Archive for the sports Category

You Can Become Anything

Posted in beer, sports, sports and society with tags , , , , , on November 21, 2014 by cueball

I have 3 things in my life I really like to read about, talk about, and write about:  craft beer, college sports, and US soccer.  As it happens, we are in very interesting times for all three of those things.  They are all in places that could be called adolescence (for craft beer and US soccer) or midlife crisis (college sports).

40 Years In The Wilderness

I remember the 40 years in the wilderness.  The 40 years for US soccer between World Cup appearances.  In international soccer, not playing in the World Cup is the wilderness.  It means you are irrelevant.  Those days saw the NASL burn out like a wayward flare and youth soccer and college soccer become the apex of soccer achievement for players and coaches.  Then, in 1989 Paul Caliguiri scores the goal against Trinidad and Tobago (I watched in a friend’s basement as ESPN showed some borrowed feed with Bob Ley and Seamus Malin calling the action from Bristol) 25 years ago.  That goal put the US in the 1990 World Cup, the last they could qualify for before hosting in 1994.  Without that goal, there is no Major League Soccer, no quarterfinals run in 2002, or the heightened expectations of a country used to winning and dominating at everything it does.

That is why I call this period an adolescence for US Soccer.  Modern US Soccer did not begin until the late 1980s.  In terms of soccer history that less than 30 year period is a blip.  Soccer in this country has taken its first steps, World Cup qualifying and quality professional first division, now it is trying to move from the callow youth with all this untapped potential to a successful adult taking the world by storm.  That has led to a lot of the problems that come with adolescence.  In that period from youth to adulthood, your adolescence is spent trying to figure who you are, what you believe, and what is your voice.

That is what US Soccer is doing right now. Its constituent members, its fans, and the media who cover US Soccer are all asking questions right now.  Should a young player go abroad to play, or stay and work through the US/MLS development system?  Should the national team play a more possession based system that values keeping the ball or should it play or a more counterattacking system that absorbs pressure from the other team? How do we get more athletes access to quality coaching and playing in a country this vast geographically?  Throw on top of that the inevitable jockeying for primacy and power within the structure of US Soccer and a lot of silly things are being said from anonymous sources to the media.

Just as it takes time and missteps to work through those fundamental questions as an adolescent it will take time and a lot of pain and hurt feelings for US Soccer to answer those growing pain questions.

The beer industry in the US spent its own time in the wilderness with the passing of Prohibition on through the 1970s.  That puts modern existence of craft beer in the US in much the same position as US Soccer.  What it means to be a craft beer brewer is one of those internal debates that most consumers don’t notice or care about, but is actually important to the future of the brewing industry in this country.

On one level (the level most consumers see it) it doesn’t matter where your beer comes from or who makes it as long as it is good.  On the second level it matters immensely.  The vibrancy and growth of craft beer in the US is primarily attributed to the idea of the independent brewer making good beer apart from and in many cases in spite of the big brewer’s influence/interference.  That is what takes it from merely an industry into a craft.

The oft cited numbers from the Brewer’s Association are this:  in 1932 there were 0 brewers in the US, in 1980 there were 92 brewers in, by the end of 2013 there were almost 3000.  The fear among many within the craft beer world is that the growing trend of the big brewers buying regional and local breweries will lead to stifling the creativity and therefore the growth of the industry and fundamentally change it at the same time.

This fear is well founded if you look at an industry like movies.  The reason most of the movies you see and read about are comic book movies, adaptations from television or books, remakes of previous movies, or sequels/prequels is that there is almost no American independent movie movement anymore.  Today the movies that get made are either micro-budgeted shorts that the director puts up on YouTube in hopes of attracting a studio’s attention or a superhero yarn that costs triple the GDP of a third world country to make.

However, just as I think some kind of market correction is coming to the movie industry where enough people will get tired of seeing cities and planets destroyed by aliens and go back to movies about people talking, I don’t think independent craft brewers will ever disappear.  We are just in a period where the big multinational brewers (or beverage companies/conglomerates) will figure out how to tap into that market and the independent craft brewers will figure out how to leverage those multinational’s interest into making better beer.

