Thursday, September 30, 2010

On Reviewing Periodicals for Fun and (Non)Profit

Justin over at the Sports, Crackle Pop blog (who interviewed me a couple of months back) asked me to "review" this week's edition of Sports Illustrated for his site while he attends some sort of mating ritual. So I did. It was fun.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

On Video Games and Goal-Line Stands

I don't know if anyone outside of televangelists and Luddites still claim that video games warp the human brain. But in a way, all that fear-mongering of the 1980s was correct: Video games have warped my brain, because they've completely changed the way I think about sports. Today's example: The goal-line stand.

Sunday night, Jets-Dolphins: Rex Ryan's squad of drunkards and clowns has the ball at the Miami 1-yard line, and a one-point lead. Under two minutes to play. Dolphins with two time outs. And like many, I'm thinking: Don't score. Waste as much time as possible. (This is, of course, a strategy born of video games, because in EA Sports' version of college football, anything more than four seconds is enough time for an opponent to run Four Verticals and complete an 89-yard touchdown pass, somehow bypassing every safety backed off in a Cover Three prevent.) Which is what Rex Ryan tried to do, challenging a 12-men on the field call (something I was unaware you could even do), a challenge which, if successful, would have essentially enabled the Jets to run out the clock. The challenge failed. The Jets could have downed the ball, or dropped a foot short of the goal line, on the next two plays. Instead, they chose to score on the next play. And given the way the Miami offense had shredded the Jets' secondary all night, you just knew this was too much time. Miami drove downfield, and the Jets somehow stopped them on their own goal line, but it would have been much easier if Ryan had chosen to futz around for two plays, forced the Dolphins to burn their time-outs, and then punched it in. By embracing conventional wisdom, the Jets nearly lost the game.  

Monday night, Bears-Packers: Bears, tied 17-17, possess the ball on the Packers' doorstep, under two minutes to play. And I'm thinking: Let them score. Because this is what you do in the video game. Because this is always the best strategy in a pixelated world where offense can be generated in a matter of seconds. But as video game offenses have increasingly converged with real-life offenses, this is now the obvious choice in humanoid football, as well. The Packers have one of the four best quarterbacks in football. The Packers have five excellent ball-catching men. The Packers, with one minute and 45 seconds, had at least a 30 percent chance of driving downfield and scoring a touchdown. Whereas the Bears' kicker, Robbie Gould, had at best a 5 percent chance of missing a glorified extra point. This concept is now so simple, even a lunatic (or an insightful pro football writer like my friend Seth Wickersham) can see the logic. Video games no longer warp the way we think. Video games dictate the way we think.

Monday, September 27, 2010

On Braylon Edwards

So some people I've done interviews with in recent weeks have asked me, since I wrote a book about the 1980s, whether I think that was the moment when athletes became overly entitled, spoiled, insufferable bozos. I don't pretend to believe it's that simple. I think we often overreact, especially when athletes engage in harmless acts of self-aggrandizement. I think it's too easy to fall back on lazy stereotypes. I think most of the time, it's best to examine these things on a case-by-case basis.

I mean, I get what the NFL is trying to do. There's more attention than ever paid to the transgressions of modern athletes, and since sports are a business, this business must be carefully controlled. But I do find Roger Goodell's crusade to rid the NFL of misbehavior a little Orwellian, largely because this new standard of "personal conduct" seems remarkably arbitrary. I don't understand what's truly "bad" and what isn't. Case in point: Braylon Edwards drove drunk in a city with so many readily available car/limousine/taxi services--not to mention construction/traffic/bridge closure issues--that he should be suspended simply for violating the league's common sense clause. And there was no punishment for this. Not really. The Jets suspended him for exactly 17 plays, and in a moment of refreshing honesty, their general manager essentially admitted they weren't suspending him any longer because they wanted to win a football game. Which they did.

