Tuesday, September 27, 2016

RIP Jose Fernandez

Two days after the world learned of the tragic death of Marlins Pitcher Jose Fernandez, I can still barely believe it. Watching the footage from last night in Miami brought tears to my eyes, and I'm a Mets fan still paralyzed with the fear they'll miss the playoffs. Last night, I really didn't care about where the Mets were in the standings though, because last night was not about them. It seemed that the entire world, not just baseball's sphere, was grieving with them. Sports sometimes can seem like a fantasy world where a person's humanity almost seems secondary, but Jose Fernandez's horrific passing reminds us that while sports are an escape in many instances, life finds a way to remind us the bubble can pop at anytime.

I only watched Jose Fernandez pitch a few times on TV, and I'm no baseball scout, but watching him pitch felt like an occasion and must see TV. While I was terrified as a fan anytime the Mets played against Fernandez, my ears always perked up when I found out he was starting, because I'd get to watch him pitch. Jose Fernandez loved baseball, loved pitching and loved life, and even when he had nights where he wasn't himself, his joy of being on the mound was good enough to transcend performances and the situation his team was in. When he needed Tommy John surgery a few years back, it felt almost funereal because baseball was robbed of his electric stuff and his joy for over a year. Baseball celebrated his return like few others, even though Tommy John surgery became a far too common phrase in the news while Fernandez was on the shelf. Knowing now that we'll never see Fernandez pitch again is heartbreaking, not just because a life that had so much potential was taken far too soon, but because so few capture the imagination and minds of fans and the baseball world alike as Fernandez did.

When it seems the world is being inundated with negative and bad news (as is happening right now), sports can, for some people, become an escape from that world and attempt to bind the wounds of division that the "real world" opens up. But with the anthem protests and now this horrible tragedy, life reminds us all the sports bubble can pop incredibly easily. Sometimes, we all forget that the athletes playing the games we love so much and the people in the front offices making personnel and other decisions are human beings too, and they have emotions and life stories like those watching from the couch or the bar. Watching the Marlins grieve the way they did is so heartbreaking that even non-baseball fans can't hold back the tears. Watching Gary Cohen and Keith Hernandez not be able to contain their emotions opening the Phillies-Mets game on Sunday after the news broke reminds us that the delicate human experience transcends all boundaries, even sports.

There are so many aspects of Fernandez's human story beyond baseball that are worth expanding upon: from his multiple attempts to flee Cuba, to unknowingly saving his mother after she went overboard on a ship leaving the island, to becoming an incredibly successful refugee and his immense pride in becoming an American citizen, etc. All of them have been drawn and touched upon multiple times in the days after his death, but there is one aspect of his story that I feel supersedes all of them, including the not-nearly talked about enough refugee angle: his boundless enthusiasm and joy in life.

It's hard to see GIF's now of Fernandez's celebrations of home runs, pitches, etc. because that passion is sorely lacking in the broader world right now. He was a man who was incredibly fortunate and successful, and made sure to enjoy every moment of life as if it was his last. Life is often difficult and challenging, and seeing a smile as big as Fernandez's on bad days could almost singlehandedly erase some of the negativity that swirled. If more people showed that joy in life even if they're not incredibly talented athletes, wouldn't life be less of an exercise sometimes? Even just a little bit?

Many other people have more enlightening and personal stories about Jose Fernandez than I do, and they're likely to be better arbiters on his life than I am. But embracing his life and the joy and happiness he showed every day in life can hopefully remind everyone that even in ridiculously tough times, we all find a way to overcome and move on to find joy in what truly makes life great, whatever your passion is.

Jose Fernandez lived the American Dream, his passion and his drive through baseball. What we need to do to honor his memory is live our passions and enjoy life with the same enthusiasm, verve and joy that he did. That will be the best way to honor his memory and the impact he left on baseball and the world.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

2016 NFL Season Predictions

Wonderfully and thankfully, the NFL is about to totally consume our lives once again. On the road to Houston, there promises to be many thrills, spills, craziness, trumped up drama as well as surprises. But even though this league always changes thanks to parity, it seems that this year, the expected might once again become the norm. Although, this is the NFL and as has been proven before, anything is possible.

In some ways then, this should be one of the easiest seasons to predict in recent NFL history, but in many ways, mediocrity has become the coin of the realm, and there's a distinct possibility that two division winners will win fewer than 10 games. For the very few truly great teams, it seems like there will be a scrap among themselves for supremacy, while everyone else toes the line. So here are quick blurbs for each division, plus a fantasy player to watch.

NFC East:

1. New York Giants (9-7)
2. Washington (7-9)
3. Dallas (6-10)
4. Philadelphia (5-11)

Mediocrity personified. Every team in this division has major flaws, and the winner is the one with the fewest flaws by far, and that would be the Giants. They have the best player in the division with Odell Beckham, and the least bad defense. And hey, when they won their Super Bowl's, they weren't all that special during the regular season. Washington has Kirk Cousins needing to prove himself, an interesting offense and a defense with big playmakers, but not the supporting cast. With the attrition due to injuries and suspensions on both sides of the ball, it has to take its toll on the Cowboys once again, and it will this season. And the Eagles are starting from zero, which means their performances this season will go as it sounds.

