Wednesday, April 15, 2015


               Athletes are in better shape than ever these days, so it’s reasonable to conclude that they’re also more durable. That doesn’t seem to be the case.
              It doesn’t matter the sport, injury lists seem to go in only one direction-- up. Nobody I know of keeps statistical track of those things, so I can’t prove it, but every season, in every league, the main question isn’t who’s best but who will be healthy at season’s end, when the big games are played. Pre-season forecasts, more abundant than ever, also are more idiotic.   

The situation seems most dire in baseball, the latest season of which is just underway. Pitchers in particular have been affected—it seems that they’re lined up around the block to have Tommy John surgery, the elbow-ligament-replacement operation named for the much-traveled left hander on whom it was first performed in 1974.  Rare is the Major League pitching staff that doesn’t have a member who has undergone—or is undergoing-- the procedure, which usually involves a full season on the sidelines. Some pitchers have had it more than once.
              Basketball has no single counterpart to the elbow-ligament plague but its stars are also have been faring poorly, so much so that injury reports challenge its box scores for sports-page space. My blog of January 15, headlined “Gone Fishin’”, speculated that the long National Basketball Association season had prompted some players to feign or magnify injuries to get occasional breathers. The league must have gotten wind of such talk because it’s been discussing making schedule changes.

               Football long has been a petri dish of afflictions, some of which, involving the brain, have scary, long-term implications, and while here’s no doubt that better conditioning protects players from some ills it may contribute to others. The bigger-faster-stronger syndrome of which the National Football League is proud also makes for bigger, louder and more-frightening collisions on the gridirons, the implications of which are easy to imagine.

               Of the improved general fitness of athletes there can be no doubt. Our knowledge of exercise physiology and nutrition have improved vastly in recent decades, as have the devices to implement it. Of at least equal importance is that the torrent of money that has flowed into sports has meant that the pros no longer need off-season jobs to make ends meet and can afford to be in training around the calendar and around the clock.  The results have been apparent to the naked eye, so to speak: walk into any Major League Baseball locker room these days and you’ll see guys who look good in their underwear. Thirty years ago ballplayers were a mixed lot in that respect, looking pretty much like any other group of men their age.

               As any competent trainer can tell you, however, top-level fitness is a double-edged sword. With nothing much else to do except watch cartoons on TV, some athletes will train to excess, crossing the invisible line that separates fitness and breakdowns. The “no pain, no gain” mantra that permeates some weight rooms is a dangerous one, most experts now say. “Quit when you’ve got one more in ya’” is a better one, they agree.

               More dangerous still is the very-early commitment to single sports that pushy parents are pressing on their talented offspring. Time was (remember?) when kids pretty much played in-season pickup games with their playground pals, never getting uniforms or trained coaching until high school. Little League accelerated that process in baseball, but its schedules—like those of Babe Ruth or American Legion ball for teens--  rarely exceeded 30 games a year, and ended before Labor Day.

               Now there are “traveling” youth leagues in several sports, including baseball, basketball and soccer, which for annual fees of up to several thousand dollars provide coaching, training and competition for children as young as age eight; in baseball these circuits book as many as a 100 games a year in Sunbelt locales. The leagues have cut deeply into Little League baseball participation and are supplanting the high schools as the main recruiting grounds for college basketball. Except for the live-in part, they mirror the practice-and-play-intensive private “academies” that have been stocking the pro-tennis ranks for years.

               That sort of commitment requires kids to specialize in a sport from their pre-teens, leading to repetitive-stress injuries such as the carpal-tunnel syndrome that befalls people who spend long hours on computer keyboards. The condition that requires Tommy John surgery is one of these; the more pitches one throws the more likely it is to develop, studies show.

               Worry over pitchers’ arm overuse has changed baseball radically. While the likes of Robin Roberts, Bob Gibson and Fergie Jenkins once cranked out 300-inning seasons, any pitcher today who logs 200 innings is considered a workhorse. Teams’ starting rotations used to number four; now they’re at five and in spring training the New York Yankees were talking about going to six. Pitch counts dictate managers’ mound tactics as much as opponents’ hits.  

               Such moves haven’t stemmed the injury tide and probably won’t. Young athletes today are better physical specimens than those of the past, but having played more games and pumped more iron they also show up in the big leagues carrying much more mileage.

               Interestingly, a golfer—Tiger Woods—might be the best illustrator of the “too much, too soon” development. Under the tutelage of his father, Earl, he began swinging a golf club while still in diapers, and was playing tournaments by 10. No one ever appeared on the pro tour more ready to win, and no one achieved as much as quickly.

               But while his lost mojo, resulting from his exposure as a serial adulterer, played a role in Tiger’s decline, so has a multifaceted physical breakdown. He won his last “major” at age 32 and now, at 38—prime time for some golfers-- is eternally recovering from one injury or another. Old timers like Snead, Hogan and Nicklaus weren’t as good at 21 as Tiger was, but they lasted longer.



