Really? Coke Bottle at EVERY press conference?

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This week’s brouhaha surrounding Alabama’s coach, Nick Saban, has to do with his decision to start and play Tua Tagovailoa in a meaningless game against The Citadel, a team that has already lost to Wofford, UT Chattanooga, Towson, East Tennessee State, and Furman.  Tua is injured.  He’s the leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore.  He will likely be the top draft pick whenever he decides to enter the draft.

There are arguments to be made on both sides.  We’ve seen players of great promise (Robert Griffin III) whose careers have been upended by injuries aggravated by playing  when not fully recovered.  On the other hand, coaches believe the team’s morale is undermined when a star gets to sit out; everyone is playing with injuries, they’d say.  Holding out a star player essentially admits that the upcoming game is hardly worth playing, demeaning the opposing team.

Cut to the chase – The Citadel already knows they are lambs about to be slaughtered; it’s not news to them.  Tua’s teammates know that he is special, special enough to be essential in their bid for a national championship.  What’s worse for morale?  Sitting Tua or carrying him off the field?

What rankles this week, as it does with every Saban press conference, is the condescending arrogance with which Sabin meets questions from reporters who cover his team.  He is the most successful college football coach of this era without doubt.  He is adored by Crimson Tide fans; there is a statue of Saban outside Bryant-Denny Stadium.  The venue was built in the 1920’s and was named in honor of Alabama’s president, George H. Denny, but then the universe righted itself, football took its proper place as the heart of Alabama’s cultural life, and famed coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant’s name was added in 1975.  Bryant racked up 323 wins in his career; Saban has 228 but is tied with Bryant for most national championships.  He makes eight million dollars a year in salary and another three to four million in assorted other football related enterprises.

Life is good for Nick Saban.

He does have to deal with idiotic questions about “his” team, but that gives him the opportunity to grouse from the podium about how little fan support Alabama gets at home games, not-very-patiently-putting up with reporters, the developmentally challenged serfs somehow able to get past the moat at Castle Saban.  And, it gives a place of prominence to the sixteen ounce unopened bottle of Coca Cola placed at this right hand.

I am stunned by his shameless shilling for Coca Cola, placing that full bottle on the lectern, label prominently facing cameras, a silent nod to the income streams that swell the Saban bankroll while hapless reporters wither under his thinly veiled contempt.  He’s arrogant, but many of the most successful coaches are; they live in the football bubble, protected by boosters and fans.  As the dreadful and sad end of Joe Paterno’s career with Penn State proved, even the most despicable acts cannot dissuade the true believers from canonizing coaches.

He’s got a statue too.

At least “Joe Pa” didn’t act as a huckster for Klynveld Peat Marwick Goesdeler (KPMG) the auditing firm based in the Netherlands, Rolex, Workday, Inc., Callaway, Mizzen + Main (performance menswear).  That’s Phil Mickelson, professional golfer and billboard.  Saban’s brand of product placement is more subtle (!) in that he doesn’t wear the logo on his hat, jacket, shirt, and shoes, but … really?

I confess I may have forgiven some excesses on the part of coaches I like. ..

Actually, no, I haven’t, because my teams are coached by coaches rather than corporate robots, coaches who understand that they have a special relationship with the fans (and reporters) who give themselves heart and soul to the sports we love.

Alabama will probably roll again, with or without Tua Tagovailoa, Nick Saban will probably emerge triumphant one more time, and I ‘ll probably sit alone and friendless, wearing a Michigan Rose Bowl shirt (2008 – USC, L 18-32), eating Doritos and drinking Pepsi.

If I were a betting man …

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It was not that long ago that I was shocked to learn that  friend of mine was scrambling to come up with cash to pay off his bookie.  Who knew a bookie?  How would one even find a bookie?  And, really, who would bet on baseball on a daily basis?  Come on.

Bookies lived in the shadows, I thought, tempting Shoeless Joe, Paul Horning, and Pete Rose, but were generally not travelling in polite society.  I had seen Newman and Redford as con men in The Sting, had wallowed in one of HBO’s best series, Luck, and had long admired the wordsmiths who write about the nether world of horse racing and gambling, many of whom wrote with an immediacy missing from accounts of other sporting events.