Again, it is that adolescent process of figuring out who you are in a big complicated and convoluted world.  There are no easy answers and no quick solutions.

The Midlife Crisis

The NCAA and college sports have been around since the turn of the 20th century.  Almost since the beginning it has had to endure a push-pull between providing athletes the opportunity to gain education and making money off the on the field efforts of those athletes.  However, I think now the NCAA and its member institutions have entered a time that the money is so great (for two sports: football and men’s basketball) that coaches, administrators, and institutions are compromising their primary responsibility, to educate, in order to keep making money.

Much like adolescence a midlife crisis is a moment when you step back and assess who you are and what you believe in. Usually, people who go through midlife crises have been successful, but they see the end is closer than the beginning.  Whereas the adolescent is asking, “What can I do with this unlimited future,” the middle aged ask, “What legacy am I going to leave behind?”

The midlife crisis questions are harder because they often require a change in mindset and a change in path.  The adolescent is discovering their path while the middle aged are often creating a new one from an already heavily traveled road.

The road the NCAA has traveled down took a wrong turn somewhere.  Maybe not a turn, but it veered to the left fork instead of the right one.  At some point the NCAA took its eye off the primary mission of its members, to educate, and became more about sports-entertainment.  (This blog post at The Classical does a better job explaining this then I can.) I don’t think it was intentional or done out of greed or malice. Nor do I think it was any one decision that set this path.

Regardless of whether you think amateurism and the concept of the “student-athlete” are arbitrary creations to hold on to money, power, or status or you think they are the bedrocks onto which a whole belief system and way of life that should be protected is based, you must agree that the NCAA cannot go on as it currently is.  The NCAA has incentivized a system of graft and cheating by hording all the money it makes into the hands of a very few and none of those being the actual athletes.  This money comes from both the NCAA Tournament television contracts, the television contracts the individual conferences have all signed, and the College Football Playoff contracts.  Those last two categories are actually outside the purview of the NCAA proper, but everyone who participates in those contracts are members of the NCAA.

Intercollegiate sports will not exist as we know it in 20 years.  I believe athletes will have contracts. They will sign for a certain amount to go their education and perhaps bonus money that will probably (at the very least) include money from any ancillary sales produced by their name or likeness (i.e. jersey sales).  Athletes will be allowed to do endorsements outside of the school and sign merchandise and memorabilia for money.  Now, the schools will include a non-compete clause with penalties in the contract so that the athlete can’t just jump from school to school and they would have minimum academic requirements (probably the same as the rest of the student body) in order to remain eligible to play.  I stole most of this from Jay Bilas.

∞∞∞

The most complicated and sometimes painful part of life are those moments when you have to stop and truly look inside yourself and ask, “Who am I and what am I doing here?” US Soccer, craft beer, and the NCAA are all in that place. This time is full of opportunity and hope. It is also filled with fear and trepidation.  Yet, these are the most interesting and fun times because they are full of possibility. You can become or do anything.

Our Football Hypocrisy

Posted in college football, football, sports with tags , , , , , , , on August 28, 2013 by cueball

I’m a hypocrite.  Most of us are, I just admit it.  Most football fans just try not to think about what we are asking for our personal entertainment.

I’ve read or seen all the major news reports.  I’ve even read a couple of the scientific papers that describe the effects of concussions.  I have a good handle on what scientists suspect are the long-term effects of using your body as a projectile against other human beings.  I know we are probably asking individuals to shorten their life-spans so that we have something to watch on Saturday and Sunday.  That truly gives me pause, at least through the end of August.

Then football season starts up again and I am swept back into the familiar routine of games all Saturday afternoon and night and again on Sunday afternoon.

We are like addicts.  We know what we are doing is bad.  We know that it is dangerous.  We know we should not do this, but every August football pulls us back.  The thing is we know deep down that we are quickly heading towards rock bottom, that point of reckoning where we will have to truly face what we are doing and what we are asking of these athletes.  At least I hope so.  I hope we face what we are doing and truly try to change before someone literally dies on the field.

Then again, maybe the NFL is becoming rollerball even against its own wishes.  I think the nightmare scenario for everyone in the league is a death on the field and think they are doing everything possible under the structure of football to make it safer.  They are adjusting rules and emphasizing correct technique at younger levels.   The problem is, of course, it is still football.

