Monday, December 29, 2014

Favorite Songs of 2014: Songs 1-10

And now my top 10:

1. Riptide by Vance Joy.

"Lady, running down to the riptide.
Taken away to the dark side,
I wanna be your left-hand man.
I love you when you're singing that song, and
I got a lump in my throat 'cause
You're gonna sing the words wrong."


Have to admit that I had second thoughts about "Riptide" being my number 1 after hearing it in the "Top Nine at Nine" on a local Top 40 station a few weeks ago. But, popularity be damned, this is my favorite song of 2014. The Midnight Cowboy reference and the ukulele don't hurt a bit either.

2. Left Hand Free by Alt-J.

"Hey, shady baby, I'm hot,
like the prodigal son.
Pick a petal eenie, meenie, miney, moe ...
And flower, you're the chosen one."


According to the critics, the most un-Alt-J-like song they've ever done, composed in 20 minutes to satisfy their American label for a radio-friendly tune for their new album. Works for me. There are two "official" videos, this is the second and more disturbing one, but seems to be more in keeping with the lyrics.

3. Don't You Look Back by Augustines.

"This kiss ain't got no hope."


The best single line from any song this year. And the only artist to have two songs on this year's list. They appear to have been touring in Europe most of 2014 and there are no new tour dates on their website, but here's to hoping they're coming to a venue near you (and, more importantly to me, near me) in 2015.

4. You Go Down Smooth by Lake Street Dive.

"Would it be true to say that I ordered you?
Or is it you that ordered me?
I could say you are the only one I see,
but I can't stop at two or three."


If we were to fashion an IQ test question from the top 5 of my list and ask: "which song is unlike the others?" You Go Down Smooth would be the correct answer. But Rachel Price's voice can make any list any time as far as I'm concerned. It sounds every bit as good live as it does recorded, as the she proved at Mountain Stage earlier this year and in the video from KEXP above.

5. I Wanna Get Better by Bleachers.

"While my friends were getting high and chasing girls down parkway lines,
I was losing my mind 'cause the love, the love, the love, the love
that I gave ...
Wasted on a nice face.
In a blaze of fear I put a helmet on a helmet,
counting seconds through the night and got carried away.
So now I'm standing on the overpass screaming at the cars:
'Hey!
I wanna get better!'"


Unlike many years, when one or at the most two songs stand out to me as possible number ones on my list, this year there were five, starting with this punk-pop anthem to insanity by Jack Antonoff's (of fun.) side project, Bleachers. Maybe the funniest video of 2014 to boot.

6. A Little Opus by Little Comets.

"You feel the weight of imposition.
Bear heavy on your own decision.
Fate to face they multiply ...
The crush of language,
and the cedent school ties.
The subtle angles of tradition (tradition)."


A song about .. English preparatory schools I guess. And, apparently it was actually released in 2012. But rules were meant to be broken, right?

7. Zigzagging Toward the Light by Conor Oberst.

"Oh how the circumstances change.
I fly by interstate, across a purple mountain range.
I find a place to come undone ...
Zigzagging toward you now, I sing out loud our boundless song."


Former Bright Eyes member Oberst's Upside Down Mountain is one of my favorite albums of the year. According to Wikipedia, his brother is a lawyer. No wonder I like him.

8. Madman by Sean Rowe.

"And the city has a way to make you forget.
About half the stuff you love and things you don't know yet.
About the space that's left when nobody talks.
About the quiet on the path where nobody walks."


Great song, and the best male voice of anyone on this year's list.

9. Can't Be Broken by Twin Forks.

"That's a love that
can't be broken.
That's the sting of a
heart cut open.
That's the thing about
blind devotion.
That's a love that
can't be broken."


Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba's new indie folk/Americana band churns out the same great music as DC, but with more acoustical instruments and less angst. Nothing wrong with that. And one of the bonuses of being seven minutes from Mountain Stage's usual venue? Meeting your favorite artists:


10. Budapest by George Ezra.

"My many artifacts.
The list goes on.
If you just say the words,
I'll up and run.
Oh, to you,
you.
I'd leave it all."


A pleasant little tune from a guy who reminds me of another artist, but I can't quite put my finger on who. And he looks absolutely nothing like I imagined he would from his voice.

So there's this year's list. Go listen to some live music in 2015!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Favorite Songs of 2014: Songs 11-20

11. Common Sentiments by Typhoon.

"o what am i waiting for
a spell to be cast or for it to be broken?
at the very last
some wild ghost from my past come to split me wide open?
no. if i hold out my hand there is nothing at all because nothing's the token
i will be good though my body be broken."


Typhoon's Young Fathers topped last year's list, but I hadn't really had the time to appreciate the whole White Lighter album until this year. I listened to it front-to-back more than any other cd in 2014, and this is my second favorite song on it. And it sounds great live as I learned at the Cat's Cradle in Carrboro, NC in March.

Kyle Morton and some of Typhoon's band members.