Damon Runyon gave us Brandy Bottle Bates, Nicely Nicely, Harry the Horse, and Nathan Detroit, mixing strikingly vivid gambling jargon in prose that was unfailingly elegant and always in the present tense.  The following exchange was not included in Guys and Dolls, the adaptation of Runyon’s story,  “The Idyll of Sarah Brown”, but includes much of the breathless urgency of Runyon’s prose.

“ONE of the first guys out of Mindy’s and up to the crap game is Regret, the horse player, and as he comes in Brandy Bottle is looking for a nine, and The Sky is laying him twelve G’s against his soul that he does not make this nine, for it seems Brandy Bottle’s soul keeps getting more and more expensive.Well, Regret wishes to bet his soul against a G that Brandy Bottle gets his nine, and is greatly insulted when The Sky cannot figure his price any better than a double saw, but finally Regret accepts this price, and Brandy Bottle hits again.”

“The Race Track” ran in The New Yorker from 1926 to 1978.  The byline used the moniker Audax Minor, but the writer was George F.T. Ryall, regular contributor to the New Yorker and frequent contributor to Town and Country as he also wrote about auto racing, polo, and mens’ fashion.  His prose was less breathy, more contemplative, as befit a writer writing to the New Yorker crowd, but it too captured the affection of writer for the sport of horse racing, a sport that belonged to breeders of throroughbreds and the railbirds who bet on them.

“There was something about Belmont that raised it above the level of other racecourses. It wasn’t merely the historic races that were run there, for richer stakes were to be run elsewhere, and it wasn’t just the excellence of the track itself, which gave every runner a fair chance. But Belmont seemed to show racing at its best, in a spacious setting. Whatever the reason, it also brought out the best in horses, and winning at Belmont was was something that a stable could be justifiably proud of.”

Charming, but lest we find ourselves simply waxing nostalgic, let’s recall that these enterprises of great pith are attached to gambling, an issue which is very much on my mind as the Supreme Court tosses out the federal ban on sports betting, the NFL waffles on its policies about gambling in its usual down-the-rabbit-hole fashion, mumbling its disapproval while planning the development of NFL fantasy football empires, and as network radio sports hosts tout betting sites on air. CBS, ESPN, and Fox Sports regularly report the betting lines set on the weekend’s games; talking heads and Vegas gamblers debate the value of taking the over or under on the game’s point spread.

Approximately ninety-five billion dollars will be bet on NFL and college football this year, not counting the three hundred million that DraftKings will collect in entry fees.  Given the behavior of sharks when chum hits the water, we can reasonably expect that the scent of billions in transit is more than enough to tempt serious investors to nudge the outcome of games, if only slightly, just enough to beat the line.

A high stakes gambler doesn’t have to fix a game, just shave a few points.  I have to wonder how much a fluffed field goal is worth at the end of the game where a point or two does not change the outcome of the game but does change the spread.  Kickers get no respect; the temptation could be irresistible.

Point shaving and game fixing have been around for as long as games have been played I suppose.  Boxers have taken a dive, jockeys have pulled up on the reins, tight ends have dropped a pass, ballplayers have let a fly ball drop.  Easy.  Well, easier to fix in less closely scrutinized circumstances.  Fix the World Series, for example, and someone might notice; fix CCNY  or BC basketball, Northwestern football and the harsh light of public inquiry is less likely to shine.  Oh, wait.  All three of those rigged enterprises were discovered.  Major League Baseball works with Genius Sports to monitor betting on all games; even the benighted NFL keeps track of the lines.  The bad news for the NBA was that referee Tim Donaghy gambled himself into debt and made up some of his losses by betting on games he officiated; the good news is that he got caught.

