Sunday, July 15, 2018

A FAMILY MATTER


                I discovered Sports Illustrated magazine early in its life and was a faithful subscriber for, maybe, 40 years. Back in the day, when the likes of Gilbert Rogin, Dan Jenkins and Curry Kirkpatrick wrote for it, it epitomized good writing in the sports field, albeit often with a smirky slant. Being a magazine it almost always weighed in on events well after they’d occurred, but usually found ways to add something to their discussion and was well worth whatever it cost.

                About 15 years ago, though, I fell out of the SI habit, and stopped reupping. So did many others in our post-literate, sports-saturated age, and the magazine shrunk and began appearing less often. It got cheaper, too, so cheap that two or three years back it sent me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I mailed in my check and the mag started coming. It hasn’t stopped, even though I can’t remember writing another check.

                I mostly leaf through the SIs I get, not caring much about the subject matter, but every third or fourth issue contains a piece I’m glad I read. One such is in the issue of July 2-9. By the excellent Greg Bishop, it’s titled “The Search For Why.” It’s about the recent suicide of Tyler Hilinski, a football quarterback at Washington State University, and his family’s search to make sense of an act that often seems senseless.

                If you’ve read about Hilinski’s suicide it’s probably because of the news that his autopsy revealed evidence in his brain of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. It’s a condition that has turned up in the brains of many former football players. It can produce chronic and debilitating headaches and Alzheimer-like mental confusion and memory loss, and sometimes leads to suicide. Hilinski, though, was no veteran National Football League battering ram but a lean and agile 21-year-old whose football history included only the youth and high-school sport in his native La Verne, California, near Los Angeles, and a handful of appearances as a sophomore backup QB in college. Bishop wrote that the young man never had a verified concussion, although he suspected he might have suffered one in a practice as a WSU freshman. His family said he’d shown none of the physical symptoms associated with CTE.

                A further wrinkle is that Hilinski’s younger brother, Ryan, was a talented high-school quarterback who soon will begin his freshman year playing football at the University of South Carolina. The Hilinski family’s decision to allow Ryan to play makes up a large part of the article.

                Underlying the piece is the quandary many parents like the Hilinskis face because of how little is known about CTE. First diagnosed 1940s as the “punch-drunk syndrome,” and thought to be associated mainly with boxing, the condition was tied directly to football in the early 2000s by the work of Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-born pathologist in Pittsburgh who investigated the untimely deaths of ex-Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster and, later, another former Steeler.

             That caused a splash, but research into the condition’s causes and consequences was delayed by the NFL’s attempts first to discredit Omalu (dramatized in the 2015 movie “Concussion,” starring Will Smith) and then to steer studies away from blaming the sport. While the football-CTE link now is firmly established, as well as is the fact that less-than-concussion-level head injuries can contribute to it, it’s still not possible to identify CTE brain patterns in living humans, determine at what levels symptoms kick in, or know which types of individuals are susceptible to it and which aren’t. Many young suicides have no history of brain trauma, so Tyler Hilinksi’s action may have had nothing to do with football.

                The article paints the Hilinski family as an affluent and educated one; dad Mark founded a software company and mom Kym is a lawyer. The parents do not look to sports as a “way out” of poverty or stilted ambition for their children; their oldest son, Kelly, is a medical student about to become a physician. The three boys played musical instruments and engaged in various sports as kids, assertedly not pushed in any one direction.

 Kym Hilinski said she’s always viewed her sons’ football playing with trepidation. The couple is aware that if genetics play a role in CTE susceptibility, son Ryan is more likely than most to be harmed. If he were 10 years old “he wouldn’t play football because it’s too scary for me,” she admits.

In the modern way, however, the Hilinskis left the decision to Ryan, who is almost 18, and he’s decided to play, partly because he loves and game and partly as a tribute to Tyler. “I’m going to do everything that Tyler wanted to do with football,” he told Bishop. “I’m going to do that to honor him.”

I’m sure that some other parents, reading the article, will come to a different conclusion. Kids today have many sports alternatives that don’t involve the constant bang-bang of football; ones who like it rough can take up wrestling, whose physical contact is noncranial. In the last few years more of us spectators now wince at rather than applaud the frequent hard hits of the gridiron sport. If it will be difficult to watch Ryan Hilinski play for South Carolina without that reaction, imagine what it will be like for the Hilinskis.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

NEWS & VIEWS


                NEWS: PHOENIX SUNS LAND NO. 1 NBA DRAFT PICK

                VIEW: BIG DEAL, MAYBE

                The most-celebrated basketball player in my adopted home city of Phoenix, Arizona, has yet to score a point or, even, bounce a ball in the uniform of his new team. That, however, hasn’t stopped the press and public hereabouts from obsessing over DeAndre Ayton, the way they have for several months already.

                The team “earned” the right to select Ayton by conscientiously compiling the NBA’s worst won-lost mark (21-61) last season, then converting its 25% chance for the top pick in last April’s draft lottery. That culminated a three-year Suns’ run of losing on purpose, the object of which was to collect the favorable draft choices that might end a playoff drought, which now has lasted for eight seasons. For better or worse, that’s the way things are done in our pro major leagues these days.

 Young Mr. Ayton oned and doned last season down the road at the U. of Arizona in Tucson, thus qualifying as something of a local even enough he was born and raised in the Bahamas.  He’s an athletic seven-footer who looks the part of a basketball-team savior, and eventually may play that role. But such things don’t always turn out as planned.

 His addition gives the Suns a dynamic-looking, three-player “core” of top player/prospects, also including Devin Booker, the 13th pick of the 2015 draft, and Josh Jackson, the 4th pick in 2017. Trouble is, Ayton is just 19 years old and Booker and Jackson both are 21. Add the 20-year-olds Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, their 2016 first-round draft choices (Nos. 4 and 8) and you have a lineup that would be young for a college team, much less one in the world’s best professional league.

The chancy nature of the draft is best illustrated by the experience of the Philadelphia 76ers, who picked first in both 2016 and last year. Their ’16 No. 1, Ben Simmons, didn’t play as a rookie because of injuries, and their ‘17 prize, Markelle Fulz, appeared in just 14 games his first year for the same reason. Further, Joel Embiid, their 2014 first choice and third pick overall, missed two full years and most of a third before showing up for good last season. It’s not wishing Ayton any bad luck to point out that the same fate could befall him.

Or he could be mediocre, the way Chriss and Bender have been in their two seasons in the league. Or a knucklehead, like the talented but technical-foul-prone Jackson might be. Until they prove otherwise, the Suns will continue to exemplify this old joke:

“What do you call a good, young NBA team?”

“An also-ran.”

NEWS: BASEBALLS FLY FARTHER THAN THEY USED TO, BUT THEY’RE NOT “JUICED”

VIEW: HMM

You may have missed it but Major League Baseball in May came out with a report from a study by a panel of 10 scientists (physicists and such) that looked into why home runs per team jumped to 1.26 a game last season from .86 in 2014, a truly outlandish increase of 46%. The group’s conclusion was that improvements in the ball-manufacturing process got the credit/blame, rather than playing-field changes or any deliberate plot to make balls livelier.

