SportsProf

(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

"I Played Football So You Don't Have To."

Think about that quote.  And then, depending on how old you are, think about the days when boxing was one of the most popular sports and you heard that refrain from boxers.  That fighting was their way out of bad situations, so they fought so that their families could have a better life.  If you're old enough, you'll remember the discourse.

Fast forward to current times and what President Obama said in his interview with New Republic regarding whether, if he had a son, he'd encourage him to play football.  Obama, in essence, said that he worried that the game wasn't safe enough.  Predictably, many NFL players have said that they would encourage their kids, that it's a great game, either builds or reveals character, that they didn't sign up for tennis.  But one of the greatest of the current generation agrees with the President.  And the quote in the headline, pretty much (I might not have gotten it verbatim) is his.

Future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed of the Baltimore Ravens.

It's certainly a memorable one.  And a powerful one.  It's a statement, in essence, to his son, whom he won't encourage to play football. 

And that speaks volumes.  Because aside from the glory, not everyone makes big money.  Not everyone is set for life.  Most NFL players have careers of 3.5 years or less.  Many end up broke, divorced or depressed within five years after their careers end.  Many notables end up with serious health issues, including mental health issues, either at a young age (a University of Pennsylvania football player who took his own life a few years ago -- post-mortem tests indicated the type of brain diseases found in people like former Eagles' safety Andre Waters, who took his own life in his late forties), middle age (Junior Seau) or old age (such as, among many others, former Colts' tight end John Mackey. 

It isn't easy to figure out why everyone chooses a profession.  Do you do it because it's glamorous, lucrative, it's what your father and his father did, someone said you were good at it or should try it, someone you admired did it, it was the best alternative, what have you?  But beneath the pageantry and the glamorous year is a significant amount of wreckage, the detritus of an American culture that doesn't always account for the damage in preparation for, or after, the glorified events take place, especially football. 

John Adams once said something to the effect that one should teach his children to be doctors and lawyers and teachers so that their children can be artists and musicians.  Perhaps Ed Reed is thinking along similar lines -- do the job that you can make the most money at -- no matter how tough -- so that you can provide better, less violent opportunities for your kids.  Funny, because perhaps while many lawyers might fantasize what it might be like to be an NFL player, perhaps one NFL player is hoping that his son takes a job that involves indoor work without heavy lifting.

Back to the issue at hand -- the violent nature of the game.  The purists decry the "new" rules, saying that football is becoming touch football, too offense-oriented, and that defenders cannot hit anyone any more.  The challengers contend that how can we glorify a sport that has left so much visible human wreckage with the potential to leave a lot more (because many current and former players have not manifested symptoms of brain decay)?  Give the President credit for underscoring an important set of facts that probably hasn't gotten the full attention that it deserves, precisely because the American viewing public doesn't want to acknowledge that there's a flip, ugly side to their favorite game.  But the facts will persist, and they probably will increase. 

And then how will we feel when the neighborhood kid we coached in little league baseball shows up outside the local convenience store in his mid-twenties acting weird, unable to finish college or hold a job, because he gave the town glory on Friday nights?  Will we offer him a ride, a meal, a place to live?  Or will we walk by, nod, and thank our lucky stars than when our boys asked to play football, we had the sense to say no, or that our boys weren't interested. 

This issue goes far beyond the NFL and into the local ranks.  That there are no easy answers doesn't mean that there isn't a problem.

Just ask the several thousand or so NFL players who are suing the league in federal court because of their physical and mental problems, which, they argue, derive from their having played football at the highest level. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Sports Media Factoid of the Day

As heard on "Mike and Mike" this morning.

In 2012, the Pro Bowl drew 12.5 million viewers.

In 2012, the World Series drew 12.7 million viewers.

What does that say?

First, people must love football so much that they'll watch an idiotic product to fill the gap week between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl.

Second, perhaps people watch the Pro Bowl intently because it's the only football game to gamble on that weekend (in fact, the Pro Bowl drew more action in Las Vegas than the top two NBA games combined).

Third, baseball just isn't made for TV.

Fourth, unless your team is in the World Series, you probably won't watch.  In contrast, many people watch the Super Bowl regardless of whose team is in the game.  Is the product that better, or was one-time (and late) Commissioner Pete Rozelle such a genius in branding pro football that the public has been captivated for almost 50 years?

Now, I don't watch as much sports on TV as I used to.  Perhaps it's because there are so many choices I don't know where to start.  Perhaps it's because I'm busy.  Perhaps it's because I find playing FIFA soccer more relaxing than watching, say, the Pro Bowl.  Or, I'd rather go to the gym or take the family somewhere.

The Lords of Football should be very happy with that viewer share.

The Lords of Baseball have some work to do.

And a lot of it.

I mean, almost tied with the Pro Bowl?  The Pro Bowl?

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Great Week for the Big 5

And had Temple managed to beat Butler yesterday, three Big 5 teams would have beaten three nationally ranked teams on the same day. 

As it turned out, Villanova beat Syracuse for its second victory over a top 5 team in a week (they beat Louisville earlier in the week).  LaSalle beat VCU, which had been ranked #19, in the same week that it beat top-10 Butler.  And that was the Explorers' first victory over a top-10 team in 30 years.

Just wondered if anyone noticed.

