Thursday, March 15, 2018

A Hopeless Duty, I Mean, Tradition Like No Other

Three out of every four years,  February is my month for watching regular season college basketball. At the end of it, I am on reasonably familiar terms with at least half of the top ten teams. But every fourth year, like this one, the Winter Olympics come along. The spectacle of insane daredevils risking life and limb on ice and snow is far more appealing than viewing a parade of time outs where alleged genius coaches assault their young charges with their mighty brain waves.

The above is a long winded way of saying I didn't see much college hoop last month. When the Olympic flame was doused, I was struck with the horrid realization, "holy shit, the NCAA tournament is in less than three weeks." So by way of compensation, I overdosed on conference tournament watching.

Conference tournaments for the one-bid set of schools you could not locate on a map are magnificent drama because the stakes are so high. Tournaments for the so-called power conferences provide more than the occasional entertaining game as well.  Unfortunately, for the reason I watched them, handicapping an NCAA bracket forecast, they are useless. No, worse, they are actively deceiving. A plunger who bases his bracket on conference tourneys has a swell chance of seeing it busted before dinner time today.

Let's take an example. In ITS conference tourney, San Diego State looked as if it could give the Lakers a good game. They are an 11 seed. Are they a value bet, or a conference tourney mirage? Beats me. One thing I learned a long time ago about sports gambling. Nothing is more unreliable than what one thinks is the evidence of their own two eyes.

A sensible person would probably not fill out a bracket in Winter Olympic years, let alone expose their guess to whatever corner of public stumbles onto this blog. But I've been doing brackets for 40 years, and making them public for over 30. I'd rather be thought a fool than a coward, I guess. That's not smart.

I am not going to do a full bracket analysis because only Final Four and National Champion count unless you're in one of those mega-pools, which is even dumber than what I'm doing here. Without confidence but with resolution, I will offer at least that.

Final Four:  Cincinnati, Gonzaga, Villanova, Michigan State. Villanova over Cincinnati for the title.

If, and of course I mean when, that forecast goes south, you can't say you weren't warned.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Roger Bannister, 1929-2018

Sir Roger Bannister has died at age 88. He spent most of his life in a career in medicine, far away from the world of sports while at the same time being one of the most famous human beings in the history of sports.

That paradox stemmed from the damp afternoon of May 6, 1954, when Bannister became the first man in history to run a mile in under four minutes, a feat that had been tried unsuccessfully by so many previous track athletes that it was seriously thought to present some sort of physiological or psychological barrier that might never be broken.

Bannister broke it. A year later, he retired from running. There was precious little money in track and field in the '50s and none at all in British track and field. He returned to becoming and being a neurologist, and spending the remainder of his days in his paradox -- a life outside the public eye while being extremely famous.

As a small child, I knew who Bannister was, just like I knew who Sir Edmund Hillary was. They'd done amazing things. But in what's become a reasonably long life, I never laid eyes on Bannister, not in person, not even on TV, except for a few fuzzy film clips of some long ago races. That's real fame, the kind that exists separately from the man or woman who earned it.

Today, a sub-four minute mile might earn a high school kid a D-I college scholarship. The mile itself is hardly ever run, track being one area of US life that succumbed to the metric system. Records of all sorts are broken so often in that sport they attract no attention except at the Olympics. Why has Bannister's accomplishment remained so renowned for so long?

To try and answer that question is to require a deep dive into the sports consciousness of the child I used to be. Back in the days when black and white TV and frozen dinners were miracles of modern life, adults said "records were made to be broken" but they didn't really mean it. In every sport, us kids were also confidently told there were some records that never could be broken and would stand for all our lives.

Take baseball. Nobody was ever going to garner more base hits than Ty Cobb, hit more home runs in a career than Babe Ruth, play more consecutive games than Lou Gehrig or strike out more batters than Walter Johnson, because, well, they just couldn't, that's all. Of course, each of those records was shattered in my lifetime, hell, before I passed out of middle age, because in reality, records are numbers, not barriers. They get passed, not "broken." Sports are a unique form of human endeavor because there really are no limits to what can be accomplished.

The four minute mile was the most symbolic record in sports that May day in 1954. When Bannister took a most arbitrary time limit and passed it by less than a second, he became a symbol himself. He didn't break a record, he broke the very idea of records themselves. Not to get too spacey, but any time any athlete goes faster, higher, scores more, wins more titles, whatever, than anyone else has done before, Roger Bannister is part of his or her story -- even if the athlete has no clue who Bannister was.