“A change in the aerodynamic properties” of the balls “reduced drag for given launch conditions,” the panel wrote. The likely causes of this was a better centering of the rubber pill at the heart of each ball and a general improvement in ball-making that produced a rounder sphere that would travel farther. The jump was “not due to a livelier, ‘juiced’ ball or any change in batter/pitcher behavior,” the scholars wrote.

So okay¸ let’s discount the fact that more hitters swing for the fences these days against more pitchers that throw in the 95-100 mph range. What physics I know tells me that the faster a ball comes in the faster it will come out when struck, but my background in the subject is meager. Let’s also throw out some hitters’ changes in swing angle to create more fly balls, some of which leave the parks.  But how about the also-well-known fact that chicks dig the long ball? Until that changes I’ll remain dubious about any juicing disclaimers from MLB.

Incidentally, the report also pointed out that for some years now all baseballs used in Major League games have been made in Costa Rica, under the Rawlings label. Keep that in mind the next time you hear discussions about what the world is like, tradewise.

NEWS: SOME YANKS CRY ‘VIVA MEXICO’ IN THE WORLD CUP

VIEW: WHY NOT?

Landon Donovan, the U.S.’s best international soccer player ever, caught some flak a few days ago by saying that, with the U.S. not in the competition, he was rooting for Mexico to succeed in the World Cup that’s now unfolding. The country is our biggest hemispheric rival in the sport so why boost it? the flak shooters argued.

To that I say phooey. If ever a country needed a boost it’s Mexico. The folks down there are caught in a drugs war that’s worse than most armed conflicts and stuck geographically between a northern neighbor that once regarded them fondly but now abuses them daily and a bunch of crime-ridden banana republics to the south. They produce peppy music and a tasty, spicy cuisine. What’s not to like?

Alas, from here Mexico’s championship hopes look less than bright. They kicked off their World Cup bid by shocking Germany, the defending champ and world No. 1, and then won their second game, but with advancement on the line got their butts kicked by Sweden and made the round of 16 only because South Korea also upset Germany. Big-time improvement will be needed for “El Tri” to beat Brazil in a “knockout” game Monday (7/2). But hey! Stranger things have happened, like them and S. Kor. beating Germany.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

IMMORTALS AMONG US


                I read somewhere that at any given time about 30 future Hall of Famers are on the active rosters of Major League Baseball clubs, and while I haven’t done any independent research on the subject the number seemed high. I’m thinking 15 for sure, maybe 20, but 30 might be a stretch.

                That predicting future Hall membership with any certainty can be hazardous is seen in the cases of Ryan Braun and Robinson Cano. Both had careers that seemed to be Cooperstown bound until they were ensnarled in the game’s drug-testing net. Given the fate of other dopers their immortality now appears to be unlikely, unless a pharmaceutical company takes over the place or they enlist Kim Kardashian to plead their cases.

                That said, though, I think that most of us fans carry a list of future Famers around in our heads and all that remains is to write it down. I’ll do that in the paragraphs to follow. You can, too, if you like-- on your own computer or legal pad, that is.

                My list breaks down into three parts: sure things, maybes, and “not there yet.”  The last category exists because nobody gets on a Hall of Fame ballot without having put in 10 or more  Major League seasons. Contrary to public belief, that and having been retired for at least five years are the only statistical requirements for membership. Players also must pass the muster of a writers’ nominating committee, but that’s a low bar.

                Name Number One on my “sure thing” list is easy to guess. He’s ALBERT PUJOLS, the LA Angels slugger. Nobody fills a batter’s box like big Albert and few have filled the box scores better, as his 3,000-plus career hits and 600-plus home runs attest. Though he has his aches and pains he’s still hitting pretty well and at age 38 isn’t talking about retirement. There’s still time to tell your grandchildren you saw him play.

                My Number 1A is ICHIRO SUZUKI, maybe the best contact hitter ever. He didn’t show up in the U.S. Majors until age 27 but still topped the magical 3,000-hits mark. Throw in his 1,278 hits in the top pro league of his native Japan and you’ve got an Everest-like record. Technically, the 44-year-old Ichiro isn’t active at the moment, having recently joined the Seattle Mariners’ front office after starting this season on the field, but he’s vowed to return and play until he needs a walking cane, and one can only believe him.

                Then there’s MIGUEL CABRERA, the era’s best all-around batsman. His .317 average over 16 seasons is the best of any player with 10 or more years’ service, and his 2012 Triple Crown—leading the Majors in batting average, home runs and runs batted in—was a signal achievement, a 45-year first. Enough said.

                Pujols, Ichiro and Cabrera are certain first-ballot electees. Three other players also seem sure to make it, albeit perhaps not that fast. ADRIAN BELTRE qualifies by having hit safely 3,000-plus times, an accomplishment that may die out if the current, swing-for-the-fences hitting mentality endures. His other batting numbers also are of Hall quality. YADIER MOLINA has been the best defensive catcher of his era, a very good hitter and a fiery team leader whose presence dominates any field on which he performs. JOE MAUER has put in 15 seasons, mostly behind the plate, and has batted better than .300 so far, a rare combo. Playing with the out-of-the-way Minnesota Twins hasn’t helped, but his Gold Gloves, All-Star Game appearances and 2009 MVP have.

                The best three starting pitchers of the current era—JUSTIN VERLANDER, MAX SCHERZER and CLAYTON KERSHAW-- also seem to be headed for enshrinement, even though recent trends in the game dictate a reassessment of starting-pitching stats. Time was when the best starters aimed at 20-win seasons and careers with 250 or more victories. Now starters start every fifth game instead of every fourth and quick hooks are the rule, so those standards are out of date. Verlander, Scherzer and Kershaw have put in a combined total of 36 Major League seasons but have only five 20-win seasons among them, and none has yet recorded 200 career wins.

Verlander was 197-116 in the won-lost column last week, but he’s 35 years old. Scherzer was 151-77 at age 33. Kershaw, 145-68, is the youngest of the trio at 30, but has spent parts of the last two years on the disabled list, so his longevity is questionable. Where have you gone Greg Maddux?

My “maybe” list is fairly short, including JOEY VOTTO, DUSTIN PEDROIA, BUSTER POSEY, CC SABATHIA, BARTOLO COLON and JON LESTER.  Posey, Pedroia and Votto are good bets if they keep playing at a high level for a few seasons more, but Votto and Pedroia both are 34 years old so that might be difficult for them (Posey is 30). Colon and Sabathia lead active pitchers in career wins—Colon with 243 and Sabathia with 241—but neither has been dominant in the manner of Verlander, Scherzer or Kershaw, so Hall electors might find them to be acquired tastes.  Ditto for Lester, 167-94 at age 34. He can’t throw to first base but his three World Series rings won’t hurt.

 In my “not there yet” category are a bunch of players who have yet to put in 10 seasons. It includes the position players MIKE TROUT, JOSE ALTUVE, BRYCE HARPER, MOOKIE BETTS, MANNY MACHADO, PAUL GOLDSCHMIDT, FRANCISCO LINDOR, AARON JUDGE, GIANCARLO STANTON, KRIS BRYANT and ANTHONY RIZZO, and the pitchers CHRIS SALE, COREY KLUBER, AROLDIS CHAPMAN  and CRAIG KIMBREL.

