Thursday, March 19, 2020

You don't know what you have until it's gone: Life with sports during the Coronavirus Pandemic

When I wrote about Kobe Bryant's death in January, I wondered aloud why even though his impact on me personally wasn't great, the emptiness I felt that day was nothing like I've experienced before. I concluded that it was because he was an ever present constant beyond basketball; his presence was taken for granted. His story was the prime example of "you don't know what you have until it's gone".

In the last week, the sports world across the globe went from looking nervously at the coronavirus pandemic to being almost entirely shut down with a Thanos snap. There may be a few stragglers, but on the whole, professional and amateur sports are shut down as the world tries to fight back against this pandemic. Even at the lightest time in the sports calendar, there is more than enough going on to keep your attention. "You don't know what you have until it's gone" couldn't be a more perfect phrase to describe what sports means to us as a society; never thinking that they could ever go away like this, perhaps for months. We didn't know what we had with sports until they were gone. But without them, not have we gained a better appreciation for what they mean to us, but what they've done to get us through these difficult times.

Sports are a cultural meeting ground, an exchange of ideas, beliefs and experiences where disparate people come together to laugh, cry and scream. What happens when that meeting ground is closed? Do those people get to come together anymore? Can they come together in another way? Do these people have another outlet with their time now that their primary love has vanished? What about those people whose lives depend on sports indirectly, like those arena and stadium workers who aren't going to get their paychecks, or the bar owner down by the stadium who overnight has no business? Perhaps until now, no one ever fully grasped how wide the sports net is cast not just in this country but across the globe and how many peoples lives depend on the machine continuing to hum.

But morbidly, sports meant so little so recently. As the pandemic began to spread rapidly across North America and Europe, watching sports felt so empty. Sean Farnham of ESPN said this during halftime of a ACC tournament game after the news broke that Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19: "does any of this really matter?". In one fell swoop, sports went from considering playing in empty arenas to almost entirely going silent in a matter of hours. As much as us the collective misses sports, having them go on right now would be entirely pointless. Out collective energies need to be spent fighting this pandemic, not yelling at a referee for a bad call.

A week without games of any kind should have felt emptier, lonelier and worse than it actually has. Perhaps that's the gravity of the global situation hitting home after too long of not taking it seriously. Perhaps that's the realization that sports of any kind like we took for granted for so long might not return until Memorial Day, perhaps even later, and that this week is the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps its knowing that the tangled web of those affected by this virus, from Gobert to Kevin Durant to a CAA Tournament referee would eventually affect almost everyone sooner rather than later, playing in empty stadiums or not. Could we as sports fans and human beings collectively hold that guilt that we endangered people because of our own blind devotion to "normal"?

But without sports, who knows if the world, particularly the United States, takes this as seriously as they needed to. Without Rudy Gobert testing positive, the dominoes that knocked all sports out might not have reached the corridors of power, which forced them to activate every tool in their arsenal to deal with a public health crisis like none of us have ever seen. When the history of this pandemic is written, sports will play an incalculable roll in that history. Without Rudy Gobert, sports might still be playing in full arenas and stadiums, and how many people would have been infected, hospitalized and killed because of that?

Our nation's first PSA about safe practice during the pandemic even came from a football coach:
When this pandemic is finally under control, sports will play an outsized role in bringing society back to normal. Coming together is something that puts so many people in danger during the pandemic, but when it's safe to put 19,000 people in an arena and 70,000 in a stadium, it will be a celebration of not just sports, but what life was like before social distancing and flattening the curve. That first sporting event in a full stadium will be a cathartic release for everyone, like when the Mets and Braves played at Shea Stadium right after 9/11. It will be a sign that the normal we took for granted is coming back, and that we can come together again. Our partisan allegiances will be put aside because even through the worst most bitter rivalries in sports, we're all there because we love these games, and what these games mean to us.

For most of us, sports were an ever present constant in our lives that we are all desperately yearning for in these trying times. As much as we miss them, think of this even through the horrible news of the pandemic: they might be the reason we beat it in the first place, they will be one of the first places where society can let out a collective sigh of relief when we do beat it, and our love of them will grow exponentially when they come back because we now know what life is like without them. The small collective sacrifice we made when it was needed the most will save lives, and will help us get back to the normal we all crave.

