Friday, April 30, 2010

Trophies All Around


It is a sad day indeed when the new mentality of rewarding every single youth sports participant, regardless of talent level or proclivity for chasing butterflies, has made its way onto the college sports agenda, but that’s what happened this week. The news that the already-bloated bowl schedule will swell by another game (by virtue of a two-for-one switch) and perhaps allow teams that have finished the regular season with a 5-7 record is grim indeed.

There is no guarantee that such mediocrity will be celebrated with a trip to the Cialis Bowl, but should the number (now 70) of eligible teams boasting at least a robust 6-6 record lag, then teams that barely win 40% of their games get to spend a week during the holidays in Shreveport, Fort Worth or Bayonne. Why not replicate the practice of most community sports programs and give every player on a I-A team a medal or trophy, the better to boost his self-esteem? In the words of the immortal Vince Lombardi, “What the hell is going on out here?”

You don’t have to be so old to remember when a 10-0-1 Michigan team (yes, chilluns, there was a time when the Wolverines were good) was home for the holidays back in ’73. Or when six wins would lead to a coach’s demise and the promise to fans of bigger things in the future. Today, 10-0-1 brings in about $17 mil, and six triumphs earn a winter vacation and a bag of loot for happy players. Since 1996, the number of bowls has almost doubled, moving from 18 to 35. Meanwhile, the impact of those games, except for the BCS “championship” game, has lessened greatly. Part of it is the old supply-and-demand game. The more of anything there is, the less it is worth, a maxim that has only beer and Victoria’s Secret models as its exception. The rest is that even the most brainwashed fans couldn’t possibly consider a 6-6 season successful, no matter how hard the school, the bowl and its propaganda partners try to convince them otherwise.

So, when news that a 5-7 team or two could slide into the post-season broke, it was installed as a new alternative to syrup of ipecac. But compared to what’s going on in the rest of the NC2A, it’s sort of small potatoes. News came this week that former University of Washington president Mark Emmert had taken over the organization and was charged with sticking it to student-athletes for at least the next five years. While Emmert tries to sidestep his previous declaration that a college football playoff was “inevitable” with doublespeak that would make a Soviet premier envious and continue efforts on academic reform (good luck), he also has some big decisions to make regarding the so-called “minor” sports that take place away from the headlines.

A 2008 study by the NC2A reported that only 17 of the more than 300 Division I athletic programs made a profit between 2004-06. That’s 5.6%. Although that number “swelled” to 25 in 2007-08, according to the NC2A, the vast majority of schools are depending on state and institution cash to keep the balls bouncing. In 2008, 30% of Division I funding came from outside sources. At a time when schools are cutting programs and staff members, the athletic departments are gobbling up much-needed dough.

While it’s too early to know how Emmert plans on dealing with this problem – if he addresses it at all – there are those who worry that the way to handle the shortfall is to limit the smaller sports, rather than forcing some restrictions on football and men’s basketball teams. For instance, some teams could be forced to play tightly regionalized schedules and not travel to championship competitions, the better to keep costs down. Others may have to cut scholarships or program participants.

The same argument rears up every time this topic is raised. It’s from the football/basketball crowd that says so long as their programs are bringing in the big bucks, they should be left alone, even if that means putting up the home team in a hotel the night before a game or running a year-round program. They make the bucks, so they should spend the bucks.

There are two ways to look at that. First, if it’s all about money, and those schools that are profitable should be able to do what they want, then the 28% of I-A schools that were running a deficit, according to a 2006 study, should be shut down. And if any other school starts losing money from football, it must be terminated.

The second is philosophical, and it gets to the root of the raging hypocrisy that has infected college presidents, who hide behind their “concern” for student-athletes when discussing why a college football playoff won’t work (all the while approving a 12th game earlier this decade). If the goal of the university is to educate and serve its entire population, then it must operate that way and make sure every student and athlete is treated similarly. If it wants to operate a giant athletic superpower, that’s fine, too, but don’t try to make us think one of the goals of the Tennessee football program is to prepare its players for life after football. Its goal is to win games, fill Neyland Stadium and make sure the cash register plays “Rocky Top” every second of the day.