The President is Right

I don't always agree with the President (come to think of it, most people don't always agree with everyone), and I'm sure he'll catch flak on this commentary from the right (from people who think that he's soft on "tough" stuff) and the left (from none other than the former Governor of Pennsylvania, who, after the Eagles postponed a game because of a snow storm, called the U.S. a "Nation of Wusses.").  That flak comes with the territory and makes being President a very lonely job -- few love you all the time, and many vote for you because your the better alternative to the other guy if not the perfect person for the job.  Having a thick skin is probably a significant criterion on the job description.

As opposed to having the hardest head. 

President Obama recently sat for an interview in which he offered that he'd probably block his son from playing football (were he to have one), despite his love for the game.  The linked excerpt from ESPN.com highlights the general thrust of his thoughts and risks being labeled "un-American" from those who define themselves as the definers of what "American" is.  Yet, as physical a president as Teddy Roosevelt almost outlawed football because of the brutality, leading to national reforms.  And he was a Republican.  So, it's probably wise to keep partisan politics out of football and focus on the facts -- the repetitive banging of heads, the trauma to the brain, the statistics of former players who have significant problems and our national thirst for this type of gladiator activity and how badly we need that activity at the expense of the long-term health of thousands of young men.

We let our son play football when he was in fifth grade.  He did well in school and was a very good sport about tagging along to his sister's endless travel games and such.  He is a very nice kid, slender, and played offensive line.  He didn't figure into the action in his first two games, and then, in a practice, suffered  a concussion in a tackling drill.  A kid who outweighed him by 25 pounds used his own head as a battering ram and made helmet-to-helmet contact with my son.  The coaches -- each of whom cared a great deal about proper tackling and did their best to coach the team -- knew that one kid would emerge from that particular collision injured -- the smaller kid.  That injury effectively ended my son's career.  Probably for the best, too.

The emergency room doctor wasn't big on nurturing.  For all I knew she was having a bad day personally, is a big football fan, doesn't have kids, doesn't like her hospital, but was clearly short on the type of caring counsel that parents of an injured boy needed.  I had asked her about his getting back into playing -- there were four games left in the season, plus at least one playoff game.  I figured she'd automatically say, "well, he's only 11, and that's the type of thing he should let rest, so, yes, he's done."  To me, for the long-term care of a kid, that probably should be the answer, period.  And that's how I asked my question, by explaining the length of the season and suggesting, "he's done for the year, right?"

To my surprise (and perhaps this is what is acceptable clinical practice), the doctor told me that he wasn't necessarily out for the year and could begin practicing with the team again "once the headaches go away."  I didn't agree with the advice, and I wasn't about to blindly follow the advice of a busy E.R. doc who didn't know my son or our family.  I also figured that even if the headaches went away in ten days, he'd have missed so much that he'd be behind and not in as good shape as the other kids, and, therefore, be at risk again.  That's probably conservative thinking, but kids get only one brain and have only one life, and, as a parent, you need to be a steward for your kid and not put him into situations over which he has almost no control (such as the decision whether to play, because all kids and players want to get back in there).  The choice, then, was easy -- he's out for the year.  For what it's worth -- and I'm not a doctor -- I believe that this should be the prescription for any kid who suffers a concussion at any point in a football season -- you are out for the year.

We had other reasons for our decision.  A classmate of our daughter -- who is three years ahead in school -- had suffered so many concussions playing basketball that she was compelled to stay at home for two weeks with zero brain activity -- no reading, no radio, no TV, no computer, no iPod -- so as to help her get better.  You know, when you're looking to buy a new car, you notice every model on the road.  When your kid has suffered a trauma, your ears pick up on every conversation about head injuries.  Our son plays many competitive sports, but football probably wasn't for him, anyway.  The concussion made that decision a lot easier. 

Better to let healing become complete than to risk a worse injury "for the glory of the game" and for the development of a portion of character that says, "pick yourself up and get back in there."  The flip side to those bromides are a) the game isn't always that glamorous and b) you aren't a genius if you thrust yourself back into danger blindly without thinking about how to avoid the disastrous result you just suffered.

Personal story aside, I do worry about the collective conscience of a nation.  So many play this game so hard for so long, sure, to a degree, for their enjoyment, but also for the enjoyment of those who watch it.  But unless and until we have some better protections for the longer-term care of those whom society seemingly disposes of after their useful football lives are over and at a time when they need the care of the fans the most -- when their injuires manifest -- how do we watch this game and feel only good things about it and ourselves?  The landscape is littered with the shattered bodies and psyches of former players and their loved ones, and, ultimately, we'll need to face that landscape in a much better fashion than we have to date.  In fact, we'll have to face the facts before that landscape continues to get worse. 

And then how will we feel?  We will feel great that our team beat the archrivals, or that our heroes, when in their fifties and sixties, cannot remember their spouses' names or where the bathroom is, suffer from early onset dementia or Alzheimer's.  We will feel great that we won, or awful for the fate of these men who, perhaps, decades ago, didn't know the potential long-term effects from the sports that their parents signed them up to play and, perhaps sadly and ironically for them, they were good at?  No victory seems to be worth that price.

After all, it's usually a better course to put up the stop sign at the intersection before the accidents happen than after they do. 

And we've seen too many wrecks to continue on the present course.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Things

1980 U.S. Olympic hockey hero Mike Eruzione is selling his jersey and stick.  He'll take the proceeds, put some in his foundation and use some of it for a nest egg for him and his kids.

On the one hand, it's tough to see great players part with their own memorabilia, especially when they need the funds to live on.  