 Athletic careers are chancy, easily interrupted or ended by injury or other missteps, so there’s no telling who in that group will make it and who won’t. Those with the best chances to compile truly memorable career numbers started youngest—Harper and Trout at age 19 and Altuve at 21, for instance. The currently dominant Kluber, on the other hand, is 32 years and has 85 wins to show for his seven-plus seasons, so conventional Hall credentials may be beyond his reach.  

Still, the fat, jolly Colon is still at it at 45 and just tied Juan Marichal in career wins, so anything’s possible. That’s why we watch, isn’t it?

Friday, June 1, 2018

A CUP HALF EMPTY


                Followers of this space know that I enjoy soccer generally, and the sport’s quadrennial World Cup tournament in particular. As a columnist I covered two World Cups—in the United States in 1994 and in France in 1998—and rank them as Nos. 1 and 1A of the favorite events of my sports-writing tenure. Their color and excitement were unsurpassed, and the skill of the participants at least equaled that of any of the other major global sports fests.

Feet are harder to control than hands, and what the top soccerers do with theirs is remarkable. If you don’t believe that, try kicking any round object with your “off” foot (most of us are right-or left-footed as well as handed). Just making contact is an accomplishment, and watch out that you don’t land on your butt after a swing and miss.

So while you might expect that I’m looking forward mightily to the next World Cup edition, which begins on June 14, you’d be mistaken. I’ll no doubt take in some random games, and be intrigued by some individual matchups, but the event already has been pretty much spoiled for me. I’ll be paying less attention to it than I have in the past.

There are two reasons for this:

--The U.S. isn’t in it.

--It’s in Russia.

The U.S. isn’t in it because it didn’t make the field, falling short in the nearly two-year qualifying phase that ended last October. FIFA, the outfit that runs the Cup, is mindful of the big American TV market and our nation’s contingent of well-heeled traveling fans, and very much wanted the U.S. to make it, but that required winning enough games in our easy, North and Central America play-in division, and we didn’t. Team USA entered the last two games of the six-nation, 10-game tournament needing only one tie to earn a Cup spot, but lost to Costa Rica at home and then bowed to Trinidad and Tobago on the road. The latter loss, by a 2-1 score, ranks as a one of the biggest soccer upsets ever, not only because of T & T’s tiny size (its pop. is about 1.3 million) but also because of its 1-win, 8-loss record going in (the U.S.’s final mark was 3 wins, 4 losses and 3 ties).  It was kind of like a Major League baseball team losing to a Class A club.

     Heads rolled because of the failure-- the two U.S. coaches and the national-federation president during the tournament either were fired or quit under fire—but with the every-four-years Cup format it meant a long slog the wilderness for the entire American sport. Soccer is a minority taste in this land, so the setback wasn’t as catastrophic as it was in the perennial powers Italy and The Netherlands, but not being in the party after a seven-time run stings.

The fact that this year’s tournament is in Russia attests to the corrupt nature of FIFA. Like its multisport counterpart the International Olympic Committee, FIFA is a self-appointed, self-perpetuating body that exists to enable its leaders to stuff their pockets from the deluge of money that has come to big-time world sports, through no special efforts of their own. Like the IOC, FIFA is partial to authoritarian governments like that of Russia and the 2022 World Cup host Qatar, where the graft is conveniently centralized and there’s no danger from pain-in-the-ass citizens’ groups protesting its predations.  The record of both groups forfeits any presumption of innocence in their dealings; one can safety assume that bribery plays a role in all their major decisions.

That the fix already is in for this year’s Cup is shown in Russia’s inclusion in by far the easiest of the tournament’s eight, four-nation round-robin groups. Russia never has been a world soccer force, and its national team is ranked 66th world-wide going in, but the “draw” blessed it with a group that includes other non-powers Egypt, Uruguay and Saudi Arabia. The Cup’s opening match, pitting the Ruskies against the 70th-ranked Saudis, will be the least-attractive such game ever.

In a better world national virtue would count for something in the award of international sports extravaganzas, but not in this one. Russia under the odious Vladimir Putin leads any list of world evildoers, making war on its neighbors, jailing domestic dissidents, murdering ex-pats and waging cyber attacks against the Western democracies.   

In sports Russia is a pariah, its banners and emblems (but, unfortunately, not all its athletes) barred from the 2016 Summer Olympics as a result of revelations of wholesale doping violations at the 2014 Winter Olympics, which it hosted. Its state-organized doping regime extended well beyond those Games, involving more than 1,000 athletes in some 30 sports, according to numerous sources. It may continue yet, as evidenced by its continuing ban from international track and field competition and its nose-thumbing failure to bring its drug-testing procedures up to standard. Drug testing for the World Cup will be carried out in Switzerland, not Russia.

Russia’s soccer fans behave worse than its athletes, if that’s possible, roaming foreign cities in paramilitary packs and raising bloody havoc when the national team plays abroad. Russia nearly was ejected from the 2016 European Champions in France because of their antics. Last March FIFA again threatened action when fans in St. Petersburg directed racists chants at French player Paul Pogba during a match there; that was just the latest of many such incidents. Such things play poorly on international TV, so Putin, et al, can be expected to rein them in during Cup play, but the nasty undercurrent can’t be whitewashed away.

   There has been some international bounce-back against the Cup, with some corporate-sponsorship slots going unfilled and at least Great Britain refusing to send official delegations to the opening and closing ceremonies. But the “show must go on” mentality that also pervades the Olympics will hold, and the Cup will continue to be the world’s most-watched sporting event, with a peak TV audience estimated at three billion people.

Some of us Yanks will be among that number, and with the U.S.  not represented the question of rooting will arise. Fox Sports, which owns U.S. TV rights, for a while promoted a “root for your roots” approach, which would have Americans pulling for their ancestral homelands, but I’m grateful that my forebears escaped from theirs, so that’s out for me. I’ll give a cheer for England because its team includes several members of Tottenham Hotspur, by club-team favorite, and for Iceland, where my daughter-in-law is from.  But mostly I’ll be rooting for good games, the same as I do for domestic competitions that don’t include my Chicago teams.

And I’ll be flicking through my TV guide to find the broadcasts of the Spanish-language network Telemundo. My Spanish is poor but one doesn’t need much of it to follow Andres Cantor, its lead soccer announcer, and his signature cry of “GOOOOOAAAAAL” requires no translation.  


                 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

BRAY FOR PAY


                An NCAA panel fronted by Condoleezza Rice, the diplomat turned apologist for big-time collegiate sports, a couple of weeks ago came out with some recommendations for reform of same, prompted by last fall’s revelations of the existence of a widespread black market in the signing of top-level basketball prospects. As could have been predicted, the result was a fizzle, emitting a bang closer to that of a BB gun than a cannon.

 The result brought to mind a quote from the red-nosed Mathias “Paddy” Bauler, a saloon keeper and Chicago alderman of the 1940s and ‘50s who, after the 1955 mayoral election of Richard J. Daley, jubilantly (and correctly) cried “Chicago ain’t ready for reform!”

