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Ode to the Swiss Maestro

This is a nice article about the floating presence and genius of Roger Federer on a tennis court.

College Football Predictions

The start of the college football season is a mere 3 days away and it’s time for me to make my picks for the upcoming season:


BCS Championship Game: Alabama v. Stanford

Top 15

1. Alabama: The Process overwhelms anything in its path.  This team is loaded.

2. Stanford: The Cardinal gets the nod at No. 2 due to a favorable schedule (Oregon and Notre Dame at home).

3. Ohio State: Braxton Miller and company run the table until they meet Michigan on the road and relish the opportunity to ruin a season.

4. Georgia: The Bulldogs have the unfortunate reality of having to face Alabama in the SEC title game, which has become the BCS play-in game.

5. Oregon: Stanford will have the Ducks’ number again but big O could run the table.

6. Clemson: If they run the table, they could meet Alabama.  When was the last time an ACC team did that?


                                       Notre Dame Stadium – South Bend, Indiana

7. Louisville: A very good team in a very bad conference.

8. South Carolina: Spurrier’s squad has top 5 talent but an SEC schedule with tough road games to deal with.

9. LSU: Ditto, South Carolina.

10. Florida: Ditto, South Carolina and LSU.  Plus, their offense still worries Gator fans.

11. Notre Dame: If Golson returned, ND might be heading to the title game again.  With Rees, a BCS game is still in sight given the tough Irish D.

12. Texas: Mack Brown has the Hook ’em Horns on the rise again and they could be a sleeper.

13. Michigan: The Wolverines could win the Big Ten, but tests against ND and at Penn State present stumbling blocks.

14. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys might be the Big 12’s finest in a down year.

15. Texas A & M: Too much noise surrounding Manziel will take a toll on this team’s title hopes, especially after the Tide roll into College Station.


Baseball Greatness

As someone who had to witness the infamous Steroid Era cripple baseball for the past decade and a half, it remains refreshing to see amazing feats during the season.  This year, two players–Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis–have managed to have incredible offensive seasons.  For Cabrera, this is becoming routine.  For Davis, his flirtation with Roger Maris’ home run total (61 in ’61) has captivated many, especially earlier in the season.  For more, check out Jonah Keri and William Cohen’s interesting story on Cabrera over on Grantland today.  

The First Domino? Why the NCAA Must Take the Five Power Conferences Seriously

The NCAA is in trouble, and for a lot of reasons.  First, there are the reports of inconsistent, arbitrary, and for the most part, ineffective enforcement.  Second, there are the video games-and the federal cases about them.  Both feed the public perception that the NCAA is failing, and arguably, more trouble than it is currently worth.  Yet neither of these problems is the biggest.  That mantle belongs to the issue of secession.

Depending on who you ask, secession was either a legitimate hypothesis and prediction or a total pipe dream five years ago.  The NCAA tournament, seemingly at its pinnacle, capitalized by intense branding, new TV contracts, and NFL stadium hosting games as early as the Sweet Sixteen.  The BCS, albeit separate from the NCAA, made college football’s economic scope vaster than anyone could have imagined fifty years ago.

But now things are different.  The commissioners of the major conferences have spoken, albeit in qualified terms.  Unwilling to truly cast the first stone, each intimated that something must change regarding the current state of governance of college football.  It doesn’t make logical sense.  It doesn’t make athletic sense.  It doesn’t make academic sense.  Most importantly, it doesn’t make economic and financial sense.

And in hindsight, who can blame the commissioners for moving toward this seemingly inevitable conclusion?  Arguably they are late for a train that could have left the station a long time ago, and traveled from Tuscaloosa to Austin to Palo Alto to South Bend to Ann Arbor–all in one season.

If the commissioners (and the decision-makers) assume that college football’s reach will continue to grow financially, and the current enforcement regime is unsatisfactory for both academics and athletics, why wouldn’t the major programs secede?