Tom Brady wants to win a Super Bowl at age 45? Bannister says, sure, why not? Forty five is like 4.00. It's just some number.

There are still records in sports that appear dauntingly unbreakable. Nobody's come close to scoring 100 points in an NBA game as did Wilt Chamberlain. The pro golf Grand Slam seems to be less likely than ever.

And yet this morning I will cheerfully bet those records will fall, too. I may not be alive to see it, but fall they will. I know that because I shared part of my life span with Roger Bannister.

They won't put "Records are made to be broken" on Bannister's headstone. But they ought to.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Altius, Dude, Altius As We Can Get

Like many Olympic sports, snowboarding is decided by judges. Snowboarding wasn't in the only Winter Games I covered way back in 1994, so I have no idea what the sport's judges are really like, but based on my experience with other judged sports, I can guess.

Basically, Olympic judges are officials of their sport who've been around it since childhood and don't stray too far from the stereotypes of said sports. That is, Olympic boxing judges run to the hilariously incompetent and corrupt, gymnastics judges seem to be in excellent shape for their ages, and so on. Figure skating judges were cruelly but not totally inaccurately portrayed in the movie "I, Tonya" as stuffed shirts drawn from the stuffy elites of their various countries.

So the mental picture I have of snowboarding judges is both vivid and inescapable. They are middle-aged men and women with great suntans verging on skin cancer. The men have beards, the women run to braids, and they all wear cowboys hats even if they're from some place like Slovenia. When not judging, they live in resort towns such as Telluride and Chamonix with no visible means of support.

And when judging, they are stoned as loons. Also when not judging.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

The Patriot Way of Cognitive Dissonance

It is best to cut a bit of slack to NFL franchises that have just lost the Super Bowl. Everyone drawing a paycheck from it is in the grips of severe depression. They're a little to a lot off balance, and apt to say and do things they will regret come, oh, April.

But there's cutting slack, and then there's ignoring objective reality. The idea that the return (did he leave long enough for that to be the right noun?) of Josh McDaniels is a signal all will be well in Foxboro next season is the latter. The idea the Patriots are a near cinch to be back in the Super Bowl next year is another fallacy. I know because it's the same fallacy on which I based my somewhat erroneous Super Bowl prediction last week.

I thought the Pats would win the game because they usually win games. Charles Schwab makes a point of saying past performance is no guarantee of future results, but straight line projection is a trap all humans fall into sooner or later. The humans associated with the New England franchise appear to have both ankles firmly snared in it. To be blunt, the Pats seem high on their supply.

Political scientist Brendan Nyhan has a series of Twitter posts on US current events in which he asks "Imagine if you saw this in another country." I ask Patriots fans to do the same. Take these events of this past week and slap the names Tennessee Titans or Chicago Bears on them.

As the overwhelming consensus favorite, the team lost the Super Bowl despite magnificent performances by its future Hall of Fame quarterback and ditto tight end. This was because its defense gave a disgraceful performance revealing some true weaknesses, most having to do with foot speed, or rather, the lack thereof.

The future Hall of Fame coach benched a starting defensive player for the Super Bowl for reasons he refuses to divulge. He allowed the player to dress and be on special teams, but kept him on the bench as the Eagles rolled off 20-yard gain after 20-yard gain. Unsubstantiated stories then were leaked to the media about said player, indicating he'd been sat down for a wide variety of disciplinary reasons. The player denied this in a social media post endorsed by a number of his teammates -- including the franchise's quarterback.

After the Super Bowl, the future Hall of Fame tight end, coming off the latest in a series of serious injuries, refused to deny reports he was considering retirement.

If Pats fans read or heard similar stories about other franchises, they'd assume those teams had some serious problems on their hands, and they wouldn't be wrong. Antoine Saint-Exupery wrote that "defeat divides" almost 80 years ago. It's still true. It's the main reason no team has lost the Super Bowl and returned the next season since the Bills did it three times in a row in the early '90s.

Now for the "good" news. The offensive coordinator broke his word to another franchise and won't become its head coach after all. Tough luck on the other members of the Pats' staff Josh McDaniels recruited to join the Colts, but what matters is that New England's "succession plan" is still in place, McDaniels will replace Bill Belichick as head coach of the Patriots at some indefinite future date.