True confession.  I drop $25.00 a year on DraftKings, setting up my fantasy lineups with great care and high hopes.  If my imagined roster does well, I “win” $3.00 to $5.00 bucks which allows me to continue to play for a week or two more.  These stakes are low and the impact on the economy slight, but I am an example of a reasonably avid football fan who once watched my team play on Sunday and tuned in other games at playoff and championship season.  To be candid, I did not give a rat’s tail about how the Cowboys were doing, as long as they were losing.  This Sunday, however, as the balance of my account is now at $11.68 (I know, huh?), I will be keeping track of the Rams defense, Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, Minnesota tight end Kyle Rudolph, and, of course, watching the Lions … and wide receiver Golden Tate.  Whew!  Full day of football ahead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gee, Coach, We’re Sorry!

College Football, Uncategorized

Look,  when I get a chance to lob a few grenades in the direction of Nick Saban, I’m certainly not going to hold back.  I can’t take issue with his coaching, his coaching staff, or his teams; Alabama football is the most successful program in the nation, year and year out.  Saban deserves his spot in the pantheon of great collegiate coaches, right up there with Rockne, Bryant, Yost, Robinson, Gagliardi, Leahy, Stagg, and Camp.

But, securely atop the national polls, standing 4-0 with a good chance of running the table unless Georgia gets frisky, Saban delivered an ill-tempered screed aimed at Alabama’s students, essentially calling out the undergraduates who did not attend home games in the number he expected and who did not make enough noise when (if) they did attend.  This was not the first time Saban had railed against what he sees as an unresponsive student population, and his language in speaking to and about them has been consistently dismissive.

Here’s an open letter to Coach Saban –

Sorry to hear that you live with disappointment, Nick.  You mashed Louisiana Lafayette, retain the top spot in every poll, and have the respect of friends and foes.  You are clearly top dog.  And yet … this is where you go in post-game interviews:

“I can honestly say I was a little disappointed there weren’t more students at the last game, I think we’re trying to address that. I don’t think they’re entitled to anything, either.”

Not entitled.

Well, Nick, actually, you see, they are the university.  You are a hired gun.

When I say hired, what I mean is you pull down $7,000,000.00 per year in salary and another $4,000,000.00 in assorted other job related income.  Oh, and you get a $700,000.00 incentive bonus if Alabama reaches the college football championship.  To give your salary a bit of perspective, Nick, the governor of your state earns $119,950.00 a year and the President of your university gets by with $717,000.00

But, go ahead, knock the kids who pay tuition, do the classroom thing, get up on a Saturday morning in order to watch ‘Bama rock the snot out of Louisiana-Lafayette.  Let’s take a moment to remember that more than 100,000 fans packed the stadium as Alabama played the Ragin’ Cajuns, coasting to a 56-14 easy victory, playing the third team for much of the second half.  Up 28-0 at the end of the first quarter.

This was clearly a blowout, and, Nick, not a lot of fun to watch.

“When I first came here, you used to play that tradition thing up there and everybody was cheering and excited and happy and there was great spirit,.  Now, they don’t even cheer. They introduce our players, and nobody even cheers.”

I saw the same movies you did, Nick – “…that tradition video thing”?  I’m pretty sure none of the coaches who inspired us counted on “that tradition video thing” to animate the crowd.  No, the coaches with whom you would like to be compared were actually more than executive mechanics.  They knew that their team was an important part of something larger.  They knew that coaching is in its own way a calling.  Coach shows up on Friday night by the bonfire, Rockne crouches by the Gipper’s bedside, Herman Boone literally pulls the Titans together, Coach Lengyel meets Marshall’s grief head on, Burt Cotton listens to Sandra Bullock, Molly McGrath pulls the Wildcats from obscurity.

You are miffed when students don’t show up, so you made the university end block seating.  You really don’t like spectators who leave halfway through your team’s performance.  Your point is that the players put in 60 minutes of gut busting play on the field; spectators should be expected to invest the time it takes for the team to do its work.

“Everybody else should have the same sort of commitment. You don’t have to do the work all week, you don’t have to practice, you don’t have to come in at 7 in the morning and leave at 11 at night, you don’t have to do any of that stuff.”

Wait,

Nick, you do understand  how these institutions of higher learning actually work, right?  You and your guys do football.  You get the eleven million and your players attend the university for free.  The best of your players are showcased, ending up as well compensated athletes in the NFL.  The students join the band or the cheer squad, or they get involved with any number of other activities, and may take the opportunity to sit in the stands as you do your thing.

