Wednesday, October 1, 2014

F-F-FASTER BASEBALL

               In what will be among the last actions of his reign, baseball commish Selig has appointed a committee to investigate ways of speeding up play. It’s a blue-ribbon group, made up of six present or former team or league executives plus Tony Clark, the head of the players’ union, who together have some 200 years of experience in the game.  A wiser bunch of wise men would be hard to imagine.
              
              Pardon me while I snicker.  The answers to Selig’s question, if they really are sought, could as easily be obtained from the first seven fans seated any night in any row of any ball park. Indeed, such a group might be a better vehicle for change, being less captive to the customs and traditions that have caused the problem.

The first questions any assemblage of experts or laymen might try to answer is whether baseball really needs speeding up, and if clipping a few minutes off the three-hours-plus length of the average contest would turn on the action-seeking young whom the game’s slowness is said to turn off. My guess is that it wouldn’t-- that baseball is a waltz-time sport in a hip-hop era, and that no fiddling with its rules would give it football’s bash or basketball’s dash, both of which are more in keeping with the current, edgy ethos.
            
           By me, that’s not bad; I’m finding that the older I get, the more I like baseball. I like watching the game best while I’m at the park, scorebook in lap, and with a knowledgeable fan next to me with whom to discuss the play that’s just unfolded, the current situation and the alternatives that might lay ahead. What’s the hurry, anyway?

Yeah, I’m old, and not a member of a “demographic” that some advertisers are said to prize, but my wife and I have little trouble spending money and many store keepers are glad to see us. Maybe baseball could court the same corporations that support the network evening news shows.

That said, however, I get it about baseball’s dawdling pace. No other game is so full of game-delaying shtick, performed for so little reason.  Cleaning it up wouldn’t require the delicate skills of a diplomat, only the ability to see what’s in front of one’s nose.  Come to think of it, though, that’s easier said than found. The trouble with common sense is that it ain’t common.

The first thing baseball’s Round Earth Committee might do is insist on the enforcement of a rule already on the books, the one that says that with no runners on base a pitcher must deliver a pitch within 12 seconds of taking the ball. No active pitcher does this except Mark Buehrle, but to my knowledge the penalty for a violation (an automatic “ball” call) never has been invoked. I know, it’s with runners on base that the game really slows, but an occasional none-on time call would mean that someone has an eye on the clock, which might speed things all around.

   The next thing that ought to be done is the outright banning of committee meetings on the field while an inning is in progress. That’s right, no more trips to the mound by managers, coaches, catchers or other players. I always laugh when a pitching coach trots out in mid-inning to steady a wavering pitcher; what’s he going to tell the guy besides “get the ----in’ ball over the ----in’ plate?”  If it’s how to pitch to the next hitter, the coach or manager probably is calling the pitches anyway, so that should take care of that. More-technical coaching can wait for between innings; pitchers spend more time in their dugouts than they do on the mound.

If the manager wants to make sure his infielders are positioned correctly he could do it with hand or arm signals, the way he positions outfielders.  Catchers who want to get on the same page with their pitchers signalwise also could do it by signal; one’s a fastball two’s a curve easily could be flipped if the situation demands it.

Especially wasteful is the manager’s trip to the mound to remove a pitcher—a simple wave from the dugout would do the trick. Keeping managers off the field also would eliminate the ridiculous practice of having those guys stuff their often-considerable bulk into uniforms. Even the slimmer ones look silly in those get-ups.

The next thing on the list should be batter behavior; in brief, once a batter steps into his box he should stay there until his turn is completed short of medical emergencies or running out foul balls. No more stepping out, craning the neck, stretching the arms, gazing at the heavens. If a batter wants to scratch, he can do it with one foot in the box while the home-plate ump taps his foot.

The most-productive move that could be made affecting batter behavior would be the banning of batting gloves, the tugging and re-fastening of which are among the game’s biggest time wasters. The gloves are affectations in the first place; there’s no evidence they make for better batting. Ted Williams never wore ‘em, nor did Rogers Hornsby, and they routinely posted averages one hundred points higher than those of today’s heroes.

The way to really speed baseball would be to do away with the games of catch that take place while a game is in progress. The custom of infielders tossing around the ball after each out when no one is on base stands out for its kookiness; no other sport has a similar practice. Hey, those guys have been playing the game since age five and they’re not going to forget how to catch and throw if they don’t do it every few seconds.

