General Sports Chatter


Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Echo Chamber

         Phil Kessel railed against the Toronto media's treatment of Dion Phaneuf today, which is likely the culmination of many little tirades against the media from Leafs players who have not only had a bad season to deal with but the media backlash that comes with it. It's not surprising the Toronto media are putting undo pressure on players like the now departed David Clarkson, but the backlash is a result of a symptom of modern sports media: the echo chamber.

        In the past, stories were allowed to grow organically and came about from natural everyday situations. Now, because the insatiable demand for stories is still there, but combined with competition from other media outlets and social media's demand for immediacy, now the media can create a story of their own and run with it, without much to do about anything. When the echo chamber is put under fire, usually it's ESPN's echo chamber that gets torched. But Toronto media has an echo chamber of its own, and in some cases is just as bad.

      Take for example the "Wendel Clarkson" newspaper cover from the Toronto Sun the day that David Clarkson signed with the Maple Leafs. David Clarkson was already going to be put under undo pressure because of the size of his contract, but invoking Wendel Clark did nothing to alleviate that pressure. Now, Clarkson has to live up to the legacy of a Leaf legend as well as the contract he signed, while also hearing about it every day on sports talk radio, TV and reading about it in the paper. Some of the expectations placed on David Clarkson came about entirely because of the Toronto media echo chamber, and meant that his failure hit harder than it would have normally, even in a  similar Toronto media frenzy.

       What Phil Kessel was attacking today was the echo chamber that allowed stories like the Dion Phaneuf one to continue to percolate and simmer until a point comes when columnists and talk show hosts need something to talk about, so they revive an old tried and true narrative driven story to beat to death. And it's not only Toronto media that propagates these self-generated stories, because they end up driving the discussion around the world of hockey. The stories become inescapable, even when the Leafs are playing in Sunrise, Florida.

      What can be done? Like with ESPN's echo chamber, there isn't much that anyone can do, since the stories are self-generated and self-spawned. It's a hurricane that traps up everyone inside of it, and they can do nothing about it. Whether Kessel's latest outburst spawned because of a tweet that TSN showed on their bottomline on Tradecentre yesterday is besides the point, even if it was horrible. Whether Dion Phaneuf is the rightful captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs is also besides the point too.

      The Toronto media machine can make a story out of anything, whether it be a Steve Simmons column, a misplaced tweet, or even a "no comment" from players every single day. Unfortunately, playing in Toronto brings about different responsibilities and challenges, and Leafs players know that and understand that, even if they can barely speak about it.

     Sports media in 2015 is in itself a large echo chamber, and to avoid it is one of the biggest challenges a fan, media member or player can undertake. Even as this column has sucked itself into the echo chamber, avoiding it is the goal.

    Lashing out at it is the fight or flight response that comes when the hurricane sweeps you up, and you can do nothing about it.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

True Religion

      To experience true love, you must first experience true heartbreak. This is not news to anybody that has been in a committed relationship of any sort, but it's not just those personal relationships that this sentence applies to.

      Sports are a completely emotional, irrational investment when logic is applied. We as sports fans spend thousands upon thousands of dollars to watch our teams play, buy their gear, not to mention the countless hours of emotional investment we put into watching our team play and hopefully watching them win. This includes all of the people we piss off along the way, and the wars we fight over this seemingly trivial exercise. Sports, in the grand scheme of things, are completely and totally trivial. There are many better, and more efficient things to put our time and money into.

    But no sports fan will ever say that their love and devotion is trivial. There may be no rational reason for the baseless superstitions of a die-hard fan on gameday. There may be no rational explanation for why someone has hooked their physical and emotional well being to a game happening miles away that he or she has no control over. But to them, it's life. They couldn't think of their life without these traditions, customs, beliefs, etc.

     Many people have compared sports to religion. Many more have equated sports to religion. All of them are right.

     We go to the temples of our many different faiths to pray to our own gods, continue on the customs of those that have come before us and pass down those traditions to our kids. We look for an escape from the problems of our daily lives, and we try to find comfort in those who are like minded, those who share our beliefs in the hope that they can help us find guidance. We sing the same songs, chant the same chants, have the same idols, read from the same books, and we share the same pains. We follow the same rules, have the same taboos, and preach the same phrases of belief.