The football world is doing a great job taking care of its own. Facilities continue to rise from the ground. Coaches’ salaries are out of control. And teams that lose more than half of their games will soon be celebrating bowl berths. As Emmert takes over in Indianapolis, let’s hope he has an eye on the other people who play college sports.

They deserve trophies, too.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: Five Majoke League Baseball teams – and the Orioles – have already logged record low attendances for their ballparks this season. Overall, baseball attendance is down two years running. So, what’s an overpaid, drug-enabling commissioner to do? Well, Mr. Sellout, your sport doesn’t have a test yet for HGH. Remember, chicks dig the long ball…Chris Berman re-signed with espn, in the hopes that he might be able to stutter his way through an Olympic hosting gig in 2014. Did you see him stumble around the NFL Draft last weekend? Talk about losing your fastball. This guy makes Jamie Moyer look like Bob Feller…Great job by the Capitals in the NHL playoffs. Choking away a 3-1 series lead to the eight seed and making a guy who finished ninth in goals against average look like Jacques Plante, Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy combined is awful. Nice job, Alex Ovechkin. No Olympic gold. No Stanley Cup playoff win. You’re a real superstar…There’s a rumor out there that Coach Zen might take his Yanni CDs and head to Jersey to coach. It’ll never happen – unless LeBron James intends to sign with the Nets. Ol’ Zen doesn’t do rebuilding projects. He needs at least one Hall of Famer on the roster to consider a job…China has been stripped of a gymnastics medal it won during the Sydney Olympics for using a 14-year old (no one younger than 16 may compete) during the Games. Now, that’s a shocker. Anybody who watched the Chinese team compete in Beijing in 2008 knows the country was falsifying the ages of many competitors. Officials were tipped off when the Chinese gymnasts’ ID cards had “authentic” Chairman Mao signatures on them and also when they saw that the team was sponsored by Dora The Explorer.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Philadelphia media are in quite a lather over whether the Sixers will turn back to Larry Brown to solve their problems. Visions of 2001 dance through their heads, and Mr. Ed no doubt has the same fantasies. While the idea of a Sixers roster that includes 37-year old Theo Ratliff and the joyous reunion of George Lynch and Tyrone Hill is certainly a great tool for the ticket sales staff, it’s not certain those geezers will recreate the magic they did when Brown’s team worked its way through a weak Eastern Conference to the Finals. Brown is just about at the end of his line, and though he led the Bobcats to the playoffs this year, they were dispatched quickly by Orlando and made the post-season only because the East stinks. Brown’s return will no doubt come with the unsavory baggage that he will be picking the players, meaning anybody younger than 30 will be looked at with a jaundiced (and pre-cataract) eye. It also could signal the return of one William King to the ceremonial GM chair, a bad idea if he is Brown’s phone-call man and a nightmare if he actually has authority to make deals. What the Sixers need is new ownership. They need someone to hire a sharp personnel man who will in turn employ a successful coach. This is not the time for re-runs. The Sixers need some fresh ideas, not nostalgia acts.

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AND ANOTHER THING: The NC2A actually did something reasonably correct this week when it announced it would be expanding the men’s basketball tourney to 68 teams, rather than a ridiculous 96, as was originally feared. It’s a good news/bad news/good news situation. The first bit of good news is that the 13th-place Big East team won’t be qualifying for the tournament next year. The bad news is that three more small-conference teams won’t make it to the official start of the Madness, since they’ll likely be playing “pigtail” games in Dayton or Ames earlier in the week and upon losing will be sent home without experiencing the true essence of the tournament. Meanwhile, three other big-time schools who don’t belong in the real post-season (have fun in the CBI, NIT, etc.) will get the chance to dance. But the accompanying report that the CBS/Turner bid to broadcast the event for the next 14 years trumped espn’s best offer means we won’t have to hear Dookie V gabbling throughout the tournament. By the time the new contract expires, he’ll be 85 and will bring new meaning to the term “Diaper Dandy.”


