Archive for football

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.

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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.

The Erosion Our Trust In Sports

Posted in sports with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2013 by cueball

I’ve been studiously avoiding writing about the NCAA for the last week.  I am tired of it.  I still have the same feelings about the NCAA as a failed organization.  I am still baffled by some of its decisions and its institutional arrogance.  I will probably write something when its review of the Miami investigation comes out later this week.

What I am tired of is the relentlessly bad way the things surrounding the NCAA make me feel about sports.  The problem is it is not just the NCAA but the use of performance enhancers by athletes, the ubiquity of match fixing in the soccer, the glass ceiling for non-white coaches in the NFL, and finally the weird dance the NFL is doing around injuries.

Sports are supposed to be a fun way to get away from all the crap of your daily life.  That is getting harder and harder as time goes on and information from “the inside” is more available to us.  The more we know about what is going on in places we as fans never had access to before is changing our relationship with the games we love.

The Europol match fixing report came out after the Super Bowl.  It and the reporters who have been covering this for the last few years like Declan Hill lay the ease at which matches can be fixed.  It is rather amazing how easily the fixers operate aided by the fact they are moving across jurisdictions and the sheer number of games on any given weekend at all levels.

This information made me cast a jaundiced look at the 34 minute blackout at the Super Bowl and look more closely at the lower Division I basketball scores scrolling at the bottom of ESPN Saturday night.

This is where we are sometimes as sports fans.  We see a score between two Sun Belt Conference teams and wonder, “Did someone shave points in that game?”  We could not pick any of the players in the game out of a lineup, but as a slightly more than casual fan, we know the possibility of point shaving exists.  A lower Division I starting basketball player who is “going pro in something other than sports” (thanks NCAA marketing) could possibly be convinced that there is no real threat to his career for taking a $1000 to shave a few points here are there.  It isn’t like this has never happened at a major school in the NCAA (This provides a nice primer on the most recent NCAA basketball scandals.)

What about the guy refereeing the game?  We have actually seen someone getting caught doing this, not in lower Division I, but in the NBA.  It is possible, to say the least.

The problem isn’t that these things are happening.  The problem is that serious sports fans have to entertain the notion that they might be happening when something abnormal goes down on the field of play.  If  you watched this year’s Super Bowl, admit it, for a moment, you thought the blackout could be some nefarious plot to change the outcome of the game.  You may not have Tweeted it, texted it, or said it out loud, but you thought it.

That is the problem.  All the things that are wrong with sport are starting to erode even our basic trust in the fundamental fairness of what is going on the field and the final score.

Why Do We Believe Our Games Aren’t Fixed

Posted in sports with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 7, 2013 by cueball

Brian Phillips wrote a wonderful synopsis of everything we know about the soccer match fixing scandal that Europol outlined earlier this week.  If you haven’t read it you should go right now.  I’ll wait.

Done.  Good.

The way he lays out the ease in which these games are fixed is fascinating.  Aided by the amount of games, the number of jurisdictions this Dan Tan Syndicate crosses, and number of bets placed any one game gets lost in the maelstrom.  This makes me wonder two things.  First, a 34 minute black out in the stadium where the Super Bowl was in the 3rd quarter in New Orleans.  Yeah, that isn’t fishy or anything.  Second, it seems it would be pretty easy to fix college basketball games.

I’m going to write some fictional account of what may or may not have happened in New Orleans a little later.

Now, for how it would be easy to fix a college basketball game.  Think of how many games there are on any Saturday.  According to the ESPN schedule, there are 146 games this coming Saturday, both great and small.  If you were going to point shave a game, you wouldn’t touch the UNC/Miami game at 2:00 on ESPN or the Louisville/Notre Dame game at 9:00 on ESPN.  You would look towards the Cal State San Marcos/Cal State Bakersfield game tipping off at 10:00 Eastern time.