The opportunity to create a super-league composed of the top four or five programs from each power conference–even only for football–would seem to present unbelievable financial options and allow for something closer to self-autonomy in governance.  The interests that go into the enforcement equation would be starting at the same place because none of the programs in such a league would be a small market, or a “little guy” participant with the same power as the major players.

Imagine the following super-conference for football:

Alabama, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Notre Dame, USC, Oregon, Texas, Oklahoma, Stanford, Florida State, Virginia Tech, and Clemson. 

Better yet, take the entire SEC, and grab 10-15 other teams with a rotating schedule and instantly that conference will generate more interest than any current set-up under the NCAA.  The current major bowls would lineup to host a playoff, even in rotating fashion, just like they did when the BCS finally adopted a playoff system.  A super-league would provide the average fan with a meaningful game for every major program every week, comparable to the current NFL.

It is hard to believe that this is not where things are headed for college football.  The economic incentives seem too large and the lure of something closer to autonomy for the major programs, which generate the most money, appears irresistible.  But which program or conference will be the first to break away?

Notre Dame-Alabama.

A great story about the history behind the Notre Dame-Alabama title game.

Notre Dame-Alabama.

Arbitrary (and Dangerous) Governance…by the NBA Commissioner

When I was a little kid my elementary school offered students with good grades the opportunity to see the Washington Bullets play against either the Chicago Bulls (post-Jordan era), the San Antonio Spurs, or the New Jersey Nets.  My brothers and I chose the game against the Spurs because we wanted to see David Robinson play.  I still remember that day vividly; it was Martin Luther King Day and it snowed like crazy.  It was a major ice storm.  But my parents still took us to the game.  This was before the internet so their was no pre-game news.  After settling into our seats we learned, much to our chagrin, that Robinson would not dress because he was hurt.  We were disappointed.  It’s still a humorous memory, particularly for my Dad, when we think about how far and long we traveled in spite of the weather.  But did we leave the game?  Did we think the coach was wrong because we were there?  Did we think the NBA should have fined Robinson, the Spurs, or did something else?


And then the news from tonight came, nearly 20 years later.  Commissioner David Stern has warned of a coming storm and “substantial sanctions” after Greg Popovich, coach of the San Antonio Spurs, decided to strategically rest four of his top players.   Stern, undeniably annoyed about the image projected on national TV, appears to be making a power-play despite the fact that the coaches have always been allowed to make decisions about who plays or who doesn’t play based on the best interests of the team.  As Ben Golliver notes for Sports Illustrated:

Popovich is violating no NBA rules — at least none that are clearly stated — by purposefully not playing uninjured players. Who plays and who doesn’t has traditionally been a coach’s decision and he is making it.

“Strategic resting of particular players on particular nights is within the discretion of the teams,” deputy commissioner Adam Silver said in April, according to USA Today Sports, when the issue became a hot-button topic during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.

It’s unclear where Stern is coming from on this one. The only precedents for punishing organizations for not playing healthy players date back to 1985 and 1990 and concern end-of-season resting. In a New York Times article announcing the fine in 1990, no specific rule was cited to explain the fines and Stern was not quoted.

If Stern suddenly wants to invoke a “for the good of the game” approach, he’s doing it without recent precedent and opening up all sorts of slippery slopes. Teams around the league regularly rest players in advance of the postseason, especially after seeding has been locked up, and lottery-bound teams have been known to shut down players and/or give outsized minutes to younger players to develop them. The league office has not touched either issue. Those are coaching decisions left to the coaches.

Not only is Popovich apparently acting within the rules, the league’s competition committee has met on numerous occasions since he began implementing this strategy and has yet to outlaw or restrict it. They haven’t punished him previously either. What’s “unacceptable” about this particular situation? If anything, Popovich handled his substitutions acting with the league office’s tacit approval based on their response to recent history.