Friday, April 2, 2010

MLB 2010 Spectacular


Talk about your dream off-season for Bud Sellout and the rest of the MLB moneychangers. After several winters of navigating so many drug issues that the annual hot-stove discussion sounded like the health-care debate, there was relative peace and quiet. Some might say that was a result of so many controversies in previous years, but when your only pharmaceutical concerns arise from the return of an old-school pincushion and the one-time(!) cocaine use by one of your managers, it’s a win.

Another couple years like this, and Sellout will be able to launch his Hall of Fame candidacy without concern – or conscience. After 15-plus seasons, the only talk of juice these days is of the tobacco variety. That means the 2010 campaign could well be devoid of discussion about performance-enhancing drugs, largely since most of the big-name users have been outed, and the market for giant-headed bacne-d sluggers like BALCO Bonds has dried up. While the NBA deals with the pistoleros, the NFL tries to figure a way to keep the Steelers from running wild (allegedly) in nightclubs, and the NHL hopes the Olympics will generate interest in a late season Blue Jackets-Preds game (good luck with that), baseball is in pretty good shape. That means we get to – mostly – focus on the sport, at least for now.

Big Spenders: For the previous few decades, the definition of extravagance in Minnesota was using Hefty bags for the outfield wall in the Homerdome, rather than the generic stuff. That all changed last week when the Twins went deep financially and signed catcher/hometown hero/golden boy Joe Mauer to a Brobdingnagian contract. Since the Twins are moving into a new, outdoor stadium that should have fans considering P.E.D.s just to get through an April night game, they have plenty of extra cheddar on hand. Thus the big deal for Mauer, which should keep the catcher around until he’s ready for knee replacements. The only problem now is that future Minnesota standouts are going to expect similarly generous treatment and not be content with a below-market contract and a couple coupons for Juicy Lucy burgers.

Divorce (Mc)Court: How ‘bout all those off-season additions for the Dodgers?! Let’s see, there was second baseman Jamey Carroll. And don’t forget Jamey Carroll. That’s what happens when your owner and his wife are trying to decide who gets custody of the dugout stash of sunflower seeds. It’s an ugly, high-profile split between Frank and Jamie McCourt that has gone so crazy Frank won’t even let his estranged wife get into Dodger Stadium to clean out her office. Think he wants to spend a lot of dough on free agents? If this thing drags on, it could become like “Major League,” with the players flying on a WWII-issue twin-prop and the hot water turned off in the clubhouse. At least the Dodger Dogs still taste good.

The Natural: He stands 6-4, weighs 220 pounds and when his bat meets the ball, the resulting sound registers on seismographs. Atlanta’s Jason Heyward went from off-season prospect to Opening Day starter by hitting the ball so long and far that even an old dinosaur like Bobby Cox was impressed. One Heyward homer caused $3,400 of damage on a front office employee’s car. In fact, the mighty lefty hit so many out during the spring the Braves were forced to put netting over the rightfield fence to protect cars, innocent bystanders and native wildlife. He may struggle at first with the rigors of a 162-game season, but when he hits ‘em, they stay hit.

Return of the Empire: Darth Vader makes very few public appearances these days, but the Yankee Empire returned to power last November with the usual formula of high-priced talent and arrogance. The payroll is down a little this year, as funds were diverted to construction of a 21st century Death Star, but that doesn’t mean the Yanks aren’t still dangerous and heartless. Expect another run at the title in the Bronx as a lovable collection of gritty All-Stars wins the affection of fans with its diverse portfolios and tax shelters. And make sure to tune in to the 39 nationally televised games between the Yanks and Red Sawx, as we spend six months hearing about the “greatest rivalry since Rome and Carthage.”

Big Mac, Hold the ‘Roids: Mark McGwire finally ended his self-imposed exile and returned to baseball as the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. Along the way, he “admitted” to using steroids, HGH and vitamin water – but only to recover from injury. Nope, Big Mac never dreamed that the stuff would turn him into a mid-‘90s Popeye and allow him to hit baseballs so far they reach the ionosphere. Turns out there is a new side effect to the juice: delusion. McGwire hopes his time with the Cards convinces people he should be in the Hall of Fame, or at least 30% of the voters should include him on their ballots, instead of 25%. Meanwhile, Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington is still gainfully employed, after news leaked out that he was using cocaine. Talk about the Hot Tub Time Machine. Did he travel back to the 1980s and start hanging out with Steve Howe and Dwight Gooden? What’s next, hair relaxer and the Victory Tour?