You want a game with little national consequence and as little media exposure as possible.  You also want players who have nothing to lose.  A game between two major conference teams has too many players who want to be in the NBA.  They have too much to lose, but a kid on scholarship at some small school is just hoping to play some ball, maybe get a look with a NBA or NBDL team or play a couple of years in Europe or Asia.  Mostly, he is just trying to use the fact that he is a basketball player to get laid (“Every team in every sport on a college campus has groupies,” Terry Lankford, aka Eightball) and get a free education.  A $2000 offer to shave points might seem like a good business proposition to him.

So, you approach him and say, “We don’t want you to lose the game.  Just don’t cover or miss the over.  We will route the money to you and it will be clean as a baby’s butt.  No one will know.”  That is why point shaving is the best form of sports gambling corruption.  First, it is hard to prove without someone admitting it or getting caught with a bag of money for doing it.  Second, it allows the person shaving points to believe they aren’t really doing anything wrong.  You still win the game, just by not as many points as you should.

For me the question isn’t, “Why doesn’t this happen?” but, “How often does it happen?”  How many of us, college basketball fans look at the scores of the games at the bottom of the schedule on a Saturday night.  Do you think anyone not in the Cal State San Marcos Cougar family is going to notice this game?  The computer safe-guards the betting houses have can be skirted just by keeping the betting volume and amount under a certain level.  As long as you don’t get greedy with any one game and spreading your bets between multiple bettors, you can avoid that trap.

Look, maybe I’m a guy who always thinks about the absolute worst thing that can happen.  I did write a blog post about the nightmare scenario of a player getting killed during the Super Bowl.  But, if sports has taught us anything over the last ten years, the nightmare scenario maybe far worse then anything we can imagine.

What Does The Battle of Bosworth Field Have To Do With The Super Bowl

Posted in football with tags , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2013 by cueball

Don’t worry.  I’ll get to the Super Bowl in a second.

I have had Richard III on my mind a lot lately.  First, I powered through all 13 episodes of House of Cards on Friday which is based in part on Shakespeare’s Richard III and then there was the news that they found the actual body of Richard III under a parking lot in Leicester, England.  In Shakespeare’s play Richard III is thrown from his horse at the Battle of Bosworth Field making him incapable if leading his troops and ending his bloody 2-year reign as king of England and the last ruler from the House of York.  His loss and death and the course of all changed because of a bad horseshoe nail.  Remember, this is a short rudimentary history of the death of Richard III only to give the reasoning about everything else that is about to follow.  If you want a more complete history of the life and death of Richard III go read a book on English history, Shakespeare, or at the very least Wikipedia.

The horseshoe nail theory is a way of studying history looking for all the small moments that lead to the headline grabbing moment.  Our journalists are the chroniclers of history in real time, but sometimes they grow too infatuated with the grand moment.  They become enamored with the moment when Richard actually dies and not the moment that created the circumstances of his death.  They fail to notice that if his horse does not lose his shoe, he could have saved the battle and his throne.

All morning I have been reading how the final play of the San Francisco 49ers last drive decided the game through a non-call on an “obvious” pass interference/defensive holding call.  I would say that play was the simple culmination of a series of bad plays and bad play calling on the part of the 49ers.  To state that the lack of a call on that play kept San Francisco from winning the game absolves the San Francisco coaching staff of any responsibility of putting them in that situation and is the worst sort of transcriber journalism.

Allowing your team to be down 21-6 at half-time, giving up a touchdown on the opening kickoff of the second half, and not giving your best player the opportunity to make a play on the final drive are all things the 49ers did to themselves before that final offensive play.  Or how about when given the opportunity to have a 35 minute time out before a 3rd and 13 play you come up with something a little better than a rushed check down to a running back for 6 yards and a punt.

