Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Year of Ascendance or Disaster?

An important year awaits U.S. soccer, both on the men's and women's sides.

The women will face the year adjusting to a new coach as Tom Sermanni officially takes over from Pia Sundhage, now in charge of the national team in her native Sweden. While the team has understandably expressed excitement at the prospect of having a new coach with new ideas after five successful years under Sundhage (understandable because, well, if they're going to play, they're going to play for Sermanni), several key players are aging at positions that usually expose age (everywhere but keeper, really).

On the professional front of the women's game, the National Soccer League is set to begin play in April. The league announced this past week the allocation of National Team players from the U.S., Mexico, and Canada to the eight franchises, which include essentially are four teams from the former WPS (Boston, "Sky Blue", based in the New York City area, Western New York (Rochester), and Chicago) and four new clubs and cities (Seattle, Portland, Kansas City, and Washington D.C., which had a team for two years before it was moved to Florida).

The players were allocated with the help of a panel of experts, presumably to assure parity. Some effort appears to have been made to allocate American players close to home as well (for example, Hope Solo and Megan Rapinoe to Seattle, and Abby Wambach to Rochester).

While I don't profess to be familiar with any of the Mexican or many of the Canadian players, at first glance the Portland club, with Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan, and Christine Sinclair from Canada look to have the makings of a powerful offense.

Presumably, as much interest will be focused on the business model of the new league as it tries to succeed where two of its sisters recently failed. Smaller, and in some instances shifting, venues and subsidies from the U.S., Canadian, and Mexican national teams may at least provide a tourniquet for the financial bleeding that is bound to occur with any fledgling professional league.

Meanwhile, on the men's side the National Team faces the final round of qualifying ("The Hex") for the 2014 World's Cup. Who will be in the starting 11 against Honduras on February 6 is anyone's guess, including, more likely than not, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's. Keeper Tim Howard is a lock. Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey are certainties, barring injury. But even where they will play is not clear. Bradley could play holding midfield, or as an offensive mid. Dempsey could play out wide in a 4-3-3, as a withdrawn forward, or up front (although he does not seem to be preferred by club or country as an out-and-out striker).

Michael Bradley is one of the few certainties in the U.S. lineup.

The big questions are who will make up what was an inconsistent defense and who will play up front and in what configuration. Is it time to replace Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra in back? Will Herculez Gomez, Jozy Altidore, Juan Agudelo, Eddie Johnson, or Chris Wondoloski play up front and alone or with a partner?

Whatever the line-up, the results have to be sufficient to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.  There is no doubt that soccer's popularity is on the rise in the U.S. But in the women's game, the interest has been limited, to this point, to the national team.

By the same token, the rise in popularity on the men's side has largely been concentrated on the European professional leagues, particularly the English Premier League. And while it's encouraging that there are more broadcasts of soccer than ever, and that results even occasionally creep into smaller newspapers, it doesn't do a lot to grow the professional game in the States.

In order for that to happen, soccer fans have to take more of an interest in MLS, either by attending or just by raising the t.v. ratings. And that's most likely to happen if the men's team, stocked primarily with MLS players, qualifies for its seventh consecutive World Cup. Failure to qualify will not only be a blow to the growth of the game here, but also to U.S. Soccer, which invested its future (not to mention a lot of cash) in the talismanic Klinsmann.

I may be a Pollyanna, but I think Klinsmann will figure it out and the U.S. will qualify either first or second in the group. And the star of the team will not be Dempsey or Altidore or Landon Donovan. It will be the former coach's son - Bradley.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Emperor's New Clothes Redux

Can we even begin to compare what we're learning about Manti Te'o and his fake girlfriend to anything we've ever seen in sports?

Probably not.

Can we compare the spin that is already being put on the story to anything we've experienced before?

You bet. And not too long ago.

Much as Ohio State did with the Jim Tressel scandal a year and a half ago (yes, that guy who was run out of Columbus on a rail, and greeted with a standing ovation by the Buckeye faithful last November), Notre Dame officials had a choice in how to approach, or not approach as the case may be, the story regarding Te'o.

And, much like Gordon Gee and Gene Smith's party line, as delivered by AD Jack Swarbrick Notre Dame's decision was to get behind their beleaguered face of the university 110% (don't bother, I know you can't do anything more than 100%; drives me crazy too but think it fits here).

Two decisions had to be made. First, once they became aware of the fact that the heart-wrenching story regarding Te'o's relationship with Lennay Kekua, (whom he allegedly met at a Notre Dame-Stanford football game his freshman year, who he called his girlfriend, who met with him in Hawai'i, who he said (after her fake death) that he had talked to every night for four months and who had fallen to sleep with her over the phone many nights, who was first seriously injured in a car accident, then stricken with leukemia, who was supposedly released from the hospital to the congratulations of Te'o via Twitter and his father by phone, who then died the same day, or the next day, or two or three days after his grandmother died was completely false, what should they do?

Well, they did nothing. For three weeks. Until their hand was forced by the on-line publication of the article on about the hoax, they did nothing. Other than conduct their own "independent" private investigation that apparently concluded (as Notre Dame did) that Te'o was the victim of an elaborate, cruel hoax, they did nothing. Not even contact "the authorities". Not that that's anything new for the Irish brass.

