Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sticking it to the People


Back in the halcyon days at M.I.T., when we were lying around the Larry Kahn Lounge dissecting string theory, El Hombre and Senor Penguin would often drift into discussions about unionizing college football players. “We’ll stage a wildcat strike right before the Orange Bowl,” we said, back when that particular game (and its interminable halftime show) mattered. We contended that the NC2A was milking so much out of the athletes while reaping such a colossal financial windfall that the gridiron warriors needed someone to protect them from the greedy forces that controlled the sport. After concocting a couple dream scenarios, we would lose interest and return to physics, calculus or Escapade.

Two recent, unrelated incidents prove that our instincts were right. College football players, in fact all college athletes, need some form of advocacy, the better to fight off the forces conspiring to exploit them.

The first blow came earlier this month, when the NC2A moved the date by which hoop players have to make a final decision about whether they will stay in the NBA Draft from June 15 to May 8. Although administrators, coaches and the sport’s shills (Jay Bilious, Dukie V, etc.) tried to hide behind the argument that the earlier deadline allows athletes who remain at their schools to miss less class time, the rule was changed for one reason: to let programs know sooner who will be back, the better to fill gaps with late-signing recruits. There is little benefit for the players, who now have almost six fewer weeks to determine whether they should stay or go. It won’t matter to those at the top of the list, but it will have a profound impact on those who don’t have first-round hopes, because it won’t allow as much time for them to get a complete sense of whether they belong in the Draft or need more time.

What’s worse is that the ACC is trying to get the deadline pushed up even more, to around April 15, about 10 days after the Final Four concludes. If a player has a great tournament and wants to see if that has sparked big-time NBA interest, he has less than two weeks to perform the necessary detective work and then two-plus months for any good vibes from the tourney to calm down and leave him the victim of a hurried decision.

At a time when schools are mainlining athletes into phony-baloney majors in order to maintain eligibility and boost GPA numbers to preserve scholarship levels, the “class time” argument is laughable. If the NC2A cared about studies, it wouldn’t have players’ leaving school on Tuesdays for tournament weekends and would put an end to mid-week non-conference TV showcase games that cost two days of school in November and December. If the NC2A is making any new rules, you can bet they are designed to benefit member institutions, not the athletes. This new regulation protects Roy Williams and other big-time coaches and puts many young – often poorly advised – players in danger of making life-altering decisions without sufficient time to gather a complete picture of their professional prospects. Sounds like the NC2A, all right.

The other news comes courtesy of the jurisprudence department, and involves a lawsuit filed by a former college football player that could be groundbreaking but will more than likely be thwarted by the NC2A’s superior legal muscle. Former Arizona State and Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller has filed a class-action lawsuit against EA Sports and the NC2A for illegally using the likenesses of players in football and basketball video games. Although the products didn’t use players’ names, it was clear that specific members of teams were being featured. Take a look at any team from the ’08 game, and you’ll find that its members, particularly its key performers (QB, RB, WR, top defenders) are almost identical to the real-life version. If you played Oklahoma, you faced a QB that had the same jersey number and physical characteristics as Sam Bradford. And, if you go to, you can get an add-on that allows you to put the proper names on the back of players’ jerseys.

Predictably, the NC2A predicts it will be exonerated. EA Sports doesn’t sound too scared, either. Keller’s suit is seeking unspecified damages for thousands of players he feels were exploited. Meanwhile, each NC2A school is compensated by EA through Collegiate Licensing Company, and of course, EA Sports makes millions each year on the games, which are the only officially licensed video outlets for college football fans.

The key here is that once again, the players are getting hosed by the NC2A, whose members continue to reap large financial benefits on the backs of their players. The EA Sports mess is just part of the problem. Schools promote their football and basketball programs by using likenesses of players. They sell jerseys and other merchandise with numbers of top players. They build entire marketing plans around Heisman candidates, all-America hopefuls and record-breakers. Millions of dollars roll in. In return, the athletes receive a scholarship, which often comes with a not-so gentle push into majors that promote eligibility, not future career success. And, since the rules are written to benefit the university, that grant is not of the four-year variety, rather season-to-season, at the discretion of the institution.

What always interests El Hombre are the arguments posed by those defending the schools. They say that since the players are getting a free ride (which, if it’s of the in-state variety can come to less than $10,000 a year at some schools), they are being adequately compensated. Of course, if those same people were getting a set salary and brought in millions of dollars for their company, they would be demanding further compensation. The same goes for someone like Bradford, who will help Oklahoma fill its coffers through jersey sales, bowl appearances and donations from alumni overjoyed by the fruits of his sturdy right arm’s labors. Think Bradford will get anything extra? Not unless he has been working at a no-show job like former Sooners Rhett Bomar and J.D. Quinn.

