Saturday, August 14, 2010


A couple of months ago—when summer was starting—I prayed for an end to the Gulf oil-leak disaster. I reasoned that the daily gush of bad news it engendered was souring the national mood and preventing a return of some much-needed optimism.

Now the leak has been plugged, but the mood is no better. Alas, the hits to our pride just keep on coming.

Among the latest was relayed by the New York Times’ sports page last Sunday. The headline was innocuous enough--“New Strength Atop the PGA Tour”-- but the body of the story related how “international” players, meaning those from countries other than the U.S. of A, had won 17 of the first 34 tournaments on our leading golf circuit, an unprecedented number. It went on to note that “internationals” had captured two of the men’s sport’s first three majors, that 12 of the Tour’s top-30 players were Europeans against 10 Yanks, and that youth appeared to be on the side of the foreigners, portending future setbacks.

Ohmygosh, thought I. If we’ve lost golf, what’s left?

The news was especially bad because it signaled the end rather than the beginning of our surrender of the so-called “country club” sports to alien hordes. Middle-class America used to produce top-flight competitors galore in those polite activities, but, apparently, not so much any more. Arizona could pass a law to fix things—and probably will-- but it wouldn’t help. When, as the poet says, the center cannot hold, we’re in deep doo-doo.

Exhibit A in this regard is tennis, and has been for some time. Where Jimmy, John, Andre and Pete once ruled the men’s side of the sport, a Swiss (Roger Federererer) and a Spaniard (Rafael Nadal) now hold sway, with no end in sight to their reigns. Worse, no American was among the top 10 players in the latest ATP rankings for the first time since the measure was introduced 37 years ago. Andy Roddick was the top Yank at No. 11, and he’ll turn 28 in a couple of weeks, not a good thing in a young man’s game. Behind him are only Sam Querrey and John Isner, a couple of misplaced basketball players with little chance for “major” glory. The outlook isn’t brilliant.

Women’s tennis looks better, but only on the surface. The Williams sisters Venus and Serena (African-Americas and, thus, hardly typical country-club types) still are slugging it out successfully with the Olgas and Svetlanas in WTAland, but Venus turned 30 in June and Serena will be 29 next month, and age probably will mean the same thing to them that it does to Our Andy. Beyond Venus and Serena you have to drop all the way to No. 45 to find the next American in the rankings, and to No. 80 after that.

The best women golfers of this century’s first decade were Annika Sorenstam of Sweden and Lorena Ochoa of Mexico. Now, mostly South Koreans lead the pack. In the early years of the Asian influx a proposal made the rounds that LPGA Tour players be required to speak at least some English. That was shouted down as un-PC and the Tour decided to join rather than fight the trend. Once the LPGA was a just-about all-American affair. Now, 12 of its 27 events are played outside the U.S., and that number grows annually.

The internationalization of men’s golf also has been in progress for some time, but until this year it’s been obscured by the sport’s recent domination by Tiger Woods. Alas again, the bimbo eruption that punctured Our Tiger’s cherished cocoon of control has meant that he no longer can sink his putz (oops, putts) like he used to, and “internationals” have moved quickest to fill the void he left. Maybe Tiger can get his mojo back, maybe not. Meantime, the likes of Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell (June’s U.S. Open winner) and South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen (the British Open champ) are thriving.

There’s no mystery about what’s going on here. Tennis and golf require access to expensive facilities and instruction, tying them to the better-off economically. Talent being spread about equally around the globe (as I believe it is), success thus goes to the youngsters in that group who commit early and put in the hours on the practice courts or tees that almost no one thinks of as fun. Our middle-class kids, with their multiple-choice lives, aren’t willing to put aside their video games and Blackberries long enough to do that. Unless or until that changes, we’d better get used to hearing other national anthems played on the “country-club” victory stands.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


What’s the worst idea in sports? There are so many contenders it’s hard to know where to start.

There’s baseball’s designated-hitter rule, which alters the game’s time-honored rhythms in exchange for a few extra runs. There’s the tie-breaker process in soccer’s World Cup that has important games decided by the equivalent of a free-throw shooting contest. There’s the failure of three of tennis’s four “majors”—Wimbledon and the Australian and French Opens—to adopt the last-set tiebreaker, which led to the ludicrous 138-game set, three-day match in the last Wimbledon go-around. Murphy’s Law is as solid as Newton’s.

By me, though, the prize goes to the National Football League’s summer-training regimen, now gearing up in sweaty encampments around the land. It has the league’s behemoths slugging it out in four so-called pre-season games in preparation for its 16-game regular season. Football being the brutal game it is, the pre-season action insures that, at best, every team will enter for-real combat dinged in some way. At worst, it’ll lose a quarterback or other key player to injury, a loss that will, effectively, end its season before it begins.

The fervent prayer of every pro-football fan is that that last, inevitable outcome-- Murphy’s Law again-- happens to some other team, not his.

It doesn’t have to be that way. College teams, which have bigger rosters than their pro counterparts-- and, thus, require more winnowing-- get by fine without meaningless warmup contests, although big-time teams typically schedule a “cupcake” or two before getting down to serious business. The NFL pre-season schedule itself has varied in length, once stretching to six games before reverting to its present four in 1978.

Further, the evolution of professional sports generally has made any league’s final preparation period far less important than it used to be. Back in the day, when pros were part-timers, the notion of “getting in shape” for the season ahead had merit, but with today’s seven-figure average salaries jocks are jocks full-time, ready to go on short notice. The NFL’s off-season rookie camps, “mini-camps” and “voluntary” group-workout periods underline that broader trend. Class is in session year-around, and the coaches have good books on all their players.

Every sport has a large component of tradition, and—for reasons no one much ponders-- pro football’s dictates that summer training be as unpleasant as possible. Players are bused off to godawful places like Bourbonnais, Illinois, where they shoehorn their massive frames into tiny dorm rooms, bunk with room mates who have objectionable personal habits, and made to do hard physical labor in punishing heat.

If August is, indeed, the “dog days” month, the footballers are the dogs. It’s no wonder that players with a modicum of clout maneuver their contract signings so they’ll miss as much of summer camp as possible. That’s what Brett Favre’s annual will he-won’t he charade mostly is about.

You could, of course, preserve the sacred summer-camp-torture ritual without the pre-season games, but here is where economics come in. Even though each team’s two pre-season home outings don’t count, NFL owners charge their customers full price for them. They do it because they can—one of many things in that category.

The revenue thus obtained is what keeps the four-game pre-season intact despite good-sense considerations. There’s a move afoot to reduce the pre-season by two games but add them to the regular schedule, increasing it to 18 games. That wouldn’t help at all—the season is long enough to begin with, especially when a team can play as many as four playoff games.

The central fact about life in the NFL is that every player hurts starting with Game 1, pre-or regular-season. Without Advil or (much) stronger, the game could not exist. Sure, the players are volunteers, but they still need protection. The league last week finally ditched its flat-earth stance on head injuries by posting notices in its locker rooms recognizing their impact and urging players to report them immediately. But concussions aren’t the only way players wind up with serious, long-term health problems, and less football is the only remedy.

The NFL players’ union, traditionally as short sighted as its counterparts in other sports, should wake up and get behind this. A 16-game schedule without the pre-season wouldn’t be hard to put into effect because the owners could regain most of their lost revenues in the usual way, through higher ticket prices and TV-rights fees.

They do that almost every season anyway—just because they can. This time, for a change, it would be in a good cause.