Friday, July 27, 2012

TOO BIG TO FAIL


                
I like to check out the on-line polls newspapers run, and did so a couple weeks ago at the Chicago Tribune sports-page site. The question concerned what decision the NCAA should reach in the Penn State case. The alternatives were nothing (it’s not a sports matter), the “death penalty” (no football for a year or two), and lesser sanctions.  More than 70% of the previous voters had checked the “death penalty” box. I joined the less than 10% that opted for nothing.
             
   I did so not because I thought the offenses involved—centering on the now-well-known predations of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky-- weren’t deserving of punishment. Quite the contrary, they were so heinous they transcended the confines of sport in which the NCAA functions. What Sandusky and the cover-up perpetrators did was a matter for the courts and the Pennsylvania legislature to deal with, and the process already had begun with Sandusky’s criminal conviction. Even the so-called death penalty would have trivialized the matter.

                The penalties that were handed down this week only underscored that conclusion. Measuring Sandusky’s victims’ travail in bowl-game bans, scholarship reductions and victory forfeitures (ha!) put them in the category of the recruiting violations and grades cheating that the organization usually handles. The $60 million fine, which will go to child-protection agencies, was a nice touch, but Penn State should have thought of that itself.

                The whole exercise illustrated the self-importance of the cartel that manages big-time college sports, and its essential nature.  Lost in just about any discussion of the NCAA’s role is the fact that it is both the promoter and policeman of the activities it governs, and when there’s a conflict between the two functions the promoter always wins. That’s also the case with our professional sports leagues, by the way.

 The idea that the death penalty might be invoked was na├»ve in the extreme. Any such action would have been bad for business, not only for Penn State but also for the 12 schools its football team plays annually, creating intolerable holes in their schedules and athletics-department budgets, and the NCAA is all about business.   To use a line that emerged from another, larger lapse of governance, Penn State was too big to fail. Any of the 100 or so other college-sports programs that fit the “big-time” label also fit that category.

 The usual image used by college-sports’ critics is that of the tail wagging the dog. Trouble is, these days it can be hard to tell which is which. The gag line that a university should strive to be a credit to its football team is funny because it’s so often true. At Penn State the university didn’t measure up.

The term the NCAA usually uses to justify the imposition of its harshest penalties is a lack of “institutional control” at the university in question, meaning that a school’s higher-ups didn’t properly oversee the athletics-department types. That couldn’t be claimed at Penn State, where according to the report by former FBI director Louis Freeh the university president, a vice president, the athletics director and the football head coach—the venerable Joe Paterno—were in cahoots in covering up Sandusky’s crimes.  There was institutional control aplenty in Happy Valley, all aimed at protecting the football program at the expense of the boys Sandusky raped over the 13-year span of the conspiracy. Making it all the more appalling was the fact that it concerned an entertainment enterprise that falls outside any rational definition of a university’s mission.

Many Penn Staters don’t see it that way, of course.  Neither do the millions of deluded others who equate a university’s standing with that of its sports teams. The Pennsylvania legislature, which really runs the school, should have shelved football indefinitely, out of atonement and to make the point that the sun would come up without it.  It hasn’t because the voters wouldn’t stand for it. Go Lions!

    The NCAA must shoulder blame for helping create the monster that college sports have become.  So should the nation’s sporting press for elevating Paterno to sainthood before the stuff hit the fan. We news people like to say we revere the truth, but we love an easy story line more, and buying Joe’s self-proclaimed “Success With Honor” mantra was as natural as taking a second helping at the press-box game-day buffet.  

I had no idea what Joe, et al, would hide later on, but I never bought his sanctity act. In 1984, when I was just starting my Wall Street Journal column, I took note of his repeated claim of 90% graduation rates for his footballers with a piece debunking it, pointing out that it didn’t include players who’d flunked out, dropped out, were flushed or turned pro before their senior years. As best as I could determine, the team’s real rate was a quite-respectable 60% or so, but Joe felt compelled to gild the lily anyway. Anyone who’d lie about small things probably also wouldn’t be straight about bigger ones, I figured.

The truth about Joe—and about every other successful big-time college coach—wasn’t that he was bad or good but that he was a hard man who made it in a hard business, one in which the only results that count are on the scoreboard.  The motto “Whatever It Takes” hangs on many locker-room walls, and applies to coaches as well as to players.  We should remember that before casting our heroes in bronze.


Sunday, July 15, 2012

WHO'S IN FIRST?


            The Olympics begin in London in a couple of weeks (July 27), and I’ll be just where I want to be, which is in front of a television set. While it’s generally true that everyone at home sees sporting events better than anyone in the stadium, it’s especially true for the Summer Games, a smorgasbord so large that no one can down it whole.

