Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Shot at Redemption

"A man walks down the street, he says 'why am I soft in the middle now?
Why am I soft in the middle when the rest of my life is so hard?
I need a photo opportunity; I want a shot at redemption.
Don't want to end up a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard.'"

I used to dislike Rick Pitino. Not a little. A lot. 

But they say that everyone deserves a second chance. And Pitino has earned one with me.

Sure, he and his Providence team were darlings 25 years ago, the little engine that could, the collection of gym rats and castoffs that made it to the Final Four.  After that, though, Pitino had shown his true colors by jumping ship to the New York Knicks, then Kentucky, then the Celtics, then Louisville. And with his fancy suits and fancier loafers he always seemed a little too slick, a lot too confident, to inspire much of anything other than dislike in the casual fan and especially the fan of any team other than the one he was coaching at the time.

The former Slick Rick?

I have to admit to a certain smug satisfaction several years ago when Pitino was excoriated after news of a dalliance with Karen Sypher (apparently straight out of casting for Fatal Attraction) led to sordid speculation in the press and forced Pitino to announce that he had been the target of an attempted extortion

Whether due to that sobering incident or simply maturation, Pitino seems a changed man and a changed coach. The press has been full of stories in this week leading up to the Final Four of how Pitino has mellowed, transforming himself from an unapproachable dictator to a likable mentor. Even seniors on his current team remark on how he has changed just in their time at Louisville, that he talks to and jokes with the freshmen players in a manner that they couldn't have imagined three years ago.

Perhaps most impressively, Pitino neither portrays himself as a victim in the scandal brought on by Sypher's allegations, nor does he point to it as playing a role in his change. Instead, he points with pride to the fact that he learned during that time to simply turn the other cheek, something he certainly hadn't been known for in the past.

Pitino's maturation has been amplified this week as Louisville has prepared to play Kentucky, his former team and in-state rival.  The noise gets even louder, or the suits a little whiter, when he is compared to Kentucky's coach, John Calipari, who seems to have many of the same traits as the old Rick.

It may be unusual, or even uncomfortable, for Pitino to find himself in the role of both underdog and sympathetic character. But his actions over the past three years, and those of his team in the Big East and NCAA tournaments to this point, have earned him the right to both.

Pitino was dangerously close, as Paul Simon said, to becoming "a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard." I, for one, am glad he didn't. Regardless of how Saturday's game turns out, this NCAA tournament has been Pitino's shot at redemption. And, as many of his teams have been famous for, he drained the three.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Magical Athlete

Every generation of fans believes, and is entitled to believe, that it has watched the all-time great of a sport during its time.

Cobb-to-Ruth-to-Gehrig-to-Williams-to-Mays-to-Ripken-to-Bonds-to-Pujols in baseball. Thorpe-to-Harmon-to-Unitas-to-Brown-to-Sanders-to-Favre-to-Manning-to-Rodgers in football. Mathews-to-Di Stefano-to-Puskas-to-Pele-to-Cruyff-to-Maradona-to-Zidane-to-_______ in soccer.

It is impossible, of course, to compare athletes from one generation to the next because the rules of the game, the playing conditions, and the size and conditioning of the athletes varies so much, as does the level of competition. But every generation gives athletes and fans a new opportunity to say they were, or at least saw, the best that ever was.

In the soccer world, that opportunity, and that blank above, is filled by Lionel Messi. At the age of 24, middle age and in his prime in soccer years, Messi this past week set the all-time record for goals scored for his club, Barcelona. To put things in perspective, the record stood for 57 years and was set by a player (Cesar Rodriguez) who played 16 seasons for the club. This is Messi's eighth season as a professional.

235 celebrations and counting.

He has won the Golden Ball award (or the Ballon d'Or -- yes, FIFA's awards are in French too), given to the outstanding soccer player in Europe, three years in a row and should win a fourth at the end of this season.  This past weekend he set the record for goals in all competitions in one season by a Spanish player (55) and he still has two months to play. A goal against AC Milan in the Champions League Wednesday will give him the record for goals in a single Champions League season, which he already earned a share of last season.

And he has done it all with humility and as the ultimate team player, who would just as soon make a pass to set up a goal as score it (he finished fourth in La Liga in assists last season). Unlike the all-time great footballer to whom comparisons are most easily made, Maradona, Messi shuns the limelight.

