Saturday, November 26, 2011

Where Will They Put America's Stupid Ice Shows?

Peace came to the NBA owners and players last night, more or less, and I think I speak for all America when I say, "Oh, really? That's nice."

There have been few big sports sports stories I and millions of others have ignored more thoroughly and efficiently than the NBA lockout, and it's pleasant to see our good judgment rewarded. Neither side in the dispute had the slightest intention of blowing up their season, but at the same time had to allow their dead-enders (every labor fight has 'em on both sides) to vent for awhile before serious business could be conducted.

Without seeing one detail of the tentative agreement reached between the league's owners and the player's union, I make the following confident assertion. It won't work, if we define "work" as creating a structure that'll allow the 15 or so hopeless case franchises to escape the basic laws of economics and the nature of the sport they're selling. It's a star-driven enterprise, and those are never normal businesses.

No matter how much or how little they're paid, no system short of indentured servitude is going to lessen the power of star players. The more rigid the salary structure, the more those stars will seek non-financial compensation a/k/a winning and living in nice places. In short, the Sacramento Kings will still suck and lose money hand over fist and there will be more Miami Heats were the players themselves are de facto general managers.

But enough of sordid commerce. Let's move on to the dire effects of sordid commerce on the jolly spectator sport it's selling. The one fact I did see about the new agreement is that the NBA will have a 66-game season beginning on Christmas Day.

Sixty-six times two is 132. Add 132 calendar days to December 25, 2011 and we get May 4, 2012. I don't know how much more than that the NBA can stretch its regular season calendar. The numbers in the preceding sentences of this paragraph already place Game Seven of the Finals somewhere very close to Independence Day. So essentially, we are looking at a season where NBA teams will play every other day. Unless the National Hockey League graciously steps aside and cancels its season, we are looking at a season with many, many back-to-back games for all teams, and likely a few back-to-back-to-backers.

That ought to put at least two Celtics on the injured list by Valentine's Day. Should we get up a pool on who'll they'll be? Dibs on KG!

The biological law of self-preservation insures that players will cope with the grind of the regular season the way they always have -- on-court loafing. As individuals and as teams, NBA players will take more nights off than ever before, and they can't really be blamed for it. Look for a great many games to be determined in the first quarter, especially games where the road team trails by over five points after 12 minutes. "Not our night" will become the unofficial NBA motto.

It takes a real lack of the biological imperative for self-preservation for a business to conduct a prolonged work stoppage for next to no reason and then present its product to consumers in a way designed to reinforce every single negative stereotype those consumers have about your product. "They don't care" has been said about the NBA regular season since I was a boy. It's a damn lie almost all the time. Now, it will be damn lie only some of the time. Sure makes me want to spend $150 or so on a ticket. Do I believe the Toronto Raptors woke up full of vim and vigor this morning? Do I feel lucky?

The NBA is operating under the delusion that because it operates an effective monopoly on pro basketball, it's a real monopoly, and can get away with customer abuse like this. But fans have options, more than ever before in terms of television viewing. Between the college bowl games, NFL playoffs, the NCAA basketball tournament, baseball starting and the NHL playoffs, there's not going to be much time in the NBA season when it's not up against high-stakes, large audience events in the battle for fan attention. 29-hour a day propaganda from ESPN can only do so much.

Some baseball franchises (Blue Jays, Dodgers) have never recovered from the damage of the 1994 strike. Some hockey franchises found their lost season a permanent blight on their finances. I wonder which NBA owners feel lucky this morning. I know some of them will be wrong.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Some Guy I Met at a Game One Night

In the winter of 2004, it was my Herald duty one Friday evening to cover a Celtics game. Taking my end line press row seat, I for once recognized the fan seated next to me as near to the basket as the NBA allows. It was Mitt Romney, Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

This wasn't too surprising. Every Mormon I've ever met has been nuts for basketball, and I also knew Romney and Danny Ainge were friendly. Since I believe that off-duty pols have the same rights as off-duty sportwriters, I left Romney to watch the Celtics lose in peace. I did ponder how to encourage the Governor to leave his seat before Lucky the Leprechaun's acrobatics exhibition at the end of the third quarter, because God forbid something should go wrong that I'D have to cover. Even the headline "UNLUCKY!! Mascot Mashes Mitt!!" wouldn't have been worth about a 38-hour workday.

As I contemplated the etiquette governing gubernatorial safety, the other fans seated in the floor area of the Garden were not as considerate of Romney's privacy. During breaks in play, one or two would come over to Romney's seat to offer good wishes. They unanimously told him he was a swell guy doing a great job. Given the price of a Garden floor seat, that area of the state skews Republican.

