Saturday, April 14, 2012


For sports fans, this is among the best times of year. The Major League Baseball season has begun, hockey is in its playoffs phase, pro basketball soon will be there and the pro-football draft is about a fortnight away. Gatherings of all sorts are abuzz with sports talk, to the virtual exclusion of other topics.

For nonfans—a persecuted minority at any time—the situation is uncomfortable, if not dire. Not only are they left out of the chatter, they’re apt to feel bewildered and culturally derived as well. That’s because sports has a vocabulary of its own, understood only by the cognoscenti. If you’ve traveled broad and aren’t adept at foreign languages, you know what it’s like to overhear conversations that are totally unintelligible. Imagine how that must feel in your own land.

I’m a sports fan, of course, but have some knowledge of the psyche of the nonfan. My daughter Jessica, raised in a four-brother family of fans, is one, as were both my parents and my lone sibling, sister Judy. Their examples have caused me to ponder the fan/nonfan phenomenon and conclude that it stems from nature, not nurture. Somewhere in our makeup is a gene that twisted one way produces fans, and twisted another produces nons. Some day someone will identify it, and, thus, open the way to its manipulation. Couples of the future will be able to control whether or not their offspring will follow sports, ending the heartbreak of houses divided. Indeed, the time can’t be far away when parents will be able to specify which sports will enthuse their children—and, even, which teams!

Until that happy day comes, however, we must depend on education to close the gaps, but there are difficulties. Rather than educate, the sports pages of our daily newspapers obfuscate, regularly employing the sort of shorthand that widens the cultural divide. As a young reporter I was told by a wise editor that the three main rules of journalism were “explain, explain, explain,” but that message never seems to make it to the sports departments. They throw around initials such as NBA and NHL with nary a word of explanation, and just about daily carry entire stories in which the subject sport is never named.

Like most fans I ignored that last thing until a jarring experience set me straight. It came during a long-ago trip to England, where I made my way through a lengthy, jargon-filled sports-page piece without ever discovering what sport it was about. (It was cricket, I later learned.) Then and there I resolved never to write a sports story without naming the sport early on. One of my proudest boasts is that I’ve stuck to that pledge.

So call a nonfan to read this over your shoulder—he or she will learn something. NBA stands for National Basketball Association and NHL for National Hockey League. That’s important to know even if candor requires me to point out that both titles are misnomers because the entities really are international, encompassing teams from both the U.S. and Canada.

Obversely, our annual baseball championship is grandly called the World Series even though only U.S. teams (and one from Toronto) are eligible to participate. Since 2006 there has been a real world series, called the World Baseball Classic, involving national all-star teams from many countries. It’s been contested twice (in 2006 and 2009), with Japan winning both times. That the U.S. never has finished higher than fourth in the event is something our Major League would prefer to ignore.

Now let’s move on to decoding things that sports figures say; like the writers who describe their deeds, they have a language all their own. The main places to hear it are the ESPN television stations. Without a glossary the talk they broadcast is meaningless.

For example, when a player says he is “struggling” it means he is failing; a baseball player who confesses to “struggling at the plate” means that he couldn’t get a hit if the pitcher handed him the ball. The reasons usually given for such struggles are called “distractions.” These can be anything that might keep an athlete’s mind from his on-field duties, from a hangnail to a pending rape trial.

When a player signs a multi-year, multi-multi-million-dollar contract, he typically expresses his satisfaction by saying that the vast sum finally will enable him to “take care” of his family, even though it guarantees than even with moderate overspending none of his descendants for many generations will have to work. The flip side of that line is a team owner saying he won’t meet the market price for a desirable player because he needs to maintain his team’s “salary structure.” That means that if he pays one guy what’s he’s worth his other employees also might demand similar treatment.

“All I really want is a ring” is another thing an athlete says after he’s signed a huge contract. Members of championship teams usually receive rings, which have come to emblemize unselfish achievement.

But when his contract offers an “out,” whether or not a ring has been attained, this same fella is as likely as not to ditch his team for one that offers him more money. Why would he do such a thing? BECAUSE HE HAS TO TAKE CARE OF HIS FAMILY.

See how easy it is once you get the hang of it?

Sunday, April 1, 2012


I like boxing but hate to admit it. It’s a brutal activity that offends just about everyone’s notions of civility and is saved only by the courage and skill of its best practitioners. Still, for the tingle of pure excitement, nothing beats the opening bell of a big fight. I attended many as a columnist, and miss the privilege of a ringside seat.

I feel pretty much the same about college sports, the annual climax of which—the NCAA basketball title game—tips off tomorrow (Monday) night. Yeah, the games are swell, and well worth watching, but their administration is so steeped in hypocrisy and corruption that the odor comes right through my television set and into my living room. That also was the case when I had a much-less-fancy TV than I do now.

