Wednesday, November 15, 2017

SCOUTING REPORT

                Regular readers of this space know that I regard fall as the best season in the Arizona desert around Phoenix, my home for the last 20 years. The weather is warm but not hot, the breezes are gentle, the skies come in blues that defy artistic reproduction and the snowbirds have yet to return in force, meaning it’s still easy to get around. If I were visiting I’d do it in October or November instead of the February-March period when most cold-weather refugees choose to come.
                
              My regulars also know that October-November around Phoenix brings an added attraction: the Arizona Fall League. That’s the minor-league baseball finishing school to which the 30 Major League teams send some of their brightest young (mostly 20-23-year-old) prospects for extra seasoning against their better peers. Headquartered in six of the area’s fine spring-training ballparks, AFL teams each play 35-game schedules, mostly day games, in a six-week span that this year ends on Saturday (11/18). Admission is cheap ($8 for adults, $6 for seniors) and parking is free and close, and with an average attendance of about 600 a game everyone can have a great seat. If you have an opinion about the play at hand you can share it with your fellow fans merely by raising your voice.

                Lots of real baseball scouts show up—that’s a main reason the league exists—as well as lots of people who aspire to the title. I’m one of the latter and have a pretty good claim, if I must say so myself.  During the regular season I get a kick out of pointing out to friends the young players I’d tabbed for stardom through my Fall League observations. Through previous annual blogs on the subject I’ve brought to your attention the likes of Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado, Evan Longoria, Francisco Lindor and Gary Sanchez, ex-AFLers who quickly made it big in the Bigs. Maybe you didn’t need to be Tony Lucadello to tab those guys, but there still is satisfaction in being able to say that you remember them when.
         
        No one I saw this season showed me the sort of can’t-miss talent those young men displayed. Plenty of future Major Leaguers strutted their stuff here—historically, about 60% of Fall Leaguers have made Major League rosters at one time or another-- but there were no eye-popping performances in the dozen games I attended during the league’s first five weeks. I’m thinking of the 2012 game in which a 21-year-old Billy Hamilton, the current Cincinnati Reds’ speedster, scored from first base on a ground-out to the pitcher. Yeah, he was off on a steal when the ball was pitched, but still…
            
             Among the better players I saw this season were a couple of shortstops, NICKY LOPEZ from the Kansas City Royals’ chain and THAIRO ESTRADA, with the New York Yankees. That’s not surprising because many of the best athletes at baseball’s lower levels start out at short and sometimes are moved to other positions as they climb the game’s ladder.

 Lopez, 22, is from Naperville, Illinois, and Creighton U., a fifth-round draft choice in 2016. He’s quick afoot and while he’s not big (5-foot-11, 185 pounds) he hits the ball with authority, as his seven extra-hits among his first 22 here attest. Also, his two-year minor-league log shows more walks than strikeouts, a rarity in this swing-for-the-fences era.
            
                Estrada, 21, is from Venezuela, and is built and plays like Lopez. Like many players born in Latin America he was signed and started playing professionally at age 16, and, thus, has a leg up developmentally on American players the same age. He’ll have to stand in line to play shortstop for the Yanks; last year’s AFL standout Gleyber Torres is only 20 and ranks ahead of him even though he lost much of last season to injury. Still, Estrada will play some place somewhere, in 2019 or sooner.

                RONALD ACUNA, 20, also from Venezula, in the Atlanta Braves’ chain, came here as a highly touted prospect and has justified the billing. In the one game I saw him play he walked twice, flied out to deep center and drove in the winning run with a solid single. A couple of nice catches in left field highlighted his athleticism. He’s listed 6-feet tall and 180 pounds but still led the league in home runs (with 7) at the start of this week.

JOSH NAYLOR, 20, from Canada, is a stocky left-handed hitter with good bat control and power potential, although finding a position for him may be a problem (he’s listed as a first baseman but also DHed here). He’s San Diego Padres’ property. SHELDON NEUSE (pronounced “noisy”), 23, an Oakland A, plays a nice third base and hits the ball hard. ERIC FILIA, a Seattle Mariner, another third baseman, is 25 years old—old for the AFL—and has a contorted batting stance, but straightens out well enough to be third in the league in hitting (at .373) during week five.

