Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Another Year, Another Review

As I enter my third year of posting, and with the recent migration of this blog to a new host (thanks Bulldog Creative and Chris Michael!) it seems a good time to look back at the evolution of the issues and events that I addressed over the past year.

With the exception of the occasional post about music, this blog has evolved primarily into one that examines stories in the sports headlines from the perspective of a coach, parent, fan, citizen, and lawyer. I don't intend any posts to be particularly controversial, although apparently sometimes they are. 

Neither do I intend to offend. Quite to the contrary -- I detest columnists and bloggers who transparently set out to stir the pot. But I would do you, or at the least myself, a disservice if I didn't bring my perspective to the issues that I examine. You can read about the latest employment law case or the most recent views of a particular coach's or player's deeds, or misdeeds in a variety of places; you don't need to come here for that and, frankly, it would bore me to tears to post about it. 

My perspective, more often than not, is shaped by my belief (to quote the character Mike Schwartz in the excellent book "The Art of Fielding" who, in a pre-game pep talk, quotes his teammates Schiller) that "Man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man. And he is only completely a man when he plays." And that applies equally to women as well.

Here are the updates:

After I declared the U.S. Men's and Women's National teams not dead but at least ailing, the women reached the finals of the World Cup, only to lose in excruciating fashion to Japan and apparently deprive Abby Wambach of her last chance at a world championship. The good news for the women is that they qualified for the Olympics and that Wambach will be there, along with Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, and Sydney Leroux, among others.

The American men failed to qualify for the Olympics, bombing out of the U-23 qualifying tournament by first losing to Canada then allowing a last-second goal from 25 yards out that tied its match with El Salvador 3-3 and sent El Salvador to the semi-finals. The U.S. effort in the tournament was marked by bad defending and atrocious goal tending, which is usually a strength of U.S. teams.

No description needed. El Salvador was wearing blue.

After getting off to an indifferent start under Jurgen Klinsmann, however, the U.S. full team is undefeated in 2012, including a 5-1 thrashing of Scotland last week, highlighted by a hat-trick by Landon Donovan and a stunning strike by midfielder Michael Bradley. The U.S. is playing five matches over the next two weeks to begin preparations for World Cup qualifying. The match Wednesday against Brazil will tell us more about how that preparation is coming, and whether Klinsmann is starting to get to team to a level where it can compete consistently against the best in the world. Highlights of the Scotland match are below.

Lionel Messi capped a record-breaking personal season with a goal in Spain's Copa Del Rey ("King's Cup") bringing his total on the season to an unimaginable 73. The victory was the fourth trophy this season for Barcelona (adding to the Club World Cup, European Super Cup, and Spanish Super Cup already won), but the two biggest prizes, the Champions League and La Liga titles, eluded Barca in its final season under Pep Guardiola, who had already announced his retirement at the tender age of 41. Fortunately, Real Madrid and Christiano Reynoldo also crashed out of the Champions League in the semi-finals.

Meanwhile, in American football Bobby Petrino lost his job as Arkansas coach, to be replaced by John Smith, who never coached a game for his alma mater Weber State, which had just hired him over the winter. Stan Van Gundy is gone as well, apparently at Dwight Howard's behest, although the "NBA insiders" now believe it almost a certainty that Howard will not return to the Orlando Magic after he plays out his next and last season under his current contract. At least in the NFL the foxes are not yet running the hen house as Roger Goodell laid heavy fines and suspensions on the New Orleans Saints, their players and coaches, and former defensive coordinator Greg Williams. But an arbitrator has yet to rule on the players' suspensions, and we know how that could turn out.

In State College, Joe Paterno's son announced 11 days after my post about his reign at Penn State that his father had lung cancer. Two months a day later, Paterno died. While his sudden decline was tragic, it is made all the more so by his tarnished legacy, caused by hubris, inattention, or implausible deniability.

Finally, and sadly, back to soccer where my Blackburn Rovers were relegated from the Premier League, going out with a whimper and two last dismal performances. The club is in greater disarray now than before, with a decision regarding the future of manager Steve Kean (who would be long gone from any professional organization) still up in the air. News of Rovers will be much harder to come by next season on this side of the Atlantic, but that may not be a bad thing.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

It's Still a Game

Two recent injuries to high-profile athletes, in situations that could have easily been avoided, have caused some folks (me included) to examine the coaching decisions that played a role in the injuries, or more precisely in what could have been done to avoid them.