This was when Romney did something I thought no pol ever could. He astonished me. Romney responded to the well-wishers by blowing them off. A tight grin, a nod, and no words were his responses. He followed these gestures by stating to ME, the total stranger who worked for a newspaper, that a) many of these well-wishers had been drinking and b) they'd turn on him in a heartbeat.

Romney's observations were true, of course. But they were also shocking. As an iron rule, pols love well-wishers and dote on those who praise them. It's a natural sentiment for anyone in a trade that draws such abuse. And above all, pols never, ever say or even imply that voters, any voters, are not the salt of the earth who contain the wisdom of the ages in each grain of salt. And if do say or imply it, it's to each other, not to an outsider.

In the same situation, basketball fan Barack Obama would have engaged the fans in lengthy conversations about Celtics' games of 1982. Basketball fan Bill Clinton would have made me give the first fan my seat so that Clinton could make the guy his newest BFF instead of watching the game. Noted misanthrope Richard Nixon would not have reacted as Romney did. It was antipolitical behavior.

I did not write about this at the time because, well, who cared? Certainly not the Herald sports department, or even me, really. But now Romney has a fine chance of being the next President of the United States, and under the rules of running for that office, any episode in Romney's life up to and including his driver's test for his first license is information that belongs in the public domain.

I will go no further than to say my little anecdote is excellent evidence that Mitt Romney is not like other politicians, as he lacks a common personality trait of the species. Whether the lack of that trait makes Romney a man of intellectual honesty who'll scorn mere popularity if his cause is just or a cynical S.O.B. who doesn't have much use for people once they can't help him, who knows? That's for the electorate to decide.

Judging from public opinion polls, a working majority of Republican voters have their suspicions on the question.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Bobby Valentine?!?!?

The rumored new manager of the Boston Red Sox (or at least he was earlier in the week, after all Rumored New Manager was once Dale Sveum's title) has a solid and substantial resume. While I support Valentine's candidacy for its considerable promise of summer entertainment to come, were I a Red Sox fan, I'd be brooding on the implications of the franchise seeking out such a well-known personality to make out its lineup cards.

Experience suggests that when a baseball needing to make some changes hires a big name to be its new manager, it does so in large part because it has no idea of how to make more relevant changes. Making Valentine Skipper would be a prima facie admission that he will be leading a roster of the same old Gilligans in 2012, who it is hoped will just play a little better this time around.

That's not necessarily a daft plan, but it's a pretty passive one. To be frank, it is designed to delude the rubes among Sox followers, the crowd which believes the players need a good paddlin' for their failures of September, 2011. Since Valentine is voluble, colorful, and widely known, that crowd will assume, incorrectly, that he's also an iron disciplinarian, a thought that would never strike them about an obscure bench coach named manager who might actually BE a tough guy.

The theory that underperforming ball clubs only need the firm guidance of a no-nonsense manager who'll teach them to play "the right way" is an eternal fallacy, one generated from the anger fans and owners feel when their teams screw up. To disprove it, we need look no further than the bottom of the AL East standings.

The Orioles hired big name Buck Showalter, a man utterly without nonsense or any other engaging human trait, to bring a taste of the lash to their lousy team. Showalter would stress discipline, the fundamentals, etc. When the Orioles improved from horrible to mediocre in the stretch of 2010, loud were the cries that this approach had worked. Even the players said so. I read more than a few stories in spring training in 2011 about Baltimore's new regime of baseball correctness and the progress it would bring.

And of course, when the season began, the Orioles were still a lousy ball club. They may have been a hustling, fundamentally sound lousy team, but the latter adjective still dominated their description. Discipline cannot help bad relief pitchers get anyone out. Learning how to cover first base, while essential, won't get a starter's ERA below 5 if that's all the stuff the guy's got.

Discipline won't make Josh Beckett any less a cementhead nor Kevin Youkilis less prone to injury either. If the Sox really want their new manager, whomever it is, to succeed, they ought to get him some new players.

Minus Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke, Terry Francona's first season would probably not have gone so well.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Very Short Preview of AFC Playoff Seeding Race

Number of total wins by the remaining seven opponents on the New England Patriots' schedule: 21.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Some Things Can't Be Coached or Recruited

The most easily documented fact of NFL life is that kickers are better than ever. Placekickers get more accurate from longer distances on an almost yearly basis.

Back in 1987, my rookie year on the Pats' beat, coaches from several teams said that the over/under line on the distance that constituted a kick a guy ought to make from one you just hope he makes was 39 yards. That's laughable today. If a kicker can't make 50 percent from outside 50 yards he's flirting with unemployment.