Even in their shocking absence, sports have taught us so much about the world that we didn't know or appreciate before. That might help us save lives during the pandemic, and be even better fans and people when it's done. We didn't know what we had with sports until they were gone, but even through the dark times without them, I can't wait to see what life is like with them again.

Friday, February 28, 2020

2020 MLS Predictions

With MLS' 25th season about to get underway, here's a prediction column with my likely to be wrong thoughts about the new season. If you want more detailed analysis of certain aspects of the new season, you can find it here. With that said, here are conference predictions and more for 2020:

Eastern Conference:
1. NYCFC
2. Atlanta United
3. Toronto FC
4. Columbus 
5. Philadelphia
6. New England Revolution
7. DC United
8. Inter Miami
9. New York Red Bulls
10. Orlando City
11. Montreal Impact
12. Chicago Fire
13. FC Cincinnati

Almost every team in the East has the potential to be something greater than what they were, or what their predictions say they could be. One could argue that almost every team in the East can make a playoff push. In reality, about nine teams have a realistic playoff argument, and only three or four can be guaranteed a spot. Inter Miami as an expansion team is closer to LAFC and Atlanta United than Minnesota or FC Cincinnati, but there are quite a few unknowns that keep them from being a playoff team at this time. The most surprising non-playoff team is probably the New York Red Bulls, who are at the bottom of the league in payroll, and constantly punch above their weight. But this season, with this deep a table, that doesn't seem feasible anymore.

Western Conference:
1. Seattle
2. LAFC
3. LA Galaxy
4. Portland
5. FC Dallas
6. Sporting KC
7. Minnesota
8. San Jose
9. Real Salt Lake
10. Colorado
11. Houston
12. Nashville
13. Vancouver

With Seattle's shocking CCL exit, they now have more time to focus on MLS exploits, and they will be angry. They're going to be really angry. They often stumble in the early parts of MLS seasons and that could happen again, but it's more likely that their focus is sharpened even further now. LAFC will have more CCL exploits which will affect their league form, and winning a trophy is more important than another points record. Sporting Kansas City is one playoff team that didn't make it a season ago because the standards they have will allow them to improve defensively after a horrific season last year. RSL are a team that have intriguing roster questions to answer, and their preseason hasn't answered them in a cogent way. Nashville SC is much more like FC Cincinnati and Minnesota compared to their other expansion bretheren.

Supporter's Shield Winner: NYCFC
East Champ: NYCFC
West Champ: LAFC 
MLS Cup 2020 Winner: LAFC

MLS MVP: Nico Lodeiro (SEA)
Golden Boot: Josef Martinez (ATL)
Newcomer: Chicharito Hernandez (LAG)
Comeback: Milton Valenzuela (CLB)
Rookie: Henry Kessler (NE)
Defender: Eddie Segura (LAFC)
Goalkeeper: Stefan Frei (SEA)
Coach: Ronny Delia (NYCFC)

Last year, my predictions were fairly disastrous. That's why there's never a bad time to try again. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

The NFL, London, the Jacksonville Jaguars and fandom

Sports fandom is inherently irrational. Why would anyone invest so much emotional energy, time and money into something they cannot control as so many do? The euphoria and catharsis of watching your team win is one aspect of the phenomenon, but mostly, it's about the shared experience of being a part of something larger than yourself. For whatever reason someone is fan, there's someone else someone that shares your feelings, experiences and ideas and that makes this human experience a little less lonely.

So many sports stories are tied to civic pride, the pride in a community that has been passed down from generation to generation like a right of passage. That pride is tapped into and mined for all its worth, for better and for worse, by the sports leagues that use it to make the billions of dollars they make. Sports teams are considered integral parts of their communities, part of a cultural fabric that not only defines a team for its own community, but shines a light on that community elsewhere. Nothing else in the human experience is quite like sports fandom.

Why am I starting a piece about the NFL's London games with this screed on sports fandom? Because when the Jaguars announced they'd be playing two home games in London and not just one, the veneer, the appearance and the image of fandom the NFL is trying so desperately to market, cultivate and produce is shattered. If fandom is a matter of civic pride, how can anyone take pride in a team that plays one quarter of its meaningful games in "its" city somewhere else? How can these teams make so much money off of selling something they themselves can't even sell anymore? And how can this league claim it is about the fans, even when the veneer of that is so easily thrown away for uncertain propositions and unanswerable questions?