Ditto and then some for all the warmups pitchers are allowed—eight to begin each inning and the same number when a pitching change takes place. Pitchers can take as many throws as they wish before taking the field, so there’s no need for more once they get there. The argument that they have to “get used” to the game mound doesn’t hold water; if the bullpen mounds aren’t like the one on the field the groundskeepers should be fired.


 The changes I suggest easily could lop 30 minutes off the time of the average game, returning it to 30-years-ago status. By the current reasoning, that ought to please the kids. It would displease the concessionaires, though, because they’d have less time to sell their wares. If it ever came down to it, whose voice do you think would sound loudest? 

Monday, September 15, 2014

I HEART NFL

               The National Football League is riding high financially these days, occupying ever-larger chunks of the TV spectrum, packing its taxpayer-funded stadiums at ticket prices that far exceed the average taxpayer’s budget, and selling its gear to people of all ages and both sexes.  Franchise values have soared, heading into the 10-figure stratosphere. There’s enough spare cash floating around it to take a chunk out of the national debt.
             
              Funny thing, though: the league never has been more defensive, and I’m not talking about the kind of dee-fense that takes place on the field.

               Finding reasons for the posture doesn’t require reading between the lines, to invoke another gridiron term. Daily news accounts and security-cam videos produce recurring evidence that players who are paid to be beastly in uniform can’t always turn off their aggression after they take off their pads. Nothing new there, but we always treat it as though it is. Last season’s Miami Dolphins’ bullying revelations showed that some of those guys aren’t nice even to their teammates.

Worse, the dangers of playing football—always manifest—have become apparent to the most obtuse, as former stars such as Junior Seau and Dave Duerson take their own lives rather than soldier on with the consequences of old injuries, and other ex-players by the score parade their once-hidden wounds and seek redress. It’s not a pretty sight.

That last situation concerns more than just NFL alums; in last Sunday’s New York Times magazine, under the headline “Hating The Game,”  the “The Ethicist” column dealt with a reader’s question of whether it’s okay to support a league that seems to know it is detrimental to the health of its participants. The (long) answer by columnist Chuck Klosterman boiled down to the observation that NFLers are well-paid, adult volunteers who by playing take an “elective physical risk” similar to that of the practitioners of other dangerous trades, so it’s permissible to cheer them on.

That’s my take, too, but the reasoning breaks down when it’s applied to the kids’ and high-school games that are the sport’s foundation.  The participants there are below the age of informed consent and any parent worth the name these days must think long and hard before signing the forms that send their sons off to battle. Making that choice more difficult are recent studies that show it doesn’t take a Big Bang concussion to trigger lasting brain damage, that the cumulative, small-b bangs inevitably sustained during football practice and seemingly eventless games can have the same effect. 

The NFL doesn’t take adversity idly. It’s countering its risks-to-kids problem by pushing a program called “Heads Up Football” that involves teaching young players not to lead with their heads while tackling, blocking or carrying the ball. Instruction techniques are available at a NFL-sponsored website called USAFootball.com, which it plugs in TV ads featuring smiling youngsters. Interestingly, the site carriers a $25 charge for coaches and others wishing to learn the program, meaning that the league has turned safety into a revenue source. And while anything that might reduce head and neck injuries is good, it’s disingenuous to imply (as the “Heads Up” ads do) that it sanitizes the sport.

Further, the NFL isn’t satisfied with a provisional pass, it wants mushy and unconditional love from its followers. That’s the message of its “Together We Make Football” campaign, which, through a website of the same name, offers Super Bowl trips for the best testimonials to the positive impact of the gridiron game on people’s lives.

I’ve checked out the site and it’s a hoot.  Many of the letters shown break new ground in inventive grammar, spelling and word use; those are regarded as evidence of sincerity, I guess. For example Allen, a Cincinnati Bengals fan (last names aren’t used), writes that he and his neighbors in Westwood, Ky., love the local high-school team because “they go out and give it there all.” He adds: “We’re happy when they win and sad when they lose to the point their is tears.”

Serita, a Green Bay Packers fan, recalls her introduction to the sport thusly: “I remember when I was younger me and my mom used to watch the game all the time. I ask my mom what’s on TV and my mom said sat down and watch it and I been liking the game since.”


Most of the letters credit football for being a focal point of pleasant gatherings of family and friends, but some say it brought more-specific benefits. Baltimore Colts fan Tommy writes: “I was always a shy guy growing up until one day I saw Peyton Manning play during the 2009 season. After that day I became a fan and my social circles have increased.”