 ALEX JACKSON, 21, a big, solidly built catcher in the Atlanta Braves chain, will play in the Majors, if only to justify his being picked sixth overall in the 2014 draft. He’s not the slickest behind the plate but can hit with power, as his five AFL home runs show.  Skinny VICTOR REYES, 23, with the Arizona Diamondbacks, can hit for average, run and play the outfield. Outfielder YONATHAN DAZA, 23, with the Colorado Rockies, ought to be Major League-ready after seven minor-league seasons. Like Reyes he’s short on home-run power but makes good contact and uses the whole field.

Being a Chicago fan I always give special attention to Cubs and White Sox hopefuls, but this year neither sent their top prospects. The standout among them was an odd one—DAVID BOTE, a smallish, 24-year-old Cubs-chain second baseman. He was an 18th round pick in the 2012 draft and has a mediocre, six-year minor-league record capped last season at AA Knoxville, but has hit very well here, excelled in the field and made the league’s All-Star game. The Cubs seem to have a forever second baseman in Javier Baez so Bote probably is trade bait, but he looks like the scrappy type who’ll figure out how to make a Major League roster.

Pitchers are hard to scout in the AFL because they appear only every fourth or so game, and then for just a few innings. Two I saw a lot of were MAX FRIED, a 23-year-old lefty owned by the Braves, and MICKEY JANNIS, an ancient 29, with the New York Mets.

 Fried didn’t blow away hitters but has a full array of pitches and used them well. He was a first-rounder (in 2012) and, thus, will get a chance in the Bigs. Righty Jannis was drafted by Tampa Bay in the 44th round way back in 2010. He bombed out by 2011, spent three seasons honing a knuckleball in independent leagues and got back in the mix as a knuckler. He got AFL kids out so he’s doing something right, and I wish him luck moving ahead. The world needs more knuckleballers.

   

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

BROUGHT TO HEEL

                The cable-news people tell me that when politicians want to slip something past the public they release it on a Friday afternoon, when people are distracted by thoughts of weekend pleasures. It appears that the National Collegiate Athletic Association goes by the same playbook.

               That became clear a couple of Fridays ago when the organization announced that it had completed a multi-year investigation of academic fraud at the University of North Carolina by ruling that the issue was outside its purview and required no penalties worthy of the name.  Sports are sports and academics are, uh, academic, it said, in case anyone had been silly enough to think otherwise. Let’s forget this mess and move on to our real purpose of staging entertainments and counting the revenues therefrom.

                Perhaps also aided by the much-showier recent scandal involving the use of shoe-company money to bribe prospective college basketballers—one that prosecutors say has yet to fully unfold—the NCAA pretty much got its wish. Folks in Tar Heel Land were pleased that the fraud issue finally went away, and only a few perennial scolds registered disapproval. Haters are gonna hate, ya know? There’s just no pleasing some people.

                Truth is, though, the North Carolina case ranks as maybe the worst instance yet revealed of institutional-mission abuse in the name of sports. Over a period of 18 years—1993 to 2011—the university harbored an academic shell department whose main purpose was to keep its athletes eligible. Other black-letter NCAA scandals— Penn State’s silence over an assistant football coach’s serial child molestations, Michigan’s reliance on a numbers-racketeer to keep its “Fab Five” basketball stars in spending cash, a Baylor basketball coach’s subornation of perjury in a murder investigation— were one-offs, outside the usual order of things. This was a day-in, day-out matter perpetrated by the eyes-wide-open officers of a university charged with acting in the best interests of their students.

                Making the action more loathsome was that the department involved was called African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM for short) and thus targeted the black students who comprise a large part of the varsity basketball and football manpower pools of a university that embraced desegregation slowly and reluctantly (others did, too). Some 3,100 students took classes in the department and about half of them were varsity athletes. That group made up just 4% of UNC’s undergrad population.

 College basketball and football players often are admitted to their schools despite academic shortcomings, meaning that many of them need special help to succeed in class. Instead, through AFAM North Carolina passed out A’s and B’s to enrollees who didn’t have to attend class and whose term papers, when required, could be written by others, various investigations showed.

                Further, these credits often were more than just stop-gaps for the otherwise qualified. This came out in 2014 when Rashad McCants, a star of UNC’s 2005 NCAA men’s national basketball championship team, sued UNC for pressing him into a sham education. Under the guise of privacy rules colleges guard their athletes’ transcripts like state secrets, but McCants included his in his filings. It showed that he’d received 10 A’s, six B’s one C and one D in the AFAM courses his coaches and team advisers recommended, and six C’s, one D and three F’s in courses he took outside the department.

