Friday, January 21, 2011

School Daze


Last week, El Hombre had the opportunity to interview the only Iranian playing Division I basketball. Arsalan Kazemi is a spring-loaded forward who’s averaging about 17 and 11 for Rice, and he doesn’t mention “jihad” or “Great Satan” whenever he talks about America. Of course, that doesn’t stop him from being detained every time he comes to the country by security officials who think he’s in the country to collect some yellowcake uranium or detonate an IED at the Rose Parade. At least his wait time has dropped, from six-and-a-half hours the first time he arrived here, to three hours. Pretty soon, he’ll get sent on his way with only a body-cavity scavenger hunt by Sausage Fingers McGee.

After discussing Kazemi’s journey from the crowded Iranian city of Esfahan to Houston, El Hombre asked the Owl sophomore if he was still studying economics, as an earlier article had revealed. The answer was depressing.

“I changed my major to sports management, with a minor in business, because it was too hard to study economics and play basketball,” he said.

Here’s a kid from Iran, who is clearly pretty sharp – why else would he think to tackle economics in the first place? – and the rigors of his sport have forced him to find an easier way to navigate Rice’s academic waters. Nothing against sports management majors; they may some day be running athletic departments and NBA franchises, but it’s sad that Kazemi has surrendered his original major for something that makes it easier for him to bounce the round ball. At least he’s still in a course of study that has the potential to serve him down the road. Most players who are shunted away from serious paths in the pursuit of great athletic glory are directed toward concentrations like astrology or history of grunge rock.

It’s time for college athletics to drop the sham and admit that they have taken over many of this nation’s fine academic institutions. The idea of sports as an extracurricular activity is quaint. The thought that it is a way for universities to promote themselves is antiquated. Today’s big-time (and big-time hopeful) programs are corporations that rival the professional teams from which they once worked so hard to separate themselves. Wednesday’s announcement that espn was paying the University of Texas $300 million for the rights to produce 20 years of the Longhorn Network just about sealed the deal. Even though Texas threw the pointy-heads a bone by endowing a pair of professor’s chairs with some of the booty, the windfall is the latest and most damning argument against college sports.

Most astonishing, at least from espn’s point of view is what the channel will run. Since Texas has deals with Fox and espn to televise the vast majority of its football and men’s basketball games, the LN will get one grid contest, most likely against Amarillo College of Animal Husbandry, and eight hoop games, with the centerpiece likely to be the annual clash with Iowa State. Other than that, we’re looking at 24 hours a day of “Olympic” sports and the ever-popular “shoulder programming,” of coaches’ shows, hard-hitting newsmagazines, feature shows (“Bevo’s Blind Date”) and other pap. Texas gets $15 mil a year, on top of the 10 large it takes in from IMG for radio and on-line rights and $10-15 million from the Big 12 for TV, bowls and NC2A tournament appearances. Last year, the school’s athletic budget was a nation’s-highest $137 million. Expect that to grow considerably as athletic administrators find ways to use espn cash to buy their wives burnt-orange mink coats. And El Hombre won’t even get into the conflict of interest between espn, which still purports itself to be a news-gathering organization, and one of the schools it covers.

As the coffers fill to capacity, the Athlete-Students continue to take the brunt of it, whether it’s through phony-baloney courses of “study,” onerous NC2A rules designed to favor institutions or a continued refusal to share the revenue streams that are generated through their hard work and sacrifice. Guys like Kazemi are the lucky ones. He’ll likely get a degree from a fine university like Rice. That should help him back home or here, once his basketball playing days are over. Others will leave school with no marketable skill and an “education” that prepares them little for the professional world. Meanwhile, the cash registers at factories like Texas continue to ring at record rates, and the professionalization of college sports continues at a breakneck pace. The Longhorn Network is the next step in a natural progression, but it’s one that causes more concern than the usual money grabs executed by big-time programs. While it’s unlikely East Carolina will get its own network any time soon, the barrier has been broken, and soon all the other big boys will want a TV channel of their own.

