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Thursday, August 6, 2015

2015-16 Premier League Predictions

It almost doesn't seem like the right time to write out this large prediction set for the new Premier League season. The transfer window doesn't close until the end of the month, and therefore teams still feel incomplete until then. But, since everyone else is doing it, and I am one to bow to peer pressure on occasion, it's time to predict what will happen in the wild and wacky Premier League. There will be an updated piece when the transfer window closes, but this is what I believe will happen as things stand at 12:38 EDT, August 6 2015.

In order to do this, I'm going to steal a thought from Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe, breaking the Premier League into three separate mini-leagues: The Top 6, mid-table malaise, and relegation fodder. It's the best way of parsing the situation out without writing 20 individual previews and driving myself insane.

The Top 6:

The "Sky 6" as they're known often times have gate-crashers banging on the door, but they can never seem to break it down consistently. Before it was Newcastle, then Everton, now Southampton. Despite these "intruders" making a ruckus, the "Sky 6" often keep the party to themselves. Now while the team composition won't change, the order certainly might. Chelsea won the title last season using a barely rotated squad of world-class players that outpaced the competition almost by default. They have competition to fend off this season. Arsenal with Petr Cech in tow feel that they may have their best squad since the Invincibles of 2003-04, and there's smoke to that fire. Now if they ever signed a holding midfielder... The Manchester duo splashed the cash this summer, the blue half on a jilted Liverpool starlet, the red half on a former Bayern Munich general among others, but only one looks to have dramatically improved. The question for Louis Van Gaal has to be, what is the aim for this season? They'll more than likely soak up the Champions League cash, but they're not quite title contenders... yet. Manchester City meanwhile feel like a lameduck team waiting for next summer to make a splash, meaning this season may be more of the same of last year's second and arrow pointing down performance.

Liverpool feel as if they could win the title or finish 13th, and the margin for either is slim. They've once again broken the bank trying to re-jigger a squad that never feels settled using re-collected funds from the sale of a star whose shadow has grown too big for Anfield, and last year's spending spree didn't bring about much to cheer. Will this year bring new tidings? Christian Benteke is Premier League proven, and Roberto Firmino's rise for Hoffenheim has been notable, and exciting. Most of it will come down to a central defense that has not been improved, and a midfield that better hope Lucas and James Milner provides enough of a shield for the dynamic front 4 to work their magic. In the Blue half of North London, it seems Spurs are once again taking the long view, which as a supporter of theirs is still a shock to the system, but a pleasant one. Harry Kane is no fluke, but this means their season will probably end up largely like the last one: complete with mind-blowing and mind-numbing moments in equal measure.

Mid-Table Malaise:

The champion of this table (the winner receives a trophy made of reclaimed wood from their Eastern European Europa Excursions), is going to be Swansea City. With minimal investment made, they still look like a squad that will give everyone in the league headaches. Garry Monk has them playing beautiful and fluid football, and they have the quality to back it up. While it's not good enough to crack the Top 6, it will be good enough to safely avoid relegation and maybe give them a good cup run. Last year's gate-crashers, Southampton, will have the poison chalice of the Europa League to contend with, but for them that might not be such a bad thing. Ronald Koeman is an experienced manager who has dealt with the European headache/challenge before, and will be the one to get the best out of his retooled squad. Has some of the shine worn off their impressive seasons in 2013-14 and last year? As the English quotient drops, maybe, but there is sure to be a new star that blossoms from that academy that isn't a household name yet.

In terms of the other two clubs to round out the Top 10, how about two clubs that have radically changed their image over the past couple of seasons: Stoke and Palace? Stoke City were the team everyone hated under Tony Pulis, and for good reasons. They play anti-football, were generally pretty dirty (Charlie Adam), but always found a way to avoid relegation, much to everyone's annoyance and amusement. Now under Mark Hughes, a man that has ruined many a club previous to his arrival in the Potteries, Stoke are not only playing attractive football, but are attracting players that one would have never seen at Stoke just two years ago. They're becoming a home for rejected Barca wannabee's. They may have enough to give Europe a go this season. And about Palace, Championship playoff winners two years ago thanks to Kevin Phillips, they're now embedded in the party thanks to Alan Pardew, a sightly larger transfer kitty, and a counter-culture image. They seem safe from the slugfest below them.

