If you’re a sports fanatic, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. The next fourteen days will see some of the best action, the best competition, and the most sublime events of the year.
1. The stretch run to the playoffs for pro hockey and pro basketball.
With fewer than 10 games to go in the National Hockey League season and less than a dozen National Basketball Association games left, teams are jockeying for playoff positioning and several are fighting for their playoff lives.
Both leagues play 82 games, which makes for too long a season for some. But these next two weeks will decide who keeps their championship dreams alive and who goes golfing.
Hockey has a new playoff format that includes several wild card teams that is supposed to make the process more fair. We’ll see. The top three teams in each of the 4 divisions automatically advance to the playoffs. The remaining 2 teams to make the playoffs from each conference will be determined by the best record regardless of division. As of today, there are 7 teams still with a shot of making one of the four wild cards.
The NBA still maintains its format of the top 8 from each conference going to the playoffs. In the West, there’s a ferocious battle for the final spots with 4 teams within two games of 6th place. In the East, the battle is for 3rd place and home court advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs. Three teams are within 2 games of each other.
Teams from both sports are ratcheting up the intensity. For many, the playoffs have already started.
2. Opening Day of the baseball season
Technically, the season opened last week in Australia where the Los Angeles Dodgers played two games with the Arizona Diamondbacks. But the “official” opening day is Monday with most teams in action.
I’m old enough to remember Opening Day being the one day of the year that the Sisters of Mercy largely turned a blind eye to the transistor radios hidden in our desks and let us update the class every once and a while. But even though baseball has lost its luster as our national pastime, there is a feeling associated with Opening Day that isn’t duplicated any other day of the year.
Hope, anticipation, a sense of rebirth — if you live in the Midwest, Opening Day is confirmation that the long, brutal winter is ending and spring has arrived (if not temperature-wise). It doesn’t get any better than this.
3. The Final Four
After an exciting weekend of Regional Finals, the survivors will play on Saturday night with the winners advancing to Monday’s championship game. The match-ups are intriguing. Top ranked Florida will play Connecticut in the first game, and the Gators are already 6 point favorites — a heavy spread for a Final Four game. Meanwhile, Kentucky is a 2 point favorite over Michigan in the late game. This is no doubt a reflection of how well Coach John Calipari has those Wildcats playing.
UConn appears to my eyes to be outmanned, but the history of the Final Four is replete with Davids slaying Goliaths. The Huskies have had a great run, starting as a 7th seed, they should definitely not be counted out.
The Kentucky-Wisconsin match-up should be a war with two big, tough frontcourts going at it. The Wildcat’s young bigs are athletic and can score at will, while the Badger’s Frank Kaminsky is a beast underneath. I hope the refs let them play and not call a bunch of ticky-tack fouls.
I see an all-SEC final with Florida winning a close one over Kentucky.
4. The Masters golf tournament
There are tougher courses in the world, but none more beautiful — especially this time of year. Bobby Jones’ masterpiece, Augusta National, has bedeviled, befuddled, and driven players crazy since it opened in 1933. The postage stamp greens are cut so short it’s like putting on your garage floor. The beautiful dogwoods, magnolias, and azaleas, are exploding in all their spring colors. The hillside behind #12 appears cartoonish in the splash of its many-hued plants and bushes. It’s worth watching on your big screen just to enjoy nature’s beauty.
Golfers don’t have the chance to do that, however. They’re too busy trying to navigate the 7245 yards of treacherous real estate designed to make them weep. The undulating greens make approach shots absolutely key. Where the ball lands on the green spells the difference between birdie and bogey.
It’s a tournament that’s usually competitive with the top golfers vying for the Green Jacket. There are richer tournaments. There are harder courses. But there’s only one Masters Tournament and it will be played April 10-13.
If this ruling is allowed to stand — and remember, this is Barack Obama’s NLRB — it will radically alter the face, the finances, and the reality of college sports.
But there are a lot of headwinds to navigate — including the fact that the national NLRB has to weigh in on the matter — so the odds are not good the players will win out in the end.
Basically, the Northwestern University football players were claiming that they should be designated “employees” while the school and the NCAA claim they are “students.” If they are employees, they should be able to unionize. And that’s just what regional NLRB director Peter Sung Ohr ruled.
The “employee” distinction is a landmark one because it contradicts the NCAA’s longtime stance that athletes are students and amateur athletes, and should not be compensated beyond their scholarships. The NCAA could not immediately be reached for comment.
“I have found that all grant-in-aid scholarship players for the Employer’s football team who have not exhausted their playing eligibility are ‘employees,’” wrote National Labor Relations Board regional director Peter Sung Ohr in a 24-page decision released Wednesday.
The College Athlete Players Association filed the petition on behalf of Northwestern athletes, identified in the ruling as “a labor organization.”
Northwestern plans to appeal the decision to the NLRB’s national office in Washington by the April 9 deadline, school officials said.
In a statement, NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy said: “We strongly disagree with the notion that student-athletes are employees. We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid.”
Remy’s statement also said that NCAA member colleges and universities have evaluated the association’s amateurism rules in recent years and that improvements need to be made, but that “we do not need to completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone attend college.”
Alan K. Cubbage, Northwestern vice president for university relations, issued a statement about the decision: “Northwestern University is disappointed by today’s ruling by the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board finding that Northwestern University’s football players who receive grant-in-aid scholarships are employees and directing that a secret ballot election be held to determine whether the football players should be represented by the College Athletes Players Association for purposes of collective bargaining with Northwestern University.”
Cubbage’s statement went on to say, “While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director’s opinion, we disagree with it. Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students. Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes.”
One assumes that the reason the players wish to unionize is to end the fiction that players don’t get “paid” to play sports. In addition to a $100,000 a year college education, most players get other “goodies” allowed by the NCAA’s wildly complex and byzantine eligibility rules. With the ability to unionize, will the players want a cut of TV contracts? If a coach can get a couple of million dollars, why can’t players get their cut?
The USCs, Notre Dames, and Alabamas whose athletic programs actually make money for the university are few and far between. It doesn’t make sense for a college players union in any sport to lobby for cash benefits. For the vast majority of schools, the money simply isn’t there. On the other hand, if the players want to unionize in order to lobby for better health benefits or improved working conditions (better training facilities, study halls, etc.), that might be more realistic.
Colleges serve as the minor leagues for both professional football and basketball (less so for baseball). Scholarship athletes pointing toward a pro career use the university athletic system as a way station on their path to professionalism. Most schools don’t require athletes to expend much brainpower during their stay, although there are notable exceptions. So what is the philosophical basis for this union? The athletes get a free education at an elite school, all their needs attended to, help with their studies, and the adulation and glory that go with college sports. What’s missing here? I don’t see it, and it may be that the national NLRB won’t see it either.
And what of those scholarship athletes — the vast majority of them — who will never realize their dreams of playing pro ball? Or other scholarship athletes in sports like women’s field hockey or swimming where there are no professional opportunities at all? Unionizing college athletes sounds like the “hip” thing to do, but on a practical basis, there’s no rational basis for one.
OK — so I get outlawing the sack dance, even though it was wildly entertaining to see Junior Seau lord it over an opponent or a prostrate QB. And taunting had to go simply because it too often led to fights.
But putting the kibosh on end zone celebrations has never made any sense to me. What’s wrong with the offense lining up after a TD and doing a little dance? Or T.O pulling a sharpie out of his sock and signing the football?
Both of those celebratory gestures are now illegal. Most of these “Top 10 Touchdown Celebrations” are too.
Now the NFL wants to ban the iconic “dunk” over the crossbar of the goal posts. And the reason they give for it is stupid:
Not only is the New Orleans Saints’ Jimmy Graham redefining the tight end position, but he has also inspired an NFL rule change. According to the league’s vice president of officiating, players will no longer be allowed to dunk the ball over the goalpost after touchdowns.
Dean Blandino confirmed the rule change during a radio interview with “The Dan Patrick Show” on Tuesday. He said dunking the ball over the crossbar will now be considered a foul along with other touchdown celebrations that involve props.
Previously, dunks were grandfathered in as a legal celebration, along with the Lambeau Leap.
“We grandfathered in some, the Lambeau Leap and things like that, but dunking will come out,” Blandino said, according to NFL.com. “Using the ball as a prop or any object as a prop, whether that’s the goalpost, the crossbar, that will come out and that will be a foul next season.”
Graham is clearly the main inspiration for the rule. Twice in his career, his celebratory dunks have knocked the uprights off balance. Last season in Atlanta, a Thursday night game had to be delayed while workers releveled the crossbar.
And no player in the NFL will be more affected by the rule change than Graham, who has caught more touchdown passes over the past three seasons (36) than anyone else in the league. A former basketball player at the University of Miami, the 6-foot-7 Graham has made the goalpost dunk his trademark celebration.
Graham responded to the news in a tweet Tuesday afternoon.
I guess I’ll have to lead the @nfl in penalties next year! #funpolice pic.twitter.com/MQRFXgvaGN
If you can’t use the ball as a prop, why can you spike it? How can a stationary crossbar be a prop? The crossbar is part of the field. It doesn’t make any sense.
If the NFL had their druthers, they’d probably want the guy scoring the touchdown to hand the ball to the ref and then go over to the opposing bench and beg forgiveness for torching their free safety. So many of these rules against celebrations are put in because it supposedly angers the opponent. I say let ‘em stew. Football ain’t tiddlywinks and if you get your butt beat or you miss a tackle, the least of your punishment should be witnessing an ecstatic, choreographed celebration in the endzone. Your real ordeal will happen on Tuesday at film study when the coach rips into you for your mistakes.
If the league continues to constrain the natural inclination of players to celebrate a touchdown, pretty soon, NFL will stand for the “No Fan League.”
Now that everyone’s bracket is totally busted (you really didn’t think you were going to walk away with Buffet’s Billion, did you?), we can get down to the serious business of handicapping the 16 teams left in the NCAA tourney field and pick some favorites for the Final Four.