Honestly, no one of these plays caused the San Francisco loss.  Also focusing on any of them ignores the fact that the Baltimore Ravens had a lot to do with final outcome of the proceedings.  Plus, the officiating was bad all night.  However, the narrative is being written on the last thing journalists saw and the spoutings of Jim Harbaugh at the press conference which reporters have dutifully transcribed as fact.  He comes in the press conference bitter and angry that his team lost the biggest game of the year and the final image was of a penalty that could have been called.  Of course, that is where he is going to place his anger, not on his players or coaches.

That is why journalists are allowed to ask questions in press conferences.  Why did you not call a different set of plays for Colin Kaepernick during that final sequence?  Why did you not have your punt coverage team prepared for Sam Koch running around to rag time off the clock before a safety?  If he answers your questions, you have story.  If he goes nuts and storms out after dropping a bunch of f-bombs, you have a story.  Simply regurgitating what he said isn’t a story.

I figured some reporters would blame the loss all on that final play, but I didn’t expect it to be Greek chorus lamenting how poor Jim Harbaugh got screwed.  I’ll go back to attacking the NCAA tomorrow and let the journalists rest.

This Is My Toy Box, Keep Your Hate Out Of It

Posted in sports, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 27, 2013 by cueball

Why is fandom so important to some and why do they let their favorite team be the most important thing in defining who they are?

There is a difference, however slight, between being a fan of a team who cheers for all the wins and mourns their losses and being a fan whose whole emotional wellbeing is tied to whether the team wins or loses.

I don’t understand how an adult can create the type of emotional investment usually reserved for close friends and family for players on their favorite team.  I can understand it a little better for college fans.  Universities and colleges usually represent something a little more emotionally resonant for people then do professional teams.  However, even there people lose the perspective of why the university exists.  It isn’t so you can have a football or basketball team to cheer for on the weekends.  It is to educate the children of the state in which it resides.  Sometimes the fandom for a university is more akin to be a fan of the tail rather than a fan of the dog.

The older I get the more I cringe when rivalries particularly college rivalries are described with the word hate.  Really.  Hate.  Back here in the real world, there are truly very few reasons to actually hate someone.  None of those reasons include attending a different university then you are playing for a rival team.  (I also want to crawl through my television and strangle any announcer who calls the athletes on the field or court warriors or soldiers especially at a time when our military is actively fighting wars.  Yet, I digress.)

These emotional ties are particularly stupid in professional sports.  If you are a Yankee fan you may hate a certain Red Sox player today, but you are then forced to turn around and love the same player when he signs a free agent contract with the Yankees tomorrow.  In that sense, you are truly only cheering for laundry.

Maybe that is why college sports rivalries have the resonance they do.  Once you wear Carolina blue, State red, Alabama crimson, or Auburn orange you are tied to the lore of those places forever.  The history of college sports is what makes it special.  Those ties of the past to the present are what set it apart from the corporate slickness of professional athletics.  Each game in a collegiate rivalry is another link in a never ending chain of history.

These games engender passion.  These games engender emotion.  If you are seven years old you should be emotionally devastated that your team lost to its most hated rival.  It should eat at you as the most important thing to happen to you ever, because you are seven.  At that age, you should not have the emotional traumas that put sports in a different, less emotionally important perspective.

As an adult it should be different.  I understand being emotionally spent and devastated in the moment of the game ending, if your team loses. I understand wanting to avoid certain friends and or websites to not relive the loss.  However, as an adult, you should be able to put that to one side and remember that it is just a game and move on with your day.  We may have pumped these games up past their actually true importance with the approximately 100 television channels dedicated to sports, but they are just games.

The central question of this post has been a reoccurring theme on this blog for me.  “Am I as big a fan of sports as I was when I was younger?”  I think I follow sports just as much as I did when I was younger, and maybe even a touch more.  I do think I am a less emotional fan than I was.

Life has layered emotional experiences on me both good and bad.  These things and moments have placed sports in a different place in my life.  Not a less important place, but a different one.  It is the toy box.  It is where I try to go to get away from all the big important pains of the day.  I don’t want to spoil my refuge with hate and anger.