There are tales of courage: “My son Spencer has been playing football since he was 7.  Even sore with echilis tendinitis he never complained FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME,” writes New York Giants fan Connie.

And of developmental milestones: “Our baby was born August 9, 2013,” writes Packers fan Jasmine. “Two months later we were watching a Packers game and I was screaming because they scored. And I hear by two-month-old baby go “OHHHHHH!” Her first word. All because of Green Bay.”

It’ll be tough, however, to top the testimony of Dallas Cowboys fan Anna. Her missive rambled, and is hard to excerpt, so I’ll paraphrase. It seems that she also was a New York Jets fan when Boomer Esiason played there. In one Jets’ game she watched with friends, while in the late stage of a difficult pregnancy, her darlings blew a lead, causing her to become apoplectic. Her friends, alarmed, rushed her to a hospital, where her child was born through an emergency c-section.

 Later, the doctor told her that if she hadn’t delivered when she did, blood clots might have formed that would have threatened her life and her child’s, so the dog-ass Jets’ collapse could have saved them both. If that story isn’t worth a Super Bowl trip I don’t know what would be.



Monday, September 1, 2014

MO'NE!

               They didn’t have Little League when I was growing up in Chicago during the 1940s and early ‘50s.  We played 16-inch softball because it was best suited to the small playgrounds and parks that were handiest, and didn’t require much gear. But play ball? We did lots of that in season, mornings, afternoons and evenings until it got too dark.
              
              We played mostly choose-up-- three-against-three, four-against-four, or whatever alignments our numbers that day allowed. We tailored the rules to suit the circumstances, usually requiring pitcher’s hands out, right field out and the batting team supplying the catcher and umpire. Those last two things might seem iffy, but they almost always worked out okay.

We played some organized softball, too, in my case mostly at the gravel-surfaced McPherson School playground I frequented.  The playground director was a rotund political appointee named Ed Uhlich, whom we kids nicknamed “Uncle Ed” because he was anything but avuncular. He did, however, bestir himself to schedule occasional practices, hit fungoes to us and make out the lineups when we played other playground teams at the “midget” (ages 8, 9 and 10) and “junior” (11-13) levels.

 We had only so-so success in those leagues until the last year, when a couple of miraculously talented kids, including Billy Haig, who would become a basketball star at DePaul U., joined our ranks, and we won a city title. That’s the way I remember it, anyway. I’d feel better about the brag if I still had the medal to prove it, but, alas, it’s been lost.

By “we” I mean the boys my age who lived in the Northside neighborhood around the school.  There were girls in the nabe, of course, but we guys never (as in never) played sports with them. It wasn’t that we rejected them, it was that the subject never came up. Girls did other things for fun back then. I mean, they must have.

The pattern continued at Roosevelt High School, which I attended (1951-55); it had varsity sports for boys but not for girls. Ditto for the other Chicago public high schools then, as far as I know.  Any controversy engendered by that situation was all but unvoiced. Girls were cheerleaders, and that was that.

Now things are different; indeed, the spread of women’s sports has been the biggest change in the sports world since—well—ever. Simple equity demanded it, pushed along by the example of the Olympics (the one really worthwhile thing that institution has done) and Title IX, the 1972 Civil Rights Act amendment that prohibited discrimination by sex in any educational program or activity that received Federal funding. Forty-plus years later we’re still arguing about what Title IX means, but for thousands of woman and girls it’s certainly meant the opportunity and wherewithal to express themselves athletically.

   Mostly, separation rules on the fields of play: girls play girls and boys play boys. Once in a while, though, the pattern gets broken, as it did in the Little League Baseball World Series a week or so ago. There, in full view of ESPN, 13-year-old Mo’ne Davis, representing a Philadelphia team, not only pitched a complete game in the diamond sport’s annual kids’ classic but shut out her foe, busting 70 mph fastballs past bewildered boys. As they say, the crowd went wild. That included Sports Illustrated magazine, which put the youngster on its cover.  
            
             People get excited whenever girls (or women) beat boys (or men) in sports, even in horse racing, where the physiological differences between the sexes are less important athletically than they are in humans. I guess that’s because everyone loves an underdog. Truth is, though, that in the Little League eligibility ages of 11 through 13 girls are in the least-underdoggy phase of their lives, being on average a bit taller and heavier than boys of the same age (no kidding). Girls usually mature (i.e., go through puberty) earlier than boys, and thus have their growth spurts earlier. By mid-teens, however, boys usually have passed them, and by adulthood have about a 50% edge in “lean body mass” (i.e., muscle). That’s the basis of male athletic superiority.
          