In the first, the Saturday before last, the Chicago Bulls' Derrick Rose (the reigning MVP of the NBA) tore the ACL in his left knee with 1:20 left in the game and his team up by 12 points in a win over the Philadelphia 76ers in the first game of their playoff match-up. Rose's presence in the game that was essentially wrapped up led some to question whether his coach, Tom Thibodeau, should have kept him in the game and risked any injury, let alone a season-ending one that will require surgery and months of rehabilitation.

A week later, Mariano Rivera, who is almost certainly the greatest relief pitcher in the history of baseball, tore the ACL and meniscus in his right knee while shagging balls pre-game last Thursday in Kansas City. Catching outfield flies before a game is not standard operating procedure for relief pitchers, let alone 42-year-old relief pitchers, and others have questioned the wisdom of his manager, Joe Girardi, in allowing Rivera to, well, act like a kid when he's now middle-aged.

As is too often the case these days, when sports opinionators (it's hard to call many of them "journalists") weigh in on every coaching decision, some have questioned whether Rose should have been in the game when he was, and whether Rivera should have ever been allowed to tempt fate by shagging balls in the outfield.

In response to the questions, Thibodeau, who has a well-earned reputation for exhaustive, even obsessive, preparation, replied that he thought that Rose, who has struggled through a number of injuries this season, needed to be on the court at the end of the game so that he could acclimate himself to finishing games if the need would arise (and it almost certainly would have) in a close game later in the playoffs.

The best defense of Rivera's actions came not from his manager but from former Yankee pitcher Ron Guidry, to whom Rivera was compared (or mirrored, since Rivera is right-handed and Guidry a lefty) when he first came to the Yankees two decades ago. Guidry shared with Rivera not only sneaky-fast stuff, but a longing to play the outfield. Guidry actually realized his dream, twice, while in a Yankee uniform.

Rivera never made an official appearance in the outfield for the Yankees, but, in a recent New York Times interview, Guidry expressed the belief that that dream, or at least allowing Rivera to foster it by catching flies in warm-up, may have extended rather than shortened Rivera's career. “We’re people, not just pitchers,” Guidry said. “If they didn’t let Mo enjoy the game, maybe he doesn’t pitch this long.”       

Rivera in action.

I'm with Thibodeau and especially Guidry on this one. Sometimes, coaches just have to let players be players. The word "player" itself has a connotation that we too often ignore. It is a game, and players play it. Sometimes coaches coach best when they let their players enjoy what it is they're doing. As long as it's not disrespectful of the other team, or designed solely to pad statistics, then players should be allowed, at least sometimes, to acknowledge that they should have some fun, to express themselves whether on the field of play or just preparing to play.

Perhaps there's a lesson there for businesses outside of the sports world as well. Too often management feels compelled to require employees and even executives to conform to their idea of what a position requires. Employees are required to dress as an account executive or administrative assistant "should" dress; to act like a like a manager or a agent "should" act, to express themselves as a salesperson or an lawyer "should" express themselves.

Once in a while, perhaps a square peg will fill a round hole, as long as it's not forced and there's a little elbow grease that eases the fit. Sometimes we should let employees be who they are, and by doing that let them enjoy more what they do. Understanding that there are certain situations that require particular behavior or even attire, employers ought to be willing, in general, to adapt to the way employees and even management can go about their business in the manner that is most appealing to them, as long as that business and that conduct aids the greater good.

Let players play.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Indentured Servitude

Unlike my positions on many other topics, I often vacillate when it comes to college sports in the U.S.

Perhaps my favorite spectator sport other than soccer is college football. There's nothing quite like a crisp autumn afternoon in a packed stadium cheering for your team with thousands of other fans. The spectacle simply can't be beat.

College basketball is close too, although, because its games are indoors and the crowds are smaller, it's not quite as scintillating. But in its heyday (i.e., back when, in any given year, every school had a shot) the thrill of going to an ACC basketball game in old Winston-Salem Memorial Coliseum or Cameron Indoor or Carmichael Auditorium was second-to-none.

One of the draws of college sports when I started following them decades ago, other than the obvious allegiance to a school that one grew up supporting or attended, is that it was an amateur endeavour. While pro sports were increasingly subject to athletes changing franchises and franchises changing location, college sports remained a bastion of those who were playing the game for the joy of playing.