   I could be talking about being Catholic, or being a New York Giants fan. Without the specifics, I could easily be talking about either or. We go to those temples and houses of faith, whether they be churches, synagogues, mosques or stadiums to pray and look for that catharsis that only our faith can bring. Maybe in some cases we'll brag about it. we'll probably argue about it no doubt and it may separate great friends in the end, but the catharsis that is really impossible to explain is the ultimate goal, and the process of finding it is the religion. The longer we all wait, the crazier we all become.

   Religion and sports are never painless. True heartbreak is part of the implicit contract signed when following the works of St. Peter or Peter Bondra. It's hard to explain why so many sign those individual contracts and stick with them, but then again, when is true love rational?

    So when your team loses a heartbreak final, championship, misses the playoffs by a tiebreaker to your greatest rival and you become inconsolable for a week, remember that finding true love comes with experiencing true heartbreak. Know that so many share your pain, and want the same thing you do. And know that come next week, you'll all reconvene to try to grasp that elusive pleasure that only your devotion can bring you.

    Or if it is lost on you, and the pain of irrational love for illusions, dreams and hopes that you can't control is too much to take, religion and sports both come with something wonderful: You won't be judged for drinking at the temple!

Friday, February 27, 2015

Did You See That: The NHL Trade Deadline Shows

       In much the same way ESPN and the NFL Network cover the hell out of the NFL Draft, TSN and Sportsnet do the same for the NHL Trade Deadline in Canada. Both networks will be on from 8 AM to 6 PM talking about the trades that may happen, the trades that do happen, and one may feature an early preview of the 2016 World Junior Hockey Championship rosters (that's a hunch). But with so many trades already pushed through, and 10 hours of TV to fill, how will the talented broadcasters at both networks fill their time? Here are a few suggestions:

---  Nick Kypreos tries to convince the viewing audience that the dress was white and gold not blue and black. 

--- James Duthie plays a video of him and Roberto Luongo re-enacting scenes from Cop and a Half filmed when nobody was paying attention.

--- Bob McKenzie and Darren Dreger present "The NBC Chronicles" of what life is really like behind the scenes working with Mike Milbury.

--- Jeff Marek tells stories about the 1960 Memorial Cup Final between the Edmonton Oil Kings and St. Catharines Teepees, before realizing that John Shannon fell asleep next to him. 

--- George Stroumboulopolos interviews "The Traveling Jagrs" while P.J Stock auditions to become the Florida Jagr since he's the only one who might think a mullet is still stylish.

--- Bruce Arthur walks off the Reporters set after he plays a clip of himself saying Tyler Bozak was overrated (this may still happen, watch this space).

--- Damien Cox breaks down the analytics side of each trade (Editor's note: This isn't a joke, this will actually happen).

--- Sportsnet forms a new panel hosted by Jeff Marek with P.J Stock, John Shannon, Darren Pang and Kelly Hrudey where they try to desperately find ways to impress the NHLTies twitter account. Their stylist finally gets deserved screen time.

--- TSN shows a running twitter feed of American hockey fans complaining about why they can't see TSN's trade deadline show while Bell Media executives cry off camera.

--- When the trades run thin, both networks will project the 2016 World Cup of Hockey North American U-23 rosters as Don Cherry barges into the Sportsnet studio complaining that there aren't enough Ontario kids on it while Pierre McGuire tells you every waking detail of Jack Eichel's Boston University career.

--- By 4 PM in the afternoon, a stagehand walks on set at both locations with an airhorn trying to wake everyone up since they've all become sleep deprived.