Instead of shaking up an institution whose corruption surpasses that of old-time Chicago politics, the Rice panel called for things like permitting more contact between college athletes and agents, taking closer control over the summer-basketball camps where the avalanche of shoe-company money behind the fall’s bribery allegations begins, and strengthening penalties for rule-violating schools and coaches beyond the present wrist slaps. Big deal, huh?

 It came out against the much-mocked “one-and-done” regime in college hoops, which allows top pro prospects to double-park in college until they’re NBA-eligible at age 19, but the colleges can’t do that without the cooperation of the NBA and its players’ union and that won’t come until 2020 at the earliest, those entities say.  So don’t worry Kentucky and Duke fans, you’re safe for now.

Also predictably, the loudest voices critical of Rice, et al, came from the crowd that thinks that paying college athletes will cure all ills. Anyone who’s given five minutes’ thought to that position can see that it would raise more issues than it answers, including whom to pay (all college athletes male and female or just football and basketballers?); how much should be paid and on what basis (should starters make more than subs or stars more than ordinary starters?);  and whether, as employees, the athletes should have a voice in their terms of employment, such as practice and games’ scheduling and travel.

Further, students of human nature will note that whatever permissible salary levels would be set above the table, another and more-generous one would quickly develop under it. “What they want to pay you is chump change,” procurer A will tell super-prospect B. “We’ll do better than that.”

Missing from the recommendations is anything having to do with the college side of college sports, which by me and others is what really stinks about NCAA World. The only reported mention of academics in the Rice report came in the threat that if the NBA won’t play ball over one-and-done the colleges could unilaterally deal with it by banning freshman eligibility the way they used to, but that makes so much sense it has little likelihood of enactment.

To find strong and reasoned arguments against college sports’ academic status quo one should to go to the website of the Drake Group, an association of college faculty members and other reform advocates founded in 1999 at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and now run out of the University of New Haven in Connecticut. It’s founding manifesto leaves no doubt about how it views the current state of affairs.

“The NCAA’s continuing success at professionalizing big-time college athletics puts academic corruption on par with prostitution, illegal gambling and speeding violations as acceptable forms of misconduct in America—it’s okay as long as you don’t get caught” it says. “Athlete are clustered in majors that have easy or no educational content. Most of their course work is phony…masked by grade inflation, outright grade changes and excessive independent study courses.” And you should hear them when they’re really mad.

As any parent of a teen can tell you, a full-ride scholarship to a four-year university is no small thing, worth on its face anywhere from about $100,000 at a public institution to three or four times that amount at a private one. That’s more than adequate compensation for 18-to-22-year-olds and is in addition to the much larger annual income college grads can expect to earn in their professional lives. But for the jock in the so-called “revenue sports,” the bars to getting a degree are high, beginning with the full-time job that team membership entails and including a way-premature dunk into the publicity cauldron that is top-level sports.

  The NCAA contends that its “student-athletes” graduate at a higher rate than students generally, but in an article on the Drake Group website Shaun R. Harper, director of the Center on Race and Equity at the University of Southern California, writes that doesn’t apply to athletes at the 65 universities in the so-called “Power Five” conferences (the SEC, Big 10, Big 12, PAC 12 and ACC), which command almost all the attention and money in college sports. His figures, taken from 2012 through 2016, show that 69.3% of varsity athletes at those schools graduated in six years or fewer compared to 76.3% of all undergraduates, despite their access to easy courses, friendly profs and substantial academic support.

The rub really comes with the black athletes who comprise 55% of the varsity football players and 56% of the men’s basketballers at the “Power Five” schools, Harper’s piece says.  That’s despite the fact that black men make up only 2.4% of the undergraduate student bodies of those institutions. Their graduation rate was 55%, 21 percentage points below that of all students.

Five of the 14 members of the Rice panel were African Americans (Ms. Rice, former basketball stars Grant Hill and David Robinson, ex-coach John Thompson and Gene Smith, a vice president at Ohio State University), but the group didn’t address the specific academic problems of the black athlete or the picture their recruitment paints of higher education in the U.S. The discrepancy between the black male athlete and other students of their race is greatest in the SEC schools of the South; at the Universities of Florida, Auburn, Georgia and Alabama black males made up between 2.2% and 3.6% of the student bodies but between 77.7% and 72.5% of the football and basketball squads.  Something’s out of whack there, don’t you think?    

Thursday, May 3, 2018

DERBY PICKS


                Do you believe that history affects athletic performances? It’s a good question to ask when the athletes are human but maybe not so good when other creatures do the vying.

                That’s my thought as another Kentucky Derby approaches on Saturday. The two favorites—Justify and Mendelssohn—each would have to overcome historical barriers to win, Justify because no horse unraced as a two-year-old has won the Big Race since 1882 and Mendelssohn because no horse based in Europe ever has turned the trick.

                I suppose that’s interesting but by me it’s irrelevant because horses can’t read and, thus, probably know less history than most Americans, although I’m not entirely sure about that. Both animals will be in my tickets when the starting gate opens at old Churchill Downs.

                The Derby is tough for handicappers because its 1 ¼-mile is longer than any of the three-year-old contestants have run and its field of 19 or 20 is larger, ensuring that some of the runners (we never know which) will be jostled out of their games. The good news is that most years, including this one, an elite field means that very good odds will be available on some very good horses, setting up some lucrative payout possibilities.

                JUSTIFY is 3-1 in the morning line and MENDELSSOHN is 5-1, and you’ll never see odds like those on them again.  Although unraced at two, Santa Anita Derby winner Justify is the fastest horse in the field, with three Beyer speed ratings of 100 or better to show for his three races, all wins. He can’t be overlooked despite his slim credentials. Neither, says me, can UK-based Mendelssohn, who has won on three continents, including last year’s Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf in the U.S.  Both like to run on or near the lead, which is good in a big field. They’ll both be in my two, five-horse, $1 exacta boxes, and if they run 1-2 I’ll about break even. As Joe E. Lewis used to say, that’d be good ‘cause I need the money.
                 
               The horse I’ll really be rooting for is GOOD MAGIC, 12-1 in the morning line. He’s won both the Breeders Cup Juvenile at two and last month’s Blue Grass Stakes, and has logged a 100 Beyer, the gold-standard for top-level Thoroughbreds. Further, and importantly, he beat a field of 15 in the Blue Grass, showing he doesn’t mind a crowd. He’ll also be in both my boxes and will ensure a nice payout if he finishes first or second.
                
                 Barring late scratches or mind changes I’ll round out my boxes with a couple of middle-priced horses and a couple of real longshots, with one in each. The middle-pricers are speedy BOLT D’ORO, who chased but didn’t quite catch Justify in California, and AUDIBLE, a “what’s not to like?” colt who’s won four of five, including the Florida Derby. Both are 8-1 going in. The true longshots, both 30-1, are NOBLE INDY and MY BOY JACK, the latter a Silky Sullivan-style closer. My Derby fantasy has him roaring down the home stretch Saturday, battling Good Magic to the wire. If they go 1-2 I’ll take you out to lunch.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

SHOWIN' 'EM


                Victor Oladipo, who plays for the NBA Indiana Pacers, a couple of weeks ago scored 32 points to leads his team to victory in a first-round playoff game with the Cleveland Cavaliers.  Afterward he was reminded that Dan Gilbert, who owns the Cavs, was quoted as saying the Pacers “could have done better” than getting young Oladipo in an off-season trade that involved the established star Paul George going to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

                Asked after the contest if recalling Gilbert’s comment had motivated his performance, Oladipo agreed. “You could say it added fuel to the fire, I guess you could say,” he elliptically told a reporter for the ESPN website.