Here’s hoping Keller and his attorney, Rob Carey, are successful in getting money for players whose likenesses are used without their permission. Set up a trust fund that would throw off some dough for each player, once his playing time is up. Or, EA could design its games to have generic players. That might not provide the same authenticity, but such realism should come with a price. Keller is trying to make sure EA and the NC2A pay up.

If they don’t, give Senor Penguin a call. He might just be crazy enough to resurrect those union dreams.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Start praying now for Sports Illustrated, because the venerable sports journalism bastion is in trouble. Its recent redesign is a disaster, advertising pages are way down, and the magazine has taken to the worst kind of cross-promotion. It’s bad enough that a few back pages are wasted on meaningless drivel pimping the SI web site, but the recent giant photo spread celebrating decades of photographs was a primer for a new book offered by Time, Inc. It’s a wonder Dan Jenkins hasn’t torn the place apart with an AK-47…During a recent trip to see the World Champions on the diamond with Deep Nose, et al, Top Cat came up with the perfect nickname for the Phillies’ troika of Raul Ibanez, Pedro Feliz and Carlos Ruiz: “The Killer Z’s.” Inspiration on display…Great job by the American Football Coaches Association to make their top-25 football ballots secret, beginning in 2010. It’s already doubtful they complete the things themselves. It’s already laughable that coaches have a say in a system that’s supposed to be unbiased and directly impacts their success. It’s already ridiculous that an election should help determine which football team is the best. Now, the coaches want to hide their ballots, the better to protect their grudges and favoritism? Ladies and gentlemen: Your BCS!...The WNBA season starts in 10 days, and the early line has ennui favored over disinterest by nine points…How about that Indy 500? Oh, you didn’t watch, either? If ratings keep dropping, the only place the race could be broadcast is as part of NBC’s prime-time lineup. Nobody watches that, either…You have to love hockey players. Detroit’s Jonathan Ericsson missed game five of the Wings’ series with Chicago because he had surgery that morning to remove his appendix. He’ll be back for the start of the Stanley Cup finals, though – three days after getting sliced open. If he were a baseball player, Ericsson would have been on the 15-day DL and needed a rehab stint with Stumptown in the Green Grass League before he could return to full-time work.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? There is an odd trait among some fans, who have developed an allegiance to a particular sport at the expense of another. For instance, lacrosse supporters are anti-baseball. Football fans hate soccer. It’s sort of like saying that you don’t like fish because you eat beef. Well, whether you prefer football, soccer or chicken, you should get behind the Philadelphia Union, which will join Major League Soccer next year in a spanking new stadium on the Chester waterfront. Sure, soccer doesn’t feature a lot of scoring, and the players react to minor physical contact as if they were Jose Canseco’s getting bludgeoned by a seven-foot Japanese MMA monster. But the game is exciting when you have a rooting interest in it, and thanks to the rabid Sons of Ben, who are just a few riots away from becoming legitimate soccer hooligans, Union games ought to be a good time. Union has a cool logo and the promise of a sharp home field. And if Philadelphia supports its new team, there’s a good chance we might get a World Cup qualifying match in town, which will allow fans to pelt Mexican players with bags of urine, giving them a taste of the same medicine the folks south of the border dispense to the U.S. side. So, get rid of those prejudices and join the Union. And don’t worry, you can still watch football.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: If the Cavaliers rebound from their 3-1 deficit and win the Eastern Conference finals series with Orlando, there ought to be an investigation. Judging by the way things have gone in the first four games, the Magic is clearly the better team. So, if we reach a game seven, and NBA commissioner David Stern is sitting courtside with “special instructions” for the officiating crew, put it all on the Cavs. Cleveland has been unable to defend the Orlando perimeter shooters, and the Cavs’ non-LeBrons haven’t produced at a rate high enough to produce victory. In last year’s Finals, Boston shut down Los Angeles by making Kobe Bryant work like a mule for every point. Orlando is doing the same thing to the Cavs. Cleveland will probably win game five, but it shouldn’t take three in a row. If it does, something’s going to smell pretty rotten, and for once it won’t be the Cuyahoga River.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Second Chance


As dawn broke on that summer morning in Joliet, IL, large doors ground open, and a solitary figure stood, waiting to greet the outside world for the first time in three years. He wore a black suit, black hat, dark glasses and a broken Timex watch. In his pocket were $23.07 and a pair of prophylactics, one unused and one, ahem, “soiled.”