Maybe I should start programming these shows. These ideas sound way more interesting than overexplaining an AHL trade. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

It's About Ethics in Court Storming Journalism

          Court storming when your basketball team pulls off a major upset is as an essential part of the college experience as ending up in a drunken stupor on a frat house carpet at least once (except if you're me, but who cares about my lack of a life). It was always somewhat controversial, at least because some people feel that denying college students their fun is somehow fun in of itself, but now after Bill Self got lost in the human crush at Bramlage Coliseum Monday night, the whole enterprise has been thrown into question. It's really about ethics in court storming journalism, isn't it?
        Storming the court in basketball, or the unicorn like storming the field in football are never going to be safe exercises, especially when so many half drunk college students are part of the equation. It's not as if going to a sporting event live was ever going to be as comfortable as watching the game on your couch, even if it's far more fun and exciting. People go to sporting events to see upsets like what happened on Monday night in Manhattan, and you can't deny their right to be excited about it, especially unhinged college students. Personally, I'd much rather see a court storming than anything going on down the main drag which may or may not include couch burning.

       At least Bill Self was honest when he said after his team lost to Kansas State, "That's disappointing that it happened again, but we also allowed it to happen again," keeping some perspective alive when all everyone is talking about is how a Kansas player got shoulder checked out of the way of onrushing students.  Then, one night later in College Park after Maryland upset #5 Wisconsin, many fully expected Terp students to rush the court in a feat of fury like they usually do in those situations. They did, but it was if someone put their thumb over the end of a hose, so it was more of a half court storming, which is better, but doesn't that neuter the purpose of the word "storm"?

   It's not even so much about whether court storming is warranted anymore, because college students rarely operate on logic in those situations. It's now become about whether court storming should even be allowed anymore. It's surprising that it's taken this long for that to fully enter the national discussion, but the thought of ending court storming for good has probably been bandied about long ago, and will probably be tossed out into the fray once another coach gets crushed against the scorer's table. And let's be honest, this will happen again and again and again until it's fully banned, if it's ever fully banned.

   And while on principle I should hate court storming because it involves buzzed college students acting like morons most of the time, I can't get mad at it (usually). Depriving those adrenaline filled students inside the arena probably means something will happen outside of it, and God knows what that could be, especially at my institution (thank God they're not playing Duke anymore). If a team that never is any good beats Duke at home, let the students rush the court. What harm is being done, (and a suit being lightly dusted up doesn't count)? Sure there will be media puff pieces about why court storming is the spawn of the devil, etc. etc. but it's college, let the kids have their fun.

   The safety is up to the security at the arenas to keep in check, and they normally do a very good job of it. Unless they were caught up in the upset that took place behind their backs, they will do a fine job in marshalling what is in essence a human crush. There's no reason to not trust them. If they're doing their job, court storming like what was seen at Kansas State will be the exception, not the rule.

   It is about ethics in court storming journalism. And court storming wins.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Incoming Freshmen? You're not B1G Enough

Maryland's student newspaper The Diamondback has reported that the Big Ten is preparing to introduce a proposal that would rule all freshmen ineligible for football and men's basketball. The proposal stems from the desire the increase the academic standing for freshmen in both sports, which are the only NCAA sports with a less than 75% graduation rate, according to documents obtained by The Diamondback. There are many ways to fix the mindless stupidity of the current NCAA system, but this for sure isn't one of them.

True freshmen were not eligible to play in all sports up until 1972, with the decision to scratch that ruling motivated obviously by what still motivates football and men's basketball at Power 5 schools: money. With the current momentum to change the NCAA, reform proposals like this would naturally arrive for discussion, but outright preventing freshmen from playing the 2 biggest college sports makes about as much sense as denying student-athletes stipends to pay for their basic needs.

It's cutting off the nose of B1G athletic programs in spite of their face. Putting the big 2 sports ahead of academics seems short sighted in the mind of academics, but consider what those programs are designed for. As state funding for higher education continues to be cut across the country, the big revenue drivers for these schools isn't fundraising methods or begging wealthy alumni to donate giant sums of cash to build new buildings on campus, it's sports. Particularly, it's football and men's basketball. Alabama's football program generated a $53.3 surplus and revenues of nearly $100 million. Sure that's an extreme example, but consider the television contracts conferences sign that bring in ungodly amounts of money to the member institutions. Specifically, look deep into your mind's eye for a moment and ask yourself how much money the B1G's new TV contract will be for when it kicks in in 2018? Billions. With a B. And this proposal would directly shunt that money, money which could be critical in keeping not only athletic departments afloat, but give the institutions themselves the cache they desperately need.