12. Start Again by Bishop Allen.

"Summer, summer and the sun is settin' later than late.
I try to stop you, but you say it isn't worth the wait.
If I could give away the keys to the kingdom I would.
I'm sorry sorry but I think you may have misunderstood."


A break-up song, sounds like to me. But of a romance, or a friendship?

13. Simple and Sure by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart.

"I know we live in complicated times;
and it's so difficult to decide:
Who should be our king and how low we should bow
to lick the boots of the sacred cow."


One of those songs that sounds like a simple, poppy love song. But isn't.

14. Say Goodbye by Beck.

"See the sleet that rests upon
the quiet street we're standing on.
Is it time to go away,
and try again some other day?"


A song of love lost by one of the most influential artists of his generation. And still going strong.

15. Teenage Wasteland by Wussy.

"Yeah, we heard you, Pete.
Real loud and clear on the last one.
And we were pullin' for you a thousand times a day.
It don't take much
to sound like a sleeping prophet.
When your misery sounds so much like ours
so far away."


An ode to The Who and Baba O'Riley (according to an article that I read in Spin).

16. Someone to Love You by Andrew Ripp.

"Oh now I'm tryin'
Fightin'
To be the one I know you need.
I'm gettin' closer every day."


Just a straightforward pop love song. And that's just fine by me. And, with apologies, the first song on this year's list without a complete video.

17. Even the Darkness Has Arms by The Barr Brothers.

"People will raise a whole lotta hell.
About the water and the windmill.
And although I stab chaotically,
it hurts no one but me.
Even the darkness has arms,
but it ain't got you.
Baby I have it,
and I have you too."


Another beautiful, slightly mysterious song from the Brothers, adopted Montrealers like Arcade Fire.

18. Gimme Something Good by Ryan Adams.

"I was playing dead. Didn't make a sound.
Holding my breath, going underground.
So I can't talk. I got nothing to say.
It's like there's no tomorrow.
Barely yesterday."


This album is on many "best of" lists for 2014. Again, coincidence.

19. Scream (Funk My Life Up) by Paolo Nutini.

"Unload, reload, eyes back swinging.
Sweet thing, knows things, Jeff Beck sings.
Roundhouse, going down … Let's go!
And the girl's so fine makes you wanna scream Hallelujah.
Hallelujah!"


A little Scottish brown-eyed soul for y'all. This one's kinda R rated kiddies. Make sure mom and dad say it's okay to listen. If it is, turn it up, get up, and dance around. Now!

20. Rent I Pay by Spoon.

"Everybody knows just where you been going.
Everybody knows the faces you been showing.
And if that's your answer no I ain't your dancer.
And if that's your answer no I ain't your dancer."


Another solid effort by another veteran act. A nod to T Rex in that last stanza perhaps?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Favorite Songs of 2014 - Songs 21-30 Plus One

I've been regaling/boring my friends with my favorite indie/alternative songs of the year for some time now. As with my past lists, the only rule is that these songs were released in either 2014 or 2013. Some of the songs here may appear on actual critics' lists as well, but any resemblance between them and me is purely coincidental.

21. Thirsty Man by Blitzen Trapper.

"I've been driving all night,
On a road to nowhere.
With the Devil's convoy,
Black smoke upon my tracks."


This band has remade itself from a folk/Americana sound to rock, and now sort of in-between. In whatever iteration they chose, I'm a fan.

22. Unfold by Wouie.

"I could never change the world for you.
But I could teach you how to cheat it.
I could never kill the pain in you.
But I can teach you how to treat it."


A Swedish band singing in perfect English. Not so sure about the American band a little farther on the List's mastery of Swedish, but sounds good to me.

23. Nothing to Lose But Your Head by Augustines.

"Have you ever lost someone?
Screamed Bloody Mary down the hall.
Or cried against a steering wheel,
And hated every mirror you ever saw?"


The only artists with more than one song on this year's list. Would love to see them live, but they've apparently been touring in Europe most of the year.

24. Sacrilege by Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

"Fallen for a guy,
fell down from the sky.
Halo 'round his head;
Feathers in a bed.
In our bed;
in our bed."


At first I was off-put by the screaming lyrics, but it turns into something visceral and essential to the song once you give it a chance. And I love how it builds to the climax of a choral climax.

25. Vad Hande Med Dem? by The Brian Jonestown Massacre.

"Inget är rätt, inget är bra, ingenting här är som det ska
Nånting gick fel så långt tillbaks, gick sönder inuti av det vi sa
Men jag hoppas vintern kommer snart och släcker ner hela stan
Snön kommer täcka alltihop, vartenda misstag som vi gjort."

Which, translated from the Swedish (according to Google) is:

"Nothing is right, nothing is good, nothing here is as it should.
Something went wrong so far back, broke inside of what we said.
But I hope winter is coming soon, and turns off the lights all over town.
The snow will cover it all, every mistake we made."


Despite my Swedish heritage, I have no reason not to trust that the translation is accurate. And while many of my choices for this List are lyrically driven, obviously this one is not.