                To which I thought, Huh? Here’s a player who excelled in the hectic atmosphere of the NBA playoffs while stewing over an off-hand remark an old-guy team owner had made six months before? If that were true it was a miracle he didn’t trip over his own shoelaces.

                Indeed, of all sports-page clichés, which are far too numerous to begin to recount here, the most irksome to me is the one that portrays an athlete or team as angry over some criticism and striving to succeed in order to “show” the critic—to set things straight, as it were.  Invoking it is a crutch for sportswriters too lazy to seek a better description of what transpired during a game and an easy way for an athlete to get out of an interview. The differences between winning or losing on our most-exalted fields of play are many and complex, often defying explanation.  Those involved seem to agree that it’s better to fob off a quick-and-dirty answer than to explore further.

                The seductive thing about the “showing ‘em” cliché is that it applies to just about every performer. The guy who was picked No. 2 in his sport’s annual draft can be portrayed as seething that he wasn’t No. 1; the No. 6 guy can be pissed off at Nos. 1 through 5. If Joe Jock wasn’t a first-round pick he has a right to be upset with every team in his league for passing him over, including his own.  By that reasoning Tom Brady’s quest for six NFL title rings can be explained by his sixth-round draft position.

                Coaches—or, at least, those lacking in motivational skills—feed the resentment theme by maintaining bulletin boards on which to post every published comment on their team or its players that isn’t fulsome praise.  Champion teams do it, too—hey!, everybody’s got critics. It’s even okay if the naysayers are not only nameless but also unnamable-- they’re “the doubters,” whomever they may be. The sports world seems to be filled by Rodney Dangerfields, straightening their neckties and muttering about how they “don’t get no respect.”

                The late Vince Lombardi, the NFL’s guiding spirit, said “there’s nothing that stokes the fire like hate,” and, certainly, genuine animosity can arise between teams that bump heads often, like his Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears. On the collegiate level, ancient rivalries such as Ohio State-Michigan and Alabama-Auburn can stir the blood both on and off the field and hike the victory stakes. But I don’t think St. Vince had remarks like that of the above-mentioned Mr. Gilbert in mind when he spake as he did. Not nearly.

                The springs of athletic motivation begin very simply with the satisfaction of winning and the pain of losing. I daresay that every weekend warrior can attest to this; the guy across the net might be your best friend in the world but when the ball is in play you want to kick his butt. I’m sure it works similarly among elite athletes, with the pain side usually outweighing the elation one; biographies of champions reveal that not wanting to lose is an especially potent motivator.

                Among professional athletes or pros-to-be the lure of fame and riches kick in. In his post-diamond days as a coach Ernie Banks said “I like my players to be married and in debt. That’s the way you motivate them.” Today’s pros pull down salaries so far above the subsistence level that the line about having to “feed the family” is ludicrous, but the principle still holds.  The money that top performers make today is so large that the figures often are abstractions even to their recipients, but athletes know pretty much what their teammates and competitors earn and the desire to move up on this most-basic scoreboard is an excellent reason to run the extra sprint or do more weight-room reps.
              
               The most-telling point to make on this subject is the growing body of knowledge that holds that athletes do their best when they are the least self-conscious, when thoughts of revenge or self-justification disappear and are replaced by a laser-like concentration on the job at hand.
           
               The psychologist Andrew Cooper, who has written extensively about this, coined the phrase “in the zone” to describe it. It’s a Zen-like place where limitations are forgotten, extraneous sights and sounds vanish, time seems to slow and the game takes on a life of its own.
            
             If this sounds like airy-fairy theorizing, it isn’t. Recall if you will the first game of the 1992 NBA finals playoffs pitting the Chicago Bulls against the Portland Trail Blazers, when the Bulls’ Michael Jordan scored 35 first-half points composed mostly of the six-straight three-point shots he sank. After the last of those three-pointers Jordan, who never lacked for ego,  turned toward the scorer’s table, raised his eyebrows and shrugged in genuine dismay, as if to ask “Did I do that?”

The game has been known since as the “Shrug Game.” It stands as Youtube testimony to what an athlete can do when he ain’t hardly tryin’.
               
                  
               

                 
                 
               
                  
                     

Sunday, April 15, 2018

PAYING DEARLY


                The Chicago Tribune, to which I subscribe online to keep up with news from my homeland, last week ran a couple of stories about the ticket prices of the Chicago Cubs, my favorite baseball team. Both made me blink.

                The first was that the Cubs this season will set aside 60 “lower terrace” (i.e., not the worst) seats at their Wrigley Field base for each home game and sell them for $10 each to winners of a lottery the team has set up. Those who want them will sign up at a website 48 hours before the game they wish to see, with the winners announced 24 hours later. It’ll be a two-to-a-customer deal so winners won’t have to attend alone—a nice touch, I thought.

                The second, appearing a few days later, was the counterpoint to the first. It announced the opening of “Club 1914” at Wrigley, a bar-restaurant named for the ballpark’s inaugural year whose membership will be limited to the people who purchased the 700 or so most-expensive Cubs’ season tickets this year, at prices ranging from $695 a game ($56,295 a season) to $400 ($32,400). The glass-and-mahogany affair, situated underground behind the home plate area, will dispense food and drink to the expense-account set while giving them pre-and-post-game hangout space, lockers, access to uncrowded restrooms and their own team-merchandise shop. No computer-lottery victory will be required for access to the place, the members having already won the grand lottery that entitles them to their enviable lifestyle.

                The gentrification of professional sports is no news, already stretching back several decades, but its manifestations still can startle. As a Great Depression baby raised in leaner times, I never fail to marvel at the extent to which people at various income levels are willing to pay to support their teams, even though a flick of a remote can bring the games into their living rooms at little or no cost.  The thrill of joining one’s voice to the roar of the crowd packs a punch that defies quantification or, to me, reason.

                In the 1980s and ‘90s my press pass got me into games for free, but my spectating long predated that. As a kid I saw a lot of Cubs’ games at Wrigley, paying the 65-cent grandstand kids’ ticket price well past the 12-years-old cutoff (I must have looked young), and as a dad years later took my own kids to see quite a few Cubs and White Sox games.

 For 22 years—1972-94—I had a piece of a couple of season tickets to see the NBA Chicago Bulls, receiving also an education in how such things are priced. The initial tag on our seats (second row, first balcony in the old Chicago Stadium, where the balcony hung quite close to the court) was, I recall, $5 each at a time when the fledgling Bulls were a poor draw, but the figure rose steadily until it hit about $30 during the first few of the Michael Jordan title years. Despite my ingrained cheapness I gulped and paid up until the team moved into a new home, called the United Center. When management kicked my group into the upper reaches of the vastly larger arena and about-tripled our seat prices I balked, never to return.