If they don’t get that, they’ll find some other way to rake in extra cash. Meanwhile, tuitions soar, academic programs are cut, and most professors’ salaries don’t come near those of coaches. Enjoy it all now, because in 10-15 years, the whole thing will be undistinguishable from the professional ranks – with one exception.

The players will be getting screwed.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Mr. Metallurgy dropped a resounding “Nyet!” on the Carmelo Anthony-to-New-Jersey trade, no doubt upsetting Nets fans in the short run but helping the team in the long haul. Anthony is a selfish scorer who will never win a ring, unless he plays a supporting role on an all-star team. You don’t want him as a leader, and his petulance and lack of professionalism this season prove that…Here’s some more big NBA news: Brandon Jennings will be replaced in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest lineup by DeMar DeRozan. DeWho DeCares? If the league were smart, it would lower the rims to 9 feet and have a Legends Dunk Contest featuring Dr. J, Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins and Darnell Hillman’s mighty, mighty Afro…TV analyst Todd Woodbridge’s series of gaffes surrounding the shape of tennis star Kim Clijsters is priceless. First, he texted a friend that Clijsters seemed “grumpy” and that her “boobs are bigger,” indications to him that she was pregnant. Then, in a televised interview, he asked outright whether Clijsters was indeed in the family way. What’s next, telling Serena Williams that her outfit makes “her butt look big?” Wise up, Todd…Off of Oahu, surfing officials are gearing up for the possibility of a rare “Eddie,” the contest that only takes place when wave heights reach 20 feet. Boarders from all over will head to the islands for next Thursday’s contest. The only rule: First one to California wins…There was some big news in college basketball earlier this week when John Calipari cursed out one of his players. The horror! There were also rumors Tom Izzo yelled at a ref, Coach K made a sarcastic comment and Jim Boeheim whined. Please.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The only thing moderately surprising about Andy Reid’s decision to fire defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was that the Eagles’ coach told assembled media five days earlier that McDermott was coming back for the ’11 season. Reid usually equivocates in such situations, preferring instead to consider situations, look at film and read Tarot cards, rather than give a direct answer. Offering up McDermott makes perfect sense for a coach who is unwilling to take responsibility for his team’s defensive shortcomings. No amount of “that’s on me” comments can mask his rear-covering decision to axe McDermott, rather than acknowledge that not even Buddy Ryan could have crafted a bloodthirsty defense out of the shaky personnel Reid provided. The Eagles lack playmakers at all positions, have a crashing dearth of talent at cornerback behind Asante Samuel and don’t care about signing or drafting impact linebackers. Jim Johnson was a master, but he had far more talent at his disposal than did McDermott. It’s no surprise the coach was picked up immediately by the Panthers, because everybody around the league realized Reid was merely trying to protect himself at the expense of someone else. In the future, he’ll have to do a better job with that.

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AND ANOTHER THING: As NFL commissioner Roger Goodell prepares for the lockout and the 18-game season designed to line owners’ wallets and cripple the workforce, he’s probably popping open bottles of champagne every hour to celebrate the league’s conference title game matchups. It’s almost perfect. No stupid uniforms like the Cardinals’ all-red jobs or any Titans combination. Both games will be played on grass. Outdoors. There is tradition. There are great QBs. Expect a ratings bonanza – and two pretty good football games. The Jets and linebacker Bart Scott “CAN’T WAIT!” for their trip to Pittsburgh, but that thinking may be a little short-sighted. Sure, the Jets beat the Steelers in December, but Troy Polamalu did not play that day for Pittsburgh. New York has been impressive in defeating Indy and the Bradys, but taking down three straight heavyweights on the road is too tall a task. Pittsburgh 23, New York 14. The 183rd renewal of the Bears-Packers rivalry is the biggest one yet and only the second post-season meeting between the historic foes. Expect a steady dose of old-school footage before the game – thankfully – and a pair of rough-and-tumble defenses once kickoff comes. Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers gets the edge over Chicago’s Jay Cutler, even though Cutler has played well of late, but the difference in this one will be the Packers’ underrated D. Green Bay 24, Chicago 17.