Three of the four number one seeds survived the first weekend. The only top seed to fall — Wichita — may be a harbinger of things to come. Kentucky’s two point win over the Shockers in the second round gave notice to the rest of the field that the Wildcats are in it to win it. Seeded 8 when the tournament began, Kentucky has benefited the first two games from a surprisingly tough defense and the emergence of frosh forward Julius Randle who ended up with double-doubles in both weekend games. The Cats seem to be coming together at exactly the right moment and Coach John Calipari has his squad playing like they’re on a mission.
The other three number ones to win through — Florida, Arizona, and Virginia — had some anxious moments against the lower seeds, but made it to the third round with minimal trouble. All three teams will play #4 seeds with upset potential written all over those games. 4 Michigan State will take on Virginia on Friday night, and if you want an upset special for next weekend, that game may be it.
The best third round game is likely to be on Thursday night when two of the Cinderella teams of the tournament clash for a chance to keep the dream alive. In the South Regional, 10 Stanford vs. 11 Dayton will play for a trip to the Elite Eight and a chance to play the winner of the 1 Florida vs. 4 UCLA contest. Dayton did not overwhelm in its two upset victories over 6 Ohio State and 3 Syracuse. But the Flyers proved to be a pesky bunch and managed to hold off their higher ranked opponents in the final minutes of both games. Stanford has been even more surprising. After getting into the tournament by advancing to the semis of the Pac-12 tourney, the Cardinal downed a very good New Mexico team and toughed out a 3 point win over a short handed Kansas squad. Both teams have demonstrated the poise and determination that should make Thursday’s contest a close, exciting game.
The other double-digit seed to make it to the Sweet Sixteen is Tennessee. The 11 seeded Vols manhandled all three of their opponents the first weekend, including a win over Iowa in their play-in game, a comfortable 19 point victory over Massachusetts, and a 20 point win over little Mercer who toppled mighty Duke. For all the bad press the SEC got pre-tournament, 3 teams from the conference are in the Sweet Sixteen. Tennessee will likely give 2 Michigan all they can handle on Friday night.
Perhaps the most intriguing third round game will take place in Indianapolis on Friday night. The Battle of Kentucky between 4 Louisville and 8 Kentucky will probably end up being a war. Two storied college basketball programs led by two probable Hall of Fame coaches. Kentucky’s John Calipari versus Louisville’s Rick Pitino in a game played just a hop, skip, and a jump from both campuses at 70,000 seat capacity Lucas Oil Stadium. Kentucky, as mentioned, is playing at the top of its game while defending champ Louisiville will not go quietly into that good night. Like an Alabama vs. Auburn football game, there will be civil war in the state until one side proves themselves the he-bull of the corral.
Take Clubber Lang’s word for what to expect: “Pain.”
The first round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament is in full swing and so far, things are going about as expected. You have your blowouts (2 Wisconsin over 15 American U. 75-35), a good effort by a David team vs. a Goliath (16 Albany College sticking with 1 Florida eventually losing by only 12 points), and a couple of mild upsets with 5 Ohio State falling at the last second to 11 Dayton (which I predicted here) and 11 Harvard taking down 5 Cincinnati.
A few loose notes:
* Betting. Some good advice from ESPN Insiders Vegas (subscription only):
Florida is the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. The Gators are No. 1 in the AP writers’ poll and the USA Today Coaches Poll.
But they’re not No. 1 in the Vegas Rankings.
In fact, the top team from the combined power ratings of our panel of handicappers — Geoff Kulesa (“Wunderdog”) of wunderdogsports.com, Teddy “Covers” Sevransky and yours truly, Dave Tuley — isn’t one of the other No. 1 seeds, or a No. 2 seed or even a No. 3.
Our top-rated team is Louisville, the defending national champions who again look as though they’re peaking at the right time coming off their AAC title.
There’s a lot of support in Vegas for the Cardinals as the LVH SuperBook made them 15-1 when the brackets were announced Sunday afternoon, but by the end of the night they had been bet down to co-third choice on the futures board with Florida the favorite at 5-1, Michigan State (another No. 4 seed, interestingly enough) as the second choice at 5-1, and then Louisville and Arizona at 7-1. The LVH odds for all 68 NCAA teams are in the accompanying chart, along with their Vegas power ratings.
For the bettors, it’s all about “value” rather than who wins or loses — best bets to beat the point spread.
* Cal-Poly is the 24th team since 1955 to make the tournament with a losing record. The won their play in game last night against Texas Southern. Their joy is expected to be short lived. They play undefeated 1 Wichita State on Friday.
* 7 Oregon had a surprisingly easy time of it with 10 Brigham Young, winning by 19. The Ducks rode a 15-2 run late in the game to victory.
* The oddsmakers might like Louisiville, but the Cardinal’s coach Rick Pitino is a little worried about his first round match-up. 4 Louisville will be going up against 13 Manhattan College coached by a former Pitino assistant Steve Masiello.
Those two go way back:
Masiello served as a ball boy with the New York Knicks when Pitino was coach in the 1980s, played for him at Kentucky (1996-97) and then spent another six years coaching alongside him at Louisville (2005 to 2011). They know each other quite well, and Masiello is molding the Jaspers in the Cardinals’ image.
You can’t blame him. It’s like playing a game coached by your alter ego. The Cardinals are favored by 14.5 points.
* 2 Kansas won’t have star center Joel Embiid for the first two games of the tourney. The 7 footer, thought to be a high first round pick in the NBA draft if he leaves KU, is suffering from a stress fracture in his back.
Kansas opens the tourney against Eastern Kentucky and if they win on Friday, will face the winner of the Stanford-New Mexico game on Sunday.
Since the NCAA tourney has gone to 64 teams, no #16 seed has ever beaten a #1 seed. None. Nada. Evah.
This begs the question: Why are 4 teams vying to make the last two slots just so they can be sacrificial lambs for the likes of Florida and Arizona?
The reason is cash, as Motely Fool explains:
Currently in the midst of a 14-year media contract with CBS (NYSE: CBS ) and Time Warner’s (NYSE: TWX ) Turner Sports, the NCAA divvies up this revenue based on a system known as the Basketball Fund. According to its most recent distribution plan, a little under $190 million will be split between conferences this year. The system isn’t overly complex — the further an individual team advances in the NCAA Tournament, the bigger the reward for its conference.
Participation in each tournament round excluding the championship is worth what’s known as a “unit share.” For every unit share a team earns, its conference is awarded close to $250,000 a year over the next six years — $1.5 million total. A team that loses in the first round, for example, has earned one unit share for its conference, worth $1.5 million over the next six years. A team that loses in the second round has earned twice this amount, and so on.
First given to conferences, the money is then distributed to individual teams. As Forbes points out, “some conferences equally split the revenue among all conference schools, while some provide a disproportionate share to the teams that were actually responsible for the “unit creation.”
Regardless of how the dollars are split, though, one thing is clear: It pays to be in a major conference.
Which most #16 seeds are decidedly not. But even though little Albany College, who won it’s play in game against Mount Saint Mary’s last night, is the only representative from the America East Conference to make the tourney, they’re still in line to make enough from the tourney to fund a lot of their basketball program for the next year.
But the futility of #16 seeds is jaw dropping:
Just 14 of the 1-16 games have been decided by single digits; the two in 1989 were the only ones decided by a single point.
The average gap? A Grand Canyon-like 24.8 points per game.
“I thought for sure someone else would do it by now,” said Carril, now 83, who recently sat down at an on-campus spot to reminisce about the game. “I never thought we’d be the last to come so close.”
He’s not alone. Most people close to the game are stunned that the ultimate Cinderella moment hasn’t happened, especially as parity has become the game’s biggest buzzword.
And most think it’s not too far away.
“I think it can happen anytime,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Really, it’s just a matter of time.”
If there is a sign that we’re closer, look no further than one line beneath those No. 1 seeds.
After an 11-year hiatus, a No. 15 seed has claimed victory three times in the past two years: Norfolk State over Missouri and Lehigh over Duke in 2012 and Florida Gulf Coast’s Dunk City over Georgetown en route to the Sweet 16 last year.
There have been narrow escapes lately. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Syracuse’s seven-point victory over UNC Asheville in 2012 was the first single-digit margin of victory by a No. 1 over a No. 16 seed since 1997. Last year, Western Kentucky lost to Kansas by just seven and Southern made it scary for Gonzaga, falling by six. So it would seem the climate for the shiniest of shining moments has to be changing.
“Well, I would say, yes, we’re close,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “But that’s a large part because we’re a 1-seed and Western Kentucky had us down at halftime. But seriously, I do think we’re a lot closer. A lot.”
It’s like the US Olympic hockey team playing the Soviet Union in 1980. It’s been said that if the two teams had played 100 times, the Soviets might have won 99. That may not be true, but what is undeniable is the chasm-like difference between the basketball programs at Albany College and Florida. Recruiting, amenities for players, travel accommodations, practice facilities — in every conceivable category, Florida crushes Albany.
But unless you’re a die hard Gator fan, I suspect most people will be rooting for the Great Danes to pull of a miracle.
It used to be that the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) was the pinnacle of post-season college basketball. In the 1940′s and 50′s, the NIT outshone the NCAA tourney, largely because there was very little media coverage of college basketball and the NIT was played at the sports Mecca of America at that time, Madison Square Garden in New York City.
The NCAA had a far different selection process back then, choosing one team from each of 8 regions, which prevented some very good teams from competing and consequently, loading up the NIT with excellent competition. It was easily on par with the NCAA tourney well into the 1960′s. The John Wooden era at UCLA probably contributed more to the NIT’s decline than anything. But the tournament was still a big deal until the NCAA expanded to 32 teams in 1975, and all ranked teams were usually invited.
The NCAA took over the tournament in 2005 and it now serves as a way to promote college basketball, as all games are broadcast on ESPN networks. For some teams in smaller conferences, the NIT is an excellent reward for a winning season.