                “When you go to college you don’t go to class, you don’t do nothing, you just show up and play,” McCants told one TV interviewer after filing his suit. “You’re not there to get an education, though they tell you that. You’re there to make revenue for the college—to put fans in the seats.”

                The “Alice In Wonderland” nature of the NCAA inquiry is seen in its definition of UNC’s no-show courses as a “benefit” to the athletes who received them, and in its failure to punish the school for them on grounds that some non-athletes also were permitted to enroll.   As a college freshman I might have thought that a free “A” was a wonderful thing, but the adults who ran the university and the panel that judged it knew better.

 Equally weird was the panel’s abdication on the simple and obvious point that anything amiss had taken place. “The NCAA defers to its member schools to determine whether academic fraud had occurred,” it stated, meaning, I guess, that in matters academic something is wrong only when the wrongdoer agrees it is. If this serves as a precedent, anything any unrepentant school does for or to its athletes in the classroom is off limits to future inquiry.

The span covered by the fraud included the terms five head football coaches at UNC and four head basketball coaches, including the late and sainted Dean Smith (1961-97) and the incumbent (and saint-to-be) Roy Williams, who was hired in 2003. It also covered the tenure of several top academic officers. Still, the only individuals singled out for rebuke in the probe were AFAM’s chairman and his secretary, both of whom are long gone from the university. They can be considered the equals of the hapless assistant coaches who typically take the brunt of the group’s sports penalties. The operative rule in college sports is the higher one ranks in an institution the less one is presumed to know, and the less responsibility one bears.

  Given its group’s history, the NCAA panel had plenty of precedence for ruling that classroom matters are none of its business; college sports long have been more about sports than about college. The case should have been the province of a national accrediting body, and UNC should have been labeled the diploma mill it was, or, maybe, still is.  You don’t hear much about those outfits, though, so college governance generally seems to be a lost cause.



Sunday, October 15, 2017

WANNA BET?

                Sometime this month the U.S. Supreme Court is supposed to hear a case that could change a lot about American sports.  It’s a challenge to a 1992 Federal law called the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which, like many laws in this land, isn’t about what its title suggests. Rather, it deals with sports gambling, and which states can and can't offer it.
              
                The states that can at present are Nevada, Delaware, Montana and Oregon, all of which had passed legislation permitting the practice before the Federal law was enacted. But that list, too, is misleading, because only in Nevada can people bet on sports on a game-by-game basis, in most of the many casinos that operate in the state. Delaware permits only parlay-card betting on professional football, while Montana and Oregon never used their authority to put gambling mechanisms into place.

                But then came Chris Christie, New Jersey’s estimable governor, with a proposal to break the ban in his state, and in 2014 the legislature there agreed with an eye toward ginning up some tax revenue and reviving the moribund fortunes of the Atlantic City gambling mecca. It sued to do so on constitutional grounds, and even though the last appellate court to take the action ruled against it the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case during its current session.

 A decision should come early next year, and if New Jersey prevails a lot of other states are expected to join it. Eilers & Krejcik Gambling, a firm that tracks state gambling laws, said in a recent report that with a favorable ruling legal sports betting could be offered in as many as 32 states within five years. New York, California and Pennsylvania are among those in which bills to enable this already are being pushed. That’s a big chunk of the country’s population right there.

Now, everyone who’s been paying attention knows that the fact that sports betting is illegal in most parts of the U.S. hasn’t stopped people from doing it—not nearly. Illegal bookmaking and online betting through offshore locations flourish across the country and few people who patronize them feel the least bit guilty about it. I put myself in that category. With all the participants being volunteers, it’s about as close to a victimless crime as you can get.

You also can make a case that having gangsters run the betting has helped keep American sports clean. That’s because the losers in any successful effort to “fix” a game for a betting return would be some faction of Da Mob, and nobody wants to get on the bad side of those guys.

 Even if you don’t buy that reasoning it’s impossible to deny that big-time American sports have an extraordinary record of gambling-related cleanliness compared with those of other countries. Since the massive 1951 scandal involving City College of New York and other schools, point-shaving revelations have been few and far between, quite-small affairs involving local bookies and one or a few college basketball or football players at such schools as Boston College (1979), Tulane (1985) Northwestern (1998) or Toledo  (2003).