Question number one: What if that date is not two or three years from now, as is commonly assumed, but two or three weeks? There's no evidence that is true, but there's no evidence the common assumption is, either. Belichick has made sudden unexpected career moves before. It's difficult to see him walking away after a Super Bowl loss, but it was more difficult to believe he'd make a decision that helped cost his team that loss based on either inexplicable rules in Belichick's head or a terribly wrong "football decision."

Question number two. How's the Tom Brady "succession plan" coming along? If that one doesn't work, it won't much matter who replaces Belichick. I assume no member of the Kraft family is daft enough to let McDaniels, the man who made Tim Tebow a first round draft choice, anywhere near that decision. They in turn must be assuming that since Belichick drafted Jimmy Garoppolo, who's shown himself a capable starter after schooling by the Pats' coaches,  he can do it again with some other college QB, no problem.

Could be. Belichick's real smart. But creating starting NFL QBs, let alone championship caliber starters is a high-risk low percentage endeavor. You can scout talent, you can coach it up, but you can't control whether the talent is a winner and most importantly, a winner who can stay healthy. That pudding must be eaten on faith.

It took real guts for Belichick to keep Brady as starter after Drew Bledsoe was healthy again in 2001. This proved to be the rightest right personnel decision in pro football history, but if it hadn't, Belichick would be Wade Phillips today, the super valuable defensive coordinator nobody wants as head coach.

Belichick found another keeper in Garoppolo, and now he's being asked to do it again? The coach would be as inhuman as his reputation if he didn't find that demand to be on the far side of enough.

This essay is not pure contrarianism. As long as Brady can still play effectively, which NFL MVPs can be assumed to do the next season, and as long as the rest of the AFC East stinks, the Pats are not going to fall off a cliff into 8-8 Land, or even 10-6 Land. That's a far cry from the belief they have a permanent working vacation the week before the first Sunday in February.

I don't blame fans for making that assumption. They're entitled. The past is an unreliable guide to the future, but it remains the only guide we have.

No, what interests me is the "all will be well" attitude is so widely shared by members of the media who cover the Pats for a living. These men and women are not homers or softies. Each and every one is working with all their might (well, maybe not Shaughnessy or Zolak) to discover the real reason Malcolm Butler didn't play and if they find it, they'll be happy no matter whom it makes look bad.

But it was Globe reporter Ben Volin who wrote the "McDaniels is back, hallelujah" piece in the Globe today. It was Greg Bedard on Sports Hub who forecast the Pats will win at least 12 games next year and did so with evident scorn that anyone would think otherwise. Smart men, good reporters. In fact, I think they're reporting skills are at the root of their shared attitude.

To get close enough to any group of humans to report accurately on their doings, the journalist is going to be exposed to that group's attitudes and group identity on a daily basis for a long, long time. The reporter may maintain his or her own opinions and probably will, but simply doing a good job means that the group's attitudes and identity will come to inform its coverage. To boil that down, I think Volin and Bedard's opinions are strongly influenced by the attitudes and group identity of the secretive, somewhat paranoid humans who work at Gillette Stadium. If their sources within the Patriots' organization didn't think all was well, believe me, Bedard and Volin would say so.

Hey, the Pats might be fine. But if they believe they are, that makes it harder for me to believe it. Uneasy rests the head who wears the crown? Much, much uneasier should rest the heads that just lost it.




Saturday, February 03, 2018

Worst and Laziest Super Bowl Prediction Post Ever

If anyone wants to read a Super Bowl prediction piece full, maybe even overfull, of actual information, mosey on over to espn.com and check out the estimable Bill Barnwell's very long column. It has insight, information I haven't seen elsewhere, and all the statistics a boy or girl could ever want.

Spoiler alert: Barnwell winds up picking the Patriots to win because Carson Wentz isn't playing. I wouldn't miss a Barnwll piece, but he needed stats for that?

Well, not to brag, but my own prediction is based on even simpler evidence than that. It's the same evidence I use all season long every season where the New England Patriots are concerned.

I am picking the Pats to win because they usually do. When you see something happen time after time, it's tough not to expect it to happen the next time. My motto as a columnist at the Super Bowl was "don't be afraid to grasp the obvious." What's more obvious than thinking the Patriots will win?