One big difference between the NIT and NCAA is that the top seeds get to play their games at home, rather in a regional venue. The NIT Final Four play their games in the Garden.
This year’s tournament features some NCAA tourney also-rans like SMU and Minnesota, in addition to a lot of schools from smaller conferences. It has become, for better or worse, a “Mid-Major” tournament. A short preview from SB Nation:
The 32-team tournament has long been derided as a consolation round for teams that missed out on the Big Dance, but there is still some hardware up for grabs and the top seeds get a few more home games. It’s also an opportunity for notable tourney snubs to prove the selection committee wrong.
The first slate of games features two No. 1 seeds. The St. John’s Red Storm host the Robert Morris Colonials. Robert Morris is hoping for a repeat of last year’s NIT, when the Colonials stunned Kentucky in the first round.
Dunk City is looking to make March magic again, but the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles have to do it in Tallahassee when they take on the top-seeded Florida State Seminoles. The Seminoles missed out on the dance after falling to Virginia in the ACC quarterfinals.
The Georgetown Hoyas will try to make the most of a disappointing season when they face the West Virginia Mountaineers, while the Green Bay Phoenix look to make up for their NCAA snub. The Minnesota Golden Gophers are another team that barely missed the cut, and get a No. 1 seed for their troubles. They play High Point in the first round.
The Missouri Tigers were once thought a lock to go dancing, but a late-season swoon sent them to a No. 2 seed in the NIT. They face the Davidson Wildcats. The final game of the day features the St. Mary’s Gaels, who missed a shot to make the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year. They will play the Utah Utes.
I guess if you’re a sports fanatic, the NIT will serve as a nice change of pace from the NCAA tourney. I know that every once and a while — especially in the early rounds — if an NCAA game is non-competitive, I’m likely to switch over to peek at the NIT games. But unless your alma mater is playing, there really is very little interest in the NIT.
Given it’s storied history, that’s a shame.
Selection Sunday has come and gone and the handiwork of the committee is drawing the usual groans of anguish and cries of joy from some teams.
It’s not as bad as it used to be. The expansion of the field to 68 teams, with 8 teams vying for the final four spots in the 64 team field, there aren’t as many teams who feel they got boned by the selection process. Instead, the grousing centers on seeding. Michigan appeared to be penalized the most. The Wolverines dropped their Big Ten championship final to rival Michigan State, which apparently prevented them from getting a number one seeding.
Instead, Virginia — who lost their last regular season game to Maryland — received the nod for number one seed in the East by going to the ACC finals. Villanova’s early exit from the Big East tournament probably played a role in that decision as well.
In addition to Virginia in the East Regional, the number ones include Arizona out West, Florida in the South, and Wichita State in the Midwest. Despite being 32-0, Wichita is felt to be the weak link in the number one seeds. They have the potential to face Kentucky in the third round, followed by a possible match up with Rick Pitino’s Louisville squad. If they survive those tests, the Shockers may have to get by Duke in order to reach the Final Four.
A few more notes on the tourney:
* Biggest blow out – 3 Duke vs. 14 Mercer in the opening round. Congrats are in order to little Mercer for getting into the tournament by winning their Atlantic Sun Conference championship. The Bears haven’t been to the tourney in 29 years and have only been to the Big Dance twice in their history. Yes, the top seeds will have easy games too, but Mercer is not likely to be in the gym at the end of their game with the Blue Devils, having been blown out the door by halftime. Prediction: Duke 88-34.
* Biggest upset in the first round – 11 seed Dayton over 6 seed Ohio State. Look – the Big Ten always gets 5 or 6 teams in the tourney, and usually only one or two is left standing after the first round. It’s in the by laws — Big Ten teams can’t win in March. On the other hand, Dayton has beaten 3 tournament teams in the last 2 weeks and lost a close one to a very good St. Joe’s team in the Atlantic 10 tourney. The Flyers have a history of doing well in the Tournament.
* The most entertaining first round game — 7 Oregon vs. 10 BYU. Yes, 8-9 match-ups can be competitive but this game promises to be a barn burner — lots of points, lot of athletic players, teams running up and down the court. Neither team is expected to make much noise in the tournament but for sheer fun, I like the Ducks vs. the Cougars.
* Toughest region – Definitely the Midwest. There are 5 teams that have won an NCAA championship in that region with two others that have made multiple Final Four appearances. Whoever emerges from this region will have been blooded sufficiently to win it all.
The NCAA Tournament Selection Show is less than 48 hours away and for a dozen teams sitting on the bubble, it’s crunch time at their conference tournaments.
So far, March Madness has lived up to its billing with several high seeds losing in early round conference play. The most significant surprise was Villanova’s heartbreaking, last second loss in the Big East tournament to lowly Seton Hall. The loss probably takes Villanova out of the conversation for a top regional seed, but the Selection Committee will probably take into account their tough schedule and several good wins on the road to give them a 2 or 3 seed, probably in the East regional.
As always, it’s the bubble teams that attract the most curiosity from fans and give the Selection Committee indigestion. Who is playing themselves into the Big Dance by doing well in the conference tournaments and who is in line for an NIT bid?
SI’s Michael Beller is on the Bubble Watch:
6:30 p.m. — Big Ten: Minnesota vs. Wisconsin
The Golden Gophers had just three wins in 10 tries against conference rivals that are headed to the NCAA tournament. Can they get three in the next three days? That might be what it takes to get in, and the road starts against the Badgers. (Follow along here.)
7:00 p.m. — Big East: Providence vs. Seton Hall
Providence surely thought it would be getting top-seed Villanova if it got this far but Seton Hall’s upset scuttled those plans. A semifinal win over the 17-16 Pirates won’t help as much as a loss would hurt.
9:30 p.m. — Big East: Xavier vs. Creighton
The Musketeers appear to be well within the field of 68, but they would remove any doubt with a win over Doug McDermott and the Blue Jays.
11:30 p.m. — Pac-12: Stanford vs. UCLA
Stanford has to be feeling good about its case for the tournament after routing Arizona State on Thursday. The Cardinal split their season series with the Bruins.
ACC: Florida State vs. Virginia
It was simple: A win would have gotten the Seminoles into the field. A loss would keep them out. They lost.
FINAL: Virginia 64, Florida State 51
SEC: Missouri vs. Florida
The Tigers’ only really impressive win this season came at home against UCLA back in early December. They couldn’t add another one Friday against the nation’s No. 1 team, getting routed by the Gators in the SEC quarterfinals.
FINAL: Florida 72, Missouri 49
ACC: Pittsburgh vs. North Carolina
The Pirates were probably going to make the tournament anyway, but their lack of signature wins was cause for concern. After knocking off No. 15 North Carolina in the ACC quarterfinals, they move into the lock category.
FINAL: Pittsburgh 80, North Carolina 75
Beller is keeping on eye on these bubble teams this weekend:
Illinois: The Fighting Illini needed to advance to at least the Big Ten championship game to entertain hopes of a bid. Their upset bid of Michigan on Friday came up just short in a one-point loss, so they’ll have to settle for the NIT.
N.C. State: The Wolfpack pulled away late to beat Miami on Thursday, and though they struggled to a .500 finish in the ACC this year, they could create a little bubble chatter with a win over Syracuse in the quarterfinals.
Georgia: The Bulldogs are the No. 3 seed in the SEC tournament. Could a trip to the finals get them into the field if it includes a semifinal win over Kentucky? Not likely.
LSU: A win over Kentucky on Friday would be their second over the Wildcats this season, but the Tigers likely still need to win the SEC tournament to go dancing this year.
N.C. State may be the one team that falls victim to the Selection Committee’s sensitivity to charges that they fill out the brackets with too many middling teams from big conferences. How many teams from the ACC really deserve to go? 5? 6? Same for the Big 12 and Big Ten. Some teams like Minnesota who didn’t do well in a conference loaded with quality teams might “deserve” to go the Big Dance based on strength of schedule and non-conference record. But most conferences will only be guaranteed their conference tournament champion will make it.
There will be a lot of nail biting by players and coaches on Sunday afternoon.
The NFL has never seen anything like it. There has been a frenzy of free agent signings since the window opened Tuesday afternoon. That first 24 hours saw 64 players sign contracts worth more than a billion dollars. And that was only the beginning.
There are still some big names out there, but so far, most of the top players have inked their deals and pocketed their fortunes.
The most active team appears to be last year’s Super Bowl losers, the Denver Broncos. They bolstered their defensive backfield by signing safeties T.J. Ward from Cleveland and Aqib Talib from New England. Then they hit the jackpot by signing sackmeister DeMarcus Ware from Dallas. Ware may not be in his prime, but there’s still plenty in the tank.
As far as which position players have been in demand, offensive linemen have been a popular choice:
Branden Albert, Eugene Monroe, Jared Veldheer and Rodger Saffold all signed big contracts shortly after free agency started. (And if you don’t know where they went, just go here. I’m tired.) Zane Beadles was the first guard to go, landing in Jacksonville. Our friend Evan Silva noted that Saffold got a better contract from the Raiders than Jake Longgot from the Rams a year ago. Yikes.
Veldheer was my favorite value of the bunch, upgrading an awful left tackle situation in Arizona. Saffold looked like the most overpaid player in all of free agency by Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie. That was until the Raiders gave New York Jets right tackle Austin Howard $15 million guaranteed on a $30 million contract after midnight.
There are still some D-line studs available, including former Pro-Bowler Julius Peppers who was released by the Bears, and Minnesota’s unrestricted free agent Jared Allen. Both players are getting a little long in the tooth but should have two or three productive years left in them.
Another name rumored to be let go that should draw monster interest is Carolina’s WR Steve Smith. The diminutive wideout is versatile, being able to line up in the slot, or outside, and has superior hands. With Baltimore re-upping Jacoby Jones and Detroit grabbing Seattle’s Golden Tate, the rest of the receiver market is pretty thin. Green Bay’s speedster James Jones expects to find a home, perhaps with Indianapolis. And New England’s Julian Edelman, coming off a 105 catch year, should command a lot of attention.