I’ve lived in the Phoenix area for 20 years now and have yet to pay to see an NFL, NBA or NHL game—too pricey! The baseball Arizona Diamondbacks have one of the lowest price scales of any Major League team and draw so poorly that the logistics of attendance at their downtown home park are easy. Wife Susie and I see about a half-dozen games a season, always sitting in the upper deck behind home plate where the ticket tag rarely exceeds $20 per.  By me they’re the best seats in the house, so maybe I should keep quiet about this.  Anyway, figuring in parking and my bratwurst and Pepsi (Susie is allergic to ballpark food and brings her own) the two of us get away for about $60.

The rest of humanity pays quite a bit more. Team Marketing Inc., a company that tracks such things, reported that in 2016, the latest year for which its figures are available, the average cost for a family of four to attend a Major League Baseball game was $212. That included the average prices of two adult and two kids’ tickets, hotdogs, beverages, parking, two programs and two adult-sized baseball caps, and while most people probably would do without the caps it’s still a sizable amount.

In some cities the $212 figure is a dream; according to an online source the average price of a ticket alone at Wrigley Field last season was $151, and it topped $100 at three other parks (Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and the Atlanta Braves’ Sun Trust Park). The Diamondbacks were in the bottom quarter of the 30-team list at $58, while the Chicago White Sox brought up the rear at $30.

It’s further noteworthy that MLB is the bargain among our major team sports; the family-of-four bill for the average NBA game in 2016 was $329, with $358 for the NHL and $473 for the NFL.  Those figures change in only one direction, so they’re undoubtedly higher now. They’ve all increased by at least a third since 2000.

 It’s ironic that the cost of going to a game is soaring at a time when more teams are seeking (and getting) public financing for their stadiums. That means that a lot of people are being taxed to build playgrounds for teams whose games they can’t afford to attend. Even when the stadium is privately owned (such as Wrigley Field) taxpayers must support the infrastructure improvements and extra policing the games demand.

Buy hey!, if you’ve got 10 bucks, and you’re lucky, you might get to see a Cubs’ game this year.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

THE LONG SEASON(S)


                Passover and the new Major League Baseball season arrived in a near dead heat a few days ago, so I think it’s apt to apply a signature question about the former to the latter; namely, “How is this season different from all other seasons?”

                The answer is that this MLB campaign had an earlier start (March 29) than any previous one, if you don’t count the couple of years when teams went to Japan or Australia to play a series before the rest of the teams got underway. The jump was part of a collective-bargaining agreement that provided for three or four more days off for each club during the regular schedule. It also ensures that, absent rain outs, the World Series will end before November begins, the better to avoid the possibility that mittens might replace mitts in the annual classic.

                Baseball’s move follows that of the National Basketball Association, which also started its 2017-18 season a week earlier than before, although that was little noted at the time. The extra week allowed the NBA to eliminate such inhumane practices as having teams play four games in five nights, or 18 games in 30. It also reduced the number of back-to-back contests teams play and threw in an occasional extra off day.
    
            The issue of schedule length has been very much alive in all our major team sports these past few years, matching the concern about a perceived increase in player injuries. Just about everyone agrees that the annual schedules of our premier professional baseball, football, basketball and hockey leagues are too long, but everybody also recognizes that it’s highly unlikely that will change anytime soon. That’s because schedule length is governed by commerce, not competition, and both the players and owners know that nobody makes money when the store isn’t open. The only one of our Big Four pro loops to reduce its calendar in recent decades was the National Hockey League, which went to its present 82 games a team from 84 in 1995-96. The reason for the move was obscure, as is the reasoning behind much of what the NHL does.
        
            Professional athletes are paid to do things other people do for fun so it’s hard to gin up much sympathy for claims they are overworked, but one can make that case nonetheless. Athletes are bigger, faster and stronger than they used to be, and while they get paid more they work harder, too, following the year-around training schedules they need to maintain their places.  It’s a sports paradox that the closer an athlete comes to peak fitness the more susceptible he is to injury and the less it takes to push him over the edge. The wise trainer includes a good amount of rest in his regimens but athletes are as likely as not to ignore it. The motto “no pain, no gain” still resonates despite being largely discredited.
            
             It’s ironic that the sport that has the biggest injury problem has been least amenable to making schedule changes to address it. That would be football, where after the second or third week of the season every player hurts some place all the time. The National Football League went to a consistent 12-game regular season in 1947, to 14 games in 1961 and to the present 16 games in 1978, and while it cut its summer training-game schedule to four games from six in that last year it’s budged no further since.

 The discussion about cutting football players’ workload has of late focused on cutting the so-called preseason, which almost all observers agree is too long. The owners resist, mostly because they charge their season-ticket holders full price for the two exhibitions each hosts annually. That embodies the “because we can” philosophy that rules the league.

The NBA’s regular-season schedule has stood at 82 games since 1967-68, a time when, in retrospect, the players looked smaller and the games were run at slower-mo. This season’s early start hasn’t seemed to have had much effect on contending teams’ practice of sitting healthy veterans (and, thus, shortchanging fans) to preserve them for the playoffs, Nor has it noticeably affected the injury rate; in one recent game the defending-champion Golden State Warriors sat their four best players (Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Clay Thompson and Draymond Green) for various causes. The league is coming to rival the NFL in the role injuries play in determining playoff outcomes.

Baseball is the least strenuous of our major sports but it’s also the one with the longest regular season– a 26-week, 162-game grind before this season’s one-week extension.  A little math shows that worked out to 20 days off a season for each team, or less than one a week, and the numbers were worse when you note that four of the days off came together, at All Star Game time.

 Between about 1920 and 1960 the baseball regular season was 154 games, with each team in the 16-team, two-league setup playing each of its seven league rivals 22 times. The 162-game format was established when the Majors expanded to 20 teams in 1961 and 1962, with each team playing its nine league foes 18 times. Now, with 30 teams and interleague play, the neat arithmetic has been scraped, but the number 162 has become sacrosanct, as do most baseball numbers that have been around for a while.

Baseball players stand (and sit) around a lot during their games, but between the contests their exercise routines are far tougher than they used to be, and their body shapes show it.  Add the facts that pitchers throw harder than they once did, and batters swing harder, and you have a physically more-demanding game than in years past.

 Adding a few more rest days to the schedule is a plus, but a better answer would be to also increase each team’s in-season roster size to 27 players from 25.  Baseball managers tend to use their benches more than other sport’s coaches and dressing one more pitcher and position player would spread the work around more, to the benefit of all. One reason sports schedules never contract is that the players, through their unions, won’t abide the salary cuts that might result, but they’d be sure to like the extra jobs larger rosters would create.  The owners would have to pay two more guys (probably at MLB minimums), but, heck, a 10-cent increase in ballpark beer prices probably would cover that.                           

Thursday, March 15, 2018

TRYING HARDER


                The Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers share a spring-training complex in Glendale, Arizona, and during the first week of March I drove across Phoenix to watch them play each other there. The White Sox were the designated home team on a sunny weekday afternoon, yet my eyeball assessment of the crowd favored Dodger blue over White Sox black by a margin of three or four to one. That was business as usual, because spring training in low-rise, red-roofed Glendale has been a horse-and-rabbit stew since the facility opened in 2009, with the White Sox always playing the lesser role.

