Tuesday, December 20, 2016
LSU's Leonard Fournette and Stanford's Christian McCaffrey made waves by announcing they'll skip their team's respective bowl games in order to better prepare for the upcoming NFL Draft. Is this a growing trend that will soon be "out-of-control"? Do these players now suddenly have character concerns according to anonymous NFL scouts that will affect their draft stock? Are they actually benefiting from skipping their last chance to get on film before April's Draft? Is this just another chance for people to shout their opinions loudly into the ether?
Fournette and McCaffrey have honed into something that the powers-that-be in college football have known for years: the sport is a cold, hard, business. Conferences, coaches, TV networks, etc. have all treated a supposedly "amateur" sport like a business for decades but the wider world scoffs when a player realizes he can make a business decision too. If schools can jump from conference to conference for money, and coaches can jump from school to school for money, then why can't the players who represent these schools and play for these coaches make the same decisions?
Bowl games obviously don't mean what they used to, simply because there are now so many of them. Playing in the Sun Bowl meant a lot more when it was one of say 17 bowl games instead of 40, and in 2016 the only notable aspect of the Sun Bowl is that its on CBS opposed to ESPN. Sure they might not be happy that McCaffrey decided to skip out on the Sun Bowl, as ABC execs will be displeased that Fournette is skipping out on the Citrus Bowl, but the games will go on without both players and those who are most interested in the games (i.e. the fans and gamblers) will watch anyway.
The cavalcade of former players saying they wouldn't skip bowl games are fine in saying that, but they know as well as everyone else that times have changed as the business of both college and pro football have changed. Bowl games mean less (except in the Playoff), NFL players get paid dramatically more, and so if any player feels his business interests are best served by protecting themselves as an investment in their futures, they are making the same decisions as the bowl game executives who picked the team to come to these exotic locales to play a glorified scrimmage in the first place.
As with many "controversial" aspects of college football, some players aren't suiting their best interests by skipping a bowl game, though they're well within their rights to do so. Fournette and McCaffrey are both likely first round picks, with Fournette possibly a top five selection, so it's less likely that NFL teams will need the game film on these players as opposed to lesser known and lesser touted prospects. Baylor's Shock Linwood is skipping the Cactus Bowl to focus on his NFL Draft propsects, but he is not at a McCaffrey/Fournette level and has also been suspended for "attitude issues". Is he serving his own best interests by skipping the game against Boise State? Doesn't seem likely. That does not mean he isn't within his rights to skip the game, but not every player who makes that decision is making the right one.
Other qualms with these decisions, such as the idea that these athletes are denying other students scholarships therefore they should honor them by playing, don't hold water either. Most of the criticism levied towards players who will skip bowl games come from selfish interests, just like what these players are basing their decisions on. If the NCAA found this to be a serious issue (which it's not, especially since many players who leave early come back and finish their education anyway), then they could remedy the problem offering different scholarships, requiring the players to pay back their tuition (because all of them will clearly make enough to pay back the out of control tuition costs...), etc., but none of those solutions seem even remotely viable. Players leaving school early to declare for the Draft in either the NFL or NBA has become a problem the leagues have taken more of an initiative on, not the NCAA.
Will there soon be an epidemic of players with decent NFL draft prospects skipping lower down bowl games to protect themselves from catastrophic injuries and to better prepare for the months ahead? Probably not. Will there be future players who make this decision? Absolutely. And there will be plenty of internet fights and shouting when those decisions are made just like those that are happening now.
Where Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey are going, they don't need Bowls. But that isn't true for everyone.
Monday, November 28, 2016
Also this season, Gallant's team has had to deal with a litany of big injuries, such as to Jonathan Huberdeau, who hasn't played all year, Nick Bjugstad, who has only played three games, and slow stars for players like Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov, Keith Yandle, etc. The team hasn't set the world alight, but it's certainly not Islanders or Coyotes bad. So why then has there been such a divisive and stark reaction to this firing of all head coaching changes in the NHL?
The story in Florida goes far deeper than the head coach. Ownership instituted a massive front office re-shuffle after the playoff exit against the Islanders, which "bumped" Dale Tallon to President of Hockey Operations, Tom Rowe to GM (and he's now the head coach, but we'll get to that), Steve Werier and Eric Joyce to AGM's, and fired longtime team employees such as Scott Luce, Mike Dixon, Dave Zenobi, etc. It's no secret in the hockey world that the Panthers have taken more of an analytical approach to building a hockey team, owing to new owners Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu's background in the Wall Street financial world. Analytics in the hockey world, especially in player personnel decision making is still a sore subject for some in the sport, and with what's been going on in Florida, the "wounds" are cutting even deeper.
Gerard Gallant's unceremonious turfing, and the pictures of him and assistant coach Mike Kelly needing to call a cab in Raleigh after getting the news, set the hockey world on fire. "Mainstream media" is not happy that Gallant, who was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award last year, was fired at all, especially when those in the world of analytics weren't quite as high on Gallant as many in hockey circles are. Combine this with the front office exodus of other "good hockey guys" from May, and the lingering resentment that still exists among some in the sport has now been re-opened.
Are these "hockey people" wrong to be angry at how these front office changes in Florida have gone down? Not necessarily, especially since many saw good friends fired after what was a historic season for the team. But its evident the firing came down in large part because of a fundamental disconnect between how Gallant wanted the team constructed and how the front office wanted it constructed. And while there's an analytic focus in the team's front office, a disconnect between the bench and management is nothing new in the world of hockey, and what this change comes down to is that disconnect became a bridge too far. But that's still not the end of this story.
Whenever there's a personnel move predicated on analytics, a divide emerges between those in the "mainstream media" and bloggers/analysts who are analytics driven in the analysis of the move. This happened with the Toronto Maple Leafs collapse in 2013-14, the Shea Weber trade to Montreal, and a number of other major flashpoints recently. But the divide seems even more stark with this move. Why?
Media members have plenty of friends in the world of hockey who are none too pleased with what the Panthers have been doing. These "hockey people" are not getting the jobs that Eric Joyce, Steve Werier, Matt Caldwell, etc. have been getting. These "army guys" are not well embraced by the "hockey world" because they're not from the "hockey world". The reaction from inside the sport, translated by the "mainstream media" is an extension of a fight or flight reaction to an internal battle in the sport as to whether to accept these "outsiders" in their tight-knit circle or not, and having one team buck custom and trends to such an extreme is a shock to a well established system. This does not mean the reaction is correct, or whether firing Gallant is the right move to get the Panthers on the track towards the team they ultimately want to be, but this is why the reaction has been so strong from one side of the ledger.
Hockey is still in the midst of an analytics revolution that took hold in baseball and basketball well before it, and those in the sport are still struggling to figure out how much of these numbers to use in decision making processes. Some teams don't use the numbers at all, others, like Florida, Toronto and Arizona have gone all-in, and others use them more subtly, like Carolina, Los Angeles and Chicago. Time will tell what path is the "right" one, but in a sport as insular as hockey has been, the introduction of another way is not a welcome introduction.
That's why the divide in reaction to the firing has been so stark. Combined with what else has gone down in Florida this year, the reaction to the move is not surprising. However, the current structure of the team from the front office down is now as ownership wants it, and whether it works remains to be seen.
If it fails, will some in the hockey world be happy? You bet. Whether that's right or not is up for you to decide. Whether it's right for the Panthers to be seen as the guinea pig for whether analytics work as a part of personnel decision making is also up for debate, but it's already beginning to happen.
Such is the situation with the Florida Panthers, and the divide in the hockey world it has widened, from the "hockey people" inside the sport to the media that often pushes their message.
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
Maybe that characterization is a bit harsh, because Klinsmann did take the US forward in many respects, especially the player pool. But since the 2014 World Cup, performances have been sliding downward, however that doesn't tell the entire story. In Klinsmann's early days, his teams were on the precipice of disaster multiple times, including a qualifying loss at Jamaica in 2012, and that infamous February day in 2013; one that Timmy Chandler wishes everyone forgot. And there still is that Brian Straus piece lying around on the internet that shows not everything was great even at the beginning. But like Rasputin, nothing could kill Klinsmann off because he got the major results when he needed to and kept his job and the team in order.
But after that, every time Klinsmann was put under the microscope, he failed his tests. From the abject horror of the 2015 Gold Cup, to the embarrassment against Brazil not even a month later, and then the CONCACAF Cup disappointment against Mexico, he wasn't able to keep the sugar out. And when he failed, often spectacularly, no one could hide their disdain or willingness to send Klinsmann out. And that is what we're going to talk about here: the legitimate claims of something being wrong yet shrouded by the instant calls for Klinsmann to be sacked.
Of course sacking managers in soccer is nothing novel or new, especially in the international game. Managers are interchanged as often as toothpicks. But there was something about the calls for Klinsmann to be fired after every little mistake in every single game, especially in the big games, that seemed different and excessive. This again is not meant to defend Klinsmann from the criticism he absolutely deserved, but the immediate calls to sack him certainly didn't make the atmosphere around his team any better, especially when the bad results started to stack up.