So it would seem that DUI--apparently the most common of NFL transgressions--is not a suspension-worthy offense unless someone is killed in the process. And I understand that there are union issues that complicate these matters, but this lack of a defined standard, I think, makes it more difficult to Goodell to consistently take the moral high defend, say, the suspension of Ben Roethlisberger for a large chunk of a season for incidents in which he was never officially charged. And it also makes it more difficult to forward the notion that an NFL defensive back named Tanard Jackson, who apparently endangered no one (perhaps not even himself, depending upon his choice of drug), is somehow being more "selfish" than a man who drives while intoxicated for no apparent reason at all.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

On Changing One's Mind

This is Andy Reid’s finest moment. His critics come off as disingenuous and/or obtuse. We beg for powerful, prideful and wealthy men to demonstrate the courage to admit their mistakes and quickly correct them.--Jason Whitlock

I've always thought the signature moment of the Bush era was that press conference during which the president struggled to come up a single mistake he'd made. In the end, that's how the '00s will be defined; by our nation's hubris, by a gale force of American exceptionalism, followed by a protracted humbling like none we'd seen in our lifetimes.

All of which brings me to Andy Reid.

The coach of the Philadelphia Eagles is, by all accounts, a mercurial dude at the helm of a franchise fraught with a deep racial and cultural history; no city is more conflicted about its sports teams (let alone its own identity) than Philadelphia. (I have many friends from Philadelphia, but I don't pretend to understand all the complexities.) Bringing Michael Vick into this powder keg of craziness seemed like a curious social experiment. And so, yes, a great deal of this is Reid's fault; it was his (questionable) decision to jettison Donovan McNabb, and it was his decision to bequeath the job to Kevin Kolb, and it was his decision to install Michael Vick as the backup. But to criticize Andy Reid for changing his mind, for making a decision based entirely on football, for reversing his course to do something entirely rational based on the results of the previous two weeks, is completely baffling.

And yet it also explains why we live in the world we do. It explains why politicians are so reluctant to change their positions even in the face of utterly rational discourse that proves them wrong; it explains why Barry Bonds will never admit to injecting himself with horse tranquilizers, and it explains why even when athletes/politicians/public figures do apologize, they refuse to even admit what they are apologizing for. At some point, changing one's mind became a greater weakness than holding to an irrational decision. For that reason, I'm with Whitlock: I'm hoping the Eagles make the Super Bowl.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

On Choosing the Wrong Guy

A little over a decade ago, I wrote a story that seems particularly embarrassing in retrospect: I was working in Cleveland, and the Browns had the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, and they were deliberating between Ricky Williams and Tim Couch. Well, I went to Kentucky and wrote a profile of Couch, who was something of a local legend. And I am not an expert on anything, let alone quarterback play, but I thought he looked great. I remember watching him throw a ridiculous touchdown pass to receiver in the back of the end zone; I remember the way the ball soared toward the heavens, and then the way it cradled softly into the wideout's hands, like a baby rabbit swathed in cotton dropping from a low tree branch. I thought he had every possible tool a quarterback needed to possess, and so did everyone I spoke to about him; I thought there was no way the Browns could pass him up, and I said so, and fortunately I was gone by the time things fell apart and Tim Couch became the latest in a series of Northeast Ohio-based punchlines involving Playboy playmates and Butch Davis.

I was thinking about this last night, as I watched the Saints play the 49ers. Because many of the principal players in that game are proof that no one knows anything about anything when it comes to evaluating NFL talent. When it comes to scouting, at least 30-40 percent of the time, the expert's opinion is no better than mine. We have access to more information than ever before, and it doesn't make that much of a difference, as much as the experts would like to convince us otherwise. We see what we want to see. In the end, it's all a guess. And in the case of the experts, the hive mentality still wins out. Drew Brees, once lightly regarded, is now the greatest clutch quarterback since Joe Montana.* Alex Smith, a No. 1 draft pick, a failure many times over, appears to have channeled the mojo of Steve Young. And, of course, there is Reggie Bush, who had a no-good, terrible, very bad week, and who remains the greatest college football player I've ever seen, but apparently is never going to be much more than a situational player in the NFL, and certainly not as good as Mario Williams, whom the Houston Texans chose over Bush.