Relegation Fodder:

If your team wasn't mentioned above, then they are here. But even then, there are three mini-tables that develop even here: the true relegation scrappers, those just above it but not by much and those who could fall there, but probably have just enough to steer clear all season. We'll begin with the "best" of those three.

West Ham United have already found their European Vacation to be going just as well as the movie of the same name did. Europa League is a major distraction, especially for a club like West Ham, so them dumping out of it ASAP may well suit them just fine as they attempt to stay in the Premier League for their Olympic Stadium move in a year. However, that won't suit West Ham supporters and the club, who have ambitions well beyond their means, even though Dmitri Payet is a statement of intent. They haven't looked good at all against mediocre opposition, which has to be concerning for Slaven Bilic, who doesn't look like he's done tinkering with his squad yet. Everton were just fifth weren't they? That feels like a long time ago. They have played attractive football, but their form fell as Europa League sapped their limited resources away. Without it, maybe they won't be as bad as they were a season ago, but then again just re-adding Gerard Deulofeu and picking up Tom Cleverly on a free doesn't inspire much confidence.

Newcastle United have some newly found optimism thanks to Steve McClaren and Mike Ashley opening up his wallet for once. The players they have attracted have surefire quality and show a statement of ambition, but this could still all go wrong, fast. It did for McClaren at Derby last season, and it's still Newcastle. It seems unlikely that they'll be dragged into the same ferocious relegation scrap as they were last season, but even then that seems unlikely at this stage.

Then, as the quality lessens, three teams standout as ones whose relegation fears are greater, but still may not be quite as dire. Aston Villa have some renewed optimism with a new sporting director, Tim Sherwood (!!!!!!!), and some quality signings, but it's still Tim Sherwood. They will play some wide open games this season, but with just enough Premier League nous they should be able to skirt the relegation car wreck. West Bromwich Albion don't have much quality anywhere, but they do have Tony Pulis, who has always kept the yo-yo up, not down. He figures to do much the same this season, which he did constantly at Stoke. Sunderland kept the manager they wanted to badly put off retirement, which is a positive, but many of them end there. Who is going to score goals for them? Do they have quality at the back? Is the malaise that has set in at the Stadium of Light of many draws, few wins outside of derby's, and constant relegation fears too ingrained now? This is something Dick Advocaat has to fight.

And for the true relegation contenders: Leicester City's great escape last season was truly great, but it still cost the fiery Nigel Pearson his job. The Tinkerman, Claudio Ranieri, is now in the dugout after a disastrous spell as manager of Greece, with even more pressure now squarely at his feet. The Foxes have plenty of quality to go around, but they still needed a great escape to escape last season, and that feels like it may be too much for them this season. Of the promoted sides, Watford feel like the one that will stay up to this man. Even though they've made a plethora of signings (with more to come, probably), the Pozzo family M.O seems to be have a club just good enough to avoid relegation constantly. Granada and Udinese seem OK with that, so it makes sense that Watford will too. Norwich City's squad isn't too different from the one that was relegated a season+ ago, which is both a blessing and a curse. They have a great squad for the Championship, but not quite one good enough to compete every week in the Premier League. Depending on how things evolve around them, the relative tranquility may be perfect in their relegation scrap, but the squad says otherwise.

And then we have Bournemouth, this season's Blackpool. This team is making its Top Flight debut after being around for over 130 years. They play in a stadium dwarfed in size possibly by your high school football team's house, are owned by a lesser Russian oilgarch and seem almost destined for a Blackpool style fate, but even then it doesn't seem to match the magic and mystique this club will have all season. Eddie Howe is a rising managerial star with his approach to the game and football in general, and it will not be a surprise that someday soon, he will be managing a bigger club. That day may come even during this season, but then again, seeing as he saved the club from the brink of extinction, maybe not. Relegation won't even feel like a step backwards this season because of the remarkable journey they've been on from the start. That Blackpool comparison might be an endearing one, but it's not a favorable one.