As for running backs, Vic Tafur of the Raiders blog, tweets all you need to know:
Only $100,000 of Darren McFadden’s deal with #Raiders is guaranteed … Momma, don’t let your babies grow up to be running backs
Not much action involving quarterbacks either. San Francisco traded a 6th round pick for Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert. And Chicago back up QB Josh McCown, who performed well when Jake Cutler went down for several games last year, has landed in Tampa Bay. Manwhile, Cleveland — a place quarterbacks go to die — released two quarterbacks in 34 minutes. The Browns have parted ways with Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell, the team announced. They join a long, non-illustrious list of failed QB’s since 1999: Charlie Frye, Brady Quinn, Tim Couch, Colt McCoy — damaged goods and with confidence destroyed.
One other bizarre move; the Bucs have released Darrelle Revis, the 4 time pro-bowl cover cornerback who they traded for just last season. After sending a first-round pick in 2013 and a fourth-rounder this year to New York for him, Revis, coming off a severe knee injury, had a mediocre season. He won’t get the $16 million a year he was making with the Bucs, but he’s far too talented to not land a sweet deal somewhere.
Last night’s NHL game between the Dallas Stars and Columbus Blue Jackets promised to be an exciting hockey match. Both teams were battling for a playoff spot and, true to form, the game began with a fast pace and hard-hitting action.
About seven minutes into the contest, Dallas sped through center ice in attack mode and changed lines on the fly. To the bench went 31-year-old Rich Peverley, a well-traveled center who won a Stanley Cup playing with the Boston Bruins in 2011.
It’s not clear what happened next, but Peverley apparently keeled over on the bench, and lay still. Immediately, Dallas players hopped over the boards to give the medical staff room to treat him, looks of panic and concern on their faces. As the rink gets quiet, you can hear calls for a paramedic, but by that time the doctors had carried Peverley out of the rink back into the hallway behind the benches.
There, in the narrow confines of a corridor underneath American Airlines Center, doctors worked frantically to save Peverley’s life. They put him on oxygen and started an IV drip. They gave him “chest compression,” pushing on his heart trying to get the rhythm back to normal. Peverley suffered from a pre-existing heart condition for which he was operated on last summer. He missed the entire preseason and the first game of the year due to the surgery on what one doctor described as a “quivering heart.”
Working through the treatment checklist, they then used the defibrillator to steady his heartbeat. He responded immediately and began to communicate with the doctors. He told one physician, Dr. Gil Salazar, in typical tough-guy hockey fashion that he wanted to go back in and play. He was taken to the hospital where he remained awake and was pronounced in stable condition.
As for the game, it was immediately postponed. The NHL said in a statement, “As a result of the emotional state of the players on both teams caused by the medical emergency, the game is being postponed. We apologize for any inconvenience and we thank the fans.”
Indeed, most of the players looked absolutely stricken. There was never any question that the game would have to be postponed. Hockey is a game of 60 minutes — three 20-minute periods. But for the players, it is an extraordinarily intense game of 30-45 second shifts where they skate 20 MPH and throw their bodies around with abandon, only to come back a few minutes later and do it again. The mental and physical exertion to play the game at a professional level requires exceptional concentration and conditioning. In this case, both teams appeared emotionally devastated and cancelling the rest of the game was the only choice.
There was a general shuffle in the AP poll of the top 25 college basketball teams this week — except at the top.
The Florida Gators at 29-2 received 1610 first place votes to hang on to number one. Wichita State — the first undefeated team to enter post season play since 1991 at 34-0 — came in second.
The rest of the top 25 saw numerous changes from last week, as 18 of the top 25 teams lost — many to vastly inferior teams. These losses may actually hurt more this time of year than they would have a month or two ago. Teams are fighting for seeding in the national tournament and a lower seed – the result of a bad late season loss — that forces you to play a number one or two seeded team in the second round could mean an early exit.
An example of a late season bad loss hurting a team’s seeding; Virginia. The Cavaliers were sailing along, ranked number five and coming off a good win against number seven ranked Syracuse. They have won the regular season championship in the tough ACC and were looking for a number one seed in the tournament.
Then, an inexplicable stumble against a mediocre Maryland team, losing 75-69 and the dream of a number one seed is slipping away. Nothing less than a run to the ACC championship final will redeem them. The Cavaliers dropped to 6th in the AP poll.
Other teams also saw their top seed dreams crumbling. Duke went from 4th to 7th in the AP following a very bad loss to a weak Wake Forest team. Arizona, ranked number three last week fell to 4th following a tough road loss in Oregon.
The poll musical chairs had some winners. Villanova climbed from 6th to 3rd with solid wins over Marquette and Georgetown and a tough road win over Xavier thrown into the mix. And Louisville shot from 11th to 5th on the strength of two good wins against ranked opponents Connecticut and SMU.
Who will be the top seeds in the four regionals? It would seem that Wichita State, who already won the Missouri Valley Tournament, is a lock for one of them. And unless Florida loses early in the SEC tournament, they’re a good bet for another top regional seed.
Beyond that, any two of five teams could fill out the top of the brackets; Arizona, Villanova, Duke, Louisville, or Virginia. The ACC tournament is going to be a wild one with the winner all but guaranteed a top regional seed.
No doubt “March Madness” will live up to its moniker this week as a couple of teams playing in the conference tournaments surprise the experts and play themselves in to the Big Dance. Others, will disappoint.
The only certainty is that if you’re a college hoops fan, you are going to be vastly entertained.
I suppose this is better than visa restrictions.
U.S. officials have embraced sanctions and visa restrictions to punish Russia over the crisis in Ukraine. Now, two U.S. senators want to hurt Russian President Vladimir Putin where it could really sting: on the soccer pitch.
Sens. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) and Dan Coats (R., Ind.) on Friday wrote to the head of soccer’s international governing body requesting that Russia’s membership be suspended and the country not be allowed to participate in the upcoming World Cup in Brazil later this year.
Citing FIFA statutes that bar discrimination against any country based on politics or ethnic origin, the two lawmakers asked FIFA President Joseph “Sepp” Blatter to also strip Russia’s right to host the 2018 World Cup. They cited FIFA’s decision to prevent then-Yugoslavia from participating in the 1992 European Championship and 1994 World Cup as a precedent.
“Since Russia has similarly displayed a brazen disrespect for fundamental principles of FIFA and international law, I hope you will agree that it doesn’t deserve the honor of either hosting the World Cup or participating in one,” the senators wrote.
FIFA didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The U.S. is currently ranked 13th in the world in FIFA’s world rankings, while Russia is 22nd. The World Cup, which kicks off in Sao Paulo in June, has the potential to pit the U.S. and Russia in an on-field clash if both teams make it out of the tournament’s group stage. They could then meet in the World Cup round-of-16 matches.
I suspect that FIFA will do nothing unless Ukraine becomes a shooting war. Then, I believe they would give a proposal to ban Russia from Brazil serious consideration. As the Journal points out, there is precedent for such an action. Although claiming to be a global organization, FIFA is actually run by the Europeans, who are desperately casting about for a way to sanction Russia without causing themselves any pain. Keeping the Russian national team home this summer is about as far as they would go to punish Putin for his actions in Ukraine.
The World Cup tune up match between the US and Ukraine was originally scheduled to be played in Kharkiv. But with protestors currently occupying the provincial building and the general unrest in the region, the game was hastily moved 600 miles away to the island of Cyprus.
Only 1500 fans showed up to watch a lackluster performance by the US side, who lost the match 2-0.
In truth, most of the best US players stayed home or weren’t released by their European club teams. Coach Jurgen Klinsman decided to give some European based US national players a chance to excel, thus improving their chances of making the 23 man roster that he will take to Brazil in June.
It was not to be.
The match was billed as a golden opportunity for the Yanks’ many European-based bubble players to make one final push for a spot on Jurgen Klinsmann’s 23-man tournament roster. Instead, the under-strength Americans were thoroughly outclassed during a 2-0 defeat, with few players raising their stock.
It’s hard to see defenders John Brooks, Edgar Castillo or Oguchi Onyewu making the plane to Brazil after struggling so profoundly on Wednesday. Those three were long shots to begin with, of course, even if Onyewu made January’s list as a backup. Then, the hope was that a healthy Onyewu — a two-time World Cup vet who was finally playing regularly after battling injuries for much of the last four years — would lend valuable experience to a mostly untested back line. Now, it looks as if Geoff Cameron, who on Wednesday lined up at right back once again, will be called on to provide cover in the event still-green central defenders Matt Besler or Omar Gonzalez aren’t quite up to the task in Brazil.
Midfielder Sacha Kljestan also failed to take advantage of what was probably his last chance, while youngsters Juan Agudelo, Terrence Boyd and Danny Williams barely got enough time off the bench to make a compelling case.
Still, several players helped — or at least didn’t hurt — their chances.
Brek Shea remains in contention for a reserve role on the left wing after another active performance off the bench. Alejandro Bedoya, with a spirited display, kept the pressure on MLS-based right wing Graham Zusi. And surefire starters Tim Howard and Jermaine Jones showed why Klinsmann will rely so heavily on them this summer.
The lack of experience and depth on the back line spells big trouble for the US in Brazil. At this level of competition one mistake — one misplay of the ball or bad pass — and your tournament is over. That’s the cruel reality and for the US it’s doubly true since they are going to have a hard time scoring goals as it is. Their mid field does not lack talent, but even against inferior competition, they have trouble maintaining a flow to their offense. Individual talents like Michael Bradley, Landon Donovan, and Clint Dempsey are excellent in space, but World Cup matches aren’t like MSL games with room to operate and set up plays. A premium is placed on short, crisp passes that move the ball forward deliberately, relentlessly. Frankly, American players in general just don’t possess the ball skills to play that kind of game.