Fantasy Player to Watch: Ezekiel Elliot

NFC North:

1. Green Bay (12-4)
2. Minnesota (9-7)
3. Detroit (7-9)
4. Chicago (6-10)

Green Bay is healthier than they were a season ago, and their defense has slowly been improving. With the unfortunate events in Minnesota, the Packers have a clear opening to take back this division. While Minnesota is clearly in "win-now" mode, the trade for Sam Bradford makes sense, but might only be a band-aid for a team that needs stitches, at least this year. Without Calvin Johnson, the Lions lack the playmakers on offense, though Ziggy Ansah could become a defensive star. And the Bears will have an underrated defense but little else worth mentioning.

NFC South:

1. Carolina (11-5)
2. Atlanta (9-7)
3. New Orleans (8-8)
4. Tampa Bay (7-9)

The defending NFC Champions get Kelvin Benjamin back and still have Cam Newton and a terrifying front seven. Since those things aren't likely to change, they are favorites in the NFC South. The Saints aren't quite a playoff team, but it feels like they're getting better on offense at least, or back to where they were at the start of this decade. The Falcons still have many of the same problems that have dogged them for years, but they're not truly bad enough to plummet at the moment. And for the Bucs, the change in coach probably won't change much in terms of their immediate fortune, though Jameis Winston's continued improvement is exciting.

Fantasy Player to Watch: Kelvin Benjamin

NFC West:

1. Arizona (13-3)
2. Seattle (11-5)
3. LA Rams (6-10)
4. San Francisco (3-13)

The two best teams in the NFC may reside in the NFC West, and they will once again slug it out for supremacy. The Cardinals might be the most faultless team in football, with Seattle not far behind. The drop off in this division from the top to the bottom of it is astonishing, and watching the top two play the bottom two will be quite a bit of fun, in a perverse sense. It'll be the 49ers and Browns competing for next year's #1 overall draft pick, and beyond that, the Rams won't finish 7-9 for once, because they're going to finish 6-10.

Fantasy Player to Watch: Thomas Rawls

AFC East:

1. New England (11-5)
2. New York Jets (9-7)
3. Buffalo Bills (8-8)
4. Miami (7-9)

Even though the Patriots are Tom Brady less for four games, those four are against Arizona, Miami, Houston and Buffalo. They would have been favored in the three games they're favored in anyway. And angry and scorched earth Tom Brady is a terrifying prospect. The Jets still have a ferocious defense and if they can get out of their own way, they'll have every chance of making the postseason once again. Buffalo and Miami are not bad, just not outstanding or special. Both have areas of personnel weakness that are going to hold them back from being true playoff contenders right now.

Fantasy Player to Watch: DeVante Parker

AFC North:

1. Pittsburgh (12-4)
2. Cincinnati (11-5)
3. Baltimore (7-9)
4. Cleveland (2-14)

Pittsburgh's offense is going to be legitimately terrifying this season, even with the pieces that they're missing. We saw plenty of it last year, and it's helped Ben Roethlisberger's career renaissance. As of now, they're the best team in the AFC, though they have stiff competition from the team right behind them. The Bengals have had a talent and coaching drain because they've been so steady despite their lack of playoff successes, but doesn't this feel like the year they finally break through? That front seven is a monster, and if they can escape their opening schedule 4-2 or better, watch out. Baltimore will improve after injuries decimated their 2015 season, but they're not at the Bengals or Steelers caliber yet. And for the Browns well... they're tanking.

Fantasy Player to Watch: Tyler Boyd

AFC South:

1. Houston (9-7)
2. Indianapolis (8-8)
3. Jacksonville (7-9)
4. Tennessee (5-11)

The best way to describe the AFC South is this: it is the NFC East sans the brand names. Once again: mediocrity personified. Houston paid a lot of coin for Brock Osweiler, and to my eye he's still unproven. He has Lamar Miller and DeAndre Hopkins as major weapons, but little else around that. On defense, there are the established stars but beyond that there is questionable depth. But they still have more than everyone else in the division. Andrew Luck's return will stabilize the Colts, but they still have no running game, a sieve of an offensive line, a major talent deficiency on defense that Luck will not be able to overcome. While so many are high on the Jaguars, and for good reason, coaching is going to be their downfall. So many head-scratching decisions and now there are no excuses because of a lack of personnel. Individual performances may have to save this team from itself if they want to make the postseason, which they absolutely can do if Gus Bradley coaches better than a coach who has won only 25% of his games (and if they start fast, which they need to do). The Titans are coached by Mike Mularkey. Enough said.

Fantasy Player to Watch: Derrick Henry

AFC West:

1. Kansas City (11-5)
2. Oakland (10-6)
3. Denver (8-8)
4. San Diego (5-11)

Kansas City will be steady on offense, terrifying on defense as they have been in recent years, but with the factors turned up a notch. Their questions at running back are concerning, and Alex Smith is Alex Smith, but their defense should be able to overcome some of those worries. Oakland is the young team to watch more than Jacksonville, largely because of the presence of playmakers and better coaching (I can't believe I said that about Jack Del Rio). Denver has the defense, though it's been gutted somewhat, but they're still starting Trevor Siemian. That's hard to get over, and defense in today's NFL can only get you so far. And for the Chargers, their cheapness is costing them once again and wasting the back end of Philip Rivers' career.