Even if some football and men's basketball players have delusions of grandeur expecting the pro game to be calling their name after their time at Maryland, or Rutgers or Iowa, the best players are not going to come to these schools, whether they are going for the academics or not, if they cannot play in Year 1. The B1G is certainly not going to do this on their own, since administering this without the other 4 Power 5 conferences on board basically ensures the continual lapping of them by ACC, SEC, Big 12 and Pac 12 schools.

Many freshmen do not make immediate impacts in football or men's basketball (don't tell that to Kentucky or Duke though), but that doesn't mean that barring them from playing due to the idea that their academic performances are somehow intertwined with playing is absurd. The transition from high school to college is incredibly difficult if you're doing absolutely nothing extra-curricular, let alone playing a sport. There are far easier ways to go about the issue of academic performance of athletes AND eliminate college basketball's silly one-and-done rule at once.

How about getting rid of redshirts? And while they're at it, how about the NCAA increases the basic eligibility floor to 5 years instead of 4? Then, athletes will have the chance to graduate early if they so wish to, but will have an extra buffer year into their time at a university to complete their studies while fulfilling their academic duties at the same time. These players would have incentives to stay longer, making not only the product better for the fans but increasing the players academic standing at the same time.

Nothing will change without help from above, though. The NBA and NFL need to change their rules as well, in order to discourage leaving school early or only going to school because you need to in order to reach the pros. Whether that's changing the NBA age limit, allowing kids to jump straight from high school to the NBA again, or in the NFL's case trying to lower the amount of kids that leave after 3 years that might not have legitimate pro aspirations.

This memo does get one thing right: The conferences are acknowledging that there is a problem with the current NCAA structure. But banning freshman from playing the 2 biggest NCAA sports doesn't fix the biggest issue, it just makes it far worse.

It seemed inconceivable that the NCAA could make their ridiculous system any worse. This just might.

Original Diamondback article can be found here.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Champions League Knockout Stage Preview

The Champions League is back after a far too long winter hibernation, which means it's now time to see who Europe's best team is. Everyone has their say and their opinions on who will be hoisting the trophy on June 6 in Berlin, and I am certainly no stranger to that. But let's take a look at the Knockout stage with a different perspective; one with the likelihood of victory in Berlin in about 4 months. So let's dive in:

Shakhtar Donetsk: Ukraine's moneybags team is still performing despite the fact that their town has been ravaged by war and they're playing thousands of miles from home. They always seemingly make this stage of the tournament and fall here, and since they're playing Bayern Munich this time around, that seems like a pretty fair bet.

Bayern Munich: Is this Bayern Munich team the one that can not only challenge Europe's best this year but be better than the team that won the treble 2 years ago? There have been hiccups, but small ones in the grand scheme of things. They're once again dominating Germany, meaning they can focus all of their energies on this competition. A lot obviously will depend on their draw, but they have as just a good a shot as any to win.

PSG: Felled by Chelsea last season in the quarterfinals, will that happen once again in the Round of 16 this time? They'll have Zlatan this time around, which means they'll have the difference maker they lacked against Chelsea last season. How everyone else plays around him is critical. They'll need great performances from Lavezzi, Cavani, Lucas, and not the least of which Marco Verratti, who has never really lived up to his hype. If they get past Chelsea, they can be a threatening team. But that's one hell of an ask.

Chelsea: So close last year, yet so far. Good news is this year they have midfield destroyer extraordinaire Nemanja Matic, whose influence was lacking against Atleti in the semifinals. Having a halfway competent striker is also a welcome change, even if there is the chance Diego Costa could stamp on someone's ankle and get suspended. Chelsea blow by blow are the team with the fewest weaknesses in this tournament, but they can still be had by teams who can take advantage of John Terry and Gary Cahill. If they get the away goal they want at the Parc de Princes, watch out.

