Friday, July 15, 2016




             The big news of the early free-agency period in the National Basketball Association was the signing of Kevin Durant by the Golden State Warriors, the league’s 2015 champions and this year’s runnerup. Reaction to the move was predictably negative, with most people castigating the player for leaving his Oklahoma City Thunder team for an already-loaded foe. People in OKC responded by burning their “Durant” jerseys and boycotting the restaurant he’d opened there. Maybe he should have thought about that last thing.

But hey, put yourself in Durant’s shoes. How would you have liked it if you’d been drafted out of college by a firm in Seattle, as he was, then traded off to Oklahoma City to practice your trade there for at least the next three years of your career.  You’d have been on the phone to your lawyer (and congressman) pronto.

We fans accept the pro-sports-draft systems reflexively. Most of us root for the teams we do for reasons beyond reason or, even, understanding. Early in life we form an attachment to a team, usually one based in or near a city in which we live, and that’s it, we’re stuck with it. We can no more change it than we can our skin color, shoe size or any other intrinsic personal attribute. Perversely, our team’s failures can act to strengthen the bond; otherwise no one would be a Cubs’ fan.

Our allegiance is to the name on our team’s jerseys, not to the players who wear them. This can blind us to the system’s inequities perpetrated in the name of competitive balance, so when a LeBron James jumps the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat (and, later, the Heat for the Cavs) we howl. It’s okay for teams to trade players, whether or not they want to be traded. It’s also okay for big-money outfits like the New York Yankees to sign just about anyone they desire; we wish only that our teams could do the same. But woe be unto the player who picks a team he wants to play for and follows through on the wish.

The legal bases for free agency are the labor contracts the leagues have with their players’ unions. The NBA’s comes up again in December so, maybe, the matter will be revisited.  Free agency won’t be junked, however. This is America where even athletes get to pursue happiness, eventually.



The Chicago Cubs got off to a roaring start this season, posting the game’s best record for the first 60 or so games. Then they lost 15 of their 21 games (and eight of their last 10) before the All-Star Game break and had their divisional lead cut to seven games from 12 ½.  Cubs’ fans who thought baseball had become an easy game have had to sober up.

They should have seen this coming, of course. Baseball is the sport of the long haul and the small difference, where the best teams win six of 10 games and the worst four of 10. That norm is inexorable, sparing few.

 Still, some of the reasons behind the Cubs’ slump should be addressable. One is the injury bug that bites just about every team but hit the Cubs’ outfield particularly. Gone for the season or long parts of the first half were Kyle Schwarber, Dexter Fowler and Jorge Soler, who, preseason, shaped up as the team’s usual starters in left and center fields, and the handy man Tommy LaStella. He’s already back and leadoff-man Fowler will be soon; his absence coincided with the team’s decline. Schwarber won’t be back this year. Soler, young and athletic but injury prone, now looks like trade bait for late roster additions.

The Cubs have good depth but, even so, have been hit by the same things that plague all slumping teams, including bad starting and relief pitching and a failure to hit with runners on base. My take is that those things are at least partly attributable to the sort of fat-headedness that often affects the nouveau riche; the team’s early success may have been so easy that the players came to assume it was their due.

The prime example of this, I think, has been the team’s top starting pitcher, Jake Arrieta. Eerily unhittable for most of last season and early this one, he’s become all too mortal of late, his win percentage plummeting as his ERA soars. The reversal coincided with the lavish publicity he’s been receiving and his decision to bare all for ESPN Magazine’s “body issue.” Shifting his focus from his own wonderfulness back to his craft just might help him regain good form.

Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon has been widely praised for his ability to keep his teams focused. That wasn’t much tested during a much-better-than-expected 2015 season and this year’s sprint, but it will be now. Everyone earns his money one way or another.



LeBron James and other NBA players punctuated this week’s ESPY Awards telecast by speaking out against gun violence and racial profiling by police. Other stars, current and ex, are taking sides in the presidential race. This is especially notable at a time when many top athletes see themselves as “brands” to be marketed to the widest possible audiences.

I think the outspokenness is fine—jocks have every right to use their celebrity to support any cause they wish.  They’d better wear raincoats, though, because splashback is inevitable.


Saturday, July 2, 2016


            Sports officials always are unpopular— it comes with the territory.