Nothing makes that point better than the contrast between the parlous state of higher education in this land and the lavishness of the college-sports establishment. While states slash their support of public colleges and universities, and the resulting tuition increases turn a college education for most into a luxury supportable only by painful borrowing (total student-loan debt exceeds credit-card debt in the U.S.), schools pour ever-larger sums into new stadiums and athletics-support facilities. Nothing is too good for our jocks.

I thought the prevailing mindset on this issue was expressed nicely a few weeks ago when a member of the fine legislature of my home state of Arizona introduced a bill requiring every scholarship student at a state university to make a minimum tuition payment of $2,000 from his own or his parents’ pocket. The gentleman was quick to note, however, that holders of athletics scholarships would be exempt from the charge because their talents “help” their schools.

As exemplified by this season’s basketball Final Four, the nothing-is-too-good rule goes double for big-time college head coaches; according to USA Today the combined annual salaries of the four schools’ sideline bosses total $17.6 million, or, probably, more than that of the entire engineering faculties of the institutions involved. Louisville’s Rick Pitino heads the list at $7.5 million a year, a sum which, as far I can tell, exceeds the salary of any NBA coach now that Phil Jackson has retired. Kentucky’s John Calipari is next at $3.9 million, and Kansas’s Bill Self is close behind him at $3.6 million. Thad Matta of Ohio State makes a paltry $2.6 million, but I’m sure he’ll get a raise soon.

It would be good to report that the above-named gentlemen are moral exemplars who are a credit to their schools, parents and race. Hah! Calipari heads just about everyone’s all-sleaze list, with Pitino close behind. The jury remains out on Self and Motta, as it does on just about every other college coach at their level of pay and accomplishment.

Calipari’s rep is based mostly on the fact that he’s the only coach to have had the NCAA vacate the records (and take back the trophies) of two Final Four teams he guided—Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008. UMass was whacked after it was revealed that its star center, Marcus Camby, received about $40,000 in cash and gifts from an agent while he was a so-called student-athlete. Memphis got it because Derrick Rose, the freshman leader of its 2008 national runnerup, got into the school because someone else took his college-entrance exam.

Calipari, of course, maintained that he’d been ignorant of those misdeeds. The NCAA chose to believe him despite the fact that coaches of his ilk know what each of their players eat for breakfast every morning. That’s why they call the cartel the No Consequences Athletics Association.

Indeed, Calipari’s career has sailed right along no matter what ethical icebergs he’s banged into, culminating in 2009 in the UK job, reputed to be the best in academe. He’s so far escaped formal obloquy there, but not for lack of trying. Eric Bledsoe, the star freshman guard of his first Kentucky team, left school for the pros after an examination of his high-school records revealed evidence that his grades had been altered to meet college standards. Then the coach tried to get Enes Kanter, a Turkish seven-footer, cleared to play at UK despite Kanter having been paid more than $100,000 to perform for a season at a top-tier professional team in his homeland. Calipari lost that one, and Kanter took the next-best offer, with the NBA’s Utah Jazz.

Fact is, though, that the young Turk spent only one year fewer in college than have many other Calipari recruits. He’s the master of the one-and-done, the cup-of-coffee college stay for the highly talented dictated by a 2005 NBA decision to deny employment to kids until they turn 19 years of age and are a year out of high school. Four members of Calipari’s first Kentucky team escaped to the pros after taking this academically dubious path, as did two of his second. A few from this team probably will, too.

Louisville’s Pitino made his early mark on his sport with his Armani suits and have-whistle-will-travel portfolio that had him flitting at short intervals between the colleges and the pros. His notion of allegiance is best illustrated by his signing with Louisville in 2001 after having led UK against the school in one of college hoops’ bitterest rivalries.

Pitino gained tabloid fame a couple years back when a woman who would marry and divorce his team’s equipment manager (!) claimed Pitino had raped her. The married father of five admitted to having had consensual sexual with the lady, and giving her $3,000 for “health insurance” (she said it was for an abortion), but that was it. The episode came to light when the woman was arrested and later convicted for using the episode to try to shake down Pitino for further funds. He came off as the victim, and not only has survived as a leader of young men, but also has prospered.

Matta’s Ohio State basketballers have been OK with the NCAA but the school’s football team recently was ensnared in scandal. Typically, the NCAA focused on the trivial benefits (tattoos) Buckeye football players got from a booster while ignoring the fact the guy was a drug dealer and his Columbus tattoo parlor was their social club. If a lot of gridders found the place maybe a few cagers did, too, huh?

Kansas under Self has prospered by recruiting from yon rather than from hither. The current 15-man Jayhawks’ roster contains only two Kansans. They sit on the bench while kids from Chicago, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Washington D.C. perform. Did those youngsters seek out the bright lights of Lawrence, Kas., only because of Self’s cute smile? Just asking.

So enjoy tomorrow night’s finale, but don’t forget the clothes pin for your nose. If you don’t have a clothes pin a big paper clip will do. I’ve used both.