Thursday, April 15, 2010

NIX THE FIX

The National Basketball Association playoffs start this weekend and I have it on good authority that they’re fixed for the New York Knicks to win.

What’s that you say? The Knicks aren’t in the playoffs and haven’t been since 2004? Oh well, never mind. Maybe I misheard and they’re fixed for the L.A. Lakers to win.

Whatever.

The idea that the NBA pulls the strings to facilitate a predetermined outcome in its playoffs—and instructs its game officials to tailor their foul calls accordingly— was strongest when the Knicks were serious contenders, but it never goes away entirely. It’s a full-blown urban legend, right up there with the giant white alligators in the New York sewer system and the fiends who booby-trap kids’ trick-or-treat candies at Halloween. You’d think that the every-day realities of big-city life would be scary enough, but apparently they aren’t.

Like all legends, the one about the NBA’s “fixed” playoffs has a plausible base. The nation’s largest metropolitan areas have the most TV sets, so it follows that success by their hoops representatives would translate into higher TV ratings, more profits for the networks that carry the games and, ultimately, bigger rights fees for the league.

It’s credibility is heightened by the nature of play in the NBA, which has become so physical that most contact between players necessarily goes unwhistled. Some fouls (such as palming the ball on the dribble) rarely are called and others (3 seconds in the free-throw lane) are called only intermittently, and when a dribbler and defender collide it’s often unclear whether it’s a charge or a block. Either way the call goes someone is likely to have a beef, and it’s tempting to ascribe ones that go against your team to ulterior motives. That tendency is underlined when coaches and players berate the officials off-court, as is their wont at playoff time.

But a “fix” that would involve the NBA’s entire, 67-person officials’ roster, plus a half-dozen administrators? Please. It’s tough enough to keep a secret involving just you and me without cluing in 70 other guys. If Nixon and Clinton had kept that in mind they could have ended their presidential terms more gracefully.

Notions of a “fix” also commonly occur when the sport of horse racing is fresh in mind, as it always is at this time of year as the Kentucky Derby nears. Last year’s Derby was won by Mine That Bird, a truly outlandish 50-to-1 shot, and when this blog expressed shock over that overcome I got a call from a reader eager to chasten me for my naivete.

“Wake up, Klein! The race was fixed for Mine That Bird to win,” the guy said.

“How do you figure that?” I inquired.

“Everyone loves it when long shots win big races. It’s great for the sport,” he replied.

I pointed out to him that the racing odds are set by the public’s wagers and that when a horse goes off at 50-to-1 he carries only 2% of the betting pool. That means that when he wins roughly 98% of the bettors lose, hardly a formula for widespread happiness. I also noted that a fixed race requires the connivance of the other competitors, and asked what motive they might have had to forego a chance at the $1.2 million winner’s share of the $2 million Derby purse so a long shot could make a one-day headline.

I can’t recall the guy’s exact response, but it was dismissive. “Don’t bother me with facts when I’m arguing,” he said, in effect.

Fact is, though, that for all the “fix” talk you hear bandied about involving big-time American professional sports, darned little of it has much basis in fact. Steroids aside, baseball has been “clean” since the Black Sox scandal of almost a century ago, and it’s been 64 years since “fix” rumors (unproved, involving the 1946 championship game) scarred pro football. NBA ex-ref Tim Donaghy spent 15 months in prison for fixing games in 2006 and 2007, but his treason was a first and by all accounts it served to benefit no one but himself.

And while it would be genuinely na├»ve to think there never has been any other hanky panky involving the above activities, much less horse racing—never say “never”—even dedicated conspiracy theorists can find a bright side. I mean, for all they know, the games could be fixed for their teams to win.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

FUTBOL

We Americans don’t often think about it, but in terms of our sports preferences we’re like the Galapagos Islands, inhabited by species that scarcely exist elsewhere. Football, our opinion-poll fan favorite, is played nowhere but in the U.S. and Canada, and baseball’s international appeal is so narrow it’s been pulled from the Olympic schedule. Among our Big Three sports only basketball has a world following, and it’s of recent origin.