And what's strange about this phenomenon is it only started after the World Cup. Perhaps, weirdly enough, he doesn't get enough criticism for his team's set-up against Belgium, which required Tim Howard to be Superman in order to just keep the US in the game. And yet they were not too far away from heading to penalties with that Golden Generation. But the honeymoon ended quickly after that game and during the Gold Cup of 2015, every mistake tactically or otherwise was foist upon Klinsmann's head.
He was certainly given more slack privately than Bob Bradley did for similar sins, largely because of the new contract Sunil Gulati handed him, but in the court of public opinion he was fired at least five times for his many tactical failings before he was actually fired. So by the time when he committed the sins that actually caused his downfall, the mob had already figuratively drawn and quartered the man, even though there were legitimate complaints well before the Mexico and Costa Rica games.
Did Klinsmann deserve the criticism he had been given for his many failings? Yes, unquestionably. But since every one of those sins was a fatal offense in the eyes of many, whether they actually were or not (and some certainly were), the analysis of him as a manager and even technical director suddenly became about the fact he should have already been fired even before a ball had been kicked in his next test.
Now that he has been sacked, the question will be whether Bruce Arena is held to a similar standard. He has far less margin for error, but in many ways is more respected than Klinsmann, so how his early results will be judged is a fascinating test to see whether the standards shift for different managers. In theory they shouldn't. But if the US fails to qualify for Russia, will we see opinions such as "Arena couldn't do much with what Klinsmann left him" in full bloom?
This piece is essentially about the opinions of opinions, which is plenty meta, but important to understand how US soccer fans and media view themselves, their national team and how the sport has grown in this country. In many ways we've caught up to the rest of the world now, with the almost daily insistence that Jurgen Klinsmann be fired the final step in our evolution.
But the next question is whether future managers are held to that standard, tactics and otherwise aside. Standards shift and change based on the times, but should they? When the goal is beyond just making the World Cup, maybe not.
Wednesday, October 12, 2016
4. New York Islanders
5. New York Rangers
7. New Jersey
Blurb: The Penguins are the defending Stanley Cup Champs, and on paper they're almost exactly the same team from last year. Sidney Crosby's concussion is obviously a major concern for the start of this season, and could dig them a hole in a battle for eventual home-ice in the playoffs against Washington. But even with that said, all signs point to the Pens and Caps battling again for supremacy in this division. This season could be the last with these Capitals as currently constructed, and with some good tweaks to their bottom six, is this the year they finally break through? It feels honestly like they're due. Below them, Philadelphia's move to get younger and faster will pay dividends as they move up the standings, and become one of the league's more interesting teams to follow all season. Both the Islanders and Rangers were playoff teams last season, but there seem to be increasing odds that one of them will miss the dance this year. Replacing Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen with Jason Chimera and Andrew Ladd isn't exactly making things better, though some of the young talent they have is very exciting. They also have a much better defense corps than the Rangers do, which is critical. The Rangers could sneak into the dance because their forward group is younger and more exciting than ever, which could distract from the fact that they do have one of the worst D groups in the league.
Carolina's slow build is getting closer to bearing fruit, and while they're not making the postseason this year, they will continue steady improvement towards getting there soon. Bill Peters is one of my favorite NHL coaches for his emphasis on puck possession and now that he has a better roster, things could be fun out in Raleigh. New Jersey with Taylor Hall is a slightly better version of what they were a year ago, and Corey Schneider's presence keeps them just out of the Nolan Patrick sweepstakes. Columbus on the other hand...
1. Tampa Bay
Blurb: Steve Yzerman is a wizard, by the way. Tampa would have won this division if not for Steven Stamkos' injury last year, and with a (hopefully) full cast, they should likely waltz this year. Florida's surprising division win last year was a surprising twist to some (though not me, because I thought they'd make the postseason), but this year they have expectations after an unexpected front office shakeup and a radically remade D group. Injuries to Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad are going to hurt them from the start, but they still have enough talent, good coaching and Roberto Luongo to hold off Montreal and Boston for second. The Habs are going downhill, though the effects of that might not be felt for a few years yet. In the meantime, if Carey Price plays a majority of the Habs games, they will make the postseason with ease, though dealing with the Bolts and Cats will be a tough ask. Boston is in a very similar position to the Rangers, but playing in a worse division from top to bottom gives them a chance to sneak into the postseason after narrowly missing out the last two.
Detroit's amazing postseason streak comes to an end this year because their roster is nowhere near what it once was. Signing aging veterans and not giving the keys to the Mantha's, Larkin's and Athanasiou's yet is a mistake. They're heading for mediocrity fast. Buffalo could make some serious improvements again, but the injury to Jack Eichel is a major concern. They could challenge for a playoff spot for a bit before fading. Ottawa is a major wild card because of Guy Boucher, and I wouldn't be surprised if they're a playoff team this year despite roster issues that are well documented. And Toronto's youth movement continues, and they will be better than they have been, though probably still not very good.
3. St. Louis
Blurb: After making the PK Subban trade, the Preds are not only one of the most likable teams in the league (if not the most), they're also probably the best. Their D corps is absolutely amazing and at the top of their powers, and while that's never been an issue, now they have the forwards to match such as Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, Kevin Fiala, James Neal, etc. They aren't a trendy pick anymore; they are favorites. Behind them, Dallas will still have their run-and-gun offense with the same goaltending and defense issues behind Benn/Seguin/Spezza et al. That'll be good enough for the playoffs, but much beyond that who knows. St. Louis is in a transition year away from Ken Hitchcock, but they still are a playoff team at the very least. Adding Nail Yakupov in a trade from Edmonton is certainly going to help, especially if he and Vladimir Tarasenko can establish chemistry.
How about those Blackhawks? After last year's Game 7 loss to the Blues, they are in one of their biggest transition seasons since their run began eight years ago, and the bottom six certainly feels like it. Unless some of those youngsters and journeymen play above their heads, they have a mountain to climb in the NHL's deepest division, though they'll still make the playoffs since the Pacific is a trash heap. And while Bruce Boudreau always wins divisions, he won't this year with this Minnesota but the playoffs still seem likely. They aren't all that different from last year, but with a better coach they'll succeed, at least relatively. Colorado will make a marked improvement in their play now that Patrick Roy is out, and they could easily make the playoffs though they have so many teams to jump. And finally, while Winnipeg's youth is exciting and plentiful, they don't quite have enough to get through everyone else in the division, thanks in large part to Jacob Trouba's holdout.
1. San Jose
2. Los Angeles
Blurb: Now that the Sharks playoff hoodoo is officially gone, how do they follow up their trip to the Stanley Cup Final? It helps that their division is a trash heap, meaning they don't have to do much to win it, though they never seem to. The last ride for Marleau and Thornton will at least continue for one more season. LA's Cup runs seem more and more distant as the roster continues to decay and get older, though they clearly have enough in this division to make the dance. And finding that third team to round it all off was a tough decision. Calgary underachieved dramatically last year, and finally has decent goaltending, while Anaheim has the roster and pedigree, yet hired Randy Carlyle and could be an epic disaster, and Edmonton has a hopefully healthy Connor but still a rancid D corps and questions between the pipes... I ended up going with Calgary third because my memories of the 2015 playoffs are still vivid and I want the Ducks to be punished for making incredibly stupid decisions and essentially firing Bruce Boudreau for not winning Game 7's. Edmonton will have their flashes, but they aren't ready yet.
Though Arizona won't be very good just yet, they have the best assemblage of young talent in the league, and you'll get to see it most every night. Duclair, Domi, Dvorak, Crouse, Chychrun and more is coming too. And Vancouver... Nolan Patrick is really good and you should watch the Brandon Wheat Kings this season.
(A1) Tampa Bay over (WC2) NY Rangers in 5
(A2) Florida over (A3) Montreal in 7
(M1) Washington over (WC1) NY Islanders in 6
(M2) Pittsburgh over (M3) Philadelphia in 6
(A1) Tampa Bay over (A2) Florida in 6
(M1) Washington over (M2) Pittsburgh in 7 (just to slay all the demons)
(M1) Washington over (A1) Tampa Bay in 7
(C1) Nashville over (WC2) Minnesota in 5
(C3) St. Louis over (C2) Dallas in 6
(P1) San Jose over (WC1) Chicago in 6
(P2) LA over (P3) Calgary in 5
(C1) Nashville over (C3) St. Louis in 6
(P1) San Jose over (P2) LA in 5
(C1) Nashville over (P1) San Jose in 6
2017 Stanley Cup Final:
(M1) Washington over (C1) Nashville in 5
Yep, the Caps finally do it, and they do it by beating Barry Trotz's former team.
Hart: Alex Ovechkin
Norris: Erik Karlsson
Calder: Patrik Laine
Vezina: Carey Price
Jack Adams: Bill Peters
Rocket Richard: Alex Ovechkin
Art Ross: Connor McDavid
So here they are. Please feel free as always to tell me how wrong I am.