Some of them might be playing volleyball or basketball in Foster Hall, the  university’s auditorium, capable of seating 3,800 vocal fans.  Your spring game attracted more than 70,000 fans.  In searching for information about athletics at Alabama, I found that virtually every article was about football.  You’re the main attraction.  How’d you like to coach football at Duke, where basketball is king?

Or, since we’re discussing school spirit …  well … not school spirit so much as vocal enthusiasm for your team, perhaps you’d like to coach at Kent State, your alma mater?  Coaching salaries are on the rise in the MAC; newly appointed coach, Sean Lewis, will earn $440,000.00 this year for coaching your Golden Flashes.  Dix Stadium holds just over 29,000 spectators in its three grandstands, but averages about 13,000 per game.  Of course, the big bucks for Kent State football come when the Flashes travel to Clemson (56-3) or Penn State (63-10).

That might be fun.

I’m not sure they have a tradition video thing, but I’ve seen the footage of Sean Lewis and the Kent State coaching staff for all sports at the Welcome Week Pep Rally.  Looked like a great event, the stands were packed, all 6,362 seats at the MAC Center were filled.

And nobody left halfway through.

 

Wait! The Big Ten Has 14 Teams And One Of Them Is Rutgers?

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To every thing there is a season, and long, steamy summer days clearly belong to baseball, but, without ignoring the crucial games just before the All Star break, I start to look to the fall and football, allowing myself to leaf through Street and Smith’s College Football Preview.  Chucking neutrality aside, I check Michigan’s place in the pre-season guesswork, assuming that guide is likely to be accurate if Michigan is properly placed in the mix of teams contending for a national championship then turn to the wealth of other information in the hefty magazine including presentation of pre-season All Americans at each position and evaluations of each team’s depth and strength.  Teams are ranked within their conference, the likely champions getting the most ink, the runners-up quarter page blurbs.

Conferences – aye, there’s the rub.  Michigan, a founding member of the Big 10, a midwestern conference made up of flagship public universities (with the exception of Independent Northwestern), now plays Penn State, Maryland, and Rutgers.  The conference can’t even call themselves the Big 10 anymore; the conference is now its own logo – BIG – which has been craftily shaded so the uninformed viewer can almost see a 10 hidden in the letters but will see two divisions of seven each season until sanity returns.

The flux in which we live has accustomed me to change, but I do treasure tradition and pageantry, pomp, circumstance, and rabid rivalry.  Once upon a time, most rivalries took place within long-established athletic conferences, but college athletics, I am told, generates a considerable amount of income, roughly SEVEN BILLION dollars which colleges and universities count on to … to … well, to do whatever it is that they do when they are not playing games, but to get to SEVEN BILLION, conferences had to add championship games to have one last mega-event before the bowl games.  The old familiar cozy conferences simply no longer brought in enough revenue, so abracadabra, tradition be damned and geography ignored.

A few of the conferences have not changed over the course of my lifetime as a fan; the Ivy League, for example, has been made up of the same eight distinguished colleges since 1954; almost all of the rest of the Division I conferences have changed both in composition and character.  Some of the changes made sense up to a point; the Big Five Conference made up of Cal, USC, UCLA, Stanford, and Washington became the Big Six with the addition of Washington State and then the Pacific 8 with the addition of Oregon and Oregon State.  As Arizona and Arizona State were poached from the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), the conference became the PAC 10.  The thoughtful reader will have noted that Arizona does not (yet) enjoy a Pacific coastline, but at least is within driving distance of the ocean, whereas Colorado and Utah, the institutions recently departed from the Big 12 and the Mountain West Conference, are considerably less Pacific.  Oh, and the Big 12 has ten teams.  I’m just saying.