Professional team sports have been cleaner yet in the past 50 years with only the 2007 episode involving NBA referee Tim Donaghy to mar them, and Donaghy insisted to his prison cell that he was in the scheme only as a handicapper, not a fixer. Baseball was hurt by Pete Rose’s heavy involvement with bookies, but he never was accused of dumping a game in which he played or managed. Withal, the prosperity of U.S. pro sports in recent decades is seen as the most-potent insurance against any such action; no likely betting score would be big enough to justify the risk a highly paid player or coach would take to join in pulling one off.

The national betting pool is huge and both a cause and effect of sports’ burgeoning popularity. Just how big it is depends on how you measure it. Say someone bets $100 each (forgetting for now the 10% “vig”) against the point spread on five NFL games one Sunday, and wins with three of them. Would the economic activity come to the $500 he wagers or the $100 in winnings that actually changes hands?  

 Either way it’s plenty—billions of dollars—and our perennially strapped states would love to get their tax hooks into some of it. Polls I’ve seen show that most people approve of or have no issue with legal sports gambling, and casinos, lotteries or horse or dog tracks already exist in just about every state. Our major professional leagues used to be unanimous in their disapproval of taking Las Vegas-style sports betting national, but Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, now says it’d be okay with him, and Rob Manfred, the baseball guy, seems to agree. The NFL remains on the fence officially, but after endorsing fantasy-football websites, approving a franchise for Las Vegas and producing encyclopedic weekly injury reports for gamblers’ perusal it hardly can be seen as anti. The NCAA sham-ams can be counted upon to say “no” while happily benefiting from the widespread gambling interest their games generate.

A green light for state-by-state sports gambling won’t make it magically spring into existence.  In every capitol there will be tugs of war over whether the state will be the bookie or that function will be turned over to casinos or other private interests.  If it’s the latter, look for battles over who’ll get the plums and whether ex-illegals can be involved in their operation. Who, after all, has more experience in the “industry” than the people who’ve been running it forever?

Fay Vincent, a former baseball commissioner (1989-92) and a smart guy, has been quoted as saying that betting legalization would be the biggest thing to happen to American sports since the advent of television. I disagree; most of the people who want to bet already are doing it.  It’d be big, though, probably in some ways we can’t foresee. 


Friday, September 29, 2017

UBI EST MEA?

                My dictionary defines the word scandal as “an action or event regarded as morally wrong that causes general public outrage,” but one has to strain to see those elements in the latest college-sports episode involving the arrests of 10 men accused of running a ring to bribe basketball recruits. At best, the moral part of the question is, uh, questionable, and the outrage has been muted if there’s been any at all. As has become increasingly clear to anyone who’s been paying attention, it simply describes business as usual in an enterprise that rivals few in this land for corruption and hypocrisy.

               I and others have been railing for years (decades!) about the failings of college sports, to no avail. They only get worse as the money pot grows and our institutions of higher learning twist themselves out of shape to grab their share of it. Coaches and administrators turn blind eyes to the offenses going on under their noses and lie about their knowledge when they’re exposed. It’s part of their jobs.

The main victims are the so-called student-athletes who fuel the beast and, mostly, are discarded when they’re of no further use. The joke in communist Russia was that the people pretended to work and the state pretended to pay them. In college sports the athletes pretend to go to school and the schools pretend to graduate them.

What’s different about the current matter is its scope and specificity.  Scooped up in a federal probe announced last Tuesday in New York were assistant coaches at four top-flight hoops schools—Arizona, Auburn, Oklahoma State and Southern California-- two employees of the international shoe company Adidas, two financial advisers, a players’ agent and (!) a custom tailor. Making a long story short, it’s alleged that Adidas and the other business types funneled money to the coaches to pay basketball prospects to attend their schools and, later, turn their representation over to them when (if) they turned pro. I’m really interested to know how the tailor figured into this. Are new suits that expensive these days?

Prosecutors said the three-year FBI investigation that led to the charges is continuing and that their net probably would widen in the weeks ahead. That was clear from the inclusion in the arrest documents of two more schools that were described but not named, but were named later as the U’s of Louisville and Miami. It was alleged that basketball prospects or their families received upwards of $100,000 each from Adidas, et al, to enroll there. Rick Pitino, the Louisville coach with a long and sordid rap sheet, was placed on “administrative leave” by the school on Wednesday, so there should be more from that quarter. It also was reported that employees of Nike, another big shoe company, have been subpoenaed, opening another avenue of inquiry.

