Sunday, September 30, 2007

Playoff Memo

TO: Headline writers, sports broadcasters, bloggers, and baseball fans

IN RE: 2007 Baseball Postseason

Please take note not to use the following word at all during the playoffs, no matter what. "Upset" is banned. Form cannot be overturned when there is no form in the first place.

Some years ago for the Herald, which did not have Internet access at the time, yours truly did some tedious but revealing research. Through of all of baseball history to that point, regular season records were a reasonably reliable indicator of who'd win a short postseason series IF the disparity between the two teams' records was 10 or more games. In that case, the team with the better record won almost 80 percent of the time, and some of the exceptions were defending champions who had obviously taken the foot of the pedal during parts of the long season.

If the two teams' records were less than 10 games apart, there was no correlation whatsoever. If Team A finished with 99 wins and team B with 90, Team B was just as likely to win a postseason series as Team A.

Entering the final day of the season, the gap between the American playoff team with the best record, the Red Sox, and that with the worst, the Angels and Yankees, is 3 games. That's not a margin, it's statistical white noise. The gap between the Diamondbacks and the Cubs in the National League is all of five games. Louder white noise.

Any and all 2007 postseason results are to be expected. They will be determined by mundane factors such as which players and teams happen to play best for a day, week, or month.

An upset is not what happens when you make the wrong prediction. That is all.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Ennui of Victory

The Red Sox-that is, the players and other members of the organization themselves-decided to celebrate their sterling performance in the regular season the night they won the American League East championship. That's more than fine. They'd earned their champagne pour and silly commemorative caps.

The fans, headline writers, and above all, local television stations who decided the 2007 AL East crown was a monumental moment in baseball history were not so fine. They were hangers-on at a strictly internal affair, and gave off the distasteful vibes such persons always do. A better playoff seeding, while desirable, cannot be the stuff civic ectacsy is made of.

The Sox won the regular season prize that matters when they clinched one of the four playoffs last week. That they beat out their fellow playoff qualifier the Yankees for the right to an extra home game is irrelevant to the meaning of their 162-game performance. It's a prize whose value can be erased in an instant. If the Angels knock Josh Beckett's tits off in Game One, poof!, it's gone.

The fans who stuck around last night to watch the Yankees lose on the Daimondvision struck me as merely pathetic. We paid a lot for these tickets, and by God, we have a right to a pennant-clinching celebration. Every year, the mass of Sox ticketholders has less connection to the mass of actual Sox fans I know. The Fenway crowd has become an exercise in expensive self-promotion. They're faithful, just like an Irish setter. Know about as much baseball, too.

The decision by every television station to make "AL East title" their lead, indeed, only 11 o'clock news story struck me as actively pernicious. Local news everywhere celebrates the bush league in its own community, but this was ridiculous. You can't force feed enthusiasm into an event like it was a Strasbourg goose.

The old saying "act like you've been there before" applies here, especially since the Sox have. They're making their fourth playoff trip in five seasons. Boston's won a World Series in that time. A division title is, or should be, no big whoop. The players are entitled to let off a little steam to mark the happy end of the 162 game mental torture exercise. Outsiders are not. The talking heads and pink hats who made a show of joy last night were soul brethren to the nut who used to hold up the "John 3:16" sign.

Any attempt by the Sox' diligent marketing machine to recreate the fine frenzy of 2004 will be doomed to failure, even if Boston wins another World Series this month. That title WAS astonishing on so many levels its effect on the Sox community never can be recreated. You can't tell people "wow this is one of the most incredible moments of your life." They have to come to that conclusion on their own. The hype last night reminded me of nothing more than the remake of "The Bionic Woman."

As sports history, the 2007 AL East title is headed straight to DVD.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Replay Delay -- Men's Fashion

The guy was a few years to either side of 35, and was in the midst of the life-threatening activity of bicycling on Route 62 in Bedford through stalled rush hour traffic while talking on his cell phone. But that's not why I stared.

