Tuesday, February 14, 2012


This is an Olympic year, and in early August fans will be focused on the track-and- field segment of the quadrennial Games, its main event. People will know who won the 100-meter dash and care about who will win the metric mile when it’s run. You might be surprised to know that Americans promise to contend strongly in the latter race, for the first time in decades.

Right now, though, the thinclads (as we used to call them) toil in anonymity in this land, their usual recent status. That was brought home last weekend when the Millrose Games, which used to be the highlight of the annual indoor track season, ended a 98-year run at New York’s Madison Square Garden and moved to the Armory at 168th Street near Broadway. The reasons for the move were both economic and aesthetic: the 5,000 or so people the show was expected to draw didn’t justify midtown rent and would look better packing the Armory than rattling around in the Garden.

It’s no news that track and field is in decline in the U.S. of A., a casualty of a calendar packed with better-hyped and more telegenic attractions. The indoor season that once flourished in lots of big cities is all but gone, along with the sponsorship that supported it. Things have gotten so tight for some individual athletes that one— Adam Nelson, a two-time Olympic silver medalist in the shot put—felt moved to go on ebay to seek training sustenance a few years back (he got a one-month deal from a medical supply company), and others have been offering to tattoo their bodies (temporarily) with corporate logos in exchange for aid.

Squabbles over money between the International and U.S. Olympic committees hurt everyone, most especially the athletes. Did you know that the Olympics take in billions of dollars in TV revenues and sponsorship fees but offer zero prize money to medal winners, leaving that to national governing bodies? Now you do. If it weren’t for the shoe companies the sport would by necessity revert to its bad old amateur days.

By me that’s sad. While most of my sports-writing colleagues agreed with Bernie Lincicome, late of the Chicago Trib, that the only thing duller than track was field, I always enjoyed the sport and the people who engaged in it. Its events include the most-natural of athletic competitions (I have no doubt that the first humans vied to see who could run fastest from here to there, or throw a rock farthest) and, on the youth level, are the most welcoming to boys and girls of normal sizes and proportions. The cross-country teams from my local high school in Scottsdale sometimes train on the streets of my semi-rural neighborhood, and I can’t help but smile every time I see them canter by.

Partly in consequence of its low commercial profile, track and field also is our most-democratic sport. School tracks commonly are used by recreational runners when the teams aren’t using them, and runners of various ages and degrees of proficiency often share the same space. I fondly recall the late, sainted Ted Haydon, the longtime track coach at the University of Chicago, hanging around after practice to advise any kid or grownup who asked for his help, and seeing young runners change their shoes in his infield next to the likes of Rick Wolhuter, one the best American middle-distance men ever.

Indeed, without a Haydon-like volunteer effort, the Millrose Games might have had nowhere to go once their MSG run ended. The Armory exists as a track-and-field facility only because of Norbert Sanders, a New York physician who ran track in his school and college days and later went on to win the 1974 New York Marathon.

Dr. Sanders, whom I profiled in a 1999 column, had pretty much left the sport for doctoring after his marathon triumph, but was pulled back into it by the shock of the death of his high-school coach, Joe Fox. That event caused him to reexamine his life and conclude that the youthful discipline he’d gained from running had been instrumental in his later accomplishments. At the time the city of New York was pondering what to do with the Armory, and ancient but solid building that in its last incarnation had been a homeless shelter so vast (it housed 1,200) that it had become unmanageable and notorious. He founded a group that dedicated itself to returning it as the track-and-field installation for city teams that it had been 30 years before.

Dr. Sanders pestered decision-makers for years, and raised $11 million, to make his dream a reality. Once successful, he oversaw an Armory cleanup of Augean proportions and the purchase of a state-of-the-art, 200-meter rubberized running track that was one of the best anywhere. Seven days a week from mid-November to mid-March the place is so much in use by teams and elite and recreational runners that its door hinges have to be replaced frequently. It’s a civic treasure.

Thanks mostly to our large population and deep gene pool, the U.S. probably will do well in track and field at this summer’s Games in London. It always does, and makes us proud. Still, it would be nice if we could rejigger our sports priorities just a bit to help improve our standard bearers’ lots the other 99% of the time.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


I’m sometimes asked what events I best liked to cover during my working days, and I’m always hard-pressed to answer. That’s because I most enjoyed the scope I was permitted, going to a Final Four one week, a prize fight the next and a major horse race the one after that. My interests were wide and I think I would have become a dull boy if I’ d been expected to stick to one sport week in and week out.

Still, I do not hesitate when asked about my least-favorite event; it was the pro-football Super Bowl. This was not because of the games themselves, some of which were quite good. It was because of Super Bowl Hype Week, the lead-in to the big event, the latest edition of which we’re now in.

I detested herd journalism and Hype Week was its annual epitome. Monday through Friday before the game the National Football League dispatched buses to the various press hotels and carted us newsies off to gang-bang interviews with the players, coaches and officials of the competing teams. Everyone went because everyone else went, and while I wasn’t playing exactly the same game as most of my colleagues I felt obliged to join in, at least at first. The demeaning nature of the process was underlined by the cries of “moo” that emanated from members of the reportorial throng as we were led from place to place.

No kidding.