Coaching decisions are better left to coaches.  Commissioner Stern’s intervention into the Chris Paul trade was criticized for being unprecedented.  At least that involved the balance of power and was a reaction to (admittedly conspiratorial) charges of collusion between GMs and organizations (in the same vein as the Jerry West-Gasol to L.A. issue).  What’s next?  Commissioner Stern telling Mike D’Antoni that Kobe Bryant did not play enough minutes?  Or that Kevin Love’s wrist is really no longer injured?  If Commissioner Stern follows through with sanctions, no coaching decision is safe because it will be weighed against the “greater interests of the league.”  Some people have a name for that kind of action.  It’s called dictatorial and whimsical.  And dangerous the spontaneity, creativity, and strategy that makes sports (and coaches) great.

Why does SEC football get a pass?

We’ve all heard how great the Southeastern Conference is when it comes to football.  SEC squads have won the last six BCS championships.  This year, scores of fans, obsessed with the SEC as always, are already claiming that the Fighting Irish have no chance against the winner of the Alabama-Georgia game on Saturday.  The irony, of course, with that position, is that Notre Dame rebuilt its program and style around the SEC’s winning formula: ball-control offenses reliant on the running game and excessively dominant defenses.

The other irony is that Notre Dame accomplished what it did this year without the type of schedule–and I mean the Irish’s schedule was harder–that the top SEC programs have played the last few years.  The dirty little secret is that SEC teams routinely profit from two to three guaranteed wins per year against I-AA and low I-A opponents every year.  Who was the least known opponent on ND’s schedule this year? Wake Forest or Navy.  But Alabama, Georgia, and Florida were all playing patsies in November, who were put on the schedule solely to give those teams a week off in anticipation for the SEC Championship game (in full disclosure, ND played Wake Forest and Boston College; while both are in the ACC and happen to have down programs, neither was placed on the schedule to give the Irish a break).  Let’s take a closer look at the SEC’s top 3 teams the past few years:

#2 Alabama: Played Western Kentucky, Florida Atlantic, and West Carolina. They also played Arkansas, Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Auburn.

#3 Georgia: Played Buffalo, Florida Atlantic, and Georgia Southern.  They also played Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Auburn.

#4 Florida: Played Bowling Green, LA-Lafayette, and Jacksonville State.  And they faced Tennessee, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt too.

Ok, one might say that this year’s schedule is an aberration.  But let’s look at the top 3 teams from the SEC in 2011:

Alabama: Kent State, North Texas, Georgia Southern.

Georgia: Coastal Carolina and New Mexico State.

LSU: Surprisingly, only Western Kentucky.

And 2010:

Auburn: Arkansas State, Louisiana-Monroe, and Chattanooga.

LSU: McNeese State and Louisiana-Monroe.

Arkansas: Tennessee Tech, Louisiana-Monroe, and UTEP.

So despite playing 2-3 opponents who have no business being on the same field in terms of natural talent and athleticism and 2-3 opponents routinely at the bottom of the SEC, the media regales the conference as unquestionably the toughest in the land.  Notre Dame rarely, if ever, plays I-AA teams or low majors, not to mention 3 of them.

Further, the Irish have been criticized because they do not outscore teams like Oregon or other high-powered offenses.  But how many “ugly” victories have Alabama, LSU, and Florida pulled out on Saturday afternoons during the past five years?  After realizing this, one might begin to ask why one-loss SEC teams get the benefit of the doubt (for example, imagine if Stanford had only lost to Notre Dame this year and swept the Pac-12; would anyone really be giving Stanford the same shot that Alabama got last year after losing at home to LSU? The Cardinal wouldn’t even get a second look yet they only played one automatic patsy this year and would have beaten Oregon, UCLA, Oregon State, and USC).

Put simply, SEC fanatics have absolutely no leg to stand on when it comes to the Fighting Irish’s schedule or its style this year.