The NFL has wanted a team in London ever since it started playing games there in 2007. A team in London means an untapped revenue source is now tapped for all its worth, and the NFL can expand its reach beyond North American shores in a way that other leagues do that they haven't. They believe what they're selling that has made them so much money in North America is going to make them even more in Europe. That's the short of it. 

Every business wants to make as much money as possible, and some do a better job of it than others. Some businesses also hide their inherent greed behind a message that's easily digestable and marketable. For the NFL, that's the fandom story from earlier. Trying to move a team to London is an attempt to build that narrative in a new market, but is at the same taking it away from a place where they had already built it up: in Jacksonville. Take away the logistical hurdles a team would have in being in London, even if they're primarily based in the United States, the labor laws, the currency conversion, the collective bargaining issues, take that all away for a second. 

If the NFL's core business is getting people to spend all this money on their product in season tickets, concessions, merchandise and in time, and its based largely in civic pride, how does moving two of those critical money making dates to another city help a team do that? How does that build a long term fanbase in that city based on said marketing plan when one quarter of those dates are somewhere else, even if the team is branding itself based on the city they're supposedly based in? In other words: how does playing two home games in London make the Jacksonville Jaguars more likely to stay in Jacksonville? How does it help them win a Super Bowl, which is the ascribed goal of every NFL team?

The Jaguars have talked so often about "local revenue", which is marketing speak for ticket sales, sponsorships, things of this nature. The Jaguars are low in this regard not just because their market is small compared to other teams, but under Shad Khan's ownership, the Jaguars are 38-90. Most people in Jacksonville and the surrounding area have decided to not spend bad money on a team that hasn't proven it can win, which is the entire point of running a sports team and the entire point of following a team in the first place. The London games are basically an accounting trick for the Jaguars to increase their local revenue to be "competitive" with other teams, allowing them to invest more money into the region, the team, etc. But there are multiple problems with this line of thinking.

If winning brings in revenue, and moving two home games to London doesn't help the Jaguars in any way get closer to winning a Super Bowl (they're 3-4 in London since 2013), how do these two things line up? They don't. And there is another issue: NFL teams don't need local revenue to make money, certainly not in the way they have become multi billion dollar business on their own, let alone the league as whole. In the Jaguars example, Shad Khan paid $875 million for the team in 2011. It's now worth, according to Forbes, $2.325 billion. His team, though it has a winning percentage of less than .300 since Shad Khan bought the team, and has so many local revenue issues it must play two games in London to cover that shortfall, is now worth $1.5 billion more than Khan paid for it at the very least. This is before the NFL signs new TV deals that could be worth $10 billion combined or more per season all predicated on TV ratings in the United States that forms the backbone of the league's advertising behemoth. How does that improve with a team playing two games in London, especially a team in a market where every game is so crucial? Other small market teams like the Packers, Bills, Bengals, etc. do not seem to have this problem. When it was clear the NFL's Toronto experiment with the Bills failed, they stopped it.

The Jaguars are not any more popular a team in London than they were when they started playing games there, which was supposed to be the entire reason the NFL played games there in the first place. If you weren't a football fan to begin with, why would your entry point to the sport be a team that is this bad no matter where they play? And if you're already a fan of a team, you're not giving up your allegiance just because a team started playing games a little closer to you. If your team is not playing in those games against the Jaguars Jacksonville or London, you're not going. The NFL even gave money to Tottenham Hotspur to retrofit their billion dollar new stadium for NFL games and the Jaguars won't even play there because Shad Khan owns a different London soccer team!

If the NFL's entire marketing empire was built on capitalizing on the irrationality of fandom, the house of cards falls apart when a team is splitting its time between two cities where it cannot plausibly claim to be one or the another. This was the issue with the Chargers, Rams and Raiders in their disastrous moves to their new cities. When it became clear the league and the teams were not operating in good faith with the fans and their cities, people opted out. The Chargers are a lame duck in Los Angeles without a fanbase in the place they left or they place they went to, so much so that their new shared stadium with the Rams is becoming a financial drain on both because PSL's for the Chargers aren't selling even at dramatically cut prices. 40% of Raiders PSL's in their new Las Vegas stadium come from outside Nevada, showing the Raider brand is far stronger than the city they play in, but how long can that last? 