It is still a game of collision.  The object is to tackle the guy with the ball.  So, unless you completely change the game to the point where it is no longer about arresting the physical movements of other players, it will inherently be a collision sport that veers into physical violence.

Football is different from other sports in that it is probably the closest sport to physical chess (and by extension warfare).  Every move right down to basic blocking has a counter-move.  There are only two ways to move the ball:  running and passing (we’ll leave kicking out for the moment).  Within those two possibilities you have hundreds of different plays which can be disguised with hundreds of different formations.  Defense is basically zone or man, but within that you can change the type of personnel on the field and or play zone principles on one side of the field and man principles on the other.  It is endlessly complicated and fascinating.

All of that being said, the sport appeals to us precisely because it is so physical a game.  After we get done with all the talk about zone blitzes and the read-option it comes down to the Oklahoma Drill.  It is the sport’s essence and its beauty.  Yet, what it represents may also be its undoing.

The Oklahoma Drill is simple.  In a space about three yards long and one yard wide two players line up against each other as if at the line of scrimmage.  The coach blows the whistle and the player who can push the other player out of the space or onto the ground wins.  It is simple. It is brutal and it is the essence of football.  The game at its core level is about one person taking the challenge to physically dominate another person.  Watching that challenge on each play keeps us coming back despite what should be our better judgment.

Hopefully this is the last time I talk about this

Posted in college basketball, college football, NCAA, sports with tags , , , , on August 23, 2013 by cueball

Amateurism is dead, smothered by NCAA commercialization. Yet, NCAA drags it around like it’s in a bizarre remake of “Weekend at Bernie’s.” – @JayBilas, ESPN Basketball Commentator Jay Bilas via twitter

How did I end up here?

I, like most people who love college sports started out believing in the sanctity of the NCAA and the current college sports model.

I love reading and writing and I believe in the concept of education as a good unto itself.

College football and basketball is a part of my Saturday’s and has been for as long as I can remember.  Back in the ancient times before the explosion of ESPN I remember waiting for the Jefferson Pilot introduction to start with the pilot himself on his boat in his yellow rain slicker.  That always meant the start of college football or basketball for the day was at hand.  The voices of Keith Jackson and Ara Parseghian are still ingrained in the football loving part of my brain.  I am a graduate of UNC Chapel Hill and a devoted fan of all of its athletic teams.

Yet, I sit here right now hating the NCAA and what it pretends to represent.

The first cracks in my blind devotion would come with the Fab Five.  This is a fascinating group of players.  On one hand they actually won nothing, yet they are more famous the then teams that beat them to win national championships and Big Ten Championships.  On the other hand, they were the first athletes to openly ask, “Why does everyone else get to make money off me except me?”

My knee jerk reaction at the time was the same as many now, “You’re getting a scholarship.  Shut up and be happy.”  However, the seeds were planted and I didn’t wholly believe what I was saying.

Then the slow drip, drip of all the television contracts, coaches contracts, “one and done” rules, etc. washed away the improvised splatter of “amateurism” the NCAA keeps trying to paint on itself to protect its revenues.

One of the arguments you will often hear by defenders of the NCAA’s status quo is that the huge CBS/Turner contract is split between all the NCAA schools and all of the teams in all of its sports, so it doesn’t equal that much money per school per team.  However, I look at it differently.  Having to split that money between so many athletic departments means that you have to protect what little revenue you have at all costs.  In this case that means making sure you don’t have a huge expenditure line of paying players eating into those revenues.

I think it is clear that the current system is going to collapse in on itself sometime within the next 10 years.  A system where the group at the top gets all the revenue and the group at the bottom who does all the work gets compensated in tuition and housing yet can’t get an outside job or use their own name to make additional money seems unfair because it is.  Coaches can quit and go to different schools with no repercussions as long as they can pay the buyouts, but a player leaves to go to a different school for whatever reason has to sit a year, unless granted a waiver by the powers that be.  Additionally, schools who claim poverty when asked to pay their “student-athletes” a living wage better not have a coach making millions of dollars.