Tuesday, October 4, 2016
AL Wild Card Game: Orioles over Blue Jays
NL Wild Card Game: Mets over Giants (I have to)
ALDS: Rangers over Orioles in 4
Red Sox over Indians in 5
ALCS: Red Sox over Rangers in 6
NLDS: Cubs over Mets in 4
Dodgers over Nats in 4
NLCS: Cubs over Dodgers in 7
World Series (Dreams really do come true, FOX): Red Sox over Cubs in 6
World Series MVP: David Ortiz (Hello Narrative)
Just a tiny bit more torture for the forever tortured Chicago Cubs. The Red Sox have the mix of pitching and offense that's needed to win the World Series, and while the Cubs are pretty clearly the favorite, something tells me the Red Sox are going to send Big Papi off with a championship. Gut feeling rather than going with numbers and science. That always works, doesn't it?
And since I can, here are some of my favorites from my preseason predictions:
I got four out of five NL playoff teams right, only whiffing on the Nats who made it and the Cardinals who didn't. In the AL, I got three of the five, whiffing on Houston and Kansas City in place of Baltimore and Cleveland (Baltimore was the biggest whiff of them all). My preseason World Series prediction was Blue Jays over Giants, which is still possible, but at this point extremely unlikely.
In terms of awards (my preseason prediction in italics)...
NL Cy Young: Madison Bumgarner (It will likely be Max Scherzer, but give it to Jose Fernandez please, what a story that would be).
AL Cy Young: David Price (Yeah right. Corey Kluber is a good candidate, so is Rick Porcello and Zach Britton, who I defer to because being that consistent as a closer is incredibly rare).
NL MVP: Kris Bryant (Pretty much. Corey Seager can also win it, but Bryant is the favorite).
AL MVP: Carlos Correa (Not quite. Mike Trout is still the best player in the AL, though he's on a bad team. There are plenty of contenders, including Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, David Ortiz, Mookie Bets, etc. but I'd defer to Trout here).
NL Rookie: Corey Seager (The most obvious award winner in the history of this award)
AL Rookie: Byron Buxton (would have been nice, but nope. Michael Fulmer was pretty amazing for the Tigers, but Gary Sanchez probably wins the award even though he played less than half a season).
NL Manager: Bruce Bochy (Dusty Baker turned dysfunction into harmony and a NL East title. Dave Roberts could also be in contention).
AL Manager: John Gibbons (The Jays underachieved. The Indians overachieved. Terry Francona gets it done).
NL Homer King: Bryce Harper (Chris Carter and Nolan Arenado. How about that? Harper only had 24).
AL Homer King: Miguel Sano (Mark Trumbo won it easy. Should have known. Sano had 25, and was dwarfed on his own team by Brian Dozier).
Enjoy the postseason!
Tuesday, September 27, 2016
I only watched Jose Fernandez pitch a few times on TV, and I'm no baseball scout, but watching him pitch felt like an occasion and must see TV. While I was terrified as a fan anytime the Mets played against Fernandez, my ears always perked up when I found out he was starting, because I'd get to watch him pitch. Jose Fernandez loved baseball, loved pitching and loved life, and even when he had nights where he wasn't himself, his joy of being on the mound was good enough to transcend performances and the situation his team was in. When he needed Tommy John surgery a few years back, it felt almost funereal because baseball was robbed of his electric stuff and his joy for over a year. Baseball celebrated his return like few others, even though Tommy John surgery became a far too common phrase in the news while Fernandez was on the shelf. Knowing now that we'll never see Fernandez pitch again is heartbreaking, not just because a life that had so much potential was taken far too soon, but because so few capture the imagination and minds of fans and the baseball world alike as Fernandez did.
When it seems the world is being inundated with negative and bad news (as is happening right now), sports can, for some people, become an escape from that world and attempt to bind the wounds of division that the "real world" opens up. But with the anthem protests and now this horrible tragedy, life reminds us all the sports bubble can pop incredibly easily. Sometimes, we all forget that the athletes playing the games we love so much and the people in the front offices making personnel and other decisions are human beings too, and they have emotions and life stories like those watching from the couch or the bar. Watching the Marlins grieve the way they did is so heartbreaking that even non-baseball fans can't hold back the tears. Watching Gary Cohen and Keith Hernandez not be able to contain their emotions opening the Phillies-Mets game on Sunday after the news broke reminds us that the delicate human experience transcends all boundaries, even sports.
There are so many aspects of Fernandez's human story beyond baseball that are worth expanding upon: from his multiple attempts to flee Cuba, to unknowingly saving his mother after she went overboard on a ship leaving the island, to becoming an incredibly successful refugee and his immense pride in becoming an American citizen, etc. All of them have been drawn and touched upon multiple times in the days after his death, but there is one aspect of his story that I feel supersedes all of them, including the not-nearly talked about enough refugee angle: his boundless enthusiasm and joy in life.
It's hard to see GIF's now of Fernandez's celebrations of home runs, pitches, etc. because that passion is sorely lacking in the broader world right now. He was a man who was incredibly fortunate and successful, and made sure to enjoy every moment of life as if it was his last. Life is often difficult and challenging, and seeing a smile as big as Fernandez's on bad days could almost singlehandedly erase some of the negativity that swirled. If more people showed that joy in life even if they're not incredibly talented athletes, wouldn't life be less of an exercise sometimes? Even just a little bit?
Many other people have more enlightening and personal stories about Jose Fernandez than I do, and they're likely to be better arbiters on his life than I am. But embracing his life and the joy and happiness he showed every day in life can hopefully remind everyone that even in ridiculously tough times, we all find a way to overcome and move on to find joy in what truly makes life great, whatever your passion is.
Jose Fernandez lived the American Dream, his passion and his drive through baseball. What we need to do to honor his memory is live our passions and enjoy life with the same enthusiasm, verve and joy that he did. That will be the best way to honor his memory and the impact he left on baseball and the world.
Wednesday, September 7, 2016
In some ways then, this should be one of the easiest seasons to predict in recent NFL history, but in many ways, mediocrity has become the coin of the realm, and there's a distinct possibility that two division winners will win fewer than 10 games. For the very few truly great teams, it seems like there will be a scrap among themselves for supremacy, while everyone else toes the line. So here are quick blurbs for each division, plus a fantasy player to watch.
1. New York Giants (9-7)
2. Washington (7-9)
3. Dallas (6-10)
4. Philadelphia (5-11)
Mediocrity personified. Every team in this division has major flaws, and the winner is the one with the fewest flaws by far, and that would be the Giants. They have the best player in the division with Odell Beckham, and the least bad defense. And hey, when they won their Super Bowl's, they weren't all that special during the regular season. Washington has Kirk Cousins needing to prove himself, an interesting offense and a defense with big playmakers, but not the supporting cast. With the attrition due to injuries and suspensions on both sides of the ball, it has to take its toll on the Cowboys once again, and it will this season. And the Eagles are starting from zero, which means their performances this season will go as it sounds.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Ezekiel Elliot
1. Green Bay (12-4)
2. Minnesota (9-7)
3. Detroit (7-9)
4. Chicago (6-10)
Green Bay is healthier than they were a season ago, and their defense has slowly been improving. With the unfortunate events in Minnesota, the Packers have a clear opening to take back this division. While Minnesota is clearly in "win-now" mode, the trade for Sam Bradford makes sense, but might only be a band-aid for a team that needs stitches, at least this year. Without Calvin Johnson, the Lions lack the playmakers on offense, though Ziggy Ansah could become a defensive star. And the Bears will have an underrated defense but little else worth mentioning.
1. Carolina (11-5)
2. Atlanta (9-7)
3. New Orleans (8-8)
4. Tampa Bay (7-9)
The defending NFC Champions get Kelvin Benjamin back and still have Cam Newton and a terrifying front seven. Since those things aren't likely to change, they are favorites in the NFC South. The Saints aren't quite a playoff team, but it feels like they're getting better on offense at least, or back to where they were at the start of this decade. The Falcons still have many of the same problems that have dogged them for years, but they're not truly bad enough to plummet at the moment. And for the Bucs, the change in coach probably won't change much in terms of their immediate fortune, though Jameis Winston's continued improvement is exciting.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Kelvin Benjamin
1. Arizona (13-3)
2. Seattle (11-5)
3. LA Rams (6-10)
4. San Francisco (3-13)
The two best teams in the NFC may reside in the NFC West, and they will once again slug it out for supremacy. The Cardinals might be the most faultless team in football, with Seattle not far behind. The drop off in this division from the top to the bottom of it is astonishing, and watching the top two play the bottom two will be quite a bit of fun, in a perverse sense. It'll be the 49ers and Browns competing for next year's #1 overall draft pick, and beyond that, the Rams won't finish 7-9 for once, because they're going to finish 6-10.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Thomas Rawls
1. New England (11-5)
2. New York Jets (9-7)
3. Buffalo Bills (8-8)
4. Miami (7-9)
Even though the Patriots are Tom Brady less for four games, those four are against Arizona, Miami, Houston and Buffalo. They would have been favored in the three games they're favored in anyway. And angry and scorched earth Tom Brady is a terrifying prospect. The Jets still have a ferocious defense and if they can get out of their own way, they'll have every chance of making the postseason once again. Buffalo and Miami are not bad, just not outstanding or special. Both have areas of personnel weakness that are going to hold them back from being true playoff contenders right now.