Shad Khan and Mark Lamping have talked all the time about being invested in Jacksonville, but how can they be when the biggest civic asset, its football team, isn't playing 25% of its meaningful games there? Does playing games in London bring any key business to the city of Jacksonville that would help the Jaguars and the city be more successful? Does it show a commitment to the civic and business community that investing in the team is worthwhile with advertising dollars, building projects and down the line a new stadium? The Jaguars seem to think so, but do the other stakeholders, including the fans? Based on the anger coming out of Jacksonville with the news, even though it was expected, it doesn't look like it. It's made worse by Khan somehow expecting a positive reaction from the news, which is the height of tone-deafness. 

So are these London games a not-so-subtle push from the Jaguars ownership to get tax payer dollars invested into new projects designed to make the Jaguars money and will probably not return their investment to the city proper, using the threat of relocation as a specter to get those deals? Is the NFL using the Jaguars as a guinea pig to test the overall viability of a permanent franchise in London with eyes to eventually move them there as they greased the wheels for it? Are both entirely clueless as to how to market themselves locally and abroad? It's not entirely clear. The NFL's history of moving teams from city to city is lurid, and its history of coaxing cities out of taxpayer money for stadium projects that don't create any appreciable benefit is even more lurid. What the league has been really good at for a long time is hiding that greed behind the veneer of fandom, civic pride, love of the game, etc. 

But in recent years, that veneer has been shattered, and this episode with the Jaguars and London is breaking it even further. Good fans and a vulnerable city are being used and abused by people who have far less to lose than they do, and the NFL is complicit in forcing the situation deteriorate to a point where the fans in the city the Jaguars claim to represent don't want them and the place they want to go doesn't want them either. And if the NFL's entire money making empire is built on the irrationality of fandom, then the house of cards quickly falls apart with no way to put it back together again. 

The worst feeling for a fan is apathy. If they're happy or angry, they're invested. Apathy is the opposite of that. When apathy seeps in, the money making machine doesn't work so smoothly anymore. Fandom shouldn't feel like a job, it shouldn't feel like the travails of every day life. Watching a team chronically lose is bad enough, but when the central reasons for being a fan are slowly sucked away, apathy becomes the only way to cope and eventually move on.

Every move the Jaguars have made under Shad Khan has replaced intensity with apathy, love with anger and hope with despair. And what for, a move to London that may never materialize or never work, all for a few more dollars out of a city to build projects that should have been built ages ago? What is the point of that? Fans want to talk about wins and losses, players and coaches, not about tax payer dollars going to a building project that should have been done already because if it is finished, it might keep the team around

Shad Khan and the NFL better be careful. They are acting like everything they have, they've made and earned is a given; a rite of life. During the Great Recession, many business acted like that, hence the term "too big to fail". Is the NFL too big to fail? It might not seem it, but based on the way this league and this franchise is treating the London question, they're acting like it. Jacksonville can eventually move on, but can the league?

The NFL can be successful internationally and its Jacksonville franchise can be successful locally without this policy of mutually assured destruction. They don't seem interested in trying. And it is costing the league money, but more than anything else, trust. With that, the entire empire begins to crumble. 

Monday, January 27, 2020

What does it mean to always be there?

Kobe Bryant's tragic death left so many people shocked, heartbroken and empty. I spent all of yesterday trying to parse out why I felt as empty as I have ever felt in my life before. Kobe Bryant was a generation defining athlete, but he never played for a team I supported. He is a Delaware Valley native, as am I, and I know people who had a much closer relationship to him than I did. I never even saw him play in person. I had no idea why I felt as I did; bereft of thought, ideas and even a concept of reality.

After an entire day of retrospectives, tributes and unvarnished pain from so many across the world, I think I figured out why I felt the way I did and still do: Kobe Bryant's presence was so outsized that it felt like he would always be around; he was so ubiquitous and influential that it felt like he was a fact of life. He wasn't just immortal, he was a constant like gravity or the earth's axial tilt. To see him go, so fast, so suddenly and so young is not something any of us were and are able to understand.