It was Independence Day for “Joliet Jake” Blues, and he was concluding his service of the state, having served 60 percent of his five-year sentence for knocking off a liquor store to pay his band’s sizeable room service tab at a previous Kiwanis Club gig. He was a free man, having survived Wednesday night’s “wicked pepper steak” and other assorted indignities. It was a new beginning.

Early Wednesday morning, another solitary figure emerged from incarceration looking for a fresh start. Unlike Jake, he wasn’t going to be picked up by his brother in an old Mount Prospect City police car and ferried to the St. Helen of the Blessed Shroud Orphanage to see the Penguin. He was headed home, for two more months of confinement and a $10/hour job working construction. Then the real work would begin. For Michael Vick, re-entering society was going to be a little tougher than it was for Joliet Jake. A lot tougher. No matter how much he lost and how much he paid for his dog-fighting crimes, Vick was still on the wrong side of the ledger sheet for many people, some of whom offered him no hope of ever climbing back to even, much less moving into the black again.

When Vick left Leavenworth Federal Prison, he did so a broken man. He had lost his job, his money, his reputation, his celebrity and most of the people who had surrounded him when he was flying high. His crimes were heinous, to be sure. His betrayals were many. And his fall was a high-speed plummet the likes of which few professional athletes have experienced. Vick had gone from the face of the world’s most popular sports league to a pariah. He deserved to be cut down in a very public manner. He deserved jail time and the shame that comes with it. He deserved the substantial financial hit he took.

And now he deserves a second chance.

Throughout the entire dog-fighting mess, El Hombre was squarely on the other side of the Vick camp. He believed none of the lies, tolerated none of the arguments made about the “cultural” nature of the crime and refused to consider the apologists who tried to make a man with a nine-figure football contract out to be a tragic figure. Vick got what he deserved, no question about it.

Now, he should get what every American is promised – the opportunity to rebuild his life after paying his penalty. When Vick emerges from home confinement in mid-July, he will do so as a relatively free man. He’ll still have some probationary requirements, and he won’t ever be allowed to own a dog again, but Vick will be able to seek employment, spend time with friends and family, travel (with limits, at first) and try to fashion a new world.

If an NFL team will have him, he should be allowed to play. He should serve a suspension this season, as final penance for his sins against the league, and he must show legitimate (and El Hombre means legitimate) remorse for what he did. But if all of that is satisfied, Vick should be fair game for whoever wants to sign him. That’s his right.

A lot of people disagree. They believe his punishment should have no end, that Vick ought to serve out an indefinite sentence, complete with periodic parades through jeering mobs, the better to humiliate him and prevent him from regaining any dignity. Again, what he did was awful. It was cruel and ghastly. But he has served his sentence, and it’s time to forgive.

You remember forgiveness, don’t you? It’s the bedrock of many religious faiths and a prime characteristic of American society. You can’t scream for infinite punishment and then hide behind a set of beliefs that preaches turning the other cheek. If Vick is indeed remorseful – and he’s going to need a little more than a cursory “I’m sorry” to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell – he deserves some absolution. We won’t forget his prior transgressions, but we need to give him a chance at re-entry to society. For all of those people out there who feel the NFL would be sending a poor message to children if Vick were allowed to play football, consider what a great example we would be setting by giving him another shot at getting it right.

The good news is that this is almost a win-win situation. If Vick does return to the NFL, he will likely do it at an entry-level spot, because what team would risk investing their future on someone with as much baggage as Vick? He is one dumb interview response away from a public relations nightmare. After two years out from the NFL, there’s a big question about whether he can even play the game at a high level anymore. So, should Seattle or St. Louis or Team X decide to sign Vick, it’s unlikely he’ll be brought in as a starter. He’ll have to work his way back to a regular position, as it should be. It’s not like someone is going to bestow another nine-figure contract on him. And if he messes up, he’ll be gone in 60 seconds.

Now, this welcome back to the high-profile, big-money life of professional football comes with a caveat: Vick has to prove he’s sorry, and that won’t come from just one face-to-face meeting with Goodell or the intercessions of Tony Dungy, Jesse Jackson or Dr. Phil. Vick needs to live right and to prove he understands the severity of his betrayal of the league, Falcons’ owner Arthur Blank and the millions of fans who helped get rich and famous. That may require half the ’09 season. It could take the whole year. That’s up to Goodell and the people who will investigate Vick in the coming weeks and months. But it has to happen.