Friday, January 7, 2011

Ready For Some (Playoff) Football


Earlier this week, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sent out an intimate e-mail to about 5 million of the league’s customers declaring that labor peace will be achieved, and America’s number one sporting religion will not miss a minute of revenue gathering. On the confidence scale, it was akin to Justin Bieber’s saying he was ready to whip up on Randy Couture. Unless Goodell and his robber baron bosses can get players to accept a longer season, less money and a continued capricious approach to discipline – “The NFL: We care! (About offensive players.) – we’re looking at a work stoppage that could threaten the scintillating mini-camp, OTA and exhibition game portions of the program.

The biggest sham in the whole labor mess is the league’s insistence on an 18-game season. Or at least the P.R. run-up to it. After trying to convince us throughout the last several months that the players’ welfares were truly at the heart of league policy, Goodell and the billionaires want to add two games to the schedule, thereby expediting the future need for joint replacements and adding dozens more opportunities for players to endure the kind of dementia-inducing hits that already have 45-year old former warriors stumbling around like Lindsay Lohan on a bender.

Give Goodell and his propaganda ministers credit for concocting a scheme that has softened up fans in advance of the 18-game season. By fining (defensive) players for helmet-on-helmet hits and inventing terms like “defenseless receiver,” they have made it appear as if safety is the league’s top priority. This from a group of people who denied for years that blows to the head had dangerous short and long-term effects.

It is against that backdrop of hypocrisy that the NFL playoffs begin. Enjoy them, folks, because it could be many months before the big fellas start destroying their bodies for our enjoyment again. Of course, unless you live in New England, it’s going to be hard to derive too much pleasure from the proceedings, since the Patriots are so much better than everybody else that the tournament seems as pertinent as a public service announcement from the cast of “Jerseylicious.”

El Hombre isn’t so addled (yet) that he doesn’t remember the early February day in 2008, when the undefeated Pats lost to New York in the Super Bowl, delighting Mercury Morris and proving that nothing is guaranteed in the NFL. But this New England outfit seems different – and better equipped to go the distance – than did its predecessor. Tom Brady’s rock-star look notwithstanding, this is about the biggest blue-collar collection of successful players in recent memory. When your offensive skill package includes a Gronkowski, a Chadron State product, a double-hyphenated running back and a “star” receiver whose career average per catch is 10.7 yards, and you still lead the league in points scored, you have something special. And you want to talk about a “no-name” defense? Try these on for size: Banta-Cain, Ninkovich, Chung and Mayo. That sounds like one of those law firms you see advertised on local cable stations.

It all begins with Captain Hoodie, who espouses the philosophy that you don’t get the best 53 players; you get the right 53 players. For him, winning football is not the province of superstars but of players who want to sacrifice their egos for the system. That’s why he had no problem jettisoning overcooked wideout Randy Moss, once he went into full tantrum mode. It’s about production, not endorsements, and these Pats have a roster full of bottom-line players who appear invincible right now.

Of course, it’s rather easy to extol the proletarian virtues of a team when its QB is the best around. Brady is enjoying his second-best season (the remarkable ’07 campaign is out of reach), completing 65.9% of his passes and tossing 36 TD strikes against a mere four picks. He has maximized his production despite a stable of receivers that includes no big-play threat and precious little proven depth. That Brady is playing at such a high level is a testament to his powers, as well as the Patriots’ ability to outscheme and outexecute opponents. You may have more star power, but their team is superior to your big names.

That’s not to say the Pats are bulletproof. Baltimore smacked them around in Foxboro last year. The Steelers have shown plenty so far. And even Rex Ryan’s bunch is dangerous, provided it doesn’t fold up again in New England when the Pats start firing live ammunition, or if the coach gets distracted by a pair of sexy cheerleader feet.

Over in the NFC, the Falcons would like you to believe they are Super Bowl timber. They’re not. Roddy White is having a great year, but teams with just one receiver have problems against good post-season defenses. The scariest teams in that conference appear to be the two wild cards entries, New Orleans and Green Bay. The Saints beat Atlanta on the road a couple weeks ago and still have Drew Brees under center, last time El Hombre checked. The Packers, meanwhile, get plenty of attention for their great passing game, but it’s the Green Bay defense – ranked fifth in the NFL – that is the team’s biggest asset, particularly on the road. Don’t be surprised if one (or even both) of them is in the NFC title game.