Fantasy Player to Watch: Derek Carr

NFC Playoff Teams: 1. ARZ (13-3), 2. GB (12-4), 3. CAR (11-5), 4. NYG (9-7), 5. SEA (11-5), 6. MIN (9-7).

AFC Playoff Teams: 1. PIT (12-4), 2. NE (11-5), 3. KC (11-5), 4. HOU (9-7), 5. CIN (11-5), 6. OAK (10-6).

NFC Playoffs:

Wild Card: CAR over MIN, SEA over NYG

Divisional Round: ARZ over SEA, GB over CAR

NFC Championship Game: GB over ARZ

AFC Playoffs:

Wild Card: CIN over HOU (They've done it!), OAK over KC

Divisional Round: PIT over OAK, CIN over NE

AFC Championship Game: PIT over CIN

Super Bowl LI: Green Bay over Pittsburgh (must be a Texas thing).

Award Predictions:

MVP: Ben Roethlisberger (PIT)
OPOY: Odell Beckham (NYG)
DPOY: Khalil Mack (OAK)
OROY: Ezekiel Elliot (DAL)
DROY: Jalen Ramsey (JAX) (I couldn't think of anyone else for fear of jinxing him)
Coach: Jack Del Rio (OAK)
Comeback Player: Kelvin Benjamin (CAR)

So these are my NFL season predictions. Feel free to once again tell me how wrong I'm going to be.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

There is Nothing more American than Colin Kaepernick's National Anthem Protest

I admit, I hate reaction to reaction pieces in most instances. You're beginning to read one from me right now, and while this in many ways only fans the flames of incendiary nonsense instead of starting meaningful discussion about deep-seeded issues, they shouldn't. Hopefully, the piece you are about to read about Colin Kaepernick's protest does spark discussions that are necessary, rather than 140 character badly thrown barbs at each other.

Last night, Colin Kaepernick decided to not stand for the national anthem before the Packers-49ers preseason game in protest.

"I'm not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," he said after the game last night. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and away with murder."

Kaepernick is a "controversial figure", largely because of how his play has dropped precipitously from the season in which he lead his 49ers to the Super Bowl. While being benched in favor of Blaine Gabbert is pretty bad, his on-field performance is entirely irrelevant to this discussion. He is someone who has been a very vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and issues that have great importance to black America. He was called a "thug" for his tattoos during his and the 49ers rise to success earlier in this decade, so these "controversies" are not new to him. His taking a stand for issues bigger than football, especially in a league that doesn't like controversies like these as the NFL does, is admirable and should be praised.

But, as is customary, there is a major backlash to his protest. Most of the rebuttals are typical responses ranging from "protesting during the national anthem is the wrong time to protest"to "why would he protest a country where he could make the money he has" and of course, "if he doesn't like it here, he can leave". Most of these arguments have come from people who supposedly want to "Make America Great Again", though they never considered leaving to Canada even once, but again, that's missing the point.

Dictionary.com defines a protest as, "an expression or declaration of object, disapproval or dissent, often in opposition to something a person is powerless to prevent or avoid". The critical phrase in that definition is "powerless to prevent or avoid", and Kaepernick's protest is exactly that: a protest against the disproportionate violence against black people and the systemic and institutionalized racism that permeates our country. As an individual, even one with as much stature as he has, there is little he can do individually, other than start a discussion and potentially a movement. He is using his stature, much like Muhammad Ali, Mahmoud Abdul-Raouf and many others who wanted to protest issues facing this country by not rising during the national anthem, as is well within their rights to do so. But it is how the discussion of the protest that is defining this discussion, not the protest itself, and that's a shame.

In 2016 America, these protests are becoming almost ubiquitous. The Minnesota Lynx wore Black Lives Matter t-shirts in protest after the killing of unarmed black men just outside of Minneapolis, as is well within their right. That protest was met with much the same call as Kaepernick's protest was, and it's time to address these concerns one-by-one not to discount the right of people to disagree with it, but to show that there is a double standard that needs to be addressed.

"Protesting during the National Anthem is the wrong time to protest": As we saw in the definition of protest, there is never a "right time" to protest. In the first amendment (the same first amendment many are using to defend their points of view), it reads: "Congress shall make no law... abridging... the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to protest the government for a redress of grievances". The crafters of the Constitution knew explicitly that protesting the government needed to be protected because of precisely an argument like "there is a wrong time to protest". The country we are now having this discussion in was founded and created largely because the people couldn't protest the government for a redress of grievances. Once we lose that right because people say "there is a right time to protest", the fabric of what made this country begins to decay.

Then we see the second phase of this argument, which goes something like this: "The American Flag and the Anthem are indelible marks of freedom, liberty and American values and protesting them devalues that". I argue it actually strengthens it. There is nothing more American than protesting the government, and Colin Kaepernick is exercising the most basic and most powerful American ideals by doing exactly what his detractors are saying he isn't doing. Also, symbols are projective surfaces, and what they mean to one person doesn't translate evenly across all experiences and all sets of values. What the American flag means to me could be entirely different to what it means to someone in rural Alabama, or inner city Detroit, and that's the beauty of a country like our own. Accepting this as a bedrock foundation of our country is important, and that doesn't mean forcing your views onto someone else.