So long, farewell…

Mr. Brown is a fine defensive coach as evidenced by his Cavalier teams and Spurs pedigree.  But he needs to find an assistant like Tex Winter–or someone with at least some common sense understanding of basketball offense–to be on his sideline during his next (inevitable given the coaching carousel) coaching gig in the league.  Anyone who has watched the league in the last 10 years realizes that installing the Princeton Offense with one of, if not the, greatest point guards of a generation (who thrives on creating, not managing), an all-time scorer who thrives in isolation settings, and two of the better pick-and-roll big men in the NBA is not a good idea, even in theory.

The State of the Race…after OKC and James Harden Part Ways

When I started writing this column (before shelving it for college football season and the eternal hope that Notre Dame would return to glory) mid-summer, it was titled: “The Budding Clippers-Thunder Rivalry.”  At that time, Dwight Howard was recovering from back surgery (and springtime public relations fiasco(s)) and Steve Nash was still in Pheonix.  The Thunder, reeling from a crushing fall from grace (after reverse sweeping the Spurs), yet hopeful for borderline guaranteed Western Conference championships for the next decade, had three members of the Olympic team on its roster.  And that Olympic team contained two members from the Clippers–Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.  The guys in purple and yellow had an aging roster, a coach that fans and some players doubted, and one of the top ten players of all time declaring that he only planned to play for two more years.

Oh, how things have changed.

Three months later and that title is obsolete.  The Lakers now possess one of the most formidable starting lineups (on paper) that ever existed in the NBA.  The thought of Steve Nash throwing the ball within ten feet of the rim, Superman catching it, Pau Gasol facilitating all day from the high post, and Kobe Bryant posting up on the elbow, only after Nash could not find an opening elsewhere while dribbling under the basket, should strike fear into the heart and mind of any non-Laker fan, not to mention any potential opponent.

And then last night happened.  James Harden, the super-sub who in some ways managed to splice up a Spurs team in Ginobiliesque ways (that only Manu seemed to be able to do to younger and more athletic opponents for the past decade), was traded to a hapless Rockets squad hoping that a firesale of talented wing assets and draft picks, plus Jeremy Lin, are the solutions to its problems.  While I have no doubt that James Harden will be regretting his decision to reject a decade of trips to the Western Conference finals (at least) for $5 million dollars, the trade’s effect on the NBA landscape for that very same decade cannot be underestimated.

The Thunder went from being the undeniable favorite to return to the Finals after the conclusion of this year’s Finals to a pretty good favorite even after the Lakers reloaded to a whoa you might lose to the rejuvenated Spurs or maturing Clippers in the second round.  How’s that for a transformation after one move?

Now, Sam Presti is a former Spur, and perhaps he has the same genius as Popovich and the rest of the Spurs’ front office.  Maybe this move makes the Thunder better in the long run by releasing a piece growing out of its place and too big to co-exist with two superstars that are significantly better than him (let’s not forget that Harden is equally, if not more so, at fault for causing the Thunder to do this).  After all, OKC still has Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.  But the big three that most championship teams ride to the Finals–and ultimately a championship–arguably no longer exists for the Thunder.  An already overly reliant on jump shots roster now looks eerily similar to those Celtics teams without Kevin Garnett and leaning on an overachieving bench.  Obviously Durant and Westbrook are better than an aging Ray Allen and Paul Pierce; but are Kevin Martin and the rest of the Thunder bench really going to handle Nash/Gasol, Kobe/Howard, Nash/Howard, Kobe/Gasol (or any other combination) when any two of the big four are resting for key stretches of the second and fourth quarters of must-win games on the road?

The reality is that this trade drastically alters to the NBA landscape for the upcoming season.  The West now looks like the Lakers’ to lose.  San Antonio, if it repeats its dream run of last year, probably can handle the Thunder in 7 games.  And the Clippers’ starting five presents more problems to OKC than last year.  And even if OKC manages to return to the Finals, can anyone realistically say with confidence that it is in a better position to challenge the Heat?  As for James Harden, was that $5 million (which will surely buy him a nice place to watch the first, second, third rounds, and the Finals), worth it?