The slide began in the late ’90s, but by 2013, madness had truly set in, traditional rivalries were abandoned, and the familiar regional associations gave way to collections that seem jury-rigged Frankenconfrences; odd bits of one were attached to limbs of another.  In retrospect, the dissolution of the Big 8 (Nebraska, Iowa State, Colorado, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State) allowed the first of the new super-conferences to spawn imitators as its members joined with Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, and Texas Tech to create the Big 12, large enough that competition was divided into the Big 12 North and the Big 12 South, which mirrors the division of the Southeastern Conference (SEC) which was also split when the SEC picked off Arkansas which had defected from the conference depth-charged when the Texas colleges jumped into the Big 12 and South Carolina which had been homeless since ditching the ACC and the dominance of the North Carolina colleges.

But, wait!  There’s more.  The already over-large SEC added Texas A&M and Missouri, both of which deserted the Big 12, which made that conference shaky, especially as there were widespread rumors that Texas was about to bolt as well.  Texas is the straw that stirs the drink in the region with access to television money the others do not see, just as Notre Dame with its own independent contract with NBC had the golden ticket, allowing them to play a schedule of their choosing in football while playing basketball in the Big East, that is, until the Golden Domers by virtue of what must have been a Papal encyclical, have remained independent in football, bound to play only five games within their new home, the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), but regular members in all other sports … except hockey, which now joins the BIG.

Let’s remember that like the Big East, the ACC has been most notably a basketball conference.  Why then, oh why, would Notre Dame join up, being as the clever will have noted, not on the Atlantic or even adjacent to states that are?  Why would the ACC, having its own well established traditions welcome feisty and independent Notre Dame?  Probably a union of like-minded academic institutions?  We think not.

There is this.  On any given Saturday, lacking the expensive football package from my cable provider, I am lucky if I can find more than one televised game from any single conference.  Generally, the conference game I will see is some sort of match-up, a rivalry game or a game on which a title might depend.  Of the twelve to fourteen teams in the conference, only two or four at most hit the screen.  Maybe NBC could work in one more?  Oh, that’s right!  They have a contract with Notre Dame.  Every Notre Dame game will have a national audience, and that suggests that Notre Dame and every team playing Notre Dame gets a share of national television bounty.  So, unlovely ACC football gets a shot in the arm, a national audience, name recognition while recruiting outside the Atlantic region, and dough that is split up among the members of the conference.  Yes, The North Carolina State Wolfpack is assured a national audience this fall as are Wake Forest’s Demon Deacons

Notre Dame gets to play most its traditional (and very telegenic) rivals (USC, Navy, Boston College, and Michigan State),  games that offer little challenge at crucial resting points in the season (Temple, Miami University of Ohio, and Navy), and two games against teams (Georgia and Stanford) that are strong enough to boost Notre Dame’s chances of landing a playoff spot or juicy bowl game.

Win-win.

My beef isn’t with making money or trying to enhance the recruiting profile outside of the region; college sports are no longer the bastion of purely amateur athletics played for the beauty of the game.  I am saddened, however, that Missouri no longer plays Nebraska, that Syracuse no longer battles Georgetown in basketball.  This spring, Johns Hopkins joins the BIG in lacrosse, leaving its own traditional regional rivalries behind.  Traditions seem to have died a quick death with the stroke of a pen.

OK, maybe I’m slightly miffed that Notre Dame didn’t elect to keep Michigan among its “must-have” independent games, or maybe I’m just a fussy curmudgeon. In any case,  I’ve got two months, fourteen days, and eight hours to get over myself before the opening game against Florida, and my therapist is on speed dial.

Serena

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It’s hard to find language to describe the moment in which one of the most remarkable athletes of the modern era was penalized for code violations during the final match of the US Open Tennis Tournament.  The sequence of events that led to Naomi Osaka’s controversial victory revealed a great deal about the autonomy with which a chair umpire manages play in tournaments at the highest level, autonomy which allowed the decisions made by umpire Carlos Ramos to overshadow virtually all play during the tournament, certainly overshadowing Osaka’s victory and Serena Williams’ return to the finals of an US Open.