25.  Spinners by The Hold Steady.

"Before she figures out what's wrong,
put another record on.
She picks it up and she carries a cross;
Heartbreak hurts but you can dance it off."


Another mythic urban tale from Craig Finn and the band, habitual list denizens. And, yes, references to the crucifix abound. And, yes, there was already a number 25 on the list. I'm too old to count correctly. 

26. From Now On by Delta Spirit.

"Your inner compass says you know I'm right.
No more letters, just a will.
All the prophets on the mountaintop.
But no one's hanging on the hill."


Another one of my favorite bands, with their best song in my opinion since the History from Below album. And no, I don't think Craig Finn wrote the lyrics, but kind of sounds like him, doesn't it?

27. Permanent Hesitation by Born Ruffians.

"Is it cheating if I call you sweetheart?
Is it cheating if you call me your man?
I'm retrieving wayward glances with my wandering eye,
and pretending not to know you care."


Sounds a little like Phoenix perhaps? Back when they were good I mean.

28. Gotta Get Away by The Black Keys.

"I went from San Berdoo
to Kalamazoo.
Just to get away from you.
I searched far and wide,
hopin' I was wrong.
But maybe all the good women are gone."


Definitely not a love song.

29. Take Me to Church by Hozier.

"No masters or kings when the ritual begins;
There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin.
In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene:
Only then I am human.
Only then I am clean.
Amen.
Amen.
Amen."


Three different friends/family members who know my musical taste well asked me at different times if I'd heard Hozier and this song and told me that it "sounds like something (I'd) like." Who am I to disagree?

30. Pull Down the Moon by Cattle & Cane.

"Can you hear me scratching at your door?
You say it won't be different
than before.
I will sing you all my songs,
I will sing them all day long,
for you."


This, on the other hand, is definitely a love song. And a pretty one at that.

Friday, November 21, 2014

All-Time Greats

Keith Olbermann's recent commentary about Gordie Howe 


got me to thinking.

Not just about Howe, a giant of my sports childhood (and he was on the downside of his career then,  although with a decade yet to play), but about something Olbermann says during his tribute. That Howe dominated his sport at his peak like few other athletes, save for Babe Ruth and "one or two others."

So, who are the others? I'm not looking for a sabermetric analysis here. Neither am trying to determine who the greatest athletes were, regardless of their sport (so no Jim Thorpe or Bo Jackson). But if we take Olbermann's proposition as accurate, that Howe and Ruth dominated and influenced their chosen sports like few others, who might those other one or two (or more) be?

An unspoken part of the equation is when Olbermann describes his encounter with Howe when Keith was just ten and Number 9 demonstrated the amazingly fast hands that enabled him to flip wrist shots and jab opponents with aplomb. So, while Ruth and Howe were undeniably gifted athletes, we can also presume that they also had a unique skill set that allowed them to rise above their peers in their particular sport.

The final consideration is that, while I do have a historical understanding when it comes to some sports, I lack meaningful knowledge regarding legendary figures of many others, and so my perspective in those competitions is  largely limited to my personal observations.

The first athlete that came to mind was Bill Russell. But while Russell was the dominate defensive player of his or any time, he was not an offensive powerhouse like Howe or Ruth who essentially changed the way their game was played.  Michael Jordan on the other hand was dominant at both ends of the court and did change the way the game was played, even down to how the players dressed and whether or not they had hair. He played defense, was impossibly creative offensively, and shared with Howe an insatiable desire to win.

After basketball, I considered football and soccer players that could enter the Howe Pantheon. Those sports are so team oriented, and have so many players on the field at one time, that  they don't lend themselves as easily to finding the seminal, game-altering athlete as hockey, baseball, and basketball do.

In football I considered Johnny Unitas and Peyton Manning as possibilities. But did they really change the way the game is played? Otto Graham may well be worthy of consideration but his generation was several before mine and I don't feel empowered to make that call with him.

Lest we forget, however, American football didn't used to be the quarterback-centric game that it has become. And that leads us to an athlete who likely belongs at the the peak: Jim Brown. Brown's combination of speed and power had never been seen before in a running back. Add in the fact that he likely more radically changed lacrosse than football, and I'm comfortable with placing his name in Valhalla with Howe and Ruth. 

In soccer I have only read about or seen grainy highlights of old-timers like Alfredo Di Stefano and Stanley Matthews and really even Pele. The latter seems most likely to fit the bill. He was bigger and stronger and more skilled and more imaginative than any other player of his time. By a long shot. Of course I'd add Lionel Messi to the conversation. But even I can't make the argument that Messi has been the game changer that Pele was.

Perhaps the "safest" best for unique athletes is in the Olympic sports, where performance is easiest to assess. But given modern training techniques and full-time devotion to what was once an avocation, it's too easy to just say that because someone has run or swum or jumped the fastest or highest or farthest now is the best of all time. Measured against competitors of the day and time, though, who clearly stands out as the best ever. Who changed their sport?