            As a free-range columnist at five such fests (in Los Angeles, Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney), I would peruse each day’s crowded calendar and pick the venue I thought would yield the most interesting results. I didn’t always choose right, so I missed a lot of really good stuff.

            The joke that every Olympics news person knows is about the reporter who calls his desk during the Games. “What’s happening at the Olympics?” his editor asks. Replies the reporter, “How should I know? I’m at the Olympics.”

            A hi-def TV, comfortable lounger and clear personal schedule won’t solve all Olympic-spectating problems, however. At these Games, as at its predecessors, the question of who’s winning will be problematic, not so much in individual events as in the national standings that summarize them.

Nationalism is a touchy subject on Olympia, which like Billy Martin in the old Bud Lite commercials, feels very strongly both ways about the matter. On the one hand, the official Olympic creed proclaims that the most important thing about the Games is participating, not winning, but on the other hand their administrators stoutly resist doing anyway with the national uniforms, flags and victory-stand anthems that stir popular passions, sometimes in unpleasant ways, but are good for business. So while the national medal standings are unofficial, they’re mentioned prominently and without protest in every account of the proceedings, and followed avidly.

Trouble is, the standings can raise almost as many questions as they answer. A case in point was the last Summer Games in Beijing, where athletes from the United States collected the most overall medals—110 to 100 for runnerup China-- but the Chinese won more gold medals, 51 to 36. Further, the fairness of the whole system is questionable when one notes that a 10-second effort in the men’s 100-meter dash final counts for the same number of medals (3-- one gold, one silver and one bronze) as the basketball tournaments in which 12-person teams must prevail over a grind of eight 40-minute games. How about a count that gives the basketball-medalist nations 12 medals each instead of one, huh? Huh?

  The U.S., of course, is a large and rich nation with a deep gene pool, so it always does well in the summer standings, no matter how they’re tallied. Since the modern Games began in 1896 we lead the medals list with 2,302 overall and 929 golds to l,l22 and 440 for second-place USSR/Russia and 725 and 208.5 for third-place Great Britain. We’ll again will be in the hunt for the top spot in London, along with Chinese, whose emerging economy has been harnessed to produce athletic glory from its abundant human stock.

Do not, however, expect to see American and Chinese jocks vying head-to-head in many events; rather, they’ll mostly be playing different games, as they did in 2008. The Summer Olympics encompasses 302 medal events spread over 26 sports. They’re really not one event but many, and which are most important depends on where you sit.

 For example, Americans traditionally have been very good at track and field and swimming. That’s fortunate for us because T&F (called “athletics” in Olympic parlance) is the main medals source in the Games, with 47 events offering 141 medals, and swimming is second with 34 and 102. In ’08, we won 23 medals in track and 31 in swimming, while the Chinese, with 2 and 6 respectively, were pretty much a non-factor in each.

So why weren’t we runaway victors in the medals count? Because the Chinese put their energies elsewhere, collecting a total of 36 medals in diving, weightlifting, badminton and table tennis, sports in which the U.S. registered a big “O.” You can bet that those activities received mucho TV time in the People’s Republic, maybe as much as T&F and swimming got in our land.

The Chinese approach to the Olympics is reminiscent of that of the former East Germany, another odious regime. With a population of less the 20 million people, the East Germans set out to demonstrate the superiority of their system by pouring their resources into winning big on the Olympic stage. They succeeded by finishing second or third in the medals count in four Summer Games (1972, 1976, 1980 and 1988) and collecting more metal than the U.S. in two of those (’76 and ’88).

They did it mostly by zeroing in on sports where participation and performance standards were relatively low, namely women’s track and field, women’s swimming, rowing and canoeing. They eschewed team sports because these yielded too few rewards (see above). And—oh, yeah—they doped like crazy.

About the only sport that’s important in both the U.S. and China—and where the two nations will clash directly for superiority in London—is gymnastics. The Chinese got the better of that contest in Beijing, winning 18 medals to the U.S.’s 10, but the U.S. will field strong squads on both the men’s and women’s sides this year, and should make a game of it. I’m sure you’ll be tuned in.

As usual, women’s gymnastics will get lots of TV time in the U.S. That’s because its participants are young, tiny and cute, and do the sort of circus tricks that boggle the mind. But while gymnastics is fun to watch it’s brutally hard to do, and its fearsome injury rate makes its label of “football for girls” apt. I watch, but through the fingers that cover my eyes. Real football is getting to be like that, too.






  

Sunday, July 1, 2012

FINDING TIGER'S MOJO


As a writer I enjoyed covering golf, partly because its deliberate pace encouraged analysis and partly because its participants—mostly nice, middle-class guys—were unusually articulate for athletes. Also, golf courses are pleasant places to stroll once the necessity to hit the ball has been removed. For newsies the game provides a good walk unspoiled. 