                But maybe that’s just as well because the Sox are used to being No. 2, not only in the spring but also during the regular season in their Windy City domicile. First fiddle there is played by the Chicago Cubs, who for reasons many and varied have held that status since about 1985. In 2005, when the Sox broke Chicago’s epic, 88-year baseball-championship drought, they were outdrawn at the gate by a Cubs’ team that went 79-83 in the won-lost column. An attendance spurt that accompanied the opening of the Sox’s new ballpark in 1991 gave the team some earlier spark, but it lasted a brief few seasons. Now that the Cubs are riding high off their 2016 World Series win their recent box-office edge of roughly two-to-one seems carved in stone.
    
            In recent years the Sox’s bid to stay relevant in the Chicago-baseball conversation has consisted of making band-aid fixes in hopes that a few more victories would produce enough juice to avoid a full-fledged gate collapse. That didn’t work, and four straight losing seasons beginning in 2013—with annual sub-2 million home attendance figures—convinced the team’s ownership that a thorough, lose-on-purpose revamp was in order.

That was hardly a novel conclusion since teams like the Washington Nationals, Houston Astros and, yes, the Cubs, had done the same thing in recent memory, but the White Sox had avoided it because of fears its place hold might not survive three or four more years in the dumpster. But, finally, things got so bad that no other path presented itself.

The process started last year when the team traded its best pitcher, Chris Sale, for prospects, and did the same with Adam Eaton, its center fielder and lead-off man. As the season progressed it traded its No. 2 starter, Jose Quintana, for more youngsters, and did the same with relief closer David Robertson, veteran third-baseman Todd Frazier and much of its functional bullpen.  The trading pace has slowed this year but probably will pick up again as the 2018 race unfolds.

 The team’s current main bargaining chip is Jose Abreu, the first baseman it spirited out of Cuba in 2013 and who, with 124 home runs in his four seasons in Chicago, has stamped himself as a certified big-league power hitter. At age 31, and with two more years left on his contract, he would fetch a good price from any team with title hopes.

In its talent dump the Sox have aped what the Cubs did when Theo Epstein took over their front office in 2012, and also in other ways. To manage the revamp on the field the Sox hired the amiable Rick Renteria, who Epstein picked to lead the Cubs in 2014 and who might be leading them still if Joe Maddon hadn’t become available the next year. Further, the Quintana trade was with the Cubs, and in return the Sox got outfielder Eloy Jimenez, the top position-player prospect in the Cubs’ chain and, now, the best in the White Sox’s system.

The Sox have deviated from the Cubs’ model in one important way: to date they have concentrated on pitching in their young-player acquisitions, while the Cubs went after young bats and then shopped for established hurlers. Young pitchers are iffier so this is a more-hazardous course, and it remains to be seen how it will pan out.

The best pitching prospects the White Sox have acquired are Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, in the Eaton trade with the Nationals, and Michael Kopech, in the Sale deal with the Boston Red Sox. Giolito, a jumbo, 23-year-old right hander, looked good when he was brought to the Majors late last season, and is in the team’s projected starting rotation. So is Lopez, 24, also a righty, although his star shines a bit less brightly than Giolito’s.  Right­-hander Kopech, 21, an off-beat fireballer who sports flowing, golden locks, might be the best of the three but he’ll start this season in the minors, perhaps to extend the team’s contractual control.

The top everyday player the Sox got was second-baseman Yoan Moncada, 21, from Boston. He hit only .231 in 54 games after his 2017 call up, but got better as his stay progressed and is expected to continue the improvement. He’s the kind of player who can help a team in a lot of ways; in one spring game I saw this month he walked twice in three at-bats, stole a base and scored from first on a single when the right-fielder bobbled the hit. And at 6-feet-2 and 220 pounds, he has power potential.

To succeed the Sox will need their prospects to avoid injury, and this has been a problem in spring training. Third-baseman Jake Burger, the team’s top pick in the 2017 free-agent draft (and 11th choice overall), already has been lost for the season by an early-spring Achillies tendon tear, and both Jimenez and Luis Robert, a 20-year-old Cuban outfielder whom it paid $26 million, have been in and out of the lineup with various ills.

Mostly, though, it’ll have to be shown that the team’s front office, led by general manager Rick Hahn, knows talent. If it does as well as the Cubs’ Epstein, an all-Chicago World Series could be more than a pipe dream. If not, Las Vegas or Portland might be in the cards.
                   

Thursday, March 1, 2018

WINTER O's CLOSE; BASEBALL'S SLOWS; COLLEGE HOOPS' WOES


                NEWS: Winter Olympics end.
               
                VIEWS: Finally.

                I covered three Winter Olympics—in Calgary in 1988, Albertville in 1992 and Lillehammer in 1994—but didn’t especially enjoy any of them.  The weather was one reason, of course, even when the problem was too warm (in Calgary) rather than too cold, but the real rub was that I had no affinity for winter sports. I never skied and wasn’t much of a skater on the ice rink created during the winter by flooding the playground behind my Chicago grammar school. As a kid I played a lot of ping pong in friends’ basements when the weather was cold, and racquetball was my winter sport of choice as an adult.

                 I had nothing against the athletes at the Winter O’s, who possessed the same virtues as other top-level jocks, but I did have quarrels with some of the games they played. Most winter-sports races are staged as singles or pairs against the clock rather than the line-‘em-all-up-and-see-who’s-best formats of, say track and field or swimming. Thus, they lack dramatic impact or a satisfying conclusion.

   Further, too many winter sports involve judges, which is to say they’re inherently open to bias. That’s especially true of figure skating, the Winter Games’ marquee events. Yeah, the figs are beautiful, and the skaters are terrific, but if it’s a sport so is ballet.  As for the TV commentary, it’s set me to giggling ever since I saw “Kentucky Fried Movie” (remember?).

                With only nations with the requisite frosty climes participating, the Winter Games are less universal than the summer ones, and because their overseers have dictated that both follow the same, 17-day schedule the winter calendars were much sparser than the summer ones at the Games I attended. The skeds have been beefed up for recent Games, mostly with X-Games daredevil stuff I can do without, but also by the addition of curling, that cross between bowling and shuffleboard that defies any definition of athletic endeavor. The revelation that a Russian curler was caught doping at Pyeongchang was one of the oddest sports stories ever. A curler doping? What in the world for?

                Wife Susie loves the figs, and because we were traveling for much of the recent Winter Games I was forced to watch quite a bit of them in our hotel rooms. Thus, I found the end of the competition especially welcome. It’ll be four years until the next one, not enough time to recover but almost.

                NEWS: Major League Baseball moves to speed games by limiting pitcher’s-mound conferences.

                VIEWS: The devil is in the details.

                The new rule, just announced, places a limit of six on mound visits by managers, coaches, catchers or other players during a nine-inning game, plus one for each extra inning, but it contains so many exceptions that it’s impact should be minimal. To wit:

                --Visits to check out possible pitchers’ injuries aren’t counted, nor are visits after an offensive substitution.

--Catchers still can talk to pitchers from the infield grass.

--Positions players can come to the mound to clean their spikes on the mound board (and whisper messages).