The cyclist's shirt caught the eye. He was wearing a Patriots' replica jersey, which would've been totally unremarkable if the thing hadn't carried the number 11.

A Drew Bledsoe jersey. In New England, in 2007. Here was someone who may not follow pro football too closely.

Or maybe he does follow the NFL too closely, much too closely. This wasn't just any Drew Bledsoe jersey. It was royal blue with red numbers, the uniform design the Patriots were forced to abandon after death threats from network television directors and announcers who couldn't identify the players from the numbers they couldn't make out on their monitors.

The Pats wore those jersies for just one season, Bledsoe's rookie season. That would be 1993. They went to white numerals on blue after that, with those weird nearly-invisible vertical stripes. So, of course, they stopped selling replica red-numbered jersies.

This raised the possibility the jersey was 15 years old, and was still going strong after the player who wore it had retired. If so, massive props to NFL Properties. Who's got a shirt that's 15 years old? Talk about durability. Brett Favre's a piker compared to streak of consecutive launderings.

There's another possibility, one that frankly terrifies me. That jersey might not have been old. It might've been brand new. Heaven help us all, what if the damn thing was a THROWBACK jersey, an item sold to honor football's past and bought as a display of insufferable hipness?

Time waits for no man, blah, blah, but really, there's got a limit. I am not prepared for the idea the 1990s are now "old school." What's next, another OJ trial?

Oh, yeah....

Thursday, September 27, 2007

FUBAR Was Already Taken, Senator

Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kans.) was very upset on the Senate floor today. Roberts was distressed that President Bush had not given Republicans in Congress any political cover before threatening to veto legislation expanded S-CHIP, a children's health insurance program.

Roberts was so upset, in fact, he delivered what might be the ultimate insult available to or about an official of our nation's government. After complaing that Bush had advanced no alternative program for Republicans to support, Roberts, moved to the depths of his soul, uttered the following anguished cry.

"He hasn't even given us an acronym!"

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Playoff Preview

The refusal of human beings to revel in the obvious puzzles me. The approximately 9 kabajillion words that will be spent between now and the start of the American League Divisional Series can boil down to the following paragraph.

If Manny Ramirez is back in the lineup at full health, the Red Sox' chances of winning the World Series are as good as any of the other 11 playoff teams, and better than at least eight of them. If he's not, they won't be around long.

That is all. Return to watching NFL pregame shows.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

A Little Flutter

Casino table games are one of those human pastimes that escape this human's comprehension. You can't beat arithmetic. Once upon a few decades ago, the Phoenix sent yours truly to professional blackjack card-counting school. This was a tremendous experience, but its seminal lesson was that card-counting was about a 1000 times harder way to make a living than any real job, even writing for an alternative newspaper.

Then again, I like a wager from time to time. A $5 Nassau, a football games, a day at the track, those are activities that stir the blood and brain. If one is gambling on creatures that breathe, there are no percentages. Losing, while likely, is not foreordained. Besides, it takes three hours to lose $20 on a ball game, and three seconds to do so at blackjack. It's a far better run for one's money.

So aside from knowing that since this is Massachusetts, whatever happens will turn into a complete cockup, color me neutral on the burning issue of casino gambling. Whether or not there's a gambling hell built in Middleboro, Chicopee, or anywhere else in the Commonwealth, I'm not going. Foxwoods has been an hour plus away for 15 years, and I've never been, despite the fact that due to social connections, I could get comped for a weekend.

Gov. Patrick's plan to build three casino-resorts to help fund infrastructure is flawed, but not morally. It simply projects the usual overoptimism of all political ideas. These resorts would make money for the state, but not nearly as much as Patrick wishes. Besides, if these resorts are built in the middle of nowhere, as seems likely, then they'll boost the already considerable infrastructure needs of our state by a significant amount before they even open.

There is also the aspect of competition. There are only so many gamblers, and rest assured Connecticut will not stand on its two cards of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun if casinos go up just a few miles north up I-91. The only means casinos have of competing is either find more losers, or cut the house's percentage. A price war hurts all sides.