And after that appropriate period, Vick should have another chance at football. He’ll have to prove himself on the field all over again, and he’ll have to live with his transgressions and the impact they had not only on his victims but also on those who adored him. He’ll never be the same person. He probably won’t be the same player. But if he has true remorse for his crimes, he should get the same forgiveness and second chance accorded so many others. If he blows that opportunity, then at least we as a society will know we did what was right.

Think about it; Vick did the wrong thing. Should we do the same?

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: After 149 at-bats, Big Papi finally hit a home run, proving that long droughts truly come to an end. Next up: A-Rod tells the truth…The prevailing wisdom is now that the Clippers have won the Draft Lottery, Oklahoma forward Blake Griffin’s basketball career is headed for trouble. That’s not fair to the Clips. After all, it’s not like they blew their last top pick on Michael Olowokandi or anything. What’s that? Oh, never mind…It’s nice to see that some college conferences are tightening up in these tough economic times, but their members’ budgets remain bloated and embarrassing at a time when institutions are cutting course offerings, laying off faculty and staff and trimming student services. Oh, yeah, they’re also throwing millions at the athletic departments. It’s time for football and men’s basketball to cut the fat for real, the better to reflect the tough times and show they are part of the community, not an outside entity…Less than two months after being hired at Kentucky, Johnny Cal has completed the best recruiting class in the country. If Jodie Meeks returns for his senior season, the Wildcats could have a team capable of taking out the Kings in a best-of-seven. Say what you want about him, but Cal can bring in the talent…R.I.P. Wayman Tisdale. The former Oklahoma star and 13-year NBA vet was a tremendous basketball player, a fine jazz musician and a solid citizen. It was just a few months ago that we heard he was faring well in his fight against cancer, so his death came as a surprise. His is a big loss.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? As the NBA playoffs continue, and Denver makes its bid for the franchise’s first berth in the NBA Finals, it becomes more and more clear that the Nuggets’ swapping of Allen Iverson for Chauncey Billups is one of the most one-sided deals in recent league history. Billups has brought stability, leadership and timely production to Denver, while amplifying what Iverson’s critics (including your humble narrator) have been saying for years. There is no doubting A.I.’s considerable talent, but his has always been a me-first game. And it’s amazing people are just coming to understand this. Is the NBA so adept at creating and promoting its stars that reasonable people look past the glaring inadequacies in their games? It must be, because Iverson was heralded for years as one of the NBA’s best, all the while preventing the Sixers from achieving great things with his selfish play. Yes, 2001 was terrific, but how much of that was Iverson and how much of that was Larry Brown and his ability to build and coach a support system around the guard? You’ll notice that once Brown left, the Sixers floundered. Now, with no contract and a stated unwillingness to sublimate his need to dominate the ball, Iverson faces an uncertain future. No team will throw money at him, because none can afford to have him ruin whatever chemistry it might have. It’s entirely possible that unless Iverson has a remarkable attitude change in the coming months that he will be without an employer come October. That may seem unfathomable to some, but it’s a reflection of an aging scorer’s dwindling physical skills, coupled with an approach to the game that has little to do with team success. It’s sad, but it’s true.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: The Nuggets are a great feel-good story, and Chauncey Billups homecoming is heartwarming, but the team still needs to learn how to win. Tuesday’s loss to the Lakers demonstrated that Denver isn’t quite at a championship level yet. It missed free throws, didn’t work hard enough rebounding the ball and made some dumb mistakes down the stretch. Championship teams take games. They don’t try to play well and wait for a gift. Denver learned that in the first game and had better apply its lessons quickly – like tonight. It’s the same thing that is happening to Chicago in the NHL Western finals series. The young Blackhawks have accomplished a lot, but the Red Wings are stone killers. It’s still possible to shock the world, but for the most part, professional sports rely on veteran leadership and the ability to make big plays late in games. The Nuggets had better remember and apply that.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Making the Magic Disappear


If you’re looking for the main reason why the Orlando Magic doesn’t have a chance to beat Boston in their Eastern semifinal fracas, look no further than the ridiculous bi-play between coach Stan “The Hedgehog” Van Gundy and Dwight “Overrated” Howard after the team’s game-five loss to the Celtics.

In case you were focused on the Ducks-Wings game (why?) and missed the Magic Meltdown, you should know Mickey’s team blew a double-digit fourth-quarter lead and lost a second-straight winnable game to the creaky Celtics, who continue to thrive despite using Brian Scalabrine for long stretches. Afterward, The Hedgehog criticized his team for failing to play with the same intensity it had for the first 44 minutes of action, and Howard countered by accusing The ‘Hog of poor substitution decisions and the inability to get his one-trick pivot the ball.