On the other hand, it goes to show you that perhaps what's more important to these former players is not their tools of the trade, but their memories.  Mike Eruzione will always have them, and no one can take them away from him.  And it's likely that those memories provide him with much more psychic file than the memorabilia ever did or will.

Memorabilia collectors fascinate me.  Do they really like to collect, or is it the thrill of the acquisition (after which perhaps they suffer some remorse because they might have paid too much)?  Memorabilia can be nice things, so I don't want to knock them.

But at the end of the day, it's the memories, isn't it?  Whether someone played in the game or is a fan, we remember where we were, with whom we played or watched, and how we felt?  Did we watch the game with our roommates?  Or long-since-deceased Uncle Joe, the fellow with the earpiece in at family functions so that he could listen to the hometown baseball team's games?  Or was it something we did with Dad, which by definition made it special?

Things always have a price.

Memories, though, are priceless.

And Mike Eruzione helped create some of the best sports memories for a generation of Americans.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Eden Hazard and the Ball Boy

If you watch Sports Center, you've probably seen the clip that shows Eden Hazard, the young Belgian soccer star who plays winger for Chelsea, kick a ball boy in Chelsea's match at Swansea (in Wales) yesterday.  You also saw the referee give Hazard a red card, ejecting him from the game.  And, you saw the boy roll over and scream out in pain, too.  Bad facts, bad visual, interesting result.

Watching it quickly while on the trusty spin bike, I first convicted Hazard, because on the face of it he seemingly kicked the ball boy for no reason.  That, of course, would have no explanation and no excuse.  But watching it again (and here's a link to pictures and video), you see that the ball boy covered up the ball the way an American football player would dive on a loose football.  Put simply, the ball boy should have given the ball to Hazard promptly.  Instead, he delayed the game.  My guess is that Hazard must have said something like "give me the ball," and when the ball boy didn't yield immediately, he kicked him once (and that kick looked more like a prod than a stomp) before kicking him again and getting the ball.  Clearly, Hazard hurt the boy (even if diving and other sorts of histrionics are prominent in soccer).  The question that's circulating is who is in the wrong and how much?

My take on it is that the ball boy clearly was wrong not to yield the ball immediately to Hazard.  The Swansea people should at least talk with him, if not suspend him or depending on his record, terminate his work as a ball boy.  The kid clearly made a mistake.  But did that justify what Hazard did?  No, it did not, even though the ball boy was in the wrong.  And, since it appears that the referee was watching, there should be a rule that enables a referee to issue a card (red or yellow) to the home team's captain for delay of game (sure, it is perhaps unfair to the captain, but it sends a message to the home team that their employees involved in the game need to behave properly).  And that would have been the end of it.  Hazard should have appealed to the official (even if there is no clear rule) and perhaps the officials could have dealt with the transgression by adding time to the clock that is normally added for "stoppage time."  I don't know what the rule book says, but it clearly should be reviewed in light of what the Swansea ball boy did.

As for Hazard, well, we shouldn't have players dispensing their own type of justice, especially to teenaged ball boys.  He'll draw a fine and a suspension, but he's actually only a few years older than the ball boy he kicked.  We can understand what Hazard did -- he's an elite athlete at a very young age (he is one of the world's best) -- and he's gotten to where he is by an ardent pursuit to be among the world's best.  Which means, when he has to, he'll break down barriers to get there.  The ball boy got in his way, and then he took matters into his own hands.

Let's not make this into anything more than it is -- two young men who made mistakes.  The ball boy didn't do his job, and Hazard compounded the situation.  The video makes it look ugly, and Chelsea's decline this year makes them and their players easy targets.  But this really isn't more than unfortunate behavior, and it should be treated with some level of measurement and a significant amount of forgiveness. 

This shouldn't ruin either the ball boy's or Hazard's career.

It should ruin some of Hazard's nights, though, thinking about what he did.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Phillies Sign Delmon Young

Younger, right-handed bat, everyday right-fielder. 

Perhaps.

Behavior issues.  Check.  Can't move that well.  Check.

Thankfully they have a guy named Revere in center field.

He'll need to get on his horse to cover all that ground.

On the one hand, the Phillies look pragmatic, picking up a much-needed extra part on the cheap on a team laden with aging stars and big contracts.  They're taking a page out of Brian Sabean's book in SF -- good pitching from top to bottom (and adding Mike Adams to the bullpen was a good move), enough hitters to be dangerous (assuming that they're healthy) and picking up some good spare parts to fortify the team (Mike Young and Delmon Young.  All they need is Bobby Crosby and a player named Stills).  Sabean has made a career of overcoming bad big signings (Barry Zito, Aaron Rowand) by signing as many spare parts as possible and having them workout (among them Pat Burrell and Cody Ross). 

On the other hand, they look desperate.  The back end of their rotation is iffy.  Their middle relief also is iffy.  Their everyday lineup is aging, and their outfield is a question mark.  The people who will argue this end of the continuum will contend that Young isn't the type of answer they've come to expect from Ruben Amaro, i.e., the second coming of Vladimir Guerrero or at least Jayson Werth circa 2008. 

In the middle, the Phillies are optimistic.  They believe that they have enough pitching to contend for the division, that 2012 was an aberration because of all the injuries (and even with them, they played .500 ball), that their everyday lineup is stronger because everyone is healthy, and that the spare parts are actually difference makers.  That's what they'll try to sell to the public. 