Local opposition to proposed casinos also make sense. If I lived in Middleboro, I'd be against it. Having a major tourist attraction in one's backyard is a big pain in the ass. Lexington needs new business, but I'd oppose a casino on the same grounds.

Those are the REAL objections to casinos. As a revenue raiser, they may not work. As neighbors, they're as disruptive as any other large business. Those, however, are about the 138th and 139th most-uttered criticisms of Patrick's idea. The anti-casino forces rest their case on tired, pompous, and above all, hypocritical grounds that gambling is a sin. It's BAD for you.

This is true for some folks. Gambling can be a destructive force in people's lives, just like alcohol, tobacco, the Internet, and financial markets, to name a few pastimes the state wouldn't dream of forbidding. Gambling addicts have legal means of self-destruction on sale in grocery stores for God's sake. I'm very sorry for Dave D'Alessandro that a close family member was a compulsive gambler, but how does a guy who ran an INSURANCE COMPANY have the standing to somebody's else's business is a ripoff?

Haven't we learned this lesson through millennia of human life? Addicts will find a way to feed their sickness, come what may. The only person who can stop them is them. They can be helped, but it's got to be a cooperative process.

Then there's the "casinos attract an undesirable element" wheeze from opponents with too much exposure to the films of Martin Scorcese. We will expose the ludricrousness of that argument with the following true story.

Back in the late 1970s, New Jersey was debating whether to legalize casinos in Atlantic City. A statewide referendum was held. During the election campaign, I paid a visit to my friend Rob, who was then a grad student at Temple Medical School in Philadelphia. Rob's roommate was from Jersey, so after a few relaxants both legal and illegal, the issue came up. I asked the roomie how he was going to vote.

"Oh, I'm voting no," he said. "I wouldn't want to see organized crime get into New Jersey like that."

Thirty years later, my jaw still drops at the memory.

It comes as no surprise that opinionists at the Globe are lining up against casinos. The Globe is a good newspaper, if not what it once was, but for the 30 plus years I've read it every day, the stick the size of a Louisville Slugger that's rammed up the paper's collective butt has remained firmly in place. Casinos are vulgar, don't you know. It's where the wrong sort enjoy themselves. And of course, as glorious guardians of good, the Globies want to protect "the poor" who make up a disproportionate percentage of gamblers, or so we're told.

Not at Foxwoods, they don't. Casinos have two prime customer demographics, people with money who like to gamble, and old people who're so bored even slot machines provide a thrill. Surely, the wise men and women who write opinions for the Globe have noticed the common fact about the megalottery winners who pop up on the news two or three times a year. Let's just say none of them are Guster fans. Does the phrase "Earlybird Special" ring a bell? If some senior wants to squander their kids' inheritance at video poker, hey, it's their money.

Opinions I disagree with are one thing. Misrepresentation of the facts are quite another. In a column this week, Steve Bailey of the Globe resorted to outright distortion to argue against casinos. Bailey stated that statistics show that Rhode Island residents spend much more on legal gambling (on lottery tickets and machine gambling at Lincoln) than those of other New England states, proving they were stupid.

Ignore the slur. Bailey surely knows that the money fed into the slots has no return address. If people from Massachusetts go to Rhode Island to gamble, and they do, their spending show up on Rhode Island's gaming balance sheet, and since Rhode Island is small, they have a disproportionate effect on the stat Bailey cited. So either Bailey is complete innumerate, or he'll twist the facts to make a case. Both scenarios cast considerable doubt on his credentials as a financial analyst.

Go to it, casino opponents and proponents. Argue, lobby, threaten, and bribe to your heart's content. Based on the experience of the Big Dig, the first Massachusetts casino will open sometime in the summer of 2043. It will be the first casino since the death of Bugsy Siegel to lose money on a regular basis.

Now, if you'll all excuse me, I must be off. It's Mass Cap day at Suffolk Downs, and I'd like to get there for the double.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Memo to My Former Business

Dear newspapers, magazines, and most of all, cable news networks:

Ladies and gentlemen, as Karl Marx did not but should have written, history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as crashing bore.