Legally speaking this is serious stuff, with violations of U.S. bribery, conspiracy, honest-services fraud and wire-fraud statutes involved. One piece I read said that if convicted of all charges the coaches could face maximum sentences of 80 years in prison.  For men in their 40s or 50s, as the coaches seem to be, those are life sentences, the fed-max they’d get for murder. If nothing else that should encourage them to make nice with the prosecutors as the case unfolds.

Really, though, it should be asked who the immediate victims are. They certainly don’t seem to be the willing companies, which regard the bribes as seed money. The public universities for which the coaches worked also deserve no pity because their athletics-first practices created the situation that nurtured the mess. In Arizona, where I live, legislative penury long has starved public higher education, causing tuition at Arizona State University to more than triple in the last 15 years, but the school still has found $300 million to renovate its football stadium.

One of the prosecutors interviewed on TV likened the accused conspirators to a pack of coyotes yipping and nipping at befuddled recruits, but the comparison rang false. That gang didn’t want to eat the kids, it wanted to take them out to dinner, and who could blame them for accepting? Remember that an athlete taking money to attend a college might violate NCAA rules but it ain’t against the law. A stigma may attach but basketballers Chris Webber and Marcus Camby and football player Reggie Bush took illicit money and went on to have lucrative pro careers, with all attendant honors.

 The idea that big-time college basketball and football recruiting involves only the kids and their parents, and maybe a high-school coach, is way out of date. Today the scene is a swamp in which agents’ runners, “street” agents, club-team coaches and their sponsors (mainly the shoe companies) and all sorts of hangers on also swim, and the coach that can’t navigate it doesn’t last long. Word travels fast in that milieu and exchanges of money don’t stay secret long.

 The probe is sure to enliven the “just pay ‘em” crowd, which believes that salaries for college athletes would solve all problems. I don’t buy that on a number of grounds. Making the kids employees would further devalue whatever the educational side of their scholarships is worth, and if $100,000 is the going rate to rent a blue-chip hoops recruit for a year or two, the price tag would be very high. Too, making people richer doesn’t make them less greedy, so under-the-table deals would continue.  One of the assistant coaches named in the action, Chuck Person of Auburn, had a 14-season NBA career (1987-2001) in which he earned about $23 million, and his Auburn salary was reported at $240,000 a year, so he’s hardly on the dole.

American college sports are like such other corrupt enterprises as the Olympics and international soccer in that they are inundated with money and poorly prepared to deal with it, either philosophically or organizationally. Billions of dollars are raining in from TV-rights sales, gate receipts and shoe-company largess, and plenty of people have their hands out to get some of it, one way or another.

 Surveying the perennially graft-ridden Chicago political scene, the late newspaper columnist Mike Royko wrote that instead of “Urbs in Horto” (meaning “City in a Garden”) Chicago’s Latin motto should be “Ubi Est Mea?”, for “Where’s Mine?” The same goes for our college sports.
 




Friday, September 15, 2017

NEWS & VIEWS

                NEWS: The Red Sox and Yankees swap charges of sign stealing.
               
                VIEW: I’m shocked. Shocked!

                The New York Yankees accused the Boston Red Sox of stealing their catchers’ hand signals during an August series in Fenway Park. The Red Sox pretty much admitted it but countered that the Yanks have been doing pretty much the same thing—so there!  Baseball is investigating.

                This sort of stuff always makes me laugh because sign-stealing is an integral part of many sports, including baseball and football. Further, it’s okay has long as it’s done manually, as it were, using only eyes and hand signals. Probably the most famous hit in Major League Baseball history—Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” home run for the Giants against the Dodgers in a 1951 playoff game—was abetting by a stolen sign. One guy, Joe Nossek, fashioned a 30-year career (1973-2003) as a coach largely around his ability as a sign thief.

                The rules rub comes when electronics are involved, like the buzzer used by the Giants’ center field spy to relay calls to the dugout in that memorable 1951 contest or, apparently, the Apple watch a Red Sox trainer wore to convey tips to his team’s batters. Electronic devices such as cell phones are barred from baseball dugouts but the Apple thing looks like a regular wrist watch rather than the tiny computer it is. So when the trainer’s watch read “curve ball” instead of 3 p.m., he was busted, or somesuch.

                I have no doubt other teams do what the Red Sox and Yanks are accused of; the standard TV shot from center field shows catchers’ signs on every pitch and it’s too much to expect that someone who can read them isn’t watching and passing them along. Ditto, probably, with lip reading, which is why so many mouths are comically covered during baseball’s many mound meetings. As the Madden 18 ads say, it’s in the game, and if you’re not cheating you’re not trying.