So after you've digested those nearly 2,000 words on the Premier League season, here are my predictions in order as of 1:40 PM EDT on August 6 (subject to change after the transfer window shuts and Jim White goes back into hibernation):

1. Chelsea
2. Arsenal
3. Manchester United
4. Manchester City
5. Liverpool
6. Spurs
7. Swansea City
8. Southampton
9. Stoke City
10. Crystal Palace
11. Everton
12. Newcastle United
13. West Ham United
14. West Bromwich Albion
15. Aston Villa
16. Sunderland
17. Watford
18. Leicester City
19. Norwich City
20. Bournemouth

If you disagree with this, and you probably do, tell me why I'm wrong. I have enough tweets to argue around.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Did You See That: Sports Hackers

Now that the FBI has dinged FIFA and the St. Louis Cardinals in a matter of weeks, they may never have better press than they do right now. But this story reported by the New York Times, indicating that the Cardinals are under investigating for hacking the Houston Astros player database, had me wondering whether other teams are doing the same thing. I have desperately been calling my sources across all sports, and have found some interesting tidbits. I've been told all of the passwords to these secret networks have been changed in the last few minutes... or have they?

--> Dan Griffin's personal player database had been protected by the password, "Lebron4MVP" during the playoffs. It had been "Who is really the GM?" during the regular season. Interestingly enough, the passwords are font protected.

--> Sam Hinkie's Sixers computer had the password "Panzer", which surprisingly no one even came close to guessing. Post Draft Lottery, it's been changed to "howitzer". 

--> Skip Bayless has a computer (this is news enough) with the double-password protection of "Johnny" and "clutch". It used to be "Tebow", but after a 7 year-old managed to break through along with his Jets fan father, Skip had no choice.

--> In a rather surprising development, Dave Nonis' old computer for the Leafs was password locked by the word "Corsi". This might be why no one else ever mentioned it in any Leafs front office meetings.

--> Evander Kane's phone is locked by the password "tracksuit", apparently as extra motivation. 

--> Jack Warner's network of financial accounts were protected by the password "Blatter", in an effort to remind himself who to thank when the checks cleared. 

--> One of my sources tried to find his way through the morass of sports twitter accounts that troll in plentiful amounts, and found that over 1,000 of them had the password "nice". He figures there will be 42,069 further sports accounts with the same password.

--> As I type this one out, I'm being told there's an abnormally large group of people named Ted whose passwords are all the same. It's a funny password chain... in any order the passwords are, "promotion", "relegation", and "American". Strange.

--> Jurgen Klinsmann's Californian computers have both a German and English password for even more protection. However he seems to have overwritten both with the chain of "Zelalem" and "fitness". 

--> Finally, what did the former Cardinals officials who moved on to Houston use as his passwords? "Best Fans in baseball". Funny how that when it was tried in Houston, the officials were repeatedly locked out. So eventually, the passwords were changed. To what? "Commencing countdown engines on". 

This is not to encourage anyone to begin hacking secret team computer networks. The FBI is already on a roll with good PR, and finding your sloppy hack-job is only going to inflate their egos. That means you, James Dolan. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Reign of a Dynasty

Sports fans are often concerned with perception, bot contemporaneous perception and historical perception of any given team. Pub and talk radio discussions often center on discussions about historical greatness, namely the term "dynasty". The older definition of a sporting dynasty was three consecutive championships in any given sport, and in the past dynasties were not only common, but almost expected. Every sport has had it's dynasties, but as money has been pumped into the game and the playing field has been artificially leveled, sports fans have to re-define what a dynasty is in the modern game.