A few years ago, some cultural critic wrote that Reggie Bush "possesses the kind of greatness a child can see." I agreed with him at the time, and I agree with him now. His point was that the NFL seems to gravitate toward counterintuitive decision-making, I suppose because it makes it seem like the scouts and the talent evaluators, in fact, know far more than normal humans do. It gives them a patina of expertise; it justifies their existence, and the existence of the NFL combine, and all those bizarre mating rituals at which muscular young men strip off their shirts and run through a maze of traffic cones. But more information doesn't mean more success. In certain cases, I see no reason not to cling to what I see, even when the result proves irrational. If I had to do it over again, I still would advocate for Tim Couch over Ricky Williams, and I still would advocate for Reggie Bush over Mario Williams. Some things just make sense, even when they don't.

*Really, was there anyone watching that game who thought Drew Brees, given eighty seconds, even against the 49ers' ravenous defense--and one of these days, Mike Singletary's eyeball is actually going to pop right out of his head--wasn't going to win this game? I would have bet five thousand dollars on it, if I had five thousand dollars and a bookmaker in my pocket rather than four dollars and a receipt from a sports bar in the Kansas City International Airport.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

On Inconsequential Things That Matter To Me

1. J-E-T-S

Listen: I think Rex Ryan is a fascinating personality, and I think it would be an outstanding story if a coach who preaches positive reinforcement could actually prove successful in the National Football League*,** but this season could be a train wreck. What if Mark Sanchez doesn't just look like Vincent Chase? What if Mark Sanchez is Vincent Chase, and this season is his Medellin?***

2. Arian Foster

From the WSJ:

"There's the mysterious New-Age first name: His father, Carl, says it's short for Aquarian, refering to the water bearer bringing in the Age of Aquarius that, he says, "we're living in." There's a tattoo on his arm that reads: "Against All Odds." He has an obsession with writing poetry about the moon and the stars and he recently named his one-year-old daughter Zeniah Egypt, a consequence of a fascination with ancient Egyptian culture he says he developed from watching the Discovery Channel."

Good Lord, I hope this wasn't a one-week fantasy football flirtation.

3. The Heisman

Years ago, back in college, I wrote an incredibly long and overwrought story about the Heisman Trophy. I remember my attempts to grill the Heisman PR person about the criteria for the award, and the Heisman PR person would tell me only that the award is meant to go to "the most outstanding player in college football." There are no other criteria. The Heisman, in other words, is a nebulous award, capable of being defined in different ways by everyone who votes for it. Which also means the people who give out the Heisman are free to define this award however they want. This is how Gino Toretta and Reggie Bush can wind up winning the same trophy. Therefore, I don't think it really matters if they now give the 2005 Heisman to Vince Young, or if they don't; the Heisman is the most arbitary award in sports. It's the sporting equivalent of that awful Mark Cuban reality show from a few years ago--there are no rules at all.

But it does seem like a moral quandary that Reggie Bush no longer possesses a Heisman Trophy, and O.J. Simpson still does.

*I inadvertently watched fifteen minutes of an NFL pregame show the other night, and was actually shocked by the number of needless utterances of the phrase "National Football League." It's like there's an unspoken quota among NFL analysts. It's become such an established part of their lexicon that they feel naked and unprepared it they don't needlessly utilize it.

**I think there is a legitimate discussion to be had about this Ines Sainz situation (and I'm glad that talented female writers like Johnette Howard are making their voices heard), but it strikes me that what Ryan and his assistant coach engaged in was the plot of a Corona commercial.

***Which means in 2012, Sanchez will date a porn star and enter a rehab facility. That sounds about right.

Monday, September 13, 2010

On the Impending Demise of the NFL. Or Not.

There are times when the National Football League scares me a little.

Don't get me wrong. I will watch any football game, anywhere, at any time of day. And while my preference tends toward college football, I am a heterosexual American male between the ages of 18 and 64, and therefore understand it is my civic duty to spend Sunday afternoons in the fall obsessively checking the Jacksonville Jaguars injury report on, because I have paid one hundred dollars for the privilege of choosing an imaginary team of players whose results are dictated by an arbitrary scoring system, and whose ups and downs somehow manage to dictate my daily mood.* Given that the NFL is perhaps the most universally popular corporate entity in our nation's history, it's hard to imagine it ever not being such. This is one reason it scares me: The NFL is so unbelievably huge, so obscenely powerful, so dynamically slick, that it seems like we are only two decades from being separated into classes based on our knowledge of the Tampa 2 defense. 