The third phase of this argument, which is arguably the weakest goes like this: "Kaepernick shouldn't protest because he has made millions of dollars in this country, and if he doesn't like it, he can leave". Just because someone has made millions of dollars in sports, business, entertainment or hitting the lottery doesn't mean they suddenly don't have a right to care about the political future of their country. Many people with more money than Kaepernick has use their wealth to dramatically influence policy in this country, and they don't get the same backlash for their opinions and beliefs as Kaepernick does. And the idea if someone doesn't like how the country is being run, then they should leave is so incredibly reductionist it almost borders on insulting. The problems facing many people like Kaepernick won't go away if he moves to Canada, for instance and if he doesn't then those he supports lose a critical voice in the discussion, while the tenor of the discussion doesn't change. "Leaving the country" is tantamount to putting your head in a bucket of sand to pretend problems don't exist, or turning to sports and saying "they're an escape".

I've written countless pieces on this website over the years about how sports and politics are forever linked, and to think otherwise is willingly turning your head the other direction, but especially in a year like 2016, these discussions and controversies are going to keep on occurring and the backlash will be exactly the same every time. This points to larger, underlying divisions in our society that go beyond Kaepernick's refusal to stand during the national anthem (or criticizing Gabby Douglas for not putting her hand over her heart during the anthem at the Olympics, when white athletes did the same thing and nothing was made over it, for instance). Athletes like Kaepernick have so much influence in the public sphere and they should be willing to use it to talk about political issues they feel need to be talked about without the fear of the backlash. More and more athletes, particularly black athletes, are doing this now and they should be applauded for it. Issues cannot be fixed without discussion first, and someone needs to spark that discussion. If singers, actors and other artists are allowed to do this, why can't athletes? And why can't they be just as vocal, if not more vocal, then their fellow American citizens?

Kaepernick's stand might well damage his career to a point where he cannot save it, and he acknowledged this and, even better, doesn't care. "This is not something I'm going to run by anybody. I'm not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed... If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right." And standing up for his beliefs in the face of that is what makes this stand and protest so important. He is like many other athletes who want to protest who know the capitalistic pressures put on them usually prevent them from protesting, and only very few can rise above that pressure. The fact that he doesn't care should encourage more athletes in similar positions to his to follow his example, and once enough of the public backs those stands, so too will the endorsers, teams and leagues. The 49ers statement, while not wholeheartedly endorsing his stand, didn't bury him either and showed some support for his endeavor. We may never know what is happening behind the scenes, but the public moves by the team are a good sign. The NFL's statement is much the same, and while they could easily say more, it's easy to understand why they aren't.

This entire controversy drives right into the heart of the racial divide in this country right now, and no matter whether we've made any progress in recent years, the fact that I'm writing this piece reminds us all that we still have a long way to go. And while we all can respect differences in opinion on this and other issues, as well as the right of people to have and own those differences, that goes too for opinions we don't agree with, and in many cases we might think are "wrong".

That is the crux of what the American flag means to me, and Colin Kaepernick, and millions of other Americans. The fear of the backlash should not discourage protests from anyone, and hopefully what Kaepernick has done is removed some of that fear for athletes and others willing to protest in the future.

There is nothing more American than protesting the government. Fear is un-American. All of us should not be afraid of other opinions and political viewpoints, because once we are, we are failing to uphold those true American values.

Friday, August 12, 2016

2016-17 Premier League Predictions (As of Now)

Another Premier League season of drama, intrigue and craziness is on the horizon. And while it's going to be fun and dramatic, it certainly won't be predictable. There are so many different combinations of the 20 teams you could create for many different reasons, and the table is often incredibly fungible. Opinions on each of the Premier League's 20 could change dramatically as the transfer window closes (and is a time to make far better predictions anyway), but in the interest of fairness I will be posted my current predictions as things stand right now and updated predictions once the transfer dust settles. We're going from places 20 to 1 here, in order to build up some of the drama.

20. Hull City: This pick seems relatively straightforward and easy. They've made no first team signings, have no manager, and their squad wasn't nearly Premier League quality to begin with. Good luck to the Tigers, as Assem Allam would want me to call them.

19. Burnley: While their accomplishments are something for a club from a town of 80,000, they don't have the funds or the players to compete with even the lesser teams of the Premier League, who can spend a fair bit more than they can. They've made additions that are more akin to a decent Championship club as opposed to a team trying to stave off relegation. That could change, but this has the feel of another club destined to go right back down.

18. Swansea City: Their story has been quite astonishing, especially considering where they were. But they've been plucked fairly dry, and the investment in the squad isn't there to replace what they've lost, and they've lost quite a lot. Spending 15.5 million pounds on Borja Baston is a start, though it might not necessarily be the right one. Unless the new ownership starts spending markedly more, and in more places, then the Swans might well be staring at relegation.