Meanwhile, for the first time in 5 years, you can purchase a full-year or partial-year season-ticket plan from them. 

The marketplace is an interesting place; fans are fickle.  The strategy -- to win now -- has meant that there aren't many future stars coming up from the farm system.  That phenomenon caught up to them in 2012.  Let's see if they can overcome it in 2013.  The age of the core group of position players -- as well as Roy Halladay -- suggests that declines in performance will increase, as will injuries.  And with little in the way of organizational depth, finishing third or fourth in the division seems realistic.

We'll find out soon enough.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Phil Mickelson on Taxes

Regardless of your politics, it would appear that the number of professional athletes making their permanent residences in California will dwindle.  Read here about Mickelson's comments, but if you life in Florida or Texas -- and in areas where pro athletes already live -- you probably will have some new neighbors.

Was Wes Welker's Wife Right (Anyway) and/or Does It Matter (Anymore)?

Click here to read Wes Welker's wife's comments about future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis. 

She said some pretty tough things about the Ravens' linebacker.  Seemingly, those "facts" don't affect Lewis's play on the field and his status as a star football player.  But the question remains whether the (also seemingly) absolute lionization Lewis receives -- which seems to transcend football -- is justified.

Monday, January 21, 2013

RIP, Stan Musial and Earl Weaver

Very sad to note the passing of two baseball legends, the best Hall of Famer never to get the huge national hype outside his region, Stan Musial, and one of the best managers, ever, Earl Weaver. 

As to Musial, if you look up his numbers you'll proably wonder why he wasn't elevated to the same level of Baseball's Mount Rushmore as peers Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams or some who followed, such as Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle (he was cleary better than "The Duke").  The recent biography of him paints the picture of an outstanding player and a superstar who had the courage to be kind to everyone.  Look up his stats, read the book, and you'll feel compelled to argue that Musial is one of the ten best position players of all time (on a different note, if you were to look up Lefty Grove's stats, you'd probably feel compelled to argue that he was one of the best pitchers of all time, too). 

As for Weaver, his ejections probably eclipsed his accomplishments, and there's a famous one on YouTube of him arguing with umpire Bill Haller that is a classic (edge because of his comeback to Haller, the brother of former Giants' catcher and GM Tom Haller).  Yet, for all the histrionics, Weaver was a skilled manager, platooned well, won four pennants and a World Series. 

We probably won't see the likes of either anymore.  Musial was uncomplicated and dignified, not operating under a mystery of whether he was using a performance-enhancing drug or not, interacted well with the fans and the media and played in the same city for 22 years.  Weaver's antics probably wouldn't be tolerated today, even if the entertainment value is desperately needed, especially because of how long and sometimes antiseptic baseball games can be.  Both left their mark indelibly on the game; both will be missed.

So Much for Blue-Chip Recruits

The Super Bowl features a match-up between the University of Nevada at Reno and Delaware.  That's right, the 49ers' quarterback, Colin Kaepernick went to the former, while Ravens' QB Joe Flacco went to the latter (via Pittsburgh, from which he transferred).  All Elite 11 and non-Elite 11 QBs should take notice.  It's not necessarily where you start or who taps you early, but where you finish.  Which means that while the tendency is to go to the "best" school that recruits you, that is, the one with the biggest brand name, the tendency should be for you to go to the school that is the best for you. 

For example, Hall of Fame QB Jim Kelly went to Miami (Fla.) before it became the U.  He wanted to go to Penn State, but Joe Paterno wanted him to play linebacker.  Ben Roethlisberger, a Miami (OH) alum, was recruited by Ohio State.  But the big QB thought they would have wanted him as a tight end.  Instead, he became a pretty "big time" QB. 

Truth be told, some schools have a great record developing collegiate QBs, such as Cal and USC (with their West Coast-based, if not "West Coast" offenses that throw the ball a lot).  Yet, while the latter has turned out Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Matt Cassel and Mark Sanchez, none has turned into a star.  The former has turned out many QBs, but only one -- Aaron Rodgers -- is a star (and a mega-one at that).  It would seem that no school can guarantee a player entry into, let alone success in, the NFL.  Which means, again, that players should focus on the best schools for them.

And if that isn't proof, look at all NFL rosters.  Many players hail from "big-name" football schools.  But many do not.  And that circles us back to the Super Bowl.

Delaware versus Nevada.

Gotta love it.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Chip Kelly, Keith Armstrong and the NFL, a Big Business

So Keith Armstrong, the Falcons' special teams coordinator, seemingly has done everything right.  He's worked his way up the coaching hierarchy, and is now a coordinator.  While not an offensive or defensive coordinator, he's an NFL coordinator.  Moreover, there's precedent for a special teams coordinator to go from that job to the job of an NFL head coach and succeed -- John Harbaugh of the Ravens, who had been the Eagles' special teams coordinator.   He's in his second AFC championship game in two years.

Armstrong surfaced on many interviewing slates this year, a bona fide candidate from a Super Bowl contender.  Yet, he only showed up on the laundry lists, so to speak, and not the short lists.  Was it because he wasn't good enough?  Was it because the teams that interviewed him only did so because the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for open head coaching positions, made them?  Did they ever consider Armstrong seriously?  (Interestingly, the Rooneys themselves hired a minority coach after their last opening -- Mike Tomlin -- and he's led the Steelers to a Super Bowl during his tenure in Pittsburgh).  From what transpired during coaching searches, it appears not.