This will make the US vulnerable to the counter attack, which is why your back line has to be rock solid. At this point, this crucial aspect of the game appears to be the greatest weakness of the US squad.
It doesn’t help that the Yanks are playing in a genuine “Group of Death” with Germany, Portugal, and Ghana. To advance, the US will need to beat Ghana and get a result of some kind — win or tie — against Germany or Portugal. A tall order that. Germany will be one of the favorites to win it all while Portugal has a bevy of quality offensive players that will give the US fits.
Perhaps the low expectations will work in America’s favor. They’re going to need all the help they can get.
The NCAA Rules Committee has decided to table a motion that would have required college football offenses to wait 10 seconds between plays. The recent move by some coaches toward super-hurry up offenses had some schools claiming that the increase in the number of plays put players at risk for injury.
The real problem was that some coaches couldn’t figure out how to consistently stop those light speed offenses and wanted a respite. Some teams like Oregon snap the ball so quickly, it is impossible for the defense to make substitutions — extra defensive backs for passing downs, for example. The speed of the game also puts enormous pressure on defenses to make the right call and get players in the right position. More often than not, the ball is snapped, the defense isn’t ready, and gaping holes open up for running backs, while receivers run to daylight.
But some powerful coaches didn’t like going up against these offenses and wanted to change the rules. Some coaches were referring to the proposed rule change as the “Saban Rule,” after Alabama’s hugely successful coach Nick Saban, who has been a strong critic of the hurry up, or “spread” offense, saying that it’s “logical” that the more plays there are, the better chance for injury there is. Most coaches — whether they run the up tempo offense or not — believe that’s nonsense, pointing to the lack of evidence for any such contention:
Coaches opposed to the proposal suggested other possible motives, including a philosophical divide over how football should be played. They noted the participation of Arkansas’ Bret Bielema and Alabama’s Nick Saban – who have both been vocal about the trend toward ever-faster pace – in the rules committee discussions before the proposal was initially approved.
At the time the proposal was announced, Sumlin called it “an attempt to limit the creativity of the game.” South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier called it “the Saban Rule”, suggesting his counterpart was simply attempting to advance his own aims.
Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez called the rule “ridiculous”, saying: “It’s a fundamental rule of football that the offense has two advantages: knowing where they’re going and when they’re going. The defense has one advantage: they can move all 11 guys before the snap.
“What’s next, are you gonna go to three downs rather than four downs? It’s silly.”
The debate devolved in that direction, too.
On Monday, Arizona’s official Twitter account released a video parody of the movie “Speed,” in which Rodriguez said, “I think there’s some coaches that have a hidden agenda. … They’re holding college football for ransom. … People want to see action. They don’t want to see huddles, people holding hands and singing kumbaya.”
In a text message, Rodriguez told USA TODAY Sports the video “might be a little over the top but it only took an hour of my time!”
Last week, Saban told reporters, “I don’t necessarily have an opinion on the 10-second rule.” But he added his primary concern was safety and reiterated a question he had asked before: “Was football intended to be a continuous game?”
It is well and good that the NCAA has developed rules to protect players. One proposed rule change would adopt the NFL’s “Brady Rule” to prevent quarterbacks from being hit below the knee. That’s a likely rules change that will occur next year.
But in a game where a player’s season or even career can end on the next play, does Saban have a point?
“The fastball guys (up-tempo coaches) say there’s no data out there, and I guess you have to use some logic,” Saban told ESPN. “What’s the logic? If you smoke one cigarette, do you have the same chances of getting cancer if you smoke 20? I guess there’s no study that specifically says that. But logically, we would say, ‘Yeah, there probably is.’”
It is doubtful that any meaningful study will “prove” that running the spread offense is necessarily more dangerous than a normal offense. You’re going to have to prove that the specific style of play contributed to the injury. Otherwise, who’s to say that if the team had been running a normal offense, the injury wouldn’t have occurred anyway?
I say, let ‘em play. Eventually, some smart defensive coach will simplify things to the point where defenses will be able to stop the up tempo offense on a regular basis. That’s the way its been with every offensive innovation that’s come down the pike. From the forward pass, to the “T” formation, the swing wing, the wishbone — eventually, defenses were developed to counter all those formations and plays.
Coach Saban would do well to concentrate on finding a way to stop the spread offense on the field rather than in the rules committee.
Lebron James dropped 61 points on the Charlotte Hornets last night, going 8 for 8 from the 3-point line and proving why he’s a near shoo in to repeat as MVP.
When LeBron is hitting his jump shots, he becomes the most unfair player on the planet. We know this. What’s frustrating is that sometimes he’ll hit his jump shots and take only like 16. He can still score 25 a game that way — and average something like 10 boards and six assists, and dominate on defense — and get his teammates involved, and it all makes him the best player in the league. But it’s not as fun. There are so many times you watch LeBron and it looks like he can do whatever he wants on the floor, only it almost never translates as scorched-earth scoring.
What he said. Kevin Durant is a superstar who’s had a very nice run the last couple of months, but when Lebron ups his level of play as he did last night, he does stuff like this:
LeBron James’ eighth 3-pointer splashed through the net about 30 feet away from where the reigning MVP stood, which was just a few feet in front of Miami Heat owner Micky Arison, who watched from his normal courtside spot at halfcourt.
Once the nylon snapped in the air, James turned his head and roared through a plastic mask toward the incredulous AmericanAirlines Arena crowd as he trotted back on defense. James had taken eight 3s at that point and all had gone in. None had even grazed the rim.
The game clock ticked down from 1:19 … 1:18 … 1:17 remaining.
In the third quarter.
James had 49 even before the fourth quarter began.
“When that one went in, I knew,” James said, “I was in a really, really good groove.”
James wasn’t done. He opened the fourth quarter with a swooping layup past three helpless Charlotte Bobcats defenders. Fifty-one, his first 50-point game of his career in front of his home crowd. Nine 50-plus in his 11-year career, all previously on the road.
That’s when the Bobcats started sending double teams on James before he even crossed halfcourt.
“First time it happened to me probably since high school,” James said of the radical coverage.
No matter. Pull-up jumper from 20 feet. Fifty-three. Another layup, this time cutting off the ball to the rim. Fifty-five. Isolation from the top of the key, dribble right, spin past two Bobcats, lay it up off-balance, glass. Fifty-seven. Career-high, franchise record. More. This time, a high pick-and-roll, past one defender, split three more, fading jumper, glass. Fifty-nine.
Double-team off the catch in the left corner, curl past off the dribble to the right, bump into a sliding third defender, over a fourth, whistle. Two free throws: sixty and sixty-one.
“It felt like I had a golf ball, throwing it in the ocean,” James said.
All told: A career-high, franchise-record 61 points on 22-of-33 shooting, one shy of Carmelo Anthony’s 62 points against Charlotte on Jan. 24.
Amazing. Being from Chicago, I’m often asked to compare Lebron to Michael Jordan. It’s useless. They are two entirely different players, playing in entirely different systems. Michael has it over Lebron in pure athleticism while Lebron is stronger and faster. I give the edge to Lebron as a pure shooter. Give the nod to Michael when it comes to creativity. Both players are equally fabulous in getting the ball to the basket.
Both players had to learn how to make their teammates better. Both had to push themselves to become all-NBA defensive players. Does it matter who was better? They’re both a joy to watch.
If you’re a fan of the Chicago Bulls, November 22, 2013 is the second worst day in the history of the franchise. The fact that the cause of the worst day in Bulls history — April 27, 2012 — was exactly the same as the second worst day speaks volumes about the fortunes of the team over the last 3 years.
On both those dates, former MVP Derek Rose went down with serious knee injuries. The 2012 injury happened in the first round of the playoffs against Philadelphia. The Bulls never recovered from that blow, losing in 6 games to the 76′ers after entering the post season as the top seed in the East.
After a full year of rehab, Rose returned to the game rusty, but apparently none the worse for wear. He was struggling, but improving when tragedy struck again, a torn meniscus shelving him for the season. It was a cruel blow for a team aching to prove themselves against two-time champion Miami Heat, who defeated them in a memorable conference championship series in 2012, and the rising Indiana Pacers who proved they could compete with anyone.
Once again, the body blow of losing Rose laid them low. By December 9, they were 8 games under .500 and some fans were openly urging the team to “tank” the season — deliberately lose games so that they could have a better chance at a high draft pick.
But the Bull’s mercurial coach Tom Thibideau wouldn’t allow such nonsense. Taking their cue from their fiercely competitive leader, center Joachim Noah, the Bulls began to claw their way back to respectability.
But then, another blow fell when team management couldn’t sign all-star forward Luol Deng to a contract extension, and traded him to Cleveland for Andrew Bynum — who they summarily released — and a couple of mid-level draft picks. It was a salary dump, nothing more.
Perhaps even more than Rose’s injury, the trade of Deng hurt the team psychologically. It was a sure sign that ownership had given up on the season and was pointing to adding pieces next year to make a run for glory.
For Noah, it was close to heresy. Deng was one of his best friends on the team and for a week following the trade, the usually outgoing center refused to talk to the media. Speculation was he couldn’t trust himself not to go off on management and create a rift that would be hard to heal.
Finally a week after the deal, Noah opened up with a few beat reporters for the local papers. Yes, he was upset, but that didn’t matter.
“The trade definitely hurt,” Noah said, adding that he had spoken to Deng about it. “But we got to move on. I feel confident in this team; we’re working really hard. A lot of people say this is a business and all that but this game is more than a business to me. I put everything I got into this. I feel like Lu was the same way so it was hard for me to digest. But that’s just my perspective, that’s just my side of the story. Everybody has a different job. I’m not mad at anybody. I’m not mad at the organization or anything like that. It’s just that my brother isn’t here anymore. So I just needed a little bit of time to digest that.”