17. Bournemouth: Second season syndrome is a major concern for the Cherries, who have spent quite a bit of money but there are questions as to whether they've spent it wisely. Their defense is not very good, and it hasn't improved dramatically this summer. If a couple of bounces go wrong for them, they could be down.

16. Sunderland: David Moyes, like Tony Pulis, never gets relegated as a manager. But the constant turnover in the Stadium of Light dugout is never a good sign. The squad is a bit thin, but hasn't really been weakened this summer either. Moyes will be backed with some funds, and if he makes the right buys, the Black Cats might not need another great escape.

15. West Bromwich Albion: Most Premier League fans have wanted to see this club go down for years, but with Tony Pulis at the helm, they're likely not going to. He grinds out points when he needs to, and his team does what's required to stay in the division. Yes it means ugly football, but it means Premier League money flows into their coffers. With new ownership, maybe Pulis will have even more cash to spend.

14. Crystal Palace: Many have tipped the Eagles for relegation, and with Alan Pardew's track record that's not entirely surprising. But I'm not so sure. There's enough in that squad to at least keep them up, and Pardew could still easily be sacked and they could hire a better manager. Regardless of that, they'll find a way to scrape together enough points to stay up.

13. Middlesbrough: A welcome return to the Top Flight, Middlesbrough has a fascinating manager in Aitor Karanka and a fascinating squad to boot. He's added Premier League experience and quality while not disassembling the core of the side that got the club up. He's a combustible man though, so watch for drama.

12. Watford: Walter Mazzari is a fantastic manager that got short shrift at Napoli and Inter, and now finds himself at Watford. While you may criticize their technical side and how they move players in and out, their is little doubt that they can find quality in hidden gems. Mazzari's tactical flexibility, as well as good group of forwards should propel the Hornets up the table.

11. Southampton: This is not the club that has been a consistent top half side for the past few years under Pochettino and Koeman. This is a club that has been stripped nearly bare again by the vultures from everywhere domestically and abroad. Yet they always find a way, and Claude Puel is a manager that can develop youth and get the best out of what he's given. Saints won't be great, and the Europa League will hurt them, but they'll easily avoid relegation.

10. Stoke City: Mark Hughes has spent lavishly on fascinating players, but this seems to be Stoke's ceiling. They're very good in most areas (aside from striker), and very good can only get a team so far in today's Premier League. It might be time to ask questions about the ceiling for this Stoke squad, and whether they've hit it.

9. Leicester City: Last season's darlings have only lost one of their big three from last season, though N'Golo Kante is a massive lost. They've replaced him, and improved the squad in most areas. So why are they ninth? Well, last season's aligning of the cosmos won't happen again, as the Premier League's big boys will not be as bad as they have been, and Leicester's own obligations will change. They are a solid top half side, but repeating last year's exploits are basically impossible.

8. Everton: With Ronald Koeman, Everton will instantly be better than they had been recently under Roberto Martinez. But at the moment, their squad hasn't improved that much. The natural bump from being coached by a better manager will certainly get quite a lot out of this squad, but they're a work in progress.

7. West Ham United: Their move to the Olympic Stadium has coincided with spending big on some interesting players, including young Argentine striker Jonathan Calleri and winger Gokhan Tore. Their squad has a fascinating dynamic in it thanks to players like Dmitri Payet and others, but whether they can crack the Sky Six is another question. Likely Europa League obligations aren't going to help their cause much.

6. Liverpool: They will be better as a whole with more time learning Jurgen Klopp's methods and a better reshaping of the squad dynamic, but they're still a work in progress. No European football will definitely help them improve, but early injury issues as well as plenty of bloat still present across the squad means that they're not quite ready to reach for their heights from three years ago. They're an item for the future, but not the present.

5. Spurs: They haven't lost anyone of significance to this squad, they've improved in it two critical areas and there's added motivation after what happened at the end of last season. So why are they here? Depth isn't amazing, and there's a likely chance of regression for Harry Kane, Dele Alli and others even though they are still high quality players. They are a team that could easily be undone by one major injury, which is concerning. They're still really good, but their competition is too.

4. Arsenal: Right where they always end up. Signing Granit Xhaka addresses a major issue, but that's all they've done so far this summer. No high quality striker looks to be coming in, which is becoming the new not signing a defensive midfielder for the club, and their injury issues are also noticeable and could adversely affect the start of their season. Until something dramatic changes, either via transfers or change in manager, Arsenal will finish where they always do and with the same narratives they always do.

3. Chelsea: Not much has changed with a squad that finished 10th and shouldn't have been anywhere close to that, which is mildly surprising. But when one considers how horrible so many great players were, it makes sense to tweak, not transform. N'Golo Kante and Michi Batshuayi will make the squad much better, but the addition of Antonio Conte in the dugout will make an already stout Chelsea even more stout. Could they do with more trims and tweaks? Of course. But the lack of European football will focus the squad for a good run this year, though they're not quite title contenders.

2. Manchester United: So much money spent, so much more Mourinho, so much more intrigue at Old Trafford. Gone are the Sir Alex Ferguson days, in come the Galaticos in Manchester. They've added so much quality, though they paid a pretty penny to do it. While they still have issues, United are a genuine title contender for the first time since Sir Alex last lead them to one in 2013. They could easily win it, though Mourinho's welcome at any club doesn't last long.