Bob Beamon, the Olympic long jumper, is an obvious choice. Beamon's world record jump at the Mexico City Games in 1968 stood for nearly 23 years and shocked the world. His jump of 29 feet 2 1/2 inches broke the existing record by nearly a foot. The record was taken from Beamon in 1991 by Mike Powell (who jumped 29 feet 4 3/8 and who still holds the crown - longer now than Beamon's time at the top), but Beamon's jump is still the Olympic record 46 years later, and is still the second longest in history.

Beamon in flight in Mexico City
(photo from go.espn.com)

Michael Phelps certainly deserves consideration for the way he dominated swimming in multiple disciplines for a decade. But there's something about Phelps (and I like the guy, despite his screw-ups) that's just so far from Howe and The Babe and Jim Brown that I refuse to include him in that group.

The last name for consideration is Usain Bolt. No sprinter has ever dominated for as long or as completely as the aptly named Bolt. He holds both the 100 and 200 meter world records and has won both events in the last two Olympics. He has the fastest and second fastest times ever in the 100, along with the Olympic record. And, to show that he's a team player, he has been part of two consecutive 4x100 gold medal winning relay teams and has part of the world record in that event as well. It appears self-evident that he is the greatest sprinter of all time, and probably the greatest track and field athlete ever.

Howe and Ruth says Keith, and I agree. Jordan, Brown, Pele, Beamon, and Bolt. That's my list. Who did I miss?

Monday, November 10, 2014

More Magic From Bubba

In case you were sleeping (which is understandable since it happened about 3 a.m. EST), I simply give you the latest amazing feat from Bubba Watson, this on the 18th hole at the HSBC Champions event in Shanghai early Sunday morning.


Even more astoundingly, the hole out came after Bubba had bogeyed 16 and double bogeyed 17 to fall from a two-shot lead to one shot behind five players as he stood on the 18th tee. The bunker shot, which was for an eagle, put him back in the lead by one. Tim Clark, playing in a group behind Bubba, birdied the 18th to force a playoff.  Which Bubba promptly won on the first playoff hole, sinking a curling downhill putt from about 20 feet.

Forget Gandalf, Bubba's nickname has to be stolen from John C. Reilly's character in Talladega Nights. He's The Magic Man.

The Magic Man (photo from imdb.com)







Friday, October 31, 2014

A Different List

With college football and professional soccer proving a constant disappointment, I chose to not wallow in my depression, but instead reflect on the pleasure that another sport has provided me this past year - not as a spectator, but as a participant.

Through some luck and some planning, I've had the opportunity to play some great golf courses in 2014.  Here are my top ten favorites:

     1.  Jasper Park. Jasper, Alberta, Canada. A great Stanley Thompson layout in South Central Alberta. Far from a mere resort course, it is both a great test of golf and a tribute to the surroundings, with bunkers mimicking the surrounding peaks of the Canadian Rockies. My favorite hole was the fourteenth, an uphill dogleg par 4 with a carry off the tee over the bright blue waters of Lac Beauvert.

The second shot to the elevated green of the 14th at Jasper.

     2.  Arcadia Bluffs.  Arcadia, Michigan. A links course in the sense that it has few trees and has many holes nestled alongside of or with a view of Lake Michigan. Criticized by some because it is not "natural" (the moguls, dips, hills, and valleys were largely man-made), it is nonetheless a beautiful course with several testing holes. My favorite was the par 5 eleventh, which goes uphill from the tee and then works its way down to the Lake. Arcadia also gets my vote for the friendliest, most accommodating staff (at the course and the hotel) of any that I experienced this year.

Looking back to Arcadia's 11th from a knoll.

     3.  Banff Springs. Banff, Alberta, Canada. I was admittedly underwhelmed the first time I played Banff two years ago, but liked it much more the second time around. Overall, the golf is just a half-notch below that of Jasper, but the memorable holes are spectacular. It's hard to choose between Banff's two signature holes - the par 3 fourth, The "Devil's Cauldron," and the 470 yard par 4 fourteenth (which was the original starting hole) as my favorite.


The Devil's Cauldron. (photo courtesy of Nathan Spencer)


The 14th tee at Banff. (photo courtesy of Nathan Spencer)

     4.  Forest Dunes. Roscommon, Michigan. My experience and that of my playing partner Charlie was tempered somewhat by the twosome we were paired with for our first 18 and boorish golfers around us on the second loop, but on reflection we both really liked the course. Not exactly a links course, but there are some links-like holes that wind through the dunes, particularly on the second nine. My favorite hole was probably the tenth, a par 4 that's not particularly long, but has both its fairway and green split by bunkers, without having a "tricked up" feel to it. 


View of Forest Dunes from off of the putting green.

