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.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

A 17 year-old in Switzerland?

      If you believe reports coming out of Switzerland, the near consensus best player in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft Auston Matthews will play his “one-and-done” year in Switzerland, not in the WHL or at any number of colleges. This is unprecedented, not only from an American player but from a player of Matthews’ quality. So does this set the stage for future players to do this, or is this, like Matthews’ 2015-16 season, “one-and-done?”

    For Matthews’, this might, surprisingly, increase his draft stock. Scouts will rave about his “maturity”, not only on the ice playing in a professional league but off the ice playing in Europe and in a different hockey culture when he’s only 17. Matthews played with the US World Junior Team this past year and didn’t look at all out of place, and almost made the World Championship roster at the same young age. If anyone wants to split hairs, they could say that the Swiss league is not the best in Europe, but for Matthews, who is already the likely number one pick anyway, that probably won’t matter.

    While Auston Matthews might not be the level of prospect Connor McDavid is/was, he must have watched his domination of the OHL and thought to himself that playing in the WHL might not benefit him much, especially since he’ll only play there for one season. He may have also watched Jack Eichel at BU and thought that he may well dominate college hockey too, no matter what school he chose. And since he’d be one-and-done anyway, why even bother with the cost of attendance and education he’s not going to need anyway?

   Matthews will not only be making money playing in Switzerland, he’s going to be making himself an even better prospect to whoever’s fortune gives them the #1 pick in Buffalo 13 months from now. He’ll now have a professional year under his belt, which has helped prospects adapt even easier to the NHL in their rookie seasons, and he’s giving scouts more to praise him for than he would if he stayed within driving distance of their houses.

    The question is: will more North American prospects do this? It depends on how good the prospects are, since the more scouts can watch them in person, the more they’ll end up being talked about. If they go to Europe, they’ll be talked about less. But if there are high end prospects whose standing with scouts can’t be lowered by being talked about less, playing a season in Europe can’t hurt at all. A good number of European players end up plying their trade in the CHL to adapt to North America, but the reverse is almost non-existent. Maybe Matthews will start a trend for more prospects to try out a season in Europe regardless of how scouts will view their draft stock.

   Matthews may end up being an isolated case, or the forbearer of a future trend. His success in Switzerland will determine that. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Confirmation Bias of Confirmation Bias

      Digesting the content of the Wells report has been difficult. Investigator Ted Wells found that Tom Brady likely deflated footballs and was complicit in the process, which by the letter of the law is cheating. For many people, this is just another reason to hate Bill Belichick, Brady and the New England Patriots. Whether's it's true anger, perverse happiness for joke fodder, or jealousy manifested into faux anger means little, but it does confirm two facts about the present state of sports right now: The silliest of silly stories become national epics, and more than ever people believe what they want to and shut their minds off to the other side.

   Do I believe Tom Brady deflated footballs deliberately? What would he have been doing participating in deflating footballs otherwise? Does this really matter all that much in the grand scheme of changing the outcome of games? Spygate had far more serious implications and accusations. It's also apparent that the Patriots have been tampering with game balls (snicker, snicker) for a good period of time before the AFC Championship game. All of this is irrelevant to me because any of us who have played sports have tried to find slight legal advantages (such as when I played tennis, I called close shots out more than in), and a few slightly deflated footballs isn't going to change the outcome of a 45-7 game.

   But since this was the Patriots and not say, the Rams, this story has become front (and back) page news across the country, and even garnered a quad-box on CNN (since there wasn't anything else important going on the world at the time like an election in a country with nuclear weapons). These stories that become massive news in the sports world like this or Lebron's headband makes one really wonder why they'd invest themselves in sports as so many of us do. But in an area when hard news and good reporting is often shunted for silly stories, shouting and #hottakes, this is not much of a surprise.

  And then, oddly enough, Patriots reporter Tom Curran tweeted out a link to a four year old article from Psychology Today which is a confirmation of confirmation bias. This should be taken with a grain of salt since a Patriots reporter did tweet it out, but most of the reaction to BallGhazi is proof of not only confirmation bias' existence, but its power. In everything, we believe what we want to believe and end up subconsciously talking ourselves into confirming our own biases. In a world where almost everyone has the ability to speak their mind freely and stand atop a large platform to pronounce their opinions to the world, confirmation bias will only end up being stronger.