After a choreographed Wednesday sit-down, in which the air was cleared, grievances considered and other clich├ęs covered, the two men pronounced the situation closed and girded themselves for a must-win Thursday night in Mousetown, where fans sitting courtside are advised to wear body armor to ward off injury in the event of Big Babies that leave the field of play. The meeting may have served some fine P.R. purposes, but it didn’t necessarily address the biggest concern the Magic – and by extension the NBA – has, namely the league’s insistence on conferring superstar status (with considerable help from its propaganda partners) on players who haven’t yet achieved enough to warrant such consideration.

There is no doubt Howard is a physically talented player. Seven-footers who can dash from end-to-end, jump like Dwight Stones and have shoulders wide enough to hold Mo’Nique and Much-Mo’Nique can’t be found on Howard has all of the standard equipment to be great, and there are times when he is a dominant force defensively and blocking shots – although he insists on swatting them out of bounds, rather than merely redirecting them and getting the ball for his team. But this playoff series is proving that his offensive resume consists of the following: dunk, scowl, posture, repeat.

Maybe the reason Howard didn’t get enough “touches” during the final four minutes was that he relies solely on lobs, dishes from players double-teamed on the move and offensive rebounds for his shots. Rarely do you see him park his muscular self on the low block, put a hand in the air and demand the ball with one of those “give-it-to-me-or-I’ll-dismember-you” looks. When he does get the ball in a post-up situation, he lacks a legitimate drop-step move, baby hook, turnaround jumper or any other big-man staple that will get him points in crucial situations. If he ain’t dunking, he ain’t scoring. That’s not The Hedgehog’s fault.

And as for Howard’s renowned rebounding prowess, he may pile up 20 against Memphis, but he failed to get two biggies against the Celtics. The first came on Rajon Rondo’s airball (the NBA brass ruled that the ball grazed the rim and later said that the Mighty Casey actually made contact on that third strike), when a Howard board would have rendered all arguments pointless. The second came on Ray Allen’s wayward J in the last minute that would have given Orlando the ball with a chance to tie or go ahead. In both cases, a Howard rebound – against Kendrick Perkins, Big Baby and Scalabrine – would have made a huge difference.

The point here is that while The Hedgehog might have derailed a little momentum with his substitution patterns, Howard’s inability to act and play like a star in moments of crisis were just as damaging to the Magic cause. A lot of that stems from his youth. The guy is only 23, for crying out loud. He is still caught up in the whole “Superman” thing and likes wearing capes. He and his pals do pushups before they go out, the better to look as jacked as possible for the ladies in the clubs. (As if he could look any more ripped.) Howard remains a novice in terms of knowing how to win in the NBA, so he can be forgiven for some of his behavior. He also gets a pass because of the league’s decision to feature him as one of its preeminent players. The guy hasn’t won anything yet. His team hasn’t gotten out of the second round of the playoffs during his five years in the league. And, yet, he’s already a superstar. How do you expect him to act when things go badly? Of course he’s going to look around him, rather than focusing on what he could have done.

Boston, meanwhile, is soldiering on without Kevin Garnett or reserve forward Leon Powe. It is getting big contributions from Rondo and Big Baby, while veterans Paul Pierce and Allen do their usual business. When the Celtics lose, you don’t hear excuses, because champions don’t search for back doors. Of course this would be a different series with a healthy KG. In fact, it would probably be over by now. And if Boston loses to the Magic (not likely) or the Cavaliers (highly likely), coach Doc Rivers won’t curse fate or his players, and they won’t kill him. Howard would do well to pay attention when Boston’s season ends, the better to learn how to behave the next time things get tight. Better yet, he should craft a plan for what he’ll say when Orlando packs it in, because it looks like that’s happening a couple weeks earlier than the Celtics’ demise.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Here’s a message to all those 20-somethings who insist on putting their every trip to the bathroom on YouTube: Because of you geniuses and your videos of Port-a-Potty fun, no one is allowed to bring alcohol into Pimlico’s infield for the Preakness anymore. It will save thousands of livers, sure, but what about all those poor neighborhood kids who make $20 a shot transporting the coolers from parking spaces to the track? Talk about a tragic economic loss. Shame on you. Really…How can you tell when Roger Clemens is lying? Just look for the microphone. Looks like Jon Lovitz will have to start working out now to play the Rocket in his biopic. Anyone who votes for him for the Hall of Fame should expect a sales call from Ricky Roma about property in Rio Rancho…If it’s true that USC coach Tim Floyd paid $1,000 to a street agent to secure the services of O.J. Mayo, that’s quite a bargain. Twenty years ago, that’s what Kentucky supposedly tried to ship to Chris Mills’ father. Given inflation, Mayo’s agent should have asked for at least double that…Urban Meyer said recently that anybody who criticizes the Florida football program “isn’t a Gator.” It was a thinly-veiled shot at former UF quarterback Shane Matthews, who questioned the team’s offensive strategy after last year’s loss to Mississippi. Here’s a quick primer for Meyer: You were born in Ohio, coached at Utah before coming to Gainesville and have about a one in a billion chance at finishing your career at Florida. Matthews, meanwhile, played at Florida, took shots from angry defenders for Florida and graduated from the school. You, coach, are just passing through and need to stop complaining when people criticize you…Dallas QB Tony Romo failed in his bid to qualify for the U.S. Open but wasn’t too broken up about the failure, since he has had plenty of practice blowing big opportunities on the field with the Cowboys…Delaware State’s football program is already 0-1 for the 2009 season, because it backed out of a game against North Carolina A&T to play Michigan for a fat payday Oct. 17, and the schools couldn’t agree on a replacement date. In a related story, the Wolverines are trying to help DSU find another game for that date, so that they can start the year with a 1-0 record, just like A&T.