--Visits over the limit to correct pitch-sign cross-ups are permitted if the home-plate umpire agrees.

                The trouble with all the above exceptions is that each could be subject to umpire interpretations that will lead to arguments. MLB has tested a 20-second pitch clock during the last couple of Arizona Fall League seasons, and in the few instances umps invoked it they had to weather managers’ beefs that more than negated whatever time savings the rule might have brought. Look for a repeat of that this season.

                NEWS: More shoes drop in the FBI’s investigation of college basketball.

                VIEWS: There’s a centipede out there.

                The probe, which in September resulted in indictments of assistant coaches from Arizona, USC, Auburn and Oklahoma State, plus player agents and executives of the shoe company Adidas, rattled college hoops to its core, especially because the agency hinted there was more to come. Nothing further has been announced, but last week Yahoo Sports reported that some 20 more schools have been caught in the G-men’s net, including perennial powerhouses Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Michigan State and Kansas. It also identified a half dozen current or recent college players who received payments in the scheme, in which the coaches funneled money to the kids to attend certain schools, wear certain sneakers and, later, employ certain agents.

                That only assistant coaches were named initially made it look like your typical NCAA enforcement charade, but big cheese Rick Pitino of Louisville quickly got fired when his school was implicated (it was a last straw thing; he’d more than deserved firing for things he’d done previously) and Sean Miller of Arizona was benched a week ago when it came out he’d been taped discussing with one of the indictees paying $100,000 to a coveted recruit, Deandre Ayton, who wound up at Arizona.

The Yahoo piece, and one by ESPN’s excellent websight, said that about 4,000 phone calls, emails and other documents were seized during a two-year investigation, including a pile from Andy Miller, a well-known player agent. Some of the college game’s sainted head coaches, including Bill Self of Kansas and North Carolina’s Roy Williams, have issued “not me” statements, indicating, at least, that some “You too’s?” have been whispered in their presence.

                The main reason the coaches are squirming is that this is an FBI probe, not one by the toothless NCAA. That means that penalties can include prison time, not just some BS loss of scholarships or post-season-game ban. It’s more than a little ironic that the federal criminal laws the agency is seeking to enforce were enthusiastically supported by the NCAA in its never-ending quest to keep money from so-called student-athletes.  It’s a classic case of watching what you wish for, because you might get it.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

FOOTBALL FOR GIRLS

                If you’ve been around sports as long as I have it’s tough to be shocked by anything that happens, but the sex-abuse story involving Larry Nassar, the osteopath who preyed on young female gymnasts, is appalling by any measure.
          
                The amount of time covered by his crimes—24 years (from about 1992 until he was arrested in December, 2016)—strains credulity, as does his number of victims—265 girls and young women, by one estimate presented at his trial. Worse, he was able to do what he did under the noses of a well-known Michigan gymnastics club, Michigan State University (where he was a team physician and faculty member) and USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for the sport, all of which were responsible for looking out for the best interests of their athletes.

                When serial sex abuse surfaces it’s always asked why the victims didn’t speak up sooner. In Nassar’s case they did. According to published reports gymnasts had complained about him to their parents, coaches or others as early as 1994, but their claims were disregarded. At least twice—in 2004 and 2014—charges were brought to the attention of police agencies, and investigations were launched, but nothing came of them. According to one account Nassar showed one group of police a power-point presentation showing that his predations had a legitimate medical purpose, and the cops backed off.

                But while the Nassar case was horrific it was not surprising to anyone who’d followed youth sports in this country or abroad, or gymnastics in particular. Charges of sexual abuse against prominent gym coaches date from at least the 1980s involving such figures as Don Peters, coach of the 1984 U.S. silver-medal-winning women’s Olympic team, and are as recent as last week’s news, when John Geddert, coach of the 2016 U.S. women’s team, was implicated in the Nassar mess (he denies any involvement).  

                In 2016, before the Nassar story broke, the Indianapolis Star, which follows Olympic sports closely, looked at records dating back a dozen years and counted sex-abuse claims by 368 girl gymnasts against more than 50 coaches, gym owners or other adults involved in the sport. Many of the charges were reported to USA Gymnastics but only a few were sent on to the attention of police. Further, coaches against whom charges had been levied often hopped from job to job without the allegations being resolved or following them, much in the manner of Catholic priests who were transferred but not punished for such transgressions. One coach worked at six different clubs in four states before his past came to light.

                Gymnastics isn’t the only sport in which children are abused, nor is the U.S. the only country. A piece in the New York Times in December of 2016 detailed investigations then current in England in which 83 possible suspects on 98 youth soccer teams were suspected of having assaulted as many as 350 victims, all boys.  In the wake of the inquiries several English professional players came forward to assert they’d been victimized by coaches when they were younger. The charges have resulted in shakeups in the organization of youth programs run by several Premier League clubs.
                
                What soccer and gymnastics, and some other sports, have in common is that their upper reaches are populated solely by athletes who have been dedicated to them since early childhood, to the expense of other activities (such as education) usually deemed essential to their development. In Europe and South America the recruitment and winnowing of soccer-playing boys begins at around age six and continues through the teens, with the best prospects typically enrolled in academies devoted exclusively to the sport. In women’s gymnastics, dominated by tiny, flexible teens, the process begins earlier, with kids as young as 10 shipped from home to work full time with coaches and trainers who, necessarily, also assume parental roles.  The professionalization of childhood, one response to an increasingly competitive world, has no purer examples.
            
              The gymnastics model is that of the East European nations that made success in Olympic sports an ad for their Communist systems beginning with the Cold War 1950s. Schools there were sifted for young talent that was then honed to shine for the Motherland, whatever the cost. In gymnastics the process’s epitome was Nadia Comaneci, the fairy-like Romanian whose victories in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, at age 14, captivated the world. Her coach since age 7 was Bela Karolyi.
               
              Big, bluff Bela always had been a poor fit for Communist conformity, and after Comaneci repeated her Olympic triumph in 1980 he defected to the U.S., landing in his spiritual home of Texas. By 1984 he’d done in America what he did in Romania, grooming bouncy Mary Lou Retton for Olympic glory at age 16. What he couldn’t get from the government in his adopted land he got from ambitious American parents, who turned their daughters over to him for training. He was the sport’s dominant U.S. figure for almost 40 years, either from the stage or the wings.
               
                Karolyi’s gym near Houston has been an Olympic training center for some years. Nassar practiced there and the place been closed as a result of the revelations about him. Karolyi says he knew nothing of those. I hope he’s right because I liked him. Gymnastics has been called “football for girls” because of the fearsome and sometimes lasting physical toll it exacts; Mary Lou Retton’s main public exposure now (she’s 50) is as a TV spokesperson for an arthritis-pain cream. Karolyi always acknowledged the sport’s dangers as well as his own, hard-driving coaching methods, but countered that they were necessary for victories in an exacting pursuit. He used to liken himself to a piano teacher working with elite young students; the pieces he taught were the toughest but they were the only path to Carnegie Hall, he’d say.

                
               The rub, of course, is that the gym tots are sent off to battle before any reasonable age of consent by parents who put their children’s bodies and futures in the hands of others. It’s almost inevitable that a deranged few will betray that trust.