Since pro football players were all once college football players, it stands to reason that out there somewhere, in fact on most campus somewheres, college placekickers are getting better than ever, too. I have no doubt they are -- just not at the schools where those kickers are most needed.

In successive weeks, two previously unbeaten teams, Alabama and Boise State, lost their first games and in all likelihood their chance to play in the BCS championship game because their kickers missed kicks that were not only makeable, but damn near inside the leather. This was the second straight year this happened to Boise.

Alabama and Boise are two of the nation's most successful programs, each under smart, maniacally detail-oriented coaches. I know Nick Saban thinks kicking is important. I'm sure Alabama scours the South for high school kickers. It probably scouts soccer teams. Within its recruiting universe I'm sure Boise does the same. Didn't seem to help this season.

So what gives? College football is played by college age people, so blunders and choking by all personnel are baked into the big game cake. The LSU and Alabama quarterbacks didn't exactly distinguish themselves in their big game. Boise running backs fumbled away two scoring drives yesterday. Having more time to think about what they do, why shouldn't kickers fail due to mental stress more often than other players?

Still, as I think back to the very top college teams of the past decade, I cannot recall one whose kicking game was considered a main element of its success. I can't name any of their kickers. And that memory hole, I think, is the tell as to why college powerhouses wind up with kicking that's weaker than the rest of their game. They don't need it.

Because college ball has more teams than the NFL, the laws of mathematical distribution mean that it has more talent mismatches, too. How many close games do Alabama or Boise play a season? One? Two? Three at most for sure. Football is a sport based on repetition. Placekickers on the best college teams don't get enough chances to know what it means to really matter. During the Boise game, one of the announcers noted that Boise's kicker had all of four (!!!!) field goal attempts in the 2011 season. His teammates were too good for his good, and their own.

Kickers on the top college teams are used to booting five to seven extra points and kicking off a lot under absolutely no pressure whatsoever. Then, all of a sudden, they're cast into the decisive role in a game their team absolutely must win, with the dreams of their teammates and entire school community riding on their performance. No wonder they fail. They are unfamiliar with the most important experience of their jobs.

There's really no point in scouting, recruiting or drafting a kicker unless said kicker plays for a team that needed those three points almost every week.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Saturday's Child Has Got to Go -- Saturday's Adults Even More So

Corrupt is a verb as well as an adjective. That's the thought that keeps returning every time I think of Pennsylvania State University. What's destroying that school and the sport of college football isn't that college football is corrupt, but that it actively corrupts the people in it.

The RVs are lurching into the Beaver Stadium parking lots around now. Kickoff against Nebraska is at noon. The fans, alumni, students, hangers-on and media will be there 100,000 strong for what's going to be the Woodstock of social awkwardness. Imagine all the tailgaters. What on earth will they say to each other?

In the end, sports exist so that people can have fun. I sure wouldn't want to know anyone who could have fun at the Penn State game today, and I'm also sure almost all of them won't. They're just football fans, not cult members. So why are they there?

Those 100,000 are there because in a very small way, one so small and slow it's understandable they don't see or feel it, college football is corrupting them just as it ate the soul of their former hero, role model, and quasi-religious idol Joe Paterno. They're there because they can't imagine their lives without Penn State football. Multiply that sentiment by googolplex, and you have the mindset that led Paterno, who spent most of his life trying to do what he felt was right, to become at best a moral idiot and at worst a monster.

Representatives from the U.S. Dept. of Education will be on hand, but they won't be watching the game. I'd bet that officials of the Dept. of Justice are somewhere on campus, too. A lifetime of journalism experience and the ability to read a timeline tell me that much more horrible news is going to emanate from State College, Pa., worse than we know now, and what we know now is more than awful enough. The only way the events of Jerry Sandusky's career at Penn State make sense is if the football program had been covering up his sex abuse of children for much longer than the nine years (!!!) its indicted and unindicted officials have copped to.

Every person outside the players in the Penn State program has ruined their own lives, and a good thing, too. They deserve whatever comes their way. Hope those trips to the Outback Bowl were worth it. Paterno will spend his remaining years being deposed by hostile attorneys. Don't say that's not a harsh punishment unless it's happened to you. (It's happened to me, and I was just a witness).

It's not pleasant to see a person of accomplishment ruin his or her self. But that's what corrupting institutions do to them. Sadly but oddly, it was precisely because Penn State football thought itself above the corruption of regular old sleazy big time college ball that it completely succumbed to evil. Protecting the legend of Penn State the Virtuous, which in Paterno's mind was equal to protecting his own reputation, became a more virtuous act than actually protecting children. At a regular sleazy big school, Miami say, somebody would have had the good sense to say "hey, this could be bad for business. We better do something."

