a test of skills within a confined space and agreed upon rules but psychological warfare that knew no bounds. Like a current presidential candidate he hung insulting nicknames on foes (the glowering Sonny Liston was “The Big, Ugly Bear”, the introverted Floyd Patterson was “The Rabbit,” the long-armed Frazier was “The Gorilla”), most of whom were black men like himself. He taunted them in and out of the ring and exulted in their demise. With his example to commend it, the trash talking, chest pounding and bicep flexing that today punctuates the smallest playing-field triumph took hold. It probably would have happened anyway but he gave it a kick start.

Ali toned down his act as he aged. In his 30s he left the black-separatist Nation of Islam to become a conventional Sunni Muslim, and his racial views moderated. In retirement his smile became permanent and all-encompassing. His humor took nondestructive turns. He loaned his name to and appeared on behalf of worthy causes.

 Because he could not speak in later life we don’t know how he felt about things, but he’d become so likable that we filled this blank slate with good thoughts and intentions.  That’s tribute enough for any man.
  

                  

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

THE RUSSIANS SHOULDN'T BE COMING

              When a sport's governing body assesses a violation of its rules it has two considerations. One is the impact of the violation on the character of the competition it oversees—in other words, the sport’s integrity. The other is how its ruling might affect business. It should come as no surprise that consideration No. 2 almost always prevails.
       
              In the U.S., Exhibit A in this regard regularly is found in the decisions of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which governs our college sports. Time and again serious institutional violations of its rules are punished by slaps on the wrist that cause no more than fleeting inconvenience to the perpetrators— one-year postseason bans, the loss of a scholarship or two, maybe the firing of a hapless assistant coach who has been designated as a scapegoat. The athletics ship of good ol’ Enormous U. is permitted to sail on, heedless of the damage left in its wake.
             
              The NCAA’s international counterpart is the International OIympic Committee, which runs the quadrennial Summer and Winter Games. It, too, can be counted upon to minimize offenses against its codes including corruption in its own ranks, treating them as fly specks on the magnificence of the spectacles it stages. The IOC’s official motto is “Citius, Altius, Fortius”—Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger”—but its real motto is “The Show Must Go On,” whatever squalor must be ignored to accomplish that end.

              But now the IOC faces its biggest judicial challenge yet as this August’s Summer Games in Rio approach. Russia, an international sports power, stands creditably accused of elevating the doping of its athletes to a state enterprise that already has altered numerous competitions.  If it chooses the obvious remedy—banning the Russkies—the IOC no doubt will put a dent in its event’s box-office appeal and, thus, its own coffers. Based on its past I’d put the odds on such a ruling at no better than even-money.

              Let’s be clear that the Russians have no corner on the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports. Many athletes from many lands have done it, some of them such prominent Americans as Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong. Generally speaking, doping is a smart move because well-advised dopers usually are ahead of the testers technologically. Rewards are immediate while penalties come down the road, if at all. Even jocks who are caught usually are allowed to keep the financial gains their crimes produced; nobody has asked Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens for refunds on the huge salaries they pulled down in their juiced-up primes, and their records remain on the books.

              But by most accounts the big majority of dopers have been free-lancers, out for individual gain and backed only by a small coterie of coaches or medical people.  In the Russian case, the practice seemingly was massive, well planned and supported at the highest levels of national sport and government. Indeed, in Vladimir Putin’s Motherland, the dopers and the (so-called) testers were one and the same, the sort of seamless subversiveness not seen since the bad-old days of East Germany.

              Evidence for such conduct is seen in two, quite-separate cases. The first involves only track and field. Although rumors of Russian doping have been rife in the sport for years, they came to the fore only last November, when a German television station aired a documentary in which Yulia Stepanov, a world-class Russian middle-distance runner, testified that she’d regularly used performance-enhancing drugs during her career under the guidance of her national-team coaches and medical people.