Noah has shrugged off the Rose injury, the Deng trade, the pundits and reporters who say the Bulls can’t win, and the fans who were asking him and his teammates to quit on the year, and has raised the level of his play beyond anyone’s expectations to carry the Bulls to the best record in the East since January 1, 2014.
How the Bulls are doing this having the 30th – and worst — ranked offense in the league is astonishing. But there is sorcery at work here — the rarest kind of magic one can find at the professional level.
This group of middling talents, rejects, youngsters, and veterans actually like each other. They play for each other. They believe in each other. And perhaps most importantly of all, they have bought into their coaches’ belief in them and are currently playing some of the best basketball in the league.
It’s not always pretty. They have no one on the team that can create their own shot, although their candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, Taj Gibson, has developed a nice little low post game. But with the 24 second clock winding down, they’re just as likely to take a wild, 3-point attempt as they are to get a bail out jumper.
It doesn’t matter. Noah has become one of the top passing centers in the league, and in recent games the Bulls have begun to work their offense through him. This has meant fewer bail out shots and more pick and pop jumpers from reasonable range. The results are impressive, at least in the short term.
What of the near future? If the past is prologue, it’s a good bet that no team, no matter where they are seeded, are going to want to play the Bulls in the playoffs:
“When you deal with all the adversity we’ve been through this year, it makes your group that much tougher and stronger,” Bulls leader Joakim Noah said Friday night. “We’re going to be that resilient group, that tough group that is going to be very, very tough to play in the playoffs.”
It’s easy to talk that way now, the Bulls assuming the postseason. That looked uncertain in the first week of January after the Deng trade, when it looked like the team was preparing to head into the lottery. But primarily because of the leadership of coach Tom Thibodeau and especially Noah, the players never questioned where this season was headed.
They were disheartened when Rose went down again in November. They were downright mad when Deng was salary-dumped. But they’ve never done anything but give everything on the floor, and it’s led to win after win. The talent and the luck aren’t like it was back in 2010-11, when everything went their way and they racked up 62 wins before getting beat in the conference finals, but their execution and effort is the same.
They had seven different players average double figures in scoring in February, when they went 9-4 despite playing nine of those 13 games on the road. Noah is the team leader in rebounds … and assists, a pairing you will find nowhere else from the center position. Taj Gibson is having a career season. Midseason pickup D.J. Augustin is resurrecting his career. Accused of running his players into the ground in seasons past, Thibodeau doesn’t have any Bull averaging more than 36 minutes per night
Noah, who at one time in his 7 year career was thought to be something of a goof, with his pony tail, and antics on the court. But the mature Noah is less carefree, more careful in his statements, and very conscious of the leadership role he plays on the team. His intensity is frightening, and he’s not shy about calling out a teammate if he isn’t pleased with their play — or their enthusiasm. Just recently, Noah glowered at rookie Tony Snell who didn’t perform an enthusiastic “chest bump” to his satisfaction.
No, the Bulls will not win an NBA championship this year. They probably won’t get past the second round, given that either of their likely opponents — Indiana or Miami — can most assuredly beat them in a 7-game series. But whoever they play, their opponent will know they’ve been in a war. And who knows? When a team possesses magic, anything can happen.
Eighteen year old soccer phenom Julian Green has a big decision to make in the next few months. Green holds dual citizenship with the US and Germany and both national teams would dearly love to have him in their future.
At 18, Green has already been called up to play for current European champion Bayern Munich. Perennially one of the best club teams in the world playing in what is acknowledged as one of the top leagues in the world, The Bavarians have been developing Green for three years, bringing him along on their youth squad while the youngster also played on the German national Under 16 and Under 17 teams. He is currently on the German Under 19 team, which presents a problem for the US national squad.
Under international rules, Green can’t play for both the US and Germany. But he can ask FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, for a one time waiver to play for the US. This is what US coach Jurgen Klinsman is hoping for and to that end has invited Green to practice with the US national team prior to a March 5 friendly with Ukraine.
Green, a dual national who holds both U.S. and German citizenship, will participate in a two-day training camp with the U.S. next week ahead of Wednesday’s friendly with Ukraine. Green is currently tied to Germany due to his participation with the German U-19 team, and thus isn’t eligible to play in Wednesday’s match.
But he could file a one-time switch with FIFA should he decided to pledge his international future with the U.S. team. Next week’s training stint will give Klinsmann a chance to convince Green to do just that.
“We’re thrilled that [Green] is coming in actually” said Klinsmann, who was speaking at a USSF-sponsored Google Hangout. “He’s coming in for the two days of training with team, and we get to know him. More importantly, he gets to know us a little bit. He meets his teammates, he meets the coaching staff, and we have time then to explain a little bit how the U.S. national team program works.”
Klinsmann made it clear that he won’t be applying any high-pressure sales tactics on Green. Instead, he’s hoping that the benefits of playing for the U.S. will become clear to the Tampa, Fla. native.
“We kind of approach [Green’s visit] very casual, very easy. But at the end of the day, we hope down the road that he decides to go with us, and like in many cases of the dual citizenship players, we hope more and more that they want to play for the U.S. because we are just getting better.”
With just a little over two months remaining until Klinsmann names his preliminary 30-man roster for this summer’s World Cup, there had been speculation that the U.S. manager might be saving a spot for Green.
But Klinsmann insisted that there is no deadline for Green to make a decision.
What is there to get excited about if Green chooses the USA? Here’s a sample of some of his play:
He’s got a field presence off the charts for his age. He is said to have a powerful leg and is strong with the ball — both qualities that are somewhat lacking among US forwards. And he appears to have a nose for the goal — an innate ability that can’t be taught. Further,
If Green does pick the U.S. over Germany, he has the ability and talent to become a focal point of the next generation of U.S. stars. Watching video clips of him playing for Bayern’s reserve side, he has poise, possesses a lethal shot, has skill, bags of pace and an eye for a pass. He has scored 15 goals and added six assists in 18 games for Bayern II this season, and at the age of 18 he has everything you’d want to see from a professional soccer player. Plus he’s being developed at the reigning European champions Bayern Munich where he’s highly thought of. This kid has star potential, no wonder the U.S. are so desperate to get him on board as the Olympics, Gold Cup and future World Cup qualifying tournaments hover on the horizon.
Grabbing Green from Germany would be a massive feather in the cap for Klinsmann and his squad. The two day training stint in Frankfurt later this week could have a huge impact on the future of the U.S. national team, as the USA roll out the red carpet for Green in hope he’ll chose to play for his homeland.
Landon Donovan, the face of US men’s soccer for more than a decade, recently announced that Brazil would be his last World Cup. There are several fine, young US-born players just now coming into their own with some of the best European teams. The future of US soccer looks promising.
But if the USA is ever going to reach the next level of international competition where they are actually mentioned in the same breath as the top sides in the world, they are going to need a superstar. No one knows if Julian Green will pan out to reach the potential he appears to possess. But if he does, and if he chooses to play for America, soccer in this country will never be the same.
With the NCAA basketball season heading into the home stretch, there’s the usual gaggle of teams from major conferences who, for one reason or another, could find themselves on the outside looking in when March Madness rolls around.
Most bubble teams have only themselves to blame. They’re chances of making the big dance usually hang on doing well in their conference tournament. Their record alone won’t get them an invite. Chances are, they’ve had what the NCAA Selection Committee refers to as “bad” losses — a stumble or two against clearly inferior teams.
But where there’s hope, there’s life and several of the most prominent bubble teams can improve their chances immensely with a strong finish to the regular season and a good showing in their conference tournaments.
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi takes a look at 10 bubble teams who have some work to do (subscription only):
(Note: RPI, or Ratings Percentage Index is a complicated formula that takes into account a team’s winning percentage, their opponent’s winning percentage, and their strength of scheduled or SOS).
Brigham Young Cougars
The Cougars (20-10, RPI 35, SOS 21) have hung around the bubble longer than expected thanks to their off-the-charts SOS rankings and a pair of very solid nonconference victories (at Stanford, neutral against Texas). Last week’s home-court win over Gonzaga should keep them in the conversation.
What they need: A win in the regular-season finale at San Diego and nothing less than a run to the West Coast Conference tournament title game.
The Tigers (19-9, RPI 49, SOS 70) haven’t distinguished themselves either outside the league or within a mediocre SEC. The long-ago win over UCLA is only going to go so far, especially now that Mizzou has been swept by the likes of Georgia.
What they need: Win out (regular season) and probably no less than a berth in the SEC tournament title game.
The Friars (18-10, RPI 60, SOS 68) represent the muddled middle of the new Big East. With its best wins at home, Providence clearly has more work to do. I’m not optimistic given two of the Friars’ remaining three games are on the road (at Seton Hall, at Creighton), the second of which is Doug McDermott’s senior night.
What they need: Three more wins, regardless of opponent or location. The Friars are going down to the wire.
St. John’s Red Storm
The Red Storm (18-11, RPI 63, SOS 30) and Providence have each won on the other’s court. It could be we see an elimination game between the two at the Big East tournament. Conveniently that would also be a home game for St. John’s, but it was Tuesday’s home loss to Xavier that made this much harder than necessary.
What they need: Same as Providence. The Red Storm need three more wins, regardless of opponent or location.
The Volunteers (17-11, RPI 56, SOS 10) will live to fight another day after a workmanlike road victory at Mississippi State. Tennessee is now third in a two-team SEC pecking order, but with a very favorable schedule the rest of the way. I actually like the Vols’ chances.
What they need: Tennessee can and should run the table to reach 11-7 in the conference. Avoiding a bad loss in the SEC tournament might be enough.
A minimum of 20 wins is necessary to even be considered for selection to the tournament. At least, for the major conferences. But what about teams from weaker conferences?
Sam Houston State might be considered a true bubble team. Their overall record is 19-7 and are second in the Southland Conference to perennial power Stephen F. Austin. SFA is currently 25-2 and is a near shoo-in for the tournament.