For those who need a spread guess with their predictions, I'd be inclined to say the Pats will cover as well, but I'm not married to it. They have played a lot of games this year where it was close for a half or three quarters and then wasn't by the end, and I could see that being the case tomorrow.

A pretty boring end to a less than gripping NFL season. Seems appropriate.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Microphones Are Surprisingly Affordable These Days

WEEI on-air person Alex Reimer, showing a creative bent for self-destruction, insulted Tom Brady's daughter in a telephone conversation with none other than Brady himself. Brady immediately hung up and good for him. If in further response the Patriots quarterback and coach Bill Belichick were to end their paid appearances on the station for good, they could only be applauded.

Showing more magnanimity than many, including myself, would have, Brady said yesterday he hoped Reimer didn't get fired for his contemptible act. Of course, Brady also has a veteran's savvy, enough savvy to chalk off the incident as the inevitable result of the sports talk radio station ethos -- "We're big assholes and proud of it."

Not all sports talk hosts in this town are full-on exponents of the asshole ethos. But enough of 'em are to make it the prevailing tone. It comes in three subsets, hateful (see Reimer), sneering and smarmy. The underlying assumption about the sports and athletes it discusses is "there's something wrong with them." You, the listener driving to, being at, or driving home from the job you hate, are a better person with a better life. Your team is not living up to you.

This is a hard act to sell when as is currently the Boston situation, the local pro teams are all winners to various degrees and one is a dynastic champion. But somehow, the boys (they're all boys in drive time) find a way. It is amazing how commentators on the Sports Hub (your New England Patriots station) have adapted the theme that all other teams in the NFL suck. That this idea devalues the Pats' status as champions doesn't seem to penetrate either on-air personnel or callers.

All four Boston pro teams broadcast their games over one of the two talk radio stations. They are paid well for those rights, because without live game broadcasts, the sports talk radio business model is insupportable. This summer, tune in to poor Alex Jones doing five hours a night opposite the Red Sox on WEEI to see why.

My questions today are not for the talk radio genre, it's for the Red Sox, Pats, Bruins and Celtics. Do local radio broadcasts really make you that much money? Why do you put up with a business partner that spends hours giving voice to people who put you and your product down? There's an easy solution, one that's been in front of your eyes for over 30 years.

The Sox and Bruins are joint owners of NESN, the cable network that broadcasts their games on TV. Why couldn't the four teams own and operate two radio stations as well? They'd need two because of all the scheduling conflicts, but if much more expensive television is economically feasible for two franchises, why wouldn't radio be for four?

Games take up only so much time, and radio's on 24 hours a day. There would have to be lengthy pregame and postgame shows, but they already exist. There would have to be talk shows, but with the teams in control, the "we're big assholes" aesthetic could be dropped to everyone's benefit.

I hear the counterargument now. Those would be homer stations. It'd be propaganda for every bonehead move made by every front office. Fans want commentators who tell it like it is.

I have two responses. First, telling it as meanly as possible isn't always or even often telling it like it is. Second, in my experience, the last thing fans want is to hear it straight from the shoulder with attitude. They can do that for themselves when the home teams lose and have done so since the beginning of sports.

It is my belief that what fans want are broadcasters who're honest homers. They comment on the story from the home team's perspective, make no bones about doing so, but are also honest enough to admire skilled opponents and can criticize mistakes or even blunders by the home teams without making them sound like the result of character flaws. Most of all, they sound like they really love sports for their own sake.

Jack Edwards is a model honest homer. Who loves the Bruins more than he does? And yet, Jack is quick to praise opponents when warranted and express disappointment (not scorn) when he regards the Bruins' work as substandard.

There are plenty of Boston sports journalists with talk radio experience who could be and are candid without the sneer, who're knowledgeable, thoughtful, and who could work for a station owned by a team, do a good job, and never come close to compromising their integrity. Sean McAdam comes to mind, and so does my former Herald colleague Paul Perillo.

I submit that people become sports fans to enjoy themselves. A steady diet of scorn, smarm and suspicion is not enjoyable. Spend six months casting John Farrell as history's greatest monster, and what do you do when genuine evil such as Larry Nassar enters the world of games?

