Archive for college sports

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.

Obsessions, Expansion, Contraction

Posted in life with tags , , on August 7, 2014 by cueball

Science fiction and college sports (specifically Tar Heel sports) were my obsessions when I was an adolescent.  My days especially Saturdays were spent doing two things reading and watching sports.  A typical Saturday would start by going to the library to get a couple of paper back science fiction books and reading them, then watching basketball or football for the rest of the day, then reading until I went to sleep. That was all cared about.  At some point all that began to change.

I stopped reading science fiction.  I don’t know if it was finding Shakespeare or Sex, Lies, and Videotape for the first time or if soccer replaced it, but something changed.  I want to get back to reading science fiction as soon as I get through the virtual stack of books I’ve bought in the last year on my Kindle.

I also don’t have the same relationship with college sports I used to have. That is a little easier to decipher, I began to notice the unfair nature of modern college athletics and have grown tired of the hypocrisy of the people who control it.  However, I think my relationship still would have changed over time, but it wouldn’t have soured as it has.

Why do we grow out of the things we obsessed over as kids as we get older?  Is it merely the putting away of childish things or is it that those things allowed us to expand our world in a safe way while teaching us to continue to expand our world and therefore growing past them. 

Without science fiction to stoke and in a sense create my imagination, could I have ever been able to see the worlds Shakespeare created in my mind?  Without those glimpses of faraway college campuses, would I have thought about going to college to be a part of those awesome looking places? 

Maybe we move on to different obsessions and obsess in different ways when we expand past the limits of our current fixation.  We explore and ruminate over our obsessions until we reach out past their edges and find a sliver of light that leads us to the next thing to capture our minds. 

Also, our obsessions fuel our vision of our own possibilities.  As we get older our obsessions become more existential.  We hope studying a subject on a minute and almost abstract level will give us understanding, and with that understanding meaning. 

It is the same with anything:  movies, television, literature, music, beer, deciduous trees.  The study of the most minute details of a subject is a search for meaning.  Not only for that subject, but in our own lives. 

When you are a kid your obsessions are to teach you how big the world is.  When you are an adult, your obsessions are to grab hold to a tiny part of that world in hopes that it will shed light on the meaning of your life.  We expand our world to find out how much the world can hold and later contract our word to find meaning in the individual things that holds.

For me, to live is to seek.  I am at my happiest when I am exploring and looking for something.  That something is not necessarily an actual thing or place, but usually an idea or a feeling.  That is the same for most people up to a certain age.  That age is different for everyone.  Until you reach that age, you are seeking to expand your world to learn about it and in the process learn about yourself. 

I cannot conceive of a life of content non-seeking.  Any periods of melancholy or ennui that I experience (like the one I am coming out of now) are caused not by not seeking, but by beginning to believe that this seeking is a futility.  That for all the seeking I have ended up nowhere.  I forget that it is the process of seeking that makes life worthwhile. 

I Can’t Stop Writing About This Damn Dying Organization

Posted in NCAA, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on December 12, 2013 by cueball

Playing college sports is not some moral choice.  Many in and out of the media have somehow begun the idea that believing the NCAA is a broken system and being paid for your skills as an athlete are immoral.  It is almost the idea that the athletes are to blame for the system being wrong if they have the temerity to believe they should be paid.

Many who have bought into the NCAA’s tax and labor law dodge known as the concept of the student-athlete.  Somehow, in the weakening of the NCAA, it and its media supporters have imbued being a student-athlete with the moral equivalence of a monk taking a vow of poverty to become closer to God.  The athlete who know they are going to play professionally at a high level are not taking a vow of poverty as athletes to better themselves, they are doing so because the system is set up to make them play in college.

Let us remember that many of the athletes that go to college on scholarship are not going simply to get an education.  Harrison Barnes did not go to my alma mater because of the Well, the Bell, or the stone walls.  He came because he wanted to go to the NBA and the only real way to get to the NBA is to spend what eventually amounts to less than two semesters in college.

In combination with the NBA and the NFL (and to a lesser extent the NHL, MLB, and MLS) the NCAA has managed to diminish education for many athletes.  They have created a situation where an elite athlete must decide between being a student or being a potential professional athlete.

I believe in education and education as its own reward.  The problem I have with the NCAA is that the system it has in part willfully created and in part fallen into in many ways diminishes education.  Again, it says if you are an elite athlete you must choose to be either a student or athlete.  Many do transcend this dichotomy.  Those student-athletes would succeed in whatever system was around.  The NCAA’s job should be to aid the other student-athletes in achieving the same scholastic heights as Myron Rolle who won a Rhodes Scholarship as a Florida State football player.

I think what has really bothered me is the way the arguments for the NCAA by its supporters pretends that those who criticize the NCAA are somehow evil and want some kid from a poor situation to be used up and destroyed by the dirty professional sports machine.

That is a dichotomous and idiotic argument.  I want people who want to go to college to be allowed to go to college by using their athletic ability (or any other skill they have) to provide a gateway to an education and better life.  I also want someone who only wants to play professional basketball (and not go to classes about 18th century literature) has the opportunity and mechanism to do so without taking away educational opportunities for athletes who want to take a class about 18th century literature.

This is not my best writing mostly because I keep trying to avoid writing about the NCAA.  It will be dead soon enough.

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.