* * *
YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The Mole checked in Wednesday night with an extremely pertinent question: “Is Jamie Moyer the 800-pound gorilla in the room?” His query came as Moyer was completing his third consecutive shaky outing, this one a 4-1/3 inning gem that featured eight hits and seven earned runs. It came on the heels of another seven-run debacle that he unfurled last Saturday against the Letsgoes and which lasted a shade over two frames. Moyer is 3-3 with an 8.15 ERA and is a couple lousy starts away from forcing the Phillies to make a decision they don’t want to confront. Moyer was outstanding last year, winning 16 games for the World Champions and throwing on three days rest down the stretch. He was the AARP poster boy and a medical phenomenon who was still beguiling batters at his advanced age. Things are different this year. It’s not as if Moyer has lost some miles off his fastball, because that would mean the ball would actually be traveling backwards. No, the problem here is accuracy. A few inches here or there mean a lot to a pitcher like Moyer, who like older golfers, may be losing his precision, often the first thing to go as the aging process takes hold. It wouldn’t be unusual to see Moyer slip quickly, either. Warren Spahn went 23-7 with a 2.60 ERA at age 42. The next season, he was 6-13, with a 5.29 ERA and went 7-16 the next campaign, his last. Moyer may not be headed for a Spahn-like splashdown, but he is danger of deteriorating more slowly, not the best news for a team with a shaky rotation and two years (and $13 mil) invested in a man who is closer to 50 than 40. Moyer gets a big benefit of the doubt for his meritorious service and hometown pedigree, but as long as he keeps giving up hockey sticks every time out, he’s looking more and more like a big problem the Phillies will have to address.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: El Hombre has to make a confession: When he was a Nino, he used to get angry at Chuck Daly when he coached the University of Pennsylvania. Even though Daly won four straight Ivy titles at the beginning of his tenure, his teams faltered during the final two campaigns and lost a combined five league games, practically disastrous given Penn’s success before that. For a young Quaker fan who had to deal with Princeton types at school, this was tough sledding. But as the years went on, it became impossible not to appreciate Daly’s talents. He turned the Pistons into the nastiest, winningest team in the NBA, was the perfect squire for the Dream Team and continued to lead franchises to successful years through the end of his coaching career. And he did it with class and (always) style. Last year, El Hombre had the opportunity to interview Daly for an article about the ’92 Olympic juggernaut. As always, Daly was cordial, informative and insightful. His description of the “rock star” life the team led in Barcelona was classic. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “The fans were eight deep outside the hotel. There were a lot of concerns about our safety. We had two cars parked out front of the hotel and two in the back. We would take the ones in the back and drive against the traffic every time, with a motorcyclist carrying an Uzi behind us.” Daly’s death from pancreatic cancer last week touched a lot of coaches here in the Philadelphia area and resonates with many fans who knew and appreciated basketball. Daly may have been known most for his perfect hair and fabulous wardrobe, but he should be best remembered as a gentleman who knew basketball and treated people with dignity at all times. His death is a big loss.


Thursday, May 7, 2009

Cowboy Quarterback to the Rescue!