   So if you wanted to believe that the Patriots and Tom Brady are serial cheaters, this will do nothing but enhance that notion in your eyes. If you are the staunchest defender of the "Patriot Way" and the people in charge in Foxborough, almost everything you will say will confirm that view, even if your logic and reasoning makes no sense (tune into Boston sports talk radio and have fun). Nothing from this silly, pointless story means anything to me other than the existence and strength of confirmation bias in sports.

   Which includes my own biases about confirmation bias. Have fun deciphering that when you get a chance. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Main Event

      Last night, the world was captivated by the newest "fight of the century" between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. Many in this country plunked down 100 of their hard earned dollars to watch the fight, and then many of those same people moaned about it after Mayweather had won. Personally, I wasn't interested in an event where a serial bigot faced off against a serial domestic abuser in a sport whose object is to punch your opponent repeatedly in the face, but I must not be as neolithic as many Americans, or citizens of the world. But did the majority of people who watched the fight and gave it so much attention really want a revival of boxing? No.

    The sports culture, and indeed the entertainment culture of the United States, is defined by our collective love of an event. The Mayweather-Pacquiao bout was another in a long line of events that have captivated the country, but our collective OCD forces us to wipe it from memory soon after it ended.

    One of boxing's great champions, Howard Cosell, disowned the sport almost 30 years ago. Boxing hasn't captivated the country's attention so much as the hype of a big fight has, and so many after Cosell have noticed that. Tyson, Lewis, Leonard, Holyfield, and right on down the line have all been involved in big fights that have drawn considerable attention, but it hasn't meant that boxing is undergoing a revival in the American sports conscience. We watch because it's an event, with spectacle, panache and intrigue.

    Earlier in the day, Horse Racing took center stage with the Kentucky Derby. If one just looked at the numbers, they'd probably surmise America loved horse racing. Would a triple crown winner as American Pharaoh could be really boost the popularity of horse racing in this country? No. The Belmont Stakes would be just another event that captured the country's attention, because of the spectacle, panache and most importantly, the ability to gamble. A Triple Crown winner would be great, but in the same way that a prized heavyweight bout is a great sight, and right on down the line.

   Every four years, this country is captivated and entranced by the stories of the Olympic Games, both summer and winter. Does this country really love cross-country skiing, moguls, ice dancing, track, swimming or gymnastics as sports, or spectacles? There are obviously many that are devotees of those sports, but the majority who watch these sports even on tape delay during the Olympics watch because they are events; events that have human interest stories intertwined with the competition. Throw in a bit of noxious patriotism and voila, ratings.

   As much as I wanted last summer's World Cup viewing numbers to mean something for the sport of soccer in this country, the US/Portugal, US/Ghana and US/Belgium games were again nothing more than events; chances to sit around the collective figurative bonfire and celebrate our country together, even for a sport that not too many follow religiously. It's just like the Olympics, only with a different face.

   Even though the American sport of choice is football, what is the Super Bowl other than a massive event? It has everything: noxious patriotism, overt capitalism, a concert in the middle of the game, and more people watch any given Super Bowl in this country than live in about 190 countries around the globe. Not everyone who watches the Super Bowl is a football fan; many are watching for the commercials, or the halftime show, or because they're at a party with friends. The Super Bowl is a football showcase, but it's an event for the general public too.

  Why are award shows guaranteed ratings bringers? Award shows of absolutely no consequence draw at least 10 million viewers for the alphabet networks and many others, because they are events. Nothing more. Do many people really care about who won the Grammy for best R&B album? Unless you're a true devotee, or a devotee of quiz night at the pub, of course not. But it's live, a show for the senses and again a chance to come together as a collective, so naturally they'll all draw ratings. Heck, the Kids Choice Sports Awards, quite possibly the most useless awards show in the history of award shows is probably going to draw five million viewers in the dead of summer because... Events! We all love our events!

   All of that was a long-winded way of saying: The Mayweather-Pacquiao fight was nothing more than another event that America became obsessed with, and it will be an event quickly forgotten when the next big event comes around. That's who we are as sports fans, and as Americans.

   So anyone who was talking about this fight as one that would bring boxing back into the popular mindspace of sports fans, or that when it ended it would be boxing's death knell:

   If another fight can garner the hype and the intrigue, I'll certainly be writing this same piece once again whenever that happens.