Again, if the system seems unfair, it is because it is.  If we were still in a time when all the money surrounding college sports was solely the province of outside agents than the NCAA holding the line for amateurism would be more acceptable.  However, you can’t sell a jersey with a player’s number on it and then claim that you were only selling the team and the individual.

How many #50 Tar Heel jerseys were sold before Tyler Hansbrough matriculated to Chapel Hill?  Now, I love Rich Yonacker, Cecil Exum, Octavus Barnes, and Brian Bersticker as much as the next Tar Heel fan, but the school wasn’t moving a whole lot of merchandise with 50 on it when those guys wore the number.  The NCAA getting caught using the names of players as a search parameter for jerseys on their website was humiliating for them and funny for us, but it was at best a symptom of a failed system built upon a manufactured belief system with no basis in reality.

To sleep, perchance to get some freaking sleep

Posted in sports, television, writing with tags , , , , , , on August 21, 2013 by cueball

Insomnia is a bitch.

For the last week or so I’ve only been getting about 4 hours sleep.  I’ve been waking up at around 3:30 every night and haven’t been able to get back to a deep sleep.  I’ve gotten to that point just before a deep sleep when you are still on the wrong side of consciousness to be considered asleep.  You are still just barely awake and can still make out sounds of what is going on around you, but you are not fully asleep.

Now, what happens is my alarm goes off at 6:30.  I turn it off and promptly fall asleep for another hour if I don’t drag my sleep deprived self up and out of bed.  This wouldn’t be so bad if I wasn’t trying to finish a book while working a full-time job every day.  The only time I really get to write is first thing in the morning and that is hard when all your mind is thinking is, “I need another 2 hours of sleep to be worth anything.”

This only recently started, so maybe it is because I know I need to write and my mind won’t settle.  I’m hoping that is what it is.  I’m just going to get up when my alarm goes off and try to function as best I can and write through it.  We’ll see.

I’ve been avoiding writing anything about Johnny Manziel or the NCAA this summer because I’m tired of the whole story.  I will say this:  I’ve come to believe the problem with the NCAA is two-fold.  First, it holds onto to this conception of amateurism that it only created in the 50s and 60s as television revenue became a reality.  No other entity in the world still holds onto this idea of absolutely no pay for athletes.  Second, the NCAA is more like FIFA and IOC then it is like any academically based membership group.  It is a money making vehicle who uses rhetoric to pump up its self-importance often at the expense of its sports and its athletes.

A fundamental question is rarely asked in the current argument over whether to pay players (or student-athletes).  That question is, why does college athletics exist?  Is it to give students who normally would not be able to afford college the opportunity to get higher education or is it to promote the schools the teams represent.  If it is to provide educational opportunities then the idea of selling the games to the highest television bidder and paying coaches huge amounts of money to win may still happen to an extent, but to the obscene extent they happen today.  If it is to promote the schools and act as “the front porch” that everyone sees, then the television revenue and coach’s pay makes a lot more sense.

In a perfect world this whole system would be to provide scholarships that help kids get educations.  They would be treated like any other scholarship student on campus who as long as they meet the requirements of their scholarship agreement they keep the scholarship.  Meaning if they meet their academic and athletic requirements, they keep the scholarship.  If they want to get a job during their free time they can.  If they want to start a business or make a rap album under their own name, they can.

The NCAA and a minority of its member institutions pay lip-service to the concept of student-athletes to continue making the money it and they have become dependent upon.  While I compared the NCAA to FIFA and the IOC, I think the NCAA is the saddest case.  They all stumbled into their money-grubbing almost accidentally, but the NCAA was started solely to protect athletes.  The other two began as ways to promote and legislate sports and events.  The NCAA’s origins were literally to protect football players by creating a governing body over the burgeoning football craze.  Now it has become an organization fighting off lawsuits over concussions via football.

I’ve come up with a few television shows premiering this fall that interest me.  I wrote Monday that I wanted to start reviewing a new show for this seasonThe Blacklist, Almost Human, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and The Tomorrow People all seem the most interesting shows coming up this season.  I need to check on the cable channels and see what they have debuting between this fall and next summer to see if anything else jumps out at me.