No sentient carbon-based life forms in this galaxy give one rat's ass about O.J. Simpson and whatever the hell he did or didn't do in Las Vegas. Move on, OK? Really, we'd rather hear about Britney and Lindsay. Not that we do, but it's better than O.J Part Duh.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Will Nancy Grace Replace Peter King on the Pregame Show Tonight?

In 90 minutes the NFL will start playing games, and the comic spy novel featuring Bill Belichick will be forgotten by one and all, especially him. At the risk of beating the stuffed Trigger at the Roy Rogers Museum, I offer the following thoughts on what to me is a salient question about this affair, namely, how on earth did Belichick think he would get away with it?

The facts as we know them on the morning of September 9, 2007 were as follows. The NFL had sent a notice to every team that it would be on the lookout for illegal videotaping of opposition coaches. It had sent a further, specific warning to the Patriots they were persons of interest to the league's inquiries into the practice. New York Jets head coach Eric Mangini was in charge of the spying operation for New England when he was an assistant coach under Belichick.

To go ahead and keep taping the Jets, therefore, qualifies Belichick for the "incredibly stupid crook of the day" segment on Keith Olbermann's "Countdown. But Belichick isn't stupid. Anything but. Idiocy is not the motive here.

Arrogance has been suggested as the reason for Belichick's uncharacteristically foolhardy behavior. Belichick, like all accomplished people, can indeed be arrogant at times. But that not arrogant. Based on very close observation of the man, this blogger has always found Belichick's ability to suppress his ego when necessary to be one of his managerial strengths. This has been especially true since Belichick allowed a clash of wills with Lawyer Milloy to cost the Pats the worst beating of their championship era.

If we rule out stupidity and arrogance, what's left? What possible reason could there have been for Belichick to think he could get away with videotaping the Jets' signals?

"When we eliminate the impossible, what is left, however improbable, must be the truth," said Sherlock Holmes. The sole possible explanation for Belichick's decision to keep taping after being told not to that makes a lick of sense is this: He didn't think Mangini would blow the whistle on the crime. He didn't think any NFL opponent would.

And, of course, the only reason Belichick would have to believe that is if videotaping opposition signals is common, no, universal practice among the 32 NFL franchises. If that's the case, it was logical for logic freak Belichick to assume no other team would lead commissioner Roger Goodell to look under this particular rock.

Logic seldom has better than a .500 record in sports. Mangini did blow the whistle. And here we are.

And there are the 31 other NFL franchises. Each one playing the New England Patriots will have a determined, intelligent, paranoid enemy on the other sideline. It is logical to conclude part of Belichick's game plans will include intense scrutiny of possible rules violations by his foe down to uniform code violations.

Belichick, after all, has a half-a-million reasons to get even.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Spin Control

On a July evening in 2004 in Anaheim, David Ortiz took exception to a called third strike. For "took exception" you may substitute "went batshit."

Ortiz has a naturall jovial personality, but he sure bitches about balls and strikes. This time, Papi outdid himself. He got ejected, then tossed his bat on the way to the showers. The bat bounced high and far, and almost hit one of the umpires.

Uh-oh. Fine coming. A suspension was probably on the way as well. A struggling team (this was just before the Nomar trade) was going to lose one of its two best hitters for an unspecified number of games due to a childish tantrum thrown by said hitter.

Ortiz was the first Red Sox to face the press after the game. He stood by his locker with a rueful half-smile and said "What can I say, guys? I fucked up."

Somehow, at least one Boston columnist on the scene found it impossible to rip Ortiz too sternly for his sin. His frank admission of what happened defused the moralizing instinct all persons in my former trade must fight against each day.

Faced with his first press conference after paying a REALLY high price for a flagrant and foolish violation of the rules, Bill Belichick did not go the Papi route. That figures. He and Ortiz are about as different as two people in the same general line of work can be.