The Eagles, instead of hiring a native son in Armstrong, hire Chip Kelly.  On the face of the decision, it's a no-brainer.  Kelly is the hot name in college football; Armstrong is a special teams coordinator.  Most special teams coordinators don't become head coaches; some, like Joe Avezzano and Mike Westhoff, become known for their outsized personalities.  And yet, Armstrong's name came up in searches -- he seemingly was interviewed early in several processes.  Was it that he is a hot commodity?  Or, alternatively, a "check the box" interview because the Rooney Rule requires that NFL teams interview at least one minority candidate for a head coaching position?    (As for Kelly, the big question is whether someone with zero coaching experience in the NFL and not that far removed from powerhouse New Hampshire can adapt to the fast pace of the NFL, professional players and an expectation that he win a Super Bowl within the next five years).

It seems like Keith Armstrong is a good coach.  He's a coordinator on a team that's a win away from the Super Bowl.  And yet, it doesn't appear that a minority candidate really got serious consideration for any of the eight vacant coaching positions (all now filled).  Romeo Crennel, fired in Kansas City, appears to be headed for retirement (or at least that's what I heard on ESPN after he was fired).  Lovie Smith, who took the Bears to a Super Bowl, didn't seem to draw serious attention.  Neither did Ray Horton, the well-respected defensive coordinator for the Cardinals (who has since landed in Cleveland in the same spot and who, at 52, might seem to be getting up there in years for consideration for a head coaching position, even if Bruce Arians, at 60, just got his first full-time head coaching position).

A few things are worthy of probing:

1.  Is the NFL's Rooney Rule working?
2.  If the answer is no, what can the NFL do to create opportunities for minority candidates and enable them to get hired into head coaching positions (given that a large majority of NFL players are minorities)?
3.  Why weren't Keith Armstrong and Ray Horton given more consideration and why wasn't Lovie Smith hired, given that the demand for Andy Reid soared the day that he was let go?

It wasn't so long ago -- perhaps a few decades -- that the press used a term, the "black quarterback," perhaps because there weren't many African-American quarterbacks and in my estimation because of racism (as if the expectation was that African-Americans couldn't play the position).  Sure,  there were James Harris, Doug Williams and Warren Moon, among the earliest, but the absence of African-American quarterbacks helped create the term.  Did it mean anomaly?  Did it mean surprise, as in "the world is surprised that an African-American can play the position?"   (My father took me to a Temple-Grambling game in the mid-1970's, and we were left with our jaws hanging as to how any team in the country wouldn't have recruited Doug Williams, that's how great he was).  Thankfully, over time, high school, college and professional coaches came to their senses, there are many African-American quarterbacks, and you don't hear that bad term any more.  It might be only a small part of evolution away from stereotyping, but a powerful one, too.

The time is long past due that we don't need to hear the term "African-American" head coach, either.  There are plenty of worthy candidates out there, and it's long past due that the NFL foster a culture where there are more African-American head coaches -- with or without a Rooney Rule.

As the NFL approaches the day on which the country will honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, the league should think about that.  To it's credit, from headlines on ESPN, it is.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Put Fred McGriff in the Hall of Fame Now

Seriously.

I am sure that he suffered from negative comparisons to the juicers.  After all, he didn't hit with their power, and he didn't enjoy a "power surge" in his career, either.  So, he probably was considered a weakling.

When, in fact, he chose the road less traveled.

Instead of focusing the discussion on guys who might not get in ever -- McGwire, Sosa, Palmeiro, Bonds, Clemens -- among others, let's focus on the one guy who, in all likelihood -- was very clean.

And with his numbers, let's put him in the Hall of Fame.

The sports media tend to focus on the negative, the guys who broke our hearts.

Let's focus, instead, on one of the good guys.

A guy who played on winners.  A guy who could flat out hit.

And a guy who looked like a baseball player.

And not a caricature.

Let's start a campaign.

Let's stand up for a good guy.

Lanced

How skeptical must we be now?

Lance Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs.  Lance Armstrong lied about it.  Lance went out of his way to punish people who got in his way.

He's the cyclist who must not be named.

I am all for forgiveness and redemption.  People make mistakes, and sometimes the media blows a small mistake out of proportion preciptiously and wreaks havoc (see, for example, the Duke lacrosse fiasco, where many team members were guilty of relatively minor infractions -- such as public intoxication -- and perhaps acting much less than humbly on campus) on people who did very little wrong.  Our society is like that.  We tend to hold people to much higher standards at times than we ourselves could meet.  And when transgressions involve the outcomes in sports, they are viewed as being more heinous than things that in actuality are worse.  Perhaps because playing with people's hearts and emotions triggers an emotion in people that causes them to get vicious.

Betrayal.

I don't think that all of Armstrong's alleged good works exculpate Armstrong.  Lance was all about Lance, creating the brand, the aura and feeding his ego.  The good was a by-product, something that helped galvanize a false image.  While Armstrong should receive some credit for the good, the bad eclipses all that good.  Why?  Precisely because the foundation for the good was cracked.  If it were a building it would have been condemned before anyone was permitted to occupy it. 

Say it ain't so, Lance, say it ain't so.

