Tuesday, September 15, 2015


               If it is true that, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “the test of a first-class intellect is the ability to hold opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” then many of my friends have first-class intellects. They believe as I do (but usually not as strongly) that big-time college sports reek of hypocrisy and exploitation, but cling to the contradictory view that, somehow, their own schools “do things right.”
             I am under no such illusion. I have no doubt that the University of Illinois, at which I spent four highly formative years (1955-59) and for whose teams I still cheer, engages in the same, pernicious practices as other big schools in stocking and maintaining its playing-field forces. My gripe is that it isn’t very good at them.

We old Illini don’t expect much. Most of us are Chicagoans who, unlike people from such benighted places as Kentucky, Nebraska and Oklahoma, have had many entertainments within easy reach and so don’t look to our university as a primary provider. We don’t strive to create football dynasties the way Ohio State and Michigan have; mere respectability is our goal. But alas, even that modest goal usually is out of reach.

That sad fact is especially true as another college football season begins. Illinois footballers have had just five winning seasons in the last 20, and have won just one Big Ten title in that span (14 years ago), but seem to have little chance of adding to those totals. The school fired its head football coach, Tim Beckman, two weeks before the season began, and now functions under a guy with the word “interim” in his title, meaning that recruiting is pretty much on hold until a permanent replacement is named. That puts us in the doghouse for at least a couple of years past this one.  

Worse, the entire athletics department is under a cloud from allegations that, if true, are appalling.  Two former football players are suing the university for mishandling their gridiron injuries, as is a woman soccer player. Further, a Federal lawsuit alleges that the school’s women’s basketball team discriminated against and otherwise mistreated black players, something that strains credulity in this day and age.  Almost stranger still was a university investigation into those charges that led to the firing of an assistant coach in the program but cleared the head coach, as though that sort of thing could occur without his knowledge. Fat chance.

As a U of I student and reporter for the Daily Illini and Champaign-Urbana Courier, I frequently brushed against athletics-department types. I didn’t consider them brilliant and nothing has happened over the last 56 years to change that view. The first job of any athletics director is to hire good coaches in the so-called revenue sports, and in that period Illinois has had only one football coach (Mike White, 1980-87) and one basketball coach (Bill Self, 2000-03) I considered outstanding. White ultimately tripped over the NCAA’s fat rulebook and Self abandoned ship the first time something better crooked its finger

The current AD is one Mike Thomas, and how he keeps his job is beyond me. Besides the above-mentioned legal horrors, he’s the guy who in 2012 appointed Beckman, who was on nobody’s A-list at the time. Beckman was a flop on the field --his three-year record was 12 wins in 37 games and most of those victories were “schedule wins” over much-smaller schools hired for the purpose (as are his successor’s two wins this season). He also was clumsy in public and given to such odd gaffs as being caught chewing tobacco on the sidelines, which besides being gauche is against the rules.

Thomas’s choice for basketball coach, the next year, was John Groce. Because of his energy Groce was favorably received initially, but he’s come in second in too many recruiting battles and has yet to impart positive momentum to his teams. He’s had terrible luck in the injury department (his putative starting point guard has suffered season-ending injuries before each of the last two campaigns), and his last-year team suffered an embarrassing collapse after showing early foot. If he doesn’t produce this season, with unpromising material, he might be unemployed come March.

To the question of “what’s wrong?” there is no easy answer. Champaign-Urbana, the adjacent corn belt cities in which the University is domiciled, is widely seen as a dull, rural place that’s unattractive to young jocks (it really ain’t bad), but so is Iowa City, Ia., and State College, Pa., and they’ve done well enough, sportswise. The University of Wisconsin, in a state that has far fewer athletic resources than Illinois, has put together recent football and basketball records that put Illinois’s in the shade.

College sports are coaches’ realms and Illinois needs one in football and, perhaps soon, will in basketball. The journalistic consensus is that its history of ineptitude has made the school a Sargasso Sea that no established coach would want to navigate. So OK, Nick Saban won’t be leaving Alabama for Champaign-Urbana any time soon, but the woods teem with smart young assistant coaches and the main trick is to find one whose ties to the school or state would make Illinois a destination rather than a gig.

It also would help if the guy can hunt with the sharks without showing blood on his teeth. Appearances trump reality in a game where everybody cheats, one in which doing things well beats doing them “right.”



Tuesday, September 1, 2015


             Imagine that you run a company with an employee who was arrested for striking his girlfriend during a domestic dispute, but she dropped the charge before it could be prosecuted.  Would you fire the guy or keep him on?
            Now imagine that he was prosecuted but found not guilty. Or prosecuted and found guilty and served his time. Would your response be different from that of the situation above?