Fantasy Player to Watch: DeVante Parker
1. Pittsburgh (12-4)
2. Cincinnati (11-5)
3. Baltimore (7-9)
4. Cleveland (2-14)
Pittsburgh's offense is going to be legitimately terrifying this season, even with the pieces that they're missing. We saw plenty of it last year, and it's helped Ben Roethlisberger's career renaissance. As of now, they're the best team in the AFC, though they have stiff competition from the team right behind them. The Bengals have had a talent and coaching drain because they've been so steady despite their lack of playoff successes, but doesn't this feel like the year they finally break through? That front seven is a monster, and if they can escape their opening schedule 4-2 or better, watch out. Baltimore will improve after injuries decimated their 2015 season, but they're not at the Bengals or Steelers caliber yet. And for the Browns well... they're tanking.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Tyler Boyd
1. Houston (9-7)
2. Indianapolis (8-8)
3. Jacksonville (7-9)
4. Tennessee (5-11)
The best way to describe the AFC South is this: it is the NFC East sans the brand names. Once again: mediocrity personified. Houston paid a lot of coin for Brock Osweiler, and to my eye he's still unproven. He has Lamar Miller and DeAndre Hopkins as major weapons, but little else around that. On defense, there are the established stars but beyond that there is questionable depth. But they still have more than everyone else in the division. Andrew Luck's return will stabilize the Colts, but they still have no running game, a sieve of an offensive line, a major talent deficiency on defense that Luck will not be able to overcome. While so many are high on the Jaguars, and for good reason, coaching is going to be their downfall. So many head-scratching decisions and now there are no excuses because of a lack of personnel. Individual performances may have to save this team from itself if they want to make the postseason, which they absolutely can do if Gus Bradley coaches better than a coach who has won only 25% of his games (and if they start fast, which they need to do). The Titans are coached by Mike Mularkey. Enough said.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Derrick Henry
1. Kansas City (11-5)
2. Oakland (10-6)
3. Denver (8-8)
4. San Diego (5-11)
Kansas City will be steady on offense, terrifying on defense as they have been in recent years, but with the factors turned up a notch. Their questions at running back are concerning, and Alex Smith is Alex Smith, but their defense should be able to overcome some of those worries. Oakland is the young team to watch more than Jacksonville, largely because of the presence of playmakers and better coaching (I can't believe I said that about Jack Del Rio). Denver has the defense, though it's been gutted somewhat, but they're still starting Trevor Siemian. That's hard to get over, and defense in today's NFL can only get you so far. And for the Chargers, their cheapness is costing them once again and wasting the back end of Philip Rivers' career.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Derek Carr
NFC Playoff Teams: 1. ARZ (13-3), 2. GB (12-4), 3. CAR (11-5), 4. NYG (9-7), 5. SEA (11-5), 6. MIN (9-7).
AFC Playoff Teams: 1. PIT (12-4), 2. NE (11-5), 3. KC (11-5), 4. HOU (9-7), 5. CIN (11-5), 6. OAK (10-6).
Wild Card: CAR over MIN, SEA over NYG
Divisional Round: ARZ over SEA, GB over CAR
NFC Championship Game: GB over ARZ
Wild Card: CIN over HOU (They've done it!), OAK over KC
Divisional Round: PIT over OAK, CIN over NE
AFC Championship Game: PIT over CIN
Super Bowl LI: Green Bay over Pittsburgh (must be a Texas thing).
MVP: Ben Roethlisberger (PIT)
OPOY: Odell Beckham (NYG)
DPOY: Khalil Mack (OAK)
OROY: Ezekiel Elliot (DAL)
DROY: Jalen Ramsey (JAX) (I couldn't think of anyone else for fear of jinxing him)
Coach: Jack Del Rio (OAK)
Comeback Player: Kelvin Benjamin (CAR)
So these are my NFL season predictions. Feel free to once again tell me how wrong I'm going to be.
Saturday, August 27, 2016
Last night, Colin Kaepernick decided to not stand for the national anthem before the Packers-49ers preseason game in protest.
"I'm not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," he said after the game last night. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and away with murder."
Kaepernick is a "controversial figure", largely because of how his play has dropped precipitously from the season in which he lead his 49ers to the Super Bowl. While being benched in favor of Blaine Gabbert is pretty bad, his on-field performance is entirely irrelevant to this discussion. He is someone who has been a very vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and issues that have great importance to black America. He was called a "thug" for his tattoos during his and the 49ers rise to success earlier in this decade, so these "controversies" are not new to him. His taking a stand for issues bigger than football, especially in a league that doesn't like controversies like these as the NFL does, is admirable and should be praised.
But, as is customary, there is a major backlash to his protest. Most of the rebuttals are typical responses ranging from "protesting during the national anthem is the wrong time to protest"to "why would he protest a country where he could make the money he has" and of course, "if he doesn't like it here, he can leave". Most of these arguments have come from people who supposedly want to "Make America Great Again", though they never considered leaving to Canada even once, but again, that's missing the point.
Dictionary.com defines a protest as, "an expression or declaration of object, disapproval or dissent, often in opposition to something a person is powerless to prevent or avoid". The critical phrase in that definition is "powerless to prevent or avoid", and Kaepernick's protest is exactly that: a protest against the disproportionate violence against black people and the systemic and institutionalized racism that permeates our country. As an individual, even one with as much stature as he has, there is little he can do individually, other than start a discussion and potentially a movement. He is using his stature, much like Muhammad Ali, Mahmoud Abdul-Raouf and many others who wanted to protest issues facing this country by not rising during the national anthem, as is well within their rights to do so. But it is how the discussion of the protest that is defining this discussion, not the protest itself, and that's a shame.
In 2016 America, these protests are becoming almost ubiquitous. The Minnesota Lynx wore Black Lives Matter t-shirts in protest after the killing of unarmed black men just outside of Minneapolis, as is well within their right. That protest was met with much the same call as Kaepernick's protest was, and it's time to address these concerns one-by-one not to discount the right of people to disagree with it, but to show that there is a double standard that needs to be addressed.
"Protesting during the National Anthem is the wrong time to protest": As we saw in the definition of protest, there is never a "right time" to protest. In the first amendment (the same first amendment many are using to defend their points of view), it reads: "Congress shall make no law... abridging... the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to protest the government for a redress of grievances". The crafters of the Constitution knew explicitly that protesting the government needed to be protected because of precisely an argument like "there is a wrong time to protest". The country we are now having this discussion in was founded and created largely because the people couldn't protest the government for a redress of grievances. Once we lose that right because people say "there is a right time to protest", the fabric of what made this country begins to decay.
Then we see the second phase of this argument, which goes something like this: "The American Flag and the Anthem are indelible marks of freedom, liberty and American values and protesting them devalues that". I argue it actually strengthens it. There is nothing more American than protesting the government, and Colin Kaepernick is exercising the most basic and most powerful American ideals by doing exactly what his detractors are saying he isn't doing. Also, symbols are projective surfaces, and what they mean to one person doesn't translate evenly across all experiences and all sets of values. What the American flag means to me could be entirely different to what it means to someone in rural Alabama, or inner city Detroit, and that's the beauty of a country like our own. Accepting this as a bedrock foundation of our country is important, and that doesn't mean forcing your views onto someone else.
The third phase of this argument, which is arguably the weakest goes like this: "Kaepernick shouldn't protest because he has made millions of dollars in this country, and if he doesn't like it, he can leave". Just because someone has made millions of dollars in sports, business, entertainment or hitting the lottery doesn't mean they suddenly don't have a right to care about the political future of their country. Many people with more money than Kaepernick has use their wealth to dramatically influence policy in this country, and they don't get the same backlash for their opinions and beliefs as Kaepernick does. And the idea if someone doesn't like how the country is being run, then they should leave is so incredibly reductionist it almost borders on insulting. The problems facing many people like Kaepernick won't go away if he moves to Canada, for instance and if he doesn't then those he supports lose a critical voice in the discussion, while the tenor of the discussion doesn't change. "Leaving the country" is tantamount to putting your head in a bucket of sand to pretend problems don't exist, or turning to sports and saying "they're an escape".
I've written countless pieces on this website over the years about how sports and politics are forever linked, and to think otherwise is willingly turning your head the other direction, but especially in a year like 2016, these discussions and controversies are going to keep on occurring and the backlash will be exactly the same every time. This points to larger, underlying divisions in our society that go beyond Kaepernick's refusal to stand during the national anthem (or criticizing Gabby Douglas for not putting her hand over her heart during the anthem at the Olympics, when white athletes did the same thing and nothing was made over it, for instance). Athletes like Kaepernick have so much influence in the public sphere and they should be willing to use it to talk about political issues they feel need to be talked about without the fear of the backlash. More and more athletes, particularly black athletes, are doing this now and they should be applauded for it. Issues cannot be fixed without discussion first, and someone needs to spark that discussion. If singers, actors and other artists are allowed to do this, why can't athletes? And why can't they be just as vocal, if not more vocal, then their fellow American citizens?