            Every so often a promoter will turn a buck by challenging the above verity and staging a so-called Battle of the Sexes. The most notable of these came in 1973 when Bobby Riggs, a tennis champion in his youth but by then a 55-year-old hustler, ginned up (and won) a match with Margaret Court, a top-ranked woman. Having captured the media’s attention, he then took on a 29-year-old Billy Jean King, the reigning women’s Wimbledon champ, in a nationally televised match in the Houston Astrodome involving side deals that were much more lucrative than the $100,000 match prize.

 King wasn’t impressed by Riggs’ dink-and-lob game and whipped him, sending women everywhere off in search of tennis gear and instruction.  That was great but a more-accurate measure of the courtly difference between the sexes was a 1992 match between Jimmy Connors, only slightly over the hill at 40, and a closer-to-her-prime Martina Navratilova, then 35. Connors won 7-5, 6-2, despite getting only one serve a point in his service games and allowing Martina to hit into the doubles alleys.

Plenty of women can beat plenty of men in plenty of sports, but at the top level of sports in which both sexes participate in pretty much the same events (mainly track and field and swimming), men’s records are uniformly about 15% better than women’s.  That’s also about the year-in, year-out difference in average drives on the PGA and LPGA tours, which is why the women compete on shorter championship courses than the men.

Mo’ne Davis seems like a terrific kid, poised and pleasant. Her team made the semi-finals of the Little League tournament, no small achievement. Interviewed on TV after one game in Williamsport she said that she likes to play basketball, too, and that her ambition is to be the first woman to play in either Major League Baseball or the NBA.  It’s good that she’s keeping her options open. 


Thursday, August 14, 2014

TIGER, AGAIN

               For years golf fans have speculated about the day when the sport would have to carry on without Tiger Woods to carry it. It seems that day has come, before most expected.

They played the PGA Championship last week—the fourth and last of the game’s annual “majors”—and Tiger wasn’t around for the weekend, having missed the 36-hole cut. His game, once a source of awe, has become an object of derision. “He’s not even limping properly,” quipped TV analyst David Feherty, as the sore-backed golfer hobbled off after yet another poor shot in the tournament.

Between 1997 and 2008 Woods won 14 majors.  After the last, at age 32, he was deemed a sure bet to break Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 in that august category. He hasn’t won one since in what should have been his most-productive years, and the line on his chart is pointing down.

If you follow this space you know that I’ve written about Tiger before. It’s hard not to because the arc of his career has been so spectacular. He was a golfing prodigy whose early deeds exceeded even inflated expectations; similarly, his decline has had elements of Greek tragedy.  I’ve never rooted for him because, from close up during my working-press days, I found him arrogant, mercenary and controlling, but it’s still hard to see him as he is today.

His initial successes only made the reversal more startling.  His first major victory—at the 1997 Masters-- was jarring, with a record-setting score and 12-stroke margin that caused the moss-backed custodians of Augusta National to lengthen and reconfigure their course to the point where comparing recent and past performances there have little relevance. Three years later he topped that by blowing away the U.S. Open field at venerable Pebble Beach by 15 strokes, a performance that caused a collective shudder among his links foes. For the next several years no touring pro would tee up in a tournament in which he participated without feeling his shadow looming over him. Not even Nicklaus in his prime inspired such fear.

I’ve long held that a main reason for Woods’ dominance was the simple fact that he was a better athlete than any of his foes, and they knew it. Unlike sports that prize speed, strength and agility, golf is about rhythm and timing, and some unlikely looking types have excelled at it, but golfers still are jocks at heart and worship the traditional athletic virtues. I recall that when the powerful slugger Dick Allen was with the Chicago White Sox in the 1970s he broke every clubhouse rule, often showing up for games late, hung over or both, and disappearing between innings to cop smokes. No Sox teammate was heard to criticize him, however, tickled as all of them were to have him on their side.
            
           Tiger’s physical edge began to slip with knee surgeries in 2007 and ’08, the price he paid for the effort he put into his dynamic swing. Worse yet was the blow to his psyche that resulted from the 2009 revelations that he’d been a serial adulterer with a taste for bimbos that put Bill Clinton’s in the shade. That came out in the most-humiliating way, when the golfer wound up in a hospital emergency room with injuries suffered after backing his car into a fire hydrant while being chased from his home by his wrathful, golf-club-wielding wife.
             