Football: National Pastime or Hunger Game?

A British fellow once said, “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.” He was, of course, referring to what Americans call soccer. The same, however, can be said of football in the United States—and by football I mean the head-smashing kind that presently holds 21 of the top 46 spots on the list of most–watched programs in television history.

More and more, we are being asked to confront the question of whether or not football is something that our society should continue to sanction. Only recently has the National Football League, an economic juggernaut in its own right, begun to acknowledge the dangers of repeated blows to the head that its players regularly receive despite DECADES of anecdotal evidence which pointed to the adverse effects of head-to-head contact. For instance, one recent article on discussed the economic impact the Green Bay Packers and Lambeau Field have on the city of Green Bay:

A 2009 study of the economic impact of the Packers’ stadium estimated “$282 million in output, 2,560 jobs and $124.3 million in earnings, and $15.2 million in tax revenues.” That’s small potatoes for the national economy as a whole, but for a small and somewhat remote city of 104,000, it is a big deal indeed.

The effect is even more pronounced, the piece points out, in places like Norman, Oklahoma or other college towns where football is the major driver of economic activity for five or six weekends a year: merchandise, concessions, restaurants, parking, bookstores, lodging, etc. The NFL alone makes a little more than $3 billion per year on its TV contracts with ESPN, NBC, CBS, and FOX until 2013. In 2014, the number jumps to nearly $5 billion per year from deals that go through 2021.

We are talking about a major economic hub. We are also talking a sport that has weaved its way into the culture of the United States and has become a major part of the sport–entertainment structure that has spawned things like ESPN, extreme sports, and ridiculously priced Super Bowl advertisements. Some would argue that football has supplanted baseball as the national pastime (I can’t abide this because of my love of baseball but I do see how one could successfully make the argument even if I don’t quite want to acknowledge it).

I suppose the pressing question is this: at what expense has this come? More and more, there is evidence suggesting that football players do themselves a great deal of damage by participating in the sport. More and more, we are seeing former football players diagnosed with things like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). One article from discusses the post-mortem diagnosis of CTE in certain retired NFL players:

Other former NFL players diagnosed with CTE are former Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Webster, Terry Long and Justin Strzelczyk, along with Waters and John Grimsley. Long also committed suicide, while Strzelczyk led police on a 40-mile high-speed chase on the New York State Thruway before dying in a head-on collision.

Other players have experienced severe dementia at young ages, chronic depression, and, in the case of former Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters, “brain tissue [resembling] that of an 85-year-old man and shar[ing] characteristics of early-stage Alzheimer’s.”

Up until recently, the diagnosis of CTE had been restricted to retired players. In 2010, doctors examined the brain of Chris Henry, an active player who died in a bizarre domestic incident after falling out of the back of a truck driven by his girlfriend. I’ll let the article from the New York Times speak for itself:

The 22nd professional football player to be given a diagnosis of C.T.E., Henry is the first to have died with the disease while active after 2007, when prior C.T.E. findings prompted the N.F.L. to begin strengthening rules regarding concussion management. The fact that he developed the condition by his mid-20s — the youngest previous C.T.E. case was the lineman Justin Strzelczyk, 36, who had been retired from the Pittsburgh Steelers for five years before his death in 2004 — raises questions of how many current N.F.L. players might have the condition without knowing it.

“As we got the results, my emotion was sad — it’s so profound,” said Bailes, the chairman of the department of neurosurgery at West Virginia and a former team physician for the Steelers. “I was surprised in a way because of his age and because he was not known as a concussion sufferer or a big hitter. Is there some lower threshold when you become at risk for this disease? I’m struggling to see if something can come out positive out of this.”

