Thursday, November 15, 2012


           I used to be able to watch a National Football League game end to end, with only the usual toilet and beverage breaks.  Not any more. Now when I settle down of a Sunday afternoon I’m armed with my newspaper and a crossword puzzle or two, the better to amuse myself through the frequent breaks in the action.  They also give me an alternative to dwelling on the other things that make me gnash my teeth during a game.
           Being a blogger, I need not suffer in silence. Here are five things I’ve come to hate about the NFL.
           CONSTANT REPLAY-- Yes, I’ve complained about this before, but in its never-ending quest for perfection the league has doubled down on the practice the last couple of seasons, making it more irritating than ever.  From 1999 until last year, play-call challenges pretty much had to be initiated by coaches’ red flags, which were limited to two a game until the last two minutes of each half, when the replay booth took over. But beginning last season all scoring plays were tabbed for automatic booth review, and this season all plays resulting in turnovers were added to the list, ballooning it.

          Most of those automatic reviews are handled out of the sight of TV viewers, without disturbing the flow of the game, but some aren’t, and together with the ones made necessary by the red flags they’ve slowed some contests appreciably.  On top of the other types of game breaks—for TV commercials, penalties, each team’s three time outs per half and the two-minute warnings—they’ve turned games into stop-and-go- affairs that are far more stop than go.

The NFL has a stock answer for people like me who gripe about all the play reviews:  “You want to get things right, don’t you?” it asks. But even if one’s answer is “yes” it’s far from clear that constant replay achieves that goal. That’s because calls on some plays remain questionable even after being viewed from many angles, and the boys in the booth can still get it wrong when the visual evidence seems clear.

I refer specifically to the celebrated “worst call ever,” the last-play touchdown catch that gave Seattle its victory over Green Bay in a game last September 24. The play came on the last weekend of the league’s ill-conceived “replacement refs” adventure, and was widely viewed as evidence of the novices’ incompetence, but the real bad guys were the replay officials who upheld the catch even though the film showed that the defender clearly had possession and that the receiver had decked another Packer before the ball arrived.  With “right” calls like that who needs wrong ones?

The REAL bad guys, though, aren’t the microscope peerers in the booth but the league’s major suits and their absurdly puffed-up view of their game’s importance.  Jeez, fellas, it’s just football, played and coached by erring humans, and Gibraltar won’t crumble if a zebra makes an occasional mistake. Just let ‘em play the game.

PHANTOM TOUCHDOWNS-- I hate it when a ball carrier stretches the ball toward the goal line and is credited with a score if it breaks the “plane” even though it bounces away when he lands or is swatted away by a defender.  When did that start, anyway?  The word “touchdown” stems from football’s roots in rugby, where a scorer was supposed to touch the ball to the ground in the end zone before his tally could be counted. To be credited with a touchdown, a football player should have to control the ball after the play is completed, not just possess it fleetingly. That’s what the NFL already requires of a pass receiver who makes a diving catch anywhere on the field. Why should a higher standard be required of an ordinary pass completion than of a scoring play?

“THE CRAWL”—I hate the “crawl,” the info that’s scrolled along the bottom of my TV screen while the game is in progress.  Actually, it’s not the crawl I hate but the surfeit of information it contains, no doubt dictated by the unholy partnership of the NFL and the TV networks.

What I want from the crawl are the scores of the other games in progress, the better to follow my bets, but what I get are the endless lines of individual statistics that make an update interminable. Those stats are there to please the army of “fantasy” football players who have turned the game into a nerdish computer exercise.  That’s fine, I guess, but as far as I know only full-game stats count in the “fantasy” models, so why the running tallies? Also, the crawl invariably ignores one game each week, and it’s usually one that I’ve bet on.

“FLOPPING”—That’s a term usually associated with basketball or soccer, describing an exaggerated reaction to minor contact designed to draw a foul call. Footballers are manly men, and so generally don’t flop, but just about any time a pass goes uncaught the would-be receiver throws his arms into the air to feign outrage over a foul against him that he thinks an official missed. Sometimes --usually when the home crowd is in cahoots-- he gets his way. I hate that.

LIP-READER DEFENSE—I hate it when coaches cover their mouths with their charts while calling in a play. Do they think that a lip reader at home can decipher a message that’s coded anyway (“blue, 74, Oklahoma, on 3”) and call it to the opposing sideline for relay to the field before the next play is run? I doubt it. It’s just another example of the self-importance with which football types take their enterprise.

Also, who would do a thing like that? I mean, who besides Bill Belichick?


Thursday, November 1, 2012


As a columnist I wrote frequently about the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports—proportionally more than most of my colleagues—so the subject of who might be doping often came up in my presence. The name that surfaced most was that of Lance Armstrong.