I don’t watch it very often now.  I don’t know most of the tour players anymore and sans that contact find them hard to warm up to. I hate to sound like Andy Rooney, but it seems to me that most past-era golfers had more personality in their big toes than the present ones have in their whole bodies. Every young American player these days is a country-club kid who majored in greens maintenance at some Sunbelt U., and every European contestant has been a pro since puberty. What can you say about these guys once you’ve given their scores?

But I do tune in occasionally, and a couple of Sundays ago turned on the last round of the U.S. Open about when the leaders were teeing off. The first guy on my screen was Tiger Woods, which wasn’t surprising. Wherever he’s played the last 15 years, in contention or not, he’s been the star, and he was among the top-dozen low scorers teeing off this day.  Surprise, though; the announcers were saying that Tiger was having a really bad round and had dropped well off the pace. They mentioned his name only in passing during the four hours that remained in the telecast.

It took a while to sink in, but it’s occurred to me since that an era might be over. Tiger ‘s 75-73 finish in the Open, which dropped him from a first-place tie to a final 21st place, and coming on top of his 40th-place finish in last April’s Masters Tournament, seems to have convinced even the TV people that he’s no longer the whole story in golf. The days of all-Tiger-all-the-time appear to be over, at least for the time being.  

Don’t get me wrong, Tiger still can play. He’s won a couple of events on the PGA Tour this year, might add another this weekend, and ranks high on several of the circuit’s statistical categories. He’s a threat to win in any given week but, then, so are Bubba Watson, Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood and Phil Michelson, among others. Not only has the Tour’s A list been lengthened to eight or 10 names, from one, but the idea that Tiger will beat Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 career victories  in the game’s “majors” (the Masters, U.S. and British Opens and PGA Championship) no longer is taken for granted. Tiger has 14 but none since 2008, and any future wins promise to be harder to achieve than his previous ones.

 If you follow this space you probably know that I’ve never been a Tiger fan; I never wished him bad luck but I always found him hard to root for. Part of that has been my reaction to his upbringing as a golfing prodigy by his soldier-father Earl, a process that was more an exercise in conditioning than anything resembling a childhood. When he first appeared on the PGA Tour in 1996, at age 20, Tiger was not simply a talented young man embarking on an adventure but a tycoon with multi-million-dollar endorsement contracts in hand and surrounded by a posse of handlers from IMG, the sports agency and marketing octopus. Anyone wishing a moment of his time had to run a gauntlet of IMG trolls, and few made it.  He’s always been more of a brand than a person, and neither the passage of time (he’s 36 now) nor adversity in various forms has changed that.

One reason for Tiger’s decline has been physical.  Like baseball pitchers, golfers spend their time honing a single motion, so it’s a stretch to call many of them athletes. The young Tiger, though, was a jock in every way, and his superior strength and flexibility gave him an advantage over his competitors that, I believe, never has been recognized properly.  The years, however, inevitably take their toll, and two knee surgeries plus a variety of muscle strains have showed he’s not exempt. Even though one can play top-level golf well into one’s 40s, Tiger ain’t the man he used to be, and probably knows it better than anyone.

The main stones in Tiger’s shoe, of course, are the revelations that changed him from a sports-page character to a tabloid star. They came to light in the most-humiliating way after he rammed his Escalade into a tree near his driveway in the wee hours of a November, 2009, morning, fleeing a wrathful wife who’d discovered his infidelities. The bimbo explosion that followed cost him his family and a divorce settlement reportedly worth $750 million. It made Bill Clinton look like a friar, destroyed Tiger’s carefully groomed image of rectitude and discipline and turned his name into a punch line.

That would be painful for anyone, but must be especially so for Tiger, a man for whom control is everything. The fellow who exacted a code of omerta from friends and associates suddenly found that, rather than being in a row, his ducks had scattered, probably never to be realigned.  He’s living the popular nightmare of appearing in public in his Jockey shorts.

Tiger dropped from view for six months, receiving “treatment” for “sex addiction.”  When he returned to the links the depth of the injury to his psyche was apparent in his two-year (2010 and 2011) failure to win on a Tour he once dominated. He’s become more accessible now, but in a stilted sort of way, as though he’s had to be schooled to handle normal conversations. On the course he presents a cranky, peevish mien that bespeaks dissatisfaction with his lot.

Tiger ought to read Andre Agassi’s biography, “Open.” Like Tiger, the tennis player was a wonderchild who wrapped himself in a profitable but stifling corporate mantle for much of his career. In his 30s, though, he found his own voice, which led to pleasure in his work and a post-sports existence that seems altogether worthwhile. If Andre can do it, maybe Tiger can, too.