     5.  The Old White (TPC) Course at The Greenbrier. White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. I last played this course probably 20 years ago, before the renovations. Then it was just another short, vanilla resort course, albeit one with a long history and distinguished pedigree. Restored to C.B. MacDonald's original vision, it's now a great track and visually much more appealing. It's still a resort course in that it's highly playable, especially from the white tees (which I wussed out and hit from). Favorite holes include the "Redan" par 3 eighth (having actually played the original Redan hole at North Berwick I'm particularly fond of them) and the dogleg par 4 sixteenth.


The Old White's 16th hole.

     6.  The Blue Monster. Doral GC, Miami, Florida. I've never played on a course with as much groomed sand as The Blue Monster. Hard as heck, but in great shape and an interesting layout. Don't know if I can say it's my favorite but the most memorable hole for me was the dogleg par 4 tenth, which requires a 180 yard carry over a lake to hit the fairway, with bunkers behind and a tight out-of-bounds on the right. I hit the fairway (laying three after I blocked the first one OB on the right).

The view from the 10th tee at Doral.

     7. Stewart Creek. Canmore, Alberta, Canada. Unlike Banff, I didn't like this course quite as much as when we played it two years ago. May be due to the extensive flooding which damaged the course, or the fact that the staff didn't seem nearly as welcoming as the first time. Still a beautiful course with spectacular views. Built around an old mine site, the front nine hugs the ridges of the mountains while the back is more pastoral. The course reminds me of the Pete Dye Course in Bridgeport, West Virginia, but the Canadian Rockies provide a more dramatic backdrop. While the front is pretty and tough, the hole I remember most clearly is the tenth, a dog leg par 4 which starts in a meadow with a wide landing area, then narrows to a small green nestled in a pine grove with traps on all sides but the left back.

A good place to start - the view from the 1st tee at Stewart Creek.

     8.  Edgewood Country Club. Sissonville, West Virginia. Yeah, it's my home course and, yeah, I'm biased. But I think it's a well-maintained course and a fine layout in the hollows of Appalachia. There are some tough par 3s and playable par 5s. The most memorable hole is the tough seventeenth, with a big dip from the fairway to the green and water lurking on the left. My favorite is probably the par 4 third, which winds its way around a ridge to an elevated, multi-tiered green. A straight tee shot leaves you feeling good about the second, but missing the green, or even hitting the wrong level, can lead to headaches.

A view across the water to the green of the
risk/reward dogleg par 5 5th at Edgewood.

     9.  Harding Park TPC. San Francisco, California. Unfortunately, I was playing Harding Park as part of a group outing and only got to complete 13 holes because of the "golfers" in front of us. It would probably rank higher if we had been able to complete our round. Still, it was a great municipal course (when you got over being startled by the firing at the nearby rifle range).  The uphill par 3 third, surrounded by cypress trees and the green surrounded by sand, was among my favorites, although apparently the fourteenth through eighteenth are the stars.

The 3rd (I think) at Harding Park.

     10. Country Club of Jackson (Woods/Marsh). Jackson, Michigan. The course I grew up playing and got to play twice this summer. Twenty-seven holes, only the first 18 (the Pines and Woods nines) were there when I lived in Jackson. The newer Marsh has some great holes and a few space fillers, but overall is probably my favorite nine now. The course is always impeccably maintained. My favorite hole on the Marsh is the par 5 third, a big uphill dogleg left with marsh to the left and mounding in the fairway.

From the 3rd tee on the Marsh course.
 The green is somewhere way off to the left.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Plastic Grass and Level Playing Fields

While the U.S. Women's National team has qualified for the 2015 World Cup (and, if you remember, that was not a given four years ago), the question remains: on what surface will its members be playing?

You may have heard that FIFA, in its imperial wisdom, has sanctioned next summer's Women's World Cup in Canada to be held at six venues, all of which have artificial turf. Unlike in 1994, when U.S. Soccer was required to lay natural turf fields over the artificial surfaces of the Pontiac Silverdome and The Meadowlands (which, admittedly, were vastly inferior AstroTurf as opposed to today's FieldTurf), FIFA has not required the Canadian Soccer Association to alter the turf of the host stadia for the 2015 tournament to comply with what has been a consistent FIFA requirement: that World Cup matches take place only on natural grass.

In responding to concerns over requiring women to play on plastic grass next summer, FIFA czar Sepp Blatter has declared that "artificial pitches are the future." Well, for women anyway. While many clubs in the Russian professional leagues have fake grass due to the extreme winters, there hasn't been even the faintest whisper that any of the venues for the 2018 men's World Cup will be played on artificial turf. The same for Qatar and its 110F summers, which are seemingly not conducive to growing grass (it's a desert!) and the pitches for the 2022 tournament.

Blatter has also responded by cranking up the FIFA propaganda machine, with its Head of Women's Competitions Tatjana Haenni declaring that "we play on artificial turf and there is no Plan B" for the Canadian games and by directing that a Roger Goodell-esque "interview" be performed with "independent consultant Prof Eric Harrison" in which the virtues of plastic pitches are touted and the merits of installing temporary real grass fields are poo-pooed. 