Belichick did, however, pick the second-best option for those caught red-handed. He clammed up and stayed clammed. It's PR 101. When there's nothing to say, say just that.

Predictably, folks in my former racket blasted Belichick for standing mute. Reporters hate that, because, frankly, it's difficult to write or broadcast a news story without the subject's input. Columnists need not worry about that. Here's a good clue for readers. A columnist who writes about why some figure in sports, politics, or whatever should have talked to said columnist is a lazy SOB whose output can be skipped. Leaves more time for the crossword puzzle.

But really, let's put ourselves in Belichick's place for a second. What was he supposed to say? Anything besides "I fucked up" would be self-serving weasel words. He wasn't ready to say that, so he said nothing.

Fair enough. In a hole, Belichick stopped digging. People are right about the coach. He IS smart-most of the time.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Weed of Crime Bears Bitter Fruit Loops

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has yet to issue his verdict into charges Bill Belichick and the Patriots illegally videotaped the hand signals of New York Jets' defensive coaches last Sunday. Since Belichick already issued an apology, not something he's big on, we can assume Goodell is pondering the issue of sentencing for the miscreant coach.

Frankly, that is a dilemma for Goodell. The wanton flaunting of a written league directive calls for stern justice, but finding a punishment to fit the crime is almost impossible. A fine? Belichick's got lots of money, and money is not really what drives the man. Take away some Patriots' draft picks? That's a problem for Belichick's future, and a Super Bowl today is worth many a draft pick tomorrow, no matter how one wins it.

Some fans around the country who really hate Belichick have suggested Goodell suspend him for a game or two. While humiliating and expensive, such a punishment wouldn't hinder the Pats too much. It's human nature to want to excel when the boss is away. Belichick's ways are so ingrained into the New England organization, they'd take years to erase. In the final analysis, the Pats could beat any other team in the AFC East without any coaches and no punter.

These punishments do not get at what really lies at the center of the criminal's motive-winning, the matter dearest to Belichick's heart. They also ignore the medieval concept of compensation. The Jets, as victims, deserve something for being mentally undressed by Belichick's video eyes.

Here's one solution to Goodell's problem. The Jets play the Pats again in Foxboro on December 16. The commissioner should rule that the Jets, for the entire game, are allowed to cheat. They can violate any rule they want that doesn't involve players' personal safety. Crackback blocks would still be a penalty, but false starts? Go ahead boys, take as many of 'em as you want.

With two months to prepare, the Jets surely could come up with more creative cheating than Belichick did. Center-eligible passes with the entire offensive line in motion. Twenty players in the huddle, not 12. The radio frequency for Tom Brady's helmet would transmit nothing but police calls in Guam.

That would be the biter bit indeed. Belichick would see how it feels to be on the other side of football fraud to have victory unfairly tak..... Ah, just a minute.

There is one problem with my proposed punishment. Even if Goodell did impose it on the Pats come December 12, I'd still take them and give the points anyway.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

This Is Signal Tap

Bill Belichick and the Patriots are stealing signs?!?! My old buddy Leo Durocher and I are shocked and appalled. Amused, too.

It says it all about the paranoid, detail-obsessed trade of professional football coaching, and about its most gifted, detail-obsessed, and paranoid practicioner that Belichick couldn't even CHEAT without hours of film study beforehand. One thing about using videotape in the commission of a NFL crime. It's hard to argue it was a spur of the moment action.

So Roger Goodell will issue some sort of stern punishment to the Pats, and Belichick will become less publicly responsive than before. Hard to imagine, but true. Tomorrow's press conference at Gillette Stadium ought to be a doozy from the unintentional comedy standpoint. Think of Buster Keaton being grilled by Stephen Colbert.

My moral outrage muscle hasn't twitched at this one. There is cheating to win in all professional sports, and has been since forever. Did you know that back in the Roaring Twenties, coaching of any kind from the sideline to the team on the field was considered cheating? Cost a team 15-yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. No wonder it's called the Golden Age of Sports.