The real world sport is real football—which we almost uniquely choose to call soccer. It thrives in just about all of the planet’s 200-odd nations and is the major sport in most of them. It is at once a game, a passion and a common language shared by humans of all stripes and polka dots. To be truly “globalized” means to be counted in that number.

It’s easy for us Yanks to shrug off the above with a “so what?” After all, our sports calendar is nicely filled and needs no further padding. In every fourth year, however, it’s possible to be a citizen of the larger world for a time investment of no more than a month. That opportunity again is fast approaching. It’s the 32-nation final rounds of the soccer World Cup, which will be held in South Africa from June 11 to July 11.

The World Cup is one event that always lives up to its hype. I covered two of them—in the U.S. in 1994 and France in 1998—and they rank 1 and 1A as my most- memorable sports, uh, memories. The competition was fierce, the quality of play was amazingly high and the crowds were uniformly large, colorful and festive. People cared who won to a degree that was exponentially greater than that exhibited in our own annual showdowns such as the Super Bowl and Final Four, its force pulling everything around it into its vortex. To be in Paris when France claimed the ’98 Cup was to walk on air, Frenchman or not. It must have been close to what VE Day was like in that magical city 53 years before.

Americans historically have resisted soccer’s allure. No doubt that’s partly on purpose, expressing the exceptionalism that caused our forbears to reshape English cricket into baseball and rugby into football before embracing them. It’s partly semantic, I think, a reaction to the word “soccer,” which was clunkily derived from the term “association football” (“soc”—get it?) to distinguish it from our domestic variety. An uglier word hardly exists.

I’d also offer a mysterious, biological reason: American children enjoy soccer well enough to make it a leading youth sport, but when they turn age 13 (especially the boys) a genetic change seems to take place that turns them into football players and fans. The NIH should look into this.

Then there’s the nature of the game itself, which is low-scoring and tactical rather than All-American slam-bang, but the tactics are appealing if understood, and the rarity of goals makes each one all the more thrilling. Soccer is the simplest of games to understand, and anyone who is sports-savvy and takes the trouble to watch one good contest from beginning to end will not only soak up its plot but also will appreciate its drama. Try it and you’ll like it, I guarantee.

A final reason for us not to like soccer is that our men never have been much good at it, but that’s changing. Partly because of the interest stirred by the ’94 Cup on these shores, the American game has been improving, and while the pace of that improvement hasn’t been even (our 2002 national team reached the Cup quarterfinals but the ’06 unit laid an egg) it’s been solid nonetheless. Major League Soccer, our domestic pro league, finally seems to be on solid footing, and Americans now perform on good teams in various European major leagues.

The U.S. men’s team placed first in its Cup qualifying group, beating out perennial regional power Mexico, and in a tournament in South Africa last summer it defeated world No. 1 Spain and lost by a goal in the final to always-powerful Brazil after leading, 2-0. Some desultory international showings since have dropped the U.S.’s world ranking to 18th, but it probably deserves to be several notches higher.

Even so it’ll be the second-highest-ranked team in its four-nation Cup division (behind England and ahead of Slovenia and Algeria), so it has a fair chance to advance to the knockout rounds. It has an able veteran leader in the midfielder Landon Donovan, and the 20-year-old forward Jozy Altidore, Florida-born of Haitian parents, is the sort of young star it’s long sought. The team likes to score and is fun to watch, a good combination.

All the games in the tournament will be televised live by ESPN. Eastern starting times will be 7 a.m., 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., which ain’t terrible for an event so far away. My son Mike, who lives in Belgium and follows soccer on a daily basis, will handicap the World Cup field in this space come June, but, meantime, I urge you to point your antennae in its direction.

Believe me now, thank me later.