Thursday, January 15, 2015

GONE FISHIN'

               Are the seasons of our major professional sports too long? Of course they are, and they’re going to stay that way.

 The schedules are determined by commerce, not competition, and commerce dictates that you can’t make money if the store isn’t open. So the baseball big leaguers play 162 regular-season games before the playoffs, the basketballers and the hockeyists 82 and the footballers 16. Those numbers will go up before they go down.

The longest schedule is that of the National Football League, even though it’s by far the shortest gamewise. That’s because football players get the you-know-what kicked out of them in every game, and by season’s end they’re all nursing multiple hurts. Having the NFL’s Advil concession for a year would keep one in daiquiris forever.

  The athletes solider on partly because they’re paid very well to do so, and partly because of the jock’s creed, which they’ve ingested since childhood. That holds that there’s a difference between playing hurt and playing injured, and only wimps beg off when they’re merely hurt. It’s a macho bonding thing—there is no “me” in “team.”

 OK, there is, but so what?

Lately, though, the creed has been looking frayed, especially in the National Basketball Association. Basketball isn’t as bruising as football but it’s more strenuous from the waist down with starters running about three miles a game, much of it at full sprint. Add the incessant travel of the one-night-stand schedule, and predictably awful weather, and you have a regimen that would—and does-- wear down the best conditioned.

\It’s a grind that cries out for respite, and this season many of the game’s stars are getting it. With the season about half over the list of those who already have missed more than a few games reads like a league Who’s Who: LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, Joakim Noah, Al Jefferson, Andrew Bogut.  As the year goes on here will be subtractions and additions, but look for the level to remain fairly constant.

I’m not saying that all the above-mentioned guys are feigning injury to catch a breather, but the shape of least a few of them is suspect. Bryant, brilliant in his prime, is 36 years old now, and coming off a season in which he played in just six games due to injuries. He’s returned but at times has been a shadow of his former self. He missed several games not long ago with what was described as a “sore body.”  I don’t think I’d seen that term in a sports page before.
            
             Anthony, the New York Knicks’ ace, signed a five-year, $124 million contract in the off season, but is sitting now. That there have been questions about his condition was clearly expressed in a New York Times piece that said he’s been “excused…with what the Knicks described as a sore left knee.”   Following a well-worn league practice, the team is in the process of “tanking” the season, stripping its roster of veterans with an eye toward clearing salary-cap space and finishing low enough in the standings to secure a favorable position in the June draft.  It’s not exactly losing on purpose, but it’s not exactly not losing on purpose, and keeping Anthony on the bench furthers the Knicks’s longer-term aims.
          
            The opposite side of the coin—using time off to firm up teams’ title bids—is best seen in the cases of the Chicago Bulls’ Rose and Noah, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ James and the San Antonio Spurs’ stars. Rose missed most of the last two campaigns with knee injuries, and while he’s back this year he’s been walking on eggs to try to make sure he stays. He’s sat out 11 games so far, for stated reasons covering just about his entire anatomy. What’s obvious is that when he experiences any discomfort the team elects to rest rather than test the affected parts.

  Noah has had foot and knee problems in the past and needs occasional time off to keep small aches from becoming large ones. James, the league’s best player, recently was idle for two weeks even though neither he nor his team claimed specific trauma; he’s said he hasn’t “felt well” all season and hopes a rest will help revive both him and the Cavs. The important thing is to have one’s team hale for the playoffs, even if it means shortchanging the paying customers during the regular season.

That strategy was employed last season by Paul Popovich, the Spurs’ canny head coach, en route to the team’s fifth NBA crown since 1999.  Its veteran “Big Three” of Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobli sat out a total of 36 games in 2013-14 in order to be OK at PO time. Popovich is repeating the pattern this year, although an apparent real injury to Parker (a strained hamstring) has accounted for many of the trio's vacation days.


The usually cited contrast to the current “gone fishin’” syndrome is the Bulls’ Michael Jordan, a Doberman of a competitor who played in 80 or more games in all but three of his 13 seasons in Chicago, with rarely even a momentary letdown. But that ignores the fact that burnout caused him to quit for one entire season (1993-94) and most of the next to play baseball, a leisurely pursuit by basketball standards.  The long season gets to everyone, one way or another.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

ALL THE NEWS

               Around the newsrooms of the Wall Street Journal, where I used to work, the saying was that the New York Times could do two things for a reporter that the Journal couldn’t: make him or her rich and famous. That said, however, not every Journal minion yearned to make the jump to our main journalistic rival.
             