Thirty years ago that was a simplistic, but somewhat valid, belief. Today, it would completely ignore reality.

Let's face facts. The only thing that's amateur about college football and basketball these days is that the players aren't paid. The coaches, the schools, the conferences, and the NCAA make millions and billions of dollars from the television rights based on the sweat of their athletes. And, under that completely ridiculous guise of amateurism (in the correct sense of the word), all refuse to allow the players to share in the bounty.

The quid pro quo is supposed to be that the athletes receive an education "for free." Others argue that, considering various available grants and stipends (including board) players are actually paid (although this theory broadly asserts that all athletes are eligible for, and receive, these various grants and that most are not equally available to non-athletes).  But it's hard to ignore the fact that while the compensation that the athletes are receiving from the schools is at best in the tens of thousands of dollars, the schools are making millions and millions of dollars off of them.

The distinction between the way players and coaches are treated under the NCAA's current system was driven home by two recent events.

In the first, University of Wisconsin basketball coach Bo Ryan initially blocked his player, Jarrod Uthoff (who had determined that his style of play didn't fit into Ryan's system) from potentially transferring to a number of schools. The universities that Ryan prohibited Uthoff from contacting to determine his ability to transfer there included all of those in the Big Ten (somewhat understandable), Marquette (as a local rival, somewhat defensible, although Uthoff is from Iowa and thus does not appear to have any obvious ties to the state of Wisconsin), Iowa State (apparently vindictive) and every ACC school (completely inexplicable and nothing but petty and vindictive).

Uthoff practicing while a Badger.

While Wisconsin ultimately modified Ryan's restrictions, allowing Uthoff to discuss transferring to any school other than one in the Big Ten, the damage had already been done. While Ryan attempted to defend his decision as one that had been recommended by other coaches whose opinions he sought because he was unfamiliar with a transfer request (despite the fact that he had willingly accepted a transfer from Iowa, and defended the decision, in 2010) and one which the school could decide to modify (which it ultimately did), his position never appeared anything other than a master telling his servant where and when he could pursue his educational and vocational goals.

Meanwhile, in college football, John L. Smith, who was hired by his alma mater, Weber State, to be its head coach beginning with the 2012 season, never coached a game for the school, jumping ship to become the head coach at Arkansas after it fired Bobby Petrino.  Presumably, Weber State had neither the foresight nor the ability to place restrictions on Smith regarding what schools he might potentially abandon his alma mater for, or Arkansas would have likely been on the list since Smith was its special teams coach for the past three seasons.

The cavernous gap between the ability of players to change schools as opposed to that of coaches highlights the disparity between the way the two are treated by the NCAA. The players, who earn the institutions millions of dollars through their play, have restrictive covenants placed upon them by the schools, while the coaches that they play for earn millions of dollars (Ryan, after the Uthoff debacle,  received a contract extension that will presumably pay him more than the $2.11 million per year he was earning before) and apparently can severely limit their players' options for movement according to their inclination toward or displeasure with a particular player.

If schools and the NCAA continue to treat players as employees, they ought to pay them as employees.  Not necessarily in the same manner as professional athletes, but as employees of the schools. While the NCAA recently allowed conferences to vote on allowing payments of $2000 to all scholarship athletes, part of the requirement is that a school pay the same stipend to all scholarship athletes. While presumably this  reflects the NCAA's mantra that the majority of college athletes are going to "go professional" in a pursuit other than sports, it's just a smokescreen to avoid talking about the two sports that rake in all the money for the schools and the NCAA - basketball and football.

My proposal is that the schools make a rough calculation of the number of hours that an athlete will spend in games, practice, training, travel, media appearances, etc., in football or basketball in a given season and pay them, per hour, the same rate that students at the school are paid for work-study programs (I presume at or near the minimum wage). I would end the charade that all college athletes are created equally in terms of their value to produce income to the schools and make this payment available only to football and basketball players (I know, there's likely a Title IX issue here, but let me ignore that for the moment).

The least that the schools that make millions of dollars through the work of these athletes can do is pay them in the same manner as they pay other students who are also employees at their institutions. That may make it a little more tolerable when the next Jarrod Uthoff rolls around and his request to transfer away from the school, which would never be necessary for a "normal" student, is refused.