The kicker here is that Chris Henry was a receiver, not a lineman who regularly engages in head-to-head hitting with other players or a defensive back who flies down the field to take down a ball carrier or even a special teams player whose sole job on the field is to crush, at full speed, the player to whom he is assigned on the opposing team. He was a receiver. Catch. Run. Or get hit. Sure, there are times when a receiver gets taken down in a particularly vicious way, but much less frequently than the other positions I’ve mentioned.

The single most concerning fact about all of this is that new studies are showing that even sub-concussive contact can lead to brain injury and the development of CTE. Everywhere in football there is sub-concussive contact.

All of the recent findings lead to a fundamental question: what is our society saying about itself by sanctioning something like football? Not just as a sport, but also as an economy. Malcolm Gladwell, interviewed recently on, argues that professional football players assume some of the risk simply because they’re paid to play. If they have a problem with the risk, they can opt out.

Gladwell’s concern is with college and youth football:

Gladwell: The factor that I think will be decisive is the head-injury issue. Colleges are going to get sued, and they will have to decide whether they can afford their legal exposure. That said, the issue ought to be how big-time college sports subverts the academic mission of university education.

Slate: How would you define the culture of college football? Does this culture add to or detract from the sport’s dangers?

Gladwell: College football has become indistinguishable from professional football—which is the problem. The only justification for college sports is that they are structured in a way that enhances the social and academic experience of getting an education. A sports program using semiprofessional athletes, and running on a budget of $50-plus million a year does not fit that description.

Slate: Say banning college football isn’t an option. What reforms would you propose to the system?

Gladwell: If you want college athletes to assume an as yet unknown risk of permanent physical and neurological damage, you should pay them. Properly. It’s a bit much both to maim AND exploit college football players.

All of which leads me to the title of this post: national pastime (for more on why baseball should be the national pastime, read this from David Bentley Hart in First Things) or hunger game? Does football endorse things that our culture ought to endorse? I think the answer, given the recent scientific findings and other ideas (Super Bowl Sunday being the day on which the most domestic violence occurs), is an unqualified no. But does football endorse things that reflect our culture?

That’s where the question becomes a bit more difficult. Football does reflect certain notions of entertainment that Americans value. I remember my dad telling me he was listening to sports radio once in the middle of the afternoon and the host was taking calls on the future of American sports, a typically folderol conceit stored up for a particular moment when there’s nothing much going on in sports like the day after the MLB All–Star Game or some time late in the month of June when baseball is the only active major sport. Whoever the caller was had a penetrating insight that has stayed with me for more than a decade. It goes something like this: “I’m not sure what the future of American sports holds except to say that it better be fast, you better be able to bet on it, and it better be violent.”

Football certainly lines up all three of those—the game is fast and when there’s not action on the field, the networks load up on gimmicks to keep the viewer’s ever–shortening attention; enormous amounts of money are bet on football both legally and illegally; and I think we can stipulate to its violence.

If this has become our national pastime, then I think we have something to worry about. As more and more data emerges, it seems to be the case that our national pastime has become nothing more than a hunger game of the same type found in the trilogy of Suzanne Collins books and the recent breakout film hit: society sanctioning a bunch of people in a stadium jeopardizing their future health primarily for the benefit of those watching. Malcolm Gladwell thinks that’s okay if the players are paid and aware of the risk. I’m not so sure I agree but I can see the argument. What is harder to envision is how anyone could make an argument that college and youth football are acceptable in light of the proven effects.

I’ll leave it to Gladwell to drive the point home: “As long as the risks are explicit, the players warned, and those injured properly compensated, then I’m not sure we can stop people from playing. A better question is whether it is ethical to WATCH football. That’s a harder question.”

If, as I think it’s becoming clearer, even watching football is an ethical issue, how can we possibly allow people to play the sport? The quote I mentioned at the beginning of this piece was this: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.”

How right he was. On all accounts—life, death, and things much more serious.