This is why the hypocrisy of the NCAA (and their network partners and the NFL/NBA) annoys me so much.  This is why I keep looking at all the information gathering from concussion and brain trauma research and feel a growing nausea at what we are doing to our athletes.  These are real world things spoiling my sanctuary.

What Is To Become of the NCAA and NFL

Posted in sports with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 24, 2013 by cueball

Is it possible that in 15-20 years the NCAA didn’t exist as currently constituted and the NFL was financially decimated by the many lawsuits it is now fighting off over health and safety?  They are seen as these endurable monoliths of American sports culture, but their diminution or outright destruction is entirely possible over the next couple of decades.

Let’s start with the NCAA.  The NCAA has many problems, chief among them a complete loss of faith in it by a large number of its members, athletes, the media that cover its sports, and the fans who watch.  Once you lose trust of enough people, the end can come quick, fast, and in a hurry.  So what would happen if a group of schools decided to leave the NCAA?

What if it isn’t the schools you think would break away?  Everyone assumes the current BCS conference schools would be the leaders in splintering college athletics.  Remember, the NCAA isn’t just the Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament or just the Bowl Championship Series.  It administers 87 championships across three divisions throughout the year.  As someone (John Infante, @John_Infante, I think) said yesterday, the big conferences don’t want to have to run another softball tournament.

Now, these conferences may try an internal coup that changes some of the structure and enforcement, but they would never tear down the whole thing themselves.  First, they don’t want to have to deal with the mess of running a similar organization.  Second, they don’t want to be seen as the ones destroying collegiate athletics.  For something like a splintering of the NCAA to happen, it would have to be a small school insurrection.

The leaders of this would have to be schools small enough in the NCAA world to feel put upon by the bigger schools, but powerful enough outside of the NCAA to attract more schools to join them.  That would of course be the Ivy League.

What if the Ivy League schools got together and decided that not only is the current collegiate athletic culture against everything they stand for as academic institutions it is also a financial and reputationally expensive proposition that isn’t worth the bother.  So, they go off and spearhead the creation of another organization that meets their needs.  Now, how many NCAA schools could they siphon off: The whole of Division III and significant portions of Division II and many FBS Division I schools?  That would leave the NCAA with all the large football playing universities and this new association with all the smaller more “academically centered” schools.

The NCAA imploding and morphing into two or three entities is more of a fantasy.  It requires a lot of leaps of faith and logic.  It is easier to speculate on the end of the NFL.

The NFL being bankrupted by lawsuits is not as much fantasy as the nightmare outcome of the current player safety crisis for Roger Goodell.  The thing is, there are so many lawsuits concerning health and safety and wrongful death against the NFL, not all of these lawsuits have to be successful to do damage.  Just enough of the right ones going against the NFL would damage the league’s reputation and push people to keep their children from playing football.  That is where the real danger lies for the NFL.  If enough fans see football as a death sport and enough parents see the dangers of playing football as too great, the league will lose enough of its fan base and future participants that it will need to change its business model or shut down.

So if the NFL was diminished in its size and popularity, what would fill the void?  I have no idea.  If at the beginning of the 20th century if you had asked a sports writer what would fill the void once horse racing and boxing stopped being the dominant sports in the United States, he wouldn’t be able to answer that.  He would have been hard pressed to imagine a sports world without horseracing or boxing being dominant.  Football was growing as a sport, baseball was already professionalized, but not hugely popular, and basketball was barely a blip on the screen.

So my guess right now is some combination of soccer, lacrosse, MMA, and some wild card like team handball or a modified version of football that is more akin to the 7v7 tournaments taking hold as part of recruiting to fill the void left by the NFL.

I don’t know what will happen in 20 years.  Maybe all of this will happen.  Maybe known of this will happen.  Maybe something entirely different will happen.  Either way, neither of these organizations will be the same in 20 years.  That I do believe.