Such is the discussion now centered around the Chicago Blackhawks, Are their three Stanley Cup victories in six seasons a dynasty, a modern equivalent, or an insult to the term? The context of the Blackhawks greatness lies in the constraints of their time; namely an increasingly restrictive salary cap that has prevented them from keeping Cup winning teams together. After their 2010 triumph, out went Brian Campbell, Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg and Antti Niemi, and in came two consecutive first round exits as they rebuilt. By their second cup in four seasons, in came new faces like Johnny Oduya, Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, Michael Frolik, etc., and the Hawks came out on top again. The core of Kane, Toews, Keith, Hjalmarsson, Hossa, Sharp, Seabrook, et al stayed intact. 

Now as they are crowned champions for a third time in six seasons, they once again face a cap crunch that will see many faces depart for pastures new by force, not by choice. But with the core that they've kept together despite the cap ceiling rapidly approaching them, they've been as dominant a team as hockey may ever see in the salary cap era. The Los Angeles Kings, one of the few teams to find a way to beat the Hawks in this run, missed the postseason after two cup wins in three seasons, and the Rangers nearly became the first teams since 2008-09 to make the Final in back-to-back seasons, but they were foiled by the up-and-comers from Tampa Bay.

Maintaining a playoff team in the cap era is not as difficult as it seems, even though turnover is part of the game every season. Maintaining a consistent cup contender is incredibly difficult. The Blackhawks have found this out, so have the Bruins, so will the Kings. Team construction has been changing and become as malleable as ever even as the styles and systems individual teams play have become more and more homogenized, which makes Chicago's consistent reloading of complementary pieces almost unheard of in the modern era of hockey. They've won with the same coach too. The Red Wings won their Cups with different coaches, so did the Devils. 

Nick Leddy's move to the Islanders was a precursor of moves to come this offseason as the cap barely climbs and the salary burdens of Toews and Kane increase rapidly. The Blackhawks have made five Conference Final appearances in seven years, which is the best appearance rate since the Avalanche made seven straight from 1996-2002, and they only won two titles in that period. Even the Devils from 1995 to 2003 had early round exits and even missed the playoffs one year despite winning three titles in nine years. 

With the brilliant managing of Stan Bowman, it's entirely conceivable that the Blackhawks are back in a similar position next season, making their claims to dynastic status even stronger. But regardless of what the new look Hawks do in the future, what they've done in the last seven years can qualify as a dynasty, since it's entirely possible no one tops it any time soon.

Winning back-to-back championships is almost nigh-on impossible in modern sports considering the artificial parity enforced by salary caps, luxury taxes, consistent player movement, advanced scouting methods and rapidly rising player salaries. Hockey is a team sport where every player has a role to play and an important one at that, which is why the bloodletting that took place after the 2010 championship meant two "lean" years for Chicago. Maybe more will come as the Western Conference adds a generational talent to its ranks, but that is rendered irrelevant at this very moment, when the hockey world is celebrating a great, maybe historic champion.

The old definition of dynasty is as antiquated as where the term originated from, but by the changing definition of the term, these Blackhawks are a dynasty. What came before them and what will come after is not relevant now.

Winning consistently, as the LA Kings have found out, is incredibly difficult. The Blackhawks have made it look easy for all of these years. For that, they should be awarded the crown. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

FIFA had its Blatter Removed

I personally hope that John Oliver likes the taste of Bud Light Lime, the McDonalds dollar menu and wearing uncomfortable Adidas shoes. Earlier today, Sepp Blatter announced suddenly and shockingly that he is resigning as FIFA President and a new one will be elected within the next 4-5 months. How did this happen so quickly? John Oliver obviously played a critical role, but what else led to this happening almost overnight?

With the New York Times reporting that a money transfer was made by FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke to disgraced former CONCACAF head Jack Warner to the tune of $10 million before the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, many are wondering if this landed too close to the feet of the (now former) FIFA President. Could Warner, even in his public defiance, have flipped on him in private? Something has to have happened, either from the authorities in Switzerland or the US telling him to stand down or else (even though he's probably going to be arrested if the paper trail nabs him), or maybe Sepp's personal clock told him it was time to stop the charade. Something tells me the investigation was getting a little too close to his office. Swiss General Authorities have said that Blatter is NOT under investigation at the moment, but could well be in the US. 