You have to hand it to the NFL. No other league in the history of sports is so adept at manufacturing interest and enthusiasm for its product as is America’s top sporting religion. You get the impression the Catholic Church could learn a few things from Roger Goodell and his droogs, the better to keep momentum going through that dry “Ordinary Time” stretch leading up to Advent. The confetti is still scattered on the turf at the Super Bowl site when free agency begins, and the signings conclude just as the Draft hysteria ramps up. Mini-camps and OTAs then keep the fun rolling through May. It’s a brilliant way to keep the NFL’s heavily-addicted fan base sated, a sort of athletic Methadone that prevents fans from rioting in the streets during the off-season.

But even with all the manufactured fun and year-round football craziness, there is one stretch that remains unfilled by official NFL activity. That’s the seemingly interminable six weeks before the opening of training camp, when players and coaches do unthinkable things like take vacations and rest up for the next round of carnage. No amount of baseball, NBA Finals drama or family excursions can make up for the emptiness fans feel as their primary source of sport goes dark, if only for a short time. And when the meaty men and big hitters emerge to smash mouths once again in the summer swelter, life begins anew.

The NFL tried to fill the gap with its Europroduct, but no fan could figure out what a Claymore was (it’s a Scottish great sword) much less why anybody wanted to watch a team bearing its name play bad football on a soccer pitch. It was enough to send fans scurrying to the CFL, if only to celebrate the fact that the confederation no longer had two teams bearing the same nickname: Roughriders and Rough Riders (R.I.P.). No matter how much effort the league’s broadcast partners put into manufacturing enthusiasm during June and early July, it didn’t work. As recently as two weeks ago, football fans were girding for their annual trip to the NFL desert by stockpiling old videos and trying to decide to which pre-season game they will bring their wives and kids. “Sorry, honey, but the real games are for real fans.”

Then, riding out of the humid fields of southern Mississippi came a rescuer. It was Cowboy Quarterback, sending out messages of hope. He requested his release from the Jets. He was only retired “for now.” He wanted to meet with the Vikings. He was texting Peter King. He hadn’t shaved in a month. He was tired of cutting the grass. He missed watching Chris Berman drool every time he said his name. That’s right, Brett Favre, retired man of leisure, was coming back. In typical Favre fashion, he wouldn’t come out and say it. There had to be hints and allegations. “Sources” told breathless reporters that Favre was playing catch with the pizza delivery boy. Meetings were on the books. Airline reservations were revealed. It was all so cloak-and-dagger but all so clear: Fans had a summer oasis, and there was much rejoicing.

Once again, Cowboy Quarterback had saved football.

Nothing is official yet, but it looks like that snowball-tossing, swashbuckling, record-breaking legendary roughneck is unretiring – again. Not content with his late-season meltdown last year with the Jets, the QB who has had one good year in his last four would be returning to lead the Vikings to the Super Bowl. Or at least that’s how his mythologists would be spinning it. After throwing 84 interceptions (versus 88 TDs) from 2005-8, numbers that would get most QBs a ball cap and clipboard, Favre and his torn biceps tendon want back in. Who cares if his 2 TD/9 int. performance in the final five games of ’08 helped cost the Jets a playoff berth and Eric Mangini his job? Favre didn’t get a chance to choose his own landing spot last year and now wants a chance to stick it to Green Bay by buying a house in the Packers’ neighborhood, the NFC North. Oh, nothing is certain yet, and nobody from the Favre camp will cop to anything. The official party line is that there’s no guarantee Favre will even play again. (In related stories, the Easter Bunny is announcing an Arbor Day line, Santa Claus will endorse Dexatrim, and Kim Kardashian is having breast-reduction surgery.)

Favre is coming back, all right, and the mayhem surrounding his decision, subsequent arrival at training camp and every move once he dons the Purple will be breathlessly chronicled by the same media sycophants who detailed his last two retirement proclamations. Those of us who reside in the realm of reason will be chugging Big Pink daily, in an attempt to settle our turbulent stomachs. Once again, Favre has hijacked the news cycle and convinced people that his overwhelming love of the game and devotion to the sport are leading him back to the game he loves. For that, we should all be delighted. Already, commentators are telling us he “deserves” the right to make this decision. And he does. Asking anybody to quit their chosen profession at age 39 is quite a demand to make. Athletes who make comebacks aren’t always selfish. They’re often desperate to stay in a world that they love and unprepared for a life away from it.