But it is so, and now we're left wondering if anyone is clean, if anyone doesn't cheat.  And we're left with a culture that could send a message to young kids that cheating is okay, and that the only way they can get ahead -- even with talent and hard work -- is to ingest untested substances that can make them stronger, bigger and faster.  As well as damage them.  Just Google the story of former MLB pitcher Burt Hooton's nephew and read a chilling account about a young steroid user who died.  Just Google for stories about young cyclists in foreign countries who obtained EPO illegally, only to die from blood diseases or clots or heart attacks because they took too much of the stuff and turned the visosity of their blood into something resembling molasses.  While we seemingly read mostly about the success stories, the landscape is littered with the broken bodies, psyches and lives of those who just didn't quite get there. 

A friend once said to me that you never want to meet your heroes, because you'll only be disappointed.  He was right, but only to a point.  I have thought about that comment periodically over the years, and it has led me to a simple conclusion -- perhaps we have not chosen our heroes wisely.  Sure, it's fun to root for a quarterback who can thread a football between two defenders and into the hands of a receiver 50 yards downfield, where it's only a matter of inches if the ball gets deflected or intercepted.  It's great to see a basketball player hit a game-winning shot from half court, a pitcher throw a no-hitter.  But after a while, another question comes to mind:  so what? 

The late David Halberstam, in his book about Bill Belichick, recalled a conversation in which he asked the coach's father, a former Navy assistant and legendary football scout, whether he thought his son was a genius.  The father laughed and replied something to the effect of "Genius?  All he does is run down the sidelines of a football field in a sweatshirt and yell." 

Big names, famous names, people who do things in the public eye -- all are not necessarily heroes.  A hero is more like Hines Ward's mother, who worked two and three jobs in Atlanta as a single mom raising her only son, working to the point of exhaustion to make sure her son turned out well and navigated a world in which biracial kids didn't have it easy.  A hero is a teacher who offers encouragement and extra help to kids who no one has said anything nice to, in order that they develop self-confidence to make good decisions and choose a good path.  A hero is someone who, in the words of West Point's prayer, chooses the harder right over the easier wrong. 

Even where the harder right means a lifetime of toiling in obscurity, of risking not getting the glory and all that goes with it.  Even if it means hearing conversations where people brag, where people praise others, and where they don't say that you're something special.  How much do we need that ratification, that adulation -- from masses of people who do not know us.  And how much richer a life does one live -- mentally and spiritually -- because of that adulation?  Does it make us more loved, more intimate, less lonely?  Or is it better to be beloved by the people you mean so much to -- the people who live under your roof -- than masses of people whom you do not know and who might only want to know you to gain a financial edge because they do?

I take no joy at the fall of Lance Armstrong or of the fall of baseball players.  They are tragic figures whose self-inflicted wounds and poor choices befelled them.  What makes Armstrong's story worse than even those of the baseball players is that Armstrong held himself out there as a superior and went out of his way to defend himself and deny accusations.  Because of that behavior, the reactions are more visceral, the horror more awful. 

Why did Armstrong do what he did?  For what purpose?  Was it worth it?  Perhaps, when he reflects on all that he did, he can transform his tremendous will to compete into something that truly can benefit everyone.  He still is young, and there is time.

But this should be -- again -- a lesson to us all -- and, particularly, to people who identify with public figures and sports stars and perhaps don't have sufficient self-esteem because they don't do anyting "important."  And that lesson is -- think again.  You mean a lot -- to your families, to your friends, to your co-workers, to your neighbors.  Sure, you might not coach the Celtics, but imagine what a positive example you can be for the awkward kid who no one took the time to encourage.  You might not be able to bike 100 miles, but taking a family on a bike ride might be a great palliative to a stressful week, and the conversations had during breaks from that ride might change a family member's thinking on an important topic.  You might not be a U.S. Senator, but participation on the local school board might chance the curriculum to enable more kids to get better paying jobs. 

And if the Lance Armstrong story causes the average person to reflect on what a hero is, change his thinking and give the "average" guy the self-esteem to really understand that he can be a true hero, then we'll change many things for the better.

And none too soon.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Eagles Seem to be Interviewing Everyone

Eight candidates and counting.

Chip Kelly, Brian Kelly and Bill O'Brien all elected to remain at their universities.  The only one I would have liked for the Birds was O'Brien, who coached under Bill Belichick and had very solid NFL experience.  It's open to speculation whether either Kelly would succeed in the NFL.  As for Chip, well, the NFL players do have a tendency to talk back.  As for Brian, Alabama's Nick Saban made him look very average.  Then again, Saban's teams do that to most other teams, and Saban does that to most other coaches.

They recently interviewed Brian Billick, the former Ravens' coach.  Hiring Billick probably would be a mistake.  No head coach has won a Super Bowl with more than one team.  Not Shula, not Parsells, not Lombardi.  So why Billick?  Not just because he sounds authoritative when guesting on "Mike and Mike" on ESPN Radio.  One Philadelphia columnist has suggested that the Eagles hire Jon Gruden, as has Brian Baldinger, the sports talk radio show host in Philadelphia and former NFL player.  As for the latter, he thinks that the Eagles need an animated head coach along the lines of Buddy Ryan (who never won a playoff game).  To me, if you have an institution, you don't need a huge personality.  The Steelers simply hire good coaches; they are not bigger than their organization.  Baldinger is just wrong, and, also, Gruden should be disqualified for the same reasoning that Billick is.