Adidas was making waves that it could be thinking about removing its sponsorship of FIFA, and aside from the FBI and DOJ, the sponsors have the real power to incite change, and after Sony had dropped out last year. Visa did too. It's not too much of a coincidence to believe that this played some role, but a mass exodus of sponsors would probably have been needed to cause something like this to occur. Did others make gestures to FIFA together? That we may also never know. 

Did the talk of the UEFA boycott of the 2018 World Cup do something to force hands? Probably not, even as the British media pressed the story as hard they could, and that was the nuclear option. Strong rhetoric is just that.

Did Sepp Blatter care about his legacy enough to preserve it? Probably, but why did he run on Friday? But Blatter doesn't think the way the rest of us do. He'll certainly take credit if the reforms do get passed. If the posse was getting close...

Whatever the reason for this, hopefully this is the beginning of the change that FIFA needs from the very top, to the local confederations around the world. FIFA needs restructuring like what the IOC went through after the Salt Lake City vote bribing scandal hit the fan. This will take plenty of time to see the true reforms and the true changes, especially considering the next Presidential election may not occur until January. The entire structure of FIFA is rotten, and the new President is only the tip of the iceberg in the reformation process. A possible re-vote on the 2022 World Cup is so far down the line of causality, and that line is as winding as the Swiss Alps (2018 is probably too close and too entangled with already tetchy international issues to be removed from Russia). 

This day belongs to football fans around the world who have had to put up with this nonsense and see the game been treated like an ATM machine. Credit needs to be given to the journalists who have fought the fight to report on FIFA's corruption, including those at the Sunday Times and especially Andrew Jennings, who has been beating this drum for at least 10 years and must feel some vindication on this day.

Whoever replaces FIFA has plenty of work to do. Blatter has about 4-6 months left before this extraordinary Congress is held. The next few months will be a fascinating study as to what the World's game is going to become.

But for today, we should all be drinking a drink that "tastes like the puddle underneath the dumpster behind a Long John Silver's". It won't taste like that (for today, at least). 

Friday, May 29, 2015

FIFA needs it's Blatter removed

   The world, including the soccer skeptical American media watched with (feigned) horror as Sepp Blatter was re-elected as FIFA President for a fifth term. Many new to the wonders of FIFA have openly surmised how a man who runs such a crooked organization can be re-elected without incident and so much as a serious challenge. But Blatter's FIFA operates outside the bounds of logic, and we all must remember that when projecting what the next few years for this organization will be like.

  Blatter's centers of power lie in those nations that feel they have none, especially in the eyes of world football. So that means nations like the US, England, and to be honest most of the Western world will not support Blatter because they don't need his support to push the game forward. But Papua New Guinea? Montserrat? Burundi? These nations owe much of their soccer fortunes to Blatter's FIFA giving them (the heads of the respective associations that is) the cash they need to build pitches, promote the game, etc. It is, for so long why Canada was despite its stature willing to play FIFA's game. 133 nations out of a possible 209 likely fell into this boat.

  73 votes for Prince Ali of Jordan is a sizable dent in Blatter's seemingly impenetrable armor, yet it was merely a flesh wound. Blatter can speak openly about wanting to reform FIFA, but he doesn't need to seeing as it won't help him maintain his grip on the organization he's basically become the symbol of, for better or worse. When he was confirmed as President once again, he talked about Oceania needing a larger voice on FIFA's ExCo, which makes little sense in logic considering 11 football playing nations comprise the Oceanic football federation, and 10 of them are minnows who play football with farmers, doctors and basic day laborers, not professionals. But Blatter's base of power remains in nations similar to those, and until there is a reason for them to not support Blatter, they'll keep him in power.

   Business at FIFA is done how it is done in most of the non-Western world, and no one should be surprised by this. Western standards do not apply to an organization that was taken from being a 12 person outfit based out of a Swiss shack to the most powerful sporting organization in the world, almost overnight. While the DOJ and FBI might scare some in FIFA, and scared some of the federation heads to flip their votes, it didn't scare quite enough of them. Too many footballing nations owe most of their meager possessions and goals to Blatter handing them over, especially the ridiculously wealthy federation heads.