The reaction of women players to FIFA' double-standard has been emphatic and increasingly militant. It appears that, left out of the inscrutable process that is decision-making in FIFA, they've decided that they've got nothing to lose by actually fighting back. Megan Rapinoe, never one to mince words, summed up her reaction to FIFA's inaction in response to unofficial entreaties from women asking to play on real grass like their male counterparts, this way: "Maybe you're not having a thousand times more injuries [on turf], but there's an aspect to the purity of the game and the quality of the game that is played on grass that is different on turf. They can say what they want, but it's all bullshit to me."

Tell it like it is Megan (photo from espn.com)

Instead of just engaging in what would likely be a losing war of words, the women decided to take action. Earlier this month they filed an application before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario seeking a ruling that FIFA and the CSA be ordered to provide "proper, lawful playing surfaces [i.e., grass turf] for FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015."

The complaint contains a damning laundry list of past discrimination against women by FIFA and the CSA as well as an extensive analysis of the dangers and game-altering properties of fake grass. Amusingly, the players' counsel turns FIFA's words on itself, quoting from an article in the March 14, 2014 FIFA magazine "The Weekly" in which an English journalist examined the use of plastic pitches by four MLS teams and stated that "non-grass pitches are widely regarded as deeply problematic."

While in their complaint the players do refer to numerous studies that establish a possible link to increased lower extremity injuries to turf fields and the certainty that minor injuries (contusions and abrasions) occur with greater frequency on fake grass, the primary emphasis in the complaint is simply that FIFA and the CSA are clearly comfortable with requiring women to play on inferior surfaces as opposed to their male counterparts. This strikes me as a smart strategy -- arguing fundamental fairness is much less complicated than quibbling over whether or how much the risk of substantial injury is increased when playing on turf instead of grass.

In support of their assertion that there is a clear mandate that men's games be played on real grass, the players quote CSA officials who have declared in the past that play on turf for male World Cup qualifying matches is a "dealbreaker" and that the surface that that men's team plays on "has to be grass." They also cite FIFA's past and on-going requirement that World Cup matches take place on real grass, mentioning the Silverdome, The Meadowlands, and the future World Cups to be held in Russia and Qatar (seriously, Qatar). 

The players also note that FIFA "invited" female players to express whether they had a preference to play on grass or turf (the vast majority responded in favor of the former) and then promptly ignored their input. Finally, the players seek an expedited ruling on their application to allow FIFA and the CSA sufficient time to comply with the Tribunal's anticipated ruling before the games begin next June.

Having had Canadian courts described recently to me as "California on steroids" as far as their proclivity to find for litigants asserting discrimination, I find it difficult to believe that the Tribunal will find against the players. This seems rather clear-cut gender discrimination.

While undoubtedly FIFA and the CSA will oppose the players' application, it's difficult to conjure up many good arguments that they will have in response. The usual recourse followed by FIFA, to ignore or obfuscate issues, is not going to work this time around. The response that "there's no Plan B" won't either. And certainly, if it reads the same handwriting on the wall, it is not in either organization's interests to attempt to delay the proceedings since it will only make identifying alternative stadia or planning to overlay existing turf fields well in advance of the competition more problematic. 

My guess is that there are two different sets of conversations taking place in bowels of FIFA and the CSA right now: one in which FIFA, the CSA, and their lawyers are trying to figure out how to respond to the application without looking like bigger misogynists than it already depicts them to be; and the second between FIFA and the CSA to figure out who is going to foot the bill for the temporary surfaces. 

If we've learned anything about Blatter, it's that his only true concern is FIFA's bottom line. It would be completely consistent for him to be less concerned at this point with defending the "pitch of the future" and more worried about how he can strong-arm the CSA into paying for the renovations while holding on to every penny of proceeds that he can from the tournament.

Will the women play on grass next summer? There's a very good chance they will. Will it be FIFA that pays for the same playing surface that it demands for its male players? There's a better chance that the 2022 World Cup will be held in the middle of a desert in July.
Footnote: The only World Cup match I have seen in person was at the Silverdome in 1994. The U.S. men played Switzerland to a 1-1 draw thanks to a fantastic free kick by Eric Wynalda. What I remember most about the game was it was the most miserably hot I have ever been for an extended period of time (well, until I spent three days in a field in Southern Tennessee in July). The Silverdome wasn't air conditioned and since it was a true domed stadium, they had to keep it ridiculously humid to try to keep the grass alive, without sun, for as long as possible. The first step into the arena was like walking into a sauna.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Fire Brady Hoke

I started this post Saturday night.

Indignant about the University of Michigan football team's desultory performance against Minnesota, the post started with the premise that big time college sports ought to be treated as any other revenue producing enterprise and that when it is clear that the CEO is not and never was up to the task of leading his team, he or she needs to go.

But over the last two days, there has emerged an eminently more compelling reason that Michigan should fire Brady Hoke. Now.

Because Hoke has demonstrated an utter disregard for his players' health. And that, as a coach, is inexcusable.