There are a few points about this major case that raise questions about Belichick's so-called "genius" and the overall intelligence of those cerebral leaders of men, NFL coaches, in general. First, Belichick allegedly tried to steal the signals of a team coached by Eric Mangini, the guy who used to steal signals for the Pats when he was an assistant coach. Didn't it occur to the hooded pigskin master spy his former apprentice might be on the lookout for the trick? That has only been the plot of about 2000 caper, spy, and suspense movies I can recall.

Two. Think of the major league manager you hate most. The one who you called every synonym for stupid Roget could discover. Grady Little, say, or that poor sod who managed the Orioles before he got fired this summer. I guarantee the following. That lump of inert matter may be dumb, but he knew enough to change his team's signals on a regular basis, even during games. Eric Mangini, football genius in training, did not.

Three. One has to be impressed by the sheer pointlessness of Belichick's crime. If there's one thing we can be sure of about the next Jets-Pats game this season, it's that NOTHING New York's defense did in that game will be tried again. The assistants who gave the signals may be fired by then. If NFL Security confiscated the Pats videotape, it probably shows closeups of the Jets' defense co-ordinator waving a white towel.

Finallly, why does the defense even need signals from the sideline? Aren't they going to change formation as soon as they see how the Pats are lining up. If the Jets' D had its head turned looking at the coaches' semaphoring, that would explain a lot about Sunday's game.

In an ideal world, coaching from the sideline would again be illegal. Alas, that won't happen. But the NFL COULD prevent sideline signal stealing in a nanosecond with one of its beloved high technology methods for complicating a perfectly satisfactory simple game.

The league put a radio in each quarterback's helmet so he could communicate with the coaches directly. Why not do the same for the player who calls the defense's signals?

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The State of the Nation: An Evaluation

Yours truly is no political doomsayer. Hey, the capital was burned to the ground in 1812, and we muddled though. Yesterday's epochal news is tomorrow's trivia question answered with a blank stare. But. . .

The United States must be in goddamn dire straits indeed if WILLIE NELSON feels the need to write protest songs.

Monday, September 03, 2007

A Fitting Tribute

There can't be a single sports fan in the U.S. who isn't delighted by Appalachian State's victory over Michigan last Saturday. Even diehard Wolverine alums have to be pleased, somewhere in their souls, of the refreshing truth that no matter how soulless a corporate enterprise a game becomes (big-time college football changed its name to Dr. Faust somewhere in Teddy Roosevelt's first term), every so often, shit still happens.

Here's how New England fans can commemorate the occasion. We have 1-AA football programs up the yin-yang around here-Northeastern, UMass, Holy Cross, Harvard, UNH, URI, all within 90 minutes drive of Boston or less. Harvard and Northeastern's stadiums are on the T.
Now that their peer school in Boone, N.C. has demonstrated these schools play a fast brand of ball, the area Division I-AA schools would dearly appreciate your patronage on a lovely autumn Saturday. Check 'em out.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Survivor-Harbor Islands

The National Football League hates gambling. Why, I don't know, since gambling is a major cause of the league's popularity, but it does, and those of us who like gambling must deal with it. In a nefarious but ingenious maneuver for which Commissioner Roger Goodell must be congratulated, Week One of the schedule looks to be the worst ever offered for survivor pool members across the U.S. and world.

(For those cave-dwellers in blogland, a survivor pool involves putting up some dough to pick the winner of one pro game each week, no point spread involved. But you can't pick any team more than once. Sounds easy. It's not. But it gives you more fun than going up against the cruel arithemetic of the spread and vigorish.

All survivalists know that by far the most difficult week to pick, the one that always eliminates the most participants, is week one. This is no mystery. Picks are made with the least amount of relevant information. Players go by last year's record, the injury chart, and football preview magazines, a formula that leads to many a trainwreck. In Week One, teams destined to be very good or very bad have yet to build their collective superiority/inferiority complexes that do so much to determine who wins NFL games.