 Her account was verified by her husband, Vitali, who’d been a technician in the testing lab that facilitated the process and destroyed or covered up any blood or urine tests that might have revealed it. It gained further credence by a video taken by Julia in which her teammate Maria Savinova, the gold medalist at 800 meters at the 2012 London Games, also admitted to drug use. “Everybody in Russia uses pharma,” Savinova remarked on tape.

The claims set off an investigation by an arm of WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency. Its report found “a deeply rooted culture of cheating” in the Russian sport and has resulted in a suspension of Russian athletes from international track and field competition since November. The IAAF, the sport’s governing body, will rule later this month on whether the ban will continue through the Rio Games.

Worse yet was an article in the New York Times last month in which Grigory Rodchenkov, who directed Russia’s national anti-doping laboratory from 2005 through 2015, said that not only did the facility falsify thousands of drug tests throughout that period under government direction, including during the 2014 Sochi Winter Games that Russia hosted, it also whipped up and administered the drug cocktails the athletes took.

 He said that at Sochi he was part of an elaborate scheme that, amazingly, passed “clean” urine samples through a hole in the wall at the main drug-testing lab that confederates inside swapped for the “dirty” ones Russia athletes submitted after competing. The effort, he said, was the main reason Russia led the national medal table at Sochi after placing a distant 11th at the Winter Games four years earlier, permitting Putin to preen upon the world stage. That a subsequent WADA statement said that Russians accounted for 14 of 31 samples that turned up “positive” after being recently retested from the 2008 Beijing Summer Games using updated methods affirmed the view that the country has been at it for some time. Eight more Russians registered positive in recent retests from the London Games.

Thomas Bach, the German who heads the IOC, has been outspoken since Rodchenkov’s allegations surfaced, calling them a “shocking new dimension in doping” that bespeaks “an unprecedented level of criminality.” They should result in a Russian ban if verified by WADA, he’s said.  Verification, however, might be difficult because witnesses inside Russian figure to be scarce, especially since two close colleagues of Rodchenkov turned up dead within weeks of each other there in February after Rodchenkov had fled to the U.S. (He was sacked after the track-and-field story gained credence.)

Russia has mixed its usual bluster over such matters with denials of institutional responsibility and pledges to cooperate with WADA investigators. Because the Rodchenkov story broke in May, less than 90 days before Rio was to start (on Aug. 5), the IOC might claim it didn’t have time for a thorough probe and let things slide. It also could pass the buck to WADA or the IAAF, even though its leadership is so intertwined with that of those two groups as to make it indistinguishable.

Finally, though, the IOC for once might be forced to back up its high-flown rhetoric about sportsmanship and clean competition with an action supporting it. That would mean doffing its “promoter” hat for the one labeled “policeman.”

 If it can find the “policeman” hat, that is.


 
             
             

               

Sunday, May 15, 2016

MAY MIRACLE

              A Chicago baseball fan, just back from a long trip up the Amazon River, this week would have been shocked to read the Major League standings. There were the Cubs and White Sox in first place in their divisions, and with the best records in their leagues. The guy could be excused if his first reaction was that he’d contracted a tropical disease and was seeing things upside down.
             
              Yes, the Cubs were supposed to be good this year after last season’s 97-win romp, but not THIS good, starting 25-6 before tailing off a bit. The Sox were a question mark coming in, as they are most seasons, and their fast start surprised everyone, probably including themselves.
            
               As is well known, baseball prosperity has been rare in Chicago generally, and the across-the-board variety rarer still. The Cubs haven’t won a pennant since 1945 and the Sox just two since 1919, a record of futility that impresses even geologists and others with long frames of reference. What Bob Verdi called “the city of broad shoulders and narrow trophy cabinets” has had two annual chances at the World Series since it began in 1903 and only once—in 1906—did its representatives meet for the sport’s top prize (the Sox won, four games to two). By contrast, New York has enjoyed 14 so-called “Subway Series,” and if it had three shots back in the Dodgers-Giants days that’s still a huge edge. No doubt, the disparity has been a contributor to Chicago’s eternal “Second City” complex.