I’m guessing that your probable course in all three cases would be to ask around about the on-the-job behavior of the employee involved-- his work performance and his relationships with colleagues and customers. Then you’d see if it was a one-time incident or something that had been repeated. If he passed those tests you might be inclined to keep him around even though you found the incident distasteful. You well could conclude that whatever the man did or didn’t do, it wasn’t up to an employer to take the roles of judge and jury by adding a punishment apart from those exacted by the criminal-justice system.

I’m sure you know that the not-hypothetical National Football League and some of its clubs have faced a number of such decisions in recent seasons, involving things like driving offenses and drug possession as well as domestic abuse. Time was when matters like that were swept under the rug, written off as the sort of “boys will be boys” misdeeds that were irrelevant to their on-field activities. Now we’re in a hypervigilant era in which little goes unnoticed, and segments of the population stand ready to howl if they’re displeased by any action.

The upshot has been a hodgepodge of reactive disciplinary calls that, in sum, make little sense. If Commish Goodell and his team-owner employers have any guidelines for their moves—or any rationale—they’re not apparent to this eye.

Let’s start with the NFL’s most-celebrated recent case, that of the Baltimore Ravens’ running back Ray Rice. Rice last year was given a two-game suspension after being cited for assault for hitting his girlfriend in an Atlantic City elevator, but when a video of the appalling incident surfaced—and was played repeatedly on national television—an outcry forced the league to backtrack and extend the suspension indefinitely. Rice then was summarily cut (fired) by his team, putting him out of a job.

Not long afterward the criminal case against Rice was dropped when the woman involved refused to press charges and he agreed to submit to counseling.  As the season advanced he sued the NFL on grounds he’d been punished twice for the same offense, and a court ordered that his suspension be lifted. He has no criminal record, has apologized publicly and married the woman he struck. Yet convicted by the court of public opinion, he’s unemployed and seemingly employable in his chosen field at age 28.

Now look at Ray McDonald, a veteran defensive lineman. He was arrested twice in 2014, both times on charges concerning violence against a girlfriend, including sexual assault. His team, the San Francisco 49ers, took no action after the first incident but released him after the second. During the off-season he was signed by the Chicago Bears but last May was arrested again for same sort of thing and, again, was released by his team. Last week he was indicted for rape stemming from the May incident. Like Rice he’s currently unemployed, but it is noteworthy that the league never has taken action against him, the most-apparent difference between his cases and Rice’s being that no video camera was rolling during any of McDonald’s alleged transgressions.

Turn next to the shocker of the current pre-season, the punch that broke the jaw of Geno Smith, the New York Jets’ quarterback, by teammate Ikemefuna Enemkpali, a backup linebacker, after a dispute over a Smith debt.  Smith required surgery and reportedly could be sidelined for up to two months.

 The Jets cut Enemkpali post haste, but before the week was over he was signed by the Buffalo Bills, whose coach, Rex Ryan, coached the Jets last year. Ryan said he’d talked to Enemkpali and was convinced the young man would sin no more. Ryan’s Bills, incidentally, also are the new employer of Richie Incognito, the main perp in the Miami Dolphins’ 2013 teammate-bullying and harassment mess.  That ought to be some lively locker room.

No criminal charges have been filed in the Enemkpali-Smith matter because Smith says he won’t pursue them, but the incident took place before witnesses at the Jets’ training facility so it’s hard to see where that rules them out. The blow was described as a “sucker punch” that didn’t result from a fight. Although Enemkpali’s target was a man, not a woman, it was as much an assault as Rice’s smacking his sweetie, and because Smith was a putative starter at the game’s most-important position it had significant football impact. Nonetheless, the NFL has taken no action, and none is said to be pending.

Maybe that’s because the league is up to its elbows seeking to punish Tom Brady, the New England Patriots’ quarterback, for the non-violent offense of causing a bit of air to leak from some footballs used in a last-season playoff game. Goodell came down hard on the Pats’ star, socking him with a four-game suspension, a quarter of the regular season. The issue is in federal court now, and the judge has chaffed at having to spend his time on such trivia, but the NFL’s self-importance knows no bounds, so on it rolls.

In truth, the league has only itself to blame for “Deflategate.” In most other sports opponents share the same game balls, but the NFL lets its teams have their “own” and gives them a week to doctor them before they’re used (for details see my blog of February 15). The stuff that’s permitted exceeds what’s prohibited.

Brady probably did something wrong and should be penalized (15 yards?), but didn’t I read somewhere that the punishment should fit the crime?  He’d have been better off cold-cocking a teammate.