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.”  



  


                 

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.