If college football isn't thinking that right now, everyone in the game from university presidents to public address announcers, then it'd be a mercy to put them all out of business. Even before this week, by far the biggest sports story in the U.S. in 2011 was the ongoing saga of how college football was rubbing the country's nose in its greed, stupidity and overall insult to the very idea of education. The frantic conference shuffles, the "scandals" at Ohio State and Miami that look like innocent outtakes from some '80s knockoff of "Animal House" today, the news that bowl games exist to allow Sun Belt hustlers to enrich themselves at the expense of athletic departments -- all those tales told a single saga. Here is an institution that's out of control. Here is an institution too sick to help itself.

As we now know, college football is an institution that can turn otherwise normal folks into monsters. Who needs an institution like that?

A sport that turns normal people into evil ones. A sport that turns smart people into really stupid ones. A sport that mocks the principles of the schools that have made it their master and cheats the men who play it. Some fun, huh?

At dozens of other FBS school stadiums today, fans will be firing up their tailgate grills without a care in the world besides their teams' defensive backfields. They'll be having fun. From the drunkest freshman to the oldest alum, close to 100 percent of them will be nice, normal folks who deserve the fun they get from college football. Close to 100 percent of them are horrified and sickened by the Penn State news, and wish with all their hearts there wasn't so much rot at the core of the sport they love.

And every time these nice normal people pull into the stadium parking lot, the rot grows a little larger and more malignant. I wish I could say that 2011 will go down in sports history as the year college football realized it was destroying itself. But I know better.

College football has a lot of self-destruction left to go. 2011 will go down as the year people really began to notice.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Joe Frazier: 1944-2011

Without Joe Frazier, there would have been no Muhammad Ali, at least not the Ali we know.

Oh, Ali would still have been a world heavyweight champion, adored by hundreds of millions. He still would have been an athlete of actual historic significance, for his Muslim faith and draft resistance. But we wouldn't know if Ali was The Greatest, or even a great fighter at all.

Nobody's a great fighter until the confront and surmount suffering and cruelty, and there has never been a fighter who brought the suffering like Smokin' Joe. He entered the ring to hurt opponents, and if he was hurt in the process, well, that's what they were getting paid for.

Three times Ali and Frazier entered the ring. The first time, Ali learned, much to his surprise, that he COULD be hurt. The second time, Ali reacted with a display of masterful and occasionally legal ring cunning to win the narrowest of split decisions. The third time...

The third time was the greatest fight of all time. Boxing being what it is, that means the Thrilla in Manila was also a horrible thing to happen to its participants. Ali and Frazier took each other to the physical and mental limits of suffering. Ali won, if you want to call it that. Both men were physically wrecked as fighters ever after, and eventually physically wrecked period for reaching the ultimate heights of their awful, captivating trade.

Frazier was wrecked psychologically as well. He never forgave Ali for the evil taunting prior to the Thrilla. Ali used mental cruelty as a weapon akin to his jab. It was just part of the business for him. Those who wax poetic about Ali's greatness tend to ignore how essential a part of that greatness cruelty was.

Frazier, an honest straightforward club fighter with a champion's ability, couldn't let the hatred go. It was very depressing to talk to him 20 years after that fight and realize he never would, and that the memories of that night in Manila would torture him until the grave he found yesterday.

Parkinson's disease, almost 100 percent surely brought on by taking far too many punches, has ruined Ali's body. That's sad. But he remains a soul at peace, content in the knowledge he's loved.

Frazier couldn't come to terms with getting beat by a man he'd come to hate, long after both were well away from their sport. One reason Frazier never got the adulation bath ex-champs usually receive is that he didn't let people dunk him. Talk boxing with Joe, and you never got past the 14th round and the cosmic injustice of it all.

That's sadder. But sadness is as much or more a part of boxing as spit and sweat. I'd go so far as to say it's the sadness in boxing that makes its occasional awful glory possible.

Sadness is over for Joe Frazier. There's still plenty of glory left. Hope he let himself feel some of it before the sadness ended.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Midseason Historical Note

After their first eight games of the 2010 NFL season, the Green Bay Packers had a 5-3 record. No team with that record has lost anything. Yet.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Will You Have the Pigskin With Mashed Potatoes and Gravy or the Pigskin Sichuan, Sir?

Television provided us with about the best psychological test for football fans ever created last night. Separated by only one digit on the remote were two thrilling college football games, each decided on its final play. In one, undefeated LSU beat previously undefeated Alabama 9-6. In the other, undefeated Oklahoma State staged approximately five quarter rallies to take Kansas State 52-45.