The cover photo for the Deadspin story. Hope they don't mind.

The second decision was what to say once the time was right. Or their hand was forced. And that determination was to paint Te'o as the victim and adopt his version of the events absolutely.

To be clear, I am unconvinced at this point that Te'o was in on the hoax, or that it was orchestrated by him to gain even more publicity and public sympathy. But it is unavoidably true that Te'o at best embellished the supposed facts about his relationship with this non-person. 

And yet when, confronted at the press conference about the hoax, about Te'o's descriptions of his "meeting" Kekua, Swarbrick, alternatively displaying knowledgeable familiarity with social media ("Catfishing") and attempting to pass it off as something with which he had little acquaintance, stated that he was convinced that what Te'o meant by "meeting" Kekua was meeting her on-line ("like all the kids say these days" was the implied qualifier). 

Trouble is, there's this description of Manti and Lennay's first meeting, in print, for all the world to see:
It never felt like a chance meeting, although it probably appeared that way from the outside looking in.
Their stares got pleasantly tangled, then Manti Te'o extended his hand to the stranger with a warm smile and soulful eyes.
They could have just as easily brushed past each other and into separate sunsets.
Where else could the information in those sentences have come from other than Te'o (or Kekua, who, in case I need to remind you, doesn't exist)? Or, even if we assume it was entirely the writer's fabrication (which, judging from those sentences, is probably better utilized in romance fiction), where was the statement from Te'o correcting the inaccuracy -- pointing out that he and Kekua had never actually met in person?

And that doesn't even begin to explain the supposed meetings in Hawai'i, the night-long phone calls, Te'o's father stating that Kekua's "death" led to the realization that Lennay could have been his daughter-in-law but that that chance was now gone (do you seriously say that about someone whom your son has never "met"?).

No, I'm sorry. The there are too many tales of real meetings to now slough off Te'o's references as social media jargon. They are what they are. And insisting that they are something they are not lends nothing to the story and further endangers Te'o's and the school's reputations. The Emperor has no clothes.

Whatever Te'o says in the next few days about his imaginary girlfriend, and perhaps more importantly what he says about what he did and didn't say, it had better be the truth. Because, sooner or later, the truth will be revealed.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Beauty and The Creep

Other than, perhaps, "Nick Saban's legacy", the most discussed topic emanating from the Alabama-Notre Dame NCAA football championship game does not directly involve a player or coach on either team. Instead, the focus has been on Brent Musburger and the girlfriend of AJ McCarron, Alabama's quarterback. 

Most Irish fans are just fine with that.

The game had the smell of a rout from 'Bama's first drive on, and commentator and hall of fame blow-hard Brent Musburger wasted no time in confusingly alternating between trying to convince the viewers that it was still a game and handing Alabama the trophy.

Late in the first quarter -- far too early for the "filler" that television uses to try to keep the few still watching a blow-out engaged, the camera panned to the crowd and everything got more interesting and a whole lot creepier. In what had to have been a planned sequence, the camera fixed on a young lady in the crowd. Musburger, on cue, began to explain who she was, but apparently should have been shown a picture of her before the game, as what is left of his 74 year-old libido kicked in with a vengeance. With some "help" from sidekick Kirk Herbstreit, this is what ensued.

The dialogue in written form is every bit as interesting/amusing/odd.

"B: Now when you’re a quarterback at Alabama . . . you see that looovely lady there? She does go to Auburn, I will admit that, but she’s also Miss Alabama and that’s AJ McCarron’s girlfriend. Okay? And right there on the right is Dee Dee Bonner . . . that’s AJ’s Mom wow I’m tellin’ you quarterbacks . . .

K: Ha ha ha.

B: You get all the good lookin’ women ah that’s a . . . what a beautiful woman!

K: Wow! AJ’s doin’ some . . .

B: Whoa!

K: Some things right down in Tuscaloosa.

B: So if you’re a youngster at [sic] Alabama start gettin’ the football out and throw it around the backyard with Pop."

The day after the game, ESPN apologized for Musburger's remarks (although Musburger himself apparently has not) by saying that "the commentary in this instance went too far and Brent understands that." The young lady, Katherine Webb, (notably not identified by Musburger by name) has herself stated that she didn't take offense because "I think it's okay for a man to tell a woman that she's beautiful, no matter what age."

And, of course, pundits, experts, bloggers, and blog commentators have weighed in at both ends of the spectrum, from those who assert that Musburger's comments were "a major personal violation" and "evidence of a culture that views women as nothing more than chattel", to those who who viewed it as harmless banter and others who essentially accused Musburger's accusers of ageism by stating that the conversation wouldn't have been found to be offensive if Musburger were, say, Herbstreit's age.            

To all of which I say: I'd almost rather listen to Musburger.

In the inevitable rush to be offended, and the equally inevitable rush to defend offenders, many forget their common sense. For me, the bottom line is: was this commentary something that would have been acceptable for Musburger to say, in-person, face-to-face with Ms. Webb?