Schalke: Germany's Tottenham can seemingly never get a decent draw with the hopes of advancing. Blasted by Real Madrid last season, so seems their fate once again this time out. Roberto Di Matteo has already pulled one Champions League shock off in his career, but can he do it again? This Real Madrid team has the potential to be better than last year's so...

Real Madrid: The defending Champs are in good form despite the numerous spats between Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, which has seemingly not only divided the Merengue fanbase but the team as well. How will that play out on the field? They'll probably still obliterate Schalke, but after that they could be in for problems if they play a team with a strong midfield. Their desire to play without a defensive midfielder was once their undoing in the past, and could well happen again (Atleti or Chelsea, hello).

Basel/Porto: Let's be honest, this tie exists so whoever draws the winner in the Quarters can trumpet their easy draw. Both are Champions League mainstays, and both have pulled giant killings off before, but they do feel sadly like cannon fodder. That doesn't mean they both don't have players who can be problems for whoever gets them next (Arsenal seems likely), but... try not to mince words when speaking about these teams.

Manchester City: Yaya Toure and Wilfried Bony are now back with the squad, and that doesn't seem like it's happened a moment too soon. Manchester City are not the same team without Yaya, and that's been fairly evident ever since he left for AFCON duty. Wilfried Bony was able to bag goals for fun for Swansea, but how will he work with David Silva and Sergio Aguero? Is Vincent Kompany going to be the centerback everyone thinks he can be? If the pieces begin to gel together for Manuel Pellegrini, then a shock could be on the cards. But with the way Barca are firing right now... seems a bit of an ask, doesn't it?

Barcelona: This isn't a vintage Barca side by any means, but if Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel can combine the way they have recently, oh boy, watch out. They still have issues at the back that can be exploited, and the midfield isn't any sort of Barca vintage, but they are sitll Barcelona and can absolutely blow you away if you're not careful. They are growing in confidence with every passing game, which means Luis Enrique's seat is getting cooler, which means Barca might play with more freedom. They will still meet challenges down the road, but Manchester City is one they should overcome.

Juventus: Italy's best team always seems to struggle in Europe no matter the year and the players they have. They do have Paul Pogba, who may be the best young midfielder in the world at present, and Arturo Vidal, who is awesome in every way, but hasn't really ever shown his true colors in the Champions League. Let's be fair here though, this is their shot to finally break through at this stage. Dortmund are not the same team they have been in the past, even as they are beginning to find their feet. If Tevez and Morata can score, Juve can advance here and possibly go further. But they have to put their European demons behind them first.

Borussia Dortmund: What a season they're having. It's almost inconceivable to look at the Bundesliga table and see where they are right now. There are many reasons for their struggles, but they're out of the relegation zone now and for whatever reason they've felt more comfortable playing in Europe this season than they have domestically. A healthy Marco Reus is invaluable to their possible successes, and he finally looks healthy after a long layoff. They are still a dangerous team despite what their record would indicate. Watch out.

Arsenal: As much as it pains me to say this, boy they look good right now; almost a vintage Arsenal side. They are attacking with fluidity, confidence and guile. And for once, they've been handed a draw that doesn't seem like it will punch them in the face. Sure there is narrative, but Arsenal are better than that this season. They may be the most sneaky dangerous side in the draw because of how they are playing and because they can build up confidence with a tie they should easily win. The likelihood is they'll still slip up massively if they have to play a big team, but they might give said team trouble on their way out.

Monaco: The new era Anzhi, Monaco's free spending days are over because it's hard to convince players to play in a half empty stadium every day even if they are splashing out oilbucks in a tax haven. They found a way to win Group C, but their team isn't incredibly impressive on paper. They have a decent collection of young players like Bernardo Silva, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Geoffry Kondogbia, etc. but they feel like no match for what Arsenal will be able to put on the pitch against them.

Bayer Leverkusen: We think Marcelo Bielsa is the man of the high press, but Roger Schmidt might be the new progenitor of the system. His team press like few others in Europe do, which seems appropriate considering who they are going to play in the Round of 16. If the press fails, which it has done in the past, boy can they get scored on. Usually, Atleti play in defensive, scrappy, physical ties that end up with more off the ball incidents than goals. I don't think we'll be saying the same thing about their tie against Bayer.