              Popular wisdom has it that there are two kinds of Chicago baseball fans: Cubs fans who hate the Sox and Sox fans who hate the Cubs. That means that those types’ happiness is being marred by the success of the object of their enmity. I’m here to tell you, though, that some bighearted Chicagoans or ex-pats (like me) are smiling broadly these days, basking in both teams’ good fortune. It probably won’t last but it’s fun while it’s here.             

              I was a Cubs’ fan first, having grown up a short bike ride from Wrigley Field, and as a kid considered the Sox’s South Side bailiwick a foreign and dangerous place, but when I was a teen in the 1950s the Cubs were lousy and the Sox pretty good, so I sometimes braved the trip to Comiskey Park to watch them.  The Cubs still are my team No. 1 to the Sox’s 1A but I cheered when the Sox broke the ancient drought by winning the 2005 championship and I’d cheer just as loudly if they did it again.

              Chicago has been a Cubs’ town for the last 30 or so years, but that wasn’t always the case. The two teams fought it out about equally at the box office into the mid-1980s before the Sox made the ill-fated decision to go off “free” TV and onto cable before most people had cable. The gap widened in the 1990s when the Sox accepted a state-legislature ultimatum and built their new stadium next door to their old one on the sagging South Side while the area around North Side Wrigley Field turned into a year-round fun mecca. Now all the Cubs have to do to draw a crowd is show up, while the Sox have to win, a position no sports team relishes.

              The two teams’ different situations dictated their recent roster strategies. When he took over the going-nowhere Cubs’ front office in late 2011, Theo Epstein felt secure enough to tank the next three seasons in order to stock up on high draft choices and other prospects. He did it brilliantly, drafting Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber and trading for the likes of Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell. With a little luck (like the low-profile trade for late-blooming pitching wonder Jake Arrieta) and young, low-budget lineup in hand he paid up for starting pitchers and a few others to round things out.  He’s got money to play with if new needs arise.

              Always having to produce immediately, the Sox by contrast have rolled the dice with young pitching draftees (Chris Sale, Carlos Rondon) and a big-money slugger spirited out of Cuba (Jose Abreu) while cobbling together an everyday lineup and bullpen with mid-and low-level trades and free agents. They’ve done that before with little effect but this time seem to have scored. They’ll last as long as their pitching does.

              While the Sox’s success this season has been the more surprising, it’s also pretty remarkable that the Cubs are doing as well as they have. In a sport where the best teams win six of 10 and the worst four of 10, their .806 start came despite a lineup that mostly didn’t include young-slugger Schwarber, lost for the season in a first-week injury, and starting catcher Miguel Montero, off for the last few weeks with back ills. Jason Heyward, the team’s big off-season free-agent acquisition, is barely hitting .200 and has no home runs through six weeks. Jorge Soler, their usual left fielder, can’t get his BA above .200.  When (if) those guys start to hit the team really will be dangerous.

              Even more remarkably, the Cubs have assets they have yet to tap. These include that rarest of commodities, a young catcher who can hit. Willson Contreras, a 24-year-old Venezuelan, led the Double-A Southern League in batting last season, excelled in the Arizona Fall League and was hitting .347 at Triple-A Iowa at midweek. If he keeps it up they’ll have to bring him up before the season is over. Twenty-two-year-old Albert Almora, their top draft choice in 2012, is hitting .322 at Iowa. He’s projected as the Cubs’ center fielder for the next dozen years. Maybe they can loan him to the Sox until they have room for him.

              So yeah, I’m dreaming, but dreaming is free so why not dream big. A Cubs-Sox World Series is as big as it gets.

              DERBY NOTE—If you read the blog below you know I had the Kentucky Derby exacta (1-2) finishers Nyquist and Exaggerator in my boxes. That was swell but my bets cost $40 and my winning tickets paid $30, so I lost on the race. It happens sometimes.