Several coordinators remain, as does my favorite college coach, TCU's Gary Patterson, who has not received any mention.  Then again, in the mid-70's, the Eagles whiffed on their first five choices before hiring the coach of a UCLA team that had just won the Rose Bowl.  His name:  Dick Vermeil, and he remains one of the most popular coaches in Philadelphia history.  He rebuilt the Eagles, and his determination was infectious.  Great coach.

Typically, you write a job description and know what you're looking for -- college coach, NFL coordinator, rising NFL star, track record of achievement, offense, defense, special teams, what have you.  Yet, the Eagles seem to be all over the place.  I am sure that they've done their due diligence.  I know, though, what I would have done.  I would have polled influential people around the league and asked for their recommendations as to who might be the next "great" coach, the next Jim Harbaugh or Mike Tomlin.  Perhaps they did that, and perhaps the Broncos' offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and the Seahawks' defensive coordinator Gus Bradley are the favorites.  Then again, perhaps they're missing something.

The Eagles had a chance to capture the fans' imagination (and, perhaps, hold onto some of them) by making a big splash quickly.  But outside Chip Kelly, it's become increasingly clear that they didn't have a second choice.  And, as time marches on, it seems like they might be paralyzing themselves with their analysis.  The longer it takes and the more obscure the coach they hire, the more trouble they'll have with the fan base.

Last year's team lacked leadership, chemistry and oomph.

So far, the search for search for the next head coach seems to be going down the same path.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Is the NHL Dead?

Someone has to ask the question.

The labor difficulties underscore a business model that just isn't working.  There are too many teams and waning interest in the U.S.  Before hockey fans argue that this is just a (new) phase, remember, there was a lockout for an entire season within the past decade.  Also remember that as culture evolves, so do the games we play, watch and pay for.  Professional tennis doesn't have the following it did in the days of McEnroe, Connors and Borg, and horse racing, one a top-five sport, is but a distant memory, the sport of the very rich, but not of kings.  And boxing has become all but irrelevant.

Is hockey next on the scrap heap, ready for the sports archaeologists?  I don't mean to be harsh, but perhaps the NHL needs to revisit the business model, have many fewer teams, have many fewer teams make the playoffs, and play fewer games.  In other words, make the game more scarce, have the people who are interested hunger more for it, and create a buzz precisely because the product hasn't over saturated the sports world.  That's not to say a reversion to six teams is necessary, just many fewer than the current number.  That's not to say a 20-game season is necessary, but a season that doesn't involve say 80 regular-season games to eliminate only half the teams and then have the Stanley Cup winner perhaps play over 20 playoff games.  Sure, the league can make money through this type of structure, but the emphasis is on the word "can."  Why?  Because the model hasn't worked.

Even if the NHL were to end the lockout and solve its labor problems, it still has underlying problems that are sending it on the road to oblivion.  The talk of the past month has been the NFL, college football and college basketball, as well as the NBA.  The NHL?  Other sports have filled the void, including an increased attention on international soccer (which I find quite compelling), especially the English Premier League.

Both sides -- the owners and the players -- are losing here, not to mention the fans and the people whose livelihood depends on the NHL's playing its season.  Whoever would have thought that the U.S. Congress and the President would be more likely to agree on the fiscal cliff than the owners and players would agree on a contract?  But those are the times in which we live, where people tend to relish their polarization, even if it is destructive.

If the NHL doesn't play this year, what's the point?

On Andy Reid, Part II -- and On Who Will Replace Him

So Jeffrey Lurie pulled the plug on Andy Reid's outstanding 14-year career.  It was a sad day in Philadelphia to hear the news, even if we all knew that it was coming.  The consensus among fans was that Reid had a great run, but one that lasted far too wrong.  There were too many drafting mistakes, too much tolerance for holes in the roster, too many inconsistencies in time management and play calling.  Most of that would have gotten overlooked had Reid won a Super Bowl, but sadly for him and the city he never did.  He got close and had a great career, but it was time for him and Jeffrey Lurie to end a great relationship.  Both sides need to start anew.

My son pointed out that with the exception of Bill Cowher, no coach has won a Super Bowl with a franchise if he didn't win it in his first five years with the team.  Reid got to Philadelphia in 1999 and to the Super Bowl in 2004, but the team fell short.  He had some great moments, that's for sure, and he's to be congratulated for an excellent career.  With the exception of Connie Mack, who also owned the team he managed, Reid had the longest tenure of any head coach/manager in Philadelphia sports history.  That's how important a presence he's been on the Philadelphia sports scene.

So let's be clear.  He had a great career.  It just didn't culminate in what Lurie brought him hear to do -- win a title.

Lurie is now in the third chapter of his life transition, divorcing his wife and parting company with long-time friend and team president Joe Banner before the season began.  Now he parts company with the coach he just knew he would hire in 1999 when he decided to part company with Ray Rhodes.  The erudite, relatively soft-spoken owner is about to complete a major makeover in his life.

Rumors abound as to who the primary candidates are.  I don't think that Lurie will pick an obvious candidate.  In a way, he's too smart for that.  He will not recycle a former head coach or take a lifetime ladder climber, even if there will be pressure on him to do so.  I also don't think that he will hire Bill O'Brien (who would be the most tempting choice from among college coaches), Chip Kelly, Brian Kelly or Nick Saban.  All of those choices will be too expensive, and two do not have professional experience.