Atleti: Finally, the silver medalists from last year. Diego Simeone has done an impressive job rebuilding his side on the fly after it was plucked apart last season, Who knew Fernando Torres would ever score goals again? Is he ever. Antoine Griezmann is as good as advertised, Mario Mandzukic seemingly fits in perfectly with Simeone's style, and despite a few road hiccups, Atleti are still in with a shot to win La Liga, and by association the Champions League. I wouldn't want to draw them in the Quarters.

Round of 16 tie winners:

Real Madrid
Bayern Munich
Atletico Madrid

Monday, February 16, 2015

Who has ever seen a Successful Hip Check Anyway?

The NHL's Department of Player Safety videos explaining suspensions is one of the best innovations in sports in the past 10 years. It has not only increased accountability for those involved in suspensions (making them seem less arbitrary), but also has educated fans on just what is and isn't allowed in the modern game. That doesn't mean there aren't still issues with the system. And Dmitry Kulikov's recent suspension exemplifies that.

Throwing out my own Florida Panthers fandom, and the absolutely ridiculous outrage towards a player who had no prior history of suspensions (and only 1 major penalty to his name before Friday Night), the 4 game suspension raises many questions, especially since Kulikov was a first time offender. Before the discussion becomes about my biases instead of the hit itself, yes it should warrant a suspension. It's clipping by every definition. What that doesn't mean is a) Dmitry Kulikov is a dirty player (unlike what twitter wants you to think), and b) that players should be suspended to the injury and the player they injure.

From the Panthers own backlog this season, Radko Gudas was not suspended for what was a dirty hit on Scottie Upshall in the first game of the season. Keith Yandle was not suspended for a hit to Brandon Pirri's head that knocked him out of nearly a month's worth of games. Mike Fisher was not suspended or even called in for a hearing when he speared Erik Gudbranson in a less than desirable area a week ago. And Dmitry Kulikov is being called dirty for a mistimed hip check, especially when 9 times out of 10 he lands that hit successfully?

4 games seems fair for Kulikov given the nature of the hit and the injury to Tyler Seguin (which is what the DoPS standards are now), but that doesn't mean the standards are wrong to begin with. Suspending to the injury is one of the most dangerous precedents to be set by the DoPS. There are plenty of dirty hits and moments in many games that go unnoticed because there's no injury on the play, leaving many little moments unaccounted for that could well be suspendable offenses. Even if going after those moments would be too severe, It also doesn't look good for the DoPS when the suspension also seems matched up to the player injured. If Vernon Fiddler, who wasn't the cleanest of players Friday night, was on the receiving end of that hit instead of Tyler Seguin, would the suspension even have been half as severe? Probably not. It's understandable why suspensions would be heavier when a player injures another star, but if the goal is to make examples out of these hits and get them out of the game, then who is injured should play no role in deciding the length of suspension.

By the DoPS own admission, the hip check was mistimed, as opposed to "predatory" and "delivered intentionally low" when they suspended Brad Marchand 3 years ago for a low hit similar to this along the boards against Vancouver's Sami Salo. This is a welcome sign of brevity, but it doesn't explain the length of suspension. Even if it was reckless (which it was), it wasn't out of ill intent, it was a sloppy check in open ice that Kulikov normally gets right. Some scouts even thought Kulikov shouldn't have been suspended because "Seguin should take some blame for being out of position" (from the Miami Herald's George Richards). Unfortunately, it seems this is another example of the DoPS suspending based on the player injured instead of the hit.

The hip check is an endangered species in the NHL, but one could easily surmise that it could back in vogue as more hits to the head and shoulders are being outlawed. These kind of suspensions could discourage players from even trying to attempt one, let alone land it, even as more players are going low out of necessity because they have nowhere else to go. Kulikov is one of the few players who tries to hip check regularly, but the likelihood of seeing him try another one for a good while is low.

The Department of Player Safety has done many great things for everyone involved with the NHL, but if this suspension is any guide, they still have a long way to go.