Tuesday, June 15, 2010


NEWS— Nebraska joins the Big 10, Colorado jumps to the PAC 10, other conference changes are predicted.

VIEWS—The tectonic plates of college sports are shifting again, promising a thoroughgoing change in the landscape. With Nebraska’s addition, the erstwhile Big 10 now has 12 teams, and could add more. Ditto for the PAC 10, which besides Colorado might expand further in the days ahead. The SEC also could grow, while the Big 12, the former domicile of the Huskers and Buffs, seems destined for the dust bin of history.

What’s up? Jim Delaney, the Big 10 commish, got off a good one when he said his league’s marriage with Nebraska was all about their shared “culture and values.” That’s like a guy saying he hooked up with Miss Universe because they both enjoy Bach. The addition increases the Big 10’s size to 12 schools, the threshold at which the NCAA permits a conference to split into divisions and stage a post-season football championship game. That’ll give member schools another big pay day at the gate plus whatever comes from the sale of TV rights to the event. Ditto again for the PAC-10.

Also—but not incidentally—expansion increases the range of the Big 10’s very own, round-the-clock TV sports network, which it launched in 2008. It’s been a bonanza for the conference’s members, adding a reported $20 million a year to the athletic-department coffers of each. That hasn’t escaped the notice of the other college major leagues—and, maybe, Texas all by itself--who are looking to also get into the TV business directly. That’s entertainment!

Will the jock-meisters cut in their English Department colleagues? Not likely. Big-time college sports always have been about sports, not college, and the trend only goes in one direction.

And a thought: At this writing the Big 10 has 12 members and the Big 12 has 10. Shouldn’t they switch names?

NEWS—Ben “Who, me?” Roethlisberger, quarterback and playboy, promises to change his ways.

VIEWS-- Big Ben’s so-called social life has twice earned headlines in the past couple of years, once resulting in a civil suit for sexual assault by a woman who worked in a Lake Tahoe hotel where he’d stayed, and more lately in a criminal rape investigation based on the complaint of a college student after her encounter with the footballer in a small-town Georgia bar. No indictment was brought in Georgia, and both women ultimately withdrew their charges, but we’re free to draw our own conclusions about why.

Anyway, Ben last week gave a brief press conference at the training center of his employer, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and while admitting to nothing said the fusses caused him to ponder his ways. He declared: “I’ve put a lot of thought into my life, the decisions I’ve made in the past. I’m evaluating what I need to do and be smarter when it comes to certain things.”

That’s cant at its best, or worst. A bad decision is what I made last week by fishing on the Wisconsin-Michigan border, freezing my butt and other parts in the rainy, 50-degree weather that can happen Way Up North in early June. Decisions that lead to rape charges are of an entirely different order. Ben’s moral compass—if he ever had one-- is broken. Nothing short of a year or so in the wilderness, complete with sack cloth, fasting and self-flagellation, seems apt to smarten him up.

NEWS—Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup!

VIEWS-- Normally I root for any team with the name “Chicago” on its jerseys, but I’ve long made an exception for the Blackhawks. That wasn’t always the case; I used to be a fan, and in the late 1960s and early ‘70s had a piece of a season ticket for their games. But that introduced me to Arthur Wirtz, the team’s greedy owner, and his yearly price increases on everything in or around its Chicago Stadium home made me spit out the tix.

When Wirtz let Bobby Hull, Chicago’s greatest-ever hockey star, jump to a new league rather than pay him a salary that quickly proved to be a pittance ($100,000 a year), I swore off the team for good. Later, when the National Hockey League turned its game into a punch line by winking at on-ice brawling, I said good riddance to the entire sport. As a columnist, I wrote about the NHL only to mock it and remark about how it had fallen while its seasonal rival, the NBA, flourished.

Wirtz died in 1983 and was succeeded by his son Bill, who was both greedy and dumb. Nicknamed “The Commodore” for his yachting interests, Bill let the team run down while finding new ways to alienate its fans. By the time he exited in 2007, the franchise was pretty much moribund.

Then Bill’s son Rocky took over. Maybe he’s really someone else’s son because he turned things around promptly, and this year’s Stanley Cup run resulted. I paid little attention to it until the playoffs, but once back in I became hooked and was quite pleased at the Hawks’ triumph. Still, when I hear that they now will win lots of Cups because their stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are only 22 and 21 years old, respectively, I recall that Hull was 22 and his brilliant co-star Stan Mikita was 20 when the team last won the trophy in 1961, and they never got to hoist it again.

NEWS—World Cup gets underway.

VIEWS—It’s mostly been fine so far, with tight (albeit low-scoring) games and excellent TV coverage on ESPN and ABC. But what’s with those plastic horns the South Africans continuously blow? The games sound like they’re taking place in a hornets’ nest. Enough, already.

And I hope you noticed that son Michael correctly predicted the U.S.- England tie. That’s my boy!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


By Mike Klein

With the few non-artificial snowflakes of Vancouver 2010 having long since melted, it’s time to look at this year’s really most-important sporting event, the football World Cup beginning this month in South Africa.