1. Manchester City: Pep Guardiola with anyone squad is terrifying, even with one that is still broken in many places. But the emphasis on buying youth, especially players like Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus and John Stones will make this squad better both in the short and long term. If Pep can fix the central midfield, and also get the most out of some of the older members of this squad, City will waltz to the title. And it's amazing to think they're not even the finished article yet.

So there are my predictions, as of now, for the new Premier League season. Feel free to tell me how wrong I am.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Olympics in Turmoil! Host Cities not Capable of Doing their Job! Fact, Fear or Both?

In the lead-up to any Olympic Games, summer or winter, one will notice a trend: something is wrong with the host city. Whether it be stray dogs and LGBT rights in Sochi, air quality in Beijing, the Swine Flu before Vancouver's games in 2010 or Zika/feces in the water in Rio, there is always a controversy surrounding the run in to any Olympics starting. That isn't new. But what feels new is the critical mass of criticism for Rio just before that city's big moment. Even Sochi and Beijing, flush with controversies themselves, somehow never got the negative press that Brazil's biggest city is. What does this say about the Olympic Games, their legacy on host cities, and what the future of the world's biggest communal sports gathering is?

This idea was sparked by a short post from the Ringer advocating holding the Olympics in one city, permanently. Why should this idea be taken up? According to the author Claire McNear, it's because the games always go over budget, and that budget is insanely high to begin with, the proposed economic benefits for citizens of each city are never realized and the venues built for the games are often temporary and when they're not, they often become white elephants. All of this is 100% true. And it does look like future bids for Olympic Games, summer or winter, are coming from non-democratic states, and the 2022 Winter Games are cited as an example. A simple rebuke comes from looking at who is bidding for the 2024 Summer Games: Rome, Paris, Budapest and Los Angeles, but that misses the point.

While the Olympics have drifted away from their original message of world unity, shared responsibility, the glory of amateurism and athletic accomplishment to excess, commercialism and corruption, this is not a new trend. The last two Olympic Games to be held in the US; Atlanta in 1996 and Salt Lake City in 2002 are not bastions of everything pure and holy, are they? Both were defined by commercialism, patriotism and corruption... sound familiar? Moscow's Games in 1980 and LA's in 1984 were political pawns in the early 80's escalation of the Cold War, and recent games in cities like Athens, Beijing, Sochi and Rio have been opportunities for those cities, and countries, to announce themselves as 21st century world influencers. While the pitch for hosting the Olympics is almost entirely forged in lies and puffed up promises as the IOC takes its money and runs, when has that ever not been true about the Olympics and their organizing body? It's possible we're all paying more attention to it now that the games have been hosted in non-Western cities such as Beijing, Sochi and even Rio, because as much as we don't want to admit it there's a wider world beyond the US and Western Europe. Corruption largely favors these types of cities and states, and the IOC has been rife with corruption recently, but again, when has that not been true?

It is incumbent upon the IOC to change their message of what hosting the games will do for these cities and countries, and they have tried to at least forge that path recently under Thomas Bach. That has largely not been successful recently, but there is so much excess and corruption to overcome that it will take more than one man to force that change through. External organizations, people and countries need to be the ones taking that impetus, and hosting the games in one city permanently will not ever change the notion pervading the Olympics at present.

Presumably, that one city would be an American city, because the need to overspend on facilities won't be there, the infrastructure that most up-and-coming cities need to build already exists and there won't be any concern about Zika, feces in the water supply, slums or air quality. But if the goal of the Olympics is to bring the world together and expose new faces to us all, is that even possible if the Olympics are permanently held in Los Angeles, for example? Part of the glory of these major international sporting events is seeing the new cities, learning about their history and cultures as they become as much a part of the games as the athletes do. The IOC has to take ownership of the Olympics' reputation and realize that forcing cities to stick to arcane bidding plans and not change with the times for budget or any other reason is asinine and only hurts in the long run.

The modern Olympic Games are not anything like what the pure ideals pushed by Baron De Coubertin in the late 1890's were. There will always be controversies with every host city for every Olympics going forward, and totally cleaning up the IOC of what has pervaded it for so long seems an impossible task. But if the IOC, the cities and the public re-frame their expectations as to what the Olympics are about, and what the benefits are, the potential is still there for the Games to not become only about the host city being wrecked by the traveling circus. The IOC is trying desperately to change the perception of the Games by altering the bidding process, attempting to root out corruption, re-focusing the Games themselves on sports that may matter more to the individual hosts, and whether they're doing enough remains to be seen, but at least they're trying,

Rio's Games were awarded under an old system with an old President. So too was Sochi and Pyeongchang and Tokyo too. We may not see the true future of the Olympic Games until 2024, and whether anyone wants to wait that long to see progress is unlikely. But to say that Rio is the tipping point after almost all host cities before it dealt with the same problems manifesting themselves in different forms is a bit silly.

That doesn't mean that Rio's problems shouldn't be covered and covered extensively. They should. But they should be understood in context, not sweeping generalizations. Maybe these Games were over Brazil and Rio's heads, and likely they are. But that means we should cover the issues of these games well after the circus has left town, and look towards the IOC and the organizing committees and governments themselves and force them to change.