Even granted that, however, 2007's Week One is a doozy. In years past, the league had a fondness for scheduling divisional rivals in openers, to pique interest. This year, they've opted for a seeding process. By and large, teams the league thought would be good back last winter play other good teams, average ones play average opponents (the gambler's graveyard) and projected patsies play foes with similar weaknesses.

Survivor poolists look for a strong team playing at home against a week one. Good luck with that. There aren't any. Seeding took care of that.

Exhibit A: The two worst teams in the NFL in 2006, of whom less than nothing is expected in 2007, were the Lions and Raiders. Detroit is at Oakland Sept. 9.

Using the traditional method outlined above, the most appealing game on the card from a pool standpoint is Tampa Bay at Seattle. Alas, as all football gamblers of any kind know, the Seahawks have inherited the Lions' former mantle as the NFL team that it's folly to bet either for against.

Option two for a survivalist in Week One is to pick the team he or she thinks will win the Super Bowl next February. After all, the Super Bowl winner will win many more games than it loses, so the percentages are in one's favor.

Any nationwide poll of NFL fans would show the following preseason assessment of who'll be the champ in 2007. 1. New England. 2. San Diego. Week One games: Patriots at Jets. Bears at Chargers. Now, the Pats, even without Richard Seymour and Rodney Harrison, and the Chargers at home are each more likely to win than lose. Not much more likely, though. I sure as hell wouldn't bet 'em in a parlay.

In between are a bunch of games beyond rational assessment. The only opinion I have about Dolphins at Redskins is that I won't watch it under any circumstances.

Of course I sent off my survivor pool entry fee yesterday. Goodell can't make a monkey out of me. I reserve the right to do that myself.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Bioengineering is in the Dictionary for a Reason

Rodney Harrison, crew chief of the New England Patriots' number 37 Human Being of Tomorrow, has been suspended for four games by the NFL for illegal engine modifications.

Big news? Sure. Some kind of moral issue for Harrison and the rest of us? Only if we're stupid, which rest assured most people will be.

I heard the news of Harrison's suspension for purchasing human growth hormone last night, and my mind immediate flashed NASCAR. He got busted for cheating with his machine-his body. He did the crime, he'll do the time. There is no, repeat, no reason to think the less of Harrison as a football player or as a person (I have the deepest respect for him in both cases). Sports will never make any progress towards handling the issue of performance enhancing drugs until it separates it from society's hypocritical, twisted posturing on "drugs" in general.

NASCAR is our ticket to rationality. Machines are easier to monitor than people, so no sport is more strictly regulated to maintain competitive balance within the rules, and penalties are strict-on certain individuals. At the same time, no sport has more cheating. It's assumed those car-lovin' good old boys in the garage are going to get under the hood and tinker in the attempt to be the fastest. Those who get caught get punished. But, and here's the important part, there's no moral stigma attached. Once time is served, the miscreants return as members in good standing of the NASCAR community.

Not so long ago this year, the 24 and 48 cars of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, two of NASCAR's biggest stars, failed inspection. The crew chiefs for each team were banned from the track for six races, one-sixth of the season, a penalty roughly equivalent to Harrison's. Crew chief also is a significantly more important position on a stock car team than strong safety is on a football team.

Gordon and Johnson kept racing quite successfully. The two exiles watched their backups on television. They've been back for awhile now. Their sordid crime garnered so much publicity, I can't remember their names.

Spare yourself the moral anguish, Patriots fans. Don't bother wailing, "Say it ain't so, Rod," See Harrison's crime for what it was, tinkering. He cheated, because the rewards for doing so far outweighed any possible penalty.

Harrison's body is wearing out. That's what happens to the big hitters. It's an ignored fact of football that its collisions damage both vehicles, I mean, players. He's missed a lot of games the past two seasons, and he's been trying to heal. One of the sport's prime directives is-get and stay healthy. You can't make the club in the tub. At Harrison's age, another season with medical down time could equal the Pats' equivalent of a gold watch, guest spots on Channel 4 and WEEI.