Wednesday, April 1, 2015


               If your image of a college coach was formed by old movies, you probably visualize a benign gent wearing a sweatshirt and a whistle around his neck, urging his boys to do or die for Old Siwash.  His wife is a sweet-faced lady who, occasionally, invites team members to the couple’s modest campus home for milk and cookies.  As my mom used to say, butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths.
              Flash forward to the present and you get a quite-different picture. Mr. Big-Time-College-Basketball-or-Football Coach today holds forth in an office half as large as a football field and fronted by three or four secretaries. A half-dozen assistant coaches (a dozen in football) also scurry to do his bidding. He lives in a mansion, drives one or more luxury “courtesy cars” and belongs to a country club dues-free (the last two are typical perks of his job), and his wife knows Rodeo Drive better than the local malls.  When butter enters his mouth it’s usually as an accompaniment to lobster tail.

               Maybe better, his lordly aura allows him to escape responsibility for whatever mess his “program” makes; he’s likely to be a control freak, overseeing every facet of his players’ lives, but when something goes wrong he’s nowhere to be seen.  Jim Calhoun, the long-time basketball head coach at the U. of Connecticut, sailed serenely into retirement despite his team’s record of NCAA rules violations and sub-normal graduation rates. Roy Williams of North Carolina and Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, other acclaimed “deans” of their profession, are following similar paths in the face of worse transgressions, Carolina’s involving almost two decades of organized academic fraud. (See my blog of July 15 for details.) 

               Joe Paterno, Penn State’s venerated “JoePa”, almost made it to retirement before it was revealed that his chief assistant coach had perpetrated a long-running, multi-victim child-sex-abuse scheme under his nose. Paterno was fired and died soon afterward, and his statue was yanked from the campus posthumously. Predictably, though, his cult has rallied. The NCAA has restored the gridiron victories it removed from his record, and look for the statue to be polished and reinstalled any day now.

               The rise in college coaching salaries and status in recent years has been startling. Around the century’s turn, while I was still columnizing professionally, top annual contracts in the $500,000 area were beginning to raise eyebrows. In no time the average annual figure shot through $1 million. It now presses $2 million with no lid in sight as the elite conferences cash in big from their television networks. 

Vexingly, that surge has come at a time when education in America—and especially public education—is under unprecedented financial stress. Thanks to the 2008 recession and the advent of small-government Republican administrations in many statehouses around the land, school budgets from kindergarten through college have been slashed just about everywhere.  The crowning irony is that college football’s highest-paid head coach—Nick Saban of the U. of Alabama, who rakes in $7.1 million a year— is employed by the state that has cut school spending most enthusiastically since 2007, the year he was hired. The average teacher in Alabama earns about $45,000 a year, which means that Saban’s salary alone would equal the entire payroll of a good-sized school district in that benighted state.

Things aren’t much different in Arizona, where I live. School budgets there have been under relentless attack in the state legislature in recent years. While taxes are being cut, class sizes rise, “frill” courses such as music and art have been eliminated and many districts charge fees for student participation in extra-curricular activities such as band, theater and sports. Four-day school weeks are being discussed in some cities and school-bus safety is being compromised by the re-tread tires many districts are purchasing to cut costs.

 Arizona school funding at the K-12 grades fell so low that in 2013 the state’ s supreme court ruled that it hadn’t been reaching minimum levels mandated by the state’s constitution and ordered that $1.6 billion in reparations be paid out over the next five years.  That hasn’t happened; indeed, more education cuts have been instituted while statehouse leaders and the court “negotiate.” 

Arizona’s four-year public universities—Arizona State U., the U. of Arizona and Northern Arizona U.—haven’t been spared, their state support declining by 32% between 2007 and last year, and by $99 million more, or about 14%, in the 2015-16 budget just enacted in Phoenix. Yearly in-state tuition at ASU was about $5,000 in 2007. It’s $9,300 now and surely will rise again next term.

 Meantime, Arizona’s big-time coaches are doing just fine, thanks. The top-paid two are ASU football boss Todd Graham and U of A basketball coach Sean Miller, each at $2.3 million a year. Rich Rodriguez makes $1.5 million per to coach football at U of A and ASU’s basketball coach Herb Sendek made $1.2 million before he was fired last week. That last action wasn’t good news budgetwise, because Sendek reportedly is due to receive full pay for the remaining two years on his contract, and his successor probably will get a better deal than he did.

  Those salary figures don’t include the value of the free cars and club memberships noted above, or, probably, the rent-free use of university facilities for the coaches’ summer camps or income from their booster-sponsored radio and TV shows. Each also gets six-figure annual raises and bonuses for exceeding certain victory totals or achieving post-season appearances. If chopping any of their checks was part of the recent budget discussions it escaped news-media attention.

And as the TV pitchmen say “Wait! There’s more!”  ASU’s athletics department is raising $256 million to renovate Sun Devil Stadium, where the football team plays, and while tax money supposedly won’t be used for that purpose the private funds that will be might otherwise have gone elsewhere. After that project is done a similarly costly update is on deck for Wells Fargo Arena, the school’s basketball home.

 Arizona kids may be sharing desks, and its families increasingly are buried in college debt, but nothing’s too good for our big-U jocks and their leaders, right? It’s all a matter of getting our priorities straight.