Kobe Bryant was always there. Even if he wasn't playing, he was a constant presence over everything in sports. You could see him at any given NBA game, or on the sidelines for a US Women's National Team game, or giving a bear hug to PK Subban or Alex Ovechkin because he was that ubiquitous. Athletes the world over have cited him as inspiration for what they do and why they are who they are, even if some of them can't make a shot if they yell "mamba". He wasn't just a generation defining athlete, he took that and expanded upon it after he was done playing, the likes of which no one had done before. Nothing would ever deny him in anything he ever did, and that included being a presence absolutely everywhere.

In his best moments, he was always there. In his worst moments, he was always there. When he wasn't his best self, a good teammate or even a good person, he was there. Whether he learned from his mistakes on or off the court, he was just there. Whether you personally believed he repented for his actions and learned from them, he made us ask questions no one else could. Such is a man who earned the right to be an outsized presence in our collective lives that his every move was important somewhere to someone, for better or for worse.

Perhaps some of that intense and insatiable competitive fire that drove him to his greatest successes and also dragged him to his lowest moments had flickered in retirement, but he was still a constant presence because he earned that right to be one. It wasn't just in basketball; he was announcing a major sponsorship deal for his sports drink Body Armor in MLS a week or two earlier, for instance. But even when he wasn't directly there, doing something that reminded you of the five time NBA champion and to-be Hall of Famer, he was still there because his impact, his influence and his legacy transcended his otherwordly skill set.

What he did, what he started and what he meant will not go anywhere though he himself is no longer with us. Such is a human being with such a giant impact in so many places that his untimely death may have physically registered on the Richter Scale. Our fundamental understanding of what is, what was and what will be feels irreparably shaken because Kobe Bryant is no longer physically here, even if so much about him always will be.

Every human being is there for a small group of family, friends, colleagues, etc. Some manage to create a larger impact than just that, and there are a select few who rise to the level of what Kobe Bryant became; someone whose death took away so much from so many who he touched, because his presence became so large, so great and so impactful that he himself felt like a fact of life; a constant and something in a world so divided that everyone agreed on without hesitation.

My prevailing emotions weren't so much sadness and despair as they were confusion, emptiness and bewilderment when I saw those tweets scroll by. I couldn't process how or why something like this could happen, because someone like Kobe Bryant is more than just an athlete, a father, or even a human being. He had become something more than even a superhero. He felt like a fact of life because he was always there. He was going to do something that made you go "yep, that's the Mamba", even if not as often as he once did because that's what he was and what he was always going to be.

That's gone now. It can't make sense to so many because a fundamental aspect of our lives and our understanding of it is gone now. It may never make sense.

How long will it take for us to feel whole again? For some, perhaps never again. His legacy, his impact and his name are eternal, and so too might his presence even after death, but that might not even be enough because he is no longer here. He was going to do something that re-enforced to us all that he was still the Mamba because he is, was and will be, and now he can't.

Perhaps that's why I and so many others felt so empty and drained. Life will go on, and there will be a new normal without Kobe Bryant around, but it won't be the same without him being there, because he always was, and we figured he'd always be.

But he's not anymore. That doesn't make sense. It may never make sense.

Monday, December 30, 2019

2019 NFL Season Predictions in Review plus Playoff Predictions

It's time for a tradition unlike any other: reviewing preseason predictions of mine that went haywire almost immediately. In the NFL, even when we think we have a good idea of how things are going to go, we don't. More than any other sport, the NFL makes us look like fools, particularly the owner of this humble blog. So how bad did it go? Let's see.

AFC Playoff Predictions (with actual order following):
1. Kansas City 13-3 (Baltimore 14-2)
2. New England 12-4 (Kansas City 12-4)
3. Pittsburgh 10-6 (New England 12-4)
4. Houston 9-7 (Houston 10-6)
5. LA Chargers 11-5 (Buffalo 10-6)
6. Cleveland 9-7 (Tennessee 9-7)

A good healthy does of being wrong here. I, like many, bought into the Cleveland hype, but hedged on them winning the division. They happened to be the Browns again with shinier toys, and the Steelers were decimated by injuries at the skill positions, causing them both to miss the playoffs. Lamar Jackson absolutely did show improvement as a passer, leading the NFL in touchdown passes while his team ran for the most yards in NFL history. No doubting Lamar again. The Chargers also lost many games in typical Chargers fashion as that roster aged and suffered more and more bad luck by the week. It might be the end of an era for that team.