    NEWS: All four singles semifinalists in the recent U.S. Open women’s tennis tournament were Americans.
                
                VIEW: That’s really shocking.
                
                Except for two young women named Williams, American tennis has been in eclipse during the current century, with almost no other representation in the game’s upper reaches. Prior to Sloane Stephens’ victory this month no American woman other than Serena or Venus Williams had won a Grand Slam singles title since Jennifer Capriati did it in Australia in 2002, and no U.S. man has done it since Andy Roddick won in Flushing Meadows in 2003.

                That development coincided with some sea changes in the sport, in which more-powerful rackets largely negated the service edge, wiping out stylistic differences and turning every match into a baseline slog, and rising pro prize money broadened its appeal to prospective players. Time was when tennis (like golf) was a country-club sport in which the need for expensive facilities, equipment and instruction largely limited participation to the children of the well-off families that could afford them. Now tennis stresses the sort of stamina and mental toughness that demands players’ total commitment from age 8 or 9 and makes it a target for lower-income parents who see their athletic offspring as meal tickets.  Non-country-club Europeans have taken over men’s tennis and most of the top women’s ranking spots. Not coincidentally, European men have attained parity with Americans in golf and Asians rule that sport’s female side. The U.S. Open tennis breakthrough shows, at least, that more American women have caught up in the dedication category.

                It also underlines the remarkableness of the Williams sisters, who together have won 30 Grand Slam singles crowns (Serena has 23) since 1999, plus many Olympic medals and countless doubles trophies. Their athleticism may have been inborn but their longevity at the top has been hard earned.

                I was working when the sisters broke onto the tennis scene and, somehow, often found myself being talked at by their mythomaniacal dad, Richard. He delighted in telling me how his daughters’ court success was due soley to the coaching of himself and his rotund (now ex) wife Oracene even though it was well known that they’d attended top-level tennis academies, and how tennis was just a passing fancy for the girls and that they’d soon be off making their marks in fields as diverse as fashion design and computer programming. Now Venus is 37 years old and still at it while Serena, 35, is plotting her return from childbirth. I guess that, like most kids, they tuned out dad early on.

                NEWS: Cohen and Epstein rumble on the gridirons.

                VIEWS: I’m really, really shocked.

                My two favorite football teams are the Chicago Bears and the University of Illinois, so football seasons long have been unhappy for me. This one began as more of the same, with both struggling as usual to attain a mediocrity that appears to be beyond their reach. 

                Lo and behold, however, the leading running back for the Bears to date is a guy named Tarik Cohen, while one Mike Epstein is the same for the Illini. Notable Jewish football players of any kind are rare, but running backs? No way!

                Cohen was a surprise draftee, a little guy for pro football (5-foot-6, 180 pounds) out of a small college in North Carolina, but he’s freakily athletic (check out a Youtube video of him catching footballs with each hand while doing a back flip), very fast and versatile, a pass-catcher as well as a runner.  He’s been compared to Darren Sproles, another little guy who’s carved out a nice career at the position.

  Alas, I’ve checked around, including contacting a sports writer friend in Chicago, and found that despite his Hebraic last name Mr. Cohen probably isn’t Jewish. I expected as much because he’s African-American and has a Muslim-sounding first name.  Who knows, though—maybe he could switch. If he joined my tribe he’d never lack for Friday-night dinner invitations.

 Freshman Epstein seems to be Jewish, at least by self-identity. He’s from Florida and was highly recruited out of high school. Goodness knows why he picked Illinois, but he’s rushed for 165 yards in the school’s first two games and seems to be the real deal. He’s no immediate Heisman prospect but we old Illini don’t expect that. Pretty good is good enough for us.
               


               

                

Friday, September 1, 2017

KAEPERNICKED

                Would Colin Kaepernick have an National Football League job if he were apolitical?
               
                The answer, in a word, is yes.

                The free agent is 29 years old, in his physical prime, and a six-year-veteran pro quarterback, most of it as a starter. In his first full NFL season (2012) he led his team, the San Francisco 49ers, to the Super Bowl, coming up just short of winning it. The next season the team went 12-4 in the regular season and made it to the conference final. He’s as good a runner as a passer (better, probably), and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. By all accounts he’s been a good and diligent teammate.