But then I wonder whether perhaps I am exaggerating a little. I wonder if perhaps this moment, right now, is the most popular the NFL will ever be. I am wondering if we are witnessing the zenith of the Roman empire. I am wondering if this could be the NFL's last season as the most dominant sports cabal on the planet. I am wondering if in ten years, Super Bowl officials will be begging Superchunk to play their halftime show.

Most likely, I'm being crazy**. But, as Mike Freeman points out here, the NFL is facing a tumultuous offseason. A lockout appears imminent. Ticket prices are through the (domed) roof. Dissent is growing. These are all major factors, but this is not what scares me most about the NFL, either; what scares me most about the NFL was made manifestly clear while watching the Eagles-Packers game on Sunday afternoon.

There was a period during that game when it seemed like someone was getting hurt on every play. Out went the Eagles' quarterback, Kevin Kolb. Out went the Packers' running back, Ryan Grant. And out went the Eagles linebacker, Stewart Bradley, who stood up after a hit, walked three steps, and then drunkenly tumbled to the grass. Clearly, he had a concussion, and while the NFL insists its getting serious about concussions--and while I have no reason not to believe them--there is a moment like this in every NFL game, a moment when you sit on your couch, watching your 56-inch high-definition three-dimensional televisual device, and you think to yourself, It is inherently inhuman for men to collide like this. And then DeSean Jackson makes a one-handed catch behind his back, and you forget all about it. But it's there, and it's most apparent on Sundays, and it's getting to be harder and harder to forget.

It's impossible to imagine an America without the mythology of professional football, without mud and dirt and helmets colliding and bodies sprawled in the grass. Then again, forty-five years ago, Don Draper's entire evening hinged on the results of a heavyweight fight. That seems like as much a relic of the Mad Men era as the notion of smoking during pregnancy, another pastime that doctors declared too unhealthy for humans to practice.

*All of which is to say--without delving into the most boring topic any American male can ever bring up--that my fantasy team is absolutely horrible. This is what happens when you attempt to choose your roster via IPhone from a wedding reception.

**Superchunk would never play halftime.

(Photo: AP)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

On Penn State vs. Alabama

It's not my first memory, but in some ways, it might as well be. New Year's Day, 1978: I'm five years old, and Penn State is playing Alabama for the national championship. I recall the room and its fireplace and its unsightly brown carpet, and I recall the faltering RCA television, and I recall the tumult among the adults inside when Penn State fails to convert on four downs from the goal line, and Alabama wins the game. I recall the retreat to the backyard of our house on Devonshire Drive, to construct a revisionist history of the scene with my friend Scott Holderman.*

There's a telling story in Joe Paterno's autobiography in which he discusses one of his first meetings with Bear Bryant. It takes place at a football banquet, and Bear urges Paterno to demand an outrageous sum of money, to demand a five-year contract with a rollover clause, to demand a car and a golf club membership and to demand two hundred tickets for each game, which he could then dole out as he saw fit, thereby turning those tickets in a power proposition. This was the how the Bear worked; for better or worse, he was a southern politician, leveraging favors for power. And Paterno was a completely different animal. It was, Paterno said, not a difference in scruples, but a difference in style.   

I bring this up because Penn State plays Alabama again this Saturday, in a game weighted with history. Back in the 1970s and on into the 1980s, the Penn State-Alabama rivalry was epic. It was Red versus Blue before Red versus Blue existed. For years, Eastern football was considered a second-class product--and Penn State was the Boise State of its era--until Paterno began defeating schools like Alabama. Even now, it feels like something of a metaphor for American regionalism; even now, it feels like Penn State represents the progressive culture of the Northeast, and Alabama represents the reactionary politics of the South, and those four downs at the goal line in '78 were something of a last stand for the old ways of American politics.