I don't expect any of Boston's pro teams to take up my suggestion. Selling broadcast rights is very easy money. But all four teams are owned by very successful businessmen, and they didn't get that way without an aggressive attitude towards growth. John Henry owns a newspaper and a cable station. Robert Kraft has a house multi-operation. Moving into radio wouldn't be that difficult.

Were I my former colleagues Gerry Callahan and Michael Felger, I might do a little research on that subject.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Do Dynasties Die of Boredom?

The Patriots arrive in Minneapolis for the Super Bowl later today. I'm so glad I'm not there to greet them. If I were, I'd still be a sportswriter, and what the hell would I write about this team for an entire week of pregame stories?

Set aside the horror movie/clever social satire of the NFL's decision to place both teams and all media within the Mall of America for a week. Nobody goes outside in midwinter Minnesota unless they have to anyway. No, the problem the Patriots pose for the diligent journalist is an acute professional dilemma. The root word of "news" is "new" and there is absolutely positively nothing new to say about the New England Patriots at their eighth Super Bowl in 16 seasons.

The obvious angle is to assess New England's place among the other dynastic powers of professional football history. Good story, at least I thought so the last time I wrote it, which was the last time the Pats faced the Eagles in the Super Bowl -- in 2005. That's 13 years ago.

(Here's my short answer on ranking the Pats. It depends on how you do it. I don't think any individual Patriot team in the Belichick-Brady era were as good as, oh, the 1978 Steelers or 1966 Packers. But if longevity matters, and what matters more to any kind of dynasty, New England stands alone at the top, a considerable distance above anyone else).

In that time, the Celtics, Bruins and Red Sox have all won championships and also plunged into seasons of complete failure before rising again. Those three franchises have generated new information to process and discuss. The Pats? Hey, they beat Buffalo -- again. They won the AFC East -- again. There comes a point in sports where accomplishment remains utterly admirable and yet loses the capacity to thrill. Hank Aaron's 715th home run was lead item national news in the US. He hit 40 more in his career. They were not news. They were numbers.

Or take a modern example, yesterday to be specific. Roger Federer, age 36, won the Australian Open, his 20th Grand Slam tournament victory. He added further proof he is the greatest tennis player to ever live.

And after about an hour's worth of "hey look at that" by tennis fans on Twitter, Federer's feat was pretty much ignored. Christopher Clarey, the Times' tennis writer, commented on how matter of fact Federer's two-week march to the title seemed to be. Roger Federer didn't NEED any further proof about his place in tennis history. Through no fault of his own, Federer didn't get to play either of his historic rivals, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. He was Ali mowing down a succession of George Chuvalo's. It's never easy to win, but it's even harder to make people care about wins they expect to see.

So it is with the Pats. Not their fault, but they don't bring anything new to the Super Bowl table. Nobody's going to find some unknown secret of Tom Brady or Bill Belichick's success. Neither Matt Patricia nor Josh McDaniels will offer any insight on their possible new coaching gigs. Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel didn't back in that last Pats-Eagles Super Bowl. There's a week until Super Sunday, and Globe columnist Tara Sullivan was reduced to writing about Stephen Gostkowski for today's paper. Gostkowski's a great kicker, but a placekicker story is close to a last resort. If she moves on to Ryan Allen, we'll know Sullivan's as stumped as I am as to how to make the Pats newsworthy.

I can think of one New England story I'd pursue were I at Super Bowl LII. There's a bunch of Patriot players who were in elementary school when the Patriots won their first Super Bowl back in 2002. What's it like joining a team that's been part of their football consciousness all their lives? What's it like playing with a quarterback from a different generation? It's an angle, but I also know none of the young players would be daft enough to give candid answers. Bill wouldn't like it.

The worst of it for the Pats is that if they lose next Sunday, the only people who'll be angry or grief-stricken are themselves. It won't affect the franchise's historical status, or Brady's or Belichick's, one iota. Patriot fans can be a whiny bunch to be sure, but the rest of football America would greet sackcloth and ashes from Pats' fans with ridicule rather than disdain. And in truth, any fan who'd react that way should be ashamed of themselves.

I don't expect the Pats to lose. I never do, seeing as they almost never do. But I don't expect their sixth Super Bowl title to thrill anyone but themselves. Fans will be pleased, but not moved. So I guess the above paragraph was wrong. Unshared joy is way worse than unshared sorrow.