Kaepernick's stand might well damage his career to a point where he cannot save it, and he acknowledged this and, even better, doesn't care. "This is not something I'm going to run by anybody. I'm not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed... If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right." And standing up for his beliefs in the face of that is what makes this stand and protest so important. He is like many other athletes who want to protest who know the capitalistic pressures put on them usually prevent them from protesting, and only very few can rise above that pressure. The fact that he doesn't care should encourage more athletes in similar positions to his to follow his example, and once enough of the public backs those stands, so too will the endorsers, teams and leagues. The 49ers statement, while not wholeheartedly endorsing his stand, didn't bury him either and showed some support for his endeavor. We may never know what is happening behind the scenes, but the public moves by the team are a good sign. The NFL's statement is much the same, and while they could easily say more, it's easy to understand why they aren't.
This entire controversy drives right into the heart of the racial divide in this country right now, and no matter whether we've made any progress in recent years, the fact that I'm writing this piece reminds us all that we still have a long way to go. And while we all can respect differences in opinion on this and other issues, as well as the right of people to have and own those differences, that goes too for opinions we don't agree with, and in many cases we might think are "wrong".
That is the crux of what the American flag means to me, and Colin Kaepernick, and millions of other Americans. The fear of the backlash should not discourage protests from anyone, and hopefully what Kaepernick has done is removed some of that fear for athletes and others willing to protest in the future.
There is nothing more American than protesting the government. Fear is un-American. All of us should not be afraid of other opinions and political viewpoints, because once we are, we are failing to uphold those true American values.
Friday, August 12, 2016
20. Hull City: This pick seems relatively straightforward and easy. They've made no first team signings, have no manager, and their squad wasn't nearly Premier League quality to begin with. Good luck to the Tigers, as Assem Allam would want me to call them.
19. Burnley: While their accomplishments are something for a club from a town of 80,000, they don't have the funds or the players to compete with even the lesser teams of the Premier League, who can spend a fair bit more than they can. They've made additions that are more akin to a decent Championship club as opposed to a team trying to stave off relegation. That could change, but this has the feel of another club destined to go right back down.
18. Swansea City: Their story has been quite astonishing, especially considering where they were. But they've been plucked fairly dry, and the investment in the squad isn't there to replace what they've lost, and they've lost quite a lot. Spending 15.5 million pounds on Borja Baston is a start, though it might not necessarily be the right one. Unless the new ownership starts spending markedly more, and in more places, then the Swans might well be staring at relegation.
17. Bournemouth: Second season syndrome is a major concern for the Cherries, who have spent quite a bit of money but there are questions as to whether they've spent it wisely. Their defense is not very good, and it hasn't improved dramatically this summer. If a couple of bounces go wrong for them, they could be down.
16. Sunderland: David Moyes, like Tony Pulis, never gets relegated as a manager. But the constant turnover in the Stadium of Light dugout is never a good sign. The squad is a bit thin, but hasn't really been weakened this summer either. Moyes will be backed with some funds, and if he makes the right buys, the Black Cats might not need another great escape.
15. West Bromwich Albion: Most Premier League fans have wanted to see this club go down for years, but with Tony Pulis at the helm, they're likely not going to. He grinds out points when he needs to, and his team does what's required to stay in the division. Yes it means ugly football, but it means Premier League money flows into their coffers. With new ownership, maybe Pulis will have even more cash to spend.
14. Crystal Palace: Many have tipped the Eagles for relegation, and with Alan Pardew's track record that's not entirely surprising. But I'm not so sure. There's enough in that squad to at least keep them up, and Pardew could still easily be sacked and they could hire a better manager. Regardless of that, they'll find a way to scrape together enough points to stay up.
13. Middlesbrough: A welcome return to the Top Flight, Middlesbrough has a fascinating manager in Aitor Karanka and a fascinating squad to boot. He's added Premier League experience and quality while not disassembling the core of the side that got the club up. He's a combustible man though, so watch for drama.
12. Watford: Walter Mazzari is a fantastic manager that got short shrift at Napoli and Inter, and now finds himself at Watford. While you may criticize their technical side and how they move players in and out, their is little doubt that they can find quality in hidden gems. Mazzari's tactical flexibility, as well as good group of forwards should propel the Hornets up the table.
11. Southampton: This is not the club that has been a consistent top half side for the past few years under Pochettino and Koeman. This is a club that has been stripped nearly bare again by the vultures from everywhere domestically and abroad. Yet they always find a way, and Claude Puel is a manager that can develop youth and get the best out of what he's given. Saints won't be great, and the Europa League will hurt them, but they'll easily avoid relegation.
10. Stoke City: Mark Hughes has spent lavishly on fascinating players, but this seems to be Stoke's ceiling. They're very good in most areas (aside from striker), and very good can only get a team so far in today's Premier League. It might be time to ask questions about the ceiling for this Stoke squad, and whether they've hit it.
9. Leicester City: Last season's darlings have only lost one of their big three from last season, though N'Golo Kante is a massive lost. They've replaced him, and improved the squad in most areas. So why are they ninth? Well, last season's aligning of the cosmos won't happen again, as the Premier League's big boys will not be as bad as they have been, and Leicester's own obligations will change. They are a solid top half side, but repeating last year's exploits are basically impossible.
8. Everton: With Ronald Koeman, Everton will instantly be better than they had been recently under Roberto Martinez. But at the moment, their squad hasn't improved that much. The natural bump from being coached by a better manager will certainly get quite a lot out of this squad, but they're a work in progress.
7. West Ham United: Their move to the Olympic Stadium has coincided with spending big on some interesting players, including young Argentine striker Jonathan Calleri and winger Gokhan Tore. Their squad has a fascinating dynamic in it thanks to players like Dmitri Payet and others, but whether they can crack the Sky Six is another question. Likely Europa League obligations aren't going to help their cause much.
6. Liverpool: They will be better as a whole with more time learning Jurgen Klopp's methods and a better reshaping of the squad dynamic, but they're still a work in progress. No European football will definitely help them improve, but early injury issues as well as plenty of bloat still present across the squad means that they're not quite ready to reach for their heights from three years ago. They're an item for the future, but not the present.
5. Spurs: They haven't lost anyone of significance to this squad, they've improved in it two critical areas and there's added motivation after what happened at the end of last season. So why are they here? Depth isn't amazing, and there's a likely chance of regression for Harry Kane, Dele Alli and others even though they are still high quality players. They are a team that could easily be undone by one major injury, which is concerning. They're still really good, but their competition is too.
4. Arsenal: Right where they always end up. Signing Granit Xhaka addresses a major issue, but that's all they've done so far this summer. No high quality striker looks to be coming in, which is becoming the new not signing a defensive midfielder for the club, and their injury issues are also noticeable and could adversely affect the start of their season. Until something dramatic changes, either via transfers or change in manager, Arsenal will finish where they always do and with the same narratives they always do.
3. Chelsea: Not much has changed with a squad that finished 10th and shouldn't have been anywhere close to that, which is mildly surprising. But when one considers how horrible so many great players were, it makes sense to tweak, not transform. N'Golo Kante and Michi Batshuayi will make the squad much better, but the addition of Antonio Conte in the dugout will make an already stout Chelsea even more stout. Could they do with more trims and tweaks? Of course. But the lack of European football will focus the squad for a good run this year, though they're not quite title contenders.
2. Manchester United: So much money spent, so much more Mourinho, so much more intrigue at Old Trafford. Gone are the Sir Alex Ferguson days, in come the Galaticos in Manchester. They've added so much quality, though they paid a pretty penny to do it. While they still have issues, United are a genuine title contender for the first time since Sir Alex last lead them to one in 2013. They could easily win it, though Mourinho's welcome at any club doesn't last long.
1. Manchester City: Pep Guardiola with anyone squad is terrifying, even with one that is still broken in many places. But the emphasis on buying youth, especially players like Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus and John Stones will make this squad better both in the short and long term. If Pep can fix the central midfield, and also get the most out of some of the older members of this squad, City will waltz to the title. And it's amazing to think they're not even the finished article yet.
So there are my predictions, as of now, for the new Premier League season. Feel free to tell me how wrong I am.
Wednesday, August 3, 2016
This idea was sparked by a short post from the Ringer advocating holding the Olympics in one city, permanently. Why should this idea be taken up? According to the author Claire McNear, it's because the games always go over budget, and that budget is insanely high to begin with, the proposed economic benefits for citizens of each city are never realized and the venues built for the games are often temporary and when they're not, they often become white elephants. All of this is 100% true. And it does look like future bids for Olympic Games, summer or winter, are coming from non-democratic states, and the 2022 Winter Games are cited as an example. A simple rebuke comes from looking at who is bidding for the 2024 Summer Games: Rome, Paris, Budapest and Los Angeles, but that misses the point.