Buffalo turned out to have just enough offense to complement their fantastic defense, and they feasted on a bad enough schedule to get into the dance. Predicting the Titans would make the playoffs wouldn't have been a bold decision, but getting there with Ryan Tannehill emerging would be. The other three in the AFC were about as lock solid picks as you can get.

NFC Playoff Predictions (with actual order following):
1. New Orleans 12-4 (San Francisco 13-3)
2. Philadelphia 12-4 (Green Bay 13-3)
3. LA Rams 11-5 (New Orleans 13-3)
4. Green Bay 11-5 (Philadelphia 9-7)
5. Atlanta 10-6 (Seattle 11-5)
6. Minnesota 10-6 (Minnesota 10-6)

Two whiffs in the NFC to talk about. San Francisco had the potential to emerge after last season, and most certainly did with a dominant defense and a versatile, varied and creative offense from Kyle Shanahan. They're the NFC's favorite to head to the Super Bowl, which is impressive after they spent half a decade in the wilderness. The LA Rams started to fall apart around the edges after their contract situation got messy, and it's only going to get messier while they have no first round pick until 2022. They also have Kyler Murray and Arizona sneaking up behind them.

I'm also mildly embarrassed about buying into the Falcons hype, well not so much hype as believing last season was derailed solely because of injuries. They finished strong, but that doesn't say much, because they did last year to some degree as well. They're also bringing back their entire brain trust, which also doesn't make much sense. Seattle was on the outside looking in for me preseason, and they did get in, but they are too thin at too many positions and had just enough luck to win just enough games to get in.

Award Predictions (with comments following);
MVP: Patrick Mahomes (never a bad guess, but Lamar Jackson locked this up in November)
OPOY: Julio Jones (it won't be him. It could be absolutely anyone though, plenty of choices)
DPOY: Aaron Donald (another solid guess, but it's looking like Chandler Jones of Arizona)
OROY: Miles Sanders (solid, but AJ Brown of Tennessee, Josh Jacobs of Oakland have good shouts)
DROY: Josh Allen (he would win it if he didn't play for a bad team. It will be Nick Bosa)
Comeback: Jimmy Garoppolo (Another QB who made a great comeback will win it, Ryan Tannehill)
Coach; Freddie Kitchens (the less said about this, the better)

My preseason Super Bowl pick was the Andy Reid Bowl, Kansas City and Philadelphia. Both teams at least made the playoffs, but it doesn't look like this is a likely outcome. What do I think will happen now?

AFC:
3) New England over 6) Tennessee
4) Houston over 5) Buffalo

1) Baltimore over 4) Houston
2) Kansas City over 3) New England

2) Kansas City over 1) Baltimore

NFC:
3) New Orleans over 6) Minnesota
4) Philadelphia over 5) Seattle

1) San Francisco over 4) Philadelphia
3) New Orleans over 2) Green Bay

3) New Orleans over 1) San Francisco

Super Bowl 54:
Kansas City over New Orleans

So I didn't change my pick all that much. You can call that hedging. I call it trying to retroactively make myself look good.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Hockey's Culture Shock

In hockey's recent history, no two weeks has fundamentally shaken the foundations of the game more. First, Don Cherry was fired from Sportsnet and Hockey Night in Canada after racist remarks about immigrants during Coaches Corner. Cherry's comments and opinions weren't new, but the environment around him changed while he did not, and after not apologizing for them, he was let go.

Hindsight being 20/20, Cherry's firing was the first domino to fall in a series of earthquakes shaking the very foundations of what hockey has been for generations. When Mike Babcock was fired from the Toronto Maple Leafs last week, stories began to trickle about his tenure and what happened behind the scenes, and some of those stories were not pretty.
Babcock asked then rookie Mitch Marner what players had the best and worst work ethic on the team, which was then publicly shared. Babcock did apologize, but the damage was already done. Babcock has a reputation for "mind games" like this that precede him, but there can be no doubt other past and current coaches have done something similar, but have not made it past the dressing room walls.

By late Monday night, the avalanche was getting bigger and bigger. Akim Aliu, a former NHLer, said that a Babcock protege, Bill Peters, targeted racial slurs at him when they were both in the AHL in Rockford. Next, a former player of his in Carolina, Michal Jordan, said that Peters physically attacked him:
When current Hurricanes coach and then assistant Rod Brind'Amour confirmed multiple incidents like Jordan's occurred, the avalanche grew larger still.