  No matter how many expose's are published about FIFA's corruption from the media, no matter how many whistleblowers come forward and say bribes were pushed in front of their eyes, and how many empty threats are made by Michel Platini, Greg Dyke and others about dropping out of FIFA and/or boycotting future World Cups, these are all going to make Sepp Blatter's position stronger. He is the master of turning a negative into a positive. He is the master of mending diplomatic wounds, and a master of knowing when is the right time to change his tune if it suits him. Remember, he voted for the US as host of 2022 World Cup, not Qatar.

  So what is next for FIFA? For the short term, the status quo. FIFA is running tournaments as I type this in New Zealand and Canada, and has more coming the rest of this calendar year. Unless Swiss authorities or the FBI find more dirt to arrest more executives, the investigation will go on behind the scenes while everyone waits for the next seismic shock. It might take years to find the smoking gun that could force Blatter out or extradited, or that votes for the Qatari World Cup were in fact bought illegally. Maybe UEFA or the USSF will take the dramatic step and try to force FIFA's hand, but until then, it's business as usual. Changes may take place at the heads of CONCACAF, CONMEBOL, at individual federations, and FIFA may ban former members of their organization as necessary PR lip service, but until the next shoe drops, it's business as usual.

  Many of us will watch the U-20 World Cup, the Women's World Cup and the qualifying draw for the 2018 World Cup in Russia that take place in May-June-July. FIFA is inescapable around these times. But if these past few days have taught the world anything about FIFA, it is this:

  Dealing with an illogical organization logically gets no one anywhere. And as Sepp Blatter and FIFA proved today, there is no logic at that complex in Zurich.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

My Thoughts on #BabWatch

  The eagle (complete with a stack of $100 bills in its mouth and not a worm), has landed. Mike Babcock is the 30th coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The shock is complete. So many thought if Babcock didn't stay in Detroit he'd move on to Terry Pegula's oil bucks, and instead he moves on to the telecommunications riches of the two largest media companies in Canada begrudgingly working together. If Mike Babcock succeeds, he's a hero of the highest order. If he fails, might well be time to fold the Leafs and start over. Will it?

   The story that was being fed to us through the media was that Mike Babcock was searching for a new challenge and that money was no object in his search for a new job. He had it both ways in Toronto. He knew MLSE and the Leafs were desperate and would pay whatever his price was to bring him in. They had thrown away so many years and dollars down the drain with failed coaches, general managers and expensive players before and Babcock knew exactly that. He could play the Red Wings off the Sabres, who openly flaunt their wealth, and then the Sabres off the Leafs, who are even more flush with cash.

   What did Babcock want out of his next job, exactly? The media spin from before the hire now looks entirely different. Babcock likely wanted (and will get) some personnel say in Toronto because of the murky management structure beneath Brendan Shanahan. He would not have had that in Buffalo, and evidently he didn't have enough of it in Detroit. The Red Wings are by no means the dynastic behemoth they were 6 or 7 years ago, but they're closer to a Stanley Cup than the Leafs are. Hell, the Sabres are closer to the Cup than the Leafs are, because you can pinpoint three young building block centers and a few dynamic wingers to build around. Tim Murray's professed method of building a team (a la Dean Lombardi and the Kings) would also move the Sabres towards competitiveness quicker than the Leafs scorched earth rebuild.

  It's a risk. A calculated gamble from a man whose ego will not be bruised severely if it fails in Toronto, but a risk in all respects. The Leafs are starting entirely from scratch, and even with their megabucks behind them, success feels like eons away. Mike Babcock has always had a strong foundation wherever he has had success before. The 2003 Mighty Ducks had a goaltending masterclass from J-S Giguere, plus players like Paul Kariya, Petr Sykora, Adam Oates, Rob Niedermayer and others. The Red Wings team he walked into had Pavel Datsyuk, Nik Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg. His Canada gold medal teams were fantasy teams. What does he have in Toronto? Morgan Reilly? Jonathan Bernier? William Nylander?