                Yeah, his last couple of seasons weren’t great, but he battled injuries and the Niners were in general decline during their course. And we’re talking about a roster spot here—not necessarily a starting job—and backup NFL QBs make big money walking the sidelines wearing baseball caps and holding clipboards on game days. He’s certainly more talented than most of the men slated to do that.

By cultural definition Kaepernick is black, although his birth mother was white and he carries the name of the adoptive white family that raised him. He sports a big afro, which harks back to the days when that was the hairstyle of choice of black militants and still sets some teeth on edge. So, too, did his chosen method of protest, which was to sit or kneel during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, the national anthem, before his team’s games.

 His specific issue was the predilection of some policemen to shoot first and ask questions later when dealing with black suspects. A lot of people, whites as well as blacks, also don’t like that, but in messin’ with the anthem he not only changed the subject but also fuzzed his point, which was unfortunate, I think.  Clarity is a virtue in such matters.

If nothing else his plight highlights the unique—and odd—relationship between sports and patriotism in this land. Through the repetition of decades, American sporting events invariably are prefaced by the singing of the anthem, something that obtains in no other kinds of entertainment for which Americans gather. There is no “why” to this custom— it just is—and the lack of sense behind it only increases its force.

If you’d ask around you’d probably be told that the anthem is mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but it ain’t.  Indeed, the USA did without an official anthem until 1931, when Congress got around to naming the lyrics the Maryland lawyer Francis Scott Key wrote in 1814 to the tune of an old British drinking song after he’d witnessed the siege of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. Before that the tunes “Hail, Columbia” and “America The Beautiful” often sufficed on occasions when patriotic music was desired. Some people still prefer “America The Beautiful” as an anthem choice; among other things it’s a lot easier to sing than “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Knowing a good thing when they see it, American sports organizations have glommed on to patriotic themes and play them for all they’re worth. Giant flag displays mark the pregame ceremonies of many events and fly-overs by Air Force jets are a frequent touch. After 9/11 some Major League Baseball teams began playing the Irving Berlin song “God Bless America” before the seventh-inning stretch. People are asked to rise and remove their hats while it is played, even though the piece lacks any official status.

 As a sports writer I went to one event (can’t remember which) at which the Lee Greenwood song “God Bless the USA,” also known as the redneck anthem, led things off. The crowd rose for it. That “at least I know I’m free” line grabs ‘em every time, huh?

Federal law mentions the anthem and prescribes a protocol for behavior when it’s played --people should stand, face the flag and put their right hands over their hearts, and men (but not women) should remove their hats—but compliance always is spotty. No penalties are provided for violations, which is a good thing because enforcement would be impossible. It’s not clear whether only people in the stands are supposed to follow the code or folks anywhere on a stadium’s grounds. I’ve seen amusing sights in men’s rooms when the anthem is played.

There’s also no set way to present the anthem. Only opera singers and military bands can be relied upon to play it straight; otherwise, freelance vocal or instrumental shtick is the rule. A good rule of thumb for the correctness of anthem vocal renditions is the number of syllables given to the word “banner.” If it’s four (ba-aa-ner-er) you’re in trouble.
            
              In such a milieu it should be hard to define which anthem violations are worthy of censure, so Kaepernick’s punishment seems unusual at best. During his last-season actions he was joined by teammates from time to time, and none of them were singled out for special condemnation. During the current preseason several individual players (Eric Reid, Marshawn Lynch and Michael Bennett, among them) have mirrored Kaepernick’s actions, and a dozen Cleveland Browns staged a group protest, but as far as I know they’re all still employed.
          
            The day when the dictum “shut up and play” applied to jocks and other entertainers clearly has passed; we’re in a hyper-partisan era when political expression seems more like a duty than a luxury.  A few weeks ago President Trump and wife said they wouldn’t be attending the annual Kennedy Center tribute to outstanding performing artists after it had become clear that no one else would show up if they did.  That’s about as pointed as it gets.


 The NFL employs a variety of miscreants whose offenses make Kaepernick’s seem tame. Any team that hires him can expect some home-fan bounceback, but if the past is any guide it’ll disappear with his first touchdown pass. We fans are funny that way. 
  

                

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

BREAKING THE HABIT

I hate to risk spreading misinformation at a time when there’s more than enough of it around, but as a new football season approaches I can’t help thinking about a conversation I had with a sports-chemistry scientist 30 or so years ago, when I was doing one of my many columns about the use of performance-enhancing drugs on our playing fields. In my innocence I asked the guy why an athlete would risk his health to hit a few more home runs or shave a few hundredths of a second off his dash times. He answered with a laugh and a snort.
               