It's now time to let the Games begin, problems in all. Problems have now become a part of the Olympic Program along with track and swimming. Rio is not the first city to host these new games, nor will they be the last.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The NBA takes a Stand, and takes away Charlotte's All-Star Game

More often than not, sports leagues talk the talk when it comes to taking important stands on political issues and advocacy, but never truly walks the walk. Adam Silver's NBA has walked the walked since he took over for David Stern. While the episode with Donald Sterling certainly forced his hand, his response to it showed the gumption of a man that would be willing to take bold stances when not only required, but when he could put his league at the cutting edge of a discussion more leagues should be having: with their enormous financial muscle, they can influence key political decisions.

Taking away Charlotte's NBA All-Star Game next February, and the $100 million that would have gone to the state of North Carolina with it, is a stance that no sports commissioner in this country has taken voluntarily before. It is a public sign that the NBA doesn't stand for discrimination against a group of vulnerable individuals, and they won't just say they don't stand for it, they'll prove it. Most every league and team pays lip service to the LGBT community by having pride nights, working with organizations like You Can Play, etc. and those are good first steps. But, having realized that his league is in a position of power, not acquiescence, he made his move and subsequently set a precedent that other leagues will have to follow.

In today's climate of outrageous partisan division and little respect for those with different beliefs, some would say that it makes sense for a sports league, an entertainment product first and foremost, to stay just that to be the escape mechanism that many need to get away from all of the poisonous news there is. But with these leagues making the money that they do, much of that coming from public subsidies for the arenas/stadiums the league's teams play in, they have as much of a right to make a political stand as actors, musicians and other artists have had for years. Sports, in that they are entertainment and an escape, are no different to any of the other forms of entertainment and art that have existed for centuries, and therefore they have a right to take a political stand on issues they deem important.

Usually, these leagues only make decisions like this under immense external pressure. The NFL took Super Bowl 27 out of Arizona for not recognizing Martin Luther King day, under forceful pressure from the watching world. AFL players attending the 1965 AFL All-Star Game in New Orleans, after being ruthlessly discriminated against in the lead up to the game, decided to boycott the game and forced it to be moved to Houston. Athletes and sports leagues sometimes forget to realize the immense power they wield to influence change, but in 2016 that seems to be changing.

Whatever your beliefs on North Carolina's NC2 law are (it's pretty easy to tell what this writer thinks), what the NBA is doing here is unprecedented. Bands can take their concerts out of cities, states, etc. for political reasons, but they are just one band of many. All-star week in every sport is a major financial and perception boon for these cities, and attract all kinds of tourists, businesses, etc. to these towns that may not otherwise come. The NBA has decided that it is bad for its business (and the many businesses that rely on them) to have a showcase for itself played in a state that has a discriminatory law on its books. Paying lip service to the idea of taking away Charlotte's All-Star Game is one thing, and many would accuse those statements of being a leverage play, but Adam Silver wasn't bluffing.

Cities looking to pick up the relocated festivities include Chicago, New York and New Orleans. Louisiana recently passed laws against LGBT discrimination in public workplaces, a stark contrast to what North Carolina has been doing, and the states aren't all that dissimilar politically. Under pressure from other businesses and groups, the governors of Indiana and Georgia either changed or rejected similar to ones that North Carolina's governor Pat McCrory is steadfastly behind. Sports leagues, as incredibly powerful businesses themselves, have immense power to influence change where they want to but often times they play coy or put themselves in the middle so as to not alienate anyone, which now seems out of date and out of touch.

Gary Bettman, Roger Goodell, Rob Manfred, Don Garber and many other men have a tough act to follow and a tough precedent to meet that has now been set by Adam Silver. They, like Silver, run immensely profitable and powerful businesses that have the ability to impact meaningful change for the states and country they do business in. For their many missteps with regards to issues like this(as the WNBA has fined teams for wearing shirts with protest messages on them during warm-ups, a decidedly more nuanced issue than this one), these leagues can earn good will and good press by taking these stands. Many have clamored for them to do so for years.

In a year in which there has been too much negativity, Adam Silver's NBA answered that long waiting bell. He should be applauded and celebrated for it.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Mike Conley making $153 million: New Normal or New Lunacy?

Part of the insanity that is the NBA's free agency is watching the world react as middling players cash in as if they just won the Mega Millions jackpot. Mike Conley is making $153 million over five years (now the most lucrative in NBA history, which will last another week, maybe), Timofey Mozgov is making $64 million over four years, and Solomon Hill will now make $52 million over four years; all of those deals were agreed to yesterday. The NBA's salary cap went from around $70 million to $94 million thanks to the new and gigantic TV deals from ESPN/ABC/TNT, and the cap is going up even more next summer when even bigger free agents are going to be on the market. Naturally, athletes from other sports took notice:

So it is now true that middle-of-the-road, average NBA players are now getting massive, fully guaranteed contracts that perception would tell you they aren't "worth" and they don't "deserve". How did the middle class in the NBA start raking in the dough that the rookies can't touch and the big players somehow don't receive either. But, unlike what DeAngelo Williams and Emmanuel Sanders believe, this has become the new normal not just in the sport they're commenting on, but their's, as well as hockey, soccer and baseball. As fans, observers, and wannabee economists, we must all re-set what our expectations of "fair value" are, even in the era of moneyball and advanced analytics which have tried desperately to re-set those expectations in the other direction. How did sports leagues get to this point, and how can we as fans adjust our expectations?