Many of these stories stayed behind dressing room walls for so long because of the culture that enabled this conduct in the first place. People in hockey have looked the same, talked the same and acted the same for generations. When these people stop playing, they become coaches, administrators, managers and in many cases their children, who grow up knowing nothing different, come into the sport in the same way. What is created is an insular, territorial culture of deference to power, fear of speaking up and out and a siege mentality that forever prevented the outside world from being let inside hockey's ivory towers, and this culture festered without anyone able on the outside or inside to stop it.

Hockey is now being forced to reckon with itself over its own past, its own mythologized ethos and existence and its place in a world that is changing while it steadfastly refuses to.

Stories like those are far too common, and far too commonly stay behind closed doors, thanks to some of the most common tropes in hockey culture: players don't want to say anything for fear of being "a distraction", for fear of taking away from the team, and for fear of what happen when you do stand up to authority figures who aren't used to being crossed and aren't prepared to be.

In the case of the Marner-Babcock episode, one player did try to stand up and protect the player, and he paid the price by being scratched and ostracized:
Because hockey is such an insular world, with such little new blood being accepted into its inner circle, people who grew up used to this power dynamic end up going from players to coaches and managers, therefore continuing the cycle. In this cycle, players are then "programmed" to accept the culture they're in and play a role in it knowing the only way they can achieve their goals is by playing the game they're entered into at whatever cost.

That isn't how this sport has to be, but it is certainly what the culture around hockey has developed into. With these stories now becoming public, the fallout from them growing by the minute, and with certainly more to come, hockey and the people in charge of the game now have to address not just how it got to this point, but why, and how the ball of yarn can be unraveled.

Last spring, in the same plot of concrete outside Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, fans gathered to watch the Leafs and Raptors play in the playoffs, but the groups of fans doing so looked entirely different. For the first time in generations, hockey as a sport had to ask questions about why things looked so different, and why its position as a dominant cultural pillar in Canada was now under some doubt. The culture surrounding the game, and the people in charge of pushing that culture, now had to answer existential questions about themselves and their actions for the first time, and they're going to be under the microscope more and more as these stories multiply.

How can hockey begin to change, and how can the people in this sport begin to find the solutions to problems they never knew existed before? An important first step is to bring more people under the tent; people from outside hockey's small ecosystem. People with different backgrounds, experiences and ideas need to be not just on the ice, but in positions of power in hockey associations to change policies, to embrace new ideas and create channels for more people to brought in. Those people in power will have to cede some to others, because it's clear that many are not equipped to deal with the issues that lead to chronic abuses of power.
There is a line between tough love and abuse, and in hockey, that line has been blurred to the point where it is unrecognizable. With a new generation of players emerging having been empowered through social media, and seeing what their peers in other sports, particularly basketball, are capable of, they don't willingly subscribe to the hockey power dynamic without asking questions first. Those questions create tension, tension creates friction, and friction creates heat. In that heat, there is pressure, and the pressure might now finally cause changes in a sport where they are long overdue.

If new voices can be brought into places like Hockey Canada, USA Hockey, the NHL and the like, they can bring perspectives to a world that has had so few new ones, and those players who don't fit the typical hockey stereotype can now see that they belong just as much as their stereotypical peers.  That means more women, minorities and people who came into hockey from different angles have to be given the chance to lead and the chance to influence people in the sport who otherwise haven't know any different. Some of that is happening because modern players are so different than previous generations, but they cannot do this own their own.

More friction is to come, because people who have power don't give it up willingly, or easily. More prominent people in the sport might not come through the other side with their reputations clean anymore. But if this is the first step in hockey reckoning with itself, its past and its present, then perhaps finally its future will not be what it has so desperately clung to for so long.

When Robin Lehner told the world of his mental health struggles, the sport wrapped its arms around him in support. During the Humboldt bus crash, the hockey world cared for its own and showed why so many people come to this game again and again in spite of its costs. There is plenty of good in this sport and it needs to be amplified, and now is the best chance yet to celebrate that and push it forward.