That’s a few weeks off. Right now, fans need to get ready for the Wild Card round and perhaps the last time early January football will be of the playoff variety. If commissioner Goodwill and his owners get their wishes, this time of year will still be regular season, contusions and concussions be damned. Stay tuned for the next e-mail.

Here are this week’s playoff picks. Get ready to cash in, baby! New Orleans minus-10.5 over Seattle; Indianapolis minus-2.5 over the Jets; Baltimore minus-3 over Kansas City; Green Bay plus-2.5 against the Eagles.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: So, LeBron James has dubbed Miami the “Heatles,” has he? Clever, but James forgets one thing: People actually cheered when the Beatles came to town. He and his made-for-championship cronies don’t engender similar affection…Don’t know about you, but El Hombre has been riveted to the post-Jan. 1 bowl action. You just can’t beat a Middle Tennessee-Miami (OH) matchup. And that Kentucky-Pittsburgh clash promises to be a real humdinger. Looking for a culprit? Consider espn, which continues to manipulate everything it can about sports to suit its programming needs…Kudos to caring Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who denied quarterback Robert Bolden’s request for transfer. It isn’t enough that schools can terminate players’ scholarships after each season or run them off when their performance doesn’t match expectation. Now, Paterno wants to restrain an unhappy player from finding a better situation. Let your people go, Joe…Rafael Palmeiro is upset that he received only 11% of the vote in the recent Hall of Fame balloting and still blames someone else for his positive steroid test. Tough darts. Let’s hope voters continue to punish the juicers by denying them entrance to the Hall. If that means fewer members, so be it…Stay tuned to this space for periodic updates on the shocking scandal that has rocked the cricket world. Three Pakistani players have been accused of bowling “no-balls” at prearranged times during a test match with England and face lifetime bans. Speaking of no balls, how about that “performance” by Miami in the Sun Bowl. The Hurricane players dressed like they were ready for a forced march to Murmansk and played like they couldn’t wait to get back to Coral Gables. New coach Al Golden has plenty of work to do.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Many media members and plenty of fans are devoting substantial energy to the Packers’ passing attack when assessing Sunday’s Green Bay-Philadelphia wild-card playoff game. While Aaron Rodgers and his crew of sticky-handed receivers are extremely dangerous, the real challenge for the Eagles comes from the Packer defense, which ranks fifth in the NFL and is no doubt frothing at the opportunity to see whether Michael Vick will continue his regression to the run-around QB he was in Atlanta. In a way, you can’t blame Vick’s move backward. He’s learning a brand new way to play the position, so it’s natural that he uses his instincts as a default reaction to new and more dangerous schemes from rival defenses. Plus, since he’s behind such a shaky offensive line, it’s hard to hang in and progress to the third read when marauding blitzers are charging toward him. If the Eagles want to have a chance Sunday, they had better keep Vick clean. Otherwise, he’ll be running around and likely commit backbreaking turnovers that will contribute to an early post-season exit.

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AND ANOTHER THING: By waiting until Jan. 5 to make Rich Rodriguez’s dismissal official, Michigan head coach David Brandon added extra pressure to his search for a new head football coach. Worse, if he truly believed Rodriguez could have saved his job with a strong bowl showing against the SEC West’s fifth-place team, Wolverine fans shouldn’t have too much faith in his ability to choose the right man to replace Rodriguez. It was obvious to everybody that Rodriguez had to leave, and U-M’s ugly losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State proved that. If Brandon needed to see the Wolverines stumble around in the second half against Mississippi State(!) in order to decide Rodriguez’s fate, he wasn’t paying much attention the rest of the season. Let’s hope he was merely trying to save the $1.5 mil that came off Rodriguez’s buyout after Jan. 1 and that he has been compiling candidates all along and working back channels to make the right hire. And don’t think it has to be someone who is necessarily a “Michigan Man.” For instance, even though Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has denied interest, he is definitely considering the spot but keeping it very quiet, due to his current post as a Big Ten head coach.