In the process of recovery from injury, people often take drugs, which they call medicine. Since childhood, football players, almost always recovering from something, have taken more medicine than most. Human growth hormone is a drug that in de facto clinical trials conducted in the San Francisco Giants' clubhouse, has shown dramatic results in keeping an older athlete's body healthy.

So, Harrison's choices were as follows: 1. Don't take HGH, trust to mother nature and NFL-approved medicine, and see what happens. 2. Do take HGH and improve the chances of returning to the game he loves and at which he makes millions of dollars per year, running the risk of a four-game suspension. Dear readers, be honest. Doesn't number two look like the logical choice in any cost-benefit analysis?

NASCAR doesn't judge its cheaters morally because it recognizes the fundamental contradiction of its rules. The whole idea of the sport is to see who has the fastest car. Mandating just what can and can't be done to build the fastest car may be necessary for entertaining competition, but it goes against what the competitors are trying to in the first place nature, so cheating will always take place.

Football's no different. The bedrock truth of pro ball is that if you're not a quarterback or a kicker, playing in the NFL takes years off your life, and is a stone guarantee to leave permanent medical damage. Those are cold facts that the players accept of their own volition. Teams do everything they can to encourage and enable (to put it gently) players to show up ready to go work on Sunday. In the course of that, players lot of stuff in their bodies that they don't understand.

To expect players to then say, "oh no, that drug over there that I don't understand, but that I know will help me get better and perform better, I won't take that. Some asshole congressman might think worse of football if I did" is insane. Do the math. A possible loss of 25 percent of annual income versus a more-possible loss of 100 percent. If all NFL players are cheating, they've got logic on their side.

Back to NASCAR. Besides suspending the Gordon and Johnson's crew chiefs, the two teams were docked x-amount of Nextel Cup championship points. They lost more than Tony Stewart did for saying "bullshit" on ESPN, but not too much more. It was an implied threat that the punishment could be more severe for the next infraction.

Fair enough. To think Gordon and Johnson didn't know what their crews did to those cars is to think they are both stupid and suicidal, which they ain't. But it also points out that sports have the means to eliminate cheating, and don't use it because it would upset the economic applecart.

If NASCAR really wanted to keep naughty hands off the Car of Tomorrow, they could have suspended Gordon and Johnson's CARS from competing in a race or two. That would be a penalty harsh enough to deter future wrench-bearing crooks. And it'd never, ever happen for obvious reasons. Hours after the announcement, this country would be treated to the rare spectacle of a lynch mob hundreds of thousands strong led by the CEO of General Motors.

Same thing with the NFL. As long as the league punishes individual cheaters, it won't alter the odds that make cheating attractive in the first place, and the culture that encourages turning a blind eye to what players do during the mysterious "off-season rehab" process. Collective punishment might.

In the final analysis, Harrison took HGH to get back on the field and help the Patriots win. So suppose the punishment involved not Harrison missing four games, but the New England franchise starting the season 0-1, forfeiting the opener to the Jets. I'd say that punishment would be the last drug-related violation of league rules for the 2007 season. Teams, from owner down to videotape editors, would make monitoring players' medical behavior their first order of business 24/7.

Merely to write that proposal down shows how fanciful it is. Talk about never happen. I'm fond of Robert Kraft, and wouldn't want to see HIS health endangered by a blood pressure spike to about 10,000 over 6000. The ensuing litigation would last until one of Jenna Bush's grandchildren was on the Supreme Court.

Football is a wonderful game. I loved playing it (which I did very poorly), I love watching it, I loved covering it. But it's a game and multi-billion dollar business built on ignoring its most self-evident truth. It's dangerous. It's PROVEN danger is worse than anything the anti-drug hysterics have claimed about HGH.

Harrison has ignored that danger of his own free will all his life. Or rather, he's accepted it. At the infinitely less intense moral level, so have I.

Therefore, there's one thing I won't do in response to Harrison's choice to accept the risks, financial and otherwise, of using HGH. I won't judge him for it. And if you like football, neither should you.

In all honesty, we can't.