While the Olympics have drifted away from their original message of world unity, shared responsibility, the glory of amateurism and athletic accomplishment to excess, commercialism and corruption, this is not a new trend. The last two Olympic Games to be held in the US; Atlanta in 1996 and Salt Lake City in 2002 are not bastions of everything pure and holy, are they? Both were defined by commercialism, patriotism and corruption... sound familiar? Moscow's Games in 1980 and LA's in 1984 were political pawns in the early 80's escalation of the Cold War, and recent games in cities like Athens, Beijing, Sochi and Rio have been opportunities for those cities, and countries, to announce themselves as 21st century world influencers. While the pitch for hosting the Olympics is almost entirely forged in lies and puffed up promises as the IOC takes its money and runs, when has that ever not been true about the Olympics and their organizing body? It's possible we're all paying more attention to it now that the games have been hosted in non-Western cities such as Beijing, Sochi and even Rio, because as much as we don't want to admit it there's a wider world beyond the US and Western Europe. Corruption largely favors these types of cities and states, and the IOC has been rife with corruption recently, but again, when has that not been true?
It is incumbent upon the IOC to change their message of what hosting the games will do for these cities and countries, and they have tried to at least forge that path recently under Thomas Bach. That has largely not been successful recently, but there is so much excess and corruption to overcome that it will take more than one man to force that change through. External organizations, people and countries need to be the ones taking that impetus, and hosting the games in one city permanently will not ever change the notion pervading the Olympics at present.
Presumably, that one city would be an American city, because the need to overspend on facilities won't be there, the infrastructure that most up-and-coming cities need to build already exists and there won't be any concern about Zika, feces in the water supply, slums or air quality. But if the goal of the Olympics is to bring the world together and expose new faces to us all, is that even possible if the Olympics are permanently held in Los Angeles, for example? Part of the glory of these major international sporting events is seeing the new cities, learning about their history and cultures as they become as much a part of the games as the athletes do. The IOC has to take ownership of the Olympics' reputation and realize that forcing cities to stick to arcane bidding plans and not change with the times for budget or any other reason is asinine and only hurts in the long run.
The modern Olympic Games are not anything like what the pure ideals pushed by Baron De Coubertin in the late 1890's were. There will always be controversies with every host city for every Olympics going forward, and totally cleaning up the IOC of what has pervaded it for so long seems an impossible task. But if the IOC, the cities and the public re-frame their expectations as to what the Olympics are about, and what the benefits are, the potential is still there for the Games to not become only about the host city being wrecked by the traveling circus. The IOC is trying desperately to change the perception of the Games by altering the bidding process, attempting to root out corruption, re-focusing the Games themselves on sports that may matter more to the individual hosts, and whether they're doing enough remains to be seen, but at least they're trying,
Rio's Games were awarded under an old system with an old President. So too was Sochi and Pyeongchang and Tokyo too. We may not see the true future of the Olympic Games until 2024, and whether anyone wants to wait that long to see progress is unlikely. But to say that Rio is the tipping point after almost all host cities before it dealt with the same problems manifesting themselves in different forms is a bit silly.
That doesn't mean that Rio's problems shouldn't be covered and covered extensively. They should. But they should be understood in context, not sweeping generalizations. Maybe these Games were over Brazil and Rio's heads, and likely they are. But that means we should cover the issues of these games well after the circus has left town, and look towards the IOC and the organizing committees and governments themselves and force them to change.
It's now time to let the Games begin, problems in all. Problems have now become a part of the Olympic Program along with track and swimming. Rio is not the first city to host these new games, nor will they be the last.
Thursday, July 21, 2016
Taking away Charlotte's NBA All-Star Game next February, and the $100 million that would have gone to the state of North Carolina with it, is a stance that no sports commissioner in this country has taken voluntarily before. It is a public sign that the NBA doesn't stand for discrimination against a group of vulnerable individuals, and they won't just say they don't stand for it, they'll prove it. Most every league and team pays lip service to the LGBT community by having pride nights, working with organizations like You Can Play, etc. and those are good first steps. But, having realized that his league is in a position of power, not acquiescence, he made his move and subsequently set a precedent that other leagues will have to follow.
In today's climate of outrageous partisan division and little respect for those with different beliefs, some would say that it makes sense for a sports league, an entertainment product first and foremost, to stay just that to be the escape mechanism that many need to get away from all of the poisonous news there is. But with these leagues making the money that they do, much of that coming from public subsidies for the arenas/stadiums the league's teams play in, they have as much of a right to make a political stand as actors, musicians and other artists have had for years. Sports, in that they are entertainment and an escape, are no different to any of the other forms of entertainment and art that have existed for centuries, and therefore they have a right to take a political stand on issues they deem important.
Usually, these leagues only make decisions like this under immense external pressure. The NFL took Super Bowl 27 out of Arizona for not recognizing Martin Luther King day, under forceful pressure from the watching world. AFL players attending the 1965 AFL All-Star Game in New Orleans, after being ruthlessly discriminated against in the lead up to the game, decided to boycott the game and forced it to be moved to Houston. Athletes and sports leagues sometimes forget to realize the immense power they wield to influence change, but in 2016 that seems to be changing.
Whatever your beliefs on North Carolina's NC2 law are (it's pretty easy to tell what this writer thinks), what the NBA is doing here is unprecedented. Bands can take their concerts out of cities, states, etc. for political reasons, but they are just one band of many. All-star week in every sport is a major financial and perception boon for these cities, and attract all kinds of tourists, businesses, etc. to these towns that may not otherwise come. The NBA has decided that it is bad for its business (and the many businesses that rely on them) to have a showcase for itself played in a state that has a discriminatory law on its books. Paying lip service to the idea of taking away Charlotte's All-Star Game is one thing, and many would accuse those statements of being a leverage play, but Adam Silver wasn't bluffing.
Cities looking to pick up the relocated festivities include Chicago, New York and New Orleans. Louisiana recently passed laws against LGBT discrimination in public workplaces, a stark contrast to what North Carolina has been doing, and the states aren't all that dissimilar politically. Under pressure from other businesses and groups, the governors of Indiana and Georgia either changed or rejected similar to ones that North Carolina's governor Pat McCrory is steadfastly behind. Sports leagues, as incredibly powerful businesses themselves, have immense power to influence change where they want to but often times they play coy or put themselves in the middle so as to not alienate anyone, which now seems out of date and out of touch.
Gary Bettman, Roger Goodell, Rob Manfred, Don Garber and many other men have a tough act to follow and a tough precedent to meet that has now been set by Adam Silver. They, like Silver, run immensely profitable and powerful businesses that have the ability to impact meaningful change for the states and country they do business in. For their many missteps with regards to issues like this(as the WNBA has fined teams for wearing shirts with protest messages on them during warm-ups, a decidedly more nuanced issue than this one), these leagues can earn good will and good press by taking these stands. Many have clamored for them to do so for years.
In a year in which there has been too much negativity, Adam Silver's NBA answered that long waiting bell. He should be applauded and celebrated for it.
Saturday, July 2, 2016
Call me a hater but these NBA deals are insane I have to google the players getting paid🤔🤔 #nonamechecks #productiondoesntcount— DeAngelo Williams (@DeAngeloRB) July 1, 2016
So it is now true that middle-of-the-road, average NBA players are now getting massive, fully guaranteed contracts that perception would tell you they aren't "worth" and they don't "deserve". How did the middle class in the NBA start raking in the dough that the rookies can't touch and the big players somehow don't receive either. But, unlike what DeAngelo Williams and Emmanuel Sanders believe, this has become the new normal not just in the sport they're commenting on, but their's, as well as hockey, soccer and baseball. As fans, observers, and wannabee economists, we must all re-set what our expectations of "fair value" are, even in the era of moneyball and advanced analytics which have tried desperately to re-set those expectations in the other direction. How did sports leagues get to this point, and how can we as fans adjust our expectations?Looks like I chose the wrong sport 🤑🤑😂#nbafreeagency— Emmanuel Sanders (@ESanders_10) July 1, 2016
In every major sport in this country, the wages that rookies can make are capped or slotted depending on where they are drafted, or in the NHL, playing as a rookie at all. The NBA has had a rookie scale since the 1998-99 lockout, the NFL's is new as of the recent CBA, MLB players are paid slot value based on where they are drafted, and NHL players entry-level contracts are bonus and incentive laden with little base money. So, as rookies are paid less and less in order to prevent madness like Matthew Stafford's initial NFL contract in which he nearly became the highest paid player on his team, or how Wayne Gretzky ended up becoming an Edmonton Oiler and escaping the Entry Draft, where else is the money going to go with established salary floors in the NBA, NHL and NFL? Combine this with the incentives teams have to re-sign their players in most leagues by being able to offer them longer term deals, very few high end players ever end up hitting free agency to begin with, and those that do end up being of lesser quality with the demand for their services increasing.