The World Cup is a one-sport Super Olympics, eclipsing the O-Games’ disciplinary breadth with its unparalleled fan fervor and journalistic over-analysis, and the economic paralysis caused by the billions of people worldwide who will drop their tools for the duration of its 62 matches. Anyone who’s tried to hail a cab or buy a meal in any European or South American city when the national team is playing knows exactly what I mean.

I first became a football fan in 1982 in my native Chicago; I call the sport “football” because I now live in Europe and prefer to avoid the mockery associated with the use of the word “soccer” there. (When I lapse and call it “soccer,” the response is “saaahhhccer…that’s a girl’s game, isn’t it?” offered back in a flat, fake-American accent.)

Football wasn’t easy to see in Chicago circa ‘82—the World Cup was offered only in tape delay on a newly minted, Spanish-language UHF station with dismal reception. I didn’t have to wrap the antenna in foil but I did have to stay up until 2 a.m. to watch the likes of Irlanda del Norte and Corea del Sud. I vividly remember Italy’s Paolo Rossi, who was the event’s best player, and Argentina’s Jorge Burruchaga, who had the best name. (Forget about “goooooooooool!” Try“Buuuuuurrrrrrrrruuuuuuuuchaaagaaa!”)

I watched that World Cup on the basis of a Chicago Tribune sportswriter’s recommendation, following the U.S.’s biggest-ever international sports victory, the ice-hockey win over the USSR at the 1980 Winter Olympics. Wrote he: “Did you like the U.S.-USSR hockey game? Well, the World Cup is just like that. Every match.” I couldn’t pass on that. Still can’t.

In this World Cup, the U.S. will open its play with a potential “Herb Brooks moment” against England, a perennial power in the sport. (Brooks, for the uninitiated or non-American, was the coach of the Commie-beating hockey team of ‘80). The England match will be the U.S.’s first in its four-nation, round-robin group, the other two members being Slovenia and Algeria.

While most commentators think the U.S. will lose to England and beat Slovenia and Algeria, group play is extremely hard to predict. Part of this has to do with expectations; in countries where football is the only sport that matters, the main goal is to out-perform them, which usually means reaching the 16-team, single-elimination round. In 2002, Ireland came home to a parade for making the round of 16, while higher-touted England made the quarterfinals and returned to a sequestered section of an out-of-the way airfield.

This drives tactics. Underdog teams (i.e., most of the 32 in the field) typically play defensively, hoping to keep things close enough to luck out a low-scoring tie or victory. Sometimes it works: Greece, which is in the current field, managed to win the 2004 European Championships with an entirely defensive approach, conjuring up just enough goals to move through the tournament. Its example is not lost on other teams, particularly America’s group rival Slovenia, which has a similar roster makeup.

This World Cup won’t be all defense; there will be some spectacular players, the kind that people watch the sport to see. Brazil, as usual, reloads rather than rebuilds, and one could make up a viable Cup contender from the players it’s leaving behind. One such is the former World Player of the Year Ronaldinho, who didn’t merit a spot on its bench.

England’s Wayne Rooney, still nursing a dodgy ankle, is expected to be ready to contend for the “Golden Boot,” the award for most goals scored in a tournament, along with Argentina’s Lionel Messi, whose club team is Barcelona, and Ivory Coast and Chelsea’s Didier Drogba.

Little is expected of host South Africa, particularly after a deal to have Matt Damon come in and captain its team was scrubbed after Damon kept picking up the ball and running with it. Still, in a lackluster group with Uruguay, Mexico and long-in-tooth France, it could make the next round.

Here are a few other predictions:

1) U.S. Draws With England, Then Slips Against the Slovenes

Even in its dismal 2006 Cup showing the U.S. managed a draw against eventual-champion Italy. In a similar vein, the U.S. will do what it takes to get a point from England in their first match, shocking the American public. However, post-draw euphoria will be short-lived as tough, defensive-minded Slovenia grinds out a one-nil upset, sending the U.S. into an all-or-nothing match against Algeria, with Algeria carrying the vociferous support of the Arab and Muslim worlds.

2) D = Death

My vote for most competitive group is Group D, comprising Germany, Serbia, Ghana and Australia. While the Germans are favorited, they are a beatable side. Ghana is one of the best African teams and will have strong home-continent support, and the Serbians never have been known to lack fighting spirit. Further, Australia is a real wild card—indeed, one of the more interesting pre-tournament exhibition matches will be between Australia and the U.S.

3)The New Zealand All-Whites Will Become the Surprise Package

Australia’s defection to Asia for qualifying left New Zealand as the remaining “power” in the Oceania group, even though New Zealand had to go into a playoff with Bahrain for the last position on the World Cup table. Success in the playoff has the country in a frenzy for the “All-Whites” (in chromatic contrast to the country’s long-time rugby stalwarts, the All-Blacks), and an agreeable pairing with Slovakia and Paraguay, along with defending-champ Italy, puts NZ within a couple of good results of the second round.

4)Brazil Wins

Not an adventurous projection, I know, but there’s simply no one out there with the talent or consistency to be seen as a credible challenger to the Samba Kings. Of the 18 World Cups contested since 1930, Brazil has won five, and unless the unexpected occurs (and I hope it does), on July 11 it’ll win No. 6, beating Spain in the final.