             From a carefully honed image for discipline and rectitude, Woods became a long-running gag for the Internet and late-night-TV comedians. Sample joke: Did you hear that Tiger wrote a book called “My Favorite 18 Holes”? A lot of people returned it after they found out it was about golf.

That would have been tough for anyone to take, but especially for Tiger, a prototypical ducks-in-a-row kind of guy. Thanks to the mythmakers at Nike and IMG who’d packaged him from the time he turned pro, and abetted by Sports Illustrated, he’d been presented as someone with gifts that transcended sports. His father and mentor Earl described him for the magazine’s profile written when he was 21 as “The Chosen One.” Said dad: “He’ll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations. The world is just getting a taste of his power.” If the golfer questioned that assessment he kept it to himself, as he did everything else that didn’t permit him to turn a buck.

Tiger scurried off for “sex-addiction treatment” after his fall from grace, and while he’s won some tournaments since his return-- five of them in 2013 alone-- he’s rarely been in the running in the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open or PGA, the only events he really cares about. This year he was sidelined for four months with back surgery to repair a pinched nerve. He returned (probably too soon) to play in the British Open, where he finished 69th, and in the PGA. Yesterday he pulled out of Ryder Cup consideration, saying he’d stay away from golf until his rehab was complete. Stay tuned.

Golfers can play at a high level well into their 40s (Nicklaus won his last major at age 46; Julius Boros won one at 48), so the 38-year-old Woods is by no means washed up by the calendar. Maybe he’ll regain his mojo and storm the heights again, maybe not.  

There’s a new phenom around in Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, the 25-year-old winner of this year’s PGA and British Open, and two other majors before that. Nicklaus, who wants his record to stand forever, stuck a needle in the young man recently by saying there was no reason he couldn’t win “15 or 20” of the shiny baubles. TV ratings for the closely contested PGA Championship were better than they had been for years, so fans may be finding new reasons to watch.  Still, for a long time they’ll probably be doing it with an eye out for Tiger.


Friday, August 1, 2014

NEWS, VIEWS

               NEWS: National Football League pre-season games are about to begin. Fans cringe.

               VIEWS: What’s the best thing that can happen to your favorite NFL team between now and the Sept. 4 start of the regular season? Nothing.

               That’s right, nothing, because 90% of the news that will emerge from every team’s pre-season is bad.  I’m talking about injuries, of course. They’re inevitable when football is played and one only can hope that the mishaps his or her team suffers won’t queer its entire campaign, like a season-ending one to a starting quarterback or left tackle. That’ll happen to some, sure as the sun rises.

               So why does the world’s most-corporate sports league risk its most-valuable assets in contests that don’t count in the standings?  Partly because the boys need a bit of practice before the start of for-real hostilities, but certainly not the four-games’ worth that the schedule dictates. That’s a function of commerce, based on the premise that you can’t turn a buck if the store is closed. NFL teams soak their season-ticket holders full price for pre-season outings, and sell the games’ TV rights as well. For the guys in the owners’ boxes, that’s worth a torn ACL or two.

                The four-game slate dates from a time when salaries were lower and many players needed off-season jobs to supplement their incomes. Training camp and exhibition games were for getting into shape. Now, jocks are jocks 12 months a year and always are in good condition.  A dress rehearsal or two and they should be ready to go.

               The league knows this and has floated the idea of reducing the pre-season to two games while increasing the regular campaign to 18 games from 16. The players’ union says that would be swell if everyone’s salary were increased by 12.5% to compensate for the 12.5% increase in games that count. So far that’s been a no-sale, so the lunacy continues.

               In fact, most of the players who really will play during the regular season put in much less than four full games of pre-season work. Starters typically play just one or two series of downs in the first pre-season contest, about half of games two and three and little or none of game four, the rest of the action going to rookies and fringe vets. Still, any time they strap it on they can get hurt, and some will. That’s why we watch the pre-season through laced fingers.

               NEWS:  EMMANUEL MUDIAY SIGNS TO PLAY PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL IN CHINA

               VIEWS: Good for him.