Hockey own's mythology is being shattered. There is a chance to build something new in its place, and there's no better time than the present to build something new for this sport which desperately needs it.

Friday, October 25, 2019

The Human Element, or lack thereof

What drives progress? An insatiable determination to push boundaries, defy expectations and create something new, or making something existing better. Human beings are hard wired to do this; if not, we'd still be living in caves in Africa. We've always asked about what's in the next valley, what's over that ridge, and that is part of how we as a species have gone to the top of the food chain.

Our hunger to explore, push forward and cross boundaries is what has made us successful. That innate desire is manifested into different forms in the 21st century world, and in a sports context, that can be seen in explosion of analytics and new thinking into roster construction and evaluation. Perhaps no team has embodied that more than the Houston Astros, who went all in on analytics, new thinking, innovation and an "us against the world" mentality like no other. It has taken them from doormat to World Series champion and one of the best teams in the sport. But that has come with a cost.

Not only have they made enemies in the sport thanks to their approach and their attitude concerning it, but also because in that culture, they seem to lack something critical: empathy. The actions of their AGM Brandon Taubman, the subsequent defending of his actions and the sudden reversal of their stance only three days later by firing him unceremoniously on a World Series off day, has brought to light not just questions about the Astros culture, but the culture of modern sports and beyond: have we lost the human element?

There was no doubt that Taubman's actions, and subsequent lying about them, merited his firing. But, even in his guilt, he was enabled by those above him who will skate on, with nary a consequence other than some egg in their face. They created an environment in which concerns about the human condition are secondary at best. Trading for Roberto Osuna in the first place, in the middle of a 75 game suspension for domestic violence, was a mistake but one that in the Astros culture was never perceived as one. Osuna was an asset that the Astros could buy low on and use in their ultimate pursuit: winning. Whatever the costs were in this acquisition, they were viewed solely from a transactional context, not a human one. If he could get a few strikeouts and help Houston win, no one would remember, or bring up, that he may have committed a felonious offense.

If anyone brought up that the Astros were, as an organization, incapable of understanding human beings as human beings rather than just assets, or pawns on a chess board, they'd symbolically point to the rings and banners at Minute Maid Park as a defense. What does it matter that we're not "people person(s)" if we're winning? As it turned out, such a culture breeds contempt, defensiveness and a stunning lack of empathy, all borne out not just in Brandon Taubman's callous comments towards a group of female reporters, but the organization's even more callous and shallow response. The Astros were in this together, in this foxhole, fighting against the rest of baseball. More often not, they won. Except here, they were catastrophically defeated.

Tim Kurkjian has been talking about baseball's lack of feel for people in recent years as the league has gone more knee deep in numbers, information and innovation. For all of the transactions, numbers and information, baseball is still one human being with a bat in his hand at a time against nine other human beings trying to hit a ball, with the key there being human beings. As much as viewing sports from a transactional, asset management perspective has invigorated discussion about these sports, they have sucked away too much of what makes sports so unique in the human experience: human beings and their stories. With Taubman, Luhnow and Crane, there was never a concern about other human beings and their reaction to acquiring Roberto Osuna, and then using him as a shield to defend the organization from their own self-inflicted wounds. The only concerns were winning, but not just that, winning in their way.

Sports teams exist to win, of course. Some do find a way to re-invent the wheel and win "their way". But at what point does that mindset cost too much from a human perspective? At what point can the human cost no longer be ignored? When do people become empowered in this or any other sport not for their intellect, scouting acumen or innovative ideas, but for their empathy? Their understanding of someone else and ability to make them feel comfortable, to be their best selves? And as baseball has to deal with the fallout from the Tyler Skaggs situation with the Angels, a situation very different yet eerily similar to the one in Houston, one has to wonder whether that empathy that made this sport, and so many sports so inter-connected with our culture, our identity and our psyche, is where it needs to be,

One Astros player said this week, according to ESPN's Jeff Passan, "forget about the a-holes in the front office. This is about us". There may be no quote more apt in vividly describing this situation, and so many others in sports, than that. For all of the information, the knowledge, innovation and ideas percolating in player acquisition and evaluation brought over from business, science and elsewhere, sports are still human beings playing games.

Too often, we forget that. And when we do forget that, do we have the ability to see situations like the one Houston coming? And if we do, do we have the tools to prevent them from happening again?