That may have been Favre’s motivation for last year’s comeback. This time, it seems as if he’s doing it for revenge. Angry that the Packers wouldn’t let him chart his own course last year, he is hooking up – allegedly – with the Vikings in order to stick it to Green Bay. Since GM Ted Thompson wouldn’t trade him to Minnesota last year, Favre is going to return from his self-imposed exile and make the Pack pay. He is acutely aware of the teams’ Oct. 5 meeting in Minneapolis and probably dreaming of throwing five TD passes Nov. 1 at Lambeau before a teeming throng of Packer Backers all wearing their Number Four jerseys.

Favre may well do that. He might lead the Vikes to the playoffs and beyond, although it’s unlikely he’ll repeat his 2007 performance, when he worked with a trainer from Athletes Performance Institute in preparation for the season. Favre is balking at having the surgery necessary to repair his injury and banking on his experience and attitude to beat out Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels under center, hardly heavy lifting. We’ll have to see whether it’s enough to help Minnesota rule the North, or whether Favre’s bid for revenge falters. Either way, it’s going to dominate the headlines.

The NFL is counting on that.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: The American Football Coaches Association is considering a move that will hide the identities of those who participate in the weekly coaches poll and return the contents of the final regular-season poll to its previous closeted state. Just what college football needs: more cloak-and-dagger garbage. It’s just another argument against the BCS, which seems more and more like a blatant money-grab by the big conferences every day…How about that perfect (13-0) home start by the Dodgers? Fans in soCal are so excited, they’re showing up in time for the home second…It’s hard to believe the feds are taking such a hard line against Detroit-area gamblers Gary Manni and Edward Karam, who are accused of trying to fix Toledo football and basketball games. With the southeastern Michigan economy in such dire straits, it’s good to see a couple entrepreneurs trying to get things rolling again. Not that their business model couldn’t use some help. Do you think betting more than $400,000 on Toledo hoop games in one calendar year might raise a red flag? In the future, fellas, choose a team that other people bet on. You won’t stand out so much…Somebody close to Celtics forward Brian Scalabrine needs to tell him that topping off a pasty-white, freckled complexion and fire-red coif with a headband just isn’t working. Dude, what’s next, a pocket protector?...If the Anaheim Ducks knock off both Detroit and San Jose in the playoffs, and Carolina ends up meeting Pittsburgh in the Eastern finals, the NHL will no longer be able to argue that its regular season means a damn thing…A couple days after proclaiming herself the best player in tennis, despite what the rankings say, Serena Williams was knocked out in the first round of the Italian Open by 20th-rated Patty Schnyder. You’re right, Serena, the rankings were off. You were slotted too high.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The aftermath of the Sixers’ stomach-turning game-six loss to Orlando in the post-season’s opening round is messy and not prone to easy solutions. The coaching situation must be addressed, since the very thing that made Tony DiLeo so popular with media and club officials – his nice-guy personality – was his downfall as a coach. GM Ed Stefanski can’t miss on this one, because bringing in a retread (Collins, Doug) or novice (Wright, Jay) could be catastrophic. He needs someone with experience to steer the ship, and whether that’s Avery Johnson or Jeff Van Gundy is up to him. And after watching the team falter down the stretch and then show no heart against a Dwight Howard-less Magic team, it’s clear the roster needs more heft. Willie Green is not a starting two guard. Samuel Dalembert is awful. Do you pay Andre Miller $60 million over the next four years when he’s never been out of the first round of the playoffs? That’s a tough one. How about finding some people who can shoot the basketball from long range, and no, Donyell Marshall doesn’t count. Stefanski has a lot of decisions to make and without a lot of cap flexibility or free-agent options, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to recast the team. If he doesn’t bring in the right coach, it won’t matter whether Elton Brand is healthy or not. The Sixers won’t be going anywhere.

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AND ANOTHER THING: The hand-wringing over the A-Rod steroid mess is ridiculous, since he should be lumped in with all the others who played during this decade and the last as a probable cheat. Sorry, but that’s the way it is. The more troubling part of the story, if it’s true, is the allegation that he tipped off pitches to opponents during blowouts. This is something that goes to the heart of professional sports these days and feeds the opinions of fans and media that those who play have little or no concern about their teams or the games themselves. The amount of money involved in all areas makes the athletes mini-corporations and forces them to be concerned first and foremost with their health and statistics. A-Rod may be one of only a few who are tipping pitches, but he is certainly not alone in his contempt for the game he plays. As the economy continues to wrack the everyman and force teams to scuffle financially, the sustained behavior of A-Rod and his fellow athletes – along with beauties like $2,500 seats at Yankee Stadium – will help push their product further from the people who buy the tickets and lead us further toward a gladiator-style climate that rewards individual success at the expense of the whole.