Thursday, December 14, 2017

RUSSIA NETS A "NYET"

                The 2018 Winter Olympics will begin its 16-day run in South Korea on Feb. 9 with a surprise absence—official Russia. I say that’s a surprise not because the Russians are undeserving of being booted; their massive, long-running and state-supported flaunting of the doping rules have few parallels. It’s because I didn’t think the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which runs the quadrennial winter and summer fests, had the cojones to do their duty in this matter.
            
               You’ll recall that the IOC faced pretty much the same choice just before last year’s Summer Games in Rio, with pretty much the same evidence. It punted to its constituent sports federations, some of which did the right thing (mainly track and field and weightlifting) but most of which didn’t. The upshot was that the Russkies were able to strut their stuff in Brazil with only minor interruption. In the last six months, however, the case against the odious Putin regime was strengthened to the point where a “da” no longer would pass either the smell or eyeball tests, and stronger action was unavoidable. Thus is justice done in the world of international sport.

                Alas, the ban was less than the total one that many observers, and 37 national anti-doping agencies including the U.S.’s, had called for. Russian flags, anthems and uniforms won’t be displayed in the Games’ base city of Pyeongchang but individual Russian athletes with lily-white drug records will be allowed to compete, if any can be found. They’ll do their things under the banner of OAR, which stands for Olympic Athletes from Russia, but their medals won’t count in the official table. Further, Russian honchos have had their VIP passes yanked, meaning that if Putin wants to show up to cheer his minions he’ll have to buy a ticket and sit with the hoi polloi. That in itself would be worth tuning in to see.

But partial as it was the IOC’s action still was praiseworthy on a couple of grounds, one of which is that it goes against the grain of sports generally. The main problem with sports governance worldwide, from the IOC to the NCAA, is that the regulators wear the two hats of promoter and policeman. The functions are incompatible and, given that it’s bad for business to knock the product you’re selling, the promoter side almost always wins. If most of my sportswriter colleagues understand this they never bother to point it out.

The other is that bucking Russia requires no little personal courage. Putin and his mafia know where their adversaries live and are not averse to playing rough when things don’t go their way. They can and will crash your computers, loot your bank accounts and run up big Mastercard charges in your name, and if they really don’t like you they’ve been known to send around a guy to stab you with a poisoned umbrella tip while you’re going about your business. I’ll bet IOC members are buying devices that start their cars remotely.  I know I would be.

The practices that got Russia in trouble were no less blatant, or carried out with no less an air of impunity. The country’s athletes have been doping for decades, with a long trail of suspensions, but the scheme the country pulled off when it hosted the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi was breathtaking even by those standards. According to the testimony of Grigory Rodchenkov, the man who headed its anti-doping testing programs during the time in question, more than 100 athletes were dosed with a performance-enhancing drugs cocktail washed mixed with sweet vermouth before that event and had “clean” urine samples substituted for their real ones post-competititon.

 The swap was carried out through a hole punched in the testing lab’s wall with state agents on both sides, a “B’ movie device if there ever was one. Crude as it was, the plot might have succeeded it if not for Rodchenkov’s 2016 defection to the U.S. to escape the heat generated when a Russian athlete at another venue was caught for doping.  The scientist still is in this country, hiding out. The icing on the cake came in the release of Rodchenkov’s diaries and a recent leak of internal digital files on the athletes involved. Both were reported in the New York Times, which has led in its coverage of the story.

According Rodchenkov and others, the plot was overseen by Vitaly Mutko, then the nation’s minister of sport and, now, its deputy prime minister. He’s a crony of Putin’s from their days in St. Petersburg city government. That’s testimony to the level of government involvement in doping and the importance Russia assigns to shows of excellence on the world’s sports stage.

Russia’s responses to the probes leading up to the IOC ruling, and to the ruling itself, have been its usual ones to any criticism—bluster and denial. It blames it all on Rodchenkov and wicked and envious foreigners. That’s interesting because any reinstatement to top-level international sports should require a thoroughgoing revamp of its drug-testing facilities and procedures, including the kind of transparency the country resists for any of its actions.  Without it Russia should stay on the outside looking in.

 Not only does Russia resist blame, it also thumbs its nose at the world by such actions as making the above-mentioned Mutko the head of the organizing committee for the soccer World Cup scheduled for Russia next year. Russia has been a darling of both the IOC and FIFA, the outfit that runs world soccer. That’s because all three are (or have been) kleptocracies that like the graft to flow smoothly.  In barring Russia in Korea the IOC has veered from that pattern. Whether it’s a precedent or a one-off remains to be seen.

HOLIDAY NOTE—If you have Chicago Cubs’ fans of any age on your gift list you could do worse than buy them my book, “For the Love of the Cubs,” which celebrates the team’s glorious 2016 World Series championship. They didn’t win it last season so it’s still current. It’s available on amazon or barnesandnoble.com., among other places.


               
               

                

Friday, December 1, 2017

ALI, AGAIN

                Muhammad Ali was, without a doubt, the leading sports figure of the 20th century, and one of the era’s foremost personages. Through sheer force of personality he broke cultural as well as athletic norms-- sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. The fact that he was a black American with obscure roots in Louisville, Kentucky, who barely made it through high school and spent the last 20 or so years of his life palsied and all but mute, makes his saga all the more remarkable. We won’t see his like again.
                