What also adds to the insanity is that in the NBA and NHL, contracts are artificially limited at the top end. A max contract is part of the NBA's furniture, as are contract lengths in the NHL to prevent what had become so prevalent in recent years before the 2012-13 to prevent backdiving the contracts to lower cap hits. Limits at the top and bottom ends of the scale have meant that those in the middle, in theory the largest group of players, get to reap the rewards that the big fish and rookies can't touch. This means that players like Mike Conley in the NBA and Milan Lucic in the NHL can strike it rich while better players sit out as they're tied down by restrictions that tether them when they're at the top of their game. Both leagues have a salary cap floor, or a minimum amount of money needed to be spent on payroll, which means that in order to make the floor as revenues spike for both leagues, who reaps the benefits of all that extra money in the system? The middle men. What is different about the NBA compared to its peers in the NFL and NHL is that those two leagues have prided themselves on parity and competitive balance that the NBA will never see, and because of the weird timing of free agency with this CBA and when the new TV contracts kicked in, the world has seen how average NBA players are making more than most NFL and NHL players will make in a lifetime.
The phenomenon of the "middle class" suddenly becoming unconscionably wealthy is not NBA exclusive. The NHL's supposed "middle class" is being paid out of proportion to even what the top players are worth, i.e. Andrew Ladd is making as much money next season as John Tavares is with the Islanders. While the NHL's hard cap and few exceptions to it mean that wages are more controlled than they are in the NBA, rising HRR and a new expansion team down the road means there is more money in the system for the Loui Eriksson's and Dave Bolland's of the world (he is the second highest paid forward on his team, even though he likely won't play a minute this season). And in the Premier League, as TV contracts massively inflate the coffers of every club thanks to largely equal distribution of those massive funds, as is the case in American sports, clubs like Crystal Palace are able to make 38 million Euro bids for players that should in theory be way out of their league, such as Michy Batshuayi, who is heading to Chelsea. There are no salary caps in the Premier League, and UEFA's Financial Fair Play is easily exploitable and practically worthless in practice.
What has now emerged from the NBA's Supermarket Sweep of spending on sub-standard second tier players is a crisis of perception, and potentially a labor crisis. Naturally, the owners in smaller markets are going to want to tamp down on these ridiculous contracts for the game's so called middle class, which the NBAPA is going to fight back on, hard. NHL owners are probably going to want to do the same, because there is no clean way to get out from under bad contracts in both leagues as the deals are almost fully guaranteed. NFL players are watching with earnest interest and wondering why they're not given fully guaranteed contracts considering the game they play and the dangers they face, and why their earning ceiling is so much lower than Mike Conley's, for instance.
Regardless of whether contract figures like what have been handed out in the NBA and NHL over the past few days are the new normal, and they are in many respects, there is a massive problem in creating not only equity within the system, but an effective tiered mechanism so players can be paid what they might be really worth, not what an inefficient and closed market believes they are worth. Thanks to the multiple and artificial limitations imposed on the closed markets for most leagues, including the NBA, the very few players who are not restricted in what they can earn and how long they can earn that for end up reaping the rewards, and fans and observers are left to scratch their head as to why.
CBA negotiations for all sports leagues are incredibly contentious, and will grow even more so as the money infused into these leagues continues to skyrocket, which makes the likelihood of any clear compromise that rectifies the inefficiencies and the madness unlikely. And as with every CBA negotiated in every league, a new and unforseen problem emerges every single time which ends up becoming easily exploited and renders most of the hard work from before practically moot.
Thanks to these inefficiencies, caps and the like, players like Evan Turner, Troy Brouwer and Mike Conley can cash in like they're on the Nickelodeon Super Toy Run while their respective leagues top and bottom feeders can do little if anything about it and onlookers peer on in shock, horror and amusement.
Mike Conley's $153 million record breaking contract is not the new normal. The future Mike Conley's getting similar if not bigger contracts is.
Tuesday, May 31, 2016
Hockey fans, as defensive as any group of fans this side of soccer, are naturally scrambling to find explanations for this. From talking about NBC's total ownership of hockey coverage in the US to demographics and everywhere in-between, hockey fans are trying to ascertain why such a massive disparity exists between two sports that were once about dead equal in popularity. Something this stark only elucidates a gap that has been well known, but hasn't really been able to be seen in this clear detail.
Part of this difference has to do with the way the sport is marketed in this country. The focus is put on rivalries, which isn't a bad decision because the NHL is filled with great rivalries. But often times those rivalries are focused on to a point of over-exposure, even if those games and series are worth the wait. Adam Silver's NBA on the other hand doesn't need teams or markets in the Finals, because his league only needs certain players in the big show to succeed. A decade ago, Golden State and Cleveland were both basketball wastelands, but thanks to clever marketing and jaw-dropping performances, not anymore. There would be panic in some circles if Memphis and Toronto played in the NBA Finals, but once a new force builds in the league, they quickly find a way to market it to the public and make sure they find something to latch onto in case they get big.
Gary Bettman's NHL has hitched their wagon so tightly to rivalries and certain teams (also by extension, certain markets), that if those markets are gone, so too go the ratings. While the early and mid-2000's were a wasteland of small-market American teams against smaller market Canadian teams, or series like New Jersey-Anaheim, the ratings on ABC were better on average than they are now on NBC. During the dead-puck era, and when the Finals were almost exclusively blowouts, FOX did better, though not by much. The best NBC average for the Final is 3.3 when the Blackhawks played the Bruins in 2013. ABC's worst since they picked up the Finals in 2003 was a 6.2 in 2007. The NHL has always been playing catch-up, and will continue to do so.
Hockey's relative struggles in the US can also be attributed to demographics, and of course the sheer ease with which anyone can play basketball that's not even close to present in hockey, but that doesn't translate entirely to TV ratings. While this Stanley Cup Final is full of stars on both sides, the series is still pushed as Sharks-Penguins, not Thornton-Crosby, etc. Golden State-Cleveland is still that, but it's more Steph-Lebron, and there you have a winner. The NHL's small cadre of superstars all exist in major markets, and beyond that it seems like the stars on the other teams across the league are left in the cold. If the Raptors made the NBA Finals, NBA executives wouldn't be hugely pleased, but they'd still find a way to market DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry to make up for it.
But the NHL's biggest problem is keeping fans of teams who aren't in the Final (and the rest of the playoffs) to stick with it after their team is eliminated. Thunder fans, though by in large probably angry with basketball, will still watch Cavs-Dubs, as will fans in New York, LA, Boston, etc. NHL teams have such tribal fanbases that it has become accepted that some fans like their team well beyond like the league and the sport of hockey. Sharks-Penguins is a hockey purist's dream Stanley Cup Final, with storylines everywhere, fast paced up and down play and engrossing action from start to finish, but yet it seems that many in Chicago, Boston, Detroit, New York, etc. are missing out. How does the NHL fix this problem? It's a riddle they've yet to come close to solving. Once they crack it, maybe then the NHL's ratings will finally show some upward growth.
While there is concern in the corridors of the NHL's New York offices about the ratings dilemma, they're certainly not complaining about the money they're making. Safe to say, the NHL has never made a financial windfall like they're currently stuffing into their coffers, indifferent TV ratings aside. Hockey as a sport has always been outstripped in popularity by baseball, basketball and football, and some of that stems from the days when it was basically impossible to watch the Stanley Cup Final on TV. But the NHL has yet to capitalize on the momentum it has seen from big market teams becoming dominant of late and using that to market not only the markets, but the stars everywhere else too. It's only upward momentum of late was the John Scott controversy they created themselves and tried desperately to kaibosh not knowing what they had.
Maybe NBC and NBCSN's ratings will go up as Sharks-Penguins continue because of the teams involved and the style of play, but everyone has a feeling as to what the ceiling is going to be. No amount of griping from hockey's die-hards is going to change what already was inevitable.
In other words, if you want casual fans to watch, pray for overtime and a long series, which has been the formula for the Stanley Cup Final forever.
Monday, May 16, 2016
First, let's take a look at the new StubHub patch adorned on the Sixers classic look:
The patch is as small as advertised, and actually blends in quite nicely with the color scheme of the jersey. Unlike with soccer kits, where the sponsor is the most noticeable logo, on these jerseys they are an accessory, adornment to what you actually want to see, which is the team name and number. After long enough, most fans will either accept that the patch is there, or not even consciously notice the ad because it's become part of the uniform.We're partnering with @Stubhub as our official jersey patch sponsor! #StubHubSixers— Philadelphia 76ers (@Sixers) May 16, 2016
[ 👕 » https://t.co/RQEXl0BPUj ] pic.twitter.com/95jofobxj8
StubHub is paying the Sixers $5 million per season for this ad patch, which is quite a lot of money for an incredibly small rectangle most fans won't notice unless the broadcasts do a close-up on any given player. $5 million is not an insignificant amount of money, even in an NBA where the salary cap is going to explode because of an influx of TV revenue. While the ad money will probably help the bottom line look a bit nicer, this new money could easily be used to spend more on players and coaches, lower ticket and concession prices and spend on arena upgrades without fleecing taxpayers for it.