The first of the 18 SBs I covered was the 1984 match between the L.A. Raiders and Washington Redskins in Tampa, Fla., and its Hype Week wasn’t too bad. The Raiders of those days were the NFL’s bad boys, a kind of football-playing motorcycle gang whose members appreciated Hype Week’s potential for ridiculousness. Lyle Alzado, their burly tackle, went around threatening to tear off Redskin lips, and after Skins’ lineman Russ Grimm declared that he’d run over his mother to win the big game, Raiders’ linebacker Matt Millen said he’d run over Grimm’s mother to win, too. There was no doubt in my mind that the Raiders would win in a walk over their uptight foe, and on Sunday they did, 38-9.

Unfortunately, though, it was downhill from there. The NFL is the world’s most buttoned-down sports entity and the word soon was out among competing teams to avoid uttering the sort of “bulletin-board” quotes that might inflame the opposition or, God forbid, get a chuckle. Vanilla became the flavor of the day, every day, and football writers were reduced to filling their space with features about players soldiering on despite ailing grandparents or incarcerated fathers-- in other words
their regular-season output. Super it was not.

Being green, I went along with the program for a few years, but then decided to get off the bus and cover the sizzle, not the steak. That both sugarcoated my Hype Week experience and improved my output. The following highlights list should explain why.

1989—Walking through my hotel lobby in Miami I came across a signboard inviting the press to meet Spuds MacKenzie, the bull-terrier party animal who was the star of the Budweiser beer commercials of the day, several of which were to air during SBXXIII between the San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals. Bud was my least-favorite beer but I loved Spuds. I also was a fan of the Spudettes, the three young women with
whom he always appeared. They’d be there, too, the invitation said.

I appeared at the appointed time and place and fell into the line of people waiting to be photographed with the dog and two of his pretty handlers, a brunette and a redhead. Watching those who preceded me, I was struck my Spud’s undoggylike docility. Indeed, dressed in a miniature tuxedo complete with trousers and red bow tie and cumberbund, he seemed almost comatose as the camera clicked. When my turn came my reportorial instincts kicked in and I tried to pump the Spudettes on that and other matters.

“Hi, I’m Fred,” I said. “What are your names?”

“Sandy and Leslie,” said the brunette, not indicating which was which.

“Where’s your blond partner?” I asked.

“At home,” said Sandy/Leslie. “On vacation,” said Leslie/Sandy.

“Is Spuds sedated?” I asked.

“He’s mellow,” said one of the women. “Laid back,” said the other.

I had another question but the picture was taken and I was moved off to make room for the next in line. I pursued my inquiries with a besuited man wearing a Bud badge. “Is Spuds male or female?” I asked him.

“Spuds is beyond gender,” he replied.

“I heard he’s a girl,” I persisted.

“You hear all kinds of rumors, like that he was drowned in a hot-tub accident,” the guy frowned, ending the interview. As I turned to leave I noticed that Spuds had fallen asleep/passed out as the picture-taking continued.

(And—yes—it later would be revealed that he was female.)

1993—Michael Jackson was to headline the halftime entertainment during the Dallas Cowboys-Buffalo Bills game in Pasadena, Calif., and he consented to a mid-week press conference at my hotel. I’m resolutely unhip, so he’d theretofore registered with me only as a black pop star who’d had his skin bleached. I thus was surprised to arrive at a too-small conference room to see a press crush that made the Hype Week footballer scrums look mild.

I got a seat anyway and, with a group that included many whom I didn’t recognize as sportswriters, waited 40 minutes for Jackson to show up. Finally, out came a very thin individual with grayish skin and stringy black hair, apparently wearing some sort of lipstick. He looked as though if you poked him in the chest your finger would go through him.

I turned to the reporter sitting next to me, a young woman who clearly was thrilled to be in Jackson’s presence. “That’s one strange-looking person,” I whispered to her. “He’s not male or female, black or white.”

“Exactly!” she exclaimed. “He’s everyone! That’s why we love him.”

1997—The Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots were paired in New Orleans, and the nearby town of Kiln, Miss., and the University of Southern Mississippi organized a sort of “roots” tour honoring home-boy Brett Favre, the Packers’ quarterback. This was something new under the Hype Week sun, so I went.

On the drive to Kiln, about an hour, one of my colleagues already was probing for deep meanings, noting that Favre was pronounced “farve” and Kiln was pronounced “kill,” and asking if I thought that was significant. I told him I wasn’t sure.

At Kiln (pop: 1,200) we were taken to Rooster’s, a diner of the type that TV reporters visit during the current presidential primaries to talk to “real” people. Irvin and Bonita Favre, Brett’s daddy and mom, were there to talk with us. Irvin was Brett’s high school coach. He said that he made his son a quarterback mainly because you couldn’t have much of a practice without one and he could make sure Brett always would show up.

Mom volunteered that the young Brett was “a stubborn boy—hard headed.” She expanded: “He hated doing chores and would sleep on top of his bed so he wouldn’t have to make it up. When he did something wrong and you whipped him for it he’d just look at you, never letting on he was hurt.”

Down the road at Hattiesburg, home of USM, one our greeters was Chris Ryal, Brett’s college roommate. Prodded for intimate insights into the quarterback’s character, he largely demurred. “I have a top-10 list of things about Brett but he wouldn’t want me to tell you the top nine,” he laughed.

But the former offensive linemen did say that Brett used to stuff pillows under his bedcovers to beat summer-training-camp curfew checks, had a wardrobe that consisted mostly of t-shirts, jeans and flip-flops, and wasn’t prim about, um, gastrointestinal expressions.

I didn’t need to know that last thing. Ditto mom’s stuff about whippings. But during Hype Week you took what you could get.