While watching the Minnesota game and texting with E, a more loyal Maize and Blue fan than even me, I promised him that I would turn the channel if Hoke insisted on playing quarterback Shane Morris when it was clear that he was ineffective. Then Morris hurt his leg, was clearly not at full capacity, and Hoke put him back in. That was it for me.

But what I missed was Hoke's inexplicable handling of Morris and his well-being after that point. Shortly after I stopped watching, Morris received a vicious helmet-to-helmet blow from a Minnesota defender. He was clearly wobbly, needed help from a lineman to stand, and players were calling for the training staff or telling Morris to get down and stay down so that he could receive medical attention.


Morris stayed in the game despite all the obvious signs of a concussion. Then he came out, then he went back in again when his replacement (the former starter Devin Gardner) lost his helmet and had to be removed for a play by NCAA rule. So one player loses his helmet and Hoke's answer is to put back in the player whose helmet just did him no good.

Morris being held by lineman Ben Braden while tight end
Khalid Hill urges him to take a knee. (photo from heavy.com)

I have been a loyal Michigan fan since I was old enough to walk. I saw Ron Johnson set a school record in 1968 when he ran for 347 yards against Wisconsin in a snow storm. I've been back to Ann Arbor many times since, always rooting for the Maize and Blue (except once, when they played by alma mater Wake Forest and even then I knew that pulling for the Deacs was akin to tilting at windmills, and I was okay with that).

But this. This is the last straw. I will still pull for the players. I will still wear my Michigan shirt, still sing Hail to The Victors. But I will not waste one more breath defending Hoke. Or even countenancing his continued presence at the school.

I've used this blog as a bully pulpit to disparage coaches and schools that are Michigan's rivals. But while I still dislike (even loathe) Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer and Brian Kelly, I would not accuse any of them of intentionally putting a player in harm's way. But today I can, and have to, make just such an allegation against Michigan's coach.

Hoke's disingenuous explanations for why Morris was left in the game, his insistence that Morris may not play next week not because of a concussion but because of his leg are frankly sickening. Hoke insists that the decision was not his to make to leave Morris in the game but Morris' and the medical staff's. And that he didn't see Morris wobbling on the field. 

What the Hell was he looking at? What was he paying attention to? And, yes, it was your decision coach, or, more importantly, your responsibility to insure your players' health. That's not just my opinion. It's the NCAA's:
Recognition and diagnosis of concussion: All student-athletes who are experiencing signs, symptoms or behaviors consistent with a sport-related concussion, at rest or with exertion, must be removed from practice or competition and referred to an athletic trainer or team physician with experience in concussion management. 
There is no provision for the player insisting that he's capable of staying in, or returning to, the game. For the simple reason that that's exactly what is expected of a "team player." It's the coach's responsibility to recognize the situation, get the player out of the game, and then depend on competent medical staff to evaluate the player.

The buck stops with you Brady. But it shouldn't any more. Not for a single minute. Certainly not for another game.

If you need a better written, and more passionate (and profane) analysis of why Hoke should be fired, I recommend this blog post to you. And this post has a detailed timeline of the events after the hit and why Hoke's demurer of responsibility and knowledge is, simply, unbelievable.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Sports Hypocrisy All Our Own Part II

No, not a post about the NFL and its various hypocrisies (both Jon Stewart and Trey Parker and Matt Stone have already covered those topics with much more wit and biting sarcasm than I could muster).

Rather a follow-up to my post from February this year about the NCAA and its legal struggles. Thanks to the contributions of Alex Greenberg, it was transformed into what at first glance may appear to be an honest-to-goodness legal article. But cites to Deadspin and ESPN rather than to case law or a scholarly article hopefully rescue it from complete law review nerddom.

Here's a link to the article:

http://www.huddlestonbolen.com/assets/pdf/H0949444.PDF


The NCAA's $1.7 Million Man (photo from usatoday.com)

And, yes, it appears from this piece run by USA Today last April that Emmert has more than a little in common with Sepp Blatter and Roger Goodell

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Trying to Keep College Soccer Relevant

While forces outside of the NCAA's control are compelling it to change the way that it administers its revenue-churning men's football and basketball competitions, at least one group is attempting to address issues from within. And in a "non-revenue" sport at that.

Led by WVU's Athletic Director, Oliver Luck (a former quarterback at the school and, perhaps more importantly for this subject, the former General Manager of MLS's Houston Dynamo) a group of college coaches, athletic directors, and administrators are trying to convince the NCAA and MLS that college soccer should move to all-season sport status, with the College Cup to take place in June, not November as it currently does.

The proposed changes would also allow more training time to college soccer teams and are aimed at improving training techniques and game preparation. Such a move would, hopefully, raise the level of play to that of lower division soccer in other countries. 

If the proposal is adopted, it would inject new life into college soccer in the U.S., which has been marginalized by MLS and its youth teams. Whether that diminution is a bad thing or not depends on who you ask. And when you ask them.