I hope to make these reviews and more consistent sports writing a regular features going forward.

Now, I might go take a nap.

The Guy

Posted in sports with tags , , , on July 22, 2013 by cueball

Some athletes love to be The Guy (or The Women).  These are athletes who are not only good but good at bringing attention to themselves.  They love for the public to have their eyes on them on and off the field.  They want to be the center of everything.

The Guy in today’s sports, at least for now is Johnny Manziel.  He is in the classic mold of many of the quarterbacks in football’s history.  Go back to Paul Hornung, Joe Namath (the exemplar), Ken Stabler and you will see a lot of the same characteristics that Manziel.  It is fun to watch in a sense because those others were in the NFL when their greatest exploits came to light.  Manziel is still in college where it isn’t supposed to be about the individual it is supposed to be about the honor of Old State U and some antiquated notion of amateurism.

As much fun as it would be to wax poetically about Manziel and my dislike of the NCAA system, I am too tired to go there anymore.  What really interests me is what happens when you are no longer the guy.

Being the guy is not a phenomenon that solely resides in sports.  It appears in other areas of life as well.  Yesterday was the birthday of someone who was The Guy in his lifetime, Ernest Hemingway.  Hemingway was not only a brilliant writer, but he also understood writing as an act and an art better than most people before or since.

Hemingway also loved being The Guy of American letters.  He created this persona and public face that lives on to this day.  Near the end, however, he knew he was no longer The Guy.  He was no longer the Hemingway he cultivated for public consumption.  He was no longer the bear of a man, adventurer, and genius so he ended it with a shot gun.

That is the thing about being The Guy.  It is a hell of a lot of fun while you are The Guy.  However, if you aren’t prepared for it to end, it will end badly.  The Guy very rarely walks off into the sunset and retires to nice anonymity.  Being The Guy is too good a drug.  It never seems to let go of the ones who have enjoyed it most.

That is why people enjoy Manziel so much right now.  He is living every little kid’s dream.  He is rich, a Heisman Trophy winner, a starting quarterback in the SEC, and could give less than two fucks about the NCAA and its rules.  Hopefully, he understands that this is a special time in his life and he should get in as much as he can before it runs out.  He’ll go out and have fun and when the time runs out he will move on to the next part of life.  Or, maybe he thinks this will go on forever and that his real self is this “Johnny Football” creation.

Either way, our reactions to him will make the next 4 years of his life interesting to watch.

It Is No Longer A Game

Posted in sports with tags , , , , , on June 23, 2013 by cueball

 “Every time I call it a game, you call it a business. And every time I call it a business, you call it a game.”

North Dallas Forty

First, I love college sports.  I went to UNC Chapel Hill and have loved college basketball since 1982.  It is a part of my DNA.  Second, I believe in education for education’s sake.  I think you education opens your world to many things, some of which can’t be measured by money.  I certainly disagree with the current governor of North Carolina that universities are glorified vocational schools.  Having said that, over the last year or so I have come to believe that, barring a complete dismantling of the current structure of college sports, college players should be paid in some form or another above their grants-in-aid.

Notice, I did not call them college athletes or student-athletes or any other Orwellian term coined to hide the fact these are indentured laborers.

If coaches weren’t becoming millionaires and athletic departments weren’t basically for profit businesses and conferences weren’t billion dollar corporations, athletes would be regular students who used their God-given abilities to get an education.

However, the world where this is true no longer exists for football players and college basketball players.

The fans, the media, the coaches/administrators, and the athletes all view sports differently.

Fans sometimes think of the football team or basketball team as the university and forget that there is an institution of higher learning supposedly represented by those teams.  The attitudes of many of these fans is a paternalistic (and maybe something else) attitude that the athletes should just be happy to get the opportunity to play for Old State U and their legendary god-like coach.

Media members are caught in a maelstrom of loving the sports and most of the people involved in the sports and watching a ridiculous system lurch towards its own demise.  Most of the coaches and administrators are good people caught trying to make this lurching, belching, and dying system function in some semblance of logic.

Then there are the athletes who remind me a quote from the book Dune:  “He who can destroy a thing has the real control of it.”