               Before I get to the whys, a bit of who. Mr. Mudiay is an 18-year-old native of Congo who came to these shores as a middle-schooler, settling with his family in the Dallas area. Providentially, he grew to 6-feet-5-inches tall and excelled in basketball, so much so that he was the nation’s No. 5-ranked college prospect at the end of last season. A likely one-and-doner, he was widely wooed nonetheless, finally deciding upon sitting at the feet of Larry Brown, the much-traveled coaching guru whose current stop is Southern Methodist U. There, he no doubt would learn more about the jab step and the cross-over dribble than about subjects whose names end in ology.

               But a funny thing happened to him on the way to academe. A pro team in China offered him a reported $1.2 million to join it for a year, and he said yes. At last sighting he was packing and learning to use chopsticks.

                Pro ball abroad is a path more young basketballers should follow if they get the chance. Sport is an iffy business, with disaster always around the corner, and it behooves the talented to seize whatever opportunities are open to them, while they’re there. For its own reasons the NBA has decreed that it won’t accept players under age 19 and at least a year out of high school. For their own reasons colleges have created a charade under which some of those kids pretend to be students and the schools pretend to educate them until the pros beckon. It stinks all around.

               Young Mudiay will have to pay taxes on his $1.2 mil, and, probably, a sizeable agent’s fee, but he should complete his year of foreign study with at least $700,000 in hand. Even after buying mama a house he’ll have about $500,000 for his own use, a nice start in life by any measure. If at some later date he yearns to learn, he can pay his own tuition, pick his own classes and shoot hoops only when the spirit moves him. That’s win-win-win by me.

               NEWS: THE MAJOR LEAGUES’ TWO BEST ROOKIES ARE FURRENERS

               VIEWS: Whadidyah expect?

               With the 2014 baseball schedule almost two-thirds over it’s clear that the best rookie pitcher has been the Japanese Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees and the best rookie position player the Cuban first-baseman Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox. That result was pretty much predicted by the initial contracts each received—Tanaka’s for  $155 million over seven years and Abreu’s for $68 m over six—but the extent of their success still has been surprising.

               Tanaka, 25 years old, didn’t just handle Major League batters earlier this season, he handcuffed them, starting off 11-1 in the won-lost column with an ERA of 1.99. Then he fell victim to the elbow woes that are mowing down pitchers of all races and creeds. His availability for the remainder of the campaign is in doubt, but he did enough through June to warrant Rookie-of-the-Year consideration. He’s a helluva pitcher and we only can hope he’ll heal and again prosper.

               Based on Tanaka’s price tag the one for every-day-player Abreu, 27, now seems like a bargain, but it was questionable initially. He’d posted otherworldly numbers in his native country— in one season batting .435 with 30 home runs and 76 RBIs in 66 games—but the quality of the competition he faced there was below MLB level. Further, he’d gone almost a year without playing after his escape from the people’s republic, and was coping with sudden wealth and new choices in a quite-different land.

               The big fellow, however, hit with power from the outset in Chicago and currently leads the majors with 31 home runs. Just as impressively, the more Abreu sees of big-league pitching, the better he likes it; after hitting .254 in April and May he went .326 from June 1 through July 28. “The Sox thought they’d get a slugger but what they got was a real good hitter,” team broadcaster Steve Stone recently observed.          

               The success of the two underscores the growing internationalization of sports, including ones we used to claim as our own. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s a whole new ball game out there.




Tuesday, July 15, 2014

DOWN AT THE HEELS

               July usually is a quiet time for college sports, a period in which coaches hide out in dark rooms indulging their game-films obsessions and players take summer classes to make up the credits they can’t get during the fall or spring semesters, when their sports are in season. Boosters are left to their own devices for entertainment, mostly watching TV reruns or speculating about the campaigns ahead.
           
            This year, though, has been lively. The NCAA is defending itself in court over its use of player images in video games and, for a change, is losing. The major conferences are rumbling about making their own rules and threatening to split with the cartel if they don’t get their way.  Rarely a day goes by that a college athlete doesn’t embarrass his school by running afoul of the law, a subject I wrote about a couple of blogs ago. That’s one price the institutions pay for the business they’re in.
            
            The busiest campus is that of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and it wishes it wasn’t. A scandal has been unfolding there that goes back more than 15 years and is appalling even for the cesspool that is college sports. It seems that an entire academic department of the university-- African and Afro-American Studies, or AFAM-- existed mainly to keep jocks eligible for their sports by handing them A’s or B’s for courses that required no class attendance or much other effort. There’s evidence that tutors wrote papers for athletes and, if that failed, grades were changed, sometimes by forging instructors’ signatures. The irregularities date from at least 1997. Since a college generation spans four years, that means it affected about four generations of Tar Heel athletes. That included the school’s 2005 and 2009 national-champion men’s basketball teams.