Coordinators will be tempting.  He has asked permission to interview coordinators from very successful team, such as Mike Nolan of the Falcons, who had an unsuccessful stint as head coach in San Francisco and has been the defensive coordinator for six different NFL teams.  Still, I don't think that he'll got that route.  Bruce Arians, who did tremendous work as acting head coach in Indianapolis this year, will get a well-deserved shot as a head coach.  But probably not in Philadelphia.

No, Jeff Lurie will not hire an obvious choice.  While many thought that Andy Reid was ticketed to be a head coach, he wasn't a coordinator at the time he was hired.  I think that Lurie will emulate the cross-state Steelers, who like to hold onto heir head coaches for more than a decade.  When Mike Tomlin was a position coach in Tampa, he had "head coach" written all over him.  After a year as defensive coordinator in Minnesota, Tomlin ended up as the head coach in Pittsburgh, and yes, he's won a Super Bowl.  I would think that Lurie will think extensively about his next head coach and look for the next Mike Tomlin, the next Jim Harbaugh.  That will take some doing and thinking.  I also don't think he'll get caught up in a feeding frenzy and have to hire the "hot" coach.  I also don't think that he'll want to overpay for a big name.

Don't expect the Eagles to rush to hire the next coach.  Expect Lurie, who has a PhD, to study the situation, come up with a detailed list of questions and think deeply about who he wants coaching the team.  Also expect him to consult with highly respected executives in the league about who they think would be an ideal candidate.  Expect him to develop a list of finalists based upon those recommendations.

The Eagles will hire a good coach.  Lurie has a good track record there.  The question is how the front office will work with a relatively inexperienced GM and Lurie guiding the ship.  The chemistry among the owner, GM and coach must be outstanding, especially if they are to straighten out a team that lacked chemistry and leadership this past season.

Let the speculation begin.

A Good Story about Non-Violent Video Games


            The shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School compel answers to many questions, including whether the prevalence of video games that involve killing has ingrained violence into our culture and whether it’s a good thing that so many kids play these games.   In thinking about that question, I thought about my family’s own experience with these games, sometimes referred to as “first-person shooter” games (among the most popular are Call of Duty and Halo).

About a year and a half ago, my son felt isolated because many kids were playing games that involved shooting people and he wasn’t.  My wife and I discouraged him from doing so to the point that we refused to purchase the games for him.  We preferred that he play games related to professional sports leagues, where the goals of the game don’t involve killing.

            My wife’s and my simple motivation is that we worry about the long-lasting effect these games will have on this generation of kids, how they’ll view violence and what that will mean for our society in the future.   How will what seems to be a routine task of killing someone in a video game translate into how our citizens value human life?  And how will those attitudes affect a nation’s views on diplomacy and foreign policy, if as a society we broadly trivialize killing in our kids’ hobbies?  

            That said, we gave in and purchased a few of these games, much more so because we did not want our son to be socially isolated than because we believed that he should be playing them.   Rather than continue our censorship, we figured that we’d let him decide whether these games are fun and worth playing.  Since he’ll have to make many difficult decisions for himself in life, we determined that we’d let him make this one under our roof (while continuing to discuss guiding principles with him).   It was a tough call, but we concluded that we needed to loosen the reigns a bit and see what happened. 

            He then played Halo and Call of Duty for a few months, but one day he came home from a friend’s house complaining that he didn’t like the games.  They just didn’t interest him the way sports-related games did.   A friend of our daughter’s suggested Manager Mode in FIFA 2012, and it opened up a new world for him.  The ability to learn international soccer, build teams, buy and sell contracts and compete was much more fun.

            He then started to talk about the game with his friends at school, none of whom were playing FIFA 12 at the time and many of  whom were playing the shooting games.  His enthusiasm must have been infectious, because eighteen months later, many of his friends are playing FIFA (and their interest in the shooting games has diminished).  The kids gather on-line, talk about their favorite teams, and whether they’d purchase the contract of a megastar for $50 million, ask their parents for soccer jerseys of players in the English Premier League as presents and even talk about the real teams at the lunch table.  

Our son is not a loud or pushy kid, just a sensible, sensitive one who is as enthusiastic as any thirteen year-old is about the things that he likes.  Long gone is the talk of isolation about not being the only one not to do something.  Instead, he’s started a trend that is inclusive and shows that there are other ways for kids to have fun.   Soccer and managing and building teams – and not shooting – is becoming more popular by the day.   What a difference a few years makes. 

            Abraham Lincoln once said that it takes courage to be kind.  It also takes courage – ultimately -- not to do what everyone else does.   Of course, playing even this video game is no substitute for reading, writing, doing math homework, getting involved in activities that require in-person interactions with others and physical exercise, but let’s face it, kids have plenty of free time and many boys will play video games to fill some of their spare time.  And isn’t it better to fill the free time with positive things than with destructive ones?

            I am proud of my son.   Instead of letting a temporary sense of isolation get him down, he figured out a different path.  His road less traveled is now seeing more traffic by the day. 

            Let’s not have our society be the result of games like Call of Duty.  Instead, let our society after the Sandy Hook tragedy call us to duty – to address how much we want violence ingrained into our culture.   One thoughtful seventh grader has started a trend in his middle school.  Imagine if one kid in each middle school across the country did the same and moved kids away from shooting games.  And then imagine what the focus of the discussions at the lunch table, on texts and in hanging out would be like two years from now and how our society’s view of, and tendency toward, violence might change.   And then imagine the types of leaders that these kids can be and the world that they’ll help improve.