  Mike Babcock is the best coach in the NHL. But how much better is he than say, Alain Vigneault, Jon Cooper or Joel Quenneville? $4-5 million better? That remains to be seen. Does Mike Babcock have the patience to go through the promised scorched earth rebuild, or will his instincts push him forward and the rebuild forward and possibly endanger it? All of these questions will be answered soon enough, but the answers to those questions could well determine the future of the Toronto Maple Leafs and many teams around the NHL at large.

 Mike Babcock has taken a gamble in which he either wins massively or wins just a bit less. The Leafs have gone all in. Will they turn up trumps or turn up another bust?

  It's Toronto, so no matter the optimism, a bit of brevity might be needed.

Monday, May 11, 2015

What did we Pay for Again?

   While the sports world was infatuated with Tom Brady's deflated balls, a far more serious and disturbing issue has gone practically unnoticed. Keith Olbermann will explain:

   
    So those "hometown heroes" segments done to burn the 150 second TV timeouts were not done out of the kindness of the heart, or common courtesy to soldiers who have seen unspeakable tragedies in front of their own eyes in defense of our country? Paid for by the Defense Department, more than likely. The Atlanta Falcons were paid over $1 million for these over 3 season, and 14 NFL teams were paid a total of $4.2 million during the same period. Forget circumstantial evidence about deflated footballs and double standards of a broken justice system, this is where outrage should be directed.

  (WARNING: POLITICAL OPINIONS AHEAD) I am not a fan of the military-industrial complex. I am not a fan of the increased militarism in sports. I understand that I have written pieces about how sports and politics are inseparable, and they still are, but outright overt militarism is one part of the sports experience that rubs me the wrong way. Maybe it's my own biases against war and the like, but if any sports team is to honor soldiers; heroes that they are; it should not be done because the Defense Department needs a helping hand in getting a new recruit. We should honor soldiers because they deserved to be honored for their sacrifice, and no amount of money should remind anyone to do that.

  A simple "thank you for your service" is often enough for any veteran to feel appreciated and thanked; they don't need to be trotted out in front of 65,000 fans who didn't want to wait in a long line to grab a hot dog. If you want to be further disturbed, there are contracts between the National Guard and high schools to do much the same thing done at your average New York Jets game. The budget overall last year for recruiting at sporting events, according to a National Guard spokesman, was over $49 million.

  That in of itself is not a problem. A volunteer army needs to recruit somehow, and sporting events are not a bad place to try to recruit. The contracts themselves are also not by any means not kosher; it's no different than say MetLife Stadium being named what it is. The key difference, as Olbermann and many others have pointed out, is that MetLife Stadium isn't named that because of admiration for the work of the company. Stadiums are sponsored for the money, and that's made perfectly public. These contracts were not.

  The fact that the Defense Department used your tax money to pay sports teams to do something they should either a) be doing on their own accord without incident or b) let be known that these contracts exist is incredibly disturbing to me, and should be to everyone.

  The public's sentiments towards the military goes in ebbs and flows, and right now the public and the military have a very cordial relationship. Who is to say, as Olbermann points out, that when the public perception of the military is not where it is now that these contracts won't look even worse then? Even in my sphere, where there is too much overt militarism at sporting events, I am not against honoring the military in public, even if a simple thank you will often suffice.

   The government should not have to hide these contracts and have the sports team pass off honoring the military as something done out of good faith. Admitting that the Defense Department has to pay sports teams to do this still should leave a bad taste in your mouth, but at least it is known that a contract has been signed. Once again, MetLife Stadium isn't named that because the Jets and Giants "admire the work of the company".

    Many teams honor the military without these contracts, or those contracts haven't been revealed yet.

   But pre-packaged, marketed and feigned patriotism using your money to buy off public sentiment and good will towards the military in a time when the military and public have a cordial relationship?

   That is the true injustice.