Some of those allegations were investigated previously by the NCAA, lumped together with those of the more-common sports grist of “impermissible benefits” (i.e., payoffs) to athletes. In 2011 the organization hit the school with penalties to its football program that cost head coach Butch Davis his job, but it determined that the infractions were limited to football and looked no further.  Things might have ended there if two state newspapers—the Raleigh News & Observer and Charlotte Observer—hadn’t kept digging, something that no doubt riled more than a few of their readers and advertisers.

 The papers’ stories uncovered a far-wider mess and resulted in the indictment for fraud of Julius Nyang’oro, the AFAM department chairman from 1992 to 2012, for pocketing $12,000 (on top of his regular yearly salary of $200,000) for teaching a summer course that never met. They also brought forward Mary Willingham, an assistant director of the university’s tutoring arm, who said that pre-written term papers were routinely handed to jocks in several academic disciplines and that for years the university had been keeping eligible athletes who read at grade-school levels.

 Most tellingly, the scandal acquired a face when Rashad McCants, a star of the 2005 hoops-title team, went public in June with allegations that his education at Chapel Hill was a sham, consisting largely of unearned grades achieved in the no-show classes to which he was directed by his coaches and academic advisers. UNC and other schools guard athletes’ grades transcripts like state secrets, but McCants produced a copy of his showing that he’d received  10 A’s, six B’s, one C and one D in his AFAM classes, and six C’s, one D and three F’s in courses 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,” he said on ESPN’s Outside the Lines program. “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.”

Now the NCAA has reopened its investigation and the university is conducting an inquiry of its own, headed by an ex-U.S. Justice Department official. NCAA and institutional self-investigations often end in whitewashes, but UNC might not have that option. Nyang’oro, who’d refused to talk since his indictment last year, lately has said he’d cooperate with investigators after the criminal charges against him were dropped.  That’s a curious arrangement, indicating that the university’s reach extends into local law enforcement, but he’d likely have many beans to spill should he choose to.

Almost as bad as the charges against UNC has been its reaction to them. Its line has been to blame all irregularities on Nyang’oro and his secretary, and to chide the Carolina newspapers for their reports on the situation. Whistleblower Willingham was stripped of her administrative duties and assigned to shuffle papers in a basement office. She resigned and is suing the school.

Roy Williams, UNC’s much-decorated basketball head coach, channeled Inspector Renault of the movie “Casablanca” by saying at a press conference that he’d reacted to ex-player McCants’ charges with “shock and disbelief.”  “I have somewhat control over the basketball program. I don’t have control of the academic side,” he said in a classic non-denial denial. This is a man who is paid a reported $2.6 million a year to run a 15-player program, and probably knows what his players eat for breakfast every morning. It later came out that six of the 15 young men on Williams’ ’05 squad were AFAM majors, as were many other Tar Heel jocks before and after.

 The affair is especially telling because UNC is one of those chesty schools that likes to brag that it “does things right,” combining classroom and playing-field excellence without breaking the rules of either. The U of Michigan said that before it was learned that Ed Martin, a Detroit numbers racketeer, was the godfather of its Fab Five-era basketball teams.  Notre Dame, too, before it deep-sixed a rape complaint against a footballer by a woman student who committed suicide after the incident, and sent a 20-year-old student manager to his death videotaping football practice from a tower during a windstorm.

As a Southern institution, UNC might have been more sensitive than most to its obligations to the black athletes it has been recruiting only with relative recency. Yes, the players involved were complicit in their own exploitation, but their youth was an excuse their adult advisers lacked.

This is a matter that goes beyond sports, casting doubt on the integrity of a university as a whole. The NCAA shouldn’t be investigating it, the national accrediting bodies should.



               

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

THE CUP RUNNETH OVER

                When people ask me to name the best event I ever covered as a sportswriter, I answer without hesitation. It was the 1998 soccer World Cup in France. No 2?  Also easy-- the 1994 World Cup in the United States.
               
              The 1998 fest gets the nod in large part because it enabled me (and wife Susie) to spend five weeks in France on the Wall Street Journal’s dime, but both World Cups stood out from a sporting standpoint. The high athletic level of the games and the color, enthusiasm and good nature of the crowds made both occasions memorable.  To attend a World Cup is to love it.