There are complains that some teams will be able to goose even more money out of sponsors for this patch because certain teams are bigger names than other. The Lakers will be able to charge more for an ad than say the Hornets, for example, and that's not surprising. That's been the case in soccer for years, but unlike in soccer, where teams sell almost everything individually, in the NBA, most revenue is still collected and pooled together and distributed evenly, which combined with the soft cap, is supposed to level the playing field. Ad revenue from a jersey patch isn't going to put the Lakers or Knicks over the top because they already are swimming Scrooge McDuck style in a vat of gold, where the ad revenue could make a significant difference for a team like Indiana, Milwaukee or Utah.
American sports were always outliers when it came to ads on jerseys, as the rest of the world certainly lapped our big four in that regard. It was always a race against time as to when Pandora's Box would have to be opened, because even with the "sanctity of the jersey", money always talks. The concept angers more people than how the ads have actually been executed, especially since future leagues will go the NBA's route with the patch rather than the full adornment common in soccer because in business, copycats rule all.
So the day has finally come when ads have spoiled the protected surface of the American sports jersey. Society is ruined and the sports-industrial complex in this country is crumbling beneath our feet. Or, by December of 2017, no one will even notice the ads and many will wonder why it took so long for this "dipping a toe in the pool" to come around in the first place.
Change is inevitable, and with the amount of changes that come to sports uniforms anyway, why shouldn't we be surprised that ads come with it? Any way to make money is a good way to make money and stay ahead.
If the abject terror that are the Philadelphia 76ers see it, why shouldn't everyone else?
Tuesday, April 26, 2016
Last night, the hockey world was subsumed by Blackhawks/Blues Game 7, as it should have been. Playoff hockey is at its best when it's played as that game was. The NHL is desperate to attract new audiences to watch these games because what league/business isn't eager and clamoring to do so? As "Hockey Twitter" found out last night, someone new was watching.
(Note that there is some language in these tweets that I wouldn't normally include here, but it's not like Twitter gives me the option to edit these things)
A black sports fan from St. Louis discovered hockey in the middle of a Game 7. The NHL has struggled to bring in black audiences despite P.K Subban being amazing at everything and Don Waddell's feeble attempts to have most of the NHL's black players play on the Thrashers in their meek final days in Atlanta. Tony's timeline went viral in the best possible way as Game 7 worked to its apex.Yo deadass this the first time I've ever watched hockey and this shit has been LIT for these first 45 seconds— Tony X. (@soIoucity) April 26, 2016
Isn't that the way we all learned about hockey, through the Mighty Ducks? I can't wait until he finds out there was a team in the NHL named after that movie, and they play in a Game 7 tomorrow night! For learning on the fly though, he's done quite a decent job.
All i know is Im bout to watch the mighty ducks and have superior knowledge on hockey now.— Tony X. (@soIoucity) April 26, 2016
Questionable language and racial connotations aside, Tony is letting the light of hockey into his life and having an epiphany before the internet's twitchy eyes, and it is wonderful in every way. He even found a way to endear himself to "Hockey Twitter" without even knowing it.
White people been hiding hockey from us for years bruh. This shit lit— Tony X. (@soIoucity) April 26, 2016
Glean what you will from that on your own. So after the Blues won, fittingly, after giving this man the night of his life, Tony has been hooked.
I don't know who this dude kane is but we gotta stop him.— Tony X. (@soIoucity) April 26, 2016
Although, someone does need to tell him about the whole fighting dying off thing.
I will. I've been missing out. Lol https://t.co/tNkpLqhhqC— Tony X. (@soIoucity) April 26, 2016
"Hockey Twitter" is normally not the most accepting and welcoming place in the world. Hardcore hockey fans are very protective of the game from the outside sports world, which means casual fans, general sports talk shows (and sadly women) are often left on the outside and alienated when they try to enter this world. Tony however, after letting the light of hockey into his life, wasn't just accepted, he was embraced and beloved by almost all hockey fans, and it was a beautiful sight to behold. And now that the Rams have bolted for Los Angeles, Tony needs something to fill the void.
this is a steal!!!!! i save 2% i hope you can fight on the game like in real life pic.twitter.com/eVlwsvNFXI— Tony X. (@soIoucity) April 26, 2016
The Blues will fill that void. Not only does everyone get to watch him live-tweet more playoff games down the stretch, but he's been accepted into a family that isn't usually willing to expand its embrace. It was a very good night for hockey and hockey fans, and hopefully Gary Bettman was looking at this whole phenomenon thinking about ways of capitalizing on it. Or, on second thought, maybe we should just let Twitter and Reddit deal with it. Bettman might not "get it".
this is a steal!!!!! i save 2% i hope you can fight on the game like in real life pic.twitter.com/eVlwsvNFXI— Tony X. (@soIoucity) April 26, 2016
Tuesday, April 19, 2016
It's no secret that I grew up outside of Philadelphia obviously in a sea of Philly sports fans when I myself loathed most all Philly teams. When my elementary school held a pep rally for the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX (I was in fifth grade), I wore my Byron Leftwich Jaguars jersey to school that day in protest (and was forced to go to the pep rally anyway even though I made it obvious I had no interest), and had beer dumped on me at a Phillies game when I wore a Mets shirt, so maybe my views here are slanted in one direction. Or maybe, after dealing with the Philadelphia sports scene ever since I started following sports, maybe my experiences can shed more light on the situation. The real answer here is: fans and media love to moralize fandom, particularly for dissident groups and vocal groups of fans outside their own hemisphere.
What happened last night was obviously heinous on the part of the Flyers fans who threw bracelets at Dmitry Orlov on the bench, and after that. Lou Nolan even said in essence, "what the hell are you people doing?" to the fans who wouldn't admit their team was outclassed. Having all of this boil over on the night the team honors Ed Snider punctuates the situation even more. The outrage that followed is not surprising, because this is another incident to throw on the pile of incidents that defines Philadelphia sports fandom which includes throwing D-Cell batteries at J.D Drew, snowballs at Santa, a courtroom inside the Vet, fighting Tie Domi in the penalty box, etc. One of the most popular Philly sports blogs is called "The 700 level", after the cheap seats at the Vet, so Philly fans know their history. But last night felt like the end of the rope for the town and its fans, even from those who accept this kind of behavior because "it's Philly". Even Ryan White showed complicity in "endorsing" what the few Flyers fans did at the end of Game 3. But moralizing fandom and condemning other groups of fans is nothing new, and with the internet the moral outrage is louder than ever.
Every group of fans has its bad seeds, though it seems Philly's bad seeds sprout bigger and uglier flowers. One of Twitter's favorite running jokes is about how St. Louis Cardinal fans proclaim themselves to be "the best in baseball", and then jump on them when some do stupid and insidious nonsense like calling now Cubs OF Jason Heyward the N-word. That rightfully deserves outrage, but not all Cardinals fans do that, just as not all Flyers fans would throw light-up bracelets at injured players from the opposing team. Hindsight is always 20/20, so saying that of course the Flyers marketing staff should have seen what occurred coming but they aren't cynical enough to actually believe anyone would do it, particularly on Ed Snider night. The media and other vocal fans can use that lens freely, while others can't. Whether it's #NotAllFlyersFans or #ItsJustBandwagoners, you could replace Flyers fans with any other group of fans across the world and name something stupid they've done. In Italy, fans of one soccer team threw flares at the head of the opposing goalie, and that's somehow common. It wasn't actually Canucks fans who incited the riots after losing Game 7 in 2011 to the Bruins, it was "anarchists in Canucks jerseys who aren't really fans". The emperor continues to find new clothes to wear, but still gets stoned every time.
Immediacy begets sweeping generalizations, not just in sports but everywhere. One of my tenets of sports fandom, like fandom of bands, actors, etc., is that it's inherently irrational. No rational human being would stake happiness and well being to the performance of a team playing a child's game for insane amounts of money that we the fans have no control over. It's the Roman Gladitorial Arena for the modern generation. What fans will "endorse", or let slide in the name of their team, will often times be slammed in all other instances because fandom is irrational. While what Flyers fans, Cardinals fans, etc. did is disgusting, sweeping generalizations of an entire group of people based on the actions of a few is what in other terms would be called "racism" or "sexism" or any of a number of other synonyms. Why in a sports context is this acceptable?
My sentiments of distrust and anger towards Philly sports teams and their fans has cooled as I have grown older, which means my own reaction to last night is vastly different than it would have been if I was younger. Maybe that misplaced anger and those frayed nerves have shifted to other groups of fans, but I still regret what I used to do and how I used to color an entire group of people wrongly because of the actions of a few lone wolves. There are plenty of Philly fans who would have thrown bracelets onto the ice that weren't at Wells Fargo Center last night, and plenty of fans at the rink who walked out in despair because of what they witnessed. What we shouldn't do is moralize and condemn an entire group of people because of this, because fandom comes in all different shapes, sizes and forms and some people take it too far.
While it may be easy to judge an entire group of people based on the actions of a few, we need to attempt to act rationally to prevent that. It's no doubt difficult, just like it is for those who wore the same Ed Snider shirts as those who threw solid objects at an injured player to accept what they've seen. Fandom isn't rational, and trying to rationalize irrationality only bring about more irrationality.
Such is sports, such is fandom.