That's a gross oversimplification, I know, and probably riddled with holes, but that's how my brain works. I remember things the way I want to remember them. At some level, all history is revisionist. In my mind, Paterno calls the play-action pass he actually wanted to call on fourth down before losing his nerve, and Penn State pulls off a miraculous victory, the same kind of victory the kid in me somehow hopes, against all hope, they can muster this Saturday.

*For this occasionally irrational fealty to college athletics, it seems, Jeff Pearlman would declare me a loser. To which I say: Doesn't this argument in fact negate your well-documented hatred of Chuck Fusina? After all, if college sports should largely be reserved for the students who play them and the students who watch...and if your larger point is that we've lost our perspective on the games themselves...then shouldn't we in fact appreciate athletes like Chuck Fusina--athletes whose careers just so happen to peak in their late teens, or early twenties, athletes who have legendary college careers but aren't meant to play professional sports--far more than we actually do?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

On 15 Jarringly Specific Predictions For This College Football Season

1. Penn State's true freshman quarterback, Robert Bolden, will throw two touchdown passes and run for one more in a win over Youngstown State, prompting ESPN's Craig James to pick Penn State to defeat Alabama while expanding at length on his relationship with Nittany Lion cornerback D'Anton Lynn.

2. Alabama will defeat Penn State 27-6.

3. Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore will throw for 252 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-17 win over Virginia Tech, thereby vaulting him to the front of the Heisman Trophy race.

4. Moore will then throw four interceptions in a 35-31 loss to Oregon State, thereby eliminating himself from contention.

5. Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez will launch into at least two tirades against the media, specifically singling out Detroit Free Press columnist Michael Rosenberg for the demise of his career.

6. Notre Dame quarterback Dayne Christ throws for 302 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-7 win over Michigan, thereby prompting Beano Cook* and The Big Lead's Jason McIntyre to wonder whether he is "the Heisman Trophy frontrunner."

7. Notre Dame will lose five of its final seven games.

8. Alabama coach Nick Saban will liken his team's 21-17 loss to LSU to Hurricane Katrina.

9. Auburn will win the SEC West, then lose 48-0 to Florida in the SEC Championship game.

10. Pittsburgh, on the verge of a Big East championship and a spot in the BCS Championship game, will lose 17-16 to Cincinnati after Coach Dave Wannstedt chooses to run a fake punt from his own 41-yard line with two minutes, 12 seconds to play.

11. Michigan State will start the season 6-0, and finish the season 7-5.**

12. USC coach Lane Kiffin will indirectly threaten to napalm the UCLA campus the week of the rivalry game.

13. Ohio State loses 17-14 to Iowa after quarterback Terrelle Pryor chooses to transfer to the University of Miami in midseason so "I can be with my friends."

14. Stanford wins the Pac Ten and advances to the BCS Championship game, prompting millions of Americans to reaffirm their hatred for smart people.

15. Florida defeats Stanford 48-14 for the national championship. Florida coach Urban Meyer declares it a victory for the "regular guy," then retreats to the oxygen tent in his office for a nap.

*I love Beano. That man is a national treasure. Seriously.

**Is this even a prediction, or merely a truism?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On Boise State, TCU and Democracy in America

I wrote this piece for

In late 1969, one Richard Milhous Nixon, whose most prominent gridiron accomplishment involved having his front teeth separated from his jaw, declared the University of Texas the champions of college football. What gave Nixon the right to do this, no one really knew. Years later, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, whose team went undefeated that same season, would wonder aloud how Nixon could know so much about college football and so little about Watergate.
Of course, Paterno—the closest thing college football has to a Northeast intellectual—is himself a Republican; he once gave a convention speech seconding the nomination of George H.W. Bush. Such is the overarching ethic of the sport: a 2009 survey found that college football fans, as an entity, were slightly to the right of NASCAR fans. College football lore is crowded with reactionaries, and this is how many Americans prefer it. This year, Alabama is the defending national champion and the preseason No. 1, and it feels perfectly natural, a throwback to the days when Bear Bryant surveyed practice from a tower and George Wallace openly insulted hippies.
And yet, despite that, 2010 has the potential to be the most progressive season in the history of college football, for two reasons.

Read More

(Photo: AP)