In every major sport in this country, the wages that rookies can make are capped or slotted depending on where they are drafted, or in the NHL, playing as a rookie at all. The NBA has had a rookie scale since the 1998-99 lockout, the NFL's is new as of the recent CBA, MLB players are paid slot value based on where they are drafted, and NHL players entry-level contracts are bonus and incentive laden with little base money. So, as rookies are paid less and less in order to prevent madness like Matthew Stafford's initial NFL contract in which he nearly became the highest paid player on his team, or how Wayne Gretzky ended up becoming an Edmonton Oiler and escaping the Entry Draft, where else is the money going to go with established salary floors in the NBA, NHL and NFL? Combine this with the incentives teams have to re-sign their players in most leagues by being able to offer them longer term deals, very few high end players ever end up hitting free agency to begin with, and those that do end up being of lesser quality with the demand for their services increasing.

What also adds to the insanity is that in the NBA and NHL, contracts are artificially limited at the top end. A max contract is part of the NBA's furniture, as are contract lengths in the NHL to prevent what had become so prevalent in recent years before the 2012-13 to prevent backdiving the contracts to lower cap hits. Limits at the top and bottom ends of the scale have meant that those in the middle, in theory the largest group of players, get to reap the rewards that the big fish and rookies can't touch. This means that players like Mike Conley in the NBA and Milan Lucic in the NHL can strike it rich while better players sit out as they're tied down by restrictions that tether them when they're at the top of their game. Both leagues have a salary cap floor, or a minimum amount of money needed to be spent on payroll, which means that in order to make the floor as revenues spike for both leagues, who reaps the benefits of all that extra money in the system? The middle men. What is different about the NBA compared to its peers in the NFL and NHL is that those two leagues have prided themselves on parity and competitive balance that the NBA will never see, and because of the weird timing of free agency with this CBA and when the new TV contracts kicked in, the world has seen how average NBA players are making more than most NFL and NHL players will make in a lifetime.

The phenomenon of the "middle class" suddenly becoming unconscionably wealthy is not NBA exclusive. The NHL's supposed "middle class" is being paid out of proportion to even what the top players are worth, i.e. Andrew Ladd is making as much money next season as John Tavares is with the Islanders. While the NHL's hard cap and few exceptions to it mean that wages are more controlled than they are in the NBA, rising HRR and a new expansion team down the road means there is more money in the system for the Loui Eriksson's and Dave Bolland's of the world (he is the second highest paid forward on his team, even though he likely won't play a minute this season). And in the Premier League, as TV contracts massively inflate the coffers of every club thanks to largely equal distribution of those massive funds, as is the case in American sports, clubs like Crystal Palace are able to make 38 million Euro bids for players that should in theory be way out of their league, such as Michy Batshuayi, who is heading to Chelsea. There are no salary caps in the Premier League, and UEFA's Financial Fair Play is easily exploitable and practically worthless in practice.

What has now emerged from the NBA's Supermarket Sweep of spending on sub-standard second tier players is a crisis of perception, and potentially a labor crisis. Naturally, the owners in smaller markets are going to want to tamp down on these ridiculous contracts for the game's so called middle class, which the NBAPA is going to fight back on, hard. NHL owners are probably going to want to do the same, because there is no clean way to get out from under bad contracts in both leagues as the deals are almost fully guaranteed. NFL players are watching with earnest interest and wondering why they're not given fully guaranteed contracts considering the game they play and the dangers they face, and why their earning ceiling is so much lower than Mike Conley's, for instance.

Regardless of whether contract figures like what have been handed out in the NBA and NHL over the past few days are the new normal, and they are in many respects, there is a massive problem in creating not only equity within the system, but an effective tiered mechanism so players can be paid what they might be really worth, not what an inefficient and closed market believes they are worth. Thanks to the multiple and artificial limitations imposed on the closed markets for most leagues, including the NBA, the very few players who are not restricted in what they can earn and how long they can earn that for end up reaping the rewards, and fans and observers are left to scratch their head as to why.

CBA negotiations for all sports leagues are incredibly contentious, and will grow even more so as the money infused into these leagues continues to skyrocket, which makes the likelihood of any clear compromise that rectifies the inefficiencies and the madness unlikely. And as with every CBA negotiated in every league, a new and unforseen problem emerges every single time which ends up becoming easily exploited and renders most of the hard work from before practically moot.

Thanks to these inefficiencies, caps and the like, players like Evan Turner, Troy Brouwer and Mike Conley can cash in like they're on the Nickelodeon Super Toy Run while their respective leagues top and bottom feeders can do little if anything about it and onlookers peer on in shock, horror and amusement.

Mike Conley's $153 million record breaking contract is not the new normal. The future Mike Conley's getting similar if not bigger contracts is.