In the weeks following the Open, Ramos was vilified and congratulated, Williams was vilified and embraced, and Osaka, once again, overshadowed.  Partisan cultural responses were emphatic as the event was characterized as feminist implosion or sexist/racist injustice.  Billie Jean King, whose career is testimony to the difficulties facing female athletes, wrote in the Washington Post:

“The ceiling that women of color face on their path to leadership never felt more impenetrable than it did at the women’s U.S. Open final on Saturday. Ironic, perhaps, that the roof of Arthur Ashe Stadium was closed for the championship match. What was supposed to be a memorable moment for tennis, with Serena Williams, perhaps the greatest player of all time, facing off against Naomi Osaka, the future of our sport, turned into another example of people in positions of power abusing that power. ”

The issues for tennis, for sport and for society are profound and profoundly affected by the reality of injustice stretching centuries behind a tennis match in September, but I’m meant to be writing about sports, so I’ll approach the conversation by reminding readers that much of the idiocy in the sporting world has to do with our schizophrenic view of athletic competition.  On one hand, we believe that sports inspire virtue – dignity, humility, generosity, selflessness, resilience, courage, craft, and skill.  On the other, we have created a professional class of gladiators whose only purpose is to beat other gladiators.  Amateurs are not expected to humiliate opponents; professionals are not supposed to display personalized emotion.  Let’s call them warriors rather than gladiators for the moment, recognizing that it is only football and boxing that invite athletes to dare brain injury as the last reward for their service.

So, warriors, and warriors don’t mess around when it comes to competition.  We pay them to entertain us, and a certain amount of heated emotion often adds some spice to our enjoyment of the spectacle.  Bench clearing brawls, fistfights on the sideline , smack downs under the basket – all good fun.  OK, less fun when women are involved.  OK, not fun in those sports that are not deemed warrior sports but which pay like warrior sports.

Manny Machado throws his bat, charges  the mound, slices up Dustin Pedroia sliding into second.  He gets fined, pitchers throw at his head and knees and America’s pastime, “a game so fine it’s played on diamonds”, enjoys yet another classic summer.  Phil Mickelson stops a ball from rolling off the green and, in the words of Brett Cygalis reporting in the New York Post,:

“Phil Mickelson executed one of the most shocking breaches of the rules and etiquette in recent major-championship history, and the fallout from it is hardly over. That includes for Mickelson’s reputation as well as that of the USGA.”  The article is entitled “Phil Mickelson’s defiant defense of his shocking rule breach.”

See, slightly crazy.

Phil’s a good golfer; Serena is the greatest female tennis player in the history of the sport, and at thirty-six years old and a recent mother fighting to win every match she enters while continuing to represent female athletes, and mothers, and women, and women of color.  She is a warrior, and in the last set of a highly significant match that was not going her way, an umpire decreed that she had been cheating by being on the court when her coach made a hand signal to approach the net in playing Osaka.  Williams’ “implosion” was no more dramatic than Mickelson’s, but it was personal.  Apparently that’s an even bigger deal than throwing a ball at a batter’s face, certainly bigger than Mickelson’s shocking rule breach.

We have seen anger in sports and frustration.  I can’t think of another example, however, of the kind of confrontation we saw at Forest Hills.  The greatest athlete in her sport, a woman who had beaten the odds in becoming the greatest in her sport, refused to be called a cheat in the middle of a match in which she had not gained traction.  Serena is an emotional player and one who uses emotion to stoke her game; she had plenty of fuel before Ramos made the decision that she had been cheating  and that he needed to call her on it.  There was racquet smashing as there has been in many, many matches, but the significant difference between this moment and any other in the history of televised sport was that we saw both the human being and the champion in the same moment.

A major title was in play, but for Serena, it was her character that was at stake.  Her first responses to Ramos were not confrontational; they were plainspoken and courteous.  The most influential female athlete in the world did not pout or flounce or kick dust; she told the judge that she doesn’t cheat.  He didn’t care.  We saw Serena unable to return to play until the question of character had been addressed.  It wasn’t.

Every athlete has her day; that was Osaka’s.  She played well, better than Serena had played up to that point.  Tennis fans can appreciate a hard-won victory over a favorite, but we witnessed a man in a chair taking a game from a champion.  It was ugly.  Both Williams and Osaka were humiliated.  The fans were cheated.  Later Williams was fined for her behavior and Ramos was endorsed by the USTA.  Roger Federer who was not humiliated reminded us that, “… they have their job to do and that’s what we want them to do.”