              I was a prime example. During my tour with the paper in New York (1966-69) I received a feeler to join the Times’ metropolitan staff, and while I was flattered I turned it down without moving past the hand-holding stage.

One of my reasons for saying no was geographical: going to work for the Times would have wedded me to New York, and while I enjoyed my stay in that wonderful, messy city I didn’t wish to make it my family’s permanent home. The other reason, I confess, was a reluctance to test the unknown. I’d been with the Journal for about five years at that point and felt that my abilities were being recognized and appreciated. I was loath to have to prove myself to a whole new cast of editors.

I never regretted my choice (well, hardly ever), but it had nothing to do with my estimation of the Times. It may have been IA to the Journal’s 1 in quality or vice versa (the ranking depended on whom you asked and when), but the Times was and is a great newspaper by any measure. Now that I’m retired it’s my main window to the world. I pay upwards of $800 a year for a subscription and believe the money to be well spent.

I don’t buy the Times primarily for its sports coverage; I get the paper’s national edition, which is thin in that department. Further, I’m not much interested in the doings of Mets, Jets, Nets or the other New York teams that consume much of its space. True to its mission, though, the Times applies some real journalism to sports, delving into subjects and issues most papers merely scan if they mention at all. If you want to be informed about the National Football League’s actions (or inactions) on player concussions, reading the Times is a must. Ditto about the long-running athletics scandals at Florida State University and the University of North Carolina, medication abuse in horse racing and the chicanery in FIFA, soccer’s world-governing body.  Compared with those of the Times, most other sportswriters are kids wearing propeller beanies.

The best piece I’ve read in quite a while on the NFL, and on the costs of playing there, was in the Times’ on December 18. It was by staffer Bill Pennington about Chris Snee, a New York Giants’ offensive guard who’d retired at this campaign’s start after a 10-year run in the league.

 Snee was not the sort of player most fans notice. About the only times the TV cameras focus on offensive linemen is when they incur holding penalties and he didn’t get many of those, never much rising above the anonymity of his position despite two Super Bowl rings and four Pro Bowl selections. He’s best known as the son-in-law of Tom Coughlin, the Giants’ head coach, and for being a kind of iron man, missing just one start in an eight-year span (2005-12) before injuries ended his 2013 season and led to his leaving the game.

But behind Snee’s indestructible fa├žade was a medical history that might make an Iraq War veteran flinch. The physical toll the NFL exacts starts before some players take the field. Like many football big men, Snee wasn’t naturally big, and it took year-round weight lifting and gorge eating for him to maintain the 300-frame required to be an offensive lineman in the league.

That subject was familiar to me because in 1994 I did a piece on Jay Hilgenberg, the center on the Chicago Bears’ 1985 championship team whose 13-season NFL career had just ended because of a heart attack he suffered at age 35. He blamed the attack in large part on playing the strenuous sport about 50 pounds above what he considered to be his natural weight of 230 pounds. “I didn’t eat until I was full, I ate until I was tired,” he said ruefully. Snee told Pennington pretty much the same thing. “To keep my weight over 300 pounds I basically had to eat something bad for me all the time,” said he.

Snee’s list of medical procedures includes full-scale surgeries on both hips and three on his right elbow, arthroscopic surgeries on his knees, regular epidermal shots for bulging back discs and cortisone injections with foot-long needles to lubricate sore joints. He carries in his cell phone a picture of a dinner plate filled with the bone fragments removed in his last elbow surgery; I didn’t know there was that much bone in the joint. He still can’t straighten the elbow, and, at age 32, his weak hips make walking down stairs “unpredictable and hazardous.” He’ll need hip replacements eventually.

All that was in addition to the normal banging around every NFLer experiences in season. “The first couple of years in the league, the day after the game would be fine,” said Chris’s wife, Kate. “Five years after that he wouldn’t feel good for a couple of days afterward. Ten years in, he’d be miserable for a full week.”

Snee considers himself lucky that he sustained only one concussion he knew about, although he’s probably aware that the cumulative effect of lesser blows to the head might lead to problems down the road.  He’s lost 55 pounds since his July retirement and says he feels better all around.  He’s running two miles a day, something that would have been impossible six months ago, and enjoys playing with his three sons, aged 11, 8 and 4.

 The holder of a degree in accounting from Boston College, he’s pondering his employment future, although his last Giants’ contract, signed in 2008, paid him $40 million, meaning that if he exercises normal prudence making ends meet never should be a problem. He told Pennington he was glad he played football but also is glad he’s done.

 “I’ve had stress for the last how many years?” he asked rhetorically. “I’m not pushing myself now.”

 e’s running two milesHe