One more detail. The first game went to overtime. The second game had 97 points in its regulation 60 minutes.

As noted, both games were superior football entertainment for neutral viewers who simply wanted drama for their time commitment. That's where the experiment comes in. Which of these polar opposite contests did fans like best? Was it the video game in real time and space, or the one where points were scored at the pace of Serie A Italian soccer?

Myself, I much preferred and watched much more of LSU-Alabama. But then, I PLAYED defense as a youth. What about everyone else?

The TV ratings will tell the tale, especially the ratings of the second halves of each game, because that will indicate an active choice by fans when it was clear what kind of games these were going to be. Due to the hype factor, I'm sure LSU-Alabama started off with a massive lead in total audience.

My guess, and to be honest, hope, is that LSU-Alabama maintained its lead and maybe even increased it as the night went on. If I'm right, the result poses a not-so-theoretical issue for the organization that'll play its games today.

The National Football League has spent more than 30 years altering its rules to fit a simple premise: fans want to see lots of touchdowns and high-scoring games. The NFL is phenomenally successful, and it's always hard to argue with success.

But what if the premise isn't really true? What if fans like to see good football of any kind, and aren't so concerned with how fast the scoreboard changes, as long as two teams play a competitive game to the best of their abilities?

I have no doubt that the NFL's reaction to evidence indicating the latter proposition would be to ignore it. But if there's one form of evidence the NFL finds impossible to ignore, it's the Nielsens.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Remain Calm, or at Least Try to Panic a Little More Quietly

The blackout of New England created by the storm last Saturday night (partially responsible for the content gap of this blog) apparently extended to all knowledge of the National Football League. Oh, there's been plenty of heat among fans and opinion-mongers since the Patriots lost to the Steelers. Light? Not even a candle's worth.

Because it is played only once a week, pro football generates much more straight-line projection analysis and reaction than do other sports. That is, a loss is usually felt to indicate a future filled with losses, and a victory means an unbroken string of triumphs leading straight to the next Super Bowl. That straight-line projection has a perfect record of failure in football forecasting has never and will never change this tendency. When evidence grapples with the sillier depths of the psyche, evidence gets hit with the folding chair every time.

But there's silly, and then there's loony. The assumption that the Pats' win over the Cowboys meant the New England defense had turned the corner was silly. The reaction to the Pittsburgh loss has been full metal moronic. A one-score defeat on the road to a team with a record of success in the past decade second only to that of the Pats themselves is said to indicate the past decade didn't exist. We've only imagined every game played since Super Bowl XXXIX, because in the meantime, the Patriots have stunk, and Bill Belichick has been at best a bungler at both personnel selection and technical coaching.

The Pats haven't been perfect this season. Nor has Belichick. I understand why the coach might want to fire most of his defensive backs, but he might've been better advised to have replacements in mind when he made them redundant.

Still, New England is 5-2. They're tied for first in the AFC East. If they might be a tad weaker than in previous seasons, it's just a tad, and that weakness may well be statistical white noise that'll get erased by December.

After about the ninth talk show rant about Belichick's drafting I heard between Sunday and Tuesday (hey, all the entertainment in the house was a battery-powered radio
), it occurred to me to do something I have always hated -- research. I had to wait for power, but here it is.

New England's regular season record since Super Bowl XXXIX: 77 wins -- 26 losses. Five division titles in six seasons and counting. One Super Bowl appearance. Two AFC title game appearances.

No doubt about it. The presiding genius responsible for those shameful figures has to be another Matt Millen. Pity to see the game pass Belichick by like that.

It's OK to be emotional about sports. Otherwise, why follow them? But "emotional" should not always mean "emotional breakdown." When Rudyard Kipling wrote that triumph and disaster should be always met the same, he didn't mean people should freak out over both of them.

It always puzzles me that followers of sports do not really believe in the best-known and oldest cliches of their sports. Go on Twitter and follow a few baseball writers. Do they seem like people who feel "it's a long season?" Every day is the end of the known horsehide universe.

Football's no different. Straight-line projection analysis ignores the possibility that a football takes funny bounces -- a cliche used to illustrate the sport's inherent random, no, chaotic nature. Of all the sports, football should have the most judicious fans and media. It has just the opposite.

It's probably not so much fun to evaluate the last two Patriots games with the following two sentences. Tom Brady remains a really good quarterback. The Pittsburgh Steelers remain a very tough team to play. But it would be accurate. Doesn't that matter?

I recognize that it's far more difficult to fill up a newspaper column or four hours of radio or two beers worth of barroom argument with those two sentences. But I'd sure like to see a few people try.