               “A few years back someone asked a bunch of world-class athletes what they’d do if they were offered a pill that would enable them to win every competition they entered for the next five years but would kill them when that period ended,” he said. “Most of them said they’d take it.”
             
                 He was, I suspect, embellishing a story to make a point, but the tale contained germs of truth that help illuminate the discussion about football and the brain injuries that, now, are firmly linked to the sport. One is that athletes, like most people, are shortsighted, eager to cash in on short-term opportunities whatever the possible consequences. Another is that jocks figure that, being special people, if worse came to worst they’d think of a way to avoid trouble. After all, bad things are what happen to other people, not to them.

                The immediate trigger for my thought was the release last month of the results of a Boston University study of the brains of 202 deceased former American football players turned over to them to confirm that they had CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, an Alzheimer-like illness caused by the repeated blows to the head the sport entails. Of the 111 former National Football League players involved, 110 of them showed signs of the condition, as did all but 10 of the 92 others who’d played the game at the college or semi-pro levels.

                The BU group was quick to point out that their study was anything but random. The brains had been donated by relatives who’d been concerned about their loved ones’ mental states, so positive results were assumed.  Further, CTE can’t now be diagnosed in living individuals and no scale exists to judge at what level CTE-type damage becomes serious enough to cause pain or alter behavior. Nonetheless, the overwhelming nature of the findings raised (or should have raised) eyebrows, as did the conclusion that people with only a few years’ exposure to football could be susceptible to harm.

                Already punch drunk from CTE studies, the NFL reacted predictably, citing the steps it has taken in recent seasons to prevent or ameliorate head injuries, not to mention the multi-billion-dollar settlement it had reached to settle the lawsuits of the hundreds of ex-players who claimed it previously understated the seriousness of same.  Still, it couldn’t resist its tendency to downplay or change the subject.

                This came through strongest at a pre-training-camp press conference that included several members of the New York Jets and Roger Goodell, the NFL commish. One of the players, 21-year-old rookie defensive back Jamal Adams, used the occasion to state that if he could envision a “perfect” death it would be to die on a football field, a view that wags quickly agreed was likely for him because the Jets get killed every week in season.  Goodell, who couldn’t plead youth as a defense, chimed in with a Donald Trumpian reply, pointing at a reporter and saying “the average NFL player will live five years longer than you probably will.”

                I found that claim interesting and tried to look it up. It traces back to a 2012 study by the Centers for Disease Control, which compared mortality rates of a group of men who had played at least five NFL seasons between 1959 and 1988 with those of American men generally at the time. A couple of differences quickly occurred comparing conditions in the league today with those of nearly 30 years ago. One is that the bigger-faster-stronger syndrome of which the NFL is proud has accelerated greatly since 1988, especially the “bigger” part.  Players weighing 300 or more pounds were rare then (remember the fuss when the Chicago Bears signed “Refrigerator” Perry in 1985?) but they’re commonplace now, with every league roster containing a dozen or more of the behemoths.  

                Less noticed but as important, I think, have been the improvements in playing-field conditions over the last three decades. Back then, both grass and artificial-turf surfaces could be slippery at times, blunting contact. Now the boys almost always have firm footing, meaning that their collisions pack more power, and danger.

                Every season for the last several a number of NFL players in their prime have weighed the odds for and against playing and decided they weren’t favorable. The most notable of these this season was John Urschel, a Baltimore Ravens’ offensive lineman and a three-year vet at age 26. He’s a mathematician in the off-season, an MIT grad student, and he opted to keep his brain intact by quitting the game.

                More typical, though, was Ben Roethlisberger, the 13-season veteran quarterback with the Pittsburgh Steelers. When asked if recent CTE findings affected his career decisions he said yeah, sure, but he’d keep playing as long as he felt OK, even though the effects of brain damage might not manifest themselves until years or decades after the injuries stop.

                Football players today are like cigarette smokers, weighing the pleasure (and profit) of the activity against its undeniable long-term health dangers. While it’s clear that the longer you play (smoke) the greater the chance of trouble down the line, there’s some wiggle room, and not everyone is bitten.  

                That sort of calculation takes time to sink in. In 1964, the year of the U.S. Surgeon General’s initial report linking smoking to lung cancer, more than 40% of American adults smoked. Now the figure is around 17%. Football will be in trouble one of these days, but it’ll take a while.