U.S. men's national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann has been particularly vocal about the need for the top-level U.S. players to play in Europe and its young national team players to train year-round with the best teams in the best training facilities, whether they be in Europe or with an MLS youth team in the States.

It's undeniable that the very best players in the World have, for generations, honed their craft in just that way - by playing constantly, with the highest level of coaching, against the best opponents. That is in fact how Klinsmann rose from an apprenticeship at his family's bakery to his fame as a World Cup hero and as feared striker for a number of prominent clubs in Europe.

But the problem with the European model is that for every Klinsmann or Messi or Rooney that it produces there are hundreds of faceless youngsters who became adults with no vocational ambitions to fulfill, tossed to the side because they're not quite big enough or fast enough. While some of the best youth programs offer education as well as soccer as a part of the curriculum, the primary reason that players are enrolled is to learn how to play soccer, not learn in the classroom.

Klinsmann, too, seems somewhat equivocal with regard to how he views American soccer, at both the developmental and professional levels. While he insists that the best players should play in Europe against the best of the world, he made Clint Dempsey the national team captain at the World Cup despite Dempsey's return to MLS last season. And, least we forget, Dempsey came of age as a player not after training in the depths of some professional team's youth ranks, but at Furman University.

Dempsey during his playing days at Furman,
(photo from furman.edu)

Perhaps most interestingly, among the players named to the U.S. squad for the recent friendly against the Czech Republic was Jordan Morris, the first collegiate player to appear on the roster since 1999. Morris apparently impressed Klinsmann while the national team trained at Stanford, where Morris is a sophomore, in scrimmages between the school's team and the U.S. men. While Morris was a player for the Seattle Sounders' youth team, he chose education over professional soccer in signing with Stanford instead of the Sounders.

Morris did not appear in the match, which the U.S. won 1-0 on an Alejandro Bedoya goal. But Morris' inclusion in the squad is hard to read as anything other than an indication that Klinsmann both recognizes his talent as a 19 year-old and validates the developmental training that he received in the Sounders' youth organization and at Stanford.

There are undoubtedly serious problems with the way the NCAA administers its revenue sports. Luck's proposal, however, presents an opportunity to the organization and its member institutions to make strides toward providing education for both sports and for life after sports, with the latter undoubtedly being the vocational destination for a vast majority of their players. 

The Soccer America article linked above suggests that Luck's proposal may well fail because, as a non-revenue sport, soccer simply isn't on the radar of may college athletic directors and presidents. They may either not want to set a precedent for other sports to seek a similar change, or simply not care enough about the development of college soccer to devote time to consideration of a change in how and when it is played.

Such a reaction (or non-reaction as the case may be) will simply be further confirmation of what the true "value" of college athletics to those that administer them is. And it would once again expose the NCAA's insistence to refer to those that play college sports as "student-athletes" for the sham that it is increasingly perceived to be.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

"Get Stuffed"

You may have heard about the NFL's plan to auction off the right to entertain at halftime at the Super Bowl. The latest edition of the game will be held this coming February in Phoenix.

It's Super Bowl XLIX, if you're scoring at home (or even if you're alone, as Dan Patrick used to say), slightly less unwieldy but more optically jarring than last year's XLVIII edition. Do we really care which Super Bowl it is? They don't number the World Series, or UEFA Champions' League finals. 

Yep, you got it. Roger Goodell, in all his wisdom, has decided to make artists pay to entertain.

While having avoided the embarrassment of either being forced to move XLIX or hold it in a host state with an overtly discriminatory law, the NFL still has a lot of other issues on its plate that would seem more pressing. Like the fact that one of its franchises has an overtly racist nickname that is coming under increasing derision. And concussion lawsuits

Nonetheless, Goodell has blithely pressed on with his main mission: to make NFL owners lots and lots of money.

The latest well of cash to be fracked is the Super Bowl halftime show. The NFL has reportedly asked the three "finalists" (Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Coldplay) in contention to perform to pay for the right to. While even seemingly sympathetic news sources have questioned the idea, it's the reaction of the music industry that interests me more.

They're not very fond of it. 

The halftime show is undeniably a marketing boom for the performer that gets the gig (Madonna and The Who both saw huge bumps in the purchase of their music after recent appearances). Some agents have acknowledged that there may be some benefit to up-and-coming artists to have the spotlight in front of 100,000,000 viewers, but that need hardly seems to be the case for the three finalists.

But there's just something, well, smarmy about the whole idea of making artists pay to play. Not to mention the fact that the kind of artists the NFL wants (those who will keep fans glued to their sets and halftime commercials) both have the least need for the exposure and likely the biggest egos to be offended by the demand to pay.  

One thing is fairly certain. Arcade Fire will not be headlining at the University of Phoenix stadium at XLIX next year, and probably not at any Roman numeral in the future. Their agent, David Viecelli delightfully summed up his response to the NFL's attempted extortion when he said that he hopes "that everyone tells them to get stuffed."

Not coming to a Super Bowl near you. (photo from Spin)

A lot of us feel that way.