               Ali lived a big life and, now, there’s a biography that fits it. It’s “Ali, A Life,” by Jonathan Eig, all 623 pages of it, including 84 pages of acknowledgements, notes and index. It’s a heckuva book and you should read it. It’s worth the time.

                Eig was a colleague of mine at the Wall Street Journal. Our paths never crossed there but they did later, when he ran a website called ChicagoSideSports, to which I contributed. Sports often are dismissed as trivial, life’s toy department, but they and our reactions to them can illuminate human affairs as well as any other endeavors. Eig showed that in his previous biographies of Jackie Robinson and Lou Gehrig, two other seminal American sports figures. Good reporting and insightful writing know no categorical bounds.

                I never was a fan of Ali. His incessant bragging turned me off, as did the cruel ways he denigrated his opponents, most of whom were black men like himself, and his embrace of a sect of Islam that declared all white people “devils.” As I wrote in a WSJ column when he retired in 1979, and again shortly after his death last year at age 74 (you can scroll down to see my blog of June 15, 2016), boxing for him wasn’t a test of skills within a confined space and agreed upon rules but psychological warfare without limit.  His disdain for conventional notions of sportsmanship was nothing less than revolutionary and reverberates still, to our continuing loss.

                I suspect that others shared those views, but managed to overlook them. Ali’s refusal to be patronized struck a note that lit up the civil-rights movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, which Eig chronicles. Further, the boxer was so handsome (he’d say “pretty”), charismatic and downright likable that many people would forgive him anything. My stint as a full-time sportswriter began in 1983, after Ali had left the ring, and I never spoke with him, but he was a ringsider at a number of fights I covered and his arrival in the arenas never failed to illicit cheers that dwarfed anything the actual bout would elicit.

                Eig’s treatment of his subject is sympathetic but unsparing, highlighting Ali’s many contradictions. Ali’s rhymes made him known as a wit but he was all but illiterate and, probably, dyslexic, someone who received a “certificate of attendance” after high school, not a diploma. He loved money and talked about it incessantly but showed little care for it once it came his way. He was a moralist who divorced his first wife because she refused to bundle up in public as his Nation of Islam’s rules dictated, yet was an open adulterer and an absent and negligent father.
                
                Ali’s boast of being “The Greatest” stood up best in the ring, where his offensive skills and generalship were unmatched. He didn’t hit as hard as some other heavyweight champions or, even some of his contemporaries, but he more than made up for that with his grace, quick hands and speed afoot. The late Jim Jacobs, proprietor of the vast “Greatest Fights” film library and Mike Tyson’s first manager, once told me he thought Ali was the fastest fighter ever, of any weight category. That’s quite a claim for a man who stood 6-foot-3 and in his prime fought at about 215 pounds.

                As Eig notes, however, some of Ali’s boxing strengths would turn into weaknesses. As a young fighter his speed and upper-body flexibility gave him all the defense he needed so he never bothered to learn such basic skills as the bob and weave or the use of his gloves and arms to block punches. As he aged and slowed he became easier to hit. That led to his discovery of his unusual ability to take a punch, the basis of his “rope-a-dope” ploy of his later bouts, especially his epic victory over the powerful George Foreman. Ali’s belief that allowing sparring partners to hit him freely because it increased his resilience further hastened the neurological problems that disabled him beginning in middle age. One only could conclude that the real “dope” in Ali’s cutely named tactic was he, not his foes.

                The outlines of Ali’s life and career are well known to just about any potential reader of Eig’s book, but like in any good biography the author’s research justifies the read. The details of Ali’s free-spending ways and disdain for good financial advice are mind boggling. One story has him going with a friend to buy a Rolls-Royce and plunking down $88,000 for one (this was in 1976). On the way out of the dealership he remembered that he needed a birthday gift for his then-wife Veronica, so he got her an Alfa Romeo. When he got the Alfa home Veronica said she didn’t want it because she couldn’t drive a stick shift. Instead of returning the Alfa Ali gave it to the friend and promptly bought his wife a Mercedes instead.

                A six-page transcript of an impromptu conversation between Ali and Joe Frazier, recorded in 1970 when the two ring greats were young and on speaking terms, illuminates the complex relationship between the two men.  There’s an eye-opening story of how two U.S. Supreme Court justices saved Ali from prison in his draft-refusal case by fashioning a one-off verdict spurred by their realization that a not-guilty finding would justify his leaky reasons for refusing service, while a guilty one might set off riots.  The court certainly does read the newspapers.

                I do have a couple of nits to pick with the book. One is common to sports biographies generally, its excess of information on athletic contests long forgotten. The other is the author’s failure to adequately explain how Ali was able to continue his allegiance to Nation of Islam head Elijah Muhammad after the brutal murder of his close friend Malcolm X by followers (agents?) of Mr. Muhammad. But maybe there was no explanation for that.


                In sum, Eig has done us a favor by writing this book and we should do him a favor by reading it. You can buy one on Amazon for $17.34, no big deal.

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.