Umps and refs are booed wherever they go, their adverse-to-the-home-crowd decisions remembered, their favorable ones forgotten. Ditto the $2,000-suit stuffers who run our professional leagues. David Stern helped build the National Basketball Association from a cottage industry to a world force during his 30-year tenure as commissioner (1984-2014), but he’ll always be reviled in Phoenix because he enforced a rule against Suns’ bench players joining an on-court fight during a 2007 playoff game.

  Roger Goodell gets the raspberry every time he steps to the podium to announce a choice in the first round of the National Football League draft. Why? Because he’s Roger Goodell, for one thing, but also because almost every ruling he makes displeases someone. As Abraham Lincoln once put it, every time he filled a job he created a dozen enemies and one ingrate.

But sports officials rarely go out of their way to court public enmity, which is why the flap that arose during the recent U.S. Open golf tournament was exceptional.  Dustin Johnson, who would go on to win the tournament, was on the fifth green of the final round when an official detected his ball moving as he was addressing it. The man discussed the matter with the golfer, who denied responsibility. The official ruled no foul and play continued.

Seven holes later, though, another, higher official told Johnson the matter had been reviewed and that a one-stroke penalty might (repeat, might) be levied against him. Johnson and the rest of the field (and the viewing audiences at the course and at home) completed their rounds not knowing how the issue would be resolved. In the end the penalty was assessed but Johnson got everyone off the hook by winning by more than a stroke, making the matter moot trophywise

Several points should here be made. One is that the ball movement involved was so slight that it took me several slo-mo TV replays to detect it. Another was that the movement was backward and, thus, gave the golfer no advantage. Another was that there was no evidence that Johnson either touched the ball with his putter or grounded the club so as to cause the movement; it wasn’t like he kicked his ball out of the rough while no one was looking. But for such a nit the most august of our national golfing events was thrown into disarray.

The episode is understandable only when one realizes that the sport involved was golf, whose rules book makes the New York City phone book look small, and that the tournament in question was held under the auspices of the U.S. Golf Association, which exists to fill that book.  The USGA is staffed largely by country-club types for whom golf is an avocation, and nits is what it does.

 For reasons rooted in antiquity the USGA also runs the annual U.S. Opens for the men, women and seniors, and the national and regional amateur events. The rest of the golf we see, also mostly “open” tournaments (open to amateurs, that is), is run by the Professional Golf Association (PGA) on the men’s side and the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) on the women’s. These are business organizations operated by, and for, the professional golfers themselves. That arrangement, by the way, is unlike that of our professional team sports, which are owned by, uh, owners, and where the players are employees. Just sayin’.

It is axiomatic that no officials are more officious than volunteers, and the USGA exemplifies that point perfectly.  Golf is an outdoor game, played on large acreages open to the elements, so the rulings the group makes must account for many situations. But more than occasionally those rulings are counter-intuitive, to say the least.

Say, for instance, that your ball comes to rest in a bunker right behind a half-eaten pear that someone has carelessly discarded. Can the pear be removed without penalty? Nope, says the rules book. It’s a “natural object” and, thus, is part of the hazard.  I’m not making this up.

Self-importance is another USGA trait. Every other golf tournament on the planet has long settled end-of-regulation, first-place ties with immediate playoffs of one or a few holes, but not U.S. Opens. If their 72 holes end with players deadlocked a next-day, 18-hole playoff is ordained.  The tournaments are attended by a small army of auxiliaries, including the news corps, TV crews and technicians and the hundreds of people who provide on-course staffing, many of whom come from outside the tourney area. These folks must rebook their plane reservations and hotels and rearrange their work schedules to accommodate the USGA’s notion of fairness.

Their sole consolation is that it used to be worse: until 1931 the group required a next-day, 36-hole playoff to resolve first-place ties. That year Murphy’s Law kicked in and George Von Elm and Billy Burke again tied after the extra 36. They were sent out the next day to play another 36, with Burke eventually winning. I’m not making that up, either.

After ‘31 the playoff was reduced to 18 holes but only with the provision that ties after that required 18 more holes.  The additional 18 wasn’t lifted until the 1950s, when sudden-death after 90 holes finally was introduced. Some blue-blazer types still are tut-tutting about that, no doubt.