But Sam Houston State might end up winning 23 games and be frozen out of the tournament. Their paltry SOS rank is 274 and their opponent’s SOS is even worse — 320. They have played only 2 games against teams in the top 50 RPI — Toledo and SMU — and been blown out of both.
The only way Sam Houston State is going to make it into the tournament is if they beat Stephen F. Austin to win the Southland Conference. The smaller colleges and universities in Division I have been complaining about this for years, but the NCAA has turned a deaf ear to them. The big conferences bring in the big bucks and that’s the way it is. The lion’s share of slots in the 68 team tournament will go to teams in the top conferences.
The teams mentioned above being on the bubble basically have their fate in their own hands. For a few of them, their efforts are likely to come up short.
Oh well, there’s always the NIT…
The trickle of Cuban defectors who have made it to baseball’s Big Leagues the past few years is about to become a genuine flood — and pro ball is going to be the better for it.
The recent relaxation of rules by the Cuban government that allows their athletes to sign contracts and play for foreign teams means a potential bonanza for Major League Baseball. Scouts say that there at least a dozen players of varying ages who could be signed in the next few years. And their impact on the game is expected to be large.
The first “wave” of the Cuban invasion were defectors who took advantage of the Cuban national team’s entrance into international tournaments to arrange their escape. Cuban stars like Jose Contreras and Orlando Hernandez, known during his playing days as “El Duque” fled Cuba and found great success in MLB during the 1990′s.
More recent defectors include Chicago White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez, and Oakland’s power hitting outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. Last year, the defection of the Cuban sensation Yasiel Puig astonished baseball as he helped propel the Los Angeles Dodgers into the playoffs. This year’s best chance for a breakthrough star lies with 27 year old defector Jose Abreu who signed with the White Sox. Abreu had some eye opening years in Cuba hitting 35 home runs in 2011 in what amounts to half a major league season.
The process of defecting and finding their way to the US was a long, onerous journey. Loved ones in Cuba had to be left behind. Many times, the players arrived in the states with little more than the clothes on their back.
No longer. Now that Cuba has opened the door, MLB should see a wealth of talent from that island nation make an immediate impact in the Majors. Although clubs are able to sign players, they must jump through a lot of hoops to get him eligible to play here.
That Cuban ballplayers will have to pay taxes on foreign salaries isn’t going to fly with MLB salaries. Because of some things that happened a few decades back, the American government doesn’t like the idea of money going from U.S. soil to Cuba, and has laws in place to largely prevent it from happening. Just because Cuba has a new policy doesn’t mean Uncle Sam has to follow suit.
Another complication is the fact that the new policy prohibits Cuban ballplayers from severing ties with their native country. Part of the agreement is that ballplayers will still be required to fulfill playing commitments in Cuba.
That means being available for international tournaments and the Cuban National Series, and the latter’s season runs from November to April. The latter end of that window overlaps with spring training and the early days of the regular season in Major League Baseball.
No doubt the process will work itself out, eventually, In the meantime, ESPN highlights a few of the better prospects who may make it to our shores soon:
One of those players is Alfredo Despaigne, a powerful slugger who holds the record for the most home runs in a single Cuban season, with 36 in 90 games. In that same season, he also accumulated 105 RBIs and batted .326.
Together with Cespedes, Despaigne, who is 27 years old, formed one of the most powerful offensive pairings in the history of the Cuban National Series. Many experts consider him a much better hitter than Cespedes, although perhaps not as complete a player.
Another who dazzled onlookers during his participation in the 2013 World Baseball Classic is the second baseman Jose Miguel Fernandez. A left-handed batter and stellar fielder, he is called by many the Cuban Robinson Cano, because of his similarities with the great Dominican second baseman who played for the Yankees and just joined the Seattle Mariners.
Fernandez, who is 25, is the current batting champion, having won the title with an astronomical average of .393 in 2013. A good judge of pitches, the Matanzas second baseman is also a cold-blooded batter who seems to thrive under pressure, a quality reserved only for a chosen few.
The outfielder Yasmani Tomas, who plays for Industriales, the most famous team in Cuban baseball over the past five decades, is only 23 and has huge potential. Physically powerful like Yasiel Puig, Tomas thrives on fastballs, in the style of Gary Sheffield, although he needs to work on hitting breaking balls.
Tomas began the 2013 World Baseball Classic as a reserve player for the Cuban national team. But on the strength of his batting, he became a lineup fixture as the tournament progressed.
Cuba has a long, rich tradition of developing great ballplayers. For most of the past 50 years, they’ve been stuck playing in the rickety stadiums built by Batista during his dictatorship and before. Now Cuba’s best have a chance to shine on the biggest baseball stage of all.
If what we’ve seen from Cuban players so far is any indication, they won’t disappoint.
Mixed Martial Arts has been fighting the image that it isn’t really a serious “sport” since its inception. This Outside the Lines investigation by ESPN probably won’t help.
At least 15 MMA fighters have gotten a testosterone exemption from various state athletic commissions, all for low lab values due to a condition known as hypogonadism. One of the common causes of hypogonadism is previous use of anabolic steroids.
In the past five years, at least 15 mixed martial artists have been issued exemptions to use testosterone, the vast majority revealed or confirmed through public records requests filed by “Outside the Lines” with the major state commissions or athletic bodies overseeing the sport. The sport itself has had more than 20,000 pro fighters over the past five years, according to record keeper mixedmartialarts.com, although fewer than 1,800 MMA combatants are under contract to the sport’s dominant promoters — Zuffa (UFC) and Bellator, which account for 11 of the fighters on TRT. Although only a small fraction, the number of exemptions still dwarfs what can be found in other sports:
• The International Olympic Committee did not issue a single testosterone exemption for the 2012 London Olympics, which featured 5,892 male athletes.
• The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency issued one testosterone exemption last year among the thousands of elite-level athletes under its jurisdiction.
• Major League Baseball has issued six exemptions to athletes over the past six seasons — an average of 1,200 players populate its rosters each season.
• National Football League officials say testosterone exemptions are “very rare” and only a “handful” have been issued since 1990. Nearly 2,000 players circulate through rosters each season.
• No pro boxer is known to have had an exemption issued through a state athletic commission, and Nevada officials said they have never even received an application.
“It’s a huge number,” said Dr. Don Catlin, the country’s leading anti-doping expert, of the MMA testosterone exemptions. “I am on the IOC committee that reviews [therapeutic-use exemptions for testosterone] requests. We essentially grant none. But in boxing and MMA there is no central control. There is no set of rules that everybody has to follow.
“There is a set of rules for each [state athletic commission], but they are kind of Mickey Mouse rules. So the route to being able to take testosterone is wide open. … You go in and say ‘I have these symptoms.’ The doc says, ‘Oh yeah, you got low testosterone.’ You get a TUE.”
Along with exemptions, several MMA fighters and officials also described to “Outside the Lines” widespread use of performance-enhancing substances in the sport. One top contender labeled PED use in the sport “rampant,” and a prominent state athletic commission chairman matter-of-factly acknowledged: “We got some doping going on in MMA.”
As purses and contracts have skyrocketed, the temptation to juice up has become too great. We saw in baseball when even utility infielders could demand million dollar salaries, the use of PED’s got out of control. Clearly, the fighters get it — juicing up becomes part of the racket and rather than play it straight and be left behind, fighters will go with the flow and take their chances being tested.
They aren’t taking much of a chance. Some states don’t even test for PED’s. And others only test post-fight — long after the vestiges of the drugs have been flushed from the system.
If the UFC wants their sport, and their organization, to be taken more seriously, some kind of out of the ring testing regimen has to be created to crack down on the cheaters and protect the health of the fighters.
Somewhere in Punxsutawney, PA, Phil the groundhog is weeping.
Harold Ramis, the brilliant comedic writer, director, and actor, died today at age 69. He suffered from ill health for the last three years and finally succumbed to “complications of autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis, a rare disease that involves swelling of the blood vessels, his wife Erica Mann Ramis said. He was 69.”
His astonishing body of work included some of the most iconic Hollywood comedies of all time, including directing Caddyshack and Groundhog Day, producing Multiplicity and Bedazzled, and acting in memorable roles for Stripes, Ghostbusters, and National Lampoon’s Vacation.
But it was his writing that got him his first break. His wicked wit and sweet sense of pathos endeared characters like Groundhog Day’s Bill Connors and Caddyshack’s wacky groundskeeper Carl Spackler to audiences. It’s no accident that both characters were played by Bill Murray, who collaborated with Ramis on six projects. Allahpundit expounds on the Ramis-Murray team:
There are endless salutes to the subtle genius of “Groundhog Day” online, from National Review to the Atlantic to the Guardian and beyond. Murray was the perfect Ramis hero, never more so than in GD: Seemingly shallow but with great depth, and tenderness, underneath. How many mainstream comedies can seriously be parsed for hidden religious meanings? That’s the level Ramis had reached. RIP.
Ramis was a key player in the Chicago comedy scene in the 1970s with the advent of the improvisational troupe Second City. Ramis wrote for both the stage shows and the successful TV project SCTV, where he honed his improvisational skills and collaborated with Murray, John Belushi, and other future comedians.
As zany as Ramis’ early comedies were, they rigorously pursued a theme close to the heart of someone who grew out of the 1960s counterculture: characters rebelling against institutions, be they authoritarian college administrators and pampered rich kids (“Animal House”), a stuffy golf club (“Caddyshack”) or the military (“Stripes”). After the collapse of his first marriage and the flop of his 1986 comedy “Club Paradise” (with greedy developers as the institutional villain), the Jewish-raised Ramis immersed himself in Zen Buddhism.
“It’s my shield and my armor in the work I do,” he said. “It’s to keep a cheerful, Zen-like detachment from everything.”
Ramis’ later directorial efforts, starting with “Groundhog Day” and including “Stuart Saves His Family” (1995), “Multiplicity” (1996), “Analyze This” and his “Bedazzled” remake (2000), reflect a spiritual striving, exploring individuals’ struggles with themselves more than outside forces.