I found that interesting because Armstrong wasn’t your run-of-the-mill uberjock. He wasn’t physically imposing and his activity—road cycling—was off the main SportsCenter track. The Tour de France, where he made his bones, is an odd affair, a 2,000-mile journey up, down and around its title country that takes more than three weeks to play out annually. I daresay that few Americans could find the cable channel that aired it, much less watched.

Armstrong’s very ordinariness, though, and his cancer-survivor history, struck a chord with many, as did the idea that pedaling around, as many do, could be viewed as high sport.  Somewhere into his seven consecutive T de F victories (1999-2005) he became an A-lister, and stayed that way after his racing days were done.  Lots of weekend riders, in their bizarre Spandex togs, are there largely because of his example.

Still, Armstrong’s aura always has been patchy; he seemed too good to be legit, which usually is an indication that someone isn’t. When the does-he-or-doesn’t-he question arose, I firmly registered a “yes” vote.  And not only was I convinced the guy was dirty, I had a pretty good idea what he was taking.
            One didn’t need access to Armstrong’s medicine cabinet to reach those conclusions. Performance-enhancing drugs had tainted the insular ranks of top-level bike racing as far back as the 1960s, long before he came on the scene, and continued after he’d left it. By the time he’d become prominent two of his predecessors as Tour de France champions—Bjarne Riis (1996) and Jan Ulrich (1997)—had been linked to drug use and later stripped of their titles. Two that followed him—Floyd Landis (2006) and Alberto Contador (2010)--  met the same fate.

 Even while Armstrong was denying his own drug use (a course he’s continuing) those around him were taking falls; in one on-line compellation I saw, eight of the top-10 finishers in the 2003 Tour have been found to have taken PEDs at some point in their careers, and I suspect that the other two simply beat the rap.  What else could a reasonable person say about someone who was the king of a dopers’ sport?

The main “what” in the Armstrong equation (as well as that of top athletes in other endurance-based sports) was called EPO. That’s short for erythropoietin, a substance that occurs naturally in the human body but has been manufactured in synthetic form since about 1990. Synthetic EPO is intended for people with acute anemia but hardly was out of the bottle before jocks started hijacking it to hype their production of oxygen-carrying (and stamina-increasing) red-blood cells. Overuse could dangerously thicken blood, increasing stroke and heart-attack risk, but that was small concern to some seeking playing-field glory.

The real beauty part about synthetic EPO for athletes was that, because the substance also was naturally occurring, it couldn’t be spotted in the urine tests of the period.  I first wrote about it in 1997 after talking to a California biochemist named Allen Murray. A national-level masters swimmer, Murray had turned an off-hand remark by a fellow swimmer into a challenge and in 1993, with help from a small grant from the U.S. Olympic Committee, developed a molecule that would cling to synthetic EPO but not to the natural variety.  He figured that, with additional financing, his test could be in place for the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Then a funny thing happened—Murray’s phone stopped ringing.  With sports bureaucrats pleading small budgets and other priorities, 1996 came and went with no EPO test, and so, too, would the 1998 Winter Games with its potential EPO clientele of cross-country skiers.  Murray began to hear whispers that the drug-testing “community,” ever hostile to outsiders such as he, was circling its wagons while hustling to catch up with his results. When an EPO test finally was approved for the 2002 Winter Games it would be one developed by a French lab. By then Murray, sadder but wiser, had returned to his day job of modifying cotton-plant seed strains.

 A reliable EPO test wasn’t in place widely until 2004, near the end of Armstrong’s Tour reign, and even then it might have been circumvented by masking agents and an adept user’s dosage timing. (One of sport’s verities is that the users are ahead of the testers.)  Armstrong says he’s never flunked a drug test, but while the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report that sunk him says that retesting has uncovered indications of his EPO use dating from 1999, it had so much other evidence of his misdeeds that the lab work was all but irrelevant.

  The agency says it has on-the-record statements from 26 people, including 11 former Armstrong teammates, testifying not only to the cyclist’s own dope-taking but also to his drug-distribution activities and pressuring of other cyclists to follow his course.  He was, the report says, not only a user but also a pusher, and an aggressive one at that.

  Armstrong still proclaims his innocence but has chosen not to fight USADA’s findings, in effect pleading nolo contendere. The T de F, suddenly righteous, has taken away his titles and wants its prize money back, about $4 million.  If Lance is smart he’ll fight that because he may need the money to ward off the criminal charges that could result from his drug-store raids.  Even seeing him for what he is, it would be a shame if it came to that, wouldn’t it?