Messi and Maradona are both Argentines. Both came from humble origins (Messi's father was a steelworker and his mother a part-time cleaner; Maradona was born in a shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aires). Both are short of stature (Messi is 5'7"; Maradona 5'5"), which lends them to both being "one with the ball." 

Incredibly, Messi would likely have not reached that height, and perhaps would not have reached the heights that he has in soccer, if not for his club, Barcelona. While many players owe much to clubs, and the clubs demand much in return, Messi truly owes his career to Barca. At the age of 13 Messi was a frail, 4'6" youngster with enormous talent, but with a huge stumbling block to success -- a growth hormone deficiency. Argentine clubs were unable to pay for the expensive treatments, as was Messi's family. After a tryout with a Barca scout, Messi was signed to a contract on the back of a paper napkin and he and his father moved to Spain, where Messi grew in stature and as a player.

How can you not root for a guy with that personal history? How can that not be a lesson to everyone, athlete or not, that obstacles are made to be overcome, and the more spectacularly the better?

Assuming he avoids major injuries in the next decade, Messi will set records that may never be broken. Even if Argentina does not win a World Cup during his time with its national team (which some will insist must happen before he can be considered the best player of all time alongside Pele and Maradona), his accomplishments may demand that he be placed at the top of the list.

Regardless, if you get the chance, watch Messi and his mates take on Milan this Wednesday. Then, someday, you'll be able to tell your grand kids: "I saw the best there ever was. I saw Messi in his prime."

As a hint of what you might see, here are the highlights from Messi's five goal performance against Bayer Leverkusen earlier this year in the Champions League. And, if you've never played -- those two  chips that he had over the keeper? They're way, way more difficult than just blasting the ball into the back of the net.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Your Game Wasn't Stolen, It Was GIven Away

The World has their game and the British want it back. Or so says Dave Richards, Chairman of the English Premier League.

Speaking at a conference on sports and security this week, Richards went on what can only be described as an ill-advised and misinformed rant about soccer and its governance, saying:
England gave the world football. It gave the best legacy anyone could give. We gave them the game. For 50 years, we owned the game . . . We were the governance of the game. We wrote the rules, designed the pitches and everything else. Then, 50 years later, some guy came along and said you're liars and they actually stole it. It was called FIFA. Fifty years later, another gang came along called UEFA and stole a bit more.
One can easily perceive Richards' diatribe as a misguided call for some order in soccer's governing bodies, where decisions regarding the location of the next multi-billion dollar extravaganza are seemingly based on which suitor has the willingness or ability to line the decision-makers' pockets. It's a point that has merit, and when made usually falls on deaf (or lucre-stuffed) ears. But he didn't specifically identify the problem and didn't really address the solution, other than presumably a return to the "good old days" when the English controlled all aspects of the sport.

But setting aside for a minute the absurdity of the notion that in this day any nation has exclusive rights to a sport, his history is completely wrong. I don't mean about soccer being an English game (Chinese claims to the contrary, Richards is correct that the English invented the game in close to its current form), but about others stealing it from them. In fact, in their arrogance, the English gave it away.

Soccer is the World's game because the English exported it to their vast imperial outposts in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Europe, Africa, the Middle East, South America -- almost anywhere that soccer became the sport was because the locals learned it from British teachers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and, more often than not, soldiers and sailors.

But the English refused to allow the World to share in the governance of the sport. As David Goldblatt explains in his seminal history of soccer "The Ball is Round" the British founded the International Association Football Board (IAFB) to serve as soccer's law-making body. The IAFB was solely comprised of representatives of the four "Home Nations" (England, Scotland, Wales, and, at the time, Ireland). Twenty-two years later, the rest of the world created the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) without any British involvement.

England's initial refusal to recognize FIFA, and its reluctance to even allow the rest of the world a role in the IAFB, ultimately led to the irrelevance of the IAFB and the dominance of FIFA as the governing body of the sport. I'm sure that the irony isn't lost on Richards, or the English, that the ruling body in soccer has a French, not an English, name.

Now we are stuck with FIFA and its Gallic soul, to paraphrase Goldblatt. But make no mistake, we are stuck with it not because it stole soccer from Great Britain, but because the English gave it away.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Entitled Athlete

Turns out I wasn't the only one who thought that David Brooks got it wrong.