Comparing his later to earlier comedies, Ramis told the Tribune: “The content’s different, but it comes from the same place in me, which is to try to point people at some reality or truth.”
He recalled that at the “Analyze This” junket, a writer told him his genre had become “goofy redemption comedy,” to which Ramis responded, “OK, I’ll take that.”
Ramis had been living in Los Angeles since late the ’70s before he returned to Chicago, basing his production company in downtown Highland Park.
“In L.A., you’re much more aware of an artificial pressure, just that you’re in a race of some kind,” Ramis recalled one morning over a veggie egg-white omelet at the coffee shop downstairs from his office. “You know, if you’re not moving forward, you’re dead in the water, because everyone around you is scheming, planning and plotting to advance themselves, often at your expense.
“I’ve compared it to high school: Am I popular? Am I cool? Am I in? Who’s the in crowd? How do I get into that party? These are not things I ever wanted to worry about. Here I’m so liberated from that.”
Like his contemporary John Hughes, whose comedies of teen angst and romance spoke to audiences in special ways, Ramis’ films did more than make us laugh. They were, at bottom, films about the human condition and how all of us manage to muddle through despite life’s challenges.
My favorite Ramis film is one of his first efforts at writing. Meatballs was a sweet, sentimental, uproariously funny film designed to evoke memories of childhood summer-camp experiences. A bit overplayed by Bill Murray as head counselor Tripper Harrison, the movie nevertheless portrayed the mysterious passage from child to young adult in an intelligent, inspiring manner.
It almost seems as if the 1980s has finally died along with Harold Ramis.
China has become the third nation to land a spacecraft on the moon. It was the first soft landing of a probe on the moon in nearly 40 years.
The achievement marked the next stage in an ambitious space program that aims to eventually put a Chinese astronaut on the moon.
The unmanned Chang’e 3 lander, named after a mythical Chinese goddess of the moon, touched down on Earth’s nearest neighbor following a 12-minute landing process.
The probe carried a six-wheeled moon rover called Yutu, or “Jade Rabbit,” the goddess’ pet in the myth. Within hours of its landing on a fairly flat, Earth-facing part of the moon, the rover was slated to separate from the Chang’e lander and embark on a three-month scientific exploration.
The achievement marked the next stage in an ambitious space program that aims to eventually put a Chinese astronaut on the moon.
The unmanned Chang’e 3 lander, named after a mythical Chinese goddess of the moon, touched down on Earth’s nearest neighbor following a 12-minute landing process.
The probe carried a six-wheeled moon rover called Yutu, or “Jade Rabbit,” the goddess’ pet in the myth. Within hours of its landing on a fairly flat, Earth-facing part of the moon, the rover was slated to separate from the Chang’e lander and embark on a three-month scientific exploration.
China’s military-backed space program has made methodical progress in a relatively short time, although it lags far behind the United States and Russia in technology and experience.
China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003, becoming the third nation after Russia and the United States to achieve manned space travel independently. In 2007, it sent its first probe to the moon, named Chang’e 1. A follow-up mission, called Chang’e 2, was launched to study the moon in 2010, and then left lunar orbit to make a close flyby of the asteroid Toutatis in 2012.
China plans to open a space station around 2020 and send an astronaut to the moon after that.
Space entrepreneur Dennis Wingo sees more to the Chinese space program than mere nationalistic pride:
China is spending billions on resource acquisition in Africa, South America and other places around the world,” he told FoxNews.com. “If you look at the design of their system for this mission, it is very much a mineral prospector as much as a science mission.”
The strong possibility that there is water on the moon in the form of near-crystallized ice located in craters at the lunar poles opens up exciting possibilities for permanent mining operations on earth’s satellite. Water is not only vital for cooling machinery and drinking, it’s oxygen molecules can be separated to make breathable air. The hydrogen can be extracted and when combined with small amounts of other elements, an efficient fuel for rockets, vehicles, and machinery — methane — can be created.
In short, any viable, self-sustaining mining colony can be profitable if water ice existing on the moon can be tapped and the resource exploited. China is going to have a head start on private US companies who also have been eying the moon for its minerals.
NASA is not going back to the moon, which is as it should be. From here on out, the space “race” is for those who seek to gather the riches that can be found out there. Our government has no interest in joining this race, and NASA is better suited to helping facilitate the private space industry’s development of hardware that will assist us in the commercial exploitation of resources on the moon and elsewhere.
image illustration courtesy shutterstock / Bruce Rolff
Did ESPN knuckle under to pressure from the NFL when they withdrew their cooperation from a controversial PBS documentary on concussions in pro football?
ESPN’s ombudsman Robert Lipsyte (who knew ESPN even had an ombudsman?) investigated the charge and was unable to determine the truth of the matter. What he did find was that there is compelling evidence that pressure was applied to executives at the network by both the NFL and ESPN’s parent company, Walt Disney, Inc. to distance the network from the documentary project.
The PBS film, produced by Frontline, is titled “League in Denial: The NFL Concussions and the Battle for the Truth.” Not exactly a title that would get the NFL’s legs tingling. ESPN’s role in producing and making the documentary is extremely hazy — “sloppy” says Lipsyte. Indeed, the extent of the network’s involvement appears to vary depending on who you speak to. An executive producer with Frontline told Lipsyte the relationship was more of an “editorial exchange.” However it’s characterized, the New York Times reported on August 23 that ESPN was pulling out of the project, denying Frontline the use of its brand.
So, what happened? The ostensible reason for the change of heart comes from ESPN President John Skipper, who pointed to the lack of “editorial control”:
“Because ESPN is neither producing nor exercising editorial control over the Frontline documentaries, there will be no co-branding involving ESPN on the documentaries or their marketing materials.”
Skipper saw a trailer for the documentary and began to have second thoughts. The tagline for the film — “Get ready to change the way you see the game” — was particularly upsetting, as was a sound bite from a doctor who commented on the extent of brain injuries in the league: “I’m really wondering if every single football player doesn’t have this.”
This is the background to a story that now becomes a familiar push-pull narrative in the news business. ESPN makes enormous amounts of money by carrying NFL games, and running other NFL programming. Eight days prior to Skipper’s announcement, there was a meeting between the league and ESPN executives, after which, Skipper also talked to Disney Chairman Bob Iger.
The New York Times reports on the pivotal meeting between the league and Skipper:
The meeting took place at Patroon, near the league’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters, according to the two people, who requested anonymity because they were prohibited by their superiors from discussing the matter publicly. It was a table for four: Roger Goodell, commissioner of the N.F.L.; Steve Bornstein, president of the NFL Network; John Skipper, ESPN’s president; and John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president for production.
The meeting was combative, the people said, with league officials conveying their irritation with the direction of the documentary, which is expected to describe a narrative that has been captured in various news reports over the past decade: the league turning a blind eye to evidence that players were sustaining brain trauma on the field that could lead to profound, long-term cognitive disability.
Aside from the obvious bad publicity that the NFL is getting on this story, there is also the matter of more than 4,200 named player-plaintiffs in lawsuits over concussion-linked injuries. This is a huge story that has repercussions for every team, every player, and the league itself. It is a big deal that ESPN pulled its cooperation with Frontline, after the two organizations participated in 9 other similar projects, according to Sports Illustrated.
But the move by ESPN to distance itself from Frontline because a project angered one of their “partners” is troubling to say the least. It brings to mind other incidents going back to the beginnings of television where corporations sponsoring programming or buying ad time on network news shows would put pressure on the network to “drop it or else.”
General Motors, General Electric, Ford, Monsanto, Northwest Airlines — all of those and many more in the 1950′s — 1970′s found it necessary to confront TV executives about the way news about their companies was handled. And it hardly mattered if the companies advertised on the network. Both CBS and ABC eventually killed projects that would have exposed the tobacco industry for their lies about nicotine not being addictive and the cancer-causing additives they used. The threat of being sued for billions in damages was a good deterrent.
But there is a major difference between the controversies in those days and the current one involving ESPN. The news divisions used to be loss leaders for the networks. Now, they’re profit centers. Beginning in the 1980′s it was determined that rather than being a separate division answerable only to the chairman of the network, the news division would be folded into programming and have to pay its own freight. The result was a slaughter — closed bureaus, staffs slashed, and the proliferation of 60 Minutes type shows that seemed far more like entertainment than news. Nowadays, corporations don’t have to browbeat news executives to cover a story a certain way. The news people know where their bread is buttered and act accordingly.
There seems little doubt that ESPN wanted to do the right thing. The producers and writers who worked with Frontline make that absolutely clear. And staffers at ESPN knew that something bad was going to happen in the days leading up to the pivotal announcement by Skipper:
Staffers at ESPN had let this column know over the past month that they were fearful something like this could happen with the Frontline-ESPN collaboration. They suggested pressure was being exerted by the NFL at levels well above Outside The Lines management. Said one ESPN staffer last week: “I’m hearing of stuff I never thought I’d see at our place.”
“We had collaboration credit in two different places in their broadcast,” Aronson-Rath said of the Pellman story. “My feeling is, and I can’t verify this, it appears to me that it was not their [OTL management's] decision. Nobody confirmed that for me but clearly [ESPN senior coordinating producer] Dwayne Bray was with us at the press tour a couple of weeks ago. That is as public as you can go with the TV critics announcing this and being asked all these same questions that are emerging right now.
Outside the Lines, ESPN’s excellent and illuminating show about sports in society didn’t deserve this kind of treatment from its own network brass.
What effect this will have on staff morale can be imagined, but its effect on programming at ESPN may be even more profound. The network has made it pretty clear through it’s actions that it doesn’t much care for boat rockers. A pity, that. If any segment of our society needs to have its boat rocked, its sports. It’s hard to imagine how the games kids play — now with billions of dollars at stake — have achieved such an exalted status in America. Cutting the sports culture down to size would seem a worthwhile endeavor.
An endeavor that ESPN has stepped back from engaging in.