Of course not.

Those who insist that Brent didn't say anything wrong and that our society has broken down because a man cannot compliment a woman on her appearance are taking little bits of Musburger's half-minute performance, ignoring or subtracting their tone, and making them the entirety. 

Would it be okay for Brent to say to Ms. Webb during a conversation: "you look nice this evening"?  Almost certainly.

What if he said: "you are a beautiful woman"? Maybe, although unlikely given their lack of familiarity. 

How about: "you are a looovely lady!" No. 

And, finally, what if Brent said directly to Ms. Webb: "you are a looovely lady! Whoa! I'm gonna tell my grandsons to forget about schoolwork and practice their spirals so they can snag a beauty like you some day!"? No. No. No. 

Does the fact that Ms. Webb, 50 some years younger than Musburger, could be his grandchild make it creepier? Of course.

That is not to say those on the other side didn't go overboard too. Brent's musing weren't intended to further, nor were they caused or sanctioned by, some societal diminution of women. They were just the lame, off-the-cuff comments of a creep with a long history of inane remarks. 

While Brent and Kirk yucking it up did have a "locker room" feel to it (that last "Whoa!" from Musburger gets me every time), they did not, as many have pointed out in their defense, discuss Ms. Webb's physical attributes or make any sexually suggestive comments.

All of which leads me to this -- a little advice regarding what I view as a few simple, common sense rules when communicating with or about your fellow human beings.

First, limit to whom and how often you comment on someone's appearance. Never talk about someone's appearance with someone else in a work setting. When you do discuss appearance directly with someone, be sincere and keep it generic. Remember the old saw: "If you can't say something nice ..."

Second, when saying, writing, or posting anything about someone, whether their personality, their appearance, their attire, or any other attribute, act as if you were saying it face-to-face and ask yourself if it would be appropriate in that context. If not, it's probably something that shouldn't be said.

Finally, sometimes it's okay to engage in humorous banter as long as it's not offensive.  But choose topics, and know the person well enough, to be sure that they will not be put off.

For example, I just can't resist posting this picture again -- its ridiculousness is the cherry on top of the Musburger cake. While I don't know Brent, I am positive that he thought it was a cool picture when it was taken.

And, yes, I would be fine with telling him that to his face.


Friday, January 4, 2013

Favorite Songs of 2012 - Songs 1-10

1. Little Talks by Of Monsters and Men.

"There's an old voice in my head that's holding me back.
Well tell her that I miss our little talks.
Soon it will be over and buried with our past.
We used to play outside when we were young, and full of life, and full of love."

As with 2011's Number 1, Little Talks is one of the first "new" songs I heard in 2012, and it remained my favorite all year. Horns, interplay between male and female voices, and a bunch of folks yelling "Hey!" - what's not to like?

2. It's Time by Imagine Dragons.

"So this is what you meant.
When you said that you were spent.
And now it's time to build from the bottom of the pit
Right to the top.
Don't hold back."

The lyrics seemed especially fitting on New Years' Eve, facing an abyss and the promise of a new year at the same time.

3. Some Nights by fun..

"But I still wake up; I still see your ghost.
Oh Lord, I'm still not sure what I stand for most;
Oh, what do I stand for? What do I stand for?
Most nights, I don't know. Anymore."

Love the harmonies, but love the rat-a-tat-tat snare drum even more.

4. Trojans by Atlas Genius.

"Take it off; take it in.
Take off all the thoughts of what we've been.
Take a look; hesitate.
Take a picture you could never recreate."

A song about love lost, but not forgotten.

5. Ho Hey by The Lumineers.

"So show me family.
All the blood that I will bleed.
I don't know where I belong.
I don't know where I went wrong.
But I can write a song . . ."

Heard it a lot. Still not tired of it.

6. Money Saves by Delta Spirit.

"They all said what you had, you let it go.
Like managing a hurricane, let it blow.
With your money save, your money save.
Well I alone yes I alone with you."

Not very fond of the new album as a whole, but think this song is great. The video is just a teaser, not the whole song.

7. The Myth of Youth by Geographer.

"Everything was simpler then.
Nothing gained, no one losing.
We held the future in our hands.
Now we've got nothing but the present."

A lovely song, not of love lost, as much as love just slipping away. Not an authorized video, but it is on YouTube.

8. Gimme Twice by The Royal Concept.

"Oh one thing that's in mind is that The Strokes's in town;
You'd rather sip through all your fancy wine
Then come alive once more.
Oh but this time I decide."

They do sound a little like The Strokes, but more like another previous list-topping group. Can you guess who?

9. Shackled and Drawn by Bruce Springsteen.

"Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bills.
Still fat and easy up on bankers' hill.
Up on bankers' hill the party's goin' strong.
Down here below we're shackled and drawn."

My favorite song from The Boss's excellent latest album. Another video from a concertgoer.

10. East Harlem by Beirut.

"Sound is the color I know, oh,
Sound is what keeps me looking (for your eyes).
And the sound of your breath in the door,
And, oh, the sound will bring me home (again)."

Is that a flugelhorn I hear?