                Thanks to ESPN’s brilliant, wall-to-wall coverage,   Americans have been getting a virtual World Cup experience this time around that’s almost as good as the real thing, and the results have been startling. We are more into the event than when we were the hosts, with sports bars packed to capacity  when the U.S. team plays and large crowds gathering in open-air urban venues to watch the action communally on big screens, just like in Europe and Latin America. Almost 25 million people watched the U.S.-Portugal match on TV, more than watched any game of the NBA or NHL finals. Little kids say they want to be soccer players when they grow up.

 With this exposure has come a marked increase in soccer literacy. A few years ago about all the typical Yank could tell you about the game was that the English star David Beckham was a cute guy with a cuter wife. Today many of us know what a “striker” is, and the terms “offside,” “cross,” “penalty kick” and “stoppage time” also have become familiar. I heard one radio sports-blab guy give a match score as “one- nil” without a hint of sarcasm. That’s progress.

True to form, however, our burst of soccermania has led some to conclude that the sport is about to rival our traditional Big Three of baseball, football and basketball for our year-around attentions. Not so fast, folks. Soccer is an acquired taste that’s acquired gradually, and will need more than a once-every-four-years goose to truly catch on hereabouts.  Americans who follow the sport (I am one of them) will need to exercise the quite-unAmerican trait of patience before we see it achieve capital-letter popularity.

The patience theme is apparent in the World Cup history of our men’s national team. The U.S. participated in three of the event’s first four renewals (in 1930, ’34 and ’50), before it was a big deal, but the game then receded into irrelevance on these shores and World Cup qualification wasn’t again achieved  until  1990. That team proved how far the U.S. had to go to compete against nations with greater soccer history and dedication; consisting mostly of collegians, it was sent home after three thrashings, outscored two goals to eight.

Things improved thereafter, with qualification coming in 1994 and ’98 and 2002, ’06 and ’10. Instead of with college kids those teams filled their ranks with pros, some of them with European experience. But they weren’t the best players on the best teams there, and although the 2002 edition surprised with a quarterfinals berth it never threatened seriously to bring home the funny-looking champion’s trophy. 

While it lacks the star it never has had, this year’s U.S. team is the deepest and hardest working yet, and probably the best coached. A long shot to advance in a group with Germany, ranked No. 2 worldwide, No. 4 Portugal and good-though-unranked Ghana (the U.S. came in at No. 13), the Yanks beat Ghana and came within a heart-stopping 30 seconds of victory over Portugal and immediate advancement.  They lost to Germany last Thursday, and while the score was 1-0 German domination of the game signaled that the road to the top still was long. Nonetheless, the U.S. made it to the round of 16, no small accomplishment and enough to fuel future optimism.

The long-view requirement is even stronger when it comes to building the sort of domestic professional league necessary for any lasting popularity gains. One pro circuit—the North American Soccer League—was launched in 1968 and made a splash in the 1970s with the high-priced signings of the superannuated international stars Pele and Franz Beckenbauer. It was gone by 1984, the victim of too-large payrolls and too-small attendance.

 The next try was Major League Soccer, started in 1996 with more-modest aims and budgets. MLS struggled until most of its teams abandoned large football stadiums as homes and built or found venues with capacities in the 20,000-to-25,000-seat range that created a snugger, more-intense fan experience for the size of crowds it was attracting.  It also has profited by organizing its hard-core backers into the kind of supporter groups that help European club teams thrive. Team names like Houston Dynamo and Real Salt Lake, however comical, are a further try to recreate a European club atmosphere.

 MLS has grown to 19 teams from 10 at its inception, and is said to be making money. Still, it’s a second-tier league with an out-of-synch summer schedule whose quality of play is well below that of the European “majors” in England, Spain, Germany and Italy, and is likely to remain so in the foreseeable future. American players who want to test themselves against the best will have to cross the ocean to do so, as they do now.

There’s no denying, though, that soccer culture is spreading in the U.S., and making a mark. FOX TV and the new NBC Sports channels have been broadcasting a regular stream of top-level European club games into this country, with good ratings.  We’re a big, rich market and it would be no surprise if the people who run, say, the English Premier League were mulling expanding into an American city or two, the way our NBA is said to be eyeing Europe.

 Picture it if you will: the New York Whachamacallits versus Man U in an EPL game.

 It’ll happen. Just be patient.