The Envelope, Please: Here’s how it all shakes out: NL Division Winners: Phillies, Cardinals, Rockies. NL Wild Card: Braves. AL Division Winners: Yankees, Tigers, Angels. AL Wild Card: Red Sawx.
NL Playoffs: Phillies over Rockies; Cardinals over Braves. NLCS: Phillies over Cardinals.
AL Playoffs: Yankees over Tigers; Angels over Red Sawx. ALCS: Angels over Yankees.
World Series: Phillies over Angels. In six.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: The list of players declaring early for the NBDL, er, NBA Draft will grow exponentially in the coming weeks, as players flee totalitarian coaches, sociology papers and pesky NC2A regulations. Everybody has a right to work, but not everybody has a right to work in the NBA. Hear that, Manny Harris?...You can’t blame Browns nose tackle Shaun Rogers for trying to carry a loaded .45-caliber gun onto an airplane. It isn’t as if there’s been a lot of talk about heightened airport security in, say, THE LAST EIGHT YEARS! What kind of an idiot is this guy? Let’s hope the Browns are smart enough to jettison him. Soon…Alabama will unveil in August a bronze statue of Nick Saban on its “Walk of Champions,” adding its newest national championship coach to the collection of memorials to previous winners, Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Bear Bryant and Gene Stallings. Saban’s, however, will be the only one that scowls when Gatorade is poured on it…Good news for NASCAR: Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth are feuding again! Since nobody’s paying much attention to the racing, maybe the drama will command attention. Maybe.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The Eagles will never admit they are rebuilding (the “Gold Standard” isn’t about taking a step back, people), but their off-season moves indicate that is their philosophy. Once they trade Donovan McNabb, they will be in full reconstruction mode. The team didn’t sign one top-shelf free-agent, as they have done in the past. Their acquisitions leaned toward the direction of depth, rather than playmakers who help teams win big. Wednesday’s news (via The Philadelphia Inquirer) that Courageous Cat will likely be the backup QB in 2010 basically signed McNabb’s papers out of town, because there is no way the Birds will spend $5 mil on a third-string signal-caller, especially one as poor a pocket passer as C.C. If the Eagles indeed are taking a step back, that’s fine. Prosperity is practically impossible to maintain for a decade. But it would be nice if the team would admit it, rather than trying to convince fans that a Super Bowl run is possible this season. And, as for those who have begged the Birds to deal McNabb, be sure to react to every loss in ’10 with the same anger and vitriol you have in previous years. Make sure to blame it all on the quarterback, even if the defense is awful, and the offensive line couldn’t stop a brigade of tricycling four-year olds. If you’re going to be nasty, at least be consistent. If it was all McNabb’s fault before, it has to be all Kevin Kolb’s fault going forward.

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AND ANOTHER THING: As the WWE has become more sophisticated(!) in its business model, it gets better and better at scripting its matches. (Please don’t tell loyal Hombre reader Big Ray that it’s fake.) Referees wear small earpieces, the better to get instructions from above. Well, don’t be surprised if you see a small apparatus jammed into the ears of the zebras at this week’s Final Four in Indianapolis. The idea of a West Virginia-Butler championship game is enough to make CBS executives do anything to prevent that from happening. So, they’ll have the refs make some shaky calls in key situations, the better to get some name-brand action in the title tilt. El Hombre is convinced that’s what happened with that awful charging call in the final minutes of last Sunday’s Duke-Baylor game. The Bears were rallying, but the idea of heading to Indy without a big name was too much to take. So, the CBS exec sent the message from the booth, and the striped shirt responded dutifully. Duke wins. Don’t be surprised if there are some criminal calls this weekend, the better to preserve ratings and placate advertisers, who might mutiny if the Bulldogs play the Mountaineers Monday. Sound too cynical for words? Maybe, but at least wait until late Saturday night before you pass judgment.