Should athletes be paid above their scholarships?  In the strictest sense, no they should not.  However, when the highest paid state employee of many states is the head football or basketball coach of a state university maybe they should.  When EA Sports and the NCAA make money on video games using the likenesses, jersey numbers, the athletic profiles, and statistical profiles of players from the immediate past and sometimes still active, but then claim they aren’t using that player’s likeness because they changed the name, yeah the athletes probably should get something for their troubles besides having to write a paper on Beowulf.

We are passed the “should stage”.  Once the NCAA v. The Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma case was decided and schools/conferences could control their own television contracts, the floodgates opened.  Money is flowing to everyone except the individuals upon whom the whole system is based.  It has taken 20 years, but those individuals are starting to understand their power in this situation.  They are starting to understand that without them the system may not collapse, but its value will be greatly diminished.  Now that, that is happening the whole system will change regardless of what the decision is in the O’Bannon case.

College sports is no longer a game, it is a business and like most businesses with shady labor practices it will have its reckoning.

An Attempt At Making Hemingway Love The San Antonio Spurs

Posted in sports, writing with tags , , , , , , , on May 28, 2013 by cueball

Hemingway would have loved the San Antonio Spurs.  He would have especially loved Tim Duncan.  No matter what you may think of Hemingway (I love him) you have to admit he had a love for the competent professional.  He respected the hell out of anyone who knew how to do things.  Almost all of his stories included passages of his main characters doing some task, no matter how small, extremely well.  His writing about writing and bullfighting and boxing and race car driving all reflect that same reverence for efficient skill.

The Spurs are professionals.  They go about their business of playing good basketball and winning without regard of what anyone else thinks (including David Stern).  They are not trying to impress you.  They are not trying to impress me.  They are simply trying to play basketball their way and win.  From Greg Popovich on down to the bottom of the roster this team focuses on the skills that will help it win and on very little else.

There is a beauty in the way the efficiently dispatched the Memphis Grizzlies.  When Hemingway wrote about bullfighting he always emphasized his love for the fighters he considered brave.  Not the ones with the needlessly ostentatious bravery, but the simple bravery of a man doing his job in an professionally artistic manner in the face of danger.

When selecting players, the franchise seems to focus on two things: 1) Does the player have a specific skill set that we can integrate into our system and 2) Is the player smart enough and/or willing enough to subsume his own glory to that of the team’s.

Outside of the occasionally petulant whining towards the refs and the point guard getting injured in a weird accident involving a night club and Chris Brown, you would hardly notice the Spurs until they have beaten you.

Their professionalism is off-putting to a modern fandom.  They aren’t looking for your emotional approval.  They don’t care of you like or you hate them.  They don’t care if you even notice them.  Just give them their trophy after they’ve kicked your ass and let them go about their business.  They are true to themselves and do what they think is right no matter the consequences.

This is what most of Hemingway’s characters tried to do:  Perform honorably with no regard to glory.  Popovich and Duncan have together built a franchise culture that isn’t about glory.  It isn’t about getting lauded on television and the internet.  It isn’t about getting a participation trophy for just showing up.  It is about doing the things that lead to winning on a daily basis and never losing sight of that goal.

I’m not going to get into whether the Spurs play the “right way.”  The right way is a term that often leads to describing teams that don’t play the right way as being selfish thugs and thugs is a word that has a lot of heavy connotations to it.  I don’t think the Spurs can be the Miami Heat, but I think it will be a fun series to watch.

As a franchise the Spurs refuse to play the games of ego placation when acquiring or keeping players nor do they seek to placate fans by bringing in big names solely to boost attendance.  They have a plan of how they want to play and how they want to run their franchise and they stick to that plan.  It helps that you have a hall of fame coach and the best player of his generation as your anchors.  However, most teams don’t have a plan other then try to win and try to fill the arena.  The Spur more than any other professional sports franchise seems to understand that the best way to get people to come see your team is to win and win consistently.

Of course, today, the idea that you sometimes need to eschew short term superficial gain in order to build something meaningful and long lasting is foreign to many.  Our current microwave and internet society is filled with instant gratification and instant answers.  So much so, that delaying enjoyment and building for the long term appears irrational.