The blogosphere has been full of commentary about Brooks' commentary regarding Jeremy Lin. Most take the position that Brooks didn't know what the heck he was talking about when attempting to make the point that it's difficult for an athlete to be religious and succeed at the highest level.

A sports story that unfolded this past week has legitimized Brooks' thought that preparation for, and success at, the highest level of professional sports tends to result in selfishness rather than the selflessness that many religions demand.

Brooks did meander about in his recent column, concluding that religious athletes in general, and Jeremy Lin in particular, struggle in balancing the self-sacrifice that the Judeo-Christian ethic (although Brooks more broadly concludes "the religious ethos") demands with the will to excel in sports, and the fame and attention that come with that success. In response, I argued that sports can, especially at the amateur level, teach us the same things that that our religions require of us: to work for the common good; to subsume ones' personal achievements to the benefit of the team; that the repetition of practice moves us a little closer to unattainable perfection.

Ryan Braun, however, did his best this past week to prove that often arrogance, self-importance, and a sense of entitlement often go hand-in-hand with athletic success. 

Braun is the baseball player for the Milwaukee Brewers who tested positive for steroids (at 20 times the normal level, mind you, when four times is enough to warrant a finding of doping) during last season's playoffs. An arbitration hearing was held on his appeal from the 50 game suspension that he was dealt in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement between the teams and the Players' Union. Braun won his appeal, apparently on the technicality that the protocol for the MLB drug testing procedure had not been followed.  According to ESPN:

In his appeal, Braun didn't argue evidence of tampering and didn't dispute the science, but argued protocol had not been followed.  Multiple sources confirmed to ESPN investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and T.J. Quinn that Braun questioned the chain of custody and collection procedure.

So, essentially, good lawyering and a technicality got Braun off. As a lawyer who has heard a "not guilty" verdict on behalf of his client, I appreciate the arbitrator's decision for exactly what it was -- a finding for Braun because MLB did not follow its protocol. That decision, however, was not a proclamation of innocence.

But Braun couldn't let it go at that. Instead, the day after the arbitration decision was handed down, he held a press conference at which he announced the decision as one of vindication. "I will continue to take the high road," Braun said. "We won because the truth was on my side. I was a victim of a process that completely broke down and failed as it was applied to me in this case. Today's about making sure this never happens to anyone else who plays this game." He also took a swipe at the man whose job it was to collect, store, and ship Braun's sample by saying that "we spoke to biochemists and scientists, and asked them how difficult it would be for someone to taint the sample.  They said, if they were motivated, it would be extremely easy."

Mr. Not Guilty Proclaims his Innocence.

So much for the high road.

What Braun didn't say, of course, is that there was no evidence that his sample had been tampered with. Or that his lawyers had argued that it had been. Or the complete lack of ability of the "motivated" villain to tamper with the sample of a specific player, since the samples are identified only by a number, not name, and are sealed in the player's presence. Or why MLB, especially since its Commissioner is the former owner of the club for whom Braun toils and whose statue sits outside of Miller Park where he plays 81 times a season, would condone, let alone instigate, the tampering.

Braun's throwing of the sample collector under the bus resulted in the collector coming forward to defend himself. Yes, Ryan, he has a name, and a reputation to protect. In doing so, Dino Laurenzi, Jr. made it even more clear than it already had been that while Braun had succeeded in beating the rap, the evidence against him was indisputable.

In choosing to incorrectly proclaim his vindication when it didn't occur, Braun perhaps didn't act much differently than others would have given the opportunity. That he chose to justify his false innocence by singling out someone who by all appearances was just doing his job, who had no explained or even conjectured bias against Braun, is a completely selfish act that certainly fits Brooks' profile of the modern professional athlete. None of Braun's actions, from the time that he gave the sample up through his lawyer's response to Laurenzi's statement, have been intended to benefit anyone but Braun.

Braun, of course, is not alone when it comes to boorish behavior by athletes. In fact, just this past week Tiger Woods, the poster-child for self-absorbed athletes everywhere, engaged in yet another attempt to intimidate a reporter who asked a question that Woods did not believe required a response.

There is no doubt that athletics can teach us values consistent with those of our religions. But there is also no doubt that the single-mindedness necessary to achieve at the highest level of sports, the unshakable belief in oneself that he or she can make it to the top, and the fawning attention from parents, coaches, hangers-on, fans and often the media that accompanies that success can also create self-centered individuals who, other than their value as entertainers, have nothing to offer to society as a whole.